In the era before Slip Slop Slap

From this week I will be posting some short pieces from my memoir writing. I am choosing pieces that can easily stand alone. This relates to events from when I was 15 years old.

‘Would you like to go to the beach tomorrow?’

‘I’d love to,’ I replied, already panicking about the state of my swimwear. 

Alan and I had not long started spending time together. I was besotted with this tall, gentle Ceylonese boy who treated me like a princess. He was quite unlike any boy I had ever met. Alan had a quiet, measured way of talking and there was something chivalrous about him. For my part, I was trying my best to impress him in the summer of 1976. 

I couldn’t tell him that my summers were mainly spent indoors. Most days I either rode my bike to the St Kilda library, where I experienced the luxury of air-conditioned comfort, or I rode over to a friend’s house where we listened to music or simply talked. The beach was the last place I went to in summer.

Alan had beautiful light brown skin, perfect for a day on the beach. I, on the other hand, had pale skin that was the height of fashion in 17th Century Dutch paintings but definitely not in Australia in the 1970s. To make matters worse, like a lobster in boiling water, I started to scald if I stayed in the sun for longer than twenty minutes.

But back in my mid-teens, I was determined to cheat my European genes. I poured on the coconut oil and headed to the beach with Alan, wearing nothing but an orange bikini and a towel slung over my shoulder. After a couple of hours lazing in the sun, Alan began to look worried.

‘You sure you’re OK in the sun? You look kinda red.’

‘Don’t worry, that always happens when I get hot. I just need to go back into the water and cool down,’ I replied, wishing it were true.

‘If the sun’s too much, we don’t have to stay,’ Alan said gallantly.

’No, no, it’s fine. I’m having a great time,’ I said, and that was true. I loved all the attention I was getting. 

Alan dropped me back home late that afternoon. We made plans to go out the following Saturday to the Palais cinema in St Kilda. There was a rare showing the Woodstock music festival documentary. I was keen to see the film and even keener on spending an evening with Alan in the darkness of the cinema. It sounded promising for our burgeoning romance.

By the time my father arrived home from work, I had a throbbing headache. Every part of my body felt hot and dry. I was trying to suppress the urge to vomit as I felt the room shift under my feet. 

‘Good God, what’s happened to you?’ My father said, as he dropped his briefcase at the door and reached out his arms to catch me. 

I had been holding in the pain ever since had Alan left. Now I just buried my head in my father’s chest and sobbed.

‘Don’t touch me!’ I yelped as he put his arms around me.

‘C’mon, let’s have a look at it,’ he said.

We peeled my top off. I was so sore that the only thing I could do was to lie face down on my bed wearing nothing but my undies. I couldn’t even endure the weight of a sheet over me. My father found some Nivea creme and tried to put some on my back. The pain was excruciating; I couldn’t bear his touch. Somehow I fell asleep lying on my stomach. By the next morning my shoulders, back and legs were blistered and even more painful than the night before. I could barely move.

My father went to the chemist and returned with a burn spray in an aerosol can. It looked like pink shaving cream and offered some welcome relief. I think I must have stayed in bed for two full days and struggled to wear anything but a loose cheesecloth top. By the time Saturday arrived, my blisters had burst and I could sit gingerly on a chair as long as I didn’t lean back. 

‘I don’t think you should go out tonight. Your back hasn’t healed yet and I can see you’re in pain.’ my father cautioned. 

‘I’ll be OK, Papa, I’ll take some Panadol before I go.’

My father just shook his head and didn’t say another word.

That evening, when Alan arrived, I put on a brave face. 

‘Are you sure we should go?’ Alan asked, full of concern.

‘Of course! I’m ready, aren’t I?’ I snapped.

Alan and my father looked at each other. Without a common language between them, they reverted to universal sign language. My father lifted both his hands, palms facing forward and shrugged his shoulder. Alan nodded his head and his gentle brown eyes conveyed that he would look after me. 

I hobbled to the car, sat carefully on the front seat and did my best not to lean back. I held the seatbelt away from my shoulder and asked Alan to drive slowly, especially over any bumps. When we arrived, Alan had to lift me out of the car. At the Palais, we sat in uncomfortable wooden seats with arm rests that jabbed into our ribs when either of us tried to lean across. Alan carefully put his arm around me and I was glad he couldn’t see me wince.

I remember the film well. The music transported me to the long lost America of the late 60s, where a counterculture promised a new age of peace and free love. I wished I could have been born a few years earlier to experience it firsthand. But with my back still raw and weeping from burst blisters, what I longed for most on that big screen was the joyful abandon of naked bodies in mud baths as the rain came down. I so wanted that soothing shower to soak my clothes and feel the cool thick mud cover my sunburnt body as I leant over to finally kiss Alan.

The Blayney Agricultural Show

Before I moved to the country, the only agricultural show I had ever visited was the Royal Easter Show. As a child I went along for the rides and as an adult, I went to take my daughter. I never paid much attention to the agricultural displays and probably only watched the sheep dog trials.

Since I have been in the Central West of NSW, I have been to at least one if not three shows each year. Admittedly, I first started going because the children at my school had entered artwork but once there, I began to understand that each town’s show has a slightly different flavour and that the locals have great pride in the competitions they run on the day.

The Blayney show was founded in 1878 and this year was the 144th annual show. Not even Covid could stop the show. Somehow, they managed to run the event just before the lockdowns of the past two years.

Volunteers run the show year in, year out. I have met members of the organising committee who have committed their time and organisational skills for decades. It is mainly retirees who volunteer on the day, and many are glad to share a story or two with anyone willing to listen.

I missed the sheep dog trials in the morning, but I did see the pedigree dogs lining up to be judged. There were some stunning dogs among them and of course some that I couldn’t quite warm to. What I did enjoy was watching young girls handle their dogs expertly in the ring as they competed against seasoned adults. It must take a lot of work and courage to prepare for such events.

While there were no boys entering their dogs, there were plenty of young chaps handling cattle. They all wore cowboy boots, checked shirts and large hats, emulating their fathers. Even their walk was the swagger of an older man as they made their way to and from the sheds. While amusing on one level, it did display the strongly gendered roles that are still evident out in the country.

There were stunning horses of every colour with coats that glistened in the sun. Their tails were either beautifully brushed or plaited. Horses are magnificent creatures to watch and once again, there were many young people who were entering these events.

I found it fascinating to walk through the wool, vegetable, and poultry sections. There were ribbons on some entries indicating a first or second prize. I often couldn’t tell the difference between one bird or another or one fleece from the other. I don’t understand the judging criteria nor what to look for in these categories. These are clearly specialised skills that people have developed over many years.

I am but an outsider looking in at a tradition which I don’t really understand. I saw people catching up with each other, possibly for the first time since the last show and appreciate that these shows build social cohesion in a community. I also saw many older people volunteering and exhibiting but also some young ones taking an interest in the competitions. I wondered whether the younger generation would continue to volunteer their time and build up the skills needed to run the show.

Judging by the number of cars and the crowds, the attendance was high. But money is tight, and I saw many stall holders without customers to buy their wares. There’s also the issue of a changing population. Some country towns are in steep decline while others have become popular with urban dwellers looking for a different lifestyle. These ‘blow-ins’ are a bit like me, they have come from the city and have made a choice to live in the country where the pace is slower, the air is clean and property prices are still somewhat affordable. I wonder whether they will embrace the traditions of the bush or see them as a quaint hangover from yesteryear.


While my father was politically progressive, he held some conservative views about women. For a woman’s life to be complete, she would have to find a suitable husband. This is why he was perturbed that I wasn’t interested in learning to cook. I was also untidy and couldn’t even sew on a button.

‘What will you do when you get married?’ he’d ask.

‘I’ll marry a cook,’ I’d reply or ‘I’ll marry a tailor.’

He’d shake his head and no doubt wonder what would ever become of me. Clearly, I was unsuitable as a traditional wife.

‘You need a mother,’ he’d say sadly. ‘I’m not up to it.’

‘You are my Mapa,’ I’d say, ‘both Mama and Papa and that’s enough for me.’

Sometimes he would attempt the awkward conversations about bodily functions and sex. As I was equally uncomfortable talking to him about this, I would quickly say that I already knew all there was to know and stop the conversation before it had the chance to begin. I could sense my father’s relief as he returned to safety of discussing dinner or what we would watch on TV.

Menstruation was definitely a taboo subject. I would ask him for money to ‘go to the chemist,’ a euphemism for getting sanitary pads. Nothing more had to be said. I’d go to the local chemist, wait until the pharmacist was busy and then approach the female assistant to ask for the product I was after. Sanitary pads were always wrapped in plain paper bags and sticky taped so that no part of the original wrapping could be seen. This drew as much attention to them as if they had been handed over the counter in their original packaging. Everyone knew what the brown paper bag contained.

After some time, our toilet became blocked we had to call a plumber. This is when I learnt not to flush the used pads. I developed a way of folding them neatly and wrapping them in toilet paper, which I then took out to the bin. I was meticulous about this. Nonetheless, one day, I must have been distracted and I left the wrapped pad wedged between a pipe and the gas hot water heater. I simply forgot about the package.

My father’s face was steely when I came home that day. I knew I had done something wrong but no matter how hard I thought about it, I couldn’t work it out. I went through a mental checklist of misdemeanours, but none would have explained the expression that greeted me.

‘I found something disgusting belonging to you today,’ he said.

I still had no idea what he was talking about.

‘I went to the toilet and found a little parcel. I didn’t know what it was, so I unwrapped it. Let me tell you, no man should ever see such a sight. It is disgusting. And I never, ever want you to leave such a filthy thing in my sight,’ he said.

It felt as if I would die of embarrassment. Boys at school were merciless in harassing girls about their periods and now I was told off by my father for something I had no control over. I wasn’t particularly keen on having my periods and now I had to endure my father’s wrath as well.

‘I just forgot, Papa, that’s all.’

‘I don’t ever want you to ‘just forget’ again,’ he said.

I went to my room and felt ashamed and dirty.

I had forgotten about this episode until I was watching the 2021 Australian of the Year awards. Isobel Marshall, a 22-year-old Adelaide woman was invited to the stage and began to talk. On national television, in front of the Prime Minister and other dignitaries, she spoke eloquently about the stigma of menstruation. She was voted Young Australian of the Year for not only developing ethically sourced sanitary products but also for her work in helping to end period poverty, a term used to describe the lack of access to sanitary products. I felt so proud of Isobel and her friend and business partner Eloise who are challenging society’s views on a fundamental aspect of every woman’s life. As she spoke, I remembered my shame and wished she had been there for me for those awkward teenage years.

Back in class

I haven’t taught a class of children in a while as I now work mainly with teachers. But as part of the government’s Covid response plan, I was called upon to teach in a primary school for a couple of days. I was both nervous and excited, just like I used to be when summer holidays were coming to an end.

I arrived at a beautiful small country school where the principal greeted me warmly and accompanied me to my class. ‘The class teacher is at home in isolation. This class has had a series of teachers all week and we couldn’t find any casuals at all for today and tomorrow,’ she explained. This is never great for young children and even worse when there is a child with special needs in the class. The principal was especially concerned about a child who didn’t deal well with change and really needed structure and consistency. It was at that point, that I decided to follow the teacher’s routine as closely as I could and not deviate too far from her plan. It was more important to keep the class settled than to trial some ideas I have been working on in my role as a literacy specialist. 

A young boy greeted us at the door. ‘Are you going to be our teacher?’ he asked. He couldn’t see my smile under my mask, so I answered, ‘Yes, and I’m going to be here tomorrow too!’  Together, we entered the classroom. He asked enthusiastically whether he could put up a visual timetable for me and proceeded to go through the hundreds of little cards until he found the right ones for the day. I could see that if I played my cards right, he would become my ally and helper. Within a few minutes we became firm friends, and he was as good as gold for the two days that I had him.

The rest of the class arrived, all eager, wondering who this new person was. It is a hard gig being a casual teacher and it isn’t one I thought I would like. The kids, however, were very well-mannered and keen to show me how their class worked. Of course, it didn’t take long for some of the children to see how far they could push a ‘newbie’ but all I needed to do was to look sternly in their direction or make a stop sign with my hand for the message to get through. My behaviour management bag of tricks came flooding back – stand in silence and wait for the class to settle, count backwards from five, use clapping rhythms and stand in close proximity to a child. It all worked like a charm.

On Friday, I was asked to choose two children for assembly awards. It was a difficult choice to make. This was to be their first assembly together as a group since some of the Covid restrictions had been lifted. The excitement was palpable as they stood for the national anthem and said one of the most heartfelt Acknowledgements of Country I have ever heard. A teacher had clearly worked very hard to come up with a meaningful Acknowledgement in child friendly language. I stood straight and tall, proud to be part of this community, even if only for two days. It confirmed, once again, my staunch support of public education.  

I even enjoyed going out on playground duty again. Within a couple of minutes, I tied a shoelace, something I haven’t done for quite some time. There is so much to learn about the culture of a school out in the playground. At this school, there were painted markers on the trees to indicate how far students could safely climb. They were even allowed to build ‘bases’ out of fallen branches and twigs. What a refreshing idea! I remembered working at a Sydney school where the large playground lacked even the barest vegetation and climbing anything was strictly prohibited. There was no playground equipment (too dangerous), no shade (a branch may fall from a tree) and out of sheer boredom kids found their way into all sorts of mischief.

I admit I was dreading the sport session on Friday. It really isn’t my strong suit. As it turned out, the children were good humoured about an activity I had chosen and then suggested a game they called ‘castles’ which was clearly much more fun. They taught me the rules and off they went, organising themselves. I did have to intervene occasionally as the game became too intense, but mostly they had it all under control.

Friday afternoon came quickly. I waved the kids goodbye as they ran into their parent’s arms or waited for the bus to arrive. I recalled what it was like when I had to leave my class in the hands of a casual. The good ones cleaned up, marked their work, and left me a nice note. The others left the room in a mess with a stack of marking for me to complete. I wanted this teacher to have a positive experience when she came back. So, I returned to the class, marked the books and homework, and wrote a friendly note.  

I love my job as a Literacy Specialist but sadly, in the past two years, I haven’t spent nearly enough time in schools. It is always a great privilege to observe how different classrooms operate and see firsthand the pressures that teachers face daily. In my position, I encourage teachers to question what they do and promote a change in pedagogy, if required. I may suggest trialling new ways of working based on the latest evidence. Yet there is often little support to allow this to happen in a busy workplace with no additional staffing resources. Spending a couple of days in the classroom brought home some of those pressures. I have nothing but respect for teachers who work hard each day and often late into the night not to mention weekends. I honour their commitment to the children they teach, often at the expense of their own families. For this and many other reasons, I was glad to be able to help a school, and by extension a teacher, in need.

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