The peculiarly deceptive tendencies of ordinary household objects

The cat was strangely uncommunicative this morning. I was chattering away in my usual inane fashion (I think I was talking about apartheid, from memory) and she wasn’t saying a thing. I mean, she’s not exactly chatty most mornings, but she normally at least acknowledges my presence: heaving up her head and blinking in her slow, disdainful, lion-like way; flicking her tail in annoyance if my voice is making it particularly hard for her to sleep; charging my shins if I make a comment she vehemently disagrees with: that dogs are quite nice for instance, or that I don’t think Quentin Tarantino is a particularly good director. Today though, not a thing. I was starting to get concerned.

‘So, I noticed the mynah birds were out on the deck this morning,’ I said with deliberate casualness. (The mynah birds are her arch enemies.) ‘Must have been the seed I put out for them.’ 

Nothing. I tried again. ‘I was watching Reservoir Dogs yesterday – what a load of rubbish!’

Still nothing.  I tried once more. ‘Speaking of dogs, I saw a new Alsation has moved in next door. A big one. Vicious looking.  Ex-police I’d say. Very sharp teeth.’ (This was a lie but I was getting desperate.)

She didn’t even look up.  I could only conclude that she was dead or in a coma. I hoped she hadn’t been trying to read Umberto Eco again. I’d warned her about that. I leant over to have a closer look…

The cat chose that moment to saunter in from the back yard. And it was then I realised that I had been talking to a pair of brown shoes for the past hour.

‘Bad cat!’ I cried angrily. ‘I’ve told you before about disguising yourself as ordinary domestic objects!’ The cat said nothing. Nor did the shoes.

I phoned Richard in annoyance. ‘Will you please stop leaving your shoes all around the house?’ I snapped.

‘Can I call you back? Now’s not a good…’ he began.  I cut him off.

‘It takes ten measly seconds to pick them up and put them in the bedroom. I don’t understand why that poses such an insurmountable challenge!’

‘I’m actually in a meeting with the managing…’

 ‘It’s untidy and slovenly. What would the real estate agent think if he stopped by for a surprise inspection?’

‘I’d be more worried about him seeing the cat,’ he muttered. This was the wrong thing to say.

 ‘What are your trying to imply?!’ I exploded, ‘That the real estate agent has better eyesight than me? That I’m completely blind?

There was a long pause. ‘Oh no, you haven’t been talking to the feather duster again have you?’ he said sympathetically.

‘Of course I haven’t been talking to the feather duster – I’m not a complete idiot! I’m just very upset about this shoe thing and I don’t think you’re taking it seriously enough. It’s an occupational health and safety hazard!’

‘Look, it’s not that big an issue. Shoes can be moved.’ 

‘Exactly – they can be moved. So in future, when you take your shoes off will you please move them to the wardrobe,’ I finished triumphantly, and hung up.

Of course, it wasn’t really the shoes that were the issue. It was my eyesight, which has never been particularly good (too many evenings spent reading under the covers as a child), and lately seems to be deteriorating rapidly. I now need my glasses to see the computer at work or to read a book, the 30cm between my face and the page constituting a ‘long distance’. And Fina’s ability to blend in with the furnishings doesn’t really help things.

I’ve always loved her beautiful camouflage coat – along with her sarcastic sense of humour, it’s one of her best qualities: a dappled tawny colour with flecks of russet, gold and black, it exactly mimics the effects of sunlight on the forest floor. It would be perfect if she were hiding out in the Amazon or fighting in Nam.  But, you know, she isn’t.  In hindsight, I probably should have chosen a more conspicuous cat.

I also should have thought more carefully about how I decorated the house. The brown sofa cushions were an error, as was the fawn throw-rug. The cat-sized teracotta pot on the patio was also a mistake. And the green armchair. And the bright yellow safety vest hanging from the door.  

Because it isn’t Fina; it’s just my eyes: even if her coat was pure white like a gleaming patch of snow, or the warm glowing marmalade of sunlight caught in a jar, I’d still be mistaking scarves and shovels and pot plants and refrigerators for her.

And when I think about it, there are advantages to being a few vitreous millimetres away from legal blindness:  without my glasses, I occupy a pretty, Monet-style world of blurred pastels and gentle contours. It’s curiously restful, like looking out through a window washed with rain, or drifting about underwater: the real world seems much too harsh, angular and sharp-edged in comparison.  Mine is a magical world of metamorphosis: ‘What a gorgeous dog!’ I’ll coo, my brain mysteriously filling in the details, so that where my friend sees only a burly man with a gym bag under his arm, I’ll see him cradling a wriggling, bright-eyed puppy.  ‘Look at that beautiful white bird!’ I’ll exclaim, while others see only a plastic bag tangled in the branches of a tree.  In my world, an overflowing garbage bin is a gypsy dancer with a rose between her teeth.  An ordinary mail box a long-necked jungle creature wandering lost in the suburbs.  A child’s red balloon in the distance the most brilliant sunset ever.  And the cat my constant faithful companion…

Haiku: Looking Out of the Back Bedroom Window Without My Glasses by Wendy Cope

What’s that amazing
new lemon-yellow flower?
Oh yes, a football.

Posted in Cats | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

Off the air…

This is just a very quick update dashed out on the computer at work. I have to apologise for not having posted, replied to comments or visited anyone else’s blog for so long.  I’m not dead, despite the best efforts of the cat – it’s just that with all the excitement of the holiday season, we were foolish enough to forget to pay our phone bill. It seems that once you get cut off, it’s curiously difficult for the phone company to reconnect you again unless you’re willing to grovel, commit to some type of ninety-year contract and offer up your first born as penance (difficult if you’re still childless.) For the past two weeks we’ve been phone-less and internet-less then.

I’m quite enjoying it, though. It’s just like living in the18th century – I’ve taken to wearing modest muslin frocks, riding everywhere in a barouche landau and am currently trying to procure the services of a footman. (The only candidate to present himself so far has been called Russell, which is clearly not a very footman-like name, but with the importunacy of youth, he flatly refused to be called Bert or Jenkins or even Albert. Plus, he had what looked like a sabre tooth tiger’s tooth puncturing his ear, which also was not particularly satisfactory.)

I’m getting an incredible amount of reading done without the computer to distract me. I’ve gobbled up at least a dozen YA novels for work, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series being the highlight, and am now working my way through Anna Karenina (first step to a life less shame-filled.) My crossword skills are improving by leaps and bounds – so much so that I no longer feel the need to demand libations and burnt offerings each time I complete a cryptic crossword in its entirety.  And then there’s the baking: muffins, honeycakes and what I like to modestly describe as the most delectable chocolate raspberry brownies ever conceived of by man.

We’ve also decorated the house for Christmas. The tree is up – a real tree, with that sharp, astringent, crushed pine smell that stings the back of your nostrils – a vase of glossy holly leaves sits on the dining room table, and the Christmas cards are beginning to pile up on the mantel (Ok, we’ve got two – but I’m assuming everyone else has emailed.) It’s Fina’s first Christmas with us, and with typical feline egotism, she assumes the whole thing is about her – that we’ve lugged a large, unwieldy conifer into the living room, not because it’s some type of human festive tradition dating back hundreds of years, but because she enjoys being in the garden so much that we’ve decided to vegetate the inside of the house just for her benefit too. I expect Twelfth Night will come as quite a shock for her…

Anyway, the internet should be back in action in a couple of days (unless a light shower of rain should happen to fall somewhere between Sydney and Calcutta in the meantime) and I’ll do my best to get out a new post and reply to all comments as soon as possible then (she says breezily, as if expecting hundreds of comments to have banked up rather than just two (thanks Dad.)) I also look forward to catching up on everyone else’s blogs and hearing about their Christmas plans and top reads of the year…

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

My first meme: Top 10 fictional best friends

I’ll admit it – I’m not really good with technology. I can’t turn on the TV without assistance. I’ve been known to ask four-year-old children how to use my mobile phone. Even turning on the lights poses a problem on certain days (up or down – I can never remember which it is.)

Not surprisingly, I’m also baffled by technological jargon.  I have no idea at all what Skype is. When people speak about Twitter, I assume they’ve developed a sudden interest in bird-watching. And I find references to ‘burning’ CDs frankly alarming.

I still remember my astonishment when a mild-mannered friend informed me that he had just burnt his girlfriend’s entire music collection. ‘Oh my god, why did you do that?’ I asked in concern. ‘Did you have some kind of fight?’

He looked at me blankly. ‘Um no.’

‘Well, isn’t she going to be angry when she finds them all ruined?’ He stared at me for a few more seconds then broke into gales of helpless laughter. I wondered if perhaps he’d burnt the CDs in a poorly-ventilated room and breathed in some type of noxious chemical fumes.

(There was also another upsetting incident which I try not to think about where I was asked to rip some files for an important client at work. ‘A-ha, a security threat,’ I cannily intuited. Always one for thoroughness, I decided to shred the hard copies rather than simply ripping them up (far more secure.) Then just to be extra safe, I deleted all existing versions of the soft copies. I’m still not quite sure why they fired me.)

Anyway, up until a few days ago I was completely unfamiliar with the term ‘meme’.  I’d heard the word thrown about in conversation of course, and had nodded as if I knew what it meant, then immediately gone home and looked it up. According to Wikipedia, a meme was a ‘postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena.’  A postulated unit? Inimitable phenomena? What sort of vague definition was that?

The cat’s explanation was no clearer: she defined it as ‘a pervasive thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; a parasitic code or a virus of the mind .’ What on earth…? Perhaps I’d been inoculated against this so-called virus.

Anyway, I promptly wrote ‘meme’ off as one of those complicated terms only understood by tech-heads (like ‘modem’ or ‘photocopier’) and resumed reading my illuminated manuscript.

And then I came across a post from one of my favourite bloggers, Litlove. She was writing about her top 10 fictional best friends; I quote, ‘a fun meme that I saw at The Broke and the Bookish.’ Intrigued, I clicked on the link above and found links to dozens of other blogs where people gave their own lists of top best friends. And all of a sudden I got it. The universe cracked open before me. I understood  what a meme was.

I immediately called a friend who constantly derides me for my lack of technological skills (‘You’re not a Luddite,’ he once commented. ‘Luddites are like Bill Gates  compared to you’ .)

‘Hi,’ I said brightly.

‘Oh, hey,’ he said. ‘What’s hap –‘

‘I  can’t talk now  – I’m working on a meme,’ I snapped, then hung up before he had the opportunity to express his admiration.  

So here you have it, my first foray into the magical world of memes….

MY TOP 10 FICTIONAL BEST FRIENDS

  1. Clarissa Dalloway from Mrs Dalloway   – a charming, gracious woman – and she throws the most wonderful parties!
  2. Sherlock Holmes – It would be fantastic to visit him at his club, sipping port, eating kippers on toast and sinking into an enormous chesterfield. I’ve always been a sucker for men of intellect – and his superior deductive skills would keep me modest.
  3. Mr Bones, from Timbuktu – down-to-earth, friendly and heartbreakingly loyal, Mr Bones would be great company when you don’t feel like talking. And this little dog could do with a friend himself…
  4. Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility– Elinor seems to be one of the more popular choices for this meme – and why on earth not? Reserved, stoic, and a woman of her word, Elinor is a friend that you could really confide in.
  5. Rebecca Davitch from Back When We Were Grown-Ups – I love all of Anne Tyler’s characters – they’re warm, humane,  delightfully flawed, and good without being boring. Each of them has a type of quiet radiance, managing to infuse ordinary suburban life with the faintest touch of whimsy and magic. Rebecca, a fifty-three year-old woman who discovers she has ‘turned into the wrong person’, is one of my favourites. 
  6. Bridget Jones from Bridget Jones’s Diary – a good friend for when you need a girl’s night out. Funny, self-deprecating and endearingly klutzy – but certainly not a bimbo – Bridget would be the perfect person to drink bucketloads of red wine with and commiserate with over being 30+ and still not married.
  7. Frannie from In the Cut – Frannie is a character I can identify with: a self-contained single woman who is bookish but not frumpy and loves words.  It would be a short-lived friendship, however…
  8. Janet Deakin from Drylands – Janet is an affirmed booklover, an acute observer of life, and an Australian (sometimes only a countryman – or woman – can understand…)
  9. Jack and the Cat from Milli, Jack & the Dancing Cat– bringing with them the gypsy lure of faraway places, this cheerful pair of vagabonds would be perfect for cheering you up when you’re feeling depressed (I challenge anyone not to smile at a marmalade cat doing the ‘tricky-twisting-backward-slide-four-step.’)
  10. A witty, flamboyant Oscar Wilde character to be fabulous with.
Posted in Other bookish things, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

‘How It Feels’, Brendan Cowell

I recently resolved not to write any more negative book reviews, which is why you will not be reading my thoughts on Brendan Cowell’s How it Feels. Thank you.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

A Return to Form: Erasing the Cat

The other day a friend told me that my blog had become rather boring lately. He said all my posts seemed to be about books and crosswords and stupid things, when what everyone really wanted to know about was the cat. ‘I have no idea what’s been happening in her life,’ he complained. ‘What her current interests are – her hobbies, her passions, her pursuits.’

‘She doesn’t really have any,’ I said. ‘She just likes lizards and stuff. Oh, and leaves – she’s back into collecting leaves again.’

‘That’s exactly what I mean!’ he exploded. ‘How am I to know these things unless you write about them?’

‘Is it really necessary that you know about the cat’s -’ I began, but he cut me off.

‘What’s wrong with you woman?! Of course it’s necessary. It’s as necessary as air – as water – as liberty.’  And he refused to let the issue rest until I promised  faithfully that my next post would be solely and exclusively about Fina. So with apologies to everyone else…

ERASING THE CAT

This morning I erase the cat. Make her disappear. Take her for ‘a ride in the car’.

First of all, I empty her litter tray into the bin, wash it, bundle it up in a big plastic bag and stow it beneath the back porch. Then I hide her kibble, food bowl and water bowl in the laundry cupboard.

The scratching post goes into the wardrobe next, along with her cat bed. Next I gather all of her toys together: balls with and without bells, her current krinkletoy, stuffed mice, and a feathery creature on the end of a string. It’s quite pitiful to see the little heap all her worldly possessions make: I have visions of knotting them up in red and white spotted handkerchief, tying it onto the end of a stick then sending her out into the world of men to seek her fortune. Instead, I stash them into the dark wardrobe as well, snatching back Mousey at the last minute.

I brush down the rug and sofas, removing every trace of cat hair. Then I artfully drape throw rugs over the parts of the couch that have been ravaged by her claws (ie. I cover it completely.) Finally, I go through the house with a stick of white sage incense to wipe out every trace of her scent. You would never know a cat had ever been there.

She’s an illegal you see. According to our lease we’re not supposed to have a cat, and today is our six monthly inspection. We debate packing all her things away, locking her outside, then if the landlord happens to see her, pretending she’s the neighbour’s extremely friendly cat. There are problems with that, though (What if he notices my mobile number around her neck? What if she mauls him for intruding in her territory?) and in the end we decide it’s safer to coincide the inspection with her first trip to the vet. We’ve had her for nearly a year now, and it’s about time for her check-up.

Fina's rather odd sleeping position (and no, her back has not been broken)

I get her cardboard cat carrier down from where it has sat on top of the wardrobe for the past 10 months, line it with a towel, then put Mousey in so she won’t be lonely. Then comes the hard part. It takes both Richard and I five minutes to get her in there and close the lid, trying to ignore the frantic little paws scrabbling about on the sides, squirming their way out through the rapidly-decreasing gaps; the mewling; the little head thrusting up against the lid; the green eyes wide and panicked. Finally she is in. It’s done. Arriverderci cat.

It’s heart-rending to hear her piteous miaowing all the way to the vet. ‘It’s alright little one,’ I reassure her, trying to go slowly over the speed bumps so she won’t be disturbed; stroking her at red lights through the air holes. Her fur feels soft as feathers and I can feel her trembling under my fingertips. Her pink felt nose is all that can be seen, pressed against the circular air vent like a traveller looking out wistfully to sea through a porthole.

I feel terrible. I wonder what she thinks is happening, if she thinks we’re taking her back to the shelter; that she’ll never see her special cat bed or eat her cat grass or fetch her favourite leaves from next door again. I almost work myself into tears. I can’t believe I have to bear all this stress by myself; that Richard isn’t here having his heart broken as well. I wonder what I’ll be like when I have to take my child to school for the first time. Probably much happier, I decide: at least there’ll be no cardboard box involved.

I get lucky with parking, finding a place almost outside the vet. I don’t bother reverse parking as the street sign instructs; just swing the car in any-which-way. ‘Nearly there, Fina,’ I assure her, cradling the carrier in my arms.

There’s a homeless man sitting on the footpath outside. He tips his hat to me as I struggle with the door. ‘Sounds like a pretty one,’ he says conversationally, in response to the plaintive cries emerging from the box.

Enjoying her cat grass (good for digestion, apparently)

‘She is’, I say fervently, wishing I could open up the box and show him just how pretty she is – her big moon-like eyes and sweet raccoon-face, the long, elegant plume-like tail. ‘It’s her first visit to the vet. She’s a bit nervous.’

‘Good luck with it!’ he grins, and gives me a thumbs up as we go in.

When you think about it, for a cat, a trip to the vet isn’t that different to being abducted by the mafia. You’re captured and confined against your will; driven to an unknown destination, not seeing where you’re going; then end up in a small brightly lit room where you’re interrogated by a stranger, usually painfully. Little wonder Fina is frightened.

She holds up bravely, however, baring her teeth and splaying her claws for inspection, flattening herself onto the scales to be weighed, allowing her stomach and glands to be prodded, even submitting to the indignity of the thermometer. She doesn’t bite the vet even once, not even when she refers to Mousey as ‘her little friend’ rather than her minion. I’m so proud of her. If gold stars held any value for her, I’d plaster her scratching post with them.

I pass the homeless man again on the way out. ‘How did she go?’ he asks.

I beam. ‘All good. Not one shot!’ He gives me another thumbs up and seems genuinely pleased things have worked out so well for the cat. I think how strange and lovely it is that this man and I from such different worlds are temporarily connected by our concern for this little creature.

Fina is recovering well from her ordeal and doesn’t seem to resent us for our role in it. She got lots of pats and attention when she got home, and had tinned cat food for dinner as a treat (‘‘Dine’ for cats who are connoisseurs’’ ) She’s sitting on the desk beside me now, a little subdued but otherwise herself. She’s been gazing up through the skylight, watching the leaves of the gum tree whip about in the wind, the sky flatten to dull white as night creeps closer. Richard’s practicing his piano nearby, and she seems happy, listening to the hesitant trails of notes of notes plopping like raindrops into a pool. She’s very sleepy, every few minutes her eyes drifting closed to form little crescent moons. I can rest my hand on her side, and feel it rising and falling with each deep breath, thrumming slightly as she purrs.

Posted in Cats, Cats, dogs & other rare beasts | Tagged , , , | 17 Comments

An exchange of cross words (or, why there is no book review this week either)

I found the cat doing anagrams when I came home today. At least I assume that’s what she was doing: the scrabble tiles were scattered about her on the rug and she had a look of fierce concentration on her face. The newspaper lay strewn in pieces around the room.  Obviously she had had difficulty finding the crossword puzzle.

I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised: she’s modelling her behaviour on me. I’ve become absolutely obsessed with cryptic crosswords, you see, since going to a talk by David Astle a fortnight ago.

For those not from Sydney, David Astle, also known as ‘DA’, is the Friday crossword compiler for the Sydney Morning Herald. I hadn’t had much experience with cryptic crosswords prior to this session: I got the occasional clue, but in the main part they were just a random jumble of words featuring sinister, gangster-like figures such as ‘Mr P.’ and copious references to American states.  

They were something I always wanted to master though. I can remember watching my Grandma doing them and thinking how sophisticated and poised she seemed, methodically filling in each square with a biro (no tentative pencils for her), slicing through the quagmire of clues with the knife of her intellect.  

Crosswords are also reputed to be an excellent way of staving off Alzheimers, and  I’m paranoid about Alzheimers – so much so that I religiously eat half a cup of blueberries each morning because they’re supposed to prevent it, and panic each time I can’t perform simple memory tasks like reciting the entire Canterbury Tales by heart.

So this session was a godsend. All of a sudden my world cracked open: where previously I had seen only chaos, I now saw patterns, signposts, directions. I knew which words signalled an anagram or container; what abbreviations were commonly used in charades; which part of the clue was the definition and which was the bit to be manipulated (some of the time at least.) I was alert to the possibility of puns prowling about; saw deletions and alternations grinning at me from tantalising thickets of words; kept an ear permanently pricked for homophones and spoonerisms. I was sensibly wary of hybrids and manipulations. And when I saw a rebus, I no longer thought the compiler had got up for another cup of tea and forgotten to finish the clue. I was switched on. (Alright, I admit that I’m exaggerating, that I still haven’t got to the stage where I’m solving rebuses. But it isn’t too far off…)

It’s because of crosswords that my book reviews have been a little thin on the ground lately. While I used to read on the bus to and from work, I now spend the morning commute checking yesterday’s solutions, and the evening commute working on the day’s new puzzle.

If you ever want to be ostracised by your fellow human beings, I highly recommend doing cryptic crosswords on public transport. You should see me: face scrunched up in concentration (all my elaborate anti-wrinkle creams rendered pointless), raking fingers through my hair like a mad scientist, muttering strange incoherent phrases under my breath: ‘Georgia visits Los Angeles, dies beheaded beneath the stars’ (‘Galaxies’ in case you’re interested – I’m quite proud of myself for working that one out.)   

I’m not really one for chatting to strangers, but at times I’ve been so caught up in puzzle-solving mania –so tantalisingly close to cracking that crucial clue – that I’ve resorted to asking passengers near me for help.  Next time you’re on a bus, try asking the person sitting beside you if they can think of any small dog breeds beginning with an F, or if they’ve ever heard of a town in Switzerland called Usturta. The responses are interesting. Men invariably think you’re trying to pick them up, exchanging smug ‘she wants me’ smirks with other males nearby. (From my experience, the more unattractive and divorced-from-deodorant the man, the more inclined he is to think this.) Women on the other hand are much kinder. If you ask them whether they’re familiar with an animal called the zebu, they’ll simply assume you’re mad and move away accordingly.

This recent crossword fetish of mine has had other repurcussions  too. My relationships with friends and family have suffered.  When people speak to me, I’m no longer really listening to what they say: instead, I’m mentally counting the letters in the words they use.

I’ve also become obsessed with anagrams. Idly watching Seraphina Nightingale attacking Richard the other day, I suddenly realised that her name contained the words ‘Satan’ and ‘Hitler’. Surely this was more than mere wordplay –this was hinting at a deeper, more instrinsic understanding of her character.

I duly ran her name through an internet anagram generator just to see what it threw up:
- A seaplane hiring night
- A Shenanigan Lithe Prig
- A Shanghaiing Eel Print
- A Phalanger Nightie Sin
- A Hangnail Greenish Pit
- A Pheasant Hireling Gin

Again, astonishingly apt.

I’m embarrassed to admit what I did next: if googling your name is technological onanism, then I can’t even begin to think what running it through an anagram generator might be. But that’s what I did. And then I tried the names of every other person I could think of. And you may as well  admit that you’re curious about yours as well  (if so, just visit here, or for a quick fix, here.)

…Anyway, to cut a long story short, that’s why there’s no book review this week.  I can however tell you that the centre of gravity is ‘v’. That Justin Timberlake is an anagram of, ‘I’m a jerk but listen’.  That the thing which links friendship with mozzarella, truth, limousine, hamstrings and the imagination is that they can all be stretched.  That ‘set’ is the English word with the most meanings in the dictionary. That British politician Virginia Bottomley’s name can be rearranged to make, ‘I’m an evil Tory bigot’.

I can tell you all this because I finally picked up a book again a few days back: David Astle’s memoir, Puzzled. It’s funny and quirky and clever and sly and full of amazing bits of word trivia you want to immediately share with the person beside you (again, not recommended on public transport.) Most importantly though, it gives you all the tools you need to be a cryptic crossword queen (or ‘conscripted crows query’.) I can’t praise this book enough.

But that’s all I’m going to say for now: I’ve got a crossword to finish.  

Fina seeks solace in alcohol after encountering a particularly fiendish crossword clue.

Posted in Book reviews & other bookish things, Cats, Other bookish things | Tagged , , | 19 Comments

A Knock at the Door

Thank God for that stranger turning up unexpectedly at my front door, or I’d have nothing at all to write about. For the last week or so I’ve been acutely aware that I need to write a new post – it’s now eleven days since the last – but I’ve had no inspiration.

For the first six months of blogging I found topics throwing themselves at me continually – I’d see a little boy selling his teddy bears out the front of his house or an elegant gray cat wearing a pearl necklace, and I’d think to myself, yes, that would make a fantastic post, and by the time I got to the computer the thing had already written itself in my head.

But no more, alas: for the past eleven days I’ve come across nothing even slightly blog-worthy. I can’t even use my old fallback, the cat, who after nearly a year of rampant and unmitigated evil, has become completely dull, spending most of her time sleeping and sitting on the rug… thanks Fina, heaps of great material there. It just goes to show you can never depend on a cat.

I thought I had a topic this morning, but it turned out to be nothing. I was down in Callan Park looking for a good spot to set up my yoga mat: somewhere secluded and shady, preferably with a nice view over the water. I decided to try the secret beach just around from the playing field – more a thin thumbnail of sand than a beach, rimmed with straggly lantana and an arc of wooden rowboats. It’s a popular place for dog owners – usually you can bank on a whole bunch of them being there, along with a bevy of Dalmations and Spoodles and sundry other gourmet mutts prancing about happily in the shallows. There was no-one there today though – just one lone Labrador barking incessantly at an overturned dinghy bobbing close to shore beneath a tangle of vines.  

Where was his owner? He was obviously a well-looked after dog, with a thick, honey-coloured coat and a few spare inches of flesh around his belly – so why was he on his own? And what was with all the barking? I don’t know what your opinion of Labradors is, but I’ve always thought of them as a sensible type of dog – solid, unflappable, certainly not like those bug-eyed yappy dogs so highly strung they need to be confined to padded handbags for their own safety.

I quickly surmised that something was very wrong: clearly the dog was trying to get someone’s attention. His owner had knocked himself out with an oar and was now lying trapped beneath the dinghy in 10 cm of water. Or perhaps there was a stash of drugs or whiskey hidden underneath by pirates. I scrambled down onto the beach and waded across to the dog, who was so preoccupied with his barking he didn’t notice me until I was right beside him. ‘What is it boy, what’s wrong?’ I asked (I knew the appropriate phrasing to use, having watched dozens of episodes of Lassie in my childhood.) ‘Is someone hurt? Or trapped down a mine?’ (Never mind that the area wasn’t exactly replete with mines – I think the nearest was about 10,000 kms away to be precise.)

The dog whirled around in fright upon hearing my voice, droplets of water rainbowing off his long coat. He quickly recovered his composure, however,  gave one sharp urgent bark and sped across the beach to the dirt track I had come down. He looked back quickly to check that I was following him, then raced off up the track, his heavy tongue trailing behind him.  I ran through the bush after him, trying not to stumble on my yoga mat, and after ten metres or so came across a scarf abandoned by the side of the path – clearly a sign that I was getting closer.

…And then I realised that I couldn’t see the dog ahead of me anymore. I couldn’t hear him either. I walked around for a bit without finding anything particularly unusual, then decided I may as well do my yoga. So I did, and it was very relaxing though a little frustrating because I couldn’t remember how to do twisted pigeon pose.  I passed the dog on my way home an hour later, contentedly chasing a ball with a woman I assumed was his owner.

I did warn you that this story was going to be anti-climactic.

But the stranger I alluded to at the beginning of my post: Sydney is in the grip of a fierce storm tonight with blustery winds, heavy rains and that constant tremulous lightning that looks like a sheet of crumpled tinfoil flicking in and out of shadow.  I was chopping vegetables for a stir-fry when R came running into the kitchen, muttering something about ‘very busy – man at the door – selling his wife’s music – I said you’d talk to him.’

Somewhat dubious, I allowed myself to be herded to the front door and found a man in shorts, who sure enough, was trying to promote his wife’s self-published album, Twisted. I was a little wary initially, the way everyone invariably is when someone comes knocking at your door with an agenda, cautioning him that I wasn’t much of a pop/rock/heavy metal/jazz/every musical genre I could think of fan, preparing the groundwork for the inevitable ‘best of luck but I’m afraid I really can’t’ rejection.  He was probably a little wary too, given the album was heavy rock, whereas my librarian glasses and ‘Little House on the Prairie’ skirt proclaimed me as more of a tiny-fragments-of-pebble girl.  

After a few minutes, though, he’d won me over:  he persuaded me to listen to a few minutes of the CD, explaining that they just wanted to get her music out there and have people listening to it as they thought this might help with securing a record contract. He would take anything for it he said: some people had paid $3 while others had paid store prices. Listen to it, lend it to friends, download anything you want – it’s all unlocked, he assured me – and if you like it, please visit our facebook site and say hi. I bought a copy for my Dad, who’s a true musical omnivore, willing to give anything a go. I really hope he loves it, and I really hope others do too.

Why? It was largely the dedication and persistence this man showed in going door to door, one of the most thankless, humbling and soul-destroying activities I can imagine. The rewards would only ever be small, and the hard work and emotional resilience required immense, yet he did it, went to house after house on a cold wet night, because he loved and believed in his wife that much.  I learnt later that he’d sold his house to pay for the album.

Anyway, thank you serendipitous visitor at my door: you reminded me that sometimes you just have to do the leg work – pick yourself up, smile and go to the next house; write that stupid post, even if your creative well has run dry and you feel completely unmotivated, because you said you’d do one a week – and sitting in front of a computer’s a lot easier than having doors slammed in your face. I really hope she gets that recording contract, not because of her talent (although I’m sure it’s considerable), but because of your commitment, and what you’re willing to do to help her.

And if any heavy-rock fans would like to learn more about her music, you can do so here.

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‘Can You Forgive Her?’ (No, not the Petshop Boys song…)

My edition had a much prettier cover but I was unable to find a photograph of it on-line. I'd take one myself, only the cat seems to have hidden my camera, in a characteristic display of evil ...

When the pressures of a four-day-a-week job and a psychotic cat become too much to bear, it’s nice to know you can take refuge in the classics. You usually know what you’re getting with a classic: it survived until the present day after all, which must constitute some type of literary merit. And word of mouth tends to filter down, so that you know to expect sly satire from Jane Austen; fabulously pithy epigrams from Oscar Wilde, and blunt, flat, autistic sentences about whiskey from Hemingway. It’s reassuring – particularly if you happen to be reading a nice, solid hardback with old-fashioned typeface on the cover and sketches of women in capes scattered throughout as I was.

I’ve just finished Can You Forgive Her? by the unfortunately named Anthony Trollope.  If you’re anything like me, then you probably spent the better part of your life going around talking about Tro-lope, which sounds far grander and more aristocratic than Troll-op, pronounced to rhyme with ‘wallop’ or ‘dollop’ – a name better suited to a ruddy-cheeked market woman or bullfrog. You would have been wrong, however, given that the latter prounciation is the correct one.

Can You Forgive Her? is the first book in the Palliser Chronicles, a series often spoken of as Trollope’s ‘political novels’. The title refers to the heroine, Alice Vavasor, a principled, fervent, humourless sort of girl  - a bit like Dorothea Brooke without all the frippery. Her situation is like that of so many Austen heroines: motherless and lacking the guiding counsel of an attentive father. And like Emma Woodhouse in particular, she is both stubborn and misguided.

Before the novel begins, Alice has just entered into an engagement with the quiet and gentlemanly John Gray, a match approved by both her father and her relatives. However, after going on a tour of Switzerland with her cousin, Kate, and Kate’s brother, George, who acts as male protector, Alice breaks off the engagement: though she loves John, she isn’t sure that their lifestyles are suited or that she is worthy of him. These are some of the reasons she gives herself at least, but really she seems to be acting almost fatalistically, plagued by vague, indefinable misgivings that not even she understands.

Some years before, Alice was engaged to George, but ended the engagement because of his wild and reckless ways. Kate blindly adores her brother to the point of being willing to sacrifice all of her meagre income to fund his political aspirations and has always longed for him and Alice to get married, and somewhat disloyally, takes advantage of Alice’s vulnerability to press for their reattachment (yes, I know – it’s all very complicated.) Alice no longer loves George, but in another despairing and self-destructive impulse, agrees to marry him. It isn’t clear what motivates her – perhaps a desire to lose herself in something greater than herself;  a mistaken belief that George’s political campaigning will be a conduit to a wider, nobler world she instinctively craves. In this regard, she again reminded me of Dorothea who similarly saw her marriage to Casaubon as a pathway to a more spiritually expansive, less strait-jacketed life.

Foolishly going against all established conventions, Alice offers George the use of her money immediately, asking only that their wedding be postponed for a year. George initially doesn’t intend to accept her offer, but when his pride receives a blow from the realisation that Alice doesn’t love him, and his need for quick funds becomes dire, he starts to take out loans using her income as surety. It is up to faithful, dependable John Gray, who still inexplicably loves Alice, to find some way to save her from herself.

Intertwined with this narrative are the stories of two other women. Lady Glencora is a young vivacious heiress distantly related to Alice. In the past, she had come to Alice in desperation, begging for the use of her home to meet privately with her lover, the handsome but penniless Burgo Fitzgerald, whom her family views as a fortune-chasing opportunist.  Alice refuses, and the overwhelmed  Glencora yields to her family’s persuasion and breaks off her relationship with Burgo, instead marrying  the cold, humourless and eminently more suitable politician, Palliser Plantagenet – and immediately regretting it.  When Alice is thrown into Glencora’s orbit again, she finds her desolate and miserable – so much so that she is contemplating leaving her husband and returning to Burgo, an act which would make her a social outcast. Glencora, too, needs saving then…

The third woman in the novel, however, the wealthy widow Mrs Greenow, is perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Kate’s aunt by marriage, she is beautiful, coy and charming, despite the hindrance of black mourning crepe. Mrs Greenow greatly enjoys being fought over by two particularly persistent suitors: the rich but ill-bred farmer, Mr Cheesacre, who constantly vaunts his wealth and property (the wonderfully-titled ‘Oileymead’) ; and his rival, the dashing Captain Bellfield, who leaches shamelessly off Cheesacre and lies about the military action he’s seen – yet much to Cheeseacre’s teeth-gnashing consternation, seems to be the preferred suitor. Mrs Greenow, of course, is far too devoted to the memory of her dear husband (a coarse, pig-like man over twice her age) to even think of ever marrying again.

These almost Dickensian characters and their hilarious attempts to one-up each other as wooers add an element of farce to the novel that had me laughing aloud (ROFL, I’d say, were I the type of person inclined to roll around on the carpet in paroxysms of mirth.) Mrs Greenow’s adamant assertions to Kate that Mr Cheesacre is clearly very much in love with her (Kate), despite his complete inattention to her and his almost snivelling adoration of herself, were hilarious, and again reminiscent of Austen’s Emma and her misguided advice to Harriet. I also loved how Mrs Greenow kept flagrantly increasing the length of time since her ‘dear husband’s death’ to make her rampant flirting more acceptable:

‘Only think,’ she said , as she unpacked a little picture of the departed one, and sat with it for a moment in her hands, as she pressed her handkerchief to her eyes, ‘only think that it is barely nine months since he was with me.’ ‘Six, you mean, aunt’, said Kate unadvisedly.

‘Only nine months!’ repeated Mrs. Greenow, as though she had not heard her niece. ‘Only nine months!’ After that Kate attempted to correct no more such errors.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. It was light and sparkling and easy to read, without that ponderous ‘worthy’ feel you often get from ploughing through a classic. And it was such a page-turner, unexpectedly: I’m dying to get the next part so I can see what happens to poor, despairing Alice. I’m really quite anxious about her, to be honest.  

The novel also surprised me in that it revealed a far less circumscribed world than I’d encountered in other novels from this period – more cadenced, nuanced, and undemarcated. Yes, there were rules and social conventions to be observed, but characters flouted them quite frequently, and while they were usually frowned at for doing so, they did not become pariahs as a result.

The other thing which struck me was how psychologically insightful Trollope is: not something he seems to get enough recognition for. None of the characters were ‘a single proposition’, to quote Virginia Woolf, and it is remarkable how their actions could be so often inconsistent with their intrinsic selves, yet they could still come across as realistic and psychologically convincing. I’ve already discussed Alice and her numerous contradictions, but there’s also George. George is in many ways a typical rascal or cad or bounder – all of those words so popular in Victorian novels. Polite society certainly sees him as a no-good-nik: he’s behaved badly to Alice in the past, and does exactly what they all expect when he starts borrowing in her name. Trollope, however, presents him in such a way that even though his actions throughout the book are uniformly bad, we see his mercenary and exploitative behaviour as uncharacteristic, not what he’s really like. We don’t view him through Kate’s rose-tinted glasses, but we do like him, and can see that he has a deeper, more complex self than is acknowledged in the world of the novel. Kate similarly behaves treacherously, betraying the trust of Alice quite shockingly when you think about it objectively, yet Trollope again manages to reassure us that she’s fundamentally loyal and warm-hearted and good.

It’s a very kind, compassionate picture of humanity he presents us with. So of course I could easily forgive Alice – and the rest of them too.

Posted in Book reviews & other bookish things, English fiction | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Enough Beating about the Bush: the Dark Side of Bush Regeneration

I almost threw out the plumbing newsletter that appeared in my mailbox today, dismissing it as mere junk-mail. Thank god I did read it, though, otherwise I may never have benefited from the wonderfully informative and moderate warning contained within: ‘Trees are pretty… but sometimes EVIL!’ (capitalisation not my own.) Below this headline (yes, it was a headline) was a cartoon of a tree, (presumably in one of its intermittent evil phases), with glowing red eyes and a fiery, dragon-like visage, gripping a poor innocent sewerage pipe in its claws (yes, the tree had claws – and long hooked fingernails too, as it happens.)

I pondered the cartoon for a few minutes, half-regretting voting for the Greens at the last election. The ad seemed to be saying that sewage was far more important then nature and that if it came down to choosing between the two, our sympathies should clearly reside with the former. But was this plumbing advertisement an accurate depiction of reality? Were trees really as malicious as it made out? Had I been naive in viewing them for so many years purely as non-sentient objects; beautiful green receptacles of chlorophyll and breezes, residing somewhere outside the moral sphere of right and wrong? And if so, and this advertisement spoke the truth, shouldn’t we be cutting down more of them rather than trying to preserve them (and possibly chaining ourselves to imperilled drainpipes as well)?

I’m just being stupid and facetious of course – entertaining myself with these thoughts –  because it is ridiculous to think of a tree as being good or evil, coarse or refined, vindictive or benevolent, demure or lascivious. Yet trees – plants– all the nature that surrounds us – are more than just inanimate objects, have a life and soul of their own, beyond our construction of them. It seems wrong for us to view them as subjects, things to be controlled. I don’t quite know what I mean by all this; there’s just vague feelings, a sense that we should revere nature rather than demonise it, a random string of memories forming…

It’s Spring. I’m going back home, back to the house I grew up in, passing gardens massed with colour, banks of pink and white azaleas. Boughs of ivory jasmine laze over fence-tops. Wisteria tumbles from verandah railings, its heady fragrance sugaring the air. The sun is out. A broad blue sky stretches over me as I walk.

And then I turn the corner and my buoyant mood rapidly deflates. My mother has often expressed the belief that only a person without a soul would be able to cut down a tree. If this is the case, our local council is surely staffed by legions of the infernal damned – and no doubt headed by Faust himself – for every tree on the block has been cut down.

The street before...

What used to be a pleasant, leafy boulevarde has been transformed into a landscape reminiscent of the blasted battle-fields of WWI. The trees weren’t ‘appropriate’ for the local environment, I learn later. ‘Have you seen what they’ve done to that stretch of R. Street?’ residents say to each other when they first sight the ‘improvements’, speaking in shocked, subdued tones as if referring to a woman disfigured by the Taliban for wearing nail polish.

...and after.

One can only suppose that the urban planner responsible for this revised streetscape was given a brief containing the words ‘bleak’, ‘barren’ and ‘apocalyptic’. Or perhaps they simply mistook the film The Road for some type of documentary on effective street design, rather than a dystopian vision of the future (that would at least explain all of the abandoned oil tankers and bands of cannibals roaming around…)

My mother was very upset about the trees being removed and called the council to tell them so. When she finally got through to the person responsible, she was told that residents of the street had been warned and given the opportunity to voice any concerns. No-one had, however. In fact, according to the council representative, she was the only person to express any displeasure at all.
Like her, I found this patently difficult to believe. Unless the whole block had recently been bought out by the Royal Society for the Blind, I cannot accept that not one resident would have a problem with changes that made their property more exposed, less protected from the hot afternoon sun and generally uglier. But it’s useless trying to make this type of point to the council.

 Why? Not just because for as long as I can remember they have demonstrated a lamentable blindness to beauty and aesthetics, but because in much the same way that the mafia is apparently in league with the major drug cartels, the council is in league with bush regenerators.

 Bush regeneration has become quite fashionable in Australia lately. For those not familiar with the term, it’s basically an ecological practice relating to the propagation and restoration of indigenous plants. Most often, bush regeneration activity consists of pulling up weeds and planting more native species.  I like to refer to it as bush-Nazism – a type of thinking completely incompatible with Australian ideals of multiculturalism and inclusiveness. And I’m sure this type of parochial, bush regeneration mentality had something to do with the trees in R. Street being cut down.

Another example: one of the great joys of my teenage years was wondering down to the vacant lot near my house and coming back with armfuls of freesias. Literally armfuls – I’m not using the term hyperbolically, but am instead referring to piles of flowers so plentiful that like Hansel and Gretel, you could leave a steady trail behind you as you walked back home without noticing any diminishment at the end. They were beautiful things too: filmy ivory trumpets which sparkled with gold dust in the sunlight. I had always preferred the wild ones, with tattered edges like an orphan’s cloak, to the more refined, cultivated variety, and they were here en masse.  Strewn through the long grass, they transformed an ordinary roadside into a glade dotted with dancing sprites.  You would wade through the knee-high grass, arms laden with rose-tinged, violet-hued, flannel-yellow flowers. There was something joyful, impossible, absurd about the largesse of it – the abundance  – like Forster’s field of violets. It was an almost bridal-luxury. And they were just there for the taking.

Of course, they pulled the freesias up – they weren’t native. Never mind that they were beautiful and did no-one any harm.

More evidence: in the middle of my parents’ street was a nature strip planted with trees, bushes and ferns. It gave some measure of privacy, so that when you looked out your front window, you gazed into a sea of greenery rather than into the lounge-room of the house across the road. Directly outside my parents’ house is a jacaranda tree which becomes a glorious cloud of violet in summer. When I was younger, each December we would collect the twisted goblin-faced pods which fell to the ground, sticking cotton wool and goggle-eyes on them and transforming them into leering Santa Clauses. There used to be broom as well, a shrub with glossy green spines and flowers like bright yellow butterflies. It was always one of my favourite plants, and when I was younger, I used to pick the honey-scented blossoms and arrange them in a coal-black vase, the sable and gold forming a striking contrast. Anyway, you can probably guess where this is going…

The council recently decided to ‘regenerate’ the nature strip. Nearly all of the plants were pulled up or poisoned.  My lovely old broom went, along with most of the other plants. They were replaced by some limp native grasses which flop on the ground like a comb-over on a balding man. Now you look straight at the house opposite, the stark red bricks and blank windows staring back like an accusing face.

My mother had no idea beforehand that the council was going to do this. She had happened to look outside one morning and saw a man in khaki unearthing shrubs in great enthusiastic handfuls. I can just imagine her tearing outside to confront him, hands planted on her hips, fierce: ‘You are NOT cutting down that jacaranda are you?’ she would have demanded rather than asked.

‘Umm, no,’ he’d have floundered, thrown by her queenly indignation.

‘You are NOT cutting it down,’ she would have said again, even more firmly, and he would have acceded to her greater will.

So the jacaranda tree survived the massacre at least, but as Mum often says with a shiver, one can only imagine what would have happened if she hadn’t been home that day.

They’ve planted new trees on R.  street now, spindly pathetic things that are apparently far more appropriate for the local environment. I’m sure that one day they’ll be big and flourishing, though I regret all the years that will pass before that happens. I regret too the fields of freesias gone.

I went to visit my parents again, a few weeks after the council’s regeneration attempt.  My mother had just come back from a walk and was cradling a little seedling she had found by the road and had brought back home. ‘Can you give me a minute?’ she said. ‘I just want to replant this in the nature strip. I’m not sure what it is, but I thought it was pretty.’  

Each time I come back home, she shows me how the plant is getting on. It’s growing, and there are others beside it that are growing too.  

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After the Wedding

The wedding season is over for the year. My cousin S. is now married; the first female relative in my generation to tie the knot.  Another cousin, four years younger than me, was married a few months back. It’s starting to feel a bit like dominoes falling.

The ceremony was held at a park by the water. The weather had been touch-and-go all week, but they decided to press ahead rather than move to a venue indoors.  It is a cold, blustery affair. The bridal veil whips about like a bird caught in a net and the celebrant’s voice is a thin, reedy thread, caught in the teeth of the wind. Women in spiky stilettos sink into the damp earth, clutching thin pashminas about themselves for warmth. But my cousin beams throughout the whole thing and hardly anybody notices the weather.

The reception venue: Coolangatta Estate

The reception afterwards is at a vineyard down the coast, two hours drive away. It is a perfect setting; an elegant scatter of heritage buildings complete with croquet court, spreading mulberry tree and formal lawn edged by lavender bushes. Fields creamy with clover unfold like a quilt around it. Willy wagtails and dragonflies dart about in the bushes.

The reception is a happy haze of dinner and speeches and dancing. My uncle reads a poem by Banjo Paterson where a man or woman promises to love their sweetheart just as long as their eyes are blue. Afterward, the guests spend the night in various harness rooms, servants’ quarters, stables and convict cottages. R and I sleep in the dairy, which thanks to a modern refurbishment, sounds more romantic then it looks inside.

The next day, the weather has perversely cleared and everything is bathed in sunshine. The day has a bright festival feel. Over breakfast, we hear that a heavy leather and chain harness had come crashing down onto my cousin’s pillow that morning, where her head had been just a few minutes before.  We all suck in our breath in horror, but on such a day find it hard to believe in the real possibility of disaster.

We stop at Kiama on the drive back home, the town where R’s parents spent their honeymoon back in 1945. We spend a few hours wandering around the seaside markets, immersed in tinkling wind chimes, straw hats and old china teacups. We buy an armload of grevilleas and statice from an old man, peach jam, fudge, a brown sunhat and broadbreans curled up like sleeping babies.

We watch the children play with the animals in the petting zoo; a neat, dignified black piglet; foppish-looking frilly chickens, one with a weird skeleton wing picked clean of feathers; an importunate rust-coloured goat who thrusts his snout into the children’s bags of feed before they have been offered. Eager starfish hands stretch out to stroke limp-eared rabbits. A curious Chihuahua sniffs a lamb through the chicken-wire fence. The stall-holder bundles squirming guinea pigs into the arms of plump children. Seagulls bob blithely in the pale green water beside us. One lone hook-necked pelican sails further out, an imperious old admiral keeping a watchful eye on all.

In the main street, we pass a man in a floral shirt who sits on a bench playing a banjo. A woolly-haired teenager approaches him and asked if he’s busking. ‘Nope, not really mate,’ the man replies cheerfully. ‘Oh,’ the boy says; ‘well, did you want some money anyway?’ and he leaves a few coins on his music case.

We climb the grassy hill, gulls wheeling around our heads in the boom of blue sky.  Families are gathered on picnic blankets and tables to feast on fish and chips. We pass a Middle Eastern family, an Italian family, a large Indian family with women resplendent in bright silk saris. ‘The whole world’s here!’ I hear one woman comment.

Blowhole at Kiama

A fat white lighthouse stands like a stout English nanny at the top of the hill, the broad cornflower sea stretching before it. A group of American girls crouch on the rocks, posing for photos. ‘Too much knees,’ the photographer instructs them briskly. We join the crush of tourists pressed against the fence at The Blowhole. Again and again, we watch the routine, hypnotised: the sea coursing through the rocky aperture then thrusting into the air like an angry white fist or spear flung high into the sky. A frozen cloud hanging suspended, then a scatter of white globes flopping and breaking on the dark rocks. Spidery white rivulets opening like veins, and sucked back in seconds into the writhing squall below. Young children squeal at the whoomp and boom of the sea. Frail rainbows tremble to life in the thin mist left behind.

Afterwards, we lay on our backs eating ice cream, with the dropped leaves of the Norfolk pines scattered around us like armoured monkey tails. R falls asleep in the sunshine.  I sit shuffling the deck of the future and past, watching the young girls in their filmy dresses coyly not-watching the boys, and think of a young woman walking there with a new husband, nearly seventy years ago.

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