Margaret McCaffrey - A Pocket Handkerchief at the Edge of the World

In some ways my life began at four in St Kilda. The cows on my father’s Warragul farm were patient creatures with doleful, loving eyes, but they couldn’t talk – or wave.

The landing to my grandmother’s flat on Fitzroy Street was near pitch black. There were two doors; one hers, the other belonging to a tenant who I never spotted. To the right of Nanna’s door was a breadbox. At age six I used to hope that a younger brother was accompanying me so he could squirm his little slippery, jelly body through the L-shaped chute and into the kitchen on the days when Nanna forgot her keys.

Inside the flat, we’d adjust our eyes to the light. Her kitchen featured a Kookaburra gas stove, a meat safe that kept things cool, and a toaster whose sides flopped open at will. Nanna said you could tell it was breakfast time by the smell of burnt toast.

I liked to head for the red chenille-covered rectangular table that stood in an alcove overlooking Fitzroy Street. Through the wide window she and I watched the men who lived in the triangular park across the road, a patch of land bordered by several roads skirting the sea. Nothing, except the island of Tasmania, appeared to separate us from the bottom of the world.

On Friday nights I huddled over a cardboard box of comforting fish and chips to watch the police arrive in their divvy vans and collect the men who’d made the park’s dusty floor their home. The men raised their bottles of brown-papered booty to the sky in a mixture of acceptance and defiance as they climbed into the paddy wagons.

On Saturdays, the bodgies and widgies cruised beneath our window in fluorescent socks of orange, blue, red and green. The males nonchalantly combed their hair into the style of a wave. Each weekend became like a riveting reality TV show. I looked enquiringly at Nanna to gauge her opinion, and she’d reply, ‘As long as they’re happy.’

By late Sunday afternoon the patch of dry grass across the street came back to life as the men in their dark brown overcoats were returned in divvy vans to their home by the sea. They waved in triumph to onlookers and no one in particular, set up their bottles in the ordained order and resumed domesticity.

There was the nagging suggestion in my half-formed mind that a complicity existed between police and the park’s squatters. I couldn’t put my finger on it, not having the internal literacy for an unspoken agreement or such symbiosis. But their return was reassuring to a child of four or six, who could see that that the men were alright, and that life, as she observed it, would keep going in its endless, ever-widening circles.