Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: memoir

Blog two – the Eisteddfod

Anyone who did music lessons is probably familiar with the concept of an eisteddfod – a festival in which artist not only performs but also competes. From the spelling you have probably gathered the word is Welsh. However, if you are an Australian, you may not realise that you have been saying the the word wrong for your whole life. It is not an eisted-fod. The word has a double ‘dd’ which makes a soft ‘th’ sound in Welsh, much like in the English word ‘others.’ Eisteddfod (pronounce correctly please) is made up of two Welsh words: eistedd, which means to sit, and bod/fod which is the verb to be. The closest correlation you will probably get for eisteddfod in modern English is a ‘session.’

These days Eisteddfodau (the correct plural of eisteddfod) occur throughout the year in Wales. But the main eisteddfod – the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol (national eisteddfod) is held during the first week of August. It receives over 160,000 visitors over an eight day period. It is the pinnacle of the Welsh cultural calendar Here’s what the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol website says about itself:

“All visitors have an eisteddfod story to tell. Whether they’ve competed annually for many years or if they’ve just been to the Maes (field) once a few years ago. They’ve all experienced the magic of the National Eistddfod.”

Which, I guess, is a convenient segue for me to tell you how this year’s magic worked for me.

Driving

As with any outdoor festival there is a massive caravan and camping site attached to the Eisteddofd. The less intrepid book B&Bs and self catering Accomodation close to the Maes. I drove from Corris – a distance of about thirty eight miles – thirty eight, misty Welsh miles sharing the road with tractors, buses and the occasional stray sheep. Google maps told me it would take an hour and ten minutes. But … I tend to slow down on hair-pin bends. A sensible strategy. Though it doesn’t seem to have occurred to some drivers in Land Rovers and luxury cars. One of the best things about driving to the Eisteddofd is the flags and banners strung up along the houses. The closer you get the more flags. Somehow the excitement seems to mount too.

Volunteering

I put my name down to volunteer in Maes D – the learners tent. This involved serving coffee and tea and wandering around Maes D and chatting to people interested in learning Welsh as well as those seeking a safe place in order to practice their Cymraeg. For my first shift, I teamed with two local women. This lead to the inevitable conversation:

“Where do you come from?”

“Australia. But I was born in England. My mum was Welsh.”

“You learned to speak Welsh from her?”

“No. I learned as an adult.”

“But… how did you learn Welsh in Australia?”

I’ve had this conversation so many times I have requested Say Something in Welsh business cards.

Concert

Monday night, I went to a concert in the Pavillion. It was called a Noson Llawen, which is traditional way of spending an evening in Welsh culture – an informal evening in which people stand up to sing, recite, or tell stories. In this case a host of local performers provided the entertainment. In between, the announcer told jokes in Welsh. I got one … maybe two of them. The highlight of the evening was Dafydd Iwan (a local legend) singing: Yma o hyd. This song is a kind of unofficial national anthem in Wales. It basically details the history conquest. The chorus between each verse can roughly be translated as:

“We are still here,

We are still here,

Despite the worst of everyone and everything,

We are still here.”

The first time round, everyone joined in the singing. For the encore, everyone stood and sang louder. Then there was a silence. Red dragons flickered across the stage screens. The music for the anthem started.

I had no trouble driving home after the concert. Though, the road was long and winding. I had lit up like a glow worm inside.

Friends

Thursday evening, was the parti penblwydd (birthday party) Say something in Welsh. Forty of us were scheduled to meet at a hotel in Trallwng (Welshpool). A number of us gave lifts to friends without cars who were staying in Maes B (camping ground). I ended up with a friend from Missisippi in my passenger seat. We got to the hotel okay and had a pleasant evening catching up with far flung members of our learners community. When it came time to leave, my friend suggested we drive back exactly the same way we had come. I agreed … In theory. But I hadn’t accounted for the one way roads in the centre of Trallwng. I couldn’t find the way we had come. In frustration, I punched Meifod (town closest to Maes B) into Google maps and activated the directions. I’m not sure what the staff at Google maps were drinking the night they mapped Wales but we had a dark, snaking tour through the Welsh back roads with hedgerows brushing the car on both sides. It was late. My friend wasn’t talking much. Just staring at the movie blue dot. Every so often I asked.

“How’s it going? Are we heading in the right direction?”

To which question he replied:

“I think so.”

This went on for what seemed like hours – same words, over and over, with a ghost-white mist drifting across the roads. I was tired. About to hit a jet lag wall. After Maes B, I would face a further hour and a half drive back to Corris. I started feeling tense. But trying not to show it. Not sure, I succeeded entirely. I think maybe my friend felt a little jaded too. When we turned the final corner and a saw blaze of the Eisteddfod lights, he said:

“Here. Drop me off here.”

“I can’t. The sign says Buses Only.”

“It’s empty! There aren’t any buses.”

I left my friend in the bus parking lot and drove home. As the clock turned the night into the morning and the Welsh language radio service ended, I heard an Australian man being interviewed about Australia’s disastrous loss in the cricket. I haven’t inherited the sporting gene. The results didn’t bother me overly. But the man’s accent caused a wave of homesickness. If I’d been a character from Harry Potter and found myself able to Aparate, I think, I might have wished myself home.

 

Blog one – o Gymru (from Wales)

It’s Saturday afternoon and I am sitting in Adam and Andy’s cafe drinking coffee. A flat white, nonetheless. How to make a Melbourne girl feel at home. It’s been a frenetic week but, six days in, I’m feeling relaxed and happy. Rather than give you a blow by blow of my first week, I’ll pick out some highlights.

 

The flight

What can I say? There is nothing good about a long haul flight. I had prevaricated about paying for exit row seats and decided against the extra cost. At least, I thought I had… I looked forward to a cramped, miserable, leg-aching, twenty three hours without sleep. Imagine my surprise to find I had been assigned an exit row seat. The good flight fairy, perhaps? Or early onset Alzheimer’s? I must have paid for it. Whatever the case, the flight seemed shorter somehow.

Cymru

It was a pleasant twenty one degrees when I arrived at Heathrow airport – a little cloudy, a little grey, a perfectly ordinary must-wear-a-cardigan UK summers day. Did I tell you, the UK smells different to Australia. An absence of Eucalypts perhaps? Different cleaning products? From the airport, to the bus, to the open air, for some reason, it produces an overwhelming sense of welcome.

The rain started as my Arriva train crossed the border into Wales. What can I say? Wales is so moist and mossy and mountainous. It has been raining on and off since I arrived. It doesn’t seem to deter people from going out. They simply trudge through the rain in gor-tex jackets and sturdy boots.

Boots? Ah… boots…

Now, in case you were lucky enough to miss out, the question of my footwear has been a subject of much discussion in the lead up my departure. In Melbourne, I wear a cute pair of black ankle boots patterned in red. I had every intention of bringing them to Wales. Alas, a Welsh friend took one look at them and said they wouldn’t do. Hiking boots were the recommended footwear. But, although I found a pair of hiking boots with the obligatory touch of red, I couldn’t face the notion of wearing them for five months. Vanity, perhaps? Or simply because I’m an Aussie. Down under you only wear hiking boots if you are a serious hiker. And I’m not. So, what to wear? Could I wear Wellies (rubber boots) for five whole months? Surely there was an in between option. I raised the topic at work (as you do), discussed it in Welsh with my friend on Skype (as most wouldn’t). Sought earnest advice at multiple family gatherings. In the end, Andrew weighed in (possibly a little weary of the topic) and suggested I purchase a pair of Blundstone boots (with red stitching and elastic). I’m not sure how my Tasmanian made work boots will face up to the vagaries of the Welsh weather. But, if this sign on an office door is anything to go by, they were a safer choice than Wellies. The sign says:

No dirty Wellngtons in the office, please!!!!

I don’t expect to find: No dirty Blundtones stuck on an office door.

Maelor

I spent an intense day and a half learning everything about Stiwdio Maelor. While here, I will be greeting artists, taking applications for 2016, and acting as a general housekeeper for the stiwdio. I have learned about boilers and cookers (there is a switch on the wall for cookers In the UK) and British showers (started with a cord from the ceiling) and the intricacies of Gwynedd Council’s recycling programme. After, Veronica and Mary left for New York. I spent a couple of days in their Dolgellau house before heading down to Maelor. While in Dolgellau, I went for a jog along the Llwybr (pathway) Mawddach while listening to Brigyn on my iPod. I ran past hay meadows and through stiles, with my feet dancing around puddles, and the pebble grey river racing on ahead of me. As I finished my jog, I raised my hands in the air (hope no one was watching) and thought: dw i’n y nefoedd – I am in heaven.

Cymraeg (Welsh language)

One of the disheartening things for all lovers of the hen iaith (ancient language) is that you can’t be assured of speaking Welsh in Wales. Even in the heartlands, where Welsh speakers are ninety percent of the population, many newcomers expect Welsh speakers to use English. So where does that leave me? I have only five months – five short months – in which to take my Welsh language ability to the next level. I can’t sit around waiting for welsh speaking opportunities. I have to make them happen. This will involve taking a deep breath and going into shops, banks, pubs and railway stations and starting every conversation in Welsh. Sometimes, I will get a reply in kind. At other times, an English language reply, that indicates comprehension. In this instance, I’ve been advised to keep speaking Welsh. Many people understand the language but do not have the confidence to speak. It is therefore possible to have a simple bilingual exchange (on the level of buying milk or a postage stamp). In the worst case scenario, I will get an apology: sorry, I don’t speak Welsh. In which case, I will simply accept their apology and never shop there again (unless they happen to be the pub next door or make a damn good flat white). 🙂

Tomorrow, I am heading to the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol (National Eisteddfod). This is Cymru Cymraeg’s (Welsh speaking Wales’) premier cultural event. If you are a Welsh speaker and in Wales during the first week in August you will be asked: wyt ti’n mind i’r eisteddfod (are you going to the eisteddfod)? It is the Welsh speaking place to be. I will be going to a concert in Monday night. The Say Something in Welsh birthday party on Thursday night. I have also signed up to volunteer in Maes D (the learners’ tent) throughout the week. I look forward to meeting old friends (online and otherwise) and speaking Welsh at every opportunity.

Becoming a Welsh language expert…

I am not an expert at anything. I am a Jack-of-all-trades kind of girl. Imagine my surprise when an elderly gentleman approached me at the library.

‘I want to learn Welsh,’ he said. ‘One of your colleagues told me you are the library’s Welsh language expert.’

Turns out the man was vision impaired and needed a course that didn’t require him to be able to read or write. I knew just the course and my ‘Welsh language expert status’ was confirmed as surely if it had been listed on my job description along with a degree in library and information studies, eligiblility for ALIA accreditation, and holding a current Victorian driver’s license.

Now, personally, I think the ability to speak Welsh should be an essential requirement for every librarian. But as they haven’t yet achieved this in Wales, I don’t have much chance in suburban Melbourne. It was a shock therefore when on a second business-as-usual afternoon another man sought me out.

‘Hello. I’m looking for Liz Corbett.’

‘Yes. That’s me. How can I help you?’

‘I heard you speak Welsh.’

Heard! Where from? I guessed another of my colleagues had supplied the information.

‘I try, but…my Welsh isn’t fluent.’

Turns Ken James was a local historian with Welsh ancestry who was doing research on Eaglehawk’s Welsh Churches (yes, the hiraeth gets to us all eventually). He had a couple of cemetery inscriptions that needed translating. Would I have a look at them? Now, as my job description does not have ‘an ability to speak Welsh’ as a condition of employment, I am not paid to translate documents. As a librarian I am supposed to direct the borrower to the languages section. But as a person with an interest in Austalian history and Welsh language, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass.

‘I’ll have a go,’ I said. ‘If I can’t work it out, I know people who can. Why not email me a copy?’

Here is one of the inscriptions Ken James sent to me:

Jones

Serrhog Goffodwrineth / Robert Watkin Jones/ Pantymarch / Anwl Ac Unig Fab / Watkin Jones / Pandy, Llanuwchllyn, Bala / Yr Hwn A Hunodd Yn Yr Iesu / Hydref / 10 February 1884 Yn Zomywydd Oed / “God’s Will Be Done”.


It was school holidays and being a mildly (cough) obsessive person I didn’t want to wait until Welsh classes started back again. I looked up serrhog. It wasn’t in my dictionary. Neither was gofodwrineth. However, language is all about context. I am often telling my Welsh class. Your comprehension will sometimes be situational. So, what was the context here? I looked at English language cemetery inscriptions. They generally started with something like loving remembrance. I looked up remembrance in the English side of my dictionary and came up with: coffadwriaeth, remembrance, and serchog, with means affectionate. The spelling was wrong (possibly the family had no dictionary and may not have had much education in the Welsh language – it wasn’t exactly encouraged – and maybe they were relying on English speaking mason). Anyway, the inscription should have read: Serchog goffadwriaeth. Perfect.


See, being an expert is easy. 🙂


I knew Pantymarch and Llanuwchllyn, Bala were place names. I also knew that there was no letter z in the Welsh alphabet. A little enquiry, confirmed that Robert Watkin Jones had died at the age of twenty. Therefore zomywydd oed was probably 20 blwydd oed – twenty years old – Anwl ac Unig Fab meant: dear and only son.


I paused, thinking about this family far from home who had lost their only son at twenty years of age.


So, much pain, in those few words.


My final challenge with this inscription was the phrase: Yr Hwn A Hunodd Yn Yr Iesu.


Hunodd meant ‘slept’ my dictionary told me, Iesu, I knew, meant Jesus. But why yr hwn? And why yr Iesu? Literally, it seemed to be saying ‘the this and slept in the Jesus.’ Puzzled, I went where any sensible woman in this day and age who needs to know something goes. Facebook.


Fortunately Sion Meredith Director of Cymraeg i Oedolion – Canolbarth Cymru – Welsh for Adults mid-Wales was online. That’s right – a real expert. He confirmed my earlier guesswork and told me the phrase Yr Hwn a Hunodd yn yr Iesu meant: this one slept in Christ. Nice. I sent my results back to Ken James. Imagine my pleasure when a few months later he came back to the library with a signed copy of his book: Eaglehawk’s Welsh churches. He even put my name in the acknowledgements.

 

The inaugural HNSA conference – a subjective summary

I am not a duck-to-water conference goer – all those people, managing allergies, no time to read, or write, or even exercise. But when the date of inaugural Historical Novels Society of Australasia conference was announced, I booked a place without hesitation. I have been a member of the Historical Novels Society for years, have reviewed and written for their publications, chatted with members electronically, watched with envy as the U.S. and the UK members attended conferences. The event had my name written all over it.

Though, I do admit to grappling with a hurdy hurdy of emotions.

In the past, literary conferences were easy. I am a librarian. I am paid to read, review, and recommend books. However, in recent years, the situation has become more complex. The more I write, the closer I get to having a finished manuscript, the tension builds inside me. I listen to author’s talk about their writing process, wondering whether I can be as articulate. I hear publishers discussing other people’s work and find myself holding their comments up to a mirror in my head. All weekend, I swung like a pendulum between awe and inspiration. I came home, exhausted, philosophical and still trying-to-be-determined.

Here is a totally subjective summary of my impressions:

  • Entering a room filled with people most of whom you don’t know is never easy
  • I was glad I went with a friend
  • Especially when I realised how people in the room many had PhDs
  • And published novels
  • It felt great to be part of an inaugural event
  • My heart sunk when I heard how many words some authors write per day
  • And when they talked about dreams and mysterious voices guiding them
  • Some brave writers submitted the first 750 words of their novel for a public reading and assessment
  • It was gruelling – yes, gruelling and I wasn’t even one of them
  • I heard an industry professional say don’t bother submitting until you’ve written about thirteen novels
  • I heard some writers talk about struggling to find inspiration
  • I appreciated their honesty, the way they demystified the process
  • I listened to publishers talk about the influence of Big W
  • I knew publishing was driven by dollars
  • Still, it was a shock to the librarian inside me
  • I heard about new publishing models – a flux in the industry
  • I noticed agents and publishers are now accepting unsolicited manuscripts
  • I wondered how much Indie Publishing and small presses are driving these changes
  • I hope those changes will be lasting
  • The vibe from Panterra Press was so positive
  • I hope they and others will continue to grow and innovate
  • That I can get my manuscript the requisite standard
  • Although…thirteen novels? She said thirteen!
  • I might be dead by then
  • I reminded myself I won an international prize with my first ever short story
  • That I have had other work published
  • That my recent manuscript assessment was largely positive
  • I found myself itching to get home and continue with my revisions
  • Though, it’s gonna take time to banish the spectre of thirteen unpublished novels
  • And the marketing power of Big W

 

New iPad – a time for letting go.

I got a new iPad for Christmas. It is faster, lighter, leaner than my old iPad. But for some reason, I’m having trouble saying goodbye. Strange, to develop an affection for a piece of technology. But, the iPad has been so much more than a machine to me.

It was a step down the path of self-knowledge.

I recall the initial purchase decision. No one else in the family had an iPad. Do you hear that? Me, the middle-aged mother, was the first person in the family to get an iPad. The kids jumped on the MacBook train earlier than me, I was pretty slow in the iPhone race, and Andrew was as yet Apple uninitiated. He didn’t know what delights lay in store. I Therefore had to make the decision ahead of him.

Now, if that seems insignificant to you, please remember I got married at the age of nineteen. I had my first child by the time I was twenty. Money was tight. Decisions revolved around the needs of the family. There wasn’t a great deal of time or energy left over for self discovery. Until the iPad.

Andrew said: “if you want an iPad buy one.”

I saw a whole new world opening up before me – social media, books, movies, diaries, notetaking apps, image storage, dictionaries, blogging and travel apps, games, contacts, meditation, relaxation, and enhanced language learning functions.

Still, I hesitated. Did I need it? Or just want it? Was I being selfish? My guilt and self-doubt could have rivalled the seating capacity of the MCG. In the end, I purchased a refurbished model with WIFI + Cellular and 64GB of memory. I’m not addicted (cough) or dependent (goodness, quite a tickle in my throat). But I did buy a new handbag to accomodate the purchase. Causing one son to ask: ‘Do you ever go anywhere without that thing?’

‘No. Apart from the gym and library desk shifts, me and my iPad are rarely separated.’

Today is Boxing Day. I am sitting at the table with all that history. I can’t just put the old iPad in a drawer. Or, heaven forbid, throw it away. And no one carries two iPads, do they? No! that would be ridiculous. I think, in the circumstances, I might have to frame it. Underneath, the caption will simply read:

“The day Elizabeth Jane knew what she wanted.”

 

 

Library lessons – a true story

It was ordinary Friday afternoon in the library service, mum’s and kids, retired couples, a full complement of the regular unfortunates, me busy reserving items, trouble shooting computer problems, helping people download eBooks, finding the latest travel guide. As I said, business as usual, until the lady with the green shopping bag sat down at my desk.

There was nothing distinct about the woman, on first impressions. She was lower middle-aged, had honey brown hair, wore gold hoop earrings. She could have been any one of the women that access our library service. Though, I noticed, as she sat down, that she was a little dishevelled, breathless. As if approaching the information desk had taken some effort.

‘I’ve got these books.’

I nodded, summoning a smile, wondering, if I was about to assess another pile of not-so-useful donations.

‘I’ve had to move,’ she paused, tears welling. ‘A number of times.’

A tear spilled onto her cheek. She dashed it away with the back of her hand. Another followed. And another. She raised a hand to her face. I’m thinking someone has died. It has to be a death, surely? By now her shoulders were also quivering. With a sinking heart, I realised, I was going to have to take the donations, even if they were useless.

I waited. Not knowing how to respond. I mean, this situation wasn’t covered in library training. It wouldn’t be professional to grasp her hand. Or go round the desk and give her a hug. Infact, it would probably freak the poor woman out. Eventually, she drew a shaky breath. Upending the bag, she tipped a pile of children’s books onto my desk.

‘They’re overdue.’ She said. ‘And the fine…I can’t pay.’

A fine? Not what I expected. I’ve had people lie about library fines, make excuses, slip the books back on the shelf, the occasional flare of anger, hissed threats. But this was grief, and heartfelt, and something about it unnerved me. I searched the woman’s face. Seeing worry lines. Sorrow in her tear-glazed eyes. And something else. What was it? ‘Do you have a library card?’

‘Yes, my daughters.’ She handed it over.

I opened up her daughter’s membership record. The fines weren’t small. But I’ve seen worse. I returned the books – Hairy Maclary, Dogger, John Brown, Rose and the midnight cat, Where the wild things are, The Gruffalo, and others – a catalogue of innocence. They were all accounted for. I smiled, going into official librarian mode. ‘Let’s start by updating your address.’

‘No.’ A flicker of fear. ‘I can’t tell you where I live.’

Fear? That was the other emotion. What was going on here? I studied the membership record, looking for inspiration, knowing I should be going through the spiel about getting books back on time being the woman’s responsibility, that having a correct address was part of our process, reminding her that we’d explained all this when she signed up as her daughter’s guarantor. Guarantor? I flicked into the family details tab. Hang on a sec, woman wasn’t the guarantor. ‘There’s a man’s name on your daughter’s record.’

‘Her father.’

‘He joined her?’

‘He came, that day. Made me use his name. But we don’t see him anymore.’

Right, the woman had moved a number of times, she was scared to give me her address, her husband made her use his name. I’m starting to get a prickles-down-the-spine feeling. ‘Technically,’ I said, choosing my next words with care, ‘you are not responsible for these charges.’

‘He’d say it was my fault. I had to keep track of them.’

‘Your name isn’t on the record. Or your address. You have no legal obligation.’

Pressing her lips together, she shook her head. ‘He won’t pay. Ever.’

‘He’ll get a notice, if you leave the charges on his card. Asking him to clear them. But…that won’t be good for you, is that what you’re saying?

‘Yes.’ She said. ‘He would pursue me.’

*

I’m not going to tell you how the interview ended. That is between me, God and the library system. But, no-one – man, woman, or child – should have to live with that kind of fear. By the time the woman left the library, she wasn’t the only one fighting back tears.

 

A writer’s sick leave

You know something is wrong by eleven o’clock Tuesday morning. You are tired….so tired. Why are you so tired? You are finding it difficult to concentrate. You plough on until lunch time, after which you fall into bed. You sleep. Deep. You wake to the inner toll of an alarm bell. You don’t usually sleep in the afternoon – your head aches. You can’t face your manuscript revisions. Small decisions are beyond you. Your husband finds you huddled on the couch in your track pants.

‘What’s wrong?’ He asks.

‘I’m sick.’

‘What about tomorrow night? Should I cancel?’

‘No. I’ll be better by then.’

You open up iBooks. You have an article to write for late early December. This means you have a long To Be Read pile. You flip from writer to reader and start While Beauty Slept.

Being sick is not too bad…as long as you have a good book to read in bed.

Next day finds you feeling no better. You cancel your dinner engagement. You finish reading the first novel (yes, you read fast). You draft a list of questions. You start re-reading Bitter Greens. A mistake. It’s too good. In a fevered flash of horror you realise are wasting your time as a writer. You’ll never be that good. You take two Panadol to ease the pain.

It doesn’t help.

Fortunately, you have a library job. You are needed, like…you have to go to work tomorrow. You have two urgent housebound groups to select for. This is a bad. You generally select a couple of weeks ahead. But some weeks, despite your best efforts you find yourself working close to the wire. This is one of them.

You have to ring in sick.

A third day on the couch. You draft out your second list of questions. You read some interviews. Make notes. Send query emails. Start reading a third novel, The Hand of Fire, by a Judith Starkston. Any guesses what the article is on? You’re sick. But your mind churns. This is called a writer’s sick leave.

Friday morning, you set the alarm. It shrills. Your head pounds. But you have to work. If not, you will have to phone each volunteer and every housebound client, re-schedule the deliveries, be under even more pressure the following week.

You drag yourself out of bed. Toss down cold and flue tablets. Drink copious amounts of coffee. Front up to work, moaning and sweating. You drag yourself through the day, get the selections done. Manange to be polite and helpful on desk. You drive home in a shudder of aching muscles and tumble into bed.

***

Sick Girl – photo courtesy of Culturalweekly.com

 

 

Red Shoes

I remember the first time I heard Hans Christian Anderson's story of The Red Shoes. I was a child, home sick from school, and, day time television being what it was in the days before videos, DVDs and iTunes, I had pulled out a pile of EP records. Among them I found a copy of The Red Shoes. We had other fairy tale records. I listened to them often. Not so The Red Shoes. To this day, I remember the sick jolt of horror in my stomach, the heroine's severed ankles, the shoes filled with blood, dancing and dancing.

I have since developed a passion for red shoes.

I got my first pair of red shoes at the age of six. We were living in Brahma Lodge, at the time, in a rented house, on a dusty dead-end road, down-wind of the abattoirs. We hadn't been in Adelaide long and we were still struggling with dust, flies, corrugated iron fences, nose-bleed hot summers, and magpies that swooped unawares. My new red shoes were a splash of colour in the otherwise relentless trying-to-adjust trudge of our family life.

I wasn't allowed to wear my new shoes to school. I had to wear short socks and brown English school sandals. No one else wore socks with their sandals in those days. No one. Infact, no one wore Clarks sandals. Or carried a brown leather satchel. Even in a suburb full of British migrants, I was the odd one out.

I'm not sure if this caused me to run away. I expect most children run away once or twice in their lives. In my case, I announced my intention to leave home, forever, ran around the corner, crouched behind a bottle brush tree, and waited for mum's frantic search to begin. It didn't. I skulked home an hour later to find mum seemingly unaffected by the loss of her eldest daughter. At bedtime that night I confessed my disappointment.

'I knew you wouldn't leave,' mum said, 'not without your red shoes.'

Apart from that one pair of red shoes (looking back they must have been on sale) my childhood footwear can only be described as sensible. Over time, my English school sandals were replaced by the Roman sandals, the Adelaide school sandal of choice, though mum bewailed their lack of support for my developing arches. Party shoes were purchased in a sensible match-all black. I acquired cheap plimsoles for playing in on the weekend (goodbye Wellies). And eventually a pair of Levi sneakers. At this stage, I think you could safely say I had successfully morphed into your average Aussie teenager.

I didn't wear red shoes again until I was an adult. Actually, I was barely an adult. At the age of twenty two, and pregnant with my second child, mum took me shopping for a birthday gift. I came across a pair of embossed red, leather, slip on pumps. I wanted them, with a longing akin to Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale. But they wouldn't go with anything and…with a mortgage and another baby on the way…I needed to be sensible.

'If you want them,' mum said, get them. They are your birthday present' (by this you may deduce emigration had brought a degree of prosperity).

Mum gave me the red shoes on my birthday. They were supposed to be worn for best. When did the idea of best shoes go out of fashion? We no longer think in those terms in our throw away society. For me, the turning point was those red shoes. I wore them every day. On every occasion. Even when they didn't match my outfit. When they wore out, I bought another pair, and another. Since then, my life has been marked by a need for red shoes.

When we came to Melbourne I noticed everyone wore knee length boots. But…they were expensive and with three, followed by four, growing mouths to feed, I couldn't justify the cost. It would be fifteen years before I lashed out on a pair of knee high red leather boots. I currently have two pairs of red boots (one short and one and one long), a red pair of Doc Marten shoes with buckles (I never did abandon the Clarks sandal look) and a pair of Joseph Sieber red sandals (bought on sale). My long red boots have been re-souled twice. I am constantly on the lookout for a replacements – shoes, sandals and boots. Maybe that's what Hans Christian Anderson was on about? This endless, slavish, dependence? If so, I'm guilty. I can no longer live without red shoes.

 

 

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