The volcanic soil under our house that the snake catcher crawled around in – head bent to avoid hitting our floors – contracts over summer. Our house, all verandah and up on stilts, feels suddenly rickety. I can feel the footfalls of someone moving on the opposite side of the house. Our cats padding across the floor can be enough to make the windows rattle. In winter, the earth becomes waterlogged and our house steadies on its stilts. It feels like a fortress. In summer, it feels paper-thin.
This first summer is a dry one; a hot one. A fire nearby sends blackened leaves and a handful of embers spiraling into our paddocks on gusts of smoke-soured air. A snake on laced brickwork. Adrenaline at the sudden and uncomfortable proximity of something so long contemplated at a distance. I turn on our generator when the power goes out. I run our water tanks dry, wetting things down. Just in case. Unwise, unseasoned. The fire is contained long before it becomes dangerous. Yet, I am suddenly aware of how our raised, wooden house is like kindling, waiting for a spark of flame to set it alight. It trembles as we move inside it. Our house feels living and vulnerable. It is easier to be outdoors. To lick at berry juice and wonder over what a certain tree might be; to watch the bruising of high clouds across sky and the slow burgeoning of stars, so like blossoms as night falls.
This first summer, we wander the orchards until bedtime, awed by the hundreds of different trees and vines – the things that we will soon know intimately but that are now puzzles that need solving with taste and with touch. This first summer is the call of birds before we’re ready to wake and the heady smell of strawberries from the farm next door. The world is dazzling. It feels wider here. More sky. More earth. Sun-warmed peaches and blueberries and the rustle of lizards hunting in the undergrowth.
There are berries at the start of summer and apples at the very end. This is how the season of our house – alive and quaking – is book-ended. There are tomatoes throughout, sweet and swollen. I pick chamomile flowers and store them in jars to steep in hot rainwater through winter when our house, once again, becomes something unyielding. Summer is wild-fermented plum wine and quick, ferocious storms. Summer is all the wonderful, dazzling fragility of living here. Of living. In a place where the stars are like blossoms and our house is like kindling. Where there are snakes and sweet berry juice and the call of birds that we will, very soon, know as intimately as the sound of each other’s voices.
Eliza Henry-Jones is the author of In the Quiet; Ache and P is for Pearl. Her young adult novel, How to Grow a Family Tree, will be published by HarperCollins next year.
There was only one rule: “Don’t touch Mum’s jade chopsticks.” It was 2004, almost 2005, and we were 19 years old, going on 20. My man, Dinnertime (not his real name), had been left to care for the family home whilst his parents visited family interstate, and like any decent, loving friends, we decided to hold the New Year’s party of a lifetime and destroy the joint.
We spent the lead-up days lying in his lounge room watching episodes of bro’Town, a kiwi equivalent to South Park. Snoop’s Drop It Like It’s Hot, Scribe’s Not Many and P-Money’s 3,2,1 were on high rotation. Dinnertime would bring home buckets of unpurchased chicken from his shifts at KFC and we would nom herbs and spices to the soundtrack of a homemade plastic saxophone. I accidentally knocked a glass beer bottle down two flights of cement steps and we all waited with bated breath for a smashing sound that never came. We built a shrine for the unbreakable vessel and called it Jesus.
When New Year’s finally came, Dinnertime’s first-night-fever saw him spend the whole night, fully clothed, in his bathtub whilst his girlfriend at the time stroked his head and his friends dropped in like shift workers to feed him water. A workmate of his stole $300 from a bedroom drawer and we spent the early hours semi-joking about how we were going to bash him with chicken drumsticks until we got the cash back.
As the sun came up, I met The Girl under a jacaranda tree in the front lawn and we talked about family tragedy and I walked her three doors up the street to her house. We didn’t kiss. It’d all fall apart ten years later, badly, as most good relationships do. A Peter Pan couple that couldn’t grow up. When Dinnertime awoke the next morning, on January 1st, his Mum’s jade chopsticks were in pieces. Nobody knows who did it. It’s still a sore point.
A few days later, at a bar on Brisbane’s Caxton Street, I got into an argument with a kid I went to pre-school with, who was adamant I hadn’t let him into a party my friend had hosted when we were all still in high school. We eventually took the disagreement outside to a back laneway, where, during the altercation, I split the tendon on my pinky finger on his two front teeth. I tossed up whether I could sleep the injury off, but eventually approached two police officers who U-turned on their original refusal to take me to hospital after I showed them the exposed bone, visible through the wound on my knuckle.
I spent two days in hospital and Dad was less than impressed when he came home from a fishing trip to find me with a cast on my arm. It felt like the straw that broke the parent’s back. I used the injury as fodder for a comedy competition in Redcliffe, though. The $1000 prize money meant the month I had to take off work at the video store was equalled out.
On a trip to the Gold Coast, I couldn’t go swimming because of the cast, so I sat on the beach and drank three tallies of Fosters, listening to the Hilltop Hoods, feeling in love, grateful for friends, and excited about where my new hobby of stand-up comedy could take me. A few days later I did an audition for a movie called Aquamarine, which starred teen pop sensation JoJo, and Julia Roberts’ niece Emma. I got the gig and ended up filming one line of dialogue that got dubbed over by someone who obviously had a better American accent than mine. I still get cheques to this day. The last one was for $81.
The summer ended with me going back to the final year of my Bachelor of Fine Arts (Acting) Degree, my Dad forgiving me, my cast finally off, and my arm all in one piece. I wish I could say the same about Mrs Dinnertime’s jade chopsticks. It’s still a sore point.
Matt Okine is an award-winning comedian. His debut novel Being Black ‘n Chicken, and Chips is published by Hachette Australia. Season two of his TV series The Other Guy premieres on Stan on December 13.
Summer in Christmas Hills, nestled in Melbourne’s bushfire-singed fringe, is a pair of wedgies floating over, wide elegant circles, as our shed-rescued chooks nervously trill. It’s the memory of our old blue heeler – lavender-roan – sheltering beneath grevillea: September flowering and hardy, despite February heat. Summer in Christmas Hills, 2019, is improved CFA warnings – ones that never, back then, helped us through the 2009’s firestorm’s hungry glow. Summer for us, now, is knowing that it’s OK: things can go.
Home to a eucalypt-fenced school, a tin CFA, and a community hall, Christmas Hills is only an hour from Melbourne’s CBD. Mention Kinglake or Marysville – both relatively close – and you might remember that Saturday, Black – a while back. “Australia’s Darkest Day”, “Hell on Earth”, “2009 Inferno”, newspaper headlines read. That summer was the highest temperatures since records began. The news was also our home – blown. It was our story but also Australia’s: thousands of pinned yellow ribbons to folding chests. It was the cicada-like shells of burnt-out cars, lining the road. That summer was 180 lives lost: too many, almost, to even comprehend.
Christmas Hills – like those of us left – has steadily regrown. Wake up most summer mornings and you’ll hear a magpie warbling for bread. Newspapers across the bench. There’ll be the steady drone of a kid on her dirt bike – for just a moment free – holiday-hair knotty as she whirs along gravel roads. My favourite place is wattle puffs in August and endless Samba tracks through gums. It’s the silver Jacky Winters, the ruby-eyed choughs, the grey-muzzled wallabies who’ve, like so many of us – and some who haven’t – found our different ways home.
Summer, out here, is clipped waratah again – $1.50 a stem – from St Andrews community market. It’s a vanilla slice from the valley bakery – nothing fancy – and the comfort of a paddock swim, cool clay between toes. Summer in Christmas Hills is honey-coloured whiskey on the deck. It’s chipped crystal glass, scuffed sandals, dust and my Mum’s freckle-flecked wrists. It’s Vegemite toast and orange juice, fresh, as we gather together on our rebuilt house’s deck. It’s the view – some stoic charred trees still standing – backed by the Yarra Valley stretching out like patchwork ahead.
Christmas Hills in summer is now my perfect, peach-haired niece – not yet a year in this world. It’s her smiling alongside our old, fading border collie, who lived through the fires herself. Summer out here is watching all kinds of birds: pairs of pink galahs and fairy-wrens, along with bush pigeons, their necks rainbow specked. It’s Mum’s potato salad, tied-back hair and Frosty Fruits, melting. Christmas Hills is cool low baths and flyscreen. It’s Bogong moths – the thuds of soft bodies trying to flutter through window glass. Summer here is the same tacky Christmas movies – happily watched over, and over, again.
Summer in Christmas Hills is the hope that we’ll all start to look the cause of extreme bushfire – the climate emergency – straight on. Christmas Hills in summer is the threat of these “superfires” again. Christmas Hills in summer was a deafening eucalypt crackle. It was the white-noise realisation of so many unanswered 000 calls. Summer: it was the soft amber glow of our burning-down home. But it’s also more than this. It’s regrowth: a small IGA dairy aisle nod of recognition. It’s an unfurling valley fern. It’s rainbow Paddle Pops, eaten again for fun. It’s us all knowing what more could have so easily gone.
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Alice Bishop’s debut short fiction collection, A Constant Hum, was published by Text and was shortlisted for the 2019 Prize for New Australian Fiction.
Most summers have seemed the same. It was as if there was a primordial need to head for the beach, to pay our obeisance by lying croc-like on the sand, scanning the scene from behind our sunnies. This year it was going to be different.
After writing a heavy tome on the history of Antarctica, I’d been asked to go south on a small tourist ship to lecture to its passengers. I hoped to use the experience as the basis for another book and had packed my laptop, intending to pound away as the ship ploughed its way across the Southern Ocean. No such luck. I was sharing a tiny cabin deep in the bowels of the vessel, which reverberated with the constant throbbing of the engine and the crashing of the bow against the waves.
Moreover, I was part of the expedition crew and was expected to write a daily newsletter and take charge of one of the zodiacs that landed passengers ashore on the spectacular sub-Antarctic islands or traced lazy circles around the occasional iceberg. As cameras clicked away, passengers looked to me to identify and explain the life cycle of everything we encountered.
It was a rapid learning experience, as I huddled in the ship’s library looking up the difference between penguin species, the different whales with their distinctive “blows” and the multitude of birds that swooped low, their wingtips touching the waves as they searched for food. As the long days passed, the well-heeled passengers started scanning the horizon, hoping to sight the ice-cliffs that would mark the continent. Instead, there was just loose, freshly-frozen sea-ice, interspersed with patches of open water.
The ship was able to slowly push aside the jostling ice until it could go no further. The long tongue of a glacier had broken off and become stuck, creating an iceberg the size of Belgium that caused the circulating sea-ice to bunch up behind it.
A hundred years before, Douglas Mawson had taken a similar track in a much smaller ship when he set up his base at Commonwealth Bay. Visiting his abandoned buildings had been our aim. However, we weren’t on an ice-breaker and couldn’t take the risk of being caught in the vice-like grip of the older and heavier ice that now blocked our path. Rather than ruining the voyage, the ice provided its highlight.
Clambering off the rear deck into zodiacs, we could go where the ship was unable to venture. Gunning the motors until a stable ice-floe was found, we provided the passengers with the next best thing to actually standing on the continent.
Roughly round and mostly flat, the floe was sufficiently big to set up a champagne bar on one part and a wicket on another for the dozen or so passengers that were brought “ashore” at any one time. Although most headed for the bar, a few rugged-up souls took up the challenge of bowling a ball, while the batsman was careful not to hit it into the unforgiving outfield. On the perimeter, a chortle of bemused penguins bounced out of the water and took up position, twiddling their flippers as if preparing to pounce on a stray ball. We thought they might have harboured an interest in the game, until the tell-tale fins of several orcas were noticed swimming past. Only later did I learn that ice-floes provide limited protection from a pod of hungry orcas.
Once back on board, the dozen members of the expedition crew gathered around the barbecue on the open after-deck, our sleeves rolled up in the afternoon sunshine as we recounted our feats at the crease and watched as the closest thing we’d get to a beach as that summer slowly disappeared.
David Day is a prize-winning historian and biographer. His latest book, Maurice Blackburn: Champion of the People, is published by Scribe.
Sleep comes in gasps. You wake with aching joints and a mild headache and realise you’ll be touching down soon. Your wife is still out, her long limbs are neatly folded, her head resting on one forearm. It’s that awful midnight flight that each year you swear you’ll never take again.
You drive the rental car so she can continue sleeping, so she doesn’t get sick; this thumb of peninsula is a cruel test for those prone to motion sickness. At first, the road hugs the bay just metres from the water. Then the road climbs up through the hills. It’s that magical time of year, the centre of the Venn diagram Kiwi nature enthusiasts love most. Circle one: Pohutukawa in bloom. Circle two: Manuka flowering. And you see them both, those great leaning Pohutukawa, twisted limbs filled with a crimson haze and the smaller manuka, glowing white, more bush than tree.
When you arrive, you walk to the shop. The road tar sticks and almost snaps the centre out of one of your thongs — no, not thongs: jandals. Never thongs, lest you field endless questions about why you’d wear underwear on your feet. You grab coffees and wait for the others. You make up four couples from four cities. You have been coming here, on this weekend, for most of a decade; it’s a pilgrimage of sorts.
You always stay at a “bach”, not a beach house. It has character, mid-century furnishings, windows that rattle when an easterly tears in from the sea, Monopoly money stuffed down seat-backs and ’90s playing cards, bent and soft as newspaper. You settle on who has which room before walking out the back door. You find an empty beach beneath a ceramic sky. You hear the mechanical trilling of cicadas, the whoosh of the rushing tide.
You look at photos on your phone from last year’s trip. You’re not in the same shape and it’s as though you’ve occupied a new body for your thirties. It’s softened and loosened like an old carrot, but you’ll get it back, you tell yourself, just in time for next summer. You scroll back through and stop at that photo from five years ago. You were playing slip catches on the sand. A leap and when you landed the tennis ball was still there, lodged in your palm. Things are different now. Your sunglasses are prescription. Hair shorter, thinner. You’re finally heeding those warnings about UV exposure; it’s more sunblock than aloe vera, but you can’t keep yourself out of the surf. You’re first in, last out, spending hours just floating filling up with seawater so you can taste salt for days, feel the grit of it in your hair. Water drips from your nose. In the photos, you see a bottle of champagne half-buried in sand and remember the year you proposed. The ceaseless phone calls from people back home in Australia.
The sea seems to grow louder when night comes. The house is quiet for a moment but for the shuffle of cards. The scent of dinner still lingers as another round of cards are dealt, another can of beer snaps open. You had stripped mussels from a rock at low tide, broiled them in butter and a Marlborough Sav about fifteen dollars too expensive for cooking. “When will we head to New Chum’s?” someone asks of the neighbouring bay, a low-key spot consistently ranked as one of the world’s best beaches.
“The morning at low tide?”
So that’s what you do. At the top of the cliff, you pause to scan the sweeping crescent of sand, the up-thrust of cliff shawled in native bush. It looks just the same but things are always changing. You know you’ll be here again every year, right at this spot in the heat of the morning sun.
J.P. Pomare is the author of literary thriller Call Me Evie. His second novel, In the Clearing, will be published on December 31 by Hachette Australia.