Rehab suits me. My spirits are unaccountably calm and cheerful. I have a smile for everyone. I am grateful for everything.
It began, of course, with the discovery, on waking dreamily from the anaesthetic, that I am still alive. The world continues, and I am part of it still. Nurses clattering about their business, machines pinging and beeping, voices and footsteps.
The old pain has gone. There is a new pain, more an aching discomfort, a stiffness, that I somehow know is temporary. It's the feel of the wound in my hip. I can't walk without crutches, two at first, now one, but the limp has gone.
I need a lot of help with things at first, but quickly regain control with essentials. After three showers, I can shower myself. I can dress myself with the help of a long pick up tool. I can get in and out of bed, and go for walks up and down the corridors with my one crutch.
I have a room to myself at the end of a long corridor. It quickly becomes my world. Intrusions are mostly perfunctory and rare - tablets, fresh towel delivery, floor cleaner, nurse to do observations. Someone tried to get me to go down to the communal dining room for my meals, but I resisted and they didn't try again. I eat alone, watch the television sometimes, do my exercises, receive my visitors, and read. In less than a week, I have read three novels, (John Boyne, The Heart's Invisible Furies, Bill Clegg, Did You Ever Have Family? and Noah Hawley, After the Fall.) I had a slight anxiety that I would run out of reading material, and organised visitors to bring me more books, and spent my 'day leave' going to the Portrait Gallery, not to look at the portraits, but to browse the lovely bookshop and buy two more books, (and scoff one of the wonderful Eccles cakes in the café.)
On my phone I follow the political shenanigans in the US and the UK, which absorb me like a long running soap opera. In my little rehab world, it all seems remote, and I am less dismayed. Political fortunes rise and fall, one drama gives way to another, people everywhere beaver away finding solutions to problems, continually carried forward by tides of optimism and hope, only to be left beached and despairing, and then picked up again by the bubbling tide for more.
The quiet winter sky outside my window lightens, darkens again. Patients in other rooms go home; new ones arrive, struggling with their walkers, telling their anxious stories. I am calm and at peace. Doing nothing is a prescription rather than a choice, and in this small space, I happily surrender control.
'Look at that!' the nice orthopaedic surgeon said, turning the screen towards me. 'That's as bad a hip joint as any I've seen.'
I peered at the grainy grey shapes of the X Ray. There was, to be sure, no gap at all between the ball joint and the hip socket, unlike in the other hip, where you could see a paler space all around it.
'Bone rubbing on bone,' he said, utterly confident, and I was 100% ready to believe him, after all these months of going down medical dead ends. Besides, he had already won me over by telling me cheerfully in our preliminary chat that he did not intend to be an orthopaedic surgeon all his life, but planned to apply to NIDA to train to become an actor. Now, three weeks later, with all manner of doubtful. doom-filled thoughts seeping in, this doesn't seem ;like quite the refreshing little jewel that it did then.
Hip replacement surgery, of course, was the solution, the one that has been loitering in the wings for ages. But it's my leg! I kept saying, it's my leg that hurts! But it's your hip that's causing the pain, someone needed to say.
'How soon do you want it done?' said the surgeon, as if no sane person would put it off for a moment longer than necessary.. And indeed, I'd made the decision before he'd finished asking the question.
'ASAP,' I said.
'May 30th is looking good,' said the surgeon..
Early last year, I wrote about going to a friend's funeral. What I didn't talk about was how this friend died. She had not been ill, and her death was wholly unexpected. She had gone into hospital for some routine procedure, (I have never been told what), and she developed complications and died.
Did she fear, I wonder, as she made her way up the winding mountain road to Canberra and to hospital, that she may never make the journey back home again? Did she think, as she went about making her preparations, (getting the washing done, making sure the fridge and pantry were stocked up, packing her overnight bag with her new PJ's and her books), that this might be the last time that she might do these things?
Of course, the chances of 'something going wrong' are very slight. Present though, and as the days are counted off to May 30th, they begin to seem larger than they are, and their presence begins to sharpen the edges of each day.
I busy myself with practical things. Do all the pruning, and tidying, and planting, and dahlia lifting, and weeding, that I possibly can, so that I don't stress about the garden for a few weeks. (And plant an oak tree, and plant bulbs, and picture the years to come in which they grow and flourish.) Clean the house from top to bottom, so it doesn't irritate me while I'm sitting about twiddling my thumbs. Write to friends who I haven't heard from for a while, (are they OK? When will I see them again?) And work through the final proof reading of the story collection, hours and hours of it, on the phone to publisher, Julian, who guides me through this extraordinarily painstaking process with unfailing patience and confidence. It must be done and ready for the printer by May 30th.
And of course, there are all the preparations for the rehab and recovery process. For although I will be, by all accounts, a 'new woman' after the op - will not, in fact, even 'know myself' - (scary thought, worthy of a Dr. Who script), yet there will be weeks of feeling worse. I must organise crutches, a raised toilet seat, a cushion for the car, a script for painkillers, a pathology workup, and new PJ's. I must make sure bills are paid, files organised, and reading material assembled. I must have a hair cut and get my laptop fixed.
Through all these preparations, I take many moments to pause and look about me. The golden spires of a line of poplars in the distance; mist lifting off the river in the morning and spreading across the paddocks; the totally-0n-to-it kookaburra perched on the gatepost watching for lizards; the sound of the river; a little pile of smooth, hard, grey sweet pea seeds in my hand, which hold the beginnings of scented flowers for the spring to come.
I count down the weeks, and then the days. Only seven days to go now! Gradually, I cross all the things off the list, feeling some small sense of achievement and control. It's what I do in my larger life, marking the years and the decades as they pass - the anniversaries, the Christmases, the holidays. Marking the achievements, the friendships, the struggles and dilemmas that give some meaning to it all.
Did my friend think of this too, as she made her way over the mountain? The inevitability of the end is foreshadowed many times in our lives, and each time provides an opportunity, maybe an insight or an epiphany. Maybe a reprieve.
How to live the time that's left?
In life, it is possible to get away with doing the same thing over and over again. Patterns of behaviour can become ingrained, so much a part of a person's habitual response that others may think, 'oh, that's so-and-so for you, he's always been like that, unsociable/quick to take offence/ whatever. But in a movie, or a novel, it will not do to get to the end of the story to find that the protagonist has learned nothing from his journey, and is unchanged by his experiences. In order to work, a story needs the main character/s to change. They might be tested, they might have some realisation or insight, or they must go on some journey, real or metaphorical, and arrive at a different place from where they set out. If, for example, at the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy was still arrogant, and Elizabeth still judgemental, there would be no story.
Beauty and the Beast, in its original form, (written by Madame Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756), is a story of transformation through love. Beauty is kind, sensible, and sweet tempered, as well as beautiful, but she cannot love the Beast because of his fearsome, monstrous appearance. In the original story, the Beast is consistently kind and gentle with her from the beginning. Under enchantment by a wicked fairy, (with no reason given as to why he deserved this), his task is simply to find a woman who will love him for the goodness of his heart, and nothing else.. Beauty must change for the story to work. She first learns not to fear the Beast, then to converse with him and enjoy his company, and feelings of friendship and trust grow. But still she cannot love him, (we infer a sexual love of course, but being a fairy story, this cannot be explicit). But at last, when the Beast is dying in her arms, and she sees that she might lose him forever, she realises a passionate love for him.
"I thought it was only friendship I felt for you,' cried Beauty passionately, 'but now I know it was love.'
Her words break the enchantment, transforming the Beast back into a handsome young Prince, and providing the final step in her journey from innocent girlhood to sexually awakened woman.
(In the story, when Beauty first looks up and sees the Prince, she sobs, "but where is my poor Beast? I only want him and nobody else!' It is an awkward moment, glossed over by the explanations provided by the Prince, and the moralising of the fairy-lady, who appears like a mother figure to tell Beauty that she has 'chosen well.' I have always thought it oddly contradictory that Beauty must learn to love a Beast, only for her reward to be the replacement of the Beast with a man. The Beast means everything to Beauty, and to me, the reader, who has gone on the journey with her; the handsome Prince seems a mere standard, annoying substitute.)
At any rate, this is a classic, exemplary story about the power of perceptual change, achieved through incremental steps and hard learned lessons, to transform our lives. 'I see things differently now,' Beauty might say, along with Elizabeth Bennet, Dorothea Brooke, King Lear, and a host of others.
I was quite trepidatious about seeing the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast. Would they mangle the tale beyond recognition? Would it be a sentimental, saccharine confection? Would Beauty have any internal conflicts, or would her happy-ever-after be handed to her on a plate? My fears were unfounded. The movie delivers a hugely satisfying version of this classic, although I was marginally irritated by the whole Gaston sub plot, especially the improbability of such a foppish buffoon suddenly becoming a fearless fighter and a match for the Beast at the end. Never mind.
The most intriguing thing for me about the movie was the way it showed character development in the Beast, as well as in Beauty. In the original story, the Beast simply persists. The enchantment makes him stupid as well as bestial. All he can do is show his true, kind heart. The movie however, offers a parallel transformational arc for him, as well as for Beauty. Backstory shows him as a vain, selfish, self indulgent Prince, with a cruel and vicious temper. When he inadvertently offends the enchantress, the spell she puts on him specifically requires him to change, or face eternal damnation.. He must learn to win love, without the aid of good looks, wealth or the trappings of power, and to do this he must learn to curb his temper, think of others before himself, and open his mind to culture and learning, (a lovely touch, I think, in this movie, is Belle inspiring the Beast to re connect with his books.) By the end, he has learned to be humble, and to put another's needs ahead of his own, and he deserves his fairy tale reward.
I saw Manchester By the Sea, a Kenneth Lonergan film, on the same day as Beauty and the Beast, in a rare movie marathon with my ever- up-for-it friend S. Great fun! But hard to imagine two more different movies, and I would not attempt to compare them, except for this one thing.
Manchester by the Sea tells a story about a man, Lee Chandler, who has suffered a terrible trauma that has affected his whole life.. Lee is depressed, angry, stuck in the past, his relationships broken, and his whole life apparently on hold. Not perhaps entirely dissimilar from the position of the Prince at the beginning of Disney's tale. A twist of fate - an unexpected provision in his brother's will - suddenly gives him an opportunity for change.. He is required by the will to be guardian for his sixteen year old nephew. It's an intriguing narrative device, and I was fascinated to see how it would play out.
Lee refuses categorically to take up the responsibility he's been given. I thought that this would just be his initial reaction, that his position would slowly change. The terms of narrative development required it! It simply didn't occur to me that this would be a story about someone who stayed resolutely and massively stuck, despite all the many opportunities for redemption that the movie offers him.
His nephew is an engaging young man, who despite having just lost his father, is determined to get on with his life, no matter what. Unlike his Uncle Lee. Coming to a workable arrangement for the guardianship of this very competent, self assured, and agreeable young person would not be hard, you would think. Lee turns it into a nightmare. He is relentlessly negative and uncompromising, and manages to pick unbelievable fight after fight with his bereaved young nephew.
Other friends and relatives offer opportunities and assistance. Will Lee's ex wife, in a serendipitous meeting on the street, in which she offers a heartbroken apology for past hurts, and an affirmation of love and forgiveness, swing Lee to a different viewpoint? No. He rejects her definitively, and continues on the same morose, self defeating path that takes him right to the end of the movie.
Casey Affleck, who plays Lee, is like a black hole on the screen, sucking the energy and life out of everything that crosses his path. I felt myself losing the will to live just watching him. He needed to take some lessons from the Beast! Even the most obnoxious person, dealt the worst possible hand, can still become a better person!
The beautiful, gentle, evocative cinematography, and the nuanced relationships of other characters, gave hope that this might be a different kind of movie. One that moved, somewhere, anywhere, that took us on a journey. But by the end, Lee has done nothing, attempted nothing, taken no chances, risked not a thing.
When, at the end, Lee's nephew asks him why he can't stay with him, Lee simply replies that he 'can't beat it.' In life, this is certainly sometimes tragically true, but in a movie, makes for a frustrating, dissatisfying experience.
I have climbed right inside the long steel potato cage so that I can get the spade in more easily. I am looking for any odd ones I might have missed in a patch that's already been dug over. The air is moist and cool at last, a magpie is chortling, watching me. The soil smells good and turns easily. Several small potatoes roll out. I sink the spade down under a large weed, and suddenly, there is no resistance from the soil, the spade drops as if into a hole. I have time to think, 'that's odd!' before I feel a sharp pain in my foot. Then there is barely time to withdraw it and go 'WTF!' when a swarm of wasps flies up out of the hole into my face. Its like a scene from The Mummy.
The thing I'm thinking as I struggle to get out of the potato cage is, 'Don't fall over!' So I'm even slower than the fastest I could be, climbing blind out of a steel cage, which is pretty slow. The wasps swarm round my head, and start stinging. Then I'm out, still upright, and start stumbling towards the house, yelling for D, and waving my arms uselessly to ward off the wasps. They follow, stinging everywhere. I feel them in my hair. They sting my face, and I try to shield it and they sting all over my back. I pull my T shirt up round my head, but clothes are no protection, they are stinging right through them. It is such a long way to the house, I can't run, just keep calling for D, hoping he'll hear me, feeling very exposed, helpless, and vulnerable.
D comes running out, his face a study in consternation and alarm. He runs over to me, swats away wasps, picks them out of my hair, shakes them out of my clothes, helps me back to the house. I collapse on the bed, I'm hyperventilating. I think, I don't need to be breathing so fast now, but I can't stop. Then I cry, feeling the shock right through my body, the sobbing helps to release it.
D is hunting for something, anything, to soothe the stings. Bonjela, left behind after some grandchild's teething episode, long ago. It helps. E and S, who are staying, and mercifully were not with me when I was attacked, come and stand by the bed and watch me. A thoroughly dishevelled, weeping, somewhat distraught grandma. They are very sympathetic. After making a lot of enquiries, (did they sting your eyeball?, why did they follow you? etc) they disappear for a few minutes, then return with a picture they've done for me to cheer me up. E's picture is of a pony with a very colourful and complicated mane. The pictures do cheer me up.
I lie for a while, recovering, taking stock of the impact of this event. Has anything changed? All the places I have been stung hurt, and I know they will hurt and itch for a few days. But I am intact still, functioning, still myself. Still alive. Will it stop me from wanting to dig in the garden? No, but I might be more careful where I put the spade. The day is still bright with sunshine, and merry with birdsong and children's voices. I have been looked after, I have a place to rest.
Life can take sudden sharp turns, utterly out of the blue. You can be walking along a London street, minding your own business, enjoying your day, and then with no warning at all, you are in the middle of an explosion, and life forever changed. I am lucky, lucky, lucky.
The unfinished quilt has sat in the cupboard since before Christmas, waiting for its time again. Finishing it requires hours on end of peace, in which thinking is not interrupted, momentum builds, and the dining room table can remain covered with the complicated workings of it all.
Spreading out the almost finished top, on a day when all conditions seem to be met, I am struck again by the last problem I was grappling with - how to finish the border. And just as quickly, the fresh view of it affords me the answer that eluded me before. There will be a lot more cutting involved. Arithmetic. How many squares of the twelve different fabrics, and of what size? One hundred and twenty six, two and a half by two and a half. (Measurements in quilting are weirdly, but somehow comfortingly, in inches.) Measuring, cutting, pinning, sewing, ironing. A wave of excitement when it's done - it works! And as so often happens in quilting, the end result throws up a surprise, a revelation about the pattern that is above and beyond what I planned for. Here, the similarity in tone of the batik fabrics I've used in this quilt, produce an effect when they are placed flush together, almost of a single, new fabric.. Only the red pieces stand out, like jewels in a rich garment.
Now I lay out the three layers. (First vacuum every scrap of dog hair off the carpet.) Two backing pieces must be cut and sewn together. The whole is smoothed and centred, decisions made about edging, then all three layers are pinned together with dozens of bent-back quilting pins, starting in the middle. I crawl around the floor on my hands and knees, putting the pins in, taking them out, smoothing again, putting them back in.
I believe lots of people take their finished quilt tops to professional quilters at this stage,, but even though I am a poor amateur at machine quilting, the thought of someone else doing it is anathema. I decide on the simplest quilting pattern I can think of that does the job, and enhances the pattern of individual batik squares. It's hard physical work now, handling the whole three layers of a queen size quilt, and feeding them evenly and smoothly through the machine, without getting the dreaded bunching, puckering, creasing, and layers sliding about leaving gaps and folds that shouldn't be there, and which stick out, to my critical eye, like dog's balls. When all is finally done,, the job of unpicking all the mistakes I can't live with begins. Hard to find the black threads to unpick on the black backing fabric. I feel as if I am going cross eyed. I put some opera on - the drama seems to fit the moment.
Then it is all spread out again, and the edge turned and pinned. I decide to slip stitch the edge in place rather than machine it, It takes six times longer, but looks much better. Mitre the corners. Find and snip off all remaining cotton ends. Check for tiny places where the stitching has not caught. Press, carefully, with the iron. Rush finished quilt into bedroom and spread it out on the bed. It is beautiful. It is everything I wanted it to be. Rush up and down house calling to D to come and look. He has seen it a million times in the making, has taken his last few meals at the kitchen bench without complaint, as the dining room table has been out of action. But he hasn't seen it FINISHED. He is suitably impressed and admiring.
It's the only quilt that I have considered giving a name, something like Bali Memories, or Bali Dreaming, It captures the two weeks we spent with C and M and the children in Bali two years ago, the exotic, rich, exuberant feel of that time and place. I was so struck by the beautiful batik fabrics that you can buy so cheaply in the markets there, and I was so excited by the diversity of them. It became a challenge to find different ones in different markets. When I got back to our hotel room, I'd spread them out on the bed, and marvel at their rich beauty, the warmth of the colours, and the intricacies of the traditional designs. I was already thinking of the quilt I was going to make, and it would of course be for C and M.
On this day that I finished the quilt, they called in to see us on their way home.
'Wait here,' I said, 'I've got something for you.'
I had folded the quilt up, with the top facing inside. I'd considered wrapping it, or putting a bow around it, but these things seemed to put it on a level with any other present, which it wasn't.. So it was unadorned, and without ceremony, as I handed it over. Books get launched, gardens and houses are opened, yachts have champagne broken on their bows, artworks are unveiled. I know of no ceremony or tradition for the handing over and unfolding of a new quilt, but the thudding of my heart as C and M spread it on the bed and saw it for the first time, told me that there should be one.
C and M's pleasure and delight in it was my reward. And - days later, seeing it on their bed, its dark colours gleaming among the other bedclothes, a jewel from my life, that I have hope will outlast me many many years.
We are making the change to solar power at last. It feels momentous, and a bit frightening, but a great relief, nevertheless. At last I feel I'm doing something reasonably significant to reduce my own personal carbon emissions, although it's hardly a radical decision to make anymore. Many of our neighbours have had solar power for a long while, and for all sorts of reasons besides concerns about climate change. So many people, in fact, are now going solar, that the government is starting to phase out the subsidies on solar panels, and the electricity companies are phasing out the feed in tariff. Of course.
Switching to solar power seems a bold and quite dramatic change to make to our lifestyle, although apart from the financial outlay and -hopefully not too many - teething problems, it's not going to hurt us. We are not sacrificing anything. We're not going to be giving up any comfortable habits or indulgencies. Our lives will not be poorer, or made more difficult, by this change. If anything, they'll be enhanced, because the electricity bills will go down.
Making the lasting changes to the habits and practices of my daily life which would reduce my own carbon footprint, is challenging, confronting, and hard. Here are just a few of these dilemmas:
1 I have to have a car, living in a remote location, in order to go to town to do my shopping, have medical appointments, see family, and so on. I have made a decision to limit these trips to one a week, in order to limit my fuel consumption, but this decision is frequently challenged. For example, one of the kids might call and ask for some babysitting help, in a week when I have already had my one trip to town. The idea that I'd refuse to do something for one of the family because it would exceed the fuel use I've allowed myself seems remote and ridiculous.
2. I want to go back to the U.K. for a trip. (It's nearly 10 years since the last one.) The temptations are many - to visit childhood places with my sister again; to do a tour of some of the great gardens that I've never seen; to simply soak up the atmosphere again, the moist air, the green-ness of everything, the deciduous trees, the old buildings, the stone walls. My heart aches for it all. Home! But taking an international flight, and being a tourist, has come to exemplify for me the excessive and unsustainable use of resources that is ruining our planet. I am making a slow and painful decision not to go again.
3. Using our farm to keep cattle for beef production has many positive benefits - it gives us extra income, provides us with employment in retirement, helps to feed the population, and contributes to keeping the open pasture in the Brindabella Valley that is part of its characteristic beauty. But those cows are continuously farting methane into the atmosphere. And we should be eating less beef. The whole world should be eating less beef, not more, because cattle need a lot more land to produce a lot less food. Making a decision to sell the cattle and plant some kind of crop instead sounds fine on paper. But energy, capital, and knowledge about crops are all in short supply.
Other, smaller, decisions seem like they should be easier to make. Consume less - easy, until the electric jug breaks down, and I need to buy another one. ( We used to use a saucepan to boil water, why not now?) Or,I go on a rare shopping trip with my sister, and buy two brand new tops to keep her company and because it's fun. (I probably have enough clothes, or the fabric to make them, to last the rest of my life, but I might start to look strange and embarrass the children.) Or, I buy books online from the Book Depository, because they're so cheap, and because I can almost always get the titles I want, and the postage is FREE! (but those books travel all the way from the U.K., and I could buy more second hand books, or go back to the library like I used to do quite happily decades ago.)
When there is absolutely no incentive to making a behaviour change, other than the satisfaction of knowing that you are upholding a principle, it is especially hard to bother with it consistently. Oh shit, I've left my shopping bags in the car! I say often, approaching the checkout - too late to go and get them, and what difference is it going to make?
This is the most difficult hurdle of all to overcome, that helpless, hopeless giving up, that so demoralising and convincing argument that nothing I do will make the slightest difference to the outcome for the planet anyway. My actions and decisions, or lack of them, are of less than negligible significance.
But I flog myself awake. There is strength in numbers; the more people who behave a certain way, the more likely it becomes that those people will bring about a change. As increasing numbers of people have chosen to get solar power, or to source their power from renewable energy, the industry has become stronger, the products have become cheaper, the idea has become mainstream. Momentum builds.
I've waited through several decades now for successive Australian governments to show some leadership on making the difficult and confronting decisions that have to be made in order to reduce our carbon emissions. Like responsible parents, they could have made us do the right things, even if we didn't like it. We were stopped from chucking litter out of our car windows by hefty fines. We had our profligate usage of plastic bags severely curtailed by making supermarkets start to charge for them.
But I've given up waiting. I've got to make the changes I think are right, and that I think other people ought to make, myself. I'm not going to save the planet, but my conscience might be a little easier at least.
Crack! Whizz! Bang! Someone in Tumut is letting off illegal fireworks. When we get back from our New Year's Eve dinner at the Golf Club, we find Bella has jumped over the gate and is hiding under the car in the front garden. She rushes into the house behind us. Fireworks have always terrified her.
They bore me. We used to take the children to the NYE fireworks displays on Lake Burley Griffin years ago. We'd squeeze our picnic rug between other peoples' rugs and chairs, getting trodden on, pushed past, trying to enjoy a lukewarm glass of wine and get in touch with the festive atmosphere as we waited ages for dark to come. No sooner did the fireworks start than they were over. The bangs and bursts of sparks got progressively bigger and brighter over about 15 minutes, and then culminated in the huge, classic burst of stars. It would feel to me like an anti climax; you'd be tramping back to the car again with the crowds, lugging all your stuff, probably carrying the tired out kids,, and then there'd be a massive traffic jam to face before you got home. It was at this moment in the development of public fireworks displays that I stopped going.
As with all things, it seems, these displays could not stay the same. Nor could they - amazing thought - actually diminish in size each year. No, they had to get bigger and bigger, and more and more spectacular. I heard that they started to put the fireworks to music. Then they had 'themes". Then they were lighting up Sydney Harbour Bridge, and a whole evening's entertainment was promised. This year's Sydney fireworks display alone cost $7.2 million. (How can we possibly afford that?)
The public displays are supposed to compensate people for the fact you can't buy your own fireworks anymore. Not even sparklers. They are considered too dangerous to be in the hands of ignorant amateurs such as your Dad or your Uncle Russell. The only place you can still buy them is the slightly wild Northern Territory, which has its own ideas about most things.
Fireworks hadn't used to bore me. Years ago when they were still legal and the children were young, we used to spend a small fortune on them - Roman candles, Catherine wheels, rockets, fountains, sparklers. Bonfire Night was exciting and much anticipated . It was the Queen's Birthday weekend, the middle of winter. All the kids in the street, and for many streets around, would come and help build the bonfire on the reserve. You'd spend the weekend dragging out all your garden prunings and rubbish for the kids to take down there. They would make a guy, and tie him to the top of the centre pole. I doubt many of them knew about Guy Fawkes, and how he almost succeeded in setting fire to the Houses of Parliament with his kegs of gunpowder underground, and how he got burnt at the stake for his efforts.
It was the sight of the orange flames leaping and the sparks dancing in the dark, that was the most thrilling thing. And being out after dark, rugged up against the cold, but scorched when you got too close to the fire. And seeing the shadowy figures of neighbours and parents and friends, whose presence you could so easliy slip away from. And the shrieks and whirrs and whistles and cracks of of the fireworks, and the challenge to find ways to make them bang more, and jump higher, and to be as close to them as you dared, or as you were allowed.
The kids all went a bit wild. Of course, they were under strict instructions not to let any fireworks off without an adult present. It wasn't until years later that I learned that it was E and his mates who had let bangers off in various letter boxes around the neighbourhood. A spark famously ignited all the fireworks that a neighbouring teenager had stuffed in his coat pockets, letting off a terrifying display as he struggled out of it., unharmed, but an instant legend. The local paedophile chased the children round the bonfire and was laughed at and chased away himself. Fuel was chucked on the fire by a gung ho neighbour man to ensure the flames reached the Guy before the younger childrens' bedtime. It was a dangerous, thrilling, and memorable night.
,I lived those Bonfire nights through the children. My own childhood memories of Guy Fawkes nights in our Staffordshire village in the 50's had been almost competely erased by an incident on the last one, the one before we left for New Zealand. It happened like this.
I come out of school running at 4 0' clock. It's nearly dark. The wind bites through my coat, whips up my bare legs. The bus home is waiting, engine rumbling, but I'm running past it, dodoging puddles, dodging people , past the sweet shop without a glance. I'm going to my Auntie Molly's shop on the other side of town, and I've only got half an hour before the next bus leaves.
I'm not allowed to see Auntie Molly. My mother says she's common, because she works in a shop and dyes her hair blonde. She says she doesn't know why Uncle Eric married her. My sister Jennifer says she heard our father call Aunty Molly a tart.
'She wiggles her bottom when she walks,' she said, 'that's how you can tell.'
But Aunty Molly likes me. She calls me 'duck', and she always gives me things out of the shop. I don't risk visiting her very often, but tomorrow is Guy Fawkes Night, and her shop will be selling firewroks.
The gold letters of "Bramley's Newspapers and Tobacco" shine over the old black door of the shop. I race down the stone steps, open the brass handle,,a bell jangles, and I'm inside. Aunty Molly is behind the wide wooden counter, serving a customer, but she winks and waves at me.
It's like stepping into Alladin's cave. The smell of the newspapers, the creamy writing paper, the stacks of envelopes and pencils, the paint boxes, and piles of brand new magazines, Women's Realm and the Peoples' Friend, and Princess.
The fireworks are arranged under the front counter, in boxes, their names like a map of Fairyland. I hover around them, magic can spoil if you look at it too closely.
'Hello duck!' Aunty Molly says, and she lifts me up on the counter and hugs me. 'What have you been up to?'
'We went to Manchester,' I tell her.
'How smashing!' says Aunty Molly. She lights up a cigarette. My mother says only fast women smoke, but I love the dreamy look in Aunty Molly's eyes when she draws in the first puff, and the way she holds the cigarette between the red tips of her fingers. 'What were you up to in Manchester then?' she asks.
'We had lunch in a hotel.'
'That was a dickens of a long way to go for lunch, duck!' Aunty Molly laughs.
'We had to have an interview,' I explain.
'Oh! Is your Daddy going for another job then?'
'It wasn't for a job, it was to see if we could emigrate to New Zealand.'
Aunty Molly's mouth puckers in a little ooooh of amazement. 'You're never going to New Zealand? You're never going to leave us!'
'Mummy says it may not be forever,' I reassure her.
'It's the other side of the world duck! Do you want to go?'
'Oh yes! We're going to have a hosue with verandas and a big garden, and I'm going to have my own bedroom. We're going to live by the sea. Daddy says it will be like being on holiday all year round.'
Aunty Molly looks away from me, puffing on her cigarette. When she looks back, she's got her lovely red smile on again.
'Well duck, it sounds smashing. You make sure you come and say goodbye before you go now.'
She takes a large paper bag and puts a Princess magazine in it, and some cut-outs. Her hand hovers over the pile of The Peoples' Freind, then she puts a copy in her bag. 'That's for your Mum,' she says. 'Tell her Molly sent it.'
'She'll love it!' My mother doesn't like The Peoples' Freind, so it won't matter that I won't give it to her.
'Do you want some fireworks?'
'Oh yes, please!'
She fills the bag with two of everything.. 'One for you and one for your sister,' she says. Then she wraps me in her arms and squeezes me tightly.
'Tell your Mum to come and see me,' she says.
'I will,' I lie.
Then I'm out, clutching the bag. Night has come, and the town has become a strange place. Hurrying people hunched against the cold. Shadows lurking between the pale yellow pools of light from the street lamps. I run all the way to the bus station, but I've missed two buses, and have to wait for the next one. It starts to bucket down with rain, and I'm squashed in a crowd of people in the bus shelter.
What am I going to tell them about why I'm so late? I could say I fell asleep on the bus and finished up back in town. I could say I got on the wrong bus.
The bus is full of workers. It groans and lurches its way up Porthill, stopping at every stop, and I crouch at the edge of my seat, rehearsing my excuses over and over. The trip has never taken so long.
At last we arrive at the end of my street, and I clamber down the steps into the dark. The rain is blowing in sheets now. I take a short cut across the Green, the grass squelches under my feet. A pack of wolves hiding in the trees have sniffed me out, and are moving stealthily from tree to tree around me. I stumble onto the street, clutching the bag of loot inside my coat to keep it dry, then I'm pounding along the pavement, too scared to look, the wolves closing in behind me. They're running now too, gaining on me, panting at my heels. I burst through the front gate, race for the door, but before I can ring the bell my mother has flung the door open and I fall inside.
'Oh, thank Heavens!' she cries. I want to run into her arms, but she has darted back into the hall. 'She's here now, thank you very much. I'm sorry to have troubled you.'
She hangs up the receiver and turns on me. Her brown curls are rioting. She's not in the mood for a hug.
'I was so worried I called the police!"
This has never happened before. The police might as well be standing in the hall waiting to take me away. I'm a criminal and the game is up. None of my stories will be any good.
My father bursts in from the kitchen holding a knife and a bunch of celery.
'Where the hell have you been?' he shouts. My sister Jennifer hovers behind him; she's not going to be on my side.
'I went to Aunty Molly's shop,' I confess.
'Aunty Molly!' they howl. 'But we've told you not to go there! You know we don't have anything to do with Aunty Molly!'
'And,' my father continues, 'you're not allowed out after dark, and you're not allowed to go into town after school.' He counts off the rules I've broken with the knife.
In the lounge, the fire is blazing in the grate. The table is set for tea. I wish everything could be normal again. I could give Jennifer the fireworks, and then she might like Aunty Molly too. My parents would see they were wrong about her, and ask to come for afternoon tea. But my parents don't like to be wrong about things, and I hold the bag close inside my dripping coat.
'What on earth can you have been talking about all this time!' exclaims my mother.
'I told her about going to Manchester, she was really interested.'
'I suppose the nosey woman wanted to know why we went,' says my father.
'Oh no, you haven't told her we're going to New Zealand, have you?' gasps my mother.
Now I know I've done something terrible. Goose pimples have broken out on my legs, and I'm shivering.
'Yes,' I whisper.
'Oh God, now she'll go and tell Dad. I can't have him hearing it from her! Oh why did you have to do that?'
Jennifer suddenly says, 'I bet Aunty Molly gave her things out of the shop.'
'Did she?' says my father.
'Is that true?' says my mother.
So at last I take the paper bag out from under my coat. They all stare at it. 'She gave me some cut outs, and Princess, and...'
In one furious movement, my father snatches the bag from my hand, and hurls it into the blazing fire. 'That's what I'll do to your bloody cut outs!' he shouts.
There is a huge explosion. Yellow flares spurt up the chimney. A jumping jack leaps among the coals, shooting little glowing pieces out onto the carpet. A Golden Fountain erupts sideways into the coal scuttle. A jet of silver sparks arcs towards the settee, and my mother screams.
My father drops the knife and grabs the poker, jabbing at the escaping coals. A shower of sparks burns holes all down his trouser leg. 'Strike a light!' he yells, confusingly, and smacks at them with the bunch of celery.
He waves me back, his face is glowing like the coals. 'Go to your room now!' he orders. 'There'll be no Bonfire Night for you tomorrow, not so much as a single bloody sparkler.' The shocking B word is heard for the second time that night. 'And you're not ever to go to that woman's shop again!'
Bonfire Night. I lie in bed, holding my teddy. I can hear the bangs and whizzes of fireworks on the Green. I think of getting up and trying to see them through the window, but the wolves are under my bed. They're watching with their orange eyes, waiting for me to put my legs over the side. Then they'll pounce, and pull me down, and no one will hear my screams because they're all at the Bonfire.
I haul the bedclothes over my head, and pull out my diary and the torch from under the pillow.
'When I'm grown up,' I write, 'I'm going to wear tight skirts and smoke cigarettes like Aunty Molly. I'll be the black sheep of the family, and Mummy will cry and say I was always a difficult child, and Daddy will be sorry he was so horrid to me.'
The strange foreign smell of gunpowder, the distant yells of children, and the crackling of the bonfire up on the Green, follow me into my dreams.
I don't know what I missed that night, but I never saw Aunty Molly again.
There are at least five things that I want to talk to my doctor about. At length.
How, first of all, do I tell the tiny pre cancerous growths on my hands and arms from all the other little bruises and freckles and spots and marks? Did she know when she prescribed the Picata gel for them that it cost $150.00? I think I wasted at least half of it.
And the cough persists, it's really no better, but the antibiotic was making me feel sick. And I read on the internet that doctor's should ask if a patient is on statin drugs before they prescribe antibiotic. Why didn't she ask me?!
And my leg hurts. Even with the anti inflammatory and the pain killers, it still hurts. It slows me down, it makes me tired. A year ago, she was content to say it was "ligament damage'. But the last time I saw her, after looking at an X Ray, she says it's my hip, of course, and I may need a hip replacement down the track. When? How will I know? Is it enough pain when I don't want to walk down to the river, or should I be waiting until it just hurts all the time?
I should ask about sleep apnoea, about how hard it is to find the right position at night to actually breathe. This isn't good. She'd have to examine my nasal passages, check my heart rate, lung capacity, chest, ask me questions about my sleep patterns, (at least a half hour discussion in itself!), talk to me about effects, about options for treatment. I can't see how she'd get all this done in less than fifteen minutes.
There are other things that could take even longer.
Sometimes, lying with my left ear pressed into the pillow at night, I can hear my heart, and it seems to be racing, beating really fast, and irregularly.
And sometimes, I can't remember the words for things, really obvious things. I know what they are, but I can't think of the word, try as I might.
And sometimes, I feel anti social. The thought of company makes me want to hide, momentarily. I feel frightened, exposed, I don't want to see anyone. I have to steel myself, make myself. I know I'll be OK, I'll enjoy it - the company - once I start. But can it be normal to have this fearful cringe, this...social phobia? at my age? Should I be on something for it?
A standard, Level B consultation is 10 minutes, and costs $92.00 A Level C consultation is up to 20 minutes, and costs a whopping $175.00 at my doctor's. My doctor does not bulk bill, and I don't know any doctor who does, (except at the walk in clinic, where you wait for 3 hours, and then see a doctor you've never seen before in your life, and will almost certainly never see again.
When she calls me into her surgery, my doctor is already running 35 minutes late, although it's only mid morning. She's lovely, unfailingly polite, friendly, and seemingly interested in me. I could even imagine she is pleased to see me!
Before I can start telling her about any of the things on my list, she asks me about the last thing I saw her about, some months ago, which she has up on her screen. The minutes tick away, I don't want to be talking about this thing, but she persists. Then there's a brief pause, my cue. I launch into one of the things on my list, at random. I feel panicky. Have I chosen the most important thing? She addresses it efficiently - it's the pre cancerous spots - shows me carefully how to recognise them, writes me another script.
She's on the edge of her chair, her whole body points to the door. If I choose one more thing from the list , it will be a Level C consultation and not a Level B. I start to tell her about my leg, but it all seems waffly now, as if I am complaining, or somehow overstepping the mark. She is patient, but not very. There is nothing new to say; she repeats what she has said before.
$175.00, and I'm out on the street. Feeling like I need a friend, not a doctor. Feeling like a good cry might do me more good.
Halloween is big up in the Jabiru, apparently. The two grandchildren, 5 and 3, now staying with us, have lived up in the NT all their lives, and have practised Halloween rituals with their friends every year. They were very enthusiastic about continuing it here. (I did have the curmudgeonly thought that they wouldn't even have known about it if their mother hadn't disclosed the date to them.)
Halloween at Brindabella?! To my knowledge, it has never happened here before, although I have indeed encountered spirits here. I have got up in the grey early dawn, enough light to see the outline of the mountain tops, I've felt the chill in the bathroom, and looking out seen Jack Frost striding across the paddocks with his long spindly white legs. I've seen his breath, long white wisps of it, trailing behind him like aeroplane trails through the valley. I've rushed outside to cover the potatoes and dahlia shoots, but no, he's got there before me, flicking a sparkling frosty net over them. By mid morning, they're black and dead.
And when the Fire came through the Valley, people said it was a monster, out of control, destructive beyond anything anyone had ever seen before. It burned the earth down several inches, the wind was scorching flames that blew trees horizontal before it killed them. It hurled fire balls across the sky. Horses ran terrified into fences, wild animals hid down each others' holes, sheep and cattle ran blind, burning their feet. It was a hellish force, turning everywhere it went to blackened ashes.
And there are spirits in the garden, playing always just out of sight. Often, I half glimpse one. I don't know its shape, or its colour, only its movement, quick, elusive, busy with its spirit business. I stop what I'm doing and look. I can hear birds, and the sound of the river, and the wind, and I think the Brindabella spirits are full of trickery, like the fairies in the Old Country used to be. They imitate familiar sounds, they pretend to be other creatures.
But no witches, no ghouls, no vampires.
Pumpkins are out of season, but there is a big display of specially grown ones at the supermarket, and my daughter buys one. (They are apparently grown for Halloween, and are easier to hollow out, at $6.99 a kilo.) She also buys a witch's hat, masks, purple spiders, and spider lights to decorate the house with.
On the day, the children are very excited. The cousins arrive with their masks. J has a black hood which makes him look like a small member of IS. G has a Spiderman costume, handed down from her brother, which she is extremely pleased with. E wears a green mask under her witch's hat, which gives her face an eerie and disconcerting blankness. They run screaming and chasing each other round the house.
I find myself making a Halloween cake, although where I've got this idea from is a mystery. Perhaps a fairy whispered something in my ear? Instinct tells me it must be a chocolate cake. I'm stumped as to the decoration; however, the children are very confident that dribbled chocolate in the form of a spider's web, with one of the purple spiders lurking in a corner, will fill the bill perfectly.
E thinks the house need more decorations. I am stumped again, but she is very practical. 'I'll just make some spider webs,' she says, 'and stick them on the walls.' She cuts circles out of paper, and fills them in with black texta webs and tiny black spiders, and then sticks them all over the living room. This is a fairly big project, and takes about an hour out of her screaming and running around time.
Then it is time to go trick and treating to our accommodating and hospitable neighbour. I asked her some days ago if it would be alright for us to bring the children round for this, and she was amused and delighted, and asked us all for drinks as well.
The children piled into the back of the ute in their costumes, and a weird and scary sight it was, enough to frighten any local Brindabella spirits still out of doors back into their holes.
E had been somewhat dismayed that we were only going to be visiting ONE neighbour, being used to lots of neighbour bothering in Jabiru. This was soon forgotten when we got there. Our neighbour had provided all sorts of goodies, things I wouldn't have dreamed of. Glow in the dark bracelets! Glittery jewellery! Eyeball chocolates!
A good deal more screaming, and rushing in and out of the house slamming the door happened. Our neighbour opened a bottle of champagne. The sky darkened. The river bubbled and chattered beyond the house. The garden folded down softly, hiding the garden spirits. The dogs waited it out patiently on the verandah. Then the children somehow got their feet muddy, and the mosquitoes started to bite, They were tired and it was over.
They rode back home in the ute, costumes askew or abandoned, watching the last glimmers of light go out in the sky. It was a happy Halloween.
I went to a Bob Dylan concert once. It was 1977, in Auckland. I was with a bunch of stoned friends, and we were pretty excited, but whatever expectations I had, Bob Dylan failed to meet them. He didn't talk to the audience at all, and the songs all seemed different. He'd just recently taken up the electric guitar, and maybe he was expecting trouble. At any rate, Bob Dylan in the flesh was pretty forgettable.
My real Bob Dylan memory is about a place, and a time when I had practically my whole life still waiting to be lived.
The place was green, on a wet, bush clad hillside overlooking the sea. There were steep, broken steps that were slippery all year round. The weeds grew as fast as you could pull them out. The leaf litter under the big trees was always damp. You could hear the water at night, trickling down unknown waterways, dripping from the unguttered tin roof, leaking through the cracks in the rotten floorboards
On days it didn't rain, and the clouds were distant wisps skimming the huge blue of the sky, you could stand at the kitchen window and look right over the tops of the biggest trees, the puriri, and kauri, and kahikatea, the huge green spread of them full of native pigeons gorging themselves on berries, and tuis singing rich contralto arias, and vines growing so fast you could almost see them moving.. There was the harbour, huge, slate blue, flat and quiet, and streaked with sand bars when the tide was out. Sometimes you could watch the ships coming in through the heads, gliding straight across in front of you, loaded with cargo from unknown places, heading for Onehunga.
It was only a two room shack with a tacked on kitchen. All the furniture was bought from second hand shops. The dining room table had a huge puddle stain in the middle of it where a possum had pissed on it. The bean bag was the only thing that was new. Books sat on planks of wood supported by old bricks. Records were piled on the floor..
You could wake up in that place and start on something, but then the idea for something else entirely would strike you with the force of a revelation. You had to drive to the West Coast and meet the ocean. Or you had to make a pineapple upsidedown cake. Or you had to sit on the front step and write a poem about sitting on the front step writing a poem.
There wasn't much room for dancing, but I danced a lot. In this memory, I danced in a long green dress made of Indian cotton and bought in a London market. I danced round and round the tiny living space, and up and down the narrow passage between the old couch and the bookshelves. I danced to Deep Purple, and the Woodstock album, and Steeleye Span, and Joan Armatrading. But mostly I danced to Bob Dylan, and Highway 61 Revisited.
I didn't know really what half the songs were about, but that didn't seem to matter. They seemed to speak to me personally, as if they had been written about me. Most of it was about hard times, weird people, having nothing, failure, misunderstandings, and regrets.
When you ain't got nothing, you've got nothing to lose
How does it feel? To be on your own, a complete unknown?
Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind..
When you want someone you don't have to speak to
I seemed to get all this, even though I had a career and friends, and food in the cupboard. I never wondered why songs about alienation and despair made me want to dance and sing. I just knew that they were about getting to the truth of things, about recognising the false promise of materialism, and escaping from everything that held back your spirit, especially old authority, and old ideas. They were about being young.
My mother said that that tuneless, gravelly voice wasn't singing at all, and she was right, but she entirely missed the point. He spoke. Directly. To me.
When I heard last week that he'd been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, I was bemused. There's clearly a huge body of work that came after the 70's, that I've never listened to. Certainly, there are lyrics on Highway 61 Revisited that are poetry. There's also an awful lot of repetition, and references to things that are entirely and deliberately mysterious.
You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
I expect people argued and speculated about these onfuscating lyrics like they did over Don Mclean's American Pie. I didn't. I don't now. Either the poetry speaks to you, or it doesn't.
My Bob Dylan memory still makes me smile, for that place and time when I believed that what was in my heart was enough to live on, and feeling like a freak was normal. I'm much older now, and find I often believe more mundane things, such as that it's just common politeness to acknowledge a gift or an honour when you're given it.