DOES MY BUM LOOK BIG IN THIS?

When I was growing up in England in the 1970s (the olden days) there were no fast food outlets. Although I do remember on more than one occasion sampling vegetables which came in a tin. Shudder. Meat was expensive so rissoles and cutlets were frequently served up, next to grey mash potatoes. Or when we were on holiday in the caravan, a lump of ‘Smash’, the preferred food of Darleks. I’d never heard of mangoes, prawns or red wine jus. Avocadoes, mung beans or beetroot that didn’t come in a jar.

If only we hadn’t been seduced by supermarket chains dangling crappy sweet biscuits and a thousand ways to serve bread. If we’d not queued up for beef burgers in a sugary bun. I remember being dizzy with excitement, and with an air of sophistication meeting my bestie at the Wimpy bar. But I was almost sixteen before my first McDonald’s. I was very quickly addicted to thick shakes.

I had, and I’m not boasting, an eating disorder years before it became commonplace. I’m sure that’s what buggered up my metabolism. And I’ve been on every diet know to woman. SlimFast, Lite ‘n’ Easy, The Mayo Clinic, the blood group, the vegetable soup, raw food, Dukan, South Beach, CSIRO. I’ve lost weight, I’ve gained weight and never felt more down than on opening up my Tupperware in the office to find a few spinach leaves and a hard boiled egg.

My mum was constantly on a diet. I’m not saying it was ‘the sins of the mother’ but something happened to women in the sixties. Striving to keep a good house and producing perfectly crispy roast potatoes was superseded by the need to be beautiful. And somewhere sandwiched in the middle feminism was re-born (we can’t overlook our suffragette sisters). In the words of Naomi Wolf:-

‘During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fast-growing medical specialty. During the past five years, consumer spending doubled, pornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal. More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have even had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers. Recent research consistently shows that inside the majority of the West’s controlled, attractive, successful working women, there is a secret “underlife” poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control.’

An excerpt taken from “The Beauty Myth’. This book was written over two decades ago but those words are as true today than they ever were. I also think that Naomi hasn’t been taken more seriously because of her obvious beauty. You might not agree. Nigella Lawson is another looker who has copped it. Yes, she’s a TV cook and food writer but she is also a former journalist who graduated from Oxford with a degree in medieval and modern languages.

I’m as guilty as the next person, passing my own insecurities onto someone else. Someone prettier or thinner. There’s a lot more of those types around me than there used to be! Time is marching on and I’m heartily sick of my poor body image. I’m setting myself free. I have a sizeable arse and thighs that look as if they are slathered in porridge. My breasts are still good, if the scaffolding is firm. I’ve finally decided to be a grown-up. No more eating only protein and washing it down with diet cola. No more drowning in shakes and being bored to death by plain poached chicken breasts. I’m giving away my scales. The tape measure disappeared (cut into tiny pieces in the dead of night) years ago.

You might see me on the beaches or in the park, walking with my head in the clouds. I’m going to eat real whole foods, the best dark chocolate I can afford and enough vegetables that you might be wise to avoid sharing a lift with me. Wish me luck. I won’t be wearing a gold bikini by Christmas and those mini-skirts (did I really wear them so short?) are going to a new home. If I can find my waist without having to lift a breast and not feel compelled to wave a white flag two feet in front of me when I hit the beach in my fifties style swiwear, I will be a happy woman. See. It’s not so bad being sensible. Just don’t expect me to give up the champers. You can take some things too far. Chin chin.

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LIVING WITH SECOND BEST

I wrote ‘Living with Second Best’ a few years ago. Last year it was short listed for the Autumn 2011 Brighton Community of Writers (COW) Award (UK)

I’m on my own in the shop today.  It’s quite a responsibility, we have break-ins sometimes.  Chancers trying to get their hands in the till, a few boxes of fags, booze.  Not exactly the big league but scary when they happen, they sometimes carry knives.  Some people are so desperate.  It’s a shabby little store really, two narrow aisles.  The counter faces the door and I can see through the glass pane in the door.  Here’s comes Mr Benson & Hedges, not his real name of course, that’s just what he buys.  Sometimes he’ll buy a bottle of red to go with it.  Hope he doesn’t mention Rob.

     “Hello, Annie.  How are you?”

     “Fine thanks, Mr Bamford.”

     “Not joining our Donna at uni this year?”  I catch a trace of smugness in his smile.

     “No, Mr Bamford.  Not my thing really.”

     “Quite.  Donna’s reading politics.  That means…”

     “I know what it means, Mr Bamford.  “Seventy five pence change.”

     That’s the trouble with this country.  Because I work in a corner shop they think I’m thick.  They look down on me.  I would be going to uni if things were different, if we had the money.  I might have worked part-time and saved up or gone to night school.  But mum needs me now Rob’s gone and her life has shut down on her.

     I pop out the back to put the kettle on.  There’s a bell over the door that rings every time someone comes in.  Otherwise I would have to have eyes in the back of my head.  It’s mad who will steal stuff, not only small boys.  Well dressed women and young men popping in for condoms.  Opportunists.  We haven’t got CVTV.  One of those old fashioned convex mirrors is hung at both ends of each aisle.

     I sip my coffee and watch the rain bounce off the pavement.  Grey paving stones, grey sky and grey rain.  Makes me glad I’m in here with my hands clasped around my coffee mug.  There are worse places to be.  It’s not so bad here.  The blue and white checked polyester overall I have to wear makes me sweat.  It doesn’t breathe and it crackles.  I reckon if I ran up the street in it, it would burst into flames. 

     I grab a chocolate bar from the shelf near the till.  I keep looking at their coloured wrappers and give in to the 10 seconds of sugar oblivion.  It keeps the tears away.

     I don’t intend to spend my whole life here, working away for Mr Bishop.  Cleaning down shelves and dusting the products that don’t have a fast turnover.  Tins of prunes, bottles of Irn-Bru.  One day things will work out and I will venture out into the world.  Learn a language, drive to the continent, get a flash job in the city working in marketing.  Somewhere away from cheap overalls and discount pet food.  I keep sight of my dream like a lighthouse at night, intermittently flashing hope and darkness.  I like the darkness, no one can see me there.  I answer to no one.  Except for Mr Bishop.

     There she is, one of the smart women with everything, including an urgency to acquire more.  Mr Bishop told me to watch out for this one, she has expensive taste.  Caviar, smoked salmon and foreign cheeses.  Doesn’t like to pay for it mind. 

     I catch a glimpse of her, Mrs Palmer her name is, over by the fridge loaded with deli items.  I see her hands clasping a large chunk of Roquefort in the mirror, one I’d unpacked this morning.

     “Let me know if I can help you!”  I shout out brightly.  Greedy Mrs Palmer jumps in shock and drops the French cheese.

     “Is that all you need today?”

     Mrs Palmer puts down a bottle of spring water and a packet of tooth picks on the counter.  She does all her shopping in town, only comes here for a cheap thrill.  She shifts from one foot to the other.  Russell & Bromley shoes I bet.

     “Yes, that’s all.  Don’t need much today.  I like to browse though.”

     I bet you do, Mrs P.  I have her down as an executive’s wife.  House decorated in white carpets and dusty violet soft furnishings.  She has silver tongs for the sugar cubes and bores her husband senseless.

     “Don’t forget your change.”

     She turns, takes the money giving me a genuine smile.  You can’t tell with people.

     An hour later I’m pulling the roller blind down over the door when there’s a knocking on the glass.  It makes me nervous as I can’t see who wants to come in.  Might be a thief, as if I would know what a thief would look like.  Stripey jumper, wearing a mask?

     “Let us in, Luv.  I’m out of ciggies.”

     The voice of a young man desperate for his fix of nicotine.

     “Okay.  Keep your hair on.”

     Up goes the roller blind revealing a young bloke with dark curly hair.  I open the door.

     “What brand?”

     “Sorry?”

     “What brand of cigarettes do you smoke?”

     “Embassy, thanks.”

    He is staring at me and I think I recognise his face.  I feel a sharp pain in my chest, like an incision.  A metal skewer is piecing my lungs, I can’t breathe.  

     “Aren’t you, Annie?  Rob’s sister?”

     I nod and turn towards the rack of cigarettes behind the counter, hiding my grief.

     “Full strength or light?”

     “Light.  Thought I’d kill myself slowly.”

     Did he mean that?  I watch his face register his words, a slow creeping horror crawls up from his mouth to his hairline.

     “Oh, God.  Sorry.  So sad to hear about what happened to Rob.  How’s your mum?”

     “How do you think?”

     “Goodbye then.”

     “By the way, both strengths will kill you.  Lighter fags don’t mean you’ll get a better kind of cancer.” I follow him, Jason I think his name is.  Before I close the door I yell at the shape of him retreating.  “Tosser!”  Fighting talk but I have tears burning the backs of my eyes.

     I lock up and pull down the roller door again, grab a frozen pie from the freezer before making my way out the back.  My hands shake as I unlock the car.  The light is starting to fade as I drive from the car park and head for home. 

     How did you go yesterday, Annie?”  Mr Bishop looks relaxed after his day off.  The collar of his overall is sticking up at the back and his smile is easy.

     “Fine thanks, Mr Bishop.”

     “Any difficult customers?”  He loves the difficult ones, they make better stories.

     “That Mrs Palmer came in.  I caught her with one of those deli cheeses.”

     “Did you confront her?”

     “No.  I shouted out, asking if she needed any help and she dropped it.”

    Mr Bishop chuckled.  “What would I do without you, Annie?  How’s your mum?”

     “Much the same.  Last night I found her in the same chair I’d left her in that morning, cigarette still in her hand, the line of ash intact.”

     Mr Bishop pats me on the back.  “It takes time, love.  It’s not right what she’s been through.  Bad enough for you, but a mother…”

     Mr and Mrs Bishop couldn’t have kids, he told me they’d tried for years.  Trying meant having sex but people don’t say that.  ‘We’ve been having sex for years and nothing has happened.’  Some people seem to not want to talk about sex at all.  I remember bursting in from school and seeing mum having coffee with a few of her friends.  Sitting round the old formica table, all four of them smoking.  Mrs Wagstaffe wearing her pinny, she washed her doorstep everyday.  Its funny this preoccupation the working class has with cleanliness, as if they can clean away the stain of their birthright.  Mrs Evans who wasn’t even a Mrs.  She had several children to a motley crew of uncles.  And Mrs Bennett of course.  Mrs Bennett used to mouth sexual words she didn’t want us to hear.  Rob and I used to curl up in silent laughter, trying not to be sprung. 

     I didn’t want to see Rob in his coffin.  He was my bright star.  I was happy that he had been the favourite.  He was everyone’s favourite.  Now it’s just me and mum, living with second best.

     I remember clearly Rob starting school while I had to stay home with mum.  We picked him up at the gates, he held both our hands as we walked home and he told us every moment of his day.  A box of colourful crayons, drawing stickmen, reciting the alphabet as his teacher, Mrs Marsh, pointed a cane at the alphabet poster on the wall.  Rob’s favourite letter was N for nurse.  He said it made him feel safe, looked after.  Funny that.  The last face Rob saw before he died was the face of a nurse.  A nurse who held his hand as he was wheeled into theatre, a bag of broken bones after the accident.  Rob would have felt safe as he slipped away.     

     “Fancy a coffee, Annie?”

     “Yes, Mr Bishop.  I’ll do it.”

     “You’re alright, I’ll get it.  Have a flick through one of the magazines while we’re quiet.”

     I prefer to stare out at the narrow piece of world I can see from the counter, through the glass door.  The rain has stopped and I can see sunlight reflected in the puddles.

     Mum hasn’t left the house since Rob died.  She’s barely said a word either.  Her job at the bakery is being held open but I can’t see her going back.  All the colour has leaked out of her.  I try to keep her clean but its hard work coaxing 10 stone of uncooperative flesh into the bath.  She’s eating a bit more but she’s no longer the cuddly mum she when I was small.  I’m not the greatest cook but I do my best, tempting mum with spag bol and shepards pie.  She lost her favourite but so did I.  I’m too young for these responsibilities.  I should be out stomping in those puddles, not thinking with the head of a 40 year old, about the dirty washing they create.

     Mum’s eyes are dead.  The shine burnt off.  But one day her eyes will flicker, choose life.  I can imagine her getting up, walking towards our little kitchen and putting the kettle on.

     “Fancy a cuppa, Annie?” She’ll say.  “Looks like you could do with a biscuit or two.  You’ll waste away, my girl.”  Hands on her hips, giving me a disapproving stare.  She doesn’t like skinny, my mum.  How is she going to feel when she looks down at her own body.  Drowning in lengths of cheap fabric, bones I’ve never seen before, searching for hands swamped in sleeves that once were too tight, too short. 

     “You alright, Annie?”  Mr Bishop is back with coffees.

     “Yeah, fine.”

    “I love having you here, but I hope you’ll take flight one day.  Get out in the world, a bright young girl like you.”

     I shrug, we both know for now that isn’t possible.  I couldn’t leave her, there’s no one else but me.

     A young mother struggles with the door, her face frowning.  A kiddie in the push chair and another one at her heels.  Mr Bishop holds open the door smiling, she barely acknowledges him.  He winks at me.

     The girl moves clumsily round the narrow aisles with her second-hand pushchair.  The boy, sees something he wants, marshmallows, reaches out .

     “No, Alfie.  I don’t have the money.”  Alfie sits on the floor crying.  The girl’s shoulders sag and she looks around, slips the packet into her raincoat pocket.  I decide I will put the money in the till for the sweets. 

     As she unloads her groceries on the counter I recognise her.  Cheryl Baker, a couple of years ahead of me at school but she looks a decade older.  Her hair is limp, her clothes made for someone else. Two snotty-nosed kids.  She avoids eye contact, maybe she remembers me or its guilt for the packet which must burn in her pocket.  I remember a girl with wavy hair, short skirt, glowing with any number of possible futures.  Now her view stops a long way short of the horizon. 

     “Why don’t you go home early, Annie?  It’s quiet here.”

     I don’t want to go.  The only time I feel I’m still living is when I’m here in the shop but I’m tired so I nod and hang up my uniform out the back.

     When I get home mum has her face in her hands and for the briefest moment I think she is laughing.  But she’s crying, at last. 

     “Mum, it’s alright.  I’m here.  We’ll be fine, you’ll see.”  And for the first time I think we might be.

TEENAGE KICKS

One of my boys turned teenager this year. How can this be? I thought I was still wearing Doc Martens, listening to The Jam and drawing my eyes in with Kohl. Truth is I am, but should I be? 

When I was young and kicking,(do we still use that expression?) women of my age had bad perms and debated over which colour rinse to opt for. They wore stout walking shoes and Lisle stockings. Listened to chamber music and possessed a gun license for shooting rabbits. They didn’t go out much save for walks in the country. Maybe they weren’t left alone for long in case they hurled themselves from a precipice, deciding going on was futile. Oh, and they didn’t have sex. 

My my. Haven’t we changed in the last 30 years? I wear high heels with sheer stockings. My hair is long and wild. I listen to Florence and the Machine and Black Sabbath (yes, still, what of it?). I don’t shoot rabbits but I like a glass or four of champagne. I go out all the time, un-chaperoned and everything. 

But I still remember that girl with a 22-inch waist who went to Stonehenge. Watched the sun rise over the altar stone before hearing Hawkwind (a rock band from the 70’s and 80’s for the uninitiated) tune up for a crazy rendition of ‘Brainstorm’. I danced on a table in a Greek restaurant in South London with a beautiful Egyptian waiter. And spent a week in bed weeping when John Lennon died.  

Obviously I couldn’t do those things now. It would be inappropriate (that word still makes me giggle). However, occasionally I raise a glass to that girl and know she’s still within me, egging me on after a few glasses of Veuve. Encouraging me to yell louder when my boys play rugby. And she’s always there when I see my sister (not often enough!) who brings out the pink and glittery in me, when I usually wear a lot of black and serge. 

In the words of another group from my youth, Jethro Tull, ‘I’m too old to rock ‘n’ roll and too young to die’. But surely there must be some middle ground. Leather trousers with incontinent pads. Mini skirts with support stockings. Borrow those old ones from your auntie. Or maybe it’s all tosh and we can rock until we die. With shrinking flesh, dodgy knees and dimming eyesight, we can dance boldly (or badly in my case – the husband leaves the room when I dance) into our future. There should be more dancing. A bad poem I wrote about aging follows:-

When I’m old I’ll wear gold lame

And maybe something clever in macramé

I’ll listen to glam rock

Do my best to shock

While eating bags of sweeties

Ignoring my diabetes

I could enjoy flirtations with sailors

Who’d give me bunches of dahlias

And dance until dawn every weekday.

GARGLING WITH GRAVEL

Gargling with Gravel was published in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2012

He gets up earlier then me, shuffles around softly. Thinks I cannot hear but how can I sleep? It’s barely light and our bedroom is still grey, a light tapping on the window suggests rain. He zips up his trousers as I roll on my side, offering my back.

     Oh God, the meal last night, James’s boss and his wife. Did I accuse James of flirting with the waitress or did I ask about the new receptionist at work? James, flushed cheeks, biting his bottom lip. His boss’s face blank, his wife, Beth, a subservient name which suits her, fucking powder blue cardigan and neat pearls around her neck. Her nostrils flaring in disgust. Shame hits my chest and my stomach. I can hear the kettle boiling, my mouth feels as if I have been gargling with gravel. Does she work in his office, is it the girl on the front desk? I wouldn’t blame him, slutty red lips and heels that stab. My heart. Or worse, someone older with a degree and an office of her own. They have sex on her desk.

     James creeps in carrying a cup of coffee, he places it down tenderly on my bedside table. My eyes, bloodshot and pleading forgiveness. He doesn’t speak but he kisses my forehead and closes the door behind him. I hear the front door clunk shut and the powerful surge of a motor come to life, as James drives away, leaving me.

     I fill the kettle and peer onto the street. Cars still parked affluently on the driveways. The husbands haven’t left for work, nor have their wives. The house prices too high for young families on one income. Nothing flashy, discreet and understated, from the highlights in the hair of the women to the glinting cuff links in their men’s sleeves. Groomed.

     The kettle boils and I pat my hair, matted together with roots that a badger would envy. Coffee, strong and bitter, to stand a spoon up in, to stop the clock and wind it backwards. My hands shake and hot liquid spills. “Shit.” I run my hand under the cold tap, my mind scrapes up the past. What happened to the earnest young woman who swore she’d never drink?

     I open the fridge, I need to eat. It’s empty apart from half a carton of milk and an unopened bottle of wine. Bloody pathetic, I can’t even keep the fridge stocked. I pull on a coat and leave the house, catching a glimpse of myself in the hall mirror. My face the ghost of Christmas past, of all my past etched in deepening lines. No make-up and my hair a nest for vipers. It’s only around the corner, I’ll walk. I think I may be still over the limit. My dad never drunk and drove.

     My dad, always a big hit at parties, spending money at the pub, buying every sod who claimed to be his friend a drink. “Money we don’t have. That’s your new school shoes gone down someone’s throat.” I didn’t want to hear my mum complain about him, he was my dad, my hero. Years later when mum got sick I took over the role of picking him up at closing time. I’d find him alone, sitting on a bar stool, not a friend in sight. Friend? What friend would take advantage of a roaring alcoholic? Seeing my dad, tie loose around his neck, face flushed with booze singing ‘My Funny Valentine’, broke my young heart.

     When mum died, I looked after him. He no longer drank but you could see the damage. Sometimes he’d wander off, wearing only his striped pajamas, if I forgot to put the latch on. Once I found him swaying on the curb of the arterial road, gusts from the semi-trailers like dragons breath filled with dust. My dad inches from death.

     “Come on, Daddy. Let’s go home.”

     “Is that you Jean?” I’d nod a lie. I miss him every single day, whereas my mother, my good saintly mother, buttoned up to her chin, only slips into my memory occasionally.

     I return with the essentials. The man who runs the shops had raised his eyebrows. “Big night was it?” What makes an alcoholic? How many drinks does it take? How early in the day do you start, because it’s 8.30 in the morning and I’d bloody love a restorative red, the hair of the dog that bit me.

     I have to find something to fill the day, harder since I was sacked. Then I managed to hold it together until five o’clock, wine o’clock, all of us off to the Elephant Bar. The women matching the men, drink for drink, no one more than me.

     “For a beautiful woman, you can be so ugly.” James said one time he’d picked me up. He must have had a call from Steve, my boss. I had no idea what I had said or done that night, and many others if I’m honest, parts of my life stolen or given away. I gladly swapped fragments of time for the path to oblivion.

     After a few drinks I transformed into a sharp, urbane and witty woman, happy to be centre stage. For a sliver of time it worked, before I became a monster with black lips and teeth stained from the sediment at the bottom of my glass, diluted blood running in my veins. Screaming like a hag at James because another woman, a nicer, kinder woman than me, had smiled at him in sympathy.

     I line the shelves of the fridge with bread and milk. There’s the bottle cooling in the door. Will one sip leave a mark or go unnoticed?

     Should I scour the shower to keep my hands busy? Wipe the mould from the tiles, sweep the grit from the kitchen floor. The phone rings and I let it as I look at the bright shiny photo frames holding pictures of me and James. They grace the walls and sit on the mantelpiece, hopeful faces, clear eyes and bright smiles. I pick up our wedding photo. We are toasting the camera with glasses of champagne, our future. I throw it to the floor. It hits the tiles and small fragments fly. A shard sliver of glass in the side of my foot, blood seeps. I bend down unsteadily to pull it out, there is blood on the cream carpet.

     I press a band aid to my wound, sit in the chair with my foot up on the ottoman, remote in hand. I watch Days of our Lives with the sound turned down and the telephone rings again. Five months since the CEO of Richardson Brokers marched me from my window office after a lunchtime session in the pub. I clung to a thirsty pot plant and a small box containing Dido cd’s, shouting obscenities, making threats. I walked to the corner and burst into tears. Poor James. He married a sweet girl from the suburbs who’d turned herself into a festering pile of unresolved issues.

     I turn the television off, hobble to the kitchen, open the fridge. A half decent New Zealand white, buttery to the taste. Its frosted glass shows a slight yellow colour, like my skin. The chill would touch my throat like an icy hand stroking. Hitting my stomach with a buzz of well-being but I know it’s a lie. I slam the fridge door and take the stairs two at a time. In our bedroom I gulp the air and when I am calmer, take a couple of sleeping pills. I drift off to the sound of a telephone ringing.

     I wake hours later, cotton wool head. I roll onto my back and the ceiling stares back, saying nothing. I feel my forehead with clammy hands. I need to feel cold air on my body but not I decide the shock of icy wine flooding me. I am still dressed in jeans and a thin jumper. My foot, sticky with blood, the band aid stuck to the sheet. Dried blood gets caught in the carpet tufts, pulling the wound to gaping.

     On the back step I overlook the patch of grass we optimistically call the garden. My breath clouds on the breeze, reminds me of cigarette smoke. As a child I would pretend to blow smoke from a pencil clutched in my hand. I don’t hear the car pull up but I hear James.

     “Bloody house. It feels like a crypt. Hope? Where are you?”

     Kind of ironic but my mother named me because I was hers. Hope. Bless her, she had it in short supply.

     “I’m here, James. The back step.”

     He strides in, coat still on. “Hope, I’ve been ringing. Why didn’t you answer?”

     The tears I have held onto are finally let go, they run in lines and drip from my chin. My arms clasp my knees and I rock from side to side. I look up into his white face and his eyes full of concern, not disgust. “James. I need help.”

     He doesn’t smile, he sits down beside me, holds me in his arms and cries with me.

EXPAT SYNDROME

I have lived in Australia for 15 years. A third of my life. I am an Australian citizen but do I feel more English or more Aussie? 

When I write do I describe gum trees, tall with red, green and ghostly trunks, grey green leaves? Or Kookaburras and Galahs and their forceful cries across the land. Truth be told I’m more likely to write of tenement estates in large industrial cities than of wallabies hopping across the paddock. Strange. I’ve never visited a tenement estate except from the sofa when the watching The Bill. 

Sometimes I hear my voice, in shops, with friends, fighting for my right in a queue. “Excuse me. I’m sorry (when I’m not), I think it was my turn next.” “No really, I think it’s me. I’m English, I know about queuing.” I hear the plum in my mouth, selling tickets on itself.

When I arrived in this sun burnt country I was told I sounded like Princess Diana or Patsy from Ab Fab. “I love your accent,” they said. Accent I thought, I’m not the one with the accent. But as languages go, I love what you Aussies have done with it. The English language that is. You haven’t just scooped it out of the punnet. You’ve enriched it, coloured it in. “What’s a bludger?” I asked in puzzlement in my first job in Sydney. Delighted squeals of laughter filled the air. “Someone who’s happy on the dole.” Here’s a few more for the uninitiated. Cobber is a bloke, Ocker is an unsophisticated person, Larrikin a harmless prankster. Mongrel is a despicable person and we all know what a Pommie is. But my favourite expression has to be ‘To come the raw prawn,’ which means to be generally disagreeable, as in “don’t come the raw prawn with me.” Alas I don’t hear it very often.

I couldn’t get away with anything when I arrived here from Old Blighty. My voice echoed across the partitions in the office and I could always be found. My upright consonants and well behaved vowels gave me away every time. I had trouble with the weather too. “It’s too beautiful” I told my new husband while he looked over the small print on our barely dry marriage certificate. Friends back home were bewildered. I asked them to send me postcards depicting big, ugly London buildings. Where was my overcast sky, my skeleton trees, my beloved Battersea Power Station? 

Homesickness overwhelmed me for many years but over time I realised I was pining for a land that didn’t exist anymore. No, your UK hasn’t dropped off the face of the earth. But mine has. I had sworn I would not become one of those people who leave their country but get trapped in a time warp. People who left the old country (wherever that may be) in the 60s. Who still wear turtle neck sweaters and say, “That’s cool daddio” or  ‘Groovey”, while smoking cheroots and leaning on street corners. That wasn’t happening to me, no way.

So why, when I think of home, is England still in the grip of the Brit Pop invasion. Liam Gallagher is where it’s at and John Major is still in charge. Of course I know that Nu-Labour took over a month after I left my green and pleasant land but I’ve never experienced living under it. And that’s gone too. The Etonions are holding the wheel now. I do love Boris Johnson though, even before he got into politics and was still on the comedy circuit. I watched his Olympic speech three times last week. 

Which brings me up to date and how I found an outlet for my frustrations. A thing of beauty and art that brings me to my knees and connects me with my English heart, feeds and nurtures it. You didn’t think I meant the Olympic Games did you? No. I’m talking of course of ‘Downton Abbey’. Me and the husband, he never did find a loop hole in the marriage certificate, have finally given in. Me because I love Hugh Bonneville (Boris Johnson’s more sensitive brother?) and everyone else I know and love has watched it. The husband was led by me. Unsure and expecting it to be one of those awful costume dramas the BBC loves. Three episodes were consumed last night and I think we’ll be winding the clocks forward to trick the kids into going to bed early tonight. We’ll have gone through the lot by the weekend. Luxury. I slip and wallow in the class system in safety, from this side of the planet. Which brings me up smart to the wonderful line from Dame Maggie Smith in her role as the Dowager Countess of Grantham. “What’s a weekend?” What indeed. 

When I left England my Dutch boss who lived in London for a spell told me that I would belong nowhere, that I wouldn’t have a country, when I moved to the other side of the globe. I thought the same but as the years go on I realise that I love both my countries. And who knows one day I may be lucky enough to live in another. Italy would be good. I’ve seen all but one of the Inspector Montalbano series so I’m ready. To join the police force in Sicily and shout a lot at least.