We haven't been to the coast much since moving to the country, but when son and daughter in law, E and F, invited us to join them on their seaside holiday for a couple of days, we eagerly accepted.
F had sold some puppies for an outrageous amount of money, and went online looking for somewhere at the coast to take the kids for the whole school holiday. She found the very house at Lake Tabourie where we used to go for our holidays, years ago!
When E was a baby, we did a camping holiday at Termiel, just down the road from Lake Tabourie. No disposable nappies in those days. I had three buckets on the go, (no running water), with Nappy - San and cold salt water, and quite a lot of sand. Never again. Our camping days were done for a while, (30+ years, as it turned out). Friends took us for a weekend to a house they'd found through the ANU at Lake Tabourie. We fell in love with it. It became our 'little house by the sea', and we had several holidays every year there, until E and C were well into their teens.
Could a more perfect place for a holiday with children be imagined? The estuary teems with fish and bird life. You can sit on the rocks right outside the house and fish, or launch the kayak and potter off upstream if you're old enough. A little path winds along the side of the estuary through the bush to the beach. It's sandy and strewn with leaves, and can easily be managed barefoot. You can take the path up over the sand hill to the ocean beach, a broad sweep of golden sand, unspoilt bush and sand hills, and the huge, sparkling Pacific. Or you can take the left hand path along the estuary, with endless possibilities for play - in the shallow, clean water, or climbing the steep sand hill right at the edge and sand surfing down into the water, or making sand pies and castles, or sand gardens among the reeds, or burying your Dad in sand, or digging the biggest hole anyone ever dug before.
Or you can walk on across the sand bar to the Island, waves from both sides washing round your legs - sometimes higher! - the dogs barking in excitement, your Mum with her bag on her head to keep it dry. And you're there, on your own island! The only other people usually to share it with are a few fishermen round on the rocks. Sandy bays, rock shelves, friendly waves, shady caves, and finally, the place you go to every time, where the rock makes a natural wall that defines your magic world - of a tall, bush clad cliff, and a generous stretch of sand, and a big rock pool with a sandy bottom, shallow at the edge, then suddenly quite deep, with corners, and nooks and crannies that seem endless, and full of tiny fish and sea creatures of every kind. This is where Mum and Dad and Grandma and Grandad sit and lean against the rock wall, and watch you catching fish with your net, and draw your attention to any pelicans and sea eagles flying overhead, and doze.
Nothing has changed. Among all the busy, almost urbanised South Coast holiday spots, from Tathra to Milton, this place remains a backwater. Possibly because there isn't a single shop. 'Julie's Corner', at the turnoff on the highway, closed down years ago. It was always pleasantly shabby, a treat to take the children for a walk there for ice creams; later, they would take themselves. Good for bread and milk. Now, the site is derelict, and most people roar past at 100kph, and don't know Lake Tabourie even exists. How sweet to return to a place that seems to have entirely missed out on progress and improvements!
The house is still owned by the same people. It has undergone some improvements, but to my relief and delight, they only enhance comfort and accessibility. The relaxed, informal, family feel is exactly the same. I go from room to room in wonder - still the same green bath! and the yellow and green mosaic tiles that hardly showed the sand and dirt all week! Repainted, but with the same bright yellows and blues. Still the wooden floorboards, the screen door crashing every time you went through it, the dark pantry full of the owner's rather interesting crockery and staples. And the broom cupboard. (My daughter L, who has come down with us, opens the door of it and says, 'There used to be another world in here!')
I have a photograph of my mother, in her floppy sunhat and skirt pulled up to her thighs, sitting leaning against the rock wall, legs stretched out - how she loved to sunbathe! She's smiling. I sit now in the same spot, where I have sat many times. It is a grandson, H, who I watch. He has a net, and he's waded in up to his thighs already, too late to take his shorts off. There are tiny pale grey fish with spots, and black and white striped fish, and shrimps. Some much bigger fish come out from their hiding place, see H, and quickly go back again. Some crabs crawl over the rocks. He swishes the net, intent on the clear depths of the pool.
'Oh look, what's that bird?' I say.
He looks up briefly. 'It's a pelican, Grandma,' he says, and goes back to the task.
He comes wading out with his prize in his hand, not smiling so much as shining with the pleasure of it, and shows me - a large star fish, playing dead. We all admire it, then he carries it carefully back into the pool. His Dad watches, tells him to be careful with it, tells him to put it back where he found it, gazes out at the sea.
Five o' clock is the hour. Aldi's Precious Earth sauvignon blanc is the bottle. I pour a glass, and I swear it makes a sound like no other liquid. The first sip is always the best, by far. Cool, sharp, and tangy, it seems to burst in my mouth like a sherbet lolly. All subsequent sips fall short.
I rarely have more than two glasses, and unless I'm having lunch with a friend, I don't drink at any other time of the day. (Christmas morning excepting. There may be other exceptions.)
I look forward to this time of the day though. I'll survey my progress through the day from time to time - time for a nap, good job done in the garden, what to take out of the freezer for dinner? - and I'll think of 5 o'clock, anticipate it, as if it might be a reward for my endeavours during the day.
'I just like to have a glass while I'm getting the dinner,' I tell anyone who I feel needs an explanation. No one really does.
Sometimes, I miss a day. Usually when I've been in to town all day, and I get home tired and not feeling at all like cooking, and somehow all I really want is toast and a cup of tea. (I think this phenomenon may have its roots in childhood, when we had been out all day on a Sunday drive, picnicking, blackberrying, picking flowers and the rest, and when we got home, Mum would serve 'tea' instead of dinner, and in the lounge by the fire instead of in the dining room, and it would be hot buttered toast, homemade jam, and a pot of tea.)
People say you should have one or two alcohol free days a week, and if you can manage this without feeling strung out, you're probably OK. After the family returned to the N.T. a few weeks ago, I had four straight alcohol free days. It was fine. Really. I drank sparkling mineral water. There was a bottle of wine left in the pantry, but it was a quite expensive one, and I didn't want to open it 'just for me.' I felt happy, and relieved, that I didn't miss my little five o'clock pleasure at all. When I next went up to town, I restocked with Precious Earth, and got right back to where I had been.
Years ago, when the kids were little, or thereabouts, I would drink sherry at 5 o'clock. Sherry! What kind of an oldies, outdated, weirdo drink is that? Well, the one my mother used to drink. And cheap. And amazingly pleasant and drinkable. And a pretty small amount can make you quite squiffy, (as my mother used to say she was, after a few.)
I used to just have one glass of sherry. Part of the pleasure used to be the glass, actually. I would either use the sherry glass that my father hand painted with delicate coloured flowers round the rim, or one of the cut crystal glasses that my nephew gave me once. (I have this one present from him, and one from his father, and I value them both very highly.)
It was so nice having that glass of sherry, that I started having another one after it. And at some point I noticed I was having a third, and I said, 'This must stop.' And I did stop entirely, for a long time. Then I discovered wine.
I have been reading the writer Joyce Maynard's recent articles about her 'relationship' with wine. She too was drinking two, sometimes three glasses every night. She decided to give it up completely, and now describes herself as 'a hundred days sober.' Although she stops short of defining herself as an alcoholic, she does raise interesting questions about where the line lies between her kind of drinking and alcoholism.
Sometimes, reading her, I thought she was making a song and dance out of not very much. I read articles on health sites that tell me a glass or two is actually good for you, (I'm vague on the details.) I could stop, just like Joyce Maynard, and like I have already done, several times, in the past, without any difficulty. But its too nice a little thing, why should I?
The old apple tree fell down. I was standing quite close to it on the lawn, pondering some question about the garden-in-my-mind, which flourishes everywhere in the years ahead of me. An odd cracking and creaking noise brought me back to the present, but I'd hardly had time to wonder what it was when I saw the tree fall, gracefully and slowly, in an arc of fluttering leaves and snapping branches.
'Oh no!' I said, 'oh no!'
But there was no denying the reality of a very large old tree lying on its side. Its torn roots snaked in the air, still dripping a bit of soil, and there was a large hole in the ground.
It was, of course, my favourite tree. When we first bought the property, I worked out that the group of old fruit trees must have been planted in the early 1890's. This was when the writer Miles Franklin lived here, as a little girl of about 9 or 10. She came here with her family from Talbingo, and although she was only here for a couple of years, she loved Brindabella all her life. Her father built a house in the place where our house now stands, and I still find bits of pottery and glass from that time when I'm gardening. I don't know whether it was her mother or her father who planted the fruit trees - apples, pears and quinces - and perhaps other kinds as well, but along with the elms, these are the only ones which have survived.
One hundred and twenty five years of growing and bearing apples! Every year, about Christmas time, the cockatoos would begin checking to see if the crop was ripe yet. I soon learnt that they like their apples slightly under ripe, so managed in some years to pick a few before the birds stripped the tree. What a delightful surprise when I first stewed some! Knobbly and green and small as they were, as soon as the peeled slices reached boiling point they transformed into the most luscious, soft, creamy-yellow frothy apple stew. Modern so-called Granny Smith apples almost never do this, and I am endlessly disappointed by them. What a treasure these unprepossessing little apples were! Now I'm kicking myself for not saving any seed.
The tree had grown into a fairy tale shape, leaning slightly, whorls and scars of old branches along its trunk marking events in its history I had not witnessed, and gnarled branches drooping heavily to the ground. I had planted violets underneath it.
My neighbour came over and said I should make a fairy garden in the hollow under the roots. I started to imagine children climbing up the trunk and jumping off the end, and making cubbies under the splayed out branches. I wondered about planting another tree close by - an old fashioned apple perhaps? Or a liquidamber?
And I wondered, as I often do, how old the trees I have planted here will grow. In another hundred years, will someone be walking underneath them, loving them, and wondering about who planted them? Will someone see them fall?