Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Various seasons for feeling the passing of time

Seasons – and my reaction to them – have always been marked. Heat, the smell of the beach, rain, summer storms, biting cold and stronger mountain winter winds are as clear today when I close my eyes as they were before I turned 11.

Each affected me differently. Some wrapped me securely against the world. Others exposed me without hesitation. And at least one – while emotionally secure – lead to acute embarrassment among my peers. As a child, I found the various seasons and weather conditions elicited radically different emotional responses, most positive . . .


Summer nearly always meant weekend bus rides to one of our favourite family beaches. Austinmer to the north, and North Beach, Wollongong, to the south (the latter because it was only a short child’s walk from Nana and Grandfather Heininger’s house in Campbell Street). Sometimes we’d only walk as far as the Continental Baths near North Beach . . . We’d cart our swimming gear, towels and Eskies on and off the Hills and Dion buses early in the morning, and keep growing enthusiasm in check until we reached our destination. I never knew it for years, but Mum would have preferred the convenience of our own car. Most other families had their own cars by the early 1960s, but Dad said he could not see the need. To him they were an expense we’d be better off without. Mum, on the other hand, always thought in terms of convenience. Public transport also dictated regimentation. We went where the buses - and trains - went, when they went.

Buses in summer always seemed to have sand on their floors. There was always this faint tang of dried kelp weed, and we kids would enjoy opening the sliding bus windows right up to feel the breezes feather out faces. Salt air mixed with a hint of diesel fumes spelt 'beach days'. We usually wore rubber flip-flops on these trips, and I enjoyed slipping them off and rubbing my bare soles softly across the tarred floor, rolling the balls of my feet accross the minute particles of rolling gold sand. As we traveled closer to, say, Austinmer, as the bus slowly laboured up Kennedy Hill between Thirroul and Austinmer Beach, I’d become acutely aware of the balmy salt aroma I always associated with a lazy beach day. The kelp aroma would hover more sharply in my nostrils as we drifted down the other side of the same hill, towards the beach.

The ritual was nearly always the same. We’d clamber off on the corner of Lawrence Hargrave Drive and Moore Street, and watch the orange or blue bus (depending on the line) slowly trundle up Moore, cutting a swathe through the thick honeysuckle and frangipani-scented late morning air roaring with cicadas and beach summer insects, to where it would terminate outside Austinmer railway station. We’d then scuttle across Hargrave, towels draped around necks, and hanging onto carry bags, swimming mats and the Esky, and find a comfortable all-day position on the grassed section above Austinmer Beach. One that gave us a panoramic view of the entire beach, the small headland at its northern end, and the two ocean baths carved from the living rock and sculpted from rough industrial concrete at its southern end. Mum and Dad would spread the beach blanket, pinning it with the Esky, towels and anything else at hand. And we kids would strip down to swimmers like lightning, and dash to the pools. If the tide was high and the swell strong – which it often seemed to be in my childhood – we’d experience the added bonus of standing at the rear wall of the longer pool, to be swamped by waves rolling across its shell encrusted and weed covered bulk. These waves, if high and strong enough, would surge relentlessly the entire length of the pool, and empty out over the low back wall. The floors of these pools, covered with sand, were always soft underfoot. And pushing through the water forced my toes through this sand in sensual surges.

If I wasn’t careful on these hot, cicada-droning days, I’d burn to a crisp. Many kids turned nut brown in Summer. I burned sore and red. I often wore a hat above a sticky zinc nose, but it never stopped my freckles growing larger and joining together in a summer sun-induced mass as December rolled into January, rolled into early February. And as the days seemed to drag longer . . .

After lunch, and obligatory 20-minute wait for food to settle, my brother, sister and I would scarper down to the sand, and smash into cool summer waves between the red and yellow bathing flags. Then we’d scarper just as quickly out after some unspecified period, to flop in the hot sand and feel the sun caress our salty backs and matted hair. Sand would cake to arms, calves, hands and toes. The only way to rid ourselves was to dive yet again into the chilled waves.

Yet no matter how hard we tried to wash the sand off our lower legs, enough of the golden grains and the microscopic bits of coal dust that exist on all Illawarra beaches would stick to the back of our legs and drift to the floor of the bus on our return to Corrimal. Our sand would combine with that of dozens of other kids traveling to and from the various beaches along the coast each summer, and would remain in place unil the last depot brooming, just before winter, removed the final grains.

Sometimes our beach trips were cut short by the appearance over the steep escarpment of huge, brilliantly white and fluffy storm clouds. I soon realised that if we spotted these Cumulus monsters surging over the mountain at, say, 3pm, we’d feel the full force of a brief summer storm within two hours.

Sometimes we’d arrive back in Collins Street with barely 30 minutes to spare. We’d open all doors and most windows in the house to allow as much of the stifling, still heat as possible to escape, then wait for the Southerly Buster to roar through. As windows and doors slammed and bashed shut throughout the house in protest to its arrival, the temperature would plummet, leaving me enveloped in the day’s thick, residual heat. The clouds would roll overhead, glooming out the sunlight. Summer thunder would roll across what was left of the afternoon. And more often than not, rain drops the size of bread-and-butter plates would slam onto our corrugated steel roof, and sizzle on the hot paths around the house. The smell of quenching summer lawns and concrete garden paths was overwhelming.

And if my sunburn lingered into the evening, the heat rising as the day cooled, Mum would liberally apply brown vinegar across by back, and shoulders, and across the top of the back of my legs. It always worked, and I would always drop into a deep, well-earned summer night’s sleep. It this was on a Saturday, we’d often back up the following day to repeat the process – often at the other end of the coast.

When Mum and Dad finally did get their first car, we ventured slightly further afield. Another favourite swimming spot became Port Kembla baths, because it had two diving boards, off which we’d delight in spending an afternoon springing into the deep, clean sea water pumped up from the beach below.

And while we traveled as far afield as Shellharbour and Kiama on the odd occasion, Austinmer remained a perennial favourite.


I’ve always enjoyed the cocooning of rainy days, despite Mum consistently embarrassing me on wet primary school day mornings. She’d insist we kids walk to school bare-footed, socks and school shoes wrapped neatly in a small towels deep in our Globite school bags.

I always felt poor when not wearing shoes to school - despite hardly ever wearing them around home in spring and summer. And I always felt naked when I arrived at school, in the steamy classrioom, and rushed to wipe my feet dry and get those socks and shoes on my feet before anyone noticed, wise cracked or laughed. But no one ever did . . . Looking back more than 40 years, I now marvel at Mum's practicality. I always had warm dry feet, while almost all my school mates almost always had wet feet, socks and shoes most of those wet days. And they’d also be cold in winter. And I can remember the cloying smell of damp shoe leather in my 1st Class demountable room, jammed hard up against the Nuns’ house.

I still clearly conjure one late summer afternoon, in 3rd Class, during which the sky turned an eerie, iridescent mauve, brightened momentarily by bright lightning strikes slamming into the escarpment bushland to the west of our classroom, itself on the first floor of the then new wing of St Columbkille’s Catholic School, high on Corrimal hill. These strikes were punctuated by loud claps and not-so-loud rolls of accompanying thunder. I can still see the chickens in the neat hand-made backyard run on the opposite side of the gravel lane behind our school flapping about urgently with each clap. Looking for solace in their equally hand-made coops. Old car tyres kept the chicken wire covering these coops in place against storms such as these. And I can still see the slow-marching sheet of heavy rain making its way from Tarrawarra in the south west to be pelting against our aluminium-framed classroom hopper windows in a matter of seconds. The lightning flashing the prematurely gloomy afternoon to near mid-day clarity, while heavy rain relentlessly moved to close the gap back to darkness.

This afternoon, we were practicing
Tarantella, a poem I'd later learn was written by Hilaire Belloc, who died in 1953, the year before I was born . . .

Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading of the straw for a bedding.
And the fleas that tease in the high Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of the tar?
. . . And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
Who hadn’t got a penny,
And who weren’t paying any
And the hammer at the doors and the Din
And the Hip! Hop! Hap!
Of the clap
Of the hands to the twirl and the swirl
Of the girl gone chancing . . .

We believed we stood an excellent chance of winning the Illawarra Catholic schools’ eisteddfod in Wollongong in several weeks, and as the lightning ripped the sky open to let through blinding nanosecond super-white light, the thin hands and wrists of my equally slight classmate conductor Marion Jordan swayed, and marked time, and maintained tempo. As the rain drummed rhythmically against the windows. The classroom air was still warm and delightfully cosy against the world outside. I can still make out the blue veins in the frail backs of Marion Jordan's hands.

Within the hour, I was walking through this swirling world, bare foot, down Wilga Street towards home, through the same driving rain. Splashing through the dozens of tiny rivulets of rain run-off from the tar strip running down the middle of the street, warm under my head-to-toe rainwear as my bare feet splashed through the rutted sharp gravel of Wilga Street's shoulders. The thunder had rolled further up the coast, but I was thrilling to the sense of secure confinement beneath my raincoat, and considering with awe the colour of clouds and sky enveloping Brokers Nose on the escarpment above Tarrawanna. The air was still electric, with the loose hairs floating against the back of my neck. And I was looking forward to the cosy warmth of home once I arrived there.

Later that same year, on the early summer Saturday closest to my 9th birthday, it pelted down again. Mum and Dad had elected to stage a party for me at home, and while I was excited about the party, I was thrilled to see the rain. My one strong memory of the day was seeing my friend, Tony Allan, holding onto a large, wet present and onto his Mum, who was struggling to hold her umbrella above them both, labouring up our side path in the drenching mess of it all. Mum and Dad remained unflapped. With the rain pounding steadily on the iron of our back verandah, Dad had assembled our O Guage Hornby tinplate wind-up train set in anticipation of us kids wanting to play.

Today, there’s nothing more secure than the sound of rain drumming on a steel roof, as I’m curled with a book or magazine, not expected to be anywhere because of the prevailing conditions . . .


I almost always associated cold as a child with winter holidays at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. Initially, we travelled there by train – stainless steel electric trains being another exotic adventure treat I’d only associate with the Blue Mountains, and the cold of winter.

In later years, when we owned a car and drove, the distance between home and the mountains shrank dramatically in my mind.

Mountain cold was different from coastal cold. It bit deeper, without humidity. It never seeped. Not like the bitterly liquid pre-dawn cold I once experienced on the banks of Mullet Creek, impatiently waiting for sluggish fish to grab Dad’s baited line . . .

Our Katoomba experiences alternated between weekly stays in rambling time-beaten guest houses with fading names like Craig-ee-Lee, and weekly stays in ubiquitous holiday lettings controlled by Katoomba’s all-pervading Soper Bros Real Estate company. Street names like Lurline, Katoomba, Lovel, Lilianfels and Echo Point Road underscored the ostensibly alien mountain experience. They were mountain names only, never seen or heard of down on the coast or west on the plains. These names were first cousins of things like Mountain Devils, a particularly large native shrub seed that looked like the Devil’s head when its ‘horns’ dried and split. You’d see these heads mounted on red pipe cleaners in shop windows the length and breadth of the Blue Mountains . . .

The Blue Mountains were ours; none of my friends ever seemed to holiday there, which made them ever more special.

Bare trees, cobalt blue skies and crisp air you could carve with blunt knives were all part of any Katoomba August in my childhood. Or a Leura August. Or a Blackheath August. If it rained, the drops were liquid ice against our faces and the backs of our hands. And our small finger tips were always pink and throbbing. But it rarely rained, and even more rarely snowed during any of our childhood holidays to the Blue Mountains. Sometimes it was thick cotton wool fog, so thick and mysterious every sound was muffled. Traffic would stop, birds would silence themselves, and I could swear I could hear fog dripping against cold hard surfaces. Crossing streets was potentially lethal – if drivers were mad enough to venture out into this wet wool. Only the cross mountain trains kept to their timetables, the bright headlamps of electric locos and trainsets reduced to a golden glow visible for perhaps 100m.

More usually, though, winter in the mountains was deep, deep cobalt blue skies, with pure white clouds punching juxtaposed holes in their eternal blue depths . . .

And if we strayed into September, there were equally bitter westerly winds that combed every spindly gum tree on every cliff ridge on every valley rim. First one way. Then another. Before returning to the prevailing bowing and scraping and jostling to the east. We found it hard to walk in the wind, often bending to regain balance against nature. The wind roar would climb steadily, then subside. Then climb steadily again, deeper and more terrible and tearing than before. The stringy trees would flagellate each other in concert.

Crisp Katoomba days – and even crisper nights – were ideal for steaming, battered potato scallops wrapped in white butcher’s paper. Or equally steaming rough-cut, shop-made fried potato chips wrapped in the same paper. We’d buy these always at the fish and chip café at the bottom of Katoomba Street, before rambling up one side of the steep main street of town, past the fast-fading Carrington Hotel (once a swish between-the-Wars and post-War haven for fun lovin’ between young people staring down the barrel of pre-birth control heterosexual commitment). We’d then cross at the top, sometimes in time to see lengthy electric-hauled freight trains gliding effortlessly in or out of Katoomba station, before descending the opposite side. Usually not stopping again until we reached our guest house or top-floor holiday flat. As our fingers burrowed into these wrappers, they’d burn against the salty, deep fried potato buried deep inside.

Other days, Mum and Dad would walk us in other directions, often past playgrounds with delightful equipment, on which my sister, brother and I would indulge ourselves for seeming hours, playing out fantasies and games until the equipment steel became too cold to bare against tiny exposed fingers. Mum and Dad would sit close to each other on a nearby bench, discussing secret parent things, occasionally laughing at something they were sharing.

In those days, I had absolutely no sense of vertigo either, which meant Mum and Dad could take us on wonderfully long adventure walks, soething we only ever did in the Blue Mountains. Several times we’d descend more than 1000m deep into Jameson Valley beneath Katoomba, clinging precariously to the narrow, steep track and seemingly endless staircase carved out of the living cliff on the Three Sisters’ eastern face. The one furthest from Echo Point Lookout, named after the young Queen Elizabeth when she stared over the edge, deep into the valley below, just before I was born. We’d descend in Indian file, clinging onto the perishing steel rope hand ‘rail’, eventually finding ourselves gathered on the valley floor, far below the towering tree crowns we’d just descended through. Then we’d hike west along the Federal Pass walking track to the foot of the so-called Scenic Railway. There’d be time to explore the century-old, barred-up coal mines further to the west of Bottom Station, along a fecund, fern-studded and dripping shale ledge, before clambering onto one of the two caged-in carriages for the near vertical haul to the valley rim.

My feet by now would be throbbing, and I’d have to apply all my strength pushing against the bar in front of me as the cars ascended. By the time we'd enter the tunnel near the top, it always felt that if I let go, I’d plunge vertically over the people ahead of me, only to be trapped from falling further by the cage wrapping the front, top and one side of the cars. I never once doubted the operators’ claim that Katoomba’s Scenic Railway was the world’s steepest railway.

I remember once asking Dad, as we were being hauled backwards up the increasingly steep valley wall, as Bottom Station and more people gathering on its timber platforms quickly receded into dot form far below us, if there’d ever been an accident on the Scenic Railway. He laughed and said no. But if there ever was, we’d have nothing to worry about. If the steel ropes winding us up and down ever broke, we’d always get our money back, he said. I laughed, but wondered why. It wasn't funny.

We’d also catch local buses to further scenic spots further from Katoomba – out to Govett’s Leap Lookout at Blackheath, overlooking the equally daunting and deep Grose Valley, to Wentworth Falls further to the east, and closer to the Leura Cascades. Sometimes we’d only picnic and return. Other times we’d take our picnic and descend and ascend equally harrowing pathways and weathered out steps cut into near vertical valley cliff walls.

And on the slow, bumpy return trip to Katoomba, we’d often be the only people on the bus.


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