Category Archives: Australia

Bunnies, barbeques, banter and birthdays

“Happy birthday to you.  Happy birthday to you.  Happy birthday dear Simo-ooone!  Happy birthday to you!!  Hip, hip hooray!!”

My niece, Emily, in her bunny mask

My niece, Emily, in her bunny mask

I lean forward and blow out the candles on my cake to cheers from my family.

My sister smiles at me with a mischievous twinkle in her eye and says to her three young daughters “Okay girls, let’s clap out Auntie Simone’s age.  It’s a lot of claps … are you ready?”

I give Penny a look of sarcastic but good-natured thanks as her girls nod enthusiastically.  We clap and count.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two (by this point we gasp for an intake of breath), twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five, THIRTY-SIX!!!”  Believe me, clapping thirty-six times takes quite a while.  My nieces are bored by about twenty.

Emily in her Easter mask

Emily in her Easter mask

My brother-in-law claps once more and announces dramatically “And one to make her grow!”  My seven-stone sister grins impishly and looks at me “Or should that be; and one to make her shrink?!”

Hmm, was that really necessary?   

It’s Easter Saturday and we’re gathered round the table on the back verandah to celebrate my recent birthday, and my current visit.  Mum was up early to prepare the salads and meats for the BBQ, while her husband David cleared the spiders and cobwebs from the outdoor setting.

Birthdays have always been closely linked to Easter for our tribe.  If it’s not near mine at the end of March, then it’s near my sister’s in early April.  Birthday cakes, the Easter bunny, and early Autumn BBQs all interplay.

Me in an Easter costume ... many years ago (I think I'm some sort of chicken)

Me in an Easter costume … many years ago (I think I’m some sort of chicken)

After the cutting of the cake, my nieces leave the table to play in the backyard.  The men assume their positions overseeing the grilling meat, and the women set the table and bring out the salads and drinks.

I squat down to pull out a bottle of wine from the fridge and spot something that brings a glint to my eye: a chocolate bunny soldier.  I love these bunnies.  Love them.  The great tragedy is that they’re only released over Easter and having lived in London for fourteen years, I’ve missed them for over a decade.  God, I so hope that bunny’s a surprise for me tomorrow …

When I return to the BBQ area, my seven-year-old niece is wearing a mask that she made at school.  I laugh at her, and she’s pleased.  She doesn’t know that my merriment is partly at her, and partly at the memory of the masks Penny and I used to wear at Easter (or any event for that matter … costumes seemed to be donned for the smallest of reasons in my household).

It makes me happy that the celebratory traditions are continuing through the generations and that I’m here to witness them; including the irreverent quips!

Easter many years ago (I'm the chick on the left with brown hair)

Easter many years ago (I’m the chick on the left with brown hair)

Afterword

The bunny was for me.  Mum presented it with a word of warning “Penny will make a bit of a scene about this as I’ve told her I’m not getting her bunny soldiers anymore and she’s miffed.  But for god’s sake, she’s a forty-year-old mother with three children.  Plus she’s still got the ones I gave her from the last three years in her pantry.  I know you’ll enjoy yours and not hold on to it”. (That would be part of the reason I’m not seven-stone ….).

Sure enough, as soon as my sister arrived she theatrically announced “Enjoy your bunny soldier because apparently you don’t get them after you turn forty (at this point, she looked directly at our mother).  Savour it because you‘ve only got another four coming your way”.  Mum just smiled in resigned exasperation.  I smiled knowing that Mum will continue to bestow me with a bunny soldier for as long as I continue to clap with the genuine delight of a three-year-old each time I’m given one (which I’ll then consume within 48 hours …).

After the afterword

Since posting this I’ve been informed that I’m not a chicken in the first photograph (in the black top), but am, in fact, a daisy flower.  Allegedly the green tights should have made that obvious.  “What’s wrong with you?  You’re a daisy, not a bloody chicken!  Why do you think you’re wearing green tights?  A chicken doesn’t have green legs.  Simpleton!”     

Fatherly advice

My home phone rings for the fifth time since arriving home from work.  I look at it with exasperation and bemusement.  My father’s relentless calls are draining, but I’ve always loved his unshakable and unrestrained fervour.  I rarely answer his weeknight calls, but that never stops him.  He leaves countless voicemails that run for the duration of the message time-limit.  Tonight included an entire song that he wanted me to hear – recorded by him holding the phone to the stereo.  Audio quality clearly wasn’t a priority.  As the phone continues to ring, I start to smile at his childlike enthusiasm and decide to speak to him.

Me: Hello

Dad (in a very strong Australian accent): Now, I know I’ve never given you any advice, but I’ve been thinking and there are two things I want to say to you.

Me: Ok.

Dad: Well first, I was thinking that you’ve got it right in that you live by yourself.  Don’t ever live with anyone.  It can be lonely at times, but the lonely times are worth it when compared to how annoying it is living with other people.  I hated living with other people.

The only “other” people he’s ever lived with are his first family, and his second family (my mother, my sister, and me).  I ignore the unintended insult and wait for him to continue.

Dad: But the most important thing, and I cannot emphasise this enough … is whatever you do, don’t ever, ever have children. (I laugh).  No, I mean it.  I like the ones I’ve got and that, but when all’s said and done, they’re just not worth it (I laugh again).  When I think of how much better my life could have been if I’d not had children … well I’m just saying, don’t have them whatever you do.  Your life will be better without them.

Me: Um, you do realise that it’s your daughter you’re saying this to?

Dad: Yes, I know and I did say that I like the ones I’ve got – jeez don’t be so bloody sensitive – but I stand by the fact that my life would have been better without them.  Don’t miss the point I’m trying to make.  Ugh, you’re annoying me now – I’m going.

We both laugh, say goodbye and hang-up.

He phones again in fifteen minutes.  Just hearing the ring makes me smile so I answer.

Dad and his daughters

Me: Thought I was annoying you?

Dad: You are, but I can’t stop calling.  It’s actually annoying me that I can’t stop calling.  Phoning you is like crack or heroin or something – I can’t bloody stop myself.

I laugh so much I’m unable to speak.

Dad (also laughing): I hung up, and then I thought “Don’t call, don’t call”. But then I thought “Bugger it, I’m phoning!” But now I’ve got nothing to say.  Right, I’m going to say goodbye and I’m not going to call until the weekend. Cold turkey for two days …

I shake my head as I hang up. There’s no way his life would have been better without having had children.

The Hurricane

7:15am, Monday 29th October, 2012.   JFK airport is deserted.  Only 200 people wander around, passing through security checks at record speed.  We are the ONLY flight to depart today.  Hurricane Sandy will be in NY within hours.  I’m leaving another country to unprecedented natural disaster.  Five hours after I left New Zealand in 2011 a state of emergency was declared as it experienced its worst floods in fifty years.  Six hours after I left Fiji in 2012, a landslide hit my resort – 74 evacuation centres were set up and 8 people were killed.  The day I departed the UK in 2010 for a Christmas visit to Australia, England was hit by the worst snowfall in over forty years – Heathrow flights were grounded for days.  Twenty-four hours after that trip to Australia, my hometown was flooded and a locust plague was followed by a snake plague.   My arrival in Australia late in 2011 was marked by a mini cyclone, fires that destroyed thirty homes, a mouse plague and a fatal white shark attack.   I can’t work out if travelling with me will keep you safe or put you directly in line to encounter God’s wrath.   If my life was a movie, there’d be many scenes with me walking away unscathed, leaving an apocalyptic blaze behind me.

Upon hearing my boarding call, I get on Flight VS026.  I walk down the aisle and see a white-haired man in his mid-seventies in the seat next to mine.  He rises to let me take my window seat.  Once I’m seated and buckled in, he turns to me and holds out his hand for me to shake.

Him (with a strong NY accent):  Hi, I’m Robert.  We’re lucky we made this flight, aren’t we?

Me (shaking his hand):  Simone. It’s amazing.  I honestly never thought I’d be flying out today.

Him:  No, God’s on our side for sure.  And I’m pleased to have a lovely young lady sitting next to me.

Me (smiling):  Well I’m not sure I can be described as young any more.  And I’m not sure I’ve ever been lovely.  But thanks.

Him:  Oh everyone looks young to me now.  But you are lovely – a wide smile and big blue eyes.  You brighten up the plane.  Tell me, do you mind chatting for the flight?  I know some people hate it, but I’d quite like some conversation.  Of course if you want to read or watch the TV, that’s okay too.

What can I say?  I’m tired, but he’s a kind man and I think I want to talk to a stranger for a bit too.  Anonymous conversation can be cathartic.

For the next few hours I hear his story.  He’s a  76-year-old retired architect, proud of his work and proud of his family.  He has two children from his first marriage.  After a painful decline, his wife died of cancer three years ago.

I keep listening, occasionally agreeing and encouraging.

Him:  I’m lonely now and I don’t get to talk to many people for long.  My daughter phones every week, and my son about once a month … but that’s about it.  I miss Angie.  We married late so never had children together, but I loved her so much.  It’s hard now.

Suddenly my eyes well up.  

Him:  Oh, I’m sorry!  I didn’t mean to upset you with my grief.  How long have you been married?

Me (quickly pulling myself together and smiling):  I’m not married … that hasn’t happened for me yet.

Him:  Make it happen.  Love, and being with the person you love are the only things worth being here for.  You both become better people for it.

Me (smiling):  I know.  That’s exactly how I see it. 

Him:  I’ve been trying to work out if you’re sad to be leaving New York or sad to be going to London?

Me (laughing):  I’m happy to be avoiding a hurricane. 

Him (laughing kind-heartedly too):  You’re a clever one, avoiding my question.  I think you’ve got your own little hurricane going on inside you at the moment.  I’m old enough to see it.  And your eyes are very telling.  I think your eyes could kill a man, but right now they show you’re troubled.  But I won’t ask any more. 

There’s an awkward moment as we shift to a neutral conversational topic.  But we manage and enjoy the rest of the flight by covering light-hearted subjects.  He’s a gentle, intelligent and interesting man.

At Heathrow we say goodbye.  To my surprise he hugs me and says, “Have a good life, Simone”.  I smile.  The only time those exact words have been said to me were by another 76-year-old.  My babysitter, Jillian.   I am having a good life, and I’m trying to make it even better.

Telling tales

SIMONE’S QUITE THE STORYTELLER is the headline of the “The Kyabram Press” on 8 February 1980.  Underneath the bold headline it continues, “We weren’t quite sure about the authenticity of three-year-old Simone’s enthusiastic claim that an aeroplane had flown her to the local swimming pool.   But she was so solemn in her declaration about how she came to be at the Saint Patrick’s Swimming Sports Carnival that we were reluctant to question her.  With a happy smile she firmly reiterated that she had flown here in a big gold plane to watch her sister compete.  She was clearly sticking with her story”.

The local swimming pool was 15km from home … we’d driven our giant, canary yellow 1973 Ford Falcon.  Why would I change my story? Falcons fly, don’t they?

The day of the swimming sports carnival – I’m clearly tickled by something!

My mother shows me the faded article and rolls her eyes, smiling.

Mum: I thought you might have grown out of it.

 Me (laughing):  No, some stories need to be told.  And all stories need to be told in a certain way for them to be worth telling.

Earlier this week Mum arrived from Heathrow.  On my way to meet her I’d thought about all the travel stories I or my friends had experienced;  drunk and abusive passengers, intimate dalliances, unscheduled stopovers, luggage searches, lost passports, rejected visas.  I’d contemplated turning one of these into my blog this week.  There’s a story in most things if you look at them in a certain way, and my penchant for playing bard entertains and frustrates my mother in equal measure.

During my teenage years I was often mocked at the dinner table for my theatric accounts of daily incidents.

I exasperated my mother: When you report on what happened during your day you don’t need to commence by “Setting the scene”!

I irritated my sister:  Just spit it out – don’t make it a bloody movie!

I amused my father:  Alright bloody Shakespeare sitting in the corner – let’s hear your tale of the day. 

I’ve always loved stories – others as well as my own!

Mum’s brought some old photographs.  The swimming sports article is too faded to scan, but she has a photo that had been taken later that day.  I’m laughing as heartily as I do now, but probably not so loudly.  I’ve recently cut my own fringe and my red swimsuit demonstrates my usual subtlety.

These days the authenticity of my blog entries is questioned.   “Did that actually happen?!”  My answer is always “Yes … pretty much so”.  Some aspects are embellished and many are omitted but essentially, they’re true.  More or less ….

Life is filled with concrete facts; mortgage statements, electricity bills, mobile phone contracts.  Certainly my work (dealing with the resources that are human) is about data and accuracy – policies and procedures reign supreme.    But a world filled with statistics, spreadsheets and pie charts isn’t a world to be enjoyed.   As a notorious fan of structure and logic, I happily adhere to order and routine.  Precise information is a necessary evil, but daydreaming is a necessary bliss.  My brain is a wonderland of whims and fantasies.  In my mind the pixies freely roam the magical forest.

Creative non-fiction tells the story, but makes sure it is a story.  If you arrived at the swimming pool in a huge yellow Ford Falcon, then surely you flew there in a plane made of gold?  It’s all just a matter of semantics.  And what’s a little poetic interpretation amongst friends and family? …

So how did I pick Mum up from the airport?  By jetpack, obviously.

Afterword

My father phoned me last night and, as always, he gave me his forthright greeting, “You have 20 seconds to say something interesting or I’m hanging up.  And you know the rules”.  The “rules” are the banned topics – anything he’s deemed subject matter too dull to be discussed.  This list includes home decorating, standard ailments (colds, stomach bugs, tiredness, headaches etc), the weather, anything financial, politics, sport, and work.   No wonder I’m a story-teller.

The underdogs

“Come on girls, show us what you’ve got!! Don’t let her get past you, Anna! Jump higher, Erin, HIGHER!!” Gasping and dripping sweat, we race madly around the netball court, desperate to show what we can do. We run, we throw, we shoot, we defend; we work our guts out. It’s a redundant investment of energy as we’re all assured a spot on a team, but we’re eager to do our very best.

Netball 1988: Kate, Inece, Colleen, Kelly, Anneleise, Mandy, Tina, Simone, Sharon

It’s 1988 and the selection for the Saint Augustine’s netball teams is taking place. Seven players make a team so with eighteen girls we’ve got two teams – allowing for a couple of spares. The four notorious netball mums are here … along with their cut-throat competitive streak.  They form the selection committee and screech at us from the sidelines.

We finish displaying our netball prowess and inelegantly slurp on sliced orange quarters, the juices dribbling down our gawky eleven-year-old faces. We wait for the verdict; which team will we be in?

The selection committee whispers together, occasionally nodding and jotting on a notepad.  After fifteen minutes the “Queen Mum” gathers us in the centre of the court.

 Marie: Thanks girls. Good work. We’ve decided the two teams so listen carefully. Team 1! Beth! Angela! Sheree! Belinda! Erin! Anna! Rebecca! Jane! And Monique!

The popular, the pretty, the prize-winning and the perfect are all present. And all four daughters of the mothers on the selection committee are in this team.  I look over at Claudine who smiles knowingly at me. There’s supposed to be an even distribution of skills on the two teams, but it’s glaringly obvious that one team has been composed of winners and the other of losers. This is the Alpha team.

 Marie: And now Team 2! Kate! Inece!  Colleen! Kelly! Anneleise! Mandy! Tina! Simone! And Claudine!

The “other” team.  The Scraps. The unsporty, the uncoordinated, the uncool and the unattractive ….

Both teams are allocated a coach. Sheree’s mother (slim, pretty Tracey) will coach Team 1. Overweight, frumpy Sharon will coach Team 2 …. from her wheelchair.  Belinda smirks at me.

The twenty-week netball season commences.  We play our first game. And win. Only we don’t just win, we slaughter Dawes Road Primary 42-3. We play our next game.  Haslem Street Primary.  And win.  36-3. We play the “Alpha” Saint Aug’s team.  And win.  We play Tongala, Merrigum and Girgarre.  And win.  Within six games we are undefeated and the team to beat.

Kate’s Dad (in the blonde wig) and my Dad (in the brunette wig)

The combination of our team is inexplicably magical. The odd-ball bunch of misfits fits.  Kelly, as Goal Attack, rarely misses a goal.  Me, as Goal Defence, rarely lets one through.  Sprightly Kate, Inece and Tina flit about the court like nimble pixies, getting the ball to where it needs to be and preventing it being where it shouldn’t.

For nineteen weeks we train every Tuesday and play every Saturday at the local outdoor netball courts.  We win every game.  Then comes the big day; the Grand Final.

One-by-one we arrive, greeted by Sharon.  Her two slobbering rottweilers are dressed in yellow t-shirts – our mascots.  We’re relaxed, not an ounce of tension among us. We’ll win, we know.  But we aren’t arrogant.  We’ll have fun. We’ll laugh.  The games never really matter to us – we just enjoy ourselves.  We’re a mixture of adolescents and pre-adolescents, but while we play netball we’re all joyful, uncomplicated children.

We hear a crowd roar with laughter from a distant court near the car-park.  There are sixteen courts with a game taking place on every one …. so literally hundreds of people look over at the commotion.  I see the cause of the ruckus and with horror immediately look at Kate.  Jesus Christ –our fathers have come dressed as cheerleaders!  Complete with skirts, wigs, balloon-boobs and pom-poms!  Kate and I are both mortified … but even we have to admit it’s funny.  And we’re all caught up in the alchemy that has taken place this season.  The losers are the winners.

And the Grand Final?  We won that too.

Afterword

It was tremendous that our success defied expectations, but I always felt sorry for the other team.  They were, almost without exception, an equally nice group of girls and it must have been difficult for them to have experienced the horrible feeling that accompanies the failure to meet expectations.  Individually, most of them went on to be exceptional netball players during their teenage years.   I guess it’s just another example of how the performance of a team isn’t always about having the most skilled or talented people, but about how they function together.

After the afterword

Since writing this, I’ve been contacted by a few people from school (including some of those who played netball with me – both in this team and others). One sent me some photos so I’ve decided to add them!

Anneleise, Kate’s Dad, Colleen, Simone, Kate, Inece, Tina, Kelly, My Dad, Mandy

Kate, Sharon, Mandy, Tina, Colleen

The game in action!

Kate (C), Tina (WA)