Playing among industry

Across the harbour I see a fin slice water, enough to keep my gaze. I’m not expecting much today: it’s muggy, no seabreeze to speak of, the water silver still.

It seems to take only a second to cross the bridge when you’re not paying attention, but when you are, it feels like you have whole, multiple minutes. Precious minutes as the train takes you ever onwards and you’re waiting for another break in the surface of the water.

Don’t have to wait long today – another fin slice then a leap, so quick and far enough away that you retain only the perfect image of the arched dolphin, dark against the water. And then, once you’ve rounded a bend and your view of the water is nearly at an end, three more –  one dolphin after the other crests the water ever so slightly, barely breaking its silver surface.

Another leap, quick and glimmering, brief suspension above the surface, belly glistening bright.

From the viewpoint of a train carriage of commuters at the end of a hot day, between car carrier and cargo vessel, between north wharf and south, you have this: tiny, distant silver dolphin bodies above silver harbour surface.

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A third lost birthday

Geographically, I am as far away from Ensay now as ever; as far away as I was through all the years growing up here in the west and thinking about a tiny town in the east.

J, who we lost on 16th June 2012, would be 85 if she were alive today. On each of the last two lost birthdays (2013 and 2014), I have written about loss and grief.

Among the emotion for a person very dear to me and to many others, place and geography are always present. Perhaps this is because it is easier to write about leaving a place at the end of an era (I can and do go back to Ensay) than it is to write about death, the most permanent of losses.

I am further away now and going back is physically, geographically and financially harder. My much loved kelpie M, from Ensay, lives in Fremantle with us now. It is unlikely that she will ever return to her hometown, and while she may not mind that her life has so comprehensively changed, I often think about her distance from home and it makes me sad.

In the love and responsibility I feel for her, I want her to be happy, even while knowing I cannot really know what she feels. When she runs along the edge of the ocean, with joy in every bound, I think I can safely say that her canine instincts and energy are exercised here despite the absence of sheep.

South Beach winter 2014 crop

M at the beach, part of her new home in the west.

There are figs on the tree in our sandy backyard in Fremantle. Figs are one of those fruits that must inevitably end up in jam, because there are just too many to use them all in other ways, although the lorikeets and wattlebirds would disagree. They gorge on the soft fruit, and from the pulpy mess left behind or from fruit that has split in the heat, pink juice runs down the leaves and drips on the sand below.

So my mind goes from figs to jam, and from jam to J: I still use jars that have her writing on the lid; jars that once contained satsuma plum jam, or apricot or melon and ginger.

I can see that my thoughts are circular today: from Ensay to Fremantle and back again; back and forth across the great distances of this country, from one home to another.

In Melbourne over the five years I lived there, Ensay was close; I felt that we shared the same air. Perhaps it is because I know the route to Ensay from Melbourne so well – the drive is measurable by familiar landmarks.

Here in Fremantle, Ensay is a flight away, and flying is necessarily disconnecting. I feel that I am in another world. M brings me back: she is fully from that other world and yet she is here with us, real and present and connecting us across the distance.

There are times when that distance evaporates: all the space between here and Ensay, between here and J, is gone in an instant. It is particularly so at those times when grief returns, as it does unexpectedly on occasion and always with an all-consuming intensity.

The last time this happened was at The Waifs concert at the Fremantle Arts Centre in December. The Waifs speak to a Fremantle audience because they are so wholeheartedly Western Australian, but they speak to me – and no doubt to others – because they understand what it means to be irrevocably connected to a place.

For me when I hear this song, love of place translates to love of the person who represented that most-loved place – and so a song about a hometown reduces me to tears over her loss.

When I die won’t you bury me,
in the town where I was born.
Most of my life I’ve been wandering free,
but when I die I wanna go back home.

I have transcribed those lines from memory – I don’t dare listen to the song in case that grief returns. It might be an appropriate day for such grief, but life goes on and I have two job applications to write and friends to meet for dinner tonight. Others from Ensay have gone on from this world since J, and I am aware of a feeling in me that grief for one person must somehow diminish as time goes on and as others grieve those they have lost since.

Oh, how distant and unreal this life feels. This life? Is it Ensay that feels so far away, so unreal? – or is it this life here in Fremantle that really feels unreal, today of all days? It is ironic that this town, here, is where I was born – yet that Waifs song makes me think only of J and of Ensay, the place where she no longer lives.

12 days left in the life of Fremantle ED

Walking past Fremantle hospital in the middle of the day, I could have sworn I heard a man yell, cry out in pain. The ambulances are lined up outside emergency. The sound is ghostly, distant: it has not the immediacy nor the closeness of the emergency department.

I walk on into town, wondering. In early February this ED will close, closing with it years of history, of people in and people out, late at night and in the middle of the day. When I was at university, I had a friend who, for our literary journalism project, spent nights in the ED, watching the people who passed through there, listening, writing. I never saw his finished piece but I often think of the image, the student writer in the corner, taking in the pain, the frustration and the boredom.

In reality I can only imagine Fremantle’s ED, a compilation of the external impression of the place from my younger years and all the time I spent in EDs in Melbourne more recently. The two combine to give what is probably an entirely unrealistic picture of the place . But I don’t really want to go inside just to check if the image in my mind is anything like the reality.

From Fremantle Primary, it's barely a stone's throw to the ED.

From Fremantle Primary, it’s barely a stone’s throw to the ED.

Tim Winton wrote an article in The Guardian not so long ago about hospitals and living in the shadow of them. He lived opposite the Alma Street mental health unit of Fremantle Hospital. For me place casts a longer, metaphorical shadow as I live several streets away, removed from some of the drama Winton experienced. He describes visitors to the hospital as operating ‘in an unrelievedly histrionic register’, providing for constant entertainment on the surrounding streets.

Winton writes of people around the hospital bearing ‘their own narratives so openly’ – body language ‘heightened’, discretion gone. For me, living further away, the hospital is more occasional in its drama: secrets and people spill out onto the street with all the untidiness of a fracture, or of a split bag spilling grain onto the ground – but it is irregular and random. Sometimes, walking past, Fremantle Hospital is just a big building and all is quiet.

Living a little further away from the hospital itself, it is not the patients – current, past or future – that I see regularly, but rather the health professionals. They are everywhere: parking their cars in the primary school during the holidays, squeezing them onto the sandy front verges of nice people like us who don’t have respectable lawns. They pack their cars tightly onto the vacant block up the hill from the school and are endlessly creative in finding ways to park for eight or ten hours for free.

12 daysOr they are walking through the park on their way to work at 7am (sometimes they are running, if it’s gone 7 already); they are riding by on all manner of bikes in their blue scrubs and their sensible shoes. They are female and male, young and occasionally old.

In the mornings, they seem organised and focused. The ones on foot almost always have coffee. But I don’t see them in the evenings; our schedules must be out. I often wonder how these same people might look at the end of their day in the big hospital building. How do they feel? And how will they feel when the hospital they work at is out in the suburbs by the freeway instead of right here in the middle of Fremantle?

For Winton, this hospital’s location is defining:

Our hospital was not the modern, discrete, Australian campus set in awesome suburban isolation like a hyper-mall, surrounded by a vast moat of car parking. This was the inner city, a neighbourhood of narrow streets and workers’ cottages, and the hospital had long outgrown its original footprint. The old Victorian building was buried amid hulking brutalist slabs. They didn’t just tower over the surrounding streets; they seemed to project outward.

It is the metaphorical shadow of the place that projects the physical shadow far beyond. This image of Winton’s stuck with me most of all:

I often looked up at that dreary tower as the sun lit up its windows and thought of others staring out in hope and regret as the rest of us went about our day, oblivious. All that yearning spilling down amid the treetops and roof ridges, a shadow I’d never properly considered before.

In less than two weeks that shadow will begin to fade. There will be no ED or facilities for children. Emergency mental health services will go too. Parts of the hospital’s specialist functions will remain, including aged care and non-emergency surgical procedures. The rest of it is headed for the new Fiona Stanley hospital, in the suburbs by the freeway.

Does this mean the yearning will cease to spill down across our roof tops? Perhaps, and perhaps too we will no longer be reminded on a daily basis of the fragility of life. It is hard not to think of it, in the shadow of Fremantle hospital.

Endeavour and Eden

This town called Eden is just as green and picturesque as the name suggests, but how that wind blows! On the hill north of Twofold Bay, where a hilly outpost of the town is separated from the rest by a narrow, low spit of land between bay and ocean, the wind tears in from the south. The water of the bay is ruffled and bright in the sun.

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I am here in Eden with the Endeavour replica and her dark heavy rig stands out against the water of the bay. Yesterday 660 people came aboard the ship to see her and imagine something of life in Cook’s time. This interests me less than the sight of the ship herself and the way tall ships are so entirely unique in filtering into their background of wave or bush and seeming so at home yet centuries out of place.

I remember coming back to Endeavour in the RIB when we were on the Hawkesbury River in September and losing sight of the ship against the headland behind her, so well did she blend into the bush.

On Endeavour, I often think of Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance and the way he describes a ship from the point of view of a young indigenous boy coming into King George Sound in Albany in the nineteenth century, folding away its wings like a pelican coming into land. (I don’t have the book here so I can’t check the accuracy of my memory of the image.)

I thought of Scott’s image as we passed Botany Bay on Endeavour on Tuesday last week on our way south from Sydney. As I wrote on the Australian National Maritime Museum blog for Endeavour, I imagined Botany Bay as it might have been in Cook’s time. I did not expect to see the cranes of a major commercial shipping port silhouetted against the sky on the far side of the bay.

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Pelicans coming into land in a bay… and pelicans floating on the wind above us today in Eden. Seventeen pelicans, seeming to move diagonally rather than forwards then circling and wheeling before returning to a formation of sorts then ascending away from us to the south.

It’s been a while since I wrote anything on this blog, but in my absence I have been writing more than usual – for the ANMM’s Endeavour blog, not my own. So far, I’ve written about four voyages on Endeavour and there is one more to come. In some, I could have written many more words of reflection and imagery of the sea, the ship and the wildlife. This post captures just one small element of that which has not made it onto Endeavour‘s blog.

I hope there will be more to come when I am back in Fremantle, with the ocean just visible from the kitchen window.

Place, time and writing

I’m back in Fremantle – not just as a visitor, but back here to live. It’s been five years since I last ‘lived’ in this town, though my time here five years ago was an interlude between travels. By other measures, it’s been over six.

Am I home? I’m not sure, and I’m tired of thinking about it. My sense of place has been disrupted in the last two years: the way I think about all the places that could be home – Ensay, Melbourne and Fremantle – has changed.

Fremantle is familiar; the house is homely; there are people that I care about here. But I am not sure any longer which feelings of ‘home’ matter. Is it having a roof over your head in a building that you call home? Is it the people, the landscape, the community or the work that you do? Is it a confluence of all these?

I am not ‘out in the world’ at the moment, and I know that doesn’t help. Instead I have six weeks ahead with few commitments; with the freedom to do as I choose, within the confines of finance and geography.

Although this is a luxury, it is also a little terrifying. The main ambition in this time is clear: to write.

It is terrifying because if I cannot write or if I do not write, then there are no excuses. Unpacking doesn’t take six weeks. The house is cold but not that cold. The distractions are few. And most of all, I don’t have to spend eight hours a day at a computer working on things that are not my own projects. Yes, put like that, this time is a luxury.

But as a friend of mine, Eli Glasman, wrote in his most recent blog post, staying home and tapping away at ‘whatever’, ‘whenever’, is not being a writer: it’s simply not having to work. The luxury of time to write is in that sense not a luxury at all, for as a writer, one must therefore use that time to work. It is not time that you can watch pass leisurely: you must occupy it by working hard.

Despite the need to work, there is luxury in having a house to one’s self during the day, in sitting near a high window with a view, in glimpses of the ocean, in being back in the west in time for a dramatic winter.

But, enough window gazing for now: it is time to  work.

The beginnings of bicycling

If you look at Google Maps using the beta cycling tab, Melbourne becomes a network of dark green, of cycle tracks spreading out from the city and criss-crossing the suburbs.

The paths wind around the rivers and creeks, then settle abruptly into the grids of the inner suburbs. There is something tantalising about maps, and Google by bike is no exception.

Melbourne by bike

In green, the map of Melbourne suggests a different city – a whole new world, one that I started exploring in earnest in winter last year. Now that I know I’ll be leaving Melbourne in the coming months, I’m very glad I began when I did. Continue reading