I’m a dirty rotten thief and this is why.

Last month, while working words in the Blue Mountains, I returned to the place where I spent my childhood, a village, a post office and a public-phone booth making up the village heart.  I hadn’t visited the village for twenty-five years, although I had thought about it.  In fact I’ve thought about it often, every week, sometimes every day.

When I can’t fall asleep I recall the green-painted weatherboard cottage; it had once been used as an apple-packing shed.  And the wood-chip heater in the bathroom, how it would puff-puff-puff when we’d get it really hot.  And the fire-wood alcove in from the front door and the tool-room out the back.  And the bedroom in which I once slept, how it had a view of the open-fire in the loungeroom.  And the school friends I invited up there, one particular school friend, another boy, the event that happened one night in the bedroom, the event that suggested my life would take a different course.

So I did my trip back; I made a mix-CD for the purpose, songs from the last two decades, not songs from my childhood because that would have been too much.  In the car I put on the CD and drove the twenty-five kilometres – one kilometre, I realise now, for each year that I’ve been away – to the old holiday mountain.

Everything was the same, everything: the hairpin bend, the tree-ferns like soldiers, the avenues of oaks and ash.  I turned down the lane to the apple-packing shed.  But the apple-packing shed: it was no more.  In its place was a sleek, black, architectural creation, not ugly, but it shouldn’t have been there.

How could they do this?  How will I be able to get to sleep now?

I got out of the car.  I took quick photos for the family.  But then I saw it: an old apple box half-covered in builder’s rubble.  I exposed the box, carefully cleaning it of basaltic dirt.  I felt sure it had once been inside the holiday house I used to know, either in the fire-wood alcove or in the tool-room.  In a flash I had an idea.  I grabbed the box and ran back to the car.

As I sped away I thought of Robert Frost’s ‘After Apple-picking’: One can see what will trouble/This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 17 December 2011.)

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