Seal-skin

Yallingup photo

Young Jimmy­-Jack rose early, before the sun, as was his habit. Splashed water over his head from the barrel under the eaves then shook himself off, like a dog, head-to-tail. Pulled a t-shirt off the clothesline and used it to dry his face; put it on.

Washed and Dressed (ready for The Dawning)

He grabbed an apple from the bowl in the kitchen then set off, jogging down the steep scrubby hillside to the creek. It was cool and dark in the narrow valley at the bottom, the grass growing lush under the heavy canopy of old peppermint trees. Jimmy-Jack stopped to polish his apple, listening to the birds’ sleepy chirpings, the water’s whispering. He smiled and chomped into his apple, following his own well-stamped path through the grass, his feet getting wet with dew. On the other side of the creek, the Pub Gardens were all shadowy curved embankments, lawns neatly-mowed and edged with fancy flowering shrubs. And the silvery slate stairway, zigzagging its way down the long steep hill past rose-arbours and viewing seats and pavilions, until the last step took you onto a sealed path and over the little wooden bridge.

On the other side of the creek – Jimmy-Jack’s side – the path was gravelly, little outcroppings of limestone creating dips and rises on the surface. The Locals liked calling it ‘The Ghost Trail’, though no one really knew why. One of them must’ve got spooked there years ago, mis-stepping on the way home from the pub, dodging shadows under a full moon, blaming the supernatural rather than a couple too many pints.

Jimmy-Jack had his own name for the track, not that he’d ever use it with The Locals. It was a private thing, given him by his father, who was given it by his father, who’d been given it by all the mothers and fathers before him. Part of the family lore.

So mostly, Jimmy-Jack just called it The Ghost Trail like everyone else.

This time of year – late summer – the creek wasn’t much more than a trickle flowing sluggishly around exposed river-stones. But it still flowed, and that’s what was important. It was one of the things Jimmy-Jack liked to check every morning.

Creek Still Flowing

At the end of The Ghost Trail the creek did a tricky thing, flowing into a pipe and going underground, below the road, then coming up again on the other side. At this point, Jimmy-Jack felt like he wanted to go underground too, and not break the bond between him and the running water. Instead he had to skip quickly across the road then rock-hop his way over the boulders, trying to track where the creek would emerge on this day. You never knew, had to keep an eye out, no two days the same.

And then there it was – the creek again! Springing out from under a tumble of aeons-weathered boulders and sort of spreading out over the rocks and limestone, flowing into the chains of rock-pools and merging with the salty water, then finally flowing into the ocean.

It was tricky following the fresh water once it was on the limestone ledge, but Jimmy-Jack had the eyes to spot it. It was another thing given him by his father. “Just there, Son, see how it makes its way, not quite mixing, until that big salty ocean claims it.”

Yes. Jimmy-Jack Could See.

Once he’d seen the creek to its ultimate destination – The Great Wide Ocean – Jimmy-Jack turned around and looked back at the township perched on the hillside. All those big houses with their big windows and big verandahs and big cars parked out the front.

When Jimmy-Jack had been a little boy there’d only been a few humble fishing-shacks nestled under the melaleucas, but that was a long time ago, before the City-Folk had got interested in Ocean Views. If Jimmy-Jack squinted – just so – he could imagine all the big houses disappeared, leaving just the scrubby hillside of his youth.

Jimmy-Jack knew the sun was rising up from the curve of the earth, on the other side of The Cape; he could tell because the greyness was lightening, everything in the landscape becoming more defined. Now it was time to walk over the reef and the rocks to the beach and Interact With The Locals.

First was Old Tom.

Old Tom came down at dawn every morning, usually with a longboard tucked under his arm. “Morning James,” Tom would say. And Jimmy-Jack would reply, “Morning Tom” then “swell’s up – better get out there before the crowd arrives” or “no swell, just a swim this morning, eh?” depending.

“Too right!” Tom would reply, before going and jumping in the ocean.

But this time, Old Tom paused before heading out into the surf. “How’s your father, James?” he asked. “I haven’t seen him around for a while.”

Jimmy-Jack looked up, surprised, then looked down, his eyes scanning over the sand to the lagoon and on to the waves rising up cleanly beyond the reef. “Oh, he’s all right, Tom. He’s been away for a bit. Business down the coast. You know how he is.”

“Mmph,” said Tom. “Yes I do. Well, give him my regards when you see him.”

“Will do,” said Jimmy-Jack, looking up and giving Tom his Sunny Smile, the one everyone liked so much. “You have a good surf, yeah? Waves are looking pretty good now, but the breeze’ll be in soon.”

Tom smiled back at him, and Jimmy-Jack felt everything click back into place.

“Off you go then,” said Tom. “And I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.”

“Sure will!”

Jimmy-Jack watched Tom make his way out to The Main Break, paddling his board across the lagoon then tucking it under his arm as he picked his way over the reef to the jump-off spot. He thought about his father, trying to picture his face. How long since he’d seen The Old Man? He couldn’t remember. What did he look like? He wasn’t sure.

Pete-from-the-Pub jogged by, calling out a cheery ‘morning Jack’ and pulling Jimmy-Jack out of his reverie.

“Morning Pete!” Jimmy-Jack called back. “Got your shark-repelling wetsuit on?”

“Always do, Jacky-boy, always do. You gonna let me teach you how to surf today?”

“Nah, looks a bit big today. Maybe tomorrow. Catch a wave for me though, yeah?”

“Always do, Jack, always do.”

Then the rest of The Locals came by, and a few City-Folk too, not so many now that summer was almost over. Jimmy-Jack gave them The Nod or his Sunny Smile, depending on how well he knew them. And they smiled back, or waved, or called out a ‘Morning Jack’ or a ‘Morning Jimmy’ or ignored him depending on how well they knew him.

But the familiar routine didn’t feel right. Something was amiss.

He heard The Yoga-Lady call out her Good Morning, encouraging her yoga group to Give Thanks and Be Present for their Daily Practice. The Yoga-Lady made Jimmy-Jack giggle inside, telling the Yoga-People to ‘Stretch high, higher! Find your centre and keep it strooong’, and ‘Up dog! Lower your hips and arch your back’, then ‘Down dog! Bottoms in the air and push baaack’.

Usually at this time, Jimmy-Jack would make his way up to the Viewing Deck where he could watch The Surfers and listen to the Yoga-Lady call out her instructions at the same time.

But Tom’s talk of The Old Man had got Jimmy-Jack unsettled. Restless. Instead of going to the Viewing Deck, he found himself walking along the beach, heading to the granite boulders, where the coast got all rocky.

The wet sand was cool and crunchy under his feet and he walked close to the water, letting the gentle waves that rolled off the lagoon wash around his ankles. It was cold but it felt nice, so he went a little deeper, until the water was up around his calves. It made his skin tingle and his stomach clench, but he persisted, feeling brave and daring.

Then he was past the reef and the waves got bigger and rougher, rolling in from the Deep Ocean and crashing onto the sand in a wild wash of creamy-white foam. The Locals called this stretch of beach ‘Rabbit Hill’. In summer, when all The Tourists were in town, the Surf Lifesavers set up their flags and patrolled the beach to make sure no one got sucked out to sea in a rip, and to make sure no one got hurt if they were dumped by a wave. Jimmy-Jack eyed the crashing surf warily and retreated to the edge of the dry sand.

The beach was still empty along here. No dog-walkers out yet, and the waves too dumpy today to tempt The Surfers away from The Main Break. Jimmy-Jack kept half an eye on the waves – the tide was turning – and the other half-eye on the granite outcrop that was his goal. Looking at the rock made him feel safer. It was solid, dependable; it didn’t move.

He walked. A falcon hovered above the scrubby dunes, probably hunting one of those rabbits the hill was named after. The sand squeaked under his feet, still cold. Then the sun crept over the ridge of the cape, making the scrub glow green-gold. The air got warmer, a whisper of breeze touching his cheek. The granite rock got bigger. He walked.

Then he was at the limestone cliff, its surface all scalloped and pointy, creeping plants with their bright pink flowers hanging down from the high edges. The sand was in shadow here, cold and damp. He walked up to the granite boulder and spread his arms wide, trying to hold it. Its surface was cool and rough against the skin on his arms, on his cheek. Solid, dependable. The ocean couldn’t eat it away like it did to the limestone.

The tide was still far enough out for the boulder to be fully exposed. Jimmy-Jack decided it was safe to go a bit further. He remembered exploring rock-pools with The Old Man, just a little way along; he’d go there again. So he skirted the rock and walked along the beach, trying to find a memory that would help him know what to expect. But the memories were fragmentary, kept sliding away.

Brown eyes and a whiskery face.

The smell of salty wet fur, seaweed, fish.

An octopus grabbing a crab off the rock – quick as a flash! – then disappearing back into the rock-pool – gone!

A knife prising an abalone from a rock, rubbery flesh in his mouth, a salty taste.

An arm pointing out to sea and a voice saying ‘Look Son, see that spray rising out there? That’s a whale coming up for a breath’ and Jimmy-Jack looking and looking but not seeing.

Jimmy-Jack walked. And then, there it was – the rock-pool! And there were the crabs scuttling over the rocks, just as he remembered them! Jimmy-Jack crouched down to watch, hoping to see an octopus emerge and grab his breakfast. Little fish flitted in and out of the weed and there were anemones and black sea-snails and those creamy-ridged shells that stuck to the rocks. He waited and waited, barely breathing – but no octopus this time.

Then a wave washed around his ankles, reminding him that the tide was coming in and that it wasn’t safe to linger too long. He stood up and looked out over the ocean and thought about the whales, but it was the wrong season for the whales to be swimming by.

Another wave washed around his ankles, making him shiver. He should probably go back, before the incoming tide covered the sand around his big granite boulder, cutting him off. But his thoughts were on those abalone on the rocks, and he knew they were just a little further on. So he kept walking.

The beach broadened a little, making Jimmy-Jack feel safer even though the limestone cliffs towered above him and the waves kept creeping higher, washing over the sand. Then he saw a tumble of small granite boulders, and knew that beyond them was The Place where his father had found the abalone. His pace quickened and he felt his Sunny Smile spreading across his face. It was here! He remembered!

He scrambled over the rocks, full of anticipation, and found

And Found

              and found a small body covered in silvery brown fur.

No. Half a body.

A seal. Just a pup. Dead. So dead. That ripped flesh…

Continue reading

Walhalla Gravestone

Walhalla Grave

Patrick died October 17 1886 – aged 46 years

Alice died June 28 1887 – aged 41 years

Their children

John died January 3 1886 – aged 14 years

Ellen died April 25 1886 – aged 12 years

Gerald died November 3 1887 – aged 13 months

Erected by their son and brother Richard

 

It was John that went first, in the middle of that long hot summer. In life he was their bold young man with a job in town, bringing in that little bit extra to help make ends meet. But death revealed him to be just a boy, forevermore.

Was it a random accident – an ill-fated kick from a runaway horse, or a misstep that sent him tumbling down the hillside to the deep gully below?

‘As the Lord wills’, said the priest, and they buried him in the cemetery on the hill. Life went on. Come April, Alice realised she was pregnant again. She’d thought – hoped – that Matthew would be her last.

‘Life in death’, said the neighbours, but their well-meant words brought no comfort with Ellen now taken ill. And was that the fever that was spreading through town? God knows, it was hard to keep clean and you couldn’t trust the water, even after boiling, what with the shit and rubbish of 4000 bodies all ending up in the creek that was the only source of water for the town.

By the end of April, Ellen was gone too, and did Richard watch his grieving parents, not coping, as Alice’s belly swelled again? And what of Young Patrick, with a brother on one side and a sister on the other – both gone? Did he feel the weight of responsibility rest heavy on his 13-year-old shoulders?

That winter was long and harsh, like the summer before it, bitter cold of grief replacing the life-sapping heat. Paddy worked the mine; he had a good job there, he was manager now. But his days were long, and little of the wealth he saw dragged from that hard ground came his way.

Did he dream of finding that one lucky nugget, secreting it away from his boss? Did he dream of taking his remaining children, his pregnant wife, and leaving this cold remote valley? Did he dream of buying some land in the broad fertile plains of Latrobe? Buy some cows, buy some chickens, till the soil, plant and grow; not dig through it in desperate hope and fear.

The child within his wife grew large, taking all the sustenance Alice’s grieving body could give. Her pale face and sad eyes belied the health of the life inside.

And what was it that took her husband, her precious Paddy? Did he start coming home late from the mine, lingering in town, finding ease for his sorrow at the bottom of a bottle? Was it an October storm and the spring thaw from the mountains turning Stringers Creek into a raging torrent that caught him out, swept him away, with his body only found days later, far downstream?

Did Paddy ever see his last child, or was baby Gerald born in that same storm? Did the midwife attend Alice as 11-year-old Margaret watched on, or was Margaret sent from the room with instructions to attend to little William and Matthew? And what of Richard and Young Patrick? Were they sent out into that dark night to find their father – and failing – coming home to the wails of a newborn?

Or was Patrick Walsh Gilsenan a stoic man: dutiful, attentive and loving, doting on his wife and many children? Was it an accident in the mines – no fault of Paddy’s – that snuffed out his life?

‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away’, said the priest, but that was cold comfort for Alice. The warmth of a suckling babe couldn’t take the chill from her bed as Paddy had done.

She named the babe Gerald John, after his lost brother.

Now Richard was the head of the family, and Patrick his only lieutenant. How did they cope, at 17 and 15, with a nursing mother lost in grief and four younger siblings? Did they remain in the town or strike out to find work, sending what they could home to their family?

Was their absence the last straw for Alice, with a suckling babe drawing all strength from her ailing body? Did she grow thin and then thinner, as she tried to care for her brood? Desperate, did she wean baby Gerald too early, and too late, as the cold settled in her chest and the hacking cough turned to pneumonia?

She died in the depths of yet another dreary winter, and really, what hope was there for baby Gerald after that?

And what of the children left behind, both fatherless and motherless now. Did the neighbours take pity, show compassion, take the little ones in? Did they grow up hale and hearty, despite that terrible two years of loss? Did they stay in that cold narrow valley where the sun only shines for a few short hours, even in the height of summer? Or did they venture out, find enough love and fortune to outweigh their sorrow, leaving their lost loved ones to weather as names etched on a headstone on a steep hillside of a valley that remains remote and lonely to this day?

Walhalla cemetery

NB My respect and apologies to the descendants of Patrick Walsh Gilsenan and Alice Marion (nee Quinn) for my musings on the lives of their forebears, but coming across their ancestors’ gravestone in the old cemetery at Walhalla moved me to imagine their lives during those two tragic years.

My research uncovered the names and birth-dates of their eight children – the close dates of the births juxtaposing against significant gaps between the 5th and 6th child and the 7th and 8th child leads me to suspect that Alice had more pregnancies but suffered several miscarriages.

Interestingly, historical records show Gerald John as being born in 1887, which doesn’t fit with the record of his age-at-death as shown on the gravestone. I suppose that Gerald’s birth wasn’t officially recorded until some months after – not surprising considering the close proximity of his birth to his father’s death.

The Victorian Police Gazette for the quarter ending March 1886 lists ‘Gilsenan, Patrick Walshe, larceny as a bailee from 93, 101,109’ – I’m not sure what the numbers mean but the listing certainly adds to the drama of the Gilsenan family’s life at that time.

Records from the Walhalla Heritage and Development League reveal that Margaret Kathleen Gilsenan (b. 1875) married William Keirnan and the couple had two children. I presume they remained in Walhalla.

Other research revealed that on the 8th of May 1894, Richard Gilsenan (son of  the late Patrick Walsh Gilsenan, miner and mine manager, of Walhalla) married Kate Edwards, the daughter of  Charles Edwards (manager of ‘Fortune’s Hustler’, a goldmine in Bendigo). Richard obviously struck out from Walhalla at some stage, but remained on the hunt for gold…

 

a brief glimpse into someone’s brain

I found it on the ground by the side of the footpath
wet and fragile after overnight rain
carefully picked it up, read it
as I hurried to make the tram
two pages, stuck together
neat dot-points, all caps

it read:

  • HEADLICE
  • BOB DYLAN (LAWYER)
  • MAT LEAVE RESTRUCTURE
  • GLASS CEILING WIDE
  • LOST
  • UTOPE SEXIST
  • BLUNT CUT YOUR ORANGES
  • FOOTY FASTEST GROWING

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY

(the other side) (different pen)

  • External HARD DRIVE:—    32GB
  • Photo Print Ruby
  • Dee Books – Photos, cup, flowers, card,etc, MORNING TEA?
  • Lilly BALL + Tissue Paper
  • $ Toni
  • Photo Ruby

A lost list, work in progress

Did they remember?

Have the kids still got lice?
Was the lawyer’s advice good or just  blowin’ in the wind?
Did Mat get leave or was the glass ceiling too wide?
What’s lost? (apart from the list) and what’s a ‘utope sexist’??
Were the oranges cut right at footy training and who got the prize for growing?
Did they go to Officeworks, get the right hard drive, remember the photo for Ruby?
Dee’s morning tea?
Is Lilly a person or a cat? and did Toni get the money?

I sure hope Ruby got her photo

and Mum was remembered on the day

Cookin’

Yeah
we’re cookin’ in the kitchen
and we’re stirring up the words
and the rebellion of the moment
disappears beneath the herbs

and we’re spicing up our living
with the fire on our tongues
and the manifesto menu
will explode from out our bums

and the pot that over-boiled
and was spattered on the stove
gives a picture of the moment
of politicos that pose

and they give us words of sugar
that they cover under treacle
and the food of thought is nothing
like the stuff they feed the people

So we’re cookin’ in the kitchen
and the coffee’s black and strong
and the cake that we are baking
we’ll distribute for a song

and the song will be a rally
that will draw them from the telly
and replace the crap from Maccas
that is stuffing up their belly

Then we’ll lead them to our kitchen
and we’ll teach ’em how to cook

Needles and Pins

staglieno_30072015_18_monteverde_oneto_angel

The Angel wasn’t dancing.
It was sitting, arms wrapped around knees, the head of the pin cool and smooth under its bottom, as it stared out over the desert. Contemplating wasn’t the word. Angels don’t tend toward contemplation; their nature isn’t so much to contemplate as to observe then act. Or just to be sent, the un-killable messenger, armed with symbolic accoutrements: Divine Light, trumpets, flaming swords – that sort of thing.

The light in the desert wasn’t divine but it was beautiful. Soft, like water gently flowing; clear, like a cleanly struck bell. Grains of sand stood out in the Angel’s vision; small sounds, the movements of small animals, whispered in the Angel’s ears. It sighed, its breath merging with the air.

“In vino veritas,” it said, without really knowing why, other than the wine being more significant than the truth.

“Drinking won’t change anything you know. Not beyond the momentary. One shouldn’t pin one’s hopes on wine,” said the camel, correctly divining the Angel’s barely formed thought.

The Angel looked at the camel, briefly wondering how the desert appeared when seen through the eye of a needle. Or how an Angel appeared to the eyes of a camel. The camel’s eyes were large and brown and kind. It looked like the sort of camel that wouldn’t be bothered by the physical complications of metaphysical conundrums. The moment lingered, and the world was still.

Then the camel blinked, long curled lashes falling and rising.

“I was in a dream once you know,” he said. “I was blue, not sure why, and I was being helpful. Offering to carry things, but really, just being there. You know, present.”

He paused, considering the effects of his words, the gender that had come upon him. He wondered if that happened to angels too, if gender was assigned by the observer, the dreamer, the beseecher and receiver of messages. Divine intervention. It seemed a bit arbitrary. He toed the sand, suddenly restless.

“It’s this thing with being allegorical,” said the Angel, then stopped.

It didn’t really know where to go from there, wasn’t even sure if the camel–needle–rich man–heaven thing was even, in fact, an allegory. Maybe it was a simile, or a metaphor, or both, or neither. But the camel in the dream was an allegory, definitely, and the angel on the pin, or the needle or whatever. The pointy thing with not much room.

The dancing, however, was just for laughs. A flippant remark. A joke to be snorted at, with accompanying nudgings of elbows and wagglings of eyebrows and “gotcha there, didn’t I?”s. The Angel wasn’t sure how it felt about being the butt of… whatever it was. It wiggled a bit on the head of the pin, feeling, for a moment, frictionless. The danger of sliding. Falling, even. And that would never do. Or would it?

The Angel took a healthy slug of the wine. It rasped a little on the back of the throat, leaving a lingering flavour of diesel and dark plum on the upper palate and a slight fizz on the end of the tongue.

“It didn’t matter who I was, in the dream I mean,” said the camel. “It wasn’t my dream. I was just a guest. Passing through. I didn’t have to do anything. No special attributes, no purpose. Sure, I offered my services to carry some stuff, but that’s what I do. Not every camel would’ve done that, I know. As a species we can be recalcitrant. But I’m generally considered to be on the easy-going side. I don’t spit, not unless someone really deserves it. No point in making life hard, just for kicks.”

“‘Kicking against the pricks’, is that what I’m doing?” wondered the Angel aloud. “At least I’m on a pin, not a needle. I have that much control.”

“Control,” said the camel, “is ephemeral.” He stamped once or twice on the sand, wishing he had hands to just grab the bottle from the Angel, wishing for… What?

“It wasn’t my dream and it didn’t matter that I was blue. It wasn’t real to me, just to the dreamer. I was there, I looked her in the eyes, I was gone. A one night stand. Sure, she saw something that gave her comfort; sure, I lingered in her memory. Okay, so later, yes, I could feel her thinking of me, turning my existence over in her mind, puzzling away at some meaning. But it wasn’t my meaning. It was hers. I was done; I was outa there. Finito. End of dream.”

The Angel smiled. Reached over and tilted the bottle towards the camel’s lips. Tilted some more. The stretch was a little too far, and the Angel felt itself slide, felt itself fall, then land with a soft whumph on the sand. The camel had reared back at the sudden slosh of red wine down his gullet, but now stood complacent, licking his lips.

“You know, it doesn’t really matter either way,” he said.

“I know,” said the Angel. “Shall we dance?”