Authors: Niall Griffiths
They visit Kings Park. There is a memorial wall, listing the names of Australia’s war dead, and the boy’s mother looks for ‘Griffiths’, something the boy will do for the rest of his life. There’s a slice taken out of a tree, huge, tractor-wheel-sized, with tags on it marking historical events; when the tree was the width of a saucer, Australia was founded as a colony; a vinyl LP, World War One broke out, and so on. The boy is entranced by this, rapt; human history accruing as the tree grew, still and alive at the world’s heart, an unknowing chronicler of a vast and never-ending story. And the rings in the wood, the concentric rings, they draw the boy’s eye and mind in toward the centre, from sapling to seed, hundreds of years before he was born. When the wood and the world was waiting for him.
There are great views over the city from Kings Park, the Swan River pushing its own silver through the skyscrapers. It reminds me of the Memorial Park in Washington DC, commemorative monuments everywhere you look. A young country making its heroes, its legends. This is a very different Perth to the Perth of the seventies. Almost unrecognisable. I find the Memorial Wall, and again search for the ‘Griffiths’ name. Still none. I look for, and fail to find, the tree-slice, so I go into the Information Centre and speak to a lady there. Tell her that I’m returning after thirty years and what I’m looking for.
–The section of tree? she says.
I’m startled. –How the hell did you know that?
She laughs. There’s a funny twinkle in her eye. Psychic, she must be. She tells me that the wood was rotting, infested
with white ants; the park authorities repaired and treated it on several occasions but it eventually became irreparable, so they fed it into a chipper and spread it over the park. ‘So it’s still here in spirit’, she says, and laughs again. I like this lady.
Outside, I point my camera at the floors of flower-beds and take some pictures of woodchips. There’s a small and dry mat of them beneath a tree and I sit on it; the chips are soft and comfor table. I take some sandwiches and the
out of my rucksack. Glasgow airport in flames. Blair gone, replaced by Brown. The world goes on happening. Look where I am.
I wander through the park, amongst the monuments. There’s Queen Victoria, surrounded by cannons; the two dated 1843 were used in the Crimean War, and those dated 1813 and 1814 at Waterloo. There’s a floral clock. A cenotaph; 7,000 names from the First World War, 4,000 from the Second. So much slaughter. A Jewish memorial. Shells from the HMS
presented to the park in 1921 from the ship that gave covering fire to the Anzac soldiers at Gallipoli in 1915. And there’s a memorial to the victims of the Bali bomb in October 2002.
I drift through the Botanic Gardens. Remember, vaguely, visiting here with the school, although I’m not entirely sure about that. Certain events we remember vividly, others through a fog of uncertainty, and the clarity of our recollections has nothing to do with the importance of the incident. And we remember things that might not have happened at all. But the flowers look and smell nice. And when I sit down outside the caff with a can of Tango I discover that I have woodchips stuck to my arse.
Life leaps from event to event. Exploring the edge of a field one day, not far from a digging farmer, the boy and his friends chase a scorpion under a rotting log. They roll the log over and reveal a brown coil of a sleeping snake; the boy grabs its tail, holds it dangling out at arm’s length, laughs and shouts.
Look what I’ve found! Look what I’ve got everybody!
The farmer roars, runs, whacks the sleepy snake out of the boy’s hand and decapitates it with a shovel. Turns a furious face at the boy.
-stard! A taipan! Lucky it was hibernating! What are ya doing waving bladdy taipans abaht? Stupid
The boy’s shocked and upset. The farmer, not an unkind man (except to venomous snakes), puts his big hand on the boy’s shoulder and tells him of the dangers of handling snakes.
–You’ve got to be careful here, son. Yer not in
now. Snakes here’ll bladdy well kill yer. That taipan? One bite and…
He snaps his fingers.
Out of the side of his eye, the boy can discern the writhing death-throes of the headless snake, brown loops of it rising above the tops of the long grass then sinking again. He will not look too closely. The killing of the snake has upset him about as much as his own close escape. Not that it feels like he’s
a close escape… all he’s aware of is that he’s just witnessed the killing of a wild animal.
The mother announces her pregnancy to the children.
You’re going to have a little brother or sister.
Her diary at this point is full of crying. It mentions a lot of rain, too.
They visit Rottnest Island, primarily to see the quokkas,
small mammals like kangaroos the size of rabbits, but they see none and, in fact, memories of visiting this island will fade quickly. The boy must’ve found it unexciting, and even when he returns to it thirty years on he will remember very little about it.
The boy likes the TV series
The Six Million Dollar Man
and watches it avidly. The only times he does not rush in to watch it is when he’s out kissing Jackie Thompson.
The boy’s teacher at school is called Mrs Lamont. They don’t think highly of each other. She writes in one of the boy’s reports that he wanders aimlessly around the classroom and will often simply walk away when she is talking to him. He ‘drifts’, she says, meaning both mentally and physically. He takes his revenge by introducing a character called Lee Mont into the book he is writing about a man-eating thresher shark. This character is attacked and eaten whilst diving on a reef. The shark devours him from the feet up, and when it reaches his torso, jets of blood pump from his snorkel. The boy is proud of this detail.
He makes friends with an aborigine girl. Two outsiders together. Thirty years later, the man the boy will become will wish, very much, that he could remember this girl’s name as clearly as he remembers her face.
The school he attends is called Tuart Hill. On the first day, the boy’s sister’s teacher is attacked by magpies; she has bright blonde hair and walks under the tree in which the birds are nesting. After that, she has to wrap a towel around her head whenever she walks to and from her car; evidently the magpies are angered by the colour of her hair. The boy finds this intriguing. In the playground one break-time, the boy watches ants dismember a redback spider and drag it down into their nest in a crack between two paving slabs. The spider’s bulbous
body will not fit but the ants pull and pull until it bursts and issues a greenish fluid. The boy feels sick but cannot look away. Two older girls stop by him and say in a sarcastic tone:
Oh, veeeerry interesting.
The boy remains squatting. Their bare brown feet are close to his face. He feels a bit foolish, but remains enthralled by the ants. He sees the girls’ feet. He’s enthralled by them, too, feet, ants, feet, ants. He looks from one to the other.
The mother works in the school’s tuckshop. She sells small salty crackers pasted in either jam or Vegemite for one cent each. The boy often buys twenty; ten Vegemite, ten jam. Eats them all and feels queasy, but again buys twenty the next day.
The brother befriends a fat boy, Shane, who never wears shoes and who has a glass eye. He often skips school, this boy, preferring instead to sniff petrol with another barefoot boy, Bruce. The brother is disturbed by this, as is our boy when he is told about it. Sniffing petrol. What happens when you sniff petrol? How does that make you feel? Nicer than normal?
At this point, the family has been in Australia a little over a year. A year. Two Christmases. It feels like a lifetime.
The brother steals foreign coins from a classroom, and buries them at the base of a tree in the school grounds. At assembly the following day, the headmaster announces that they’ve been found.
There’s a thief in our midst,
Someone must know who he is.
The boy suppresses a chortle.
They visit Yanchep National Park and the crystal caves. There is a chip shop in Yanchep village overlooking the sea at which they often eat, but sometimes they will make use of the barbecue facilities in the park. One day, at a picnic bench, the father is about to bite into a sausage when a kookaburra swoops and snatches it from his fork, an inch before his face.
Uproar and hilarity. The family is delighted by this. There are swimming pools in Yanchep and the boy comes to them with his school. Fighting a fear of water, he dresses up in a snorkel, mask, flippers, rubber ring and armbands before he enters the pool. But he eventually beats his fear. Drowning wasps sting him. The family goes out on the park’s lake on a rowing boat to watch the turtles swim beneath them.
Trig Beach, where the children snorkel in the rock pools. Quinn’s Rocks, where they walk or spend a day, sprinting barefoot and yelping across the sun-scalded tarmac of the car park.
The brother joins a boxing club, and in 1976 wins a trophy. He never forgets the name of his opponent: Conrad Frankie. The boy watches the fight from a front-row seat and finds it thrilling. Thinks that maybe one day he, too, would like to box. Some distant point in the future.
Wanneroo Lion Park. They have their photograph taken holding a baby lion.
At the top of each page of the mother’s diary is a motivational phrase, and the one for September 15th – three days after the boy’s tenth birthday – reads ‘work conquers all’. This will blink back into his memory in a decade’s time when he starts to read about the Second World War and Europe under Nazi occupation. Work conquers all. So said Australia, in 1976.
In October there’s an eclipse of the sun. The boy is taught how to make a pinhole camera at school, but most parents keep their children indoors. If you’re told that you absolutely must not look at the sun, the ten-year-old you will look at it. So the parents keep their children indoors, all curtains closed.
Jets fly over the city, one dusk. One pilot, as he roars up into the sky, leaves his after-burners on. Thousands of people as one gasp.
Accumulation of sight and sound and taste and touch. A life is made then measured in a million drips and drops.
8 Elizabeth Road, in Wanneroo, still stands. More – it’s barely changed. I have a photograph if it, thirty years old, but it could’ve been taken yesterday, so unchanged is the house. The facade is exactly the same. I’m amazed. A man’s working in the garden. Me and Tony and Higgy approach him and show him the photograph, tell him what we’re doing, our reasons for being there, etc. He looks at the picture and it’s his turn to be amazed. He’s from New Zealand. His name’s Toby McAnally. He invites us in to look around but asks us to excuse the mess: ‘she’ll clear it up later, when she comes back from work’, he says.
Ah, our enlightened antipodean friends. No wonder Germaine Greer left. Although I wish that she’d go back, to be honest.
The back garden has been changed, has been raised and patioed, although the black boy bush is still there under which we buried a cat after he’d been run over. His bones’ll still be there, maybe. On the night he died, he leapt up onto the outside windowsill of my bedroom and pressed himself against the mosquito screen. I close my eyes and see his tabby fur sticking through the mesh and then I go down the side recess of the garden to stand at that window. I once slept behind there. In that room, there. And my cat once stood on that ledge. Cat long gone. Me still here. Kind of. Toby tells us that he bought the house a few years ago off an English couple who’d let it ‘go to rack and ruin’; he had to take seventeen
trailer-loads of garbage out of the back garden. We look inside. There’s the cupboard and laundry room in which two of our other cats had kittens. Tiny, weeny kittens. One of the cats developed mastitis so my mum had to feed the kittens out of a bottle. I was entranced by them. There’s a brass cockatoo on the wall in precisely the same place where we kept a real cockatoo, Georgie, an incessant screecher of a bird. There’s the arch in which my sister, Nicola, as a baby, would entertain herself, and us, in her suspended bouncy chair. She’d cackle uproariously as she bounced, for hours on end. I picture her there, as a tiny baby. Picture the kittens in the hallway, all of them scampering as one back into the cupboard when something startled them. Picture all of us younger, much younger, mum and dad, brother, sisters, myself, in this room, watching telly, doing jigsaws, playing games.
We leave. The patch of bushland at the end of the road, that’s still there, too. It used to contain a half-burnt out tree with a hollow in its trunk in which we made a den and in which I stayed for a couple of days after reading a book called
My Side of the Mountain
(author long forgotten), about a boy who runs away into the American wilderness. I got sick after eating
sausages cooked in the old aborigine way – wrapped in eucalyptus leaves and buried beneath a fire – and had a tick bury itself in my leg. I remember gouging it out, twisting it, ripping it out; it left a scar, a small purple blotch like a birthmark, that I have to this day. There was a pond in this bit of bush, too, at which I once thought I’d caught a glimpse of a platypus, but some of the scrub has been built on now and I can’t find the pond. And I imagine that the tree has fallen and rotted away.
I’m feeling a mite peculiar. The house looked exactly the
same. The bush didn’t, but it nevertheless pushed back into me the sense of pure and tangled adventure in which I seemed to mostly live, those days. Of course we age. We get old and we die. But how many of us regress like this, to the other side of the planet, to revisit ourselves at a distance of three decades and 12,000 miles? My head’s what, I don’t know, no; the feeling’s not in my head, it’s in my lungs. Creeping up into the pipes of my face.
We drive to the school. Higgy’s borrowed a car from the daughter of his sister, and her husband, Tommy, a lilac girly car with ‘Hot Shot’ written on the side. Three burly blokes inside it. What does he think we look like? I’m laughing. I put my
on and tie a bandanna around my neck just to look a little gayer. Think about buying a bushy fake moustache. We drive out to the old school and I go into reception where a nice lady, after I’ve explained to her what I’m doing there, tells me to come back later, after the kids have gone, which is understandable. The leathery green leaves of the plants, the prehistoric-looking ferns. I’m seeing these things again. The long sloping hill that leads up to the school; I remember my grandfather walking up that hill in the intense heat, dripping with sweat, carrying a bag full of
Coke to meet us after school.