Through The Looking Glass


When I was a small child, my house was a part of an estate that was the last line of houses before the residential area stopped. As such, behind my house was nothing more than open paddocks, dense bush and wandering cows. I remember going with my dad on many expeditions through our back gate and into these paddocks with a wheelbarrow, collecting fertiliser for our gardens. I would run over to the dam and poke around the water's edge, and then go bounding off after my dad through the knee-high grass. There was even a lone fig tree at the top of a rise that kids from an earlier generation had managed to reach and build a tree house in, and that one day (when the cows were long gone) we would do the same. These are the memories of my early childhood.

Fifteen years ago all of this changed. Despite the assurances that we had been given that no development would take place behind us due to the high voltage power lines that ran above the paddocks, residential development, it would seem, could not be stopped. In 1994, a new estate was released directly behind my house, and it brought with it the start of new adventures for the kids from my quiet little street.

With the rock breakers and bulldozers busy making new roads, new storm water tunnels and a new catchment area, we also had something new to do. Instead of planning expeditions through the scrub and to the dam like we used to, we started exploring these new changes to our old paddock. I remember when they dug out all of the trenches to lay the storm water pipes in, we would spend hours playing trench warfare, hurling lumps of clay and mud at one another, before racing bent double through the trenches that were deep enough to hide a standing child in. I remember when the roads were laid, the dam was drained, the pipes were buried, and a giant hole was dug just down from my back fence to catch and direct all of the water from the new estate through to the old tunnel system that ran under the main road.

I also remember spending one nerve-wracking afternoon with two other kids, crawling on hands and knees – and often on bellies too – through the entire network of storm water tunnels, back before they were being used. They were dark and cramped and dusty, and yet I had felt truly brave for going through all of them with the boys, and not chickening out like a scared little girl.

And that brings me to the inspiration behind this very story. I can't remember exactly when this happened, but it was fairly early on in the development of the estate, back when exploring tunnels was the best way to spend an afternoon. I mentioned that the new storm water network emptied into a catchment area. This catchment area diverted the water via concrete paths across the ground and into the main storm water tunnels that ran under the main road of Horsley. Well, that tunnel (unlike the new one that was round and large enough at the start for a child to walk through without having to hunch over) was rectangle in shape, and was rather narrow. I would have had to lie on my stomach and commando crawl just to get through it, even if I had have managed to fit. But me crawling through this particular tunnel is not what started this idea. It's what I saw through the tunnel that's important.

My best friend since childhood was with me that day, and she will swear that it's all true. The rectangular tunnel ran underneath the road like I said, but it also opened up onto the other side as well. That side of the road had yet to be developed, and was still in its original tree-covered state. I vaguely remember there being an underground storm water junction over there too. I'm remembering when we explored over there after they started clearing it for development, and discovering a giant concrete hole in the ground with tunnels opening into it. But that's not the point either. What is the point? This is:

On that day, my friend and I were playing in the catchment area, and we ended up at that tunnel, laying on our stomachs and seeing for what was probably the hundredth time if we would fit through the narrow gap. Looking through the tunnel, we could see through to the grass on the other side, and this is where the magic happened. What we saw that day is still in my mind – a lush green expanse of grass and reeds, with sparkling clean water all lit up by sunshine. Puzzled, we raced across the road and took a look for ourselves, and discovered that the water was muddy, the grass mostly brown, the reeds broken and the sun behind a cloud. We raced back to our side, flattened ourselves onto the concrete once again, and peered through the tunnel. The view was the same – green, lush and alive. The sun was shining. It looked like paradise. Magic.

That was the last time that we ever saw that view, because that particular tunnel was soon replaced with a bigger one (that we could – and did – fit through), and the other side of the road soon covered in houses. The area that we had gazed so wondrously upon was filled in and built on, destroying the magic forever.

And yet as I think back now, I wonder what would have happened had we been able to fit through that tunnel? Would we have crawled out of the other side and discovered that it had all been an optical illusion that nature had played on us? Or would it truly have been some kind of paradise? I'm a dreamer at heart, so I like to go with the magic theory.

And that is how the seeds for this story came to be.