Memoir

The fence

I AM SITTING on the white wooden-frame and wire fence that runs along one side of our house and separates us from our neighbours – the Bonds. I am ten. It is a hot day and the sun is burning the skin on my arms in ways that I won't know about until I am over thirty and having skin cancer cut out of them.

A flock of rosellas is eating the tiny berries off the hundred-year-old camphor laurel tree in our backyard. Their high-pitched chattering almost drowns out the sound of my Greek Cypriot Nana as she barrels down the long hallway of our large, colonial house, yelling in her accented English at my sister or at Gabby or at anyone.

Here, on the fence, I have escaped it – her anger that bears down upon us like judgement. Our shame, my shame. She complains that people don't listen to her, but they do. Thin-walled houses don't hide fury from the neighbours.

I am waiting for John Bond, the youngest of five boys and two years older than me. His dad works at the water treatment plant at Mt Crosby and comes home every weekday at the same time. He drives an old green Holden and he says "fillum" for film. "Just like a bloody Aussie," Gabby says.

All his five boys play cricket and hockey and chess. They're mad about the Beatles. They cram into two bedrooms in a postwar home on a small triangle of land that fronts on to a major road. All except Arthur, the oldest, who is a teacher and lives up north. They have a mango tree in the very back corner of their yard. They speak in big voices and go to church. They vote Labor and have pictures of the candidate on thin wooden posts in their front yard at election time.

My parents are divorced. I haven't seen my father since I was five. My mother works seven days a week in the tiny corner store that she owns, and we – my mother and sister and brother and I – live here with Nana and Gabby.

I want to play cricket with John on his backyard pitch. I want to wrap my hands around my favourite one of his cricket bats and hit the ball into the fence for four runs, or over for "six and out". I want to take the three-step run up between the fence and the bowling crease, trying, trying, trying to bowl faster, stronger, more unfathomable deliveries.

Or I want to make a tape on his tape recorder, where we pretend to be radio announcers and tape music from the radio in between our fake cricket scores and bad jokes. And I want his mum, Mrs Bond, to make us a cold glass of cordial and a vegemite sandwich for lunch and talk to me in her broad floating sing-song voice that complements the rosellas in the tree.

None of that will happen today because the Bonds aren't at home. They've taken the boys to cricket, or they're visiting relatives, or they're away for the weekend, together.

I know this, but it doesn't matter to me. I know I'll sit here for hours in the hot afternoon sun. I know I'll sit here until Gabby comes down and tells me to come inside and stop being so silly because they, the Bonds, have gone away for the weekend.

I imagine climbing the fence: put one foot in the wire and the other foot flat on the wood on top, two hands steady and launch myself over – free. The Bonds are my idea of normal people and I want to be normal.

 

CRAMMED INTO THE long dining room of our big house, my uncle tells visiting relatives from England that: "You know, Aborigines are physically incapable of farting." He is a big man who hides his fear with intimidation. He's held on to his broad West Country accent, even though he's lived in Australia since he was fourteen. "Yes, they did a study in the '40s about it. Don't fart. Amazing, isn't it?" Everyone around the table is quiet, interested. Then my aunty says: "Ohhh, don't believe it" and my uncle breaks out a big "aren't I clever" grin. We all laugh. For many subtle reasons that I don't quite comprehend, it's a good trick.

My uncle and aunty and cousins live on a farm about half an hour out of town. My uncle is building barbed-wire fences to keep the cattle out of his cornfield. He's put a new electric fence around the farmhouse as well. When we visit, my sister and brother and cousins all sit in front of the low wires and listen to the tick, tick, tick as the current passes through, daring each other to touch it.

In the early '90s, my uncle and aunty joined a fringe right-wing party – the Citizens' Forum or something like that. They believed in abolishing land rights and keeping immigrants out, even though my family came to Australia on a boat in 1960.

My uncle died of stomach cancer when he was fifty-seven. He wanted to build an observatory on the hill behind his farmhouse so he could look freely at the stars.

 

AT NIGHT, I emerge from the bath and the air is soft like cotton wool and smells of the jasmine bush that my mother has growing around a downpipe at the back of the house. I feel clean and contented as I walk through the kitchen, my hair cold and damp against my scalp.

In the TV room, I stop to look at something on the television. My family are all gathered there watching. I rest my hand against the back of Nana's armchair. Unconsciously, I lift my right foot so that it rests on my left knee while standing. It is a comfortable way to stand.

Gabby turns to look at me and then looks down at my legs. "Stop standing like that," he says. "You look like an Abo."

Sometimes he says: "You know how I can tell he's an Aussie?" It's a joke he uses a lot. "I can hear his chains rattlin'." Then he laughs and slaps his knee.

I'm leaning against the fence as John Bond tells me from his side that World Series Cricket is rigged. England and Pakistan are touring. He calls the Pakistani team "the Puds". "Yep," he says. "Just gotta look at what happens when the Poms and the Puds play each other. How big's the crowd? Hardly anyone there. Right?" One part of me sees his point.

"So," he goes on, "how do you think they get the best television numbers? Australia has to play in the finals. And they have to play the Poms."

That would, I think, be the best contest to watch, but I find it hard to believe it's rigged. How would they do it?

"Besides," he says, "nobody wants to see the Puds win."

I carefully note his argument. "Puds" seems like a useful word and, if I need to, I can repeat it at school.

 

ON HOT DAYS, Nana spends most of her time sitting on the front veranda drinking coffee: first on one side of the house and then, in the afternoons, she moves to the other. Here she holds court. I like the way she reads her books, and makes cups of coffee, and absentmindedly twirls a lock of hair on her forehead around and around between two fingers. The perfume of the three frangipani trees in our front yard sweetens the air.

We receive visitors, friends from the migrant hostel days. English, all of them: the Brays, the Hensons, the Burns, the Munsons.

I listen to them talk: about the war, about the hostel, about the bloody Aussies and the way they do things. They never talk about why they left England. They never talk about the way the women in the village would turn away from Nana because she didn't speak English like them, even though she was fluent in three languages. Or the way my mother and uncle were teased at school for being "half-Wop". They never mention Gabby working three back-breaking jobs at once: milking cows, manning a pumping station and on weekends building dry wall fences for Colonel Ferguson, the owner of the country estate where they were tenants.

I look at Nana. She sits in her chair. She laughs, or chastises Gabby. Her voice is a round melody against all these plodding English accents. I know she thinks that people don't listen to her, but I think she is like a sun – sometimes fiery, sometimes benign – that we all revolve around.

 

LAST YEAR, AFTER Nana went into a home, my mother suggested my wife and son and I should move back into the old, now empty, house. For weeks after we moved, I could hear the ghost of Nana pounding up the hall and, as we sorted through her possessions and the possessions of my childhood, I'd close my throat as I felt the grief well up and sit there like a stone.

A young couple live in the shabby rental house next door. There is a flimsy fence between us and them that I want to rebuild: higher and more sturdy. I hear a crash. She is screaming and crying.

"Why do you make me do this to you?!" he yells from the bottom of his lungs. He punches the back door, a loud crack. And she is crying and wailing something that sounds like "Why do you hit me? Why do you have to hit me?"

 

I VISIT NANA in the home. In her last months, she grunts and mumbles an incomprehensible language. Her mind, lost between English and Greek, compromises on something that is neither. She begins sentences with magical, half-enunciated words and stops to search for the next one and becomes baffled and annoyed that she can't find what that might be. She fiddles with my shirt buttons and implores me with her milky, barely seeing eyes to do something – which is, I think, to take her home. She wastes away and dies.

Gabby died on the TV room floor in 1997 of a heart attack, his dinner tray spilled next to him. He brought it out so he could eat while watching the cricket.

 

WHEN I WAS fifteen, and John Bond went off to university, they tore down the old wood and wire fence and replaced it with a picket fence, largely built by Gabby and Mr Bond. I remember them arguing over everything, but the fence was built. It was harder to climb over, but that didn't seem to matter as much as it did. They also chopped down the old camphor laurel tree, and the mango tree for good measure.

Mr Bond lives alone in his house now. He is over eighty. His boys are all gone. Mrs Bond is in a nursing home. She has dementia. She doesn't recognise Mr Bond when he sees her, but he still visits her every morning.

I say "hello" over the fence when I see him. He asks me how my mother's recent trip to England went. She had gone back for the first time since she was twelve. I tell him and he says: "You know, I've sometimes thought that I should travel over to England, but it's always seemed such a long way away. Too big a place for me."

He asks me how I'm going living back in the big old house in Ipswich and I tell him it's alright. I'm managing fine.

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