Life in the Wheat Bin

When I was four years old or so in South West Western Australia, I used to spend a lot of time sitting in a wheat bin, making up stories. I think the bin was partly filled with wheat used to feed the chickens. At least, that was its mundane function; for me, it was a safe place where I could be left alone to take in what was around me and to invent worlds and characters.

I have not changed much in the years since then; trying to find space in my life to read and invent stories is still my major obsession. I have lived in the United Kingdom, Italy and now Ireland, but my Australian background – and you can’t get more Australian than a kid hanging out in a wheat bin – is still one of the biggest influences on my writing.

In the house I grew up in in Australia, we lived down the bottom. A family of brushtail possums occupied the area above the ceiling. They had been there long before we moved in and regarded us as their tenants. We kept daylight hours and didn’t bother their nocturnal routine, and my dad paid the rent by planting fruit trees that the possums raided at night. Last time I visited my dad in the same house, the descendants of the original possums were still there, collecting the rent in the same way.

My big bright eyes have no problem seeing in the dark. My claws grip the branches, and my long, curly tail is like another arm.

So, we humans got along fine with our brush-tailed landlords. The thing was, though, that we had a family tradition of keeping orange cats, who had not signed the lease agreement. The orange emperors (as they considered themselves) were nocturnal, great hunters and warriors and regarded the entire house and garden as their territory. The two contending sides were about the same size, with perfect night vision, as well as claws and fangs – possums are vegetarians, but like most animals, will turn nasty if threatened or cornered. This led to generations of noisy late-night battles punctuated by howls and yowls. I used to lie awake listening and inventing stories of bravery, attack and counter-attack.

Every new orange cat we got quickly joined in the ancestral war. My father once tried to enforce pacifism on them by spraying their leader with a hose during a possum battle. When their insulted leader, the Prince of Orange, saw my father the next day, he lifted his tail and – got revenge. This was frontier country, after all, where you shot first and asked questions after.

The possums vs cats war described above is an example of the kind of fight for survival that native mammals have fought against introduced species for centuries, often unsuccessfully. Our orange cats always remained just this side of wildness, but lots of domestic cats go feral. They are another introduced species that presses on the slim survival margin of natural animals in a mostly harsh environment.

For an imaginative kid in a wheat bin, it would have been difficult to not make up stories with all this going on around you. And, figuratively, I still spend most of my time in there.

It was time to climb. Her bushy tail was flickering, ready to grip and clamber. Her huge eyes were bright and her big ears were keen. Her claws were ready.


First published on Geekritique

Artwork by Eric Nyquist

Quotations from Children of the Different


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