In praise of a sedentary life

In the winter of 2017, my husband and I compared notes about whether this was indeed the coldest winter we had known with temperatures plunging in some places to near zero.

Even rugged up under four layers, it still felt cold.

At times like this your impulse is to stay home or if you can afford, make your way to warm places like Queensland or the top of Australia.

But we were not feeling flush at this time with a down turn in my husband’s work and my usual reluctance to travel too far from home, so we decided on some place nearby.

I do it every time we travel. In my head, I compare the internals of the hotel in which we stay with its typical set up of one small on suite bathroom, hidden jug in cupboard with two cups, two glasses, two spoons and several sachets of tea and dried coffee, to home.

The usual pods of long life milk unnecessarily stuck where the eggs should sit in the fridge are never enough for me who likes her tea milky, but at least this time the Vue Grand in Queenscliff went upmarket with Twining’s tea, instead of the unfamiliar brands from bulk supermarkets like Aldi.

We breakfasted here in the downstairs dining room on the latest shift possible at 9.15 am or so before a day of roaming the area to Portarlington and nearby Swan Bay in the hope of some beach walks; wind in our hair, salt on our cheeks and a sprinkle of sun, however inadequate, to make the whole thing seem more beautiful. Though the sea on a grey day has its own beauties, when the rain and sleet bash onto your face, it’s hard to enjoy them.

These days my husband, if offered the chance, can sleep for twelve hours, which amazes me given I wake after eight. To me this is a generous sleep and more than enough to keep me alert the next day. But he wants more.

We talk about it sometimes, my concern that sleep is his escape into oblivion, that same oblivion his father sought all those years ago when he took to his bed after retirement and spent day after day secretly slugging from a sherry bottle and listening to the horse races.

Maybe his father thought gambling a legitimate way to augment his pension once he stopped the nine to five drudge of a job with the local council, doing whatever people who work in overalls do.

I never thought to ask. It didn’t seem relevant but these days as I watch my husband slide into a life of less activity, I wonder what it was his father did to while away the hours and what it might be that could keep another man going, especially when I figure my husband of the high intellect must have got his brains from someone.

Perhaps it’s true, as I’ve read elsewhere, we get our IQs from our mothers.

This idea would offend my father who was convinced my mother was one of the stupidest and most unintelligent people who ever lived.

Why then did my father marry her?

Did he not reckon on this when he first decided he would convert to Catholicism in order to claim her as his bride?

Was that not a foolhardy act?

Or was he drawn to the respectability of my mother and her family? Their clean living ways? Their religious convictions and the gentle aspect of a family of seven children, two of whom became Franciscan priests, and parents who managed to keep all their children dedicated to the church even into adulthood and for some even after they migrated to Australia and far from home.

My father was the first from his newly adopted family to drop his faith, until years later when he was on the edge of death and had stopped drinking and decided maybe he needed something to help get him through all those doubts we all have about what it is like to be no more.

In winter, the main street of Queenscliff, lined on either side with the usual array of food stops and junk shops disguised as antiques, was all but closed at 4.30 in the afternoon given trade was so slow.

We walked up and down then in search of the best place for our evening meal, the only thought: how to get a half decent feed at a reasonable cost. They tend to charge more in the country and much as they try to emulate the restaurants and cafes in the city, they never quite succeed. You pay more for less.

This place throbs with bodies at the height of summer, but like most places by the beach it all but closes up for the short cold months after Easter through to Cup Day in November when the cash registers start to clang again and the locals grit their teeth against the onslaught.

Much as they might try not to complain – most of them rely on the tourists – the arrival of the locusts, year after year interrupts their quiet lifestyle and cause an irritation many of them cannot bear.

In winter they can forgive us for traipsing the streets. They’re grateful even that a few city folk might venture so far into the cold to enjoy a winter holiday by the beach.

This then is another trip I have made to appease those who consider my life at home too sedentary. They want me to stay on the move before my body seizes up altogether, but I prefer to travel only in my mind.

The frailty of friendship

When she sent me the email, I thought I could die. Her words so simple on the page were full of poison.

‘You were mistaken,’ she wrote, ‘to think I had not received your email. You were mistaken. I have simply chosen to ignore it.’

I sat at the keyboard frozen. I had tried to reach out across the gulf of oceans, across the gulf of skies, to make contact yet again, after two years of silence and all she wanted to say to me was ‘Go away’.

You’re not wanted in my life. You’re not welcome.

I had found the eggshell by the side of the road on the small strip of grass called the nature strip. Someone must have mowed it recently but they had not done a good enough job. Bits of grass sprouted at the edge by the gutter, like a badly cut hairdo. Long weeds stuck out from under the sprawling ti-tree in the middle. The ti-tree had grown in that straggly ungainly way of trees when they are close to the sea.

I found the shell on the grass between the ti-tree and the gutter. It was pale blue and speckled in green. Its edge was crusted with the egg yolk yellow of the embryo that once must have been tucked inside.

I do not know what made me pick it up. Some sense of its fragility, its beauty, its connection to the earth. Instinctively I took it to my nose. It smelt the way a stone smells when you breathe on it. It carried the smell of wind and rain, the grassy smell of a hot day after a heavy soak.

I stroked its smoothness. A tiny bit crumbled from the edge and fell to the ground. I would keep the shell, I decided then, as a souvenir of her.

A souvenir of the day I last saw her, the last time she held my hand.

‘You can’t just leave like that,’ I had said. ‘You can’t just go.’

‘I must,’ she said. ‘My mother is dying. But I’ll be back.’

That’s what she said then. She said it, I heard her words loud and clear. I heard her make the promise.

‘I’ll be back. Soon,’ she said. ‘I swear. Besides I have to be back for the next exhibition. I have too much at stake.’

At first she wrote me long loving letters, on purple notepaper in her fine spidery scrawl.

My mother is up and down, she wrote. She’s frail. Not long now.

I was understanding then.

What daughter could leave her mother to die alone? I was understanding then that I must be patient. I had cradled my eggshell in a piece of tissue paper in an old soapbox in the bottom of my study drawer.

From time to time I looked at it, as I look at it now. It was fading fast. The hard shell around the thin milky inner skin had come away. My half shell had become a quarter. Soon it would be fragments.

A year ago she sent a note and inside enclosed a card containing all the details of her mother’s life and death.

Her letters came fewer and further between, their content thinned to a list of her activities, those she had seen, what she had done.

No longer did she share with me the inner workings of her mind.

I thought of her often. Every time a new exhibition opened at the gallery, I wondered why she had not comeback to exhibit her work, why she had decided that Germany could offer so much more to her than here with me.

I looked up her name on the Internet, nestled in among the names of other print makers. I found her alongside the famous, Monique Gilbre, Antonia Boudin, and knew then I had lost her.

There was an email address at the foot of the page alongside her name and a copy of the details of her latest exhibition.

It would be easy to reach her.

Letters are slow, I thought.

Letters lose their passion, letters cannot convey the urgency of my need for her, but an email. A message now shot from the heart. A call that could cross the ether, that would bring her back to me, would bring a message back to me.

I waited a month, a month maybe two. But I did not hear.

What could this mean? It must be a wrong address, a changed address. The university where she worked had a website and again I found her name with a new address. I sent her another email, a last arrow into the darkness, my last call.

And then her reply.

I was mistaken to think she still cared.

Here now, I peel the eggshell from its tissue.

I crush it inside the hollow of my hand. I rub the powdered grit into the small of my hand, one hand on the other, rubbing and rubbing until all trace of the shell has gone, pulverised, like the image of my friend, then I press the delete button.