Trams

trams

(Thanks to my colleagues at the Open Genre Writing Group, NSW Writers Centre for their input towards this short story.)

I almost slip on the wet road as I run for the tram. I’m late for my first day at work. I had fretted and fretted last night about what to wear but shouldn’t have bothered. Now I am wet from the freak shower that had started as soon as I left home. I’d checked the weather report on my phone too, making sure I didn’t over or under dress. My sky blue silk blouse is soaked through, sticking to my skin like cling wrap.

I’ll duck into Cue at the mall and grab something off the rack when I get off.

This solution momentarily calms me. It had been six interviews to get this job, only my second one since I finished university. I feel a smile begin to form at the corner of my mouth as I remember the coffee stain on the new boss’s tie, half way down, perfectly round like a target. I had noticed it when he stood up at the end of the interview to open the door.

I had felt a child in an adult’s world sitting across a vast boardroom table from the HR manager and my new boss, feeling dwarfed by the big furniture and the confidence of the people opposite me. Sure, they were friendly enough, but their questions were one dimensional, lacking authenticity and sincerity like they’d asked them many times before:

 Why did you apply for the role?

Can you give examples of your ability to develop relationships with stakeholders?

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

I was by this stage limp from the effort of my performance. My new boss escorted me back to the lift. I kept my head up and shoulders back, just like Mum had taught me. Stooping had made me feel more like my tribe of shorter friends at school; a habit I’d developed since I was a teenager. We chatted awkwardly while waiting for the lift to arrive. It was then I noticed his shoelace was undone. We shook hands. His handshake was firm. I could hear Dad saying you can’t trust anyone with a soft handshake.

I think I could like this guy.

The interview questions kept going round in my head as I tried to slip off to sleep that same night. Then I deconstructed my answers. Did I sound positive enough? Was I too honest? Did I give them the response they were looking for?

My first day at work whizzes by in a fog of new faces and names. I didn’t expect that my role as a Research Assistant required meeting everyone in the organisation. I wish I’d had a ball of red wool in my pocket that I could unwind, forging a path through the labyrinth of offices, leaving a trail back to my desk.

This new world is exhausting so far.

By the time I get on the tram for home I am not able to fit any more information inside my head. I recognise Gunter getting on at the front of the carriage. My heart rate quickens. I didn’t think I’d see him again, not after our last meet up a fortnight ago. He told me then he was going back to Europe in a few days’ time. My bed was a tussle of sheets that smelled of the sun. I could hear waves crashing against the shore in the distance as we silently lay together in the dark afterward, barely touching.

And now we are both on the same tram fully clothed, hemmed in. I imagine him naked, striding around my little flat, light-footed for such a tall man. Looking comfortable in his nudity. He seemed so exotic and self-assured.

We’d met on a tram. Not that I have a habit of talking to people on public transport, especially on my way to an interview. I am quiet before I have to perform in front of strangers. On this occasion I had dropped something. I can’t even remember what it was now. A small packet of tissues maybe. Those ones you buy for travelling. My neighbour half-filled her suitcase with them when she went back to Greece to see her dying father. As if there are no shops in Greece.

Gunter had been sitting next to me on the tram when I dropped whatever it was. We both bent down at the same time to pick it up and our heads bumped. It made us laugh. I’d sneaked a look at him before then. So handsome! And he smelled deliciously clean, fresh, like he’d just walked through a meadow and brought the wildflowers and sunshine with him into the carriage. Everyone around us was dressed in sombre dark clothes. It was raining outside. He looked so alive.

I slide down into my seat and put on my sunglasses and headphones, and focus on the back of the person’s head in front of me, hoping he won’t recognise me. I see him whispering to someone who is just out of view. As we round another corner I get a glimpse of his companion. It’s the receptionist from my new job. The one with the green eyes and perfect skin. I hear myself let out a groan.

I get off three stops before my street. It starts to rain again. I am soaked through for the second time today, this time it is my new lilac button up shirt that sticks to me like a second skin. I take my heels off and walk the rest of the way in stockinged feet, already dreading tomorrow when I have to face her at work.

Runner Rosie’s Northern Adventure

In January – our traditional holiday season in Australia – some folk I know fly to cold climate countries in search of some good skiing slopes, and to get away from the heat. My friend Rosie Vince took a very long flight from Sydney to Norway with a different kind of holiday in mind: sightseeing in the dark, dog sledding and to look at the Northern Lights. She told me that the town of Tromso is the best place to see them as it is located way past the Arctic Circle.

The other lure for Rosie was to participate in the Polar Night Half Marathon. When she told me she would be running in the cold and dark at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with up to 1700 people from around the world and it was likely to be -11C, my ears pricked up. This didn’t sound like your run-of-the-mill competition.

The Polar Night Half Marathon takes place during the Polar Night Period when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. Hard to imagine this in Australia during our sweltering summer! It is the most northern half marathon event in the world. If runners are lucky enough they may witness the light show of the Aurora Borealis along the torch lit route.

Tromso also hosts the Midnight Sun Marathon in mid-June and the Mountain Challenge in late August.

Tromso was Rosie’ 2nd stop in Norway, after Oslo, then on to Bergen. After that she visited Stockholm in Sweden, Helsinki and Rovaniemi in Finland (the official hometown of Santa Claus), Saint Petersburg in Russia and Copenhagen in Denmark, travelling by train, bus and boat.

Rosie’s summary: ‘it was bone chillingly cold, exhilarating, breathtaking, awe inspiring, inspirational, fascinating, beautiful and brutal’. The brutal bit refers specifically to her experience in Russia: ‘I found the people to be very stoic but they do have a sense of humour when they relax.’

Rosie made a decision four weeks before her trip that she wasn’t in the peak condition required to do the half marathon. She decided to run the 5km race instead. Though when she actually arrived in Tromso she was surprised how just walking took so much concentration, even with spikes on her shoes. She chose not to run at all as she was worried about slipping on the ice and hurting herself.

Despite such caution, she suffered a dislocated shoulder the night after the race when she was thrown off a dog sled.

Rosie shares her life with her equally fit partner, Dave. He bought her a bicycle instead of chocolates for their first Easter together. They met at the local swimming pool in Sydney’s Northern Beaches district where Dave was the head coach. Ironman and triathlete Sean Kenny trained there too. Dave is still a swimming coach and runs his own swimming and triathlon clubs.

Rosie competes mostly in triathlons. I asked her what her training preparation looks like:

  • Running 5 days a week: 12 to 15 km each session; a 25 km ‘long run’ would be added to a session when in peak Ironwoman training
  • Cycling 3 days a week: 80 to 100 km each session
  • Swimming 3 days a week: 2 to 2.5 km each session

I’m exhausted just typing this! I’m intrigued about what gets inside the heads of elite athletes, what makes them tick. I enjoy fitness and exercise myself, but I don’t have the perseverance or drive to put in the effort that Rosie does.

She kindly accepted my request to be interviewed for my blog:

What do you like about running?

The freedom it brings. And it costs nothing, apart from the shoes. It is a great way to discover your locality on a more intimate detailed scale, a sensory connection. I usually find places for dog-walking for example that I didn’t know previously existed. And running stopped me from getting too fat when I was a teenager!

And hate?

I hate when I go through periods of lacking motivation. But even when I feel lazy and out of shape, if I can get the shoes on and push myself out the door I soon start to feel great once those endorphins kick in.

Also the aches and pains as I get older (Rosie is 51), and having to warm up longer beforehand – usually up to 45 minutes.

When did your running career start?

When I joined my high school’s running club, Mater Maria College at Warriewood in Sydney’s Northern Beaches district, and the Warringah Athletic Club at the same time. Straight after I graduated, I travelled to the UK where I joined a club at Battersea in London. Three years later back in Sydney I met Dave. During that period I became a member of the Manly Warringah Women’s Athletics Club.

What about injuries?

Fortunately I have only experienced niggling things – sore Achilles tendon and calf muscles. Though they can keep me out of action for up to three weeks. Of the three disciplines I compete in, I have experienced more injuries while cycling.

What opportunities has running given you?

I have travelled to other countries and met some amazing people through running. When I joined the Battersea Athletics Running Club in London I met Olympic Gold medallist and OBE Steve Ovett.

While still at school I competed in the Pan Pacific Games in New Zealand.

Who do you look up to in the running world?

Barefoot runner Zola Budd is my hero. I love her rawness. She runs from the heart, barefoot and gutsy. She was and is an ‘ugly’ runner: arms askew, gangly long legs, mouth open. During the eighties when I was in the UK I was trackside when she broke the world 5000m record at the famed Crystal Palace. The air was electric with excitement and joy. It was a magical time in my athletic life to meet and watch in action my running hero. Zola now lives in the USA and has completed a number of university degrees and she coaches a university track team.

Can you describe the mood in Tromso with all those fit people in town?

It was pelting with snow half an hour before the race. The course looked fairy tale inviting, with campfires and Christmas trees festooned with lights placed at the starting line. The town itself was buzzing with runners and their supporters in the lead up to the start of the event. I can always spot a long distance runner. They have a tendency to look a bit gaunt. Lycra clad athletes were hopping up and down, and a few foreign swear words muttered as people geared themselves up for the race. A big stage had been set up where instructors were belting out commands for aerobic warm ups.

How did you find the lack of daylight?

To be honest four days of darkness – the length of our stay in Tromso– was enough for me. I was starting to feel claustrophobic. I spoke to a local in a phone shop and he said he finds the conditions more testing in summer when it is light all day. Then the town is noisy with seabirds visiting from all round the world. He wants to kill them!

What’s next?

Attend to my new garden. I love gardening. I find it restorative and peaceful. It has taught me patience and to be more methodical. You can’t be the ‘bull in the china shop’ when gardening.  What’s not to love when the plants burst into flower, the trees sprout and provide shade and privacy but more importantly those same trees provide shade, shelter and a home to all the local birds. I love the hard, physical, back breaking work that gardening can be, but its’ joy is seeing your efforts come to life and the vision that initially popped into my head actually take shape.

I also want to return to Ironwoman fitness. And start planning my next adventure…

 

Socks, Chocs and Saris

Socks, Chocs and Saris

sari

The hectic time of year marking the festive season is thankfully behind me as I write this post. Australians spent an estimated A$48 billion on Christmas gifts in the 6 weeks leading up to 25 December (source: Australian Retailers Association). That’s a lot of socks and chocolates!

It was during this seasonal shopping period that I discovered socksandchocs – a registered charity based in Birmingham England, founded by ex-soldier and policeman Ian Northcott. He has put our penchant for spending to good use by urging the donation of basic needs for the homeless. By Christmas 2016 donations had reached 9601 pairs of socks, 8298 boxes of chocolates, 136 sleeping bags and 4078 miscellaneous items such as gloves and underwear. If you are wondering why chocolates have been included on the list (as I did), I urge you to read Ian’s story. Ian’s charity now operates in over 30 localities between England and Northern Ireland since its inception in 2010, and also provides emergency accommodation.

Closer to home, Share the Dignity’s #itsinthebag Christmas campaign caught my attention. My yoga teacher collected unwanted handbags filled with toiletries for women fleeing their homes at Christmas due to domestic violence. I donated a new Lonsdale backpack that I had originally bought my son for his Birthday, and took pleasure in purchasing personal items to fill it (he didn’t like the colour. I’m glad I gave it to someone who would be more appreciative!).

In addition to the giving and receiving, there is a flurry of socialising in the lead up to Christmas. My first invitation was for early November – to Sunday lunch by a friend in my writing group. Details were scanty: don’t bring anything. It is just a casual get together.

I arrived at a neat wooden home with a large leafy garden in the nearby suburb of Strathfield. As I approached the house I recognised my colleague and host greeting people at his front door. There was a procession of sari wearing strangers pulling up in cars. Their beauty reminded me of butterflies emerging from a cocoon as they navigated their way out of their vehicles in their colourful traditional costumes.

A casual get together with writing friends this was not turning out to be.

I counted a total of 20 guests from the Indian community and to my horror realised that they were all non-alcoholic drinking Hindus just as I proffered my hostess a gift of liqueur chocolates. She politely put them on display (I so wished for them to be placed at the back of the nearest cupboard, and conveniently forgotten until the next spring clean). As I was being introduced to the guests I noticed the men wearing freshly pressed collared shirts, and began to feel a bit underdressed in my casual backyard lunch wear.

We were ushered to the rear of the house, where a large table had been set up under the awning for our communal feast. It was refreshing to see orange juice and water being offered, no alcohol in sight (except what was hidden inside my chocolates!)

The sari wearing guests and their partners were immigrants from Bangalore, all fluent in the local dialect of Kannada, which they eased in and out of throughout the gathering’s conversations. The food was stupendous. Of particular note was hostess U’s dessert, a recipe from her village: pancake stuffed with lentils and brown sugar, with warm milk poured over the top.

Another surprise: the 4 of us representatives from the writing group were asked to give a short informal talk. We sat in a loose circle and took turns. I chose to speak about why I ended up in the group and what impact it has had on me personally: I had found my tribe. Another colleague, a retired French teacher and poet, recited a poem she had written about a garden in Paris she was particularly fond of. Though she had to compete for our attention with a flock of noisy rainbow lorikeets feasting on the banksia tree next door.

‘B’ shared his experiences of travelling around India with his yoga group. An accomplished actor, he had us all laughing throughout the narrative. ‘A’ described her youth on a farm in rural NSW where she was home schooled and a brown snake joined her for a lesson. This sparked immediate interest. Some of the men present stopped fiddling with their cell phones. Even the procession of ants that had gathered under my feet seemed to slow down as she regaled her near miss with death story.

The Indian guests happily shared their experiences when I prompted them. One particular woman stood out: visiting Sydney to assist her 2nd daughter with the recent arrival of her baby. She confessed to being nearly 60 (she looked 40!). Hers had been an arranged marriage – at 18 – and she indicated that she and her husband were ‘out of love’ now. He is a workaholic, leaving home at 7.30am and returning at 9.30pm. Her mother-in-law has lived under their roof since the marriage and still treats him like a small boy. I was horrified. She lamented the fact that she never went to work or furthered her education. She spends as much time as possible travelling to her daughters in Sydney and in the US.

Bare feet were the order of the day, guests leaving their assorted footwear at the front door. Being shoe-less brought an immediate sense of community, of belonging. There were some good healthy feet on show!

Among us there were professors, engineers, self-employed entrepreneurs, officer workers and taxi drivers, even professional entertainers: ‘S’ sang a traditional song in Hindi from her appearance at the Pink Sari Project concert, which raised breast cancer awareness among women in the Indian and Sri Lankan communities. I felt honoured to be included in their company, if only for an afternoon.

The women present wore lined faces and warm smiles, laughing and chatting, touching each other in a familiar way. They could have passed as sisters, so playful was their interaction. The intense colours and patterns of their saris heightened the visual pleasure of looking out to the shaded garden with its magnolia, frangipani and hibiscus .

Most guests chose to eat in their traditional way with their hand, not spilling anything. Those ants underfoot were getting hungry! I opted for cutlery which had thoughtfully been left out for the westerners.

The early afternoon breeze picked up the edges of the women’s saris as they talked and listened. There was a surreal like quality to this gathering – sharing stories and a meal with these friendly, engaging people of different backgrounds and life experiences from mine.

One guest confessed that she didn’t like Sydney at first and they emigrated because her son was accepted at university here. She told him that as soon as he finished his engineering degree she was going back home. Time brought a change of heart: she decided to stay once she got a job, made friends and started to integrate further into society.

All those who had moved here admitted to issues of assimilation when they first arrived from India. And  that their command of English provided a helpful tool. Saris I was told are very difficult to keep looking so beautiful. I could only imagine as I inspected the layers of woven silk at close hand.

I am grateful to be living amongst a diversity of cultures, and for the rituals and mindfulness that come with Christmas. An opportunity to share, meet and celebrate with people and connect with my tribe, wherever that may lead me.

My speed date with San Francisco

 

The USA is a big place, with a total land mass of 10 million km2 (4 million mi2) and a population of 325 million people at the time of writing this post. I was reminded of this fact when I flew there from my sunny patch in Sydney last month. San Francisco and its bay area was my destination, to visit family, the vibrant city known for its year round fog, hills, pretty wooden houses and streets veined with cable car tracks.

The city of San Francisco is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on its eastern side and San Francisco Bay. A maze of cars, traffic lanes, people, shopping centres, food outlets, churches, warehouses (crossing the San Mateo Bridge for the return flight in my sister’s car two weeks later I felt I was leaving one country for another, so vast was the body of water beneath us).

The bay area measures 11,300km2 (7000mi2) and has 7.1 million residents, urban sprawl interspersed with rural agriculture. California is colloquially known as the ‘food bowl’ of the USA, and is the fifth largest metropolitan district. My 45 minute rides on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) from Fremont station into the city proper gave a sobering view of industry: portside shipping containers and cranes silhouetting the landscape; warehouses that sort used clothing, car yards and car washes, RV hire; rubbish recycling stations; abandoned buildings covered in graffiti; community gardens; dust bowl school grounds – evidence that California has been in drought for 6 years. This also explains the backdrop of golden hills where I could imagine the dry straw coloured grass crackling underfoot were I to explore them (I have earmarked that adventure for my next visit).

Sydney was formally recognised as being a sister city of San Francisco in 1968. To my mind Sydney is more the littler sibling in the relationship. Make that a very little one, way down the pecking order of the English speaking family. Though natives of the bay area where I stayed may argue the toss that we in fact speak the same language. The usual response to my questions were: ‘Pardon me?’ ‘Can you repeat that please?’ I was surprised at how much the locals liked my accent. I thought I sounded awful; my sister, now a permanent denizen of San Francisco (and who sadly now feels so far away) doesn’t want to lose hers, so positive is the experience for her.

Cars are cheap to buy. And to run. A neighbours had 6 cars in their driveway, one for each member of the household. People are a lot more polite behind the wheel than I am used to in my southern city. Is this because of the excellent organisation of the road system? Though I admit to being perplexed when I saw drivers U-turning at traffic lights. It’s legal in the USA. And necessary, everywhere being very wide apart. Despite my sister’s enthusiasm for the ease of driving around I wasn’t tempted to actually get in the car and do it myself! I was out of kilter enough after my long haul flight, feeling that I had popped up into a Dr Zeuss book where life was being played out in reverse.

I’d arrived in Upside Down Land.

There is signage everywhere you go reminding people to conserve water. Yet toilets flush like a mini tsunami. It appears the ½ flush option hasn’t reached this part of the world yet. And there are squirrels to negotiate when one is cycling or driving round the suburbs. Those little critters can stop traffic.

Californians are polite. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Nice to meet you!’ ‘I hope you enjoy your stay’, a trait that sits side by side with a marked reserve. There is an invisible line between them and me and how much they are prepared to talk about themselves (I also noticed this when visiting New York two years ago). So I take note and remind myself not to be too eager to ask questions (which is the default position for this writer!) They are curious about me but not overly so.  And they know how to skirt around the personal stuff. Australians generally have a tendency to overshare. I admit I am a culprit here!

For most of my 2 week visit I was happily holed up in the bay area suburb of Niles, famous because Charlie Chaplin made movies there. It is a picture book hamlet of quaint wooden historic houses bordered by those round golden hills. More recently developed streets display Brady Bunch style faux ranches with pebble features, neat lawns and a sense of order about them.

I didn’t expect Bougainvillea and Crepe Myrtle trees to be growing in such abundance in this quiet neck of San Francisco’s bay. Seeing groves of common eucalypts filled me with a sense of de ja vu.

I ventured into the city a few times on the BART. It is a 15 minute drive from my family’s house in Niles to the station at Fremont (the last stop on the line). I bought a newspaper and asked for directions from a rheumy eyed vendor in the financial district. Not far from his kiosk a young male was sprawled out in a sleeping bag on the pavement; not an uncommon sight for this city.

I joined a small mob of tourists on an open top double decker bus tour to get a quick lie of the land (highly recommended!). We took in Cow Hollow, the Marina, the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge and the park of the same name which I have also earmarked for further exploration on my next trip). Haight Ashbury – where Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix lived and where I will definitely be returning for a more relaxed inspection – City Hall. Norman our guide liked the sound of his voice a bit too much and in the end I disembarked in the Tenderloin district before our tour was done.

He did shed some interesting facts: for example that there are 93 Starbucks outlets in the CBD alone, yet only one motor registry. Our bus drove past it and there was a queue snaking all the way through the carpark. Also that the most expensive real estate is in the Pacific Heights area and prices have fetched up to US$65 million for a property.

Chinatown was another adventure, on my 2nd visit (episode 2 of my ‘speed date’) – a treasure trove of street upon street of bric-a-brac, souvenirs, fabric, antiques, framed calligraphy, Chinese grocery stores, restaurants. It kept going, like an optical illusion. English language took a back seat here. I also remembered for my return trip to take a heavier jacket. The weather can turn chilly at short notice.

The sophisticated Ferry building and Embarcadero shed another light on this city of many faces, in stark contrast to Fisherman’s Wharf with its obese tourists, overflowing rubbish bins, long queues and smell of fried food. But the busking was world class. The iconic Transamerica Pyramid building near Jackson Square stood out on my map like a treasure chest, X marking the spot to indicate the serious business precinct of uptown.

Receipts are longer. The GST is added at the checkout, and where applicable the tip. In some instances I noticed an ‘employee benefits tax’ had been added on too.  It got to the point where I wondered whether I should be tipping or not, for example the overly helpful assistants in Macy’s at Union Square. Is that the expectation? Or are they being genuinely nice to me?

Ok I will admit I felt like the country cousin at times!

I can confirm the minimum wage in the USA is US$8. I saw this documented on a staff noticeboard at Oakhurst, where we stopped for supplies en route to Yosemite National Park. This begs the question: how can people afford to live? Apart from gas, cars and clothing, other commodities are on par with my part of the world that I could see. One has to pay for quality food here, the same as Sydney, though my green-fingered sister in-law grows arguably the best tomatoes I have ever tasted.

A visit to the local farmers market in nearby Newark is a Sunday routine for this family, where colourful pyramids of fresh produce is piled high and being spruiked by smiling growers – mostly Hispanics who have driven for up to 4 hours from their farms that very morning to set up their stalls. Orchids (at around US$15 each – so cheap!), cilantro, chillies, corn, beans, okra, potatoes in every hue imaginable to name a few.

I witnessed the racial divide when attending a professional baseball game in Oakland, the Seattle Marines versus the local Oakland team. My sis had scored us VIP tickets through her work. We were waited on in our seats by staff of Negro descent. We ensured that we left a good tip. I couldn’t help noticing that the crowd in our enclosure were mostly white.

My 2 week stay was punctuated by 4 nights at Mariposa, near Yosemite National Park. We bundled up 2 vehicles and 4 people, leaving cats, chickens and my sister-in-law’s abundant vegetable garden to the neighbours. The 3.5 hour journey due west (which stretched into 5 with lunch and comfort stops) afforded me a view of the ‘food bowl’ in action: row upon perfect row of grape vines, fruit, olive and nut trees playing tricks with our eyes as we sped past. Still blinking, we would touch on the outskirts of an urban city, its mega mart the flagship indicator.

Yosemite National Park didn’t fail to disappoint and deserves a blog post of its own. Our visit was strategically timed with the end of the official summer break. Though we still jostled for parking, and trying to take photos without wandering tourists in the frame proved difficult. I could imagine the flux of people in high season. Seeing woodpeckers, skunks, chipmunks and deer in their habitat and sequoia trees dating over 3000 years in age still fills me with a sense of wonder. Stripping down to our underwear and taking cheeky dips in water falls and rivers was a highlight (we ensured that the other more sedate tourists were out of view!).

My very active niece kept me delightful company when I wasn’t busy being a tourist. I highly recommend spending one’s vacation looking at the world through the rose coloured glasses of an 8 year old! My memory is a warm fuzz of cooking, craft, cycling, swimming, assembling Lego, playing the piano, jumping on the trampoline. I can still see her ahead on her bicycle, pink tassels on her handlebars flying, her butt marking time as she stood on the pedals, looking back over her shoulder every now and then to ensure Aunty was following. Our destination was the Hacienda, a private pool a few blocks from home for paid up members only. An oasis!

Her energy left me breathless at times and ready for bed when she was. Why walk down the hallway when you can tumble turn / cartwheel / run? I will miss her ability to be totally in the moment, her singing (when she doesn’t have her head in a book – reading it upside down – no sitting conventionally for this one!) and her curiosity for everyone and everything. In short a joy to be around.

On my return flight to Sydney I was reminded that there is nothing glamorous about long distance travel, unless you can afford the ‘big bucks’ seats up at the pointy of the aircraft of course. The fug of unwashed passengers at close proximity, their personal detritus strewn at my feet, queuing for the amenities like bleary eyed sheep in the middle of the night, the smell of mass produced food.

Delayed connections and lost baggage added to my woes, but I reminded myself that when you travel you have to be prepared for anything to happen (actually this was the sage advice of my sister who does a lot of travelling for her job). I have already started a savings account for the next visit so it can’t have been too unbearable!

Grief Awareness Month

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The end of August marks the conclusion of Grief Awareness Month here in Australia. It also means the coming of Spring in the southern hemisphere, a time of joy and hope. Below is a prose poem I wrote to acknowledge this period. I dedicate this writing to those close to me who have suffered grief and loss in their lives. Thanks to my fellow writers at the Open Genre Writing Group at the NSW Writers’ Centre for their feedback and input into this piece.

Leaving 1

He drew his last breath at midnight. It was early spring.

By morning he was icy cold.

The empty highchair a raw reminder of his leaving.

Pureed carrot still smeared on the plastic tray.

In the blur of days that followed friends and neighbours cleaned, put flowers round the house, left food at the front door.

The grieving mother’s sister took time off work to help with the funeral arrangements.

And to choose the plot to bury the child.

Under a paperbark tree. Sheltered from the weather. As if that mattered now.

The sisters embraced at the site where his little body would lie.

The pock of a golf ball being hit on the course next door anchored them in their despair.

A complaining crow sounded a mournful cry.

The funeral briefly relieved their sorrow; the ceremony and formality of it oddly comforting.

The sister had suffered that loss too; her baby also dying in her sleep.

Now buried with its grandmother. Surrounded by strangers.

Same pointy chin. Same frown. A union under the quiet earth.

She had held her and held her until the policewoman gently said we have to take her now.

They zipped her up in a small blue bag and drove her away in the gathering dark, lights flashing and siren off.

The hardest thing she said was removing her dew soaked clothes from the washing line the next day.

Leaving 2

I didn’t know he was leaving.

I thought he was coming back to make amends, to start anew.

After a ten day absence I prepared our reunion with lighted candles and fresh flowers.

The house held the hushed anticipation of a wedding, a celebration.

But he returned to say that he wasn’t coming back. That after eight years he couldn’t do it anymore.

He closed the front door quietly behind him, as if not to disturb me any further.

He only took his guitar.

I watched him go, his shoulders hunched, and saw that he had lost weight.

After he left, the wedding photos in the lounge room pierced my eyes. I turned them around to face the wall.

The house dissolved around me, as if it was grieving too.

I ate frozen peas for the first few days.

I forgot to shop, to cook and clean, and made a nest on the lounge room floor to sleep in.

This is where I received worried friends who came with hugs, sad eyes and food.

After a month I moved back into the bed. Our bed.

He had come for all his possessions by then. But left the stuffed giraffe from his childhood.

The house became darker, solemn. But for the dust motes dancing in a splinter of light through a part in the curtains.

I rang a cleaner and sat in the bath from lunchtime until after the sun went down, the water cold.

At the Pool

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Show pony and bald pate bookend my lane in numbers 3 and 5. The former slaps the water with each stroke, his black waterproof watch marking time.

Bald pate is the size of a small iceberg. He glides regally like an ocean liner, keeping his head above the water, performing his own dainty version of breast stroke. This morning he wears a grin the size of his person and nods in greeting when I jump in. Later I see him lumbering up the skinny ladder, panting, his grace and dexterity left behind in the pool. His wide back is covered in dark downy hair.

We swim to our own rhythm, working towards our own goals – a faster time, a longer swim, a backstroke tumble turn that needs improving. We are an uncoordinated group, each of us totally absorbed in our repetitions. Nobody is chatting today. Usually show pony saunters in like he is the owner the place, his suit in a bag hanging precariously by one finger. He backslaps the lifeguard as if they are close relatives or friends. It’s all a bit much bonhomie for me in the pre-dawn.

But today he is quiet. I haven’t seen him here in a while. He looks withdrawn. He’s lost some weight.

In fact the only sound here today is the slap slap of water that is ricocheting off the concrete, steel and glass to produce a stereo effect. It is a calming sound, blocking out any thoughts.

I recognise a familiar thatch of thick white hair in lane 6. A retired regular who does his own version of dog paddle. I wonder if he retains any injuries from repeating the same stroke. Perhaps he plays a sport, to counteract the activity (I picture him teeing off on a golf course, his shock of hair neatly tethered under a cap). He is as coordinated as a synchronised swimmer. After his swim and back on terra firma he resembles a lost child without his spectacles.

The elderly woman in lane 1 shuffles along slowly in the shallows.  She clutches her swimming aid in front with both hands. It is shaped like a Capital C and positioned flat on the water’s surface. I imagine it as a pink magnet being pulled towards her, or perhaps her towards it. Her ensemble is a brightly patterned shower cap and matching costume.  Her pace and her choice of attire set her apart from the rest of us.

With every tumble turn and push off I feel my back and shoulders loosen, make their peace with the water. The first 6 laps are always the hardest. I creak up and down, try to get my breathing in sync with my body, just thinking of this lap, this stroke, not the next drill or turn. Soon I am flying, weightless, all thoughts evaporating up into the steel skeleton holding up the roof above me.

While doing backstroke, I espy the tennis ball still stuck in a corner of the rafters overhead. It has been there for at least 2 years now and has turned completely white from the chlorine vapours.

After 40 minutes I am happily spent. I emerge in one swift pull up out of the water, slippery as a seal, feeling lighter and calmer. I negotiate puddles, damp clothes and wet towels as I prepare to confront the chill morning that awaits on the other side of the sealed door.

A bird chorus is in progress as I emerge into a lavender hued dawn. I pad over the dew soaked grass to my car, the grass sticking to my shoes. My world is narrowed to thoughts of steaming tea and a hot shower, the looming workday still at a safe distance. I choose to keep the radio off on the drive home, still absorbed in the feel-good light-headedness that exercise brings.

I am thankful that I didn’t listen to that other self this morning. She wanted to stay in bed and bury herself further down beneath the warm covers. I feel fully alive and a bit more prepared for what the day ahead may bring.

 

 

Rites of Passage 3

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I have blogged before about the angst ridden period of growing up, between leaving school and becoming a fully-fledged adult. My teenage son is in the midst of this maelstrom. We, his parents, are becoming experts. Bearing witness at close quarters.

There is a certain freedom to be had for having made it through the trials and tribulations of school life together, of being there for them and with them. Of coming out the other side. However this is juxtaposed with the new worry about their safety out there in the world now that they are untethered, their movements not dictated by the rigours of school life.

I am getting better at going to sleep instead of wondering where he is, how is he going to get home, what state is he in, who is with him, what has he been up to…it helps to have an equally concerned spouse. I now let him do the worrying for both of us, believer as I am in economising our resources.

Last night the adults had the place to ourselves. We played our music with gay abandon, ate what we felt like, watched our favourite channel on TV, waiting for the youngest member of the family to come home reeking of pubs, sweat and aftershave (I ask myself: what’s wrong with this scenario?).

I am often reminded of Alison in Wonderland when she falls down the rabbit hole and everything is not as it should be: he emerges from his darkened den – where I can make out the winking lights of his PlayStation console, his IPad and other detritus of teenager hood – and the room shrinks away from him as he grows in stature before my eyes.

Our 3 washing baskets are overflowing with his clean but not yet folded clothes (he has been washing his own clothes for a few years. There was no way this busy mum was going to be made responsible for a potential crisis in the clean underwear department). He ends up washing everything again before it finally gets put away – just so that he can reacquaint himself with his wardrobe after a lengthy absence.

The other chores remain undone – recycling, dishwasher, rubbish. There is always a reason (‘I was going to do it when I got up’. At 4pm?). We put up with the mounting refuse until one of us loses it. A heated exchange ensues. Then all is rectified and forgotten until the cycle is repeated again.

He tip toes round the house after a late night, bumping into furniture. A gorilla in ballet slippers comes to mind. We lie there in the dark, listening to him foraging in the fridge for leftovers. Knife scraping plate in the early hours.

His day starts (whatever time that may be) something like this: long shower, much preening behind the bathroom door, music blaring. Then he is out of the house, headlong into his future, running late as usual. But not before he has begged his mum to make him some lunch to take (‘because I’ve run out of time/money’), or asked my humble opinion about what to wear – long or short sleeves? – or what to pack – do I need an umbrella?

Funny how parents are looked upon as indispensable when it comes to matters of practicality (‘Mum I can’t untie my knotted shoelaces and I have to leave in 5 minutes!’). Yet if we dare express an unasked-for opinion we are looked down upon as pariahs.

This morning I heard him crashing around the house as usual. He was surprised to see me, forgetting that I had told him about my day off. He apologised for making such a racket (makes a change!). As he stood in the doorway of his room – on his way for some more sleep until a mate picks him up later to play basketball – I saw a calmness in him. I wanted to hug him tight, feel the warmth of his bedclothes on him. He had made it through his first semester at college. Now it is time to let go for a while.

Still some growing up to do yet.