I lived at a place called Waterview, a lush, fertile valley, with a river swollen like a pregnant woman coursing through it. Despite the name ‘Waterview’, the Clarence River was hidden from sight at the point where I was brought up, because of the lie of the land. The irony was that there was water all around us, and yet none to be seen from our place. You could sense the water, though, caught in the humid air that wrapped itself around our bodies, buried deep inside the rich alluvial soil, and trapped inside plants and bulging green tree frogs.
Dad rented this house when he married my mother on Australia Day in 1940. On a deep night at the end of winter that year, Mum was about to give birth to Billy, her darling first spring bud, whose brilliance would come to light up her life.
I was born three years later, the middle of five children, two older brothers and two younger sisters, near the banks of this wide, deep river that flowed towards the sea.
I now wonder if Dad chose the house, opposite my widowed grandmother’s dairy farm, so that he might become part of the family from which Mum had sprung. It suited Mum, in the beginning, because she was pregnant, and could run home whenever she wanted to.
On the surface, my parents were well matched. In a photo in the early days, Dad is beaming with happiness. Mum is trying to look good for the camera. Perhaps she’s embarrassed, but I know from her own words, that she was very much in love when they first met. She named her firstborn son after her husband: ‘little Bill’. In reality, they were different, poles apart.
Our house was a simple tin-roofed shack, as Mum called it, sitting on two acres of land divided into three paddocks. An outdoor wash-house was linked by a dirt path to the back of the house. Dad had to empty the tippy-tin from the dunny with its smelly contents wriggling with life. We kids chose to squat under the wide-armed jacaranda tree to do our business.
If you walked further down through the long grass at the back of our place, the Clarence River came into view, and you could see Grafton way off on the other bank, with Susan Island, home to flying foxes and rainforest trees, in the middle of the river’s belly. The river was out of bounds to us kids without an adult.
Mum was lush and velvety like a butterfly, or like an evening moth: brilliant wings open ready for flight. Dad was salty and sparse, a man of the dry sun-tanned earth, in need of little, apart from tenderness and warmth.
Looking back, I think I was the most like my father of the five children.
Perhaps this was why I had a growing sense of rejection from Mum, almost from in utero, as if I could sense it through the pores of my skin. And why I loved her with such a passion, when I was a little thing under her dominion.
In the beginning, though, Dad was the king of our castle. I remember him saying in his slow country drawl:
‘There can only be one captain of a ship, Kathleen.’ And ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know.’
Mum, who was never silent for long, would retort in a torrent of words:
‘What’s the point of saving up for machinery and more beasts, when you have so many mouths to feed? We need clothes for the kids, things for the house… I can’t live like this in this dirty old shack and do without while you go off and leave me to slave away in the heat and filth. The doctors’ wives don’t have to beg for money all the time.’
‘You’re always whingeing, Kathleen. Give a man a break, why don’t you? I’m saving up for our future. Any fool can spend, but it takes a wise man to save.’
‘I say spend it. That’s what we did on the farm when I was a kid. And we never went hungry or did without.’
‘Yeah, and look where it’s got your relatives across the road. Stuck in a rut with no future prospects.’
Mum, our queen, loved to buy pretty things for herself and for the house. She taunted King, our father—‘King Mepham Skyvington’ was the actual name given to him by his parents, but the nurses in the Rockhampton Hospital where he was born changed it to ‘King Billy’, after an Aboriginal elder, and he was known henceforth as Bill. The queen spent money freely, whether we had it or not, on clothes for herself and toys for us kids: it was the era of the lay-by.
‘I’m highly strung!’ she’d say, as if an explanation for all her extravagances, mercenary and vocal.
Mum often compared her lot to that of the doctors’ wives; Dad tended to speak in clichés, perhaps to get a word in before Mum’s outpourings.
Being a middle child, it was natural for me to take on the role of mediator within the family. I developed a horror of conflict early in my life. I saw that Mum and Dad were engaged in a battle without end and without resolution. I felt I couldn’t rock the shaky foundations of family life by adding my voice to the fray. All my feelings swirled around inside me, unable to get out and express themselves.
Mum, little by little, wanted to get away from her poor dairy-farming backdrop, while Dad longed to immerse himself in life on the land, thereby escaping his more urbane background. The Irish Walker clan and the Skyvingtons were worlds apart, both in ancestral and in social terms, and the conflict in the house was partly the result of this.
For Mum to live on the north bank among the moneyed professionals where Dad’s folk lived, was an impossible dream, just as was Dad’s wish to afford a country home and property that would make Mum happy.
I was born with a deep need for peace and happiness. My readings on karma and reincarnation have led me to imagine that I once lived in a mountain cave, high up in the land of the snows, where peace and bliss reigned supreme.
I wanted my life to flow like the river at our backyard, moving continually towards the sea, deep, wide and yet constant.
I was trapped in the middle between two extremes.