Once upon a time Good Friday used to be quiet, in a strict, muscular kind of way; as if no-one dared to make any noise, or hold parties, or mow the lawn; for fear that someone would object. This year, Good Friday had an uncertain calm, an unusual serenity, for which people seemed nevertheless grateful: as if they had suddenly discovered that occasional peace, immobility and silence were actually a good thing. Then, somewhere in the distance, in another street, a car’s engine screeched and roared. So forget all that and let’s start again.
Saturday was steel grey. Late in the morning, coffee in the swarming mall. Papers on the table and two boys in their double stroller, picture books in hand and not seeing the crowds tearing past in a frenzy, as if the 'closed' signs in the shops on Good Friday had been a bad dream.
Early afternoon. The freeway was a silver ribbon in the grey gloom, sweeping across the state. Then off and up towards the mountains. A strange thing happened. Colour suddenly drained out of the landscape and we were driving through one of those sepia photographs they used to place behind glass in Victorian Railways carriages: pictures of Healesville, the Maroondah Dam, the Grampians and the Dandenong Ranges with sepia treeferns and sepia mountain ashes and sepia people.
The sepia was dead forest near Labertouche, eight weeks after the fires. But not all dead. Some eucalypts were already sprouting new leaves from unlikely parts of their jet black trunks, like moss growing on telegraph poles. A roller coaster ride through Jindivick and out the other side; down, down and another rise, past Tarago Reservoir and there we were at the house on the hill where lived Mrs Mac: Tracy's mother; Grandma to William and Thomas.
Late afternoon. How do you prune a lemon tree? With the radio on. I positioned the car close to the garden and left the door ajar and switched the radio to 774 Melbourne that used to be 3LO or Radio One, and some ex-footballers crackled about why one team was winning and not the other. The art of the sports call is dead. Now they just over-analyse and shout. Snip, snip, snip. I had to get the saw out to remove a couple of boughs. This tree hadn’t seen secateurs in years. Some of the branches were like fretwork. I found a golf ball lodged in a branch junction, like an egg in a nest. It might have been there for years.
The land falls away sharply. The lemon tree is on a slope at the back of the house, that is really the front, under a verandah overlooking a lawn sweeping down to a valley. When you sit on the verandah you stare at the mountains across the valley and they stare back at you and are so close you think you can touch them.
Noises on the verandah, and voices, and rattling cups. Afternoon tea. I threw down the saw, switched off the car radio, shut the door and went inside.
Hours later. Dinner. Tracy’s mother - Scottish - produced a pot of fragrant stew she called 'stovies'. It’s like a northern British version of Irish stew; but my mother-in-law would prefer the reverse description. The human race is endlessly concerned with who thought of what first. There’s no useful answer to this. But the stew was delicious. More please. Pass the salt and pepper and yes, I will have another slice of bread to mop up the juices.
Melt some dripping in a large pot with a tight fitting lid. Line pan with a layer of thinly sliced potatoes. Top this with a layer of thinly-sliced carrot and onion and then a layer of sliced lamb or beef (traditionally leftover roast but this was fresh lamb). Repeat layers, and again. You might need a taller pot. Season with salt, pepper and all-spice. Add stock or water to just cover. Cook over a low heat for up to two hours or until the potatoes are melting. Serve with chopped parsley, chives or spring onion.
You can use oil if you're squeamish about dripping but the flavour won't be quite the same. Plus, Scotch cuts through the fat beautifully. Cutty Sark on ice, anyone?