They walked out of the café hand in hand, into the heat and green of the valley. She wore a peach sarong and boots, he was in old jeans and a tattered straw hat.
They began to walk down the road towards the village. She stopped, laughed and pointed in the direction of the creek. Taking a detour, they scrambled over the fence and strode over to investigate.
They were 23, perhaps; young, strong, hope and delight in every movement. I could have been watching myself and my partner, nearly half a century ago. Even her sarong was the same colour I used to wear.
They are just beginning the adventure. And yes, there was a moment of wistfulness for the days when I could fight a bushfire for 36 hours straight, build stone walls or concrete footings all day then cook for a dozen people afterwards, and still have strength to sing by moonlight.
But mostly there was deep contentment for how those years have been spent: building the house that shelters us so comfortably now, the garden that feeds us; learning the wombat tracks and where the Powerful owls nest, and the signs that say whether there will be greenery or drought. Not to mention a career creating exactly the books I long to write.
The days in front of me should be even better than the ones behind: living with the generations of wombats who now accept me as just another animal in their territory; watching grandchildren grow; finally learning the craft of writing. This is the harvest time of life. And despite the odd hiccup, it is extraordinarily good indeed.
Wombat and other news
The wombats are fat, stroppy, and two of the eight near the house have babies just poking their pink noses out between their Mum’s back legs – a wombat’s pouch points backwards, possibly because when you don’t wear a nappy the urine needs to head out somewhere, and between the wide back legs is less messy than forwards along the fur.
The whole valley has that green lushness that makes you want to lie back, peel a grape, then write 50,000 words. Or that’s what it makes me feel like, anyway.
The other options are mooching after wombats; picking mulberries and plums and sun-warmed apricots; boiling Christmas puddings; planting zucchini. But…
It’s that ‘but’ which has subconsciously stopped me writing the last two months’ newsletters. The knee replacement in June went wrong, with infection and pain increasing to agony and firstly one then both knees unpredictably giving way. I see a new surgeon next week, but things don’t look good.
My new footman - introducing Mr Jones!
Except, apart from that, all is deeply happy… which does sound a bit like a stoic ‘no Sir, it only hurts when I laugh’. But I am going to love every bit of life I can while all ‘the necessary’ takes place. My knees are deeply boring just now, i.e. they will not take me to the places I’d like to go. The answer is to focus on anything but my knees – except when necessary…
I’m deeply lucky, too, that I have a job that I can do propped up on cushions with my legs up on the sofa. When the painkillers didn’t work after the last surgery I wrote a new book in my head on the second pain-filled night: The Sacred Lamingtons of St Bridget. It is of course entirely unpublishable, but I had enormous fun creating it. A week later I began The Lily and the Rose, Miss Lily Book 2, which is richer than Book 1, perhaps because I now know them all so well. Cannot, cannot, cannot wait to begin writing Miss Lily 3 this January, whether it is on the sofa or in the hospital.
Before that there is a ‘sort of’ pirate book – no other details till it’s done, but it’s based on a fascinating historical document that once again casts an entirely different insight into our history. The next in the Matilda series will be written after that, then one more in the Shakespeare series…
A few weeks hospital and some pain now and then seems an incredibly small debit compared to all the good.
Awards and shortlistings
Pennies for Hitler has just won a KOALA and a KROC Award, both kids’ choice awards and wonderful. The usual winners are short, funny books. ‘Pennies’ is long and complex, both in plot and theme. Yet there it is. Having kids choose that book as one they love most means more than it is possible to say.
Cyclone, with Bruce Whatley, named a Notable Book by the CBCA
The Ghost by the Billabong was shortlisted for one of the NSW Premier’s Awards.
Fire, created with the magnificent Bruce Whatley, was also shortlisted for a KOALA.
Books out now
FREE FREE FREE Miss Lily Story
Have written a free Miss Lily Story, With Love from Miss Lily. It will be available on December 1. Will send an email out to all on the email list and also put a link up on social media. Hope you like it!
Koala Bare, illustrated by Matt Shanks
Age range: Everyone!
An hilarious koala tail, sorry, tale, with the brilliant Matt Shanks. He is furry, fat and stroppy, and kids are falling in love with him, as are adults overseas — it looks like it will be nicely signed up for many foreign editions.
Actually Matt and I have fallen in love with him too, as has HarperCollins, and the next book is in the pipeline, and I am brooding on the third.
Facing the Flame
Age range: 14+
This is a book the next in the Matilda saga. It is a love story, both of people and the land but the strength of community when faced with challenge.
As grass dries and the hot wind howls, Gibber’s Creek will burn. But if you love your country, you will fight for it.
This is the next instalment in the sweeping Matilda saga: a heartbreaking and powerful story of the triumph of courage, community and a love for the land so deep that not even bushfire can erode it.
Set in the late 1970s, Facing the Flame tells the story of a small rural community suffering through a debilitating drought. When bushfire catches and spreads, the people of Gibber’s Creek must come together to defend their home and all that they have worked for, a dangerous struggle that many Australians must face each year.
Lu Borgino has been recently blinded, but she battles flames to save a racehorse, even though her dreams of being Australia's first professional female jockey have been destroyed.
Scarlett O'Hara risks her hard-won life at medical school and the new love of Alex Romanov, to save a child.
Flinty McAlpine draws on the local knowledge of tens of thousands of years to protect her valley. All the while Jed Kelly must escape not just bushfire, but the man who plots to kill her with its power.
There have been fires before, but not like this.
Facing the Flame is for both teenagers and adults. It is pretty much a book that I have lived, as well as written. The people are (mostly) real, though each character is a combination of people, except for the villain, who died years ago and so cannot sue me for defamation, and anyway, he is pretty well disguised too. Others, Some, like the blind Lu Borgino of the book, who can find her way through the smoke to save a horse when those with sight are suddenly helpless, are inspired by close friends- although it is probably best to not give details.
Facing the Flame book is set in 1978, and the bushfires in it are based on two local fires I fought early that year. One was to save a friends' house, and we used the techniques Flinty McAlpine does in the book, as well as McLeod tools and the green wattle branches, so absorbed in defeating the fire that we didn't realise it was midnight until the fire front was conquered and we found ourselves many kilometres from the firetruck, with no torches.
We found our way back by the flares of still burning bark, the moon and stars hidden by smoke. Incidents from other fires have been added, including the Canberra and Deua fires of 2003, when the air was soot black, and even torchlight couldn't penetrate the ash, and the sky burned red and orange flames above us.
Don’t let the bushfire put you off. This is a book about happiness, and love, even if each character must face their own flame- the literal ones and the symbolic.
Goodbye, Mr Hitler
Age range: 11+
This is the best book I have written and the most deeply important. It is a book that matters – and I have never said that about my work before.
Goodbye Mr Hitler is the third in the loose trilogy that began with Hitler’s Daughter and Pennies for Hitler. It is the story of Johan, of Heide who has now become Helga Schmidt and Georg’s mother.
The emails and letters have begun to arrive by people who both love it deeply and feel that it matters deeply, too. I have never had so many letters and emails where the readers struggle to express what this book has given them. I am beginning to feel that just possibly, I have written a book that achieves what I hoped it would.
This quotation from the last chapter explains why it is one that so many need to understand, now, today, before the world begins another insane spiral that, as an historian, I recognise too well:
The world has many ogres. Some, like Mr Hitler, do not even know that they are ogres, but dream they are the hero of the story.
But I have learned this in the years since I was ten years old: when you see injustice, stand beside each other and seize your spears. My spears are made of words. Yours may be different. But do not hesitate or look away. If too many look away, the ogres win. To be mostly deeply human we must risk our lives for others. Only when we stand together can we be truly free.
It is not easy fighting ogres. No one who fights an ogre comes away unscarred, even if you cannot see the wounds. And so you owe the ogre hunters this.
When the ogre has been vanquished, sit down upon the quiet earth and try to understand the ogre’s anguish and his twisted fear. Only by understanding can we stop them rising in our midst.
When you understand, forgive.
And then stand up, and live.
The December garden
Due to knees - or rather, deep pain in knees when I am vertical- gardening is pretty much out, as is pastry making or anything that needs standing for too long.
But for those of you with knees et al that function as they should:
It’s hot. It’s dry. Your feet ache, there are 1,261 presents still to be wrapped and 4,278 relatives due to arrive at any minute… or at least it seems like that.
And the garden is a mess.
Step 1. Don’t worry. Everyone’s garden looks parched and a bit scrappy at Christmas – except those belonging to obsessives who get up at 5 am to trim the edges of the path and sweep off every offending leaf as soon as it falls.
Congratulate yourself on not being an obsessive, and hand your visitors something long and cool. They’ll be too happy to peer critically at your garden.
Step 2. Cheat (necessary if one of the visiting rellies IS a garden obsessive, see Step 1, and their good opinion matters).
A Bit of Garden Cheating
Cover weeds with mulch. One or two bags or bales should do it. If necessary, jump up and down on the weeds first or get the kids to do it, so they lie flat before you put the mulch down. Result: your garden will look tended… and with luck the mulch will actually kill the weeds or at least make them much easier to pull out when you do get around to it.
Other ‘instant colour’ options include buying some biggish pots to fill with big-bloomed hydrangeas – good in either light shade or sunlight. Annuals in bloom now (and you really do get the most colour in a small space from annuals, even if they die back in winter) include petunias, marigolds, salvia, rudbeckia, asters, begonias, impatiens (perennial in frost-free areas), phlox, vincas and/or calendulas.
Trim the edges of the front path and sweep. Yes, I did poke fun at those who do that in December, didn’t I? But seriously, it does make a garden look trim and neat – a useful tip if you’re selling your house too and want it to look inviting.
Get rid of any weeds in the paving. The easiest way to do this isn’t with a herbicide – which leaves the brown dead weeds – but by scraping away with the edge of a spade. It’s easier to do than to explain how to do it… just sort of push the spade in front of you over the weeds and they’ll be hooshed along into a neat heap that can be swept up. It only takes a few minutes (unless you have piazza-sized paving). One useful tip though – do it in the early morning. Paving gets HOT – and stores heat, too, and this will ensure that those decapitated weeds are dead by sunset.
The Garden Cheat’s Great Entertaining Secret
Entertain at night. Everything looks best when softly lit – humans as well as gardens. Ground-level floodlights to shine up into the trees, or strings of tiny lights give enough light to eat drink and make merry – but not enough to see the weeds or bare spots.
Lighting is also a great way to show off interesting – and drought-proof garden features, like coloured courtyard walls, stonework or weathered wooden walls. Decorative bits. Garden sculpture, mosaics, archways, big wooden lintels over doorways – remember that shapes and textures can look even more striking at night, when they are framed by darkness or sidelit to accentuate texture and throw interesting shadows.
The Christmas Decoration Option
Who looks at the state of the garden when it’s filled with a mob of flashing reindeer?
Actually our ‘Christmas garden’ feature is just a Christmas tree for the birds and possums – much more low key, but great fun, both for the birds and us… and any kids around who want to help.
A Christmas Tree for the Birds
small whole mandarins (the smaller the better) tied onto the tree with string.
small ‘bird seed’ balls (see last month’s gardening pages).
pomegranates cut into quarters and tied on with string.
any left-over or damaged bits of fruit like strawberries, pears, pieces of apple or kiwi fruit – the honey-eaters, lorikeets and wattle birds all enjoy sweet fresh fruit and they clean it all up pretty thoroughly each day so you won’t have to look at rotting fruit (although you will have to refresh your offering each morning).
tinsel… for you to enjoy, and to glitter so that the birds realise there’s a treat for them nearby.
P.S. It's not a good idea to let birds or possums become dependent on handouts from humans, but a treat at Christmas will do no harm.
Lemon and garlic corn cobs
Tiny onions in mango chutney
Spectacular vegetarian Christmas timbale
Baked fish with fruit salsa
Best ever turkey stuffing
Totally secret fruit salad
Christmas fruit jelly (looks stunning; wonderfully wobbly)
Frozen plum pudding
Excellent fruit punch (non alcoholic)
Really Red Raspberry and Lemon Cordial
Chocolate beetroot muffins
Orange and ginger muffins
Pumpkin rock cakes
Chocolate honey oat squares
Chocolate fudge slice
White chocolate fudge
Apricot banana cake
Incredibly chocolatey chocolate cake
Chocolate flourless apple cake
Olive oil and lemon nut biscuits