I hear soft footsteps pattering up the stairs in the terrace house next door. The new family has arrived. I can’t understand what they’re saying. My Mum says it’s a foreign language. It reminds her of the words some of her students use on the playground.
The next day I hear loud shouting and then sobbing. An argument. I look out the window and see a girl run from the front door out along the road, tears streaming down her cheeks. She’s wearing a tattered dress and a loose scarf over her dark hair. I look down at myself, my jeans and t-shirt over my pale sunburnt skin. We look so different, but I follow her.
I run out the door and chase her down the alley until we arrive at the fig tree. She nimbly climbs the trunk and shuffles along the biggest bough. I climb up and sit next to her.
I wait, giving her time to calm down. It takes a while, but I’m patient. Finally, she speaks, but I can’t understand her. The words seem jumbled with sounds I don’t recognise. I try to speak. “I’m Maia”, I say quietly. She stares at me blankly. “I’m Maia”, I repeat, louder this time. She stares at me again. I start to speak again, but realise that if I can’t understand her, she can’t understand me. I say my name slowly and point at myself. “My-uh”, I repeat, talking normally. “Maia.” She points at herself and copies me. “Yusra”, she whispers. I can’t hear so I cup my hand around my ear. She understands. “Yusra”, she says loudly, with a tiny smile. “Yusra”, I reply.
I don’t know what to do next. How can we communicate more than our names? Then I remember my fidget spinner, which always helps me think. I pull it from my pocket. Suddenly, Yusra grabs it from me and starts doing some incredible tricks. I’m amazed! Her tricks are superlative! We play for a long time and she teaches me what she knows. We can communicate without having to talk. The fidget spinner becomes our voice.
Yusra suddenly hugs the tree. She murmurs something I can’t understand, gripping the tree more tightly. Then she cries “Syria!” Tears start forming in her eyes and spilling down her cheeks. I hug her loosely, not wanting to upset her more. I don’t know why she said “Syria”, but then it comes to me. Syria must be where she’s from. She must be a refugee from Syria and now she’s here, in Sydney, safe but so far from home. What a long journey. Now I know how hard it must be for her. I squeeze her tighter and point to the tree. “Our place”, I murmur. Then she says it too. “Our place.”
We cry and hug each other. Then we run back home to our houses. We meet as often as we can, in the beautiful old fig tree. Our place.
“Gotcha!” I grab the small brown skink and put it in my pocket.
“Here Polly!” The overexcited border-collie pup runs towards me. I grab her and hold tight as she wriggles and squirms. I tuck her under my arm and begin to climb the trunk of the big fig tree. Polly licks me. I sigh.
Soon, I’m at my favourite spot in the tree. I rummage through my pocket and take out the skink, then edge behind a branch as my big sister Mina walks by. “Come down Tara! I know that you’re up there somewhere. Nani and Nana will be arriving any minute!” I wait. Closer… closer… I drop the skink onto Mina’s head, and try to stop giggling as she races off shrieking, trying to pry it off her head.
Oh, by the way, my name’s Tara, and this is my place
My grandparents Nani and Nana are Indian, but they have been living in Canberra for fifty years, so they’re sort of Australian too. I can’t wait to see them. They bring Indian sweets every time they visit, and they’ll just love Polly!
I notice a flicker of white high in the branches of the fig tree. It’s a plastic bag! Polluting my tree! “Stay here Pol!” I tell Polly, though I doubt that she will, the naughty puppy. Then I clamber up through the branches. I anchor my foot against a big branch, then stretch out my arm and I can almost reach the bag. Whoops! I must have stretched a little too far! My foot slips, and I just manage to grab the branch above me with one of my hands. I haul myself onto this branch, grab the plastic bag, and then begin to slowly climb back down to Polly.
When I reach my spot, Polly isn’t there. Not surprising. The mischievous puppy has probably gone home to see if she can get to my breakfast before I do. She just adores her oats!
I run home, though I doubt I can stop Polly. I turn the corner and come to my house. I smile. Maybe I can’t stop Polly from eating my breakfast, but I know someone who can! Nani is standing there, with a thoroughly humiliated Polly grasped in her arms. Nani is running her hands through Polly’s fur. If dogs could go red in the face from embarrassment, then I reckon that’s what Polly would be doing now.
“Hello Nani and Nana!” I cry. Nani puts down Polly, who slinks off to have breakfast, and hugs me, soon joined by Nana.
Later in the day, after breakfast, I find another plastic bag, blowing towards the canal. Yuck. I pick it up, my head full of questions. What if the bag ended up in the ocean? What if a turtle ate it? And died? What if a dolphin was strangled by it? What if Polly had found it and gotten it stuck on her head and suffocated? What if, what if, what if? I take the plastic bag home and put it in our rubbish bin. Mum watches from the front door.
“Glad to see you’re helping clean up around here,” she says, smiling. “It’s Clean Up Australia day next weekend, and the council is organising a clean-up of the canal. I was thinking the whole family could go and help clean up our planet. What do you think?” I grin happily. “Of course I want to go! It’ll be AWESOME!”
Over the next few days, I think a lot about the clean-up. I’ll get a chance to save countless dolphins and turtles! And Polly’s! I can make a difference in the world!
Before I know it, it’s Sunday morning and our family (including Nani and Nana) are packing gloves and bags for the clean-up. Polly takes a hand in getting Mina out of bed. She leaps through the door, strikes a dog rock star pose, and begins to bark as loud as she can. Mina gets up and races downstairs. After all, who would want to be in the same room as a rock star who needs a singing lesson?
After we are all packed for the day, we head out the door and walk towards the canal. When we get there, it is full of people. We sign in at the desk, then grab a rubbish bag and a recycling bag. Polly sniffs the council’s box of spare gloves, decides that this area is her territory, and barks until everyone clears off.
I pick out my own area, and it turns out that two of my friends have come too! One of my friends goes to a landcare group and one year they found a sofa in the bushes!!! Unfortunately, we don’t find anything like that. What we do find is: loads of polystyrene, plastic bags, plastic bottles, more plastic bags, an old brown shoe, and lots and lots of cigarette butts. Yuck! Polly races towards us with a wet and smelly sock in her jaws. She wags her tail and grins up at us, before dropping the sock into my rubbish bag.
“She’s been helping out! Clever dog,” says Mum. I turn and look at Polly. Now she is picking up pieces of plastic and dropping them into unsuspecting stranger’s backpacks. “Clever dog,” I agree, as she drops a slimy plastic bag into Fred, the school bully’s backpack.
Mum smiles. “Good to see you’ve found some friends,” she says, grinning at Lily and Tess. “Would you like to come over to our place for afternoon tea?” she asks them.
“I’ll check with my mum,” says Tess.
“I’ll come a bit later,” says Lily.
Back at home, Lily and Tess and their parents come over for afternoon tea and we all sit around after our day’s work chatting, drinking cups of chai and eating Nani’s Indian sweets. Tess has brought Polly some dog treats and she curls up at our feet enjoying her own delicious reward.
My name is Henry and this is my place. A place that children over the years have known, been and loved. It is a fig tree, right next to the crumbly old hut my family and I call home. Bzzzzz! Uncle James raised his chainsaw. It was as loud as three lions roaring at the same time.
“Noooooooooooo!” I shouted. I could see the fig tree’s weather beaten face staring at me solemnly as if it knew it was about to be cut down. I imagined it feeling lost, hopeless, and powerless to stop what was coming next. I hugged it tightly, knowing that this was the last time I would ever see it again.
Let me tell you how it all started. Our lives seemed perfect. We lived in a grand house, until Dad came home from work in a wheelchair. As soon as I saw him a cold hand clutched my heart. He told us that whilst he had been chopping down a tree, one of its branches fell on his leg. You see Dad was a property developer, working for my Uncle James. They would cut down trees all day so people could live on the blocks of land that they had cleared. I loved my Uncle James. He always snuck me chocolate bars, much to Mum’s disapproval and spent many hours playing footy with me. Ever since the accident though our family had been plunged into despair. We couldn’t afford to stay in our house anymore so we moved into Grandma’s house, the house that she lived in before she died, but also the house that Dad and Uncle James grew up in. It was next to the fig tree that Dad and Uncle James played in when they were kids. Now that we lived here my once seemingly perfect life had changed forever. Mum and Dad fought more than ever and my sister Martha left unable to sustain the sadness and fighting anymore. That’s when the fig tree became my best friend. It’s like my special haven. In my special place I keep all of the things Mum didn’t make me sell like my iPad and my video game console. I also keep my magnets, toy cars and my remote control plane in there. Never did I think it was going to be cut down.
I was hiding in the tree after yet another fight when I heard some men sitting at the bottom of the tree. They were all burly and had beards. Out of their mouths hung cigars. “This beauty will be turned inta ‘ouses by the time we’re finished with it,” I heard one of them say. “The boss will be ‘appy with us. We’ll be filthy rich,” they all cackled.
‘Uh-oh,’ I thought. They’re planning to cut down the fig tree! “Don’t worry, I’ll save you from those men,” I whispered. The wind whistled through the scraggly branches above, making it sound like it was answering me. I jumped down from the high branches of the tree and landed on the soft dirt. I rushed past the dingy old gate and porcelain ornaments that covered our front garden. I opened the door, burst inside and sat down at the spindly little table in the dining room, thinking about the men. I have to stop them, I thought.
That afternoon I crept into their camp on the other side of the fig tree, planning to steal their chainsaws. Then, a miracle happened! I found their plan book lying on the ground and picked it up. I curiously flicked through the pages and found that they were trying to turn it into twelve blocks of land. They were even going to knock down our house! I was so surprised that I cried out in alarm! Voices drew nearer and before I knew it tight arms were wrapped around me like a snake constricting its prey. A rough voice murmured, “Ah, thought ya’d come by.” I gulped. How did they know?
“Let’s take him to the boss,” one remarked.
“Yes, good idea Eric,” replied another.
“Right you, ya going to the boss,” wheezed Eric. The troupe marched me to the boss’s house. The boss’s house looked strangely familiar. It was Uncle James’ house!! What was going on? They led me through the large oak doors and took me to Uncle James’ office. There in the middle of the office was Uncle James. “Found this one snoopin’ in the camp,” boomed Eric. I tried to suppress a small, weak smile. Uncle James replied curtly, “Well well well. My little nephew Henry. It’s me, you know. I’m in charge of this whole thing. I never cared an ounce about you kid. All those chocolates and hours playing footy and soccer were to make you think I was a kind, caring uncle. This plan is going to make me filthy rich and no one is going to stop me. Not even you,” Uncle James revealed.
“But why Uncle James?” I asked.
“My Dad died when I was ten because of that tree,” he replied bitterly. Then without another word he picked up his chainsaw and stormed out of the room. The men quickly followed with me trailing along behind.
“Please Uncle James, don’t cut down the tree. Remember the fig tree, the tree in your front garden that you and Dad played in when you were kids,” I pleaded. Uncle James grunted and raised his chainsaw again. “Stop! Please! Let me go in the fig tree just one more time?” I yelled in desperation.
“Oh all right then,” he grumbled. I scrambled up the tree for the last time, climbing that tiny bit higher like a monkey to say my final goodbye. Uncle James was waiting impatiently for me to come down. He looked like a jaguar sitting docilely in a dense jungle, waiting for its monkey prey to climb down. Then suddenly I saw something out of the corner of my eye. It was a carving that read:
To my sons,
This is our family tree. Let it always remind you of me.
Love you forever,
Shocked I climbed down the tree. How had I not seen it before? When I got to the bottom I said to Uncle James defiantly, “Let me show you one more thing before you decide to cut down the tree.” I asked Uncle James to climb the tree with me so he could see where it was written. As Uncle James read it tears welled in his eyes like flowers blossoming in the sun. I think my old friend may live to see another day.
My name is Rebecca and this is my place. All of it: the rusty metal swing set with the once bright red, flamboyant paint peeling off in clumps; the damp, muddy grass layered with a blanket of dead leaves that squelch every time you take a step; the low, crumbling sandstone wall encompassing the park. And the tree. The beautiful, majestic fig tree that seems to be as old as time; its low-hanging, welcoming boughs holding memories of its long history. Owens’ Memorial Park is the place where I spend time whenever I can, by myself or with my best friend and neighbour Isabella Romano. Mostly when I'm by myself up here, I think. Or watch the goings on of the day, invisible to the rest of the world, amidst the tree branches.
Some might call me an introvert. But it’s just my style.
“There you are!” A slightly annoyed voice jolts me into reality and I jump down to see Evan, Bella’s little brother, wearing his traditional outfit: Minecraft t-shirt and worn-out Pokemon cap.
“We’ve been looking for you for ages! We have a new game on the Xbox and you have to come check it out.” Bella comes up behind him. I try not to roll my eyes. The Romano's have always been obsessed with video games, likely because Mrs. Romano works at UTS and Mr. Romano is a programmer. Compared to my Chinese mum and my Canadian dad, they are definitely more lax when it comes to using their abundance of electronic devices, including three iPads, an Xbox, and a Playstation!
“So, you coming?”
“Sure!” I smile. “Why not?”
The next day as the school bell rings at my current school I tramp through the doorway and sit next to my school friends Sydney, Evie and Daisy. It’s the usual subjects: History, writing, maths textbook… my mind drifts off to thinking about my tree; half-wishing I could be up there right now, chatting with Bella like the old times when we went to the same school.
“Hello, earth to Rebecca! As I've asked three times: Can I borrow your calculator?”
“Sorry,” I mumble, realising that Sydney is standing right beside me, clicking her tongue impatiently.
School finally ends and I race to the bus stop. Now that I've moved schools, it's a much longer commute, and today, for some reason, it takes an especially long time. When I arrive home more than an hour later, I dump my school bag in the hallway and am about to head off to my tree when Mum appears from the kitchen, apron on and hands flour-dusted from making her mouth-watering Chinese dumplings.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she demands with a faint trace of her accent. “Don’t even think about climbing that tree. Look at your uniform! It’s filthy! And what about your homework? Anyway, didn’t you see? The whole park’s been closed off. Some kind of construction work. Heaven knows why; the traffic’s bad enough as it is.”
“Wait, the tree’s closed off?” My thoughts run in a blur. “Why?” Without waiting for an answer I fly out of the house.
I reach my once tranquil refuge and I see the trademark orange fencing blockading the park and construction work signs on the sidewalk. Cars line up for miles along both sides of the street as workers hold stop signs in front of them. Mustering up my courage, I step towards one of the bored-looking workers and shyly confront them.
“Um, excuse, me, why is Owens’ Park closed off?”
“It’s for the construction of the light rail, honey. We’re just preparing to demolish the park and that old fig tree in a few weeks. Don’t you worry, traffic will be cleared up soon enough.”
I gape at her in dismay. “N-no! The tree’s been here forever. You can’t just cut it down!”
“I’m sorry honey, but I don’t have the power to make these decisions.” She shrugs apologetically.
All I can think is No!
“A petition!” Bella snaps her fingers as we sit on her bed the next day after school, frantically thinking of ways to save our park and our beloved tree. After I had stumbled to her place, almost in tears, to tell her what had happened, we were both shocked, but determined to do something.
“But where? And how?” I wonder.
At that moment Bella’s mum comes in holding the local newspaper.
“You girls still trying to save that park? Well, you could enter a letter to the ‘jointhedebate’ section of the Southern Courier. In this issue there are several complaints about the plight of fig trees due to light rail construction. Or you could even write to Bayside or Randwick council!” She suggests.
“Thanks mum!” Bella says, our hopes beginning to perk up bit by bit.
Over the next few days I write as passionately as I have ever written. I write to the Southern Courier, to both Bayside and Randwick councils and we create posters advocating our cause and asking people to sign the petition we made online, and stick these around the neighbourhood including the local shopping centre. I read about locals going so far as to chain themselves to some fig trees without success, and I grow uncertain. But every day the numbers go up for the signatures on the petition, as the time ticks down towards the day of doom. The day the tree is cut down.
A week later I receive the shock of my life: The number of signatures on the online petition has reached more than 1000!
And on Thursday afternoon, my fate turns around.
I hurry home, eager to check the petition results, and strangely enough, today’s traffic is a lot faster. As I open the door, I nearly trip over something: the latest edition of the Southern Courier. And on the front page, in bold headlines, are the words:
“Change of fortune for old fig tree and Owens’ Memorial Park.”
Hey! My name is Matilda, and this is my place. I turn 12 today. I got a phone. I have been begging Mum for one for LITERALLY forever. Dad isn’t home, he’s at work. Mum says he might come home for dinner. Mum, Nan, Tom (my little brother) and I walk to the bakery, pick up muffins, and have a picnic under the old fig tree. I overhear two girls pointing at the tree saying that it is haunted by a boy that used to play here. Nan frowns when she hears this. I place my hand on the fig tree. Something about it makes me feel warm and safe. Nan places her hand on my shoulder. She is holding a present wrapped in dainty pink and yellow striped paper.
Dad lost his job at the City Council. Now he works long hours at an automotive business out of town. He has to leave at 5:30 in the morning to start work at 7:00, and then doesn’t get home until 9pm. It hurts mum not having dad around. She is always saying how we can get on okay without dad around, and that we can do things by ourselves. She isn’t angry with him, I think it just hurts her. Mum works at the bakery on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She said she can’t work all of the week because she has to take care of us kids, but I’m constantly am saying that I’m okay to take care of Tom and myself, especially now that I am 12. But still, she doesn't work more days.
Nan hands me the small present. I open it slowly, wanting to save the dainty paper. Inside there is a small porcelain bird.
“It was passed down to me from my grandmother on my 12th birthday” says Nan.
“Thank you Nan” I say, on the verge of tears.
“Is that the little bird from the stories you told me?”
“The very same one.” whispers Nan.
“Happy birthday sweetie” she says, as a tear falls down her cheek.
When I was little, Nan told me stories of when she used to play around the fig tree. One of her stories was about her and her brother. She would throw sticks with her brother down the muddy creek, and would see whose would reach the fig tree first. One day, Nan left her bird at her house and ran down the street to her house to fetch it. While she was gone, her brother fell. He fell in the river. He didn’t come home that night. He didn’t ever come home. Nan blames herself for Sam’s death, and she had never touched her little porcelain bird again.
I video called Dad just as we started walking home. He said he would try to get home before eight tonight to celebrate my birthday, but he couldn’t guarantee it. Its eight now. I decide to call Macie, a friend from school. We don’t have much to talk about, since I saw her only yesterday. I tell her about my presents, but leave out the part about the bird. Once I’ve hung up, I post a couple of pictures from my birthday on Instagram. I wasn’t allowed to post any pictures until I turned 12. I switch the T.V on and before I hit the Netflix button, I see the words “Donald Trump” and “Kim Jong-un” flash on the screen. I hear Mum’s phone ring, so I pause the episode of ‘Fuller House’ I am watching. Mum knows I am listening, so she hushes her voice. As she walks in the lounge room, she calls for Tom to come downstairs.
“How ‘bout you choose something from Uber eats?” says Mum.
“Dad’s not gonna make it home early tonight?” I ask, trying not to sound too disappointed, but
Tom ruins this by going “aaaaawwwwwww, I really wanted Dad home tonight!”
“I know sweetheart, but your father is working really hard, so you can have nice food and nice toys, and stuff like that” says mum, getting a bit teary.
We order Thai, and the Uber driver delivers it on a bike.
“Aaawwww, I wanted Chinese, not Thai” sighs Tom.
“Tom, it was Matilda’s choice tonight, not yours” says mum sharply.
Tom sighs again.
“What homework did you get on Friday Matilda?” asked mum, trying to keep of the subject on dad.
“A project on helping the environment” I reply. “We have to do something like pick up rubbish, or something like that”
“So what are you going to do?” Asks Mum.
“I dunno, I’ll think about it in the morning. I bet the boys in my class are too busy playing Fortnite to care about the environment” I say with a smile.
Dad gets home as we finish tea. He looks worn out and sore.
“Hey dad!” Tom runs up to dad and hugs him around the waist.
“Hey kiddo, how’s your birthday been?” he says, smiling his lovely dad smile.
“It's been legit amazing!” I say.
When I wake up, I reach for my nomination bracelet on my bedside table. I look at each one. A sun, I got that after a holiday on the Gold Coast, before dad lost his job. A muffin, I got that because I love cooking. A tree, because I love nature. A tree. I stare at the tree for all long time, and then it hits me. I know what I am going to do for my environment project this year!
Nan and I walk down to the fig tree. I place my hand on the trunk. Nan places her hand on top of mine. We don’t cry. We dig a hole in the ground and then place the fig sapling in the ground. We move some large rocks around the tree. And then Nan screws in the plaque to a rock. The plaque reads; ‘In memory of Sam, and a tree for our future’
“Come on Jack we’ve got to go!” Mum called out to me, competing with the loud noise booming from the game I was playing. “But I don’t want to go to school mum” I complained. My Mum and I, had flown back to Australia a few weeks ago from New Zealand due to the lack of work there which was actually the reason why we moved to New Zealand in the first place. “If I have to ask you to get off that stupid PS4 one more time I’ll throw it in the bin!” Mum growled at me.
“Screeech!” went my bike as I skidded up to the school gates. My heart was beating like a train as I observed all the other students walking around and chatting to each other. All of a sudden someone put their hand on my shoulder. I turned around to see a short girl the same age as me wearing a helmet with stickers all over it and a skateboard in her hands. She introduced herself as Brooklyn, but she said I can just call her Brook. I told her my name and said I was new to the school. She requested me to follow her to my new class, which was generous.
My books slipped out of my bag and spread all over the floor just out the front of class where everyone was waiting. I saw everyone chuckling and staring at me like I was an idiot. Someone whispered in my ear and asked me if I was okay “Sorry Miss I’ll move my books out of the way” I said as my new teacher stood watching me scooping up all my books. “It’s okay let me help you out”, the teacher said.
I was relieved that I wasn’t going to get in trouble for blocking the doorway and making a mess everywhere.
The teacher greeted the class excitedly and the class replied with a depressing moan. “Today we have a new student!” said Miss B very excitedly, she called me up to the front of the class. I slowly stood up and walked up. “Hi my name is Jack and I just moved back to Australia a few weeks ago with my Mother.” The class greeted me excitedly.
At the end of the day I hopped on my bike and rode home. I saw a possible shortcut through a small alley way, so I backed up and got a big run up to try and bump up the curb on my bike, but as I sped up to it I forgot to lift my front wheel up and went flying over my handlebars onto the grass next to a really big old fig tree.
I left my bike on the side of the road and walked over to the tree. I sat down hugging my leg and blowing on it to stop my skin from stinging so much.
I limped home dragging my bike with me. I yelled out to my Mum to unlock the door, she keeps locking the door because she thinks this street has “too many strange people” which isn’t true, the only weird person on our street is the old lady with way too many cats.
I dropped my bag next to my bedroom door and flopped down into my chair. I turned my PS4 on and saw a rude message pop up in the top left corner of my screen I just ignored the message and walked to the kitchen to get a drink. “I want you to go outside and play for a bit before you play on your PlayStation,” my Mum said to me, I made a big sigh and walked outside.
I rode my bike to the tree and sat down playing my phone, I heard something so I muted my phone and walked over to the sound and saw Brook skating around and doing ollies off the curb. She ran over to me “Aren’t you the new kid?” I just nodded my head, she asked me if I was okay and I tried to act tough and just said yeah.
I got home and told my mum that I’d made a new friend. I ran up to my room and turned on my phone to see a message from the same person that sent me the message last night so I told my mum. We discussed some strategies on what I could do about the message but none of them really worked so I just tried to ignore the message again.
The next day, after school I saw Brook on her way to school, and she saw me so she came over and sat with me. She asked if I was okay because I looked pretty depressed, which I was, so I told her about the messages.
She explained to me that I could just block them so they can’t even send me messages. I took her advice and the next day I didn’t even hear from the rude person, which was great. I walked to school with Brook, we were talking about how annoying the librarian was and laughing at each other the whole way there.
After school Brook and I sat at the tree and hung out with each other. I think she is the best friend I’ve ever had and she was also one of the kindest souls ever.