Wilma is a fine woman – now

I cannot make sense of the world unless I cook. The world turns into a strange and useless place when cooking is not there. Wilma is helping, she’s ripper, Wilma is a stylish woman, maybe over fifty, bit stocky and quite expansive, but the eye candy is amazing. Wilma came along when my life was beginning to make no sense, a sort of miasma had engulfed me, self obsessed, self focussed. Looking inwards on a constant basis and trying to forge ahead. Wilma saved me. She forced me to lift my head, re-establish my dreams and see what can be. She is no cheap little number, she has needs and without them, she simply doesn’t work. She was, when I first met her, not to put to fine a point on it, dowdy! She had fallen on difficult times, experienced some illness, allowed herself to be overwhelmed with way too much baggage. Wilma was in need of me as much as I was in need of her. The first time we met, I was impressed, the family was not, moans, groans and comparisons, difficult to know, hard even to find. And yet I seemed to know that Wilma was what I needed, what I had to have. I still feel like that. I dragged the family into the melee once again, begged and pleaded, asked them to look at Wilma with different eyes, see what I saw, know her for what she was. It worked, I got comments like great bone structure, great eye candy, I suddenly was winning and Wilma was about to become mine.

Wilma is my house in the country, Wilma is on 15 acres, she is a stocky red brick woman, fairly square, but with winning ways, views in every direction to suit all moods, the ocean and Wilsons Prom, the Binginwarri valley and bush. Wilma is just over two hours from Melbourne, well depending on when you leave and the traffic, she has an old orchard, a plethora of shedding, a dam or two, plenty of tanks, and lots and lots of potential. I love Wilma, she is mine, lock stock and barrel. She is still a bit crest fallen with renovation in progress, there are things I would love to do quickly, add a second level, build in the veranda and in time, maybe even a pool.

Wilma was left a little devastated by the previous owners, she had cosseted them through a severe illness or two and had also been used, some would say misused, by one of the owners who was a compulsive collector of miscellaneous items of what I saw as mostly useless stuff, but which he and a bunch of people who rocked up to Wilma on a wet and blustery day and spent a healthy twenty four thousand on his junk, disagreed. Its fare to say that this also included a couple of tractors and a largish number of grass cutting devices of all types. The rest was some sort of association with one of the brothers previous lives as a worker in fabrication of iron and steel and consisted of many types of cutting, drilling devices. Suffice to say that all the sheds on Wilma were stacked to the gunnels with his (now) unwanted collection. I often wonder what would have happened on the sale day had it become known that I had named the place Wilma, could well have turned the heads of a few of the local lads.

Life for me is a simple thing, some ocean, some valleys, some trees and a dam fine kitchen. Nothing less. This may well account for the inordinate length of time it took for me to find, love and possess Wilma. There were others, lets not be shy. One that I thought I was in love with in a town called Shelford, a very very old stone house on just a couple of acres, not much view to speak of but sadly decrepit. There was one in Trentham, gorgeous spot, on just four acres, no house but an amazing set of front gates, some huge nut trees and the potential to build a great house, I even designed it. It would have been ripper, but the property was in a horrific fire region with a massive number of restrictions and excessive costs involved. In the end I am pleased I never did get to build the house, I am not patient and I think I would have become a hideous raving monster… I even did when I was offered ‘constructive’ criticism of the design and freaked when I was told it was too big. Wilma was out there waiting and I just had to find her.

Wilma ponged, she had been lived in by two elderly gents who had grown accustomed to a certain odour (Stephen Fry called it Eau de Seigneure… means water or smell of the Lord) and simply did not notice it. My family however did. It was decided the only way was to strip out all the internal fittings, carpets, blinds, floor coverings, anything that could or did hold even the slightest odour or suggestion. It happened on a weekend, we gathered, we collected, worked out where and how we could sleep and eat and set into it. It was a frantic day, kids, adults, busy and lazy, all jostling for a go and the fun to be had with minor demolition. It was a lot of fun.

The kitchen in Wilma was to be first, I had to insist it was running, feeding my family is paramount, it makes sense to me, I have always done it. I even planned, I though that a roast dinner done in the brothers ancient gas stove could have been possible. I had even contacted the local gas man since the brothers, for reasons I was unable to fathom, had removed the gas cylinders claiming, wrongly, that they belonged to them. We were gassed up. The kitchen had been the place to start… the workers assembled and with a hell of crash and bang, whole walls disappeared, cupboards were gone, the floor covering ripped up, the doors into the lounge gone. the transformation had begun. I was panting a little, not from exhaustion, I was there in an advisory capacity, but from the excitement of the beginning of a transformation.

A bit of fumbling and we managed to get the gas stove lit, that was followed by clouds of acrid black smoke that came from the (we later discovered) very rarely cleaned oven which had huge amounts of fat caked on every surface and which, when the gas was ignited, rose up in volume. It was a very frightening sight and one we thought may have ended in disaster with the house burning down. I had lavished the piece of lamb to be roasted with lashings of garlic and rosemary in butter and it was sitting in the roasting dish ready to bathe in the warm glow of the oven. Many good things can happen when you are confronted by disaster. In the midst of packing I had decided to take my favourite Turkish charcoal barbecue down and there it sat on the back veranda complete with a bag of charcoal. Turning my nose up at the belching stove, I cut the leg of lamb into a more acceptable shape (butterflied) and called for the lighting of the charcoal. Saved!

I had planned to roast some potatoes in the oven, that now had to be changed and thankfully, because I had also brought down a small induction plate, a heavy weight iron pan worked well and it was not long before some potato was sizzling. The smell of the lamb being grilled on the barbecue is so enticing and prompted calls for wine, I was afraid that work would cease as the crew settled in to enjoy a pre lunch drink. And it did, but the lure of food and wine was nothing compared to the lure of throwing your energy into house stripping.

Its hard to actually make sense of a country place, there is that imperative to go there and then there is also the lure of the city, the time when sitting in a hot tub in the sea baths at St Kilda has more allure than sipping tea and eating biscuit overlooking ocean and valley. But then you hear, like I did today, two… yes two, friends are in health trouble, one in Queensland has a cancer and is not in good shape, another in Melbourne also has a cancer and is not in good shape. Its a salutary moment, a moment in time when the forces all meet in some sort of swirling vortex and you get whammied by a bolt from the centre. I sat there, staring at the computer screen, dazed, bewildered and smarting from an abusive text from the partner (read boyfriend) of the Queensland friend who thought, I had no right at all to ask how he (my friend) was. When I picked up the phone to call the wife of my other friend, I was handed the news that he has a brain tumour and its aggressive and he was in hospital!

I wanted to weep, I wanted to lash out, I wanted to scream, this is just not right, I started loosing friends about ten years back, David was the first, silly bugger plunged his glider head first into the ground, it would have been quick. But it was not what I planned or wanted, over the years since our wedding, both my best men had left the planet… one quite soon after the wedding the other a bit later.  It shook my personal concept of immortality. Then the list got longer culminating in the double. And that makes me not very happy and sure (now) that I am not immortal. Thanks to Wilma I have a way of coping.

Having said that, sitting around or more properly waiting around for events to happen is a very fraught experience. I was not ready for the experience of walking into a hospital room in the Oncology section to be greeted by my oldest friend sort of lying prone, unable to move, needy, eye’s pleading and sort of sad. I straight away launched into sort of happy verbal dance that was a jumble of all the things I was feeling, no orchestra, just a few sort of choking moments and some tears. He was needing the nurses to raise him up, lay him down, give him water or orange juice and demanding in his sort of odd spoken bits, to know where his lunch was, the fact he had just had breakfast mattered not a bit. I understood, even when I am lucid I think like that, being prepared for ones next meal is not a bad thing. I wanted to run, I wanted to get the hell out of there and embrace life in every way possible, see life, grass growing, anything that helped me find a way into the world. But my friend was/is dying. I heard the news a couple of days after the first visit, up to that point I had heard there was some hope, he was going to have some chemo and maybe some radiation, seemed like a plan to me, but I also remembered my own father, he had chemo and radiation, had one or two days of lucidity and then fell into a dark pit that had him dead in a day or two. Death and dying is not easy, its the final curtain.

Lama Yeshe was the first teacher I ever had in the Buddhist tradition, he was lucid and clear, but none the less he was not one to hide the harsher side of life and the first teaching I took was on death and dying. Lama Yeshe was a traditionalist and taught the unsubtle view. It was disturbing to be confronted by these teachings, they are such a vital part of Buddhist thought, they can be profound, yet deeply troubling. The simple approach is that of the elements which are said to be absorbed, earth into water, water into fire, fire into air, air into space. The teachings have remained with me and continue to be called on as I try to make sense of life living and dying.

A Wilma free zone. I wish it was not so, I am sure that I could find the energy to drive up, couple + hours and then the glorious views, glorious expansive vistas, bit of confusion about food and cooking… have not yet managed to adapt to the simple things. I think the large expansive and expensive stove has something to do with it, it intimidates me, I sort of feel like I must cook splendidly, amazing food. Yet I have always cooked simple food, good stews, good vegetables simply cooked, good bread and I have not yet achieved that. I kitted Wilma out with the stove, a spiffy fridge (French config) some good pots and pans and an over full pantry. I leapt into the wine storage and filled a couple of boxes, I grabbed some good gin, some excellent brandy, a silver tray or two and some decent glass ware. I rattled down there with a goodly selection of my recipe book collection so as not to be caught short, although god knows why, I rarely if ever consult the books, I use them as inspiration. In the end I got pushed into a corner, started to believe the publicity and was blinded. What the hells the matter with a dammed fine stew, well cooked unctuous and delicious. What’s the matter with a good well roasted leg of lamb…. and while I am at it, what’s all this stuff about lamb being served in great stringy shreds. My mother would have been mortified, her lamb was to be carved and not over cooked to hell and back, she saved that for the vegetables!

What do you do when an old friend rings and says ‘I’m dying’! Not long to go. I was stunned, disbelieving and completely discombobulated. He sounded well, was living life to the full, working nearly every day in two jobs. How could this be true?

This is an old friend, one from the days of youth, the salad days. This is a man who showed a lot of people how to take the most from life. He still is. He is bloody amazing.

For some reason when I am confronted by issues such as this I get jovial, become a bit of a smart ass. I wish I didn’t, its defensive, my way of coping. Bugger it all. I started off by saying things like you’re joking, you are pulling my leg. Why? Then he reminded me that he had told me a while back that he was fighting kidney issues and that his liver had become compromised. I remember now, we laughed about it. He loves a glass of wine, lives for it. Now he pays the price, pays the ferryman.

It’s a bugger when that happens, you sort of wander along in your life, dodging bullets, making changes, making the best of stuff. In his case, he came out as gay, faced telling a woman who just did not want to know and was quite settled into the idea of her middle class husband in his middle class job with a middle class wage being there for life, she had produced the mandatory children, two in fact. This was not part of her plan. Not his either I would have said. But unavoidable.

His guilt knew no bounds and one day, he thought the best solution would be to take his life. Characteristically he did one of the most hilarious things, stuck his head in a gas oven. Of course it didn’t work, hardly ever does, friends dropped by for a cup of tea, found him, shook  and showered him and loaded him onto a bus to come to us in Queensland. He is still there, we left a few years later!

I picked him up at the bus station in Brisbane and we sort of took off where it has ended earlier. Seamless, no gaps, nothing. We drove back up to the Sunshine coast where Jennifer and I had started a restaurant in the pineapple packing shed on a great little farm, the kids didn’t know Ron, but they were a happy bunch and I was not concerned. He explained that the guilt he felt over being gay and leaving his wife and children, had overwhelmed him. His wife had been anything but understanding, who could blame her, she was not expecting this. Ron said it was hideous. Knowing his wife, I knew that it would be. But she was not to blame and he never did. I suspect too that dealing with even a small gay relationship when he was quite inexperienced was not easy. Casual sex was another matter, I knew he was doing that, carefully. It had all simply become too much for him.

Jennifer agreed he could stay and sort out his life, he was charmed by the idea of sleeping on the front veranda under a mosquito net, warm nights, tropical stars and a restaurant on tap, he was in his element, could smoke a cigarette, sip wine well into the night. Ron was not, specially when things started to get sorted, a person to let grass grow under his feet. He had some experience in Victoria running a food business, a converted garage in Sorrento was the venue for one of his restaurant ventures, he was good at it, loved feeding the masses with a grilled chop he said. It was his walk on water time. He was soon employed in a Buderim restaurant that was destined to be his own, but first the usual drama and trauma that always seemed to come with his life.

Eventually he moved into his own place, took about three months I think and he found a gay friend or two along the way. They always hurt him, or mostly. He seemed quite vulnerable and was always committing to this or that and often in financial binds. Like all of life, we had to make a dollar, raise a family and get on with things, in the meantime I kept a close eye on him, well as close as he would let me, and we went on with living. I don’t think we grew apart, we just went in other directions, me pursuing spiritual matters, him deliriously bored with that and wanting to find a love.

The Big Pineapple always seemed like and unlikely venue for Ron, but he was given the catering managers job and in no time had them going into areas they had not thought possible. I suspect in the end it was the sort of mediocre family/retiree clientele that simply got him down. He needed more.

He did find love, found a man that he was able to settle down with. Took charge of his life and made changes, he was never good at the financial side of business, in fact as I recall, neither was I, but he was close to a disaster. The food business he sort of inherited on the Sunshine coast was soon in financial trouble and Brisbane and the arms of his friend beckoned. He found a fine job with a massively reputable catering company and started a career that was to last until his ‘retirement’, with great success and acclaim.

The problem was his wandering ways and just as a financially comfortable ‘retirement’ was on the cards, he met a new lover. Ron being Ron, it all went up into the air and he was off on a new adventure, he was all of twenty five again, absolutely committed to giving it a go. New business ventures started, moving back to the Sunshine coast, he was alive and giving it his all. In some ways I wonder if his life and his ways of business had become formula’s to be repeated over and over. Maybe in the first instance he had not quite got it right, this time… he would walk on water.

The years rocketed by, kids came, my family grew and in the end having pursued my spiritual dreams and decided that moving back south was important, maybe too that although we had built a great house with wonderful views to watch the coast and see the storms roll by, we even had a swimming pool, but seemed not able to capture the dollars, everything I tried just didn’t work. In the hinterland years we didn’t see much of Ron, I think he found the Buddhist thing a difficult experience, and maybe I too had changed, no longer the bon vivante, more the serious family man… I am told that I did change in the time I was studying Buddhism. I think it could be true. Friends other than Ron who came from the pre hinterland days said so. I was confused about that, sort of felt like that I had no right to grow and change, I was not allowed to explore other aspects of me or my psyche. It was common to hear from friends that they thought I had deserted them. I think it was not so much that I had deserted them as I was finding me, or trying to.

Ron had moved to Brisbane, was working hard in his new catering job, he had fallen on his feet, no need to walk on water, he was working for the National Gallery of Queensland in their food area. The combination of food and art was right where he needed to be, combined the best of everything. As ever, and without as much as a side ways blink (it seemed) he had changed his life, made it great and was happy.

And then… the news I was least expecting, even given the fact that my sister in law had been carted off to hospital, deeply depressed and in some physical trouble. My oldest friend Joe, brain tumour, and as I write this is in the operating theatre where we hope, he will regain some quality of life.

Joe is Italian, amazingly talented, can do things with old stuff that defies imagination, he was responsible for some great great interiors, he had a shop on Toorak Road in South Yarra called ‘Heroe’s and it was filled with Joe’s delicious finds of old bits and pieces that he had lavished his skills on and turned them from simply old to magnificent. Joe had skills that all of us envied. He saw things in a very different way, saw colour where none existed, saw a twist here and a turn there, he took old bits of chimney tops and made them into pots and tables, he reworked and reconfigured and in the end, he lavished a personal style on the spaces he created that was unique. But better yet, Joe taught us all how to live and take the best out of every single day.

Joe’s take on life was all about doing, style, pleasure, drawing deeply upon his heritage. Joe and I shared the love of design, although he was far less poncy than I and much more skilled. We also shared a love of food and I remember many many hours sitting around a table somewhere, eating freshly cooked tiny fish with a squeeze of lemon, drinking wine that was OK, not grand. In those days none of us could afford bottles of wine, we drank from glass flagons and when cardboard came in we drank from that. We fixed the world up so many times, we embraced the new fashions and looks, Joe introduced us blokes to Bobby Diamond who would always give us an inside leg measurement, even for a pair of socks, but sure as hell garbed us in the very latest. Joe loved fashion and he and Hilary were always in the latest, they set trends and we all followed.

Most Friday nights would see us down in Acland Street St Kilda, usually eating at the Black Rose, a German restaurant that we all loved, there would always be six or eight of us and during the evening the table would swell as more friends would drop by or we were joined by other diners. The table would be littered with cups of wine with the  two gallon flagons hidden and we would all be fixing the planet. In those days mobile phones simply did not exist and so communication was a different thing. Joe would never be happy with just a meal at the Black Rose, there was always an event planned for after eating, the Key Club, a very new and most likely Melbourne’s first gay venue was a favourite and we were all members and all carried keys, or we may repair to one or others house and continue on. Most dinners were always concluded with a goodly glass or two of modest Port and in the end, it was usually this that had us spiralling into a place that was not entirely sober. Not forgetting that we would in all likelihood be saddling up again the next night to have dinner at one or others house and the whole performance would be repeated, just with us cooking. In the summer it would be arrive after lunch and loll about until evening when we would cook and others who had either heard about or been invited, would roll up. I was a midnight fairy, I would sort of collapse inwards as the clock approached the midnight hour and have to be dragged home, usually I was not drunk, I simply lacked the stamina.

Many of the friends that came and went from the events of our lives were visitors to Australia, in many cases Europeans, occasionally English, one New Guinea man called Joseph who was so black, he shone. A lot of the beautiful people came from the art world, ballet, theatre and the arts, some were returning from extended stays overseas, usually in London or the Mediterranean, they had run away from Australia claiming it was a cultural backwater. For those of us too ignorant or afraid to leave, we didn’t see things quite that way, we even begrudged being told. In the end of course it was, but it was changing as the world became smaller and smaller with travel being not as difficult or expensive, Australia was not so remote, theatre, culture, writing, painting all bloomed and we in this country started to become the envy of many who lived in post war Europe in crowded, cramped and often very deprived conditions.  While we enjoyed the freedoms of a wide brown land, fresh clean air, food and wine.

Joe was the Pied Piper, he was all about showing us how to live, how to get the best from life. Joe was and is the centre of life for many. I met Joe at Tosh’s men’s wear in Hampton, the Coachmen where he was employed as display guy and decked the shop out once a week. Joe was trained in display by one of the all time greats, Freddie Assmussan of Myer Melbourne was an amazing task master and produced display staff of extraordinary talent, as Joe was. Joe ambled up to my shop a few hundred yards up the street and we sort of fell on each other and from that day forward, my life and his have been entwined. I think I dedicated my meeting with Joe and his group of friends in a hot pink paisley shirt that I sort of wore loose, it had a Nehru collar and wide sleeve. It was for me, the first of what would be a wardrobe of carnaby street inspired clothes, wide legged pants and a jump suit of which I was very proud. We all set trends.

Queens birthday weekend was one of the times when gay Melbourne went to town, still deeply hidden but desirous of having some fun, it so happened that Jennifer was also pregnant with our first child but thought she was unlikely to ‘pop’ at the time and besides, most of our friends were gay, so we wanted to enjoy the experience, the freedom and just sheer fun. The venue chosen was the Yarra Glen football oval and the news soon spread as the queens and camp followers started with preparation, lots of madness, drag races, dressing competitions, loads of good food and wine. One small glitch, someone forgot to tell the other football club who were using the ground for some training that their lives were about to be changed. And changed they were, in no time a bunch of queens, many on the back of sports cars had sped across the oval and literally captured the footballers who, with only moderate protest, were stuffed into the cars with a bunch of queens lavishing all the attention they dared on them and whisked off to the picnic with loud cheers from the assembled faggots and followers. The day progressed and few if any of the straight men footballers went back to their own side of the ground. At the end of the day they gave three rousing cheers for the faggots and a bunch of straights were won over to understanding that the gay world does not offer threats.

Jennifer had been the centre of attention from the queens in our circle, make no mistake, gay men and woman love a good pregnancy and take a huge interest. Jen began to get some niggles during the afternoon at the picnic, nothing huge, but enough for her to sense she better start heading back to our home in South Yarra, in no time flat a procession had formed and a group of half a dozen cars with cheering queens on board were hurtling down the highway. As it turned out, it was a day or so later when Nikolas was born amidst cheering and much love, Jen received bunches and bunches of flowers, the most memorable being accompanied by a card from a very old friend David which said to Wally and little Wilma from Auntie Golda… it was a memorable treasured moment.

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