When I read

A long time ago, I got a copy of Heidi for Christmas from my Nanna. It was a new copy, a hardback, the paper cover pink, clean, and tight, and I clutched it because it was new, and it was mine.

There were words in that book new to me, alps, swiss cheese, goatherd, and my mind approached and folded itself around each one. They provided such sustenance that each word still lives in me, buzzing with noise and life, alps high and cold, iced with height, shredded with wind, massive rock, lichen, tiny paths, death to the careless. Grandfather.

And swiss cheese. Salting the bread somewhere. Good. During adolescence, I only wanted swiss cheese; my mother looked at me exasperated. It was her mum who gave me that book. Her mother, Florence, one of thirteen children, who never had a book. Or even a second pair of shoes. Why did she give me a book? Did she know what she saw setting in motion when she wrapped it? Did she know? Did she know that she, Florence Edith of Nailsworth, Adelaide, would now live forever?

Goatherd. A boy. But after I read Pippi Longstocking, a goatherd would be a girl. Or anyone. The alps; height, against a sky of sheer hurtful blue. I read it in a chair in a dull lounge room on the South Australian Eyre Peninsula while the rest of the class gazed glassy eyed at Dick and Dora, those advanced paragons. But I was on a goat path, as wide as a strap of licorice from the store down on Brocks. I had ice in my ears. I had terror. Heidi. Peter. Grandfather. The bread rolls in the cupboard. Bread rolls could be two things, stale and hard or soft, fresh demons of silk. I put the book under my pillow to read again later. I slept with my arms up in the air, I was pulling myself up the cold green track because I was a goatherd.

Then, one day, someone gave me a copy of Gobbolino, The Witch’s Cat…

Image by Nancy Gruskin

We’re going off the jetty..

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There is a family here and they are on their way to the beach. To Second Valley because their Grandpa and Nan live there. The boy has a yellow bucket, a bright pineapple yellow bucket with a crack in the side. He brings me the bucket so we can both examine the crack.

His parents are looking through the cooking books. His younger brother is swinging on a table leg and slowly eating a stick of pink liquorice. Outside the shop there is a service van with a phone ringing loudly into the warm air. The smaller boy nods his head twice to each ring.

The older child is asked if he has found a book. He answers that he doesn’t want one, he wants a starfish. For his bucket.

His mother asks him if perhaps he isn’t being sensible.

He tells me that at Second Valley there is a jetty and they will go under it and find stuff. And then they will go up on it. And then bomb off of it.

His mother asks him if he would like Magpie Island by Colin Thiele.

He tells me that he doesn’t need to even bring a towel because his Nan said not to. Because she already has one there for him that’s orange.

His Nan makes tomato sauce.

When is he on the beach he is going to get a starfish.

An the best thing about this beach is the jetty, underneath is cold, on the top is hot.

His parents call him to come and find a book, but he still doesn’t want one.

They are apologetic; they tell me that all he wants to do is go to the beach. But I remember living by the sea and near a jetty. When I lived across the road from the sea that jetty was miles away. I was five. It took ages to walk there. But last year when I went back the jetty was actually very close to where I lived. It had moved.

I remember the jetty, underneath it was cold, on the top it was hot. The hot planks smelled like fish all the time. There were always sand dunes smoking in the distance. Underneath the jetty, the hot sun came through in gold bars that broke everywhere, the water was deep, it was green glass and all the sounds were deep sounds; even the wood had a deep sound. When it got too cold you could climb up on the steps and sit on the wood that was now too hot. You could shut your eyes and see the heat in gold flecks on your eyelids. And hear the water and the salt and other kids and seagulls, and very faintly you could just hear Christmas. Then we would get up and walk back to the sand and go to the deli on the foreshore for mixed lollies.

The child is still telling me that he will get a starfish off of the jetty. His dad says maybe not and they needed to go now. And then they all left, with some books, the pineapple bucket and an anxious plan for a starfish.

Artwork by Debbie Mackinnon