Sasha’s grandparents, Janny and Warry, bought a boat and called it L’ARGO. They quickly learned how to navigate and tie knots that wouldn’t come undone as easily as Sasha’s shoelaces.

They put life jackets and lots of food on board, and kissed Sasha goodbye.

“We are going to practice boating and when we get really good at it we can all go for a holiday together in the Whitsundays. We can anchor L’ARGO in quiet bays and put on our goggles, snorkels and flippers and jump in the water to look at the pretty coloured coral and amazing reef fish” they told her.

Sasha was used to her grandparents ducking off to strange places she had never heard of before. She got out the atlas and said “so show me where THIS place is, please.”

Warry, who was a wizard with maps and directions loved it when Sasha asked him these sort of questions.

“Well, Sasha,” he said, “The Whitsundays are a group of islands that are close to the Great Barrier Reef. Some have resorts on them where people can have relaxing holidays eating icecreams by the swimming pool, but others are deserted and with safe anchorages in the bays around them where we can enjoy the peace and beauty of nature.”

“Hmmmm” said Sasha, “Will I be able to take my bike?” (Sasha had a beautiful new bike that still had its Christmas gift ribbons tied to the handlebars, even though it was already the month of May.)

“No Sash,” said Warry, “you’ll be paddling a ski around instead of peddling your bike.”

“Warry, I’d really like to come, but I’ll miss Griffin and Buster.” Sasha pulled a long face. “Sash, did you know that L’ARGO has two big engines that have the same amount of strength as 860 real horses. We actually say that an engine has “horsepower” when we talk about how powerful it is,” Warry explained.

“Wow, Warry,” said Sasha, with her eyes lighting up, “so what do L’ARGO’S horses eat? You must have to take a lot of hay for them.”

Warry laughed. “Diesel, Sasha, a lot of it. L’ARGO carries about 3000 litres of diesel to feed her horses. She can travel about 1000 kilometres before she runs out of food for them.”

Sasha concentrated hard to understand this. She knew how much a litre was because here mummy sometimes sent her to the shop to get “a litre of milk, and ok, an iceblock too.” And Sasha knew how far 1000 kilometres was too, because her other grandparents had their home in Brisbane which was about 1000 kilometres from Sydney, where Janny and Warry lived. It took a long time to drive there, over one whole day.

“OK, I’ll come then, because I think L’ARGO’S horses will go faster than Griffin!” said Sasha with a twinkle in her eye.

So Janny and Warry and two of their friends, Kay and Max, boarded L’ARGO with armfuls of important things like pillows and Scrabble and fishing rods and two-way radios and satellite phones and magazines and seasick tablets and sunhats and binoculars and actually so much stuff that they wondered how it would all fit in a boat that was only 15 metres long.

“Look!” exclaimed Kay, “there’s a bit more room under the stairs – we can squeeze the baked beans and sardines in there….”
“No, no!” shouted Warry, “not there. I want that spot for the BBQ tools. Put the beans under the bed. If you lift the mattress there’s a hatch underneath. You might fit the brown sugar and salt in there too.”

Kay and Janny winked at each other. With raised eyebrows Kay said “Warry, you obviously don’t do the cooking. Beans under the bed? When you want beans on toast for breakfast in a week’s time, no-one will remember where they are.”

Then Janny got the best idea she had EVER had. “It’s alright Kay. We’ll just have to bring a SNIFFER DOG on board.” Jan was already missing her poodles, Inca and Karma – almost as much as she was missing Sasha and her sisters! Janny continued. “Warry, I know we have to look for storage spots in all the hidey holes on L’ARGO. And I’ve already put the cashew nuts and blackcurrant juice under the lounge, so OK, I think I can remember that. But the doonas behind the anchor winch and shoes on the left side of the tool box and bananas behind the ceiling lining? Kay, do you agree that we need a SNIFFER DOG?”

Now Kay was Janny’s best friend. Kay also had very curly hair, enjoyed eating anchovies straight out of the tin and missed her dogs that had been left at home. So of course she agreed with Janny. “A really good idea! Then we can say “go fetch, pooch, find the tinned peaches!”

“NO DOGS ON BOARD L’ARGO!” said Warry in his strict Captain-Of-The-Boat voice.

Kay and Janny winked at each other again, and whispered to each other at the same time “that’s what HE thinks”

Warry pushed the buttons that fired L’ARGO’S engines. The horses were loose at last! Janny untied the ropes that kept L’ARGO tethered to the dock and quickly jumped aboard.

Heading north from Brisbane they cruised along the Queensland coast stopping every night for a good sleep. Mooloolaba, Fraser Island, Pancake Creek, Bundaberg, Keppel Island, Island Head Creek, Middle Percy Island, Mackay, Tongue Bay, Airlie Beach… So many new places to show Sasha on the map.

Every morning they tuned their radio into weather reports to check the speed of the wind and the height of the waves. On days when it was too windy to be comfortable at sea, Warry and Max would visit chandleries and hardware shops to stock up on equipment for L’ARGO. (Chandleries are like toy shops for people who like boats. They sell rope and shackles and fenders and plastic plates that won’t break when the boat rolls around a lot at breakfast time.)

Kay and Janny liked to head off in a little rented car to find the best cappuccinos in town. And buy more emergency food to hide – brown bread, packets of cereal and teabags, just in case there were no more windy days for shopping.
And they liked meeting the pets that were with their people on other boats berthed in the marinas. They didn’t stay chatting for long to the cranky parrot that was being scolded for “biting mummy” but they liked the Devon Rex cat with the big ears and the posh red collar and lead. But they ALWAYS talked to the dogs. In fact, there were SO many dogs traveling on boats that Janny and Kay suspected that lots of other people had trouble finding their tinned peaches too!

There were five fridges on L’ARGO to store fresh and frozen food. Janny refused to let Warry put his screwdrivers and coils of rope in her iceboxes. “They are for FOOD only. WHEN I get a sniffer dog I’ll be able to find all the hidden food and THEN we will have spare space for your bits and pieces. Warry frowned “NO DOGS, definitely NO DOGS on board.”

Cruising along on L’ARGO was very pleasant on a fine day. But when the wind got strong and the waves got bigger, everyone had to hang on carefully, especially climbing the steep stairs to the flybridge. On those days being on L’ARGO was like being on the Scooby Doo ride at Movie World. Over and over and over again.

At night Janny and Warry slept in a cabin that had portholes instead of windows, and a big hatch in the ceiling that opened up so they could see the stars at night.

Kay and Max slept in another cabin and they could see the brilliant night sky through their hatch too. In a third cabin were a pair of bunk beds, perfect for Sasha and one of her sisters. And in the saloon there was another double bed. Lots and lots of places to sleep comfortably on L’ARGO! So finding somewhere for a sniffer dog to sleep would be no problem.

When L’ARGO was anchored up in quiet bays, Warry would lower the rubber dinghy from the flybridge where it was stored. He used a small crane called a “davit” to avoid hurting his back. When the dinghy was safely in the water he’d tie it to the big boat, then load the passengers from the swim platform at the stern. He’d check that the oars and anchor were aboard, and there was plenty of fuel in the tank for the outboard motor. Then LITTLE L’ARGO would zoom to the shore where they would unload their picnic baskets and snorkeling gear and spend time exploring. (And give the sniffer dog a run, imagined Janny!) There were shells to collect, fish and coloured coral to stare at through goggles and rock pools to explore.

On board L’ARGO they watched sharp eyed seabirds diving from the sky when they spotted small fish for their dinner, turtles popping their bald heads up to find out where they were and dolphins playing in the waves.

In the evenings, after an always really scrumptious dinner prepared by the onboard chefs, Janny and Kay, the L’ARGONAUTS, as they decided to call themselves, would play games or watch a DVD, just like at home. Or just relax on the flybridge and try to count the stars.

Because L’ARGO was a brand new boat she had all modern equipment. She had a TV that popped out of a cupboard when a secret button was pressed There was a clothes washer and dryer, a dishwasher and a satellite phone that could also pick up emails. And there was a microwave and a machine to make fresh water out of the salty sea and a generator to make power for the kettle, toaster, hairdryer and other electrical gadgets (“when you could find them,” thought Janny, knowing that the sniffer dog would fix that problem).

But by the end her first week on board Janny had snoozed on all the beds, watched the telly, defrosted the peas in the microwave, made heaps of water for her hot showers, washed all the clothes and dishes in their clever machine, collected all her emails, styled her hair with the hairdryer, and cooked her toast in the toaster and put the butter on it and gone hunting for the Vegemite BUT…

Every morning she hunted, but disappointed when she could never find it, she sadly ate her toast with yukky peanut butter instead. She looked under the bed, behind the stairs to the flybridge, under the BBQ lid, in the cutlery drawer, and in the box with the pens and pencils.

One morning, Warry said to Janny “Are you happy with the new boat? Is there anything else we need to live on board comfortably?”

Janny had been waiting for this opportunity.

“Warry, since you’ve asked, I’ll tell you now that there are TWO things we need….”

“Let me guess…” said Warry, who could honestly not think of another thing they needed. “Do we need a helicopter or a swimming pool?”

“NO room left for them under the stairs” said Janny, smiling.

“What about a lawn mower or a tractor?” said Warry

Janny didn’t bother answering THIS silly question.

“Maybe 1000 pairs of sneakers and a million packets of bubble gum?” Warry was being completely silly this time.

“SO wrong, try again..” said Janny.

Warry got a bit warmer when he said “Would you like a cranky parrot or a Devon Rex cat?” And when he asked if Janny would like a pony she called him a duffer, because there were already plenty of seahorses in the ocean all around them.

“I give up” said Warry.

“Warry,” she spoke very clearly so he would hear every word. “We do truly really need a SNIFFER DOG. If you had guessed this you would have been absolutely and completely correct!” And she told him about the missing Vegemite, and the spare toilet paper and the camera batteries that she had been unable to find.

Warry did not reply. He was thinking about his answer. But he did ask Janny what the second thing was that they needed.

Janny grinned. “It’s SASHA. We need Sasha. To come snorkeling with us. To make pancakes with me, to steer the boat with you …”

Warry, with the biggest smile on his face ever, interrupted,



Zozo the Red Setter was not smart. He lost his sight in a dogfight that he came second in but even so continued to run flat out along the sand flats below our garden, indifferent to the punctuations of anchored boats at low tide. He careered into them so many times that he grew a bony protrusion on his forehead. This helps explain unicorns, who were obviously fast galloping horses with limited sensory skills in very thick forests.

So after darling but daffy Zozo we moved on to more sagacious pooches.

A whip-smart but emotionally high maintenance miniature poodle, who we called Ziggy after an approximately democratic preferential-style vote, was the next canis familiaris to rule our roost. The names that made the ballot paper were largely colour-centric. Like Sooty, Darky, Blackie and Nigger. And Pinky got a vote from our toddler yet to learn his crayon colours.

Then came the Standards. Our four big poodles over nearly three decades have in each case brought solace, joy, loyalty, purpose, humour, tolerance, friendship, a world shortage of tennis balls and caused an inestimable amount of damage to our furniture.

Chris chose Zoe. Her mum was white, but she and all her litter mates were black. In our five generations of Standards bred from Zoe’s stock, and that’s over 40 pups, not one has been white. But they all get pepper and salty as they age, and believe me they are not getting grey hairs caused by stress. Life as a Malcolm poodle is one day after another of ball play, bone chewing, couch potatoing, head massages, ear fondling and don’t mention the spa treatments, pedicures and coiffures every third week.

After they met Zoe our friends Kerry and Bill were a touch besotted and decided that they’d get a boy poodle, with a view to matrimony. When Zoe became betrothed to their handsome Sam the ceremony was presided over by K and B’s six year old daughter Adelaide. The bride wore plumbago blossoms fresh from the Yowie garden, but the groom still took a decided disinterest until his missus went on heat a week later. Both however enjoyed the wedding cake moulded from chilled Pal.

The conception process was complicated by the fact that Sam’s human family lived in Canberra. So Sam came and stayed with us in Sydney for the ten day’s of Zoe’s fertility. When the orgy finally ended Zoe glowed with satisfaction.

The vet had trouble counting the all little heartbeats. We were told the indeterminate number of pups should come around mid January 1995. On NYE 1994 we held a wee party at Yowie. Friends from Bendigo, Trinette and Rob, were houseguests. We four were readying for bed at 2am when Zoe started turning in circles trying to bite her tail. The whelping box was ready, lined thick with old newspaper. The hot water bottles, scales, ribbons and notebook were lined up for action … next week! Everyone who’d been at the party got a call to come back and watch the action. The first five pups came in the next two hours. Intermission. Or maybe all over? Those pups were already suckling well, Zoe had nibbled through their umbilical cords and eaten their placentas. Text book. Spectators left satisfied after the floor show. Trinette, with her practical midwifery skills, offered to sit up with me, just in case.

Warren and Rob went to bed. Round 2 started soon after. Five more pups in a timely manner. Finito? No, just a pause. By the time the hubbies arose after their wholesome 8 hours slumber there were four more, total 14! Three didn’t make it, but the remaining eleven thrived as we rostered them on and off the milkiest nipples.

Different coloured ribbons identified each pup. Trained by seven weeks to not chew humans by Warren growling at them in a voice deeper and meaner than ever their mother might. Immediately they would stop, and he’d praise and pat them. They’d sit on their fattening haunches and wag their tails. Then start the game again.

The pups grew each night while I wasn’t looking. Feathery bits on their tails. Bigger paws made pedestals for ridiculously round bellies. Trembling legs soon grew into straightened springs and encouraged tendencies to escape from even bigger boxes.

Twice daily the pups, beribboned to discriminate the gluttons from the feed-needy, were test-weighed. Mealtimes became manic as 44 paws to all tried to scramble into the bowls of pellet mush. Containment became challenging. I regularly retrieved escapees from the plumbago hedge. I scolded and nuzzled them, removed the tacky blue flowers from their wavy poodle wool.

Wonderful friends came round wearing plastic aprons to help at bath time, bringing an artillery of hairdryers. Neighbours popped in for cuddles and thoughtfully brought piles of old newspapers that had become the floor covering of choice throughout our house. Zoe eventually became exasperated with no time-out, and once her pups were weaned and devouring mince and gnawing brisket bones, would march round the room, growling like Warren when her progeny tried to hang like trapeze artists from her droopy nipples, just for the heck.

At nine weeks they were as cute as buttons. Separation time. And it was bittersweet for me. I loved them all but was pretty much over being under house arrest and the nonstop cleanups.

Trinette drove up from Bendigo and took a little boy. With five dependent kids and a full time job she had not wanted a pup. But of course she took one, she was the doula at his birth. He was called Clayton, the dog you have when you don’t really want a dog.

Ronda, my dear old school friend, took Jessie. Sadly, at just six months old Jessie was run over. Ronda had eight children and there had not been enough of Jessie to go around, so many little fingers had wanted to ruffle her curly coat. The thought of telling her youngest daughter Lucy that Jessie was dead was unconscionable for Ronda. She had a solution though, Ronda was the quintessential lateral thinker. Through her torrents of tears she phoned every Standard Poodle breeder in Australia until she found one with an available pup. Sight unseen, it was on the next morning’s flight from Adelaide. They named her Jessie again, and she became one of our doggy daughters too, and it was soon forgotten that she was adopted. Soon after, Ronda solved the problem of not enough dog surface area for everyone in the family to pat and got another poodle. Then another. And another. Until seven standard poodles lived in the Opperman household.

Kate took Jet, eventually. She was an anxious young woman from the US, newly married to an Aussie, and missing her family back home. After several trips from Pymble to Yowie Bay to discuss the pros and cons of dog ownership, like what equipment the dog might need to eat from, and would we help her buy it. Would the dog want to sit in the front seat of the car, she’d buy a sheepskin cover if so. Did we think the dog liked her? I remember over another brew of plunger coffee sitting with Chris and Kate while he quietly helped her work through these worrying issues. Once she was settled he took her to the local pet shop where they bought all the non-necessities for a spoilt pet. Rubber chickens to chew, toenail clippers, a tartan lined basket. Kate, confident once fully equipped for all contingencies, took Jet home. We kept in touch, Jet lived to 12 years.

Jean was a psychiatrist from Balmain. She and husband Alan and their two teenage daughters also came several times to discuss the consequences of owning a pet. The girls clutched a puppy each in hope. The parents handled the matter with cold logic. There was to be no hasty decision, could they come back in a week to progress their thinking? In the meantime they would continue discussing the matter at home. Of course they offered to leave a deposit, but I trusted my Blink! reaction. I knew that after running it around the High Court of the Dining Table for several evenings, the young girls would get their first pet.

A few years on, Jean rang. Alan had left her. She and the girls would have to move into a flat and could not take Sheba. Did we know anyone who could adopt her? Jean was bereft and later told me that she had never forgiven herself for letting Sheba down, failing as human being at that level was far worse than a failed marriage, for the dog had unconditionally trusted her.

But that quirky hand of fate had a totally satisfactory solution in mind. On that SAME day I got a distraught phone call from Angela at Currarong. Her adored pup Sheena had died. She was heartbroken and desperate to get another poodle straight away, did I have the number for the Poodle Rescue organisation? So of course, Sheba moved in with Angela and became Sheena.

Only once did an inspection not amount to a commitment. A man with an Eton accent rang, quizzed us at length about pedigree, and seemingly satisfied said he’d come immediately from The Eastern Suburbs. An hour later we noticed a slow moving Bentley inching down our street with a flustered Asian youth jogging in front, looking for street numbers. The couple entered our home indifferently, and were introduced to the only available pup. The older man shook his head and said in his affected voice “oh no, we couldn’t take that one, it’s got little sticky-out white hairs!”. And they left.

No matter. That pup was predestined to go to a widow from Beecroft with a leafy garden and love left over, who would hand feed him steamed breast of chicken and the crusts off her Vegemite toast.



I launched onto the corporate scene after a three month stint at Miss Hales Business College where I had learnt to type quite fast and without looking at my fingers. This eventually lead to a prestigious job at Sydney Uni Appointments Board where my dexterity was useful for poking metal skewers through punched cards. Pre-computer, dear grandchildren, that was how data was sorted. Various skills were printed around the edge and if your resume said “I can bottle wash, trim roses, babysit etc” we clipped your perforated card accordingly, just like a bus ticket. Don’t know a bus ticket either?

I got two thirds of an Arts degree during that time, then the rescued kitten substitute came along. I knitted our baby girl Mary Quant-style dresses in gelato colours, and blew bubbles on her lovely tummy to make her giggle. We were living then in Hollywood Street Brighton le Sands with Warren’s mum, with my mum coming over each week to help me with the ironing, and encourage me to get bub on the bottle nice and early. It was helpful to have such loving support, but the unforeseen move to Melbourne meant we could nest as a primary family at last, and keep that decadent nightcap carafe of port by the bed, no see, no tut tut tut.

In the early months of motherhood, and incarcerated at Hollywood Street with only the tinned Carnation milk to mix 1 part to 7 of boiled water for baby’s lunch (since my mum was keeping order in the laundry and Warren’s kindly mum was making us her sodium nitrate enriched What Have You for each meal), I found the motivation to learn to cook. I covered a shoe box with leftover wallpaper then glued cutout magazine recipes onto cards before systematic filing. The careers councillor at school had suggested I was excellent librarian material, even though I hankered to be a journalist. No job for a woman said Grandpa Joe, so that was that, I wasn’t going to be offered a cadetship on the Newcastle Morning Herald on his watch. So I applied my investigative and cataloguing skills to sourcing, saving and eventually preparing recipes like Moussaka, Boeuf Carbonnade and Coq au Vin. I took cook books to bed and read them like thrillers.

Guilty, I have to admit my life has largely revolved around the larder. Try not to salivate as you picture these in your mind’s eye. My mum’s melt in the mouth tangy lemon delicious pudding, her light as thisledown passionfruit flummery, her grilled lamb cutlets crusted with celery salt. A first confrontation with an anchovy as a talented but minor player in a Pythonesque production of Caesar’s Salad, performed tableside and from scratch by a liveried cast in the Sheraton Hotel in Istanbul in 1976. Simple Turkish breakfasts of hard boiled eggs, black olives, hunks of feta, honey, pide bread and thick sweet coffee. Continental breakfasts on the actual Continent – buttery croissants served warm, spread with more butter and that posh jam called confiture. Tiger pies from Harry’s Cafe de Wheels – take a hunger pang, add a run of the mill meat pie then pile on potato mash, mushy peas and spicy gravy. Sea bass baked in salt crust served with a garnish of Adriatic view. Prime rib at the Houston Airport Hotel of all places. The squishy succulence of Giddy’s creamed rice. Saltimbocca alla Romana perfected at Trio Romanos, against which all others are now measured. King Oscar tinned sardines, heavily lemoned, grilled on toast for mornos. Slow roasted garlicky lamb shoulder a la Evan. Chris’s Coconut Chicken, how does he get it so crunchy? Warren’s accurately buttered toast and Vegemite with milky English Breakfast tea served in bed …

Enough already?



The first little possum was wandering alone along Blues Point Rd late at night. We were newlyweds and had not yet rescued the Kings Cross cat and needed something to nurture, as mating animals instinctively do. We smuggled it up to the 14th floor of the NO PETS ALLOWED apartment building we were living in, and made it a home away from home in the bathtub. It loved us dearly until it shredded the lounge room curtains.

Then there was the brazen one who marched up to the dining table through the open balcony doors when we were late delivering his evening banana slices. Our dinner party guests were charmed of course, they came from England and admitted they couldn’t train squirrels or badgers to do that.

And what about when we woke in the middle of the night hearing something in our bedroom. Sit bolt upright, both of us. Thankfully. Possum runs across the pillows behind us and clambers up the bed light. I run for the camera, Warren for the clean sheets which sums up our essential differences. The poor thing is frozen in fear and won’t budge. While I am capturing the moment from every angle, my practical partner has built a barricade of pillows to shoo our intruder through to an open door. Exit possum stage left. Remnants of lamp to bin.

When Madeline was 9 months old we moved to Victoria. Warren was to be sent there temporarily, ha ha, so we reasoned that his daily allowance could be eeked out to cover our small family if we stayed somewhere cheaper than the one star Collingwood Motel. So we took a small room in a dodgy “guest house” at St Kilda. I was now 20 and should have know better than to rush to the side of an apoplectic fellow guest in the communal lounge. No, he didn’t say “please call an ambulance”. He panted out “I’ll give you ten dollars for a good naughty!” I locked myself in our room in mortification. Unamused when spouse said later that I should have asked for 20!

Next day we found a nice flat near a synagogue at South Caulfield and started the habit of keeping a carafe of port by the bed. This is probably the wickedest thing we have ever done.


A year later, in 1969, Warren was offered a better paid job near Yarram in nippy Gippsland. It was boom time then in the offshore oil industry and there was not much affordable accommodation around. We had to settle for a ramshackle farmhouse with no hot water to the outside bathroom. We trudged it in buckets from the kitchen for our weekly bath. We were briefly the custodians of a black Labrador pup that tried to please by bringing fresh lamb placentas to our kitchen door. Our little girl grew big and strong on her limited diet of Weetbix and bananas.

We befriended Marg and Ian, farmers from a few paddocks away. They gave us a baby lamb for Madeline to play with. It grew into a mouton of course, and since there was no properly closable back door in our “heritage homestead” it would make itself comfortable on our donated Night ‘n’ Day convertible sofa when we were out. It had a penchant for eating plastic anything, but the day it met us at the kitchen door with the decorative streamers off our littlie’s new tricycle hanging from it’s jowls we sent it for a short holiday from which it returned in Cryovac bags.

This was also the era of the fondue. Usually the pots were made of copper, and were very displayable on the then fashionable Welsh dresser. Back in the 1960’s everyone got at least one set as a wedding present. Methylated spirits went in the burner. If you accidentally used thinners because someone had decanted it into an old metho bottle, you had to be prepared to repaint the ceiling. Vegetable oil, cheapest you could source, went in the pot. Heat it. Cut up enough chuck steak into bite size cubes to give everybody a handful. It took a long time to chew so you didn’t need as much as you thought you would. Provide plenty of garlic bread too, cheap and filling. Everyone impaled a piece of meat and put it in the bubbling oil until shrivelled like a raisin. Dipped then in one of the three sauces you had made out of one jar of home brand mayonnaise. Mayo with curry powder, mayo with tomato sauce and plain mayo. Share a flagon of sherry between 4 while preparing and a cask of rough red during the meal. Repeat weekly. If you burn your arm with hot oil you won’t feel it till next morning and the scars will still be there when you reach 70. Ask Joan.

Joan’s spouse Alan was a work chum of Warren’s. They were a bit older than us and much more worldly. Joan had lived on a kibbutz and had a Palestinian black and white headscarf that she used as a tablecloth. Totally chic way of serving her pissaladiere. Beyond delicious, with it’s buttery shortcrust base smeared thickly with caramelized onions, crisscrossed with anchovies, black olives in the diamond shaped spaces between them. Baked while sharing a bottle of Lexia.

The Texan guys that Warren worked for could not get their mouths around his name. Warren Malcolm came out as “More than Welcome”. Inspired us to buy a hogshead of red plonk and have a bottling party. Had some suave labels printed too,



Made from grapes from the sunny side of a hill


It tasted ok with cornbread and that great stew that site manager’s wife used to make with green olives and a whole bottle of Catalina dressing.

The Texans bid for a job in Nigeria and we were set to go. Yellow Fever shots, visas, sad farewells. I would have been living in Lagos with partner in whoop whoop for months on end. But it didn’t come off, and a windfall opportunity to buy some damaged pipe and on sell it at a good profit got us the start of a deposit for a house. Thank you, fickle hand of fate!

So after the spartan isolation of rural life we bought a newly completed triple fronted red textured brick veneer house at 8 Conjola Place Gymea. Not a living thing in the yard, but rockeries with pockets of pigface and westringia soon softened its prominent septic tank. We made ginger beer and home brew, stored it under new infant Chris’s cot. One night the stash exploded. Baby became a bit jumpy at loud noises after that. We put less sugar in the next batch.

My parents had a poultry farm and piggery at Kulnura and we would go up most weekends to help out. Marlene and Charles were the managers and could Marlene cook! The kitchen mostly smelled of blistered red capsicums, except for the winter morning when it was scented with slow roasted piglet litter. The sordid detail is that my young brother thought they’d keep nicely warm in the lower oven of the Aga where Marlene’s meringues also came to a slow state of crispness overnight.

We learned other basics of rural life. How to wring the neck of a sick chook with finesse (that is, not separating head from body). How not to cook a pig on the spit actually in the piggery compound (conflicting aromas). How to create something edible from a tray of cracked eggs, lacquered with poo and feathers. But all good things must come to and end, and the farm was resumed for a dam.

Free weekends again. And now three kids. Bought a tidal waterfront block of land at 10 Calyspo Place Gymea Bay. Built a nuts and berries style split-level house. Made $20,000 when Council failed to clean their drains and a steep portion of our land washed away, voila, instant excavation for swimming pool. Pay out the mortgage, use nice windfall to build rumpus area under house but note that the difficult to conceal large structural beam could be handicap when selling in the future. Seven years on, buy another bigger better block with deeper water. Advertise Calypso house privately. Sell to guys who want to homebuild a small aeroplane and need a substantial internal beam to hang it off.

Build our current home at 1a Yellambie Street Yowie Bay. The land looked like a moonscape after it was cleared but 39 years on is a tropical paradise with undisturbed golden orb spiders, sun-baking water monitors, cascades of bougainvillea, exclamation marks of Gymea lilies where lorikeets sway and play and tickle around for nectar, where up-too-early magpies warble, where larangytic white cockatoos steal dog’s brisket bones, and where migratory channel billed cuckoos raucously screech like harpies through the night, tempting us each summer to buy them tickets on Qantas to get straight back to New Guinea. We are bonded to this place. It is where our pre-teenage sons, apparently even then environmentally sensitive, started a recycling program that involved secretion of discarded PLAYBOY Magazines salvaged during Council Cleanups then archived in a rock shelf cave behind our house. One cool winter’s day they lit a comforting fire in this midden amongst the precambian winkle shells, just like much earlier occupants probably had. And so set our Earthly Garden of Eden alight. Our kindly next door neighbours let the culprits take refuge on their roof till parental flames of fury were also extinguished.



I will paint you a word picture of my heart throb:

He worked out how to rock his high chair around the kitchen without tipping it over, while I at the same age was focused on the mouth feel of mashed pumpkin. This was an early indicator that he would become the sort of engineer you want designing your harbour bridge. That he regularly used to get the train home from work forgetting that he’d driven in that day only confirmed to me that his mind was on a higher plane. Solving Fermat’s Theorem potentially.

He didn’t divorce me when I nearly sliced off his nose after putting an unopened tin of baked beans in a campfire to heat. The exploded bean purée mimicked blood and gore in the moonlight, to add to the actual trauma. A forgiving nature, and a good instructor in elementary physics.

He sprained his ankle in a pothole, then running to his aid I did the same thing. So consequentially we hobbled arm-in-arm into Casualty with our unlikely story. Our bemused daughter got a byline in the Sydney Morning Herald next day headed MY PARENTS DO EVERYTHING TOGETHER!

He never confused the meteorological “sheep weather alert” with “better get your bed linen off the Hill Hoist, it’s about to rain”. Like I did. A man who listens carefully.

I like the simple things in life. The leaf symmetry of flannel flowers and frangipanis. Unclipped poodles. Trout without the meuniere sauce. So he bought me an iridescent pink Porsche for my 44th Birthday. A lover with a wonderful sense of the ridiculous.

He brought interesting objects into our startup household. Like his Sunday School Prize, a hardback edition of BROTHER DUSTYFEET (he wasn’t an atheist then). And his friends Pixie and Ralph gave us a really useful bongo drum for a wedding gift (if only it had made toast). And his brother sent us a stuffed baby crocodile from the Sepik which created a point of interest on our inverted tea chest dining table. A man with sentiment.

I only bought a thin sausage each for the first meal I ever ever ever cooked. I was a Child Bride of 19 and had not yet read The Wifely Skills Handbook. But he happily just filled up on a loaf of sliced white bread and half a jar of peanut butter. He had grown lanky on a regular diet of substances his mother called “what have you” – which was whatever could be concocted from corned beef fritters which had been the left overs from the boiled corned beef from the night before. He is appreciative of all offerings.

My parents never did the really proper camping thing with us sprogs. My mother was much too wise to fall for that one. But when I was about eleven they did tow a pre-loved caravan from Sydney to Mildura. All I remember of that low spot in my life is us four kids squashed and squabbling in the back seat of the Hillman Minx, and my father nervously watching this cumbersome hula-hula dancing rig in the rear-vision mirror as he drove, hour in, hour out, at 30 miles per hour with his hands always in the correct ten to two position on the sweaty steering wheel. And if those eagle-eyes in the back of his head caught us nodding off we were in for it. If he was going to make the effort to drive through this landscape, we were going to see every bit of it. But Warren had lived in a caravan for six months as a kid while his Mum and Dad built a house. He still holds warm and fuzzy memories of playing Cowboys and Indians around the ablution block with other barefoot kids. An imaginative and adaptable man. He’s not a cat fancier, but tolerated the three who’ve so far chosen us. The black one that was thrown through the open kitchen window of a friend’s ground floor King’s Cross squat. We took it home and treated it like a baby til we got a real one. Then Mrs Puss the nymphomanic tabby we inherited at Yarram when we rented the farmhouse. She nursed her repetitious kitten litters in the haystack. One day we thought she was pirouetting for joy because her current batch of sucklings had left home, but she was unfortunately in her death throes and went kerplonk at our feet. Cat Three was Tom, an exotic Russian Blue lookalike who thought he was the other dog in the family. Lots of little children’s tears were shed into his silver coat, he was the soft, cuddly, consoling creature to turn to when your brother wouldn’t share the Lego or you didn’t get invited to Nicole’s 9th birthday party.

We had been married a week before I realised that dealing with the mounting pile of soiled singlets in the bedroom corner was my responsibility. Was this in the marriage vows I wondered, had I really promised to Love, Honour AND Launder? He’s ever pragmatic and bought me a Hoover Twin Tub.

For years he had checked out every backyard-built catamaran in Queensland and scoured Trade-a-Boat monthly, dog earring pages of potential then emailing owners for displacement figures and details of rudder shapes. So when he asked me what I wanted for my 58th birthday I said “I just want you to make a DECISION about a boat.”

And he did, and bought a gracious Grand Banks. In a bogan moment we briefly considered calling her JANUWARRY but settled on L’ARGO. (ARGO being the ship of Jason and the Argonauts in which they headed off in search of the mythical Golden Fleece.  Just like we would be seeking out the least cautious coral trout for our BBQ.)



From a very young age, and I’m talking not yet seven, I was served a wee sweet sherry before lunch when I stayed with my maternal grandparents, Giddy and Joe. They lived in Newcastle and I used to choof up there all the way from Sydney, unaccompanied, on “The Flyer”. Train travel then was something else – pots of tea and buttered scones served with the elegance of the Orient Express but without the murders. I think if there had been regular murders I might have been sent accompanied.

There was a lanky eucalyptus on top of the cliff at the back of Giddy and Joe’s Brooks Street house. The crazy-paved path up to it was an epic trek, winding past the clothes line, hen house, parsley patch, coiled hose and two weathered garden gnomes. One had an attitude of industry and held a rake. My reward for effort was that from the first branch of this tree I could see the town hall clock and so would know the time without asking and therefore, how long, roughly, till sherry.

Visits to Newcastle meant

… Popping in nearly every day to visit a neighbour who lived round the corner and up a bit. She was also my grandmother’s best friend. They called each other Mrs Dickinson and Mrs Caldwell.

… Being shown off at Joe’s work. He did the evening shift as The News Editor at The Newcastle Morning Herald after a motivational pre-lunch rum while I had my sherry.

… Picking up the flattened lamb cutlets from Barney the Butcher for Tuesday lunch. From this I learnt two life skills – cutlets have to be flat to crumb nicely and raw sausages won’t necessarily kill you. Butchers in the 1950s were allowed to poison little girls with complimentary uncooked tidbits from the window display.

… Helping crumb the mullet for Friday lunch. Crumbed food was very popular back then. I’ve forgotten which day’s lunch was crumbed brains. Anyhow, The Pope had decreed only mullet on Fridays and it had to be followed by creamed rice for dessert as only Giddy could make it. Half a cup of short grain rice, teaspoon of butter and pinch salt boiled to soften a little with small amount of water, then a pint of milk slowly added while stirring constantly over a low gas flame. When fully absorbed add two beaten egg yolks with two tablespoons sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla. Empty into good crystal bowl leaving enough on the wooden spoon and bottom of saucepan for salivating granddaughter.

… Remembering to say that 37 Brooks Street was in MEREWEATHER and not Cooks Hill for, heavens to Betsy, Darby St running parallel and a little downer the notorious Hill was a slum, and maybe even housed Ladies of the Night. Those same terraces and semis fifty years on are now high-end art galleries and funky bistros.

… Watching Sunday lunch’s squawking chicken being chased around the backyard with an axe. Even after it lost it’s head.

… Waiting for the baker’s cart to bring the day’s high-top loaf and wondering if his horse would drop a poo (free veggie garden fertiliser for the first neighbour to get there with his spade).

… listening to the titillating daily episode of Blue Hills by Queenie Ashton on the Bakelite radio. This was The Bold and the Beautiful of the 1950s!

… Sitting with infinite patience in the Ladies Lounge at the Northern Star Hotel with Giddy and her one shandy while Joe had a few pints with other important chaps in felt hats and three-button suits at the saloon bar.

… Anticipating that Giddy, when she spotted me sprawled on her cut moquette lounge engrossed in my Enid Blytons would bring me a forehead kiss and a little tray with sweet tea and hot buttered pikelets.

However there were two traumas in my childhood, just in case you think my juvenile years were just a bed of roses:

Firstly the anxiety before ballet lessons. I was terminally unsuccessful at walking with my feet in second position while wearing a red crossover cardigan that my mother had knitted very badly.

Secondly having an irrational fear of aunts who were nuns. Giddy’s sister, known to me as Aunty Mary, and to others less familiar as Sister Mary Leander, taught at All Hallows’ Girls School for Wicked Grand-Nieces. My parents’ ultimate punishment threat was to send me to Brisbane to board at Aunt Mary’s penitentiary. It sure kept me on the straightened arrow!

Sometime during my dad Bob’s wartime career with the RAAF, he had met my mother. She was at that time the reigning Miss Victoria League, the Newcastle equivalent of Miss Universe. Crown, sash, the whole shebang. No wonder he fell for her.

After a couple of years of living with Giddy and Joe, it was time to go hang out with my other grandparents for a bit. Bob’s parents, Nanna and Pa, had a houseful already at 715 Beaufort Street Mt Lawley Perth Western Australia so I suppose three more meant just another cup and a half of water in the stew. With seven boisterous sons and one daughter it is it no wonder that Nanna found some solace in joining the Christian Scientists.

Eventually I started school, and it was off to the local convent and into the grip of some fearsome nuns and the dubious dogma of Pope Pius the Umpteenth. The trouble started when I was to make my first holy communion and in the pre-event cleansing confession session I mentioned coveting a two wheeler bike. The kindly priest told me there would be one waiting after I died and went to heaven. So I went home and prayed hard to be released early from this mortal coil.

It nearly happened when soon after I fell a couple of metres from an out of bounds ramp leading up to the church. Now this is me who only made it to the first branch of Giddy’s gum tree doing something really daring for probably the first time, so of course I messed up. Embarrassed and injured I was sent home, told the oldies a fib, something like I’d just tripped over a rock. I thought I could confess all at church somewhere down the track and square up with God, the only one who mattered, because he was minding my bike. His earthly nominee, the parish priest, would just give me a few rounds of the rosary as penance. And that done, bingo, should be back in God’s good book. But a nosy nun rang home to check on my WELLBEING, true story comes out, parents mortified and furious, and it’s a choice – a lashing with my father’s trouser belt or a fast train to the dreaded All Hallows for a term of incarceration. The whip, the whip!

But on the upside my wicked behaviour triggered the much needed conversation between my heathen father and my RC mother about where I should go to school next. Time to let the State system drill some sense into me. Since I knew that Protestant kids had no chance of getting even to Purgatory on their way to Hell I was initially apprehensive, but although I hated folk dancing on Friday mornings it still beat catechism recitation hands down. And then God delivered the bike that Xmas anyway.

Life in the red brick veneer on the corner of Ellis and Evelyn Streets Sylvania was cool. My dad was by now a Health Food Shop Pioneer and an Entrepeneur since he had shops at not only Gymea and Caringbah but Kirrawee too. He always had tons of empty boxes in the garage that converted into shop counters where I planned my own retail empire. And I was considered smart enough to help in the shops before I was even 10. I could be trusted to accurately weigh out bags of raisins and mixed peel for the Christmas puddings of the Sutherland Shire. As a bonus a slow boy who was working there part time asked to see mine if he showed me his.

Sylvania at the time was nightclub central for Sydney. In those days before random breathtesting a two hour drive to the outskirts of the city for a big night out at Dora Skelsey’s Ace of Spades or an exotic meal of Chicken in a Basket at Herman’s Haystack with a nice bottle or two of Moselle was tres chic. The swankiest venue was The Colony Club. It had a glamorous indoor pool with oyster shell grottoes for canoodling. Incongruously the management let our school hold swimming classes there during the days.

I learned to drive on my dad’s fancy Dodge Phoenix. Now that was a limo that Batman would have lusted after, but the darn thing was so wide and long is it any wonder I regularly anointed cars on either side with blessings of expensive royal blue paint when I parked it.

We were by then living at 28 Castle Street Blakehurst. Peter Smith lived opposite and later became a medico which didn’t surprise me because he spent much of the last term of sixth class at Baldface Primary measuring his dick with a wooden ruler.

At high school I studied home economics (mandatory for girls in First Year, while boys did woodwork), Latin (Cicero – great name, should be on the Popular Baby Name long list), art (opportunity to bleach hair with Ajax as creative project), history (white men rule, ok?), English (I after E except after C), maths (blank), French (voulez vous desire a couchez avec moi ce soir?), comparative religion (hello Buddha, meet Allah) and biology (knew that already, remember Peter Smith?)

I did quite well in The Leaving Certificate. So after this successful and rounded education my reward was to be taken on the grand European tour with my parents and their three other squirmy progeny to keep me snug in the back seat of a Ford Zephyr for months on end. I got to visit the Windmill Theatre in London, which was pretty grown up stuff as the girls were topless but the main thing I remember is putting on 10 kilos of baguette despite the back seat compression factor.

The sea voyage to Southhampton was a ton of fun. We sank our tug in Suez and drowned four men. The captain put the ship into fast forward in a Bonnie and Clyde-style getaway but Interpol caught up with us mid Mediterranean. He was arrested and jailed while we got a free extra week stuck in Port Said during the Official Enquiry.

On the ship trip home and being so much more worldly (I’d been to the Moulin Rouge), and erudite (I’d seen the Sistine Chapel), and obviously attracted to my recently acquired serious child-bearing hips, I gained a 35 year old suitor talking future marriage. But I trusted my Blink! instinct. I was still only 17 and felt I was yet to formally meet the true man of my dreams. Though I had seen him on on the bus.