Barefoot, toes digging into brown dirt, I survey the old tin milking shed and cobbled-together chook yards … all empty now. Large white turkey feathers have gathered along the fence line, and curl over like small waves, ruffling in the breeze. I look over to where dad kept his dog. Gone. Then down the hill: the sheep yards dismantled and taken away the day before. Swiping at flies, I reach up and snap a few leaves off a gum tree, rub them between my fingertips, breathe them in. Clutching them to my chest I weave round mum’s roses rallying against the heat of a January morning, then grevillea, bottlebrush, native hibiscus, spindly trees until I am through the gate and looking over these hills for the last time.
I savour it: the old windmill still playing up, the rock piles dotted everywhere and, further out, the ‘cyclone house’ destroyed in a storm thirty years before.
My eyes are stinging, and I am snivelling. I crush the leaves, let them fall.
In the past week, we have boxed up Tupperware, ornaments, old photos, linen. We have donated stuff to local charities, taken load after load to the tip. I’ve had my last shower in the bathroom we hate (too small for three daughters, no bath, who chooses pink poodle feature tiles anyway?). I’ve gently cleaned grubby marks off my old bedroom wall like I might wash the body of a loved one.
My daughters will be wondering where I am, and we have a long drive ahead of us, but still I linger. The sky is muted, cloudless. Pink and grey galahs wheel out of the big gum tree and come reeling toward me, screeching as they dip then pass overhead. The cavalier. Then I am seeing a neighbour’s pet calf as it lies bloated in our well, our own baby bull gasping for air beside it. Dad pulling a lamb stuck inside its mother, the parties on the front deck, the last time my grandparents had visited before they went into care, the A-Frame house of our neighbours … their son … tragically killed last year. And now I’m howling. Nose streaming, hands wiping at flies and tears and snot. Crying. For all the stories of this place; that when we go, these stories go too. For without the creek line, or the well, the hills, will we remember?
My novel, Bloodlines, is an ode to two places that hold great significance for me: a small town on the edge of Western Australia’s wheat belt and an island in Papua New Guinea. Toodyay, the town where I grew up and, more so, the farm where we lived have always ‘held’ me in some way. I felt the tug of home when I lived in England and Queensland, travelling to Timbuktu (where a line of gum trees in the Sahara brought me to my knees with longing). Even now, though I have a family of my own and live almost six hours south, I still refer to the farm as ‘home.’ I knew what I was doing when I wrote the Australian scenes for Bloodlines: I was paying homage to place, and to my childhood. How curious that within months of this novel being finished, my childhood farm is sold, and my parents leave the district.
The intersection of memory and creativity intrigue me – how the lived experience of a place might inform our creative work; how we can re-fashion, embellish, polish something drawn from real life. When writing Bloodlines, I enjoyed tinkering with our ‘real’ farm – for my character Clem’s farm is not my childhood farm per se. Clem’s house is a brick and corrugated iron homestead not an asbestos jinker home like ours – his is the house mum would have loved! The yard is different, the neighbours’ places are too. But even so, the feel of Clem’s farm, and of Hope Valley, mirror the feelings I have for my childhood home. Through Clem’s daughter, Beth, I explore some of the complexities of belonging and connection to a particular place; how we might long for it, yet also spurn it, hate it. The push and pull of place. Writing about somewhere so significant, of course, risks a setting being laden with nostalgia and when crafting my novel I was ever-wary of being sentimental. For me, using gritty detail and visceral imagery, and the process of drafting and re-drafting (over many weeks, months, even years) have helped. I can only hope I have been successful.
A shout from the house. A car horn tooting. My girls are waiting. I scan the yellowing stubble and the blue hills behind town one last time, take in big lungfuls of dust and red gum, turn and head for home.
(Images by Chris Gurney, Jessica Edgar.)
Nicole_Sinclair’s short fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the Review of Australian Fiction, Westerly, indigo Journal and Award Winning Australian Writing, and also forms part of the artworks along Busselton Jetty. Her short stories have won the Katharine Susannah Prichard Short Fiction Award and the Down South Writers Competition. Nicole has lived and worked in Papua New Guinea and now lives in the south-west of Western Australia with her husband and two (very young) daughters. Her first novel, Bloodlines, was shortlisted for the 2014 T.A.G. Hungerford Award, and will be published by Margaret River Press in March, 2017.