My very first water experience is in my mother’s womb. I’m safe, secure, warm. I swim, mermaid-like, do somersaults and swallow the magic fluid. I imagine that I’ll never leave this watery place.
At Waterview the humid scorching air engulfs us; the heat, ruthless, tears at our skin and sends us kids scurrying towards water. My brothers swing like Tarzan from overhanging scribbly gums, and jump into the creek on Dad’s bush paddock. Launching themselves from tree roots embedded in the banks, they dive and bomb one another scattering tiny snakes and tree frogs that hide in the depths. I jump in and feel the clay squelchy and squidgy between my toes.
I try to hide my fears of the depths and copy my brothers in derring do. Yellow belly fear, like the bloated green tree frogs with bulging eyes staring down from the rafters of the outhouse, ready to pounce, gobble me up; green waters swirling; amphibian annihilation.
I don’t know where it came from: the fear. My elder brother went off to school at four and found a solid niche for himself within his intellect. Donny, the other brother, was fearless as a warrior. As soon as he could run, he climbed tall trees in search of birds’ eggs, rode bareback and played the clown at school. I was Minny-Ha-Ha to his Hiawatha the Brave.
Often I was afraid of the dark. One time I screamed out in the middle of the night: “Monsters. Big bogey man…under the bed…” Dad raced into the kids’ bedroom and flashed his torch underneath my bed. I wanted to crawl in between him and Mum in their double bed, but it was out of bounds. I crawled in with Donny instead, snuggled up to his naked body; felt the flip of his penis like a lizard as he moved over to let me in; and fell into a deep sleep.
One day my father drove Mum and me to Moree. I don’t know why I was singled out in this way, perhaps simply that I was the youngest child. What I do know, is that for a day or two, I was the chosen one. The littlest princess. My brothers, only five and six, were left at Grandma’s farm, directly across the Highway from our house.
But there is one tourist attraction at Moree: the public baths. They’re not just any baths, but ones formed from natural salt springs hidden beneath the ground. They were discovered when an engineer sank a drill in search of oil, and hot salt water spurted up like a miracle offering to the residents of the community.
Now I’m floating in the warm salt waters of the baths. Mummy and Daddy are holding me up in their arms. It’s heaven. Just the three of us, floating there. On the surface all is well with my world: Warm. Safe. Barely a ripple.
And now I’m back home, sitting in a pink tub on the old wooden table in the kitchen next to the fuel stove. It is dusk. A golden ball of light sinks into the hills to the west. The warm water soothes my body. I splash my hands in it and crow. Mummy and I are waiting for the sound of the jeep and his footsteps coming in. He comes straight into me and throws me up in the air: “My little Angie Pangie, how’s my princess today?” So where does the fear come from? When does it enter? Was it at the time of my birth? Or three weeks before? That was the event that tore thirteen little boy scouts from their families, when a punt sank in the Clarence River near our home at Waterview. Thirteen small bodies floating in the green waters. Lights turned on along the river banks during the long night as the search went on.
Perhaps those events, occurring around the time of our entry onto the planet, are significant. Perhaps they are passed on through our mother’s nervous system. Perhaps they merely form part of the workings of destiny?
For the very earliest memory is of tombstone-like coldness and a nurse placing my skinny body in a hot tub after a serious illness during which I’m hallucinating. A dark bull is chasing me. I have Scarlet Fever: “Put her in hospital or you’ll carry her out in a box!” the doctor tells my mother. Does the fear first enter during that dark period when I’m taken away from my mother and put in a sterile ward in the hospital opposite the Grafton Gaol?
During my stay in hospital, Dad brought a tiny rabbit to the windowpane of the children’s ward where I was quarantined: a special memory during an otherwise cold traumatic incarceration. At the end of three weeks, just before my mother came to take me home, a nurse placed me in a tub of hot water. The feel of my body immersed in that salving water remains with me to this day.
But it’s the Moree baths I remember most of all.