I've been reading a lot about poverty and health, and poverty and disability. It seems that poorer you are the poorer your health, and the higher the likelihood of developing a disability. In many ways it's a no-brainer, but it does seem to be an aspect of health that is largely overlooked by the medical community and frequently a taboo topic in our society as a whole. The more I read, the more I wonder how much my childhood has contributed to my current health issues. The more I read, the more I think about those early years and am forced to process my memories with a more measured eye that only comes with age.
Canned Heinz spaghetti was a staple, alongside overly processed white bread, Vegemite sandwiches and glasses of Tang that never quite dissolved. Cream and jam on fresh white bread was a special treat that part of me still hankers for. Many a morning it was poached eggs in the old aluminium poaching pot that had belonged to a grandfather I have never met. A can of Leggos spaghetti sauce on some over-cooked pasta, was a treat reserved for birthdays. Times were that we didn't even have money for cordial or jam. We were poor, although I don't think it fully registered exactly what that meant in my child's brain. My child self was more aware that I couldn't have the things I wanted, rather than we might be struggling to have a roof over our head. I recoil as I recall some of the tantrums and words hurled at my mother when I couldn't go on school camp, or was forced to wear hand-me-downs on Free Dress Day. An unbearable indignity to my teenage self, and fodder served up on a silver platter for the mean girls at my local high school. The ignorance and self-centeredness of youth, shelters you from much of the harsh realities of the world.
I think of my childhood as having two parts. The first 10 years were blissful ignorance for the most part. Trampolines, princess beds and way too much pink. There were moments that jarred in those early years, but they were quickly over-written by bubblegum Paddle Pops and Big M hula hoops. Then there were the years after, when life took a sudden and sharp veer to the left. My parents went their separate ways. My father to the city, my mother, brother, sister and I made our way out of town to an isolated and dusty old farmhouse, surrounded be mile upon mile of farmland. Soon it was down to two, my mother and I, negotiating a new world order for which we were both ill equipped.
When I was 10, our home, our car, our dreams, were swallowed up by the TAB, VB and the smell of old Peter Stuyvesant's. Even now, I have to resist the temptation to hurl abuse at Tom Waterhouse's commercials as they are played on the TV. Gambling isn't glamorous. It isn't exciting. It's no food on the table and bailiffs at the door. It's the end of dreams and the sound of your parents fighting, and your mother sobbing in her bedroom. Gambling is a blight on the world, my child's world. The wrecker of many families, and many lives. Even now all these years later, as the pieces are patched and the scars more faded, my hatred of gambling is just as strong. Something broke when I was 10, and I am still finding pieces that need patching.
We moved out of town to nowhereville. To a town that wasn't really a town. No post office, no stores. None of the usual trappings that mark a human settlement. Just a stretch of land bordered by other tiny rural communities, barely more than a name on a map. $50 a week for the privilege of living in a worn old farm house, that really should have been torn down years before. Peeling paint and crumbling plaster, revealing old red brick and powdered mortar. I would sit on the floor in the musty hallway absently peeling pieces off the wall, adding my own efforts to the decay, whilst Casey Kasem played the American Top 40 on my plastic fantastic tape recorder. There was a crack in the wall of my mother's bedroom. So big sparrows could and would, fly in, as would various opportunistic bugs. So many moments of madness. Of running around with towels. Flapping our arms. Leaping across beds and onto dressing tables. Yelling,"Catch it! Catch it!", as our tiny feathered foe would flit back and forth around the room, mocking us with it's excited churps.
We never used the front door. The veranda that sat out in front had a definite list, rotting boards too unsafe to bear even my child's weight. It was also the abode of many a snake. Tiger, brown, red-bellied black, copperhead, we had them all. We lived smack bang in the middle of Snaketown. They were near the front gate, down near the horses' trough, and frequently by the dam that kept our house watered. Lose the coin toss and you grabbed a big stick or an old golf club, and braved the walk down to start the pump. Warm Summer night's were the worst and let me just say, brown snakes don't flee, they fight, they lunge and they make even grown men fear. On occasion, they were also to be found sunning themselves on the warmth, of the concrete back step. We learnt quickly to be wary. To look before we leaped, or put a slippered foot down on our way out to feed the dog.
Colonies of tiny turtles floated in the dam. Groupings of black nostrils poking up through the top of the water. The greatest of escapologists, I would catch them and put them in plastic pools and tubs. I would declare them our newest pets. I'd give them names and plan their adventures. And every morning they would all be gone. Back to their dam and freedom once more.
The chimney of the half-bricked up fireplace in my bedroom, was frequently home to tiny black bats. One hilarious night, one became entangled in my sister's long black locks. I lay on my bed clutching my stomach, hardly able to breathe for laughing. Her piercing screams suggesting that she didn't find it quite so amusing. Trying to get her to stay still as my mother attempted to extricate the poor little bat from her tangled hair was an equally amusing endeavour. Many a dirty look was thrown our way as we continued to laugh while we checked if the poor little thing was okay, before sending it back out into the night.
We went through mice plagues. Thousands upon thousands of the little brown bodies running, ruining and reproducing. Lift a bale of hay and they'd scatter in their hundreds. Go into a shed and they'd scatter to the four winds. The rattling of the corrugated iron like thunder, as they forced the way through in numbers too great to count. They invaded our house. Our cats so over-taxed by the apparently limitless numbers of their prey, just sat and watched as they ran freely across the loungeroom floor, or down the hallway. And then it would be over as soon as it began. One moment we were inundated with a tiny brown tsunami, and then there were simply gone.
There were locust plagues that stripped the world bare. My friends and I would ride our bikes down roads more insect than bitumen. A road in constant motion as the clouds of insects vibrated their wings in the sun. In numbers so vast, the chitinous sound of their movements filled the air. We'd do our best Moses impersonations, parting the sea of locusts with our rattly old bikes. Yelling and laughing, flailing our arms and ringing our bells. Left with a face full of shattered carapaces and tiny cuts from the sharp edges of their shells, more often than not. The acrid insect smell filling the air. Hours spent washing their glue-like residue off our bikes. Or if unlucky, being coerced into scrubbing them from the front of the family car. Insect-concrete bound to glass, enamel, and chrome alike.We would chase them around our yard with tennis rackets and cricket bats. Seeing how many we could kill. A futile attempt to reduce their numbers in the guise of childhood competition. And then, just like the mice, they were gone.
Drought after drought. The sound of the shot guns as our neighbour killed his starving and emaciated sheep. The sound of the tractors and bulldozers burying their bodies en masse. No dignity in death. Just the practical demands to dispose of their stock. To end their suffering and cover them before they began to putrefy. Dust storms. Drought's gritty cousin. The sky dark orange, the sun barely seen. The clouds would roll in slowly across the paddocks, blocking out the world beyond. Beautiful in their own way. We would run around, desperately trying to close every window, putting towels under doors and covering up fireplaces. Then we would brace for it to hit. The air would become gritty. Hard to breath. My mother would clutch her inhaler, her asthma sure to spike. It would get in your eyes, and cover your skin. It's taste on our lips and tongues. And it found every place we missed. It forced it's way through every unprotected crack and crevice. Found every hole, and every opening. It forced it's way through louvres and pushed and wailed through shaking sash windows. And the house would be covered. Layer upon layer of orange dust. On bedding and carpets. On lounges and in cupboards. Storm after storm until the drought passed. A life time spent living in heat and grit.
Poking around in old farm sheds and derelict pickers huts. Clambering over boxes and machinery. Piles of old hessian bags, stiff with years of grime and old diesel, and way too many Huntsmans. Discovering treasures. The soldier settlers post-World War I, left a bounty of bottles, sinks, and rusty old machinery strewn across the area. Each farm had a bounty of ceramics and metalwork, just waiting for our childhood imaginations to incorporate into our stories and adventures. Our farm had a collection of ceramic insulators from the old power lines, and pink 1930's sinks in the hay shed. Who collected them or why, was a mystery we never solved.
Summer meant days spent swimming in the concrete channels that ran between all the properties. Diving in, head first, completely unaware of the risks involved. We swam through the huge dark pipes that ran under the road, and squelched our toes in the mud and ooze that covered the bottom few inches. We'd chase the boatmen bugs, and catch redfin and rainbow trout. Two of us would grab a sheet of chicken wire each and start at opposite ends moving ever closer to herd our prey, or soon-to-be dinner, between us. Or when the channels were emptied during the Winter months, putting on our gum boots and wadding through the murky foot of water left behind under the road, to catch more fish. We'd run to my friend's house to fry up our catch on their old cast iron wood stove. So proud of our delicious handiwork. I can still smell the mix of wood smoke and fish cooking in butter.
So cold in Winter. So hot is Summer. The land of extremes. We would huddle around the fireplace in Winter and dread having to leave its warmth to head to bed. So cold it hurt. In our bedroom, my sister and I would blow our breath out into the room to watch it swirl in front of us, or blow on the icy window and draw pictures in the fog left behind. Sitting at the bus stop. Marked by a single pole on the side of the road and surrounded by a sea of flat paddocks dotted with salt bush and purple statice. The frost crunching under my feet as I huddled down to keep off the worst of the wind. Chilblains and hot water bottles. Big Red tomato soup guzzled down with slices of warm buttered toast. That was Winter. Summer we would sit in front of the water cooler and suck down cold drinks in a vain attempt to keep cool. Hot and dry. 40C+ all through those long Summer months. My friends and I would ride our bikes all over the district. Stopping at various farms to grab a drink from an unattended water tank, before riding off once more trying to catch the heat waves rising from the road. Tunnelling through the shoulder high dry rye grass, creating a maze of pathways and cubbies. Yelling to ward off the snakes that so often inhabited the grassy sea. Sitting cross-legged in our hidden places, listening to our serpentine companions slither close by. Telling stories and sharing secrets.
Little goldfish, baby carp, would be sucked up by the dam pump to the house tank, and end up in the bathtub. Always checking for piscean companions before plunging into the bath. Or, at their worst, tying an old stocking over the tap to catch them. During drought, the water would be orange and thick. We showered in turbid water, water that stained the bath and our clothes in equal parts. We plucked dead sparrows from our rain water tank. The only drinking water we had. The metallic taste of the old galvanised water tank in every glass. My friends and I would sit on top of the tank in Summer. Grabbing fruit from it's neighbour, an old gnarled pear tree. Carving faces in the fruit with nails. Leaving them to dry and shrivel in the reflected Summer heat on top of the tank. Creating a macabre collection of witch faces to decorate the shed. Collecting bunches of mint, from the prolific planting that grew on top of the cracked septic tank. Crushing and rolling it between our fingers to release the smell and hanging it in our various sheds come cubbies, to repel the flies. And figs from the tree that sat alone on the side of the dry dirt driveway. I'd never eaten a fig until we moved to the farm. That first bite a treat never to be forgotten. Nor throwing that unripe one at your older sister during a fight. Not something I'd recommend.
Corn and watermelons growing in the wire-covered front of one of the old chook sheds. Our chickens roamed freely around the property and had an inexplicable hankering for the highest corners of the sheds. Hours spent hunting for chicken eggs throughout the hay shed. Never the same place twice. I swear they went out of their way to make it as difficult as possible. They were, it seems, the craftiest of chickens. There was our ever growing collection of cats, that would follow us as we took the dog for a walk. A fine sight, me, our dog, and line of feline soldiers marching down the road. Coming to terms with death when my ginger cat, Marvin, was bitten by a snake and my brother and father took him down the paddock never to return. And the beauty of life when another of our cats gave birth in our laundry. Tiny mewling kittens butting blindly at her stomach. To hold them minutes after birth, and place their fragile little bodies where their mother could lick them clean. Those moments were a gift I'll never forget. Sitting on the fence post feeding my sister's horses carrots. So many horses. From calm and plodding Chester to, the beautiful, but highly strung,ex-racehorse, Firetron. Mixing thick black molasses with chaff in the shed. The perfect concoction for an ex-racer. Carrying bales of lucerne out to the paddock for those with more humble beginnings.
Eating platefuls of dry Weetbix slathered in margarine and strawberry jam, whilst I watched the tiny black and white TV in my mother's drafty bedroom. Dr Who, Degrassi Junior High, You Can't Do That on TV, Dangermouse, Roger Ramjet, Bananaman, The Goodies, Monkey, the list goes on. Every night after school I would run to watch the ABC and beg to be allowed to eat tea whilst watching Dr Who. Tom Baker will forever be etched in my mind as the only Doctor, as will the entire theme song and opening monologue to Monkey. Or Saturday mornings getting up early to watch Rage. The thrill of our first video recorder, remote attached by a cord, second hand from the electronics store my brother worked at and eventually owned. My brother sneaking over a video of Thriller for us to watch. Something which my mother had decided was too scary for me to watch. The illicit nature of the viewing making it even more special.
I was a latchkey kid. Not that there was a term for it back then. It was simply the way it was. My mother worked long hours. The thankless and poorly paid jobs of fruit picker and cleaner. Doing all she could to keep a roof over our head. She would often leave before I got up and came home long after the bus dropped me off down the end of our road. It gave me a freedom I would never have had otherwise. I was free to run or ride, to visit friends or run down to the horses. I made my own schedule and my own snacks. I had the safety of a local close knit farming community that would help a child out if in trouble, or provide sustenance after a long day of exploring. I would stay out till dark in Summer and even in Winter I would push the time and my curfew. My continuing existence often only confirmed by a floating spot of torch light moving through the night, as I negotiated cow paddocks, channels, gates and barbwire fences, on my way home.
So many stories. So many memories. There are many parts of my childhood that I would rather forget. But there are moments, peppering the bad, that are worthy of remembrance. Moments with my friends from neighbouring farms. Soda Streams on a hot day. Salada biscuits. Oh the joy of squishing them together as hard as I could, until the Vegemite and margarine squished like worms through the holes. Bags of Burty Beetles and boxes of Chicken in a Biskit, scoffed in tents and sheds, and out under the stars. Sitting in my friend's house de-podding peas and eating tiny radishes from their garden. Picking garlic for her father, and laughing, throwing cow pats at each other, or sliding in the mud between the grape vines. Sharing secrets in my other friend's old dilapidated pickers hut tucked far away from their house. The three of us were thick as thieves. Eating grapes purloined from other neighbour's vines. Or even the day we got stuck up a crane in the back paddock, whilst her neighbour's pigdog barked and growled below having decided he'd like to tear us limb from limb. An adventure, touched with just a little fear, thanks to the slathering maws below. Making the run past her vicious geese and her head-butting goat. Her galahs that would mimic her mother screaming her name. So loud we could hear it across the intervening paddocks. Holding my breath and praying for no red back spiders using my fish-frying friend's outdoor pit loo. Avoiding the line of depressions, the tell tale evidence of its previous locations. Indoor plumbing is definitely not over-rated. So much laughter. The freedom of our bikes and the endless back roads of the surrounding farm district. Black rubber gumboots and mushroom picking in cold sheep paddocks in the middle of Winter. And patting the rescued battery chooks, reassuring them that their lives would be better now. Fresh melons and pomegranates. Pilfering apricots and peaches from neighbours' farms. Or sultanas and apricots straight off the drying racks. One of the perks of being a child living in a farming district. The kindness of one friend's family wheeling over a barrow load of vegetables because they knew my mother and I were doing it tough. Her mum feeding me up all those nights I stayed at her house, avoiding my own.
Those are the memories I want to keep. We moved back into town when I was sixteen. The farm house burned down a few years later. Given that the chimney had caught fire previously (I can still see my sister's then boyfriend on the roof pouring buckets of water down the chimney as fire roared and shot out of the bricks), not much of a surprise. It, and all the evidence of our time there, scorched from the earth. I drove back not long after. To have a look. To see what remained. Nothing but a bare paddock with a couple of old falling down sheds. Nothing to go back to. Nothing to see. The years erased. Both of my friends parents had sold their farms and moved into town. The familiar warmth of their wood stove, the call of their galahs, and the paths of my youth, also denied me. But memories remain. Riches found in the midst of nothingness. We may have been poor. It may have been hard. But there were moments. And I am richer for them.