‘The First Week’ is shortlisted for the new writing category of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
‘The First Week’ is shortlisted for the new writing category of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
For audio files and list of players: ADELAIDE DAYS
March rolls onwards, a month of festival and frolic, from celebrations of women and world music to celebrations of fast petrol guzzling cars. From a protest against Tony Abbott to a state election.
Julia and Anne are impervious to all this frivolity. They have only one goal in view, an April holiday in Tasmania. They are in training for Cradle Mountain, as much walking as they can fit in, preferably uphill.
Today they decide to get the train to Lynton and walk in Sleep’s Hill Reserve.
Mitcham Council has provided a beautiful map and information board offering various trails. The grannies choose the Seaview Track. It is listed as a walking trail only, so they hope to avoid the mad mountain-bike riders who hurtle down precipices on the hills face.
The first section of track does not inspire confidence. It is not so much a track as a kangaroo pad, and has been used by various people as a rubbish dump. But, ever-hopeful, the grannies press on.
The next section is even less inspiring. Feral olives press in closely, and the creek is choked with weeds.
The grannies climb onwards past an empty dam, ignoring hub caps and plastic. At any moment, they are sure, they will reach the real Adelaide Hills, grey box and casuarina, birdsong and koalas.
Through the olives above them they glimpse a curving concrete wall. Another dam? As they get closer the noise of cars becomes louder. Not a dam, but the retaining wall of Belair Road near the Windy Point switchback. The presence of the hubcaps is explained.
The track, now barely a scratch, follows the curve of the wall. It is hard not to duck as each car thunders past. Anne picks her way gloomily, wondering about the odds of a car careering over the wall and landing on their heads. She is greatly relieved when the path veers away from the wall and seems to be heading downhill again.
‘Well here we are,’ calls Julia, twenty metres ahead.
Anne scrambles to reach her.
‘Shame about the track though,’ Julia adds.
One metre in from of her the path disappears altogether into midair. They are standing on the lip of an old quarry, a drop of thirty metres at their feet.
‘I can see the sea,’ Julia says. ‘So they aren’t lying about that.’
‘We could go back the way we came.’
‘No. I hate retracing.’
So the intrepid grannies turn away from the quarry and set off downhill. After five minutes and half a dozen false starts they have to concede that there is no more track. They are reduced to sliding under olive thickets on their bums, trying in vain to avoid the prickles of another invader.
It is a great relief when they reach the Council depot at the bottom of the hill. They cross an open gravel space, negotiate a bulldozed pile of earth, climb a fence and end up on a sealed bike track not far from the station.
‘Do they have olives at Cradle Mountain?’ Anne asks.
‘Shouldn’t think so. Too cold.’
‘Bloody hell. I hope not.’
‘Easy then. We’ll piss it in. There isn’t a muscle in my body that I haven’t exercised today.’
They subside triumphant on a train seat, and hobble home for a bath.
For audio files and list of players: ADELAIDE DAYS
(for Branny, Holly, Alison and Sal)
Julia and Anne have had the atlas* out to find Kiev and the Crimea and contemplate the long Ukraine/Russian border.
‘What is it about Russia?’ asks Anne. ‘It feels so much worse when Russia’s involved. Some sort of ancestral Anglo fear of the Russkies?’
‘Oh of course. I’d forgotten. The Charge of the Light Brigade. Why on earth were the British involved in that anyway?’
‘Interfering? Making money? Generally being thoroughly good chaps?’
‘So the Russians were baddies. Then they got Communism and were even worse.’
‘At least no one can blame Communism this time.’
‘Probably will anyway. Once a Communist always a Communist.’
‘Communist in the general sense of baddy.’
‘Yes. Poor old Marx. Once a baddy always a baddy.’
But there is a more cheerful question to settle. A member of Anne’s book group has organised a day with a Writers’ Week star and her GF. What should they be shown of Adelaide? What can they be given, what is precious enough, to express intense appreciation and admiration?
These are OS visitors who have never been to Australia before. So how do you sum up Australia in a day? And how do you explain your loyalty to Adelaide, this small dry city on a narrow plain next to an unspectacular gulf?
‘The Barr Smith Library,’ says Ro, but this suggestion is greeted by groans.
‘Honestly Ro, a library’s a library’s a library. It should be something iconic.’
Ro is miffed. ‘The Market,’ she says. ‘Or Haigh’s, if that’s all you care about. They do tours.’
But it is generally agreed that though Haigh’s is important, even iconic, you can’t ask two international guests to spend all day in a chocolate factory. Or even a Market, however lovely.
‘Those women doing the chook thing in the Garden of Unearthly Delights. Fright or Flight.’
But that’s not till night time.
‘The Barossa. Or MacLaren Vale.’
‘But maybe they don’t drink?’
The suggestions get wilder.
‘The Flinders. The desert.’
‘You can’t go to the Flinders for a day. Let’s be realistic.’
They look at each other. ‘It will have to be Cleland.’
‘Good idea. Some koala hugging. Everyone loves a koala.’
‘As long as they don’t piss.’
‘And the kangaroos aren’t jerking off.’
‘Yes. I took my nephew once. They were all hanging round a female on heat, waving these sort of skinny tentacle penises …’
‘But isn’t it a cliché?’
‘What? Australia as a wanking kangaroo?’
‘No. I mean in general. Taking visitors to a wildlife reserve.’
‘Are we afraid of cliches?’
And so it comes about for the host and her two guests.
But the most important cultural exchange happens that night after a collective dinner. It is the demonstration of how to take a Tim Tam, carefully nibble off two diagonal corners, and then use the remainder as a drinking straw. The possibilities are obviously endless. You could suck up anything from milk to Drambuie. But being good down-to-earth dykes, our heroines use their Tim Tams to suck up herbal tea.
*Atlas: an archaic book used for locating places in the world. Does not induce the seasickness of Google Earth and is less bossy than a GPS.
For audio files and list of players: ADELAIDE DAYS
By Saturday lunchtime James has already achieved the buzzing mind, the intoxication with words and ideas, that adult patrons of Writers’ Week will seek like addicts for the next six days.
A few days earlier James shared the Sochi Winter Olympics with the grannies.
‘You know how they slow it down,’ Julia says as they watch a cluster of skiers wheel down the slope in slow motion. ‘Well how do we know that they don’t speed it up as well.’
James is shocked by this cynicism. ‘They go really really fast,’ he says. ‘More than 100 ks an hour.’
‘But the cameras could still speed it up.’
‘No they couldn’t. It would be all blurry.’
‘It’s blurry anyway, the background.’
‘But it would be jerky.’
They consider this. Neither is an expert on cinematography but neither is prepared to concede.
Anne intervenes. ‘I remember the first time I saw a home movie. I was your age James. I couldn’t believe it when they ran it in reverse and all the kids jumped backwards out of the pool.’
The skiers are replaced on the screen by ice hockey players. James and Julia cheer loudly but it’s too rough for Anne. She’s so worried about their ankles that she has to go and make hot drinks.
James turns over the question of speed in bed that night. What if the skiers got faster and faster and faster, the mountain stretching endlessly below them, what if they reached the speed of light? What if they reached the edge of the world and took off into space?
Now, sitting beside Anne at Writers’ Week he is filled with multi-layered satisfaction.
Firstly, they have left Victoria with Miss Dinkles in the Kids’ Tent while he, James, is listening to one of the adult sessions.
Secondly, he has put the question of speed to Andy Griffiths, author of The Thirteen Storey Tree House, and Andy has agreed that you could probably start on a steep mountain and end up in space.
Thirdly, and most extraordinarily, the session James and Anne are listening to is about poo. David Waltner-Toews, who is a vet and a scientist, has already used at least ten words for poo, some of which are completely new to James. It is about tracking wild animals and treating sick turkeys in China and about people eating their own shit as medicine (eeeugh!!).
James is entranced. And the adults in the audience are listening with every sign of interest and a squirmy pleasure equal to his own. New vistas open up. He knows now what it is that he wants to be when he grows up, and there’s a word for it. Scatologist.
Anne, gardener, composter and environmentalist, has also glimpsed a bright future. Waltner-Toews is serious. The great public health solutions of the nineteenth century, deep sewerage and drainage, have created more problems than they solved. ‘War on disease’ is the wrong concept. If the West could reclaim its own shit, as it were, use it, understand it, stop trying to hide it, then it would shift our whole relationship with the natural world, put us back in our proper place. And that would change the course of global history.
For audio files and list of players: ADELAIDE DAYS
The night is cool, one of those late summer evenings when it is still a pleasure to be outside, but even more of a pleasure to be with others, making communal human warmth. In Light Square hundreds of people sit close together, shielding each other’s candles from the breeze. There is something ancient about this, Julia thinks, to be human, to sit on the ground, to hold a candle.
The crowd is here because of the violent death of Reza Berat, a refugee in detention on Manus Island. People have come here because they are ashamed and angry that such a thing could happen in Australia.
Brad Chilcott from Welcome to Australia is calm. He offers no polemic, just reassurance: ‘we are better than this’. Tara Fatehi tells the story of coming to Australia as a young Kurdish child. Compassion, she says over and over again. How much it meant to her family to be met with compassion, after all that they’d been through.
Anne sits wedged comfortably between Ro and Julia and thinks about her friends and how they got here, to this country. Some came as adventurous young adults. Many more are the children of Jewish refugees, Ten Pound Poms and Polish Irish Chinese Italian Indian Greek Chilean and every other sort of immigrant. Anne’s own family has been in Australia since the 1800s but she thinks, as she always does, of Katie. Katie’s family has been here for tens of thousands of years. Everyone non-Indigenous, by comparison, is a boat person.
Ro is thinking about leadership. She hears the words ‘we are better than this’ and considers the last twenty years of Australian government, the outright lies, the suppression of information, the blustering, the failure to deal generously with this question of refugees.
Once Ro would have had to rant about it, shout in the streets. Now she is thoughtful. We can organise something better than this, she thinks. A better system than the bitter old three party machine. And, even more radical thought, once we’ve got some real leadership in place then we can support those leaders. Not rant and insult, but support.
Oh dear, she thinks. Is the fire in my belly dying?
Julia is wondering about population and sustainability and some things we know about this country. That water and arable land are seriously scarce. That the existing population is already too much for our resources. So is she here on false pretences? Does she really support an open-door approach? And would Ro ever speak to her again if she voiced such a doubt?
She looks around the crowd. Maybe we’re all going down, she thinks. The whole human race. But at least let’s go down together.
People are leaving their candles on the edge of the pool, more and more candles so that the water itself glows golden. Nobody is hurrying to go home. They stand talking quietly and watching the reflections. More ancient magic: fire and water.
We can do better, they think. We can do better.
At a sixtieth birthday Ro finds Julia skulking behind a grape trellis while everyone else shouts cheerfully inside.
‘What are you doing out here?’
‘Just having a break. I couldn’t hear myself think in there.’
‘Are you okay?’ Ro asks, looking more closely at her friend.
‘Not really. Does it show?’
‘A bit. What’s the matter?’
‘What’s she done now?’ Ro has a long experience of Julia’s mother.
‘She’s been talking to Exit. She’s got herself some sort of suicide kit.’
‘Yes. She says she’s not going to use it till she’s sure.’
‘Well that’s okay isn’t it?’
‘I don’t know. In principle I guess. But I never thought about it in relation to my own mother.’
‘She’s amazing. Very brave.’
‘I suppose so. Most people don’t even end up using their kits, so Nitschke says. Or not for ages anyway. They just like to know it’s there if they need it.’
‘So what’s the problem?’
‘I don’t want her to go. That’s the first thing. And second I’m jealous. She confided in Tara and not in me. ‘
‘Oh,’ says Ro. ‘But maybe it’s easier with someone not so close.’
‘She’s turning ninety soon. I’m afraid she’ll decide that’s a good time to go.’
‘Is she having a party?’
‘Oh my god. You don’t think she’d do a sort of grand … Isn’t that in some film?’
‘Well it should be. I’ll tell you something Julia. You can’t stop your Mum. Never could. Never will be able to.’
‘I know. I know. Anne says the same.’
‘Come and dance.’
‘Because tomorrow we die? Or someone else dies?’
‘Something like that.’
Back in the main body of the party there are two topics of conversation.
The first is the film version of Blue is the Warmest Colour, about to reach Adelaide cinemas, already much reviewed and talked about for its lengthy and explicit lesbian sex scenes. Apparently it was a wow at Cannes.
‘Made by a man.’
‘Oh no. Not more men getting off on lesbian sex.’
‘Are the actors lesbians?’
‘Size ten writhings I suppose.’
‘Sour grapes. Just because we aren’t size ten anymore.’
‘Some of us never were.’
‘Oh go on. You must have been.’
‘Not since I was about eight.’
‘Anyhow even the author doesn’t like it. Julie Maroh. She said they should have had some lesbian advice on the sex.’
‘So are we boycotting it?’
‘No way! I’m going.’
‘Wouldn’t miss it.’
There is no division of opinion on the second topic. Alison Bechdel, author of Dykes to Watch Out For is coming to Writers’ Week. The only question is how best to let her know what her comic strip has meant to them since it first came their way in the eighties. Not size ten, not writhing, but doing all the things that lesbians do. And when those characters did writhe, the writhing was warm sweaty bulgy ridiculous moving and believable.
All those years when dykes (real ones) were invisible everywhere else.
Will a standing ovation be enough?
What should have been a simple homecoming from a few days at the beach has become a major family conference. Julia is summoned from the kitchen and appears in the doorway wiping her hands.
‘What’s going on?’
‘My daughter … ’ Anne begins, then stops and shakes her head. She tries again. ‘Your mother … ’
Having identified the relationships she seems incapable of continuing.
Julia crosses to Zelda and stoops to kiss her cheek. ‘What have you been up to Ma?’
Zelda lifts her chin and straightens her back. ‘I haven’t been up to anything. And don’t call me Ma.’
Julia grins at the fourth occupant of the room, Tara. ‘You been up to anything?’
Tara shrugs elaborately without speaking so Julia turns back to Anne, eyebrows raised.
‘Well it’s not my story,’ Anne mumbles.
Zelda intervenes. ‘For heavens sake. There’s no need for drama. It’s simply that Tara very kindly drove me to an appointment with Dr Nitschke.’
Julia, for once, is floored. She sits down next to Anne.
One thought surfaces from a tangle of feelings. ‘Why didn’t you ask me?’
‘You’re too close,’ Zelda says crisply. ‘I didn’t want to have to discuss the thing endlessly. Tara is a sensible young woman. And very helpful.’
Anne’s and Julia’s heads swivel in unison towards Tara. Anne is gobsmacked. And even Julia, who is fond of Tara, has never connected either adjective, sensible or helpful, with Anne’s daughter.
‘I’m proud of your mum,’ Tara tells Julia. ‘Proud as if she was my real blood grandmother.’
‘Thank you dear,’ says Zelda.
‘I appoint you,’ says Tara. ‘Officially. And you’ve got Sarah and James and Victoria too. You’re really a great granny.’
‘I am suitably gratified,’ says Zelda.
‘But hang on,’ says Julia, whose mind has been working in spite of a churning gut. ‘What actually happened? Does this mean …’
‘I’m just thinking ahead,’ says Zelda. ‘I want to be prepared.
‘But you’re healthy,’ Julia says helplessly. ‘Aren’t you?’
‘I am nearly ninety years old. My legs don’t always do what I want them to do. My bowels don’t always do what I want them to do. My eyes and ears are failing. Getting up in the morning is a long slow and often painful process. Other than that, yes, I’m perfectly healthy.’
‘So you’re not … ?’
‘About to dispense with life? No. But I have ordered a Max Dog Brewing kit.’
‘It’s illegal,’ says Anne. ‘Isn’t it?’
‘No. Not at all. It’s only illegal for anyone to help me.’
Julia’s and Anne’s synchronised heads swivel back to Tara.
‘Don’t look at me,’ she says. ‘I’m just the chauffeur.’
Julia turns back to her mother. ‘You will talk to me first?’
‘I expect so,’ Zelda says. ‘It all depends.’
Mother and daughter gaze at each other measuringly.
Julia drops her gaze first.
‘Well,’ says Anne. ‘What about a cup of tea?’
The two house guests, one daughter and one mother, are getting on so well that Anne and Julia decide to run away and leave them to look after each other. The shack at Yorke Peninsula is full of cousins. Instead they head down the coast to friends at Port Willunga.
It is a perfect holiday.
In the delicate early morning light the beach is perfect, the world reborn. The water is clear, the waves lap gently, the sand is firm for striding.
The middle of the day is also perfect. Lunch is a leisurely affair of wraps and garden salad, solutions to world problems and an intense examination of everyone’s’ Keens sandals in order to establish which style is best. Afterwards people spread out to books, naps and jigsaws.
The late afternoons are perfect. For a string of glorious days the wind shifts to the south west and produces rolling boogie board waves. Children laugh and shriek. Grannies laugh and shriek.
The evenings are … perfect. Dinner is followed by intense games of five hundred or meandering games of Dixit. Nectarines and peaches are consumed in quantity. Also ice-cream.
Anne rings home with her fingers crossed.
‘Fine,’ says Tara. ‘Everything’s fine. Don’t fuss.’
‘Is Zelda okay?’
‘Are you sure you don’t mind staying with her?’
‘Mum. I told you. Everything’s fine. I love being with Zelda.’
Anne still can’t quite believe it. ‘What do you do all day?’
‘Oh you know. Talk. Play cards. Tomorrow I’m taking her shopping.’
Alarm bells ring for Anne. Her daughter’s methods of shopping don’t always include payment. ‘Just don’t do anything silly.’
The next day is hotter. Anne spends the morning in one of the old boatshed caves while Julia swims up and down parallel to the beach. Anne watches the kids on the beach and thinks about her daughter.
Tara was nearly twelve when Ann and Julia got together. She was heading into adolescence, furious and scared about her mother’s conversion to lesbianism and quick to take offence at anything Julia did. When presented with Julia’s mother, Zelda, Tara did her best to ignore this new pseudo grandmother, a policy which she maintained so determinedly that it became habitual.
As for Zelda, Julia was her only child and no grand children ensued, so her experience with teenagers was limited. She had no regrets about this and no interest in playing grandmother to her daughter’s new step-children. She was undismayed by Tara’s coldness and the pair of them settled into mutual antipathy, mellowing over time into comfortable indifference.
Anne has tried not to worry about this coolness in the family, but she often wishes for sweetness and light. She is greatly relieved by the new alliance between Zelda and Tara.
She and Julia pack up the car and head back to the city in a state of relaxed euphoria.
They find Zelda and Tara in the living room with their feet up. Zelda is sipping gin and tonic, a drink which she believes to be a cure for hot weather and all other maladies, though her doctor disagrees.
‘How was the shopping?’ Anne asks, dropping her bag inside the door.
There is a pause. Anne looks more closely at Tara.
‘It wasn’t exactly shopping,’ Tara says.
All Anne’s worst fears resurface. Tara and Zelda have been shoplifting.
Zelda ignores this. ‘It was a very productive afternoon,’ she says. ‘We went to see Dr Nitschke’s new clinic. We had a very good talk about death.’
Anne flops onto a sofa.
The sacred rituals are over: food eaten, corks popped, wrapping paper torn to shreds.
For once the family managed a cooperative Kris Kringle, one small present and no more for each person. Even Tara was restrained and didn’t offer extravagant gifts of dubious origin. Altogether she is on her best behaviour. No 2am appointments with old friends and, so far, no arguments with her siblings.
Tara, Anne thinks happily, is mellowing at last.
Anne leaves her two guests, daughter Tara and mother-out-law Zelda, chatting amiably at the New Year breakfast table and goes off to the community garden with the grand children. Some scorching days just before Xmas have taken their toll on the vegetables.
In the last few years shade has become as important a gardening issue as water. The ingenious human mind has turned its collective energy to the issue and all sorts of systems have emerged, from the beach umbrella to the old sheet, hastily draped over sticks. It’s a question of personality type and the source of much discussion and imitation. Alice Springs expatriates talk about extensive gardens under permanent shade. In Adelaide the serious-minded and forward-thinking are building impressive structures with vertical and horizontal shades that can be adjusted like curtains to suit the day.
Anne and James and Victoria have a style of their own, somewhere between old-sheet and permanent-structure. They like to consider the situation anew each time, walking round and round their 1×3 metre plot, taking every angle and every plant into account. They avoid the professional look, preferring to use what they’ve scrounged from the tip shop. This year they have six rusty reinforcing rods, some polypipe and two old bamboo blinds. With this they have provided perfect shade. But the structure is listing drunkenly after a night of ferocious winds. They decide to add another arch of rod and polypipe.
This is a strenuous business, since James and Victoria are too short to reach the top of the arches and it is up to Anne to do all the attaching of the bamboo, which she does with odd bits of string and wire, arms stretched above shoulder level, and a lot of grunting as the blinds slip and slide.
‘Bloody fucking hell,’ she mutters as a sliver of bamboo slides agonisingly into her thumb.
Victoria looks at her with interest.
‘Sorry,’ Anne says.
‘Did you get a splinter? Will we get it out?’
This is an operation which Victoria relishes. She rummages in the basket and comes up with their rudimentary first aid kit. Anne likes to believe that her granddaughter is a budding surgeon, and suppresses a faint unease that Victoria’s is ghoulish. Certainly her seven-year-old eyes are an advantage in this situation. She gets the splinter out and applies a huge bandage to Anne’s thumb.
By lunchtime they have constructed a shade palace which they are sure will last all summer, or at least until they next feel the urge to build. They harvest tomatoes beans and cucumbers and head for home.
Back at the house, Tara and Zelda have spent the morning telling each other stories, and are as thick as thieves, the fifty year gap between them notwithstanding.
‘Now,’ says Zelda, never one to mince words. ‘What do you think about dying?’
With Christmas only one week away the list of chores and the pace of absolutely everything has quadrupled and there are three times as many cars on the road. This phenomenon is one of the mysterious age-old Joys of Christmas.
Anne’s thoughts have turned to Tara, her baby, her distant wayward daughter. It’s not that Anne only thinks of Tara at Christmas. She thinks of her every day of the year, usually with an emotion somewhere between concern and acute anxiety. Tara is a worry.
But Anne’s particular focus at the moment is when Tara will arrive for Christmas. And will she have paid legal tender for the presents she gives or will she have shop-lifted them? And does she shop-lift for fun or because she hasn’t got enough money? And if she hasn’t got enough money could she get a better job? And in order to get a better job could she enrol for some sort of training? And if she enrolled then could she stick at studying until she completed a qualification? And so on. Nothing new. Nothing that Anne hasn’t already been over and over for twenty years.
Christmas is complicated this year in that Zelda, Julia’s mother, is going to stay with them for two weeks while her neighbour, who usually keeps an eye on her, is away. Anne is fond of Zelda and wants to help, but they only have one spare room. Tara will fly in from Brisbane at some unannounced time and either Anne will have to move into Julia’s room or Julia will have to move into Anne’s room. They will be committed to sharing a bed for the duration.
Sharing a bed with your partner from choice, whether for cuddling eating reading sex or sleeping, is one thing. Sharing a bed because there is nowhere else to go is another thing altogether, and the knowledge that you are lucky and that many people in the world have no bed at all is not a comfort.
‘When Tara comes for Christmas could she sleep in your room?’ Anne asks.
‘Oh. I suppose so. Can’t she sleep in yours?’
‘Because she’s my daughter?’ Anne’s voice has an edge.
‘Well … ’
‘Or because your mother is occupying the spare room?’
Julia gives in. It is the time for goodwill to all.
On the other side of town Maddie is facing a different problem.
She has her new phone. She has her sim. She has her plan. She is all set to go.
Here is the phone, and without doubt it is a very smart phone.
Here is the sixty year old human. The human is also smart, but not quite as quick as she was fifty years ago. Moreover she is suffering from adaption-fatigue, a widespread but little recognised syndrome affecting people who have grappled with technological change for too many years. She has had to learn too many times with too many new appliances how to change channels, receive messages, use the oven, tend her computer.
Sighing deeply Maddie turns on the phone and looks for an icon labelled HELP!!!