02 July 2017


As I’ve stated in previous posts, Ballina is a place of fond childhood memories for me. From the time I was five years old, every summer of my childhood, and many other holiday periods, were spent here. We stayed with my Nan and Pop who lived in a two-storey house in East Ballina, the headquarters of Ballina Taxis until they retired. We would drive to the beach every morning, back in time for morning tea at 11am, sometimes returning to the beach in the afternoon, but back for afternoon tea at 4pm and beer (for the adults) at 6pm. Dinner was served at 7pm. My cousins from the Gold Coast (later Brisbane) would also often be there. Beach, cricket in the driveway and games of cops and robbers are prominent in my memory. My cousins had greater knowledge of pop music than us country bumpkins, and introduced us to such classics as ‘Rack off Normie’ which we played ad nauseam. We once rewrote the lyrics of Ray Parker Jnr’s ‘Ghostbusters’ song to be ‘Toothbrushes’ which would have made a fortune as an advertisement jingle, if only we had sent it to an agency.

My husband, John, flew up to Ballina this morning to join me for the last two days of this visit. Instead of taking him for a walk down memory lane, we cycled it.

North Creek

We first rode to Missingham Bridge and then up North Creek to the RSL nursing home where my pop spent his last days (he passed away 12 August 2009). He was so deaf and blind with a touch of dementia, he didn’t know much about reality in the end. He probably wasn’t aware he was in a nursing home, let alone that it had a beautiful outlook across the creek. I only visited him there once and it was not a cheery place. Today there were many residents sitting out front, looking dazed, perhaps confused by the chill in the air. One family was pushing a man in his wheelchair outside the childproof gated fence, along the path which we rode.

Other than the nursing home there was a festive mood in the air. It was the first day of the public school holidays, balloons in parks signified parties and a band was playing as part of NAIDOC Week’s ‘Yardabalair’ Music Event at Missingham Park Amphitheatre.

Shaws Bay

We rode across Missingham Bridge, which I still think of as new, to Shaws Bay, the place to go with children or when the surf is too rough elsewhere. It looks smaller than I remember and the wall between grass and sand shorter, possibly due to the build-up of sand over time. The caravan park is still there but I’m sure it used to continue to the water’s edge; now the combined walk and cycle path take priority for the view.

Nan and Pop had three children and eleven grandchildren. The eldest child, Gail, died of leukaemia in Brisbane, far too early, just before Christmas in 1991. That was one of the toughest days in my life but one which I also remember for important people coming to the fore (thinking of you, Brad, and Uncle Mike, thanks for the double Johnny Walker Black at the airport, I needed it). It was hard for Nan and Pop to have a child leave the world before they did, and they were just minutes short of reaching Brisbane in time to say goodbye. Of my cousins, I am closest to Jo(anne). With information flying around by phone on Gail’s last day, I felt I had to be the one that broke the news to Jo of her mother’s death in case someone else did so accidentally, assuming she already knew. Jo and I then took a flight from Sydney to Brisbane together and for many years afterwards I associated flights with repressing grief.

In contrast to Gail’s death, we were ready for Pop to leave us, aged 94. I remember the night of Pop’s funeral spending what seemed like hours at the Shaws Bay Hotel talking to everyone but particularly one of my cousins I barely knew, Cameron, from my uncle’s first marriage. The time around Pop’s death is actually a little magical for me. Ten of the eleven grandchildren were around and only one brought a spouse, allowing cousins to bond unhindered.

Lighthouse Beach

The bike path runs all the way along the breaker wall, the north side of the mouth of Richmond River, now not only consisting of large rocks but ugly concrete blocks. 

I stood out on the headland for some time with mists of breaking waves occasionally cooling my skin (my hands and neck are now sunburnt). I looked back at Shaws and was struck by the stark contrast of colours where river met sea and a pelican played. On the other side of the breaker was Lighthouse Beach. For many years, when I was young, it was simply called “the beach” and for people requiring greater clarification, “not Shelly Beach”, the beach further north.

The dunes seem bigger and the foliage thicker than I remember but then it seems a lot of ecological protection has occurred since I was young. Last night I wrote a scene for my novel set on this dune but now I need to add a more accurate description as a result of this bike ride. My time of (reluctantly) teaching the geography of coastal erosion came to mind as I read the worn boards informing of dune care. Further research revealed the main driver of the ecological care for Lighthouse Beach passed away many years ago and nobody else has really picked up the baton since. 

The surf life-saving club at Lighthouse Beach is now a super-sized version of what it once was, including a trendy cafĂ© with magnificent views over beach and water. 

Source: http://www.lighthousebeachcafe.com.au/
The beach itself looked unkempt and unloved, perhaps because it’s winter, perhaps it’s no longer the favoured beach.

Out on the Ballina Head Lookout we checked the ocean for signs of migrating whales but not even a dolphin was sighted. We took several photos of Lighthouse Beach and Shelly Beach around the other side and pushed aside the thought of riding up a very steep hill to visit Pop’s grave.

Lighthouse Beach
Shelly Beach
On the return journey we went past the Ballina Beach Resort which we frequented when our children were young and Nan and Pop’s house was already quite occupied. At Christmas time, when I was a kid, we’d sometimes have more than a dozen people staying at the 3-4 bedroom house. Four of us young ones shared a bedroom and tried to stay awake so we could catch Santa Claus delivering our sacks of goodies but active beach days always made us too tired to succeed.

Further into our ride, we inspected what was once a restaurant we held in high regard from our one visit. At the time our son, quite little then, talked about being a chef one day and we happened to mention this; the chef gave both our children a tour of the kitchen, to their great joy. Today it looked more like a dilapidated shack, contrasting with a brightly lycra'd yoga instructor completing her push-ups in the yard on the side.

The Ramada

We returned to our hotel, the Ramada, where I’ve stayed for my few Ballina visits over the last ten years or so. I love looking out to the Richmond River. It brings me peace and happiness. Six years ago, my Nan moved to my parents’ place near Wagga Wagga and is still alive at the grand age of 101. The last few times I’ve visited Ballina, I’ve fantasised about buying a small business, like a coffee shop, and enjoying the slower life Ballina has to offer. One day I may just act spontaneously on such a whim and my whole world will change. However, for now, I must be content with infrequent trips and my memories.

Lunch ('Dory and Chips') from A Fish Shop Called Dory's

I've been constantly amused this visit by the number of motorised scooters around, seemingly all purchased from Ballina Mobility and Golf. They seem to go at two speeds, slow and careful, or at a fast whizz. I'm sure the bike track must have been constructed just as much for them as the bikes. Today we walked past the RSL to find a plethora of them parked outside. It gave me the giggles.

29 June 2017

Alone in a crowd

I discovered tonight a place where I can just write, with words flowing, pen floating across paper. I dined alone in a popular Italian restaurant, owned by an Indian gentleman. Attentive waitresses in short skirts or tight jeans met all my food and drink needs. They had offered me one of three tables. I chose the one in the middle since the other two were next to couples and I felt I would intrude, eavesdropping on their conversations, having noone else to give my attention. I later thought, as a writer, I was missing an opportunity to gather dialogue.

I looked around at the other diners. Nobody else was sitting alone. A dad with three adult sons and a daughter were most immediate in my line of sight. It seemed everyone who walked past knew him, greeting him enthusiastically.

Briefly, I examined my phone, but that felt uncouth. I pulled out pen and paper instead. And wrote. I wrote more words towards my novel over dinner than I did during the whole rest of the day. The food ended up being a disruption but the chatter around me a mere hub-bub, blob-blobbing like a stew rather than a kettle screaming for attention.

One patron leaving by my table, remarked to me about how noisy it was. I politely agreed but found her comment more annoying than all the ongoing conversations not involving me.

I ordered a second glass of wine to extend this surprise opportunity and may have followed it with a cocktail if I hadn't been issued with a bill in response to declining dessert. "No hurry", they said, which felt like I was being hurried, and soon the Indian gentleman was bringing in the outside table and chairs, stacking them along the wall. Their website said they closed at 11pm and it was only 9.30. As I left there only remained two occupied tables, the family mentioned earlier, plus a table of three men, one in a high-vis jacket. He was a stark contrast to a lady who wore a skirt and lacy top who had complained to her companion when he returned from his bathroom visit about the attitude of the staff towards her whilst he was gone. I don't think she liked being alone for those few minutes. They had left some time earlier. And now my time was up too.

So there it is, the bashfulness of dining out alone makes me write, unfortunately not a habit I can financially sustain but a tactic to keep in mind for the future.

28 June 2017


As you may have seen in my Instagram photos, I’m spending this week in Ballina. I’m attempting to start a novel, set here, in this town of my childhood summers. I’m revisiting memories of hanging at the beach with cousins and being spoilt by my Nan with cooked breakfasts, luxurious afternoon teas and early morning cartoon shows (something Wagga severely lacked). The cousins, from Brisbane back then, are now spread much further afield and my 101-year-old Nan lives in Wagga with my parents.

Yesterday, however, you would have seen me running, yes me, running, in skirt and boots, through Sydney Airport. You see, there’s a story…

In 1991, I was introduced by a work colleague to my now husband, John. A couple of weeks later I met one of his best mates from school, Mike, who had organised a ski-trip to Falls Creek. Mike travelled in one car, while John and I drove Mike’s future wife and two of her friends in the other. It was the first of many social gatherings we would enjoy with this warm, kind, fun and funny group of friends. We met rather regularly in our twenties. Then there were marriages for some, babies were born, and families took precedence over friends, and seeing each other became rare.

I threw a large 50th Birthday Party for my husband in January. The older crowd left before 10pm and the bulk of the rest by 11pm. After seeing them off, I returned to the party outside and found the last remaining guests were from that friendship group. I poured myself a red and settled in for the next hour or two, immensely satisfied to finish the party with these friends. It was so fitting, so right. Perfect.

It was the last time any of us saw Mike. He died last week after four years of war with cancer. It started with prostate cancer but a month ago it suddenly turned extra aggressive, attacking his lungs and brain too. We received texts during this month, informing us of this rapid decline, but still, such a shock when the end came.

The funeral was scheduled for the middle of my Ballina week but I just had to go. Although we may not see each other much, we are a bunch of friends who are loyal and true to each other. I booked a flight from Ballina to Sydney, due to arrive an hour before the funeral but, of course, it was half an hour late. I ran through the terminal. Being an avid organiser, a trait I shared with Mike, I had booked a car and driver in case the taxi queue was long. The traffic was kind and my driver astute, so it only took 25 minutes from the airport to the crematorium. I was just 2 minutes late.

After the funeral, our group gathered again at our house, Mike no longer with us, and his wife home with her family. We drank Scotch and red wine, to celebrate and honour Mike’s life, and because, well, bloody oath, we needed it. Mike is the first of our close friends to die. We vowed to see each other more regularly. We don’t want another funeral to be the next time we’re together.

I was only in Sydney for 24 hours and I’m typing this, back in Ballina, shedding more tears over Mike as I write. I’m incredibly glad that I followed my instinct by interrupting this week away. It was a special time to say farewell and meet again with friends I’ve had for 26 years. If you have a glass in your hand, or nearby, raise it to friendship and to Mike, a great bloke who has left life too soon.