Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On plays in the back of my mind as I stand at the bow. My hair flies back as the ferry sweeps around Cremorne Point past the lighthouse. Despite no dreamy DiCaprio caressing my waist and whispering in my ear, ‘Do you trust me?’, I pretend I’m Kate Winslet and close my eyes. For a moment I feel lighter and freer. The sensation I imagine a dog has when he hangs his head out a car window. I know I’m near home when the ferry shudders and reduces its speed, sliding alongside Musgrave Street Wharf. I open my eyes and return to the bright red bench. Groups of sailing boats, with names like Flying Brandy, When the Fat Lady Sings and Escapade are moored along the bay’s rocky edges. The hulls and masts of the boats rock and ring in a domino effect as the ferry snakes through to the next wharf, my wharf: Old Cremorne.
I gaze along the Cremorne Foreshore Walkway and spot my house with its large arches, burgundy balcony and terracotta chimney pots. My house seems to be the only thing that has remained constant in the past 21 years. From losing childhood friends, to gaining new hormones, to the death of my ‘first love’ – my pet rabbit Marshmallow – to my brother moving out and replacing me with his girlfriend; it appears I am always being left behind.
I think about the real estate agents that came to value the house. They’re all the same: stiff posture, grey suits with showy ties, fast-talking and holding iPads. I hear Dad give them a detailed tour of the house, his voice confident, before the men take down some measurements. Mum and Dad say the valuations are just out of interest but I know there’s something more. Dad’s been sick for a while and it keeps coming back. In a few weeks I’m graduating from university and hope to do an internship overseas. Is the house now leaving me? Will it still be here when I get back?
* * *
I’m fifteen years old, gawky and wearing a blue uniform two sizes too big. I’m sitting outside on the ferry on my way home from school. I’m wondering why my neighbour, Olly Churcher, always looks away when he sees me. He is sitting four rows in front and wearing a Newington College uniform with a black and white tie and high grey socks. As the ferry leaves Circular Quay, Olly puts on some chunky, black headphones and I imagine what his iPod shuffles to: Zeppelin, Hendrix, Metallica, Rolling Stones, Doors, Guns N’ Roses, Black Sabbath.
Why won’t he talk to me? What’s changed to make him so shy?
I think of the baby photo in my living room; of Olly and me with Santa Claus beards in a bubble bath. The Churchers were our closest neighbours growing up: sharing babysitters, handymen and lawn mowers, taking turns hosting Boxing Day lunch to share Christmas leftovers and acting as our 24-hour personal vet. My brother would hang out with the Churchers’ two daughters, whom he would never admit to having massive crushes on. Yet I’d catch him admiring them sunbaking in their bright, floral bikinis. Olly was born only a few months after me. In my earliest memories of him, we’d venture down to our nearest ferry wharf, Old Cremorne, and imagine a cluster of dangling tree branches near the water were ladders and ropes on a pirate ship. We’d shoot at the ferry with water guns and sword fight with long cardboard tubes from Mum’s fashion workshop.
Our friendship largely revolved around my trampoline. We’d beg my brother to lift the trampoline up from underneath and shake it. Olly and I would lay on our stomachs, holding tightly onto the metal frame and competing to see who could stay on the longest. In summer, we’d place the sprinkler under the trampoline, causing a small fountain to erupt through the netting. We’d play ‘crack the egg’ and jump from my veranda onto the trampoline when our parents’ heads were turned. Other times, we used the trampoline for stargazing and as bar in forty-four homes when we had play dates.
When we hit high school, Olly replaced outdoor games with video games and I never saw him. His bedroom was a mysterious lair where a light shone until 2:00 AM. I pictured him venturing out only for food or school. Music seemed to be his main contact with the outside world. I’d hear him strumming away on Guitar Hero, and later on an electric guitar. I imagined his room; an unmade bed with black satin sheets, piles of Rolling Stone magazines chucked on the floor and band posters covering the walls.
I asked Olly to my Year 10 formal, despite hardly speaking to him throughout high school. He arrived at my door with his mum, Ione, and a bouquet of white flowers. He looked like a suited-up version of Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of Red Hot Chili Peppers. A strong jaw line, messy, sandy blonde hair and dark brown eyes. He wore an untucked, white cotton shirt with a black jacket and brown shoes. Olly slung an arm around me when Ione insisted on taking a photo. Mum chuckled at the few centimetres of height I had on him. At the formal he was polite and softly-spoken. I remember grabbing his hand to avoid losing him as we pushed through the crowd on the dance floor. His hand squirmed and pulled away fast.
I thought the formal would change things but afterwards Olly continued his clamping on of headphones and turn of the head whenever I was on the ferry.
I’d ask my brother, ‘Why are guys so shy with me?’
‘You’re too pretty Maddy. Young blokes are scared of getting rejected,’ he’d say.
I’d roll my eyes.
* * *
Warringah Mall – shopping Mecca for the Northern Beaches – 2001. I’m eight, fidgety and obsessed with rabbits. He is the size of a Gold Lindt Bunny, with blue eyes, upright ears and disproportionately long whiskers. I call him Marshmallow ‘because he’s fluffy, white and springy,’ I say. In summer, he lies stretched out on the cool tiles of the hearth, with his head propped up as if to say, ‘I’m handsome and I know it’. Then he leaps onto the sofa next to me and rests his front paws and chin on my thigh.
Every afternoon after school I’d skip up from Old Cremorne Wharf. I’d wave to Gigi, my neighbour two doors down, who would be reading on her red balcony with Rufus her ginger cat. I’d detour through the Churchers’ house and past Ione knitting and watching the news; past the sound of Olly playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in his room. After chucking some Chicken Crimpy Shapes and celery sticks in a plastic bag and changing into my Mr. Bean T-shirt and footy shorts, I’d collect Marshmallow for a walk. His hutch reminded me of the White Rabbit’s ‘neat little house’ in Alice in Wonderland. Intended as a safe house for chickens the wooden hutch had two floors with a steep ramp, peaked roof and a nesting area on the top level used as Marshmallow’s bed.
I was like Alice running after the White Rabbit across the field and down the hole under the hedge. Marshmallow would lead me to the back of the house, where the popping sound of frogs echoed from our fish pond and hop through the rainforest of tree ferns, palms and enormous bird’s nest ferns. In summer, blooming gardenias, jasmine and red and white roses would together create a wonderful scent under the canopy. Too much pollen would cause Marshmallow to stand up on his hind legs, lick his front paws and use them to clean his whiskers and ears.
Marshmallow would then leap up some large steps and jump into the Churchers’ backyard. He’d hop around the fish pond with its camouflage of water lilies, before stopping to nibble on blades of grass and blossoms fallen from a pink crepe myrtle. We’d often find Ione here in her maroon Mambo T-shirt trimming her box hedges. She had shoulder-length brown hair and freckles, loved animals and cooking and adored Marshmallow. Her husband Richard, a local vet with a silver Porsche, would often clip Marshmallow’s claws despite his speciality being dogs and cats, ‘not rodents’.
One afternoon, Marshy and I were playing in the front yard when I heard Ione yell, ‘Dog! Dog!’ In a flash there’s a greyhound track around my house. Marshmallow runs for his life with the kelpie in close pursuit: down the side, through the backyard, downstairs to the front lawn, under the trampoline and around the left side again.
The dog’s owner comes rushing from the Cremorne pathway, screaming ‘Benjie, Benjie come here!’ She’s a middle-aged woman with blonde highlights and black, Lycra leggings with a pink stripe down the side. I’m visualising the coyote hunting the hare in the National Geographic documentary when I hear the thump of Marshmallow’s back foot. He whips through the back door of the house and scampers under the claw-foot bath. The dog follows, his long legs slipping on the marble tiles. My brother erupts from the living room. He grabs the dog by his studded, leather collar and yanks him as though he’s a piece of meat. He kicks him hard and the dog whimpers, running out of the house.
‘Get the fuck off our property and get a lead!’ my brother shouts at the woman. It took forty-five minutes to calm Marshmallow down and stop him trembling.
After munching on the Churchers’ lawn, Marshmallow would dash to Gigi and Michael’s; a modernist house perched on the side of a cliff, reminiscent of a tree house. Gigi and Michael were former professors of demography. I used to picture the inside of their house: a library and rolling ladder, bottle-green Chesterfield and things – old and new – collected from all over the world; antique maps, old silver and African masks. Marshmallow and I liked to play a game of cat and mouse across their wide garden. I’d run and pat my hand on my right thigh and he’d chase me. Then we’d follow the stepping stones that meander like Hansel and Gretel bread crumbs, past a tall lemon-scented gum and up stone steps to a grass patch where Marshmallow liked to graze; rainbow lorikeets congregating around the rim of the bird bath.
‘Hello, Maddy, how’re you?’ I’d hear from the balcony above where Gigi would be writing; an ashtray, a glass of wine and Rufus by her side.
As Marshmallow’s life petered out and he gradually shrank in size – his head slumping as if he had a widow’s hump – the marks showing my height climbed the frame of the kitchen door. When Marshmallow died, I felt like Alice when she drinks the tiny bottle and grows too big for the White Rabbit’s house.
* * *
I’m sitting on top of what used to be my brother Harry’s big bed. The room has a set of wooden shelves with stacks of CDs, a white cupboard with old clothes he couldn’t part with and a private door where he occasionally sneaked visitors in at night, unbeknownst to our parents. I’m sitting in the same position as when I was six years old watching Harry, twelve years old, have a diabetic seizure. Dad placing a drop of honey on his lip while Mum injects the glucagon needle into his thigh. I’d sit calmly until he woke up. Then we’d snuggle on the sofa with our ‘Where’s Wally’ doona, watching reruns of the Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sipping on apple poppers. Mum says she often heard me tiptoe down in the middle of the night from my bedroom to check on him, the wooden floor boards creaking on the stairs.
The room looks over the balcony to the front yard where Harry hosted monthly house parties. The front garden would turn into a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party with bottles of wine, salad bowls, sausages and prawns being passed around a trestle table. A dribbling Saint Bernard called Reginald, owned by one of Harry’s mates, would be tied to the trampoline. We’d all cheer when Harry returned from the barbecue with his signature monk fish; stuffed with garlic, ginger and shallots. One afternoon, the trampoline nearly pulled the table over. Reggie had decided to go for a wander.
Harry has the face of Heath Ledger with blonde ringlets and porcelain skin. He’s always been a snappy dresser, wearing suit jackets, skinny leg jeans, army boots, belt buckles in the shape of eagle wings and rings on every finger. As I look at the industrial sewing machine in the corner of the room, I think of the leather jacket he made me. Jimmy Hendrix printed in metallic gold on the back. Harry, following in Mum’s footsteps, studied costume and dress design at East Sydney TAFE. Crammed with paint buckets and dyes, the balcony became Harry’s screen printing station where he’d design fabrics and garments to sell at the Glebe Markets. I still have the navy jacket he gave me on my eighteenth birthday, with its dollops of splashed paint and eyelets at the back laced with orange cord like a corset. At Halloween and fancy dress parties, I’d be the envy of all my friends in his creations: nineteenth century gowns, the Black Swan styled tutu and Cirque du Soleil jester costume.
Harry was responsible for most of my music knowledge. We’d stay up late watching ‘Rage’. We’d collect band posters from Red Eye Records and use family car trips as opportunities to analyse the lyrics in CD booklets. In the spring of 2010, Harry took me to my first heavy metal gig, Metallica’s ‘Death Magnetic’ concert. I wore a pair of patent, hot pink Doc Martens Harry had bought me, with deliberately torn, skinny leg jeans, black nail polish and a band T-shirt. It had Metallica written in bloody red above a zombie hand holding a skull, with metal nails drilled through it. I remember feeling Harry’s stinky breath against the back of my neck in the mosh pit as he shielded me from the death pits that formed around us, like miniature fight clubs.
I was nineteen and in my first year of university when Harry left home and moved in with his girlfriend, Laura. He didn’t move far; only to Waverton a few suburbs away. Yet I knew things would be different. Spending time with each other became difficult to organise. I no longer had an advisor on fashion, music, relationships, small bars or my career constantly at hand. As I look around the bare room: leftover Blu-Tack stuck on the walls from torn down band posters, empty shoe racks and dusty sport trophies, I am upset that Harry’s den has been downgraded to a spare bedroom.
* * *
The windows of the ferry shudder as it slides next to Old Cremorne Wharf. I follow the afternoon commuters onto the pathway and turn right to head home. The trampoline still sits in the front yard. These days with its missing springs, padding and rusty legs, it carries an imaginary sign saying ‘Not Suitable for Children’. As I walk to my back door I hear Olly strumming away in his room to Beatles songs. He still doesn’t talk much, but he sneaks me shots of Jameson whenever I visit the small bar in Oxford Street where he works.
When Marshmallow died, an important part of my childhood was over. Yet sometimes when Dad is gardening in the front yard, passers-by on the footpath ask him about the white rabbit and the girl with the long, blonde hair.
‘You’re turning into Harry!’ Mum tells me. I host house parties on the balcony, dress in leather jackets, army boots and band T-shirts, and bring boys back late at night. Now when I enter what was Harry’s room, it hits me that I too will move out one day, whether the house leaves me or I leave it.
I may be emerging from the rabbit hole, but it wasn’t a dream.