Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A lesson about patience

These chooks are reminding me of my children at the moment: pecking each other in the head one minute and curling up together sweetly the next.

I don’t know if there is a head of the pecking order, as each morning it’s a different chook doing the chasing or flapping, but they all seem to be equally assertive when it comes to competing for Lily’s leftover weetbix and the boys’ leftover porridge. They enjoy this breakfast meal more than all the vege scraps we also throw in each day and if, by chance, the children don’t leave leftover cereals, all three chooks squawk at the gate whenever any of us step outside.

Everyone is enjoying the new routine: Stuart opens the coop as he is always first up, Ned feeds them the breakfast scraps and has a chat in his “happy place” as he calls it, mid-morning they have a little chat to me while I hang the clothes out, late afternoon they watch the kids play and at 7pm on the dot (it’s uncanny) they put themselves to bed. All three huddled together on the perch in their coop. The perch Stuart built... The not-so-handy-man who said worriedly ‘I hope it holds all of them’ when I told him how all three were squashed together.

So far it has held all of them and despite the moments of fighting (or is it arguing or gentle teasing? It’s so hard to tell with kids...) they seem very happy in the middle of the city, in a backyard surrounded by three houses. They eagerly shoo the neighbourhood cats away and chase the pesky minor birds out of their run. You could say everything for them is perfect. Except for a certain lack of eggs.

Where are the eggs?! They have reached their laying age yet so far not a single egg. Stuart is perhaps the most concerned; his fantasies about an eggy Christmas breakfast and pavlova dessert are quickly evaporating. He is getting desperate. I even found a brochure in the kitchen the other day titled Tips for Rearing Layers.

“We’ve done everything right!” he exclaimed that night during dinner.

And according to the brochure we have. We even gave them a fake egg to practice sitting on in their nesting box. A couple of weeks ago, the fake egg would be kicked out, down the ramp most mornings but for the last week, it has stayed in its nest and the nest has been left undisturbed.

“Could that be a sign?”, Stuart wondered. “They must know that it’s a special place they can’t sleep in. It must be good they have stopped kicking the egg out”.
“Hmmm, but shouldn’t they at least feel the urge to sit on the egg now they don’t want to kick it?” I added trying not to laugh.

He looked perplexed.

“You know, the eggs have to come out eventually, it’s not like they can choose to not lay.” I said hoping to make him feel better.

On Sunday, while he cleaned out the coop out I heard him ask the chooks what was going on. They didn’t answer him – surprisingly – but then he overheard a conversation over the fence.

“The chooks on the other side have gone off the lay!” he exclaimed. “I heard the woman tell her friend that they haven’t laid for a couple of months now.’

“Why would that have anything to do with our chooks?” I asked.

He shrugged, “something in the air?”

Or maybe just chooks who, like our three children, definitely know their own minds.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

When Holidays Collide

I've been thinking a lot about holidays this last week. Yes, I know I'd have to get someone to look after the chooks... Perhaps reminiscing about previous holidays will have to do for now. And this is the one I keep escaping to in my head...

The beach was huge and deserted – aside from the massive driftwood logs and the colony of seals living at one end – and all we could hear was the wind whistling between the cliffs and our children’s delight as they explored the wide expanse of sand. It was my fantasy Australian summer holiday; a beach to ourselves. Only it was autumn and we were in a tiny Californian coastal town.

Our wooden cottage stood at the top of the hill, surrounded by tall grasses, looking down over the ocean. The shingled restaurant sitting on the edge of the cliff was empty except for us and the waitress.

After dinner, the kids tucked in bed, I went searching for wineglasses and a corkscrew in the kitchen. On the bench sat a black, hardcover journal with ‘Guest Book’ embossed on the front, one I hadn’t noticed earlier. Tucking it under my arm, I ventured back to the lounge imagining I would quickly flick through seeing endless entries of names, remarks about the weather and home cities.

When I did close the journal, the bottle of wine was finished, the sky pitch black. I lost two hours inside those pages but I had found so much more.

Here it was; the guest book I’d been waiting for all my life. Entries that went on for 10 pages: the soldier back from fighting in Iraq who couldn’t get over the quietness here, who could still hear gunfire and bombs in his head but who found the beach and the ocean healing. Every morning he’d walk along the beach and stare out at the open expanse, marvelling at nature and questioning his involvement in manmade destruction.

There was the couple who came here to try and save their marriage, who had managed to find the time and space in this little cottage to actually see each other properly for the first time in years. After two nights they left feeling stronger in their desire to stay together. Did they?

Soon followed the man who brought his girlfriend here to cook her a romantic dinner of pasta followed by strawberries and chocolate and who joyfully left at the end of the weekend with a fiancée.

Then there was the family with teenage children and an old Labrador who had been holidaying here for years and had recently discovered their beloved dog was dying of cancer. This weekend was the last holiday for this old dog and the family delighted in watching him run along the beach he had always loved and playing in the long grasses surrounding the cottage. It was bittersweet, the family unsure they would ever be able to return to this little town without their dog.

But I think the story that caught me the most, the one I kept returning to, was written by a woman on her honeymoon. Only a couple of days before, she and her now-husband ‘got all dressed-up in new party clothes’. With their kids they ran down to the San Francisco registry office, had lunch at a very ‘swanky’ restaurant with their families and close friends, all stayed the night at ‘an even swankier’ hotel before piling the kids and dog into the car and driving to this tiny town to stay in this little cottage.

Their days had been spent relaxing, playing on the beach and enjoying becoming a family: ‘all of us here together, my wonderful new husband, his two young sons, my little girl, and the new baby we’ve just discovered is growing inside me.’

It was the baby, such a symbol of lifelong love and hope that captured my imagination the most and who I kept thinking about long into that night. A baby who would by now be a preschooler, a baby who cemented two families together forever.

The beach didn’t feel so deserted the next day. The driftwood and colony of seals were still there but I could also see that soldier, sitting on a rock just next to me lost in his own private hell; there was the old Labrador bounding past, flicking sand up joyfully as he discovered a new lease of life; the unhappy couple tentatively holding hands at the water’s edge; the newly engaged couple lying on a rug away from the rest of us. And there were the newlyweds; watching their children build sandcastles alongside my own; his hand resting protectively on her stomach.

A new beginning for them all.

And a beach that was never really just to ourselves.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Re-establishing the pecking order

Until having our own girls, I never noticed how many English idioms and phrases relate to chickens.

While they cluck and scratch I peg the clothes on the line feeling like Henny Penny and my children run around like chickens with their heads cut off. While I don’t like to hen-peck as I know Stuart is busy scratching out a living for us, creating our nest egg, I do sometimes feel that help around the house is as scarce as hen’s teeth. Why don’t those little boys, in particular, want to take more care feathering their nest? Why don’t I make them take more care – after all, who rules the roost?

Have I been too much of a Mother Hen? What comes first anyway, the chicken or the egg? No, I won’t count my chickens before they hatch. I’ll give them another chance to hatch a plan for how they will tidy up, or their floor will get tidied up into a garbage bag. They had better not put all their toys into one basket, either.

Who says hanging out the washing is boring?!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Thank you You Tube

'Make sure you don’t clip through the living part of the feather. It will start bleeding and that can be potentially fatal.’

Not the comforting words we wanted to hear on a Sunday at 9.30am. It had been a calm morning up until that point. Mum had popped over with coffees, the kids were playing upstairs and we were sitting on the deck.

All of a sudden there was the sound of wings flapping and we saw Chippy sitting on top of the paling fence. Yes, the boundary fence into next door’s garden. Her head kept turning to look on our side of the fence and then the other. Was she thinking about which way to jump, was she as bewildered as we were that she could get up that high, or was she just trying to grab our attention?

If it was for attention, it worked. After she cleverly chose to jump down back into her own run, conversations were flying around about chicken wire on the paling fence, perhaps some rolled on top of the wire fence.

‘It will look awful!’ I moaned.

‘But it will be the best way to keep the chooks in,’ said Stuart, not the aesthete. ‘They can’t be flying into next door and we can’t be worried about them being safe all day every day.’

‘Fine,’ I muttered. ‘You can clip their wings.’ I stomped inside to get the computer hoping this experience wouldn't end the same way as much of Stuart's DIY.

We watched four videos on wing clipping; the first with Iowa chicken farmers who talked too much about blood and fatality to warrant a second viewing. The second with English farmers who also had chooks escaping over the back fence but after they admitted they had never clipped wings before AND numerous minutes were taken up with them trying to catch their chicken, we decided to leave them to it.

Then we watched a very knowledgeable New Zealander talk about the theory of wing clipping but it soon became hard to hear her over the squawking hen on her lap.

‘Don’t let the children watch us do this,’ said Mum.

Confidence was filling the air.

And then we found her; Suzie who runs Golden Valley Poultry. She was going to show the proper way to clip chicken wings, step by step.

‘It’s just like doing your nails’, she said calmly holding a docile chook in one arm and a big pair of scissors in the other.

Once she explained the flight feathers at the top, the warm feathers and the separating feather, confidence really was starting to fill the air around us.

Stuart held Chippy and mum held the scissors. I held onto the i-pad in case we needed Suzie again. And then it was over. Black feathers on the grass and a very calm Chippy.

We clipped all three chooks and Suzie was right; just like cutting your nails.

There was no pain, but I think their pride was hurt. Once all three were back in the run, they took themselves off to bed for a while.

By 6pm, we were back on the deck enjoying drinks with friends when there was sudden flapping and a loud bang into the fence. Chippy tried to fly up to the gate but got no further than halfway.

What is it with 6pm?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A change of name

What is it about 6pm? It’s been four days now and each evening at 6pm, Chippy and Axy jump the gate. It’s like they’re flying home to roost – in the wrong direction. At no other time of day do they attempt the crossing from the run into the garden.

It’s not so stressful for me anymore: they don’t venture far on our side of the gate and they don’t attempt to fly anywhere else. They also don’t do much digging when they are out. But they do poo a lot.

I wonder if it has become a game for them. I’m sure Chippy waits until she knows we can see her. It’s become her party trick. Chirp still has never attempted to jump or fly and I can’t help feeling an extra soft spot for her.

‘I think it’s because she’s the biggest’, said Stuart one evening. ‘It’s probably too hard for her to jump up.’

‘Maybe she’s just well-behaved’ I answered looking Chippy in the eye while she stared out from behind the gate.

The boys were leaning over the fence making their own observations. ‘Look Ned,’ whispered Louis, ‘Axy likes digging a lot.’

It was true. The last few days had seen Axy digging a little hole for herself under the tree then sitting in it. Later she would get up, scratch the dirt back over the hole and make another somewhere else. Their little personalities were starting to emerge: Chippy the escapee (or cheeky Chippy), Axy the digger and Chirp the quiet, good girl.

The children discussed over dinner how ‘amazing’ it was that the hens’ personalities mimicked their own. Not that Louis did much digging and sitting in holes, but we all agreed that if Ned ever flew the coop, Louis would be right behind him.

Before bed, Louis had an announcement. ‘I don’t want to call my chicken Axy anymore. She likes digging so I think we’ll call her Diggy!’

‘Are you sure?’ asked Stuart sounding disappointed, possibly knowing how pleased I would be to no longer have a chicken called Axe-man.

He nodded, ‘I like Diggy much better. Good night.’

It wouldn’t be long before Diggy’s name changed again. And again. And again. I hope she has never realised. The last thing this house needs is a chook with an identity crisis.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The excitement from the night before

Stuart left for the airport at 5am. It was the chooks second morning here and my first morning of letting them out. I dosed until daybreak, dreaming about the chooks running up and down our street dodging cars. I woke with a start hearing strangulated clucks – oh god, the chooks! What’s wrong with the chooks?! It was a few seconds before I realised the strangulated clucks were instead a magpie screeching.

I forced myself up, fuming. Why do I do this to myself? It’s hard enough having three children! Why do I need to worry about three chooks as well? But as I walked into the kitchen I saw two little boys in their dressing gowns sitting on the window seat looking out the window. Their little heads were so still; there was no talking.

‘Good morning’ I said as I switched the kettle on.

‘Hi mum’, replied Ned not turning around.

‘What are you looking at?’ I asked.

‘We’re waiting for the chickens to get up’, Louis said.

That’s right, I had to go and open the coop. Lifting the roof, I saw the three of them perched and fast asleep. The sound they made was a cross between a purr and a hum. It was soft and content. I opened the doors of the coop and walked away.

The boys didn’t leave their post. The girls didn’t attempt to leave their perch. We all ate breakfast watching and waiting for the chooks to appear. Lily finally appeared rubbing her eyes. School lunches were packed. Uniforms were found. There was a lost sock search and still the chooks slept.

Stuart sent a text from Melbourne: ‘Has everyone woken up ok? How are the chooks this morning?’

It was 8.30am. ‘They must really be tired after their adventures last night’ said Ned shaking his head, packing his schoolbag.

‘Let’s give them some lettuce’, I suggested.

We could hear the quiet clucks – Clucky already at the door of the hutch wide awake. She came out for the lettuce and wandered around the run; the one chook who hadn’t attempted an escape. Axy soon followed her.

While awake, Chippy refused to budge off her perch. She still looked tired.

Poor Chippy. Four jumps over the gate was obviously more taxing than she expected. But would that be enough to keep her wings by her side for evermore?!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cheeky chickens

Ned came running up to me as he left the classroom after the bell went. With his huge smile and arms outstretched I felt touched that he was so pleased to see me on a Monday afternoon.

‘Yay! I’ve been waiting all day to get home and see the chickens!’

Ok, so not so much about me...

‘Oh yeah,’ said Lily absent-mindedly, ‘I forgot all about the chickens.’

As we walked home, Louis and I told them about the chooks’ day. A bit of scratching, a lot of eating was all that seemed to happen.

The kids gave them some vege scraps and we all got on with the afternoon. When Stuart came home, we stood in the garden watching the ‘girls’ thinking how easy it all was.

Too easy.

I went to pilates at 6pm and once home I noticed the side gate had chicken wire all over it. Strange. I was pretty sure it wasn’t there before I left.

I walked into the kitchen to find Stuart making dinner. ‘Why is there chicken wire on the side gate?’

He stopped stirring, looked at me and smiled. ‘It seems our chooks aren’t as docile as you thought. Chippy is quite the escape artist actually and Axy enjoys copying him.’

Hang on, which one was Chippy again?

‘Four times he jumped over the fence’, Stuart continued, with slightly too much glee I felt. ‘Don’t worry they didn’t go far and then tried to get back into the run through the wire.’

‘We might have to get their wings clipped,’ I said over dinner, still surprised that they had flown the coop. The breeder said he’d only ever had to clip one chook’s wings it was so unusual.

Stuart nodded. ‘Yeah, I was thinking I’d have to do that.’

Hang on. Surely not...

‘It’s not that hard. I’m sure I could find out how on the internet.’

Oh no. This could be a disaster. As much as he is amazing at many things, fixing things is not one of them. In this house, shelves have fallen down, as have pictures off walls. While putting together the flat-pack chicken coop, he split the wood and broke the roof.

‘I think we should go back to the breeder for that...’

‘Don’t you think I can do it?’ he looked surprised.

‘Maybe it was a one-off’ I said, ‘Let’s not worry about clipping any wings unless they try escaping again’.

I looked out into the quiet, dark garden hoping those chooks could sense what’s good for them.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Who knew choosing a chook would be so hard?

It was a Sunday afternoon when we found ourselves driving out through the suburbs of Sydney to collect our chooks. A beautiful Spring day, we stopped off to have brunch with friends on the way.

‘What great weather’, we commented to each other while eating bacon and egg rolls in their garden.

‘It sure is great weather for collecting chooks’, said Ned with a big smile.

Yes, I thought, this is the right time for us to be doing this. The kids were going to love it.

Although, Stuart may have been the most excited. For a week he’d been researching breeds on the internet.

‘Wow, look at this’, he had said with alarming regularity. ‘The Black Mottled Ancona, how beautiful is this bird!’

I looked over his shoulder, first noting “nervous and restless in confinement”.

‘Well what about the Belgian D’Uccle?’

‘Ummm. You want a “broody and fidgety” chicken?’ I replied feeling more nervous.

‘Well, come on. Let’s not just get a boring chicken. I want something interesting and attractive. Let’s do it properly!’ was the reply.

Followed a few minutes later with...

‘Yes, I’ve found it! We HAVE to get this breed that lays blue eggs. Look at how beautiful it is and the kids will love blue eggs!’

I felt bad dampening his enthusiasm but seriously the last thing we needed was a chook who was “nervous and flighty and prone to the sniffles”.

An awful thought crossed my mind. ‘You do realise we are not going to become people who show chickens competitively?’

‘Mmm. I suppose not.’ He looked disappointed.

But now here we were, safe in the knowledge that the chicken breeder had already told Stuart on the phone the breeds that would best suit our 3 children family in the middle of the city. After arriving I casually reiterated that we were really after docile, friendly chooks that wouldn’t get broody and would lay eggs regularly.

Then Stuart spotted a white chicken with what looked like a huge pom pom on top of its head.

‘How cool is that one!’ he pointed excitedly.

The breeder smiled and shook his head. ‘You’d need a roof on your run. Those ones love to fly’. ‘Let me show you what you really want.’

With our three chooks calmly sitting in their shredded paper-lined box ready for the drive home, Stuart asked the kids to name them.

‘I want the black one to be called Chippy!’ said Ned.

‘And I chose the brown spotty one so that’s mine and I’m calling her Clucky!’ said Lily.

Louis looked for a while at the little red chicken, as yet un-named. ‘I think Axy’, he said.

‘Axy?’ the chicken breeder and I both said.

‘Axy as in Axe-man’ Louis laughed.

I think the irony was lost on him.

‘You can’t call a chicken that!’ I said sounding too much like my mother. ‘What about Henny Penny?’

‘Let him call it what he likes’, replied Stuart perhaps still smarting from not getting the exotic, neurotic breeds he really wanted.

I tried again on the drive home. ‘Kids, are you sure you don’t want to think of some more interesting names?’

‘What’s wrong with their names?’ asked Stuart. I realised that as he had named his first pet Budgie the Budgerigar this wouldn’t be a conversation worth continuing.

I comforted myself with the knowledge that it was more important that we had three docile non-flighty birds... Or so I thought.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Back to Nature

It’s been a while since I’ve been here – both figuratively and literally. This year has been a bit of a slog... nothing catastrophic but a feeling of teetering on the edge of catastrophe a few too many times.

I’ve learnt a little more about myself throughout these months. For one, the joy of gardening and watching plants grow and thrive. Something I never thought I would find relaxing or restorative. Watering the garden, tending to the plants started to feel almost meditative – a mental break and a moment to be fully present.

It was during one such morning I heard them. Quietly at first, so quiet I wasn’t sure if I’d heard anything at all. But there it was again. An unmistakeable ‘cluck cluck’ followed by a cooing sound. Chickens! There were chickens over the fence.

It wasn’t long before the whole family was asking for our own chickens. In theory I loved the idea – that irresistible cluck, the fresh eggs, a pet that wouldn’t need walking – but in reality I fought against it. Our postage stamp garden was too small. I didn’t want the roses dug up or the grass seed just sprouting to be uprooted. I didn’t want an ugly chicken wire fence making our small outdoor space even smaller.

‘We will have chooks one day,’ I kept saying, ‘when we have a bigger house and garden.’

And then the children’s birthdays all came, one month after another. And with it the realisation that they are growing up. Lily just turned nine and as Stuart so helpfully reminded me, in another nine years she will be 18. Hang on, where did the first nine years go? When did our third baby, the one who still felt a bit of a novelty, turn four? This year I have spent time visiting friends with three kids under five and found myself realising how long ago those days felt for me. In fact I can hardly remember the house full of toddlers and tantrums. Life has moved on and I haven’t noticed.

So, on the two mornings a week all the children were out of the house I found myself looking forward to my cup of tea on the deck listening to the clucks from behind the fence. Maybe we could fit chooks here, I started thinking. After all, this garden would have had a cow in it 130 years ago.

How long would it be before the kids weren’t interested in pets, chickens, home, us anyway? We can’t keep waiting for ‘one day’. Time doesn’t allow it – it’s already here. And now so are our three girls: Chippy, Clucky and Diggy. One red, one brown with white spots and one black with red spots.

I have a feeling this blog may now become a space to write about them. Interestingly, it’s only since they arrived last weekend that I have felt like writing again.

Not that they do much, but they do seem to do something to all of us. While watching them scratching around on their first morning, Stuart said over his cup of tea, ‘It’s like watching the waves.’

Yes, it really is.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Loss and Life

This year seems to have started with many friends around me suffering the loss of someone close. A constant reminder of the fragility of life and a sense of fear about how any of us will make it through to old age. Chances seem slim when you hear so many different stories.

Since my father died, I have always found the new year particularly poignant. Another year that he will never know. Another year that pushes him further away from our lives. My greatest fear when he died was that my children would have no memory or understanding of him. His death prompted me to start writing; for the children and for me.

Last week Lily told my mother she had no memory of him whatsoever. Even when she looked at the photos of him holding her as a baby, she couldn’t sense him at all. Yet, when he died and she was not quite two, she talked about him all the time. So much so that her chatter prompted me to write the story below.

A story that not only helped me cope with my loss but more importantly a story I need to read to her again.

(first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 22, 2007)
A Shift in Perception

Lily loved her Pa. He was always reading to her. Everytime Pa came to visit, Lily would rush to her bookshelf and find a collection of books to read together. Afterwards they would pull funny faces and make each other laugh. Pa always made Lily laugh and Lily always made Pa laugh. He was always smiling.

Then Pa started to visit a bit less. When he did, he looked tired and was sometimes too tired to read to Lily. Luckily Mama was always with him, so she would read to Lily while Pa watched, still smiling.

Soon Pa stopped visiting at all and Lily’s mummy would take her to visit him. ‘We’re going to have morning tea with Pa today’, she would say and Lily would rush to her bookshelf to find different books to show him. Mostly Pa would be in a chair by the bed, looking out the window. Sometimes he would be asleep. Each time he looked very sad but as soon as he saw Lily, his eyes would light-up and he would give her the widest grins. Lily would run up to him laughing, kiss his cheek and rummage through her bag for her books. Pa couldn’t read to her anymore, so Lily’s mummy would instead. Lily didn’t mind — whenever she looked at Pa while mummy was reading, he was watching, still smiling.

Sometimes he slept while Lily’s mummy read, but he always woke up to kiss Lily goodbye. As Lily walked out of his room, she would turn back to wave and Pa was always watching, still smiling.

One day, they didn’t go to visit Pa and everyone in Lily’s family — her mummy, daddy, mama, auntie and uncle — looked very sad. Lily wasn’t sure why as she could see Pa in the loungeroom with them all. Watching, still smiling.

Lily missed sitting on Pa’s lap and having him read to her. She would often look at her books by herself, only she was never really by herself as she would look up and always see Pa watching her, still smiling.

Sometimes she would try and read her books aloud to him but she couldn’t remember all the words, as hard as she tried. Pa never seemed to mind though as he was still watching, still smiling.

Lily’s mummy was often sad and told Lily it was because she missed Pa. Lily wanted to make her feel better so would go to her bookshelf and find her favourite books. As Lily’s mummy read to her, Lily saw she had tears in her eyes. Lily couldn’t understand why as Pa was there too. Watching, still smiling.

That night Lily had a dream about Pa. Lily was so excited. She could cuddle him and sit on his lap. Best of all, he could read to her again — all the books in her bookshelf! They laughed and laughed together. He wasn’t tired anymore and he was so happy. Lily kept looking up at him as he read. Of course he was watching, still smiling.

After he finished the last book, he folded Lily in his arms and told her he had to go. He asked her not to be sad because it was good. He was all better now. But Lily didn’t want him to go. She wanted to stay on his lap and have him read to her forever. He hugged her and said that every time she read a book to think of him; he would be there, between every word and page. He would point at the pictures and laugh with her at the funny bits, just like always. Then Pa told her it was time to go back to sleep. She nestled her head in the crook of his arm and closed her eyes while he watched, still smiling.

In the morning, Lily raced to her bookshelf to find her favourite book and sat down to start reading. Straight away she felt Pa next to her but when she looked up he wasn’t there. She kept reading though, always thinking about him. And Pa continued to watch, always smiling.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Back to work but still time for a holiday read

I’ve mentioned earlier my love of Penny Vincenzi novels so you can imagine my excitement when, just before Christmas, I noticed she had a new book out. My idea of escapist reading has always been a 700-odd page saga with a cast of more than 20 characters that explores the huge, messy themes of life. My perfect holiday read.

To be honest, it’s my perfect-any-time-of-year read as her stories are so readable. Page-turning. As she said in a recent Sydney Morning Herald interview, “I write to entertain my readers and hopefully make their lives just a little better, not to win prizes. What I like best is when I get notes from readers who tell me they've had a long spell in hospital and my book has helped them get through it; that makes me very happy.''

I laughed. In the last few years, I have only been able to convert a few friends to becoming Vincenzi fans during enforced rest time: late-stages of pregnancy, or looking for something ‘easy’ to read during all the hours spent breast-feeding and most recently, a friend who spent a spell in hospital.

While pregnant with Ned, I had the opportunity to interview Penny for Good Reading magazine and leapt at it. Despite her success – 16 bestsellers and seven million books sold to date – she is extremely modest, spending much of our interview time asking me questions about my pregnancy and telling me stories about her own four children and grandchildren.

But, about her career and her writing, here is what she had to say...

First published in Good Reading magazine October 2005

Penny For Her Thoughts

Watching Penny Vincenzi pour our tea from across the table, I am struck by how unaffected she is. Despite having sold over five million books worldwide, she is more interested in my pregnancy and chatting about her husband and four daughters, than promoting her latest novel, Sheer Abandon. Settling back into our armchairs, the pregnancy conversation segues towards the idea for her latest novel.

Sheer Abandon follows the lives of three women who meet aged 18 on their way to Thailand. Nine months later, one of them returns to London, giving birth at Heathrow Airport and abandoning the baby. The book moves forward 16 years, when the women are reunited and the now-teenager begins the search for her natural mother.

“The original idea came from a story in the paper. I thought it was an irresistible idea for a book but there needed to be more. Then I thought of the three girls, not knowing who the mother was and the story slowly unravelling. I also realised that the emotional fallout of everyone finding out years later would be as hard to cope with as the discovery.”

As with all Penny’s books, she doesn’t know how her stories will end: “I start with the idea, marshal a few of my characters…it’s a bit like going to a party and thinking ‘He looks interesting’, ‘she looks smart’ and I gradually get to know them. Then I wind them up, off they go and I follow them. They very much shape the plot as they take on a will of their own.”

Indeed, she is often as shocked as the reader with plot twists: “I remember with one book, after writing all day I went for an evening walk with my husband. I was telling him about the terrible day I’d had with one of the characters and then I realised, oh my God, she’s died! And it really was a shock. The minute I said it, I knew it had to happen for the story to work.”

Any fan of Vincenzi’s work will know that all her books are at least 500 pages — and you still don’t want them to end — packed with extraordinary detail of the characters, their careers, and the era and society they live in. Unsurprisingly, research is one of the things Penny loves most about writing:

“I used to be a journalist and it was such a lovely, chatty job; whereas fiction is incredibly isolating. Doing research is like being a journalist again.” Politics plays a major role in Sheer Abandon; a world she knew little about: “I spent a lot of time at the House of Commons talking to MPs and political journalists, going to their restaurants and bars…soaking up the atmosphere. You have to get the tone of voice right, so I spent a lot of time listening and immersing myself in their world.”

With Penny’s natural flair for creating such readable escapist fiction, it is a shock to discover she never intended to write a book, or that even after writing the first one she would become a novelist:

“I was approached to write a novel and I had an idea so thought I’d do it and then go back to being a journalist. It was a complete surprise to me how much I loved it and how it has turned into something really wonderful. I’m amazed that I have all these plots and sub-plots in my head!”

After writing a book nearly every year, and Sheer Abandon being her 12th novel, it does seem the ideas have never stopped flowing: “I’m very workman like about what I do. While I have days when I can’t write, I just sit there and sweat it out. I think it’s a bit of a luxury to get writer’s block. I’ve always got a deadline, so have to keep going.”

Up at 6am every morning, Penny walks her dog and during this time does her plotting. She is at her desk and writing by 9am. “I work office hours really but as a deadline gets nearer, I’ll do six days a week, then sometimes seven.”

She is also very aware of balancing her life: “I have a family and it’s not fair to them so I do stop work in the evenings and cook my husband supper. I’m a good 50s housewife: I cook, shop and keep house for him because that’s how I was brought up and I can’t change it! My children and grandchildren take up a lot of time too…they’re the only ones I will stop work for.”

As we sit with our second cup of tea, analysing her characters as if they were real friends, it is evident that Penny is a long way from running out of fresh ideas. “I love finding these people, seeing their foibles and strengths. It’s my favourite part and it’s a hideous blank when you finish.”

As it is for her readers.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Up and down the garden path

The 18th century architect William Kent once said that ‘a garden is a world unto itself, it had better make room for the darker shades of feeling as well as the sunny ones.’ This quote eloquently sums up my struggle with gardening my entire adult life – the emotional struggle. I couldn’t see past the ‘darker shades’, so much so that I stayed well away from getting my hands dirty lest nothing grew or worse, died.

I always loved flowers and appreciated beautiful gardens, I just never felt capable of growing my own. My mother is a gardener and over the years has grown gardens from scratch and tended established ones. The only time I remember her feeling stressed about gardening was when looking after her aunt’s orchids. She lived in fear for the four weeks her aunt was on holiday that she would do something that would inadvertently kill them.

It was how I felt about any sort of plant.

After getting married I realised I had found a man who loved gardening as much as my mother. I quickly took on the role of executive gardener; ‘Let’s grow a wisteria over the pergola’; ‘gardenias would look good near the back door and will make the house smell lovely’, ‘I really want hydrangeas along the back fence’, ‘what about lavender in the window boxes?’

And my wishes were granted. He was happy to be led and I was happy to let him do the digging, planting, watering, fertilising, composting. He would read the gardening pages in the weekend papers with the same enthusiasm I would read the book reviews. Sharing a cup of tea in the garden would involve me sitting on the deck while he walked around checking for aphids, black spot, stink bugs and other undesirables.

‘Why can’t you just sit down and enjoy the garden?’ I would ask.

‘But I do,’ he insisted, ‘I just enjoy working in it rather than admiring it from afar.’

A gardener’s work is never done, is it? Once you get rid of one lot of stink bugs, another lot fly in. Once you think you’ve solved the nutrient deficiency with the gardenias, the leaves turn yellow again. How is that enjoyable?

After Lily was born, mum would suggest ‘getting out in the garden’ while my daughter slept.

‘I always sit in the garden and have a cup of tea’, I told her.

‘No, I mean, why not water the garden? It’s a great stress reliever,’ she evangelised. ‘I couldn’t wait to get out in the garden and water it when you girls were little. It’s like meditating.’

No, I thought, it’s like another chore to add to the list of loading the washing machine and hanging clothes on the line.

But then something happened. As my children grew and the house became noisier, the garden and the gentle sound of the water trickling from the hose offered calm; even more so with a glass of wine in hand at dusk while Stuart took over the dinner battle inside.

And then on our trip to England, we spent time in Cotswold villages surrounded by cottages hundreds of years old. There were espaliered pear trees growing around front doors. And roses. Climbing, rambling roses everywhere. The gardening bug suddenly bit me hard.

‘I want to grow a climbing rose in our front courtyard’, I told Stuart during the flight home.

‘Okay’, he said slowly, unsure of why this thought had hit me somewhere over Russia in the middle of the night.

‘Roses can be hard to grow,’ he warned. I knew that already. He had been trying to grow a banksia rose for years but all it seemed to do successfully was grow some sort of mould.

I got home and started researching varieties of roses on the internet. How many could there be? Hundreds it turns out. Accepting my lack of even basic garden knowledge, I took mum and ventured to a nursery specialising in roses an hour’s drive away.

Cornering one of the gardeners as he watered the pots and pots of roses, I asked his advice.

‘You’ll need the Climbing Pinkie,’ he said pointing to a column with roses cascading all over it.

‘Is that what it will look like?’ I replied, awed at the sight of so many roses.

‘Yes, just water them every day, make sure the pots drain well, feed them with rose food every six weeks and after two or three years that’s what it should look like.’

For the first time I wanted to be the one responsible for making a plant grow.

‘Could you just tell me again how to look after them?’ I said while searching through my handbag for a scrap of paper and pen.

‘Just water every day and feed them six weekly.’

‘That’s it? Every six weeks, all year long? How do I know when I’ve given them enough water? How much soil did you say the pots would need again? Is there anything else I should know?’ I asked while writing down every word he said.

The gardener and my mother exchanged glances.

‘This is her first rose,’ she said.

‘Oh,’ came the reply. ‘You know, everyone thinks it’s really hard to grow roses but it’s not.’

As we spent the afternoon planting I mentioned that I could never lose the bit of paper I’d written the gardener’s advice on.

‘It’s funny,’ began mum, ‘but in old gardens that have been neglected you often find that a rambling rose is the only plant to have survived.’

A couple of weeks later, I walked past my old Italian neighbour working in his tiny front garden. The narrow patch of soil between the brick fence and pebbledash is home to three or four abundant roses, all in flower at the moment.

‘Morning, how are you’, he smiled as he does every day.

‘Morning,’ I replied. ‘Your roses are lovely.’

‘Ah yes, beautiful.’

‘How do you look after them?’ I asked. ‘Do you feed them?’

‘I do nothing but this,’ he said wobbling his watering can at me and laughing.

He shook his head with a look that seemed to say, ‘you young people worry too much’.

Maybe he’s right. Today my rose is growing, before my eyes. The kids and I water it each morning and count the buds appearing. I started counting caterpillars last weekend and even that didn’t stress me too much, because like with life, you take the good with the bad. For all the beautiful flowers that will bloom, there will be just as many bugs and caterpillars.

As the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote ‘You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.’

Yes, I think I finally am.


Related Posts with Thumbnails