Braidwood, New South Wales, Australia. Childhood years.
We used to drive two hours to my aunty and uncle’s house every school holidays. For the duration of the drive, I’d complain about a stomach ache and build a wall of pillows between my sister because I didn’t want her touching my side of the car. In a pithy attempt to distract us from arguing, Mum would launch into Green Grow the Rushes, O.
“I’llllllllll sing you one, ohhhhhhhh …”, she’d begin, with a smile.
“GREEN GROW THE RUSHES, O!” we’d shout in unison, our feet kicking the Fantale wrappers on the floor, the pillow between us falling onto my lap.
As I drive through the heritage town now, 20 years later, I choke on the flood of memory. Place has a way of doing that to you sometimes.
Driving through the streets, I see it all. Chipped paint on a door tattooed with pencil markings: Ruby, age 6. Ruby, age 7. Ruby, age 9. A tyre swing under an old oak. My aunty’s fingertip stuck to an axe. A row of mason jars in the kitchen full of peaches. The smell of the fireplace. A big red truck with no seatbelts. A four-poster bed to jump into in the mornings and a scratchy couch full of coins fallen from the pockets of napping uncles.
We’d always go out bush when we visited Braidwood, and we’d sing Green Grow the Rushes, O in the car with my aunty. She would always harmonise the “rivals” part in “three, three the rivals” with Mum. That was nice.
When I was 10, my aunty moved from that house and we no longer had the uncle with the big red truck. There was no more chipped white paint and no more tyre swing. It was OK though, because her next house still smelt like her and she still had peaches for our ice cream and I’d still find her knitting with my mum by the fire at night. Instead of coins in couches there’d be Mars Bar Slice in a little aluminium tin. There’d still be the four-poster bed, except we’d be too old to jump into it.
I liked my new uncle. When we visited he always had a big project for us. Sometimes we were building a life-sized boat or a witch on a broomstick. We’d drive out to the dump and collect materials we could use for our sculpture. We’d spend three days in the shed, outlining skulls on planks of wood, jigsawing them, making papier-mache heads with eyes and big red lips, nailing them onto sticks and fixing them to the interior of the boat or carriage he was helping us build.
We always knew what we were doing this for. We were going to string it up between the two trees in their backyard – this giant, heavy object, unapologetically hideous and triumphant. We’d douse our sculpture in petrol, and run a rope from the ship to the backyard fire.
We’d stand back and watch my uncle strike a match, watch the flame take to the rope until it reached the sculpture and woooooooossshhhhh it would go, up in flames. The papier-mache heads would explode, leaving jigsawed skulls glowing in the dark of the night. The wire holding our masterpiece would dip and sway as the weight burned into nothingness. It would take only minutes and then darkness, and silence.
My uncle would lean back in his knitted grape-coloured jumper with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows and talk to us about the transience of life. We spend so much time building things only for them to disappear and hey, isn’t that beautiful, kids? We’d nod, our fingers covered in melted chocolate from his famous Mars Bar Slice, watching the skulls make their final flicker goodbye.
Now my uncle is a woman, and I am all grown up, and family is more difficult to organise. There are no more flaming sculptures against starry skies and no more Mars Bar Slice and I won’t sit with my aunty and my mum by a fire while they’re knitting. Instead, I will hold onto the smell of that house and remember the taste of peaches in my mouth and hum “green grow the rushes, o” to myself in the car as I drive through those old, familiar streets.