Tag Archives: Humour

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.

 

10,000 steps

Now that I am at the stage of my life where I can faintly discern the skeleton figure holding a scythe in the distance, I have started thinking about where I would like my ashes to be laid to rest. My daughter told me she was going to keep them in an urn in her house. I can’t think of anywhere worse to end up than being cooped up in an urn on a shelf, gathering dust, so I had to start thinking of more palatable alternatives that I could foist onto my family.

My initial idea was to have my ashes scattered in our garden. Then I recalled disposing of my father-in-law’s ashes in their lovely rose garden in the village of Marlow in England, only to find some years later that the new owners of the house had converted the rose garden into a boring lawn. In any case, the thought of ending up in a garden eventually owned by total strangers does not appeal.

Having considered the matter further, I decided my ashes should be taken out to sea and scattered at the Devil’s Cauldron in the ocean at Hermanus, a small coastal village in South Africa where I had spent many happy holidays with my family as a child. The Devil’s Cauldron is a group of small rocks jutting out of the sea. Through all the twists and turns in my life over the years, this was a constant familiar sight to me since early childhood. One of the first things that I do whenever I visit Hermanus is to stand on the cliff and gaze at the Devil’s Cauldron.

099 Hermanus 5 - The Devil's Boiling Pot

The Devil’s Cauldron, Hermanus

A while ago I met up with my old aunt, Mara, who lives in Hermanus. She is a born again Christian who is well aware of the fact that I am an infidel. When I told her of my wish to have my ashes scattered at the Devil’s Cauldron, Mara looked me straight in the eye and declared, “Yes, that would be right!”

But recently I changed my mind again when I came to realise what bureaucratic and logistical hurdles and expense I would burden my family with if I insisted on the Devil’s Cauldron as my final abode. I was still trying to resolve the matter of my ashes in my mind when I met my friend Alan the Wandering Philosopher earlier this week on my daily walk along the Diamond Creek.

*

My obsession with walking 10,000 steps per day started fourteen years ago, when I was working at Moreland City Council in Melbourne. Our CEO had decided to encourage the members of the corporate management team to adopt a healthier lifestyle by walking 10,000 steps each day. He gave us each a step counter to wear on our belts so we could monitor our number of daily steps. At that time my job was all consuming. I spent most of my time sitting in meetings or in front of a computer at my desk. Due to work pressures I normally worked through my lunch hour and rarely ventured outside.

The first three days I wore the step counter I barely made it to 2,000 steps each day. Horrified by this result I started going for walks at lunchtimes and after dinner. I also began to park my car at the far end of the car park at the supermarket, instead of as close to the entrance as possible. Over a year or so I gradually changed my habits and increased my number of steps until I averaged 10,000 steps per day.

My wife calls me obsessive and I am not denying she has a point. “I’m just popping outside for a few minutes,” I would say after dinner.

She would roll her eyes and ask, “Still a few steps short of the 10,000 for the day then, are you?”

To which I would reply something like, “Yep, I still have another 327 steps to go. I’ll be back soon.”

When she remarks on my obsessive bent I tell her, in my own defence: “At least my obsessions are healthy ones. I could have been obsessed with chasing other women, or with getting drunk, so don’t complain.”

As part of my daily routine I walk along the Diamond Creek footpath every day. There is a spot just past the crest of an incline, before a long sweep in the path towards the west, where the local Council has done some repair works to the footpath. There is a cross-lying strain-relief groove across the path and the colour of the path changes there to a lighter shade of grey, where a section of the path has been replaced. It is exactly 4,800 steps from the car park to this point. It is here that I turn around each day after carefully stepping over the groove, in the knowledge I would make up the rest of my daily 10,000 steps by going to the supermarket and through normal other daily activity.

Alan the Wandering Philosopher, whom I often run into on my morning walk, knows all about my obsession. He texted me recently:

“I was walking along the creek path this morning. When I reached the exact spot at the path where you always turn around on your walk I couldn’t help wondering whether obsession might not be nine tenths of the law.”

“Closer to 99% in my case”, I texted back.

Earlier this week I ran into him again along the creek path and we walked together. When we got to the spot where I always turn back, he joked, “Make sure you step right across the groove before you turn back, eh.”

Suddenly a light bulb flashed inside my head.

“You know what? I think I’m going to ask my family to scatter my ashes right here after I’ve carked it.”

To which he replied: “Good idea! Just make sure they know to scatter them on the far side of the groove.”

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.”

Something borrowed …

Warning: This short story contains adult themes that may offend some readers.

Lady Olivia opened the front door to Picton House, took one step into the hallway, then turned around to shake the worst of the raindrops from her umbrella before taking it to the boot room to dry. She was immaculately dressed, as always, and had managed to keep dry despite the grey drizzle on that English autumn day. She caught sight of herself in the hall mirror and sighed slightly as she observed the grey streak where she had parted her hair.

She took off her cashmere coat and hung it on the coat rack. The house was quiet, as it was Gretel’s day off. She was about to ascend the staircase to go to her bedroom and change into something less formal, when she heard the sound of groans and gasping coming from the direction of the snug. Lady Olivia was startled. Oh my God, she thought, Edward must be having a heart attack!

Concerned, she hurried into the snug, her heels clattering on the timber floor. Sir Edward turned around in his armchair, looking slightly bewildered. He had been watching something on the television, from where the sounds were emanating.

“Oh, it’s you Olivia! I thought you were going to have your hair done this morning.”

On the television a writhing couple were engaged in a type of private act that was never mentioned in polite society and which Lady Olivia had certainly never witnessed before.

“I did go to the hairdresser,” she explained, “but Nancy was just about to start washing my hair when her sister rang about some family emergency and she had to rush off urgently.”

There was an awkward silence that lasted a few brief moments. Then Sir Edward cleared his throat.

“I was just watching this film, which one of the chaps at the club had lent to me. Apparently it is something that he described as a ‘retro classic’. The main actor,” continued Sir Edward, “is quite well … er … proportioned.”

Lady Olivia looked intently at the screen. “Oh yes,” she agreed, after a minute or so had elapsed, “I do believe you are right.”

“His name was John Holmes,” Sir Edward elaborated. “Apparently he was quite well known in his time for his acting in this sort of … er … genre. I was told that his nickname was ‘Long John’ Holmes, for reasons that are quite clear when one watches him in this film.” Sir Edward guffawed loudly at his own witticism, as he invariably did when he had come up with some amusing statement.

He turned back in his armchair to watch the remainder of the film. Lady Olivia took a seat on the couch to his right. When the film ended a few minutes later and the credits were rolling up the screen, Sir Edward observed, “Ha! Quite an unusual film, what?”

Lady Olivia concurred that it was indeed a most unusual film.

Then she got up from the couch, pushed a stray hair back from her slightly damp forehead and asked brightly, “Shall I go and make us a nice cup of tea, then?”

It’s not easy being a feminist

I became a feminist of sorts long ago in a country where male chauvinism was traditional in both the white and the black communities. Not that South African women were left entirely outside the loop of male-dominated affairs. As early as the 1980s South African Airways had at least one female pilot. I know this for a fact because I was on the short flight from Johannesburg to Harare during that time when a woman’s voice came over the intercom, introducing herself as the pilot and welcoming us on board. The three redneck Afrikaners in the seats behind me sniggered derisively. “I hope she doesn’t have to go and have a pee while she’s supposed to be flying the plane,” one of them said, to the great amusement of his fellow Neanderthalers.

I first became aware of my feminist stirrings three years before Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch was published. At the time I was a mere twenty years old and working as a junior clerk in the Administration for Coloured Affairs in Cape Town. I had dropped out of university earlier that year and had unsuccessfully applied for jobs as a cigarette company rep (with company vehicle), trawlerman (I loved the sea), waiter on the Cape Town/Johannesburg train (I enjoyed traveling), and ladies’ underwear rep (don’t ask!). At long last I managed to secure a junior clerical position in the Misconduct Section of the Administration for Coloured Affairs. Our job was to punish misconduct by Coloured teachers.

There were seven of us sitting in desks positioned in two rows, with a glass wall at one end of the room beyond which our boss, Mr Van Deventer, sat and kept an eye on us from his office. Teacher misconduct embraced a wide range of misdemeanours. One of the most common of these, apart from unsatisfactory work, chronic absenteeism, drunkenness and making sexual advances to schoolgirls, was sexual relations between unmarried male and female teachers. The Administration for Coloured Affairs punished such behaviour under the provisions of Section 16 (i) of the Coloured Persons Education Act of 1963. Our job as clerks in the Misconduct Section was to write letters to offending teachers, advising them of the action that the Administration was taking against them under the provisions of the Act.

When an unmarried female teacher became pregnant to a male teacher, the standard penalty for the male teacher was a fine of sixty Rand, which was equivalent to three months’ salary. However, the female teacher’s appointment was immediately terminated without benefits and she was banned from teaching for a period of three years.

As a naïve twenty year old I took it upon myself to write a submission directly to our big boss, Mr Du Plessis, who had a large office on the floor above ours. In my submission I pointed out the inequity between the severity of the punishments that were meted out to female and male teachers in these circumstances. I suggested that this should be redressed by allowing a female teacher to return to teaching three months after her baby had been born.

I was summonsed to Mr Du Plessis’ office. I had barely had time to admire the size of his public service floor mat when he started berating me, his little moustache wobbling wildly on his upper lip with anger. “How dare you, a junior clerk, try and tell the Administration that its policy is wrong? Who do you think you are that you can write to me and comment on things that you know nothing about? Senior people set the policy, not junior clerks!” He raged on in this vein for a while longer before telling me to get out of his office and that he did not want to hear from me ever again.

Later, having emigrated to Australia, I worked for five years in the late 1970s at the Glen Waverley Library, which had a staff of 13 people. I was the only male staff member. During that time that I became better acquainted with women. Having had no sisters and having married young, the only women that I had known reasonably well until that time was my mum and my wife of the time. It was here that I realised that the majority of men of my age treated their wives and girlfriends pretty much as doormats.

One young woman, married to a plumber, complained to the others how her husband never cleared up anything or helped in the house, apart from fixing the odd thing. His clothes would lie on the floor wherever he had taken them off, the dirty dishes would be her responsibility to wash up and she did all the washing, cooking, ironing and cleaning. I thought that this was outrageously unfair, taking into account that she and her husband were both working fulltime.

“Just leave his clothes where he left them, and leave the dirty dishes in the sink,” one of the other female staff members, who was single, advised her. “That will soon make him sit up and take notice.”

The woman with the plumber husband reported a week later that it had taken her a whole weekend to clear up the mess. The clothes had just piled up higher and higher on the floor and the dirty dishes had merely increased in number, until she could stand the mess no longer.

On a very hot January day in 1980 I went with my fellow staff members from the library to have lunch at a pub in Clayton. On the way back to work afterwards I stopped at a red traffic light in my battered old Holden station wagon. Four of the women were in the car with me. My window was wound down because the Holden did not have mod cons such as air conditioning.

Unexpectedly someone said to me through the window: “Hey, mate, how do you do it? How do you pull all those women?” It was a bloke who was working on the road. His mates were consumed with mirth at this witticism.

I was quite embarrassed at this exhibition of male sexism in the presence of my female workmates and apologised to them for it. “You know, I don’t even think of you as women,” I said.

None of them responded to this and for the next couple of weeks there was a distinct chill in the air towards me from the women at work.

It’s not easy being a feminist.