CARRY ON CAMPING?

 I have been camping for about 30 years. Off and on. I still don’t get it. 

I don’t get the bit where you put the tent up and I don’t get the bit where you take the tent down. I’m not known for my spatial awareness. Having an overall plan of part C inserting into part D means nothing to me. I can’t see ahead to what shape it should be. And I cannot for the life of me put the whole thing back in a bag that’s looks like it could fit a small child but not acres of plastic and nylon. I can’t do it. 

And the bit in between? I don’t get that either. For a naturally untidy person sleeping in a tent is fraught with disaster. The husband places the camping mattresses alongside each other, rolls out a couple of sleeping bags. Stows the camping bag along the bottom of the window. Wonderful. Until I find my swimsuit, only pair of white knickers to go under pale shorts or hairbrush is lost in the bottom of the bag and I have to remove every item to find it. Do I put everything back again as neatly as the husband packed it? Do I @!!**. 

My first camping trip was in the early eighties, with my first boyfriend. We borrowed a mate’s tent and headed to Snowdonia. On arriving we found that the tent was missing a fly sheet. The only thing between us and Welsh drizzle was a thin, almost see-through, sheet of nylon. I remember it was light blue in colour. And I remember being woken in the morning by wet drops of moisture landing on my forehead like the infamous torture. There were midges everywhere and my legs below the knees were colder than the rest of me. Did I mention that the zip had broken too? And that we were camped on a hillside. The reason my legs were cold was that they were exposed to the elements, sticking ungainly out of, what I would loosely call, the door. 

Those heady days were supplemented by camping at various rock festivals. Enduring the tin hut and trough toilet in temperatures that brought forth disgusting smells of human waste and flies in their plenty. I find it hard to sleep under canvas. With round-the-clock strains of guitars and screaming vocals I was up all night. And not in a good way. I was not rock ‘n’ roll. 

I recall a camping trip to Scotland, an overcrowded site on the west coast. The chap in the next tent had purchased a set of bag pipes. He started his practice religiously at seven o’clock every morning. I tremble to think of it. The haunted and strangled sounds echoed through my head awash with vodka from the night before. Medicinal – how else could I fall asleep in those circumstances? Like the princess and the pea I could feel every lump and bump, no matter the quality of the mattress. I’m not suggesting I am royalty or anything but maybe, way back…   

Then I met the love of my life. He adored me, made me laugh but more importantly, he hated camping. Hurrah! He’d had a particular savage introduction when sent out from cadet school with a large raincoat and a rusty bean can, in the pouring rain, undercover of darkness. His mission; to spend the night without drowning or dying of exposure. And once the first grey light of dawn swept the horizon, make his way back to boarding school. If this had happened at my comprehensive the teachers would have been struck off. 

We set up home in London which is as far from camping as it could be. There are brick houses covering every available space. No room for tents and no bloody need. Fast forward five years and we’d moved to Australia. The land of wide open spaces. Took me nearly a decade to get used to those. But worse, the husband had fallen in love with those spaces. He stood with his arms held wide, trying to sweep the landscape into his embrace. While I sat cowering in the car. 

He hung around outdoor outlets and it wasn’t long before he started coming home with thermal socks and stout walking shoes. Tupperware containers and camping stoves. He bought a huge esky, sleeping bags which could cope with plummeting temperatures. And one day a perfectly wrapped piece of canvas, wrapped neatly in a bag and a bunch of tent pegs in a miniature bag of the same material. I knew that the time had come, the gnawing inevitability swept over me. 

Fraser Island – camping on the beach, unable to sleep because of howling dingoes, the roar of shark infested waters and brumbies galloping across the sand. Hervey Bay – where bats kept me awake and shat all over the roof of the tent. The stoned ‘artist’ who crawled through a hedge behind our camp in Byron Bay, clutching the handle of a guitar (just the handle), claiming he was Jesus. Seven months pregnant, sitting on a bucket after a dodgy curry. The screeching of wild possums coming closer and closer, in the small hours. A low point for me. And the time we took my poor sister to Wiseman’s Ferry in a cold October. She nearly froze and refused to take her clothes off to go to bed. That was her first and last camping experience. 

Things have improved since those days. The husband is very much an accessory man. Wooden cupboards for the camp kitchen, large and small plug-in fridges, an assortment of beds and mattresses to enable his princess to get a good nights sleep. He loves to camp in the wilderness with nothing but nature to commune with. Me, I like to camp near a small town where I can explore the local wineries, ice cream shops and vintage boutiques. 

Son No.1 takes after his mother and son No.2 after his dad. While the husband and son No.2 are putting up frames and throwing over whatever it is that turns a flat pack into a temporary home, son No.1 and me can be found sitting in the car, hissing under our breath. “I hate camping”. Last time we stayed at a gated campsite in Byron Bay (I couldn’t risk ‘Jesus’ turning up again). The husband asked me to look after the key to the gate and the amenities block. I’m not sure what happened but I’d lost it in 20 minutes. 

There is a time between serving up food in the dark and crawling into a damp sleeping bag where I wax lyrical over the virtues of camping. In front of a roaring campfire and sipping champagne, all is well with the world. But at six in the morning having been woken by kookaburras (almost as loud as bagpipes), bursting for the toilet and with a throat gasping for tea I’m at my most royal, although not my most attractive. 

And now that season is upon us. What joy! But perhaps this is the year when it will finally take. The year I look good in shorts and start the morning with a yodel. The year I won’t cry in the showers after two nights under canvas. It’s worth a try.

 

 

 

 

 

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THE FOOD OF FANTASY

I wrote this light hearted story four years ago. The main character was inspired by a Mike Leigh television show character from the early 70s. It was awarded a High Commendation in the CJ Dennis Literary Award 2009 (Aus)

Thursday evening, Susanna’s heart sank as she walked from the bus stop home. She loved Keith but sometimes things got a bit ordinary, pedestrian even. In their little house, with their little jobs, their little lives. What did it all mean? What was the bigger picture? She’d once heard a fable, when the world began humans were created with no idea what they were doing on earth. They decided to divide into two groups. One group would go off looking for the meaning of life and the other group would hold the fort waiting for the other group to return. The first group never came back with the answers but still we get up each morning and distract ourselves with jobs and pay rises, weekend barbecues and visits to Bunning’s, the latest metallic nail varnish colour and flavoured waffles that go in the toaster.

“Bugger!” Distracted as always Susanna had stepped in a puddle. “Bloody expensive Italian leather too!”

Her key turned in the lock, she pushed the door and before she had even retrieved her key she heard him. “Is that you love?”

“Who did you think it was? The Pope?”

“Aw you! Come and give’ us a hug.” Keith came towards her arms outstretched.

“Let me get me put my bag down please, Keith.”

Ordinary looking with a gorgeous smile. He could be a bit wet sometimes but lovely all the same. Dressed in his smart casual attire, beige pants with his blue shirt tucked in.

“I’ve made you a mug of tea. Sit down and have a breather, love.”

Susanna dropped her bag to the floor and plonked herself in the nearest chair. Her mind ran with the theme of the people who got left behind. There had to be a plan didn’t there? She sipped her tea and thought about where she wanted to be, her plans for the future. The question they ask at job interviews floated in her head. “Susanna, where do you see yourself in five years time?” She imagined an earnest man in a sharp suit sitting in the spare armchair leaning forward with a notepad balanced on his knee. Perhaps with his elbows on the pad and two fingers resting on his chin.

“What’s up cherub, off with the clouds again?” Keith, ever perky, looked over at her with raised eyebrows.

“Nothing.” She looked up. “Do we have to go tonight?”

“But we always go to mum’s on Thursday.”

“Exactly. Can’t we do something wild and reckless and go to see her on Wednesday?” Her bottom lip stuck out and Susanna knew she looked childish.

“Silly.” Keith got up, folded his newspaper twice and laid it carefully on the coffee table then ruffled his wife’s hair.

“Hullo Keith love. Susanna.” A smaller, slightly more feminine version of Keith greeted them at the front door.

“Hello Ruby.” Susanna still couldn’t bring herself to call Ruby mum, after four years of marriage.

“You look thin love.” Ruby stared at Susanna’s middle. What she meant, Susanna knew, was that she didn’t look pregnant.

“Oh, Mam! Smashing dress!” Ruby beamed.

“Thank you Keith. I got it down the market.” Ruby did a twirl but the over bright turquoise polyester creation didn’t twirl with her as it was firmly stuck to her tights. Ruby was the only woman Susanna knew who still wore American Tan. She ushered them through to the good room while she put the finishing touches to dinner, which usually meant chopping a sprig of parsley to adorn the savoury mince. They always had savoury mince because it had been Keith’s dad’s favourite. Odd really as Keith’s dad hadn’t so much died as scarpered when Keith was born.

“Sit down you two. I’ll be through in a minute.” Ruby would never let either of them help in the kitchen. Keith was a man so she couldn’t possibly let him in, I mean, he bought home the bacon. Susanna wasn’t allowed in because of her incompetence, completely overlooking the fact that she earned a good salary. Anyway the time she threw the oven gloves on top of the grill and set fire to them was ages ago.

“Ta-da!” Ruby walked through holding aloft a serving dish of savoury mince, topped with a sprig of parsley. Ruby passed around dishes of mash and over boiled carrots, Keith tucked his napkin into his shirt and got stuck in. Ruby beamed proudly at her only son. “Hard day, love?”

“Same as usual, Mam.” Keith worked as a foreman for a building company, in charge of a building a servo on the other side of town. Good at his job, everybody liked him. Keith was hard not to like.

“Karen rang this morning. Those kids keep her on her toes.” Karen was Keith’s big sister. She had three children and lived near the sea. Her husband, Dave, worked in IT.

“Are you still enjoying your little job, Susanna love?” Ruby sipped from her beer glass. Here we go thought Susanna.

“Yes, thank you, Ruby. They’re installing new software so we’re all having training this week.” She answered knowing full well that Ruby would think software was cushions.

“That’s nice. ‘Course, looking after three kiddies, that’s real work!”

“Mam.” Keith shot his mother a warning glance. “We’ll have kids in our own time. We need two incomes with the mortgage and everything at the moment.” Ruby continued to sip her beer and eye them both like a maternal toad with glassy, blinking eyes.

Once the plates and glasses were cleared Ruby shooed them through to watch the telly and came through with dessert, an oversized packet of Jaffa’s, to devour in front of Wheel of Fortune. Susanna sat amongst the cat calls and crunching of Jaffa’s and felt, not for the first time that week, stuck. It seemed like they had got married and hit an oil slick which had brought them up smartly to the present, with no memory of what went before, save for three square meals a day and a pile of ironing. She used to feel glamorous, special, her and Keith’s lives would be different from all the rest.

They had met at that posh bar in town, the one that went bust shortly afterwards, both there on works do’s. He was celebrating the birth of one of his labourer’s first child and she was there for a 21st. She’d managed to spill three glasses of wine down his shirt, she was carrying a tray back from the bar. There was a reason she worked in a bank and not as a waitress. Keith, so gracious about it, said it didn’t matter as he always carried a spare shirt in his briefcase. And his smile! Even now it did things to her.

But his face used to stop her panicking only now the fear was so big nothing made a difference. She was scared to have children, not to have children, to move house, to not move house but the biggest fear of all – the fear of the ordinary. Life went on and on … Ruby’s on Thursday, fish on Fridays, Bunning’s on Saturdays, roast on Sundays, and so on and forever into the black of infinity.

“Where’s my fish?”

“I thought I’d try something a bit different.”

“What is it?” Keith gingerly put his fork into the unidentified meal, as if it might still be alive.

“It’s Thai beef salad.”

“Salad. For dinner?”

“Yes. Lots of people have it for dinner. It’s Asian.” Susanna smiled. “

Asian?”

“I thought it would be nice to have something other than fish on Friday.” A scream gathered in Susanna’s chest. It felt like unwanted furniture sitting on top of her lungs.

The next morning Keith brought up their identical mugs of tea to bed. He had made them at pottery classes and was very proud of them. Susanna hadn’t the heart to tell him how ugly they were. And heavy. Your arm got a workout just lifting the sodding things.

“Are you happy Keith?” Susanna turned to face her husband. He had such a kind face. She knew she should be grateful to have a caring husband. Some of the girls at the bank, their husbands were rough and treated them badly. Keith treated her with respect and love. Wasn’t that enough?

“Yeah, course I am. I’ve got you and this lovely house. And sooner or later we’ll have little Keith’s and Susanna’s running around.” Susanna didn’t answer. She was imagining her fairy godmother at the end of the bed, dressed in electric purple with arms crossed. She had a cigarette instead of a wand and on closer inspection appeared to be a man in drag. He winked a sparkly eye and dared her to make a silent wish. Susanna closed her eyes and wished to be anywhere but where she was. “You’re not going back to sleep are ya?” Keith looked over at her with a soppy grin pasted across his face. “We’re going into town to buy paint for the spare room.”

“Do I have to go, Keith? I’m not feeling too great.”

“Course you do! I’m colour blind. Remember what happened last time I picked paint for the lounge room?”

“Yes, Keith.”

“You wanted eau de nil and I got beige!”

Susanna threw her bag across her shoulder as she pushed the glass door of the bank as she left work for the day.

“Hey, hang on a minute.” Donna teetered on her stilettos as she made a grab for the door. “Sorry to make you wait. I had to go for a wee. Given up on me had ya?” Susanna could see Donna had reapplied Magenta Dream to her lips. Somehow she got away with it. It made Susanna look like an extra from a disco movie, probably one on roller skates.

“Yeah. Concentrating on what I was gonna do Keith for his dinner.”

“Sod Keith. Come for a drink with me.” Donna stopped and got her compact out to study her lips again. She flicked her hair, closed the compact and faced Susanna. “Well?”

“No. I can’t.”

“Yes you can. You’ve been right miserable all week. A G&T will cheer you up.” Susanna hesitated. “Oh, come on. It won’t kill you!”

They went to Pepe’s Bar on Central and sat on the high velvet covered stools with chrome legs. Susanna felt glamorous, gin and tonic in one hand, dangling her own legs. “So what did you get up to at the weekend?”

“Oh, decorating. The spare room wanted doing.”

“Decorating! Whoop de do!”

Susanna smiled. “You know Keith; he likes things done. He’s very steady.”

“You mean dull.”

“Oh, Donna, he’s not that bad. We just need a bit of a shake-up. Change our habits. We’ll be fine.” Susanna used the plastic stirrer in her glass to dash the ice cubes together noisily.

“Oh bugger it, Suse. It’s time to move on.” Donna retrieved her phone from her bag to check for messages then continued. “The way I see it, one of you is going to be miserable. Might as well be him.”

“What’s this then?”

“You know what it is, Keith.”

“Looks like fish fingers.”

“Then that’s what it is then. You don’t find fillet steak going around masquerading as fish fingers, do ya?” One gin and tonic had soon turned into three. The shops had closed and Susanna had had to be creative with the freezer compartment. Keith eyed her warily.

“Leave the dishes. I’ll make us a cup of tea. We should talk.” Susanna sank into her armchair and accepted the homemade mug of tea. “This is hard for me, Suse. Talking’s not my strong point.” Susanna checked her clothes for bits of fluff. “I know you’re not happy. Even a bloke as daft as me could work that out.” Keith’s face looked concerned. “The thing is, what do we do about it?”

“Oh, Keith, what can we do about it?” Suddenly a phantom judge appeared on the spare armchair, full wig and gown stuff. He took out a black cloth as if from nowhere just like those old court room dramas. Susanna was sure that she had to keep talking or he was going to put it on his head. And she didn’t want that. “It’s not you. I just feel life has got a little staid. I don’t expect you to understand.”

“But I do.”

“I didn’t want to upset you with all this, it might blow over. What? You do understand?”

“Don’t be daft, love. Of course I do. This is our life, how could I not understand?” Keith’s voice caught as if snagged in a zipper. “If you still want me?” Susanna felt that whatever she said next could change her life beyond recognition. A big sign shot out of the ground, the kind you have at t-junctions and crossroads. One way said ‘Keith’ and the other ‘No Keith’. She imagined the judge with the black cloth, the fairy godmother and the interviewer all awaiting her reply. Keith with his pale, sad face waited for her to speak. “Suse?” He sat on the arm of her chair. “I didn’t want to say anything to you but I’ve been mulling over things for a while and I know you think I’m careful and a bit boring and not very adventurous…”

“No, Keith, I…”

“Its okay, Suse. Instead of getting you the sort of anniversary present I usually get, flowers and chocs and the like, I got this.” Bugger. So wrapped up in herself she’d forgotten their wedding anniversary. Keith handed her a blue envelope. She tore it open mumbling excuses to Keith about forgetting. “Shhh. Tell me what you think?” Inside the envelope was a voucher. Surely not a book token, that would be the limit. No. In the middle of a large white card were two words – tandem skydive.

“This was your idea?”

Keith smiled happily. “Completely. You interested?”

“Bloody oath!”

“Now I know this won’t sort everything out but I thought it would be a start. The beginning of a new life together. The adventures of Keith and Susanna.” Keith grabbed Susanna with one hand and swept the other majestically across the space in front on their eyes. Susanna saw in her mind’s eye the pair of them, undies over tights in primary colours with great big grins splashed across their faces. The judge put away his cloth and the interviewer and her fairy godmother exchanged smiles. Keith nudged his wife. “And with your imagination, I’m sure we’ll work out the rest.”

LAZY GIRL

My mother often called me lazy as a child and I can remember the guilt I felt. But it didn’t spring me into action. Desperate for some space, to claim her suburban palace a child-free zone, she would chide, “Why don’t you go out in the sunshine?”

“Because it isn’t shining.”

“Where are all your friends? They might find new ones.”

“Don’t care.” I would rather lay there reading Enid Blyton until I went blind or scare myself witless watching Bette Davis movies. 

Of course, now I know that all that stuff was research. Can I just say, I love research! As a writer of fiction it is essential to watch movies, read heaps and walk on the beach. It is! I may very rarely get paid but I do it for the expression, the love, the lying around and watching foreign films at ten o’clock in the morning. Ideally dressed in pedal pushers sipping a Gin Sling. I check out the gutter press for character ideas and eavesdrop in cafes for tidbits of conversation. Writers are the bowerbirds of the world. It involves a fair amount of nicking; snippets of conversation and character flaws. Failing that I make it up.

 And reading, up to twenty books at any time. There are two in my handbag; a novel and a book of short stories. Two on my occasional table (I love that stupid term), alongside the numerous others lent to me for which I have a mental block until their owners ask for them back then I’m suddenly keen to read them. Ten by the bed of which I only read one at a time (the rest gather dust and worse) before turning off the light at night. I also have one in Italian. I’m learning the language in the hope that this will bring me closer to actually visiting the place. Not working so far. And lastly, the one I’m reading to my son which is presently ‘So Long and Thanks for all the Fish’ by the sublime Douglas Adams. I do all the voices when I read aloud to him but prefer British regional accents, Aussie drawls and bad Russian I’ve gleaned from watching too many episodes of ‘ Spooks’. 

Sometimes my busy friends (of which I seem to have many, their purpose is to make me look bad) turn to me in astonishment when I murmur that I have been in a frenzy all day. I mean really. What could I have been doing that could be described as productive? Walking around with my head in the clouds, reading other people’s short stories on the sofa. Trying to find examples of bad Russian quotes on the worldwide inter-web? Busy is meetings, constant telephone calls to arrange meetings, non-stop reminders in diaries to make those telephone calls to make meetings. I know, I’ve done it and it paid well but it didn’t suit. I’m a delicate type with a short attention span. 

Luckily for me the husband likes to keep me sane so doesn’t give me a hard time about my frivolous, devil-may-care existence. But that doesn’t stop me running through a list on my fingers of the tasks I performed that day, on occasions when I feel I’m enjoying myself a little too much. On those days I pounce on him when he tucks his head round the door after a busy day of meetings, arranging meetings, etc. 

“Hi Honey! Guess what? I learnt to swear in four languages, realigned my chakras and picked weevils out of biscuits today.” And sometimes; “I practiced telekinesiss, turned an old nipple tassel into a brooch and made friends with my vagina using a hand mirror.” 

What did you do today?

FAVOURITES

This story was awarded a Highly Commended in the Global Short Story Competition (UK) September 2011

It’s important to choose the right earrings to go with my new dress.  Diamonds mean he’ll come, rubies mean he won’t.  I hold to the light the gold hoop from which a tear shaped diamond clings.  They were given to me by Ralph before he walked out smelling of some girl’s cheap scent. 

     Nevertheless they are the right choice for tonight.  I can see a story in the facets, my new blue dress fragmented and the morning sun is framed in diamond shapes.  A similar effect can be had by taking Valium and half a bottle gin.  The door behind me opens and in walks Evie.  She walks across my bedroom, she’s wearing jeans, not dressed for my special dinner yet.  She sits down uninvited.

     “Mum?”

     “What?”  I am sharp, she is not my favourite. 

     “I don’t want you to be hurt again.” 

     The word ‘again’ echoes between us like loose talk in an alleyway.   I ignore her, outlining my lips in a light brown shade, trying to decide on a colour to fill them in with.  Pink is too wishy-washy, too expectant.  Bright red too trashy.  I pick up a golden cylinder from my make-up bag and twist to reveal a dark red, like dried blood.  A colour to make them sit up, a colour which adds gravitas, a serious note to the occasion.  I stand and twirl.

     “Do you like my new dress, Evie?”

     “It’s lovely, Mum.  Is it silk?”

     She thinks it too grand for a birthday dinner at home.  “You asked him?”

     “Yes.”

     Her face appears to collapse on itself, weighed down by doubt and fear.  As a child she was always the cautious one, the one trying not hurt us.  I think she lost herself in the care of others.  I expected to call her Eve when she grew up but she never matured.  I kept back that name, I kept it along with my approval.  It’s hard for a woman with a daughter.  They overshadow or stay in the shade and Evie wears a lot of grey.

     Simon was the one who sat beside me as a child, helped pick out the strands of pearls to match my dress.  He’d work the clasp as his tiny breaths warmed my neck.

     “What about this one, Mummy?”  Cultured pearls in white or oyster, black ones alternated with balls of silver.  When he was six he made me a necklace from cut-up coloured straws threaded on a thin piece of elastic.  I wore it until the elastic frayed.

     “It’s not natural, Joy.”  Ralph would bleat.  “This link between the two of you.”  It made me think of lines of precious pearls, chasing around into eternity.  “It won’t do him any favours.”

     Evie hesitated in corners, not daring to enter rooms.  She once saved up for a bottle of almond essence for my birthday because she liked the picture on the front.  A woman with red hair, like mine, smiling out from her small bottle prison.  Evie placed the bottle in a tartan box lined with crumpled tissue paper and tied it with a bow.  I put it on the shelf in the kitchen.  I never used it.  Evie looked every day to see if I’d opened it, to see me put drops into cakes or biscuits until it drove me mad.  I hated baking, I hated the smell of the essence.  I once read that cyanide smelt of almonds.  Evie would have that hopeful look which pushed her lips apart, it made her look gormless.  I emptied the bottle down the drain.  There’s no point in harbouring false hopes.  Girls like Evie, colourless and pleading, for them life would not be kind.  My mother had raised me not to be hopeful, she said I would never be disappointed.  I believed her then but now I think disappointment sits with those who expect it and it stays.

     “I’ll ring Simon again, Mum.  He’s driving down from Brisbane, he said he’s hoping to drop in.”

     I’d forgotten she was there.  My daughter leaves the room and I don’t say a word.  I feel a heaviness gathering on my chest, a fizzy feeling rising to my face, reaching my eyes.  It must be for Simon, these tears, I haven’t seen him for ages.  He’s been busy.  It can’t be Evie.

     “Couldn’t you give her something?  A morsel dropped from the table while you’re giving it all to Simon.  You’re turning him into a self-centered prick.”  Ralph, the voice of reason.  He couldn’t hack it in the end. 

     An unwelcome image of Evie as a teenager, pulling her sleeves down, trying to hide her arms from me.  I clasped her wrists roughly, pull up her jumper sleeves up beyond her elbows.  Neat cuts crossed the bluish insides of her elbows, a ladder leading nowhere.

     I’ve sat here for most of the day, sponging foundation on my face, filling the cracks, running my hand through my red curls, only red now with the aid of a bottle.  The grey roots appear faster and faster, as time roars on.  The sun is setting. Lights shine from neighbouring houses, white squares on black cloth.  It’s nearly seven, time to go down.

     I haven’t helped Evie with dinner, I seldom do.  I remember my own mother saying, “Boys do so much more for their mums.”  I felt slighted but I understand now.  It’s not about practical things, it’s emotional.

     I squeeze my feet into heels.  Is it odd to wear tights and shoes in your own house?  I shuffle onto the landing and hear Evie and her husband, Brendan, in my kitchen.  Their children are running up and down the hallway, no doubt pressing dirty fingers on my walls. 

     Brendan’s voice rises above the mayhem, over the crooning of my Funny Valentine by Frank Sinatra, my favourite, playing from the living room.  “How can a woman called Joy cause so much pain?”  The sound of laughter, first his, then hers.  Evie stops laughing “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”  She opens her arms for her husband. 

     The scene is distant from me, as if held in a snow dome.  I reach the bottom step before they realise I’m there.  On my birthday you’d think someone would pay attention to me.

     Evie’s head jerks up from its nesting place.  “Mum, I didn’t hear you come down.”    She looks down at my shoes, falters before looking up again.  Eyes steady in her head, they’re green.  Like mine, clear and pale.  “Fancy a drink?  Gin and tonic?”

     I nod and glance around at the table set with a white tablecloth, cutlery laid in order, three wine glasses and two tumblers for the kid’s lemonade.  Three gold candles in pewter candle sticks, throwing light and shadow across the damask. 

     “Mum, I’m so sorry.  Simon had to fly off to Melbourne for a meeting.”  Evie frowns, not meeting my eyes.  She looks stressed, pink cheeks, she scratches her hand.

     Evie hands me a glass and I watch the lemon slice fall slowly to the bottom.  “You could have let me speak to him.  He is my son.”

     Those green eyes, like mine and yet they’re not.  There’s no fear in them, I see pity.  Ice cubes hit the edge of my glass, Evie takes it from me.

     “Mum, why don’t you sit down.  We’ll join you.  I just have to chop some herbs.  There you go.”

     I catch her looking at Brendan with pleading eyes.

     “I’ll join you, Mum.”  He sits down opposite me.  I see him realise too late that we are positioned eye-to-eye in confrontation.  “Girls!  Sit down now.  Draw a picture for Granny.”

     Alice peeks her head around the door jamb, ten years old, or is it eleven?  She looks like her mother, hair straight as a plum line.  She looks at me, defiant.  “I don’t know what to draw.”

     “Ask your sister.”  Brendan turns away from her.  “Kids.  Always running around, so much energy, eh Mum?”

     “I don’t remember it like that.  Simon and Evie were quiet.”  It occurs to me that they were probably terrified.  I couldn’t stand noise.  Simon kept me onside and Evie played in the shadows.  How lonely it was. In the days when mothers would chuck their kids out first thing and not expect them back until dinner time.  No wonder a lot of us drank and took sedatives.  Afternoon quiz shows looked shinier through the glassy frame of a Quaalude.  Shepherds pie had been made by mid-morning, sprinkled with cheese and popped in the oven to heat up in late afternoon.  Perfect family gathered round the table when Dad got home at six.  And when Dad stopped coming home, Evie took beef burgers from the freezer compartment.  She vacuumed around me, out of my mind, sprawled out in my chair, holding a glass of gin.  

     “Mum, are you alright?  I’ll get you some crackers.  You’ve hardly eaten a thing.”

      Evie put down a bowl of crackers and bowl of something sludgy next to it.  It tastes surprisingly good.  She’s right, I haven’t eaten all day.  It didn’t seem that long but I knew it was as I tracked the height of the sun.  It’s so easy to slip under a blanket of the past and it’s not one of those soft wool blankets, oh no, it scratches my skin until its red and raised into welts.  As I live in my memories the real world goes on. 

     “Here you are, Granny.”  Mary, the younger one appears at my elbow holding a sheet of paper.  I take it, a drawing of five figures, our names scribbled underneath; Mum, Dad, Alice, Mary and Granny.  You can tell it’s me because of the curly strokes of a red crayon.  She’s drawn a grin from ear to ear.  I hug her and she smiles smugly at me beneath long lashes.  “Alice hasn’t finished hers yet.”

      Evie looks at me, she’s still wearing her jeans but with a silky short sleeved top.  I can’t help it, I look down at her arms.  In the light of the candles I can see traces of silvery lines.  Evie catches my eyes and grabs one of my hands.  “Happy Birthday, Mum.”  

     Brendan brings through the beef for carving and the girls appear, bumping and jumping, faces shining as only young ones do.  “I want to sit next to Granny.”  “No, it’s my turn.”

     “Girls, you can sit either side of her.  Just move your glasses without spilling your drinks.” 

     My heart hangs in my chest as if I’ve worked out what it’s for.  I was a lousy mother but I’m a damn fine Granny.