Thursday, July 21, 2005

Being afraid of dying

I have been catching the bus into work for two weeks and getting in at times that fluctuate even more than the normal Tube times. Today I was asked especially to be on time and so I conquered my fear and I got on the Tube for a long journey.

When we were out in the open I was fine, reading the Metro, even finally being able to read the articles on July 7th without wanting to cry and throw up simultaneously. Once we hit the tunnels though I started getting tense. Not even as bad physically as I was my other two three-stop Tube trips, just mentally tense.

First I tried to work out if I had everything in order if I were to die that day - all my things were already packed so they could be sent home to Mum and Dad, all my London friends had been thanked.

Then I started watching people in the carriages, wondering what they would be like in an ‘incident’, wondering if I would have to provide eyewitness accounts for them, or would they have to provide ones for me.

And then, in a shameful moment that I wish I could deny, I finally really saw the man sitting in front of me. He was undeniable Muslim, sitting minding his own business with his very small backpack in his lap, looking as nervous as anyone would in his situation. For a moment there I felt my flesh peel away from my bones with the force of an imaginary explosion, but the next second the humanist in me reached in and shook me out of my coma of stupidity.

This afternoon, two weeks after my fellow secretary Tereza and I first became the anchorwomen of the first floor, reading the newswires and updating our bosses as they came in from meetings, we were at it again, updating the situation as the news came in – bomb scare, incident, failed suicide bombings, Blair making a statement.

Once again the men around us were cracking jokes that were completely off-colour, the one about the first lot of bombers missing the rush hour because of the rush hour is a reluctant favourite.

As small rucksacks went up in flames after failing to detonate at three Tube stations and on one bus, as the third siren went down Pall Mall, Tereza and I exchanged world weary glances. Realising how dramatic I was being, I took a swig of water.

Claire (24): I feel like I am in a f^£king Bruce Willis movie.
Tereza (20): You are really showing your age with that comment.


My dear girl, not only am I showing my age, I am showing my fears. I am nowhere near tough enough to survive a Bruce Willis movie, let alone a city being kept at razor edge tension by terrorists.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

After the first time

After you leave the first time, you are always leaving somewhere, someone, something. At the moment I truly don’t know what is more painful for me, seeing London slipping, day by day, friend by friend, out of my fingers or the anticipation of beloved faces as I return home to family and friends.

Last night I was watching the trailer to Ice Age 2 and I was suddenly cold with the excitement of seeing Louise again. We had gone to see Ice Age together at the Astor and the thought that very soon I will be once again holding that beautiful girl with her race-horse legs and expansive ways made my breath stop.

Today, at my going away party, the only time I was close to crying was seeing off Fi and Kris. These two women I hold in very high esteem, and I met because we are all members of the Broken Drummers, a group of Terry Pratchett fans. Tim is the real Terry Pratchett fan in our family, and each time I spent an evening laughing with the Broken Drummers, I knew I was there because Tim loved the books so much and I would imagine how Tim’s enthusiasm and encyclopedic knowledge of the books would fire the rest of the group up. Tim is a sight to behold when he gets going, and I am going to be there to see him soon.

And then two of Jerome’s good mates turned up to join the party and it was almost as good as seeing Jerome himself. These were two of a group of boys who had week-long parties at our house in the holidays (Beer can wall? Street sign stealing spree? Calling my current squeeze "Jaws" because we needed to get a room), were the life and soul of my parties out of home (ALL of them mooning for a photo), and terrorized an entire household of leavers one year (Raw sausages and lots of tomato sauce are scary in the dark!). As friends of my brother they are practically family, and seeing Michael and Ben just made the memories of Jerome’s drawl and endless practicality married with a slightly off-the-wall unpredictability almost painful in their recall. I may be the oldest, but Jerome is head of the family, and I haven’t had the pleasure of his presence for far too long.

On the other hand, I can barely breathe on the Tube since July 7th because London, England and indeed this whole green island was where I discovered my potential and my true desires, and spilling its blood was like letting my own run unchecked down my wrists.

I stood in the Globe today, watching the best Shakespeare you can get in London, and I knew that the culture of this country, the literary tradition that is life and breath for me, was going to be all too cold and distant soon.

I sat outside a pub on the Strand, the first street I ever walked down in London and I knew that the only city that I really understood in my flesh and bones was soon to be just a painful hole in my heart and mind.

I watched old and new friends, Australian and British alike, stand for a group photo of the people I would not see for many more years and it hurt, it bloody well hurt.

Once you leave the first time you are always leaving something you love behind, and it just never stops hurting.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A week in a weekend

Weather forecast

HOT! (it has been hot about ten days this summer).

Event

My first wedding to attend since I was five, and on top of that, it was an English wedding.

London

Being bombed by terrorists.

Solution

Spend the weekend in Devon and Cornwall on a weekend mini-break.

Preparations

I persuaded fellow guest and good friend Kate to travel with me down to the Saturday wedding in Devon and then around Cornwall for the rest of the weekend for our last adventure before I leave for Perth. I then decided what I really had to see in Cornwall and planned a breakneck itinerary for the Sunday after the wedding.

[Please note that due to the mixture of lifts and one-way train journeys the itinerary contained, our best priced expected trip home was going to be seven hours, with three hours of that spent waiting for connecting trains.]

Friday

Caught the bus to Paddington since I will only travel on the tube again if that is the only way you can get my coffin to Heathrow! Caught the train to Bath and got to see the West in the syrupy gold of sunset with hot air balloons hanging like ripe fruit in the sky. Bath was just as beautiful as I remembered, all clear air, golden glow and crumbling Roman statuary.

Saturday

Rich and Heather’s Nuptials

If my wedding is half as good as the new Mr and Mrs Nelmes’ wedding, I will have had a very good wedding indeed.

Richard looked dapper and relaxed, Heather looked gorgeous and gracious and both looked very, very happy. We sat in a tiny ancient church just out of Plymouth on a hot and clear day to watch Rich and Heather beam their way through a very touching and perfectly timed ceremony. The two of them were so glowing it looked like they may just melt into one being with pleasure. We stood and serenaded them kneeling at the altar after the vows and they would lean into each other, making each other laugh under all the ceremonial words. Afterwards they roared off to the reception in a mint-green Volkswagen convertible, leaving us to follow them up onto the Dartmoor with quite a bit of jealous admiration over the delicious little bug.

In Britain I have turned into something of a hopeless landscape romantic. My favorite pastime is trying to categorise all the different parts of Britain that I have seen, and most particularly their hills.

[So, in a little aside, here are my assessments of the landscapes of Britain as pertains to hills:

London – the top hills are Greenwich and Hampstead Heath.
Oxfordshire – hills that are placed just so for an interesting aspect.
East Sussex – hills that draw your eye out to an endless horizon, beyond which anything is possible.
Wiltshire– hills that make you gasp with pleasure each time you crest one and see the next one.
Cotswolds – hills that have been so pretty for so long everyone loves them.
Lincolnshire – hills that need to huddle together for warmth.
Nottinghamshire – hills that lend themselves to the re-distribution of wealth.
Yorkshire – hills that make you want to bear it all bravely.
Snowdonia – hills (and mountains) that make you feel like you are being watched.
South Wales – hills that are tall, dark and handsome, catching your eye over and over again.
Hereford – hills that roll like surf towards the horizon.
Somerset – hills that promise that there is much more below the turf.]


The Dartmoor was something else entirely. The hills are huge, but so wide and squat that they seem small until you realize there are only three hills to the horizon, not six. The ponies and sheep were contentedly grazing centimeters from the road that was only separated from the moor by a strip of untrimmed grass, the ponies tiny but fat with foals. With the beaming sun the moor was gorgeous, yet where the clouds blocked the light they were still the grey, forbidding landscape portrayed in The Hound of the Baskervilles and other great pieces of literature.

The reception was a picnic near a stream at a place called Badger’s Holt. The food was plentiful and presented in hampers, we all sprawled on our blankets and soaked up the sun while Heather glided from group to group in her still pristine gown and Richard ferried his well-clad “obsequious chatter” around the guests. At five they drove off in the much envied green VW to their honeymoon in Moscow and we were left to our own devices.

Two other workmates from the Evangelical Alliance were at the wedding, and Gareth, determined to get as much mileage as possible from his little sporty car, offered to drive Kate and I into Cornwall. And so Gareth, Sarah, Kate and I were off with the sunroof off, the girl's hair swirling around our faces and the sun beating down and for the next hour and a half we headed across the Dartmoor, through the last of Devon and into Cornwall.

What can I say about Cornwall other than it must be the only place you would want to be on a stunning English summer day? The water is blue, the headlands are green and the towns so cute they are like little intricate silver shells sitting on the beach that you just want to hold and look at forever. We got to St Austell and went to dinner in a tiny little fishing port, sitting on the quayside, mesmerized by the glittering sea and the endless serrations of the Cornish coast back towards the heat-hazed horizon.

Sunday

The guide book had warned us that we would need the whole day for the Lost Gardens of Heligan, but Sunday buses being what they were, and my experience of Gardens being what they were, we only had three hours and I thought that would be enough. We skirted pristine manicured lawns; we roamed vast and tiny walled vegetable gardens and enjoyed hedge framed vistas of the coastal fishing villages from the lawns while we ate scones, strawberries and clotted cream. There was even a mini-swamp with a viewing hide so we could watch tiny birds moving like herds of minute wildebeests on the banks of the pond for a drink and eyeing enormous dragonflies nearly their size hovering like attack helicopters painted in iridescent greens and blues.

At the end of a leisurely three hours we strolled down a path through the most perfect woodlands imaginable and suddenly realized we had only seen half of the gardens. Leaving Kate to make some quick sketches I raced down the hill and was greeted with a sight that ensures that if there is one thing I have to do it is get back to Heligan. In front of me was a huge ravine that ended in at the horizon and was a vast, lush tropical jungle, showing the endless manicured English lawns on the hills either side just what green was supposed to look like. I gaped, consulted the map, realized that the Lost Valley, another 20 minutes walk from the Jungle, was even bigger and resigned myself to another divine holiday in Cornwall!

On the way back to St Austell we stopped in Mevagissey, a working fishing village and inspiration for the Cornish village in my favorite childhood books (Susan Cooper again), which was unbelievably cute and yet so touristy it was quite a disappointment.

And then Kate and I, after a weekend of free rides, pulled the ultimate blag. We had tickets for a painful trip home; St Austell to Plymouth, one hour wait, Plymouth to Bristol, one hour wait, Bristol to London, coming in at 11pm. We got on the train going straight to London at St Austell … and “slept” through our change at Plymouth. Just out of Plymouth, while we were still “sleeping”, the ticket collector paused by us, saw us sleeping, and moved on. Truly a masterful performance from the two budget travelers!

The train trip crowned an already fabulous weekend with a sun drenched journey through six of the prettiest counties of South England. We shot across Cornish viaducts with their legs lost in lush valleys and we hugged the Devon coast, skimming the beaches between the towns and the surf. Once in Dorset we were practically in the sea and when not seeming to walk on water we were drilling straight through the brilliant red cliffs and headlands that jutted out into the huge bays. Then we turned inland to surf over Somerset and Wiltshire and chase hot air balloons across Oxfordshire to London.

It was the ultimate way to say my last goodbye to England; with my English friends, on a summer weekend, deep in the hills and gardens of my home away from home.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Prising the Greatest City on Earth from my Cold Dead Hands

Well, this post title was supposed to be used for my huge farewell love letter to London. It was going to contain all my sadness and reluctance to leave, all the things I love about London, all the things that I hated about London.

At 8.52 this morning I got off what must have been the last tube running into the city, three minutes after four explosions threw limbs across Underground lines and London streets. I spent the day reading the newswires in a deserted and siren-haunted city that is still dazed and paralyzed by terrorist attacks. The black horror of this coming after the euphoria in the streets of London winning the Olympics is almost too much to encompass.

I am just thankful someone did not have to pick my cold, dead hands off the ground in London today.

Friday, July 01, 2005

SLATFATF Part II - The Other Side

Kim

When it comes to fast, hard and complicated friendships, it doesn’t get much bigger than Kim and I. We became very close very fast, we went through the brilliant side of London partying hard, we went through the hard side of London together and then apart, and we have arrived at the complicated return to Australia that means a very different life for both of us.

I met Kim, like I met Jacinta, in completely abnormal surroundings. We were two of a grand total of six women at an Aussie Rules function in North London somewhere with almost a hundred guys, in a venue like a sauna and with me drinking two pints of beer for the first time in my life. I watched this pretty and perky blonde start up a friendship with me in jealous disbelief that she was not wilting in the cripplingly uncomfortable conditions, but our great partnership was cemented when I met her Perth boyfriend a week later and ended up, to be perfectly honest, in an entertaining situation with his two friends.

Kim, Jacinta and I became the Three Musketeers the next week and the rest is, as they say, a great history of tracksuits on the couch, high heels at dawn, bewildered boys, mismanaged men, drenching drinks, take away and non-stop long weekends. We found ourselves a hapless local pub quiz team who kindly let us over-run them with Australian visitors, we were out almost every night to this pub or that to meet each other’s mates and we spent weekends at each other’s houses, washing our clothes for the next day while we slept.

There is an even more important debt that I owe to Kim though, and that is EVERYTHING I know about traveling. My four main holidays with Kim were four lessons on how to travel and squeeze everything you can into each second.

There is an endless expanse of anecdotes conjured up when I think of our travels, and they are merely the brighter stars amongst the constellation that was our time in London. It would have been a much darker and duller London without her.