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Winter Determination

SONY DSCA zephyr caresses my cheeks, closed eyes tremble, eager to peer into the clear sky filled with chattering swallows and Amazons … ?

Amazons?

Clack clack – fractured celluloid sensations

My foraging mind returns to the moment.

Back resting against the chunky, flaking bark of a giant Scot’s Pine. Rubber coated gloves still holding a handful of wet leaves. High above in the beautiful canopy I watch as sharp sunlight flashes through the branches, performing a fitful dance to the uneasy tune of an ominous north easterly gale.

Fingertips numb. Knees soaked. Summer callouses shiver against my wrists.

Early afternoon and the daylight is fading. Those last rays of an unwilling sun only catch at the higher branches, soon to be snuffed out by advancing clouds. I can smell snow in the air, it’s a curious, odourless, fresh smell and one to be feared. Instinct tells me to step up the pace.

SONY DSCI throw the handful of leaves into the bin, walk briskly back onto the lawn and study the clouds over the summit of Helvellyn. Experience assures me that I can cram in another hour of leaf collection. Though finishing the job to perfection with a leafblower will be an impossible task in this gusting wind.  Every hour worked is a bonus to stay afloat during this toughest of occupations…professional gardening.

Most folk imagine gardening to be a relatively easy job. They erroneously assume it’s an exercise in supping tea and snipping the heads off a few spent flowers in sun drenched flower borders. Truth be told I’ve never gone onto a normal job and sat with a warming mug of steaming chai in my hands and contemplated my navel. Mostly it’s a snatched swig on some tepid, long abandoned offering or risking life and palette by gulping scalded tea before heading back to a gardener’s world of swift decisions and application.

That said I love gardening and see myself as a lucky human to be allowed the pleasure of working outdoors and tending lots of beautiful plants. If I had my way everybody would have the chance to escape the grisly environs of office superficiality and spend a day or two each week pottering around on their ‘plot’.

However …*drum roll*… I struggle with my chosen path in winter. Even our temperate British winters can be cripplingly harsh. As a self employed individual I am frequently tempted to pull that duvet back over my head and say. ‘Not today Josephine.’ Workable daylight hours for a specs wearer, are even more restricted.  Cutting back spent perennials with bare hands is a risky procedure in the gloaming, which seems to last from a protracted dawn, 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and dusk, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on a cloudy day. I can’t see what the heck I am doing and run the risk of digit amputation.

So how do we tackle these difficult and undesirable periods that occupy significant part of a professional gardener’s calendar?

If you are male I would suggest getting a mistress. Probably a wonderful way to pass most of the day. OH if you are reading this…(more fool you!) I can’t afford one J So I adopt a very different policy and it goes a little as follows :-

Alarm rings approx. 6.30 and I say to myself. ‘Porridge with a dosh of Golden Syrup. A cup of Rosie Lea and a quick scan of Twitter.’ Feet up for an hour and talk bollocks with my Twitty mates. (Honest, I luv every single one of you)

SONY DSCDressed and fed, I haul back the curtains and recoil in horror. Traipse downstairs and ask the cat what his opinion might be. He invariably raises one eyebrow if I am lucky, sighs, pulls his front paws around his face and hopes I will go away. No interpretation needed  ‘It’s effing cold and wet bonzo!’

We now approach the point of no return, a daily tipping point.

I understand that outside the treble glazed, fully insulated door is a sharp blast of reality. If I open it I have to man-up and bloodySONY DSC well get on with earning a crust. If I don’t open it I have to live with myself for a few hours and seek out some means to justify being a wimp, trust me on this one folks, I can find a thousand ways of justifying my right to remain in the house.

So here goes…don’t even consider looking through the window in the door, just manfully put your reluctant paw on the handle and open it. Once outside don’t think too much about what you are doing…open your work vehicle and start driving to your first job.

On the way to the job crank up the heater full blast, and keep yourself so hot you would prefer to throw off your skin. This creates a false sense of comfort and makes the inevitable opening of the vehicle door less troublesome.

Never listen to the News. Pay attention! The news in Winter is loaded with misery….’Pay more, minister tells pizza boss! – Briton admits terror charges in US! – One oven death victim ‘hidden from view’ ?? and whatever you do, please don’t look at or listen to a weather report…OMG no…don’t do this!

If you do make it thus far, have a plan of action for the job but never, never, never get out of the cabin without lots of warm and waterproof clothing to shroud you from the misery of the weather. I mean this seriously! The weather, and I know you North American citizens are likely to say…’He’s such a sap!’ is likely to be the main reason you will become unemployed, don ‘t pay it any heed. Honestly guys…it really is possible to work outdoors in winter in the UK. You have to possess the appropriate mental framework.

If you are warm and emotionally committed you will be capable of working in the worst conditions. Get your gear out of the vehicle and start work…that’s it. Once started you will continue unless you are as old as me, until daylight tapers out. Stop then and only then.

The KissWhen you get to that stage think………………….mulled wine…..steaming hot shower. Think…. loving arms of my mistress…lol Hey, guys, I’m a trashed gardener and need some pleasures in life 😉

No matter what you thought at the beginning of the day, you will be immensely satisfied to force your way out , do battle with the elements and come home with a few more quid.

Happy gardening.

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Dry Stone Walling with Ken

Traditionally, Yorkshire men may be considered dour blokes, stoic to a fault, unpredictable, aggressive, arrogantly dogmatic. Take a few moments to visualise a Yorkshire man.

Ken and Luke

Ken walling with his grandson Luke in fields near Patterdale, The Lake District, Cumbria, UK

My mind sees a man with shirt sleeves rolled up revealing muscular, hairy forearms. Broad shoulders, tussled dark hair with 2 day stubble, a chiselled face. He is wearing heavy corduroy trousers pinned at the waist with a sturdy leather belt, his booted stance casual yet alert, he seems to have grown out of the earth. His most redeeming features are the brooding eyebrows that shelter a piercing, inquisitive gaze. You may feel attracted toward this kind of person, yet realise it’s wise to tread cautiously in case a heavy boot swings swiftly to displace your front teeth.

Gatepost

Lakeland wallers made best use of boulders.
These walls were originally built circa 150 years ago.
Near Stonethwaite, Lake District, Cumbria, UK

It may seem that Yorkshiremen care little for the human race, yet many are incredibly sensitive who understand nature in a deeply instinctive way. They see no need to be demonstrative. To sit and talk with these men is an experience to be treasured. They are wise keepers of our heritage.

Ken is one such man.

The arrangement with Ken was simple. Each Saturday I would toss a chipping hammer, string line, tape measure and A-frame into the car boot, collect him in Windermere then drive over Kirkstone Pass to Patterdale. We had secured an ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area) contract to rebuild derelict field walls, 650 metres worth of field wall. The pay was nominal, the real reward enormous, restoring dry stone walls.

Internal Wall

Lots of Dog-Eds
Mid Section
random dry stone wall
Windermere, Cumbria, UK

Dialogue was easy. ‘Morning.’ ‘Morning.’ ‘Ya’ll right?’ ‘Yep’ ‘Let’s go then.’

Ken taught me to build walls using limestone on field walls near Caldbeck, John Peel country. Limestone is so pleasant to handle, easy to shape, looks good and smells good. Our contract at Patterdale was entirely different, more complex.

The stone at Patterdale was a mixture of old quarry slate, river boulders and field clearings. These walls were constructed circa 150 years ago. ESA work requires total re-use of existing stone. Weathered slate in particular can become friable and shatters easily. This entails a high degree of delicacy that isn’t apparent with new walls where fresh slate, usually hand selected at the quarry, is used.

Foundations – Beginning at one end of the existing wall we would demolish a ‘day section’ right down to the foundation and begin walling. Some of the foundation stones were immense, with no need to replace. On other sections, that had suffered significant movement, we would have to excavate the foundation stones by hand, re-trench and relay the boulders. Like all structures, a solid foundation is essential and can’t be skipped. More walls crumble quickly because of shoddy foundations than anything else. Once a wall has been built it begins to settle. If the base isn’t solid the wall will buckle and belly outward as it settles. Over time this weak section will collapse.

Once the foundations were in place Ken would go to the sunny side of the wall in order to work with his back to the sun. Being the novice, I would have to work facing the sun, not a problem on a cloudy day, but squint factor on a sunny day is extreme. There was never any discussion about this, we merely assumed our side and got on with walling.

Short Wall

Recycled slate and random dry stone wall
Kirkstone Pass Road, Windermere, Cumbria, UK

Stone Selection and Dog ‘Eds – Stone selection is a delight. If you have fiddled with a jigsaw puzzle, you will comprehend how difficult it can be to find the right pieces. Every stone has a place. With experience the eye can tell if a stone is ‘right’, in the early days stone selection is the greatest skill to learn.

Walling in the Patterdale valley was harder than any walling I have ever done. 50% of stones were ‘dog-eds’. The term is descriptive and derived from the shape of the stones, Dog Heads.

The mixture of dog-eds and slate was an awkward one, picture round balancing on flat, or vice versa. It doesn’t work without very careful placement. I wasted many fillers trying to balance these stones. Ken just plonked them down, the dog-eds remained firm.

As he worked Ken would whistle, a tuneless aggravating sussing. In and out, keeping pace with his breathing. Relentless.

‘Give us a break Ken. Your whistling is driving me mental!’

‘Seeessuurrrr sususu suuuuuuser.’

‘I can’t concentrate. Why don’t you go for a sanger?’

‘Suss suss sut…seh suh suh suh suh seh.’

Occasionally he would whistle on a rising tack, then simmer quietly whilst breathing in. Over and over and over.

I never saw him smile. He worked, methodically, carefully, never over extending himself.

Stone Placement – Stone selection and placement is the highlight of walling. Every stone has a place. Skilled wallers can identify the next stone, pick it up smoothly, flick it around in the hand, perhaps make a quick chip with the hammer, then clunk it into place. No further adjustment required.

The sound that a stone makes when placed is critical. Something akin to the difference between a bass drum and a snare drum. When a stone has a solid clunk it is placed correctly, when it has a chinky clinky sound it will need adjustment.

My favourite placement is with two hands on a medium sized stone. When sited there will be no movement at all and no requirement for a backfiller. I used to live for those moments!

Coursing – A ‘course’ is a layer of roughly similar sized stones. It isn’t essential, but most dry stone walls have the larger stones lower down. A well coursed wall will be indestructible.

Until I became more skilled Ken would often be a course or two ahead of me, this was a distinct advantage to him. If he had oddly shaped stones he could push them across toward my side then I would need to fit my stones around his.

‘Ken, you will need to slow down a bit until I get this next course up.’

‘Stop buggering about, you work like an old man!’ End of conversation.

Wall End

Intake Wall End
Lake District, Cumbria, UK

Point made I would plow on whilst Ken ambled over to the car, proceed to lean against it and ‘take stock’. Ken was always ‘taking stock’. He would briefly ‘weigh up the situation’ then act. I would be expected to read his mind and get on with the job.

A hill farmer in that area had up to 20 working dogs. He never trained dogs individually, when pups were old enough they would travel with an experienced dog and learn on the job. During this formative stage I was Ken’s dog, it was up to my powers of observation to copy what he did, he made no allowance for my inferior walling skills.

Ken sighed often in the early days because I was such a numpty waller. When he sighed I knew I wasn’t up to speed, or I had used the wrong stone. He never once told me off, just allowed my part of the wall to fall down. He would then slowly step through the gap, pick up a few stones, place them quickly, step back through the gap and continue walling from his side. No words were ever exchanged during these lessons.

Fillers – When walls were first built gangs of men would wall constantly. Many would sleep near the wall to maximise their return. They were paid by the yard, skilled wallers would use little fill, it was time consuming to pack a wall, and the old adage ‘time is money’ was never more appropriate.

Some sections of wall had almost no fillers. It would have been helpful to bring in a few tons of fill, but we weren’t allowed, so re-cycling was the order of the day.

Consequently a wall with few fillers took more skill with stone placement because we couldn’t backfill the gaps. It was pure chance who got the most fillers. However, Ken never came to my side of the wall to use my fillers. He always made do with his lot. When you’re a Yorkshireman, that is what you do.

Ken loved these empty walls, it was the ultimate challenge to his unerring stone selecting skills.

‘No reason why we can’t rebuild this wall with the stone on the ground. The original wallers did.’

‘There aren’t enough fillers here Ken. I can’t finish this without more fillers.’ My peeved comments would go unheeded.

He was correct of course. Over time I became more skillful at preserving the fillers and only used them sparingly.

Foxgloves

Ubiquitous Foxgloves
Dry Stone Walls
Lake District, Cumbria, UK

Through Stones – Most field walls have two rows of ‘throughs’. One about knee high and another approximately belly button level. Dry stone walls taper toward the top, so the lower ‘through’ stones can be double the size of the higher layer. This means that the lower ‘throughs’ are seriously heavy, requiring two men to manoeuvre the stone into place. I have split my finger many times during this operation.

Weak walls can stem from insufficient good ‘throughs’. These stones tie the whole wall together. Ken always insisted that the ‘throughs’ were placed on a perfectly level line.

Top Stones – Final pieces in the walling jigsaw, and some of the most important.

On fully collapsed walls it was difficult to filter topstones from walling stone. An experienced waller can tell by the mould and lichens, even the shape of a stone can be sufficient to set it to one side for use as a topstone.

Ken was a specialist at ‘capping out’. It took more than 2 years for me to be allowed this honour. Capping out requires a very sure eye and steady placement because the final courses consist of the smallest stones, easily dislodged if the topstone has to be jiggled around.

Ultimate Satisfaction – To step back and admire a well constructed wall is to reach the pinnacle. It does require the palm of a hand to be drawn down the wall before leaving. It is a ritual that remains embedded in my mind as I think of Ken proudly surveying a finished wall. He never left a wall without giving it a pat on the head.

Ken was 83 the last time I walled with him. He now can’t manage walling, but his legacy remains and will be seen by thousands of people for up to 150 years to come. Indeed, if you drive from Hartsop to Patterdale you will pass two of his roadside walls, and several of his field walls.

Of course, Ken is my father.

Mud Skippers

A solitary truck whizzes past and startles Flora, she isn’t a timid dog, but the sudden noise and powerful waft of air causes her to skitter. As if he could hear me I shout after the departing truck. ‘No need for that! Inconsiderate so-and-so. You could have given us a wider berth!’

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Mud, mud, glorious mud. Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood. Particularly in Winter!

The weather has been icy for several days. Cabin fever, like throwing darts left handed, an issue that can’t be fixed unless you switch back to your normal pattern of behaviour.  Dog walking helps to dissipate the frustration, but my agitation is obvious.

No other life forms are walking the streets today, even the main road is quiet. Biting cold has muted the world. A torpid steel grey sky presses upon us, urging abandonment of our walking project. Extreme cold weather is the worst case scenario for my business, it debilitates and destroys confidence. It feels as if the ice will never leave.

Bos ready to play

Bosley, primed and ready 🙂

Bosley stands on his snow patched lawn, blue jacket tucked in neatly like a kindly soldier on parade. His face says.

‘Look at me John I am ready for a tour of duty. Let’s hit the beach heads.’

Ms Lockett is always grateful if we stop by and take Boz along, she has become progressively less able to promenade him since suffering a mild stroke. (Bosley – Lockett  – 07801873600) are the details on the tag dangling from Bosley’s collar.

Ms Lockett is a throwback to the hippie era, free love and all that guff.  She is often working in her garden, mauve scarf tied around her head, baggy cargo pants, black Doc Martin’s and a moth eaten, grey sweater. What she lacks in trendy clothing she compensates for credibly with gardening prowess. Delightful perennial borders to drool over, even at this time of year they possess oodles of interest .

As I open the gate Bosley trots over, always amiable. Flora is subjected to the once over. He inspects chin-nose-sniff your ear-neck routine. Flora laps it up. He then gives her backside a good inspection. I have to laugh because he has the appearance of Dr Bosley doing rounds at the clinic.

‘Hold still Flora, I need to take your temperature’.

Ms Lockett waves from the kitchen window, opens it and hands me Bosley’s lead. Without delay we’re off. All three of us finally brim full of renewed enthusiasm. I resemble an Alaskan with a pair of straining huskies. ‘Mush! Mush!’

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Deer snicket in hedge.

Once we arrive at the unsealed lane I allow the dogs to run free, only an occasional tractor trundles down here, they are safe to roam. As soon as we arrive at a small natural woodland they push through the deer snickets in the hedge to gambol around in the tangle of ferns, leaf litter and broken branches. If I were to go in there and run around with my head a couple of feet off the ground my eyes would be gouged from their sockets in minutes. Imagine catching yourself on barbed wire.

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Cattle grid.

The dogs randomly explore the area until we encounter a cattle grid where Boz takes over. He finds a squeeze between the brambles and gate post then surges away at greyhound speed.  Flora gets some help from me to cross the grid before chasing after him furiously.

Content that they are happy exploring the shoreline I negotiate the frozen ground with intense concentration . Usually soft and easy walking, the abysmal cold has created a treacherous icy surface under my vibram boots. I have to bunch my toes up, as if that will prevent me tumbling . From a distance I must resemble a drunk after a couple of Special Brews.

Ahead a heron lifts up into the air, it’s ultra smooth wing beats a joy to behold. I pause, motionless to absorb the chilly ambiance. I watch contentedly, the dogs away in the distance, occasionally dipping out of sight as they negotiate the muddy channels.

I listen, the air placid, a fragment of intense calm. Trance inducing moments pass, a raven croaks high up on the crag to return me from my meditation. An odd rushing noise is upon me that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, a flock of estuary birds zoom overhead, low enough to make me duck down. Distant curlews call as they rise into the air and adjust their feeding station.

Bos with stick

Boz – ready to play.

‘Yap, yap.’ ‘OOff’, the dogs are digging in the salty mud like possessed demons.

Unadulterated joy to watch them play together. I recall holding similar emotions when my children were small, they would come down here and play for hours in the warm weather. A microcosm filled with fantasy and innocence.

I hop, slide and splatter my way carefully, moving closer to the dogs. They have been out on the hard, silty mud for some time. For no reason in particular I call them to me, one sharp ‘shhhwheet’ and Flora pricks her ears, looks for me and kerlonks a direct line in my direction, she skilfully negotiates the ditches and half frozen brackish puddles. Panting happily she anchors up with scratchy skids, eyes on fire – isn’t it amazing how precious delight in the eye of any creature is hugely uplifting.

Bosley dallies a while, adding some finishing touches to the hole they were digging. Satisfied, he tosses his head and sets off toward us in similar cavalier fashion. He doesn’t hesitate at a large ditch, takes a preposterous flying leap and disappears. Imagine Scooby Doo skydiving. Ears up in the air and legs splayed. Muddy waters splash upward, the eagle has landed.

In no time at all Boz hauls himself up this side of the slimy ditch. It’s obvious that he’s struggling with the slope, front paws dug into the turf, hind legs flailing to make a purchase. His determination wins the day, he gallops over the intervening ground, enthusiasm undiminished. He rocks up, plastered head to tail-tip in mud, chocolate sauce with hints of black treacle. I have to keep backing away, arms in the air to avoid being covered in the atrocious mess. He thinks I am playing so launches himself at me. I jump to one side, my feet crush through the thin icy surface of another puddle and I slip to the deck. Boz jumps on top of me, literally laughing into my face, paws pounding on my jacket.

I roll onto my side in an attempt to push myself out of the muck. Both dogs now hoot like impudent teenagers and bounce around me, a chaotic scene.

It’s futile, but I shout. ‘Stop Bosley. Gerrof me!’ For further effect I add. ‘Flora, where are your brains girl? I am a wizened old man, freakin’ well let me get up!’

Urggh. Icy water has seeped over a boot top and filled one boot, my mittens are soaked through, without overtrousers my jeans are saggy bags of stinking mud, even my hair is satched and matted with gunk. ‘Bosley you are an absolute monster!’

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Flooded shoreline at Humphrey Head. Perfect playground for dogs.

Thankfully I carry my phone in a dry inside pocket. I manage to get a call through to a friend who drives a 4WD work vehicle. He doesn’t hesitate to come down to the shore and pick us up.

As we wait near the end of the lane I pull the dogs to me, sit with knees bent, one dog under each arm, tucked in and keeping me warm. Our body heat is creating a cloud of steam in the chilly air. I have treats for the dogs and a chocolate bar for myself, small comfort.

I love it when dogs sit like this. They are content enough, Bosley gives my cheek a very warm choppy nudge that smells of doggie treat as if to say. ‘It’ll be reet mate. You did your best.’

Bosley keeping warm.

When Mark arrives we tumble into the cabin. He has the heater turned up full blast and a flask of piping hot coffee. Oh my, what a luxury. Bosley has been wearing his jacket all the time and it now has to come off. Mark is barely able to drive as he chortles at my demise. Bosley’s dog  jacket is a filthy mess. Can’t imagine what I am going to say to Ms Lockett.

Winter is an endurance test, but moments like this can help to lighten the load.

Have to thank Ms Lockett for lending us Bosley. We had a fabulous time 🙂

New Boots for Humphrey

Flora must be chasing an imaginary rabbit. She twists and lollops, nose to the frosty ground, ears pyoing randomly, jack-in-a-box puppets as she scoots around the muddy saltwater pools.

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Karrimor KSB Event, a wonderful general purpose walking boot.

Winter is being perverse today, it has provided glorious sunshine with sub-zero temperatures. Whenever the ground is frozen solid we are unable to earn a crust from meaningful contract gardening. After dawdling away a few hours keeping warm in front of the fire I decide to take Flora for a walk, down to Humphrey Head. Primary reason – test out my new walking boots.

The boots have been sitting in the original box for almost six months. Hillwalking used to be my lifeblood, but I abandoned regular distance walking when my last pair of boots began leaking at the instep. It’s time to return to the fray.

To add a twist I decide to use my camera to capture the walk through the eyes of Flora. She views things from a completely different layer to me.

We drive the van to the end of the lane and park up. Flora bursts out and gallops around whilst I fit my new boots. The air has an arctic intensity, so my mitten/fingerless gloves are going to be vital as I operate the camera.

Best policy is carefully watch what Flora does, then follow in her pawprints and photograph the places she visits. Clearly this isn’t going to be easy, she moves rapidly from one tuft of grass to another, stopping briefly to sniff then bobble off to something else.

She is fascinated by the pools of water, rushes and leaps with great agility. Her tongue is already flapping, more grin than fatigue.

Flora

Flora at full pelt.

Instantly I realise that I can’t access most  places she has visited, the ground is a treacherous mix of ice and brackish saltwater, the ice breaks easily under my weight, sloppy mud is ankle deep.

There are no sheep on the shoreline today and no other walkers so I decide to let her run free. Still she comes back frequently seeking a little reassurance. Every time she comes back she touches me slightly, often with her nose, occasionally a simple flick of the tail which patters on my legs.

I stop constantly to photograph. Flora lobs up, eyes glittering with delight, front end and shoulders dip to the ground, rear up in the air. She wants to play, we always play.

All doglovers understand this stance, it says.

‘Stick…get me a stick.’

Her tail wags and quivers rapidly, held high in the air. She bounces on both paws at the same time, issuing gentle ‘uff’ ‘uff’ noises.

I look at her with a degree of sympathy. She is confused by this lethargic start to proceedings. Usually I have my wellies on and we both gallivant over the springy turf, jumping across the small ponds until we reach the shoreline where she opens up and stretches her legs. She runs in giant circles depending on where the watermark is. When the tide is well out she will run for a hundred yards, turn like she has suddenly seen the devil and race back full pelt. Where do they gather such energy?

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We walk away from the soggy shore toward the lane and encounter the first obstacle. Probably an 8 on the doggie scale of difficulty. A cattlegrid. This one is tricky because it also has brambles fully up to the edges of the grid. I observe as she ponders the situation. She looks at me, a glob of slobber flippers off the end of her tongue onto my sleeve.

She looks at me twice, gathers herself in the lunge mode, but decides it is too far. Second choice she puts a paw on the first couple of slats, doesn’t like it at all. I am about to help when I imagine she says.

‘Stuff this messing around,’ and leaps up onto the wall beside the cattle grid then with one more bound is on the other side. She doesn’t stop to take applause, just continues with her adventure.

A little way down the lane she disappears off to the right through a hole in the hedging. I see her mooching around in the small wood. She darts out again through another hole, does a quick 360 and whips back in via the next small tunnel. Clearly she is entertained.

Next a kissing gate which has a high degree of doggie difficulty. In fact this is a 10. She knows what this type of gate involves so waits for me to open it. Through the gate she hurtles up the hill.

My boots are not giving me any problem. I have always found that ill fitting boots only take a mile or two before nagging at the foot. These feel like a pair of slippers, a second skin.

We reach a wind tilted hawthorn, I have to put Flora on the lead, there are sheep in the next field. She doesn’t complain, still able to travel a good sniffing distance. Now she is closer I scrutinise what she finds interesting. To my palette it is disgusting, she seeks out and sniffs at pooh, sheep droppings, old cow pats and rabbit droppings. Don’t you dare pick any up! Urk.

Unfortunately we have to make a swift return to the van. The incoming tide is looking very full today. It bothers me that the van may end up in the sea, so we walk back. Flora stops her play mode and begins to walk in step with me. I wonder what she is thinking at this stage. She doesn’t know why I have turned back peremptorily.

Back at the van she skips up onto the passenger seat whilst I sort my boots out. Sighs,  curls up on the double seat, adjusts her chops a couple of times and promptly hits the snooze button.

Tomorrow is forecast even colder, so I will be going back earlier in the day to get right over the top of Humphrey Head to rest in the sun on a sheltered rocky beach as the tide comes around the headland.

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Humphrey Head on the north shore of Morecambe Bay.

Capturing the world through the eyes of a dog is pretty dang difficult. Flora is so smart that she could probably take the photos herself.

Words erupt from deep within my core. Frequently it seems that a tsunami has been generated, the emotions are sucked up and ride atop an enormous dynamic word inferno, desperate to be released.

Often I am compelled to write, it is a way to share powerful unarticulated thoughts. In my life I am driven by emotions (who isn’t?) that occasionally overwhelm my reality. My brain fizzes with such intensity that I have to smash the words down without delay.

Despite limited artistic knowledge I totally empathise with the moment when great artists found inspiration. When I read of them rushing headlong down to the Mediterranean to live in the glorious light which empowered the likes of Van Gogh to paint I nod, I comprehend. In my own small way, when I am gardening and the word-volcano strikes I have to down tools and write. The end product is immaterial, what matters is giving life to the words.

More to the point I would love to time travel with the artist, be the fly on the wall as creative juices crashed out onto canvas. See their total commitment, oblivious to the world as they fulfilled a primal urge. I wonder if it came as a surprise when the work was finished and they stepped back, out of their compulsion, to view the result. I bet they didn’t need to change a thing. I understand the torment if the compulsion struck and they were unable to feed the gannets.

How magical to have been a paint brush in the hands of Van Gogh.

How stimulating to have been ink in the quill of Shakespeare.

How glorious to be the twirling incense in an ancient Himalayan monastery.

Personally, as the intensity fades I remember who I am, I feel the tension in my hands ooze away and I notice the scraps of notepaper, covered in riddles and rhyme, strewn around like feathers from a plucked swan. Those words are me, amazing.

Once published, I realise that YOU are reading these words and that YOU are surely also driven with equally strong desires and primal urges. I realise that YOU are the fly on the wall of my emotional heart.

Be gentle.

Gardener Set Free by an mp3

Rob with his imaginary hound.

Robert is working on the top perennial border, maybe 15 yards away but on the other side of a hawthorn hedge. Earlier we had trimmed the hedge, Robert swirled the hedgetrimmer as if it was a light sabre, thrashing blades moulded the hedge into shape. We are tarting up the top border in a full blooded attempt to impress our new clients.

‘How are you getting on with the weeding up there Rob?’

Silence, followed by scuffling noises and a slight clearing of his throat.

I wait for him to say something. Nada.

Louder this time, ‘Rob! We need to be moving onto the mowing soon. Have you nearly finished?’

He is obviously working, his yellow gorilla bucket is being scutched over the ground, he kicks it a little and I hear him ‘twickling’ the soil with his fork. Twickling is our top secret ploy to make our borders stand out from the rest. Obviously I can’t give away the trade secret but it is vital to get the correct depth into the soil before twickling commences. Too deep and it looks like a turned veggie bed, too shallow and it looks bobbly, scratched and scruffy. There is also the sideways ‘clod slap’ that is vital for an even finish. No point taking these terms, ‘twickling’ and ‘clod slap,’ to the RHS for clarification, they are copyrighted to http://www.topgrowth.co.uk and available for hire purchase if anyone is dopey enough to ask.

Because Rob still doesn’t answer me I decide to walk up the steps to the top border and check on what he is doing. Often these kind of silences mean one of the lads is having a fag, or texting the girlfriend and doesn’t want to be disturbed. Normally they skulk off behind a building or into the bushes. They know I don’t like them using mobile phones on the job, and smoking is almost a hanging offence unless they are on a break.

SAS style I quietly step up and have my eyes on alert as they come level with the top border. I look across to where he is working then stand still to watch. He is twickling away undeniably content. In fact he is working furiously, twickle – clod slap, clod slap (try to say that when you have quaffed a few G&Ts) – twickle, twickle – clod slap – bend down pick up some weeds…repeat process. I notice that he isn’t wearing his gloves either. Strange. Rob has always worn his gloves, indeed insisted that he wear them.

Buddha happy

I love this guy. He is with us every day 🙂

Only last week we had the following conversation.

‘John, I have to wear my gloves. The girlfriend doesn’t like me to have rough skin and muck in my nails.’

‘How many times do I have to tell you that you can’t feel smaller weeds with gloves on Rob? If the ground is really bad, use the gloves, otherwise don’t wear them. The more you feel the weeds and plants, the better
gardener you will become.’

Grinning at me. ‘OK John. Whatever you say. I will not wear the gloves to weed after today, me and Mandy are going to have dinner at her parent’s place tonight.’ He always grins at me when he wants his own way. I know he will still wear his gloves the next day.

Rob is the sort of lad who comes to work in khaki Chinos, a Wrangler shirt and a pair of weird boots with no laces. He never passes the van mirror without taking a look at himself and preening. He loves to be around the gardens, is extremely pleasant and polite but doesn’t understand the work ethic. If he is left on his own he will take it easy. Whenever I go off somewhere he applies, ‘out-of- sight, time-for-a-fag’ policy

So what the heck has changed today? He still hasn’t seen me, so I sit on one of the steps and observe him through the sparse leaves of a hydrangea bush.

He finishes twickling, and moves his gorilla bucket to another part of the border. Squats on his heels and begins to weed. I notice that he is working very carefully, not missing a weed and knocking off the excess soil before tossing it into the bin. I feel a surge of pleasure because in the past he has barely bothered to knock excess dirt off and we have constantly had discussions about how the garden is going to disappear in a few years if he doesn’t put most of the soil back.

WTF is he doing now? I chuckle to myself, how bizarre.

Rob is playing air guitar as he kneels and bobbing his head like he is in a mosh pit. Still he works on. He pulls out some larger weeds and taps out a rhythm on the side of the bin … tosses them in … fishes them out again and inspects the tiny blue flowers, probing with his fingertips. Taps them several times more on the rim of the bucket before lobbing them. I also notice his lips are moving and I can hear a strange tone deaf mumble with accompanying head waggle. A kind of cross between Buddhist mantra and an impression of a chainsaw.

Intrigued I decide not to disturb him. For a while he works away then suddenly jumps up, takes the garden fork and uses it to play air guitar again, but more vigorously. At this I just can’t stop myself any longer and burst into a honking belly laugh, but he doesn’t hear me. His right foot is stomping and he uses the handle of the fork as a fret. Oh my goodness. I hoot out loud.

He does a twirl raises his imaginary guitar up above his head with both arms and then sweeps it down to the ground, embedding the tines in the lawn up to the hilt. His body is bowed at the waist, he holds this posture for a few moments clearly spent before straightening up slowly, hands hang limply by his side, head still bent downward resting on his chest.

Rob raises his head, slowly lifts his eyes to the sky, and then the horror strikes him full force. His body becomes rigid and his eyes pop out of the sockets on stalks as he notices me sitting on the step. In an instant colour flushes right up through his cheeks, his baby blue eyes are sparkling and he grins in embarrassment. We both start to laugh, it’s infectious and establishes a more friendly atmosphere for him to put down an explanation.

He flicks something out of his right ear and says. ‘Oh shoot John. I am really sorry but it was one of my favourite tunes and I couldn’t stop myself. Sorry if I have made a fool of myself.’

He adds. ‘I was doing such a good job on the border, come over here and let me show you. I reckon you will be chuffed to bits.’

I shake my head and walk over to him. There is an earpiece dangling over his shoulder and another lodged in his left ear. The cables are stuffed inside his sweater, a slight bulge where his shirt pocket sits.

My primary instinct is to tell him off for time wasting. However, to be fair, when I look at what he has achieved it is nigh on amazing compared to what he normally accomplishes. Not only has he done a very good job, it is one that we can both be proud of, and I tell him so.

‘Great work Bonzo. You have excelled yourself there.’

Rob smiles easily. ‘It was like you said the other day, I got into the groove and things started to flow. You are right, when the juice starts to flow everything is easy and feels balanced. I took off the gloves because I could feel what I was doing, it all just came together like magic.’

He adds, ‘I kind of zoned out. It was like I wasn’t here, but I was, you know what I mean? I needed to touch the soil and the garden, it was sort of percolating into me and I just understood it all so well.’

His eyebrows arch. ‘If I didn’t know different I would have said I was stoned. Jya know what I’m on about John?’

‘I know what you are on about lad. I know.’

‘At the same time I was right into my music. Everything was crystal clear.’ He stops to consider the magnitude of it all.

He explains what an mp3 player is and how the tunes can be downloaded from the internet. Not only that he says that he has hundreds of tunes stored on his device, so seldom gets bored with the songs. He also insists that listening makes him happier and that he enjoys his work more.
How can I argue with that?

As we stand there I am aware of a strange susurration, rather like the noise coming from a freely rotating wheel on an upturned bike. I ask him if he can hear it. He listens, head cocked to one side and says. ‘No. Can’t hear owt strange John. Where is it coming from?’

I can’t pinpoint the noise, it is random. Now it has stopped. We walk back to the van to get the mowing gear out. I keep hearing the noises, but Rob seems unperturbed. I ponder tinnitus, I know my Uncle Ken suffers from the condition and complains of a ringing in his ears. Perhaps I have a dose.

Rob gets a strimmer out of the van and puts it on the floor, I take a fuel can and as I bend down to fill the stimmer I realise the noise is coming from his earpieces, the music is obviously still playing. I am tempted to ask him for a listen, but the thought of shoving his earpieces into my ears prevents that thought verbalising.

He asks if he can continue to use the mp3. I am unsure but can’t fathom a reason to refuse. This day is to be an epiphany for Rob, and an ear opener for me.

In future days he worked wonderfully well as long as he was submersed in House, Garage, Trance, Dance, Hip Hop and a crazy bunch of other tunes that are alien to me, but nectar to the essence of Rob. He became a wonderful gardener and has now set up on his own.

It takes all sorts, but if you find a peaceful way forward, embrace it because it may be the precious jewel that propels you on to greater achievement and lasting happiness.

John

PostScript – shortly after this event Rob encouraged and convinced me to get an mp3 player, a tiddly ipod shuffle (in pink!!). I now look forward to using my mp3 when I am working alone. I can listen for hours ensconced in dual pleasure domes, gardening and Nicole Scherzinger. What more can a bloke ask for?

Nightmare in the Tropics

The cane bins were frequently empty so we had time to nap, some nights we slept for 3 or 4 hours.

The night shift for some workers was ideal, it gave them a significant pay bonus and the chance to work in cooler conditions. However, I really disliked night work, I found sleeping during the daytime virtually impossible and quickly built up a sleep deficit. It left me feeling incredibly grubby and tetchy, unable to enjoy any free time during the day.

It had only been 4 weeks since we moved into our new home, a third part of an interesting stilted Queenslander home in Cairns. Already the cycling to and from the sugar mill had been replaced by a ride/share arrangement with a co-worker. Unfortunately our shifts swung out of sync as we both took any overtime available. This left me having to cadge a lift with others, use the infrequent bus service or hitch-hike. Some days as I got back to the house mid morning or lunch time I was beside myself with fatique and strung out on caffeine overload. It just wasn’t working for me.

To compound things the bedroom was incredibly stuffy during the daytime. I would open the front door and the small bedroom window to get some relief. The mattress was an old foam affair that made me sweat even more. When I got back from the mill I would shower, drink a load of fluid, cram some food in my mouth and crash. Sleep came instantly but was fleeting and fitful, my body against the foam mattress would sweat, sometimes my hair was soaked when I woke up. My only means of feeling better was to get out onto the verandah with a sleeping bag. The fresher air was helpful, but sleep was more difficult to achieve because of all the activity around me.

One third of the house was occupied by an unemployed couple who fought frequently. They had little money and were living on the edge. During the daytime it was more peaceful, but as the afternoon wore on their friends would turn up in utes with dogs barking. The noise level would surge as a turntable was filled with vinyl.

In the other third were the Aboriginal family we met when we moved in. Grandpa, Mum, Dad, his brother and three children. They were incredibly friendly and well organised. The kids went off to school with Mum each morning, the 2 young men were away working on a Tableland cattle station which left Grandpa in the house during the daytime. He would potter around the place from early morning, I don’t think that he did anything constructive, but he was always on the move. I could hear him plodding around, moving things and scraping chairs on the wooden floor. What was he doing?

Persistent activity during the daytime was tweaked to the max from mid-day onwards as Grandpa instigated his daily grogfest. Sometimes when I was sleeping out on the porch I would wake with an inexplicable eerie feeling and realise that he was sitting by me on the door step. He always had a stubbie in one hand, a smoke in the other and a ripped cardboard case beside him. As soon as I opened my eyes he would offer me a bottle. My sleep addled state only allowed me to smile inanely, shake my head and scream like a banshee deep down in my core. Eyes would swing in their sockets like scorched castanets. He would grin and take another swig as he lolled against the weatherboard. This was my cue to go inside and seek some solace there, back to the heat and sultry murk that was my depleted oxygen cell. By this stage my brain would be jiggling inside my skull, sleep, oh please let me have some sleep.

Dream after dream would be disturbed by Grandpa as he sculled the beer, or the young folk hooting raucously on the other side of the building. When the sun swung around to where Grandpa was sitting he would move under the house. His hammock set up so that he could still see things on the street. When the alcohol had stewed his senses he would begin to sing, it sounded like some dreary ancient warrior tune that young Aboriginals sang as they endured agonies of their teeth being smashed out with sticks during rite of passage! With his hand he would tap out a monotonous beat on a stilt that supported the house.

Eventually I struggled to differentiate between dream and reality, couldn’t tell if I was awake in Hell or slithering in and out of a nightmare. It had to stop, I was incapable of doing simple things such as going grocery shopping without feeling miserable and clumsy. On night shift week I would barely eat so I started to lose condition.

Temporary relief was provided by wearing wax earplugs. Being wax they were able to be molded into a perfect fit in my ear and excluded practically all external noise. Once the plugs were in place my body temperature seemed to go up which made the sweating worse. Perhaps the ears also act as body temperature regulators? In time the earplugs slid out and I would waken in a haze and have to jam them back in. I gave up with these after the second round of night shift because they were too much hassle in the intense humidity of Cairns.

Leonie was generally sympathetic, but understandably fed up of me being spaced out. We could do very little in our spare time when I was on night shift because I needed to put my head down and sleep whenever the opportunity arose. Our solution was genius. We decided to pool our money and buy a campervan, it didn’t matter about the condition as long as it drove, it would be somewhere for me to sleep after a nightshift. If I was struggling to sleep I could always get in a campervan and drive off to a quiet location for a few hours kip.

We scoured the local papers and found a VW campervan for sale in Edmonton at $550. The advert said it was driveable but needed some work, I could fix it. We had enough money so called from a nearby payphone and arranged to go over to Edmonton. It was an ancient split screen van with a crack across the passengers window. The tyres were worn down and the valences were rusted up but it started immediately. We were mobile. Score!

In a plume of black smoke we drove away like royalty. After dropping Leonie at the house I pushed a light blanket and pillow into the back and set off straight away to the mill for the next ration of night shift. In the car park I slept like a log for 2 hours. It was bliss. From then on the sleep issue ceased to be a problem for me and I was able to work as many hours as possible to build up some funds.

I have never worked a night shift since finishing at the sugar mill and have massive respect to anyone who does. You are made of much sterner stuff than me. Most creatures thrive by sleeping from sundown til dawn, I subscribe to that ethos entirely.

Happiness is Infectious

“It takes 17 muscles to smile and 43 to frown.” ~ Unknown

Pretty woman smiling.

Obviously it is a lot less stressful to smile.

Happiness is infectious – go and infect somebody with a smile.

Here is my smile to you.

JP at Christie Park

Garden or Zoo

It certainly looks like an elephant’s leg. It may feel like an elephant’s leg, and in my mind this large beech tree could well be an elephant’s leg.

Following these random thoughts I decide to relax for a while and sit in the dry leaves with my back against the impressive trunk (no pun intended). I gaze up into the bare branches and, rather like Alice, disappear down a rabbit hole in my mind.

We visit many properties during our working year. On all we apply the same degree of skill and effort to create something that will meet the approval of our clients. However, some gardens are happier places to work in than others. As I ponder the elephant’s leg conundrum the idea that some gardens are less than happy places to work in begins to disturb me, so I decide to delve a little deeper.

In order to fathom the thought I order some of my gardens into ‘happy’ ‘just so’ and ‘this won’t do’ categories. The ‘happy’ gardens are ones where I often relate more closely with the client, but more importantly they are gardens where I can get in and scrimmage around. On warm dry days it is almost like going for a day out with close friends. I don’t talk to the plants like Prince Charles, but I do empathise with their situation. Being a touchy/feely sort of gardener I allow my instincts and powers of observation to notice when a plant looks distressed. My gardens dictate to me, and I listen. These places are proper gardens to me because I can experience the flow and get in sync with the garden holistically. They thrive and blossom, as long as they are fed a well balanced diet and adequate moisture. They are full of insects, birds and small invertebrates. These thoughts have the Bambi effect in my mind, Disneyesque butterflies and singing bluebirds…stop it.

The other category is more unsettling for my curious mind. It becomes clearer as I consider why. Invariably mankind seems determined to live on the edge of perpetual disaster. Many want to mould and manipulate things to suit their needs or to garner profit. Clearly we all need to survive to perpetuate the species, but at what cost?

Gardens in the ‘just so’ category are the ones where my clients want me to dominate the plants, to structure their gardens and make every blade of grass and flower look perfect, last longer and grow in the classic manner. In other words they want me to control the situation and force the plants to grow in violation of a natural law. Let’s face it, a privet tree is not long and rectangular, a willow leaf pear is not naturally a toffee apple shape. Indeed a willow leafed pear, allowed to grow to maturity, is a magnificent specimen with gorgeous silver leaves that drape down to the ground and produce lovely fruit, so why is it fashionable to trim it? Topiary is admirable in a strange way, but I avoid trimming as much as possible. Pruning for health seems far more appropriate to me.

Sometimes in these gardens we feel as if we never notice the beauty because we are too busy trying to create it.

The latter category ‘this won’t do’ is easier to understand. On occasion I have had disagreement with clients over what they expect from us. These people are the ultimate control freaks and expect the rest of the world to tug on fetlocks far too much. I have boundaries where I refuse to cross in the care of a garden. I also have boundaries with the way I want clients to treat my employees. The process is simple. ‘Thanks for giving us the opportunity to work on your garden, but we have far more important jobs to attend to. Sayonara.’ I never feel sad about losing one of these projects.

This brings me to a conclusion.

In the comfy rabbit hole of my mind I realise, of course, that natural is best. Nature will assert itself with just a little help from me, and hopefully have a very contented existence under my care.

The second option, also acceptable but definitely my second choice, is that ‘just so’ is actually a Zoo for plants. Plants in the ‘just so’ properties are put in confined spaces, are not allowed to mingle, are force fed diets of chemicals, are expected to hold tricky postures like a street artist in Barcelona. They are confined indoors for winter, starved or force fed to allow flowering at inappropriate times and have to endure haircuts once or twice a week, never to reproduce. Plants have their young taken from them (seeds) and distributed to other parts of the world, put up for adoption.

However, the true Zoo analogy relates to the attitude of the garden owner. In an animal zoo we wander around on paths, look at the creatures in cages or occasionally in safari type reconstructions. Yet we aren’t allowed to go and touch unless it is a petting zoo. We all love to see the exotic creatures, just as we love to see exotic flowers and plants. ‘just so’ owners want their gardens to be artificial so that they can gaze on contentedly and know that their regime has been imposed on the plants. They offer raised eyebrows when asked simple questions such as. ‘Do your plants enjoy being overcrowded?’ ‘Would your plants prefer to live in a sunny climate?’ ‘Do you overfeed your children so that they can win awards?’

Are these ‘just so’ garden plants happy? Is it appropriate to create garden Zoos for our own titillation?

My phone will be running hot now with clients who think that they may be one of the ‘just so’ gardens. Don’t worry folks, this was just a dream as I rested comfortably against the huge leg of an elephant, and gazed up into a large squirrel hole.

Occasionally in life you find a scene which is so powerful that you have no suitable words to describe the effect it is having on you. It is something akin to being deeply in love,

We lean on the rail at the viewing point and find it hard to fully absorb the immensely powerful scene. One of Leonie’s workmates had told her to grab the chance to visit Kuranda on the scenic railway because Barron Falls was at it’s majestic best. Only when the ‘wet’ has been in progress for a while and the mass of water begins to drain off the Atherton Tableland do the falls look this spectacular. At other times of the year it is a mere trickle, hardly worthy of the title waterfall. But today is one of our very special moments and we just gape.

I feel the sweaty lookout rail in my palms, it is a hot day, my body is thrilled with this view, enervating my hands. I realise that I am gripping the rail white knuckle hard as I scan the falls, tension across my shoulders. Waterfalls are difficult to describe in detail. The water pulses in places with random larger eruptions. The eye tries to focus on one part and follows the falling water quickly downward, however that part is quickly replaced by another lurching press of water that looks the same and draws the eyes back up. My eyes flicker over the scene unable to rest.

Despite being some distance from the falls the air is moist with invisible droplets wafting onto everything in the area. When I put my hand up to my hair it feels like damp candy floss. Another incredible aspect is the rainbow. Depending on the density of the water vapour it appears ethereal, like a vision from an engineered light show. The experience becomes surreal as my mind sinks into the view.

Leonie at my side breathes. ‘Spectacular Johnno. Imagine being a salmon and trying to leap up that lot!’

Later, after a fabulous day at Kuranda and an equally brilliant journey back down on the scenic railway, we stop by the Real Estate office to pick up the keys to our new home. We had earned enough money on Green Island to rent a place, one third of a stilted Queenslander house. When we inspected it yesterday it didn’t look fantastic but it would be a roof over our heads and it was cheap. A typical fully furnished property with a grubby bed, grubby couches, greasy kitchen, worn carpets, mouldy bathroom and grimy toilet. We are young though and had to put up with worse on Green Island, we can handle this place.

We carry our packs up the ladder steps to the door, swing open the old screen and enter. It is dingy and hot inside, a place that I know will irk me. The house has a wrap-around verandah and that is where I intend to be when I feel hemmed in. The ‘wet’ is hot and sticky, I mean really sticky and sleeping at night is difficult if there are no fans or air-conditioning. This house has neither and the bedroom only has a small window.

Still it is home for now. Leonie sets about sorting a salad for supper and I go to explore the garden. It is interesting to me that the 3 kids playing around the house are Aboriginal. They are attractive kids with ginger blonde streaks in their dreadlocky hair. The garden is well overgrown, the grass is knee high. I find a bbq setting, plastic table and chairs. I head back to help Leonie with the meal so we can sit out there to eat.

The kids follow me back up into the house and are babbling amongst themselves. Their Aussie twang is so strong that I can barely make head nor tail of what they are saying. One lad of about 8 keeps tugging on my elbow and says.

‘Mubil un thems misistas Moibl and Frain. (insert *shaking head* here) Wotsya noimz digga?’ He repeats this and I just smile at him.

He keeps looking at me while the girls go over to Leonie and pick up some of the food to help her prepare the salad. How strange, yet refreshing, the way these kids naturally accept us. We are humans, they are humans and their world obviously one of sharing.

Leonie is great with kids and asks them if they want to eat with us. They have become part of our ‘family’ in an instant. We all go out, the children carry some juice and crockery from the kitchen cupboard. There are only two chairs so the kids just settle in the grass. We hand around the food, they take what they want. Leonie and I knock the top off a couple of stubbies and do a clinkers. The girls have me giggling as they raise their glasses.  ‘Cheeas moit,’ one of them says.

I notice an aboriginal lady standing near our front steps looking on. The lady speaks to the kids and they respond quite casually. ‘Weyowroit Mum. Avin dinna eyar.’

My head is in a spin with this place already.

Kids names are Bill, Mabel and Fran