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.

The Revitalise Centre

The Revitalise Centre

My busy morning and the buzz of surrounding cafes is all forgotten as soon as I step inside the door and am greeted by mini indoor jungle. The large, shiny leaves force me to reach out and touch them to check if they’re real; they are. I smile and think ‘a place that nurtures its plants this well is certainly going to nourish it clients just as well.’ I report my name to the receptionist and she nods like she’s expecting me.

‘Welcome. Yve will be with you soon,’ she says as she gets up to pour me a glass of water. Grateful for this, I hadn’t even realised I was thirsty. I take in the calm blue/grey décor but don’t get a chance to pick up a magazine before Yve appears around the corner to collect me. As we walk towards the treatment room, I pass a small gallery of smiling therapists and more luscious plants that dot my path.

I’m guided into the room, which is bright with natural light and peaceful at the same time. I take a seat in a corner beside a salt lamp that reminds me of cityscape. We talk about what she can do for me today. Having recently had some traumatic dental work, we narrow in on lymphatic drainage as the most useful for me today. I have had lymphatic drainage before and been surprised how effective something so gentle can be. Small circular movements with a light pressure stimulate flow. In the past, it has helped reduce oedema from air flight, and restored balance after a fall.

The small stereo provides music that is subtle enough not to intrude into my bliss nor drown out the birdsong from outside. Walls are well-insulated as the only sound I hear from the nearby train line is a toot as the train departs the station. I had been first recommended to Yve through my mother. Word of mouth is my favoured way of finding therapists. A diabetic friend has been having regular reflexology sessions as a wellness strategy for many years now. Though she started with reflexology to directly help her feet, she’s discovered a more wholistic, active approach to her health.

Yve steps out of the room while I prepare myself and lay on the massage bed. She enters and checks in with me regarding comfort, temperature, etc. A weighted eye mask is placed on my eyes, instantly calming them. I’m centred in on my body and nothing else. She begins slowly and gently, unwinding the tension in my jaw, my neck and ultimately my shoulders.

Time passes to its own rhythm. I’m only aware of the end of the session as she holds my shoulder and tells me to get up in my own time. I stretch my limbs one by one, feeling the extent of my body. I slip off the eye mask and am surprised that it’s still daylight. I don’t know what I expected. Not sleepy but rested, I feel ready to leave the retreat and face the world afresh.

On the way out, I spy posters for kids and tween yoga. If only I’d found these when my kids were young, I think. A mindfulness program, anxiety workshops, meditation sessions, and more are also advertised. I make a mental note to check out the website when I get home. When I do, I discover The Revitalise Centre provides a raft of therapies: reflexology, massage, naturopathy, podiatry, reiki, kinesiology, hypnotherapy, craniosacral therapy, lymphatic drainage and wellness coaching. I can imagine these complementing each other, making for a place that honours both the body and soul.

I pause at some shelving to enquire about the potions and lotions on display. Yve pours me another glass of water and encourages me to use the testers. Apart from the gorgeous packaging, the scents are delightful – neither overpowering nor flaccid. Uluna are a local mother-daughter company producing high quality crystal essential oil products. Appropriately, it is JOY that resonates with me this afternoon.

That evening when I climb into bed, I realise that I haven’t thought about my jaw or tooth all afternoon. And that is joyful indeed.

Roberta’s

Rustic plank table, chilli flakes in the Parmesan shaker, salt shaker and three wilting chrysanthemums in a squat glass bottle; multi-coloured party lights drape from shelves and windows; unpolished concrete floors; two overhead fans rotate lazily; mirrors, hipster paintings, a pogo stick and a toy truck complete the interior decoration. My eyes keep coming back to one painting in particular: an homage to an iconic scene from Brokeback Mountain, the two central characters appear to be wearing masks that are a cross between a goat and a clown. This in no way diminishes the impact of the intimacy imbued in their body language.

‘Here’s your coffee, my dear.’ A hand reaches down and delivers the quintessential cup of American coffee: over-sized white ceramic cup and saucer, inky black liquid with a few bubbles clinging to the edge, two sugar sachets and tiny stainless steel jug of cold creamer. I look up to say thank you and am greeted by a perfect Roberta’s waiter.

Sleeveless, cropped white logo t-shirt, Levis 501 jeans fraying at the ankle, blue floral Converse high tops, baseball cap worn reversed, a two-day growth and multiple chain around his neck. His disarming smile compels me to continue to look into his eyes. His runaway blonde hair pokes out from beneath his hat. I can now read his t-shirt – THE FUTURE IS FEMALE. It is only now that I see that he wears glitter on his skin. It is lightly applied all over his face.

‘You’re wearing glitter,’ I say unnecessarily.

‘Yes, I am.’

‘Is that a cream or do you just sprinkle it on your face?’

‘I actually apply a bit of oil to stay hydrated and then I dab it on my face. It’s a special body glitter.’

‘I have a real glitter phobia but, on you, I like it.’ I make redundant hand motions just to drive the point home.

‘Oh, thank you.’ He half bows as best he can due to our close proximity. ‘Do you know that strippers aren’t allowed to wear any glitter?’ I nod genuinely interested. ‘Cause it sticks to the skin of people they come into close contact with.’ We both giggle at the possibilities of punters explaining to their significant others where the glitter came from.

‘What’s your name? I’m Mandy.’ I stick out my hand.

‘I’m Pedro.’

When he turns to get back to work, I think I can almost see rainbows and unicorns revolving around him.

‘Cheers.’ An icy tumbler of pale pink, alcoholic goodness is deposited by another waiter. This one is wearing a black band t-shirt, turned up jeans, black socks with runners that have seen better days and sports a high pony-tail and bandana. My ‘savage garden’ cocktail is skinos (a Greek spirit) agave gin, strawberries and coconut. It tastes like a grown-up’s version of a kids’ party drink. It’s fruit-sweet without being cloying, perfectly cold and the coconut milk adds a welcome creaminess.

Before long my ‘white and greens’ pizza arrives. Thin but not-too-thin base, still a bit chewy with that tang you get from a long-fermented sourdough. An adequate layer of mozzarella cheese (grated more finely than is the usual) is laid down with the additional onion I requested, then into the ferocious wood-burning pizza oven which backs onto the street. The balance of the kitchen is at the opposite end of the restaurant. Wood burning pizza ovens are a wonderful thing. They produce an intense heat which cooks food quickly and with plenty of flavour. But that heat has to go somewhere and not all of it goes up the chimney. It’d be a great place to work in winter but not summer so much.

Back to the pizza – the mozzarella and onion-ed base is given its obligatory few minutes in the oven, then topped with ‘greens’ which appear to be a mix of friselle, parsley, arugula and other unidentifiable bits. The pizza then gets a liberal dose of freshly-grated Parmesan and is plonked on a warm metal tray, cut into six slices and delivered to the lucky table. I demolish in about the same amount of time that it took to prepare and cook.

Yesterday was a full day for me. I was up at 5.45am in London to meet my 6.15am shuttle from the Hilton airport hotel, which naturally did the rounds of the other airport hotels before dropping me at Terminal 3. I then spoke to the check-in staff who were too perky by far for that time in the morning, collected my boarding passes and began the fun that is submitting oneself to security procedures at airports these days. It was just after 7.30am when I found my way to the lounge which looks like a cross between the Star Trek command deck and a 1970s swingers’ party. That was the highlight of my day. I spent the next 18 hours either queueing, waiting, flying or waiting some more.

Back to Roberta’s. I’ve said this before about a few places this trip and I’ll say it again – good thing I don’t live here as I’d be here way too often. It isn’t the cocktail list with cbd oil additions. It isn’t the quirky artistic vibe of the staff. It isn’t even the delicious food and tempting drinks list. It isn’t that they have a thriving kitchen garden to augment their orders. I don’t know what’s it is exactly, I just feel like I belong here.

First cocktail down, pizza tray cleared, coffee now gone cold and I figure it’s best to down a glass of water. I’ve still got a few hours to fill before I need to leave for the airport and I need to keep my wits about me. Today’s flight will take me to New Orleans and that place is not known for its restrained sobriety. It’s a marathon not a sprint.

I order a second cocktail – the WIFI which is ironic because this joint doesn’t offer free wifi unlike many places in the United States. I’m okay with that. Six weeks of travelling without constant connection has broken the habit. Social media doesn’t distract me like it has in the past.

Aviation gin, watercress, lime and cbd oil. The watercress means that drink is the colour of healthy grass. No doubt it also helps tone down the flavour and colour of the cbd oil. The drink comes in a squat conical glass. Without ice like my previous one, this drink is a sipper. It’s concentrated flavour. By its conclusion, I’m definitely feeling more relaxed but I can’t testify as to whether that’s from the cbd oil or due to the pizza and cocktails.

The day has warmed up and I’m thinking ice cream may just hit the spot. The staff are very attentive so it’s not before long that another waiter swings by my table, so I enquire. Doesn’t hurt to ask, does it?

‘We got almond, blueberry and burnt fig. You can have it as is or in a sticky bun.’ I can detect an accent of sorts but I’ve no idea where it’s from. That’s something I’ve experienced a lot in America, or to be more precise, in New York. Most people are from somewhere else. Whether as tourists visiting or as recent residents, a myriad of languages and accents are heard throughout the city. But big cities are like that, and New York even more so. It represents possibility. Your dreams can come true, in theory anyway.

‘So did you decide if you want any gelato? I think the blueberry’s the best.’

‘You’ve convinced me,’ I say. Sometimes it’s easier to let other people make the small decisions. I don’t really care what flavour, I have. I just feel like a little something cold and sweet. I’m grateful to be able to get just one scoop. Meal sizes here can be over-whelming, especially when I usually want to try multiple dishes.

At the small table next to me, two women of dressed in jeans and flannel shirts make their way through a couple of pizzas. One leaves the crusts uneaten on her plate. It takes every ounce of willpower that I have not to lean over and ask her if I can have them. I’m not hungry after my full pizza but I abhor waste and pizza crust is yummy, particularly these pizza crusts. The crust is where you get the full flavour of the dough, slightly smoky and charred from the oven plus all that sour dough taste. I guess the real test will come when they get up and leave. Will I leave those morsels be? I’m saved from myself by one of the many waitstaff who arrives to clear the plates

They ask for the cheque and one says, ‘At least, I eat all my crusts.’

I smirk while the waiter retorts, ‘Well, I wasn’t going to say anything but.’

I’m presented with my dessert. The bowl cradles one generous scoop of the most intense blueberry gelato you’ve ever had. Well, I had it, not you. It’s perched atop wafers which taste like a version of cornflake. These are glued to the bowl with a delicious honey that they probably harvest from their garden. I lean forward so as not drip any of the purple dessert on my top. My luggage is packed and I don’t fancy opening it up in the middle of the restaurant to find something clean but crushed to wear. I’ve only got two and a half hours to get through unscathed until I make my way to the airport.

A stack of glasses are knocked over but the soundtrack of pumping background music and hearty conversation doesn’t pause one iota. Each table has now filled up and three lone wolves perch at the bar. I move to a corner and nab a vacant power socket to charge my ipad and phone. More pleasant to do it here where they serve drinks than to try find a spot at the airport where the drinks are over-priced and of unpredictable quality.

The lunch rush comes and goes. Tables are re-set and the odd person remains, lingering over a drink. I’m one of those people. Suddenly, my phone buzzes. I had forgotten that it was still in vibrate mode. No one has called my phone for weeks. Apart from the obligatory message from my service provider to tell me what country I was in and that I was eligible for a day pass for only $10 a day. Yeah, no thanks.

‘THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is required.’

I’d heard about this FEMA test on the radio the day prior while getting a lift from the airport to my accommodation. 75 percent of mobile phones are expected to display this message. Around the restaurant, people pick up their phones, spend a few seconds and put them back down.

With a numb bum and an empty glass, I reluctantly decide that it’s time to make the break. I do and I don’t want to. I want to go to New Orleans and I want stay here in my new favourite place with my new favourite people. I bite the bullet, call for the bill and gather my luggage. With the receipt signed , I tip well and walk out the door.

Goodbye Roberta.

I love you, whoever you are.

Tuesday September 4th 12.10pm Butter & Scotch Bar and Bakery.

Tuesday September 4th

12.10pm Butter & Scotch Bar and Bakery.

Bar AND bakery, I hear you say. Yes, bar and bakery. Why does this concept not happen more? They open at 9am and offer brunch options until mid-afternoon. Think sandwiches in the American sense ie hot fillings sometimes toasted and often in a bun not bread, biscuits/savoury scones, sweet pies, cake, ice cream – cause, you know, America.

This morning I tried to go to the Museum of Women’s Resistance but, alas, it appears to be no more. Damn internet! Promising a vibrant experience that in reality is a nondescript townhouse with a for sale sign hanging out front. Of course, it was bound to happen at least once this trip. Occasionally, the internet doesn’t always tell the truth. Who knew.

So that’s how I made it to this oasis earlier than planned. On this trip, I’m trying not to consume alcohol before noon although the crossing of time zones can mess with one’s sense of whose noon it really is. It’s quiet in here; there are a couple of guys sitting at the bar drinking coffee plus me. The air conditioning is strong and welcome. My 4000 steps this morning were hard work in the relentless sunshine.

‘How you doing this warm day?’ The barman stands behind the bar polishing glasses in the way that barmen all over the world do.

‘Better now,’ is my response.

‘Yeah, it’s getting warm out there.’

I slide along the wall, edging past the two guys perched on the chrome and vinyl bar stools. Black and white chequered tiles on the floor, painted, colour-blocked walls and a feature wall of red lips by the bathrooms signal the fun, casual vibe of the place. The mirrored wall behind the display of extensive spirits indicates it’s a bar in more than just name only. I grab a table near the bar for ease of service as much as conversation.

Traveling by myself has its pros and its cons. I don’t have to please anyone else but at times I crave human interaction beyond the cursory. In the mornings, as I’m having my mandatory two cups of tea, I listen to podcasts. It helps prepare me to interact with the big wide world outside my bedroom door. This trip is an ideal mix of time alone, time with family and time with friends old and new.

The obligatory glass of water is delivered with the menu. I opt to begin with a coffee with the encouragement of the barman despite my reticence for American coffee. He promises to attempt a piccolo latte for me. I’ve coached him through it and I reckon I’ll get something close. I do, in fact, receive a passable piccolo latte. The espresso shot has enough oomph for my liking and it’s not been watered down with too much milk. In reality, it is a flat white presented in a glass mug with a handle. Some sugar helps balance the dominant bitterness.

I scour the menu for a smaller-sized breakfast dish and I want to leave room for something sweet afterwards. Steve would be disappointed if I didn’t. I settle on the chicken, chilli and cheddar hand pie with salad. A hand pie is a filled pastry triangle by another name. The buttery pastry is flaky and tasty all on its own. The diced filling is good value on the chicken front with enough heat not to warrant any extra use of hot sauce or chilli-infused honey that sits on the table. A little light on the cheddar for my liking, it’s a small, insignificant criticism on my behalf. The mixed salad greens are perfectly dressed in a country where I often find dressings overwhelming the salad they’re supposed to complement.

Coffee downed and I decide to step things up a notch with a michelada. A tall glass is rimmed with spicy salt, then half-filled with ice, doused with hot sauce, and finished off with a crisp lager and a wedge of lime. I need to embrace these more in my summer life. It’s thirst quenching and substantial at the same time. I take photos, all the time thinking Steve would love it here.

The menu which is currently discarded on the table next to me promises desserts in a variety of styles: key lime pie, s’mores pie, daily special pie, unicorn cake, salted chocolate cookies, six flavours of ice cream. All these are made in the bakery section next door which I can see into through a doorway behind the bar. I finish up my breakfast grateful for the small serving and embark upon an in-depth consultation with my friendly barman. Between us we concoct a boozy milkshake based upon the key lime pie with coconut ice cream and added rum.

When it arrives, I’m not disappointed. It’s thick and creamy with generous amounts lime zest sprinkled on top. The rum comes through immediately and I give it a thorough stir in case I’m drinking all the rum first. I slurp again and it’s just as good. I don’t often order sweet things and I think I’ve only done it this time in honour of my absent partner. I’m delighted that I did and even more grateful that he’s not here because I don’t have to share it. It’s mine, all mine I tell you!

Friday 31st August NYC

2pm

After less fuss than it could have been, Simone and Richard are packed and ready to leave. It takes a couple of trips in the lift to get all the bags down to the lobby so I wait downstairs and mind the bags. I finger the door key in my pocket. With damp eyes, she steps from the lift with a dog in her arms.

‘I had to say goodbye,’ she explains. The white fluffy dog is clearly missing the sobriety of the moment as it moves around in her arms. The doorman wedges open the door and starts to roll the bags out to the curb. I take the smaller ones and roll them out also. Richard requests an Uber and stands by the curb looking up the street towards the Queensboro bridge. We corral the bags to take up less pavement space. A light breeze is keeping the morning cool and my sister wipes her eyes.

Minutes later a dark sedan pulls up and the driver eyeballs the amount of luggage. He pops the boot open and starts the game of Tetris that is packing the bags into the car. Cars start to bank up behind and the horns start. No one rushes and eventually the cars manoeuvre into the next lane and around.

‘You’re a real New Yorker now,’ I say. Last hugs, tight and held, and they’re in the car. I wait til they pull out into traffic before I turn to go inside. I pat the outside of my pocket to feel the key safely tucked inside. The streets are quieter this morning. It’s a Friday at the start of Labor Day weekend, the last hurrah of Summer. Richard’s favourite coffee spot two doors along is even closed. I turn, enter the lobby and go to wait for the elevator. Well, the one that is working anyway. The superintendent told me there’s little chance of getting a repair man out this weekend.

Back upstairs in the apartment, I take stock. I stack the dishwasher and open the fridge to see what might be consumed in the next 24 hours before I leave and what should be thrown out. My suitcase is mostly packed. The long-sleeve tops and cardigans haven’t even made it out of their packing cells since I arrived. I choose loose denim trousers, a black singlet and a black top. With a bit of make-up and some bling, I’m ready to hit the town. Well, a small section of it anyway.

I grab the bag with some of Richard’s leftover clothes on my way out the door. I’m heading for the goodwill store on 62nd and 1st. I’m determined not to get my phone to look at the map. Most of the pedestrians seem to be tourists this morning and I’m even able to give directions to one. Feeling quite chuffed, I saunter along and jay-walk with more confidence.

It’s mid afternoon when I make it to The Jeffrey. It’s a bar I’ve walked past many times and this time I’m going in. The front bar is buzzing and I’m grateful to arrive before it gets too busy. I locate an empty seat away from the door and swiftly the bar staff hand me a drinks menu. I open it up and instantly regret not bringing my glasses.

‘What can I get you?’ The pretty blond barmaid asks me.

‘I forgot my glasses so I’ll have to ask you for some recommendations.’

‘Here, borrow mine.’ The woman next to me hands me hers.

‘Oh, that’s very kind. Thank you.’ The prescription is so strong that I can’t make anything out. Meanwhile, the barmaid asks, ‘what kind of beer do you like?’

I lower the glasses.

‘All kinds. I’d like to try something local-ish. Something hoppy?’

While I’m poured a couple of tasters, I hand the glasses back to my neighbour. She reminds me of someone though I can’t place who. Tight grey curls ring her round, warm face. A bunch of cellophane wrapped flowers sit on the bar in front of her next to a glass of prosecco.

‘I’m Karen,’ (say this in your head long and drawn out). I introduce myself. She smiles and nods. ‘Ah, I recognise that accent. A coloniser.’

‘A coloniser?’ What am I missing here?

‘I’m from Jamaica. One of Britain’s colonies.’ She laughs and smiles and takes another swig of her drink.

‘Oh, no. I’m not a coloniser. I’m Australian. I’m a fellow colonist,’ I explain and take a gulp of my cold beer.

South Carolina

Thursday August 23rd

Cowpens, South Carolina.

I think it’s mid afternoon but since I left Melbourne 30-something hours ago in the evening, I can’t really be sure. In front of my aunt is a large, icy gin and tonic. Condensation forms on the bottles of local craft beer sitting between my cousin and I; Fat Tire Belgian White Ale, Stone IPA, RJ Rockers Son of a Peach Wheat Ale. Good thing we bought the local sampler pack from the supermarket on our way through from the local airport.

In the near distance, a slow rolling hum of a freight train, drawn-out horns sounding at the three level crossings it passes. Cicadas are quietly murmuring in the settled heat. Waves of a soft breeze cascades through the mature trees which line both sides of the gully. A yellow, rope hammock sits abandoned down by the creek which snakes its way through the kudzu-covered underbrush. This large-leaf vine swiftly grows over anything that stands still. A problem in America’s South-east, it’s taking over 150,000 acres of land a year.

My aunt is peppering my cousin with questions about work and I’m only half-listening. His accent is the perfect blend of retained Australian phrasing and the local Carolina intonation. Every now and then, he pauses to explain who this Dave or that John is. I smile and nod and know that I won’t remember it but enjoy being included anyway. His wife sits opposite keeping an eye on the kids as they dart in and around.

We sit out back in the shade of the carport around a metal outdoor table, a well-used basket of chalk centre-placed. This could be my home – scooters flung by the back door, shoes lined up by the steps, coats hanging on hooks just inside. Three generations usually separated by half a globe but this afternoon we’re gathered around a table.

Friday August 24th

Cowpens, South Carolina.

A woodpecker goes about his business in a tree by the house next door. No one else even looks up from their morning cup of tea. I’m onto my second. And it’s in a full-size mug rather than those pissy little excuses of things that airlines give you. On the flight over I gave up asking for more tea after the third cup.

Other cheery chirps go on in the distance. A car drives down the road; it’s only the second one I’ve seen since I arrived. The kids scoot up and down without concern. Padded up, their knees and elbows protected by plastic and velcro. It reminds me of the year my siblings and I were given bicycles for Christmas and the entire summer we’d peddle around the top of the court where we lived. My brothers were more adventurous than I. They’d walk their bikes up the steep hill at the start of our road and let the bikes speed down the slope, feet splayed out, pedals turning madly. Aimlessly riding around and around never seemed to get boring.

As the morning plays out, the woodpecker falls silent to digest its breakfast of insects gleaned from the bark. It now snoozes as the next stanza of birdsong starts up. The occasional rumble of far-off traffic or a freight train punctuating the rustic peace.

Tamika and the kids go off to Forest school to scramble about in rivers and across rocks for the next few hours. David, Lynda and I are heading into Greenville to do some banking, organise a SIM card for my phone and have a general look around. David and Lynda go inside to have a shower and get ready. I take the chance to sit out here solo and absorb my surrounds. A third cup of tea helps. In the front yard of the quiet grey house next door, an animal of some kind attacks a tree, seeds, leaves or twigs fall to the ground. In the distance, a truck applies its air-brakes. Dogs bark in the yard, their sounds echoing off the hill behind. Other dogs further up the road respond.

I look out through the balustrade and into the gully below. Heavily treed, there’s only the odd plant growing through the dense carpet of discarded leaves. Dappled sunlight brings out a rich variety of greens in the trees above. This late summer day warms my winter bones and only the sounds of traffic from nearby roads remind me that I’m not alone.

Magazine 1

Our task for this semester was to devise our own magazine. Naturally mine was all about food because that is what makes life worth living. I also blame the podcasts I’ve been recently listening to and the websites I’ve been browsing. US-based Cherry Bombe celebrates women in food by sharing their stories and building communities. Their website, printed magazine and podcast will keep you busy for hours.

I credit Magazine 1 for pushing me to research what is already out there in preparation for my own magazine proposal. I discovered our own Australian version – Fully Booked Women. I made contact with them and even wrote a book review for them. I’ve also managed to secure ongoing content creation for them with an interview a week. I’ve begun the process and am really enjoying the research side of things as well as making contact with a range of awesome women in the food and hospitality industries.

Showing my magazine proposal to a few friends in the hospitality industry, they keep asking ‘When is it going to print?’ My response – ‘Are you going to become my silent financial backer?’ It’s not just money though, of course. The many hours of work require a dedication not all have and I recognise my own limitations in regards to this.

I have a great deal of respect for those that do take this path, but it’s not for me right here and now.

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.