Holiday Games Banishing Stress With a Toolbox of Fun

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I love this picture of husband, John with daughter, Anne. In 1986, he may have been the Secretary of one of the largest and most powerful trade unions in Australia but he was also a new father, albeit second time round.

And the second time round he had his priorities right. Whenever he came home, or if I met him after work, he switched off, and lived in the moment – moments of love and joy, concentrating on family and where and how we fitted into the big picture of Life.

This week is the anniversary of John’s death and as usual reflection and memories of our time together are more intense but I’m always grateful for the many gifts John left me. The most important of course being our two beautiful daughters, but also his wisdom about taking the time to value what is really important in life:

  • the respect and love of those you hold dear,
  • the difference you make in their lives,
  • and the legacy you leave for them.

Begone Stress!

“I find it makes life a lot easier if you just forget a lot of stuff you’re supposed to be doing.”

JK Rowling

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We never took advantage of the perk of having our home telephone paid even although many times calls were work-related. We chose to have a silent number, more expensive but unlisted in the telephone directory. This helped to separate home and work, especially random calls from the media, plus abusive calls and death threats – although unfortunately some of the latter got through.

It wasn’t a perfect system but a thousand times better than today’s mobile world where everyone is urged to be contactable regardless of where they are – the flexibility to work marketed as a plus, feeding the idea that we are indispensable and therefore don’t switch off. Add the 24-hour news cycle and social media platforms like FB and Twitter and in some cases, it is a perfect storm for anxiety and overwork.  

I dread to think how different some of the tough periods we experienced could have been in today’s world. It is a brave person who puts their hand up for a job requiring time in the public eye.

A child pretending to talk into a phone has become children as young as pre-schoolers actually having a proliferation of digital tools for entertainment, including computers, game consoles, phones, and iPads. 

Childhood a different experience than when my daughters were young. I’m not sure if many modern children learn how to switch off or disconnect. This may be a contributing factor to the high rates of anxiety and depression we hear about.

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I must factor in a proper break – I know a failure to do this has consequences – my body tells me that in no uncertain terms. In the last few weeks, I’ve experienced the extreme effects of a bout of labyrinthitis – not the ideal way to slow down but the illness leave you no option.

Holiday Games

In my healthy world, there are lots of books to read and word and writing games to help me slow down and relax, as well as a variety of craft which I enjoy.

I have a Scrabble buddy, Helen, and the girls and I enjoy board games like Cluedo (we have various boutique variations) but my all-time favourite is Sequence ( a combination of cards and poker chips). I also love crossword puzzles and now use these as a preferred way of switching my mind off to drift into sleep.

By the time term ends, I figure everyone is looking to wind down and have some fun so I step out of the normal lesson structure and encourage free-fall writing and see what eventuates.

America has produced innovative writing teachers along with amazing writers. We may bemoan the changes they have made to English spelling and grammar but there is no denying they have also enriched the English language and culture. The best writing games I have come from the USA.

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I have several games I’ve bought online but also a couple that I’ve discovered in Melbourne shops. Serendipitous finds that I share with my writing group or classes.

Memories of Mordialloc Writer’s Group’s traditional Christmas get-together before the summer break still makes me chuckle as I recall the weird, whacky and wonderful stories produced.

In many of my end of term classes, it is the same.

Outrageous first lines, off-the-planet characters, ridiculous plots, absurd settings – a toss of the dice or a random choice that forces you out of your comfort zone. Pushes you in directions not attempted before.

Permission to be fanciful, funny, and free of being politically correct, or following accepted structures and expectations.

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Amazingly, a gem may be produced, an idea salvaged to be usable or a memorable entertaining story to remind us how wonderful manipulating words can be.

We’ve been told often enough there are only seven basic plots, seven archetypal themes recurring through every kind of storytelling whether ancient myths, folk tales, plays, short stories, novels, movies or TV soap operas:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

We also know the hero has a thousand faces and we must always be at war against cliché!

However, for a few minutes, in my last classes for the term, we race against time, let all the rules and tools of crafting fiction we’ve absorbed loose, and have some fun – stereotypes and clichés abound or may disappear.

Mid 19th century: French, past participle (used as a noun) of clichér ‘to stereotype’.

They are very similar. A stereotype is a generalization, it’s usually considered negative, and is oversimplified. Oxford uses “the woman as the carer” as their example of a stereotype. Not all women are “carers” so it is a stereotype. A cliché is any word, phrase, situation, or idea that has become so popular it is tired and overused. It can be a stereotype, but it can also be a fact. Popular phrases can be cliché, a stereotype can be a cliché or even common things in poetry can become a cliché, like the very overused “babbling brook” “pouring rain” or “everlasting love.”

Lizzy

The Writer’s Toolbox

This term, we used The Writer’s Toolbox, a game I picked up in Readings, St Kilda, for a mere $14.95 last September. A bargain I’m still crowing about.

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A box of fun guaranteed to banish stress and clear writer’s block – and to paraphrase Star Trek – your imagination travels where you’ve never been before!

We didn’t have time to use the game to its full extent because lessons are finite but I cherry-picked parts so we had the opportunity to share everyone’s delightful masterpieces.

We also bent the rules – some managed to use every prompt they were given, others used some and others altered their lines or words to suit their story. That’s what is wonderful about writing games – the only rules are imagination and that moving pen!

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I’ve listed my prompts and the bizarre flash fiction result follows.

First sentence: (To start with a surprise) My brother did this weird thing with turtles…

NonSequitur: (a surprising transition) … that weekend in Duluth

The Last Straw: (to create a dramatic arc) … “We were drinking champagne and losing our shirts.”

Three Sixth-Sense cards: (reminders to include the senses)  fresh floor wax; the toenails of the yoga girl; the smell of Susie’s leftovers

 FLASH FICTION IN 30 MINUTES

Fijian Fantasy by Mairi Neil (590 words)

My brother did this weird thing with turtles when he was drinking. I’m not talking tea or coffee, of course, but the hard stuff. Straight whisky – shots Jack called them.

After a few shots, he’d balance the turtle on his head, sway forwards so the turtle slid down his neck, disappeared into his ghastly, fluorescent shirt, and I don’t know how, because they’re the slowest creatures I know, but the darn thing popped out the front of his shirt the minute he straightened up – much to the surprise and applause of the audience.

Jack wasn’t on a stage, of course, but in a bar. Any bar, makeshift or otherwise. One of many found in the Fijian Islands where he’s lived for the past eighteen years. Needless to say, his audiences all mad or as drunk as him. It wasn’t the life our conservative parents envisaged and they clung to a belief Jack would, as father often said, ‘grow up and get a real job.’

But tropical sunsets and island life suits Jack and he can sing too. He’s made a precarious living entertaining the tourists with his weird turtle act and Frank Sinatra voice – until that weekend in Duluth.

Duluth, outback Australia, the most boring place on earth, but where my parents decided to retire and request brother Jack and I turn up for their 50th wedding anniversary celebration.

When Jack received the invitation, he said it was more of a royal command and spoiled the promise of the best relationship of his life. ‘We’re drinking champagne and losing our shirts,’ he boasted. ‘Susie’s teaching me yoga and my body’s discovering positions I never knew possible.’

‘Too much information, Jack!’ I said, ‘And you have to be here. Now get on a plane with shirt, minus turtle and be in Duluth by Tuesday.’

He never showed.

The oldies were devastated and I was despatched to Fiji to check Jack was okay. He’d fallen off the radar since our last conversation.

I arrived at his house, well shack really. (The smell of Susie’s leftovers still cling to my nostrils.) Jack told me she had a penchant for kippers and hash browns. Neither were clean freaks because the place looked like the aftermath of a hand grenade explosion. I doubt if Jack could find a shirt for turtle act or anything else among the piles of gaudy floral clothes. By the smell, they may even have taken root.

I discovered toenails of the yoga girl strewn like red confetti on the bathroom floor. I assume they were hers unless Jack kept more secrets from the oldies. My blood pressure rose along with my temper but as I turned to leave, I spied a scrap of rainbow-coloured paper fluttering on the fridge door.
When you’re ready to leave turtles and shots meet me at Hotel Marau

On arrival, at the swankiest hotel on the island, you’re assaulted by fresh floor wax, sparkling mirrors, polished mahogany tables, and an ambiance of soft piano music, tinkling water fountains and slippered feet gliding on parquet tiles.

Jack’s dirty shambles existed on a different planet so I almost fainted to see him on stage, his dinner-suited elegance crooning a la Frank Sinatra.

A glamorous woman, oozing chiffon and bling, sat at the front table enthralled, red fingernails tapping a martini glass. Susie, the yoga girl?

A wedding ring glittered on her finger matching the one on Jack’s hand clutching the mic.
Duluth may not be amused but at least no turtles or shots in sight.

YOUR TURN NOW:

Here are a few examples of some of the First Line prompts. Find a quiet spot and see what your imagination produces.

Your Mother lied to you, that’s the truth!

I have this system for getting exactly what I want out of people.

Dad gave me a wink like we were pals or something…

I loved the way she said ‘balloon’…

He swore on his mother’s grave but then he swore on just about everything.

There I was just standing there…

My only defence was to write down every word they said…

 

Happy Holidays!

 

 

Escapism Via Flash Fiction

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After class, today, chatting with one of my students who is a fairly new immigrant from Turkey, we shared how the sadness in the world saps our creativity.

Understandably, she is worried about her family and friends after the recent events in Turkey and with family and friends in the UK, USA, and Europe I too seem to be in a constant state of worry – as well as being concerned for my Turkish student and other Turkish friends!

It is too easy to tune into ABC24 and the plethora of social media news, too easy to become addicted or obsessed about hearing the latest updates, too easy to be stressed, too easy to focus on anything but writing!

I tend to be a worrier but also highly sensitive to other people’s woes – compassion a core family value, along with a sense of social responsibility and community.

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My writing can be therapy and escapism, as well as a way to try and make sense or understand the indefensible, irrational and the unfathomable aspects of human nature and behaviour. I don’t keep a journal but often scribble my feelings into notebooks or fashion a poem or short piece of prose.

Times of emotional trauma or physical upheaval make it difficult to concentrate and when local or global tragedies occur, focus on substantial creative projects wanes, or is lost completely.

Thank goodness for writing classes!

Regardless of how empty I feel, once I’m in the safe space of my writing classes with the lesson plan in hand I let my imagination loose for the 15-20 minutes of stream of consciousness writing that is the ‘splurge’.

Sitting beside my students, I can become a writer rather than the teacher.

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The skills of fiction and nonfiction are not mutually exclusive, and mastering or even flirting with one can have a transformative effect on the other.

Zachary Petit, Writer’s Digest

Today, we concentrated on the importance of opening lines. Not just because it is important to grab the reader’s attention but also as a way of jump-starting our imagination.

It never ceases to amaze me the variety and quality of the stories random splurges produce and today was no different.

A good opening line is a powerful thing: It can grab an editor’s attention, set the tone for the rest of the piece, and make sure readers stay through The End!

Jacob M. Appel

This is why it is called a HOOK – just like a fish at the end of the line, you want to keep your readers hanging in there!

Splurge – Try one of these story openings:

  • He’d always had the perfect golf grip. The one he used on the gun wasn’t bad, either.
  • Palm trees always reminded me of him/her. (You can substitute any other flora)
  • Parker was definitely not singing in the rain.
  • I think that after you lose your car keys three days in a row, you should just be able to stay home.
  • The devil always finds work for idle hands to do, according to Mr Smith our science teacher – and he should know.
  • My alter-ego came to life one summer in 1975. (Or another date!)
  • The scraping noise was Grandfather’s chair on the flagged tile floor.
  • ‘Who is it, Madeleine?’
  • The crushed carcass of the car outside the corner garage revealed a truth Constable Thomson didn’t want to face.

 

Night Terror
Mairi Neil (flash fiction of 750 words)

The scraping noise was Grandfather’s chair on the slate floor, but why is he in the kitchen now?

The clock in the hallway, ticked, whirred, and chimed the half-hour. Tim checked his Father’s fob watch on the bedside table: 3.30am.

How did Grandfather manage the stairs by himself – and why? Is Mum downstairs too? Tim held his breath, but no tell-tale cough announced his mother’s presence; no whistle of steam from the kettle on the range.

When Mum’s in the kitchen, there’s always the clink of china cups, although this is a strange hour for a tea party.

Another creak, low and sinister, followed by the scraping noise again.

Tim imagined the chair rocking back and forth in front of the wood-fired stove. The old man huddling forward, gnarled hands stretching towards the open oven door, willing the radiated heat to warm arthritic bones.

Mum must be there – who else stoked and lit the fire? Tim concentrated; listened for murmuring voices.

The morning ritual always the same; Grandfather and his crook legs and weak heart only make it downstairs by leaning on Mum’s arm and gripping the bannister.

Maybe they couldn’t sleep and Mum lit the fire to keep the old man company and now they’re absorbed in one of the story-telling sessions they seem to like so much. Always talking about the past. Tim often wished he had a time machine like the man in the book he borrowed from the library.

He burrowed deeper into warm bedclothes, his small face, a flat white stone in an inky river of shadows. His breath drifted in uneven puffs in the cold air and twitching his nose his eyes widened with remembering. If Grandfather is rocking in front of the fire he’d be smoking his pipe, a habit he said helped him count his blessings. But no pungent tobacco smoke wafted up the staircase to cloud the room.

An asthmatic cough from the room across the hall punctuated the night before fading into gentle snoring almost immediately.

And Mum is still asleep. Who is downstairs? A thief? Tim shuddered. Who could make an intruder leave?

So many homeless men living by the railway line. Men who cadged meals and money before stowing away on one of the frequent goods trains that crisscrossed the land. Desperate men with nothing to lose. Men fighting to survive bad economic times.

Has one broken in and settled by the fire? Tim’s eyelids flickered and he fought back tears. Troubled blue eyes stared at the dresser, found the photograph of his father, pale in the muted moonlight shining through threadbare curtains.

If only the mining accident hadn’t happened, Dad would make the intruder leave. Tim clenched his teeth.

He remembered the burly man at the door yesterday. His offer to chop wood for two shillings – the price of a flagon of sherry.

Mum confessed their poverty and offered a sandwich. The man’s hairy top lip twisted. ‘Only if there’s dessert,’ he said, menacing eyes staring too long at Mum’s chest before returning to her flushed face.

Tim sensed his Mum’s fear as she slammed the door, rammed the bolt across, pressed her shaking body against the entrance as if the oak panels needed help to keep the man out.

His ten-year-old hands fisted, but Grandfather’s restraining hand on his shoulder held him firm. He hated the old man for his whispered, ‘You’re too young, boy,’ but had a rush of pity when Grandfather added, ‘and I’m too old.’

Blood surged in Tim’s ears. He gripped the bedsheets, his racing heartbeat competing with the scraping and rumbling below. He must go downstairs and face the intruder, prove to Grandfather he was not too young, prove to Mum he could protect her.

The curtains billowed and a gust of even colder air swirled around the room. Tim froze. Perhaps it was a ghost downstairs. Dad or Grandmother visiting – they both had favoured the chair by the fire. The scraping noise accompanied by a rustling as if hands searched canisters.

An almighty crash followed the rattling of crockery. Tim cowered under the blankets until a shattering of glass and china was joined by grunting and snarling.

And his Mum spluttering, ‘Damn possums!’

Tim searched for his slippers and met his mother in the hallway as she recovered from a coughing fit.

They hurried downstairs. A tremulous smile playing on Tim’s lips as the stairs creaked and Grandfather’s chair scraped on the slate floor.

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It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy.

Lucille Ball

Writing makes me happy.

Why not choose a first line and write a story – escape from sadness and tragedy for a few moments with some flash fiction fun!

Flash Fiction: Fanciful Fun But Good Writing Practice

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In my classes at local neighbourhood houses, we create a special writing environment to encourage each other to write;  to be in the mood to write when we are in that space.

The most important part of the class is the writing – for some students it’s the first chance they have in a busy week to put pen to paper, or perhaps take a break from whatever writing project they are working on. Some go to other writing classes like U3A, others are enrolled in TAFE or University courses.

I give prompts to flex those writing muscles, trigger ideas, spark a splurge!

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No one expects a masterpiece in 20 – 30 minutes of stream of consciousness writing but the future poems and prose that arise from the ideas contained in the splurge are guaranteed to be useful when the writer sets to work editing, rewriting, fashioning the poem, fictional story, memoir, faction, play or film script into something readable later.

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Is Time Disappearing More Quickly?

I can’t believe another term is almost over – where did the time go? However as a wintry chill sets in, the days shrink and the nights grow longer, it’s an opportune time to catch up on reading and writing. No excuses necessary to stay inside warm and snug.

This morning, as I stare at rain dripping from the trees and commuters hurrying to the station trying to avoid the puddles gathering on the pavement, it is indeed an inviting incentive to stay at the computer and lose myself in a fanciful world where the sun is shining, roses blossom and children’s laughter floats through the air.

Or perhaps, after examining the dark clouds and the shadows among the shrubbery I’ll start a gothic tale or two!

Imagination knows no bounds…

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From first line triggers, bizarre plots and a selection of picture postcards I’ve encouraged students to try  flash fiction as a way of honing writing skills. To keep word count under a 1000 words, or aim for some of the more prescriptive counts: under 200 , 500 , 800 words, even  50 or 60 word counts – this takes skill in planning, editing and of course seeking the all-important twist or surprise at the end to make the short form worthwhile.

Flash fiction improves your editing skills but also helps you think about plots, how to craft a story in a few words – add the senses, show not tell and all the other attributes important to story-telling and writing.

You can pick up on what is happening around you, what’s in the news, the latest issue that’s the flavour of the month and instead of delving too deeply, taking months of research, you craft a short story and vent and create an up-to-the minute piece!

Since technology has given us the ability to read books on iPad, Kindle, mobile phone and a variety of other portable devices, writers have a huge market to consider – those who read via screen and those short of time. (Which includes just about everybody in the modern world!)

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There have been plenty of studies detailing how reading online differs from reading a traditional book. The most obvious being page and word size and the demand for shorter and more concise writing.

Enter the popularity of flash fiction. These are the 3-5 minute short stories popular in Women’s magazines of old. The ones consumed in a coffee break, but now they be read via devices while people commute, are on trains or aeroplanes, waiting in the doctors or for other appointments, sitting in cafes or parks.

A writing class or group wonderful venues for these exercises because ideas bounce of each other, fellow students can give input if you’re stuck for an ending, or the plot seems awry and most of all there is a plethora of entertaining stories produced by feedback, wandering off in ways you’d never have imagined!

And why not – in most of my classes, although students range in age and ability, the majority are seniors who have lived amazing lives.

All that richness and life experience shared. So many varied ideas like colourful rich threads of a valuable tapestry.

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Here is my effort from an idea of opening a birthday present..

A Birthday To Remember by Mairi Neil

‘Open the presents! Open the presents!’

Julie laughed as everyone in the room took up the chant and she was dragged to where a pile of gaily wrapped gifts surrounded by nibbles and wine glasses sat in the centre of the dining table.

‘Where to begin?’ she murmured to Deb as her best friend released her grasp of Julie’s hand.

There were bags hinting at bottles and ornamental paper shaped like books. Everyone knew Julie’s passion for crime thrillers. A few larger flat parcels with the telltale elegant gift wrap of Haig’s chocolates revealed they knew another of Julie’s passions.

‘Open this one, first,’ said Ben, a fourteen-year-old nephew, pushing the largest present towards his aunt. Round with red crinkly paper flaring at the top, a scarlet ribbon held it together.

‘Curiosity killed the cat,’ Deb quipped as she playfully shouldered Ben aside whispering in Julie’s ear, ‘open mine first – it’s your favourite writer!’

Insistent, Ben begged Julie with pleading baby-blue eyes and all the charm he could muster. ‘This isn’t my present. Mum bought you that,’ and to much laughter from the crowd of mainly twenty-somethings, he pointed to a brightly wrapped rectangle that could only be another book.

‘Okay, you win Mr. Pushy,’ Julie said and winked at Deb to soften the blow. She searched the parcel for a tag. ‘A mystery present – how exciting,’ and her nimble fingers untied the ribbon.

Julie heard the clink of glasses as Deb moved around the small crowd and topped up drinks for the toast. Someone had doused the lights and from the corner of her eyes she saw twenty-five candles flickering atop a cake in her Mother’s hands.

‘We might as well do this now, darling while everyone’s attention is on you.’

Conscious of the heat from the candles as her Mother placed the plate beside the parcel, now stripped of paper and ribbon, Julie clapped her hands at the round hat box.

She glanced around at the baker’s dozen of friends and family. ‘I hope this is what I think it is – you all know me too well!’

She pulled off the lid with a flourish, picturing herself as the winner of the ‘Best Hat’ at the soon-to-be-held Melbourne Cup.

*****

Within the hour DI Flint flicked through his notebook trying to piece together the chaos that followed the opening of the unlabelled present.

Later, he stared at the array of photographs on the Incident Room board. Was Julie the target? Did the person responsible know her mother would bring the cake out at that moment? Could it be a practical joke gone wrong? Ben was a precocious kid but where would he get a cobra?

Flint brushed hands through a mop of tussled brown hair. It was going to be a long night and it didn’t help that half the guests were affected by alcohol and bloody party pills! Deb seemed to be the only sensible one – and yet what if…?

Was it coincidence the book she gave Julie was Death by Surprise?

Exhausted, DI Flint threw his notebook down and shook his head as he checked his watch. Time to visit the morgue and then to the hospital and see if Julie’s in a fit state to be interviewed apparently she adored her widowed mum.

What a case to land the first night he’d given up smoking.

(567 words)

Rattlesnake Green

Here is another from a first line…

Righteous Anger by Mairi Neil

The kiss had surprised her. How dare he take liberties. That behaviour may have been accepted in ‘the good old days’, but this is 2016!

She could have him for sexual harassment. That would wipe the smug smile from his face, slow his arrogant strut to a shuffle.

It’s about power – the perception of coercion – what chance has an employee refusing the boss?

And how much more an uneven relationship can there be than the CEO and a junior clerk?

The kiss wrong on so many levels! The grin he gave afterwards won’t be so wide when he’s slapped with a writ.

I know what the rest of the office will say but I mean it this time. I’m not just going to talk – I’ll do the walk. I’ll hand in my resignation if need be –– in protest at all the young women soiled by office predators.

I mean, I saw it with my own eyes. Disgusting! People in glass offices should remember others look in.

*****

She’s what?

Why wasn’t I told his daughter worked here?

(176 words)

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Prison Blues by Mairi Neil

I survey the ceiling of my prison. Ants march along concrete edges in a never-ending line, in and out of the crumbling mortar above a tiny barred window, too high for me to reach.

A shaft of pale sunlight patterns the opposite wall. There is a world outside this room! Tears buried beneath bravado trickle from the corner of aching eyes, dribbling into my mouth –– the taste of salt a welcome relief from the sickly sweet bun that had passed for breakfast.

A trio of flies buzz around the naked light bulb swinging from the centre of the stained ceiling. The slab whitewashed a thousand years ago and not touched since. Another wave of panic has me gasping for air. How can I be here? I repeat the mantra from yoga class, ‘breathe in, breathe out…’ and trawl through the events of the last two days trying to pinpoint what had gone wrong.

Fear twists my stomach and bowels. Will I throw up or …? I stare at the bucket in the far corner of the tiny cell sitting beneath the solitary tap jutting from the wall, and shudder.

The shuffling and snorting of the guard positioned a few feet down the dank corridor drifts under the buckled door. How many hands and feet spent their anger and despair against that door?

I suppress the urge to humiliate myself. The lingering smell of the last episode hangs in the air like the suspended light bulb. The flies increase their buzzing and frantic swirling. The guard had been almost too quick to respond. His reluctant replacement of the bucket and disdainful glare a warning not to expect such a favour again. The room spins.

I close my eyes willing relaxation. The man from the Consulate will visit again soon –– perhaps with good news. I’m not just any woman. I’m a well-known journalist. Please God, if money and celebrity count for anything get me out of this hellhole.

I’ve learnt my lesson. I’ll never write another story or make a flippant Facebook remark about Thai Royalty. Damn the Internet!  In fact, I’ll never step foot in this country again.

Oh, for the good old days when hard copy was checked by editors.

(372 words)

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Please share any flash fiction ideas or completed pieces or improve on mine and brighten an otherwise dull day!

Happy writing!

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Alan Spence – His Writing Memorable and More Than Fine

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I’m not sure Somerset Maugham‘s quote is accurate for all texts, but the books I cherish have certainly resonated deeply and a recent gift from a writer friend is a case in point. Dave, who does have Scottish ancestry, but sounds as ocker as they come is a wonderful friend who shows he is thinking of me by gifting books he discovers in opportunity shops, secondhand bookstores, or passes on books he has enjoyed.

We met for a Senior’s meal at the local Mordialloc Sporting Club and he gave me a recent find.

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First published William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1977. Later Phoenix Paperback, 1996.

I don’t often do book reviews because as a writer I’m more comfortable reading and writing short stories and I’ll leave book reviews to my dear friend Lisa Hill who has a well-deserved prize winning blog prioritising books by  Australian and New Zealand writers, but who was kind enough to have me as a guest reviewer last year.

However, Its Colours They Are Fine is thirteen interlinked tales in Alan Spence’s first collection of short stories. Set in Glasgow, they depict aspects of life recognisable to the majority of Glaswegians who grew up there in the 50s and 60s. As someone who was born in Greenock in 1953,  a ‘kick in the bum’ or ‘stone’s throw’ away from Glasgow, I found the stories irresistible and meaningful.

Memorable, not because of what happens, but on account of the mood that is created and the shifts of feeling that are revealed. They are memorable because they ring true. They are rather like Chekhov’s stories. Spence, too, takes a little moment of ordinary experience and transforms it, in the simplest possible manner, into something significant… In an age of ugly preoccupation with violence, he draws attention to moments of beauty and stillness. He is a gentle writer, but never sentimental. The beautiful moments have always been earned… he is a writer to cherish, one offering deep and fulfilling pleasures.

The Scotsman Review

Spence’s dialogue in vernacular (braid or broad) Scots, evokes tenement life, the slums and their inhabitants, with voices of the young and old, Catholic and Protestant, Tinkers (gypsies/travellers), immigrants from Commonwealth countries, the employed and unemployed, the hopeful and disillusioned – and beneath the surface, the deeper currents of the Irish connection, the Protestant and Catholic divide manifested through adherence to Rangers or Celtic football club.(The Old Firm).

I’ve seen some statistics that say 60% of the Glasgow population has Irish ancestry  and having an Irish mother that figure wouldn’t surprise me. There have been plenty of books and films about Glasgow, showcasing the harshness of life in the tenements, but also the humour and resilience of the people. The hooliganism and open violence associated with the two major football teams,  the bigotry fuelled violence manifested in street games, school playgrounds, pubs and clubs and of course family life, still provide high drama today.

Billy Connelly’s honest humorous presentations of growing up in Glasgow, uses language and subject matter not to everyone’s taste. This video of Billy singing I Wish I was In Glasgow is sentimental and expresses feelings I can relate to, although I’d substitute Greenock. However, we are both ‘West Coasters’!

When I was reading the various stories, I kept having flashbacks to my childhood,  remembering snatches of stories from the long after-dinner sessions of storytelling from Mum and Dad. Homesickness has been described as nostalgia for the past – well I experienced plenty of nostalgia from these stories, but also admired how he elevated moments in the lives of ordinary people to memorable, magical and unforgettable events with language of poetic potency.

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The title of the book comes from a story about the Orange Walk, a day when the main character Billy declares ‘God must be a Protestant’ and can’t wait to sing The Sash My Father Wore, the chorus being:

It is old but it is beautiful, and its colours they are fine
It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne.
My father wore it as a youth in bygone days of yore,
And on the Twelfth I love to wear the sash my father wore.

Like many of the stories, it is peopled by working class Protestant characters, many flawed and bigoted, but they also can be loyal, warm and humorous friends. This particular story has the march starting off on a sunny Saturday and by the end of the day they’re in a field in Gourock amid pouring rain. “Wher’s yer proddy god noo!” asked his friend.

In a few pages Spence explores the religious divide, the bigotry, the violence and the ignorance that feeds the Orange Walk and other inappropriate symbols and celebrations, but also the spiritual dimensions to everyday experiences, the importance of rituals and how people can enjoy spectacles without fully understanding their cultural or historical significance. Maybe one day the Orange Walks will go the way of the Confederate Flag , another symbol well past its used by date. Hopefully, people in Northern Ireland, Scotland and beyond will see the divisive celebrations around July 12th for the anachronism they are and consign them to history books.

Other stories focus on family relationships with Tinsel exploring a child’s excitement at putting up the Christmas decorations in a tenement flat with a father ill and out of work and a mother doing her best to keep everything together. The bright decorations and warmth and love inside contrasts with a city still reeling from the damage of world war two, cramped and crowded living conditions, and high unemployment.

The decorations left over from last year were in a cardboard box under the bed…Streamers and a few balloons and miracles of coloured paper that opened out into balls or long concertina snakes. On the table his mother spread out some empty cake boxes she’d brought home from work and cut them into shapes like Christmas trees and bells, and he got out his painting box and a saucerful of water and he coloured each one and left it to dry – green for the trees and yellow for the bells, the nearest he could get to gold.

This story stirred memories of my mother making do; determined to give us the trimmings of Christmas. She helped us make decorations from crepe paper, and even the bright coloured milk bottle tops were useful to cluster together as bells. We  cut up cardboard breakfast cereal packets and covered shapes with the silver paper from inside cigarette packets, and colourful sweetie and chocolate wrappers. There was never the disposable cash to be able to buy the glittering ornaments available today, nor the distraction of all the screen-based entertainment. Making objects and decorating the tree and the house was ‘something special to come home for… and feel warm and comforted by the thought.’

Mum holding me Christmas 1953
Mum holding me with Catriona
Dad’s sister Mary (Aunt Mamie) holding me

The story Sheaves about Harvest Sunday is told from a young boy’s viewpoint too as he tries to understand the deeper significance of Bible texts and parables in relation to his own life. Torn between pleasing his Mother by getting ready for Sunday School yet envying and wanting to play with his friends. The ritual of Sunday best, the giving of fruit and vegetables and other food to thank God for the seasons is another strong memory for me, especially singing a favourite hymn:

We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land;
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand:
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.

Chorus:

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above,
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord
For all His love.

Spence has the Sunday School teacher remind the city children who have no experience of cultivating the land and who struggle with understanding the language of the Bible:

And no matter what happens to you, even if the dirt of the world seems to have settled on you and made you forget who you really are, deep inside you are still his golden sheaves. And no matter how drab and grey and horrible our lives and this place may sometimes seem, remember that this is only the surface. And even the muck of hundreds of years cannot hide that other meaning which is behind all things. The meaning that we are here to celebrate. That God is love and Christ is Life.

The inscription at the beginning of the book is “To Nityananda and Shantishri (Tom and Maureen McGrath)” and a couple of the stories reflect Spence’s interest in the Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy.  A recurring theme in the stories is that there are greater cosmic forces beyond earth and although it may be fleeting we can all experience or gain insight into this at different times in our lives, a spiritual dimension to everyday life.

The Rain Dance is a wonderful rich story with many layers about a “mixed” marriage (a Protestant marrying a Catholic) in a registry office and the rituals and festivities surrounding this event. From the noisy “hens” party parading the bride-to-be in the streets for kisses and pennies to the Scramble for bell money – the father of the bride throwing a handful of coins after the church ceremony to be scrambled for by waiting children and other onlookers.

Ah remember reading,’ said Jean, ‘that scrambles go right back tae the olden days, when the didnae keep records an that. An it wis so’s the weans an everybody wid remember the wedding. then if they ever needed witnesses, they’d aw mind a the money getting scrambled.

My parents had a registry office wedding in Glasgow in 1948. No member of Dad’s family attended because they objected to him marrying Mum – upset he chose to marry an Irish woman! Fortunately, Mum’s brother Tom and wife Bessie caught the overnight boat from Belfast and along with the best man witnessed the marriage, and shared a celebratory meal and drink in a nearby hotel. My parents eventually made up their differences with Dad’s family, but I often think how sad their ‘special day’ probably was and try to imagine the ceremony and their feelings.

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Dad and Mum married at registry office Glasgow 16/12/1948
Mum and Dad's wedding day with Tom and Bessie Courtney, Mum's brother and wife
Mum and Dad’s wedding day with Tom and Bessie Courtney, Mum’s brother and wife

Spence describes the day in a way that is culturally specific to Scotland yet full of universal observations and emotions and the description of the actual ceremony particularly poignant for me.

It was over so quickly… awkward, on the pavement, trying to keep out of the wedding-group photos of the couple that had just come out; confusion over which door to go in, then somebody showing them the way; hustle along the corridor, a few minutes’ wait, hushed, in the hall; a door opening, another wedding-group bustling past; another door opening and the registrar ushering them in.

In a low, bored drone he intoned the preliminaries… Brian was staring at the pattern on the carpet, as if he could read there the meaning of it all, the meaning they all knew at that moment. Not the lifeless ceremony, the cardboard stage-set, the dead script, the empty sham. Not that, but something at the heart of it, something real. In spite of it all, they knew, and that was what moved them, to laugh or to cry.

The other stories observe detailed fragments of life in Glasgow. Spence draws on his own childhood, with real and imagined stories. The prejudice and violence often confronting and embarrassing, none more so than Gypsy when he reveals the shameful bigotry and bullying of the people we referred to as tinkers. How sad that those at the bottom of society’s pecking order have to find  other more marginalised people to despise.

And finally, the book closes with Blue, a first person account from a grief-stricken boy coping with the death of his mother who had been ill for sometime. He works through the various connotations of “blue” whether it be his Ranger scarf, his Catholic friend’s explanation of the colour and significance of Mary’s robes, the lyrics of diverse songs like Blue Moon and Singing The Blues…

It was as if part of me already knew and accepted, but part of me cried out and denied it. I cried into my pillow and a numbness came on me, shielding me from the real pain. I was lying there, sobbing, but the other part of me, the part that accepted, simply looked on. I was watching myself crying, watching my puny grief from somewhere above it all. I was me and I was not-me.

As a writer and a reader (and as a Scot), I’m grateful Dave discovered this book for me. It is 232 pages of powerful storytelling and as the young boy in the closing story learns, despite the tragedy of his Mother’s death, life does go on and the rest of the world goes about their business. The next day “was the same. It was very ordinary. Nothing had changed…”

Except the reader – the stories will make you ponder the complexities of the human condition and engage your emotions. Trust me, you don’t have to be Scottish to enjoy them!

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Reality versus Dreams of the Writing Life: Choosing Fulfilment over Finances!

The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

Kurt Vonnegut

In March 1995, five people sat around a laminated table at the Mordialloc Neighbourhood House one Wednesday night at 8pm. We put in a $1.00 each towards the nominal rent, and formed the Mordialloc Writers’ Group. Those first attendees included a singer songwriter, a writer illustrator, a poet, and two short story writers who also presented a community radio writing show. I had arranged the evening and took on the grand title (and job) of coordinator/facilitator, helped tremendously for the first three years by Noelle Franklin who was one of the presenters of the Moorabbin FM writing show Write Now.

The writing show still exists (with a different presenter) as does the writing group, but I’m the only original remaining with the Mordialloc Writers’ Group, although there are several longtime members and others who return for periods to reacquaint with us, like the proverbial boomerang. Such is the writer’s life.

Over the years, the group has remained active because of the commitment and support of people like Glenice Whitting, Maureen Hanna, Barbara Davies, Coral Waight and Steve Davis, not only attending workshop nights, but also hosting Readings by The Bay, our monthly get-togethers to encourage and share writing with the community. I may be the public face and contact person, but Mordialloc Writers is an eclectic, vibrant, active, talented group being renewed all the time by others interested in creative writing!

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The group, like the moon, has waxed and waned – some workshop nights 18-20 people crammed around the table with barely time for discussing any piece of writing in depth. Other nights 3-4 writers talked into the night deconstructing each other’s work, sharing personal joys and woes,  solving the problems of family and the world!

Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down.

Neil Gaiman

Over the years we published eight anthologies with the work of over 66 writers  included  – many for the first time. Some went on to publish poetry books and novels, blogs, win writing competitions and awards, write family history and memoir. Some established other writing and poetry groups in nearby and far away suburbs and countries, and participated in successful events and festivals.

This year, we celebrate our 20th Anniversary and are currently compiling an anthology of personal essays around the theme of – Kingston My City.  Some of us will be moving out of the comfort zone of particular genres we’ve grown to love, there will be first time published writers, regular attendees who consider Mordi Writers and writing as part of their life routine( Ilura prizewinner, Glenice Whitting) , and there will be invited guest writers from the Group’s past: Lisa Hill of AnZ Litlovers blog fame, Sue Parritt, Dorothy PlummerHelen Merrick-Andrews, Dom Heraclides, Mari Iwa and Jillian Rhodes.

The title and focus of the book a small tribute to the community and councils that have supported our growth and development over the years.

We’ll also be travelling into unknown territory –publishing an E-book as well as the traditional printed copy. (As the publisher for the last four books this is another steep learning curve embracing the digital age!) At the moment, the book is shaping up to be a great read as fellow writer Glenice Whitting and I edit the submissions. Variety is definitely the spice of life and we all have different perspectives of living in Kingston or have interacted with the city’s services and people in different stages of our lives.

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Watch this space for updates:)

Sun Facts and Why Australia, the Sunburnt Country may Not like You!

I love a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping plains, Of ragged mountain ranges, Of droughts and flooding rains, I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea, Her beauty and her terror – The wide brown land for me!

My Country: Dorothea Mackellar (1885-1968) and recited by the poet on Youtube

I have what is considered ‘a Celtic pelt’ and because of this ancestry and genetics I’m categorised as high risk for skin cancer. In fact I’ve already had one brush in 1983, which resulted in two Squamous Cell carcinomas being removed.

I had just turned 30, had an overseas trip planned with my soon-to-be-husband John, so took the diagnosis in my stride – partly because it all happened so quickly and unexpectedly. My efficient GP, Dr M, now retired,  sent me to a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, Mr K whose excellent ministrations left almost undetectable scars.

In fact, what I remember most about the experience, apart from relief it wasn’t melanoma, was the follow-up visit, to give the ‘all-clear’. The surgeon showed me a photographic album of reconstructed noses. He offered a discount saying, ‘I can make you beautiful, you don’t have to go through life looking like that…’

Well, what could I say?

I refused his offer, of course, John and I being perfectly happy with the nose I’d been born with, plus even with a discount, the price would have meant cancelling our forthcoming overseas trip – and that wasn’t going to happen – I’d had enough surgery and pain.

However, like all writers I mined the experience and entered one of the first writing competitions held by the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria, in 1995 and my short prose, Beauty is More than Skin Deep, was chosen to be displayed at the Daffodil Day Art & Literary Exhibition, Melbourne Central. I met the late Bryce Courtney who was one of the judges and an Australian author at the height of his popularity.

Short story displayed at Melbourne Central Shopping Centre

The competition was a good exercise in writing to a word count and to a theme, but it also made me more aware of skin cancer and the need for prevention. When John and my daughters accompanied me to the launch I didn’t realise how confronting the day would be – the poems and stories had been printed on giant posters and decorated the walls of a very busy section of the shopping centre. Talk about putting your work out there!

The late Bryce Courtney

In 1998 I had two more stories published under the auspices of the Anti-Cancer council’s Daffodil Day Awards, but this time in a book, Together Alone – slightly less confronting than having posters on a wall.

cover Together Alone

Today I nurse a throbbing toe and await the result of a biopsy because I’ve had cause to revisit my skin cancer experience. I’ve received exceptional care from  the Peninsula Skin Cancer Centre who are being on the safe side, but it’s a timely reminder of the following facts:

  • 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70
  • Skin cancers account for about 80% of all new cancers diagnosed each year in Australia.
  • Each year, Australians are 4 times more likely to develop a common skin cancer than any other form of cancer.
  • Over 750,000 Australians are treated for skin cancer each year – that’s over 2,000 people every day.
  • Around 2,000 Australians die from skin cancer each year

As the Sunsmart campaign insists “Australia has some of the highest UV levels in the world: in fact UV radiation is strong enough to cause sunburn in just 11 minutes on a fine January day.”

They advise, “In Victoria, the average UV is above 3 from September until April and sun protection is required during the daily sun protection times. The average UV is below 3 from May until August, so sun protection is not required.

It is common for people in my age group to worry about skin cancer, a lifetime of sun exposure and some unwise and risky behaviour in our youth guarantees many of us will have the unglamorously named barnacles, or sun spots, freckles and moles.

Fortunately, my brush with skin cancer made me more aware as a mother, and my children had the sun smart message reinforced by the popular Slip Slop Slap Campaign, which this year celebrates 35 years protecting Victorians. The girls never played outside without sunscreen, a hat, and their shoulders covered.

Anne & MJ in sandpit

This video was made on the 30th anniversary and brings back many memories of one of the most effective public health advertising campaigns in history. Armed with statistics and personal experience I campaigned for my daughters safety when they went to kindergarten and school. Long after my children left, the local kindergarten still distributed copies of an article I wrote on the importance of being sun smart. When my children went to school, I wrote letters and campaigned for compulsory hats, altered sports timetables and changed lunch breaks. Words can be powerful and make a difference!

The Cancer Council of Australia encourages people to become familiar with their skin, including skin not normally exposed to the sun.  Please consult a doctor if , like me,you notice any change in shape, colour or size of a lesion, or the development of a new lesion.

My latest escapade may prove to be a keloid scar injury or  a wart, or something more sinister, but I am being pro-active. I may also write creatively about it!

Quirky Signs and Witty Words are useful Writing Triggers

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Some days you have to dig deep for smiles – make that some weeks! At the beginning of January because it is John’s birthday, our household struggles with grief – it may be 12 years since his untimely death, but I can close my eyes and it could have been yesterday. We pine for those lost years, imagine all the what ifs…

The girls and I have worked out ways of supporting each other and we have a shelf of DVDs for escapism – movies combining clever dialogue and good old fashioned slapstick, allowing the suspension of disbelief and belly laughs – plus comfort food and cider!

I admire quick wit and words used in a clever, unusual and/or unexpected way. Even in the most tragic circumstances something humorous may happen, and often when reflecting on a bad experience a funny side appears. It may not have seemed funny at the time, but put in perspective we laugh and consider ‘it could have been worse,’ or as my Irish Mother would say, ‘worse things happen at sea.’ We make a point of recounting happy memories of John rather than focusing on the sad effects of his illness and death. One of the attractions, which drew me to John was his keen sense of humour and the ridiculous and we like to honour that!

Social media is full of funny memes, jokes and succinct messages to leave me in awe of the creativity of fellow human beings. There’s the obvious and the subtle, but it’s great someone took a moment to think about what words to use and how to use them, or to search for inspirational quotes, comments and graphics. So many are thought provoking and can inspire  writing.

This quote from Jim Morrison reminded me of how The Doors wore  out my turntable at university, along with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez records! However, daughter Anne loves the music of that era and returned from Canada with vinyl in her suitcase (yes, records are making a come-back), including a rare record by Ian Mathews, which I will listen to when I write about my sojourn on the Isle of Arran in 1973. Listening to music a great trigger for writing memories, but also setting a mood and firing the imagination.

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However, some signs can be excruciating – blatant spelling or grammar mistakes that make wordsmiths cringe. We’ve all been guilty of pressing send/post/submit to soon or with mistakes we’ve overlooked, but when commercial or government companies pay for professional signs and hang, print, publish or concrete them into the ground for posterity, you have to shake your head and wonder who’s head will roll?

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Frankston Council is not sure what word is right so they made several signs – for the same street near Chisholm TAFE of all places – were they looking for ‘exempted’ ? Not sure!

There were many innovative signs to raise a smile when MaryJane and I travelled around the USA by train in 2012. Some were curiosities, some clever, some confronting and all could inspire a poem, travel anecdote or story.

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Poignant signs on the sidewalk in Astoria, Oregon and John Lennon’s Imagine mosaic in the Strawberry Fields memorial and memorial seats to regular users of Central Park New York all fodder for the imagination as did being in LA the day Neil Armstrong died and seeing his pavement star decorated with beautiful flowers, or the seat in honour of the woman who spearheaded the domestic violence awareness program.

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The main reason we visited Portland Oregon and took a trip down the Columbia River to Astoria was to discover more information about an ancestor – Captain John McInnes of Skye, who went down with all hands when his sailing ship, the Cadzow Forest, hit the infamous and treacherous waters near Oregon in 1896. Reading the captions in the maritime museum and seeing relics, emotional as well being informative.

Cadzow Forest article

I kept a journal while we travelled, as all writers should, even although some days it was just random jottings to remind myself to write more detail later. When I write  I focus on character because when I read stories it is the characters who interest me the most, curiosity and caring about their lives a must for me to continue reading.

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Here are two characters from our few days in LA – both encountered at Union Station:

Union Station LA

The taxi ride to Union Station short and uneventful and after I booked us in, I went looking for a coffee and snacks to take on the train. Famima Supermarkets everywhere and if you buy goods, they give you a chit for a free coffee. I laughed. ‘It’ll be another month before we return to Union Station.’

The young assistant smiled and said, ‘that’s fine, there’s no expiry date.’

‘But my memory will probably expire or I’ll lose the chit!’ I said, raising a chuckle of understanding from another middle-aged customer.

I return to our seats and find MJ deep in conversation with Roger and Zac, a father and 14 yr old son  on vacation. They approached Mary  to take their photo. Our waiting time flies as Roger chats non-stop – we learn about his divorce, his recovery from alcoholism, his ex-wife’s bipolar, his 19 yr old daughter’s heart operations and her desire to study film and his son’s college aspirations. Roger, an engineer was born and raised in San Francisco. His job pays well and he pays a lot of taxes, but doesn’t mind and hopes Obama is re-elected. He hates George Bush and Mitt Romney, fears America will go into Iran. He goes dancing every week, has joined single parent and divorcee organisations, wants to lose weight, wants to be in a relationship again, but not ready yet. Would like sex, but is prepared to wait; went skinny dipping at the hotel the night before and dallied with another recovering alcoholic, but she has too many issues… All of this gushed in what seems a single breath, but random order. He’s excited we will be on the same train and suggests we have dinner together that evening.

We are in the same car, but MJ and I go to the Observation Car and get chatting with some other people.  We never see Roger and an embarrassed Zac again – I have a feeling it’s not only Roger’s ex-wife who is bipolar because he appeared manic to me.

However, I dropped the hint I was 10 years older, a widow and not looking for another relationship I think I halted his pursuit and so heard no more of extremely personal confessions!

LA Again
It’s 4.15am and we have time to kill on our return to Union Station because although we told  Jeremy, our Airbnb host we’d arrive early, we didn’t want to outstay our welcome immediately!

In Starbucks, a strange lady takes over two stools in a corner and starts to change her clothes and repack her bags. She’s in her 60s, maybe older, or maybe late 50s with skin wrinkled and leathery from the Californian sun. Her blonde/black streaked hair has tips or highlights, or just a bad result from hairdressing at home. It is short and  frames her face and she wears a brightly striped rosette clip. A cotton crocheted top, an eye-hurting fluoro pink is pulled over a black skintight t-shirt. She’s petite and has a lead pencil stuck behind her ear. Sunglasses hide her eyes and reapplied bright red lipstick gleams. She’s making heavy weather of all her luggage reorganising hindered only slightly by  a leg brace velcrozed to the outside of her three quarter denim-look pants. Socks and shoes are changed after meticulously placing the insoles on the tiled floor as if they are walking into her bags! Silver geometric earrings dangle from pink ears and a thick elastic band adorns one wrist – perhaps she is compulsive obsessive or suffers anxiety and the rubber band is to remind her to stay calm?
At last she has packed a tapestry carpet bag and a green enviro bag. Two black leather bags, one a smaller handbag, are strung across her back criss-cross fashion.  She limps out of the cafe where she has been for over an hour, abandoning a coffee cup  as evidence she has been there,  it’s not binned despite all her luggage tidying!

I have a description and the beginning of questions about these fleeting cameos in my travelogue. If I want to include them as characters in a piece of fiction I must work to give them a life, personality, dreams and disappointments, goals and obstacles – and make readers be interested, intrigued, engaged and care about them – something I wouldn’t be able to do, if I hadn’t observed with a writer’s eye and recorded details to help set the scene.

Writers Write – That’s What We Do – Let’s Hope the Readers Read!

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To be a writer is to embrace rejection as a way of life.

Dana Stabenow.

Over the years, I’ve earned more money from my teaching than my writing, but I remember the day I considered myself a writer and decided to keep scribbling and never abandon an activity that has saved my sanity, brought pleasure and pain, and remains a vital part of who I am.

A Ticket To Write

Mairi Neil

The morning is a brilliant blue with a fresh sea breeze and cliched cottonwool clouds. The dog barks her annoyance at a piercing whistle from a city bound train and from my bedroom window, I watch an envelope flop into the letterbox as the postman pedals past.

Gently, I restrain two-year-old Anne’s ebullient rush outside. This ritual, a highlight of her morning. She loves the challenge of turning the key, opening the Perspex door and retrieving the letters while I hold her aloft as her dainty feet brush the agapanthus and geraniums.

I wonder if she notices my seesawing moods during this ritual: excited anticipation, then wistfulness.

Today, I stare at the black letters on the solitary white business envelope, a distinctive logo bold and embossed. I breathe deeply; try to remain calm. Oh, to be Superman with x-ray vision.

Anne, usually adept at opening the letterbox, fumbles today. My legs begin a nervous tremble – a premonition (or hope) pumps blood through my heart to pulse in already throbbing ears. The clear air seems lighter like my head; the scent of nearby lavender and sturdy eucalypts keeping me focused as I concentrate on Anne’s voice delightfully chanting, ‘Here Mummy… only one ‘vope.’

‘Thank you darling.’ I playfully pat her bottom as I set her on the ground, ‘Mummy’ll race you inside.’ This usual conclusion of our journey to the mailbox, one I always lose.

I pretend to run and keep one eye on the toddling fairy while ripping the envelope open. A cheque, attached to a With Compliments slip from The Herald & Weekly Times, flutters free.

I stare at the slip of paper worth $60.00. Blood rushes to my face and at that moment the world changes. Closing my eyes, I cross into a world only visited in dreams. Someone values what I wrote – enough to pay me for it. ‘I’m a published writer!’ I whisper to the plants not expecting a response like Prince Charles, but I need an audience! I babble the significance of the news to Anne, wishing she could understand more than ‘Mummy is very happy.’ She just giggles and laughs as I sweep her into my arms and swirl and twirl into the house, desperate to telephone John.

My husband’s joy palpable, ‘I knew you’d be published. I’m going out now to buy several copies from the newsagents. Well done, I’m so proud of you.’ A few minutes later, John rings to say my story isn’t in the current issue.

I had sent it six weeks ago – when was it published? I check the ‘with compliments’ slip for a hint, but no luck. I ring my parents who are regular readers of the newspaper. It had been Dad who’d encouraged me to send  a story to their fiction section. He answers the phone, happy and proud, ‘I’ll buy extra copies of the edition.’

‘That’s if, I ever find out, which one it is Dad. They pay on publication, but it’s not in this week’s.’

I ring the newspaper to find out when, or if, my story has been published. The receptionist off-hand, ‘If you’ve received a cheque then it’s already been published.’

I contemplate ringing Dad again; hoping their recycled papers hadn’t been collected, but Mum rings me before I can dial. Great minds think alike! She’d retrieved the paper from the recycle bin. The story published two weeks earlier.

Mum reads every page of newspapers or magazines meticulously. I learn an important lesson –  people read the words – the author’s name may not be noticed or remembered!

That was 1987 when I’d abandoned full-time paid work to be a mother. A confidante to my dreams, John encouraged me to write while I ‘had the time and opportunity.’ Only a man (or non-writer) could make that statement, but I am grateful he valued and encouraged me to write.

The administrative position I held in a busy parish office prior to motherhood hadn’t left much energy for creative writing, although the constant stream of people seeking help and advice fired my imagination, as did church political intrigue. The relentless work of a new baby, breastfeeding on demand and apparently only needing occasional twenty-five minute catnaps throughout very long days and nights didn’t do much for energy levels either! However, I did find time to scribble and polish some words and my imagination never switched off.

I had been writing for years gaining publication of poems and articles at school, university and church magazines, but never actually developing the confidence to send a piece off to a commercial publisher. At work, I was the one people asked to write doggerel on special occasions, or help to write letters. I had the reputation amongst family and friends of being ‘good with words,’ but regarded as a hobby writer. No one saw my writing as a serious career choice – not even me!

The desire to write led me to subscribe to a writing magazine. I read every article I could on the craft of writing. John, a trade union official had long irregular working hours, so attending a writing group, or writing class impossible for me to schedule. I noticed an advertisement in the newspaper for The Writing School. The correspondence course not cheap, but they guaranteed to refund your money if you did not recoup the fee from paid published work by the time you finished the course. Most importantly, it was self-paced with no time limit for finishing the course. What did I have to lose? John gave me the enrolment fee as an early birthday present.

One of the first exercises was to write a story under 800 words based on a character study. My effort returned with positive comments and a couple of punctuation suggestions and the advice to ‘find the story a home’.

Dad, a frustrated writer himself, always encouraged me to write. His love of poetry and frequent recitals of favourite poems made me love the potency of words. Mum, an avid reader ensured our house overflowed with books. Birthdays and Christmas always meant at least one book as a gift. All my life, a daily newspaper had been delivered and subscriptions to various magazines  factored into the family budget. I asked Dad for help to choose a market for my story and he suggested The Weekly Times, a popular newspaper in the 80s.

I sent off an unsolicited manuscript –– a photocopy of the painstakingly retyped story(no home computer then), a covering letter and prepaid self-addressed envelope.

My thoughts on an eccentric tram driver who interacted with commuters and the imaginary past I created for him entitled  A Ticket To Vaudeville became my ticket to publication and a much-needed boost to confidence and self-esteem. (This short story can be read in an earlier post.)

It is easy to become discouraged with writing and I’ve found ‘Life’ events intervene, but there are a lot of supportive groups and writers around who understand the pitfalls and as a writer, regardless of payment or other people’s judgment, I’ll continue to write!

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Writing Flash Fiction Helps Editing Skills and Is Flashing Good Fun!

Words should be an intense pleasure, just as leather should be to a shoemaker. If there isn’t that pleasure for a writer, maybe he ought to be a philosopher.    

Evelyn Waugh, The New York Times, November 19, 1950

The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.      

Mark Twain, letter to George Bainton, October 15, 1888

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Flash fiction is defined as fiction that is brief – perhaps only a thousand words,  fifty to  hundred words, or even less than that because we now have Twitter stories where writers only use 140 characters!

This short form of storytelling requires skill and imagination. No time to be wasted on exposition, just delve straight to the ‘flashpoint’ of a story and intrigue the reader. Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style advises, ‘The habitual use of the active voice…makes for forcible writing.’ Flash fiction encourages the use of active voice so that’s another incentive to ‘have a go’ and write some.

Twitter Flash Fiction
Mairi Neil

The boat circled the reef. Ted floated silently, his knife wound leaking blood. Annie waited for the hungry pointer to make her single again.

Sam and Kara snuggled into their sleeping bags. They loved the peacefulness of the Australian Outback. As did the death adder in their tent.

Moonlight glittered on the dirt mound. Helen shivered. The shadowy figure crunched on the bones. How to stop the labrador’s midnight feasts?

There are even six word short stories based on a legend about Ernest Hemingway accepting a bet he could make people cry in a six word story. The classic he’s believed to have produced: For sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.

Check out efforts by other famous authors: http://www.sixwordstories.net/category/author/famous-authors/

Have fun trying this in different genres. My attempts pretty ordinary:

Bus driver faints. Passengers can’t drive
Urgent coded message; an enigma still.
Sacked today. Started blogging, became famous.
Door opens. Shots fired. Wrong address!
Tall, handsome. Personality of a doorstop.

The spacecraft landed. Her novel reality.

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Writing is exploring and experimentation. I began writing very short fiction in the late 80s early 90s in response to a daily newspaper’s request for 55 word short stories. I concentrated on having a surprise twist at the end or punchline – a bit like a joke. Members of Mordialloc Writers’ Group, including me were thrilled when our stories were published. We won fountain pens, handbags, movie tickets – and the newspaper filled a column on their entertainment page.

Stalking Fear
Mairi Neil
Footsteps echoed. Helen looked around; scurried towards home. Fear flitted across her face. She shivered and gathered her coat closer with trembling fingers. A stumble on the cobblestones and she clutched her handbag against her chest; glanced over her shoulder. Was she still being followed? A scream rent the air. ‘Cut!’ The director, not happy. (55words)

What a Fright
Mairi Neil
Margaret stared at the middle-aged woman. How could she have left the house like that? She shook her head in amazement at the spare tyre around the midriff, the peppered grey hair, creased face, and eyes sagging with dark bags. The beige top and daggy track pants so unflattering. How she hated shopping centre mirrors!  (55words)

Sad Farewell
Mairi Neil
He choked back tears and sniffed as he placed a rose on her fresh grave. He thought of all the years they’d spent together. Poor hardworking Maisie, dead far too soon. He knew her pregnancy was a mistake. What would they do without her? He sobbed as he watched her puppies scrabble at the earth. (55words)

Cruise Away
Mairi Neil
‘It’s certainly been a holiday to remember,’ said Lily.
‘Yes,’ agreed Jack, as he draped an affectionate arm around his wife’s shoulders. ‘Although, a bit too warm for my liking.’
‘And for me,’ whispers Lily, snuggling closer to Jack.
The elderly couple settled themselves into the lifeboat and watched the burning cruise ship slowly sink.

Ward Duty
Mairi Neil
‘The room is jinxed. For days whoever occupies this bed is dead by morning – despite the full life support system.’
‘They are always all right at change of shift each morning, doctor.’
Meanwhile, the new cleaner muttered again about the unnecessarily long chord on the vacuum cleaner when there was a powerpoint by every bed.

Last year I responded to a request for fiction to make a zine and students in my classes took up the challenge to write stories between 100-200 words, or less. We published our zines and distributed them in the community houses, but they also appeared at a special zine fair in Canberra at a workshop devoted to flash fiction.

Nightwatch
Mairi Neil
Figures in black crept across the roof while others edged up the street and positioned themselves in nearby gardens.‘Ready?’ he whispered into the microphone.
‘All in position, Sir,’ came the reply.
‘Go! Go! Go!’ he commanded.
The SWAT team attacked number 16 Bailey Street.The family within killed on sight. Meanwhile, the terrorist cell at number 61 heard the commotion and fled unharmed.

Wrong Number
Mairi Neil
‘What the?’ Linda froze in the doorway; her eyes darting around the room. She twisted and checked the hotel corridor, green eyes returning to stare at the ringing phone by the bedside. She had told no one she’d be here.
Fear crept from her stomach into her throat as the insistent buzz blocked the muted sounds of traffic from the city. She was conscious of chiming as the lift to the tenth floor worked overtime with a tour group. The phone continued to ring.
Probably Reception; they’ve forgotten to tell me something.
She hurried over and snatched up the receiver, ‘hello!’ Her eyes drawn like a magnet to the high-rise opposite –– the glint of something metallic.
She heard the shattering of glass, but didn’t feel the bullet from the assassin’s rifle.

Ritual Farewell
Mairi Neil
I watch the dark silhouette in the moonlight; listen as the heavy breathing transforms the still night air. He paces the backyard before stopping beside the vegetable garden. How clever! The mound of soil quickly grows as he prepares the ground for burial. Each night, the same ritual as next-door’s dog chooses a new spot to bury his bones.

Disaster Strikes
Mairi Neil
The low growl became a loud rumble. The ground shifted. Celia’s shaking matched the floor’s shudder. She lurched and grasped a nearby handrail; her fear mirrored in other people’s eyes. She struggled to stay upright. The terror ended abruptly and she breathed a sigh of relief. Holding her children close she said, ‘Don’t ask me to visit Scienceworks again,’ as she stepped off the earthquake simulator.

Flash fiction may be a rigid word limit, but it also is experimental, cross-genre and may even be obscure like some poetry. This is a great exercise for writers and students of writing. I’ve researched and participated in competitions such as writing on a postcard, one page, or a story to be read in 30 seconds or a minute – even mini-novels for a mobile phone screen. For all things flash fiction check out Flash Fiction World.

Hard Labour
Mairi Neil

She stands on the cliff’s edge buffeted by the southwesterly and drops her hands to her side and sighs. No sign of John’s ship. She rubs her belly just as the baby somersaults. You must be a boy! Mary clings to a scrawny birch tree; pulls her shawl tighter around thin shoulders as waves crash below. Thunderous explosions against jagged rocks. Seagulls squeal and wheel overhead, their beady eyes forever seeking food. A proud gannet immobile on the biggest rock, points its beak seawards as if it too waits for sails to appear.
Mary inhales the sweetness of the heather, tastes salty spray as the wind gusts. A bank of clouds unfurl like a grey blanket and the first drops of rain dampen her skin. The horizon black as the once blue sea bubbles sending molten steel waves roaring towards land. Is John’s ship caught in that maelstrom?
The impatient life she carries heaves again. Tears sting her face. The gannet flies skywards, a black spectre. Sea gulls screech, vultures circling. Mary closes her eyes to ride out the waves of pain, grips her ringless finger and wishes she had listened to her mother.

Revenge is Sweet
Mairi Neil

‘I’m not staying in this dump for a whole week.’
Gina stared at Bob’s flushed face and flinched as he slammed the wardrobe door. ‘I told you last night your tricks don’t work with me.’
She watched her fiancé cram clothes into his holdall. ‘What tricks?’ Her voice remained calm. ‘Pardon me for thinking you’d enjoy being alone with me. No distractions. Just the two of us. Undisturbed.’
Bob snorted and waved his arms at the window. ‘A bloody owl hooting all night, frogs croaking, and a twittering cacophony at dawn. Give me a noisy resort any day.’
‘Well, I’m not leaving the cabin.’
‘Fine – I’ll come back for you in a week.’
And he was gone.
Gina went to the woodpile with her coffee and sat on the tarpaulin covering the Holden’s spare wheel. She soaked up the sun, smiled, and checked her watch. The tyre would be flat when he reached Kangaroo Gully. She’ll prepare his favourite lunch soon. The forty minute walk uphill good sauce for Bob’s appetite.

Colour My World
Mairi Neil

Martin’s tongue protruded between thin lips, a pink dot of concentration. Blue eyes danced from paint palette to easel. Just like his father, Elaine thought, as she watched Martin dab and daub, sweep and slide. The paintbrush looking too big for six-year-old hands. The square of butcher’s paper soon filled with colourful blobs and strokes. ‘Jackson Pollock eat your heart out,’ Elaine whispered and smiled at Martin’s effort for the school art competition. She remembered Tom’s pride at the birth of their son. ‘Hope he has my talent for painting and your way with words.’
Tears gathered. The car accident had robbed her of Tom and left Martin severely disabled. Thank goodness she had discovered this school and new therapies. Martin had spoken his first word yesterday and if he can hold a paintbrush, a pen will follow.

Fear of the Dark
Mairi Neil

A beep like a balloon popping confirms the Mazda has locked. I hurry towards the lift. Is that other footsteps, or the echo of mine? The few yards seem to double.Why are the lights flickering?
The agent boasted the car park’s electronic gates made it ‘as safe as houses’. I hold my breath. Listen. The lights flicker off. I freeze. My chest hurts.
Oil stains on the concrete morph into sinister shapes. What if I trip? Bump into a parked car? I imagine the concrete pillars, plumbing and air-conditioning pipes crisscrossing the ceiling, ‘safe as houses’ he said.
The electric generator crackles, but was that a metallic click as if someone dropped a key? My bladder throbs, legs tremble. A scream gathers in my throat. The lights flicker on. The elevator’s silver doors shine like a beacon.
I stumble on a raised edge of concrete. Hands flail but I avoid falling. Laughing at my clumsiness I reach the lift just as the lights die with a bang. The lift doors refuse to open. I breathe deeply and inhale the acrid smell of cigarette smoke. ‘Who’s there?’ I stutter.

If you give yourself a word limit you have a clear indication of the maximum length of a piece of work and how much detail should go into the piece. Writing to a set word limit is an acquired and valuable skill and who knows where it might lead? Usually, I know how I want the short story to end before I begin – have that punchline or ‘ah ah’ moment in your mind and write to it.

Job Satisfaction
Mairi Neil

Jones hummed and secured the specimen jar into his briefcase. He smoothed the surgical gloves before checking the protective covers on his shoes and picking his way around the murderer’s flat, careful not to leave traces of his visit.
How he loved this job: the precision, planning, collating evidence and risk taking. New technologies made it more challenging and exciting. A random hair on a pillow or in a plughole, a scrape of skin or blood on furniture, a cigarette butt. Any pining for the old police ways of getting a conviction by intimidation compensated by the thrill of planting evidence.

Cultivating the Future
Mairi Neil

Tim checked Wikipedia and tackled James when he arrived home from college. ‘That’s a marijuana plant you’ve got in your room!’
James paled, ‘Is it? I’m looking after it for a friend.’
‘Yeah right! Never thought my son would get into drugs.’
Defiant, James jutted his jaw, ‘it’s legal – for personal use.’
‘One plant can lead to many,’ said Tim, ‘especially one as healthy as yours.’
‘I just want to save money,’ muttered James.
‘You need to make money, son.’
‘What do you mean?’
Tim’s lips twisted wryly, ‘I’ve just been made redundant. Let’s plant an income.’

A Fishy Tale
Mairi Neil

Martin couldn’t believe the judges announcement, that bastard Bill had won the Angler’s prize. Bill strode to the podium to collect the $1000 cheque. Martin seethed. It wasn’t about the money. He looked at his son and saw disappointment etched on the ten-year-old’s face. He had assured the boy their 5kg Bass would win.
The local newspaper insisted everyone gather around the winner for a photograph displaying their catch alongside Bill’s 6kg giant. Salt rubbed into a fresh wound.
On the crowded podium, Pete pulled at Martin’s arm. ‘He’s a cheat Dad.’
‘We don’t have to smile, son,’ Martin whispered to Pete, ‘but we can’t be sore losers.’
‘But Dad… he stole that fish.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Look at the mark on its side.’
Martin peered at the unusual scar on Bill’s fish. Pete was right. It was one of the Bass from the Aquarium. Father and son grinned as they planned how to spend the cheque and Bill was charged with burglary as well as cheating.

Many writing professions like copywriting and marketing demand short succinct attention-grabbing and memorable ‘stories’, but so do other professions. The writing on captions for exhibits in museums and art galleries, brochures for businesses, book reviews, and a variety of academic tasks or small business needs – the fewer words you use to leave an impression on a reader, the better. And this all takes practice. Have some fun!

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, 1865.

Remembering a Wonderful Life, Fleeting but Fulfilling Friendships and the Passing of Time

To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.                   Thomas Campbell

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Kahlil Gibran

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven- A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.                          Ecclesiastes 3:2

sun setting Mordi

The second day of the new year, bittersweet for me as I welcomed friends Tanja and Andrea visiting from Europe and farewelled another ‘European’ and former member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group at the celebration of the life of Tonie Corcoran, who died peacefully on December 29th 2014, after a long struggle with vascular dementia, a disease especially cruel to a talented wordsmith and storyteller.

Tonie's Funeral

The quotes above sum up many feelings about Tonie expressed at the celebration of  ‘A Wonderful Life’. I have my own special memories of this engaging lady who attended our writing group for several years (2003-2008) and contributed to two of our anthologies. I also knew Tonie from the Union of Australian Women, and through my friendship with her step-daughter Ann Corcoran, who was a much respected and hard working local member of federal parliament.

The family has given me permission to showcase Tonie’s two delightfully evocative pieces. In our third anthology, Up The Creek, with a pen (2003), Tonie said in her bio:

‘Although at age twelve I self-published The Illustrated Chronicle of a Raindrop’s Amazing Odyssey and sold all nine copies, I never saw myself as a writer. Yet I have left a paper trail of jottings, scribblings, thoughts and sayings, and hundreds of letters, all along the road of my life. Words move me. And save me when the going gets rough. I came to this country from another culture and another language. And also from another time. With my writing I would like to give my Australian children and their children a glimpse into that other world, which is my world and inescapably also theirs.’

Cover of third anthology 2003

Page one of Bootspage two of Boots

One of Tonie’s daughters spoke about her mother’s love of words and stories, expressing gratitude that Tonie had taken the time to join the writer’s group and record some of them. And indeed when I read Tonie’s words again I can hear her voice, picture her sitting around the table in the story circle as we workshop, the memory of a small part of her well-spent life still vivid. The flesh may disappear, but the record of a life in words and pictures remains to be appreciated by current and future generations.

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page one Gnotuk Avenuepage two and three Gnotuk Avenue

Tonie grew up in Switzerland between the two world wars. She studied and worked in the capital city, Berne, but loved the Alps, where she rock climbed, tramped and skied. In 1950, she came to Australia with her first husband,  and taught languages (German and French) for many years, within the public and private system, at local secondary schools. Her fascination with words went hand-in-hand with a serious interest in Australian culture and an appreciation of the Australian landscape. She believed one could not be understood without the other.

This philosophy contributed to her being an excellent language teacher, exhorting students to immerse themselves in the culture of the language – a method that a granddaughter acknowledged enabled her to be fluent in French and a successful linguist to make her grandmother proud.

As well as leaving behind a large loving blended family and written words, Tonie also leaves an array of looms and craft items from years of spinning, weaving, knitting, and sewing. Tonie so devoted and expert in these crafts that a son reminisced how as a teenager going on one of the many family skiing holidays, he had to draw the line at knitted underpants, but every other item he wore his mother insisted on making!

Toni’s cooking talents also praised, especially cooking seasonal traditional recipes from Europe. A daughter recalled how financially difficult the early days in Australia would have been for new migrants, but not as tough as the life Tonie had experienced during the war years. ‘We had a ration of a quarter of an ounce of butter to last a month,’ Tonie chastised as her daughter put that and more on her morning toast. Any anger from the observation lost as it triggered a story of Tonie’s war years working on a farm in Switzerland, and later in the Alps with refugee French children saved from the German occupation. Stories of a life her children, born in 1950s Australia, only imagined with the magic of Tonie’s words.

Ann recalled  the happiness Tonie had given her father Bob through their 39 years of marriage and the pleasure of witnessing  Tonie’s gardening knowledge  and recognition of rare flowers and herbs – a knowledge she was modest about possessing, but dated back to years studying homeopathy in Switzerland.

A lover of classical music and the opera, the musical tributes her family chose to welcome and farewell and to accompany a slide montage of Tonie’s full and fruitful life included: Suite popular Brazileira by Villa Lobos, Suite for solo Cello no 1 in G by Johann Sebastian Bach, Piano Concerto no 5 – The Emperor by Beethoven, Handel’s Water Music and the glorious Serenade #13 in G by Mozart.

The life given us by nature is short, but the memory of a life well spent is eternal.                                                                                           Cicero

The ceremony was another reminder for us all to record our stories and leave the legacy of words we want people to remember.