Ghosts of Christmas Past visit me each year, sometimes twice as we continue our new tradition of Christmas in July. The ghosts are family, welcome and regular visitors to my kitchen. I look forward to the festive season, find pleasure in Christmas by melding my memories with what gives me joy nowadays. However, it doesn’t always come easy. Every year we ask ourselves will we put up the Christmas tree. End-of-year-tired-adult-me says no. Six-year-old-me says please can we. So we do. Six-year-old-me, lover of twinkle, adorns the tree with lights and we all enjoy the ambience but it comes down a day or so after Christmas Day as adult-me likes an orderly house. The ghosts remind me that festive spirit doesn’t come from excessive doing and spending and standing in line to buy overpriced seafood. They help me remember how much I loved our homemade celebrations.
My memories are scant of Christmases from the early years but the marks on my psyche are carved deep. A single Christmas, age five, the last at home with Mum, and Santa’s gift of a blue child-size table and chairs. I was twenty-ish before I discovered by chance it was handmade by my Dad. It stayed around for a long time, later bequeathed to my seventeen years younger sister.
However, when I think of Christmas, my memories invariably crystallize at my grandparents’ farm. The living room with its pine tree I ‘helped’ my grandfather chop during an expedition in the bush, placed in a bucket of water and stationed in the small corner next to the fireplace. Simply decorated with ornaments gathered over the years, not new; not much in that house was.
The Christmas tree skirted by a few wrapped gifts modest in nature and number. I could also -as I had been good… of course- expect a gift on Christmas morning from Santa and Christmas stocking filled with useful things, story books, colouring pencils and small treats. A distinct memory is the long-awaited Christmas morning of the much-desired baby doll… which Santa inconveniently left behind the tree. Forbearance is still not one of my virtues. Nor singing, another clear recollection is my uncle suggesting I sing Silent Night… silently.
My nanna’s kitchen is one of my realest memories. If I am very focused, barely breathing, I can transport myself to it, six years old again. Our festive food was made in this -tacked on to the back of the house after the old outside kitchen burned to the ground- boxy room with its wood stove, faded paint timber dresser, Laminex table and modest Kelvinator refrigerator.
Plates of Christmas cake appeared when visitors did and disappeared quickly along with welcomed cups of tea or glasses of beer depending on the hour of day, sat side by side with Bakelite trays of child tempting treats; lollies, assorted nuts from which as the only grandchild I would freely pick the cashews & brazil nuts, irresistible crunchy sweet red-coated peanuts.
Baked vegetables, I’m sure there was a whole panful cooked in dripping but my eyes were on the prize, sticky baked white sweet potatoes, served with roast chicken -wing for me please- with bread & onion stuffing and gravy -rather than the more common roasted rooster- selected for the occasion from the laying hens and prepared by my grandfather… thankfully I didn’t make the connection when I was ‘helping’ him although the memory of the stink of chicken feathers and skin scalded in boiling water is fresh as ever decades later.
Christmas pudding studded with thripence and sixpence but a little light on red jelly cherries in the fruit mix, the price of my ‘helping’. I still have my nanna’s trifle bowl, smallish but cut crystal and treasured, big enough for each of us to savour sufficient portions of pale sunshine coloured custard and buttery cake both made with freshly laid eggs and creamy milk from their dairy cows, sprinkled with a little of my grandfather’s sweet sherry some of which might have also been tipped into an accompanying small glass for the cook, studded with glistening slices of peaches picked from the orchard and preserved in jars, dotted with spoonfuls of shiny multi-hued jelly.
Somehow my nanna conjured festive food miracles akin to biblical loaves and fishes. Counting my grandparents, aunts and uncles home for the holidays, and assorted visitors we might number more than ten for Christmas lunch which would be plentiful enough to require a postprandial nap, followed by the cool joy of a salad of leftovers for tea which is what as dairy farmers they called the meal eaten around 5 pm, and later when the news was on the black and white television (likely purchased along with the Kelvinator, the only nod to modernity in the house), a pot of tea and small bowls of remaining sweets.
If you mention Christmas food to my family members of the era, their collective recollection will be my nanna’s egg mayonnaise which I remember dressed our Christmas tea and Boxing Day salads -lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion, tinned beetroot & pineapple, potatoes, ham, chicken- in cold creamy deliciousness. A secret recipe apparently but after some family conferring my aunt and I agree this is it, although I’m inclined to the milk version.
That Christmas when I was six was the last for my beloved nanna. She died one hot afternoon in late February after I had gone back to school, in her sleep on the green vinyl night and day sofa in the living room where there might have been a few remaining pine needles escaped her housekeeping in the crevice between the carpet and the wall in the small corner next to the fireplace. I found her there cold to my inquiring touch having arrived home after walking up from the school bus drop off to a too quiet house just ahead of my Pa who had popped over the river to the lucerne paddocks.
Fresh from Christmas’ recent incarnation which saw the G.O. and I visit and celebrate with my family a few days before, in their merry style. Everyone enjoyed catching up and had a good time. Back at home for Christmas eve, one of my favourite days, we spent it with the usual soundtrack of carols in kitchen and lawnmower in the yard. My local in-law family opted out of Christmas celebrations this year… and after the event were a bit sorry but it meant on Christmas Day we pleased ourselves, barbequed breakfast, exchanged Christmas morning phone calls with faraway family, opened a few gifts, visited the in-laws, walked on the beach and later enjoyed a quiet festive food dinner.
Yuletide, for me, is timely alchemy of intangible festal mood and tangible: our hand-me-down tree with its lights and decorations all the more loved after fourteen December Christmases and one July; gifts squirreled away through the year; wreath on the front door; sparkly lights woven through a tree in the front garden to cheer passing night-time festive travellers, which the G.O. and I once were; seasonal home cooking that brings to mind food our grandmothers made… manifestations of my memories in a contemporary setting.
Christmas is occasion for quiet communion with my ghosts who are never far away anyway, at home with the life and place I’m at now that quite resembles theirs’, no accident, I’m inclined to believe. In my early fifties, three years beyond the age my nanna attained, I get to experience the other side of the festive coin. Now a step-grandmother, I found satisfaction and joy in our inaugural family Christmas in July when the kids’ -old and young- eyes lit up at the array of simple food I had made, planning already the next year’s festivities before they departed to their home a few hours drive down the coast, and talking about the food for months afterwards.
Just a few weeks after Christmas past is a felicitous time to look forward festively, not a year ahead but to our next gathering in July: holiday ambience invoked by our tree in cheery adornments of white ribbon, red hearts and -of course- lights, adjacent to the living room wood fire which will be lit and around which we’ll gather to eat dessert and open gifts. Devised as a family gathering -eschewing the bandwagon of mid-winter commercial trendiness- an opportunity to partake not only of gifts and comfort food but timeless pastimes en famille of brisk strolls, and toasted marshmallows around the pot belly fire outdoors… circumventing the pressure cooker of December festive negotiations and obligations.
“When we recall Christmas past, we usually find that the simplest things – not the great occasions – give off the greatest glow of happiness.” ― Bob Hope
Twenty years ago when I bought a block of land and built a house with my then-husband I knew it wasn’t the house of my dreams: an old house with verandahs, tin roof and rainwater tanks, like a nanna’s house.
Au contraire, it was a modern off-the-plan, brick veneer, tile roofed house with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, two living areas, double garage and a deck, set in a native bush yard in subdivision situated an urban area of the Central Coast of NSW, overlooking glimpses of a lake and the ocean in the far distance.
I lived in that house for nine years with then-husband, two cats and a dog. I gardened, worked, commuted to the city, hosted dinners, barbeques, parties and Christmases. Family & friends came to visit or stay almost every weekend.
All the while my dream house waited.
The cats and dog spent their last years there as I promised them they would. However, when they were gone I set myself free and moved back to the city where I worked. After a while the G.O. came to live with me in a tiny apartment where we had not much space nor time for those other things that make a life. Except a dream staked on the old house we bought together ten years ago in a village in the hinterland of the Nambucca Valley.
The G.O. had originally purchased our house with his then-wife several years before I set eyes on it. Despite being told it was a ‘knock-down’ he stripped, rebuilt, painted and gave the old house a new life. I visited it once, briefly, during the early stages, a couple of years before he nearly had to let it go along with the life he’d had there.
But as fate unfolded its enigmatic plans by the time I’d sold my still-new house the opportunity presented itself for the G.O.’s lovely old lady of a house with wide verandahs, tin roof and rainwater tanks to become mine too.
When I saw it with fresh eyes on my second visit, I knew it was the nanna’s house of my dreams; the house where there’d be homemade biscuits in a tin, loose tea leaves in a jar, teapots with woolly covers, cups & saucers & floral pattern plates, shelves of books read but undusted, scattered bibs & bobs from various times & places, well-loved comfy furniture, geraniums in the front garden, veges & a hills hoist in the back, family pictures in the china cabinet, a cat sleeping on a chair, creeping sunshine, quiet afternoons and elastic time.
“And so, onwards… along a path of wisdom, with a hearty tread, a hearty confidence.. however you may be, be your own source of experience. Throw off your discontent about your nature. Forgive yourself your own self. You have it in your power to merge everything you have lived through- false starts, errors, delusions, passions, your loves and your hopes- into your goal, with nothing left over.” Friedrich Nietzsche
Back in the good ol’ days, for about 18 months, I spent weeknights in a Sydney CBD 5 star hotel; a perk that was part of the contract role for a project I’d fortuitously fallen into while living and working near my home a couple of hours drive up the coast. When the project relocated, my job moved with it and
so I was always conveniently on hand to save me the inconvenience of commuter travel it included accommodation & expenses.
I drove down from the coast early Monday morning and back mid-afternoon on Friday circumventing peak traffic, en route connected by [handsfree] mobile phone and finishing my working week remotely… although because most of the project team were from somewhere else and in transit, demand was usually light.
But 10 hour plus working days Monday to Thursday were pretty common, as were team post-work drinks and dinners but I had enough time to myself to enjoy various pleasant diversions such as dinners with girl-friends, walks around Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens and Pitt Street Mall retail therapy.
It’s one of the few interludes when I didn’t make my bed each morning; a discipline instilled in me at an early age by my mother. When I returned each evening there were fresh sheets on the bed, clean towels in the bathroom, and the room tidied. Bliss!
One of my responsibilities was to arrange accommodation for the project team. I was familiar with staff at the hotel, and Reservations were kind about throwing better rooms my way, upgrading me to a suite at any opportunity when the hotel wasn’t full. Which is how I came to spend quite a few nights in hotel rooms larger than either of the inner city apartments the G.O. and I have resided in for the past decade or so.
Our apartment residences have been slightly bigger than micro-apartments but only just, by virtue of being endowed with 2 rooms (bedroom and kitchen/living) plus bathroom and balcony. Occasionally, disenchantment with constrained living space sans benefits and nostalgia for those heady hotel room days inclines me to compare.
Hotel: Spacious, stylish rooms and luxurious suites.
Apartment: Modern, open plan, low maintenance.
Hotel: Bathroom with internal window opening to living area with view of TV if so inclined to soak in tub (sometimes spa) with glass of wine after long day.
Apartment: Windowless bathroom and shower (only – no tub) with view of toilet and sink.
Hotel: Daily buffet breakfast.
Apartment: Make toast/eggs each morning.
Hotel: Room service dinner.
Apartment: Order home delivery from Menulog… or shop, chop, cook.
Hotel: Onsite health club.
Apartment: Walking distance to train station.
Hotel: Bars and Mini-Bar.
Apartment: Is there any wine left?
Hotel: Choice of restaurants.
Apartment: Leftovers or what’s in the freezer?
Hotel: Daily housekeeping service.
Apartment: Daily washing, wiping and vacuuming.
Hotel: Proximity to Sydney attractions.
Apartment: Proximity to railway tracks.
Inspired by Francesca of Almost Italian’s post Behind the Fantasy
I get the appeal of an adventurous leap between disparate lifestyles + locations but part of me is thankful I already have the lay of the land to which the G.O. and I are headed; not so much tree-sea changing our life from city to country-coast but evolving via steady steps of progression… alleviating the possibility of transplant shock.
Later this year the G.O. and I will have owned together our house at Taylors Arm for a decade. I grew up in the country but lived in urban environs all my adult life. My rural village experiences haven’t been quite as were depicted in the U.S. TV series Green Acres but the weekends and holidays we spend at Taylors Arm give me the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the vagaries of country life prior to leaving the city to reside there permanently.
Our house was empty for some time before we took possession and it was in need of a good clean. We were up for the job but after having spent our first hot summer day in situ scrubbing dirt off the surfaces and onto ourselves, we were also up for a cold beer and a hot shower. As it does from time to time, the electricity cut out, minutes before we were about to jump in the shower.
As the house water is supplied via rainwater tanks fed by an electric pump, no power meant no water. The electricity came back on in the early hours long after we’d half filled the bath via saucepans of water obtained in a trickle from the sole outside garden tap and heated on an ancient gas fuelled camping stove. At least the beer was cold.
The first Christmas is etched in our memory as being hot as hell; 40+ degrees Celsius (104 F) on Christmas Eve as I was trying to roast a turkey in a too-small electric kettle barbecue under the back awning of the house. To make it fit, the G.O. flattened out the turkey in the manner of Portuguese style chicken, to be forever remembered as the year of ‘roadkill turkey’.
Since then we’ve installed roof insulation, whirlybird roof vents, ceiling fans and window awnings; making the summer months much pleasanter. And we’ve reverted to more manageable roast chicken and cold ham for Christmas lunch.
Resident fauna don’t care whose name is on the deeds, or who does the work. They come with the house as a package deal. I’m not overfond of bats to say the least but have become accustomed to sable microbats at dusk flitting past, darting into almost imperceptible cracks in the house’s structure.
Over the years we’ve been friendly with neighbouring turkeys, geese, chickens and cows. We’ve had visiting wallabies, goannas, ducks, dogs, cats, snakes and a fox. Also, we aren’t the only inhabitants of our house. Fortunately George the carpet python moved on from our roof space but making themselves at home in addition to the bats we have; birds, frogs, lizards, mice, a bandicoot and the biggest mangiest meanest old possum I’ve ever encountered. Its traverses of the roof sound like not just a single creature but an army.
The G.O. wasn’t convinced of the possum’s notoriety until one summer evening he decided see for himself what was on the awning roof near the big bottlebrush tree. The G.O. climbed the ladder he’d used for cleaning the guttering, strolled across the roof expecting to encounter one of the neighbour’s cats enjoying the last of the warmth… but was instead met then pursued by an aggressive arboreal marsupial displeased the G.O. was interrupting its constitutional. The G.O. didn’t bother with the ladder beyond the first rung down, leaping to the safety of the ground as the possum growled its disapproval at the invasion of its space. Possum 1: G.O.: Nil.
I have a horror of dead things, so the G.O. and I have an arrangement. I deal with live things -except snakes which we tend to just leave alone- and he deals with the demised. That means particularly incursions of spiders and mice are my domain. To the G.O.’s frustration I usually let the spiders be -even if it means showering in their proximity- but if pressed I will corral them into a plastic tub and release them into the garden, usually too close to the house to suit the G.O. but I refuse to walk for miles to appease him.
I also employ the same technique for evicting mice. The G.O. doesn’t have the aversion to rodents he does to spiders but after umpteen rounds of the kitchen in fruitless pursuit of Taylor’s Arm’s own Speedy Gonzales, the G.O. paused long enough for the mouse to jump up on the table to assess the worthiness of its opponent, and I swear I saw it laugh. After being bested the G.O. no longer deigns to participate in their contests. Mouse: 1. G.O.: Nil.
My own mouse-keeping efforts haven’t been without glitches. I learned the hard way after scooping them up mice aren’t as cute as they look, and their teeth are sharp. Still merciful I tossed the ungrateful bitey little bugger -alive- over the fence into the back paddock. Our neighbour’s grey cat showed me the error of my ways by returning it -dead- to the back step. And looking at me as if to say there, I’ve avenged you, remember the lesson. Mouse: Nil. Grey Cat: 1.
The rainbow lorikeets act out their own colourful version of Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds, stalking us demanding a feed. When service has been too slow coming, they’ve followed me door to door around the verandah, and set up a stakeout at the door en route from the kitchen to the garden. Unlike their demands on the neighbours at least they haven’t come inside our house. Yet.
Local knowledge is gold, and the G.O. kindly and wisely pre-warned me about frogs who know no boundaries. Leroy, the main-man of our green frog gang has no respect for personal space. He’ll springboard off a back or… his claim to fame is attaching himself to the nether regions of an earlier-era female houseguest as she sat on the toilet resulting in her panicked flee to the hilarity of the assembled company. As a child I admired green frogs, from a distance, in their ability terrorise my aunts. Now I enjoy how they casually hang out with us, like we’re part of the furniture in their house.
Visitors sometimes look askance at our tap water. Because the aforementioned bottlebrush tree overhangs a lot of the water collecting area of the roof, our water may be tinted an interesting shade of tan. Fortunately bottlebrush trees are also called “tea trees” and “frequently used in teas… has antibacterial, antifungal, and antioxidant properties”. Although the colour takes a bit of getting used to, there’s no taste or harm to it.
At a time before we’d installed gas appliances and a wood burning fire we’d been supposed to take a winter holiday in Queensland, however the G.O.’s boss vetoed the time off so we settled for a long weekend at Taylors Arm, but Mother Nature intervened causing us to spend a cold early-winter week flooded in, several days of it without electricity. The experience wasn’t quite camping, nor was it glamping.
To underline the lesson, once the power came back on the TV advertisements teased us with “Queensland… Beautiful one day perfect the next“. Taylors Arm might not quite live up to that but writers have long waxed lyrical about bucolic pleasures…
“There is virtue in country houses, in gardens and orchards, in fields, streams, and groves, in rustic recreations and plain manners, that neither cities nor universities enjoy.” ~ Amos Bronson Alcott
“Transplant shock is a term that refers to a number of stresses occurring in recently transplanted trees and shrubs. It involves failure of the plant to root well, consequently the plant becomes poorly established in the landscape. New transplants do not have extensive root systems, and they are frequently stressed by lack of sufficient water. Plants suffering from water stress may be more susceptible to injury from other causes such as the weather, insects, or disease. When several stresses are being experienced, the plant may no longer be able to function properly.”
Another ‘branching out’ story inspired by comments to my Out on a Limb post.
Do you believe in love at first sight, serendipity, synchronicity, fate or meant-to-be?
Sara commented on my story the long way ’round” my favourite ever stories are ‘how we met’ stories” and other commenters shared snippets of their own.
Kate said… “You only have to read Celi’s account of how she and Our John met, missed, met again and married. One of the most fascinating ‘how we met’ stories and clear evidence that some things are just meant by the universe to happen” and “It sounds like the start of a collection of stories to me”.
For myself, being slow on the uptake, it took literally a word in my ear from the Universe to finally set the wheels in motion for us, as the G.O. so inelegantly phrases it, to “hook up”!
If you have a happy ever after or a relationship stepping-stone in life story, I’d love you to share it by commenting below, or posting and linking back to this post.
This is mine.
It’s so easy to see now. But for many years I didn’t. I know there are a few doubters who look at us with speculative eyes. All I have to say to them is don’t judge us by standards which are not ours.
I can feel the autumnal Saturday afternoon, daylight waning. I can see the place: scruffy shops adjacent a suburban Sydney railway station. I remain connected to the moment as if by a long silver thread. A thread that twisted and tangled but joins us still twenty-five years later.
I’d escaped a too-young marriage and utilitarian country town to seek better in the city. I’d come without a job but with a man. It was complicated. I should have known it was never going to end well. It took fourteen years and the failure of a second marriage before I gave up trying to deny to myself that blind naivety had given what ought to have been a misguided fling an artificially long shelf life. Abetted by impossible pride, I’d made another mistake.
Its redeeming legacy was my friendship with the G.O. Husband#2 had introduced us in the beginning; on that autumn afternoon so indelibly inked into my story. For more than a decade after that day, the G.O. came and went from my life. Familiar to my family and friends. Beloved of my cats and dog. Sometime sharer of households and long late night conversations. We attended each others weddings and wished each other happiness.
In the end, it took a serendipitous job where I spent week-nights away from home to distance me literally, figuratively and sufficiently to see clearly and disconnect from my marriage. Finally forced by foolishness and deceit to view it with honest eyes.
Although Husband#2 and the G.O. had teamed up once again working together, just as the marriage couldn’t withstand the increasing chicanery nor could their friendship. The G.O. also had had enough, and returning to his country life, left Husband#2 to his own injudicious devices. The G.O.’s withdrawal was another clue how far Husband#2 had gone. Too far.
Change was in the wind before I consciously realised it. Months before I physically left, a chance remark tipped me off to what would soon eventuate. A work colleague commented about my long daily commute and my spontaneous reply “I’m moving back to the city” surprised us both. But sure enough, as inevitably transpired, sufficient responsibilities and impediments fell away to enable me to rent a small apartment in the inner city – alone.
Lingering obligations tied me to Husband#2. His problematic life continued to encroach my progression to freedom. I couldn’t save him from himself and I damned sure wasn’t going down with him. Holding him up financially and materially simply perpetuated his imprudence. One of the last accommodations I made was to indulge his claim I had gotten the better of our two mobile phones, and swap. It was a gesture that would go on to change my life.
Just when I’d had enough, thought I’d done enough, there was more. Several months after I removed myself, the significance and permanence of my absence revealed itself to other parties inveigled by Husband#2 into involvement with his business affairs. I swapped phones but kept my number. It started ringing; revealing mendacity I hadn’t been involved in and couldn’t explain.
Husband#2’s phone came complete with contact numbers I didn’t bother removing. After one particularly harrowing late night call I scrolled through the list and saw the G.O.’s home number. If there was one person who might enlighten me about the dealings I was being confronted with, it was him.
Although not feeling it myself, the time of day I waited until to call the G.O. was civilized. He was surprised to hear from me, somewhat surprised at the news of my marriage split but unsurprised at the purpose of my call. He’d been aware of escalating dubiousness in Husband#2’s conduct, had interpreted my apparent tolerance as acquiescence and prudently refrained from interfering.
Neither the phone call nor confirmation of Husband#2’s further transgressions had an immediate effect. By and by once the complainants believed I neither had knowledge nor influence their entreaties fizzled out. Eventually I extricated myself from the snarled web woven by my good intentions and Husband#2’s schemes.
While I sorted out peripheral details, the core of my life was strong. Half a year before the dam of my denial broke, the contract role that had taken me away from home morphed into a permanent job. The decision to move back to Sydney freed me not only from the marriage but from a four hour daily commute. As if by magic the small apartment that felt like home manifested at the right time and place.
I didn’t miss having a man in my life. Monday to Friday professionally the law firm partner I assisted was sufficient. Lovely man that he is I revelled in shutting the door each evening and not hearing him call my name. I explored the streets of my new neighbourhood. I invested my spare time variously in the blissful peace of aloneness, books, meditation, massages, a spiritual development group, the cinema, and volunteered with an asylum seekers support program.
And so the months pleasantly passed until just-another-Wednesday evening in the last days of winter I was leaving work waiting for the lift to arrive at my floor. In the moment before the doors opened I heard a clear silent voice say “Call Wayne”. There’s no mobile coverage in the lifts so I had twenty-five floors to digest this communication. It wasn’t until I’d exited the building, descended the escalator, walked the expanse of the near empty food court and stepped onto the next escalator that the authenticity of the message registered.
Half way down the second escalator I pressed the G.O.’s number on my phone. He answered by the time I stepped onto the street. He hadn’t been expecting my call, rather hoping as he was working in the city for a few days, intended to call me but inadvertently left his wallet containing my phone number at home.
He suggested we catch up; it had been some time since we’d talked on the phone, longer since in person. He was busy that night but not the next. That suited me as well so we agreed on time and place.
The next evening when I climbed the railway station stairs he was waiting for me on the overpass. We greeted each other like the old friends we were, proceeded to drinks and dinner. As with our past long late night conversations the hours flew, until it was nearly midnight and we were again standing at the steps of the railway station. I was about to get on a train when he kissed me goodbye. I missed that train and the next.
At last seated on a homeward bound train, I knew it would be a long time until my whirling thoughts let me sleep.
This story would be a real life fairy-tale if our happy ever after started at that point. In reality we lived disparate lives; him country, me city. It would take another year before the lovely possibility of us became a true Us.
The G.O. has been waiting for me at railway stations whenever he can manage ever since.
We got married last year ten years to the day after that first kiss.
In February, I was out on a limb trying to come up with a ‘branching out’ themed short story to enter Country Style Magazine’s short story competition. Thanks to some inspired suggestions from comments to that post, I managed to cobble together an entry just before the cut-off date.
Winning $5000 and being published in a magazine would be lovely but that’s not why I do it. The occasional challenge of entering a competition exercises my short story writing around a topic, word count and deadline.
Winners were to be notified prior to publication in the August magazine, which is out now. I haven’t had a call, so I can share it here.
when the bough breaks
I remember her as she was then.
This is not going to work out.
Her reflected pale visage flanked by her mother-and-sister-in-law-to-be in the backlit mirror of that mining town hair salon whose windows faced Shoey’s supermarket car park. Fair fine hair coiffed into a chignon heightened the strange dream sensation.
Despite her calm mien understanding was revealing itself viscerally. Realisation of the mistake reinforced by her mind refuting all avenues of extrication. Flash of insight accompanied by gut instinct left her with the resolute conclusion she’d have to proceed.
Exit and explanations at this late stage weren’t going to happen. Yesterday was her twentieth birthday. Today was her wedding day. For better or worse.
Less than a year before, walking home one late night from her second job behind the bar at a local hotel, she turned the corner from the main road at the rose garden house, breathed in scented air, looked up, saw a bright star and silently chanted her customary… star light star bright first star I’ve seen tonight wish I may wish I might please make my wish come true tonight. Only this time she said the words, actually made a wish. “I wish for someone to love me. Just for a little while.”
The wish came true.
As they do.
Be careful what you wish for.
It manifested in the form of a new neighbour. A young bloke who for the first month had roared in and out of her apartment complex in a blue Toyota four-by-four. She’d spent the day studying, and lost track of time. A knock on her door made her realize it was late and she was starving. It was him. Hair damp, wearing ironed jeans and shirt.
“Do you like car races?”
“What are you asking me for?”
“I thought you might want to go?”
Momentarily she responded, “Wait”. Fled inside. Looked in the mirror. Looked for clothes. Found none better than what she saw in the mirror. Picked up her handbag and walked out the door.
The car races were cancelled due to rain. Over dinner at a fast food restaurant they got to know each other.
Her flatmate commented “He’s a bit of a yob”. She agreed. There was no avoiding him. Walking past his door. Taking the rubbish out. He was at the pub on nights she worked and ordered beers he didn’t drink much of.
He came to her door again.
“The car races are on tonight.”
Meeting his parents was like being welcomed home. Home that was a modest white cottage on a farm. She met his mother, father, sister, two large cats and small fluffy white dog. A special roast dinner.
The following Sunday after his parents attended their church meeting, he drove her out to the farm for his mother’s Sunday bacon and egg breakfast. Soon she accompanied him for mid-week laundry drop off and dinner.
As other things changed his presence didn’t. When new hotel owners took over, she didn’t ask to stay on. When her lease ended he helped her shift to another apartment in the same complex.
A change of job meant driving to a neighbouring town. After several months her new flatmate moved out. He suggested they get a place together.
Her new job didn’t require her to study so she deferred that semester. She read books instead. He never did. He preferred her to watch movies with him.
Several months later, officially a couple, they attended his cousin’s wedding. They met curious looks, expectations and enquiries with “It’s early days yet. Plenty of time”. Several evenings later, sitting on the sofa watching TV he dropped to one knee, produced an engagement ring and asked her to marry him.
“On your birthday.”
“Next year my twenty-first is a Saturday.”
“Wait a year?”
“We could have both.”
“What about this year? The day after.”
“Only three months away?”
Not ready to say yes.
But she wasn’t ready for things to change either.
He wanted to tell his parents straight away. They were pleased. Living together wasn’t right. He spoke to her Dad whose only comment was “Good thing”. Testimony to new wife, baby and business concerns rather than regard.
She wanted her mother’s borrowed wedding dress but it had been passed on. He chose a fairy-tale princess white gown & veil with a faux pearl circlet. Grey suits for him and the best man. Her baby half-sister flower girl a smaller rendering of his frilly pink bridesmaid sister.
The day before the wedding among her birthday mail was an envelope addressed to him in female handwriting. He shredded the note it contained.
Despite her epiphany, on the last Saturday of spring they stood before a celebrant, family and friends.
She looked like the bride doll from Santa the Christmas after her mother died.
She thought to make the best of it, and went on much as before. She hadn’t resumed part-time studies but continued working, enjoying her job and co-workers’ company. Her mother-in-law remarked it didn’t look right.
He sold his ute. To buy a newer model with a big truck kit he sold her car as well. They didn’t need two. She could walk, or he’d drive her.
His parents celebrated the first wedding anniversary with a family dinner. His father had a proposition. A late wedding gift. Five thousand dollars. Possibly his wife’s moonstone bracelet. When the baby was born.
They’d talked of babies. She’d said she thought not. He’d said she would change her mind. All women he knew wanted babies.
His work took him out of town. His friends took him out at night. She went out with her friends. Her mother-in-law remarked it didn’t look right.
He wasn’t there to drive her around. She went to the bank, arranged a loan and bought a second-hand Corolla.
On work weekends he stayed away. When invited, she drove to where he was. She spent Saturdays browsing the shops or walking the beach. They went out with his friends.
He liked her to look nice. To wear make-up whenever she left the house. Not too much. He had an eye for the female form. It was harmless. When he compared her, he meant well.
He’d had a couple of girlfriends. He talked about how sexy they were. He said he thought she was pretty. He didn’t like other men looking. He offered to pay for D cups. The kind fellow walking past smiled at her. He didn’t like that. Her encouraging looks. She hadn’t.
Grateful for an unwitting kindness.
If he was home on Saturdays, after she did housework she cooked dinners from magazine recipes to take to the farm. He liked her cooking, often enough finishing her dinner if she didn’t eat quickly. She played card games with his parents. He watched TV in the back room. They stayed overnight for his mother’s Sunday bacon and egg breakfast.
They drove to his grandparents at their hometown eight hours distant. His father sped like no time was to be lost. His mother took a sleeping pill. He went out with his friends. He didn’t come home. His father went looking for him. Found him at daylight outside a pub in the next town with a mate and an old girlfriend. He had nothing to say.
He didn’t want to feel bad so he told her. It didn’t mean anything. He was drunk. He felt better that she knew. He was being honest with her.
It was her fault.
She’d tried so hard.
He couldn’t be home for her birthday. He gave his workmate’s girlfriend money to take her out for dinner. He was going to buy her a present but he’d spent the money at the pub.
He went on a boys’ trip. Her aunt and uncle invited her to join them for the weekend at the beach. The weather wasn’t good. She returned home early. He’d been and gone. So had someone else. A lipstick on the dresser. It didn’t belong to her. Any colour except red.
She drove to her aunt’s. Her aunt said “I knew he was no good”. Her aunt confronted him. Told him what she knew. Told him what she thought. Her aunt and uncle picked up her belongings.
His parents telephoned. Could they visit? They knew but didn’t want to. Another old girlfriend. They wanted her to make it right. She couldn’t. She never spoke to him again.
She took back her maiden name. Left her job. Found a place to live in the city. She accelerated as her car reached the highway. Up through the gears over the crest of the hill. She didn’t look back. Not ever.
As I flick through pages of photo album memories I see her as she was then.
“Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.”
The G.O. and I have just passed the 25 year milestone since we met…
Regardless of not having been a Coffs Harbour resident since living there as a teenager with his grandmother on the family farm, whenever we make the drive about an hour from our home at Taylors Arm for business, shopping or recreation in the CBD, the G.O. habitually parks as he’s done since the 1970’s in the same street one back from the main road around the corner from The Coffs Hotel adjacent to the Coffs Coast Advocate newspaper offices.
Each time I step out onto the footpath, I marvel at the inscrutability of life’s journey.
About a year before I met the G.O. in 1990, I was at those same newspaper offices applying for a job on their staff. At which time the G.O. had been working off and on throughout NSW and Queensland for several years with the man who would become my Husband #2 and via whom we would meet.
At the time, I was married to Husband #1, living in the rural Hunter Valley coal mining town of Muswellbrook, had a good job at the local council and was studying part-time for a Bachelor of Business in Local Government. Husband #1 bored with his carpentry job decided to try his luck bricklaying with his cousin who lived on the Coffs Coast. He went over for a couple of weeks on trial, me tagging along on holidays, and decided to move over permanently. Seeing the job at the newspaper advertised, I’d tried my luck, scoring an interview but unsuccessful as I wasn’t a local resident.
Returning to the Hunter Valley, in preparation for the move Husband #1 & I bought and renovated a large-ish caravan, relocating to his parents’ farm from our nice rented town house to live in it, with our 2 Rottweilers & 2 cats, and quit our jobs.
The day before we were due to hitch the caravan to the ute and depart Husband #1 changed his mind. His parents were unconcerned. Husband #1 had been employed in the main by one or another family member so he simply resumed work. Their blasé attitude at my unemployed status suggested they were hoping I’d come to my senses and produce a grandchild.
I immediately applied for any job listed in the local newspaper for which I was remotely qualified, and took the first offer I got as a receptionist at the premier hotel in town mainly patronised by visiting sales reps, executives, managers, etc. for local industry.
I worked 2 shifts: 7 am-3 pm and 3 pm-11 pm week about. Days were routine. Nights were more interesting with a procession of various guests, diners and occasional local minor celebrities into the hotel and restaurant. The hotel, part of a group, was managed by a cultivated but eccentric middle-aged couple who mostly left reception staff to their own devices.
The lady of the house was inclined to airs & graces and if it could be managed liked to have a couple of pre-dinner cocktails then descend the curved staircase from their private quarters elegantly attired, fluffy dog in hand to greet the guests. At which point whoever was on reception had to simultaneously attempt to persuade her back upstairs and locate her husband.
I kept one eye on the positions vacant, several months later landing a job as office manager for the NSW branch of a heavy earthmoving equipment company. It was there I met Husband #2. Soon, riding the last wave of the excess of the 80’s I was at the same hotel 3 nights a week lavishly hosting guests at the expense of the company or hosted by corporate colleagues.
The G.O. also had been working for the earthmoving equipment company, but his visits to our site didn’t coincide with my presence. It wasn’t until the company and my marriage to Husband #1 folded, and I moved to Sydney in April 1990 that we met.
We discovered that over the preceding years our paths had come close but not connected numerous times; me holidaying as a kid on the Coffs Coast and the G.O. working in the Hunter Valley. And even once they did, it would take another 15 years, another marriage each to other people before the light dawned…
And with thanks to the commenters on my post out on a limb whose suggestions inspired ideas for several stories, this story included, and a ‘branching out’ theme short story which if I get time to polish it before May 29 might be a contender for submission to Country Style Magazine’s short story competition.
The dawn of a new mother-in-law era… I haven’t just acquired a husband; I’ve also acquired a
nother mother-in-law. My third. Enough for any lifetime.
M.I.L.#3 has acted unofficially in that capacity for 9 years but since we shocked her with the news of our unheralded nuptials, when speaking to the G.O. M.I.L.#3 has taken to referring to me as “your wife”. As in “the cards your wife sent out were nice. Everyone had to get a looking-glass, the words on it were a bit small but we didn’t have a looking-glass”.
About a month into married life I had a very clear dream where the G.O. and I visited my in-laws from marriage #1. They and their house was pretty much the same, although it was evident time had passed. Possibly they summoned our presence in spirit to convey their blessings. They were disappointed when I abandoned all hope for the success of my marriage to their son.
Our respective hopes for that union differed. They hoped for grandchildren. I hoped for a grown up husband. Their son hoped for a wife with surgically augmented DD-cups. Disenchantment all ’round.
The two families couldn’t have been more different.
Mine: Anglican, big stone church attended for weddings, christenings, funerals; dress as you please; lottery tickets are acceptable goodwill gifts; TV watching; beer & wine drinking.
Husband #1’s: Lay church, twice weekly; women modestly clothed often to neck, wrists and ankles, no jewellery; gambling is the devil’s work; no TV with the exception of his mother’s rebellious compromise kept in the cupboard for special shows; teetotalers.
I stumbled into this family unawares; inadvertently, promptly flouting the conventions. By far my most serious faux pas was the bathmat incident. During my inaugural overnight stay at the in-laws, careful not to make a mess of the spotless bathroom, I made sure to step out of the shower onto the bathmat, left the floor dry as the desert, and returned the mat to the rail.
After her discovery of the reprehensibly damp bathmat, it was left to her son to communicate to me his mother’s long-suffering explanation of what she thought would have been patently obvious… the bathmat is for standing on after one is dry. One should dry oneself within the tiny confines of the shower stall before stepping out.
But I was welcomed, and we enjoyed each other’s company: playing board games cards and chatting while their son watched the forbidden TV. They were keen for us to make right our aberrant cohabiting arrangements. After we married, but didn’t immediately embark on procreating, my new father-in-law offered me $3000 cash if I would agree to a grandchild and a further $2000 and his wife’s moonstone bracelet upon production of same.
It was an offer I had no trouble refusing, although I would have done pretty much anything else for that bracelet.
By the time I encountered M.I.L.#2 I was seasoned. I knew when to offer assistance or not, unblinkingly accept the hospitality status quo, and not to stand on the bloody bathmat (thoughtfulness for which I was complimented!). I shivered my way through a freezing Christmas in south-western Victoria wearing all my clothes in bed as blankets were thin and few. I was grateful for the first-time-guest honour accorded me of not being relegated to the mouldy backyard caravan as had my brother-in-law and his long-time partner.
Although I visited their house numerous times, M.I.L.#2’s first visit to mine occurred a few days preceding wedding #2. I made sure there was plentiful food & drink (F.I.L.#2 loved a scotch, disapproval from his wife seemingly augmenting his enjoyment) and their room was comfortable, furnishing it with a duck down doona and pillows: which had to be swapped immediately upon their arrival and the fraught disclosure of M.I.L.#2 ‘s Pteronophobia (feathers).
Amongst the many pre-wedding house guests M.I.L.#2 didn’t reciprocate my when-in-Rome style: 24 hours later not much had been deemed agreeable. Granted her trip must have been tiring, as M.I.L. #2 stayed in her room late on the wedding day while the rest of us thought left-over chocolate cake & champagne was a fitting breakfast including the dog and cats who had been served their portions convivially on saucers. Upon emerging, being offered same, M.I.L. #2 surveyed the scene clearly appalled, and declined, ingesting as little as possible except tea for the duration.
We maintained polite relations for almost another decade but I’m pretty sure M.I.L. #2 doesn’t miss me.
Despite prior acquaintance with M.I.L.#3 via my friendship with the G.O., the slate was wiped clean upon commencement of our defacto in-law relationship. Once again I had to watch my step (although I’ve never ventured a shower) and my tongue.
One of the good things about M.I.L.#3 is that her son is like her in many ways. Understanding one gives you insight into the other. For instance, neither necessarily conveys what they mean, evidenced by a disconcerting discussion between M.I.L.#3 and her sister on fashion merits of chicken thighs… not the sort from the supermarket, the ones inserted into a bra for figure enhancement… aha, chicken fillets!
Other than M.I.L.#3 demanding to see our marriage certificate as proof we weren’t lying, we’ve had a fairly amicable relationship since the time I was asked my thoughts about financial arrangements they were considering, and foolish enough to venture the honest opinion that it was unfairly one-sided in M.I.L.#3’s favour. Wrong answer.
M.I.L.#3’s sulk lasted a blessedly peaceful couple of days; our visits greeted with silence. The G.O. kindly indulged his mother her mood, but eventually advised “think about it, we’ll be back tomorrow”. Upon our return M.I.L.#3’s greeting was friendly, details of revised financial arrangements cheerfully proposed, and my opinion once again sought, but not proffered.
M.I.L.#3’s house, garden and self are immaculately turned out, and she’s dubious about my casual sartorial approach, helpfully suggesting the local department store’s lovely but expensive selection of apparel and the nice affordable clothes to be had in Coffs Harbour.
By way of complimenting me on any efforts, M.I.L.#3 predictably and frequently admonishes me that I have gone to too much trouble. She also doesn’t practice what she preaches, her Christmas extravaganza outshining my modest offerings. We did manage to underwhelm her by announcing we’d eloped and married on the beach in day clothes; and were informed that proper protocols of guests and attire would have been preferable.
As Christmas approaches the G.O. navigating his mother’s traditional “oh you’re so busy we don’t want you to make a fuss” protests about Christmas lunch conceded only her wish to contribute her customary festive $80 lobster (costing $40 any other time of the year) of which we each get a single bite-size piece.
On Boxing Day, my own step-daughter-in-law will pay us a visit with her entourage of the G.O.’s son and grandkids. I just want her to know… it’s fine to use the bathmat. If it gets wet, no worries, hang it on the line. Relax. We’re family, make yourself at home… and feel free to get a drink out of the fridge, prepare meals, wash up & tidy a packed-to-the-rafters house… mi casa es su casa.
Like a Girl Scout, I am prepared. I have my Last Wishes in order. I cautioned “you never know”… on that same subject but I didn’t think the opportunity to vindicate my preparedness would arise so soon.
Being a seasoned commuter and inner-city pedestrian, any risks I take crossing roads are calculated. I look both ways and look again. I pay attention. I don’t tarry. However along the strip I traverse from St Peters train station to my neighbourhood there are two sets of traffic light crossings where even if you cross according to walk signals, you take your life into your hands. So I’m cautious. Very.
Possibly risk is amplified because drivers having made their way through usually congested King Street or local back streets are relieved and eager for a break in traffic.
On my Monday journey home, rather than wander along further to the equally nefarious crossing, the green walk signal flashed at the closest so I stepped out, other commuters walking against the red almost across ahead of me. I scanned for unexpected cars and proceeded a few steps. A car zipped around the corner and I found I’d somehow retraced just enough steps to avoid it, loudly exclaiming “Oh My God!” I have no idea why I said that but it worked, God intervened… It was not until the driver’s open window was next to me that she saw me, having missed hitting me only because I’d moved out of her path. Visibly, she recognised her misjudgment but as it was the middle of a busy road, we went our ways without further interaction.
A near miss, I thought as I took refuge on the footpath but walking along I noticed my shaking hands and realised how near. When the G.O. arrived home shortly after me, the unsteadiness was still apparent in the haphazard pieces of potato I was chopping up for salad.
Last year a woman was seriously injured early one morning crossing at the same place. Both the G.O. and I have had not-so-close escapes at those crossings.
I believe our life contracts may incorporate a number of opt-out interchanges, but not quite as interpreted by AC-DC’s Back in Black lyrics…
“Forget the hearse cause
I’ll never die
I got nine lives cat’s eyes
Using every one of them and runnin’ wild
Cause I’m back…”
Having been fond of fast cars, motorbikes, life and… the G.O.’s near miss recollections are more numerous than mine. But I have a couple…
A few months before my 27th birthday my GP advised I needed to have pre-cancerous cells on my cervix removed. This was more than two decades ago, pre-laser, and I was advised it was routine minor day surgery under anaesthetic. In hindsight it seems in some cases women were treated prematurely rather than waiting for the currently suggested follow-up screening.
I was the last patient of the morning and emerged from the surgery in bed, bright, hungry and well until I went to the bathroom and discovered too much blood. The nurse whipped me back into the operating theatre and unsuccessfully tried to call the gynaecologist who’d gone off to golf. So it was up to the on-call junior doctor plainly perplexed by the amount of blood, to sort out an internal misplaced scalpel nick that needed stitching. They were able to contact the anaesthetist who suggested he wasn’t needed as it could be done without pain relief. The others disagreed, so he put me back under.
As he did I realised I was conscious but couldn’t move… anything. Not even my eyelashes as I tried to signal the nurse whose eyes were gazing down at me. Suddenly my vantage point changed and I was looking from above at the operating theatre tableaux. Not yet, was my last thought.
This time I woke in the recovery room with my husband sitting next to the gurney. As I recounted to him what I’d experienced, he explained why the nurse had brought him into recovery; I’d lost enough blood that I’d died briefly on the operating table, and they let him stay with me while I came around.
If you’re into palmistry I have a gap and boon line at the corresponding place on my lifeline.
It’s not a story I’ve shared widely (up until now!) not only because I don’t wish to debate with people who think the afterlife is hooey but after Mum died, there were whispers speculating… so many people think kids’ hearing/comprehension is deficient… the possibility I would die young too at the same age. It was only when I had that next birthday, the one my mother hadn’t, it occurred to me, technically, I did exactly that.
About a decade later, mid Friday afternoon I was driving home on the freeway over a long bridge in pre-peak hour traffic when a motorbike and car clipped each other creating a balls amongst skittles effect. As my car exited the scene, accelerating away from the bridge, my conscious awareness returned. Looking in the rear view mirror at the chaos I realised I’d been watching remotely as my car was guided swerving amongst the other vehicles like in a movie scene.
At that moment, my mobile phone rang. It was Dad, an unusual time for him to call. I picked up. He asked, how are you, is everything ok? How did he know?
“You know it’s all right. It’s OK.
I’ll live to see another day…”
For our honeymoon we enjoyed the gift to ourselves of quiet days. Content with our own company and simple pleasures we spent time walking, sitting by the fire or in the sun… and fitting a new handlebar to the motorcycle.
The traditional third glitch was suspected at the official signing but confirmed days later as we learned the misspelling of a name on the Certificate of Marriage is of much lesser importance than a beautiful moment.
Later in the week bearing offerings of wedding cake we made visits to parents, children & grandchildren to joyfully announce our elopement and private nuptials, and telephone calls to my sisters.
For a level playing field announcement to our wider circle we mailed postcards featuring our favourite beach wedding snapshot and the happy news to our Christmas card list of family and friends. And of course, later a Facebook update and pic.
Interestingly, amongst the congratulatory responses there were a couple of expressions of the shocked surprise kind. Regarding our unmarried status, we’d said more times than I think we realised “we’re happy as we are”, and our own sentiments were reflected at us.
It made us realise we two people simultaneously sensibly aware & needlessly afraid of our marital histories repeating, discounting the power of long-term friendship and love, had almost convinced ourselves (and others) that “happy as we are” was all we were worthy of.
What an opportunity for enrichment we would have lost had we not pursued the conversation that stemmed from the arguing-disagreeing semantics on the topic of nuptial how-to. From the moment we decided we could and would get married, a barely perceptible veil of armour dissolved. As if gaining permission, we became even more kind, gentler and appreciative in our expanded capacity for happiness.
Let these be your desires
Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.