The car park

There are times when spending a little extra cash could save your sanity. But then, what is your sanity worth when compared to a good story?

This story starts with my daughter Ella and I arriving in Adelaide. We drove around the block twice, looking for an entrance to the hotel carpark. There wasn’t one. The bartender/concierge advised us to park in one of the many carparks in the area.

‘There’s a cheap one right across the road,’ he added, noting my displeasure at having to drive further afield and pay for the inconvenience. 

While I took our luggage upstairs, Ella went to park the car. She returned a short time later with a smug look.

‘I was looking for the pay station and found a note saying it’s unattended. We can park there for free,’ she said, satisfied with her discovery.

The following day, I went across the road to look for a parking attendant. I eventually found a bum-bagged, dishevelled employee to whom I explained that we needed parking for four days. He grunted in a manner that a certain breed of young men has finessed.

‘Sixty,’ he said.

‘Can I drive in and out at any time?’ I asked.

‘Uh-huh.’

‘We’re leaving on Sunday,’ I ventured

‘Mm,’ he acknowledged without looking up once.

I moved my car closer to the entrance of the unlit, cavernous space. With its broken windows and filthy floors, it would have made a perfect setting for a British murder series. I couldn’t help but look for the acid bath which surely was hidden in a corner somewhere. It didn’t help that Ella and I had listened to a whodunnit while driving to Adelaide. In that story, the body was stuffed into a freezer in a basement.

The following day, I ventured across the road to retrieve my car. I was glad I had parked it close to the entrance as there wasn’t a soul in sight. Not even the young grunt. I drove to Port Adelaide, walked along the schmick, renovated wharf and went past a house where I had lived in my late teens. It was still there but across the road were the ever-multiplying modern townhouses. The area is still far from genteel, but it has climbed up a rung or two in the property market. I took a couple of obligatory photos while the next-door dogs barked incessantly. It was time to leave before someone peered out from behind a curtain and called the police.

I was tempted to drive to the beach but decided against it. The beach could wait for another day. I drove back to dingy parking lot, locked the doors, and bolted across the road to the safety of the hotel.

The next morning was Saturday. We slept in and Ella was running late.

‘Could you drop me off?’ she pleaded after downing her triple shot espresso. Not that it seemed to make much difference to her demeanour.

‘Sure,’ I said, planning a day at the beach with a good book in hand.

As we crossed the road, Ella was first to notice.

‘The roller door is shut!’ she cried.

It is uncanny how a day can turn 180 before the mind has time to absorb the consequences. Ella was already jumping into an Uber while I stood fuming in front of the locked door. I called the number on the sign and listening to a message.

‘The person you are calling is unavailable. No message will be left as the mailbox is full.’

I dialled again in disbelief. Unsurprisingly, I received the same message. Over the course of the next six hours, I became intimate with the recorded voice.

I accosted two police officers in Rundle Mall and explained my plight.

‘Yeah, that’s a pretty shonky outfit. You’d be better off parking in one of the other places. There’ve had a few break ins and I guess that’s why they locked it up.’

‘But it says 24 hours!’ I said.

‘Go back. I’m sure you’ll find that they’re open by now,’ the friendlier of the two advised.

I walked the four city blocks to the carpark, buoyed by the optimism of the boys in blue.

There’s nothing more shattering than false hope. The roller door was still firmly shut. In desperation I asked the bartender if he knew about their opening hours.

‘They’re usually open. There’s a side door off a lane you can try,’ he said while polishing beer glasses. I don’t know whether he seriously thought I could drive my car through a side door, but I investigated anyway.

The lane was heavily graffitied but harmless in daylight. I found the side door jimmied. The deadlock bolt banged against the splintered door frame. Without thinking, I entered. A shaft of light from the open door allowed me to see my car in the distance. The only other vehicle was a white van.

‘Hello?’ I shouted into the void. No answer.

I felt a shiver go down my spine. Surely, it was safer to leave now and come back with Ella. My fingerprints were all over the jimmied door by now. Was I breaking and entering? Surely not. It was broken already. Entering? Well yes. Maybe my partner in crime could work out a way to get the car out.

Ella wasn’t given a choice when she returned in the afternoon.

‘We’re going over,’ I said. ‘I have a plan. We could try to lift the roller door.’

Undeterred by her mother’s crazy idea, Ella jumped into action. We entered the carpark, called out in case an axe murderer was about to make himself known and made our way to the front. The chain on the roller door was padlocked and I was ready to admit defeat. Sure, I had thought about ramming the door, but my car would have come off worse. As satisfying as it would have been, a thin thread of sanity stopped me from doing a full Thelma and Louise job on the carpark.

‘I can’t believe you are going to give up,’ said Ella.

At moments like these, she is truly my daughter. Of course, we wouldn’t give up! We made our way to the back and found another roller door. No padlock on this one! I tried to pull on the chain, but my exertions led nowhere. Ella on the other hand could move it about 10 cm. At that rate it would be midnight before we could drive the car out. Still, she was a determined young Quasimodo, pulling the chain with all her might.

I went out to see whether I could help push it up from the outside. No hope. That’s when two curious young men walked past. One looked back at me, so I said hello.

‘Do you need a hand?’ he asked.

What does it look like, I thought but I was savvy enough to offer a huge smile and coo ‘Yes please!’

‘We don’t need a hand,’ came Ella’s muffled voice.

‘Oh yes we do!’ I answered as I implicated two innocent men in our trespassing/ breaking and entering operation. The taller one was clearly gym junkie. It took him less than a minute to pull the door high enough for me to drive through it. He even pulled it shut, which I certainly wouldn’t have done. After our heartfelt thank you and waves goodbye, we drove off never to see the men again.

Moral of the story: Park in a reputable carpark.

Alternative moral 1: Be prepared for any crazy eventuality and act accordingly.

Alternative moral 2: Never be afraid to ask for help, especially when doing something slightly mad.

Alternative moral 3: When in doubt, go for the option that offers a memorable story.

A brush with the Law

In 1977 it was hard to get a job. Only a year before, students like me who had finished school with a Leaving Certificate could find work in the major banks, the post office or Telecom. But times had changed, and unemployment was on the rise. On Saturday morning, I bought the Age, circled jobs, and waited until Monday morning to make my phone calls at a phone booth. The jobs were often gone by the time I got through. One day, I saw a job as a court clerk. I had done Legal Studies at school, and it was a subject I really enjoyed. I loved learning about different legal cases and the precedents they established or built upon. My enthusiasm must have landed me the interview.

As I had no work clothes, I borrowed a blue wrap around skirt with matching shoes from Cat with whom I shared a flat. The shoes had a wedge heel which was a novelty for me. I had exactly 40 cents left for the week which was the cost of the tram ride from the top of Milton Street to Flinders Street station. The solicitor’s office was located in a turn of the century building on Flinders Street near Elizabeth Street.

I walked up two flights of marble stairs, holding onto the heavy wooden balustrade so I wouldn’t go over on my ankles. On the landing was a heavy wooden door. I stepped into a small office and his secretary ushered me into the solicitor’s room. A kindly old gent sat behind a desk piled high with folders, tied with pink legal tape. He invited me to sit down and tell him why I wanted the job.

‘Legal studies was my favourite subject at school. I love reading about cases and the stories they tell.  You know, like Donoghue v Stevenson. That snail in the bottle, and she actually won! Duty of care and all that.’

He smiled. ‘Tell me about yourself, about your family and what you want to do with your life.’

‘My father died a couple of months ago and I’m looking for work now. I’m a real hard worker, you won’t regret giving me the job.’

‘Can you see yourself finishing your studies?’

‘Oh, yes! I’d love to finish my HSC and maybe go to uni. I’d love to study Law.’

‘Well, in this job you will be getting files ready and taking them to court. There’s a lot of running around but you will meet interesting people. It’s a good start for someone interested in the Law.’

‘Does this mean I have the job?’ I asked hopefully.

‘Well, I do have another couple of girls to interview but you are definitely on my shortlist. You don’t have a phone number, do you?’

I shook my head.

Well, give me a call tomorrow morning at nine and I’ll let you know.’

I shook his hand firmly with good eye contact. I had this in the bag.

Outside, the sun promised a beautiful day ahead. As I had spent my last 40c on the tram ride, I began my long walk home. The tram ride had been a pleasant half hour trip but the walk in Cat’s shoes proved much more arduous. It seemed to take forever just to get to Domain Road and there were still a few kilometres to go. I walked past all the modern office blocks and hotels on St Kilda Road, feet aching, and mouth parched. I walked past wolf-whistling construction workers, eyes firmly fixed on the footpath, self-conscious about how I looked. I walked past confident men in suits and tall women in tight skirts trying to keep up with the pace.

I walked past the boarded-up factory where my father once worked, and eventually reached St Kilda town hall where a few years earlier I had requested permission to keep a bus filled with animals in front of St Kilda marina! There were memories everywhere I looked, yet I still had quite a few more blocks to walk. All I wanted to do was to take the shoes off and drink a glass of cold water.

Finally, I reached Milton Street and the block of flats where I lived with three friends. When I arrived home, the girls were out. I put Cat’s shoes back into her room, wiggled my blistered toes and sat down, tucking my feet under my bottom in one of our large 1930’s armchairs. I sipped on a cup of instant coffee with two and a half sugars and closed my eyes. I never borrowed Cat’s shoes again.

The next day, I took some money from the kitty to make the phone call.  I was excited for my first real job in a lawyer’s office. The phone rang three times before my future boss answered.

’Thanks for ringing back. It was a tough decision. I can see that you would make an excellent court clerk and I’d love to have you on board. But when I got home last night, my neighbour came by. His daughter is looking for a position and, well, I’ve known the family for over 30 years. I felt I had to give her a chance. I’m sure you understand the position I’m in.’

I choked on my words, said thank you and hung up. It was a moment when my life could have taken a different turn and I was fully aware of the chance I had lost. I never did pursue a legal career. In one of those odd turns of fate, it was to be my daughter (above right) who would finish her Law degree and be admitted to the Bar.

Adelaide Markets

In my late teens, I spent most Saturday mornings at the Adelaide markets. It was where we did our weekly shopping for fruit and vegetables and met friends from other share houses. The markets were a grid of trestle tables laden with fresh produce and boxes underneath containing cauliflower leaves and silver beat stalks. The stall holders were loud middle-aged, leather faced men jostling with each other for customers.

There were only a few shops along the side, mainly delicatessens. One of my favourites was Greek and it had dozens of dried Yevani bunches of basil hanging on ceiling hooks. The shop sold vine leaves and other delicacies and I loved the smell of herbs that infused every corner of this tightly packed store.

After our weekly shopping trip, we headed to Victoria square. Most demonstrations started from this vantage point. We often took leisurely strolls through the city streets calling out slogans against uranium mining, for Aboriginal Land rights or made a general plea for peace. There was never any trouble; we marched with our vegetables, stood up for what we believed in and headed home.

I haven’t been back to Adelaide since the halcyon days of my youth when everything seemed possible, and change was in the air. It just turned out that the change that was coming was not what we had bargained for.

I felt disoriented when I walked into the markets this morning. My memory was playing tricks with me. I seemed to remember Victoria Square to my right but it is to my left. Then there is the market itself. It looks nothing like it did back then. I walked all the way around the perimeter looking for the Greek deli, but it has been replaced with trendy coffee shops ubiquitous in every Australian city.

Even the fruit and vegetable stalls look neater and have permanent signage above them. There are rows of cheese shops, coffee roasters and specialty stores selling everything from body lotions to boutique distillery gin. The rhubarb gin was delicious, although it felt very wrong to try it at 9:30 in the morning.  However, the charming salesman reminded me with a wink that it was 5pm somewhere in the world. This certainly wasn’t the markets I remembered from my youth.

I feel an odd unreciprocated nostalgia when I visit places where I have lived. It is as if the place has moved on, but I haven’t. At least not when it comes to my expectations of the familiar. I know the streets and can find my way around, yet I am disoriented. I search for a familiar building to find it has been replaced by a concrete box with offices. As I walk, I recognise that this is undisputedly Adelaide just not the way I know it. My Adelaide will always be locked away in my untrustworthy memory, made tender with age.

On the move again…

I was about to turn five and father and I were on the move again. This time, we were going to Kétegyháza, on the Southern Great Plain of south-east Hungary, near the Romanian border. Once there, my father looked for his brother-in-law, who was the director of an agricultural college. Uncle Attila lived in the caretaker’s house with his family. It must have looked like bucolic bliss.

‘Can she stay a while with you? It’s complicated right now. I’m trying to work out whether I can come home to Hungary and start afresh. There’s a lot to consider,’ my father confided to Attila.

‘Of course she can stay, Stephen,’ my uncle answered. ’She’s family and we always look after family.’

‘It’s only for a while,’ my father said and then he was gone again. I didn’t mind being left this time. I loved my time with Uncle Attila, Aunt Margot and their twelve-year-old son, Atti. My cousin and I adored each other from the moment we met. He treated me like his little sister and I saw him as the brother I’d never had. For Atti, I was a welcome distraction from his exacting parents and for me, he was nothing short of a demigod whom I idolised. For that one magic summer, we were inseparable.

It was fun to be in the country where I was allowed to play all day and make as much noise as I wanted. The house and garden seemed enormous after my time at my grandmother’s deathly quiet flat in Budapest. My stay seemed perfect in every way, and I honestly can’t remember missing my parents at all.

I followed Atti everywhere. Every morning we ran out of the house, climbed trees, played hide and seek. When we were tired, we lay down in meadows and watched clouds drift across the sky, I picked a riot of wildflowers for my aunt. There were so many that my fingers barely reached as I hugged the bunch to my chest. Everything about this summer was expansive like the soft blue sky above us.

In the evenings, I sat on the veranda and watched the colour of the sky change from pale blue to pink then orange and finally to ink. I inhaled the intense sweetness of lilac flowers and kept an eye on the light show in the sky. For hours I sat mesmerised watching uncle Attila whittle away at a piece of wood which would become a miniature blacksmith’s block with a tiny anvil on top. He also carved tiny hammers which made up the blacksmith’s set. I never tired of watching my uncle, although I did think at the time that the tools he made would be too small even for one of the seven dwarfs. Years after my uncle’s death, I would learn that he had made these intricate ornaments to supplement his income.

‘Let’s go and pick some apricots,’ Atti said, near the orchard at the back of their garden. ‘I know the best tree to climb. Catch me if you can!’

I ran after him barefoot. Knee deep in grass, I felt the soft blades brush against my calves. In the orchard dappled apricots hung heavily, ready for the taking. But then, inexplicably, agonising pain. Piercing pain shot shards up my left foot. I screamed.  Atti raced back to find me sitting in the grass, fat tears tumbling onto my cradled foot.

‘Show me,’ he said, and, ever so gently, he removed the bumblebee stinger.

I limped along beside him attuned to the drone of bees. Sure footed, Atti arrived at the orchard, reached up and picked ripe, freckled apricots. He ran back offering the sweetest antidote to a bee sting. One bite and the sting lost its power.

That summer passed far too quickly. It was almost time for Atti to return to school. I couldn’t imagine the house without the sound of his footsteps searching for me, inviting me to come and play. My aunt and uncle spoke about me in hushed tones and then, just like that, my father walked through the front door.

Fifty years later, my cousin Atti explained what had happened on that day. My aunt and uncle had desperately wanted another child and when I arrived on their doorstep, it was as if their prayers had been answered. They put their case convincingly to my father. If he allowed them to formally adopt me, I would not only stay within the wider family, but I would be assured of a secure future with excellent educational prospects and loving ‘parents’ to look after me. Uncle Attila, who was always self-assured, could also be loud and overbearing. No doubt, he clearly spelled out the advantages that my father could not provide. I think he made my father feel inadequate. Indignant, and above all proud, my father packed my few belongings and we left for the train station. In a little over three hours, we arrived in Vienna. He had a few leads to follow but besides those, he knew no-one.


In praise of adverbs

Read any advice on improving your writing and one of the first suggestions is: NEVER use adverbs! Really? Shall we go through the entire English literary canon and expunge them all? Poor Charlotte Bronte would fail this scrutiny in the first three paragraphs of Jane Eyre. Not even the Bard would pass such a stringent test. Frankly, the clarion call to delete a whole class of words from the written language is prescriptive drivel.

The reason given for avoiding adverbs at all costs is that it makes for lazy writing. A writer may use an adverb to tell us something about a situation rather than show us through elegant and descriptive writing. It may be considered lazy if that were the only strategy a writer has in their toolkit, in the same way that overused adjectives can also diminish writing.

But playing with adverbs can also be a lot of fun. Take Tom Swifties for example. I once made an 8-hour train ride pass ever so quickly as I wrote pages upon pages of Tom Swifties before the era of constant internet distraction. In case you’ve never heard of Tom, this character was Edward Stratemeyer’s invention. He was the protagonist of books written under the pen name of Victor Appleton. Tom Swift appeared in over a hundred science fiction and adventure stories for boys from the early 1900’s onwards. Characteristically, Tom would say something before a cleverly placed adverb made a pun upon his remark. One of the original examples is, ‘We must hurry,’ said Tom Swiftly. Since then, these kinds of puns have been called Tom Swifties.

I modestly offer a small selection for your enjoyment:

‘It simply isn’t true, your Honour!’ said Tom judgmentally.

‘The bottle is half full,’ said Tom optimistically.

‘The bottle is half empty,’ said Tom pessimistically.

‘That’s beside the point,’ said Tom tangentially.

‘Open wide!’ said Tom obtusely.

‘Turn the air-con on,’ said Tom heatedly.

‘That’s R rated,’ cried Tom passionately.

‘Hands up and freeze!’ said Tom coldly.

‘I’m making my first curry,’ said Tom gingerly.

‘Fire!’ yelled Tom alarmingly.

‘I love Picasso,’ said Tom abstractly.

‘I prefer Ariel to Times Roman,’ declared Tom boldly.

‘The tablet is stuck in my throat,’ said Tom bitterly.

‘Wedgie!’ cried Tom briefly.

‘Lemon, lime and bitters?’ asked Tom cordially.

‘She’s such a bitch,’ Tom insisted doggedly.

‘I don’t like seafood,’ said Tom crabbily.

‘That must be Robyn,’ said Tom chirpily.

‘I was at the Queen’s funeral,’ said Tom majestically.

‘Shaken, not stirred,’ said Tom drily.

‘I’m just not that into you,’ said Tom flaccidly.

‘Adverbs, I wouldn’t be without them,’ said Viktoria absently.

BM Writers’ Festival – part 2

A week after the Blue Mountains Writers’ festival, the session I keep thinking about is the discussion between Behrouz Boochani, and Safdar Ahmed. Boochani is a Kurdish journalist who wrote ‘No Friend but the Mountains’ whilst in Australian detention on Manus Island. Safdar Ahmed is a refugee advocate who has produced a graphic novel titled ‘Still Alive’ chronicling experiences of refugees at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney. It has recently won Book of the Year, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Multicultural NSW Award, Gold Ledger, Comic Arts Awards of Australia and the CBCA Eve Pownall Award.

Both these authors presented nuanced arguments on the Australian refugee policy as endorsed by both the Liberal and now the Labor government. While many of us have fallen into accepting a worldview which is presented to us as a series of dichotomies, this either/or thinking limits not only our ability to think deeply, it also oversimplifies complex situations so that we are left to choose between only two possible possibilities.

In the case of Australia’s refugee policy, if you are against asylum seekers entering Australia, you will see them as dangerous people, mainly radicalised Muslims who will destabilise society if allowed to enter en masse. On the other hand, if you are advocate for refugees, you are likely to see them as decent, hardworking people who will contribute and be grateful for their chance to stay in Australia. Both views are but our own projections. The expectation of gratefulness places refugees in a position of having to always feel indebted for being ‘allowed’ to settle in a host country when the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees clearly spells out that it is the right (not privilege) of every refugee to seek asylum. In addition, Article 31 also states that refugees have a right not to be punished for illegal entry. As signatories to the convention, we are clearly breaking our international obligations.

Those who of us who are on the side of refugees can easily fall into the role benevolent do-gooders who feel virtuous about our actions. It is what Boochani calls the ‘white saviour culture’.  We only need to think about the recent return of the ‘Biloela family’. There is no doubt that this was an important campaign but beyond the public celebrations and feelings of having ‘won’, there is no structural reform. Hundreds of other asylum seekers still languish in detention. As Boochani says, ‘Nothing has changed. The system is still working, the mentality that condones detaining innocent people is still entrenched, and the detention industry flourishes.’

Ahmed has arrived at a similar position to Boochani. He started the Refugee Art Project with some friends when he began visiting Villawood Detention Centre. Over the years, this project nurtured a strong sense of community and led to the book ‘Still Alive’. This graphic novel does not portray asylum seekers, or himself for that matter, as flawless individuals but presents them as people who deserve asylum for no other reason than that they are stateless and are part of the human race. His work references many readily recognisable iconic images which he subverts to question Australian colonial attitudes.

Boochani’s new book called ‘Freedom, only Freedom’ is published by Bloomsbury. https://www.bloomsbury.com/au/freedom-only-freedom-9780755649358/ It is due to arrive in bookshops next month.

Ahmed’s book ‘Still Alive’ is available from Twelve Panels Press. https://www.twelvepanelspress.com/

The Blue Mountains Writers’ Festival

I have wanted to attend the Blue Mountains Writers’ Festival for many years. Each year as the dates approached, I found a ‘reason’ why I couldn’t go.

What about the animals while I am away?

I can’t justify spending the money this year.

I should have gone when I was living in the mountains, now it’s too late.

It will take me at least two and a half hours to get there.

I don’t belong to a writerly crowd.

Who am I to think I can go to an event like this?

When I examined each of these thoughts in turn, I realised that I was shying away from the real reason I never went. I felt awkward attending an event on my own and I didn’t want to face discomfort. It was never about the event per se, but the intervals where people stand with their friends, chatting, laughing and having a good time.

I am not someone who can walk into a room and start a conversation. I usually stand on my own like a shag on a rock staring into a drink or trying to focus on some detail on the wall. I could distract myself with my mobile, and sometimes I do, but I am so appalled by such behaviour in others that I can’t bear resorting to it.

Yet if I have a role, I can be gregarious and helpful. I don’t even mind talking to a crowd of people over a microphone. Speaking to a group of two hundred doesn’t faze me at all, it is small groups that I find terrifying. Give me something to do and I will do it. Consequently, you often find me either at the food table or taking plates around, which legitimately allows me to approach people.

This year I decided to become savvy. The moment I saw a request for volunteers, I put up my hand. I was thrilled to be accepted. It meant I could spend some time wearing an official T-shirt and lanyard which would give me a role and I would also have time to attend events. It’s what Stephen Covey calls a Win/Win.

It turned out to be much better than that. I met wonderful volunteers with whom I could converse easily, I chatted to speakers informally in the Green Room and I contributed to an event that was an important and enriching experience for everyone. The volunteer role enabled me to start conversations and, as my confidence grew, I continued to seek out more opportunities.

The more I let my vulnerabilities show, the more others disclosed their own sensitivities. Our conversations moved from the superficial to the deeply personal and established connections which I hope will continue well past the festival weekend. It made me realise how important it is to find my own ‘tribe.’

Then there were the writers. The ones I heard spoke with honesty, often self-deprecating humour, and they were generous with their time. There were many sessions running concurrently, which meant I inevitably missed some brilliant speakers. It was a sentiment I heard echoed in the hallways wherever I went. So, although I had some trepidation about attending, by the end of the weekend, I felt energised, inspired and comfortable in my own skin.

I am grateful to Varuna for organising such an eminent event and for their staunch support of Australian writers.

Empty Nest

Ten days ago, I sent off my completed memoir for a manuscript assessment. I have been working on this project consistently since January 2019. It has, however, occupied my thoughts for many years before I was ready write the first sentence.

For someone who has devoted years to this project, the past ten days have felt like an eternity. Does it have merit? How many more edits will it require before I can approach a publisher? Where do I even begin with this next chapter of letting my manuscript go? And the most important question of all – what now?

For three years, I have conducted research, worked on individual scenes, pursued emerging patterns and themes. Several times I have read the manuscript cover to cover and have cut and polished and cut some more. Through this process I have jettisoned some 20,000 words to distil it to its essence. I don’t know whether I have succeeded.

I have put my heart and soul into writing. There were months when words dried up like ink in a misplaced pen. The less I wrote, the more arid my inner landscape became. Then I found my way to a state of flow through the London Writers’ Salon. Once I committed to writing daily, the words cascaded on the page and I completed my first, second and third drafts. I fantasised about working part-time to devote more energy to writing. I wanted a new rhythm to my days and spend happy hours in companionable silence over Zoom with writers from around the world.

But what now? As I am approaching the end of this project, I feel something akin to grief. What if I have nothing more to say? What do I do then? For someone who has the urge to write each day, this is a distressing thought. I have nursed and watched my memoir grow, but it is time to let this fledgling find its wings. When it does, I will have to let it go.

I have no idea how any of this works. Perhaps I need to have more faith. Perhaps I simply need to show up each day. Or perhaps the muse only visits those who have an empty nest to offer.

A cup of tea

Coffee anyone? No problem at all! An espresso, cappuccino, laté or flat white is made to perfection even in the most modest country towns. We admire the young barista, usually male, with a top knot and a few tattoos to show his credentials. The coffee is pushed down with the finest tamper, milk is heated to 60-65degrees and poured with a flick of the wrist to create ornamental flourishes upon the crema.

Now let’s try ordering a cup of tea. If I’m lucky, the water poured over the teabag has actually boiled but if ordered as a takeaway, the milk is added before the tea has had time to brew. The result is tepid, watered-down, and stained milk.

If I sit down at a café and ask for tea, I am likely to get it in a thick coffee cup or a mug. Only tea drinkers seem to understand that the thickness of the cup affects the taste. Should a teapot make an entrance, the ubiquitous teabag still hangs limply within. It is a rare café that keeps tealeaves on its shelves.

Last week, I went out for breakfast with a friend. We chose a well-known establishment which serves excellent meals. As we ordered, I asked the young waitress to tell me how they made their tea. She explained the procedure in great detail without a hint of irony.

‘We boil the water, take a teabag out of the box, put it in the cup and pour the hot water over it,’ was her enthusiastic reply.

I was reminded of Basil Fawlty and the fresh orange juice. Chef had just opened a new bottle. I had to restrain myself from laughing or telling the young waitress not to worry about the tea and bring me a Screwdriver instead. Alas, the reference would have gone over her head.

I had often wondered why David Herbert included a recipe for a pot of tea in his Complete Perfect Recipes. I found it rather quaint. Perhaps he had similar experiences to mine and wanted to show how easy it is to make a decent cup of tea. For those who are curious, he starts the entry with the following words:

Throw out your teabags and return to the ritual of a real cuppa made from tea leaves!

Fill a kettle with fresh cold water and bring to the boil. When the water has almost reached the boil, pour a little into your teapot, swirl it around and pour it out. Add 2-3 teaspoons of tea leaves to the pot.

When the water is boiling, fill the teapot with boiling water. Put on the lid and leave to brew for 3-5 minutes.

David Herbert

And there we have it, a perfect cup of tea.

The Artist’s date

Last month I watched a live interview with Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. I had read the book five years ago and began writing morning pages. I thought that was a good enough start and resisted putting her other tools to use. It worked for a while and then I lost my way.

After struggling for years with writing a memoir, I came across the London Writers’ Salon. Joining that supportive group of writers has enabled me to commit to daily writing and within a few short months, I have been able to finish the manuscript. I am now in the throes of editing, editing and editing. Who knows how many more edits will be required to make this little gem shine.

Listening to Julia Cameron I realised I needed to revisit the Artist’s Way and recommit to some of her principles. My morning pages were going well but as for the rest of it, I could see I was avoiding key pieces of her advice. Like the artist’s date for example.

Commit yourself to a weekly artist’s date, and then watch your killjoy side try to wriggle out of it.

She was right of course. The idea of an artist’s date is to allow yourself at least two hours a week to have a playdate with yourself, to do something that brings joy and is self-nurturing. It has to be a solitary activity, but dogs are permitted.

The first week I took Zoë to the Botanic Gardens in Orange. I found solace in walking in the rain and enjoyed finding various paths that led to different areas for me to explore. I then wanted to complete the date with lunch at their café, but I was 15 minutes late. Disappointed, I had a piece of cake I didn’t really want. Annoyed at myself, I drank my tea, ate the cake, and left. I wasn’t so sure that this had been a successful date but was willing to have another go the following week.

The next Saturday I began to wriggle and squirm. Still, I was determined to do it. I found that my local cinema was showing Ticket to Paradise with Julia Roberts and George Clooney. Why not? So, I went to see it. Surprisingly, I felt quite comfortable on my own in the cinema but was less than impressed with the movie. The plot was so predicable that I worked out the ending within the first five minutes. Ho hum.

Yesterday, I decided to go for a drive up Mt Canobolas with Zoē. We drove the potholed roads past stunning wineries and beautiful homes. Then I turned left onto the windy road up to the summit only to find that it was closed for redevelopment. I did a three-point turn and headed towards Mt Canobalas Lake instead.

I noted that the café was open, but decided to walk around the lake first. Zoë had to stay on her lead which she didn’t mind as she had plenty of interesting smells to explore. I quite liked being out on the track on my own. There were interesting cloud formations and new growth on trees which I photographed. Yet I was restless within me, even though this was exactly the kind of activity that always soothed my soul. I think I was about three quarters of the way around the lake before I stilled my mind and relaxed into the activity. Time for a cup of tea, I thought. But once again, I missed the opening hours by 15 minutes. Is this an omen?

I have no idea what I will do next week. I’m running out of ideas. There are a couple of art galleries I could visit or maybe there is a free course I can attend. A week to go and I can feel the struggle already.

You are likely to find yourself avoiding your artist dates. Recognise this resistance as a fear of intimacy – self intimacy.

Ok Julia I hear you, but let me tell you, the struggle is real.

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