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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.)

‘In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.’

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Two weeks ago, on the advice of a dead poet, I rode a different route to work.  I’d barely made it around the corner when a paper sign sticky-taped to a tree caught my attention: MISSING FERRET, SAD KIDS.  I rode on but did the neighbourly thing, keeping my eyes peeled.  Of course, the closer to the office I became, the more I thought about less noble concerns: would lunch again be a quick shot of tuna, or would there be time to sit in the park and dream of being a pigeon?

But I couldn’t shake that sign from my head.

I don’t have children – there’s not a paternal bone in my body – but I do share my humble abode with others.  Firstly, there’s the Old Lady of the House.  She’s black and she’s smart.  She’d do the crossword if she could (and then eat the newspaper).  She’d bake pumpkin scones (and then bury them).  But if you’re thinking of breaking in, here’s a warning: the Old Lady will tear off your leg.

So, feeling for the kids and their beloved, I dutifully scanned the neighbourhood.  For a week.  And found nothing.  But then one afternoon, at the end of the street…

Also at my place, in contrast to the Old Lady, is the Murderer.  Sometimes, after another big day of killing (he’s immune to the necklace of bells), he dines on his Seafood Supreme and says, Thanks for being mortgaged up to your eyeballs but I’d like a house on the posh side of town where there are more trees, and more birds.  And what would the Murderer do if you were to break in?  The expensive stuff’s all yours, he’d declare, but touch my food and I’ll eat your face.

…I got off my bike and crouched down into the gutter.  Yes, here it was – brown and soft.  And so very still.  The ferret.  It had managed a 200-metre dash before being skittled (by a car, I am sure, not by Cat the Ripper, who’d never leave a carcass alone).  But could I knock on a certain door and make the worst announcement ever?  No I couldn’t.

Two days later, I returned home to find a young girl and her little brother distributing leaflets.  When they made their way up the street, I went to the letterbox.  Here was a simple photocopied image of a child – the little brother – clutching the ferret as if he’d never, ever let it go.  And beneath it, this: HELP US.

I had to do it.

I ran after them.  ‘You’re looking for your pet, yeah?’ I said.  They nodded.  ‘I’m so sorry but I may have some bad news.’  The girl stared as if I was a hunchback.  I told them what I’d found; I pointed to where I’d found it.  The boy glanced at his sister.  Then they sprinted off as if every second mattered.

Back inside, I poured myself a wine and sat on the couch, the Murderer on one side, purring sweetly because he knew that at least of this crime he was innocent, and the Old Lady of the House on the other, her greying head heavy in my lap.  Together we watched the news.  Somehow suicide bombings no longer seemed important.

This, apparently, is the road not taken.

Bloody poets.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, June 30, 2007)

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The past