What Words to Use

We are driving away from Canberra. M asks if we are going to see the desert.

‘No, we’ll see a lot of bush.’ I say.

‘What’s bush?’

‘The countryside. Outside the town. Where there are a lot of trees.’

‘You mean forest.’

‘No, the bush is not a forest.’

‘Yes it is.’

‘No it’s not.’

‘Yes.’

‘No.’ And then I go into an insistent and ludicrously idealised description of the Australian bush. I talk about the towering, terrifying, cathedral of bush I remember from when I was a child. Like most things we know when we are small, it was a landscape unlike anything I have known since. I know that’s life – not landscape – but I fill it out for him anyway and he is impressed. This will not necessarily turn out to be a good strategy of mine.

When we were in Sydney we walked past some native Australians doing aboriginal dances and posing for photos. I told M these were real native Australians. He laughed and laughed. I couldn’t convince him. I am ham-fisted with the lexicon. I don’t know in what context to use the word aboriginal or if I can use it at all. I don’t know what any of it means or how I am meant to describe it to him.

I was not very comfortable standing there alongside rows of tourists pointing at the native Australian dancers so I dropped it. M and I walked away, he still shaking his head at me like what did I take him for. They were just people with stuff painted on them.

Now a few days later we are driving down the coast to the bushland and beach (Me: ‘Not seaside. Beach’; M: ‘Yeh. Seaside. I know.’) where I spent all my summers as a child. It is fantastic to be out of the city. We have the road to ourselves.

The sky is just everywhere. When the sun is high like this and the sky is as big as it is, you could be flying. I say to my sister who is driving: ‘…it can’t be that it is bigger. It must be that it is just more…’

‘…apparent?’

‘…obvious?’

‘You have more days like this,’ she says.

This one is a corker – a beaut. It is autumn and the temperature is 24 degrees (Celsius). The sky is polar blue – gemstone blue – a rude raw blue. Bigger than church. And like I say, it’s everywhere.

We both point at a spilt mess of milky cloud on the horizon. The only interruption in the sky. Some residue of vapour above the bush in the distance.

‘See?’ we both say as though that illustrates our point.

After a day of this we arrive at my Aunt’s house on the coast. My sister and I have not been here in over twenty years. I get out of the car and search for the key hanging on a stringy bark. I pick my way over the ground, the leaves are inches thick. Prickly things grab and dead things disintegrate under my feet. The key is perfectly camouflaged against the hairy old gum. The bush sighs and whispers all around and there is not a house in sight, just this rusty bit of fence hanging from grey old tree posts.

There’s a whip bird somewhere. Something else makes a knocking call. Giant ferns spill orange fruit out of their centres. The gumtrees are perfectly branchless until the canopy way, way above us. I wrestle a bit with the padlock. The car goes through and I am left behind in the quiet to shut the gate. I pull apart the barbed wire fence pretty easily to climb back through to the car. The house is still a five-minute drive through the bush from here.

M is pushing himself up in his seat and looking all around.

‘Wow,’ he says, ‘wow. Wow.’

Half an hour later we are on the beach. We walked down from the house through the bush. From the sand you can hardly see a single building. The sea roars at us. The bush and rocks, the seaweeds and caves are all colours. There is not a soul in sight.

‘Why…?’ M prepares to ask – not knowing where to start. ‘Why don’t we live here?’

Go and Shoot the Cocky

Birds here shout. I’d forgotten. God they’re rude.

They don’t chirp and sing offstage, they stand up in the front row and shout, they throw things into the orchestra pit, abuse the actors, heckle. Cockies, particularly, sit in the tallest trees swearing at the top of their lungs. They flare their yellow crests over their heads like they are raising their eyebrows in horror.

‘RATBAGS! BASTARDS!!’ They yell. ‘TOE RAGS – ALL OF YOU!’

When I was Australian, gun laws were fairly elastic – now you have to show you are a farmer to own a gun. Farmers need guns to cull roos (native) and cockies (native) and foxes (imports). A close relative of mine is a farmer. He didn’t always use the gun. He would chase after fly-blown lambs in the ute (flatbed utility truck) trying to run them over while we kids rolled about in the back with the fencing equipment and the used cartridge shells.

My sister is describing all this to M. ‘You know what they call it? Shooting cockies?’

‘No’ – he flutters eager eyelashes.

She hesitates.

‘Cocky shooting.’

M chooses not to respond to this signally useless piece of information.

‘I COULD BUY AND SELL THE LOT OF YOU!’ barrack the cockies.

The Magpies in Australia are different to the Maggies in the UK. They sound different. They are regarded as among the gentler of the garden birds and a lot of people prefer them to the native Currawong and the friendless Crows, of course. The Maggies are sweet, it’s true, and they have a song like an old lady gargling. It’s a carrolling, conversational call. The Currawongs, though, ring like bells. Heavy bells. It’s a trilling call but rich and chocolatey. They call on the wing too, so there is often a doppler effect. A Currawong’s cry is a landscape.

My friend Megan and I agree that the Magpie appeals to the Australian Royalist and the Currawong to the Republican.

Give me Currawongs, we say quietly and giggle because we are sitting on her verandah in Canberra, the Nation’s Capital.

When he was a boy, my brother-in-law would visit his grandmother on their farm. The Cockies there would strip the trees and the trees would die. So his grandmother would say: ‘Go and shoot the cockies, Tig?’ And off he’d trot with his rifle and shoot a lot of cockies. The short-haired Jack Russell would race up the drive to collect one and bring it back to the house. M thinks that sounds cool. That was a long time ago, we have to tell him.

My cousin in Tasmania has been warring with the European wasp for years, as many Australians do. They are not native, they have no natural predators and the winters are not cold enough to keep their numbers down.

Sounds familiar.

It’s all about getting the balance. More of that later.

In the early (colonial) days, Sydneysiders survived (largely) not by guns, but by planting. In Tassie, the Gun was Law. Until all the different colonies were federated in 1901 Anything Went locally. Some Governors were very liberal – others were (as they say here) bastards.

The cockies go’…AND SO WERE THEIR MOTHERS!! GW’AN! GET ROOTED! PISS OFF!’ It’s true – they are just bloody rude.

Sydney’s Penguin Colony

‘Yes but equating family with national identity is a sol-(mnmnmnm)-icism, surely.’ says my friend Tom who I haven’t seen for possibly twenty years. We don’t bother to calculate exactly how many or when we last met. We just “pick up” like boys.

I rifle through my inner dictionary. My real dictionary is in my bag and not to hand. “sol-(pluhrpluhr)-icism”…?

I can see the Harbour Bridge from where we are. It is eight at night and the bridge is perfectly lit. It blends with the stars. Yesterday M (7) was less than impressed with the Harbour Bridge. I wonder if an icon’s value is directly proportional to its novelty. M has never seen the Harbour Bridge or an image of the Harbour Bridge so there is no thrill in seeing it for real. It’s a bridge, a bit like the one across the Severn because you can see the sky through a web of metal strings as you drive over, and also because it goes over something – that’s what a bridge does. Also this one has incredibly large flags at the top and incredibly small people under the flags looking at the view. Those people booked three months ago to get up there. That’s pretty fascinating.

‘I don’t know if family and national identity is… hang on… solipsistic? How is that solipsistic?’ I ask, wiping my eyes and my cheeks downwards with both hands. I probably look like a dog.

My eyes are aching and I have a notebook full of literary sludge after 48 hours here. I feel like I had flu yesterday and like I might have a tummy bug tomorrow. Nothing has an outline – nothing has any colour. It hurts to walk and to smile. I long to lie down and when I do I can’t sleep. That flight has siphoned everything I need out of me.

My husband put P (9) on the phone from England when we landed in Sydney. I was walking from customs to the taxi rank in 24 degree overcast heat you could slice.

“Hey Pazzie.” I said.

“Mummy when are you coming home? When are you coming home?”

“Oh Pazzie – twenty-six sleeps…”

“No! You’re not! Not twenty-six! Five!”

“Oh little boy…”

“Five!” He takes a sobby breath. “Four!”

My husband takes the phone after more of this and P has given up, “Sorry, I didn’t know what he was going to say.”

“It’s good he’s cross.” I said.

Pazzie has trouble Naming Emotions. My husband tells me our youngest (5) took two boxes of tissues to bed with him last night. We reminded each other we love each other. We both pressed the red hang-up buttons.

Now sitting here under The Bridge I am frustrated that my head is sore and slow. I only got off the long-haul flight 48 hours ago.

‘Solecism.’ says Tom. ‘It’s a fallacy to put the two together.’

Oh solecism. Those two are a solecism. I think it’s silly, sure, but it’s not crazy, it’s human. I don’t string this or any other sentence together. I’m not sure what we are talking about.

He tells me about the rise in shark attacks in the Harbour. The water is warmer, the bait fish are coming in and the sharks follow. A guy lost a leg recently. Tom talks about seahorses too, how they are small and transparent, camouflaged in the seaweed in the Harbour. Tricky to find.

I caught up with my schoolfriend, Lucy (ten years since I saw Lucy), yesterday who has stopped her marathon ocean swims. “Harbour’s got sharky. The bait fish are coming in.” Lucy described a sea dragon her stepson found – its legs like leaves, how it was only recently washed up so still had its beautiful colours. My brain could not cope with asking what colours those were. It was dealing with the legs.

There is a new baby elephant at Taronga Zoo. Everyone mentions the baby elephant – the vet  to the press that it was dead and how it might take months for the mummified baby elephant to be delivered from the mother – elephants having the gestation period and birth habits that they do – and the next day it was born, standing, feeding and posing for photographs. Artificial insemination and an animal in captivity – it can work and it can boost news sales.

M visited Taronga Zoo this morning with his Aunt/ my sister – he tells me often how far an elephant can pee – and with what force. The novelty and triumph of the baby elephant’s survival was no match for the emus and… the Komodo Dragon.

“3 metres long!”

He has never used the word metres before.

Tom tells me there was a colony of penguins under the very wharf we are sitting last year.

‘Apparently two penguins is a colony,’ he says. We laugh.

Two.