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Nostalgia be damned – the kettle in the apricot tree revisited

Not so long ago, we spent a weekend in a place where we had lived for six years in the nineties; a small coastal town in the west of the state. I reckon it’s eight or ten years since I was there last.

A visit a dozen years ago had inspired The Kettle in the Apricot Tree – the first article I ever had published in the Age, on 9 May 1999, and the opening piece in my first published book.

Kettle was a reflection on nostalgia triggered by going back to our old home and seeing, despite all the changes, an old brass kettle hung in the apricot tree in our back yard, where our kids had left it years before.

This time, 21 years after we moved there and 16 years since we left, the apricot tree is long gone. Indeed, our entire back garden has transmogrified into an Aldi carpark. Our family home is now a café and art gallery, nicely done, with decent coffee. A plus for us, as we were able to poke around every last room, slowly, pretending to be admiring the artwork when what we were really doing, of course, was indulge in memories.

My husband and I stood in front of art pieces, from an immense carved wooden eagle, to delicate water colours, to tacky mirrors encrusted with sea shells. But what we were really doing was saying, ‘Remember when we had the kids’ bunks in this corner?’ and ‘We used to light the fire in here when it was your study sometimes and tell bedtime stories,’ and ‘They’ve still got this cruddy old lino – do you remember when my waters broke all over the floor right here?’

We agreed it was the weirdest feeling – poignant and funny and happy and sad. It was like looking at a barely recognizable version of ourselves, through the wrong end of binoculars. I feel so utterly different from the young mother who lived and often struggled through those years. I guess it was nostalgia of a kind. But not the kind that had me longing to go back.

In fact, I can never remember yearning to go back to past eras in my life. On the contrary, as we shared the long drive home, I listed for my husband a litany of gladness.

‘I’m so glad it’s now,’ I started, ‘and we don’t have tiny kids anymore. I’m so glad I’ve had therapy, that I’m no longer depressed. I’m so glad I discovered writing and have a day job I love. I’m so glad you and I are so much kinder to ourselves and each other than we used to be.’

It’s not as though there weren’t many good times, happy times. Mostly, I thrived on the fresh air, the lack of traffic, the long walks, the friendly community. I was besotted with the children and grateful for the years I was able to spend at home with them without the pressure of a job or much concern about a career I might have been missing out on.

But now is the best time. It always is. So far, I’ve never resented getting older. Even in my darkest times – what I think of as my depression years – I didn’t want to go back in time, because at least I was becoming aware of problems that had always been there and was learning to tackle them.

A lot of people hark back to some bygone golden age. School days for instance (my primary school years weren’t a lot of fun). Or when their kids were little (I prefer them as young adults, or even teenagers).

I’m aware that there may be a time when it all goes pear shaped. If a member of my family dies. If my partner or I fall prey to some awful, progressive disease, to Alzheimer’s, to any of the heartbreaking afflictions I see in so many of the older people I love. So far, I have been lucky in health and in relationships, and that may not always be the case.

But right now, there is nowhere else I’d rather be than here, and no one I would rather be than my 52-year-old self with all her limitations. I go back to our old house, full of shoppers drinking coffee, and our old garden covered in asphalt and strict white lines and parked cars. I look at where the apricot tree and its resident kettle used to be, and I am grateful for those times. But I have no wish whatsoever to go back to them.


At last - a subscriber button!

Hello readers all,

With some welcome technical assistance from Paddy Macrae in Glasgow, I at last have an easy way to become a subscriber. If you'd like to receive an email every time I post - just type in your email address and hit subscribe.

I'm off camping with the gang, as has been my Easter practice for the last 18 years. Hope you all have a wonderful Easter break.


Google magic

This morning, when I was supposed to be working on the novel, I called up the magic of google earth and keyed in, one by one, the far-flung places where half my family are at the moment.

My husband’s in Honiara. Nice alliteration there. Or perhaps the title of a silly love song. Or a ‘he done me wrong’ song. I type it in: HONIARA and hit the key and we whiz dizzyingly around to the top of Australia and then some.

Ah, so that’s where the Solomon Islands are. There are so many of them – strung out along the ocean between Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. I click on images of Honiara and it looks very much like Port Vila the only time I’ve been to that part of the world, except more parochial and empty.

Older son. I know exactly where he is, but still I type it in and spin around the serene blue globe. Glasgow. If I want to take the time, I can home in on his street.

Younger son: Isle of Mull. Not so far from his brother. As far from me, both of them, as they can possibly be without leaving the planet.

I spoke to Hamish just last night. Got straight through to the remote little outpost of Mull where he is staying in old stone miners’ cottages, working for six months with kids from Glasgow. They even have internet access, I can skype him if I have the inclination.

I love this modern ability to communicate instantly across vast distances. I do. Although it doesn’t stop the longing to just have them there, solid and human and real, putting on the kettle as I arrive home from work of an evening. It doesn’t replace the spontaneous little comical interactions that happen in families at the oddest hours – late at night, early on dark winter mornings, when one of you really should get going but doesn’t want to end the conversation. It’s never the same as the warm presence of my husband on his side of the bed.

But I’m not complaining. My forbears lived with communication via sailing and then steamship; I grew up with slow letters traveling by train and then by plane, which still took a week or two, winging between my loved ones and me.

In the Narnia chronicles that I was raised on, there’s a scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that fired my juvenile imagination. On the island of the hilarious, bumbling, newly-visible dufflepuds, the magician gives our heroes, the intrepid but weary travellers, a gift. It’s a map of the known world, which they are sailing rapidly to the end of.

But it’s no ordinary map. Hold a magnifying glass to it, anywhere, the magician demonstrates, and suddenly, you zoom in on wherever it is, and can see miniature hills and valleys and streams, minute houses, tiny town squares and people going about their business. As a kid I longed for this map. Now I have it, at the touch of a button.

So much of the technology we have at our fingertips – literally – would have been considered sheer magic even ten years ago. The whole search engine thing is crazy when you stop to think about it. I can ask anything at all, and in a jiffy, I have the answer in front of me.

This is the kind of thing I used to fantasize about when I wanted to remember the lyrics to a favourite song. Even more, when I had seen a movie and couldn’t remember the last film I’d seen that actor in. These days, I type their name in and bingo, there’s the list.

Back to the spinning blue of google earth. One of the things I love about it is the sense of direction it gives me. As it takes me to the Solomon Islands, I am able to see exactly where they lie in relation to me.

Even more important, it gives a powerful sense of connectedness. Everything, even Glasgow, is just around the corner really. Just over an ocean and a desert and a continent or two and then you’re swooping down and there’s the street of your loved one. Like in a plane only a billion times less boring.

It’s the phrase ‘global village’ made manifest, or maybe made virtual, but whichever, it is here on my little computer screen on my desk in my study in my weatherboard house in West Brunswick, connecting me with the people I love, all around the world.


Parallel universe

I spent a day in hospital last week. Which reminded me of the parallel universe that exists alongside that of healthy people – that of the sick and those who love and care for them.

I was a nurse for several years in the 80s, in a massive city hospital in the days when nurses still did an apprenticeship style of training rather than going to university. Ever since, when my tram passes those distinctive, ugly, orange brick buildings, I think of the hundreds of people packed inside those walls, cut off by illness and anxiety from the heedless, pulsing world rushing by outside.

How vividly I still remember being in hospital with a gravely sick baby for ten days. How that isolation room became my whole world, how I could barely believe that so-called normal life was buzzing away out there. How difficult I found it coming home again, having to focus on more than one tiny, ailing body.

Because I used to be a nurse, I’m comfortable in hospitals. And of course I’ve been a visitor. But I’ve spent little time in them as a patient. Tonsils and appendix out as a kid; since then one whole, gloriously restful week for each of four babies, in country hospitals where they didn’t turf you out the day after you gave birth. That doesn’t really count though.

In the day ward where I spent a few hours last week, every brochure in the place was about cancer, with pictures of happy, floaty things like dandelions heads on the front.

In the waiting room next to mine were people in Jason recliners, hooked up to intravenous drips, looking as though they belonged there. The cancer patients, I’m guessing, in for their treatment.

My own procedure was a piffling one in the scheme of things, although the whole point was to make sure I wasn’t about to become one of those cancer patients. (I’ve discovered, in the two years since I turned 50, that symptoms doctors happily ignored till now make them look grave and suggest all manner of tests. ‘Hmm, you are at that age now…’ I’ve become used to hearing.)

I wasn’t too anxious about the outcome, but thanks to the fairly brutal preparation for the colonoscopy and gastroscopy, I felt like death warmed up by the time I got to hospital. Two days on pretty much fluids only, and the second day drinking potions that purged me so violently I was left as weak as a kitten, not daring to venture more than a few feet from the toilet. Not even during trips around India, eating at street stalls, have I been so very ill.

Compared to the preparation, the procedure was a piece of cake; floating peacefully off in the not-quite-general anaesthetic they call ‘heavy sedation’. Waking up, knowing it was over and feeling enormously, ridiculously relieved even before the doctor had talked to me. Feeling no longer sick and weak, even though I still hadn’t had anything to eat or drink.

The news was all good – no nasties in there. I hadn’t really expected any, but all week I have experienced a sense of escape, of relief, of intense happiness that I have lived to fight another day. I have enjoyed post-illness euphoria, where it feels just so damn good to be able to eat and drink, to be strong and energetic again.

Most of all, while remembering afresh those inhabitants of the parallel universe, I am grateful to be once again on the outside, able to plan, at least for the immediate future, for a life free of disease.


Happiness and despair

This crazy summer I’m starting to feel a little schizophrenic - burdened with minute by minute awareness of insurrection, immense natural disasters and now nuclear meltdown, while simultaneously enjoying a truly lucky life.

I can remember as an undergraduate in the seventies, the fear we had of the nuclear conflagration.  And in the last ten days, this nightmare seems to be coming true.

Not that this hasn’t happened before – Chernobyl, Three Mile Island – but coming combined with earthquake and tsunami and in a long line of devastating world events, it feels as though the end of days has arrived.

The way we learned of the catastrophe in Japan at our place was something that could only have happened in the 21st century. My husband and I were reading in bed when our youngest came in to ask if we’d heard about the tsunami.

We followed her out to the living room where she was skyping her oldest brother in Scotland. He had told her about the earthquake in Japan. On the computer screen, we had him in one corner, grave and beanie-clad, commentating from his flat in Glasgow. In the other corner we had live footage from Sendai.

The juxtaposition of the filthy, wreckage-strewn water destroying everything in its path, with my own kid, half a world away but looking safe and healthy, was almost too much to take in. It took me a long time to get to sleep that night.

This happens so often it does my head in. I read the paper every morning. My heart goes out to the thousands of people whose lives have been shattered in Japan, New Zealand, Brazil, Pakistan, not to mention Libya and other countries where the political situation is dire. I send money, I talk about them in grave tones, I pray. I feel the very least I can do is be respectful enough to preface everything I say with, ‘Shall we spend two minutes silence thinking of our sisters and brothers in Japan’. It seems thoughtless to start any conversation without acknowledging how fortunate I am.

Because in my little life in this corner of the world, I am very happy most of the time. This is as it should be, given that I am not being threatened by nuclear radiation, earthquake, flood or fire, my kids are unlikely to be ‘disappeared’ by sinister security forces or die of a preventable disease, I have clean water and food, books to read and an internet connection.

It feels all wrong though, my full, happy heart on a morning when I’ve just read about the Fukushima power station. Overriding my horror is gratitude that my second son has reached Scotland safely, and that when I talked to him on the phone he was surrounded by two generations of family.

That seems to be the way of life in this time and place. Like many others, I have a constant awareness – a kind of backdrop, a cloud over the sun – of the way the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket and no one who has any authority seems to give a toss. Alongside that is a heightened sense of joy at the good and simple things that are mine.

On the recent long weekend, we drove to the northeast to stay with our oldest daughter and her partner in their little patch of paradise outside Beechworth. We slept in their old farm house, walked in the deep bush of the state forest that backs onto their place, swam in the silky water of their dam alongside a brood of new ducklings, visited the outdoor dunny in black nights filled with stars.

The air was pristine; we picked apples off a wild tree behind their house, brewed coffee and sat on the long verandah reading weekend papers full of grief and horror.

There’s not much I can do about this coexisting of deep contentment with despair. I know it’s a privileged problem to have and one that will continue if I am lucky enough to escape searing tragedy myself. My head is full of the grief and brutality of the world, my spirit is oppressed by it. And my heart is happy because today, all the people I love most are happy, and know themselves loved.