‘Carrathool, Population 99’, the sign declares on the outskirts of the tiny township on the Hay Plains. According to local tradition, the population never changes, because every time another baby’s born, another bloke leaves town.
Greasy pig competitions, race days, mice plagues, two-way radios and snake stories – these are just some of the things that make up my earliest memories. We knew it was going to be a good day when Dad offered to drop us at the end of the track on his way to work, because that meant we could ride in the back of the ute. At age five, happiness was a faceful of dusty wind as we roared along the channel bank to meet the school bus. The only greater excitement was seeing the first gentle rise in the road on a long distance trip – “Look Mum, it’s a mountain!”
The move to Darlington Point, population 650, was a shock to the system. No longer one of the bus kids, my sisters and I were left to fend for ourselves against the ferocious magpies that patrolled the open paddock we crossed on our short walk to school.
If there was a common thread linking farm and town life, it was the peaceful flow of the Murrumbidgee River, which still passed by our home. Its banks were our playground; the surrounding bush was our theme park. Hidden in its depths were desert islands, bushrangers, wild brumbies, jackaroos, dinosaurs, warrior tribes, shearers, cowboys, witches, fairies, killer cod and ravenous man-eating snakes.
While the stories we acted out were fantasies based on years of reading adventure stories, (thanks Mum!) my grandmother told me stories of a different kind. In her stories, a little boy sang hymns under the table as bombers passed over his village; a determined girl escaped from boarding school and walked over twenty miles in three days to get home to her family; a worried wife received a blood-stained letter from the Nazis saying her husband had been captured.
If the move to town came as a shock to me, the transfer to boarding school was like a head-on collision. For one thing, it was in Sydney, population three million. For another, we had to wear skirts to dinner every night. This required a trip to Paddy’s Markets to stock up on girlish attire. Unfortunately my $10 numbers didn’t exactly blend in with the unofficial uniform of Laura Ashley Liberty print skirts. Even so, I made some great friends, whom I still treasure. The highlight of my schooling was winning the Senior Creative Writing Prize and coming second in the Henry Lawson Junior Poetry Awards.
Like Lawson and my Gran, I wanted to tell stories that echoed reality, whether it was nice or not.
And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since, just telling stories, in one way or another.