HINTERLAND CALLING

I got out of the car and knew at once, despite the abandoned cars peppering the green hills. I couldn’t even see the main house, hidden by vegetation as high as the roof. I wasn’t put off by the bare brick interior or the dark stained floorboards. I smiled and then I noticed Andrew’s face, a mix of horror and amazement. Apartments in London and Sydney, and a McMansion in a street lined with shiny mail boxes hadn’t prepared us for this.
Reduced to rustic, by choice. A brick cottage with no upstairs bathroom and ventilation holes big enough for snakes and more. “Eighth generation possum.” The vendor told us proudly. Andrew assured me that although the possum could get down into the bathroom, it wouldn’t. What did he know? A high pitched shriek from me and he appeared carrying a piece of gyprock. ‘We won’t block it up completely, just so she can stick her nose out and the kids can feed her.’ My friends would be amazed that I’d even pop in to use the toilet, let alone live here. And that was before a giant cane toad sat by my feet while I sat on said toilet. ‘Andreeeeeeeeewwww’.
That was just the main dwelling. We had another building which was to be my writing and painting space, plus guest accommodation for anyone game to spend some time on the ‘farm’. I decreed that the building should be dismantled. Termites I could have lived with. My dad christened ‘the building that never was’. More accurately he was almost ‘the dad that was no more’. He leaned on the wooden railing, chatting to Andrew. The railing gave way, the building spat him out. Crunch, splat. He jumped and launched himself to avoid a steel post where only yesterday a tree had been tethered. He fell 10 feet, I wailed like a banshee and my mother didn’t speak for half an hour. A black bruised foot and a scar shaped like devil’s horns on his forehead. Unusual souvenirs for the couple who usually played it safe with a bag of local nougat or marmalade from the Ginger Factory. I declared the building evil and Andrew took it to pieces over our first winter, some white ant ravaged walls as thin as paper and as easily torn as sweet wrappers.
And the cottage, I repainted those bare walls in white. My instinct to paint the entire building white, inside and out, strong. To make it clean, to paint out the dark. Then came the stairs, a wooden step ladder I couldn’t imagine negotiating after a glass or two of cab sav. Our first big job, the stairs, until we discovered the wooden floor was full of holes and little white ants. The day we found the little critters was the first day of many hard rains. We ripped the floor up. We had no stairs. To get to bed we had to climb a mud bank four feet from the ground which led to a door giving access to the bedrooms. Emerging from the rain with a determined face, I clutched a bottle of wine, trying not to fall as I negotiated a river of mud. It wasn’t until day 10 that we had stairs and flooring and the rain still hammered on a, thankfully intact, tin roof.
I call it a farm because it is to us, despite the animals being wild; wallabies, rabbits, and once a wandering dingo howling in the night. And two dogs that adopted our boys, or the other way around. Cold Comfort Farm is what I dubbed it in the early days. We planned to live off the land, without a clue we researched. We have clay soil and predators. We’ll turnover the soil with a crowbar, plant legumes. And we have to have chickens, right?
Tough for a girl like me, with a bird phobia. The bush turkeys have lived here for longer than we have. The prince of darkness birds with rudders for tails but no sense of direction, their huge bulk and tiny heads. I asked the locals for advice on how to tackle them, ‘shoot them’ came the reply. I didn’t like them but I didn’t want to shoot them. I would name them to personalise them, make them less scary. Philip, Bartholomew and Lester. Only one left. I asked my boys if they wanted to name it. “Dave,” said Jordan the 10-year old.
Now I’m so used to them, secure in the knowledge that they’re scared of me. We live side by side and I protect my herbs with swathes of chicken wire. Not sure how I’ll go with those chickens.
I love shopping in the local town. I chat on first name terms with the shopkeepers. I know the difference between fresh local produce and the smorgasbord of city choice. For me it’s all about the people. How things have changed since London or Sydney when I’d spend hours searching for an obscure ingredient for our evening meal. Now I’m happy with a locally grown tomato.
Now where was I? Anyone know a good name for a chicken?

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HORSEY HORSEY DON’T YOU STOP

People who know me will know I err on the cautious side. I don’t take risks, I even use hand signals when driving the dodgems. I’m a worrier. I put it down to my imagination but I think it may run in the family.

When we moved to Australia, the husband, who had lived in London for many years, became all outdoorsy and brave. I’d fallen in love with the indoors man who nursed his pint (or should I say pints) and watched back-to-back movies with the curtains closed on sunny days. I hadn’t changed. But I became his project. The ‘let’s make Jules face her fears’ project.

I’d always felt a bit embarrassed by my fears to tell you the truth. I could be coaxed onto fairground rides as long as I was completely oblivious to how dangerous or scary they were. I had to be shuffled on with speed. The husband nearly wet his pants in Chessington World of Adventure whilst on the big swinging boat. I asked him what was the least scary place to sit and he said ‘up the back’. Every time the boat swung my arse lifted from the seat and with nano-seconds to spare it rolled back the other way. The girl in front of me had been terrified too but on seeing my white anxiety-filled face and hearing my screams, forgot about her own fears and laughed herself silly at mine.

Back to the husband’s project. Step one: take wife horse riding.

There is a history here. Me and horses don’t go back a long way. I mean we go back a long way but we don’t get on. As a child I didn’t even particularly like cantering around and clicking my tongue. I didn’t go through a pony stage. When I was 10 we moved to Newmarket (England). Strange. There were almost as many horses on the roads as cars. Every stable exercised their horses, not just cantering on the downs, but crossing streets and heading up avenues. There were special areas where the horses could be walked. Wide pavements with fence-like barriers dividing the horses and making sure pedestrians were under no allusions as to who was boss here.

They weren’t little ponies either but thumping great race horses, walking majestically down sidewalks, occasionally tossing their heads with pride.

When I was 13 my dad decided it would be character building for me to get a paper-round. Looking back I think that the paper shop owner laughed himself silly at this one. I was the youngest, the skinniest and I lived furthest from the paper shop. Unaccustomed to manual labour, I was given the round that was the furthest from the paper shop – but in the other direction. For those who know the area, I lived at the other end of Crockford Park. My paper round started on the other side of Bury Road and continued to a small estate almost parallel with St Felix Middle School. As you can tell, I still feel sorry for my skinny arse.

Where the boys (I was the only girl) didn’t even need a bicycle as they pushed a Daily Mirror here, a copy of The Sun in the next house. Rows of terraces hungry for their morning news. Not me. The most I had in any area was 3 paper-drops then back on my bike for another mile. I struggled with The Guardian, Horse and Hounds, The Observer. Big, weighty papers with gravitas. There were stables here and there and this was where those uppity horses all lived. They were everywhere. I didn’t wear a cap but if I had I would have doffed it. Not so much through respect but fear.

One day a magnificent beast and I rounded a corner together, from opposite directions. I came unsuspectingly, almost whistling, from one direction whilst Red Rum popped up from behind a couple of cottages, a small man on its back. The horse reared up in front of me. It was like looking into the jaws of hell. I must have blacked out for a moment as the rider brought the horse under control. I can still see it in my mind. Shortly afterwards I chucked in the paper round.

Back to the husband’s project. We went horse-riding in the countryside. The husband is an accomplished horseman so I sent him off, waving happily. He’d be bored with me. And hadn’t they given me a slow, fat horse. And wasn’t I surrounded by other newbie’s and an experienced instructor. They lost me fairly early on in the piece. I was alone with a huge beast I didn’t have the faintest idea how to handle. After about another 20 minutes, as I sobbed pathetically, the horse decided it was time to go home. I couldn’t get off the bloody thing as it was too high and I was too timid to deal with it. I mean, I didn’t have any sugar lumps or carrots. I felt like a small child who’d got lost at the fair. Everything had meant to be lovely but it had all gone terribly wrong.

It was the last time I went horse-riding. Even better than that: it was the end of “Project: Let’s Scare Jules to Death”.