Venus Bay


In the spotlight of a half-moon, the sixteen-year-old tan Subaru Forester almost looks dark blue. It’s parked between the front porch and a pile of mulch that’s awaiting distribution.

The keys are tucked into the centre console. If necessary, I could get to driver’s seat in a sprint. I know the curves of the gravel road out of here and could gun it without skidding into any of the tea tree on the long driveway. Then all I’d have to do is speed the 10K towards town on the sealed road—not hitting any kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, or rabbits—and I’d be safe.

But what sanctuary can Venus Bay offer me? The one main street is already closed for the night, but someone should be around. Kids congregating for a smoke, retired Mafia characters scanning the road. It doesn’t matter. A living person would be there, at minimum. But the houses out where I am, near the pointy end of the land, are strictly for weekenders, and it’s Thursday.

So there’s just the dog and me for the next three nights, enjoying the gift of a friend’s house. The days are for writing, allegedly. The nights are for relaxing, allegedly. Perfect quiet, my friend promised, and perfect quiet I get. There’s barely enough of a breeze to carry the white noise of the surf over the dunes into this yard.

What if there was a distinct sound? For instance: a knock on the window? Or: the conversation of strangers walking up the driveway?

I lock the front door.

The plan is to think happy thoughts and to not even think about taking a phenergan to get to sleep.

Inside, all is ostensibly cheery. The white tongue-and-groove wall has ceramic kookaburras kingfishers flying around on it. Imagine my blood splattering across them? The fire in the Rayburn is going full force, loaded with enough red gum to go for hours. Ready to burn me, the place, and the peninsula to ash.

The B-side of ‘Young Americans’ is on the record player, some funk to fend off the silence.

Wylie, a kelpie-collie, lays half-off his mat with his chin on the floor. He watches me with mild curiosity, only because his eyes happen to be open.

I nest on the couch, wrap my feet in an itchy brown blanket and cuddle up with my phone. No wind means at least two bars, so I’m not completely abandoned here to die. The Guardian diverts me toward more realistic fears: I browse the usual suspects—civil war, nuclear war or climate emergency—before putting down the phone in search of something more chamomile. From the shelf: I scan the first page of a novel I’ve meant to read—times are hard in suburban Sydney; then the first page of another—times were also hard in medieval England.

I cannot think about focusing because the song “Fame” has come on. The descending distortion near the end as Bowie repeats fame sounds like a mantra, but also, on these old speakers, like a nightmare of falling. He was cocaine jittery then, drawn thin like a zombie, and doesn’t even remember recording it. Not hard to see him dead, his blue bell bottom suit hanging off of him, his sepulchral makeup smeared. I convince myself that behind the music I can hear him limping up the driveway. The song ends and I swap the album for ‘Hejira’.

I rescue a copy of The Good Weekend from the kindling pile and read every word.  My heart is momentarily warmed. I do the quiz.

The dog’s ears spike. He looks intently across the room. I follow his gaze to the across the room. It’s the reflection in the window of me on the couch. There I am in the surveillance monitor. Is this what he’s looking at or is there something on the other side of the glass?

I get up and lock the back door—pointlessly. If someone wants in, this house is far enough from the road that the crack of a door being forced, or glass breaking, or for that matter, any scream I might be able to scream, would not carry to the next property—which, as has been noted, is unoccupied.

A Scotch is justified. Wrapping myself in the brown blanket and carrying the shot glass like a binky, I survey each room, closing every curtain and shade as I go. There: I can’t see the car or the woods or the shifting crowd of people outside.

To the outside world, however, my shifting shadow is backlit against the curtains. A short study should be enough to assure a blood-hungry Bowie or a hopped up ice addict that a home invasion here would be a cakewalk. Why anyone would get hopped up and come out here to commit a crime is a mystery. A mystery that makes the prospect more unsettling.

What I do know is this: the sharpest thing in the house is the bread knife in the kitchen. Even with my steadiest hand though, it couldn’t slow down the drug-fueled, or, my luck, the undead.

As per the fire plan, I could flee. Assuming whomever it is is composed of matter and chooses to push in the front or back door, I could stay alert enough to unlock the opposite one and escape into the bush. I have enough knowledge of the paths and clearings to hide out until the threat is gone. Assuming I don’t startle the copperhead that lives around here. And assuming my would-be assailant doesn’t have red-eyed night vision. Or the ability to smell fear.

There’s a chainsaw in the shed. I try not to think about what I will do when I hear it suddenly grind into action.

Realistically, this whoever is most likely the wombat in the hole near the barbeque, whose main interest is drinking from the water bucket on the porch. This is the only sort of home invasion that will get a rise out of this “working” dog.


I grew up in New York City on the ninth floor. At any hour of the day there was traffic, sirens, airplanes and helicopters, the thumping of neighbours and the shouts from crazy people on the street below. Cocooned in that nightly hum, I could fearlessly read Stephen King, and lose myself to the array of horrors that befall a person alone on a chilly night in the empty forest. The spoiler, learned from every story: The forest wants you to think it’s empty.

I part the curtains. No face on the other side of the glass. The car is still ready to go. Unless my assailant gets to it first.

I check my phone. No Service. Great, nuclear winter.

No panicking, no. The cloud of fallout would take a while to get here (and me with only a few day’s worth of pasta).

I turn the lights out, one by one. At least my movements won’t be visible through the curtains anymore.

When beckoned, the dog follows and curls clockwise twice before settling onto his burlap bed, adjacent to mine. I have deployed hot water bottles strategically under my doona and pillow. The tenets of good sleep hygiene dictate that I don’t even check mail, much less The Washington Post, before tucking my phone more than an arm’s length away. Yes, it shouldn’t even be in the room, but—safety first.

I switch off the last light. Not even the neon light of a standby mode button to be seen.

Wylie is snoring. How did he drift away from me so fast? I am alone.

Possibly the oddest of the Watergate conspirators, G. Gordon Liddy, wanted to conquer his fear of lightening when he was a child, so he sat in a tree during a thunderstorm. He was also scared of rats, so he caught and ate one.  Surely going to sleep in a warm bed with a dog at my side should be survivable.

I came here with a fantasy, that I could be at ease in the bush, gloriously free, while all around me the nocturnal and crepuscular bushland go about their evening. The possums in the gum trees, the kangaroos and wallabies nibbling the grass almost out of existence, and the owls keeping lookout. Every now and then they notice the smoke coming out of the chimney, give a helpless smirk. Foreigners.

With my head between two pillows I can’t hear the silence.


The hot water bottles are no longer hot and the house is still dark. The phone tells me it’s four, which tells me nothing of use

I wrap myself in the blanket. The floor creaks its middle of the night creaks as  I lead Wylie outside to pee. More clouds have moved in front of the moon. What was dark blue is grey. Wylie understands the purpose of our mission and follows me to the lemon tree at the top of the driveway. We pee together.

And then he trots off down the driveway.

I call, but he’s on the scent of something good. Summoning all the gravitas I have, I command him to come back. He gives me a courtesy glance before darting off the road into the woods. My next call is a notch more anguished and is met with the cracking sound of him running through the woods. I walk under the canopy of tea tree until the world is all shades of black. At the spot where Wylie left the road, there’s a kangaroo track. Wrapped in the blanket, I lean over to peer into the low gap in the trees. After a few feet, it fades to black.

I call again. No response.

Finally, here’s the clarity I’ve been waiting for: I am the ghost that is haunting these acres of Gippsland. Whatever I was afraid of before I went to sleep has already happened. The burglars who didn’t even mean to kill me, the snake I surprised, the meth head who got jittery with his knife, the army of dead Bowies. It turns out my death was painless. All I know is I don’t have to go back to the house because there is nothing there for me. No more terror at the setting sun. No writing to do in the morning.. From now on I will wander, barefoot and naked under my blanket, searching in the darkness for my dog.



Her back hunched as she stepped gingerly through the slip of water on the sandbar. Tea tree tannin had steeped the river in amber and you couldn’t help admiring the dark ginger fox on a ground of golden liquor.

Why did I think of you when I saw the fox hunting mullet in the river shallows? She must have been engrossed in her work because her coat was damp and she’d ruffled it into feathers to protect herself from the cold. Her back hunched as she stepped gingerly through the slip of water on the sandbar. Tea tree tannin had steeped the river in amber and you couldn’t help admiring the dark ginger fox on a ground of golden liquor.

The only awkward posture in the scene was the way she hunched her back, whether as reaction to the cold or coiled to pounce on fish I couldn’t tell. She didn’t seem pleased by my sudden appearance but refused to look at me directly. The insouciance of vixens.

She would endure my presence simply because she was unwilling to waste the investment in her hunt. I was hunting too and knew how she felt, the intensity, the coiled energy, the hope.

I felt guilty for having imposed on her radiant quest. I passed on the opposite side of the river guiding the boat through the shallow channel that hugged the melaleucas and wattles growing on the bank. I looked back at her when I could take my eye from the navigation, fascinated by her high stepping stealth.

And I thought of you. Once again it took me days to return your call and you probably think I’m rude or neglectful, but I try to avoid the telephone as you know and my attention is so thoroughly in debt to the river, the insistence of its life.
The mist was thick at dawn. It hung like the gauze curtains you see in the back rooms of some old hotels where any welcome is reserved for the public areas. The old forgotten rooms where guests would stay in more prosperous times are left to decay, to shred, to dream old tattered dreams. The river mist wreathed in frayed drifts like that grey gauze of disappointment.

I had to peer into those old shabby rooms to find the river banks and the landmarks I used to follow the channel in the sandy river’s course. At last I could make out old Geoff’s fence. He shot himself last year. I wish he hadn’t. Took it bad when he had to sell the farm. The town blamed her but I’d seen them only a month before he died. Fishing together. They seemed happy. But how can you tell? Was the fox insouciant or careless? I chose the pride of insouciance because I’m just an observer, as distant from the true workings of a fox’s brain as I am from the motivations of most humans. Just an intrigued observer. No other gift than curiosity.

I loved Geoff. When I returned prodigal to the rivers after twenty five years away Geoff was delighted to see me and I clung to his welcome. He sat me down to remind me of a cricket game we’d played together thirty two years ago.

Geoff loved his cricket and loved talking about his two game career. In Geoff’s version of events his contribution was vivid, not overly embellished, but his ordinariness was central to the play. It was a great way to be welcomed.

I wish you hadn’t done it Geoff. I can’t bear to look at your hillsides now. Without you.

Then you pass Byron’s farm. He was a city man, a nerve nut, nose eroded by alcohol. He decided to become a market gardener but the tomato wilt got him. Really it was the absence of his wife. She couldn’t stand the loneliness of the river, the dawn mists parting reluctantly like the shrouds in a funeral parlour. Byron couldn’t explain its beauty and she couldn’t bear the awful screaming of the yellow bellied glider, the haunting white ghostliness of the masked owl. And its call; like death itself.

Byron grieved and so, after another year of battling the wilt, he left the hothouses and went back to the suburbs. For love.

And the next farm, on the bluff above Byron’s empty gardens, belongs to a Samoan abalone diver. His brother was shot by a gay man. The surviving brother played one game of cricket just so he could use his dead brother’s bat. Geoff would have loved it. So did I. I taught both brothers. Wild men of the sea. Lovely lost Samoans.

The mist still obscured the land marks and I peered through its veils to find the sandy beach which marked a treacherous bend. A mate saved a kid’s life here when he cut the fishing line tangled around a toddler’s leg. The other end was attached to an 80 lb mulloway heading for Bass Strait. That toddler’s father later sold the river bank farm to Phillip, a man who made his fortune recovering swamplands in the green and environmental eighties. The river community hated him for allowing the salt water to resume its old course across the paddocks. Old Geoff didn’t like it either and sawed off the two giant ironbark gateposts which Phillip used to block the communal roadway. Well Geoff thought it was communal, Phillip thought it was his land. Geoff sawed his posts off and told me of his act of defiance with enormous glee. He even rubbed his hands together as he retold the story as if he was in some rural cartoon.

Now Geoff is dead and Phillip is ill but it was Phillip who took in Geoff’s ancient blind terrier, Mate, after Geoff died. Funny world, peculiar humanity.

Phillip is combative but he would say assertive of his rights. He doesn’t get along with the abalone diver across the river. Being a fisherman Dean likes fast boats even though one of them is a yacht.

I love seeing that yacht on the river. Phillip sees a fast boat.

And their upstream neighbour is Marion. Some of Marion’s partners weren’t evidence of her ability to make good choices. One of her men set alight to himself after an argument as I happened to be leaving the hotel adjoining Marion’s house. I saw all Marion’s kids, including one I didn’t know she had, vaulting the fence. I taught them all except the one that’d escaped education completely. No homework handed in tomorrow I thought as the house burnt down.

But she was a great person, Marion, full of life and cheek. I was surprised when she moved in with Col but on more thorough consideration it was her most inspired choice.

Col was a Jackson of Jackson’s Bridge and his family had held the farm since it was first cleared. Some say the Jackson’s have Aboriginal blood but that claim that could be levelled at most of the district families who can trace their inheritance back three or four generations. It’s a lonely river. My great grandfather got lonely, but on a different river.

Col played in those golden cricket games that were so vivid in Geoff’s memory. But Col was even worse than Geoff; although he was the best horseman in East Gippsland. Col indulged his cattle’s roaming personalities just so he had an excuse to ride through the mountains looking for them. He never built a fence in his life, preferring to ride into New South Wales or up into the Alps to retrieve his esteemed line of cross bred duffers. Ayrshire being amongst the sires. My Ayrshire, my broken fence.

Thanks Col.

If you’re chasing your cattle, and those of farmers less attentive to stock control, across a couple of state borders you need good dogs.

Col had about thirty mixed bred border collie-kelpie-dingo beagles. Bad dogs. Savage, independent, bloody near feral mongrels. Col’s cattle breeding techniques were also applied to the refinement of his cattle dogs’ pedigree.

I was milking one misty morning. That old river mist is a river in itself and we got it in all seasons. Even as high up as my farm on the Maramingo, a wilder tributary of the wild Jinnor just before it joins the Wallagaraugh. It was breathtaking to watch the stealthy grey curtain steal entire mountains from your gaze only to reveal them a moment later with a flick of the magician’s wrist.

My jersey, Milly, was a darling cow and let me press my face into her loin while I milked her. We had an agreement about the amount of milk I could take before she’d stamp her foot to remind me the rest was for her calf.

But this particular morning of funereal mist she swung her head to look down into the valley long before we’d reached the point of agreed shares. I peered beneath her steaming belly, and could see these mongrel wild dogs. Two, three, six, Jesus, nine … Col. He must have been doing one of his interstate stocktaking visits, or bringing his cattle on a raid to my Ayrshire bull. Thanks Col.

On an earlier occasion I docked my old open clinker on Col’s beach beside the bridge so I could remove the Simplex engine and take it to be repaired by Larry Blair. But don’t start me on the Blairs. When I turned up to re-install the motor the Nadgee was no longer there. She was called Nadgee by Doug Barrow snr, who sailed her down the coast from Narooma and surfed her across the bar into the Mallacoota lakes. The Barrows were one of those wild early families and their forefathers had overlanded from Sydney across the Alps to Bombala in 1832. I bought a bed off old Doug once and on the back of the bedhead was scrawled in chalk, Barrow, Bombala, 1834. It’s an ugly bed but I kept it for the chalk of Australian history. But don’t start me on the Barrows either.

The important thing was that the Nadgee was gone. I enquired of Col about the boat’s location. ‘Gawn,’ he said, ‘in the flood.’ A week previous we’d had two inches of rain but not enough to take a styrofoam cup off the bank. I wonder how much Col’s riverside enterprises benefited from the disappearance of the clinker.

Did I say I wasn’t going to start on the Blairs? Well you can’t talk about the river without them. When Larry Blair’s wife, May, left him she took up residence with a very peculiar man in a very peculiar caravan on the opposite bank of the river to where she was born as a member of the Jackson’s of Jackson’s Bridge. She said Larry was mean and had individualised the meaning of the marriage contract. The caravan was her way of returning to the seat of the family estate.

Larry was an old fisherman turned boat hire magnate and lived in a broken wooden house on a green bank of the lower lake. He knew everything there was to know about the Simplex engine. He could fix the magneto by putting it beside his wood stove. Worked a treat. Blocked fuel lines, seized pistons, he had a rural solution for each problem. Except marriage.

He looked most of all like Steptoe and had a wheedling little voice and licked his lips and hunched his shoulders whenever he spoke so that it felt like a conspiracy whenever he talked to you about the weather or a cow with mastitis. I think May was right.
The German baker said that Larry would never have the right change for his bread; he’d always be a penny or threepence short. The baker kept a book. Larry never paid. The baker never forgot. May was right.

Above Jackson’s Bridge old Simmonds had a farm where he boiled down wallabies and dead chooks for his pigs. Local women used to have Christmas parties on the farm where they bounced around naked, so it was rumoured. Everybody has to let her hair down once in a while.

And above the captain’s block was old Burgess. I never knew him, only saw him once in an open boat he was rowing upstream with the crudest pair of mismatched oars I’d ever seen.

Burgess would never go into town. He’d leave anonymous parcels of fish on people’s back step at dawn and they’d leave groceries and grog on his. The secret transactions of the unseen. Fair proportion of grog in the groceries.

When I came as a teacher in the 70’s all the river people told me the original teacher used to row a long skiff as far upstream as Burgesses’ to teach all the river kids. This was long before Burgess arrived of course but that teacher’s students were the Jacksons and Blairs and Barrows and Donaldsons. Wild kids. No shoes, no interest, but the best ship handlers on the east coast of the continent.

Across the river from Burgess was Bobby Nicholls who married a local Yuin woman. I regret selling my tractor to Bobby. I bought it from Robert Arnot’s father who farmed on the New South Wales end of the river, above the highway. The Arnots were an old, old family from Timbilica and the tractor I bought was the old man’s first tractor and he parted with it like a man who knew his life as a real man was over, from now on he’d be a man who didn’t farm.

I remember harvesting hay with him a year before he handed the farm on to his son. It was a hot day in December and we using ancient steel tined hay forks to pitch mown hay onto a wooden cart which the old man towed behind the tractor to a shed with slatted walls and floor. Old Man Arnot’s father had built that shed to dry corn; one of the first farm structures built in the entire district. If you didn’t count the thatched houses of Aborigines. Which, of course, no-one did. We pitched hay all day, the old man and I, in grim silence. He was one of those quiet country gentlemen, but that was not the cause of his silence; he just resented that I was young and he was old. He died.

The tractor I bought was a hundred years more recent than the shed but it was still old. A Fordson Major petrol-kero model. You had to start it with kerosene before switching over to petrol. It was a beast, could pull anything, drag the stumps of old trees straight out of the ground as if they were pensioners’ teeth. I loved it. My daughter did too and insisted on riding behind me. No roll bar, not many brakes and when I think of that little red haired girl riding between those giant wheels I shudder. Tractors and wild river children.

Anyway I sold it to Bobby Nicholls.

In a hurry. I’d split up with the little girl’s mother and the farm had to be sold. Probably the reason why Geoff killed himself. No regard for himself without the farm.

But what Bobby Nicholls did to that tractor really upset Robert, old Robert Arnot’s son, because it had been his father’s pride and joy. The Arnots arrived in Australia to go whaling with Ben Boyd. They’re proud of their history and prouder of their tractors.
Bobby Nicholls was a humourless fundamentalist Christian and he oxy torched three inches off each side of the tractor’s grader blade so it would fit onto his trailer. The act of a heathen Robert believed.

And the Arnots are family of mine. My son-in-law’s grandmother is Jean Arnot of Wangarabell. How can such remote acts of chance occur on such a lonely river?

At the top of the river on the day of the fox I caught my fish from a snag I’d last fished six years earlier with Robert’s brother-in-law, Kevin, two weeks before he died of a heart attack.

I can’t fish that river now without thinking of Kevin, or Geoff, or my tractor, or Larry Blair’s funny way of talking.

And I thought of you, mate, when I saw the fox, not because you remind me of a fox, but because as soon as I saw such a strange thing I wondered who would be interested in the story. Do all people do that as they watch an event unfold, or is it just us, the storytellers?

Coming back down the river I kept a lookout for the fox and she was still there, hunkered down on the sandspit. As I passed the first time I had noticed a plover sitting on eggs on the downstream end of the sand island and thought it typical fox behaviour to sneak out onto the sand and outlast the plover’s indignation.

Two dotterels were running backward and forwards just metres from the fox’s nose desperate to distract attention from their young.

I watched the fox to see if it would react.  I cast a line to make the sinker splash as close to the animal as I could manage. I saw the ears twitch to the sound but it showed no other reaction. Cunning bastard, I thought, pretending it’s not there. Typical fox.

So I stepped out of my boat, Nadgee III, and waded to the island. I saw the ears rotate toward the sound of my steps.

There was a good boondi on the sand and I picked it up, not willing to be attacked by a cornered fox. It got to its feet and faced me, swaying slightly before it tottered and almost fell, still trying to look defiant and strong. But it wasn’t strong, it was a sick fox.
If it was fishing for mullet it was the act of a desperate animal not the invention of artful adaption. The expenditure of energy in becoming wet and cold could hardly justify the potential catch.

No, this was just a sick fox, probably bleeding to death from ingesting a fox bait which are almost pure warfarin, the haemorrhaging agent with which we poison rats.

The golden eyes could barely focus but she knew my intent. She avoided the first swing of the club by the merest turn of her head but I collected it with the returning pendulum and cracked that fine skull. Blood gushed from its ears and nose, the warfarin was already well into its work.

I returned to my boat burdened with sorrow. I’d misjudged her actions with my prejudice, even inclining toward admiration for fox cunning and innovation instead of reading her actions for what they were, dying. We’re meant to kill foxes but are we meant to cause them such slow agony? And her teats were hanging too. Was there more agony to come?

I’m sorry not to visit you more, old mate, sorry to be tardy in the mere return of a phone call but the river is such a demanding home. She insists you bear witness.

As you have just done.


Val would pack her kids into the car and visit her mother-in-law, Kathleen, most days. Dad has visions of the car pulling up at the homestead, the kids bursting out the doors and running down the path, past the old kitchen, into the back entrance of the main house.

“…and Nana would come out, and we [would] nearly knock her over jumping into her arms.” Dad’s eyes twinkle as he talks and I’m taken aback by the tenderness of the memory.

“A large part of my, um, confidence in dealing with the world comes from Nana,” Dad laughs. “I thought that I was the most important person in the world.”

My father and I are in the sitting room of his house, our house, the house I grew up in, the grand house he and my mother built. He sits on the leather upholstered sofa, cradling beer. Behind him a huge bookshelf is jammed full. Photos of our family smile at us, decorative Catholic-themed plates, old knick-knacks and genuine antiques share space with law books, classic novels and pulp fiction.

The thick summer air is fitting, given that so many of my memories of Swanwater involve the baking Wimmera heat.


The Swanwater homestead has been in my dad’s family for over a hundred years. When I was younger we used to ride our motorbikes there from what we called the Home Paddock. It sounds comfortable, but ‘home’ was a tin shed with a dusty, cobwebbed toilet in the corner and one power outlet.

Even back then, when I was seven or eight, I noted the vast chasm between how we lived when we visited my dad’s hometown, and how grand the old homestead must have been.

It was a ruinous site, and you could feel the pain in the air. At once peaceful and tortured, it was a rumbling assortment of half fallen-down walls and chimneystacks.

But even in its decayed state, there was an undeniable grandeur; bluestone floors, quartz inlaid into the outer walls, and an impressive scale.


Dad remembers the homestead being a house full of warmth and hospitality. There’s a particular armchair he used to fall asleep in by the fire while his grandfather Toby played the fiddle and his aunt Sappy played the piano.

He closes his eyes, and starts tapping his foot as he sinks into the chair.

“Such a beat … with the violin and the piano, it was just … It was just heaven.”

The old place, as it was often called was the centre of family life, and an important part of the social fabric of nearby St Arnaud. Nana’s hospitality was legendary and Toby was a huge, charismatic character.

My father remembers stumbling across a cupboard bursting full of violins, later learning that one of them had been chased for forty years and bought in the early fifties for the price of three new Holden cars. There were racing cars and horse stables, guns, and bicycles. It was a very exciting place to be.

When he got to school age, Dad, sometimes with his younger brother, would often go to the homestead rather than home. Nana would always have a cup of tea ready and loved to chat about his day. Then he’d spend languid afternoons wandering around the trees, the creek bed, the cemetery, imagining that he was in a Secret Seven or Famous Five novel.


In the North West of Victoria, Swanwater sits in the traditional lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung people.

The first squatter in the area was Cpt John Harrison, a retired merchant sailor with a colourful history. He took up, or stole rather, a 70,000-acre run with two lakes on it called Swanwater.

The Harrisons built the first European house on the land. If you visit, you can see the hand-adzed timbers that make up the structural beams.

By 1850, after an unsuccessful five or so years, Harrison moved off the land and the Swanwater run was divided in two.

The southern half of the old run was purchased by the Moggs, a family of carpet makers from Bristol. By 1856 Valentine Nott Mogg had moved onto the land and began building a grand estate.


On one of his childhood jaunts around the estate, Dad came across an enormous old draught horse. He was stunned and elated: he’d been desperate for a horse, and here one was, lazing around a half-forgotten paddock. Dad convinced his father, Laurie, to bring it home.

She was called Old Doll, and she was gentle and quiet. Dad would ride her to the homestead, hoping that the gates were open along the way, because she was so huge that he had to get an adult to help him on and off.

In telling this story Dad gets drawn back into a tune playing in his memory, he mentions again that sometimes he’d walk in and the house would be awash with music.

Dad rubs his face, leaning forward. We’ve talked around and around, and we can avoid it no longer. He sighs.

“So, it all gets very traumatic then.”

Nana had to go to Melbourne for an operation he tells me, “and she was a bit histrionic when it came to illness” – so she needed to take some keepsakes for comfort, to remind her of her beloved homestead. She was sure some tragedy was going coming for her.

On a Saturday afternoon in 1967, Toby visited Nana in Melbourne before driving back home. “And Toby, being Toby, he may well have stopped in a pub here and there.”

Dad was asleep in bed, and remembers being woken by an almighty bang on the front door. He heard his father’s heavy, rushed footsteps. The swing of the door.

“The old place is on fire.”

A neighbour had seen the flames from the highway and sped to get Laurie.

“I remember the banging and the hullabaloo, and my father jumping into the car and [he] zoomed down there.”

Meanwhile, two volunteer fire fighters were on their way home from a dance. They saw the blaze from the highway and headed into the property to see if they could help.

Laurie arrived moments after them and leaped out of his car, rushing towards the house. “Toby’s in there!”

The whole main house was an almighty blaze, the roof on fire from end to end, parts falling in, and thick, deadly smoke streaming from every gap.

“And they said, ‘well you can’t go in there,’ and they tried to stop him. And he’s just knocked them away and charged in there.”

Laurie disappeared into the thick smoke and blinding flames.

The boys knew that it would be impossible to survive the smoke and heat, and resigned themselves to a second loss of life.

“And then a couple of minutes later… he comes out with Toby over his shoulder.”

But by the time Laurie found his father collapsed in a hallway, he had already died.

The intense flames tore through the entire main house and licked a few of the outbuildings. Everything was lost. The violins, period furniture, family heirlooms, photos – all the hard work and love and care incinerated in a matter of hours.

All that was left were charred brick walls, warped iron bedframes, and the sad remnants of the piano, now just a collection of surviving metal parts and a melted frame.

There’s a sense that the shock of the loss still reverberates today. It’s not just a house that was gone, not just a father and a grandfather, but the spiritual life of the family, the sense of having somewhere to go, the social and emotional security of a true family home. What they lost symbolically seems to weigh as heavily as the man who perished.

The cruellest irony of the situation is that Toby, a part time insurance agent, thought that home insurance was a waste of money. He used to say that brick houses don’t burn.

Dad visited soon after the night of the fire in a blur of tears. “A veil of grief” he calls it. “The entire place was like a mausoleum… it was like visiting a grave.”

I tell Dad that that’s how I used to feel, amongst the excitement of exploring, that this was a place of great tragedy, a place of reverence.

He would ride his horse down a few years later, a proper horse this time that he could canter on. He remembers standing amongst the ruins and thinking, “I can do something here.”


My father’s namesake, Pat O’Shannessy, was an Irish migrant who as a young man worked on a railway line through the Wimmera, up to Cope Cope. The story goes that while labouring on the tracks he noticed the fertile black ground and decided then and there to take up a plot.

The selection acts of Victoria had passed parliament and large pastoral runs were being split up into 320-acre lots to encourage more intensive farming, and more population density.

“And there’s one interesting fact on Cpt Harrison’s lease” says Dad, “Right through Gooroc, stretching out towards Jeffcott, which we all know as the best black ground, it’s got written on it, ‘No Water. Useless.’”

Pat O’Shannessy, along with many other working-class migrants in the region, was highly successful in that ‘useless’ black ground. He eventually began buying up more and more land. By 1912 O’Shannessy bought the Swanwater Estate, but never lived there.

The stately homestead had been liquidated in 1899 and was empty and in disrepair until Dad’s grandparents, Toby and Kathleen, moved in as newlyweds.

It was the early 1930s and Nana Kath set about restoring and repairing the old homestead to her former glory with a grim determination and a fierce will.

She painted the dining room ceiling by balancing on top of a 44-gallon drum, which was sitting on top of the dining table. She’d have to paint a little section, then get down, move the whole thing, get back up again and continue painting.

Dad talks about Kath’s hard work and determination with bittersweet pride – he calls it her life’s work. She restored building elements, got the extensive gardens back into shape, collected antique period furniture. She was utterly devoted to her homestead.


“Now, of course, the disappointing thing was, by the time I got a chance to start repairing buildings, they’ll be falling down quicker than I can put them up. Gravity is an unremitting bastard of a thing.”

Decades of frustration simmer in my father’s voice. I do quick head maths. If he was 11 or 12 when he first wanted to repair the homestead, and he’s only been able to begin recently, that’s close to fifty years of watching gravity erode his grandparents’ legacy.

Nana moved to Melbourne. My grandfather farmed the land around the homestead for some years after the fire, leasing it off his mother to provide her with an income. Dad used to play in the shell.

It was still an exciting place for a kid with a ferocious imagination.

He’d notice, even then, the signs of decay, and lament at the received wisdom that it was all too hard to rebuild, too expensive. After all, there was no insurance money, and by this time any family wealth had dried up.

Laurie eventually moved the family into town. Another farmer took over the lease. My father grew up, moved to Melbourne for university, became a lawyer, had kids of his own.

In the early 1990s, Dad and his siblings began buying farmland in the area. They’d all left the land and dispersed across the world in professional jobs, but the older ones were nostalgic.

Eventually they bought a share of the homestead, and we kids would visit occasionally, always noting the further ravages of time.

We take a break, and as Dad gets up he blurts, “you can repair bricks and mortar, but you can’t repair flesh.” He thinks I haven’t heard.


Dad is avoidant when it’s time to go back to the sitting room, and I don’t want to push it. He flicks through the paper, does the dishes, takes out the rubbish, all of a sudden extremely fond of housework.

We finally sit back down. His whole demeanour has changed. He’s still answering questions but now he’s less forthcoming – he slumps in his chair, there’s an echo of a grieving teenager. He wants to talk, but he doesn’t want to talk.

The selfishness of my endeavour hits me. I knew he’d have to talk about this but I’d been ignoring it, and now it was here, looking at me, my father more exposed than I’ve ever seen him because I thought it would be a nice story.

Once verbose and easy, Dad is now withdrawn. He throws it onto me, “what’s your next question?” It’s almost an order. You take the reins. My inexperience begins to show but we fumble along.

“The thing about the fire,” Dad eventually offers, “is that it taught me that the unthinkable happens.”

I ask him to elaborate.

“[It] just taught me that really bad things happen randomly,” he adds with a resigned shrug, “and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“So it informed a world view,” I say.


“That’s kind of beautiful.” Dad looks at me like I’m a crazy person. He’s a little hurt by my glibness. We’re at the sorest point in his personal history and I’m calling it beautiful.

I want to say that I find it beautiful, because I’ve always known my Dad to live in the present. I learned from him that you can’t waste time worrying about what might happen. You must forge ahead and simply deal with what comes as it comes, not trying to control or predict. Simply being. It’s beautiful that such a gentle worldview is born of such devastating pain.

But I make a mess; I’m nervous and guilty. Dad moves on.

“And then… it’s only a few years later when Valerie dies,” Dad can’t bring himself to say ‘Mum’. He continues, “so just in case you thought that it was a one off, no, it taught you that bad shit happens.”

Dad was thirteen when his mother died, leaving Laurie to take care of the six children. Kath helped where she could. Extended family took care of the youngest ones. The family was shattered once again.

The homestead continued to crumble. It was very difficult for my father to see. To him it was obvious that something could be done. Or, at the very least, could no one else see this brick falling, or that wall leaning?

I bring up Dad’s offhand comment about not being able to repair flesh and bone. He pauses, not quite able or not yet willing, to see how his grief, projected onto this building is relevant to our conversation. He’s caught up in the seeming lack of logic in of the feeling – only one person died after all.

By the early 2000s Dad and his brothers were no longer leasing out the land around the homestead and were farming it themselves with the help of contractors and neighbours.

There were working bees. The extended family would head up to the homestead and we’d pull out a hedge here, straighten a wall there, clear decades of debris out of the cellar, repair a roof here or there – just nibble away.

I ask Dad how that felt and he concedes that it was extremely satisfying to finally be doing something. He’s quick though, to tell a story about how he fell off a high wall and somehow walked away unharmed.


In the past few years, serious repairs have finally been started at the homestead. I ask Dad what’s changed, why this sudden flurry of activity? Is it simply a matter of having the money to invest?

He pauses. “[it’s partly] money,” he begins thoughtfully, “Number one, Tony Tillig, number two David Chapman, and number three, money.”

Tony is an old family friend, and I get the sense that through his enthusiasm and positivity, he’s given Dad and his siblings more confidence that something can be done, that the family tragedy can have an epilogue.

David is a local bricklayer. Tony mentioned him to Dad, saying that they should give him a go at repairing the quartz inlayed walls that had fallen down. Of course Dad was sceptical – this is a technique that’s rarely used in Australia.

Thankfully Tony was insistent, and it turned out that David was, in fact, highly skilled.

There’s such glee in Dad’s voice at this, there’s a reconciling that is palpable.

There is a new period emerging in the history of the homestead and my father’s relationship to the past, a period where things are possible, where loss is not the final chapter.

The trouble with this incongruous trio is that they’re all over sixty and there’s urgency now, as they get older. David is the only one who can do the complicated brick work, and Tony’s enthusiasm along with Dad’s dogged determination are driving forces behind the repairs.

I ask what would happen if one of them has to retire, or gets injured, or simply runs out of steam.

“It won’t happen,” sighs Dad automatically.  It’s a matter-of-fact observation that belies how painful the thought is – the grand old estate falling once again into decay and neglect. A lifelong dream abandoned just as it was crossing that cavernous divide from maybe to this is actually happening.

We talk about his plans once it’s finished, if it gets finished. He first says that it is more of the process than the end result. It’s the pleasure of doing it.

Then he stops and thinks. I can see him imagining a time in his life when he gets to see the homestead whole again. He doesn’t quite allow himself the joy of the fantasy, but it’s obvious that he’s touched.

“[It’s] both,” he adds, “the more you do … [the more] it becomes tantalisingly possible.”

So the motley crew, sometimes involving another brother or two, but always David and Tony, do little bits here and there. We often get pictures of the progress emailed to us. It’s extraordinary to see those neat farmhouses fully repaired, elegant slate roofs, and pretty quartz boarded by tidy red bricks. Slowly, slowly it’s becoming, once again, an elegant estate.

“Now when we get to the main building and start on that,” says Dad, “that will be a huge job.”

Still, there’s momentum and the pictures we get these days are weeks or months apart, not years. There’s a spirit of excitement and adventure.

I come back to Dad’s comment about repairing flesh. I venture that maybe, in his mind, the homestead, the decay of it and now the repairing of it, has come to take on great emotional significance. That he is, in repairing the bricks and mortar, making peace with an incredibly traumatic period.

In his stories, ‘before the fire’ usually means before the years of grief and upheavals, before that horrible moment in time when Dad discovered the cruelty of random tragedy dealt twice in a few years.

He hasn’t thought about it like that, not consciously, but he agrees that the process of repairing is emotional too.

“That’s part of it. And also, when you inherit something as…’ he fumbles, leaving pauses in odd places – he’s a little at sea with the emotional weight of the idea, “historically significant and architecturally splendid… you sort of have an obligation to look after it a bit, to leave it better than you got it.”

He’s lying back now, stretched out on the leather sofa, looking at the ceiling, thinking deeply.

“What happens when you’re gone?” I ask.

Dad lets out a hearty laugh, “your problem, mate!”

He lets the moment of levity hang, then continues, “oh, I hope it’ll just stay in the family.” The implication is clear; he’s asking would our generation finish it if he can’t.