Musings of a mosquito magnet

foggy-dam

Psst! Wanna join a club? It’s pretty exclusive. Apparently only 20 per cent of people belong to it, although the science on that is a bit iffy, if you ask me. It’s the Mozzie Magnet Club. You’ve seen us. We’re the people scratching our ankles at the evening barbecue, especially if we’re anywhere near a pond or a dam. You might have noticed us doing a special dance when we water the garden at dusk, kicking our legs out and slapping our arms in some crazed version of a Bavarian folk dance.

This morning I was lying in bed, enjoying the fact that it was Saturday, when suddenly it began to rain and I had to run outside and rescue the washing. I spent less than five minutes outdoors and I was in constant motion, but when I got back into bed I had a mozzie bite on my thigh. Please note: I was not standing naked in the garden while I did the unpegging. I was wearing two layers of clothes. How the heck did the mozzie bite through all that fabric? Unless it went via a different route, but let’s not talk about that. This got me thinking: why are some of us the chosen ones? So I did some research and here’s what I found.

Mozzies mainly bite people with type O blood. WRONG! I don’t have type O.

Mozzies bite people who drink beer. WRONG! I don’t drink beer. Pass the bubbly, dahling.

Mozzies bite pregnant women. WRONG! A male friend of mine gets bitten as often as I do and he’s definitely not up the duff.

Mozzies bite larger people because they breathe out more carbon dioxide. Well, how rude! I’m a tall person and will admit to gaining a few kilos in the past few years (middle-age spread, anyone?) but mozzies have bitten me my whole life. When I was about 12 my parents took us to Amsterdam. We stayed in a hotel with tall windows that looked out over a canal. It was only the second hotel I’d ever stayed in and I thought it was beautiful. The breakfasts were a revelation because—shock, horror!—they had ham and cheese and crispbread instead of Weetbix. One night we went out looking for a hidden church that happened to be in the red light district. We walked past a lot of women in their underwear, sitting in windows and waiting for customers. My sister (aged 7): “Daddy, why doesn’t that lady have any clothes on?” Dad (fiddling with guidebook and looking embarrassed): “It’s supposed to be around here somewhere.” Anyway, the point of this story is that I was bitten to death and my parents remained untouched.

Mozzies are attracted to people with higher body temperatures. Guilty on that score. I’m hot. (Insert winking, tongue-in-cheek emoticon here.)

Mozzies see dark colours better, so if you wear black you’re more of a target. Sorry, but that seems terribly unscientific. Are you telling me that people who wear black suits to work get bitten but then when they change into their pink tutu for ballet class they don’t? Are there hordes of goths all over the world scratching their ankles right this minute? Do grieving nonnas get bitten more? That seems very unfair.

Mozzies like skin that has a few types of bacteria rather than many types. Eeuw. And yet, perhaps it’s better to be exclusive and have only a few types of bacteria on your skin instead of hosting any old bacteria that shows up. I really don’t know how many I’m hosting right now and I really don’t want to know, but I’d prefer not to be a bacteria slut.

Underlying genetic factors are probably the main reason some people get bitten more than others. Aha! There we have it. All of the above are the fun theories and the real answer is: we don’t know.

Many years ago I went on holiday to Venice with a friend. We had dinner one night in a restaurant by the lagoon, and it was memorable for two reasons. The first was the pizza. It was the best quattro stagioni I ever had. I still dream about that pizza. The second was the mosquitoes. It was a balmy night and the water lapped softly nearby. In the lamplight I watched mosquitoes line themselves up like planes coming into land, just over my friend’s shoulder. And one by one they flew straight past her black clothes, her beer, her O type blood, her slightly sweaty upper lip, and bit me. Like I said, it’s an exclusive club. I guess we should be flattered.

 

Slow train to Crazy Town

 

 

rainy-train

Lordy, this was a big week. There was a nerve-wracking job interview, there was an eye-watering tax bill, I spent 8.5 hours on a train to attend a 1.5-hour meeting in Sydney, where I was drenched twice by monsoonal rain, and now we’re experiencing the mother of all heatwaves. I’ve been moping around in a state of grumpy exhaustion today, not achieving much at all, so I decided to think about the small, quiet, pretty things from this week instead.

The first one was that slow train ride to Crazy Town (Sydney). I could have caught the bus and saved, oh, 45 minutes in the day, but I love the way the train sits in the landscape, travels through it rather than next to it. It was a blessedly cool, rainy day and I had two seats to myself. The train is only three carriages long: A, B and D. Why there’s never a carriage C is a mystery I haven’t cracked yet. The train often malfunctions (doors won’t shut, toilets block, aircon breaks down) but it’s staffed by a small crew of lovely people who are unfailingly nice.

As we trundled along, a common topic of conversation was why there isn’t a fast train yet, when the government’s been talking about it for decades. But, you know, if the train went faster we wouldn’t see the mob of kangaroos splashing through streams in a gully. We wouldn’t see the sunlight catch the bleached grass seeds on the top of the embankment. We wouldn’t notice that black cows run away from the train but brown cows don’t. (Not scientifically proven but definitely observed!) There’s something about the landscape of the southern tablelands that sings to me and makes me so glad that I live there.

Sydney was as busy and noisy as ever. Even the weather was ostentatious. The rain was coming from all directions and there was no way of keeping dry, so I sat dripping in a café and drank chai and ate the best masala dosa in the known universe and felt that I could be in actual India in the actual monsoon.

masala-dosa

Every time I’m in Sydney I try to meet my friend Ian at the Maya Vegetarian on Cleveland Street. We always say next time we’ll try something else from the menu but we never can. The dosa is too good. The slightly fermented taste of the crispy pancake, the chilli in the potato/lentil filling and the three sauces—bitter, hot and cool—are a winning combination. The desserts are lip-smacking as well. Besan burfi, loaded with cardamom and pistachios, is my favourite. I’d show you a picture but it didn’t stick around long enough to be photographed.

Another small thing that I’m grateful for this week is this book:

patti

I really think books find you at the right time. This is exactly the book I needed to read this week. It’s been wonderful accompanying Patti Smith while she sits in cafés and writes and thinks about life. She lets you into her brain and makes you laugh out loud at some of her thoughts.

A pretty thing appeared unexpectedly in the garden this week:

lily

This pale pink lily decided to bloom while everything else wilted and got sunburnt, which just goes to show there’s always an up side if you look for it.

And back to that slow train. On the long trip home I listened to random songs, tracks from old CDs I hadn’t heard for years. It was so good to have the time to sit and really listen. As Paul Weller sang “Broken Stones” I noticed what a beautiful soul voice he has, and I reminisced about when I was a teenager, when I was in love with The Jam. I listened to French pop and Indian dance music and imagined dancing down the aisle of the train and getting all the other passengers to join me. Then the Eagles sang “Take it easy” and I thought how right they were. When the week is overwhelming and you’re stuck on the slow train to Crazy Town you still have a choice:

Take it easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand, and take it easy.

Cheesy, but true. Have a good weekend. If you live in the heatwave zone, stay cool. In fact, stay cool anyway, wherever you live.

 

Inspiration

peacock

Five years ago I started writing a book. I had just come out of a brief but exquisite love affair and I needed to write about it. Over one weekend I wrote 12,000 words. They just poured out of me. Then there was a bit of a lull. The sadness of it ending overwhelmed me and I couldn’t write anymore. I went into that spiral of self-loathing and asking why, and it was too painful to write about. After that, life got “interesting” for quite a few years and all I could do was hang on for the ride. There wasn’t much time to write, but now and then I jotted down a few things. Gradually the word count grew, but I wasn’t happy with what I’d written. It wasn’t the book I wanted to write. It certainly wasn’t the book I wanted to read. It was a jumbled collection of writings that didn’t fit together. There were sparks in there, points of light that I could see shining through, but the rest of it kind of resembled the grey fluff that comes out of the vacuum cleaner.

Many times I thought I should just give up on it, but I couldn’t. There were other stories I wanted to write, and I felt that they were being held up. There was a pipeline of stories and the others couldn’t move until I got the first one out of the way. I wrote myself notes about it: “Write linking passages! Develop the characters! Polish the dialogue! Make it sing!” But each time I worked on that story I couldn’t make it into what I wanted it to be. And still it sat there, mostly in my mind but also on scraps of paper and in a muddled Word document, refusing to go away until I cracked the code, discovered the secret or turned the right key.

Well, this week the key turned. It’s almost the end of my holidays and I’ve been feeling vaguely dissatisfied with my creative endeavours. There’s been baking and blogging and sewing but nothing BIG and EXCITING and INSPIRATIONAL! I got out my notes, the whole jumbled bag of them, and started sorting through everything I’d written, not just to do with the story but everything and anything. I found little snippets of things to use, to work into the story. I was resigned to it being a mediocre story, perhaps only a novella; the main thing was to get it done. I sorted the notes out and left them on the table. Then I went into town to do some mundane tasks.

While I was in town I decided to have a coffee. I always need something to read while I’m in a café, so I bought a copy of a magazine called womankind. I’d bought it once before and loved that it had longish articles that posed interesting questions. It also has really beautiful illustrations, photos and art. It’s worth buying for the art alone. I drank my coffee and read an article entitled “The Freedom to Fail”, which, in a nutshell, looks at life from a different angle and asks why we are driven to succeed all the time. It suggests that we should try things because they have worth, meaning for us, even if society judges us to have failed. When success doesn’t matter, the article says, you can truly do anything you like and find it valuable and rewarding.

The article also quoted Elizabeth Gilbert. I somehow missed the whole Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon and read the book only after I’d heard her give a TED talk on creativity. I remember her saying in that talk that she believed creativity/inspiration/ideas sit out there in the ether and kind of rush into you, and it’s up to you whether you act on them. Remembering that made me go and buy her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Then I went home and started reading it. Writers, artists, creatives, if you are stuck, read this book. It will tell you things you already know but have forgotten. It will remind you of the joys of creativity, the excitement of inspiration. Most importantly, it will make you get off the couch and do something just for the love of doing it.

I hadn’t got very far before I was inspired to open my computer, go through those notes on the table and just start writing something, anything. I looked at the 35,000 words I had already and decided the tense was wrong. So I went through the whole thing methodically and started to change the tense. It wasn’t terribly creative labour. It was grunt work, a process, but it put me back in touch with the original work and made me see again that there was something there. Buried deep under the rubble there was a jewel to polish. When I’d had enough of fixing the tenses, I shut the computer down. And that’s when the key turned.

The minute I switched off the computer, inspiration hit me in the head. It not only hit me in the head; it flooded my brain with light and colour and understanding and I started to laugh out loud, alone in my lounge room, like a mad woman. And even then I considered not acting on it, not bothering to restart my computer. I thought about going to make a cup of tea and then doing something else instead. But I forced myself to sit down again and begin to write. The inspiration was to totally change the framing of the story, to tell it using an entirely different format that allows the story to be as personal as it needs to be, allows conversations to flow in a way they hadn’t before, allows me to add in all sorts of mini stories and anecdotes that didn’t sit together previously.

So I started to write in the new way, rearranging, embellishing, polishing, and I felt ridiculously elated, as if I’d swallowed a bubble of pure happiness. I saw how it all could work.  I wrote for a couple of hours. This morning I woke up feeling nervous and excited. I tingled with anticipation. It was the same feeling, I realised, as being in love, starting a beautiful love affair, except this time the love was for a creative project. This was the book I wanted to write. This was the book I wanted to read. The emphasis on I is intentional because after years of waiting I’ve cracked the code, turned the key, discovered the secret: I’m doing it for me, because I love it, because it makes me happy. And because I can.

 

Calm

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When someone you love is suffering, you feel that you should be able to do something about it. You want to make them better, make it stop, make everything all right again. You do all the little things, whatever is in your power to do, but you can’t take away their pain or change what’s happening to them. The only thing you can really hope to change is how you feel.

Recently I was driving along and crying at the same time. (I know this doesn’t sound like a story about calm, but bear with me.) I wanted to cry hard, I wanted to sit in my car and scream, but I was on a busy highway and I didn’t want to have an accident on top of everything else. “Just wait,” I told myself. I knew I would soon be driving on a quiet country road with no-one else around. “Wait till then,” I said, “then you can scream as much as you need to.” In the meantime I concentrated on breathing. I said it out loud: “Breathe in. Breathe out.” And that’s what I did. Breath and the road, they were my focus.

By the time I turned off the highway I didn’t need to scream. The valley rolled itself out before me in exquisite detail. Lush green paddocks stretched either side of the road, so different from the blond, dry grass at home. Black and white cows with fat bellies stood around under trees or grazed quietly. An amphitheatre of rock reared up at the back of the valley and I drove up it, around tight bends, past giant tree ferns and tall, tall gums reaching up into the sky.

Near the top of the escarpment wisps of cloud hung low and aimless while the trees leaned towards each other across the road as if about to speak. I heard bellbirds and whipbirds and felt the cool air. Then the road cut through the eerily ancient national park. I looked for lyrebirds and wombats and wouldn’t have been surprised to see hobbits.

It was a gift, a beautiful drive that lifted the heart and soothed the spirit. Nothing had changed. No-one was better. No suffering was relieved. But calm had returned, and with it a kind of acceptance. Breathe in, breathe out, look around, keep going. That’s all, really, and it’s enough.

Stash

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This old glass-fronted cupboard in the living room used to be stuffed with books, but now it’s got a new job as a fabric display cabinet. In my old house I kept my stash of material hidden away in a spare bedroom, but the fabrics are so pretty that I decided to show them off when I moved here. There are brocades in shiny scarlet and jade that I bought in a dowdy but fascinating little department store in Hong Kong about five years ago. One day I’ll make them into padded jackets with a Nehru collar. There are lengths of cotton from the Northern Territory, block-printed by hand in powerful Indigenous designs, that I bought in Darwin on a work trip. One is going to become a dress, one a pair of fisherman’s pants and one a long skirt. There’s soft batik cloth from Indonesia, given to me by a friend, just begging to be made into a maxi-dress. It’s a warm reddish-purple, printed with flowers and leaves and bordered with paisley teardrops. And there’s fine, delicately patterned cotton brought back for me from India by my sister that’s going to be turned into shirts and tunics.

Less glamorous but of sentimental value are the remnants of old clothes, sheets and pillowcases that are too pretty to throw  away. There’s also my much-loved deep red mohair throw that I put in the washing machine on a hot wash by mistake. Sacré bleu! It’s now a third of its size and twice as thick, but I’m hanging onto it to make it into a boiled wool jacket with chunky hand stitching. All these fabrics, with their various lengths, colours and thicknesses, wait patiently for their destiny. This cupboard, I’ve realised, is about potential. It’s also about the fact that I’m a little bit scared of my sewing machine and my sewing history is littered with failure: the terry-towelling bikini I made at school (had no elastic in it), the wrap-around skirt (so big it made me look like I was wearing a bustle) and the “ever so simple to sew” cotton top (front was a totally different size from back).

But failure makes you a better seamstress, right?! That’s the philosophy I’m going with in this brand-new year and…drumroll!…I’ve started a sewing project, with the help of this inspirational book: Everyday Style. I’m making a tunic out of one of the lovely Indian cottons and so far it’s working. The book does assume some knowledge of sewing, plus you have to trace the pattern onto your own paper, but going slowly and tweaking things where necessary seems to be the key. So far I’ve just cut the pieces out and pinned them together to see if the tunic fits and, to my great surprise, it does! Next step: learn to work scary sewing machine properly. Wish me luck! What are you working on at the moment? I’d love to hear about it!

sewing

 

 

 

Fat rascals

fat-rascals

Ooh, these are my new favourite thing, another in a long list of cakey treats that I’d never heard of but had to bake as soon as I found out about them. They’re a traditional Yorkshire bun, somewhere between a scone and a rock cake in texture, and they’re called Fat Rascals. Isn’t that adorable? Actually, there’s been a bit of a to-do about the name, as a famous bakery/tea shop chain in England bought the rights to the name a few years ago, apparently while no-one was looking, so now everyone else who makes and sells them is supposed to call them Yorkshire Scallywags. “What a beastly swizz!” as they used to say in children’s books in ye olden days. It’s like a chocolate company buying the rights to the word “chocolate” and making everyone else call it “addictive cocoa product”.

I first saw a picture of these chunky scone-ish things the other day, when some friends of the family who live in England went out for a snowy drive across the Yorkshire dales and stopped for tea. They took a picture of a large speckled bun with cherries on top and posted it on Facebook. I instantly lost interest in all their other photos showing stunning snowy countryside and winsome sheep. I leaned towards my computer to get as close as possible to the bun picture and said out loud, “What is that?!” As it happened, their son was in Canberra this week, so I made some in honour of his visit: Fat Rascals for a true Yorkshire scallywag.

I recommend eating them warm out of the oven with a bit of butter on top. I found several recipes on the net and tweaked them to make my own. The biggest change was that I didn’t put sultanas in as I don’t like the way tarnies get swollen and bloated when they’re cooked. When I was a child I usually picked the bloated sultanas out of Mum’s bread pudding and wiped them on the underside of the table. (Sorry, Mum!) I also made mine gluten free, as I’m coeliac, and they worked just fine using pre-mixed flour. Here’s my Fat Rascals recipe:

  • 150g gluten free self-raising flour
  • 150g gluten free plain flour
  • 1 heaped teaspoon gluten free baking powder
  • 1 heaped teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 125g butter
  • 150g currants
  • 1 egg
  • about 5 tablespoons milk
  • 1 extra egg yolk + one tablespoon of water to glaze the buns
  • glace cherries
  • blanched almonds

Heat the oven to 200C

Cube the butter and whiz it in the blender with the flours until it looks like breadcrumbs (or rub it in by hand if you prefer). Tip the mix into a large bowl. Stir in the baking powder, spices, sugar and currants. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients. Lightly beat the egg and pour it into the dry ingredients with about 4 tablespoons of milk. Mix everything together well and add more milk if the mixture seems dry. You want it to come together like soft dough. Break the dough into eight equal pieces and make each piece round and about 2cm in depth. Put them on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Mix the extra egg yolk and the water together in a cup. Brush the top of each rascal with the egg/water mix, then press two cherries into the dough to make eyes and three blanched almonds to make goofy teeth. Stand back, admire your work and laugh. Then bake them for about 20 minutes or until they’re golden.

They look even funnier when they come out of the oven, as the eyes move further apart during baking. Wait for them to cool a bit if you can, put the kettle on for a cup of tea, then spread some butter on a warm rascal and leave the washing up till later.

 

 

 

Taking stock

silver-lining

We had a terrific storm on 30 December. There was a startling orange and purple sunset, then castles of cumulonimbus clouds built higher and higher into the sky and thunder shook the house. It wasn’t New Year’s eve, but I liked the symbolism of finishing the old year with a bang and being washed clean by the rain. And see that silver lining in the picture above? It’s clearly there, under all the heaviness and drama.

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. If the past five years have taught me anything it’s that the idea that we can control our lives is an illusion. I read a great quote by someone who endured terrible hardship for a long time and lived to tell the tale. He said: “Hope for everything but expect nothing.” You might think that sounds a little negative, but it’s quite the opposite. It’s our expectations that make us feel entitled, sad, frustrated, angry. My experience is that when we don’t expect anything but are always hopeful then we are often surprised and delighted. Instead of making resolutions, I thought I’d take stock. It’s something lots of bloggers do, a snapshot of life as it is right now. Here’s my list:

Reading:   The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks. I love that he is part of his landscape, how he remembers who built each dry stone wall, how he knows the character of each sheep on his farm. He’s so attuned to the natural world he lives in. Most of us have lost that, as we rush around from here to there, always thinking of the next thing and forgetting to watch and listen to our environment.

Luxuriating: In my new bed. Why did I wait so long to buy one?!

Doing: Lots of yin yoga for my sore back and hips. (Again, why didn’t I buy a new bed sooner?!)

Watching: The mauve and apricot sunset over the Brindabellas each night.

Wishing: I could have a dog.

Enjoying: Researching all the dog breeds, all the pet rescue sites, and dreaming about the type of dog I’ll get when I can have one. For now, here’s a picture of Geoff, or Sir Geoffers, a most self-contained and noble greyhound who likes coming to visit:

geoff

Eating: Salmon with home-grown lettuce and herbs, deep red juicy plums and fragrant white peaches, grainy and sweet peanut halva—light foods after the Christmas excess.

Enjoying: Rain once a week, making the leaves sparkle and glitter, remembering the 10-year drought we had a while back and marvelling at the change now.

Discovering: A huge orchard swallowtail butterfly seemingly asleep on the plum tree at dusk, leading to the question “Do butterflies sleep?” It turns out that they just rest, or become quiescent. Isn’t that a lovely word?

Listening: To old vinyl records that I can now play on my new el-cheapo turntable. The speed is slightly warped, so everyone sounds a bit fast and tinny. Or maybe that’s how vinyl always sounded and I’ve forgotten. And they need a clean…a clean…a clean…a clean…!

Coveting: Many of the paintings in The Popular Pet Show at the National Portrait Gallery. It really is the loveliest exhibition. I’m going for the third time this weekend and I’ve bought the book. It’s on till March. I’ll miss it when it finishes.

Feeling: Glad to be swimming again, gliding through silky, sunlit water, listening to insects hum in the bushes around the pool.

Planning: How to furnish and decorate this gem of a house that I’ve moved into.

Pondering: How to have more time to write, create, finish the yoga course I started a year ago. My aim was (and still is) to hold relaxing classes for middle-aged busy people like me whose body parts are becoming increasingly creaky. Someone suggested I call it “Yoga for Stiffs”. That’s not a bad idea, particularly since it’s taking me so long to finish the course!

Loving: Being at home for a few weeks, talking and laughing with friends, getting to know the neighbours, listening to birdsong, having time to read and sleep and eat well.

Hoping: For a year of new experiences, small delights, and oceans of time to enjoy them. Here’s to 2017.

oceans-of-time

The importance of rest

resting-roos

So that was Christmas. The inedible Christmas cake that crumbled like an ancient monument. The family get-together marred, as always, by the flawed communication habits that we can never seem to change. We all know where the buttons are and how to push them. This year there was an uninvited guest, that bastard cancer, hanging around, affecting everything we did and said. Then there were the friends who visited, bringing with them cherries and welcome laughter and stories of Christmas in countries far away.

Literally every man and his dog came to visit. I confess I was so tired that I would rather have paid for the people to go to a hotel and just looked after the dogs instead. There was the retired greyhound who spent his racing life in the country and now lives at the coast, where he always seems lethargic. Turns out he missed the inland life. He was more animated here than I’ve ever seen him. He  suddenly loved going for walks. Then a husky arrived with his people. He patrolled every boundary and spent a lot of time going up and downstairs to check where everyone was. He was given a piece of toast one morning and thought it was so special that it had to be buried in the garden straight away. We watched him hide it, deftly covering it with earth then using his nose to shovel leaves on top of it. I was sure I’d be able to dig it up again, having watched where he put it, but he’d done such a good job that I couldn’t find it.

When did Christmas become a festival of food? There was so much preparation, so much clearing up. I felt like Cinderella stuck in the kitchen. More than once I considered becoming a vegetarian (no turkey to cook) Buddhist (no Christmas) and going on a retreat (no noise). I soon realised that the usual quiet at my house is not what people are used to. Some couldn’t bear it, and the blasted TV went on. As an introvert who needs periods of quiet and solitude to function, the hardest thing for me was the inability to leave my guests and disappear for half an hour or so, to go somewhere quiet and rest.

Rest is not much valued in our society. In a culture where busy is the norm, rest is seen as somehow lazy, indulgent, selfish. We have to allow ourselves to rest. The only time when we as a nation truly condone rest is now, in the small space of time from Christmas to the first week of January. This is the time to stop multitasking, time to drop the “should” from each day, time to do as we please. That’s exactly what I intend to do. I hope you can too. When I began to tidy up after the last guests had gone, I found that their daughter had left me a gift on the bookshelf: a butterfly’s wing, a small, quiet, pretty reminder of the importance of floating lightly through the next few days. I wish you a peaceful new year. Have a good rest, won’t you? I’m sure you’ve earned it.

O Christmas tree

christmas-tree

When I was 11-and-three-quarters I was for one brief moment the fairy on the Christmas tree. It happened during the school concert, when I fell off the stage, landed on the Christmas tree and took it down with me. Actually, our school hall didn’t have a stage, so the enterprising teachers decided to build a makeshift one out of slippery plastic tables stacked on top of each other. On top of the tiers of tables they put chairs and benches. It looked pretty good. This was in the 1970s, when no-one had heard of OH&S. Being tall, I was seated in the back row, right at the end, next to the rather magnificent Christmas tree.

Our music teacher was fierce. He was passionate about music and about one of the other teachers, who he would send notes to throughout the day. He always sent them via one of the students, who would read the note and tell everybody else what was in it. So we knew he liked music and Miss R, but we were pretty scared of his temper and of the spit that would fly out of his mouth when he got cross. We practised hard for the concert. I knew all the words to the songs and had my part for the recorder group down pat as well. At the final rehearsal the music teacher looked at us sternly and told us nothing was to go wrong in this concert.

On the night, the hall was full. There was excitement, anticipation, in the air. We stood up to sing and it was magnificent. We went straight into the next carol and it sounded good too. I think we did one more, then the teacher motioned us to sit down. As I went to sit, my chair slid sideways off the shiny plastic table, taking me with it. I sailed off the makeshift stage onto the Christmas tree, with its sparkling lights and prickly pine needles. Time stood still. I felt as though I was suspended on the Christmas tree for a long time, then it gave way and I fell to earth with a crash.

I wondered if I was dead, then I realised that pine needles were sticking into my back and the legs of the chair were on my neck. There was no sound, except perhaps the shocked inhale of all the parents and students in the hall. I lay there, unable to believe that I was lying on the Christmas tree with a chair on top of me. I remembered that nothing was to go wrong in this concert. Oh dear. This wasn’t part of the program. Then I heard running, from a long way off. Like the Bionic Man (a popular TV character at the time) the PE teacher was sprinting towards me, down the aisle between the rows of parents. He used his superhuman strength to get the chair off me, lift me off the Christmas tree and take me into the classroom next door.

I had never really liked the PE teacher. He wore nylon shirts—not a good choice in that profession. But now he was my hero. He had saved my life, or at least cut short my embarrassment. Back in the hall, the choir had begun to sing again. The PE teacher made me sit down. I was shaking but nothing was broken…except the Christmas tree. The door opened and a boy came in who I had a bit of a crush on. He was supposed to sing a solo next, so he was getting ready for his big entrance. “Was that you I saw with your legs in the air, lying on top of the Christmas tree?” he said.

A bit later, it was time for the recorder group to play. I went out with the group, as a way of easing back into the concert without being obvious. I was shaking so much that I mimed all the recorder pieces, every single one. I couldn’t blow a note. Then I climbed back up on to the stage. My chair, I noticed, was now tied to the one next to it. I mimed all the songs in the rest of the concert. Each time I sat down, I practically sat in my neighbour’s lap. “Move over!” she said once. No way.

My parents weren’t at the concert so I got a lift home with a friend. (Hello, Judith, if you’re reading.) “That went well,” said her mum, “except for the poor girl who fell off the stage.” She didn’t realise it was me. My friend held my hand and shook her head and we said nothing. The next day at school I thought I’d be in big trouble. All morning kids came up to me and asked me if I’d got into trouble yet. Then someone asked if I’d have to pay for the Christmas tree lights. I hadn’t even thought of that. How much did they cost?

Eventually the music teacher came to find me. Amazingly, he wasn’t cross. He asked me if I was all right and he seemed really concerned. I asked him about the Christmas tree lights. “Oh, I don’t know anything about that,” he said. At lunchtime, when I was outside, I saw the deputy head walking towards me, his hands in his pockets, bellowing at the boys to take their hands out of theirs. He was a ruddy-cheeked Welshman who shouted a lot but never lost the twinkle in his eye. This was the moment of truth. How much would I have to pay? Would my pocket money cover it? “It’s the fairy on the Christmas tree!” he said, laughing. I started laughing too, from embarrassment as much as relief. “Don’t worry,” he said, “We won’t charge you for the lights.”

Merry Christmas, everybody!

One hundred forests

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Gentle rain, and the garden glows green. Is there anything better than being on holiday, being able to go back to bed with a book and a cup of tea while the rain falls softly on the verandah roof?

A friend from Sydney came to visit. She loves trees as much as I do, so on a drizzly day we went to the National Arboretum and joined a tour led by a volunteer with passion, knowledge and dry sense of humour (the best qualities for the job, don’t you think?!). When the idea for an arboretum was first proposed, the site was a burnt-out pine plantation, devastated by the 2003 bushfires. I lived not far away at the time of the fires and I remember my landlord standing on the roof of my little house, hosing down embers until about 10pm, when the wind changed and we knew we were safe. Amazingly, the 90-year-old Himalayan cedar and cork oak forests that grew beside the plantation survived.

The decision to plant an arboretum on the site was in part to symbolise healing after the fires. When the planners stood in the two remaining forests, our guide told us, they realised how different each one felt and decided that the arboretum should be composed of many forests of a single species—rare, threatened, symbolic, international and local—species with spectacular autumn or spring colour and species that would support wildlife. As I listened to him talk, I thought my heart would burst with happiness at the forethought, the vision, the creativity. Each forest is planted in a unique arrangement—for example, the trees in the weeping snow gum forest are planted in a snowflake pattern. From the air it must look spectacular. The original plan was for one hundred forests and so far the count stands at 94.

We stood in the rain and looked out at the panorama and I thought how glad I was that my taxes contribute to this expanse of trees that delights and inspires, a place of beauty that keeps growing not just upward and outward but greener. Trees grow slowly in Canberra. It will be decades before some of the plantings become forests, each with their own special character. “Come back in 80 years and check this one out,” said our guide, waving his arm at a particular forest. We all laughed. Then the woman next to me said, “My spirit will come back.” Mine too.

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