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Lime Green and Tongue Tied December 14, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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Writing prompt was:
Choose one of the following and go for it: the drums led her on; fly on the wall; why is he dressed up; I couldn’t wait.

To be honest, I’ve been a bit bored with writing exercises lately, but haven’t the time to really sink my teeth into a longer story, so I set myself the task of incorporating all the prompts into one story.


“Oh, you’ve got no idea!” Megan exclaimed to Hillary, laughing as she lifted Caleb down off the change table in the corner and set him down to toddle outside and play in the sandpit with the others. “I couldn’t believe the colour of those bridesmaids’ dresses! I mean, lime green, of all things! What on earth was Poppy thinking? And with those deep pink bouquets, too! She really wasn’t thinking of the base tones of those girls’ skin, let me tell you!”

Hillary, who was scrolling through the wedding photos on Megan’s laptop, was shaking her head in consternation, but chuckling at the incongruity of it all, too. “Don’t you wish you’d been a fly on the wall when Poppy told Isabelle she’d be wearing lime green?” she cackled.

Megan started filling up sippy cups with water. “With her bright red hair? Isabelle must’ve had a fit!”

“Oh, and I didn’t realise she had Ellie in the bridal party too!” Hillary froze in front of the laptop screen, her jaw dropped and eyes wide at the sight of Ellie with her stark white skin and bleached blonde hair, dressed in such a vivid shade of lime green!

Setting the sippy cups in a row along the end of the bench, Megan reached for a hand of bananas, leaning to gawp over Hillary’s shoulder for just a moment. “All through the wedding, I kept telling Rob that I just couldn’t wait to get home and upload the photos so I could show you. The whole thing was like a circus! Wait till you get to the photos of the reception, and you see Poppy’s brother.”

They gossiped on, while Megan prepared morning tea for the little ones, and Hillary scrolled through photo after endless photo of Rob’s brother’s wedding. The five children, ranging in age from eighteen months up to ‘five an’ a quarter an a leetle bit,’ as Joanna insisted was her current age, were all standing around the little table by the window when Hillary let out a shriek: “Oh for crying out loud! Why is he dressed up like that?”

Megan peeked, to make sure that Hillary was looking at the photo she’d been expecting such reaction to, then set about mopping up the mess created by the older children (who had taken the lids of their sippy cups) in reaction to Hillary’s shriek. “He was the Master of Ceremonies,” she explained over her shoulder. “Felix reckoned, that with Poppy being such an out there sort of girl, he could hardly just dress in a normal suit to get the party started.”

“So he dressed up like the ringmaster from a circus?” Hillary was outraged. “Poor David must have just died.” Her tone expressed so much more than her words could have done, and her oldest friend, knowing her as she did, understood all the full impart of them, too.

Hillary had had quite a thing for Dave ever since they’d been partnered up at Rob and Megan’s wedding.

Dave was married at the time, though, and he and Tessa had Joanna already. Maxie came along about nine months after Rob and Megan’s wedding, but Dave’s marriage was in tatters by the time Sara was born. Megan and Rob already had Letitia by then, and Caleb was born to them just months after Dave and Tessa’s divorce.

The tightly spaced cousins had always played together, so when Tessa refused to have the children while Dave was on his honeymoon with Poppy, of course Megan and Rob had them. Hillary had looked after all five cousins while the wedding took place, and the pathos of that situation hadn’t escaped Megan. In some ways, she felt like poking fun at Poppy was the only comfort she could provide for poor Hillary, whose heart was broken again.

Hillary and Dave did have one date, soon after his divorce from Tessa was final, but Dave told Rob afterwards that he felt no chemistry at all. He met Poppy the following week, and a year later, they were married.

“He’s kind of cute, do you think?” Hillary ventured, not having moved beyond that photo of Felix dressed as a flamboyant ringmaster. As she spoke, she realised that in all the photos she’d seen so far, Dave had clearly enjoyed all the flamboyance of his and Poppy’s wedding celebrations, just as he loved the extravagance of Poppy’s personality. It was good for him, and Hillary felt sorry that she’d been so self absorbed that she hadn’t been a supportive friend to him through any of it.

Megan laughed. “Oh, you can decide that for yourself, later. Felix is moving some of his gear into our garage, while he’s renovating the unit he’s just bought. Rob said that he and Dave and Felix are going to pull together a garage sale of all their old stuff, in the next month or so.” She caught herself thinking, ‘Maybe Rob’s right,’ and reached for her mobile phone.

Hillary tried to remember what she’d heard about Felix. It wasn’t much. He’d been working for an aid organisation overseas somewhere, but had decided to come home in time for the wedding. He was a doctor, she thought, older than Poppy, quite wild in his youth, but seemed to have turned out alright.

In the middle of the afternoon, Joanna and Max were having some quiet time in front of Playschool on the television, and the younger three were all asleep.

“I’ll just pop out to the shops, if that’s okay,” Megan suggested to Hillary as they finished a cuppa. “You can stay for dinner if you like. When’s your next shift?”

Hillary stifled a yawn. “Oh, I’ve got graveyard tonight. I should probably have a nap.”

Megan had no qualms leaving her friend to keep half an eye on the children and enjoy a doze in Rob’s favourite chair while she went to grab some extra food for dinner. She wouldn’t be long, anyway.

Hillary hadn’t been dozing for very long at all when the sound of drums woke her – not too loud, but loud enough to be intrusive. “What’s that?” she vocalised, annoyed, struggling to regain her too-recently-abandoned lucidity.

“Unca Felix is puttin’ his fings in da gawage,” Max told her, not shifting his eyes from the television.

“I gave him the key,” Joanna informed her absently.

Annoyed, Hillary stormed out the back door. The drums led her on, and would have done even if she’d been blindfolded and hadn’t made the trek through the shrubbery and all the way down to the back corner of the huge block a thousand times in the past. Annoyingly, whoever was playing clearly had some skill.

As Hillary flung open the side door of the fibro garage in her anger, she was in no way prepared for the entire centre of the cracked cement floor to have been cleared, and to see drummer and drum-kit right in the centre of the cleared space, bathed in the light of Rob’s single fluorescent tube. It looked like they, man and drum kit, were on centre stage in some huge auditorium. The drummer’s eyes were closed, as if he was just feeling the rhythm he was creating.

Hillary moved around in front of him. Jamming her hands on her hips, she yelled at the top of her voice, “For crying out loud! There are sleeping babies in the house!” She wasn’t at all sure that he even could hear her, but she must have had her best nurse-with-difficult-patient shrill in high gear, because the drumming ceased immediately.

Felix’s eyes flew open, and he stared at her. “Oh my God!” he exclaimed, getting hastily to his feet, but still taking the time to lay his drumsticks down carefully on the top of one of the drums. “I forgot! Joey said that Aunt Hillary was asleep too. I’m so sorry!”

Hillary, quite unprepared for the blueness of his eyes, the dimple in his right cheek, or the cute way his hair curled against his neck and cheeks because of the sweat from his drumming, allowed him to shake her hand.

Then she snapped out of it. “I’m not in the least worried about myself!” she retorted, hauling her recalcitrant hand back into the safety of her own personal space. “Babies are asleep!” And so saying, she turned on her heel and stalked back through the unkempt greenery towards the house to make sure that babies really did stay asleep. She felt flushed and like her heart was racing. Far less composed than in all her distant schoolgirl years!

For his part, Felix turned to grin at his drum kit. “Yeah, okay,” he chuckled aloud. “Time to abandon the teenage fantasies. You were fun while you lasted, but it’s garage sale time for you.” As he pulled his mobile phone out of his jeans pocket, he told the empty doorway, “Rob’s right. Playing doctors and nurses looks like it’ll be way more satisfying.” And before he made his way up to the house in Hillary’s wake, he send Megan a text message: Would love to stay for dinner. 6 months max. No lime green. Bright red! 🙂

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The Office Secret November 30, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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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.

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

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.

Future Unfolding October 18, 2009

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Writing prompt: “Your future starts here.”

 

‘Your future starts here.’

Really?

I toss the scrap of paper from inside the fortune cookie across the table and let my friends get all excited about who got what inside their little, sweet, baked and shaped wafer cookie.

Ah! Fortune cookie never wrong! No idea what that quote is from, but I vaguely remember that it’s famous. Maybe it was a line from a television commercial or something. Who knows?

In this case, however, I seriously believe that the writer of fortune cookie proclamations was having a bad hair day. It’s kind of a stupid statement, isn’t it? Your future starts here.

The future doesn’t have a beginning and an end. It doesn’t stop and start. My future wasn’t on hold when I walked into the Chinese restaurant tonight to have dinner with friends, any more than it leapt off a cliff and committed hari kari when Steve walked out of the church in the middle of our wedding ceremony last year. I nearly performed the ceremonial suicide in reaction to the utter humiliation of what happened, but my future didn’t. It continued to unfold, moment by moment, one day at a time.

In the darkness and despair of the moments, hours, and even months that followed the disappearance of Steve’s cowardly carcass down that beribboned and flower-festooned aisle, I did seriously ponder the failures of my life. I did wonder if the world wouldn’t be better off without me after all. It’s been the message of my life, really. Siblings bemoaning their diminished quality of life because of my existence. Parents sighing their displeasure at the failure of my life to glorify them before their friends. Steve’s flight to freedom no clearer statement of his belief that his life would be richer without me.

It would have been really easy to allow all that rejection to dance itself into a ceremonial frenzy in my head, until it was so powerful that I had no choice but to shed my own blood as the only worthy sacrifice in homage to the truth of it.

But.

Three little letters.

B is for Bullshit.
U is for Utter Drivel.
T is for Total, Absolute, Downright LIE.

Even worse than the fortunes inside Chinese baked goods.

When it comes down to it, it really doesn’t matter who else does or doesn’t value my life. All that matters is that I do.

That horrendous day last year, with the priest hyperventilating with shock, my bridesmaids wailing their dismay on my behalf, my father fuming at all the money he’d wasted, my mother wringing her hands and my siblings telling each other that they’d told each other so, Steve actually did me a huge favour.

I didn’t get to say “I do” to the bloke I’d thought of as the man of my dreams for so long. Instead, I got to face things that I’d believed about myself: that I wasn’t worth anything; that I was a waste of space; that I contributed nothing to anybody’s life of any value … the list went on for quite some time.

Moment by moment, though, the mists cleared, my breathing resumed, and the sun came up. It wasn’t a single moment, it was just an unfolding – like the slow unfurling of a red carpet inviting those who choose Living to live – to take another step, to investigate more broadly, explore deeper, move further away from all that poisons.

So there was no formal “I do” to a man. So what? Instead, there was a smiling acknowledgement, a quiet agreement of “I do” to myself. I do believe that I’m a worthwhile human being. I do believe that I am worth knowing. I do believe that I contribute, both to society and the relationships in my immediate life. Most of all, I do believe that my life is worth living.

“Mandy!” my friend Imogen exclaims. “Was this yours? What do you think? Your future starts here.”

I laugh across the table at her. “Yes, but does it start now, because you read it out loud, or did it start five minutes ago when I read it to myself?”

Imogen’s boyfriend Greg laughs at the consternation that my question provokes, particularly amongst my girlfriends. He leans across the table and says to me, “Would you consider going out with my mate Jack? I reckon you and he would get along like a house on fire.”

It’s funny, but nothing could have surprised me further. “Thanks, but no thanks,” I hear myself saying to Greg. “I’m really just enjoying being me at the moment. I don’t really want to date anyone right now.”

It’s a good feeling, that. Knowing that you like who you are, and that you have every right to step along with your future in the way and at the pace that seems right to you. A very good feeling indeed.

Call Me Names October 12, 2009

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Writing Prompt: “Names”

 

Names? Oh, I could call you some names, let me tell you! None of them would be polite enough for mixed company, though, so I’ll maintain at least some sense of dignity and restrain myself. You might not think I’m quite up to your standard, but thankfully Your Standard isn’t the one I’m striving for.

Now your attitudes – well for them, I have names. Supercillious. Pompous. Patronising. Condescending. Oh, there are others too, but for the sake of dignity again, I won’t utter those. They would most likely cross the line between reaction against how you are and instead attack who you are. That wouldn’t be right. To my mind, there is a big difference between how a person is and who they are.

Which brings us to the real issue here, doesn’t it? What a person likes. You don’t like that I don’t like the same things you do. If you find a similarity, you praise me because I’m ‘growing’. What you mean is, that I’m becoming more like you. Not something I have as a personal goal, I’m afraid. In all those myriad areas where we are disparate, you condemn me for being wicked and wrong. In fact, I am only different. From you.

To my mind, who a person is speaks of their core being – their beliefs, their morals, their conscience. How a person is, though, is the external working of those internals. Sometimes the conveyance of our inner workings reveals truth and justice, and sometimes it reveals our confusion or presumption about life. What a person likes, however, is just personal taste – nothing more, nothing less. That side of me is no more your business than that side of you is any of mine.

‘Respect.’ Now there’s a word I like. The dictionary defines it as: esteem for, or a sense of, the worth or excellence of a person. That accurately names the attitude I think every human being longs to receive from another. The same attitude that every human kicks against the lack of. We all want our inner worth or excellence to be recognised and esteemed, and we are unfailingly hurt or angry when it is not.

All this pondering has become oppressive to me – moreso, the more I ruminate. Recognising that you really don’t have any respect for what I like or how I am, let alone who I am – well, that’s just made me angry all over again. I don’t want to be angry with you. I have considered you my friend. I have loved you – recognised our differences and rejoiced at the patchwork of diversity that weaves itself together somehow to make life into a rich and beautiful place.

I don’t like the taste of this thing, you know. It’s bitter, and I don’t want that on the inside of me.

There is a Sanctuary – a place I go when I am hurt and despised – and in that place, miracles do happen. They aren’t instant, because there are no quick fixes in life, but they do happen. In this place, this Sanctuary, I can spread my anguish, my disappointment, my devastation out to be examined. As I expose my grief, there is a flood of empathy. I am no longer alone. I am surrounded by love, acceptance and forgiveness that is powerful and real.

When I emerge, nothing is changed between you and me, but my pain has somewhat subsided. Who I am is intact and affirmed. How I am, I’m sure, will continue to bumble along, sometimes wise, sometimes foolish. What I like and what I don’t like will continue to displease many others, probably most of all you. Because I do not aspire to become like you. It wouldn’t be healthy if I did. And thereby hangs a tale.

If the name you ascribe to yourself is ‘Perfect’, then you and I will not stay friends. I am not perfect, and I know that this side of Kingdom Come at least, I won’t be. The name I choose to ascribe to myself is ‘Maturing’. Better today than I was yesterday. More tomorrow than I am today.

A friendship cannot survive if one person assumes superiority over another. The one I call my Friend is one who loves me and is at peace with who I am. Whether that is you or not is a choice only you can make. I will happily wear the name Friend for you, if you can accept me as I am. If you can’t, I will love you still, but only from a distance.

Multiflorabundance August 24, 2009

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My big sister in Western Australia and I both have an interest in writing, and to my delight, she has suggested we do a trans-continental writing exercise each week. Nothing like having some impetus to get to do the practice you’re longing to do!

This week we chose the letter M and each suggested three words, so that we had to weave six words altogether into our story. Our words were: multitude, myopic, memories, mystery, multiflora, mentor.

This is my effort – please tell me what you think. It took about 20 minutes.

 

Ali clutched her canteen-bought sandwich and bottle of orange juice and battled her way through the incoming hungry hordes back out into the fresh air and sunshine. The multitude only dispersed somewhat when she reached the courtyard, and she was well down the path to her favourite grove of trees on the university campus before she felt like she was all clear of their pressing and pushing.

She didn’t mind university life unduly. She was making friends slowly, but she still thought her father was completely myopic in his insistence that she needed a degree behind her before she followed any of her dreams.

Even she knew, though, that the number of her wild and fanciful dreams had dissipated – more and more, the further she aged away from her childhood. She was here now because really, she had nothing better to do.

All morning, all through the boring lecture on the psychology of persuasion, one word had been going through Ali’s mind. Multiflora. It was an odd word to have parading through your mind, when really, you should be contemplating the vagaries of Maslow and Jung. Ali knew where the word came from: Auntie Pearl.

Auntie Pearl was her father’s great aunt, and she’d been one hundred and two years old when she died a couple of years back. The woman had been a national treasure as far as Ali’s family was concerned. A maiden aunt, she had actively coaxed and coached Ali’s dad’s generation of cousins through their awkward years, and they all referred to her fondly as Our Mentor.

Her heart flooding with memories as she chewed her sandwich and sipped her juice, Ali savoured the peace from under her favourite tree in the grove. It was a beautiful place, really – a wide variety of trees planted higgledy-piggledy, with some fruit-bearing, some bearing wildly coloured flowers and some purely ornamental.

Multiflora. Multiflora, multiflora, multiflora. They were the last words Auntie Pearl spoke from her deathbed. “Poor dear’s losing her mind,” Ali’s mum had said sadly.

For herself, though, Ali knew that wasn’t true. Auntie Pearl’s mind was as sharp as it had ever been, and Ali knew, somewhere in the depths of her being, that the old dear was saying that word purposefully, and directly to her. What she meant by it though, was still a mystery.

Ali knew that the word actually meant plants that were characterised by many single, relatively small flowers. That’s not what Auntie Pearl was saying to her, though. One of her fondest memories of the old lady was flower arranging, and that was an activity that always caused the Auntie Pearl to mutter multiflora under her breath while she worked. She’d take barren twigs and ostentatious leaves, and weave them into magnificent creations that would wow the whole family. In that context, Auntie Pearl had spoken to Ali about making sure that her life had diversity woven through it – vivid colours and heady scents, but also structure and form.

From her sacred position beneath the tree, Ali looked upwards, past the fruit trees that were in blossom, beyond the massive pines that marked the university fenceline, and to the towering city skyline beyond.

It was odd, the sensation that took place within her as she looked. Scrunching up her empty sandwich bag and holding it with her empty juice bottle on her lap, Ali held them there while somewhere in her depths a coin dislodged from a place where it had been stuck for many years, and rattled its way down to the depths of her soul. It almost felt like she was one of those Sambo money-boxes that her father had from his childhood, where you put a coin into Sambo’s hand and lifted it so that he swallowed the coin, which then sat with its companions in his depths until you had enough to buy your treasure.

Ali looked at the skyline. You’ve got to have form and structure – it’s the backbone of life. She looked at the trees. You can only be one species – not a plum tree one week and a banksia the next. She looked more closely at the trees. They all had trunks. Structure. They all did their one thing, but they did a variety of things on the way to doing their one thing. Diversity. The fruit trees were bare, then budded and blossomed and finally bore fruit – they certainly weren’t boring in what they did or what they produced. At the base of the trees grew flowers, and they too had a structure and process before they went wild with abandon.

Glancing at her watch, Ali realised she’d have to rush to get to her next lecture. As she ran along the pathways of the university to the lecture hall, though, she understood what her father had been getting at. When you’re young, it’s important to concentrate on building a strong core – you can’t choose what your natural giftings are, or what background you’re born to, but you can make sure that you build the core of your life strong and true, so that in future, whatever fruit or flowers you produce will be magnificent. And you can surround yourself with interesting people and do fascinating things so that life is never dull.

Ali slid into her student seat in the lecture hall next to a couple of her new friends, smiling broadly at them. The lecturer entered and took his place at the podium, and Ali took out her books to take notes. Across the top of her page she wrote multiflorabundant and smiled. Auntie Pearl would be proud. Maybe her dad would be too.

“What’s that?” her nearest seated friend hissed, pointing at the word and frowning.

“That’s what my life’s going to be,” Ali hissed back, smiling broadly, before concentrating on the lecturer’s words. She had to squeeze all the goodness out of this lecture and every other that would come for the rest of her life. It was all part of the fertilizer that would build the strong core for her multiflorabundance.