Friday, May 12, 2006

Moo Ink

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHARRON PHILLIPS

Published in Qweekend Magazine, May 6, 2006

BOB Phillips, 65, shirtless and wearing shorts and slippers, sits at the head of his pine kitchen table not the patriarch of the house, but more the curator of a tragic museum.

From the outside his modest home at the end of a cul-de-sac in Riverview, East Ipswich, is all odd angles and mismatching additions, and inside it heaves with ham radio equipment, old furniture, shelves of dusty glass and ceramic bric-a-brac, and family photographs of his wife Dawn, 57, and their nine children.

And yet it has the feeling of a place that once teemed with life, and was suddenly abandoned. Four clocks in the living room are all set at different times.

Phillips runs a hand through his thatch of greying hair. “It blew the family apart, mate,” he says. “It completely erupted and the family doesn’t exist anymore. The kids couldn’t get the answers to the questions, (the answers) we couldn’t get. They didn’t know how to react and they lashed out on the closest thing for blame which, I suppose, was me.”

Exactly 20 years ago on Monday (May 8), Phillips’ daughter, Sharron, 20, vanished off the face of the earth. The case evolved into one of the most celebrated and controversial in Queensland criminal history. Police were accused of negligence. The Phillips’ took the investigation into their own hands, and constantly howled to the press that not enough was being done by local and State officials. They appealed to the then Prime Minister of Australia, Bob Hawke, for help. Hundreds of people were interviewed, thousands of man-hours were expended, and everyone had a theory about what happened to the vivacious shop attendant whose car ran out of petrol late one Thursday night on Ipswich Road, Wacol. It was one of those rare cases that snagged the public imagination.

Two decades later Sharron Phillips is one of 136 State “cold cases”. Her file status is deemed “active pending further information”. And just as it was in early May 1986, her disappearance is still surrounded by differing versions of events and unanswered questions.

“If I’ve got to tell the truth I’ll tell the truth,“ says Bob Phillips, a retired truck owner/operator. “Dawn’s a prisoner in her own house. I’m her paid carer. She dirties herself, I have to feed her…oh god, I could go on forever. Everything was fine until Sharron disappeared. I’ve considered murder/suicide (for us), I have. I’ve thought about it a frickin’ lot.”

The youngest Phillips child, Matthew, who was six-years-old when Sharron vanished, still lives at home. But the rest of the family is estranged.

“As I said to one of them, I couldn’t be in the back seat with her (Sharron) every time she went out, I just couldn’t,” Bob says. “A lot of people who knew the family said - if you had interfered with them when they were younger and they were all living together, you picked on one you picked on the whole bloody nine, you know? But today, I’ll look after my bit of dirt and you look after yours. When they were growing up they were very close, extremely close. I don’t know what happened to them, I don’t, honestly.”

He gazes into the living area with the four unsynchronised clocks. Down the short hallway, in a room with the shades drawn, is Dawn. As Bob gets angry about the investigation into his missing daughter, as he jabs a finger at the air, fulminates, rails against the system that has wronged him, Dawn sleeps much of the day away in the darkened room.

“Sometimes,” Bob Phillips says, “I’ve lost recollections that Sharron ever existed.”




*



On the night of Thursday, May 8, 1986, young Sharron Phillips was in high spirits for several reasons. She was enjoying her independence, having moved out of the crowded Riverview family home and into her own flat at Archerfield five months earlier. She had a good job at the Peaches ‘n Cream fruit market in Kenmore. And she had a potential new beau.

Only days earlier she had met a 26-year-old Acacia Ridge man called Martin Balazs, and they had planned a dinner date at Sharron’s flat on Friday, May 9. She was excited about Balazs, although they barely knew each other. So on that Thursday evening, she and work colleague Samantha Dalzell went shopping together at Sunnybank Plaza on Mains Road. Sharron purchased some new lingerie.

Later, the pair had coffee at Sharron’s flat. Sharron left the lingerie unwrapped in the small ground-floor apartment. She then drove Dalzell home to Redland Plains. On the way, according to retired police investigator Ken Foreman, who worked on the Phillips case, she drove past Balaz’s flat and tooted the horn – an anonymous message to her new man, a tease as prelude to their date the next evening. She dropped off Dalzell, and was travelling city-bound on Ipswich Road at Wacol, up the hill from the old three-pump Shell service station (since demolished), when her canary-yellow Nissan Bluebird ran out of petrol. It was around 11pm.

Sharron’s oldest sister Donna (nee Anderson) remembers: “She’d spend $50 on a new dress but only put $10 worth of petrol in the car. I said – ‘Sharron, would you fill your car?’ I’m sure that night she would have thought of getting petrol at the garage at Goodna, but it had just become self-service where you operated it with coins.”

Sharron’s car had stopped outside the former Wacol migrant centre. Directly across busy Ipswich Road was the main entrance to the Wacol Army Barracks. She needed a telephone.

It was established later she had walked into the army camp, past the boom gates and guard booth, and been told by partying soldiers there were no telephones for her to use. (A few soldiers were later interviewed by police but discounted as suspects.) She then headed down towards the Shell garage and Wacol railway station.

The garage’s former mechanic, Bill Lace, says initial suspicion rested with the “old eccentric” who lived out the back of the Shell station. “He was there to keep an eye on the place and he always hung around out the front at night,” Lace says. “He said he was Swiss. I once saw him butchering up half a cow that’d been hit by a train, he was that eccentric.” Old “Karl” was never a serious suspect.

Telecom records subsequently revealed that Sharron had spoken to an operator from the twin phone boxes outside the snack bar in Wacol Station Road and asked for a manually-placed call to be made as she had no coins. She phoned Martin Balazs at exactly 11.18pm and asked him to pick her up from the Shell garage. She phoned again at 12.03pm, but Balazs was already on his way to the Wacol/Gailes area to find her.

Shortly after midnight Sharron had a conversation with Michael Truscott, 20, who had also used the public phone to telephone his father to pick him up at the station. She told Truscott she had run out of petrol but a friend was on his way to pick her up.

Balazs later told police he was unsure of which service station to go to. There was a large Shell roadhouse at Gailes, a few kilometres up the road from the little Wacol garage. Balazs went to Gailes, and suffered a flat tyre. With the puncture repaired, he drove down Ipswich Road towards the city and noticed Sharron’s car at the side of the road. He saw nobody in or about the vehicle, reasoning there was little he could do, and drove home. Police believe Balaz had missed Sharron and/or her abductors by a matter of minutes.

Bob Phillips says he and his wife were not in town when Sharron vanished. “People blame me, they reckon I should have been home,” he says. “I was picking one of our trucks up at Gilgandra (700kms south of Brisbane, near Dubbo in NSW). I was in Gilgandra, with Dawn. We got back about four, five o’clock on the Friday morning. I crashed and went to bed then the story came up and I started ringing everybody to find out what’s going on.”

One of the first to raise the alarm about Sharron was Bob Wilson, her boss at the Peaches ‘n Cream Fruit Market. “It’s still a sad memory,” he says today. “She was a great employee. I usually opened up around 7am and she’d start after 7.30am. She never turned up that morning and there were no phone calls. It was so unlike her. I got suspicious straight away.

“Debbie (Cox, a former employee) rang Sharron’s parents and I drove her usual route home looking for her. This was towards the afternoon to the best of my recollection. I saw her car on the side of the road and a man tampering with it. I said – “What are you doing with Sharron’s car?” It turned out it was Sharron’s father.”

Bob Phillips says “a friend” telephoned him about his daughter’s abandoned car that morning. “Somebody rang and told me Sharron’s car was up on the highway,” Bob says. “She was well known around here, so were we.” He also recalled meeting Mr Wilson: “We had a bit of a talk and I said I was quite worried because I couldn’t find any trace of her.”

In a separate incident, Sharron’s younger brother, Darren Phillips, also saw the car on Ipswich Road that Friday: “I was going into Brisbane on a job and I passed her car at Wacol because I was working at Wacol. I passed the car and it didn’t click with me and I tried ringing her flat and I couldn’t get onto her and other things take place, other things happen, and then you forget to ring again. Then I got the phone call that they couldn’t find her, that she’d gone missing.”

According to official police records, Dawn Phillips formally reported her daughter missing to Goodna police at 8pm on Friday, May 9. The records also state Bob Phillips and one of his sons went to Sharron’s Archerfield flat that evening to look for signs of her, then went to the abandoned car on Ipswich Road. That night Bob Phillips took the Nissan Bluebird back to the family home at Riverview. He says the police at the time ordered him to get it off the side of Ipswich Road. The police files have no record of this directive. Former officers involved in the case say it was a turning point in the early days of the investigation.

“The whole investigation in terms of scientific evidence, there wasn’t a lot that could assist us there because of the intervention of the family,” says former detective Geoff Orman, now a senior executive with the Queensland Rugby League. Orman was involved in the early stages of the investigation. “It was obstructive. The family’s intervention, particularly in that area (of removing the car) was a big hindrance to the investigation. It was a huge hindrance. What fresh evidence that was there at that point in time was taken away.

“The discrepancy all came about because the family shifted the vehicle. The biggest hindrance was not being able to put the car exactly in the right spot. That may have triggered some people’s memories and had them come forward.”

Retired former Queensland homicide chief Bob Dallow, who now runs a second-hand bookshop in Ashgrove, was also seconded to the Phillips investigation. He agrees with Orman. “I got along well with Bob (Phillips) but the whole problem from an investigators point of view was that Bob needed to have his finger on the pulse of everything. He took the car home and then police didn’t know where the car actually was when it broke down. The whole thing started off badly.”

There would be further consternation for the police. On that Friday, family members came and went from Sharron’s Archerfield flat despite it being a potential crime scene. Indeed, there were people in and out of the flat before Sharron was formally reported missing to police.

The press reported at the time that younger sister Lisa Phillips had found a phone number for Martin Balaz at Sharron’s flat on that Friday, which allowed Bob Phillips to telephone him and question him about Sharron’s last movements.

Donna Anderson revealed to Qweekend: “Sharron used to smoke a little pot. My brother Darren must have had a key. Jim (Donna’s husband) and Darren went over there. It wasn’t any big deal. They didn’t want Mum and Dad to get upset about that.”

However, Darren Phillips has a different recollection of the incident. “I can’t even remember,” he says. “I didn’t smoke anything back then. I don’t smoke now. It was never my scene. I never smoked pot with Sharron or anything like that. I can’t even remember going into the house. I went in with my brother Charlie (the nickname of Robert Phillips). Me and Robert went in for a look and that was it. I can’t honestly remember, I can’t honestly give you a day, sorry.

“I went in for a look with my brother. I don’t know why we were there to be honest, we just went there because I think we were told to meet somebody there or something, and the landlord or something was going to let us in or something. That was it.”

Bob Dallow says he clearly remembers an oddity about the case in its early stages. “They (Sharron and Dalzell) go over to her place (for coffee) and Sharron drops the parcel of clothes (lingerie) at the flat. The parcel’s not touched,” he says. “But when you see the police photos from inside the flat (a few days later), the items are spread out on the bed. I remember we got a call from one of the sisters later saying she took the nighties out of the packet and spread them out.

“Bob was a bit of a prude. I still believe Bobby went to the flat a few times. I think she might have had some drug gear and stuff and he’s taken it all out.”

A newspaper story by veteran Courier-Mail journalist Ken Blanch, published on May 23, 1986, says: “When her father went to the flat next day (the Friday), the lights were still on and the two coffee cups were on the table. Underclothing she had bought at Sunnybank was still in the flat.”

Bob Phillips denies daughter Lisa went to the flat, as reported in the press, and retrieved Martin Balaz’s phone number from Sharron’s address book.

“I got the number, the book was in her car,” says Bob Phillips. “It was in the car with her purse.” He says there was a “sequined purse” in the vehicle and a jacket neatly folded on the rear seat. Her black wallet and shoulder bag were missing. “I had (son) Shannon (Phillips) with me (aka Grub). It might have been Charlie (Robert). We had to break into it. And we had to break the steering lock. Four of us went down.

“They (the police) should have been to the car and fingerprinted the car before it was even moved. Everything was done wrong.”

On the Saturday the police investigation began in earnest. Sharron’s parents were interviewed at the Riverview home. Bob says: “They never actually interviewed me at all, they interviewed Dawn. They had a yarn to us on Saturday morning, but it’s only natural they looked at the parents. I was pretty well known here and in Inala so I had nothing to hide. Not a bloody thing.”

The Phillips’, in the meantime, contacted Balaz for information. Balaz was interviewed by police.

“They were good investigators,” says Bob Dallow. “They would have turned the boyfriend over if he’d done anything.” Balazs was quickly eliminated as a suspect. (Balazs, who still resides in Brisbane, refused to be interviewed for this story. His wife Linda said “the man had nothing to do with her disappearance”. She added: “I think sometimes it’s very good to have these stories to help prompt people’s memories or perhaps get some closure but I can speak very strongly on my husband’s behalf on this that he doesn’t want to be involved or interviewed or have a statement or anything.”)

Brisbane endured heavy rainfall on the following Sunday and Monday. On the Tuesday police returned Sharron’s vehicle to the side of Ipswich Road. The Phillips’ disputed the exact location of the car. Police believe it was a further 150 metres closer to Wacol train station than the Phillips’ claimed.

On the Wednesday police found Sharron’s shoes and wallet just “metres” from where the car supposedly ran out of petrol. “I remember the afternoon they were found,” says Ken Foreman. “We were at the scene talking about the differences in location of where the car was and found them in a drain that runs under the road. It would have been handy to know exactly were the car had broken down. Things weren’t unfolding the way they should.”

Over the proceeding weeks the Phillips’ were critical of the police investigation. Within months they were petitioning the government to change the law in relation to police handling of missing persons cases.

Geoff Orman says there was a lot of pressure on investigating police. “At the start of our investigation we were told not to go near Mr Phillips.” Because he was perceived as a “troublemaker” and was partial to going to the press? “That’s right.”

Months turned into years without a single clue to Sharron’s whereabouts. Then in January 1988, at her inquest, a man called Robert John Brown, 33, of Harvey Bay, told the Brisbane Coroners Court an extraordinary story.

Brown said on Thursday, May 8, he had seen Sharron Phillips after 6pm outside a house at Riverview, shouting to someone she was going to “The Plaza” to do some shopping. Then, at 11.30pm, and by incredible coincidence, he was at a shop at Wacol when he overheard a youth mention the name “Sharron”. Brown then drove off and came across Sharron on the side of Ipswich Road. She was in distress. He then witnessed her bundled into a car by several men and taken away. The evidence of Brown, a known alcoholic, never took the investigation further.

Bob Phillips now says Brown was well known to the Phillips family as he had lived in the next street from them when they resided in Inala. He says Brown had known Sharron “since she was a girl” and that everyone in the area knew of their relationship, as did the police. He called Brown “a pervert”.

Geoff Orman says police never knew of the relationship between Brown and the Phillips’. “That was never made known to us,” he says. “In relation to Brown, he was intensely interviewed, by myself, Ralph Knust, and a number of other police. He was put through hyopnosis by a forensic psychologist. The result of that was whatever he had seen was fairly traumatic. We could never find out exactly what it was he saw, other than what he said about the vehicle.

“As far as Bob Phillips’ comments go about knowing Brown, that’s the first time I’ve heard it. When the coronial inquest was on, the family itself was very quiet when it came to the examination of witnesses.”



*



As the years passed the theories about what happened to Sharron Phillips proliferated. Psychics offered explanations. The police continued to puzzle over this strange case. Curiously, two police officers were even accused of being involved in Sharron’s murder, but the theory was dismissed as fantasy.

Bob Dallow still thinks Phillips somehow made it back to her flat that night before vanishing. “I believe she made a third phone call from the phone booth that night,” he says. “It was her trick to call the operator and pretend she had no change and get connected. I think she got back to her flat somehow before she disappeared.”

Geoff Orman says there was a lot going on within the Phillips’ family at the time of Sharron’s disappearance – the usual teenage difficulties. “It was common knowledge Bob (Phillips) had had disagreements with Sharron about her promiscuity,” says Orman.

Bob Phillips says: “The concern I had for her wasn’t that. Coming home from Brisbane late of a night and not locking the car. People would grab you at the lights. But promiscuity with other people, no.”

There has been little movement with the case in many years. As recent as two months ago, Bob Phillips says he received a letter from a woman saying Sharron’s body was buried underneath another body in a cemetery near Gatton.

Her brother Robert (Charlie) Phillips says: “Things have a way of coming around. People have got big mouths. One day someone will say the wrong thing to the wrong person. I do believe there will be justice one day.”

Sister Donna says she doesn’t want to die without “someone being charged” with the crime. “Why did she not ring home that night?” she says. “I always thought the reason was my father would have roused on her (for running out of petrol). I still don’t understand why she didn’t ring me or my husband, you know? I was always the one she came to if something was wrong. That always did concern me.”

She adds that Sharron was not to blame for the disintegration of the Phillips family. “Sharron’s got nothing to do with the family falling apart, if that’s what my father’s trying to say. Anything to do with our family goes back way before anything happened with Sharron, but you don’t need to know any of that.”

Darren also wonders about those final moments before Sharron disappeared: “Sharron, as I said, she was a little bit strong-headed and she wanted independence and she probably thought - I’ll just ring my boyfriend, you know? Going on 9.30 or 10 at night, she probably thought the old man’s in bed so I’ll ring the boyfriend.”

He still thinks of that day in May two decades ago: “It hurt me when it happened. I found it very hard to deal with in a little of ways, then the slow deterioration of family on top of it. I found my own strength and moved on. You can’t look backwards. One thing I always used to say to people, and it might be a bit cold, but it might’ve been easier to cope with if she’d been killed in a car accident, you know? “

Bob Phillips is convinced Sharron’s killers are young – in their 40s – and still out there. “These bastards whoever done it out there have got a happy, normal life going for them,” he says. “We’ve got nothing. That’s what gets to Dawn.”

He readily admits his memory is “gone” these days. Twenty years have a tendency to jilt recollections, to scramble time. He says it hurt him to think that some of his estranged children might think he was responsible for Sharron’s disappearance – as patriarch, as protector. “I couldn’t be responsible, mate, I had the wife with me, I wasn’t here.”

Only six years ago he disposed of Sharron’s rusted out Nissan Bluebird. “Dawn didn’t feel very keen with someone driving sharron’s cut so we cut it up and disposed of it. It’s buried. That’s what her brother wanted to do. We’ll cut it up and bury the bastard, so we done that….”

Both Bob Dallow and Geoff Orman say they would gladly come out of retirement just to try and solve the Phillips case – one that has nagged at them for years.

Meanwhile, the two famous blue signs that mark Sharron Phillips’ supposed place of disappearance stand on either side of Ipswich Road. In the early hours of this Tuesday morning Bob says he and Dawn will go down and strap plastic roses to the signs. Then they will get on with another year without their daughter.

It is the signs, though, that say so much about the Phillips case. Misaligned from the beginning. Out of kilter. Odd. Inexplicable. Those signs have been there for 17 years.

And on both, the victim’s christian name is misspelt.


ends

SPIT FIGHT

Published in Qweekend Magazine, April 2006


“The Southport Spit will probably become a monument to the greed, arrogance, negativity and lack of vision of those who seem incapable of rejoicing in God’s gift.”
Father Ray Smith at the funeral of State MP Doug Jennings, Monday, April 13, 1987.


FOR the mourners, the sermon struck with the ferocity of unexpected lightning.
More than 600 people had gathered at St Peter’s Anglican Church in Southport on the Gold Coast on that Monday morning of April 13, 1987, to farewell the National Party MP for Southport, Doug Jennings. At only 57, Jennings had died of a suspected massive heart attack the previous Thursday. Cleaners had discovered the fitness fanatic’s body in the sauna of the Parliamentary Annexe gymnasium in Brisbane.
Sitting at the front of the church for the funeral service was the then Queensland premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the entire State Cabinet, and National and Liberal state and federal politicians, as well as family, friends, and a wide cross-section of the Gold Coast community.
Father Raymond Smith, who conducted the service, was a good friend of his parishioner Jennings (whose electoral office was opposite St Peter’s in Nerang Street). On this day, Fr Smith unleashed a warning from the pulpit. He told the congregation that Jennings, son of Sir Albert, the founder of national construction giant A.V.Jennings, was a parliamentarian who “represented all people, not just himself and not just the arrogant and corrupt few”. The good father also celebrated Jennings’ love of nature and his vision for the need to preserve public open space, particularly the Southport Spit.
Jennings’ close friend, Ann Davies, remembers with a chill the proclamations made on that day. “You can imagine how we were feeling at the service – great sadness – and then this came at us from the pulpit,” she says. “It was so representative of Doug, of what he fought for, and it was so powerful it passed through you to the back of the pew. Father Smith was saying – if you touch what Doug tried to protect, you will have to account for yourself on Judgement Day.”
Jennings fought tooth and nail against any further development of the Southport Spit. Almost a year to the day after his death - in May 1988 – a 12-hectare piece of land at The Spit’s northern tip was dedicated to the memory of Jennings and his environmental aspirations.
But now The Spit - that narrow finger of land that constitutes the last genuine ocean-side parcel of undeveloped real estate on the Gold Coast – is at the centre of another fight. The Beattie Government’s vision for it to house a cruise ship terminal has ignited a fierce private sector battle for the potential tender, public outcry, rumours of violence, arson, and secret deals, rallies, radio talkback debate and whispers of cloak and dagger negotiations over developing multi-million dollar blocks of Crown land.
As well as the cruise ship terminal, the development plan for The Spit includes a marina precinct for super yachts and other commercial and recreational vessels, and a tourist/commercial development on land on the western foreshore south of Sea World. An Aboriginal cultural centre has also been mooted.
It is shaping up to be perhaps the last great environmental battle on the Gold Coast, the city itself an homage to untrammelled development and excess. And at the very heart of the matter is that 12-hectare rustic patch of seagrass and Casuarina trees known as Doug Jennings Park.


THE Southport Spit, for much of its history, has been a field of dreams. In 1897-98 a series of gales tore through a sliver of land called Jumpinpin and broke Stradbroke Island into two (North and South). As a result, a sand spit evolved north of Main Beach Point.
It was eyed by speculators as early as the 1950s, when a young Keith Williams, the legendary Gold Coast entrepreneur, traversed its dunes in search of suitable places to water ski on the Broadwater. Throughout the 1960s there were suggestions The Spit be turned into an airstrip, that it house an aquarium, an “amusement oasis”, a caravan park and a “mini-city”. Williams tendered for the rights to build a marine park. It became Sea World, which opened in the early 1970s. There were subsequent hair-brained schemes for giant “horizon tanks” to facilitate movie making, and a statue of a lifesaver on nearby Wavebreak Island to rival New York’s Statue of Liberty.
The first official inkling of a cruise ship terminal for the Gold Coast emerged after the collapse of a Brisbane terminal plan, instigated by former Queensland premier Rob Borbidge in 1997. The Beattie government closed down the $170-million Hamilton Quay project in May 2001, following years of legal complications and lost revenue. Premier Peter Beattie then pledged a new cruise ship terminal for Brisbane - the $350 million Hamilton facility, Portside Wharf, is due to be finished by the middle of this year - and said the government would investigate other potential sites in Cairns, Townsville, Mackay and the Whitsundays. It wasn’t until 2002 that Beattie, on a US tourism and trade promotion mission, revealed he wanted a facility on the Gold Coast to make Queensland “the cruise mecca of the South Pacific”. At the same time it was revealed the former National Party state secretary and Bjelke-Petersen government advisor Mike Evans had formed a consortium, Australian Cruise Port International, interested in a Gold Coast terminal.
Former State Development Minister Tony McGrady told the Gold Coast Bulletin in 2004 that the whole idea for the Gold Coast terminal came from Evans and his consortium. The consortium also appears to have been consistently touted as the “frontrunner” in the race for tender.
Evans concedes the idea was born out of a lunch he had in July 2001 – just two months after the demise of Hamilton Quay - with the renowned Brisbane Harbour Master and chairman of Brisbane Marine Pilots, Captain Steve Pelecanos. “Steve explained to me that the Gold Coast Seaway had enough depth in the channel (for cruise ships) and the great advantage was that it was a day closer to the South Pacific than Sydney,” Evans recalls.

With The Spit again looming as a battleground, groups such as the Main Beach Progress Association, Gecko (Gold Coast and Hinterland Environment Council), and the Friends of Federation Walk (volunteer custodians of the 91-hectare ocean-side Federation Walk Coastal Reserve that extends north from Philip Park, opposite Sea World, to the northern tip of The Spit) began to mobilise. They would eventually amalgamate under the umbrella of the Save Our Spit (SOS) Alliance.
Drama teacher, academic and surfer, Steve Gration – now acting head of SOS – became actively involved in the issue after attending a protest meeting in January last year. “I thought - we’ve got a Labor Government, they’re smart, they’re for the people. In a few months time it’ll be seen as a silly idea. But the whole thing just got heavier and heavier. The people opposed to it were being vilified in the press. Fear and lies were being peddled. I got so angry the working class boy in me said – alright, I see the game now and I’m going to do what I have to do.”

The first major public rally against the terminal was staged at Doug Jennings Park on April 3 last year. More than 2000 people attended. Surfers Paradise Liberal MP John-Paul Langbroek called for an inquiry, and local Gold Coast City Counsellor Susie Douglas demanded a referendum. “I don't think the Beattie Government has all the support they think they have on this,” she reportedly said at the time. “I believe there are deals being done . . . (that developers) have got an arrangement with the Government to access that land.”
The Beattie Government forged on, producing a study it commissioned from Star Cruises Ship Stimulation Centre in Malaysia that showed it was “highly feasible” for 300m cruise ships to navigate and dock at the Southport Spit. The suggestion for the Malaysian study came from Captain Steve Pelecanos.
On October 17 last year the terminal and associated marina and tourist developments were declared a “significant project” by the State Cordinator-General, Ross Rolfe. That month the government began the tendering process, publishing a detailed document Gold Coast Marine Development: Expressions of Interest. In the introduction it declares that the Gold Coast has “enjoyed significant interest from cruise lines” and that interest had resulted in a number of “unsolicited” proposals to the State for the development of a cruise ship terminal.
However, Qweekend understands the Government actively solicited at least two cruise terminal bidders prior to publicly releasing the tendering document.
It is believed Mike Evans was asked by the Department of State Development in December 2002, April 2004 and July 2005 to submit a proposal for the project. At least two of those requests were allegedly made by then State Development minister Tony McGrady. McGrady, who relinquished the portfolio in August last year, refused to comment.
Jeffrey Leigh-Smith, one of the Gold Coast’s leading marine industry figures whose family sold boats on The Spit in the 1970s, confirmed he also was encouraged to submit a bid. “I wasn’t going to tender with anybody up until last year. I was asked by a high-ranking public official to put the tender in. At that stage I think the government was of the tune that there might not be many tenderers out there.” Asked the name of the public official, he said: “I don’t want to go there. It was a situation that we were encouraged to get in there by government.”

By the January deadline, the Government received formal bids from nine consortiums - some of the heaviest hitters in Australian construction and development. Mike Evans’s group, retaining principal backers Leighton Constructions and Sinclair Knight Merz, but revamped and renamed the Gold Coast Cruise Port Consortium, is one of the nine; as is Leigh-Smith’s Oceana, led by Brisbane-based developer Devine Homes (former Deputy-Premier and Treasurer Terry Mackenroth is a board member of Devine Ltd). Among the others are the Macquarie Bank/Seymour Group (Seymour is headed by one of the country’s richest men Kevin Seymour); Multiplex; Raptis Group, led by coast developer Jim Raptis; and the Sunland Group, the developers behind the Q1 tower in Surfers Paradise.
When asked if it was protocol for government officials to actively encourage submissions from the private sector for a government tender like the Gold Coast cruise ship terminal, deputy Premier and State Development minister Anna Bligh’s office issued the following statement: “The Department of State Development and Coordinator (sic) General’s office has no knowledge or information in relation to this claim.”

Opponents have argued that it makes no economic sense to build a cruise terminal on the Gold Coast with the Brisbane terminal nearing completion. Would two major terminals, less than an hour apart by road or train, be fiscally viable? Indeed, research into cruise ship passengers conducted by Tourism Queensland itself in late 2004 provided a snapshot of an industry that did not seem to match the government’s hopes of annual revenue from the cruise industry of up to $80 million. “Cruise passengers (to Australia) spent an average of three days in Queensland,” the report said. “Overall, cruise ship passengers spent an average of $80 per person during their stopover in Brisbane.” Just 29 cruise ships per year currently visit Brisbane, although Bligh has predicted a Gold Coast terminal would welcome one ship every 10 days, or about 36 ships per year.
In December Bligh announced a five-person panel to oversee the Environmental Impact Study into the terminal proposal. The tender offer for the EIS closed on February 20 this year. On March 9 Bligh told State Parliament that Gutteridge Haskin Davey (GHD) had been appointed contractor for the EIS. GHD has been involved in other Queensland projects such as the Gold Coast airport and Gladstone coal terminal expansions. A decision on the winning consortium bidder will be made depending on the outcome of the EIS, which may not be completed until mid-year.

“We’ve been very upfront about this,” Bligh told Qweekend. “We’re very keen to have this happen. We’re very keen to get a slice of this (cruise ship) action. But every place we’ve identified for a possible terminal we’ve been very clear, it has to stack up economically and it has to stack up environmentally, and we are still in the process of deliberating on that. So, is this do or die against all sensible evidence? No it’s not. We’re not going to do something stupid.”
A winning consortium, in exchange for building and operating the terminal, would be granted development rights to parcels of priceless waterfront State Government land further down The Spit.
In what some critics are hailing “a return to the days of the White Shoe Brigade”, a culture of fear and rumour has emerged the closer the Government gets to a final decision. “I thought the city had moved on from those days,” says former Gold Coast deputy-mayor Alan Rickard, who vigorously objected to early Gold Coast City Council plans to turn the Broadwater into a harbour, complete with ship terminals, marinas and hotels. “But you’ve seen some of the names involved who are interested in the terminal. It goes to show that dinosaurs can come back.”
Federal Liberal MP for Moncrieff, Steve Ciobo – whose electorate encompasses much of the Gold Coast, from Southport to Burleigh Waters – believes the Beattie Government “more than 18 months ago” made its decision on the terminal and who would construct it. “The rest is a political game Peter Beattie is going through,” Ciobo says.

IT just wouldn’t be the Gold Coast if a development project as big as a multi-million dollar cruise ship terminal didn’t come with a subterranean whiff of scandal. The battle for The Spit is no exception.
For more than ten years local businessman and theatre guru, Leonard Lee, of Westend Theatre Management, had a vision for a world-class performing arts centre on the Gold Coast. He raised capital and negotiated with the State Government for a potential site near the southern end of the Southport Spit. Lee claims in April last year he received an anonymous telephone call from a man telling him to “back off” with his theatre project, and was threatened with actual violence. Lee says he reported the call to the police. He received another call around August, telling him to butt out of The Spit area as he was “dealing with the big boys”.
Prior to Christmas last year, he says he was told by a senior State Government official that his theatre plans were “off the table”, a rejection he believes was related to the cruise terminal plan. “I think it’s wrong,” he says. “The developers want everything.” Lee has since met with State Government officials and is in negotiations over another potential site for his theatre in nearby Southport.
Then there’s the case of Humphreys Boatshed, a former heritage-listed building at the western entrance to The Spit, near the Southport Yacht Club. The famous engineering and boat repair workshop, dating back to the 1940s, abuts land that houses the Naval Cadets headquarters and a facility that incorporates the Gold Coast Water Police, Queensland Transport, the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and the Department of Environment and Heritage. Both these parcels have been mooted as potential land offered to developers as part of the cruise ship terminal deal.
Throughout the first half of 2004, the Gold Coast press reported that the historic shed had fallen into disrepair and was riddled with asbestos. Former local councillor and real estate guru Max Christmas claimed in the Gold Coast Bulletin on May 6 of that year that the State Government wanted to demolish the boatshed as part of a revamp of the area. Suddenly, in late July, the boatshed was partially destroyed by fire. The then commodore of the neighbouring Southport Yacht Club, Neville Ferguson, reportedly said in the Gold Coast Bulletin it was a fire “waiting to happen”, and that the worse the building’s state of repair “the more chance of the building being demolished” to make way for developers.
Ferguson’s theory seems to have been prescient. A Department of Natural Resources spokesman told the Gold Coast Bulletin the day after the fire “the future of Humphreys Boatshed is being considered within the broader context of the future land-use planning for the entire Spit precinct”, and that a cruise ship terminal might be part of that future.
The Bulletin also reported that police were “trying to locate a man seen running from the site when fire crews arrived just after midnight”. Police investigations never ascertained arson as the cause of the fire.
Labor MP for Southport, Peter Lawlor, demanded after the fire that the heritage-listed building be demolished. “I think that western side of Seaworld Drive will eventually be developed,” he said on November 29, 2004. “All that site is good for is a bulldozer.”
Steve Ciobo adds: “There has been a whole range of things going on right back to the boatshed fire. It was a Gold Coast icon for sixty years, then suddenly the whole thing burnt down.”

Local residents and the Friends of Federation Walk also noted a disturbing pattern of fires on The Spit between 2001 and 2004. Seven major blazes burnt out segments of the Federation Walk Coastal Reserve during that three-year period, starting at the northern tip and working back towards Sea World. “If you look at the locations of the fires it does appear to be systematic – that whoever did it wanted to damage as much of the reserve as possible,” says one resident, who declined to be named. “The word is it was done to ravage the place and make it more amenable to development.” The fires were never officially investigated, although the Gold Coast City Council, local fire fighting crews, and police always believed they had been deliberately lit.
Another source says the Gold Coast Water Police have already been issued their “operational directives” to prepare for the inevitability of a cruise ship terminal at The Spit, and to adjust work timetables and staff levels accordingly, although a spokesperson for Police Minister, Judy Spence says “there have been no formal considerations or staffing briefings” on new operational procedures.
In early February this year, the Gold Coast Sun reported that John Johnstone, the deputy chairman of Sunfish Queensland, the state’s recreational anglers lobby, had received an unsigned letter “in a plain envelope” offering inducements to “see things the shipping terminal way”. One of the offers was for a cruise liner holiday. Johnstone told Qweekend that in the envelope was a photocopy of an American one dollar bill. “It said there would be plenty more where that came from. I sent it on to the CMC (Crime and Misconduct Commission) and the Premier’s Department. Since I haven’t heard anything I’m wondering if it was a practical joke.”

Shona Pinkerton, proprietor of Devocean Dive and Gold Coast spokesperson for the local diving industry, says protestors and interest groups were being offered “amenities” for a project that seemed a fait accompli.
After an SOS meeting in September last year, which was attended by Ross Rolfe and Premier Beattie’s Deputy Chief of Staff (Policy Coordination) Damien McGreevy, she said: “I was asked what my ‘wish-list from the developers’ might be in relation to diving and The Spit. It was suggested we might like some steps put in for divers off the rocks, or barbecues and showers. I said – what do you mean wish list from developers? They haven’t even conducted the EIS yet.” Steve Gration’s notes from the meeting also recorded an offer of “barbecues and other amenities”.
Rolfe says: “Nobody has any recollection of using those precise words, but certainly it’s the case that there’s been discussion with people about their ideas for enhancing the overall amenities for The Spit and including how any adverse impacts on their existing uses might be properly mitigated. That would be a normal thing to do.”
Bligh told Qweekend that steps and barbecue areas could not be considered as “inducements” to the protestors: “My understanding is that the Alliance feels very strongly about maintaining public amenities and recreation on The Spit and I would expect that government officers who are sitting listening to people would be saying – so would this make it better? I don’t think that anybody for one minute would think that a barbecue was an inducement.”

THE Gold Coast cruise ship terminal proposal has elicited opinions as diverse as they are surprising. Arguably the father of Gold Coast development, entrepreneur Keith Williams, says he is “100 per cent behind the protestors”. “To put the terminal on the end of The Spit is absolute stupidity,” he says from his home at Main Beach. “They’re going to bugger up the last piece of ocean front public land left on the Gold Coast. It should be left as public open space.”
Professional charter fishermen claim the Malaysian study into the Seaway’s feasibility for cruise liners has miscalculated the average flow of the current. The local surfers, legion in number, believe it will destroy the world-class break off South Stradbroke Island. Marine scientists say it will impact heavily on the Broadwater, a “nursery” for fish, prawns, crabs, and a huge array of sea life.
Gold Coast mayor Ron Clarke stated on the council website earlier this year that if the terminal could be built without environmental repercussions it could be “a wonderful boost to the Gold Coast economy”. Yet in an about face a few weeks later, on February 18, he declared in his weekly newspaper column in the Gold Coast Bulletin he hoped the Premier was examining “all options” during the environmental impact investigation, specifically the importance of berths for money-earning super yachts.
Opposition leader Lawrence Springborg is unequivocal: “We oppose development of The Spit, full stop.” At the Nationals State Conference in July last year, a unanimous resolution was passed condemning the Beattie Government’s plans for further development of The Spit and calling for the area to be protected from development “for future generations”.
The ALP’s Peter Lawlor, who occupies Doug Jennings’ old seat of Southport, believes the issue will ultimately have political implications. “It’s an important issue, an emotive issue,” he says. “I imagine it will impact on the (next) election, and me in particular. But the government has an obligation to promote tourism. The argument against development (of The Spit) was lost when Keith Williams put Sea World there.”
Bligh, who grew up on the Gold Coast , adds: “I guess from government’s perspective (and) as I said before, we think it would have been irresponsible to contemplate developing a cruise shipping industry and not to include the Gold Coast in our considerations. It would be great if (The Spit) was less environmentally sensitive, if people had less emotional attachment to it - that would make it a lot easier but tough decisions are tough decisions. I should say I haven’t seen the developers’ proposals. It’s also possible that what they’re proposing is unacceptable.”
She told parliament in early March a lot of “misinformation” had circulated throughout the Gold Coast in relation to the cruise ship proposal.
Bligh says only a single hectare of Doug Jennings Park would be utilised if a cruise ship terminal went ahead. This hectare would have to facilitate the terminal wharf, some form of arrivals building for officials and tourists, bus and car parks, taxi ranks and public toilets, as well as facilities for security officials and port staff, and possibly refuelling infrastructure. “That’s all that we’re making available. One hectare,” Bligh says.

At the first public protest at Doug Jennings Park last year, Ann Davies and friends decided to plant a tree in the reserve to continue the memory of the area’s namesake. Right up to his death, Jennings regularly swam across the Broadwater from Southport to The Spit and back before work in the mornings. He often started out so early it was still pitch black. “It’s a tuckeroo,” she says. “It’s a beautiful tree with the deepest green leaves and they grow really well in the sand dunes. They’re the trees you see along Narrowneck and coming into Main Beach. They’re all very windswept. It’s a coastal tree and it does very well where there’s sand and wind. It’s beautiful, the tuckeroo, and we planted it for him. It’s still standing.”

LUNCH WITH KATE

Published in Qweekend Magazine, 2005.



IT is, perhaps, the most passionate and enduring relationship of her life.

The Australian actor Kate Fitzpatrick has had a lifelong fascination with the Phalaenopsis amabilis, or Moth orchid, so named by the great 19th century German botanist Karl Ludwig Blume. Its literal translation is “lovely moth”.

Today, the Philaenopsis is one of the most common of its species, famously adaptable, and the darling of amateur orchidists around the world. There are more than 50 species in the genus.

They have fascinated Fitzpatrick since her late teens, just as they must have entranced Blume’s predecessor, Dutch East India clerk G.E.Rumphius, when he arrived in Jakarta in the mid-1600s, and began the first real scientific documentation of orchids. He was so captured by their allure he never left Jakarta.

Philaenopsis’ have accompanied Fitzpatrick through decades of peripatetic travel. She has sent them as gifts to the bereaving. She has nurtured and propagated them in innumerable temporary homes. Through a remarkable career, friendships, affairs and relationships with the rich, famous and nondescript, late motherhood, single parenthood, court cases, public spats and countless colourful personal dramas, it is the orchid that has been her constant motif.

And unsurprisingly, they are with her again, these silent and loyal friends with their flat wing-shaped petals, at the start of her new life on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

“Phalaenopsis – it’s a Greek word for butterfly,” Fitzpatrick says, unthinkingly elevating the plant’s linguistic definition and beauty. A common moth they’re not. “I’m looking at them now by the window. I love them. There’s something about them. Such beauty comes out of such unprepossessing flowers…”

Fitzpatrick, 57, one of the country’s finest actors of stage and screen (with movies such as Goodbye Paradise, The Removalists, Heaven’s Burning and The Return of Captain Invincible to her credit) has quietly settled in the nondescript suburb of Labrador with her son Joe, 15. She lives in a townhouse beside her mother, Dawn, now 83. It’s a long way from a hugely robust and frenetic life that has included sojourns in London, her beloved France, Greece, Sydney and, as of last January, Melbourne.

She has, surprisingly, a brief Queensland pedigree. The Fitzpatrick clan once resided on the Sunshine Coast when she was a child. “I’ve lived in Caloundra,” she says. “All I remember about it is eating an ice cream in the water and it was raining, that’s how hot it was…”

Meeting her in Brisbane, she is immediately recognisable from a distance wandering through the Queen Street Mall in coat and scarf. Yet she has the air of a woman lost, a moth blown off its course and dropped into unfamiliar terrain.

On the Gold Coast, too, she appears even more remote, both fascinated and appalled by the beach city’s proclivity for flash and glitz. Its strangeness is constantly arresting her attention, and her frightening eye for detail.

“I had to get the bus,” she says on the day we meet for lunch at trendy Main Beach. “I got into a conversation with a young woman at the bus stop. By the end there wasn’t a thing I didn’t know about her life, and she knew nothing about me. It has been that way with me all my life. I don’t know why.”

And in the middle of a conversation something will catch her eye. “Sorry,” she says, “I’m just distracted by the way those palm trees are coming through the roof over there.” She gestures towards two huge palms around which has been constructed a tiled shop awning. “Thank God they did that…the only thing I want to say on the subject of palm trees, which I think there should be a lot more of around here, is that they always remind me of …do you know Harbour Town (a shopping centre at Robina)? They’ve got this giant…I thought it was a sewerage vent but in fact it’s a Telecom thing, this gigantic sort of pole that goes for 400 feet, and on the top of it are seven or eight palm tree fronds. It wasn’t a bad idea but they didn’t know how to do it…a tiny tuft on the top. It’s disproportionate. Proportion is something, don’t you think?”

In Tedder Avenue, she literally stops in her tracks to watch pass by a giant amphibious tourist vehicle fashioned into a duck.

“Did you see that?” she says. “Does it go into the water as well? Do you think it goes into the water?” She stands in the duck’s wake, genuinely puzzled.

And at Shuck restaurant, where Fitzpatrick is joined by her mother, there is an almost comical theatrical exchange with the waiter over oysters.

WAITER: The Sydney Rock oysters and the Pacifics are from Port Stephens…

KATE: What does that mean?

WAITER: They call them Sydney Rocks but that’s just a name, it doesn’t mean they’re from Sydney.

KATE: Did you know that the Sydney Opera House is built on an Aboriginal oyster midden?

WAITER: The Pacifics are…

KATE: It’s interesting, isn’t it? The midden?

WAITER: We had a customer once who found a little pearl in her oyster.

KATE: Really? From a little grain of sand…now tell me, is it the Pacifics that taste ‘creamy’?

This is the way it goes with Fitzpatrick. She can simultaneously run half a dozen conversational narratives at once, lose you, draw you back in, confuse and befuddle you, before neatly tying the lines together. Her insatiable curiosity means you can be talking about human love and death one minute and the feeding habits of magpies the next.

Her autobiography, Name Dropping: An Incomplete Memoir (2004), shared the same fractured style, mirroring her taste for digression, and unfolding like the preparation of an elaborate dish, with colourful spices, herbs and fresh ingredients tossed into the pot en route. The end result is a remarkably rich and well-written bouillabaise of a life story.

The final two lines of that book are: “There are many stories in the naked city. These have been a few of them.”

Airmail: Three Women/Letters from Five Continents, her new book, continues the moveable feast. It reveals volleys of correspondence between Fitzpatrick, her sister Sally, and mother Dawn, and the letters and postcards are glued together with more personal reminiscences and stories.

After spending time with Fitzpatrick, you begin to understand that she is her innumerable stories. That they encase her like a thick coat. Perhaps even protect her. Some actors never stop acting as a personal protective device.

It is not so with Fitzpatrick. Her stories are her cocoon. And while there are little gaps between them, through which she occasionally allows you to glimpse her real self, the stories fight to deflect your attention.

“So many stories,” she says almost wistfully. “And that’s nothing. Now I keep thinking, I wish I’d put this story and that story in (her memoirs), and a lot of my father’s stories. And I remember everybody else’s stories.”

But what is she doing here - one-time lover to actors like Jeremy Irons and Sam Neill, friend to sportsmen and businessmen such as Imran Khan and Kerry Packer respectively, wooed by screen great Jack Nicholson, intellectual foil to and favourite of Nobel laureate Patrick White, and theatrical contemporary of everyone from director Jim Sharman to actor Max Cullen, - on the Gold Coast?

As she says in the new memoir: “As much as I like the weather and love the magpies who visit, singing loudly for their supper three times a day, using their beaks like chopsticks, there isn’t much to do on the Gold Coast other than write.”

What does a person like Kate Fitzpatrick do in suburban Labrador, away from the great, thriving sources of her life stories?


*


EVEN today, it’s possible to catch the vestiges of the Adelaide convent schoolgirl (St Aloysius College) that Fitzpatrick was in both her intermittent English accent and the occasional coquettish facial expression.

Born in Western Australia to her geologist father Brian and artist mother Dawn, she was the oldest of five children. The Fitzpatricks soon settled in Adelaide alongside well-established relatives..

At school Fitzpatrick showed precocious talent, particularly in art. She was particularly fond of drawing plants. She writes in Airmail of her father’s long absences mapping terrain in the Australian bush, and subsequent home life: “As soon as Dad left, and was once more safely ensconced in the middle of nowhere, our chaotic creative life would resume. The dining table and every inch of our living room floor were used as studio space.”

Dawn had a foolproof method of teaching the children how to paint and draw. If it wasn’t good enough, it was destroyed. “As a teaching aid it worked like a charm. We could draw anything.”

Fitzpatrick showed so much ability she was chosen to represent South Australia on a painting tour of Japan announced by “Phidias” (the pseudonym of the great painter Jeffrey Smart) of the ABC’s popular radio and television series, The Argonauts.

The budding artist wrote to her parents from the Palace Hotel, Tokyo: “Dear Mum and Dad, You will never guess what I am doing now – well, I am sitting on my bed leaning against the most exquisite, modern, luxury Japanese room you have ever seen (or not as the case may be) watching Dr Kildare on television speaking Japanese perfectly!”

Her father toyed with the idea of his oldest daughter becoming a psychiatrist. Too lazy for academia, she enrolled in the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney and was accepted.

The moved not only fitted her perfectly – though she may not have realised it at the time – but seemed to cast her future lifestyle. As she reveals in Airmail: “During my first years away from home I changed address a lot and never seemed to have any money.” Only last year she was quoted as saying she had never had “a brass razoo” throughout her career.

Famous for her lack of ambition, Fitzpatrick’s nonchalance may indeed have made her stand out at the nation’s holy grail of acting, aside from an effortless ability to perform. During a NIDA graduate performance of The Legend of King O’Malley by Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy (which later successfully toured the country), she caught the eye of writer Patrick White, and from that moment was enveloped in the Sydney literary and theatrical intelligentsia.

She was instantly in work in theatre, film and television, from the TV series Boney to Jim Sharman’s incredibly successful Rocky Horror Picture Show to Peter Weir’s first film, Homesdale. By the late 70s Patrick White had written a play for her.(Big Toys) after she had dazzled in his other play, The Season at Sarsaparilla.

And still acting seemed to just facilitate an interesting life full of interesting people, rather than being a career focus.. She has starred in more than 40 plays and 20 films.

“It has just been easy,” she says now of the craft. “I’ve never had any ambition, really. I just like working. If you travelled like I did…it’s not like I sat around in my flat and waited for someone to ring. I’d just piss off. Usually I’d be brought back (to Australia) to do something. Acting - it’s not rocket science, as the ones with any brains will tell you. There are some things I’ve been shocking in and some I have been good in, and that’s it really.

“I’ve never really had that permanent need to perform in front of an audience, either.”

Her numerous letters and postcards from overseas, as they appear in Airmail, are tangible evidence of Fitzpatrick adhering to that old adage – she worked to live, and not vice versa. Brother Ben and sister Sally were already traversing the globe by the early 70s.

Fitzpatrick took off too, travelling to Jerusalem, Athens, London and then Moscow, where she and director Tom Cowan showed their film The Office Picnic at the Moscow Film Festival. It was the beginning of her love affair with Europe.

“I’m a bit more circumspect when I’m in Europe,” she says. “I don’t think I change, but I’m not usually taken for a foreigner. In Europe I’m most at home I think. I like a lot of things about it. I just can’t afford it. Even village life. I like village life. I’m really happy there. I like knowing all the shopkeepers and the fact that they know you. Wherever I’ve gone, until now, I’ve always had this. But I’ve moved so many times.”

Fitzpatrick was perennially touted as Australia’s next major movie star export, but it never really eventuated. She was professionally courted by the likes of Norman Mailer, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino, but Hollywood eluded her.

When Name Dropping was released last year, much fuss was made over her love life and its cast of famous names from the sporting, acting and legal fraternities. (Her son Joe’s father, Jose Albertini, is a French architect). It also fanned some old fires amongst the women in her life.

A spat with actress Robyn Nevin ensued after publication, which eventually played itself out in a string of comical letters in the Sydney newspapers. There was, too, her hilarious falling out with the formidable feminist academic Germaine Greer, with whom Fitzpatrick was briefly living in England shortly before the birth of Joe.

“I came to believe that pregnancy, pregnant women and babies are not within her field of expertise – too messy, unpredictable and uncontrollable,” she writes of Greer in Airmail. “On the first night Germaine cooked a wonderful meal of chicken, vegetables and couscous. It was a very pleasant and welcoming introduction. The only cloud was introduced by her free range cats, who gave me the mother of all asthma attacks. At one moment she kissed one of them very near its bum and I remember thinking no woman who kisses a cat on the arse is going to kiss my baby.”

Fitzpatrick lasted three days, and retreated into the arms of other friends. On her admission, and to highlight her restless nature, she had “nine moves in six or seven weeks and in three countries up to eight months into the pregnancy”.

Airmail ends poignantly with the death of her father in 1995. She writes of a morsel of advice he gave her when she was a child. “Always remember that everything in the universe – meteorites, diamonds, even you – is basically carbon.” Fitzpatrick was eight years old.

The final piece of family correspondence reproduced in the book is from Kate and Joe in Fiji in 2001. “This really is a big piece of Paradise,” she writes.

After that postcard, there is nothing.


*


Back at Shuck restaurant on the Gold Coast, Fitzpatrick is engaged in a long, circuitous argument with her mother just as the entrees have been completed. Fitzpatrick is still going on the oysters, and has regaled the table with so many anecdotes she has forgotten there’s still a single Sydney Rock nestling in its shell.

“She reads everything in Morse Code,” Fitzpatrick says of her mother, Dawn, seated across the table. “It’s something she learned in the war. She joined the RSL here recently and talks to blokes there completely in Morse. It’s like she’s a savant. Mum, what’s Shuck in Morse?”

“Dee dee dee dah dah….” Dawn responds instantly.

“Can you understand what I’m saying now, Ma, in Morse?”

Dawn smiles and shakes her head. “You wouldn’t have made it (in the war). You wouldn’t have passed the Morse exam. You’d have ended up in the kitchen.”

Dawn, an accomplished and respected patchwork quilt artist, studies the proof copy of Airmail at the table. The cover features a montage of photographs of her and her two daughters.

FITPATRICK: Have you read all the letters from me and Sally?

DAWN: I’ve read some of the letters.

FITZPATRICK: But have you read any of the links between the letters?

DAWN: No, I haven’t read the links.

FITZPATRICK: You’re going to be shocked.

DAWN: Am I going to be shocked?

FITZPATRICK: What I don’t understand about Morse Code is whether the dee’s and dah’s suggest the word in your mind first, or the actual words suggest the dee’s and the dah’s.

DAWN: You would never have passed. You don’t understand it at all.

FITZPATRICK: No, I think it’s a fair question. What I want to know is…”

Their verbal play proceeds this way for some time, and it’s not hard to picture the big family home in Adelaide, or later on the harbour at McMahon’s Point in Sydney, filled with these curious dialogues between these tirelessly curious people.

Fitzpatrick refuses to be interviewed or photographed at home in Labrador. There is a hint of embarrassment, perhaps not over the actual physical homes themselves, but the overarching reality that she is living in a place she had not expected to be living in. A place that she has yet to fit into.

Sister Sally says from her home in San Diego, California, that she is thrilled about Airmail, but concerned for Kate on the Gold Coast.

“I don’t know that she will survive there,” Sally says. “Kate’s great love are the big cities – Sydney or Melbourne. She’s there on the Gold Coast out of necessity really. She had no work in Melbourne and it was difficult to survive. It’s not a matter of being there to look after Mum at this stage in her life I don’t think. Kate has always looked after Mum.

“Kate is dying in Labrador. She needs the stimulus of a big city. She says she’s possibly looking to Brisbane. I hope it works out for her.”

There is, too, the question of her sister Kate’s skin, as delicate as an orchid petal. Fitzpatrick’s face was once described as that of “a fallen angel”.

Sally laughs at the thought of her sister in the fierce Queensland sun. “It’s why she has always looked so good – she’s hardly ever been out in the sun. I remember she used to say she’ll be buried looking as good as she was when she was 16. Whatever it takes. She probably will.”

As for Fitzpatrick’s personal life, the topic of such interest and debate last year, she is not expansive on the subject. She writes in the penultimate paragraph of Airmail: “As for me, I still love cricket. I’m still going to live in Paris – or New York. I’ve never married and have fallen in and out of love only once since Jose – probably for the last time.”

Does she mean this? For the last time?

“I can’t imagine it ever happening - I never meet anyone,” she says. “I was asked to marry many times for very odd reasons, I thought. That marriage would fix up a situation. It made me kind of feel trapped, to be honest. The idea of it made me feel claustrophobic.

“And then I read about people who lived in adjoining flats or houses and I thought maybe that would work. As long as I had my own bathroom. My own bedroom perhaps. Also, being such a free agent, I’ve realised over the last 15 years (raising Joe) that it’s enough to look after one person let alone lots of other people. I say in Name Dropping that I was proposed to eight times, but it really was, I suppose, ten.

“I once had an asthma attack on Victoria Street (in Sydney) when I was proposed to. I seem to attract control freaks. There’s something about me. And jealousy. I have never done the dirty on anyone. I’ve always been absolutely monogamous, even if it was just for a week (She laughs.) But there have been some terrible jealousies. I just find that so bad. But not now, I don’t expect people to be interested in me.”

She laughs at the attempts of friends to “set her up with a man”.

“I think that some people are needy, that they find me interesting, and others sniff that I’m a bolter,” she says. “It drives them mad. They just want to reign me in. But I can look at a man across the table, get engaged in my mind, married, have kids, then divorced, all in the space of half and hour, and it’s all over.”

As for permanent life on the Gold Coast, she remains uncommitted.

“I hope, I feel, it could be the beginning of something in that I think it’s turning me into a writer, do you know what I mean?” she says. “There isn’t any or much (acting) work. If you do want to get what’s around you don’t come to live on the Gold Coast because there ain’t any here.

“But I’m an old bird, you know what I mean?”

She does, at least, have her Phalaenopsis amabilis. Interestingly, the more you study Fitzpatrick, and the story of her life thus far, she and the Moth orchid share startling metaphorical similarities.

The orchid has been a symbol of luxury and beauty for many centuries. The Greeks considered them a symbol of virility, and they have been used as aphrodisiacs. They are fought over by collectors.

Their survival, too, has been assured by their phenomenal ability to adapt to their environment and attract a huge range of pollinators, from bees to frogs and snails.

Back home in Labrador, Fitzpatrick reports that the plants she relocated from Melbourne are doing remarkably well in their new Queensland environment.

“The gardenias are twice the size they’ve ever been,” she says happily. “And the orchids are blooming beautifully.”

* Airmail: Three Women/Letters from Five Continents by Kate Fitzpatrick is published in October by Wiley Australia, $29.95.