Mar 132022

Stories by our members

Various stories and songs by various of our members.

Also, see some stories written by our Collaborative Writing group and some other stories written by our Writing Workshop.

Feb 052024

Many years ago, I joined my siblings and nephew for a holiday at a small island in Belize called Ambergris Caye. My younger sister owned and operated a B&B there. The island had just started to be discovered by tourists. There were no paved roads and most people either walked or got around in golf carts.

One day, looking for adventure, my 8-year-old nephew suggested that we go for a drive in the golf cart right to the tip of the island. I didn’t think the road went to that point but he insisted it did, as his Dad had gone there the day before.

We headed off on our adventure and eventually arrived at a point which seemed to be the end of the road but clearly was not the tip of the island. An area of dirt to our right looked drivable. My nephew insisted that we needed to take that ‘road’. This is where I should have remembered that my brother-in-law was prone to exaggerating his achievements.

Soft bumpy dirt soon turned to mud and the next thing we knew, we were bogged! Full sun with a temperature in the high 30s, no hats or sunnies. There we were, standing in heavy mud trying to work out how we were going to get this cart out. This was before mobile phones, of course.

After several innovative attempts to get the cart free, we resigned ourselves to walking through the deep mud, back to find help. A golf cart rental guy came and picked it us up and we enjoyed watching his golf cart double as a tow truck. Then back to the B&B where we endured a lecture from my sister on how stupid we were and how this might affect her relationship with the cart rental company. What a day it had been!

The lesson of this story may not be what you’d expect. In the end, what I learned was this: Sometimes when you are hot and bothered, stop and think. Is it really that bad or will this, one day, bring laughter? Will it be a memory you cherish, of a challenge shared and overcome?

Dec 112023

Human beings are community animals. Initially, their families are their close community. Their community connection grows by adding friends and expanding social activities. This personal expansion aims to build relationships for them to find their place in the world and the local community.

For the special few, out of their wants, needs, and imaginations, they create their ideal community and develop a town and places to provide living opportunities to share with others. Some are born, live, and die, adding to the history of an existing community and leaving a legacy for the future to build on. Others are fated to search for years before finding a suitable place where they belong.

Hurstbridge is such a place, with a forty thousand-year-long history of habitation by the local First Nations population. Colonial settlers then came seeking their fortunes. Waves of people seeking relief from the city rat race reaching out from Melbourne continue to come. There are many good reasons to become part of this whole community. My awareness has taken decades and years to develop, the story of which, with your indulgence, I would now like to share.

This particular day’s morning walk was down my street, along Chione’s Way, then onto Ferguson’s Paddock. The sun was shining, birds were singing with the buds of new life bursting forth. Struck by the sounds of birds, I could feel the wind in my hair and face. The grass smell, the visual beauty of flowering buds on the pathside fruit trees, and the golden blanket of wattle near the footbridge conspired to trigger a review of my life.

Standing on the footbridge, I observed the gurgling of the Diamond Creek as it passed beneath the footbridge on its way to Diamond Creek township. The water wound past the fallen trunks and branches of eroded bushes from the last high water. Along the bitumen path, earthworms were wriggling to cross the barren waste to get to the grass on the other side. Any worms who lay limp were a testimony to the attempt. Dead limbs of fallen trees reached upwards as if to pay homage to the light. The sun coming up broke through the canopy of leaves to create changing shadows of dark and light across the path as the wind blew gently through the trees.

In Ferguson’s Paddock, a sense of calm and peace seeped into every part of my being. As I stopped to absorb the extensive view, I became more and more attuned to what was occurring around me. My mind stilled and was quiet in this place with nothing else to do. The impact of nature appealed to the deepest part of my being and reminded me that I was still part of the natural world. The calls and flight of birds confirmed that I shared this place with many other species. That thought brought gratitude to my heart and joy to my soul. Walking around gave me time to reflect on my belief systems in a way the usual frenzied workday did not permit.

Strangely, thoughts came flooding out of a nearby group of tall gum trees. As a science fiction nerd, I recognised this was a verbal line from the Star Trek TV series. The Borg’s short message to human beings: ‘Resistance is futile’ and then, ‘You will be assimilated.’

A further tide of thoughts and memories then cascaded in me. Recent colonial history abounds in this place, from the murder of Henry Hurst, Sir John Monash’s concrete bridge, to the memorial to Peter Brock, to the many carefully preserved buildings such as Allwood House. The pathway I had just walked was named to celebrate the short life of a child who lived next to me.

Why had I missed until now noticing the natural beauty of living here? The excuse that came to mind was that I was heavily engaged in mastering my job. I had little free time to appreciate this place. For my children and my wife, I’m sure it was different. My resistance took the form that home was just a place to lay my head at night after the day’s work activities.

Now retired and on this morning walk, I explored ways to absorb the natural beauty of this place that I hadn’t considered possible before. The natural beauty of life around me blossomed and had a hidden yet important message about life existing in this place. A series of cyclic renewal energy exists seasonally in all life, the cycle creating the basis of history for us all.

In the past, I had considered myself separate from whatever nature surrounded me. Today, in the special moment of feeling fully connected to life in this place, I realised that my resistance to fully embracing life was futile. Here in Hurstbridge in the Nillumbik Shire, I had now been assimilated into the community and this place.

As I later write this story, I find another gift from the experience. I am aware of my poor knowledge of the Wurundjeri-Willian clan that lived here centuries before I came into the area. However, my life connection to the timeless lifeline of this place is now clear. In my mind’s eye, aided by an awakened heart, I can envisage an ancient version of this place and its surroundings. More natural beauty existed under the care of the local indigenous people, who appreciated the natural world and lived in simple harmony with local life.

The current local area energy cannot match the beauty in that vision, only hang onto the natural beauty we have now. The community continues to resist the pressures of inappropriate development to preserve a place where seekers of a simple lifestyle can belong. I rejoice that I finally can appreciate the essence of the beauty left in this special place.

Dec 112023

There are patches of blue in the sky, alongside some grey, white clouds. It’s a coolish day and the yew leaves are tossing back and forth on their branches. The green lawns are lush from the Scottish rains.

‘I cannot see you,’ cries Angus. Then, he hides behind a tree and occasionally pokes his head around its trunk. He is about eight years old. He wears his corduroy trousers, a flannel shirt and a tartan jacket. He sneezes from the flowering heather blowing through the air.

Down below, he catches a glimpse of an old, stone building that looks like a castle with its gothic style windows and turrets up on its walls. It has a wide entrance door and latticed windows. Perhaps, a Lord or Lady lives here.

Angus cannot see his friend anywhere. He looks down upon the castle and wonders if his friend, Maisie has entered it.

‘Hello Maisie, where are you? Have you gone into the castle?’ he shouts. Some peacocks wail up on the grassy area and their long tail feathers trail behind them.

He looks to the left and then, to the right and then, hurries towards the castle. He can see that the heavy, wooden castle door is ajar so he pushes it further open and it creaks ominously.

Cobwebs hang down from the rafters, a musty smell lingers everywhere and dust covers all of the furniture. A large ironwork candelabra hangs down from the ceiling and it holds white, pillar candles. A wood fire is burning in the fireplace and sparks fly about.

The floor is like nothing that he has seen before. It’s made of slate of different shades of blue and grey and they feel cold under his feet and Angus shivers. Maisie is nowhere to be seen. His breath becomes quicker as he sees a knight in battered armour standing in the corner of the room. Is it real?

As he hears the creaks and groans of the ancient building, an old woman hobbles using a stick into the dining room. She taps her stick against the floor and cries out feebly, ‘Who are you? What are you doing here, young man? This is my home and you are trespassing!’

The old lady’s long dress is made of shimmering silk and lace and as she speaks, she pulls up her woollen, tartan shawl around her shoulders.

‘I’m Gus and I didn’t know anyone lived here. I’m searching for my friend, and we were playing Hide and Seek. I don’t know what trespassing means.’

‘It means …’

‘Boo!’ cries out Maisie from behind a carved door.

‘Now, what is going on? I’m waiting for my son to come home. He is out riding on the moors and he will be furious to see you two here in our home. Now, hurry on and don’t let me find you here again!’

Gus can hear the tree branches scratching against the windows and he begins to tremble. His heart beats quickly and he cries out to his friend, ‘Come on Maisie! Let’s go! We need to get out of here!’

They both run to the door, and Lady Thistlewaite slams it shut. Suddenly, it opens again and she peers out, agitated.

‘I’ve changed my mind! You can cook my dinner! I want lamb stew and vegetables. All of the ingredients are there on the bench. Cook has called in sick. The kitchen is that way!’ The old lady points her stick out to the back of the dining room.

Gus and Maisie trudge off to the kitchen and they see lots of pans and utensils hanging from a steel rod. They start chopping the vegetables and see a variety of meat bones lying on a plate.

‘You can peel the potatoes, Maisie and watch the knife. It’s very sharp!’

‘I absolutely will Gus.’

They cook up the carrots, potatoes, peas and broccoli in a large pot and then, add the bones. It simmers away on the cooktop. After a while, the smell of the stew makes Gus hungry.

‘I’m famished.’

So, he ladles out some of the stew onto a plate. He munches on the meal and the lamb shanks are tasty and tender.

‘Mmmh! Mmmh! ‘he says and he cries out to Maisie, ‘Have some! It’s really quite delicious!’

‘Won’t the old bat want some?’ asks Maisie.

‘Aye sure, there’ll be plenty to go around.’

The kitchen becomes fogged up from all of the steam.

Then, suddenly Gus hears a loud piercing scream coming from the other room. They rush in to see the old woman lying on the floor with blood pooling near her head. They look closer and see a knife protruding from her.

‘What the heck!’ screams Gus, ‘How did that happen? We’d better scram!’

Holding hands and trembling, they push the door open and rush outside.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, Gus spots a pale apparition with hollow eyes suspending in mid-air near the trees.

‘Crikey! I think it’s a ghost, this place is haunted. We’d better find a place to hide.’

‘Aye, I’m feeling petrified now and we might be the next ones to be killed …’

‘There’s a building over there. Let’s go in!’ cries Gus. He pulls open the door.

The ghost shrieks and floats across the misty moors.

It’s known as Tilley’s House and it’s surrounded by hedges, roses and Scots bluebells.

Gus’s palms become sweaty. The children don’t know what to do and Gus searches for somewhere to hide. Then, he spies the hall cupboard.

They crawl under coats and umbrellas and squeeze in between boots and shoes and Gus quickly slams the door.

They can hear loud thumping noises coming from outside the hallway. Gus cringes and gasps in fear and they both huddle closer together.

They hear loud bangs outside as the intruder wanders through the house shooting randomly. The bullets ricochet off the walls. The two children clutch each other’s hands and their faces become white with fear.

‘Where the hell are they? I can smell their blood!’

An umbrella falls from its hook in the cupboard and makes a loud crash.

The intruder takes aim at the kids, but as he does so, the ghost slithers past and knocks him over. He falls flat on his face onto the umbrella. He screams with pain and clutches his bleeding eyes. The children quickly make their escape and scream at the tops of their lungs.

They race through the front entrance and the grim gargoyles up above cry out in rasping voices ‘Watch where you go! Watch where you go!’

The children sprint up the hill with their jackets flapping in the breeze. They can hear the loud voice of someone chasing them.


Several years later, Gus and Maisie go for a walk in the same district. They reach a graveyard at the bottom of the valley and there are some rocky outcrops.

Gus sees a scrawny, black cat slinking in between the gravestones. Then, they stumble upon a gravestone weathered from the heavy frosts but they can still see its engraving.

‘The old lady has passed on and has flown up to heaven,’ says Gus.

‘Oh, we can come back another day to do that. In the meantime, we need to

‘We need to find out who killed her and who was firing all those shots at us all those years ago.’

They wander around the graveyard for a while longer. A rambling rose covers an arbour and weeds grow thickly in between the headstones.

Suddenly, the skies blacken and rain thunders down. The children run for cover and rush into a building. Once there, they spot a doorway leading down. They descend down the steps following a labyrinth of a stairwell. It becomes darker and gloomier the further they go down.

‘I cannot see, Maisie!’

‘Neither can I!’

They reach a room that is extremely dark and cold.

‘I think it’s a dungeon!’ calls out Gus.

There lying on the ground is a skeleton and a hunting rifle lies besides it.

‘I think we found our killer, Maisie!’

Jul 182023

Uncle Bob gave permission for his name and image to be used after he passed. Cara Britton painted the image and also contributed to the article.

I would like to recognise the wonderful life of Uncle Bob Randall. Uncle Bob was a traditional keeper of Uluru, and a Tjilpia special teaching uncle.

In term 2, our First Nations Discussion Group watched a film called Kanyini. This film, made in 2006 by Melanie Hogan and co-produced and narrated by Uncle Bob Randall, tells of Uncle Bob’s own journey as a child of The Stolen Generation. In the film, Uncle Bob generously shares his wisdom about First Nations views on ownership/custodianship of the land.

Uncle Bob’s father was Bill Liddle, the Scottish owner of Angus Downs Station in NT. Bill was married to an Arrente woman but she was not Bob’s mother. Bob lived the traditional life with his Yankunytjatjara mother and other mob on the property, but was not part of the Liddle family. He talks about the joy of the bush life, where you not only have one mother and father, but all your Aunts, Uncles and Grandparents are your careers and guides. He describes the peace and joy of being at one with the land. Not owning it, because the “land owns us“, just being a caretaker of the land for the short time you are there. The land is described as being everything in it, earth, rocks, sky, waterways, trees, insects, animals and how the land goes on for ever. It was here before any of us and will be here after. He tells us that you are never lonely when you are on the land.

However, at the age of 7, in keeping with the assimilation policies of the time, Bob was taken to an institution in Alice Springs for half caste children. He then lived in Government institutions until his 20s. He then set about discovering his mob – at that time no records were kept for Aboriginal people – and getting an education.

During his lifetime, Uncle Bob worked as an educator in cultural awareness, preservation and responsibility to the environment, as a counsellor, and as an advocate for equal rights and land rights.

He was also a musician, with a country music band. His song My Brown Skin Baby They Take Him Away became an anthem for the Stolen Generation. Try listening to this on YouTube without shedding a tear!

Cara was so moved by the film we watched that she painted Uncle Bob’s portrait. Cara says: I found that through seeing Kanyini, and reading about Uncle Bob, his gentle wisdom, humility, and deep love of land settled into my heart. As he said “caring with unconditional love, with responsibility“. In my painting, I was inspired to show Uncle Bob as being of the land, part of, within, not separate from. He is the land. Uluru stands as a sentinel behind him. His gift to us is his message – love and care of the land, not ownership.

Thank you Uncle Bob.

Jul 162023

Waking in the morning
many notions fill my head.
Looking forward to another day
I tumble out of bed.

The bedroom wall needs painting,
and I need to mend that chair.
There’s a plethora of little jobs
that need a bit of care.

Starting with some breakfast
I grab a likely book.
But before long it is midday
and my hopes are looking crook.

Thinking tomorrow will be better
as I wander back to bed,
I’ll aim for something different,
maybe bake a loaf of bread.

The next day passes quickly
without too much to show.
I wish I had the power
to make the hours slow.

I awake again next morning
but it turns out just the same
and I feel it’s fairly obvious
that I’m the one to blame.

So no matter what you call it,
and no matter what you say,
It usually just turns out to be
Another Groundhog Day.

May 162022

Prague is the capital of what country?

If you said the Czech Republic, you were right a few years ago, up until quite recently in fact. But you won’t find the Czech Republic on Google Maps. Instead you’ll find Czechia.

Czechia and Bohemia have long been alternative names for this landlocked central European country. (Yes, central Europe not eastern Europe.)

When Czechoslovakia dissolved into two countries in 1992, the Czech government decided on the name Czechia. However this name was not widely adopted at the time, nor was it generally adopted outside the country. So, in 2016, the Czech government decided that Czechia was the official name of their country and this is now the name used by the UN, the EU and others.

How’s your African geography?

At the southern end of the continent you have South Africa, which totally encloses the independent country of Lesotho and almost completely encloses another country which used to be called Swaziland. Swaziland is now called Eswatini (pronounced ESS-wah-TEE-nee). Like Lesotho and Botswana, it’s a former British colony which gained its independence back in the 1960s when Britain was divesting itself of many of its overseas territories. It’s also landlocked, like Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland), Lesotho (pronounced le-SOO-too, formerly Basutoland) and Czechia (pronounced CHE-kee-ah).

And just before we leave southern Africa, what’s the capital of South Africa? If you said Johannesburg, you’re totally wrong. If you said Pretoria, you’re one-third right. South Africa is the only country in the world to have three official capitals: Pretoria (executive), Cape Town (legislative) and Bloemfontein (judicial).

Just thought you’d like to know.

[Editor: If you are interested in geography, you might also like to try Worldle, where you have to work out the name of a country from its shape.]

Apr 032022

Since the start of this latest world crisis, I’ve wondered why the city which has been known as Kiev for ages has suddenly become Kyiv. Kiev has disappeared from most online world maps including Google Maps and in its place we now see Kyiv. Newspaper reports and TV bulletins now refer to Kyiv (although many still seem to pronounce it Kiev).

The explanation is quite simple and straightforward.

Do you remember when we were growing up the capital of China was Peking? Then it gradually changed to Beijing. Peking was the name given to the city by French missionaries in the 17th/18th centuries; it was an approximation of the sound of the Chinese characters. In 1958, the Chinese government decided on pinyin as the preferred transliteration of the Chinese language as it was closer to Mandarin. Thus Mao Tse Tung became Mao Zedong. But it was not until 1979 that the Chinese government insisted on Beijing as the rightful name of that capital. It then took a while for this to be accepted around the world.

While it’s not exactly the same, the Kiev-Kyiv change is similarly related to the transliteration (not translation) from one alphabet to another. Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet as does Ukrainian, Serbian, Bulgarian and several other countries in that region (although there are differences in the Cyrillic alphabet used just as there are in the Roman/Latin alphabet which we use). For Ukrainians, the capital of their country is Київ – this is in Ukrainian Cyrillic and transliterates into Roman script as Kyiv. However, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union for many years where Russian was the dominant language; in Russian, the word is Киев and this transliterates to Kiev.

Now normally nobody would be terribly concerned about this. After all, exonyms are pretty common and we use a version of foreign names in our own language. We call the capital of Russia Moscow not Moskva; Deutschland is called ‘Germany’ in English, ‘Allemagne’ in French and ‘Niemcy’ in Polish.

Four years ago, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a campaign KyivNotKiev to try to persuade foreign media to use Kyiv not Kiev but they had rather limited success. However, with the Russian invasion, most media have now decided to drop the Russian transliteration in favour of the Ukrainian version to show support for Ukraine. And there we have it.

By the way, if you’re wondering how to pronounce, Kyiv, it’s KEE-ef. It’s almost one syllable. Indeed if you just say Keef, you’re pretty close.

Mar 112022

Since the start of this latest world crisis, I’ve wondered why the city which has been known as Kiev for ages has suddenly become Kyiv. Kiev has disappeared from most online world maps including Google Maps and in its place we now see Kyiv. Newspaper reports and TV bulletins now refer to Kyiv (although many still seem to pronounce it Kiev).

The explanation is quite simple and straightforward.

Do you remember when we were growing up the capital of China was Peking? Then it gradually changed to Beijing. Peking was the name given to the city by French missionaries in the 17th/18th centuries; it was an approximation of the sound of the Chinese characters. In 1958, the Chinese government decided on pinyin as the preferred transliteration of the Chinese language as it was closer to Mandarin. Thus Mao Tse Tung became Mao Zedong. But it was not until 1979 that the Chinese government insisted on Beijing as the rightful name of that capital. It then took a while for this to be accepted around the world.

While it’s not exactly the same, the Kiev-Kyiv change is similarly related to the transliteration (not translation) from one alphabet to another. Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet as does Ukrainian, Serbian, Bulgarian and several other countries in that region (although there are differences in the Cyrillic alphabet used just as there are in the Roman/Latin alphabet which we use). For Ukrainians, the capital of their country is Київ – this is in Ukrainian Cyrillic and transliterates into Roman script as Kyiv. However, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union for many years where Russian was the dominant language; in Russian, the word is Киев and this transliterates to Kiev.

Now normally nobody would be terribly concerned about this. After all, exonyms are pretty common and we use a version of foreign names in our own language. We call the capital of Russia Moscow not Moskva; Deutschland is called ‘Germany’ in English, ‘Allemagne’ in French and ‘Niemcy’ in Polish.

Four years ago, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a campaign KyivNotKiev to try to persuade foreign media to use Kyiv not Kiev but they had rather limited success. However, with the Russian invasion, most media have now decided to drop the Russian transliteration in favour of the Ukrainian version to show support for Ukraine. And there we have it.

By the way, if you’re wondering how to pronounce, Kyiv, it’s KEE-ef. It’s almost one syllable. Indeed if you just say Keef, you’re pretty close.

Feb 202022

If the incident had occurred on an icy street in Copenhagen, or in a dense area of the Daintree, it would have made a better story. Slipping on gravel when taking the grandchildren home still reminds us that expecting the unexpected is a reasonable guideline for life.

When I fell, I twisted my ankle and felt the sharp pain that indicated my evening could be disrupted. A local doctor advised an X-ray immediately. The trip to a public hospital resulted in news that the fibula bone near the ankle was broken, that it would require an operation, that I would need to be in hospital for several days, and that I would not be able to walk without help for about six weeks.

I had never been to an Emergency Room before. All the staff were very helpful and efficient – my leg was plastered quickly into a state of immobility. As it turned out, I spent a night and most of the next day there since no beds were available in the wards. I was placed in a cubicle that did have curtains, but no soundproofing. From my arrival, through the night and into the next day, there was constant activity. Lights aren’t turned off in emergency wards and humans have the capacity to make a range of unique sounds. Uniformed people from police, fire services. SES, ambulance and others came in throughout the night. There were times when I felt like an extra in an action-packed movie.

The next afternoon I was taken to a room in a regular ward. The comparative quiet was an elixir and I could glimpse clouds through the window. Again, staff were helpful, dedicated and often very funny. They were also tired. Many of them were doing extra shifts to compensate for staff on sick leave due to COVID. My operation was delayed (busy times for doctors and operating theatres), but eventually my broken bone was mended with a metal plate. My leg was set in a heavy cast that could substitute for a fence post.

After I had wobbled home, the transition from independent, competent mover to dependant, needy hopper continued. I was fortunate to have my husband John to give his essential daily care. Family and friends brought joy and delight. I reflected on the whole experience and told everyone cautionary things: “Be careful!” “Watch your feet!” “Don’t take chances!” Repeat.

In the grand scheme of things, my injury is minor. Many people manage conditions that are far more serious and some that will not recover. As we get older, our wisdom and wonder come at a price. Still, there are books to read and things to do, even in a modified way. It is a gift to be able to choose.

Reading during my recovery provided another perspective too. A Buddhist poem, quoted by Jane Hirshfield in an interview, says:

  Although the wind
  blows terribly here,
  the moonlight also leaks
  between the roof planks.

Leonard Cohen expressed this idea in another way: “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

My bone will heal and the cracks that make us human will always offer insights into fragility, strength and gratitude. Now I just have to figure out how to do yoga in a moon boot.

Feb 202022

[The Human Writers website is a website for older writers in Australia to publish their stories, ideas, memoirs, etc. U3A member John Jenkins recently had a (true) story published there. Below are the first few paragraphs of John’s story.]

I can remember it so clearly, as if it only happened yesterday.

As I walked very briskly from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, I rehearsed my precise instructions. The stranger I was to meet would be loitering close to Hibiya Park fountain, where he or she would be wearing a big, white artificial flower in a top buttonhole. Obviously, in a shirt or blouse, on this hot day in August, 1989.

Earlier that day, I had been drinking champagne in Tokyo’s midtown business district, upstairs from the Foreign Correspondents’ impressive entrance in the Marunouchi Nijubashi Building, a steel and glass complex with sweeping upper-floor views of the city’s gleaming office towers.

Let me explain. I was a journalist abroad. And it was there I first met Mr. Hamilton York, an American finance reporter married to a Japanese woman, and both living permanently in Tokyo.

I recall being introduced to Hamilton by reception staff and, in turn, he immediately introduced me to his many friends and colleagues, all hanging about in the Club’s nearby Cozy Bar and Café.

I instantly felt very much at home with Hamilton, as he bought bottles of top French champagne, as if the price was nothing, and his popping corks opened more doors, attracting faces familiar to him, from various corners of the club. I found out he was a rusted-on regular here, a sometime share trader and very wealthy, who everyone called ‘Uncle Ham’, a pun on Uncle Sam.

It soon became a very jolly gathering indeed. Then, during a quiet moment ‘Uncle Ham’ asked me what I was doing here. “You’re Australian, aren’t you? From your accent?” he said.

He asked many questions, obviously adept at extracting information, along with corks. “I’m sending stories home,” I said. “But purely on commission. If a newspaper or magazine editor likes a particular idea that I float … well, then it floats. Lately, I’ve been writing on the arts, new Japanese technology, cultural interests, some travel…”

“Yup, I get it!” he said. “Good luck to you! And enjoy your first day here at our friendly little Correspondents’ Club.”

Suddenly, he stood up. “A first-dayer,” he said, playfully pointing at me. “Hope you come back often.” Then, much louder, to all within hearing range: “Don’t we, ladies and gentlemen?”

More glasses were raised, with smiles all round, as he poured another, and another …

* * * * *

“So, you want a really good story, do you? One your editor will find impossible to refuse?” It was the following week, and Uncle Ham had taken me aside for a moment, and I noticed that no one tried to interrupt him, as his expression and gestures flipped into a more hushed, conspiratorial mode.

[Read the rest of John’s story on the Human Writers website.]

Feb 202022

I felt a tickle in my throat on the morning of 30th January. I ignored this as I had had my Pfizer booster 3 days earlier. The needle-prick on my left shoulder still ached; I ignored this too but then had to add a sniffle to my general feeling as the day wore on. ‘Summer colds are so inconvenient,’ I thought. However I was more concerned with the minimum forecast for Melbourne that night: 28 degrees, after a maximum of 36 degrees during the day. I felt so hot. This called for every upstairs window to be open and for me to set up a bed in the lounge, where the one air conditioner operates. It was the time for a Melbourne summer survival plan.

Somehow I did survive and next morning I went upstairs for my first cup of tea. The phone rang. “Hello” I meant to say, when an awful croaking sound announced itself as my voice. “It’s Brenda” I tried but again a surreal cracking sound came from my mouth. It was my next-door neighbour, J. who, on hearing me, said, “You need to take a Rapid Antigen Test (RAT), I’ll leave one for you on the door-step, right this minute.

There I was with a package and a list of instructions with no-one to assist me or tell me how to use it. All my life, I’ve always skimmed over instructions, preferring to get a general feel for how things work. For instance, I have never managed to master the wall-oven’s pre-set timer or the I-View on TV. On this occasion, being on my own, I would have to read it step by step. It only took two abortive attempts before I swirled the stick round both nostrils and then tested the liquid produced on the meter provided. I was astonished as 2 horizontal lines appeared on the dial. ‘Positive,’ it said. ‘I must have read the instructions incorrectly,’ I thought. Two more attempts bore the same results. Panic! ‘Should I phone my daughter Helen in Perth?’ I thought, and then ‘Who did I meet yesterday?’ As I got over my astonishment at having succumbed to a virus in a global pandemic, I remembered having heard the word ‘Register’. I should be a statistic on the Victorian government’s tally. After all, I had been reading these numbers daily for nearly 2 years.

The next hour saw me transformed. I was now all fingers and thumbs, multiple passwords, on MyGov website and finally I became Victoria’s 10,590th new case for the day. I had managed to register myself on my newly acquired mobile! Look what can be achieved when you are on your own and have to read all the instructions. I was beginning to think that technology wasn’t so bad after all. Before I could let anyone know how digitally savvy I had suddenly become, the phone rang. A voice from the Austin Hospital, to which I had been magically been attached, was asking me how I was feeling. I believe she was referring to my own temperature and croaky voice but I was more amazed by the fact that she knew I had tested positive before I had had time to let my daughter in Perth, and son in Richmond, know. The friendly voice said that I had to self-isolate for 7 days and that instructions would be sent to me via the mobile. Reassuringly she added that someone from the hospital would speak to me every second day.

Now came the thought, should I try to read the Covid instructions first or tell someone? Having just become a digital guru, I decided to read about what I ought to do, as opposed to my usual leaping in with both feet first. This was most instructive and I found some itemised STEPS. The first one was ‘Who have I been with in the last few days?’ Well it’s been over 30 degrees most days and my brain is a bit woolly on the subject. Thank heavens for the calendar. Our Book Club meeting the other evening was in a private home and 9 of us were double vaxxed but unmasked. It was suggested that I send them a COVID ALERT. So began a very busy couple of hours contacting friend, with whom I had been out for coffee and cakes, another one where I had gone to lunch and, most embarrassingly, one who I had invited to dinner here in this very room. I was beginning to feel like plague spreader. What a busy socialite I had been, despite the hot weather.

As I croakily phoned a couple of friends who I had been with 48 hours ago, two questions came up. The first one, “How did I feel?” was easy to answer. “It’s nothing, just like a summer cold.

The second question “Where did you get it?” was more a surprise. My friends had instantly become the source of my COVID POSITIVE status. I remembered that M. had seemed less energetic than usual on Tuesday. But surely that was too early in the piece, I thought. I had gone from guilty spreader to victim, in one hit. My next door neighbour rang at that moment. I tried to explain my conflicting feelings. “Don’t worry it’s everywhere,” she said, “especially the schools and super markets. I’m more concerned about the sound of you and I am putting an Oximeter at your door-step, so you can find out.” I have never heard of this piece of equipment before in my life. Within ten minutes I was reading many more instructions on how to read my pulse rate and the amount of oxygen in my blood. As a recently crowned digital guru I had to persevere in trying to make sense of the electronic figures, which floated before my eyes. It appeared that if one set of figures appeared, I had to take note and phone an emergency doctor. It took many tries to achieve a stable reading; it appears that I had to deep breathe, sit quietly and be patient; none one of which is my usual forte. I think that my figures, compared with the national average, showed me to be high in the pulse rate and low in the oxygen count. Oh well, I thought I’ll try again when I have had a sandwich and a drink of tea. I know I was to avoid dehydration and just hoped my normal high intake of cups of tea would count.

Now for STEP 2, I told myself, but the heat was getting to me. Perhaps I might lie down, I thought, but only for a little while.

I eventually woke up having had, what I told myself was a siesta, but does it still count as that after four hours? I know I needed to let my family know but I suddenly realised that I had several plans for tomorrow. The new carpet people were arriving in the morning to measure up for the bedrooms, I was to meet our U3A tutors about our 2022 classes etc, etc. Everything must be cancelled for the next 7 days. What a task of leaving messages, altering plans, informing but not alarming people. Then the Austin Hospital rang with a survey. Clearly my voice was becoming even more croaky as I tried to answer their questions. You need to drink and rest I was told, you are a COVID patient.

Suddenly I was beginning to feel too tired to ring my daughter and son. Sleepiness won out over guilty feelings. So not being hungry I went off to bed, wishing there had been someone else in the house to bring me up a drink. Ah, solitude.

I awoke after the deepest of sleeps and suddenly realised that my voice was even worse, my nose had started to run and I had not the energy to walk down my own drive to bring up my morning Age newspaper. Even before drinking my first cup of tea, I knew I had to tell my family and an email was the way to do it. Of course it only brought me a little time before they were on the phone. Richard in Richmond was anxious to help and it took quite a few “ I’m in isolation” screeches from me before he realised he could not come up. Helen was full of WA advice, “Get someone to go out and buy some more RATS, they are free to seniors.” Oh dear, I thought, they know nothing about Covid restrictions in the west. However they were both relieved that I only seemed to be suffering a mild dose. Hurrah for two AstraZeneca vaccinations and a Pfizer booster.

Well, I am on Day 5 now. The cold is disappearing, my voice is back to normal. Yesterday I prided myself on raking up a green bin full of leaves. It was collection day, which cannot be squandered even when in isolation. Thoughtful friends and neighbours have left long life milk and bread and groceries (I never really did lose my appetite), on the back door step. I then realised that reading was resting so I took a dusty classic from my bookshelf and read Dostoyevski’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ from start to glorious finish.

My mobile pings. Here comes another message from the Victorian CovidCare office. Not only are they just letting me know that I can leave isolation the day after next, but also that I will be immune for a month. What an unexpected bonus. Does that mean that I can travel on a train, go to the cinema or do all the things I have not been able to for a couple of years? I think it does. But perhaps I should read all the small print before I head off to the beach or even start filling in my calendar for the month ahead.

Jan 172022

Flynn – middle-aged, a bit over-weight (aren’t we all?), kind, funny, helpful, reliable, a man I considered a friend, and an opportunistic thief. Of course, it took me a long time to realise that. I tend to take people as I find them, as they say. I didn’t recognise that our big boss was gay, very openly gay, until well after other people knew.

When things started to disappear, it never occurred to me that the thief might be one of my colleagues. I assumed, if I gave it any thought at all, that it was a member of the public.

First, it was a controller for one of a number of game consoles that we had in the library for our patrons to use. Predictable! Since I never agreed with us becoming a gaming hub, I didn’t give a rats. Then a laptop, situated in the foyer for public use, went walkies.

‘Honestly,’ Flynn commented to me, ‘they’d steal anything that wasn’t nailed down.’

‘When did it go?’ I asked.

‘Must have been early this morning when we opened up. It was there when I left last night.’

‘But how could anyone walk out, unnoticed, with a laptop in their pocket?’

Flynn shrugged. ‘Beats me. Maybe it went overnight, then.’

I frowned. The library has a high metal security fence and gate, located in the foyer, a few metres away from the glass front doors. They date from an earlier era, when management must have trusted the public. Those days are now well and truly gone.

‘A young man could easily get over that gate, although,’ Flynn conceded. ‘The glass doors weren’t smashed or gemmied open.’

‘So, it must have been an inside job.’

He shrugged. ‘I guess.’

I didn’t give the matter any more thought until much later.

Then my beloved German Shepherd, died – or, to be more correct, I had her put down. She was fourteen years old, a very old age for a big dog, apparently. She had cancer, lots of it, inoperable, according to the vet. She was suffering, so I did the agonising but loving thing. I held her head and sobbed while the vet sent her painlessly to the giant dog-park in the sky.

I took the following day off but when I returned and walked into the library, Flynn saw me. He simply opened his arms and enveloped me in a big, bear hug. He understood, and, despite all the grief he later caused me, it’s that hug and the concern that motivated it, that I remember.

So … both Flynn and I were transferred to another library at about the same time.

I first learnt that he was under suspicion when my new manager (I wasn’t in charge until some months later) asked me to check the deposit envelopes from the safe.

The public were required to pay a refundable deposit for rooms that we rented out to them. It resided in an envelope (which had at tick box on front stating whether the money was paid in cash or by cheque) in the safe until the owner reclaimed it. Go figure, as the Americans would say!

All the envelopes which had contained cash were empty. Since they were in the safe, only staff members had access and there were only five of us. Like I said, not very smart on several fronts!

‘Hm!’ my manager said, tapping a finger on an unoccupied envelope, ‘Flynn!’

I was shocked. ‘Flynn? Surely not.’

From then on management did their best to catch Flynn and, when I became manager, I was asked to try to obtain firm evidence against my colleague who had always been kind to me. Otherwise, he could have claimed unfair dismissal. It was a very uncomfortable position to be placed in, but it was clear to me that Flynn was in the wrong. He was stealing from our employer and indirectly, from all of us. It made me sad but my duty lay with the library service. I needed to cooperate with management to try to catch him.

That opinion was reinforced as time went on. Flynn used every available opportunity to enhance his salary. Money disappeared from the till and a petty cash container, as well as from the change machine next to the photocopier.

The Security Manager, Rod, became involved. He did his best to find the necessary proof. There were security cameras inside the library but they were trained to catch library members who might attempt to do the wrong thing. He wanted them trained now on the staff side of the desk but the ceiling was so high that the guy who came at the crack of dawn, before the library opened, to alter their direction didn’t have a long-enough ladder to reach them. Sigh!

Rod then arrived early one morning and stationed himself in a cafe across the road from the library entrance. Flynn arrived well before the library opened, though his shift didn’t start until eleven o’clock. He was inside for a short while then left and returned much later to begin work. Money disappeared but it was only circumstantial evidence.

Then the weekend takings from fines and the cash machine weren’t banked until the Monday so half of those disappeared.

When a sizeable cheque disappeared from the safe, our Library Service Manager, careful not to be seen as accusing anyone, sent a general email to our whole staff giving an ultimatum. Either the money was returned pronto or the police would be called in to investigate.

So … who found the cheque, the following morning? Flynn of course. He claimed he’d found it hiding under a rubber mat in the bottom of the safe.

‘But how could it get there?’ I asked. ‘It doesn’t have legs.’

‘I don’t know,’ he said with an angry look at me.

The system for recording sick leave taken was an honour one. Flynn had months off but he failed to enter it in the appropriate database, so he was paid a full salary long after his entitlement was used up.

He tried to put his cigarettes on the library account at the local newsagent where the library bought copies of newspapers for members of the public to use.

But his greatest coup was when he moved into a fully furnished flat. One Monday, he arrived and announced that his flat had been robbed and all the white goods had been stolen.

‘No!’ I exclaimed, wondering how he managed it. ”When did it happen?’

He shrugged. ‘Don’t know. Sometime over the weekend. I was away, staying with friends.’

‘How did the thief get in?’

‘Over the balcony, I guess.’

‘You can’t lift a refrigerator over a balcony.’

He rolled his eyes. ‘Someone must have climbed in and opened the door from the inside.’

‘He’d need an accomplice to get a washing machine down the stairs, presumably in the dead of night.’

‘No stairs. Ground floor.’

‘Ah!’ I said. ‘Poor owner.’

‘He’d get it all back on insurance,’ my erstwhile friend stated complacently.

I stare at him. How can he keep a straight face, while telling such outright lies?

Flynn doesn’t drive, or so he says, and he doesn’t own a car – that’s if he’s not lying about that as well – so he’d have needed someone to help him drive the goods away. Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions and being unfair but on the balance of probabilities …

I retired and Flynn was still working for the library, no doubt supplementing his income at every opportunity. Months later, I was told he’d been fired. I occasionally wonder what happened to him. Where could he get a job after being found to be thief, if he was fired for theft. Was he ever caught in the act or did they come up with some other excuse to get rid of him, or move him on, as they euphemistically say in the Catholic Church, so he became someone else’s problem.

Is he a free man or is he in jail? His modus operandum is opportunistic and very risky, after all. He escaped detection for a long time, not so much by being smart, but by sheer luck.

I guess it’s easy to believe that people who operate on the other side of the law are different from the rest of us, but it’s not true. Flynn was, and, no doubt, still is, a loving father and grandfather. He was kind to me until I became his boss and he loves animals. That counts for a lot as far as I’m concerned. I’d like to think he’s changed but I doubt it very much.

So, I wish you well, Flynn, not in your financial endeavours, but in life in general. You are, at heart, a good person. If you ever read this, please know that I remember you with affection but mainly I recall that hug you gave me when I really needed it. I hope someone is there to do the same for you if and when you need it. Go well, Flynn.

Mar 242021

John has written a short story about that famous composer's writing of his ever-popular 'Brandenburgs'. Here's the first paragraph.

Herr Kapellmeister Bach hummed joyfully as he left Kothen Castle, following his most agreeable audience with Prince Leopold that morning. Although his employer was of the renowned dynasty of Ascania, all formalities had been put aside as the Prince enthusiastically invited his esteemed friend to sample the exotic refreshment of Turkish coffee, a delectation which had lately been finding its way, and with some celebration, into the royal courts of Europe. "Bring me coffee, before I turn into a goat!" he had even risked saying to the Prince, reviving one of their favourite jokes.

Read the rest of the story.

Feb 022021

This day started with waking up late, having to take a 9am session, so OMG, leap out of bed, get into gear at high speed, grab the undies and outers, get into them, get down ASAP to where the students are agog to be enthralled(?) by a burst of thermodynamic gas equilibrium. Puff, puff, pant, pant, just made it, phew.

Now it had come to pass that a pair of my dear wife’s knickers (dark blue, no frills) had got into hubby’s drawer, unnoticed. And thus it was that the session concluded, with the 10 minutes break when you attend to the call of Mother Nature (which may not be denied), so round to the comfort station. Another OMG, where is it, sure there was one when I left home this morning, dive into cubicle, locate the problem … problem manfully (personfully?) solved. Back to next lecture, puff, pant.

Now lunchtime, to ingest the sandwich hastily grabbed while exiting home sweet home this morning. This sandwich included a slice of beetroot, very healthy, except that it chose to slide out and down the front of a white shirt (mine, quelle clumsy nong). And so, round high speed to the washroom again, shirt off, rinse front bits, problem diluted but no, not solved. Back for the next session, strange looks from the students at the abnormally scruffy beetroot-stained damp academic. Ah well, apologies and partial explanation, on with the show. Home, with account of day’s activities, can’t say received with all that much tea and sympathy (why can’t you check the basics before getting into them, and similar forceful sentiments). Ah, well.

And so us blokes are daily faced with perils additional to Covid-19. Moral of the story: always check the frillies (even if no frills) before entrusting your day to them. And remember this, life is no abyss, there is always a way out of a problem, even inappropriate knickers.

With best regards, John of the Great Nether Region Impeded Beetroot Stained Day.

Dec 072020

[What follows is just the first four paragraphs of the stories. Read the full story on the Loud Mouth website.]

It was breath-taking! Young Wolfgang Amadeus, hand-in-hand with father Leopold, returned to St Peter’s Square, entering from surrounding streets as the walled Vatican City again rose in intimidating splendour before them. Yesterday had been their first visit. Father and son had felt overwhelmed, necks forever arched, as they looked at treasures of the gigantic St Peter’s Basilica. Stunning antiquities lined its miles of corridors and details of over-arching frescoes still flickered in his mind, and the little 14-year-old again felt dwarfed, his excitement mounting.

He felt so overwhelmed by works of Perugino, Botticelli, Michelangelo, van den Broeck and so many other great artists, he resorted to something more familiar, and re-assuring. As the pair ambled beyond the Square’s twin semicircles of colonnades enclosing them, Wolfgang began humming a tune under his breath, a simple folk melody he had heard a vegetable seller sing during their first day in Rome, and which he had instantly notated and embellished in his mind, and now added some very silly lyrics to, still smiling. Perhaps he could re-set it for violin and keyboard, instruments he had mastered from age five. Perhaps, if utterly changed, it might also emerge reborn in an opera he was planning. It would also be nice to whistle that tune to a pet canary. But all that would keep for later, as would a game of billiards and some dancing, when the time allowed.

It was April 13, 1770, mid their two-year tour of Italy, as Leopold gestured dramatically, ushering his son towards the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Gardens to their right. Then, after negotiation with the entrance guides, who were also guards, this father and son – who had left Salzburg, Austria, intent on becoming cosmopolitan citizens – were led, via the Papal corridor, direct to where choirs and audience had assembled to hear a piece rarely heard, because usually reserved for Holy Week before Easter Sunday, and including today’s Good Friday performance.

The younger Mozart sat quietly, and fiddled with his mustard-coloured and genteel tricorne cocked hat, which he must not wear inside the chapel, as a sign of devotional respect. He noted where he had put a small slip of parchment and pencil stub. He rarely wore hats anyway, and also disliked wigs, as his long hair, curled on both sides above his ears, was elegant enough, although he did not wear a ribbon at the back today, to make negotiating his hat easier, once back outside. Not that he would need that pencil, in any case, but he would still keep it under his hat.

Nov 242020

The steady 'drumming of an army' of rain drops on the tin roof eased, providing a welcome respite for faint moonbeams to reveal the murky swirling waters below. There were endless eddies and debris combined with angry brown mud.

Just a few days earlier, pastures had beckoned and cattle grazed peacefully under blue skies, beside a tranquil river leisurely flowing behind our Fawcett Street home in Kyogle. Each day after school the paddocks, river bank and trees became our playground. The grazing cattle were imagined as wild animals as we ventured out, armed with our cats, dogs and wooden swords. The scene was punctuated each day by my mother shouting from the porch "The Search", which was a signal for us to return and listen in bated breath to the radio series The Search for the Golden Boomerang.

Our family house had been purchased on the basis that it was flood free. As an added precaution, it had been built on high stilts. Despite the cyclonic rain on that fateful day, it was never considered possible that our house would be flooded. As the floodwaters entered our backyard, I imagined myself as fisherman and dangled my fishing line in the brown waters below. However the rising waters were soon inching their way up our back steps so we evacuated to neighbours on higher ground. My father stayed on to protect our furniture and effects.

That night we stood on the verandah peering out over the murky waters watching my father swimming around in the house placing items on higher vantage points in a futile attempt to avoid the ever rising floodwaters. We watched in relief as he finally gave up to wearily swim out through the bedroom window for the bank and safety at last. Fully clothed, cold, and exhausted, he slowly hauled himself up onto the bank to join us, just in time to see our house disappear under the mighty waters of the Richmond river.

In other parts of town, tragedies were occurring as people lost their lives as homes were swept away. A mother and her two children drowned when a small rescue boat capsized in waves on Fawcett’s Plain. Others were caught in floodwaters and washed away but miraculously survived by clinging to trees until rescuers arrived. Feats of great courage and heroism were later recognised and members of the 1st Kyogle Girl Guide Company all received a gold bracelet as recipients of an international award for their help in the clean-up.

I can still remember that smell from the flood and the endless mud. There were pieces of corrugated iron from roofs around and it was soon turned to good use in makeshift canoes, folded over and sealed both ends with tar, to deliver milk and supplies. I remember search parties each morning looking for bodies and everyone helping one another. There was the drone of the old DC3 dropping supplies to a community isolated by the floodwaters.

My parents decided to leave Kyogle not long after.

Nov 102020

This was another of those cumulative sequences of events when one thing leads to another … and how! The occasion was Betty’s 60th birthday, when we decided to give her a big surprise party. So out went the invitations to all her friends and kinsfolk to attend an afternoon hosting at our Cottles Bridge home to celebrate the event. Angela (my daughter) and Drew (my son-in-law) had gone to much trouble to produce an elegant invitation, featuring a beautiful photo of Betty scanned in with a nice black border, very artistic. Jenny (Betty’s sister) opened hers and said “Oh my god is my sister dead?“, to which the other Jenny (Betty’s daughter) replied “I would probably have heard by now.” However, all was made clear by a quick perusal of the text. Problem solved.

On the day before, daughter Jenny arrived with baby Liam and the birthday cake. This was no ordinary cake, having been iced and adorned with chocolate lilies and much more – a veritable work of art from North East Victoria’s leading exponent of cake-making at Mt. Beauty. I recall a sort of strangled cry, with Jenny racing out the door to her car which had its tailgate open, our faithful hound’s head inside the cake box, and the chocolate lilies disappearing apace down Holly the heeler’s neck. After dissuading our quite disturbed daughter from carrying out a range of homicidal (canicidal?) threats, we phoned an emergency order for a supply of best-quality Carlton profiteroles, which would be ready for tomorrow, along with the re-iced truncated (un-dogged) portion of the original cake. Problem solved.

On the great day, my task was to take the birthday girl for a drive to the Windsor Hotel in town to get her out of the way while the caterer and guests arrived. Because Jenny now refused to have our dog around while preparing the repast (can’t think why), and we may not have been admitted to the Windsor dining room with our blue heeler (even on her leash?), we settled for the Upper Narbethong Teahouse, where you can tie up your dog to the tap outside the door. The weather being warm, a fire was set in our Cottles Bridge fireplace to be lit in the evening, and the flue was closed to keep out any flies. I may have forgotten to advise Jenny of this matter of flies and flues. Or maybe she forgot? Anyhow, we had a nice drive up to Narbethong and back to Cottles Bridge where, cresting the hill, we noticed our abode in the distance with smoke issuing copiously from every orifice (except the chimney). This is one of those times when truth dawns instantly and you surge into high-speed action, broadsiding to a halt while one’s beloved is forcefully enquiring what the hell are you doing to her happy home and related matters, while you hasten indoors through all the well-dressed guests with drinks in hand and eyes streaming, to find that, yes, your first-born ewe-lamb has lit the fire to warm the guests. What is more, noticing that the chimney is blocked, someone has operated the flue handle in reverse, causing it to detach from the well-jammed flue. Aha, you think, we need a stake to push it open. Where is the nearest stake? Of course, in Betty’s beloved veggie garden. Off at the double to get the stake into the fireplace; cough, cough, poke, poke, o joy, the smoke is cleared while the rather bemused guests cautiously re-commence breathing. Problem solved.

For a bit, all goes well, with witty speeches about the smoked sandwiches and smoked profiteroles and how we all love Betty on this her special day, and what a great surprise the party has been for her, even if she’s not wearing her best gear and make-up because she’s been to the Upper Narbethong Teahouse instead of the Windsor Hotel. Meanwhile, the caterer has arrived with a shortage of the fine foods ordered, but that’s ok because he’s brought party pies in lieu. On noticing my daughter’s unimpressed mien, he hastens to assure us that they are gourmet party pies, and withdraws in some haste with his cheque. By now, Limerick (the horse of a friend of the family) has found the gate into Betty’s veggies, which her spouse in his haste had left open, and reckons that this is a pretty good if unexpected birthday treat, one not to be missed. Problem solved.

All agreed that it had indeed been a day to remember, and who cares if the dog ate the birthday cake and your mum was a bit under-dressed for the occasion and the house and guests are a bit smoke-stained and the chimney needs a new flue and the horse has trampled all the veggies he couldn’t eat. After all, there are enough profiteroles and party pies to last a fortnight. Na, na na na, life goes on. If there be a moral to this tale, allow always for Murphy’s Law, Chaos Theory, plus the best laid plans of mice and men.

With all best regards during lockdown, and all best wishes for all the delayed birthday parties, and beware of leaving the tailgate open whilst the faithful hound is eyeing off the birthday cake.

Oct 272020

The sea was a deep aqua blue, more beautiful than a dark precious stone shimmering under the clear blue sky. I will always remember that colour of the sea on that boat trip from Abyiang to a nearby tropical island in the sun.

I remember my wife sitting quietly in the bow, having recovered from an earlier ordeal when she awoke as if from a sudden nightmare to a raging shivering fever. We were then staying in a thatched hut on Abyiang, the guests of volunteer teachers from Australia and Canada. The schoolchildren, upon hearing of her fever, brought us coconuts, telling us the juice would soon restore her to good health. True to their word my wife was soon up and about as if the fever was no more than a bad dream, much to our mutual relief. We had arrived the day before by boat from Tarawa, the most populated Island in Kiribati, as our intended plane trip was cancelled due to a breakdown. We negotiated with locals who took us to Abyiang by boat, finally trekking across the coral reef as our boatman carried our provisions.

We arrived both hot and exhausted.

Soon the weekend had beckoned and it had been decided to visit a nearby deserted island. The first glimpse of the island from our boat was of a pristine beach of endless white sand, crystal clear sparkling waters and a thick, almost jungle-like, foliage hugging the foreshore.

After our landing we hacked out an open space in the thick foliage to make up a rough camp space but were interrupted by the arrival of a local family. Oh dear! The island was not deserted after all. Worse still, discussions ensued as to whether we had suitably introduced ourselves to the spirit of the island by traversing it from one end to another.

The family finally departed amicably and we were left to explore the coral reef and its wondrous underwater sites. To our surprise the family returned again but this time with a number of large brightly coloured crayfish, which they had caught for us specially to be consumed for lunch. Furthermore, after learning some of us were to soon return to Australia, they performed a special ceremonial dance of farewell in the sand. A most elaborate and complicated dance performed in a wonderful spirit of friendship, extended so generously to strangers, ones to whom they could not converse nor were ever likely to see again.

The dance reminded me of the ceremonies that must have been performed to farewell canoes long ago as they set out to populate the many islands that make up what is now the kingdom of Kiribati.

Their history is recorded in the many dances and songs, words to exquisite harmonies lasting for several hours, never written down but handed down orally from one generation to another.

Oh, island in the sun.

Oct 182020

Grafted to a pause in the mountain,
Between gentle breasts of fertile earth,
A clutter of buildings surrounded a fountain,
Brash and excrescent upon a replat,
Down the slope from the concrete cross,
Planted where a skier had died, and,
Which cast its shadow our window across,
When the autumnal wan morning sun,
Balanced upon the mountain rim,
Before it commenced its alpine run,
As they lay abed and quickly made love,
She with demand and he with compliance,
In the non-marriage bed with the virgin above,
Before a day of boredom and chalk and talk,
In the classrooms of the school below,
Where the social aspirants’ progeny walk,
With the children of the rich and famous.

Across the valley where the Alps were cleft,
With the chiselled and ancient signature,
Of the deep and patient wedge of ice,
Where the dark reached up from the valley floor,
While the blue dipped low from the frozen sky,
Like blood from a wound a rillet trickled,
Out of the cleft and into the Rhone.

In an assertive statement of intention,
Into Autumn, with a rapid incursion,
A preliminary of a full invasion,
One blustery afternoon, Winter,
Plummeted the daytime temperature,
And drove flocks of birds from the heights.
They, like a storm descending,
In an angry squall of wings,
Protested their disapproval,
Then with a twittering haste they vanished,
Diving low into the darkening valley,
To the lake that was milky and green.

Then to gather forces and regroup,
Winter withdrew for a week,
Before, with ferocious renewed intention,
She launched her full-scale assault.
She smothered the land with a blanket of snow,
And adorned eaves and shivering trees,
With a tracery of coruscating icicles.

To disturb our Saturday morning,
While the village was yet awakening,
The army Suisse invaded our slopes,
Like flies on a wedding cake.
That herd of citizen soldiers,
A collection of farmers and clerks,
Were taught how to kill,
While honing their skill,
At other warring games.

Their foolish games of war and sport,
Despoiled and scarred the carpet of white,
And the staccato crackle of gunfire,
Was a cackle straight from hell,
That shattered the mountain silence.

Winter quickly protested,
Her hypertrophied clouds unravelled,
Trailing translucent buds of snow,
That wove delicate wafting gauze,
Which syncopated multi-sonorous noise,
That radiated from the centre of action.
The bellow of raucous voices,
Vainly ebbed and flowed,
As the storm intensity grew.
Ignoring the warning from Winter,
The High Command persisted,
Desecrating the mountain landscape,
Till, in a fit of indignation,
With the determination of the affronted,
Winter made her strongest protest,
And the fury of her heavy assault,
Finally drove them from the slopes.

Oct 052020

On opening his computer, over his breakfast cornflakes, our locked-down human friend checks his inbox.

  1. Dear Human, You are a vanishingly tiny speck dwarfed by even the tiniest object in the heavens. Do not be depressed, you can’t help it. Sincerely, The Universe.
        (replies) Well, that’s sad. You mean, like, I’m insignificant? (sniffles).
  2. Dear Human, Your slightest actions can cause chain reactions that propagate forward, like the butterfly flapping up a hurricane, eventually reaching all of space and time. So be of good cheer, Your insignificance … it's all relative. Sincerely, Chaos Theory.
        That’s really cool! I can change the universe. Here goes …
  3. Dear Human, Your 'actions' are merely the result of your brain’s chemical structure and its neurons firing or not firing at any given time. You can’t help it. Sincerely, Causality.
        You mean I'm not in charge? Oh no, that cannot be.
  4. Dear Human, Causality is lying. Also not lying. Also an entangled superposition of lying and not-lying states. Just like Schrodinger’s alive/dead pussycat. Best to avoid all observers, lest one collapses your wave function. Sincerely, Quantum Mechanics.
        Okay. Huh?
  5. Dear Human, We’ve invented lots of neat things to distract you from the void of meaning that is your existence. Cheer up, try a life drawing class. Sincerely, Art.
        Ooooh … sounds much more promising … let's get started.
  6. Dear Human, All existence is void of meaning. Sincerely, Postmodernism.
        Okay, so what's the point? I'm gonna end it all.
  7. Dear Human, No way. Your selfish genes program you to live. Sincerely, Evolution.
        Okay, then I'll descend into hedonism.
  8. Dear Human, You can’t afford it, unless you mortgage everything. Sincerely, Economics.
        Okay, that does it, I’m already bankrupt. Dear Reality, I’m computing a new simulated reality program where I’m in charge and everything works the way I like.
  9. Dear Human, Welcome to my creative club. Get started. Sincerely, God.
        Thanks but, um, look at your mess down here … too much to fix. I think I'll just stay locked down. (Deletes all messages, concentrates on the cornflakes.)

Lockdown can’t last. As the old song goes: Be like I, hold our heads on high, somewhere there’s a bluebird of happiness. We may find, greater peace of mind, knowing there's a bluebird of happiness. And when he sings to you, though you're feeling blue, somewhere there’s a ray of light shines through.

Sep 282020

There are many stories of animals interacting with humans, but a brutal arrangement was evident in the early whaling practises at Eden, NSW.

Today the skeleton of 'Tom' the killer whale is a fascinating tale of trust and betrayal.

Tom faithfully returned to Eden each year as part of a killer whale pod who hunted whales with resident Homo sapiens. They blocked off the escape routes of migratory wales, who they then chased around the bay until the whales were thoroughly exhausted. Then, close to the shoreline, the pod thrashed the water with their tails to signal the whalers to harvest the whales. The pods share the 4 ton tongues (of no use to the whalers) and their lips.

An extraordinary event is recorded involving a young man and his family who perished in a small boat that capsized due to a sudden squall. His family tragically all drowned and the bodies were recovered except the father. Tom, aware of the body's location wedged under a rock entangled in seaweed, continually circled the area for days trying to attract the attention of the whalers. Finally he joined up the entire pod in a grand display, which led the whalers to the body. A few days later the recovered body was buried at sea witnessed by the killers.

But on occasions the over-enthusiastic killer whales became temporarily beached. One fateful day a stranger rushed into the water with his gun and shot it dead. The traumatised whales hastily left the bay, never to return. However, Tom (and a few of the other whales did finally return). Locals concluded that Tom must have persuaded the pod that the stranger was unconnected to the community of whalers.

The final betrayal occurred with a change in captaincy of the whaler boat, who decided he was not going to cut out the tongue for Tom. He ignored the warning from the crew "Tom is not going to like that, he’s likely to turn nasty and I don't blame him!" As they began to tow the whale to the shore, Tom grasped the rope in his mouth with such force it was as if a hand had reached out and shook the boat in fury. A tug of war ensued. The skipper ordered full throttle ahead until they witnessed an amazing sight. The rope had apparently caught around one of Tom’s teeth which finally gave way as it was dislodged and sank into the sea bed. Tragically the tooth cavity became infected with an abscess and, unable to hunt, Tom died of starvation. His body was washed up on the foreshore. It was decided to preserve his skeleton.

The missing tooth is evident, and even the jaw has markings that are the exact same size as that of the rope and harpoon lines. This can be seen today at the Eden Killer Whale Museum.

If you want to know more, watch this 10-minute video.

Sep 212020

Australian outback and outer urban lore includes many examples of human/kangaroo interactions, frequently involving collisions between vehicles and our national symbol at eventide or nightfall. Overnight roadside kills are so common along some highways, such as the Eyre across the Nullabor Plain, that road patrols carry out a daily carcase collection to reduce distress to overseas tourists unused to such slaughter. Injuries to drivers, even fatalities, have also resulted from collisions or attempted avoidances. Beneficiaries include eagle and other raptor populations … provided they can get out of the way of oncoming vehicles in time. Our national news recently featured a kangaroo inside Melbourne airport’s passenger terminal; being without her boarding pass, security removed her to greener pastures.

As well as airport encounters, there’s the thump variety. The one discussed below occurred on a sunny mid-afternoon along our stretch of the Strathewen Road, locally known as Hoppers Crossing. Here, the local mob have developed a frequently-used pedestrian crossing, where large male and female eastern greys, led by Qantas the Flying Kangaroo (over six feet of spring-heeled sub-orbital ballistic macropod missile) soar over the roadside fence, followed by 20 or more adolescents and juveniles through their ever-widening hole in the wire netting, straight across the road. There’s little point in trying to repair the hole, the juveniles being far too smart, simply moving it along to the nearest convenient location by burrowing beneath or through your best attempts at kangaroo impedance. Verily, our national symbol can be a pain in the fence.

If they would but pause, look left or right, then cross with care, or perhaps wear fluorescent yellow jackets. They do none of these things (sigh). Indeed, Jared Diamond has noted that one reason why our aboriginal first people never developed sedentary agriculture was their lack of domesticable native livestock which could be fenced in, rather than decamping overnight thirty miles from the would-be-herders. Anyhow, on this day it came to pass that Qantas, in total defiance of lockdown restrictions, came a-bounding joyfully down the hill, over the fence, down the embankment, onto the Strathewen road, thud, at full speed amidships into the Toyota bearing your correspondent and his young grandson Liam.

Thus it was that, whilst we have never run into a kangaroo, this one ran into us. The bemused beast bounced onto the pavement, hoisted himself groggily onto his haunches, shook his head and fist, glared at us and (no exaggeration) SWORE with repetitive grunt-snort, while his spouses/siblings/offspring/cousins and aunts joined in from the roadside. With the Toyota stationary (you might say, clean bowled, torpedoed, dead in the water), the grandson mirthfully helpless, and being without a camera, the macropedal curses went, so to speak, through to the keeper. And so it was that this Attenborough-standard kangaroo road rage vignette went unrecorded for future generations, although such events can happen at any time, anywhere in our fair shire. Happily, rather than dragging us out and beating us up, Qantas and his entourage, with a parting curse or two, completed their crossing, bounding onwards and upwards unto our neighbour’s broad sunlit uplands, whence they return at will, to and fro, over the road … an unpredictable long-period kangaroo oscillation, a multiple inelastic collision awaiting the alarmed and unalert motorist.

If there is a moral to this tale, it is this: always proceed with caution, can’t be too careful, and keep your camera and fur-remover to hand. And perhaps those ‘Beware of Kangaroos’ road signs should be modified to also read ‘Or You’ll Both Be Dented’. With all best regards, and don’t ignore lockdown like Qantas or the constabulary will getcha.

Sep 012020

Spring at last, and with it the blooming of the acacias, commonly known as wattles, true icons of Australia.

The first 'national' Wattle Day, symbolising the beginning of spring and our increasing awareness of nationhood, was celebrated in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide on 1st September 1910. In 1913, Australia’s Coat of Arms was changed to include more relevant Australian symbols, featuring a spray of wattle as the background.

Early Wattle Day activities included planting wattle trees in school grounds, decorating streets with wattle blossom and wearing sprigs of wattle.

Nillumbik is blessed with several indigenous species of wattle and our landscape is spectacular at this time of year. Historian Dianne Edwards, in The Diamond Valley Story, tells us that in 1912 a special train brought nearly 1,000 people to Hurstbridge to celebrate Wattle Day.

During the First World War, the wattle became a symbol of home for those serving overseas, and a means of raising funds for comforts for the soldiers. Sprigs of wattle and Wattle Day badges were sold by organisations such as Red Cross. According to Edwards, wounded soldiers returned from the war were taken to Hurstbridge to see the wattles blooming.

In the mid 20th century, the tradition of Wattle Day waned, only to be revived at the end of the century. In 1988, the Bicentenary year, the golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha) was officially gazetted as Australia's national floral emblem. In 1992, the Australian Government declared 1st September 'National Wattle Day'. In recent years, Wattle Day badges have been sold to support the CFA.

According to the Wattle Day Association website: "Wattle is Australian and represents us all. Unlike other national days, National Wattle Day excludes no one. Like our people, wattle has great diversity (with more than 1,000 species) and resilience, Wattle welcomes in the spring and is among the first plants to regenerate after fire, reminding us of the importance of renewal as it paints our national colours across our land …"

Since the revival of Wattle Day, thousands of people have come to Hurstbridge on the Sunday nearest the day – some even by special steam train – to celebrate spring and to enjoy the community atmosphere of the Hurstbridge Wattle Festival. Although the 2020 Wattle Festival has been cancelled due to Covid-19, the Hurstbridge community is celebrating Wattle Day by decorating the town with sprigs of wattle and imaginative scarecrows and other sculptures representing spring and community.

It was lovely to see the press report of these activities in Saturday’s Age. And you can experience the virtual festival online.

Aug 312020

I'll never forget the day, Wednesday, 25th March, when the Diamond Valley Bushwalking Club (DVBC) cancelled all of its hikes and rambles. The day before, the State of Victoria had declared Stage 1 restrictions. Nevertheless, friend Janie and I decided to continue just walking together and to find as many new walks as we could to present to the club when the pandemic was over.

Butterman's Track in St Andrews sounded intriguing. We drove to where the map showed a reserve on the edge of the Kinglake National Park. We met no-one on the 7 kilometre track and discovered a clearing in the reserve with a large ring of stones but no fire place or any signs of a camp fire. We both agreed that it must be the meeting place of some religious sect and that we would be the first to introduce the DVBC to this adventurous walk. Our first recce was completed.

Within the week, Stage 3 was declared. No sharing of cars plus social distancing meant that any walk we discovered had to have a lot of parking space. Nonplussed, we armed ourselves with flasks, sandwiches and maps and found a walk in Warrandyte, on the opposite side of the river from the well-trodden paths of Jumping Creek. Finding new walks was fun for the next few weeks.

By 11th May, with the spike over with, restrictions were eased and we had a road map for re-opening Victoria. At last the club was able to meet again, with a limit of 10 walkers socially distancing. 17 walkers put their hands up. The leaders of the Panton Hill Boomers Orchid Reserve read the Government's small print and discovered that, providing the groups had no more than 10, we could walk 100 metres apart. What bliss to be out amongst the pink heath.

We move forward to 28th June. New cases had been increasing daily in Victoria, as hot spots were declared in Melbourne. Stage 4 was announced as borders to Victoria closed. We decided to return to finding new walks, ourselves. It’s surprising how you can find narrow tracks even in well-known spots around places, like Banyule Flats.

It was disappointing to find that, despite all our best efforts, the numbers of new cases continued to rise (723 recorded on the 30th July). And face masks became mandatory. Four days later, the Premier was forced to declare a State of Disaster. This meant no visitors, a curfew and a 5 mile exercise radius. Luckily my friend and I live within a kilometre of each other and soon found a walk along the Plenty River in Montmorency which lasted around an hour. No new discoveries to be found in local parklands, so we poured over maps for the following week and found Brown’s Reserve in Greensborough.

Brown's was unknown to me even though I’ve lived in the same house in Briar Hill for nearly 50 years. Last century, Nurse Brown, who had never married, decided that her house and 6 acres of bushland were to be given to the Banyule Council. What a find, not only were domestic animals barred and the gate closed at sunset, but greenhood orchids were beginning to peep out. Here, right in suburbia, was an unspoilt piece of bushland. Our swag of new walks was growing by the week, until I read about the ‘don’t drive to exercise’ rule. They must be kidding.

That nonsensical restriction was overturned 48 hours later, common sense prevailing. Whatever happens next, the Senior Ramblers will be up for the challenge!

Aug 092020

At different times in our lives, we have been asked about our experiences. Whether for a job or for getting to know people, we chose the most relevant things to mention. Often the emphasis was on brevity – summarising experiences or jobs. But suppose you were asked to summarise your whole life in a few words. What would stand out?

In the book Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs, people were challenged to use only six words to describe their lives. Some of their responses were funny, others poignant, but they all showed it really is possible to describe a life in a few words. Below are some extracts from the book, complete in six words:

Followed rules, not dreams. Never again.

Found true love, married someone else.

Afraid of everything. Did it anyway.

Marked time till 55, reborn thereafter.

Time to start over again, again.

I live the perfect imperfect life.

Cursed with cancer. Blessed with friends.

Always working on the next chapter.

Lived like no tomorrow; tomorrow came.

Glass half full; pockets half empty.

As the examples show, it is not always the 'big occasions' that end up being the most significant. Life's important lessons can often be summarised in a small number of words and these can say a lot about both events and people. How would you describe your own life — in six words? [Editor: email your six-word description and we will publish it.]

[Editor: this six words business is clearly quite a big thing. For example, see the Six words memoirs website.

Aug 022020

I wake up to the memory of yesterday's Coronavirus infections in Victoria, 428! Staring at the ceiling, I think that we are almost certainly heading for Stage 4 restrictions. Time for some decisive action, so I sit up in my nice warm bed and make a list. Then, I consider my options: medical centres, pharmacies, veterinary surgeries, greengrocers, butchers and supermarkets will stay open, even in such dire circumstances (we can't let the populace starve to death before the virus gets them, can we?) but pet shops will almost certainly not be open. That decided, I leap out of bed, figuratively speaking, more like a cumbersome roll, actually, and head for my shower.

For some reason, I'm sure some unforeseen disaster will prevent my shopping as panic sets in. I dress quickly and load Jess into the car. Jess is the second member of my two-people family, which comprises a two-legged person (me) and a four-legged person (her). She needs some new balls to tide her over any impending lockdown. Now, having seen Jess's reaction to others of her species, some feeble-minded wit, thinking they are hilariously funny and original, might think that she has enough balls for six dogs, but I'm talking about the toy variety.

On the way to the nearest pet shop at South Morang, I suddenly remember that I have forgotten to eat breakfast. I have had no breakfast! This is a truly disturbing indication of the severity of the situation! NO BREAKFAST! Never in the Frances Family Annals has such a thing been recorded, not that much has been recorded at all, of course.

I fed Jess her chicken drumstick at the crack of dawn when she woke me up with an unblinking stare, several centimetres from my face, but then I forgot, an hour later, in the excitement of the headlong rush to the pet shop, to fortify myself. This is concerning. Is it an indication of an increase in the speed of dementia, which I'm certain is waiting around some corner to pounce on me?

Anyway, despite my enfeebled and unfed state, we make it safely to Best Friends Pet Shop. I leave Jess in the car, since she would make short work of any other poor, innocent, furry customer, and I head inside, sporting my surgical mask. I feel silly wearing it. This is only the third time I've PPE'd up. The first two times my glasses fogged up, which is a bit of a deterrent. To my chagrin, I am informed that I have the mask on upside down, with the wire bit under my chin. It's amazing how much better it works now that I have it on the correct way up.

Three girls are hovering near the register, all anxious to serve me. Who knows, I might be the only shopper they see all day. Other customers might not realise the disaster they are inviting if we aren't allowed to even walk our dogs, let alone if they don't have enough toys to keep boredom at bay. Watch out chair legs, especially expensive velvet covered ones! Not that I need to worry: most of my pieces of furniture are Savers Specials.

I can't find the tough, pimply balls that Jess favours so one of the girls graciously consents to show me. But, horror of horrors, there's only one blue ball left. My baby will just have to put up with the only other inferior ball, a red one. Moved to guilt by my lack of ability to fulfil her needs adequately, as a responsible parent of a canine should, ("My German Shepherd, my responsibility", my car sticker reads), I lash out on a colourful rope ball, a rope pull toy and a bag of dried kangaroo liver pieces. In principle, I am opposed to feeding pets parts of our beautiful national symbol, but needs must. This situation calls for extreme action and selfish self-interest wins out over ethics.

I walk up to the register where the helpful girl eyes my mask suspiciously. "I'm smiling behind this", I say, pointing at the offending object, worn this time the right way up, and crinkling my eyes at her over the top. She is unimpressed. Hmm! No sense of humour. I make it out of the shop, pet trophies in hand, after handing over half the value of my house. Opening the car door, I toss the rope toy inside to a waiting Jess. She, too, is unimpressed and ignores it.

I sigh and head for the Bridge Inn Shopping Centre, to buy, what else? Mincemeat for Jess at the butchers there. I then head for Chemist Warehouse and spend the equivalent of the other half of my house on vitamins for me. Reaching home, I make a coffee and then unload my purchases. Jess has finally deigned to chew her new rope ball. Half an hour later, as I finish my coffee, having put my shopping away (I use my own bags of course), I glance at my girl happily gnawing away on her bed in the lounge room. To my annoyance, the brand-new tight rope ball has morphed into a strange creature with a round body and two hanging black legs. Jess's mattress is littered with little discarded clumps of dark material. It took all of three quarters of an hour for her to wreak this destruction. I point out to her that it's just as well I love her! I'm not sure this translated very accurately into canine. She stops her chewing, wags her tail and gives my hand a warm lick.

I glance at the wall clock. It's too late for breakfast, so I cook myself some lunch, chicken schnitzel and salad. Satisfied at last, I now feel up to dealing with the situation in the loungeroom. Jess has taken her strange rope creature outside. She wants me to play with her. I toss the soggy object a few times. Then I return indoors to gingerly pick the sad little remnants of her once beautiful rope ball off her mattress. And so goes another day in Stage Three lockdown. I wonder what 'unprecedented' events Stage Four will bring? Either way, even if the ball met the dust or rather the jaws, Jess and I are well prepared.

Jul 222020

When people I meet ask where I live, and I tell them, Wattle Glen, they invariably reply, “where’s that?” Few Melburnians seem to have heard of Wattle Glen. Rarely does it make the news, Wattle Glen is such a quiet and peaceful place.

For 45 years, we have enjoyed living on the side of one of Wattle Glen’s many hills, surrounded by trees. We are visited daily by a variety of native birds and sometimes by kangaroos and even the occasional echidna. In the morning, we are wakened by the kookaburra, who also announces bedtime in the evenings. Silence rules the night hours, and summer nights are cool, even when Melbourne swelters.

Wattle Glen is not the place for ‘keeping up with the Jones’, here we like to do our own thing. Houses tend to be individual, not conforming to suburban fashions. They are tucked into their environment rather than showing off to passers-by.

Over the years, we have rambled around the district, however these rambles have become regular walks during Covid-19 lockdown. The back roads of Wattle Glen are ideal for isolation. We pass few people along the way and, if more than three vehicles pass us, we say, “the traffic is heavy today”.

Our favourite walk is ‘around the block’, around 6 kilometres, where the streets have evocative names such as Silvan Road, Valley Road, Moonlight Road, and the houses occupy large bush blocks.

We see, perched on a hill, a white house with a verandah facing the sun. With lovely views in all directions, most houses around here have verandahs. Opposite is an aged care home, with its rooms at the back overlooking a ferny glade.

Next we pass an old cottage in its original state – probably a former orchardist’s house – surrounded by its wood pile, vegetable garden, ducks and goats – its inhabitants living ‘the good life’ in the bush. Further along is a ‘ranch’ nestling into the hillside, with a grassy meadow and pond in front.

Along the road a bit, you can buy ‘pony poo’ for $2 a bag – too heavy for us to carry up the big hill ahead. There are crimson rosellas along this stretch, and magpies warbling to cheer us on as we pant up the hill, while horses watch us from their paddocks and frogs croak in the gully. At the top of the hill is a kind of seat for us, where we sit to recover our breath. We are now half way. Continuing on, we pass meandering driveways leading who knows where.

It is an easier walk downhill to the more ‘suburban’ part of Wattle Glen, were houses are closer together, some clinging to the hillside. Here we can stop at Pepper’s Paddock Store for a takeaway coffee to enjoy in the park. The last leg includes walking along the main road, then up the hill to our own little haven.

I’ve told you about Wattle Glen, but please keep it a secret. We want to keep the place to ourselves.

Jul 142020

I am the proud owner of a lovely new red Mazda 2. Last week, I went out to my car to attend an 8.15am doctor's appointment. I thought that I'd get in early so that I didn't have to wait. Much to my dismay, my car would not start. I checked the gears, and all controls, to make sure that I had everything right, but it was not starting.

Worried that time was getting on, and not wanting to be late, I phoned a good friend to ask her to give me a ride to my appointment. A croaky voice answered the phone and I explained my situation. She just laughed – a lot. You see, two weeks earlier, she had been in the same situation with her car battery flat and had a 9.30am (much more civil time) doctor's appointment. She stopped laughing enough for me to explain that I really DID have an appointment, and my car really would NOT start. She had thought it was my idea of a prank! Anyway, although she admitted that she was still in bed, like the good friend that she is, she agreed to help me out. She picked me up from home, drove me to the doctors and then returned me home. We both couldn't believe that my two week old car would have such a problem. Had I bought a lemon?

Upon returning home, I called Roadside Assist and they arrived in around 25 minutes. A pleasant young man looked under the bonnet, hooked up some leads to the battery, and investigated. I gave him the keys so he could try to start it. I watched on eagerly. Then, he smiled and asked me if I had another set of keys? I did, so I went inside to grab the spare keys. Then it dawned on me: I had been using the spare key for my husband's car!! Of course it wouldn't start! That is surely the risk of owning two Mazda cars, that both have 'push button' start. Had it been a good, old fashioned actual key, I would have known immediately the error of my ways.

I sent the young mechanic on his way with a big smile about the silly blonde woman in Eltham who could not start her car.

Jul 142020

Wind blows.
Somewhere in an attic
A sad abandoned kite tugs,
Restless under the weight of bidden sleep,
Dreams of rumba rhythms and
Ay ay ay a conga combinations.
Tail twitch, cloth whisper,
High flying kite.

Rain falls.
A sail boat dry docked
in an old toy box listens,
Feels seas move round her desert moorings.
Imagines oceans to invest in,
Sirocco moons to move by.
Rudder twitch, cloth whisper,
Dream afloat boat.

Sun shines.
A broken doll catches a stray beam
Through a crack in the old shed door,
Dreams of new dresses, tea with friends
In rose scented summer gardens,
Anticipates the breath of kisses.
Wings twitch, cloth whisper,
Little ray of hope shine doll.

Jun 162020

Here is a stretch of pure white sand. There is no one else here, just me, on this beach of pure white sand. It is, perhaps, just a wee bit too early for other walkers. Or am I the first one who has ever walked here? What a fancy! But that is how it feels. I have taken a few minutes to walk here by myself before the holiday chaos begins – a little meditation time.

There are no other footprints apart from those of the birds. There are a few silver gulls, for once not squabbling amongst themselves as they often do, and a bevy of sooty oyster catchers, who sometimes scurry along as though they are being chased by tumbleweeds. My own footprints tag along behind me. They make deep hollows where the sand is smooth and malleable as silk, soft runaway slightly sun-warmed sand. These treads disappear quite quickly, sucked back into the earth – trickle, trickle down flows the sand back over where I have walked until only a slight disturbance can be seen, a small pitted indentation.

As I move down to the ocean’s edge, my footprints gradually gather stability as the sand becomes damper and dun coloured. Finally, there is a firmness to them, each curve outlined, each toe discernible. No one else can claim these footprints. They are mine, firm in the damp sand. Closer to the ocean, where the sand becomes a camel coloured hue, my footprints fade in the gently lapping tidal water. The sea is still a bit chilly. On the faraway horizon the point where sea and sky meet is, today, ill defined. The blue on blue is almost indistinguishable and a faint shimmering heat haze is already beginning to tremble, distorting this line. There are no clouds. The sun owns the sky. Today will be very warm, a good day for the beach.

She claims everything, the sea. If you build a sandcastle, she will finally claim it. She will eat it and swish her lips for more. Please do not forget your towel, a shoe, a spade or, heaven forbid, a favourite book! Anything at all that you forget, she will take for her own. On calm days this is a gradual possessing, little lick, licks. She will sniff, sniff around the forgotten like a dog wary of a stranger’s treat, getting closer and closer until finally she accepts the offering then, GULP! There you are – gone!

Just so with a footprint in the sand. Eventually an incoming tide will have mine, covering my tracks with a swill of water and sand. So that I might begin to wonder if I had walked there at all and, if not, how did I get there? But then, noticing my footprints in the firm sand out of reach of the sea’s still approaching tidal lips, I will realise that I had not been dreaming. I did walk there after all. What silly fancies I have sometimes!

But today the tide is an ebb tide and it is calm. It is a silver sand beach with an untroubled whispering, ebbing ocean – tiny little whispers of waves, or wavelets maybe is a suitable word for the water today. I like whispers, little whispers leaving frown lines on the beach where the water whispers in until, tired of whispering in, the ocean takes a little breath back a bit. Then in she flows, breathing out to whisper and build another frown of sand until, eventually, the beach is marked by continuous frown lines to show that the day has been calm with sea and tide, the ocean is only singing little whisperings and not being noisy and crass.

On stormy days, when the tide returns, cross and crass, she will bang and crash into everything. She will dash the driftwood and sea weed ashore in large heaps as if to say "Take it! Take it all ——– BACK! Have it all ——– BACK!" She will charge ashore with flotsam and jetsam (including your forgotten treasures perhaps), with a TISH and a TOSH, before rushing back recklessly to find some more of her unwanted.

But not today thankfully. Today the sea is just full of little whisperings and she only nibbles neatly at my footprints until finally they disappear. Now the sun is fully awake and the beach is warming up. The sea will soon be warmer. There are people arriving to pick a good spot for the day ahead. There is the gladsome noise of children. A dog is barking. There are kites to fly if the wind picks up, cricket to play, buckets and spades for sandcastle building and picnics to eat. There is the smell of suntan lotion and mosquito repellent. There is my family marking off our spot. My husband waves, breaking into my musings.

I had been marvelling as I walked along this sandy beach at the wonder of my footprints being chewed on slowly by the sea because of a whim of the moon.

Now it’s time for family fun. I wave back.

Apr 212020

If you want to go full blown karaoke, download the music without the singing.

Don’t gather round people
Whatever you do
Don’t go to the theatre
the footy, the zoo
the café, the bar
the cinema too.
If your life to you is worth saving
Then you’d better start thinkin’
Or you’ll all get the ‘flu
For the times they are a’changing. Come pollies and leaders
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
Keeping socially distant’s
For one and for all
The battle outside it is ragin’
But our doctors and nurses
They won’t let us fall.
Tho’ the times they are a’changin’ Come writers, musicians
And you who can act
Come all of the artists
Who gave what we lacked
The painters, the sculptors
The mirror’s not cracked
You’re all needed now more than ever
We’ve time now to look
And to listen to you
For the times they are a’slowing. Come men and come women
Throughout the land
Be kind to your neighbours
And lend them a hand
Without touching, of course
Because touching in banned.
Your old road is rapidly agin’
When you build up a new one
Make sure it is planned
For the times they are a’changin’. The line is not drawn
The curse is not cast
The other side’s waitin’
The virus won’t last
The present now
Will later be past
With the old order rapidly fadin’
A much wise order will be our new task
For new times are a’comin’.

Mar 312020

My parents never mentioned Spanish Flu, even though that virus killed more people worldwide than World War 1. Now here we are in another historical time and I am keen to keep a personal journal.

March 15th, Monday. Loved the U3A talk Professor Louis Roller gave at the Living and Learning Centre, Eltham. The topic was ‘You and your Medicine’, part of the 2020 Speaker’s Program. Jo Osbourne and I decided to attend, even though that afternoon we had our regular U3A Class ‘First Nations’. At the end of the talk, we had a window of 15 minutes in which to drive over to Diamond Creek, Senior Citizens Hall. A quick dash and we walked into the class, only to find that all U3A classes were to be cancelled as of midnight. What a shock! Only classes in the open air (bowling, walking) could continue, but how? We all sat around and discussed the next 2 weeks of term. A walk though Wattle Glen was suggested, as no-one wanted the term to end before Easter. I was already thinking ahead, that our Painting and Drawing Class could be en plein air in Wingrove Park; plenty of room to spread out and the forecast was for 29 degrees. Rather like Van Gogh and Gauguin, setting out with their easels along the canals in Provence.

March 16th, Tuesday. Surprised to have a breakfast call cancelling my Life Memoirs Class. What am I going to do with my 1,000 word story this week? Also a surprising phone call from my daughter Helen in Perth, to say that her proposed Easter trip would probably be off; Qantas cancelling many of their scheduled flights.

March 17th. Our weekly ramble with the Diamond Valley Bushwalkers is cancelled. Does the fresh air count for nothing? In this wonderful sunny autumn weather, surely we can be more flexible. It seems to me that civilisation has suddenly turned upside down.

March 20. Hurrah for ‘Tuning into Opera’. Our tutors Lyn and Tom Richards have come up with a plan on their blog. Now social distancing makes it impossible to meet, we can download the fine production of the Ring Cycle by Opera North, Leeds. The New York Met also promises to stream free some of their outstanding productions. Lyn has already worked out the days and times the operas commence (we are 15 hours ahead). Things are looking up.

March 24th. Over this last weekend I find we are at Stage 1 and we now have a National Cabinet. Japan has postponed the Tokyo Olympic Games. I am delighted to receive an invitation to a Life Memoir meeting this week. It appears that our leader Serena Sweeney has mastered Zoom. I will get to read my story after all, virtually. What fun, I have never conferenced a meeting on computer before. So this is the future, I am in awe of our resourceful seniors and it’s only taken a week to change!

Mar 312020

Two tenth floor balconies, eight feet apart. Two men doing their thirty day corona virus isolation.

Jack, returned from overseas. Girlfriend, Sophia, in hospital recovering from a leg amputation. She is a violinist who intuitively composes soothing music.

Mitch, released from jail and a year’s solitary confinement.

Both are disposed to talk. They are compatible.

Jack asks Mitch to help him get a feeling for the effect of isolation on the human spirit so that Sophia can compose soothing music for people in jail or in corona virus isolation or other challenging environments. Mitch agrees.

“What can I do?”

“You talk, I’ll type.”

“For starters. Lack of connection with people and life. Couldn’t see or hear or touch or smell people – couldn’t sense them, hear them laughing or crying or just making noises or breathing — couldn’t experience friendly pats on the back or hugs — couldn’t hear humanity’s sounds.

“Lack of contact with Nature – with the sky and clouds – with vistas of trees and horizons – with mountains and oceans and lakes and rivers and animals and everything that grows in the ground – with birds and animals, and especially with dogs and cats – with variable weather.

Is that enough to begin with?”

“Sure is. You’ve given us leads we can get stuck into.”

Balcony scene a week later

Jack, “I’ll summarise. We learnt a lot this week. People write and take lots of photos – and gladly share them. A girl doing a kindergarten course recorded twenty different sorts of sounds in different types of child care – and has sent them to us to use however we want. A scuba diver who is a professional photographer has sent us sounds – underwater, wind, seabirds, dolphins, whales, and a whole range of waves crashing onto shorelines down to wavelets coming into shore . A town planning student has recorded a wide range of city sounds – trains, buses, cars, crowds of people in shops, crowds on special shopping days, buskers, cathedral bells, building sites, vacuum cleaning and trolley pushing, sounds inside public transport. And lots more.”

Balcony scene ten days later.

‘Mitch, what do you think?”

“Played Sophia’s tape all through last night. She’s captured the wonders and joys and ordinarinesses of humanness. Had the best sleep ever. Didn’t dread waking up. I’m a person again.

I’ll try to get the prison authorities to allow everyone in solitary to listen to her tape as much as they like. If it could be played through the whole jail, if everyone released was given a copy to take away with them, if it could be sent to all Australian jails and remand centres, I reckon the rate of recidivism would be halved.”

“Mitch, I’ve had similar responses from one hotel housing Corona Virus isolationists – three isolationist homes – one busy childcare centre – two hospital emergency reception desks – a Centrelink office – a big retailer”. I’ll send copies for widespread distribution to the main Corona Virus oversight people.”

Friendships formed for life.

Mar 312020

Clara was finding it hard to keep calm. She’d just driven to half a dozen different supermarkets trying to find some toilet paper. She was completely out and was in the unfortunate position of having one of those unmentionable conditions whereby when you’ve got to go, well you’ve GOT TO GO!!!!!! Normally, Clara would have more than adequate supplies of this essential sanitary requirement but an unfortunate incident earlier in the week had prevented her from holding her usual level of stocks. It eventuated this way. George, her husband and ever-loving grandfather to Cora and Suzy, had been babysitting these delightful 2 year old twins when he had come down with a violently unpleasant tummy bug which had struck with astonishing speed leaving poor George stuck in the smallest room of the house for an inordinate period of time. It’s not clear whether the adorable Cora and Suzy were the source of George’s malaise – that is beyond the boundaries of this sad story. Anyway Cora, because of her own condition, took refuge in her bedroom (with ensuite bathroom) and left George to his own devices until he was able to recover. Of course, by the time he did recover, 3 days had passed and, by then the damage, as yet undiscovered, had been done. As Cora sound realised, all stocks of the precious commodity were gone with the exception of 4 sheets on the last roll in their ensuite. It was only when George had recovered some bodily composure once again that Cora emerged from her self-isolation to discover the sad situation concerning the toilet tissue stocks, or lack thereof.

As she made her despondent way home, Cora was scratching her head trying to figure out what could be done about the predicament she found herself in. As soon as she was home, she took stock of the various items which could be used as a substitute:

1 roll of kitchen towel
1 box of tissues
14 paper napkins
23 sheets of A4 paper in the printer
Last Saturday’s Age
2 old phone books
6 sheets of sandpaper in the shed????

As she totalled up how long this might last – 3 weeks at a pinch as long as her “condition” remained in remission, 3 days otherwise.

Ah, well surely supermarket stocks will have recovered by then she surmised, when she heard George calling out from the front door – “Hello, Cora, hello Suzy. What a lovely surprise.”

Mar 312020
STAGE 1 Sunday, 23 February, 2020: NGV 18th Century Gallery – Free Drawing Class

I’m sitting amongst several hundred would-be artists packed onto stools and even the floor, silently intent on drawing. Out front is our facilitator, enthusiastically discussing 18th Century painting techniques. He’s young, perhaps overawed by the size of his class and his microphone echoes so I can’t understand what he’s saying but luckily, he’s with a signer.

I’m inspired to draw a lily white marble statue, a woman who looks down dreamily from her plinth. Bad choice… eventually I leave.

Outside, St Kilda Road is packed with sight-seers and the sun is bathing the city in late afternoon’s liquid light. A busker soaks the air with her mellow refrain and I feel privileged to be here, beautiful Melbourne is its own masterpiece.

But there’s been talk of a virus up there in Wuhan city, China. They say it’s dangerous – very contagious, they call it ‘coronavirus‘. I rub shoulders with sightseers and a bell I don’t quite acknowledge rings in my blanketed distance.

STAGE 2 Thursday, 19 March 2020: A pleasant morning

Thursdays are good days, they’re my U3A days – I look forward to them, usually.

But today is different. A Coronavirus pandemic has been declared, there’s news of its spread overseas and warnings, lots of warnings about its containment in Australia.

Bad times are predicted. Our city is closing down, bit by bit, job by job.

On this Thursday I have an appointment, an interview and I think, ‘Stage 2 restrictions start in a few days – should I cancel?’ I don’t want this to be happening, I answer, ‘No.’

I’m driving down a near empty road to a vast community garden in Doncaster. My interviewee is waiting, cheerfully. We meet and throughout the sunny morning he provides insights into how multicultural gardeners grow food. This learning is fun but we know a bleak winter is coming.

STAGE 3 Sunday, 29 March 2020: Golden Promises

Yet another brilliant autumn day, a day that belies our invisible opponent. The virus is all around us now, in our supermarkets, on our hands, in the air we breathe, it’s taken over our news reports and seeped into every cold, dark, moist corner. We’re afraid to go out save to stock up on sometimes questionable ‘essentials’.

I was given a bag of jonquil bulbs last summer; there must be over 100 of them. It’s time to plant them. Their flowers will be lemon coloured, like those that grow wild in the fields up in Kangaroo Ground.

Pain and permanently blackened fingernails, such are the gifts of gardening. But there are benefits, too – when the purple Hardenbergia blooms then beds of lemon gold flower heads will dance in spring sunshine.

The fear of infection is here, the prospect of a dour winter is upon us and concern for our loved ones is real – this is a time like no other.

But it, too, will pass – I’m waiting for Spring.

Mar 312020

I scream, “go away“, but the beasts just close in and engulf me.

Their eyes, the first thing that alarmed me, wild, frantic, unblinking as they bore down. I was warned not to attend so early but disregarded the advice.

What could go wrong?” I told my friends.

Now the nightmare unfolds around me. I am first trapped in a narrow aisle then mercilessly trampled underfoot. Unlike in Pamplona at the San Fermin Festival and the running of the bulls, there are no Red Cross personnel here to help me.

The first wave has passed leaving me laying on the floor bruised and battered. A terrifying click clacking at the other end of the row strikes terror into my very soul. I know it is heralding yet another onslaught which is about to bear down on me.

The sound of a siren screaming and reflections of blue and red lights bouncing off buildings is was what I awoke to. A pair of paramedics are looking down at me but I can’t discern any of their features as they are fully garbed in white protective gowns, their faces covered with masks under a transparent shield.

We stop at the emergency entrance and the ambulance is met by two fully gowned orderlies with a gurney. I am gently transferred and wheeled into the hospital. There are red signs everywhere stating, caution corona virus patients must follow the red line. My carers disregard this instruction and follow a blue line and park me in a small cubicle in the casualty department.

After many hours a weary doctor attends. His diagnosis is eventually completed and I end up in a crisp white bed in the general ward, wrapped in bandages and fitted with multiple plaster casts.

Now with plenty of time to reflect. Visions of walking frames and walking sticks come to me, nightmares that will never leave.

I wonder if I really needed to call into Coles at 7.30am for that packet of tissues.

Mar 312020

Echoes from the past float over Victoria this Easter, a state in shock at the lock down caused by Covid-19. In 1919 the Australian troops returned unknowingly bringing the Spanish Flu with them.

Lexton is a small town in central Victoria, forty-five km from Ballarat on the road to Ararat and like many towns settled in the 1840s, has a hotel, general store, hall, football ground, church and school and a population of around one hundred and fifty.

At the time of the First World War the Naylor and Smith families were long established in the district. James Smith emigrated from Ireland, joined the Victorian Police Force in 1860, and settled in Lexton when he retired.

George Naylor, born in Tasmania in 1839, worked around the Victorian gold fields until he settled with his ten children in Lexton in 1880. In 1900 Tom Smith married Mary Naylor with both families very involved in local affairs. Mary also wrote a diary covering these years detailing the life of her family, those of her brothers and sisters, their families and the daily life of the town.

When the First World War was declared, George Naylor, Mary Smith’s unmarried brother aged forty-two enlisted. He said he went to the war so a man with a family could stay at home.

The Naylor family received the sad news that Gorge had been killed on the 4th February 1917, missing in action on the Western Front. The news devastated his family especially his father whose health was never the same after this news.

The war ended and the Australian soldiers returned home to a country with many families in mourning.

George senior’s health deteriorated after the loss of his son and in May 1919 he had a stroke. His two sons from Melbourne, Tom who had a Billiard Saloon in Chelsea and Jack a blacksmith from Epping visited their ailing father. Jack soon returned to Epping to see his family and arrange to spend more time with his father, but he never returned to Lexton.

The Spanish flu had started to spread to country Victoria when Mary Smith received the terrible news that Jack had succumbed in Epping. He was rushed to the Melbourne Base Hospital but died there after a few days illness. The loss of two brothers and a father in such a short space of time was a blow to the family with Jack leaving a sick wife and four small children. It was ‘too sad for words and leaves a blank in our lives never to be filled’ Mary wrote in her diary.

State borders were closed, the Exhibition Building in Melbourne was turned into a hospital, schools, churches and places of entertainment were closed and around four thousand Victorians died from the Spanish Influenza. Hidden behind those statistics are countless untold stories of the private grief of families and the long trail that grief left.

Mark Twain supposedly said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes“.

Mar 312020

Josh flew in the door, dumped his school bag, kicked off his runners and shouted, “MUM, MUM”.

“What one earth is it?” replied his mother coming into the hall with her arms full of ironing.

Jumping up and down with excitement, the words tumbled out. “Ben says it’s free, really, free. You must tell Dad. Quick before it isn’t free anymore.” He grabbed her iphone and thrust it at her, causing her to drop all the ironing.

“Josh, for goodness sake that’s enough. Now look what you made me do. Are you mad thinking I’ll ring your Dad at this hour of the day? He’d be furious.”

“Mum, pleeeese, it’s very important. It’s for you, he’s been thinking about getting one for ages.”

“What on earth are you talking about? You’re talking in riddles. Tell me what you mean.”

“I can’t. I promised I wouldn’t. If I tell it may not be free anymore. Everyone might get to hear about it. Ben says there’s two other free things as well. We must do something, really we must,” Josh pleaded, urgency in his voice and agitation evident in his wiry body.

“This has gone far enough. No more nonsense. Now help me pick up all this ironing and then you can go and clean your bedroom up.”

Sobbing in frustration he pleaded with his Mum. “What time’s Dad’s lunch. Can we ring him then?”

“Enough Josh.”

“Listen Mum, please just listen. If I tell you, will you tell Dad before it’s too late?”

“I suppose there’ll be no peace until I hear what you want to say. You really don’t give up do you? O.K. I’m listening.”

“Apart from Dad you mustn’t tell anyone. Ben heard someone talking. There’s a free Corona, that’s a car right? Dad’s said he wanted to get you a car but he couldn’t afford one. Well now maybe you could have one. That’s not all. He can get free Corona beer, that’s the sort he likes isn’t it? Since Mr. Jenkins cut his wages he hasn’t had much beer has he? And, listen Mum, there’s another free thing as well. Ben told me. You can get free money, it’s called Krona. I’m not sure how you spell, it sounds like Corona. Ben didn’t hear that part very well. But just think, a new car and some money to buy Dad’s beer. I’m sure it would be alright to ring Dad just this once. Maybe he could call on his way home and get one from the garage before every one catches on to the idea that it’s free. News about free things spreads like a virus.”