the top of the bay

For a time in the late ’70s our family made its home on a bluff overlooking Guam’s Tumon Bay.

Back then the Micronesian island was the No.1 destination for Japanese honeymooners, who flocked there on western-style white wedding packages.

From the hotels below many couples espied the perfect vantage for wedding photographs and beat a path through the tropical undergrowth to summit on our front lawn.

There, the pretty little brides and their camera-slung grooms would politely await until they caught someone’s attention to “please, photo”.

In the autumn of ’79 I took dozens of photos of bridal couples poised like happy birds between sea and sky and – as a dubious return courtesy – they took dozens of me.

A photograph of the photographer was an unspoken part of the deal.

I imagined the presence of my lumpy teen self in the newlyweds’ albums being explained to bemused relatives from Akita to Yamaguchi.

“… and this is the fat girl at the top of the cliff who takes photographs”.

Travelling along the Great Ocean Road last week I noticed couples of all walks stopped at lookouts taking their own photographs in that peculiar heads-tight-together-one-arm-outstretched pose of the phone camera.

With some sadness I realised the random helpful stranger who appeared in albums the world over had become redundant – the curled up corner of a memory, like the ghosts on a polaroid left too long in the sun.

But behind the shoji screens and across the tatami mats, the plump girl at the top of the cliff lives on.


the loo-vre of warrack

Spending a penny in Warracknabeal is a step back in time, Sarah Harris discovers.  Photographs by Brendan McCarthy

When Hilary Willowsmith expressed a desire to join the Country Women’s Association (CWA), one of the doyennes of the local chapter asked: “Are you quite sure, dear?”

Obviously she was the the one with doubts,” Hilary laughs. “I mean, how can you wear this much make-up and be uncertain about anything?”

Fortunately the self-confessed “glitter goth” – who last year made a dramatic tree change from Chapel Street, Prahran, to the Victorian Wimmera town of Warracknabeal – found a warm welcome in its landmark local loo.

I remember the first time I stepped in here. It was like stepping back in time, with the beautiful lace tablecloth, visitors’ book and antimacassars on the back of armchairs,” she murmurs as we await the meeting of this most singular organisation to be called to order.

The Warracknabeal and District Ladies Restroom Committee may sound like a title borrowed from an Alexander McCall Smith novel, but this is a real institution of the Australian outback variety.

Time was when many country towns had similar restrooms – most under the auspices of the CWA or other existing voluntary organisations.

But the Warracknabeal restrooms, opened in 1928 in the heart of the town, is perhaps the last stand-alone private toilets with its own dedicated committee and membership – founded as a matter of convenience by women of the Wimmera.

Before the restrooms were built the women used to come in from the farms with their husbands, travelling miles in horse and buggies,” committee treasurer Laurel Schulz explains.

The men had the Coffee Palace, but the women were not welcome there. They didn’t have anywhere to go to feed their babies, change them or freshen up.

So some of the farmers’ wives got together and decided they would form a committee. Mr Andrew Taylor owned the land that the restrooms are built on and he donated it to them as a start.

They had concerts and all sorts of things to raise money as well as receiving donations.”

Since then the restrooms have served as a oasis for generations of women, only closing its doors for a brief spell in 2005 when the floorboards were replaced.

Now it’s the committee members themselves who are concerned about giving way.

We are all getting very old. The average age of the committee is about 80. I’m 83 and I’m still treasurer, but I would dearly love to retire,” Laurel admits.

It’s sort of been an inherited duty,” fellow committee member Elaine Aitkins reveals. “My mother-in-law was in it right from the very start and then one day she said, ‘You are a lot younger than me. You can take over.’ I have been here ever since.

We are trying to get the younger ones involved,. There are women who are interested, but the thing is so many of them work.”

Although there are council-run public toilets right next door to the restrooms, few local women would countenance using them.

It is just so much nicer and cleaner here,” Barbara Morrows says, dropping by with her granddaughters after school.

I have been coming here for 46 years. When I came in from the farm I used to feed my babies in here and use the pushers they had for hire to get them about town.”

Flicking through the visitors’ book it is clear how much this quaint amenity is valued by travellers, like the troupe of passing bellydancers who were so impressed they left a $100 donation.

Another visitor, Val, wrote: “So charming. I love to come in here so we always make Warrack a stop on the way through to Adelaide – even when I don’t really need to use the restroom.”

A more recent entry in childish looping hand says simply: “Awesome!!!!” Then, perhaps realising this may seem a strange admonition to a group of 80-somethings, adding a qualifier: “It means not bad.”

a little batty


Most people have pink batts in their ceiling. We have grey ones.

No one died installing them.

They insinuated their own way in through a small hole at the apex of the roof of the A-frame and colonised the wall space.

We’re not sure to which of the 21 or so species of Microchiroptera found in Victoria our tiny co-residents belong.

Now and again the microbats become disoriented and fly inside the house when they really mean to go out.

When this happens we dim the lights and throw open doors so they can find their way into the night.

Of course my husband would claim he routinely wakes to find an old bat blinking blindly from the pillow next to him, but just this morning I found a stray sheltering behind the chopping board.

One of my more fastidious friends is horrified.

When I pointed out bats are probably about as hygienic as she is given that the number of microbes living on and in the average healthy person outnumbers their human cells by 10 to 1, she started adding Dettol to her bathwater.

But she still wouldn’t back down on bats. And, after I suggested they were also rather more useful than dental nurses, she just got huffy.

It’s true though. Each night microbats consume up to half their body weight in insects, acting as an important natural control, particularly of mosquitoes.

With barely 20 per cent of all mammal species that existed at the time of European settlement now surviving in the inner suburbs, there’s no shame in being a little batty.


mean time, in greenwich

Since time began some of us have had trouble with it.

As a kid I really struggled to learn how to tell the time on analogue clocks and didn’t relish the gift of my first wristwatch – a rite of passage for kids in the pre-digital age.

Just recently I read that problems with spatial awareness can be a sign of a neuro-developmental delay ((NDD) , but I prefer to think of it as my own special chronology trying to manifest itself.

My husband will tell you I still have a problem with Australian Eastern Standard Time or, as he calls it, Eastern Sarah Time.

Small wonder, given that I’m the subject of a secret time experiment.

I discovered this week that every single clock in the house including the one in the microwave is between 13 and 34 minutes faster than it should be. Even my Google calendar is an hour out of sync.

I have been suspicious about this for some, well, … time: wondering why I frequently arrive at places where the resident clock tells me it’s before I actually left home.

Confronting Father Time about this, he shrugged and handed me an article from the Atlantic Monthly.

It was about how the times displayed on departure boards in New York’s Grand Central Railway Terminal are always, albeit ever-so-slightly wrong; deliberately so in order to prevent passengers rushing.

Apparently Grand Central boasts the fewest concourse accidents of any train station in the country even though most of its floors are marble.

We don’t have marble floors, cries I.

True’, says Lord Chronos smugly, “but have you ever once missed a train?”