Sunday, 3 November 2013


Someone I love has a tattoo on his upper arm that says 'Part II'. He had it done a few years ago, I guess he must have been in his mid to late thirties at the time. He said he had it to acknowledge the end of the first part of his life and mark the beginning of the second part. I like it a lot. I particularly like it because he is sartorially pulchritudinous (yes I did just use the word pulchritudinous), prone to tweed, and singularly elegant in Grenson brogues. And I don't think most people would suspect that beneath this dapper exterior he'd be sporting ink. Which is sexy whichever way you look at it. We were at Pride a few years ago and it was raining (God's punishment), his crisp white shirt got wet and the 'Part II' became visible through his sleeve. I remember thinking he'd never looked more handsome than in that moment, when the image you choose to project and the person you are come together in an unexpected way.
We had our first tattoos together. A gift for my thirtieth birthday. He made me go first to see how much it would hurt. I told him it was fine as I clamped my teeth down on my lolly. He is over six feet tall and has the physique of a man from the 1940's. Not these spindly modern tall boys you see. He cried, I didn't. He had the word 'Love' on his lower back and I had the word 'Words'. It was the only tattoo I would ever have. He suggested it and it seemed perfect. I love words. I love writing, I love books, I love stories. And y'know, just because.
The artist said they were addictive and I would probably want another one before long. I smiled knowingly at his ignorance.
I had my second tattoo a couple of years later. An L.P. Hartley quote at the base of my neck. The words reminded me of an uncle I loved very much who had passed away unexpectedly.
It just felt so right and two tattoos is hardly anything at all. I had read somewhere that people who have a lot of tattoos don't have a very strong sense of who they are. And when I see people with chinese symbols etched alongside celtic bands and framed by flying eagles I kind of see how that could be the case. But I also think it's bullshit. I've always loved tattoos. Maybe because my dad's arms were covered in them and he stood out from the other dads outside the school gate. He looked cool leaning on the bonnet of his racing green daimler sovereign in mirrored aviators smoking a cigar. He had navy tattoos, various animals and birds in that dark green you don't much see anymore. If you scratched them you'd smell sea salt and rum.
My third tattoo was quite a long quote, part of the speech Lucifer made to the fallen angels in Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. This one on the inside of my forearm. I called the aged family retainer to see what she thought.
'Is it facing out or facing you?'
'It's facing me.'
'Wonderful. Then you are reminding yourself of its truth, not bullshitting the world with an idea of who you might be.'
'Thanks Gran.'
The artist told me I'd want one on the other forearm before long, you know, to even things up.
I rolled my eyes. Hey man, I'm not in to symmetry.
When I had my fourth tattoo I was drunk in a pub with my niece and the parlour was jussst opposite and it had been a shitty year and it seemed like a good idea at the time.
And it was a good idea. So on the inside of my right wrist it says 'This too shall pass.' Something the family retainer had said to me many times in conversation. When she first uttered those words I was about fifteen and thought it meant that all the bad times pass. As I got older I saw its levels and understood that it meant everything passes, good and bad, in a constant ebb and flow. I find it comforting. But I won't lie, it was a bit of a surprise when I woke up the next morning with a throbbing wrist wrapped in cellophane. Not least because whilst I knew I'd had something written on my wrist, I couldn't remember what it was and I knew Neil, the tattoo artist, was dyslexic.
So where are we up to? Oh yes, my fifth tattoo. I had been in Australia a few weeks and one of Kate's new songs was going round and round in my head. The lyrics were so lovely, so perfect, and they embodied everything I was feeling about this new chapter in my life. We were walking along Chapel Street in Melbourne looking for a coffee shop.
'I should really get those lyrics inked on soon,' I said.
Kate laughed and pointed to the shop we were stood outside: Chapel Street Tattoos.
Synchronicity. I walked in and the nice man said he could do it right away. Kate went oddly pale.
'You're having it done now?'
'On my other forearm.'
'I feel nervous.'
'It's fine Kate.'
'Shall I go get coffee?'
As soon as she left the shop the artist leant over conspiratorially;
'Is that Kate Miller Heidke?'
'I thought so.'
'She's much smaller than I thought she'd be in -'
'Could we focus on that needle mate?'

So I have the lyrics: 'A piece of morning sun, swallowed with a grin' in large letters up my right arm. It's quite curly and he did it freehand so in a certain light it looks like 'swallowed with a gun' which is a bit dark, or 'swallowed with a gnu' which is abstract at best. I love Kate and wanted to carry a little bit of her with me. But its also my version of the 'Part II' I think. Somewhere between the ages of 38 and 39 I found a well of happiness that I can draw on whenever I need it. I forget about it bit sometimes and gripe and moan but then I remember, or something I love causes me to remember and I grin. Bliss. Which incidentally is the name of the song that quote was taken from.

We're not allowed to have our tattoos on display at work. It's a 'nice' place so we take out our nose rings and wear our sleeves rolled down and buttoned up. But when it gets busy and hot and you're running around with plates, well, they get rolled up. Sometimes I see guests trying to read them surreptitiously, their heads bent at odd angles. They whisper to their companion as I'm walking away and I know for the most part they are wondering why someone so well spoken and educated would have something so common on their body. It's that kind of town. I like it when people ask outright. A very posh elderly couple did just that last week.
'I hope you don't mind dear but what does that say? It looks it -
'Oh my! The thing about heaven and hell?'
'I love that bit! How very erudite.'
'Thank you.'
'Do you have others?'
'Can I see?'
I look across to the bar to find my manager laughing and shaking his head.

My sixth tattoo is a latin quote I found in a comic. I'm having it done next week along my collarbone. It's always been about the words for me, I'm not crazy about the idea of other peoples pictures on my body.
Until I saw this tree. It's gnarly and twisted like something from the forest of a fairytale and it would look marvellous with a single lantern hanging from its branches. In black obviously. I think it would look splendid if its roots started by my hip bone and it climbed up along the side of my torso, its outer branches resting on the back of my right shoulder. If you know of a good artist do please get in touch. And don't tell my mum. She once said that she liked my tattoos but worried that each one represented an emptiness in me that I was trying to fill. I don't disagree with her (I wouldn't fucking dare) but I think a lot of what we create in art and literature and music is an attempt to fill an emptiness, or at least give  expression to something we find intangible.
Mind you, she also came out with the classic: 'What about when you're old? They'll look terrible.'
Who gives a shit? I'll be old and wrinkly. It'll give the handsome young carer something to read whilst he gives me my hourly bed bath.
I'm not turning out to be the person I thought I would be. And what on earth made me think I, or anyone for that matter, could be finite or finished or complete? As my Gran says; We're a work in progress until the very end. And I'm alright with it. I think its an awfully big adventure.

Monday, 7 October 2013


I hobble through the door at one am like Quasimodo. But instead of “The bells! The bells!” I scream; 'My feet! My feet!' My (apparently psychic) mother hands me a cup of tea and points at a basin she has filled with hot water and salt.
'Put your feet in that darlinkkk.'
'Why do people always put salt in the water?'
'Because it draws out the pain,' she says.
I like the imagery this provides and sit there sipping my tea visualising depressed people massaging salt in to their temples and their hearts. I may be over tired.
'How was it?' she asks.
'Long,' I respond whilst rolling the most delicious cigarette of the day.
Due to circumstances beyond anyones control the restaurant is over run with guests. And there are only four of us working. We agree to work through until close because it would be cruel on the remaining staff not to and waitressing is just that kind of job. You go in to it knowing three things for certain:
  1. You can make ludicrously good tips.
  2. It's really hard work.
  3. Your feet will hurt.
Even if you have nothing else in common with your co-workers you will all huddle around outside on your cigarette break and talk about how much your feet ache and share tips on pain alleviation and good footwear. One of the kitchen staff claims to have lost a toenail after several weeks of long shifts.
Having decided to see it through to the bitter end we are filled with a sense of olympic determination. A few hours in I find one of the waiters staring at a wall and giggling.
'I feel giddy,' he says, smiling manically.
'Have you eaten?'
'Not yet. I'm not hungry. I'm powering through.'
One of the younger waitresses is in the kitchen polishing tray after tray of cutlery without blinking.
'How are you doing?' I ask looking at the mountains of yet to be polished forks.
'I – I just – I'm getting there,' she smiles bravely. Still she does not blink.
I love watching the front and back of a busy restaurant. On the floor it's all smiles and calm enquiries.
'How's your meal? Are you enjoying the lobster? Wonderful. Is there anything else I can get you? Mayonnaise? Certainly.' Glide away smiling beatifically. Enter kitchen. Skid past the apoplectic chef, dodge the frantic pastry chef, try to avoid the slip risk to the right, banging plates, heat, light, sweat.
'Where's the fucking buggery mayonnaise?? Spoon! Spooon! Give me a spooooooon!'
Pound back to the door. Chef screams 'SERVICE!' Grab the hot plates. Swear. Grab some napkins. Lift whatever you can carry. 'TABLE 25!' Skid through door laden with hot food. Glide across floor. Smile. Smile. Deliver. Smile.
'Your mussels madam, enjoy. Is there anything else I can get you? Wonderful.' Glide. 'Your mayonnaise sir. You're very welcome. Enjoy.' That table needs clearing, that one wants the bill. They would like more bread. Collect drinks. 'You ordered a bottle of the Muscadet?' Thank fuck for screw tops. 'Would you like to try the wine?'
You can always tell if a guest has worked as a waiter themselves. They stack their own plates for one. And they see you. Not just an apron and a smile. But a person.
There are lovely guests. I love the ones who have really been looking forward to a meal out. Maybe a night away from the kids, or an anniversary, or a normally out of their budget treat. You want them to have a really good time. You go out of your way. And genuinely, nothing is too much trouble. And then there are the others. The ones who look down on you, or don't acknowledge you at all. Who from the moment they arrive are looking for something to complain about. To be affronted by. To simply not enjoy. I vacillate between wanting to sit on their chests and force crustacea down their gullets whilst screaming obscenities and just pitying them. They don't appreciate, they don't take any pleasure in pleasurable things, they have no joie de vivre. And that's sad. And it says nothing about my life. And so I smile and I try to shake it off. Try.
I judge my friends by how they treat the waiting staff when we eat out. It's a very good gauge of a person. It's essentially about how you treat those with less power than you. And unless you've had truly awful service, always tip. Always tip. Always. Tip. The best tippers in the world are waiters. They know.
And so, something close to thirteen hours later I am sat with my feet in salty water talking to my mum.
'I remember that pain,' she says taking a drag on her cigarette.
'Your feet hum.'
'Oh yes. I would work a twelve hour shift at the care home and I would be walking home bouncing off the wall along Abbotts Barton. My feet. Urgh. And my ankles. So painful. And if I was too tired to soak my feet I would lie in bed in agony trying to rub them together, you know, like a massage.'
She did that job for thirty years. And her feet hurt every day. And now my feet hurt. Our feet are fucked. And for want of a better description, our feet are also considered to be quite spectacularly ugly.
'Do you remember how beautiful dad's feet were?'
'Oh my god! It was perverse for a man to have such lovely feet.'
We stare at our own mangled offerings. I love my feet. They've never said a bad word about me.
And they do their best despite having not the slightest arch whatsoever. When mum was twenty four she went in to hospital to have bunions removed from both feet. She awoke after the operation in horrifying pain with two steel rods through her big toes. She says it was the worst pain she has ever experienced. It's a much less invasive procedure now but I think i'll live with mine as long as I can.
Slowly the salt and the tea drain away the ache and we chat about guests who complain and don't enjoy. And mum tells me about residents who were like that.
'They would arrive and move in to their room and I would go and introduce myself and tell them I was there for them if they needed anything at all. And they would look at me sideways, not even in the face. Their heads turned up slightly. You know? Nose in the air. I was beneath them. And so I would think 'Ah ok, one of those' and I would leave them to settle. Then the bell would ring. I go back to the room. 'How can I help?' She needs to use the commode and she requires assistance to get there. So I hold on to her and help her along and all the time she is shoving her elbow back in to my chest again and again. And so I stop and I look at her. Properly look at her, in the face and I say 'Are you ok?' And she sneers 'Yes! Why wouldn't I be?' 'Well why are you pushing me away?' 'Well you don't need to be so close.' Ah I think. So I help her to the commode and when she is comfortable I say 'When you are ready ring the bell and one of the other girls will come to assist you back, because I don't wish to.' The look on her face. So shocked. I smile politely and leave. The bell goes and I tell one of the girls to go and help her. I can hear her saying 'Where is the other one?' 'I'm afraid she's busy at the moment.' I stick my head around the door 'I'm not busy, I don't wish to help you. I told you that.' And then a little while later, the bell again. 'Where is that girl that was helping me before? I would like to speak to her.' And so I go back to the room. 'Yes?' A pause. And then very stiffly. 'I didn't mean to speak to you like that.' 'Okay, so why did you speak to me like that?' And then she trembles. 'Well I never wanted to come here....' And she cries. And I think, aaahhh. Fuck. 'Okay,' I say. And I sit by her and put my arm around her shoulder. 'I know you don't want me too near but do you want a cuddle?' 'Yes!' She laughs. 'Yes, I want a cuddle.' Then I stay with her, with them, so many like that. And I tell them; This is your home, and don't let anyone tell you differently. If you want a cup of tea you ring the bell and you tell us and we make you tea. Any time. And this is your private room. People must knock before entering. Be at home here. You have paid a lot of money and this is your right.' And they feel a little better then, they appreciate it, you know? They come feeling that the world sees them as an old burden waiting to die. They don't want to be there. No one does. Oh the loneliness.'
I talk of my almost thirteen hour shift as though it were anything at all. Nineteen years ago, mum, through circumstances out of anyones control, worked for thirty six hours straight. Thirty six hours. Can you even begin to imagine the madness? She did a night shift at the home from 8pm until 8am but in the morning the Sister in charge was frantic. Everyone had called in sick with a bug. You have to stay at home if you are ill and work with the elderly. Showing up for work sick transforms you in to the angel of death, you've no idea how many you might inadvertently cull.  Mum said she'd stick it out until two pm when the next rotation started. At two pm, no one showed up. Mum worked until 8pm and then hobbled home on her little feet quite delirious. No sooner had she walked through the door the phone rang. It was work. One of the residents was dying and had requested mum be her 'special.' A special is the person you want to be with you as you die.
'Of course I had to go, I wouldn't let her die alone.'
I remember mum telling me when I was little that it wasn't sad when somebody very old died because they had had a long life and were so tired. The only tragedy would be if they were alone. We are greeted when we arrive, and there should be someone there to see us off when it's time to leave again.
And so she turned around and hobbled back to work.
'But the lady wasn't peaceful. She was uncomfortable and she kept wanting me to sit her up higher. Fretful. I had to help her be comfortable you know. Soothe. After a very long night she was finally peaceful and she passed away. By this time I couldn't speak properly. I sounded drunk. I went to the desk and talked such nonsense one of the other carers put me in her car and brought me home. And I crawled in to bed and I thought I don't know if I'll wake up tomorrow, I don't care. And then the phone went again. Your sister had gone in to labour with Oliver. Colin came to get me straight away and I went to Maria's house to be with her and to look after the other little ones. They didn't know I hadn't slept and I didn't tell them. It took me a while to recover from that week.'
It's past two am by the time we stop reminiscing and my feet stop humming. We make more tea and head off to our respective rooms. She reads. I write. We both smoke. We both have ugly feet. I am very blessed and very grateful.

Monday, 9 September 2013

The Inconvenience.

Mum and I are sat in the pastel coloured waiting room of the local hospital. There's a woman sat opposite us with a catheter in a Tesco's carrier bag. The tube has both urine and blood in it.
'That painting doesn't look anything like Venice,' Mum points out. 'Not a gondola in sight.'
We are waiting for mum to be fitted with a prosthetic to even up the breast-less left side.
'They asked me if I wanted to have a reconstruction. They take muscle from your back. I said “What the bloody hell for?” And the nurse, she said, “Well some women -” “No, no” I said. “I'm not bothered.”

When mum came up here for her mastectomy she marched straight in to surgery. None of that wheeling in nonsense for her. My niece, Harri, almost walked in with her until a nurse pointed out that this was in fact the operating theatre. Quick hug, kiss on the cheek. 'Go home darlinnnk, I call you after.'
My mother is small and Maltese and fierce.
'I came round to the sound of people shouting at me. Wake up Rhoda! Wake up! Rhoda!' She pops a mint in her mouth. 'First thing I told them, I said, “Get my mobile, call Harriett, tell her I'm fine.”'
She had to stay in overnight which she hated.
'There was an 82 year old woman in the next bed holding a cushion to where her breast used to be and looking all tragic. I said to her; “What are you doing that for? It's all stitched up, nothing is going to fall out.” She whimpers at me. I was reading my book with that little light thing Sean got me. It was about this tribe. To join the tribe you had to remove a part of your body. A finger, an ear, a leg. Even the children. And the tribe is known as The Maimed Men. They are warriors. So I turn to the 82 year old and say “We're maimed!” Like, you know, we are warriors. She looks all skittish and says; “Oh don't say that!” She has become a challenge for me you know? Her drama. I keep throwing comments her way and she says; “You're very cheerful” but in a resentful way, you know? She is going to have the reconstructive surgery! Eighty Two! Why?'
'I guess she feels incomplete without her breast?' I hazard.
'But she's old, like me. A breast made out of back muscle with a fake nipple sewn on. It's bloody ridiculous on an octogenarian.'

We've been waiting an hour and mum is getting bored and mischievous. She kicks me when I'm not looking. Throws polo mints at me and punches me in the leg.
'Stop it or you're going to bed early without supper,' I say attempting to finish my crossword.
An elderly couple join us and mum stage whispers; 'That's her! That's the eighty two year old!'
'Quiet voice mum,' I mutter.
The woman with the catheter stares at us for a while and then tells mum that she had a double mastectomy four days ago and there are complications. Mum chats to her for a while and then whispers to me; 'Blood in the bag, must be her liver. Poor thing.' Mum was a Carer for fifty years and I'm pretty sure if left to it she could competently run a hospital single handedly.
Mum keeps poking me so I put aside my crossword.
'I saw this website,' I tell her. 'Where young women who have had mastectomy's get tattooed.'
'What?' Mum asks.
'Instead of reconstruction they have flowers and butterflies inked across their chests. It looks pretty.'
Mum laughs. 'I'd have two smiley faces.'
We have been waiting for ages and I start rolling a fag on the premise that it might have the same effect as when you're waiting for a bus. Mum rolls her eyes.
'What?' I say. 'I'm not going to smoke it in here am I.'
'No darlinnk, by all means roll a cigarette on a cancer ward, really sends out a message.'
We start giggling.
'Was there anyone else on your ward that night?' I ask.
'Yes, people were coming and going like a cattle market. There were two eighteen year old girls looking so upset. I said to them “Come on, its not so bad.” I told them I would probably end up walking around in town and my fake boob would fall out and being embarrassed I would just kick it to one side and keep walking. They were laughing at me by the end. They said “You're funny.” I said to them “Nothing is the end of the world.” Another woman came in at 11pm. Very late I thought. She was sat looking very...she was very fretful you know? I said to her to come sit on my bed. I said:
'What's the matter?'
'I have to have a scan.'
'So late at night?'
'I came this afternoon but they took too long and I had to pick the kids up from school. They told me to come back tonight.'
'So why are you so jittery?'
'I had to leave the kids with my husband and he's not very good with kids.'
Mum pauses in the story. 'He kept bloody texting her saying he doesn't know what to do! Stupid man, making her worry more. Useless.'
'What happened?'
'Well I told her to tell the nurse she had to go home and she'd come back the next day when the kids were at school. She was too nervous you know? In the end I rang the bell and told the nurse and she arranged for her to come back. See, for me, that would be the hardest thing. If I had got the cancer when you were all little. When I was still young. I would have been so worried about you all. What if I died and other people had to look after you and they don't know your ways. That would have been terrible. I felt sorry for her you know, and with her stupid husband.'

The morning after the operation mum was up, showered, dressed and in full makeup by 7am. She walked to reception.
'I'm off now, bye.'
'Whoa! Wait! What?' The nurse ran after her. 'You can't go yet! You have to wait for the doctor to come and see you.'
'Bloody hell.' Mum traipsed back to the ward and paced for an hour.
'You know there are people in there that don't want to go home. I asked the nurse why and she said maybe there's no one to go home to. Or maybe they want a break from it all.'
Mum throws another mint at me.
'A nurse came with this little white silk bag with a red ribbon around it. It has a temporary cotton padding for the boob area in it. I say “Ok thanks, can I go now?” She looks with exasperation at me. “No Rhoda! Let's go to the bathroom and fit it for you.” I snatch it off her and shove it in. “There!” I say. She laughs at me. “No, look, it's too big.” I pull it out rip some cotton off and shove it back in. “Is that comfortable?” she asks. “Yes, can I go now?”'

In the afternoon she sat at home having a little M&S picnic my sister had brought over. Her grandchildren are there too. The two grandsons are teenagers and don't know what to say. Mum pulls out the cotton padding and throws it at them. They scream “Nannnnn nooooooooo!”
'It's better,' she says. 'They should understand what it is. Not wonder.'
I remember that day. I was in Australia, I couldn't be further away but I was in good company with a big drink in my hand when I finally got to speak to her on Skype.
'Are you alright?' I asked.
'Yes darlinnnk, fine. Harri and I are having fish and chips tonight.'

When mum went back for a checkup the following week her stitches had healed entirely.
Why is there no pain at all?' Mum asked the doctor. She hadn't taken so much as a paracetamol after the op.
'You're lucky,' he told her.
The nurse asked her if she'd looked at the scar.
'Of course I have,' she replied. 'How else could I wash?'
'And how did that make you feel?'
'I don't care,' mum answered.
'Can you look at it in the mirror for me now? So I can see that you're ok?'
Mum hates this sort of thing.
'Oh fine!' She has a look. 'See, fine. One boob. No boob. Ta-Da!'

'Did I tell you they offered me volunteer work?'
'No?' I say. 'How come?'
'Because by the time the doctor got round to see me I had stripped and made up four of the beds on the ward.'
'For christ's sake mum.'
'Well, they were busy and the sheets were there and I know how to do a hospital tuck.'

We have been sat for an hour and a half now and even by british standards its getting ridiculous. But even if we'd sat there for a week you still wouldn't hear me say a word against the NHS.
I wander over to reception.
'My mum is threatening to go home. Will it be long?'
There's been a mistake with waiting room allocations, apologies are made and mum is whisked off.
I head outside and stand under a sign that says 'This is an entirely no smoking environment.' I observe the hundred or so cigarette butts on the grass in front of me and light up thinking about who those cigarette butts belong to. Not the staff, they hide up the road around the corner. All those little butts with their own individual brands and stories. This one, bad news. This one, awaiting results. This one, relieved. This one, inconsolable.
Within twenty minutes we are in town, sat outside Monde eating eggs and drinking coffee under a canopy whilst rain thunders down all around us.
'Do you remember when I was little and you used to tell me that we were witches?' I ask mum.
'Yes darlink, of course.'
'You said it was because -'
'Because we both like ribbons and candles and can never bring ourselves to throw them away,' she smiles.
'Yes, that's right. I still feel that way about ribbons and candles.'
'Me too.'
'Mum, what would you call this story if I were to write it?'
'The Inconvenience.' She laughs.
'That's a good title. Why?'
'Because when they told me I had cancer again they said “How do you feel?” And I said, “Inconvenienced”.'

Friday, 23 August 2013

Toodle Pip.

The halcyon dream that was Broome already feels like a lifetime ago. Before I went to Australia I had been terrified of flying for twenty years. Once I knew I was definitely going over there I couldn't indulge that fear anymore. Not only did I have to deal with the twenty plus hours getting there but once I arrived I'd be on a number of internal flights for both the tour and the holiday I'd be having with Keir and Kate at the end. And what would be the point of being afraid? It would just mar an otherwise wonderful time. In my first Australia Blog I mentioned that I had chosen not to be afraid anymore. Its often the things you perceive as being huge and insurmountable that are resolved by a simple shift in perspective. It seems perverse that I can remember so many flights that were endured with sweaty palmed terror and a blanket placed firmly over my head. But that doesn't mean they didn't serve a purpose. Eckhart Tolle said that: “Suffering is necessary until you realise it is unnecessary.”
What I'm getting to is that had I not overcome my fear of crashing planes I would not have found myself climbing aboard a helicopter, heart in throat, in the safe knowledge that if I backed out now I would never forgive myself. I'd rather the fucker went down with me in it than go up without me.
The pilot, Wayne, introduced himself:
'So anyone here going in a helicopter for the first time?'
We all nod.
'Cool, me too,' he grins.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
'Seriously though, you couldn't be safer -'
Of course I could be safer you wanker.
'Most helicopter crashes happen to private owners, not professional pilots. They give us a bad name.'
I cannot believe he's talking about crashes before we've left the ground.
'So, shall we take the doors off?'
'Yes!' Kate exclaims. 'Can you do the zero gravity thing too?'
Our father, who art in heave-
'Sadly not, there's too many of you, the weight would be too much.'

We watch as he and the boys remove the doors. It looks like a remote controlled toy. Wayne takes our weights and does some maths before one by one strapping us in to our seats. I'm in the centre with Dave and Adrian on either side of me. Dave and I are not small which means that by the time he's strapped Adrian in the poor sod is sat right on the edge with one arse cheek hanging out of the helicopter. He goes a bit quiet. Kate is strapped in the front and looks delighted by the whole thing already. We're given headphones and mouthpieces and Wayne checks we can all hear each other.
'Please don't scream,' he says.
'Do people scream a lot?' Kate asks.
'Yeah,' he sighs. 'Its really annoying. A squeal is okay though.'
I place my hand firmly over the mouthpiece despite the fact that out of all of us its Dave who's given to squealing.
The blades start rotating and we sit for a while waiting for it to 'warm up.'
And then we rise. Straight up and quite slowly. Hovering about five feet above the ground. The old familiar terror rises up in me and is brutally cut short by my brain saying 'What's the point? This is happening. Either enjoy it or shut the fuck up.' I think of Bill Hick's philosophy on life: It's just a ride. It's just a ride. The fear is replaced by a wave of pleasure. Look at me! Look at me! I'm in the sky going higher and higher and there's no doors! Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Don't get me wrong. I'm no adrenalin junkie. Clearly. But I am learning, at close to 40, that life is infinitely better when you do things that frighten you a bit. I wish I'd learned that years ago.
We glided along looking at the incredible coastline beneath us. Kate saw a mantaray in the ocean and as we flew over Gantheaume Point Wayne showed us the area where you can see 130 million year old Dinosaur foot prints in the rock. He glances back at me to check I'm okay and I hear him through my headphones saying:
'There's a lovely smile. You feeling better now?'
I nod happily and pat his shoulder.

In the afternoon I play with Adrian in the pool at the hotel. He has his goggles and its my lot in life to throw trinkets in the water for him to dive and retrieve.
'Are you sure you want to go to the adult pool?' I ask.
'Its heaps fun but!' he grins. 'Like being a pirate diving for treasure.'
I throw a ring in the water and whilst he's under a woman on a nearby lounger looks at me quizzically.
'He's not my boyfriend,' I state.
A man on the other side of me starts giggling and I stop short from also asserting that I'm not his carer.
I read my book and toss things in to the water which Adrian fetches like a happy golden retriever. After a while he paddles to the side.
'Its your turn now.'
'Oh no. No really, I'm fine.'
'Its fun,' he says.
'You have to have a go,' he insists.
I know from cruel experience that once Adrian gets something in to his head he won't let it go until I capitulate. I put the goggles on, sigh, and climb in to the pool.
Its disturbing how quickly our roles reversed. Suddenly its me waving my hand in the air screaming 'I got it! I got it!' I love that about Adrian. He still plays. He enjoys things like a kid and he reminds you over and over again how much fun can be had if you just stop pretending to be an adult all the time. Once we tire of the diving game he shows me how to empty my lungs of air and sink to the bottom of the pool.
'Lie on your back on the bottom and look up!'
After that we took turns timing how long we could stay under water for and Adrian whiled away the last part of the afternoon diving off the side just by the sign that says 'No diving.'

Nobody but Dave is looking forward to the wet t-shirt competition. Adrian is insisting we attend because A. Its a local institution and B. The promoter of the gig Kate and Keir will be performing the following evening has asked us to go.
'People keep saying its a local institution,' Keir says. 'By that definition you can make anything acceptable. Hey, come to the lynching! Its a local institution.'
'He organised a helicopter ride for us,' Adrian says. 'We have to go. It'll be fun.'
Kate wants to rest her voice before the gig and is the only one of us with a viable excuse. Dave is delighted by the prospect. I am resigned and Keir is off his face on a cocktail of wine and anti histamine by the time we set off.
I head straight to the bar and start ordering myself beers and tequila chasers.
'What are you doing?' Adrian who hardly drinks is looking on in horror.
'She is getting methodically drunk,' Keir explains.
By the time the 'show' starts I am eight tequilas down. Young girls line up on stage and writhe around to music whilst knuckle dragging men pour jugs of cold water over them.
Five minutes in Adrian turns to me, all colour drained from his face.
'This isn't right. We should go.'
The audience clapo-meter starts and a few men boo some of the girls who have slightly smaller breasts than the others. One by one they are picked off until only the most porn-like remain. The most popular girl, who must really need either the 500 dollars or a psychiatrist removes her tee and bra. She's disqualified for removing her top but not until she's been allowed to continue subjugating herself for a further ten minutes.
Keir looks as depressed by the whole thing as me.
'Can we go now please?' Adrian asks.
We leave and everyone is quiet in the car except Dave who says:
'Well what I've learned from this evening is not to go to a wet t-shirt competition with you lot you fucking kill joys! What did you expect?'
He's right really. What did we expect?

The next day is our last day and none of us are happy about it. Before the gig the promoter Peter takes us out for a lovely dinner and before long its time for Kate and Keir to perform.
Its wonderful having one more opportunity to watch them sing the songs I have come to know so well over the last three months. The gig is brilliant, even though an alarm goes off over the road and takes fifteen minutes to silence. They soldier on with good humour and the audience screams for more when it ends. I spot several grey nomads in the audience that we met on our drive and when Kate comes out to sign they come over and buy cd's and chat.

We fly back to Brisbane and spend the following day doing nothing much at all except napping and eating. And then its somehow my last day. Kate and Keir take me out for lunch and grocery shopping. I spend the afternoon drinking wine and cooking a feast for them and a couple of friends I've made whilst there. We eat and drink and listen to music and talk about our adventures. Afterwards we head downstairs to John and Sallie's flat and drink more and laugh. John plays the piano and Keir and Sallie sing Aerosmith's What It Takes drunkenly and with gusto about eight times. Doesn't matter how proficient or talented a musician you are, drunken singalongs are the same the world over. I'm so happy sitting there watching them wail and laugh and I can't believe I'm heading for the airport in six hours.
We stagger upstairs at around three and get a couple of hours sleep. Keir is driving me to the airport but Kate also drags herself heroically out of bed and comes along in PJ's and sunglasses.
'Darling you don't have to come,' I say.
'Of course I'm fucking coming,' she smiles.
I'll see them again in the winter over here which takes the sting out of the goodbyes. There's still a sting though. I'm going to miss living with them, listening to music, eating great food, laughing and talking about books and films and songs and and and.

A mere thirty hours and several near disasters later I am back in the UK.
I've seen and learned so much in the last three months and it was all golden. I wouldn't change a moment.
Thank you so much to Madame M, Christian, Sandy, Randall, Dave, Sallie, John, Benedict, Tai, Hannah, Junior, Tim, Adrian, Madelaine, Mikki and all the others that made me feel so welcome and spent so much time keeping me entertained and feeding me and showing me new things. And thank you to those of you that have been following this blog and leaving comments, it has been much appreciated.
And thank you Kate and Keir for too many wonderful things, I love you both very much.
I'm not going to be writing any more blogs now. This was really more to keep a diary of the holiday and a sort of round robin letter to my family and friends. I'm going to spend some time writing a book instead. I don't know if I'll finish it but by starting it I'm at least giving myself a chance at making the life I want to lead. And its good to do things that frighten you a bit. So long, farewell and thanks for all the Barramundi. It's been a piece of morning sun, swallowed with a grin. Bliss.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

My friends and other animals.

The mosquitos come at me with a fanatical zeal usually set aside for the opening of a TV chefs new restaurant. My O positive blood group is all the rage in fashionable culicidae circles. But Gods help them if they haven't made a reservation well in advance because let me assure you there is scarce an inch of this pelt that hasn't been claimed by the little vampires as their own. I have done my bit to stem the tide by glazing myself in a mixture of Aerogard and Bushman’s remedies. Either one on their own is a heady toxic brew of evil smelling, nostril stripping death. But, my friends, combine the two and you have something you could confidently sell to the Russians. I crackle when I walk.
When this concoction fails to snuff their ardour, and somehow it occasionally does, there is always Stingoes or Itcheeze which will temporarily soothe the imperative to scratch my skin away until there is nothing but bone to gaze upon. You'd think that would be an end to it wouldn't you? You'd be wrong. They have evidently held some kind of crisis meeting, so delicious is the nectar I have to offer, and created a hybrid version of themselves that causes the areas they can access to swell to the size of a small marble, become entirely solid and emit an infernal heat. I show Dave.

'Yeahhhhh,' he says, taking a measured step back. 'Pop some stingoes on it and take some of these.' He throws a pack of anti histamine into my quarantined area and goes back to smoking his cigar. I limp away.

I think initially Kate thought I was being a bit over dramatic about the whole thing. Us Poms making a fuss over a little nibble. But she has certainly changed her stance in the last few weeks:

'Huh. They really do seem to head straight for you don't they,' she observes as I stand in the middle of the bush performing some hellish interpretation of the YMCA dance whilst screaming FUCK YOUUUUUUUU.
Yesterday she observed that even in the pool they will take their lives into their hands and try to alight upon any part of me not submerged. I tread water as night falls.
In a very sweet gesture of complicity she announced yesterday that I'd be glad to know a mosquito had bitten her arse. I was not glad. I won't be glad until they have eaten her face.

Adrian and I, after a two month separation, are back to our usual form:

'Switch the mac off Thea, enjoy the moment.'

'I am enjoying the moment.'

'You're not living life. Appreciate what's around you. If you ask me -'

'Adrian if I want your opinion be assured that I will have asked everyone else first.'

'See you just take it too far. That hurts my soul.'

'You don't have a soul.'

Dave looks on in horror.

'She's never once spoken to me like that,' he says.

'Aw its a brother and sister thing,' Adrian reassures him before continuing on his never ending quest to distract me from whatever I am doing and give him my full undiluted attention until the end of time.

As a quick aside: Just as I had finished typing that last sentence Adrian crawled from his bed, stuck his head around the door behind me and screamed 'BOO!'
As I clutched my chest he sank in to the chair next to me and lit a cigarette.
'Pass me the lighter would you Adie.'
He inches it across the table with his finger stopping some two millimetres away from where I can reach it. This is how our day together begins. Is it any wonder that come 9pm this evening I will be verbally cuffing him at any given opportunity? And I'm supposed to be getting in a helicopter with him this afternoon. But more of that later.

That aside, we are all having a marvellous time in Broome! Except for possibly Keir who at the exact moment we arrived and were presented with a veritable treasure chest of never ending luxury and pleasure, promptly fell ill and has been steadily worsening as each fun filled day passes. Where initially he appeared to have a mild case of the sniffles he is now shuffling around, hunched of back emitting a low and constant groan. Only wine seems to alleviate it. And then only temporarily. Even in his death throes Keir manages to remain hilariously funny and delightful to be around. One never ending source of joy is when Keir starts laughing hysterically and can't stop. I wish I could bottle it.

I have become worryingly accustomed to the luxury of our surroundings. For all of 24 hours I was amazed and grateful to find my bed freshly made, delicious chocolate covered strawberries secreted in the fridge, champagne upon arrival, the spa bath with delicious unguents for my personal use. A mere two days in and I'm calling reception demanding to know why the nespresso machine hasn't been filled and questioning the hospital tuck that Chang has deployed upon my king sized bed.

Christ. As I attempt to write this Adrian is STILL sat next to me clipping his toenails and trying to convince me to go to a wet t-shirt competition this evening.

'I really think you should come to the wet tits comp this evening.'

'Stop calling it that! Its a wet t-shirt competition.'

'Its a wet tits competition to me and I refuse to conform to the Broome stereotypical naming of-'

'You are conforming to the stereotype by attending Adrian.'

'If you come, I'll drink.'

'If you can convince Keir to go (there is no way in hell he will surely?) then I'll come too.'

'I think it'd be really good for you. For your blog. And you can meet a man.'

'What good would that do now? And what kind of man!? Oh. You mean for sex.'

'For whatever. It could be the beginning of something incred-'

'Stop speaking. Please please stop speaking.'

As I continue to type he is talking about what a dick Francis Drake was, the different languages used in the film he watched last night, my preference for honey and yoghurt with fruit in the morning, my pronunciation of the word 'yoghurt', George Clooney, Nespresso machines, why I only find tall men attractive and his current bid on ebay for something I've never heard of and have no desire to understand........ I'm going to have to play with him for ten minutes and hopefully tire him out enough to return to writing soon.

Hi. I made him a coffee like the ones they do in shops, I even heated the milk. Its bought me about fifteen minutes of peace I hazard.

So.We have a Butler. Well, a Personal Valet, which is much the same thing. Admittedly I would have preferred something more in keeping with Jeeves but I'm certainly not turning my nose up at Richie Hutchings and his board shorts, shades and one button on the phone aways presence. Its stunning how quickly you can adapt from pissing in a bush to round the clock service.
That, and a book Kate has been reading prompted a discussion in the pool about whether money can in fact buy you happiness. Kate says absolutely not. I'm disinclined to agree. Having said that, after spending most of my adult life working in one service industry or another I find it impossible not to be aware of how hard others are working to maintain our lap of luxury. I find myself stacking plates, straightening out the bed, tidying up as I go along, thanking everyone profusely and asking after their families. I think that's probably a good thing. You can't un-know the experience you have and if I were handed this lifestyle twenty years ago I'd be even more of an insufferable prick than I am now.

In addition to the endless drinks, food, pool, sunsets and siestas, Kate yesterday treated me and herself to a long massage. When we arrived two women bathed our feet in large copper bowls before submitting us to an hour of complete bliss which ended with fancy tea and a book of inspirational quotes concerning joy.

I'm basically ruined for real life now. If you sense any cynicism in this blog please be assured that its all brazen and quite fake. I feel as though I must exercise my sarcasm before returning to the UK or I'll be completely sunk.

Whilst bobbing in the sea yesterday Kate said:

'So, what's the plan when you get back to England?'

'Get a shit job I guess. Save some money.'

'And what about writing the book? Or that one woman show Keir suggested. Or any one of the other projects...'

'Yeahhh, well there's no guarantee even if I did write something that anything would ever come of it.'

'You know that's a flawed logic don't you. It seems like you have a lot of opportunities to do the things you want to do....if only you did them. Sorry if I sound like I'm lecturing.'

'Not at all. And I know what you mean. Its just (I have no real excuse) I'm not very good at making plans.'

'Okay. So. Well, when do you suppose you might start planning to make a plan?'

Neil Gaiman said that listening to Kate sing is like being fucked by butterflies. Kate taking an interest in and care for your well being and happiness is not dissimilar. She's gentle and kind and kind of relentless. She has a clarity and vision about certain things that you feel helpless to defend yourself against because you know on some level that she's right. Even if you can't quite harness the will to take action, the advice she gives hooks a tiny anchor inside you.
In the last three months of being with her I have probably done at least seven things I would otherwise never have bothered to do. Not least was coming to Australia in the first place. I'm going to miss her so much.
That brings us neatly to the matter of imminent helicopter rides. I remember overhearing some vague talk about a complimentary helicopter ride whilst in Broome. And now that we're here it does seem to be an actual thing. It turns out the promoter has a 'mate' who has a helicopter. Hmmm. Keir is absolutely refusing to partake and I wish I'd taken that stance before he got in there. He suggested at dinner last night that the 'mate' probably bought the fucking thing on ebay. Adrian of course is wildly enthusiastic about the whole affair which only makes it more concerning.

'He reckons its a proper state of the art thing and we can do stunt stuff.' He is practically bouncing in his seat as he picks every single piece of vegetable or salad from his meal and places it disdainfully to one side.

'Stunt stuff?' I flag the waiter for the wine list. Again.

'Yeah!' he enthuses. 'Back flips. Zero Gravity drops. We can even have the doors open.'

Keir looks at me. 'If he starts going over the top you tell him to stop,' he says deadly serious. He knows Kate will only scream 'Faster! Higher!' And I am the one chance he has of keeping his wife alive in his absence.

'We're living the dream!' Adrian asserts.

'Just think of it like this,' Kate says to me grinning. 'If it crashes I'll die too.'

'And what? That'll show you?! I'll have won??'

'I'll have wunnnnn.' Kate has taken to imitating my accent. She's getting really good at it.

So that's happening in about three hours. This is my life now. Apparently we're going to 'vibe' it. See how we feel when we get there. Check the pilot is sober etc. But as Keir pointed out, even if the thing was held together by rubber bands I'd probably go along with it just to be courteous.

'At least she died doing something she loved....being polite.'

I'll let you know how it goes. Or at least, I really fucking hope I do.

In other news Kate and I have been attending early morning yoga classes. I hate it and it leaves me feeling murderously angry. I'm still spoiling for a fight after yesterdays 90 minutes of unrelenting stretches and bullshit Ommms.

Disclaimer: Eight mosquitos were killed during the writing of this blog.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Part Two The Northern Territories Diaries.

Day Seven: August 5th.

I wake at 4am. It's pitch black and the lamp Christian gave me doesn't cast a light in this vast empty space, it just exists as a pinpoint. I sit on a camping chair smoking and watch as the sun comes up about an hour and a half later. Its like waiting for a show to start. Bit by bit the set is revealed, the birds start chattering, the sound of kangaroos crashing through the dead leaves and Dave snoring in his tent/cave. The trees are stripped of bark and just bone white trunks remain. I make coffee on our little stove and head in to the bush to take some pictures. When I get back Kate is emerging and we sit together eating and waiting for the boys to wake up so we can go to Zebedee Springs for a swim. Swimming has become a daily need. When we're not in the water we're covered in red dust. It gets everywhere and now both Kate and I have insane hair which we're quite proud of. I arrived wearing silver sandals, they are now the same colour as my feet. Filth.

When we arrived at El Questro there was a ridiculously good looking cowboy wandering around with a leaf blower.

'Kate. Kate! Have you seen him?' I ask pointing directly at the cowboy not ten feet away. 'Look at him! Look! Look!' I have shown nothing like as much enthusiasm for the wildlife. He's not wearing a wedding ring and he has cheek bones you could slash your wrists on once he has inevitably broken your heart.

In the last few days Kate has somehow managed to get me climbing mountains. As far as I'm concerned if you have to use your feet and both hands to advance, it is no longer a walk. But Kate, like a spider monkey, is scaling half the thing before I have so much as stubbed out my cigarette and had a small weep.

Zebedee Springs is a mercifully short walk. Its a hot spring pool formed by six or seven small rock pools nestled amongst tropical palms. Its brilliant and I bob around on my back in the bottom pool whilst Kate and the others climb up to each pool to see if they get hotter.

Everyone decides it would be an excellent idea to do the El Questro Gorge walk. It's advertised at a modest three hours either way and is rated at a difficulty level of '6'. A level '4' walk has left me questioning the very essence of existence and I gracefully bow out claiming I have important things to do on my computer, at the bar. I spend a happy few hours watching the cowboy wander back and forth in tight jeans and a dusty hat, squinting in to the sun like James Dean as he lifts heavy things and puts them down nearby in slow motion.

The others return victorious a few hours later and describe beautiful pools of water and incredible views. I describe the cowboys arse.

Kate has been told that there's a lovely sunset spot a short drive away and we hop in the 4WD to catch it before dinner. It certainly is a short drive. Unfortunately no one mentioned that it was also a terrifying off road 45 degree ascent with hair pin bends, rocks the size of your head and absolutely nothing to stop you slipping off the edge and plummeting to your death. Kate and I yelp at a few of the turns. Keir is more or less silent and Dave quietly mentions that his sphincter has entirely clamped shut with not a hope of opening again any time soon. I take a moment out of watching my life flash before my eyes to enjoy the sight of the cowboy sauntering past on a horse. Wearing spurs. Dave heroically gets us to the top where there is only one other car and a young couple sat on the bonnet having a romantic moment which Dave makes short shrift of by farting loudly.

We now refer to that fifteen minutes of our lives as the Sunset Of Terror. You have to say it in a 1940's BBC announcers voice.
Sunsets are all well and good but its hard to enjoy one when you know you'll be making the same terrifying descent again shortly, and this time in darkness.

We have dinner at the more casual outdoor bar when we return. After I have finished kissing the ground we order Fat Yak beers and sit waiting for our food listening to an excellent chap playing guitar and singing country songs. The cowboy wanders up to the bar with a horse in tow and orders a beer. He then does a circuit of the beer garden looking moody and occasionally kissing babies.

'D'you think he's a model?' Dave asks.

'I don't care,' I say.

'I think he might be an arsehole,' Keir observes.

'I don't care,' I say.

We are all ready for bed by 9pm these days. Keir points out that furiously recreating is exhausting.

We head back to our campsite, in the middle of nowhere and make a fire. Kate sticks marshmallows on the end of twigs that we may well have pissed on earlier in the day and attempts to hold them near the fire without losing several layers of facial skin. Its very hot and a tad bigger than we'd planned. We all wish we had something to sit on. Its lovely having a fire if you can sit around it. Its a bit strange to have a fire and just stand around it. Kate and Keir take a torch down to the river to irritate the crocodiles. Dave has been talking about how easy it would be to murder someone out here and Keir returns and says:

'Is your tent going to be okay there Thea?'

'Why wouldn't it be? Its further away from the river than yours.'

'Yeah but what if a car drove past and decided to reverse in to here to turn around. It would run straight over you.'

Keir is a worst case scenario predictor. He does it all the time. Comes up with potential disasters you couldn't begin to make up yourself. He chuckles and climbs in to his tent. I sleep in the car with one foot out of the window.

Day 8. August 6th.

Keir staggers out of his tent, hair on end, crazed eyes.

'It took us ages to put the fire out. Dave poured five litres of water on it and I covered it in dirt. It was out. It was definitely out.'

'Uhuh. Do you want a coffee?'

'Then I got up to piss in the middle of the night and it was burning again. And not just a little bit. It was huge.'

He sits drinking his coffee staring at the now cold fireplace as though it might burst in to life at any moment and attack him.

We, and by 'we' I mean Kate, has decided we're going to do the Emma Gorge walk today. If it wan't for Kate we'd all sit around scratching our arses all day and whilst some of the proposed plans make me shudder with dread they are all ultimately great fun and we feel so much better afterwards for having made the effort.

'How perilous is this walk Kate?' I ask weighing up the options between Birkenstocks and Converse Trainers.

'Aw its a lovely shady stroll,' she mumbles not at any point meeting my eye.

'By who's definition is it a lovely shady stroll?' I persist.

'Aw mumble mumble mumble,' she asserts knotting her trainers, packing a litre of water in her back pack and secreting a harness in the side pocket.

We start the walk. Before long I am scrambling over rocks in the unforgiving sun. Kate is a dot in the distance. After twenty minutes I sit down to await death and am confronted by two octogenarian women in hiking boots skipping past me on their return to camp base. (I don't know if I've mentioned this before but our party is the youngest group on this journey. Almost everyone else is what is termed a 'Grey Nomad.' I thought it sounded noble and clannish until Dave explained it was just retired people with caravans spending their kids inheritance in one final outdoor dance before death claims them. I like the term 'Grey Nomad'. Keir calls them 'Snowy Prunes.' Usually prefaced by the word 'Fucking'. Usually when he's driving.)
I have a smoke and before long another couple of elderly people, this time with walking sticks and and fold out chairs, nimbly hop by and I ask them if its much further to the Gorge.
I don't know why I ask. They always blatantly lie to your face.

'Not far now! And so worth it.' They grin sadistically.

I overheard another woman who was sitting and smoking (and keeps reappearing at every place we travel to) and is basically me in twenty years, scream “If one more person tells me its not far I'll fucking kill them!” Before taking a long angry drag on her fag and dragging herself by her chipped red nails up a sheer cliff face.

When I arrive at Emma Gorge the others are swimming. As always Kate gives me a wide berth until I have gotten in the water and cooled down a bit. I take the place in and as always am so glad I bothered. At the far end of the gorge is a Drip Waterfall. It trickles down like rain over a wide area and its lovely to float underneath. The water is cold but at one end it becomes thermal and its all we can do not to physically hurl the nomads out of it before climbing in ourselves.

On the drive back we listen to the only music CD available to us: Taxi Ride with Manjeet!

When Kate and Keir returned from the UK the taxi driver that picked them up played his very own cd and sang along to it. He even handed out laminated sheets with the lyrics so they could join in. They bought a copy immediately. It is terrible in that he has absolutely no sense of rhythm and the phrasing is more crowded than a whore's knickers. But the Indian backing music is great and the lyrics are so funny and sincere you can't help but love it and him. We all sing along to 'Aussie Aussie Fair Dinkum Aussie'. I am particularly moved by a number called 'Gandhi and World Peace.' At first you might be forgiven for thinking its completely shit, but when you listen to the words and how sincerely he wails them you just have to accept that he speaks the truth. And there's no shame in having a little cry. None at all.

Kate books us tickets for the Chamberlain Gorge cruise in the late afternoon. Dave bows out, he has some episodes of Futurama to catch up on.
Whilst waiting for the bus to pick us up I see the cowboy stroll past looking sweaty with a monkey wrench.

'He's a wanker,' Keir says.

During the drive to the boat our guide, Johnny (early 60's), tells us a bit about the excursion.

'This particular boat cruise is really in honour of a man named Buddy. Buddy worked here for many years and he was a great man. A friend of best friend actually.' He pauses and stares in to space. 'Anyway, Buddy died comin' up for two years ago now...and well....he loved this particular area that we're going to see...I remember he and I sitting under a Boab tree practising some songs together and he reckoned the place was special. Well, Buddy was special and I'll tell you more of his story as we go along.'

Its all a bit Brokeback Mountain and I look to Keir for confirmation. Keir is smiling and nodding earnestly at Johnny. We're all sunk.

We get on the little boat and as we glide along looking at rocks that haven't moved for millions of years Johnny points out baby crocs sunbathing on the rocks. He tells us that after the terrible floods of 2011 the whole area was devastated. All the big crocs washed away. Boab trees torn from the ground and sent on their way. The Aboriginal community were aghast, they'd never known a Boab to be destroyed by weather. But slowly life was returning, shoots are becoming trees and they've counted thirteen little freshwater crocs in the area this year.

'If you look to your right here you can see the Boab that Buddy and I used to practise our songs underneath. He'd say this place was magical, then he'd wander off in to the bush and return an hour or so later with a bottle of wine!'

Everyone chuckles and I am now certain I'm listening to a love story. Friendship my arse.

'When the area was bought and turned in to El Questro (which by the way is a made up name and means nothing at all) Buddy spoke to the new owners and said to them-' he pauses to control the wobble in his voice. 'He said: “I never had a home. But when I came here It felt like my home. And I call it home. If you let me live here until I die I'll work for you as long as I can and to the best of my ability.” And they shook hands – Buddy didn't believe in writing things down – and that was that.'

I can feel the man's grief travelling out like waves and wonder how much I can stand.

'Anyways, he was only 69 when his heart gave out-'


'And legend has it that his good old heart stopped the moment he saw his bar tab.'

We all laugh, more out of relief than anything. Thank God that's over. I was inches from weeping.

'So anyway, we're gonna stop here at Buddy's Beach and have a glass of bubbly and if you'll humour me I'd like to sing you a little that Buddy loved.'


He sings the song. It's a good song.

He then reads a poem that Buddy wrote.

I ask for a top up. And another. And just the one more. Thanks.

Before we leave Johnny hands out some fish pellets and tells us to look over the side of the boat. There are lots of fish staring back at us patiently. Kate suddenly screams and jumps back. She turns to the rest of the boat wet faced and stunned:

'That fish just spat at me!'

Johnny chuckles through his broken heart.

'Yeah, the fish have been trained to spit at you for treats.'

Its amazing. We hold out a pellet and each fish takes aim and spits a jet of water right in to your face. We do this for half an hour without ever tiring of it before Johnny tells us its time to head back.

That evening we have dinner at Emma Gorge and drink lots of red wine.

'Thea was crying when Johnny sang,' Keir tells Kate.

'I welled up,' Kate says.

'You cried too Keir, I saw you blinking furiously,' I say.

'Yeah,' Keir says.

As we're leaving we bump in to Sam, a tour guide and old school friend of Keir and Dave's. Dave has been trying to get hold of her for months and the co-incidence is incredible. She tells us to travel to the Bungle Bungle the following day where she's taking her tour party. We can have dinner with them. We agree and head off to our tents happy to have a vague plan.

Day nine. August 7th

Its time to leave El Questro. We pack up, throw stale bread to the fish and a small crocodile comes and claims some.
Hygiene is now a thing of the past. Where a few days ago we were begging Dave to wash his clothing we are now insisting he burn it.
As his t-shirt makes its own way in to the now ripe 4WD Keir says:

'I might buy him a top at the next town. As a gift.'

It would be a gift to us all.

We stop via Zebedee springs and have a final float. I overhear a conversation between a very alpha male dad and his entirely effeminate 10 year old son:

'Just get in son.' The dad sounds weary.

'But it looks dirty,' the boy observes with wrinkled nose.

'Its not dirty, its a hot spring. Its lovely and warm. Just get in.'

'I grazed my toe.'

'The water will do it good.'

'Well if I get an infection it'll be on your conscience.'

He lowers himself in gingerly and stands with his hand on one cocked hip.

'See? Its nice right?'

'Mmm. Is this freshwater?'

The dad sighs.


'So why are there no crocodiles here?'

'Its too warm, there's no oxygen and so no fish to eat.'

'So there's no crocodiles here?'



'Son I can't have this conversation for an eighth time. I'll drown myself if you make me.'

Something brushes up against the boy and he screams and throws himself like an ingenue in to his fathers arms.

The father with a look of bewilderment and love hauls the boy on to his shoulders and walks him around the pools.

'Isn't that a pretty tree dad.'

'Yes son, its....nice.'

We arrive in Wyndham in the burning midday sun. Its a shit hole and Dave loves it.

The prison is the nicest building in town.

We stop by some Aboriginal even that's been advertised and are stopped by a nervous looking white man who says its all pretty much over now. Dave senses something amiss and tells Keir to turn the car around. A moment later an angry Aboriginal man approaches the car and ensures us that he'll happily kill Keir and fuck his wife. Keir does the sensible thing and drives in to the compound of angry people.

'What the fuck Keir?!' Dave exclaims.

'Ooops,' Keir says and turns the car around.

We take some pictures of the fuck all that is Wyndham and hit the road. We drive for eighteen years and pass a thousand dry creeks. I have lost the will to write down their names by this point and only note:

Mistake Creek and Big Mabel Creek.

At one point I shout out:

'Oh oh! Look! Look!! A fairground!...Oh. Sorry. My bad. Its just another rock.'

We pass a dead cow and the top half of a dead kangaroo.

We get to the entrance of Bungle Bungle about half an hour before sunset. Its a two hour off road rough and scary terrain. That people do not drive at night. We begin the drive.

We drive through muddy rivers in the dark. We drive up hills in the dark. The landscape is the same mile after scary mile. Eventually we arrive at Sam's tour group camp and drag our sweaty seasick bodies from the car which somehow is still in one piece (although we have found some unattached screws on the floor) and hear laughter and merriment around the corner. We walk through and find a very civilised dining area has been set up in the middle of the bush. We pass glamorous luxury tents (houses with canvas walls and en suite showers) and envy these people. We will be setting up our tents in the dark.

We're greeted by Sam and her team warmly and sat down and fed huge rare steaks and lashings of red wine. The will to live returns.
After dinner we sit around their big camp fire and drink whilst they regale us with their adventures to date. Not a one of them is under 60 and they have more life in their little toes than any of us right now.
We mention the hike up to Emma Gorge and how I thought I wouldn't make it. Sam mentions a man on her tour called Keith who did it and he's in his late 80's. AND he stopped and helped younger people over some of the more tricky rocks. Show off.

'Yeah he made it up there, he was amazing,' Sam says.

'But did he make it back?' Keir asks.

Everyone falls about laughing.

'He's an inspiration to us all,' Dave says. 'We'll remember him fondly.'

'Yeah, they've renamed the place 'Keith's Gorge.'

We have been treated to a wonderful dinner and evening but we still have to set up our tents and Kate is looking enviously at the luxury accommodation.

'I want it,' she says. 'We deserve it and we must have it.'
She looks feral in the fire light and I burst out laughing. She starts giggling.

'I feel like the monkey that threw the peanuts back,' she laughs.

Sam takes pity on us. Who wouldn't? And somehow how swings it for us to get two luxury tents for the night. Dave immediately has two showers lowers himself on to the crisp pillows and makes a noise of contentment that's a cross between a gurgle and purr.

Ain't no such thing as a free glamp though. Sam asks very nicely (she's lovely) if we are going to see Cathedral Gorge the following day. We are. Its a huge cave with incredible acoustics. She asks if Kate would sing for her tour party whilst inside. Kate says sure.

Kate standing on a rock inside a vast chasm singing Ave Maria to the luckiest fucking tour group in the world is one of the most memorable experiences of this trip. There is absolute silence, you could hear a pin drop and she fills the space with her voice. When she finishes the crowd shout for an encore but she ducks her head shyly and scrambles over the rocks and back to us, narrowly missing the spot where I have recently pissed.

We look at the rocks. They are big. And rock like. I am so over rocks.

We make the horrible bumpy ride out and agree that people were correct when they asserted that you should really only fly to the Bungle Bungle.

As we get to the exit we are confronted by a mirage in the shape of an old man with a generator and a coffee machine. We poke him a bit and then demand all his coffee.

We drive for two centuries and listen to Batavia. Mutiny has occurred and something unspeakable has been perpetrated upon one of the ladies on board. This writer is beyond terrible but we are so hooked on the story there is no chance of ever switching it off.

Sam has recommended an isolated spot called Saw Pit Creek to camp for the night. So far all the Creek signs have been vaguely official looking. This one is a bit of card with Saw Pit spray painted on to it with an arrow.

'Huh,' Keir says. 'Its almost exactly like a sign a serial killer would make half a mile before the real Saw Pit sign.'

We drive down and it really is isolated. And beautiful. And isolated. As night falls the boys go off to get fire wood and Kate and I cane a bottle of red wine and gossip as though to all the world we were sat in the bar of a five star hotel. Albeit dirty, covered in twigs and having just had our first outdoor shit of the trip.

At bedtime we try to put out the fire. Keir pisses on it. We throw mud on it. Kate doesn't feel like she's contributing enough. I turn my head and look down to find her squatting over a plastic cereal bowl with her knickers round her ankles right next to me.

'Not getting performance anxiety are you dear?' I ask.

'Don't break my concentration,' she mutters.

A moment later she proudly throws her bowl o' piss over the fire, and Keir's hand.

I sleep in the car.

Day ten. August 9th.

We know from Sam that the river we're camping next to has freshwater crocs in it but the place is so remote there's no official signs.

We have a swim in the morning. Fuck it. There comes a point where the desire to get the relentless dust off you severely outweighs any concerns you may have about getting nipped.

We drive to Fitzroy Crossing Campsite. Its got a restaurant and amenities and we are very excited. And very dirty. The boys go off to meet Sam who is also there for a pre dinner drink.

Kate and I put some lipstick over the grime and sit and get drunk as the sun sets. We are happy and looking forward to dinner.

Before dinner I roll Keir a cigarette with too much tobacco and he smokes it far too fast and has to go and throw up before we eat.

I sleep in my tent but wake at 3am and can't go back to sleep. I stare at the stars for a while then find a corner and have a wee. Whilst crouched there I glance up and find myself staring at a door with the word 'Toilets' written on it.
We have been in the wilderness too long.

Day Eleven. August 10th.

Its my 39th birthday and Kate and Keir give me a card that Keir has made. He's an excellent cartoonist and has managed to capture much of our trip so far including a severed cowboy head in the jaws of a croc.
We spend the day wading through Tunnel Creek. A cave with lots of pools of indeterminately deep water wearing headlamps and looking out for chubby bats and shy freshwater crocs.

Everyone had a goal they wanted to achieve on this trip:

Dave: Experience the interconnectedness of everything.

Kate: Experience time from a new perspective.

Keir: Experience living in the moment fully.

Me: Experience not dying.

As we are about to make our way out of the caves I ask Dave if he's had any luck with his goal yet.

'Well, yeah. Just now I was sat looking at the view and there were some kids laughing and I realised that their laughter made me happy.'

We have a feast for dinner and the waitress comes out with a Brownie with candles in it and they sing Happy Birthday.
I read messages from my loved ones on facebook and get a call from my sister.
I go to bed feeling loved and as rich as I'll ever need to be.

Day Twelve. August 11th.

We embark on the long drive to Broome and the luxurious Cable Beach Spa Resort where we'll be scrubbing ourselves clean for the next 6 nights.

The drive seems to take even longer than usual, particularly as we detour 80kms via Derby so Dave can get a picture of himself naked next to the Derby sign.

We stop by the coast and everyone gets out of the car.

'You not getting out Thea?' Kate asks.

'No, I'm all good for barren desolate landscapes thanks. I'm full.'

'But this one is a really shit colour,' she points out.

She's right. We stay and have battered barramundi and chips for lunch. Its caught that morning and so fresh its like butter.

We continue driving and stop briefly at the Boab Prison Tree. I literally get out, march over, take a photo, fight my way through a crowd of Grey nomads and get back in the car.

I want Broome so much I can taste it.

We drive, we listen to Batavia. And then like heaven on earth we are in Broome and at the resort.

Everything is elegant and beautiful and shaded and tropical and oh the luxury.

Adrian is there to greet us and I'm delighted to see him. Its been nearly two months since the tour ended and we parted with the exchange:

'You're a psycho.'

'Fuck you.'

A valet collects our car and only recoils slightly before climbing in to its godless interior in his crisp clean uniform. Our butler comes with a buggy and drives us and our luggage to our deluxe accommodation.
There are chocolate covered strawberries and champagne and cold slices of melon. I have a king sized bed and the sheets are crisp and white and wonderful.

We have a look at the beach which is white sands and littered with gorgeous men.

Adrian gives me a nice looking piece of rock he finds.

The others go to the pool and I have my first ever spa bath. Its a bit violent and shocking until I find the right switches. I use every bit of complimentary L'Occitane soap and creams and languish for an hour.

The sun sets, we drink champagne. We dress in clean clothes and go for pizza and wine.

Life is a big warm cloud of pleasure and I crawl on to my island sized bed and sleep like the dead.