‘I remember…’

…the feeling of complete shame as if it was yesterday. My boyfriend Owen was attempting to climb Mt Everest and I was spending some time with him at Everest Base camp. It was midnight, absolutely freezing and I was busting to go to the toilet.

The blokes had it easy. They had two bottles in their tents – a water bottle and a “piss” bottle that was usually a different shape so that mistakes didn’t happen in the darkness. The women however had to use the makeshift loo. Some had tried bowls and funnels but this usually resulted in spills and an unholy mess to clean up.

I checked my watch a thousand times – hoping with each glance that several hours had gone by, it would soon be morning and warmer. Not so – the time was 12:05 and I couldn’t hang on any longer. I struggled out of my warm silk liner and expedition sleeping bag and unzipped the tent as quietly as possible so that I did not wake any of the sleeping climbers.

I followed the light of my torch down the small hill, past the other tents, mess tent and cook house to the toilet area. There are no proper toilets at Base Camp so our climbing team had built a latrine area that consisted of an upturned 44 gallon drum with a small hole cut out for one to do one’s business through. It wasn’t very flash but it was certainly more comfortable than the Tardis which was the nickname given to the toilet tent on the trek to Base Camp.

I reached the blue toilet drum, reluctantly pulled down my warm snow pants, two layers of thermal underwear and functional undies and sat down. It felt colder than I remembered and I didn’t realise until I went to stand that this toilet experience was going to be different to any other. I couldn’t stand up and I remember with dawning horror that I was completely stuck on the drum. My bottom on the freezing drum had produced the same effect as a tongue on ice – immediate suction.

Each time I tried to prize myself off the drum it caused immense pain and I knew that I was risking some serious damage if I continued to try – ripped flesh does not heal well at these altitudes.

I was starting to freeze and knew that I had to get help but the toilet area was some distance from the tents. I remember starting to cry out of sheer frustration and also for just feeling so stupid. A couple of minutes spent blubbering only resulted in a runny nose that I couldn’t wipe properly because of my thick gloves – a frozen bottom and frozen nose: how wonderful!

Eventually I started yelling for help, hoping that Owen would hear me. Of course that didn‘t happen and the one who did hear my cries was our head Sherpa, Zangbou. Unfortunately instead of just saving me himself he decided to wake up the Team Doctor, Team Leader and then Owen. In the commotion of people scrambling out of their tents to what they thought was a serious incident several more of the Australian Team were woken.

I remember the Doctor having a close look at my nether regions and being very diplomatic whilst doing so. He put a blanket around me whilst he, the Team Leader, Owen and what seemed like the entire population of Base Camp worked out what to do. Eventually it was decided that I had to thaw out a bit as pulling me off risked too much damage. Zangbou heated some water whilst Owen and one of the women climbers held some blankets up to protect whatever modesty I had left.

Zangbou drizzled the warm water around my buttocks whilst the Doctor gradually prized my stuck flesh off the drum using a spatula from the cook house. Soon I came unstuck. Owen said he had never seen my bottom look so strange and wished he had his camera. I remember wanting to hit him but was just so relieved to be free that I kissed him instead.

Everyone went back to their tents and the Doctor declared that my bottom would recover. I remember thinking that whilst my physical pain would eventually subside, my wounded pride would take a little longer.

Average Rating: 4.8 out of 5 based on 197 user reviews.


 

One chilly morning in autumn, 1955, a clattering of footsteps and the slamming open of the gate violated the pre-dawn peace and calm. Torches flashed. Commanding voices charged the atmosphere. Terror, chaos and horror exploded like a bomb on our home. Some unknown aliens invaded us, impacting awe. The men and women of the People’s Militia appeared from everywhere, both inside and outside our house, before we even realised what the commotion was. Dressed in their well-worn and patched army uniforms and armed with their shiny long rifles, they promptly secured the whole surrounding area.

They arrested my father.

‘What have I done wrong?’ asked my father. His voice was barely audible, feeble and pleading, submitting himself to the power of the people.

‘What you done wrong? Fuck your mother! You fucking counter-revolutionary to New China, ’ growled the one in charge, ‘Your father was a fucking capitalist!’

‘You fucking Nationalist Party member. You black element in hiding. Your whole family are fucked, ’ he continued to yell and swear at my father. We shook and trembled. He roared on with wrath. We buried our face into Mother as she shook and trembled with us. We huddled together in great fear and could not stop crying. I had never heard anyone so rude and intimidating to my parents. If only my little legs were not like jelly, I could have jumped at those nasty intruders.

‘Fuck your mother. We here to bring you to the justice of the people, ’ the one in charge snarled, cursing my parents, their parents, our ancestors and our whole family, the dead and the alive, past and present, dishing out the worst insults on earth. We shook and trembled more. He was very cross. His voice was loud, firm and regimental, full of that ferocious revolutionary tone so familiar from district heads and senior party members in denouncing and sentencing meetings. So bad that it threatened to bring the roof down.

There was no mercy as he continued to swear at my father and the family, making me feel all of us were scum, criminals and enemies to the sacred revolution that we were so proud of. Even the peasants were not able to swear as viciously as he did. My father shivered at the insults directed at his family and his departed parents. His face turned deadly white, then red, and finally purple as the veins in his neck bulged and swelled, ready to burst. He stared at his captors with the kind of anger and rage that I had never witnessed before. If he had not been already tied down I was sure he would have leaped at the guards and been done with there and then. The honour of his whole family was pillaged. Family honour was something worth dying for.

‘Wang Ting, ’ said my father with his gaze fixed on one of the ruthless faces of revolution, ‘Honouring your teacher is a virtue, as much as it’s honouring your own parents. I am here at your mercy but there’s no need to insult and dishonour the rest of my family.’ His words, unwavering and unswerving, quietened the commotion like in a classroom.

The militia guards were silent for that instant when my father spoke. They were surprised that their former teacher dared speaking back at them, now that they ruled the whole town and its people. We stopped crying and listened.

‘Have you not got parents, brothers and sisters and families? Should you not treat them with honour and respect? What would you do if their honour was despoiled, reviled and despised?’ My father exploded with such quiet fury that even the one in charge of the arrest party was taken aback, though only for a brief interval. He was proud of himself that he had provoked the last of the suspects in town to finish his mission for the revolution. He put on a sarcastic grin to show that my father’s words meant nothing to him.

‘Repent and you may get a lesser punishment, ’ he howled at my father again as he promulgated the well-rehearsed words, picking his pimples on his chin. Peeking from behind my mother’s apron, I saw my father shake his head and lower his gaze back onto the terracotta tiles. The veins subsided and he returned to his previous ashen look as he resigned himself to the mercy of the revolutionary mob. He realised how frightened we all were. How futile it would be to argue with the pubertal gang and deny the accusations. There was no room for explanation. He was a prisoner, a captive, and a declared scum of the revolution. He now belonged to the most detested and hated class of people who were dispensable according to government directives. Now that the land reform and nationalisation of all industries and businesses were accomplished, and the resistive nationalists, landlords and capitalists were exterminated, rightists and hidden dissidents eradicated, new suspects and targets were needed to keep the wheel of the revolution turning.

My father had long suspected his turn to be thoroughly purged, and even imprisonment, was coming. The authorities in town had summoned him on several occasions to explain what he did before 1949. They wanted to know everything about his past. He counted his blessings each time they let him off. He had written many times about his past on their demand. They told him to repeat the same several times more, as consistency would reveal a person’s honesty. They detained him on a few occasions, but never longer than a week, as they tried to incriminate him. My father would always feel lucky when they released him for lack of evidence, though they ordered him to attend political re-education meetings in the evenings almost daily, to ensure that he would indeed be safe for the new society. Deep in his heart, he knew his time was approaching.

The first light filtered into the house. It did not make the bleak day any better. The normally happy sparrows disappeared with fright and stopped chirping. Neighbours gathered outside the front yard trying to find out who was arrested, even though arrests were common in town. This was happening in their street. They had long been suspecting my father’s fate and worried about their own, just as he had about his and theirs. Every adult who had lived under the pre-communist rule was a suspect until they were thoroughly investigated. A new society was being born through the protracted hard labour of the revolution that many thought finished with the Nationalists being banished to Taiwan and the PRC’s proclamation. At that moment, I understood exactly the meaning of revolution. It definitely meant more than what the teachers told us at school: cleansing, purging, re-educating the people and making sacrifices. It meant pain and awe. It meant insults and dishonour if you were on the wrong side of the wheel. Making sacrifices meant bloodletting and exterminating certain unwanted people in the society, as determined by the authorities in charge. It was the townspeople’s turn to go through the wheel of fire.

The men and women of the People’s Militia lined the front entry. All were looking solemn, tough-faced and important with their shiny weapons proudly displayed to the people. The red armband stood out on their much-valued second hand army tunics. The patched uniforms had a story of their own to tell about the struggle and sacrifices of the people and their final triumph. It was a sign of revolution in motion and in its continuity. As a child, I often dreamed about owning an old and patched army tunic to feel that I belonged and was part of the revolution, until the morning they arrested my father. I felt hurt, disgraced, and unwanted. Definitely not belonging.

Some of the guards left briefly and returned with shovels and hoes. They began to dig up the house looking for weapons they believed my father had hidden. Systematically, they dug up the terra cotta tiles. Sand was turned and spread in small hills all over the house. They searched high and low, sparing not a single square inch of area in the vast house, as my father resigned himself to his fate.

We sat next to Father, holding onto him hoping that they would not be able to take him away from us. We wept and wailed. Ah-dong’s mother came over from next door and could not stop her tears pouring. Father was unable to move and still looked pale. His dark, strong eyebrows linked more closely together than ever, now a knot appeared in the middle of his forehead. In a shaky voice parched by the event, he reassured us that he had done nothing wrong, nothing counter-revolutionary against New China, against Chairman Mao and communism; and that the authorities would soon realise this. He raised his voice with reverence when mentioning Chairman Mao for the guards to hear, to impress on them that he was indeed not a spiteful counter-revolutionary.

‘You have nothing to fear. Just be good children and study hard, very hard, ’ he said to us, impressing on us the importance of academic pursuit, if we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity. He was helpless and impotent except for his determined look that imprinted his message on us forever. His effort to swallow saliva was useless. A large crop of long black hair hung over his handsome face. The rifle-waving militiamen and women were involved in his arrest this time. He looked worried. It was clearly a bad sign.

My mother lit up a cigarette and helped him smoke it. Her eyes were red and puffy. Tears had all but drained from them, together with their usual lustre and shine. She struggled to be calm. The tight rope mercilessly congested the veins in his neck. They became distended with each inhalation of his cigarette. My parents did not talk. They had nothing to say to each other for the moment, just like there was so little to say to the frightened children. The mind is blank as threat engulfs the whole body. The accusation of being a counter-revolutionary in the young republic meant the prospect of the most severe punishment by the People’s Court. The one in charge paced up and down in the living room, drawing hard on his Red Flag cigarette, impatient and annoyed. More militiamen and women came in and out of our house. All our belongings were turned upside down and thoroughly searched. They took away family photographs and old letters. The entire living quarters were in a mess. My mother cried a bit more and tried to attend to our breakfast. We did not want to eat. We sat looking at each other with inflamed eyes. We feared the worst for our father and continued to cry.

Father wanted us to go to school. He promised that he would still be at home when we returned. My mother fed him with watery rice congee. Still with his arms and neck tied to the heavy rosewood chair, he appeared to be a little calmer.

We went to school reluctantly in order not to upset our parents. People whispered behind us and stood outside their doors to stare at us from a distance, as if something contagious had emerged from the first house in this quiet street just outside town. We could hear them talk and inquire among themselves. Some people sighed to express their sympathy to the family they had known for generations. A few bolder ones shook their heads in rebellion against the incidence, with their heads bowed, not daring to meet the stares of those proud soldiers of the revolution. No one was brave enough to speak up.

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 187 user reviews.


  

Clouds had been gathering for hours. It began spitting rain; then turned into a shower; it started to pour; pelted down and we ran inside an ancient abbey. Damp and cold, we wandered through long stone corridors feeling the ghosts of the abbey following in our wake. In the disused cells and halls our words echoed even when we whispered. I found myself turning around to see if anyone was listening. In my mind’s eye I could see young hooded monks with faces illuminated like pale moons gliding through the archways and the creased faces of the ancient ones, who were bent over and shuffling along, envious of their younger brothers. I swore I could hear a low melodious chanting somewhere just beyond eyesight. We came upon a small chamber where a meal had been prepared, had we disturbed someone? Who else was in the abbey? I sat on the bench. Cold, wet and hungry, I felt tempted to partake of the meagre repast. With sudden presence of mind I asked Helen to take a photo with my camera. The camera doesn’t lie, does it?

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 255 user reviews.


 

It was time to celebrate

I cooked a special meal

Of excellent Greek moussaka

Made with The Boy’s favourite veal

I even made it the day before

The Boy then changed his mind

He went visiting friends in Bondi

And preferred to remain behind

My husband had been a bachelor boy

And a Romeo for twenty joyous years

He sometimes has a selfish streak

And never observes my tears

He changes his mind to suit himself.

After several false pledges,

I’m running out of sandpaper

To smooth out his rough edges.

Saturday night I was on my own

But I knew the meal would last

Into the fridge until tomorrow,

It won’t hurt for me to fast

Sunday came, I went to town.

Some students received an award

They topped the State in piano

Made it on their own accord

Their parents came along, filled with pride

And The Boy arrived on time

To share the presentation

Of instruments, rhythm and rhyme

The Boy looked smart today

He wore a respectable suit

Dapper, he was, despite the heat

And dripping with charm, to boot

The Concert closed with applause

And the proud parents declared

“You should be celebrating, Barb,

Have you something prepared?”

“I do, ” said I, “a fine meal awaits

And some of Teacher’s favourite wine.”

I gazed into The Boy’s eyes,

Thinking he looked divine.

“I must return to Bondi,

There’s something I’ve left behind.

I’ll see you later on at home

I’m sure that you won’t mind.”

The Boy was gone in a flash

Gordon surely was his middle name

I journeyed on back up the Coast,

Inner senses didn’t feel the same.

My phone rang that metallic ding

An SMS came through

‘Struth, it’s from the Boy himself

How would he know what to do?

“Eating dinner with the mates

Already on the go

Do what you want for your evening meal

Be home in an hour or so…..”

I was both seething and fuming

I looked at my work of art.

The best moussaka around, for sure

And he didn’t have the heart

Dare to call me and repent

Texting is the work of a Cad

The Boy couldn’t face my voice,

He would fear that I would be mad.

Rebellion is my forte

What does he love the most?

A bottle of Penfolds Grange lies near

A gift from a friend, he would boast

No less than five hundred dollars

This wine of quality is worth.

I know about its superb style,

Such finesse befits my mirth.

I lick drips from my fingertips

The carafe sucks and splashes down

Majestic black fruits of the Grange,

It’s the most expensive toast in town.

The Boy’s pride and joy of wine

Is this “famous” bottle of Red.

Australia’s finest and flawless

Is about to be ‘drink-ed.’

I close my eyes and sip slowly

Taking care to hold in the juice

I admire the power and the weight,

It’s complexity as I sluice

Around my mouth and through my teeth

Swirls the jewel in Australia’s crown

Tantalising tannins support

My back-palate as I swallow down

Three glasses later, and I hope

The Boy won’t be home for a while

The Greek cuisine has been frozen.

I take my revenge with a smile.

The Boy has blessed this bottle.

Medical Doctors such as he

Declare a scientific interest

In the making of wine, it must be.

Dr Penfold, himself, was a

Great believer in red wine

For the healing powers only

Of the fruits of the vine

Four hours had passed by

There was no sign of His Nibs

It was time for me to retire

And I called the cat, “Mr Tibs!”

One last task for the night was to

 Save the dregs in the carafe

With plastic wrap for the seal

I retired with a careless laugh.

As The Boy breakfasted the next day,

I displayed the wreck of my wrong done

My retaliation was accepted

in stone silence – I had won!

“You can drink the rest tonight

I have a work meeting, ” he chides.

“International Women’s Day

Pour moi and dinner besides.”

“I’ve been married for thirty years,

I would never dare do that!”

Friends say, “You’re a braver woman than I

And I take off my hat!”

That evening at dinner for World Women’s Rights

The Boy calls me on the phone

“Meeting finished early, Barbie-doll

So I’m zooming home!!”

“I forgot you were out, Barbie-doll

We didn’t even get fed.”

“There’s nothing at home either.”

Poetic justice isn’t dead.

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 213 user reviews.


  

The Boy’s fleet of four cars is excessive – my front lawn looks like a second-hand car lot, even though the neighbour’s yacht has set sail permanently and a beloved cousin has taken my desperate hint relieving the lawn of the Jayco (a brand name for a 4 X 4 caravan but fondly referred by Aussie campers and single finger wavers as ‘The Jayco.’)  When Cousin Paul drove off with the caravan, I celebrated The Boy’s loss with a half bottle of champagne as a victory for myself retrieving another pocket of grass from the car yard.  That was a winning week – John’s office and staff and their cars departed the house for good also, with an encouraging poke from me.

I have menopausal cleansing syndrome (MCS in my book.) 

Finally, we are down to two cars and two four-wheel drive vehicles at the last count.   

It is January with summer holidays. The street is busy with pedestrians walking to and from the beach carrying picnic baskets, umbrellas, water bottles and the more energetic youths run by carrying their surf boards.

 Our front door is constantly open to the street as an access for the tradesmen working on this home. The staircase is just inside the doorway.  The first step has become a shelf for handy things over time. Car keys, especially, are all dumped down on that convenient spot but I worry that any bored and curious child could walk in, see the keys and take his pick from the car lot in the front yard.

I collect the Toyota keys one day to take them upstairs to store in a more secure site.

That’s the last I can remember of them.

“Where are the keys for the Toyota?” The Boy asks a few days later. He’s used to asking for the whereabouts of anything – socks, jackets, tickets, bread, and milk – you name it.  As he asks, he often stands already staring at that item. I mutter quietly, “What’s that, fog?” but aloud I say, “Just look harder, darling.  Seek and ye shall find.” 

The Boy pulls out the sock drawer two inches, looks from side to side, and declares there’s nothing there.  “I’ve never lived with any woman ever before who thinks I must have only one foot.  I used to have 20 pairs of socks and now I have 20 singles.”  It’s not my fault the new washing machine seems to whizz his washing around and sends single socks up to Stocking Heaven in the sky.  I have made life easier for The Boy as he doesn’t need to look for so many socks these days. 

Men’s inability to search properly ranks in the same category as their global weakness in hearing wife’s voices. That’s the pathological category.  Baby boys are born deaf.  Boys can hear girlfriends say yes, but men become profoundly deaf from their wedding day.  That explains acoustic signals of car radios and television sets being set at twice the level households require. 

Talking about all these cars, I drive only mine as I learnt from nearly losing my hearing once. On entering The Boy’s car, I turned off the radio before starting the ignition.  In a hurry to buy necessities at the local store, I grabbed the nearest keys to the nearest car from that bottom step, unlocked the car door, jumped in, threw the ignition on while I still had the door open, and before I had a second to strap on what would have been my life-saving seat belt, megaphone blasts of electromotive energy blew me clear off the car seat and out into the garden below.  Well, sort of.  The shock of my traumatised eardrums being blown apart from The Boy’s car radio left my thinking process temporarily numb, so it took a few seconds to register that a terrorist bomb hadn’t gone off in the car as I threw the engine into action.

So none of us are perfect, I remind The Boy as we start hunting for the Toyota keys.  “Gosh, did I move them from the bottom step, after all? Maybe, I did, maybe I didn’t………” I could be described as vague right now.  I end up searching by turning the house upside down.  For once, I could be thankful of the renovations.  I only have a quarter of a house to search.  I come to the conclusion after two weeks of scouring and scavenging the house, that maybe I may have mislaid them, but they are here ‘somewhere’ between the staircase and the whole area of the first floor.

As time goes on, the spare keys become the only keys.  That’s alright.  There are plenty of cars, and plenty of other keys, to lose??

Six months pass.  Winter comes.  The renovations are well under way.  At least after living under tarpaulins for half a stormy year, the new roof is positioned by crane and life takes on some sense of normality. 

This day starts with The Boy choosing my car to drive to work that day.  “Flat tyre, watch it, ” I warn. “It just needs air in it, ” the reply comes from out of the car window as he waves and reverses away.  “Gosh, do I need a medical degree, as well, to be able to work that out?” I mumble.

I decide, with at least a quarter of a kitchen, I will prepare a normal dinner that day, but cook in what? The gas/electric monstrosity of Italian cooking ingenuity is in place but it hasn’t been connected yet.  The microwave won’t to do the trick. The new induction hob/pot had been sitting alone on the kitchen bench for several months. Tradesmen had moved it about from time to time. I set it up and find the new directions, neatly stored in my neatly labelled file for New Appliances and Warranties.

I’m thankful I am a woman and I know where everything is, except if I bring anything new into the house.  Where I put things down is questionable as distractions often occur when I arrive home.  I am convinced a wireless connection links the front door to the telephone which rings whenever I enter the house.   Maybe a direct line runs from the toilet seat to the telephone, as well.  Each time I sit down and put weight on a toilet seat, the telephone rings.

“Lamb shanks are the go tonight, ” I decide and relish adding the meat to the new appliance, and preparing the accompanying vegetables, wine, herbs and spices. The induction cooker roars into life at the flick of my switch heating immediately to 1300 watts of power.  “Oh, I’ll just give it a bit of a burst” and I turn the new toy up to the maximum heat of 1800 watts. “Nothing like zapping it at the beginning, ” I say agreeably to myself.  “Spot on, look at it go!”  The stew bubbles effortlessly. “Oh, crumbs, starting to burn already, I’ll turn it down to only 300 watts to simmer.” With a masterly swirl of the wooded spoon scraping up any burnt bits from the bottom of the pot and mixing all the yummy ingredients around about, I turn my concentration to choosing a good red wine to complement our first dinner in the ‘new’ kitchen.

The front door bangs shut as I can hear The Boy returning home.  He flings my car keys onto the bottom step and dumps his briefcase on the second step.  He calls up the staircase, “Mary McCaskill brought you her cumquat marmalade in for you today. Mary added whisky this time.  Could you ring her please to let her know what you think of the new flavour?  Here’s a jar for you, and my honey man came for another appointment.  There may not be too many more of these coming your way.  He’s giving the bees away next year. You are a lucky girl, you know.  My patients all feed you, what would you do without them?  They think I don’t look after you well enough, ha! Ha!”

I’ve rarely known The Boy to carry out a conversation in the same room.  He can talk forever through walls and, he imagines I can hear him.  We attempt to converse at the dinner table, but he immediately turns television on, and up, up, up and I give up competing and wrecking my vocal chords. 

“Mmmmmm, ” he utters in appreciation, “What’s cooking?”

“Kiwi favourite – lamb shanks are coming up on the new hob.  It’s so fast, sweetie-poops; it must be the new version of pressure cooking.  I wouldn’t like to have stuck my finger in the pot while your dinner bubbled and plopped its head off like a Rotorua mud pool! Let’s eat!”

Wine glasses clink and we give a cheer to celebrate the end of a long day, for The Boy at least, as we settle down to savour the delicious evening meal.

“Ha! This smacks of fantastic food! I’m a lucky man to dine like this and you’re a lucky woman to have me!” states The Boy.

The deafening blare of a non-descript television programme prevents any effort of riposte from myself.

Dinner is gorgeous.  Sometimes, there are eating experiences which are better not shared, such as standing eating a juicy orange over the bath, and I discover another one tonight – devouring lamb shanks, as tender as a baby’s bottom, with the meat falling off the bone onto your tongue as it catches drips of zesty, port-filled gravy.

The only hint of remains of the aged cabernet sauvignon is the unfiltered sediment at the base of the carafe. The dinner plates look as though we have licked them clean as it was cook’s night off.  But no, we scrape and relish every tiny last morsel of the dinner which I have served.

“Perfect, just perfect!  Thank you for such a fantastic dinner.  You couldn’t get that in any restaurant in town, only here at Barbiedoll’s! Ha! Ha!  The news is coming on…….”

That is my cue to clear the table.  With the largest soup ladle I have, I begin scooping out the remaining casserole into Tupperware containers.  There are three extra meals in the pot, and I plan to put them down in the freezer.  Having prepared meals is ideal for week nights’ dinners.

A metallic clunk against the ladle sounded from the bottom of the pot.

“Oh, Lordy, what’s that?”  I ask the brick wall. 

The other brick wall hears me speak (wonders will never cease) and he says, “Are you OK?”

“There’s something like metal in the bottom of the casserole, ” I reply.

“Well, what is it then?” inquires the brick wall.  Heavens, he has spoken twice during the news broadcast.

With a definite plunge of the ladle, I hook the game and draw up my catch.

“Gee whizz! It’s the Toyota keys! Yippee, I found them.”  I start laughing and laughing and I can’t stop.  I am doubled up with giggling so much I am not aware for a minute or two that I am laughing alone.

The Boy is on his feet and moving fast into my space.  “I don’t see how they can be.  They can’t be in there.  You can’t have cooked with them.  You must have checked the pot; you must have washed inside before you used it.  Didn’t you???”

I hold up my prize catch.  The plastic alarm part of the keys has half melted away, but it is definitely them alright!  “Isn’t that amazing?” I exclaim.  Well, what else can I say?

“We’ll get lead poisoning for sure! What if we ate some lead?” The Boy stammered.

“You already have, and you enjoyed it, ” I retorted

 “How could you do this, Barbiedoll?  How could you have even lost the car keys in the first place?  They are always on the bottom step.  Nobody loses car keys!”

“Smart talking, Brick Wall, ” I whisper to myself.

Ten minutes ago, the atmosphere was one of dining delight.  Now, we have a cuisine catastrophe on our hands, and it’s not going to let up by the look of it.  I snap Tupperware lids over the leftovers, rinse dishes, fire them ceremoniously into the unchristened dishwasher and promptly stomp off to the sanctity of the bathroom!

Next morning, after a few nods for “Good morning” I go downstairs to prepare for an early pupil, prior to school beginning.  I peek outside to check my car tyre, and it is as flat as a pancake. 

“You never dealt with that flat tyre, yesterday, did you?” I call up the stairs.

Another staircase conversation proceeds.

“I didn’t have time, ” comes down the predictable answer.

“You’ll have to get NRMA, ” I suggest.

“I am not” roars down the reply.  I know why.  He’s too embarrassed, maybe.

“You have that car today and take it to the tyre shop for air!” the heavens command.

“Oh, yes, and my name is Stupid, ” I curse to myself. I ring NRMA roadside service immediately and they tell me that their local man, Michael, isn’t too far away.  “Gee, Michael’s on.  He’ll call me ‘darling’ as he always does.  I won’t mind him today.  No one else will be calling me ‘darling’ today, that’s for sure, ” I comfort myself.

I settle the student onto the piano stool for his lesson and his Mum waits and watches on the couch.

Knock on the front door.  No use expecting The Boy to come downstairs to answer the door so I do.  It’s the tiler.

“I just need to OK some things about the tiles for the verandas with you!”

“Fine, I’ll be with you in half an hour, ” I reply.

The phone rings then, “It’s Dave the plumber here, Barb.  Did you find a roof plumber for the three and a half meter flue for your oven?”

“Yes, Dave.  I’m on the case.  Thanks though.  Better go, I have a pupil.”

I apologise to the mother and pupil for a third time in 5 minutes.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that Michael in the NRMA vehicle has arrived to save the day for the flat tyre.

I leave the piano room, and fling my head up the staircase, “Hurry up, NRMA is here for the tyre.” I return again to the student, who is yet to open his book.

The Boy stomps out to the car, and greets Michael.  I heave a sigh as I feel I can now deal with the little boy and attempt to win some attention from him.  Ten minutes into his lesson have been eaten up by interruptions and, probably, welcome distractions for him.

The door is flung open as The Boy is knocking on it.

“Where’s the keys to your car?” he requests.

“I don’t know.  You drove it yesterday!”

There is silence as the mother, the student and I all watch The Boy thinking. I look out the window onto the street.  Michael is out at the car with his hands in his pocket.

There’s a glimmer of hope in The Boy’s dreamy brown eyes.  Inspiration! “Where are my trousers?”

“Which trousers?” I ask.

“The pair I wore yesterday, ” the deciding reply announced.

“They are in the wash.  Can’t you hear the washing machine going?”

“The keys are in the pocket.  I suppose you have used very hot water for the wash!” The Boy volunteered.

“My goodness, no one loses car keys!”

The music lesson failed.  The mother and the student departed, in credit.

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 230 user reviews.


 

1

Misty dawn in Seine

Mistletoes weave weeping rain

Ah, fallen soldiers

2

Summer rains mourn

Fallen soldiers blood, frozen

Tears of the mothers

3

Another spring wakes

Solemn rows in Harrogate

A sea of poppies

Average Rating: 4.9 out of 5 based on 284 user reviews.


Roger kisses me good-bye on the doorstep and heads off to his car. I pause before I close the door. It’s still early morning and the harsh cries of black cockatoos fill the air with conflict. I go back to my computer to start the day’s marking – the last seven essays on a case study I grew weary of with the first student’s callow misinterpretations and blanket condemnations. It’s likely there will not be a great deal of difference with this lot. I bring up the first one and sigh.

I hear the key in the front door. Roger’s forgotten something. But he comes in ashen faced to say he thinks one of our cats, Leah, has been killed by a car. I rush out in bare feet leaving the front door open and hit the cold pavement running. Roger follows behind me. He’s already told me where to find her. Cat killer corner. Where cars speed up from scooting around the bus stop two hundred metres further back. It’s where our young silver tabby Isis died a few months ago, and exactly a week before that, where her twin brother Ziggy was knocked flying by some hoon.

I see her flattened form lying on the other side of the road and we cross, watching the traffic. The damage is dreadful. Her intestines spill out of her abdomen, her head is squashed flat on one side, broken bones protrude from a hind- and foreleg. An eye lies on the ground next to the head, still attached to a shred of membrane. It looks blindly at the sky. Her fur is dull and life is long gone. She looks as though she is already melting into the sandy verge, the earth reclaiming her, unlike the crushed plastic rubbish that perpetually blows along the gutters.

But it’s not Leah. This cat is a tortoiseshell, not a gold-and-black tabby, though both share long fur. I recognize the cat from the neighbourhood, and wonder whether I can door knock so early. Roger is relieved it’s not Leah and he’s now late for work. He rushes off to his car, parked a little further down the road.

I consider briefly whether to take the remains to a vet to be scanned for a microchip. I decide the body is too shattered, and the likelihood of her being chipped too slim. I go back home to get shoes and a shovel.

I start to dig under a flowering dark red oleander bush by the side of the road, near the crumpled body. The ground is sandy and stony, and I’ve dug a biggish hole when I see a neighbour I don’t know about to move his car out from the row of vehicles parked at the kerb. It’s a huge black shiny SUV. I lean the shovel against a tree and go over, gesturing to him to open his car window. After a second’s hesitation, he does.

‘Excuse me, ’ I begin politely. ‘Do you know anyone who owns a tortoiseshell cat?’

He looks startled and shakes his head. ‘No, ’ he says, shortly. I’ve annoyed him somehow.

‘Okay, ’ I bite my lip. ‘There’s a dead cat over there been hit by a car, ’ I look back in the direction of the little bundle of fur. ‘I’m just about to bury it.’

He frowns, ‘We have a cat. I suppose it’s a tabby.’

‘Oh right, ’ I say. I realize there are people who don’t know how to describe cats by their markings. The picture he is sending me is not a tabby. It’s this cat. I wait a beat.

‘What’s a tortoiseshell?’ he asks.

‘Gingery, black and brown in splotches. This one has long fur.’ I can feel unease begin in him.

‘D’you mind if I take a look?’ he says. There’s a mixture of gruesome interest and something else, heavy blame, I think, in him now. I’m feeling his chronic level is anger, quick to stir.

‘Of course not, ’ I walk back to the body while he presses the button to close his car window and gets out. He’s medium to tall in height, solidly built, his grey hair close cropped and balding. I notice he locks the car, though he will be only feet away.

When he gets close, his voice has regret in it. ‘That’s our cat.’ He sees the dreadful injuries. ‘Oh, that’s horrible, ’ he says, but he’s grinning in fascination and his shiver seems more like a thrill. I’m getting the feeling he’s a man with a head full of violent images, sometimes acted on, mostly tightly held in.

‘I’m sorry, ’ I say, from long habit following what is communicated out loud and not the unconscious communication. I’m remembering the times the little tortoiseshell came over the back fence to sun herself on the roof of our garden shed. A friendly, sweet cat who liked to be stroked. I am sorry.

‘My son, my daughters, they’ll be devastated, ’ he says. Now his words pour out of him. The pictures that come with them sometimes don’t match, a jumble of family conflicts, the turmoil of his household. ‘Y’know, we’ve been here eleven years, and the day we arrived, this little thing came runnin’ straight in and up the stairs!’ His mouth and eyes are open in wonder. ‘She adopted us! A stray from the neighbourhood, she musta been. I told my son then, youse look after it, I’m not having a bar of it! They can be a lot of trouble, cats. Don’t know what to do with ‘em when you go on holidays. Fleas an’ all that. I told my son when we went away, gave him some money to buy flea stuff for the cat. An’ when we came back I ars’ed him ‘f’e’d done it, y’ know, and ‘e said, Ah no, I forgot! An’ I said, so you spent that money on somethin’ else! I told ‘im off, no way I’m payin’ for more flea stuff, and that cat in his bedroom an’ all the fleas everywhere, jumpin’ up at you from the carpet and the bedding!’

He pauses to draw breath, our eyes fall down to the limp body. Bizarrely I look for evidence of fleas. None are visible.

He continues, ‘I dunno why she was out here on the road.’

I mention that this was the exact spot where Isis and Ziggy died. They too, rarely crossed this part of the road, but there are birds and possums on this bushy side of the road, in the gums and conifers.

He shakes his head. ‘It was the coldest night we’ve had last night. She musta stayed out ‘cause of the fleas. I wondered where she was.

‘Course, I get all the cats from this big corner house, y’ know, the ones that keep havin’ litter after litter, ’ and I nod, because I know the family.

They’re a huge sprawling family of islanders who hold frequent loud parties. There’s an indeterminate number of feral kids and cats, none of whom ever seem to have enough to eat. Over a year ago, after two of the litters of kittens migrated across to our house two doors down, I persuaded them to let me get all their cats desexed.

He goes on, as though he rarely has the experience of someone listening and now he can’t stop talking. It’s something I find frequently in my profession.

‘So I get all these cats jumping from the fence down onto the roof of my pergola, ’ he says, and I realize he’s the man who lives directly behind our back fence. His town house is on a lower level along the backs of three houses from the corner. His upstairs bathroom window overlooks our garden. The buildings are close, the council having agreed to squeeze in a skinny block of town houses where there might have been one bungalow before redevelopment.

As the man talks about the cats jumping on the corrugated plastic roof of his pergola and the noise they make and the vines that grow aggressively over the fence onto the same structure, I get a sense of his feeling squeezed in and encroached on by all of his high-side neighbours. His irritation is pouring out, and I flash back to what happened with Micah, soon after we moved in eight years ago.

Micah was our seven-year old red heeler. It was a mistake to keep him in our small suburban back yard, despite long twice-daily walks and lots of toys. Micah barked noisily, persistently, penetratingly, creating a weariness of spirit that frustrated everyone, day and night. We’d got him from the RSPCA as a temporary fosterling pup and fallen in love with him before we moved to this house with its much smaller garden. I’d never met the man who yelled furiously whenever Micah barked, hidden below the fence in his pergola. But his shouting voice soon became familiar.

‘Shut that fuckin’ dog up! Shut ‘im up or I’ll shut ‘im up for yer!’ His enraged yells had progressed rapidly from an aggrieved tone to dangerous desperation, full of threats. I kept Micah inside from that point while I tried to find him another home. It was difficult. As my vet helpfully pointed out, no-one wanted a barking ratbag red heeler, who should’ve been a working cattle dog but was now too old to train. Kept inside, the poor dog nearly went insane, tearing up anything he could get his teeth into. Between walks down to the park, I’d let him out briefly into the garden and bring him in again as soon as he started barking.

One day he came back in limping, his paw badly cut and bleeding. After removing the glass embedded in his paw and treating him, I went out to investigate. Along the back fence were shards of a newly shattered beer bottle. Smears of Micah’s blood coloured the grass. I grew very still as I contemplated the mind that would do this to a dog. I looked for access points and saw the vine-covered pergola roof hard up against the fence below. I didn’t think it would bear anyone’s weight. I was puzzled. Then the neighbour’s frosted bathroom window above slid closed with a slam.

A few days after that, we rushed Micah to the vet after he began convulsing and frothing at the mouth. It was poison, though we never found out how he had eaten whatever it was. Looking at his shivering, rigid form, gasping for breath and wild eyed, we conferred with the vet and he was put instantly, mercifully to sleep.

The man who owns the tortoiseshell cat is still talking. I blink and pay attention.

‘My older daughter’s just moved down to Melbourne. She’s 22. She’ll be really upset about this. She’s difficult, very touchy, always fightin’ with me ‘n ‘er mother. Has to ‘ave ‘er own way all the time, never listens!’ I see the images of flying crockery, the yelling and slammed doors he is sending me. I listen calmly, well trained to hear empathically the distress and bewilderment he has about his daughter, his complete unawareness of the effect his own anger has on members of his family.

‘My son is eighteen, lazy good-for-nothin’, stoppin’ at home an’ no job.’ He looks back at his house for a moment. ‘Look, if yer don’t mind, I think I’ll go get my camera, my phone, take a picture for the kids, email it to my daughter in Melbourne, ’ he indicates the dead cat with a wave of his arm.

He notices I’m startled, and explains, ‘See, my younger daughter had this bunny rabbit. I think she was about six then. Anyway, it kept pooping all over the house and everything, a real nuisance it was. So I took it to the vet and got it put to sleep.’ The image he sends me is not of a vet’s surgery, however. It’s of a small white furry body, warm and lifeless in his hands. The feeling of gruesome pleasure comes from him again. He goes on, ‘So I’ll take a picture so they know the cat died of natural causes!’ He seems pleased as he walks back to his house.

I’m thinking about that, the need to prove such a thing to his kids, the effect on the daughter when she gets the emailed picture, on the son and small daughter still at home. The pleasure he is anticipating from their reactions.

I pick up the shovel from against the tree and without haste dig the hole a little deeper and wider. He’s away a few minutes and comes back with his phone.

‘My son was asleep. He’s stayin’ in bed, ’ he says. His eyes look critically at camera angles and light. ‘My younger daughter, I told her to stay over there.’ He stops about five feet from the cat, on the side that shows all the gory spillage and obscenely eviscerated intestines. ‘I guess it’s a bit cruel, ’ he says, his phone at his eye level. He’s smiling, or grimacing at the light.

‘Perhaps it wouldn’t be so gory from this side?’ I suggest, calmly.

He says, ‘She’ll be right, got a good shot from here. Now they’ll know.’

He takes the shovel from my hand and now he grimaces as he eases the shovel blade under the limp body. He carries it over to the hole I’ve dug under the oleander, dumps the body in there and shovels in the loose sand I’ve piled to the side. As he smooths it over, he dislodges some oleander blooms and they fall, dark red as pooled blood, onto the grave.

But he’s still talking. ‘My little girl keeps on at me to get a dog, y’know? I said to her no way! Too much trouble, too noisy! Nah, that’s the end of a chapter in our lives, that is.’

I murmur something inconsequential and he straightens, handing back the shovel. ‘So which house are you?’ he asks. I tell him, and see the vague memory from eight years ago connecting dog and noise and back fence forming in his mind, before it’s swallowed in a jumble of self-justification.

‘That was kind of you, ’ he points in the direction of the new grave but I shake my head. He’s waving the phone now. ‘I’m glad I got the photo, natural causes, see!’

As he walks jauntily over to his house I see the glossy black head of a young child hanging over the gate, waiting for daddy.

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 205 user reviews.


Pungent rosemary looming lush by the gate

Invites my leaving guests to crush and sniff

Awakens sharp memories, makes

Bright arching thought-bridges.

If only,

We could drop our past like crushed leaves

Having remembered and savoured, let it go

Breathe in sweet Self, and remember just that.

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 238 user reviews.


It stretched ahead of us – a line of pale boards slung over a valley. Flimsy-looking ropes held the planks together and the whole thing had a makeshift look: more like a temporary walkway than a road bridge. John said the crossing was safe, that he’d checked it with the Road Supervisor in Enugu; but even so he suggested that I get out and walk across first so as to reduce the weight in the Landrover.

I got out to have a look, while he lined up to the bridge. A lush mix of palms, bamboos, ferns and wild bananas grew up from the sides of the gorge, filling the space. The air was very quiet and heavy – the land was waiting for the start of the rains – and even the cicadas and tree-frogs were stilled. A large bright butterfly, blue and purple, settled on the ground near me where there was a trace of moistness. Far below I could hear the sound of falling water.

It was hard to recognise myself here, with this young man I apparently hardly knew. I hated the heat, didn’t care for John’s colonial colleagues: and yet I was intoxicated by the Tropics. Africa. Who’d have thought I might fall in love with Africa? Two weeks ago I had been among the cool grey stones of Edinburgh, taking exams; six weeks from now I’d be back there.

But now I had to walk across this contraption, as if it were a pedestrian crossing. Did he know I didn’t like heights? He came forward smiling, his dark blue eyes bluer than ever.

‘Shall I come across with you?’

I said ‘No, ’ more vehemently than I’d meant to. I couldn’t do it except on my own: if, that is, I could do it at all.

Until now we had been driving through scrub – abandoned farmland, noisy with monkeys, pie dogs. Children pushed ingenious wire toys here and there, absorbed in their play. Small groups of huts clustered along tracks that seemed to lead nowhere, and shrines of magical offerings stood slightly back from the road every mile or so.

But there, across the bridge, the road wound into a vaulted tunnel of soaring trees, hanging lianes, strangely coloured flowers glimpsed in the distance. A place worth getting to, even across this bridge.

‘I’ll get you started, then. OK’

‘Just for the beginning, perhaps.’

‘Take it slowly and keep looking ahead. You’ll be fine. It really is safe. Hold on to one side, but don’t lean on the rope, it’ll unbalance you.’

I hesitated for a moment, gathering up my strength, and as I did I heard soft footsteps behind us. A woman with a load of branches for firewood on her head was coming up at a fast walk; a baby was strapped on her back with a bright cloth and a child trotted close behind, balancing a jug of water on tight curls. They talked as they walked. The mother greeted us briefly, we stood aside and she crossed at speed. The child padded serenely after, chattering on as they crossed, her high voice echoing around the valley. The bridge gave slightly with their steps, so that they were always walking in a slight dip.

It was now or never. ‘OK. Off I go.’

Letting go of John’s hand I stepped forward and was on the bridge. The planks were smooth, and the bridge was as springy as I’d feared. My stomach clenched, and sweat ran down my back.

‘Just keep going, love. You’re doing fine.’

I hardly heard him. I was on my own in a state of terror, focused on the end of the bridge and the high forest on the other side. All I could do was keep going, and could only do that because pausing over the ravine would be worse. Time seemed to stop, holding me in this terrifying moment.

I stumbled. I expected to fall screaming, but it was in fact the change from planks to beaten earth. I was on the other side. I wiped my face with my skirt and bent down, dizzy and nauseous. Then I straightened up, breathing a new kind of air, and looked on down the road. Those trees! It was easy to think of a living cathedral.

The Landrover’s starter motor rattled, and John began to drive across, the wheels hidden in the deep dip that moved with him. As he came to the last few feet of the bridge, there was a small steepness to be overcome before the solid bank. He revved the engine slightly and for a moment the wheels slipped. My heart thudded, John grimaced and then he was safely on solid red earth. I got in beside him, and he reached over and kissed me.

‘That was something!’ he said with his self-deprecating grin.

And so we set off for Bamenda.

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 192 user reviews.


 
It is a hot Sunday afternoon. My little sister and I grumble as we climb into the back seat of my Dad’s VW station wagon. The car has been sitting in the sun with the windows wound up so we feel like we are stepping into an oven. The vinyl of the seat burns the back of my legs and the metal buckle on the seatbelt is too hot to touch. I can hear the incessant drone of the cicadas as I open the window and try to catch some breeze. It is a forty-minute drive through the suburbs of Newcastle to visit our great grandmother. We call her Nana.

‘Please Mum’, I whine ‘Can’t we go for a swim instead?’

My mother promises to take us for a swim in the ocean bathes after our visit if I promise to stop whingeing.

She then adds in an irritated tone ‘How would you like it if you were in a nursing home and nobody bothered to visit you?’

I brood silently, thinking to myself that I doubt Nana really cares if we visit her or not. I don’t think that she has any idea who we are.

Nana is in a room with three other ladies. The lady in the bed next to her is tied to the bed rails by her wrists. She writhes around making strange noises that frighten me. My mother sees my concern.

‘She’s ok darling. She is just tied to the bed to stop her from falling out.’
She doesn’t look ok to me.

My sister is doing a drawing for Nana, having spread out her pencils and paper on the linoleum floor. The room smells of disinfectant and baby powder.

My Great grandmother stares at me with vacant watery eyes. I am eleven years of age, she is ninety-four. She is the oldest person I have ever seen. I want her to live to be one hundred so she can get a telegram from the Queen.

I start awkwardly to tell her about some of the things I have been doing at school. I’ve been writing a family newspaper and have been voted class captain. She gives me no response.
My mother starts to tell us stories about how hard Nana has worked in her life.

‘She used to take in people’s washing and ironing, and of course there were no automatic washing machines in those days. After Nana had her babies, the midwife would sprinkle flour on the floor around the bed to try and catch her out if she had gotten up before she was supposed to.’

I imagine Nana’s footprints in the flour.

‘When your dad was a boy, he lived with Nana and his mum and brother and sister after his father had died.’

I know the story of how my grandfather had died in a TB hospital in Sydney and how it had taken Grandma three months to save the train fare for her little family to return to Newcastle and to Nana’s house.

‘They were so poor, your father had no shoes to wear to school. On hot days he would stand on the fig leaves that fell into the playground to avoid burning the soles of his feet on the asphalt.’

I stare at my beautiful white leather sandals with the silver buckle.

‘They all lived in that tiny one bedroom house in Islington, with a variety of Aunts, uncles, husbands, cousins.’

I think of old Auntie Aggie who last Christmas sat chain smoking and saying rude words with a voice like gravel, and how lucky I am not to live with her.
Then I have an idea.

I had learned a song in choir this week. It was old fashioned and I wonder if Nana might know it. I ask Mum if she thinks I should sing it to her.

My voice starts out small, but I grow in confidence.

‘After the ball is over, after the break of morn.
After the dancers leaving, after the stars are gone
‘.

After a couple of bars I hear Nana’s voice, and feel afraid that I have upset her as tears start to roll down her cheeks.

‘She isn’t sad darling’, says Mum, ‘she’s happy.’

Nana smiles at me across the vast abyss of timelessness and memory.
Together we sing and sing and sing.

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 169 user reviews.

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