Friday, January 06, 2006

Iron Cove

Christmas Day, we (my sister, her daughter, my two sons, me) had a picnic in Callen Park, which is a former 19th century estate re-invented as an insane asylum and now uneasily poised between three functions: the rump of a psychiatric hospital, housing mainly dementia patients, in ugly mid-20th century buildings; an Art College in the beautiful old sandstone edifice of the original asylum; and public land, used mainly by exercisers and their dogs. The NSW Writers Centre is also to be found there, an adjunct to the Art College.

We sat under an old elm tree at the edge of a playing field with an arm of the sea across the open grass arena. There were a few other picnickers around, and, behind us, in the nearest building, we could hear a Christmas party going on, with table tennis being played by kids on a veranda. When I went over there with my elder boy to find a bathroom, these people turned out to be a large extended family of Spaniards, some of whose members were perhaps employed as nurses in the institution.

It was hot and dry and, after lunch, I thought we might perhaps go for a swim. Me and Jesse and Liamh ran over the spiky grass, jumped a ditch, crossed the road and then went under trees down to the water's edge. There's a low sea wall running all along the eastern shore of Iron Cove. We took off our shirts and climbed down using the gaps between the sandstone blocks as foot and hand holds. So far so good. But the sea bottom was rocky and uneven and almost every rock encrusted with oyster shells, some live, others broken open and razor sharp.

I carried Liamh out, trying to find a path that Jesse could follow into the deeper water but somehow we both got cut: me with a series of parallel grazes along the top of my left foot just back of the big toe, he with a short deep slice right in the meat at the head of the same toe on his right foot. As we all three drifted out into the bay, Jesse was cross, blaming me for his injury. It wasn't that serious, more bantering, as we decided to swim, not for the island in the middle of the Cove, but to a point east of where we were.

Then he said (dog-paddling and spluttering): Unlike you, I know my purpose in life, and I value it.

Wha ... ? I was silenced. What the hell did that mean? He's just turned nine.

Subsequently we made it to shore and inspected our wounds, which weren't too bad. His reminded him of those devices in which you swipe credit cards and mine, though superficial, produced far more blood and so looked a lot worse than his did. Then an obliging dog came along and both boys started throwing sticks out into the water for it, which it expertly retrieved. I went back to the picnic.

Later I asked Jesse what his purpose in life is?

It's to show my father that I'm a serious person, he said, silencing me again.