A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF

On my way up to my room to watch a film on the lap top (while the rest of the family gathered round some fantasy action movie downstairs) I told Son. No.2, over my shoulder, that I was watching a movie about Dylan Thomas, the poet. “He drank himself to death”, I shouted. It’s a hard sentence to say without sounding Irish or Welsh. He giggled. I hadn’t meant it to be funny.
It was a beautiful and poignant film about a wondrous poet who raged. And drank. And raged. And drank. It made me think of a cousin. Our family has a weakness for booze. And a propensity for madness. Maybe every family does.
My grandfather was a heavy drinker in a time when to be so could be seen as romantic. Many of his sons were the same in an era where romance and booze were not seen through the hazy glow of romance at all. One or two went far enough to be alcoholics. Another Irish phrase comes to mind – ‘Oh but he’s an awful alcoholic.’
My cousin, a brilliant and flawed girl, drank herself to death. She really did. And broke my heart. I waited years for that phone call, unable to change her fate. My Dad rang me with the news. It wasn’t the first time I’d said the f-word but never was it more heart-felt.
My first drink was given to me at about the age of 14. By my much beloved Nan. Homemade elderflower wine. She was babysitting me. When my parents arrived home I fell off the stool I was attempting to sit on. Mum seethed silent rage. Anyone who does that to my boys would get more than silent rage. But this was the seventies, when anything homemade was good for you. My mother still labours under the misapprehension that cider is merely apple juice.
I have always been the worst party girl. In that I was completely rubbish at it. A few drinks away from loving everyone in the room. Conducting group hugs with complete strangers. Copying strange accents until the owner of them wanted to throttle me. I’ve woken up a few times wondering what had happened at the end of a party. Who had I offended? It’s not a nice feeling. And the mixture of the drink and bipolar (my particular form of madness) is neither a wise nor pleasant one.
Son No.2 again. He’s doing a project on Van Gogh. “He cut his ear off in a fit of madness.” He looked at me from under his lashes. “Don’t get any ideas will you.”

SOFT AND FLUFFY

‘Should I take a towel from the drawer’, my son asks.
‘What are they like?’
‘There’s the aubergine one, or this’. He holds one up.
I can see sunlight through it. I wrinkle my nose. ‘Take my good one. It’s on the stairs.’
‘But that’s yours’
‘I don’t want your friends to think we have crappy towels.’
‘Only our close friends,’ he says confidently.
‘No. Not even them’.
Towels have haunted me all my adult life. When I moved unexpectedly to London to be with a man he took one look at my towels and dragged me into Marks & Spencer. Ah, he’s buying me lingerie I thought. But no. Even better than that. He bought me two big fluffy bath towels. Heaven. That’s not the only reason we have stayed together but it looms large.
These days I suffer from towel-envy. Not sure if there is a support group for this affliction. I sit on the beach eyeing gorgeous striped towels that have fluffy depth from the other side of dark sun glasses. Bright colours decorating the sand like a towel mosaic. One of my closest friends has French style towels. Beautiful, floppy pieces of elegant material. A cross between a posh picnic rug and a soft throw. Sophisticated.
My towels are frayed towels, holey towels, even hand-me-down towels from family. Towels I’m embarrassed to own. I only hang them on the line because we live on acreage. No one can see.
If my mum read this blog I know what she would say, after falling on the floor laughing. ‘I knew that would come back to bite you on the bum’, or some such wise words. She would be referring to my teenage years when I refused to use any towel twice. Once wrapped around my ample bosom and it went straight in the wash basket. I washed my waist length hair thrice a week. That makes 10 towels a week, 40 a month, nearly 500 a year . No wonder Mum spoke to me through gritted teeth until I left home. Don’t tell son no.1. He’s turning out to be quite like me .
But is that it? Or is the humble towel a metaphor for some other yearning in me. A strong desire to lay down my towel on a faraway beach or lounger crowded round a pool. Is it symbolic of my wish to travel?
Does measuring my threadbare towels against other people’s well-kept towels reflect possible self-esteem issues?
There was a phase a few years ago when middle-class people rolled their towels into a sausage shape. Displayed them on open-plan shelving. Mine are shoved unceremoniously into a drawer which often gets stuck.
Years ago a colleague was disgusted when her boss bought her a towel for Christmas. Perhaps she had hoped for jewels or a silk scarf. The towel was deep blue with gold edges. A sumptuous towel. I had visions of lying on a damask covered sofa wrapped in that towel, like exquisite gift wrapping. Or shaking it out on the sands of St Tropez.
I have one good towel. It’s white with red stripes – the colours of our local rugby team. Bought by son no.2 for my birthday. If we ever win lotto, I’m going to fly to the best department store in the country to buy up all their towels.
NB Despite my towel-needs I have never stolen one from a hotel room. I may be a bit strange but I’m not a fool.

A WEIGHTY SUBJECT

I am at best curvy. At worst a bit of a plumpy. But it hasn’t always been this way.
I was a skinny kid, a skinny tween and a skinny early teen. I wore 4 inch heels to school at 14, looking like a pipe cleaner in school uniform.
When we moved too far away to attend the same school I visited my old friends in the school holidays and comfort ate on weekends at home. Double bills of horror films to the accompaniment of lumps of cheese and packets of crisps. My thrifty mum couldn’t keep up with school blouse button popping and my bra size went from 32B to 38DD in mere months. I’d stopped cycling everywhere at about the same time – it was easier to stalk the boy I fancied on foot. I felt more confident in my bigger body. I felt sensuous. I’d always thought myself pathetic as a thin girl. Now I was brave and courageous. Full of life.
About a year later I discovered that most boys didn’t like my overflowing flesh. They wanted a girl their mates envied. They wanted a girl who was hot. I looked down at myself in confusion. Was I not hot then?
My confidence evaporated. The ground beneath me swayed and broke up into pieces. I started to diet and fell in love with the feeling of abstinence. Hunger pains gripped me lying in my bed at night. I fought my will to eat. Sometimes I only ate apples, another time just one bowl of cereal a day. I refused to eat with anyone else so that I could stash the meal my mother had cooked me into a plastic bag to be thrown away later. This was real control and at the end of it I had a concave stomach. Hurray for me!
By that time I had reached the weight of six and a half stone I was a waif. Now it wasn’t just my mum on my case. My boyfriend was concerned. His mother said I was so thin I resembled a drug addict. When Karen Carpenter died from complications from anorexia I was getting the hard word from most people.
I was lucky. I wasn’t so emaciated that I couldn’t turn back. I still had enough vanity to be shocked that I may look like a heroin user. And although slim was the preferred female shape of the day, boobs and hips were sought after too. Writing this I am appalled that the body-fashion of the day should be relevant to young women but it was.
And it certainly is now. I could spit feathers at the skinny images of young women that are out there for our youth to see. The other day I saw a pathetic, but alarming, article containing drawings of what body shape men and women prefer in females. Women prefer a slim shape with a modest bust apparently. Nice swivelly hips. Whereas men were reported to prefer a version of femininity that wouldn’t exist without starvation, and a boob job not far short of Dolly’s. Not a human form, a blow up version surely.
There are naturally thin women and these are the girls who are picked to model clothes. I get that – they sell more. But to encourage further weight loss and air brushing away so called imperfections puts an unnecessary strain on girls and boys. Perfect, perfect, perfect. Why are we even focusing on our looks? Didn’t magazines used to have interesting articles in them? Instead of page after page of pouty ads for make-up, diet food and stuff we used to consider frivolous.
I grew up subscribing to Spare Rib magazine and reading Herman Hesse. If anyone caught me looking in the mirror I was teased. Look at her, how vain is she! I have wondered how I would deal with raising a girl, as one blessed with two sons. But it affects boys too. Son No.1 works out nearly every day and feels blobby if he doesn’t. When should I start to worry?
I don’t know the answers. I don’t really know how we got here. Fame culture, porn culture, reality TV? The husband blames Twiggy. Even I still involuntarily suck my stomach muscles in when watching celebs on the red carpet in their confectionery gowns. It’s hard to be part of an age when Marilyn, if alive today, would be considered fat. 

GIRL INTERRUPTED

Remember those deep friendships with other girls. The ones you had growing up? A friendship that began by an intense dislike of another girl at school perhaps. Or envy of their hair, their long legs, their ease with other people. Startled by their rudeness, the sneering way they chewed gum.

You grew close and hung out on weekends. Stalked older boys or pretended to be cooler than you were in front of younger girls. Perhaps you got into trouble together. Smoking menthol cigarettes and drinking warm cider. Hiding from her older brother.

Scout hut discos. Dancing as if you had volts of electricity running through you. Finding your role models. Blondie, Madonna, Siouxie Sioux.

Once you left school you would plan to attend the same colleges, universities. The two of you would end up sharing a place with a girl called Ruth to make the rent. You’d try not to poison each other with your cooking experiments. You’d have crappy boyfriends who were always at the pub. But you had each other, a rousing cry, while you drank down a tooth mug full of Stones ginger wine. You wouldn’t date anyone who didn’t love your friend, your chum, your partner in crime.

I was reading an article in the newspaper about friends this morning. How important they are. Growing up together, never losing touch. Your friend. The coolest person you ever met. And I have that. I’m very lucky. I moved to a different county, a different city, finally moving to the other side of the planet. But she’s still there. In my heart, in my head, top of my facebook friends.

But as I read about the authors experience growing up with a great gal pal I was aware that things were different for me. I’m not asking for sympathy. I certainly don’t want you to feel sorry for me. Heaven forbid.

When I was 14, not long after I met my girlfriend, my family moved away. I was pulled away from my dearest friend. And life was never quite the same. While I had girlfriends at my new school, not many I must admit, I was always third wheel in some other friendship. I was ‘Ruth’. (Apologies to any Ruth’s reading but I had to pick a name). I still got presents back from family holidays and phone calls. But I wasn’t the first on the list. I was the ‘Sarah was busy, I was wondering if you might like to’… hang around the streets talking nonsense, try and get in the local pub where some spunky bloke hung out.

I’m still in touch with my friends, even the ones where I was third wheel. I mean, I live on the other side of the planet but facebook is good. It’s really good. After school I stayed on while Thelma and Louise left. Thelma lived overseas for a while. And Louise (oh how glamorous!) started seeing a much older man.

I needed my friend. My other-county friend. We still liked the same music, wore similar clothes. I didn’t look for another female substitute. I found a male one. A series of them. Beautiful, black leather jacketed, motorbike-riding young men. I had fun doing things I probably shouldn’t have done but there was no pouring over the tiny details over and over again. No swapping clothes (although I did wear my first love’s jeans to school, covered in motorbike oil). No giggled confessions.

There followed a number of relationships, lots of being thrown around on the back of a bike. Rock festivals, Easter camping trips in the snow. A wedding. A divorce. 20 years of being one of the boys.

It wasn’t until I had children that I started being one of the girls again. I was married for the second time, very happily. But I’d missed my rites of girly passage. I’d never played Rizzo to anyone’s Frenchy. I wasn’t even Sandra Dee. No regrets. It’s my story and I’m quite happy with it.

I have two sons who are my stars and moon. But if I’d had a daughter I would tell her to cherish her girlfriends, keep them close. Never let them go. While you’re trying to work out whether he’s a good guy or whether you should run, your girlfriend will be able to tell you straight. Immediately. Just by looking at him. It would have saved a lot of time.

KEEP YOUR CHILDREN CLOSE AND THEIR NEW UNIFORMS CLOSER

Time’s almost up. Those rolling weeks of sleep-ins and watching telly in the afternoon are nearly at an end. Days when the only meal I made was dinner. Ahhhh.

Our holiday in a nut shell:

There have been 2 camping trips – one long, one short. They involved 13 days under canvas, two meals at friend’s houses, three lunches out, fish and chips, meals cooked on a dodgy barbecue and no counts of botulism or food poisoning.

5 cinema trips

Countless cups of tea in bed in the mornings

Sleepovers and play-dates

1 chocolate fountain

A very short trip to a Sydney art gallery with sons 1 and 2. They lasted 45 seconds in the Yoko Ono War is Over exhibition, being dragged back onto the streets by their relieved father. (There followed a blissful hour for me which reduced me to tears at one point).

Countless episodes of British comedy. We watched the first series of Man Down in one sitting.

32 episodes of Doctor Who – two doctors, five companions and one metal dog

6 diet days

A game of backyard cricket and touch footie on the beach

Games of cricket and touch footie on the beach that involved me- 000000000

In this time there has been little rain, little writing and no making of sandwiches. Last night on the eve of the last day of the holidays I poured a large glass of red. My husband frowned, as I knew he would. “It’s the only Sunday that isn’t a school night for 10 weeks. I’m having a wine or two.” And I did.

Tonight is the mother of all school nights. New shoes that haven’t been broken in. Uniform polo shirts forgotten to buy for son no.2. Son no.1 has deemed his lunches too unhealthy and wants to make his own; using exotic ingredients.

Exotic ingredients = anything I don’t have in the house.

Tomorrow will be sad, glad and dangerous to know. I may just gather my children to me and insist on one more episode of Dr Who. The next one is the moon resort one and I really want to insist that David Tenant spends the day moon-tanning with Donna.

Let’s tread bravely into Term One!

NEW YEAR INERTIA

Every year I seem to stumble into the New Year, depleted of energy and looking for somewhere to lie down. Everywhere people seem to be popping up, full of beans, telling me their plans for 2014. Some of them even exercise. You know who you are! Images of fireworks bursting into dark skies, people running around wearing lycra. I mean, is it just me?

I have no vim this time of year. I often wonder if it’s because of the weather here in Australia. But to be honest I’m pretty sure I felt the same in the UK.

It’s true I’m not the sort who forgets the past and runs toward the unknown future. The old year exhausts me before I can get to grips with the new one. The husband nags me to take down the Christmas decorations as soon as the sun sets on Boxing Day. Now why would I want to do that? I know that beneath all that tinsel and fairy lights hide layers of cobwebs and dead beetles. I mean, that’s the point of Christmas decs isn’t it. And Christmas cards.

Here I will also admit that any event involving cards – Christmas, birthdays, mother’s and father’s day – I keep them up, on the mantelpiece, until the next event involving cards. Therefore, only psychics and very very tall people can see the dust.

I think the idea of New Year is, to coin an old fashioned phrase, to take stock of one’s life. I like the sound of that. It conjures up images of me in a clean white coat, holding a clipboard. The clipboard has a list of things that I need to address. For instance:

1. Lose weight (it’s only people like me who say that you should love the body you have.) I know I will get knuckle-wrapped for that. By thin people.
2. Exercise more. Or, invent an exercise that isn’t hideously boring or hard to keep up. If anyone suggests running I will have to stop talking to them. If God meant me to run, he would have made me thinner already.
3. Stop procrastinating. I was going to put that last but thought better of it.
4. Tidy up as I go along (this gem came from my husband). I don’t think it’s going to work. I only clean in response to the shame of my friends discovering what a slut I am about the home.
5. Drink less wine. Obviously I put this one down using humour.

By now I’ve thrown the clipboard across the imaginary storeroom and there are dirty marks all down the front of my white coat.

So let’s get back to the reality of January.

I only change out of my swimsuit when I have to leave the house. It does steam on occasion. I might clean the toilet but that’s as far as I’ll go. If someone wants to visit I need 48 hours notice. I do very little writing as the kids interrupt every time – son no.1 did that just now.
And the only really constructive thing I do is fill in surveys and on-line questionnaires. It is important for me to know how middle-class I am or if I could ever become an assistant on Dr Who.

THE MEMORY BOX

My feet eat up the paved path, shoe leather beating a tattoo, a forwards dance step pushes me onward. The stone buildings, breathtaking in this half-light, throw threatening shadows as the cooling sun slips down the page of the sky.
She hadn’t said anything, I wouldn’t let her. If Dee didn’t say the words it wouldn’t be true. It would be a reality that hadn’t played out and he would be sitting up in his bed, laughing that musical laugh of his, apologising for the fuss he’d made, for worrying us. I can see my father, Francis Cole, in his tartan pajamas, spots of pink on his cheeks. His wanton hair refusing to lie flat, smiling and patting my hand. Dee is standing back in the shadows like a harbinger of future tragedy, refusing to enjoy the moment. Overlaid on this scene, like a veil barely seen, Dee is pulling the cover over our father’s face.
Old stone is replaced with glass and metal, office buildings. I reach the park, the grass glitters with dew and time slows. I wait in the space between two breaths, choosing a future with or without him. I know it isn’t my decision, in one choice lies madness, but for a moment I want to hold back the tide of grief and live in a world which still has Francis Cole in it.
“Allie, you could help you know. It’s not all about wallowing. Death brings a lot of work.”
Dee stands with her back to the wall, dressed in black and holding a teacup. We have just buried our father, although I have to admit the arrangements were done almost entirely by Dee. She’s good in a crisis.
The front room of Dad’s old house is full, aunts who’ve got stouter and men with whiskey on their breath. I’m wearing a crimson dress with lime green shoes. I have raised a few eyebrows but I don’t care. Dad hated funereal black and he loved my quirky style. I pick at my nail varnish, letting Dee’s words hit the floor around her sensible shoes. She’s asking why it’s her who does all the work, when she has a full-time job and I work casual shifts picked up randomly. And I can’t answer her fairly. In an attempt to placate my sister I pick up a tray of sandwiches, curling at the edges in the unseasonably hot May afternoon. I walk among tweedy aunties on dry sherry and men with yellow teeth drinking Dad’s Laphroaig which Dee had opened. I can hear the creak of dry bones turning in his freshly buried coffin.
“Wasted on them. Cousins circling with avarice hoping to pick up a morsel or two.” I can see Dad’s red face, blue eyes blazing. “Never here when I got sick or when your mother died. And by the way, my bones aren’t dry yet.”
I stand in the middle of the living room holding the tray of sandwiches aloft for our guests. Aunts and cousins are being helped into their coats, their bat skins, by Dee whose gaze rests on me and then floats to the ceiling. She doesn’t say anything but her disappointment is licking the walls.
I carry the plates scattered with cake crumbs and start filling the blue plastic bowl in the kitchen sink. There’s no washing up liquid. Dad thought it was extravagant, he wasn’t mean but he had unusual ideas. When my friends came round after school Dad would be wearing a pajama top tucked into his trousers, sometimes a tea-cosy on his head. He said he got too hot if his ears were covered. I was delighted. I’d say “That’s my Dad, he’s an academic.” I had no idea what that meant but it sounded exciting, like a trapeze artist or a magician. Dee didn’t bring her friends home at all. She appears holding a carriage clock. I frown. “Wilfred said Dad promised it to him.”
“Isn’t that one engraved by the university? What would Wilfred want with that?”
“Closest he’ll get to a university,” Dee sits down and I notice how much older she’s looking. Jowly around the chin, lines that were sharp gone fuzzy, her thin cheeks paper-like.
I turn away and slide dirty plates through scalding water. A savage pain grips my insides and at the bottom of this well of grief boils guilt.
“It doesn’t matter, Allie. He was fine with it.”
“I know.” My voice is sharp. “You were with him.” Now accusatory.
“Look, I know you were his favourite but there were things I could do for him that you couldn’t.”
I don’t correct her, I stand perfectly still, knowing that if I make a sound it would be an animal moan.
“Sit down, Allie.”
I turn back to the washing up as my sister speaks. “Will you help me with his things tomorrow? We need to clear the house before we sell.”
“Isn’t it a bit soon?”
“He won’t need them and I have to get back to work.”
The open window brings a cool breeze into the stuffy room. Dee is taking Dad’s clothes from his wardrobe and throwing them on the bed. With each item a different story walks through my mind. The rust coloured sports jacket he wore to family dinners, the mustard shirt I can see him in clearly at a picnic in a city park where he’d fallen asleep after too many wines. He must have kept that shirt for 20 years. The smart black jacket he’d had made especially for his retirement dinner at the university, still with the purple silk handkerchief sticking out of the breast pocket.
“I think he only wore this once.” Dee flicked her fingers at the lapels and dust clouds hit the air.
“He was annoyed that Edward Morris gave a speech at the dinner. Remember how he hated him, Dee?”
“He’s still alive, Edward Morris. That would piss Dad off too.”
I noted Dee’s words, uncharacteristically crude. I start to sneeze, dust is crawling into my nasal passages.
“Get some bin liners, Allie. The rest can go to charity.”
“I hope I never see someone wandering around the city in Dad’s clothes.”
“When did that happen to anyone, except in books?”
I sneeze again. “When we’re done here, can we go through the photos?”
“They’re in the drawer under the cutlery.”
“The photos?”
“The bin liners.”
In the sixties style sideboard in the dining room, we find boxes of documents, old birthday cards, childhood drawings by me and Dee which crackled with age. There were four boxes of loose photographs. Black and white, and colour photos that had faded to muted yellows and browns.
We pile them on the table and go through them searching for parts of our lives long forgotten. Birthdays celebrated, bicycles we learnt to ride, family holidays. Two little girls as cute as possums, as happy as the sun high above us. There were a few snaps of Mum sitting on a deckchair in the garden, painting her nails. One of her holding a baby a few days old, she was leaning to kiss her infants head. Was that Dee or me? Mum didn’t live long enough to tell us, to take us through the boxes of photos, telling us stories and Dad hadn’t a clue. A woman would know by the print of a curtain in the background, the style of a dress, what year the moment had been captured. The wallpaper looks Laura Ashley. A mother would never forget the identity of her child. I put away the last of the memories wondering how we were going to decide who was to take what.
“There’s a box we missed.” Dee reaches into the sideboard and pulls out a box which looks cream coloured but on closer scrutiny is a print of pale roses on a faded background which may once have been white. Dee takes the card from its holder on the front of the box and passes it to me. It says ‘Sylvia” in Dad’s untidy scrawl. The box is lined with lavender tissue paper and smells faintly of talcum powder. Inside are photographs and locks of blonde hair tied with ribbon. Dee opens a red velvet covered jewelry box that contains baby teeth.
“This is the start of a memory box.”
I nod. It should have contained photos of us on our first day at school, taken by Mum from the garden while we posed on the front steps. Or perhaps recipes of our favourite cakes devoured after school while telling her about our day. She didn’t know that I loved banana bread and Dee, almond biscuits.
Dee hands me a photo of a smiling woman with two small, brown haired children. I recognise the woman as someone I’d know all my life. The long straight dark hair and striking eyebrows. It is Dee, except it isn’t. Our mother is smiling, Dee rarely does.
“I didn’t know she looked like this, like you. Why did we never ask to see more photos of her, Dee? I only ever saw their wedding photo when Dad had it propped up on the piano.”
Dee’s sad eyes rested on mine. “We didn’t want to know what we were missing.”
“Did you know about the likeness?”
“I guessed. Dad could barely look at me without pain in his eyes.”
I covered her thin hand with mine, noticing the contrast between her white bony hand and mine that had spent too long at the beach.
“I didn’t realise. I’m sorry.”
We spread the photos out on the kitchen table. There are photos of our mother on the beach with us, laughing into the camera with two girls balanced on her hips. Dee and I wearing bathers with flimsy skirts, Mum in a once piece that showed her long legs. In another she bent down between us, holding my hand as I cried at the camera. I recognise our old kitchen which was ripped out in the mid-eighties, the old ceramic kettle gleams as new.
On the back of the photos in a script I didn’t recognise it said, ‘Sylvia and the girls, Manly Beach’. ‘At home’.
A couple on a rock. ‘Sylvia & Francis, honeymoon in Greece’. Another one of a woman with Dee’s face, blowing out candles. ‘Sylvia’s 21st, Sept’.
There were so few of them and the photos I held in my mind were the ones that weren’t there. Mum and Dad’s Silver Wedding Anniversary, the two of them pictured at Dad’s retirement do. There were no photos of her after 1980.
Our father was a decade older than our mother. Mum’s parents had been appalled at the age gap. She’d been so young and vital, who’d have thought that they would be burying her?
I pack the box carefully and pass it to Dee. “You have it.”
My sister nods and I don’t say it but I hope she’d finds whatever she lost along the way in the folds of that tissue paper. If our family had stayed intact she would have been Mum’s favourite, I was sure of that.

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?

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”.

MIDDLE-AGED WITH BENEFITS

How do you know when you’re middle aged? When ‘I Hope I Die Before I Get Old’ no longer appeals. Or the gap between being too old to rock ‘n’ roll and too young to die is patently obvious. Rap makes me want to curl up with my hands over my ears but a blast of Elvis Costello or The Jam has me jumping round the room like I have moths in my undies. I always know when to stop. Just before it seems like a good idea to try the pogo again.

I believe that my generation is the one that didn’t take to rap. Do I hear you protest? Probably not. Build up of wax. I was there at its conception, when the lyrics were truly horrible and the tunes as clever as advertising jingles.

Napping. That’s an advantage. I can fall asleep after my morning cuppa and not feel embarrassed. It’s the natural eking out of sleep privileges. It takes me ages to go off to sleep at night so I make it up by increments during the day. It’s not that far away from when trying to make up for late nights twenty years ago, I used to lean against the toilet wall in the office bogs and doze until I heard someone scream my name.

I don’t go out as often as I used do. At least not under cover of darkness. And do you know what? I don’t care. I love staying in and watching endless British crime dramas, comedy panel shows and dramas with people my age in them. I’m still cutting edge. I am. I don’t watch ‘Mid Summer Night Murders’ or lifestyle shows.

I am no longer as conscious of my looks. But it is a bit sad knowing that I used to have it, oh yes, in spades, and I have no proof of that any more. Unless I carry around photos from twenty years ago proclaiming, ‘really. It is me.’ At least my hair is in the same style and not grey yet. Most of my friends that I haven’t seen for years still think I’m blonde as all the photos I put up on facebook are decades old or under good lighting. You can’t always depend on that light. A friend and I took a photo of ourselves on her phone last week before she returned to the UK for good. She sent it to me and asked me to put it up on facebook. Well, I couldn’t. I looked so old and scary. I keep checking it again, trying to reassure myself. It doesn’t get any better with looking.

We only have mirrors in the house where not to have them could cause an accident. I sometimes check myself in the rearview mirror in the car. Not while I’m driving. Obviously. The person I see looks okay. A bit sunken around the eyes, but quite becoming at a distance. I forget that I’m shortsighted. I just assume that I’m in soft-focus permanently.

On reflection; some good things. Some bad things. I probably give myself more treats than I should. Years of denying myself ice cream then discovering that the local gelato place does a cracking fig and mascarpone doesn’t help. And quite frankly who wants to spend any more time at the gym. I’ll never get those years back or the money spent on leotards.

And how do I feel inside? I feel magnificent. I have a confidence my younger self never had. I don’t mind looking a tit or that my teeth look funny when I laugh. I love to start sentences with “I’m sorry… I don’t want to upset you/I respect your weird uptight views on parenting, really I do but/I’d rather eat my own earwax than eat any more of your homemade gluten-free biscuits.” Stuff comes out of my mouth unsolicited. It’s great.

Another good thing is quiz lunches. Once a week the husband and I do a quiz from one of the weekend papers, over our post-lunch coffee. And I actually get a buzz out it. I mean I’m not doing crosswords or brain teasers, it’s not like we’re sad or anything. We like it. At least I do. Who’d have thought things would have come to this. I remember some of the things I used to do in my lunch hour. I won’t go into that here. Not the place. At least there’s no chance of pulling a muscle with world affairs.

Middle-aged? Who am I kidding? Only if I live to be 96. I do find I dress up more as I age. I won’t wear shorts any more and I love frilly Op-Shop blouses. Pencil skirts and beautiful dresses. I refuse to wear white or pastels. Maybe if I do live to 96 I’ll be swanning around in evening wear before breakfast. Purple with ruffles. Putting on an accent, and wearing a hat at a jaunty angle. I look forward to it.