Biographical Memoir

There’s no future in the past.

My father coined this phrase. He didn’t invent it, he simply repurposed it for us. It entered the family lexicon, pulled out whenever regret crept into a conversation. His pithy take on life was very much like him: direct and to the point—For Pete’s sake, bloody well get on with it. He knew a bit about the subject.

He was born smack-bang in the middle of both rural Italy, and the Second World War. Post-war Italy faced social and economic challenge after two decades of fascism. The formation of the Italian Republic in 1946 saw the end of the monarchy, and nobility. The rate of change was great, with the gap widening between the impoverished, agrarian south and the increasingly industrialised north—a legacy of the nobility in which agricultural workers suffered oppressive conditions, and little agency, under titled landowners.

Many parts of Italy experienced grinding poverty; fortunately, my father’s family were able to be self-sufficient, and they did not go hungry. Still, the economic gloom and uncertain future forced many families, including his, to make tough decisions.

Australia pursued a ‘populate or perish’ agenda after 1945, accepting mass European immigration to help rebuild the nation. While the slogan was designed to sell sceptical Australians on the idea, Europeans—many of whom faced la fame—embraced the promise of a better life. At eleven years old, my father travelled alone from the mountains of Molise to the Western Australian wheatbelt, a journey that profoundly impacted the formation of his character, from young boy to man of courage and integrity.


La madre Italiana
Giovanni, torna subito a casa, altrimenti la strega ti prende.

My father grew up with the fear of the witch—la strega—drummed into him; children who dawdled home were easy prey. Post-war Italian mothers dispensed food and fear in equal measure—apron strings on constant double duty—with children inculcated into centuries-old folklore at birth. On the Epiphany eve, children were visited by La Befana, the nativity witch. Un bravo figli received sweets; un monella, a lump of coal. My father was at religious camp in an adjacent paese when he received news of his imminent departure to Australia—a gift of both sweets and coal.

Many families sent their sons at eleven because at twelve they paid full fare. My nonna was thirty-three when she sent my father to Australia. She had three sons and had lost two daughters; her husband had already been in Australia for three years. Although my father attended the village school and was a good student, education was not prioritised—an able body more use at work than school—and scant consideration, if any, was given to the disruption of his schooling. They did what they thought was best, and even though my nonna wouldn’t see her son for three years, her sorrow was tempered by the promise of prosperity. Luckily, eldest sons were crash-test dummies—pliable as putty—and he was enthralled by the prospect of adventure, mercifully unaware of its impending reality.


Finocchio (fennel) seeds were brought from my father’s village to Australia during the first diaspora in the 1920s. Seeds were sewn into the lining of suits to avoid customs detection.


Il figlio Italiano

My father’s two sisters died in infancy—one his twin—leaving him the eldest of three brothers, a fourth born in Australia. Intrigued by the otherness of his exotic childhood, my sisters and I peppered him about Italy; from an early age we were vaguely aware of our own otherness-by-proxy.

He told us how he nearly died at three and the priest gave him last rites—we weren’t quite sure what that meant, but it sounded momentous. He lived on pasta fagioli, polenta milled from corn and wild rabbit; salsiccia was made once a year when they killed the pig.

‘After daily chores and altar boy duty, I roamed the hillside in search of adventure—and castagna. It was a good, honest life,’ he said, looking wistful.

Those halcyon days ended abruptly, leaving childhood friends and younger brothers who idolised him; however, new adventures beckoned.

Italian children, coddled into middle age, were not strangers to attention; he was endlessly fussed over in anticipation of his journey. There were appointments: first suit fitting, new shoes, haircut.

He travelled to Napoli, the farthest he’d ever been. The Achille Lauro line Surriento loomed magnificently. Curious and impulsive, he let go his mother’s hand and ran the gangplank. He’d never seen a city! Never seen a ship! Scampering excitedly up each level, he grew conscious of his mother and brothers on the dock. Returning to them, he felt the ship moving. Distressed, he ran to the balcony—streamers were breaking, mother’s crying, hearts straining.

Dov’è mia madre? Where is my mother? They didn’t say goodbye. He swallowed the lump in his throat that wouldn’t dislodge for almost fifty years.

Who knew his mother’s apron strings could stretch so far?


Racconti di avventura

The Surriento docked in Fremantle on 10 December 1953. He never saw the chaperones paid to accompany him. Free to frolic in emergency boats strapped to the ship, had he fallen to his death nobody would have known. Once the initial shock subsided, his journey became a rollicking boys’ own adventure as he explored the ship, new friends in tow. One story achieved mythic status.

‘Dad, tell us about the matchbox and shoe!’ we pleaded, although we knew it by heart.

First impressions were important, his arrival laden with family pride. With relatives and a parish priest to impress, his appearance was choreographed: new suit pressed; new shoes, a size too big, buffed; hair Brylcreemed, combed. He had spied a matchbox on the top deck and kicked it like an Azzurri striker, sending it flying over the balcony—along with his new shoe. There was nothing to be done about it. He threw his other shoe into the ocean. What use was one shiny new shoe?

Wearing scuffed brown shoes, which had walked the land of his childhood village, he stepped off the boat; he was too excited to care how he looked. On a scorching Perth day, he went to an Italian restaurant to eat spaghetti with the parish priest, in his new suit and old shoes.


The foliage of Foeniculum vulgare can grow two metres high. Most Italians pick the fennel bulb before it reaches gargantuan heights and eat it fresh with olio d’oliva and sale.


Scuola di duro lavoro

My father was tallest in his class. He was not yet twelve years; his classmates were seven. English-as-a-second-language classes were not available to immigrant children in 1954.

A keen mind, he left school at thirteen, barely able to read or write English. While others measured trigonometry, he measured aggregate, making concrete bricks for his family’s new home. From his eight-shilling-per-week wage, ninepence was spent on comics; reading The Phantom helped improve his English.

My mother, a child of Croatian refugees, left school at fourteen. Repayments could not be made on her Malvern Star. Teachers protested, but it was not to be—Shakespeare did not pay the bills.

Achievement was never demanded of us; there was no subtle pressure to succeed or hovering over our homework. We tacitly acknowledged the arrested development writ large in our father’s determined integrity, our mother’s quiet dignity. We were leads in school plays, self-motivated to succeed—diligent, studious, achieved tertiary entry, did well, wasted nothing.

At forty-eight my father went back to school, a three-hour drive to an adult literacy teacher. His habit of dictating building quotes to my mother made retrospective sense. While I wrote essays on the significance of the rustics in The Mayor of Casterbridge, he practiced phonics.

We wore our achievements softly around his efforts.


Un bambino

The birth of a first grandchild is a joyous event that strengthens familial bonds. When my first niece was born, I toasted the newly minted father and nonno.

Saluti! To little miss Claire!

My father had just wet the baby’s head when the dam broke. Good whisky—twenty years’ at least—and his first grandchild did him in, finally dislodging that damn lump.

We were talking animatedly when he broke down, tears streaming his face. He spoke in gasps and fits, expunging the deep-buried trauma of being separated from his mother and brothers, and the realisation he was completely alone. He felt guilt at his mother’s distress and anger at his naïveté. I sobered quickly. It was clear I was privy to something precious, witness to an extraordinary act of unburdening. I listened closely. Dad never did this. There’s a reason I’m hearing it—I might write about it one day.

How did my father keep his trauma hidden for so many years?


Figlio mio!

First-born sons are revered in Italian culture. Money is offered to progeny who produce a first heir. Daughters are problematic—they have potential to become puttanas.

Mannaggia! Un’altra ragazza. Darnit! Another girl.

My father proudly produced four daughters. He lived the majority of his adult life with five females. How lucky we were.


Finocchio is a perennial with a short life span of three to four years. The bulb is harvested and eaten wholly, so it lives its life as an annual.


Mannaggia la miseria

My father was a passionate man, sometimes comically so; he once took an axe to a lawnmower that got the better of him. He could be unyielding, tough as old boots. We had a memorable stand-off; I developed a choking phobia and refused to eat stringy foods.

‘There are starving children. You’re not leaving the dinner table until you eat that cabbage!’

I felt my sisters’ woeful pity as they intermittently tiptoed past: for a glass of water, Milo, to brush teeth, say goodnight. Although he caved first—it was a school night—I wonder if he realised how much my resolve came from him.

Immigrants worked weekends to make ends meet. Wogs and dagos on overtime were ‘taking jobs from Australians’—despite said Australians not willing to forego footy and a piss-up at the club. Assimilation silenced culture, but hard work was not easily teased from the migrant psyche. It was their most valuable currency.

In his thirties, weekend work was replaced by golf, cycling, and cricket; he found balance between the ingrained Italian work-ethic and the laconic Australian approach.

I read once it takes three generations for families to exorcise the effects of war. We are three generations in. My mother tells me patience is a virtue.


La gioia di leggere

My parents were both voracious readers, my father’s intense curiosity finally sated. Over a good red we discussed books and life, particularly his outrage at Australia’s treatment of Indigenous people.

‘They’re second-hand citizens in their own country,’ he said. ‘Always behind the eight ball.’

One Sunday afternoon I found him with Archie Roach’s autobiography face down on his lap, his eyes closed. He had reached the part about the Stolen Generation. It was too raw. He wiped tears from his eyes, shaking his head in disbelief.

‘Those bloody bastards,’ he said. ‘No one has the right to take a child from its family.’

One of the great joys of my adult life is the time spent in discussion with my parents, particularly my father. I’m grateful for our investment in simple pursuits—enjoying coffee or wine, curing our own olives, watching Spaghetti Westerns, listening to Johnny Cash.


I stand in the market and hold close a bulb of fennel to inhale the aniseed smell. I am home, recalling my father’s crunch as the sweet licorice aroma lingers.


Morte ed eredità

‘It’ll be okay,’ he said. ‘I’m not afraid to die.’

Along with impatience, my father inherited two genetic conditions that struck at once. Unable to overcome the insidious hereditary beast, he went straight to stage four, top of the Oncology class. He agreed to treatment as a parting gift of time but had courage to call it.

He died like he lived—with strength and enormous integrity—slipping away just after Father’s Day. We slept in his hospital room that last night, like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, bodies strewn, cocooned tightly into a 4m x 6m room. We couldn’t bear to leave him. It was the six of us together, one last time.

An early memory was his mother and zia shaving his nonno’s face for burial. In peasant villages, death was part of everyday life. He had spoken tenderly of the dignified ritual, attuned to life’s precarity as a child.

As we tended him after death, caressing his waxy, paper-thin skin and combing his baby-soft hair, I was struck by his angelic likeness.


Buon viaggio!

This phrase always struck me as odd—travel is often bitter-sweet, tinged with the melancholia of beginnings and endings.

Two farewell journeys bookend his life; we plan his funeral like a military operation. This time, his send-off will be memorable, fitting, every nuance considered. It’s been sixty-eight years between drinks. He will not go quietly into that dark night—not on our watch.

Over time, he renounced Catholicism, unable to accept its hypocrisy—no mean feat for one indoctrinated since birth. True to his wishes, his funeral involved no religious symbolism; his cremation service included an Acknowledgement of Country. We could not have been prouder.    


We shake the finocchio fronds until seeds fall and we store them in a warm, dry place. When the anise-like seeds are planted, a new family of fennel is born—its future is also its past.


La vita agrodolce

Despite its many vicissitudes, my father’s life was well lived. In death, he guides our grief: There’s no future in the past, there’s no future in the past…

He was the man we measure all others against. He often felt he fell short. He didn’t know how much he exceeded the benchmark. To endure monstrous trauma and not become a monster yourself takes courage and integrity.

He passed with high honours.

Joanne Kennedy
Joanne Kennedy

Joanne Kennedy is a published Perth writer with a Kerouac and coffee obsession. She writes poetry and memoir to forensically mine her European cultural heritage for clues to her identity. She plays Scrabble seriously and reads the dictionary for fun—and cherishes her olive-green 1960s Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter.

True Colours, Bohdi Byles

Disclaimer this personal essay contains potentially triggering content relating to hate crimes, self-harm, and suicide.


March 3rd, 2012. I’ve never seen anything so vibrant, so spectacular, or so expressive before. It is the night after I’ve come out, and Mardi Gras felt like a symbolic way to embrace my new, authentic life. There’s every colour of the rainbow in all different shades, from azure to cerulean, indigo to violet, lemon to lime; colours in the hair, on the naked bodies, on the clothing, the floats of the parade. There was something about the rainbow that was transcending the physical — it was like there was a rainbow flowing through each person and connecting them, bringing together a community to celebrate who we are. How is it, though, that a rainbow had come to hold such symbolism for people?

Scientifically speaking, a rainbow is a blend of colours typically in the order of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. They occur when light is refracted through the water droplets floating around in the air and are commonly associated with storms and the sun emerging from behind the clouds. Personally, I find that explanation boring. For me, whenever I see a rainbow in the clouds, it is like the universe is nudging me a little more forward on my path, or reminding me that I’m not stuck, I’m just pausing to take a breath.

A rainbow flag was an image adopted by the LGBTQ+ community in 1978, originally designed by the late Gilbert Baker. Prior to the rainbow flag, a pink triangle defined the gay community during the Gay Liberation Movement. However, the triangle was a symbolic reminder of how Nazis identified homosexuals in World War II, and so with the triangle came the emotions connected to what it had been. For Baker, the rainbow flag was a way to deconstruct the solemnity attached to the gay community. When openly gay politician, Harvey Milk, was assassinated in November 1978, the flag became a symbol of the gay community. Since its genesis, the rainbow flag has become a constant image of resilience and strength.

I want to take you back to May 2010, when I didn’t know about strength or resilience or pride. I am sixteen-years-old, sitting in a theatre, waiting for the lights to dim and the movie to start. My friend and I are chatting as my phone buzzes. I open it up to Facebook. One unread message. I see the name of the person sending it to me and inhale before opening it.

‘Use all should be shot in the head and burned you queer kunt.’

My fingers tap wildly on the screen as I respond.

‘When the fuck are you going to understand. . . I. AM. NOT. GAY.’

I silence my phone before shoving it back in my pocket. My heart is thumping in my chest and my stomach churns. It’s hard to draw in air. The lights dim, and the movie begins as I start getting tunnel vision. I smile at my friend, but all I can think is how I have school tomorrow, and the next day, and the next month, and the next year. I want nothing more than to curl up under the seat in the darkness and stop existing. I’m not going to make it.

It’s effortless for me to recall this experience and many others, like the Facebook page made about me saying I had sex with another male student in one of the high school blocks, only for people to shout it at me for weeks during quiet classes. Or being harassed in the change rooms for looking at the boys when I was standing as far away as possible, staring at a corner and changing as fast as humanly possible. I was still in the closet, still hiding who I knew I was. For me, to be out in high school would’ve meant more than just being vulnerable and authentic. It’d be like bleeding in a lake full of piranhas. They would’ve smelt me out, and they would’ve come in full force to tear me apart even more than the chunks they’d already stolen.

Bullying is bullshit. It’s deeper than just a mean remark or a nasty comment. It’s a way to police people’s behaviours and try to force them to conform to an ideal person. In my case, that ideal was to be straight. It’s not an uncommon story either, and it often has tragic endings.

Seared into my mind is the story of 9-year-old Jamel Myles who came out as gay, full of pride and joy, only to endure four days of constant bullying, to which resulted in him committing suicide. Four days is all it took for people to take this boy’s pride and irreparably shatter it along with his life. The other names tattooed on my soul went the same way – Tyler Clementi (18), Jamey Rodemeyer (14), Phillip Parker (15), Jadin Bell (15). All young, all beautifully queer, all gone. These names never fail to bring tears to my eyes because they are like a mirror to me of what could’ve been.

While I was walking on a tightrope for 4 years, I nearly fell off. Along with that list of names could’ve been Bohdi Byles (18). My name has had a total of four opportunities to join that list, three of them in 2012, each attempt etched into my brain along with their unforgettable sensations. The pills washing down my throat and being forced back up. The sharp sting of a razor blade slicing over flesh. The belt-tightening around my neck. My lungs burning with my head underwater. The shame. The prickly shame of failing yet again.

The day I came out, I was terrified. I was scared that those closest to me would abandon me. I was suffocating. It’s like my body was ready to emerge from the cocoon but the cocoon wouldn’t break, so it was just getting more and more claustrophobic. However, fear and anxiety were not good enough reasons to carry around a 50-ton burden anymore. I was going to come out and the chips could fall wherever they damn well pleased.

Gratefully, I had an easy coming out experience, albeit a little anti-climactic. While I thought everyone would be shocked and have their perceptions of me absolutely blown apart, for the most part, the opposite happened.

‘It’s about time, now go clean your room,’ Mum said to me. The fear I had wasn’t real anymore, and frankly, no one cared.

Except for Grandma.

Grandma didn’t want one bar of it. Even now, six years later, she still is optimistic that I will one day realise I am straight and want a girlfriend, regardless of how insistent I am and how much I externalise my queerness. She’s grown though, from the woman who cried and told me I was going to get AIDS and die.

AIDS has always carried a stigma with it. In the late 1980s, during the AIDS crisis, it was linked entirely to gay men. That stigma, while it has shifted over time, has never fully been left behind, as proven by my grandmother’s fears. It was her fear that drove her reaction, not her disapproval. Her love has never been in question, only her acceptance.

When my uncle was 13, he was placed in a boy’s home for stealing a car. While there, a gay security guard sexually assaulted him, and from that, my uncle contracted HIV, which later developed into AIDS. He passed away when I was two, so I have no recollection or memory of him. I only have photos, but to me, they might as well be photos of a stranger. I never had the opportunity to know him.

I spoke with my grandmother recently to try and scope how that experience was, particularly because it was happening during the AIDS crisis and just afterward. I wanted to know, partially out of my own curiosity as a Gender Studies major, what it was like, what the beliefs were, and how they were enacted. Through her tears, she told me about how all her friends abandoned her when they found out because they were terrified they would catch AIDS. She wept and spoke about the deep shame she carried.

‘How could I tell anyone?’ she asked, her voice croaky as she wiped a tissue over her eyes. ‘How could I possibly tell anyone?’

I understand why she feels the way she does. Through that understanding and empathy I have is a driving force for me to own my authenticity and my identity with pride. I am proud of who I am, and I want to make it known to people that there is pride to be had as an LGBTQ+ individual. With that pride comes a community, a chosen family who accepts one another.

In June 2016, a shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, went down in history as one of the worst shootings to ever happen in modern U.S. history. 49 people in a gay club were killed, another 53 injured. I was in a house alone, watching the constant stream of news through Twitter unfold.

I was shell-shocked for weeks. I was numb and felt so completely powerless. I lit candles, I cried, I even gave an impromptu speech at a vigil (even more powerful given how I detest public speaking). I cried some more, and I was just a cloud of confusion and fear. What helped me walk down that cloudy, scary path though was the rainbow I was walking with, the people I looked to for inspiration.

For the months that followed, the rainbow flag was not just a symbol of pride, but one of remembrance and grieving, connection and compassion, not just in Florida, or in the United States, but worldwide. People mourned as a community where their brothers and sisters, their chosen family, had been attacked. These were my people. My community. My family.

The words from my high school bully rang through my head after the shooting, and still do. ‘use should all be shot in the head.’ Bad grammar and spelling aside, if this person had their way, I would’ve been one of those injured or killed. Yet, reflecting back on those experiences of the many others who came before, like Harvey Milk or the victims of Pulse nightclub, I think that there is solidarity in our struggles, and there is power in our stories.

In 1939, in The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland (a much beloved gay icon) sang the lyrics, ‘Somewhere over the rainbow / Skies are blue / And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.’ Beloved popstar of the 70s and 80s, Cyndi Lauper, sang in her powerful anthem, True Colours, for her friend lost to AIDS, Gregory, ‘I see your true colours / And that’s why I love you […] True colours are beautiful / Like a rainbow.’ During her life, the late Maya Angelou would often sing a 19th-century African-American song: ‘When it looks like the sun will not shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds.’

I wonder if perhaps there isn’t something waiting over the rainbow, but maybe the rainbow itself is the dream that really does come true. Maybe it isn’t so much about the rainbow, but about who is within that rainbow that you find.

What I know for sure is that coming out as gay was so much more than liberating. It was a golden ticket to life, permission to not just survive but thrive. Pride wasn’t a sudden response, but a gradual and internalised feeling that reached the deepest, most unloved parts of me and brought them to the surface to shine.



“9-Year-Old Boy Killed Himself After Being Bullied, His Mom Says.” The New York Times. 4 Oct. 2018.

“Cyndi Lauper Lyrics: True Colors.” AZ Lyrics. 3 Oct. 2018.

“Dr. Maya Angelou: “Be a Rainbow in Someone Else’s Cloud” | Oprah’s Master Class | OWN.” YouTube. 27 Aug. 2018.

“Jamey Rodemeyer Bullied Even After He Died.” Total Life Counselling. 3 Oct. 2018.

“Judy Garland Lyrics: Over The Rainbow.” AZ Lyrics. 28 Aug. 2018.

“Oregon teen hangs himself in schoolyard ‘because he was bullied for being gay’.” Daily Mail. 3 Oct. 2018.

“Orlando Shooting.” The New York Times. 28 Aug. 2018.

“Phillip Parker, Gay Tennessee Teen, Commits Suicide After Enduring Bullying.” Huffington Post. 3. Oct. 2018.

“Rainbow Flag: Origin Story.” Gilbert Baker. 27 Aug. 2018.

“Sixty Minutes: Cyndi Lauper/Kinky Boots Special.” YouTube. 3 Oct. 2018.

“Tyler Clementi’s Story.” Tyler Clementi. 3 Oct. 2018

The Space Invader and the Mud Lotus, Teresa Peni



When did my midlife crisis begin? Before the tears on the tiny plane, or the farewell party? Wait, no—let’s go back a bit—maybe the painful arrows and the street battle. Okay ‘battle’ is a slight overstatement. It might have been the moment my husband brought me in a breakfast tray.

He must have wanted my ‘company’. There was even a red rose in a champagne flute, which did make the breakfast look very pretty. Too bad his timing was off. I was mid-paragraph into the fresh ideas of my hero, Pacific scholar Prof Epeli Hau’ofa.i It was not time for sex, oh no, no, nooo. It was time to get angry, get organised, and save sinking Polynesia from climate change or being nuked by Kim Jong-un. The coffee was good though, he got that right. When he flopped into bed beside me I dipped the croissant into jam, turned a page, and kept reading.

He sighed, presumably about my lack of attention, and picked up a random book from the bedside table.

‘Are you going to keep wiggling that foot?’ It was vibrating back and forth as he read, making the bed wobble.

The foot stopped.

‘I might go play guitar,’ he said, strutting off. He wasn’t getting any action in here. The house was still; the kids were no doubt lazing in their beds, hooked up to YouTube. I heard the crackle and buzz of the amp being switched on, down the hall. But it wasn’t that which threatened my serene ladyspace, it was the anthropologist, author, artist, agitator, legend, Hau’ofa, that had got me all riled up.

A walk would do me good. I squeezed into my spandex tights, laced the Adidas, and cranked some electronica into my earpods to fuel my turn around the harbour.

Wind disturbed the mangroves and a black cormorant dove under the ruffled water surface. It reappeared with a tiny silver fish slung from its beak.

I mused and fumed over Epeli’s words as I strolled along. About how the Pacific Ocean, lapping almost everywhere on the planet—even right here at my feet in Sydney—was peppered with awesome Polynesian explorers for millennia before those pesky nineteenth-century colonisers arrived, divided, and dominated the vast Polynesian network—some, my motley ancestors. They carved it up with their invisible imperial boundaries into ‘tiny, needy bits,’ to be developed.ii They didn’t appreciate the wholeness of the Pacific Ocean; it was to them, the middle of bloody nowhere.

Hole in the doughnut,’ is how they saw us, warned Epeli; ‘If we do not exist for others, then we could in fact be dispensable.’iii It was as though the sea connection was worthless.

A man was jogging along toward me. Instead of staying on his side of the track, he made a sudden 180-degree turn. He jogged across my path, over my feet, as if I were invisible. He didn’t adjust his route for me one iota. A surge of outrage compelled me to curl my foot into a sneaky hook and discreetly ankle tap him as he barged through my personal space. He was quick enough to work out what was happening—adjusting his stride so he didn’t fall.

I maintained original course and bearing.

He jogged backwards, glaring at me like I blew out his birthday candles.

‘You tried to trip me!’

I death-stared him through my sunnies.

‘Watch your step,’ I said.

Jogging Man looked ready to pop a vessel.

‘You’re a bitch.’

Very slowly, I raised my two middle fingers, 1 and 2. There. You. Go. I cranked it a notch higher.

He looked me up and down with an overdone head pivot, as if his eyes couldn’t do the task themselves.

‘I hope…I hope your children get run over by a bus!’

He was seeking some part of my identity to trash. Mother, he figured.

‘Why don’t you hurry up and fuck off,’ I said.

I’m not scared of you, I thought, although I was shaking. I considered the likelihood of him thumping me—no one was around—and he was bulky. His blue eyes burned, incandescent with rage. No doubt, we both had adrenaline careening through our systems.

He stayed up in my face, trying to intimidate me, but I did not slow my step, smile, nor apologise. Do not fuck with a Maori lady when she is mad.

Then, it was as if the wind suddenly abandoned his sail; he knew words would not hurt me. He performed a theatrical manscowl and ran off, huffing.

I threw the parting punch:

‘Next time watch where you’re going, cockhead.’



Later that night, back at home; all nice and calm again, I felt very bad for Jogging Man (idiot). Of course I was proud of standing my ground, but my good shoulder-angel was more harpy than usual, making me ashamed of the way I’d done it; reaching for that familiar weapon—anger—so powerful yet so terrible. I blamed it on insightful literature, poured myself another red wine and tried to forget about it.

So I wasn’t shocked when Facebook analytics, which knows us better than our own mothers do, magically delivered this video to my feed; because it had digested and diagnosed every procrastinatory rant, preach, like, and share I’d tapped out since 2005. It submitted its sum total knowledge of me that night:

Transform Your Anger’ with Thich Nhat Hanh.iv

I hit [Play].

The Vietnamese Zen master is sitting in brown robes, beside a girl wearing a pink dress. She looks about ten. He’s holding up his fist to his own face and has a mean look.

‘You want to give that boy or girl a punch.’

Sprung bad, I thought.

He smiles as he jabs the air around his head. She smiles back.

‘Punish him or her. That is the anger in us… that anger is a kind of mud, it will smear everything.’

He’s got a strong, Vietnamese accent, so I’m grateful for the subtitles.

‘We need to be aware that the mud of anger, we must handle.’

He brings both hands together as if gripping a hefty mud marble.

‘But without the mud, you cannot grow lotus flowers.’

[Insert time-lapse video of an incredible pink lotus flower opening]

‘So the mud is useful somehow.’

The video cuts back to the monk and the girl surrounded by a luscious array of tropical flowers and candles. Cue bamboo-flute music.

‘So your anger is useful somehow, maybe you should not… let it out.’

He gently cocks his head at her. Maybe she laid into her little shit of a brother?

‘You should not throw it away. If you know how to make good use of your anger, you can grow the Lotus of Peace, of Joy, of Forgiveness. And if we look deeply, we’ll be able to understand. And when we understand, there is love. And when there is love, anger must…’

His palms open like lotus petals.

‘Transform itself.’

The girl gives a simple nod. She gets it.

I, on the other hand, was trying very hard to work out how he got from mud to love.

Google: Booktopia: ‘Thich Nhat Hahn Mud Lotus’. I pulled out my credit card and ordered his book. It was obvious I needed to stop spraying mud everywhere.



My street-stoush with Jogging Man was a tremor that heralded a quake. He was like a small dog that had got hold of my trouser leg. I wanted to kick the fucker off to fix the problem. But seriously, what was my problem? Was it really because he was a Pale-faced Manspreader invading my Ladyspace?

The next level of my mud quest came at me via another scholar. My two majors were, like the Pacific and the Atlantic, meeting at last. The anthropology of art was meandering into creative writing territory. We read Michael Jackson’s (yep, cool name) ethnographic-poetry, which veered away from desiccated academia. I was immediately fanboyant—more so when I discovered he came from my grandparent’s sleepy seaside town (Nelson, New Zealand), which I reckoned his poem, Making it Otherwisev was about:


‘… silt spread on the estuary

like a map of darkness

to be read by those

journeying toward clarity of speech.’


A small prophecy that held no meaning, yet—but I digress.

I was intrigued by his sweet-tempered explanation of the human condition. Apparently we are plural creatures, constantly trying to balance the seesaw between ‘our sense of what we owe others and what we owe ourselves.’ We want to be our own bosses and have all the things, AND we want to share nicely with our group, for the common good. Everyone struggles with this in a myriad of individual

We tend to employ a bunch of simplified categories to frame our battles (for resources and ideologies). You can imagine all the variations on us/them: Raging Feminist Maori Mother Abuses Misogynist Second-Australian Fitness Addict.

Jackson agrees identity labels are helpful in getting us what we want—we should definitely study how we adopt them for good effect—marginalised people can be especially ravenous for identity.vii

Jackson says good anthropology (and writing, I presumed) will shine light onto the nitty-gritty ways we struggle with these tensions, mixed feelings, and contradictions. Nuanced description can unmask, and is more meaningful than, simplistic either/ors—when we write the life we actually live.viii

This was the kicker for me: ‘Any one person embodies the potential to be any other.’ix

Wait. What? Sounded like Jackson was saying someone can simultaneously carry the worldview of an adult and (a very needy inner) child; or exhibit the prejudices of the asshole and the victim. I am actually Maori and Irish. Goddamit, it’s possible Jogging Man was a nice guy who wasn’t wearing his glasses, just being a dick that day.

Epeli Hau’ofa soothed me, too—with his messier, oceanic view of our modern regional identity. Our diverse group—including new arrivals—were clever buggers, aye, once again regularly visiting each other, via Virgin Air; taking more than bags of cava or packets of pineapple lumps across borders. We were exchanging jobs, spreading welfare dollars, swapping sporting cups, and lovers. Epeli claimed our survival could depend upon us acting in concert to protect the Pacific Ocean (and by extension, Earth) from usurping ratbags who don’t respect it, who don’t see the real value of our epic space.x His warm voice wants to reunite criss-crossing Oceanians… who are all who love her, by being more expansive and tolerant, so we can transform ourselves: from being belittled ‘islands in the sea’, back into ‘a sea of islands’.xi

Heh. I started to like myself again. A roundhouse-kickass style had helped Oceanian women survive their dunking into the realm of nowhere. But, perhaps I could venture beyond the margins of stereotypes or monoculture; maybe morph into a more genuine creature, rather than some abstract, divided identity thrust forth in order for there to be only one winner.



Finally, the new book arrived, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering.xii

It was really excellent timing because my spunky little grandmother had just died, unexpectedly.

Breathe, incanted the ninety-one-year-old Zen master.

Thích Nhất Hạnh knows his readers’ mud is not limited to swearing at joggers. He did not promise to deliver anyone from suffering, but would teach me how to suffer, properly. The first arrow of pain, he soothingly explained, is pain you initially feel: anger, rejection, failure, injury, separation. The death of someone you love.xiii

Mum asked me to speak at Nana’s farewell: ‘I am somewhere I have never been before: Nelson without you.’ There was a lot more in that speech; but for some reason losing Nana also meant losing the whole town and occupants.

After seven happy-sad days spent setting up and conducting Nana’s funeral street party (Photoshopped invites; TV slideshow; where to park the Portaloo? red or black serviettes?); as well as catching up with hordes of cousins and uncles (beer and burgers; cycling along the river; reminiscing Nana over G&T’s; weeping while weeding her chic garden), it was time to return home to my little family in Sydney.

But grief opens up a hole; it irritates any festering, untended wound, makes it weep. The death of a matriarch can get the pus up.

The wound, what was it?

Breathing in, I know suffering is there.

Breathing out, I say hello to my suffering.xiv

Nhất Hạnh dropped a magnificent truth bomb: the second arrow of pain. Usually self-inflicted, it may take the form of judgement: the crap we tell ourselves to make our suffering much worse.xv

I belong nowhere, throbbed the arrow in the wound.

I pined like a lonely dog, seeing Nelson disappear through the airplane porthole, the din of the twin propellers masked my whimpering. As it banked over glacial blue water whorling into the estuaries below, I started crying up in that lonely airspace and could not stop for four days. I leave my extended family, again, and again and again.

Nhất Hạnh writes: ‘Some of our ill-being comes from hurt and pain in our own life; but some has been transmitted to us by our ancestors… you are the continuation of your parents… your body and mind contain their suffering and their hopes as well as your own.’xvi

I’d moved away from serious Buddhism a few years back when it got a bit mystical in the reincarnation department, but this guy was making things clearer. Nhất Hạnh explained how my body transported the genes and stories and happenings of all the people who came before, who had made me. I carried in my cells all their luck and habits. I was just the next step in all our journeys.

Jackson’s poem, Pioneers,xvii seemed to acknowledge their presence:


‘I am theirs and of them and for them speak.

My hands have gone over the roofs and gullies

of their names.

These hills I love under are their doing.

I have been given what they got.

I am what they became.’


I was seven when my parents vamoosed New Zealand to explore the world. Economic migration—ah, exciting new opportunities!—meant three nations, six primary schools, and ten houses changed before I slumped into high school. Boring, lovely old Nelson remained my spiritual basecamp, where I clambered a concrete blue whale to see the beach. I posted Nana and Pop regular airmail about our adventures; they were my first readers, and always wrote back. Letters were all that anchored me to their silver-haired kindnesses.

I had lost my huge family and beautiful land, and I never had a choice.

Why must I keep denying the wound? I squinted through my murky grief and saw broken arrow heads deeply embedded beneath my lifted chest armour.

Mindfully breathe, lulled Nhất Hạnh, it will create space to recognise suffering energy, then embrace it, ‘like a mother taking care of a crying baby… in her arms, without judging or ignoring it… with the energy of tenderness.’xviii I hugged my wailing mud baby, just by breathing.

Stacked on Nana’s coffee table had been family albums stuffed with hundreds of photos. One in particular—transported from 1973—gave me pause. Dad was standing on the dock, before his soon-to-depart frigate, hugging two-year-old me; I’m wearing his sailor cap and looking très grumpy. I didn’t know then, what I know now; that he was serving aboard the HMAS Otago, a Royal New Zealand Navy ship sent to protest the French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atol. Their military attention helped send those nuclear tests underground.

Our family line of warriors, sailors, explorers, and migrants seeking harbour stretched back through time. My uncle had shown me illustrations of the nineteenth-century tall ships that carried my great-grandmother from Ireland to New Zealand, a late arrival after the ocean-going migration waka had brought our iwi here, the Te Arawa and Ngāi Tahu Maori. I carried inside me more cheeky-sad travellers than one person could own.

How do I connect us? How do I belong?

Remove the second arrow.

Jackson, who knows something of being a bridge between art and social science, says, ‘When we don’t have power to materially change something, one power we can use is via the work of imagination, to rethink and reconstruct our reality, “undo deeds of the past,” with forgiveness’.xix

Could I revere my conflicting moods, be a breathing paradox? Notice, I imagined Jackson whispering to me, notice it all: the ancestors within me / the daughter left on the wharf / the girl torn from Aotearoa / the Oceanian who surveyed the world / the Sydney woman who battles space invaders. I am not either/ors—these are parts of a whole, spacious Sea of Me, and she has many expressions.

All this sounds a bit like the ethereal lotus.

Jackpot. Mud into love.


Works Cited

i Hau’ofa, Epeli. 2008. We Are the Ocean. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
ii Hau’ofa (p. 38)
iii Hau’ofa (p. 46)
iv ‘Transform Your Anger with Thich Nhat Hanh’, Goalcast, Facebook, accessed 1 October 2017.
v Jackson, Michael. 1989. ‘Making It Otherwise,’ Duty Free: Selected Poems 1965-1988. John McIndoe, Dunedin. (p.27)
vi Jackson, Michael. 2011. ‘Not to Find One’s Way in a City,’ Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want. Duke University Press, Durham and London, pp.359-383. (p.375)
vii Jackson Michael, 1998. ‘Here/Now,’ Minima Ethnographica: Intersubjectivity and the Anthropological Project, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp. 189-209. (p. 199-201)
viii Jackson, Michael. 2012. ‘On the Work and Writing of Ethnography.’ Between One and One Another. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp.167-214. (p.172)
ix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 208)
x Hau’ofa (p. 42)
xi Hau’ofa’s essays: ‘Our Sea of Islands,’ and ‘The Ocean in Us,’ in We Are the Ocean, express all these ideas, throughout.
xii Nhat Hanh, Thich. 2014. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, Parallax Press, Berkley, California.
xiii No Mud, No Lotus (p.46)
xiv No Mud, No Lotus (p. 23)
xv No Mud, No Lotus (p.47-48)
xvi No Mud, No Lotus (p.33)
xvii Jackson, Duty Free (p.28)
xviii No Mud, No Lotus (p. 27)
xix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 203)

Download a PDF copy of The Space Invader and the Mud Lotus.

To Live in the Memory, Lynda A. Calder

‘It is better to live in the memory of two or three than to be mourned & forgotten by all the world. Remembrance is a golden chain time tries to break.’

— Recorded in the back of Illuminated Scripture Text Book
belonging to Ada Bladwell (nee Mitchell)


At the front of a sandstone Gothic church in Newtown named for St Stephen, the first Martyr of Christianity, is an ornately carved wooden Roll of Honour: ‘To the glory of God and the perpetual memory of the following men who made the supreme sacrifice at the call of duty in the Great War.’ It is framed by two aging flags, the Australian flag on the left and the Union Jack on the right. Almost in the centre of this Roll, on a shiny brass plate, is the name ‘H. Mitchell’. The parishioners of St Stephens are researching the names on this Roll of Honour and, as the centenary of ANZAC approaches, I can imagine many churches, villages and families are also researching their links to the Great War. I am no different. I have been sent the spreadsheet of their research and next to the name ‘H. Mitchell’ it reads ‘Can’t find him’. Only a week before, I would have said the same because I had no idea that H. Mitchell was a member of my family tree. Learning the identity of H. Mitchell was a journey of surprise discoveries and remembrance of forgotten relatives.

In 2005, for the commemoration of the ninetieth anniversary of ANZAC, I was writing a short, one-hundred word piece, for a local newspaper’s competition. I used my father’s maternal grandfather’s war diary as source material. Albert Joseph Hancock had been a Sapper in the 5th and 59th Broadgauge Railway Operating Company. His diary was a small, thin, black affair, with yellowing pages filled with pencil scrawl recording the daily weather, ‘Fritz’ dropping bombs nearby from their ‘Taubes’, some close calls with shrapnel and shells, the ‘big push’ (my research at the time revealed this was in Ypres, since Joseph never elaborated on locations), a visit to the King of Belgium’s country residence and, towards the end, whether or not he had a ‘good night’ or not with the continual bombardment. On the last two pages there are double entries for certain days. My Dad always maintained that this showed signs of shell-shock, especially since he had been ‘gassed’. This was the reason Joseph had given his family for being discharged ‘medically unfit’. In 2005 I discovered the Australian War Memorial’s online war service records and learnt that he was admitted to the Syphilis ward. He had never been ‘gassed’. No one knew.

What an ignominious link to the ‘war to end all wars’ and, at that time, our family’s only known link to World War One. No other family member had served in the armed forces until World War Two when my paternal grandfather, Alfred Frederick Mitchell, enlisted into the Army and then transferred to the Air Force.

Grandpa died in 1987 and all his papers were bundled into a box then stowed and forgotten under Mum and Dad’s house. In the intervening ten years my Dad has been through these papers. Why it took Dad so long to go through them I doubt even he knows, but it was probably prompted by Mum’s ‘clean under the house drive’ to farm out all the boxes of stuff belonging to my brother and me — both of us married and no longer living at home. The clutter under there had become a nest for cockroaches and mice and a potential fire hazard.

Among Grandpa’s papers, Dad found a folder of tantalising letters, which had belonged to my great grandfather’s cousin: Ada May Mitchell. There were two sets of letters: one from Servicemen at the end of World War 1, sending thanks to Ada and ‘The Girls of the St Stephen’s Patriotic Club Newtown’, and the other set were personal letters from Henry Lachlan Cyrus Hailey, who signs off as ‘Lock’. All are written by hand, some in ink, some in pencil, and all on fragile sheets of paper. Most of the paper is plain and faintly lined, but a letter from Private Cecil Rhodes MM comes on stationery from The Salvation Army, especially prepared for servicemen ‘With the Australian Expeditionary Forces’. Some thank you notes come from Newtown local boys. Some are short, expressing heartfelt thanks for care packages that finally arrived, but others go for a few pages describing how the packages were appreciated and how they were looking forward to coming home. Lock’s letters, however, are crammed between the lines of ruled note paper and onto note cards recounting his war exploits, injuries, and giving replies to Ada’s many letters.

Dad handed these letters over to me, the family historian and an author. ‘You should write their stories, if you have nothing else to do.’

I identified all the servicemen using the Australian War Memorial’s Record Search. Some had received the Military Medal, many had been punished for turning up to muster late. The citations for the Military Medals are harrowing such as this one for Private Atal Norman Spencer Elphinston.

On the 3rd October, 1918, during the attack on the BEAUREVOIR SYSTEM, near the village of BEAUREVOIR, East of PERONNE, when his Platoon was held up by a strong enemy machine gun post, Private ELPHINSTONE worked round the position, bombed it, jumped in and killed five of the enemy and took 1 Sergeant Major and 10 other Ranks prisoners. This enabled the platoon to come up into line with the remainder of the advancing Company. Later under extremely heavy machine gun fire this soldier worked untiringly for three hours bringing in wounded from in front on our position when the Battalion had withdrawn to a defensive position.

It makes me wonder what extraordinary feats were worthy of the more prestigious Victorian Cross.

And then there was Lock. Why were there so many letters back and forth between Ada and this man? Had they been in love? Yet Ada remained unmarried. Had Lock been killed in action, then? No, his service record showed a safe return to Australia. Was this a forgotten relative?

Henry Lachlan Cyrus Hailey signs off from his first few letters as ‘Your old friend Lock’. The first letter is dated 16th March 1917 and Lock is sending a ‘short note’ to let Ada know his change of address because he is ‘going back to France for another go’. Lock Hailey was in ‘C’ company of the 20th Infantry Battalion. After enlisting in August of 1915, he found himself in Alexandria and then on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 11th November 1915. His Battalion was involved with the effective retreat from Gallipoli. On 19th and 20th December troops moved from Gallipoli to Mudros maintaining the appearance of normality to fool the enemy into thinking the trenches continued at full strength. There was to be no lights and no smoking. Orders were given in undertones and the word ‘retire’ could not be used. Socks were drawn over boots, bayonets were removed and rifles carried ‘on the trail or over the shoulder’ but ‘not sloped’ so as not to show over the trench tops. Mess tins and other equipment had to be arranged so there was ‘no rattling or shining surfaces’. Reportedly the retreat resulted in only one casualty.

Lock’s first deployment to France, in 1916, was during the Battle of the Somme and the Pozieres Offensive and during his second deployment he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and then Lieutenant. Lock’s letters give a stark insight into the life lived by many soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front and also their confusion at the lack of support from home.


12th November, 1917

Had a very rough time during the last few months and what with continual small doses of gas and continual wettings and exposure fairly flattened me. I left the front trenches or rather shell holes on the night of the 5th instant after four days toil without food or sleep. I had a rough time as the Germans kept coming over on to our line and as I was second in command of my company I had to take out fighting patrols all night to keep them from finding out where we were situated. And I can confidently assure you crawling about in no mans [sic] land in the shells full of mud & water looking for fight for a sick man was no bon. After doing four lovely days of this I was relieved just when I got to the “couldn’t stand” stage and taken out & hunted before the doctor who gave me a terrific gravelling for not reporting before and sent me right off.


2nd February 1918

One gets use to hard knocks & bruises and I can assure you they take it very well. One of our Officers was shot through the thigh and kept going thinking he was the only Officer left. Until one the Sergts said to him “You had better go out as old Hailey’s bound to be all right” and at that minute I came on him. One of my lads had just blown a German’s brains out all over me & of course I was covered with gore & dirt. When I came on the scene the chaps & the wounded officer actually laughed, as they made sure I was hit at last’…’I tell you when I see my men lying all round I see red.


26th December 1917

What do you think of the Referendum regular fall through was it not and I expect the next thing we will all be attached to British Regiments as we have no men and no chance of getting any more for quite a long time.

 24th Feb 1918

I wonder why the Catholics are so against conscription, they must surely see we must all go down together if we do not win.

Lock talks much about his ‘debility’, convalescence in Scotland, a trip to London, Medical Board after Medical Board to determine if he was fit for service and his work at Camp Weymouth to return injured serviceman ‘with arms and legs off and every other ailment’ to Australia.

Lock returned to Melbourne in June 1918 and his last letter is sent on 17th July, 1918 from his home town, Yarra, just south of Goulburn (New South Wales): ‘No doubt you will wonder what has become of me these days but the fact is I am giving up single blessedness on 23rd July.’

Henry Lachlan Cyrus Hailey married Sarah Jane Ward in Goulburn on that date. The ‘matrimonial rush’ was because he could be sent back into action.

Goulburn is certainly the link between Lock and Ada, but as friends, not relatives. Ada had many Mitchell Aunts, Uncles and cousins. All of them originated in Goulburn where her Uncle, Alfred Arthur Mitchell, was a respected member of the community and Grand Master of the Manchester United Oddfellows Lodge. There is a large and imposing black obelisk in the Goulburn general cemetery that marks Alfred’s grave.

There was a small clue in Lock’s letter dated 18th April 1918 that furthered my journey of discovery. Lock writes, ‘Have not had the good fortune to run against Harry Nott so far and there are very few of the old Goulburn boys left.’ Nott was a familiar family surname and Harry, or Henry William Nott, was one of Ada’s many cousins, son of her Aunt Esther (nee Mitchell). All we knew of Henry was his birthday – 16th April, 1889 – and date of death – 22nd August, 1918. Why had we not connected this date to World War One?

Henry Nott was in the 55th Battalion which advanced on Albert in the Somme late in the night on 21st August. Henry Nott was killed in action on 22nd August 1918, aged twenty-nine years; one of five from his Battalion who died at the height of the battle to retake Albert. Henry is now buried in Plot I, Row A, Grave Number 341 in French soil at Cerisy-Gailly Military Cemetery.

I delved more into the life of Ada May Mitchell hoping to find more clues. She had been named after her aunt, Ada Bladwell (nee Mitchell), known as Aunt Sis. Ada May remained a spinster who lived her whole life with her parents and likely cared for them into old age. She died alone in 1978 in her family home from atrial fibrillation suffering from senility. Only two black and white photos survive of Ada May. One shows a chubby faced cherub of, presumably, four years old in a white pinafore arranged for a formal photograph standing with legs crossed, an elbow leaning on a book with her other hand holding a little bouquet of ferns and flowers. Her shoulder length hair and short fringe has been curled in rags. Her face is wide. She has the distinctive Mitchell button nose and thick Mitchell bottom lip which shows the hint of a smile. The other photo is from a street photographer. Cut down the middle, it removes the person standing to her right. Ada May is on the left edge of the photo, grim-faced, caught unaware, older, maybe in her 50s or 60s. She is dressed in all black: black dress, a small necklace and something pinned to her left breast, a jacket draped over the hand carrying a handbag, and a stylish brimmed black hat with veiling. She still has the broad face, button nose and thick bottom lip but now carries the marks of age around her neck and jowls.

There is no one left who knew Ada. My Dad may have met her when he was young, but he doesn’t remember. We do know she served over fifty years on staff as a Clerk at Grace Bros and carried herself with ‘dignity and aplomb’. Dad has the impression that she was possibly like Mrs Slocombe from the British TV comedy Are You Being Served with a severe personality, tinted hair and finding solace in a cat or two. Ada and her parents lived at 3 King Street, Newtown, next door to modern day Moore Theological College and, later, 50 Wemyss Street, Newtown. Both are not far from St Stephen’s Anglican Church in Newtown where she attended and was Secretary of the St Stephens Patriotic Club during World War One. The Patriotic Clubs raised funds to support the war effort and sent care packages to local boys serving at the front. So, I contacted St Stephens in Newtown. Did they have any records of parishioners or the Patriotic Club? An answer was slow in arriving but would arrive eventually, but not yet.

During this period of research my Dad found a small blue notebook with gold embossed writing on the cover: ‘The Illuminated Scripture Text Book for every day — 365 coloured illustrations with interleaved memoranda’. The spine is held together with aging sticky-tape, the cover is barely holding onto its contents and the pages are yellowing and rigid with age. The front inscription, in hardly legible ink script, reads:

“Love your Enemies”
To Ada Mitchell
With best love & ??? wishes
From E. ??Thompson??
St Saviours Finishing School
April 1879

Ada May Mitchell was born in 1891, therefore this notebook had to belong to Aunt Sis, Ada Bladwell (nee Mitchell). Inside she has recorded the birth dates of friends and relatives, her wedding anniversary and the death of her husband, William Henry Bladwell. Also noted was the death ‘killed at war’ of Harry Nott on 22nd August 1918 and another name, an unfamiliar name, that had no place, yet, on the family tree: ‘Harry G Mitchell killed at war 29th May 1917’.

Another discovery. Although, on reflection, I recall walking along the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in 2012 past the M’s and noting the name Henry George Mitchell. Both Henry and George are common family Christian names (although, likely common in the Victorian era). I was almost certain this person could be a relative. I always read Rolls of Honour on church walls and obelisks in country towns; I wonder if there is not some long lost relative listed there.

Henry George Mitchell came up on the war records search; Service Number 159. On his enlistment attestation, Henry recorded his mother’s name as Mrs Will Mitchell, with ‘Will’ crossed out and ‘Martha Edith Lily’ written above it. On another copy of this attestation his father’s name was written in red ink: W.M. Mitchell. The family tree held William Milton Mitchell, brother to Ada Bladwell and Uncle to Ada May Mitchell. His wife was Martha Edith Lily Morgan but the names of his children were unknown and listed only as Child One, Child Two, Child Three, Child Four, Child Five, Child Six.

Henry George Mitchell had been in the 25th Battalion and likely died in the trenches in France during a ‘quiet period’. His Battalion has no War Diary on record for the period he served and the 35th did not even enter its first major battle, at Messines, until early June 1917. He died on 29th May, 1917, and is buried in Belgium: Plot I, Row D, Grave Number 11, Strand Military Cemetery, Ploegsteert.

Finally I received an answer from St Stephens in Newtown. They had never heard of the Patriotic Club and had no parishioner records from the early 1900s but they mentioned the Roll of Honour and sent me the spreadsheet of their research. Could my Henry George Mitchell be the H. Mitchell on the St Stephens Rolls of Honour?

Henry joined the 35th Battalion (Newcastle’s Own) in Islington Newcastle. In Henry’s service record is a letter from his father reporting the family’s move from Newcastle to 42 Bucknell Street, Newtown; not far from Ada Mitchell and her parents. It would be safe to assume the families attended church together at St Stephens and, therefore, not a great leap to link H. Mitchell with Henry George Mitchell.

Family tree research is like having the pieces of a larger jigsaw and working out where they fit in the greater whole without the help of the picture on the box. I have consequently discovered many other relatives and more who served in World War One: Henry Mitchell’s brother William Leslie who also enlisted in the 35th battalion at only age seventeen; Arthur Edwin Bladwell, Ada Bladwell’s nephew, who received the Military Medal for gallant service in May 1915; John Digby Nott (Harry Nott’s brother) who has a plaque commemorating his life on a wall at Lithgow Hospital in the Blue Mountains and Eric Henry Mitchell, son of Uncle Edward Mitchell, who was gassed and returned to Australia.

One hundred years ago, these men and women did their small part in that greater conflict. As a nation we remember the World War One every ANZAC Day, but it is up to families to remember the individuals who died or returned injured, ill or safe, or served from home. Yet, those who had no children, like Henry, Harry and Ada, where the golden chain of remembrance has been broken, become forgotten Uncles and Aunts. I wonder if anyone has sat by the grave of Henry William Nott in France or Henry George Mitchell in Belgium to consider their service, sacrifice and the circumstances of their deaths. I wonder if anyone else has thought about the contribution Ada May Mitchell and the girls of the Patriotic Club made to the war effort from home. I found Ada’s grave in Rookwood Cemetery in Lidcombe and was moved to tears to find her buried with both parents: Ernest Henry and Harriet Mitchell.

H. Mitchell is listed on the St Stephens Roll of Honour and he will be remembered and spoken about as tours are conducted to mark the centenary of his ultimate sacrifice. But now, with the centenary of ANZAC the Mitchell family will be able to remember their contribution to World War I with greater pride and personal interest. Sacrifices and lives will live on in the memory of two or three (or more) and not be forgotten by time.




Download a pdf of ‘To Live in the Memory’.


Dee Why Pools, Hannah Macauley-Gierhart


We were standing on the rocks by the pools one late spring afternoon when I turned to him after a long silence and asked him if he had once loved me. He didn’t see it coming. He drew his breath sharply in and looked out at the ocean.

And it was turbulent. The large bulbous waves sucked right up to the flat rock six feet away from us and crashed in on themselves. Teenage surfers gripped oyster shells with bare feet as they worked up the courage to jump off the edge and, once they did, disappeared under the surface for a moment before entering the world again, shocked with cold and breathless, trying to fight the current that would throw them back again.

He told me that he thought he did.

I looked at him then, remembering the familiarity we’d once shared. With an arch in his eyebrows he gestured to the headland that rose above us, recalling with one small movement the warm evenings we had spent years before, holed up in his old car, hearing the waves surge beneath us, kissing with the fervency of secretive young lovers. I blushed, embarrassed.


We had passed the old pools to get to these rocks. It was a comfortable walk, our hands warmed by coffee and memory. I recalled days where we’d sat on the big concrete steps, watching the wide arc of Dee Why Beach stretch beyond the pool walls all the way to Long Reef. It had been summer, winter, autumn, spring, and we’d sat by the pools, watching the old men carve lines through the water with lean arms, up and down, following the sea-green stripes that laced the bottom.

That afternoon was an eruption of memory. I felt it all. He asked me if I had loved him too. I said I didn’t know.

It has gone back beyond us, this place. When I think of that stretch of land I remember that young romance, as if those rock pools are shaped around our twenty-something love, but we are just a small sidenote to a vivid history. Endless seasons have flashed through the sky as the pools have had their walls reshaped by progress. In 1912 the rock had been split at the southern end of Dee Why beach in order to hold the heavy waves in twenty feet of hollowed out, freshly concreted pool-shell.[i] Between then and 1930, the walls were pushed out twice more[ii]; prophetically perhaps, as if the perimeters of the pool were increased to hold the volume of lives it would indelibly change.

Where my estranged love and I had stood on that frozen afternoon four years ago – the memory a mash of blue sea and heartache – so many had stood before us, watching their loved ones shriek in the whitewash of the turbulent waves that crashed over the eastern end of the pools, hanging off the sides to watch the ocean churn beneath them. The days were peppered with the heady aroma of seaweed and the women boldly tucked their skirts into their bloomers[iii] in the rough heat, sacrificing their bare skin to the sun.

The pools seemed tame to me in those meanderings with my lover. They felt languid, sitting silently through passing time, the old Norfolk Pines throwing shadows over the darkening water as countless evenings drew close. But the old photos show a life that new walls have closed out. There they were captured, those ‘20s bathers, swimming-capped and jubilant as they battled the waves that surged over the low walls. There were countless others that sat on the natural rock that meandered down to the edge of the pools. The scene was slightly wild, the people so small in that large scope of rock and ocean.[iv]

I come out of the library with that lingering old-book smell – my head full of old photographs and words that have become so familiar they feel my own. The air holds the salt of the beach just the stretch of Howard Avenue away. I have just spent the last couple of hours visiting the past of this place – I want to know the history of an area that’s become so important to my own story. I’ve become lost in the memory of those who have shaped the life of Dee Why, those that had founded shops along the beach or remembered the opening of the Dee Why Ladies’ Amateur Swimming Club. It’s a suburb full of voices. They tell of its transformation from a pastoral landscape to a thriving beach haven.[v]

But it’s the voice of Alma Elizabeth Murphy that is the most haunting. One warm spring day she had ventured to the pools from Strathfield. It must have been quite a way to travel back then. It was September 29, 1936.[vi] She might have been quiet on her journey – I wonder why she chose this pool? Alma took off her stockings, her shoes, her socks and her hat and placed them on a rock near the water.[vii] Did she watch the surf like we had seventy-something years later? Did she also notice the full-shape of the tubular waves as they crashed ashore?

But into the water she ventured. She held an attaché case that was bound to her wrist. She’d filled it with stones that she had found along the way. I wonder if her heart was as heavy as those rocks were? Alma’s last breath left her at the bottom of the pool; it was a small bubble that broke the surface of the salt water. It burst into headlines like ‘Shocking Discovery At Dee Why’[viii] and ‘Missing Woman Found Dead In Baths.’[ix] She held the collective imagination of a nation for a short moment. They were horrified at her suicide. Mrs Murphy’s funeral was held on the 29th of September, 1936. Her family requested that no flowers be sent.[x]

And these pools have a scary underside that seemed to want to suck the life out of its dwellers for a season of history – perhaps to show the uncontrollable power of a semi-contained sea. The teen Alan Carson sunk to the bottom of the pool in 1940.[xi] His friends didn’t notice he was missing until his body was found floating lifeless on the concrete floor. A six-year-old girl was resuscitated after nearly drowning in 1946.[xii] In 1952, John Lawrie Sampson dived in, hit his head and never resurfaced.[xiii]


But there was a dark humour that also seemed to be personified by the deep water. Two old women were swimming one afternoon when they noticed the fin of a five-foot grey nurse shark slicing the water in a large arc. It had been left for dead by the edge of the pool by fishermen and some curious children had come by a while later, shocked at the sight of the monstrous fish. It was a warm spring afternoon, their bare feet danced on the sun-warmed rock and their freckles darkened by the second. The children decided to poke it with sticks and they watched the way the rubber skin tautened and relaxed, marvelled at the strange salt smell of it, the small eyelids that covered hidden, beady eyes. But its gills must have expanded and contracted upon this aggravation, perhaps its eyes opened just a fraction. They screamed. And timidly, they rolled it into the pools, back to the water it craved and where, hours later, it almost scared the life out of the elderly.[xiv] I picture the disbelieving horror on the old women’s faces when an innocent float in the buoyant water turned into a near-death experience. They made it out alive, of course, but never forgot that agonising swim back to the safety of land. Perhaps they laughed about it later.

In other dark-comedic turns, Mary Flood was surprised when she was sucked out of the sluice gate and dragged over 30 feet of sharp rock.[xv] She survived, dazed and cut. Norma Newman got stuck in an outlet pipe and was saved by being pulled out by the legs.[xvi] Frances Hancock and her toddler son, visiting from the country, were washed off the edge of the pool into the hungry sea. She was near exhaustion and cut by rocks, but they both survived.[xvii]

It shocks me, this history. The voices of those that inhabited here have been quietened over time. These days the pools are silent and sedentary. This sleepy tranquillity of the pools belies a violent history that is floating sneakily at the bottom of a community’s memory. If you listen closely enough you could possibly hear their slight echoes in the slow churn of the ocean. Theirs are stories of joy, adventure or tragic, traumatic loss. We don’t listen properly now.

I’ve only dipped my toes into the pools. I prefer the buoyant adventure of the open sea to the left of the old walls. But I will bathe in them in the coming summer. It’s the submersion in history that calls me to the quiet salt. I’ll lean over the edges and let my eyes skip over the waves to the horizon. I’ll feel the sun tighten the skin on my sun-screened back. Perhaps I’ll tilt my head so my ear is flat on the rock-edge and feel the vibrations of an old, enigmatic sea surging up through the walls and into my own memory. I know I will marvel at the endlessness of the ocean before me. It will make me awe-filled and slightly terrified. I will then do some laps up the long lanes, feeling the cool silence of the water when my face is submerged, then hearing the loud white-noise of the waves and tourists when I turn my mouth for air. I will let my hair float like seaweed. Perhaps I will even lie, face-down, pretending I am lifeless like I did when I was a child, not moving, seeing how long I can hold my breath, hearing the blood thump in my ears like a slow drum.

A year and a half after I’d asked if he loved me on those rocks, we were standing in the hot light of my Dee Why apartment. He’d come with flowers after a heated argument that lasted for days. We’d slowly eased back into dating again and it had been a retry as turbulent as the waves that hit the rocks by the pools. He was kind, I was stubborn. I was terrified of losing myself to love; I was afraid I wouldn’t stay afloat if I gave my heart again. And there was an awkward silence as he stood by the open windows; I was planted in the kitchen, leaning against the safe barrier of the bench.

He asked me why I was so incredibly angry? It was true – I could feel the involuntary grit to my teeth.  He put the flowers down and asked me again why I was so upset. I told him it was because I loved him, despite my best resistance. But after that the tide of relationship eased into a steady rhythm. He loved me too. We couldn’t deny that the currents had taken us far apart and pulled us back again on salty, buoyant waves.

Now we walk by the pools often in endless sweet twilights. I stand with him in comfortable silence and we watch the distorted waves curl onto the rock platform. I see the surfers trace the edge of the pool and plunge off the end into the ever-changing sea. The pools form clean blue lines that are sometimes indistinguishable from the adjoining sea when the light is just right. The old swimmers come back season after season. The Norfolk Pines still cast long shadows over the still water. We walk away hand-in-hand, pulling the stories of those past along with our own forming one.

Works Cited:


[i] Mayne-Wilson & Associates report prepared for Warringah Council, Heritage Conservation Management Plans for Warringah’s Six Rock Pools, adopted by Council 28 September, 1999. Part B, p. 1.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Jack, G. and Buckeridge, M., ‘We Remember’ from Wye, I., “80 Years On” Dee Why Ladies’ Amateur Swimming Club 1922 – 2002, IntoPrint, 2002, p. 69.

[iv] Mayne-Wilson, op. cit., Fig DY 14, Source: Mrs Gwen Jack.

[v] Manly Warringah Journal of Local History, Vol 5, No 1, November 1992.

[vi] ‘Missing Woman Found Dead In Baths,’ The Courier-Mail (Brisbane), Tuesday 29 September 1936, p. 14.

[vii] ‘Shocking Discovery At Dee Why,’ Singleton Argus, Monday 28 September 1936, p. 2.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] The Courier Mail, op. cit.

[x] Funeral Notices, The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 29 September 1936, pp. 9-10.

[xi] ‘Youth Drowned – Fatality at Dee Why Pool,’ The Canberra Times, Monday 8 January, p. 4.

[xii] ‘Recovered After Artificial Respiration,’ Singleton Argus, Wednesday 2 January, p. 2.

[xiii] ‘Death in pool,’ The Courier-Mail (Brisbane), Saturday 5 January 1952, p. 3.

[xiv] ‘Women Chased From Baths By ‘Dead’ Shark,’ The West Australian, Thursday 13 October 1949, p. 11.

[xv] ‘Sucked Through Sluice Gate of Dee Why Swimming Pool,’ Barrier Miner (Broken Hill), Tuesday 30 December 1930, p. 1.

[xvi] ‘Rescue Of Woman From Pipe,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 30 December 1954, p. 5.

[xvii] ‘Mother And Son Washed Off Rocks, But Saved,’ The Argus (Melbourne), Friday 18 June 1948, p. 1

NOTE- 2 newspapers missing the year of publication


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Black and White, Tianqi Li


In my grandma’s eyes, the world is clearly divided into black and white. Life should follow one right and light trail, beyond which there are only dark, cold forests. Every day, we should follow a scientific and healthy daily schedule; for every stage of life, we should do what is supposed to be done, and do it right. Study hard, get in a good university, find a great job, work diligently, contribute to society, get married and have children, and live happily ever after. Even now, at 26 years of age, when I go back to our home in Beijing, I have to stick to her 6 p.m. curfew. Even now, married for 54 years and 81 years of age, my grandpa still has to get up before 8:30, because otherwise it’d be too late. Five minutes late, my grandma would be sitting on the sofa worried and mad at me, or starting a racket with spoons and plates in the kitchen to serve as an alarm clock. ‘Everybody else is doing it.’ That’s her reason for doing anything, in a tone declaring that the Earth is round.

In my grandma’s eyes, if something is printed in black and white, it must be true. ‘Why else would they print it? It’s the newspaper!’ she exclaims when I try to point out that the self-contradicting ‘health tips’ might as well be misleading or purely made-up. Of the seven children in her family, she was the only one that went to university and thus lived in a big and modern city, so it is only natural that she follows the religion of knowledge. Knowledge comes from printed words compiled by scholars and experts, who are as powerful as Chairman Mao in his Little Red Book.

In my grandma’s eyes, any derailing from the normal and right course is inexcusable, unreasonable, and just outright inexplicable. There was a saying in the Cultural Revolution: walk in the middle, not in front nor behind; follow the crowd, not left nor right. In the chaotic ten years that destroyed people’s trust in human goodness and brought out the darkest side of humanity, the Chinese ‘Doctrine of the Mean’ was testified to be the only way to survive, and my grandma has no doubt taken it as the motto for living. ‘I want you to be normal just like other kids,’ she told me of her parenting principle, as she was the one that brought me up. ‘I don’t want you to be different. If you were, that’d be my fault.’

And that is why I will never tell her I have a same-sex partner, not until her death.

In a lot of ways, the Cultural Revolution to China’s modern history was very similar to my dad’s divorce to my family; no one saw it coming, and no one would talk about it in the following decades. Yet they were always there, the bloody elephant in the room, silent and staring. The Cultural Revolution is never mentioned in history textbooks and is often filtered out or banned in online forums, just as the word ‘mother’ is thoroughly avoided in my presence. I have always been curious of both events, because they are so confusing and mysterious, refusing to be reconstructed and disclosed in full, as if they hold the ultimate answers to humanity and the universe.

Like any other family, our personal history is intertwined with and wrapped by the history of modern China, like a wave in the sea, a gust in a tornado, a raindrop in a storm: on the exact day of my grandpa’s fifth birthday, the Sino-Japanese war broke out on the Marco Polo Bridge west of Beijing. My dad was born in 1959, the start of the three-year Great China Famine, while the Cultural Revolution started right after my uncle’s birth. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, my dad came to Australia.

My family tree is short and concise, as my great-grandfather was an orphan, and there are only four generations to comb. If there is anything that can be said to be a family trait, that’d be the tendency to go on long journeys. My great-grandfather was a ship engineer, and he went on a seven-year-long voyage as early as 1938. My grandpa must have been deeply impressed by his father’s adventure, since he always encouraged the rest of us to dive into the outside world. And we all did.

My grandpa’s own overseas trip happened in 1981, when he went to Iraq to improve his English. He and my grandma were Russian teachers, and when China had a falling-out with the Soviet Union, the Russian department transformed into the English faculty. ‘Iraq was still peaceful then,’ my grandpa said and smiled, ‘and I ate too much chicken, since it was the cheapest.’ He never talked too much about his own experiences, as it was all ‘boring’ and ‘not worth mentioning’. No matter how hard or unbelievable it sounds – learning a new language at the age of 50, or selling ice on the street at the age of six to support the family while his dad was at sea – he sounds like it was nothing, adding even more flavour to the heroic father figure in my eyes.

In comparison, my dad feels like a distant relative. No matter how hard he tried, he was absent in the major part of my life, and it is not something that you can ever make up for. Because of the irretrievable distance, and because I don’t really care what he thinks, I didn’t hesitate in telling him about my same-sex relationship. He was calm and accepting at first, but later became more and more doubtful and opposing as he had time to reflect. ‘Fortunately you are a girl,’ he said, ‘otherwise I’d never allow this.’

I did not know him enough. I did not know that he would blame himself for my choice, or that he had such strong opinions on gender roles. Ever since my partner has come to Australia with me and lived together with my dad, I have been discovering new things about him, and he has been saying things that amaze me. ‘I wanted a wife, not a female doctor,’ he complained of my step-mum, who has a doctorate and was too busy to do house chores. He sent me links to articles titled ‘Women should look fantastic, otherwise men would leave’, to encourage me to lose weight. ‘What’s so good about her that turned you into a lesbian? Is it because she can cook?’ he asked of my partner, a little sarcastically. ‘So you’re playing the boy role,’ he concluded after seeing me consoling her. I did not bother to explain how wrong that idea was.

If there is a need to blame somebody, then I am just as guilty for his marriage breakdown as it is responsible for who I am. If I were a boy, everything would be different, at least temporarily.

The winter of Beijing in 1990 was smoky and grey, but the night sky was still dark blue filled with stars, not the foggy blanket tinted by lights as yellow as a smoker’s teeth. The temperature was still low enough to have snow thick enough to bury one’s foot, and people stored piles of cabbages for their daily dishes. It was the end of a golden era, when most people were still simple-minded and trustworthy, and the streets were still safe and quiet. Beijing was the ancient city full of cultural treasures, not the faceless metropolis buried under shining skyscrapers.

In 1990, divorce was as rare as a panda, and was seen as a huge embarrassment to the whole family. It did not help that my mum sued my dad in court, and the reason she used was that my dad masturbated while watching porn. Nobody told me this­ – of course they wouldn’t. It was in 2010 when I finally saw their divorce papers, when my dad went back to Beijing for the spring festival. He was sitting on the bed, reading a novel. I sat down at the desk, and caught a glimpse of the suspicious faded papers. Like the daily newspaper that my grandma never forgot to read, the typewriter font was black and white. My dad must have known I was reading, but he did not say anything, continuing to read the book in his hand. I did not know if it was put there intentionally for me to see, nor did I ask him if it was true.

It is not hard to imagine how shocked, betrayed and infuriated my family must have felt. My grandparents, my dad and my uncle; they all had different reasons to hate that pretty woman, the evil bitch, because she refused to breastfeed me in order to keep her body shape, because she did not want me after the divorce, because she took money and valuable things, because she cheated, because she lied. Because my dad really loved her, and nobody ever imagined the happy marriage would not last.

Therefore, in our family tree, I do not have the maternal side to track. I do not know if her family had any history of disease, what her blood type is, or how many times she remarried. Nor do I know if she loved my dad or me. But I do know that part of the reason was that I wasn’t a boy, and the Chinese government had published the one-child policy. My mum is the youngest of three sisters, who all had daughters. I was her family’s last shot at having a boy, a ‘real’ descendant to inherit the family name.

‘It’s time to find someone now,’ my grandma said in our weekly phone call, and then added, half jokingly; ‘Don’t become a ‘left-over woman’.’

I wasn’t surprised that she would bring up this topic, but I was surprised at her use of ‘left-over woman’. I was even more surprised when I found out that this phrase was actually coined by the central TV station, a representative of the Chinese government, who also said that the male/female ratio has become severely disproportioned in many cities as a result of valuing boys over girls for decades.

Another piece of news followed up a week later. In a campaign for the drama The Vagina Monologues, a group of female university students published a series of photos, in which each held a sign declaring sexual freedom and their ownership of their own body. The public’s response was outrageous, calling them cheap whores and ugly bitches. Finally, I have realised that China has not even started a real feminist movement, let alone achieved certain results. I could have so many things to say from the things I’ve learned in the feminist class, but I had no idea how to make my grandma understand. ‘Left-over woman’ was from the central TV station, the majority, the mainstream, and the authority. As always, the world in her eyes is black and white, and I do not have the courage nor the patience to tell her that’s not the case.

I could only change the topic and lie. I could only hide the truth in protection of myself and of them: I am happy. I am happy being myself, being in a same-sex relationship, and being in a grey zone without a clear identity. I am happy to be the last one in my family – Li is the biggest family name in China, so there is no danger of extinction – and I am happy to be out of the torrent of Chinese history.

After all, this is my life and my happiness, and ultimately that’s what they would wish me to be.

SCARS, Jacob Harrison

There is a documentary series called History Cold Case; a team of forensic anthropologists adapt techniques used for identifying murder victims to examine the bones of the long dead – Celtic bog sacrifices, Elizabethan pikemen, that sort of thing. They determine the cause of death and offer a glimpse into how these ordinary people lived but the most interesting and affecting part of the program comes when they reveal a lifelike mould of the person’s face. I can’t help thinking about what my bones might look like to a TV archaeologist, digging me up in a thousand years time. I definitely wouldn’t be a textbook specimen of a 21st Century human; I’ve had many more cracks and dents than most individuals of our era. A dent above the right eye and an untreated broken jaw makes for an atypical skull; these injuries, combined with several cracked ribs and a fractured wrist, might suggest the skeleton of a warrior, or perhaps a stuntman.

Whatever the conclusion of this future cold case, they are unlikely to pick up on the soft tissue injuries that have shaped the landscape of my body. Like the geographical landscape, these fleshly ridges, ranges and valleys are constantly changing as a result of both exterior trauma and the internal movement of forces only partially understood and eroded by time. There is no need for carbon dating; my parade of various bandages, flints, slings and stitches in my photo record would prove to be a more accurate way to measure the passing of time.

Being an Elizabethan pikemen was clearly an unsafe working environment, Celtic bog sacrifice even more so, but being a media student comes with its own unique set of occupational challenges, especially for someone with a few body issues. Take this scene from an average day:


Light floods JACOB’s eyes as shadowy figures lurk behind tripods. The figures discuss where Jacob should place his left hand in relation to his right, which is holding a small box of toothpicks at chest height. A bead of sweat runs down the bridge of Jacob’s nose, hesitates, then DRIP.


Sound! Left… lef- sorry right, your right…chin up… open your mouth. Ok that’s good. Just wipe your for- yeah that’s better.




Why is there so much light on his neck? No, Jack lower that red and bring it around so we can highlight his hands.

Jacob wipes more sweat off his forehead, making sure that the scars on his inner fore-arms remain angled away from the camera. The intense beams of the studio lights are not kind to those with things to hide.

It’s tiring, but this scene plays out most days – maybe not a textbook example like this one, but I’m generally conscious of the scars on my right hand and forearms and waste too much energy on trying to hide them. Truth be told, clumsiness and drunkenness have taken a higher toll than any self-inflicted scar. Still they look scary, and now and then I notice an eye briefly trace the jagged landscape of my arms before we both quickly look away. I understand the interest; in the sanitised and safety conscious first world, scars are an exotic, archaic curiosity. Scars – nasty, visible, gnarly scars – are an obsolete malady, like smallpox or polio. Other forms of body modification like tattoos and piercings are increasingly more visible and acceptable but scars remain taboo.

It’s easy to make up stories about my scars that people want to believe, that I want to believe. My biggest issue is that no matter which narrative I choose, these damn scars will be a part of it. Future partners will hound me about them; if or when I have children they will no doubt ask about the marks on Daddy’s arms, and they won’t believe he got them fighting jungle cats forever. I’m of the opinion that identity is fluid and multifaceted. I like being aloof, impermanent and conflicting, a living embodiment of cognitive dissonance. But I’m no flake, I’m no emo, and I’m not the person that made those marks anymore. This is why I like the idea of body modification. I could take charge of my body’s narrative and do something about it. Somehow, could all my scars be put together to tell a cohesive story?

If I held up my right forearm for you, you would see the first part of the story in big ugly type – my largest scar. About twenty centimetres long and almost a centimetre wide in places, its colour fluctuates from white to pink to purple. How brave are you? If you take your finger and trace along the knobbly fire-bolt, you would feel how smooth it is to the touch, how it changes from a wide valley in places to a narrow ridge in others. Because the nerve damage runs deep in some places and shallow in others, I can’t feel parts of the surface tissue but I can feel the muscle contract and release around the bone – it feels like there’s a metal implant in my arm. Scars are rich with abstract sensory information but lack the detail to communicate their origin story.

It was after my flatmate’s birthday and we were pretty drunk. A few weeks beforehand, my flatmate slipped over in the bathroom, falling onto the soap dish and leaving a jagged piece of porcelain jutting from the wall. I was in the bathroom, the floor was slippery – I fell into the bathtub cutting my arm open on the way down and knocking myself out. The next thing I remember I was in hospital, attached to an oxygen mask and various tubes. I had lost a lot of blood and I needed a transfusion. The police told my flatmate they hadn’t seen so much blood outside of a murder scene – he had been questioned after the event, to rule out foul play. The scars on my wrists were much less life threatening or painful; however faded, they cause me the most concern. On both my forearms, there are probably a dozen or so tiny horizontal lines. These little slices were not done on one occasion but represent a long and drawn out war of attrition; my large scar acts as a neon sign directing visiting eyes towards the battlefield.

I spoke to Psychologist Flora Vashinsky, who works in Community Mental Health, helping people with a variety of conditions and histories to find useful strategies to navigate life – myself included. Flora explained to me that people self-harm for lots of reasons. Some harm in attempted suicide. Others harm as a coping behaviour, as a release of the painful emotions they experience. Some harm to feel emotion; unable to feel in the here and now, they can only feel emotion by cutting or hurting themselves. For some it’s a one-time extreme behaviour; for others it could be a routine, a learnt way of coping with stress and emotions they can’t deal with.

‘There’s an emotion behind the behaviour, then there’s the thinking about how you do it, and for some it’ll be extremely, extremely subconscious. The thing is with the cut, that’s kind of the final result. Behind the cut we have emotions, we have thinking, and we have other events that have led up to the actual cut.’

For me, it was probably a combination of factors. Being unable to deal with unpleasant emotions and being unable to demonstrate those emotions was a big part of it – to save others worry and because I’m a big manly-man. Why I kept on coming back to cutting as a release valve was because it took so long to ask for help. I did talk to a professional to find out where those emotions are coming from and I’m learning better ways to deal with those emotions rather than harming myself. Which brings me back to why I want to do something about them.

‘So what do you think about body modification? Tattoos, or deliberate scarification for example?’

‘It depends on where it starts and stops. Is it just an addiction in the end, to the process of having the pain and endorphins and the rest of it fly? Is it something significant and there’s reason behind it? Is it cultural? I’m sure if you asked someone in their late 80’s who’s a holocaust survivor about what their tattoo means to them, it’s going to be different to somebody who has a butterfly on their ass.’

Humans have been using various techniques to mark their own skin and others’ skin for as long as we have been humans. In ancient times people used branding to mark criminals; in more recent times criminals tattooed serial numbers to mark people. In some cultures marks are used to show the caste identity or set of skills possessed; for some it is to mark an initiation into adulthood. In the last half century, counter-cultural movements in the west have adopted many forms of body modification from traditional societies, including scarification. With the advent of the Internet, disperse ‘bod-mod’ communities can now interact with each other, learning new techniques and methods, garnering inspiration from images posted by others. In the miscellaneous alternative scene of today, scarification is a mode of artistic self-expression, a collaboration between the scarification artist and body canvas. Likewise, the ritual of scarification might be deeply personal, the physical pain representing a personal threshold broken, or proof that they can endure.

The Internet can only teach so much about something so physical. To learn more I visited Polymorph Body Piercing Studio in Enmore. I spoke to co-owner Rob Valenti, himself a proud owner of many a tattoo, piercing and scar, Rob’s been a scarification artist for twelve years. I found that scarification is meaningful to both the body modification artist and the person having their body modified.

Over the past five years scarification has become more popular, through mainstream media and communities on the Internet. ‘Five years ago I would say I had one or two, maybe three customers a year; this year I’ve already done about fifteen people.’

‘Some people think it’s quite barbaric, when it’s not really as full-on as it seems. I think scarification is quite similar to tattooing in regard to sensation – it’s not overly painful. When people hear the words ‘scalpel’, ‘cutting’ and ‘scaring’, their head instantly goes to this place of ‘Holy fuck, that’s really got to hurt.’

The interior of Polymorph is quite attractive, with nice hard wood floor and high ceilings. The walls are covered with contemporary art – Polymorph is also a gallery – and behind Rob’s shoulder was the studio itself, where the magic happens, so to speak. ‘What’s it like performing scarification?’ I asked.

‘How do you verbalise it? Because you’re doing something for someone that they really want to do, there’s always that satisfaction when you’re finished the work. People come in here shit scared ninety per cent of the time; by the time that they leave they’re laughing, they’re smiling and they’re happy, and it makes me feel good because they’re taking a piece of me away with them.’

I showed Rob my own scar, told him the story of how I got it. ‘Do you reckon much could be done about that?’

Rob leaned in and had a good look at my forearm, with the analytical eye of a sculptor viewing a newly cut stone. ‘I’m sure we could work something out. It would take a bit of drawing but yeah definitely. I’ve done it for people with facial scars from being in a fights or being glassed, I’ve added little bits and pieces to make it look a little more like a design than just a kind of messy scar. I’m sure if you wanted to, I could take a photo and draw something up?’ Rob took a photo and I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with and what new stories my scars may yet tell.

I wondered what others lived experience of scarification was like. You’re probably curious too. Then type, if you will, ‘scarification’ into Google and one of the first links that appears is to a video on YouTube by Gina and Keveen Gabet, documenting Keveen’s scarification. It’s quite a poignant video, perhaps not for the squeamish. Keveen and Gina live their philosophy of ‘Korakor’, a tribal/rural life in the hills of Oaxaca, Mexico, so I was very lucky to catch him via email.

Keveen replied, ‘Using my own flesh as a canvas is a beautiful act in itself. I do not believe I’m harming it or denaturing it. Quite the opposite; I’m writing my autobiography on it. I seem to collect scars the same way some collect clothes or cars. I love to remember scars, they each have a story… It has always been a great ice breaker and that is also how I fell in love with Gina. We compared scars when we met in India.’

I asked if he had any regret, Keveen answered, ‘When people ask me if I regret it, I can happily answer that it’s part of who I was back then…and fully respect and honour that! I don’t think I will do more extreme scarification though… Now, being an isolated farmer in the hills of Mexico, I collect new scars daily. From hammers, nails, bites…

Scaringly yours,

Maybe I am too concerned with how people see me and the stories they build from what they can see. Although, with the increased convergence of identities thanks to Facebook and other technologies, identity formation or ‘personal brand management’ is increasingly important and is played out in the public square. In this neoliberal context, being an active agent in the creation of one’s identity through the choices an individual makes is the greatest good; the inability to construct one’s own identity due to self-inflicted limitations is the ultimate failure, aside from death. Why should I not take charge of the story my body portrays? I may have unwittingly become the ultimate Randian hero.

But I doubt it, thankfully. We really have a limited capacity to shape how we are perceived by others; people make sense of the world based on their past experiences and pop culture mostly. It’s more important what stories my scars tell me. On bad days, they tell stories of fear – fear of hospitals, of being locked up, my version of reality being discounted, being discriminated against, of being thought of as a flake, a risk, undateable, a broken thing. Other days I wear my scars as medals of honour, symbols of battles won. But it all happened so long ago. I look at them now and think, ‘Well, I could have handled that better’. So, am I going to go through with the Scarification? Truthfully, I am leaning towards yes. If I do, it won’t be to tell a story to other people. It will be just for me.


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Tom, Hannah Macauley-Gierhart

…It’s like a jar cracked open. I pour the perfume over your feet. It runs over my alabaster hands and makes your skin slick with the fragrance of it. This story is a sound. It comes from my lips as I kneel on the hard ground. It is a sob and a groan and a joy, all at once…


This is the beginnings of a memoir about my younger brother, Tom, now 25 years of age, who suffers from autism. In my effort to capture and process the beauty and the pain of his life, this work started pouring out of me. This is my attempt to explore the debilitating disability he suffers from and offer an insight into a world that is so often misunderstood.


Dear Reader,

It’s like a jar cracked open. I pour the perfume over your feet. It runs over my alabaster hands and makes your skin slick with the fragrance of it.
This story is a sound. It comes from my lips as I kneel on the hard ground. It is a sob and a groan and a joy, all at once.

So it’s a story I’ve been wanting to share with you.

I always have plans of how I’m going to say it. I’ve woken up in the night reworking words, writing scrawl in the notepad next to my bed, half asleep and blinded by the dark. It never has that same glow-sound when I read it the next morning. I scribble it out and wait for the next dream.

No matter, it’s time I share it, eloquent or not.

It’s in the evening that I commence this, I’m tired and my brain is heavy from a long day. I’ve thrown off my shoes and taken out the garbage and the windows are open. It’s pretty quiet, but I hear singing in an unknown language from the apartment below me – I think they’re in their garden watering their plants in this pink twilight. I wish I had a garden.

I want you to see my apartment. It is all white-walls and cheap paintings. I have that magnetic poetry on my fridge and on eluding-sleep-nights I make new musings with the words. I think they’re pretty funny.

There are about a million teacups in the cupboards of my kitchen. I pick one depending on my mood or the type of tea I’m having. If someone comes over I get out my great-grandmother’s china ones. They are white with sweet blue periwinkles painted on them.

I could procrastinate and read the book that’s sitting on my lounge right now. Perhaps. But I know I can’t do that tonight. I need to start this. I have many books on my shelves. You’d be impressed.

I love the way that this place gets an amber warmth from the lights on these winter nights. I might light a candle that smells like French pear and close all the blinds and pretend like the world stops when I close it out. I do know it doesn’t. It’s right back whirring when I wake for work the next morning. It is a nice thing to dream, though.

I’m sorry for my tangents. I just want you to imagine you’re here too. Smell the candle, feel the slight chill to the night air. Go pick a cup if you want, I’ll brew some tea. And then I reckon I’ll begin.

* * *

Tom was born on a Tuesday. It was full of light. And I remember sitting on the sidewalk outside the hospital with ice-cream slithering down my arms – it was hot for September. My grandmother was sitting with my older brother and I and I remember trying to count the concrete cracks around my feet but I couldn’t count very high. My grandmother was telling me stories as the sun stretched my skin. I laughed at the way she animated her voice to play characters.
And when I saw him for the first time everything around us faded. He lay there, pink and staring at the ceiling, and I was in love. His name rolled around my mouth as I pressed my fingers into his plasticine skin. Beautiful.
There are pictures of us with my arm around his neck, his eyes bulging in my headlock. I am smiling at the camera showing my tiny teeth and squeezing with all my might. I loved him ‘til it hurt. I would sing to him over his cot, come sliding up the floorboards as soon as the sun broke the nights and sing through the bars. He would turn his head in my direction as he listened to my sound.
In the afternoons, we would lie on the floor and I would crawl over to him and press the top of my head to his. I would tell him the stories our grandmother had told me and he’d wave his arms in the air. I would copy him.

He didn’t talk for years and his lack of eye contact was an alarm. He would wander into the kitchen and point at a pictures in a Woolworths catalogue and then point to the pantry. That’s how we knew what he wanted. He would make sounds and I would translate. It was like I knew his thoughts. We would play our secret games in the family room and I could understand him fully – I am thankful for that gift.

He was three years old when I remember my mother weeping as she cleaned the shower. I was too young to understand then.

He’s silent a lot these days. He has words now but does not use them too much.
I hear him walk around the house and his socks make a shuffling sound on the tiles. Sometimes he hums. It’s a faint sound, like a breeze through the windows. I like to hear him talk to himself – he does this when he’s watering the garden. He talks about the football and the weather and I wish I was on the other side of that conversation.

* * *

It was the beach up the road that called us. Spoon Bay. It was magnificent: arched sand that stretched from cliffs to rock-pools to endless, endless ocean. And oh in the summers Mum would pack up a picnic and our towels and spades and buckets and hats and sunscreen and we would tumble to the beach and then into the water and my older brother and I would float and somersault and grab at slithery legs, pretending to be sharks. Tom would stand at the edge, afraid of the waves. He would cling to our mother and back slowly away from the noise. The sound, it seemed, echoed in his ears and rumbled in his head. It was a groan, a warning, and he feared it.

It has always been noise for Tom. He can hear decibels unknown to me and cringe at the pain they cause. Off-key instruments frighten him. Children screaming. Sirens. Animals. He is worried by brown pianos because they are apparently much more likely to be out of tune. He can tell you the key of any sound. He’s brilliant.

He slowly learned the ocean after a while. The feel of the sand on his feet was still unpleasant and the noise was a roar in the shell of his head but he touched it. He would be a peanut in my father’s arms, slowly conquering the waves as my father jumped over them – small Tom against the sea.

I drove past another beach this morning on my way to work and amongst the traffic lights and changing lanes I caught a glimpse of a grey ocean. I was thinking of the sadness of empty waves when the winter comes, how they curl in on themselves to no admiring eyes. The memories of us all at the beach years ago are eternally bright. I can still smell the sunblock and feel the salt-sting of my skin. Yet it is always the fight in him that stands out the most, that tiny child facing those fears so much he swam through them.

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The Officeworks Footy, Ellen A. Williams

Newcastle, 2012

‘Reckon we should chuck that footy out?’

Red, waterlogged emu egg. More a garden ornament than a toy. It’s quite a good imitation of an Aussie Rules Sherrin football and I feel a little guilty for having never kicked it, hoping the kid it belonged to didn’t go back looking for it in Throsby Creek where we found it long before footy season had even started.

‘Yeah’– James’s confirmation after he carefully finishes the last of his hamburger. I’m already onto my next train of thought, of how you don’t usually get all the salads on a chicken schnitzel burger. I thread back to my question. James licks the redness dripping down his fingers. I know with that kind of certainty that comes after five years that he won’t wipe the glob on his chin. I smile to myself. I’ll give him two minutes.

The footy waits in a triangular patch of sun, its orbit around our little square of backyard decided by an arbitrary toss during mowing. The brilliant red foam and blue Officeworks logo are foreign beneath the cavernous trees, lurid against the native honeysuckle’s white brush of spikes. Flick, kick, thwack. Rainwater shoots out against the sun chair’s mesh. James wipes his bare feet on the grass and grins.


Sydney, 2008-9

Two years of weekends in Sydney. James travels south from The Coast to visit me instead of north to Newcastle. Two years of parks. The names will be lost but the images will remain. Luscious greens against the exciting sparkles of the harbour or leafy Inner West substitute backyards. A picnic blanket and Triple J on the transistor radio. Canoodling like tiny plasticine park-goers in a Jeannie Baker book. And a footy, always a footy. James practises handballing, I fail miserably at drop kicking. We take more of an interest in each other’s code of footy.

Two years of parks; moments of relaxation in the busyness of the city and life as a beginning teacher. But it will never be home.

‘You’ve got sauce on your chin.’

 ‘Of course I do. I’m such a loser.’ The usual self-deprecation.

 ‘You’re such a victim,’ I continue the joke.

HOOOOG. You could easily forget that the harbour is just four hundred odd metres away. Not me, not when you’ve grown up in the western suburbs.

Two long horn blasts followed by one short. ‘What’s that mean?’

‘It’s overtaking on the starboard side,’ James answers, self-conscious pride in his recent maritime education flashed in his direct look. I recall the same look, the one that listened intently above the pre-band din of the Northern Star five years earlier; the look that stuck around despite months of my refusal to have a boyfriend; my refusal to have someone to miss wherever post-university 2008 took me.

 I think of James coming home to this cosy inner-city suburb, to the house we own, not borrow, hints of salt and grease in his tousled curls from a day skippering tugboats. But for now, we continue to mull over a working holiday in Canada– a ‘Got to do it before it’s too late’. Thirty lingers unreasonably close with a sense of foreboding; that it is more than just the cut-off age for youth work permits. We are in the twilight of backpacking years, Settling Down is knocking. We know the horror of starting again, living at home broke and unemployed still sharp in our memory. On this day though, burgers in the backyard, we are unaware that ‘our’ house is to be sold. The Canada possibility will become a reality.


Salzburg, Austria, 2010.

A Munich-sized hangover, one of only a handful we will suffer in our ambitious thirteen-week traverse of Europe, smothers our brains like the clouds that hide the mountains we came to see. In our hostel, Stella, fifteen years younger than she looks as a result of a horrific life, shouts us dinner, a ‘gift from the Victims of Crime agency’. Wiener schnitzel. We gratefully eat the veal, a nice change from salami and cheese sandwiches. Later, I’ll be glad to have eaten at least one local dish. And thankful for my safe childhood.

I collect the dropped toppings of my chicken schnitzel burger onto the white paper bag. ‘Sn’ distinguishes it from the hamburger. I laugh.


‘That’s not how you spell schnitzel.’ I recall the uptight Viennese we had encountered. No doubt they would be insulted by the misspelling. It occurs to me that the American hotdog franchise Wienerschnitzel is much more offensive than the phonetic spelling born of a takeaway shop on Hannell Street.

James pretends to hurl the footy at me quarterback style then tosses it underarm instead. The gigantic stress ball lands at my feet like a soggy Newcastle Herald. Ironically, it hadn’t been waterlogged the night we found it bobbing against the breakwall. The night of the storm. A Monday night. I was tingling with wine and appreciation of my life as a no-longer-permanent teacher. Dinner was moved onto the deck to escape the heat of a February kitchen. As the flashes behind the wattle screen intensified we grabbed the red and ran out into the electricity. The barnacled stairs leading into the harbour tributary provided a front seat to the lightning show. For awhile anyway, until our sense of adventure was swallowed by fear of electrocution on the metal stairs. We had left with a wine bottle and returned with a football.

I wonder where it came from. Had it washed across from the housing commission townhouses? Was its owner a kid escaping the recognisable uniformity of burnt brick and sick-coloured weatherboard? Or was it a casualty of the wind and a wayward kick on this side of Throsby Creek? A kick from a child on the opposite end of the socio-economic slide, their backyard the waterfront park skirting the artfully distinct terraces of the Linwood Precinct. Had the football come from Officeworks itself, or perhaps a junior Black Diamond Aussie Rules game? It had been a surprising find– any Sherrin, actual or imitated is uncommon in Newcastle, rugby league heartland.

 I squeeze the remaining wetness from the cheap foam and think about the children who were discovered hand-sewing Sherrin footballs in Indian slums. Blue flecks of the Officeworks logo catch under my nail. On the reverse side a maze of cracks widen as I squeeze. ‘Probably from sitting in the wet grass,’ James tips.

‘Got to be the sun,’ I argue. The irregular islands in the splitting foam are identical to those of blistered land in the far west. Down the cracks, the foam continues its same tomato sauce redness. Artists call it cadmium scarlet. I would call it fire engine red or postbox red. The colour schoolchildren use for my hair in drawings. The eye-burning guernsey of the Sydney Swans, or ‘Bloods’ as you call them if they’re having a good season and you want to pretend you followed them in their previous incarnation, South Melbourne.


Sydney Cricket Ground, 1997

A glorious Sunday afternoon in winter and a swollen crowd to watch last year’s grand finalists, the Sydney Swans. My brother, fourteen and myself, twelve. Mum or Dad, depending on whose weekend it is. My sister is older, eighteen and absent. She’s not a sports kind of person. We’ve caught the 6:30am train to nab the best seats in general admission. We still have to crane our heads though, to see the replays of Plugger’s marks. Later in the season we’ll be with Dad (luckily) when Plugger kicks his hundredth goal for the year. Dad will let us rush the field with everyone else. I’ll discover the Minties in my pocket gone when I am back on the spectator side of the advertising.

We’ve been enticed to the SCG with Swanslink tickets: return train travel and entry for a few dollars per child. My brother has been playing in the NAFL (Newcastle Australian Football League). Our family has jumped ship, burnt from the politics of Super League in the rugby league.

The V neck collar of my prized new Swans guernsey scratches around my neck. Beneath the leg of my jeans, a daringly large red love heart is drawn in permanent marker on newly shaved skin. It prickles into goosebumps as the ghostly ‘Syd-ney’ chant swims around the grandstands. Jarrod Simpson will never know of this adornment above my ankle. I have not and will not ever speak to my brother’s teammate.

The permanent marker will outlive the infatuation. Red Artline chisel point– the family ‘good texta’. Squashed but not destroyed under the sole of my sister’s Doc Martens in what became an unusual all-children-present activity– the construction of our own goalposts in the backyard. Two long, two short. Narrow treated pine from BBC Hardware, before it was swallowed by the all-consuming Wesfarmers in the guise of Bunnings Warehouse. The goalposts will be a short-lived enjoyment for me as the two-year age gap between brother and sister becomes a merciless outmatching of strength and patience.


Sydney Cricket Ground, 1999.

We are on the waiting list to become Sydney Swans members. We’ll be accepted next year then leave in disgust nine years later after a hundred dollar price hike. For now, we make the most of the failed attempt to relocate North Melbourne Kangaroos to Sydney. My brother is a heated North Melbourne fan and infamous bad sport. I’m glad they’re not playing Sydney.

Wet weather and apathy for the relocation has left the illuminated SCG largely empty. This thrilling clash against St Kilda will become famous in our family’s lexicon for our appearances on the VHS recording. After two Quarters of rain, Mum stays under cover while my brother and I venture to the boundary. His giant foam hand, all but the middle finger tucked down, will be easily spotted by Channel 7 cameras in the rain-abandoned concourse.

A tackle in the wet grass transfers the fifty-metre line to the seat of a player’s white shorts. ‘Stick a plug in it, ya girl!’ a peer-influenced shout comes from behind us. My fourteen year-old ears burn scarlet in embarrassment, shame, indignation. I don’t dare look at my brother. I try to forget my inability to use tampons.

‘Wanna go and kick the footy?’ James handpasses the ball to himself, striking the base with his fist.

‘I don’t think my back’s up to it.’ I try not to feel sorry for myself or unfairly young to have back problems.

‘How about a walk then?’ he asks without disappointment.

 We walk against the one-way traffic of our street, smiling politely at the resident longneck drinker leaning over his low fence. His intense stare makes him look creepy. He’s probably just lonely. And short-sighted.

We wait for the lights at Hannell Street. The busy dual-lane entry into Newcastle is set to incorporate the aptly named Industrial Drive under a new name, James Hannell Drive, to celebrate one hundred and fifty years of local government. We cross the divide into rich Maryville. ‘Rich’ would suggest the other side is conversely poor. Many of the blocks are small and the miner’s cottages peeling but the renovators are well on their way to gentrifying this mixed zoned suburb. Perhaps we have crossed into ‘richer’ Maryville. James Hannell, philanthropist and Newcastle’s first mayor, would be appalled that his namesake now splits his beloved Maryville into two distinct classes.



Woolsheds instead of terraced houses along Woolshed Place. Wool, five bales high, sits patiently, waiting for the war to end. The grounds of James Hannell’s Mary Ville are a fraction of its former twenty-one acres. The once dominant Moreton Bay Figs are long since demolished, for the sake of the tramline. The trams will be gone in a few years, along with the grand two-storey Hannell residence; generations of memories reduced to a pile of bricks that will be used as foundations for the new petrol station.

We consider stopping for a Slurpee at the 7-Eleven. Maybe on the way home. Instead we cross through the landscaped terraces and onto the cycleway that follows decontaminated Throsby Creek to the marina. The afternoon breeze creases corrugations in the gentle water. Salty air settles in the back of my throat.

A tinny rattle of mudguards approaches from behind. A retro fixie bike ridden by a suitably retro woman overtakes us. Somewhere along the row of terraces a screen door quivers open and snaps shut. The rider approaches the bridge to Carrington. Climp-clomp, climp-clomp. Her tyres pucker over the wooden underpass. Below, barnacles cling to the support stumps like a rock caught in an emu’s throat. She weaves through the maze of fishing lines and their beer-toting owners and disappears towards town.

Historical information signs dot the waterfront. We stop to reread one a few metres from where we found the Officeworks footy. I’ve never seen anyone read them. Perhaps they already have, or don’t want to break their run. Maybe they just aren’t interested in the history of the place they use so often.


The Coquun, less than 250 years ago.

Awabakal people dive for lobster and gather shellfish. Along the sandy shore, possums and wallabies are hunted amongst the honeysuckle. Not too far from the river mouth, Yohaaba, this sheltered position brings Awabakal and Worimi people together for corroborees.

 Shattering events are yet to unfold for the unsuspecting groups. In three generations many will have died, the rest living out marginal lives subjected to assault and discrimination under strict government controls. But before that, Muloobinba is to be claimed as King’s Town and used as a second penal colony for reoffending convicts. Many will try to escape. Some will live with Worimi people who believe them to be reincarnations of deceased family. Others will be caught and traded for blankets and tobacco.

Later, Muloobinba will be reclaimed as Newcastle in a hopeful bid to discover coal like its namesake in England. Much later, Australia’s largest KFC will sit, gratuitously red, over evidence of the oldest human settlement in Newcastle.

I look to the retaining rock wall where we’d found the football and imagine it washed up on the sandy bank prior to 1804; a precisely shaped emu egg, soft but firm. A colour brighter than the reddest ochre traded from the Kimberley, deeper than any flickered watja light. Would it have been kicked and played with? Perhaps the Awabakal people too sewed possum skins into egg shapes to play Marn-Grook like in the south.

We wander further to the thin strip of sand (and shells, shoes, beer cans) exposed by the low tide. A couple sit on the edge of the path and watch their dog dig in the sand.

‘If we were back in the Manc, they’d be sunbaking.’

 James laughs. There’s a sniff of warmth in the air; the perfect temperature for bare-chested Mancunians who, in Piccadilly Gardens, laid deathly still as though if they moved, the sun would miss their pasty skin. ‘The Pod’, our space-age apartment in Manchester was the first place we lived together. I check myself for the homesickness I felt for it on our return home. A whiff of fish guts floats over from the boat ramp. In the distance, twin white cranes straddle the Forgacs floating dock, my symbol of Newcastle. Home.



A summer’s night

The cycleway is all but empty. Schhhhh. Tyres grip and turn over the pebblecrete. Televisions glow behind glass. A plop from an unseen fish echoes across the still black. Beyond the twisting mangroves, orange lights outline the coal loaders. They glow in the salt air; friendly, mysterious.

We streak through the night; patches of yellow, patches of shadow, patches of yellow, patches of shadow. The dim lighting could be dangerous on foot. But we are pedalling fast, not our leisurely daytime pace. It’s not spoken between us, we just know– in the dark, we own the night.

Bright red taillight flashes are left in our wake. We have helmets and the necessary lights but schooners of Old fuel our adrenalin. The cycleway is our path home– from the bowling club over the bridge that sent hand-written letters begging for patronage; or from a harbour side pub at the other end of the Honeysuckle redevelopment.

My faint headlight projects enlarged diamonds of my basket mesh. James’s LED is much brighter; he should be in front. But that’s not how it ever ends up. Later, when we make it to our empty, darkened street, I’ll stand up like a kid on a bike with no gears, riding as fast as I can to our miner’s cottage. The real threat of a car from a side street will be lost in the rhythm of tyres. Puffing, exhilarated in the disco blink of taillights, I’ll apologise for taking off. James will grin. ‘That’s OK, I was riding in your slipstream.’


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The Perfect Nine Months, Susan Baxter

‘You have an increased risk of having a child with Down syndrome,’ the technician told us flatly. When Graeme and I first decided to grow our family, we were determined to have one low impact child. That was just the way it was going to be. Our lives were packed full of sailing, scuba diving, camping and four-wheel-driving adventures, and we didn’t want to give up any of that. So we simply wouldn’t.

Over a coffee that couldn’t melt the lump in my throat, we discussed our options. Do nothing, and let nature takes its course. Or I could undergo a diagnostic procedure: either an amniocentesis which could not happen until I was several weeks further into the pregnancy, or a CVS which could happen much sooner. Our decision was easy: CVS. It could be done within a week, and the risk of complications (miscarriage) was less than the risk of having a child with a chromosome abnormality. What about the results? Well, that was easy too. A child with Down syndrome would not be low impact. Frankly, the thought was alien and terrifying.

A chorionic villus sampling (CVS) involves passing a fine needle through the abdomen into the developing placenta and withdrawing a few tiny fragments of the tissue into a syringe. The placental tissue contains the baby’s complete genetic information. The sample is then sent off to a laboratory for testing and initial results are available within two days.

The day of my CVS test is a bit of a blur. I remember driving myself to the clinic and feeling very conspicuous as the only pregnant woman in the waiting room without a ‘significant other’. I recall a nurse asking me if my husband was going to be driving me home as I might feel woozy after the procedure. When it was my turn, I was scared they were going to hit the baby with the needle, or hit something else, or take too much placental tissue. I can still remember the pulling ache as the needle went through the deep layers.

Afterwards, as I drove myself home, I cried that Graeme hadn’t been there with me.

The CVS came back clear. No genetic abnormalities detected. We congratulated ourselves and prepared for our low impact child.

My pregnancy couldn’t have been rosier. No morning sickness. Life went on as normal, with all the adventures we could squeeze in outside our demanding jobs. I kept my pregnancy a secret at work for as long as possible, and followed an online calendar that told me how my baby was growing. I felt my body changing. We started taking photos of my bump, which didn’t appear until about 17 weeks. From early on I was convinced I was having a boy.

At twenty-three weeks my blood pressure shot up. Immediate hospitalisation. (‘No, you don’t have time to go back to work. Go straight home, pack a bag, and admit yourself’, said my specialist.) I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia – it seemed my body was rioting against the alien thing inside me. I was given blood pressure medications that gave me screaming headaches and forced the contents of my stomach halfway across the room. I underwent blood tests and scans and ultrasounds. Surely I would be discharged once they sorted my medication – after the weekend at least? I had so much to do!

Pre-eclampsia is a condition which occurs only in pregnancy. The illness is quite common and occurs in about ten percent of pregnancies, but usually it is easily managed. It causes elevated blood pressure, swelling, and disturbed kidney functioning. In about one percent of pregnancies, pre-eclampsia can become so severe that it can threaten the life of the mother and the unborn baby. The illness starts to affect the mother’s other organs, such as the liver, heart, lungs, brain and blood clotting system, and as the illness progresses, the placenta stops working properly and the baby starts to stress. The only cure is for the baby to be delivered, regardless of the stage of the pregnancy. I knew none of this. In my ignorance, I believed they would find the right medication and send me home.

 I lay in a private room in the maternity ward of the San Hospital, listening to babies cry and families gathering in nearby rooms, delivering baskets of pink/blue flowers, teddy bears and balloons, celebrating new life. Later, I was wheeled upstairs to a birthing room where they hooked me up intravenously to a blood pressure drug, and I listened to a woman in the throes of labour as I watched milky liquid dripping from a clear bag into my vein.

My obstetrician, Dr Paul, came and gravely told me that I couldn’t have my baby here. They didn’t have the facilities to deal with premature babies. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I couldn’t have my baby yet, I was only in my twenty third week. I was going home soon, right? There were people I worked with, played with, that didn’t even know I was pregnant! ‘Your baby is going to come early,’ he told me. ‘I want to move you to North Shore.’

My perfect pregnancy was over. My dreams/illusions of the perfect nine months, the perfect birth, and the low-impact baby, were like flower petals (pink/blue) crushed under heavy shoes.

Ten years is a long time to avoid something. For ten years I have avoided revisiting the birth of my son. That rollercoaster ride was something I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to relive. I’d recounted the story probably a hundred times – and managed to stay on top of my emotions with more strength at each telling, but re-reading my journals, the letters to my son, the records of everything that happened to him (and us) through his disaster-fraught journey – that wasn’t something I could do. They stayed on my bookshelf, three unassuming little books, firmly closed and easily evaded as life wrapped its inevitable tendrils about us and carried us along and away from that dark and traumatic time. Those journals stayed on my bookshelf until November, 2012.

            Before I had you, before there was any fear, I had a dream. I dreamt I’d given birth to you and I was wandering through a hospital, searching for you. I found myself in a room where everyone was dressed in finery as if for a ball, while I was in a hospital gown. I kept asking people where I could find you, but nobody knew; they just kept shaking their heads at me. I ran through rooms in a panic, screaming out ‘Where’s my baby?’ Does every pregnant woman have dreams about losing her baby? Or was I dreaming the future? When you were born, I didn’t even get to see you until the next day. They brought a couple of Polaroids to my room. What was in those photos didn’t match up with anything in my mind. The images showed something that looked like a skinned rabbit – all shiny and raw pink, face obscured by breathing apparatus, leads and tapes and probes everywhere. They told me that was my baby. Who cleaned you? Who whispered gentle words to you? Who held you that first time?

Every morning a troupe of medical staff would crowd into my room and discuss my condition as if I wasn’t there. I was confined to a private room in the high-risk section of the maternity ward; the goal to keep my baby inside for as long as possible. They trialled me on different medications, checked my blood pressure every couple of hours, and did regular scans on my belly. I held a small device, and each time I felt the baby move I had to click the button. They took blood until the inside of my elbows was pricked raw. My thighs were covered in green bruises from the daily injection of heparin. Each day, I would be allowed out of my room for the short walk down the hallway to the scales. I couldn’t see the fluid under my skin when I looked in the mirror, but when I got out of bed it would seep down my legs, and my feet would swell and spread out sideways like a frog’s. It was only later, in photos, that I could see how puffed up I was, how sick I looked.

During the long nights, I turned to my mother’s God. My journal at this time is full of prayers, pleading and promises. I thought that if I prayed hard enough, everything would work out fine. On the phone, my mother would talk about her prayer circle and assure me that God had a special plan for us. I didn’t care about a special plan. All I wanted was to carry my baby as long as possible.

Family and friends came and went. I was given flowers and gifts. The flowers gave me headaches and had to be sent away. Graeme was with me as often as possible, trying to keep my spirits up, trying to keep my mind off the ‘what ifs’. Others weren’t really sure how to deal with me, being unfamiliar with such an illness. The days slowly went past in a haze of anxiety and tedium. Was I being punished for ordering a low impact baby, the perfect nine months?

One Monday night, Graeme and I were taken on a special guided tour of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. My journal reports no more than, ‘Tiny babies! I found it difficult to breath,’ but I remember the shock of the machinery, the noises, the medical paraphernalia, and amongst all that, the tiniest, most helpless babies I had ever seen.

My journal deteriorates with my condition. Some entries are only a few lines long or end mid-sentence. I lost track of the days. I tried doing cross-stitch, writing letters. I had Graeme bring in my study materials, but the readings had become nonsensical and I soon gave up. The witches’ brew of drugs mesmerised me and dulled my thoughts.

And then everything changed. My test results showed that my kidneys and liver were shutting down, and the baby was showing signs of distress. Fourteen weeks before my due date, I was whisked away for an emergency caesarean, which was one of the most frightening and painful things I have undergone. It was decided I would have to go under general anaesthetic, but to reduce the risks they wouldn’t put me under until the last possible moment. I had a drip put in, and was made to drink some foul liquid while a nurse held her fingers on my throat so I wouldn’t vomit. I was lifted onto a hard table and a wedge was shoved under my hip. A nurse put in a catheter while a registrar butchered the job of inserting some sort of monitor into my wrist. (I bore a multi coloured bruise for months) Finally, they put me out.

 And Jamie was born.

            When I opened my eyes, your daddy was leaning over me. ‘We have a son, and he’s OK’, was all he said to me before I let darkness claim me again, but that’s all I had needed to know. It was sixteen hours before they let me see you. First I had to eat something, and get out of bed, and have a shower. Each thing I did was one step closer to our first visit. Your Aunty Ricki arrived on a very early flight, and Daddy came back too. Their presence gave me strength and courage. I remember the effort of just getting up, and in the shower I shook with pain and fatigue. They made me walk to you, although I know of other new mums who were wheeled into the NICU in their beds.

Later, Ricki and I stood by Jamie’s humidicrib. ‘He’s so sick,’ I remember saying to her.

‘He’s not sick,’ she responded, ‘he’s just small.’ But he was sick, dreadfully, heartbreakingly sick.

A few days after his birth, my journal entries suddenly cease for two months. These were the most frightening days. The days of not knowing. The days when we had to make impossible decisions. The days of preparing ourselves for the worst, only to suddenly be buoyed up by some tiny bubble of hope. It wasn’t just a rollercoaster. It was the rollercoaster, the ghost train and the house of horrors rolled into one, and we had unlimited rides.

I ‘surrendered to the terrible possibilities of loving too deeply’. Some mothers, when their babies are born prematurely, become detached and avoid bonding. They are so afraid of losing their tiny, fragile baby that they draw back and withhold their love. This wasn’t the case with me. From long before he was ever born, I loved him fiercely. And once he was born, I wore my heart on the outside of my body. I didn’t even know there was an option. And even though that tiny, silent creature looked like something that couldn’t possibly survive; I wore hope like a badge. I had to have hope, or my grief would overwhelm me.

I wasn’t expecting grief, but after love, it was the strongest emotion I knew. I grieved for my lost pregnancy and resented women getting about with bulging bellies and distended belly buttons. God forbid they complain about it. I grieved for my son’s horrifying start to life and the many months of sickness and discomfort he would suffer. I grieved that my body had let me down and I hadn’t been able to give my husband a healthy child. It is a phrase we hear often; ‘I don’t care what I have, as long as it’s healthy’. Even that was asking too much. When I hear that phrase now, I think of my tiny Jamie covered in splints and bandages and cannulas and monitor probes, his tiny hands scarred from pinprick blood tests, a tube down his nose and another in his mouth.

            All your visitors smile at you, at us, with their mouths, but their eyes are full of sorrow and confusion. Your grandparents are the worst. In the photos they all look shell shocked, like they’ve just seen the saddest thing and then had someone shove a camera in their face. They smile dutifully for photos with the new grandchild that they can’t even touch.

            I couldn’t hold you for a month, you were so fragile. When I finally did, they swathed you in flannelette until only your face was showing, and you were so light it seemed I was holding nothing but a bundle of rags. But to finally hold you! I was at the top of the rollercoaster, arms raised and screaming in exhilaration.

 I would never have the perfect nine months, but I cherish every perfect moment.



The quotation ‘I surrendered…’ is from Rachel Ward’s essay ‘Milk Fever’, published in Mother Love, edited by Debora Adelaide.  Random House Australia 2006

Works Cited

De Crespigny,L., and Chervenak, F.A. (2006) Prenatal Tests: The facts, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York
Stanfield-Porter, R. (2009) Small Miracles: coping with infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth, Hachette Australia.
Ward, R. (1996). Milk Fever. Mother Love. D. Adelaide. Milson’s Point, Random House, Australia: 97.
Whelan, M. (2008), The Other Country: A Father’s Journey with Autism, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, Australia
NSW Health Publication (2006): Outcomes for Premature Babies in NSW and ACT, NSW Pregnancy and Newborn Services Network (PSN).


Download a PDF of “The Perfect Nine Months”