The only time I ever went to Ikea, I said I'd never, ever go again.
I had a horrible sensation in that cavernous place of being shunted relentlessly along some kind of huge production line, except I was the one on the conveyor belt, and the products had all jumped off and arranged themselves along the sides. The journey to the end seemed impossibly long, through many twists and turns, and I frequently had the desperate, queasy feeling that I'd somehow gone back to the beginning and started all over again. There were occasional glimpses of daylight, but no way out. Except, of course, through the massive stacks of flat packs, and the check out at the end. I emerged, on that occasion, beyond exhausted. My body ached hugely more than it normally does, as if I'd been put through some awful physical ordeal while in a hypnotic state.
But L. asked me to go with her to look for a fold down table for her kitchen, so naturally, I went again. I thought I might look for a little outdoor table to go on the new paving.
You would think that my previous experience would have alerted me to the weirdly mind altering trap of that conveyor belt.
I got a trolley at the entrance not because I intended to put anything in it, but because I thought, canny-ly, that I'd use it as a sort of walker.
I saw the table that would do the job for the paving very quickly. Perfect really, if a little flimsy, and only $50. I wrote down it's details, not completely sure whether at the end I'd buy it or not. L. also saw the table she wanted - $149, but said she'd wait until she had the money.
Then we saw breadboards! Lovely wooden ones, and only $9.90!
'They're so lovely!' said L.
'I can't believe they're only $10. I'd really like one, but I've got three breadboards at home. But you need one!'
'Yes, I do. I love them!.'
'I'll get one for you.'
Breadboard goes into trolley.
Then we see the most beautiful doona cover, with matching pillow slips. It's an English wildflower design! in lovely greens and yellows. L. loves it too.
'It's only $40!'
'That's incredibly cheap. It's such nice quality, and a lovely design.'
'I'm going to get one,' says L, putting one in the trolley.
I hesitate. 'Are they Queen size?'
She checks. 'Yes!'
I try to think of the colour scheme in the guest bedroom, but strangely I can't remember it at all. All I can see is the lovely fresh green and yellow flowers. 'But surely the pillow slips aren't included too?'
'They are Mum! Four of them!' This seems remarkable. I seem not to remember that pillow slips are almost always included with doona covers. And even though the pillows are all exhibited very attractively on the beautifully made up bed, I fail to take in that they are none of them standard sizes.
'Get one,' says L decisively, throwing another one into the trolley, ' instead of the chopping board.' She takes the chopping board out, and leaves it on the bed - a generous gesture that eclipses my own. I think my passivity markers have all gone up. We walk on.
In the children's section, I pick up a set of brightly coloured plastic figures, the sort of thing I usually barely glance at. A set of four for $9.95!
'But what are they?" I puzzle. wanting them badly. I want them to be little containers for paint or something, but no, they are just plastic figures. I put them back.
Paper! L. says the pack of coloured paper is very cheap, at $9.90. (So many things seem to be just less than $10!) I think it might be good for the children to draw on;then we see a roll of paper. What a great idea! You can tear pieces off for the children to draw on! I chuck a roll in the trolley.
Cushions! What nice designs they are and can it really be that they're only $5.00? Yes, but they're sold out, apparently. We are disappointed, but then I see a large cushion insert, actually with a feather filling, that would be perfect for the cushion cover I just finished making. And it's only $12 something or other.
'What a shame,' I say to L. 'I just bought a cushion insert from the DFO yesterday for $20, and it's not nearly as good as this one.'I turn the cushion insert over, feeling it's weight. 'I could take it back, actually.'
'Yes, you should,' says L.
The cushion insert goes in the trolley.
I look for the Swedish meatballs to take home to D, but they only have the vegetable ones. I grab a bag of frozen ones instead - he'll be able to have Swedish meatballs at home! Then I see coffee - 200 grams for only $5.49. I drop one in the trolley. I have to buy coffee anyway, and Aldi's coffee has got unreliable. I forget to check if it's Fair Trade, even though this has been a make or break factor in my coffee purchasing for some years now.
At the checkout, the very sweet assistant tells me I've picked up the display cushion insert, and must change it for a wrapped one. L. runs all the way back in her high heels to get one for me.
When I finally put the contents of the trolley through, it comes to $74,00 - for a roll of paper, a cushion insert, 200 grams of coffee, a kilo of Swedish meatballs, and a doona cover. I had not planned on buying a single one of these things.
We leave in good spirits, although we're both utterly buggered. L. says she should have worn her sneakers. We have both decided to save buying the tables we went in for until another day.
Much later, driving home over the mountain, I think - I could have given her the $74, she could have saved the $40 she spent on the doona cover, and then only had to find another $35 for the table she wanted.
Or - I could have bought the table I wanted, and still had $24.
When I get home, I see that the yellows and greens of the doona cover are completely wrong for the room. I'll have to take it back.
It's dark, like entering a cave. The space seems very deep, the dimensions obscure, as if they are a reflection of the vast and barely imaginable dimensions of time that this exhibition tried to encompass.
I try to orient myself - which way to go? The objects are all in huge glass boxes, and there is a numbering system, but the arrangement is not linear. There is a lot of explanatory writing, both general information about the civilisations which are represented here, and specific information about each object. I have about an hour, before we are meeting L. for coffee. An hour is about as long as I can concentrate on an intense delivery of input of any kind. It's as long as most university lectures, as long as my counselling sessions used to be. I could spend the whole hour reading the information and barely glance at the objects, but this seems pointless. Without the information though, what meaning can the objects have?
I soon find myself thrown across continents and through vast spans of time. First, there is an Egyptian mummy case, intricately painted, which is itself covered with information for those ancient people who once filed past and gazed on it, wondering if they should be reading the hieroglyphs or reflecting on the mummy, or on the person who the mummy used to be, or on their own mortality. Then I'm looking at a basket woven by Aboriginal people some time in the early twentieth century. The intriguing thing is that it looks exactly the same as the one in a Northern Territory rock painting from around 20,000 years ago. The painting is arresting, (well, the picture of it is, you'd have to go the Northern Territory to see the actual painting on the rock.) A woman is running or leaping forwards with a spear, the basket somehow attached to her forehead, and flying out behind her. I look back at the early twentieth century basket - it has quite finely woven strings at the top, so yes, you could tie it round your head. The strings alone are more skilfully made than anything I could achieve. The sort of thing your mother or grandmother has to patiently show you how to do.
There is a lyre, found in Ur in Iran, in 2500 BE. (Oh, they're not using BC and AD any more? When did this change? Why didn't anyone tell me?) It is a beautiful thing, adorned by a shining gold, and very appealing bull's head. It was excavated by Leonard Woolley - I'm pleased that I remember this name. There is an old black and white photograph of him kneeling and scraping away at the dirt around the lyre. He's wearing his respectable English hat. Most of this instrument has been restored - of course, how could the wood, the strings, have survived so long? Even the gold bull's head was 'crushed' when Woolley found it. I can't tell which parts are the authentic, ancient parts. Does it matter?
The line between 'genuine' and 'copy' seems blurred in different ways with different objects. The bust of Sophocles is a Roman copy of a Greek original. The Roman stone sarcophagus from about 260 CE, was taken to England in the eighteenth century, where it was converted for use as a fountain. The spectacular North American frock coat uses traditional decorative motifs and materials but is modelled after contemporary fashion of the 1900's when it was made. What is 'genuine'? What can authentic mean when people are constantly trading things, repairing them, copying them, improving them? If the curators had substituted replicas of the ancient gold coins here, for insurance purposes or whatever, how would that have affected my experience? Did any Romans gazing on the bust of Sophocles feel fobbed off because it wasn't "the real thing'?
Some shards of pottery washed up on a beach in Tanzania. There is a map which shows all the different places, from China to the Middle East, that they originated from, and I puzzle over it. Were they all found together? Did they come from the same vessel, or were they washed up at different times? What does it mean that they were found on a beach, where the ground shifts constantly, and they could never have had a permanent resting place? I stare at these broken shards, trying to extract some meaning from them, but their message eludes me. I think of the little broken pieces of old pottery that I occasionally dig up when I'm gardening, bits of the things that the people who lived here in the late nineteenth century used to use. Even the story that they tell is obscure to me. So much is forgotten and lost, even after just a few decades, when living memory has gone. Even living memory is unreliable.
I want something, some thought, some feeling, that makes sense of this random and disparate collection of artefacts. What do they teach? What do they show? Do they really show 'The History of the World'?
Certainly, they show that humanity has been active on the planet for a very long time, principally, making things. Thousands of years ago, someone sat in a cave with a rock they'd chosen because it was flat and sort of shaped like a bison, and drew just inside the edge of it a beautiful and evocative picture of a bison. Through all of these broken, reconstructed, unique, isolated, rare and random objects, we get glimpses of the people who made the things, of human relationships and ideas and feelings.
A samurai sword, a thousand years old, razor sharp, shining steel in a perfect curve. Japanese society of a thousand years ago feels very remote, but something here excites me. It's the skill of the craftsman, the persistence, the patience, the determination on excellence, the passed down knowledge of how to do it, the craftsman's respect and love for the materials and techniques of his trade, or his art.
People have always wanted to make beautiful things, perfect things, things that are better than what anyone else has made and which challenge their skill and persistence. They want to make things that last beyond their own lives. Some of these objects, like the bronze Arabian hand, are directly linked to people's desire to somehow connect with an afterlife; all of them have achieved immortality for their makers.
We spread the rugs under the tree, the rubber-backed one that Mummy has provided, and my old red teddy bear quilt on top of it. I have brought two cushions, and I lean them against the trunk of the tree.
She takes her teddies out of the backpack, and arranges them carefully in a semicircle on the rug. There are about eight or ten of them; some I know well, but some have just come along for the party. She has brought her tea set, but there are only four of everything, so the teddies have to share.
I have a picnic basket, lined with an old embroidered cloth of my mother's. There is a bunch of artificial rose buds tied to the handle, which G. examines carefully. Her little fingers explore the dark pink buds. She would like to take one off, but they are fixed firmly, and she contents herself with admiration. She selects a spot on the rug in front of the teddies. and sits with her legs stretched out in front of her.
Mummy has made us toasties. They are individually wrapped in greaseproof paper, and are still warm. I pass her one, and we both tuck in. G. takes a container of fruit and nuts from the basket, and puts some on each of the teddy's plates.
A magpie comes to see what we're up to. I tell G. that I actually brought some bread to feed the ducks, but the magpie might like some of it. She is very pleased with this. She takes the bread, and throws piece by piece of it, but it all lands only just beyond the picnic rug. I think about the things I used to say to my children years ago when they did this: 'Try to throw it further away! They won't come that close! Don't throw it all at once, save some for later!' I am quiet now. I watch her finish throwing the bread pieces, and so does the magpie.
'He's not coming,' she says.
'He's trying to be brave,' I say, 'but it's hard.'
She turns to look at me as I say this, and straight away the magpie makes three or four hurried hops to the nearest piece of bread, grabs it, and flies off. She points after it, and struggles with a quite long sentence that has the words brave and babies in it.
A bower bird comes and has a look, followed by a couple of currawongs. A large flock of king parrots pick through the grass a little distance away. G. points excitedly to about fifteen dogs, all on leads, which have just appeared on the bike path, being walked briskly by their owners towards the dog park. I tell G. all about the dog park, and she is fascinated.
'I don't take Bella there,' I say.
'Why?' G asks.
'Because she doesn't really like sharing with other dogs.'
I have an amused little reflection on this to myself, imagining Bella in the dog park, either deciding that the whole park was her's and pissing the other dogs off, or pretending to have a nervous collapse and having to be taken back to the car.
Another little girl has appeared on the other side of the tree, and G., gets up and goes to play with her. They regard each other with open curiosity, but do not speak. The other girl climbs over a branch and rides it like a horse. G. watches, then it's her turn. I help her on, and push the branch up and down for her. The other little girl's mummy comes over from the Oaks café where she's been having a coffee with her friend..
'This is a wonderful tree,' she says, smiling.
'Yes,' I say. 'I've been having picnics under it for many years.'
'Me too,' she says. 'My parents used to bring me here for parties.'
The two little girls are running round the trunk of the tree. They are not chasing each other, so much as copying each other. We watch them. The mummy's face is warm with sunshine and coffee and love for her daughter.
'I love your daughter's jumper,' I say, and it is indeed a fine, soft, colourful thing. 'Did you knit it?'
'No!' she says, 'I found it at an Op shop!' We are both pleased with this.
I pack up the picnic things. The teddies have had enough, G. says; they are ready for bed.
As soon as we walk away back to the car, the magpies and currawongs swoop down on the rest of the bread.
We are standing in the bird hide. It's a long, wooden structure that floats out over the water. One side of it is completely open to a vast expanse of water and marshland, which stretches as far as you can see, although it is just a small corner of the whole flood plain and river system of Kakadu.
It's a window onto a primeval world. There is nothing to see out there that is not completely natural, nothing that shows the hand of man. It is just as it has always been.
There are thousands and thousands of birds. Egrets stalking through the reeds, or standing motionless, listening. Whistling ducks and Burdekin ducks diving under the water. Swamp hens, cormorants, magpie geese, pied stilts. Dozens of kites, gliding and soaring in the air, sometimes dropping suddenly like stones onto their prey, sometimes getting into fights with each other. A jabiru stands among the water lilies, waiting for the right fish.
Unseen by us, but their presence known to all the birds, are crocodiles, frogs, snakes, lizards, and dingoes.
It is the reliability of the seasonal changes, over thousands of years, that support this abundance of life - the alternation of the hot, dry season, with the monsoons and the floods. The indigenous people have understood these changes. They know how the cycles of the seasons affect the land and all its life forms, and they have passed down this knowledge through their generations. It is necessary to understand it, and all of the intricate details of it, in order to live on the land, to be sustained by it, and to leave it unchanged.
I read these translated words of a traditional owner of the Murrumburr clan, which are among the information on the back wall of the hide:
'About March, the end of the rain, the speargrass in the woodlands starts to seed, and the seeds go brown and start to drop. That's when we know to collect the (magpie) geese eggs. We always leave some eggs in each nest. When the waters go down, the geese are not fat, so we don't hunt them. August and September is when we start to hunt for geese, just enough to feed everyone.'
This year was the driest wet season in 25 years. Many areas of Kakadu broke lowest rainfall records. The water on the floodplain dried up much earlier than usual. More than half the population of magpie geese did not nest, because they could not supply enough food to feed their young.
Elizabeth Jane Howard probably did not intend her title to refer to the astronomical name for an impossibly long time away. 'The Light Years' are the years 1937 and 1938, just before the Second World War. It is Sussex, in England, and they were years of happy, comfortable, innocent country life, much of it seen through the eyes of young teenage children on their long summer holidays.
The families who gather in the rambling old farmhouse by the sea are comfortably off. They have cars, maids, a cook who every day produces mouth watering meals for upwards of sixteen people at a time, a pony, a tennis court. The summer evenings, filled with the sound of gnats humming and the smell of new mown hay, seem to go on forever. Each day seems to stretch well beyond twenty four hours, barely containing the heady mix of idleness (indolence in the case of the grown ups), and pleasurable distractions. Summer, this life, now, seems as if it will never end.
It did end. The war ended it. And although it is still within living memory, that time seems now to be light years away.
We have a fascination for this period in England, from Edwardian times up to the outbreak of World War 11, as evidenced by the many TV shows that exploit it. There is a sense of bittersweet sadness that pervades much fiction set in this time - Brideshead Revisited is a stand out example for me. It's like a longing, this fascination, for - what? A simpler life? Being young again? Or maybe it's for a world that has slipped away into the past but still seems so real you could almost touch it, it's not quite history yet.
Nostalgia for childhood, and for what I know of my parents' and grandparents' lives, is a big part for it for me. Although my own childhood was in the 50's, remnants of the old, pre war life continued to drift, to have sudden late flowerings, to die more slowly. By the early 70's, they were in the past, and the talk was of preservation - of pockets of countryside, of the hedgerows, of old cottages and stately homes, of wildlife, and traditional farming practices.
It seems to us as if people then had less complicated lives, and more time to live them. How wonderful it might have been, if you were a young Mum, to have a nanny to take the children off your hands whenever you wanted! There is a scene in The Light Years where the whole party piles into the cars and goes to Cooden Beach for the day, taking the nannies with them. The parents swim, sunbathe, talk, and smoke, and only pay attention to the children when they feel like it - the fun moments. The nannies sit at a little distance, clad in their sensible dresses and grey stockings, responsible for the children and having none of the fun. A governess takes the girls for lessons, the boys go off to boarding school. Husbands go up to London, to work, and to see their secret mistresses. It is they, the husbands, who make all the important decisions. The rigidity and expectations of gender roles, while often frustrating for the girls, nevertheless seem somehow to contribute to the certainties and securities of this world.
There is something especially intense and poignant about a happy time that you know, in retrospect, is going to end. You want to signal wildly to these people, from your bitter vantage point in the future, 'No! Stop! Do something, or you're going to lose it all!' Utterly futile, of course, the benefit of hindsight; it's all way too late.
One of the most beautifully crafted episodes in the book occurs when 14 year old Teddy has a falling out with his slightly younger cousins. The two younger boys have decided they are going to run away from home, and they make elaborate, secret preparations, establishing a hideaway in the woods. When Teddy finds out, he is furious at being left out of their plans. After a painful and rageful punch up, which achieves nothing, they begin a process of negotiation, the younger boys giving ground, literally, to their older cousin, in the hope he will keep their secret and stop his aggression. It is a process that neatly parallels the distant drama in the grown ups' world, in which Prime Minister Chamberlain is going to Europe to have the meetings with Hitler which culminated in the Munich Agreement. It was one of the most painful moments in the book for me - the realisation that in four years time, Teddy will in all likelihood be flying Spitfires over the English Chanel, that he will almost certainly die doing it, and that if he survives, he will never inherit his fathers' world. *
It feels to me as if we too are living a life that is slipping inexorably away from us. I think my grandchildren will look back on this time - which is the time of their childhood - and yearn for the lost comforts and securities : cheap travel, plentiful food, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fuel for cars and money for the roads to drive them on, a country at peace. And they may wonder at the succession of bland and bickering governments, whose abject failure to make the tough decisions needed to secure the future we just went along with. We didn't want them to interfere with us, to stop us from just going on doing what we're doing.
Our frustration with politicians now is a paltry thing. The worst we do is make protest votes for independents who promise to give us more of what we want. We have a collective, suicidal belief that, like Chamberlain, somehow the politicians will 'take care of it'; that, like children playing outside on a summer evening, or the grown ups partying inside, we can just carry on, until someone actually tells us we have to stop
* There are four further books in the Cazalet Chronicles - I have not read them yet, so don't know what actually happens to the fictional Teddy.
All three dogs are a problem, my own, and the two guests. They are problem dogs individually and collectively. This is what I think on a bad day anyway, when I've just nodded off to sleep on a peaceful afternoon only to be wrenched awake by Heidi, (miniature daschund), yapping relentlessly at some innocent passer-by on the road half a mile away. Or when I'm trying to clean a pile of dog shit off the Persian carpet, (Woody's - a huge, boofhead of a dog, who bounds like a reindeer and shits like there's no tomorrow.) Or when Bella, (Siberian Huskie/Border collie cross) tracks me from room to room as I move about in the house, staring through the windows at me, stressing because she wants to be inside in the same room as me, and will not SETTLE THE FUCK DOWN.
Woody does not understand what fences are for. They are just barely noticeable little obstacles that momentarily impede his way as he's bounding along. Bella, on the other hand, knows exactly what a fence is for, and has found numerous weak points in the garden fence that can be exploited at a moment's notice if the opportunity arises; but she is usually happy to hang about and be in the garden within sight of me. Unless her friend Woody comes to stay. Then it seems that everything she ever learned about How to be a Good Dog goes out the window.
There is so much trouble that a couple of dogs determined to whoop it up can get into out here. They have no idea! A big male kangaroo can suddenly turn when its being chased and disembowel a dog with its massive back leg. It can also lure a dog into the middle of the river and then clasp it under the water until it drowns. A wombat has a spine like a steel plate, and if a dog follows it down its burrow it can suddenly stand up and crush the dog against the roof. Several neighbours have shot guns, and are not interested in the difference between wild dogs and just plain naughty domestic dogs at lambing time. (It is lambing time now.) And the river is flooded, and the edges very unstable.
I keep a close eye on them, while I set about some gardening jobs. They're so happy to be outside, Woody ecstatic to be off the chain. He tries to get Bella to play, but she has a better idea - Let's obsess about the rat in the old garage! He is interested for a few minutes, eager to please her. I keep looking up, and see two tails wagging from under the garage door. They've dug under it as far as they can go. Heidi is content to watch this caper from the verandah out of the wind.
Then I look up, and there are no tails wagging. It's been barely 30 seconds since I last looked. I call, - nothing. They've gone.
I walk all round the perimeter of the fence, calling, looking. There is a pretty unimpeded view across most of the property. No dogs to be seen. I get in the car, drive up the drive to where I can see Wombat Central - no dogs. I drive up the road. The cattle are all gathered in the corner, talking to the bull over the road; they haven't seen the dogs.
I drive back home, and decide there is nothing I can do, except wait for them to come back. Or not. I try to read, but my eyes are constantly drawn across the paddock, to the river. Is that a magpie, or a willow branch dipping in the river, or a dog's tail?
It's pouring with rain now. I put on my gum boots and oilskin, and trudge across the paddock. No sign of any dogs. I stand above a massive pile of debris that was washed up in the last flood, and call. 'Woody! Bella!' Suddenly, there he is, right by me, delighted to see me here! He can hardly believe I've come at last to join in the hunt they've been having for whatever it is - a water dragon? a rabbit? a wombat? a fox? Bella appears, filthy, sopping wet, and looking extremely guilty. She knows she's been naughty, whereas Woody doesn't have a clue.
I put both dogs on leads, and take them back across the paddock. They are tired, and I'm too glad to see them to be cross. They get rubbed down with an old towel, and their paws wiped. Heidi does a few little dribbles of excited wee on the carpet, and throws her stuffed toy about.
Woody pushes his head against me, his tail wacks my leg. He wants me to know he's had the best adventure ever. Bella leans on me, wanting a pat, knowing she could have been a better dog, wanting forgiveness. They all settle eventually in front of the fire, and I go back to my book. How good it is to have three happy tired dogs lying at my feet!
I had passed the building called The School many times, and it had meant nothing. There was a new shop on the Westlands Estate and my mother had started doing her shopping there instead of the village shop, because it was cheaper. We passed a lot of things on the way - the Swings on the other side of the road, the Oak Tree on the corner, the Bus Stop, and the Green. The School was the least notable thing. It had nothing to do with me.
My sister Jennifer went to a school in the town. Like most things she did, it was mysterious. She did it because she was bigger than me and knew more.
In the mornings, after Jennifer had left, my mother would say, 'What are you going to do today?' and I'd say, 'Play.'
Playing was everything, the whole world with only me in it. My mother was a background figure, passing me the soap suds, spreading the rug on the lawn, fetching the dress up bag. She did not intrude. A day lasted forever. Time didn't matter, I had so much of it. I was a millionaire of time.
I needed nothing. The stairs were a ship sailing to Madagascar; the dog was a huge barking shark. Or, the stairs could be the battlements of a castle, and I was besieged, the hallway was a moat and the dog the besieging army. The flowers in the garden were food for the fairies, who lived everywhere. The roof of the old air raid shelter was a stage. The apple trees were a forest. Across the wasteland on the other side of the garden fence, I could see the Cowboys and Indians of North America riding their horses.
I didn't know I was in Paradise. How could I, when I had nothing to compare? It bloomed all around me, and I knew its every detail. I knew the tunes the blackbirds sang, and all their variations. I knew the stickiness of buds before they opened. I knew the patterns of veins in leaves. I knew the sound of ice cracking in your hands when you lifted it out of the bird bath on a freezing morning. I knew the musty smell of hawthorn blossom, and mown grass, and hay. I knew that an acorn fitted perfectly into one cup only, and that was the one it had grown up in.
Sometimes, when I was playing in the garden, I could hear the wild noise of many children's voices, shouting for a little while, and then absolutely silent again. They were nobody I knew. They were the voices of savages, foreigners, barbarians. They were not of my world.
And so...one day, my mother says I am to go to school. Everybody acts as if this is something very important. People talk to me like they talk on Christmas Day - and what did Santa Claus bring you? only it's, what a big girl you are to be going to school!
On the Big Morning, I have new sandals, and a brown satchel. My mother puts a jam sandwich wrapped in greaseproof paper in the satchel. She helps me put first one arm and then the other through the straps. It sits on my back, feeling strange and uncomfortable.
We set out like we set out any morning, to go for a walk, or to the new shop, or over to the Swings. My mother is wearing her pink and white striped dress with the pink belt, and her white sandals that her toes peep through. She looks pretty, her hair is shining, and she's got her white daisy earrings on that are my favourite. She holds my hand, and as we walk up the road, she says cheering things to me about how exciting school is.
'You have a head start,' she says, 'because you can read already.'
I'm glad about this, even though I don't know what a head start is.
'Don't forget to do everything the teacher tells you. You must pay attention when she is talking, you can't float off into fairyland all the time when you're at school.'
She's walking a bit too quickly, and I have to give little runs to keep up. 'Come on, we can't be late for school,' she says.
And we get to the building at the end of the road, and this time we're not walking past, we're going in, through the black, iron railing gate.
There are more children than I knew existed, and they are all running, shouting, crying, or pushing each other. I am frightened that one of them is going to bump into me, and I press closer to my mother. But she has dropped my hand. She is taking off my satchel and hanging it on a peg. She is bending to kiss me, and I smell her Yardley Lavender perfume.
'Be a good girl,' she says, 'I'll be here when school finishes.' And she walks away, does not look back, through the iron railing gate she goes, and it clangs shut behind her.
I am going to run after her, but a hand on my back pushes me inside the building. It's a grey lady, with creamy wrinkled skin, and a tight grey bun at the back of her head.
There are books inside, and puzzles to do. There is a girl called Janet who says I can be her friend if I want. There are easels for painting, and filthy, paint covered smocks to put on. There are stories about Jesus. I am indifferent to all of it.
It's not that I'm unfamiliar with dungeons, and traps, and capture, and prisons. Who can call herself a princess who has not sometime been imprisoned, separated from all she knows and loves? But this is not playing. The blunt, dirty crayons, the wobbly little wooden chairs, the threadbare, faded mat on the very cold, hard floor, none of it has anything to do with me. Its a horrible interruption, a mistake.
At lunchtime, I take out my jam sandwich. The jam has soaked into the bread in a way I have not experienced before, and it doesn't taste nice. I go to the railings, and press my face against them, trying to see down the road. I can almost see my house. I stay like that all lunchtime.
When my mother comes for me at the end of the day, and I am at last walking home, holding her hand, she says, 'Well, how was school then?'
Some instinct tells me that a measured, grown up response is called for, that the stakes are very high.
'I've tried it now,' I say, 'and I don't think I'll bother.'
She laughs, and later she tells my father what I said, and he laughs uproariously. In fact, my words are repeated so many times to so many people that they become a family joke that follows me down the decades.
It's many years before I realise that I have been thrown out of Paradise permanently, that there is no going back, and by then, it's a distant memory, an occasional ache, carried on a whiff of hawthorn blossom, or the dark shine of a sheet of ice cracking onto the ground. Finding it again becomes an elusive quest, that no matter how many ways I put the elements together, there is something missing. It is the Not Knowing, the unawareness, the complete immersion in it all. It was knowledge, of course, that sealed Adam and Eve's fate. Once a thing is known, it cannot be unknown. The wide world impinges, and never goes away
When I began writing in 2003, I had no study, no desk, and no time. Every bit of writing I did was snatched time and borrowed space. I wrote in the National Library, I wrote in cafes, I wrote in the garden and in bed. I learned that I should have a regular routine for writing, and I began a practice of getting up at 5 o'clock in the morning and writing for an hour or two. It was peaceful at this time, the house continued to sleep, and the time felt like free time, there were no other demands on it. Family life and work were forever taking precedence during the day; at night I'd be too tired to think about it. But in these sub optimal conditions, I wrote a lot. It was as if the struggle and the challenge even to find the physical conditions for writing somehow created a potent mental strength and determination to make it happen.
Now, I have a study, a desk, and all the time in the world. There is nothing to stop me from writing all day, every day, if I want to. What a gift this is, how lucky I am, how remarkably fortunate it is to be able to do what I dreamed of doing for so long, writing fiction, with nothing whatever to get in the way of it..
I have no regular writing routine any more, I write at any time of the day, anywhere in the house. Sometimes days go by, and I don't do any writing at all; then I'll spend most of a day working on something.
There is much else about my writing life that has changed over the years. I no longer go to writing groups and classes. I don't read much about writing like I used to do. I used to have writing mentors who I saw regularly, and writing friends who I talked with about writing. I went on writing retreats. Now writing is a much more isolated experience. Even small practices are different now, more somehow informal, like keeping my writing tasks and goals in my head instead of writing them down.
In the early years, I used to write about anything. I wrote down my dreams, I wrote a dialogue between an apple and a persimmon in an orchard. I wrote about childhood, about loneliness, about being stuck. Lots and lots about being stuck, (not an especially easy subject to move along.) I did a great deal of journaling. Life would never be long enough for all the things I wanted to write about.
In those same years, the world of publishing fiction was changing. Thousands of people just like me were doing creative writing classes, courses at University even, PhD's in writing! More fiction was being produced than ever before, but publishers were taking less and less of it. It became notoriously difficult to even get a publisher to look at your work; the 'pitch' became a new art form. There was talk of self publishing and e books, and lots of writers went down these roads, but most, like me, wanted to see their work published and read in print form.
My greatest goal was to write a novel. It was possibly the hardest thing I've ever done; it took an extraordinary amount of commitment, and concentrated time and energy. It was like making an extremely complex quilt, or going on a pilgrimage. For a long time, it was an exploration, I didn't know where I was going with it, or where it was taking me. Writing it was an immersive process, an adventure which had the euphoric highs and despairing lows of all real adventures. When I finally finished it, everyone who read it said it was wonderful. It was even picked up by an agent. But in the end it never got published, and now gathers dust on a shelf in my study, like a relic from the past.
The disappointment of this was like a slow acting poison for a while. I kept on writing, even rushing into 40,000 words of a new novel, but without the goal of publication, the process itself, the actual practice of writing, seemed less focussed, less energised. The motivation to do it had changed, and for a long time, I struggled to connect to what it had become.
As with everything in life, nothing stays the same for very long, things constantly evolve. Its mysterious that you can strive for something, long for it, work towards it assiduously, and finally achieve it, only to have it all gradually wash away, like an elaborate sandcastle in the tide. Something else takes your attention now.
Some writers say they write because they are compelled to, or they write for the joy of it. I think for many prolific and successful writers, writing is a habit that they've got into, which is a good thing, because a habit is hard to break. Writing is hard work to do well, as I discovered very early on. In the times when I am unmotivated, stuck, or struggling to know why I'm bothering to do it at all, reminding myself of this is a good anti-toxin. Its a pretty simple equation really - the harder I work at it, the better and more satisfying the result, and the more likely that readers will enjoy it. Inspiration, and surges of unstoppable creative energy have very small bit parts occasionally. Publication in one form or another is still the goal; I write because I want to be read.
I've returned to writing short fiction, finding that my way of telling stories is also evolving. The work of the last few months has been perfecting 14 short stories for a collection which is to be brought out by Finlay Lloyd. Some of these stories had their first incarnation years ago, and have been through so many versions they are now almost unrecognisable from their early form. All have been through multiple drafts and re-writes. Often its hard to know when a story is actually finished; its such an organic thing, you realise you could go on changing it forever.
There is very little magical about writing, only those euphoric Yes! moments when a sentence finally falls into the place it was destined to be in, like a rock finding its perfect position in a garden wall; or coming back to a story you have set aside for months because you were so over it you couldn't think straight any more, and breathing quietly to yourself, 'My God, that's good! How the hell did I do that?'
Every morning at about 9 o'clock, I go out into the garden. I put my boots on, and my gardening gloves, and I am filled with a sense of happy anticipation. I go to look at the work I did the previous day; sometimes I walk round to see if the wombat has done any digging in the night. Blue wrens follow me at a distance, hoping I'm going to start digging. A flock of rosellas pick through the grass. If I stand and look beyond the fence, my eyes take in the shining glimpse of the river below me, the willows turning yellow, the soft rounded shape of the hillside where a mob of roos are grazing, the blue grey bush, and the wisps of cloud. Always, it is very quiet. Always, I am drawn back into the space immediately around me, this 2 or 3 acres that I am making into a garden.
If I had done nothing here, I could still have looked out of the windows of our new house and seen beautiful views. Or, I could have made my landscaping job easier, by opting for swathes of lawn and trees, and perhaps a gravel circuit walk - like Capability Brown did for many country estates in England in the eighteenth century. I already have the water feature! (Capability Brown would doubtless have contrived to damn the river, and create a natural looking lake with a cascade at the bottom of it.)
Instead, I started gardening. Firstly, I planted trees. I planted my favourites from the Northern hemisphere with great delight - beeches, a larch, oak, silver birch, ash, as well as natives, including 86 eucalyptus mannifera along the driveway. As they get bigger, they frame the views of the country beyond.
(As I write this, I'm looking at a Margaret Preston print on my wall of yachts on Sydney Harbour. The yachts are in the distance, but framed by the shapes of black trees in the foreground, which reach up to make a lacy pattern with the clouds above them. Although the trees to some extent obscure the view of the yachts, yet they focus your attention upon them.)
I dug beds for bubs and perennials. On the Northern side of the garden, the soil is rich, deep, and easy to dig. The only problem is that it is, or was, essentially a paddock, and weeds come up all the time. I chucked down trailer loads of mulch. I planted the things neighbours gave me out of their gardens, and plants I brought over from our old garden in town, and plants I bought at markets, mostly going for hardy perennials - achilleas, seaside daisies, michaelmas daisies, wallflowers, foxgloves, lavender, all my old favourites, flowers I remember from childhood in Staffordshire. Is that why I love them so? I weeded, watered, tried to protect them from rabbits and wombats and cockatoos and frost, and from the burning afternoon sun in summer.
I made paths with river gravel - back breaking work, the one garden job I don't enjoy is shovelling gravel. I brought it up from the river in buckets, which I could only half fill because the gravel is so heavy. But the garden had to have paths, to lead you from one garden space to another. There are still so many more I want to construct, but progress with them is very slow.
This is the part of gardening which is landscaping; shaping and re - forming the land itself. My landscaping son would probably say you do this before you start planting anything., but I have done it as I've gone along. I planted a row of lavender, then made a gravel path in front of it. I built a garden bed under the lilacs, then hauled huge rocks over from the old Franklin house site to define its border, (most were subsequently moved a second time.)
Sometimes, the landscaping and gardening happen simultaneously. I began this year to dig out the hillside on the eastern side of the house. The ground here is very stony, the spade strikes stone immediately, I wriggle it around to find a point where I can lever up the rock. Progress is very slow. A pile of rocks and stones slowly accumulates, and after a few hours, there is a patch of diggable earth. Leaning on my spade, feeling buggered, but satisfied bordering on excited, I conceive the idea of making terraces up and down the slope. The rocks sit there ready, and using the spade to level and shift the earth around, I slowly figure out how to do it, and haul the rocks into place.
But the part of gardening I love best of all is the late autumn tidying up of the older beds. The plants here are established, have worked out their relationships with each other, and are getting on with business. There is a general messiness at this time of the year, gaura, dahlias, achilleas, all need to be cut right down, weeds pulled out to make way for the poppy and delphinium seedlings which are already coming up, and plants which are in the wrong position (a lovely geranium stuck behind a looming old fashioned hellebore), or are getting too big for their boots (achilleas again), need to be dug out and moved.
I always wanted to be able to paint, and this feels to me a bit like what I imagine painting is like. Painting with plants. The picture, however, is forever evolving and changing. It is a dynamic thing, that emerges from the relationship between my and the garden.
L and E took me to see Florence Foster Jenkins for Mother's Day. I thought it was a comedy, but came out in a very reflective mood.
Florence Foster Jenkins was a very wealthy woman who lived in a hotel in New York and patronised the classical music scene. The film explores the last few years of her life, in the 1940's, when she was in her 70's and very ill. Her illness, however, was not made much of in the movie.
She had a passion to sing on stage, and despite the fact that she couldn't sing a note in tune, persisted with her efforts, taking on the most difficult of coloratura soprano arias, until finally hiring Carnegie Hall and singing to 3000 people.
It was at Carnegie Hall that the 'but the Emperor has no clothes' moment finally arrived. It was, apparently, the first public concert she gave, all previous concerts had been by invitation only, and therefore excluded music critics. This time, a music critic from the New York Times attended, and spared nothing in his review.
FFJ not only loved to sing, but believed that she had true talent. She appreciated other opera singers, such as Lily Pons, and had trained as a classical pianist, so it's interesting to wonder why or how she failed to hear how tragically bad her own singing was.
The illness she had was syphilis, and herein lies the clue as to her remarkable self delusion. She had had it for forty years, in fact, and was into the third stage, and treating herself with mercury and arsenic.
I haven't thought about syphilis for a long time. It's one of those illnesses which has receded into the past, thanks to the advent of antibiotics. An STD with initially relatively mild symptoms, it emerges like a monster in a horror movie after decades, attacking the brain and nervous system. Degeneration into madness is relentless, and death inevitable.
I remember a number of patients in the back wards of the old psychiatric hospital I worked in in the 70's who had end stage syphilis. It was called dementia paresis, and was not pretty. One of the very characteristic symptoms was delusions of grandeur. Patients would think they were members of the Royal family, or that they were immensely wealthy, or that the plastic beads around their neck were diamonds. They would believe themselves adored and admired, and saw themselves as dispensing largesse to everyone around. (FFJ gives 1000 tickets for her Carnegie Hall concert to war veterans - a very typical gesture.) They would think they were beautiful, when in reality their faces were ravaged by their illness.
It is plain to me that FFJ's belief that she could sing opera was a symptom of her illness. It was a pathological delusion. Had it not been for the protection afforded her by her actual wealth and an apparently doting husband/partner, she no doubt would have been incarcerated in an asylum like so many others were.
Much of the tension in the movie comes from the elaborate and sustained effort by those around FFJ to collude in the pretence that she can sing. They support her delusion, encourage it. Anything that threatens to confront it is smoothed over, blocked, or explained away. Everyone around her tells lies, big and small, in order to support the central, grotesque delusion.
The rationale for this is that 'we love her.' Also, there was the unspoken threat of financial support being withdrawn if anyone ever confronted FFJ with the truth.
Self delusion of course can exist without an obvious underlying medical cause like syphilis, although the clarity and totality and distinctness of it's manifestation in third stage syphilis makes me think that all forms of self delusion may have a pathological cause, albeit unknown.
Sometimes people may believe that they are doing a good job, when in reality they're performing poorly. People may think they are the most amusing person in the room, whereas in fact everyone is bored witless by them. Someone's conviction that they are right about something may resist all evidence to the contrary and all efforts to convince them that they're not.
I wonder if being deluded about yourself is similar to having a false body image, for example, an anorexic who actually weighs five stone, may have an unshakeable conviction that they are overweight. Could it be some actual neuronal trick of the brain that makes us have a perception of ourselves that doesn't accord with reality?
We used to be taught in psychiatric nursing that the right way to respond to a patient's delusions was basically, 'I understand that you believe X, but in fact that is not true.' It's the opposite approach of course, from the way the people around FFJ treated her. Their failure to reflect the truth about her exposed her to ridicule and notoriety, although she was apparently blissfully unaware of this. She collapsed and died very shortly after reading the NYT critic's review.
It is of course the nature of delusions to make you blind. How can you even know you have one if no one tells you?