Thinking about Balmoral

By Vita Forest

It’s the summer holidays and that means lots of time spent swimming in salt water.  One of my favourite haunts is Balmoral Beach, a place with so many layers of memory washing over it.

There’s the lemon scent I catch as I walk down the street where I usually park the car, from who knows what plant – it’s not a lemon tree.  This street with the sign at the entrance to the driveway of a block of apartments “Don’t even think about parking here” which causes equal parts outrage and laughter.  The flats, with the garage that at one time had its door raised to reveal a private gym, and another time, another year, a stall of random items for sale including a couple of Margaret Atwood books.  One day I bought The Blind Assassin.  The next day I bought Alias Grace.  A street I walk along and wonder, which house would I live in?  If I could?  Or would I choose that low-maintenance apartment with its shady verandah looking out over the beach?

There’s The Baths.  Years ago, we used to have our initial swimming carnival for high school there (before moving onto to the more serious North Sydney Olympic pool for the finals).  It was a fun day out, with those who wanted to participating in the races, diving off the floating blocks into the often choppy water, while those who didn’t, sunbaking on the slatted wooden jetty or splashing about in the shallows near the sand.  In recent years, Max and Lucy have floated there on giant doughnuts or blow up boats or snorkelled under the jetty looking for fish and crabs and the rumours of seahorses living in the waving kelp.  In recent years I have returned here to swim, simplifying my routine by swimming without goggles or a cap.  Perhaps that is why I don’t do Freestyle anymore – too much water gets in my ears.  Instead I keep my head out – all the better to see where I am going and to pause every now and then to look up at the bush on the headland or the clouds floating in the blue sky.

Further south, there are large fig trees that grow on the grass behind the sand.  Some of them are like pavilions with branches extending over the beach itself.  It was under one of these that I used to sit with Lucy as a baby, her body lying between my legs, her feet kicking into the air as she gazed up at the twinkling brightness of the sun through the fig leaves.  It was here that her feet were first dipped into salt water, tiny toes flaring up at its coldness.  It was here I rocked the pram covered with a muslin cloth, groggy with lack of sleep, and watched Max play on the pirate ship in the playground.

Heading north, there’s the island attached to the promenade by an arched concrete bridge.  It was here we drank cheap champagne on one of our last days of high school.  It was here I have stopped with innumerable friends on innumerable walks up and down the beach in summer and winter, sunshine and rain.  It was here a month or so ago, I sat on a rock and drew a fig tree growing out of a crevasse between two boulders of sandstone, its roots clutching and wrapping around the rocks.  It was on that occasion that I saw the young bride and groom, she in a backless white gown that showed off the tattoos on her tanned shoulders.

It’s to this place I have come in summer, either early or late, to avoid the harshness of the midday sun.  And so I never see Freya, who I work with, who only goes there at the hottest time of the day.  She is young and invincible and lies in the sun to get a tan, something I never do.  Me in my long-sleeved rashie seeing if I can still swim a kilometre.

I can.

 

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Through the wardrobe

By Vita Forest

School is done for the year and I’m thinking of the kids I won’t see again in the playground, gone off to other schools and even other countries.  And I’m hoping that next year  we keep the easy rapport, the banter, the in-jokes that have developed this year with the ones that remain.  And I’m thinking of the messages in the cards and the worries of the kids over who will teach them next year, or the year after, and who they will play with now their best friend is gone, and wondering how it will all work out, and knowing that it will.

And I’m thinking of our Narnia project – the scenes brought to life in miniature, in paper and cardboard, the wardrobes, the forests, the lampposts, the beaver’s house complete with washing on the line and even a moon on a paper scroll that moved when you turned it.  Of Tori and Quentin stamping shards of snowflakes out of white and grey paper and carefully arranging them in drifts through the wardrobe.  And Milos making rows of Narnian trees standing upright on folded cardboard stands and Brendan and Barnaby cutting a forest as they chatted and coloured and worked out how to make it all work without the roll of sticky tape sitting on my desk.  And the origami girls folding tiny squares into boxes that were piled up into chest of drawers (because there would be one near the wardrobe in that room in that house).  And how they made me mini chatterboxes too and boxes to sit them in and a flat white giraffe to stick on the side of my computer screen across from a lonely gecko left over from last term.

And I’m remembering how on the last day, they lay down in front of the whiteboard with cushions from the corner and rugs from home and made headrests out of old tote trays and lay and watched in a big clump of nine and ten year olds, as the story they had read appeared on the screen.  And how Evan and Kyle N slipped back to their desks to draw while they watched, as they always liked to do.

And that last week, Freddy and Aiden loved to clean, moving canvases and shelves and wiping out the dust that had blown in all year and coated the window sills and the backs of the computers and the spaces around their trays.  And we emptied out their trays and pulled out the shelves and it was just like Christmas!  Finding the homework book that had got lost a term ago, the book of Times tables and too many pencils to even count.

And how we listened to a flurry of one minute speeches on anything they liked which meant we heard about War and Memes, Scams, their cat, their dog, Soccer, the Life Cycle of Frogs and even Porridge .

And how every morning they would come into the classroom before the bell rang to stand about and chat and show me things and just generally hang out together, so when school started most of them were already inside.

And wondering if I’ll ever meet a nicer bunch of kids.

Mobile Tales 11: a sky full of stars

By Vita Forest

In which Christabel awakens to discover changes in the night sky.

There were bumps.  There were rattlings and bangs.  There were loud voices as storm clouds disagreed with each other.  There were preparations for A Party.

Below the sea, it was tempestuous too.  The usual inhabitants of The Tabletop were swept away by the sudden maelstrom, even the whales had left, seeking refuge in Another Room.  Spiralling silver whirlwinds snaked down from the ceiling and strained toward the sea, ready to snatch up the unwary sailor.  The sun was having difficulty peering out behind the storm clouds and so the colour had been fairly removed from the world.   The Good Ship Possession swung about on its anchor in this monochromatic new realm.

Christabel, like the whales, was quite put out by the sudden disturbances in the atmosphere.  Why was there a need for all this whirling and washing, this spinning and stretching?  Why could the world not stay as it was?  For despite being an adventurer, the truth was that Christabel preferred routine and the predictable to savage disruption and hurly burly.  And so, after stowing the sails, and ensuring the anchor was still firmly lodged in the ceiling, Christabel retired to her cabin (and, in truth, to bed).  She would pass the remainder of the storm below deck (for she was fortunate to have a strong constitution and did not require fresh air to keep sea sickness at bay when the waves swelled and broiled).  Thus it was, that through the noise and the tempest, through the shrieks and the celebrations, through the games and singing of ditties, Christabel slumbered and snoozed under her cosy down quilt.

As was often the way in times of discord, Christabel slept when it was tumultuous, but woke when calm returned.  She opened her eyes and listened.  Through the thick paper-mache walls of The Possession, all she could hear was muffled voices, the clink of glassware in The Kitchen and gentle music.  The Party was Over.

She crawled from her bed, wrapped her gold silk kimono about her and climbed the ladder.  When she reached the deck, her eyes widened in wonder.  The Ceiling had been transformed.  Where once she had looked out on wide expanses of clear white skies, she now found The Possession floating beneath a sky full of stars!  Christabel clutched the side of the ship and gazed in delight at the new constellations.  How they sparkled!  How they twinkled merrily about her!  She leaned on her elbows and smiled up at the sky.

Perhaps there were good things that came of storms after all.

A sky full of stars

 

A rabbit goes a marketting

By Vita Forest


I sat on Katrina’s special collapsible portable stool, that weighed almost nothing and folded to fit in her backpack.  I sat in the shade and looked out at the sunny side, the side of the building, the side with the sunbakers, the coffee takers, the side with the arched windows and metal pipes and picturesque bricks and the old boiler that could have been part of Howl’s moving castle.  Maybe it had broken off on one of his jaunts and he hadn’t noticed it yet with all that creaking and banging and carry on.  Perhaps it had found this spot in the sun by the railway track and decided to take a rest til he came back.  There was plenty to see here after all.


There was a small boy wearing a milk crate on his head and a woman in a floral silk robe belted about her waist  that billowed behind her as she strode along in her fluffy magenta slippers.  There were dogs of all sizes pulling their owners along by their straining leashes and children making trains of upside-down milk crates lined up in a row.  There was music drifting outside from inside the huge metal shed where a man on a cello stroked its strings with a long bow as the shoppers wandered by, their bags full of watercress and tomatoes and home-made pasta sauce.  There was the smell of coffee and sourdough bread and the patina of flaking paint on the sturdy old brick walls.


I sat on my friend’s stool, placed just so, right across from the boiler, in the shade not the sun, against the rippling corrugated iron wall, not as sketchable as the sunny side, not as warm either, truth be told, but sometimes you gotta suffer for your art.  I sat and flicked a blade across the tip of my pencil, sharpening that graphite to a point (how I love a sharp pencil to work with) and my knife slid down the pencil and my eyes slid across the tracks and the pavement to the boiler and I thought about how I could draw it (all the while aware of the blade of the knife of course, all the while taking care not to cut away a finger or a thumb).  And I sketched out the composition, the segments of the cylinder, how it would fit on the page.  And I sketched in the milk crate seats in front of it and I noticed that someone had just sat down on one of those milk crate seats and had set down a few items on a milk crate table and looked like she was there to sit awhile so I started to sketch her in too.  And as I quickly drew in the angle of her head and the slope of her shoulders I noticed her place a clump of green on the ground for her dog I presumed, her dog on a lead, there were so many dogs, but a dog eating greens?  I looked again and saw that the animal with its harness and leash and thick brown fur was not a dog, not a dog in the slightest, but a large, placid rabbit sitting in the sun at the market and eating its morning tea while its human ate hers.

I have never seen a rabbit out for a walk on a leash.  I have never seen a rabbit relaxing in the sunshine as dogs sauntered by, not seeing, not sensing, not bothered by the rabbit nibbling fennel fronds on the concrete.  Perhaps they knew each other, saw each other every week, here at the market, doin a bitta shopping, hanging out in the sun.  I didn’t notice any animal greetings but I noticed passing children doing double takes and stopping to crouch and look and gently stroke the rabbit and one sat quietly and was rewarded by having the rabbit carefully lifted and placed on her lap to pat and whisper to and scratch behind its long velvet ears.

I mapped out the girl and the rabbit then sidled back to Katrina (very subtly of course) and brought to her attention the furry friend that was Not A Dog.  She had not yet noticed the rabbit, she was drawing the boiler and the roof and the windows and wasn’t up to adding any people, not yet, that would come later.  Then I sidled back and kept on drawing and delighting in the nonchalant girl who sat there self-contained but not self-conscious in the sunshine with her juice and her pastry and her rabbit on a leash.

Had they walked far? I wondered as I scribbled in her boots.  Had they hopped all the way? (while I shaded her cardigan).  Was this a regular excursion on a Saturday morning in September?  Did she have a favourite stall for her nibbly greenery or did they try the rocket from the Hawksbury one week and the radish leaves from down south the next?  Would I draw her looking up or looking down at the rabbit, stroking its head, or holding her drink, or leaning on her elbow?  People always move so you have to work fast, adjust, approximate, make it up.  She sat and sipped her juice and I scribbled and drew and tried to get it down before she up and left with her bunny and her bags.

Nell strolled by with a coffee and her photogenic stalk of broccoli and a bunch of lavender and peered over my shoulder.  She hadn’t yet decided on a setting for her sketching, on a subject, on a place to sit awhile.  I brought the bunny to her notice and she laughed out loud and leaned against the wall and watched the girl with her bunny sitting under the boiler and said, “There’s a story in that.” And maybe there is and maybe this is it or maybe there’s something more to come.

So Nell wandered off to find her own sketchable moment and I drew in the milk crates and the drink and the table and the shadows and the sunglasses, but before I could go and ask if I could pat her rabbit and what its name was and how they came to be at the market that day and did they come often and a million other questions, before I could ask all that, she picked up her rabbit and her rubbish and put them both carefully in her calico tote bag and walked away.

So I sat and drew rivets and rust instead of rabbits and shivered in the shadows while drawing what was in the sun.

This week

By Vita Forest

Festival of the Winds, Bondi 2017


This week I have been

WRITING Cold Call

READING Big Magic By Elizabeth Gilbert (loved it!)

WATCHING The Good Fight

SKETCHING at Carriageworks, Redfern

Farmers market at Carriageworks, Redfern


WALKING the labyrinths to live drumming and didgeridoos at the Labyrinth Dreaming Festival in Centennial Park where we were

The Pilgrim Labyrinth


WISHING the Sydney Labyrinth a Happy Third Birthday and

Sydney Labyrinth, Centennial Park


JOURNEYING into and out of a number of labyrinths including a Pilgrim Labyrinth where you were

The Pilgrim Labyrinth (see the stones?)


CHOOSING a river stone and carrying it into the labyrinth then pausing and

LAYING down your burden by placing the stone somewhere along the path on your way out

PICNICKING beside the festivities then

VISITING Bondi Beach and

We touched that dragon’s tail!


MARVELING at the show in the sky at the Festival of the Winds


 

Betty 4 Bob

By Vita Forest


This Saturday we are looking forward to a new chapter in one of our school’s very own fairy tales (I borrowed that line from a student). This Saturday will mark the start of a marriage between two staff members.
Betty and Bob have known each other for years. They are both divorcees, both coming from relationships that didn’t work out. Betty has lived for the last few years with her young-adult children, making a new home for them, creating a little sanctuary in her own unique style. This included a fabulous wall of Betty’s cross-stitches, her Four Season plates displayed proudly in her kitchen, and of course, her secret, special paint colour – full strength in this room, half strength in another (the name of the colour was only shared with you if you were very lucky).
She was growing used to being single and enjoyed a full social life with book clubs, stitching groups, movies, mini-breaks, old friends, her large extended family and even a First Wives Club… Betty had made peace with this new life, this life she did not expect to be living, but a life she was finding to be thrilling and satisfying and good.
But one day at school, she was feeling a little sad… One day at school, in her empty classroom she had shed a tear…
This did not often happen, but this day she was feeling a little lonely, a bit down. She went about her day, teaching the children, marking the homework, going out on playground duty.
She stood, as she always did at that time of the week, under the COLA on lunch duty. Opening children’s yoghurt packets and drink bottles and lunch boxes, talking to tiny people in large hats, not knowing that the next chapter of her life was about to begin…
Bob had been working at the school for a number of years, quietly watching Betty, waiting and hoping. He started working there the same month that Betty’s first marriage had really fallen apart (they discovered later) when she was consumed by its crisis, when she was distracted by the end of her life as she knew it. He waited and watched and offered her a kindness here and there in his gentle way.
They were friends, they were colleagues, but Bob hoped they might be something more one day. He watched as Betty ploughed through the divorce, the upheavals and came out the other side renewed and resilient. He watched and waited until that day, that day at lunch, when, hidden in plain sight, he asked Betty if she would like to go to a party with him…
And the rest, as they say, is history… text messaging each other across the staff room, going on road trips in the school holidays, watching The Bridge in matching t-shirts… Keeping their relationship a secret at school for… not very long, but behaving impeccably and professionally at all times.
We were all delighted when during one of their road trips, they got engaged to each other. Happy news indeed! The months have passed, the wedding preparations have been made, the honeymoon planned. Last week, Betty showed me a lovely book her current crop of Year 1s made for her. It included musings and advice on marriage, including when you find the right person to marry, you should play Lego with them, and you should marry someone who is kind to you (wise words indeed).
The happy couple left school on Tuesday, allowing a few days to get the last of the wedding jobs completed. The school threw them a “special assembly” at which they walked down the aisle together, where they received “Bride of 2017” and “Groom of 2017” medallions, where the school captains (all of twelve years old) offered them advice on what makes a successful marriage, and the children serenaded them with “Going to the Chapel”.
All that is left to do now is to wish them a “happily ever after…”

Hanami in Auburn

By Vita Forest

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On a Saturday full of wind and bluster, we journeyed out to the Auburn Botanical Gardens for the Cherry Blossom Festival.  On Friday the winds had been so strong that powerlines had been blown down, a fence at the local tennis club toppled, and at sport, the kids had thrown their hats in the air to see how far they would fly before they landed.

I feared the blossoms would have been blasted from the branches, scattered like pink confetti over a suburb or two, but when we arrived, we could see them, still firmly clinging to the trees.

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We went by train, my daughter Lucy and her friend Bianca, and a bunch of sketchers, backpacks full of paper and pencils and paint and ideas.  We talked expeditions past and future, we made plans, we swapped stories.

When we arrived at the garden, the wind was blowing and the pink flags were flying.  Pink was the colour of the day – pink blossoms, pink flags, some pink hair, even the volunteers wore fluoro pink vests instead of the more usual yellow.

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Even the volunteers were in pink.

I was remembering my last trip to the gardens a couple of years ago with a busload of Year 1 children – here is where we did origami, here is where we took a photo – on a bridge over the water – and not one child got wet.  Here is where Marvin barrelled across the stepping stones without knocking anyone over.

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We had learned about Hanami – the festival celebrating the viewing of the cherry blossoms and here we were experiencing it ourselves in Sydney.  It is all about being in the right place at the right time – the trees only bloom for two weeks or so, blink and you’ll miss it.  In Japan they give updates on the progress of the blossoms on the nightly news (“buds opening”, “flowers starting to appear” etc) and even display weather maps charting the display of colour.  It is about being in the moment, that ephemeral moment when the blossoms open and world turns pink.  Strange then to see so many visitors at Auburn with their selfie-sticks and iPhones – as if they will only see it all later after they have posted it on Instagram.  I was not immune to capturing the moment myself – look at all these photos…

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An abundance of selfie-sticks

We walked over an arched bridge and watched as a volunteer sprinkled bread from a bucket.  The water was full of the open mouths of carp fighting for what the geese didn’t get first.  We strolled along the cherry blossom avenue noting the way the sun shone through the blossoms and a few happy bees trundling over the flowers.

The sketchers peeled off, finding places by the lake, by a zig-zag bridge, near the moon gate, so close to a cherry tree she could hold a twigful of it to study and draw and protect from the wind.  The wind!  The wind that followed us around the lake, climbing the rocky steps to a lookout, ruffling the undulating hedges that resembled the sinuous body of a dragon, splaying the fringing needles of a conifer into star bursts.

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There be dragons…

I sat on a hill, a little removed from the cherry blossoms and watched the world go by with my sketchbook.  I noticed the way the wind sent the bundles of pine needles flicking and sparkling.  I noticed how the magnolia flowers swayed majestically on their strong vertical branches, I noticed a sweet looking toddler with two fountaining pig-tales stumbling about the slope, under the careful eye of her father.

I drew trees and saw how the base of each pine tree was set in a tiny pool of mulch.  I drew a line of cherry blossoms, noticing how the trunks were gnarled and twisted before the tips of the branches thinned and reached skyward.  I drew mounds of grass, thickly planted and arranged in tight, round clumps.

And then I drew people – people with their selfie sticks, people with their iPhones, occasionally people just chilling under the trees, seeing life in real time with their own eyes.  It was the perfect time to be in the moment to feel the wind and the sunshine, watch the flocks of birds wheel over the lake, hear the throb of the Taiko drums in another part of the garden.

So much in “the zone” was I, I did not see Lucy and Bianca sneak up behind me, was not aware of them until Lucy leapt at me, causing an unplanned scribble on my page.  They danced on the hillside behind me, did walkovers, stole snacks from my backpack.  They had visited the tiny zoo and had seen a peacock, an albino wallaby, an emu, but not the wombat.  The wombats were hiding away in their cosy burrow out of the light and the wind.  When the girls had eaten all the snacks, they were off again.  Off to catch the sumo wrestling just about to start in another part of the garden.  Later they explained the rules to me and demonstrated the hand motions of the winners and the bowing etiquette before a match started.

We regrouped and shared our sketches; pages of blossoms and lakes and bridges and trees.  And after a lunch of gyoza dumplings by the lake, our little visit to Japan in Sydney was over.  It’s fun being a tourist in your own town.

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