Another ‘branching out’ story inspired by comments to my Out on a Limb post, our city apartment’s leafy neighbours and the article Erskineville’s newest housing project. Dedicated to the G.O. for whom the big eucalypt tree neighbouring our balcony is a balm to city life.
“I’m a relative newcomer to what they call this now… the neighbourhood. A remnant from what it was two centuries of human time ago, a natural habitat abundant with my kind. I was here when the changes began and we trees gave way, were taken away, made way for Buildings and Roads… and People, as is the humans’ want to call themselves. But not here by the end.
The Outsiders came with plans and tools and cleared the Land. They said they paid for it with Money, or the Government gave it to them. I still don’t understand about the Money or the Government. They aren’t part of the Creation. Where did they come from?
The Outsiders undid some of the work of the Creation. They called it Construction, it made the Buildings go up and in an instant that’s all there was. No trees, grasses or blossoms. No wild animals, birds or insects. The Outsiders didn’t put them back. If they had thought of it anyway they had no time for Preservation. Instead, with pieces of trees they felled, the Outsiders confined spaces around the Buildings, dug the soil, set their beasts to graze and planted seeds they’d brought with them.
How do I know this? After I was there, before I came again, my Spirit, at one with All, was part of the Witnessing of what ensued. Nothing happens that isn’t observed and recorded in The Annals of Time. Of the Spirits of the Land, some travelled Home, some necessarily remained behind as Guardians. As Keepers of the Earth we do not give up our place lightly.
The Outsiders desired autonomy, opportunity to create their humanmade objects. They wanted more than the Creation could provide. To have their own powers of creation pleased the Outsiders. They were clever, strong and capable, no longer believing they needed to rely on offerings and appeasements to the Creation, subject to its caprices. They were proud.
Before the Outsiders there were the Old Ones. Nomads, they used only what the Creation offered, and in exchange were caretakers of the Land. The Outsiders had no place for the Old Ones either. Now they don’t come any more.
In the beginning there weren’t so many Outsiders. The climate suited to my kind was harsh for Outsiders, and the work of changing things was harsher. They brought more Outsiders from far away. Their dreams and schemes and talk spread like fire-stick burns of the Old Ones. But where from fires and ashes commanded by the Old Ones our kind regenerated, the all-consuming visions of the Outsiders doomed us.
For a while the Outsiders were grateful for the gifts of our kind. We were useful to them. By our bodies they kept warm and built shelter. As part of the Creation this was our calling. For all time we have provided Protection. To surrender ourselves to the Outsiders was a Sacrifice of Honour. Once the Outsiders would have honoured it in return by cultivating and nurturing our kind.
All beings are bound by the Creation and its three Pacts. The foremost Pact is Equality. As part of All no one being is more important than another. The second is Perpetuity. We are part of an endless nurturing cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth. And, finally what we give we get back. What we take we give back. That is the Pact of Stability.
There were Outsiders who remembered the Creation and understood the importance of its Pacts. However, unlike the Old Ones the Outsiders didn’t roam the Land accepting what the Earth offered up. The Government and the Money claimed they ruled the Land. To get shelter and food the Outsiders needed pieces of the Money. The Money would only yield pieces if the Outsiders exchanged time and toil for them. And so the Outsiders worked to live, and called it Industry.
But as I said, the Outsiders wanted more than the Creation entitled them to. More Outsiders came and believed and laboured pursuing the possibilities and successes of their own toil. They made a new pact amongst themselves. They called it Profitability. Profitability was acquiring lots of pieces of the Money. The more they thought about Profitability, the less important Equality, Perpetuity and Stability seemed. It became harder to live by the Pacts of the Creation. Everyone was busy pursuing Profitability. Profitability was time-consuming.
Profitability was also successful. The People wanted more. They exchanged the Money with each other in return for trinkets. Industry began to make all manner of trinkets they called Product. The People worked even harder to get pieces of money to swap for Product. They believed many pieces of the Money and beautiful, numerous or newest Product gave them special powers of Status as well.
After a while there were so many Buildings, Roads, Product and People, the Government and Money weren’t able to maintain Order needed to control Profitability. They appointed Politicians who were Outsiders that made rules for the People which they called Laws. The Politicians were busy making Laws so they chose other Outsiders to be Police to make sure the People obeyed the Laws. Because the Politicians and Police were busy with Laws and didn’t have time for Industry the Government decreed they could take some of the Peoples’ pieces of the Money which they called Taxes.
Rather than calling it the old name Order, the Government gave it a new name Community, which was better for Profitability. People toiled harder when they believed they were doing it for the Greater Good. A portion of their Taxes were returned to them in kind in the form of Services for the Greater Good and Benevolence for the unfortunate who didn’t have many pieces of the Money. The People were proud of what they created, their Industry and Benevolence. They worked harder, building more and better, earning more pieces of the Money.
Some time ago, one of the first Outsiders, among the last who remembered the Creation and its Pacts was approaching the end of his physical life, preparing to rejoin Spirit. He’d kept all these years a single gumnut pocketed in the first days of the Construction. After the woman he’d passed this life with returned to Spirit, he carried out one last act for the Creation to redress the balance of Stability. He planted the seeds from the gumnut in a crock the day they returned her body to the Earth.
While nine moons passed the issue of gumnut rose from the soil into two young saplings. The day after the young man returned the old man’s body to the Earth, he planted the saplings outside his Building of Industry where he would pass them each day. The tears he shed over the green shoots and into the soil summoned my Spirit and that of my twin, to dwell on the Earth once again, as patient observers.
The young man stopped by each morning and evening as we grew taller than him, then taller than the Buildings. At midday he brought food and sat beneath us sheltering from the weather. Many turns of the Earth were passed like this until the young man came to resemble the old man, and didn’t come as often. For many moons no People came at all. But the birds returned and we offered them shelter.
The young man, now old, came and last stood with us as we watched the Machines bring down the Buildings. Once again Construction emptied the Land before it made more, bigger Buildings go up, higher than our reach. The People came back but different, among them women and children. The Buildings are called Real Estate, shelter for the People.
We trees are few in number but stand here strong, Guardians yet, waiting still.”
”It’s one of the most important sites there and is a major project in moving from a former workers’ precinct with brick-making and a tannery to a new residential masterplanned community with new street blocks and pedestrian laneways.”
Erskineville’s newest housing project
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 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.”
From time to time I dabble in short story writing. For the past few years I’ve entered Country Style Magazine’s short story competition. The theme for 2015 is ‘branching out’, and I’m stumped!
Last year, inspiration came to me via a dream. But so far this year my dreams have been the crazy fare of perimenopause… no writing material!
Adjacent to our Sydney apartment balcony is a huge eucalypt. I gaze at its long pale branches in an attempt to invoke wisdom. The tree is a source of food & shelter for numerous birds and butterflies, but has yet to proffer creativity!
I know the muses are hanging around, not goofing off in Ibiza: they’ve been amusing me with blog post ideas but enigmatically silent on ‘branching out’, even during 3 am wakefulness when bright writing ideas usually coalesce necessitating employment of scribble-in-the-dark-decipher-later skills.
When I think of ‘branching out’ the only things humming through my brain are misheard Rick Springfield lyrics
“…Speak to the
skytrees and tell you how I feel
and to know sometimes what I say ain’t right,
It’s all right
cause I speak to the
skytrees every night…”
interspersed by lines from the poem Trees by Joyce Kilmer
“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree…
…Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.”
If you are an Australian resident and so inclined, details are:
Country Style Magazine Short Story Competition. Concludes on May 29, 2015 at 23:59 (AEDT). Entries no longer than 1500 words and previously unpublished.
Otherwise for both Australian and non-Australian residents is the 2015 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Single-authored short story of between 2000 and 5000 words, written in English. Stories must not have been previously published or be on offer to other prizes or publications for the duration of the Jolley Prize. Entries close at midnight 1 May 2015
Below is the second of the 2 short stories I came upon when looking for inspiration recently, that I wrote and entered into a city living competition back when we resided at our old apartment where the tiny balcony upon which we spent much of our free time overlooked neighbouring terrace houses, notable of which was the green house. As with most of the short stories I write, they’re based on actual events.
I thought I’d share them this week as they inspired the beginnings of a series of blog posts about housemates.
Short Story 2 – Proposal for New TV Series: Across the Street
Summary: 10 part series. Before Big Brother and Backyard Blitz, there were iconic Australian TV and radio classics such as Neighbours, Sylvania Waters and Blue Hills. Set in a terrace house in an inner city street, this new program mixes and reinvents those styles and utilises the everyday and the door-step to entertain. The architects of this series have swapped formula for an eclectic mix of audio-visual: there are no regular screening times or duration, episodes may be repeated without notice and it’s up to the audience to put it all together, guessing at plot and what is happening behind the scenes. IT’S VOYEURISTIC AND ADDICTIVE.
Looking for inspiration I came upon 2 short stories I wrote and entered into a city living competition back when we resided at our old apartment where the tiny balcony upon which we spent much of our free time overlooked neighbouring terrace houses, notable of which was the green house. As with most of the short stories I write, they’re based on actual events.
I thought I’d share them this week, as they inspired the beginnings of a blog post about housemates, which I’ll follow with a little later.
Short Story 1 – The Green House
The endless barking of dogs which hindered my earlier attempts to sleep, intruded in the small hours of morning into the victory of my slumber and finally roused me. I staggered out of bed, down the stairs and out to the balcony. The street below was motionless and otherwise silent. I stood, barefoot on the cool tiles, staring in frustration across at the moonlit source of the barking. The green house.
Time had almost stood still for the green house, a rambling three storey terrace with a rusty roof and faded green paint over cracked rendered walls. Ivy cladding and stained glass windows were its only redeeming features but flanked by a dull paved courtyard they redeemed it little. Only heavy bars on the windows acknowledged the passing of time and changed fortune of the neighbourhood.
I woke again to daylight and the dogs’ continued barking. The dogs were fox terriers belonging to a curious and audibly identifiable household. As far as I had been able to ascertain from the auditory vantage point of my balcony, the green house was peopled by two older women who I took by the similarity of their voices to be sisters, a man of indeterminable age with a deep baritone, as well as the dogs.
In February I posted if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more, mentioning the 1500 word short story I was writing for the Australian Country Style Magazine’s 2013 competition, “referencing directly or obliquely, the idea of ‘chance’”, and commented how the inspiration came to me via a dream.
“This dream… worked hard to convince me what it had to tell was inspiring rather than annoying. Three times I extricated myself from its grip. Three times it dragged me back. Over Sunday morning coffee, I told the G.O. “I had the worst dream last night. It felt awfuI. It wouldn’t let me go”. As I recounted the dream, I felt my gut wrenching over again. I asked “Why would I dream something like that? God forbid it ever happens. What chance would we have?”… as realisation dawned.”
As I was writing the story, I relived the feelings and thoughts of the dream whereby the G.O., me and our dog (who was my real dog until about 10 years ago) had to flee our home, stopping only to say goodbye to my aunt and uncle. I woke up at that point and had to make up the rest… What would you do, where would you go, and how, if you had to flee?
This is my version.
The room is warm but I slip my arms into a robe, tie it around me before walking to the front of the house. I unlatch the bolts on the door, tug it open onto an empty coolroom quiet street. Brittle air crackles and a remnant of frost sheens the ground. The usual drone of city traffic is muted. I haven’t seen or heard a bird since last weekend.
I woke to unaccustomed daylight. Jerked upright with feet on the floor it’s too late panic until the knowledge it’s Saturday resolved the confusion. Alongside me, still, my husband and beside the bed on the floor, dog, both breathing evenly although I know they listen within their one eye open sleep.
In the kitchen the microwave LCD panel flashes 1.07 am. I check my watch, 10.33 am. Power cut overnight. We needed to sleep. We’re not late. There’s plenty of time. I turn the radio dial. Each station emits muzak. I open the laptop, click the Internet Explorer icon, No Connection Available.
I pick up my phone, press Last Number Dialled. It rings until a synthetic voice suggests I leave a message. I don’t bother to again. Nor do I go to the television. Broadcasts devolved to repeats of soaps, and hourly news bulletins saying not much but somehow saying enough.
I can’t think about this yet. I need coffee. I pour the last beans into the machine and add fresh water. Noisy grinding summons my husband and dog. They greet me briefly; my husband with a kiss, the dog runs her head under my hand, before moving on to attend to nature’s call. Vin unlocks the door to the yard for her on his way to the bathroom.
Coffees in hand I follow the dog. From the back step I see Zee; halted, head up, intent, listening. Movement causes her to turn around. She barks softly, skips across to bump her nose into my leg, hard. I follow her gaze to assess the sky, sunlight obscured by a film of cloud tinged with bruised colours.
Vin appears, reaching for his coffee. His other hand rubs his ear. “It’s getting worse”. I know he means the hum. For me it’s a low continual resonance. The effect on Vin whose tinnitus it amplifies, and super-ears Zee is torment. Zee repeats her nose bump on Vin’s leg. He acknowledges her, “We will”.
The memory and sensation of my fingers gripping coarse fur and my own screams waking me to a room that was usual in every way except one, remains strong and tactile. My logic has tried to explain it away as a type of false awakening dream but 12 years after it last happened, I still wonder.
I mentioned in the post if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more about writing inspiration… “Previously I wrote a short story about not a dream, recounting the events where I was asleep and my then husband morphed into a werewolf beside me in bed. It wasn’t a dream. It did happen. That it occurred annually three times, and the two subsequent times my other sleeping companion, Baddy Cat, stood guard… gives the it was real argument weight”.
Screaming. Someone was screaming. I opened my eyes. The screaming stopped.
I thought I heard my husband ask “Are you alright?”. I rolled over to face him There was enough light in the room to perceive a werewolf lying next to me, asking “You were screaming. What’s wrong?”. my arm instinctively shot out to push him away As my hand met the fur on his back, I struggled to comprehend. I looked at my arm and my hand firmly holding the dark body at bay, and around my bedroom, yes, everything was normal except there was a werewolf next to me, speaking to me. His brown eyes shone , looking at me quizzical and concerned In the soft darkness I could discern his face, although furry and dog like, did not look evil, just scary His body and coarse fur felt dense and muscular against my fingertips. When the werewolf spoke his voice had a soft growl like timbre, “What’s wrong? Did you have a nightmare? “Was I having a nightmare? I asked myself. I couldn’t think what I had been dreaming or why I would have been screaming. Now it seemed I was awake and conversing with a werewolf. A one sided conversation, as I was vocally paralysed. Only seconds had passed but they were slow seconds, stretched out . “What are you doing here?” was the response I eventually managed. Again, the puzzled look. The werewolf’s eyes were gentle and expressive but his muzzle as he spoke revealed long, pointed, yellowed incisors. “What do you mean?” he asked back. I struggled to verbalise my thoughts, “You’re a werewolf”. He looked at me, then down at himself. His expression showed no trace of reaction“You’re dreaming, go back to sleep” he responded and as he looked into my eyes, sleep reclaimed me.
I next awoke in the early morning light, my
grey cat curled at my side watching me. As I remembered the night, I rolled over anticipating the werewolf, my arm outstretched, but my husband’s pale skin shone faintly in the light from the window. The cat nudged against my arm and I slept again. In the morning I asked my husband “Do you remember last night?”. “Yes, you were dreaming ” was his only response.
next night I felt uneasy so I delayed as I prepared for bed. My husband was already sleeping by the time tiredness prevailed and I eventually fell asleep with the cat next to me. I awoke to her licks on my rigid arm and my hand enmeshed in the rough texture of the werewolf’s fur. My eyes recognised the same dark shape, I closed them again and when they reopened, it revealed what my fingertips had felt in that moment, the change back to the bare skin of my husband.
According to the consensus of dream interpretation websites, and best said by Blackridinghood “To dream of werewolf means that someone you love and trust has revealed (or is hiding) a different side of themselves. They are hiding something important from you.” Hell yes, didn’t that turn out to be so. False awakening indeed.
Henry forgot to write “eat, eat” is my entry in the Australian Country Style Magazine 2012 short story competition. The judging and winning entry notification time has passed and I haven’t been notified so I guess I’m now free to share it. I’m not an enthusiastic short story writer but the brief was in 2000 words or less “cooking from the heart”, which I am passionate about.
There are ghosts in my kitchen. I know who these ghosts are. They are familiar to me.
Henry Scott Holland wrote “Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way that you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was, let it be spoken without effect, without the trace of a shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was; there is unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.”
My ghosts never slipped into the next room. They stayed right in the room in which they are most comfortable: the kitchen, and would add their own words, “eat, eat” to Henry’s.
Midweek dinners are not beneath one or another ghosts’ attentions, but on days when cooking lends itself to a pastime of expression and joy, I feel the jostle of the entire entourage. As is their want, they don aprons, stocktake the fridge and cupboards, and position themselves by the bench or around the big timber table.
The ghosts are Polly and Jessie my grandmothers, and my mother, Janice: although not as senior, her presence is fundamental. The faint aroma of tobacco indicates when my Pa, Cliff takes his place at the kitchen table.
The larger of the small furry ghosts Bo, settles into her rightful dog position on the floor beneath Pa’s chair, where she can keep an eye on the smallest ghosts Baddy and Jack, whose feline presences find strategic situations underfoot near the bench and the fridge, and complete the tableau.
There are others. It’s a country kitchen, and ethereal or not, all are welcome and any opportunity to congregate and confer is not missed, evidenced by an ultrasonic hum of conversation. During the day cups of tea serve as refreshment but later, toward evening, when I pour a glass of wine to complement the preparations there is a sigh of accord. I sip for all of us, and we commence cooking: that’s why everyone is here.
Most cooking I do is for my partner, the Gorgeous One and as his preference is for old fashioned home cooking the presence of his grandmothers May and Muriel is most welcome. His grandfathers Roy and Vince and dad Keith come to the table from time to time. There may or may not be a bottle of beer between them. Oftentimes the Gorgeous One’s beautiful Sal has rear guard in the doorway in the traditional way of canine warriors.
Food isn’t simply physical sustenance. It is remembrance and connection of our hearts and souls. My kitchen ghosts bear witness to this legacy of love they bequeathed to us. Such as I have a plan in mind, the food is as much theirs as mine. There are no recipes, no exact quantities: just memories, and with their spirit flowing through my heart to my hands I take ingredients and as if by alchemy they materialize into tantalising forms, echoes of the past and nourishment for the heart and soul of a being.
Cooking corned beef simmered in water laced generously with malt vinegar, brown sugar, mustard powder, peppercorns and bay leaves is my Pa and six year old me in the farm kitchen on a Sunday afternoon. As well as tender corned beef and smooth, onion tinged white sauce for dinner I would look forward to corned beef fritters with the lightest batter dipped in tomato sauce for Monday night’s dinner.
Opening a packet of mixed dried fruit, my hand instinctively finds the jelly cherries, and I’m immediately time shifted to the late 1960’s and the kitchen table at the farm with my Nanna making the Christmas pudding while I wait for the honour of adding the tiny coins specially saved.
Compared to the farm, Sunday night dinners in town were the fast food of the time and tantalising to my little self. Dinner plate sized wafer thin pancakes drizzled with lemon juice and sugar and rolled are my mother making a special treat in our house with the polished timber floors and laminate kitchen countertops. Or, it might be the soup of the time, Campbell’s tinned tomato: tart, delicious and creamy with fresh milk from the farm, served with frypan sandwiches made with sliced white bread delivered fresh by the local bakery’s horse and cart, Kraft cheese, leg ham, and toasted crisp and golden with butter. Dad says we ate these meals when we were poor. I laugh and tell him we were never poor.
These days making soup for the Gorgeous One means pumpkin. In the time it takes to share a glass of wine and the events of our day, I roast big unpeeled oiled pumpkin pieces with whole onions and knobs of garlic until all are just caramelised, scrape and squeeze them together and blend with a drizzle of olive oil, sprinkles of sea salt, white pepper and raw sugar until the soup shines. Thin slices of sour dough loaf and cheddar as mellow as our mood are the only substitutions to the original frypan sandwich line up.
The small furry ghosts still don’t like to miss a meal and are ever present especially when their favourites appear: smoked oysters, gelatine topping on pate, Friday night pizza, biccies and cheese at 4pm, breakfast toast, the odd prawn head or corn cob. We indulge in these regularly for their benefit, but corn kernels and prawns for us, and make spiritual offerings of the cobs and heads.
The rest of the family are not unaffected by the influence of the ghosts: get togethers are testimony to the weight of the members’ correlation of food and familial bonds. Whatsoever the occasion, we assemble with eskies, pots and boxes of foodstuffs, plus wine and beer. For weekend sojourns, each day is planned to include breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, pre-dinner nibbles, dinner and finally, groanlingly, dessert. We may intersperse these with excursions to the shops or beach.
Responsibilities are assigned according to tradition, preference or speciality. For breakfast the uncles barbeque snags and bacon. My aunt creates her inimitable microwave scrambled eggs. I’m banned from toast duty due to a somewhat warranted reputation for burning it. Because of a bid to sneak in tinned tomatoes, I make proper tomato and onion by chopping roughly half a dozen good tomatoes, a couple of large-ish brown onions, sizzle them in butter with sea salt, white pepper and a substantial spoonful of raw sugar until the butter and tomato juices are a glossy sauce.
Morning and afternoon teas are in the form of the pre-prepared goodies packed in Tupperware, including Dad’s beloved from my childhood and still, Rock Cakes. As I sift 2 cups of SR flour and rub in 1/3 cup butter until it resembles breadcrumbs, I feel his presence as if he knows what I’m cooking. I add ½ cup sugar, a pinch of ginger, a handful of sultanas, an egg with a big dash of milk, stirring until the dough is stiff. Dollops on a greased tray bake in a medium oven for 15 to 20 minutes.
Day 1 lunch is handled by the women and comprises platters of fresh bakery rolls sourced on one of the walks, with cold meats and cheese, or sometimes prawns, and salads, accompanied by chilled glasses of beer or white wine. I presume ghostly pressure from my Nanna is the reason my uncle finally produced the famous family egg mayonnaise of which he had kept details of the recipe obscured, but traditionally made from fresh farm eggs and milk. *Note: Several key ingredients and methodology omitted due to Mafioso style threats.
Pre-dinner nibbles are a contemporaneous grouping of cabanossi, cubed cheese, pickled onions, corn relish dip and Jatz, nice cheeses and preserved meats, water crackers, pate and fresh fruit selection, customarily assembled by my sisters.
Dinner is the forum to display faithful or newly discovered recipes. Dad usually provides an entrée of prawns if not eaten at lunch, and Oysters Kilpatrick with an unusual adaptation of chopped corned beef substituted for bacon. Several varieties of casserole or curry having simmered the afternoon long will likely be on offer with a variety of sides, popular being homemade fried rice and potato bake, and a token salad for health. The Gorgeous One is somewhat sceptical of “foreign” tastes, and finds solace in the potato bake. The rite involves partakers helping themselves, attendant bottles of wine: white then red, and boisterous conversation.
Dessert is greatly anticipated despite the quantity of food already consumed, as the dishes are family staples: lemon meringue, grammar pie with custard, Dad’s currant damper with “cocky’s joy”. My own favourite harks to my grandmother from the other side of the family, who made delicious savoury potato dumplings. Mine are the sweet version augmented with apple, bathed in golden syrup sauce and served with ordinary vanilla ice-cream. Incongruously, as I cook them my mind goes to her dining table and an aromatic dish of rich stew bedecked with resplendent orbs.
Day 2 lunch is Dad and my stepmother’s pungent pea and ham soup that tastes like home, with fresh bread from a by now necessary waddle to the bakery; or fish and chip cones from the local pub and a by now obligatory wobble along the river, closely followed by a nanna nap which involves the usual suspects finding comfy chairs, pretending to read the paper but given away by audible evidence of their snooze. The rest of us retreat to the relative peace of our sleeping quarters.
Day 2 dinner is whatever is left and reheated from Day 1. The following day none of us can face food, and departure breakfast is a cup of tea.
Sundays at home are sanctuary from the weekday world for the Gorgeous One and me. Late afternoon fingers of sunlight illuminating lazy dust motes signal the time when the ghosts materialise, and I prepare for a ritual of thankfulness by assembling my tools: a selection of bowls, trays and utensils. First the big, solid white mixing bowl, its purpose to make Snap Biscuits so the Gorgeous One has pieces of my heart to accompany him into his working days. With an old wooden spoon I cream ½ a block of tenderness aka butter with ½ cup of sweetness… sugar that is, and add a huge splash of vanilla essence as I remember the many ways I love him. An egg is added for goodness and a cup of self raising flour beaten in for resilience. Lastly a pinch of ginger keeps the spice in our life. Ten minutes on a well used biscuit tray in a warmish oven and the spoonfuls of batter become golden, fragrant tokens of love. Magic or cooking from the heart? The distinction blurs.
Despite living in a modern working world the need for food keeps us grounded, and although we are not rich we never feel poor, or alone, while the ghosts stage-manage. The old ways remembered and echoes of times past intermingle with our own stories handed down, and become our legacies of succour when we join the ghosts.
I leave you with Leslie P. Hartley’s opening sentence of The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, and something to consider… as much as this is true, surely the past has its own cuisine: the food of the heart.