COOLART WETLANDS By Kim Robyn Smith

by Dec 4, 2020 | Featured Stories, Writers in Residence

‘Hurry up, Jade!’ said one of the boys behind me.

‘Just wait!’ I said.

Several kids pushed in excitement, eager to have fun on the school excursion. Miss Hammond told us to be patient. We piled out of the bus. I held my hand to my forehead like a sun visor and looked around.

I wasn’t interested in learning boring history about the Coolart Wetlands but was keen to see the art exhibition. Painting was my obsession. I wanted to make it my career one day.

‘Come along,’ Miss Hammond said. ‘We’ll take a walk. Stretch our legs before listening to the talk about the Coolart Wetlands and then the art presentation.’

We headed along the gravel path. Single file. Before long we strolled in pairs and groups of three. The lawn of the grounds was lush. I breathed in the smell of the freshly mown grass. The old homestead stood like a proud monument that refused to be ignored. It was beautiful in a haunted looking way.

We turned onto the track surrounding the lagoon. An old lady sat on a stool near the water’s edge. She frantically painted on a large board set across an easel.

I broke away from the class group and headed towards her.

Her grey hair was tied back in a neat bun. I liked it when older ladies kept their hair long. She wore an almost full length tartan skirt and what my mum referred to as “sensible shoes.” The easel’s legs were parked in the mud.

 ‘Hi,’ I said with trepidation.

‘Hello there!’ she replied. ‘Having a tour of the area?’ She didn’t seem to notice that her sensible shoes were getting wet.

‘Yes, I’m here with my school group. We’ve come down from Hawthorn.’

I was fascinated as the elderly lady dipped her brush into the blue on her water-colour palette. She added a blob of black and created a deep blue. She dapped, dotted and swirled paint onto the board. Red was splashed and flicked for the head and beak of a hen.

‘Your work is awesome. I wish I could paint like that.’

‘Thank you, dear.’ She looked up from her masterpiece and smiled. ‘Keep at it. Practice makes perfect, you know.’

‘Do you always paint birds?’ I asked.

‘Mostly,’ she said. ‘I capture nature. I never run out of subjects here. I’ve painted a swamp hen today, but other birds such as the white ibis and the chestnut teal duck also inhabit the wetlands. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the hoary-headed grebe.’  

‘What’s the V in the corner of your work?’ I asked.

She kept talking as if I hadn’t spoken. ‘Kookaburras and magpies are also plentiful. Cheeky little characters!’

But then she answered, ‘oh, that’s my initial. My name is Violet.’

‘Jade!’ Miss Hammond yelled. ‘What are you doing down there?’

‘I’d better go,’ I said. ‘Maybe we can talk after the boring history talk.’

‘Not boring, dear,’ Violet said. ‘Listen carefully. It will help with your future.’

I nodded, ran up the bank and along the boardwalk to join my classmates up on the viewing platform.

I entered the gift shop while most students hovered near the entrance. Some impressive paintings of wild birds lined the walls. A woman in a pale lemon cardigan draped over her shoulders sat behind a desk.

‘Do you have any of Violet’s paintings displayed?’ I asked.

‘Violet? Oh, Violet… She was our Artist in Residence for many years.’ She paused. ‘No, her family won’t part with any of her work.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I was hoping to see some.’ 

The woman rose and picked up a book from a rack. ‘We do however have pictures of her work for sale.’ She handed me the hard cover. I ran my finger over the V on the front.

‘I’ll take it!’ I said. I fetched out the twenty dollar note that Dad had given me to spend on a souvenir. I dug into my pocket for my lunch money.

I handed her the cash and she gave me five dollars change in coins.

She grabbed her ringing mobile from her handbag. After a brief conversation she apologised to me. ‘Sorry to rush you, dear but I have to dash off to conduct a tour. We’re short staffed today.’

‘That’s okay,’ I said.

She placed the CLOSED sign on the door as I walked away.

We trundled into the Observatory. It was set up like a mini theatre and overlooked the wetlands. Miss Hammond clapped and told everyone to please quieten down.

I took a seat near the back of the room and clutched my treasured purchase to my chest.

My classmates shuffled in their seats as the talk got underway. The history of the Coolart Wetlands was going to be a drawn-out affair. I’d be waiting here forever for the talk on art to commence.

It didn’t go unnoticed by Miss Hammond as I stood up. ‘Toilet,’ I mouthed.

She nodded.

I slipped out and marched down towards the lagoon. I couldn’t wait to tell Violet that I had purchased her book.

I looked ahead but couldn’t spot Violet. Disappointment ran through me as I realized that she may have left for the day. I wandered to the shoreline.

A paintbrush stood upright in muddy shallows. I reached across and grabbed it.  Violet must have forgotten it. I hoped to return it but the shop lady wasn’t available.

I didn’t even know Violet’s surname so I flicked the book open to the introduction and searched for clues.

 A younger version of Violet stared back at me. I read: Violet Faraway. Born 7th September 1931. I read the blurb about her enthusiasm for recapturing birdlife at Coolart Wetlands.

I gasped at the last sentence: Violet passed away: 23rd November 2010.

Today! Violet died exactly ten years ago!

I glanced down and blinked.

A large V was carved into the bare earth.