Tag Archives: creative writing

Letter to Laura

My daughter Laura recently realised that, having reached the age of 70, my time on earth is beginning to peter out. “Would you please write me a letter that I can read once you’re gone, Dad?” she asked me recently.

“What sort of letter?”

“Just one I can read on days that I miss you.”

***

My dearest Laura

On the day that you popped out of your mum at the Royal Women’s Hospital here in Melbourne I was so happy to see you that I wept unashamedly. You were one of the ugliest babies that I had ever seen – yellow with jaundice and with a puffy face. Poor little thing, I thought sadly, no-one will ever want to take you out on a date. How wrong I was!

We bathed you in a small plastic bath on the kitchen table. The little bath was too big for you, so I would put my hand under your head and hold your head up to keep you afloat. I would look at you intently in the bath and try my best to imagine you as a schoolgirl and as a young woman, but I just could not. And look at you now!

When you were a little kid you were painfully shy, always clinging on to my leg whenever there was someone around that you didn’t know well. That certainly also changed. You are now one of the most extroverted people I know. But when you were small you were never shy with me. One morning they played Robert Palmer’s song “Simply irresistible” over the radio. “That’s you, Laura. You’re simply irresistible!” I picked you up and danced around the lounge room with you, singing along, while you shrieked with laughter.

We went to England when you were about two years old to visit Granny and Granddad. In those days we did not have much money and we were living on one income, so the overseas airfares for the four of us were a major expense. I suggested to your mum that she stayed on in England with you and your brother for a while longer after I had returned to Melbourne to go back to work. You remained in England for a further two months.

I was getting worried that you might have forgotten me completely by the time you got back to Melbourne. I was quite relieved when I met you at the airport and you put your arms around my neck when I carried you to our van. But as I was putting the bags in the boot, I heard you whispering to your mum, “Is that our Dad?”

Early in the piece I discovered that you had a really mischievous streak. Remember how you tricked me when we went to Warwick Castle in England. You were about six years old and we were walking on the castle wall. You peered through a gap in the wall and said, “Look down there, Dad.”

“No, I’ve got a terrible fear of heights. I can’t look down from here.”

“Just look down there, Dad. I want to show you something.”

Hesitantly I shuffled closer to the wall and peered down.

“Now just imagine you’ve fallen down and you are lying there at the bottom with all your bones broken,” you told me, laughing gleefully.

One of the highlights of my life was when the two of us went on that road trip to Queensland when you were thirteen. Your mum was visiting Granny and Granddad in England and we stayed behind. On an impulse we had decided to go to the Great Barrier Reef. It took us two and a half days to drive to Airlie Beach. You listened to a talking book and to your music CDs and read your books.

On the first day I stopped briefly to have a sandwich at a picnic spot next to the road. “Hurry up, Dad, we’re wasting time,” you nagged me. For a kid you were the best long distance traveller ever, never once asking how far we still had to go.

When we approached Airlie Beach in the late afternoon there was a hold-up in the traffic. In the distance we could see a bus and many cars, as well as the flashing lights of various emergency vehicles. As we approached I warned you, “I think there has been a terrible accident with a bus and there will probably be dead bodies. Close your eyes tightly and don’t look. I’ll tell you when we’ve passed the accident.” You peered eagerly through your window. Thankfully it turned out that the traffic jam was due to the torchbearer carrying the torch for the Olympic Games.

We went by boat to Hook Island and pitched our tent in the backpackers’ camping spot. It was sheer bliss.

Afterwards, we were just about to leave Airlie Beach to return home when you had your first period. I panicked. “Damn it, where is your mum when I really need her?” I groaned. In desperation I went into a pharmacy and asked the lady behind the counter for advice. You were totally unfazed by it all.

We had barely left Airlie Beach when you asked, “Hey, Dad, could we go to Sydney on the way back to Melbourne?” And that is what we did. Our whole road trip took a mere ten days. You never complained once. No wonder you have always been my very favourite travelling companion.

We sent you to a boarding school in Cape Town for six months when you were barely fifteen. I missed you so much that it felt as if my heart had been ripped out. Every week I called you. Your main topic of conversation was about money. “Dad, I’ve run out of cash. Can you send me some more please?”

The next year you went back to Cape Town, this time for the entire year. I’m not sure how I was able to survive it.

On your return to Melbourne you barely scraped through your VCE with very poor marks, despite having studied hard. Laura isn’t academically inclined, I thought to myself, but that’s not the end of the world. I’m sure she’ll find her place in life. But when you began studying nursing you aced everything and eventually went on to get your university degree. You certainly have found your place.

You haven’t lost any of that mischievous streak of yours. We would sit at the dinner table and you would describe in horrendous detail how you had seen a liposuction or a Caesarian operation at your work. I would start gagging on my food and beg you to stop. “Don’t be so precious, Tim,” your mum would admonish me. “You can see Laura is really interested in what she has experienced at the hospital.” But I knew full well that you were doing it on purpose to make me nauseous.

I am so very proud of you Laura, for what you have achieved and for the kind of person that you have turned out to be – one who respects and cares about your patients and about other people generally. You have brought me so much joy over the years. I will miss your cheeky smile enormously when I’m gone.

You will be reading this letter when I’m no longer here. You know me well enough to know that I would not want you to wallow in misery because I have departed from this life. You have your own life to get on with and other people who love you and who care for you greatly. You owe it to them to be positive and happy and to look to the future, instead of backwards over your shoulder at what has been.

Thank you for everything, dearest Laura. I was so blessed to have you in my life.

Love

Dad

Laura Jan 2017 - Fraser Island 01-1

Laura (January 2017)

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Audrey

This is a transcript of a speech I gave at my mother-in-law’s funeral.

Audrey and Ella

Audrey Mountjoy (2014)

The first time I spoke to my mother-in-law, Audrey Mountjoy, I had fallen out of bed during the night and had been woken by my housemate early in the morning. I was told that Gill’s mum, Mrs Mountjoy, was on the phone from England. I had a severe hangover from our engagement party the previous evening. Gill was traveling somewhere in Afghanistan with a girlfriend at the time, so it was incumbent on me to celebrate our engagement on behalf of both of us. Her mum had phoned me about the wedding arrangements. I fought off the nausea, attempted speaking with an English accent and did my best not to slur my words.

It had been news to Gill’s parents when she had rung them out of the blue four months earlier to say that she was getting married to a divorced South African fellow. They had never heard of me. If this unexpected news had caused them some misgivings, they never showed any inkling of it. Years later I was told that a family friend had asked my father-in-law, Alan, what this Tim person from Africa looked like, to which he had replied, drily, “As far as we can tell from his photograph the face behind his beard is that of a white man.”

From such an uncertain beginning I was welcomed into the family with great warmth and I quickly grew to view them as my very own family.

When I look back over the years that I had known Audrey, the thing that stands out in my mind is the many laughs that we have had. We were in Luxembourg, having a meal at a restaurant for Gill’s thirtieth birthday, when Audrey had asked the waiter in her soft, southern English voice what the soup of the day was. “Rat soup,” he replied in a thick German accent.

Audrey was horrified. “Rat soup?” she asked.

“Red soup! Red soup!” he exclaimed, pronouncing it in a way that it sounded like ‘rat soup’. Eventually we realised that he was talking about tomato soup.

When Audrey was 86 years old, having lost her husband some years earlier, Gill and her sister Jennifer persuaded her to move from England to Melbourne. At that stage she was beginning to show some signs of dementia. She went to live in an aged care facility in Doncaster, which she usually referred to as “the hotel where I live.”

She loved her sherry, wine and whisky, and the family had to develop various strategies to keep her alcohol intake in check. With the onset of dementia she could become quite impatient when there was a delay in a drink being offered. We were at Jennifer’s house once where she was sitting at the dining table waiting for the meal to be served.

“Nobody’s offered me any wine,” she complained to our son Neil, who was sitting next to her.

“You tell them, Granny,” he whispered to her. “Ask ‘Where’s my bloody wine?’”

“WHERE’S MY BLOODY WINE?” Audrey shouted in a loud voice, to everyone’s stunned surprise.

Once in a while she would complain about being old and say to me, “I just want to go up there now,” pointing towards the heavens.

“Don’t say that, Audrey. Do you know there is no alcohol allowed up there. No wine, no sherry, nothing.”

“Really?” she asked me, looking shocked.

Or I would say “No, don’t go up there yet, Audrey. I’m going down there, so we’ll never see each other if you do that.”

I take credit for extending her stay on this earth through persuasive arguments such as these.

Audrey loved music. I have wonderful memories of driving her from Doncaster to our house on Sundays, listening to the Classic FM radio station. She was particularly fond of piano music. She was at our house one day when I decided to play a trick on her. I played the Rolling Stones’ CD “Exile on Main Street” at high volume. To our amazement she got up and danced vigorously by herself. “I really like this music,” she told me. “Who are those musicians?”

Neil was very fond of his Granny. He went with me to visit her and we walked around the block near her ‘hotel’ so that she could look at the gardens. She would admire the well-kept gardens and make scathing comments about the ones that had been neglected. In one garden there was a climbing rose with some beautiful roses high up in the rosebush. Neil stood on his toes, picked one of the roses and put it in her lapel.

She became uneasy. “You shouldn’t have done that, Neil. What would I say if somebody asks me where I got the rose from?”

“Just tell them the truth, Granny. Tell them your grandson gave it to you.”

“What a good idea,” she said, relieved.

At age ninety Audrey’s dementia worsened and she often became confused. We were driving through Eltham when she pointed at a side road going up a hill. “Alan and I used to live up that road,” she told me matter of factly.

“No, you never lived in Australia with Alan. You lived with him in England, remember?”

“Oh yes, we lived up there,” she said firmly. “What are the names of those people in whose house we lived up that road?”

“I’m not sure, Audrey.”

“Well, it’s a pity your memory is so bad, Tim!”

Audrey often surprised me with the things she came up with. At the dinner table she asked our daughter Laura about her future plans. “I might move in with my boyfriend later this year,” Laura said.

Audrey was taken aback. “But are you allowed to do that, Laura?” she asked.

Laura laughed. “Oh yes, Granny, all the young people do that these days.”

Audrey was quiet for a minute. Then she said, wistfully, “I wish I could have done that when I was young.”

The last thing that she ever said to us was when she had suddenly started laughing and Gill had asked her what it was that she had found so funny. “I’m just laughing because you are both potty.”

“Luckily you’re not potty, Audrey,” I replied.

“No,” she agreed, “I’m not potty.”

She was a terrific mother-in-law, but she was much more than that to me. She was also my very dear friend. Having passed on at the age of 91 she has left a sizable hole in our lives.

Thanks for all the fun times, Audrey Mountjoy. May you rest in peace.

 

The marvels of modern medicine

In 1983, while working in Port Moresby at the National Library Service of Papua New Guinea, I contracted a terrible ear infection. In time the pain almost drove me insane. Blood, pus and black goo leaked from my ear all day and night. I had to sleep with my head on an old towel and I lost my hearing completely in the infected ear.

Over the next two months I tried two types of ear drops, went to see the doctor five times, underwent an ear syringing, completed five full courses of four different antibiotics and had three injections, with absolutely no effect.

An acquaintance at the University of Papua New Guinea, who had heard about my ongoing problem with the ear infection, rang me and told me that a certain Dr Ghosh, an Indian ear, nose and throat specialist, was in town on a temporary training attachment at the Port Moresby General Hospital. I promptly went to see my doctor and asked him for a referral to see this Dr Ghosh.

On a steaming hot day in March, nearing the end of the wet season, I walked into Dr Ghosh’s office, introduced myself, and told him, “I’m getting really depressed about this ear infection, Doctor. The damn thing appears to be incurable and the pain is driving me around the bend.”

Dr Ghosh raised both his hands as if to fend off my words. “Depressed? Depressed? My dear fellow, there is no need to get depressed. This is the Twentieth Century, after all. We can now cure almost any infection!” I nodded and kept my disbelief to myself.

The doctor proceeded to peer into my ear. “Ha!” he exclaimed triumphantly, after a minute, “no wonder the antibiotics have had no effect. What we have here is a fungal infection, not a bacterial one. Oh, no, no, there are no bacteria in that ear. Only fungus.” He then proceeded to tell me with great merriment how he had recently cured a young fellow’s nose problem by advising him to get married! It was with difficulty that I managed to hide my lagging confidence in the good doctor.

He wrote out a prescription for anti-fungal drops, which he handed to me. He noticed that I was looking a tad sceptical. “Oh,” he said, brimful of confidence, “you use those drops and within three weeks’ time you will say to yourself, ‘My goodness, Dr Ghosh has cured me!’”

Having no alternative but to hope desperately for a miracle cure, I thanked him and set off to the chemist to get the anti-fungal drops. As I was leaving his office he shouted after me, “Depressed? Oh, no, my dear fellow, no need to get depressed! This is the Twentieth Century, after all!”

The prescription I collected from the chemist was for Tinaderm drops. I carefully read the instructions on the label, which stated that Tinaderm would cure things like tinea, foot rot and crotch itch. There was no mention of using them in one’s ear.

I had little choice but to trust Dr Ghosh, so I gritted my teeth and put a few drops into my ear, repeating the process the next morning and the next evening. After two days I woke up in the morning and discovered to my amazement that my ear infection had vanished completely.

“Oh, the marvels of modern medicine,” I mused to myself. “No, no, there was no need to get depressed.”

2016 Elections

I was one of a handful of Australians who was elated on hearing the news that the Australian Prime Minister had called an early Federal election, to be held on 2 July 2016. The reason for my elation was that the stars appeared to have been aligned in my favour on this occasion. By sheer fortunate coincidence I had already arranged a trip to Southern Africa for the five weeks leading up to the election. This meant that I would miss out on most of the pork-barrelling, false promises, accusations and counter-accusations, as well as those cringeworthy ‘photo opportunities’ of politicians kissing babies and having friendly conversations with “ordinary Australians”.

In South Africa, where I am now traveling, politics and crime usually dominate the headlines. Here they are also leading up to an election. The municipal elections for all districts, local municipalities and provinces, which are held every five years, have been scheduled for 3 August 2016.

In this country, the political aspirants exhibit less restraint in their verbal jousting than their counterparts in Australia. Julius Malema, the controversial leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters political party, had recently claimed publicly that “if you’re not sleeping with an African National Congress (ANC) person, you can’t get work”. Malema is a former ANC Youth League president who had been booted out of the ANC in 2012 for sowing divisions within the party. The Deputy Speaker of the Gauteng Provincial Legislature struck back at Malema, demanding that Malema declare whether he had slept with women in exchange for tenders during his term as the ANC Youth League president.

Unlike in Australia, there is a distinct undercurrent of violence as the elections are approaching. “The Citizen” reported on 31 May that Michael Zane Phelembe aged 32, the ANC branch deputy chairperson in Ward 23 in Pienaar, Mpumalanga, had been shot dead on the previous Friday night outside his home.

His friend, Jealous Nyalunga, was quoted as saying:

I know Zane was killed within the political realm. He has always indicated to us that some people were after his head. Not so long ago, he had to hide from his home and his car was burnt.

He was a selfless leader who stood for principles and his political enemies clearly did not like that.

And on 23 June the “Cape Times” reported that “there is a battle to the death in many of our towns and cities as we edge closer to the August 3 local government elections”.

Three ANC members were buried in Pietermaritzburg on Sunday in what those close to the issues accept has to do with the process of choosing potential councillors. On the same day an ANC member in Pretoria was shot dead also in relation to who should represent the ANC in local government.

On Monday, ANC chairwoman in eThekwini , Zandile Gumede, was on the front pages of the newspapers saying she fears for her life. Gumede says some of the fears emanate from her own party …

I am due to arrive back in Australia a couple of days before our own Federal election. Mercifully this is likely to be a fairly sedate affair in comparison to the South African election.

On my return all I will have to do is avoid the Australian newspapers, television news and talkback radio programs during the last two days. Afterwards I will have to lie low until the election results have been analysed to death and until the post mortems and recriminations by the various parties have been done and dusted. Then I will hopefully be able to resume my normal life with some semblance of peace.

Finder’s keepers

A rare foray into fiction.

I’m getting old, Bertie muttered to himself as he made his way up the incline. The sun was about to disappear behind the hills. He walked past the bush block on his left, puffing harder and harder. Captain, his dog, had disappeared into the bush to explore, as he always did when they reached this point on their daily walk.

Suddenly the dog started yapping excitedly. A tiger snake! was Bertie’s first thought, before he realised that no snake would be out and about in this cool autumn weather. A minute later Captain appeared, wagging his tail and dragging something along in his mouth.

Bertie patted the dog. “Good boy! What have you got here, then?” It was one of those canvas man bags that had lately come into fashion amongst the blokes in the village.

He unzipped the bag and peered in astonishment at the banknotes that had been crammed tightly into the bag. Furtively he looked around. There was no-one in sight. Without thinking twice and overcome with excitement at his good fortune he quickly tucked the bag under his coat, called the dog and turned around to walk back to his house around the corner at the bottom of the hill.

As soon as he was inside the house he locked the deadlock on the front door with a shaking hand, put the bag down on the kitchen table and unzipped it again. Inside the bag were a variety of notes, mainly fifties and twenties. I reckon there’d be a few thousand quid in there, he thought.

It wouldn’t be someone who had accidentally lost his bag along the way, Bertie mused. The bag had been thrown into the bushes, probably by a drug dealer who had been pursued by his competitors, or by the cops. He hid the bag behind the cookbooks on the kitchen shelf.

Bertie’s wife had succumbed to the Big C five years earlier. The house mortgage had been paid off, but he was struggling to get by on the pension and of necessity he lived a very Spartan life. Now this was about to change.

He went to bed early that night, but he couldn’t sleep. He kept seeing the banknotes in his mind’s eye. Captain must have sensed his excitement, because the dog was unusually restless.

Now I’ll be able to afford a holiday, Bertie thought. Maybe I’ll go on one of those cruises to New Zealand that they are always advertising on the telly. Or perhaps I’ll trade the old Holden in for a later model. He was getting more and more excited.

In the middle of the night, however, a sense of disquiet began to reach its tentacles out to him. What if someone had seen me walking along there and had told the cops? Or what if the drug dealers had discovered who had taken their money and came after me? He had seen reports on the news of drive-by shootings and cold-blooded gangland executions. What if the money had belonged to the bikies? A shiver ran down his spine.

He tossed and turned until it was almost daybreak, when at last he fell into a fitful slumber.

Bertie was woken by Captain’s loud barking. Someone was knocking loudly on the front door. For a mad moment he thought about sneaking out the back door and running away as fast as he could. With difficulty he pulled himself together and croaked “Hang on, I’ll be there in a minute!”

He struggled to put on his dressing gown, first sticking his arm into an inside out sleeve in his hurry. He went to the front door and opened it with trepidation.

“Good grief, Bertie, are you OK? It’s eleven o’clock already and you look like you’ve just got out of bed. Besides, you look like death warmed up.”

It was his neighbour, George, clutching Bertie’s chainsaw which he had borrowed earlier in the week.

“I’m alright thanks, mate. Just feeling a bit crook, s’all. The Bombay Twostep or something.”

After George had left, Bertie drew all the curtains and fretted his way restlessly through the day. He jumped at the slightest of sounds, fearing another knock on his door.

Eventually, when the daylight began to fade, he carefully peered outside. There was no-one around. He retrieved the bag from its hiding place and unzipped it. Now the banknotes appeared to him as though they were the carriers of some awful disease. He put on his coat, hid the bag under the coat and put Captain on a leash, before setting off up the hill at a forced leisurely pace. He felt as if unseen eyes were watching his every step.

When he got to the bush block he surreptitiously peered around, but there was not a soul in sight. He took the bag out from under his coat and hurled it as far as he could into the bushes, before tugging on the excited dog’s leash and heading home with shaking knees.

 

BLACK MAMBA

The black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) is a highly venomous snake that is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa

 My heart sank when I spotted Black Mamba, a man in his forties, waiting at the bus stop as my bus was approaching it. With his nasty, thin moustache and round face, and wearing his black bus inspector’s uniform complete with cap, he could easily have passed for Heinrich Himmler’s twin brother. His nickname amongst my fellow Cape Town City Tramways bus conductors was “Black Mamba”, which befitted his reputation.

The inspectors would board our buses without prior warning to check that all the fares that we had issued had been charged correctly and that everyone on board had a valid ticket.

The bus conducting job was the only one that I had been able to secure for the three months’ university holidays. As an immature nineteen year old I was not coping well with the stresses of the job. I lacked the skills to deal effectively with the challenging behaviours of some of the passengers, who would from time to time spit on me, swear at me, refuse to pay their fares and physically threaten me. I also had to enforce the white government’s Apartheid laws, which I loathed, on the buses. I cringed every time I had to ask a black or coloured passenger to move because they were sitting in the area of the bus that was reserved for white persons only.

The so-called pickpockets who robbed passengers with impunity and would draw a knife if anyone, including the conductor, tried to take them to task, terrified me. One of my fellow conductors had already had a knife stuck through his hand, through the meaty bit between his fingers. Nevertheless one couldn’t help but be impressed with the way that the pickpockets could jump off a double-decker bus as it was still slowing down, pirouetting gracefully like ballet dancers in the process to show off.

I had come to the job with a lot of mental baggage from my year in the army; I had been conscripted on finishing my final year at school. For the duration of that whole year I had been subjected to a daily barrage of abuse and punishment from the psychopaths whose role it was to mould us into mindlessly obedient soldiers. Instead of succumbing to the brutally enforced discipline, I had developed a rock hard core of rebelliousness. Long after I had returned to civilian life I would still react with an immediate flash of anger if anyone so much as raised their voice at me.

I was close to a breakdown on the day that Black Mamba boarded my bus. I had seen him around the bus depot and had been told how mercilessly he persecuted any conductor who had made a mistake. I knew that if he found an incorrectly issued fare or someone without a valid ticket on my bus he would report me and I would have to appear in front of the bus company’s disciplinary panel, where I would be given a fine or be temporarily suspended from work. Mamba was known to consistently urge the panel to hand down the severest of penalties.

On that day I had issued a ticket to a boy who had told me that he was 13 years old. A higher fare applied to boys of 14 years and older. When the inspector checked his ticket the boy panicked and confessed that he was 14. Mamba took out his notebook. He was going to report me.

I was outraged at this injustice. “You can’t report me for that,” I told him. “When I asked him how old he was he told me that he was 13.”

“You’ve under-charged him. You gave him the wrong ticket,” he snapped, dismissing my objection out of hand.

Something instantly snapped in me. “That’s bullshit!” I snarled, advancing towards him. “You get off this f**king bus before I throw you off!”

He backed off, stomped towards the exit door and got off at the next stop.

I was beside myself, knowing full well that I would be dismissed for my outburst. I would not find another job before university resumed. How was I going to pay for my cigarette addiction and other vices for the duration of the academic year?

After a sleepless night and feeling sick with stress I fronted up at the bus depot as usual the next morning, expecting to be pulled off the job for which I had been rostered. Nothing happened, so I did my rostered shift. Perhaps Mamba was away sick, I thought.

Nothing happened the next day either, or the day after that.

Nothing ever happened.

Gradually it dawned on me that Mamba had not reported me.

At the time I was so relieved to discover that I had gotten away with such an unforgivable misdemeanour that I never wondered about Mamba’s behaviour. Now, many decades later, it is clear to me that he must have realised that I was just a kid who had lost the plot due to stress.

And that he had felt sorry for me.

At the time none of us conductors would ever have suspected that Black Mamba was not all snake.