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fbook icon 60 Life with a Platypus

DOB MCE 14

After years of fantasising about a weekender in the country, my husband and I finally bought a little cottage overlooking a creek on the outskirts of an historic town. It's a long drive from the Big Smoke, but we didn’t let a practicality like that stop us. After all, we had fallen in love with the town and its old buildings, its green hillsides and most particularly, the platypus that lived in the creek. As if by special request of the real estate agent, the creature had even made an appearance on the very day we inspected the house, providing the ‘wow factor’ which clinched the deal.

Some years later, the platypus is still with us, though I’m not certain whether it’s our original one or not. I’d like to think so. There’s been a baby too, otherwise known as a puggle. A tiny version of its parent, yet full of bravado, floating on the surface and enjoying the sun. Then again, a fully grown platypus isn’t very big – about 40 to 60cm, the experts say.

When we arrive at our cottage on a Friday afternoon, the platypus is usually waiting for us. Tired after the long car trip, we are instantly heartened by his presence, foreshadowed by neatly concentric ripples on the surface of the creek. Then we spot the curve of his back as he duck-dives for food. Sometimes he will move on quickly, but often he lingers and we watch him from behind a stand of reeds.

A couple of years ago, our slow-moving creek turned into a raging torrent after a heavy rainfall upstream. Willow trees cracked under the force of the water. Debris came hurtling past at a frightening speed. Creek banks were reconfigured by the tempest. As I stood in the rain, watching the creek rise, all I could think about was the platypus. What would happen to his burrows scattered at intervals along the banks? Would the little guy be washed away altogether? Panic struck as I recalled a story I’d read in a newspaper about a puggle found in the breakers of a South Coast beach. He had been washed all the way to the ocean by floodwaters.

So what became of our platypus?

By the next day, the water level had dropped and the creek was moving slowly again. Rubbish and tree branches had piled up against the stand of willows in front of our cottage. New pools had appeared and the course of the creek had altered. Oh dear, I thought. If the banks are gone, so are the burrows. I went and made myself a cup of tea and by the time I returned to the window, there he was, cavorting as if there had never been a flood.

Including a platypus in my book MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM seemed like a natural thing to do. In the novel, as in real life, he’s like a magician’s assistant, appearing from nowhere and vanishing just as quickly. All that’s missing is the puff of smoke.

Deborah O’Brien

February, 2012

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fbook icon 60Country Ways

DOB MCE 19

What’s so great about living in the country, people ask me? The nineteenth-century poet, William Cowper said it all in his famous line: “God made the country, and man made the town”.

Here are some of the things that make country life special for me:

  • Sheep bleating at night (in the city it’s police sirens)
  • Frogs mumbling to each other in the creek
  • Flocks of black cockatoos before a rain shower (you can’t get angry at them, even when they’ve littered your lawn with pine-cones and branches)
  • A lone bustard (Australian stork) patiently watching for prey among the reeds
  • A wallaby doing an elegant jump over a barbed-wire fence
  • Newborn lambs and calves at the end of winter
  • Tiny frogs as small as leaves
  • A baby wombat on the door step late at night
  • Church bells on a Sunday morning
  • A front-page story in the local newspaper about a lost teddy bear, complete with photo.
  • A mayoral election where the councillors’ votes have resulted in a tie, so they draw a name out of a hat
  • And people who smile and say hello when they pass you in the street, whether they know you or not

Deborah O’Brien

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DOB MCE 15




 


 

fbook icon 60Tales of the Emporium

Items  from Emporium

When I was a little girl, suburban shopping malls were a new and rare phenomenon, and the city was still the heart of the retail world. During the school holidays my grandmother used to take me to visit the big department stores like Anthony Hordern’s, Mark Foy’s, Grace Bros at Broadway, Farmers and David Jones. She was an inveterate shopper. So are my mother and I – it’s in the blood.

I must have been about eight when I first heard the word ‘emporium’.

‘Let’s go to the Palace Emporium,’ my grandmother announced as we emerged from the dark railway tunnel at Museum into the dappled sunlight of Elizabeth Street. It turned out that the Palace Emporium was the old name for the magnificent six-storeyed Anthony Horderns’ building, which occupied much of the block bounded by Pitt, George and Goulburn Streets.

Built in 1905, the Emporium was four years younger than my grandmother, aDOB Arcades 09 girl born and raised in the Central West of New South Wales. At the age of twenty-one, with her mother dead from the pneumonic flu and her father a distant memory (having deserted his wife and three daughters many years earlier), she took the decision to move to the city. She had left her formal education behind at age thirteen, but made up for it by reading everything she could get her hands on. She was also a talented seamstress, able to put together a stylish outfit in no time.

I can just picture my grandmother in her cloche hat and fox-fur stole, alighting from the train at Central, her suitcase in one hand and Gladstone bag in the other. If she had walked up George Street or even caught a cab, she couldn't have missed the Palace Emporium looming into view on the right. Even a country girl would have recognised the famous building, familiar to everyone from the picture on the cover of the Anthony Horderns’ mail-order catalogue.

DOB Arcades 12Decades later, I too found myself gazing at the same edifice, a little girl gripping her grandmother’s hand. True to its name, the exterior looked like a palace, complete with a castellated tower and parapets topped by a series of Grecian urns, like jewels on a crown. Being a child, I had no idea that the business was in decline, nor that the term ‘white elephant’ had been used to describe the premises. (And even if I had heard those words, I wouldn’t have understood the significance of the metaphor.) All I saw was a fairytale castle. Sadly there would be no happy-ever-after for the Anthony Horderns' building, but nobody knew that then.DOB Arcades 13

Once inside the store, I discovered embossed metal ceilings, heavy columns, vast spaces and an array of goods meticulously laid out on tables. I might be confusing it with somewhere else, but in my mind’s eye I can still see an old-fashioned docketing system using a pulley and wires, which seemed to spirit away the money and promptly deliver a receipt, as if by magic. Back then, department stores had lifts with operators who would recite the names of the goods on every floor. I could have ridden up and down in those lifts for hours, just listening to the fascinating inventory.

Ever since those days, I’ve loved the word ‘emporium’, though as a small child, I never imagined I would write a novel with an emporium as its centrepiece … or a novel of any kind, for that matter. My own emporium isn’t grand like Anthony Horderns’. It’s just a single-storeyed building of modest size on the main street of a fictional country town.

However, inside its blood-red front doors, the heroine Amy Duncan finds a different world, ‘a storehouse of possibilities’, as she calls it. For someone who loves to shop, it’s filled with covetable items – silks, furniture, porcelain and jade. For a young woman intrigued by its owner, there is far more to Mr Chen’s Emporium than the merchandise. Above all, it is a place where a love story, prohibited by the prejudices of nineteenth-century society, can blossom unchallenged, until …

Read more about MR CHEN'S EMPORIUM here.

DOB MCE 10

The magnificently restored arcades in the photographs above are in Melbourne, not Sydney. Apart from the wonderful Queen Victoria Building and the Strand Arcade, it is a tragedy that Sydney retains very little of its 19th century shopping history. 

Deborah O’Brien

March, 2012

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