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Things I Have Discovered About My Mother

Today marks the tenth anniversary of my Mother’s death. Here’s a post I wrote about her back in January 2015, when I started packing to move to Australia. I still miss her…

The Scribbling Scribes

By Susan Roberts

s1I suppose I always took it for granted that I would one day become a mother, but somehow it never happened. This has something to do with the hours that I work, or maybe it’s because I grew up old-fashioned enough to believe that I needed a husband first. Over the years, the right candidate never appeared so I just got on with my life instead.

Not that I’m sorry I didn’t become a mother. My family will tell you that I was never particularly enamoured of kids. When I was grossed out by someone’s wailing brat or a dirty diaper, there was always a well-meaning relative to assure me that “it’ll be different when you have your own one day,” but they couldn’t see that there was a wary part of me that couldn’t imagine going through that with a permanent infant which I couldn’t hand…

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The Finishing Touches

In my early working days during the 80s and 90s, every time I moved house, it usually took me four or five months to get around to hanging up my pictures. Because I always rented, my choices were limited to where existing picture hooks had already been hammered in by previous tenants.

Only once, when I bought my own flat in Johannesburg in 1997, did I finally splash out on buying a drill and hanging my pictures exactly where I wanted them. Along with shower rails, curtain rods, pot plant holders and anything else that took my fancy.

When I moved to Durban in 2000, it was to rented accommodation again, but the landlords I was lucky enough to rent from in the next fifteen years were quite happy to let me put up whatever I wanted.

Even so, it always took me a while to decide on the correct look and atmosphere of each room before hanging the pictures. I had to be sure that everything else was in the correct place before executing those finishing touches.

In South Africa, you drill holes into brick walls, shove in plastic plugs and screw in screws strong enough to take the weight. Not so in Australia, where the process is a little more tricky. Here the houses are not built of brick, but of timber framing, covered inside with plasterboard, and outside with any kind of veneer you can imagine. This means the walls are hollow, with wiring and piping running through the gap between inner and outer cladding.

Believe it or not, I’ve now been in my new cottage for four months. Lately, I’ve been planning the placement of my pictures. Of course, I didn’t bring all of them with me; only the most significant and precious. Such as a set of five black and white photos of District Six, taken by Jansje Wissema back in the 1960s. After carrying these in a folder through two moves, I finally framed them myself in Johannesburg, before drilling holes in my own wall with my (then) new drill. Where I go, they go.

Likewise two of my niece’s paintings which I am hoping to frame; a beautiful water colour painted by a writing friend; a framed pencil sketch that I’ve had for twenty-seven years of a cat drawn by my friend Jackie; and a cute cat-shaped blackboard made by my friend Mandy before she left for Ireland in 1997. Other favourites include my four huge framed movie posters.

One of these bears the legend: “If adventure has a name… it must be Indiana Jones” which became symbolic of my own adventure when I was packing up three years ago. Where I go, Indy goes too…

Last week I retrieved all these and more from the roof of my sister’s garage where they have been stored for the past three years. Some calculations and planning had already been done because I had most of the measurements among my immigration paperwork, but the real fun only began when I was able to unwrap them from their protective bubble wrap shrouds and let them live again.

Yesterday I spent the day putting up the larger ones. My cottage here has quite a lot of hooks in the walls, which was lucky for me because it meant I didn’t have to excavate new territory and risk hitting water pipes and live electric wiring. I also have a neat little device called a Stud Sensor, which detects both timber and metal frames, and has a red flashing light and a loud beep whenever it senses electricity.

Unfortunately, that little beep sounded a lot yesterday as I discovered that several walls which I had earmarked for pictures were more “live” than most power stations. Consequently I have had to keep some of my artworks in bubble wrap until I maybe one day move to a bigger place, or until I work out a way of attaching them to just the wall paint and plasterboard. Or doors, or ceilings. Or whatever.

Either way, for the most part I am pleased with the results. My cottage is starting to look more and more like the home I have visualised for so long.

A Reason, a Season, or a Lifetime?

Thirty-three years ago today, I was awakened early in the morning by a persistent knocking on my door in Johannesburg. I had worked later than usual the previous night, and desperately needed that extra hour of sleep, but it was not to be. Whoever was knocking just wouldn’t go away, so I got up and stumbled to the door, bleary-eyed.

There stood an old family friend of my father’s, with her husband, come to tell me that my father had died the night before. My mother had called her so that I wouldn’t be alone when I heard the news. They stayed while I phoned my mother. They made me tea and didn’t leave until they had helped me to make arrangements to fly home.

They’ve been on my mind this weekend, as have quite a few other people.

I spent most of Sunday with a friend who is about to leave Australia to live in New Zealand. She was the first friend I made in Australia. We connected because we were aliens from the same place, albeit via different routes, and we both related to the strangeness of our new situation in a foreign country.

It was great seeing her again on Sunday because we hadn’t seen each other in a while, but I felt sad afterwards and began to ponder the theory that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Will we ever see each other again? I’m sure we will, but even if it turns out that we were in each other’s lives for a season of only two and a half years, then we will be grateful that we formed our friendship at the time when we both needed it most.

Because I moved around South Africa a lot in my early years of working, I have had many fleeting connections with people. I always found it sad when we drifted apart. So many best friends faded from my life when I faded from their town, or they went overseas. In those days there were no mobile phones so we didn’t keep the same numbers when we moved, and most lost interest in writing letters after a short while.

It took me several years to stop resenting the lost connections, or blaming them. I eventually realised that not all people you meet in your lifetime will be there forever, and that’s not necessarily their fault. Most people come into your life and change it in some way – for better or worse – but either way you learn something from their presence at your side.

Some leave after a few weeks or months, some after a few years. Some you see again; some you don’t. Even our beloved pets don’t live as long as we do, but those seasons they spend with us are remembered fondly for the rest of our lives.

We all make connections, but just because people drift apart doesn’t mean that they’re not important. The short length of time we spend with each other doesn’t diminish the impact of the connection.

The friend who told me to read The Artist’s Way was a musical director I worked with eighteen years ago for the six month season of a particular show. I haven’t seen her since her now grown-up son was a newborn baby, but I do believe that she came into my life when I needed someone to tell me how to change my life’s direction. I’ll always be grateful that she did. And some years later I was in the life of another musician for a long enough season to give him a copy of the same book, because I knew he needed it too.

My father’s friend who came to tell me of his death was once his girlfriend about a decade before he met my mother. It hadn’t been a serious love affair, but they always enjoyed each other’s company and stayed friends all their lives. When I was a child we went to Johannesburg on holiday, and we visited her and her husband in their beautiful old house on the top of the ridge in Kensington, with its glorious view of the eastern suburbs. When they came down to the coast on holiday, they stopped and spent time with us on the way. Birthday cards flew via airmail between all four adults. She kept in touch with my mother after my father’s death, and after the death of her husband some years later. Some friendships really do last a lifetime, no matter the distance.

Today, thanks to email and the Internet, I have reconnected with two friends from primary school. When I was in high school, my friends and I had pen-friends in exotic places around the world. Now my high school friends are my email pen-friends in exotic places too.

Look at the people around you today and ask yourself: Are they there for a reason, a season or a lifetime? And then think about the reason why you might be in each of their lives. What purpose do you fill for them? Are you there for a reason, a season or a lifetime?

Full Circle Flashbacks

One of the shreds of hope you cling to when packing up your whole life to move to another country, is the belief that one day you will get the chance to unpack it all in a new home. For me, this wheel has finally turned full circle.

Three years on, I have spent the last month unpacking my boxes, vac-bags and plastic crates into my new little cottage in the country. It’s been like Christmas. Each layer of bubble wrap unfurled has revealed treasures: some longed for, some forgotten and some only dreamed about, thinking they had been left behind.

Perhaps the most exciting boxes to unpack were those which bore the legend “Packed by Penny” on my inventory list. Three years ago, my friend Penny came to my rescue a few days before the dreaded container arrived. I waved one hand vaguely at a table top covered with teapots and general kitchen ware, and the other hand at the remnants of a display cabinet, and muttered something incoherent about wanting to take all those things with me but not knowing where to pack them. Penny did the job, and expertly too. Not a single thing chipped or broken, all of my treasures restored to me in my new little cottage, one by one.

Thank you, Penny.

 

Thank you, Tina and Bryan, for helping me on loading day, and treating me to breakfast afterwards. As you know, I couldn’t have got through that day without you.

Another special thank you to my wonderful friends Cathy and Jackie, who helped me to pack up and distribute the things that didn’t fit into that little Move Cube container three years ago. Without these wonderful ladies, I’d probably still be sitting in a tearful heap in the middle of my old cottage, unable to decide what to pack and what to leave. Cathy air freighted me two boxes of favourites without which I would have been bereft.

In the last two years or so, I may have gone a little overboard in seeking out and buying up oddments found in Op Shops to replace things I didn’t bring. I’ve searched for – and found – several pieces of Corning ware – rare as hen’s teeth since I gave all mine away. I’ve searched for – but not found – a set of stainless steel steamer pots. No matter, I made a plan with a universal steamer basket and a metal sieve. Last night’s sweet potato and rice cooked up just as tastily in the new equipment as it would have done in the old.

My new cottage is looking good now, snug and warm with new net curtains and the roll-up blinds I’ve made to keep out the winter cold. There are still a few things to unpack, but it’s a pleasure, not a chore, and I’m enjoying the process.

One day I’ll get back to writing again, but first I need a little time to revel in the fun of making a home in my new place.

Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends…

For a short month, February has been rather busy. The first ten days played out as normal, with me still gainfully employed at the fruit and veggie shop. On the eleventh day, however, it all took an interesting turn. I arrived at the shop one Sunday morning to be told that the store was closing, and that day was its last.

In retrospect, I had seen it coming but tried to pretend that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. My boss had dropped broad hints for a few months that the shop might not last far into the New Year. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, but I didn’t expect it all to go belly-up in one single day without any notice.

So where does this leave me? Well fortunately my casual job at the hardware store is going well. For the moment. My boss there has been extremely helpful in giving me extra shifts, which I love, but I know it won’t continue in this way much beyond Easter. As the weather cools towards winter, the DIY industry cools down too, for the cold months, before perking up again in springtime.

Which brings me to Henry V’s rallying cry to his troops. Once more I am launching myself into that daunting battlefield known as the job market, steeling my nerves to be cut down by cold-as-steel rejection letters, even as I leap forward to grasp at the slim chance of landing the perfect job

As much as I love my job in the hardware store, I need another part-time job to enable me to finally break out of my dependence on my long-suffering family and be on my own again. With this comes another problem: my novel-writing has ground to an abrupt halt while I concentrate my writing energies on writing and rewriting my cover letters and tweaking my resume.

I’m not drowning yet, but it is a definite setback in my plans to live my life fully in Australia. Three years ago I was packing and planning my move over here, uncertain of my future. Three years later I’m still adrift in a sea of uncertainty, treading water, and getting older while not really moving forward.

I’ve been in Australia for two years and eight months now, but it’s only in the past eight months that I seem to have moved forward. And now, just when things are gathering pace, this is a giant leap backwards.

Sometimes, I can’t help but compare my current situation (or lack thereof) with the one I left behind in South Africa. It’s a terrible thing to be without work for two years, and a truly marvellous thing to have been gainfully employed for the past eight months. Eight months ago I was beginning to despair of getting a job – any kind of job – and wondered if I would ever be able to gather some resources and move into my own place without constantly draining resources that were not mine.

Would I ever be able to afford exorbitant Melbourne rentals, buy my own car, save some money for my old age? Even little pleasures like splashing out on tea and cake with a friend seemed extravagant, always mentally counting the South African rands that were fast dwindling away at ten times the rate they would have done back in Durban. Steady income goes a long way towards alleviating those worries, and that’s what I’m working towards now.

Eight months ago I made a start, and it’s been chugging along nicely. I have some Australian dollars in the bank at last. But now it seems as if I have some very steep hills to climb, because I’m not yet where I want to be. I have to keep reminding myself that Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, likens this to being on a fast-moving train. While walking along inside a train, stumbling over objects and stepping back to let others pass, we feel as if we are barely moving. And yet, when we look out the window and see how far we’ve come, with new scenery racing by at breakneck speed, we realise that we are, in fact, covering ground extremely fast.

I hope it’s not just my advancing years which are thundering by at that speed…

The Five Objects Formula

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When I was young, my dad belonged to a film club which used to have “Five Objects” competitions every few months. The filmmakers would be given a list of five completely unrelated objects, and they had to make up a story which included all five things. Each filmmaker had to film their own story, edit it, lay the soundtrack and screen the finished product on the night of the competition.

The objects could be introduced in any order, but they had to be more than just arbitrary set dressing in the background – they had to actually play a part in the story. My dad was a good filmmaker and he had a vivid imagination, so his films always did well in those competitions.

I remember the fun we had making the first one. The objects were:

  • a pound of sausages
  • a briefcase
  • a bunch of keys
  • a screwdriver
  • a piece of string.

For days my dad puzzled over scenarios about dogs running off with sausages. Which of our dogs would we use? How could we train it to do something like sausage-stealing and yet prevent this from becoming a habit? And so on.

One morning, one of my dad’s work colleagues ranted to him about the wasted evening he and his wife had experienced the night before because an encyclopaedia salesman had come to his house and bored them almost to death about how they needed to invest in their children’s future by buying a decent set of encyclopaedia for their home. (Yes, this was the 70s when such things existed.)

This gave my dad the spark he needed and before long he had his story:

  • Housewife preparing a pound of sausages, putting them into the frying pan and setting it on the stove.
  • Doorbell rings. She leaves the kitchen and goes to the door.
  • There is an encyclopaedia salesman on the doorstep. He talks his way in with his briefcase of book examples and his car keys.
  • Once inside her lounge he doesn’t stop talking, impressing upon her how important the books will be to her family, blah, blah.
  • She tells him she’s not interested. He takes a long time to accept this, but finally packs up the books and puts them back into his briefcase.
  • Unseen by him, he catches the edge of his key-ring in one of the books and the keys go into the briefcase too.
  • The salesman picks up his briefcase to leave but can’t find his keys.
  • As he searches, the housewife suggests they may be in his briefcase. He tries to open it and realises that he can’t because it’s locked and the keys must be inside. He’s in despair.
  • She tells him not to worry and leaves the room. She comes back with a screwdriver.
  • The salesman forces the lock of the briefcase, retrieves his keys with great relief and then realises that he can’t shut the briefcase because the lock is broken.
  • The housewife leaves the room again and comes back with a long piece of thick string. Together they tie the string around the briefcase…
  • … and that’s when she smells the burning sausages and runs from the room in the other direction.
  • She runs back in, holding a smoking frying pan, and yelling at him. He picks up his briefcase and his keys and runs out the door with the angry housewife in pursuit, still holding the smoking frying pan, trailing smoke behind her.

Sometimes my dad would throw his ideas around and ask us for feedback, and when he had the story ready to film, we would all be on hand to move furniture around, help with finding props, move lights on stands, and even become part of the background if he was filming on a not-busy-enough street (which wasn’t necessary with this one).

For this story – which he called “The Salesman” – he had a great cast: the housewife was played by my mother, and the salesman was played by my dad’s work colleague, complete with three of the books he had been talked into buying for the future of his children. (He knew exactly how to do the salesman talk because he had been duped by it himself.)

My dog even had a cameo role running up to the gate as the salesman left. (At least we didn’t have to teach the dog how to steal sausages.) We used burning rags for the burning sausages and ate the real ones for supper that night.

I know this isn’t the place to wax lyrical about how much I loved all of this – living out my own movie-set/backstage fantasies – but long before we reached the actual filming of any of the stories, we had the fun of dreaming up scenarios like this, thinking of ideas to suit other lists of objects. I’ve been doing this my whole life, really – and I never get tired of it. It finally occurred to me not so long ago that it’s a good way to build up a basic story for a novel.

It’s always fun to throw a bunch of seemingly unconnected bits and pieces into a crucible of some kind and see what comes out of it. If I look at five basic objects or ingredients for a good story, they would have to be:

  • an interesting place
  • a little bit of history
  • a hint of danger
  • an historical artefact or work of art
  • the timeframe or deadline of a ticking clock.

Add into the mix two characters each with some kind of desire (and because I write romance they need to later develop a shared desire for each other), and a bad guy with crazy ambitions, and there’s bound to be a story worth writing.

I love all these enticing ingredients and the challenge they present. I’m a writer of long, rather than short, stories – I have too much that I want to throw into the pot.

When I look back at all of my successful novels, each one has those five ingredients. Even my historical novella From Daisy with Love (which is a romance but not a mystery), has all of the ingredients – the historical artefact would be the box of written letters and objects for a future generation to find, and the bad guy (although slightly removed) would be Kaiser Wilhelm II who was responsible for the war which changed the lives of all the characters.

However, if I look at my two earlier trunk novels it is now easy for me to see why they didn’t work and were never good enough to be published. They are both missing several of the vital ingredients. One day I still mean to re-write both of them but don’t hold your breath because newer stories pop into my head all the time.

To those who love reading books written by others: do you recognise any of these five ingredients in your favourite books? I do. Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Forgotten Garden, The Goldfinch, My Brother Michael, The Girl You Left Behind, and so many more, from the Amelia Peabody series right back to some of the Enid Blyton books I used to read as a child.

To any writers reading this: what five ingredients do you consider essential in your novels?

More on the Melbourne Writers Festival

The Melbourne Writers Festival recently completed its 30th annual festival, but this year was my first time attending it. I wrote a few of my observations in a previous blog-post, but since I couldn’t do justice to all I had seen and heard in a single post, I saved some of it for this post.

It would have been impossible to attend everything, so I had to select those sessions I really felt strongly about, sometimes foregoing other sessions that looked just as interesting. There was such a wide variety, and in so many venues, that any festival goer was spoilt for choice.

One session which made a deep impression on me was part of a theme entitled Words and War, which was done in conjunction with the Shrine of Remembrance. The education auditorium is a recent addition to this beautiful building which honours the memories of those who have fallen in war. The setting is a striking one, its forecourt paved with simulated trenches, its walls decorated with paper poppies and its roof a red transparent symbolic poppy through which one can see the main Shrine itself.

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The session I attended – Lest We Remember – was a discussion between Liz Byrski and Clare Wright, hosted by Christina Toomie, and was about those who are marginalised in the writing of history.

Liz Byrski has written 12 non-fiction and 8 fiction books, but her latest, In Love and War: Nursing Heroes is about the experiences of a particular group of nurses and patients. During the Second World War, East Grinstead was an English village close to the airfields used by RAF and American fighter pilots, many of whom suffered horrific burn injuries, so it was the ideal place to build a special hospital for the treatment of burns. This hospital ran along different rules from normal hospitals because of the importance of rehabilitating the badly scarred men, and making them feel as normal as possible. Because of this, the nurses were actively encouraged to fraternise with their patients.

The patients, when interviewed decades later, had only good memories of their time spent there, and of the wonderful nurses. However, many of the nurses had a different version of events. At first, Liz couldn’t find any of the nurses because no proper records had been kept. When she did manage to track some of them down, many wanted to remain anonymous and had never even told their families about the part they had played in the war years. Proof that the history of war is generally told by the men, not the women. Liz trod a difficult path in trying to present both sides of a delicate situation.

Clare Wright is a television writer and producer who, in time for the one hundred years commemoration of the First World War, had embarked on a special series of programmes about Australian soldiers, as remembered by the generations that followed them. She found similar problems to Liz during her research, because every family wants to remember their ancestor as a hero and she found that not all soldiers are the heroes that their families have believed for a hundred years.

How does one present the story of a soldier who might have been shot for cowardice, or who died from what, in the record books, is called SIW: Self Inflicted Wounds? SIW can mean anything from a bullet shot at close range through one’s hand, in order to be exempt from further fighting, to more definite and final suicide. (Fans of television’s Downton Abbey will recognise that some of these issues were raised in that excellent series.)

Later that day I attended a session called Older and Bolder, hosted by the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre. All attendees (mostly older women like myself) were treated to a glass of wine before the event. Chaired by Renata Singer of the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, the panel comprised international author Simonetta Agnello Hornby from Italy, actress and author Sarah Winman from the UK, and Shobhaa De from India, all of whom gave their theories on how various societies treat aging women.

Society, it seems, embraces aging men with distinguished grey hair and life experience, but tries to pretend that aging women with grey hair and wrinkled skin are invisible. This is not helped by Hollywood and fashion trends, but women who are aging need to embrace their aging process because the alternative – dying young – isn’t desirable for any of us.

This was an inspiring, empowering session, and perhaps the best example came from a woman who stood up during the Q&A to tell us that she was 48, and had a started playing in an all-girl band a year before, at the age of 47. If anyone had told her when she was 46 that she would do such a thing, she wouldn’t have believed it. She urged everyone in the room to follow their dreams and take ownership of whatever they want to do.

One evening during the following week I listened to two astrophysicists – Brian Schmidt and Katie Mack – talk about the universe. I must confess that this made me feel rather small and insignificant since I didn’t understand most of what they were saying, but my sister enjoyed the session. Not really my thing, but it was interesting to hear something a little different even if it was, pardon the pun, way above my head.

The final session I attended was about adapting a particular series of books into a television series. The Phryne Fisher Murder Mystery books, set in 1920s Melbourne, are written by local author Kerry Greenwood, who agreed to the television rights after meeting Deborah Cox, one of the producers and the chief writer of the adaptations.

I read my first Phryne Fisher book during one of my previous visits to Melbourne, and four books later I have become a firm fan. I have never seen any of the television episodes, so I was eager to find out a little more about it. While I would have loved to hear Kerry Greenwood herself speak, she was not scheduled to be at the session. However, producer Deborah Cox was joined on stage by Ashleigh Cummings, the actress who plays Dot, and the two of them were not only entertaining, but provided plenty of information on why certain stories or books are adapted in ways that differ from the original.

As a fitting footnote to this last story, I visited the historic Melbourne home called Rippon Lea a few days ago, to see an exhibition of the costumes used in the television series. The house itself has on occasion been used as a location for some of the filming, as have parts of the extensive grounds. This beautiful estate is part of the National Trust of Australia, and is very much a working museum which often houses exhibitions of this kind. The ballroom in the grounds of the estate is also a popular wedding venue.

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