Possessions, Possessions, Possessions.

What was my most precious possession?

I sat in a home surrounded by many beautiful objects and possessions that had been collected throughout my life and felt a frown form on my brow. Was it the Han dynasty horse’s head I’d bought in an antique shop when living in Singapore, pre-mortgage and pre-children, with a large disposable income? What would I feel if it fell off the mantelpiece? Two thousand years, gone, smashed into little pieces of brown clay on the redbrick hearth; an ignominious end. I’d be annoyed and a little upset at its loss, nothing more.

Han Dynasty Terracotta Horse Head

Han Dynasty Terracotta Horse Head


So then I thought again.

Could it be my wedding ring. The story about that had also started in Singapore. We were to be married and at that time living in Brunei. In the mid-nineties there weren’t many shops in Brunei and all the jewellers favoured the yellow 24 carat gold – not for me. My husband couldn’t get time off work and I had to go to a scuba diving expo, so I went to buy the rings on my own. I’d been living in S E Asia for six years and I experienced the worst bout of food poisoning ever, after eating from a buffet in an up-market hotel on the second night of the expo. I spent the next two days in bed at the home of some friends, albeit in the most amazing colonial plantation house that I was unable to appreciate; I spent most of my time with one or other end of my body over the toilet. Eventually I was forced to get out of bed and go shopping for the rings.

Luckily many of Singapore’s shopping malls revolved around a theme and I knew where to go. The first jewellery mall in Chinatown was full of shops with, once again, predominantly garish yellow gold. The toilets weren’t very swish either. I’d had to run into them twice in less than an hour. Already beginning lose energy, I headed by taxi to one of the more expensive malls on Orchard Road. I’d seen jewellers on the upper floor, and I remembered that they had great toilets. I wasn’t sure if I’d like the price, but as I broke out in a sweat and felt my stomach turn once more I decided that with two weeks to go before the wedding, and a flight booked for the following morning, it was all or nothing.

I glided up the elevator as my stomach twinged again and eyeballed the toilets. Two sets on one floor – wonderful. There were about ten shops. I didn’t go into the first three. Just looking in the window told me enough. The next one had a possibility. When I went in for a closer look I was disappointed; not my style. A cramp got the better of me and I walked smartly to the nearest toilet. It was a false alarm, but I wasn’t feeling good. Opposite the toilets I glimpsed an interesting shop front. Then I saw glistening silver amidst the gold. I rushed inside.

The shop assistant placed the plush velvet tray in front of me. Platinum, he told me. The price tag rose. I picked one out and tried it on. It fitted perfectly, but my husband-to-be wanted a matching one. Would he like it? He’s said, white gold, simple and plain. This was plain except for a fine zigzag of yellow gold and it was platinum. I hadn’t even asked the price. A wave of nausea and strong cramp went through my body. I pulled the ring off and muttered something about toilets to the bewildered shop assistant, then sprinted out of the door. It was fortunate that they were so close. Five minutes later I returned to the shop and ten minutes after that with relief, I glided back down the escalator with two small jewellery boxes gift wrapped in a stylish bag and within, two rather expensive rings.


My wedding ring & henna art

My wedding ring & henna art


The ring went on to be the subject of a few other stories. I now wear it on my right hand after an incident with a dog and a puppy on a windy beach and a lot of blood, sand and a swollen finger. I’m attached to it – in more ways than one, as it is now stuck on the aforementioned right finger, but attached so much I couldn’t live with out it, no.

So which possession was more precious to me?

In the eighties I went as a volunteer to live on the island of Zanzibar. At a time when I only had the possessions that fitted into a suitcase, I was given a small painting by a friend there. This watercolour, since framed, has travelled with me from country to country and home to home. When I revisited Zanzibar on numerous occasions I always called on this friend who had gone on to become both a successful artist and well known personality that tourists and travellers sought out for his artwork and his knowledge of the history of the old buildings in the Stonetown.  This postcard-sized painting reminds me of the times I spent with this humble and intelligent man, the lunches always accompanied with copious amounts of incredibly hot chili peppers and a glass of red wine, the walks through stone town when he pointed out intricate balconies and buildings falling down from lack of repair, the late afternoon talks on politics, writing, art and history sitting on the inside ‘veranda’ of his ‘Arabic’ style house, where the breeze flowed through the central courtyard up through two stories to the open skies. The time he and my father  – both of similar age and both blind in one eye took turns trying to pour wine into a glass without spilling any and showing each other their differing techniques. And always, the image of knocking at his door and waiting for the key to be thrown down from the shuttered windows of the living areas above – that must have been in later years, as before the doors had been always left open. Yes, it was precious but only in the memories it held.


Zanzibar Stonetown

Zanzibar Stonetown


Possessions. Possessions. Possessions. I have so many, yet what was most prized? When I look about me yet again, I wonder what I would do if I lost all of them. What would I really miss? I think it would have to be my photos. Their preciousness is not in their material value, but in that the images are irreplaceable – at least not the older ones that were caught pre-digital days. Their value was in the moments, the glimpses, the occasions and the memories that my mind struggles to keep intact.

Maybe my most precious possession has to be my memory, for without it how would I know who I am?






I throw a stone at the tree. It misses and bounces on to the road. My hand feels around for another stone, but I can’t find one. Gaz should be home soon and then I can get into the frickin’ house. I’m starved. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and even then Ma had only left out a packet of half-moldy bread and margarine. As if to make me think more about me being locked out and hungry, my tummy starts to rumble.

A police car is driving up the street. I wonder what has happened this time and hunch in behind one of the posts of our veranda. Always good to stay out the way. It’s bloody stopping right outside our house. Shit. I almost get up to go and hide round the back. But I haven’t done anything recently that would be of interest to them, had I? I shrink further behind the post. A man and woman get out. They aren’t looking a me. They head across the street to old Mrs Pauley’s place – or what’s left of it. It’s not as bad as our house, but it sure needs some work doing to it. She does keep the garbage out the front yard though, even when there’s more crap blowing down the street than there’s leaves on a fall day.

They are knocking on the door again and calling her name out loud like she’s deaf or something. I’ll bet she won’t open the door to them. They never come when there is a problem, like when that gang from the other neighborhood were smashing up the windows of the empty houses in the street. Didn’t come either when they cut the electric and Old Joe got in a fight with them electricity guys and those men in suits. He didn’t look too good after it. Didn’t think men who dressed in suits knew how to hit like that. Come to think of it Joe didn’t stick around long after that either.

“Mrs Pauley. We need to talk to you. You know you can’t stay here any longer. Could you open the door please.”

I know she’s in there. The upstairs curtain just moved but they are’t looking up there. “She’s gone out!” I yell across the street. Both of them turn and see me for the first time. They look surprised. Well why wouldn’t you be. There are only two houses left here with people living in them. Ma said they want to build a new shopping mall development, but we ain’t moving till they make her. She said old Mrs Pauley has been there for 40 years.

“When did she go out?”

I have to be careful now. “Must have been half an hour back.”

“Well you can tell her we’ll be back.” They were getting back in the car.

I knew they’d be back and I knew that we wouldn’t be living there much longer either. Ma had said that Uncle Hamhead told her we had three weeks before we had to get out. He heard me call him Hamhead once and Ma go angry and smacked me across the ear. It hurt too. He’s been good to us, was all she said. I didn’t think so now. We had nowhere else to go. Ma said Mrs P, as she called her, had four sons she could go to but she didn’t like a single one of them and wanted to stay put. She was a tough old bitch, Ma said.

The tough old bitch moved the curtain aside and laughed as the police-car went off down the  street. Then she gave a middle finger salute, as Ma likes to call it. I laughed too.




There Are No Queues

seeking sanctuary

seeking sanctuary

I wrote this in February this year and I am re-posting it for Writing 101

Last week I felt as though my head was going to explode with all the wonderful ideas and thoughts resulting from listening to and entering into a number of conversations. It made me believe that there are perhaps some changes afoot in a world where, for as long as I can remember, people have become increasingly egocentric, hedonistic and materialistic.

It all started the day before the Writers Festival. I attended a seminar on Writing for Change. I had no idea what exactly I had signed up for, but my mind was open to ideas and the conversations that ensued. That put me in the right place for the next three days. The Writers Festival held the promise of stories being shared by poets and politicians, acclaimed authors and adventurers, comedians and critics. And it lived up to that promise.

The final evening I walked through the magnificent gum trees and grounds of the University that ranks in the top 100 in the world, a place for the privileged perhaps, to the now almost empty car-park where I brushed aside the tears of anger, compassion and frustration. Richard Flanagan’s closing address ‘On Love Stories’ had moved me so. No, not because I had thoughts of love canyoning around my brain, but because of his link to compassion and humanity – however tenuous some may say this link was.

The part of the address that struck home went like this:

“… Crowded into love stories between the discovery of ourselves in others and of others in ourselves, we glimpse something else, a boat, and on the boat, jammed between the polytarp thrown over the shivering, the sunburnt and the silent, caught between the briny largeness of the sea and the sky, terrifying and hopeful, breathing in the nauseating oily drifts of diesel fumes, stands a tall 23-year-old Iranian called Reza Barati who dares dream that freedom and safety will soon be his as the boat approaches the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

But the sky darkens, the idea cannot hold, the ocean shimmers and transforms into something terrible, and all that remains of that dream for Reza Barati is a white plastic chair he now holds up in front of him, seeking to ward off the inexplicable blows of machetes and bullets and boots – a white plastic chair, all that a rich nation that prides itself on a fair go, on its largeness of spirit, has left for Reza Barati to defend his life against those who have now come to kill him.

In this desert of silence that now passes for our public life, a silence only broken by personal vilification of anyone who posits an idea opposed to power, it is no longer wise for a public figure to express concern about a society that sees some human beings as no longer human; a society that has turned its back on those who came to us for asylum – that is, for freedom, and for safety. And so, with our tongues torn we are expected to agree with the silence, with the lies, and with the murder of Reza Barati.”

Richared Flanagan.• 24 February 2014

Maybe it was the culmination of those thoughts and emotions surging around in my head after sessions on ‘Loss’, ‘Climate change’, ‘Memoir’, ‘Misogyny’, ‘Translation’, and ‘Asylum Seekers’, or maybe it was the sheer beauty of his words, but I sat in my car unable to move. 

Where had our compassion gone?

And now I once more reflected on those negative thoughts.

How had we come to a time where pejorative words like ‘alien’, ‘illegal’ ‘queue-jumper’ replaced ‘someone who is fleeing from terror; where there are no queues’. How important language is in shaping our thoughts. By normalising these words through continual use of them, they become a part of our psyche and people simply accept and reiterate the hyperbole.

Like the words and images implanted in our brains on a daily basis through advertising, whether it be for a food product, the latest phone we must have, the latest technology we need to buy immediately, or the car that shows we’ve really made it in life. Do these materialistic things define us in the way we perceive through the marketing? If then a person is seen as a queue-jumper we immediately lose our compassion, believing they have done something wrong. For many who have already fled their country, with or without travel documents, there is no queue to join. Even for those lucky enough to find refuge with the UN or similar body, the wait can be undefined and perhaps be up to ten years. It is not uncommon also for sexual favours to be solicited, from those in power, as a way of getting on to such a list.

So if you are one of a thousand people in a burning building behind a locked door and only one of you has been allowed to leave through that door, what do you do? Join the queue in the hope that they might open the door again before you perish, or do you jump?

I know what I would do.

behind the wire

behind the wire

Artwork courtesy of ‘Seeking Sanctuary’ by Bea Clifford in collaboration with refugee students at Parkwood PS Intensive English Centre. 

‘On Love Stories’ – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/27/on-love-stories-and-reza-barati



Thai Birds

This piece was originally posted in June as part of a writing challenge.


The flight was long and then I had five hours in KL airport, not just an airport but the Low Cost Carrier Terminal. I braced myself for a long wait. The only place with a table was a small cafe. I’d need to buy something to legitimately sit there. I had been through the terminal a few times before and knew that the veggie curry puffs were excellent and the coffee not bad. I’d had worse. Last time I’d been in KL had been for a Muslim wedding. The daughter of  good friends. I smiled as I remembered the weekend. She had had a difficult time since she had been orphaned when she was twelve years old. She had been whisked away from  life in the USA to be immersed in the religious household of her grand parents. Now in her twenties, I felt confident that this man she had met would allow her to continue to grow and blossom in the way I had seen in the last few years. I had no concerns that this marriage was based on anything other than equality.

I sat down and started to nibble on the curry puff. Crumbs of the delicate pastry fell in my lap. I brushed them away then sipped the coffee. It was better than I remembered. With a sigh I sat back and looked around. A couple of  men sat to my right. They were drinking beer and talking. Their voices boomed throughout the cafe. This wasn’t their first beer of the day.

“Oh shit mate. Sounds bloody tragic,” said the one wearing shorts that had slid down exposing the crack between his cheeks. Builder’s bottom we used to call it.

“I’m going back to a law suit against me,” said the other man. He wore a Chang Thai beer T-shirt. Two elephants under a palm tree. His arms were folder, resting on his ample belly. Both arms were heavily tattooed.

“I’ve got a nine month old in Thailand”

“Those Thai birds”

“Did she sting you for money?”

“Aren’t they all like that?”

“60 grand – two million bhart.”

“Got the baby and the bird and no money.” Builders bottom took a long deep drink of his beer.

“They can be brilliant.” Tattoo gives his new friend a lurid grin and wink.

“Thai birds eh.” He lifts his bottle. “I’ll drink to that.”

“She runs the wheat farm. Knows where the money is, knows which truck is on the farm, who the driver is. A tight ship.”

“Found yourself a real good Thai woman.”

“I go for a swim and she’s sitting waiting for me. She says you don’t worry ’bout me. You swim. She’s sitting on the beach, mate, waiting. I ain’t used to that. Then the baby comes. Different story. I’ve a nine month old son. Looks just like me.” He puffs his chest out. “That’s a big thing, mate. But she’s gone village.”

“They all go village, mate.”

The clip clop of shoes announces the arrival of a petite woman or was it a girl?

“Oh grab us a couple of beers will you,” Builder’s Bottom says, “if you have any money left.” He eyed her shopping bags nervously.

She deposits an assortment of duty-free shopping  on the seat next to me. She is serene and quite beautiful. Close up she must be in her thirties. She smiles at the two men, then walks to the counter.

I wonder what is behind her smile.




Size Matters – or does it?

It was unusually hot for September. I pulled at my school tie that clung too tight around my neck and wished I was home. I still had another mile to walk. I glanced right, towards the market cross before dodging the traffic and heading out of the centre of town. I was soon on Belmangate, the street where I lived. The first half of the street was terraced housing, two up two down, with their  sash-windowed front rooms and doors that lead straight onto the street. As I walked further up the hill the houses increased in size and some had gardens. Once I passed under the bridge of the disused  railway line, the houses became more modern, larger still and swish driveways lead to carports and garages. High hedges or fences made it hard to see inside some of the properties. Only the ones with miniature walls, flowerbeds and lawns offered a glimpse of the grand houses behind.

Ours was one of the last houses just before the ‘turnaround’ and cottage hospital. Beyond this was a track leading uphill to the forestry and eventually the North Yorkshire Moors. I reached my house. Just before the open gate, a stream, currently a trickle of water after a month of no rain, ran under the drive. Almost in the rose bed that bordered the drive, our cat, Ginger, basked spreadeagled on his back in the sun.  Through the kitchen window I could see Mum was standing at the sink furiously scrubbing something. She saw me, smiled and raised her hand in a wave. Mum always said that she had designed the house with a kitchen at the front, which was uncommon in the older houses, because she wanted to be able to see what was happening as she worked. The door to the garage, on the left of the house, was open and her red car was inside. My younger sister’s bike lay abandoned in the carport, but I could hear her voice singing to herself in the back garden.

I headed for the back door and climbed the steps two at a time. “I’m home,” I called out of habit. Kicking my shoes off, I dumped my school bag on the floor of the kitchen and pulled off my tie.

“How was school?”

“We have a new teacher for geography,” I said heading for the sink. “I’m thirsty.”

“Have you any homework?” Mum took a glass and filled it with water. She saw my wrinkled up face and understood that to mean I did have homework. “After you’ve drunk that can you take your bag into the study and run upstairs and change out of your uniform. Then I made some ice lollies, so you can take one out to Jenny and eat them in the garden.”

I gulped down the water and ran out of the kitchen, sliding in my socks as I hit the wooden parquet floor of the hallway.  I caught sight of the cat again as he had followed me in and was now heading through the dining room to the french doors that led into the lounge and his favourite window seat. Then I bounded up the carpeted stairs trailing one arm against the wall, while the other one ran up the banister. I changed quickly. The idea of leisurely eating my ice lolly while sitting on the swing was foremost in my thoughts. My uniform lay discarded on the bedroom carpet as I knelt on the bed to get a better view of the back garden and check Jenny wasn’t on the swing already.

I needed a pee and was on my way to the bathroom and standing in front of my parents room when I heard my older sister climbing the stairs. She grunted a greeting. I knew better than to comment. I watched her walk down the landing to her bedroom. A loud bang announced she had slammed the door behind her. I ran to the bathroom before she changed her mind and went in. I loved the bathroom. It was always filled with light and Mum nearly always had the window open – even in winter. I could also look out while I sat on the toilet and see the sheep or cows in the fields behind the house. I could daydream here. It wasn’t like the small toilet downstairs which was dark and cluttered. There was also a family of spiders that lived in the corner of the window behind the toilet. I couldn’t daydream there.