We’re on the ferry from Puttgarden, Germany, to Copenhagen. Bleak skies, choppy, grey water, the mournful cries of gulls. Grim Scandinavians frown into their shot glasses around me while I sit in the bar, reading. Then, from somewhere unseen, Wallander’s ringtone. I know it’s not Sweden—not quite—but my stomach drops. It always portends some alarming development when Wallander’s phone rings.
A café at Schiphol Airport—Amsterdam. I ask for a decaf soy latte.
The waiter tips his head back a little. ‘We have no soy milk,’ he says.
‘No soy at all?’
‘No. Starbucks has soy milk.’
There’s a challenge in his expression. Am I the type to decamp for Starbucks? Or am I a sophisticated euro traveller? He flicks a glance around our table of seven.
I stare him down. ‘I’ll have a cup of tea. Black tea.’
He smiles faintly and taps his stylus on his tablet. Around us, diners return to their conversations, waitstaff to their orders. The hum and clatter of the cafe resumes.
Dr Helen Caldicott, anti-nuclear activist, humanist, physician, returned to Bermagui on 10 February during a week when South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission was preparing to deliver its “Tentative Findings”. Dr Caldicott was speaking at the Bermagui Institute dinner; her topic was “Nuclear South Australia”.
The speaker shared anecdotes from her forty years of campaigning, detailed the hazards to human health and the environment presented by the nuclear industry, and advanced three main points: one, that the recent search for a site to store radioactive waste from Australia’s only nuclear reactor is premised on a lie; two, that Premier Jay Weatherill’s pursuit of a nuclear industry for SA is unnecessary and dangerous; and three, that public education and the democratic process are the only means by which nuclear expansion can be curtailed.
Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman … And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wet-nosed yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.
You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing.
Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep.
Dylan Thomas could have written the opening of Under Milkwood for me, prowling around the house at two, three, four o’clock in the morning, while the gentlefolk—and stock, and pets—of Quaama village slumber on. Or maybe not the cats. I hear them prowling too, and yowling their territorial warnings.
I often think of Nelson Mandela as I wait, door ajar, for my shower to warm up. I have done so for years, ever since I read his autobiography. Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island, had to endure cold showers for 30 years. It gets pretty icy on Robben Island. And I whinge about waiting 15 seconds for the water to run warm.
Of course, cold water isn’t my problem; hot water is. I used to wonder why I felt like a ragdoll after my shower, weak and unbalanced for half an hour or more. Now I know to keep the temperature moderate. No hot water on my head or back.
And don’t start me on hot baths! These days they’re a rare luxury for when I know I don’t have anything else to do that night – and when the Mechanic’s there to help me climb out. Or for severe neuralgia episodes, when a brief bout of lower limb paralysis is a small price to pay to make the pain go away.
Upon hearing that the planet had warmed by one degree Celsius, a conservative politician said that he could get on a plane in Melbourne and get off in Sydney an hour later and find the temperature higher by a comfortable six degrees, so what’s the problem?
In fact, a global rise of one degree has increased the incidence of extremely hot days in southeast Australia by a factor of ten. It’s because temperatures, like most natural phenomena, arrange themselves along Bell curves. And a shift to the right of just one degree has massive ramifications, not at the height of the curve but at that very low, very sensitive-to-change high end. If it seems that bushfires are starting earlier in the season and becoming more frequent lately, that explains why.
If I do end up in a wheelchair, at least I’ll be able to wear nice shoes again.
Are you shocked? I was, when I realised I’d had that thought. But I was having fond memories of working in Amsterdam in my mid-twenties, and how surprised and delighted I was to be able to walk into any shoe shop and find smart Italian shoes in my size (41) on the shelf – no special order required. Of course, this was the Netherlands, where my 5’10” frame was suddenly average, so of course my shoe size was nothing so unusual either.
Since I was 28 I have worn a ring on my right hand, a cabochon star ruby set in a gold band. Also known as corundum ruby, this complex, plum-coloured stone is the bedrock that nurtures ruby crystals – the bright, red, glassy stones more common in jewellery. In sunlight the hexagonal crystal structure shines a six-pointed star.
Similarly, my recent regime – the probiotics, the supplements, the gym routine, the three symptomatic treatments I was on – was feeling like a bedrock of stability. Not a cure, but a rich, strong foundation from which stars sometimes shine, from which crystals can grow.
One hot summer’s day, years ago, I’d been out in the veggie garden doing some harvesting. Picture me, the flower-child – long floral skirt, tatty straw hat, basket filled with zucchinis, tomatoes, zucchinis, beans… more zucchinis… Anyway, I came inside and flopped down on the sofa, overheated and pooped, to give myself time to cool down and recover before flicking through 101 Zesty Ways with Zucchinis or something. That’s when I felt a strange new sensation along my left leg. It was kind of tingly, kind of prickly.