Quite soon after Mum and Dad had split up Dad took me on a trip down south the visit some old family friends – Pat and Frank. They had become friends (I think) when we lived in Albury – a lifetime earlier when Mum and Dad built their own home and after waiting six and then eight years got my brother and I. When Dad and I visited they had moved to a property just out of Albury with deep valleys and lots of boulders. It was windblown, bitterly cold and desolate. They had built a house that had the most impressive open fire and this nobbly carpet I am still determined to have in my own house one day.
Their kids were older and had moved out but they had an old caravan just near the house which was where one of their sons would stay when he came to visit. I remember catching yabbies with Dad, cooking them and being shocked at just how little ‘meat’ you got for all the effort catching them. We went rabbit shooting and I got to shoot a rifle which made my shoulder sting for hours afterwards. I watched as dad skinned rabbits and was neither repulsed or impressed. Yeah, it was a weird trip.
What I remember most was hanging out in the caravan for hours on end where there was a video player and this cool Sharp tele, just like this one:
And what was I watching? Every single episode of Fawlty Towers (you know there’s only 12 right?) over and over and Minder. Yep, Minder. This was quite an education in comedy and the UK criminal underworld but comedy mainly (obviously). My life is still so heavily referenced by Manuel, Basil, Sybil and Polly. I can still sing the Minder theme even though I have never watched it since.
While sitting in that caravan watching Basil yell at Manuel while Sybil yelled at Basil feels like a 100 years ago the company who made the tele I was watching it on really is 100 years old this year. It started with a metalworking factory in Tokyo in 1912, making a belt buckle. Then came a mechanical “Ever-Sharp” pencil and then, Japan’s first crystal radio. And that was just in the first 12 years.
One of the ways Sharp is marking its 100 Year milestone is its Share campaign. Load up an image or video of something memorable (as opposed to the dull and forgettable) to its Share website and be in the running for one of two (because winning both would be silly) a trip for two to the West Coast of the US or heaps of Sharp products.
I used to catch the 7:10 bus. There was no need to get this obscenely early bus to school when we only lived one suburb and train ride away but it was a habit I got in to early and one that stayed for the entirety of high school.
The bus driver’s name was Les but every one called him Harry, as in Harry Butler. In the Wild. Of course you never said this to his face, that would cause such instant rage in him that he’d kick you off the bus. And possibly give you a shove with his boot, just to help you down the stairs.
There was three of us who religiously caught that bus. Me, Alexis and the younger of the two Buddy brothers. You can totally see where this is heading can’t you. Alexis went to the same school as me but was a couple of years ahead of me. She was a complete brainiac who was quite the left wing feminist. She was scary and funny and while she lived just a few blocks away, when she finished school we never saw each other again. Just like that.
Buddy Brother the Younger was my high school crush. Yep. Just him. The whole time. He lived even closer to me than Alexis – probably about six houses down the street so we got on at the same stop. It took four years to work through the stages of secret glances, to staring longingly at the back of his head to smiling at each other to, breathe, saying hello.
He had blonde hair and every Friday wore his Army Cadets uniform. He was also in the pipe band so you could, on weekends, hear bagpipes drifting on the air down the street.
For reasons I do not know one day we said hi AT THE BUS STOP (as opposed to once on the bus) and then, THEN, sat in seats next to each other and SPOKE.TO.EACH.OTHER., not just on the bus but onto the station AND onto the train.
OH my stomach was in knots and all a flutter all at the same time. I walked from the station down to school with a big goofy grin on my face. He spoke to me! We laughed! He likes me.
And then I went to the bathroom. As I washed my hands I looked up into the mirror, goofy smiling all the way.
And there it was.
A white ring of Amway Glister toothpaste around my mouth. The whole way. Some sort of perverse albino minstrel act. My reaction was one you can only expect from a 15 year old girl, vomit and tears.
I never really spoke to him again, not like that day.
I adored my primary school, a little local suburban number I would walk to and from each day. I had my best friend Belinda who was outrageously beautiful and otherwise just ran with the pack. Apart from my nameless kindy teacher, I remember all my teachers: Mrs Rafferty, Mrs Bramhall, Mrs Miller and Mr Eagleton.
My entry to school was marked by massive panic that I couldn’t write my name. When i recounted this to mum recently she was agog, AGOG, telling me I was writing sentences by the time I got to school. Of course I was. Probably reading Enid Blyton on my own too.
There was one standout incident for me in this year in which David Stockler took my pencil sharpener and would not return it despite my many requests. I kept putting my hand up and calling the teacher’s name, to which she would reply ‘in a minute’ or ‘when I’ve finished helping __’ and so on. Eventually I’d had a gutful so stood up ON my desk, stamped my foot and declared in a loud clear voice, also known as yelling, ‘David Stockler has my pencil sharpener and I want it back NOW.’ As the oxygen drained from the room I turned to see an ominous figure filling the door frame and casting a long shadow, the Principal of the entire school, Mr Chapman.
I was promptly taken outside and given a talking to by this imposing figure, the contents of which I have absolutely no recollection except being acutely aware of his eyebrows. Like tentacles sprouting from his forehead, they were simultaneously terrifying and mesmerising.
In 1st grade it was Mrs Rafftery, a young waif of a thing I was besotted with. She had this hairdo that I admired so much I tried to replicate it at my June Daly-Watkins debacle. It was a bum part, then straight and then, dear GOD, curly (permed perhaps?) at the ends. In hindsight perhaps the poor woman was just growing out a bad idea.
That was the year David Stockler and I got in trouble for talking during a test and that I had to take home the cuisanaire rods because my mathematical ineptitude was already quite evident. I remember being so embarrassed about this I tried to sneak them into my bag before anyone could see, only to drop them on the verandah and watch them go sailing down between the cracks in the floorboards to the dirt below.
This all happened just as the twins (David and Michael I think) were returning from an appointment with the eye doctor. Michael was wearing glasses which, in 1979, was the schoolyard equivalent to a duck wearing a target during hunting season. You could see he was miserable. In a bid to avoid the classroom and thereby hold off the FOUR-EYES taunts for just a bit longer he went under the building with me to collect up all those rotten rods.
The following year I had Mrs Bramhall who had taught my brother two years earlier. She announced this and her love for my brother (“such a good boy”) on my first day and promptly told me she was going to call me Kimberly. I pointed out to her that Kimberly was not my name, a fact she disputed for some time. She viewed me with great suspicion, that if my brother had been the good one then I had to be the bad, but a relentless campaign of flowers from our garden eventually won her over. That was the year I got a boil on my knee, a scar I still bear.
I cheated in a spelling test because I knew Saturday was not spelt with an “er” but for the life of me couldn’t think of what did go in that space. I “accidentally” dropped my pencil and on picking it up looked over Belinda’s shoulder and copied. OH the chagrin. It was also the year we made White Christmas (was there anything better than the last few weeks of school when it was all Christmas craft and carols?) and I got to stir the bowl more than anyone else because I did it properly. I remember how upset Belinda was about this and how tickled I was by it.
Mrs Miller was a complete trip in Year 3. An old school (read: elderly) teacher who would make us do maths and English tests every Friday afternoon while she sat at her desk with a small transistor radio playing the races. Isn’t it funny, that’s about all I remember of her. The Osti dresses, the hot curler set hairdo and that’s about it. I was going to say she was very quietly spoken but then thought, no she was quite fierce so perhaps she was a yeller? Again, the memory denies.
And then there was Mr Eagleton. I remember the first day of school in 1982 and how he was standing up on the verandah next to our Principal Mr Chapman, he of the incredible eyebrows.
This great murmur was running through all of the students gathered on the hot asphalt to find out their class for the year. Who was this new teacher? OH the excitement! He was as tall as a lamppost with a sandy brown beard and blue eyes. And as it transpired he was my 4th grade teacher.
Fourth grade was an interesting year. The realisation that I wanted to be a writer, that Christopher ___ really did have anger management issues, that Andrew ___ really was an annoying little git and that Alison ___ was a show pony with a show mother to boot. It was also the year I consciously wet my pants because seriously, I wanted the free undies you got from the school nurse. What I got was a pair of scratchy ill-fitting gender neutral undies which were grossly uncomfortable. Lesson learnt.
Mr Eagleton was an absolute force. He had come from a country school in Nyngan, a town which had just experienced the worst flooding in its recorded history. We thought that was fabulously romantic. He announced that now we were in 4th grade we could write with pens rather than pencils except me. I had broken my right arm roller skating during the summer holidays and I was not allowed to use a pen until it was heeled. I was enraged at this gross injustice as quite frankly, my left handed writing was really quite neat. Still, wait I did. Once cast-free my love of the kilometrico knew no bounds.
He announced that we were not children anymore and therefore Charlie would now be called Charles and Jamie James. Charlie was pretty naughty and I recall Mr Eagleton picking him up by his ears on one occasion. God knows how many times that poor kid got the cane. Ahh, the good old days of public education.
It was the era of the assignment which involved sheets of art paper (you know the stuff, rough on one side, shiny on the other) sticky-taped together and then concertinaed. If you owned The Lettering Book, only available through Book Club, you were SORTED. Those assignments were all written solely off information learnt from National Geographic and out of encyclopaedias. Talk about the age of innocence.
And then it came to an end. Fifth grade was a year when many of us moved to one of the private schools in the area and I was one of them. It was on our last day that James cornered me in the wet area off our classroom and declared his love for me. I was incredulous. He loved ME? Oh my. But then I was cranky. WHY leave it to now, why not tell me MONTHS ago? Now, now it was too late. Heart, officially broken.
The house where I grew up was a big old federation number on the stereotypical quarter acre block synonymous with Sydney’s north shore. The bricks were a deep purply-brown colour and in summer my fingers would tingle with their radiated warmth as I ran my hand along them down the side path. Out the front there were three big arched windows which I always thought were just like the one on Play School and how cool it was, that we had the arched windows from Play School at our house.
My mum was a die-hard gardener back then, her days and our weekends filled with weeding and planting. She would spend hours weeding the garden, hunched over the mulchy soil pulling out onion weed and other plants not meant to be wherever they were. She taught me how to pull out onion weed, ‘a curse,’ she’d mutter, reiterating how important it was to get all the bulbs on the ends and how if you didn’t, ‘you’ll be trying to get rid of them for years’. I still get a little rush of panic if I spy an onion weed in the backyard.
The front yard was a show pony of a garden, resplendent in snap dragons and pansies, petunias and any other bright colourful annual you can imagine. We planted a stand of silver birches, three of them, in the lawn, just near the steps up to the front door. My GOD I loved those trees, the white brilliance of their trunks, the precariously thin line of the branches and those delicate leaves that caught even the slightest of breeze. We planted a silver birch in the back corner of where we live now and it was my favourite corner of the garden, until a possum stripped it of every single leaf. I wept for that poor tree the day I discovered it. Still do.
Under the arched windows were massive hydrangeas, to this day my favourite flower. From recollection they had blue and white flowers and every year they would sing in the grandest chorus of all, their big floppy heads of flowers, those deepest of green leaves. I remember mum used to pick me one or two along with some other pretty flowers, wrap them in some wet tissues and a layer of foil and send me off to school with them for my teacher. I loved taking flowers for my teachers. They would respond with such happiness, pop them into one of the empty jars we’d normally use for water when we were painting and there they’d sit for the week. Proud as punch I’d be.
The back garden was a bit different. There was a grand gum tree in which Dad had constructed a tree house for my brother. Funny how I never thought of it as my tree house. It was a fair way up and only accessible by a rope ladder. Not really my scene. But I remember when it had to come down to make way for the pool and me being distraught at its removal.
There were two ancient orange trees side by side – one navel one valencia just near the clothesline. I love how citrus trees seem so anchored to the earth. Those trees were probably at least 30 or 40 years old and the fruit we got from them plentiful. And there they stood, with little fanfare or fuss.
In the back corner was the garden shed, a wee rectangle of a room with a funny little window. It had this smell of lawnmower and grime and was not my favourite place due to the prevalence of spiders BUT, it was deep up against the back fence and up in the same spot was a massive mulberry tree whose branches spread across and over the four properties which met at the fencepost. We would climb up that tree, sit in the branches and GORGE ourselves on mulberries. GORGE. Woe-betide you stepping onto the shed roof because somehow Dad, no matter where he was in the house or out the front, he’d know the minute you stood on it and roar at you accordingly. So we’d perch in the branches or on the fence and feast until fingers and faces were stained the deepest of hues.
But it was a little garden bed down near the back of the house which stole my heart. Mum had created a garden bed that meandered out from the fence into a big bulbous bed before flowing back towards the fence. I have no recollection of what was in this garden except for a large azalea bush and a camellia. It was in behind and under these two trees that I had my little hidey hole, my secret cave. I would crawl in there, pat down the earth and create a whole new world of fairies and little people and lose myself for hours. I used an old baby blanket as my rug. It was the softest cloth, as only worn and loved flannel can be, and the palest of blues, faded after much washing no doubt and dotted all over with little puppy dogs and piles of alphabet blocks. Various dolls would join me depending on that day’s adventures.
I remember when the seasons changed and it would be too cold and damp for me to hide in my cave and the joy at rediscovering it when the warmer months returned. The year I tried to crawl back into my neglected world and no longer fitted was a jarring realisation of growing up. I backed out, branches scratching my arms as I went, and rested back on my haunches to say a quiet farewell.
When I was little, seven or eight, or so, and getting ready for bed I would pile all my soft toys onto my bed, panicking if anyone was left out.
I had a bedspread covered in tiny pale blue and turquoise roses with dark blue highlights and delicate leaves of the palest green. It had a frill around the edge with turquoise polka dots and bouquets of the roses dotted here and there. There was a matching valance, a pillow in the shape of a love heart and a tablecloth for my round bedside table.
Each night I would arrange all my stuffed animals on my bed. My big orange dog with a red and black cap on its head being in charge of them all. I’d had that dog since we lived in America when I was very small and Mum would tell me how I’d sit on him and implore him to ‘GIDDYUP!’. His back was well worn, threadbare even and a small hole was starting to open up. I could pull roughly cut cubes of foam from his belly if I so wanted, but would be wracked with grief and guilt at hurting him that I would quickly shove them back in, running my hand over the hole so as to pretend it wasn’t there and he was going to be alright.
I had a pink elephant, Ellie, that I had seen instantly in a sea of soft toys at our school fete and begged Mum to buy for me. She had chuckled and looked at me with that face mothers get and said, ‘but you’re too old for stuffed toys.’ She bought it for me all the same. I had dressed her in a pink tutu I had worn years earlier during my ill-fated and short-lived foray into the world of dance. I adored her. Her eyes had always said to me, ‘I understand’.
There were myriad other creatures that I have long since forgotten, but I remember them covering the bottom third of my bed and then about the same along the wall up to my pillow, leaving me a slither of bed to lie in for the night.
Pride of place went to Ted, my one-eyed teddy bear that I had since birth. He was one-eyed because during one particularly violent tantrum (of which I was renown) I had pulled his eye out of his head. I have recollections of when I did that but no idea my age. I remember the feeling of just how hard it was to pull it out, the stinging in my fingers as the metal loop behind the glass eye dug in while the string holding it in place refused to give and finally the “puh” as it did. And then the pain in my heart at what I had done. Mum never sewed his eye back on.
I was convinced that come midnight all the toys in my room would come to life and for tea parties and dancing and to stroke my hair while I slept. Every night I would will myself to wake up and see it for myself but I never did.
Then morning would come and my bedfellows would be strewn across the floor, clear evidence of their penchant for wild parties and that yet again I had missed it. Sometimes Ted would be on the floor and I would panic that he’d been cold, left out or unable to climb back up once the dancing was done. I’d scoop him up, give him a cuddle one last time before the day truly began and place him gently on my pillow.