© Julie Boyd 2011
2nd Prize Winner Gold Coast Writers Association Annual Short Story Competition: DEJA VU
Living at a timber mill in a tiny country town and needing to supply all our own services, ensured all kinds of weird noises in the night, including the clanging of boilers being fed in the building next door. I’d grown used to them, so they weren’t frightening any more. Lying in my tiny room in my little old weatherboard house, I must have been asleep, but I’m sure it wasn’t a dream. I was seven years old and the memory is as clear as if it were yesterday. I often couldn’t wait to go to bed so I could escape. When my body was totally relaxed, a part of me could leave, could fly away like Peter Pan into all sorts of adventures. There were no boundaries – shooting straight up into space to look down at a blue, green and brown globe, then back again through clouds, dancing around lightning before spearing into the ocean. I saw amazing people wearing colourful clothes, and houses and landscapes. They were nothing like the residents or surrounds of my tiny town, so I knew, then, that there was a big world to explore, and that’s what I needed to do. To land anywhere I simply shaped my arms into wings, angled out from shoulders to form a triangle, and came down on my feet as gently as a feather, occasionally crash-landing on my stomach.
This particular night I flew out the window, put my hands above my head to fly missile style, and took a quick flip around the power lines beside our main road, soaring up and over and spinning around. I could slow down and hover, or reach exhilarating speeds. I could see through windows, and sometimes even walls. Mr and Mrs Shelton were having a late dinner, and speaking very loudly. They didn’t sound too happy so I didn’t stay- this was what I wanted to get away from.
Following the river, I checked the spot where my friend Leon had dived in last week, hitting his head on a rock and breaking his neck. After we’d pulled him to safety, Johnny had to run back home to call an ambulance which was two hours away. There was no such thing as a mobile phone back then.
I kept flying. The land changed. Hills became higher and paddocks greener, rivers flowed more strongly and I could see the earth moving. Not just because I was speeding, it pulsed as if a heart was pumping blood just below the surface..
A house appeared below me, looking like it was made from brown gingerbread, with shiny mirrors on the roof. There were chooks, and cows, vegetable gardens, and fruit trees. Part of the farm was natural bush. There was a koala grunting, kangaroos leaping along, and a massive wombat crashing through the undergrowth. The trees were home to crimson rosellas, and two kookaburras flew down to the veranda looking for food. Inside, a big open fire was roaring, with two scruffy, happy dogs lying on the rug. I could smell bread baking, and see baskets full of oranges and lemons sitting on the wooden table just inside a window. I didn’t see any adults, but there was a baby lying on a lambskin with a toddler building a wall of cushions around her. It felt wonderful, warm and welcoming, and I wanted to stay. But a hand on my shoulder shook my body, I heard a voice say ‘time to get up, you have softball today,’ and instantly I was home again in my bed.
Twenty five years later several major events occurred. The first was the birth of my beautiful daughter, my son’s much loved little sister. The second was the launch of the first space shuttle, at that time a masterpiece of engineering and aesthetics, opening space to humans in a way previously unknown. The third was the beginning of construction of my friends’ homes.
I’d just started a new job, at a country high school. We were all pretty much in the same boat at the time – young professionals, with few resources, just starting out on the next stage of our lives after the madness and mayhem of university, weddings, and a couple of divorces. We quickly became close friends. The students at the school had decided they wanted a Debutante Ball, a country tradition that had all but died out. None of them could dance, so one of my new friends, Russell and I took it upon ourselves to teach them. Viennese waltzing and cha cha-ing around the floor of the school gym, some of the exhilaration of my childhood flying came back to me. After one session Russell’s wife ran into the hall. ‘Quick’ she called, ‘we have to give them an answer tonight or we might lose it. We’ve been looking at a block of land to buy, and have found exactly what we want. If we get it, you’ll have to come out at the weekend and take a look.’ Over dinner and a few drinks one evening several months before, a few of us had decided that we would work together and help put a roof over each of our heads, once we’d found our place.
‘Ok you go, I’ll finish up with the kids’ I said, grabbing a strapping young man as my replacement partner.
They got it. The old man who owned the place had liked them enough to trust them with looking after his land, so at the weekend a group of us drove out to take a look. As we passed rolling green hills I began to have a very strange feeling. I knew what was around the next corner, yet I’d never been there before. There was a tiny village with an old shop on the left hand side, and a small white town hall directly opposite. Three houses on the same side as the shop, then the road wound steeply up a hill and around a corner. On we drove, and sure enough things were exactly as I knew they’d be. I didn’t say a word. The turn into the farm wasn’t obvious, but I was able to say ‘turn here.’ Wattle trees in bloom flanked the muddy driveway as we slipped and slurped our way along the track. Kookaburras and rosellas flew in front of us, then perched in the trees to watch. I made a bet to myself that at the end of the track was an open area, with a chook-pen to the left, bush to the right and a few fruit trees in the paddock. It was the farm of my seven year old adventure.
And so it began. Weekends filled with planting fruit and nut orchards, pulling down old churches, schools and houses to recycle timber, bricks, furniture and anything else that could be salvaged. Shared research into different types of housing to decide what was best – mudbricks, straw bales, cement bricks, or timber. Sue started first. She was a single mum with a 12 year old daughter. Child support was not a feature of our lives back then and she was doing it solo. She bought an old Melbourne tram, and drove the truck herself to transport it to the country. Converting that into a liveable space, complete with bathroom, was our first project. The frame and roof went up with reasonable success, but our first attempts at mud-bricks for her were a little disastrous. They crumbled for various reasons, but eventually we created a system which involved carpeting under the roof, tipping clay onto the carpet, then one of us would aim the hose, another would push a cultivator back and forward, while others filled the moulds. A minor miscalculation with brick size and roof height meant there was a gap at the top of the walls. That was easily solved by sending Sue’s Dad off to learn stained glass making. The result- a stunning kaleidoscope of colours every day as the sun shone through.
The brick-making process was then used at Russell and Petra’s place. The blokes did the heavy lifting as we women removed nails from timber, made more mud-bricks, planted a garden, extended the orchard and cleaned used house bricks for chimneys and paths.
In the midst of all this building, my own marriage came to a violent end. The mud-brick house and the love of friends provided a haven while we recovered and rebuilt our lives. The baby on the lambskin in my astral travelling was my daughter, and the cushion-wall building toddler, her brother creating what he called ‘mouse-houses’ to keep her safe.
As the years passed Sue moved away, I renovated, then sold, my own place for a profit and shifted to Tasmania. My kids grew into wonderful adults. I travelled the world in my work, and was rapt to be working in Florida at the right time to not only attend a shuttle launch, but to also meet some of the astronauts – a wild and gutsy bunch of fascinating human beings. The juxtaposition of the shuttle as a backdrop to a swamp filled with pre-historic alligators and armadillos was unforgettable. Watching the shuttle being wheeled out onto the tarmac from the fifty-storey hangars that housed them brought back memories of my own secret trips into space. I hoped the astronauts would be just as stunned as I remembered being by the beauty of earth from up there.
Early this year Petra called and asked if I would house-sit while they took a trip for a couple of months. They had just taken in some rescue dogs and didn’t want to put them in kennels. I jumped at the chance. As I drove into the area, the past enveloped me like a warm blanket. So much hasn’t changed, the rolling green hills, the people, the little towns, me. The bricks I made still show my mark, the trees I helped plant are now heavy with luscious fruit or early blossoms, the solar panels still provide power via sky mirrors, even during a recent earthquake. And the giant earthworms which live in this area still make the ground tremble. The gingerbread-style house of my childhood turns me into paddock-to-plate homemaker when I’m here. I’ve rediscovered the joy of cooking and am taking so much pleasure in picking fruit from trees that I planted all those years ago, to make into marmalade, jam and pickled lemons for future tagines.
Thirty years on, my sense of déjà vu recurs. My daughter has just celebrated a milestone birthday with her friends who are now engrossed in getting married and divorced, starting families, building careers, and working out how best to support each other. My granddaughter is the one playing on the lambskin rug. The final shuttle has successfully launched and landed, and my professional life has gone full circle. Once again, I am blissfully ensconsed in front of an open fire, glass of magnificent home-produced pinot in hand, fresh bread baking, and just-picked veggies roasting in the oven, while rain and wind rage around us. The snores, jumps and twitches of contented puppies beside me on the ancient sofa as they fly off on their own cosmic adventures confirms that they, too, are secure in knowing what really is important in this cyclic life.