What happens when you leave city life and move to five acres on a hunch, with a husband who’s an aspiring alpaca-whisperer, and a feral cockerel for company? Can you eat the cockerel for dinner? Or has it got rigor mortis?
In search of a good life and a slower pace, Fiona Stocker upped-sticks and moved to Tasmania, a land of promise, wilderness, and family homes of uncertain build quality. It was the lifestyle change that many dream of and most are too sensible to attempt.
Wife, mother and now reluctant alpaca owner, Fiona jumped in at the deep end. Gradually Tasmania got under her skin as she learned to stack wood, round up the kids with a retired lady sheepdog, and stand on a scorpion without getting stung.
This charming tale captures the tussles and euphoria of living on the land in a place of untrammelled beauty, raising your family where you want to and seeing your husband in a whole new light. Not just a memoir but an everywoman’s story, and a paean to a new, slower age.
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About the Author
Fiona Stocker is an English writer living in Tasmania, Australia.
After graduating in the arts, she worked in London and Brisbane in the fields of theatre, advertising, education and recruitment.
A circuitous route, sense of adventure and aversion to proper paid employment took her to Tasmania in 2006, where she and her husband established a small farm, food and agri-tourism business, Langdale Farm. The couple raise Berkshire pigs and produce premium pork products sold at an award-winning farmers’ market and providores across northern Tasmania. They host visitors in a converted studio at the farm for eco-luxe farm-stay accommodation, and generally try to live the dream.
Besides partnering in the farm business, Fiona works as a writer and editor on books, e-books and online material and writes feature articles for lifestyle magazines.
Her book A Place in the Stockyard, commissioned by Tasmanian Women in Agriculture, commemorating their history and featuring many personal stories of their members, was published in 2016.
She is on the Board of the Tamar Valley Farmgate Festival, which launches in 2017, and the Tamar Valley Writers’ Festival, both of which have funding from Events Tasmania.
She was a judge of the Tasmanian Short Story Writers’ Competition of 2017, with shortlisted entries compiled in an anthology to be launched at the Hobart Writers’ Festival.
Fiona Stocker blogs as Apple Island Wife, and you can find her social media under that name too.
Read an Excerpt
'Hmph. They neglected to mention the dirt road.' Our tiny rented Hyundai bounced off the tarmac and hit gravel. We were on our way to inspect a 'spacious family home' in Tasmania.
It was some months after our fateful meeting with Rich. We had sped around Tasmania in our rented camper van, going up hill and down dale on our recce, and decided that we liked the north of the island around the elegant city of Launceston. Its rolling landscapes reminded us of England, and the climate seemed more temperate than in the chilly south. In various locales around the southern state capital of Hobart, the first convicts sent from England had perished in the cold and occasionally eaten each other to survive. It seemed sensible to stick to the north.
Returning to Brisbane with renewed sense of purpose, we did what all couples do when they're planning a life-changing move and a major transition with associated emotional and logistical challenges. We got ourselves pregnant.
We then spent four months renovating our weather-board house to within an inch of its life, and sold it for a premium at the height of a housing boom. We felt fantastic for a day or two. After that we felt homeless. We had two months before the new buyers moved in. Which gave us just enough time to hasten down to Tasmania again, and make sure our small but expanding family had somewhere to live.
As we rattled along the dirt road, I gazed morosely out of the passenger window. Things were not looking good. We'd been searching for our Tasmanian home for two weeks and the collective mood was grim. As Oliver gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, I reflected that his mood was lighter than mine, but then he wasn't six months pregnant. Only Daisy was content, in the back seat of the car, happy to be with Mum and Dad.
The car rattled along, spitting out gravel from beneath its wheels, until a real estate sign hove into view, a couple of bullet holes puncturing it.
'That'll be it,' said Oliver. A nondescript low brick house crouched back from the road. Its brown brick walls and tin roof were the colour of dust. A series of dark tree stumps marked the verge, ghostly reminders of massive trees, now bare and stunted sentinels.
As we pulled into the driveway it was clear that the real estate agent, a diminutive woman we'd met the day before, wasn't there yet. In fact, there was nobody around. Beyond the house, empty paddocks rolled out onto the flat bed of a valley, crossed by the occasional crooked wire fence. The house was deserted, our reflections staring back at us from the windows.
We waited politely beside the car, feeling we didn't quite have permission to look around. 'This is pointless,' Oliver blurted out after a few minutes. 'I'm going to have a look round the back.' There followed a brief silence. Daisy held my hand, scuffing a foot in the gravel, and we looked at the house. It was built in an L-shape. A semi-formal garden occupied the space within, but had been let go. Dense and overgrown pittosporum bushes towered over the windows. Finally, curiosity got the better of me. 'C'mon, Daisy, let's peek through the windows,' I said. Taking one last glance at the road, we approached the glass and peered in.
A spacious room stretched out towards the back of the house. It was sparsely furnished, but a dusky rose-coloured carpet gave it a comfortable look. I took in the kitchen. Compared to some we'd seen it was straight out of a posh magazine. Best of all it looked directly across the paddocks towards the bank of eucalyptus trees beyond.
Frenzied barking came from the rear of the house. Oliver appeared on the path outside the kitchen. 'It's okay, it's on a long lead,' he said, panting slightly. 'What do you think?' His eyes were bright.
'It's very big,' I replied nonchalantly. We'd looked at half a dozen houses and been disappointed by most. I'd learned to guard my optimism. Suddenly there was a roar and a hail of gravel, and a monstrous black four-wheel drive vehicle pulled into the driveway. Its shine suggested it was more used to the city and didn't make it out onto dirt roads like this one too often. As we watched, the driver's door opened outwards like a great wing, and Real Estate Vicky lowered one tiny leg and then another to the ground. If she hadn't been so elegant, it would have looked like a stick insect emerging from the protective wing of a gigantic mother beetle.
Vicky took us around the back of the house and put a key into the door. 'What's the story with this house – are they negotiable on price?' Oliver demanded as she wrestled gamely with the lock.
'Give her a chance, she hasn't even got the door open yet!' I said.
'It's okay,' said Vicky, a little taken aback by Oliver's forthrightness. 'The land has got a bit too much for them to look after. They're moving into town.' It was priced to sell, she added, and invited us to look around.
The living area was surprisingly cosy for such a spacious room. In the wood burner, a log lay smouldering. Oliver took off to look at some technical aspect of the home, pipework or plumbing. Daisy and I strolled along the wide hallways, peered into the bedrooms and the empty laundry. In a double garage we gazed awestruck at the accumulated years of hoarding known to most families, but noted the guest bedroom next door, and a potential office.
Back at the dining table we compared notes. 'What do you think?' said Oliver. I knew he'd want us to play our cards close to our chest in front of Vicky, the better to negotiate. Oliver bartered over everything. But I was about to have a baby. I wanted a house, and I wanted it now. This one seemed fine.
'I love it,' I said, nodding at Vicky, who looked a little surprised but smiled back.
'Well, I'm not sure about the asking price,' began Oliver. 'It needs a fair bit of work. We'd be justified in offering ten thousand less and seeing what happens.' From the corner of my eye, I saw Vicky's shoulders sink slightly. She took a breath and leaned forward tentatively.
'Oh for God's sake!' I exclaimed with the clarity of a woman who's six months pregnant and will soon have nowhere to live. I turned to Oliver crossly. 'We've got two days left before we go home! This is the best house we've seen and it's the price we wanted to pay. I say we offer the asking price and have done with it!'
Vicky froze and looked at Oliver. He looked a little scared.
'Okay,' he said. 'We'll do that then.' Never before had he agreed with me so easily. I must get pregnant and cross more often, I thought to myself. It enhances my powers of persuasion.
That evening we returned with a building inspector and made a formal offer. The next day it was accepted. The day after that, we flew back to Brisbane. We had a home in Tasmania to return to, and the future seemed secure. We would have celebrated, but we were too exhausted.
* * *
With the date for completion of the Brisbane house sale and the arrival of its new owners drawing closer, we packed the contents of our home into a container. Finally, one day in early spring, we walked through the now empty rooms, our footsteps echoing on the bare wooden floorboards, and closed the front door behind us one last time. Then we drove almost two thousand miles southwards, along some of the world's most featureless roads. Inland New South Wales has a lot of plantation forest and expansive farmlands with not much in them apart from the occasional silo. Finally, after passing through the great and badly signposted sprawl of Melbourne, we reached Port Phillip and the Spirit of Tasmania ferry, which would take us to our new island home. After a week of motel accommodation, it was an enticing thought.
The overnight ferry from Melbourne to Devonport on the coast of north Tasmania brought us in at around six in the morning. We crept up the access ramp in the pre-dawn of that spring morning, a convoy of two vehicles. Our family estate carried Daisy and myself. The other vehicle was Oliver's utility truck, the workhorse of many an Australian household, and fondly known as the 'ute'. It was loaded with the essentials – things we'd need on arriving before the removal agents caught up with us – mattresses, camp stove, Oliver's guitar.
As we turned towards the Tamar Valley, there were no other vehicles around. Those leaving the ferry seemed to disperse and vanish without trace. We headed off across the agricultural landscape. Farmhouses lurked in the gloom, their windows still dark. They were set well back from the road, which stretched before us like a long black ribbon. We made out the murky shapes of grazing cattle and sheep, and distant stands of eucalyptus trees.
Everywhere was silent and still, as we made our way across the land before its occupants were awake, hoping to take our place amongst them. I thought of the millions of other people through time who had crossed land and sea to make their home elsewhere, in less fortunate circumstances. No matter the reasons for such a shift, whether it's war, economics, or simply looking for a different life, every family hopes for the same thing, I found myself thinking. Safe passage, a warm hearth and home, friends around them.
Gradually it became lighter. Wraiths of mist drifted across an open valley floor. Farmhouses stood out, solitary in the early morning, with vast open sheds of farm machinery, their tin roofs now rimed with a late frost.
A familiar turnoff, and we realised we must be close. Colour appeared in the landscape as the sun rose ahead of us. Dewy patches of grass glowed green, the pink-red light caught on the tree trunks. A white wooden church sat in a corner, dwarfed by giant cedars. Cresting a last hill and soaring down it, we came upon the Flowery Gully shop, where we turned onto our new road. Finally, there was our new home with its unclothed brick walls. It seemed familiar, but a little desolate in its untended garden.
After a week's crawling along the backroads of inland Australia, it was a joy to know we were no longer confined to the cramped space of a car for hours at a time. We got out and walked about slowly, stretching our legs, with not a soul about. The morning air felt cool, sharp and tangy on our skin, blissful after the searing heat of Queensland. We made our way round to the back of the house and tentatively put a key into the door.
* * *
When Oliver and I first came to Australia as younger adults, we sold, lent out and put our worldly possessions into storage and arrived with two backpacks and a guitar. Oliver could play 'Stairway to Heaven' on it and he still can. Sadly, he's never been able to play much else. It hangs on the wall still, waiting for the next generation to learn some new tunes.
This move saw us transporting an altogether more substantial amount of worldly goods. While we were on the road, so were they, in a container that came first by train then by boat, and finally on the back of a truck that arrived the day after we did.
Swiftly, the removal men emptied their lorry of its load. Our belongings, which had filled the little weather-board house in Brisbane, disappeared into the seemingly cavernous spaces of this house. As I watched the fridges being slotted into a space in the kitchen, I felt slightly more ownership of that space. Voices echoed from other rooms in the house, as the men asked for instructions. I could hear Oliver directing them, and Daisy's bright voice chipping in. Everything still felt strange, the odd new rooms, the faint scent of fire and ash from the wood burner. Our belongings looked like someone else's in this house that was only just ours. I kept telling myself that time would quickly make it feel like our home.
Needing to get out of the kitchen, with its latent demands that I cook something, I went up to the back of the house and found Daisy exploring the bedrooms. 'Which room would you like?' I asked her, as we sauntered between them.
'Diss one! It's beautiful!' she declared. She had chosen the room facing south. It would get no sun, but it looked out onto a private square of garden, ready to be filled with guinea pigs and dogs. The bare white walls were a blank canvas, to be decorated with gold stars and fairies. As the beds arrived, I relished the thought of making them up with fresh linen. A comfortable place to rest, with familiar fabrics and smells – for each of us, a sanctuary.
Things ground to a halt when the removal men came across my piano at the back of the container. The removal firm in Brisbane had assured us it was 'just another piece of furniture'. There was no extra charge and no special arrangements required. Unfortunately this was not a view shared by their counterparts in Tasmania. It was a complete surprise to them and not a welcome one. Pianos weigh a ton.
As it came down the ramp off the back of the truck, the men held onto it for dear life. They had none of the ropes and straps the men in Brisbane had used. To my alarm, it picked up speed and rattled towards the edge. With brute force it was shoved in the right direction, and made it off the end of the ramp without crashing to the ground. The men thrust it unceremoniously over the dirt of the driveway, and left it up against a wall in the garage. We planned to leave it there and renovate around it, converting the garage into a rumpus room. As we stood there, I predicted silently that this would take up to a decade to happen, and the place would fill up with all sorts of detritus, with the piano disappearing behind it. But there was always hope. One day I would pick out Schumann pieces in the comfort of a fully renovated living area. It was a vision I could cling to in an uncertain world and an unstructured renovation schedule.
* * *
Sick of unpacking, we gravitated outside to explore. There was a long strip of paddock beyond the driveway, with a single tree and a satellite dish. Both appeared to have been placed there quite randomly. Ambling further down towards the back of the property, we reached another paddock. There was a willow tree in the middle of it, surrounded by a boggy patch.
'Don't walk through that,' said Oliver as we trod carefully around the marshy parts. 'It's the overflow of the septic tank. Somebody's planted a willow tree to try and soak it up.' I looked at him in disbelief. Never before had my domestic life featured a septic tank.
'How do you know about something like that?' I demanded. 'I've only just heard of septic tanks.'
'It's obvious,' he replied. 'The pipework comes out of the back of the house and travels downhill. You can see the vent of the septic there.' He narrowed his eyes and pointed to a spot between us and the back of the house in line with the toilet window. 'It follows that the overflow must be somewhere around here.' I gazed at him in admiration. All this knowledge must have been filed away in his brain patiently waiting for an opportunity to be useful. Clearly he was going to be an asset when it came to living in rural parts. I, for one, wanted nothing to do with septic tank overflows.
As we stood immobilised by thoughts of sewerage systems, a throaty roar could be heard in the distance beyond the gum trees, way out on the valley floor beyond which there were no roads, houses or, for all we knew, civilisation. Gradually it got louder. As we all turned to look, a quad bike roared to a halt beside a gate in the distant fence line. The small, blond figure of a child appeared briefly and opened the gate, before hopping back on underneath the arms of the rider. They set off again up the paddocks towards us. At the fence line, they growled to a halt again, doing a donut in a patch of dirt, kicking up a cloud of dust. A brawny arm waved in salute. 'How're ya going?'
Damo, or Edna to his friends, lived further up the valley, his place obscured by the trees forming a block of bushland on our property. Named Damien at birth, this had been shortened to 'Dame' at school, then lengthened to 'Dame Edna' at the pub, and shortened again to 'Edna' by those brave enough or drunk enough. 'Only me best mates gets to call me Edna,' he explained as introductions were carried out. Damo raised himself up slightly from the quad bike and leaned over the blond girl to grasp our hands in a dry, warm and enormous grip. 'If you meet anyone callin' me Edna, you know that's someone you can trust,' he elaborated. It seemed a reliable means of assessing a person's worth and I tucked it away in my memory banks.
Damo's house was accessed from further up the road, along a laneway lined with a eucalyptus plantation and some native bush. We had the impression there was a sort of wooded compound down there, and Damo's appearance before us now was certainly of someone who might live in one. We had heard his arrival home earlier in the day, announced by the sound of chains being unravelled from metal gates, and the barking of what sounded like a pack of dogs.
'How're you goin' over in the house there, everythin' alright?' He sat back, grinning broadly, and folded his arms as if settling in for a bit of a yarn. His beefy brown forearms were left exposed by a working man's shirt with the sleeves cut off. On his head was a filthy cap crowned with some wraparound sunglasses. The small girl who accompanied him was gripped firmly between his knees. She wore a confection of pink top and leggings with elaborate embroidered flowers, and had a beatific smile plastered across a freckled face.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Apple Island Wife"
Copyright © 2018 Fiona Stocker.
Excerpted by permission of Unbound.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Praise for Apple Island Wife,
About the Author,
Acknowledgement of Country,
Dear Reader Letter,
Foreword On a Good Life,
Fire and Water,
Coming soon, also by Fiona Stocker Saddleback Wife,
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