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The Office Secret November 30, 2009

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Writing prompt: compulsion, executive, obtain, wistful, cathartic, naive.


She was a small, delicate woman, who moved about the office with a sense of compulsion. Quick and efficient, yet poised and effortless with it, the younger women could not fathom her at all. She had an almost ethereal beauty, gliding through her purposes with an economy and grace of movement beyond their comprehension or capability.

Marlené had worked for many years as the executive assistant to David Grant, company chief and noted philanthropist. The office girls liked to call her Mar-leen, in their common, dishonouring manner, but Marlené herself would always correct them with dignity, engaging their eyes with her own steady, knowing blue ones, and say with a firm, well-modulated tone and an eloquent smile, “Mah-lane-uh.” She had learned, at the hands of a previous generation of office girls, to pronounce ‘lane’ rather than ‘lay’ as the middle syllable of her name.

Those rumours persisted, of course. David Grant was known to be single, and early gossip questioning his sexual orientation had long been dispelled throughout the company. The preferred suspicion was that elegant, gamine Marlené was his chatelaine.

There was no hint of any such impropriety from either Mr Grant or Marlené within the office. They both conducted themselves with the ultimate in professional courtesy. He called her Marlené of course, but she only ever referred to him as Mr Grant, meeting his deadlines, arranging his itinerary and keeping his diary with fastidious correctness.

There was little hint when Marlené became ill. She still wore her impeccable, stylish yet feminine business suits, yet she seemed to shrink within them. The soft glow of her cheeks became more obviously artificial, and her eyes dulled though somehow became keener still, as if she longed to not miss a thing.

Mr Grant, who had never been unkind to Marlené ever, had sometimes been sharp or urgent in his directives to her in the course of the business day. It became obvious, however, that he began to still himself and speak with the utmost kindness and respect with every interaction he had with her. Instead of buzzing through and asking if documentation had arrived, he would leave his desk to seek Marlené out in person to obtain the information.

Nobody needed to ask if Marlené was sick, because it was very obvious that she was. Sometimes the girls from the main office would take paperwork or messages through to the executive suite, and find Marlené just staring off into space with a wistful expression. They all reported that she seemed serene and otherwise efficient, but all fretted and mused about what could possibly be wrong with her.

Marlené had never been a smoker, so it wasn’t likely that it was lung cancer. Perhaps it was a different form of cancer – but then, there was no evidence of her having any kind of treatment. Some pondered that perhaps she had developed food allergies, while others suggested a heart condition or a liver disease. Nobody ever asked, though, because Marlené did not invite questions of herself. She engaged with all the staff in a professionally interested way, but that was always about executive care of staff and no reciprocation was required or received.

It was a rare morning when Marlené did not arrive in the office. Nobody could recall a day when she was not ensconced, with the executive coffee pot already percolating, when everyone else arrived to populate the office for the day. That she was not at her desk at 8:29am on a Monday morning was most unsettling.

At 8:40am, the pay mistress phoned Marlené’s home number from her file.

At 8:47am, she phoned Marlené’s mobile phone.

At 8:53am, she phoned David Grant’s mobile phone. He was en route to a business meeting in Hong Kong, so all she could do was leave a message.

At 10:14am, the front desk receptionist received a phone call from an unnamed male, advising that Marlené Cossington would not be at work for the rest of the week.

It was very distressing. There were so many little things around the place that Marlené just took care of, or reminded others to take care of.

The office didn’t seem to run as smoothly. People were fretful.

At 4:23pm, David Grant phoned from Hong Kong to say that he would be back in the office on Wednesday afternoon instead of the following Monday.

Beyond that, there was no information. Oddly, there was little discussion, either. Nobody liked it that Marlené wasn’t around. She was the glue that held the place together; the grease that kept the machinery running efficiently, so to speak.

When Mr Grant stepped out of the office at 3:57pm on Wednesday afternoon, his greying hair was as impeccable as always, his suit was sharp and his demeanour full of his usual authority. It was only the last point that caused concerned eyes to snap to attention and wonder what was going on. His current confidence was such a contrast as to highlight that for the last few months, his deportment had held an uncharacteristic sag.

“I will speak to all staff in the conference room in half an hour,” Mr Grant advised the wide-eyed receptionist. As soon as he strode through the door into the executive wing of the floor, she was on the phone trying to figure out how they would fit so many people into the room all at once.

When he walked into the conference room at 4:28pm, the room was indeed jam-packed. The most junior staff were sitting on the floor right before the podium like kindergarteners. The next rows of the most senior staff in age were on chairs, then some sat on the edges of the tables that lined the back walls, and the young, fit men lined the back wall, standing on the tables.

Mr Grant took in the scene before him. “Thank you all,” he said, and they relaxed at the warmth in his tone. “As you are aware, my trusted assistant, Marlené, has not been at work this week. She has, in fact, been in hospital.”

A gasp arose from the assembled 71 staff.

He held up his hand. “She is well cared for, in good hands, and will return to her usual vigour swiftly now.” Suddenly though, Mr Grant sagged. “She is my wife,” he said. “I will tell you our story.”

It was as if the entire assemblage held its breath.

“Marlené is not sick, as such, she is pregnant.”

Questions were voiced, and Mr Grant did no shy away from answering them.

Initially, difference in their ages (nineteen years) and Marlené’s non-Catholic religion barred their union. Out of respect for his mother, they avoided relationship completely for a number of years. Mr Grant explained that although Marlené had been naïve, she had always been highly principled. They simply worked together cordially, then parted company at the end of the day.

It was during a rail strike and a torrential downpour that Marlené accepted his offer of a ride home. He took her out for dinner on the way, they talked, laughed, and at last admitted the depth of the attraction between them. For three years they conducted an unconsummated courtship, only ever outside working hours, until on a weekend drive in the country, he proposed.

Marlené explained that she knew she would never be able to have children, due to an untreatable medical condition. Mr Grant’s mother, a true aristocratic matriarch, would not accept a daughter-in-law who was not ‘of the faith’. For some time, the situation appeared completely untenable.

Then, over dinner one evening, Marlené offered a solution. ‘I enjoy my independence, as you do,’ she explained. ‘We are legally able to marry. We could do so, and spend the time together that we do now, but with …’ As Mr Grant explained it, her words trailed off, and everyone understood. Thus, their wedding took place and remained a secret to all, save themselves (who never forgot) and the officials (who performed their ceremony then moved on to the next pair, rapidly forgetting all the names along the way).

They had been married for seventeen years already, Mr Grant still officially living in his family’s generational mansion with his mother, and Marlené still in her tiny cottage in a very different part of town. Somehow the arrangement worked.

Neither of them expected to be parents. That was a miracle. It was a huge shock, and it was the shock more than morning sickness that had made Marlené seem so gaunt and frail, especially at first. Then, Mr Grant had begun to insist that this eventuality was just the cathartic jolt they needed to tell his mother about their marriage and their expected baby. They had fought about it again just before his departure for Hong Kong.

“She stopped to speak with a neighbour on her way to the train station on Monday morning,” Mr Grant explained to the office. “She fainted, the ambulance came, and she has been hospitalised since. It was a male nurse who called in to advise of her absence from work.”

Mr Grant seemed much relieved to have told his staff the truth about himself and Marlené, and was flooded with congratulations regarding both his marriage and impending fatherhood. He squared his shoulders again as he entered the lift, ready to face his mother.

Nobody ever knew how that meeting went. Mrs Grant senior died within a week of the news, and in due time Marlené became an elegant mother who appeared in society pages. She did not return to work as her husband’s assistant, but her young male replacement found that despite their diminutive size, hers were indeed very large shoes to fill.

The staff noted the extra jauntiness in Mr Grant’s step thereafter, and if Marlené did visit the office with little Jonathan, he was openly affectionate with them both, in his dignified way.

They all wondered why they’d never guessed. How such love had escaped their prying eyes for so many years. The wiser ones amongst them concluded that it was because they had no right to know. The older, more prideful ones assumed a retrospective knowledge, and the younger, romantic ones all dreamed of one day finding a love like that.

For David, Marlené and little Jonathan Grant, however, they just smiled at each other and enjoyed the next phase of their lives, being together openly and living properly together in their new mid-sized suburban home.

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Insurrection November 25, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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Writing prompt: London 1821 … ‘A most heinous crime…’

The morning I remember most from my childhood was absolutely glorious. Healing, in fact. My parents’ fight the night before had been their worst ever that I could recall.

I spent a lot of that beautiful morning out on the sand dunes, feeling the wind whipping through my hair and watching the dark people down by the shoreline. I never spoke with them, although given my childish curiosity, it is a wonder.

“They’re not civilised,” my mother told me. It made me wonder if being ‘civilised’ was a good thing. These people seemed to laugh together and work together in a way I didn’t see often in my own home.

My father was always saying, “Don’t tell your mother,” about things we did together, and my mother was always saying, “Don’t tell your father,” about cheques she had to write or letters I had to post for her. I often sat and watched the darkies, and wondered if there was a lot of ‘don’t telling’ going on between them. I certainly never saw any of the yelling and screaming down there that went on between my parents. I wondered what, really, people did to be considered ‘civilised.’

My grandmother in particular was most insistent on things being ‘civilised’. She used to give me lectures about growing up and choosing a husband from ‘good stock’. “None of that riff-raff!” she used to insist. I remember making her very cranky indeed, asking if we came from ‘good stock’. I’m not sure she ever gave me a direct answer to that.

I remember looking up ‘civilise’ in the dictionary when I was at school. It meant: to bring out of a savage, uneducated, or rude state; make civil; elevate in social and private life; enlighten; refine. The darkies didn’t look savage to me, and although they didn’t go to school, they knew a lot about fishing and about conducting their own lives. I had to concede, though, that they held no social standing, and nobody I knew would have considered them enlightened or refined. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that seeing as they’d been here a lot longer than us, that they could help us learn how this land works, rather than trying to make it ‘just like Mother England’ all the time. Even as a child, I knew that the end of Malabar backing onto La Peruse was a far cry from whatever the seemingly ubiquitous Mother England was.

I must have been about nine, the morning I remember so clearly, coming in from my free time on the dunes with my feet all covered sand and clumps of it through the pockets of my sundress and in my hair. Mum, livid, hosed me down, naked in the back yard that day. Maybe that’s why I remember it so clearly. Or maybe it was because it was the last time we saw my Grandmother.

Mum was so angry with me because I’d been in my best dress when I went wandering on the dunes, and she aimed to catch the next bus over to visit her mother. Great Grandma was to be there for afternoon tea too, so we all had to be freshly pressed and neatly dressed. Except Dad of course – he never came to Grandma’s house with us – he usually went to the pub instead, and yelled a lot once we got home.

I was hastily dried off and reclothed in my shaken-out dress and best sandals, and my wet hair was scraped back into two tight braids down my back. Somehow we caught the bus, but Mum was tight-lipped and tense all the way, and wouldn’t put up with any nonsense from my wiggly younger brothers. They had to sit on their bottoms for the entire trip, rather than being up on their knees looking out the window like they usually did.

Grandma’s house was big and made of large stone blocks. It was beautifully cool in summer, and large open fires kept it friendly and warm in winter. The grounds were large and the gardens beautifully kept, and although I don’t ever remember it being mentioned, I’m sure she must have had a gardener, just as she had a cook and a maid. There were extraordinary views out over Sydney Harbour from her house, too, although I never paid much attention to them as a child – they were just there, and taken just as for granted as was everything else about my life.

George and Frank and I were outside on the verandah, drinking lemonade and eating every last morsel from the tray of delicacies that the maid bought out to us, when the voices inside became raised.

“We live there because it’s all we can afford!” Mum asserted, and I gathered, not for the first time.

“Well, if you’d married Grainger Cartright instead of that riff-raff!” my great-grandmother sniffed indignantly.

The boys left their seats and ran off to play in the garden as Grandma sniffed loudly about the humiliation of her only daughter being married to a grave-digger, but I crept closer to the open French doors and strained my ears to hear every little thing. I’d never known before that my dad was considered ‘riff-raff!’

Your grandparents were convicts, for goodness sake!” my mother was saying, and I snapped myself out of momentary consternation about my riff-raff paternity to pay closer heed again. That’s what the answer to her secretly sent letter said.

Mum must have been addressing Great Grandma, because it was she who cried out, “They were not!” in utter outrage.

“I did some checking,” my mother said in a voice that was even and definite, not full of the hurt and despair that usually accompanied such arguments in this house. “Your grandfather came out on a convict ship called the Shipley. It left London in 1821.” She considered that information to be money well spent, but Dad was furious – hence all the previous night’s yelling.

“He was crew on that ship!” Great Grandma retorted, as if anything else was completely out of the question.

“I checked that too,” my mother advised. “His crime was insurrection.”

I had no idea what insurrection was, but by the fury provoked in my grandmother and great grandmother, I knew it was considered a most heinous crime indeed.

Not long after that, my mother came to the door and called out into the garden for us to come quickly as we had to leave. Either she didn’t see me, crouching at the doorway, or she chose to ignore me. The boys and I met her at the front door pretty quickly – she’d used a tone we all knew wasn’t worth messing with.

We had to wait ages for the bus to take us home again, and almost nothing was said for the entire journey. We only got seats for the last few stops, and Mum didn’t even tell George off when he climbed up onto a seat in order to pull the cord so the bus would stop at our stop.

Dad wasn’t even drunk when we arrived home. Instead, he greeted us at the front door, and just touched the tops of the boys’ heads and my shoulder as we walked past him, but keeping his eyes locked on Mum’s face. I could feel instantly that the intensity in him was entirely different in nature to anything I knew.

“It didn’t go well, hey love?” he said gently. Dad had never spoken ‘gently’ to Mum in all my living memory.

I turned in the front hallway and saw Mum shake her head. I saw the tears in her eyes too, as she let Dad draw her into his arms. It was a new tenderness between them, and it made the boys and me look at each other in almost horror – we had no idea what it meant, or whether it was good or bad.

“Pop the kettle on, will you love?” Dad said to me over his shoulder. He led mum through to the kitchen and sat her down at the table, and all three of us kids gathered around too – we’d never seen either of them like this.

“I just thought that knowing that you came from good stock, but we came from convict stock way back when … that it might help them … accept you!” Mum wailed as I made a big pot of tea and set out cups for all of us. Frank and George and I weren’t usually allowed to drink tea, but I made ours very milky that evening, and neither of our parents stopped us. It felt like a real communion – a real bonding time – as I remember it.

Dad shook his head sadly. “It’s time to accept it, Esther,” he told Mum firmly. “You can’t be working class, and I can’t be upper class. I married up, and you married down. It’s just a fact of life, love. If we really believe that we’re right together, then we’ve got to make our own class.”

I still remember Mum’s face, tear-stained and lipstick-smeared as it was from being buried in Dad’s shirt, as she looked Dad in the eyes, strong and steady. “I married you because I loved you, Sam. We’ve been through some awful trials, mostly at our own hands, but you’re still the same man underneath it all, and I still love you.”

Dad didn’t miss a beat. “I still love you too, Essie,” he said, his voice all choked and husky, which I’d never seen in my life before.

“Dad,” asked George, bold as brass, “are you riff-raff?”

Frank and I instinctively cringed, and Dad noticed it as he turned to answer, dismay sweeping his face. Maybe he’d never realised before that we were often terrified of his drunken rages.

Mum was already decrying George’s words, but Dad held up his hand to make her stop. He answered George calmly, explaining why Grandma thought he wasn’t good enough for Mum, and promising he would never let her opinion of him affect how he treated us ever again.

I’m not sure I believed him at the time, but soon afterwards he got a job on the railways, and we moved out to a little siding called Minnamooka. The boys and I did School of the Air, and Dad and Mum danced around the kitchen after dinner at night, and taught us how to waltz and sing at the tops of our lungs.

I never once heard, “Don’t tell,” from either of my parents again. Never again did Dad and I go to steal fruit off our neighbours’ trees, or wood from their woodpiles. I never had to keep the writing of a cheque or the posting of a letter secret ever again, either.

It became my own opinion that Mum invested very wisely in obtaining that scurrilous information about her ancestor. Only when Grandma died though, leaving all of her estate to a charity, did we venture back to the city or to her house.

Dad drove us all in the family car, and together we walked all over the estate when it was opened for public inspection, prior to auction. Back in the car and driving to our lodgings for the night, Dad reached across the wide bench seat of the old car and pinched Mum’s knee, making her jump, then giggle. “What’s got you, love?”

Mum had been looking smug. “Oh, I was just thinking about Great-great-great-great Grandpa Smith,” she said. “Perhaps a few of those insurrection genes passed down through the line to me!” She didn’t sound in the least bit dismayed about it, either.

The boys and I were mostly all past our teens by then, and within the next two years we’d all be married. I piped up from in between my brothers in the back seat. “I heard you tell Grandma that’s was the crime he was transported for,” I admitted. “I thought insurrection must be just the most heinous crime imaginable.”

Dad laughed. “Oh, apparently not,” he chortled. “Wouldn’t trade it for mindless compliance in our life, not for all the money that estate back there will haul in at auction! That charity can keep the lot of it.”

Mum smiled sideways at him. “So, God bless the departure of the good ship Shipley from London in 1821 with Edwin Horatio Smith on board.”

He chuckled again. “And may the crime of insurrection always be alive and well in our family’s genes.”

“Along with hard work and decency,” Mum amended, ever the moderator of all things appropriate in the family. “And only ever for a good cause, of course!”

I just remember that as we drove through the city traffic, we were all smiling broadly, happy with how things had turned out after all.

The boys don’t remember a thing from the house at Malabar, but for me, I’ve only got to close my eyes and it’s all right there. That one day that I remember so well, to my mind, was the day we became civilised. We might never have been civilised enough for Grandma, but in fact, we did just fine.

Resources

  1. Convict Ships to NSW 1801-1849 http://members.iinet.net.au/~perthdps/convicts/shipNSW2.html

Rednecks November 20, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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Writing prompt (came late in the week from one of my sisters, so I just got to it when I could): Choose one of the following and go for it:  Can you imagine all those red necks? / Who’s the un-named 4th here, I wonder?  / Too easy to gloss over.

 

“I don’t want to go-o-o-o-o!” the little girl wailed tearfully, as her mother dragged her through the supermarket car park. Every single thing about the child was reluctant, and except for the unmistakable likeness between them, I’d have wondered if the woman was abducting the child.

The back of my car was groaning with groceries, and I lifted the last laden carry-bag out of the trolley and stowed it safely, just as they neared where I was parked.

“I don’t want to g-o-o-o-o-o!” the little girl wailed again, tugging uselessly on her mother’s hand, trying to break free.

By the time I’d stowed my trolley in the return rack and was almost back to my car, a full-scale tantrum was in place, right behind my vehicle. The mother, looking more harried and frazzled by the minute, was trying to lift the child into her arms, but there clearly wasn’t a co-operative bone in the girl’s body, and she was alternating between vigorous kicks of objection and limp, slippery resistance.

“Goodness me!” I exclaimed heartily as I drew near, aiming my tone somewhere between intrusive for the little girl and sympathetic for the poor mother. “What’s going on here? Don’t want to go visit Granny, perhaps?” I suggested to the mother.

When my eyes had first been drawn to the tantrum, the mother had looked young and pretty, in slender jeans and a patterned tank top, with her blonded hair pulled back into a neat ponytail. Now, strands of hair clotted against her sweat-damp skin, and her carefully applied make-up looked like it was melting in the sun.

“Oh, is this your car?” the young woman apologised, seeing my car keys in my hand. “Come on Becky honey, we have to get out  of the lady’s way.” Her tone was weary and defeated, poor thing.

Becky was clearly paying attention to my presence, but she was still making one heck of a racket. I aimed my next words at her.

“Becky, does Mummy even know what the problem is here?” I enquired, using my best former school-marm tone of authority – the one that’s designed to communicate: stop this nonsense and talk to me properly, young lady!

Mummy answered for Becky. “We’re going to the rodeo,” she sighed. “Becky was fine with it until the bloke in the supermarket called them a bunch of rednecks and told her they were cruel to animals. Now she doesn’t want to go.”

“Obviously!” I said, somewhat drily. “Becky, I need you to stop this performance and listen to me,” I said sharply, hoping what I wanted to do was okay with her mother. Mum didn’t object, so I could only assume that it was.

Becky sat around with her legs crossed, after a moment or two, and looked up at me, like a sullen child in a kindergarten class. My guess was that she was a bit older than that, but she clearly recognised the tone of voice.

I opened the tailgate of my station wagon, and patted it, for Becky to sit up on it, closer to eye level, just so that I wasn’t too imposing. Her mum helped her up, and continued to hold her hand while I formulated my words. I ferreted around in box and found some apples, gave one a rub on my shirtfront, and offered it to her. She munched into it happily enough.

“Do you know,” I began, “I’m going out to the rodeo myself!”

“You are?” Becky looked me up and down dubiously. I don’t suppose I fitted the image of the average person attending a rodeo: ironed, good quality slacks, teamed with a light knitted cotton top, with pearls at my neck and good quality leather boots on my feet.

“Yes,” I replied firmly. “My son rides in rodeos, and this is his home show.” I glanced up at the mother. “I help run one of the food stalls out there, just when he’s in town.”

“Oh, Becky’s dad used to ride!” her mother said, a little sadly, I thought.

“But he’s dead,” Becky said flatly, more as a statement of fact than an emotional recollection of truth.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I aimed at the mother, hoping I hadn’t brought up anything awkward.

“It’s okay,” she said softly. “It wasn’t anything to do with rodeos. He got in a fight in a pub and got hit the wrong way. It was back when I was pregnant with Becky, so she doesn’t even remember him.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again, gently this time, and direct to the young woman who suddenly appeared so vulnerable.

To ease the awkwardness of the moment, I turned my attention back to Becky. “Do you know, Becky, that my son tells me that some horses just love to kick? Some horses are really wonderful at jumping, and others are incredible runners, but others are truly just amazing at bucking, and those are the horses that are chosen to be used at rodeos. And when they’re not in the arena, they’re really treated very well indeed. These days there are all sorts of regulations about how animals have to be treated, and they have inspectors who come to every rodeo, just to make sure that the animals are being treated properly.”

Becky was clearly disbelieving, but she chewed on her apple and nodded sagely. “But why do all the men have red necks?” she asked, as if that was the really troublesome question.

Despite myself, I laughed. “Probably because they’re all silly and butch and don’t like to put sunscreen on at all, let alone on their necks!” I exclaimed, thinking of my own tough-nut son and all the lectures I’d given him about sunscreen over the years.

“So is your son a redneck?” Becky wanted to know. I could tell by the change in her tone, and the cessation of her sniffing, that she was wondering about changing her mind about aborting their plans for the day.

Her mum seemed to seize on the idea, and laughed aloud. “Oh Becky! Can you imagine all those red necks? And all because they’re too butch to wear sunscreen!”

Becky eyed her suspiciously, then turned back to me, waiting for the answer to her question.

I was laughing, too. “When Adam forgets his sunscreen, yes!” I told her. “But he’s not a real redneck. He was educated at a private school and played piano and sang in a boys choir until he was a teenager. Then he learned to ride horses and did proper dressage, and at one stage we even thought he’d go to the Olympics.”

On the other side of my car’s tailgate, Becky’s mum gave a disbelieving little chortle. “So how did he get from gymkhanas to riding at rodeos?”

With a shrug and a resigned smile I told her, “We sent him off to my brother-in-law’s property one summer to get a taste of country life, and he helped them break in a bunch of new horses. He did jackerooing for years when he left high school, and somehow ended up riding in rodeos. Not what his father and I would have chosen for him, but he’s very happy, so what more can we ask?”

We chatted a little longer, and finally I realised that I’d be very late helping get everything ready if I didn’t get a move on. Becky seemed happy to attend the rodeo again, and I told her mother where to find our stall if she wanted some healthy food for them during the day.

They did come to visit me to buy some lunch, and Becky seemed to be having a whale of a time. I saw my large, sweaty son soon after that, too – his neck predictably red.

“Do me a favour,” I said, pushing him away from his sweat-sticky bear hug and looking up into his laughing blue eyes. “See that young blonde woman over there with the little girl?”

His eyes followed the direction I pointed in. “Whew! Too right!” he breathed. It hadn’t occurred to me before that jBecky’s mum would be considered pretty hot stuff by the likes of my son.

“Go over and tell them you’re my son,” I suggested, staying focused on my own intentions, “and show your bright red neck to the little girl. Her name’s Becky.”

He didn’t waste any time complying, and I continued to serve hungry, thirsty customers while I kept an eye on my son and his introductions just a little way away. He pointed in my direction soon after his arrival at the table where Becky and her mum were sitting, so I waved when they looked, but then they all seemed so enthralled with each other for the next hour after that, that I doubt they remembered I was there.

When I saw Adam stand to leave, at the call over the tannoy for the next round of riders, Becky’s mum stood too, hastily scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it to my son. Then he bowed with comical panache and proffered his hand to take Becky’s which he promptly turned and kissed. It was that gesture that reminded me, he’d always said he’d have a ready-made family, or none at all.

I felt quietly pleased with how the day had unfolded, I have to say. Having a ‘redneck’ for a son might not turn out to be the void-of-grandchildren wasteland I’d long feared, after all.

Endurance November 16, 2009

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I was a bit stumped for a writing prompt this week – the one in my book didn’t inspire me, and both my sisters seem to have lost a little enthusiasm of late, with no prompts forthcoming from them.

My solution was to log onto Facebook and ask my friends for suggestions. Shari, Lindy, Heather and Isaac, God bless them, came up with the following for me to see what I could do with: Ocean, Grass, Floriade, Swings and Picnic? lol; Endless expanses of wonder… ; What is the exercise?; Toyota?; A frog; Me? (Isaac); Douglas Adams

HELP!!!

 

I woke up with a stiff back to the sound of a kookaburra laughing it’s head off out there in the bush somewhere. Clearly not very far away. Certainly not far enough, as far as I was concerned. But that’d be right – even a bird that didn’t know me or care about me was having a shot at my misery.

Oh Lord! I wonder why the bunk beds in these wretched conference facilities are designed to make you grateful you’re not a prisoner of war somewhere. Between the snoring of my room mates, the thin-ness of the blankets and the unyielding stiffness of the mattress, I momentarily wondered if the Geneva Convention should be informed. Did they still exist? Ah, they wouldn’t care anyway. No more than that wretched kookaburra did.

Breakfast, predictably, was stodgy. Porridge with golden syrup or brown sugar and full cream milk, greasy eggs and bacon, and only butter available for the toast. Ugh.

I should have been more thankful for it, I suppose, given that our early-morning team-building exercise was a five kilometre bushwalk over a horrible track. I couldn’t help thinking ‘Kokoda,’ even though I know that would have to be worse – that track kills people, and no matter how out of sorts I was, I did know that the happy little jaunt I was forced to go on just after first light this morning wasn’t going to do that. I’m just not much on all this heartiness. Hearty food, hearty exercises, hearty lectures … Lord, what I wouldn’t give to be back at my desk just getting on with my job, sipping on a skinny latte from the coffee shop downstairs and looking out the window over the ocean at Bondi to stop me feeling stressed if I needed it.

“Doesn’t this place just make all your muscles go ‘Ahhh?’” sighed dreamy Delana from Accounts.

Isaac from Purchasing looked at her cynically. “More like ‘Aaarrrggghhhh!’” he grunted with dramatic wide eyes and a comically tortured facial expression.

That was this morning, and since then we’ve endured a lot.

First up was a session about the future of the company (it has one), followed by a stodgy morning tea of overly-strong tea or bitter instant coffee, accompanied by endless fat-laden sugary cakes and sweets. The only fruit they had was either not ripe yet, or blemished and bruised beyond redemption. Yuck. After that was another session, teaching us all how to be sweet and smile at each other while we castigate each other for our inefficiencies. Oh, that’s right, we’re supposed to ‘encourage higher quality efficiency’ from one another. Uh-huh.

Lunch was an array of sandwiches, thankfully on fresh bread, but with fillings such as ham sliced with all the fat left on it, or eggs curried with too much mayonnaise and cheap curry powder. By then I was beginning to think I really would die. But then, I do every year at these wretched things. Annoyingly, I survive. Or at least I have so far.

For free time after lunch, I ran away from everybody I knew – not literally, though. That would have hurt after all the physical torture they’ve put us through since we arrived last night. Across the grass and through the trees I went, and down to a really pretty fallen tree by the little creek that I’d spied on our morning walk. I got myself set up there with my book, a freshly opened bottled water, and a nice crisp apple that I’d had the foresight to bring with me.

That part of the time, at least, was refreshing. There was even a frog or a cricket or something nearby, and it seemed to have the knack of croaking just when I got to some interesting part of the story. Douglas Adams books always make me laugh anyway, but I nearly fell off my perch (the log I was sitting on) when, just after I’d read Slartibartfast’s words, ‘Doing the coastlines was always my favourite. Used to have endless fun doing all the fiddly bits and fjords,’ my companion-frog croaked loudly. It made me laugh out loud, because it made me re-read what I’d just read a moment earlier, and wonder if that’s how God felt when he created the Earth. It was like God himself had said “Amen” to Slarti’s words. I wondered if God was ever astounded at all the endless expanses of wonder that He created. Did He ever sit back and go, “Yay Me! Hey angels, come and check this out!” I wonder.

Annoyingly, I heard somebody calling my name. Glancing at my watch, it was obvious that I’d already missed the predictably indigestible afternoon tea, and my lack of presence at the afternoon’s boring session had been noticed. I showed myself to Delana, waving so she’d know I was on my way, and just as I was heading back up towards the grassy area, a message beeped on my phone. I read it while I walked.

Mum. J & I kids taking 2 Floriade 2moz. Cum  down after conf so we can c yr fancy new Toyota. Kids want swings & picnic 4 tea: meet lakeside 6pm. P, T, K & N cumn 2.

I was always amazed that my spelling-fanatic mother could bear to use text-talk. I knew she was economising so that everything she wanted to say would fit into just one message, but I was still stunned.

But! Mum and my sister Janelle were planning to take Janelle and Pete’s kids to Floriade tomorrow (that’s Canberra’s annual bulb show), then have a picnic by the swings at the lake for dinner. Their friends Ken and Nell were coming too, as was Pete’s mate Tom!

Suddenly, my world was a happier place! Perhaps I wouldn’t die after all.

Time with my nieces and nephews is always fun, but Tom, who’d been partnered with me at Pete and Janelle’s wedding about a decade ago, was coming to yet another family do! I was only fifteen when Janelle got married, but it had been obvious to everyone that I’d had a huge crush on Tom, who was finished uni and working in IT or something. Tom and I had managed to avoid each other completely from the wedding until a few months ago – and the avoidance was mutual, because I’d nearly died of embarrassment when I realised that everyone knew about my crush including the victim of it. Since last Christmas though, Tom and I had bumped into each other every time I visited my family in Canberra. And he doesn’t seem even the least bit inclined to run away any more.

Wanting to see the new car indeed! Huh! I quickly texted Mum, saying that I’d try to make it (knowing very well that I wouldn’t miss it for anything!), and hurried into the conference session.

“Okay, so what’s the exercise?” I hissed, sliding into a seat beside Meriden and taking in the scene before me. A dozen staff members were crawling over the floor, retrieving coloured lengths of metal. It certainly looked odd to me!

“It’s a team-building exercise,” Meriden whispered back. “I think the bosses are trying to figure out who’s a leader and who’s a follower. They actually have to figure out how to build a pyramid out of all that lot.”

I groaned. Didn’t we do this every year? Same ruse, different exercise? Oh well, with the joy now set before me, I figured I could endure this round of torture after all.

The MiNiBaBug November 9, 2009

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Writing prompt: “This is what I do at 2:30 in the morning when I can’t sleep.”

 

Our house is an odd shape, I suppose, but it never occurred to me before that it was quite like the house I grew up in. The place that Greg and I bought as newlyweds is an inner city house on a long, narrow block, whereas the place I lived in growing up was a massive block of land on the outskirts of a country town.

Our place is typical of worker’s cottages of the era, and typical of the renovations that were done a few years ago. You walk in the front door, past a bedroom on either side of the long hallway, then past another bedroom on one side, and a bathroom on the other, behind which is the ensuite for the master bedroom. The third bedroom was probably the lounge room when the place was first built. Then you walk into a big lounge room that’s the full width of the house, and through that into an expansive family area with a laundry and galley kitchen down one side. The back wall of that is concertina-style glass doors, opening out fully onto a deck and entertainment area that in the early days housed a kiddy swing off one of the rafters, and a clamshell sand-pit that never seemed to successfully retain its load.

The place we grew up in had the front door opening up into a long wide hallway, too, past rows of bedrooms on either side, then into a lounge room on one side and a dining room on the other, jutting out a bit both sides so that extra stained-glass windows caught extra light. The kitchen and bathroom were just tacked on at the back of the old house.

That place was an odd cross-shape from the top of the old gum tree, and although when we bought it I thought this place was just a long narrow box, it too is an odd cross-shape from above. I don’t need to be up high anywhere to see that, I just know it.

When I was a kid, Mum always kept the bickie tins full. We’d catch the bus into school from the front gate of a morning, and come home to either chilled home-made lemonade in summer, or steaming mugs of sweetened cocoa in winter. Alan and Deirdre and I would always consume at least half a tin of biscuits between us before Mum popped the lid back on and slid the tin back onto the top of the fridge where all those tins lived. She’d then bustle us along to get changed and hurry outside to play, so that we were ready to settle down and do homework by the time Dad was home and she was cooking dinner.

I was a teenager before I realised that Mum worked, just like Dad did, and that she didn’t have time to bake during the daytime. “So when do you make all the bickies, Mum?” I remember asking.

“Oh, while you lot are all asleep,” she said dismissively.

By then, none of us were in bed before midnight, by which time Mum and Dad had both been asleep for a couple of hours, so that didn’t make sense to me.

“Oh, I always did shift-work when I was first nursing,” Mum said, addressing my unspoken consternation. “I think it ruined my sleep patterns. For years, I’ve woken fully up, bright and sparkling, sometime after midnight, and I used to always be really frustrated that I couldn’t get back to sleep. When you kids started coming home from school ravenous, I realised I could put the time to good use with baking. So since then, this is what I do at 2:30 in the morning when I can’t sleep. I get up and bake, and then, for some reason, I can go back to bed and sleep like a baby.”

I wondered if Mum was pregnant when she was first bothered by the sleeplessness.

Vaughn, our first son, was due to be born a week or so hence when I started thinking about all this – I was on maternity leave from my own nursing job again. Brittany and Annabelle were asleep down the hall, and of course Greg was snoring loudly beside me. I wanted to blame him for my sleeplessness, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that baking a batch of biscuits might be just what the doctor ordered in terms of sleep therapy.

As it turned out, I loved it. I was baking, which I’d always loved, I had time to think my own thoughts and be in my own kitchen without anybody else being under foot, and Greg and the girls certainly enjoyed my efforts.

Vaughn, as he grew, could eat a batch of biscuits almost entirely unaided, and I started having to do what my mum had done: putting the lid back on the tin as soon as the lemonade or hot chocolates were finished, and shooing the kids off to play before it was time to do homework.

It was never my intention to have a home for our children that was so like the one I grew up in. It’s just happened that way. The funny thing is, I think it took Greg about a decade to figure out how the bickie tins stay magically full all the time. He’s never objected, though, and the kids just think I’m strange. They’ll get over it, though. Who knows? One day the Middle of the Night Baking Bug might just bite them, too.

Casting the Spell November 2, 2009

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Writing prompt: Write about casting a spell.

 

Nanny hadn’t been retired very long when I went to live with her. To be honest, I don’t really think she wanted to resume parenting at the age of 61, but both my parents were dead, and the alternative, as far as Child Services were concerned, was a family on my mum’s side of the family who lived up at Nyngan on a property, and Nanny wasn’t at all sure what they grew there. All she really wanted to do was play in her garden and grow proper plants, but as she always told me, “blood is thicker than water.”

I’m told that I was with a foster family for a couple of weeks, but I don’t remember much about that. I just remember walking off a plane holding the hand of a big woman who smelled of stale cigarettes, and into a large echo-y room that was the lounge area of our local airport. It’s long been refurbished, but the way I remember it, it was huge and terrifying.

The big woman handed me over to a kinder looking woman with grubby jeans and paint splattered shoes who smelled of freshly turned earth and gardenias, and I drove home with her to a weatherboard cottage with a brilliantly blooming garden. It was spring in the garden, and I moved from a season of winter loneliness in my heart, to one of life and vitality, freshness and sunshine.

Nanny kept me home with her for those first months. I dug in the garden with her, and climbed trees and had afternoon tea with her friends. She wasn’t much of a cook, she said, but I remember sitting down every afternoon on the verandah with a cup of ‘tea’ and either a biscuit or a piece of slice or cake that Nanny and I had made, and we’d talk. I would tell her about the things I’d seen, and she would tell me … oh, all sorts of things. I heard about my daddy when he was a little boy, or what brave reporters he and my mummy were, going into war-torn countries like they did. I heard about Pappy and how he used to have grand ideas for the garden, and sometimes I heard about when she used to go to work.

Perhaps I was hard to impress as a small child, but it only dawned on me in my mid-teens, that my Nanny had led a very adventurous life. As an archaeologist, she’d spent months in exotic locations at digs, years writing papers and giving lectures, and then, as she began to feel her age and Pappy (who was much older than her) died, she took on lecturing at one of the universities. She had published a number of books, yet somehow managed to remain quite unfazed by her own remarkableness.

What seemed to stump Nanny, however, was my education. When I started at kindergarten, it quickly became clear that school and I did not get on. I was always getting into trouble for fidgeting in class, or ducking outside to run around the building a couple of times, or talking when the teacher was talking or had commanded quiet.

“You could educate him at home, you know,” a friend of Nanny’s told her as they sat on the verandah. They didn’t think I was listening, but I was digging in the dirt, and my ears were burning hot with the tales of woe I was hearing about myself.

“Oh, I doubt they let you do that, these days,” Nanny told Gail. “They’ve got the whole system sorted; there’s no room for renegades.”

“No, my niece is teaching her kids,” Gail told Nanny. “She assures me that the government know about it, and so long as you can show that the child is progressing, it’s all fine.”

I didn’t go to school on Monday, and Nanny spent a lot of time on the phone. The next day, she sat me down at the kitchen table, and started teaching me herself. I’d like to say that it was all fine from then on, but it really wasn’t. Nanny was used to teaching university students, and I didn’t like to sit still. Most days, she’d get fed up and send me outside to play, and then after a while, she’d come out and start digging in the garden too.

One afternoon – I was about eight, I think – I came in from playing with the boys down the road after their school had finished, and Nanny was sitting at the kitchen table playing with an odd, rubbery, spiky ball.

“What’s that?” I asked, sitting down with her. It looked interesting.

“It’s called a koosh ball,” she said, looking me directly in the eyes. “You know James, I think I owe you an apology.”

“You do?” Nanny was very sweet and kind, even though she got mad at me a lot about my education.

She nodded. “I’ve been puzzling about how to help you engage with your studies,” she said. “Today, I remembered a seminar that I went to some years ago.”

“What’s a seminar?”

“It’s like a class for adults,” Nanny said. “You go to learn about things that will help you do your job better. There was a woman speaking at the seminar I went to, who had been an educator for many, many years.”

“Really?” I was puzzled that someone would want to try to educate kids for a very long time. None of the kids I knew liked learning any better than I did.

“Yes, and she was very wise. She talked about how everyone learns differently. People all take in information in their own unique way, but there are three main ways: seeing, hearing and doing.”

I stared at Nanny, who was still playing with that funny ball. “What’s that got to do with the koosh thing?” I asked.

Nanny smiled. “James, I’d like to tell you a story,” she said. “I want you to play with the koosh ball while I talk. You might feel like it’s annoying – if that’s the case, just put it down and keep listening. If you feel like playing with the ball isn’t annoying you or helping you, put it down when you realise that. If playing with the ball helps you listen, keep playing with it.”

“Okay,” I nodded, and took the ball from her when she held it out. It was rubbery and soft, and it felt interesting while she told me about a dig she’d been on in South America, and how she’d felt when she began to unearth metal implements that weren’t made out of any sort of metal that modern-day metallurgists know how to make. When she finished the story, I was still playing with the ball and although I was quite oblivious to it in that moment, the spell was cast.

She began to ask me questions about what she’d just told me, and I kept playing with the ball while we talked. Finally she said, “James, I’m really sorry. You’re what’s known as a kinesthetic learner, and I’ve been trying to make you learn as if you were an auditory or a visual learner.”

“Okay,” I said. I was eight, and I didn’t really know what she was talking about. All I knew was that in the wake of that, I did a lot of origami while Nanny talked, or I built things or drew things, and somewhere along the way, I became curious and began to entirely relish our discoveries and adventures together.

In about half an hour from now, my own son will get home from school, and I am preparing myself to have a conversation with him while he plays with a koosh ball.

After the Christmas holidays, my wife and I will job-share a role as engineers with our employer, and we will also share the home education of our son. It’s funny, but sitting here at our kitchen table, I have no doubt that as we share with Toby and enjoy him, we will capture his imagination, just as my Nanny did with me, helping me to love learning and figure out how to turn my passions into practicalities and still enjoy them.

Nanny died about ten months ago, and one of the things she specifically left me in her will was the koosh ball. She was indeed a remarkable, insightful woman.