Love & racing


When I arrive, his head is in the newspaper, an inch from it, studying the form. Concentrated, taking it all in, every word, every statistic, working it out.

“You’ve got a visitor” calls Dee, who is looking after him today. The visitor, me, walks in.

“Hello!” I say and he says “Oh!” and his arms reach out but I am afraid I still have a cold and stand back, explaining.

“Oh” he says again, because I do this a lot – no one wants to pass on germs that my father will not be able to withstand but I have taken the scare to heart and according to my inner physician, I am ill with a cold or bug most days of the year and need to be cautious. Which sounds suspicious but I am too on guard to take notice. I would rather be ill but not ill and say hello from the corner of the room or call out from the street than elsewhere or otherwise.

For now, I say hello from the end of my father’s chair and he looks happy to see me.

Sheilagh is at the shops picking up lunch but when she arrives she carries in about fifteen bags of groceries. She plops them on the kitchen floor. “There’s a bit more in the car” she says and runs off to get them.

I start unpacking, bit by bit. I’m not sure where things go but it seems like they still go in the same places they did when I was twelve, when I was fifteen, when I was thirty one and moved back after London.

I find some old fruit in the fruit bowl although I don’t think it was there when I was thirty one. I take it out, just in case and exchange it for bright green and red apples, a small bunch of tropical looking bananas wrapped in plastic (that bit is not tropical) and some nice, yellow pears. There.

Dad is still in the paper, scanning, scanning. The Melbourne Cup, “The Race that Stops a Nation” is on, not now but only an hour away and we are ready. My father is easily the most ready. The three minute race but an all day occasion where pretty hats fly through the stands throughout the day, where the men are suited and dapper, where champagne is the flow of life. We watch from our living rooms or satellite parties and join in as though it were happening in living rooms or satellite parties.

My father scans the horses, jockeys, every statistic. He looks for how many of them have run over two miles. He takes note if they have, cracking the form, weighing up track records, weighing up odds, weighing, weighing, weighing.

The television is on and there is lot to see but so far, not the race.

“What time does it start?” I ask. I should know, I love this race, I love this day, but it always starts at an obscure time, according to my inner time keeper, like three minutes past three or thirty past two and I can never remember.

“The paper’s there” says Sheilagh, “you can look it up.” But such is the iconic sway of this race, even the paper can’t be bothered to state the race time; everyone knows it already, everyone present in this country, we have memorised it from birth. Printing it would be a waste of editorial space.

Dee has finished for the day and gone home and my father, Sheilagh and I gather around the table that has been pulled close to my father’s chair, my father in it. The race form is loose from his hands but close by. Sheilagh has made a salad and bought a quiche from France. The quiche tastes very fresh but it is definitely French. Amazing.

My father eats only a small piece, as usual, whereas Sheilagh and I have two and in my case, I am being polite.

“Would you like a little bit more, Dad ?” It is so yummy, they must have whisked it out here by comet. But with natural politeness he declines. His appetite, among many vital functions, is not functioning vitally. It’s all linked – in a way that would read like a medical search engine so I will not go into it – but while I am prepared for the response, it is still not easy to accept.

Then there is tea, with little cakes, presumably from Paris, but nobody is ready for the cakes and my father says he will have his later.

At three o’clock, or thereabouts, we see the jockeys line up. The horses are jostling in their stalls. We are waiting for the sound that signals the great start but my father has found the form again, has it in front of his eyes and is working it.

“Dad!” I say but he doesn’t hear me.

“Fred!” Sheilagh calls and with a swoop, whisks the page from his grasp, afraid that he will miss it.

And just like that, they’re off! And it’s so exciting, it always is. I hope the horses like it because is infectiously thrilling. We try to keep up with who is ahead, who is ahead now, but the names and jockey numbers keep tumbling back and forth like coloured silks in a washing machine, swish, swish, swish.

My father solves the problem by going back to the form, until Sheilagh discovers him and makes him put it down again. She doesn’t want him to miss anything, she says. He’s been up since early this morning preparing for this.

In the end, which is only three minutes later, one of my father’s horses comes in second but a female jockey makes Australian history by coming in first, also only the fourth ever female jockey to (beat the odds and) enter the race.

Everyone is happy.

It is just before rush hour so I need to go. We haven’t had much of a chat, my father and I, the race stole his attention but that’s okay, somehow it has made it nicer. A few weeks ago he sang “Old Man River” to me over the telephone from the smallest room of the house. Quirky is the new normal.

More lately, meaning over the last two weeks, it has become an extraordinary effort for him to simply maintain awareness. His strength is sapped by a physique that is running out of supplies. How he manages to keep so sweet I have no idea. Everything is a challenge, he is uncomfortable. He maintains his being with the help of forces I cannot see.

The next day I call him to debrief. The female jockey has stolen the nations heart, her story pitching straight at our shared feelings love and courage and battling it out.

“The first female jockey to ever win” he tells me, proudly.

“Yes” I say “it’s amazing.”

I listen to him share new information, new history. Then he asks about the garden, a return to the familiar things he knows, to family, love.

The Fairy Bridget and the Kookaburra, by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite 

The enormous sweetness of small things

 

The sweetness that he brings to all things is unfiltered; every action, every interaction, every utterance. It is nearly all there is and it is everything.

“Just a second …” he implores from atop a mountain of soft pillows, beneath a mountain of soft blankets and duvets, (everything is soft) trying to put his good hearing aid in place (the other one got dropped and only transmits news from Mars.) It takes a full minute to get the hearing aid place, a minute and a half in total because he was struggling at the beginning. But I am not going anywhere. Where would be nicer than here?

“Now” he says, grateful for the waiting, “how did you sleep?

“Great!” I say and he looks happy.

“How did you sleep?” I ask

“I slept okay …” he says yet I detect a drollness between the lines, almost inaudible but there. I think it is in the way he rounds his words.

“I didn’t fall out” he continues, “so that was good.”

“Well, that is good!” I confirm and he laughs.

The news is conveyed as a small miracle, like someone who has gone to the supermarket to for honey – and finds a jar.

Sheilagh lies awake beside him, listening in, letting him do the talking. When she does speak, it is to suggest a hot honey and lemon drink, which is their morning ritual, but I put it down to sheer coincidence.

“Yes, please” says my father and Sheilagh rolls over and is up, gone to make it.

“Did Pete sleep okay?” asks my father because it wouldn’t be a normal conversation without him asking if Pete is okay/slept okay/how Pete is.

“Pete slept very well.” I say. “I was just going to make us some tea but I thought I’d check on you first. You’re still here, so that’s good!”

“Yes!” says my father.

Sheilagh returns with the honey and lemon drink and my father, who is lying on his side, reaches out for it. His movements are slow, like a snowman coming to life, his arm stretching in slow motion toward the bedside table for the drink. Somehow he is able to drink it lying there on his side although it is a little too hot so I add some cold water.

“Thankyou” says my father and continues to sip it sideways, atop the pillows. He is so comfortable atop these pillows, underneath these blankets, in this bed, he says.

“Sheilagh” he asks, sideways. He cannot easily roll over so he asks from the side of the bed, calling out to the other side where Sheilagh is snuggling up. Soon they will go back to sleep and so will I. It is early. Only Pete will get up (permanently) to go to work because he is the only one who is not retired. Eh-hem.

As for my father and Sheilagh, they catch up on sleep they lose in the wee hours when my father needs to … well, do the same. Sheilagh wakes up to help him because my father can’t do much of anything on his own anymore. I have never seen someone so tired or so happy.

The good thing is most of the furniture is electric so he gets rides to go up and down in bed, on his chair, everything. Electrical is the vogue of the house.

Other nights, a carer takes Sheilagh’s place. My younger brother stays over most Thursday and Fridays nights because he is already a night owl and a 2am wee break is like day-time to him. It would probably only be interrupting his lunch.

“Sheilagh” my father is asking. “You used to give me one of those bent straws” he says, at angle to me and the drink. The cup is upright in his hand but because he is sideways, it is not working that well as a drink and he has remembered about the bent straws.

“Do you still have those?” he asks.

At another angle next to him, Sheilagh’s smile, silent and full of warmth, conveys that she does and I offer to get them since I am the only one standing.

I find them in the pantry, grab one and on my way back, drop in on Pete, across the hall. The walls are thin enough and he is close enough to have heard the conversation.

“Hi Sweetie” I say. “Would you like a bent straw in your tea?”

“Yes, please” he says and I take the straw in my hand into my father with the news that Pete would like a bent straw in his tea, too.

On second waking, Pete is gone and Xen has arrived, full of love, to take over from Sheilagh for a few hours. My father is still asleep.

Sheilagh is in the living room. I find her sitting by the table with newspapers. Morning is pouring in through the windows from the bay and lights the room perfectly in beautiful, early luminescence.

Quickly, we get to talking about the operation my father needs and which the surgeon has reluctantly confirmed. It’s tricky: cutting open his hairline across his skull, under local anesthetic.

Sheilagh has her face toward the light, exposing her thoughts. If just left, the situation could easily become worse. It is impossible to know what to do. The choice is stark.

I pop in to see my father once more before I go. Last time we talked, he said he didn’t want to end up with a tomato on the top of his head. Now, when I bring it up he says he is not worried about the hospital trip, he is only worried about his knee (which makes him afraid to stand) He is not confident of conveying this to the nurses.

Of the of the tomato, he only says: “I suppose it could be my brains.”

“Or your sense of humour …” I offer.

As I leave, I hear Xen trying to gently persuade him to maybe let her shower him, which has a marvellous restorative effect-  but my father turns her down with equal gentleness and perfect politeness.

“I don’t think so” he says with perfect politeness.

“I’m just so cosy here” he says, from the side and I know it is true. “It’s just so cosy in this bed. I don’t know why anyone ever gets up.”

“That’s what I say to Pete” I say and my father just catches it. I am pretty sure he wishes it were different, for Pete’s sake.

Later, I learn the shower went ahead as Xen planned. “She waves her magic wand over him,” says Sheilagh.

Beautiful artwork by Magaly Ohika

The Lion of Wimbledon

Celestino Piatti's Animal ABCThe way my brother tells it, my father was in charge of the outpatients department at Sydney Hospital when a man walked in swearing at everyone.

“You can’t use language like that in here” my father said, taking command. “There are nurses and other patients in here. You can’t swear like that in front of them” he said.

To which the man seemingly took no notice.

“Listen” said my father. “If you are going to use language like that, you can get out. Otherwise, you can take a seat but you need to keep your mouth shut.”

The man listened to my father, walked to the back of the room and as he did so let out another jet-stream of banned words which took flight between the ones he used to agree to my father’s demand.

“Okay” he said, sitting down. “But I just **** want ****someone to help me **** with my Tourette’s.”

My father listens to my re-telling of his story.

“Yes … I heard your brother telling you it was Sydney Hospital,” says my father. “But actually, it was the Metropolitan Hospital in London.”

“Oh.”

“And the man had hit someone. I was upstairs and I got a call from the nurse asking if I could please come down because a man had just walked in and had hit the wards man and was being abusive. The nurse was only little” he says, “I think she was from the West Indies.”

“I went down and there was this man being very abusive to everyone and threatening to hit people. I went up to him and told him he couldn’t hit people or use that kind of language there and that he had to leave.

“Then he said: but doctor, I can’t go outside. I keep hitting people. I’m scared I am going to do it again. I need someone to help me. ”

My father remembers it well because his mind is bright, as always – in his words, about the only thing left that is still functioning properly.

“Well that’s open to debate” I say and he laughs.

My father finishes the story: an ambulance was called to take the man to a psychiatric hospital for help. But the ambulance was delayed, took hours, says my father, who had to stay with him lest the man hit someone again.

“So what happened?”

“So I had wait with him in the outpatients department for hours. And I was really annoyed because I had tickets to the Wimbledon final but I couldn’t get away so I missed it. It was my first date with another nurse from the hospital but I couldn’t take her because I had to stay with this fellow and wait for the ambulance.”

My father tells me he was even more annoyed because there was an Australian in the final.

“Did he win?”

“No” he says “he lost. He was playing an Egyptian and I was disappointed because the crowd were all on the Egyptian’s side and we had just supported them (Britian) in the war. I was angry about that” my father says.

Maybe the Australian would have had more of a chance with my father in the crowd.

“Did you get to any other Wimbledon finals?” I ask.

“Yes” he says, “I went to a few.”

But I don’t ask him which ones. He is tired. And my head is still spinning with news that my father went to a few Wimbledon tennis finals which is many more than I have been to since I am still on none. I would easily take a round one match, Wimbledon or Melbourne, doesn’t matter. It is my favourite couch sport. Wimbledon is more appealing because of the strawberries although I can easily eat them on this couch.

My father lies back on his bundle of pillows, nestled here and there, underneath and around him.

The pillows, bedclothes and blankets are all white, in a bedroom almost completely white but for a set of blue, patterned curtains, the colour of a Manly beach on a sparkling day. And a beautiful, blue watercolour of roses which hangs on the wall opposite the bed. It is only a print but it is so lovely; the whole thing looks like it was painted in seconds, hardly any brush strokes, only what is necessary then a beautiful indigo wash. My mother hung it there years ago – and here it is, still here.

There is so much light in this room and Sheilagh has made it pretty with all this white and blue. I sit close to my father’s bed in a white wicker chair, which I could easily take home, it is so charming. But it is perfect here and I am no robber baroness.

By some miracle, make that several, my father has avoided disappearing many times just in these last few months. He is like some sort of cat which is not surprising given his astrological bearing. One who can tame a broken, swearing man.

Sometimes you think: this is it. And then next thing, he is recovered, bing! Like that! And it looks like he can go on indefinitely. Then it happens again. I guess it can’t go on indefinitely but in some ways maybe it can, or we do, because when someone dies I have only ever felt that they have left the room or the city or wherever, to go somewhere else.

So I put it to my big cat father.

“Do you like Chinese medicine?” I ask Xen, who looks after my father on Mondays which is today. She grew up in the coutryside in China, so she might.

“Yes!” She says “but not acupuncture. I hate needles!” I already love her but now I love her even more; in return, she adores my father.

“Dad” I say “how about when you come back, you come back as a Chinese Master and practice Chinese Medicine and do operations using only acupuncture needles as anaesthetic?”

Even from his lying down position in bed, he gives me that “I can’t believe you just said that … (ridiculous thing)” look because, well, they can be kind of proud, these kings. These lions. Proud, determined – better not to challenge their will, it will be a waste of your time – courageous.

Which makes them very lucky cats indeed.

Vinatge Illustration: Celestino Piatti, Animal ABC (1965) on My Vintage Book Collection

Time, Rewind

She kissed the bear on the nose (c. 1910 by John Bauer)

Yesterday afternoon I was walking down the hill in the big town, the same town and the same hill where tourist buses empty themselves of passengers throughout day, dropping them off at the bottom to eye the beautiful mountain scape: a wide screen of misty, blue cigar smoke – such is the accumulated haze of ten million, zillion eucalyptus trees – over stiff cliff faces of sandy rock to distant, evermore blue peaks. It has no end, this view. It goes on and on. Sometimes it looks like the end of the world.

The town itself is left behind and to its own devices although backpackers like to hang out at the top, in cafes with outside tables. I have seen them dancing for no reason. Mostly, they look like they have just come from a circus festival and are on their way to another.

Further down, more life is reflected on both sides of the street. There are pubs that fill with locals who get there early and stay all day. There are no jobs in this town nor many in the region. If you are doing well, you probably did well elsewhere then moved here. The big town has too much unemployment, the highest in the state. It is always the big town.

If there is a stalemate of decay, there is a liveliness too. There are lots and lots of artists. Everyone who is without a job is an artist, for example. Either an artist or a writer. Or perhaps they are a mother, a young one, or a young grandmother. There are people here who are recovering from life. There is something to be said about recovering from life away from the cities. Being surrounded by ten million, zillion eucalyptus trees in a fragrant, flowering bushland puts recovery more within reach.

People wander up and down the hill, in and out of art supply shops, flower shops, spectacle shops and car parks, mostly all on their way to the supermarket or all on their way back.

Otherwise, we are all going in or out of the library and cultural centre, a building so gorgeous and so soaring, with high panelled, endless glass and concrete, it looks as at home in this town as a space station. I am glad that it is home here but certainly nobody around here paid for it. A present from a benevolent benefactor perhaps or the government.

By miracle, some of the cultural problems in the town are mended just by being in the cultural centre. Not just by it’s beauty; the library has all the newspapers and magazines – plus books – you could want and at some stage, everyone drops by, not all at the same time, but nevertheless. People read and relax together on feathered poufs with groovy geometric motifs and matchy-mismatchy sofas. There is also free wifi.

Along with the problems the cultural centre is helping to heal, there are people in this town with kindness stuffed underneath their jumpers, going about their business, supermarket business mainly, or art supplies or flowers, ready to unleash the stuffing at any moment. I have met some of them at the neighbourhood centre where I work as a volunteer, only once a month but that gives me a whole other month to look forward to the next time.

Anyway, that is the big town and the one I was in yesterday, walking down the hill to the spectacle shop because the arm of my reading glasses needed surgery.

When suddenly I was transported to another town, it either appeared before me and there I was half a world away, in a town nothing like this one. The town of Melrose is in the border region of Scotland and England but on the Scottish side, definitely. Don’t even question it, you will start another five hundred year war.

Melrose is not a big town. In fact you could say it is wee but perfectly formed, nestled in hills so pretty and so rolling, with freezing cold, crystal clear streams here and there while the river Tweed runs straight through it like an icy highway. Ancient apple trees surround the football ground and line the walk all the way to to the river. The town also has a strong affliation  with bees but I forget what. It seems important, so sorry.

The actual town is immaculate; boutique hotels, twins, one on either side of the main road, boutique butcher, boutique boutiques. It is so lovely and the setting so unadulterated and magical, if you climb to a meadow and look down at the town below, you will feel tickling on your skin and in your being, like we did. Maybe it is Merlin, buried in these hills, or so it is writ.

This is the town that appeared to me yesterday, striking a force in front of me as I wandered down the hill here in the big town.

There seemed nothing to link the two but there I was, in a flash, back in Melrose with Pete, eight years ago.

And in that moment, it was all I wanted. Anywhere but here.

Because I am unable to stop it, unable to stop my father disappering.

I felt the contrast of Melrose and Now so accutely, I made a case: to Time – rewind. Please rewind.

Put us back.

I walk the last few steps to the spectacle shop in tears.

A few days ago I visited my father. I hadn’t seen him in a while but we talk on the phone often. I like calling him. His voice is faint but through it he still laughs at my jokes and makes his own. He always asks how Pete is. Then he tells me what a nice husband Pete is, what a nice man. I think he is glad for me but more than that, I think he really likes Pete. A lot. Which is normal. Usually, everybody does.

“Pete is so lovely!” Again and again. I try to ignore the astonishment. I mean, is it really that far fetched that I would be with someone nice? Never mind …

Before I visit, Sheilagh, my fathers wife, responds to my email to say yes, please come and also to say that I should know that my father is slightly weaker.

When I arrive I am not prepared for what I see. I hardly recognise him. It has all happened in the last five days. Later, Sheilagh tells me it was he who asked her to give me warning.

After a short time, a toilet break, I don’t think he would mind me saying, he picks up. His bladder, kidneys and heart have been at odds with one another for a while and the medication he is taking to keep them functioning is in balance. Fluid in his system is not good for his heart. His kidneys are struggling to release the fluid. His bladder needs to be kick started with fluid. “It is a balancing act” Sheilagh says.

But – therefore – after a wee break, he is almost completely changed! His face is back to normal hue, his eyes are wider, his voice is clear. He is tired though.

I have brought sausage rolls for lunch and he eats his, a half, and Sheilagh scoffs hers down. She is starving, she says. Neither of them have eaten all day. All her time, morning and night, is taken with my father. She tries to maintain a weekly choir class or spend a night a her sister’s nearby but sometimes she doesn’t make it nor on this day, as I discover later.

My father recovers for a time and then dips again. It is a frightening merry-go-round for him. By standing is not good either.

Then he asks about Pete (what  again?) He asks in a quiet voice because it is all he has. He doesn’t talk about himself, about his medical issues. If you ask him, he jokes and then changes the subject, usually with a “how’s Pete” if he hasn’t already asked or “how’s your garden?”

Today when I arrive, he says he is feeling awful. He has never spoken like that before.

Throughout every health problem he has had, including nearly every major disease, he has kept virtualy mute, even while being wheeled into theatre. “Oh, I meant to tell you, I’m having surgery today  ” and he is wheeled off.

When he had his heart attack nearly forty years ago, he was in the middle of an operation, meaning he was doing the operating. As a medical professional he knew what was happening so he paused the operation for an hour to sit down and rest. Then he went back to the operation to finish it.

After that, he got in his car and drove himself to another hospital on the other side of the city where his cardiologist worked. Sometime in the examination he went into full cardiac arrest. After surgery he came out with six bypasses in his heart, unheard of at that time.

There are other examples. He doesn’t talk to us about his health problems, he says, because he doesn’t want to worry us.

A world away and in the past is a time shift I cannot access.

“I think I am from here …” I say to Pete as we pull into in Melrose. It is the middle of the night and we are on our way to live in Edinburgh, an hour away, but it is dark and so we stop for the night.

“I think my grandmother is from this town …” I say, because I have the strongest feeling that she is but not remembering if I have heard it or am guessing it.

In the morning, in the early light, everything seems familiar. The town, the name, the setting. I can see my grandmother in these streets, I can see her shopping here, admiring the stylish shop fronts with their smart dresses and tailored suits because that is how she liked to dress. I am not even sure if that is a guess but somehow I know it is true.

Later, when we arrive in Edinburgh, I telephone my mother.

“I think she was … ” she says and afterwards confirms it: my grandmother was born in the Scottish Highlands but Melrose is where her parents were living and was the family seat, if you like, until my great grandfather moved the family north for his new position at Johnson’s Woollen Mill. And that is where they lived. And that is how my mother is from the Highlands.

I don’t know how I know this town.

I don’t know how to take us there.

I battle a grief I do not want to feel. But I don’t know how to rewind.

Artwork: She kissed the bear on the nose, John Bauer (c. 1910)

Sleepy

Anna Silivonchik Autumn leaves horse

He is getting sleepy. I wish I didn’t write that.

Maybe he is not too sleepy, maybe he is just sleepy this month, this week.

“I don’t think there is anything wrong” my sister-in-law says. “I think he is just getting tired.”

“Oh” I say because I am kind of not expecting it.

I am not expecting it.

I see him on Sunday at the family gathering. He looks well although his throat is a little sore which is worrying when someone is frail. But he looks the same.

We have been called together for a family portrait, a clan photograph. I am not sure why we are doing it. It has been arranged suddenly and in my mind I am wary.

Everyone is supposed to dress in earthy or neutral colours without patterns because the photographer has said it will look better in the final photo. She sends us some sample photographs to help guide us as well as lots of tips.

“It sounds a bit American” she writes “but it works.”

Later, when I hear her voice, she is American. Probably that’s where she gets the hot tips from.

I study the sample photographs and fall in love with a family dressed entirely in tones of cream, denim and tan. They look very American. “That is the family I want to be” I decide.

I send out emails to try to rouse people into choosing between one and three colours because that is the hot tip. But no-one responds. It is going to be hard to look like the American family.

As much as I admire them – and if they asked me, I would run away with them as long as I could bring Pete (although I don’t know what his act would be) – my fear is that we will end up looking like the cast of Cirque du Soleil.

Actually, I don’t know what my act would be either. I suppose it would either be dancing or singing. Or both.

I send out another email at the last minute and title it “Final time and clothing encouragements for Sunday.” This time I am simply stating what the encouragements are: 12.45 for 1.00 o’clock. Any earthy or neutral colours, including black and white, if you must. Layers, sleeves, dresses to the knees. It comes out like a poem.

That night I have a nightmare that everyone is wearing grey and navy and we look like convicts.

The photographer has counselled us not to stress too much because “families will be families” she writes.

“Yes” I want to write back. “Don’t you hate that?”

My father has excelled the brief and looks lovely dressed in emerald coloured shirt and oatmeal trousers. He has not dressed himself. I realise this because when I arrive, Sheilagh, his wife, is half way through dressing him. He doesn’t dress himself anymore, I realise.

Sheilagh has also excelled the brief and looks glamorous in tones of charcoal, layered with a vintage cream, lace bolero.

I like to think I have also excelled the brief although I try not to compare. But I don’t try hard enough because it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that I am one of the best. I am layers of cream and don’t even mind if I look like a cake. I like this new, American look.

Then my niece arrives (in shorts) (tailored ones) (she looks a million dollars but I can definitely see her knees) and her boyfriend seems to have dropped straight out of an Armani catalogue, immaculate in perfect, neutral tones. He also looks like he shaved five seconds ago. They are Hollywood in Sydney.

Nearly everyone is wearing grey and navy. Oh well; it is hard not to. Along with black, they are the go-to colours (without patterns) of our age. All the outfits look great but we are missing more beige.

Some of us are wearing vague patterns, so vague it doesn’t matter. People mutter about wanting to feel like themselves, wanting to dress like themselves. Fine, I think, I would rather dress in a new nationality.

We look handsome, a little motley at the edges maybe, but like ourselves.

“I brought you some flowers from our garden” I say to Sheilagh. “Shall I put them in the bedroom?”

“That’s a good idea” she says and I take them in to my father who is sitting on the edge of the bed.

“These are from our garden” I say because he came up to see it in the winter but it was too cold to go outside so we mostly saw it from the window.

“Is that your protea tree?” he had asked, pointing to the giant, mass of pink lightbulb blossoms. It looks like a UFO but friendly.

“Yes!” I say.

The pink lights have faded so today we have brought him roses, honeysuckle and star jasmine.

“Oh!” he says, as I push them into his face to smell. “They’re lovely!”

A few days earlier, on the telephone, I check: “Sheilagh says you’re a bit weaker than when I saw you.”

“A bit weaker, where? In the head?” he asks.

“Yes, of course” I answer and he laughs loudly.

“You need more energy, that’s all.”

The photoshoot over and the next day there are some loose wires, the normal amount.

My sister-in-law and I are debriefing on the telephone. It is amazing how the technology has not gone out of fashion although I would say that.

After the big photo, there were mini groupings and mini portraits that not everyone understood.

“I hope you know you are one of the sisters” I say – or I try to. I wish I had now – it is what I meant. But she gets what I mean and tells me she wasn’t hurt by anything, in this case by being last invited for the sisters photo. It sounds so awful in print. It was worse in person. And it is why I have called her.

“We were just trying to make sure my older sister felt included because she had been left out of the redheads photo and she was photo-bombing it like crazy.”

“That’s okay” says Rose. “I saw that. I thought the redheads photo was cute.”

“So did I” I say but don’t offer the real reason I invented it. It’s so complicated. It always is. But that is how families are. We may look American (on a good day) but underneath, we are chaos and affection, dodging slings and arrows, sending forth others, their heads poisoned with love. It’s a dart game only the very brave or foolish would play, except we all play it, mostly, because mostly we all have families. That is, if we are lucky.

“But he’s not ready to go” I tell Rose because we have got onto the topic. And because I know he is not. Because I checked with Sheilagh. And because his face tells me.

“Yes, I’m sure he will be okay” says Rose because that’s the other thing, she’s very good at saying motherly things.

We hang up and am glad it is the last thing she has said. I go over it a few times, pull every piece of strength from it. It is extra generous of her because she lost her father last year.

I know he is tired. But I will make him a nice bed so he can sleep. So he can rest and be comfortable. So he can conserve his energy.

And please stay with us.

Beautiful illustration by Anna Silivonchik

Burnt Orange Afternoon

Laura and Auntie GigiA birthday party. My father is now eighty-seven, which means he is close to a hundred, close to a thousand. Less close to a thousand but closer than the rest of us.

We keep telling him: you are adding longevity to the family. Good one!

We say: go for one hundred! “That way, we can have lots more of those parties” I say.

“Yes” he says. “That’s a good idea.”

“Only next time, we will pay for ourselves. You and Sheilagh can’t do that again. It’s too much.”

“Well, you can’t invite people to a party and ask them to pay for themselves” he says.

“I know …”

We are twenty strong that day, at least. I don’t count but it is something like that. That is the prediction anyway.

We sit on the covered verandah of the Burnt Orange cafe. Before us is the headland with the harbour before that. Actually the harbour is after that but from the headland’s point of of view it is before. You need to reverse it if you are sitting with us.

If you are sitting with us, you will also notice that before the headland is some bushland which sounds nondescript and yet that is what it is; some bushland. It may aspire to greater descriptions but for the moment it is all we see because we are mainly here for the burnt oranges.

And besides, we are all together, here in this afternoon tea place, and everyone has dressed up, and my father and his wife are paying, which is very naughty but nevertheless very fatherly, in his case and we are all at ease. Something to do with job description. I read somewhere that is what fathers are for and I took it in.

I, on the other hand, would make a terrible father. I prefer people to pay my way rather than the other way around. Now you are getting a clearer picture of what it is like on the inside of me. I am trying to shine a light in there in the name of evolution.

If you are my sister or my female friend, I will fight you for the bill. Horses for courses.

A long time ago, my little sister was complaining that whenever she was invited out on a date, at the end of the meal she felt compelled to bring out her wallet and offer to pay. And sometimes her date would let her or he would go halves.

“What?” I asked. I have not always valued myself well but even then I was clear: he pays, he asked you out.

“Yes but I feel so awkward when the bill comes.”

“Forget your feelings” I would say.

“But I feel so guilty”

“Okay” I would say, “fine. You can’t change your feelings. So sit on your hands.”

She started to laugh.

My little sister tried it. Over and over, she tried it. All she could remember was “sit on your hands.”

Now she’s married with two little ones, both with red hair. Her son has strawberry hair. She has strawberry hair. They are a strawberry family, more or less. Except her daughter has hair like me, like a burnt orange.

She married a blonde man who would rather let her hands go numb than make her pay. They are very happy.

Back to the cafe. We are gathered at two, long tables, my father in the middle of the top one. He is making a speech but not everyone can hear. Nobody wants to get up because the tidbits the cafe has brought us are delicious. The older ones, including Pete, are also drinking champagne, like drunkards.

I am in the middle. I have always been in the middle. Therefore I don’t drink. I order tea. Then I order a second pot. It is so refreshing. You drunkards should try it.

Because nobody at the second table wants to move and because they can’t hear, I get up to sign language my fathers missives. I start by using what I know of contemporary, music festival sign language and form a heart by joining my thumbs and index fingers.

He is mostly talking about love: being proud, being thankful. He talks about loving us. It is easy to sign.

Then he starts to talk about a journey we undertook as a young family on aeroplane. I feel awkward because I can only think to stick out my arms and pretend to fly. It is a low point in my interpretation but the audience is forgiving. Besides, they probably would have done exactly the same thing. Maybe you would too, if you had been there. Maybe next time.

The speech is over and someone is tapping at my leg. It is my niece. She wants to know if I would like to go outside and play on the grass with her. I say: yes

Later, she and I are talking about world/personal preferences for sweet or salty foodstuffs. It is a carry on conversation from the second table.

I ask her: if someone offered you cakes or chips, what would you chose?

“Cakes” she says.

Afterward, when we have come back inside, I find her tapping on my leg again. She has thought about it some more.

“If someone would say Cookies and Cream, I would say cookies.”

“That’s nice” I say.

When I tell Pete that night – we drive home mostly in silence, through the blue evening, to music that sounds like beating stars – he can’t stop laughing. Or loving. Neither of us can.

We are so glad to be home. Here. This home. This sunburnt country, in this strawberry, caramel and chocolate, burnt orange family.

Photo taken at the Burnt Orange Cafe, Middle Head, Mosman, Sydney

Birds to Melbourne

Pete

This is how it happens: the sky cracks and rolls. And then it breaks.

Like this.

We get rain like this every day now. A sunny morning follows a dry night. A dry night follows a wet afternoon. A wet afternoon follows a thunderstorm without warning, follows a sky that cracks and rolls, follows a sunny morning.

It is repetitive and basic. It is uncomplicated in the way that the nicest things are. It is soothing.

I find it impossible to want anything else.

Some places around here have not had even a raindrop for five years. Not one. They must look at the sky and cry. Then bow their heads so that the moisture is not wasted and the ground can be wetted.

There are other places too, in other lands, places that are either too dry or too wet. It is an uneven world.

Sometimes it is better not to watch the weather report for fear that you are doing better than everywhere. Or that you have been forgotten.

With perfect weather we feel the ease of automatic survival. The rain waters our gardens for us and we press our faces to the windowpane and watch until it is too foggy and we can’t anymore. Blinded by breath, there is still comfort in knowing our plants are tended for us.

The only imperfection is that I have left the washing out and now it is wet again. No wonder I get bored.

In places not far from here they press their faces to the windowpane but nothing happens. They must just stand there. There is no washing to remember. You could probably forget about it for years.

We learn this from newspapers and mobile devices. It is a contrast that tips the world.

One day we get on the same playing field as a bird, planes where they soar and duck, zooming through and over clouds on superhighways we know nothing of. But they rarely bump into each other.

From here it is easy to see right into our neighbours backyards, neighbours far enough away we need wings to get the view. Yet there are only patches of land that separate us.

We can see how brown the earth has become, how yellow like straw. There are paths that cut into the ground which circle and twist but there is nothing in them. With some water they would carry their own atomic structure to new banks, share it out. They would float ducks or swim fish. They would soothe eyes.

We are not birds but we are passengers in one and we can see from the tiny windows the bird operator provides that there is nothing in the paths only rocks. We see only markings, designs carved into gravel.

We are just outside of Melbourne. It looks like the Acropolis but the other way around; Melbourne is intack, the ruins are on the outside.

“Bloody hell” we mutter because we are in Australia now and it has not taken us long to remaster the dialect. Gone for eight years, might as well have been eight days for all the power of linguistics.

It is so dry we think about turning back but the pilot will have none of it (we suspect, we never ask) and we continue on.

In the end we land amidst wavering heat and it is hotter then here, in this state further north. (We are further north. Melbourne is further south. The sun is neither being somewhere above yet at this moment veering toward the north providing summers and winters to the occupants of the whole. We are the whole. You, me and everyone else we do and don’t know. It sounds unlikely yet it is scientific fact.)

Back to the window seat: Pete is in it, I sit in the middle. Next to me is a man I make no conversation with because I am unsure about the ruins below us and besides, I didn’t want to come in the first place.

Pete has sprung this trip on me as a a surprise and I am supposed to like it but so far I am not showing any signs. It is another one of those cases of Poor Pete or worse.

“By the way, I need to tell you that tomorrow we are going on a trip” he announces.

“What?”

“Yes, but we have to get up a little bit early.”

“What?”

My replies are not casual.

But I will fast forward the story and spare you the agony suffice to say – because there is always a suffice, thank God, bloody hell – that if you are a lover of Europe and you find yourself in Melbourne, you will be deeply confused, so like Europe it is. Without thinking, you will be searching for street signs written in French, German, Greek, Italian but you will more likely read: “It’s over there, cobber!” because all the signs are in English.

The street art is it’s own language and punctuates the city like wallpaper at Laura Ashley’s. It is everywhere.

You will bump into cafés because you cannot not. Or you will find them in pockets where you thought there were only tissues. You will mash in this city like Europe has and parts of Asia have followed.

You will mash and dissolve in Melbourne as we did. Everyone seems to because the other thing is it is so sweet; it allows you in.

Directions: as birds fly, it is in the south of this native land. If you are starting out from another, ask your pilot to fly you to the Europe of Australia.

Or follow the birds.

Beautiful image of Pete with bird on his head, Melbourne. And another one:

Gigi