Sunkisses

This is an extract from Chapter 16, ‘Let the sun shine’ in The Woman on the Mountain. It was also included as a stand-alone piece in an anthology by Catchfire Press called Stories for a Long Summer (2006).

Summer once meant glorious, golden sunshine, for outdoor playing and swimming, from sunup to sundown if we could wangle it. Painful sunburn and peeling skin was inevitable, every year, for everyone except those with foreign, that is, not English, Irish or Scottish, skin. We soothed the burns by dabbing with vinegar or cut tomatoes, picked at the dry skin as it peeled, and drew satisfaction from extra long strips removed. Noses and shoulders were always the worst and most frequently burnt. As new freckles appeared we joked about ‘sunkisses’. I could count mine then.

By my fifteenth year it was all about sunbaking in bikinis, a race to ‘get a tan’ quickest, grilling our bodies like skinny sausages, assisted by a coconut oil baste. This ritual was interrupted only by an occasional stroll to the water, mainly to see and be seen by the unattainable golden boys with their goods on show in Speedos. As our costumes shrank to four brief triangles, soft and virginal bands of flesh burnt so badly the pink turned livid, yellowish, and school uniforms and seats could hardly be borne on Mondays. But we persevered, for white skin had the connotation of slugs, not porcelain. Not that I’d ever have the choice again, having by now acquired a permanent shawl of sunkisses.

Fifteen years later, summer meant the annual angst in front of unfriendly mirrors and lying saleswomen over whether we could still get away with wearing a two-piece costume. It was spent supervising sandcastles and shell collections, soggy towels and gritty kids, with hardly a minute to ourselves for sunbaking. As we still did, with suntan lotion overall, zinc cream or sunscreen only applied to acknowledged vulnerable bits. We did wear hats.

These days summer brings danger. Sunbaking, suntanning, sunkisses – such antiquated words, such tragic innocence. Forget sunscreen; with the hole we’ve made in the ozone layer, we need sunblock. Slip, slop, slap. Kids are growing up with sunblock as their second skin, they swim in neck-to-knee lycra and aren’t allowed to play outside at school without a hat. They are taught to be as afraid of our once-beneficent sun as of strangers. It’s like science fiction come horribly true. I dread the announcement that constant exposure to sunscreen has been found to be carcinogenic, but I won’t be surprised.

My swimsuit mostly functions as a relic of my past, to be found scrunched in the back of a drawer along with lace handkerchiefs, suspender belts, French knickers and tired G-strings. Summer glare and heat are too savage for me to want to be outdoors at all. Instead of exposing winter flesh, I cover up more, never leaving my verandah without throwing on my sunfaded Akubra hat and the longsleeved cotton shirt, usually a man’s work shirt, second-hand, that will be hanging there.

Too many threatening spots and lumps have already been removed, after hiding amongst the thousands of freckles of my inappropriate Celtic skin. I go to my skin cancer clinic every six months for a checkup. The doctor, genetically brown-skinned and unfreckle-able, shakes his head at the mottled map of my youth each time I take off my shirt.

I have copies of The Woman on the Mountain which you can buy at a special price here.

Woman at work

This drawing was meant for Chapter 12 of The Woman the Mountain, ‘While the woman’s away…’ which is mainly about the wildlife moving in and taking over when I wasn’t there.

Here’s the relevant extract about one of the ultimately futile attempts to keep them out…

When the rain finally stopped, I began fortifying the fence against the wallabies, slowly and erratically, depending on when I could afford another roll of chickenwire. As I clipped it on to the old hingelock netting, I was forced to get up close and personal to the past.

I’d erected this house fence ten years ago, when I came back to live here. My dream had included a large garden in the midst of the regenerating bush and its abundant — and voracious — wildlife. That required a netting fence. As my partner was already engrossed in his creative and income-earning pursuits — absolutely single-mindedly, as many men can be — I did most of it myself. I dug the holes and tamped around the wooden posts with the head of the crowbar, which isn’t easy to do on your own and still have the heavy posts end up roughly vertical. A fair bit of boomps-a-daisy balancing was needed.

In between the wooden posts I banged in the steel star posts with my wonderful ‘putter-inner’, a heavy iron cylinder, closed at one end, that a friend had welded up for me. The shop ones, called post-drivers, have handles, and I suppose they are all bought by weak women — Real Men use iron mallets that I can barely lift off the ground, let alone above my head.

And I’m no weakling, despite being small. But some jobs don’t only depend on strength. They’re just bloody impossible without the right tool — like my ‘puller-outer’, a shop-bought manual post-lifter, which makes removing star posts and tomato stakes amazingly easy, and which, I suspect, even Real Men might use.

These are the sort of tools I love: dead simple and very effective, requiring neither mechanical knowledge nor great strength, needing no manual, using no fuel, hiding no spark plugs, able to be forgotten and left out in the rain without damage, enabling little me to do heavy work. In fact they’re the sort of old-fashioned items that are usually discontinued nowadays — too simple, too enduring, a one-off purchase that brings no economic and ongoing joy to anyone but the buyer. What a useless thing to keep manufacturing!

Posts all in, my partner strained up several strands of plain wire for me to attach the hingelock to, as I can’t seem to get into my head how to set the chains and teeth of my fence strainer so it works. Or perhaps I’m just scared of the way it bites and snaps and strains almost to breaking point.

Then I unrolled the old hingelock netting, relic of my first dream of a bush life seventeen years previously. My then husband and I had fenced in several large areas for vegetable gardens, since we thought we’d grow fancy foods like globe artichokes and asparagus — and back in the 1970s these were fancy, rarely seen in shops. After the marriage broke up, so did the fences, only more slowly.

I have copies of The Woman on the Mountain which you can buy at a special price here.

Wet school days

Few modern parents would allow their children to take the risks that I frequently did to get to school in weather; well, perhaps they still would in the country…

From The Woman on the Mountain, Chapter 13: Wet and Wild

By the time I was thirteen I was used to our farm creek flooding, when I had to wade barefoot through knee- to thigh-deep water that covered the lower parts of our track and the road to the bus stop, half a mile away. My school shoes and stockings and a little towel were in my Globite school case, balanced on my head with one hand, the other keeping my tunic tucked up into my navy bloomers.

There was first the hurdle of our rickety wooden bridge, which lost at least one of its round logs each flood, the gap hidden beneath milky brown rushing water. It was a matter of inching forward, feeling with my toes for the gap that might drop me through to certain drowning, as the creek was full of bobbing and whirling branches and logs — more than a match for my feeble dogpaddle.

The farmer’s wife at the house next to the bus stop always let me get dressed on her verandah. I’d dry my cold legs and red feet, still tingling from walking on the sharp gravel of the road, and put on my black cotton stockings. Later in this particular flood school morning, I was commanded to the blackboard by the formidable Sister Augustine. I had passed up the aisle between the desks and was halfway across the open space of lino before the blackboard, when Sister’s sharp Irish voice rang out in the slow-rising-then-fast-falling rhythm she used for my name when I was about to get into trouble: ‘Sha-a-a…ryn Munro! What on earth is that?’ pointing at the floor near my feet.

Everybody stared at a trail of dark red spots that led from my desk to where I stood and where the spots were forming a small pool of what appeared to be blood. This blood was coming from somewhere up under my tunic, and given that menstruation was in the offing for all of us, she could have been more tactful. I was so ignorant it didn’t occur to me, or I’d have been even more embarrassed.

I was publicly commanded to go and find out what the trouble was. As I slunk out the door, she called, ‘Well at least there’s nothing the matter with your blood; it’s a lovely rich red!’ (She also taught biology — and geography, as it was a very small school.) In the toilets I rushed to unclip my suspenders and pull down my stockings. Out rolled a fat, gorged leech, its puncture mark on my thigh, just above where the stockings ended, still steadily oozing blood. It must have been there for hours, as it was now nearly eleven o’clock.

On my return I explained what the cause was, which drew not much more than a general ‘Ugh!’ from the class and a ‘Really!’ from my teacher, who gave me a bandaid and sent me to fetch a mop and bucket to clean up the blood. I had the distinct feeling that I had displayed something too basic, peasant-like, for my superior town classmates.

And I still shudder at leeches!

I have copies of The Woman on the Mountain which you can buy at a special price here.

Jail baby

This sketch was intended for Chapter two: ‘Getting out of jail’, of The Woman on the Mountain. We lived here, in a village of 200 people, for 10 years before we went bush; both my children were born while here.

‘It would be hard to imagine a more extreme downsizing to a 3 x 4-metre tent than from the grand complex that locals simply called ‘the old jail’. Built in the late nineteenth century, it encompassed courthouse, police station, three-cell jail and exercise courtyard, plus the residence, with accommodation for a special constable tacked on later. Not to forget the back-to-back outdoor double toilet — the most imposing proverbial ‘brick shithouse’ imaginable.

‘Grand.

‘There was a separate kitchen/dining room building, as was the safety custom in the days of wood-fuelled cooking, linked to the main house by a breezeway. The latter also led to the heavy iron door, complete with spy hatch and massive iron bolt, accessing the jail courtyard, open to the sky except for iron bars, and thence to the cells. These had similar iron doors — creak of rust, clang of finality — no getting out of there.

‘Atmospheric.

‘… A few pot plants and hanging baskets turned the exercise yard into a pleasantly sunny, protected courtyard, accessible also from the lounge room via an iron-barred door.

‘I’d had to promise not to get pregnant until we’d repaid the loan for the total purchase amount of $6000 (truly!) and even that loan was only possible through personal string-pulling by my in-laws. In the 1960s a wife’s income was not taken into account and women could not borrow. The Pill had arrived, but if bank managers knew about it, they weren’t letting on.’

That antique cane pram in which my babies basked in the exercise yard was a family heirloom that I desecrated by painting bright orange. 

‘Here I feel obliged also to confess that I painted a beautiful, borrowed, antique cane bassinet and stand with gloss enamel ‘Aquarius Green’, a rather acidic lime. It was the era of the musical Hair, ‘the dawning of the age of Aquarius’, plus that’s my star sign — but neither seems a worthy excuse in retrospect.’

I have copies of The Woman on the Mountain which you can buy at a special price here.

Mountain moments

When I wrote my first book, The Woman on the Mountain, I originally intended to illustrate it. After all, if Gerald Durrell could have illustrations in books for adults, why couldn’t I? In the end, the book having grown longer, we decided not to use the pen and ink drawings.

I still have scans of them, and as I hate waste, I’ve decided to share some of them with my blog readers, accompanied by relevant extracts from their chapters.

This one was meant for Chapter 3 – ‘Close to the elements’, as we certainly were, living as we did for fifteen months in a small secondhand tent. Except for wet weather, we really only slept there; all the real living space was outside. 

‘Yet despite the extremes dealt by the elements, that first year here, living mainly outdoors, remains the happiest of my life.’

My three-year-old daughter and five-year-old son loved it… and so did I.

‘For dining, under the spreading arms of a white mahogany tree we had set up a card table and canvas director’s chairs, with holes dug in the ground for the uphill chair legs so diners didn’t roll down the slope when eating, as several unwary visitors had done. As they were a little tipsy at the time, they rolled easily and didn’t hurt themselves, although the sight was so funny that the sides of the callous and equally tipsy spectators ached for some time.

‘Our chosen clearing had appeared to be a gentle slope but actually was relentlessly unflat, as each small area that needed to be level soon proved. Everywhere involved walking uphill, to or from, and we got very fit, especially carrying buckets of water up the steep incline from the spring. That was excellent for deportment too; only my straightest back would keep the buckets from bumping into the slope ahead and spilling.

‘My cooktop was an old fridge rack balanced on four rocks, my cooking equipment was disposal store cast iron — camp oven, frying pan and saucepan — and one heavy soup pot. From our Merriwa camping weekends I’d developed quite a collection of recipes for one-pot or one-pan dishes. For those weekends I used to cheat a little to compensate for the absence of bench space, like making the dough and rolling the balls for chapatis at home, in which form they’d happily sit until I was ready to flatten them and cook over the fire to accompany the Saturday night curry. Now I had the luxury of the card table as a bench.

‘The camp oven, buried in hot ashes and coals, worked well, but I could only bake one thing at a time in it. We bought a rusty fuel stove for $10 and set it up close to the big tree above the ‘kitchen’.

‘The first time I used it I wrote (in my diary): 

Took a long time for oven to heat up but finally cooked pitta, pumpkin pie and two veg. strudels in it. Flue melted its joins and blew off.

‘Here’s another baking morning.

Lit fuel stove — baked cookies first, then two loaves bread, then prune loaf, then Rieska [quick rye bread for lunch]. Used top to warm yoghurt, de-candy honey, cook chickpeas, etc. All done by 12.30. We got sand and rocks for last trench. Finished that by evening.

‘Was that me, that so-organised, energetic young woman? Where did she go?’

I have copies of The Woman on the Mountain which you can buy at a special price here.

Book boom

Things are snowballing with the Rich Land, Wasteland coal book. One amazing lady has just bought 100 books to send to politicians whom she feels simply must read it to know what they are doing to us.

Bacchus Marsh and Inverloch here in Victoria are yet more unthinkable regions for mining/gas to be proposed.

When I get back from Victoria, I’m heading over to the mid-north coast for several talks before nipping down to Parramatta. Maybe some of you can make one, so just in case here are the details:

?Wednesday 27 June
Gloucester? 7pm Senior Citizens Centre
?30 Hume Street
Contact: Email Di Montague

??Thursday 28 June
Kendall—Laurieton?
5.30pm Laurieton Library
Contact: Kate Forrest, Librarian (02) 6581 8177 or email?

Friday 29 June
Kempsey
?4.30pm Kempsey Library
Contact: Alison Pope (02) 6566 3210 or email

??Tuesday 3 July
Taree
?1-2pm Taree Library
Contact: Margie Wallis (02) 6592 5291 or email

and ??6-7pm Taree Library

??Wednesday 4 July
Parramatta?
5-7pm Parramatta Library
Contact: Yan Zhang (02) 9806 5157 or email?

Hornsby talk

For interested Sydneysiders, I’m speaking at Hornsby Library at 10 am on Friday 8th June. Phone (02) 9847 6904 for details.

Having spoken there for each of my other books, I know it’s always a good event, with keen readers and a lively Q & A after the talk.

Novella Fine Books from Wahroonga will be there with books to sell — and be signed!

Eltham event

After winning the Alan Marshall Short Story Award in 2002 I spent three months at an historic and extremely atmospheric mud brick house, ‘Birrarung’, near Eltham.

This was a writers’ residency courtesy of Parks Victoria and Nillumbik Shire. It became a chapter in my first book, The Woman on the Mountain.

So I have a special spot for Eltham and Meera’s terrific Eltham Bookshop, and have spoken down there several times.

If you’re in the region, come and meet me on Sunday afternoon, June 10th, 3:00—4:30pm at Edendale Farm, Gastons Lane, Eltham.

Bookings are essential: Call (03) 9439 8700 or email Eltham Bookshop. Refreshments are included in the $5.00 entry.

Find your way to Edendale Farm by checking Eltham Bookshop on Facebook.

Friday 13th: a black and white day

Last Friday I collected a special parcel at the post office: my copies of the new book!

After two years, it’s reality, quite a hefty reality at 453 pages, but that includes the many references. It’s half as many words again as my first book, and in a larger format.

The cover looks great, and despite the size, the pages flip easily. So a great production job by Macmillan, following on from Exisle.

Both teams are working hard to promote it, as they are right behind the need for Australians to know of the urgency and gravity of this issue.

I think maybe at last I do feel proud of it, as people keep telling me I should; until now I’ve just been relieved to have survived to finish it! Cathy Smith took the photo.

I understand from Exisle that copies are already being sent to those who pre-ordered online.

I possibly need to explain that I don’t have (or own) the books myself so I can’t sign them, but bring them along to any talk I give near you and I’ll write in them for you. 

So that was the white side of the day.

At 11 am I had to be at a rally outside Singleton Civic Centre, where a public forum was to be held on the Coalition’s  Strategic Regional Land Use Plan. About 300 people were there, bearing signs expressing their concerns and their wishes, like ‘AGL go to hell!’  Merriwa, Putty, Bunnan, Bylong, Bulga, Jerrys Plains, Gloucester… all fighting for their futures.

Nobody was happy about the quite insultingly glib ‘plan’ which broke just about every promise made before the election.

That became anger and frustration in the actual forum as Planning Minister Hazzard in particular seemed to dismiss so many concerns in a manner that to me seemed quite patronising.

Apparently he can’t exclude or ‘ringfence’ areas from mining or drilling because they could be changed at a whim later; why not do it anyway, as Murray Armstrong asked, while they get their plan finalised. And why, I ask, can’t they legislate so they’re not subject to whims?

It would appear that obvious defects in the mapping were news to him: like no mention of a viticulture industry cluster for Upper Hunter wineries; almost nothing worth protecting, so needing to go through the ‘Gateway’ process, in the Gloucester Valley, nor on the cropping and grazing lands of Merriwa.  It seemed like deliberate sacrifices of some areas had been made to coal and gas.

Farmers and residents stressed that Cabinet needed to realise this that was a matter of survival, to be aware of the ‘mental anguish’ of people forced into this daily battle against coal and CSG, and the critical importance of surface and groundwater to farmers. If they don’t, who knows where will it lead? 

The feeling was that Planning was looking after the mining companies; there was no confidence in ‘answers’ given to the limited number of questions able to be fitted in. Surely more than two hours could have been allowed?

But would they listen anyway?

Everyone needs to have their say officially by making a submission by May 3rd. 

If possible, join the rally on May 1 in Sydney: see the NSW Farmers website or call 02 8251 1700.
 
Submissions can be lodged online, by email or by post to
Director, Strategic Regional Policy,
Department of Planning and Infrastructure,
GPO Box 39
SYDNEY NSW 2001

Visit the Rich Land, Wasteland Facebook page

My new book

At last I can tell everyone what I have been working on for the last two years, monopolising my mind and my heart, and near breaking both at times.

My new book, Rich Land, Wasteland — how coal is killing Australia, will be in bookshops at the start of May, a joint publishing venture by Pan Macmillan Australia and Exisle Publishing.

I knew the Hunter had been — is being — trashed by coal, and the wishes and wellbeing of its residents apparently treated with contempt by both corporate coal and government. Was this unique or could it possibly this bad elsewhere?

To find out, in 2010 I took my tape recorder and travelled to other coal areas around Australia  — a black road trip in more ways than one.

What I found nationwide shocked me with its scale and scope and speed — and the awful human toll from the frenzied push for profits by the coal and CSG industries.

This was an industrial invasion — ‘a taking over of land and a clearing out of people’ — and it was by mainly foreign forces, with full government support via their loose and biased laws and processes — at best.

In the face of all the spin from industries with bottomless pockets and from gormless governments, I wanted ordinary Australians to know what was happening to their country and their countrymen behind their backs — in the confidence that they will say ‘This is not the Australia we want to be’ when they do.

Food and water security, health and social structure, precious natural resources and places, both environmental and agricultural, were being taken away from us and from future generations — and nobody apart from those immediately impacted knew much about it.

And, tied up and worn down with their specific local battles, nobody knew the full national picture.

Read moreMy new book