Home on the ranges

A photo of Jane Cornwell and her mother Olivia. Image credit: Hilary Walker

By Jane Cornwell 

I was 17,000 kilometres from home when the world lurched, and went into lockdown. I could have jumped on a plane and made it back to London before the borders shut and face masks became a thing but I figured this strange new global pandemic wouldn’t last very long.

Anyway, this was March: Mum’s garden in Montrose was sun-dappled, festooned with roses and pink and white camellias and visited by crimson rosellas. I’d look up from my book to watch them tipping from a branch to peck at a bell-shaped feeder, tsk-ing each time they were chased off by a cockatoo or a gang of common mynas.

“They’re pests, those mynas,” Mum always says. Has done from when we first lived in Mooroolbark, a suburb over, in a mint green weatherboard bungalow opposite a footy oval, tennis courts and horse paddocks that ended up being subdivided and built on, even though I was always going over and pulling the surveyors’ pegs out.

Our house in Mooroolbark had an uninterrupted view of Mount Dandenong, which was either royal blue or dark grey depending on what the weather was doing. It had a cluster of TV transmitter towers on its top and a bald stripe down its middle that looked like someone had taken a razor to it. 

Sometimes a kangaroo would boing down from the firebreak onto the oval and get chased about by kids and dogs including Biscuit, our Labrador-spaniel cross. Or one of the plovers that lived in the reeds along Brushy Creek, a brown trickle we’d case for tadpoles, would be pounced on at night by a fox, and its shrieks would echo in the dark.

Mooroolbark had an Aboriginal name, a white demographic and not much to distinguish it aside from Five Ways roundabout, a feat of town planning that admittedly was years ahead of its time. Five Ways was the hub from which my young life diverged. That way was St Francis of Assisi church and Sunday School. That way was Mooroolbark train station, second last stop on the Lilydale line. That way was Pembroke High, the rough-as-guts school where kids could smoke, wear whatever and traumatise clueless first formers like me.

Mooroolbark Primary, that way, was where I was a house captain, first goalie in the seconds netball team and wore my purple satin Writer of the Week ribbon for a month. Where interschool sports days thrilled with rhythmic opportunity: “‘M-DOUBLE-O! R-DOUBLE-O! B-A-R-K! Gooo Mooroolbark!” we’d chant, jumping up and down, rolling the syllables around in our mouths.

That way, the fifth way, went up past Five Ways shops, where twenty cents’ worth of mixed lollies – buddies, bananas, mates, teeth - filled a white paper bag you couldn’t quite get your hands around. Where I thought the greengrocer’s name was Mr Spencer because he always wore one, and a little hair salon sealed Mum’s beehive under a shell pink hood dryer, though it would still flip up like a lid in a high wind. 

Mum remembers standing on the new front lawn of her new house in Mooroolbark, holding the newborn me and thinking, “Is this it?” Before meeting Dad she’d been an airhostess for Australian airline TAA, sailed down the Suez Canal in a P&O liner and been chauffeured to a garden party at Buckingham Palace in a gleaming Rolls Royce. When she got back from Overseas the Herald printed her photo with a caption telling of her trip and also including her measurements.

Mum was studying kindergarten teaching when she enrolled in an amateur theatre group based at the National Theatre in Spring Street near Parliament House. Dad had mainly joined to find a girlfriend.

“When I first saw your mother she was standing onstage wearing a beret and black jeans and reading Shakespeare,” he wrote, remembering. “I thought boy-oh-boy, what a figure.’”

Mum ended up teaching toddler group in the Mooroolbark kindergarten behind the petrol station, the one towards the train station from Five Ways. She played piano at St Francis on Sundays and tennis on Saturdays on the red clay courts behind the oval, from where the pock-pock of balls cut through birdsong, lawnmower hum and the parping of car horns, if there was a Saturday footy match on.

Footy matches brought convoys of cars down our twisting dead-end road, which meant no fanging around corners in go-karts made from twine, trainer wheels and fruit crates, or cutting across the oval to get to Kilsyth Pool, which was the place to hang on hot days.

[Mum] played piano at St Francis on Sundays and tennis on Saturdays on the red clay courts behind the oval, from where the pock-pock of balls cut through birdsong, lawnmower hum and the parping of car horns, if there was a Saturday footy match on.

Maybe Dad loved Mooroolbark a bit more than Mum. After graduating from Melbourne Grammar he’d gone into insurance, which was cool back then, and had a job driving around the Yarra Ranges in a company car – a beige Holden, a yellow Chrysler – inspecting claims. He’d ring from a phone box in Emerald or The Patch or Woori Yallock to tell us he was on his way home, and arrive as we were watching Doctor Who, awaiting our chops and three veg.

Dad’s job meant he knew where all the best Sunday drives were. We’d go to church in the morning then pile into the car after lunch: my brother, the youngest, wedged between my younger sister and me, Mum in the passenger seat, Dad behind the wheel, the Melways in the glovebox. Off we’d go towards Healesville via Coldstream and Coombe Cottage, which we knew had once belonged to world famous opera diva Dame Nellie Melba but could only imagine, on account of it being hidden behind a massive green hedge. 

Healesville might get Dad quoting CJ Dennis. “No rest is there in cities and little ease to find; but the hills that circle Healesville hold content and peace of mind,” he’d recite. He’d pour Fanta from a bottle into plastic cups as we sat around a log table in Badger Weir picnic grounds, surrounded by towering mountain ash and serenaded by the carillon pings of bellbirds, the fresh air pricking at our nostrils.

We’d keep driving north along the Black Spur, down a winding ribbon of bitumen flanked by dense moss-covered rainforest, us kids squishing right and left as the car leaned into curves that brought out Dad’s inner rally driver. Coming back via Warburton we’d stop for a vanilla slice or a Paddle Pop at the row of shops backing onto the Yarra River then walk up the dirt track with the little stone bridges to La La Falls, which had been popular with tourists since the 1880s.

Ooh la la,” Mum would yell the moment she spotted the water cascading over a steep ledge of rock framed by manna gums and silver wattle and into a pool below. She was always reminding us that she’d been to France, though as a minister’s daughter who’d grown up in rural Victoria she felt a kinship with the Aussie landscape and the more aesthetically pleasing flora and fauna that lived within it.

“Listen!” She’d stop, her head cocked, raising a finger to her ear. We’d wait for the bush to settle then hear a sound like a whip cracking coming from inside a gully of ferns: a lyrebird. Like bush spirits or drop bears, lyrebirds were heard and not seen, which made their mimicry – the sharp woo-TISH of a whipbird, the raucous cack of a kookaburra – even more spooky. I’d seen them in pictures: I’d imagine one scratching around, bobbing its shy brown head, fanning out its silvery tail feathers, figuring out which impression to do next.

“Look!” There was the Yarra, as clear as you like, circumnavigating rocks, flowing over pebbles and grit, running so close to the road that if I leaned way out of the car window I could almost trail my fingers through it. There was so much to see: antique shops, timber trestle bridges, green and gold fields with black and white cows. Tulip farms, cherry orchards, rhododendron gardens, all zinging with colour; dams with water lilies, walks with a 1000 steps, funny koalas, stoned on eucalyptus leaves, in the tree branches at Healesville Sanctuary.

All this was out there in Mooroolbark’s backyard.

But for Dad, the best thing about Mooroolbark was the view.

“How’s that view,” he’d say, sitting on a cream wrought iron two-seater patio set, out on a verandah colonised by curls of purple wisteria. “You just can’t beat a view like that.”

In 1989 I went to London. I won’t be gone forever, I told my parents, my friends, myself. I bought a stereo. Then I bought a car. Eventually, I bought a flat. Working as a journalist – arts, music and travel – took me all over the UK, Europe, Africa and the Americas, offered adventure after adventure, gifted me views that made my jaw drop. 

“How’s that view,” [Dad would] say, sitting on a cream wrought iron two-seater patio set, out on a verandah colonised by curls of purple wisteria. “You just can’t beat a view like that.”

But each year, sometimes twice a year, I’d return to sit on the verandah with Dad and gaze at the view that remained unbeatable.

In 2003 Mum moved to Montrose, which, depending on which route you took from Five Ways, was either that way past Pembroke High or that way past St Francis, where we’d upended Dad’s ashes into a freshly dug hole in the green patch of Memorial Garden around the back. Mum didn’t want to stay in Mooroolbark without Dad, even with the view. She bought a newish red brick house behind my brother’s place and planted roses, lilac, grevillea and the plum tree onto whose branches she now hooks the feeders for the rosellas.

She’s closer to Mount Dandenong but the view isn’t great. If I squeeze between the shed and the lemon tree and look over the roof of my brother’s place I can see the transmitter towers on the mountain but there’s nowhere to sit and gaze. The focus is on what is close: a wasp backstroking in the birdbath. The postman revving away from the mailbox. Max and Emma, my brother’s kelpies, sniffling through the slats of the sticking wooden gate that separates the two backyards.

The dirt inside Mum’s house, which, post-Dad, who was the domestic one, gets me roaming between rooms brandishing a duster, the vacuum and disinfectant spray.

Mum has always hated cleaning. “Even as a girl,” she says, as if that means she can get away with gardening, watching television and reading poetry while dust gathers, dishes pile up and daddy-longlegs party in the cornices.

There’s other, more important stuff, like her U3A classes: table tennis, drawing/painting and until she tore her rotator cuff weeding, tai chi. There’s her visits to the Montrose Library, whose stock of murder mysteries she’s read and returned, and her piano-playing at St James, whose congregation she joined after St Francis was bought up and closed down.

Biweekly visits from the local council cleaner never seem to make much difference. But while the mess was made worse by her beloved King Charles spaniels – Shelby, who we bought, middle-aged, to keep her company, then after Shelby the virtually identical Rosie – Mum doesn’t mind. Tiny lizards sun themselves on her skirting boards. An enormous huntsman teleports from the front living room to the kitchen ceiling to the wall of the spare bedroom, just above my bed.

“That’s just Fred,” says Mum, who names her huntsmen, as I wail. “He won’t hurt you.”

Under her bed I find the husks of slaters and little curly worms, and a cockroach that may or may not be playing dead. I sweep it into a dustpan and take it to show her, quivering with exasperation.

“Ah, those things come miles for a crumb,” she says, leaving the top off the margarine and heading outside to smell the roses. 

Each year, sometimes twice a year, I return to stay with Mum, looking out for her white Hyundai as the train rolls past the dinging boomgates and into Mooroolbark station. I heave my suitcase into the boot, push back the driver’s seat and head off past the kindergarten then that way past Pembroke High (or from 2010, when someone burned it down, where it used to be) along streets empty of people, past houses with landscaped gardens, the occasional speedboat in a driveway, the odd Australian flag on a pole. 

Each time I’m struck by the sense of space and, aside from V8 roar of the 1967 Pontiac Firebird my brother is rebuilding, the sense of calm. A routine emerges. I clean. I bird watch. I walk Max or Emma along the pipeline that starts at the fenced-off reservoir behind Bretby Way, padding down a grassy strip between a stretch of wooden fences and jealous, barking dogs: a blue-eyed border collie, straining sideways over the slats; a Great Dane, staring through the mesh of a mini-trampoline, woofing itself unsteady.

I pick roses and camellias and take them down to St Francis, throwing decaying stems out of a grubby jar and refilling it with water from the rusted tap around the side, or I did until the top of the tap was taken off and I started bringing water of my own. I place the flowers by the wall under Dad’s brass plaque, one of dozens. 

“So Mum is doing okay,” I tell Dad, who had worried, as I sit next to a rose bush on somebody’s cement memorial bench. I note the church’s boarded up windows and out front, the bulldozer and surveyor’s pegs. I think about going over and pulling them out.

My guilty pleasures have stayed the same: driving to Chirnside Park Shopping Centre for a soya smoothie at Boost and a five-pack of undies at K-Mart. Getting my roots done at the cut-price hairdressers inside the forlorn, deserted Mooroolbark Shopping Centre, where the boss is always grumpy and twenty free highlights a given.

Normally I to and fro: a few days at Mum’s, a few days in town, back to Mum’s again. More than that and I feel like I’m regressing. Mum feels bossed about and picked on. “You might think you’re a woman of the world,” she’ll say, walking off with a cup of tea and leaving the milk out. “But I remember when you were so miserable at grade 5 school camp we had to come and collect you.”

But then came the pandemic, and no one could go anywhere. The shops ran out of toilet paper, hand sanitiser, pasta. I bought hand soap in bulk and got spraying and wiping. I sprayed and wiped the door handles and the car keys, the telephone and the television handset, the groceries and the collar on the dog. Awaiting further instructions we zipped up the mountain to my sister’s place in Olinda, since it was my eldest niece’s birthday.

The Dandenongs have always felt like a hill station, a retreat. “It’s five degrees cooler up here,” says Mum, always, and “Ooh, my ears just popped.” My sister and her family have a large house with a wild, sprawling garden modelled on those by Edna Walling, the landscape designer who magicked an English village in Bickleigh Vale, the posh bit of Mooroolbark. We stood around the hidden fishpond, and Mum put my niece’s present on top of a low stone wall. “Wait,” said my sister as we were leaving, handballing me two rolls of toilet paper. 

The Dandenongs have always felt like a hill station, a retreat. “It’s five degrees cooler up here,” says Mum, always, and “Ooh, my ears just popped.”

Then drives were out. Grocery deliveries were booked up. U3A sent a letter stating that hygiene measures were in place then another cancelling all classes. The church sanitised, social distanced then closed for the foreseeable. When Rosie, old and ailing, took a turn for the worst we did a late night flit to the 24-hour emergency vet, where staff in PPE gear gave us bad news. My brother buried Rosie next to Shelby by the fence behind the plum tree the next morning.

“Imagine if you hadn’t been here.” Mum was traumatised. “There are some positives to all of this.”

News spread: “Olivia Cornwell’s daughter came over from England for work and has become marooned here, much to Olivia’s delight!” ran a line in the Parish News, which a parishioner stuck in Mum’s letterbox. The vicar dropped by to give Mum socially distanced Holy Communion, putting on her vestments then sitting across from Mum at the outdoor table where I like to sit and read and watch rosellas. 

Locked down in their flats, friends in London complained on social media. Of cabin fever, of the impossibility of social distancing in a city with narrow footpaths and too many people. I started hearing about acquaintances with the virus, and worried about my peer group.

“You’re in the best place,” they said. “Lucky you.”

It took Montrose a while to take things seriously. Rules were flouted, advice ignored. The tight aisles of the IGA saw the cautious backing up when another shopper strode towards them. Mask-wearers were teased: “Is this a stick-up?” quipped a guy in the register queue.

Then yellow Xs and lines to stand behind appeared on the floors of the chemist and the post office. The chip shop and the pizza place started taking orders through the door, from the street. Only three customers at a time were allowed in the butcher’s. The library shut. The bottle shop boomed. The Yarra Ranges stretched out its arms: I walk Max or Emma along footpaths etched with chalk rainbows and the words ‘Stay safe’ swirling in pastels. Teddy bears watched from windows. Cockapoos and labradoodles waggled.

Nature relaxed: Mum, gardening, stood dazzled by a tiny bird she later identified as a spotted pardolot, a tall tree dweller emboldened. She rang the Bird Man on ABC Radio Melbourne to tell him. “Also, the black cockatoos have returned to the pine trees in Montrose,” she said. “And how can I get rid of those pesky common mynas?”

Each day I walked further, then further still. Away from the foothills, leaning into the steep, unmade Old Coach Road, where settlers had swayed in horse-drawn wagonettes and thick bushland had hid illicit stills. I took the rolling Singleton Track into the Dandenong Ranges National Park, through rising bush that watched and creaked and waited. At its end I found another trail, a challenge of bald red earth and rocks, which drew me up and up.

For an hour, more, I climbed, clambering over outcrops, stepping over logs, spraying showers of stones. My legs quaked. My head spun. It wasn’t until I got near the top and saw the hulking steel lattice base of a TV transmitter tower that I realised where I was. That I’d done something I’d always wanted to do, without even knowing I was doing it. I had climbed the firebreak.

There, in the distance, was the city skyline. Down there was Montrose and just behind it, Mooroolbark. Uninterrupted, the view stretched and shimmered. Next to me, a tuft of wildflowers moved in the breeze. I sat for a while in the sunshine, trying to spot Five Ways, the footy oval, our house with the wisteria. Other climbers arrived. Some people wandered down from the car park.

“How’s that view,” they said.

“Unbeatable,” I said. “Whichever way you look at it.”

Image credit: Hilary Walker