In the late afternoon, the call stretched across the yard and into the distance, a larger than life sound, ‘Yvonne…… Isabel‘. The girls’ names were elongated with pleading vowels, gentle yet insistent. The incessant winds carried the calls further. It was a mother calling her children at dusk or tea time or at 6 o’clock, whichever came first. ‘Yvonne…… Isabel’, the voice seemed to come from the sea bleached weatherboard house, urging the girls to come home, to return from their vast playground of sky, sea and distance that made up the fishing village of Port Albert. The weathered house was unadorned, unpainted, a homemade shack. Attempts at domestic beautification included a patch of spongy buffalo grass which was impossible to mow, and an overgrown cigar fuchsia, which attracted honey eaters when in flower. The rainwater tank near the backdoor was home to a large venomous brown snake, especially during summer, when it curled under the tank stand for shade and came out for a drink when the tap was left dripping. The outhouse toilet was down a grassy track beyond the tank with the snake. ‘Yvonne…. Isabel‘, the second call, five minutes later, became more urgent. ‘Tea’s ready‘ was perhaps all that was implied, but then the front yard was the sea, and as the tide turned in Corner Inlet, the muddy mangroves became quickly submerged. Beyond the mangroves, deep sea channels filled with swirling eddies as the tide rapidly moved across the sand, dangerous to anyone except the most experienced of boat navigators who saw the channels as sea routes back home to the Port. And further out on the horizon, the bushy headland of Snake Island became a Sphinx on dusk: that dark, terrible shadow scared most young children. The Sphinx Head knew all the secrets of the sea, of all those cousins who ‘met their watery grave’. ‘Yvonne….. Isabel, the cry carried across that austere but magical landscape.
I never heard that woman’s call, and yet it is vividly recalled. By the time my memories began, her call had been perpetuated by Cocky, the pet cockatoo who lived with my grandparents. Cocky continued to call their names in the late afternoon. Like a recording from the past, Cocky’s call, although a little scratchy sounding, especially as they claimed he was at least 100 years old, preserved their childhood long after they had left and grown up. Cocky’s evening call for Yvonne and Isabel captured the lengthened vowels of the Australian bush coo- ee, except with tenderness entwined with rising anxiety. I never knew the woman, or Yvonne and Isabel, who were/are my cousins. They had departed long before my visits to the Port. No one spoke much about them: a ‘broken’ marriage was a taboo subject back then. They left and that was that. My uncle Fred, the father of those girls, was a fisherman at Port Albert in those days, and spent some time as the lighthouse keeper on Maatsuyker Island, an isolated job that is said to drive one insane. Fred became a dedicated alcoholic, ending up in a men’s boarding house in Moreland Road, Brunswick, when that part of Melbourne was considered a ghetto for the poor or dispossessed.
Uncle Fred, the owner of Cocky, taught him a few colourful phrases and tricks. It was said that Cocky had had a previous owner, so some of Cocky’s party tricks may have come down through time. Apart from calling for those girls each evening, Cocky could swear with passion, and sing and dance like a cabaret star. He definitely had mood swings. To this day I’m not sure if Cocky simply replicated Uncle Fred’s moods, from singing to cursing, the range of emotions induced by alcohol, or whether Cocky had his own real moods. Although a pet, he only spent part of the day in a cage, which was the place where he was more likely to perform his song and dance routines, Cocky want to Dance. When free, he would often enter my grandparents’ house through the back door and stomp around the living room in a bad mood, yelling bloody bugger bloody bugger, terrifying all who were present. His ugly moods may have been an attention seeking act, the expressed anger and words learnt from Uncle Fred.
I also have a pet Cocky who, like Uncle Fred’s Cocky, has no special name. It always makes me laugh when I hear about others who call their pet cockatoos Ralph or Kevin. My Cocky reminds me of the past, of all the cousins I never met, and of my grandparents who lived at the Port, whose simple lives were in tune with nature and the tides. When my Cocky first visited, he looked unkempt, dirty and thin. He had brown dust marks on his chest and seemed to be a loner. Over the last two years, Cocky has become a gracious bird: his white coat glistens, he is well fed and clean with a beautiful deep lemon crest: at one point last year, he also had a mate. He also has his foul moods. Most of the time he sits on the same broken bough of our Melia Azedarach tree at about head height. He seems to enjoy listening to us talk to him and is not simply after a free handout of sunflower seeds. And yet there are days when he stomps around our verandah table, throwing things off with obvious displeasure, as if he is annoyed by our mess. If we’re away from home for more than a day, we return to find all sorts of odds and ends removed from the small green verandah cupboard and thrown about on the ground. He is either wise, gentle and a good listener, or an angry bird. Perhaps I should call him Fred.
In Memory of my cousin L Vardy, another cousin I never met, who passed away last year. Len’s poem, Home, takes me straight back to Port Albert and to Pop, that skilled navigator, the grandfather we both shared.
Extract from a work in progress. Another extract can be found here.