Stan’s Anniversary Story

September 14, 2022 — 1 Comment

A year ago whilst grumbling my way around Altoona Lagoon I spotted two dogs. It is a favored spot to dump unwanted animals. This particular day was particularly heartbreaking as one of the dogs – the un-neutered black one – was bleeding from suppurating mange. His companion, a healthy looking, honey-colored, neutered dog came straight to me, I’m sure tempted by the dog treats I always carry. The black one, whilst not emaciated was very thin but would not take even a tossed treat.

I continued on my way then, realizing I was playing Pied Piper to two dogs, I called John to ask him to open the back gate. Skeptical he doubted they would stay the course. Meantime he stole cat food from Bonnie and put it in bowls in the garden. We held up traffic, climbed the hill and walked in with the black one bringing up the rear. A long way back.

We took Honey, thin and friendly, to the Animal Shelter where they found he had been chipped. They promised to investigate and we left him there.
Stan told another story, and he became the focus of our lives. So great was his terror that we couldn’t get near him. Progressive Vets came through and, from only photos, sent me home with medication to at least start the physical healing process. He ate everything we put his way including tablets smothered in cream cheese, but we could not touch him.

His terror was heartrending. We took the door off a large kennel and put it in the garden to at least give him some shelter. Then, one afternoon, a car backfired close enough to send him into flight mode. We walked the streets as we thought he’d forced his way through thick undergrowth at the top of the garden and run into town. Finally our neighbor found him cringing behind a large pot on one of their terraces. In his panic he jumped down an eight foot wall but, remarkably, had not broken any bones.

Stan, trembling and peeing, allowed John to pick him up. Even in his terror he never snapped, never made a sound. We put him in the truck and took him straight to Progressive. Again they came through. Apart from the dreadful mange, Stan appeared healthy. No heart worm, and after a medicated bath, we came home.

Each week we trapped him for his bath, but any attempt at petting was met with flight. Then after six weeks of lying on the floor, classical music playing to relax him, and us, with treats in our hands, he began inch by inch to trust us.

Who knows what his life was like before? Sudden loud noises can still scare him, but not thunder. He is battle-scarred. So am I now. A fractured ankle and torn shoulder ligaments resulted from one morning walk when he hauled me over, not the coals, but the asphalt. He’s had a rough time too with ACL surgery, and has an anatomical weakness in his back legs which results in the occasional collapse. With diet, medication and exercise we hope he will live with us a long time. Bonnie has accepted him into the household now that recognizes his species is far below that of a feline.

Today, a year later, Stan is a much-loved lab-mix, teenage puppy of about two, who thinks he is a lap dog. He likes nothing better than to lie on his back and have his tummy rubbed. He loves ice and cream cheese – actually any sort of cheese. He has been known to chew things – all my verandah furniture! Guests know not to remove their shoes or face the risk of a barefoot walk home. Stan is friendly, loving, smart, and thought nothing of distracting the photographer during my photo-shoot.

Happy anniversary, Stan, you are loved!

What a week!

It started on a high with the publication of my latest book – Have You Eaten Rice Today? on September 6th. The launch came and went with laughter and champagne, a reading and the start of reviews trickling in.

Then September 8th brought the mind-numbing news that Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II had died. I, like much of the world, spent the day in tears – a part of me surprised at the intensity of emotion. Messages flitted through the ether to and from friends around the world as we shared our grief at the death of a remarkable woman.

I’ve been thinking about the words used to describe her in the press, from the public interviewed at the gates of Buckingham Palace, Balmoral, Windsor Castle, at the memorial service at St Paul’s. Words like fortitude, dignity, honour, duty. Powerful words. Words that to some might appear intimidating and yet beneath all the accolades trickles a wonderful sense of humour.

Think of her role at the London Olympics with James Bond – the filming, by all accounts a secret kept from even members of her family. Think of her now famous Paddington Bear skit – that charming twinkle, the twitch of her mouth, which hinted at a delighted guffaw. The unconditional joy her Corgis and horses gave her.

How many times, I wonder, did she have to swallow a comment, to control a reaction, to hold steady – not least when wearing a 5lb crown? But also through the dramas of family life, through the tragedies that have threatened to overwhelm the country, like the 1966 Aberfan mining disaster in which 116 children and 28 adults died as slurry engulfed them at school and in a row of houses; or the Dunblane school massacre in 1996. Throughout wars, heatwaves, floods, Brexit and COVID her presence remained steadfast.

Stories roll in. Anecdotes that speak to the effect the Queen has had, even two, three, four times removed, but somehow still personal. My cousin, when a child, wrote to her and received a response from her lady-in-waiting. Perhaps it was that response to a letter written to the Monarch that prompted a career in journalism – actions matter.

An American friend, Toni Lance, is an accomplished artist and bird rehabilitator who, in 1985, was commissioned to design and paint stamps for the British Virgin Islands and St. Vincent — the history of rum for the former, and birds of prey for the latter. A letter informed her that her artwork would be submitted “to the Palace for Her Majesty the Queen’s approval.” It was given.

My parents had the honour and privilege of meeting both the Queen and HRH the Prince of Edinburgh on a number of occasions – I have the embossed invitations to two, one for a reception in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the other for a similar event in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. My father was the British Honorary Consul in the Lae at the time. For those duties, and to trade and commerce, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. That ceremony at Buckingham Palace is the closest I ever got to the Queen.

However, I too had the honour to serve as Her Majesty’s Honorary Consul whilst living in Equatorial Guinea, West Africa. A very, very small part to play but one that nonetheless was a huge privilege, if at times a rather nerve-wracking one.

I spent yesterday in a haze, resentful I couldn’t be in Britain, couldn’t join the throngs walking along The Mall to Buckingham Palace. Just to be there. Unable to concentrate on anything more challenging than a jigsaw puzzle, I listened and watched as the news played across the screen, and felt hope as the King’s measured and affectionate words gave promise that the monarchy will continue, maybe differently, but still as an institution revered by many.

Word usage is my fascination, my business. Writing, rewriting, then editing again, and again, and again is what I do. Playing with words, with word sequence, until the sentences flow and the story settles into a cadence and order that pleases – until the next edit.

As I walked Stan this morning along the Boardwalk, water lapped steady and constant, a reminder that some things just are. Like the monarchy. That words like steadfast and duty are not dirty, but are what keep our world in order. I realised it is those words that underpin Have You Eaten Rice Today? The book mentions the death of the Queen’s father, George VI, in 1952 when Bob Thompson says:

“…the blighter is currently residing at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Changi, awaiting trail.” He looked down, smoke from his cigarette hiding his eyes. “I can’t get used to saying Her Majesty. A sad day for us all when the King died. May her reign be as beneficent.”

In the author’s note I wrote, “…this is a story of endurance, honour, duty and love —with those four things the world can be conquered.” It is perhaps a sentiment borne out by the life of Queen Elizabeth. May the words written in fiction resound in fact. May his reign be as beneficent.

God Save the King!

The Backstory

September 3, 2022 — 11 Comments

I am often asked how ideas for a book emerge. Have You Eaten Rice Today? has been fermenting for years, probably way before I decided I wanted to write books. So how far back shall I go? That’s the question. I suppose to when memories are mine and not those of others nudged to the surface by others, or photos, or books.

I’ve had a most fortunate life.

Snapshots flicker through of being a little girl in Nigeria. I remember being woken in the middle of the night by my mother because we had to evacuate the house as the one next door was a blazing pyre. I remember the smell and infernal noise. Our house did not burn. I also have happy memories, mostly centered around our last home, in Aba, our animals and the men who made our lives infinitely easier — Ali and Sam, the cook and houseboy who spoilt me and from whom I learnt much.

There were brief interludes in England where I resented being sent to a village school – an outsider in the country of my birth.

And then Malaysia.

The excitement when the P&O ship, SS Chitral, docked at Port Swettenham and Dad waving from the wharf as Mum and I waited to disembark after three weeks at sea. The warmth, the smells, the clutter of people, whilst not Africa, felt so much more me than the cool damp of a rural England. Even at six.
As the years in both Singapore and Malaysia — ten in total — added up and I reached adolescence, the stories of my parents’ meeting in the jungles of Pahang during the communist uprising known as the Emergency of the late 1940’s and ’50s, became the romantic backdrop to the country I then considered home.

My parents met on a road deep in bandit country. My father’s Jeep had broken down. My mother’s ran smoothly. He, an officer seconded to the Malay Regiment from the British Army, refused to leave his pistol. She a tall, attractive and very pragmatic Australian nurse working for the Red Cross refused to allow a weapon in her vehicle. So she left him stranded, although did leave word of his whereabouts at the next military post. Perhaps that meeting should have warned them of a volatile life ahead. As well as being a soldier, Dad was a poet, a dreamer, a man who loved to be in love. My mother was the opposite, a realist who nonetheless fell in love with the much younger man.

They left Malaya, as it still was, in 1955 and returned in 1964 with me in tow. Dad no longer a soldier, but a businessman; Mum no longer a nurse but deeply involved with the Malaysian Red Cross.
School was a melange of colours, creeds and cultures. What better way to learn about the world? Then in 1969, it was decided educational stability was needed and so I went to boarding school in Australia – an outsider in the country of my mother’s birth.

But I adapted and enjoyed the benefits of an Australian education, not just at school. And as an impressionable teenager home for the holidays, my parents’ story fascinated me. It emerged, not in one fell swoop but in dribs and drabs. I remember going to the Port Dickson Club where the manager knew Dad from his army days. We stayed at the Rest House in Raub, the village in which Mum ran a clinic — a detour on the way to the Cameroon Highlands to pick strawberries during a week’s local leave. During the Emergency, Mum also set up a clinic on the west coast of Malaya just north of Port Dickson in Tanjong Sepat – about the only place in Have You Eaten Rice Today? that is not mentioned. But it was from the townsfolk there she received the medallion with the words I stole for Dee’s present from the people of Raub.

Fire came again into my life when, one sultry night in December 1970, standing on the padang across from the Dog — The Royal Selangor Club — we watched it burn down. We had been there for dinner and carol singing. I remember the smell and the infernal noise.

After seven years in Kuala Lumpur, a slice of my heart will always be in Malaysia. The last time I visited I stood on where I calculated our house had been. A lovely old black and white torn down to make way for the Petronas Towers. I cried.

So many memories. Mine interwoven with those of my parents. But Have You Eaten Rice Today? is not my parents’ story, although I have stolen freely from their anecdotes, their papers and photographs which merged into the book of my imagination.

Dee, a delightful sprite of a character, did not come from Armidale – the town of my mother’s birth — but from Townsville in Queensland. Simon, an ex-soldier and retired rubber planter, is not my father although I have drawn from him as far as speech and a partiality to whisky is concerned. Dad did not know one end of a hoe from the other but did speak multiple languages, including Malay and Cantonese. Max. What can I say about Max? A young man searching for his own story.

London, and Dorset in the south west of England, are places I know well. I have been to Hell, and had a delicious pub lunch in Chetnole. I’ve climbed Bubb Down, and visited the church at Melbury Bubb to marvel at the rather extraordinary font with a frieze of a stag, a lion and a wolf carved from an upturned base of an Anglo-Saxon cross.

Research is a delight. The tricky part for any writer is to know when to stop adding the fascinating tidbits we come across as we delve into the past.

Or just when to stop!

Travel Gently

August 18, 2022 — Leave a comment

A city filled with everyday people going about everyday lives in the company of history, art and music. A city in which romance drifts in on shimmering mist as the basilica is reflected on water covering the Piazza San Marco after a shower, or the famous acqua alta, the high water that floods Venice.

A city so famous the United States purports to have its very own version – Fort Lauderdale, though having been to both I find it hard to marry the two. One has charm, the other…. well I’m not quite sure what it has. Modern riches, maybe.

Asia has thirteen places vying for the title of Venice of the East but the reality is there is only one Venice, and that’s in Italy.

Why this obsession with Venice?

Well, the book I’m currently writing – a contemporary novel – is set there and anything happening on the Italian floating island draws my eye. And so happened with an article, “Tourists fined for surfing up Venice’s Grand Canal”, written by Julia Buckley on the CNN website yesterday. I’ve been stewing ever since.

I could come up with all sorts of comments about the surfers but I think the Mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, said it all, “Ecco due imbecilli prepotenti che si fanno beffa della Città…” which, in my rough translation means, “Two imbecilic bullies make a mockery of the city…”

In the age of social media and cell phone cameras it did not take long to capture the idiots, confiscate their eFoils (surfboards on hydrofoils worth approximately US$25,000) for not being insured, fine them just over $1,500, charge with them with anti-social behaviour and expel them from the city. I sincerely hope never to be allowed to return.

I did harbour a desire for them to have been run over by a vaporetto, the taxies that ply the Venetian waterways, but I suppose that could be classified as anti-social thought. But who the hell are these people who think they can travel and trample so carelessly on another country’s sensibilities?

Australian journalist, Derek Rielly, on the blog Beach Grit – Ultra Hard Surf Candy, likened Mayor Brugnaro to Mussolini, which rather shows his lack of knowledge, not to mention complete disregard for the safety of those travelling the canals legally. Mr Rielly goes on to condemn “Angels of Decorum” in Venice for fining tourists who jump into the waterways for a quick dip, who feed the pigeons which defecate on buildings and tourists alike, and for not wearing shirts. Perhaps, because Mr Rielly is from a ‘new’ country, he has no sense of history, no sense of preserving a UNESCO site – historic buildings rise from the waters of the Grand Canal, the main thoroughfare of the city – or perhaps he just has no sense. I’m guessing he doesn’t travel gently.

Despite all the press about the difficulty of travel due to COVID, staff shortages, bad management, whatever you want to call it, we can now once again hop on a plane to add new experiences to our memory banks. That doesn’t mean surfing the Grand Canal, or driving down the Spanish Steps in Rome, defacing monuments with inane scribbles, taking nude selfies in sacred places – all of which show a startling lack of respect for a country in which one is a guest.

Travel, whether for a holiday or living abroad, should encourage curiosity, should nudge us to discover another culture, new language, to revel in new foods, to marvel at new sights and sites. The privilege of travel does not allow a free-for-all of wanton selfishness and disregard. Tourism and expatriates may well bring in dollars, pounds and euros, but they can also bring mayhem, whether through drunkenness, stupidity or ignorance. It leaves the locals, whether in Mumbai, Madrid or Malacca shaking their heads in anger and despair. It makes travel so much harder for those who do roam with care, with respect, with curiosity – none of which negates the fun and excitement of foreign places and experiences.

Thomas Fuller, the English historian and churchman wrote in 17th Century wrote, “Travel makes a wise man better but a fool worse.”

The eFoil surfers on Venice’s Grand Canal in the 21st Century have proved him right.

Where to start? Maybe with a disclaimer. You know the sort. The not-my-problem, not-my-fault, sloping shoulders kind of sentence, but whilst none of the above – termites, pipes, and the crapaud – are technically of my doing, the way I’ve handled them is.

Can I say a couple of words in my defense before I continue? I am, for the most part, a competent woman – if not always calm. Many of my more than forty years of marriage have been spent as a part-time wife – due to my husband’s work. Many of those years have been spent in countries not my own, though I’m never entirely sure which that is. What I’m trying to say is that I can handle most things from sick kids to attempted coups d’état to snakes in the house, but this last month I seem to have lost my élan, my mojo. And I don’t like it.

We still own a property in Houston – a funky loft in an old warehouse that is currently under eminent domain which means we are not really able to sell. It is therefore often a luxury storage unit used either singly or in unison, should John and I be traveling together.

Upon my arrival, a flying solo visit to Houston for health checks – all good, thanks for asking – the ’T’ appeared. Beam and sheetrock-munching termites met my entry to the bathroom, the laundry and closet. My revulsion swallowed, I sprayed the bejesus out of every wriggling mass and watched their death throes with delight. Then I cried and phoned my husband.

It was a busy couple of weeks. Sorting, packing and attempting to make our once fabulous loft look presentable should the eminent domain status become imminent and the men in City Hall finally decide to purchase then demolish our building. It was a sad and stomach-churning couple of weeks watching our bathroom be ripped apart as termite nests were excavated and evacuated and poison poured into cracks and crevices.

The trade winds met my tired return to St Croix, along with John, Bonnie and Stan and for two days I revelled in my island home – the scent of jasmine lingering over us as we enjoyed sundowners on the patio and watched hummingbirds flit into and around firecracker and duranta as the the cat and dog looked on with resignation.

Then a scratchy throat followed by a teeth-rattling, cheek-throbbing, eye-stabbing sinusitis became the prequel to a cough that defies coughs and laid me low, but not enough to let me allow my husband cancel his busman’s holiday to England to help our son build a pergola.
Remember, I am a competent woman. Then the ‘P’.

It was Stan, the dog-who-chose-to-live-with-us, who alerted me to the issue by lapping from the bathroom floor. A puddle hunt found more water. Enough to soak cardboard boxes in a cupboard. Enough to seep into the hall from somewhere behind the wall. I emptied the cupboard, muttered, mopped, coughed and cried. Then I phoned my husband.

Get Mingo was his advice. Mingo, one of the men who helped turn a crumbling house into our island home arrived with his usual grace and agreed with John’s over-the-phone assessment. A burst pipe. Another wall to be jackhammered. More destruction. It is, in America, a long weekend celebrating independence so nothing will happen until Tuesday. Meanwhile I mop.

The Virgin Islands have been in desperate need of water. The earth has been gasping for rain. And we got it. Not as much as we wanted but enough that leaves lost their limp disinterest and blooms lifted their wilting heads.

And still I coughed and mopped.

The deluge presaged a power outage. It is an expected occurrence – storms or not, a periodic happening, a few hours here and there. But after the fans began to idle and lights flickered on, the only water to be seen came from behind the walls, not the taps. No matter. We are fortunate to have both city and cistern water. An easy switch over. But no gurgle, no pump pressure, no water. I turned stopcocks on pipes this way and that. Still no gurgle, no pressure, no water. And no phone call. Even I could not phone my poor husband, asleep in England at one in the morning, because I’d somehow screwed up the easy switch over!

I coughed, I cried, I mopped. I had a bourbon.

Then I heard it. The ‘C’. A crapaud, French for toad and the name by which the cane toad is known here. They are ugly. They are dangerous. They emit poison that can kill a curious cat and playful pup. Flashlight, long tongs and a bucket – empty of mopped water – in hand I went searching. Not to kill but to relocate. Stan and Bonnie watched my efforts from the patio.

Crapaud croak. Not the joyful ribbit of a frog after rain, rather a guttural snort that suggests phlegm and all manner of nastiness. But, having announced his presence, silence ensued. I gave up, coughed, and we all went to bed.

This morning I mopped, I coughed and town water once again flowed. I phoned my husband to admit my incompetence and get instruction on how to turn all the stopcocks back to the correct position on the pipes.

Water still seeps, Stan has chewed the furniture, the crapaud still lurks and I still cough.
A litany of minor woes that have left me a gibbering wreck, damn it! So, please, if anyone sees my mojo, send it back!