Chris Collins is a morris dancing, shanty singing, narrowboating English teacher who writes. Her poems and short stories have appeared in Cephalopress, Three Drops from a Cauldron, Twist in Time Literary Magazine, Mooky Chick, Animal Heart Press, Between These Shores Literary and Arts Annual, Dusk and Shiver Press and Enchanted Conversation.
Woman Under a Eucalyptus Tree, 1927
‘Get on the boat and come and marry me,’ the letter had said. So I came. On the boat, my stomach tingled every morning when I woke up in the top bunk of the four-berth cabin, thinking of that letter. Remembering how my head had swum, and London’s grey streets silenced for a moment when I first read it. Then telling my sisters while avoiding their eyes; buying the ticket in quick breaths; clammy palmed embarking. Then: the feeling of speed, but only at the bow, watching miles of changeless blue that seemed to fly towards me yet seemed motionless. Salt air that dragged brown curls from their pins and tangled it, whipping away like the smoke from the steam engine fires. Trying not to think about our childhood legend of Uncle Bill, shovelling coal on the big Belfast ship fifteen years earlier. Trying instead to focus on that line in the letter, to stay excited as the days drew out and my tingling stomach ripped and churned with the heaving sea. Keeping my mind on the young man I had stepped out with in Mile End on Sundays, who spoke nicely, was a Catholic, and talked about his brother in Gallipoli. But he never told me about Belgium. Just said he’d been too young, but he always changed his socks. Then he’d look at the ground; smile at me bashfully and change the subject. He told me about his brother in a funny named place. Then one Sunday; he told me about a chance of cheap land – farming, and his eyes glittered, and his words came in short breaths – out of London, out of the grey fug, to build something – and with a smile, he was gone on a boat, ten thousand miles away. Like the songs. Then the letter. So I bought my ticket and got on the boat. What can I do now but watch the sea, and hope? Sick to my stomach that he might not meet me at the port, that I’ll be alone and abandoned on the other side of the world. Ten days in; winding myself up. At least six weeks to go.
I didn’t see him at first. The sun was in my eyes; they were streaming from the wind and I was squinting. My insides were water again, head light, breathing underwater, spinning around in all the noise and tall men. Then my name, shouted in a way I’d never heard it said before; a sudden collision – arms and squeezing; I was off my feet and spinning for real and crying. He was here. He was here. It was all alright. We sat close together on the cart, holding hands. Despite the heat, and Mary Joseph, it was hot. Breathing easy for the first time in two months, I could take in this sky. Even on the gentlest spring day in East London, never had I seen such blue. So unabashed, so brazen in blueness. He was smiling and chattering, confusing the horse by waving his rein hand about, but I kept interrupting with gasps and starts: ‘what’s…!’ ‘why’s…!’ ‘how’s…!’ as cockatoo shrieks overhead sent me in spasms of shock before I saw their sunlit snow wings. He laughed, told me its name. He’d just launched into another story when a bolt of vivid green on wings shot out of the canopy like a leaf bullet and lurched me to my feet again to point at it. He fell silent then, letting me take it in, as I watched colours lit by a light I’d never seen the like of. Great black cockatoos with their flamed tails, blood red birds called rosellas and such open, open space that split my ribs apart to breathe it. All filled with green. And the sun. So fierce and sharp, like pins on my arms and neck. Yet familiar? The green, the flowers – from a distance; purple clusters or pink and white tall bells, the name within grasp but when we approached them, elusive to define. Similar, but not the same. He waited for me to wear myself out looking at this new, hot land, then sleep a little. It was a two-day journey down a jolting dirt road to Pemberton.
We stopped the following afternoon in Manjimup. Green fields and grazing had been broken up by more trees and it was all forest now. Immense trees, like nothing I’d ever seen, bone white and straight like the skeletons of giants. A logging town he said, and it took four men to cut one tree down which could build an entire house. He’d known a chap get into the tree cut once, for a bet. I shuddered. Yarri, he said, and Karri. What? and Marri, he continued. I dug him in the ribs as he laughed. The fortune of Western Australia, he told me. Excellent for ship building. I thought of Uncle Bill. His brother met us, with his wife, and took us to the police station where he worked. Cool water to wash our faces in the shade; a comb, a sprig of flowers. Straight into the church to make it all legal; respectable Catholics. After the long voyage, so quick; all this new family, all these new places, all these new animals, heat, trees, feelings. He pulled a gold ring from his pocket and showed me the engraving; Bernard and Irene, 1927. I cried then. I think it was because I was happy. I think so.
On the way to his homestead, he tried to prepare me that this arable land he’d been sold was a bit of a con. It was all forest, in fact; those giant eucalyptus trees a man could cradle in, and he had fourteen months left of his contracted twenty-four to clear it. My face dropped at that. He pressed on, leaning towards me with his eyes and face serious; told me about the sawmill where he made a decent enough living selling the wood he cleared, and he’d made good progress; built a house. We’ll have a good life, Irene. We drove through the village of Pemberton, along its railway for the logs, then out the other side. He made me laugh with the funny names and sounds of places; Wandergarup, Beedelup, Nannup. Native words, he said. Then we arrived. It was a one-story clapboard house, with a brick chimney. A veranda took up the entire front of it and the roof was a sort of corrugated tin. He’d cleared a bit of space in front of it into a small garden, then beyond the fence, it sloped down like a little valley. There was a brook down there, he said, among the trees. Huge trees, like sentinels; like a permeable, shifting wall all around the house. We ate supper on the veranda, the pearly king and queen of our own little kingdom. A huge black crow landed on the gate and cocked its head at me with gold rimmed eyes, then spread its wings to reveal white patterns like Spanish fans. It flapped off to a high branch above the house and threw us down its call as my face opened to catch it and I laughed. It’s a currawong, he said. You’ll hear kookaburras (I laughed again at the name and he smiled) at dawn; you laugh but so do they – wait till you hear that. Huge bearded black ravens came out wailing such a mournful cry it sent shivers down my arms. Magpies enthralled us with a song like flutes. We sat on the veranda as the stars came out. The eucalypts had such a tangible smell – ubiquitous; herbed, like wild thyme; I’ve never forgot it. Great ribbons of bark stripped off them and scattered around the trunks, like old skin being scoured off leaving young, supple smoothness behind. I felt I would live forever too. But there was an edge to that wonder, an edge like fear. You could forget that there was a town two miles away. It was easy to believe there was nothing at all but the green forest and us. On the edge of something, with fear and wonder both there. I was tingling again with excitement – my first night as a married woman in my new home, tingling for the warm night, the heady smells – so clean – the strange flowers and birds, the gurgling water below. He stood up and beckoned me to the edge of the veranda and pointed up to the stars. The southern cross, he said. You’re the first person in your family ever to see it. He put his arms round me. I suppose the fear was there too, then. But so was wonder.
The next day his brother and wife surprised us with a visit. Help you settle, they said, now you’ve got used to… they trailed off and politely looked out the window with little smiles, and I blushed. They brought us so many supplies I became afraid of what Bernard had been surviving on, but Margaret brushed this off with chatter about welcomes. She talked me through practical, serious considerations when managing a home alone in the forest, and how she’d prepared when they lived in Youanmi. At the time I remembered less than half of what she said, following her around the house with a notebook while she pointed things out, made suggestions and asked me questions. She was very kind – I always wished we’d seen more of her. Bernard had disappeared off outside with his older brother and after a deal of pointing and standing around, they came in and ate lunch. William commended my cake. I’ve always made good cakes. Afterwards they shuffled us outside, grinning and holding a camera. Bernard and I laughed and arranged ourselves with our backs to the sun; he heaved me up onto a fence post and leaned on it debonairly. I’d been laughing all day, dizzy with everything and nearly fell off, but I managed to keep still long enough for the picture. These trees, these birds. This sun. These people.
It was lonely later. Those first few days seemed very far off when my belly swelled in the hot summer. Bernard was away every day razing his forest and I paced the veranda in the shade, trying to get comfortable when the baby wriggled. At first it felt like how your stomach gurgles when you’re hungry, or after dinner. Then it was tighter, pulling, and my breasts ached and went solid. I missed my sisters and wrote to them, but we were so remote I never had many return letters. It reminded me how often I was alone. Then as summer passed and winter took hold, it rained so much, no one could visit anyone. I worried constantly about what would happen to Bernard if he injured himself logging; and about the birth. I missed London then. It rained there too, but at least there were people. Bernard came back at lunch times, dusty, dirty, his blue eyes jarring in his face, and when it rained in the winter; he’d come back earlier, covered in mud and lean against the sink, peering out at the sky. Green and wet, he’d say, shaking his head. Then clap his hands; just like Ireland! I rolled my eyes. I didn’t remember Ireland. My accent had broadly flattened years ago in Mile End. What voice would this child have? Neither of her parents’. She would take for granted the green ring-necks, the black cockatoos and the eucalyptus trees that I found so watchful and still. How would she feel about them? Would they not make her feel alien and lost? Would she be touched by them in a deeper way, bled from birth? Or would she look at them as I do pigeons? My own bush child. I asked Bernard where all the people were. In town, he said, that’s all that’s been settled around here. Were there never any people here before? He frowned. Said he didn’t know. Must have been, because all the names are native words, so someone must have said them. Well where did they go? I asked him. He shrugged. We had adventures. One afternoon, I rode home from town and came across a snake on the path. I’d like to say I spotted it first, but the horse did, and nearly threw me off when it reared. Clinging on, I saw the snake rise and face me, poised to lunge. It seemed to me that moment was stretched out endlessly, I could hear it hissing, I saw the black strips on its back; we both wavered in the heat. I shot that snake dead with my gun, while the horse was still bucking. Then June was born in July. The coldest time; no midwife could get to me through the floods and the birth was terrible. I thought of summer back home; June – the word always makes me think of green oaks and dog roses. We were both very happy in those first few days with our tiny little person that filled the clapboard house with more purpose; another thing to grow. Bernard leaned over her one morning and exclaimed, oh! She has your eyes! And she nearly did – instead of one blue and one brown eye, she had one blue and the other exactly half and half in a horizontal line. My unique little girl. Even now, I’ve never met anyone else like that. And the brown was carried on as a splodge in her daughter’s eye. I wonder if her children will have it too. In between running the house and after the child, I didn’t have time to feel lonely for the rest of the short winter and before we knew it, white blossoms flourished on the peppermints again. June was beautiful – I know all babies have curly heads but hers was astonishing, and she smiled all the time. As she became more aware of the world, she would clap her hands at the ring-necks and rosellas, and gurgle like the stream when the magpies sang. When she began toddling, I could watch her from the garden while I dug the carrots. She was very good, kept to the trees and didn’t go near the stream. She often came running back with little leaves or gum nut shells to show me and I made her build a little collection, so she had something to do while I worked. Bernard loved her. Carried her everywhere; out into the bush to see wallabies and she came home squealing, brown dust smudged all over her face. Then we’d eat on the veranda under the stars framed by the close edges of the forest and I thought that the lights of the southern cross are the only stars she’s ever seen. Yes. When I look back, there were lots of very happy moments when I really loved Australia.
I was pregnant again. June was more mobile; she could run and was harder to keep up with as I got slower. I feel awful saying it considering what happened to her later, but I used to wish she wouldn’t move as much. In the end, I couldn’t face it. Another winter, alone, wrangling a two-year old with backache and breast ache and no sleep. Just to speak to another person through the day. I could see Bernard was tired, physically aching from logging; and our life together was very much lived on Sundays just as it had been in London. Then I got a letter from Ellie. She’d moved out to Japan with her husband. And suddenly the idea sharpened like a far-off fuzz of wattle resolving into individual tiny flowers. I spoke to Bernard. Told him not to be unhappy, that I’d come back when the baby was born. I just needed a bit of family near me for a little while, during the pregnancy – to help with June. Ellie was lonely too, do us both the world of good. He looked off towards the trees and peppermint blossoms for a while; a currawong filled the silence. Then with a grimace, he nodded.
We never went back. I got a letter from Bernard a little before Mick was born saying he’d sold up and was on his way and we’d go back to London from Osaka. Then my little girl’s eyes were filled with the grey of London instead of the greens and reds of rosellas. Still, Australia would have been no place to grow up when the juvenile arthritis set in. But I wish she’d been old enough to remember the black cockatoo, or what a wallaby looked like. Perhaps she’d have grown into a happier woman if she’d had more bush colours in her eyes.