Monday, January 31, 2005

Friday December 31 1971. 

101 degrees.

And we're living in a caravan. Without air conditioning. That's OK, I like hot weather.

And the heaving ocean is only a minute away.

The heat rose, shimmered on the horizon. The smell of eucalypt was heavy on the breeze.

The day swam by slowly in a daze of hot sand, burning skin and blue waves.

That night, about nine o'clock, I watched the sun, a ripe orange, drop into the Indian Ocean, wandered back to the caravan and tried to stay awake until midnight.

I failed. I woke up at about twenty past twelve. Uncle, aunt and Danny were still awake, quietly playing cards around the little kitchenette table. They were sweating and drinking tea. It was still unbearably hot. Somewhere outside, in the distance, someone was still banging pans. It's 1972.


On the radio in the caravan:

in the jungle
the mighty jungle
the lion sleeps tonight
in the jungle
the quiet jungle
the lion sleeps tonight

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Tuesday December 28 1971. 

We drove back to Perth on a perfect summer morning. I went to the beach. A slight breeze arose from the southwest and made its way across the water, ruffling the waves like a hand through hair.

I felt a little cold inside. I hadn’t felt like that for a long time ... a long time before the start of our journey. It was Kay, of course.

I swam with Danny. At midday we went back to the caravan for lunch.

For once, my uncle and aunt annoyed me with their eternal pleasantness. I couldn’t be bothered. I knew I was wrong to be annoyed, they were just the loveliest people on earth, uncle with his silly smile and aunt with her innocent laugh and the

Still, I was glad to get out. Danny stayed and watched the cricket.

I walked miles up the beach through the long, golden afternoon. I didn’t think of anything in particular. Just about how there were two thousand miles between Perth and Melbourne. And how typically fourteen-year-old it was to fall in love with a photograph, even if you have slept in the subject's bed.

The sun was low when I got back to the 'van. Dinner was waiting. I was hungry. The cricket had finished. Gavaskar (caught Chappell, bowled Lillee) made 38. Sobers (caught Stackpole, bowled Lillee) went out for 0.

I slept fitfully.


On the radio in the caravan:

Australia v the World XI from the MCG. Alan McGillivray in the booth.

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Monday December 27 1971. 

We left the caravan on its own in the Sorrento Caravan Park, Great Northern Highway, Perth, Western Australia, World, Universe, for a night to visit relatives in the country.

They were relatives of my older cousin’s husband - Syd. I didn’t know them. I had probably met them at her wedding four years previously, held at an upstairs reception room in a southern suburb of Melbourne, overlooking a major intersection. I recall that the room was lined with crimson brocade curtains and too much red carpet. There was a bandstand at one end flanked by palms in pots and a parquetry dance floor in the middle. The band played Herb Alpert covers. My aunts and cousins jigged around all night and I remember my cousin and her new husband leaving for their honeymoon. He was way taller than she, Brenda barely came up to his shoulders. He was tall and dark; she had white skin, shining eyes and black curly hair.

So we went to visit Syd's family at the house where he grew up in Narrogin, a small town south of Perth, somewhere in the Western Australian wheat belt. Narrogin was large enough to have a busy main street and small enough to drive through in three minutes if you didn’t have to stop at the only set of traffic lights. Now, there was little traffic. It was a blazing hot day. The sun was directly overhead and people must have been inside, trying to stay cool.

The timber federation house was in a quiet back street, facing west. It was large in proportions and was surrounded on three sides by a shady verandah. Around that were comfortable, unfussed gardens - flower beds, mature shrubs and trees. A lawn here and there, burnt by the sun. It was the kind of house you were drawn to upon seeing it.

The huge front screen door slammed bang! behind us and we found ourselves being welcomed into a cool, dark kitchen. We sat down at a wooden table that was big enough for sixteen people. Glasses of cold lemonade were in our hands before introductions were finished.

Syd’s mother was one of those women who act as if they have known you all their life. Of course, families joined in marriage often display that characteristic to each other, sometimes to an even greater degree than do blood relatives. I found it pleasant and I liked her straight away. I thought to myself, isn’t it strange how people who are virtual strangers ask after your family while, often, close friends or relatives never do?

Syd’s father had died some years earlier. Syd had three sisters. Elva and Linda were in their early twenties, Kay was fourteen. Pictures of all of them were on the mantelpiece. Graduation photographs, happy snaps, the wedding. Earlier pictures, fading, of small girls on swings.

Kay was of medium height, willowy, and had quite dark olive skin and eyes that were of a brown so deep they were almost flashing black. She had short, dark, unceremonious hair and a neckline with a curve suggestive of an athlete or a gymnast. Her smile was intelligent. She had the kind of inner glow that is rarely seen and is immediately attractive. I could see all of that just from her photograph. Kay was away in Perth, staying with an aunt, while working at a department store over the summer holidays.

In the intense afternoon heat, Danny and I left the adults talking and went off on our routine walk around the town, chatting about everything and nothing.

Later we had dinner in the cool, dark kitchen accompanied by cups of tea and beer. Then we sat in the living room. Syd’s mother brought out a cardboard box of photos, Syd and his sisters, her late husband, the wedding.

We stayed overnight. I was given Kay’s room, decorated just how a fourteen year old girl would. A worn teddy bear on the dresser, posters on the wall. Photos of her schoolfriends. A pile of records – 45s – in a corner.

I fell asleep on Kay’s soft pillow. It bore her scent, and I dreamt, with the stark truth that sometimes only dreams can bring, that it was probably the closest I would ever come to someone I had never met and, probably, never would.

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Saturday December 25 1971. 

My diary tells me nothing and my memory tells me two things about Christmas Day in Perth, Western Australia, 1971.

One: we went to midnight Mass at St Mary's Cathedral. I fell asleep before communion. Never was any good late at night. Even now.

Two: Mid-afternoon Christmas Day, I walked for a couple of hours up the coast; returning early evening. My uncle and aunt knew I was a schoolboy distance runner and were happy to see me disappear for hours on end, walking and running somewhere. My cousin was happy to watch the cricket on television.

I don't remember gifts, or Christmas dinner. Don't know why. I'm sure it was all wonderful. Maybe I was thinking about something else.

Maybe that long walk up the gaunt coast; sand-dunes, ti-tree, crashing surf, sun, heat.

Maybe a girl.


On the radio in the caravan:

a long long time ago
i can still remember how
that music used to make me smile

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Thursday December 23 1971. 

'I know!' said Uncle brightly, as if he'd had a good idea. 'Let's take the ferry to Rottnest Island!'

Aunt said that she'd already thought of it and lit a cigarette delicately.

No disagreement from cousin and me. We'd spent the days in and out of the water, eating and drinking, checking out the girls (Perth girls were browner and blonder, but then again, maybe all girls are like that away from home). A ferry trip sounded fine. And we wanted to see the Quokkas.

We drove down to Fremantle Wharf and bought our ferry tickets at the little white-painted timber office which was rotting in the sea air. Then we boarded the ferry, a green and white 1950s craft that appeared to slope forward, unlike today's more upright ferry designs.

In keeping with the 1950s, it blew its horn on departure, a long throaty honk of several different notes, mournful and exciting at the same time. Then it chugged away busily from the dock and pointed its sharp nose out to sea.

Rottnest Island was mapped by the Dutch. They were looking for a faster way around the Cape to Batavia and happened upon Australia. Later, the island was named by another Dutch who mistook the Quokkas for rats ('rottnest' means rats' nest) and who was searching for yet another Dutchman whose ship had been lost. Man, the Dutch sure were busy in the seventeenth century. (They, the Portuguese and the French all variously could have claimed Australia but don't appear to have wanted it. They each named dozens of places and geographical features around the coast but didn't stay. The English grabbed it in the end, they were running out of room for their convicts.)

Rottnest Island was baking in blazing sunshine when we stepped off the ferry at about eleven o'clock. I couldn't see any Quokkas but there were hundreds of bicycles everywhere. There are no cars on Rottnest.

Uncle and Aunt took a leisurely lunch at one of the pubs. Danny and I ate something quickly and went off exploring around the island. It was a stinking hot day and we found a little cove away off to the north side of the island.

We hired fishing rods and fished. I hated fishing then and I hate it now. I fished nothing. Danny fished some seaweed. Why would you fish when you could be talking to girls, shy and blushing in their bikinis?

The weather turned. The trip back was a mess. The wind got up from the south-west and blew the boat home. Beautiful. I stood in the bow and hung on for dear life, grinning. I turned and watched passengers hurling over the sides. Or not over the sides. I looked out and saw Perth. It rocked to the left and it rocked to the right. The waves tossed the ferry around some more and then we were home.

Aunt lit a nervous cigarette on the dock and then we drove back to the Sorrento Caravan Park.

I have dreamed of that boat trip ever since. Thirty-four years.

I'm still there.


On the radio in the caravan:

you may say I'm a dreamer
but I'm not the only one
i hope someday you'll join us
and the world will be as one

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Several days in December 1971. 

In out-of-focus blue blur, a slew of sun-filled days rolled by.

Every morning I woke with a ravenous appetite for food and fun.

Sometimes, before breakfast, I crossed the road that ran along the coast, walked onto the sand. If it was already hot, I swam.

My cousin was not an early riser at all. Knowing I was, my aunt asked me to bring the newspaper or some milk and bread from the shop half a mile down the road. I didn't walk down the road, I crossed to the beach, walked along the beach, crossed back to the road where the shop was. Crossed again and walked back along the beach.

That was morning.

The days were long, there were girls on the beach.

Every night I marvelled at the sight of the sun, a giant red saucer, dropping into the ocean, after throwing its dying light around like a mad painter squirting red and gold all over the landscape.

I crossed the road every night just to watch it, around eight-thirty, after dinner in the caravan.

Sometimes my cousin watched it with me.


On the radio in the caravan:

she danced around and round
to a guitar melody
from the fire her face
was all aglow
how she enchanted me
oh how i'd like to hold her near
and kiss and forever whisper in her ear

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Monday, January 17, 2005

Monday December 20 1971. 

The first good thing that happened today was waking up and knowing we weren't going anywhere at all.

The second good thing was getting out of bed, throwing on some clothes, crossing the road and walking into the Indian Ocean for a swim before breakfast.

The third good thing ...


After seeing Perth in the distance yesterday - which was like discovering Atlantis or something - it took another hour and a half to approach the city and then find our way to the place, just across the road from the beach, at which we were to stay for a week or two.

Sorrento Caravan Park was right there on the Great Northern Highway, Sorrento, Perth, nestled into a coastal curve with a craggy backdrop that rose and rose away to the north and east. This protective backdrop, which was actually ancient sandhills, wore a shawl of coastal shrubs, ti-tree and the like.

We checked in to the park and found our berth right at the northern end, just before the hills rose away, right at the edge of the ti-tree.

'Well, we're here!' said Uncle, pleasantly and somewhat obviously. 'We sure are!' added Aunt, equally pleasantly and obviously, lighting up a cigarette. (Cousin and I didn't say a lot, we were teenagers. We probably just said, 'We're going to the beach, seeya.')

Uncle spent the rest of the afternoon unloading the car and setting up the canvas annexe attachment to the caravan which was to be our extended living room for the next week or two.

Danny and I ran to the ocean. It took all of a minute to get there.

I looked at it rising and swelling and roaring and receding. Then we crossed the hot sand and plunged in.


What was the third good thing?

I don't know. We spent the day in and out of the sea, back and forth from the caravan for lunch, snacks, drinks ... enjoying not driving anywhere, falling asleep in the sun on the sand, dreaming of nothing in particular.


On the radio in the caravan some time Monday afternoon when the sun seemed to stop in the sky and time seemed to stand still:

no, I can´t forget this evening
or your face as you were leaving
but I guess that´s just the way the story goes
you always smile but in your eyes your sorrow shows
yes, it shows

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Friday, January 14, 2005

Sunday December 19 1971. 

I was wrong. Widgiemooltha was from Thursday's leg of the journey, not yesterday's. In between Norseman and Kalgoorlie.


It wasn't a blocked fuel line after all. It was just the battery. The mechanic had been charging it overnight but it was dead so he fitted a brand new one. Soon we left and Merredin was dust in the rear view mirror.

All we had to do was follow the concrete pipeline all the way to Perth. Easy.

It was another hot day, close to the century. The countryside paled from the strident red that our eyes had seen too much of, to a soft, rich yellow. We had passed from harsh desert through mining country and now we entered the West Australian wheatbelt. We rode a ribbon-smooth road through rolling fields of swaying golden heads, just like north out of Adelaide almost a week ago.

A week? It feels like a month. A week burned into my memory, and yet I've lived what feels like a billion anonymous weeks since, in many of which nothing remotely exciting happened.

I'm falling asleep when suddenly, bump. Flat tyre. We pulled to the side of the road and groaned to a stop. Rear tyre, passenger side. The tyre had weathered hundreds of miles of unmade roads, only to give up on perfectly smooth tarmac.

Uncle unhitched the caravan and we helped him unload the entire contents of the station wagon's luggage compartment. 'Cos that's where the spare is, see? Under all that luggage. We had cases and boxes out on the side of the road, cans of water, all the usual stuff, then uncle hauled the spare out, bounced it onto the ground, trundled it over adjacent to the flat. Then he jacked the car up after first loosening the nuts (always loosen the nuts first - straining to release them when the car is jacked is DANGEROUS), changed the wheel, put the flat back in its place. Then we repacked the car. (Amazingly, everything fitted. Usually, when you repack, something doesn't fit in. It's Murphy's Law of repacking.)

We set off again, reaching Northam by munchtime (I just mistyped - quite accidentally - lunchtime but I quite like the resulting error so I'm leaving it) at which town we parked under a tree by the side of the Avon river where I took several black and white photographs of some swans. In one of them, a swan is rearing its head back, its eyes narrowed and its beak slightly open as if to attack me. Geese can be quite fierce. I can't remember if it attacked me but the photograph is nice.

I love lunchtime. Eat food then take a walk around. Same every day.

I was drowsy again during the afternoon, hummed into sleep by the tyres singing on the smooth road. Dreaming joyful teenager dreams of life and everything in the future. When you're a teenager, everything is exciting and in the future. One day it changes. Not for a long time, but it does.

Suddenly, Perth.

Shimmering in the distant haze. Just lying there like a lost diamond. Sparkling in the mid-summer sun on a golden Sunday afternoon. Beyond it, the blue Indian Ocean. Demure, silent, endless and as impossible as a mirage. But it was real.

We had crossed Australia and it felt good.


On my cousin's cassette player:

i bet your mama was a tent show queen
and all her girlfriends were sweet sixteen
i'm no school boy but I know what I like
you should have heard them just around midnight

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Saturday December 18 1971. 

There comes a time in every journey when your head has already arrived at the destination, but your body is still trudging along. (Or in my case, sitting in the back seat of a Valiant Regal Safari station wagon - white - hauling a Wayfarer caravan - white with a dark brown side flash. White is good, reflects the heat.)

We had travelled over two thousand kilometres, my aunt had rolled and smoked several hundred small, thin cigarettes, my uncle was as patient and good-humoured at the wheel as always, my cousin has slept even more than I had and Perth was getting closer.

And closer.

My head was already there. I mean, come on, I’m a teenager. You really think I enjoyed all that desert shit? All that dust? All that flatness and boredom and danger and the car going out of control and me wondering if I’d ever see my brother again? And salt water showers?

Of course you didn’t. You thought I was just being polite and telling you my story.

Well, OK. I did enjoy it. (But I did worry about not seeing my bro again as well.) But I was looking forward to seeing the Indian Ocean. I’d only ever seen one ocean before; and, like different States, I thought other oceans would look kind of different. Pea-green instead of sea blue. Whatever.

Plus the car wouldn’t start. It first happened yesterday morning, took thirty seconds of cranking before it grumbled to life with a hiccup or two. Uncle thought it was dust in the fuel line.


After Kalgoorlie, there is a massive concrete water pipeline that goes all the way to Perth. The pipeline stretches like a long white snake across the red landscape, following the road. For 550 kilometres you are accompanied by this massive concrete snake. It seems to lead you on as if mesmerising you. Like a yellow brick road, but not yellow and not a road. Too many similes in one paragraph.

The pipeline was built a hundred years ago to supply water to the goldfields at a time when gold miners were dying in their thousands of thirst, dysentery and disease. It rises 390 metres from its source, near Perth, to Kalgoorlie - necessitating a series of pumping stations all along the way to get the water uphill over such a long distance. Amazing what mankind can do when there’s gold at stake.


Today, after we stopped late in the afternoon at Southern Cross, the car failed to start again. Crank, crank, crank. Nothing. It wouldn’t turn over. So we unhitched the caravan, roll-started the car, backed it up to the 'van again, reconnected it and away we went. Thank God for manual transmissions.

We arrived at Merredin late afternoon. A sweet little town – in striking distance of Perth.

Uncle backed the 'van in, unhitched it without switching off the engine and drove straight off to find a mechanic. Danny and I took a walk around the town. Aunt had a smoke and got dinner ready. She's such a dear.

And tomorrow, we see the Indian Ocean! No more dust!

Today’s weirdest-named town: Widgiemooltha.


On my cousin's cassette player:

in a castle dark or a fortress strong
with chains upon my feet
the story always ends
and if you read between the lines
you´ll know that I´m just trying to understand
the feeling that you left

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Monday, January 03, 2005

Friday December 17 1971. 

Like far too many places in this story, mining town Kalgoorlie is in the middle of the desert. Its goldrush occurred during the 1890s depression, so everyone was twice as desperate to get at the gold. There was no water. Water at one stage was more expensive than gold.

Kalgoorlie, queen of the mid-west, once vaunted almost a hundred hotels along her main streets like jewels in a gaudy crown; and secreted more than a hundred brothels in her back streets like something unmentionable lurking in your underskirts.

When there is the sniff of gold, anything is for sale. Kalgoorlie was a mean town. Where crime and greed were just as at home as the flies and dust. Probably more so.

The aborigines lived there for a million years, gold undisturbed beneath their nomadic feet. A hundred years or so of Kalgoorlie history is nothing. That’s almost living memory. Many aborigines can recall their grandparents and great-grandparents remembering and talking about time before European settlement, when the distant echo of a million years of unchanging times - the Dreaming - came crashing to a halt.

Gold – what does that bring you? Trouble and death.


We stopped in the main street, got out and stretched our legs. The gold may still have been dug out of the ground (as it is to this day) but the hotels and brothels were fewer in number.

Some aborigines, dressed in brightly coloured and ill-fitting hand-me-down western clothes like so many dress-up dolls, were sitting around on the streets in the shade of massive Victorian verandahs, too full of stunned lassitude to even wave the flies away from their diseased faces. Too broken to beg. Too lost to know what to do at all.

We walked past them. But I remembered them.

Country towns like Kalgoorlie, despite their shameful past, their mean present and their doubtful future, still manage to hold a weird kind of charm, an attraction that is not easy to explain. The streets are wide beyond belief. Why? You had to be able to turn a camel train in them. The streetscape is all faded Victoriana and slamming screen doors. Red dust creeps right up to the very doorsteps, reminding you that you are still in a desert. It’s like a movie set town, except you open the doors and there’s a real room – dark and cosy in that fifty-years-out-of-date manner - instead of tumbleweed and snakes. Some folks put lace in the windows to enhance the Victorian look, but as always, that just makes it look fake.

We had set out early this morning after an anxious moment in which the car wouldn't start at first - dust in the fuel line, Uncle decided.

At Kalgoorlie, we pressed on after a short break and stopped again in Coolgardie, a town with more reminders of a rough colonial past – life-size statues of bushrangers in full metal outfits, old carts and drays, mining equipment and pumps, all the usual romanticised stuff that spoke eloquently of a past you would not want to have lived through.

The kind of history they, with an eye on tourism, call ‘colourful’ ...


On my uncle's car radio:

riders on the storm
riders on the storm
into this house we’re born
into this world we’re thrown

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

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