We spread the rugs under the tree, the rubber-backed one that Mummy has provided, and my old red teddy bear quilt on top of it. I have brought two cushions, and I lean them against the trunk of the tree.
She takes her teddies out of the backpack, and arranges them carefully in a semicircle on the rug. There are about eight or ten of them; some I know well, but some have just come along for the party. She has brought her tea set, but there are only four of everything, so the teddies have to share.
I have a picnic basket, lined with an old embroidered cloth of my mother's. There is a bunch of artificial rose buds tied to the handle, which G. examines carefully. Her little fingers explore the dark pink buds. She would like to take one off, but they are fixed firmly, and she contents herself with admiration. She selects a spot on the rug in front of the teddies. and sits with her legs stretched out in front of her.
Mummy has made us toasties. They are individually wrapped in greaseproof paper, and are still warm. I pass her one, and we both tuck in. G. takes a container of fruit and nuts from the basket, and puts some on each of the teddy's plates.
A magpie comes to see what we're up to. I tell G. that I actually brought some bread to feed the ducks, but the magpie might like some of it. She is very pleased with this. She takes the bread, and throws piece by piece of it, but it all lands only just beyond the picnic rug. I think about the things I used to say to my children years ago when they did this: 'Try to throw it further away! They won't come that close! Don't throw it all at once, save some for later!' I am quiet now. I watch her finish throwing the bread pieces, and so does the magpie.
'He's not coming,' she says.
'He's trying to be brave,' I say, 'but it's hard.'
She turns to look at me as I say this, and straight away the magpie makes three or four hurried hops to the nearest piece of bread, grabs it, and flies off. She points after it, and struggles with a quite long sentence that has the words brave and babies in it.
A bower bird comes and has a look, followed by a couple of currawongs. A large flock of king parrots pick through the grass a little distance away. G. points excitedly to about fifteen dogs, all on leads, which have just appeared on the bike path, being walked briskly by their owners towards the dog park. I tell G. all about the dog park, and she is fascinated.
'I don't take Bella there,' I say.
'Why?' G asks.
'Because she doesn't really like sharing with other dogs.'
I have an amused little reflection on this to myself, imagining Bella in the dog park, either deciding that the whole park was her's and pissing the other dogs off, or pretending to have a nervous collapse and having to be taken back to the car.
Another little girl has appeared on the other side of the tree, and G., gets up and goes to play with her. They regard each other with open curiosity, but do not speak. The other girl climbs over a branch and rides it like a horse. G. watches, then it's her turn. I help her on, and push the branch up and down for her. The other little girl's mummy comes over from the Oaks café where she's been having a coffee with her friend..
'This is a wonderful tree,' she says, smiling.
'Yes,' I say. 'I've been having picnics under it for many years.'
'Me too,' she says. 'My parents used to bring me here for parties.'
The two little girls are running round the trunk of the tree. They are not chasing each other, so much as copying each other. We watch them. The mummy's face is warm with sunshine and coffee and love for her daughter.
'I love your daughter's jumper,' I say, and it is indeed a fine, soft, colourful thing. 'Did you knit it?'
'No!' she says, 'I found it at an Op shop!' We are both pleased with this.
I pack up the picnic things. The teddies have had enough, G. says; they are ready for bed.
As soon as we walk away back to the car, the magpies and currawongs swoop down on the rest of the bread.
We are standing in the bird hide. It's a long, wooden structure that floats out over the water. One side of it is completely open to a vast expanse of water and marshland, which stretches as far as you can see, although it is just a small corner of the whole flood plain and river system of Kakadu.
It's a window onto a primeval world. There is nothing to see out there that is not completely natural, nothing that shows the hand of man. It is just as it has always been.
There are thousands and thousands of birds. Egrets stalking through the reeds, or standing motionless, listening. Whistling ducks and Burdekin ducks diving under the water. Swamp hens, cormorants, magpie geese, pied stilts. Dozens of kites, gliding and soaring in the air, sometimes dropping suddenly like stones onto their prey, sometimes getting into fights with each other. A jabiru stands among the water lilies, waiting for the right fish.
Unseen by us, but their presence known to all the birds, are crocodiles, frogs, snakes, lizards, and dingoes.
It is the reliability of the seasonal changes, over thousands of years, that support this abundance of life - the alternation of the hot, dry season, with the monsoons and the floods. The indigenous people have understood these changes. They know how the cycles of the seasons affect the land and all its life forms, and they have passed down this knowledge through their generations. It is necessary to understand it, and all of the intricate details of it, in order to live on the land, to be sustained by it, and to leave it unchanged.
I read these translated words of a traditional owner of the Murrumburr clan, which are among the information on the back wall of the hide:
'About March, the end of the rain, the speargrass in the woodlands starts to seed, and the seeds go brown and start to drop. That's when we know to collect the (magpie) geese eggs. We always leave some eggs in each nest. When the waters go down, the geese are not fat, so we don't hunt them. August and September is when we start to hunt for geese, just enough to feed everyone.'
This year was the driest wet season in 25 years. Many areas of Kakadu broke lowest rainfall records. The water on the floodplain dried up much earlier than usual. More than half the population of magpie geese did not nest, because they could not supply enough food to feed their young.
Elizabeth Jane Howard probably did not intend her title to refer to the astronomical name for an impossibly long time away. 'The Light Years' are the years 1937 and 1938, just before the Second World War. It is Sussex, in England, and they were years of happy, comfortable, innocent country life, much of it seen through the eyes of young teenage children on their long summer holidays.
The families who gather in the rambling old farmhouse by the sea are comfortably off. They have cars, maids, a cook who every day produces mouth watering meals for upwards of sixteen people at a time, a pony, a tennis court. The summer evenings, filled with the sound of gnats humming and the smell of new mown hay, seem to go on forever. Each day seems to stretch well beyond twenty four hours, barely containing the heady mix of idleness (indolence in the case of the grown ups), and pleasurable distractions. Summer, this life, now, seems as if it will never end.
It did end. The war ended it. And although it is still within living memory, that time seems now to be light years away.
We have a fascination for this period in England, from Edwardian times up to the outbreak of World War 11, as evidenced by the many TV shows that exploit it. There is a sense of bittersweet sadness that pervades much fiction set in this time - Brideshead Revisited is a stand out example for me. It's like a longing, this fascination, for - what? A simpler life? Being young again? Or maybe it's for a world that has slipped away into the past but still seems so real you could almost touch it, it's not quite history yet.
Nostalgia for childhood, and for what I know of my parents' and grandparents' lives, is a big part for it for me. Although my own childhood was in the 50's, remnants of the old, pre war life continued to drift, to have sudden late flowerings, to die more slowly. By the early 70's, they were in the past, and the talk was of preservation - of pockets of countryside, of the hedgerows, of old cottages and stately homes, of wildlife, and traditional farming practices.
It seems to us as if people then had less complicated lives, and more time to live them. How wonderful it might have been, if you were a young Mum, to have a nanny to take the children off your hands whenever you wanted! There is a scene in The Light Years where the whole party piles into the cars and goes to Cooden Beach for the day, taking the nannies with them. The parents swim, sunbathe, talk, and smoke, and only pay attention to the children when they feel like it - the fun moments. The nannies sit at a little distance, clad in their sensible dresses and grey stockings, responsible for the children and having none of the fun. A governess takes the girls for lessons, the boys go off to boarding school. Husbands go up to London, to work, and to see their secret mistresses. It is they, the husbands, who make all the important decisions. The rigidity and expectations of gender roles, while often frustrating for the girls, nevertheless seem somehow to contribute to the certainties and securities of this world.
There is something especially intense and poignant about a happy time that you know, in retrospect, is going to end. You want to signal wildly to these people, from your bitter vantage point in the future, 'No! Stop! Do something, or you're going to lose it all!' Utterly futile, of course, the benefit of hindsight; it's all way too late.
One of the most beautifully crafted episodes in the book occurs when 14 year old Teddy has a falling out with his slightly younger cousins. The two younger boys have decided they are going to run away from home, and they make elaborate, secret preparations, establishing a hideaway in the woods. When Teddy finds out, he is furious at being left out of their plans. After a painful and rageful punch up, which achieves nothing, they begin a process of negotiation, the younger boys giving ground, literally, to their older cousin, in the hope he will keep their secret and stop his aggression. It is a process that neatly parallels the distant drama in the grown ups' world, in which Prime Minister Chamberlain is going to Europe to have the meetings with Hitler which culminated in the Munich Agreement. It was one of the most painful moments in the book for me - the realisation that in four years time, Teddy will in all likelihood be flying Spitfires over the English Chanel, that he will almost certainly die doing it, and that if he survives, he will never inherit his fathers' world. *
It feels to me as if we too are living a life that is slipping inexorably away from us. I think my grandchildren will look back on this time - which is the time of their childhood - and yearn for the lost comforts and securities : cheap travel, plentiful food, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fuel for cars and money for the roads to drive them on, a country at peace. And they may wonder at the succession of bland and bickering governments, whose abject failure to make the tough decisions needed to secure the future we just went along with. We didn't want them to interfere with us, to stop us from just going on doing what we're doing.
Our frustration with politicians now is a paltry thing. The worst we do is make protest votes for independents who promise to give us more of what we want. We have a collective, suicidal belief that, like Chamberlain, somehow the politicians will 'take care of it'; that, like children playing outside on a summer evening, or the grown ups partying inside, we can just carry on, until someone actually tells us we have to stop
* There are four further books in the Cazalet Chronicles - I have not read them yet, so don't know what actually happens to the fictional Teddy.