POETRY IN PROGRESS

Olive walks from Embankment station, smiling as she strolls across Blackfriars Bridge. Immersed in grey, from the concrete pavement at her feet to the arc of woolly sky above, like a dome, the lid of her world, she is on her way to work.

I feel safe in London, it’s been here for ever
Before me or the Queen or even the Queen Mum
What have you seen, my London?
Fires and plagues, ceremonies and fun runs
Westminster Abbey, Buck House et al
And when I’m dust it will be here still
So don’t say London Town,
It’s not provincial, it’s magnificent
And proud.

It’s Monday but Olive doesn’t mind. She stops, takes a notebook from her pocket and looks for a blank page. Grasps a pen and leans on the stone bridge centuries old. Her face is clean of make-up, her hair pulled tightly into a clasp, she almost disappears into the landscape. White skin to the point of translucency, her attempt at invisibility is deliberate.
Olive’s love of London goes back to childhood movies of spies and slightly dodgy east end characters, against a backdrop of Westminster and red buses, black cabs and the murky ribbon of the Thames.
On Olive’s eighth birthday her mother had promised her a party, her first. Only her mother had forgotten to send out the invitations which left Olive sitting surrounded by pink balloons and sitting behind a big shop-bought cake in the middle of the dining room table.
Her mum grabs her hand, her eyes black. “Don’t look at me like that. You don’t know what I have to go through.”
Words hung in the air around Olive as she tried to make sense of her disappointment.
I can smell the sweetness of my cake
See the pink balloons bobbing in the room
But I can’t hear the shrieks of happy girls
Or feel the warm fuzzy feeling of having friends
Best keep quiet, mother will be cross
I can always share my birthday with her
As I always do
Happy birthday, Olive.
Olive longed for a hug and promises of future birthday parties. Even now she couldn’t look at pink icing without feeling sad but she found an outlet for her disappointment. She began to write poetry.

Mummy gave me lemon curd sandwiches again
No one wants to swap with me
Mummy picked me up from school
In her purple trousers
I love her, I hate her

As Olive grew older she wrote of unrequited love and later still, of requited love, equally as painful. These days Olive writes, among other things, of loneliness and her boss, Keith, the most insensitive man she has ever met. That included her father, who on the day Olive’s mother had told him she was pregnant, declared, “I’m off. Find some other poor sap to sponge off.” And was never seen again.
Olive could write about anything, the wife of the man who ran the corner shop, Battersea Power Station and a day in the life of a tube driver on the District Line. But one thing linked them all. Olive’s poetry was awful. Over twenty years her poems had improved a little, but for Olive it wasn’t really the point. Her poetry kept her sane and tied her to the world, linked her to a life that didn’t quite fit. Poetry made her feel real and it made her smile.
Today Olive walks to work, to a five story building on the wrong end of Fleet Street. Her boss is Keith, the ego-centric and grumpy head of Mutual & Friendly who sold insurance policies to unwitting victims or clients as they are traditionally known. Olive answers the phone, makes the tea, fills in forms and adds up columns of figures. Sometimes she pops out to get Keith’s shoe re-heeled. Keith walks with a half-swagger which wears down one shoe quicker than the other. Olive spends valuable moments of her life, which she will never get back, trying to find a shoe mender who is prepared to repair one shoe.
“You’re kidding me, Miss? I need to see the other shoe. My reputation’s at stake.”
This is Central London, as much as Fleet Street is Central London, which it isn’t. About as much as Aldershot isn’t Guildford and Slough isn’t Maidenhead.
Three years earlier, an unhappy break-up, a disappointing career (some things hadn’t changed), and a batty mother had sent Olive scuttling south. She knew of only one person in London, a friend of a friend who lived in Battersea, Cressida. Armed with a scrap of paper with Cressida’s address on it, an A-Z and a bunch of droopy service station roses, she knocked on the front door.
The door opened to reveal a pale woman with red hair whose purple bra straps had slipped down her shoulders. Her eyelids had been slashed with a line of kohl and she was wearing stilettos.
“Yeah?”
“Who is it, Cress?” A voice from within the flat, deep and raspy.
“Give ‘us a chance, Billy.”
She turned her Cleopatra eyes on Olive. “Who are you?”
Olive blushed, taking in the sight of the disheveled woman in front of her. “Sorry. Bad time.” Olive turned away, Cressida grabbed her arm.
“It’s alright, love. Are you in trouble?”
“Yes, I suppose I am.”
Cressida dragged Olive in from the door step. “Shut the door on your way out, Billy.”
Over tea and digestives, Olive told Cressida about her recent break-up, her odd mother and Jenny who’d given her Cressida’s address.
That night, over a dinner of cocktail sausages and anecdotes of a single girl’s life in the city, Cressida gave Olive a quick initiation to city life. Such sage advice as never wearing your stilettos with jeans, taking your chewing gum out before kissing a man and what sort of hat to wear on a bad hair day. A bemused Olive fell asleep, confused.
Olive slept on Cressida’s sofa and ate the strange but comforting meals that Cressida provided, pilchards and curry powder, cold cuts and crumpets. She found a job working for an accountant and made friends with a girl called Sally whose flat mate had plans to travel to Australia, following a bloke who did shifts in the post room at her work. He came from South Australia and wore t-shirts with iron-on transfers of endangered animals. Bilby’s, bandicoots and dugongs. Sally needed a new flat mate. Olive and her suitcase moved in on Sunday after a tearful scene with Cressida.
“What am I gunna do without you?” wailed Cressida. It was a shame that Cressida couldn’t have crossed paths with the guy from South Australia, thought Olive. They would have made a better match and Sally’s former flat mate tired of him before their flight landed in Adelaide.

It’s the colour of her; bright, brash and buxom
Just when I think life is black and white
She comes along and puts me right
I don’t know what she sees in me as a friend
But she does.

One day, bored beyond measure with her job at the accountants, Olive found herself in a pub just off Fleet Street, staring into her Cinzano and lemonade, looking for the future in its pale effervescence.
“Hello, young lady. Why so crestfallen?”
Olive looked up, but not very far. A short man with blow-dried hair wavered unsteadily above her head.
“Sorry, do I know you?”
“Allow me to introduce myself, Keith Morris.”
“Olive Preston. Do you always talk like this?”
Keith shoved a business card in Olive’s face. It said ‘Keith Morris, Managing Director, Mutual & Friendly, Central London Branch’.
“Insurance company?”
“Yep.” Keith, sitting at Olive’s table by now, flipped a beer mat and failed to catch it. “I need a new assistant.”
“How did you know I was looking for another job?”
Keith’s head dropped to the table where he protected it from imaginary hazards by wrapping his arms around it. Olive wondered if insurance could be any less boring than accountancy. She left Keith to his stupor but took his business card with her.
Olive has the flat all to herself since her flat mate, Sally, moved to Abergavenny. Olive’s landlord travels overseas a lot and rarely remembers he owns the flat so the rent doesn’t get raised. Most people would be whooping for joy but Olive isn’t most people. She feels as if she is living on borrowed time and the day will come when a man, possibly in uniform, will place a heavy hand on her shoulder and say, “You’re nicked, young lady.” Olive watches too many black and white films and has a preference for Ealing Comedies.
Despite this imaginary timer Olive sees dangling above her head she has made the best of her home. She has painted the kitchen wall orange and hung a picture of a woman in a rowing boat next to the stove, the stove where Olive cooks stir-fries on weekdays and pancakes on Sunday mornings. Her face creams and a pink disposable razor sit haphazardly on a glass shelf in the bathroom. Her books pile to overflowing on an old wooden bookcase, arranged in colours, warm colours to cool, starting with reds and ending in blues. Piles of small notebooks are heaped on the coffee table like a burial mound. In each notebook you will find poem after poem. Olive is now manic with them, picking up ideas from all around her. Eavesdropping in coffee shops, sitting on park benches and people watching. It is all there, she just has to get it down on paper as quickly as each idea sprouts.
Apart from her book shelf, Olive’s home is messy. She gets an idea and she leaves the gas on, forgets to turn taps off. She doesn’t have many visitors. Just her mum when she travels down from Luton and keeps her coat on, handbag balanced on her knees as if she may flee screaming at any moment, which happens from time to time when Olive wants to talk to her.
Olive doesn’t invite many men back to her flat. The dates she goes on rarely get that far, they find her too strange. And Olive fails to see why she should use the word date which conjures up images of something plump and sweet. Why does she never meet kind men?
Fleet Street is a shadow of its former self since the newspapers moved to Wapping but the buildings haven’t changed. Brick buildings of shabby grandeur. Olive takes the lift to the fourth floor where Keith is already behind his desk, pretending to be busy.
“Hi, Cherub.” Olive grimaces at his choice of endearment. “Bring in a couple of coffees and we’ll go over the post.”
His marriage has ended and he doesn’t get to see his kids as often as he would like. Olive knows about loneliness and she’d feel sorry for him if he wasn’t so irritating
She endures another day in the office, it’s only the thought of drinks with Cressida after work that gets her through it, that and her notebook. Olive pulls it out and starts scribbling.

Eating up my own shoe leather
Looking for a cobbler
Who will take Keith’s single brogue
Is it my fault he walks like a game show host?
Where do I find them?
These misfits drawn to me
Are they a mirror of me?
I bloody hope not.

She turns up 10 minutes late due to a last minute meeting with Keith but she still arrives before Cressida, who falls through the door in an assault of colour, magenta and gold, as Olive sits down.
“Sorry. Got my stiletto caught in the escalator. I had to be rescued by a very good-looking man in uniform.”
Olive takes her purse from her bag and goes to the bar. She returns with a Malibu and pineapple juice for Cressida and a Cinzano and lemonade for herself. Cressida looks guilty.
“This fell out of your bag, Olive.”
Olive recognises a scrappy piece of paper on which she had written a poem and hopes it’s the one about Keith, not The Ballad of Cressida & Billy.
“You should do something with it, send it to someone. You could be the new Elizabeth Barrack Bryning.”
“Elizabeth Barrett Browning.”
“I think its great, Olive. Wish I had the gift of creativity.”
Olive laughs. “You have quite enough gifts already, Cressida.”
She takes the tube home and picks up a copy of The Evening Standard. Olive loves the obituaries and makes up stories based on the names she reads. In the ‘opportunities’ section she sees an ad for a magazine called PoetNow. ‘Attention all poets, submit your micro-poems to Alan Laing, Editor. Don’t be shy.’
On Thursday morning she sits on the train, trapped in a tunnel between Waterloo Station and The Embankment. Avoiding eye contact with her fellow passengers and trying not to look at her reflection in the blankness of the window, words spiral through her mind.
Stuck between stations on the District Line
Buried under the city
In a snake of metal and glass
At least the lights are on.
At work Keith is due to attend a big meeting. He keeps changing his PowerPoint presentation, re-arranging the order of his slides until it makes very little sense. Eventually Keith leaves Olive with the office in chaos. She makes herself a cup of Instant and sits for a moment.
Boss man left in a whirl
Has a point to make
Swagger, lurch, swagger, lurch
What will they think of him?
Dunking custard creams in their bad coffee,
Who are they to judge?
Who am I?
As the week progressed little verses came to Olive; walking in the rain without an umbrella, buying a single-girls supper at the corner shop, pondering on the merits of getting a cat. At home the opportunities section of The Evening Standard lies open on the kitchen table and she is ignoring the three by four inch ad. Even when Olive can’t see it, she knows it’s there. When she starts to talk to it she knows it’s time to make a decision.

Dear Alan,
My name is Olive but I’m not bitter
I work in an office but I have another life
A secret life where words spill out of me
Gushing and pouring, fizzing and frothing
In my head and scrawled on paper
They hum with life and intensity
My words need hope, they want to live
I can’t give them what they want
Can you?

She presses send and tries to forget about it.
Olive tries not to build her hopes up. And when she’s barely finished constructing her ship of hope, it develops a leak and sinks within the hour. Who is she kidding? Who would want to publish her third rate poetry? But still she found herself playing with words which flap through her head like bunting.
“You’re a natural, Olive.” Cressida’s words encouraged her but she wasn’t sure that her friend knew what she was talking about.
“Let me read that.” Her mother had said when she was little more than 10 years old. “What nonsense. No Preston ever amounted to anything.
And Keith who had one day caught her writing poetry when she should have been typing letters. “Don’t know much about poetry except it’s supposed to rhyme. What’s this one about?”
Every night she rushed home to see if there was an email and every night her inbox started emptily at her. By Wednesday she had given up looking. Olive picked up the newspaper from the table and shredded it viciously. She turned off her computer to stop herself checking it. Friday she arrived a home, after a drinks with Keith, just so she didn’t have to come home early. She fired up her pc and stared at her inbox. Sitting there, dated two days earlier, was an email from Alan Laing.

Dear Olive,
I’m no magician but I’ll try to help
To set your words free
To see them dance and dip and sway
They must live in stranger’s heads, trip on anonymous tongues
Meet me in the Red Lion & Pineapple, Acton on Thursday
I’ll be dressed casually but my intentions are serious
Yours Alan Laing.

Thursday night swung by with the velocity of wet concrete. Olive walked from the tube to the Red Lion and Pineapple, to clear her head. She ordered an apple juice and didn’t hear the door open and shut but she noticed a tall shape looming. The shape had brown hair, wore sneakers but no tie. “Hello, Olive. I’m Alan.”
They sat and talked. “I can’t pay you I’m afraid but I can get your work out there, read by people.”
Olive the poet. She’d have to get a long flowing scarf and of course she already had a floppy hat, a red one, waiting in her wardrobe for an occasion such as this. She would wear both, riding a bicycle with a basket on the front.
“You see,” continued Alan, “what makes you different is your voice. It’s fresh and innocent.”
Olive looked down at her grey suit and white blouse and felt suburban. Alan offered her a toffee from a crumpled bag in his jacket pocket, she took one. He had tufts of hair growing in different directions from his head but he smiled at her without a bored expression in his eyes, unlike most men she met. Alan raised his glass of ginger beer. “To Olive, the poet.”
And if you see a young woman dressed in scarlets and emerald greens, with a faraway expression on her face, carrying one shoe under her arm, don’t say hello. You may be interrupting poetry in progress.

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CONFESSIONS OF A SCRIBBLER

When I first started writing ten years ago I envisaged I’d write something serious. A novel. When I say first started writing I don’t include those ghost stories from my teens or the angst laden lyrics that died in a carrier bag without a tune to hang on to.

I wasn’t thinking of short stories either. Except as a stepping stone.

So, with only a couple of short stories under my belt I stared to write a book about an Australian woman leaving the city with her small son, and moving into a small seaside community with all its strange and wonderful inhabitants. It would be a love story. She would find a secret diary in a nook of her rental house from a woman who had lived there before, who, like herself was looking for love. Sea changes were in vogue at the time. I wrote my first sex scene. But I lost momentum and had no idea where I was heading. Except for more sex which I wrote quite badly.

The next attempt began as a short story set in America about a woman walking her dog in the snow who comes across a dead body. Bloody story just wouldn’t end. The more I wrote, the more questions needed answering. It’s still out there – unsolved – but you can be sure there was a conspiracy between the sheriff, the local doctor and the judge. It didn’t help that I had never been to America. Save for that half an hour in Bangor, Maine airport in the early nineties.

A few years later I started a story about a bohemian young woman who made a tree-change, running away her past. She made her own herbal tea and had tisane hair. I was going to call each chapter after the colours of the rainbow. My kids had just started at a Steiner school so you can see my influences. Unfortunately I got thoroughly sick of my heroine’s perfection. I wanted to cut her hair off with blunt scissors which was ironic as that was what her mother had done to her as a child. Great. I was turning into the evil, witch mother in the story I was writing. I walked away.

Meanwhile I wrote tens of short stories and fell in love with the art. I also started writing an honest account of raising two small children and coping with the diagnosis of a mental illness. This one is true. Plenty of inspiration and endless material.

Along with a writing buddy of mine, eighteen months ago we joined the NaNoWrMo competition. The National Novel Writing Month competition. This is a well known writing completion where your only competition is yourself. We signed up to write 1647 words a day for 30 days. At the end of the month we had a rough manuscript of around 50,000 words. The competition usually takes place in November but we took up the mantel in January. In Australia January is August in Europe and the USA. Its holiday month. No one works, they’re all out there sampling the beaches and the local cuisine. The kids are off school. Not ideal. It felt like ants crawled beneath my skin until I wrote my allotted words each day. Then I could enjoy the holiday. Or a nap, whatever worked. But I did it. I’m very anal about instructions but not very good with vague deadlines set by myself. This scenario worked for me.

I had finally written a novel length manuscript. I didn’t have to worry about being distracted or hating my main character. It was tough but there it was. Tucked away in my drawer, or rather on my hard drive (with a copy!), for all eternity. I immediately forgot about it.

It sat there for over a year until I decided to dust it off and enter it into a novel writing competition. I have been tightening and editing and all those ing-things. It’s all there but I can change it. If the protagonist pisses me off I can just have her killed, or at least give her cystitis.

Oh the power of the writer. It makes me giddy with joy. Sorry this has been all about me but after all I am the heroine of my own life. I can make a difference just by changing my mind. That makes me smile.

FIRST STAR

Sitting on the verandah with our morning cuppa, a light breeze ruffled the trees making everything cooler. Something caught the corner of my eye. I’ve been told that this is a glimpse of the afterlife but a large brown dog trotted over our meadow, very much still with us.
“Sam? Do you see that?”
“It’s a bloody dog! Where did it come from?”
I felt nervous, you never know with dogs. And this was a big one. But Sam got up and walked slowly towards it, talking all the time, some nonsense about being a good dog. The dog responded happily, wagging its tail and panting. Sam threw it a few sticks and then it followed him around all morning, breathing on the back of his knees while he worked on the property. He pretended to be irritated. I know because when he wasn’t aware I watched he made a big fuss of it. Sam’s big hands looked so gentle, stroking the dog. I’d almost forgotten what those hands felt like. I set out a bowl of water.
“What do you think her name is?”
“Oh, you’re so sure she’s a girl are you?”
“Apart from the fact that she’s in love with you, I checked. No dingle.”
Sam snorted. “Dingle?”
“I’m going to call her Barbara.”
Sam cast a sidelong look in my direction, eyes narrowed. “Ridiculous name for a big country dog like this one”
“We have to call her something. And I like it.”
“How about Felicity?”
“After your mother! She’d love that.”
“Lady?”
“Too obvious.”
“She won’t answer to any name we give her anyway.” Sam ruffled my hair and went back to fixing the mower. After lunch he went into town in the ute. He took Barbara with him. She sat up front, next to Sam, like a queen. I would make up some posters and put them up around town. I’d take her photo when she came home. Meanwhile I had work to do.
I took a spade out to the veggie patch. I had already marked the area with rocks. I wanted to dig it over to plant seedlings. Bending over in the sun wearing my work hat from which stubborn locks of red hair refused to be restrained. Pushing my boots onto the spade over and over, turning the soil. Tough work when we hadn’t had rain for a while. It felt great when I had finished, although I couldn’t stand upright. I hoped I’d applied enough sunscreen, I was prone to freckle.
It was the spring holidays but I’d only been back at work a term. I taught at the local high school. I’d been off work for a while. Our baby had died. Almost a year ago.
Still covered in dirt and with my muscles aching I poured myself a generous glass of wine and sat on the verandah, waiting for Sam and the Queen of Sheba’s return. We had bought the property the previous March with big plans for a veggie garden. We both managed to get teaching jobs locally. Sam worked with special needs kids and I taught drama. The house needed work, as did the land. We began weeding and digging, even picked out vibrant colours to cover up the browns and beiges of the inside of the house. Then life slowed down, joyfully and almost without noticing, I fell pregnant.
I could hear the sound of a motor at the top of the drive. A slight misfiring, throaty. The ute drove around the bend and stopped under the cluster of trees where we usually parked. A frangipani, various gums and a bottle brush jostled together in the breeze like tall men at a footy game.
“You were ages! I dug over the veggie patch.”
Sam walked towards me. “Oh, sorry Jen. I meant to help you.”
“I’m not made of glass, Sam.” As I held my glass in my hand frowning at him. I didn’t want to be treated like something fragile. I was strong.
“I know. I asked around town to see if anyone recognised the dog.”
“Any luck?”
“No.”
“I thought I’d take a photo of her and make some posters. Stick them up around, here and there.”
Sam rubbed his hands over Barbara’s back. “I guess so. You don’t want to keep her then?”
“No. She’s not ours.” I took a sip from the glass.
“Okay. Got one of those for me?” He nodded at my wine.
“Sure. Did you pick up the compost I ordered?”
Sam swore. “Damn, I forgot.”
We sat either side of the small round table on the verandah, overlooking the land we had bought, quite spontaneously, being city dwellers for so long. Sam kept the grass short but the weeds were taking over. I had tackled them the year before but they grow back fast if you don’t plant something in their place. When I should have been planting I lay in a hospital bed, praying hard that everything would be okay. And the seedlings didn’t get put in the ground so their roots could grow like invisible veins in mother earth. Like the veins in the body of my child, who had stopped growing inside me. My dream of cooking up batches of pumpkin soup in the winter, with a baby on my hip became just that. A dream.
Too tired to make the posters I made a bed for Barbara, like a four legged house guest, using towels in place of white Sheridan sheets. I put her bed next to Sam on the verandah and a couple of large potatoes in the oven. I poured us both a glass of wine and we sat to watch the first star appear. In silence, listening to Barbara’s panting, watching the sky change from lilac to indigo, looking up until our necks ached.
“I see it! Star light, star bright, the first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” I smiled the smug smile of a winner.
“Damn! You’re good at this.” Sam smiled.
What would I do without Sam? How would I be defined? He’s solid, real and sometimes reliable. A lucky girl and yet the cloak of my life was being gently nibbled at, tiny pieces lost almost without noticing. I noticed. What would I use my wish for? An end to all wars, rain for the garden or a box of child’s toys in the corner of the room? I broke the silence.
“We can go into town in the morning. I’ll make up the posters after breakfast. How does that sound?”
Sam and his lopsided smile. “Can we take Barbara?” Just then she appeared, stick between her jaws, ready to play.
“Yes, you wuss. What breed do you think she is?”
“I don’t know. A Great Dane crossed with a horse by the look of her.”
We ate our supper out front under an observatory of stars. Later in bed we lay side by side on our backs. Not touching, my skin tingling with neglect. With nothing to swerve our thoughts away from what lay at the centre of us both. Barbara in her new bed outside, watched by the stars. And we lay there with darkness draped over us like gossamer cloth, neither of us spoke as we fell silently into sleep.
She had been so small. Everything about her had been perfect; rose bud lips, tiny limbs and toes like cotton bud tips. She took one, maybe two, breaths then she went.
Barbara stood at the door when I opened it, almost sending her flying. I refilled her bowl and laid out the breakfast things. I poached a couple of eggs at the stove and wondered if we should feed her. I wasn’t sure how long a dog could go without food. It had only been a day. I put bread in the toaster, took the butter from the fridge to soften and called for Sam.
Tucking into our breakfast I asked, “Should we feed her?” Sam thought for a minute as he swirled his toast in runny yolk.
“Let’s leave it until we get back from town. I’ll take the photo. You’ll cut her head off.”
I took a terrible photo. Later I listened to Sam trying to get Barbara still. In the end the photo showed the dog with a stick between her jaws with large chocolate eyes of hope.
Soon we three were bumping along the forest road, like a family of misfits. But aren’t all families a little odd? Cobbled together with the occasional resemblance to one another. Roman noses and widows peaks. We try so hard and so long to make sense of it but does it really matter? Who says it has to make sense?
We named her Flora, such a delicate flower. She had been planted in me and then ripped away too soon. I didn’t want her to be in eternal darkness, never having seen light. She deserved to see the sun, and to grow, the loveliest flower in the garden. I wanted her to help me in our garden, chubby fingers smeared with dirt. A pair of small boots next to ours on the back step. Instead, a tiny plot in the local cemetery with a service, just Sam and I. I don’t go there any more but Sam, he takes her brightly coloured flowers and puts them in a stone jug. A white cross marks her grave. It says simply ‘Flora’.
Sam nailed a couple of the plastic covered posters we had made to some trees along the forest road. In town we asked the friendly fruit sellers, Glen and Gladys. We put one on the notice board outside the chicken shop, chatting with everyone about our visitor. No one knew her.
Last stop was the Mountain View café. I climbed the steps to the counter and asked Melanie.
“My dog goes missing all the time. He wanders off. The RSPCA know me by name now. By all means stick the poster up but you should call the RSPCA.

“Someone has reported a Rhodesian Ridgeback missing.” Sam came into the kitchen where I sat at the table, planning the vegetable garden on large pieces of paper with Barbara lapping at a bowl of oats and milk noisily.
“You called them. How do you know Barbara is a Rhodesian Ridgeback?”
“I looked it up on the internet. Jen, you’re not getting too attached to her are you?”
Hot tears came from nowhere. I turned and escaped to the bedroom, lay down on the bed where we had given life to our daughter and I wept loudly. Ugly sobs, my chest in a staccato rhythm. So consumed that for a while I didn’t feel Sam’s gentle hand stroking my head, pushing strands of hair wet with tears from my face. I looked up. My face felt inside out.
“I failed. I couldn’t keep Flora alive. I gave her life but I couldn’t keep her here.”
“That’s not your fault.” Sam struggled to say the right thing. His big, brown face frowning, hair pushed back from his forehead.
I asked a question that had formed in my head some time ago. “How do you go on? How do you deal with the pain?”
“Jen, I just let it run through me.” He reached for my face, takes it in his hands. “Maybe Flora is a star in the sky, the one that twinkles the most.”
I sat up slowly fearing I had come undone. I took his hands from my face and held them. “Do you talk to her when you take the flowers?”
“Yes. But I talk to her everywhere. I say good morning quietly as if I might have slipped into her bedroom not wanting to wake her. I wish her goodnight.” Sam looked sheepish and his cheeks coloured slightly. “Don’t laugh but sometimes I tell her fairy stories at the grave.”
“Which ones.”
“The ‘Princess and the Pea’, ‘The Little Mermaid.’ But her favourite is ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. You see, she takes after her mother who loves to laugh.”
The thought of Sam telling stories for Flora was magical. It lifted me, ever so slightly. The cloak of grief loosened at the front. Perhaps I will laugh again.

I make tea for us. We sit at the kitchen table. Sam hands me a scrap of paper with a local telephone number scrawled across it.
“What’s this?”
“A lady called Sally. She’s Barbara’s owner. Shall I call?”
“Okay. But first can we spend some time with her? Throwing sticks.”
Barbara’s owner picked her up later that afternoon. She was lying on the verandah, exhausted after our games. Sally a young woman with facial piercings lived around the corner but still a good trek for a dog. Barbara jumped in the back of the car. Just before Sally turned to go I put a hand on her arm.
“What’s her name?”
“Maiden.”
“I was calling her Barbara.”
Sally laughed. “Did she answer to Barbara?”
“No.” I smiled and watched them drive off. Sam walked up behind me and held me in his arms.
“You’re going to miss her?”
“Maybe…”
“I preferred Barbara to Maiden.”
“You did?”
As we stepped back into the house holding hands, our thoughts were far from stray dogs and vegetable patches.

PICK ME! PICK ME!

It’s been a while since I put my hand up for anything. Ill health and an ex-military friend who wisely told me to never volunteer for anything helped shape that decision. It took me years to take her advice but that’s where I’ve been. All tucked up and warm and not involved. For a few years at least. But I wasn’t always that way.

At work I was usually the girl to put her hand up for arranging socials and reunions. I was on the board for our school reunion, class of 81. It was horrible. People hung around in the same clutches. My now ex but then current man did exactly the same he had done at school. Ignored me and lurked with a mate eyeing up a girl called Wendy.

Years later when I had my first baby my place became a club house for the mothers group. My doors were always open but my snacks were a little repetitive. Cheese and pineapple on sticks. Anything involving chocolate. I could manage some of the requirements but not others. I’m the same now. I have signature dishes and favourite salads I trot out with minimum effort. There’s really no need to reinvent the wheel.

I’ve woman-ned cupcake stalls at school fetes. Arranged fund raising activities for class camp funds. Calendar making, soup kitchens, that sort of thing. I sewed over fifty gnomes for a new parents welcome morning tea. In fact I couldn’t stop. I just kept sewing them. I held a knitting group at my house and made the same bread every week. I ran the second hand book store at the school festival. My own personal version of dying and going to heaven.

Then my health overwhelmed me and I retired to the country to write and watch foreign films. And there I’ve been ever since. No reading groups at the school. No teaching kids to knit beanies any more. But life goes in cycles and the next one is looming.

Next year son no.1 is going on his first rugby tour to New Zealand. I know. Scary hey? A fair amount of fund raising goes into that trip. Would I be one of the parents going round with the meat tray on a Friday night? Or a bouncer at the local teenage disco? Filling water bottles, setting up stands for sporting events. Maybe not.

I put my hand up for the coordinator of these voluntary events. Yes, me. Who hasn’t worked in an office since there was a 19 in the year. Whose list of undeleted emails sit there for long enough to claim squatters rights. I’m messing with the big boys now! With the husband at my back. I’m a little overwhelmed at the details involved in this task but I will do my best and remember the Brownies motto: Lend a Hand.

And of course if anyone needs a gnome for company or a knitted bag for their rugby boots, I’m their girl.

PS I apologise in advance to any rugby parents who I confuse in the process of trying to make things easier for them. To be honest I’m more Bubble than Miss Moneypenny.

SUSHI TO GO

“Please come to the show, darling! Cyn is taking Fee.”
Her mother’s voice pleaded. A noise that would clash with any other. The disappointment in her pale perfectly bred eyes. That vertical line of miscomprehension. Her father looking at her as if she were an alien. The look. One of those lightening quick looks between her parents, whenever they were all together. The Belrose triangle.
Sibella wondered again if she had been adopted. If only. Maybe swapped at birth as some kind of experiment. Less White Australia Policy more Cultural Australia Policy. Perhaps sixteen years ago Mummy had found the most delightful working class couple who couldn’t afford to give their child anything much, so good old Jocasta and Miles had taken the little scrap on. Changed its name from Kylie to Sibella and hey presto! You could almost smell the North Shore on her.
But the experiment had failed. The posh school, the pony club, music lessons and the ballet. No effect whatsoever and here she was in a box at the threatre, lightly snoring to the latest opera band. Every now and then she came round to hear her father tapping his feet and mother rattling her jewelry, just ever so slightly out of tune.
When she looked at Mummy and Daddy she saw strangers, people who couldn’t possibly be related to her. They saw in her a stubbornness, a refusal to see things their way; the right way. After all they had done for her. Not having more children and giving her a posh name.
Sibella wanted to be a nurse. She wanted to help people. She had done her first aid course at school and was hoping for good grades in the sciences.
“But it’s just so dull, darling.” Her mother’s bottom lip protruded in a pout. That looked cute, 30 years ago.
“Couldn’t you come up with something a little more glam? Oh, I know! What about one of those overseas aid thingies? You know, like the princes do. You never know you might meet one.” Jocasta’s smile, straight out of the glossies. As her voice trailed off, her head filled with scenes from a Royal Wedding and choosing an outfit to outshine Princess Michael of Kent.
Sibella slunk off to her room to lie on her bed which was covered in the latest print from Liberty’s. Her mother had the entire house re-interior designed every other year. Her new music system sat there, already neglected and gathering dust. Bought for her by her father, hoping for a child who played loud music and kicked against the system. It had been excruciating for Sibella when he’d gone through his old punk cd’s (updated from the original vinyl) and tried to show her how to pogo.
Both her parents seemed to be in armed combat against middle age. Neither of them wore nearly enough clothes. And tomorrow, oh God! They were holding a pool party. Which meant about 50 middle-aged people squeezing into the latest swim wear designed for persons a couple of decades younger, plus a whole array of boring teenagers trying to look cool and asking Sibella if she had any grass. Of course she had grass – well her parents did. Every weekend they tried to get her to share a joint with them. She usually used the slamming the bedroom door method of refusal and stayed there until breakfast. What was the matter with them? Parents weren’t supposed to supply illegal substances.
Sunday started with Sibella going in search of food only to find Jocasta in her yoga gear tying herself in knots.
“You should try this, darling. Shane has done marvels for my pelvic floor”
Her mother nodded her head in the direction of the television where a Californian yoga guru was putting his leg behind one ear. It didn’t look the same when Jocasta tried to do it. All those lumpy bits showing under canary yellow lycra. Sibella shuddered and made her way to their hi-tech kitchen where she collided with her father back from his jog, sweating profusely and wearing very small white shorts.
“Don’t forget the pool party, darling. Your mother and I have been working out so we don’t embarrass you.” Miles gave Sibella a not-so-gentle shove.
Now there’s a thought. Sibella couldn’t think of a time when they hadn’t embarrassed her but gave a weak smile in appreciation of their efforts and went to look for bacon.
“Sibella, darling. Don’t forget we’re having a vegetarian, low-fat, low-carb, no-dairy week. So no bacon sandwiches for you my little piglet. I’ll do you a wheatgrass juice if you fancy it.” Her mother’s smile was radiant despite her contorted body.
Sibella groaned and decided on a walk to the nearest bakery. She needed carbs if she was ever going to get through the day. She walked straight past the shiny metallic kitchen and headed for the back door and north towards the smell of freshly baked bread.
Sibella bought a bagel from the Sunshine Bakery which was painted bright yellow and faced the park. She recognised a boy from school behind the counter.
“Yo! It’s Sybil isn’t it?” Anwell smiled at her which made him look simple rather than charming as he had hoped.
“Sibella, but don’t worry about it.”
They both stood there, staring at each other. Sibella expectantly and Anwell completely forgetting what came next.
“My bagel?” Sibella prompted him.
“Oh, yeah. Hey, you don’t fancy hanging out after I get off? No, wait, I have this thing to go to with my folks. Not that I have to go – I could, like, shake them off.”
Anwell leaned casually on the side and jumped in pain as he was burned by the hot counter. He grinned at Sibella again. The more Anwell tried to be cool, the more of an idiot he looked.
“No drama. My parents are holding a party this arvo anyway. They’ll be furious if I’m not there.” Sibella wanted to make sure nothing got out of hand too. Jocasta and Miles couldn’t be relied upon not to get everyone skinny dipping. Sibella shivered.
“See ya, then.” Anwell reluctantly waved. Sibella would have smiled except for the bagel jammed between her lips. She held up a hand and headed for the park where she found an empty bench and sat to finish her bagel. She had a packet of Minty’s in her pocket saved for desert. However, she had barely finished her bagel when her mobile rang the theme to Star Wars.
“Sibella! I don’t know what to do! Help me! Why aren’t you here?”
“Mum? Slow down. Take a deep breath. What’s the matter?”
A woman sat down on the bench next to her. Sibella noticed that she was dressed entirely in pink. She refocused reluctantly on her mother’s high pitched wails of distress.
“Oh my God! It’s an absolute disaster! Your fathers locked himself in the bathroom as he always does at the first sign of trouble. And I’m left alone trying to…”
Her mother’s ranting turned to tears which Sibella sat out. There was nothing else to do when Jocasta got like this. It could be a real disaster like Grandma going into hospital or it could be a broken nail or a coffee stain on a favourite dress. You never knew. Her mother’s world was fraught with potential catastrophe. Sibella waited and her eyes met those of the pink woman.
“Is everything okay?” Pink woman’s voice was soft and calm, the polar opposite of her mother’s hysterical screams. Sibella nodded and smiled.
“Darling. I’m okay”. She could hear her mother panting, possibly while breathing into a brown paper bag. Jocasta was prone to panic attacks as other people were to sneezing.
“Can you talk now, Mum?”
“Yes. Darling. I think so. The Yummy Sushi Company has gone into liquidation.”
Jocasta paused for effect.
“Well, that’s okay isn’t it? You’ll just have to travel further for your uncooked fish.”
“No, you silly girl. They were supposed to be doing the catering for the pool party!”
“Oh.”
“Is that all you can say? Our future depends on this – the Cartwright’s are very judgmental and don’t forgive cock-ups. I’ll be the laughing stock. Probably be kicked off the Women’s Tennis Guild. Could you see if David Jones cater?” Sibella could hear Jocasta’s manicured nails clicking worriedly on the receiver.
“They won’t at this short notice. DJ’s don’t have tonnes of raw fish just on the off-chance. Couldn’t you do the catering? I’m happy to pick up the shopping. Just tell me what you need.”
“Do my own catering? How twee.” Sibella heard her mother’s breath struggling down the airways.
“Leave it to me, Mum.” Sibella foolishly interjected in a bid to stop another outburst. Now why did she say that? She didn’t know any caterers. She clicked her mobile shut. sucked out of her.
“Can’t be that bad? Can it?” Pink woman again, looking concerned, her hand on Sibella’s arm.
“Yes, it can. Mum’s caterer has let her down for the party this afternoon. She’s having hysterics and I’ve volunteered to sort the food issue. As if I haven’t enough to face with actually having to attend the party. It’s a nightmare!” Sibella covered her face with her hands, the irony of sounding like her mother didn’t escape her.
“Maybe I can help?” The woman smiled kindly. Sibella wondered if she had a sushi trolley hidden behind her just in case of such emergences but decided she probably hadn’t.
“I don’t think so. Mum’s going to be unbearable. And with all those people coming.” It was hopeless. The thought of a socially expelled Jocasta was too much for her to bear. Weeks and weeks of panic attacks and crying fits.
“You see, my son runs a fish shop. I’m sure he could rustle up a fish and chip supper easily enough. And he could do with the business. Him and his wife have just had another baby. What do you think?” She was blonde with a heavily powdered face.
“What? About the baby?” Sibella repeated dumbly.
“No. A fish and chip supper. I know it’s not quite North Shore but there’s nothing worse than hungry posh people. Unless you pretend that the food has been donated to the Third World. My name is Caroline.” She held out her hand. Sibella shook it whilst thoughts ran like racing cars through her mind. Fish and chips. It was a risk. Jocasta would be furious, all those carbs not to mention the fat. She didn’t think the Third World idea would cut it but the bulimics wouldn’t have a problem with chips and fish in batter.
“Sounds like a great idea, Caroline. My name is Sibella.”
Caroline smiled. “Oh, course it is.” Her heavily rouged cheeks jostled for position as she smiled even broader.
Caroline called her son who ran his fish shop in a working class suburb Sibella had never heard of and it was all arranged. Sibella would go home and break the news to Jocasta while Caroline and her son, Reg Junior, would arrive at three with the fifty fish and chip suppers.
When Sibella arrived home her mother was a picture of charm and grace. Obviously those yoga sessions with Shane were paying off. She floated around putting out a few bowls of gluten-free nibbles on side tables, wearing a floaty sea-green kaftan over her swimsuit. Miles had come out from his hiding place and was proudly strutting around wearing Speedos and half a bottle of expensive aftershave.
“Well, have you managed to sort it out, clever girl?” Jocasta beamed at her only child.
“Er, yes. I have but it’s only…”
“Oh, good!” Jocasta looked at her watch. “Shouldn’t you be getting changed, darling?”
“Well, I though I’d wear this. I don’t really fancy a swim. The pool will be too crowded. Anyway, Mum, I wanted to talk to you about the…”
Her mother looked down at Sibella’s cut-off denims and grubby t-shirt. “Absolutely not, young lady. I’ve laid out a swim suit and kaftan on your bed. It matches mine. Mother and daughter combo’s are all the rage this season.”
There was no way that was going to happen and Sibella was saved by a buzz at the security gates, heralding the first guests. Jocasta disappeared immediately.
“Alright, kitten?”
Sibella took in the aging lothario who was her father and marched off to hide in the kitchen. She would make the Pimm’s cocktail herself. Dad always added a bottle of vodka to the mixture and targeted a sad housewife for his affections. Honestly, he was out there dressed like an actor from a 70s porn film, all he was missing was the oversized moustache.
She managed to remain in the kitchen for another half an hour, chopping fruit and mixing jugs of Pimm’s.
“That’s a girl, pumpkin.” Her father appeared. “The white wine’s going down like the Titanic. This’ll do very nicely.” He took the tray from the breakfast bar. “Come on outside. The kids look pretty cool. You might snag yourself a snag.” Miles disappeared smirking at his own joke.
Reluctantly Sibella followed her near-naked father outside where the full colour spectrum of swim wear was being worn on faces that were slipping. Boob jobs abounded but the expense accounts didn’t seem to have been able to buy faces to match. At least they were leaving something for the next generation, all that silicone clogging up the landfill.
“So when’s the food arriving, darling? What have you arranged? Smoked salmon and caviar blinnis? Pigs in blankets, mung bean salad and scallops?” Her mother had dispensed with the kaftan but hadn’t noticed that Sibella was yet to change.
“Oh, that reminds me. I’d better give the caterers a call. Check they know their way here.” She slipped away from her mother’s anticipatory grin, rather like a friendly shark, and went to phone Caroline. Even the business card she had given Sibella was pink. Caroline Smith, Hairstylist. Discounts for oldies.
At that moment an overweight, ruddy faced looking man appeared, carrying umpteen parcels wrapped up in paper.
“Fifty fish and chip suppers at your disposal, Maam. The lady over there said this was your do.”
“I’m sorry? Who are you?” Jocasta’s face fell four feet and she turned to Sibella. “Darling? What is this? Surely you didn’t arrange this carb and fat-fest?”
“Mum, listen. There was no way I could arrange anything at short notice and I met a nice lady in the park who told me her son had a fish shop.”
Just then, from behind Reg Junior, appeared Caroline, resplendent in a pink swimsuit with matching kaftan, hands full with the remaining paper-wrapped parcels, her face still made up and beaming with pleasure.
“How nice to meet you, Mrs Barrymore. May I call you, Jocasta?”
Sibella’s mother looked in horror at this working class woman, holding what appeared to be the remainder of the fish and chip supper, and wearing an identical swimsuit/kaftan combo to herself in a hideous shade of pink.
“Oh, Jocasta! What a fabulous idea! A fish and chip supper. How retro! Retro is so this season!” Cynthia Cartwright put an arm tinkling with gold bracelets around Jocasta.
“And what a darling man you have there. Put them on the table.” She swept her other arm towards the outdoor setting, flashing her gold tooth at a startled Reg Junior.
“Oh, how brave! What a simple darling idea.”
“Just what we need after all that Pimm’s, eh?”
Caroline handed out the fish and chip parcels, whilst Reg Junior showed anyone who was interested photos of his new baby.
At the back of queue for fish, looking awkward and out of place, was Anwell. Sibella went over to him.
“Hi! So this was the thing you had to attend?”
“Yes. Hi, Sybil. Hey, you haven’t any grass have you?” Anwell whispered nervously.
“No. I hate it when people smoke grass. It makes them so boring.” Sibella was just about to turn on her heels when Anwell placed a hand on her arm.
“Oh, good. I only said that to appear cool but the truth is I’m allergic.” Sibella couldn’t help but laugh.
“Fancy a swim once you’re eaten?” Sibella wondered what the attraction was with Anwell Gupta. He was so gauche. But it was unlikely he would wear speedos or very small white shorts. And for now, that was enough.