…The Fat Starts Sobbing

Enough time has passed, my friends, not only since my last literary attempt but also since the incident which I shall now recount – and when I have finished, you will realise why I have waited six weeks to report back.  Firstly, let us recap.

When I last left you, dear reader, I had embarked on a health and fitness regime which included ‘The Visit’, whereby a yapping wee slip of a thing shows you around a gym’s facilities and sells the benefits of exercise to you, followed by squeezing my ample frame into ill-fitting Lycra, and finally meeting Dave, the personal trainer, and discussing my current health.  All good so far.

Oh, the exuberance and new-found confidence with which I bounded to the gym the following Thursday evening, an evening which promised a renewed energy for running and leaping, squatting and thrusting, steaming and sauna-ing. As always though, patient reader, this enthusiasm would soon be extinguished, like the proverbial pissed-upon firework.

The evening began with the afore-mentioned ‘Lycra Olympics’ which includes the hurdles (trying to get my legs into stretchy jogging bottoms), trampolining (half an hour of bouncing around the room as I attempt to hitch them over my hips), gymnastics,(throwing myself around the floor, waving my arms in the air as I try to trap two rolls of back fat into a top befitting the gym) and finally the marathon (the 10 metre walk to the car, which leaves me puffing and panting – never a good sign).

A ten minute drive later and cut to me sitting in the Camry trying to get all unfortunate noises out of my body before the onslaught. This includes; burping, farting, sneezing (which, at my age, may also involve both burping and farting as well as, let’s face it, weeing), swearing, grunting and hiccupping. God knows what I must have looked like.   Imagine the scene; a pudgy, middle-aged woman, apparently suffering from a most unfortunate case of Tourette’s, sitting in an ill-lit car park on a wet and windy Thursday evening, rocking gently and exuding intermittent noises; ‘Burp, fart, bollocks, achooooo, fart, hic, hurrrrrrrrrr, burp, bugger it, faarrrrrrt, arse.’ (I would like to state at this point, that other than the swearing I am in no way capable of producing that much noise in terms of oral and/or anal flatulence – although I can make myself sneeze, a skill which will never get me on ‘Australia’s Got Talent’, but which has been an ice-breaker at parties. Really bloody boring parties).

I digress…

David is fifteen minutes late, in which time there has been a build-up of unfortunate noises, but no time to worry about those, I have a cross trainer to tackle!

‘On ya get mate!’ chirrups Dave. He calls me ‘mate’ a lot which I actually find quite emasculating. Surely the very nature of my skin-tight jogging bottoms quite clearly demonstrates that I am in fact female?

‘On ya get mate! Let’s do a quick warm up and then we’ll crack on!’

I leap on to the cross trainer with all the grace and dexterity of a dead gazelle, the pedals shift under me and the machine spits me off the other side disgustedly. Dave catches me under the armpits expertly.

‘Don’t worry mate! I’ve got ya!’ What a tremendous start.

He manipulates the buttons as I set off with misplaced enthusiasm, my legs becoming a blur as I swish them backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. The energy produced by the chaffing of my thighs could have powered a small Australian township, and I’m quite surprised that the friction of the Lycra didn’t cause a bushfire. Dave had cleverly covered the controls so that I could not see the time completed, but after what seemed like an eternity, the side effects of not exercising for two years became horrifically apparent; my lungs began to burn, bile started to rise to the back of my throat, the rest of the gym’s patrons became a set of shadowy figures and my legs began to feel like two alien tentacles. Finally, he allowed me to step off the contraption. I heaved and spluttered, desperately trying to catch my breath and regain some of my previous composure.

‘How, pant, long, cough, was I, wheeze, on for?’ I manage to gasp.

‘Three minutes.’

Oh.

‘Ok mate, let’s try some lunges!’  Now, there are three phrases in the English Language which fill me with dread more than any others; ‘Mummy, look what I’ve done’, ‘Sorry, we’ve sold out of Crunchies’, and ‘Let’s try some lunges’.  It is not easy for a lady of my ample frame to manoeuvre herself up and down using the strength of just her thighs – it’s not easy to manoeuvre my frame out of a chair using my legs and an industrial winch, so the thought of lunges made me sick in my mouth a little bit.  Dave approaches me brandishing a ski pole.

‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you a rectal exam!’ he quips. Oh good, because that’s what put me off the gym in the UK, all the rectal exams…

The idea was to use the pole to push myself back up once I had managed to lower myself down. Five reps on my right leg went ok. Then I got a little cocky…

As I lunged forward on my left leg, my right leg decided that it had had enough and was off to contact its union about the amount of overtime it was being forced to do. I felt it buckle under me, but there was nothing I could do, and my arse acted as a pendulum propelling me backwards.  I fell on to the floor with an almighty thump, and then bounced across the laminate a little. It was like a scene from ‘The Dambusters’ – had there been any German fighter pilots in there, I’m fairly sure they would have shit themselves as did Dave, who again attempted to catch me.  When he realised that he was not going to save me this time, he waited until the bouncing had stopped and then endeavoured to pick me up. Unfortunately, he is lighter than me so the effect of this was beyond comedic to the, by then, dozen or so onlookers. Imagine Torvill and Dean’s ‘Bolero’, the bit where he pulls her majestically over the ice. Now imagine that Christopher Dean is dragging a sweating mass of amorphous, undulating cellulite across a laminate gym floor, with a slight, moist squeaking noise emanating from under its crotch as it fails to get its feet down to stand up. That is what we looked like. Surely this can’t get any worse, I thought.  Oh, how wonderfully naive…

I watched Dave stalk off to the corner of the gym and listened with horror at the metallic rasping sound as he dragged a bench over to where I was standing. Not step-ups, please not step-ups…

‘Right mate, let’s do some step-ups!’  Not since Adam has a man misjudged a woman so completely. What Dave had failed to realise, is that my right leg had won its tribunal and had convinced the rest of my body to go out on strike with it.  Five step-ups later saw me sitting on said bench with my head between my legs, trying not to vomit, a damp rag on the back of my neck and Dave’s constant droning,’Wellatleastyoumadeitiherematethat’smorethanalotofpeoplewouldhave blahblahblah.’

The fact that the first training session I have ever had consisted of falling off a machine, falling off my own legs and then passing out seemed not to phase our Dave.

Of course, I went home and burst into tears, out of a kind of angry self-pity; however undeterred I returned the very next day and tried again. On my own.  Very slowly. And three weeks later, I can complete a good 15 minutes on the cross trainer and I actually look forward to going – which is something I never thought I would say.

Now, if I could only give up my penchant for Tim Tam sandwiches, I’m sure the weight would just drop off…

When The Going Gets Fat….

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon as I looked back over the blogs I had hitherto written, and as I reached for another double-coated chocolate Tim Tam, I came to the startling realisation that I don’t ‘alf moan a lot – people are better looking than me, thinner than me, have better experiences at the beach than me, make better pork pies than me and so on. There also seemed to be an inherent irony running through these pieces, an irony that had maybe already dawned on the casual reader but not as yet on myself; on the one hand I moan about Melbourne’s beautiful ones, but on the other I proclaim the virtues of heart attack-inducing fatty foods. Something had to be done to straighten out this paradox.  One slightly obvious epiphany later, it was with a heavy and cholesterol-crammed heart that I decided it was time to join the gym in a vain attempt to make this pudgy woman slightly less pudgy…

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not overly insecure about the way I look – I’m couldn’t care less what people think of me in any respect (I wasted most of the eighties concerned about that), and I’m not vain but, as discussed in my first blog, 40 has made me very aware of what I am, and what I am is, shall we say, plump. It gets to the point where your body refuses to put up with any more and all the muscles in your body scream, ‘I can’t do this on my own man, I need your help.  Put the frickin’ donut down man and throw me a bone here. I’m dying I tells ya…’  (apparently my muscles talk like a detective from a 1970s cop show). There is also that moment of realisation that if you do not start to make some lifestyle changes, there is every chance that you will not be there for your child and you will not get to see those important moments in her life; her graduation, her wedding, the first grandchild, and you of course scupper the chance to embarrass her at every given opportunity throughout her life, just as my father did to me (but we’ll save that for another time).

So, after deliberating, researching, eating marshmallows, gargling with Gaviscon and deliberating some more, I decided to do something about my health and ever-expanding waistline.  Now, there are stages one must go through when deciding to join a gymnasium. Stage one, the visit, which consists of an over-zealous teenager bounding around your ankles, yapping about the virtues of their leisure facilities, like a puppy with a new chew toy.

‘And here we have a steam room and sauna. Do you think you’d use something like this?’

I nod and smile.  Me sit in a steam room, feeling like an over-sized dim sum? I don’t think so.  And I can’t think of anything worse than sitting in a very hot, wooden room, breathing in other people’s sweat and farts.  The last time I went in a sauna, the bench was so hot that when I stood up it had branded my buttocks like a flame-grilled Whopper.

‘This is the class exercise room. We have many classes; body pump, body jam, body move, body shop, body work…’ What about body bag, because that is what you’ll be dragging me out in.

So, her boundless enthusiasm, and my husband’s knowing nods compel me to join, and I am dutifully equipped with a membership card, bag and water bottle. Because that makes it all so much better…

Now, stage two.  Let us imagine the preparation the pudgy woman has to go through to get ready for the gym.  Imagine trying to pour a half set vanilla blancmange into two piping bags – a tricky task full of patience and manual dexterity, quite possibly messy, with a lot of spillage – and now imagine me putting on Lycra leggings.  The two tasks are remarkably similar.  Now, let us stand back and marvel at the results – not particularly attractive I grant you – it’s like looking at two stockings full of walnuts.

Bending over to put my trainers on is a feat in itself as, to paraphrase the great Ronnie Corbett, I have to think of other things I can do while I’m down there, mainly so it is not a wasted trip. God only knows what the view from behind must be like while I am grappling with my shoelaces whilst also trying to breathe in an out – probably like two little boys trying to escape out of a collapsed tent. I then equip myself with the items I presume I will need to join the buff and the beautiful; iPod, logo emblazoned gym bag and water bottle, and of course a portable defibrillator, you know, just in case. There is then the small matter of the necessary paperwork – is my will up to date?  Where is my Medicare card? Have I notified all family and friends of my impending exercise and possible subsequent demise?  And then off I go…

With all the gear and no idea, I trot off to my first session – and when I say trot I of course mean drive.   I have my first session with my personal trainer; let’s call him Dave, because that is his name. He is ten years older than me which is a bonus, the last thing I need is one of Zeus’ minions stretching out my thighs as I sweat like a navvy on a shipyard. He also has a bit of a paunch – ironic, but still oddly comforting. We chat. He asks me about my goals (not dying being the main one), my exercise regime (errr, walking to the car?) and my diet (all the major food groups; pasta, bread, butter, steak and Smarties. I’m one Krispy Kreme away from type two diabetes).  Then he asks me to do some stretches to assess my gait, posture and strength.  The only trouble is that he asks me to do this in the foyer, in full view of the beautiful young things that also frequent this gym. I had to squat and twist, lunge and reach, with one consistent and droning thought passing through my mind – ‘don’tfartdon’tfartdon’t fart’.  In an hour, Dave had made up his mind about me and what I needed in terms of diet and exercise and had convinced me to join him for a late supper and a movie. That last bit is a lie – he instead came up with an eating and exercise plan which I am simply desperate to get started on. My first real session is tomorrow – oh joy.

Oh well, a journey of a hundred miles beings with a single step, fail to prepare, prepare to fail, nothing tastes as good as skinny feels and all that bollocks…

A Pudgy Woman’s Musings – Things I Miss (Part Two)

I love my food, I make no secret of that. I love the taste of it; the salty, the sweet (especially the sweet,) the sour, the unusual, the exquisite, the everyday tastes of everyday foods. I love the textures, the sight, the aromas and even the sound of food. Yes, I love my food – which would of course explain why my bottom resembles two badly parked Volkswagen Beetles.

As ever, let me begin with an example of my love of all things yummy.

Now, many people will bemoan the fact that Easter eggs appear on supermarket shelves only two weeks after said shelves have been cleared of advent calendars.  The majority of the public will spend many unnecessary hours venting their spleens, discussing the advertising and consumption of festive chocolate products. You know the type of thing…

‘Oooooh look Keith, there’s an advert on for Cadbury’s Crème Eggs and you’ve only just put the Christmas tree back in the loft.  What is the world coming to? Do you want to know who I blame for this? Teenagers, swanning around in their hoodies, acting like they own the place…’ etc., etc.

Personally, I don’t want to live in a world where seasonal chocolate is not available in a constant and uninterrupted cycle. It gives me a sense of comfort.  Many things in our world today are transient and short-lived, fast-paced and fleeting, never to be seen again – but not chocolate. One knows that come October, one will be able to purchase chocolate Santas and Rudolphs, angels and Christmas trees. I even saw a Christmas Christ once; complete with manger and full nativity scene however, and despite my negation of God’s existence for the past 35 years, I could not bring myself to take a bite out of the baby Jesus.  Then, in late January comes the turn of the Easter egg, with its polished foil and the promise of many surprises within. Let us not forget Valentine’s Day, where a massive box of chocolates is in order or ‘he of the anal sandcastles’ is treated with a massive box of the grumps. Then it’s my birthday – enough said. Then Halloween; trick or treat?  Well, that’s easy isn’t it? Treat please, and by treat I do not mean an apple or a bloody toothbrush.  Bonfire Night comes along with toffee and chocolate apples and that brings us back to Christmas.  Hurrah!

When I first came out to Australia, I was told by many people that the chocolate here does not taste the same as the chocolate back in the UK as there is a hidden ingredient which acts as an anti-melting agent. I have a suspicion that these people were trying to ward me off chocolate so that I might lose a few (hundred) pounds, however I made the mistake of trying a Twix when I first got here – just to see – and although the aftertaste is slightly different, that is about all. Since then, and only in the name of scientific and culinary experimentation as I am sure you will understand, I have tried every chocolate on the market, and I can now publish my findings under the heading ‘Tastes Pretty Good To Me’.  Chocolate therefore cannot really be classed as one of the things I miss – although I would suggest to Mr Cadbury that he introduces the Giant Chocolate Button to his Australian consumers.

Now, Melbourne has a well-deserved reputation for its fabulous restaurants and café culture and one cannot turn a corner without coming across the drifting aroma of fresh coffee, or a veritable cornucopia of foods from all nations.

Derby, however, is not as well-known for its culinary establishments but there is still one place I miss – Birds the Bakers.  Now, if you are not from the Midlands, you may not have come across this family run bakery, and so I shall spend a little time describing the tasty treats one can procure from this establishment.

The first, as promised, is pork pie.

Now, I like a pie as much as the next man, especially if the next man is Desperate Dan, but pork pies have never been my absolute favourite. Pork pie is difficult to get right. Too much aspic and it is like eating a mouthful of tasteless, gelatinous slop, too little and the effect can be dry and difficult to swallow. The meat has to be spiced, but not too peppery for fear it tastes too much like another favourite of mine, the Cornish pasty. And the pastry must not be too greasy, or else it gives me chronic and crippling heartburn – I’m a martyr to my oesophageal sphincter.  Birds mastered the art of the pork pie decades ago, and there are few households in Derbyshire that do not partake in a Birds pork pie, at Christmas especially.

As well as this delicacy, Birds also make a quite delicious beef paste, presented in a little glass pot and full of beefy goodness. Some people may be put off by the centimetre thick layer of fat which coats the surface as a preservative – or as we people who have arms like a flying fox call it, elevenses. And for dessert – a lovely little strawberry trifle, complete with jammy splodge to embellish the softly whipped cream which in turn sits atop custard and jelly.  My Nan used to deliver one to her neighbour Reg every week.  To a pudding-obsessed 8 year old such as I was, this was a thing of wonder, and a thing which made me just a tiny bit jealous. ‘How lucky he is,’ thought I, ‘to have a trifle delivered to his doorstep every single week.’ The fact that the poor man was housebound seemed to completely escape my attention which was instead wholly focused on dessert.

Finally, here is a list of other things I miss and which my friends in the UK might wish to send me for my birthday;

  • Paxo Sage and Onion Stuffing (you can get stuffing here, but you have to put egg in it which seems wrong somehow, unless I’ve been reading the Paxo packet wrong all this time and have neglected to put egg in, the very thought of which gives me a sort of stuffing paranoia).
  • Walker’s crisps, in particular Roast Chicken, Prawn Cocktail and Cheese and Onion flavour.
  • Marks and Spencer’s meals for 2.
  • Salmon en Croute – salmon in Australia is mind-numbingly expensive, so God only knows how much it is when dressed and wrapped in pastry.
  • Waitrose in general – which I know makes me a middle-class oink, but I don’t care, I miss everything about it, including the air of superiority I get when doing a weekly shop there.
  • Party food – mini sausage rolls and cocktail sausages and pasties and scotch eggs and the like. Aussies do not seem too keen on the ‘mini foods’ concept.

I’m sure that these food stuffs are available somewhere, so like a food-obsessed Captain Cook (excuse the pun), I shall trawl every corner of this blessed country on a search for the things I crave and I shall return like the explorers of old holding aloft the spoils of my search, covered in the ginger crumbs of a half-masticated scotch egg. It will be hard, but I do not mind doing it, really I don’t.

A Pudgy Woman’s Musings – Things I Miss (Part One).

You really do not realise just how much stuff you have accumulated over the years until you see the amount of boxes in which your stuff has been packed – and by ‘stuff’ I of course mean crap.  It was as I was unpacking one of these billion cardboard boxes that I happened upon my old diaries which span a near decade – from the ‘New Kids on the Block’ late eighties, to the ‘Blur versus Oasis’ mid-nineties. I am a woman who is very easily distracted and my absolute belief in the old adage ‘why do today what you can put off until tomorrow’ means that if there is any tiny thing that can take me off-task, I will leap at it with open arms and give it a big kiss.  So, bored of sifting through my knick-knacks, I sat and read the diaries.  Big mistake.   I always thought I was quite a cool teenager; intelligent, witty, mature, gregarious.

Turns out I was actually a bit of an arse.

In 1989, I went to college to study for my A levels after five God awful years at a God awful school in Derby, where, rather than learning anything of any use, the majority of my time was spent sitting at the back of the class doodling ‘Leighton is fit’ on the cover of my maths book, and then going home to pester my parents to buy me a pair of Pepé stone-washed jeans and a Kappa t-shirt.  Three GCSEs later and I was completely ready to leave school and branch out into the unknown and colourful world of tertiary education.  I loved the freedom college gave me. We had a refectory and vending machines and you could skip seminars and not get caught and you could smoke and swear and wear whatever you wanted without fear of retribution.  There were cliques; the Townies, the Grebs, the Goths, the Musos.  We had college parties (they’re a blog all on their own) and went to charity shops in our ‘frees’, and it was the last time in our lives that we could swan around with that air of deluded self-importance , because we were young and ‘stoodents’ and we thought we were the bee’s knees.  I, in particular, thought whatever I had to say was really important and profound, especially if I said it really loudly in the middle of the high street after drinking too many Newcastle Brown Ales.  I was, as I have said, a bit of an arse, a Psychology-studying, Sartre-reading, floppy-fringed arse.  However, no matter how high I scored on the arse-o-meter, I was very lucky to have a core group of friends who put up with all of my overly loud and obnoxious behaviour.

Examples?  But of course…

I had a tendency to fall in love every other week with a plethora of different males; the one with the fur-collared bomber jacket, the Scottish one with Inspiral Carpets t-shirt, the one with the two-tone mullet, the one who was a lead singer and also, it turns out, a card-carrying sociopath. And every time they dumped me or were simply not interested, I would slump into a deep depression which consisted of lighting a joss stick, listening to Soft Cell and writing a poem, usually entitled something subtle like ‘Why Does Everyone Hate Me? – Part Deux’. I was also a bit pretentious.

‘But we were all like that!’ I hear you cry.  Alright then…

I had a tendency to do very silly things that nobody else seemed to do.  One night, when I realised I was running late for an evening of drinkin’ and dancin’, I decided to dry my jeans on the Calor gas fire in my bedroom. Ten minutes later, the inevitable stench of smouldering denim led me to discover that my jeans were, in fact, alight and gently setting fire to my carpet. Somehow, I managed to get the blazing jeans into the bathroom and into the bath, the only tell-tale sign a small scorch mark under the cold water tap.

Another?  OK…

I once showed my friend how good I was at dancing to Nirvana by bending at the waste and swaying my head vigorously from left to right.  I had very long hair at that point, and the effect was quite a thing to behold, I’m sure.  However I had not planned for the physical consequences of this style of dancing for those unaccustomed to it, and as I stood up the room span round and my legs, which by now felt like they belonged to someone else (and I really wished they had) sent me careering spectacularly into a group of other partygoers, including one boy on whom I had my weekly crush.  I smashed through them like a bowling ball through a set of pins, ricocheted off a mirrored pillar and eventually came to an abrupt stop by colliding with and then bolstering myself against a bar stool.

There are just too many ridiculous events to mention here – the point is that no matter what I did, said, wore or set fire to, my friends were always there to laugh, pick up the pieces, or extinguish me – and twenty years later, they are still there for me.

And that is one of the things that make emigrating so incredibly difficult – leaving them behind.

Of course, you meet new people. You go out and have coffee and tell your story a few times and you get on. And hopefully a few of those people will turn out to be really good friends – friends that will look out for you again, and don’t get me wrong, I am confident that I have met those people.  But, if like me you know no one in your new country of residence, the difficulty is that you have no one with whom you share a past, a legacy if you like – stories you can laugh about, moments that make you think again, reminiscences that might make you cry. You do not have people that know you inside out and who forgive you all those little ‘moments’ you might have, and those moments might end up defining you forever.  For a while there, you have to be on your best behaviour, which for someone like me is quite exhausting.

Australia is a long way from the UK and not just geographically but emotionally. It does not really hit you just how far away you are until you think about people back at ‘home’ and the fact that you might not see them again for  a long time, or indeed ever if you do not return to the UK. My best friend has just had her first baby. I will not see her baby until she is almost one and a half if we return to the UK for my dreaded 40th.

Things like that break your heart just a little bit.

I love it here, as I am sure you can tell by reading my other blogs – these are just things I think about and miss.

Next week  –  Things I Miss (Part Two) – Pork Pie.

Adventures on the Great Ocean Road – Part Two

The Anal Sandcastles episode of our Great Ocean Road adventure got me thinking about structures of other kinds and whether or not it is possible to compare the beauty of man-made structures with that of natural phenomena.  Aesthetically these things can be compared I suppose, but to which do we proffer most admiration – the men who persevere to create something astounding, or the raw power of nature and what that creates?

For example, as I discussed in part one of this blog, the Great Ocean Road is an amazing feat of planning, perseverance, dedication and damned hard work and in turn it offers amazing views of beaches, bays and forests.  In total, during the 13 years it took to build the road, 3000 returning World War One soldiers toiled day after day, sleeping in bush camps and enduring quite treacherous conditions. Although there were few deaths, there was a very high turnover of men, as even though they were paid well and treated well, the work was arduous.  Road building today involves trucks, diggers, huge mechanical beasts that do the majority of the backbreaking work. Look at the pictures of the road building of 1919 and you will see men equipped with pickaxes!

Then we have the Twelve Apostles – the next stop on our weekend adventure. The Twelve Apostles are situated in Port Campbell National Park, about a four hour drive down the Great Ocean Road.  They are made up of nine giant limestone monoliths, and their creation began 10 to 20 million years ago (a mind-boggling fact in itself) by erosion from the Southern Ocean.  Once, these mighty stacks were part of the cliff face; the sea wore away caves, the caves widened and became arches and the sides of the arches eventually collapsed from the side of the cliff leaving behind the rock ‘stacks’ we see today. All have continued to erode, some have been lost to the ocean forever, but it is a truly beautiful sight and I thoroughly recommend a trip there. So does the very fact that these awe-inspiring structures are there because of the climate, the sea and the harsh effects of nature make them any more beautiful or amazing than the road on which they are situated?  It took 20 million years for nature to create these structures, and 13 years for man to build a road that is 263 km long. Which is the most amazing?  And although nature created the panoramic views you can see from the road – without the toil of those men, you wouldn’t be able to see those views.  An interesting couple of points to consider.

Or not…

So, let us think about this instead. What about a place which is a crossover of both of these ideas, a man-made ‘structure’ which displays the best that nature has to offer so that it is accessible to all.  The wildlife reserve.  Surely, if there is aesthetic and assiduous beauty in both man-made and natural constructs then this should be the epitome of beauty?

Errrrr, no actually.

I shall not name the reserve I am about to describe for fear that it is the owners’ only income and without it they cannot afford their mortgage/ school fees/grandma’s bowel medicine, but I am going to describe it nevertheless.

I suppose kangaroo-shaped alarm bells should have rung when the entrance fee for the three of us only came to $24, and the coffee lounge consisted of a three bar gas fire, stained cafetiere and a plastic garden table, but try as we might, Australian wildlife had thus far alluded us  so we continued on.

The reserve itself was vast – acres upon acres of arid land; dusty, dirty and dead, much like some of the animals. The first enclosure held kangaroos and, oddly, a peacock.

‘Oooooh look, Colin, the kangaroos are so tame they don’t mind if you stroke them!’

I didn’t have the heart to tell Colin’s missus that the kangaroos were not tame, they were simply sick of life; one of them lying in a dust bath, swatting the flies off its thinning, flea-ridden coat, one was cowering in a corner looking for a hole in the fence like a hairy Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, and the third had simply lost the will to live and was sitting morosely behind a tree, staring into oblivion and waiting for the sweet release of death.  Of course none of this mattered to my two and half year old minx who was in her element stroking them and talking to them soothingly, whilst being chased around by mummy,  equipped with a bottle of disinfectant and a tetanus shot.

A stroll past the livid-looking emus (safely incarcerated behind bars) took you to the koala enclosure – and when I say enclosure I mean the three leafy branches that had been sellotaped to the side of a corrugated tin shed. I haven’t seen a koala yet although I’ve been in Oz for 3 months, and I wasn’t about to see one here. Cue the minx…

‘Mummy, the koala is tired. He’s hiding.’

Yes, either that or he’s snuffed, stuffed and stapled to the eucalyptus.

And what next on this magical mystery tour of mammals?  Donkeys. Two to be precise, two emaciated, sorry- looking asses which ate anything at all that you passed through the wire.  Dry hay, bread, your finger…

Next was the deer paddock, which was actually a really lovely space – rolling hills, trees, panoramic views.  The deer had it good, which was probably why they were kept away from the rest of the animals – jealousy.

We walked back towards the koala enclosure in the dumb hope that the animal had been successfully resuscitated, and back past the donkeys. Unfortunately for us, one of the donkeys chose that moment to ‘expose’ himself and we ushered the minx past hurriedly, covering her eyes and telling her we were playing a game of hide and seek.  I do not want to dwell on the point, and I do not know if you have ever seen a donkey’s, ahem, appendage, but my goodness. Female donkeys must suffer from a lot of ‘headaches’.

The whole day reminded me a little of Melbourne Aquarium. Don’t get me wrong, the fish looked perfectly healthy, and on the whole there were fewer erections, but I was disappointed with the penguins – they seemed a little sad, but so would I be if I spent all day under neon lights, skidding around in my own shit.

Maybe I expect too much of my wildlife parks, aquariums and zoos, I don’t know.  Ultimately these experiences are more for the minx than me, and she had a whale of a time.

Whales…maybe that’s the next adventure?

Adventures on the Great Ocean Road – Part One

Mention the beach, any beach, to most people and they will shower you with a warm and fuzzy flood of heart-felt, tender, life-spanning memories which may or may not include the time they first swam in the ocean, the freedom they felt when they first surfed, their baby’s first steps on the sand, the last time they looked good in a bikini/Speedo…

However from a young age I have always been wary of the beach and with good reason – it is the place where most of my accidents, injuries and embarrassing moments have occurred.  Don’t misunderstand me, I have some fond memories of the beach, but I have many more terrifying memories of near-death experiences.

The first of these memories involves my father, who will deny this happened to his dying day.  When I was about 8 years old or so (too old to be thought fragile, too young to seek cold-blooded revenge), he thought it would be hilarious to throw a piece of saltwater-soaked cardboard at me from across the beach.  Imagine the scene; the cardboard pivoting beautifully, silently through the air, droplets of saltwater splashing the golden Cornish sands in a glistening, rainbow cascade before hitting me full in the face like a salty, papier-mâché slap.  After the initial feeling of terror thinking that I was being suffocated by a giant octopus (the ones most often seen in a 1950s monster movie, tentacles wrapped round my head, suckers cutting off my air supply until my desperate screams for help are choked from my body) there was a momentary feeling of relief that it was in fact just a huge piece of corrugated cardboard.  This relief was soon followed by a rush of anger and humiliation tinged with impotence as I realised that any attempt at revenge was futile because a) he was laughing it up half way down the beach by then b) he’s my dad who brought me up to respect my elders and c) he has no boundaries when it comes to practical jokes and my revenge would have been outdone by him burying me up to my neck in the sand.  Head first.

Then there was the time that I tried body-boarding for the first time on Mablethorpe beach. What a rush! The wind in my hair, the crashing of the waves, the salty sea-spray in my face, the sound of my screaming family as I careered towards a jagged sea break with all the agility and grace of a floating turd…

And finally we have the time when my parents thought it would be a nice idea for me to try horseback riding on the beach. Oh, the feeling of expectation as they hoisted me into the saddle! Oh, the desperate anticipation of a 7 year old who had visions of galloping magnificently down the sands leaving nothing but hoof prints and dust in her wake. Oh, the terror as the saddle unbuckled and I slid sideways, slowly, until I was hanging upside-down underneath the horse. Oh, the sound of my families screams, yet again, as the horse moved off with me dangling underneath like an extra testicle.

A trip down the Great Ocean Road to some of Australia’s finest beaches therefore filled me with a slight feeling of discomfort, coupled with the disquieting notion that at some point this would mean donning a swimsuit and exposing my legs, which at the moment resemble two white chocolate Magnums, sans sticks but the same shape. We departed on our road trip on the Friday evening of Labour Day weekend, a veritable ‘Thelma and Louise’, although who was who is debatable. To be fair I have slightly saggier breasts, so by rights I should be Susan Sarandon.  We arrived at Apollo Bay in the dark – I like that, it gives me sense of real anticipation for the next morning and I have rarely, if ever, been let down by what the dawn reveals.  Our motel room was comfortable and clean, with a balcony that looked over the bay, and Apollo Bay itself is quaint and friendly.

Our first morning was spent driving down the coast, taking it in turns to look at the rugged coastline and the vast ocean which stretches out (at points, way below you) to a dark blue horizon.  The road itself is an amazing example of what human endeavour and determination can achieve – from the planning through to the execution. Listed as the world’s largest war memorial, it was built by men returning from the Great War as a magnificent act of remembrance.  Stretching from Torquay to Warrnambool, the road twists and turns through a variety of landscapes; cliffs, forests and bays each one more beautiful than the last and one cannot help but be swept away a little by the adventure of it all – a great section of the road hugs the coastline known as ‘Shipwreck Coast’, so it is difficult not to think of pirates and treasure, swashbuckling and smuggling with every turn in the two lane highway.

The next stop on our tour was Torquay, a lovely town with a  beach of the fine white sand variety, and the minx was very excited at the prospect of building sandcastles with her Daddy.

To begin with, the sandcastle building began as an innocent time filler, a way to keep the minx entertained and away from other exquisite delights such as discarded cigarette butts and other beach debris which is oh-so-interesting to a two year old.  We filled the bucket together, patted the top when we tipped it over and said the magic words ‘abracadabra-hocus-pocus!’ to make the castle magically appear. She seemed genuinely happy and surprised when even a crumbling, half-castle structure appeared from inside the bucket.

Not so Daddy.

I suppose my suspicions should have been aroused when he began asking for buckets of water to make his ‘compo’, however I am always one to give my other half the benefit of the doubt. Half an hour later, the minx and I had given up trying to join in and had wandered down the beach to play with a football.  Every time she went to participate in the sandcastle building ‘fun’, she was met with demented screams of ‘Don’t touch it!!! I’m building the fairy castle towers!!!! For God’s sakes don’t put dry sand on there – you’ll ruin my mix!!!!’  It turns out that 30 years ago, he lost a sandcastle building competition in Spain to a young girl who couldn’t speak a word of the Queen’s, but who had fashioned intricate Disney-esque turrets using nothing but sand, water, her own hands and un-childlike skill, and this had marked him for ever.  My other half, it appears, does not like to lose.  He finally admitted later (when he found himself sitting alone on the beach at nightfall putting the finishing touches to his design) that when it came to building sandcastles, he was a little anal.

Anal sandcastles?

Sounds like a punk band…

And so, a while later, and after the minx’s heartfelt whisper of ‘Mummy, I’m a little bit bored…’, the castle was done, complete with turrets, a gateway surrounded by two towers, valet parking and tea and coffee making facilities.  And 5 seconds after that, the minx and I took somewhat spiteful pleasure in jumping all over it.

I like to think of this sandcastle as a metaphor for life. One spends all your time building a happy home, taking love and care to mix the ‘compo’ of life so that you have just the right mix, just the right consistency, with solid foundations and the hope of protection, until some giggling gits come and stomp all over it.

Whatever one thinks about my sandcastle analogy, and whatever one may think about the sadistic pleasure I took in kicking Cinderella’s sandy castle in, it made my daughter laugh a lot and at last I have a warm and fuzzy memory to share with people when they mention the beach, any beach.

Beautiful Melbourne and Me

My 40th birthday is looming, looming like some panting, perspiring, red-faced reminder that my twenties are long gone, as are my waistline and anything pert.

I am actually 38 so I suppose 40 is lurking rather than looming, however I have a history of taking a long, running jump at birthdays. I started preparing for my 30th at the age of 26, for example. I am an intelligent woman, I know that there is nothing at all wrong with growing older, and I am well aware that some unfortunate souls do not get the chance to turn 40.  I am also well aware that getting older does not mean turning into the creature from hot-flush lagoon, festooned with HRT patches and shopping for support stockings, and I pray with all my might that I wake up on July 11th 2013 looking like a pre-break-up Demi Moore.  I know 40 should not bother me, but it does.

So why does 40 bother me so much, even though I am residing in the fair and pleasant city of Melbourne?

Friends who had travelled to or lived in Melbourne had a lot of information and advice for me before I left Blighty – it’s a far better lifestyle, more outdoorsy, great cake shops in St. Kilda, parks and playgrounds everywhere for Olivia (my 2 year old minx), but nobody, nobody prepared me for how damned attractive Melbourne is. And I am not talking about the eclectic mix of architecture – from the Art Deco residences of the suburbs to the post-modern glass frontages of the Bourke Street skyscraper – I am talking about the people.

I have never lived in a place that is filled with so many stunningly attractive human beings. Is there anyone in this city who does not look good in a pair of shorts?  How is it that so many citizens can get away with cut-off jeans and a pair of flip flops?  And although I may have spotted the occasional sunburnt bod, for the most part people have quite gorgeous all-over tans.  How does one get an all-over tan anyway? How much time does one have to dedicate to basting oneself throughout the summer months? I simply don’t think I have the patience or the dedication to cover myself in oil and rotate myself every 15 minutes like a Thanksgiving turkey and quite frankly there are bits of me I would never expose, even in the confines of my own back garden, for fear of being set upon by some animal welfare group whose sole concern is throwing buckets of water over me and trying to roll me back into the sea.

Now, let me illustrate my point with an example of attractiveness from the evening before Australia Day this year. My husband, the minx and I had spent a lovely evening at the Suzuki night markets, wandering, eating, purchasing, and debating whether or not we would be able to consume an enormous pancake called ‘Jamaican Me Crazy’. As we ambled through the city streets on our way back to Flinders, three young couples walked towards us in some sort of parade of exquisite beauty; the first couple (whom I presume both modelled for Dolce and Gabbana), both blonde and beautifully coiffed; the second, slightly better looking than the first, tanned and luscious, laughing the care free laugh of those who have yet to discover their first grey eyebrow; the third, a couple on whom I am sure Zeus modelled the rest of the Gods.  Imagine…

‘What should Aphrodite the Goddess of Beauty look like Mighty Zeus?’

‘What about that young Melbournian couple there?’

‘Which one? For there are many to choose from Oh Mighty Zeus.’

‘What about those two there adorning the crossing between Exhibition and Bourke? The ones draped in Chanel?’

‘Ah yes, I see them.  Fair dinkum Zeus, your wish is my command…’

I begrudge these young people nothing, and I know that one day their looks will fade and they too will have children and spend most of their mornings picking Lego bricks out of their feet and porridge out of their DVD player (at least I hope with my entire being that this will one day happen to them), but that does not make me feel better when I am trying to hide two and half year old baby weight behind the Bugaboo.

Of course there are other quite beautiful sights, for example in Melbourne’s CBD. One favourite of mine is the Crown Casino, the CBD’s ‘crowning glory’ if you’ll excuse the weak pun.  Opened in 1997 and situated on the southern banks of the Yarra River, it is a quite magnificent edifice, the flaming torches at its entrance a fitting, if not slightly gladiatorial, decoration; it is difficult not to get swallowed up by that feeling of excitement and the anticipation of huge wins and possible sightings of the odd celeb (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes have been known to grace its golden halls). The atrium drips with chandeliers and wealth, the boutique shops tempting you with their glitzy window displays.

Kin Hubbard, the noted 19th Century humourist and journalist once said ‘The safest way to double your money is to fold it over once and put it in your pocket’, an honourable sentiment, but easier said than done – if you are anything like me, all notions of ‘safety’ and restraint go out the window when surrounded by the unfamiliar and exotic, especially if I have just entered a building betwixt two flaming torches.

Moving on, we have the Arts Centre with its Eiffel-esque tower or Federation Square, its buildings reminiscent of Gaudi’s magnificent architecture, and, of course, women of all ages in tiny dresses and high heels, a particular favourite or my husband.

I’m amazed that he has not been hospitalised with whiplash, either that or a severely strained neck from the oh-so-much-more-exasperating ‘surreptitious stare’ –  as annoying as a stifled yawn and just as obvious to the trained eye. Imagine a small dog that has had stitches after some minor operation. Now imagine the plastic collar that his owner attaches around his neck to stop him licking said stiches.  This is what I am thinking of purchasing for my husband. Not that he licks himself when he sees a beautiful woman, you understand, it just might make him think twice before he cranes his neck to have a really good look.  I am by no means a jealous woman, I know I have nothing to worry about, it is just a nod to my own insecurities, and to the absolute knowledge that I will never, ever look good in short shorts.  If I was being particularly jealous and spiteful, I could liken Melbourne women to the coffee served in any of its fine establishments – first we have the latte; long, tall, smooth; the cappuccino, shorter and frothier, and then of course we have the skinny flat white…

In conclusion, if next year, you spy a woman sitting in a coffee shop in a small Bayside suburb, festooned in HRT patches, sweating and weeping gently, that will be me.  Come over and wish me a happy birthday. Maybe we can hit the casino?