Shape Up or Ship Out and Deliver on Time!

I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.Dr. Seuss

The call came just after 7.30am.

‘Hi, this is Adam, from K.… Removals, you’re expecting a delivery today?’
‘Yes, at 12.00.’
‘Can we deliver earlier?’
‘How early?’
‘Within the hour?’
‘Sure that’ll be fine.’
‘Great, see ya soon.’

We were in holiday mode, but this call guaranteed to speed up the juicing of celery and carrot and the cooking of porridge oats! Fortunately, Anne was awake and moved MJ’s car from the driveway and parked it over the road.

This delivery of 10-12 boxes anticipated for some time. Shipped from Canada in July, they’ve been with Australian customs doing a thorough (or slow) job of checking the contents. I’d received a call in October they’d be on their way to Melbourne from customs in Sydney ‘soon’. When pressed the voice on the other end of the phone said, ‘2-3 weeks’. Yesterday they’d rung and arranged deliver for 1.00pm – two days before Christmas.

Murphy’s Law rules!

I offered to store the boxes for D, a family friend until she decides where to resettle after nine years in Canada. There are also two boxes belonging to Anne from her travels. D included them in the shipping. Payment is calculated by space taken up in the  container and a couple of extra boxes didn’t add to the cost. Her kindness meant Anne could keep special paraphernalia collected on her travels and the memories they’d trigger.

The truck duly arrived and I experienced déjà vu…

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The same company employed 30 years ago, when John and I moved from our flat in Prahran to the house here in Mordialloc. That truck smaller. One man – not two, and no slide down ramp, straps or compartments inside the truck to make packing and securing cargo easier. No obligatory fluorescent safety shirt either, but definitely the same company. It had survived the various economic shenanigans of Australia’s economy.

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In October 1984, we booked the truck early (8.00-8.30am), hoping to travel the 20kms to Mordialloc before the heat of the day set in and also to relieve my parents, who had collected the key and opened up our house. Mum promised ‘to put the kettle on’ to welcome us and christen the place, bringing all the necessary accoutrements from Croydon (a 43km drive).

Although retired, Dad and Mum were full-time parents again after my eldest brother’s divorce. My brother built a sleepout (Aussie slang for small bungalow) at the back of their property, but his two boys moved into the house with my parents. Dad took the boys to kindergarten and primary school; his daily routine revolving around their schedules.

The Girl Guide motto of my youth insisted “Be Prepared” and calculating how long it would take to load the truck and travel, my planning and timing worked out to suit Dad and Mum’s parenting obligations.

Ah, the best laid plans…

No mobile phones in those days and we had disconnected the telephone in our flat and didn’t expect the new telephone in the house to be connected until the next day. Mum and Dad were incommunicado! We hoped all would ‘go like clockwork’. I’d prepared over several weeks: boxes packed and labelled, John and I living like gypsies, washing and wearing the same outfits, cooking one dish meals…

9.00am came and went and no sign of our removal van. We kept busy carrying the furniture and boxes down to the nature strip and stacking them near where we assumed the truck would stop. John muttered about me heavy lifting and ‘where the hell’s this truck?’ A neighbour kindly let us use their telephone, but a disinterested voice said, ‘it’s on the way and should be there soon.’

‘It’ was coming from Hawthorn, 6km away, the company chosen for its proximity to Prahran. Maybe the traffic was bad, or an unforeseeable delay occurred, perhaps a breakdown, or an accident. We vacillated between cursing and feeling guilty the truck could be in trouble.

Meanwhile, huffing and puffing up and down several flights of stairs, we wished we lived on the ground floor, although grateful to have attracted half a dozen  neighbours generous enough to help us. I’m sure they felt sorry for John – I had 43 boxes of books – yes even then I was an avid reader, dreaming of being a writer. An incorrigible hoarder of books, I regarded each one a friend and couldn’t cull!

11.00am, hot and exhausted we took to checking nearby streets in case the truck had got lost. On full display for passersby to gawk and shake their heads, our goods and chattels filled cardboard boxes, the contents and destination (kitchen/bedroom/lounge…) marked in black Texta on the side. Suspended in the air between us the unspoken fear – what if the removal van doesn’t show? John glanced at his watch for the hundredth time. The smell of coffee and toast drifted from a little cafe on Greville Street.

‘Mum and Dad will have put the kettle on,’ I said.

‘I’ll make you a cuppa, ‘ said June from the top floor flat as her partner Hans dabbed his brow before turning to John, ‘we need a beer, mate!’

‘I wish,’ said John, ‘but I better see how much of this lot I can put in the car.’ He started separating some of the smaller boxes. ‘We won’t have much time to load up.’

I peered at my watch and did a quick calculation in my head, Dad has to leave at 2pm to be in time for the boys – will we make it?

Our morning began with excitement and anticipation of taking possession of a house we’d bought to build a life together in a place we loved, but the day was souring by the second. Panic worked its way through my digestive system from my squirming stomach. The pulse on John’s right cheek throbbed, a sure sign of building anger and frustration.

I’m not sure whether we heard the truck’s engine, the grating gears, or just the vibration as it rattled around the corner and turned into our street, but at last it arrived, dilapidated and belching exhaust fumes. No websites in those days or Google Earth; we’d relied on the advert in the newspaper and a pamphlet. Pictures that didn’t match what grumbled to a halt.

The driver emerged, mumbled hello, and stared at what was to go into the truck. Oh, if only camera phones had been around! The young man, alone and quite stoned. Long dark hair, unkempt beard and demeanour and crumpled t-shirt advertising how much he loved the 70s! John and I exchanged glances, we were in a sitcom waiting for the next slapstick gag.

The stoner stood immobile. Eyes fixed on our stuff for so long we thought he was trying to load the truck by osmosis.
John said, ’Mate, we have a deadline and you’re nearly three hours late. Haven’t you got a sidekick?’
‘Sorry, but … mumble, mumble… only me today.’
He took a pouch of Old Port tobacco from his pocket. Crammed it back in straight away when we glared our disapproval. A scratch of the head and beard before announcing, ’Okay, we’ll do the boxes of books first.’

Once we got him moving he did know how to pack the truck, but only had two speeds: slow and stop. The loading process so unhurried, we left him to his own devices and took some bare essentials in the car because I feared it would be midnight before he finished the job and we had to get down to Mum and Dad.

Suffice to say, he did finish loading and everything arrived undamaged, but darkness had fallen before he found Mordialloc and as we helped him unload, my prediction on timing very close to the mark!

How the company survived is a mystery… yet 30 years later it appears to be working well, or perhaps not …

‘Mrs Neil?’
‘Yes.’
‘It’s Adam from K….Removals. We’ve found another box on the truck for you. Sorry, our mistake. Can we drop it off later.’
‘Another box? Are you sure?’
‘This is definitely for you.’
‘Okay, I’ll be home this afternoon.’

I stared at the 22 boxes filling the garage, plus a large green wrought iron shelving unit. No one had said anything about furniture. Anne couldn’t remember furniture being shipped, so with a bit of rummaging we discovered several boxes stamped with ‘Laura Ashley shop supplies.’

I rang D at her sister’s home in Mildura.

‘Hi D, your boxes have arrived. How many are there supposed to be? And did you ship over furniture?’
‘Furniture? No. There are 18 average-sized boxes, two of them Anne’s. They’re all numbered.’
‘Right… I’ll be in touch.’

What is going on? The truckies hoped to finish work early, which is why they changed the original delivery time. They’re not going to like my phone call.
‘Hi Adam, this is Mairi Neil from Mordialloc. It’s about the boxes.’
‘We’ll be there shortly…’
‘I’m not hurrying you up… it’s just I’ve checked with my friend and she didn’t ship furniture, or giant boxes. There’s been a stuff up.’
Silence.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. There’s a wrought iron shelving unit that shouldn’t be here, plus several large boxes.’
Silence.
‘I’ll check, but my instructions say they’re for you.’
‘I suppose I could E-bay them, but whoever ordered them may get upset.’
Forced laughter.

The boxes were duly picked up and the stray box delivered. I assume the removalists managed a happy ending to the day. They’d work it out eventually.

The whole episode a metaphor for writing – a good idea to start with, chopping, changing, different perspectives, worry over word count, words in, phrases out, thinking of the reader, different interpretations, setting deadlines, worrying about making them, but managing to do it, is the finished product perfect, does it have to be?

Rewriting, (history or not) embellishments, omissions…  what a difference a day makes Dinah Washington sings. Try 30 years!

Sometimes the more things change the more they stay the same and it’s never too late to write up that story – you know the one you recount to people and they say you should write about it!

Life is full of stories. I look at the first picture of our home and the one snapped this morning – stories in every tree, plant, fence line, and houses on either side. Maybe my next story will be ‘The renovator’s delight (yes, that was the advert we saw in 1984) now a loving comfortable home surprises, disasters and triumphs included!’

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In the Presence of Christmas Past

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One writes out of only one thing—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.” —James Baldwin

Mercurial Melbourne did it again yesterday. As I listened to the wind howl and the rain splatter and felt the temperature plummet, I wondered what happened to the notoriously hot Christmas weather sunny Australia promises? But then, it is Melbourne – four seasons in the one day, and predictable in its unpredictability.

A good time to pause and remember last year when I was somewhere predictable – and cold – very cold! I spent the Christmas with my daughter Anne, into her third year travelling in North America and resident in Toronto for a couple of those years.

On Facebook, I read a message from Tovah and Michael and the photograph of their hanukkiyah in their window holding the candles to celebrate Hanukkah. This photograph lets me time travel to last year.

view from Tovahs window with candles

A Christmas Surprise

I pause at the nearest panoramic window and soak in the first outside view of Pearson Airport, Toronto. Incandescent fixtures gleam with a second skin and neon lights transform mundane utilities into glittering crystal artefacts. A cheap flight enabled this holiday to be with oldest daughter Anne, a back-packer who fell in love with T.dot.

‘Look Mary Jane! Isn’t it beautiful?’ I gush, unable to hide the rising excitement at the prospect of a Christmas not experienced since I was nine-years-old. My family emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1962 and we had to acclimatise to the cultural shock of Christmases ‘Downunder’.

Born in Australia where Christmas is often spent at the beach and a white Christmas only a song until now, my daughter laughs and catches my childish enthusiasm.  Our grinning reflections vindicate the spur of the moment decision to fly to Canada. I click my camera phone and capture a winter scene, albeit a world of workers swathed in fluorescent safety gear attending planes through a shimmering veil of snow.

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A close-knit trio, since the death of husband John when the girls were teenagers, we’d adjusted to the sadness of special days like birthdays, anniversaries and seasonal celebrations, however, into her third year away from home, the last two Christmases without Anne only made bearable by Skype.

The most special gifts don’t involve money and when Mary Jane and I discussed the ubiquitous Christmas List, we agreed with Dr Seuss, Christmas, ‘doesn’t come in a store…(it) means a little bit more.’ In a tone that did the Spice Girls proud, Mary Jane said, ‘What I really really want is for us to be together–-all of us!’

And here we are walking into the widespread arms of Anne wearing a smile as warm as an Aussie Christmas. She clutches two single red roses and a bundle of winter accessories in case we are ill-prepared. With a mock shiver, she explains, ‘It’s the chill factor that makes you freeze.’

The uninhibited joy and unconditional love etched on the faces of the girls, a delicious moment to be stored in my memory bank, along with Anne’s protracted ‘Mum!’ which blocked the cacophony of the airport terminal for the few seconds it took me to exit customs. The bear hug lifted me off my feet.

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From the airport, we catch a bus and two trains to Ossington where Anne shares a house with three young Canadians. The journey seamless, if a little cold, as we adjust to winter’s icy clutches and the face-numbing air. Evidence of Christmas abounds with passengers toting brightly wrapped parcels and bulging bags. The occasional decoration glimpsed as suburbs flash past. When we climb out of the subway at Ossington a silent fall of snow greets us. Anne suggests a taxi, fearing black ice; a treacherous surprise turning pavements into obstacle courses. ‘You left Melbourne 32 hours ago and must be tired!’

We insist on walking. Mary Jane determined to savour her first sojourn in the snow, and I have a wonderful feeling of love and contentment to keep me warm. A wind is absent, but snowflakes swirl and tantalise, falling soft and gently like feathers. Mary Jane tilts her head back, turns her face to the starlit sky, pokes out her tongue and drinks the gifts from Heaven. Our hats, scarves, and coats dusted with icing sugar specks. A magical transformation.

We giggle and twirl, slip and trudge, drag suitcases along the street, Anne confides it is usually empty and dark at night, yet houses twinkle and shine lighting our way. Christmas advertised–more flamboyantly by some–until we reach the house opposite Anne’s. It groans under the weight of bud lighting flashing every colour in the spectrum to make rainbows in the air and on the snow-stained road. We spot Santa and his sleigh, reindeers, candy canes, snowmen, penguins, bells and lanterns, trees and presents; every commercial Christmas motif imaginable.

overdecorated houseschristmas lights galore from the house opp annes

Cannily stepping in footprints carved by others, we cross the road to Anne’s home above a Portuguese bakery; dim and conservative in comparison to brightly lit neighbours. We climb internal wooden stairs, the heat like a blow torch. We don’t need encouragement to strip off protective gear in the tiny hallway. ‘Welcome to Canada,’ Anne jokes, ‘where you allow 20 minutes just to put on and take off all the extra winter layers!’ Housemates appear from their rooms to welcome us and point to a huge sign they’d made declaring themselves: ‘The Neil Appreciation Union’.

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It is almost a week until Christmas Day, but Anne announces a surprise. Her close friends Tovah and Michael have offered their cosy flat to us to spend Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. They’ll be visiting relatives out of town and thought we’d appreciate a ‘home away from home’ to be a family at this special time of year. This practical embodiment of the spirit of Christmas from two strangers becomes the highlight of our Canadian trip.

The few days before Christmas Eve, Mary Jane and I explore Toronto while Anne is at work despite a ‘catastrophic ice storm’ slamming the city, destroying 20% of tree coverage and leaving hundreds of thousands without power. Fortunately, Ossington is relatively untouched, but as subzero temperatures and wind chill announcements dominate nightly News, I wake each morning to the drip of ice melting and pooling on the windowsills in Anne’s tiny room. I miss the raucous sound of Australian birdsong: magpies carolling, the wattlebirds harsh chok-choks, and Australian ravens cawing as colourful rosellas swoop and squeal.

However, the winter hush has its own charm and I have my two daughters close. Grey squirrels cavort among tree branches stark and dead beneath winter’s cloak, and on our walks home in the evening tree branches turn majestically silver with coruscating stars and pale moonlight highlighting their breathtaking beauty.

ghostly tree branch and snow

Christmas card scenes are everywhere, icicles suspended from eaves and gutters, rooftops and gardens caked with snow while brown and withered foliage peep from pristine white coats. Coated with frost, hardy plants still live although their crystallised leaves snap if touched. Squeals and laughter infectious as families toboggan and slide in nearby parks, and cute dogs wearing booties chase frisbees and balls.

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Tovah and Michael’s apartment has double glazing and power.They leave a message on their kitchen whiteboard after Googling Aussie slang. Any feelings of being in a strange land dissolve with our laughter:

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Good arvo and Merry Chrissie cobbers!
Open some prezzies and drink some amber fluid.
There is a Maccas within cooee and a bottle-o a few doors down!
Eat a lot of lollies and have many grogs,
hopefully not to be followed by a liquid laugh? Or technicolour yawn (what!?)
Yabber on ladies…

On Christmas morning as dawn penetrates the blanket of light grey cloud, I stand by the window and watch snowflakes flutter to the ground. Within moments, already partly covered bicycles and parked cars are submerged and roads and paths disappear as if a gigantic can of white paint has spilt. Street lamps glow orange, the world is silent and still. I have a lightness of being.

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Gentle snores from Anne and Mary Jane mingle with the poetry from countless carols playing in my head and memories of Christmases past. The age-old Christmas messages of joy, peace and love my reality this wonderful Canadian Christmas.

Canadian Christmas Haiku

Mairi Neil

Leaden cloud, blankets
sleeping expectant city.
Christmas snow surprise

Snowflakes caught in flight
silent flurries, dancing fluff
Christmas Day memory.

Patch of blue sky winks.
Memories stirred of home
and hot Aussie sun.

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