When I was ten we lived in an average suburb on the outskirts of Sydney. All the houses on our street were relatively the same, with a front garden and a relatively good-sized backyard. That backyard was our world, until I turned ten. One day my parents decided that I was old enough to play in the park that was about five minutes walk away. Those were the days you could let your kids out without worrying over whether they’ll return safely.
When you’re ten, any walk outside of your house is a journey, a travel expedition. Michael, my little brother, was doubly blessed as, being eight years old, he got out two years before me. The park became our world with the backyard relegated to back up for rainy days or late evenings.
At this stage in my young life I was reading Enid Blyton. I read them all; Famous Five and Secret Seven really inspired my young adventurous soul. These stories made the park a huge disappointment. The Blyton stories always seemed to include river trips, lush countryside and woods. I was a smart kid, but at only ten, I could not realise that a British setting could have no affiliations with a harsh Australian landscape.
The first few visits were too exciting to think of much of anything except for the fact that we were somewhere other than home. But over a few more visits, I became increasingly critical of our new domain. No river except a canal with only slightly more than a trickle of drain water, which we called a creek in our youthful optimism. Forget woods. The park was roughly the size of a rugby pitch, a small country to us, and there wasn’t a single tree anywhere to be found. The only shade was about five feet on one side of an abandoned toilet block. Although the main area allowed for a decent game of cricket, no one had even thought it worth the bother to actually create a pitch. The lack of trees left the grass exposed and dried up the earth. If you fell, you hurt.
Besides the barren field, the ‘creek’, and the toilet block, there was also a play area. It consisted of a slippery-dip, a climbing frame and a merry-go-round.
The merry-go-round was a hilarious and a test of agility. It was lopsided and worn out by countless push and pulls. It still turned but it was a heck of a push. Being the youngest, my brother usually got the ride. Besides, he couldn’t push so well. If you stood on the downward-sloped edge you were guaranteed a bump on every full turn. The element of risk was proportional to the speed of the turns.
The climbing frame was a rite of passage. We would scare each other all the way up with exaggerated and grotesque images of fallen and broken bodies. The stories were half the fun. We started by managing to climb half way and I remember that by our last year there we had reached the summit. Oh, I could climb it easy, I was such a tomboy and would climb anything. My brother, however, had a limp. His hip was fractured when at the age of five he was hit by a car. He lived, but he would always limp. He was mocked and picked on and as a gentle soul he never fought back. I was severely protective of him and within a few weeks of school everyone knew he was my little brother and left him alone. So I climbed only a little further than he could manage. I had to make it realistic. I was older so would naturally do better, just not so much better that he would feel defeated.
One of my favourite areas was the slippery-dip. Not for the slide but for the platform you could stand on while you waited for the person ahead, although it was usually just my brother and I. The reason I liked it was because although it wasn’t as high as the climbing frame, the level platform allowed you to stand and look about you. I was a princess locked in a tower, Caesar speaking to his subjects or just me having a look with an uncommon view of the world. When I felt secretive or reflective, I would crouch down and be hidden. You see, three rusty metal walls surrounded the platform, only about 2 feet high, but enough to sit behind unnoticed. I would sit and think and try to ignore the graffiti. None of it ever made sense to me anyway.
The creek was the most adventurous, mostly because mum and dad had forbidden us from going there. We were good kids, so it took several visits to wear their warnings thin. It was partly adventure and partly boredom with the sparse park. I had also hesitated going there because I was unsure as to how my brother was going to climb down. The concrete sides were steep and high to an eight year old with a dodgy leg. I finally decided to make a game of it. I never wanted to bring attention to his disability, but I didn’t want for him to be embarrassed about it either. So this time I used it and we made a game of it. I would start down first and he would brace himself on my back. Arms rigid and yelling out that I was doomed and must go down. You see, the game was that I was scared to go down. He was my captor and was taking me to the dungeon. At the bottom, we giggled with sibling ease.
Down in the creek is where we discovered tadpoles. Until then, we had only seen them on kids’ television. What a find! We would sneak old jars from home, sometimes even emptying dad’s tool bit jars from the garage. To catch them, we had our wobbly old pool net. We didn’t actually do anything after collecting them. I guess catching taddies is like mountain climbing, you do it because its there. We would come home with two to ten at a time and keep them under the house away from mum. Michael wasn’t so good at netting them. He was clumsy and his leg slowed him down.
There was this one time at the height of the summer holidays when I really lost it with him. It was hot, dry and we were both irritable; mum had told us off for something the night before. We were down in the creek looking for taddies, when probably the biggest tadpole either one of us had ever seen swam by. Of course, we had to have it. Michael insisted on being the netter and I knew this was a mistake. I was too hot to argue so handed it over to him. I waited half-crouched in drain water with the jar in one hand and the lid in the other. Not only did he not catch it but he also managed to disturb the whole area by accidentally splashing through the water. Whatever tadpoles were around had disappeared.
I was just a kid, only ten, and even my sensitivity towards him couldn’t always stop me from getting angry sometimes. I lost it. I stood up and faced him with childish fury. I told him how stupid he was, how I shouldn’t have let him be the netter and how he had ruined the whole day.
I ended with, “You can never do anything right!”
My arms were flaying and the jar slipped. The crash resonated off the canal walls. It sobered us up and we walked home sullen and defeated.
Seventeen years after that time, a different summer and Michael is dead
. At twenty-five he had slipped and fell at a construction site. It wasn’t even very high, so I was told. He was so happy to have reached the heights
of the climbing frame. Just one of those things. I had left home so hadn’t seen him in seven years. I returned to Sydney for thefuneral
and a few days later I made the trip to our park. It was only half the size now. Part of it must have been sold off for housing. They had added trees and a legally secure playground; asphalted ground and a rust-free slippery-dip. I didn’t go in. Everything had change
d. And to think there was a time that I had been disappointed with it.
I wanted it back, I wanted it back the way it was.
Imperfections and all.