In the bakery near the preschool where we go to buy buns sometimes, there is a customer service relic from PRL days- bouffant, name badge, perpetual scowl. Marcin goes in to get some breakfast on our way to drop the kids off in the morning, and I wait outside. When he comes out I as, How’s Pani Teresa’s mood today?
Stable, he answers. And gives a violent, outraged snort to show what this means. I laugh all the way to preschool.
The kids’ hilarious identifications of Australian birds- besides the ‘funny stork’ (a ibis), there’s also a ‘funny crow’ ( a currawong), a ‘big seagull’ (a pelican) and lots of ‘pawwots’ (this covers the whole range from a honeyeater to a cockatoo.)
After a few days, I feel poorly and take to my bed. In practice, this means lying on the couch under the shed overhang in Franki’s garden, shrouded in a sheet to keep the flies off, fevering the afternoon away with dreams about a boy I knew in primary school who was later killed in a car accident. My companions throughout the afternoon are a flock of rowdy parrots, oblivious to my corpse-like presence, feasting on the grevillea tree and bickering with each other.
Driving up Mount Tambourine after a swim, stuck in a line of impatient drivers, we look up and see a wedgetail eagle cruising down to land on a tree by the road. I have never seen one up really close and when I see its hooked, predatory beak and hairy legs, I ask Franki in all serious if she’s sure it’s not a vulture.
We’re at the house of J., a friend whose father died last month. We’re good friends but the subject of this bereavement is a difficult one- it’s surprisingly hard to say, so, how are you feeling now your dad’s dead?
We’re sitting in the kitchen, me and Marcin and J. and his wife, all the non-bereaved a bit shifty-eyed but determined not to pretend it hasn’t happened, and the conversation is lurching along, grief, what to do about it, etc. J. doesn’t really want to discuss it, so we’re skirting around him a bit, but still going, slightly braver for the wine but out of our depth . Their kids come into the kitchen and start sniffing around for something to eat and J. asks them what they’re going to have for dinner. Chocolate wafers, says Zosia. Oh, OK. says J. You’d better have two, then.
In Newcastle, we stay with our friends Chris and Laura. Of all the people we know, these are the ones who shared the biggest part of our cycling trip 5 years ago- we saw Angkor Wat and the Great Wall of China with them, lounged on a Thai island and unexpectedly ran across each other in the foamy streets of Vientiane when we thought we had already seen each other for the last time. Now we are all thoroughly domesticated, having produced 4 children between us in the space of 3 years. Of course, we talk baby farming, but not only. For 2 days we can have those lovely meandering conversations which happen around the obligations of the day. Sometimes we don’t say anything.
Maja and Janek fall in love with their son Hugo, and insist on going everywhere holding his hands, flanking him. They refer to him as HIM. Mummy, I want to hold hands with HIM. Hugo is not averse, as they race about the museum and leap into the fountain in one long glorious chain of 3 year old exuberance.
In Sydney, we are caught up in a social whirl. Our friend Kat organises a barbeque for us and I talk late into the night with old friends. I am so involved in this day-long conversation that when a mad, cyclonic storm blows up in the afternoon I don’t even notice it.
Some of what goes on this trip is mere maintenance, hoping to keep friendships going for another couple of years until we come again. I’ve spent too much time being sick to fulfil the whole ambitious plan of visits. So instead, sometimes there’s only a phone call, or a short, harried picnic, just to say, we love you, wait for us until next time.
Heading south from Stanthorpe, still feeling shaky. We stop at Guyra, in the throes of the lamb and potato festival, and are buying some sausages when a deluge begins. It rains so hard that the air becomes a wall of water. We decide there and then that camping is not a wise idea, and drive through more storms down to Ebor on the waterfall way and get a room in the motel. We compensate by going up to the national park to cook our dinner instead.
The waterfalls are racing, great volumes of water sliding off old lava. Everything is saturated, literally and figuratively; the grass is a poisonous green, tree trunks shine lurid orange, and the water disappears into a bright, impenetrable wall of vegetation. A magpie comes begging for food and the kids give it their leftover spaghetti. I have the best sleep of the trip so far.
The rain clears, finally, in the afternoon. In the evening we turn onto the Lakes WAy and start heading down to Booti-Booti, planning to camp. We drive through the blocky, estuarine sprawl of Tuncurry and Forster, which appear to be inhabited solely by bronzed schoolies and condo-owning pensioners. When we get to the campground at Booti-Booti, it turns out to be hosting a convention of teenage bogans, and we keep going.
After a night in the tent, we pull off the highway for breakfast in Buladelah. We cook in a rest area right on the river, noting the flood debris in the the trees at a level far above our heads. The sun glints off the water, and a flock of geese arrives. They clamber up the bank and start grazing as if they own the place.
I don’t often think about how different Maja and Janek’s childhood is to mine, or what it’s going to mean for their allegiances later on. Sometimes I wonder when they’re going to start correcting my Polish, but otherwise I’m too wrapped up in getting through the day to reflect much.
So I don’t even know how to name the feeling that came over me when I went to pick them up at pre-school on the Friday after Independence Day, and saw two smeary red and white Polish flags hanging on the art display board, signed with their names. A faintly fearful, faintly nostalgic feeling- things that I will never understand will be important to them.
I told them the truth, but they didn’t want to hear it.
NO little piggies. They from a TREE.