Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

29.12.06

Lime butter salmon, barbecued.

So in the end, people bought cold weather food. Turkeys marched out in droves - if you can have droves of turkeys when they are frozen and encased in plastic - on Christmas Eve.

Forget the Boxing Day sales at the department stores. The real bargains were at the fish stall in the supermarket. Crayfish, $35 down from $70. Salmon, $12 down from $28. Oysters, $6.50.

By mid-afternoon Boxing Day, a kind south-westerly had shunted Christmas Day's black clouds somewhere else, maybe over the mountains where the last week's blazing fires were still smouldering like a mother-in-law's disapproving frown, and the sun came out and made dappled shadows on the lawn.

Just in time for our Boxing Day barbecue.

Lime butter salmon, barbecued.


Make the lime butter: add the zest of two limes and the juice of one, a tablespoonful of finely chopped parsley and two chopped cloves of garlic to 50 grams of softened butter. Combine and refreeze. Slice into rounds. With your knife blade on the horizontal, slice thick pieces of salmon almost in two, leaving a join. Insert rounds of lime butter into the fish.

Barbecue the fish: I did mine in a heavy cast iron pan on the coals in order to catch the melting butter and pour over the fish when serving, along with with extra lime juice from quarters of the second lime.

Drink: a cold sauvignon blanc. You still can't go past the Kiwi ones although some local ones are pretty good.

27.12.06

White Christmas.

Rain was falling in sheets as I turned onto the freeway heading south and east. The road rose towards Bolte Bridge where you can see the city to the left and industry and docks rolling away to the right. The car crested the bridge and then we hit a traffic jam. Half the cars in Melbourne were headed west and the rest east. It was Christmas Day, midday. Even peak hour never jams up like this.

I escaped the freeway at Docklands, idled through South Melbourne, turned left at Fitzroy and crossed St Kilda junction to Dandenong Road, veered onto Wattletree, slipped along a quiet, curving Malvern Road and picked up the freeway again at Chadstone. Easy. We were in the foothills of the Dandenongs by ten past one.

I parked the car in some slush out the front of the house, a brown tumbled-brick eighties affair with arched windows behind a tall wall with ironwork inserts. There was snow on what would have been the front lawn if drought and extreme heat hadn't killed it. We went inside to get warm.

It was cold all day. The official top temperature was 14.7 degrees, but four or five of those degrees didn't bother to venture much further east than Vermont South and we were a lot further east then Vermont South. And higher. A few nights ago we had tossed and turned through a sweltering low of 27 after a day close to forty - the hottest December night on record.

It was a nice day. There was news to share. Cousins had grown. Some had finished school, starting careers. Others were going overseas or had returned. There was too much food. Lunch became dinner.

Everyone talked about the weather.

24.12.06

Anyone have a large casserole they can spare?

I knew it was Christmas when it was 42 degrees in the Safeway parking lot but inside the store, the checkout girls were wearing Santa hats and Frosty the Snowman was being murdered by someone who used to be a pop singer on the store radio. Jimmy Barnes? John Farnham? John Stevens? Cat Stevens? Neil Diamond? I don't know.

I knew it was Christmas when I read in the paper that someone had been complaining that a school had banned the original central Christmas figure, whose name has five letters, to avoid offending minorities and then I read a few more paragraphs and realised they meant Santa.

I knew it was Christmas last year when I kept ticking mental checklists of my relatives; but still missed one until 5pm on Christmas Eve, as the store doors slammed shut, when their name popped into my mind unprompted.

I knew it was Christmas when I started to prepare the biggest eggplant and potato curry I've ever made and discovered I didn't have a casserole big enough to fit, nor a spare.

Eggplant, potato and spinach curry.

Dice four large potatoes and fry them in oil in a deepish frypan or wok in batches until done. Remove. Cube four eggplants and fry these in similar fashion, adding more oil if necessary. Remove. Chop two large onions and fry until golden, adding more oil if necessary. I didn't say this dish was light. Into the onion, stir two inches of finely chopped ginger root, a heaped teaspoon of crushed cumin seeds and a heaped teaspoon of turmeric. Fry for a minute. Now add four fresh chopped green chillies, two cans of diced tomatoes and their juice and two teaspoons of salt. Now add the fried potatoes and eggplants, a bunch of roughly chopped spinach and half a cup of water. Stir to combine. Cover. Simmer. Add more water if necessary to maintain a light simmer. Now add two teaspoons of brown sugar and cook uncovered until simmer recedes.

Happy Christmas. Remember, it's not about the presents.

It's about the food.

22.12.06

Curried fish cakes.

The previous night's barbecue was just your usual sit-in-the-garden-and-watch-the-sun-go-down affair.

I interrupted the chardonnay to throw a couple of pieces of very good fish onto the hotplate. They cooked quickly. Fish always does. Sear, sear, sear, flip. Sear, sear, sear, slap onto plate. Drown with lemon juice. Eat. To go with the fish, there was a very cold salad of quartered vine-ripened tomatoes, larger-than-usual cubes of very good fetta, eighth-segments of onion and very good fat black olives. That's all. Kind of a minimalist but cubist Greek salad. Which makes no sense at all, but after three chardonnays I always start analysing the food.

It was still hot when the sun disappeared behind part of a tree. No cats appeared on the fence. I finished the chardonnay.

But there was some fish left over, so here's what I did with it the next night.

Curried fish cakes.

Ingredients:
Two good portions of cold leftover barbecued fish. One of rock ling, the other of salmon.
Six medium boiled potatoes.
One chopped onion.
One tablespoonful of curry powder.
One tablespoonful of oil.
One tablespoonful of couscous.

Mix by hand. You might need to add a little fluid, especially if you used couscous - as I did - instead of breadcrumbs, polenta, flour, wheatgerm, whatever. I added a dash of milk and formed the mixture into large balls, about the size of Venus in the old mechanical solar system display at the planetarium. Or if you never visited the planetarium, bigger than a golf ball but smaller than a tennis ball.

I didn't fry them, I baked them. They were already warm from the just-boiled potatoes so they didn't take long. Heated through and nice and crisp on the outside. A little sweet chilli sauce on top to serve.

20.12.06

Early afternoon, Blairgowrie beach.



The haze is smoke from the bush fires. It sat on the bay for several days like a dirty wet blanket. About a third of Victoria is on fire.

The heat of the day was intense and stifling, but there must have been air over the water because the boats managed to slip around each other in slow circles all afternoon. The middle-aged couple did the same for a while.

19.12.06

The mantelpiece over the stove.

Some time in the night. The small hours. Maybe one, maybe two. I woke, if wake is the appropriate verb, which it probably isn’t; because although I will usually wake easily after three o'clock, before then I am like the log that has lain on the forest floor for fifty years.

Tracy seemed to be feeding the baby in soft light, very soft light. Babies are like that. They wake at night and want food. It’s the one thing I can’t help with. Then, a sound from the other room. The other baby. The older one. The one that is cutting teeth. Molars. They are taking forever. He cries in pain and frustration and his cheeks go red. The molars pop out and go in again, like animals popping their heads out of the ground, what are they called? The golf course ones. I don't know. The sound stopped.

Now I am asleep again. Who mentioned golf? Now I am holding a two iron. Driving through. Thwack. A beautiful shot. Straight to the green. I am a champion. Someone shouts: ‘Fore!’ Who can that be? I am a champion golfer on the green. No-one shouts at me. Then someone pokes me with my own putter. That is just plain rude.

‘Fore!’ again. I jerked. Tracy’s free hand was in my back, prodding. ‘Can you get the Panadol?’ The 'Fore! Fore!' was coming from William's room but when I found my feet he sounded just like a normal crying, teething eighteen-month-old baby.

The Panadol is in the refrigerator. Where’s the kitchen? This way. Where it always is. I felt my way. Passage. Door. Wall. It’s pitch dark. I could turn a light on but I know there will be a glow from the kitchen window. The moon.

My hands reached for the 'fridge door. I bent down. I touched a tap. That’s not the 'fridge. That’s the kitchen sink. Then I remembered exactly where it was, and I turned on my right foot and swiveled my body around and up and back to where the 'fridge was.

I was in the wrong house. We had been at the beach house for three days. I thought I was still there. At the beach house there is nothing between the kitchen sink and the 'fridge. Here, there is a hundred and fifty tons of 1940s timber house. I swiveled up and to the right and my body kept swiveling but my skull met the part of the hundred and fifty tons that is the mantelpiece over the stove. It’s a beautiful mantelpiece. Solid as a rock. Its corner juts out like the bow of the Queen Mary and that's what the outer edge of my eye socket slammed into. The noise wasn’t all that loud, just one sharp crack like a rifle shot in an open field.

All of this happened in seconds. I felt no pain. I fumbled the Panadol and took it to William and gave him some and picked him up and carried him to the bedroom. ‘What was that bang?’ Tracy asked. ‘That cracking noise?’

‘It was just the house,’ I said. ‘The timber makes cracking noises in the night in these old houses.’

In the morning I had a black eye. There’s no eye damage. But I’m going to tape a line of that padded weatherproofing stuff you stick around doors and windows to the corner of the mantelpiece.

Or else I'll move the fridge. I haven't decided.

17.12.06

A house by the lake.

Once upon a time, a chef built a house by a lake.

She built the house in a dusty field on a hill overlooking the swampy part of Lake Daylesford. The field was littered with the rusty hulks of abandoned cars and overgrown with blackberry. The house took two years to build and rabbits ate everything she planted.

The chef was Alla Wolf-Tasker, whose Russian-Austrian parents had taken her to Daylesford as a child, to visit the spa.

She called the house Lake House. The house by the lake. Simple, unpretentious. Lake House. Her idea was to open a little place in the country for people to visit, have a snack, maybe a meal. Open only on weekends. Who would visit weekdays? Nobody. But Alla Wolf-Tasker had worked in France where people enjoyed dining in the regions and she knew they would here as well. She would draw on her Russian heritage, her French training and the fresh produce for which the region is renowned and then see how it worked out. You can only try.

People visited. Word got out. Awards rained.

This year, Lake House won the Conde Nast Traveller Gold Standard. It won Wine Spectator (US) 'Best of' Awards of Excellence for the world's most notable wine lists every year from 2001 to 2005. (There are 10,000 bottles so your fiftieth birthday won't run dry.) Lake House has collected 47 Chef's Hats from The Age Good Food Guide. It may have won Be Kind to Kitchen Hand awards, for all I know. It may also be Australia's best restaurant. Alla Wolf-Tasker recently extended the building. Probably to house the awards.

You should visit Lake House once in your life. If you can't, read the book. Alla Wolf-Tasker has written her story. Like she wasn't busy enough. This is not just a book of recipes, but the story of a dream, an adventure, an inspiration. It is a food book for all tastes, in a world with too many cookbooks, too many pictures of white plates on pastel backgrounds and too many TV celebrity chefs. In fact, the best pictures in the book are not of food; but the scenery, which is jaw-droppingly lovely. (Amazon says it is not yet available, but I have seen it in stock at Readings in Lygon Street.)

*

At Lake House, the rabbits still come down the hill and nibble the extensive vegetable garden; but now, the only abandoned cars are those of customers who come for lunch and stay for dinner. Or for the night.

Or for a week.

15.12.06

Gold Commissioners and nuns.

The Convent Gallery is a fortress of a building. It abuts the Botanic Gardens and looks out imperiously over Daylesford. On a clear day you can see Mt Franklin from one of its balconies. On a not so clear day you wouldn't be looking at the view anyway, you'd be inside having coffee or staring at the art.

We did all three. Coffee first, view second, art third. Coffee always comes first.

The Convent Gallery used to be a convent and I wondered how the nuns managed to trump the church heavies in getting an even better slice of land than the actual churches. Then I found out the building was not always a convent; it was the Gold Commissioner's private residence. How ironic: the churches weren't king of the heap after all. God came second to gold. The building is not exactly inconspicuous and would have been even more so in 1870, standing out like a ballerina in a bar. Then, in the 1880s the gold boom crashed and the Gold Commissioner left the goldrush town and the Presentation nuns bought his house and converted it into the Holy Cross Convent and Boarding School for Girls.

The building itself is an ornate adventure in nineteenth century architecture; three storeys of rambling brick trowelled into six hectares of stunning restored gardens. Today the rooms are filled with exhibits of art or are retail spaces selling local handcrafts, jewellery, artefacts, ceramics, precious metals and the like. There are cafes, bars and accommodation rooms as well. It's a jumble of culture, coffee and commerce, like Montsalvat meets Chadstone. (But a lot nicer. That was just a verbal illustration.)

The nuns' influence is evident in iconography, ironically minimalist internal design, wrought metal arches, a chapel and a general air of understatement in some of the exhibition spaces. Here, you expect Mother Superior to come quivering around a corner at any time. The eating areas and retail spaces are more ornate.

We picked our way through the building wondering what went on here during the Gold Commissioner's days. You could spend a day here and not see everything. You could get lost in it. Maybe he had a large family or enjoyed weekend house parties. Why does a Gold Commissioner need three storeys and hidden rooms and attics and blind turns and stairways and six hectares of garden?

Because he could.

14.12.06

Dusk.

It was still light. I walked out of the motel driveway, up the wide empty road to
the main street, crossed it at the traffic roundabout near the supermarket and continued up a steepening hill towards the churches.

Two stood on opposite corners, ignoring each other and looking down their noses at everything else. In those days churches always got the best real estate in town, high up on the hill, where the atmosphere was a little more refined than down on the main street with the dirt and the horses and the hotels. Other churches dotted the hill, spires jabbing the sky. In the 1870s, probably the whole town spent Sunday morning walking up the hill and down again. Repent; and build up an appetite for the Sunday roast.

I passed the churches. Here, the hill gets even steeper. Another five minutes of puffing and sweating and you reach a gateway into the Botanic Gardens which sprawl over nine hectares of hill crown at the very top of Daylesford. I walked into the gardens and along a sand pathway. A lawn was turning gold beneath some blue cedars and oaks and there was a rotunda nearby. I remembered it from last time. Ten, maybe twelve years ago we had a picnic here on a night that was almost as hot. You forget a lot in ten years but you always remember a picnic.

I walked a little further along and looked to the west, where the sun was a low orange ball. The view is as breathtaking as you could imagine, not that I had any breath to take after the clamber up the hill. Usually you need to be in an aircraft to look down on church spires but in Daylesford all you need to do is walk up to the Botanic Gardens and look over the edge.

On the way back, I almost slid down the hill, past mansions behind old red-brick walls overgrown with wisteria, hedges of this and that, little verandahed weatherboard cottages and stark new houses with vertical slit windows, pre-rusted metal doors and plantings of cordyline and dianella.

It was cool back inside number four. After a gin and tonic (does anything taste better after a walk on a hot night?) Tracy and I ate a late supper of cold
smoked salmon and chilled asparagus on a bed of salad - shredded carrot, red cabbage, onion, capsicum and capers bound with a little light dressing of lemon, garlic, olive oil and a smudge of mayonnaise.

It was late now. The airconditioning rumbled on for a while then gave a cough and stopped. The night had cooled down. At last.

13.12.06

The motel.

An arc of motel units could be seen beyond a big circular lawn at the end of a driveway that passed the reception office, which was partially concealed behind an overgrown shrubbery. I stopped the car and checked in at the office and the man, after telling me there was a vacancy and giving me the key to number two, asked conversationally, "Hot enough for you?"

There was a metal table and a chair outside each unit. Outside some were sand-filled ceramic planters. They were the non-smoking units. You could smoke out the front. An air-conditioner hummed away over one of the doors, number four, which meant the others were vacant. It was still about 38 degrees and it was close to five o'clock.

I like motels. I'm a motel buff. I like genuine fifties, sixties and seventies designs that are untouched. This was seventies messed up with some eighties kitsch and some nineties technology, such as three remote controls, the too-big television and the water-saving showerhead. But it was still nice.

Later, we came outside and sat on chairs on the big circular lawn over which grew two very old and large trees, so that the lawn was in perfect, cool shade. We lay Thomas down on a blanket and he looked up at the canopy.

The door of number four opened and a woman looked out and waved. She was the woman who had been feeding the ducks at the lake, where she had smiled at William. She came over to the lawn. "I didn't see the baby," she said, explaining. She was about eighty-five and she had watery eyes but they danced at the baby. "He's beautiful."

We talked about the heat and the lake and then she said, "I had three myself. The middle one died at four months. A boy." A faraway smile, not bitter. The leaves waved gold in the evening breeze and I asked her his name. I could tell by her manner that she wasn't going to tell us her life story, and I thought she might like to say his name because she wouldn't get asked all that much any more. "Ronald." She said: "He was ill and I called the doctor late at night and he came and he told me I was imagining things and then he went away, and at two in the morning, the baby died in my arms." Not bitter.

I got the idea that she enjoyed seeing a new little pair of eyes in a new little face, as if there were some parallel universe of innocents that carries closest to its heart the ones who didn't make it.

Or maybe she just liked babies.

After a while she went back to her room and we stayed on the lawn a little longer. It was still hot. It was very quiet.

8.12.06

The lake.

We drove to the lake. It's five minutes out of town, to the south west. The road drops down, twists back on itself and you enter a carpark overlooking what used to be a lawn sweeping down to the water.

The car drifted across the gravel and came to a stop facing the water. The lake is big enough to be impressive and small enough to walk around if you have a spare half day. Pine trees ring the water, rising away on the surrounding hills like spectators in stands at an arena. There was no breeze and the water was dead flat, almost a mirror. Dark jagged shapes were the reflections of the pines.

We got out of the car and moved across the drought-beaten lawn down to the water. To the right of the lawn, under a stand of old pines, an old building used to be something else and is now a bookshop. It sits there in the shade, quietly, and occasionally has a customer. The customer buys a book and wanders out of the shop, trying to decide which particular piece of lake edge would be nice for reading today. There is probably no better-located bookshop in the world.

Down at the lake's edge, some ducks and geese were fighting over some bread an elderly couple were throwing at them. The woman glanced at William, toddling, and smiled.

7.12.06

What does million-year-old water taste like?

In the late afternoon, we visited the mineral springs. The sun was lower now, but it was even hotter than earlier. Anything involving water sounded a good idea.

The ancient water wells from the depths of the earth, having leached upwards through volcanic rock for 450 million years to emerge as clear and clean as this morning's dew. It has health-giving properties. It's one of the purest mineral waters on earth.

The water comes out at metal taps built into a series of rockfaces scattered along a kind of linear sunken garden alongside a watercourse. You can follow the path and taste the water at each of the taps.

The taps curve downwards elegantly, like the beaks of Kiwis. You press a pump and the water flows. It does so with a gentle hiss, like a soft sigh from the deep. The water you don't drink or catch drips through a grate and into a drain that leads to the garden. That's why the picnic lawn was so lush. Ironic, I thought to myself, pardoning the pun, You can't water your garden because of water restrictions, yet here's the purest mineral water in the world growing a lawn. Maybe I should pour Evian on my garden.

William stood on the grate and I showed him how to pump. He kind of got it, but I had to help. I spattered some of the zingy water onto his tongue and he laughed. I laughed too. A seventeen month old baby being splashed with 450 million year old water, like a baptism.

Then I drank some of the water. I tried to decide what it tasted of. I thought of metal, of deep earth, of volcanic fire, of prehistoric iron, of ancient civilisations, of nations rising and falling and the earth revolving a trillion times around the sun. The water was tepid and had a kind of electricity-charged tang that I had never tasted before.

There was a man from the tour bus at the next tap. He took a draught. 'Tastes like pond water that fifty horses have been swimming in,' he said and spat it out.

Some people have no imagination and some people have too much. I stood there and watched him walk away and wondered which of us was which.

6.12.06

Hepburn Springs.

To get to Hepburn Springs, you drive down an alarmingly steep hill that descends into what was probably once the crater of a volcano and ends at a gate which bears directions to the car park and the spa centre.

The carpark was empty except for a single day tour bus parked cheekily across several empty angle parks. I parked the car as close as possible to a tree, for shade.

On a day that hot, the lawn next to the spa centre was possibly the shadiest and coolest place for a picnic in the entire State of Victoria. We threw down the picnic rug and the food cooler and the basket of plates and the cutlery and parked the pram with Thomas in it and sat William down on the blanket and unpacked the picnic: Lebanese flat bread, cold cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, tuna, cold boiled eggs, home made apricot fruit cake. And thermos tea. Having a picnic is a complicated business but it is worth it if you're organised. We were organised. All the organisation pays off when you have eaten enough to sink two ships and you lay back on the cool grass and gaze up at the towering branches of the oaks and elms that reach across and touch each other, way up there, like the arched beams of a giant cathedral.

So we did. Thomas slept in his pram and William sat on the blanket and read a book upside down. Something with bunnies in it. Upside down bunnies. Then he got up and tottered around the lawn, picked up a dead leaf, tasted it, threw it down and wandered over to a straggle of elderly Italian ladies from the day tour bus who were sitting on the lawn fanning themselves with sprigs of leaves from the trees. There were cooings and 'bello's' and smiles and 'ciaos' and then he tottered back and sat down bump on the picnic rug.

Unpacking a picnic is fine. The trouble is when you have to pack it up again. Even though you've eaten all the food, you can never get everything back in the basket. Why? It's one of life's mysteries.

5.12.06

Daylesford.

450 million years ago, a volcano blew up and left a large hill, not quite a mountain, sitting in the middle of Victoria, and a large, deep lake next to it.

449,999,849 years later, a bunch of gold diggers decided to build a town on the hill overlooking the lake. They called it Daylesford. They built churches towards the top of the hill, a main street level across its brow and a spa centre over the mineral springs bubbling away deep beneath its surface.

Despite its elevation, Daylesford was baking in the heat when the Volvo purred to a stop under the canopy of a large tree right outside the Harvest Cafe, just off the main street.

We went into the cafe and the screen door banged behind us and we found a table near the window. The Harvest is your alternative cafe with organic and vegan meals and fair trade coffee and a toy corner for the children of the local hippies. Now it has added an organic store, stocking fresh fruits and vegetables, packaged food products and organic wines and beers. (By 'now', I mean within the last seven years, as it is that length of time since I last visited Daylesford.) We ordered coffee and William played in the toy corner. Out of a tinny speaker came some music that sounded like a cross betwen Ravi Shankar and Neil Young. The Harvest is like something out of 1972, except that no-one in there looked like they were born before 1982. Except me. The coffee was excellent.

3.12.06

North.

The Western Highway bore on, a black ribbon through a flat dry nothing. Then it dropped into a bowl that used to be a volcanic crater and is now Bacchus Marsh, a small market garden town that relies on whatever water is left in the Lerderderg River, if any. Look out to the right and you can see endless rows of vegetables. They must be getting water from somewhere. Perhaps they're trucking it in.

The road lifted out of Bacchus Marsh and kept rising towards Ballan. All the way from here to Ballarat used to be emerald green. Now it's yellow brown. Not so much summer harvest yellow, but more walk-off-the-land brown.

We swung off the main road after Ballan and the exit road swept an arc over the Western Highway and pointed north. Now we were into hillier country dotted with the kinds of small towns in which no-one lives any more. Bunding. Barkstead. Spargo Creek. Towns with nothing left except maybe an old church converted into a weekender for people who want to spend weekends in a place where no-one lives anymore.

Another twenty minutes and signs started appearing at farm gates along the road. Bag's of horse manure, $2. Fresh egg's. Potatoe's, $3 for 5 kilo's. I love the way a misplaced apostrophe can mar an otherwise perfectly concise message, like a speck of mud on a wedding dress.

A straggle of towns slid by, the road curved and rose some more and then we were in Daylesford.

2.12.06

West.

We packed some things into the car and left on a hot morning, early. The wind was already hot and already dusty. We headed west.

You take the Western Ring Road and then you take the Western Highway. There's no confusion. You can't go wrong and you're out of the city soon. But it used to be sooner.

Melbourne sprawled north and east, but it never sprawled west. To the north, artists followed the river, enchanted by the light and the mists and the nightlife at other artists' places. Then the bohemians followed the artists and then everyone else followed the bohemians and built suburbs. Orchardists and farmers looked east, enchanted by the Blue Dandenongs, and settled in the foothills or built houses right up there under the tang and crack of the soaring eucalypts and the pines and rebuilt them every few years after bushfires.

But no-one went west. Melbourne stopped at Sunshine, which was named after a manufacturer of heavy machinery. Beyond Sunshine was a dusty plain as flat as a breadboard and about as interesting.

But then developers, being developers, realised the potential of a flat, dusty plain and built Caroline Springs. There were no springs, but it sounds nice. They built Taylors Lakes where there were no lakes. They built Cairnlea where the only lea is the astroturf on the minigolf range in the mall. That's the thing about new suburbs. They sound beautiful. Old suburbs don't. Toorak sounds like someone coughing.

We drove past the largest advertising hoarding in the southern hemisphere. It sits facing the Western Ring Road and in letters larger than a bank executive's salary, it reads: Every generation should live better than the last. There was a photograph of someone having a better life than their forebears, and a fat red Westpac Bank 'W' logo at the bottom, like a giant kiss. See? The bank loves you. Now take out a $300,000 mortgage and a $20,000 credit card and live better than your parents.

It got warmer. I turned the airconditioner on. In the back, Thomas slept and William sang a soft song with a lot of 'th' sounds in it. Alongside the freeway, earthmovers were adding yet another lane and dust was drifting across acres of brand new houses, some still unroofed, their timber frames like the skeletons of dead animals. Soon we left Caroline Springs in the rear vision mirror and there was nothing except the flat plain, dead from the drought, and the Western Highway.