email is a fine, as far as it goes, but it’s not a patch on face to face meetings. Part of grounding myself back here is spending time with my amazing community of friends.
I visit Elizabeth in her shop, Holey Glass Beadery and Jewellery Gallery, in Cobargo. We sit on the deck out the back with her three-legged dog, chatting and avoiding raindrops. I’ve known her since the early days of my life on the south coast when she was living rough with three small children in the bush a long way from town. Right now she’s in the early stages of cultivating dreadlocks, and planning a trip to China and Mongolia. She is the queen of enterprise: over the years, she’s sold secondhand goods, natural foods, paper, and now beads, both in the Cobargo shop and in showcases online. She’s also been a reading recovery teacher, a special needs teacher, a traveller, and a music teacher, all these things with her whole heart.
Christina is at home, in her flat near the ocean. I meet her new puppy, Clancy, soft-furred and licky-nippy, bought with the proceeds of a poker machine win, and reluctant to sit still enough for an unblurry portrait. I’ve known her even longer than I’ve known Elizabeth. She plays guitar and recorder – she taught me for a while; has been a potter; and is studying music long distance. She’s a superlative letter writer, and I curse email that has deprived me of her pages of entertaining scrawl. She tells me it’s her father’s birthday tomorrow. He’ll be 93 and he’s still working as an earth mover. Our conversation ranges over books, grandchildren, art, the difficulties of learning a new piece of music, the vagaries of men and mothers, while Clancy, bright-eyed, takes in every word.
Meg is a somewhat newer friend, if you can call 25 years new. She fairly recently retired to Bingie just up the coast from me, after a life as environmental activist, heritage manager, and consultant to Aboriginal communities planning businesses. She tells me about the building of a bread oven called Esmeralda, and her venture into the world of YouTube to document its construction; her extensive family, children, stepchildren and both kinds of grandchildren; and plans for a trip to New Zealand, walking, kayaking (maybe), and visiting step-family. She is very patient as I gabble my Warsaw year, released into my own language, and asks me a hard question: “How did your year in Warsaw change you?” I’m still thinking about that one. We meet at a new Bodalla cafe called Downward Dog, which doubles as an art gallery and a venue for yoga, a knitting circle and eventually dog days, with training in cafe etiquette for dogs.
Kate is an even newer friend. We met at a book club (now defunct) and have bonded deeply over books, art, being outside and juggling two homes – her 95 year-old mother lives in England. We breakfast at the Quarterdeck in Narooma, packed on Sunday morning, sharing our lives back in Australia and making plans for low key walking and camping adventures, before heading off to the movies. Kate visited me in Warsaw and often sends me links, always to things I really enjoy. I am inspired by her thoughtful approach to everything, her ability to pull herself up short to consider what she’s about to say, and her focused determination to understand more than the media feeds us, currently about Islam.
I don’t usually enjoy seeing more than one friend at a time but Charis and Meg are different: we form a great coven. Charis has just returned from Georgia via Paris and was vivid about the delights of patisseries and galleries in Paris and renovating her daughter’s Canberra house; and reticent about her other daughter’s contact with refugees in detention, because that’s what our wretched government requires (reticence, definitely not contact). Over the years I have known her she has been a horticulturist, the owner of a gallery and coffee shop, a weaver and eccentric craftswoman, a conservator at the National Gallery of Australia, a volunteer with a Bali business documenting the stories behind traditional images on textiles, and always a superlative hostess.
Meg is excited about a rare visit from her daughter and two grandchildren; an ABC program about single women; a series by Brian Cox on stargazing; walking in New Zealand; preserving and pickling, and cooking bread. We meet at the Dairy Shed in Bodalla, and sit on a deck overlooking a very green valley and a full dam. One of the tables would have repaid at least five minutes of photography.
I’m lucky to carve myself an hour out of Sandy’s busy schedule. She spends a lot of time in Sydney and Canberra, and I find she has just been to Brunei Island for a weekend workshop. I grill her about her climate lobbying with a variety of our federal politicians and their advisers, fascinated by the idea of building relationships and making personal connection as the basis for persuasion. She also finds time to sing in a choir and go to a dance group. In her working life she developed a program for bringing kids and blokes together which is till being used in Sydney communities; and organised art classes where refugee women told their stories in paintings. We chat on a bench by the Moruya River waiting for the 3 o’clock bell that announces the start of the growers’ market.
My catch-up with Sarah, my longest-standing south coast friend, begins at Coila Lake at daybreak. We walk along its edge as the sun rims the horizon cloud and talk photography; trust or otherwise in various forms of medical intervention; mutual acquaintances from the past; how she came to be living here; her work with special needs students who might be shy face to face, but who star in school musicals. The refrain is “aren’t we lucky to live in such a wonderful place?” We return to her house for coffee and avocado toast, and I’m reminded again of her capacity to create a gracious restful home. Her children are more scattered than mine – one in Sydney, the other two in Panama and Hawaii.
Marie was the office manager when I was a consultant. We bonded over our delight in solitary adventures. We meet for lunch in Batemans Bay, a hefty chicken schnitzel heralded by one of those alarms that sound off on your table, accompanied by hefty talk: ten days with her grandchildren in northern NSW; a group tour through Vietnam and Cambodia where she raised eyebrows going off on her own; a three-day cruise which convinced her never again; the excitement of approaching the retirement she and her partner have been working towards when they turn 50; her work for the Lyme disease community; and the support of friends around the death of a parent. Afterwards we walk along the edge of the Bay towards the opening to the sea, underneath a huge flock of screeching corellas, still talking nineteen to the dozen.
Finally, I connect with Sharon, always the most difficult to catch because she is still working, not quite full time but in a job that has a knack of arranging necessary meetings on her day off. We sit outside in a slight chill at Blue Earth, where the gardens are flourishing, the chooks cluck, the mulch around the veggie patch is deep, and my poached egg looks like meringue. We talk about our children and their dilemmas, our grandchildren, the world of health work in an environment of savage cuts, people highly qualified in their own field having to do secretarial work that someone qualifies in that field could do much more efficiently, and cheaply. We talk about decisions and the difficulty of making them, especially when one thing leads to another. As we part we set a date for our next breakfast together in two weeks time – job permitting.
These are my south coast friends, women who take me through doorways into many different worlds. I always leave them with unfinished conversations waiting for next time, feeling enriched in so many directions by their friendship.
PS Time with my oldest friend is pending, a week together in Melbourne in May. En route I will also spend precious time with my sister(in law) and another friend.