Category Archives: short story

That kid

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Mopping my floors is a time consuming, mundane job when most of what we walk on in our home is polished wooden boards. No one’s home on this particular mopping day and so it’s just me and my damp mop, one of those Enjo-Sabco types that when wiping over the floors requires more muscle means the cloth pad of the mop is drying out and needs water, either by sliding the mop pad off and rinsing it under a tap or pouring water onto it from a cup that moves with me from table to bench top. It’s even dull writing about it, but stick with me.

Mopping around the heater vent in the front entry, I chuckle out loud. The spike of autumn shoots through the flyscreen door and I glance into the street for anyone walking by that might catch me laughing at nothing. People are always walking past our home, more so during the Corona lockdown.

It was a few days earlier that I first glimpsed a round container full of white, thick goo on the floor by this heater vent I just mopped around. At first, I wondered whether I’d put my sour dough starter there, only to quickly realise that my starter was growing in a jar and not in a plastic container. I laugh again, remembering the container, and keep mopping. That kid, always inventing or exploring something science and engineering. I kept meaning to ask him what he was doing with the container but he’d been flitting between work and online Uni classes and I couldn’t catch him long enough to ask. I didn’t dare open the lid, didn’t want to discover anything disgusting growing or brewing with the heat. I laugh out loud again, this time so hard that I had to stop mopping. That kid.

The same morning of finding the container by the heater vent, I was in the sunroom on the phone to friend when I heard music. I followed it into the lounge room where my son’s phone lay on the floor, beside a blanket. It was his alarm sounding to wake him for work. I thought it odd as he always takes his phone with him into his bedroom. He must’ve fallen asleep on the couch and dropped the phone and blanket on the floor as he got up to go to bed. I took his phone into him and asked him why it was in the lounge room. He didn’t know. Making breakfast 20 minutes later, I asked him whether he’d fallen asleep on the couch. He replied again that he didn’t know. I smiled, thinking he was probably still half asleep. He’d been working long hours over the past week.

Later in the evening after finishing work, my son walked through the backdoor.

‘Hey sweet, how was work?’

‘Good,’ he says, smirking. ‘I don’t know what happened last night, but I think I was sleep walking.’

I laugh and stop clearing the kitchen bench from the onion skins. ‘Why, what makes you say that?’

‘I don’t know,’ he says, sounding unsure. ‘I don’t know how my phone got onto the lounge room floor but I think I remember getting up after going to bed, to watch TV.’

‘You used to sleep walk when you were little, but you haven’t done that in years.’

‘Yeah, I sort of remember that,’ he says.

‘I used to lock the doors at night because I would find you in some strange places and I was worried you’d one day walk out of the house.’

‘That’s a bit dangerous, deadlocking the doors when we’re sleeping. What if we had a fire, and couldn’t get out quick enough.’

‘I know, but I was more worried about you sleep walking into the street and being hit by a car. One time I found you in the dining room,’ I laugh. ‘Do you remember that?’

‘Yeah, I was asleep on the floor.’

‘Asleep under the bloody chair, exactly where the dogs lay when we have dinner!’

‘I remember,’ he chuckles.

‘You must’ve been four or five at the time. Honestly. Sometimes I’d wake for no obvious reason to see you standing in the hallway, trying to work out where you were. I’m not sure what would wake me but one time, I woke to hear you call me and I found you standing in the dark in the laundry, not doing anything. Just standing there, calling me.’

‘I know I did it, but I don’t remember doing it.’

‘You sleep walked for a few years, maybe from when you were about three until about eight years old I think. And then it just stopped. Until the other night!’

 

After two days of looking at this science experiment container on the floor, I’m in the kitchen making a pot of tea. As the kettle heats the water, I draw open the curtain in the lounge room and notice the container in the front entry had disappeared. That kid, he must’ve done something with his experiment after I went to bed last night.

My son wakes soon after and almost prances into the kitchen. ‘I know what that container was.’

I look at him, thinking yes, great, the experiment’s finished. I know that.

‘It was the houmous.’

‘What?’ I begin smiling.

‘It was the houmous. I went looking for some in the fridge last night, for a snack, and couldn’t find it. Then I walked past the container near the heater vent and thought, that must be the houmous.’

I laugh out loud. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I think when I was sleep walking the other night, I must’ve eaten some houmous and then went to put it away in the fridge but for some reason, thought putting it near the heater vent was putting it in the fridge.’

We both break into raucous laughter.

‘Are you nuts!’ I say. ‘How can the heater vent be the fridge!’

‘I don’t know. I was sleep walking.’

I can’t say whether he was laughing as hard as me that morning, as I couldn’t see through the tears I was laughing.

That kid.

 

 

Farm Reflections: Gratitude

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It seems fitting that finishing off my PhD research should come with a last Farm Reflection. I only wrote a few over the three years of the research and perhaps should’ve written more, but this last reflection is a most important one.

A dear friend sent me this quote when I began my research and told me to stick it on my wall in my office, knowing what only a few knew at the time, of the turbulent change occurring in my life. And so I did, stuck it right above my computer monitor so I could see it daily, or at least every time I looked up.

Part of me dismissed the quote though, as being some new age saying. I believed that hard, tough change could never be gorgeous at the end. Change was happening all around me and I found it anything but gorgeous. But I did realise fairly quickly that part of the change I had to make was to loosen my noose of independence and stop believing I could do everything myself. I had always been the solver of problems and issues in my ‘other’ work, and I was a mother working inside and outside of the home. I knew nothing other than being Ms Independent.

Undertaking research meant I didn’t have answers: the whole point of research was to find them. It meant I had to ask questions, and ask people those questions to find those answers; that meant asking for their help.

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Interestingly and without realising, I’d put the quote beside another quote on my wall, about giving things a try. If ever I was being ‘told’, this was it: “Give it a try” whispered the heart. So with much effort, I began to ask the questions, and ask people to take time out of their day to help me. It was a tough mountain to climb.

Three years later, I have no idea how many people I have asked for help. Hundreds of people, I guess. And people have responded most generously, spending hours talking to me, sharing photos and other memorabilia, helping me to piece together the puzzle of the social history of the Metropolitan Sewerage Farm. My family and friends, supporting me to the finish, even when I had to disappear into a cave over the last six months to write up findings and finish by Christmas.

I’ve been able to write over 100 years of social history into a book and have enough material to write two more books at least. I don’t have any publishing details as yet, however I will share them when I do have them.

Even in the last weeks, after I finished my thesis and handed it in to the university for examination, people are still helping me to create a picture of the cricket team that formed on the Metropolitan Sewerage Farm in 1897, before the Metro Farm football team. Information on the cricket has been scarce until recently, but is now starting to form. It will most definitely feature in the second book.

The thing is, without the generosity of so many people giving their time and being patient to chat with me, even when I may have been a pest with a constant stream of questions and being pedantic with details, the work would not have been completed. It’s like there exists this band of pixie helpers who are invisible until I ask a question and then out they fly, from everywhere.

Generosity comes with kindness, and a willingness to help. The world can’t have enough of the stuff. Kindness and generosity are incredibly humbling too. I’ve often been blown away by people’s willingness to help and their patience and grace in doing so. It has inspired me to make the research count and that what is captured, is authentic and real. The harder I worked and the more questions I asked, the more obvious it became that documenting the social history of the Metropolitan Sewerage Farm was important to many.

The act of giving is so selfless, so sincere, warming and nourishing, and then to receive it …. it melts my heart, makes me gooey putty in anybody’s hands. Had I known this sooner, I would have learnt to ask for help a long time ago. In fact, if I could bottle it, I would. But I wouldn’t sell it. It’s too precious to sell. I’d give it away.

So, my public announcement here: my eternal and sincerest of most precious thanks to everyone connected to this research — the Metropolitan Sewerage Farm community, their families and friends; my university research team, family and friends; my special HDR writing group and fellow PhDers; organisations, the media, politicians, everyone involved that has supported me and the research, and who has an interest in the Metropolitan Sewerage Farm and its social history.

Thank you. Without you, we would not have captured a truly significant part of Melbourne’s history. We would not have been able to document the first social history of its kind of the community behind the making of one of Australia’s most important civic works projects in the 1890s and into the 1900s. And away from the Metropolitan Sewerage Farm, the work gives a new understanding of communities living isolated from broader society. The findings can be applied to any isolated community.

I’m most grateful for the time you’ve given me. It has been an honour working with you. You generosity and kindness has overwhelmed me at times, and inspired me.

I can vouch for change being hard and messy, but oh so, so gorgeous at the end.

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I should add that the two quotes sit next to another quote on my wall, about life being too short to not just go for it and never regretting anything that makes you smile. Life’s too short for regret. And we all want to be happy. Life is all a learning.

And so on that note, I’m taking a break to explore and hopefully see the northern lights in the arctic circle.

Happy new year and I hope 2020 flares exceptionally for you.

 

 

 

NOTES

These Farm Reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families grew to live on the Metropolitan Sewerage Farm. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. The last family moved off the main part of the sewerage farm in 1984, while a few employees and their families lived on the boundary of the Metropolitan Sewerage Farm into the 1990s. However they lived as part of the main Werribee community.

The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant.

For more information on the research project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MetropolitanSewerageFarm

If you’d like to read other Farm Reflections, they can be found here:

https://gr8word.com/index.php/entry/farm-reflections-the-hickeys

https://gr8word.com/index.php/entry/farm-reflections-beryl

https://gr8word.com/index.php/entry/farm-reflections-a-faraway-land

https://gr8word.com/index.php/entry/farm-reflections-the-migrant-camp

https://gr8word.com/index.php/entry/melbung-smellee-welly-high

https://gr8word.com/index.php/entry/lands-faraway

 

 

 

 

 

Faraway lands

Death and Life, 1910-15 — Klimt

Death and Life, 1910-15 — Gustav Klimt

Tennis courts may be covered over and croquet lawns may have disappeared beneath overgrowth upon overgrowth, but the football pavilion still stands and dalliances within them and by the workshops nearby continue. No-one sees us, although some sense our presence.

The oval where football and cricket were once played still exists, even if smothered in a dense, undulating cover of green with goal posts standing on command at each end, said to serve the dual purpose of ventilation through their tops for pipes running below the ground’s surface. The reservoir is gone, the church and schools too. No abode or home exists or gardens well tendered or the cows that came with homes for milking. All are gone. In physicality, that is.

In the sublime of the underworld in this living ghost town of lands faraway, many breathe beneath the earth from where they once stood. Archaeologically, a sleeping beauty awaits her Prince Charming awakening.

Cheers to a life, wistful of lands faraway, in an honouring that’s grounding, appreciating and trusting, in the extremes of the harsh to the supremes of the magnificent, the challenging and enchanting, all collected and padlocked in a tiny box of hearts and souls as jewels protected within, of the most precious … the jewel of the crown is life on lands faraway.

A town of living ghosts in a life at honey speed, a calm and peace unwavering in the howl of withering leaves. Crested cockatoos streaming between trees of bare, shrilling whistles of a time unmoved. Ghosts of yesterday dance in sleeping ruins, among flying spiders’ webs glistening in the glory of the day, and families playing and living in a vast back yard of lands faraway.

The physical is fading. Drains where pumpkins once entwined the trunks of fruiting plum trees are now barren, date palms and cypress trees, pies at the football and beer behind the goals, whiskey at half time, the intrigue of the water tank, cream lilies and milk coffee, cows for milking .… they’re all dissolving, vanishing in lands faraway.

Yet it’s not gone, not this life in a ghost town oozing more spirited than the Mona Lisa, not even in the veil of isolation where mosquitoes gorge on the intoxicating imbue of twinkling dew and fat of fog. Of stockmen pulling up under apricot and apple trees for juicy sampling, of cannon balls in the swimming pool, sneaky peeks into the change rooms and bolting after stealing knickers … I’ll get you! Playing cards into the morning and raising money for those in need, men and women’s football … credit to the gals. Cricket, tennis and croquet, swimming in a land faraway.

Hinged in a haunting of melancholy is a place that once thrived, where homes of yesterday sleep in their tombs and ashes of those gone fly as a rising phoenix, beguiling ghosts to rejoice in their century old tales of yesterday. Wood chopped for the stove and to heat the copper, feeding the pigs and milking the cows, churning the cream and butter to a one-two, a chasse in the Pride of Erin. Listen and you’ll hear it, as a lifelong gloating gilded in gold dust, a rose of gold of never-ending that connects souls over lifetimes. This space of breath is a vast expanse of clarity, a bounty of beauty in perfect imperfection.

Cheers to a life in a living ghost town, a life at honey speed, wistful of what’s to come with lands faraway.

The air below thins, chokes in an asphyxiating exodus. All families and kin are gone, all have left, all homes disappeared. The hall sleeps peacefully by the swimming pool, two hearts beating as one, and all working in the old office have moved into a new building full of modernity. We follow them, our escapades above their beavering. Some look up at us and smile, wonder if we’re there.

All is gone. All jewels fall from crowns, eventually.

Up here, we gather by the day in blissing glee, more illuminous by the week with the lost and disconnected on a quest for this place of no place. They know where the warmth is and seek it out – the little boy falling into a street drain, the weather presenter disappearing with her belongings, and the man of discontent who flees in an alcohol infused bender, to suicide by the river. They’re all here, even those that chose to leave the planet in the years of turbulent demise of this land faraway are here, lost in their own cloud but intrinsically weaved into the fabric of this dignified and honouring place, rejoicing in the pleasure as above and so below.

Jewels may fall from crowns, but they never fail to sparkle in the brilliance of the most brilliant, multi-faceted gems. Whether in a white yellow, green or rose of gold setting, they shine a forever shine.

Cheers to a life in a living ghost town, in a life at honey speed, of a house and two cows and a land faraway.

 

The magic mirror

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My kitchen window is the portal into another time and place. I’ve been looking through it and writing about what I see for years. Even when I don’t see any physical activity apart from the day that is – a gluttonous sky thundering over the Chinese Elm, the first blossoms on the apricot tree or chooks basking in the dusty hole they’ve dug to bathe in sunshine – I see so much.

The three little boys that once jumped in and out of a portable swimming pool in summers of years gone, white in a heavy layering of sunscreen and laughing with each butt print made on the hot concrete path. They’d ride scooters and bikes from the back gate onto a track in the grass, have parties with friends and chip golf balls on a make-shift putting green. They’d hang washing on the clothes line while I washed dishes over my window, throwing the ball for Teddi and hitting it out with a cricket bat when they got tired of throwing. They’d bring washing in, all folded and ready to sort. They still do.

Today through my kitchen window is one of them with his love pulling weeds together by that clothes line, cute in their occasional smiles and exchanges. He’s older and wiser now, although sometimes when a shopping trolley full of garden stakes and an azalea bush plucked from an anonymous front yard appears after a night out with friends, I do wonder.

Our house, it has a crowd

There’s always something happening

And it’s usually quite loud … Our house, in the middle of our street

Madness sings over the radio, reminding me of how time moves at a snail’s pace, and yet ever moving as the rotating Earth. This magic window of mine shows glimpses only I can see. Memories of little boys that are now as men, a second 21st birthday in weeks.

Waves in the unseen pulse through, hurts from deep love and happiness scar of a life meandering as a unique Jackson Pollock drip painting. Sharp pains clash in red and blue lines highlighted with ochres, the clash of words that gnaw at the heart.

It’s a fine line between pleasure and pain

You’ve done it once you can do it again

It’s the Divinyls now as the gentle reminder, prodding the longings, whether known or not, for him or her, that thing in the corner. To be by the beach; to be home. A longing for peace without turmoil, peace even when the ocean roars its endless rhythm of now and what’s to come. Longing frees the honesty within the heart, to smile even when not smiling. Perhaps that’s a contentment, even with emotions brimming and wanting to spill.

Whether I’m looking through my kitchen window at those boys of yesterday and today, or for the rabid clucks of chooks being chased by Teddi and Schnooze, all in good jest of course, it’s always wide open and full of reflection. I can be cooking butterflied lamb that’s been marinating for 36 hours for dinner and whizzing past the window from bench to stove, stopping at the kitchen sink to wash hands of sticky garlic oils, and still, all manner of stark brutality can flood in to choke. A gulp of rosé from the antique crystal glass can smooth it away, spritely and clear compared to the robust of swallow of the same wine from my brown short glass last week. Senses swirl in the heady grilling, aromas fill nostrils to where I can smell no more.

This evening it’s simple burgers browning in a pan with bacon and pineapple and it’s not until one of those boys walks in from work that I realise I’m immersed in the Monika-world.

‘Mmm, that smells nice,’ he says. ‘I can smell it from the back gate.’ His hello kiss brings me back to today with bonds to yesterday. Another sip of rosé.

That magic mirror can show possibilities of what’s to come, of more little children running through the yard or by the beach in their little Hawaiian shirts, more dogs and chooks and golf all fusing as that next part of a growing life. My magic mirror keeps me wide open to possibilities, many I cannot imagine.

There’s always a kiss of tomorrow, the kiss from far away that should have been, could be. Kisses maketh thy life.

Here comes the rain again

Falling on my head like a memory

Falling on my head like a new emotion

I want to walk in the open wind

I want to talk like lovers do

I want to dive into your ocean

Is it raining with you        ~ Eurythmics

Stop for a minute, or a week

Stop War by Irina Ivanova

Stop and smell the roses, so they say. Force the halt, cease all activity apart from the necessity to breathe. Even if only for a few minutes, although a week or two would be best. Give yourself that time to be and do whatever you’re guided to do, without question.

Give yourself permission to not think and listen to what calls from inside. Feel that breath rise from your belly, imagine the pent-up of must-dos passing through parched lips into a vanquished place of no return.

Step off the doing and thinking treadmill and rest from what needs to be done for an hour, even 10 minutes a day will give the heart the freedom to do as it wills. Leave your phone, emails and all social media. Allow yourself to turn off from the crazy of the world, whether the cat crying at three or four in the morning to be let outside or the tantrum throwing adult wanting the red lollypop in the supermarket that one person holds, when a thousand red lollypops sit on the shelf.

Shut down from the tormenting anger spiked in the anguish of a river bed scorched in skeletal frailty, shelter from the spits of narcissistic demands of entitlement with no care for anyone but an ego self. Such darkness of malice hurts, especially when devoid of care or nurture.

Take a breath in the open air, even if clouds loom in grumbling grey and screams of me, me, me taunt a genial breeze. Wriggle your toes in the grass and feel the soft blades bend to your curve of step, appreciate the occasional stab from a broken twig or thorn from a weed as a reminder that without pain, we cannot know pleasure. Notice cars zooming by, and the occasional siren of urgency. Discern the hues of mauve and lilac tinging those pillows of brewing above.

Eat when you’re hungry and not according to the clock, play in the sand pit with your toddler or the foot beneath the table of the woman you want to lunch with, even if it’s to share a cheese sandwich by a lake.

Make love. Eat some more, the hommos in the fridge with Turkish bread or the goji berries coated in dark chocolate. Some say cold meat pies are best. Watch movies. Walk the dog and stroke the cat, allow them to sneak onto a bed for an afternoon nap. Lounge in your favourite leather chair and watch more movies. Doze, then read. Sip a slow brewed coffee dolloped in cream or a glass of wine or beer, or better yet, a Wild Thing cocktail swimming in passionfruit with a flaming cinnamon stick for stirring.

Take that sojourn from daily grind and do your nothing, whatever that is to you. Say no to the meeting you must have with him or negotiation you must have with her. Help that person you promised after you’ve had time to catch up with you. Give yourself the courtesy and good health of time. Talk to her or see him when you’re ready. You won’t burn at the stake or be stoned for ignoring a sulking demand.

It’s not a luxury to give this time to oneself, but a necessity to be in your nothing. It comes with a level of courage though, for what floods in when the weave of distractions slackens, can swirl in muddy torrents that whip into a whirlpool of lost swirl.

What to do when one stops doing what is supposed to be done can confuse day and night and merge thoughts of today and tomorrow to a mess of exhaustion. Legs can grow heavy and struggle to move, feet trip over a pavement of no undulation. Eyelids hang tired and ache in limp muscles and steadying in this whirlpool of lost takes every imaginable speck of strength.

Where to, what now, how can I … this is awful.

Yet among the birds continuing to chirp in varying trills to a background of murmuring traffic is the eye in the muddy torrent, where the muck settles and glimpses of love without judgment begin to flicker. That light and love grow and soon, the radiance of those that give and appreciate shine as stars that blind all that take with the insatiable intensity and selfish desire of a Vampire Bat, tearing blood vessels with its sharpest of teeth and sucking half its weight in blood without being noticed.

In that light is a care that comes without effort because it simply exists as an endless purity, sometimes bound in intrinsic fibres that can’t be explained, understood or denied. Surrendering to the heart to find the natural flow is all that matters. The head has no say.

Demands of work, children and family can mellow with time to be. Legs will gain their strength as you stroll through that moist grass in the backyard, the tips tickling between your toes. You’ll notice the single leaf falling from the plum tree in tune with the season and remember the sweetness of the first summer fruit. You’ll appreciate the time you’ve given yourself and ease into that groove of being.

The washing machine goes quiet; time to put another load on and maybe make a cup of tea to have with a piece of chocolate-raspberry mud cake topped in luscious cream. Lunch. With a movie. And the tea should be peppermint, to make for a slightly healthier lunch.

To relish in the freedom of being and to understand that a few days of time to be yourself and not fulfil a string of obligations, is an unexpected gift.

Farm Reflections: The Migrant Camp

Monika and Voldemar cottage 67 1962

Monika and Voldemar Steinbergs outside cottage 67 on the Farm, 1962

A writer nurtures stories, develops and grows them to be the best they can be. It’s a little like a parent nurturing a child or a gardener raising a plant from seed, laced in love and care. Each story is different just as each child or plant is different, unique with its own set of qualities and characteristics.

Writing an honest account of what life on the Farm might have been like requires immersion into that lifetime. Speaking to people within the Farm (the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works Sewerage Farm at Werribee) community is one of the best ways of gaining that understanding of Farm life. Each person I speak with provides an account relevant and original to them and as a writer, each story provides the most fantastic insights. There are never any favourites.

But sometimes, there’s a click and you can see, smell, hear and taste a story to almost touch it. The connection might be to the story or with the person sharing their recollections. Either way or both together, every tiny fibre of their recall seeps into your bones, and it happens more times than not. Spending time with Gertrude recently, talking about the Migrant Camp on the Farm, was two hours of soothing seep.

Uncovering a story is like loosening the snib on the lid of a Pandora’s box swathed in layers of crumbling cobwebs and disintegrating dust. You never know what you’re going to hear when that lid pops open. It can as uplifting as it can be heartbreaking, and everything in between.

There are the charmers and the playful stories, the easy-going ones that smile regardless of what’s bubbling underneath and it’s not until chipping away at that sometimes gleam of gloss surface and pinching through the delicate fissures that you begin to understand the smile as hues of emotion.

The scallywags and jokers tell stories in streams of quips and weaving through the ‘you know, clocks fall into sheep dip to lose their ticks’ and ‘have you heard that sleeping bulls are bulldozers’ can sideline a deeper story. Centring and refocusing to decipher the banter and capture the snaking story can add insights to the fun and jovial.

Some only reveal what they’re comfortable to reveal, and that’s okay. Others tell the story as a stage manager directing a play or a tale that’s become a legend. Extracting its essence can be like trying to catch a Growling Grass Frog tadpole coated in thick slime and living amongst reeds swarmed in mosquitoes.

There are those with ideas and interpretations that sit outside of the box, sometimes the black sheep of the mob. Exploring those can be akin to mining for gold within an infertile reef, but oh the joy in striking that gold. And of course, there are the prickly, smothered in the finest of spines that have the ability to sprout as poisonous thorns if not handled carefully.

The honest that tell it how it is are the easiest to work with. No guess work required, only a thick hide. They’re in stark contrast to those wanting to cover up, where you can sense a teetering of not saying too much and watch eyes of distrust darting, lips quivering. Compassion and understanding for why that is, is be best here.

Ultimately, all are individual with their own self to contribute to a bigger story. There are never any favourites. However, speaking to Gertrude was without doubt, one of my favourites in a collection where there are no favourites. Gertrude Ropa. Even introducing her warms me.

Gertrude at 94, looks more than 15 years younger than her birth age. Whether it’s good genes or good living, I’m not sure. She has one of those permanent smiles, that gentle grandmotherly grin that’s seen a lot of life.

Gertrude motions me to sit beside her on the two-seater settee as soon as her son, Roland, finishes introducing me and leaves, before I could say anything or drop my leather bag loaded in notebooks and pens and a most kitsch bag adorned in European landmarks carrying my heavy-duty microphone and laptop, on the floor. Meeting with people and talking to them about the Farm takes me back to lugging baby things everywhere.

‘Gertrude, your accent, where are you from?’ I say as I ease beside her. Her soft words sing in that typical German way yet are fringed in a velvet lush, probably due to the combination of dialect and living in Australia for many years. It was more than familiar to me, charming me into a comfortability that over the next two hours, made me constantly look at my notes and questions to remember why I was there.

‘Bavaria, in Germany.’ Her eyebrows tilt up.

‘It’s like my father’s,’ I say. ‘And my family in Austria.’

Gertrude smiles more broadly; eyes of knowing lock in.

Gertrude is the wife of now deceased, Wally. Many linked to the Farm, whether as a resident, visitor, acquaintance or vagrant passing through looking for work would know the name Wally Ropa.

Wally, whose real name was Wladyslaw, was a teacher in Poland and an officer during World War II. He was captured by the German army early into the war in 1939 and remained a prisoner until 1945 in a camp near Gertrude’s village in Bavaria. It was in the camp that Wally learned how to speak English.

Gertrude and Wally met and soon after the war ended, had Marianne and Roland. Gertrude and Wally fled Bavaria with their children to arrive in Melbourne on Christmas day in 1949.

‘We had to stay on the boat because no one was working to get us off. We had lunch on the boat and the children couldn’t eat it. It was a single lettuce leaf, a slice of tomato and a piece of meat.’ Her words are considered.

The next day, the family was ushered onto a train to the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla, along the Victorian-New South Wales border.

‘It was such a long trip, like we were going to nowhere. Villages at home were only a few kilometres apart but travelling to Bonegilla, we saw much nothing. And I was so homesick for my family. I left them all behind.’

‘Why did you leave?’

‘It was impossible to live in Germany or Poland after the war.’ Gertrude’s always-smile fades as though a cloud passes over. ‘We couldn’t live there because the two countries were enemies.’

From their first night in the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla, the family was separated: Gertrude and the children stayed in one part of the camp while Wally was allocated a bed in another section with the men. The camp began two years earlier when the first intake of people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania arrived, many fleeing their country and looking for a fresh start. In exchange for free passage and help on arrival, migrants would work for the government for two years. They were processed and allocated jobs from the camp.

Employees of the government visited the Bonegilla Camp regularly and in January 1950, within weeks of Gertrude and Wally’s arrival, Wally accepted a labouring position the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works offered him to fix fences on the Farm. That meant Wally moved into the Migrant Camp on the Farm to live with other migrant men.

‘It was hard for my husband,’ says Gertrude. ‘Wally didn’t know how to use a hammer very well. He stayed on the Board of Works Farm while we stayed in Bonegilla, until we had a house in Werribee.’

The Migrant Camp on the Farm was set up in the old barracks used by the air force during World War II on the air field at the top of Farm Road. The barracks included a kitchen and dining room where meals were prepared and served to Farm workers. When Wally moved in, ‘Bill’ was managing the kitchen. It’s believed Wally Steinbergs helped Bill cook in the kitchen while Wally’s (Steinbergs) wife, Monika, and son, Ventis, remained in the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla also. Wally and Monika went on to live in a few homes on the Farm with their four children and were one of the last families to leave the township by 1971.

Over the next few months in 1950, the number of men moving into the Migrant Camp on the Farm increased and Bill decided to retire.

‘They asked, who wants to help in the canteen,’ says Gertrude. ‘Of course, my husband straight away, put the finger up. And the boss, Mr Speckman, he likes Wally because he spoke English and most people couldn’t talk English.’ Gertrude’s love for Wally sings in the tone of her voice.

The Farm management however, changed the job somewhat and Mr Speckman asked Wally to manage every aspect of the kitchen as a business. That meant Wally had to resign from his labouring position on the Farm and Wally Steinbergs leaving his role as helper in the kitchen to return to other Farm work. By now, it was 1951.

‘Did Wally teach English to the other migrants too, if he spoke English so well?’ I ask.

‘No. A woman came from Werribee at night to teach the men English.’ Gertrude pauses. ‘I don’t remember her name, she came once a week. But Wally … he would help the men with their English. He would buy soaps and cigarettes, washing powder, some razors and special drinks like lemonade for the men, and they paid Wally for those things.’

For the next four years, Wally managed the kitchen with 3am starts. He’d ride his bicycle the almost two kilometres from his home the family had moved into in Werribee, to the Migrant Camp on the Farm each day. He’d make breakfast, lunch and dinner, for which the men living at the camp would pay for.

‘He would make the breakfast what old Bill made, I think bacon and eggs. And he had to make sandwiches on a big bench. Three sandwiches for each person, in the beginning for about 20 people. One sandwich with cheese and two with sausage. He had a little bag, he put one spoon of tea in that bag and a spoon of sugar. And that was wrapped and when the people came to get their breakfast, they take the lunch already made and the tea with them to work.’

The number of men living in the camp increased over time and Wally would feed around 80 men each day.

‘It was a lot of work, we didn’t have a helper, nothing. Only my husband did that.’

Wally would place food orders and clean the kitchen and dining room while the men worked, and once Marianna and Roland went to school, Gertrude would walk to the camp to help Wally in the kitchen and prepare dinner.

‘I didn’t do the cooking, Wally did that. He’d make soup for tea. He’d fry the meat and make a sauce with it, and sometimes spaghetti. He’d make pudding and on top of the pudding was fruit from the tin. I peeled lots of potatoes and pumpkin. We had to slice the bread and put it on the table with the butter. Sometimes, we had some bosses coming from Melbourne, they went visiting the Farm, like vets, and they would come and have lunch and I have to serve them.’

Three or four times a week, Marianne and Roland would ride their bikes to the kitchen after school.

‘They used to have milk churns and we’d have a cold glass of milk and milk arrowroot biscuits,’ Roland recalled when I’d met him, before introducing me to his mother. ‘It was a treat my sister and I enjoyed. We’d sit there while our parents were working. Sometimes we’d ride to the village to swim in the pool.’

Once Gertrude finished helping Wally prepare for dinner, she and the children went home.

‘The boss had a son who made university and he picked him up on the station. I would get a ride sometimes, he took me home.’

‘What time would Wally come home after he’d finish for the day?’

‘When he was in the camp, he done the kitchen, cleaned all the plates. He had a big trough and put all the plates and cleaned them and washed them all, filled up all the bottles for sauce, cleaned the table and the floors and he come back home at seven o’clock.’ The kitchen ran seven days a week.

‘When the people left slowly, there were less and less, and my husband said I can’t do it anymore, I must do the same work for a hundred people for what I do for 20 people and 10 people.’

Wally finished managing the kitchen when it became unviable as a business. He returned to the Farm as an employee, taking on the role of security. He worked in that capacity from the mid-1950s until he retired at 65 years of age in the early 1980s.

We finish talking about the Farm and I pack my books and equipment back into their bags. ‘Thanks very much for all your stories,’ I say to Gertrude. ‘I think we’re finished.’

‘Do you need to go back to work?’ she asks. ‘I have some photos, but they’re not from the Board of Works. They’re of Wally.’

‘Okay,’ I say, sensing Gertrude wasn’t ready for me to leave yet. Gertrude shuffles over to a cupboard and pulls out a photo album. She almost trips on the way back and I instinctively put my hands out to catch her.

‘It’s okay,’ she says. ‘These slippers, they catch.’ She plonks back beside me and leans into me to show photos of Wally in the album: Wally running in athletics carnivals, skiing too, in the prison camp with thousands of men, looking fit and healthy to my surprise.

Gertrude’s stories about the kitchen in the Migrant Camp provide such insight into an area with so little information. Finding any photos or people to talk to about living in the Migrant Camp has proved difficult to date.

Certainly, spending time with Gertrude was a delight and is something I would repeat any day. It wasn’t a-twirl-around-the-kitchen one, two, three, four salsa, hip to a maraca type of chit-chat, or a choppy waters foaming at their tips in curls of white kind of ponder over the 1890s.

No, it was more a laze in silken grass under a grandmummy of a maple tree splaying an umbrella of lush green from a wise trunk in Stadtpark in Vienna, licking bitter chocolate and apricot gelato dripping down the side of a cone, with humidity kissing the nape of my neck type of natter.

No favourites though. Ever. Even a cactus thrives and allures in its succulence and flesh and magnificence of pinks, reds and blues flowers.

 

NOTES

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on the sewerage farm. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1974; the last family moved off site in 1980.

The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) Sewerage Farm at Werribee and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

The Board of Works is another term used for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) Sewerage Farm at Werribee.

 

Farm Reflections: Truth

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Truth, honesty, I could throw justice in here as well … words that stir memories of the opening credits to The Adventures of Superman.

Truth and honesty form the basis of creative nonfiction writing, and writing about the community that once existed on the Sewerage Farm at Werribee (the Farm) for more than 70 years. It’s a community that mostly disbanded from the Farm by 1974, with one remaining family leaving in 1980. And yet it’s a community that is still very much alive.

Truth can create speculation, however. What is true to one person may not be truth to another and could in fact be something entirely different. Take a football match of the early 1950s that women from the Farm played in that was recently discussed.

‘That’s Charlie in the middle,’ says MC.

‘No, it’s not,’ says MH. ‘That’s definitely not him.’

‘Yes, it is. Look at this other photo. It’s the same person.’

‘No, I don’t think you’re right. That’s not him.’

And on went the conversation. Yet the two discussing Charlie at this event of more than 60 years ago, were both there, both in the photo with Charlie.

Writing about life on the Farm involves various forms of investigation. Examining archival material to gather factual data is important, but at the core of this research is the capturing of the oral history. This is done by conducting interviews that can often extend over several hours and involve further questioning and talking.

People recollect memories that are discussed and captured as true stories. Truth can come unstuck here though because memories and recollections can be considered as subjective, with some believing they cannot be regarded as ‘truth’. They question, what is truth?

I’ll throw in some theory here where the creative nonfiction form of writing can be defined as a vehicle for telling true stories. Creative nonfiction is “true stories well told” (Gutkind, 2012).

Creative nonfiction allows for capturing the oral history of the Farm community through the exploration of complexities in events and people in full humanity. (Ricketson, 2014) Writing in this way provides an opportunity to explore and be curious, to discover what’s going on in the world. It can be a motivator to seek the ‘truth’.

Another story told recently is of the grocer from many years ago who made deliveries to households on the Farm. The grocer would take orders one day and return a few days later to make deliveries one household at a time. He’d never stay and move quickly from one place to the next, except for one home where he would stop for two or three hours.

He’d leave his horse and jinker loaded in goods outside and in that time, his horse would slowly make its way along the street while eating the grass. After a while, the local kids noticed this and the goodies in the unattended jinker and helped themselves to fruits, lollies and soft drinks.

Upon realising the missing, unpaid for goods, the driver soon stopped making his long house visits to Miss H.

L said to me before he told me the story, ‘Now this might be telling tales, but it’s the truth.’ It’s not only a truth in L’s eyes as he was there and saw it and was one of the kids doing the taking, it’s a truth as part of a life that is full of nuances, a true reflection of life in its full spectrum. It’s a truth expressed.

Sometimes, truths take time to germinate in that vessel of trust, like the story of a head bobbing in the sewage as it flowed in the channel onto the Farm. Upon close inspection, it was realised the head belonged to a foetus, an aborted or miscarried baby. That story took some time to be told but once it was, unravelled further. It was found that many foetuses had flowed into the Farm in the sewage channel. These were aborted babies in a time where abortion was illegal and thrown into the sewer, along with miscarriages. Watermen would find these foetuses, haul them out and bury them on the Farm. These whispers took months to be spoken of and can now be confirmed as true stories.

Seeking the truth is fraught with considerations and dilemmas. There are truths that aren’t expressed, for fear of reprisal, being outed and embarrassed, and of repercussions or being held accountable or liable, or because of an inability to face the truth for whatever reasons … can they be considered an untruth? Perhaps a lie?

Recollections expressed as a ‘pure truth’ as distinctly remembered or even a twist on the truth that has slowly grown into a legendary tale over time, they’re easy to work with. A fabrication however, where a memory can’t be recalled even though it has been well documented and in the public arena, that kind of ‘non’ recollection requires patience and persistence to carefully think through, investigate and discern, especially when it can impact other people.

Many recollections can be the only remaining truth in existence, to become the only truth. They can’t be verified and sometimes capturing them can become a race against time, where people that are part of the Farm community become unwell, too unwell to recall memories, and cease to live. I have arrived too late to speak to many who would have had a garden full of wonderful recollections to share if their memories and heart allowed.

Sometimes when the memories become so scattered and confused, only the heart knows the truth and miraculous things can happen. A stirring of the heart can shine a place of pure, unfiltered truth. It can emerge as a most glorious sunrise when us humans allow it.

Sharing truths, recollections and memories, can stir the heart and get people talking and asking questions. That’s got to be the silver lining in a project that has set out to document a social history.

 

NOTES

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1974; the last family moved off site in 1980.

The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) at Werribee and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

Hands of lifetimes

holding hands kara braithwaite

Breaking through any veneer takes time. Prodding and poking, gentle rounds of pounding and soon enough, a fine fracture appears. Time and patience, compassion to allow sees the shellac of mask crack and eventually shatter.

And yet, it’s not always so, not when years of layering in plutonium and gold, wedged in between toughened steel and encrusted in diamond particles for added strength, teeters in brittle balance to become a complexity seemingly inconceivable to penetrate.

Trying mustn’t stop, pushing with the gentlest of might to pry into the tiniest of miniscule fractures that clam shut to protect its pearl. The harder the push, the tighter the molecules bind. These walls of lifetimes unite as secret societies with the most stringent passwords and handshakes of multiple dexterity. Breaking through takes time and is more laborious than sharpened chisels rasping day and night at the rock of hardened lava and the spiked-up engraver etching in more profoundly with each scratch. A labour of love that can take forever. Or never.

Digging too deep though can strike a fissure that turns suddenly south. The cleft snaps to a chasmic abyss, where erratic fireworks clash with shooting debris, all while caving in on itself.

Inside and out collide and draw into a coiling twist, a vortex sucking up every me, me, me. I’m here, he’s there, the divide is great … I can’t but you can, she has more and I have none. He cares, she cares most definitely … you know, they all know the truth.

Until there’s a discrete tickle that comes from these walls of lifetimes, prompting an instinctual recognition. Yet it retreats as quickly as it appears. Or does it?

The shifting between one and the other, and then both, the betrayal in a pool of liquid whispers. Leaded boots hook into a mirrored room kissed by Judas, reflecting as a brilliant cut diamond. Any glimpse of sight is too stark, any grasp is of liquid mercury.

The tickle takes a form, a shadow in those walls of lifetimes. The energy is undeniable, as the breath of life passed to Adam by the lightest of touch in Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Those boots begin to unhinge from their crimped claws.

Churned pitting begins to ease and the idea that some things must be, falls as a veil of solace. A hand of being takes mine, grounding in more might than any wall of lifetimes, even against the wet fallen from a blanket of darkest grey where the sky and road ahead merge as one mantle of colourless drab.

Hands weave to help wash away caustic tears. They build an intangible strength impervious to the demands of everything. Unusual in structure and more intricate than a brain brimming in full seismic thought dancing with a heart flushed in erogenous fervour.

Look closely. The hand is there, tucked into the rock facade hiding a thousand stories. They’re there, laced in tenderness and sprinkled in kindness and with a depth that can reach any heart’s core. Those hands come from near and far, at any most unexpected time, and can illuminate as pure gold from those walls of lifetimes.

It’s the only way to warmth yet unknown, to feel the lightness of hands of lifetimes.

 

Farm Reflections: The Hickeys

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Choppy waters foam at their tips in curls of white, churning waves into shore as a milkshake blending in the darkest, richest chocolate. They break against small, jagged rocks strewn over a bed of shell grit, rhythmic in their crashing, rousing a deep pondering. In skies of heavy murk and gloom tinged in highlights of mauve as the sun prods for an opening, I gaze out to Portarlington in the distance to the west. What a day to be out here. I scan over the bay through sheets of fine mist, to the east at Werribee South and further around to Melbourne.

Ice cold flinches off the water, spearing breezes that swirl in Antarctica emotion and blend with shades of rotting seaweed. It’s the kind of chill that gets in, biting at my jaw and bare neck, sneaking in under my thick beanie knitted for Alpine conditions. Thankfully, the thermal socks I’m wearing are keeping my feet warm, although I don’t know for how long after wading through ankle deep water that flooded the road and trekking through sodden salt marsh after heavy overnight rain.

Anyone that knows Melbourne would say it’s a typical winter’s day.

Finding the flattest rock to sit on is almost impossible. They’re all pitted after having been spat out as molten lava millions of years ago and cooled to popped pockets of air bubbles.

I wonder how the Hickey family coped, living here along the foreshore of the Farm.

Annie and Michael Hickey arrived at the Farm in 1898 looking for work. They lived here on the foreshore in tents with their children: 10 under the age of 15, including a set of twins, within a year of their arrival. They were offered a house and two cows for milking in 1911. It’s unclear yet whether they remained in tents until that point or when Michael was offered employment.

Back then, the sewerage farm was a prime place for work. It was one of the largest public works undertaken in Australia in the nineteenth century and provided job security for many farmers during the 1890’s economic crash and 1930’s depression.

Up until this point, Melbourne’s only system for disposing sewage in the 1800s was to throw it into the streets, giving it free reign to meander into waterways. A typhoid and diphtheria epidemic broke out and British journalists were dubbing Melbourne as Marvellous ‘Smellbourne’. By 1891, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) was formed to set up a sewerage farm at Werribee to treat Melbourne’s sewage. Interestingly, Werribee was chosen over the other option at Mordialloc, which was closer to Melbourne and already gentrifying Brighton in Melbourne’s east. That’s another story for another time. The Farm still treats sewage and is known today as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. It’s about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

As Melbourne grew, so did the volume of sewage and the workforce required to manage it. Work was plenty at the Farm and Annie and Michael understood that. They knew too, that because of the distance between Melbourne and Werribee, and between the Werribee town centre and the sewerage farm, that those who worked at the Farm were offered a house and two cows to rent, to them and their families to live in.

Michael came from County Clare in Ireland, Annie (Welham) from Ballarat via a convict ship from England that landed in Perth. They must have been accustomed to the cold, but I wonder about the landscape. It’s pretty and pristine out here in its tints of blue and grey, but that can change in an instant. The Australian landscape is known for its chameleon dexterity. It can arouse the harsh and extreme in all hues of a brash and unsettling that many writers at the turn of the 1900s attempted to capture in a most lyrical romantic form. Sitting here wearing two jumpers, a coat and corduroy jeans, beanie, thick socks and safety boots, I wonder how the Hickeys managed, how the children handled living here.

Food and water was plenty: fish in Port Phillip Bay and the Werribee River, eels, rabbits and ducks to catch, chickens and their eggs, pigs reared for meat, sometimes sheep too, cows for milking and making cream and butter, and for producing cheese. People ‘lived off the land,’ as many have said. Water mains across the Farm and into Cocoroc South, also known as the bottom end, provided fresh water. I’m still piecing the story together but I can see from a recently, very generously donated 1906, hand drawn and painted map of the Farm that these were established. Two cottages and the Cocoroc South School with a teacher’s residence are also marked on the map in this area.

Sitting here with the sun now radiating on my back, water resolute in its reeling in that rhythm that you can lose yourself in once you tune in, no one else about, quite secluded considering Melbourne is around 25 kilometres away … it’s quite a place to be. Those Hickey kids would have coped, in a most wonderful playground of salt marsh and grass to run through and play, swimming and fishing. They most likely attended Cocoroc South School, which opened in 1906 nearby. Cocoroc West School in the north-west of the Farm opened in the same year. Cocoroc School in the township had already been operating for 10 years after a residents’ petition to the education department requesting a school be established, considering 40 children lived on the Farm at that time, was successful. It was a sign of the Farm’s rapid growth.

The paddock I walked through to get here is known as ‘Loozy’s’ by many, after the fisherman, Mr Losevitz. He paid an annual licence fee to the MMBW and was appointed Ranger of the foreshore and jetty reserve between 1922 and 1946. Mr Losevitz also cared for the MMBW boat that was moored at the jetty here. Many enjoyed Loozy’s and school sports between the four schools (Murtcaim School was established in 1939) were often held here.

This place is peace, even if parts of me have become numb. It’s a place to think and process, digest all that is this Farm … the Hickeys living here in tents, with 13 children. Summer would have been very different to today: flies lining tent walls in a film of black, gathering as a sheath on warmed water in the copper. And sweltering under a 40-degree Celsius day … cooling with a dip in the sea under a stark summer sun or a full moon on a hot night, in the darkness of a waning moon with maybe only a candle or fire for light.

And the next generation of Annie and Michael … riding eight kilometres on horseback to the town pool or on push-bike with a dog that guarded the bike to stop every kid at the pool from riding it, games of ‘hiekeyo’ (not sure of its spelling) and handbags tied to strings placed on the single-lane highway to Geelong. Inquisitive motorists would stop to check on the handbag, only to have it drawn away from them by a group of scallywags hiding behind bushes on the roadside, who then bolted when that person of unsuspecting chased after them. Then there were the mischievous boys who moved the bottles of beer that men at the weekly dances would stash in bushes outside, and those boys hiding and watching in mirth of giggles as those men searched for their beer … the freedom to play and wander, to explore without fear.

Three to four generations extend over the Farm. Some children walked or rode five and six kilometres to and from school each day, some hitch-hiked from the highway into town … there’s Uncle Frank who never married and lived in a caravan on the foreshore near the Werribee River while working as a waterman. He fought in World War One, got shot, returned to Melbourne to recover, went back to the front line, only to be injured again and returned to Melbourne to recover. He remained a waterman at the Farm and eventually moved out of the caravan and in with his brother and family until he retired. There were ice boxes and kerosene fridges, tilly lamps, bread and mail delivered in the same box down near Murtcaim, picking peas at Little River … and the little boy that sits in my gut as a weight of unwant, the devastation of him.

Then there’s the granddaughter of Annie and Michael who lives in the home her grandparents once lived in, an old house relocated from the Farm into Werribee … and Annie’s rose-gold wedding ring still worn today, a precious adornment of never-ending that connects souls over lifetimes.

I didn’t think it possible, but I’m thawing out. That Melbourne winter warmth that comes from a southern hemisphere sun is turning on its toasty charm. Winter here is different to anywhere else I’ve been, different to the European winters of bleak and fog that can choke to a breathless gag, laced in a pollution that permeates every pore until you can taste it in your every swallow. This space of breath is undeniable, a vast expanse of clarity of sight where nothing can hide and every skerrick of flaw is revealed in full beauty of perfect imperfection, and when cleansed by a sweeping of rain, sharpens in pristine splendour. The veins in the leaves of the salt bush, the life pulsing through them … the shrilling whistles of crested cockatoos streaming between bare-leaved trees, sea birds calling on a belly plump and ripe, waders stealing over mudflats … the stirring of senses in full flight.

The tide’s rolling in. Annie and Michael would have understood those tides, how far they came up and down, where to perch their camp to be clear of even the occasional king tide. The overnight rain too, and the impact of that rain on their camp.

While today with all our mod-cons, living in tents on the foreshore might seem full of challenges, sitting here is this cacophony of crashing waves, bristling breeze and trilling glee, it’s gloriously serene. And with the privilege of time to stop and think, it’s incredibly insightful. Life here was full, and simpler I imagine to some extent, with fewer distractions and an abundance of personal, sensory pleasure.

It’s time to move off the volcanic rock of hard, time for the blood to pump back into those damp parts of numb. Back over these rocks I climb, unsure of my footing sometimes with the wet and dense bush covering, through the salt marsh and over squelching mud beneath my boots, over a wire fence, careful not to knock my laptop. I look for the fine line of gravel on the road that breaks the water’s surface, but am soon in ankle deep water again. Back to my car, covered in dried, tawny mud, back to this mod-con world.

 

NOTES:

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1973; the last family moved off site in 1980. The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm/

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

 

Farm Reflections: Beryl

MurtcaimShe cups her hands under my jaw, drawing me close. Her touch is soft, a stark contrast to the arduous work she began at 10 years old. She kisses my cheek, skimming the corner of my lips. It’s the kind of exchange that exudes the nurture of a mother’s kiss, of appreciation and protection. Those few seconds are tattooed inside of me, such is the power of her touch.

‘Thanks,’ I say. ‘For giving me so much of your time today.’ I had tried to leave hours earlier through concern of taking up too much of her time, before a plate of pointed egg, and ham and cheese sandwiches appeared.

She smiles. ‘Thanks for coming, dear. It was lovely meeting you.’ Her smile is unfaltering, more spirited and permanent than the Mona Lisa.

I pull out the red capsicums from the box and bunch of rhubarb bound by an elastic band with leaves browning at their sliced tops, and toss the Spanish onions and tomatoes into the bowl in the pantry. SBS Chill plays smooth over the radio, although the tunes seem to hinge in a haunting of melancholy. Shuffling, stomps in boots on floorboards with no time to kick them off or wipe away the lipstick from the day, from one cupboard to the next, doors opening and banging with bongo beats of intermingling that flee to the other side of the world.

‘Here, have you seen this?’ he asks, handing me a bluing photo of footballers wearing Geelong AFL jumpers.

More football, but it seems to be what people are passionate about. It played a big part in the community over the years, with many attending weekend games and dances that followed in the Farm hall.

‘She played on the MCG you know.’

I look up over my spectacles, unsure of truth or jovial yarn.

‘She did! I’m not telling any tales.’

Beryl smiles broadly from her arm chair. ‘Yeah, it’s true,’ she nods.

I look closely at the photo. These footballers are women, having played in 1952. ‘We’ve got photos of women playing football in 1950, ‘51 and now ‘52!’ Women took to the field to the upturned noses of some and admiration of others back more than 67 years ago. The hype of women’s football today was built on the strength and foresight of those women and men.

‘I played in the ’51 and ’52 games. Bob Davis was our coach in 1952.’ The sun streaming through the dining room window casts elongated shadows that autumn is known for, lighting Beryl from behind. ‘Sunny Stewart and Linda Tetsil would fake a fight every game.’

I laugh. ‘I thought fake fighting only happened in wrestling!’

A sip of rosé, the green stem of the wine glass reminding me of faraway. Back to the pantry I prance for that onion already packed away. Peeling and chopping, grating in mechanical auto pilot … a slip of the knuckle on my thumb. Onion juice soon seeps into the graze. It stings but I don’t stop. Blood begins to streak, forcing me to search for a band aid. When the boys were little, band aids always disappeared into that black hole of socks. My grating of fingers is all too common in our household and at the suggestion of one of those boys who is now a man, band aids today live in the kitchen. I wonder how many times Beryl grated her fingers in her day, or worse still, gained splinters and cuts from the logs she chopped.

‘I was Dad’s helper up until he died when I was nine,’ she says.

‘That’s young,’ I say, in jarring knowing of loss as a child.

‘Because I was the second eldest in the family, I took on the outside chores when Dad died. My older sister helped Mum inside. I’d have to chop wood for the wood stove and to heat up the copper for washing clothes.’

‘For bathing too,’ says Don. ‘Don’t forget the bathing. You were a hard worker, love.’

Beryl nods. ‘I’d feed the pigs and milk the cows, and churn the cream and butter.’

‘You’ve got to understand that era,’ says Don. He reminds me of my grandfather, trying to teach me of the “old life”. ‘You had no choice. They had no father, no electricity because they weren’t in the town. Beryl had to do those things with no father.’

‘And you milked the cows twice a day?’

Beryl nods. ‘About five or five thirty at each end of the day.’

‘She’d do that before and after school and when she went on to work, and she’d have a five or six-mile ride on her push bike to and from Werribee to get to work.’ Don’s gloating is of that other admiration, one of deep and lifelong love between two people.

‘And before Beryl and her family got to the 40 Road and the house in Clover’s Yard where they stored fencing posts and concrete pipes and those sorts of things, before her father died, they lived out at Murtcaim near us. In a stable.’

Beryl giggles. ‘The horse would stick its head through the kitchen window.’

‘Why?’ I asked. ‘How could a family live in a stable when every other worker and their family had a house?’

‘Again, it was the era. A single man would look after the horses and live in the stable with the them. It was an oversight to have a family in there. Mr Vincent was the Farm manager at the time and he didn’t know they were living in the stable. But as soon as he found out, he arranged for a house for them to move into.’

‘We moved in on Boxing Day 1939.’

‘Beryl’s Mum had trouble adjusting after the stable. She didn’t know how to use the electricity,’ says Don. ‘She wasn’t confident with it.’

Beryl giggles again. ‘I used to crank the handle for Mum on the car too.’

‘What do you mean?’ Surely her mother hadn’t been driving that far back?

‘Mum learnt to drive in a Whippet after Dad died and I’d have to crank the handle to start the car for her. She would’ve got her licence in 1949 or so.’

I feel her cupped hands at my jaw again before striding out to feed lettuce and cauliflower leaves, carrot tops and onion skins to the chooks.

‘Here chookies,’ I call, swishing through already building dew that sends droplets onto the points of my suede boots. They come scuttling from their foraging behind the bottle brush when they hear me. I think it’s more that they notice the blue container, an ever-reliable source of sustenance for them.

‘The Board had a policy of no women working on the Farm back then,’ says Don. ‘But they gave Beryl’s mum a job when her father died.’

‘Mum cleaned the offices so we could keep living on the Farm. You couldn’t stay in a Board house if you didn’t work there on the Farm.’ Beryl barely moves in her armchair. She doesn’t look unwell, with a healthy glow and one of the kindest smiles I’d seen, yet a walking frame on wheels sits by her.

‘Mum had five kids to look after and she was determined to keep her family together. She’d iron for some of the mangers on the Farm and clean for them too to earn enough money.’ Her quiet spoken words are edged in zeal, revealing a wider spectrum of strength. In her position of centre half back on the football field and as a woman that would tower over me even now, she would have flung me like a frisbee rather than tackle me to the ground if I had played against her.

Don wanders off into the bedroom, I’m hoping for photos of where he lived as a child on the Farm, in the Murtcaim area. I don’t yet know a lot about Murtcaim.

‘I’m not very well,’ says Beryl, almost whispering. ‘My heart’s not working properly and they can’t do anything more for me.’

‘What do you mean? Why can’t they do anything?’

‘I’m too far gone.’ Her look becomes one of pensive contemplation.

‘But you don’t look sick, Beryl.’

Don returns, clasping a few small photos. ‘Look, here she is. Beryl on her bike and on the fence post. Look at that smile.’

And there she was. Perched on the flat top of the fence post, holding her knees in close, looking so relaxed and content and with an air of cheery chipper, even with all the responsibilities of back then.

‘And look, my car,’ says Don. He throws me three photos. ‘It was that car that made Beryl go out with me to the movies. My black Austin A40 convertible with white wall tyres. How could Beryl resist!’

I bound back into the kitchen to a spicy Latin rhythm, perfect for the salsa … what’s next? I find myself almost shuffling a one, two, three, four around the kitchen … carrots and lettuce for the fridge, broccoli to squeeze into the vegie drawer, a hip to maracas, a thought of him, more of her and him. Zucchinis into the fridge and rhubarb shoved in half an hour earlier pulled out for stewing, although I’m not sure how to cook rhubarb. With lots of sugar I think I’d heard it said, to offset the rhubarb’s tart or sour or something. With apples too I recall.

One, two … Beryl and Don dancing at their wedding reception in the Farm hall, the band playing on stage behind the bridal table across the front of the hall. Guests eating and drinking into the night, joyful and jolly on three long tables adorned in flowers that stretch from the bridal table up the length of the hall … I reach for that wine glass again, celebrating a life, wistful of what’s to come with lands faraway.

‘They can’t do anything more for Beryl you know,’ says Don. ‘She’s had her cancer treatment and now this heart. They can’t help her. But that’s what I’m here for,’ says Don. ‘I’m a fulltime carer now, after all the looking after Beryl has done for me.’

My son walks in. I don’t want to talk about where I’ve been today, or Beryl, or any of those intermingling thoughts. Apple skins into the chook container … his eyes follow me.

‘Thanks again, Beryl,’ I say. ‘I’ll bring your photos back on a Monday when I’m in the area with my son at karate.’

‘Take your time,’ she says.

Don walks me out and levers the door open for me to walk through. I kiss the side of his face and hug him. He’s nervous with his embrace back, unsure of what to do with his arms. We walk to the mail box together.

‘My mum spoilt me,’ he says. ‘She did everything for me and my grandfather lived with us so he did a lot of the chores that Beryl had to do. And then Beryl spoilt me once we got married. I’ve been a lucky man. It’s my turn to look after Beryl now.’

Something catches in me. ‘Well you know how to spoil then because you’ve been so well looked after, your turn to spoil Beryl.’ The words fall from my mouth, my thoughts spoken before I have time to consider them.

Don gives an uneasy chuckle, appearing to be searching for a reply to my candid comment. He nods. ‘You’re right. I will.’

I drive home to the box of vegetables delivered earlier and waiting to be unpacked, thinking about the sensitivity of Beryl’s hold, her appreciation of time to reminisce. Perhaps that’s stronger when you reach an end of life you know is near.

Gratitude’s a very grounding thing. People sharing stories, sometimes deep and personal memories only they can recollect. It’s an honouring that grounds me, an appreciation and trust of memories in extremes of harsh reality and sublime pleasure, the challenging and enchanting, all collected in a tiny box locked in the life time of one’s heart.

As bearer of these recollections to record as a moment in time, milling over them, mining the jewels that lay among a reef more fertile of the most precious … there’s much satisfaction in holding that pause of time to reminiscence, of life on the Farm.

 

NOTES:

These reflections come from researching a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1973; the last family moved off site in 1980. The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm

Geelong AFL is a team in the Australian Football League.

The MCG stands for the Melbourne Cricket Ground, an Australian sports stadium located in Melbourne.

The Farm is a colloquial term for Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

The Board stands for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, the organisation first responsible for establishing and managing the sewage treatment plant. The Board became Melbourne Water in the 1990s.

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