IN MY MIND'S eye, it all begins with the grass: long, wild-green and waving. Like a head of unruly hair parted and re-parted by the wind. I am seeing it still, bowing and tossing itself about above me on the hill, an almost indigo-blue sky behind, the cicadas roaring regimentally in a ring around my head.
The council are coming today to cut it down, they said at breakfast, and a good job too. You can hardly get out the gate. And the bloody snakes.
If you look out the front, the grass is all you can see from the hollow in the hill where Auntie May lives. Soon, my mother says, we will get our own house. We came up this hill for the first time not long ago. All the way here from South Wales. When the ship came into Brisbane I knew straight away this was a strange place. The first one I saw coming up the gang-plank was my cousin Harvey, smaller than me and dark-skinned, wearing a safari suit and a green pith helmet. Without a word or even a smile, he thrust a stuffed koala at me.
The taxi ride to Bardon took forever. Everything went into slow motion. A hot wind blew into our faces as we bumped along. I watched the beads of sweat forming along Harvey’s top lip. Everyone talked as if they had all day.
‘I’ll take youse all down Queen Street so the little fella can see the coloured lights,’ the taxi-driver said. I craned my neck obediently round as we passed a blinking sign of a man in long trousers, smiling and striding along but getting nowhere. The driver seemed very pleased with it, though it wasn’t a patch on Piccadilly Circus.
Heavy black clouds followed us along the winding streets. Soon there were fewer buildings and more and more trees. Were we heading right into the Australian bush? The road was potholed and unlighted. We crossed an old bridge and with a grinding of gears went up the hill: Outlook Crescent, on the side of a dark mountain. Trees everywhere now and noise – peals of thunder and a surging racket of insects and frogs. Fat drops of rain hit the windscreen as we came to a halt.
Behind a wavering torch beam we edged our way down a slippery, uneven slope towards the house. A white lightning flash showed us everything for a second as the rain came pouring down.
‘Will youse be right?’ the driver called as he started off.
I AM WAITING here all dressed and ready to go. But the grass holds me with its scooping and bending, its ruffle of confusion as the wind turns. After weeks of heavy rain it couldn’t be greener. It stands tall, guarding the house. The road above is rutted and slippery with red mud. And all around, the darker earth, rich and steamy with moisture. The sun is everywhere.
‘Have you got your hat?’ my mother calls as she comes down the passage. ‘Don’t you go out there without your hat.’
The sun will strike me down if I go out there without my hat. It will give me sunstroke. But the grass will save me. It looks so cool and inviting. As high as my chin and still slick with rain. You could sink down into it and disappear.
Uncle Vernon comes through the kitchen singing ‘Rose of San Antone’ and onto the little porch where I am standing. ‘Well, I’m off!’ he declares to no one in particular. ‘Come on, Maisie, this boy needs to get to school.’ As he passes, he touches me lightly on the back of my neck. I have seen his teeth in a glass by the bed. Moon in all your splendour, he sings out loud. He is always singing about roses. Mexicali Rose, stop crying. Oh Rose Marie, I love you. Rosie, you are my posy. The one rose that dies not in Picardy. I know all the songs. I watch his wavy, Brylcreemed head bobbing away down the stairs. He is always off somewhere.
‘Have you got your bag?’ my mother asks, coming out. ‘There’s some sausage and pickle in your lunch. Now you sit quiet and eat it all properly before you start running around. Come here – you’ve gone all squiff.’ She thrusts a hand up the leg of my pants, lifting me onto my toes, and pulls my shirt down from the inside.
‘Leave me, Mam!’ I twist away and look quickly around in case someone has seen.
‘But why do I have to go?’ I ask as she takes my hand and we start down the steps.
‘You know why.’
‘But for how many more days, Mam?’
‘Lots of days.’
‘But I can teach myself to read. I’ve already started. And the wireless teaches me things too.’
‘Listen now,’ my mother says, ‘you want to learn to read books don’t you? And to write? You want to go to university one day? Be careful of this wet grass now.’
We are already on our way.
It is so long and thick you could tunnel through it. No one would find you in there – wet and slick like Uncle Vernon’s hair.
‘Now mind all this mud. Jesus Christ, this bloody place.’
‘SHE IS NEVER going to like it here,’ Dad says. She has complained
over and over from the start: this bloody place. She can’t stop sweltering, she says. She is burning up. And all this bush. They don’t even have decent roads.
The book about Australia that Uncle George gave me before we left home said that most things were exactly the same as in England. Even Australian letterboxes were red. And suddenly here we all are, covered in mosquito bites and in a continual bath of sweat. It didn’t mention that.
‘But there’s nothing here,’ my mother tells my father when he argues with her. ‘We don’t know anyone and you can’t even go for a walk. It’s either too hot in this bloody sun or it never stops raining and there’s not even a footpath or guttering. The bloody insects never shut up – and the chickens in the morning. We’ve come all this way for nothing – and we’ve got nothing. We haven’t got a penny.’
He sits on the bed looking down at the lino. ‘Well, we’re here now,’ is all he says. ‘So let’s try to make the most of it, eh?’
‘Are you whinging again in there, Maisie?’ Uncle Vernon calls out.
Izzy an Aussie, Izzy Ozzie? Izzy an Aussie, Izzy ay? Mam sings back at him in a comical voice, dancing jerkily across the bedroom.
If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
I look for the stoney, drier spots, not to get dirty marks on my Welsh sandals.
‘Careful with those shoes,’ my mother says. ‘They cost a small fortune.’
Behind us the grass is still dancing in the wind as we go down the hill.
Halfway down, a red cattle dog named Rusty always runs out low and growling. He is almost the same colour as the mud. You have to keep to the middle of the road.
‘Walk quietly now,’ my mother says. ‘He must be chained up round the back today.’
I can see the big white building across the road down below, getting bigger with each step, and other children, some with their mothers, going in. The road leads on into the dusty green mountains. The letters on the building say BARDON INFANTS’ SCHOOL.
On the first day, we were all crying and trying to get out. It was bedlam in there. A few almost climbed out the window. Someone did and they pulled him back in. It was up high, too. I ran home again as soon as they took us down to the toilet. I got away from them. I crossed all the roads and got home by myself. I could hear the wireless playing and don’t mess with Mr In-Between as I came up the back steps. My heart was beating hard. I thought she’d be pleased to see me but she looked up in shock and said, ‘What are you doing here?’
She took me straight back. It didn’t matter how much I performed; I had to stay there till she came to get me.
‘Do you want me to leave you at the gate today?’ Mam asks. ‘Have you got a handkerchief?’
‘No, come in with me.’
The grass in front is mown flat and we are not allowed on it. We walk up the wide concrete path as the big bell starts to ring. An older girl stands on the top veranda, swinging it back and forth between her legs.
‘Hurry, Mam,’ I say, almost breaking away. ‘I’ve got to get in line.’
‘Go on then. You’ll be all right now.’
But it’s hard to let go. Once I let go, I’m here till she comes back. Ages away from now.
‘Give me a kiss then; go on.’ She takes her hand away. ‘You’ll be all right.’
The bell stops and some children run past me, their bare feet slapping the cement. I start running too.
‘Don’t run – you’ll fall!’ my mother calls.
We march up the wooden steps like the animals off into the Ark. Miss Buckley plays the piano, her grey head bobbing, and Mrs Hussack sings ‘Soldiers of the King’ her big hand hitting time on the piano top as we march into the singing room. Miss Buckley is the head teacher and Mrs Hussack is her helper. Their faces are both old and they know a lot. ‘Now you listen to them,’ my mother says. Below us, the Union Jack flies on the flagpole. The music is exciting, and the words: In the fight for England’s glory, lads / Of its worldwide glory let us sing.
This means Wales, too. I can feel my heart beating and I swing my arms high. When we were singing the national anthem near the flag before, my voice was the loudest. I get that from my father. I am never backward in coming forward.
‘Raymond comes from England, where the King lives,’ Miss Buckley says as I stand on a chair.
I don’t want to spoil it by telling her again I come from Wales.
‘Perhaps Raymond has seen the King and Queen when he was in London...’
I think of the swirl of faces in the street at the Shepherd’s Bush markets.
‘I might have,’ I reply.
The alphabet on the big blackboard is just like a comic. Each letter has its own picture, drawn in coloured chalk, and each picture leads on to the next. Miss Buckley has drawn them and they almost look alive. She points with her long stick and we begin:
a like an apple on a twig (a says ah).
b like a bat and ball (b says buh).
c like a cake with a piece taken out (c says cuh).
Right through to z like a zig-zag gate, then start again. It is like singing, really. Only Australians don’t sing very well. They don’t put their hearts into it, Dad says. They don’t show much enthusiasm for anything, really.
I AM THE smallest in the school. The others are bigger and always brown. The sun doesn’t worry them. A lot have bare feet and walk easily over stones, along fences and up trees. I have seen them running along a fallen tree trunk with bare feet bent around it. Their toes grip the bark like monkeys. I can’t do that. My feet are hopeless. I look down at my funny sandals from Merthyr Tydfil, with their straps and flower-patterned cut-outs on the front. The others laugh at them. When they clean their slates, they have blocks of coloured sponge in plastic cases. The water runs down like juice from the sponges, making their slates shiny black. I have a grey piece of wet rag in a rusty little tin Dad gave me. It is all we can afford for now. I cover the dirty rag with my hand as I clean my slate. It leaves streaky marks I can’t get off. I put the tin away inside the desk.
We all march back down to the toilets, but I won’t run home this time. Miss Buckley keeps her eye on me. The boys go in one door and the girls another. I wonder if it is different where the girls go. I want to sit down to do it like at home, but the others all line up on the concrete step where the water is running down. They all know what to do. I pull back the leg of my pants and take it out. My little dicky-doodle, Mam and Dad always call it, but this is not right. I look along the line. They are all different from me: purple heads with a little hole, like their coloured sponges. Their pee shoots neatly out. Mine is all skin, like my little wet rag. No one else is the same as me. I turn into the corner. I am making a mess of it. This must have something to do with being from Wales.
The boy next to me has seen and keeps staring. At the taps I look down waiting for them to start laughing at me again. But he hasn’t said anything.
Big Lunch takes a long time. I eat my sandwiches, yellow and damp with pickle, pretending to sit next to someone on the grass. Nobody says anything to me. They say I talk funny. I look different in these sandals and talk funny. And now my dicky-doodle is different, too. I eat slowly, for as long as I can.
The others are already running everywhere on their long brown legs. There are lots of them. I look at my thin white legs, covered in nasty mosquito bites where I’ve scratched them. I tuck them away under me. Harvey stood on a nail under the house the other day. It went right into his foot. He just stood there, lifting his foot and the wooden box attached to it, to show everyone. He wasn’t even crying. The men were busy cutting fibro. They pulled it out, took him upstairs and put Dettol on it.
‘That boy’s got feet like a blackfella,’ Uncle Vernon said.
That’s what I want. Feet like a blackfella.
I PLAY BY myself in the sandpit. Sand is always my favourite thing. I start building a small castle but someone runs across it, yelling. I shout at him but he just keeps running. It was a good castle but no one takes any notice. You can’t do anything or tell anyone. There are flies everywhere.
Dad says, if you get into trouble, just pick out the biggest boy, walk up to him and punch him in the nose. I did that on the ship coming out. A boy was going around hitting everyone. He hit me and when I came crying to my parents, my father crouched down beside me.
‘Let me see you make a fist like Grandad and Uncle Dan showed you. Now make sure this thumb isn’t sticking out. Keep it bent around your fingers underneath, that’s the way. Now punch straight out from the shoulder...keep that fist straight. Hit my hand. Use your knuckles. That’s right. Keep them straight now.’
My small fist breaks against my father’s big open palm.
‘Keep that left arm up, in case he tries to hit you back. Lead with your right – one, two, like this – and then come in with your left.’
‘That’s enough, mun,’ my mother says. ‘How’s he going to remember all that?’
‘Now if he tries to hit you again, just give him one straight back. He’ll leave you alone after that.’
That afternoon I saw the boy standing with his parents at the ship’s railing. I walked up to him and said, ‘Cymru am byth,’ which Uncle Dan taught me means ‘Wales Forever!’ He gave me a puzzled look and I smashed him in the nose. He yelled out in surprise and I ran back to my father.
‘I think you’ve jumped the gun a bit there,’ he said. But I didn’t get a smack. He smiled when he told my mother.
The bell rings like the end of a round. There is sweat running from inside my hat down my forehead. My hair is plastered to my head. My shirt is all stuck to my back.
When we go in, the blankets are all out on the floor again. The first time this happened, I said to Miss Buckley, ‘I’m not the tired type’. She told my mother that, laughing. The others were all lying on their blankets, ready to sleep in the middle of the day, looking up at me. There were no proper beds. ‘Look, I’m not the tired type,’ I said. ‘Just give me a book or something to draw on but please, for God’s sake, don’t make me lie on that blanket.’
Her face started to change and she turned away, her big shoulders shaking. If she tries to get me down there, I thought, I won’t bend my legs. In the end, she brought me a picture book about pixies and sat me on a chair. I finished it in a few minutes and then looked at the others sleeping. I went more carefully through all the pages again. It wasn’t much of a book.
Today I lie down with the rest on a grey blanket with a bright red edge. I might as well. I want to take these sandals off but no one else does. I close my eyes but the floor is hard and there are no pillows. A girl with yellow hair lying on her side next to me bends across and whispers something in my ear. It sounds like laughter. Shh! I say, turning my face to her, and she kisses me hard on the lips. Her face is round like the moon in all its splendour, and her mouth is soft and wet. She keeps it there and I close my eyes. It is a long kiss.
So this is what happens down on the floor. Something moves inside me like the waving grass. Like something in a film. This is all new to me but I do know what to do. ‘Now, now, girl,’ I whisper hoarsely, patting her arm and trying to sound grown-up like my father. ‘That’s enough now.’ My voice is caught somewhere in the back of my throat. In my mind I am thinking we can continue this later if you like, where no one will see; but before I can say it, she looks at me hurt and turns quickly away. I stare at the little blue flowers on her back. Perhaps it is my Welshness that has attracted her.
THESE AUSTRALIANS CERTAINLY are strange. They like to laugh but things can soon turn nasty. They get angry quickly and yell out ‘Ratbag’ and throw stones. They pick up rocks with their toes. Harvey and I were wearing our new cowboy suits. They were for Christmas, and we walked down Barnett Road in them. Some big boys ran out of a house and started punching us. They called us little smart-arses. They hit Harvey on the head. I don’t really understand this place. You don’t know what will happen next.
I opened the lid of my Meccano set, and a dark, shiny cockroach was just standing there big and ugly on the green metal strips, waving its long feelers. It was in our bedroom. I shut the box quickly and didn’t tell anyone. When you’re here, you have to go to a lavatory right down at the back of the yard. They call it the dunny. It has sawdust in a box. At night you need a torch for the spiders and the snakes. Everyone has torches here. There are no street lights except at the bridge, only the moon and stars. People go for walks with their torches on. They shine them at each other as they pass: Arr, g’day.
One day the teacher took me outside to see a kookaburra while the others watched. ‘That is a laughing jackass,’ Mrs Hussack said, pointing at it. ‘It kills snakes. Can everybody make a kookaburra noise?’ And they all went into it. The kookaburra flew off.
I tried to look impressed, but I already knew what a kookaburra was and what it sounded like. Kookaburra laughing was easy. All I could think of was that it wasn’t anywhere near as important as the Royal Family or the animals in London Zoo. But I didn’t say that. They were trying their best. They haven’t got much here to make a fuss about. They don’t even have a zoo. And they like to think the Royal Family is theirs, too. They don’t have their own King and Queen so they need to share ours, my father explains. And whenever they are saying goodbye, they all shout out ‘Hooray’ as if they are glad to see the backs of each other. Dad thinks this is terribly funny. ‘They’re all bloody mad here,’ he says.
But I do like the colours of everything. The flowers and fruit, the women’s clothes, the butterflies and the sky. Watermelon looks a lot better than it tastes, but the cherries are good. The sun makes everything shine.
In the afternoon, I keep looking around at the girl, but she doesn’t look back. Perhaps by now she has heard about my dicky-doodle. Her name is Joyce. She is bigger than me, with golden hair pulled back in plaits and shiny black shoes. We are given scissors to cut out with, but I am hopeless with them. I can see Joyce, with her head down, cutting in straight lines and even around corners. My paper just keeps ripping. In the end I am glad she isn’t looking at me.
‘Have you got your hat?’ my mother asks. ‘Did you remember to wear it at lunch?’
‘I can’t use scissors,’ I say. ‘I can’t get them right. They keep turning on the side and won’t cut properly.’
‘We’ve got scissors at home,’ she says. ‘Your father will show you tonight. Careful now, with this bloody dog.’
The sky is darkening as we climb the hill. Thunder rumbles far away. Outside the house, a man in a blue vest they call a singlet is sharpening a scythe. The thick forest of wild grass is gone. Another man is raking up all the fallen blades into a big pile. There is a lot of it. All gone without a struggle. ‘Thank God for that,’ my mother says. And, to the man: ‘It’s been like that for weeks.’
‘Yeah. We get round to it sooner or later,’ he says. They are packing up to leave. The other man, licking a cigarette together, grins.
I look out the front window at the empty space where the grass was this morning. Every bit is dead and gone. Rain splashes down on the yellow stubble. The whole slope is pale and bare. You can even see right up onto the road. ‘It’ll be back again before you know it,’ Mam said, as we came in the house. ‘Do you want a biscuit?’ The wind and rain hit the glass in front of me, making me step back. It is hard to see anything out there with all this rain.
Suddenly, my father’s bald head appears over the rise and then his shoulders and chest, as he hurries through the downpour towards the gate. He holds up a wet newspaper against the wind. ‘Dad’s coming!’ I call out as I open the back door for him. The kitchen is hot with tea being prepared. The wireless is playing ‘Run, Rabbit, Run’ and my mother is singing. ‘You’ll have to show Raymond how to use the scissors tonight,’ she says as he walks in, dripping wet and breathing hard.