There is a fearlessness to good writing that I am yet to fully embrace. I only write what I know, so if I write anything that is not about me, it is inevitably about someone real. And I am not fond of the idea of writing about someone I know purely from my point of view, because it somehow seems untrue to their history. There is a variously attributed (and edited) quote that suggests ‘mediocre writers borrow, great writers steal’. That idea sets my teeth on edge, but I must add more characters than just myself to my writing, so I frame each story of a friend within my own story, so it can clearly sit as my own experience of that friend, not some truth of their own, discreet life.
A lot of my memories are about the quality of the light I travel into. When I drive back home from the farm, I usually come down Greenmount Hill into the sunset or into the dusk. I descend into orange or grey light, and my thoughts turn to orange or grey thoughts. Things to do, things to face, the work ahead. When I drive down Greenmount Hill I am driving out of my past, into my future.
Usually I have driven past the road where my parents met for the first time, I’ve driven past the road my grandfather died on and past the graveyard where he is buried. I have driven past the house of one of my widowed grandmothers, then another, living on shrinking farmland barely fifteen minutes from each other on the same road.
Just before the descent towards Perth starts, there is a public swimming pool on a slope, serene empty water reflecting the light, brightly painted benches. I always people the pool in my mind with the running and jumping bodies of my parents and their siblings, shattering the surface of the water as the two families grow together with my parent’s burgeoning relationship and then marriage. The now intertwined tapestry of my two families of uncles and aunts follows me down the hill, back home.
My mother went to the funeral of a fifteen-year-old boy last week. He was the son of a woman she met on a rural committee. He had an immunodeficiency disease that had him frail and ill before his time, not as tall as his towering older brother, just a little taller than his little sister. He had been in and out of hospital when he was very small, had a relatively normal life through primary school, but had been seriously ill in the last four years. He had been in hospital full time for seven months before he died. Mum had attended the funeral and had been moved by the funeral ceremony and the church it was held in.
The funeral had been held in a tiny stone Wheatbelt church that could fit about 50 people, sitting off the road at the bottom of a hill, with the graveyard above and to the side of the church. You had to be a descendant of the first European settlers of the area to be buried in the graveyard. My mother was cooking dinner as she told me the story, and she gestured with her wooden spoon as she described the day and the scene to me; the red dirt, the green grass covering the hills and surrounding farmland, the clear blue sky. There were too many people in attendance to fit into the church, so about 50 people stood outside the church in the sun and fresh air.
At the end of the service they followed the procession up the hill to the new grave with the red dirt mound beside it, fresh in the family section, next to his grandfather. Mum had talked to the Rector after the service as his mother, brother and sister stood around the new grave and his grandmother smoked at the bottom of the hill. The Rector preferred country funerals; in Perth there were time limits in the church and at Karrakatta. My mother turned to me from her cooking – she doesn’t like Karrakatta. She had gone to give her condolences to the boy’s grandmother, whom she knew from Cattle Sales and The Royal Show. The Matriarch had accepted her presence, kept smoking and said ‘I’ve been here before Alice, many times.’ Before turning back to her cooking, my mother said ‘and I thought this was the perfect place to be buried, in the red dirt surrounded by green pastures, around a little church on a hill.’
I was struck by Mum’s wish to be buried in a place of family and farms. She was born in Kenya, to Seychelloise parents, and she came to Australia when she was twelve. She loves the story of my father’s family, descendants of Irish convicts that still farm the land they were given when the first convict Bowen was pardoned. In the graveyard in Toodyay is the tombstone of that convict’s spinster daughter Alice. So I proposed to Mum that when she dies, I will take some of her and bury it with the other Alice Bowen in the family plot in Toodyay. My mother is a Western Australian farmer through and through, through marriage and work and interest and care. And she will like her own red dirt grave looking out across green farms.
The Hills and the Wheatbelt are full of my family and my childhood memories. Greenmount Hill is their intersection with my life. From Greenmount Hill I can see the international airport offering a flight to all the countries of the world to escape to. I can see the City with all the jobs I have to work at to get a house in the sprawling suburbs that embrace the beaches on which I collect my inevitable skin cancer each summer. And I can see the sea, and the sea sees me, and the watery horizon holds all the hopes and dreams I ever had. I like the churches in Europe, the white stone of The Tower, the green of Cornwall and the red of the seatbelt sign in planes. And I like the blue of the ocean before all else, the orange of the sunset turning the blue grey at dusk, the moonlight turning waves to diamonds at midnight. And I am lucky enough to experience all the colours, free to travel back down the route my parents and their parents took to arrive here, not land bound, not dead at fifteen.
I got Mum to edit her story before I read it out to my writing class, and she ensured names were changed, because, like me, she didn’t like the thought of one of the eight people in the class recognising someone else’s story. I was sure that of those eight people, there would be no one that would know this particular family. I am sure you don’t need me to tell you that there was someone in the class whose family was from the small town mentioned in my story. His family have a pew in the church. But don’t tell my mother, whatever you do.
And a friend and I went out to visit the small church the very next weekend. We drove up Greenmount Hill, past the house of one grandmother, then the other, past my grandfather’s grave and along the road he died on. We ate lunch next to the other Alice Bowen’s grave, and then, finally, I stood at the foot of the new grave in the red dirt. I looked at the beautiful green hills, the blue sky and the stone church. I looked at the grave of a young man amongst his family and I thanked him for his story. Because, without the stories of others, we are nothing but ourselves.