By Claire Jansen
When I was small with glasses in the shape of fish that I didn’t actually need and grazes speckled in deep maroon on my knees, the Lady Stelfox floated on the river. She had a steady red bottom and sides like the boat in All the Rivers Run, a book that I would read over and over again from the age eleven to fourteen, imagining Australia.
When I rode on the Lady Stelfox, I had just watched the TV version starring Sigrid Thornton and her long brown hair. I was six or seven and lived in Launceston and wondered why boats all had girl’s names, but thought only men could be doctors. It didn’t feel like I lived on an island at the time.
The Lady Stelfox sat at the end of the jetty under Kings Bridge at the mouth of the Cataract Gorge. The boat waited smiley eyed for us to climb aboard, its freshly cleaned windows glinting in the dappled shade under the willows on the edge of Kings Park. There was a café close by in the base of the old flour mills. I think it was called Ripples. Later new owners made it fancy with white table clothes and huge wine glasses with no stems and called it Stillwater and it picked up all sorts of awards. The flour mills had art galleries inside. At some point during my childhood they painted the outside of the silos cream and peach and they stood proudly against the dark grey bush that rose up along the Zig Zag track and the tiny fairy houses of the Penny Royal Hotel. The hotel was a source of intrigue because no one we knew could afford to go inside until one summer there was a deal on the shop-a-dockets and everyone went on the same weekend. It was a gunpowder mill relocated from a river called the Isis in the midlands between Cressy and Ross. There were wooden boats to travel round on, past the flywheel spilling water back into the pond, and a lolly factory where the candy maker stretched giant ribbons of sugar that shone like gold.
The day I first got to ride on the Lady Stelfox was sunny with a blue sky and wisps of white clouds. I wanted to be Philadelphia with all my heart. I was also terrified of drowning and slept badly every time we had swimming lessons at school, but I wasn’t scared of rivers. I remember the sound of my sandals clomping on the jetty as we waited in the shade to go aboard. It wasn’t too hot, and the river wasn’t too low or the trip couldn’t have been made. Rowers got stuck on the flats all the time. I wasn’t scared of the mudflats either. They were inoffensive beyond the way they smelt when the tide was out, although when I think about it now – the mud sucking, slippery on the side of the boat, pulling towards the bottom of the river – it makes me shiver. The bottom of the river; years of silt dredged and re-dredged, years of a city filling up the channels and the river just trying to go on as normal. If I were stuck on the flats, I thought, I would sit so quietly in my boat and wait for the sun to cross the sky.
My friend Ria and I stood on the rungs of the railing on the side of the jetty. I could smell the sunscreen on my face and arms. Mum had rubbed it in all the way under my t-shirt so that there were no gaps. I could feel the elastic of my homemade shorts tucked up over my shirt. No gaps. But there were spaces in between the boards on the jetty and sunlight streaming through the willows shone on the water and the water rippled and waved to me like a cheerful friend. Ducks floated into view.
We ran to the other side of the jetty and climbed to the third rung.
“Get down off there,” said our Mums, probably at the same time. We slipped back to the second rung, then slowly to the first as they watched us and we watched the ducks. Ria was my best friend but our Mums were just people who had to hang out together. I had trouble seeing because the glasses didn’t fit properly under my hat. Years later I would go to a different optometrist, and she would put drops in my eyes that would make my eyes so blurry I couldn’t see for the rest of that day and say,
“You don’t need glasses anymore.”
The ducks, two of them, floated on the water.
“We should have brought bread,” said my Ria’s Mum.
I was scared of ducks if they came too close. We had gone to feed them at Grindelwald, which is another model village, a Swiss one this time, built by a Dutch man who used to own the supermarkets before Woolworths took over. A duck had bit my finger when I didn’t let go of the bread quickly enough. It was an experienced pecker and full of bread and I squawked like a seagull as the hard yellow beak clamped down on my hand. I didn’t think to let go of the bread and allow the duck to take it. Mum grabbed hold of me and jerked my arm away as she shooed the duck with her foot, and I cried all the way back to the car.
We waited for the other passengers to step up to the end of the jetty, mostly old people wearing white with glasses held on lanyards. A family of boys ran past everyone with their mother tired of shouting. They pulled sticks from the muddy places between the willow roots and began sword fighting with each other and rolling down the grass slope.
No one knew I was staring except Mum. No one could even see my face underneath the hat, glasses, and zinc on my nose. My fair skin and the hole in the ozone layer combined were my handicap in any summer race.
“Hop on the boat,” said Mum. I looked away. Boys went to my school but they didn’t live at my house. I lived in a grown up world most of the time. Dad was teaching me all the capital cities and paying me a dollar when I got ten new ones right.
Mum lifted me up like a monkey and I swung my sandalled feet onto the sandpaper texture of the deck trying to get as much of a thrill out of being airborne as possible.
“Weeeee!” My arms were strong from all the tricks I could do on the monkey bars. I could swing and fall and catch myself with the back of my knees. We walked inside the boat. Rows of bench seats with matching wooden tables sat against the windows. The windows were all smudged with water and weather and Ria and I begged to sit outside. We sat in the sun at the front of the boat and Mum layered sunscreen on me again and gave me an apple that we’d grown on our tree. It tasted of sunscreen. My legs dangled off the edge of the seat. Fine golden hairs shone in the sunlight.
The Tamar is long and salty. I’ve told you about the mudflats and there was an island in the middle of the stream that was another feature. It had a bull on it and for school work we had to make a case to the newspaper as to whether the bull should be allowed to stay or go when they opened the island to tourists via a boardwalk from the banks of the river. I said that I thought they should fence part of the island for the bull and let it live there, and keep the visitors safe in the other part. The teacher said there wasn’t enough room to do that for the bull and I had to choose one or the other. But I couldn’t make the decision.
When Tamar Island opened Mum and I took Grandad out on the duckboard path. He was deaf then but didn’t walk with a stick like he does now. The bull rushes grew thick along the path and I felt exhilarated as we walked out over the water. At the edge of the island as we stepped onto the hard land, Grandad picked a swatch of greenery out of the rushes and slapped it across my wrist.
“Know what that is?” he asked.
“It’s poison ivy. You should know that.”
The welt came up all red on my arm and I went and held Mum’s hand blinking back tears. It didn’t hurt though in the long run.
“They had to bring everything in by boat,” Grandad said. He walked slowly and I ran around like a puppy, always coming back to hear more stories.
The Lady Stelfox marked her track in the river. We curved out wide into the mouth of the Tamar. I took my glasses off from under my hat, but the sun was so glary I put them back on.
“Mum, I’m thirsty.”
“Have a sip of water.”
“What’s that Mum?”
“Where’s our house.”
“On the other side of the Gorge.”
The houses were on such a tall slope that you couldn’t see either of the roads that led up to them, the one that ran to Riverside and the one up to Trevallyn and the bushland behind it. The houses were huge. We never went there and we didn’t have any friends who lived there. Our doctor did though and Mum and I went to her small clinic in the backroom of her house every time I got tonsillitis. She was always running late, and even with all that time to think about it, it hadn’t occurred to me that our doctor was a woman and I could be one too.
The Lady Stelfox turned before we reached the tributary of the South Esk as it ran out past K Mart and the Boags Brewery, and we swung back towards the mouth of the Gorge. The Gorge. Every place has something about it. I know that now. But when I was a kid I thought that I lived in heaven. I would look out at the sky at sunset and watch it streak fluoro colours over the hills and feel happy at the very bottom of my heart. That feeling stayed, but it was joined as I grew older by the deepest desire to get the hell out of that small town and to live in a big, dirty city where nobody knew me.
Our house overlooked the reserve on the West Launceston side and if you walked a little way down Thrower Street you could be at the lookout over the deep ravine that was craggy, red rock on one side and mossy green dispersed with pines on the other, and purple weed flowers. The Zig Zag track cut across the dry side and was very steep. The Gorge path was sealed in cool black asphalt and was shady and sloping. Sections of moisture didn’t dry in the shadows through the whole day. Connecting the two paths was Kings Bridge. The bridge was old and wooden with two lanes of traffic that crossed it in and out of the city. Teenagers jumped off the bridge in the summer, and it was summer the day that I took the Lady Stelfox up the river. I looked up and saw a boy about to jump off the bridge, his feet hooked into the rungs, his friends cheering him on as the boat passed beneath him. He cast a shadow over the us like a bird of prey.
I looked up towards the Zig Zag track and thought of the high walls of the Murray River in All the Rivers Run.
“Mum is this a steamboat?”
“Yes. But a little one.”
I imagined stacking grain in the hold and that my hair was long and brown and I could wear a skirt to my ankles with a full-bodied petticoat.
“I wish I’d been born in the olden days Mum.”
Ria was drawing in coloured pencils into a colouring book. Mum smiled and nodded. She indulged my obsession with pioneer history. Even years later, I am nostalgic for how romantic I thought it would be to live in the light of kerosene and candles, scrubbing laundry by hand, and standing atop of those Murray River cliffs looking down upon the world as if I owned it.
The cicadas rang faintly in the hills. If I shut my eyes slightly I could imagine the tall towering river banks the red soil that I had only seen in Devonport where the sheep were pink from standing in it all day long and there was a beach that rolled right into town. The Lady Stelfox chugged up the river, her giant flywheel spinning and casting a spray over the side. There were no ducks on the rocks, but a group of high school students were sitting further up in their bathers, jumping off the tallest rocks. A shadow from the right hand bank fell over the boat and I could almost see up to the Basin that was the big natural pool at the picnic end of the Gorge that I wasn’t allowed to swim in. When I was older I would swim in there on my own or with my friends, moving my arms and legs through the deep, black water, never finding the bottom that they said went down over 100m making the water so cold that it squeezed the air out of my lungs when I first entered. Eels would wrap themselves around my calves and disappear while I shrieked piercing the surface of the water. I would lie back with the water just covering my ears changing the sound of the world, like being underwater in a bath, and I would look up at the hills of the Gorge as it cut through to Duck Reach and the first power station in Australia then right myself treading water as a dragonfly zipped and hovered across the smooth glass pane.
The Lady Stelfox was gone by that time, and so am I now. But in my head nothing else has changed, although when I go back there are new shops and I don’t recognise anyone in the mall. The Gorge is the same. Tamar Island waits in the middle of that silty river. The sky still streaks pink and orange at sunset, and I think of Tasmania resting in the middle of the Southern Ocean, the idea of it no more city or island than anywhere else in the world unless I keep a map of what I remember in my head with capitals on it, and think about how it makes me feel.
Claire Jansen is a writer living in Hobart. She has just returned from seven weeks in New York. Claire released a collection of poetry entitled Outside in the Sun in February 2014.