Here’s an essay I wrote for the latest issue of Mystery Readers Journal:
“…but no matter how far or how wide I roam, I still call Australia home.”
When most people hear those words, they probably think of the now-deceased Peter Allen, who performed the legendary song in the musical The Boy from Oz. Or possibly, the Qantas inflight safety video it recently accompanied. I don’t. I picture my curly-blonde-haired three-year-old brother Damien at the gig that launched his busking career.
At nine years old, I, his self-appointed manager, had big plans for the musical prodigy that was my brother. I somewhat optimistically believed his voice carried the power to make us a fortune (though admittedly, to me at that age, a fortune was 20 cents for a bag of eucalyptus lollies). Damien, dressed in an understated white Bonds singlet and blue terry-toweling shorts, sat perched on the wooden stool I’d dragged half-way up Hockey’s Lane, a dusty dirt road, about a kilometre from our house. No appreciative listeners gave us 20 cents, or even one cent, that day, to mark the beginning of our lucrative partnership. Quite possibly because the audience consisted entirely of dairy cows. But that didn’t stop Damien from belting out the lyrics with enough gusto to stun the magpies that blackened the branches of the gum trees looming above us.
Nothing sinister happened to Damien as he flung out his chubby arms to accentuate the ‘hooooommme’, his voice as electric as the fence that separated him from his attentive audience. It probably helped that not a human soul knew he was there. Even so, having lived in New Zealand for 22 years, this image and the soundtrack to it is imprinted firmly in my mind**. And it was the heat, the dry, dusty lanes, and the towering grey gums of my New South Wales childhood that I conjured up when writing my mystery novel All Our Secrets.
Unlike in All Our Secrets’ fictional town of Coongahoola, in our village, there was no scandalous River Picnic to burn our parents with shame or haunt us in our dreams. We did have an annual Christmas party in the local hall, but the worst thing that happened was Santa giving me the same present – a manicure kit – three years in a row (I still pride myself on the state of my nails).
Instead of a foreboding, ‘black-as-night river’ like Coongahoola’s Bagooli River, we had Good Dog Creek. And although we were warned against playing on its banks, no lives were lost during the many times we disobeyed our parents and paddled in it. Only the occasional sock.
We were also, thankfully, spared the horror of having a serial killer living amongst us. There was old Mr Jones who lived on his own in a run-down house on the corner. My best friend and I used to knock on his front door on those endless, hot summer days when we’d run out of things to do. We watched him beat the life out of a red-bellied black snake with a spade once, before stringing its long, limp body over a barbed wire fence like a trophy. But he was friendly enough to us.
What we did share with Coongahoola was our very own cult. I used our ‘Little Pebbles’ as inspiration for ‘The Believers’ in All Our Secrets. But although the Little Pebbles’ leader was later jailed for sex offences against under-aged girls, his cult wasn’t a threat to our family’s everyday life. Despite our mum warning us that we might get stoned to death if we approached their camp, well, we didn’t.
So there are more differences than similarities between Coongahoola and the village I grew up in, and between various other stories I’ve written and my own childhood. But no matter how hard I try to distance myself from my roots (especially after another depressing election result), my connection remains strong. I guess I still, and possibly always will, call Australia home.
* Although I had limited success as a band manager, I did have an eye for musical talent. Damien grew up to be an award-winning film and TV score composer. He’s also the singer/songwriter/lead guitarist for indie band Dropping Honey.
**A reimagined version of I still call Australia home also made it into All Our Secrets – ‘Parents took turns escorting us kids to and from the bus stop and made us walk along in a chain, holding hands and singing songs like ‘I still call Coongahoola home’ as if we were six years old.’