I have written many short stories and fragments based on our family’s life on the Hawkesbury River. Some have gone into the novel Backeddy, still in process. Two stories have been published. The Other Side received Second Prize in the Hawkesbury River Writer’s Award, some years ago. December Moon appeared in a local literary e-journal published in the Blue Mountains in 2016.
“The Other Side” is based on family history, fictionalised. There were two houses on opposite sides of the river, each occupied by a brother. They were separated first by politics, then by love. After one brother “stole” the other’s wife and son a deadly enmity grew between the households, until World War Two when the men were called up and the women and their children left the river. The family never recovered and although both brothers returned from the war they never spoke to each other again.
The photograph below shows the site where one of the two houses was located. It was built right on the waterfront, with a “drive in” parking area for the boat. It was demolished around 2014. All that remains is a sturdy sandstone wall.
“The Other Side” will appear in my collection of short stories Go Left at the River, to appear in early 2019.
Another river story grew from my childhood memories of endless summers spent on the river with my beloved cousin Sandra. She was killed in a horrible car crash when she was just seventeen and eight months pregnant. I still miss her, and wonder what life would have been like if she had lived and we had gone on being together, like sisters. I have written more of her story in the memoir volume Distant Early Warning. This story is dedicated to her.
(First published in The Wild Goose Literary E-Journal, 2016).
Christmas time, day after long day. Cheering relatives at the wharf in their hand-built boats, four or six men on the oars, crates of beer clinking in the stern while aunties and cousins laugh in the bow. We help put up the stretchers across the veranda, mosquito nets hanging from the roof. The well’s nearly empty, but there’s always clear water bubbling up from the spring along the foreshore. Nobody takes showers. A quick wash in a basin will do, after a dip in the river.
Full moon, Christmas tides. The days are baking. People snooze in the afternoon and get up again when the sun falls below the mountain. Sometimes a southerly wind turns the river wild, waves crashing on the shore, the current pulling the boats off their moorings. It passes, and by midnight the stars are glowing. Things start to happen at dusk. Insects go crazy, drawn by the kerosene lamps. Uncle Dan’s short-wave radio or Auntie Olive’s wind-up gramophone gets going. Very smart and luxurious. No electricity here.
All the neighbours and their families are around. The fish are biting, gunny-sacks full of bream and giant jewfish, gutted and scaled and thrown into fry-pans full of dripping, or cooked whole over the open fire. Someone gets oysters off the rocks and spends all afternoon opening them. Loaves of bread fresh from the baker at Brooklyn, apples by the case. Every day we go fishing. Every night we eat the catch. There might be half a dozen mud-crabs still alive to chuck into the boiling water in the black pot. The clink of bottles and deeper tones from the flagons of rum. It is sweet dark scented rum from Queensland, brought down on the train in huge stoneware jars. There is singing, and arguments, maybe a fight, then more singing, songs from the war and popular songs from the radio. Everybody can sing, everybody knows the words. Uncle Dave sings old bush songs in a high cracked tenor which is just right. He sings about bushrangers and convicts and wild Irish lads and sad souls who left their loves to come to Botany Bay. After everyone gets sick of his songs Uncle Dan takes out his clarinet and plays Glenn Miller, which we kids dance to. “In the Mood” is our favourite.
Nobody pays attention to us and we can roam off to the back of the mountain, or sneak around the other side of the bay and hide in abandoned shacks and play house. We’re not supposed to go into the back room though. Today when the adults were sleeping off lunch we did it. It was full of rubbish, old newspapers, tangled fishing lines, bamboo rods, metal bits and pieces which might come in handy, a broken ice-chest, empty rum-jars. In the very back corner, we found a cardboard box tied up with string. Inside, there was a collection of magazines with pictures of people playing ball-games. They had no clothes on. Their dirty bits were all visible. The thrill and shock was too great, and after leafing through one or two and gawping at pictures of fat women with enormous breasts and old bald men with horrible parts we crept out again, flushed and terrified that someone would find us out. We never said anything about it. Those filthy magazines.
Hanging over it all is that moon riding the sky, swelling, then slipping away bit by bit. When the relatives go home we will be left on the river, with our secret. So scary, but we know what we saw. It’s something you wish you could take away but you know you never can. Even if the house burned down, those things would be printed on our eyeballs. Why were they there? What do they mean? Will we ever know, my cousin and me, two skinny girls growing up on this lonely river?