The late summer afternoon was hot, blazing and lazy. It started off as a day off work in a desultory way with a haircut, then a medical appointment, then back home for lunch and then hours lazing on the black leather couch in the lounge room surfing the Internet for news, bits of research, labyrinthine information about starting a small business… The whole of me is sunk in a kind of sleep, wanting to do something and yet not wanting to make the effort to do it. I seem to want to let the moments tick by, as easily as the cars in the street glide past and the mynah birds chirp in the trees.
Nevertheless I have a simple plan to go back in time – way back to when I was a child growing up in a peaceful little town called Mullumbimby on the lush North coast of NSW, Australia – so long ago it seems like another country that I am reluctant to make the long trip into. I am so immersed in the dense, buzzing city-scape of the present.
The trip from Mullumbimby to Lismore was a short drive of about an hour along the coastal plains, until it took a dizzyingly steep turn up the ancient ragged, volcanic escarpment to the hinterlands. It went past the turn-off to the village of Clunes and then a curious old quarry called Bex Hill, caught in the bowels of a steep rocky hill with its deep green waters of mysterious depth and where my parents spent a lot of time finding fossils of ancient plant life embedded in its loose rocks of charcoal coloured shale. The road rolled on to over the bridge at the Wilson’s River at Richmond Hill, where I would then watch the accompanying river winding lazily along across chocolate loam and verdant buttercup-starred pastures and fields of brown Jersey cows calmly grazing on the grass.
And presently the river would come right up close to the road and there between two green hills and descrying a high church steeple and clusters of houses, we would enter the domain of the city of Lismore, population at that time: 30,000.
Lismore was (and still is) a quiet, rural city on the banks of the muddy Wilson’s River, which winds through its centre flanked by hordes of beautiful, but feral weedy weeping Willows whose proliferating branches and roots make it impossible to walk along its banks. From time to time it is prone to flooding, though the subtropical climate is otherwise kindly – warm and humid all the year around.
Grandma and Grandfather lived in a large, wooden, white-painted Queenslander house (a kind of house perched on high stilts that allowed ventilation and precaution against flooding) in a street lined with graceful, ferny-leafed Jacarandah trees near the top of a steep hill on the near outskirts of Lismore.
We would arrive through the concreted drive-way shaded by trees with red, star-shaped flowers with petals like leaves and would park near the house atop the long sloping sweep of back-yard. We would step out and eagerly meet my father’s parents as they clambered down the long, narrow and precipitous wooden stairs – Grandma dreamily effusive and warmly affectionate, Grandfather lean and spare, his long face sand-paper cheeked and grave – and we would go up the stairs through the covered, linoleum-floored porch (with its lavatory) and into the kitchen/dining room with its ‘Early Kooka’ gas oven and stove where we would sit at the large steel and laminate dining table just under a print of a painting of blue boats by Van Gogh and talk.
The dining table was to the left of the door. The kitchen area, flanked by a large bench where a big black telephone lived and where Grandma did her cooking preparations, was on the right. This kitchen bench depicted a watery blue scene of tropical fishes, painted by my mother the night before I was born. Ahead against the wall was a small bookcase with books from Grandfather’s favourite authors – Shakespeare and James Joyce and higher up was a lacquered wooden shelf of little china animal ornaments, an hour-glass and a tiny ornamental watering can.
There were all kinds of cooking utensils in the cupboards under that kitchen bench and that was where our favourite jar of Grandma’s home-made biscuits were – some with cherries, some with chocolate chip and others with cornflakes. The kitchen sink was under the window and beside was the gas oven, stove and the constantly humming refrigerator.
The view from the kitchen and the windows of the covered verandah/porch that stretched outside it were of soft, green, rolling hills that had reminded my great-grandfather of the rolling hills of Wales. Except (as I learned later), this beautiful, romantic, peaceful scene was not of a natural making. My ancestors, the White People, had invaded the country rather like locusts, hewing and mowing down countless trees and undergrowth of the dense, sub-tropical rainforests so unique to the coastal plains of North-East Australia – The Big Scrub.
Through the window, we could also see the whole networked town-scape of Lismore spread out far below, with its streets of houses, clusters of office buildings and shopping centres, its several-storied hospital and the twin chimney stacks of what I think was the power station. At night, hundreds of white and yellow lights gleamed all connected to the backbone of quietly humming electric grid that bound us all to the linoleum-clean civilised life of the mid-20th century.
Of course, the White People had so razed the land to replicate the way of life they had had in the British Isles and in Europe: to feed their livestock, grow their crops and build a civilised state. At Lismore, the denuding of the land had been so thorough by the 1960s, that when Grandma took us three young sisters for a drive to the local Lions Club park, the rich tangle of liana vines, blackbean trees and great, spreading roots of giant fig-trees seemed like an utterly alien world.
But in my childhood and early adolescent ignorance, the hills and verdant, grassy landscape just seemed a symbol of all that was beautiful and serene and calm in the world. The hill at the top of the street was farm-land and the grass grew lush, with plenty of weeds like burdock, dandelions and scotch thistles which shed their silky-haired seeds delicately into the warm, gentle breezes. The beautiful music of Mozart was often playing on the record-player, perfectly reflecting the sense of carefree peace and happiness.
Grandma and Grandfather’s house on the hill had a long backyard, with a good two-thirds of it a vegetable and fruit garden of Grandfather’s steady and industrious cultivation. In the rich, black soil he grew lettuces, carrots, tomatoes, beans, peas and grape vines and there were fig and pawpaw trees thick with luscious fruit in season. A substantial lawn of green grass that Grandfather periodically mowed surrounded the cultivation patch and the borders were fringed with piles of forgotten black basalt rocks, a large Jacaranda tree and dense Jasmine bushes that burst into profusions of little starry flowers in spring, gracing the air with their sweet, nectar like scent and attracting hosts of butterflies and bees.
Meanwhile, in the damp earth around the bottom of the stairs, Mint grew in great clusters along with Nasturtiums, Forget-Me-Nots, Violets and Wandering Jew. In the cool earth-scented darkness under the house was Grandfather’s work area, with his saws, drills and fishing equipment neatly stacked. Alongside, there was the laundry, with its big cement twin-tubs, rubber wringer, corrugated scrubbing board, pieces of old yellow soap and the little deep cobalt blue-bags which astonishingly made white clothes whiter.
Whenever we visited, my sister Cathie and I both got the spare bedroom, painted pure white, with intriguing patterns in the plaster ceiling and the two windows framed with gauzy white curtains embroidered with purple flower-sprigs. There was a double and a single bed, both covered with pretty mauve and white bedspreads and two dressing tables. I used to wake up in the morning to the sounds of a rooster crowing and hens cackling in the distance as the pale shafts of sunlight stole their way around the room and feel perfectly at home and peaceful.
Outside the spare bedroom was a small hallway carpeted with stiff, gold-brown plush and hung with smiling black and white photos of my father and my aunty Norma. That was where while sitting on the floor I broke my leg at the age of three, when my toddler sister Cathie walked over me.
The hall led to the kitchen on the left. Straight ahead was the linen closet all neat and tidy with clean, lavender scented white sheets, scratchy towels and face-cloths. Beside it was the tiled bathroom in cool darkness redolent of soap, with a huge bath that Grandma ran nice and hot for us children, shower recess and old-fashioned sink.
Further to the right of the hallway were two doorways. For now I will go through the lounge room. It had the same gold-brown plush carpet, it had two lounge chairs and a lounge and a record-player and television at the far end of the room. Above the lounge was a fascinating print of Vermeer’s painting of a girl reading a letter and I used to endlessly speculate on the content of the letter, which despite the calm serenity of the domestic scene, could have been anything. There was a book-case containing such entertaining books as ‘The African Queen’ and ‘The Girl With the Swansdown Seat’ and ‘What the Aussie Papers Didn’t Mean to Say’. There was a pale-brown lacquered cabinet containing the good china and a beveled mirror.
At the other side, towards the front door, the lounge-room had two frosted glass-paneled doors draped with rich red drawn curtains, one on each end of the wall. These doors led out to a bright sun-room and the front door, whereby one could go down a few steps onto the path through a lawn and a garden lush with ferns and hydrangeas. Hardly anyone ever went to this sun-room, which was a pity. Because with its white wired chairs and table upon which a rampant maiden-hair fern showered its tresses, it was a calm, still kind of place with a view of the wide, grass-edged and usually deserted street through its ample windows.
Back at the hallway there is an entrance between the bathroom and the lounge-room. This was Grandma and Grandfather’s bed-room. The windows were usually draped over with curtains, so it was quite dark and made more so with the dark, ponderous furniture – a large wardrobe, a dressing-table with fascinating Grandma things on it like powders, her favourite Tweed Lentheric scent – a delicate spring floral fragrance that pervaded all of Grandma’s presence – and boxes of costume jewelry. There was also a big double bed, which us three girls all piled onto with Grandma and Grandfather of a morning to read the Sunday Papers.
A door beside the bed finally led into a kind of long side room. To the right was a curtained alcove in which sat an old Singer treadle sewing machine (which Grandma taught me how to use) and all Grandma’s sewing things – lots of cotton reels of all different colours, needles of all sizes, pins, buttons, tape measures, thimbles and scissors. At the centre was a long dark brown plush couch which my youngest sister Berenice slept on. It was alongside windows draped with cotton curtains of a pattern of dancing red flowers. Opposite the couch was the window to the bathroom and beneath this a long, old dark brown cabinet with creamy bone handles which held many secret things like old board games and toys, books, yellowing manuscripts, fountain pens and stored Christmas decorations like a frosted tree, some tinsel and tiny, brightly coloured balls.
At the end of the room and in front of a window that looked out onto the backyard and beyond was a large jet black desk with a typewriter, pencils, erasers, pens and lots of typing paper. Grandfather liked to write and this was his work-place and we would often hear the tapping of the typewriter as he worked away in the afternoons after lunch.
And beside the desk was a door leading out in the kitchen, back where we started. For dinner, Grandma would make a roast lamb with crunchy roast potatoes, pumpkin and peas from the garden. She would make the gravy with flour and dripping and put in a fluted green china gravy-boat. She would make the mint sauce with sugar and vinegar and mint growing from under the steps of the house. It always seemed she would never be done fussing over the dinner and would still be in her apron hovering around after people had started. But eventually she would give in to persuasion that she really had thought of everything. And the meal would be absolutely delicious.