(A note re. collapsed technology: there is zero signal out at the farm, so while I am writing the posts into a Word doc there, I am uploading them during sporadic trips to the Coolah township… so if I am an unreliable presence here and on my friends’ blogs for the time being, you know why!)
In commencing this, what I mean to continue throughout as the Touring Toddler series, I’ll begin by qualifying something I wrote yesterday: that I feared there was nothing to do out here. I wasn’t referring to any lack on my own part – a week of reading and writing in the country frankly sounds like fucking bliss – but on Master J’s. You see, our Touring Toddler is a very busy little body, and he’s a sociable little man too, so as I stood on the front step of what was once the modest home of Llew’s dearly departed grandparents, looking out at the electric and barbed fences separating the farm’s paddocks, I feared he (and therefore we) would struggle out here.
I needn’t have worried; he absolutely loves it. Be that as it may, the potential hazards for our Touring Toddler are real. On the way into town yesterday for supplies (a lazy half hour drive at 100 kms all the way), we passed three red-bellied black snakes, two of them very much alive and slithering. They were sunning themselves on the warm bitumen road, displaying adequate street smarts to negotiate the rare passing car with just enough movement to keep themselves out of tummy-flattening trouble. Add to that the fact that B, Llew’s uncle, had a brown snake in his house (just across the back garden from this one) late last year and you’ve given this soft-touch a bit of a jump-start. What would I do if the Touring Toddler and I were home alone and a brown snake came a-calling…? All comic histrionics aside, they are seriously dangerous reptiles, and it was not reassuring when B told me he called the appropriate authorities to come help him and absolutely nobody responded. Brilliant. I’d be such a fantastic snake-wrangler in those circumstances I’m sure I’d have absolutely no need of emergency assistance whatsoever. No, I’d just calmly secure Master J and talk the snake into a sack and everything would be apples. Sure thing.
The Touring Toddler’s hazard #2: there are spiders everywhere. That long-ago lesson of beating your shoes upside-down before putting them on (something I think every Australian child has drilled into them at some point) has real practical application here. In fact, Llew just this second came up to my chair and said, “Shoes. [the Touring Toddler’s] shoes, your shoes – always check them first.”
Needless to say, I already do. Loads of people love spiders and snakes – no, really, they do – but personally I prefer to maintain a respectful, petrified distance at all times. In this, I’d like my son to follow my lead at least until he is old enough to make up his own mind, but ideally until I’m no longer around to worry about him.
The Touring Toddler’s hazard #3: in a compositional pause just now, I glanced outside just in time to see a large hornet cruising past, looking like it was loaded up and on its way back to one of the many nests currently built up under the eaves of the house. Perfect. Good to know they’re active nests, then.
The Touring Toddler’s hazard #4: whatever it is that’s currently feasting on his sweet plump flesh. The juicy mosquito bite by his left ear was one thing, but now there are angry red welts all over his legs: large, swollen, and hard to the touch. When we asked B and his wife P about them at breakfast this morning, their guess was something in the grass. I think the word “midges” was used. What the hell is a midge, anyway, and how do we protect him against them?
The Touring Toddler’s hazard #5: rusty, sharp-edged, broken farming and domestic equipment. A treasure trove, to be sure, but a tetanus trap too. Abandoned fridges, old outhouses and cold fire pits: the list goes on. And have I mentioned the fences? You can turn off an electric fence, sure, but last time I checked barbed wire is still permanently live in its potential to do harm. Naturally the Touring Toddler routinely races toward different sections of fence – we are clearly born with an innate understanding of this game – and catching him has been a bloody close call a couple of times already.
The Touring Toddler’s hazard #6: holes in the ground. Random, unexpected, occasionally weirdly deep holes in the ground: they abound. And in the other direction, anthills. Bull ants are angry buggers.
And finally, hazard #7: water. Water pools in unpredictable places out here, it may conceal something dangerous underneath, and it is an irresistible lure to the Touring Toddler. P told me at breakfast this morning that a child nearly drowned in a couple of inches of water at her son C’s first birthday over 30 years ago. Eight parents were standing around the kiddy pool that day, and as P assured me that she, B and Llew were all watching him (he was directly behind me), the Touring Toddler was at that very moment determinedly circumnavigating the selfsame pool, now fallen into disrepair. Now they use an aboveground pool by the side of the house; the Touring Toddler made that particular discovery this morning, and both Llew and I have already had to drag him away from all that it promises. Ordinarily I’d be only too happy to take him in for a swim, and I feel cruel denying him, but if you could see the snot we’re each still producing… well, let’s just say slugs and snails have nothing on these trails.
Preliminary disclosure: I am a city cliché in the country. Everything I am about to say probably attests to this fact, but I still want to make the point that I do know how – ahem – green I am in the country.
So. Le Grand Tour has begun, admittedly in the most unexpected places. In the month since I last posted, it’s fair to say we’ve had a hell of a time. Actually getting out the door turned out to be a huge, unrelenting, laborious undertaking, so much so that we’ve left Sydney without saying goodbye to practically anyone, including close family and friends. Depleted doesn’t really capture the prevailing mood by Moving Day. All this really deserves its own post, and I hope to get the chance soon to write one, but right now we’re at Llew’s uncle’s farm, Kerang, outside Coolah, and I find I must first tell you about that.
I’ve just returned from my first run since Palm Beach, where Llew and I both took shameless advantage of the presence of Master J’s grandparents by going for nice long runs each of the two mornings we spent there decompressing. Since then we’ve spent two nights in Tenambit, near Maitland, staying with friends, and another in Merriwa (pronounced merry-war, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one) at the carefully restored and wonderfully welcoming B & B on Bettington, run by the indefatigable team of Pam and Pete. More on both stays later – for now I want to talk about the run.
I just ran on a sealed road for 40 solid minutes – the main road in these parts, between Coolah and Neil Rex – and was passed by ONE vehicle. One. A single car: white 4WD obviously, as they are practically compulsory once you cross the Hawkesbury River. And while part of me definitely appreciates the profound change of conditions, there’s always another response too whenever I’m in the country, and it’s the one that feeds my fundamental unease. I completely understand how those pink-skinned wives of early settlers, fresh off the boat from London or some other crowded English city, must have recoiled in horror upon being delivered to the dusty isolation of the Australian bush. While I am more than capable of looking around all these vast open spaces, taking a deep breath and happily surrendering to the awe-inspiring scale of the landscape – it’s an inevitable part of one’s response, I think – for me there’s always a flipside. The magnitude of silence – though of course it’s never silent; I mean more the absence – becomes vaguely menacing to me. In the absence of more vehicles – as in more people – that single 4WD seemed potentially threatening.
‘Who would hear me scream?’ I asked myself as the car thundered past.
That kind of warped thinking is absolutely typical of my country paranoia. Where other people find peace and tranquility, I silently calculate all the many ways I might die out here. Long grass is a very fine thing in the country – it means there’s been rain, and it means there’s plenty of food for the animals – but I still get jumpy whenever there’s too much long grass and too few people in the area available to search it. ‘They’d never find me,’ I think. Yep. There it is again.
In my defence, I am not the only one who’s nervous out here. Cows grazing along one of the roadside fences thunderously bolted at the mere sight of my running by. Sheep in the next field looked up at the sound of my approach, stared dumbly at this inexplicable sight and then ran off, en masse, in the opposite direction. Galahs and cockatoos screeched warnings down the line of trees, with the occasional noisy takeoff signalling a herald’s departure to deliver the message further afield. A desultory eagle soared overhead then vanished, its abrupt disappearance disconcerting in the open skies. Along the roadside, creatures unseen kept rustling leaves; everything out here as skittish as me.
The air out here is completely different to Sydney’s humidity. The heat is so dry it rasps at the back of my throat. Suddenly copious snot blows thick and green into the many balled tissues I have accumulated since we first left Sydney. Unfortunately I think Master J has inherited my sinuses – right now he too is little more than a headful of brilliant lime mucus. I thrive in tropical heat; here my breathing labours and I begin to feel the tightness asthmatics must live with every day. My sense of being out of place here is acute.
And yet its charms are many, and I find my first reaction of yesterday afternoon – sour dismay at the thought of a Whole Entire Week Out Here with Absolutely Nothing to Do – has already entirely receded. It is peaceful. And while I was solely responsible for shattering the silence last night – when flushing the toilet dislodged two frogs, one of them gigantic, who suddenly slid into the bowl from their hiding place under the rim with a fat sloppy splash I won’t soon forget – the calm stillness has been all but unbroken since, and I find it begins to calm and still me too, as the country casts its spell over my reluctant city self.