Saturday, July 31, 2010



In 1984, I was living in a remote community in central Australia. This short story is dedicated to the memory of a small boy.

In the Centre - where land is sacred, where sand hills roll like waves to the horizon, where she-oaks whisper, where colour is alive, where wild food tastes like nothing else, where birds sing and people dance - is Homeland Country. Aboriginal Country. Here, around dripping taps and dead cars, black families dig themselves into the sand. Hunkered under sheets of corrugated iron and breathing mulga smoke, men eat corned beef out of tins with their fingers while women make damper from flour as fine as powder. Billy-cans simmer with milkless tea, sweet as syrup. Mothers and fathers sing and tell the stories for their scars and soothe children with belly-ache. This is home.

On the western edge of the community, white people live in transportable houses. Carted on trailers, for god knows how many kilometres, the oblong boxes roost on 44 gallon drums. The locals envy their gas stoves, refrigerators and flushing toilets. Even when the mercury rises above 50 and the plastic interiors soften and release toxic stinging fumes – they envy them. And men eat corned beef off plates with knives and forks and childless women spread margarine on sliced white bread and wonder - how hard is it to make damper? This is not home.

No - this is definitely not home. There are no grids of bitumen or architectural landmarks. There’s no coastline – just land, undefined. With no grid it’s impossible to hold a mental map! There is only the sun tracking across the sky to define the compass points - but can it be trusted? With no knowledge of what lies to the north, south, east or west – the universe shrinks. Dependent on people who understand this country – confidence shrinks. There is dreadful disorientation.

A person has to find a way to cope in these circumstances.

Control is one way of coping. Control over something- anything.

She chose dirt. Daily, she wrestled dirt and its companion - mess. Her fight was confined to her body and the transportable and although she never won, she found the cleaning to be therapeutic. Returning from a journey over sandhills, salt lakes and claypans, her eyes glued together, crusty nose and split feet, she had a place to clean herself – a private place. A place to wash, scrub and soak: itching lice from her hair, red dirt from her knees and elbows, roo blood from her skirt and smoke-sour blankets. And when all that was done, she had a stainless steel sink to shine with Ajax, a mirror to polish with Windex and a floor to sweep and mop with OneGo. She had a place from where she could push away the sand and push and push and push back the wilderness of space and sky and people and be thoroughly, comfortingly, European and urban.

The transportable house was a shell from which she could peep out and then contract. Like a snail. Like a hermit crab

A little boy – a Tjungurrayi drifted along a track. He held a can to his nose and breathed. Through the oily haze of petrol, he picked out the transportable. It was locked and he was hot and thirsty. He walked around the back looking for a tool. Finding a piece of metal tube with one end flattened, he squeezed it into the crack where the door met the frame - and levered. The screws that held the slide bolt and pad-lock groaned as they were jemmied free and the door swung open. From bright, Tjungurrayi stepped into dark and had to wait for his eyes to adjust. It was good out of the daylight; his head ached from petrol. A line of sweat shined above his lip. His mouth hung open and his breath wheezed. He stepped up to the sink, wrapped his lips around the pipe, turned on the tap and guzzled. Then he cupped his hands, let the water fill them and splashed his face. Water ran down to his elbows and onto the clean floor where his foot turned it into a squidge.

Above the table, at the end of the room, food was stacked on shelves, away from mice. Even in this dingy light, the labels looked bright and swam in front of his eyes – Weet-Bix, Rye-vita, Spam, Baked Beans, Sardines, Spaghetti, Two Minute Noodles. Looking at the food made something move inside his stomach and he felt a pinch in his gut.

He sat on the clean white toilet and moaned through the cramp. There were more shelves in front of him. These ones were stacked with White King, Rinso, Sard Wonder Soap and Kleenex. The pain eased. He screwed up his nose at his own stink, pulled up his jeans and went into the place she called, ‘The Bedroom’.

This is where they slept. She didn’t like tchi tchi going in here. She’d say, ‘Wiya. Wiya. Wanti. Ngurra ngayku.’ No, no. Leave it. My place. But sometimes, if there were only two or three children, they could persuade her to let them in. She had books with pictures and a sewing tin. He turned to a cupboard with a long piece of pale material hanging in place of a door. Pulling the cloth aside he reached for the tin. The lid came of with a fftt sound, like a fart, and he smiled. He reached inside for the pincushion spiked with pins with coloured plastic heads. Cradling it so as not to prick himself, he sat crossed legged on the swag on the floor and began to play the game. He scanned the pins and sorted them into colour categories and then put them into pairs. Then he chanted, “plue plue, red red, green green, yella yella.’ But it was hard to think after petrol. He stared at the patterns until the pins blurred. It was good in here, in the dark, all by himself. Palya. Good.

“Sss tch tch tch.’ a voice hissed and clicked behind him. It was his uncle. He startled. He hadn’t heard anyone coming. Rising woozily to his feet, he dropped the pincushion. The man grabbed his arm and dragged him outside, and like a boy with no bones, he gave no resistance. His eyes screwed up tight. He hung his head in shame, and tears, snot and sweat rolled down his face.

The air was heavy and humid. Before she even got out of the Toyota, she saw the door had a bruise from being levered open and the slide bolt swung from one screw with the pad-lock still snapped to it. Inside she saw no damage. There was a muddy mark on the floor, a turd in the toilet that resembled a small black snake, the sewing tin had been opened and the pincushion was on the floor.

Across the sea of sand and flapping rubbish that divided their dwellings, she watched her neighbour, emerge out of the dust and limp towards her. A kind man, a family man, and visibly distressed. “Sniffer,’ he said. ‘Little boy. A Tjungurrayi. No stealing. No stealing.’

And she wondered. What kind of person does he think I am?

It was hot – very hot. A big cloud hovered over the community growing darker by the minute. It looked like the old Tjupurrula who camped by the airstrip with a camel. It was Tjupurrula all right - the same bulging nose. Rapidly, it stretched out until the nose and jaw became absurd like a cartoon and then it had no shape at all. She made tea and sat on the step, sheltered by a veranda. The camps looked deserted. All had gone to ground – too hot to move, air too thick to breathe. But people were there, muttering, beseeching in their language, ‘please let it break right here, let the rain fall directly onto this place’.

And then - Bang! The sky broke open and it came in buckets - too much for the ground to absorb. Like a switch had been thrown - instantly it was cool. The earth turned terracotta and released a delicious smell - spicy humus, a clean smell, slightly pungent. The camps burst into life. The rain was so loud people had to shout to be heard. Children popped up from everywhere – from under sheets of iron, car doors, and rusted drums. Faces ecstatic, they danced and sang and scudded up the road to swim in the tip with the old mattresses and the dead dogs.

‘I’m cold.’ The boneless boy appeared at her elbow. He shivered and his skin was covered in goose bumps and sores. She poured him a cup of sweet black tea and he wrapped his hands around the enamel mug.

‘Someone came into my house while I was away.’ she said

‘Sniffers. Bad boys.’

‘You sniff petrol.’

‘Wiya. I’m a good boy now.’

It was late in the afternoon. The big shed - The Canteen, was closed for the day. The only light inside came through the holes that peppered every sheet of iron - straight as spears and lazar-bright. Motes hovered thick in the shafts. It was enough to empty the tills and count the day’s takings. The cash-drawers were stuffed with orange notes. Two twenties bought a box of sugar or a drum of flour. While counting the notes into wads of a hundred, she heard a scraping sound. Turning she saw flickering through the holes as someone moved about on the other side. A skinny black finger poked through a gap the size of a bottleneck and wiggled. ‘Napaltjarri?’

‘Whose there?’ she leaned close to the hole. The finger withdrew and then a mouth closed over it. She smelt bronchitis and petrol. ‘Tjungurrayi?’

‘Yuwa.’ It was just a whisper.

They stayed like that, both breathing on opposite sides of the wall, the shed creaking around them. Finally she said, ‘I have to finish now. I’ll see you when I’ve finished.’

‘Yuwa. Apter pinis time.’

No moon makes a black night. Away longer than she’d planned, she wove her way through the camps to the transportables. Fires smouldered on either side of the track illuminating pink palms and red eyes. Dogs barked and bit the tyres, and there was wailing - loud keening from the women, in voices that sliced through the dark making it bleed.

A generator chugged loudly and rhythmically. Like festive ships the buildings blazed with electricity - anchored and going nowhere. The nurse, hearing a car, emerged from her door and walking briskly across the track waved her arms - her thongs slapping the soles of her feet. She was not one to mince her words.

‘There’s been a car accident’, she said. ‘A boy is dead. A Tjungurrayi – a broken neck.’

Dead. Quick and simple. Gone for good.

She lit the stove and a placed a kettle on the hob. A cup of tea was the thing. Looking for tea bags she saw, at the periphery of her vision, a redback had woven a mess of web in the corner. It hung there elegantly. A can of Mortein shaken vigorously - a hit with a powerful jet of spray and it dropped. But it was playing dead. Another shot and its legs curled. Gone for good. Forget the tea.

She sat on the step, her arms wrapped around her knees. The sound of the generator and spill from the lights blocked out the camps and the wailing. The mechanical throb synchronised with the beat of her heart.

In the Centre - where land is sacred, where sand hills roll like waves to the horizon, where she-oaks whisper, where colour is alive, where wild food tastes like nothing else, where birds sing and people dance – I remember a boy died in 1984.

Friday, July 16, 2010

1. The Sunflower and other tales

The Sunflower and other tales

Untidy observations that make up the stuff of everyday life.

The Sunflower and other tales is a collection of seventeen loosely connected stories. Set in the inner suburbs of Melbourne the characters travel forth into the world, discovering their strengths, confronting their weaknesses.

1. The Sunflower
2. Shark Attack
3. Beth goes to Adelaide
4. Brian
5. Bumper Stickers
6. Middle Class Life
7. Man’s Best Friend
8. A Dog Story
9. Meg’s Shop
10. Meg’s Story
11. The Mysterious Male Mind
12. Lightening Strike
13. In Search of a Story
15. Forgive those who trespass …
16. Boofda bites of more than he can chew
17. The eyes have it

1. The Sunflower … in which Beth celebrates her strength.

Beth’s father is dead.

Les was old. Ninety-three. For the past five years, he’s lived in a nursing home in Adelaide. Ada, Beth’s mother, died years ago. Les shared his room in the home with Claude, not Ada.

It was Claude who heard the last breath. Lying in the dark, cocooned by the curtains drawn around his bed, he listened to the uneven ins and outs of Les’s breathing and he prayed. In the silence following that last breath, and after what seemed a respectable time, he reached over the bars of his bed and pressed the buzzer. It was time to call the sister on duty and tell her, his room-mate is dead.

Les was the last of Beth’s elders. Now both her parents are gone; she’s the senior woman in the family. But she doesn’t know it yet. She’s still sleeping.

At 2.00am the phone by her bed rings. She picks up the receiver and straightens herself. She knows what’s coming.

‘Yes. He was very old,’ she agrees. ‘One would not have wished him any longer.’ ‘Yes. He’s at peace now.’ Beth’s voice is steady but as the conversation dribbles on, tears flow down her cheeks and splash onto her pyjamas. The nurse at the other end of the line would never have guessed.

The conversation over, she sits still and stiff in the dark. She pictures her Dad alone, dying without family and it pains her. It would have been good if she knew about Claude but she doesn’t and never will. The sadness she feels is heavy. It flows out of her and fills the room. It would be palpable to anyone, if there were anyone there. But Beth is alone at this moment in her life because she’s made it that way.

Six months ago Beth left Sean and their home of twenty years and moved to Daylesford. Normally the girls would be with her but recently they’ve wanted to be back in Melbourne at every opportunity. And that’s where they are on this night.

She slips out of bed, drags off a blanket, wraps it around herself and pads down the corridor to the back door. She doesn’t bother with a light; she knows the way. The moon illuminates the garden. She stands in the middle of the lawn and the sky is huge above.

Beth feels that maturity has evaded her for a long time.

She was born and grew up Adelaide. Les and Ada were old from the start - certainly too old to have had any more children. Beth came as a surprise. Christian people, they never raised their voices; never had folk over for dinner. Les had the keys to the church hall; he was a trustworthy man. Ada made lamingtons for cake stalls and Les made up pots of fuchsia cuttings and fishbone fern for the plant stalls. The kitchen, though spotless, always smelled of roast. Les rode to the shops on a rusty bicycle with the handle-bars turned up and one trouser leg tucked into his sock.

When Les retired, his garden became his life. He would never consider leaving it for a holiday. He refused to travel with Ada to Melbourne to visit Beth and the grandkids.

‘You go and have a good time. You’re the adventurous one. I’ll mind the fort.’ He’d say to Ada.

Les nurtured a typical Adelaide garden, in the days when there was rain. The double fronted sandstone cottage with bullnose verandah was situated to the front and the side of the block. He grew roses by the fence; fruit trees down the side and veges out the back. Ordered and restrained.

At the front, Les liked formality and symmetry. The centrepiece was a thick mattress of buffalo grass. Along the fence he took great care of the roses. He lashed them to wooden stakes with Ada’s old panty hose – 60 denier, mid beige, talls. Gussets, heels and toes flapped like Tibetan prayer flags on a windy day.

The back garden was different in character altogether. Here the vegetables were kept. Les was critical of mixing vegetables with ornamentals.

‘You don’t mix the peasants with the aristocracy.’ He used to say. The summer garden was a skilful display – neat rows of everything: sweet corn, lettuce, zucchini, tomatoes tied to lengths of galvanised pipe (laterals nipped), gourmet beans and burpless cucumbers. No basil.

Les had a morning summer ritual he observed without fail. After his cup of tea he strolled through the rows checking for fungal outbreaks, sap-suckers or weeds.

It was during one of these morning inspections that he found a small green shoot poking its head up in the path. ‘Ah! A volunteer!’ said Les looking down on the tiny seedling that had chosen to grow in his garden.

It was a sunflower. In an uncharacteristic gesture, Les allowed it to stay.

The sunflower had found the perfect spot. Everything in the garden met its requirements for robust growth. And grow it did. Les playfully measured himself against the stalk. The boy that lived inside him was excited when the bud began to form. Starting out round it gradually flattened and all the time the stalk grew and grew. When it had reached as high as the eaves on the house the petals began to unfold; a single crown of brilliant yellow. Every day Les watched the giant raise its heavy head to the sun, track across the north, and as if in prayer, bow to the west.

It was long after midnight. Les couldn’t sleep. He lay next to Ada afraid she would wake and want to talk. It was a moonless night and the stars were blanketed with cloud. He slipped out of bed, put on his dressing gown and slippers and went out to the kitchen. In the drawer under the cutlery drawer – the muddle drawer – he kept a torch. Yes, it was there. Everything has a place and everything in its place. He flicked it on to check the batteries. No problem. He took it outside and shone the beam up into the magnificent face of the sunflower. It stirred with the light. Confused, it raised its head. Sunrise already? Holding the torch steady in its face, Les walked slowly around the flower. The head followed the beam. Innocent. He continued to walk. Around and around and around and around. And the flower followed. The stalk began to weaken where it twisted. Soon it could no longer bare the weight of the flower and the giant head slumped. A broken neck; head suspended by a few tough fibres.

Beth sways a little then spins around. The blanket around her shoulders flares out and she spins faster and faster. As she spins she sings. She sings in Spanish. She sings love songs. She lifts her face to the sky and bathes in the moonlight. She dances and sings under the big sky in her garden of weeds and sunflowers.

And she does not break.

2. Shark Attack … in which Sean learns that he is visible.

Monday. In a narrow street in inner-suburban Melbourne, friends are busy. Sean, Liz and Charles are packing for their annual camping holiday.

They’ve known each other for a long time. They bought into the same street in the early 80s – pokey Victorian cottages with outside toilets. Cheap at the price. They renovated together, had their kids together - sort of. (Liz and Charles were a bit slow out of the stalls.) And they holiday together. For almost twenty years, neighbours and friends have packed their wagons at Christmas time and headed up the Princes Highway in convoy, for a two-week holiday, at the Mallacoota Foreshore Caravan Park.

6.30 am sharp. They gun their engines and with Sean leading the way, as he does every year, they snake their way through the city. But it doesn’t feel the same this year. Liz, Charles and Olivia look at the back of Sean’s head. It’s the only head in the car and it looks lonely.

Beth left him six months ago. Just up and left and took the kids with her. She moved to Daylesford, is studying Tarot and collecting rocks. It took Sean completely by surprise. Although why it should have, was a puzzle for some. After all, she’d been dabbling with alternative ideas for a while. She’d walked on hot coals and said she could work out how many past lives a person had had by doing things with numbers. Six months ago, she did his numbers. She said, ‘Sean you are not as evolved as I am. It’s not your fault but I need to go so you can work on your life.’ So she packed up her things, took the kids and left him to ‘work on his life’.

And now his head looks so lonely. Just one head where there use to be four.

And as if Beth leaving wasn’t bad enough – a few days after she went, he developed really bad breath. His teenage daughter consoled him. ‘It’ll pass Dad. You’re breathing out the unresolved crap between you and Mum.’ And she gave him a pair of black socks and matching underpants. ‘You’re ego has been shattered. You need to wear some black – not too much. Black helps to concretise the ego.’

Sean smiled. He didn’t know what to say. For fifteen years, he’s gone to work, dressed in black from, head to foot. He travels to schools and kindergartens with a one-man puppet show. He believes he’s invisible when he wears black.

But for a while, he’s been suspecting that his invisibility has become a problem outside of work. Recently he was standing at an ATM machine when a woman pushed in front of him. She turned and said, ‘Sorry I didn’t see you there.’ That same afternoon he’d had to resort to excessive throat clearing to attract Marlene’s attention at the pharmacy counter. She said, ‘Sorry Sean, I didn’t think there were any customers.’ And then his daughter gives him black socks and underpants and tells him he should wear a little black! That confirmed it. He has a visibility problem.

Liz and Charles drive in silence. Then Liz says, ‘I don’t think the issue of Sean not having as many past lives as Beth is the real issue behind Beth leaving.’

Charles stiffens. He hates they way Liz calls everything ‘an issue’ – so yesterday.

‘No the real issue is the unresolved issue of her fundamentalist Christian upbringing in Adelaide.’

‘I think growing up in Adelaide would be a big enough issue for anyone,’ he says.

Liz’s eye’s narrow - so shallow.

Charles senses combat. ‘Have a look in the glove box. I think there’s a tin of Kool Mints.’

Liz loves Kool Mints. She can fit five in her mouth at a time. Charles never leaves for a long car trip without loading the glove box with Kool Mints.

Liz and Charles have only the one child – Olivia. They didn’t have children for years because they didn’t think they could. Didn’t bother them. Life was full and interesting. Liz especially, had always been a bit suspicious of motherhood. Once, she’d watched Beth going through the vacuum dust, with her bare hands, for a piece of Lego and thought that very odd. Then suddenly, at thirty-eight, she fell pregnant. She miscarried at three months and she and Charles thought the grief would drown them. Then they were to discover something about grief – it can make people very randy. It’s not something talked about but it’s true. Within a few weeks, Liz was pregnant again and just before her 40th birthday she gave birth to Olivia.

For the first two years, things were great. Liz enjoyed her new role but eventually she got itchy to go back to teaching. The street was so empty. It was around this time she started calling things ‘issues’.

Afternoon. They’ve made the distance without a hitch. Olivia is catatonic with boredom. She’s been promised an ice cream at Genoa, just before the Mallacoota turn off.

The wagons pull up outside ‘Queenie’s Palace’. Queenie has been at the turn off for as long as anyone can remember. She has a couple of bowsers, sells newspapers, Strasbourg, bread, milk and ice creams. Olivia knows Queenie is a witch. Her spine is bent and her fingernails are long and curved and always painted black and white - Collingwood colours. And when she speaks, she sounds like she swallowed her ash tray.

‘Yes?’ she bends over Olivia and wheezes.

‘Can I have a Shark Attack please?’

‘A Shark Attack.’ Queenie’s mouth tightens and the lines deepen around her lips. She dives into the ice cream fridge and rummages; the item clearly offends her. She finds the object and handing it to Olivia she hisses. ‘I think its disgusting. An ice cream called Shark Attack. My best friend was taken by a shark in Coolangatta in 1937 and when they fished the bits out of the water, her own mother didn’t recognise her.’

‘Could I have a spoon?’

Queenie rattles around in a box and produces a little blue plastic spoon with a chomp out of it. She holds it aloft for all to see and wails, ‘Her own Mother didn’t recognise her.’

Charles nods and hands over the money. ‘Yes, well you wouldn’t call an ice cream ‘Road Kill’ and expect people to buy it would you?’

Half an hour later, the convoy pulls into the Mallacoota Foreshore Caravan Park. Sean is feeling uncomfortable. He’s remembered something he forgot to do. He forgot to confirm the booking. He remembered when they had a break back in Lakes Entrance. Liz said weeks ago, ‘Will you confirm the booking or shall I?’

‘No worries. I’ll do it’ he’d said, and then clean forgot all about it, until a couple of hours ago in Lakes Entrance, as he sank his teeth into a scallop pie. In the interim, he’s convinced himself that it’ll be all right - Pat knows we come every year. She’ll have saved our spots.

But Pat looks at him blankly and shakes her head. She says, ‘I’ve rented out your usual sites. When you didn’t confirm. I assumed you weren’t coming.’ She slaps a brochure on the counter and highlights a spot on some squiggles that represent a map. ‘I suggest you drive on down to the National Park. There should be some sites down there. Not a bad spot. Amenities a bit rustic.’

Tempers are a tad frayed. Sean’s face is wet and shiny as he explains, ‘Been a bit of a mix up … jolly nuisance … Pat could have rung me.’

Liz ignores him and that exacerbates his visibility anxiety but he isn’t going to let that cat out of the bag. Finally he says, ‘Well let’s go to the National Park before it gets dark.’

Still refusing to acknowledge his presence, Liz turns to Charles and says, ‘Well lets go to the National Park before it gets dark.’ And Charles agrees.

It’s another hour before they drive into the Park. They circle the occupied sites until they find two vacant and adjacent. There’s no ablution block; there are pit toilets; the sites are un-powered and they’re in the bush. Olivia is happy. She stamps her bare feet in the sand, chases a Wonga pigeon and climbs a tree.

Two silver dome tents are erected in record time. What minutes before had looked like a patch of Australian bush, now looks like the set of ‘Lost in Space’. Sean volunteers to search for firewood. And by nightfall the company are speaking civilly to one another.

They don’t know it, but a fire in the bush is a good thing for people.

In the silence of the Park, they sleep and they dream. Sean dreams that he can’t see himself. He knows he exists but he can no longer feel his own body or see his reflection. He has no shadow. He wakes in a sweat, groping at his hand but he can’t feel it. Then he realises, its numb from the way he’s been sleeping on it.

In the morning, things aren’t so bad. The pit toilets are tolerable. Liz talks about the smell of eucalypt smoke in her hair, and the men fuss about. They’re planning a few hours of snorkelling and body surfing. Olivia is in her underpants and singlet. She’s a fairy and she’s found something amazing. Hidden in the undergrowth is a delicate structure of twigs and grass and around it are all sorts of small bits of blue things. She holds her breath as the bowerbird returns with a blue piece of string. She hugs her knees with the excitement. What gifts of blue will she bring this magical creature?

The beach is curved in a half moon and apart from two oystercatchers, picking their way along the shoreline, uninhabited. The good waves are near the middle and at the southern end, the sand peters out into rock, here the water is calmer. Sean is keen to surf but Charles is curious to see what lives in the water around the rocks. Liz and Olivia find a place of their own, dump a basket of snacks and spread out their towels. Every one is content.

Sean sits on a dune in the sun. He reads the waves and thinks about Beth and the kids. Then in a moment of decisiveness, he strips off his shirt, and canters down and into the water. He breaks into a knock-kneed run, and leaps into the foam. With even, steady strokes, he’s soon in the green water and waiting for a set. He lies on his back enjoying his buoyancy then takes a deep breath and dives into the silence.

He sees it the moment he dives – a huge dark shape. There is no doubt; it’s a shark, a very big shark. He surfaces for air and dives again. What’s it doing? Has it seen him? His mind races but each thought is distinct and clear. He even finds a milli second to ponder his visibility, though any doubt he might have had about that vanishes when he sees the animal shooting towards him. Instinctively, he draws in his arms and legs and when it’s close, he throws them wide and makes himself big. The shark veers. Again he surfaces for air and he sees a set of waves building. He launches himself on the first wave. The ride feels like the slowest he’s ever had, and all the time he expects to fell those jaws chomp off his legs. The moment his feet touch the sand, he’s running, the knock kneed run. To hell with that – he flies! And in that first line of sea- weed, on the dry sand, he collapses.

He may have lost consciousness for a few minutes. He’s never sure about this bit, when in the future, he tells the story. But he starts to shiver and finding the strength to stand he makes the move up to the dune where he’s left his things. He’s about to throw himself onto his towel when he thinks of Charles still in the water snorkelling around the rocks. He must warn him. He lunges for his towel – he’ll use it as a flag. But as he makes a grab for it, something rears up at him. It’s a Brown snake! A one and a half metre long Brown snake! And it’s angry, very angry. It was enjoying a siesta under that towel. Now it’s in striking pose, neck and body high in the shape of an S.

Sean’s throat opens and a sound escapes from deep inside his chest – a clear primeval scream and he turns and runs down the dunes towards where Charles is snorkelling.

Charles is safe. He’s out of the water, standing beside Liz and Olivia on the rocks looking for dolphins. They saw them a moment ago – there were two, their fins sharp as knives slicing through the water. They turn when they hear the scream. Sean is running towards them, and is unaware, that at some point, he’s lost his board shorts. He draws alongside them, breathless and points to the fins. Four sets of eyes see clearly the same thing – an almighty shark, four metres in length. A dorsal fin and tail above the water line. There were no dolphins. Liz gently extracts the towel from his grip and wraps around his waist. Then they clamber higher up the rocks for a better view. They’re speechless. It’s a magnificent sight – awesome. Sean sits between Liz and Olivia. Olivia holds his hand. Charles’ arm is draped around his wife’s shoulders. Sean no longer looks lonely. He breathes deep and can taste his breath is sweet, and he is in no doubt that he is visible.

Later that night Liz is frustrated; she can’t find the blue top for the toothpaste. Olivia is curled in her sleeping bag. Her gift has been accepted into the bower.

3. Beth goes to Adelaide … and seeks reconciliation with the dead.

Beth is not well. It’s nothing physical. It’s an illness of a spiritual nature. That’s not to say that she doesn’t have some physical symptoms.

Beth is a Pisces. Around her neck she wears a leather thong and threaded through it is her sign – two fish swimming in opposite directions. That sign sums her up really, Beth is neither this nor that, not one thing or the other – she’s both. She has both an intuitive, imaginative side to her nature and a rational, practical, pragmatic side. She often says, ‘I have to work the contradictory sides of myself in order to maintain my equilibrium.’ And she does this magnificently.

But when Les died, her equilibrium was upset.

When she first heard the news, she felt a wave of sadness. After that came euphoria, this was followed by frustration and then annoyance. Then came, anger. She feels that Les died without ever really knowing her. He’d never wanted to know her, not the real warts and all her, just the facets of her nature of which he approved and understood. She’d wanted so much to be wholly seen and loved by her father. But as the years passed and she’d grown into womanhood, he’d erected impenetrable walls, installed a portcullis and dug a moat. And now her anger churns.

Then it happened.

There was a SNAP. She felt it. It was like a string being stretched to breaking point; she heard it too. It was the sound an air rifle makes when fired into a still night.

What ever it was that bound the two sides of Beth’s nature was broken.

Now there are two Beths.

Not to be wholly loved by one’s parents can create problems of wholeness.

She explains it to her best friend Ooshmo, ‘I don’t want you to think I’ve suddenly developed a split personality like a character in some American movie. It’s not a personality thing. There are two of me but only I can see both – through my introspective eye. You can see my physical, tangible self but you can’t see my other self.’

‘What do you think this other self might be?’ Ooshmo asks.

Beth is quiet for a moment. ‘I’m not certain of it … but I believe it is … my Soul.’

‘Your Soul! So there really is such a thing? And you can see yours?’ Ooshmo is impressed.

‘There’s a part of me that my father refused to see when he was alive. Now he’s dead, It refuses to be seen by anyone!’ She weeps. ‘You can’t imagine what it’s like to be disconnected from the most wonderful part of you – to be interpreted when half the picture is out of sight.’

‘Beth.’ Ooshmo looks her squarely in the eye. ‘I’ve read my quota of books on matters spiritual and it’s my understanding that if the soul is not in the body, then, you’re dead.’

‘Well I’m not dead … yet,’ says Beth. ‘But I admit I feel very threatened by the possibility and the stress of worrying that it might wander off one day and never return is almost more than I can bear.’

‘I see. But would it do that to you?’

‘I know my Soul wants to reconnect. I can feel it and I know what I must do. I have to go to Adelaide. I have to collect Dad’s things from the nursing home, organise a service for him and somehow reconcile myself to the limited nature of his affection for me. I have to do this and I have to do it on my own. If my Soul doesn’t kill me, the anxiety will.’

So Beth rejects all offers of support from Sean and the girls and organises herself a seat on the OVERLANDER. Then she rings the Uniting Church in Thebarton and makes some preliminary arrangements for Les’s funeral. Then the Freemasons ring. An old voice explains, ‘Les was a Brother for over 50 years and it would be only right for us to organise a service.’

Brother! Beth’s anger flares. These people are laying claim to a relationship that has nothing to do with blood. They are implying that their relationship with Les is more significant than hers. The surge of ire momentarily weakens her, ‘Yes, of course,’ she says, her voice a whisper. Then she breathes deep and applies her imaginary strength to the old Freemason at the end of the line. She visualises him stark naked, not a stitch except for his pinny. She gives him a Tweety Bird voice. Her strength builds and she adds assertively. ‘Yes of course you can have your service as long as you do it in my church.’

The phone rings again. It’s like that when someone dies. The Landline, the mobile, they both ring incessantly. It crosses Beth’s mind that she should change the ring tone on her mobile to something funereal. The Superman theme seems very flippant all of a sudden. It’s Meg (one of her old neighbours in Melbourne). ‘I’m so sorry. Is there anything we can do?

‘No Meg. I have to do this on my own.’

‘ Are you sure? Are you OK? Have you tried a Rescue Remedy? Wish you were still next-door. I’d give you a big hug. Love you. Doug wants to speak. I’ll put him on.’

Doug hits her with a barrage of practical questions. ‘Adelaide! How are you getting there?’


‘Where will you stay?’

‘Don’t know.’

‘Who’s picking you up?’

‘No one.’

‘How are you going to get around?’


‘Bus! You don’t want to get around by bus do you?’

‘Not particularly.’

‘I’ve got a friend - Kevin. I’ll give you his number. Ring him when you get there. He’ll look after you.’

‘Thanks Doug.’ She feels like coyote after he’s been flattened by a steam roller. Her chest hurts and she struggles to breath. She uses her power again. She visualises Doug in his Jimmy Barnes T-shirt and gives him a Donald Duck voice. Gradually the panic subsides.

That night, she boards the OVERLANDER and begins her journey to Adelaide – home of the dead.

Twelve hours it takes before the train pulls into Keswick Station. She’s exhausted. She hasn’t slept, her bones ache and the thought of a bus is more than she can contemplate. Kevin suddenly seems like a good option. Why not take the punt? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. She flips open her mobile and searches for the number. Kevin answers immediately, ‘Hello Beth.’ (Doug must have sent him her number.) ‘ ‘specting your call. Just wait by the taxi rank and I’ll be there in ten.’

He sounds like a junkie.

She shoulders her backpack and searches for the taxi rank. There’s a crowd. Taxis come, fill up with people and luggage and go. The car park behind drains rapidly. She doesn’t mind. She enjoys a quiet moment with herself. The sky is big and blue, a South Australian sky. She breathes the air and ambience of her childhood. Dry air.

Her reverie is interrupted by the bronchial sound of an engine in need of a service. She looks up and sees an orange Datsun blowing smoke and coming towards her across the car park, across the white painted rectangles, as if they didn’t stand for anything. It pulls up in front of her. A hairy arm stretches across, unlocks the passenger door and retracts. Then a hairy head pops over the roof and grins at her. It’s Kevin. He hobbles around to the boot in bare feet that are used to wearing shoes. His feet and ankles are white and he begins a monologue. ‘I’ll just pop your bag in the back, then, we’ll drop round to the nursing home. You’ll want to get your Dad’s stuff first thing won’t you? It’s not far. Then I’ll take you back to my place. Got a room set up for you. Sad business. Still when Hughie pulls the plug, that’s it isn’t it?’

Beth climbs into the passenger seat and clicks the safety belt. She senses her Soul in the rear behind Kevin. If only he knew but Kevin is still talking; he’s like a soundtrack. He plants his foot on the accelerator and drives back the way he came, across the white rectangles, against the fat white arrows and out into the traffic. Talk, talk talking. He’s oblivious to the effect he’s having on Beth. She sits rigid beside him, her heart pounding, head throbbing, stomach cramping and sweat rolling down from under her arms in rivers. She closes her eyes and tries to slow her breathing. With her imaginative eye, she strips him – slowly. First his shirt, then his shorts then underpants. No Freemason’s pinny for Kevin. Then she analyses him: his white bits and his sunburned bits, his pimply buttocks and little penis poking out of its nest and curving a little to the left. She’s had to imagine him in detail before she can regain any control.

They pull up in front of the nursing home. Kevin says, ‘I’ll wait here for you Beth. You take all the time you need.’ He switches off the ignition and turns on the cricket.

The Nursing Home is a big old house, gutted, rebuilt and filled with old people. It has a long verandah and Beth, shadowed by her Soul, has to walk past a line-up of wheel chairs to get to the front door. She goes straight to reception and explains who she is and what she’s come for. ‘You have our deepest sympathy …blah blah blah.’ It’s like white noise. ‘Please take a seat until I can find someone who knows were Mr Archer’s things have been stored.’ Fizz snap crackle pop.

Beth waits on the lounge; she feels her Soul pulling away. It wanders back to the glass doors and gazes along the verandah at the people propped up in chairs, twisted by strokes, hollowed out by cancer, emptied by Alzheimer’s and it feels a deep compassion. The tangible Beth reaches out for a New Idea and reads about breast reconstruction.

Finally a young woman appears and indicates she should follow. ‘Mr Archer’s things have been packed away and stored out the back.’ Their shoes squeak on the lino.

They come to a room filled shower stools, walking frames, po chairs and in a dark corner, Beth sees two large black plastic garbage bags. Tags tied to the top read ‘Lester Archer’. The young woman says, ‘They’re heavy. What say I get a wheel chair and we can wheel them out to your car?’

These bags are all that’s left of her Dad. Walking beside the sister, through the maze of corridors, she is a picture of detachment but her Soul aches to tear the bags open and find a smell.

Kevin is waiting, as he said he would. He tosses the bags unceremoniously into the back seat of the Datsun. They take off – no indicator, in a cloud of smoke. No talking this time; Beth is grateful for the cricket.

They pull into Kevin’s and while he goes on ahead to unlock the front door, she struggles to unload the plastic bags; they’re bulky and awkward. She drags them across the front lawn and up the steps. She pulls and tugs them over the threshold but one of the bags splits and things spill everywhere: pyjamas, dressing gown, bundles of y-fronts and track pants. She anticipates a smell, a Les smell but there is only a chemical, detergent smell. She tugs and pulls the bag again, trying to get it through the door way but more spills out: shaver, giant book of crosswords, balls of socks and a tube of Rectinol. Her eyes are stinging and her throat feels like she’s swallowed a brick. She tries to step over the bundle so she can push it instead of pulling but its too wide and her foot crunches on something. This is too much. She sits on the top step in the sunshine and bursts into tears. Behind her, in the dark corridor, her Soul cries too.

Kevin watches all this but he doesn’t offer to help. He doesn’t so much as lift a finger and he doesn’t say a word. He turns away and disappears through the house, out the back door and rolls himself a smoke. Kevin has a wise Soul.

Beth sobs herself empty.

Through the last of her tears she sees a little book with a stiff cardboard cover. It’s the pointed corner of the book that has lead to this catastrophe. She picks it up and reads the spine, ‘Growing Stone Fruit in South Australia’. There’s something pressed between the pages, a photograph. It seems that two pages had been stuck together and the photo buried between them but now the glue has dried out. Beth carefully separates the pages and removes the picture. It’s hard to see in the light, so she leans back into the hallway and waits for her eyes to adjust. She feels the presence and the strength of her Soul.

The picture was taken in a garden, under a tree. There’s a swing hanging from a branch and a woman sitting gracefully on it; her legs crossed – long legs. She’s wearing lingerie - a petticoat and Beth can just make out the top of her stockings. She’s showing the camera a tantalising glimpse of a suspender.

Beth is startled by a sound in the hallway. She looks up but no one is there. The face of the woman beckons for her attention. She looks hard; she squints. In shock, she makes a sharp audible gasp. There’s no mistaking it - the ‘woman’ is Les. She hears the sound in the hall again and this time there is someone there. It’s Les! Well not really Les but his Soul. And he looks the same as in the photograph. Beth’s mouth hangs. She watches him walking silently towards her Soul. The two Souls face each other and the Beth, that is flesh, is filled with love and the smell of her old Dad is all around. Les turns and walks towards her and with his long legs, steps over the bags, passes through her and out into the sunshine where he melts into the brightness and is gone.

And so this piece of the puzzle is laid on the table. Les hadn’t known Beth and Beth hadn’t known Les. It was only in death that Les found the courage to show ‘Rose’, as he called his other self, to his daughter.

Beth keeps that photo in the little cardboard book, ‘Growing Stone fruit in South Australia’, and when she’s having a bad day, she looks at it.

4. Brian … a tale of revenge.

Charles’s brother is in Melbourne catching up with family. He’s staying with Charles and Liz. Olivia thinks it’s great. She loves her Uncle Brian. Every night he comes into her room smelling of smoke. He lights a candle and lying on the bottom bunk, he tells her stories in a gravely whisper. The words rise up to her with the flame and she finds herself in other worlds. He has told her of the time he swam with humpback whales in Hawaii, how he was lost on Thredbo in a blizzard for three days and of the time he rescued a German tourist from the top of Uluru.

Another magical thing about Brian is that he lives on an Island, Magnetic Island, where he is the postman.

It would not be putting too fine a point on it to say that Liz can’t stand Brian. It goes back to 1981, just before he moved to Magnetic. Brian trod on a stingray in Port Phillip Bay. It was an unlucky thing to happen, given the number of stingrays that live in the Bay and the rarity of them being trodden on. He’d met this fantastic woman and taken her down to Brighton Beach in front of the bathing boxes. He rolled a large joint. His plan was to get her stoned, then into the water for a naked swim in the moonlight and follow that up with a shag in the shadows between the boxes. He rolled up a big one – it crackled and glowed as they inhaled. Then they lay on their backs and looked up at the stars. Brian let the minutes pass, then he said, as if the idea had just occurred to him, ‘I think I’ll have a swim – what d’ya reckon?’

She sighed and murmured, ‘You go ahead. I’ll watch.’

Brian stood, stretched and walked down to the shoreline. As he peeled off his clothes, he felt her eyes tracing his spine and pausing at the dimples above his buttocks. He paddled a little way until he was clear of the rocks, then he strode out into the deeper water where he planned to dive in, giving her a tantalising glimpse of his backside, illuminated by the moon, before it disappeared into the black water.

But the woman was out to it. She’d never had such a smoke and within minutes of inhaling, her heart began to thump in a way that consumed her interest entirely. She entered into a state of complete awareness of her body – to the exclusion of all else that was happening around her. She pumped and pulsed. She breathed and felt her blood being oxygenated, she felt the peristaltic movements of her bowel, she felt an egg ripen and break free from the follicle, she heard her hair growing, felt her teeth inexorably decaying and then fell into a deep sleep.

It was then that Brian took the fatal step. The creature slid out from under his foot, there was a beat and then there was indescribable pain. It shot up his leg, through his body to his skull, then on striking bone, it shot back down the way it had come. Back and forth the pain slammed through flesh and bone. He thrashed in the water and shouted for help.

About a hundred meters along the beach, two flounder fisherman were engaged in their hunt. On hearing a scream they turned and waded towards the sound. It was slow going. In addition to the effort of pushing against the water, the rubber waders that came to their armpits, not to mention the gear, hampered them: spears, torches and creels. Max was finding it particularly awkward. He had a small hole in his waders, the result of an error of judgement when handling the spear. The tide was slowly rising inside the thick pants. It was warm as wee. Ploughing on, they were momentarily shocked when they realised their torches were dancing on the figure of a naked man. But Max and Al had been around the block a few times and quickly gained composure. ‘Steady on mate,’ said Al. Then he turned to Max; ‘It’s my guess he’s trod on ray, judging by the palaver.’ He handed Max his spear and torch then gripped Brian firmly by the upper arm and steered him towards the shore. It was clear they had to get him up to the car and to the hospital quick sticks. The waders were a hindrance. What followed went against the grain for Max and Al. They were from a modest, less tactile generation. They removed the waders and stood on the beach in their Y- fronts. Max’s were wet and clung. Then they reached towards each other and held hands, making a seat for Brian who then planted his bare bottom on their arms. (This is one story that Brian doesn’t tell Olivia.)

Brian spent the next two days in hospital and it was months before the swelling went down. The big toe on his right foot (where the barb had pierced his skin) has never been the same. Years of favouring one foot over the other has led to all sorts of physical problems: lower back, bung knee and corns.

But returning to the woman on the beach …She didn’t stir till 2.00 am. She woke cold, alone and frightened. Not for a minute did she imagine something terrible had happened to her male companion rather, she jumped straight to the conclusion that she’d been dumped. Furious she vowed that she’d ‘show the bastard’ but that would have to wait. For now, she was faced with the immediate problem of getting off the beach. She needed courage. She had to move from her exposed position, through the shadows between the bathing boxes, up a sandy track that wound its way into a thick scrub of acacia and tea tree and onto the road. She heard the whoosh whoosh rhythm - the white noise of her anxiety inside her head. She heard the sound and sensed the eyes of the wankers and homosexuals lurking behind the tangle of branches as she passed. Finally she emerged onto the road and into the light and began the long walk back home.

Liz, for that’s who the woman was, began planning her revenge. Tomorrow was another day.

Brian was living in a house in Carlton - a two-story Victorian terrace share house. Liz had no idea what she was going to do but it was a long journey by train and tram to Carlton, so she closed her eyes and pondered while she travelled. Every time the memory of the night before surfaced, she burned with rage and shame.

The facade of number 42 looked like it had a bad case of eczema. Bits of the decorative cast iron had dropped off. The house looked like it was missing teeth and the sash windows were propped open with phone books. Miriam climbed the few steps to the front door and rang the bell. An odour, thick and stale hung under the verandah. The place was empty; she could feel it. She retraced her steps to the front gate and walked to the edge of the terraces and around the corner. The old blue stone cobbled dunny cart lane ran along the back of the houses in parallel with the main street. She followed the lane until she came to a corrugated iron gate with 42 painted on it. It’d been left ajar. She poked her nose into the small yard and seeing no reason not to, strode up to the back door. A gentle push and she was in the kitchen. It was not a pretty sight; she chose not to linger. Through the kitchen, into the hallway and up the stairs, an intersection at the landing, she hung left and walked straight into the front room - the one with the balcony that overlooked the street. She knew it was Brian’s room because of the very large collection of vinyl records. He had spoken volubly about his love of vinyls and his broad taste in music - an interest they shared, although her tastes were quite different. She flicked through the covers: Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, the Stones, Daddy Cool, Switched on Bach, Led Zepplin, Beethoven’s 9th, Leonard Cohen, Vivaldi. The flicking was a little hypnotic; a thought planted itself in her mind. Zombie-like, she took an armful of records out to the balcony and stacked them on a wobbly table. Methodically she slipped them out of the covers until there was a nice black stack then slowly, one at a time, she frisbeed them up into the air. There was a light northerly blowing and now and again one would lift like a flying saucer into the sky before it crashed and skidded on the road. Some landed on the narrow rim and wheeled along towards Lygon Street before they hit the gutter. Simon and Garfunkel skipped and scraped as far as number 48, Beethoven crossed the road only to be hit by a car and Joan Baez took off – freedom at last – turned the corner and disappeared.

Only when the last one was liberated did Liz feel satisfied. She had never committed an act of vandalism before but she felt vindicated. She left the house the same way she had entered and walked up to Swanston Street to catch the tram home.

She was still feeling slightly euphoric as she skipped up her driveway and slid the key in the door. The phone was ringing and she answered with a cocky, ‘Yup?’ It was Brian’s brother Charles.

‘Hello, Liz. We’ve never met but my brother Brian can’t stop talking about you. I’ve been trying to get you all day. I’m ringing from the hospital. Bri has had a terrible accident and he would really like to see you.’ He then went on to explain about the stingray. Liz listened and clutched her stomach. She felt sick.

That evening Liz visited Brian in the hospital. It felt like the bravest thing she had ever done. She told herself that she would confess, apologise and pay for the damage. When she walked into the ward, she was struck by how unappealing Brian seemed. Propped up by a tower of pillows, she noticed the nicotine stains on his fingers and the marijuana leaf earring that yesterday had seemed so cool, now looked daggy.

Brian beamed when he laid eyes on her; he’d been watching the clock waiting for her to arrive so he could explain his disappearance. Every time Liz came close to coming clean about the vinyls something would happen: the dinner tray arrived, a nurse with a thermometer, a gang of visitors for the other fellow in the room. Then Brian’s brother Charles arrived and she couldn’t possibly speak freely in front of him.

Finally the visiting hour was up and she left the hospital with Charles. He said, ‘It’s getting late and neither of us have eaten. Do you want to go for a bite somewhere?’

Liz accepted and the rest is family history.

The weeks passed and Charles and Liz saw more and more of each other. Brian was not blind to the blossoming romance but he reassured his brother there were no hard feelings. ‘We were never really and item anyway.’ Liz had failed to find a moment to fess up about the records and as the weeks went by, it become impossible. Months later and having coffee and sharing secrets with a trusted friend, Liz said, ‘It’s a weird thing. The records have never been mentioned. Its as if I imagined that I did it.’

Eventually Charles and Liz cemented their relationship one spring day with a beautiful ceremony in the Ripponlea Gardens. Liz was a vision in white and Charles wore a matching tuxedo. They looked like the figurines on top of the cake – flawless. Brian arrived in a purple tie dyed caftan, marijuana leaf in his ear and no underpants – a detail he insisted on sharing with the guests. ‘I’ve had a bit of the thrush. It’s a dam nuisance in subtropical climates. Hard to get rid of. Plenty of air circulation is the secret.’

By the end of the day Liz felt she had two substantial reasons not to like Brian: he never mentioned finding his record collection destroyed and he wore a purple caftan and no underpants to her wedding.

Now Liz and Brian have been related by marriage for over twenty years. They’ve never had a row although there is tension in the air. Every couple of years he comes down south and stays for a month or so and just when Liz thinks she will explode – he leaves. With this visit, he is excelling himself in terms of irritating behaviours. He leaves corn pads all over the house: in the shower recess, on the mantle piece, by the phone. She found one of the flesh pink circles in one of her socks! ‘Has the man no boundaries!’ she mutters under her breath. She thought it couldn’t get any worse and then today he comes home with a metre high plaster statue of Jesus that he’s fished out of a rubbish skip. When her eyes widen, he explains, ‘I’m not religious meself but I didn’t think it right to leave Him in with the rubbish. Bad karma.’

Liz has been scrupulous in protecting Olivia from religion and now this happens. The child’s eyes glaze moist when she sees the statue: love at first sight: the golden beard, pink lips, blue robe and open hands. She takes Him into her bedroom and places Him on a low stool, she then arranges candles around His feet and fills a shallow bowl with water and floating rose petals. Tonight she refuses any dinner and weeps for all the children in the world who suffer.

Liz watches Brian watching television. She can’t bear to sit in the same room. She’s sick and tired of looking at that one testicle hanging out of the bottom of his shorts. ‘Hasn’t he ever heard of underpants?’ And she knows he is poking around her vinyl collection. She hasn’t caught him at it but she’s been coming home and finding them out of the covers. ‘What interest does he have in Les Mis, Phantom and Cats?’ She wants to ask him what he thinks he is doing but can’t.

Thank goodness tonight is Brian’s last. In the morning he will be gone. He has to be at the bus station by 6.30am. Olivia calls him in for a story. ‘You won’t have to light a candle tonight,’ she says smiling at the light flickering around Jesus. She has added to the arrangement with a photo of her dead grandmother and a stick of incense. A perfect circle of fairy glitter frames the lot and there are two pillows on the floor – one for the teller and one for the listener.

The story begins, ‘I was in Greece, travelling light – a pack and a tent. Summer was just around the corner; the tourists had not yet arrived. I rented a motor- bike. The plan was to ride in the daytime and sleep in the olive groves at night. I travelled like this for several days, enjoying the hospitality of the villages. Then one morning, a fellow traveller, also on a rented bike, flagged me down. He’d run out of petrol. I said, My camp’ s close by. Why don’t we wheel the bikes back and I’ll make you some lunch. I could do with a bit of conversation. He seemed like a nice bloke, shy, English. He said his name was Dan. We had lunch – bread, yogurt, honey and nuts washed down with cold retsina. Then we dozed under the olives. The next thing I know Dan is shaking me. Bri! Wake Up! He says. A woman is calling for help! Sure enough someone was in trouble. We raced through the trees and there was a woman clutching her belly and moaning. She was having a baby. She’d been travelling by donkey to her village but now there was no time. The baby was on its way. The poor donkey looked relieved to see us. We lay the woman down and although neither of us had any previous experience, our hands were guided somehow and knew exactly what to do. While I soothed her Dan delivered a beautiful baby boy into the world. We wrapped him in a shawl and then when the women had rested a while we helped her back onto the donkey and walked with them to her village. While we were there we bought a can of petrol for Dan’s bike and then walked back to the camp. We spent a few days on the road together and then it was time for us to go our separate ways. Dan said, If you’re ever in the UK you should look me up, and he handed me his card.’

Brian stops the story there, reaches into his pocket and pulls out his wallet. He opens it up and rummages through some old receipts then produces a card. He hands it to Olivia and she reads, 'Daniel Radcliffe'.

Brian’s knees creak as he gets to his feet. Olivia looks up at him, breathless. ‘You keep it Ol. I’ll see you when I see you. Eh?’

7.00 am and Brian is gone. The household is woken by the shrill scream of a smoke detector. Liz, Charles and Olivia rush to the kitchen where black smoke is leaking out of the oven. There’s an acrid smell of burning plastic. Charles grabs a tea towel and waving the smoke aside turns off the oven and opens the door. They stare at the cause of the problem – a stack of vinyls, melting, dripping.