It was like a very quiet ambulance. The siren finally caught my attention and I realised that it had been there in the background. My phones lay on the desk, and I wondered which of them was demanding attention. My constant battles with technology predisposed me to ignoring anything that didn’t need me immediately, but this was insistent. Sigh. Was it the Blackberry or the Nokia?
The Nokia was mine, with its clear icons and simplicity. How I fought against the idea of owning a mobile phone, the hassle of keeping it with me in my handbag and being pressured to answer it whenever it rang. Too much bother! As for charging it constantly – there were already enough routines in my life. So my husband went out and bought the lime green phone and presented it to me, saying I would get used to it.
Gradually it became part of my life. I enjoyed the quick chats with my family in stolen moments at work down on the Peninsula and being able to make last minute arrangements. Text messages became my new language. My learning, however, was on a need-to-know basis. Like when the phone rang while my husband was preaching a sermon and I couldn’t mute it…
And then the Blackberry landed on my desk at work, a gift from the Business Manager. This was to be my work device from now on, said the memo. Oh goodness, how would I keep two devices going? Two networks, two chargers and two ring tones. Now my work emails were immediately visible and I could not escape.
Two tribal clans, the Yorta Yorta and the Dja Dja Wurrung lived along the grassy waterways of this region to hunt, fish and gather food across territory defined by tribal language, and bounded by geographical features such as forests, rivers and creeks.
The Yorta Yorta people occupy a unique stretch of forest-wetlands that are located in what is now known as the central Murray – Goulburn region.
We have chosen three very different areas for our road trip. After the majestic Gariwerd, then the expansive plains south of Bendigo, it is a dramatic change of scenery to arrive at the mighty Murray river, which is also our winding state border. Only 1.5 hours to get here, plus the usual leisurely morning tea break in Rochester.
A text tells us that our cabin by the water is ready early, so we gratefully arrive at Merool on Murray holiday park. What a spot! They seem to own this entire bend in the river, and the little wooden cabins stretch all the way. Our cabin is basic, but we paid for a river view, and the two way vista from the bend is beautiful from the balcony. Coming from an entire Airbnb house with every convenience to a small ‘studio’ with bare cupboards is a little challenging but we arrange our gear with some creativity and feel content. It’s a good base.
Our stay begins with some drama when the maintenance man who came to change a globe over the stove electrocutes himself, is thrown across the room and causes a total power outage! Not feeling too encouraged, we opt to eat dinner at the RSL down the road. The roast of the day with a background of bingo seems safer somehow.
We take an exploratory drive around the twin towns divided by the Murray; our accommodation is actually in NSW. Thank goodness there are no more pandemic border issues! The region centres around the gum-lined river, iconic paddle steamers, growing numbers of wineries and a rich history. We don’t however, have to leave our private balcony just to watch the gentle river traffic go by.
The old paddle steamers chug up to our bend and then return and the regular cruises and houseboats leave in the morning and return at sunset with a low hum – the pleasant sounds of people having a good time on the water. The haunting sound of the steamer whistles is reminiscent of another era. Occasionally a jet-ski or power boat hoon breaks the peace and leaves a rippling wake.
The bird songs are deafening at times and we see lorikeets, galahs and magpies flitting between the gum trunks and exploring the knots in the wood. Best of all, three kookaburras land on our deck, obviously expecting a reward. We feed them a little ham, and watch them ‘kill’ the meat by bashing it, which is what they do to snakes they catch. I have never been so close to the exquisite birds with their duck egg blue spots on the wings and their quizzical looks.
We sleep deeply and Peter gets up to see the sun rise; he shows me a photo because I am too snug to get up with him. It is a perfect, still morning and it seems that everyone has started slowly.
Bendigo and surrounds was known as Jaffa country and owned by the Dja Dja Wurrung and Taungurung clans a long time ago.
We are reluctant to leave behind the majestic mountains of Gariwerd, and this second week takes us to a very different area. Only a couple of hours to the north-east, Bendigo became the world’s richest city as a result of the gold rush in the 1850s. That is part of the defining history of the area, and the number of banking buildings in the centre evidences the boom of the gold era.
We have plenty of time to wander across the country and pass the time in the car reading aloud the daily Lenten reflection. Our stop for morning tea by the road near Stawell looked peaceful but we were beseiged by flies. Lunch is in a park in the historic gold town of Maldon. Sitting under a spreading elm tree pulling apart a roast chicken, I can’t imagine a more pleasant spot. It’s a warm day, but a breeze springs up, and Peter snoozes on the bench while I tackle Wordle and Semantle for stimulation – and solve both. No one knows where we are, we have nothing we have to do, and plenty of time to go where we are headed. Bliss.
It is so booked out in Bendigo that we have had to settle for accommodation out of town in Lockwood South, which is not even a village. Post pandemic, people are on the move and enjoying local travel – like us. I am happy for local businesses making a comeback.
The Airbnb cottage is delightfully named Mulberry Place and we are warmly welcomed by our host. She has thought of everything, even messaging us to ask our milk and bread preferences. There are generous breakfast provisions and Easter eggs hidden everywhere. Next to their home, but separate from it, we look out through the roses and crepe myrtles to a dam. More serenity!
I glanced at the young lady beside me. She was at least eight months pregnant and looked as though she would topple over if she leaned too far towards the sea. I was wandering along the foreshore at Hastings—my favourite place to think or just to be. Past the Shed and onto the jetty. The tide was as low as I had ever seen it, the beach a wide strip of pock-marked mud that attracted seagulls frantically searching for extra bounty in the wet sand. Mangroves and their exposed suckers glistened in the sun on the other side of the pier and a couple of lone pelicans perched on the bollards.
I held my grandson’s hand tightly; it always made me nervous to venture out on the jetty with an impetuous and active child who could run faster than I can now. What if he tripped and plunged over the edge? The swimming and lifesaving ability of my youth has evaporated and I would be lucky to save myself now, let alone a small child who fell into the sea. I edged to the the railings and tried to keep Jake on the safe side. Age has made me more risk-averse than when I was a young mum. How did I survive birthing and rearing my children in a remote town in a third world country? How did I even go there to live! No roads, no electricity, no running water, no phone, no family.
We walked slowly behind the young woman. Soon her baby would arrive, making her a mum, maybe for the first time. She straightened her back and steadied her pregnant waddle, her face to the sun, soaking up the extra vitamin D. Sun exposure: my generation put their babies outside for sun-kicks—how things have changed! Sleep on the tummy or on the back? Expose to allergens early or avoid? A couple of generations later, I don’t feel so wise. Fortunately, my kids survived to adulthood.
Jake is the youngest son of my youngest son. At eight months pregnant with my grandson’s father, I was living in West Papua. No ultra-sounds, just check-ups by shortwave radio. I trusted that all would go as well as my first two births did; I refused to contemplate complications. When they knew I was pregnant, the women whom I counted as friends in our remote village had said,
‘If you have a baby in Papua, you will always be one of us.’ Their little sayings and observations were insightful. Most of them had never been to school and had no concept of a university or my other life. I was their first and only Western friend.
They were right, and through the birth of my son in Papua, I am forever connected to them in the fellowship of mummas. There were times when I wondered if I would ever really fit into the primitive culture, based on bamboo houses on stilts over the sea with barely a stick of furniture apart from the Singer treadle sewing machine they all used. Half a metre taller than most local females, this pale-skinned Australian towered above them and politely refused the cigarettes and betel nut that they generously offered to accompany the sweet, black tea served in their best glasses when I visited their homes.
Children were the centre of their world and defined even the way they addressed each other. I was called Carly punya mama, or ‘Carly has a mum’. Our house was referred to as ‘Carly has a mum has a house’. Everything revolved around relationships. Everyone had their place in the community. I had much to learn from them, despite my university degrees.
When my baby was born with a birth weight nearly twice that of their average baby, they touched his light skin and cuddled him with delight and curiosity and called him anak Papua – child of Papua. Now I belonged. Astounded that a white woman would breastfeed her baby, they watched my every move and tried as hard to be like me as I wanted to be like them. I accustomed myself to letting my boobs hang out for feeds and allowing my friends to exclaim with wonder over my nursing bras—my house-helper took her friends on tours of our washing line to see these western miracles. For my part, I learnt to tie my baby on securely with a sling. They even ignored tribal food taboos when I explained to them how important their diet was to breast-feeding and the baby’s health.
I wondered if this local mum-to-be on the jetty had a community around her. Would her baby be brought up by a village? Mine was—literally. He is middle-aged now and losing his hair; proud of his birthplace and growing family. He wants to go back one day and see where his life began. I gripped his son’s little hand tightly as we walked the length of the jetty behind the lady who triggered my memories.
We reached the end and I held Jake’s feet firmly as he lay down on the knotted wood to look at the water below. Papuan toddlers ran around on the bamboo gangways without falling in, and, to my horror, they were thrown in the sea as babies so that they would learn to swim. Probably not something to try with this child.
Jake was up and heading off. Time to move!
‘Come on, Grandma!’
Snack time. Feed the seagulls. A trip to the toilet. Focus on now!
She was proud of her bulge, which was not concealed in a loose smock like mine was. I do not know her, but I know what it feels like to be pregnant. As she returned to her car, I silently wished her all the best for the journey ahead.
Jake cuddled up on the bench as we ate our snacks.
‘Grandma, tell me a story about when Dad was little’.
A visual artist can probably bring an idea to fruition more quickly than others: a painting or drawing may be completed in hours, but often it takes much longer. But then there is the puzzle of how to share the piece with others; unless they view or buy it, the appreciation is fleeting and perhaps never to be repeated. It may end up being relegated to the back of a studio.
Performance arts involve long periods of planning and rehearsal, then culminate in one or several performances. Those who watch and enjoy have to carry the memory and images of these occasions and the feelings they evoke, but the actual events may never be repeated. Months of work is over in a few hours.
A writer faces a long period of gestation. Longer than a pregnancy, probably. Anything from months to years, with no guarantees that anyone will ever see this embryonic manuscript. It may take some time before the words even begin to appear on the screen. Some books involve massive research while others are inspired cameos written in notebooks, devices on the run or the back of a paper napkin.
My books spawn many sticky notes, shifted endlessly around on an empty wall. The chapters jostle for their order and some are deleted in rash moments, only to be dug out from computer trash and restored to dignity somewhere else in the evolving story. Ideas that seemed brilliant at the start are left sitting on the languishing list of thoughts, some never make it to the written word.
It was as near to “hearing a voice” as I can remember. I had finished writing my own lengthy story and was struck by the fact that Veronica had only needed two paragraphs to document her part in my life. Veronica Knight, as dear as a daughter, had been like a member of our family for about three years in the 1970s. We were newly married and living in Adelaide; Peter worked as a residential care worker with troubled young men and I was teaching at a Lutheran secondary college.
We met Veronica when her hostel contacted us and said she was looking for a church or youth group. That was the beginning, and before long, she had become part of our family through informal foster care and an enthusiastic participant in the life of our church. In 1974, Veronica was nearly sixteen. She had no family and was mildly intellectually disabled. Lovable and cheeky, she lived life with gusto that belied her abandonment as a child and consequent status as a ward of the state.
Soon after she turned eighteen, she disappeared forever. As the tragic events of the Truro serial, tandem murders of 1976-7 emerged in Adelaide some years later, we had to absorb the shocking fact that she had been the first victim.
Forty years later, a lifetime had passed and our own children had grown up and given us many grandchildren. Veronica was a memory tucked into her special corner of my heart. Until I wrote about her and was shocked by how little I knew. Soon after, I was in hospital, recuperating from a knee operation. I began chatting to one of the nurses who then showed me a book she had written about losing her mum to cancer (tinyurl.com/np69s). She was touched that I downloaded it and read it in one night, but it set me thinking.
What had I experienced in my life that was deeply human and might resonate with others, as had nurse Leigh’s simple story? That was when I heard a voice, at least in my head, that said, “Write about Veronica”.
Children all say to their parents at some stage, ‘Tell me a story’. Sometimes they want wild, fanciful and even scary stories; other times it will be about an almost forgotten, distant childhood kept alive by the retelling by their parents.
My mother, Jean, would have been ninety-nine today were she still alive. Sweet, outgoing and essentially humble, she always said that her life was ordinary. As a gift for her eightieth birthday, my brother met with her weekly and asked her about her life, recording the conversations. He transcribed these into a book with almost no editing and captured Mum’s extraordinary story: born and brought up in China and India, separated from her parents as a child and then when her parents were interned during the war, working with hundreds of orphans in Hong Kong – all before she turned 30! Her life was far from ordinary, and the captured story reads like a novel. Soon after that, she slid slowly into dementia.
Roy, my paternal grandfather, never told me his story. Like many who returned from World War 1, he kept its horrors to himself. After he died, I discovered from my father that Grandad played an important part in the war on the Western Front at Fromelles and was taken prisoner there. He did not come home to his wife of three weeks for three long, terrible years, but carried for the rest of his life the memories of what historians have sometimes called the worst twenty-four hours in Australian history.