“Let us dance in the sun, wearing wild flowers in our hair…”
Susan Polis Schutz
Today, it will be 36ºC – another scorcher in a mercurial Melbourne giving us a summer of weather surprises. On the other hand, it may only reach 34º, depending on what forecast you believe, and the rest of the week will be a wonderful 23º. If that is the case, I may feel like dancing, but the last time I wore wild flowers in my hair was the 70s at university inspired by Scott Mckenzie’s instant hit, ‘If You’re Going to San Francisco‘. When I revisited San Francisco three years ago I didn’t really have enough hair to weave flowers through and I was grateful the weather was not too hot.
I’ve always preferred winter and cooler days to hot summers and have decided anything over 30ºC must be suffered rather than embraced. You can pile on clothes to get warmer, but once you’ve stripped to your skin, what else can you do to keep cool? Perhaps lie in front of a fan or beneath an air conditioner, or immerse in a cold bath or shower, but these options may not be available, plus as I get older stripping off and diving into a pool or the sea to cool, appeals less than years gone by. I certainly can’t imagine skinny dipping as I did in teenage years – the world, nor me, quite ready for that image, especially since a mastectomy took a breast and a slice of self-esteem! Modesty the go now, although not quite like days gone by.
Strange as it may seem, considering the reputation of Scottish weather, my first conscious memory of the effects of a hot day is from my childhood in Scotland. My Dad loved repeating the old joke, ‘I remember the summer it was a Thursday,’ because hot Scottish summers are rare. However, they do happen and because of climate change, more frequently than usual. Unlike Australia’s current Prime Minister, the Scottish Government is not in denial.
The year I was born, 1953, temperatures were higher than average and people talked about an Indian summer. My Mother remembered it as being long and hot. Since I was born in August, the last few weeks of her pregnancy must have been uncomfortable, which may explain why I didn’t waste much time coming into the world, producing the family record for the fastest birth. At 8.45pm Mum decided it was time and climbed the stairs to her bedroom with the midwife. At 9.05pm I entered the world!
However, the hot day stuck in my psyche occurred when I was five years old. Mum, pregnant with child number six had an appointment ‘in the town’ and I was left to play with best friend, Jean, in her garden next door. Mrs Robinson came out with a sandwich for our lunch and as children often do, we ignored her call to eat because we were too engrossed in play. When we turned our attention to food, the bread had curled at the corners, the margarine and mashed banana tasted sour and the accompanying glass of lemonade, warm and unpleasant. Jean pestered her mother for another sandwich, but I had Mum’s voice in a loop in my head lecturing me to eat what was given and to be on my best behaviour. I ate the sandwich.
That night, as I vomited, I learned that food goes off quickly in the heat, and in future to trust my sense of smell and taste rather than an inculcated mantra of ‘waste not want not’. I developed a scunner (a good Scots word meaning disgust and dislike) for bananas and never ate another one for 30 years. To this day I rarely drink lemonade unless it transforms into ‘lemon, lime and bitters’.
The avoidance of bananas an awkward decision because it was the one fruit plentiful in our neighbourhood, courtesy of Dad. A locomotive driver, he brought huge bunches home for free when the banana boats were unloaded from the West Indies. Green bananas ripened in the airing cupboard and others distributed to neighbours. Our community shared bounty. Most people, like my parents, tried to honour their Christian beliefs, as well as continuing habits of wartime – making do and sharing what you have, especially essentials like food.
This was 1950s Scotland, food rationing only ending July 1954. No one in our working class neighbourhood owned a refrigerator. Lifestyle and weather didn’t warrant a fridge; people bought perishables daily from the various vans that cruised the housing scheme selling meat, vegetables, groceries and household goods. Most families lived from week to week on meagre pay received each Friday. Daily budgets strictly adhered to if you wanted to remain debt free from the ‘never-never man’ offering all sorts of post war delights on hire purchase.
In Australia, I learnt another lesson about the effect of heat on food, this time with milk. In the 1960s small cartons of milk (1/3 of a pint) were delivered to primary schools to be freely distributed at morning playtime. An initiative taken up by schools in the UK, NZ and Australia to improve the health of children. The crates piled high with cartons often sat in the sun at the school door, or just inside in a corner of the corridor. Milk sours rapidly in summer heat. I developed severe migraines and nausea, and only a letter from my mother exempted me from the morning ritual deemed compulsory ‘for your own good’. I stopped drinking the milk at school and Mum had a battle to get me to drink it at home. This stubbornness must have given Mum, an ex-nurse, schooled in the importance of calcium for growing bones, a headache! I still dislike milk unless it is refrigerator-cold and for years it was consumed under sufferance disguised in puddings and flavoured drinks. I can relate to this picture on Google where the schoolgirl looks far from impressed!
Summer also brings sunburn and heat rashes. The Australian sun unkind to those sporting a Celtic pelt. Despite Mum’s carefulness and encouragement for us to cover up, there were days when we played under the sprinklers on the lawn oblivious to the sun’s harmful rays. No water restrictions in the 60s and 70s in Melbourne and no Anti-Cancer Council, ‘slip slop slap’ campaign.
Cold tea or vinegar solution eased the pain of scorched skin and blistered shoulders, but after the throbbing and discomfort the itchy irritation when dead skin peeled and flaked. All that pain and not even a decent suntan. When I became a teenager self-inflicted injury continued; fashion dictated ‘itsy-bitsy’ bikinis and lubricating the skin with Johnson’s Baby Oil before lying on a Lilo or towel thrown on the grass. I cooked like the Sunday roast. Vanity (or on reflection stupidity) thy name is woman! At least in this pre-teen photograph I’m wearing a hat!
Sleep always elusive on hot nights in those early days. The old house we rented for the first five years had no fly-screens. Claustrophobic mosquito nets blocked the inadequate breeze from open windows, and the persistent buzzing of mozzies angry at the foiling of their bloodthirsty mission, just another element to keep us awake. No air conditioning, or even ceiling fans in the house until we moved into the new home my parents built, and then it was the 70s before we could afford to have an air conditioner installed in the window of my parents’ bedroom. Dad, a shift worker and our main breadwinner, needed a decent night (or day’s) sleep especially when most of his jobs involved controlling machinery or on road driving. I have memories of us all squeezing into that room to eat dinner on trays, study or chat in comfort when the rest of the house felt like a kiln.
Most people in Australia will have memories of sleepless nights and uncomfortable days coping with heatwaves, yet unlike our Mediterranean cousins and parts of Asia there are no siestas. I’ve often wondered why. Too strong an attachment to ways imported from Mother England, stiff British upper lip? That certainly seemed the case at school when uniform was strictly enforced until the temperature reached 99ºF and an announcement over the tannoy said, ‘boys may remove their ties.’ When the thermometer climbed to the magic 100º F those with a parent or responsible adult at home could leave school early, the others released into the playground to squirt water at each other from outside taps and dream of being home to play with water pistols, drop ice cubes down each other’s shirts, or go for a swim at Croydon Memorial Swimming Pool.
My first summer in Australia a definite culture shock in more ways than one. We left the fog and snow of a British winter, arrived here in December 1962, and didn’t see substantial rain until February ‘63. When it arrived in a thunderstorm we danced like American Indians, holding hands and whooping in Disney style as the clouds burst and rain splattered in huge drops, to be absorbed into the parched earth almost immediately. Our light cotton clothes soaked, but dried quickly in the steamy heat. The relief from the drought palpable with Dad and Mum giggling and jiggling too, as we sang ‘ring-a-ring o’ roses’, splashed in rapidly dissolving puddles, and laughed at each other’s plastered hair.
‘What would the folk back home think if they could see us now?’ said Mum.
‘That we’ve gone troppo,’ Dad replied with a grin.
How true, considering ‘back home’ was Greenock, the place with the reputation of having the highest rainfall in the UK prompting other Scots to joke, ‘if you’re born in Greenock, you’re born with webbed feet.’
Today, I sit at my computer with a ceiling fan ruffling my hair. Outside there is a slight sea breeze, but leaves still curl and flowers droop from the relentless heat of the sun. The magpies‘ trill muted, the noisy miners silent. Thank goodness no gusty hot north wind adds to the discomfort. Two cabbage white butterflies flit to and from in the garden and for a moment I forget about the weather and watch their dance in the sun.
It’s too hot –– breathing an effort.
Yet you flitter and flutter
with energy to spare.
Like pretty scraps of paper
buffeted by the hot north wind.
From flower to flower you dance
dainty feet tripping from
geraniums, to agapanthus, to rosemary…
Iced water soothes parched lips,
I find relief and feel better
with minimum effort
as you flitter and flutter,
quenching your thirst,
supping nectar or water,
with a drinking straw
provided by Mother Nature
This interminable summer and
global warming’s topsy-turvy world
has you searching for peace
to lay your eggs,
propagation your solace.
Diligently seeking perfection
or frantically rushing to fulfil
Mother Nature’s timetable.
The computer screen demands words
a deadline squeezing joy
from a task begun with passion.
Time more your enemy
you have a week, or months – if lucky.
Oh, little butterfly
do you ever flitter and flutter
just for pleasure?
Your cousins in America
exotic and colourful Monarchs
travel 2000 miles
from California to Mexico
to breed and stay alive.
The timeline of their migration
now dead lines as farming and
pesticides exact a toll.
You, a reliable commoner,
flitter and flutter in pale anonymity
yet brighten my day.
My fingers flitter and words flutter
Capturing thoughts – as you capture –
I wish I had an answer and your energy,
Breathing an effort –– it’s too hot!