Ghosts

I can still see it now – a large, proper china tea cup sitting on its saucer ever so gently shaking in her grasp. Her thin, spindly fingers are absent-mindedly caressing the flowers which encircle the cup, their interlaced folds of delicate petals surround the tight bud, blossoming, spilling outwards to unravel in an ordered chaos. Slightly shiny, crepe-like skin, so sheer I can see her veins. There is a small side table nestled up against the armchair but she is so focused on her tale that I think she has forgotten she is even holding the tea cup.

It is a day like any other in our house. My two young daughters are running around the garden picking flowers, chasing butterflies or something equally bucolic. I am pottering around my kitchen, baking biscuits for school lunches and getting a head-start on the week’s meals. The sun is streaming in the long windows, filtered through the over-hanging trees making it a place I’m very content to be.

It is through the kitchen door at the side of the house that people entered. In fact, when new people came to the house and approached the front door, they were stranded there for quite several minutes before we knew anyone was there. The wires to the front doorbell didn’t lead anywhere useful so it never rang even if someone managed to find the button.

The house had been extended multiple times over its almost one hundred year history so that its direction and focus had changed. With almost more hallways than rooms, the concept of good design had been bypassed as rooms were added one by one.

It is her firm rasping knock on the window, by the back door, that draws my attention. I hadn’t been expecting any visitors. Drying my hands on my apron, I shuffle to the back door. It’s the weekend and I’m wearing weekend-at-home-appropriate clothing. She isn’t.

‘Hello?’ I say upon forcibly sliding the reluctant door along its tracks.

‘Hello there,’ she replies.

I’m sure she would have introduced herself but more than ten years later I have no recollection of her name. I do, however, still remember being slightly mesmerized by her appearance. Multiple strands of pearls hang down from her neck, nestling into her rich velvet scarf. Layers of clothing in dark, gemstone tones jar at the bright sun in which she stands, leaning heavily on a walking cane. For a few moments we watch each other. I am wondering where, or rather when, she has come from. No doubt, she is sorting through her memory files trying to reconcile the many times she had stood at this door to be ushered in by her dear friend of many years. Not today though.

Although she knew the house had been sold, my strange face is still a disappointment. I don’t even have a chance to invite her inside, however. Stepping past me and into the kitchen, she explains how many years she has been visiting here. Not pausing in either the kitchen or the dining room, she moves deliberately and determinedly her 90-year-plus body onwards, so I have nothing else to do but follow.

As we arrive in the lounge room, she looks up and after a few moments, smiles. I can only imagine this room hasn’t really changed too much. The cherry-wood panels that line its walls, the large fireplace and mantle taking up an entire corner have not changed; only the furniture and its arrangement. Standing beside her, I can only wonder what she sees. I take the opportunity to offer her the armchair, its commanding position ideal to survey her domain.

Like a lady in waiting, I offer her some tea. She nods her approval and I disappear back into the kitchen to fossick for the supplies required – teapot, creamer, leaf tea, tea cup and saucer, a small plate of biscuits still warm from the oven. As the electric kettle takes its time boiling, I wonder who is this woman seated in my lounge room. Returning triumphant with my tray of tea supplies, I‘m unsure where to start but it turns out that doesn’t matter, as I’m not the one directing things here now.

‘I have been coming here for many, many years, you know.’

I had figured out my role as silent adoring audience.

‘Yes, I’ve known Nina and Clem since the early days. Stanhope was such an exciting place. The Russian Ballet would always visit when they were in town. The parties they would have,’ she pauses and points out through the west window. ‘Out there, under the cherry trees looking over Eltham. Tables laden with all sorts of food, they would play music and have outrageous arguments. So much life, so much laughter. I never saw Nina smile so much as she did then.‘ Her own smile slowly fades.

I hand her a cup of tea which is not so full that she will spill it with her trembling hands. I don’t want to interrupt her but I want to know who she is and what is she doing here in my house. Hopefully, we will get to that at some point.

‘How did you come to know Nina?’ I ask trying to steer the conversation somewhat.

‘My first husband and I moved in to the street behind ten years or so after the war. We knew everyone in the street back then. Stanhope used to be quite a large estate. It stretched all the way down the hill to the railway line. Being academics they never really had any money, so they would sell off a block here and there when they needed to. I can still picture them running down the hill to the station to catch the train into Melbourne University where they both worked. The driver would blow the horn giving them time to race down. Nina was head of Russian Studies and Clem edited the literary journal Meanjin.‘

She looks down at her left hand as if noticing for the first time that she is holding a cup of tea. I offer her a biscuit but she declines with a slight wave of her right hand. I feel obliged to take one as though that is the reason I presented them in the first place. My girls are a blur as they run past the windows, squealing.

‘Nina couldn’t have any children of her own but she would host birthday parties for the neighbours’ children. She loved having children around. She would be very happy to know that there is a family living here now.’

‘We’ve only been here a few weeks but we really like it here,’ I say trying to assuage any concerns. I bring the side table a bit further in front to make it easy for her to place her tea down. She pays it no heed. We both sit in silence and I think how to explain to this woman what I already know. I have met Nina. I can feel her over my shoulder, keeping an eye on me. “Just watching, darlink. Just watching.”

Nina is short with her long hair pulled back tightly in a bun. Always smartly dressed, she enjoys the company of me and my daughters. At times, she sits in the corner of the kitchen on the wooden bench next to my girls as they attack their afternoon snacks. In fact, both Nina and Clem love the life and energy we’ve brought to the house.

At some point, Nina became ill and with her strength ebbing day by day, she soon never left her bed. Clem would sit near her bedside reading as Nina dozed. She was grateful for the exciting lives full of love and laughter that she and Clem had shared. Sadly, too soon, she passed away.

Clem couldn’t cope with the great weight of sadness he felt at this enormous loss. He drank more and more whiskey from his favourite crystal low ball to help blur reality but upon waking each morning, the house was still cold and empty without her. Not too long after, Clem moved out and died a few months later. Colour had been gradually draining out of him without his Nina around.

I understand that our family moving in, with all the noise and light that a family with two young girls bring with them, stirred Clem and Nina.

It is only a few seconds between the sound of the back door slamming and my six and eight year-old daughters bounding into the room, puffing and laughing. But the spell is broken. My guest straightens up, placing her tea cup roughly on the table and starts her ascent out of the chair. I go to assist and get stuck not knowing how to help so just stand beside and watch.

Picking up the teapot, cups and tray, I follow her to the back door. She knows the way. I say goodbye as she disappears down the path and around the corner. I look down and see her still full cup of cold tea, untouched.

The Last Time

The last time

The last time I rode my bike to work, I didn’t ride it home. An ambulance took me to hospital instead. My bike had slipped on tram tracks (very Melbourne) and I tumbled down like a sack of potatoes. It took me 6 months to get the courage to ride again.

The last time I dyed my hair was over a year ago. I like that my blonds now shine through.

The last time I was in a St Kilda pub on a Saturday night, the bartenders ignored me while they clambered to serve a skimpily-clad 18 year-old. I guffawed so loud I startled them.

The last time I got married, I divorced him 13 years later.

The last time I took illicit drugs, I did so in a safe and comfortable environment with someone I trust to guide me through. The next morning he asked if I wanted a cigarette with my coffee. I said, ‘I don’t smoke.’ He said, ‘you did last night.’

The last time I took a pregnancy test it was negative. I was, and still am, very thankful for that.

The last time I lied was yesterday.

The last time I swam in the ocean it was off Magnetic Island and not really warm enough but I hadn’t carted my bathers from Melbourne for nothing.

The last time I slept solidly through the night was earlier this year. It’s so rare that when it happens I wake in awe.

The last time I went for a jog I was 12 years old and before I had finished developing fully. I don’t care what other people say about sports bras, bouncing is just too uncomfortable. So if you see me running, you’d better run too cause there’s something scary coming this way.

The last time someone asked me to get married, I said no to the marriage but yes to jewelry and a party.

The last time I raged against injustice was earlier this week. There seems a lot stuff in the world to rage at lately.

The last time I did yoga was this morning. It seems that if I don’t stretch and move daily, things start to seize up.

The last time I was able to use my phone without finding my glasses was over a year ago. I apologise for those on the receiving end of my typos. I now own multiple pairs of glasses that I have stashed in various bags and spots around the house.

The last time I used the phrase ‘in my day’ – oh no, that’s right I never have. Because I still think of things as being ‘in my day.’

The last time I wore high heels I got a blister. I’d like to say that’s the last time I wear high heels but I’m not ready to make that kind of commitment.

The last time I sang in public was – who am I joking, I’ve never sung in public and trust me you don’t want me to start.

The last time I experienced sexual harassment was – actually, it’s happened so many times in my life that I no longer bother to remember.

The last time I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone I came to a story telling night. I’ve been coming every month since. I’m hooked and reckon I’m learning and improving month by month. And tonight won’t be my last time.

Letter to my mother’s diabetes.

Dear diabetes,

I’m well, thanks for asking.

I’m not going to ask how you’ve been because I don’t care.

I wish I’d never met you.

You’ve robbed my mother of her sight. Not all of it, mind you, but enough to suck some of the sweetness out of life. I can picture her, many years back, sitting on the couch next to dad, crocheting a toy or blanket for one grandkid or another. Now she just sits on the couch, staring ahead at a fuzzy pattern of shapes and colours, hands idle in her lap.

Thanks to you, my sister and I have now inherited the abandoned craft supplies. The crates of fabric from under the stairs went to my sister who sews. My daughters and I happily received boxes of wool, knitting needles and crochet hooks. Yes, the cats do love chasing the wool but I am also relishing the chance to teach my daughters crochet.

Mum, like her mother, was always happy to let us kids have a go at craft. I can even see Nana sitting in her floral chair by the window so she would catch the natural light, knitting needles in hand. Somehow, she never was short with me as she attempted to figure out what on earth I’d done with the wool. It usually involved a drop stitch or three. So I’m not being sarcastic when I say thank you. The craft supplies that have been passed on to us means that we, too, allow our children to play around with creating.

The ability to have a go and fail is something my mother encouraged in me from a young age. She is not the type to take the pencil out of my hand to draw something for me. She would suggest I walk around it, pick it up and get to know the thing I wanted to draw. Her time at art school in the 60s was not wasted. Her paintings and sculptures filled the house growing up. But once again, thanks to you, diabetes, she can’t even paint. The half-finished canvases rested against a wall in the garage, blank faces poking out under a layer of dust and cobwebs, until they too came to live with me.

As a child, I remember my grandfather had a shed that smelled of wood shavings and engine oil. His tools hung neatly on shadow board which lined the walls. I recall stories of Papa making a home brew system from discarded fuel tins. My mother inherited her ingenuity from her father. She also inherited his diabetes, developing it late in life as he did. So damn you diabetes for cursing my Papa as well.

Whilst reducing my mother’s sight so that she can no longer drive, you have tried to curb her independence but you did not succeed. My mother simply upsized her phone’s display and downloaded a public transport app. So once again, I must thank you. Thank you for nudging her into the modern world. Buses, trains and trams have replaced her own car but she will not be hobbled. We are both viciously independent people and though you may try, you will not limit our wanderings.

It’s not just diet and insulin production you impact. You effect the eyesight, feet and healing ability of people who get too close to you. The strong genetic link looms over my life so I’m actively working to remain free of you, damned diabetes. I exercise regularly so that you can’t catch me. I eat well, so that you’ll not join me at my dinner table. I have inherited many things from my mother – my body shape, my love of creating and my independent streak. But I will not inherit diabetes. I will not inherit you.

Letter to Gay Bilson

Letter to Gay Bilson

Dear Gay,

You don’t know me though I like to think that I know you. In fact, I wish you were my neighbour. You’d hand me a bag of freshly picked broad beans still warm from the sun and tell me what to do with them – ‘Steam them lightly then douse with a glug of the good olive oil.’ I’d bring over dishes that I cooked and was proud of. You’d implore me sit at your kitchen table, the wood worn soft and shiny from years of use. No fancy dining room for you (ironic seeing dining rooms receive no less than six entries in your seminal book). Your table is writing desk, pastry bench and more. Only as I was departing, would you suggest a simple way to improve the meal.

I’m glad you are not my mother as we would butt heads and things would be too loaded.

But being my neighbour would be just fine.

I can tell you appreciate quality. The first time I came to learn about you was upon seeing your book Plenty: Digressions on Food in my local bookstore; its delicate duck egg blue cover, the thick decal-edged pages were so sensual in my hands, its essays meandering not in any timeline but according to your own aesthetic. Through these digressions I gleaned so much about you from your childhood home in Melbourne to your love of a simple congee. For five generous pages, you talk about this rice gruel, its history and its contemporary state, before giving us a recipe of congee to serve 250 people. I love that only a foolish reader would jump straight to the recipe.

Like me, you know the importance of small things. Your homage to Sei Shonagon’s pillow book in Plenty made my heart skip a beat. I also make lists of things that please, things that should be painted or things that are rare. Though I came to know of the pillow book through a movie of the same name, I’m sure yours was a more literary discovery.

I admire you for admitting your mistakes. In a piece for The Monthly you detailed an incident where you forgot the chowder you had brought to vegetarian friends contained bacon. The fact that they ate it anyway (the husband commenting that it reminded him of a dish from his danish youth) perhaps speaks of your culinary skill as much as their respect for your friendship. Admitting our mistakes is part of showing our humanity and our fallibility. I vow to be more human, more fallible.

If I come across your name online, I have to click through to the article. Your words are not overly complicated and always a sheer pleasure to read. You speak about food as a means of bringing people together across cultures as much as around the table. You champion knowledge of where our food comes from and how it is produced. Greater knowledge and greater connection to our food go hand in hand. Whether it’s an omelette constructed from a neighbour’s eggs or apples bought from the grower at local Farmers’ Market, we tend to respect food that we know more about. I am almost reverential towards the herbs I grow making them the star of the dish, instead of an after-thought thrown on top before serving.

An autodidact like myself, your writings are littered with references to chefs and food writers from years past who have things to offer us still. Twentieth century writers Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David share equal amounts of type with older, more established gastronomes such as Brillat Savarin and Escoffier. A recipe for lemon posset is given no less respect than a more intricate recipe for florentine biscuits. We both know that a healthy appetite for real food, devoid of numbers or fake fats, is key to a good life. Pastry hand made with almost equal parts butter and flour is not the devil. If we wish to be healthier, we should just eat less of it. I smile as I read this, snacking on creamy juicy papaya, the plate resting on an unstable tower of books.

Though you’ve run multiple restaurants, you now live quietly in rural South Australia. Literally miles from the competitive restaurant world of the big cities, you’ve managed to finally be alone. I, too, need to carve out time alone, particularly when my day job is also in the social realm of hospitality. Books and art soothe and quieten the voices echoing in my head after a day of others’ demands.

So perhaps it is to a peaceful small town one state over that I must relocate if we are going to be neighbours. South Australia has such a strong, local food culture and I have loved the times I have travelled there. But, if I’m to be honest, I’m not sure I can move so far away from my family. You see my daughters have just embarked upon adult lives of their own and I get to bake big vegetarian lasagnes to drop around unexpectedly. My sister-in-law regularly phones me up with a cooking dilemma that needs immediate answering. Also, possibly more importantly, what about my veggie garden? I’ve got several large fruit trees and a bay tree which I’m not sure would survive the move. My silver beet patch needs harvesting every few days in this warm weather and the potatoes won’t be ready til later in the year.

So Gay, maybe we could just be pen pals instead.

Sunday mornings

The sweet, earthy smell of my father’s car in the morning. It wasn’t until he quit smoking that I realised it was stale cigarette smoke that I had associated with his car. It’s light tan, leather seats squeaking as I fidgeted and moved around. From this distance, the morning light was golden, diffused as it shone through the tall gum trees lining our quiet, middle suburban court.

On Sunday mornings, his only day not working, I would join him in the car and we would drive to the milk bar to buy fresh bread rolls, light and fluffy, the Sunday paper and a 20 cent bag of mixed lollies for my siblings and me. I would lean up against his rough, hairy leg as I gazed up longingly at the glass counter, above my eye-line. Boxes of chocolate bars, bulging white paper bags of mixed lollies stacked high and beyond the shop-keeper cigarettes, batteries, cleaning products and other assorted dry goods.

Years later my brother ran a milk bar in its dying phase. Apparently, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Another ill-conceived get rich quick scheme. Late afternoon light filtering through the dusty, dirty windows and onto the sparsely stocked shelves. I wonder if my own two daughters look at this scene with any degree of awe.

Sometimes, we got to stop for petrol and I relished the task of filling out the figures in his log book. While he was filling up the tank with petrol, my small body would climb over the front bench seat and open the glove box. Pushing past the dusty box of tissues, I extricated the small red notebook , un-looped the elastic band which kept the stub of a pencil in place and waited for his announcement.

Chug chug. I watched the small balls spin wildly in the rush of red transparent fuel as it flowed out of the pump, through the hose and disappeared somewhere behind the smooth worn seats where my siblings usually sat. I smelled the petrol fumes that wafted in as dad cracked open the driver’s door. “65 litres. 76 cents per litre. 37,769 kms” With great care, I used my best writing filling in the columns, closed the book and returned it to the glove box.