MY FATHER is telling me about his life. It's my life
too, because we're back at the holiday house on
the coast, and my mother is lying on a camp bed, her
dress up around her waist. My father is kneeling beside
her, holding a length of cotton between finger and
thumb. At the end of the cotton is a bottle cork, pierced
with a sewing needle. The cork is hanging, not moving,
like a miniature bell over her swollen stomach. I'm
inside her. I can hear voices. The light is shifting around.
My father is saying If the cork swings clockwise I'll be
a girl. My mother says It will be a girl. How do you
know? my father asks. Women know these things, she
says, and moves around on the bed.
You don't remember that of course, my father says,
looking at the back of his hand. He always does that
when he's unsure of himself. He looks at the back of
his hand a lot. I ask him if the house on the coast is still
there. He doesn't know. He's sure the lagoon is there,
with its ribbon weed, flathead and bream. That's
important. The lagoon was a place I knew well -- first
from lit, muffled descriptions and then, in the world,
from walking its blackmud borders; from throwing bits of
laughter and my name like bright lures over the water.
In a warm red place, I saw gold circles spinning, then
black lines and sparks forming spirals behind my eyes. I
saw light as a scrim of decaying web. It tracked through
my head and down into my arms and legs. My spine
was humming with it. With these shapes came the
sound of my blood. With the blood, a pulse of fast
internal talk. It's my second language. It's the talk no
one else can hear.
The cork was wrong. I came widdershins into the
world, my brain still releasing its broken lines, wheels
Some people speak of memories from the womb:
prescriptive, thumb-mouthing dreams. For some it's the
vague backdrop of their first two years: the sights, sounds
and textures from a wordless dependency. I remember
the shapes and colours that veined the inside of my head,
but also the way the light would change as I was carried
along over the boards of the verandah, its green wooden
blinds dividing the day. Now, when I press my closed
eyes in the corners near the bridge of my nose, I see
similar designs from before birth and from when the
world opened. They are the same gold circles that once
turned, losing sparks and lines like Catherine wheels in
What is nameless in childhood, no matter how strange
or terrifying, can often be tolerated, even nurtured,
because there are no points of reference with which to
align fear or danger. My headlights, and the sounds that
began to accompany them shortly after I was born,
became a source of constant amazement, even pleasure.
Early one morning, at the start of the Christmas
holidays, a tiny alarm bell rang, and although I all but
ignored it, a warning flashed its weak signal and I
became aware of shadows moving around between the
layers of gold and silver light.
We lived in a country town, high in the New England
Tablelands of New South Wales. In the dark school of
childhood I see huge balls of balancing granite, black
frosts and snow, tubes of ice clicking from the mouths of
taps, and, best of all, a massive black pine across the road
that the Willoughby brothers had climbed and claimed as
their own with a white flag cracking at the top.
The Willoughby boys were tough. Their slingshots
were perfect beige forks, their bows and arrows sleek
and deadly. Their snowballs were spiked with gravel.
They could spit and hit flying insects.
After weeks of my watching them and of being
watched, they crossed the road and stared at me. When
I didn't run away, they said We've been watching you,
do you want to come on a picnic to the river? I felt
proud and happy to be asked, and said yes. We were
standing in front of their house. When Mrs Willoughby
came out in a dress like a sack full of potatoes, the boys
asked if I could come. She said Go home and ask your
parents. I ran home, made sure no one was watching,
stood before the red brick letterbox, and asked them. I
said Can I go on a picnic to the river with the
Willoughby boys? then said Thanks into the letter slot,
and told them briefly about what I'd been doing all
morning, moving from one foot to the other as the
headlights came on and voices spoke over one another.
When the Willoughbys dropped me off outside my
house late that afternoon, it was dark and I was thick
with trouble. A police car pulled away from the
driveway. My father came to the window. He said
Where have you been we thought you were dead. Then
Mr Willoughby's arm came over the front seat and his
finger stopped near my face. You said you had
permission, the finger said. He never asked us, my father
said, his face like a red moon at the glass. Now get out
of that car.
In the bathroom, leaning over the sink, I thought I
heard the Willoughby boys laughing outside the window
as my father removed his belt and went to work.
There are many things the tongue refuses. Telling your
Mum and Dad about a letterbox filled with voices is
one. Telling yourself you don't care about the beltings
or the heat it leaves on your arse and legs is another.
But that night, in my room, listening to my parents' talk
come and go like a wireless in the wind, I heard My
Name and The Police in one sentence. I heard No
Pocket Money fall from my father's mouth. My mother
said The Willoughby Brothers. Then, as if they sensed
I was listening, they spoke softly, conspiratorially. I
closed my eyes, waiting to cry. I imagined them sitting
up in bed, looking into their rumpled laps as car lights
folded over the walls and ceiling. I waited for my name
to be spoken again, but it didn't come. So I said my
name instead. It sounded strange, as if a reflection had
spoken. I said it again, louder this time, and then I heard,
from a nearby room, the unmistakable sound of parents
lying on their backs in the dark, barely touching, going
over and over just what it was they hadn't done.
MUM AND DAD loved to go into the country.
Picnics were their specialty, and any river or creek
with a shifting pebble-bed and a grassy bank was perfect.
Dad had been taken sapphire hunting when he was
young, and considered himself an expert. He had a
matchbox full of uncut stones that he'd rattle near my
ear. I knew where he kept them, and I'd get them out
when no one was home and spread them on the floor.
I loved the way they had different lights inside them, and
when I put one to my eye, the day had magic in it.
Glimmer. Sheen. The surface of Tenterfield Creek
contains enough sapphires for everyone. We find
fragments of dark blue stone that turn lightsparks into
sapphires that turn back to stone when dry. When we
aren't sieving and throwing mud, we're upstream, at a
deep section, lowering string weighted with cubes of
raw steak from the bank, waiting for yabbies to rise like
twists of angry woodsnags with a vegetable-straining
safety net held under them.
We are harvesting, up to our elbows or waists in a swirl
of pebble-layered New England water. Dad's wearing a
pale blue shirt that's going dark to the shoulders as the
fabric drinks. I'm wearing underpants and a straw hat.
We are playing. The game, if that's what it is, has no
name. I'm trying to find the perfect, flat round stone.
Several fine specimens are on the bank, dry and
lustreless. They failed the test because of a chipped edge
or uneven circumference or width. The perfect stone
should fit easily into the palm. Its weight should take
the hand down, but not too far. It should contain the
light of inner minerals. The ultimate test for the perfect
stone is its ability to fly and skip over water, leaving
stoneprints on dam, lake or river until it settles into a
tail-leaving slide. I have thrown several perfect stones.
You know them when you hold them. Something goes
into your hand. A root of stone enters the skin and
Dad's game involves bombing tiny green fish with
the long blades of stone he's stockpiled on the bank. He
whistles as he lets them go, making a sound with saliva
that he hopes is like a water tower over the shell of a
Mum's upriver with my sister. Their game is called
Jump Up Sally, where jumping and hiding feature
heavily in the rules.
We've eaten lunch: chicken, watermelon, grapes,
cheese, bread rolls. Mum said Don't swim on a full
stomach you'll get a cramp and drown. Where we are,
the water is so shallow it's below my knees when I stand.
Mum's afraid of water. That's because her mother
drowned in the Murray when she was little. She
watched her go under. When I had baths, she wouldn't
leave me alone, even when I was old enough to wash
myself. When we were playing under the garden hose,
I'd see the curtains opening and closing with concern.
Dad's had enough. He's on the bank, drying himself.
I'm cold, but I want to find that stone. I go under and
open my eyes. Green and silver fish go in and out of
light, like ripples. I can't see very well because the water
hurts my eyes, and makes everything blurry. When I
surface, without a stone, Dad's no longer on the bank.
I get out and listen. I look to where Mum and my sister
were playing, and see them standing together. Dad's got
his arm around Mum's shoulders. They're standing still,
looking at something. When I reach them I see an old
house at the edge of the bush, with smoke rising from
a redbrick chimney. They can't be interested in that, so
I look around for something else. There's nothing but
trees, a beaten-up old truck near a fence, and the river
going off into the distance.
What are you looking at?
Smoke, my sister's voice rises at the end of the word
as if she were offering me a cigarette.
Mum puts her head on Dad's shoulder.
I watch it too. It fans out at the end of its rising and
goes the colour of low clouds.
There must be something more to this than just
watching smoke, and I say so.
Mum pulls her cardigan close and moves from foot
Before you were born, she says, shivering, we'd drive
up to the lookout on winter afternoons and watch the
night come down. If it was still, like it is now, the
smoke-lines would be rising all over the place. Some
were grey, some white. She took a big breath and let it
go. They were pretty. They were good times.
My sister is already bored with smoke-watching and
kicks a stone around. I'm not far behind her. Dad gives
Mum a kiss and holds on to her for ages. I wait. They
kiss for too long. I look back at the river. Let's get some
yabbies, I say, but it doesn't work. They're still kissing,
as if no one was watching, as if the smoke had stopped
Copyright © Anthony Lawrence 2000