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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)

Gabriel, my angel messenger

I’m back in London.  I’ve completed my first working week.  It’s Friday afternoon, 5:15pm.  I exit the building and wait for the pedestrian lights.  Peak hour traffic is everywhere; bicycles, cars, taxis, buses, vans, motorbikes.  The city noise attacks me.  Never mind – I’ll soon be in the sanctuary of my flat.  My tired eyes scan the other nine-to-fivers and slowly lock on one cyclist.  I cannot believe who I’m seeing.  Gabriel Lopez … my Spanish boyfriend from 13 years ago.  My first boyfriend in London.   I impulsively add to the volume of the metropolis.

GABRIEL!!  GABE!!!!”  I scream, with my hands cupped around my mouth.  The people standing on either side of me jump.  I want to speak to him.  I HAVE to speak to him.  I run into the bustling traffic and make it to the middle island.  He’s metres from me, but I can’t get to him.  He stares straight ahead and I see he has earphones in.  His light turns green and he cycles onward.  Damn it.

I pull my phone out of my bag.   He’s not in my “contacts” but he sent me a text last year.  Which one of the unnamed numbers is he?!  I drop my phone.  Shit!!  I pick it up and find a number that ends in 748.  That’s it!

He won’t answer, but I’ll leave a message for him.

Gabe (hesitant):  Hello?

Me (frantic):  Hello!  It’s Simone!  Are you wearing a blue shirt and beige trousers?

Gabe (still hesitant):  Yes ….

Me (still frantic):  I just saw you cycle right by me! 

Gabe (laughing loudly):  And where are you, Sorceress Simone?

I explain my location and he cycles back to meet me for a drink.  I run up and forcefully hug him.  We both say nothing and laugh.  We hug again.

Back in the nineties Gabriel and I had a very brief relationship (for want of a better word).  We were colleagues and, a year after our fling stopped, all employees were made redundant.  Seven years went by without contact until I ran into him walking in a local park.  Since then we bump into each other about every two years, in random places.  For me, he’s become an emblem of good luck: I only ever see him when I’m happy.

We first met three weeks after I initially arrived in London, full of youthful optimism and buoyancy.  Now, it’s exactly three weeks since I returned to London and I’m full of mid-thirties confidence; refreshed and ready for Round Two in the Fight of Life.

Aside from our chance encounters I receive one email or text from Gabe a year, but our spontaneous catch-ups are always warm and, due to the longevity of our friendship, comfortably familiar.

Friday is no different.  And, after more than one drink, we become nostalgic.

Me:  So who are you in contact with from our old work besides Paul?

Gabe:  No one, really. I’ve not seen Charles since our work leaving do (he pauses).  Octopus Charles.  Remember him molesting you at the work leaving do?

Gabe smiles and looks at me.  My brow furrows and I look upwards; my thinking expression.  Something’s registering in the far corner of my mind.

Me (finally speaking):  Yes.  Yes I do.  He sat next to me on the bus and kept touching me … or groped me or something … it’s vague … I remember that when we arrived at the venue he pushed me against a wall, but someone pulled him off me.

Gabe:  That was me.  You were drunk and he was being a prick.  I’d seen him on the bus and you clearly didn’t want his … um affections, so he had to fuck off.  You know he hasn’t spoken to me since? 

Me (pausing before quietly speaking):  I’m really sorry that I don’t remember.  Thank you.    

Gabe just shrugs and smiles.  I’m touched and feel retrospectively guilty; not remembering this incident symbolises how I took him for granted.  Gabe’s the reason I owned numerous Vespas; after freezing to death on the back of his motorbike to Cardiff I was addicted (but realistic enough to know that I wouldn’t be able to master a big bike!).  He’s also the reason I learnt Latin American dance; I couldn’t bear the constant humiliation at the Spanish and Brazilian clubs we frequented.  And Gabe’s now my emblem of good luck … or good times … good something anyway!

The evening ends.  We part and don’t say we’ll contact each other or catch up again soon.  At some point in the next two years we’ll see each other … and I’ll be happy.

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.