This game can be adapted for writers, artists, poets and movie fans!
There are two versions. The version attributed to the Surrealist Movement is when the weirdest possible head, torso, legs of the Exquisite Corpse are drawn by three different players, each folding over the paper so the next person can’t see the results until it is unfolded at the end of the game.
“Consequences” is the original name of this literary pen and paper parlour game which has been played since the 1800s Victorian Era. A random sentence is written near the top of the page. The paper is folded over then passed to several other participants who add to it and fold until it reaches the last person, or the bottom of the page. The paper is unfolded and the whole “story” is revealed––often with hilarious results.
Alternatively, photocopied lines from classic poems can be cut into strips and jumbled into a bowl. Each player blindly chooses nine strips but uses only seven to form a poem. The mind takes over, sorting and assembling into a reasonably cohesive format. The verse pictured above is what I put together in a recent Masterclass during a timed exercise. My Exquisite Corpse earned the comment “feels Gothic and dark”.
To quoteAcademy of American Poets: “The only hard and fast rule of Exquisite Corpse is that each participant is unaware of what the others have written, thus producing a surprising—sometimes absurd—yet often beautiful poem. Exquisite Corpse is a great way to collaborate with other poets, and to free oneself from imaginative constraints or habits.”
Minor changes have been added to Exquisite Corpse over time, from using a single word to including famous lines from books and movies. For example, you can jot down your favourite movie quote, fold over the paper then pass it on. See what you can pitch with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Hugh Jackman. In book mode, an amalgamation of Germaine Greer and Nora Roberts could prove interesting.
This formula for fun was kindly supplied by WordPress blogger Life After Sixty-Five who wrote––“Here is my favourite version of Exquisite Corpse, though I have played the version where a human body is drawn”––
He (male name, fold) – someone we all knew, or someone famous
met She (female name, fold) – could be someone famous, or someone playing the game etc.
at (place, fold)
He wore (description of clothes, fold)
She wore (description of clothes, fold)
He asked, (question, fold)
She replied, (answers question, fold)
And along came (person, fold)
And so they decided to (decision, fold)
And in the end…(finish, fold) “…the gales of laughter at the silly stories…”
Language Is A Virus website has the history of Exquisite Corpse and suggested books on the subject. They started a poem which has been running since 2000 and you can add to the silliness.
A highly charged and deeply honest memoir, ‘Reckoning’ combines research into the life of assassin and Polish World War II survivor Zbigniew Szubanski , father of Australian actress Magda Szubanski, and Magda herself as she struggles to come to terms with her father’s legacy and forge her own career within the world of television and movies. This absorbing, eloquently written book contains remarkable revelations of wartime espionage, emotional family ties and facing the truth, and I was enthralled to the very last page.
First published in 2016, ‘Reckoning’ is Magda’s debut novel, and courageously written. I must admit my initial thoughts were ‘Wow, she’s brave putting that in writing’ but it made me love this book even more. Definitely a five-star read! Magda relates one of those true stories from childhood to adulthood which hits the right cord with just about everyone. We’ve had similar feelings and domestic issues and career changes and sexuality debates and, yes, sadly, the father we got to understand a little too late.
‘Reckoning’ has gone on to bigger things but here’s the first results: Winner Nielsen BookData Booksellers Choice Award, 2016 Winner Book of the Year, Australian Book Industry Awards, 2016 Winner Biography of the Year, Australian Book Industry Awards, 2016 Winner Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, 2016 Winner Indie Award for Non-Fiction, 2016 Winner Victorian Community History Award Judges’ Special Prize, 2016 Shortlisted Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year, Australian Book Industry Awards, 2016 Shortlisted Dobbie Literary Award, 2016 Shortlisted National Biography Award, 2016
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Magda Szubanski is one of Australia’s best known comedy performers. She lives in Melbourne and began her career in university revues before writing and appearing in a number of comedy shows. Magda created the iconic character of Sharon Strzelecki in ABC-TV series ‘Kath and Kim’. She performs in theatre productions and has acted in movies – notably ‘Babe’ and ‘Babe Pig in the City’ – and currently ‘Three Summers’ directed by Ben Elton and ‘The BBQ’ directed by Stephen Amis.
Platitudes, rather hippy dippy and old hat, short sugar-coated sentences designed to bolster the ‘feels’ of a younger generation. Look again. Each line creates an emotion, a memory jog, that tingle of happiness to the down-surge of sadness. Regret is there, the wince for things done wrong, then the smile for laughing out loud when you get it right. Basic universal rules for living.
Traditional work-life balance means separate compartments in our lives, but lines can become blurred, pressure can build and conflicts emerge. Instead of working against each other, integration means all parts can work together to achieve a positive outcome for our lifestyle expectations. Then realisation that your work-life balance is “out of kilter” will no longer apply. I wish I had read this book before my divorce!
John Drury is a presenter, trainer, facilitator, and author of new book “Integrate” which challenges busy people to rethink their approach to life and work. “The demands of work have never been greater. A balancing act is not the answer. Work-life integration is the only way forward in a 24/7 world” says Drury, whose painful personal experience with burnout, and subsequent recovery while in a senior leadership role, motivated him to start helping other high achievers create and maintain a realistic lifestyle.
In his book, Drury outlines a way to align all the parts of your life so they work in unison. He says “This takes effort, but it’s well worth it and the end result will give you a schedule far easier to work with than just a big juggling act which no-one ever seems to make work.” He believes that you must look after yourself at your very core; respect your health, your wellness, your relationships and your work commitments.
In John Burfitt’s interview, Drury explains that self-care and implementing achievable self-management strategies are essential. Drury goes on to say that once important areas are defined and outlined, it becomes a matter of making decisions and planning goals “And you must do that, as a goal without a plan is just a wish.”
Maybe it’s because I was brought up by post-war parents that I am shocked at the staggering amount of food waste in Brisbane. I could not understand why our local Government has joined the world-wide campaign Love Food Hate Waste. Surely you only buy, cook and eat what you need and freeze leftovers?
Apparently for millions of households, it’s not that simple!
The Council brochure states “Love Food Hate Waste was launched in 2007 by Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) in the United Kingdom followed by New Zealand, Canada and Australia. With food waste making up 37% of the average Brisbane rubbish bin, 1 in 5 shopping bags of food ends up in the bin. That’s 97,000 tonnes of food thrown away every year. There are simple and practical changes which residents can make in the kitchen to reduce food waste; planning, preparation and storage of food will make a big difference to your wallet and keep Brisbane clean, green and sustainable.”
Scramble over the mat, don’t trip on the dog, here’s a tasty listicle of Council wisdom prepared earlier:
Plan meals ahead – create a meal plan based on what is already in your fridge, freezer and pantry.
Shop mindfully – stick to your shopping list!
Store food correctly – Learn how to store food to ensure it lasts as long as possible and check your refrigerator is functioning at maximum efficiency.
Cook with care – Without controlling portions, we tend to waste food when we prepare or cook too much. Remember fruit and vegetables ripen quickly and are best consumed daily.
Love your leftovers – Freeze leftovers to use for lunches, keep for snacks, or add to another main meal.
Consider composting – Turn your kitchen scraps into rich nutrients for your garden, get a Bokashi bucket, consider owning pets like chickens or guinea pigs.
Join a community garden – Composting hubs operate in selected community gardens.
Six-week food waste challenge – Every week the Council will provide step-by-step information on how you can reduce food waste in your home. Seriously.
We are over-stocked, over-fed and over-indulgent of our taste buds. Or as my dear mother would say “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.”
The yellow rabbit picked his front teeth with a twig and contemplated what it would be like baked in a rabbit pie. He remembered a tune the tone-deaf gardener used to sing “Run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run, something, something, he’ll get by without his rabbit pie…” Stupid song but with a happy ending for the bunny. The yellow rabbit didn’t have to worry about ending up in a pie because he crept among the marrows and hid in the sunflower patch or in buttery dandelion clumps and the gardener couldn’t see him. There were so many things to hide in, or on, or against when you were yellow. He remembered the nerve-wracking time he stopped on a double yellow line so a council truck wouldn’t run over him. The driver wasn’t going fast but that’s beside the point. The yellow rabbit nearly hopped out in front of the vehicle. Of course, stopping still on the yellow line made him invisible. His paws were a bit shaky once the truck had driven passed and he’d vowed then and there never to cross a road again. He looked up at the back verandah of the old homestead and continued his contemplation. There was a big yellow tablecloth fluttering on the railing which meant plans were afoot to eat outside. He had already spied the plump yellow cushions on the cane chairs. The big glass jug was frosting over, filled with ice and lemon nectar. The yellow rabbit always thought it strange how the humans ate with tools. They doled out piles of food and delicious salads with forks and scoops and ladles. Then they sliced succulent pineapples with large knives and chopped it into chunks. The strangest thing he’d ever seen was when they would cut the sides off mangoes and grid the luscious inner flesh before turning the skin inside out. At least the young human consumed large portions of her meals with her fingers. This meant that the female of the warren would continually wipe the fingers and face of the little fluffle. The yellow rabbit was now watching for this small fluffle, a young girl who always wore a yellow and white striped dress. She strolled outside holding a glass bowl, spooning egg custard into her mouth without watching the spillage. Her bright eyes were scanning for him. It didn’t take long for her to see him crouched down in a tray full of marigold seedlings. He twitched his long ears. She brushed a curl out of her eyes. He wiggled his nose. She gave a wiggle of her fingers then turned away, disappearing back inside. Out came the male and hung a wire cage on a fancy hook. The canary inside the cage started singing. The male started to set the table with yellow spotted plates and serviettes with sunbeams on them but seemed more interested in taking long swigs from a bottle of amber liquid he had left on the open window sill. The little girl reappeared and behind her trailed several yellow balloons on long shiny strings. She was wearing a cardboard hat decorated with sprigs of wattle which tangled in her blonde hair. The female emerged from the kitchen door with a bunch of daffodils in one hand and an empty honey jar in the other. She put the flowers in the jar and placed it in the middle of the table while talking to the male. The yellow rabbit shuddered and averted his eyes from the hot metal plate where the male had just thrown raw meat. Even the smell of fresh lettuce couldn’t stop him feeling slightly nauseated. After a few minutes, the little girl looped the balloon strings around the handrail and skipped down the verandah steps. She was coming straight towards him. Instinctively he shrunk low into the cool earth and tensed his muscles. She was swinging her arms casually and appeared to be looking over his head at a light catcher made from shimmering pieces of tinfoil clipped to a branch. The yellow rabbit blinked in surprise. She walked right by. However, quick as a wink, she flipped something out of her pocket and into the seedling tray. It was a carrot! Joy swelled in the yellow rabbit’s heart. He snatched up the fresh carrot in his big front teeth and leapt out of the seedling tray. He landed on the grass and bounded for the back fence. He knew it was ungracious of him, but he didn’t turn around to acknowledge the young girl. Biting hard on the carrot, and with a bit of pulling and tugging, he managed to crawl under the fence without getting stuck. He hopped off across the paddock with his tasty prize. The young girl trailed slowly back to her parents. They had soft smiles on their faces. With a happy nod, the young girl sat down at the table where a chunk of pineapple was waiting. As the sticky juice ran down her hands, she listened to her parents tell the familiar story of how they had been shown the nearby rabbit colony when they were her age. The yellow rabbits were a family tradition but nobody knew why they were yellow. Strangely, most of the bits and pieces in the homestead were the same colour, a shade her grandmother called sunshine. Legend says the yellow rabbit always appears on bright sunny days.
The above story was written as a free-write, a freefall stream of consciousness, and I had no idea where it was going or how it would end. It’s a fun technique! To find out more, click Jen Storer Girl and Duck Scribbles
To quote Families Magazine “This poster will help your kids to differentiate and identify the difference between being RUDE, being MEAN and BULLYING.”
The self-explanatory poster is one of several free downloads on the website of Families Magazine, an A4 glossy magazine printed every two months and distributed in public libraries and places where families are in Brisbane, Ipswich, Toowoomba, Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast, Australia.
Families Magazine says “Interactions with others can be confusing. Sometimes what is considered bullying, may in fact be something else? Bullying is a repetitive behaviour that is designed to intentionally hurt or belittle another person.”
All three behaviours are upsetting to a child, but bullying is the most destructive.
(Rewriting metaphor) The paddocks of writing are strewn with rough drafts. You kick, trip, fall, get up and struggle your way across rugged terrain until you see a smooth pebble ahead. The closer you get, the more polished it becomes. Eventually you walk over golden sand and reach out; that pebble has become a jewel. The following children’s picture book story is still a pebble.
(Living room) Everyone in Neil’s family wants to sit on the soft cosy comfy couch.
Because the soft cosy comfy couch is the best place to sit.
But sometimes it’s just not big enough.
(Takeover) Sometimes Neil can’t sit down to read his book because his two brothers and Tiny the dog sit down first. And they spread out.
(Solid cushion) So Neil tries to sit on a hard red cushion but slides off – bump!
Just when Neil goes to sit down on the front doorstep with his book, it is time for lunch.
The cushion on the kitchen chair is very thin. Neil wriggles to get comfortable.
The thin cushion slips down and lands in the cat’s food.
(Various seats) Neil’s mother watches a movie with Tiny the dog and Rat the cat snoozing on either side.
No room to squeeze in there.
So Neil drags in
a cardboard box – squash! a wooden stool – crack! a blue highchair – topple! Everyone ends up grumpy so Neil goes outside to find a relaxing place to read.
(Outdoors) In the garden the washing flaps across the wooden seat like a ghost – wooooo! When the hammock swings back and forth too much it makes Neil feel dizzy.
He falls out – plop!
(Tree) His leafy perch on a branch in the tree is swooped by noisy magpies – ouch!
Neil tucks his book inside his t-shirt and scrambles down.
(Various places) The chicken roost, the guinea pig hutch and the vegetable patch are no good.
(Swimming pool) Neil likes the idea of floating and reading.
It’s difficult to balance and read a book on the floating pool mat – splash! Tiny the dog jumps into the swimming pool and rescues the book.
(Rainy day) Next day a headcold makes Neil sneeze and sneeze and sneeze.
But he has a new book to read.
And he snuggles up, warm and happy on the soft cosy comfy couch.
(Family) Then everyone decides to keep him company.
On the SQUASHY soft cosy comfy couch.
Grey clouds raced across the sky and cold wind ruffled Paul’s hair.
He gazed with sadness at Grandpa’s new tree.
It looked sick.
Its leaves were brown and crispy and some had fallen on the grass.
Paul grabbed the garden hose and watered the earth around the tree.
A large puddle circled the trunk but nothing happened.
Paul thought it needed some food. “What do trees eat?” he asked the sky.
In the garden shed, Paul foraged among lots of interesting containers.
On the bench he saw Grandpa’s half eaten sandwich and took it to the tree. Crunch! He picked up the dog’s smelly bone and gave that to the tree. Cackle! The hens followed a trail of grain as it trickled along behind him.
Paul was sure the cat wouldn’t miss her bowl of fish-flavoured treats.
From the kitchen, vegetable scraps joined a plate of leftover breakfast bits.
Paul stuffed an apple and a banana on top and ran back to the tree. Icky! He pulled a fuzzy lollipop out of his pocket and tossed it on the pile. Gloop! He found a jar of honey and poured that around the base. Woof, cluck, meow, buzz! Everyone enjoyed the food except the tree.
“You still don’t look right,” said Paul.
A leaf fluttered down, then another and another until the branches were bare.
Paul felt a tiny ache inside.
He walked slowly into the house – then thought of an idea!
With his coloured pencils and sheets of paper he drew and drew and drew.
His scissors cut and cut and cut until he had a handful of leafy shapes.
It was a big job threading these leaves on to the branches.
He stood on tip-toe and just reached the highest twigs.
Paul knew it wouldn’t fool Grandpa, but he did want to make him smile.
He tugged Grandpa by the hand, outside and all the way to the tree.
“What’s this?” said Grandpa. “A Christmas tree?”
Paul shuffled uncomfortably. “No.”
“A tree eating all our food?” said Grandpa as his boots squelched in honey.
Paul hung his head. “Grandpa, your tree is sick. I tried to make it better.”
Grandpa’s eyes twinkled.
“You did a great job, Paul. The leaves look better than ever.”
Paul’s stomach did a happy flip.
Grandpa patted his shoulder.
“This tree will lose its leaves for winter and will grow new ones in the spring.”
Paul was relieved. “You mean it’s just taking a nap?”
Laughter rumbled out of Grandpa. “Exactly.”
Grandpa explained how the ground and the sun and the rain helped it grow.
Paul looked up at Grandpa.
“When it grows taller next year, I’ll need help with the paper leaves.”
Grandpa gave Paul a big, warm handshake.
At that moment Paul was surprised to see him wink.
“Don’t forget,” said Grandpa, “next year you’ll be taller too.”
Angus shuffled through a pile of bills and sent one fluttering to the floor. His son Steve stood beside the dining room table, arms folded, watching him. Every week Angus misplaced an important piece of paperwork.
“Told you it wasn’t far away.” Angus held up an electricity account.
“You should have a proper filing system, Dad,” Steve said. “One day the electricity will be cut off and you’ll wonder why you’re in the dark.”
“It’s you who’s in the dark, my lad.” Angus tapped his nose, an obscure family joke.
Steve gave a brief smile. “Let me buy you a three-drawer filing cabinet with suspension files and alphabetical tabs.”
“My manila folder is just fine,” said Angus, holding up a battered cream folder with various names crossed out and a succession of dates which finished at 1998.
“You’re damn lucky I haven’t forced you into owning a computer,” said Steve, stacking old invoices, “otherwise I’d make you pay bills online.”
“The only line I like is a fishing one,” said Angus, his mouth twitching at the corners. He couldn’t resist adding “Just ‘cos you program computers doesn’t mean I have to like ‘em.”
Steve gave a good-natured harrumph and went in search of his mobile phone. He gave a whistle and his dog Fancy raced in from the garden with her tongue lolling and eyes gleaming. “Come on, girl, it’s time to take the old bloke shopping.”
Angus knew that Fancy had been foraging in the garden by the dirt clinging to her paws. “Glad someone likes my little courtyard,” he said. She placed a paw on his bony knee and he ruffled her ears. “No treats yet.”
Before they left, Angus surreptitiously swallowed a blood pressure tablet.
They took Steve’s car and drove into town, parking on a broken two-hour meter. At the shopping centre, Angus went straight to the rawhide-smelling pet store and bought a packet of dog treats.
“One hundred percent pure beef,” he read.
“You spoil the dog,” said Steve.
Angus jutted his jaw but said nothing.
At the next stop, Angus purchased postage stamps and talked with the postmaster.
“Steve’s going to make me a grandfather in a couple of week’s time.” His thoughts strayed and he said quietly, “That will certainly change things.”
Steve tapped his watch and mouthed the word “Coffee”. Angus knew he had just two minutes to pay the electricity bill. He said to the postmaster, “Can’t miss out on my Café Bijou treat.”
Leaving the post office, they walked a short distance to the café, pausing once for Angus to catch his breath.
“When can we eat at a healthy place?” Steve sounded like a five year old child.
“When I’m gone,” said Angus, taking off his sweaty Akubra and fanning himself. The steps going into the café were uneven and he tripped.
“Steady.” Steve offered his arm but Angus shook his head.
Café Bijou served a wide range of high fat, carb-loaded meals and well sweetened desserts. Angus enjoyed the never-ending cups of coffee served by the eighty year old waitress Dita. Her hands had started to shake but she didn’t spill their coffees.
“Dita, you’re a living treasure,” said Angus. He took a swipe at her apron bow as she ambled away.
“Ah, ha,” Dita crowed, “you never could hit me backside.”
“Don’t know why––it’s broad enough,” said Angus in an aside to Steve, who hung his head and started tapping on his phone. Angus handed the menu to him. “I bet you’ll check which sandwiches have the least amount of red meat.”
“Do you have the slightest idea what cholesterol is?” asked Steve.
Angus ignored him and leaned over to take a newspaper off the top of a bundle. “Same stories, just a different way of writing ‘em. If sporting heroes stopped screwing up their lives, the media would be stumped for ideas. Look, one of them died from a health-nut overdose.” Steve rolled his eyes.
As they were leaving, the treasurer of the bowls club halted Angus in the doorway, asking for a donation for their sponsored charity. Angus obliged but the chitchat got to him. Shifting his weight from foot to foot, he said “I’m going shopping with my boy Steve. He’s pretty busy these days. Every moment counts.” With apologies, he pursued Steve’s figure down the street, heading in the direction of the supermarket, his least favourite place.
Fancy had been asleep in the car but woke when she heard their voices returning. They loaded the grocery bags into the boot.
“We’ve got time to look at a new filing system,” said Steve.
“Let’s do it another time.”
“It would help keep your records more organised, Dad.”
“It’s just how I like it,” said Angus and slipped a dried treat to Fancy.
Once on the road, they travelled in silence until Angus saw Steve glance at him in a melancholy way.
“The doc said my new pills are working just fine,” said Angus, aware that his illness hung between them, an unseen yet active enemy. “I don’t have another appointment until next month.”
Steve nodded. “Good.”
Angus didn’t add that the surgeon had said he may not be allowed to drive again.
He watched Steve negotiate a corner. “You’re a good driver, Steve. Shame I never taught you how to drive a ute across a furrowed paddock.”
“I was too young. Then the farm was sold.” Steve toyed with the digital controls on the dashboard. “You did more for me in other ways.”
After awhile, Angus said, “Can we take a different route home?”
“That sounds ominous,” said Steve but obliged by turning off the main highway.
The rural landscape was sparsely treed with very few farm buildings.
Without warning, Angus said “Stop!” He asked Steve to pull over outside an old barn-like warehouse with an adjoining timber yard.
“I reckon we could make our own filing cabinet, don’t you?” said Angus.
Historical romance author Jessica Blair was unmasked as 93 year-old British grandfather Bill Spence. In the past, female writers like Charlotte Brontë had to adopt male pen names in order to get their books published. But the tables were turned for former war hero Bill Spence after he wrote a series of romance sagas.
The grandfather from Ampleforth, North Yorkshire, was told his books would need to be printed under a feminine moniker if he wanted them to sell – and so his pseudonym Jessica Blair was born.
Bill has various genres published under another name but has written 26 novels under the female pen name. In 1993, his first book was “The Red Shawl”. In 2017 his current title is “The Life She Left Behind” about a young widow, with futures to secure for her two daughters, who is torn between remaining at her beloved estate Pinmuir in the Scottish Highlands or following the plans her deceased husband made to join his brother in America. Hmm, that outcome could go either way.
My congratulations, Bill, on longevity in both writing and living!
Millie knows that everything must die and keeps a record of assorted creatures in her Book Of Dead Things. Sadly someone close to her becomes a dead thing too, which causes her mother to do something wrong.
Since Agatha’s husband died, she never leaves the house and shouts at people in the street as they walk by her window. Until she sees Millie across the street.
Karl has lost his beloved wife and just moved into an aged care home. He feels bereft as he watches his son leave. Then he has a light-bulb moment and walks out in search of something.
All three are lost until they find each other and embark on a very unusual journey of discovery, reconciliation and acceptance. A book with sadness, humour and eye-opening revelations as seven year old Millie Bird, eighty-two year old Agatha and eighty-seven year old Karl slowly but surely reveal what lies deep within their hearts.
Lost And Found is the debut novel of Australian author Brooke Davis which caused a literary sensation at the London Book Fair and sparked a bidding war overseas. Davis, who suffered a deeply personal loss, said her ideas coalesced during a long train trip to Perth “A lot of the plot in my novel is based around that trip across the Nullarbor,” Davis said. “The whole novel I think became a process of me trying to work through that loss.”
It is not written in the conventional manner, it does take a couple of pages to assimilate, but then this is half the book’s charm. The funny bits are outrageous, the sorrowful times brought tears to my eyes especially reading about the older characters, and the outback backdrop is superb. Millie is a delight throughout the road trip, a trip which is illogically undertaken yet surprisingly exciting.
The trio endure a bumpy ride but it comes out loud and clear that You Are Never Too Late and You Are Never Too Old. I give it 5-star rating and hope you agree.
The old lady across the road died alone but at a good age after a good life, well, that’s what the family said as they stripped her house of all its fixtures, fittings and 1960s furniture. They singled me out from the group of neighbours on the front verandah and asked me if I would like anything from Mary’s junk, er, they cleared their throats, her mementoes and stuff. I raced home to my mother and being politely greedy I raced back with her message that we’d take anything they didn’t want, and also Mary was a lovely old gal. She was too, she used to worked at the university and was clever, always keeping up with radio bulletins and had newspapers delivered from London and New York.
Mrs Anglesea and her toddler were standing at their front gate, wiping eyes and sniffing about poor Mr Roberto gone, gone forever. No more bark-bark said the toddler. Mary’s terrier Mr Roberto had been bundled into a pet carrier and taken to the local vet. The carrier came back empty. Even my mother blinked at that. But to help the family with their clear-out, she gave them a load of flattened cardboard boxes from a high-end removalist company. My mother didn’t know they cost money so it wasn’t until she saw them in the back of some bloke’s ute did she twig that they’d sold them on.
So it was with the feeling of recompense that we were offered, and graciously received said my mother, a framed drawing of a grey English village, a chrome-legged brown laminated table and an armchair. I was pretty annoyed we hadn’t been given the choice of some of the good things like her TV or bookcase or favourite figurines but I had already spotted a woman trundling them out to her white van. I knew she sold stuff on eBay and sent them a million miles away. I wondered if Mary had followed her belongings or left her soul in the house like my mother said she would have.
The funeral was delayed for totally lame reasons. Mary loved her garden and her rusty Holden was being packed full of bright flowers in pots, and uprooted plants in plastic bags, to be rolled away down the road to some market. They missed her shiny trowel tucked behind the water pipe. It also gave the family time to scrub the house, from top to bottom as my mother said, and to plan an auction with the real estate agents. The agents needed to estimate the value of the old weatherboard house without soiling their sleeves if they brushed against something older and wiser than they were. They parked their expensive cars on Mary’s neat green lawn. I figured my knuckles were going to stay white. Stupid really because I didn’t always like Mary. There was this time once when I snuck off school and came home with hot chips. I was just about ready to slop on the tomato sauce when Mary knocked on the door. She gave me a lecture and said she’d tell my mother – and she bloody did.
It turned out we couldn’t go to Mary’s funeral, I had an exam and my mother had work, but it was a shame because I wanted to see how many people knew Mary and how many of her ancient friends were still alive. And I’d never been to a funeral. I wanted to see a genuine coffin so I could picture Mary safe just like she was in her bed on the day I found her.
That armchair we got, you couldn’t call it an easy chair, had polished wooden arms and legs, and the legs must have been sawn off because being an old lady Mary had shrunk and was small. The leg ends had black rubber stoppers pushed on, I guess to stop the chair skating across the floor when she sat down. The seat and back cushions both had blocks of foam inside which had flattened to mush over years of sitting and reading those big newspapers. The back and the seat had solid springs in their frames, covered with sort of tapestry material and I figured my mother thought she could buy new cushions and even if we didn’t like the chair, it would make a good seat for our indoor cat. Well, the cat wouldn’t go near it and I reckon it smelled rank so it was put in our garage.
Eventually the chair was joined by the laminated table, which was as solid as a rock, but had no purpose except to stack our own junk onto it. The drawing of the English village had been on Mary’s wall since before I was born and I think she must have visited the place or maybe she was from there, I don’t know, but this drawing gives me daydreams and I like it even though there are no people in it. After my mother hammered in a nail, I made sure the frame hung straight. My mother said everything of Mary has gone now so we’ll never know her story behind it.
Yeah, everything had been wiped clean and that fine little house was sold at auction. I was at school and missed it. The flurry of bidding was great fun, my mother said, because a developer was overlooked and a nice family has bought it. The girls were nice and Mary would have approved the fact that they went to university. One bad thing happened, they didn’t like trees. Mary loved her memorial tree, she called it that, her husband planted it ages ago, or about fifty years anyway. It took three days but the team of tree loppers finally brought down that big old tree in the front garden. Neighbours were dead against removal, we nearly got a protest group going, but in the end I was glad I had to go to school and couldn’t hear the whining of the chainsaws and the scream of the tree as it twisted and split and branches fell.
Further along, my mother said we have to clean out this garage, and she did the power stance with hands on hips. The council clean-up day was coming fast and I already had my buckled bike and fractured boombox on the footpath beside the old budgie cage. We reckoned they wouldn’t last long, just like the time we put the useless dishwasher out and it vanished in about ten minutes even though the electrical cord and plug had already been snipped.
We both looked at Mary’s little chair. We both looked at each other. Hmm, said my mother, is it of any value? I shrugged, it looks genuinely fake if you know what I mean, she probably paid heaps for it years ago when it had longer legs. If it ever had longer legs. We can put it out for collection, said my mother. We can, but what if one of the family sees it, what if the neighbours recognise what we’re doing? I said. Yes, a bit disrespectful, said my mother, and didn’t say almost on a par with Mary’s family. We hatched a plan and decided to leave Mary’s small chair out for collection. Just, not outside our house. It will be snapped up in a flash, said my mother. I doubt it, I said, it was only special to Mary. I could see her sitting in it, rustling those newspapers.
Next night we put on dark clothes and joked about black face paint and woollen beanies. I wore gloves. With a big effort, the chair being more bulky than it looked so it wouldn’t fit in the boot, I pushed and shoved it into the back seat of my mother’s car. Anyhow we didn’t want to look like we were actually nicking stuff by putting it in the boot. With real cunning we’d chosen a house in a neighbouring suburb with a high block wall and steep driveway. The idea was that they couldn’t see us leave our little surprise on their nature strip.
At about ten o’clock on a moonless night, we drove towards the end of this road with pretty bad street lighting and my mother decided to turn off the headlights. Except for my churning guts, we cruised quietly to the house and braked. My mother waited while I struggled to get the chair out of the car. It wasn’t too heavy and I lifted it out and put it down on the damp grass beside a pile of shadowy bits and pieces. I patted Mary’s chair goodbye. I saw a man walking down the darkened driveway. I jumped back into the car and said go, go, go, how they do in the movies. It would have been good if the tyres had squealed. I knew if an oldie lived in that house, the chair had a chance at survival.
We rocked on home and told each other stories about the next life of that stumpy chair. What if we were spotted and someone brings it back to us? I said. Or we’re reported to the police, said my mother. Days later when I came home tired and dirty from Friday sport, my mother waved the local newspaper at me. Oh geez, I thought. On the front page there was this photograph of a man with Mary’s chair and he said it was the biggest find of his life. Apparently Mary’s family are contesting ownership. Oh well, we didn’t want it, said my mother. Even the cat didn’t want it, I said.
The two-storey farmhouse was at the top of a bare hill. The long gravel driveway wound upwards from the road, through dry, patchy grass until it reached the front door. As Susan drove to the top, she saw a dam in the valley beyond, surrounded by trees. The view impressed her with its undulating hills and differing shades of green, framed by a cloudless blue sky. Is this my escape, a comfortable home? she wondered.
Susan parked the car on level ground and looked at the unimposing entry of dull brickwork and unpainted wood. She walked across weeds growing between uneven flagstones to the porch and weather-beaten front door. She knocked as loudly as she dared without getting a splinter rammed into her knuckles. It had taken an hour to drive from the nearest town. The hurly-burly of market day was replaced by this rural solitude, the kind of serenity where sounds are muted by immeasurable distance.
She knocked again. No dogs barked and nobody stuck their head out of a window to ruffle the stillness. As the real estate agent had predicted, the part-time caretaker was not on duty today. The key, thought Susan and went back to the car to collect it. Her daughter, Audrey, was stirring and finally woke up. She looked around, stretched and asked if they’d reached the right property.
“Finally,” confirmed Susan. “We’re going to let ourselves in.” Audrey peered upward from the car window. “The place looks creepy”. “No,” said Susan, “just unloved.” She found the door key in her bag. Audrey hopped on one foot, pulling on a shoe, as they walked to the door. The big old key fitted perfectly and the solid door swung open.
Inside the house, the air was dry and cool. To Susan’s surprise the entry foyer was small but, as she expected, empty. After a debate on direction, they decided to head to the right into an unfurnished, echo-filled living room with faded remnants of mauve wallpaper. “Tiny flowers.” Audrey spoke in a whisper. “It must have been pretty once.”
“Such wonderful windows,” said Susan. She decided to call out in case the caretaker happened to be lurking nearby. “Hey––anyone here?” Her daughter jumped. “Give me some warning next time!”
Susan headed towards an archway at the back of the room, in the direction of what she presumed was the dining room and kitchen beyond. Audrey pulled her back. “Let’s go upstairs.” They went back to the staircase located unassumingly in the foyer. It was narrow and went straight up without a curve. The treads were worn and uncarpeted. On each step, dust rose from under their shoes.
Once upstairs, they split up and walked quietly from bedroom to bedroom, each imagining what the rooms must have been like fully furnished. Susan glanced into a bathroom situated on the corner of the house, hoping for a hint of décor. Sunlight struggled through gritty windows and filled the room with diffused warmth. A large bath dominated the corner and looked out over the landscape. Susan could almost see clouds of steam and fluffy towels and smell the hint of lavender soap. The beige tiling around the bath was unstained. “That’s a good thing,” she said to a beetle on the edge of the hand basin.
Audrey called to her from another room. Susan almost tiptoed down the hallway as it resonated around her, boards creaking. On the way, she noted a single, closed door before locating her daughter through a small doorway into the toilet. “It’s positively ancient,” said Audrey. “What a scream.” Susan stepped inside.
The plumbing was exposed and badly fixed into the sloping floor. A watery noise came from the cistern. The porcelain, off-white and topped by a cracked wooden seat, had a window behind it that was so large it allowed expansive views of the countryside. “That vision works both ways, doesn’t it?” Audrey said. “I wouldn’t want anyone watching me.” Susan laughed “They’d need binoculars.” Audrey said doubtful “A nice curtain would fix it.”
Susan moved aside to let Audrey leave the dismal space and tried to gauge the size of the window. Suddenly the room began to slip. The sloping floor moved under her feet, causing her to slid towards the window. She was unnerved at how quickly the momentum grew. Susan felt as though she was now being sucked towards the glass panes. The pitch of the floor became steeper and steeper until she was hanging on to the metal door handle, desperate to save herself from falling.
Susan scrabbled frantically, breathless and unable to shout for help. She pulled herself up until she found a firm foothold against the doorframe and the hallway floor. With a heave, she pushed herself back through the threshold and stumbled into the hallway. The door swung back and forth a few times as if laughing before it slammed shut.
With a pounding heart and blood was rushing through her body, roaring in her ears, Susan dusted herself off with shaking hands. She was unsure if she’d imagined it. She couldn’t force herself to look back, afraid of what might spring out from behind the door.
Audrey came back. “You look awful. What happened?” “Heaven knows,” gasped Susan and bent double. “I don’t think that toilet likes me.” Audrey’s eyes widened as she peered around the door. “The floor is on a terrible slope.” Susan wrinkled her forehead. “More to the point, why?” Her daughter had a vivid imagination. “I’m going to wait in the car.”
Susan waited until she heard Audrey walk downstairs then watched her through a front window as she got into the car. As she recovered from her slippery encounter, an inquisitive streak in Susan overtook her common sense. She dismissed the toilet’s poor carpentry under the heading of old age. She wanted to see if any rooms at the back of the house were habitable. Without deliberation, Susan turned the knob on the only unopened door in the grimy passage.
Inside, the air was warm and fragrant. There was a riot of colour throughout the room. Rainbows sparked out from a crystal lamp shade. Floral drapes trailed across the floor and plump cushions surrounded children who played on woven purple rugs, unaware of her presence. A large stone fireplace glowed at the far end of the room and, to the side, a cat slept in a sagging armchair.
A man was talking to a woman while he carved roasted meat at a table covered by a velvet cloth and laid with silver cutlery. The woman, wearing a vivid red blouse, saw Susan first and waved cheerfully. She beckoned at Susan to enter. A jolly couple nearby chorused the woman’s cries of “Come in, come in.” The first thought to enter Susan’s mind was that she had intruded. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your meal.”
“Nonsense,” they said and waved steaming mugs of drink. The man carving the roast waved his knife, gesturing her into the room. Better not join them, thought Susan, anything could happen. She looked longingly at the food-laden table then backed out of the room, smiled as politely as she could and shut the door. She hurried out of the house, confused over what had occurred. She locked the front door, slipped the key into her pocket and patted it for good measure.
“You look funny again,” said Audrey and brushed a cobweb off her hair. “I think,” Susan paused. “I think I just met the original owners.” Audrey groaned “Not again?” She pouted and said she didn’t believe her mother this time. As far as she was concerned, except for the toilet, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the old house. Susan rose to the challenge and gave her a lucid description. “They’ve never spoken to me like this before.”
After listening and thoughtfully tapping her chin, Audrey picked up the real estate prospectus and quickly thumbed through it. She held it up and read aloud, “The premises has facility for oil heating.” She snapped the brochure “There’s one way to find out if they are ghosts or not. We can look for smoke coming from a real chimney.” Audrey had jumped out of the car and was walking around the corner of the house before Susan could gather her wits and follow.
Apart from several outbuildings, the back of the house was as barren as the front with no evidence that a garden may have grown there. In an artistic way, Susan found its uncluttered drabness pleasing. She imagined lavender bushes growing here, out of the wind. With a nudge, Audrey brought her out of her landscaping reverie. “Nothing!”
Susan looked up. Between the blank walls and windows, the trace of a thick scar ran down from the upper wall to the ground where brick masonry had been patched with concrete. “Removed?” she said. “I’m almost disappointed.” Audrey gave her a lopsided smile. “You’re either going mad or someone is trying to scare us off.”
“Why don’t you go back inside and have a look?” said Susan. “You are mad.” Audrey tossed her hands in the air. “I wouldn’t go back inside if you paid me.” She stomped back in the direction of the car. “That’s another property crossed off our list.”
“We’ll just have to stay in the house your Dad built,” sighed Susan, “if he’ll let us.” Audrey’s look eloquently conveyed the words fat chance.
Susan guessed the real estate agent would be starting to get exasperated with her. Every old house they had inspected and all the auctions they had attended, finished in the same way. The first owners still occupied their premises. Strangely, except for Susan, no-one else could see these deceased residents. In the beginning, she had thought she could live around them but that didn’t seem right. It was like house-sharing, not home-ownership.
Susan started the engine. “I’ve had enough of intruding on these people, going into their homes uninvited and catching them off-guard.” Audrey pointed her thumb over her shoulder at the house. “From what you said, that lot seemed okay.” With a grimace, Susan said “Forget it, tomorrow we’re looking at brand new townhouses.”
Susan swung the car around and drove slowly down the dusty driveway back onto the bitumen road. That room had such a happy feel, she mused, perhaps the house isn’t unloved after all. As the trees in the valley closed ranks, the house began to disappear from view until only the rooftop was visible. Susan took one last look and noticed a thin trail of smoke rising into the still air.
AUTHOR NOTE:For those readers who like a possibly more romantic ending, the second part of “Home Comfort” follows:
Susan did not want to be drawn into a lengthy discussion with the real estate agent over the suitability of the old farmhouse. She rehearsed her opening line. “It’s obvious why we rejected it.” Her voice lacked conviction. “Decrepit,” said Audrey and gave her a sideways glance.
To Susan’s relief, the real estate agent took the house key without a word. He was ducking and diving between filing cabinets and stationery drawers, hunting for a pen. In the absence of his receptionist, he was attempting to enter data into an unwilling computer and answer the phones. Audrey took pity on him and answered a call, taking a message. Susan was mortified but the realtor took it in his stride.
“We’re returning to the city tomorrow,” said Susan and thanked him. “I regret the unsuccessful outcome,” he said, parrot-fashion but not without sincerity. “Did you see the local caretaker?”
“I saw a family.” With a hint of a smile, Susan added “I’ll let them rest in peace.” The agent was not listening. “It is rather quiet up there, isn’t it?” He started searching for a paper clip and sent a sheaf of papers cascading onto the floor. Audrey cried out and pounced onto a pale grey sheet of paper. It had been folded and unfolded many times and was fuzzy around the edges. “Townhouses,” she read. “Just what we’re after!”
“Selling like hotcakes,” mumbled the real estate agent. “I’ll give Ben a call. He can give you a guided tour.” Within an hour, Susan and Audrey were standing on the lawn outside a new townhouse built in the style of a much older terrace house. The wrought iron lacework would look great with a flowering vine, thought Susan.
Ben was tall and friendly and had a disarming way of staring deeply into Susan’s eyes as he spoke. Nothing else existed while he told her about the suburb and mod cons of the townhouse, the last one at the end of the terrace row. “It’s the only one left for sale,” he said. His smile made her feel absurdly warm. Also, he looked vaguely familiar. Susan blinked a few times. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Have we met before?” Ben’s tanned face looked as though he was having difficulty pigeon-holing her and he rubbed his jawline. “Did you go to the furniture auction at Lavender Lane farm?” Susan wondered if this was his favourite pick-up line. “That name doesn’t sound familiar.” She tried not to catch Audrey’s eye because she was fairly sure Audrey was winking furiously and just short of nudging her in the ribs. “Do you live there?” she asked.
“Generations of my family used to own it.” Ben described the route they had driven earlier in the day. He outlined a house on a hill. His description of a hillside once covered in lavender bushes made tears form in Susan’s eyes.
“She’s going all mushy,” said Audrey. Ben shuffled his feet. “Are you allergic to lavender?” Susan gave a weak smile and tried to quell her emotions as she searched through her handbag for a tissue. “I’ve got a bad case of ESP.” Ben gestured towards an outdoor seat. It reinforced Susan’s vision of another beckoning man. Audrey let out a squeal. “Oh, you mean the ghost house!” Ben’s face lightened. “They do reckon it’s haunted.”
“Your relatives still live there,” said Susan. Weak-kneed, she sat on the bench. She grasped an old tissue and, as she pulled it out, the much-folded piece of paper flipped out onto the mown grass. As before, Audrey swooped down and picked it up, only this time it was blank. In a hushed voice, she explained to Ben that it was a leaflet advertising the townhouses, “But the words have faded away.” Ben frowned “We didn’t print leaflets.”
Susan reacted by slapping her own knee. It broke the sombre mood and cleared her head. “I think we’ve been set up,” she said. Ben turned the ragged piece of paper over and over in his hands. “By my family?” He appeared sceptical, unsure about the motive behind Susan’s words. “By a set of coincidences,” replied Susan. “Let’s go on that guided tour.”
Audrey was on the doorstep before she had finished speaking. Ben ushered them down the corridor, through the freshly-painted townhouse. “First, I have to show you the rear garden.” The curtains were drawn so he took them to the back door. “Normally you can walk straight into the garden through the French doors.” Audrey sighed and stared at the back of Ben’s head. “How romantic.”
With a flourish, Ben stood back so they could precede him. His smile was as radiant as the rows of fragrant young lavender bushes lining the path in the cottage garden. “Cultivated from the original farm plants,” he said with obvious pride.
Susan was momentarily lost for words. Her mind was in turmoil, alternating between the real and the imagined. Slowly the distinctive perfume wafted around her. She breathed deeply and let the lavender soothe her. An inner calmness gradually infused her muscles and she relaxed. As they stood quietly in the warm sun, Susan tapped her shoe on the paving. “I recognise the brickwork.” Ben smiled “It’s from the old farmhouse chimney.”
Audrey moved between Susan and Ben and linked arms. Her look was innocent. “Did we follow Lavender Lane to a dead end?” Susan laughed. “I think it lead us home.”
My childhood nickname was “Apple Queen”. In later years, I have wondered why I wasn’t called “Apple Princess” but I think it may have had something to do with the name of a variety of apple at that time. One of my mother’s favourite early black and white photographs of me, taken in my grandparents’ long driveway at Hampton, Victoria, illustrates my love of apples. I have a Granny Smith apple in each hand, possibly from a homegrown tree. I was about four years old and, by the look on my face, quite serious about the art of eating apples.
I still am. One sits next to me as I type. If I need a snack, a lunch box filler or fruit for a picnic, I grab an apple. Drool has formed in the corners of my mouth when I’ve looked at apples with sultanas and honey. Strudel, pies, pureed or skewered on a kebab, the texture and essence of apples is never lost. That crisp, sweet smell pervades my senses, particularly when I walk into a room and get a whiff of that fruity fragrance. Immediately I want to chomp my teeth into the cool, smooth skin, break through that thin protective layer to taste its juicy flesh. That first crunch is like no other sound. The sound reverberates through my jaw as I munch the apple into cider and swallow.
In my haste to eat an apple, I have been known to choke on a piece but it has never put me off. My mother could devour a whole apple, pips and all, but that’s not my style. I denude the apple to the core then toss the remains into the garden for some foraging creature to finish off.
I have a vivid memory of apple blossom and then tiny green and red striped apples forming on a tree we had in our backyard at Mount Waverley, Victoria. Picking them too soon, I recall my disappointment at their unripe, bitter flavour. Just recently I have read that apples are helpful to asthma sufferers and, since I am a life-long asthmatic, I wondered if instinct might have played a part in my voracious consumption. It certainly had nothing to do with Adam or Eve.
Occasionally, I am asked about my favourite variety and I answer “Any. As long as it’s not bruised.” Apples creep into my salads, my sauces and, thanks to a friend, into my hamburger mince. To me, a dessert isn’t a proper dessert unless it contains apples. Imagine a world without apple pie and ice-cream! My father liked cloves cooked into apple pies and that’s the only time I didn’t like my mother’s cooking. To this day I don’t know why the odd flavouring of clove is meant to enhance cooked apples.
The very shape of an apple is pleasing to me, even the logo on my laptop. During my teenage years, I collected ornaments in the shape of apples. Two examples may have survived. A red china apple made in two halves, the bottom half containing candle wax. The other apple made of hand-blown glass, with a glass leaf, which contains layers of coloured sands from Cooloola Beach on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland.
Baby daughters are now being named Apple; it’s something I didn’t think of at the time and I’m hoping it’s after the apple blossom fruit rather than the corporation. My fruit bowl is really an apple bowl with other fruit scattered around for effect. Sometimes toffee apples will creep into the mix and I treat them with caution. Hard red toffee and my teeth don’t work well together but I never let that stop me.
Hmm . . . Good then it dissolves into vignettes . . .
It is a book which sometimes comes back to me in flashes. I didn’t love it but I didn’t hate it. Lucy has an extended stay in hospital. I found the mother-daughter part of the story made me think. We all relate to our own personal experiences and I definitely got twinges when I related my mother’s attitude to Lucy’s mother – although my relationship was different. I didn’t like her father, troubled but not nice.
Much of Lucy’s early family life came out in tiny bits here and there. The trickle affect showed the reader the cruel hardship of her earlier life. Is that why Lucy was estranged? It was interesting how Lucy loved her kind doctor, she got no real love or compassion from her father or her husband. The author Sarah Payne was a great character, I wish she had been fleshed out a bit more. I liked her comment after that cutting PTSD remark “…And anyone who uses their training to put someone down that way – well, that person is just a big old piece of crap.”
After Lucy came out of hospital, the story took on the quality of snapshots as though author Elizabeth Strout saw or heard someone say something and jotted it down then couldn’t quite flesh it out but wanted to use it anyway. There are very human insights but we don’t even know what Lucy wrote in her books. Lucy’s relationship with her grown-up daughters was rather superficial but I liked the unnerving chapter about her brother, and also when she is bothered by the fact that Jeremy may have been the dying AIDS patient she saw in hospital. The marble statue of Ugolino and His Sons by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux in the Metropolitan Museum of Art fascinated Lucy but I couldn’t understand why. It’s graphic but to me just shows the agony of imprisonment.
Overall, I guess I’d give this book three stars out of five because I’m not poetic enough to read between the lines!