Category Archives: Australia

My reflection

“THEY KEEP TAKING PHOTOS OF CAMERON!!  THEY KEEP TAKING PHOTOS OF CAMERON!!”  A bedraggled man with a thick beard, a navy woollen hat, and very few teeth is pushing a shopping trolley towards me and screaming about ‘Cameron’.   As he nears I see a bottle of whisky in a brown paper bag perched in the child-seat, and in the main part of the trolley a grinning Blue Heeler peers out from beneath a blanket.  I’m appreciative of his old-school homelessness – in an eighties movie he could be an extra: “Man playing hobo”.  When he’s almost directly beside me he stops and it’s clear he wants to talk.  

I weigh up the risk he poses.  It’s 6am, still dark and Albury’s main street is deserted.  He’s bigger than me, but wobbly on his feet.  I’m pretty sure I could push him over, if it came to fight.  Or outrun him, if it came to flight.   And either scenario is unlikely.   Curious to see what’s going to happen, I stop and turn to face him.

Starting to tart up ...

Starting to tart up …

Me (a neutral expression – smiling seems inappropriate):  Hi.

Man (earnest, but no longer yelling):  They keep taking photos of Cameron!  I hate them taking photos of Cameron, but they keep doing it.  I’m going to stop them!

My initial thought is of journalists taking photos of David Cameron, but I immediately dismiss that; England may be foremost in my mind but there’s no way this man is thinking about the British Prime Minister.  I briefly wonder if there’s something more sinister about his ‘Cameron’ and the photos but I won’t find out.  Before I respond I see him looking at something behind me.

Over my shoulder I see another homeless man is rapidly approaching.  He’s dragging an injured leg, lumbering forward like a zombie.  My stomach lurches when I see his filthy feet covered in sores and his partially black toes.  Gnarled yellow toenails poke up from his sandals and a strong smell of urine hits me.  It’s my cue to leave.  Any curiosity I had to see where this is going has been killed.  In any case, I’m running late for the gym.

I walk a block and see a well-dressed woman in her forties.  I’ve left my iPhone at home so I smile at her, “Excuse me, could you please tell me the time?”

She looks at me nervously and keeps walking, picking up her pace.  Um, what the hell?!!

I glance at my reflection in a shop window and laugh abruptly out loud.  I wince as my raucous “Ha!” stabs the morning air in the quiet street but I’m still amused by what I see.  Over my lycra gym gear, I’m wearing a thermal long-sleeved top.  This is tucked into huge tracksuit pants which are pulled up high because they’re too long and drag on the ground.  The bottom of the tracksuit pants are tucked into my now bulging socks to further prevent them dragging through the frost and water.  A hoodie is done up tightly over my head so it comes down to my eyebrows and over my chin, making me look like Kenny from South Park.  The ensemble is topped off with a hand-knitted poncho complete with pom-poms and a pair of woollen gloves.  All items of clothing are different colours.

See you soon!

See you soon!

The respectable woman has just seen a weird homeless person trudging towards her and decided to keep moving.  Cackling out loud like Edna Krabappel from The Simpsons probably didn’t help.

In only eight months removed from London and a work routine, I’m swiftly on my way to looking like the Hobo’s Girlfriend or Zombie-Man’s Bride.  As much as I don’t want to, it’s obviously time for me to return to civilisation or I’ll soon have my own shopping trolley and a bird living in my hair.

I’m more refreshed, relaxed and rejuvenated than I’ve been in a decade but it’s time to end the homeless look and return to society.  I’ve grudgingly pulled out the dress-up kit.  My clear country-air skin will be covered in makeup, my comfortable tracksuit will be replaced by restricting dresses and my feet will be painfully heeled.    My sabbatical has been superb, but London here I come.

Afterword

This is my thirtieth blog post and, as I’m departing soon, will be my last for a while.  I’ll have a lot to organise when I return so I’m taking a break from writing until everything’s back in order.  Thanks for reading my posts and I’ll see you soon.

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The perfect night

A wet winter’s day, Albury.  The sky is dark grey and the rain’s been pounding continually for sixteen hours, but my spirits are bright.  I have the house to myself for the first time since January.  I’ve bought food to cook, have the movie “50/50” ready to watch and I’ve arranged a Skype call with a friend in LA.  It’s going to be the night of nights and I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks. The veggies are chopped and the meat’s marinating.  I turn on the TV and sit down with a large glass of red wine, ready for an episode of “Underbelly” before I start cooking dinner.  The opening music starts …  and the electricity cuts out.  

Me in the constant rain

I keep being asked for photos of me (specifically ‘full-body’ shots – weirdly). So this is one in the constant rain.

God damn it.

I’m annoyed but there’s no time for self-pity.  I have thirty minutes of daylight left before the house will be in darkness.  Launching into action, I swiftly search for where my mother would keep candles.  Five minutes later I pull out an assortment of mismatched candles, candelabras and a box of matches from a kitchen cupboard.  I suspect there’d be a torch in the garage but I’m not venturing down to that spider-infested cave if there’s an alternative.

A large plastic container of not-quite-finished candle-stubs testifies that my mother doesn’t waste anything.  Another container of birthday cake candles, party poppers and sparklers testifies that she’s as prepared for an impromptu celebration as she is for a blackout.  Or she just likes flammable things.

Long shadows fill the house, reminding me of the deadline driven by the setting sun.  I have to keep moving.  I place the candles in various holders and begin to position them around the living room when I hear a knock at the front door.  I open it and am greeted by a tall middle-aged man.  It’s been fifteen minutes since the power cut out.

Man:  G’day. I live next door and I was just wondering if your power’s out?

Me:  Yep.  It’s been out for about ten minutes.

Man:  Oh, okay.  We weren’t sure if it was just us or if it’s the whole street.

Me:  I’d say it’s everyone.  I’ve pulled out the candles in case it lasts a while.  Do you need any?

Him:  No, we’re right.  We’ve got loads.

We say goodbye though three more neighbours knock on my door in the next few minutes to have the same conversation.  The last one, Amy, also gives me limes from her tree, coriander from her herb garden and asks for a cup of self-raising flour so she can finish making her golden syrup dumplings when the power comes back on.  My night isn’t turning out as I’d hoped but it is making me smile.

And me under the lemon tree just before it pours rain ... again.

And me under the lemon tree just before it pours rain … again

I close the door to Amy and scan the living room to assess my options for the evening.  No TV, no DVD, no oven, no microwave, no kettle, no light and no phone.  And of course I’ve not charged my laptop.

Darkness descends and I light a three-pronged silver candelabra.  I have a bath and put on a thick dressing-gown and long woollen socks.  After making a sandwich, I sit in the rocking chair next to the open fire with my book.  Thunder rumbles and a vivid flash of lightning momentarily brightens the room before again leaving it to the warm glow of the fire and candlelight.  I feel overwhelmingly serene and content.  Nothing can interrupt or distract me. I’m warm, comfortable and about to be entirely absorbed by the spellbinding characters I’ve been following for over 400 pages; I cannot wait to see what happens to them.   It may not be the evening I planned, but it couldn’t be more perfect.

Jillian

“Hello Simone!!!  Oh so good to hear your voice!  I’m sorry I’ve never been at home to take any of your calls.  I was in Kyabram for a funeral, and then I was in Brisbane for a netball tournament; the kids I’m coaching are undefeated.  Undefeated, Simone!  It’s marvelous!  And then I had to head to Eumundi Market on the weekend to set up Heidi’s stall because she’s sprained her ankle.  I’ll tell you what – I’m looking forward to getting old so I can slow down”!

Portrait of Jillian's children in 1984

Jillian’s seven children in 1984
Back row (left to right): Erina, Madeline, Jacqui, Stephen, Belinda
Front row: Justin, Heidi

Jillian’s 75 and this is my first phone conversation with her in 27 years.  From babyhood to starting school, my mother dropped me at Jillian’s house each morning.  There I would spend each day until my father finished work.  At 4:30pm he would turn up to take me home, balancing me on the handlebars of his bike; me without a child-seat and neither of us wearing helmets (the wonderful seventies).  As I grew up I would still go to Jillian’s when I was sick.

Jillian has seven children (five girls and two boys), all older than me, who she raised on her own.  My days with her were idyllically peaceful; we went to Mass every day (yes, every day), and then I’d play on my own each afternoon, helping with chores as much as children can.  The tranquility came to an abrupt halt when school finished and her children came home.

I was an extremely shy and reserved child so at 4pm each day (which by my clock was just after Kimba the White Lion finished) I was bewildered as the house transformed into carnival of noise and activity.  It was like being pulled onto stage at a Cirque du Soleil performance and I was stunned by the show.

Erina, loud and boisterous, would pick me up and spin me around until I felt dizzy.  Madeline would stand in front of me and dance (probably unsuccessfully trying to get me to join in), and Justin would play his guitar, serenading me with “Wild Thing.  Balls were thrown, bikes were ridden, and music blared (to this day the song “Let’s hear it for the boy” reminds me of Erina; she played it non- stop when it was first released).

Me (baby) with Madeline, Heidi, Erina & Justin

Me (the baby) being held by Madeline, Heidi standing, Erina holding her hand out to me & the back of Justin’s head. It’s 1977.

Jillian now lives in the State of Queensland, far north from me, and I’m going to catch up with her next week.  Her children all live in the same city with her and I remember them fondly.

JillianRight, so when are you thinking of visiting?

Me (slightly bowled over by Jillian’s energetic address and feeling that same bewildered sensation I had as a child):  I was thinking I fly out on Thursday and depart on Sunday?

Jillian:  But Simone, by the time you arrive on Thursday and then depart on Sunday, you’ll only be here for two full days and there’s no way that’s long enough.  Everyone wants to see you.  You’ll have to arrive sooner.

Me (laughing):  Okay, I’ll come on Tuesday?

Jillian:  Yes, that’s more like it.  Oh I can’t wait! Little Simone’s coming!! (Hmm, Little Simone, isn’t quite so little anymore …)

I hang up, smiling at my unquestioned change of flight times; disobeying Jillian simply isn’t in my programming, even after decades.

Me with Madeline

Me with Madeline

So I head to Queensland, not Shy Little Simone, but Grown-up Simone.  My emotions are a mixture of nerves and excitement, but more than anything I’m eager to see her again.  And I hope she makes me some of her jelly slice – man I love her jelly slice (I make it myself about once a month).

Afterword

I’ve since been north and had a wonderful visit.  The connection with Jillian is still present and I was able to catch up with Jacqui, Justin, Maddie and Heidi.

After 27 years my relationship with Jillian has grown into a friendship between two adults, but I was reminded of our initial guardian-to-child link in an incident which delighted me.  As I descended the stairs approaching the living room I called out loudly to her.  She replied, “Now Simone, you’ve forgotten that I don’t have conversations from room-to-room.  If you want me to respond you’ll have to speak to me in the same room”.  I apologised and smiled to myself.  Being told off by Jillian was a heartwarming pleasure; I’m still her Simone and she’ll always be my Jillian.

A moving story

5am, Bendigo.  The alarm jolts me awake and I leap into action.  There’s no time to spare.  The removal van arrives in an hour and though Mum, her husband and I have been packing for weeks, the final part of the process requires absolute focus.  It’s been pouring rain all night and, aside from our furniture getting wet, the roads on the long journey are bound to be dangerously saturated.  Without saying a word we know that things aren’t going to go smoothly for our three vehicle convoy to New South Wales.  We’re all quietly uneasy.     

After thirteen years in Bendigo my mother’s moving interstate to be close to her daughter and grandchildren (my sister and nieces) in Albury. It’s taken a year to orchestrate and today is finally D-Day.  Though the sun is yet to rise, we’re all up and scurrying around the house with nervous adrenalin.  We each execute our last-minute tasks with military precision; beds are stripped, mats are rolled and the kitchen’s cleared.  The phone rings and from the bathroom I hear my mother answer.

Driving through the flood

Driving through the flood

Mum:  Which route am I taking?  Well I’m going to go via Violet Town, you think via Shepparton’s better?  I’m sure the connecting road to Benalla’s already under water but I’ll check the road traffic report.  I’m hoping the Violet Town route will still be okay. 

I can’t hear the caller’s response, though it’s clear she’s talking to the removalist.

Mum:  Do you have any plastic sheeting we could use to protect the carpets?

Again, I can’t hear anything.

Mum (irritated):  No, I don’t mean sheeting for when we arrive, I mean for here!  Otherwise we’re going to leave the place covered in mud!

The conversation goes back and forth in this manner for almost ten minutes until I hear my mother bark.

Mum:  Oh bloody hell, Steve – I thought you were the removalist!  I’ve got to go and get on with things!

The flood ahead

The water ahead

My father (my mother’s ex-husband) had phoned to check if we were ready for the move.  It was when he let her know that he’d been up all night with diarrhea that the penny finally dropped and she realised he wasn’t the removalist.  I can’t stop laughing (at both of my parents), to my mother’s exasperation.

No, today isn’t going to go smoothly.  After loading our belongings into the van and two cars, we head off in the ceaseless rain.  Roads will be cut off due to flooding, but we can’t be sure which.  For three hours we head through roads gushing with water, getting diverted when it’s two feet or more.  We breathe a sigh of relief when we make it to the Hume Highway.  It’s a major four-lane highway and has never flooded.  Until now.

An hour from our destination, police cars signal us off the road.  Lorries and four-wheel-drives may proceed but cars are told to turn back unless they must travel north.  We stop, while ahead we see the removal van continue to our new home – with no house keys to enable them to unload.

Welcome from my nieces!

Welcome from my nieces! (That's me in the top right-hand corner with green hair and blue eyelashes ...)

The pounding rain reflects my mood.  With water increasing around us, we wait for a diversion to be put in place – we may be here overnight.  After three hours, my bladder can wait no longer.  Between two open car doors I squat with a blanket over my head.  Sigh.  Today has gone from one high to another.  Though now it’s time for my mother to laugh at me, to my exasperation.

In another hour we’re permitted to journey via a massive diversion and we arrive in Albury where we’re greeted by my sister and her family.  My brother-in-law’s offer to help is declined by my mother.  “No, it’s okay, we’ve got Simone for the heavy lifting”.  Everyone laughs as I heave a suitcase from the car.  Giggling with uncontrollable joy, my nieces welcome us with a giant handmade poster.  Their happiness is contagious and, though the sky is grey, it feels like the sun is shining in our new home.

You choose, you lose

So last week I commented on your (slightly lechy and gratuitous) interest in my love/lust life.  This week I note that none of you have asked about my root canal.  Not so much as a single word of even fake concern for my wellbeing.  Well, I’ll lock that away in the compartment of my mind marked “bitter and resentful”.  And, never one to hold a grudge, I’ll draw a line under this little incident and get on with today’s post (you thoughtless, uncaring sods …)

“You choose, you lose”

The glowing orange sun hangs low in the sky like a big fat pumpkin.  Crickets chirp, cicadas hum and the warm breeze rustles through the eucalyptus trees; the familiar sounds of dusk.  Five hours have passed since lunch and the effects of the afternoon wine and dizzying heat have subsided.  Across the vast open stretch of parkland, a group of young men have started pre-season footy (Aussie Rules) practice.  Their dropkicks and handpasses make me smile.  How often did I watch the boys at school run through this identical routine two decades ago?     

I’m sitting cross-legged on a thick log, shaded by a tall Red Spotted Gum.  Following lunch, the day has passed in a serene daze, and I’m not drunk from alcohol, love or the sun; the book I’m reading has held me entranced like a magic spell, in the way only good books can.  A hopeless bookworm, I’m still absorbed by the characters long after I’ve put down my Kindle.  What are they doing now?  What are they going to do next?  By the time I’ve finished thinking about the make-believe people, the footy-guys have finished their robust training and the sun has been replaced by the glittering stars of the Southern Cross.  Their silver bling is beautiful against the navy sky.  The tranquility is intoxicating.

Yesterday I was in Melbourne, the only place in the world that makes my heart ache with longing.  Today I’m back in rural Victoria, one of the few places in the world that soothes me.

I’ve always found Australia to be an ugly, harsh country.  Away from the beaches and mountains, a dry haze of khakis, browns, yellows and beiges stretches on.  Unlike the striking lushness of England, Australia’s beauty has to be sought.  Australians, in their dogged patriotism, berate me when I comment on the unappealing countryside.  But finding it unattractive doesn’t remotely undermine my affection for it.

Though I’ve lived in cities for eighteen years, I was raised in the country and often yearn for it.  I wasn’t living on a farm, but was based in a farming community and there was no escaping the lifestyle and enduring impact of the environment.  I miss the paddocks, the animals, the long arid grass and the muddy river banks.  Sometimes I even miss the terrifying sound of the flapping wings of a maggie as it swoops and aims to peck the back of my head (I certainly miss the amusement of it happening to others!).  I miss the rusty barbed wire fences keeping the sheep enclosed, and I lament the skills that are now useless to me.  No one’s ever going to ask me to assist with a lame calf, or test the voltage of an electric fence with a piece of grass – both skills any girl should have, surely?

I’ve lived in West London for almost as long as I lived in rural Victoria and whilst I love it, I don’t yet miss it.  Perhaps pining doesn’t come until the absence is much longer.

I’ve chosen city life.  But for every choice, something hasn’t been chosen.  I think about this in relation to all manner of things:  Careers, relationships, places.  Choosing a certain path doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have enjoyed, or don’t still want, the un-chosen path.  As I walk home in the bright light of the stars, I grieve for some of the things – people and places – I haven’t chosen.  Thankfully, I can still experience and sample some of them.  Others won’t ever be mine again.