There was a vague awareness that something momentous was approaching, beginning in the Christmas break straddling 1985 and 1986. We were once more heading down to Phillip Island, a journey this time heralded as our last holiday as a complete family unit. I took this news with suitably sombre consideration, my siblings were older, and it was my understanding that such a trip would soon no longer be either practicable or desirable. My family had been going down to the Island since the late 60’s, initially pitching a tent on the land owned by Grahame and Inge King, old artist friends of my fathers. It was soon discovered that two houses down was a holiday shack owned by John Swan, another old acquaintance and this modest fibro cement dwelling was to become my family’s regular holiday haunt. As a child, words could not express the momentous thrill of entering the undulating dirt road that was Woodlands Avenue in the area of Silver Leaves, a short walk from the protected beach looking across to French Island on the North side of the Island. The path was over hung at every point by the same tall silver beauty of the banksias and tee-tree that had inspired my father to produce a glorious suite of paintings and drawings in the 1970’s, and importantly became the subject that was to best illustrate his experimental art ideas then known as ‘Notation Painting’. These works were literally a flowering of his creative spirit, where foreshore danced across the waters of Westernport, and light touched the waves revealing sea music that spoke in colliding delineations tangling with filigree clouds in poetic movement across the sky. “Glimpses of the Sea”, one of three larger canvases from this series hung pride of place above the dining table at Canterbury for many years, a work that even my father admitted was aging well. Contained within its blueness were all the feelings I associated with the Island.
The summer of that last family holiday seemed to stretch for an eternity the days lingering lazily and emotions ebbing and flowing as if following the pattern of the tide. The rituals that lent structure to our lives were temporarily put aside and everybody seemed to visibly shed layers, leaving them to dry with a salty crust under dappled sunlight. Television was replaced by a pack of cards, dartboard and scrabble; water for hot chocolate; violin practice and homework for a cricket bat and pocket knife. I discovered a new independence, a new desire for exploration amidst the vines and ivy that strangled the under story of the foreshore. At the base of a slight ravine nestled half way between the beach and the Swan’s place, I poked about for an hour or so one morning among the remains of a campfire. It seemed impossibly lush to have been intentionally lit, and among the scraps I recognised an odd ensemble of tinnies, broken venetians, canvas backed chairs with beach stripes mangled into sculptural confusion, a few swollen paper backs and a collection of baby’s plush chew toys with partially melted plastic protrusions. The contrast of these forms against the surrounding glossy green was quite startling and it became a secret place I returned to for solitude over the weeks of the holiday, each time finding a new small treasure to collect.
Every time we visited the Island we encountered the rains. It wasn’t really a problem, as the little shack was comfortable, and despite the close proximity, everyone seemed to find their own space. My brother Philip spent one morning drawing with white chalk on the glass back door; a web like configuration that he explained was a thematic picture. I watched with puzzlement for some time, and eventually my curiosity about how easily it might rub off got the better of me. I also made some drawings, a fish representing a Toady transformed into a predator trapped in the shallow pools left behind by the receding tide, and a version of the mural above the top bunk that my sister occupied. It was an authentic hippie masterpiece with a central figure with long combed hair obscuring one side of her face and a ball and chain inscribed with free love and peace slogans. Other words and critters surrounded her intoxicated repose and it represented a whole world of discovery and interpretation. Another artwork at the foot of my bunk was made up of a series of colourful drips that had been allowed to find their own course from one end of the board to the other without human intervention apparently.
It didn’t matter that the mattresses were old and the bed springs noisy or that the fly screens had gaps that frequently allowed a hungry mosquito to escape the buzzing mob and take pot shots at limbs pulled out to escape the Furness of the sleeping bag. The mossies could have been the death of me, “because your blood is sweet” my mother explained. Just being there however was intoxication enough to forget the rudimentary nature of the place and its inconveniences. It was a part of its charm and mystery and waking up to the distant rumblings of waves and the languid scrape of slippers on lino was enough to bring a restorative calmness to the family. There was a visitor’s book bearing testament to the significance it held for all the families invited to stay, and it was part of the ritual to read through the entries before adding our own addition at the end of each visit. The house was made up of two main areas separated by curtains; the children’s bedroom with two bunk beds and a large maroon trunk that could have been pulled from a Spanish galleon containing bed linen; and the main room with a small annex with another bunk (for parents), dominated by the dining table and pot belly. I loved running my finger nails along the grooves of the yellow lining of the large table in the middle of the room at which we would happily consume fish ‘n chips washed down with lemonade. The laundry area was like a time capsule, with an antique wringer and a variety of receptacles and lanterns also bearing the shape of antiquity. By the glass windows and door at the back was another trunk designated for games and puzzles that contained a collection of red head match boxes, one for each change in design over preceding decades, and this over looked a bird bath that saw a staggering variety of brightly feathered visitors that always had us diving for the bird ‘book’, for purposes of identification. John’s wife Ailsa Swan was a keen bird watcher and was a prominent figure in nature conservation on the Island.
After a week of beach combing we headed for the Cows golf course, a sprawling few miles of lush green bordered by the traditional sliver grey of the coastal flora. Golf had been a long-standing passion for my father, and he took every opportunity to frequent local courses and instil his keenness in my brother and I, believing it to be of bonding benefit. In my case his enthusiasm definitely rubbed off, but for my brother Phillip, the exercise was carried out with reluctant angst. On the 8th tee, a par 4 with a prominent dog leg, Philip’s drive slew off the side edge striking my father in the chest with a thud that sent a nearby group of water birds sky rocketing. He remained doubled over for at least 15 minutes, but was reflective at how narrowly he had avoided a more serious injury. The shock of it was intense, and I heatedly reprimanded Philip for what had happened, though my father insisted that the fault was his own for not standing behind the line of the ball. The mood was burning through my cheeks, and for those minutes I hated the game, and what had happened. The sound of insects seemed to swell to fever pitch and drown out, or make absurd the sound of my voice dumbly asking, “are you ok”?
The idea of moving to the Island permanently was often mooted that summer. We were full of plans for getting away, for making a clean break in recognition of my father’s failing health. They were dreams that circled, sometimes stopping to perch on a hill to take in the Westernport Panorama, but Canterbury was still our home and the only place I had known as home. After one such conversation, my father read aloud the opening chapters of the Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol”. The evening unfolded in a manner resembling a classroom at attention. Then suddenly, my father choked reading through a poignant description of a poor child, his voice failed and he burst into tears quickly taking leave into the darkness outside. I could just make out his grey form through the window, the slope of his shoulder adding variation to the skyline in silhouette. I had never seen him cry before leaving me to secretly believe some things and disbelieve others. It was the first time I became aware of the mixture within him of stoic worldliness and this most fragile innocence. When he darkly emerged from the night an hour or so later, the house seemed to shrink in his presence, filled with words left unspoken, everyone tip toeing around the strangely muted living area, the hum of the gas light louder than ever. In the days that followed, my father embarked on a series of line drawings of each member of the family. It was a project undertaken with great seriousness and concentration. He had me pose for photos, my head against a halo of dartboard before commencing the portrait properly.
Every gesture every crease was placed with recognition of their character building importance. It was evident that these works held a special significance to him, a deeper insight into those in his family, and he was most perturbed when Michaela left early before he had a chance to draw her. I remember him saying that it was the first time he had really looked at us for years. The sadness I could detect in him, the weariness had been replaced by this complete absorption in the task at hand. This was the beginning of his last great artistic effort.