Between The Rocks and a Hard Place

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The shops are all beautifully decorated with trees and sparkle, the radio is blasting out Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and the children are bringing home their paintings of stockings and hand-made baubles. Christmas is definitely coming and if it wasn’t 35 degrees outside then I might start to believe it and get a little festive myself.

I have been lucky enough to spend several Christmases in the sun so I can just about get my head around Christmas in the heat but it is also the end of the school year so the children have just had their school reports, are bringing home all their books and projects, speculating about which teachers they will have next year and are getting ready for their six weeks summer holiday. That definitely feels a little strange at this time of year.

2013 has been a year of very mixed emotions for us; saying an unexpected and unbearable farewell to Sarah Bradshaw on 8th March then, eight months later, welcoming Andrew and Caroline’s baby son, Harrison James Britton on 9th November.  Sarah’s death brought us an almost unbearable sadness and the birth of baby Harrison, brought us unbounded joy.  But joy and sadness are part of life.  The poet William Blake tells us that:

‘Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.’

We have experienced the interweaving of joy and sadness has very much this year through two sister-in-laws. Losing my brother’s wife and very close friend, Sarah has been shattering to the whole family. Sarah fought valiantly and tireless against the big “C”. If positive mental attitude and courage were all that it took to beat this cruel and insidious disease, Sarah would have had it licked no problem – throughout the course of her illness she demonstrated an amazing abundance of courage and positivity –  but sadly PMA and bravery is not all it takes, it requires some genetic good luck and devastatingly luck was not on Sarah’s side.  There is no fairness to it and it cannot be rationalised or comforted away, it can only be endured.

With a certain poignant irony, on the day of Sarah’s death, we were told of the unexpected (impending) arrival of another family member. After almost 10 years of waiting, Richard’s sister-in-law, Caroline announced that she was pregnant and expecting a baby in November.

The shock and sorrow we felt at Sarah’s death is indescribable but we were able to take comfort from her many, many friends who rallied in the last few weeks of her life doing everything possible to prolong her life and make her last few weeks as happy, comfortable and hopeful as possible.  At her funeral, the church overflowed with mourners, young and old, but, because it had all been planned by Sarah, it truly was a celebration of her life with her favourite music, photos  and children singing and dancing in the aisles.

We have also shared in the unbounded joy of Andrew and Caroline as they announced the birth of their first and much longed for baby son. Harrison has been many years in the making and there have been many times along the way that we doubted if it would be possible for him to arrive at all. But all 5lbs 11oz of him burst into life on Saturday 9th November, just in time for lunch.  As with all baby Brittons, he was in no great hurry to be born (clearly being very well taken care of where he was), nor did he chose the easiest route to enter into the world but am sure Caroline will be very happy for me to report that none of that matters now that he is here. It was a long and bumpy road but definitely a journey worth making.

In other news, “The Cave” and its bonkers neighbours finally got the better of us and we had to move or risk being carried off by men in white coats.   We loved the neighbourhood so we only relocated a kilometre away but it feels like a different world. We are in a house filled with light and sunshine that has windows bigger than arrow slits and is not subterranean. It has great gardens, a fantastic balcony with ocean views and is closer to the children’s school so lots of their friends are now our neighbours and it’s great to see the children playing in the street or in each other’s gardens without the need for organised “play dates” a bit like we used to do back in the 1970s.

With hindsight we now realise that we did emigrate here accidentally which was quite careless and did come as a bit of a shock to the system when the reality of what we had done finally hit us.  We arrived in Sydney 18 months ago with our six trusty suitcases, chock full of swimmers and encyclopaedias, planning to stay for eight weeks before moving on to South America.  A year and a half later, we are still here. We were just starting to come to terms with the enormity of what we had done and wonder if it was the right thing at the beginning of the year when Vodafone went through a massive restructure and made roughly a third of its employees redundant. The month of January was a very unsettling time for us as Rich was left wondering if he would have a job (last in, first out?) and we knew that if he was made redundant, without his Vodafone sponsorship, we would have no status here and would have probably had to leave Australia.  The financial implications would have been immense – even with our relocation allowance, we had not been here long enough to recover anywhere near what we have had to spend in setting ourselves up here (lease on the house, car, furniture, school fees) not to mention the emotional implications of having to uproot ourselves after such a short time. Fortunately, Vodafone realised that Rich is quite brilliant and is very much part of their solution, not their problem and he has retained his position but it has been a very unsettling time for him as many friends and colleagues were unemployed at a time of year when Australia was closing down for Christmas and summer holidays.  Not much hiring takes place here between Melbourne Cup day (mid-November) and Australia Day (end of January).

If every cloud has a silver lining, the lining here was that it made us realise that we were really enjoying our life here and we definitely didn’t want to be frog-marched off to the airport and told, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!”

Without a doubt, we have arrived in Australia at an interesting time.  The cost of living has sky-rocketed over the last 10 years, and coupled with the UK pound trading so weakly against the Australian dollar, it feels like a very expensive place to live.  We have not really helped ourselves with our choice of address (we have moved to the most expensive suburb, in the most expensive city of one of the most expensive countries in the world) although locals barely believed us when confessed how much (well how little in fact) we used to pay to rent a three bedroomed dungeon in Mosman.

So far, Australia seems to have been relatively unaffected by the global financial crisis, largely being insulated from the effects by high prices that China is paying for Australian coal and other minerals and there are no signs that the incredible property boom here is about to slow down. The “For Sale” signs have barely been knocked into the ground before a “Sold” sticker adorns them and while it’s hardly Zimbabwe  it’s not uncommon to go to the supermarket and find your weekly shop is up about $20 on the week before. Salaries, alas, are not keeping up.

Some of the many  great things about living here are the amazing beaches, parks, weather, our new friends, our outdoor social life, including, at last, some family sailing,  plus the exciting opportunities of a buoyant economy and optimistic population.

The downside of course is it’s so far from home and everyone we know and love and that is never more apparent than at this time of year. I cannot be nearer to my brother and my nephew and nieces as they try to piece together their shattered lives, nor can we be there to welcome baby Harrison to the world.  Then there is the abysmal customer service in this prohibitively expensive city which we are now getting quite used and, of course it goes without saying, all the things that are trying to kill you as you go a bout minding your own business– snakes, sharks, spiders, jellyfish and the sun are just a few that spring to mind.  As the weather warms up for summer, reports of shark attacks on surfers and snake bites on hapless walkers abound.

I am setting aside my fear of sleeping at the same level as the snakes and am joining Rich and the kids on our first family camping holiday on Boxing Day.  They have been many times before, it is only me who is chicken/rational (depending on your perspective) but they boys have a new two man tent for Christmas which of course they will be desperate to camp in so I, as the matriarch,  have to feel the fear and do it anyway.  All I can say is I hope I am still around to write next year’s Christmas message as the news has been dominated this week by a poor woman doing a little gardening at her home in the Hunter Valley. One minute she was planting petunias and the next (literally) she was dead, having unfortunately plonked a sandaled foot on top of a brown snake which was soaking up a few rays beneath her primroses.  The snake took issue with the sandal and sank its fangs into its owner’s ankle. She had no phone with her and nobody was around to hear her anguished cries. An agonisingly painful death would have taken about ten minutes.  I tell this story merely to illustrate that I think it’s quite brave of me to voluntarily sleep on the ground when I have a very comfortable bed here, on the second floor, about four metres above ground and any hungry or irritable reptiles. Be rest assured, I will be sleeping with my boots on.

So all that remains is to thank you once again for your attention to our inane ramblings this year and to wish you and your loved ones a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year.

With our love to you for 2014,

The Downundies xxx