Love Florence

Florence packed her rucksack filling it with a purple feather boa, two jumpers and a packet of marshmallow snowballs; her collection of postcards, including one of Buckingham Palace, the Uffizi Gallery, Florence from a school trip and a dog-eared card from Bondi Beach sent by her father. She also packed three books: Animal Farm, Gone with the Wind and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Florence took a train to London with £100 in her pocket and a slowly shrinking feeling of despair.
Florence felt a bit sad for her mother, but she had Gary and her job as a psychologist. Sonya Redmond was often on the radio telling the nation how to deal with adolescents which brought to mind black pots and kettles.
“Mum, I’m not happy. I…”
“Sorry, Flo. Just ironing my dress for the university dinner. What do you reckon? Flat or heels?”
“Mum, I need you to…”
“Have you seen the file I left on the table? The red one? You’re looking a bit thin. Would you like some toast? Don’t go anorexic on me, young lady.”
There was one thing worse than a mother who never listened. A mother who believes she listens but doesn’t hear a word.
As the train jolted along the tracks to London, Florence allowed herself to cry. Silently and still, a jiggle between shakes on the tracks, a sigh between breaths with a song spinning between her ears, an old Beatles tune about jars and doors. ‘All the lonely people…’
Florence had visited London with her mum and dad when she was small. The zoo, the Science Museum but most of all, embossed in her memory, the Queen’s palace with the shining gold statue of an angel outside the gates and the red roads that led to anywhere. Florence was very taken with the red roads. They ran along St James’s Park with its bandstand and green river, its birdlife and couples holding hands. London had seemed so sophisticated and grand but now as the train shuddered and slowed past the backs of buildings which could have been drawn in charcoal, it just looked dirty. Where on earth was she going to stay?
Florence was 20 and had worked in a gift shop in her home town until the boredom threatened to roll her in a sack and bury her forever. She was a girl without a plan.
London is a city of millions of people yet Florence had found an empty corner. She had wandered into the waiting room on St Pancras Station looking for somewhere to think. The room smelled of sick. Florence cried noisily as no one was there to hear.
“What are you doing? You can’t stay here.”
“It’s a waiting room.”
“I have to clean.”
Florence looked up into the brown eyes of a young woman dressed in unflattering overalls. “I left home and have nowhere to stay.”
“You in trouble?”
“No.” Florence’s long brown hair hung limply around her face.
“My name is Verda. What’s your story? Everyone has a story, no?”
“Florence.” She held her hand out curling her fingertips to hide her bitten nails. “I don’t really have a story yet.”
“Everybody has a story, Florence. I came to London from Turkey with my brother. We live in Acton. It’s not as beautiful as our village in Turkey. We make money to send home. In my country I am a teacher, here I clean up after drunks and lazy people.”
“That’s not fair.”
Verda shrugged. “It’s okay. I will go home someday and never think of London again.” She stood and picked up her mop. “You can stay with me tonight. No one else in this terrible city will look after you. I clean. When I finish, we go home.”
“Why would you want to help me? Nobody is helping you.”
“You can help me. You can help me clean.”
Florence helped Verda clean the waiting room and when they had finished she helped her vacuum the deserted café.
“People think cleaning is too good for them. But if I don’t do it, it will look awful.”
Florence wondered how much more awful it could look, this was a part of London she didn’t remember. Verda took her on the tube. Florence watched as the names of places she had only heard in books and films whipped past her eyes. Marble Arch and Lancaster Gate, Notting Hill and Holland Park. When they emerged from their underground warren, Florence noticed that the roads to Verda’s house, shiny wet from rain, were black, not red.
Verda and her brother, Ari, lived in North Acton. It was west, a little too west, of London. Their two-bedroom flat smelt of old ladies and mice. Here Florence slept on the sofa under thick grey blankets which itched. She fell asleep thinking ‘I’m here, I can’t believe it’.
Her first day in London started early. Ari was up and about. Florence opened her eyes. Thin grey fingers of daylight crept up, stealing the night away.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.” Ari stood in the space between the tiny kitchen and the living room where she lay. Florence cleared her throat. “That’s okay. I was already awake.” She was aware of him, a stranger, and the intimacy of the scene. Florence wrapped the blanket around her and swept a hand over her hair which still stuck up messily from sleep. She was grateful Ari hadn’t switched the light on. It felt odd, the two of them alone, without Verda. But not unpleasant.
“Coffee? Good Turkish coffee, not your English shit.”
“Yes. Please.” Florence only drank instant at home.
He placed the wooden tray with two small coffee cups on the coffee table. The dark hair and eyes she’d noticed the evening before were almost hidden in the half light. “No milk but there’s sugar if you like.” He pointed to a green ceramic dish on the tray.
Ari pulled the curtains back on a deserted street, not even a bird sang. He passed the brown earthenware cup to Florence. “It’s the mornings when I miss Turkey so much. The light is bright but soft. The sun on the sea shines like a thousand stars. And the smell of coffee, cardamom, salt from the harbour, I would sit and watch the boats coming in and out.”
They sat in silence for a moment. “I have to go to work now.”
“What do you do?”
“I work at the vegetable market in Wandsworth, New Covent Garden. I unload the trucks.”
“Is that what you did in Turkey?”
Ari smiled, a snake that slid across his face, no hint of pleasure. “Of course not.”
He picked up his bag and left while Florence still held her coffee cup in her hands. It smelled of cardamom. These kind people who worked hard for little money, and she had so much more. Was she wrong to want a mother who listened to her, or a father who wanted to stay in touch?
Florence threw on a pair of track pants and one of her jumpers, the pink one to add some colour. She washed the coffee cups in the plastic kitchen sink. Verda slept on, her shift didn’t start until 2.00pm. The kitchen cupboards stored a netted bag of onions and a stale box of cereal stuck together in one lump. The wonderful coffee was stored in the fridge along with a jar of black olives and a fruit cake wrapped in a calico bag. She smiled. She would repay Verda’s kindness by doing a grocery shop. She left a note for her new friend and shook out her clothes and books from the backpack to accommodate the groceries.
Florence walked softly down the uncarpeted stairs and past the table by the front door where bills in brown envelopes gathered. Different names from different countries, people who were fighting to make a life in a place that didn’t welcome strangers. It was 8.00am when she closed the door behind her, realising that she wouldn’t be able to get back in if Verda went out. What about her possessions, shabby as they were, they meant a lot to Florence. She might not get them back.
The morning was still abrupt in its coldness. It bit at Florence’s ears as she pulled on a hat and gloves she had knitted herself, following but not sticking to a pattern she’d found, in last years colours of aubergine and sky blue. She walked past red brick buildings with concrete steps leading to front doors where old prams and tricycles jostled for position. From a second floor window she saw a child with honey skin, dark eyes staring, hypnotized by the ebb and flow of traffic as it jockeyed for order and waited at the lights.
Florence heard a cacophony of languages, some melodic, some faster, more urgent, annoyed. The smell of curry, burnt toast, coffee and fried food, overwhelmed her senses.
Her father had lived briefly in London, on the south side. Mortlake, morte meant death in Italian, as he was to her now. He’d lived there before he’d emigrated to Australia and was never seen again. Florence’s last memory of him was of his back as he’d walked away whistling. Why had he whistled? Her mum had taken up with Gary from the philosophy department at the university. Gary who couldn’t put a shelf up, who needed a manual to change the oil in his car.
Her dad had been a carpenter, she must take after him. She was good with her hands but her mind swam. It flowed like florescent ribbons, colourful and playful but not a mind for focus or deep thinking. Florence wondered if this mattered. Her mother thought it did.
At the convenience store run by an Indian couple, she bought mandarins and potatoes, feta cheese and chocolate chip cookies. Butter and a loaf of grainy bread. Sardines and a jar of plum jam. A wonderful mixed up meal for Florence hadn’t yet learned to cook.
She distributed the weight of the bags in her hands but still the tight plastic handles dug into her fingers. On the way home the streets seemed more ordinary, they had lost some of their mystery and Florence wondered why. Had London taken these people from cultures of colour and rich aromas and made them greyer, absorbed them rather than letting them brighten up the gloomy cut-outs of a city of inadequate light.
Later when Verda had gone to work and Ari sat with her drinking more coffee, she asked him what it had been like for him arriving in England.
“England was okay. From the ferry the bus drove through green hills and villages. But when we got to London it was as if its grim self reached into the sky. Dense particles of grit like unwashed curtains draping the streets.” He laughed, not a happy laugh.
“Why stay?”
“I am making money to send home to my family, Verda too. She will go home soon, next summer. She is to be married.”
“Oh, I didn’t know. She must miss him.”
Ari frowned. “She hasn’t met him.”
“An arranged marriage?” Florence gasped.
“It’s the way it’s done. I don’t see England is happier with so much freedom of choice.”
“And you, Ari?”
“I am free to make a choice. My family would like me to go home and marry a Turkish girl but they also like the money. I may stay here.”
The next day Florence woke late wondering where she was. She lay looking at a foreign ceiling, listening to the sudden sound of a milk float outside the bay window and was sad she had missed Ari.
When she came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her head she collided with Verda.
“Hello, Florence.” Verda smiled brightly.
“Hello Verda. I hope you don’t mind me staying a second night.”
Verda looked thoughtful. “We need to find you work. I am free until this evening. Let’s go for a walk.”
They walked the same route to the shops that Florence had taken the day before. Past the convenience store with exotic smells and the polite Indian couple and a bookies which smelt only of cigarette smoke. They reached a newsagents with a window full of cards. Things wanted and unwanted, things to find and things to lose. There were cards asking for au pairs, cleaners and shop assistants. Nothing interested Florence. Verda pointed out a card with a thumbnail sketch of a dog on it.
“Look at that Florence.”
“It doesn’t pay much.”
“You wouldn’t need much living with me and Ari. If you don’t mind the couch as a bed.” Verda tucked Florence’s arm through hers. A feeling swept through Florence, a warmth she hadn’t had since childhood.
“Let’s go and eat too much ice-cream!” Verda said, leading the way to an Italian ice-creamery painted in pastels. The only colours in the streets of grey.
When Florence got home she placed her three treasured postcards on the mantelpiece and her three favourite books on the old, lopsided shelf unit by the sofa.
A few days later Florence walked the streets again, A-Z tucked under her arm, she stopped every now and then to find her way. The man on the other end of the phone told her his name was Brian and he worked from home. He had recently separated from his wife and needed someone to walk their dog, a Great Dane called Rainbow. His wife had been a free-spirit, Brian explained awkwardly, so much so that she had disappeared to New Zealand leaving Rainbow behind. Florence understood what it was like to be abandoned.
Number 57 Orchard Street was a pale bricked townhouse with five steps leading to the front door, painted black. Florence rang the door bell. The door opened and an enormous dog poked his head out ahead of his owner. He appeared to be well trained, Florence would have feared for her bones if Rainbow had jumped up at her.
“Hello, Florence,” Brian was going thin on top and sported a grey beard. Everything about him seemed to apologise.
“Hello, Brian. Pleased to meet you.” She stuck out her hand to her new boss. Whatever her mother had lacked in parenting skills, she hadn’t stinted on teaching her daughter manners. “And I’m pleased to meet you too, Rainbow.” She stroked the dog.
On Sunday over a quiet breakfast, Verda was sleeping after a late shift cleaning an office building and Ari was already at work, Florence noticed something stuck between two sauce bottles. A card written in biro. It said, ‘I finish at 10.00am and will be home by the time you’ve walked Rainbow. Fancy a trip to see the Queen? Ari’. Florence turned the postcard over. The other side had a large yellow smiley face but she was already smiling.
They took the Central Line to Notting Hill then the circle line to St James’s Park. They walked up and down Birdcage Walk, Florence’s request, to savour the red roads she loved, before they went up to the gates of the palace. This time they couldn’t afford to go on a tour but there was an unspoken promise that they would one day. Ari took her hand from the bars and gave it a squeeze. Florence whispered, “thank you.” They found a bench in St James’s Park and sat down.
Ari held Florence’s hand again. “I was a fisherman in my village but now the boats are used to ferry tourists around. I was angry at first but as I heard these English speaking people talk about their lives I found I wanted to see what I had only seen with words. Now I work hard to buy my own stall at the market, life is hard but it’s bigger somehow.” Florence understood completely.
When they got home and Ari was in the kitchen making his special coffee for them both, Florence took down the postcard of Buckingham Palace she had asked her mum to buy many years before. She knew what to write.
‘Dear Mum, I don’t need to keep this postcard as I live quite near it. I don’t want to be anywhere else but maybe one day I’ll send you the card from the Uffizi Gallery or even one from Bondi. I’ll phone soon. Love, Florence’.

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HOUSEHOLD MANAGEMENT FOR IDIOTS

I look at my eldest son and see someone sure of what they want, someone organised and on time. I look at my growing up (and the husband’s too) and think somehow this has to be nurture not nature.

In my younger son I see myself. Untidy, messy, forgetful. Non-stop chatter. Noisy head and mucky knees. At school I lost my bus pass so many times – well not lost, but hiding somewhere. Next to school books stained yellow from a leaky lemonade bottle. Under roller skates and mushed up apple.

I left home reluctantly at age 19 when the parents moved away. Wouldn’t have been my first choice but I didn’t want to move areas again. Holding down a job and keeping myself together was a full time occupation. The biggest surprise was dust. Mum being such a keen housewife I’d never encountered it before. Except in spooky houses on the television, when dust and cobwebs spread on old wooden furniture. It was a shock when things started to turn grey.

There was so much to learn. How to cook, what to eat for breakfast, budgeting my meagre earnings. I didn’t sleep my last night at home as I had no idea how to work a washing machine. The only chores I had done in my nineteen years were a bit of washing up and a spot of light ironing in front of the telly.

I once poured hot fat down the kitchen sink and blocked up all the pipes. Mum was furious. I was hopeless. I had friends who did loads, who knew how to cook and helped out at home. When I mentioned my dilemma they looked at me like I was inhuman, spoilt. Which of course I was. Spoilt, not inhuman.

An ex of mine used to lose his temper at my ineptitude. He was the youngest of six and had to fend for himself while his mother was at work. My Mum was there when I got home from school. The smell of cakes wafting through the back door. She baked homemade rolls for my pack lunch – and my three other siblings too. She made our clothes and knitted cardigans and jumpers. Were we grateful? No, we were not.

I thought my friends who had mothers who worked were so lucky. They had sophisticated shop-bought cake. Their cardigans were from Marks & Spencer. They twirled around in their chain store frocks while I almost died with jealousy.

Over the years I still got that exasperated look from friends and boyfriends, sometimes if I was lucky, a pitying smile. When I met a man who was even more spoiled and undomesticated than I, it was love. We moved into a flat in London and lay on the sofa, smoking and laughing at the world. Indulging in our own messy Utopia between white-for-a-time anaglypta walls. I had learned to cook but not how to manage time. I would spend hours in the kitchen creating high fat meals. We put on weight but still we smoked and laughed, ha-ha-ha. Lying on our sofa, watching kid’s movies and wondering where our hard earned money was going. Budgeting took years to come to terms with, I’m not completely sure we’ve got it yet. I tend to not spend anything and he’s prone to panic attacks that see him lashing out and buying something inappropriate. Hat stands, universal remote controls, new age cd’s. That sort of thing.

As I type this the youngest is running the vacuum over the downstairs and our eldest is changing his sheets. The husband and I had to teach each other how to look after ourselves and it wasn’t pretty. There was shouting and screaming. And a particularly nasty accident involving a purple rug and white work shirts in the mid-90s. We came through it and have almost grown up. I’d say we are domestically about 29 and physically late forties, early fifties.

But it isn’t going to happen to our kids. They vacuum, change beds, load dishwashers, occasionally wash up, cook simple meals. They will leave home with the skills they need.

And we will have to look at getting a cleaner.

SWIMWEAR OPTIONAL, STOMPING ESSENTIAL

This story was gleaned from a real life experience. A long afternoon I spent years ago now. I have embellished some of the events (scarily – not many) and have changed the names to protect the bewildered and the slightly annoying. I don’t wish to offend, this is merely my take on a strange afternoon, which I think probably says more about me than the characters within it. Hope you enjoy it.

“I’m holding a woman’s group on Sunday at my place.  Would you like to come?”

     Skye smiled an over bright smile whilst stirring honey into her tea.  Skye is my yoga teacher and we have become friends.  We have coffee together after class.  Well, I have coffee, Skye has a soy chai.  Younger than me and vibrant, she wears a lot of orange.  Orange silk pants, orange singlets, even on occasion orange lipstick.  Her daughter, Nisha, is in Tom’s class at school.  He thinks her name sounds like a sneeze.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go but I said yes.

     I mentioned it to Adam.  He raised an eyebrow.

     “Syke?  Yoga Skye?”

     “Yes.  What’s wrong with that?  It might be fun.”

     He smirked and I made up my mind.  I didn’t know any of Skye’s friends.  I wondered if I should take a bottle of wine but decided to bake.  I chose my dress carefully as only a new girl would.  Neither revealing nor matronly.  And colour too, somehow I knew this wasn’t a navy kind of do.

     On the day I chose a pale lemon cotton shift dress, formal and understated with flat white shoes with a buckle.  I grabbed my plate of wholemeal muffins and headed for the car, waving my free hand goodbye to Adam and Tom in the shed.  I watched their heads bent together over some project, Adam’s brown head against our son’s golden one and thought it would be a good thing for me to spend some time in female company.  Syke called it honouring my inner goddess.

     Although she lived barely a kilometre away I had problems finding her home.  Skye rented an old school house on acreage.  At the main gate I encountered a huddle of lively  mailboxes.  Pillar box red, a green dragon and a milk churn with a masterpiece painted on its side depicting Friesian cows on pasture.  My smile at their quirkiness soon disappeared as I realised that the houses weren’t numbered and I had no way of matching Skye’s brilliant purple mailbox with her house.  I pulled into the driveway of one house which could have been Skye’s.  It had a small studio across the drive from the house.  Skye had told me she had a yoga studio for her individual clients.  A short disheveled man came out to meet me.

     “Hello.  Does Skye live here?”

     “No.  You here for the woman’s thing?  The next house on the left, up the hill.”

     He smiled broadly looking me up and down.  “I’m Shaun.  Skye and I, we’re…”

     “Oh, yes of course.  Pleased to meet you, Shaun.  Gabby.  Thank you.”

     Skye had mentioned Shaun, he was an artist, hence the studio.  She told me they had an open relationship which made me feel suburban and dull right down to my sensible sandals.  At least I hadn’t brought the matching handbag.  Shaun watched me too closely as I walked to my car and drove away.  I felt uncomfortable.

     A lovely house set on a large patch of green with vegetable gardens on each side of the house.  I parked the car and Skye came out, skipping towards me, down the red painted front steps.  She wore a floaty orange dress tied at each shoulder.  Her bangles tinkled and I caught a flash of sunlight on her gold ankle chain.  She embraced me.  A musky smell filled my nostrils, patchouli oil or sweat, perhaps both, with an impressive sprout of hair under each armpit.  Skye took my hand and pulled me up the path to her home.

     “The girls are here already.  Come, I’ll introduce you.”

     Outside the door rows of exotic footwear gathered, pink satin slip-ons, black and gold embroidered shoes and a pair of thongs with a single large frangipani on each. 

     “Would you mind taking your shoes off, Gabby?”

     “No, of course not.  You want to keep your floors clean.”

     “No, no, a yoga thing.”

     I passed the plate to Skye and fiddled clumsily with the buckles on my plain white shoes. 

     Inside there a small crowd of women gathered in a long and narrow kitchen.  Shelves hung on every bare patch of wall, filled with glass jars containing exotic herbs, spices and herbal teas.

     “Everyone one this is Gabby.  Gabby, let me introduce Calypso.”

     Skye’s bangled arm pointed in the direction of a bosomy woman wearing a peacock blue sarong.  She clutched a box to her chest which I assumed held her sarong in place.   Ochre had long copper coloured hair which fell in waves to her waist and a tight little smile.  Willow a serious looking blonde wearing white who didn’t smile at all.  Jacinta, dressed in purple with matching eye shadow and Miriam, a thin woman wearing a lime green dress. 

     “What I thought we’d do is to sit on the veranda for a while.  Get to know each other.” 

     Skye smiled her enormous smile and wafted in a cloud of orange out to the side deck.  She had arranged large decorative cushions of turquoise and gold, glittering with sequins on an ethnic rug around a small wooden table set with a jug of water, lemons slices and coriander.  Half a dozen glasses formed a circle around the jug.  Willow and Ochre brought out a bowl of cashews and some vegetable sticks.

     “Oh, at last.  Something I can eat.”  Calypso put down the box and picked up a carrot stick.

     “Well done you for sticking to it.” 

     “Thank you, Skye.”

     “What exactly can you eat?”  Jacinta reached across, took a handful of cashews and shoved them all into her mouth.

     “Well, I have five juices a day but they all have to made with green vegetables.  And I can have just about any raw vegetables for dinner.”

     “Why?”  My words, sharp and pointy.

     Calypso raised her head and with a condescending look said to me, “I forgot, you’re new.  What’s your name again?”

     “Gabby.”

     “Well Gabby, I am on a cleansing diet devised by a scientist from the beginning of last century.  Have you heard of Dr Fabricatorian? 

     “Er, no.”

     “Thought not.  I have some skin problems.  Possibly cancerous.”

     “Have you seen a doctor?”

     A wave of laughter erupted around the table.  “Gabby!  We don’t use doctors.  Doctors are dangerous.”

     A sudden noise hit the air abruptly.  The sound of clashing metal, loud and vibrating.  Skye was on her feet with a small symbol held in each hand.  “Now we shall gather some wood for the fire.”

     The December heat bore down in a cauldron of heat.  Willow noticed my frown and spoke to me as to a small child.

     “A cleansing fire which we will set in the fire pit.”  She pointed out a circle of bricks around a space.  I decided I might be a little out of my depth but I dutifully joined the others in collecting branches and twigs for kindling from the bush surrounding Skye’s cottage.  The pile of twigs I had gathered was prickling my arms and dirtying my lemon dress but I felt it would be churlish to complain.  All the others seemed to smiling with faraway looks in their eyes as they were meditating. 

     “Wow!  Look at the dam.”  Miriam headed down the hill to the deep green pool in the distance.  She stepped out of her lime green dress which vanished in the green of the grass and Miriam, thin, white and naked dived into the dam. 

     Calypso and Willow walked down to the dam, waving at Miriam while Jacinta and Skye linked arms, laughed together, without gathering any kindling.  Ochre sat on a tree stump her arms stretched out in front of her with her eyes closed lightly humming as I gathered more sticks in the heat and swore under my breath.  I had been expecting cake and coffee and a good gossip.  I wonder what Dr Fabrication would think of that. 

     It was time for the next phase as Skye announced suddenly; “Now we will move indoors for sharing.”

     Skye and the others, with the exception of Miriam, stood at the fire pit, now holding a decent amount of wood.  Certainly enough for a cleansing fire, whatever that was.  And what exactly was ‘sharing’?  Tom often took things from nature into school for sharing, shells from the beach, river stones.  I felt like a child who hadn’t done her homework.

     We trooped into the house.  The lounge room which must have originally been the classroom in the school, Skye had laid out in a similar fashion to the veranda.  A larger table, bare except for a deck of cards which she had spread out face down around the edges.  We sat on the cushions and Calypso placed the wooden box on the table with reverence, her face solemn.  The box, big and solid, took up a fair portion of the low oval glass table.

     Skye spoke.  “I want to bring this gathering of peaceful souls to a joyful start.  We will travel around the table, each one of us will take one of the goddess cards and flow naturally into sharing.  Sharing whatever you wish to share.”  She closed her eyes, her eyelids painted gold.  “Shanti, shanti, shanti.”

     Her eyes opened and she took a card, looked at it and breathed deeply through her nose.

     “I have drawn Kali.  The goddess of endings and beginnings.”

     Ochre draped an arm theatrically round Skye’s neck, her copper hair getting in Skye’s eyes.  She pulled away.

     “For those of you who don’t know, my landlord has decided to sell the land I am living on.  My ending, alas my beginning has yet to show itself to me.”

     Ochre spoke.  “I want to honour and thank you, Skye.  For the time you have lived here and how you have shared it with me.  You have been a great custodian of this land.”

     “Thank you, Ochre.”

      The room fell silent.  Then a heavy clomping approached the table.  Skye turned her head.

     “What the hell!  Take your bloody boots on!”

     Out of the sunlight appeared Shaun, still smirking.  “Oh sorry, Skye.  Just wondered if you wanted this.”  He held a painting beside him.  A nude.  On closer inspection I realised it was of Skye.

     “No Shaun.  We will talk later.”  She pointed a finger to the direction Shaun had come from, the finger looking like a spike for all its forcefulness.  And the small smirking man left.  I heard laughter as Shaun walked back down the pathway.

       Skye recovered her composure, wriggling her shoulders in a small movement.  “Calypso.  Would you like to share?”

     Calypso looked around at everybody, meeting us all eye-to-eye, as if something significant might take place.  “I want to introduce my treasure box to the table.”  She lifted the wooden box and placed it beside her on the table.  “A gift from my mother, every time I have a special moment, I place a symbol in the box to remember it.”

     She opened the box and took a few feathers from its depths and placed them on the table, along with a shark’s tooth, some crystals, pieces of driftwood, decorated bangles and several locks of hair tied up with coloured ribbon.

     “I take this box to all the women’s gatherings I attend, it goes everywhere with me.”

     “You must miss her.”  I said.

     “Who?”  Calypso frowned.

     “Your mother.”

     “She only lives in Brisbane, Gabby.”

     “Sorry, I misunderstood.  You must be very close then.”

     She gave me a strange look, puzzled and irritated.  “No.”

     “Do you want to take a card, Calypso?”

     “No, Skye.  I just wanted to share this special box.”

   I took a deep breath and the smells of incense assaulted me, a strong scent of sandalwood. 

     Miriam appeared, light- stepping and smiling.  “Wow.  What a swim.  The dam is unreal.”  She towel dried her hair and plonked herself down next to Calypso, crossing her agile legs.  Miriam grabbed the big box in front of her.

     “Mind if I move this?”

     A shocked silence fell like a dark shadow.  Calypso, furious, grabbed the box from Miriam possessively as if it contained a loved one’s ashes.  “Don’t you touch!”  Eyes narrowed, shooting poison in Miriam’s direction.

     “This box is a part of me.”

     “Oh, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to offend you.  Really I didn’t, I’m so sorry.”

     The room crackled with static.  The thought of slipping out of the open door behind me floated through my mind but the strangeness of the situation held me in a vice.  Willow broke the silence.

     “Before I share I want to bring in the bush animals and forest sprites.  The roos, the bilby’s and the native birds, all here before us.” 

     I looked around.  Did she mean literally?  No animals appeared in the room.  Willow picked up a card and smiled broadly, the first time I’d seen her smile.  I think I preferred her serious face, she looked mean and hungry.  She picked up a card with great flourish.

     “Ixchel.  I knew it.  Medicine Woman.  It says here that I am a channel for divine healing power.”

     A hush descended.  Willow cast a puzzled face around the circle of women.  “Dhama, my psychic, says I have the gift of healing.”

     And so it went on.  Jacinta shared her recent break-up and how she was so over him as she sobbed, her head hanging down for five whole minutes.  Ochre told us about her deteriorating relationship with her father and Miriam how she couldn’t get her ex to acknowledge their daughter.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t sympathise, but I couldn’t help but feel exposed.  And then it was my turn.  I picked up a card hesitantly wondering what was to come.  “Kuan Yin.  Compassion.”

     “Go on, Gabby.”  Skye encouraged.

     “It says release judgements about yourself and others, and focus on the love and light that is within everyone.”

     “Beautiful.”  “Amen to that.”  Whilst the others made their comments I squeezed my eyes shut and concentrated.  Love and light.  Love and light.

     “Would you like to share something of yourself with us, Gabby?”

     I opened my eyes to see Skye gently prompting me.  Love and light.  Love and light.  Calypso with her weird diet and her box, Willow with her healing hands.  Skye the custodian of this land.  The only thing I could see in my mind was Adam, curled up with mirth, tears rolling down his cheeks when I tell him about my afternoon.

     “No.”  I said.  “Thank you”.  I sensed a coolness around me where before it had only been caution. 

     Later we gathered round the cleansing fire, Skye handed us small scraps of paper on which she instructed us to write something we wanted to release and throw into the fire.  Each woman threw their much scrawled scraps to burn whilst I couldn’t even pretend.  The paper stayed curled in my tight fist, blank.  Calypso took a bird’s nest from her large handbag and held it up to the sky. 

     “This nest symbolises home, woman is home.”  She looked at our faces gathered around the fire before continuing.  “I will burn the bones of a home to let it be known that home is not a physical thing.  It is of the spirit.”

     With that Calypso threw the nest onto the fire.  It smoldered and spat for a moment,  blazed and disappeared.  It was quiet for a moment, each I supposed reflecting the letting go of whatever they had written on those scraps of paper.  Whilst I felt mine screwed up in the palm of my hand. 

     Jacinta perked up.  “Lets have a group hug”.

     I stood somewhere in the midst of half a dozen strange unshaven armpits thinking it couldn’t get any worse.  When it did.

     “Oooommmm.”  Someone began.  “Oooommmm.”  We vibrated in a huddle of chanting.   

     Then Calypso brought her uniqueness to the gathering.  “Hooommmeee, hooommmmeee.”  I for one wanted to go home.  When it was over I turned to Skye.  “I’ve got to go.  Adam’s expecting me.”

     “We haven’t done the stomping yet.”

     The faces of Jacinta, Calypso and Miriam.  Willow and Ochre.  Pinched and frowning, not friendly or understanding.  I looked at Skye, lost.

     “We’ve got some tribal drums and we stomp around the fire.  You can’t go, you’ll spoil it!”

I ran up the steps and in through the open door, dumped my bag on the floor and took a large wine glass from the shelf.  I poured myself a generous splash from a bottle of red.  How did I feel?  Abused?  In shock?  I looked around at my normal house.  The sofa against the wall, the television, bookshelves and a coffee table.  No forest sprites or cleansing fires. 

     “Oh, darling.  I didn’t hear you come in.  How did it go?”

     Adam laughed helplessly as I recounted my experience.  I watched him rolled up on the sofa, hugging his knees as I told all. 

     A month or so later I heard that Skye had found a place on a friends land, a small cottage.  We crossed paths occasionally but kept it short.  Last week I spotted a poster on the school notice board.  A gathering of the tribe to celebrate our new home.  Swimwear optional.  Stomping essential.