By Lauren Burns
What if he didn’t like me?
What if I was an unwelcome reminder of past regrets?
What if he just wanted to look at me once, for curiosity, and then cut off contact?
I sat in the passenger seat nervously twisting my fingers, staring out the window at suburbia as my partner Gerard steered the car south through Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. We were headed for the coast.
Height: 5’11” Hair colour: Fair Eye colour: Blue
Weight: About 11.5 stone (73 kg) Race: Caucasian
For the past five years these non-identifying facts were all I knew about donor C11, my biological father. This reduction gave me nothing of his essence. What did he care about? What made him laugh? Did we look alike, or share interests? Did it matter?
Intellectually, I understood what Mum had told me, that Dad and I were genetic strangers. But emotionally, with my childhood behind me, the neural connections identifying my Dad as my Dad were cemented. Although my feelings towards Dad didn’t change, the news that he wasn’t my biological father imbued me with a strange sense of loss. My parents had separated when I was two, but my Dad had stayed involved in my life as I was growing up, taking the lead to coach me to success in my sporting pursuits in athletics. Shortly after I turned 19 he had moved interstate and our contact had become more intermittent. I found it impossible to reconcile the story of my birth certificate and upbringing with the new knowledge about the DNA unfurling within my cells. Confused, I felt clinical and hollow, like the syringe that had inseminated my mother.
A few weeks after the disclosure Mum casually asked how I was going with ‘the news’.
‘I’m fine, it isn’t a big deal,’ I replied, quickly shutting the conversation down. But I wasn’t fine. I felt disembodied, wounded in a place I couldn’t locate. Missing something invisible but vital—that sense of knowing where I come from—I felt untethered, like a tree without roots.
It is all strange as you say, to be connected to someone who is a fully lived adult, and only discover it out of nowhere.’
So began the handwritten letter I’d received three months earlier from the person formerly known as donor C11. At first my search for the identity of my biological father seemed naïve and quixotic. Over time it morphed into an immense struggle to overcome the legal and medical establishment that decreed that it was not permissible for me to even ask the question of whether he was open to the exchange of information. Mum supported me in my search and provided information about her treating doctor, which was the lead that finally led to a breakthrough. I had managed to convince the Governor of Victoria, David de Kretser—who in a strange twist, had been my mother’s treating doctor in my conception—to contact donor C11 on my behalf.
‘You sound like a smart one!’ continued the letter, in reference to what I’d written to him about studying a PhD in aeronautical engineering. ‘There are a lot of smart people in my family as you can see from the family tree. I used to be keen on engineering and nearly did it at one stage. My own interests include medicine--I studied at Monash and am a GP in Wonthaggi and Inverloch. I do anaesthetics and obstetrics as well.
Divorced. 3 children. Charlotte, Michael and Olivia.
All in Melbourne. I see them a lot. I do lots of outdoors things--for an old bloke. I have 2 horses, fish (dad used to a lot), surf badly, go on expeditions to NT, WA, Tas hiking. I am interested in reading and art and paint.
Travel--especially to France.
I am lively and withdrawn, depending on mood! Just like my father.
I especially like resting too.’ I laughed out loud at this part, as my friends knew me as the one to fall asleep at opportune moments or schedule a nap into my day.
‘It would be good to hear from you again. Cheers Ben’
The same letter contained a family tree describing Ben’s parents, four brothers and one sister. I immediately spotted some connections. His father Manning Clark was an historian and writer, brother Andrew a journalist, and another brother Axel an English Literature academic — who had sadly passed away in 2001. Meanwhile Ben’s oldest brother Bas was a maths teacher. This tallied with my dual interests in writing and mathematics. My parents had both studied commerce, which never interested me greatly. I was intrigued to read that Ben’s mother Dymphna had won the gold medal for German at the University of Melbourne. My linguistic skills were not nearly as brilliant, but I had been inexplicably drawn to the country and the language, studying at the Goethe-Institut and living in Germany for a semester during my undergraduate engineering degree. Dymphna’s Flemish and Scandinavian background made sense, as my height and hair colour had blended in seamlessly when I travelled through northern Europe.
After reading and re-reading the letter, I left my bedroom and showed it to Mum. As she read through she said breathlessly, ‘His father was Manning Clark!’ She walked over to the bookshelf and pulled out a book titled The Quest for Grace—Manning’s autobiography. Flipping through I found photographs of Benedict and his brothers and sister. For the five years I had been searching for C11’s identity, the book had sat quietly on the shelf. By coincidence, or cosmic sense of humour, the answers had been there all along, if only I’d known where to look.
I didn’t know much about Manning Clark but found it amusing that after searching so long for my family history, I’d discovered a family of historians. I was thrilled that Ben described his father as an ‘annoyer of conservatives’. I too was something of an agitator. In time I came to learn that Manning’s magnum opus was the six-volume A History of Australia, which departed from convention to bring a new perspective to Australian history. Setting himself the ambitious goal of searching for Australia’s heart, Manning elevated the inner life of impressions, experiences and meaning as important facets to our nation’s story, which had been absent from a curriculum focused on official documents of colonial history. Intuitively, I understood Australia’s history wars. From my own experience of the shock of discovering after 21 years that my Dad was not my biological father, I was acutely aware that what we believe to be true can be held in fragile grasp.
Benedict had scrawled his address at the top of the letter. I narrowed my eyes to try to decipher his doctor’s handwriting. He lived in a town I’d never heard of called Cape Paterson. I looked it up on the map and found a small hamlet perched on the coast between Phillip Island and Wilson’s Promontory. Cape Paterson was where I was headed now, on a journey with no maps, to meet Benedict and his children—my half-siblings—for the first time. In the days leading up to this meeting I had been wracked by nerves, like I had to prove myself worthy or pass an implicit test. That morning the violence of the butterflies in my stomach was too much and I asked my boyfriend Gerard to drive me. As I sat in the passenger seat he guided the car onto the Monash Freeway. We trundled along for half an hour, then exited at Koo Wee Rup and headed south onto the Bass Highway. Just above Kilcunda the road crested a hill and I momentarily forgot my nerves as the view suddenly expanded out over the magnificent Bunurong coastline. Watching rhythms of blue waves break onto ancient coastal dunes spiked by six white wind turbines felt like I had reached escape velocity. Then the highway dropped down into the town and hugged the coast past the historic rail bridge. Further along, at Wonthaggi, Gerard turned right at the roundabout, following the sign towards Cape Paterson.
Undertaking my search for donor C11 had gone against the grain of social expectations. ‘Why do you need to know?’ people would ask me. ‘Of course, your Dad is still your Dad!’ These well-meaning, but ignorant comments from people who had no idea what it was like to be in my position made me feel self-conscious; as if I was a river that had suddenly chosen to run backwards.
In central Australia the place of return for rivers that run backwards is a huge interior basin called Kati Thanda or Lake Eyre. In dry years the white salt pan is a great, timeless nothingness—without plants, animals or even shadows—like the unearthly perfection of the idea of who my biological father might be. Now, approaching the end of my search back into the past, all I wanted to do was walk towards a shimmering horizon into the purity of waves of white light and disappear. It would be so easy. No more mess, no more mistakes, misunderstandings, pain, hurt or complications for myself, my family and my biological relatives. I wouldn’t have to face the reality of the real person that lay behind the idea of C11, and the risk of rejection. But the returning river works a transformation onto the perfection of the dormant salt pan void, which quickly springs into life. And with life comes mess.
Instead of the awesome seductiveness of oblivion, Gerard stopped outside a scruffy block on Nardoo Street in Cape Paterson. My immediate impression was the relaxed feel of a summer beach shack. The house was a single-story fibro construction with a pitched roof. A salt-faded, wooden verandah wrapped around two sides, encased by a gap-toothed wooden lattice. Large windows opened out over the verandah onto a view of a tangle of thickets and the nearby beach. Heart thumping, with a visceral feeling of staring into the abyss, I said goodbye to Gerard and crossed the threshold by myself. I opened the gate and walked across the grass past a clothesline roped to brace a falling down fence. I heard a young man call out, ‘Lauren’s here!’ in an excited voice. Immediately, I felt more at ease. Climbing the short staircase to the verandah, I saw the door was open. I walked inside and found myself in a yellow-painted living room, shaking hands with a broad-shouldered man about 5’11” tall. The bottom button of his 80s print shirt was undone.
‘Hi, I’m Lauren.’
‘Hullo, I’m Ben.’
I couldn’t take in everything at once and only managed small glimpses of his face. Ben tried not to stare at me too. Instead, I focused on the living room which was simply furnished with a wooden table and chairs, an armchair, couch and small television on a wonky stand. The walls were hung with a few oil paintings of the seaside and Babar a la Neige—an elephant skiing down the French Alps. My eyes arrived on a tall, broad-shouldered young man with cropped blond hair wearing a blue t-shirt and navy tracksuit pants—the one who had greeted me as I walked in. He looked familiar; the masculine version of my own long face with prominent cheek and jaw bones, which broke into a bright, friendly smile.
‘Hi, I’m Michael,’ he said. ‘Hi.’
A girl on the couch wearing dark blue leggings and a blue top stood up. She was a little shorter than me and her long, curly blonde hair, pulled back into a casual ponytail, was also familiar. She stuck out her hand, nails decorated in bright red polish.
‘I’m Olivia,’ she said, her smile revealing braces. ‘Nice to meet you,’ I said, shaking her hand.
‘Grab a seat at the table. We were just about to put some things out for lunch,’ said Ben. ‘I’m vegetarian, I hope that’s okay.’
‘Of course. Liv is also vegetarian.’ ‘Oh really?’
‘When I was about five years old Michael showed me some animal cruelty videos from PETA,’ explained Olivia.
‘Wow,’ I said. ‘In high school I did work experience at Animal Liberation, but I couldn’t bring myself to watch those videos.’
As I sat down at the wooden table Ben, Michael and Olivia pushed aside a half empty blue mug and The Saturday Age and in their place laid out pita bread, brie, and salad.
‘Would you like some coffee?’ ‘Sure.’
Ben switched on the kettle and brought out a French press. After laying everything on the table he plunged the press, poured the coffee and sat down opposite me. I avoided his gaze, and instead turned to my side.
‘So what year are you in Olivia?’ I asked.
‘I’m going into Year Nine and Michael is going into Year Eleven. Next year I’ll be at Howqua which is a camp for the Year Nines up in the high country near Mt Buller.’
‘Oh cool, do you get to go skiing while you are up there?’ I asked. ‘Yeah, that’s part of the program.’
‘Olivia and I went skiing this winter up at Perisher,’ said Ben. ‘It was fantastic.’
As he spoke I looked into his eyes for the first time and unexpectedly located myself reflected back in the two blue pools. I sensed a mutual recognition, a flicker of familiarity, like a piece of a jigsaw falling into place. Being surrounded by strangers who looked like me felt surreal. I tried to act normal and not reveal the disconcerting weirdness of trying to carry on a conversation with someone who was staring back at me with my own eyes. What were we talking about again? That’s right, skiing.
‘I love skiing.’ I said, resting my elbows on the table. ‘I worked a couple of ski seasons while I was at university, one in the US and one in Canada.’
‘Sometimes we go cross-country skiing up at Mt St Gwinear,’ said Ben. ‘Oh cool, I’ve never tried cross-country skiing, only downhill.’
‘We can let you know next time we’re going, if you want to join us?’ ‘That would be great.’
I recognised his small ears with attached ear lobes. He still had all his hair, firmly rooted, cut short to reveal a widow’s peak around a slightly long face with a heart-shaped jaw and largish nose. Flat eyebrows rested above those penetrating blue eyes. His skin was seasoned with the tan of somebody who enjoyed the outdoors, but he didn’t have too many wrinkles for an old bloke, just a couple of slight vertical furrows in his cheeks.
‘Do you guys play any sports?’ I asked Michael and Olivia. ‘I started playing Australian Rules Football,’ said Olivia. ‘Dennis and I play a bit of soccer,’ said Michael.
‘That’s what I call Dad.’
‘Yes, Michael and I play soccer together. And enjoy fishing. I’ve also got two horses. My eldest daughter Charlotte likes to ride,’ said Ben/Dennis. ‘My Dad was very competitive in sports. He would pretend he was just playing the game but would hate losing, especially ping pong. When I was a boy in Canberra we lived close to parliament house. Bob Hawke used to drop in for a cup of tea until one day Dad trounced him in ping pong and he refused to come back for a rematch.’
I laughed at the anecdote and Ben smiled, his cordate upper lip opening up into a cheeky grin. I noticed that Ben, Michael and Olivia’s two front teeth were a trifle large, taking up the width of three teeth on their lower jaw, just like mine.
‘I can relate. I play netball like it’s a blood sport,’ I quipped. In one of the many surreal moments that day I noticed that Ben and I both had our arms crossed on the table, right over left, holding our elbows, and our legs were arranged in exactly the same way. Was he mirroring my mannerisms, or was I mirroring his? Or was it some sort of bizarre expression of genetics? After taking another bite from his wrap he looked at me again.
‘You remind me very much of my niece Anna who lives in Sydney.’ Anna was the daughter of Axel—Ben’s brother who had passed away.
‘She studied a PhD too, but in history. How is yours going? Aerospace, isn’t it?’
‘Yep. Pretty good. I’ve finished the literature review and started doing some experiments. I’m looking forward to a break over Christmas and January, I want to get out and do some camping with my boyfriend Gerard. We were thinking of heading to outback South Australia, maybe the Flinders Ranges. It will be pretty hot that time of year, though.’
Below the surface of our casual chat, the whole experience felt liminal. On the one hand it seemed natural, like we had already met, but also a little awkward. All the time apart before we met manifested as the distance between us. The resemblance was so strong, and yet we were strangers—connected in looks, personality and interests but separated by a complete absence of shared memories. It was weird. Could I lay claim to these parts of myself I saw mirrored in a family that wasn’t really mine? At best I was a satellite connected on the strength of genetics. By extension, I questioned my own identity on so many levels.
‘Would you like to go for a walk?’ ‘Sure.’
Ben, Olivia and Michael walked outside, all barefoot, and I paused to put on my thongs which I’d left at the door. Together, we crossed the road and walked the few meters to the caravan park past stands of tea tree and banksia that hugged the dunes. A track led down to the beach where a boat ramp was set into a curve of cove with Prussian blue surf. Bay Beach.
‘One of the paintings on the wall at home is one I did of Michael at this beach,’ said Ben. ‘Oh cool. Do you still paint?’
‘Not much lately. I haven’t had time.’
Walking east along the sandy beach we passed a pool cut into the rocky wave cut platform and continued around to Undertow Bay. Taking advantage of low tide, we kept going and hopped from one rock to the next around the headland towards the Oaks. Despite their lack of footwear everyone was very nimble on the slippery rocks. They knew these beaches. I didn’t and did my best to keep up. Ben slowed down and walked beside me so we could chat.
‘Do you fish off these rocks?’ I asked him.
‘Sometimes. And Michael dives for abalone. My Dad was a keen fisherman. He got into it when his family lived at Phillip Island when he was a boy. His father was an Anglican minister posted there for a few years.’
‘Do you think your Dad was religious?’
‘Honestly, I don’t think he knew what he was.’
On the way back we bumped into Gerard and I introduced him to Ben, Michael and Olivia. Together, we returned to the house and ate berries and cream. We all drank endless cups of chai with honey and talked through the afternoon. Gerard and I left in the early evening with a standing invitation to come back for another visit. We gave Olivia and Michael a lift back to Cranbourne station so they could catch the train back to their mother’s house. As I drove, they dozed. I watched their sleeping faces reflected in the rear-view mirror, heads lolling, mouths slightly open, the way I often fell asleep in vehicles.
Meeting Ben, Olivia and Michael had been strange, tender, familiar and tiring. They were incredibly kind and welcoming as I lobbed into their lives attempting to tease out my tangled identity from a difficult situation that wasn’t of my choosing. The visit had gone well, but as I said goodbye I was acutely aware of the fear of it all being ripped away. Maybe they would decide they didn’t like me and cut me off. Or maybe worse, just be uninterested. The day had been superficially relaxed, but I was emotionally exhausted from the nervous build-up and the constant mental dance of always trying to put my best foot forward.
A few weeks later I got a phone call from a number that wasn’t in my address book. It was Ben’s eldest daughter Charlotte. I was surprised and impressed that she had taken the initiative to call me. After talking on the phone, we made plans to meet up in a café near her home in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. On arrival Charlotte presented me with a gift of a silk scarf and a card which read, ‘Dear Lauren, what a wonderful surprise it was to learn about your presence…one can never have enough family, lots of love, Charlotte xoxo’. My heart stirred.
Eventually, this routine expanded to include visits to the Clark family beach property on the South Coast of NSW where I met and got to know all of Ben’s surviving siblings—Bas, Katerina, Andrew and Rowland—and most of my cousins. Interestingly, I discovered aspects of our lives echoed mutually recognisable rhythms. There was something intensely satisfying in finally being able to make sense of so many things by seeing my looks, personality and interests mirrored in multiple generations akin. Like many in this family I have a PhD, drive a sensible station wagon, love nature, drop crumbs down my shirt, excel at sports and enjoy being irreverent.
Many of my traits also come from the parents I grew up with. They were both educated and passed on a love of learning. My mother always provided me with books as I was growing up, which cultivated an interest in reading. She took me camping, and I fell into my own world, wrapped up in the wonders of nature. She too, was good at maths and science, but, being a female in the times she grew up in she was forced to drop these subjects. My Dad taught me self-discipline in his role as my athletics coach, helping me develop a strong body and mind through sports. He cultivated a competitiveness and a desire to win that helped me overcome the many obstacles I faced during my search. I was also helped by my stubborn determination, characteristic of my mother. As trees need roots and connection to the greater forest, I’m a tangle of genes, psychology and experience, but with an extra layer of complexity to my family story.
When I finished high school, I wasn’t sure how to resolve my dual loves of numbers and words. I received top marks in English but didn’t know anybody who was a journalist or published author. I loved to fly, so chose the path of aeronautical engineering. After the surprise discovery of my biological heritage I reflect back on my choices in a different light. A few years ago, I stayed with Ben’s sister Katerina at her home in Connecticut in the United States. Upon my arrival I stared at her laden bookshelves. It wasn’t just Manning Clark’s six-part opus A History of Australia, or Katerina’s own academic blockbusters on Russian history and culture, but the entire Clark family clogging the shelves: Books translated by my biological grandmother Dymphna and yet more books written by the children and grandchildren; everything from poetry to biography to political analysis. The Clarks were a family of writers. Seeing the combined weight of their oeuvre, I finally felt the confidence that writing was something I could do.
I feel incredibly lucky and grateful that the large extended Clark family has been without exception warm and welcoming. Yet, even though I got the best result I could have hoped for from my search, a shadow lurks. A part of me feels swindled out of the opportunity to grow up already knowing all the facets I am gradually discovering about myself. How can I describe this feeling that meeting them has been both a comfort and a loss? I pat the pockets of my vocabulary but can’t turn out anything that seems appropriate. Maybe it doesn’t have a name.
After I left Australia Gerry tried housesitting for a while, but that got old. Needing more stability, he started looking around for a cheap rental somewhere amongst nature not too far from Melbourne. On a whim, no doubt influenced by our time spent visiting Ben, he went and checked out a small shack on Surf Beach Road in Cape Paterson, and soon moved in. His job allowed him the flexibility to mix remote work with catching the bus into Melbourne to put in a couple of days in the office. He stayed with my mother while he was in the city. A couple of weeks into the new arrangement he borrowed a surfboard from a friend and took his chances as a novice on the somewhat curly rock reefs at First and Second Surf. On almost every evening he would hike through the heath to the top of the large sand dune that is the local high point to watch the sun set over Phillip Island.
Separated by the Pacific Ocean, the time apart eventually put a strain on our relationship as we made do with occasional visits for a little over a year. Eventually, Gerard told me he was sick of living in suspended animation and he was right. My existence had an uncertain, rootless quality: living on a temporary visa, working a fragile, temporary job, and calling Seattle my temporary home. The start-up I was working for failed to secure more financing and fell apart in slow motion. After a year and a half of untethered living, I was overdue to come home.
A couple of weeks later I flew through the warp of space, time and seasons that is international travel and landed back in Melbourne to reunite with Gerard. Not long after getting back we drove a familiar route two hours south-east of Melbourne. As the highway crested the hill above Kilcunda and the magnificent view opened up over the rugged Bunurong coastline, I again felt the thrill of reaching escape velocity. Unlike my first nerve-wracking visit to meet Ben in Cape Paterson all those years ago, this time I felt much more comfortable and was able to drive myself. Continuing on to Wonthaggi, I zigzagged the car across to Chisholm Road and parked at the end of the gravel track under a gum tree.
Gerard and I set out in the sunshine on the walking track which wound through dense stands of tea-tree, banksia, casuarina and manna gums that sprouted from the ancient sand dunes. It was early spring and the scented wattle was in full bloom, covered in sprays of cheerful yellow puffs. As we walked I realised that the years of visits to the region had manifested as more than a deepening relationship with Ben and my half-siblings. In the clarity of my long absence overseas, I felt a sense of affinity with the landscape. As we walked, Gerard and I talked about the possibility of setting up our new lives here, rather than in Melbourne.
The track, lined with echidna diggings, opened up to Cutlers Beach, revealing an expanse of sky, water and sand. I breathed in the salt tang. The sea was glassy but to the south the water was dark, reflecting storm clouds. Further out to sea the sun pierced a small gap in the clouds and shone down an arrow of light of such brilliant, silver intensity, I couldn’t look directly at it. On the beach I took off my shoes and socks and threw them aside, my brown feet sporting tan lines from my recent northern hemisphere summer. I waded in to feel the temperature of the water and grimaced as the incoming wave immersed my bare feet.
‘Still cold,’ I said to Gerard.
Stepping away from the foam and spray, I scrunched the cold sand between my toes. We walked west up Cutlers Beach, as the kelp swirled across a rocky reef exposed by the low tide. My senses detected a subtle drop in temperature and pressure as a cold front moved in. Dramatic clouds formed a dark purple montage punctuated by the textured curtains of distant rain. Closer to shore, concentrated golden sunlight threaded through the moody grey sky directly ahead, opening up a portal of light. The shallow water glowed emerald green beneath this ray, with all the colours dialed up in intensity and saturation. We stopped and stared out to sea, mesmerised by the fast-moving clouds passing overhead from the south-west. The expansive vista beckoned me to leave behind the city, but this thought competed with the concern that I wouldn’t be able to find a job. The mood heightened as a strong wind appeared from the south and the sea surged up the beach. The glassy water began to crash with rhythmic waves and there was a flash over Phillip Island.
‘Did you see that?’ I said, pointing towards the afterglow of lightning. Gerard nodded. ‘I think it’s time to head back.’
A few weeks later Gerard reluctantly terminated his lease at Cape Paterson and we spent two months camping up through the Flinders and West MacDonnell ranges as we contemplated our future. Moving back to Australia created a choice moment. The easy decision was simply to return to our old Melbourne postcode, which seemed to offer the best mix of family, friends and economic prospects. But something made us pause and reconsider. Over the past few years living in the city had gotten harder. It was ever more expensive, crowded and difficult to get around. The idea of the move continued to brew.
After Christmas we checked out a rental in Inverloch. The simple wooden house with a wraparound deck was set on a large block in a leafy part of town. Unlike rental inspections in Melbourne the real estate agent didn’t have to wield a sharp tongue to wrangle the stampede of hopefuls. The living area looked out through a huge window onto a park with a picnic table and a scarred tree, reminding me this land was known by the stories of the Bunurong and Boon Wurrung people. We loved the house and it was affordable, but when our application was accepted it created a dilemma. To pay the deposit and first month’s rent would make things real, while the idea of moving still felt a bit like a pipe dream. We couldn’t figure out what to do. After stalling for a few days, we took another trip down to Inverloch and sat down at the wooden picnic table in the park adjacent to the house.
‘What do you think?’ asked Gerard.
I paused, contemplating the reversed view from the picnic table looking back through the large window into the living room.
‘It’s lovely,’ I admitted, and sighed. ‘But how could we make it work? It just doesn’t seem feasible.’ Reluctantly, I emailed the real estate agent and declined the offer.
Some family visited over the summer holidays and we spent a few nights camping at Cape Paterson. One afternoon Mum and I took a trip to Phillip Island and visited Saint Philip’s Anglican Church in Cowes—a small, white weatherboard church with a corrugated iron roof adorned by a simple wooden cross. Inside, hanging on the wall was a brief history of the church. Behind framed glass, the timeline recounted that in 1921 Philip Island became a parish in its own right. The Vicar is listed as the Reverend C.H.C Clark—Manning’s father—my great-grandfather.
The next day Gerard and I tried out a community yoga class at a new studio that had opened up in nearby Wonthaggi. After the class we happened to mention to the instructor that we had considered moving down to the Bass Coast. Her intense blue eyes widened in delight as she waxed lyrical about how much she enjoyed living here. Her enthusiastic description really sold the idea to us. As sometimes happens when a decision is so finely balanced, we let ourselves be persuaded by this random encounter with an unknown sage, which tipped the momentum to revisit our decision.
‘Let’s experiment,’ suggested Gerard in the car. ‘We can always move back to Melbourne if it doesn’t work out.’
Something about the spaciousness of the horizon over the expansive ocean, in all her moods and glory, had caught my imagination.
‘OK,’ I replied. ‘Why not?’
Somehow, things kept falling into place. Heart’s racing, we called the real estate agent and found out the house was still available. We took it. Gerard had already established his routine of working remotely. The main question was what I was going to do. Miraculously, days before moving in, I was approached on LinkedIn and signed a contract for a part-time job consulting remotely for another start-up, based in Sweden.
Our new bedroom in the house that almost slipped through our fingers faces east, overlooking two magnificent eucalypts. Gerard and I made a pact to leave the curtains and windows open to better hear the rumble of the ocean. In the evenings the soft rhythms of the night bugs waft in with the breeze. In the mornings we let the clacking of wattlebirds drinking nectar from the banksias and the dawn light wake us. Over summer, the water and light at Inverloch’s stunning inlet and surf beaches combined into a miraculous palette of colours on the spectrum between green and blue that invited us to almost daily swims. When conditions were favourable—a northerly wind and low swell—we snuck away to indulge in a lunchtime snorkel and enjoy the incredibly rich and enchanting underwater world of the Bunurong Marine National Park. Gerard spotted a large orange crayfish in a hole just off Eagle’s Nest and I saw a Port Jackson shark resting on the seabed off Shack Bay.
Guillotined twice by COVID-19 lockdown, I am deeply grateful for our decision to move out of the city. My sanity is stabilised by long walks off our doorstep where I can find refuge in nature. The far horizons of the ocean offer a vista of space for my cluttered mind to expand into. Living on the coast and being surrounded by natural beauty crystalised my commitment to spend more time advocating for the environment. Through nascent involvement with local environmental groups we discovered a depth of community around Wonthaggi—a former company town for the State Coal Mine—whose history reverberates down to retain something of a can-do, co-operative spirit.
Gerard and I started to get to know a few people, who generously shared their special places with us newcomers. In this way we were shown a network of thriving coastal heathland, lovingly revegetated from cleared farmland and now home to myriad birds, plants and other wildlife. Further afield were colonies of orchids at the historic Tarwin Lower cemetery, rare ducks in the wetlands at the Bald Hills Creek Wildlife Reserve and even a giant grass tree forest near Grantville. One morning I got a call about a special find and roused Gerard who jumped up from his desk. Together, we raced to the lookout at the end of Punch Bowl Road, our spontaneity rewarded with views of two endangered Southern Right Whales. The whales swam in close to shore and one vocalised a bellow like an enormous sea cow, before flipping its tail out of the water as it dived beneath the waves.
From our new digs it’s just a few minutes’ walk to the Ayr Creek Bridge which overlooks a lagoon set into the coastal dunes of the foreshore. Herons gaze intently into the water as cormorants dive for fish and swans graze the sea grass. I began to frequent the beach for a daily lesson in change, watching the waters oscillate between perfect stillness and choppy white caps, constantly sculpted and rearranged by forces of tide, current and wind. After a maelstrom of storms over Easter weekend we walked down to discover the full moon high tide had inundated the beach and rearranged everything. A large, sandy point had accreted between the surf and inlet beaches with the Ayr Creek now cutting an outlet through the dunes to connect to the sea. The newly tidal lagoon drained and filled with the rhythms of the tides for a few weeks until once more the sand shifted and closed the outlet to the ocean.
At dawn and dusk the lagoon’s still waters never fail to imbue me with a sense of calm. It’s become a ritual to walk down to the beach to appreciate the infinitely unpredictable and varied nature of each sunset; unique as souls within. Sometimes a pink mist, or a line of gold on the horizon. At certain times, just the right angle of sun and cloud sets the sky ablaze with a transcendent fire of hallucinatory intensity. I try to name the colours reflected between the lagoon and the sky, but like my connection to the Clark family they resist capture from the loose weave of the net of words. In this way I feel an affinity with the lagoon. It too occupies a liminal space—at the boundary between the surf and inlet beaches where a freshwater creek meets the saltwater ocean—like the nature of my own identity.
As an engineer and writer, over the years I’ve learned that for those willing to look beyond the boundary of what is verifiable, you can be rewarded with the beauty of truths unprovable. An unusual journey drew me to the Bass Coast to meet my biological father. Despite all I’ve learned about myself I may never quite figure out where I belong, but I do know that something about this place feels like home.