Sunday 17 March 2013

Going Home, Avalon, Palm Beach and Clareville

I guess we all have certain touchstones that lead us directly to childhood. For me, a hot breeze during a summer's early evening will invariably take me back to a beach near my childhood home. Instantly I'm running barefoot in sun-warmed sand with the other kids of the neighbourhood. A lazy long holiday stretches before us. My dripping orange icy pole is sticky in my hand. I feel expansive and joyful. The place is beautiful but I rarely visit. On one of the last days of summer, I decided to go.

I leave my house near the city at 5 am. There are stars and a nearly full moon in the sky. The local baker has just opened his doors and I grab a warm bun for the journey. The drive is enjoyable without the traffic. I sail over the Harbour Bridge, along the normally clogged Military Road, through the Spit, past Manly, then the succession of other seaside suburbs.
From Dee Why onwards, the memories kick in: listing the names of wildflowers at the nature reserve for school, watching Storm Boy at the Collaroy cinema, hanging out at Warringah Mall in Brookvale with small tribes of girlfriends.

I pass the corner where Narelle and I waited in our school formal finery; her in sophisticated cream, me in barely there pink and being told by an older man passing by that we looked very beautiful. He said this with such gravity I thought it strange at the time. But now I realise he was seeing us on the cusp of everything, so hopeful and shy and, well, beautiful.

I keep cruising through those suburbs, still quiet and dark: Narabeen, Mona Vale, Newport, the bends of Bilgola. I'm here.

Avalon beach is my first port of call. It's barely 6 am and the first bit of pale sky shows itself on the horizon. A row of small dark clouds chug swiftly south.

I catch a lung full of that ozoney fuggy sea air. It feels damply solid. There's a high tide and the sea's a churning mess. A small group of young women hover outside the Surf Club chatting. I make a beeline for the seawater pool.

From a distance I can see a lonely figure standing gingerly at its edge. He takes the plunge just after I take the shot. I've not been here for maybe twenty years. Apart from a new fence erected to prevent rocks from sliding down the cliff above, nothing's changed.

This is the concrete bleacher where we'd sit for successive swimming carnivals. I usually won, somewhat reluctantly, as I was a strong swimmer. The others thought it wasn't cool to try too hard.

I sit here a while and let the memories come. They range along the gamut from pain to joy and are made all the more vivid by the sensory memories of place: the way the apricot coloured sand squelches underfoot and how the leathery pillars shed from the Norfolk pines catch between your toes. Both memories conjure the scent of the coconut oil we'd lather ourselves in, then fry.

The young women who'd been chatting when I arrived have started their workout at the Surf Club's gym. I move on to Palm Beach to catch the sunrise.

This is the most northern point of metropolitan Sydney and it's a spectacularly beautiful peninsula rimmed by the Pacific Ocean one side and the estuary of Pittwater on the other.

At the northern end of the beach, I notice banks of film crew vans. A crew member confirms my suspicions - they're filming the longstanding soapie Home and Away. 

The actors and crew are finishing their breakfast, hanging out, or rehearsing their lines. They confirm that filming will take place on the beach today.

I linger to watch them set up. You tend to forget the enormous numbers of people, paraphernalia and effort it takes to produce just one television show. The Home and Away jingle starts playing over and over in my head. It reminds me of a time ten years back when a group of lads from a Dublin pub INSISTED on singing the Neighbours theme song to me and Pete. They knew it word for word and gleefully wanted to punish us for it. Scary.

I leave the crew to it and take the short walk across the spit to the Pittwater side. 

Everything reminds me of childhood. Even the patterned bessemer bricks of the toilet block. 

Ulric's boat L'Epervier would had been towed by the Water Police another seven kilometers up this estuary of Pittwater to the Northern Beaches town of Newport. This is where his extraordinary journey from Switzerland would have come to an end.

I am going to travel up that way myself, to a place just shy of Ulric's final destination. It's a place called Clareville. I want to take a look at one of my childhood homes.

I approach the house tentatively. Yes, still here. In fact it's exactly how I remember it - neither bigger nor smaller. The owners have made few changes to the front of the house, apart from looking after it well. I hover by the post box and watch a man tinkering with his car in the driveway.

Then he walks towards me with a quizzical look. I stammer that I used to live here many years ago, as a girl. 'Really?' He says. 'Well I've lived here for thirty-five years.' He pauses, then says: 'You must be one of the Wings.' I'm amazed he remembers our name. I'm amazed he and his wife have been here all these years. I mutter that I didn't wish to bother them. He tells me determinedly to wait where I am, that his wife will want to see me and he'll check with her to tell her I'm here. He returns to ask if I could come back in half an hour? Yes, of course. I leave with butterflies thudding in my chest and decide to head for the nearby Clareville Beach to wait it out.

Ah yes, the beach where I spent that joyous evening with my friends and sticky Icy Pole. The old and not so old dinghies now have proper mooring spots. They used to dot the perimeters of the beach and one summer holiday, we commandeered an old one someone hadn't bothered to tie up.

We spent the summer rowing it up and down Pittwater, going way out, not bothering if we were carried by the wind and tides. People don't believe me but there was brightly coloured coral in the water near the old torpedo station that's since been torn down.

Old style fibro houses still exist among the newer spruced up versions. 

I used to dive under the jetties of these old boat sheds to stay safe from the neurotic Red Setter we adopted from an abusive home. Wild eyed and standing nearly six foot on her back haunches, she'd stalk me from the end of the beach, then start to run. She'd launch herself in the air towards me, trying to tear at my throat with her teeth. I had to move quickly.

Yes, it's beautiful, that's for sure. A family friend has often accused me and others of having had the Doris Day childhood. I did but as with everywhere, darkness lurked. The young, sensitive boy, brutalised by his father. The woman who spent long spells in hospital for curettes that I later realised were adult code for breakdowns.

Less tragic but slightly sinister were the notorious swingers - those groovy parents who'd use their car keys to swap partners at parties. Just a rumour? Not according to my parents who'd left alarmed and early from one such gathering. And then later, though not much later, there were the drugs and oh god, the damage there.

As I wander I watch a small girl who looks similar to how I used to look. When she comes towards me, I'm astonished to see she's wearing the same uniform I wore.

So why are butterflies still churning away while I wait to go back up that hill? What's the part of my past I'm deliberately not 'fessing up to? How can I tell about this without sounding slightly unhinged?

The fact is, the house I lived in was notorious for being haunted. It's in that house I experienced terror - the type of white hot terror that made me sweat at night, and bite my cheeks, and stick my nails into my hands until they bled. The type that would keep me awake for hours on end, under bedclothes, though even under these I still felt watched. It's where the temperature would sometimes plummet followed by a feeling of something swooshing past me, brushing lightly against my skin. It's where double doors that were locked would slam open then stand stock still because there was no wind. It's where I'd hear my name and find that no-one in the house had called it.

How do you explain such things? I tried to tell my parents but they said it was a nonsense. They said it wasn't so; it was all in my imagination. Only after we left this place I so loved and so feared, only as we were driving away for the very last time did they finally admit that they too had been scared. It was then they told their own stories.

I don't know what this was but it felt very real. For years and years after we left, the house used to haunt my dreams. I'd wake in a panic, the sweat back, heart in mouth. I don't dream about it any more yet the thought of going back still scares me. But I'm a big girl now. I say goodbye to Clareville Beach and make my way up that hill.

Louise is waiting for me, standing behind those stable doors. She says; 'hello, Jo, welcome home.'  She tells me she always knew that I'd return. She says she'd hoped she'd still be here when I did. I feel an old wild longing well up in answer to her words. As I stumble across the threshold into her arms, I burst into tears.

We spend the whole day together. I'm pinching myself that I'm here, that the lovely people we sold our house to are still living in it, looking after it so well. I discover that my mother had visited Louise for at least a year after we left, how Louise had liked her so, and tried to contact her when my father died.

Of course the haunting is discussed. Louise raises it first. Yes, she's aware the house is notorious far and wide. There's the litany of sad stories about people who'd lived here before us.

Louise mentions there was one strange incident that occurred a couple of weeks after they'd moved in. Shortly after going to bed, she and her husband John heard a terrific bang downstairs. It turns out to have been a door leading off the hallway that slammed but there had been no wind, no breeze, nothing they could see seemed to have caused it. She tells me she feels that what ever had been there had left the house that day.

I can only agree. While Louise goes to the kitchen for another pot of tea I sense to my relief that it's gone. There is nothing here now. Louise takes me through every room of the house painted in beautiful and varied shades of blue. Each room is peaceful.

We go out for lunch to a place she knows that has banks of glistening fruit and bunches of flowers by the front door.

We talk about our lives with an urgency and honesty - as if we are old friends or relatives who've not seen each other for a very long time. Louise is fine, and fun and strong. She's as smart as a whip with an elephantine memory: 'You had a round table in here,' - yes we did, 'And you had a big sofa over here', did we? After thirty-five years, how on earth can she remember such details on the basis of a couple of visits?

It's late in the afternoon when I finally say goodbye to Louise. I feel deeply satisfied. A wound from my past has been salved. A new and valuable connection has been made. There will always be a question, but that's okay, I can live with that.

So I've come to the end of A Sydney Summer and the end of the stories for now. Thank you for either sharing your story, agreeing to be photographed or following this blog. And a big thank you Pete for being back up photographer, photoshopper and for supporting me to express myself in new ways. This has been a joy.

Adieu for now and as Sister Renee (Flemington Markets post) would say, 'rich blessings.'


PS If you've enjoyed A Sydney Summer, you can nominate it for the People's Choice Award category in the Best Australian Blogs 2013 Competition run by the Australian Writers' Centre. Just go to:

Thursday 14 March 2013

Great Dames, Rose Bay and Vaucluse

It will be the second last dawn, second last post of this blog. I confess we are a touch into autumn now but the weather's still sultry and for once it will be one of those screamingly beautiful blue sky days. It's going begging so I head for the eastern suburbs and some places that remind me of someone special.

Rose Bay is yet to wake to the morning. There's barely a soul on its lovely wide arc of promenade. I keep moving, this time to Vaucluse, heading for higher land on the ocean side as I want to catch the sunrise.

As I drive up the bendy New South Head Road, I admire the Kincoppal School of the Sacred Heart  grandly topping a hill that looks across the harbour back to Sydney. It reminds me of Harry Potter's school. I wonder if the girls have woken yet and if so, what they'd be doing at quarter to six in the morning. Later that day, I'll find out.

Macquarie Lighthouse marks the entrance to South Head and catches the early light. It bears the simple and elegant stamp of a Francis Greenway design. He was the convict sent out on a charge of forgery who became such an important architect for the colony. Ironically he redeemed himself to such an extent he appears on the ten dollar note. 

Cyclists are belting up and down New South Head Road now like it's some sort of race track and either side of the lighthouse, joggers and walkers begin pounding the path along the clifftops. I move off in the car towards The Gap but my heart jumps and I bring it to a jagged halt because I suddenly see a woman practicing Tai Chi before this:

After ten, fifteen minutes or so, she finishes and walks off at a brisk pace. It takes me quite a bit longer to collect myself. 

There's another special place on the harbour side. 

Neilsen Park and its unfortunately named Shark Beach are a near perfect combination. Part of Sydney Harbour National Park, this spot offers a safely netted area for swimmers and sweeping views up the harbour to the city.

As the light's yet to touch the sand, I decide to follow the path over its small headland. 

On its rise is a cottage all by itself with the most spectacular view. A man from National Parks and Wildlife is mowing the lawn.

John loves this place and I can see why. He shows me around Steele Point Cottage, a former gunner's barracks which has been turned into a cosy space for two. It can be rented out from National Parks and Wildlife. 'Imagine sitting out here with a beer and looking at this', he says.

We look out to the harbour, noticing some type of stunt involving a couple of planes that resemble tiger moths and wonder what's going on. John thinks there's a stunt man standing on top of one of the planes and it's being filmed from the helicopter. I increase the size of this image later and think he's probably right. 

Back at the beach I admire honeycomb sandstone rocks

and sparkling water. 

I head for the kiosk, deciding to splash out on breakfast and grab one of the last vacant tables outside.  

Next to me is the lovely Kat who it turns out works part time as a physical fitness instructor at Kincoppal. Near the hour I was cruising by this morning, she was getting some of her charges ready for a game of badminton. They're practicing for a big comp. The school entered it in order to encourage some of the Asian students to become involved in a sport they love. Kat has two hours off before she starts another class. She says she comes here every Thursday to soak up the sun.

Kat's ordered breakfast too and joins me. We linger over coffee and talk about our lives. We talk about what we've done, what we hope for. We talk about the special people in our lives. We talk about our mothers. She cares for hers, I cared for mine. It tell her the reason I'm here. It's because this is a place Mum loved. She was a great story teller and Rose Bay is the location for one of her best.

Sheila's Story

Some time ago, Sheila approached a stylish woman at her local shopping centre with: 'Where did you get your hair done?' Salon and whereabouts duly noted, she made an appointment and set off across town to the foreign territory of Rose Bay. The place was swanky; water view, big vases of flowers (gladioli were the rage) and lashing of real percolated coffee, as against the usual dishwater instant. 

Shortly after settling in, she looked up to see the only other customer walk in that morning: Dame Joan Sutherland. The hairdressers fussed over her, admired her dress - a bargain Joan told them, picked up for nicks in a summer sale. 

She sat next to a gobsmacked Sheila, introduced herself and produced a tape recorder. Joan explained she needed to rehearse for the opening night of Lucia di Lammermoor. Would she mind terribly if she sang along to the music while she had her hair done? Sheila uttered something to the effect of no and Joan quipped: ' Do feel free to sing along.' 

We've all laughed at this, as Sheila, my mother, so fiercely loved music yet could never hold a tune. She and Joan were having the full catastrophe that day of dye, cut and set. So for about an hour and a half, Mum soaked in that voice from heaven, wrapped in a charming, grounded, no-nonsense woman and came home on a cloud. 

In her last years, Sheila became morbidly fascinated with other people's deaths, poring over them, deciding whether they'd had a good one or not. I mentioned Joan's in passing expecting her to grill me for the details but she'd lost interest. She was tired. Sheila died suddenly a few days later, a death she would have classed as A1. She was the same age as Joan: a terrible singing voice, wrapped in an adventurous, bolshy, irreplaceable mother. 

I tell Kat how sad I am I didn't bring her here one last time. We hug long and hard and say goodbye.