A change in the weather

We have started to think about staying here next year. If you’d asked me a few months ago I would’ve said, ‘No way – come the end of this year we’re outta here’. It was muggy and hot, mosquitos were rampant and morning sickness had worn me down. But since May or early June the wet season (which actually wasn’t very wet this year, just hot and disgusting) has ended. There are cool breezes, days outside, camping trips, beautiful sunsets and more people around. When I think of my friends shivering by heaters in Sydney life here is looking pretty good.

There are other factors too. The fact we’re having another baby in November is a big one. The thought of an interstate move with two kids under five and a six week old baby is daunting. Add to that the expensive nature of Sydney, where J and I would both need to work next year just to pay the mortgage/bills, and the question ‘why’ starts to appear in our minds. Why return to financial stress when we have a rent-free house here? Why rush back to Sydney when we have the rest of our lives to live there? Why not stay and see where another year here takes us?

Of course there are plenty of reasons. We miss our family and friends. The knowledge that the kids are growing up so fast, far from their grandparents and other relatives, is sad. The friends that we’ve made up here, of course, aren’t the same as those who have known us for most of our lives. We miss the delicious, cheap food of the inner west, the great parks for the kids, the swimmable beaches in summer. But all of those things will still be there, whether we return at the end of 2013 or 2014.

And, on the flip side, J is finding his stride in his job. He’s had six months with his own class now and is making slow but steady progress. The teacher turnover here is high, and the thought of being yet another face to leave after a short time, just when he’s formed good bonds with his students, seems a waste.

I’ve finished up my tutoring work with the assistant teachers, because I want to spend more time with the kids, and also want to try to write a complete first draft of my young adult novel before the baby is born. At the moment that is looking like a long shot. Staying here next year would allow me more time to research and be immersed in this community, which is where the novel is set.

At the same time, I’m worried about feeling isolated here with a small baby. In Sydney, I have plenty of friends with young bubs who would be around if I needed an outing or someone to talk to. Still, perhaps having some time while I’m not working, and a young baby, will be a good opportunity to make some more friends up here.

We are telling ourselves we’ll make a definite decision by September, which is when I’d need to let the kids’ Sydney childcare centre know if we’re coming back. Pros. Cons. Yes. No. Stay. Go. We’ll keep you posted.

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Remote area pregnancy

I can now tell you…we are having another baby! Which might put some of my recent posts (and the infrequent nature of the posts) into perspective. The ordering of expensive food to satisfy cravings, the lack of outings with our Yolngu family due to the heat, the frustrated feeling of being held captive in air conditioned spaces.

This is our third baby, and the pregnancy has definitely been the most challenging of the three. Having had two relatively easy pregnancies, I thought I was immune to morning sickness. Not so. For the entire first trimester I was consumed by a constant, mind-numbing queasiness and had a horrible metallic taste in my mouth. I lost 3.5kg due to only being able to bring myself to eat two minute noodles on some days. I tried every crazy remedy I read about online: morning sickness vitamins, ginger, peppermint tea, rehydration drinks, sea bands that go on your wrists, and a horrifyingly bad recording of weird elevator like music that was supposed to ‘reprogram your brain’. No, none of them worked. Don’t waste your money. I became convinced that I was having twins – what else could have such a big impact my body? I was relieved when the sonographer assured me there was only one in there.

The experience of preparing to have a baby in a remote hospital has also had its pros and cons. On the plus side, I have been able to make appointments for ultrasounds at the local hospital at the drop of a hat. I remember the Sydney equivalent – being told that the only appointment they had in the range of days I needed was at Tuesday at 3.15pm (or some other ridiculously exact time and date). The maternity ward here is also very relaxed. On my first visit they told me there are usually heaps of private rooms available and I’m welcome to stay as long as I like after the birth. In Sydney I left hospital the morning after both my births, as I found myself crammed into a room of four to six other mothers and their crying babies. Here, the shared rooms are packed and the private ones are empty. Apparently, Yolngu ladies don’t like to be in a room alone. One midwife told me that even if they don’t like the woman they’re sharing with and won’t speak to her, for whatever cultural or personal reason, they still prefer to have company over being by themselves.

On the down side, my nuchal translucency bloods ‘went missing’ – that is, they were sent to the wrong lab and had to be re-done, meaning we had to wait an additional week for results. I also had an absolutely horrible experience at the local clinic, where a serious misdiagnosis made us worry for the baby for twenty-four hours until we were able to see the doctor at the hospital who said everything was okay. After all that, I was told I should see a specialist, just to be sure. The specialist was supposed to visit from Darwin in June but then cancelled due to ‘lack of staff’. My doctor has said not to worry, as me seeing the specialist is really just an extra precaution, but there are people waiting to see them who need actual surgery who will now have to wait until the next scheduled visit September. I have always had good experiences with the public health system until now: it is the first time I am seeing the impact of understaffing and lack of funding first hand. It is what people in remote areas live with all the time.

Still, we are hoping that from here on in it is smooth sailing. Every woman I’ve met who has had a baby here has told me the maternity midwives and doctors are fantastic. And the metallic taste has disappeared and I’m eating again and the weather has changed – it is perfect, cool and sunny and we can get out and about again. Things are looking on the up.

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Small (expensive) pleasures

I spent $280 on one box of frozen sourdough bread and one box of organic fruit and vegetables yesterday. It’s the first time we’ve ordered food to be shipped in on the barge, especially for us, from Darwin. Calculating the cost, I worked out that each slice of bread probably ended up costing me a dollar. But…oh…the pleasure…

When you live in a community the smallest things start to feel like a luxury. In Sydney, we lived two blocks from a supermarket. Anything we needed could be picked up in five minutes flat. Here, we plan meals for the week and drive twenty minutes in to town, once a week, to buy groceries. And even once we’re there, the shelves may be empty if the barge hasn’t arrived on time. If I manage to get everything I need for a recipe from the supermarket it is a small miracle. Fresh herbs? Exotic fruit and vegetables? Things like oyster sauce or tamari? You can pretty much forget it.

On top of this, we’ve had a fairly regular stream of scheduled power and water cuts lately. You don’t appreciate how much we rely on these services until they’re gone. What– you mean I can’t cook – not even a piece of toast? Can’t fill up a water jug or flush the toilet? Can’t turn the air-con on? Disaster!

I unpacked our ridiculously expensive boxes of goods yesterday, and J watched in amusement as I ate spoonfuls of organic yoghurt, munched on licorice, had fresh basil with tomato, and slathered butter on a piece of sourdough fruit loaf. “I see,” he said, “so we really just spent $280 to satisfy your big city cravings.” Yep. Pretty much.

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To have or have not

Today was going to be L’s fourth birthday party, until I chickened out yesterday and sent last-minute postponement messages.  Why? The weather forecast predicted thunderstorms and I really didn’t want to have his party inside.  Sure enough, today was all blue skies and sunshine. I felt frustrated – why had I cancelled?

Straight up, I have to admit that I always get anxious about kids’ birthday parties.  I feel pressure to make sure all the adults and kids have a good time. The food has to be the right mix of healthy snacks and special treats. There has to be things for the kids to do, things they will enjoy. The cake should be homemade and in the shape of something special (and hopefully recognisable). With all these self-imposed ideals no wonder I stress myself out.

But when I thought about it further, I realised that the key reason I hadn’t wanted to hold it inside was because I was worried about how we’d entertain the kids. We’d organized to borrow a mini-waterslide from the local toy library to put in the garden. We had this for R’s second birthday party last year and it was a hit. But if we were all stuck inside what would the kids do?

This fear was fuelled by two recent (separate) visits from L’s friends, who were clearly unimpressed by his lack of toys. Both friends have lived here a lot longer, and also have older siblings, both of which I suspect leads to more toy accumulation. As one boy went home, I heard him ask his Mum, “Why doesn’t L have many toys?” Our other small visitor asked if he and L could relocate to his house after an hour “because I have more toys”.

These incidents evoke so many emotions in me. I must admit, that before I had kids I didn’t believe in toys at all. I told myself, ‘I won’t buy my kids any toys – they can just have what other people give them as presents or hand-me-downs’. I thought that dirt and nature and sticks and books and an imagination were all that any kid needed.

I still believe that to some degree but, sure enough, within a year of L being born I found myself looking at kid-targeted plastic or wood objects thinking, ‘L would love that!’ And more often than not, he would. For example, L has an ever-growing set of plastic animals, which he can play with for hours, organizing them into groups according to continent or species or habitat. He’s still playing with dirt and sticks but the animals add a new dimension.

Our house is not empty of toys. We have two small boxes of toys we own, and we borrow extras from the toy library here every one or two weeks. We also have shelves and shelves of the kids’ books. I don’t see them as deprived in any way, but today I realized that something in L’s friends’ comments must’ve hit a raw nerve.

On the other end of the spectrum, we had a five year old Yolngu boy join us for the day a few weekends ago. He’s part of our adopted family here. We took him to the pool, then he came back to our house to play with L. I gave him toasted sandwiches for lunch and he looked like he couldn’t believe his luck. He pored through L’s books and toys with a keen interest. J read him and L a book and the boy’s reaction made us wonder if he’d been read to in a home setting before. I have seen this boy’s house and I know he doesn’t have any toys or books. Suddenly, L’s meager stash looked like a treasure trove.

I still don’t know what I think of all this. To have or have not. But I promised myself today that L’s party will be held on our rescheduled date come rain, hail or shine. Surely having a birthday cake and their friends around is enough entertainment, even without mountains of toys or a blow-up waterslide. Surely.

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I remember thinking, before we moved up here, that life in a community would bring perspective. Surely, living side by side with people who have so little, the Sydney mortgage-career-struggle would start to seem ridiculous. Why do we spend our lives slaving to pay off overpriced houses? And why do we let our careers define us? People can make do with a lot less…right?

Strangely, lately, the opposite has been true. I have started thinking obsessively about Sydney and my domain.com addiction has resurfaced. I think about where I’d like to live, friends I’d like to see, places I’d like to go to, what I’d like to eat, where I’d like to work. Sometimes I feel that, in being here, I am missing out on ‘real life’. As if what we are experiencing here is so removed from anything else I’ll ever experience that it somehow doesn’t count. Of course I know that’s ridiculous. Being here is stretching, teaching and reshaping us. But that doesn’t mean the process is one hundred per cent pleasant.

I read an article recently about a middle-class Australian guy who went to live in the favelas of Brazil (I searched for a link online but couldn’t find one). After a few years, he could speak the language, he worked selling things from a hand cart, and he lived in a slum house with friends and a girlfriend. He was becoming part of life there…and then he decided to leave. Why? Because he realized he didn’t want that to become his life and he had the choice.

Whilst we certainly haven’t immersed ourselves to the extent that the favela guy did, I wonder if a similar effect is taking place. Here, there is a death at least once a week; it is so common that the children often appear completely unfazed, even if it is someone close to them who has passed away. People sleep up to twenty to a house, on old mattresses on concrete floors. Kids go unfed. Houses are squalid. Those students who do come to school struggle to learn because they are exhausted from lack of sleep or are already so far behind. Elders end up with a house full of kids whose parents are off drinking. Fights erupt about money. It wears even the strongest people here down. To see it all happening, and not be able to see how it will change in the future, is heartbreaking.

I know that I am lucky enough to have choices and, whether it be in a year or two, at some point I will exercise my choice to leave. Lately, I’ve realized that this knowledge is affecting the way I am here. I am holding back from jumping in. At the same time I know that there is no point in staying if I can’t immerse myself. I was able to last year during the ‘honeymoon stage’ but recently I’ve withdrawn. Hopefully I’ll find a way back to making the most of our time here…however long it ends up being…

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Cabin fever

The rain has started, and whilst it’s beautiful to hear it on the roof (sometimes soft like tinkling bells, other times as furious as a plane engine taking off) it has definitely impacted on our lifestyle.  Rain = time spent indoors. And time spent indoors = cabin fever.

Surprisingly, the kids haven’t been that bad. It is me who is going crazy. I want to say, ‘Go outside, play in the rain, let’s make dams in the mud!’ but I can’t because of melioidosis – a deadly strain of disease found in the earth during wet season.  I want to say, ‘Let’s go to the beach’ but I worry about crocs because this is the time of year they move around. I want to say, ‘Let’s get out of here and go to a museum or a gallery’ but there is nothing like that here – just a pool, a park and a library in town, all of which I feel like we’ve been to a million times.

To top it off, the Napaki family that we spent time with on the weekends last year has moved to Perth. Without them, weekends have started to feel quite insular. We do have other friends we see, but not on a regular basis.

Last weekend, we went to an evening of concerts on the town oval. The event was put on by the local mine, in celebration of the fact that it is staying open (it recently faced closure). There was Postman Pat, the Chipmunks, local band East Journey and our adopted Yolngu family did a bunggal (dance). For a few brief hours I had that warm, fuzzy  of being out and feeling like part of the community again.

That evening was the first time I’ve seen our Yolngu family in weeks. When we saw D, she said, ‘Where’ve you been? Call me!’ She said she’d been fishing that day, and I had to explain: it’s just been too hot for us to do those outings lately. Before this week of rain the temperatures were still scorching.

I know that, as the rains dry up and the perfect, sunny twenty-four degree days of the dry return things will get better. But for now I am stuck inside, looking out, hoping, waiting…

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Ups and downs

It is hard to describe how extreme the ups and downs are here.

On a good day, I feel like a real part of the community: someone remembers me from when I visited the community five years ago, or invites me to a cultural ceremony, or I connect with a student during a good tutoring session at work. L comes home from preschool sprouting Yolngu Matha words like bapi (snake) and baru (crocodile). R emerges from childcare glowing with smiles and J feels positive: he managed to keep his students engaged and learning.

But when things are bad here, it feels like your whole world is crumbling around you. J gets sick and has students muck up, swear and walk out. R has meltdowns at even the tiniest thing, like the fact she didn’t want her yoghurt and muesli mixed together. L is angry and declares that he doesn’t like preschool and wants to go back to Sydney. I feel like a terrible mum: my children are in care while I sit waiting to tutor students who sometimes don’t even show up.

I know these don’t sound like big things, and in the bigger world context they aren’t, but here they are compounded by the social context. We are in a remote community: isolated and without our support base of family and friends. We are in a foreign culture: constantly having to ask is this a cultural difference or something that should be addressed? Often the problems of the community overwhelm us: what hope is there for the future here when the older generations are dying by the week and the younger ones show no signs of stepping up? At times like these I think: what are we doing here? We should just pack up and go home.

I have decided that the most accurate indicator of the state of our household is our clothes washing. For the last week, it has been lying clean (=not a total disaster) in scattered piles on our bedroom floor (=a definite giving up). This morning I made myself sort it and put it away in the hope that tomorrow will be better.

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A day in the life of…


Today, a random day, but one that will give you an idea of our lives here…so different to our lives in Sydney.

5.30am Wake up to the sound of L calling out. He’s the alarm clock you don’t need to set. Get up and get dressed to go out for an early morning walk with two ladies who live nearby.

5.45am Wait out on the darkened street. The moon is still bright in the sky, but the air is already humid. My neighbour (one of the walkers) doesn’t come. I walk up and down outside our houses trying to decide what to do. This has happened once before but, that time, my other neighbour’s dog joined me so I felt confident to walk up to the second lady’s house, which is just up the road. But today no doggy friends join me so I decide to abandon the walk – in between her house and mine are a series of snarly camp dogs I just don’t trust. I go back inside.

5.55am Do some stretches on my yoga mat while L reads books and talks to me.

6.15am R wakes up. The sky is light outside now.

6.30am Give the kids breakfast. It’s very predictable – always yoghurt and muesli.

7.00am J gets up – he got a lucky sleep in this morning! He makes me a coffee and I read the Sydney Morning Herald on the ipad. I would much prefer to be reading an actual paper but it doesn’t get delivered up here. You can only get the Weekend Australian in town on a Sunday afternoon, and we’re rarely in town at that time.

7.30am Make bread with the kids. It sounds complicated but actually only involves putting three ingredients (packet cheat) in a breadmaker given to us second hand by my Aunty and Uncle – it’s coming in very handy up here!

8.20am Take R to childcare. I drive because it’s hot at the moment, but in the dry season the kids and I can walk down there in about ten minutes (and that’s at kid-speed). Driving down this morning I pass several cars. We know all the drivers and say hello. One is my neighbour who apologises for missing the walk this morning – she was baking cupcakes for her daughter’s birthday and totally forgot. Outside the centre I park in the near-empty carpark and leave the car running (as many people do) while I drop R inside. She greets the carers as friends. It is a small and very personal centre – only about fifteen kids (aged 1 to 4) and four staff.

8.30am Drop L at preschool, which is part of the school J works at. It is taught by a Yolngu teacher, and many of the lessons are in Yolngu Matha (the local language). I stay with L for a few minutes to help him settle in.

8.45am I walk about fifty metres from the preschool to the Learning Production Centre (LPC) where I work two days a week, tutoring the Yolngu Assistant Teachers in their Certificate Three in Teaching. I wouldn’t normally work on Fridays but I’m going to Sydney next week so I need to leave some work for them to do while I’m away.

9.30am I finish the work-list for next week then duck into one of the primary school classrooms to give the teacher in there a worksheet. The class is reading a Yolngu Matha text and is about to do a role play in language (the school is one of the few bilingual schools still functioning in the NT).

10.00am Arrive home to freshly baked bread. It smells heavenly, so I cut myself a still-hot piece and smear butter on it. Delicious.

10.15am I do some reading for some of the scriptwriting related meetings I have in Sydney next week.

12.00pm Stop for lunch. More fresh bread, but with healthier toppings this time 😉

12.30pm I try to do a bit of writing for my young adult novel, but it’s just not happening today so I give up after just one short chapter, and go back to reading/researching for Sydney.

1.50pm Drive down to childcare to get the kids – the centre closes early on Fridays. I pass familiar faces once again. I know pretty much all the parents of the kids in the childcare centre, as they all live or work in the community.

2.00pm Make choc-chip cookies at home with the kids. Baking is something I barely remember doing in Sydney, but here we do it all the time. The kids love it.

3.00pm Take the still-warm choc-chip cookies up to the school to share. We are going there for J and I’s first Yolngu Matha (language) lesson. About twenty Ngapaki teachers and community members show up. I take the kids with me too. J meets us up there (he’s just finished school for the day) and sets up Playschool to play quietly on his laptop in a corner of the room. The kids watch a bit of that but also come over and sit in my lap and join in the language lesson and eat food. It is very relaxed. The Yolngu teacher co-running the session (who happens to be one of the students I tutor) also has her kids there. It makes me wonder why we, in Western society, segregate our lives and keep our children separate to many things we, as adults, do. I know I would never take the kids to a language class in Sydney but here it is totally acceptable, even normal.

4.30pm Head home and make a quick pumpkin soup, while J takes the compost out and hangs out the washing. I think I got the good job – there are swarms of mozzies around at the moment so before going outside he has to cover himself in repellent spray. The sky looks like there might be rain on the way, but none comes. It is one of the driest wet seasons on record – we have only seen one real downpour since coming back in January.

5.45pm Have dinner with the kids. The soup gets smeared everywhere. The kids have eaten too many biscuits at the language course and it takes some coaxing to get dinner eaten.

6.00pm Kids’ bath. Wash pumpkin soup off.

6.30pm Stories for the kids. There’s a Sea in My Bedroom (one I remember from childhood), Man Gave Names to All the Animals  (L’s choice because it has an extensive list of animals in the back) and No David (R’s choice because it’s about a naughty little boy who does many of the things she does – the main words in the book are ‘No David’).

7.00pm R goes to bed. If L has had a daytime sleep he is hard to get to sleep before 8.30pm, but today he hasn’t slept and he’s exhausted. A few half-hearted protests and he’s out for the count.

7.15pm J and I would usually talk about our days but today we’re too tired. I escape to write this blog post and he does something on the ipad. It’s not actually our ipad – it’s the schools. J uses it for his lessons, which has the handy side benefit of allowing us to use it at home sometimes!

7.30pm J and I watch a crappy DVD on the laptop. We don’t have a TV up here. At the moment we are watching Friday Night Lights. It is a very predictable and cheesy American football drama – we would never usually watch it but we’re desperate and have nothing else short enough to watch at the moment. We have a few good films on the laptop but rarely have the energy for a 2 hour film-watching session. A 45 minute episode is much more do-able, so Friday Night Lights it is. We can’t wait until Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Mad Men return to the screen so we can go back to watching quality television!

8.30pm I finish reading ‘The Mountain’ by Drusilla Modjeska, which I’m reading for our community bookclub up here. It is very good. Definitely recommended. We hear the patter of light rain on the roof. We check the radar online. Yep, the rain is coming! Woo hoo!

9.30pm We head to bed for an early night to the sound of rain falling. I slept terribly last night (R was restless) and am exhausted.

And so passes another day here in the community. I have to say I feel happy here. I enjoy the pace and the slow immersion in community living.

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IMG_1540Slowly, incrementally, almost unperceivably, we are making a commitment to this place. This week J relinquished his permanency to his Sydney school. I started a part-time job working with the Yolngu assistant teachers. Louis is settling into preschool, and today a load of our things from Sydney are being delivered. Considered alone they all feel like small changes, but together they seem to amount to a definite shift.

It was a relief to arrive back after the busyness of Sydney. The plane got in late in the evening, and we were grateful to be picked up by a friend. It hardly mattered that we had to hurry into our sweltering house to avoid being attacked by swarms of mozzies. Somehow, it felt like home. Within days the tension in our shoulders disappeared, we started cooking healthy meals, I banished my diary back to a shelf and J started running again in the mornings. We suddenly had so much time.

Strangely, the wet season still hasn’t arrived. We were told that when we came back our lawn would be up around our ears. Instead it has huge patches where the grass is completely dead. Many Yolngu people and long-time locals have remarked that they’ve never seen anything like this before. This, considered with the floods, fires and heatwaves around Australia in the past few months makes it feel like climate change surely can’t be denied much longer.

We’ve spent a lot of time indoors, with the airconditioner at full blast, but the kids have been pretty good. In Sydney, it felt like they were always under our feet, demanding outings and things to do. Here, they have settled back into playing together, creating their own fun with the toys we borrow each fortnight from the toy library in town. We are learning new ways of being together.

My job at the school is already making me feel more a part of the community and the school. I’m starting to get to know the ladies I’ll be working with this year. This, in turn, is helping me to piece the jigsaw of local families together: everyone here seems to related in one way or another.

J’s year is off to a much better start. He has his own class, which gives him more autonomy and consistency with the students. Day to day, I know it is still challenging, but we’re coming to realize that, whilst the days sometimes drag here, the weeks fly by. It is already mid-February or, in school-talk, the end of Week Three. We can hardly believe it.

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Leaving Sydney


I am parked in the carpark of my father-in-law’s apartment block. The kids sit silently in the back seat as I scream into my phone, “I can’t take it. I can’t be with them anymore. I need you to come back NOW.”

J, calm as always, can hear I’m at breaking point. “Just stay calm, leave the kids in the car and keep driving. Drive until they go to sleep then find something to eat. Have you eaten?” I haven’t. “Do you have money?” I don’t. “Then find somewhere that takes credit card, lots of cafes take credit card, and eat something. You’ll feel much better. I can’t come back now. I’ve got to take this final load to storage.”

It is moving day. Well, actually, it is the last of what feels like a month of moving days. I think I have finally lost it. L & R are short on sleep, ratty, and probably confused by the upheaval of the impending move. L has attacked me (big-cat style, he informs me) with watercolours in a public park in front of numerous other parents. R has thrown paint at someone’s mother. I have dragged them away, literally kicking and screaming, their clothes and my arm smeared with paint the colour of humiliation.

I am snappy. I tell J, “Okay, fine. Just go. Take the stuff to storage then come back as soon as you can.” I hang up to see R has finally fallen asleep and L is looking vacant. There might be hope yet.

I drive to a nearby café, park the car outside and hurry up to the waiter. “Hi, do you take credit card? My kids are asleep in the car right there and I’m starving. Is it okay to sit next to the car to eat?” No, it isn’t, their license doesn’t allow it. But I must look as bad as I feel because the waiter takes pity on me and points out the car is only two metres from the tables, he’ll help me keep an eye on it as I eat.

I order something with goats cheese (can’t go wrong) and sit down. I am trying to convince myself things are under control now when I hear, “Hello? You’re C, right? You went to highschool with us.” I turn and see two girls, no, women now, both with babies, who I haven’t seen since we were all wearing black-watch tartan. My heart sinks. They have witnessed it all. The dash from the car, the frantic plea to the waiter. I force a smile and explain that I’m being a bad mum and leaving my kids in the car while I eat. One of them laughs and lets me off the hook, saying she’s done the same. Their babies are just six months old and sit and gurgle happily as they sip coffees and eat café lunches. They look a hundred percent more composed than I feel.

I never thought I would be this mother. Years ago, I wrote a script for a TV show, in which a mother became faint because she forgot to eat. It was before I had kids and I remember thinking, “That’s not very realistic.” Well, apparently it was!

We start to talk. My meal arrives and the fatigue starts to lift. My old schoolmates turn out to be refreshing company. They are interesting and interested, and we understand one another on that level that only old schoolmates can. Our shared history creates a familiarity. I learn that they are both pursuing careers which take a healthy dose of social conscience and that heartens me too. I start to relax, enjoying the conversation and the meal (I was right about the goats cheese), and I can almost start to imagine I’m half-normal when…”Muuuuuum!”

I pull R from the car. She has paint smeared on her mouth and hands. She proceeds to scoff the remainder of my meal. I force a smile, not really joking as I say, “So now you can see how I ended up with paint smeared down my arm.” I am suddenly painfully aware that, as mothers of newborns, they will not yet understand the mother-of-two-toddlers plight. The matter isn’t helped when, just minutes later…”Muuuuum!” I get L from the car. He slumps onto the footpath scowling, refusing to sit at the table. If R is smeared, L is literally covered. His T-shirt is like a Ken Done painting (it was formerly blank, pale green), and paint is all over his arms and face. I force another smile, “Here’s the other half of the story.” I decide to make a quick escape before the fragile illusion of my sanity is shattered.

For me, this incident highlighted so many things I love and hate about Sydney. On the downside, the rushing, the busyness, the alienation. The fact that you can be screaming inside a car as people walk by, oblivious. The fact that many places aren’t really made for kids, well, not kids like mine who love to be nude and roll in dirt. The fact that time must be grabbed in snatches. A coffee catch-up here. A lunch there. The diary fills up with appointments, but there is very rarely a chance to just be with someone. In the five weeks we are there, I see friends once or twice, for a few hours at most. Some friends I hardly manage to see at all. Yet, on the other side, there is history here. Sydney is where I’ve grown up. It is where I’ve learned, loved, ached, cried and laughed. Like my old schoolmates, this city knows me. It will always have a certain pull.

As I stand at the counter, waiting to pay, the waiter eyes my kids and my grey-brown arm and asks, “Have you guys been playing with henna?” I hold it together long enough to smile, “No, watercolours.” Then we’re back in the car and the kids are howling again.

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