Dec 162023

The Writing Workshop

This class began in Term 1, 2023 when it became evident that the two other writing classes were full. Friends, Jan Taylor and Lynne Geary, decided to put themselves forward as co-coordinators of another such group; this encouraged them to write regularly and created another opportunity for Nillumbik U3A members with an interest in writing. Given neither considered themselves to be creative writing teachers, they structured the sessions in the form of hosted collaborative workshops. The idea was to attract members who were already writing and who wanted support for their writing process.

The group went from strength to strength throughout 2023, with a steady membership of eight and a ninth member joining the group later. Memoir was a strongly favoured genre, but fiction, plays, poetry and creative non-fiction focusing on travel and other issues were also contributed. As a celebration of the camaraderie and collaborative spirit of the group, not to mention the wonderful writing output, the group decided to contribute one of each of their best pieces to post here on the Nillumbik U3A website.

In alphabetical order, the following pieces have been submitted:

Dec 112023

I have climbed the Eiffel Tower
To absorb the views of Paris.
Perched high amongst the canopy
Of a warm temperate Borneo rainforest.

I have trekked over rocky ground
Beside thundering waterfalls of Yosemite National Park.
Traversed the sacred landscape
Of Uluru-Kata Tjuta in the heart of the Red Centre.

I have encountered the movement and behaviour of
South Africa’s iconic safari species.
Witnessed pristine wilderness of misty fjords,
Towering snow peaks and blue carving glaciers.

I have watched the sunrise
From a hot air balloon over Cappadocia.
Helicoptered over the striking landscape
Of the Mitchell Falls etched into layered sandstone.

I have camped under a glittering starscape
At Kalumburu in the Kimberley.
Been privileged to see Aboriginal rock art
Dating back tens of thousands of years.

I have been spellbound
By the grandeur and power of Michelangelo’s David.
Pondered for hours
The fresco ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

I have visited Monet’s house and garden
Vibrant and colourful as his paintings.
Wandered through Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top Farm
Inspiration for her children’s books.

I have been mesmerised
By the Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul.
Captivated with the rhythmic percussive footwork
Of the Spanish Flamenco dancers.

I have observed the tragedy of war.
Shrapnel-strafed buildings in Sarajevo.
Stolen, wasted lives of one and a half million at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Row upon row of white crosses
At one of the D-Day beaches.
Wept at Anzac Cove and Lone Pine Memorial
For the endurance, courage and sacrifice of men and women
In a failed campaign.
Lest We Forget.

Dec 112023

I had reached retirement. Perhaps it was finally time to do a life plan.

If I’d ever had a life plan before, it had been earlier (much earlier)—to clone my mother; to marry at twenty-six (after gaining qualifications in the health sector), to have four children and live a happy life in the country town where I was born. That seemed a good plan. Instead, I got married at twenty-two, divorced at twenty-seven and untidily left the country town—fortunately with no kids in tow. At least I had managed to get that qualification in the health sector.

But retirement brings a time of reckoning; a time when you need to take stock, to pose big questions like “Is my life on track?”, “Are my loved ones proud of me?”, “Am I proud of myself?”, “Am I achieving desired goals?” … Shit! “Do I have any goals?”

When I ventured on this path of self-appraisal somewhat late in life, some might have said the horse had bolted. But a sixty-something-year-old woman still has the possibility of twenty years stretching ahead of her. And so, I ploughed on. And where better to start the search for how to make a life plan than on the internet?

I googled ‘How to…‘.

Being impatient I scanned through the search prompts…

tie a tie, make pancakes, train your dragon, write a resume, have sex.

Trying to stay lexically lean, I added a further two search terms,

‘… do a …’

but this led to an equal lack of clarity; now I had to sift through…

how to do ahandstand, messy bun, fishtail braid, waterfall braid, tie

There was that damned tie again—is knowledge of tie tying so lacking and yet so important in this day and age? Don’t children have parents who can teach them? But maybe they don’t have to wear ties at school anymore?

Finally, I overcame my allegiance to quick and dirty solutions, and fully typed …

How to do a life plan‘,

but only after vetoing further prompts …

How to do a life… cycle analysis, event on Facebook, audit, or review.

Surely the plan should come before the audit or review and certainly before the life event on Facebook (whatever that is). Fortunately, ‘How to do a life safety plan‘ was less popular than just ‘a life plan’ without the safety, a life presumably prepared to embrace risk, or I might have just cried!

Finally, I thought I had found my Rubicon, but I still had to choose between an eleven-step life plan (with pictures) or the more tantalising seven step life plan (still with pictures). No wonder I had never done one before; it was hard enough just to know how to do one, let alone to actually do one. No wonder I’d spent my life shamefully free-wheeling—no life plan with periodic review, let alone audit. Occasionally lists appeared in my diaries that could be taken for some form of order. But being partial to writing, my efforts towards anything that resembled a ‘plan’ or a ‘review’ would then stray wildly from the succinct dot points to become more like a walk in the dark, full of imagined ghouls and goblins or tragi-romantic comedies and soap operas of the worst kind.

But retirement was an event of significant enough proportions that I did attempt a life plan. This plan now begs for my attention less than a dusty window sill. (I’m not big on dusting). Sure, I need a goal to get me out of bed in the morning, but then, I’m sure that eventually something would drive me to have that shower no matter what. And then the walk in fresh air—fitness being a valuable side-effect. A life plan goal or simply a drive, rational thinking? And then the phone call to a friend I haven’t spoken to for a while—social connection with others and sanity being a valuable side-effect. And then my class teaching Greek at University of the Third Age—a sense of purpose. Are these life-defining activities the result of a well thought-through plan?

Follow your obsessions, I once read when writing seemed to be one. And there must still be a drive within me to write for here I am, writing. Should I have a life plan to become a famous writer, to at least publish somewhere? It seems that’s not how my life works. Now that I have this understanding, I will probably never google “How to write a life plan” ever again.

What a relief.

Dec 112023

Helena was a woman in her 50s of Greek-Australian background. She came into the oncology ward where I was a fairly new social worker because of severe symptoms in her GI tract – nausea, vomiting- plus constant fatigue. The doctors on the ward established within a week or so that Helena had an advanced bowel cancer that was blocking her stomach and gut. It was beyond treatable already. To relieve her nausea she had a nasogastric tube to drain her stomach contents upwards into a bag. She was a very ill woman, but she was still able to walk, and speak to staff and her family.

Helena’s husband Stavros and son Chris were a constant presence on the ward, and made it clear from the outset that we were not to use the ‘C word’. Stavros’ reasoning was firstly that he didn’t believe she had cancer, and secondly that if we were to speak of it to her she would “give up and die.” It was, and still is, a strong conviction in many migrant communities that truth-telling about cancer is cruel – a kind of curse which condemns the person to die, and die sooner.

Stavros had his own theory about what was wrong with Helena: she had an infection. His knowledge of body functions was limited, and he did not accept that what the doctors were telling him was true. His son was less adamant, but backed his father up, seeming to see the issue as a kind of power struggle.

My role in all of this was to try to support Helena, work with the family, and facilitate family meetings. Stavros and Helena both spoke reasonably good English, so an interpreter was not needed, usually another part of my role. I met with Helena initially, but Stavros hovered, monitoring all interactions with his wife. I asked Helena her view of why she was in hospital. For Stavros, this was skating too close to the ‘truth’, whatever that was, and he ushered me out of the room. I was not to speak with Helena again. The next day he looked guilty and presented me with a bottle of wine, but he had not changed his view.

Meanwhile Helena was denied the kind of pain and symptom relief the nurses and doctors could see she needed. Her family would wake her up on their arrival on the ward and get her to walk around the corridors with her bag full of dire-looking fluid. Things came to a head when the ward staff- nurses, doctors, allied health (social worker, physiotherapist) felt that Helena was suffering and that they could not do their job effectively. It can be hard in this kind of situation to say who the patient ‘belongs to’ – the staff or the family. It was difficult to speak with Helena openly, and we needed to know her wishes and get her consent for comfort care. This was another flashpoint: pain relief, i.e. morphine, would make Helena less alert, less able to communicate with her family. “But she’s not in pain,” the family protested, “We asked her.”

The conflict escalated; this had been going on for close to two months. I and other staff grew increasingly frustrated. The decision was finally made in a staff meeting that we needed to push through the family’s gatekeeping and meet with Helena on her own. One of the senior doctors and I met with Helena in her room. We asked her what was more important to her: “Do you want to be comfortable, free of pain, or do you want to be able to talk with your family?” She said “I don’t want to suffer.” The doctor asked if she had questions, things she wanted to know. She looked uneasy, and said “No.” This clear statement from Helena allowed the ward staff to take a palliative approach, relieving her pain and distress rather than trying to treat the cancer.

Stavros and Chris never did accept that Helena had an incurable cancer, but they could eventually see that she was dying. After nearly three months of wrangling over truth-telling, who was in charge of Helena’s welfare, and much soul-searching among staff, Helena died peacefully.

In the aftermath of her death I found myself wondering “Are they right, these families? Will their loved one give up and die if they know the truth?” I researched the issue, and wrote a conference paper on ‘Offering Truth’, which was the state of the art at the time. The ill person guides us, telling us how much they want to know. This remains a fraught issue in oncology, but the trend is toward the truth.

Based on a true story. Names have been changed.

Dec 112023

I look up into the clear blue sky and imagine what they would have seen.

It was 8.16am as their children walked to school when the B29 Enola Gay expelled the experimental atomic bomb, nicknamed Little Boy. As the beautiful city incinerated under a toxic mushroom cloud, the co-pilot Robert Lewis scrolled in his log My God, what have we done?

I feel numb standing here on the exact spot that changed the course of human history – Ground Zero Hiroshima.

Hiroshima is a city the size of Adelaide and I am feeling overwhelmed recalling the hundreds of thousands that were killed or maimed. Behind me shakily stands the spooky skeleton of one of the last remaining buildings, the Genbaku Dome.

Heads bowed, we shuffle towards the nearby Peace Park Museum to pay our respects. It houses all the suffering and sins from that awful 6 August 1945 morning. Here, the walls are doused with thousands of photos and firsthand accounts, which once seen can never be unseen. The ugly reality of a lifetime of deformity inflicted from radiation, burns, cancer, poisoning and trauma. The lucky ones died instantly. The stain of Hiroshima has seeped through the generations. I was warned this would be raw and tender. Nothing prepares for such emotional disfigurement.

It is awfully quiet in here; one can hear a tear drop on these shiny floorboards. That is until a lady near me starts reading out loud some of the inscriptions:-

‘It hurts! Water! Help me Mother! I don’t want to die!’
‘My son, where are you? I am sorry I can’t save you.’

‘The corpses flooded the rivers; I just look for my child.’

‘Each time I see a girl on the street I wonder “Is this Chiyoko?” I wish she would run out and throw herself into my arms saying “Mom”

Through misty eyes I read about the thousands of children who were orphaned and had to fend for themselves. Many were stolen and sold. It ensured a generation who hated grownups and Americans. Some say the atomic bomb was payback from Japan’s slaughter at Pearl Harbour. Or perhaps Americans were flexing their atomic muscles in front of Russia. America claim justification of the bomb to shorten WW2 and ultimately save lives. Japan claim they were going to surrender anyway. The defaced children had no claim.

The bomb did stop the war instantly. A city that is easily the saddest place I have been. I pray that every soul can rest in peace and that clear blue skies can one day return for the people of Hiroshima.

Dec 112023

‘I’ll bet you think I’m homeless.’ The man looks up from his phone as the speaker settles herself beside him. Unable to stop himself, he glances at the bag she drops by her feet. ‘And probably demented.’ She grins. ‘You have no idea how many people get up and move away when I sit down. Gives me a good laugh every time. Sometimes they offer me money. I never take it, of course, well, mostly not. I can’t help it if people assume. My age, and the bag I suppose. Old woman. Big bag. Uh oh. Homeless. Lost her marbles.’ She chuckles, reaches forward, takes a small paper bag out of the big one, settles it on her lap.

He looks back at his phone.

‘I’m not, you know. Homeless. I have my own place. But I like to get out, see a bit of the world, meet people, have a chat. You meet all sorts here in the park. And you can get a good cup of tea at the café.’

He says, ‘Mmmm,’ eyes on the screen, his thumbs beginning a frantic dance.

‘I like my place well enough, I suppose. Not what I expected though, at this time of life. I thought we’d have a place with a bit of garden, a view. Well, nothing like a dead husband to put paid to those dreams. After he died I discovered his super was not quite worth what he said. Stripped down, it was, like him. No flesh on his bones by the time he went. Cancer. And he was a big body of a man you know, solid. Looked like someone you could trust. To rip you off, as it turned out.’ She snorts. ‘Don’t you worry Marge,’ he used to say. ‘Everything’ll be hunky dory’.’ She shakes her head. ‘But, you know, the unit, it does have a view of sorts, if you lean over the balcony and look towards the city.’

The silence which follows is intense enough to prompt the man to look up. His companion on the park bench is gazing at him, head on one side, mouth pursed slightly. He blushes, looks at his phone.

‘Well,’ she says, ‘You seem to have a bit of flesh on you. Not fat. I don’t mean fat. Muscle. You probably work out. That’s what exercise is called these days isn’t it? Working out? In my day that meant doing arithmetic, or solving a problem, like how to make the housekeeping stretch beyond Wednesday, or how to get grass stains off the back of a skirt. Hmm. Yes. Working out. In a gym probably.’

She narrows her eyes and nods. ‘I’ll bet you have quite good muscle definition, a six-pack even.’ His stomach tightens. She chortles. ‘You’re probably wondering how come I know so much about it. Well, I watch American Ninja on TV, and I saw that movie with Channing Tatum. I like to watch those fit young bodies. Always did, truth be told.’ He risks a glance. She is looking into the distance, hands resting on the small bag in her lap. His stomach relaxes.

‘Of course.’ She turns back to face him. ‘In those days no one went to a gym. The men got their muscles in other ways. Hauling stuff, mostly, the men I knew, in and out of trucks, up and down stairs, on building sites or down at the docks. A bit of boxing maybe. Not like the men in suits, scrawny little buggers collecting the rent and selling insurance and working in offices. God knows what they did for muscle definition.’ She looks at him sideways. ‘We women paid attention, you know. We knew what to look for. Strong buttocks, strong shoulders. Means the same now as it did then I’ll bet.’ His thumbs are still. He stares at his phone.

‘Here,’ she says. He looks up. She is holding a muffin out to him. ‘It’s alright,’ she says, ‘I got it from the café on my way here. Still in its wrapper. I always get extras in case I need them. You never know who you’re going to meet. Maybe a homeless person.’ She laughs. ‘No way you’re homeless though, not with that suit and those shoes. Probably have one of those lovely big flats overlooking the river. Though I have wondered if there might not be a bit of a smell sometimes, you know, from the river, on hot days. They say it’s still polluted.’ She holds the muffin up again, raising her eyebrows. He says, ‘No thanks. I’ve just had lunch.’ He looks down at his shoes. She shrugs. ‘Alright. I expect you are watching your weight. We need to, don’t we, as we get older. Not that you are old. Around forty maybe?’ He makes no reply. ‘Of course, people look so much younger these days. Diets. Botox. Cosmetic surgery. I never tried any of that stuff, and I stopped watching my weight. No point in watching it was there? It did what it wanted whether I watched it or not. And Mick, well he liked a bit of something to get hold of. Kids take it out of you too, of course, specially us women. Bellies all wobbly, boobs ending up down around your navel, your bits every which way. Not something you’ll ever have to worry about of course. Not the boobs I mean. Maybe the belly if you don’t keep up the gym membership. Kids?’

He stares at her. ‘Do you have kids?’ she asks. ‘Oh I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to get personal. I was just thinking. He looks about the right age. Couple of kids maybe? School age? Girl and a boy most likely.’

He shakes his head. ‘No.’ he says. ‘No kids.’ She raises those eyebrows again. Proffers the muffin, which he takes, hardly realising.

‘Oh? Well, time enough I suppose,’ she says, ‘Kids keep you young, if they don’t drive you crazy or turn you grey before your time. Mine were pretty good really. Stayed out of gaol. Gave me a computer so we can skype. Showed me how. And a phone in case I get into trouble when I’m out. They’ve got good jobs now, though exactly what they do is a mystery to me. Time was when you could understand the jobs people did. Not anymore. I bet that if I asked what you do for a living it would be something I’ve never heard of, or something like hedge fund manager or digital marketing manager, or IT specialist, those jobs people talk about in TV shows. Your job title’s probably on your Facebook page. I haven’t got one. Can’t be bothered. All those pictures of what you’ve eaten and selfies if that’s what they’re called and where you’ve been and lists of all your friends and funny symbols. ‘
Before he can stop himself, he says, ‘Instagram.’ She peers at him. ‘What?’ ‘Pictures. Usually on Instagram.’

‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Instagram. Yes, of course. That’s the one where people kill themselves trying to take the best selfie. I’ve seen it on TV. You have to laugh don’t you? Dying trying. Well, maybe not such a bad way to go. Maybe I should get myself one of those selfie-sticks, you know, and go looking for some good views. Do you like your job?’

He surrenders. ‘I do. I’m a nurse. I work in A and E.’

Her eyes widen. ‘My goodness,’ she says, ‘A nurse. Never had men as nurses in my day. I still get a bit of a surprise when it’s a man who comes to take my blood or check my wee or something. Not that I mind. I certainly wouldn’t mind having you take my blood. Goodness. A nurse. I had an aunt who was a nursing sister, in the days when they wore those big stiff white veils. She was a tartar, but even she was in awe of the doctors. Except for one, the one she worked for in his surgery, after she left the hospital. Everyone thought she had it on with him, though no one ever said. Nurses and doctors. So many doctors are women these days. I wonder if they harass the nurses the way the male doctors did, or still do. I never had much trouble with harassment myself. And I looked pretty good in my day, let me tell you. But when I was about eighteen or so I gave a couple of blokes a swift knee to the balls and word got around. Another muffin?

He shakes his head, indicates the uneaten muffin in his hand, straightens his shoulders and stands up, sliding his phone into a back pocket.

‘Off then, are you? Time for your shift I suppose. Hope you don’t get too many emergencies.’

He nods and walks away, back straight, determined not to look over his shoulder.

Later that day, on his balcony overlooking the river, he says to his friend. ‘It was as if I was hypnotised. Once she got started I could no more get up and leave than I could fly. And I kept answering her questions.’

‘Put a spell on you, huh?’ His friend says.

‘Something like that. The muffin was nice though.’ He pauses. ‘Do you think the river smells weird?’ His friend sniffs the air, shakes her head, and holds out her glass for a refill.

Dec 112023

Charlotte was determined. She wanted to see the dingoes. The queue behind us, into the main gate at Healesville Sanctuary, was swelling, impatient. How could I take my precious grandchild into an enclosure with these predatory animals?

“There will be two rangers,” the ticket seller tried to reassure me.

Entry passes in hand, we sat on a boulder, outside of the dingo enclosure, Charlotte eating her sandwiches, whilst I took a distracted occasional bite. Perhaps I’d confused the time. Not another soul was awaiting the warrigal experience. Last year when Ian, Charlotte and I were near the entry, to the Close-Up Encounter with the koalas, people milled around – family groups, couples, Japanese tourists.

“Hello there, can I see your tickets?” asked a man in khaki shirt and trousers, his hair matted and skin surprisingly weather-roughened for someone so young. It was somewhat reassuring to see the badge, on the flap of his shirt pocket, emblazoned with the word ranger.

Where was the second ranger? A photographer appeared, saying she was trained with these animals she referred to as ‘singing dogs’.

“Come on Nanna!”

We slipped through the narrow opening, the ranger holding the gate apart for the photographer, Charlotte, and me. Click! Our escape route locked behind us. I took my granddaughter’s small hand.

The ranger held a long, leather staff in his right hand, a small, steel lidded bucket in the other.

“You’ll meet Maliki and Jinda today. They’re friendly, but you’ll just need to avoid sudden movements. Keep your hands by your sides, so as not to startle them.”

I tightened my grip on Charlotte’s hand, then consciously relaxed. A gentle wash of calmness flowed from the top of my head, down over, and within, my body.

Standing very still, her top teeth over her bottom lip, Charlotte’s face was expressionless, as the dingo cub Jinda, sniffed her clothes, licked her hand. With short thick hair, like a Pomeranian pup’s, orange-ginger over her forehead, the ears and in patches down her body, a creamy-white elsewhere, she was appealing, I had to admit.

“She likes you, wants to play with you.” The ranger took the lid from the bucket and enticed Jinda away with some offal.

“That was a fantastic shot.” We had been unaware we were being photographed.

A sharp rap of the staff on a boulder, behind where we had been asked to stand, and Maliki leapt effortlessly up, standing still, posing, now turning his head 180 degrees in each direction, then sniffing the top of this girl visitor’s head. I held my grandchild gently, protectively.

Once out of the enclosure Charlotte bubbled with excitement and chatter. Unbeknown to me she had harboured her wish to see these warrigals, up close, for a whole year. Last time Ian and I took her here we had shared a bench seat, eating our lunch, and watching expectantly for the dingoes to occasionally pass. Their greyhound like bodies partly crouched, large ears erect, they warily paced along the fence line. Charlotte had wanted to stay to see more of them. Ian, her grandad, had cajoled her away, saying next time we’ll get a better look.

Dec 112023

Dear Suzanne,

I have tried to figure out how to make an interesting story of this, but I have failed. You were kind enough to show interest, so I feel obliged to make an effort. But I just haven’t known what to do.

Sometimes stories can be built up in such a way that two or more narratives are intertwined. Garrison Keilor is good at that. I had observed that he had gone past the standard Alistair Cooke story uniting technique. Garrison will alternate between narratives and use the build up of tension in one of them as an effect when he switches to the other. It works for him.

So: I could interleave bits of my boring story with a story about some bloke in the woods who runs into a bear. I could probably draw out the bear story. Maybe the bear is just about to eat this bloke but then seems to decide not to. Or perhaps he has just decided to not eat the bloke…. just for now.

I used to know a woman named Jeanie. Jeanie was a self proclaimed professional writer. She has at least one published book under her belt, but not an output that would seem to adequately account for her whole career. She decided to enter a short story competition … said that the publicity of the prize would do her good. Next we heard was that she had submitted her story and was on tenter hooks waiting for the result. Then the judges report came out. Jeanie was not mentioned. She was sure that she had only just missed out. She showed me the judges report. The judge went on and on about how there had been quite a number (about 30, I think) entries that were so good that it was almost impossible to pick a winner. As I read the report, I could see that it seemed to be addressing an unsuccessful entrant. Although it didn’t promise the reader that she had only just missed out on the first prize, it was skilfully worded to give that impression to the enthusiastic over hopeful gullible entrant.

I was immune from the trick at the time, as I had not even been an entrant. I tried to point out to Jeanie that that report would be read by all the entrants, and that they couldn’t all have only just missed out being the winner, but she would have nothing of it. It was interesting to see how important it was to her that she find comfort in the illusion that she hadn’t REALLY failed to win the competition. There was just this little technicality.

I think this is about the point where the bear stops and sniffs the air. He seems to be trying to decide whether to amble off to the right where he will surely find the man hiding behind the rock, or go the other way, where he might disappear from the story for ever.

Anyway, that was a long time ago (The Jeanie business: not the bear’s sniff).

Much more recently, when I told you that I had submitted some short stories to the Alan Marshall Short Story Competition, you asked if I would let you know what came of that. Well, I got the judges report.

(The bear sniffs again. He can definitely smell something interesting.)

The report said that there had been about 30 entries that were so good that it was almost impossible to pick a winner. Although it didn’t promise me that I had only just missed out on the first prize, it was worded to give that impression to the enthusiastic over hopeful gullible reader.

This is obviously an established formula. The report that I got was not as well written as the one that Jeanie got all those years ago. This added to the irritation. Not only had I not won, but I was being judged by a person who couldn’t write as well as Jeanie’s judge!

The judge said that one of the entries almost reached a sort of Tim Winton standard of writing. I have not enjoyed the Tim Winton that I have read, and this person… this flibbertigibbet…. thinks that someone who did better than me is not quite up to Tim Winton standards! I didn’t need long to reflect to see how the formulaic judges report had manipulated my feelings in the matter. It was silly of me to allow myself to care so much even if for a fleeting moment. If the judge was good enough to be my judge, she could have at least been good enough to do a good judges report. Perhaps she could have entwined something more interesting in with it.

The bear ambled over to the rock. There was nothing behind it. The man had just vanished. The bear was hungry, and yet this story had nothing in it for him. He wandered off in search of another story to be in.


Post Scriptum.
The bear didn’t have to walk far before he found a meal. A short story competition judge! He gobbled her up.

Dec 112023

For many years I, like thousands of other Melbourne residents, travelled past the imposing bluestone walls which encased the entire prison complex. At each corner that we could see, stood a rounded turret rising above the wall and within each turret stood or paced and an armed officer, his rifle slung over his shoulder and his gaze fixed inward. Just visible from the road above along the wall was a hint of rolls of barbed wire. On sunny days, the blue grey walls absorbed the sunlight casting shadows across the ground, on wintry days the walls added to the overall bleakness of the day, at night the walls were blackened, silhouetted by the strange orange light emanating from inside the compound.

When I was much younger, my father used to drive our family past Pentridge on the way to visit our extended family. He always told me, “That’s where they put bad people.” There was no elaboration – just a statement of uncontested fact – bad people were kept behind those walls.

Sometimes as we drove past the front entrance during day light hours, a few men in overalls would be out the front tending to the neatly manicured lawns and shrubs. A uniformed officer would be stationed nearby. These men would not acknowledge anyone, their heads down and focused on the garden beds and the paths. Everything was neat and tidy, and quiet.
The imposing perimeter walls, hewn bluestone mined from a nearby quarry (now a lake), masterfully assembled by convict labour in the 1850s, embrace the front entrance. Two castle like towers framing the turrets book end the yawning mouth of the famous (or is it infamous) Pentridge Front Gate. Sited in the southernmost tower was (and still is) the Pentridge clock tower with four clock faces, each confronting a key compass direction, each flaunting a different time!

As a youngster, I often wondered what went on behind those walls.

In autumn 1977, I was given my first opportunity to find out. The journey that day took me through the main entrance to witness the world inside the walls. I sensed I was stepping into a world which could best be described as a remote universe albeit sited only nine kilometres from the central business district of Melbourne. This was the start of my connection with Victoria’s prison system – a connection which lasts through to this very day.

On that first day I presented at the front gate as a teacher on placement to the Pentridge Education Centre, a special school registered with the Education Department of Victoria. After three years’ teaching in primary school settings, I undertook post graduate studies in special education, and this was one of the placements I experienced in that year.

As I approached the front gate, I walked past an older fellow standing alone, outside the gate, on the pavement next to Champ Street. Champ street, with its single row of bungalow houses facing the prison, served as the roadway connection between Murray Road and the hectic traffic flow on Sydney Road, Coburg. This man’s face was hidden in the shadow of a broad brimmed hat reminiscent of the 1950s, his body shape submerged under an ill-fitting heavy brown woollen suit with broad shoulder pads inserted. Under his left arm he was cradling a cardboard box to his hip. The box was secured with strands of string tied in place with a flowing bowed knot on top. He was just standing there – motionless, staring ahead, waiting.

Inside the front gate, I went through the routine that I was to become accustomed to for many years to come. My name was checked against a list of visitors; my ID was checked to assure I was that person named on the gate list; my bag and books checked to ensure I was not bringing any contraband into the prison. When the prison officers were satisfied that I was the person on the list, and that I would not contribute a security risk, a phone call was made to the prison’s education centre and an escort called for. The experience of this morning laid the foundation of the regular experiences of working in a prison – the experiences of being checked out at every post, the experience of being viewed as a potential security risk, and above all the experience of having to wait.

Everyone waits in a prison.

I was escorted through a labyrinth of alley ways and checking points known as posts all the way to the education centre before meeting the school principal, receiving a brief induction, and then being escorted again to another part of the prison where I was to be based for this four-week experience placement.

This escort took me back through the main gate explaining that we will turn to another entrance in the prison via a small gate embedded in the west facing wall.

Before exiting the front gate, the officer on the front door opened the peep hole to check it was safe to open the exit door when he mentioned over his shoulder to someone else behind me. “He’s still there. He cannot get across the road. He’ll be back here in no time.” “Typical” was the response from behind me. Sure enough, after almost two hours of my travelling, meeting with the principal and key staff, and waiting inside the prison, the man standing out front had not moved, still clutching his cardboard box to his hip.

This image is burned into my memory and, upon reflection, became the significant symbolic representation of travel between the parallel universes of prisons and community and prisons within community – me entering a prison in a professional capacity as a teacher for the first time and this man leaving the prison, ostensibly returning to the community after completion of his sentence.

Dec 112023
Eltham gardener grows freak vegetable. Tales of magic in the garden.
Rita Sidewell-West, Gardening Correspondent of the Eltham Echo, investigates.

For the second year in a row, Eltham gardener, Ruth Seidler, 72, has grown an unusual Italian heirloom zucchini variety called tromboncino. Its scientific name is Cucurbita moschata ‘Tromboncino’. One of its other names is serpentine squash (snake-like squash). This year something unusual occurred.

Ms Seidler trained the vines of her 3 plants to grow up a garden arch. Every day she went out to the veggie patch to check progress, twisting a new shoot or tendril around onto a support, watering and especially to see if there were flowers open. Like all plants in the cucurbit family (pumpkins, cucumbers and squash), tromboncinos have big yellow flowers that the bees love. Each plant grows male and female flowers. The male flowers grow on a straight stem but the female flowers grow at the end of a baby fruit shape instead.

Some days Gardener Ruth found 4 male flowers open, sometimes just one female flower and on good days one or more of each would be open. On these days, excited but calm, she used a feather or cotton bud to carefully collect some pollen from the male flower and wipe it on to the inside parts of the female flowers. “This is normally bees’ business,” she says, but she didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Often she found a bee busy inside a flower and waited until it had left with its load of pollen. Some days were dull and cool and there were not many bees around or they flew off after they had collected pollen. If the female flower received pollen at the right time a pale green tromboncino began to grow. If not, they turned yellow and withered on the vine. The healthy ones grew almost as long as Ruth’s arm, some straight, others curved.

One particular tromboncino grew vigorously, twisting like a snake, finding support on the arch.

“It was somehow different from the others,” Ruth says.

Every day she patted its thickening curves. She even gave it a name, Tromby.

“One day as I touched Tromby, I sensed the slightest stirring or a kind of pulsing. He (or was it she?) seemed to move towards my hand as if it wanted more stroking. I thought I even heard a gentle sighing sound. Next day, two green shapes like eyelids appeared at one end. I couldn’t believe it! What was this? A vegetable with animal qualities? I remembered its other name: serpentine squash. Was this this a freak of nature? I didn’t know what to think or do.”

Tromby was getting big enough to harvest. Would it be cruel to cut Tromby off the vine? She waited one day, then another. Then one morning, Tromby seemed to be leaning more heavily on the support, Ruth heard a long sigh and there was no hint of movement in the long curved body.

“Tromby seemed to be giving me permission to cut him from the vine. I used my sharp knife as gently and quickly as I could. Tromby was surprisingly heavy in my hands. He seemed to snuggle into my body as I carried him inside.”

Tromby lay still and silent on the kitchen table for several days.

Gardener Ruth says later, “At first I kept sharp knives, peelers and graters away. It seemed insensitive to say the words ratatouille, zucchini slice or stuffed vegetables in the same space. However, after about a week I decided this very large vegetable, however mysterious, was getting in the way and it was time to use it in my cooking. Perhaps I’m heartless, but Tromby became just another healthy vegetable. I cut a piece off and put the rest in the fridge. I was still curious though.”

Ms Seidler began to search the internet. Had other gardeners had unusual experiences with their tromboncinos? There were some hints of tales of magical vegetables in an ancient language of Liguria in Italy but nothing else. Fairy tales perhaps.

She eventually contacted this reporter. We met by her veggie patch where one of the intriguing long cucurbits was still hanging among the yellowing leaves of the vine. By this time she had used the “magic” tromboncino in five different meals and there was no physical evidence to examine. As I listened to her story I couldn’t help noticing that we were standing very close to the Diamond Creek. I asked if she ever saw snakes in her garden. “Oh, yes,” was her reply. “In fact, I’m sorry to say, over the years, several tiger snakes have met nasty ends right here, when we have had the veggie patch netted for birds … Aaaah … Ah-ha.” She stopped. A sudden realisation seemed to come to her.

“Perhaps, just perhaps, the spirits of those snakes are still around. Perhaps one found its way into a familiar shape … Just for a short time …” Who will ever know?

I ask if she will grow tromboncino next summer. “I’ll have to think about that,” is her reply. “I might go back to common Blackjack zucchini again.”

What do readers think? Eltham Echo would like to hear other gardeners’ experiences, especially if you have grown unusual varieties.