Ducks and Albatrosses Down Under

stony pt 2019 towards french island.jpg

The beginning of the year always a mixed blessing because January 10th is John’s birthday and a reminder my husband and best friend is no longer around, yet it is a new year and the future beckons and being a glass-half-full person, I look forward to whatever challenges await.

For the last sixteen years, the girls and I have visited Stony Point each January to reflect and remember John – and yes, we chat or share our thoughts with him.

Whenever I give my writing class an exercise to write about their happy place, or a place where they feel serene, I have Stony Point in mind.

the pier stony pt 2019.jpg

Serenity Writing Exercise

Once a year, sometimes more often, I visit Stony Point on the outskirts of Melbourne. This tip of the Victorian coast looks across to French Island among other smaller islets and the tide flows out to the sea. There is a pier always populated with anglers – more in some seasons than others.

There is a ferry to French Island and half the pier is now fenced off for Navy patrol boats installed during John Howard’s ‘be alert not alarmed’ crusade.

pier and fence.jpg

John requested his ashes be scattered where they would be carried out to sea, being ex-Royal Navy, John was more comfortable on the water than land and Stony Point fitted the bill.

There are mini-wetlands (or mud flats) at Stony Point frequently visited by shearwaters, pelicans and of course the ubiquitous seagulls. The area is attractive to fishermen and regardless of the season, you will always see boats coming and going.

The gutting and scaling table regularly visited by a host of birds who seem to know just when to land and wait for a feed. The take-offs and jockeying for advantageous positions to catch thrown leftovers provide a rambunctious display by the birds, especially the pelicans.

My daughters laugh at my delight and are convinced I have the largest collection of photographs of pelicans in the world! This year, I think they had a bet going and were counting how many pictures I took – I never discovered whose guess was correct!

Many people visit Stony Point and there is a caravan park with permanent residents as well as frequent holidaymakers. Every day there could be bushwalkers, anglers, picnickers, fossickers, commuters to French Island, naval personnel from nearby Cerberus base and a handful of locals who operate a rundown cafe/shop.

But there are times, like the other day, when we were the only ones soaking up the serenity for an hour or so before one boat returned and two families arrived to visit.

I’m sure others like me,  come to sit or walk by the short strand of sand or along the pier. Others relax while waiting for the ferry to French island. The kiosk, the railway station, the car park – so little change in sixteen years.

Stony Point is the end of the line for the train – a little diesel that comes from Frankston. The station personnel seem to be from another era of railway culture – a more friendly era – attuned to the age of steam perhaps – like my Dad and Grandfather…

However, just like the rest of the Victorian rail system, upgrading is happening to the only non-electrified rail line operated by Metro. There will be electrification to Hastings soon, but who knows when the upgrade will reach Stony Point, a place where change is rare.

 

pelicans september 2018.jpg

John’s Story Forever Linked to Stony Point

When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea. The vivid memories of years in the Royal Navy he loved to share. His time at sea an escape from a violent step-father. It gifted skills and room to grow. Life below deck a creative exercise in space management and curled in a hammock beneath clambering pipes was not conducive to sleep. In the 1950s and 60s, he served on destroyers and stowed belongings in lockers between gurgling pipes. Ironically, the life he loved contaminated him with asbestos…

When I think of John, I recall he joined the navy as a fifteen year old ‘boy sailor’ and said he learned to respect and consider others, to cook, clean, and iron, to share, to care for himself, to operate radar and radio, sort and deliver mail, be the butcher and food buyer for the mess, and also train as a deep-sea diver. He mastered calligraphy and latch-hook weaving and became the Mediterranean Fleet’s high jump and long jump champion in Malta. Above deck, he discovered the pleasure and benefits of breathing fresh sea air;  the joy of time to scan for exotic lands, learn to read the stars, be entertained by dancing dolphins, flying fish, and the unforgettable sight of the majestic blue whale.

When I think of John, I hear his voice reciting poetry and doggerel, quoting favourite passages from books he loved or people he admired (he could recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address!) and singing songs from favourite entertainers. A man of few words, each sentence counted. John didn’t do small talk…

His stints at sea gave him time to sit and think, to listen to the stories of others, and absorb some of life’s harsher lessons. He witnessed horrific scenes while based in the Mediterranean when Britain became embroiled in the Suez Crisis. He visited many European ports and also South America and South Africa, experiencing a variety of cultures and cuisine. Moved out of the comfort zone of his childhood English village, people and places expanded his heart and vision.

When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea and how it shaped his character. A sea he now roams as his ashes float from shore to shore, revisiting the lands he loved, being part of a marine world he admired – free of human form, he can dance with the dolphins, fly with the fish, or ride a whale.

10360628_10153489330878277_510864424541597594_n

When I think of John, I remember his keen sense of humour, can hear his laughter and know he would laugh with us and enjoy the story I’m about to tell of our visit to Stony Point last Wednesday.

I was taking pictures of some Shearwaters and Pacific Gulls sunning themselves on the edge of the slipway jetty when a man in his early 40s and his two children, a boy of 8 and girl of 6, followed me towards the birds. Their conversation –

‘What kind of birds are they Dad?’

‘They’re ducks, son.’

‘No they’re not.’

‘Yes, they are – look,’ he points to the pelicans,’ see how small they are to the albatrosses.’

I’ve seen gannets and black swans at Stony Point but never an albatross.

When I shared the father/son conversation with the girls, we laughed – it reminded us of that funny TV ad for Bigpond or maybe Google, some years ago – when the young boy asked his Dad why the Great Wall of China was built and the dad replied, ‘to keep the rabbits out.’

For the record, the next evening on a walk with buddy Jillian, I took a picture of a duck in Mordialloc Creek.

a duck in Mordi Creek.jpg

And this is a pelican –

pelican close up.jpg

Pelicans – symbols of mutual aid and love

The Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is the largest of the shorebirds that can be found along Victoria’s coastline. It has a wingspan of 2.3-2.5 metres and weighs 4 to 6.8 kilos. Wild pelicans can live up to 25 years. Predominantly white with black along the perimeters of the wings, it has a large pale, pinkish bill. An Australian pelican was recorded with the longest bill of any bird in the world. It is the most southerly breeding of all pelican species and is the only pelican found in Australia.

Between the bones on the lower bill is a stretchy patch of skin called the gular pouch. The gular pouch will stretch when it is filled with water and can hold up to three gallons. Pelicans also have a large nail on the tip of the upper part of the bill. They have short legs and large feet with webbing between all four toes.

Their diet is mainly fish but they are carnivores and will eat turtles, crustaceans and other waterbirds. They can soar to heights of 10,000 feet and can commute 150 kilometres to feeding areas. Highly social, these diurnal birds fly together in groups which can be very large. They breed in large colonies of up to 40,000 individuals.

Strong, slow fliers they often glide on thermals to conserve energy. During flight, they pull their head inward towards their body and rest it on their shoulders. They have been known to remain airborne for 24 hours as they seek food.

Pelicans pair up every breeding season and stay with the one mate for the rest of the season.

Adult pelicans rarely use the few calls they have but can hiss, blow, groan, grunt, or bill-clatter. The young are more vocal than the adults and will loudly beg for food. Australian pelicans primarily communicate with visual cues using their wings, necks, bills, and pouches, especially in courtship displays.

Like all birds, Australian pelicans perceive their environment through visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical stimuli. Opportunistic feeders, they adapt to human activity quite easily and directly approach humans to be fed or will steal food, which is problematic because they get caught on fishing lines and hooks.

The Pelican’s Paparazzi
Mairi Neil

Always gathered at Stony Point
pelicans wait for boats to arrive
yet with beaks and wings so large
it’s fishing skill keeps them alive

perhaps these pelicans are lazy
or maybe they’re super smart
stocking food for a week in that beak
without having to dive and dart…

Stony Point’s fishermen’s table
a magnet for seabirds galore
shearwaters, seagulls – even swans
compete with pelicans for more

discarded fish guts, heads and tails
whatever fishermen don’t want to eat
I love to watch and capture on camera
the birds vying for a treat after treat

I can’t explain my pelican fascination
except they soar skywards with poise
and whether they stand, sit or float
they exude serenity without noise

they don’t screech, squeal, or twitter
but seem content to ‘just be’
if reincarnation is really a thing
then it’s a pelican I choose to be!

french island ferry in background 2018.jpg
Anne and me with French island ferry in the background 2018

So little has changed at Stony Point thank goodness, although over the years signs have been added like the new banner announcing the naval facility is now managed by http://www.portofhastings.com and the new sign about French island is detailed and attractive.

Love for More Than One Place

When I developed cancer in 2010, I had lived in Australia nearly half a century, yet still felt I didn’t quite belong, still found myself homesick for Scotland, the land of my birth. I loved Australia, especially my home in Mordialloc where I have lived for thirty-five years. I married there and gave birth to my two daughters and brought them up in Mordialloc, but there was a passion missing, a sense of belonging I needed to ignite because if I was going to die should I return to Scotland?

After I finished chemotherapy I decided to create a bucket list because breast cancer and the treatment had me on the brink of death several times due to complications. I had always wanted to visit Australia’s red centre and see Uluru, in Australia’s heart and a sacred place for the Aborigines. I felt if I could get closer to the earth sacred to Aborigines, a connection to their mother, the country, would perhaps rub off on me.

Through research on the Internet, I discovered a tour company taking a group of writers to walk the Larapinta Trail called Desert Writers. Led by Jan Cornell, we’d spend five nights camping in the desert and walk the trail with two indigenous guides.

I didn’t hesitate and booked to fly to Alice Springs in July 2011 – still almost bald and a little fragile from a lumpectomy, haematoma, then radical mastectomy, three months of chemotherapy and a nasty bout of pneumonia thrown in for good measure.

The trip would not only realise a dream but would affirm I could still travel, which is one of my passions. It promised to encourage me to write, the most important passion I have. However, more importantly, I hoped to gain a greater appreciation and deeper connection to my adopted homeland, something I had not felt since being uprooted from Scotland as a child.

The journey fulfilled all my hopes and last year when I returned to Scotland after a twenty- year absence I loved being back, but returning to Mordialloc was coming home.

Mordi Creek bridge.jpg

My place is Mordialloc, where I can walk along the seashore and as far as I can see there is freedom, an infinite sea, and endless sky.

I can stroll by the Creek enjoying the beauty of native and imported flowers and trees, listen to birdsong, laugh at the antics of ducks and seagulls.

I can breathe and feel secure, even at night, because wherever I am near the sea, John is with me. We sprinkled his ashes at Stony Point so he can wander distant lands, many he’d visited as a boy sailor but always his spirit can return when he feels inclined to touch these shores again.

Whenever the girls or I am near the sea we know John is there, just as the Aborigines know their country and walk in the knowledge their ancestors are protecting their place and their stories.

When I die, my ashes will be sprinkled into the sea at Stony Point. My first journey will be to my birth country, the Western Isles of Scotland, but I will always return to these shores as long as the girls are here and so much of my life’s story.

At Stony Point, I feel calm, serene and comfortable. It is one of several places I cherish as well as marvellous Mordi!

seagull looking at reflection Mordi.jpg

Thank you Mum – Gratitude For Every Day Not just Mother’s Day!

“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.”

Og Mandino

Mothers-Love_0001-300x300

Today I honour my mother, Annie Courtney McInnes (15.4.1921 – 23.10. 2009). She brought seven children into the world and six of us survived to adulthood. At one stage there were four under five years – mothering must have been relentless and exhausting.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Thank you, Mum, for helping me when I became a mother – the most definitive life-changing event in my life! For guiding and supporting me and not looking through rose-coloured glasses. For acknowledging parenting is a tough gig, whether you have two children or six. Thank you too, for not lecturing me and telling me how ‘it’ should be done.

mother's day poem

Mum – thank you for being one extraordinary wonderful woman!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Dear Mum
Mairi Neil

When twilight shadows trees
And evening hush descends
The busyness of the day departs
I still my mind; let silence mend.

Thoughts of living abound
You were a safe harbour for me
I sailed chartered and unchartered waters
You calmed an oft stormy sea.

You launched my dreams
And supported me with love
When I set sail to meet life’s challenges
You were always a guiding dove.

Although I was one of a fleet
Time a commodity in short supply
I never felt unloved or neglected
Your largesse constant as the sky.

You taught me how to cope
When buffeted by gales
Never to abandon ship
Just strengthen ropes and sails.

I carried cargo, travelled far
But always navigated home
You taught me to love and be loved
And the sea of life is there to roam.

I’ve shed barnacles, refurbished decks
Still nurture a manifest to complete
But miss those loving arms and words
Ache to drop anchor at your feet.

Each day before lights out
‘neath twinkling stars and velvet sky
I reflect on a mother’s love
Feel blessed. Legacies do not die.

Unknown

Mum’s Wisdom (a pantoum)
Mairi Neil

Least said soonest mended
A mantra for good relationships
Wisdom from Mum I respected
Especially when ill-feeling grips

A mantra for good relationships
Helps the journey that is life
Especially when ill-feeling grips
And friendship turns to strife

We all face hard choices in life
Dignity needed when mending rifts
No one wants unsettling strife
Or the fear allegiances may shift

Maintaining dignity, mending rifts
Valuing all the views rendered
Shattering of relationships swift
So least said soonest mended.

Valuing each view rendered
Mum’s mantra for good relations
Wisdom I always respected
And a lesson for warring nations!

images-2

Shelter from the storm
Mairi Neil



Bruised clouds sweep the sky
a gloomy ominous pall.
I remember your voice
a thunderplump is on its way.

Nearing sixty, I wish to be six again
to feel comforting arms
gather me close.

Cushioned against your chest
my anxious heart working overtime
Pit pat pit pat pit pat

Until attuned to your
gentle breathing, and steady
ba boom ba boom ba boom.

I relax, as your hands
usually burdened with chores
keep me safe
in rhythmic caress.

The House Where I Was Born

Mairi Neil

I sing of a river I’m happy beside
The song that I sing is a song of the Clyde
Of all Scottish rivers it’s dearest to me
It flows from Leadhills all the way to the sea

It borders the orchards of Lanark so fair
Meanders through meadows with sheep grazing there
But from Glasgow to Greenock, in towns on each side
The hammers ding-dong is the song of the Clyde

Oh the River Clyde, the wonderful Clyde
The name of it thrills me and fills me with pride
And I’m satisfied whate’er may betide
The sweetest of songs is the song of the Clyde

from the top of Lyle Hill memorial to Free French
You can just see the River Clyde from the bedroom window of Number Two George Square, Greenock and in 1953, the year I was born, the clamouring of the riveters’ pistols in the shipyards competed with the noisy steam trains leaving nearby Greenock West Station.
1:1 2 george square
Like most of the buildings in the Square, Number 2 dated back to the 1800s. The three storey, plus attic and basement ashlar building stained with the grime of industry from several shipbuilding yards and sugarhouses, rope works, and a network of engineering businesses.
George Square Baptist church
The George Square Baptist Church nestled alongside Number 2. This simple Renaissance building of squared rubble with Ionic pilasters, erected in 1888, one of several churches adorning the Square and the only one that does not have bells.
However, the bell ringers of the four other churches ensure the Sabbath is not a restful day for the residents of George Square and shift workers like my father often cursed when the various churches announced the different starting times of their services with clanging bells. Clappers chimed an invasive cacophony as they bounced off hundredweights of metal.
The close stairs, Catriona and Iain
The close stairs, Catriona and Iain
The entrance to Number 2 called a ‘close’. Six stone steps lead to a narrow passageway that stretches to the back of the building where more steps allow access to the flats on the upper floors. At the far end of the close, stairs go down to the pocket-handkerchief back garden, referred to as the ‘drying green’ or ‘back green’. The shared laundry with a copper stove is here, and the rubbish bins.
The coal cellars for the ground floor flats – Number I and Number 2 – are beside the laundry. My father being a keen amateur photographer converted part of the coal cellar into a dark room-cum-workshop.
1950s coalman
Number 2 is the cream of the flats, having a basement kitchen and its own back door. Upstairs on street level, there are two large rooms: the parlour and a bedroom. The entrance has a patch of dull red floral linoleum, scuffed by many feet and in need of replacing in 1953. The bathroom next to the bedroom has a bath, hand basin, and toilet. The indoor toilet a luxury not shared by many of Greenock’s population, who still live in overcrowded housing stock not yet repaired, or rebuilt after the devastating bombing raids of World War 2.
p367812
The bathroom’s black and white tiled patterned floor a linoleum, but this hardy floor covering has been replaced in the bedroom and parlour by painted wooden floorboards and floral carpet squares.
Although the apartment is large by the standards of the day, it is cramped living for my McInnes family – especially on the night of August 12th when Mum goes into labour with me. The household consists of my parents, Annie (32) and George (31), their children: Catriona (4), Iain (2 and 7months), George (13 months), and Papa ( Dad’s father, John 78) and Dad’s unmarried sister, Mary (40).
img147
There are two set-in beds, a peculiarly Scottish invention to provide extra sleeping quarters in rooms other than bedrooms. Built into the wall and hidden by dark red crushed velveteen curtains, a set-in bed in the parlour hides above the stairs leading down to the kitchen. Mary sleeps in this bed when she is off duty from the William Quarrier’s Orphan Homes of Scotland where she is Matron of the Epileptic Colony.
The hole in the wall bed, Papa, Catriona and Iain
The hole in the wall bed, Papa, Catriona and Iain
Downstairs in the kitchen is another set-in bed where Papa sleeps. These set-in beds are unhealthy and cold and have been blamed for the spread of contagious diseases like scarlet fever, measles, tuberculosis and other ailments prolific in days gone by, but less of a problem since the discovery of penicillin’s ability to kill infectious bacteria in 1939. In the bedroom, my parents’ double bed hugs a wall opposite a green settee that folds out to a double bed for Catriona and Iain to share. Beside a large cot where George sleeps, a Pedigree coach-built pram sits ready for my arrival.
img069
Two large wardrobes and a chest of drawers line one wall in the bedroom to accommodate everyone’s clothes. Space at a premium but the parlour always kept tidy to entertain visitors, especially since passersby can easily peek in through the large bay window at street level. The net curtains don’t block out curious eyes and even on cool days the open window lets in fresh air, one of my mother’s obsessions, probably from her days growing up on a farm in Northern Ireland, or perhaps her years as a nurse trained in Florence Nightingale’s methods.
img142
Most houses of this era have poor ventilation, the narrow claustrophobic close dismal and designed to capture smells. Few rooms have windows to the outside. Cooking smells linger, along with the smoke from the coal fires in every room.
The winters are long and cold in Scotland. Greenock has the highest rainfall of any town in Great Britain and comedians joke those born in Greenock have webbed feet. Most days washing has to be dried inside, or at least ‘aired’ before being folded away.
Unknown-1
The air inside damp as washing hangs from the pulley suspended from the kitchen ceiling or dangles scattered on the backs of chairs, even – tempting fate – draped over the fireguards. Clothes suspended from the ceiling invariably smell of the meals cooked and eaten. Families learn to avoid washing on Fridays if their religion demands eating fish!
 images
The kitchen is the heart of Number 2. A large black cooking range providing warmth, as well as a pot of permanently hot tea. Mum is Irish and in Scottish colloquialism, a ‘tea Jennie’, someone who drinks tea by the barrel. A gas stovetop sits in the scullery, the small open room near the back door containing a sink, workbench and serviceable walk-in pantry. Meals are prepared in the scullery.
Two comfy armchairs sit either side of the cooking range, close enough for stretched legs and feet to rest on the range and be nicely toasted on a chilly day or night. The square wooden table host at mealtimes with Mum’s limited repertoire because rationing still exists in 1953.
img746
Food on the menu, some more frequently than others, includes: porridge, vegetable broth, lentil soup, mince and tatties, slice, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, lamb cutlets, Irish stew, champ (mashed potatoes with chopped spring onions), parsnip and carrot mash, turnips, bacon and fried eggs, black pudding and fried bread, rice pudding and tinned mandarins, semolina and prunes, and bread and butter pudding.
Ration book 1953
However, when Dad collects his pay on Friday night, ice-cream can be purchased as a treat, from the Tally van, that prowls the streets playing ‘Greensleeves’. Italian immigrants introduced ice-cream to the British as a street food and created the thriving takeaway culture that still survives in cities such as Greenock.
Brought to Britain as cheap labour and sent north to Scotland with a barrow they sold their ice-cream by crying, ‘Gelati, ecco un poco!’ which probably led to ice-cream vendors being called ‘hokey pokey men’ and the ice cream referred to as ‘hokey pokey’. Regardless of their name or nationality, every vendor was called Tony –short I expect for Antonio, and when you asked for an ice cream cone it was a ‘poke’.
mr-whippy
My family is fortunate because Papa and Dad work an allotment on railway land and grow vegetables, plus raise prize-winning bantam hens that provide eggs to share with childless Steve and Rita Armour, neighbours and valued friends, living at Number 1.
dad on engine
Dad, a locomotive engine driver stationed at Ladyburn Depot, works shifts two miles away near the James Watt Dock. Most days and nights he walks back and forwards to work because his shifts rarely coincide with public transport timetables. He exchanged hours with a workmate so he can be at home to look after Papa and the children while the midwife and Aunt Mary attend to Mum.
800px-Greenock_West_station_61106
It is a Wednesday evening, the day unusually warm, reflecting the Indian summer Scotland is experiencing in 1953. However, the evening air chills, fires must be lit and Catriona and Iain have an altercation over the empty coal scuttle. At that moment, fifteen minutes to nine o’clock Mum switches off the vacuum cleaner leans on the mantelpiece and declares ‘it’s time’. The labour pains had niggled all day making Mum restless, hence the vacuuming despite Dad’s pleas for her to rest.
img082
The spurt of activity has hurried me along, but she barely gets upstairs to the bedroom before I enter the world at 9.05pm, child number four and the second daughter. Arriving without fanfare I almost deliver myself, according to Mum.
Just as well, because Catriona throws the coal scuttle and it clips Iain on the cheek splitting his skin. Dealing with the drama of Iain’s bleeding face nurse Mary misses the birth. She is further delayed to massage Catriona’s hurt feelings after the bad-tempered attack drew a scolding from Papa – a rare event for Catriona, his ‘princess’, and the only granddaughter (until my arrival) in the rapidly increasing McInnes Clan.
img061
The cry, ‘it’s a girl’ restores joy to the household. Dad and Mum have produced another female offspring, the only couple to do so in their respective families. Mary takes a photograph of me being cuddled by Dad as he sits beside the flickering fire in the parlour. Wrapped in the well-worn christening shawl, a McInnes family heirloom, I’m oblivious to the tap of high heels and leather boots filtering in from the street as couples rush to catch the late movie at the BBC Cinema, two streets away.
the-master-of-ballantrae-movie-poster-1953-1020250173
Within the house, Gaelic music wafts up the stairs from the radiogram in the kitchen as Papa celebrates with a wee dram of the finest malt whisky, saved for such an occasion. He sings in his native tongue as Dad’s older brother Alex arrives to check I have the right number of fingers and toes before settling by the fire to smoke one of the cigars he has brought for Dad. He joins his father and brother in ‘a wee dram to wet the baby’s head’.
Exhausted, Mum lies back in bed on pillows bolstered by cushions, aware that any rest period she can claim now will be of necessity very short!
Dad begins to sing The Green Oak Tree to me:

Chorus:

I’ll sing about a wee toon that stands doon by the Clyde,
It’s the toon whaur I was born and it fills my heart with pride
My mother often telt me as she crooned me on her knee,
That Greenock took its name from the Green Oak Tree.
So here’s tae the Green Oak that stood upon the square,
And here’s tae its roots that are still slumbering there,
And here’s tae its townsfolk wherever they may be,
For I’m proud that I’m a branch of the Green Oak Tree.
images
May Greenock, like the Green Oak Tree,
still flourish ‘neath the sun.
Her trade and commerce still increase
for a thousand years to come
And may each son o’ Greenock,
as he battles through life’s storm
Be honest, true and ne’er disgrace
the town where I was born.
Now Greenock’s no’ a bonny place,
I’ve heard some folks complain,
That when you go to Greenock
you’ll get nothing there but rain
But let them say whate’er they may,
with them I’ll no agree,
For aye the name o’ Greenock toon
will aye be dear tae me.

A Sense of Summer Triggered by Your Nose!

Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.

George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

The last few weeks in class we have been discussing summer and writing to prompts. We discussed the sensory detail of smell, one often left out of writing, yet the sense that is usually the best trigger for memory.

We live in a sensory-rich world and our five senses should not be left out of our writing if we want to evoke a reaction and engage readers. In class, we brainstorm and list ideas for stories and then write whatever imagination and memory dictate.

Grilled meat – BBQ stories – bushfire experience
Citronella candles, mosquito coils – camping escapade
Chlorine, salt, mud – water adventures – seaside, river, pool, garden
Car smells – road trip
Flowers, trees, cut grass – garden and park settings
Does dust smell? – drought, hay fever

Stories set in northern or southern hemisphere, or both…

Summer in Scotland – gardens, hedgerows and fields displaying colourful wildflowers in shades of purple, white and yellow: bluebells, thistles, heather, daisies, dandelions and buttercups. A handful picked for Mum, who placed them on the kitchen windowsill in a jam jar vase.

In the 1950s, The Davaar Road gang as we were called, played outside until mums grew hoarse calling us inside for our tea, bath and bed. The long days seemed endless because of Scotland’s close proximity to the North Pole – it could be nearing midnight and yet seem like day, to be followed by a prolonged, breathtaking gloaming (twilight). Something we sorely missed when we migrated to Australia.

memoir-final-Sept-Mairi-Neil-Mairi-3yrs-Davaar-Rd-1956
me with the Docherty girls in the background wearing their mum’s shoes!

 

The area where we lived, Braeside in Greenock, aptly named because the housing scheme rose up the side of a hillside sandwiched between hills towards Loch Thom and hills overlooking Gourock. We’d climb the brae opposite our house to hunt for blackberries, ignoring thorns and nettles that tore at tender skin. The purpose of the expeditions – to fill Mum’s biggest saucepan so that she could make her bramble jam and bramble jelly. When we were old enough she let us stir the pot and I’d inhale the wonderful aroma as well as be fascinated as she used a nylon bag to strain the fruit pulp. The whole house smelled sweet and fruity, and the thought of homemade steamed puddings, jam rolls, fairy cakes and lovely jam sandwiches (jeely pieces) made any scratched arms, skint knees or bee stings worthwhile.

Blackberries.Photo

Most bumblebees and wasps were repelled as we clutched buckets, old pots, jam jars – any available receptacle – and filled them with the delicious, juicy bunches gathered from wild bushes. Of course, our purple stained faces and fingers testimony that many of the berries were eaten before we got home. How shocked we were when we arrived in Croydon, Australia to large tracts of land sporting lots of blackberry bushes, but the fruit off limits because the plants were considered toxic weeds and sprayed regularly!

In Scotland, if we weren’t collecting brambles we were playing ball games like rounders or lying on dewy, soft grass, the smell of the River Clyde and distant Irish Sea drifting over the brae as we made daisy chains and tested who liked butter with delicate buttercups held under chins. We giggled and made each other touch dandelions, which supposedly made you pee the bed.

dandelion and puffball 220px-Four-leaf_clover

Sitting on the soft fragrant heather making daisy chains we’d slice each stalk with a fingernail making an opening big enough to poke the next daisy’s head through and continue this until a chain was long enough to be a necklace or bracelet. Glamour plus!

To determine whether a boy loved you or not, we pulled petals from the daisies one at a time, chanting ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ until the poor flower completely mangled fell to the ground. Flora vandalism!

The other pastime of picking buttercups and holding a flower under each other’s chin to witness a yellow glow was supposed to decide whether we liked butter. I don’t think anybody ever failed the test, yet we never tired of doing it.  Just as we never tired of searching for four-leaf clovers to have magical protection and good luck forever.

The dandelion, another flower we rarely picked for posies and guessing games because being seen with them was risky to your reputation! We called dandelions pee-the-beds and to be seen touching them meant you’d be accused of wetting the bed!

2014-04-14-18.14.33-150x150

The tiny yellow flower, the scourge of gardeners who regard them as weeds, but golden seas sprout in fields, parks, gardens and road verge across Scotland. Beekeepers, the only people happy about the glorious yellow carpets, because the protein-rich dandelion pollen and nectar a boon for bees. Each dandelion plant can produce 20,000 feather-light seeds, which are blown on the wind to colonise gardens in a short period of time. They thrive in nutrient-rich soil and destroy other flowers by encroaching on their habitats. No wonder gardeners get annoyed.

When in the puffball stage, we used the dandelions to tell the time – blowing the seeds into the air and chanting whatever wish we wanted and it would be granted in how many hours ‘the clock’ said.

Although classified as weeds, dandelions are also edible and can be used for cooking and medicinal purposes.The white sap from its stem said to cure warts and dandelion tea supposedly helps calm stomach aches. The plant, which is rich in potassium, zinc and calcium, also used by some herbalists to treat skin conditions, asthma, low blood pressure, poor circulation, ulcers, constipation, colds, hot flushes and has a diuretic effect when eaten. A long way from the stigma of ‘pee-the-beds’!

Only in summer did we taste ice-lollies bought from Peter’s shop, a place hosting delicious smells from jars of lollies and other goodies: musk, mint, aniseed, liquorice and other pervading sugary and syrupy smells. With money tight buying sweeties was truly a rare treat.

And as if that wasn’t magnet enough, Peter installed a jukebox that ate any spare change we could wangle from mum if we were sent for ‘a message’. I always put on Roses Are Red My Love by Bobby Vinton, a hit in 1962, or Cliff Richards’ Summer Holiday. My big sister, Cate chose Adam Faith’s What Do You Want?

Summer holidays, the time to collect firewood to build a bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night to make a guy and drag him around the neighbourhood on a bogey (homemade go-cart) yelling ‘penny for the guy’ to amass money for fireworks: Catherine Wheels, Sky Rockets, Air Bombs, Sparklers, but mainly penny bungers. Sometimes we couldn’t wait for November and the acrid smell of gunpowder in the backyard tipped off our parents we were exploding fireworks without their permission or supervision. Another custom sensibly abandoned in Australia because of the fire danger, but these pictures typical of my childhood were found in the Geoff Charles Collection.

Playful Seasons
Mairi Neil

In dewy meadow, Spring flowers bright
Buttercups bloom, a magnificent sight
While strolling upon this carpet of gold
A test is remembered from days of old
A yellow flower waved under the chin
Do you like butter, we asked with a grin.

In dewy meadow, under strong Summer sun
Childhood revisited as we have some fun
Clumps of wild daisies smile up at me
Their perfect white petals fluttering free
A bunch of daisies transformed with love
Necklace and bracelet feather soft as a dove

In dewy meadow, Autumn leaves fall
Dandelions transform into puffballs
With gentle breaths, we blow and blow
Discovering Time as spores drift like snow
One o’clock, two o’clock –– maybe three
Until a naked stem is all we can see.

In dewy meadow, Winter walks are brisk
The puddles ice over putting feet at risk
I spy a toddler wearing bright rubber boots
Splashing in puddles, not giving two hoots
A flashback to childhood appears in the rain
It’s worth wet socks to feel carefree again.

What does summer smell like to you? Put the smells in context – what memories do they trigger? Create a poem, a memoir, or story with fictional characters – have some writing fun.