Across the Bass Strait

WE HAD DINNER in the canteen and there were wooden tables and the chairs didn't move. They were stuck to the floor somehow.

Mum was quiet and my brother was quiet and when we finished eating a man in a white uniform came over and said that the ship was going through the heads soon and that the forecast was for very rough seas. He was only looking at Mum when he spoke. He told her that it was advisable to get the children to bed as soon as possible.

My brother fell asleep quickly, his small body tucked in tight on the top bunk. But I lay awake waiting for the rough seas. Waiting to see what they would feel like – so far down. Flights and flights of stairs down from the canteen and from the windows that looked out to the sky. And down where we were, there were no windows. Down where we were, there were only fluoro lights and bunk beds. The bathroom was down the hall and Mum had left us. She was upstairs somewhere, upstairs above us where there was air and I wished that she would come back.

Only I must have fallen asleep because when I woke the whole world was rocking and shaking and I was rolling in my bed. Not just from side to side, but up and down as well. Mum's bed was still made and she wasn't there.

When I tried to get out of bed, I fell down and was sick on the floor. My brother was looking down at me, his hands stuck fast around the railings of the bunk bed, his face white like death.

'Where's Mum?' he asked, but I didn't know.

He got down somehow, down from the bunk and he didn't fall. He stood holding on to the bed as the room turned over and over and he got a towel off Mum's bed and put it over the vomit on the floor. He helped me up and in our pyjamas we made it out the door and into the hall. Together we fell against the walls as the boat lunged and we slowly moved towards the stairs. Up and up, holding on to the rail. Up to the deck where the canteen was.

There was hardly anyone around, only a few people sitting in the carpeted lounge – sitting with their heads in their hands. The canteen was empty and I could not tell what time it was. But outside the windows it was dark.

Outside it was black.

Mum was sitting by herself on a bench attached to the wall of the ship under a Perspex roof. We sat next to her holding on to the bottom of the bench. I told Mum that I had been sick and she wiped my forehead and cheek and said, 'I'm sorry. I'm so sorry,' and it looked like she was crying. She said it was just the sea spray and the cold. And it was cold. It was freezing and the wind cut into my back like I had no skin at all. I could hear the water crack against the ship, feel it hit then hear the spray shoot up. Only I couldn't see it. I couldn't see anything past the light cast out on the deck. Out there the world was raging in the blackness.

We were going to a new place.

We were sailing towards it in the night.

An island in the middle of the sea.

An island that was made of stone.

It was only this ship that was keeping us safe. Only thin layers of steel and an engine pumping away in the night that was keeping us above the water that would gladly swallow us all up like we had never ever been.



WE LIVED IN a B&B. It was where we stayed when we first arrived, after we got off the bus that drove though flat farming land and towns made of stones and old red bricks. Mum used the payphone at the bus terminal. She rang a place that was advertised on the information board and made a reservation. Abbey House B&B.

I don't think it was very far away but we had two big suitcases and my brother was tired, so we all got into a taxi that was waiting out the front of the bus station.

The taxi driver was a very big man. He was wearing a clean blue shirt and the buttons looked like they might pop open around his belly. He asked if it was our first time to 'The Island' and my brother said yes, but my mum said no. I sat in the back seat and tried to imagine Mum being here before, maybe with Dad or maybe when she was young with her parents, but I could not see it. I didn't know this place.

It seemed to be only a few minutes in the taxi. We went up a steep hill and then around some curved streets and we were there. Battery Point.

'You will be able to walk to the market from here come Saturday,' the man said. He helped my mum with the suitcases.

Mrs Wilson owned the B&B and she was very nice to us. She made my brother and me a cooked breakfast every morning and we ate it at the breakfast bar. It looked out to the rose garden – a cottage garden. It was a cottage, the B&B, an old wooden cottage with a white picket fence and everything. It was just about the nicest place I had ever lived, except that we didn't really live there. We were just staying there.

I liked staying there.

We stayed in a guest room for a week and then we moved to a room at the back of the house that Mrs Wilson let us have for free. She told my mum that it was just until we got on our feet – until we got settled. I didn't know what that really meant. She still wanted to make my brother and I a cooked breakfast every morning, but Mum said we should just have cereal and be polite.


MUM FOUND A house to rent three doors down on the same street about two weeks later. It was maybe the worst house in Battery Point. There were no other houses like it – dark and faded, set back in the shadows of the tall grand houses around it. And Mum had to rent out a room to afford the rent. The front room. The only nice room. My brother and I shared the attic which had a slanting roof. It was okay except the wallpaper was peeling in parts near the ceiling and the only toilet was in the back garden and I didn't like going down there in the dark, or even in the day much. But the garden had a huge walnut tree that our attic window looked out to, and when the walnuts were ripe my brother and I would stuff ourselves, eat them until our mouths were itchy and we could eat no more. Then we would smash more walnuts open and scatter them around the garden for the birds – for the forest ravens that were waiting in the tree.

I missed the B&B – how warm it was there, how bright. And sometimes after school, when my brother and I walked home from the ferry, Mrs Wilson would be waiting at the gate, and she'd call us in, tea and cakes waiting.



MUM DROVE US up to the top of the mountain in the new car.

Her Danish friend, Bo, could only just fit in the front seat even though my brother and I were small enough for him to push his seat right back. The car only had two doors. You had to pull the passenger seat forward to get in and out of the back. But we had not had a car the whole time we had lived in Hobart and it was nice to be driving and looking out of the window. The road took us up slowly in wide circles of green to Ferntree and then onto a steep rocky road where the trees thinned out until there were just shrubs and huge boulders and the sky, which was clear.

When we got to the top, Mum parked the car and we all got out. Bo stretched his legs. He jumped up and down on the spot and clapped his hands together.

'Cold up here,' he said.

My brother pulled his beanie out of his pocket and put it on. I zipped up my parka and put the hood over my head.

I had only been to the top of the mountain once with school and we had walked there from Ferntree. It was a long walk and it was very cold all the way. We had to huddle from the wind behind rocks and cook our lunch on Trangia stoves that ran on methylated spirits. We cooked Two Minute noodles and ate them quickly and they were good even though everything smelt a bit like metho. After lunch we were warmer and it was easier to walk the rest of the way up.

Our outdoor education teacher, Mr Janik, told us that the wind chill at the top of the mountain, even on a very sunny day, could take the temperature down by 15 degrees and could cause hypothermia in no time.

'You lose most of your heat from your head,' he told us. 'You must protect your head.'

I asked Bo if he had a hat, but he said no.

'I am very used to the cold,' he said and he winked at me.

Past the car park, flat square rocks ran on like a giant's pavement and they went for as far as you could see. We started to walk on them and up close the rocks had cracks and crevices large enough for shrubs to grow in between and the surfaces were covered in circles of white and grey lichen. The sun was shining down on the rocks and that felt good even though the wind was taking away the heat. We walked on the rocks and looked down the mountain at Hobart and the river. It was a clear view, not like when I had come up with school. That day we had not been able to see anything but cloud and the wind was so strong that you could lean right into it and not fall over.

Mum and my brother stopped walking after a few minutes and said they were going back to the car because Mum was cold. Bo and I kept walking. He walked easily on the giant rocks and I kept up. I had my walking boots on. Soon the crevices got big enough that we could jump down into them. It was like a maze of rocks and it was sheltered from the wind. I noticed that there were lizards on the rocks – skinks the colour of rust, eyes wide and still, trying to get warm.

Bo sat down in the sun and looked out towards the back of the mountain.

'You could easily get lost here,' he said, 'even though you are on a mountain.'

'Yes,' I said. And people did get lost up here. Sometimes they even died.

I looked out at the endless square shapes cracked and worn by a million years of wind and rain. The rock I sat on felt cold against my hands. I wondered how cold the rocks became at night, if the lichen on them froze and what happened to the skinks then. Where did they go at night? Some of the stones were shaded by larger stones and they would never see the sun at all. They were hidden and stuck in the shadows. Never to be touched by the light.

'I guess we should go back,' Bo said and he stood up. He took my hand and helped me up and together we climbed out of the labyrinth.

Back on the flat slabs of granite, the wind had died down and it really did feel warmer now. We walked back slowly to the car and I could see parts of the Derwent river below, reflecting the sun so brightly that it made me squint. The water looked like melted gold.

'I like this mountain,' Bo said. 'Denmark, is very flat. Very flat. But we are just small and there are mountains all around us. The countries around us are giant mountains and if we want to go to the mountains, well then we don't have very far to go. We just take a ferry and we are there – in the mountains.'

Then Bo started to laugh so hard that it made me laugh too, even though I didn't know what was so funny.

But I thought that I liked the mountain too, that it was nice to look up and see it when it wanted to be seen. Because it could disappear whenever it felt like it – be completely gone under thick cloud or fog, making Hobart flatter, greyer. And when the mountain would re-emerge it would be different. Changed. Maybe dusted with snow – or just a dark raw shape – a face of long stones. But sometimes it would be golden with the sun – lit up under a blue open sky. Cold and clear and full of light, radiating out.

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