Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: memoir

An S.O.S. from Biskit the family dog

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Help! If you are reading this, I’m in danger. The only place I feel safe is rolling around in the dirt beneath the house. But now Andrew’s setting booby traps. No, I’m not joking. It’s real. All around the world, small white dogs who were originally bought for the youngest daughter who left home are under threat. Seriously, Andrew’s on the phone at the crack of dawn and late into the night. He speaks in code, of course. Uses phrases like site remediation and safety procedures, but I hear those American accents and know he’s operating on a global scale.

We had explosions the week after Christmas, then there was thunder. I managed to force my way through the barriers along the sides of the house only to find miles of deadly blue cabling had been installed. I had to chew my way out. Liz doesn’t realise. Why doesn’t she realise? She thinks this is about dirt and fleas. I dragged a length of cabling out to demonstrate the situation. The next morning the secret international phone calls stopped. Andrew hunched over his mobile phone trying to communicate with the outside world. He said he’d have to ‘go into the office.’ Liz didn’t seem too worried. She never does. She just flipped over to 4G and kept on reading. About Owain Glyndwr, for heaven’s sake, a fourteenth century Welsh malcontent. She needs to forget about Wales and  and start focusing on what’s happening in her own backyard.

When Andrew got home from ‘the office’, that night, he found the cable. Grim. That’s the only word for his face. He hammered on Liz’s study window. Called, it an ADSL line. Used the words, No WIFI, No phone. Liz turned pale, saw the effect it was going to have on her social media profile. She sided with Andrew. Yes, you heard me. She sided with Andrew. Called the ADSL police. Had those trip wires re-installed in no time. Now my days are numbered. I’m hacking into Liz’s blog to get my message out. She’s going to be furious. I’ll be kept in close confinement from now on. But if you’re reading this, you’ll know the truth. So, please, please, please come and rescue me.

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Eureka! She’s signed a publishing contract

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So, you decided to write a novel – an historical novel. The first piece of fiction you have written since a dreadful short story in year eleven. You have an idea of a time period. You begin to research. But actually you have no idea what you are doing. You just write. You get some early encouragement. Get shortlisted for awards. Win a short story prize. You keep on writing. You have a full, redrafted manuscript before you realise that the whole damned publishing industry is market driven — the manuscript you’ve written won’t fit neatly on the bookshop shelves.

unknown

You should have known this. You are a librarian. You are used to putting books in categories. But the truth hits home at the Historical Novels Society of Australasia Conference as you listen to a grim publishing panel rip your colleagues’ work apart. They tell you most Australian book sales take place in Kmart or Big. There is a big demand for rural romance, why not try your hand at that?

You realise your manuscript is going to be hard to pitch — an historical coming-of-age about fairy tales and facing the truth. With both adult and young adult viewpoint characters. Like, what were you thinking? You sink to the bottom of a dark pond. You drive your room mate crazy with your OMG why-didn’t-I-realize script.

You attend MWF — a session on publishing perspectives. You are told colouring books are artificially inflating print book sales. That mainstream publishers can’t take a risk. They have to make money. This is the era of the small press. Hadn’t Black Rock, White City, just won the Miles Franklin Award?  A small press! You remember the only smiling face on the HNSA panel was a publisher from an independent press.

You Google the Small Press Network, start sending out query letters. You also attend a Literary Speed Dating Event at Writers’ Victoria. You get quick responses from the small presses – far quicker than you get from the established publishers. They’re working smarter, electronically. You get loads of encouragement. Rejections too. You start a new project. That’s what you do, isn’t it? Move onto the next book. You consider self-publishing. Remember how much you suck at administration. Still you are waiting. A few, independent publishers have asked for your full manuscript. You notice that opening your email makes your tummy ache. You consider staying in bed. Forever. You think maybe you’re not cut out for this.

Then an email from Odyssey Books arrives. The opening line says:

“Thank you for sending us “The Tides Between”.

You brace. Think the word “Unfortunately” is going to come next.

“It’s an original concept with a great voice and well-developed characters. We love it and would like to publish it.”

Publish? You blink, shake your head. Read again more slowly. Publish! A mercury shot of realization. You leap out of bed, calling your husband’s name. He’s not in his office. You turn, this way, that. Search the garden, the shed, his bike rack. Gone. He’s gone. You are shaking, crying, running in circles. You think frenetic is a good description. You send a text to your husband, ring your mum, tell your writing buddies, put the news on the family Viber group, answer responses. Then you sit, letting the news sink in. Your book may not be Kmart or BigW material, neither is it a rural romance. It certainly doesn’t fit neatly on the bookshelf. But someone loved it, enough to publish it. You think this truly is the era of the small press. That Michelle Lovi at Odyssey Books has just become your new best friend.

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Bin Sbwriel – some thoughts on re-writing

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Last year, I finished a complete re-write of my manuscript. I started the story in a different place, changed the protagonists’ goals, motivations and conflicts, cut two viewpoints, and, in short, worked out what the whole damn thing is supposed to be about. I sent the manuscript out to friends for feedback. They made suggestions. I re-wrote sections – insert: nights spent lying wide awake, gut churning, wondering whether I was wasting my time, thinking maybe I should focus on being a better librarian, wife, mother, that I wasn’t clever, talented, brave or inspired enough to write a novel.

I then paid for a manuscript assessment.

The assessor, Anne Bartlett, made a swag of positive comments. She also made suggestions for the novel’s improvement. That’s what you pay for, right? That’s what having a manuscript assessment is all about? Correct. But that doesn’t mean the process doesn’t hurt like crazy. I mentioned thIs pain to my writing teacher, poet and novelist friend, Earl Livings.

“I tend to get a little churned up after feedback,” I said, casually after Welsh class one night (insert: heartburn, therapy, hours boring your friends with possible plot changes, OMG the world is ending, your whole family’s tactic avoidance of the subject type feelings).

“You think that’s unusual?” He replied. “Most writers go into a complete spin.”

One of the assessor’s main pieces of feedback was about the beginning. She wrote:

“Slow start. The section in the cellar is well written, but in one sense its a false start – the story really begins when they board the ship.”

I relayed this piece of feedback to one of my long-suffering non-writing friends (yes, I like to spread my angst far and wide).

“That’s interesting,” she said. “Didn’t your first draft start with the characters boarding the ship?”

She was right. Damn it! I’d re-drafted the story to start in a different place, spent hours researching housing and living conditions in nineteenth century Covent Garden only to be told, the story should really begin right where it had initially begun. At this point, you may be excused for thinking I had wasted my time. That I’d be going back weeping and gnashing my teeth, to the initial draft. Wrong. I’d learned a great deal about my characters in those re-written scenes. I had also come to realise multiple re-writes are part of the process (along with the obligatory gut churning). That sometimes you have to write things to learn things, then re-write them differently to include what you’ve learned. I’m slowly coming to realise experimenting is part of re-drafting. As a consequence, I have cut about four thousand words from the beginning of the manuscript, the new start is leaner, tighter and (I hope) better. Meanwhile, I’m putting the trashed cellar scene here, on my blog, for your reading pleasure.

Covent Garden

Thursday 26th of August, 1841

Not long. They had to tire soon. Wrapped in an old eiderdown, Bridie sat, knees to her chest, in the blackened living-room. Her left foot had gone to sleep from all the waiting. Her bottom had turned to stone. But she daren’t sneak out with Alf and Ma awake in the next room.

Stretching her leg out, she stifled a moan. A mistake. She heard a listening silence from beyond the bedroom door.

‘Bridie? Are you still awake?’

‘No, Ma. Fast asleep.’

‘You’ll be tired in the morning, girlie. Mark my words. I won’t have complaining.’

‘I’m trying to sleep, Ma.’

‘Well, for goodness sake stop wriggling. It’s getting on my nerves.’

That was a bit steep. Seeing as Ma’s grief could probably be heard all the way down to the Thames. But at least her sobs were starting to ease, coming softer now, less frequent. Or was that wishful thinking? No, they were fading. Her stepfather’s words also came in shorter, staccato bursts. She couldn’t make them out through the thick wood of the door but he was probably going on about the virtues of Port Phillip, New South Wales’ newest settlement. As if poor Ma didn’t already know.

The living room looked ghostly in the moonlight. As it had, that other night, almost nineteen months ago, with her dad’s corpse laid out on the table. Ma hadn’t wept that night. Nor had there been luggage piled up by the door. Only drawers half emptied and walls stripped bare as Ma, in her fury, fed his memory to the fire.

No, Ma not his ballads. Or his sheet music! Please. Not Sir Walter Scott!

An ember shifted in the hearth. Its reflection played across the wallpaper and scrubbed deal table, the new pewter brooch Alf had pinned to her shawl. Bridie heard a dog bark somewhere in the distance, Ma’s sobs fading as the gaps in Alf’s droning voice expanded. Shouts. A tinkling laughter, cabs being hailed, a rumble of carriages along Bow Street. Then silence. Night held a finger to its lips.

She inched forward on the turn-out bedstead.

It creaked. She paused, head cocked, listening for sounds from the bedroom. Nothing, only Alf’s soft rumbling snores. She rose, tiptoed across the room and picked out a rush light from the saucer on the mantelpiece. Touching it to an ember, she perched the rush in its holder, grabbed her shawl from the pile of clothes Ma had laid out in preparation for the morning and dragged it over her cotton shift. The brooch bumped heavy against her chest.

Lifting the latch, a cold draft played about her ankles as she peered out onto the blackened landing. All was still. Only a greasy smell of tallow wax hovered above the sconces on the wall. She turned, propping the door ajar. Waited. Still no sound from the bedroom. One hand gripping the banister, she inched her way down the stairs. Past the family of six from Essex, the Misses White who went out charring, the dingy first floor room Alf used to occupy.

In the hallway, she stopped, breath hard in her chest. Saw a light threading beneath Mrs Sprugg’s door. Their landlady was old and gnarled as a tree root and Bridie was pretty sure she knew how to cast spells. She wouldn’t take kindly to a fourteen-year-old girl creeping about the house in her shift. If caught, Bridie would be marched straight back upstairs to Ma. Never mind that her notebook lay hidden behind a stone in the cellar below.

She heard a scuffle, a chink of crockery. Deep moans as Mrs Sprugg eased her rheumy limbs into a chair.

She tiptoed along the cold tiles, towards the cellar door.

There were six beds in the cellar, each let out for tuppence a night, but there might be twice as many girls sleeping beneath its thin grey blankets. Bridie paused at the top of the staircase to savour the familiar, dank air. After her dad died, she’d taken over the care of the cellar, charring for Mrs Sprugg in the afternoons after she’d finished helping Ma with her piecework. Sometimes, if the candle lasted long enough, she would draw the notebook from its hiding place and write on its creamy pages. She caught her dad’s echo then, as if he dwelled behind the stone. Knew he’d loved her, despite the horrible things Ma said.

Tonight, the cellar was cold and treacle black, its air heavy with the rhythm of slow measured sleep. Cupping her hand around the flickering rush light, Bridie shuffled forward, groping for a pillar. Heard a nearby bed frame squeak. Froze. Held her breath. A girl sighed, shifting in her sleep.

Boxes had been piled at the far end of the cellar, almost to the high vaulted ceiling. A rickety table and a grimy wing-backed chair had been set before the hearth. Edging her way around the boxes, she set the little flame down on the mantelpiece and took a deep breath.

Almost there.

Running a hand over the dusty hearth stones, Bridie counted four to the right, walked her fingers up six, and grasped the loose stone. It rasped. The sound a hacksaw in the sticky black. She paused, fingers tensed, a familiar excitement fluttering her chest. If only she found a feather tonight? Some spangles? One last message from the fairies?

There was nothing. Her dad was dead.

Reaching into the cavity, Bridie coaxed the notebook from its hole. No need to put the stone back. She’d decided that this morning. Hugging the notebook to her chest, she swung round giddy with relief. Her toe struck the hearth. She gasped, stumbled, grabbed for the chair. Missed. Staggered sideways into the pile of boxes. They swayed. She shot out a steadying hand. Too late. Boxes clattered to the ground.

On hands and knees, Bridie held her breath. Saw a startle of white on the nearest bed.

‘Oi! Who’s there?’

Darting forward, she grabbed the girl’s shoulder and gave it a shake. ‘Hush! It’s me, Bridie. From upstairs.’

A sharp intake of breath. The girl tensed, as if ready to scream. Bridie shook her again.

‘No! Don’t! It’s me.’

Turning, she fumbled for the rush light and held it to her face. The girl blinked, knuckling her eyes, and gasped.

‘Shh,’ Bridie held a finger to her lips. ‘Remember? I clean the cellar.’

‘You ain’t cleaning now!’

The girl grabbed her lumpy bundle of belongings and kneaded it with urgent fingers. It was the nuts-and-orange girl. Bridie had seen her often enough, huddled in doorways, her face pinched and grey as if she didn’t get much to eat. She peered at Bridie now through narrowed eyes.

‘Sure you ain’t thievin’?’

‘No, truly. I’ve come to fetch my notebook. It’s precious. My dad gave it to me, just before he died. See, he’s written a message.’

The girl sniffed, clearly unimpressed. She ran her gaze over Bridie’s thick shawl and clean white shift, her hungry eyes alighting on the brooch pinned at her breast.

‘What you gonna give me?’

‘Give?’

‘Mrs Sprugg don’t like girls sneakin’ about the house.’

‘No! I’m not sneaking. Or thieving. I came to get my notebook.’

‘At night?’

‘Yes.’

‘So, your Ma won’t find out?’

‘Please, don’t tell anyone.’

‘Too late.’ The girl jerked her chin sideways. ‘The old hag’s coming.’

Bridie swivelled round, peering through the gloom. Saw a glimmer of distant light. Heard the tap of Mrs Sprugg’s cane. She glanced at the scatter of boxes, the table, the wingback chair. She had to hide. But where? Her gaze darted from the girl’s face, to the cellar stairs, and back again. She could squat down? Snuff out the light? But what about the girl? Her eyes were hard and cold. A thin smile twisted her mouth.

She reached out, touching a finger to the brooch.

Bridie swallowed. She didn’t care about the brooch. ‘A thistle and rose,’ Alf had said, said, pinning it to her shawl, ‘a reminder your heritage.’

She didn’t want reminding, especially not by Alf. She had her notebook for memories—real memories, from before things went wrong. Proper memories, from before Alf came along.

‘Hello! Who’s there?’ She heard Mrs Sprugg’s quavery voice.

Crouching low, Bridie blew out the rush light, her fingers fumbling with the brooch’s tiny clasp. Ma would kill her for losing it. But she didn’t have a choice. If she didn’t take her notebook to Port Phillip, she’d never feel her dad’s presence or catch his echo. He’d be lost forever from her world.

At last, the clasp sprung open. Bridie jerked the pin from her shawl.

‘Here,’ she hissed, groping for the girl’s hand in the dark. ‘Take it. Don’t breathe a word. If Mrs Sprugg catches me, we’ll both be in trouble, and Ma will be sure to have that brooch back, if she finds out.’

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New iPad – a time for letting go.

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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.”

 

 

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Library lessons – a true story

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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.

 

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A severe dose of real life…

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These last two weeks, you seem to have been struck by a severe dose of real life. Behind at work, stuff to do around the house, Doctors appointments with your mum, an emergency dash to the Apple store, catching up with friends, a visit from the Canberra Corbett’s, a family lunch, braving BodyStep class, cycling home in an aching, how-did-I-lose-so-much-form daze, dental appointments, grocery shopping, catching up with friends, Biskit escaping…

Can I go on holiday again please?

All this time your manuscript is waiting in your drawer. You lie in bed each morning with the Marimba alarm tone ringing in your ear, telling yourself, today is the day. Today, you will start work on your novel again… It’s not that you don’t enjoy writing. When the words are flowing, there is nothing better in the world. But…when you are coming back from a long break, wondering what exactly you wrote six weeks ago, whether it will be clumsy and embarrassing when you see it with fresh, almost a stranger’s, eyes, fearing a great wave of despair will crash over you, and that you will realise you’ve been deluding yourself, all along.

You should have focused on your library career.

In the end, you develop a cold, a sniffling, achey-all-over kind of malaise that knocks you flat. You cancel Welsh Class (yes, that bad), crawl into bed and sleep for two days. On the third day, when you eventually drag yourself upright, you spend a day reading Llwbyr Llaethog Llundain, a fascinating little Welsh language book about cattle drovers and the subsequent development of a Welsh dairy industry in London. Not a complete diversion. Your Welsh character was in fact a drover and he did work in a dairy. Though, neither of these details are major plot points (more like back story) and you’ve pretty much got them covered. But, it helps to know the details in those two paragraphs are just right.

Confidence. It’s all about confidence.

Next day you sit on the couch – with a fire blazing and an old lady rug over your knees (okay, so a little indulgent). You won’t ‘work’ on your manuscript, you tell yourself. You’re far too sick. But it won’t hurt to start reading, from the beginning. That way you’ll get to know your characters again. And if it all gets too much, you can simply curl up on the couch and go back to sleep.

Now, this is the kind of thing writing books warm you about all the time – ‘avoid going back to the beginning.’ But you are at a fine tuning stage, trying to respond to reader feedback, and make subtle but meaningful changes. It’s scary. And it makes your brain ache.

And sometimes…well, you have to trick yourself.

You play at ‘not writing‘ for a couple of days. Mostly, you tinker. In some places, you re-draft whole paragraphs, once, twice, three times. Other times, you press delete. Doodling, journaling, trashing, commenting, all the while working your way back into the story. By Thursday, you have reached the scenes that most needed changing. Some, still need work. Others…maybe they are okay? You take a deep breath and hook your laptop up to the screen on your desk. Your sniffles are gone. The fog of jet-lag has lifted. You realise you are back. Writing. It’s time to get serious.

 

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Railways and taxis – our second week in The UK

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Week two has been dominated by the words rail travel. Having arrived at Andrew’s work destination, reality showed what the map had already indicated – we were staying well and truly outside of London. The hotel, Runnymead on Thames, being situated on the banks of the River Thames somewhere between Egham and Staines. It wasn’t on my agenda – I had London museums I’d wanted to visit – but with Windsor Castle being a short easy train trip, I decided to make it my first day’s destination.

I am always amazed, despite not having lived in the UK since I was five years old, at how familiar England feels. One of Andrew’s American colleagues told me I’d have to catch a cab to Windsor. I knew this wouldn’t be the case. I walked for a mile or two along the banks of the Thames and caught a train. Disembarking at Windsor, I wasn’t surprised to find myself slap bang in the middle of a quaint English prosperity. I wandered the shops. Took a tour of the castle (apparently the Queen likes to spend her leisure days at Windsor). I don’t blame her. It’s not a bad spot for a weekender. Though, I doubt she makes use of the free Wifi at Pret a Manger.

The next day, I had organised to meet a friend in London. I knew Alison from the SaysomethinginWelsh forum and we have spent many a happy Skype hour conversing in Welsh. We have, on occasions, resorted to English but for the most part our relationship has been conducted in the Welsh language. This day in London was no exception. We met at Holborn Station (texts and organising emails largely in Cymraeg), picnicked in a garden close to Lincoln’s Inn, visited an old Chapel and visited the John Soame’s museum with only the occasional beth yw y gair am – what’s the word for? To interrupt the flow of our conversation. We have so much in common both having ties with Australia and the UK, daughters with similar health problems, a love of reading, and writing and, of course, underpinning it all our love of the hen iaith – the old language. It was a magical day, made all the more memorable by the museum guide who approached us just before closing time. Excuse me, he said. Ydych chi’n siarad Cymraeg – are you speaking Welsh? Ydy! We replied. We spent a delightful quarter of an hour speaking Cymraeg with him as the museum staff locked up around us.

The next day involved a two hour trip down to Christchurch, to see my Aunty Jean in her care home. She didn’t know me. She hasn’t known me the last three times I’ve visited. I go for the sake of my uncle and his wife who oversee her care. It is always sobering to see people in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. As ever, I was struck by the grace and kindness of her carers.

It is so easy to get around the UK by train (albeit expensive) and I must have been getting a little over confident because the next day disaster struck. We started out easily enough. Bought return tickets from Egham to Chelmsford with quick tube trip to Camden Market planned enroute. England was experiencing a heat wave (Andrew had read in the Melbourne Age) and the day was indeed stifling. But we had fun wandering around Camden. The markets go on forever. We could easily spent a full day there. We settled for a couple of hours, going on to spend a delightful evening in the company of old family friends in Essex.

Coming home, we left Chelmsford a little later than intended, reaching Liverpool Street Station only to miss the last train to Waterloo. Night buses. I knew there were night buses. The trouble was, anyone that could have helped us had long since departed. The station was now in the hands of a set of surly security guards. They were herding everyone out the streets. The taxi queue was a mile long. My pre-paid British phone credit had expired. Andrew’s Aussie account wasn’t working. And no one knew anything about night buses. We faced a long night walking round the city (my suggestion), finding an over priced hotel (without the aid of phones or internet), or joining the taxi queue. At this point, Andrew sidled up to the man in charge of the taxi queue and ‘happened to mention’ our destination. One of the listening cabbies ears pricked up. I saw the pound signs in his eyes.

‘I’ll take you,’ he said, lowering his voice. ‘It’ll be jumping the queue so walk along the road now without making a fuss. My cab’s the blue one over there.’

We did as we were bade. Needless to say it was a long silent journey back to Egham. We spent an unmentionable amount on taxi fares. We were dumb, is suppose – dumb Aussies in London. I should have checked the times of the last train home. But this was London. A world city. Brimming with international tourists. Who’d have thought it would pull on its night cap at half past twelve in the morning.

 

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Go for it Scotland!

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I have no right to comment on this. I hold a British passport but I don’t live in the UK. At least, I haven’t since childhood. Yet, though most of my growing up was done in the Southern Hemisphere, I was raised by parents who thought of Britain as home. Hence, I thought of the UK as home. Though, strangely, this was a fractured image. They spoke of a Britain their parents had defended during World War Two. Yet, my dad rolled his eyes whenever mum spoke of Wales, as if her pride was ridiculous, as if the notion of Wales was foolish.

I mean, why would anyone want to be Welsh when they could be English?


I caught my first glimpse of this prejudice in my family home. Though, at the time, I scarcely understood it’s meaning. I know now there was an historic precedence.


Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief, Taffy came to my house and stole a leg of beef.

Rhymes like this were only the tip of a vast condescension. The Blue Books and the Welsh Not were a colder more present reality. The two World Wars weakened Wales’ hunger for self determination. People were seduced by the myth of Britain. If you wanted to get on in the world, they were told, you had to leave this foolish notion of Welshness behind.

Fortunately, the mood in Britain is shifting. Since 1998, Wales has had its own National Assembly. Scotland also has its own parliament. In September, Scotland will vote on the matter of independence.

I have no ‘real’ right to hold an opinion on this. My life daily life will not be affected by the outcome. But I do know people in Wales are watching, and waiting, and, even if I don’t have a right to an opinion, even if I can’t vote, something deep inside me says: Go for it Scotland!

 

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Red Shoes

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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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