All My Friends
© Emma Wilkins 2016 All rights reserved.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Ellie, Jane, Sam
Christina, Mia, Sean
Evan, Megan, Rob
Marie, Andy, Laura
Ellie, Jane, Sam
Christina, Mia, Sean
Evan, Megan, Rob
Marie, Andy, Laura
One day, after years interviewing strangers for work, I started wondering what it would be like to interview my friends. My husband, who is responsible for stopping me when I get a crazy idea, encouraged me to pursue it.
I decided to limit myself to one-hour interviews, and aim for twelve participants. I told them I’d change their names, but warned that because of their connection to me, some readers would still identify them.
I also decided to focus on people in their thirties. I’m in my thirties, and many of my friends are too. Like any decade in life, it’s unique.
There are still more weddings and births than divorces and deaths—you still feel more young than old—and the sense that anything is possible lingers.
Even if you haven’t suffered, you’ve seen it from the sidelines; whatever the case, life has shaken you.
By your thirties, you’ve lived long enough to have made up your mind about some things, and changed your mind about others. You might have a partner, some kids, a house, a career—things might be settling—but nothing’s quite settled, not yet.
Anyway, the idea for this project came to me earlier this year. I conducted the first interview in late April, and the last in early June. I ended up with characters I could never have created, and dialogue I could never have written. Words came and went. This is the result.
* * *
[ * ]
[ * ]
Ellie, Jane, Sam
[ * ]
Ellie’s husband has psychopathic tendencies.
“It’s not me that says it. He took a test and I’m pretty sure he was thirty-something per cent psycho.”
The results of this questionable internet test make her feel concern, but also validation, she says.
“Rob’s not big on empathy. I think that’s probably one of the core psychopathic things I’ve noticed.
“We’ll be watching a TV show or something and he’ll be like, ‘But why is she even upset?’
“I try to walk him through it. But no, he doesn’t get it.”
He’s also very committed to rational thought.
“If something’s not logical he gets really pissed off about it, even if it’s something that’s good in every other way—he can’t accept it,” she says.
Ellie, who is emotional, irrational and empathetic, is pretty much the opposite.
Ellie gives equal weight to something bad that might happen as she does to something good that might happen—even if the chances of the negative scenario are tiny, and vice-versa, she tells me.
Rob is the opposite. Despite his intellectual commitment to logic, in practice he will “disregard any possible bad thing and pretend nothing bad can happen”, she says.
What if probability is high? “He will approach it rationally and he will think it through rationally, but he won’t have an emotionally anxious attitude; he will lock that down.”
Ellie’s initial impressions of Rob were a combination of evil—to be fair, he was wearing fiery contact lenses and orthodontic fangs at the time—followed by weedy.
The first impression was from a photograph on the internet, the second was from seeing him in person.
“He was sitting on a chair at the State Cinema in the foyer, and he was wearing this leather jacket, and he was a bit hunched over, and I thought maybe he looked a little bit like a drug dealer.”
If someone told her then that she would marry him—“I would have laughed”.
“Not because he was unattractive or anything,” she hastens to add.
Ellie probably only thought he was small and weedy because she was expecting something more like an evil vampire, she explains.
“The way that I saw him was measured against my expectations. So maybe if I’d just met him with no expectations, he wouldn’t have looked weedy.”
I’m pretty sure Ellie just dug herself a hole, I’m not so sure if she managed to get out.
Jane is a social worker, but she started learning about forms of abuse long before her degree, first from her parents and then from her partner. I didn’t know her then. By the time we stumbled across each other, at a campground in the rain, she was a different person.
We met at Fortescue Bay a couple of years ago. Jane, her husband and their two young boys had moved here from Queensland fairly recently, and it was one of their first Tasmanian adventures. On the second day, they woke to such wild weather that by the afternoon they were thinking about cutting the trip short. The wind was constant, the rain kept turning to hail, and most of the other campers had already packed up. Then a couple with two kids showed up.
“I walked across the muddy camp ground and there you were,” she says, “just casually walking across, and I kind of looked twice because you had this baby on your back, and were carrying some gear, and I thought, ‘That can’t be right’.
“I approached you and… what did I say? Did I say, ‘What are you doing?!’ Because everyone was gone by then; the place was empty.
“You said something along the lines of, ‘Yeah, we’re just coming for two nights,’ I think that’s what you said. I said, ‘But you know there’s a severe weather warning?’ You said, ‘Yeah, but that should pass… the weather warning’s more out to sea’, and then you said, ‘If it gets too windy or dangerous and we’re heading to the car, we’ll come and let you know.’
“So that was enough for me. I thought, there’s this crazy young family setting up in this so it must be okay. But you were right, it did settle, I think it even settled that night.”
Jane is thirty-seven now. Her delicate features are sprinkled with freckles and her blonde hair is almost always pulled into a ponytail. She’s from the Gold Coast, but for some reason I think the bush suits her best.
Our families have spent a lot of time together since that camping trip, including a weekend at Mount Field, where we stayed in neighbouring cabins surrounded by stunning alpine views. There was a lot of time for the kids to get naked and wallow in mud, and a lot of time for us to talk. It was there that I started to realise Jane’s background is very different to the one that I’d imagined.
For starters, this devoted, conscientious, almost over-organised mother wasn’t brought up in a loving family. Her parents’ relationship was characterised by her mother’s manipulation and emotional blackmail and her father’s sudden outbursts of anger.
“My Dad couldn’t communicate emotion,” she says. Instead he’d just flip out and become extremely violent, and then pretend it never happened. “To this day I don’t know if he disassociated.”
Jane had a lot of friends, but nobody she was close to, for most of her school life. “I was very uncomfortable in myself, and self-conscious,” she says, which she hid behind outgoing behaviour.
She spent her first year of high school at one of the roughest schools on the Gold Coast. “You were either meek and mild and got beaten up, or you were big strong and tough and you didn’t,” she says.
“I learnt the habit of swearing and that became a survival mechanism.” The following year, Jane and her twin sister moved to a Catholic school, but the “survival mechanism” remained—“we were still foul-mouthed”, she says.
In grade eight, she started going out with a boy from school. Thanks to her dad, the relationship was over before it began.
“My dad found out and he said he’d shoot him if I didn’t break up with him. I was pretty scared of my dad… I was like, ‘Okay, bye’.” That was her first, and last, high school romance.
In her work, Jane examines an individual’s history and the patterns of behaviour they’ve been socialised with.
“They might have been raised with domestic violence and now they’re with a partner who perpetrates domestic violence,” she says.
If a child discloses parental abuse, one factor used to assess the likelihood of a recurrence is whether that parent was abused as a child.
But these patterns are much easier to identify from outside, and much harder to see from within.
Sam is unlike any other human being I know—assuming he’s human.
I question his origins not because I have a sudden desire to switch genres, but because of something he says to me during our interview.
“I love going to a party where I don’t really know anyone.”
Sam actually said this. What’s more, he meant it. For once, he wasn’t joking.
Sam doesn’t mind not knowing people at parties. Why? Because he has an extraordinary ability to get to know people and, better still, to make them laugh. The most beautiful part is that for him, it’s effortless. More than that, it’s fun.
When he was in his early twenties, Sam spent some time overseas with his friend Jack.
“We didn’t have any friends in Cambridge,” he says. “How do you make friends in a new town where you don’t know anyone? I saw two guys who looked like nice guys sitting on a table at a pub called, I think, The Eagle, and I just sat down and said, ‘Hey guys, we’re new in town, can we be friends?’ They went ‘yep’ and we had a great night, and last time I went to England—I hadn’t been for ten years—I met up with those guys again in Cambridge.”
See, everybody? It’s as simple as that.
Sam is a tall, gangly thirty-four year old with large-framed glasses and a scrubby beard. I interview him on our deck on a Thursday morning. We drink coffee and eat walnut shortbread while my boys run around the garden, hide “treasure” under the house, and consume way too much popcorn.
I can’t remember meeting Sam—I was probably distracted by his friend Jack, who I ended up dating for a while—but I can remember how eagerly he was welcomed into our circle of friends, and how dull our parties suddenly seemed without him.
His outgoing personality goes back as far as he can remember.
“I guess I was a confident kid,” he says. “I guess I was pretty funny, and I tried to be nice to everyone, and I tried to be inclusive and make friends with the kids who didn’t have all that many friends.”
Even in early primary school, he had genuine empathy for the loners, and acted on it. Or, in his words, invited “some weirdos” to his house.
Liam was one of them.
“I invited him to my house a couple of times and played with him at school a few times. He invited me to his birthday and I was the only one there. I think I was the only one invited, actually.”
Sam is a study in what happens when a person is smart and talented, but isn’t ambitious or studious.
School for him wasn’t about learning, or at least not the things he was supposed to be learning.
“I wasn’t studious and I’m still not… school was just a social thing, and I never did much work.”
It wasn’t that he wanted to stuff around, it was that he wanted to talk to people. But for some weird reason, our education system doesn’t particularly value that.
Sam did take one subject seriously: drama.
“I’d actually work hard at that… Yeah, I took that really seriously, actually. I think it was something I thought I was going to pursue at one point. I don’t know how. It’s easy, when you’re a kid, to talk about that.”
Sam never pursued acting—he’s not the pursuing type—but has been on a few ads, and a computer game parody that, depending on your definition of “YouTube sensation”, became a YouTube sensation.
Oh, and while he was procrastinating at uni, he and two friends had a weekly radio show.
The highlight of their show, for me at least, was a pre-recorded radio play based on a mega-drive game called “Streets of Rage”. They played Blaze Fielding, Axel Stone and Adam Hunter, and set the action on the mean streets of Hobart.
Each episode included a disconcertingly catchy rap song. One was a Live Aid appeal about turf warfare between two local takeaway shops. I can’t remember the details, but I remember it was hysterical. If only I could get a hold of the series I’d sell it and make millions.
I ask Ellie when she “you know, knew” with Rob.
It was soon after they first met. They were playing Risk and it was “very, very, fraught with tension”.
From Rob’s account of who made the first move, I know that Ellie’s ability to strategise wasn’t limited to boardgames.
“We were kind of flirting during that game,” she admits.
I ask who won.
“I won the game and I’ve never played Risk since and I refuse to, since I want to go out on a high,” she says defiantly.
For someone who loves boardgames, there are a lot of boardgames that Ellie refuses to play.
If she wins a game and thinks it was because of luck, she won’t play it again so that she can end on a high. Example: Risk.
If she loses a game and it frustrates her, she’ll vow never to play it again. Example: Go.
If, however, she wins because of skill, she will play it again. Example: Scrabble.
Now, where were we?
Despite the flirting, Ellie had reservations about Rob. But they met up a few more times, “and it just kind of hit fairly quickly in one of those meetings that yeah, this guy’s not bad”.
I ask Ellie if marriage terrified her, given the stakes and her tendency to focus on worst-case scenarios.
“I was really, really scared. A friend of mine was my bridesmaid—she was my only bridesmaid—and I said to her about a week beforehand, ‘Is it normal to just feel really petrified?’ and ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ And she said, ‘Yeah yeah, everyone feels that way.’
“I don’t know if everyone feels that way,” Ellie says, “but she was really good to say that because I think she knew me well enough to know that was just me freaking out—but I was scared.”
I ask her if they invited any random strangers to their wedding.
“There were some people we met a few weeks prior,” she says, laughing.
We hit it it off at an engagement party, met again for a board games night, and became last-minute guests at their wedding.
“We’ve never regretted it. We were like, ‘We’ve found our people… we need to have these people in our lives’.”
Ellie’s parents split up when she was just five years old. Her mum left; she and her elder brother stayed with their dad. Ellie visited her mum every second weekend, and saw her once a week for dinner, but it wasn’t enough.
“I wanted to live with her, but you can’t say that. Even as a five-year-old I knew you couldn’t say, to your parent who’s taking care of you full-time, ‘I don’t want to be with you’.”
Her dad could be warm and cuddly, but he was moody, and prone to giving “the silent treatment”. She loved him, but she hated coming home from her mum’s.
“I would come home and burst into tears because I didn’t want to leave her. That was every week, that separation; it was really hard.”
In high school, Ellie was kind of like the character in teen movies whose beauty is initially obscured by glass and metal, a lack of self worth and the absence of a hair straightener.
“I was really unattractive. I had the glasses, the braces, the frizzy hair, all of that.
“I was very anxious, very insecure, very socially awkward… I got glasses in primary school so it probably started then—about grade five—and it went through high school, so there were about, gosh, six really bad years there.
“I was bullied at school, and then at home I had mostly just Dad and Ned.”
She did have friends—a small group in primary school, a different one in high school, and another in college—but they were always changing.
“Every phase of my life I would move on from my friendship group; I wouldn’t keep it. Every time I went into a new institution was a chance to be a different person.”
Things started to improve in college. “It was a lot freer there. It’s much bigger, so you can find your own niche. I got contact lenses, I had more confidence; it was a better environment for me.”
The Ellie I interview has immaculate long hair, straightened and dyed dark, a small stature and big blue eyes.
I doubt she was ever unattractive, but it’s her word against mine, and I didn’t know her then, so I keep quiet.
Jane was “absolutely determined” from quite a young age that she would never get into a relationship with an abusive partner and would never get a divorce, she says.
Unfortunately, the relationship she committed to with absolute determination turned out to be the kind she was determined to avoid. The problem is, it took her a very long time to realise it.
“I was eighteen and I was preparing to go to art college… it was my absolute passion to be an artist, and a guy fell for me.
“I got to know him a bit more and I fell for him and he proposed to me.”
Jane and Brian were standing at the edge of a cliff face, which might have been romantic, but before he proposed he said, “I’m about to ask you a question and you can’t say no, otherwise I’ll jump over this cliff”.
She was terrified. All she could think was, “Don’t say no, say yes, say yes,” so when he asked if she would marry him, she said, “yes”.
And even when the cliff was gone, she didn’t change her mind. To eighteen-year-old Jane, breaking off a marriage proposal was akin to divorce.
“He wasn’t physically violent, because if he had been physically violent I would have identified it and walked away,” she says. “It was emotional control, it was psychological control, it was manipulation.”
There were demeaning comments and there was obsessive compulsive behaviour. Cups had to be perfectly aligned, pegs had to match, and Jane couldn’t laugh it off as a quirk, she had to take it very seriously.
He’d also say things like, “Brown is so boring, I’d really like you to be blonde, and that would excite me, I’d love you more if you were blonde”. But even if she complied, which she rarely had the money to do, he was never satisfied.
“Four weeks later… ‘You need to be red and if you can’t look after yourself and make yourself look pretty for me…’—it was just constant.”
Jane’s plans to attend art college were soon replaced by a job in his parents’ four wheel drive business, where she did the same work as him, but for less pay. It didn’t matter though, because he controlled all the money anyway.
We’ve talked about this before but I still don’t understand how Jane—beautiful, young, intelligent—didn’t walk away.
“I think I was just so confused and in so much emotional pain by then, that I didn’t think there was a way out… Although it was a de-facto relationship, we were engaged and I’d committed… that was as good as marriage and I didn’t want to break that.
“I think I was just hurting so much I couldn’t identify where the pain was coming from anymore,” she adds. “And I kept thinking there was something wrong with me. I think that stems back to childhood in the way I was never raised to have self-confidence or self identity or be confident in who I was or how I looked.
“I wasn’t even allowed to look in the mirror too long—if mum saw me she’d start calling me names, things like that, so I was never one of those girls who could plait new braids in my hair or practise doing makeup or anything like that.
“I suppose, in the end, he actually had me believing I wasn’t worth the air that I breathed without him,” she says.
Everything changed the night her father needed her to babysit her younger sister at his place.
Brian made her feel awful about it, it was almost as if she was leaving him.
“Anyway, through the night I actually woke up in absolute physical pain with this image in front of me of him in bed with another woman. And I couldn’t breathe or anything and I was really quite panicked.
“I took a while to get back to sleep and in the morning I woke up and I felt so guilty that I’d even had that image or even thought that of him.
“I decided to get my younger sister and say, ‘Hey, let’s go pick up Brian and we’ll go body boarding at the beach!’ just to try and rid myself of the guilt and make him feel like he’d not been abandoned. And then I got there and there was actually a woman with him, in the shower.
“I suppose I left him at that stage,” Jane says, but it didn’t last long. Brian kept denying anything happened, apologising, making excuses and begging her to come back.
“Then I just had this thought, what if I get to eighty and I regret I never gave him a second chance?”—and she went back.
In his thirty-four years, Sam has acquired numerous “best friends”. I ask him to list a few and it’s like hearing a collector talk about his most treasured pieces.
Henry is his earliest friend. They went to childcare together, saw each other almost every weekend through primary school, and walked to school together every day in high school. He no longer lives in Hobart but has “a lot of sentimental value… I hang on to him”, Sam says.
Then there’s Frankie, a quiet musical guy who is, in the very best sense of the word, “easy”. “Easy-going and just easy to hang around with—and really talented—I just really like him, he’s just.. easy.
“Michael Fletcher’s another best friend, because he’s hilarious, and I think we sort of bounce off each other pretty well.
“Benny Morrison is another best friend, because he’s just so enthusiastic… the thing I like about Benny Morrison is, we don’t really talk about that sort of thing, but I’m sure there are a lot of things where we would completely disagree politically, but it doesn’t matter.”
Despite regularly adding to his friend collection, Sam’s pretty good at catching up with the old ones, though his version of “catching up” isn’t necessarily the same as, say, Anita’s.
“Anita often says, ‘Did you catch up with whoever? What did you talk about?’
‘Oh, nothing, you know, but we had a great time, we had lots of laughs.’
‘What have they been doing?’
‘I don’t know actually.’
‘How’s the girlfriend?’
‘I don’t know, didn’t ask’.”
I know Sam is finishing his teaching degree part-time because Anita told me a while back. He came so close and is so capable, it would be crazy not to finish, she said. I wonder if he’s only doing it for Anita, and ask. The answer’s yes.
“I actually don’t really want to use it,” he says. He concedes it will be “a good thing to have” and says it will feel awesome if—when—he finishes, but it’s a painful means to an unnecessary end.
Sam tells me he’s only doing two subjects this semester, and is barely scraping by. This style of learning just isn’t him.
“Sometimes I go, ‘Oh that’s quite interesting’, but most of the time, I don’t.”
“I quite like studying in my own time, as in something that actually interests me, for its own sake—not to get a degree out of it.
“I like reading good books and I like researching things and learning about things, but I don’t necessarily like educational pedagogy because, who gives a shit?”
Sam has been working casually at a couple of childcare centres for a while now.
“I like it because you get paid to play with kids, pretty much. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but of all the ways to make money…”
“Isn’t it exhausting?” I ask.
It can be, he says.
“The way kids don’t get sick of things.
“You know, like you can do one little funny thing.
“You do it again. Like, they’ll give you a milkshake or a sandwich or something made out of sand and put it in your hands and then hit it out of your hands and you’ll go, ‘Oh no! My Sandwich!’
‘Okay! Put the sandwich in my hand… Oh no! You knocked it out of my hand! Oh no! My sandwich!’
‘Okay, give me that milkshake. Ooh, this looks like a nice milkshake. Oh no! My milkshake!’
“Yep. For an hour.”
Sam also works the occasional shift at a local bottle shop, and has worked in hospitality for years. He’s waited at some great restaurants, and says the thing he misses most is talking to the chefs.
“I’d say, ‘Oh, I got this pork neck’—or something—‘what should I do with it?’ And they’d give you a hundred things,” he says.
“I’m doing a cassoulet later on today,” he adds casually, “I confied the duck yesterday”.
It’s for dinner on Saturday night, with a guy he met through the bottle shop. Typical Sam.
Sam says he liked restaurant work best when it was quiet. At first I assume this is because you can slack off, but it’s not that at all.
“When you’re busy it’s hard to do a really good job and look after twenty-five tables at once to make everyone feel like they’ve had good service. But when you’re only looking after five tables you can go and chat to people and do a good job,” he says.
[ * ]
Christina, Mia, Sean
[ * ]
Christina wore wonderfully thick glasses from the age of three, and often got into trouble for reading too much. Her first memory is of a dog licking her face, a toboggan, and snow.
Christina once gave God the silent treatment, “just to see what would happen”—but she backed down first. She’s always believed in him, and doesn’t think she could stop—even if she wanted to.
Most of Christina’s high school friends were high achievers who were too busy freaking out about the UMAT to attend her eighteenth birthday, and went on to study medicine. Everyone seemed to think she’d become a doctor too, but instead, she took a gap year and went to Africa.
Africa led to bible college and bible college led to Tom. They married. She studied linguistics, he became a pastor. They spent some time in Ireland, then settled in Tasmania.
Christina’s always loved babies. Her family used to foster them, and she would often help her mother to feed and bathe them. About three years ago, she fell pregnant with her first child, but at her twenty week scan, the ultrasound technician noticed something wasn’t right. She said she just had to go and check something with the doctor, then she’d be back.
Christina has long, blonde hair that never misbehaves and prefers wearing pink to red. She has lots of long, light summery dresses, but since moving to Tasmania, she spends most of her time in jeans.
I interview her in our lounge room. I’m pretty sure this is where we met—a mutual friend invited her and Tom to a bible study we were hosting at the time, and soon became regulars.
In those days we only had one kid, who was usually in bed by the time everyone arrived. But on the morning of the interview, there are four to contend with, and they all want different things—milk, a motorbike, rice crackers, a book, help loading a Pez, sticks for the xylophone—except when they want the same thing, which is worse. Either way, we are interrupted many, many times.
Christina’s husband is a friendly, outgoing guy, but she didn’t immediately appreciate this about him.
Their first encounter was at bible college. He’d just been reunited with his best friend after the summer break and they were walking across the oval to the office.
Christina was heading there too, and he yelled a joyful “Hello!” in her direction.
“He’d never met me before, he just thought he was being friendly and welcoming,” she says, but even more so than usual because he was on some kind of best-friend high.
“I just thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I hate guys like that’.”
At the office, Christina waited behind the pair, who she’d later know as “The Toms”.
“They had to sign off for their keys or something. And they were both writing their names and the lady behind the desk was like, ‘I knew that both of your names were Tom, I didn’t realise you had the same last name as well’—the other Tom was just copying what Tom was writing!”
Despite his enthusiastic greeting, it wasn’t love at first sight for Tom either. He wasn’t looking for a relationship at the time—he didn’t need one—he had his friendship with Tom.
But time passed, and when his best friend moved home, well, he made a better one.
I have been friends with Mia since grade one. In primary school we played My Little Ponies, formed the (now defunct) Litter Security Club, dressed in Lycra to “work out” using my mum’s Denise Austin fitness videos, planned midnight feasts we could never stay up for, and entered Women’s Weekly competitions we never won.
I was a chubby kid, with thick eyebrows and teeth too big for my face, and Mia was petite, with almost golden hair. Along with Tori, a sporty all-rounder, we formed a tight, happy trio.
In high school, we made hilarious prank calls, formed a formidable debating team (we still like discussing our undefeated season), enjoyed the spoils of the media room at the cricket by pretending our parents were journos, and made absurd horror movies with a five kilo video camera.
So anyway, Mia and I go way back.
Although we did a lot together, Mia was usually the instigator, and would often embark on ventures alone. Getting a job at McDonald’s is a case in point.
Mia was the minimum age—fourteen years and nine months—when she got the job. Today she’s the last person I’d expect to have anything to do with a multinational fast food chain, and even then it was kind of surprising.
I ask her why. Was it the money? The prestige?
“There’s so much you get from being a McDonald’s employee it’s hard to say,” she says. We’re both laughing.
“Money, probably, and because Robert worked there I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool. He’s got his own money’.”
Whatever the reason, she was keen. So keen she remembers wrapping burgers at home to build up speed.
Believe it or not, her enthusiasm didn’t last.
“I started getting disillusioned,” she says.
“You only got certain meal breaks, like a short time, and you weren’t allowed to leave McDonald’s in your uniform, so you had to get undressed into other clothes to go out in your lunch break, but the breaks were so short that if you actually did that to buy other food—this is teenagers who aren’t organised to bring their own food—then you’d have no time to eat.”
The system meant workers ended up spending their breaks trapped out the back of McDonald’s, paying McDonald’s—albeit at a discounted rate—for McDonald’s food.
She wasn’t happy about it and it showed. “I got the smiley faces on the roster, which is a reminder to be smiley, even though I worked out the back.
“And I was like… I need to call a union.”
She didn’t call a union but she didn’t start smiling either; she quit.
Some time later, she can’t remember exactly when, she went back. It wasn’t for the food.
“It was when McLibel was happening,” she says. “I think the magazine Mum used to subscribe to was New Internationalist, which was some sort of left-wing thing. I think that’s where it came from; I read about it.”
Mia discovered there was a class action against McDonald’s around a range of issues including the environment and workers’ rights.
She printed a big stack of flyers from the internet, went to her local McDonald’s—the same one she’d worked at—and started handing them out to people in the drive-through.
“I think I was on the footpath. No, I must have been on their property because they did escort me from the premises—they did call the police,” she says.
It ended in tears. “Some people were really cranky at me because they were like, ‘McDonald’s is a good organisation; this is rubbish’.
“They wound down their windows, thinking, ‘Here’s a free two-for-one voucher’ or whatever; instead they got this flyer that had Ronald McDonald like a psycho clown.”
I ask whether she ever thought about recruiting friends to the cause. She didn’t. “It was just me, it was just my own idea. I don’t actually remember the thought process behind it. Thinking back, it’s like, ‘That was a weird thing to do’.”
The McDonald’s protest wasn’t her first. In primary school, she shared her mother’s stance against battery-hen farming, and once joined her in a rescue attempt.
It was another ill-thought-out caper, she recalls. They set out one day to rescue some hens in the family station wagon. They’d forgotten about the “stop battery-hen farming” stickers that were plastered all over it, which alerted staff as they drove in. Alas, no hens were freed that day.
One of Mia’s current campaigns (I think it’s safe to assume there are others) is against a local council’s plans to build a new road near her house.
She drafted a petition straight away and recently “gathered the troops” to attend a council meeting. Powerfully and persuasively, they explained why it was a terrible idea.
They didn’t triumph, but they tried, and they haven’t given up. A social media campaign is now gaining traction. If I had to put money on the council or Mia, I’d put it on her.
Sean has a job that many would find strange, if not offensive—not least his teenage self. Actually, there is much about mid-thirties Sean that teenage Sean would be horrified by.
“I was a real idealist and fight-against-the-man punk-rocker high-schooler,” Sean says.
That person would have been disillusioned by pretty much all of the suburban aspects of his lifestyle as a married man with three kids and a steady job, he says.
“And all the annoying things I was told as a teenager that if you really want to make a difference you have to do—and that I didn’t want to be true—I’ve found to be true,” he adds.
Sean was having a similar conversation only yesterday. “We were talking about those conversations with younger idealists and I think there’s a decision you make when you start to be a bit disabused with those things: will you become a person who becomes more realistic and therefore despises and kind of chides the idealists, or will you be a person who still delights in it and invests in it and doesn’t hold out for an ‘I told you so’?
“It comes down to, do you have this need to justify yourself, do you kind of go, ‘I have to keep reassuring myself that I’m not a sell-out’ by, you know, hitting with a wooden spoon any idea that’s not neat, or do I actually go, ‘No, idealism’s awesome, it’s a really cool thing, and I know it’ll temper and mature all of its own, it doesn’t need me to be there crushing it, nor there with my arms crossed going “I told you so” ten years later’.”
Being married to Stella helps, he says. “She loves all that idealism and gets that it kind of doesn’t quite work that way, but wishes it did even more, so I think she’s got a nice sentimental streak for that which is good. It’s not so, but you should want it to be so, you know what I mean?”
This is particularly relevant to Sean because of his job. I imagine the campus director of a group of Christian university students would probably encounter idealism almost as often as cynicism—or at least, I hope so.
I ask whether he feels more like a father-figure, or a friend.
Both, he says.
“A healthy adult relationship can mean you become friends with your parents, friends with your uncles, friends with your mentors—and I guess that’s what I’m going for, being friends, but friends recognising the age difference,” he says.
“So, when I went into this uni thing, from the very beginning I didn’t build it as, ‘I’ll hang out with you lots, I’ll go to your parties, I’ll organise social events’.
“Although I’m extroverted, I’m not into socialising for socialising’s sake… I find small talk tiring, so I deliberately set it up that way… I didn’t think they needed that; really, I think that would be a case of me needing to be needed.
“They can organise social events all by themselves and especially if they’re students trying to hang out, have a laugh, potentially try and chat to the good-looking guy or girl that they’ve got an eye on, they don’t really want some, you know, thirty-year-old guy hanging around as well.
“I’ve got a particular job and the other side is being clear on that, that my job is a different one, my role in their lives is a different one.”
Sean wasn’t raised a Christian. He was baptised as a child, taught to say a childish prayer at bedtime, and once went to Sunday school, but that was about as far as it went.
At school he was exposed to Christianity as “a liturgy thing”, and through chaplains who held mission weeks.
The chaplains weren’t cool or likeable—he didn’t take much notice of them—but he did respect them, and didn’t dismiss their message entirely.
“No, there was a point to all that, and even at one of those mission things I had a kind of an emotional reaction, going, ‘Oh, I should become a Christian’,”—but it was fleeting.
Tom and Christina moved to Tasmania in 2013. Christina says it took her a long time to get to know people, and she hated the cold.
“Every time I struggled it would always come back to, ‘I hate Tasmania’, and I still hate the cold and I hate that it’s so hard to see family because we have to fly, but apart from that I think it’s a beautiful place, and I do like living close to the city, but not feeling like we’re in the middle of a busy city.”
Within their first year here, she fell pregnant. I remember the night they told us the happy news. I was pregnant with our second child, just a couple of weeks behind—though we didn’t mention it at the time.
Christina remembers feeling nervous before her scans, and Tom finding it strange. She knew people who had miscarried, that things could go wrong, she said. But when the ultrasound technician went to get a doctor at her twenty week scan, Tom was the one feeling nervous.
“I don’t think I even registered that meant there was something wrong. I was just like, ‘Oh, that’s what they always do’.
The technician returned with the news their baby had a diaphragmatic hernia. She made an appointment for them to see a doctor the following week and said, “try not to google it” (of course, they did).
Christina asked if it meant their baby would have to have surgery when it was born. “I think she said something like, ‘It depends on how bad it is’.”
Christina has since learnt that the technician wasn’t supposed to answer that question, or any questions. “She had to go to the doctor to ask permission to even tell us, and obviously the doctor was really busy that day because… I don’t know why the doctor didn’t come in and talk to us.”
Seven painfully long days later, they went back and the doctor confirmed their baby had a hole in his diaphragm, and that the hole had allowed the contents of his abdomen to move into his chest cavity.
“We later found out, through other scans, it was his bowel, intestine and liver; basically everything had moved up. The liver indicates it’s quite severe, because the liver is on the right-hand side of the body, and if you’ve got a left-hand hole that means almost everything has moved in that direction, which means that the lungs don’t develop properly and the heart gets pushed over,” Christina says.
Initially they were told he had a seventy to eighty per cent chance of survival, but after further tests, it was revised to fifty per cent. Another round of tests suggested it was twenty per cent. And because these percentages don’t take into account the babies that are aborted before delivery, it was probably even less.
I ask Mia whether she’s happy to talk about the “dark teenage years”, which began in grade nine or ten.
“I think it was probably just a regular teenage angst, hormonal imbalance type thing,” she says.
She saw a guidance counsellor, then a doctor, and was diagnosed with depression.
Researchers have since found the drug she was prescribed and continued to take for about six years can have serious adverse effects. “There are class actions against it, because it’s not to be given to teenagers at all; it makes it worse,” Mia says.
Later, I google “Aropax” and “teenagers”. The first search result is a Sydney Morning Herald article with the lead: “It was given to teenagers to improve their lives. Instead it put them at risk of suicide”. A British Medical Journal study further down says much the same thing.
Mia is open to talking about those years, but can’t recall much. “That whole time’s a bit blurry,” she says.
“Apparently, neurologically, your brain files memories, bad memories in one place and good memories in another place, and when you’re happy it’s hard to access that part… I’d have to be feeling sad to access those memories.
“That’s why, when people are depressed, they can’t even remember being happy, and can’t imagine being happy, and when they’re happy they’re like, ‘I can’t imagine being depressed’… it’s just totally different sections of your brain.”
Mia’s a talented artist. As well as going to the same primary school and the same high school, we were also at art school together.
She majored in painting and drawing; I majored in English, photography and journalism. At some point she had the brilliant idea of combining her love of music and art by painting musicians. I was her trusty photographer, and she wrangled us free tickets to scores of concerts in the name of art—Bob Dylan, the Waifs, Powderfinger, George, You Am I—my photos were ordinary but her portraits were amazing.
Now that she’s juggling work and kids with being in multiple bands, she realises just how much time she had at uni.
“The mature-aged students and their enthusiasm, I totally understand now. It’s so wasted on teenagers,” she says.
“If I was going back now, look out, I’d be the most annoying mature-aged student you’ve ever seen. I’d be leaning forward, hand up, answering all the questions, producing about fifty paintings a day, hobnobbing with everyone with a glass of wine at the openings…
“Back then I was like, ‘This is easy, I’ll just sit on the verandah at home and not do any work’.”
In many ways, Sean is the perfect person for his current job. He’s not keen on the book-keeping, budgeting or spreadsheets, but there’s an awful lot he loves.
“I love doing something that I believe really matters, I love doing something I think will last forever, I love seeing people’s lives changed; they’re the big things I love about my job.”
It is also mentally stimulating, he says.
“It’s a very intellectual and artistic work in the sense you’re understanding philosophy and history and literature and interacting with science and sociology.”
The people side, however, can be challenging as well as a joy. “People work is really draining and exhausting and wearing, because you’re deep in people’s lives.”
Others who have worked in ministry will likely understand, he says. “You’re investing your life in helping other people’s lives change, and so you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and hurt and frustration and betrayal and disillusionment.
“Change with people is slow and often deceptive, and change when it comes to a larger level, in communities, is glacial. It’s really slow and never complete.
“Jesus talks about how the kingdom of heaven is like a crop growing up with weeds all through it and I think that’s really true… you’ve got that imperfection the whole time, and that’s frustrating, disillusioning, disappointing… there are problems that you can’t solve or separate yourself from… that’s hard.”
I ask how he copes when he’s struggling with doubt.
This might range from the extreme—doubting the message he’s communicating—right through to feeling hypocritical in small ways, he says.
“You know, you lose your temper right before you have to preach a sermon about not being angry… there are those sorts of things where, guaranteed, if you’re going to preach on parenting you’ll have the most awful morning in your own household.”
So what’s the solution? “I think you’ve got to be honest about your humanity and your weakness. I think sometimes people deal with that insecurity about their own doubts and hypocrisies in kind of a cop-out way of being totally exhibitionist about it, cos then it’s sort of like, ‘You can’t blame me for being inconsistent then because look, see, I beat you to it!’—that sort of self-sabotage.
“I don’t think you can do that, I think there’s got to be a sense in which, when you take on any role in leadership, including Christian leadership, you are claiming some degree of conviction and maturity in what you stand for, and you’ve got to stand for that, and that’s part of serving others.
“So yeah, I don’t know, being honest to some extent, being honest with God and also realising… it’s still true, even if I don’t feel it strongly right now and even if I’m not living as closely with it as I’d like right now, the truth is still a good truth, and I guess that’s a really freeing thing.”
Sean spent his teenage years questioning, well, everything.
It was the 1990s, and he was captivated by grunge and Nirvana, a new wave of punk, and the hope of somehow finding “a better life and more freedom and more reality and authenticity”.
He was reading philosophy and literature widely and deeply, and when it came to questions such as “Why not just do whatever you want?”, he didn’t stop at wondering—he started putting it to the test.
“When you’re playing with ideas as teenager, you suddenly realise you’ve got these powerful tools you don’t quite understand, but they work—you can come up with these philosophical arguments that grown-ups can’t answer,” he says.
I should probably mention that Sean has the kind of intelligence that your average teacher would encounter perhaps once in their career, and find understandably formidable. Add teenage angst and a healthy dose of nihilism to the mix, and he must have been a force to be reckoned with.
“I guess rebellion begins with going, ‘Actually, what can your parents really do when you’re a teenager? What can your school really do?’ Instead of saying, ‘I would never! Goodness! Heavens! Imagine! Imagine having to go to Friday detention! The world could end!’,” Sean says.
This attitude led to pushing boundaries at home and at school, and experimenting with drinking, drugs and sex.
He became alienated from school and his parents, and then he ran away.
[ * ]
Evan, Megan, Rob
[ * ]
As a kid, Evan charged his classmates eucalyptus leaves to go down the school slide, loved spending time in his uncle’s strange and wonderful workshop, and was afraid of bats.
In high school, he and his best friend (”we were the biggest dorks”) made dangerous concoctions with flammable liquids; not to light or sniff or anything like that—just mixing them was thrilling enough.
I didn’t know him then. The Evan I’m interviewing is a tall, relaxed guy with dark stubble and a wide smile. I ask if he really was a dork. “Yeah, definitely, I was for sure. I was the biggest nerd.”
Let’s assume he was, because this is a story about a guy who chases a girl around the world in a way that some would call romantic, and others would call stalking, and if we cast Evan as nerdy and insecure rather than tall and handsome, well, it’ll be a whole lot more interesting.
At uni, Evan majored in sociology and political science, and did honours in political science. He was accepted as a PhD candidate but when he missed out on a scholarship, he decided to focus on work.
It was a government job, as a child protection worker, that he’d already started part-time. He worked in an area called “response”.
“It was going out to families where there were concerns about their kids; trying to assess whether the kids were safe, and if they weren’t, taking steps to make sure they were.”
I ask him if he felt equipped for that kind of work straight out of uni.
“To be honest, I don’t think I thought about it, really. I enjoyed it because at the time—and my work should never be like this—but at the time there was a lot of adrenaline and a lot of decision-making on the run, and clearly that’s not what you should be doing with children’s lives or families’ lives but that’s how it was at the time and I kind of liked it for that reason.”
There were only a few males working there back then, so he was often called on to help with potentially volatile situations.
Evan liked being needed, and considered himself pretty bulletproof, but does remember seeing some really hard stuff and thinking, “that’s not okay for me to see”.
He says those early days have influenced how he works today. He no longer likes being relied on in those kinds of circumstances, or making decisions on the run—he’s seen the consequences.
Since becoming a parent he’s also gained a deeper understanding of the parent–child relationship. Now he thinks about how he’d feel if someone took his son out of his care; of the weight of it all.
“Also, you see the intergenerational nature of the work; you see children become parents and you realise some kids—some parents—don’t have much of a chance because of the environment they grew up in.”
I ask if he means that, despite all of their failings, some of them are actually trying—are genuinely doing the best they can. He nods.
“Just because they’re doing their best doesn’t mean that’s okay,” he notes, “but it gives you much more context… you understand a few more things.”
These days, the department does a lot more analysis before decisions are made, and these days, Evan prefers that. “The agency is much better at that, and I’m much better at that,” he says.
“Drew, I forgot to shut the door. I thought the door was shut, I forgot to check when Mum brought Patch here, so she got into the chook pen straight away. Now I can’t find Clucky. ‘Probably dead?’, thanks Drew. Well, I can’t find a body, and I’ve been to the next-door neighbour and she wasn’t home, so I went through the back yard and she’s not there, went along the back fence, talked to someone down the back over the other way, he hasn’t seen the chook either but he’ll keep an eye out, so I’m not letting her out, because if Clucky’s gone to ground somewhere here… When I went running out I’m sure I saw a flash of Clucky-coloured feathers running somewhere…. Oh, I feel sad if we’ve lost Clucky… she’s one of the friendliest…”
Megan asks Drew to take Patch for a walk, and we talk about lemon trees. I can’t seem to keep them alive, Megan can’t seem to get them to fruit, and we’ve both had problems with scale.
“I popped all the scale,” Megan says. “You’ll probably find it gross but it’s so satisfying, you just pop them with your finger, they just go, ‘pop-pop-pop-pop’. It’s so satisfying—so disgusting, but it’s like wounds, it’s like fixing up wounds—so gross and so satisfying.”
I ask whether fixing up wounds is what Megan likes most about nursing. “I do like it, I really like it,” she says, but in paediatrics, chronic wounds aren’t all that common.
Despite the problematic lack of hideously disgusting wounds, Megan loves working in paeds.
“I love how quickly kids get better. I don’t like how quickly they get sick; that’s scary. But you tend to have really good teams in paediatrics… and that makes all the difference, even if you’re working in a really high-stress environment. It makes it doable, and it actually makes it enjoyable.”
I ask whether she’s formed many attachments over the years. “I’m kind of awkward around kids, even though I like them,” she says. Sometimes she develops a good rapport with a patient and really enjoys nursing them, but rarely will she get too close.
“You just can’t. You dwell on it and you just… it will destroy you in how shitty some things actually are. So you have to just focus on doing a good job and making it less shitty.
“Of course there are ones that, you know, they get to you, and something bad happens and you feel like your stomach’s falling through the floor… and yeah, you sometimes come home and cry, but the next day there’s something else to do…
“Not that I’m doing that any more—I’m not working in any areas like that any more.”
Rob has dark hair and light freckles and looks nothing like a vampire. He and Ellie drop round on a Saturday morning. I promised to bake and I proudly present them with a chocolate stout cake. While I’m making Rob a short black, I realise I have sandwiched a layer of grease-proof paper in the middle of the cake, and burn his coffee while fixing it. We are off to a smooth start.
I begin by trying to confirm a suspicion of mine—that he works pretty much all the time. Rob once told me that his company used to have an unlimited leave policy which was scrapped, not because people were exploiting it, but because they weren’t taking enough leave.
Who are these people and what’s wrong with them?!
Rob tries to explain. He’s part of a team of thirty-something people who work remotely across multiple timezones. He does “kind of try” to work “roughly” nine to five, but because he looks after servers, he’s often on call in case they go down. There are also regular out-of-hours meetings, and though he tries to make up for it by having a longer lunch here and an early finish there, it’s not always easy.
The other thing is, the team is tight. If someone’s away it’s like a piece of the puzzle is missing; it messes with “the flow of the whole place”. And then, when you return, there can be lots of catching up to do.
Rob drops the most compelling reason towards the end of his explanation. He really, really likes his job. It’s like a hobby he gets paid for.
“Because it’s a hobby and because you like to be there all the time, and they’re doing things that are interesting, and you’re also aware of what other people in your team are working on that might be interesting to you… If you go on leave you’re missing out on progress,” he says.
To cut a long story short, the unlimited leave policy has since been replaced with a minimum leave policy. Now the company is trying to force its employees to take at least four weeks off a year. Whether they can handle that remains to be seen.
I didn’t know Rob in high school. I didn’t know he had hair so terrible he now cringes just thinking about it, or that people called his group of smart, funny, odd-ball friends “the goof troop”, or that he spent the money he earned working at McDonald’s on orthodontic fangs and contact lenses with flames on them.
He wasn’t a goth, though he did wear a lot of black, and he wasn’t trying to scare people. He was just interested in that subculture and enjoyed the liberation of wearing a mask. “I was attempting to put up a barrier, so I could see what that was like, I suppose.”
Later that evening I tell my husband about Vampire Rob. I want to know if he’s as surprised as me. “There’s nothing about Rob that surprises me,” he says.
Rob had a clubbing phase too—don’t tell me you’re surprised. It was after college and lasted for about six months. He was living in a share house that was dangerously close to Club Surreal, and started going there three nights a week.
I hate pretty much everything about nightclubs, so the thing I really want to know is, did he actually enjoy it?
“I don’t know if I liked it or not, but I liked hanging out with the group of friends that I was doing it with,” he says.
I ask Rob, who I’ve never seen dance, if he “had the moves”. He says he’s thankful they didn’t have camera phones back then.
Because the dancing was “quite energetic”, he looked on it as a kind of workout session, he adds. Thanks to my mum’s old fitness videos, this conjures up some pretty hilarious mental images.
“You always feel like you’re killing it when you’re doing it, but… no, I wouldn’t say I had good dance moves,” he says.
Evan met Penny at uni. He liked her straight away but was “a very, very nervous kind of guy” back then, incapable of making the first move, or any moves.
“She was the girl you’d sit next to in lectures, and it would be nice,” he says. “It never went any further than that really because I was too terrified to do anything.”
In their honours year he started seeing someone else, then Penny went to Japan where she worked teaching English, and he started working at child protection.
Penny’s mum happened to work there too, and when they realised the connection, she gave him her daughter’s email address.
“We started emailing each other and then my relationship broke down,” he says. They continued emailing each other. “I started to realise, ‘Wow, this girl’s amazingly hilarious, and she’s got a heart of gold, and she’s intelligent, and just so different to anyone else that I’ve ever met’… I just wanted to get to know her more.”
At some point, Penny started planning a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. “I decided I had some money and wanted to go away; I decided to go to Vietnam at the same time.”
I ask Evan whether he pretended it was a coincidence or openly asked to tag along.
“Look, I probably asked, ‘Can I come too?’ and there was no response from Penny and then I think I pretended that I was just going by myself, ‘Oh! Let’s catch up!’.”
They “caught up”, as planned, in Vietnam. Penny knew by now—and probably way earlier—that Evan liked her. She’d been back to Hobart for a visit and he’d finally mustered up the courage to tell her.
“I think I told her that I liked her; I probably told her that I loved her or something, and she was like, ‘Well I’m in Japan; that’s not going to work, because I’m in Japan and you’re here.’ I told her the same in Vietnam and, same response,” he says.
Some time after that, Evan went overseas for a longer trip. “I decided to do a side trip to Japan on the way through, so went to stay with Penny in Japan for a week.” It was, in a word, “awkward”.
But it was nice to see her, too. He “kind of told her again” how he felt, and she told him again that they were in the wrong countries for it to work.
I interrupt. Didn’t he ever try asking, “What if we weren’t?”
Evan says he doubts he was “smart enough or mature enough” to say something like that. I guess it had taken this “very, very, nervous kind of guy” so much courage to speak at all, that to plead his case would have felt impossible.
“That was in February of 2008 I think, and I spent the next year travelling overseas and Penny went back to Australia in July or August of that year and I didn’t come back until January or February of the next year.”
When he finally returned to Tassie, they “agreed to catch up, and kept catching up”.
Now they were living in the same place there was—geographically at least—nothing to keep them apart.
I met Penny at uni too. We had some mutual friends, and both worked at the refectory. Slaving over the bain-marie was never exactly fun, but it was a lot less painful, and there were a lot more laughs, when Penny was working too.
I don’t remember the name “Evan”, but I do remember her occasionally mentioning a kind of nice, kind of weird guy who sort of had a thing for her, and being pretty surprised when he travelled overseas to see her.
The thing that surprised me most was when I met him—he wasn’t dorky at all. He just didn’t realise it.
When Megan first told me about Drew, she described him as “a genius musician, about thirty, possibly mad”. She was twenty-five, he was thirty-four, and although they’d noticed each other at church, they hadn’t yet met.
The night before she left for Bolivia, they found themselves at a cafe with mutual friends.
“Drew didn’t talk much but, I don’t know, it was one of those, you know, some people make an impression on you and, I don’t know, there was something there.”
When Megan returned to Melbourne, she saw him playing the grand piano in a musical. Even though Megan hates musicals, she went twice.
“I’m pretty shameless when I like someone,” she says. “So no, I was pretty shameless in orchestrating to get him to come out.” She asked one of her friends to invite him somewhere with a group, then got a friend of his to arrange a coffee date.
The three of them met for coffee, but the mutual friend was quick to escape. Beforehand, Drew had admitted to Paul that he was “obsessed” with Megan, so he probably figured his work was done. After the cafe, Megan and Drew ended up at a community garden down the road, watching the chickens.
“I think after that it was only a couple more days til we were together, because I think he’s the same. He’s very forward if he thinks he likes someone, he doesn’t really see the point in being all shy and silly about it, so with two people who are like that there wasn’t a lot of mucking around, which is nice cos I don’t like all of that stuff, it’s just annoying, it’s just painful.”
They were engaged within eight weeks.
“I think within the first couple of days of going out we both went, yeah, we think this is it. Which was very unusual and not something that I’d experienced before; it did feel different. And it was just very easy. I think that’s kind of nice when just being around someone is just so easy and there’s no second guessing,” Megan says.
“I like the fact that he’s very up front and he doesn’t get complicated—I mean, everyone gets complicated about certain things but we’ve always been able to be very blunt and up-front and honest with each other.”
Sometimes this honesty isn’t so great, Megan adds. “Sometimes you think, ‘I didn’t need to know that about you!’ But I’d prefer to err on that side than the other side, and I think that’s how we both just felt really comfortable with one another.”
I ask Megan whether she’s ever thought, “I’d never marry someone who…”.
“Yes! Who is so friggin’ stuck in his ways, who loves routine, and would have happily lived in the same flat in Melbourne for the rest of his life and never gone anywhere,” she says without hesitation.
“I was never really the sort of person to go, ‘Oh, this is the man of my dreams!’ … I just don’t think that way, but I guess if someone had sat me down and gone, ‘Who would you think would be the person you’d like to marry?’ it would not have been Drew.
“We often joke that we kind of lied to each other,” she says. “He lied that he likes going bushwalking and is motivated to do that all the time, and I lied that I like going out and listening to music.”
Megan says she’s not always a good judge of character. I already have all the evidence I need because she didn’t instantly love me the first time we met. It was more than ten years ago now, and we were sharing a lift somewhere with a mutual friend.
Her first impression? That I was “a snob” and that we’d have nothing in common. “You had your cool glasses on… I just thought you were just like this really beautiful snobby person from Collegiate or something… obviously that broke down within about half an hour of being in the car together and we ended up being really good friends.”
Rob was the kind of kid who asked “why” all the time. We have one of those, so I feel for his parents.
He initially wanted to be a forensic psychologist but was good with computers, and got a traineeship in IT instead. When he started a uni degree later on, he got “super disenchanted” because what he was learning was out-dated and irrelevant.
Rob always wanted to travel, and now he gets paid to. University qualifications are something his current employer couldn’t care less about. The company not only pays him well and forces him to take holidays (well, tries to), it flies him all over the world. My husband, who was recently in Lithuania for work, has a similar deal. Perhaps I should ask their employers to chat with my boss about how much more productive people are when team meetings take place in Europe…
One of Rob’s colleagues is a kind of “serial traveller” who doesn’t call anywhere home. Rob’s clearly taken with the idea. “If someone says, ‘What’s the address I can send this to?’ he’s like, ‘There isn’t one, there isn’t one at all. There’s not even a place I’m going to go back and pick stuff up from’,” Rob says.
This lifestyle would be “completely impractical” with kids, Rob says, but practicalities aside, it’s how he’d love to live.
Rob is interested in most things, and will try his hand at almost anything. He’s the kind of person who will mention, in passing, that he’s “trying to build an AI at the moment”—no big deal, “just something to do”.
Rob’s intense but unsustainable passions have included fermentation, bonsai, whisky, smart home electronics, turkish coffee, soap carving, aquaponics and Chinese tea.
“Some of them last longer than others and some of them come back, like the second wind later, but I would definitely say they are brief interests; they’re brief, but deep.”
Whatever you do, don’t ask him about absinthe.
“People have a particular impression of absinthe which I discovered is not correct, it’s based on propaganda from the wine industry. So I read up heaps and heaps about that.
“Often people will go, ‘I heard you like absinthe, can you tell me a bit about it?’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, you do not know what you’re getting into’.”
Later, I ask Ellie about Rob’s many and varied hobbies. I use his recent interest in “that plant thing in bowls” (”terrariums”, apparently) as an example.
“That’s my passion!” Ellie says outraged. “Rob steals my passions! He is a passion thief! He has his own; he does not need more; but then he goes, ‘That’s really interesting what you’re doing, tell me more…’.”
I ask Ellie what she thinks when the doorbell rings, because I think I know the answer—and I’m right.
“What has Rob ordered now?”
I don’t hear Rob use the phrase “cloud architect” until after I interview him, when he is talking to my husband in the kitchen. I feel cheated. He told me he looked after servers; I had no idea a job could have such a romantic title.
“Cloud Architect,” I think. “Cloud. Architect.” It sounds a bit like a god.
[ * ]
Marie, Andy, Laura
[ * ]
Marie often dreams she is flying. If she’s had enough of something or somewhere, she’ll just stretch out her hands and start rising into the air. As she speaks, she pushes back her chair, stands up, lifts her arms. It’s easy to imagine her floating off the floor. “Just… with my hands… like that…” she says, “and I keep going up, and I can go anywhere”.
When I interview Marie, she’s in her office in Versailles and I’m in our kitchen in Hobart, and it’s afternoon and it’s evening, and we’re far away and face to face. This will never stop amazing me.
Marie has stylish black-framed glasses, and equally stylish short, dark hair. Even without the accent, she’s cute.
She looks, from what I can tell, exactly the same as the day we met. I was a student living in a share house, she was a traveller staying at a hostel, and we were waiting to cross the same street.
I wonder whether she remembers too and whether, twelve years on, our memories will match.
“I met you in Hobart at a traffic light,” she says. “I was about to cross the road, and I was with my Lonely Planet. I don’t think I talked to you first, I think you talked to me, because you saw I was looking for my way.
“You, I don’t know if you say ‘proposed’ your help, and then you asked me a few questions about my travelling.
“You said you were having a French dinner in the evening, this evening or another evening, and you asked me if I would be happy to join you and I said, ‘Yes, I’m very, very happy,’ and you said something like ‘Come with your dirty clothes if you want, because I’ve been travelling abroad; I know how it is’.”
Later, we met at her hostel. “You said something like, ‘I was afraid you wouldn’t come’—you were afraid to be considered as a crazy person,” she says.
The dinner invitation wasn’t quite as strange as it might sound. At the time I was living in a grand old house with many rooms and many housemates. Two French girls who’d been staying with us—Sean’s friends, I think—were cooking a feast to thank us before leaving. It seemed—how do you say?—meant to be.
The dirty washing part, which I’d forgotten, was probably taking hospitality a step too far. Surely Marie thought I was at least a little bit odd? Surely she had second thoughts?
“No, no-no-no,” she says. “Because I think I was a bit lost; I didn’t know where I was going, and when you see a smile and some connection with someone it’s reassuring, and even if you don’t feel at home you feel like, ah, just… there’s someone on your way to help you.”
A few years ago my husband and I visited Marie in Versailles. She met our first child, we met her boyfriend, and they cooked us something wonderful with pastry and apples and camembert. In the years since, we’ve chatted occasionally online. A book recommendation here, a recipe there. But more recently it’s been less flippant. Despite the distance—or perhaps because of it—she’s confided in me.
It’s not any one thing, it’s everything. She’s not happy in Versailles. She’s thirty-five, she lives alone and worse, she feels alone. She works in the library at a local university, but feels stifled there, and her only friend is leaving. She doesn’t know what to do or where to go; how to stay or how to leave.
“I think it’s tough yes, at the moment, for many reasons… I don’t want to stay here, I left my boyfriend… I’m a bit worried.”
Her voice is trembling a little and I can only see part of her face.
I ask Marie why she broke it off with her boyfriend. “I was missing things from him. I think I knew it from the beginning… he had a long story with someone and I think he didn’t recover, and his life is here and mine is not.
“I wasn’t happy enough anyway.”
Andy can’t bear to have the television volume on an uneven number. “And I hate it, I hate that I care,” he says, but he does; he can’t help it.
Andy’s honesty is one of the things I love about him.
“I can forgive fives, like between one and ten—I can forgive fives—but generally, it has to be an even number.”
It’s not really fair to start his story like this. Andy doesn’t have obsessive compulsive disorder and he’s pretty relaxed about tidiness. But as far as idiosyncrasies go, this one delighted me. I actually used it as an example when I asked Rob if he had any similarly weird quirks. I was shocked when he said, “Yeah, yeah, I have a little bit of OCD like that as well, I like it to be on an even number”—as if it were normal! It’s not… is it?
Another delightful thing about Andy is that he’s accidentally “made it” (my words, not his) in an industry that would normally require serious hard work, determination, and networking to enter. I ask if he has his dream job.
“I think so,” he says.
The funny thing is, he didn’t even know this was what he wanted to do until he was doing it. He didn’t work toward it for many years with stubborn perseverance and single-minded focus. He just worked in whatever job came his way, started a blog, and played computer games at every opportunity.
Andy is a nice guy, with a nice-guy face. He’s usually clean-shaven and sometimes wears rectangular glasses which make him look a tiny bit more serious—but still nice. About twelve years ago, he married his college sweetheart, Julie. They’re now outnumbered by kids.
I can’t remember meeting Andy. It was around the time I met my husband, so I was probably distracted, but I can remember taking photos at his wedding. I was an Arts student with a chunky analogue camera and no wedding experience. I didn’t charge, but they paid the price in quality, and although they never said a word, I still feel bad about it.
I’ve since had a wedding of my own. I married Julie’s brother, so now Andy’s more than a friend, he’s family.
As I interview him, over chocolate peanut-butter cookies in our kitchen, the cousins run through the house, through the garden, and into some other place. There are probably princesses and knights, dragons, magic and battles—and there’s definitely a headless octopus—but there aren’t any chocolate peanut-butter cookies, so we know before long, they’ll return.
As the interview progresses, it becomes clear that Andy isn’t someone who gets jobs, he’s someone who stumbles into them. It first happened while he was at uni, with a job testing software. He quit uni but kept the job—until there was some kind of mess with the business and he was forced go elsewhere. His dad worked at a music retail store, so he started working there. He stayed for months, then years, until his old boss happened to walk into the shop and offer him a job. It was another computer-based gig and he did it for five years.
At some point along the way, he started a blog where games and technology were common themes, and one day, “on a whim”, decided to cold-pitch some editors with story ideas. They happened to be looking for people and decided to give him a shot.
“I’d been doing that for about six months before I realised it was something I really wanted to try harder at,” Andy says.
He dropped a day a week of his regular job to write and found himself getting more and more work. He was surprised by how much he enjoyed it.
“I found a passion there I didn’t know I had,” says Andy, who has always “enjoyed” words, but hated English at school.
He was just getting the hang of the whole games writing thing when the website closed. “It all went away, and I was gutted—more than I thought I would be,” he says. “I think that was probably ‘the moment’.”
After a series of “panicked” emails and messages to fellow freelancers, he found work with another tech site. The editor was a nightmare to work with and Andy soon quit, but he started pitching again, and eventually found an even better publication.
“That was my entry into the games industry,” he says.
“It’s a horrible thing, to go to the hospital and know you’re going to give birth, but you’re not giving birth to a live baby.”
We’re about halfway through the interview. Laura is in her bedroom in Sydney with a block of chocolate and a cup of tea; I’m sitting by the fire in our lounge room.
“I was like, I don’t know how I’m going to do this day,” she says. She called her brother’s wife—they’d had a stillborn baby. Even after going through it, her sister-in-law didn’t know what to say.
“There were no words that she could have given me to say: this is how you do it.”
Laura had given birth twice before, but she says giving birth to Amy was an utterly different experience.
“It’s an anguish or a grief that you push out, something that you know you’ve created, but isn’t for this life.”
It was confusing to give birth into such stillness, she says.
Instead of hearing her baby cry for the first time, she was the one crying.
Laura and Joe knew Amy wouldn’t look like an ordinary baby. When she was born, the nurse said, “This baby doesn’t look right,” wrapped her up and offered to take her away.
Perhaps it was an act of kindness, as they were obviously so broken, says Laura.
“I almost thought, ‘Oh, maybe I don’t want to see her,’ because I was afraid that she would look so ugly that I wouldn’t like her,” she says.
“I was so obsessed with this idea of appearance; what would she look like? I almost thought I wouldn’t, but then I didn’t want to live for the rest of my life thinking I hadn’t chosen to see her. So we did.”
Laura is from NSW. She’s lived in Wollongong and Wagga, and the inner and outer suburbs of Sydney. Soon after my husband and I moved to Sydney, we went along to the church Laura and her husband were attending at the time. About five minutes after we’d met, they invited us round for lunch. We’re no longer in the same state, but we visit every chance we get.
As a teenager, Laura “self-consciously tried to be different”. She wore green docs, listened to Triple J, and resented the fact she lived walking distance from high school because “all the cool things” happened on public transport.
When she was sixteen, Laura exchanged her life in Australia for a life in Malaysia. She had a Singaporean mum, a half-Filipino-half-Chinese dad, and a Muslim boyfriend; she didn’t miss home.
At uni, she majored in ancient history, lived with her grandparents, ate fresh bread with them in the mornings, and drank sherry with them in the evenings.
Laura has volunteered with an aid organisation, worked as a teacher in a special school, studied theology and worked in ministry. She is now devoted to her two young kids. Laura still dresses distinctively—she wears bold colours, funky glasses, and stylish shoes —but these days she’s not being self-conscious, she’s being herself.
Laura is uncompromising. She knows what she likes and what she doesn’t, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. Initially, she didn’t like Joe.
They’ve now been married for ten years, which is almost as long as it took her to realise she loved him.
Marie was in Australia for about ten months, all those years ago. I ask why she came.
She says she’d talked about going to Australia since she was a kid. Part of the appeal was the sheer distance. She also imagined something “wide and natural”, new, big, and adventurous.
Then, when she was living in Ireland, a friend suggested they go together.
She’d just finished a marketing and communications degree and thought she should find a “proper” job in France, but sensed that once she did, it would be hard to escape.
“Already, at this time, I didn’t feel I will be much in the box,” she says.
“I remember when I was travelling,” Marie says, “there was a girl… she told me something like, ‘you’re not conventional’. And I was wondering why, and she said, ‘because you do what you want’, and I said, ‘for now’.
“When I compare to now, I think I was enjoying really the freedom. No thing is waiting for me, nobody is waiting for me and I do, really, what I want every day or every week—with some limits—but I don’t have to be someone in society… I just have an experience of myself.
“I also had some fears,” she says, “but I was in it, so I didn’t have to jump—I’d already jumped into something”.
As much as she loved travelling, Marie couldn’t shake the feeling she should be starting a proper job. It’s as if she was afraid that if she tasted too much freedom, she’d never be able to go back and start a career, and if she didn’t start a career, she might end up doing something even more mundane, like being a cashier.
“Mum did it for a living before she had us, but I did it a summer and I was very bored,” she says.
Marie now has a good career and is financially secure—but also feels trapped and miserable.
Normally, she is “quite straight” and likes to say what she thinks, she explains, but her managers are obsessed with political correctness. She’s even been reproached for asking a colleague, “Have you done this?” instead of “Has it been done?” because “I am not the chief of this person”.
It sounds like these interactions happen on a daily basis, and are slowly destroying her. But she can’t seem to escape.
“Once I am accustomed to a work situation I find it difficult to change—even if I’m not happy or I’m bored, because I’m a bit afraid of… I’m a bit afraid.”
I ask Andy about his childhood and am surprised to hear that this well mannered, well spoken thirty-two-year-old spat, littered and fought in high school because, well, that’s what everyone else was doing.
“I was one of the nerds… I was one of the kids who did their homework and stuff, but I was still very much immersed in that culture. Having a foul mouth was just the way that you spoke, and if there wasn’t a bin in easy reach it was ‘their’ fault for not having more bins around, and if you needed to spit you just spat.”
College—and Julie—made him realise this wasn’t “normal” behaviour.
“I was able to compare myself to the people around me and I suddenly realised, this isn’t how people behave; this isn’t appropriate.
“I realised once—I have a very clear recollection of it—I could walk through the college with other students my age and I could stand upright and make eye contact with people and not be at risk of getting beaten up… I could just look around and be myself.”
One thing I didn’t know before, and find hard to believe, is that Andy used to have a terrible temper—“a rage problem”—that he’s had to work at to overcome.
One time in high school, he was playing hand-ball on a bitumen basketball court with a friend who started riling him.
“All of a sudden I went from standing next to him to sitting on the ground by the fence with my head in my hands, and he was lying on his back on the ground, and I don’t remember what happened; I had to have it described to me after the fact.
“I’d never got in trouble before in a serious way and so the school didn’t drop any serious detentions or suspensions or any of that stuff on me. But they did tell my parents—they recommended I see someone about it, which scared me.”
He didn’t want to do it and his parents didn’t make him. Then, in college, it happened again.
He was walking through town with Julie when some guys started making jokes at her expense.
“Julie was really upset and I ended up kind of shoving one of them up against the building and being about to hit him before Julie shouted out.
“She told me that that really scared her, that I was really scary to her… If that’s how I reacted in that situation, what happens if we get into an argument?”
Since then, Andy has deliberately avoided situations that could get him riled up.
The only time he came close, he and Julie were watching a show at the Theatre Royal. “Some jerks didn’t like it and were just knocking it the whole time, and I could certainly feel myself getting into that scenario again,” he says.
“I was with Julie and she could tell, and she said, ‘Do we need to go?’ And I said ‘Yes’. That was the end of it; that was the closest I’ve come.”
Laura’s extended family celebrate Christmas every year with… a theme party.
“We’ve had Hawaiian Christmas—we all went to the op-shop and the men got Hawaiian shirts and the ladies wore leis, and we had pineapple and ham on the BBQ.” They’ve also had a Greek Christmas, where the women dressed up as Greek widows, and a Biblical Christmas where they all dressed up as bible characters.
Is it just me, or is this weird? I thought Christmas was the theme?
Laura was about seventeen when she met Joe; he was two years younger. He was the guy who always came to church in a football jersey, because he was always coming from a game, and he was most definitely not her type.
Laura had already ruled out Joe, and all of the guys she knew, when she started obsessing about meeting “the one”. She was going to find love “out in the world”, not under her nose.
Years later, when a friend informed Laura that Joe liked her, she said she’d rather be single for the rest of her life than marry him.
Joe got an apprenticeship as an electrician as soon as he finished year twelve. For the first six years of his working life, the only thing he spent money on was going to the football, Laura says.
Then he went to Europe, developed a taste for craft beer, and spent a little bit of money on that too. By the time they got married, he’d already saved a bunch of money and bought himself a house.
If I didn’t know Joe was a tradie, and if he didn’t wear football jerseys so often, I’d probably assume he was a bright young academic. He reads non-fiction as if it were fiction, and actually remembers the details. He’s interested in history and politics, is obsessed with Europe, and read Calvin’s Institutes for fun.
“When we went to Poland, he knew what every single monument that we saw was—and there’s a lot of monuments in Europe,” Laura says. Knowing Joe, she’s not exaggerating, not even a bit.
In his wedding speech, Joe described courting Laura as being “like trench warfare”.
“He dug in, then he’d pop up and throw a bomb over, and then sit back down and wait,” she says.
Laura remembers she once told her minister that Joe “wasn’t an appropriate person to be leading a bible study because he had no people skills”.
“He’s very blunt, and that’s one of the things I still find hard about him,” she says, “but he does have sympathy and compassion for people; I don’t think he has no people skills.”
In a way, Europe is what brought them together.
Laura had recently been overseas and was showing Joe her photos—despite not wanting to marry him, ever, they were friends.
“I just told him about every single photo and what we did and where we went and what we ate and then I was like, ‘He’s really listening to me; he’s actually quite a good listener’.”
She was beginning to thaw.
Laura and Joe married in 2006. Joe now has his own business and Laura takes care of their two young children. I ask if it’s by choice.
“My mum stayed at home with us and that was what I was used to, and I liked having her around. I think Joe would like me to go back to work, probably earlier than I might, but I think part of that is my fear of thinking, ‘I don’t really know what I’m good for’.
“I can say I really think it’s important to spend the time with your kids and not regret that, but then I think it’s hard in practise when you’re around other people who are doing other things as well,” she says.
“It’s hard not to feel inadequate or… It’s hard not to feel like you’re not capable, because other people can look after their children and work and run something else, you know, whereas I feel like I’m only looking after my children.”
“Only looking after my children?!” I think, but I resist saying so. I know that’s not what she means.
[ * ]
[ * ]
Ellie, Jane, Sam
[ * ]
“I won the game and I’ve never played Risk since and I refuse to.”
Ellie says enduring her pregnancy with Ada is the bravest thing she’s ever done.
“If you define a real kind of hero action as being someone putting their own health aside in order to save someone else’s life, that is literally what I did when I was pregnant with Ada,” she says.
This was not an unplanned pregnancy.
“We wanted to have a baby… I was really enjoying your kids and Julie’s kids and I always wanted to be a mum.”
Ellie was in her late twenties and the time felt right. She had reservations about how she’d cope—“but I didn’t expect it wouldn’t go that badly”.
In the second month of trying, Ellie did a pregnancy test. Pre-natal depression hit the moment she saw it was positive, and got progressively worse.
I ask about her reaction to not being pregnant the previous month. “I was relieved,” she recalls.
“I almost said to Rob, ‘That’s a bit of a worry, maybe we shouldn’t try again’.”
Rob supported Ellie completely throughout the pregnancy. He didn’t try to rationalise away her anxiety, he didn’t burden her with his own fears, he just helped her however he possibly could.
“He went with me to all of the medical appointments and he was my rock, in any doctors’ appointments—he would stay calm and rational and he could question anything.
“I asked him to do all the reading,” she says. “He read everything because I couldn’t read it, I couldn’t face it, and then he told me what I had to know in small bits of information and that managed the sense of feeling overwhelmed.”
Ellie felt like she was trapped on an unstoppable train she couldn’t get off, she says. It was horrifying.
“The only way I could manage it was really in these tiny baby steps, taking it literally one day at a time and getting through one day, and he helped me do that.”
It didn’t help that she was nauseous most of the time, iron deficient, and underweight.
“When you’re on the floor feeling like you’re going to puke your guts up all day, it’s hard to be in a happy frame anyway, so that just made it way more difficult to deal with the mental stuff.”
Ellie thought about abortion most days.
A psychiatrist told her she had medical grounds for one, and because they hadn’t announced the pregnancy, she wouldn’t even have to explain what had happened.
“Mum and Rob were saying, ‘You know you could do this and we will support you,’ and they would have supported me one hundred per cent.
“I got a leaflet about it, and I was on the floor, sobbing, and I wanted to die.
“But I couldn’t do it. I’d been to an eight week scan, I’d seen the heartbeat, and I knew that it wasn’t that I didn’t want a baby, it was that I didn’t want to be pregnant.
“I knew that if I did it, once all that hormonal stuff had gone and I was in my right mind again, I would never, ever forgive myself, I knew that I had to continue cos I wasn’t rational.”
She realised just how irrational she was being when she caught herself wishing she had cancer instead because, “there’s a medical legitimacy about being upset about cancer, whereas there isn’t about pregnancy”.
“When I heard myself say that—‘I wish I had a terminal illness instead of being pregnant’—I went, ‘Right, this is obviously not rational at all at any level. I can’t choose to end a pregnancy based on irrational thoughts’.”
She did Rob proud.
We talk about how long nine months can be.
“Oh my God. You know you’ve got that stretching out ahead of you… and then not knowing how I’d cope with a baby, so not even knowing if I’d be better then.”
The fact people associate pregnancy with joy made it particularly difficult.
“The whole ‘pregnancy isn’t an illness’—that pisses me off,” she says.
“You have all the symptoms that an ill person has and yet you’re told, ‘no, just get on with it’. That attitude was one of the most difficult ones to deal with.”
If more people had acknowledged how difficult it could be, she might not have struggled with quite as much guilt over not feeling happy, which is why she talks about it now, she says.
The psychiatrist Ellie saw prescribed anti-depressants, which at least evened out her mood.
“I was always anti-medication, because I always felt that I could deal without it and I felt that was a point of pride—that I didn’t need the medication—which I can see now is really silly.
“There’s nothing wrong with going, ‘I need this to cope’, and it was desperation; it was literally take the tablets or kill myself, so I took the tablets.”
“I think I was just hurting so much I couldn’t identify where the pain was coming from anymore.”
The idea of returning to an abusive relationship to avoid regret strikes me as darkly ironic, but that’s what Jane did.
There was no need to move possessions—Brian hadn’t let her take anything when she left—so she simply walked back in.
She could tell he was surprised to see her. Then she noticed lipstick on his shirt.
“He was like, ‘Oh, it must have pressed against a chair’.
“I knew then,” Jane says. “My heart was hardening. I realised then he had the leopard spots and he would never change, and never want to.”
Even so, she didn’t leave immediately.
“I remember hurting all the time… it was emotional, in my chest, and I remember one day hurting so much that I went out to the kitchen. And I had pondered on killing myself a few times, quite a few times.”
The thing that stopped her was always thinking about how upset and confused her family would be.
“Because no one understood what was going on, nobody knew. He was such a charismatic fun-loving person socially.
“Anyway, I finally realised the only way I could do it was to do it quickly and severely and finally, and that was to cut my throat so that there was no chance of recovery. It got to the point that it actually brought me such great joy and release, the idea of being dead, the idea of ending all of this.
“I walked out in the hallway, I walked into the kitchen, I put my hand in the drawer, and I was fumbling around for the biggest, sharpest knife and this image came up in front of me and it was just like, ‘Dammit, I can’t see, where’s this knife?’
“I was getting so frustrated, because I couldn’t find this knife and I was so desperate and it was going to be now that I was going to kill myself, and it was an image of me being in a coffin and it being lowered into the ground, and all my friends and family standing around and bawling their eyes out, and Brian being there, crying, and everyone giving him sympathy.
“And I just thought, ‘Dammit! I can’t give that bastard the satisfaction of crying over my grave’.”
The image saved her life and in a strange way, gave her courage.
“It helped me to take small steps to keep going through life.”
Jane, wasn’t at all religious, yet she attributed the experience to God.
“For a few months I’d been crying out to God and begging God for help,” she explains. “I thought God must have shown me that sign, because I’m not normally a person who has images or hears voices or anything like that.”
She left Brian soon after; this time, for good.
At the same time, her interest in God grew.
“I started praying to God and going, ‘What do I do from here? I don’t know who I am or that I’m worthy of being here.’
“I was studying massage at the time, and I was coming up to an anatomy and physiology exam, and my head was so scrambled with everything that had been happening, I couldn’t concentrate or retain anything, and for some reason, Scott kept coming to mind.
Scott was a nurse she’d met through Brian by the side of a cycle race once.
“He gave a sarcastic looking smirk… my first impression of Scott was wanting to slap him across the face, and the only reason I ever spoke to him again was so that he wouldn’t have the satisfaction of knowing he’d got up my nose.
“I just thought, why would God—if this was God—put him in my mind? He was friends with Brian, and he was too obnoxious, and where on earth would I find out where to find him, and why would I anyway?
“Anyway, after the second or third time I thought, ‘Well, God—I think it was God—got me out of the last thing, maybe this is something’.”
She looked him up in the phonebook and gave him a call. “I was so embarrassed. I said, ‘You can laugh at me and hang up the phone if you want, but I need some help. I’m studying for an anatomy and physiology exam and for some reason you keep coming to mind—can you help me?’”
He knew who she was immediately, even though they’d only met twice. “I don’t know if you want to write this bit, but he said he remembered me because I used to have a cute butt and wear almost see-through pants! That didn’t come out for a long time, until we were dating, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they weren’t see-through, they were just really worn because Brian wouldn’t let me buy any other pants!’ Anyway, apparently that was appealing. I was size six at the time.”
Scott rocked up that day with a great big pile of nursing books and helped Jane to study. Thanks to him, she passed her exam.
As they got to know each other, she realised Scott, who was a Christian, was praying for her. He later admitted he’d had “the whole church” praying for her at one stage, which would explain why, when she first went along, complete strangers seemed to know who she was.
The Christian thing took time. “There were times when I really prayed for God to help me and he did—there were prayers so clearly answered.
“But as the night would fall and I had insomnia and everything else… it was like the darkness pulling me back into a very deep, dark hole and it was just, it was such a struggle to keep taking those steps forward towards the light.
“With all I knew and all I’d grown up with and experienced, it was still familiar and it was still me, so it was just a really, really hard struggle from there on for a while.”
Meanwhile, her friendship with Scott developed. He was part of a group that went camping, hiking and mountain biking, and he’d often invite her along.
At some point, she realised she was falling in love with him.
“I was actually really cranky with God,” Jane says.
“I went, ‘God, I don’t want to fall for anybody else, I don’t want to go through that, I am so satisfied with having a relationship with you’. And I was actually pissed off… ‘Don’t let me go through this, don’t let me hurt,’ so it was a real step of faith and an enormous amount of trust in God to be able to love someone again.”
I like researching things and learning about things, but I don’t necessarily like educational pedagogy because, who gives a shit?”
I ask Sam if he’s up for telling me the hardest thing he’s been through. “I don’t know. The end of Sydney was a hard time… It was a weird time,” he says.
I remember now, he went there after a rough break-up, ostensibly to turn the Arts degree he got in Hobart into a teaching degree. He didn’t do much study, but he was involved in a study—he ended up smoking so much pot that he joined a clinical trial on its effects.
Smoking pot was just a way of perpetually putting things off, he says. “It wasn’t any fun, it was just.. I don’t know.”
He wanted to escape uni, but he didn’t want to drop out, so he stopped going to classes, stopped handing in assignments, and waited for them to kick him out.
“Yeah, I don’t know what I was doing, just going crazy, I think.”
I remember the smoking upset Anita, and ask whether he stopped because he’d started seeing her.
It wasn’t just for her, he says, though she was part of it. Also, he hasn’t completely stopped.
“I still do sometimes, but not like it was before. Not as a crutch like it was, just for fun sometimes, and that’s all right, I think.”
One of the biggest differences between Sam and Anita is that she doesn’t really like socialising with lots of people, and is “deliberately” pessimistic, he says.
“I’m a little bit stressy about some things, but she’s really quite stressy about a lot of things, and sometimes assumes the worst possible outcome.
“I try to have a positive attitude about things and, you know, consider the best case scenario, and she’s the opposite to that.
“I think she said once, which makes no sense to me, ‘I like to imagine—say we’re going out to a restaurant—it’s not going to be good, it’s going to be a crap restaurant, it’s going to be really disappointing’.
“And I say, ‘I just think it’s going to be good, why would you say it’s going to be crap?’—I don’t even know if it was a restaurant, it’s just an example—and she said, ‘I like to assume the worst so that I’m pleasantly surprised’ whereas, I don’t know, I don’t see any point to that.
“It’s just a bit sort of negative. But anyway, that’s different.
“About the stressy thing, I get stressed about some things,” he admits. “If I check my uni email, for example, I do get a bit of a racing… I find it quite stressful.” I wait for more examples but no, that seems to be all that Sam can think of right now.
Then he tells me about something he doesn’t stress about and in fact really likes. I mentioned it earlier but it bears repeating: “I love going to a party where I don’t really know anyone there.”
My initial response is shock, then I remember who I’m talking to.
Yeah, but can’t you understand why other people find it hard? I ask.
“No, because it’s easy!”
Incredibly, once Ada was born, Ellie’s depression “switched off”.
“It was almost instant: I’m not pregnant. Thank God I’m not pregnant anymore.
“I was so tired, she was born at like 2am. I’d been induced—you know what that’s like—I was exhausted.
“I just wanted to sleep, and they would not let me sleep because I was very close to haemorrhaging… they nearly took me to theatre, they had to stitch me up and I was just lying there going, ‘I just want you all to get out’—but I didn’t sleep that night.”
I ask how she thinks Rob survived the preceding nine months. By being a robot? “That’s Rob’s normal state,” Ellie says. “He shut off emotionally.”
But then I remember how scared he was for her. “Yeah, but he could never let it overwhelm him because I was the one being overwhelmed.
“He could acknowledge that he was scared and he was out of his depth, but he had to hold it together for me because if he hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here. And he knew that, so I think he just shut it off as much as he could.”
I suggest Ellie is being braver still to contemplate a second pregnancy, knowing what could happen.
“I know—eyes wide open,” she says. “But even if I think it will happen again, I don’t think it will happen in the same way because I’ve got a reminder every day with Ada, of the amazing outcome.
“I didn’t know that you could love someone like that and now I know. And I think that that’ll help; it won’t stop it, but it will help.”
I’m surprised to hear Ellie has never actually had a typical anxiety “attack”.
“You know, what you read about with the not being able to breathe, that whole physical process I’ve not had, no, and yet I would say I’m always operating in a heightened state of anxiety. It’s exhausting. There’s always that track going on in my mind over-thinking things or thinking I’m doing something wrong or over-analysing.”
Can she rationalise her way out? “I can try and it can work for a few seconds—‘Calm down, stop being silly’—but it always kind of creeps back.”
I wonder whether being a mum has made Ellie more anxious, or less.
Neither, she says, it’s just different.
“I read this quote before I was even pregnant that when you have a child it’s like your heart is walking around outside your body. And it is like that for me.
“The absolute worst thing that could happen for me is for something bad to happen to her, and that is sometimes out of my control.
“I used to be really scared of dying; I’d lie awake at night. I remember being the age of twelve when it first happened, and I’d lie awake at night petrified of death, and now the only reason I’d be scared to die is it would mean leaving her. I’m not scared of death itself anymore because she would still be existing.”
I ask what it is about death that frightened her so much. It wasn’t nothingness, she says, but non-existence.
“It’s the fact that I am stopping existing… I’m going to know in the lead-up, and I know that one day I’m not going to exist at any level.” Come to think of it, it does still scare her.
“But I think because Ada’s a part of me and I know she’s going to exist beyond that, it’s not as scary now,” she says.
“I know my consciousness isn’t in her, but because I think she’s better than me, I’ve created something better than me; that’s comforting.”
I ask how Rob losing his faith in Christianity affected Ellie.
She says she always wanted to believe in a God, especially because of her fear of death, but deep down, she never really did.
“Rob knew that when we got together—and he knew I was open to it; I wasn’t at all putting down Christianity, and I’d never been that way, so he didn’t see it as being a problem for us to be together.
“When he decided that wasn’t for him… it was partly a relief, because I was like, I can let go of it; if you’re letting go of it, I can let go of it.
“It is confusing to me, but he was never really a strong Christian from when I met him. We didn’t go to church; if I ever said, ‘We don’t really pray together, we don’t read the bible,’ it was me bringing it up, it wasn’t him. So in that way, not a lot has changed.
“I tried. I tried the religious route, it didn’t work. I’ll never say there is no God because to me you can’t prove that there isn’t one, so I think I’ve just got to accept it. That goes against my anxious nature; I’m not big on accepting things, but with that particular big issue, I think I’m okay with going, I don’t know, I can’t know.”
I imagine a God who, despite making us, doesn’t care to speak—to know us, or be known—and ask Ellie what gives her comfort.
“The people that I love… my family and my really close friends. Rob, my parents, Ada; mostly Ada, these days.” Her love for Ada would keep her going through anything, she says.
Jane and Scott got married in 2004. The proposal, she says, was a surprise. “Because I’d come out of such a bad financial situation with Brian and walked away from everything and even had a debt still for things that I didn’t have… I felt that I didn’t have anything to even offer in a marriage.
“But I decided that I loved him that much that I couldn’t let him go to someone else, so I either had to make the decision to love and keep him and have a relationship with him or just to walk away and be able to step back and watch him fall in love with someone else.
“I got to the two-year point in the relationship and decided that in another six months’ time if he hadn’t proposed to me then, I would propose to him and if he said ‘no’ I would just walk away and be okay with that—not really, but deal with that. Anyway, I think within a month he proposed to me.
“We went to one of our favourite waterholes on the Gold Coast… We were going swimming and it’s freezing cold up there and he said, ‘Okay we’ll count to three and we’ll dive in’.
“I dived in, eels and all—there were eels in there.” She wasn’t impressed to see Scott still standing by the edge. “I didn’t know he was actually tucking the ring in behind his pants to dive in to swim across to propose to me.”
It was so cold that when they climbed onto a rock and he proposed, Jane was physically speechless. “He proposed to me and I was shaking so much I couldn’t actually say y-y-y-yes.”
Three years into their marriage, Jane went to Cambodia for three-and-a-half months to do her final field placement.
She went with a fellow social worker and with the support of a Christian organisation. They identified a strong need to develop basic counselling skills among local counsellors.
“Over there, you don’t necessarily need a degree to be a social worker; you’re just hired into the role as a general person and then that’s what you do, so there’s not a lot of skills provided. But there’s not a lot of options. So our role was more or less delivering basic counselling skills and techniques, so training the trainers.”
I ask what kind of mistakes people were making before they received training. Some were telling clients how they should be feeling, rather than accepting their experiences, others weren’t really listening, partly because they were so uncomfortable with what they were hearing—especially when it involved horrors like child trafficking.
Their work was deeply appreciated and rewarding. A couple of times Jane told Scott, “If you were here I probably wouldn’t come back”, but he wasn’t, so she did.
Jane’s husband is no stranger to trauma. Through his work as a paramedic, he’s involved in the most traumatic moments in people’s lives on a regular basis. His idea of an emergency is very different to your idea of an emergency. If you don’t believe me, consider “the Bamix incident”.
It happened while the family was interstate visiting Jane’s mother, who was seriously ill. It was the end of a long, draining day, and Jane was pureeing some food while Scott was out with the kids.
“I was so exhausted I wasn’t thinking straight… I went to grab a spoon and the draw was empty. I was just juggling too many things and without thinking I used my finger. My other hand was still on the button.”
The Bamix went off.
“There was blood all up the walls, over the floor, through all the food. I’m sitting there, trying to grab something to stop the blood. There were no tissues, there was no cloth anywhere. Anyway, I finally got Scott on the phone.
She told him she’d just chopped her finger off (only a slight exaggeration) and that he had to come back. His response was, “Really?”.
“I don’t know if he hurried or not; he came back in the door… I’m still trying to hold my finger and it’s throbbing it’s so painful and I’m not breathing properly, and he just says, ‘Jane, cut it out, breathe properly; take a breath, I’m not going to look at it till you breathe properly’.
“I’m like, ‘It’s really hurting’, he’s like, ‘I’m sure it is, but I’m not going to look at it till you’re breathing properly’ and I showed him and he wanted to touch it and I’m like ‘No, don’t touch it!’ I could already see it parting, I said, ‘You need to get me to the hospital!’
“He’s like, ‘Hang on, let me decide that… Let me assess it, and until you calm down, I won’t’.”
After taking a look, Scott agreed they should go to the hospital, but not before feeding the kids. Jane was incredulous. After what felt like hours, they arrived at the hospital.
“When we got there they took one look at me and said, ‘We think we need a wheelchair for you, you’re looking really pale, are you okay?’ and ‘How come it took so long for you to get here?’,” Jane says.
Luckily for Scott, she’s laughing as she tells the story, and can see the incident from his perspective too.
“I think the thing that upset him the most is I said, ‘You have to hurry, I’ve chopped my finger off!’ and he’s like, ‘The amount of people that say they’ve chopped their finger off and you get there and they haven’t,’ and the other thing is, ‘Nobody’s ever died from a chopped-off finger’.”
Yes, she was in pain, but no, “he didn’t see it as an emergency”.
About eight years before Jane and Scott moved to Tasmania, they came here for a holiday.
They returned to the Gold Coast and told all of their friends they were going to move to Tasmania, and they meant it. “But we had some family circumstances come up that really needed our support,” Jane says, and they forgot about their plans.
“It wasn’t till I was at home on maternity leave and James was six months old that I sat there and thought, why are we doing this? This was never where we wanted to be, and how are we supposed to ever teach our children to strive for their dreams if we can’t?
“So I said to Scott, ‘Why aren’t we following our dream?’
“Two weeks later he came home from work and said, ‘Oh, I’ve applied for Tasmania’.”
I suddenly remember I haven’t seen Sam since he and Anita got engaged and congratulate him. He proposed on their eight year anniversary.
“Yeah, no, I had been thinking about it for a while, but it’s a funny thing because it’s not going to change anything, you know what I mean, it’s just something you do.
“I had been planning it for a while but only in a kind of back-of-my-mind kind of thing, really.”
According to Anita, he didn’t actually ask, just held up the ring and shrugged in a very Sam kind of way.
“Well, yeah. You don’t need to speak, it’s pretty obvious.
“But I did ask her, when she prompted me, and that was fine.”
Anita’s also told me that Sam isn’t having a best man or any groomsmen, because he has far too many to choose from, and how he’s already invited half of Hobart to the reception. Everyone’s going to be there, from the casual staff at the bottle shop to their plumber. I think about the number of friends he’s likely to make and invite between now and January. This is going to be huge.
Sam’s parents are high achievers. His Dad went straight into academia after finishing honours in law and became Dean of the faculty at the age of thirty-one.
His mum studied psychology, has “been in the bureaucracy forever”, and was some kind of high-up director for a while.
“They never applied any pressure,” Sam says. “Maybe things would be different if they had but I don’t know, you can’t force those things.”
I ask if he wishes he’d been more studious.
“Yeah, well I wish that I had so I’d be finished with it now and getting on with things, because I’m still trying to just struggle through it. Whereas if I’d just applied myself for a solid four years or whatever it is, I’d be done by now.”
I realise the question I should have asked is whether he regrets his time at university.
“Yeah, I mean I sort of wish I hadn’t studied any of it in a way. Mainly the reason I want to finish it is I’ve started it already and I’ve got a big HECS debt, that sort of stuff. But definitely with the first time round with an Arts degree, I just did because it seemed like, not the easiest option but maybe the best fit for me, but for no other reason than to get a degree. A bit of paper. And I wish I hadn’t done that.
“I’m not exactly a go-getter,” Sam says. “I like to coast along. “But I tell you, I think I live a pretty comfortable life for someone who’s not a go-getter.”
This is largely thanks to Anita, he notes.
Sam and Anita live in a beautiful old house which they’ve painstakingly renovated with her parents’ help over several years. “I have worked hard, but I’ve worked the least out of everyone,” he admits.
He’s not quite as slack as he used to be, though.
“I think sometimes I do make more of an effort to get on with things. I wouldn’t have been doing uni at all if I hadn’t been able to do that.
“And I couldn’t have popped that question. Because it’s just easy to keep coasting along and things could have just kept going the way they were, forever, really.
“So maybe that’s something I’ve changed.”
Sam admits he’s kind of sentimental. He wouldn’t want to throw out any of his old toys and recently bought a Beatrix Potter book from an op-shop because he’d lost his childhood copy and wants his kids to have it one day.
“Now I’m getting clucky for you to have babies!” I say—out loud, apparently.
“No, not yet,” he says hurriedly.
Poor Sam, but I can’t help it—I ask if he’s excited by the prospect.
“Yep,” he says, not looking the least bit excited.
Is he impatient?
“Nup. Not really,” he says, not looking the least bit impatient.
Later, he says that when he does have kids, he will tell them to “just do whatever they want”.
“You know what I mean. No one ever told me that… I always thought you had to finish high school and then go to uni and then do a job, but you don’t.”
Sam isn’t ambitious, and why would he be? He doesn’t have any great worries or fears; he lives in a nice part of the world, in a nice house, with a very nice girl. If he has any regrets it’s starting a university degree, but he doesn’t let it get him down. He enjoys making friends and making them laugh, and making good food and eating it, and does all these things well.
I wonder if he ever worries or thinks about death. “No, I never think about that stuff,” he says. “If there is something to fear it’s a drawn-out, painful death, but the actual act itself, it’s just a fact of life.”
Sam says there are other places in the world he’d love to live in for a year or two, but he wouldn’t want to settle down anywhere but Tasmania.
“I think I would like to live here forever.”
[ * ]
Christina, Mia, Sean
[ * ]
“I don’t think I even registered that meant there was something wrong. I was just like, oh, that’s what they always do.”
The week Tom and Christina found out their baby might not survive, they sang a song in church with the words, “all of my life, in every season, you are still God, I have a reason to sing”.
“I remember just thinking, ‘No, I don’t,’” Christina says.
“Even though logically my reason to sing is that I am eternally saved and no matter what happened to the baby I would see them in heaven, I really felt like I had absolutely no reason at all to praise God.
“I just couldn’t understand why God would let that happen… to anyone, not just us.
“I mean, I know the logic behind it, I know that suffering needs to occur because he’s not going to make everything perfect now, but I really struggled with the idea when it was happening to us.”
Even though she was angry with God, even though she questioned him, she didn’t turn away. She felt like even if she tried to, he’d still be there.
“I felt like I couldn’t,” she says.
Tom was a little more optimistic.
“The way that God works with him, he hears.. kind of more directly,” Christina says.
Tom kept coming back to the words of Jeremiah chapter thirty-two, where the prophet is told to buy land in the enemy camp as a kind of promise that Israel would one day return to it.
It was this passage that helped them decide to buy a cot and prepare a room for a baby who, based on the odds, wouldn’t come home.
“Tom admits that just because he heard that, it didn’t mean Alexander was going to survive,” Christina says.
“Maybe we would one day have a baby to bring home, whether it was going to be Alexander or not—but I think in his heart he really felt it was going to be Alexander. He just didn’t want to give me a false hope.
“So I think he had a lot more basis to believe everything was going to be okay; more than I did.”
As Christina’s due date approached, there was talk about inducing her at thirty-eight weeks so they could control when the baby was born. At the same time, they kept saying that the bigger the baby was, the healthier he’d be, she says.
“In the end we asked them to let me go to forty weeks, so I was really hoping he would come naturally because then at least he would be, in some ways, ready to come rather than being forced out before he was ready.”
The labour did begin naturally and was pretty normal, except that they had to be extremely careful delivering him.
There was a lot of tearing and a lot of pain, but the most traumatic aspect wasn’t physical, Christina says. It was knowing she wouldn’t be able to see or hold her baby when he was born, and not knowing whether his tiny, ill-formed lungs would even be able to draw a breath.
“They took him straight away, his bed was set up in the room, and they just took him and put a tube straight down his throat to help him breathe. He’d kind of made a weird sound, like he’d tried to cry, I guess, so I knew that he was born alive, and then they put the tube straight down his throat and, I don’t know what they were doing. I don’t even really know how long it was.
“Then they wheeled him past my bed and said—I remember, it’s really odd, I really clearly remember the doctor’s face, not Alexander’s, and I just remember him saying—‘Here he is, we’re going to take him away now, we’ll stabilise him and you can come and see him when he’s ready’.”
About five days later, Alexander was stable enough for surgery to patch up the hole.
The doctors told Christina she could stay the night of the surgery and go home the next day. “I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting in a hospital room with nothing to do, waiting for him to come back from surgery. So I chose to go home,” she says.
It was a strange night. They hired a movie, got take-away, and tried to escape reality. The movie was something ridiculous they’d already seen—Ace Ventura, perhaps. “I don’t really remember any of it,” Christina says.
All they wanted was a phone call to let them know the surgery had gone well, but when Tom’s phone finally rang it was an unknown number, so he didn’t answer.
“He was like, ‘I’m not answering it in case the hospital rings’. And then a voicemail came through and I said, ‘You should just listen to the voice mail’,” Christina says.
“It was the surgeon calling from his personal mobile. We purposely didn’t answer it because we were waiting. Before Alexander was even back on the ward he called to say that it went well… as well as it possibly could have.”
“I think I was on the footpath, no, I must have been on their property because they did escort me from the premises—they did call the police.”
One of Mia greatest passions is the banjo. She remembers seeing one on the wall in an antique shop when she was about twelve and begging her mother to buy it. Her mum reminded her of the “thousands of phases” that had come and gone before and refused.
In the end she bought her first banjo while she was at uni. It wasn’t a phase.
It was through music that Mia met Adam.
“There’s a mythical story that I’m sure isn’t true,” she says. “I was looking after an art exhibition at the Long Gallery and he was having coffee downstairs. I was playing banjo while I was watching the art exhibition in the gallery space and he came upstairs and showed me how to actually play the banjo.”
Adam is a physicist and a musician who was born in Eastern Europe and somehow ended up in Australia. He married a fellow physicist in his early twenties, but they divorced about five years later. She went on to become a pilot and a Buddhist Nun.
By the time Mia met Adam he was in his early forties. He had a good job, a crap car, and a small flat. He washed his clothes in the shower and boiled water on the stove. He lived a few minutes’ drive from a large shopping complex, but had never been there.
His minimalist lifestyle wasn’t caused by a lack of money so much as a desire to spend it on expensive instruments and gourmet food rather than appliances. Mia says he probably did his grocery shopping at Norman & Dan.
I ask how she reacted to unsolicited banjo tips from a near stranger. Perhaps even then there was something between them, because somehow, she didn’t find it annoying.
But that wasn’t actually their first encounter, she says.
She’d gone to a local whisky bar looking for musicians to draw a while back. She’d sketched each member of the band that was playing, then asked them for their names.
Adam was the only one who didn’t comply. “He wouldn’t tell me his name, just made up something, and I was like, ‘Idiot!’ I think that’s the first time we met.”
They also crossed paths at a local folk festival some time later.
“I tried to join in the top jam session with my like, three chords,” Mia says.
They chose one of the few songs she knew, but played it in a different key. She started to cry.
“I was a bit like that at that time, which is embarrassing now that I think about it—to just start crying. They were like, ‘Oh, okay. What? Okay.’ I don’t know, it’s a folk festival, they’re used to weirdos I guess. Then Adam was worried about me, which was nice, and he rang to check I was okay, which was nice.”
At some point, perhaps even before the folk festival, Mia joined an amateur string band that happened to be led by Adam. At another point, she went to his house for help with an essay and stayed chatting for hours. Sometime after that, they became a couple. “It was a gradual, gradual thing.”
I ask how old they each were when they finally got together. “I was twenty-one, he was forty-five,” she says, and then pauses.
“Wow, this is not going to be very anonymous… Now, which of Emma’s friends protested at McDonald’s, has a big age difference, plays banjo—could be anyone! Wow, I’m scared now. Can I proof-read this? I’m saying any old rubbish.”
I assure Mia that I won’t publish anything she’s not comfortable with, even if it means removing her character from the piece all together. I try not to make the words sound forced, but they are. What I’m thinking is, “No! It won’t be the same without you! Please let me keep you! Please?”.
I ask Mia how her mother reacted to the relationship. “I think she was a bit worried at first,” she says.
Mia and Adam had already caused Pam one sleepless night, when she’d sought his help for the essay and ended up at his flat.
“I was doing an essay and we talked about banjos… we just got talking and were sitting and talking about banjos till about two in the morning.”
Meanwhile, Mia’s mum was panicking. Her daughter had borrowed the family car and she had no idea where she was. When she arrived home in the early hours of the morning, Pam was standing there in her nightie. You can imagine the look on her face.
“I was just talking about banjos,” Mia says. “Poor mum.”
Before Mia introduced Adam to her mother, she started trying to talk him up. She wanted to reassure Pam that she had nothing to worry about. She tried mentioning he was a doctor.
“I thought, ‘This will make him sound responsible,’ but I think she was thinking, ‘Midlife crisis doctor? Like, in a sports car?’
“Then he turned up in this clapped-out Corona, and it was all okay.”
I ask Mia whether she freaked out at all when she realised she was falling in love with Adam. It seems completely ridiculous now, but I remember trying not to fall for my husband because of the age gap, and ours is, well, quite a bit less.
“I’ve never really cared, I’ve just always thought age is irrelevant,” she says. “He was more freaked out, it was probably harder for him.
“We have had people say, ‘Is this your daughter?’… I just laugh. It’s this funny, painful thing—I’m laughing… they’re dying.”
“I guess rebellion begins with going: actually, what can your parents really do when you’re a teenager?”
Sean was living in Melbourne, in the back room of a house that belonged to a friend’s mum, when he found out his own mother was dying of cancer.
“She’d been diagnosed and treated and was slowly going downhill and I didn’t know anything about it.”
Sean flew home. By the time he arrived the cancer was very advanced, and she was on various medications that meant she wasn’t always lucid.
He remembers her casually saying one day, “Oh Sean, why are you here?” and the unspoken words, “because you’re dying”.
It was sad, he says, and weird.
The conflict before he left had been so extreme, and the situation he returned to was so extreme, that to unpack it—to try and have “some big momentous speech like they do in movies”—to relive all the conflict and confusion, seemed impossible.
“A lot is unspoken, I guess. You go: I am here.”
He was sixteen when she died.
Afterwards, Sean remained in Hobart. Not a lot changed until a charismatic punk-rocker atheist friend who he deeply respected had a drug experience, started investigating religion, and became a Christian (he’s now an Anglican minister).
“I began watching that happen, and being intrigued by that,” Sean says. Through this friend and then through a church, he began looking at Christianity with fresh eyes.
As he did, a few things struck him. First, he experienced a kind of “intuitive apprehension of truth”.
In the same way he intuitively accepted the existence of the external world and individual personhood, he began to accept the existence of God.
“You can’t prove these things, but they’re almost like, immediately apparent to you—you just go, ‘As I open my eyes, the world presents to me as an external world with me as a subject in it’. There was a sense of an apprehension: there is a God.”
It came as he was sitting on a friend’s roof, watching the sun set behind Mount Wellington. It was simply an immediate, intuitive, “Uh huh!”.
“Not just ‘Uh huh—now I’ve seen and I never realised before,’ but more the feeling was like, ‘Uh huh—I’ve always kind of known…’—that was the sort of feeling.”
Sean also started engaging with who Jesus really was. “That went right back to arguments with chaplains in high school: What do you make of Jesus himself? Who is he? Who was he? Was he a liar, was he a lunatic, was he a Lord?
“That’s not a knock-down argument, but he is a compelling figure and even now when I go through seasons of doubt, one of the parts of the bible I go back to is the gospels, just contemplating this personality that we meet in history.”
He also started piecing together the way Christians look at the world, and found it cohesive and compelling.
He was attending a bible study run by the wife of a philosophy lecturer, listening to eloquent preachers, and reading the writings of CS Lewis. He found Christianity was making sense of the world in a way nothing else had, and began to think, “this really works”.
The remarkable thing is he wasn’t alone—a bunch of equally “unlikely” teenagers, many from his own circle of friends, started turning to Christianity. They stopped doing drugs and drinking too much, threw illegally copied CDs over the Tasman Bridge, and started attending the same very traditional church.
“It was received by some with great delight,” Sean says. “Jesus says the angels in heaven rejoice when a single sinner repents, and I think that’s true amongst Christian people, not just angels. So there was a lot of that.”
Others found it difficult. “The church that we came into was a church that was struggling with the process of change,” he explains.
The wave of so many young, pierced, dreadlocked new converts put pressure on “an already strained system”. The minister came up with a solution that was as radical as it was obvious: to start a new church in their honour.
Sean was seventeen when he began to call himself a Christian. It was 1997—his last year of high school.
“I was so captivated and inspired by it all, I just soaked it up. I just wanted to learn and apply and listen and do, it was just, ‘If it’s true, then it’s worth everything’.”
He was asked to help lead an afternoon youth group for grade three and four kids, and then continued to serve in whatever way made sense.
He wasn’t trying to earn God’s favour or atone for anything—Christ had that part covered—he was just expressing his convictions and his gratitude in whatever way made sense.
“Being a Christian, morally and spiritually, and being a Christian in terms of ministering and serving and speaking and organising, it was all of a piece, it wasn’t like there was a step from one to another, it just obviously went together, both in my experience and in the teaching I was listening to, so whenever opportunities or needs came to minister or serve or speak or organise, I just did it.”
At the same time he completed an Arts degree at university, read a bunch of theological books, and began preaching sermons. “As opportunities came up I took them, it was a really steady process.”
For the next two months, Tom and Christina spent all the time they could at the hospital, which was only five minutes’ drive from their house. “Tom would drop me on the way to work and pick me up on the way home, and he would stop in for half an hour or an hour depending on how his day was going.
“Some nights we’d have dinner, and I’d just cry, and I’d go, ‘I just need to go back’. And it was so amazing that I could just jump in the car and drive five minutes down the road and go in and see him and still be home by ten o’clock and have a decent sleep.”
Christina had to wait three weeks to hold her baby, and when she finally did, it was terrifying. He had only been in her arms for about thirty seconds when the nurses realised he wasn’t breathing—he was going purple—and put him straight back on the ventilator.
“Because of that awful experience, the next day they were like, ‘We’re going to make sure that you get a proper cuddle,’ even though he was on the ventilator,” Christina says.
Normally this isn’t allowed because of the risk of knocking and disconnecting the ventilator, but they found a way.
“They got me to lie down and they shifted him across the bed to me and he just lay on me for two hours. It was amazing. I got to have him for two hours.”
I ask whether Tom was eager for a hold too.
“He just really wanted it for me,” she says. Later, there were more opportunities, but every time he’d say, “No, no, it should be you”.
I ask Christina whether she ever felt like Tom couldn’t understand what she was going through because he didn’t have “the whole maternal thing” going on. She says she never thought this way, but she thinks perhaps he did. “I think he felt very disconnected.”
By the time Tom and Christina were able to hold their baby, ours had been born too. He was our second healthy child. The hospital staff told us everything was fine—there was no reason for us to stay, so four hours after the birth, we went home.
I remember thinking it was too soon—I was in shock, I needed sleep, I wasn’t ready to go home.
I didn’t realise it was a kind of miracle.
I think I mentioned there were four kids to contend with when I interviewed Christina. Two of them were mine. The other two were a bright, brave two-year-old and his brand new, beautifully healthy, baby brother.
Mia had been seeing Adam for about six months when she found out she was pregnant.
“It was the last year of my degree. I was like, ‘Why am I so tired? I can’t do any work, I’m too tired’, and the doctor’s like, ‘Do a pregnancy test’, and then, ‘Yep, you’re pregnant’.
“And then I started crying.”
She called Adam in tears. He must have thought something terrible had happened, cancer or something, so when she finally found the words he was relieved.
“It was crying from shock—wow, that’s a lot to take in all of a sudden.”
She went off her medication immediately and instead of getting worse, her mental health improved.
“They had all these warnings on my medical history, all these warnings for post-natal depression, all these alerts to watch out for,” but the depression didn’t return after pregnancy, and hasn’t since.
Mia was the first of my friends to fall pregnant, and the first to have morning sickness. I have a clear memory of being on a road trip with her and another friend, and having to stop for her to throw up. While she was spewing by the side of the road, we took the sandwich she’d been eating. “She definitely won’t want that now,” we thought, and got rid of it.
I ask her if she remembers. “Oh yeah, I was so angry, that toasted sandwich was mine!” When she got back in the car the first thing she did was ask where it was. We retrieved it from somewhere, the glovebox, maybe, and she said something like, “You cannot take that toasted sandwich from me. I need that,” and proceeded to eat it.
We watched, open mouthed, with a mix of horror and fascination.
Now, having experienced morning sickness myself, I understand completely. “I’m so sorry!” I say, “We knew nothing!”
“The prenatal thing,” Mia says, “I wasn’t in the zone.”
She attended some classes at a private hospital where everyone else seemed to be thirty-something and, well, a little too ready.
“They’ve got their station wagon all ready, car seat’s all prepared, they’ve decorated the nursery or whatever, and they’re all like, ‘Yay!’ I was just like, ‘What?’
“And then, when they did the thing where the nurse was like, ‘And this will be a typical twenty-four hour day: feed… feed… feed… feed,’ I put up my hand.”
Mia was pretty sure she was missing something. In a confused, and slightly apologetic voice she said, “Sorry, that’s through the night as well?”
The nurse nodded.
“I was like, ‘Um, when do you sleep, though?”
Now in our thirties, each with two kids, we find the question hilarious.
There was a time when being the pastor of a church would have been one of the last occupations Sean would have chosen for himself, but before long, it seemed to choose him.
“I think early on I had the idea that I’d be like a poet or a rockstar or something and I still thought that’s what I wanted to be, even after becoming a Christian,” he says.
“But as I got more and more captivated… it wasn’t a decision to abandon something so much as there was more to do, so why not do more?”
The new church needed leaders and organisers, so it made sense that those who were already natural leaders and organisers would become its founding leaders and organisers, he says.
Before long it had grown large enough to start churches of its own. “My number came up at the first church, so I just began doing that, first part-time then full-time after I graduated.”
He was about twenty-two when he started being paid, “such as the pay was”, he laughs.
Sean’s father has worked in the legal profession and in business, and is now a CEO in the not-for-profit sector. I imagine he and Sam’s Dad have a lot in common and, being Hobart, have probably met.
I wonder whether Sean’s father greeted his conversion with relief, or merely saw it as his son taking rebellion to the next level.
“Your relationship to spirituality is connected to your social and psychological life as well… that means you can sometimes dismiss people’s religious beliefs entirely by saying they’re entirely socially formed or psychologically created, so I think there was a bit of that,” Sean says.
“I feel like early on it was a rebellion thing and I was still just a rebellious person and it’s just the cause changed, so there was still a lot of idealism and conflict and arguing and debating and trying to win,” he admits.
But even after the idealism and conflict and arguing and debating stopped, the conviction wasn’t replaced and didn’t go away; it remained and remains still.
The next surprise for Sean’s father was the news he was getting married.
“A whole bunch of us were getting married early… again in that kind of simple idealistic way, going, well, marriage is a good thing and that’s the appropriate way to express romance and sex, we may as well just do it.
“It was totally a thing that family, not just mine, but lots of families, looking on—especially those who weren’t from a Christian background and didn’t share those values so strongly—were bemused, if not horrified about.”
By the time I met Sean, he and Stella seemed to have been together forever, despite their youth. I’d taken a break from my studies, done some overseas travel and was looking for a church to call home.
The first place I tried was a charismatic church. The main thing I remember was that so many people were jumping in time with the music that otherwise stationary things—the chairs, the floor, me—were moving too.
The second church I attended met in an old underground cinema on Murray Street. The preacher had a nose ring, dreadlocks and a warm smile, and his preaching made new sense of the bible. The previous service had felt like a performance, this one felt like a university lecture—I’d found my home.
I was also looking for a literal home, one closer to the uni. Sean and Stella were share-housing at the time, and one of their flatmates was heading overseas. The move meant I’d be living halfway between the main campus and the art school, with six friends instead of five siblings. I’d also be living in the same street as a boy I didn’t yet know, but would one day love best in the world.
He was already a regular at the house. We became firm friends, and his visits became increasingly frequent. A year or so later we started going out, and about eight months after that we got engaged. In 2006, Sean married us. Megan, Mia and Tori were my bridesmaids.
I wonder whether Sean thinks of his decision to work in ministry as a sacrifice. Church minister and campus director aren’t exactly the natural progression from rockstar and poet.
He acknowledges he could have chosen a more prestigious or lucrative job. He could have spent his twenties saving money rather than having kids and living off a very low income, but he prefers to recognise there will be benefits and difficulties no matter what you choose in life.
Besides, it’s not as if his life would have been perfect without the self-inflicted difficulties, and he gained so much more than he gave up.
“To live in a personal universe is a wonderful thing,” Sean says.
“When things are hard and when the world seems impersonal and cruel, and even people in your life feel distant and impersonal, knowing that there is actually a loving person in control of everything, that is an amazing comfort, and to have a hope… a hope beyond simply this life is an enormously sustaining thing, so having a hope that Jesus is risen from the dead… there is a hope for the universe beyond this world; that’s a wonderful thing.
“And, I guess, to have some sense of what your duties are is also really sustaining when you don’t have much left,” he says.
“When you go, the fire’s not there, there’s lots of stuff I feel out of my depth with and I feel overwhelmed by… at least I know my job is to pray and to read my bible and to love my neighbour and be faithful to my wife and to look after my kids and care for my church and to do good as I have opportunity to do. I know those duties and I know that’s actually what life’s about, even if there’s all these things I don’t know.
“There’s lots of things, right, but they’re all really simple things; it’s basically just: do good. Love God, love your neighbour—and that’s really centring, I guess.
“And the final thing is about being forgiven and shame and guilt. They’re not overwhelming things in my life, but when you do feel that, it’s an awesome thing to know that you’re forgiven.”
[ * ]
Evan, Megan, Rob
[ * ]
“Yeah, definitely, I was for sure. I was the biggest nerd.”
In the end, Penny made a move.
“She sent me a text message saying, ‘Oh, are you seeing anyone at the moment?’,” Evan recalls.
He typed back—probably a little too quickly—“No I’m not”.
“She said—I don’t know how it went, but it ended up being—‘well, I guess we’re a thing then’.
“It was all via text and I think we started going out but it was so awkward to begin with.”
Before long, though, it wasn’t awkward at all. They moved in together after seven or eight months, and engagement followed.
I ask if she said yes straight away, and am relieved to hear she did.
“I was so nervous. I took her overseas for her birthday, to Bali as a surprise, and I had the ring in my bag and I’d booked the restaurant, had the glasses of champagne, all that kind of stuff—and I was so nervous. We were on daybeds at this restaurant overlooking the beach and I was too nervous and I just didn’t even think of getting on my knee or anything like that so I just handed her the ring and was like, ‘Will you marry me?’ and she said ‘Yes’.”
I notice Evan used the word ‘nervous’ three times in three sentences. These were serious nerves. But why? Did he think she’d say no?
He was pretty sure it would be a yes, he says. They’d even looked at rings together—but the “minuscule possibility” of a no was enough to make him sweat.
I remember Evan and Penny’s wedding well—I was one of Penny’s bridesmaids. It was the first time in my life—my own wedding included—that I’d ever worn proper make-up. I felt like a fraud and a princess all at once. But the real princess, of course, was Penny.
I still remember the celebrant jokingly compare Evan’s courtship to stalking.
“That is kind of what I did,” he says. “I think I was infatuated with her. She was just, and she still is, so different to everyone else I know. She’s crazy and eccentric and hilarious and intelligent and caring and sweet.”
Evan used to have a friend who was always trying to set him up with people.
“I wasn’t interested… I can remember just leaving and wanting to get home so I could text Penny… it was all about that really, I remember little things in my life all fed back into having a conversation with Penny about it rather than talking to anyone else about it.”
I ask what it is, exactly, that makes Evan use words like “crazy” and “eccentric” to describe his wife.
“She’s just, there’s no control at times—certainly no volume control at times. She can be extremely loud and a bit of a pest,” he says.
“I used to love hearing her childhood stories because she’s from a big family—lots of siblings… and I can remember asking her, ‘What do you think your sisters thought of you?’ And she said, ‘I reckon they thought I was really annoying and wanted me to shut up’.
“I can remember thinking at the time, ‘That makes no sense!’, but in time, I could understand where that comes from.
“She just goes a bit crazy sometimes… But you see some of her other siblings and you see her extended family and some of them are like that as well.
“It’s just, sometimes she operates with no filter and that’s really refreshing and really nice and makes for an interesting life.”
“It’s like fixing up wounds—so gross and so satisfying”
Megan became a Christian in grade ten. She is often angry at God because she can’t see a reason for her suffering, and struggles with some of the teaching in the bible and the church, but somehow, she can’t walk away from it.
“I wish it was all nicely neatly packed up and easy but it’s not,” she says. It’s messy and some aspects make her uncomfortable, but seeing, “the graciousness and forgiveness in people that do really follow Christ”, is compelling. “It does change hearts,” she says.
I ask whether the thought of heaven is a source of comfort—of hope. “I think it probably does help… actually, it does.
“I don’t feel like everything is wasted, I guess. If this is it and then you die, then that is utterly devastating and it’s so infuriating.
“So I think, it definitely does… even though it’s not at the forefront of my mind, I think it must influence how I deal with things, especially when I’m less able.”
After Megan finished high school, she didn’t know what she wanted to do, so when a friend was heading to Romania and said she could tag along, she did.
They went with World Vision.They gave their time to some kids in orphanages, the kids gave them scabies. It was win/win.
Looking back, Megan says she feels a bit awkward about it. “There’s the whole, what are they calling it, ‘volun-tourism’ or something? Do-gooder Westerners going, and it’s tourism but it’s volunteering, so it’s ‘justifiable’ tourism.”
I ask if she thinks they did any good there. “I don’t think so… I think I was too young.” But she doesn’t think they did much damage either, which consoles her.
They also spent some time in an infectious diseases hospital, which influenced her decision to specialise in infectious diseases although, to be fair, “I was already obsessed with communicable diseases and gross things”.
Learning more about diseases like HIV was confronting, she says, but “also kind of fascinating”.
“If you go on leave you’re missing out on progress.”
Rob and Ellie met online before meeting online was a thing.
It was about thirteen years ago. A friend of his had built a site that connected people in the same friendship circles (sound familiar?), and they were both part of it.
If you know these two, you’ll know this is fitting; they still talk online, even when they’re in the same room, and delight in new technology.
So anyway, they’d met, but not in person. “Then there was something that everyone was going to, some movie opening… we’d kind of agreed online, ‘Well, I’ll go if you go’,” Rob says.
She had blue eyes and “brown-with-kind-of-a-hint-of-red-to-it hair”, and as he saw her crossing the road he thought, “Wow, she looks just like the dryads from The Chronicles of Narnia”.
I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the adaptation he’s referring to. I can’t remember the dryads, but I can tell from the way he’s talking that he was impressed.
As for what she thought of him, I’d say “we won’t go there”, but we already have.
It’s hard to know who made the first move.
“I guess it depends what you call a move,” says Rob. “I feel like men and women have different interpretations of what a move is.
“I feel like a guy is sometimes like, ‘a move is where I actually put my arm around her’ or something, but I don’t know, if she’s been deliberately manoeuvring so that that’s likely to happen, I feel like that’s a move. Maybe more passive, but still a move.
“I would say she did, in that way.”
First moves aside, the feeling was mutual, and they soon became inseparable.
They’d only been together for a couple of weeks when they went to a wedding together. “Within a week of that we were like, ‘You know, I can kind of see that happening with us’,” Rob says.
Rob says Ellie’s pregnancy with Ada was probably the hardest thing he’s ever been through.
You probably know by now that Rob’s not big on feelings and emotions. If something really gets to him, however, he will debrief with Ellie. When she had pre-natal depression, and he was trying to spare her his worries on top of her own, he realised how much he missed being able to do that.
Even so, he kept his fears and his struggles to himself.
“She was so emotionally fragile, and ultimately it was her going through the physical—and associated mental—trauma,” he says.
“Whatever was going on in my head didn’t affect what needed to be done, so I just put it aside.”
Rob says he does worry about “going down that road again”.
“Obviously it won’t be the same, because we have the hindsight of having been through it once before. But still, we don’t know what effect it could have next time around.”
Evan not only got the girl, he now has a little boy, their one-year-old son, Pat.
His main ambition for this tiny person is that he’ll grow up to be kind.
“He can ‘fail’ at everything else or be a disappointment in everyone else’s eyes in so many ways,” Evan says, “but as long as he’s kind then I’ve done my job, and I don’t need or want anything else from him, really. If I can ensure he’s a kind man, a kind adult… I’ll consider that a win.”
I think about the baby they lost before Pat, and ask Evan whether he ever thinks about it.
“Not that often, to be honest. I think Penny does more but no, to me it was… I don’t know, it’s hard for dads sometimes, to have that connection to a baby that’s lost.”
Penny was only six or seven weeks pregnant when it happened, so it was “there, but not there”, and he never got to feel it or see it, he says.
“There were some times early after Pat was born that were really hard, and a time my mum was sick that was really hard.
For Evan, the miscarriage wasn’t as hard, “but it was hard seeing Penny hurting”
Evan says he wants to live lots of different lives, but is also pretty happy with this one. He is, after all, living it with the girl of his dreams.
“One of the things I really enjoy about Penny is that I look forward to the future,” he says, and to all that they will be able to do together.
“Life wouldn’t be as enjoyable or as wonderful if I didn’t get to think about the future with Penny,” he says.
Megan has a natural, wholesome look that would suit an ad for organic cereal, or yoga. Her appearance makes her seem healthy and strong but in real life, she’s neither.
I ask whether she wants to talk about “the whole chronic fatigue thing”. It’s the reason she’s spending a Saturday sitting on her bed instead of bushwalking or rock climbing or going to the markets, and it’s why she’s only doing a few hours of admin work a week instead of working full-time in a hospital.
She says she doesn’t mind. “It’s not well understood in the community and a lot of people still just think it’s lazy yuppy flu—which makes me really angry—and so I don’t mind talking about it.”
Megan wasn’t diagnosed with ME/CFS until three or four years ago, but her symptoms stretch back to her teens. Before the diagnosis she was “pretty functional” compared to now, but knew something wasn’t right.
“I was able to work a few days a week and I was able to travel a bit and I was able to go for walks,” she says, but she’d crash a lot and sleep a lot, and at the end of the day, it felt like all she was doing was working and sleeping.
Maybe this is because that’s pretty much all she was doing. “I didn’t really have much of a social life. I wasn’t doing anything recreationally that I enjoyed because I didn’t have the energy for it.”
Her symptoms prevented her from finishing her Masters in public health. I ask her why she even attempted it. “Because I still had grandiose dreams of working in a developing setting,” she says. “Having an MPH is quite helpful in that. Not necessary, but helpful.
“And I think I always thought, ‘At some point, I’m going to get better’. I always thought, ‘I just need to be fitter or I just need to eat better or I just need to rest a bit more, and then I’ll be able to…’ so the Masters, in some ways, was just kind of biding my time as well.”
I ask Megan why she talks about the hope of recovery in the past tense.
“Yeah, I know that’s not going to happen. Full recovery, especially if you’ve been sick for a long time, is pretty rare, and I don’t see the point in trying to keep living my life in the future, waiting for something that may or may not happen.”
Waiting would mean not appreciating the things she can do now, because she’s trying to live in the future, she says. Another trap is living in the past, dwelling on all the things she could done before her body went on strike.
Thankfully, Megan has few regrets.
“I’m pretty happy. I think I pushed myself pretty hard and travelled and did a bunch of stuff that was physically incredibly difficult—and I remember how miserable I was sometimes because I was so incredibly sick and still pushing myself to do things—but I’m kind of glad I did them now cos I couldn’t, I just couldn’t do them now. Even a flight to Melbourne is really, really physically hard.”
Megan’s pretty matter-of-fact about the way she and Drew drive each other “a little bit nuts” sometimes.
Drew (he’s back from his walk now) starts telling me about a house application they made in the lead-up to their marriage. A mistake was made. Megan wanted to just cross it out, Drew wanted to throw the lot out and start again. It drove Megan mad.
“Drew’s quite conscientious and is also a little bit scared of authority”—he nods—“whereas I’m not scared of authority, so that can actually cause quite a bit of conflict because I’m just like, ‘Yeah, whatever, they can’t hurt us,’ and he’s like, ‘They can!’.”
They still fight, but these days it’s not quite so passionate, or so often. “I think we’ve both compromised,” says Megan.
“I understand his fear, and I can also see his reasons why—sometimes—more easily now, but he’s also realising now that sometimes I am right and it’s not something he needs to worry about, that he doesn’t need to worry about every single thing, so I think it kind of works—it does work—both ways.”
Rob was raised as a Christian, but for about ten years, culminating sometime last year, he’s undergone a kind of “de-conversion”.
Now he identifies as a scientific skeptic, and is agnostic about the existence of God. “To me it’s like, you can’t know because it’s really hard to prove a negative, but I don’t see any evidence for it.
“I feel very different about life and science and the physical world and even just my place in it than I did then, and I prefer now,” Rob says.
Before, he often felt guilty about working too much and not attending a church.
“I feel heaps freer not having that anymore… I feel much freer to focus on work and life in general and I feel like that’s success and that’s my purpose… just doing the best I can in those areas, contributing to humanity overall.
“Part of me feels like, ‘Man, I wish I had come to that conclusion a lot sooner,’ but also I can see tangible benefits to my life and career and personality based on having been raised in the church,” he says.
I ask Rob about his greatest hope for his daughter. “I just want her to be able to think rationally and logically and make informed decisions,” he says.
“That’s all I would want. Whatever she decides is fine—as long as it’s an informed decision, I’m happy,” he says.
The hardest thing about being a Dad is making decisions, Rob says. “Like how to teach things that aren’t just facts… how do you teach good behaviour? How do you teach being kind?”
He tells me a cute story about how Ada doesn’t hit people, but does sometimes “bump” things.
“We taught her you don’t hit people, but if she’s really frustrated with someone to the point she wants to ‘bump’ them as she calls it, then there’s a particular cushion, and she’ll go and ‘bump’ the cushion instead.
“She needs to get it out and it’s like, ‘Well you can bump that, but you can’t bump a person’.”
As for the best thing about being a dad, that would be cuddles, he says. “Cuddles are just the best.”
Some people find the thought of their kids growing up with technology kind of scary. They worry about them having easy access to such an overwhelming mass of information and misinformation, but Rob, unsurprisingly, isn’t fazed.
“I think it’s awesome,” he says. “If you want to verify something or you want to access the latest scientific information on something, before you had to just wait for it to trickle down through the various analogues of channels, whereas now you can subscribe directly to the scientific journals.
“I’m mostly excited for her. I think it’s really cool. To look at what’s happened, just in my lifetime, makes me think, what is Ada going to be messing about with when she’s my age now? I can’t even imagine what technology there’s going to be.”
[ * ]
Marie, Andy, Laura
[ * ]
“I didn’t feel I will be much in the box.”
I ask Marie what life was like for her when she was growing up. She had a happy childhood. As for her teenage years, “it’s the same for everyone”, she says.
Marie grew up in a small French village of about four hundred people with her parents and two brothers. Her life was “shared” between her parents’ home and her grandmother’s restaurant. Life in the village was “very free”.
Marie remembers fighting with her younger brother—not with punches, but with words. “I would say, not necessarily a bad word but something like, ah, clever, which would annoy him even worse.”
One of her brother’s favourite games was to have Marie lower something down to him from their balcony, a spoon, for example, and pretend it was a fish. As he tried to catch it she would jiggle it around and watch him in amusement. “He wouldn’t get bored of it, even if he would never get the spoon,” she says.
Marie still remembers the day her father brought home a brand new machine called a “video camera”. She pretended to be a waitress, serving her brother a meal using plastic food, and he filmed them. “I took my role seriously,” she says. Her younger brother wasn’t so conscientious.
“He sat at the table but he doesn’t behave well, like he does a mess with what I prepared and I’m really upset and I keep saying ‘No, no no!’ and I end up in my room crying and shouting and my dad behind the camera says something like, ‘So what’s happened Marie?’ and I’m really really mad… but I find it funny now.”
These days she can identify with her brother’s behaviour as well as her own—“When you know someone is very careful about something,” she says cheekily, it can be a “pleasure” to mess with it.
In some ways, Marie hasn’t changed much since childhood. “I’m still precious about a few things when I want things to be well done, like if someone ruins my real dinner maybe I would be angry.
“I’m still very sensitive, I had it since very young… I always wanted to understand things, I always thought a lot, but now I know things I even think more and sometimes it’s too much. I’m constantly thinking about life things and analysing things. Even if I don’t want to, it’s like part of my, of the way I am.”
“I can forgive fives, like between one and ten—I can forgive fives—but generally, it has to be an even number.”
Andy still has a vivid memory of finding out his pregnant wife wasn’t just carrying their first child, but their second as well.
“Julie’s a doctor, as you know. She said, ‘Okay, we’ve got the first obstetrician appointment today, do you want to come?’.”
He did but he had a meeting. He tried to move it but couldn’t.
“Julie says, ‘Look, it’s just the first meeting, it’s just like an introduction with the obstetrician, they don’t do scans or anything like that, so you’re not going to miss anything, it’s basically some book-keeping and some paperwork.’
“So I didn’t go and lo and behold, this obstetrician has an ultrasound machine in her room, which isn’t common, and she’s trained to use it.” Julie had a scan and called Andy immediately afterwards to tell him the news.
“I was just shocked. There was nowhere in that building I could hide, there were no offices with closed doors, and so I was just kind of standing in the thoroughfare… there were just people walking past constantly and I just found out I was having twins. It didn’t really make sense.
“My first thought was: I’ve already reconciled the idea of having one kid and what that will take. I know how much love I’ve got to give this kid, and now I have to divide that in two? That’s not fair—on the kids. I was just really scared for a little while but also really excited, but yeah, it was very bewildering.”
One of the most common things people said to Julie and Andy when they said they were having twins was, “I’ve had kids, I don’t know how you’re going to do it—one was hard enough!”.
“It’s not a helpful thing to say when you think about it,” Andy says. “I don’t have a choice, I have to cope, I can’t put them back, they’re my kids. But that does weirdly work as solace too because I can’t put them back, they’re my kids, I have to cope.”
The twins were exceptionally bad at one very important life skill: sleeping. They could cry and scream with astonishing stamina, but rarely slept for more than a few hours at a time, and it wasn’t just for the first few months, it was for the first few years.
Trying to get them to sleep was the worst, Andy says. “To get them off to sleep was just pacing, holding them and pacing for about two-and-half hours, and they were screaming the entire time, so your heart’s being broken constantly. And you just want them to go to sleep so you can have five minutes to yourself.”
Then, when they were finally asleep and Andy and Julie were just drifting off, they’d wake again.
“There were numerous times where I hit the point of sitting on the floor in their room and just crying and going, ‘I can’t do this anymore’. But that was about as deep as it got; I had to keep going.”
Of course they tried everything. “We were in and out of the Mother Baby Unit at the hospital… they eventually said, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing we can do—we’ve tried everything and there’s nothing left’.”
They also tried a particularly expensive sleep consultant. “She ended up washing her hands of us as well. And she had us try controlled crying which was awful, completely awful.”
It failed, he says, in “spectacular fashion”, with Evie.
“You know how it works—you put them to bed for five minutes, and then you go in… and then when they cry you leave it for ten, then you go in, for fifteen, then you go in, and that went on till the gap should have been about forty-five minutes and I called the sleep consultant lady and said, ‘We’re up to forty-five minute gaps now, we should stop, right?’ and she said, ‘You should definitely keep going,’ and so we left her for forty-five minutes, screaming and screaming, and then the screaming stopped.”
The problem is, it hadn’t stopped because she’d fallen asleep, it was because she’d lost her voice.
“She cried herself hoarse. That was it. That was it.” They resolved never to do it again, and they haven’t.
“I know it works for some kids and is extremely successful and not negligent in any way… I just don’t think it works for our kids, and I’d never go through it again; I don’t want to risk it.”
They’ve since done “all the wrong things” with the others, which has led to even more sleep deprivation. But now that their youngest, who’s two, is finally starting to sleep in her own bed, things are improving at last.
“I didn’t want to live for the rest of my life thinking I hadn’t chosen to see her. So we did.”
Laura and Joe’s two young kids were with them when they found out something was wrong with the baby.
“They came with me and Joe and my mum to the ultrasound that you have between eighteen and twenty weeks because they were going to see her heartbeat and see her moving around—not that we knew it was a her at that stage—we were going to see a baby.
“And then the guy did his little thing and then he was like, ‘I’m just going to go see the doctor’, and that was when I got that sense of dread, first off, then I thought, ‘No, I’m just being silly, it’s fine,’ and then it took quite a while for him to come back and I felt even worse, and then he came in and said, ‘I guess you can tell by the fact that I’ve been gone that not everything is going right.’
“And you know, then I just kind of started crying,” Laura says.
They told the kids the baby was “very sick” and they had to go to the hospital to find out what was wrong, and Laura’s mum took them home.
“I was like, ‘Maybe there’s a chance we can do something and fix this up…’ but when a baby doesn’t have a heartbeat, there’s no chance.”
I can’t imagine losing a baby and not being haunted by it, but Laura, whose due date was about two weeks ago, seems remarkably accepting.
“It’s kind of hard because I think yes, it is the hardest thing that’s ever happened, to have a child that you’re expecting and that you’ve longed for, to lose the child, but at the same time I can’t imagine it now, having been any other way,” she says.
“I would like Amy to be here, particularly because my sister-in-law’s just had twins—there are a lot of little babies that would be Amy’s age right now, so it’s hard to see them and not feel jealous or not wonder what it would be like in our family to have that child—but I just feel like God gives you an acceptance of the things that he puts in your life. That’s what he’s given me.”
Laura knows that no amount of grief will change what happened. “I learnt a lot out of it and I would like Amy to be here, but she’s with Jesus. She knows him better than I do, and we will see her.”
On the night Amy was born, Laura and Joe looked at their tiny daughter, and Joe touched her face.
They spent a couple of hours with her all wrapped up, taking turns to hold her.
One of the hardest things at that point was that they still didn’t know if Amy was a boy or a girl.
“The nurse had said, ‘This baby doesn’t look right,’ and we said ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ and she said ‘I don’t know, I can’t tell because the baby’s too swollen.’
“She had a syndrome, although we’re not sure what syndrome she had—we haven’t got the results of the post mortem back yet—and she was quite swollen… she had been dead for a couple of days,” Laura says.
They spent the next hour trying to think of gender-neutral names because they couldn’t bear the idea of not naming the baby. I suppose a name was the only thing they could give her.
The nurses said Laura and Joe could find out the gender through the post mortem, but wouldn’t get the results for several weeks. Then Joe plucked up the courage to ask if a doctor could take a look.
The doctor told the nurse to look again herself. “By that time the fluid had gone down a little bit and she could tell that it was a girl,” Laura says, “but that was awful, the idea that you wouldn’t know who your baby was”.
Around midnight, the nurse wheeled Amy away in a crib that looked normal, but was actually refrigerated, so they could try to get some rest.
She was wheeled back in the morning, and Joe unwrapped her.
“He said, ‘A father should hold his little girl’s hand’.”
He also took her tiny, still body in his arms, and sang to her.
The song was “Jesus loves me”, and as he finished, he turned to Laura and said, “You know, she knows it better than we do”.
In the end Laura, who had been anxious about how she’d react to her baby’s appearance, found it completely immaterial.
“She did not look as a full-term healthy baby would, but we admired her all the same,” she says.
She was a little swollen and a little discoloured, but “beautiful in herself”.
Laura and Joe, their children and her parents, all touched the baby’s precious face.
“It was a lesson in love for me, having always felt a little fearful about ‘ugliness’ or perceived ugliness,” she says.
“You love those that God gives you to love, no matter. And beauty is not about appearance, it’s about being.”
We talk about how the kids are coping.
Laura tells me she recently overheard her son telling her daughter he couldn’t wait to see Amy, and felt “a bit sad” about it all.
His little sister was quick to comfort him.
“But she’s with God, and he’s safe and nice,” she said.
I ask Marie whether she likes living on her own. She likes the independence but hates the constancy of being alone.
“There’s a lady, and old neighbour, I visit her every week. I give her some books and we talk a little bit but she’s not of my age and it’s nice, but sometimes I think that’s the only person I talk to outside of work.”
Although she made some friends through a theatre group a few years back, most of them were foreigners and returned home. And now she doesn’t feel she has the strength to make new friends, and besides, she’s thinking she’ll leave Versailles.
Marie says that if you look at nature, it feels like there could be a God, “but if you see the human beings I would think no”.
“I always wonder where is the sense of life… even if I am not in the worst situation I think, ‘Wow, I’m hardly dealing with this, how could I deal with that?’.”
A few weeks after our interview, I decide to send Marie a gift. I choose a silver bucket filled with peach-coloured roses, and a box of macarons.
Marie sends me a very cute message when it arrives. She says she noticed the box and wondered what was inside.
“There were flowers and a bird on it, I found it nice then I decided to check if was a delivery for someone and who—maybe me but really not believing it. What a surprise!
“Being sensitive at the moment, when I took the box and opened it, I think I had enough tears to water the rose tree!
“Thank you for this delicate attention and bright surprise… I feel like an angel came today. Love from Versailles.”
Andy is one of the most passionate people I know. Whether he’s telling you about this incredibly delicious burger place he’s found that you really must try, or how he’s been teaching his kids about space and they’re really getting it, or why he’s married to the most wonderful woman in the entire world, he never lacks enthusiasm.
I ask him if he wears his heart on sleeve.
“I think so. I don’t know, it’s a weird phrase… I generally try and be pretty up front about how I feel about things, or more importantly, try not to be afraid of what people think of my feelings. Part of that is just being a Christian… learning how to be unabashedly unafraid as a Christian gives you the ability to do that in other contexts as well.”
As well as juggling the roles of husband, father and games journo, Andy’s also a teacher. A while back, Andy and Julie decided to home school their kids, at least for the early years. They began last year.
“Class sizes are massive—huge—the child-to-teacher ratio is crazy, and there’s no way that schools can tailor their teaching to the student, so we thought… we may as well give it a shot,” he says.
“The best thing is being there and seeing them growing and learning… especially as a dad—dads often, traditionally, are the ones that work and miss out.”
The worst thing, he says, is the constant pressure, “and the constant voice in the back of your head that says, ‘You could have done more today than you did’.”
“Some days I can look back and go, all we did was have a conversation about something, that’s the only thing I could write down as a lesson they had today. Otherwise they were just fighting and the house was a joke so I had to spend a bunch of time doing housework… If they were at school they would have had a day full of lessons.”
Andy often jokes that he’s using his job to legitimise playing computer games as an adult. At the same time, he wants people to take the games he plays seriously.
“I want them to be seen by people as a valid form of media—an art form,” he says.
He also doesn’t want to feel like he has to say “technology and games journalist” when people ask what he does for a living. “I should just be able to say ‘games journalist’, but even I feel social pressure to discount it somehow.”
There’s this massive game developers conference held in San Fransisco each year which Andy’s always wanted to attend. This year, he not only got a media pass and went, he got there via “Train Jam”—a collection of developers travelling there from Chicago via train, using the fifty-odd hour journey to create games from scratch. He was in interview heaven.
Andy has also started being interviewed—on podcasts, local radio and television networks, by his weird sister-in-law—and giving talks at conferences and schools. You could say he’s become something of an authority on computer games, and when you’re an authority on an art-form, you really have to engage with it on a regular basis, right? Yep, I’d say Andy has his dream job.
Laura was nineteen weeks and five days pregnant when she gave birth to Amy.
“We didn’t have to have a funeral for her or name her or do any of those things if we didn’t want to. You’re only legally obliged to do that after twenty weeks,” she says.
Laura was “a little bit sheepish”—“kind of British”—about having a funeral. She worried people would think it was somehow over the top having a funeral for a baby that was only nineteen weeks along, “but I’m really glad that we did it—and I don’t think anyone thought that”, she adds.
In a strange way, it was a blessing, not only to Laura and Joe, but to many of those who went, because it was a chance to grieve together, not just for Amy, but for other babies lost along the way.
“I’ve spoken to lots of women who have had babies twenty, forty, even fifty or sixty years ago that they still remember, but the babies weren’t acknowledged,” Laura says. It was as if they were hidden away—as if they’d never existed. But something like this stays with you, no matter what, so it’s far better to speak and grieve openly, she says.
I ask why they chose the middle name “Hope”.
“As soon as we found out about the fact that she was dead, I didn’t plan it, but this bible verse just came into my mind, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’
“Someone says that, when the women go to look for Jesus at the tomb, I think it’s the angel that says it… maybe in Luke?
“We had the reading at the funeral, and that was just the idea that was in my head the whole time we were going through that really intense week. I was just thinking, ‘resurrection’, you know, we have this hope; death is not the end.”
I wonder whether the experience challenged Laura’s faith at all. She says it only made her cling to it more.
“It was dreadful and horrible and there were moments where I was like, you know, if I was looking from outside of myself at me wailing on the bed, I would be like, ‘What is wrong with that person?’.”
But she was also surrounded by love, and she knew it.
“I don’t think I could have had the faith and acceptance and the ability to go through it without other people’s prayers; because they were praying when I couldn’t.
“When I was just blubbering, they were praying. And when I couldn’t cook or tidy the house, people from church made meals and were our strength.”
Laura’s also thankful that Joe was able to grieve with her. Many people in their situation would have shut off emotionally, but he was different.
“He seems like one of those macho guys because he is quite blunt and he likes sport and all that kind of thing, but he’s happy to say, ‘I’m not feeling great about this’ and ‘I feel really sad’ or he’s happy to say, ‘A father should hold his little girl’s hand and sing “Jesus loves me” to his baby.’
“And I don’t know if I’d realised that,” Laura says. “We’ve been married for ten years this year, and I don’t know if I’d realised, he’s actually quite different.”
Laura made “a conscious decision” not to get upset or offended by people’s attempts to sympathise with her after what happened with Amy.
“No one comes to you trying to tell you a story to make you annoyed, they come to you to tell you a story trying to help you and comfort you. I made the decision to assume the best out of people rather than assume the worst.”
Even so, it must have been intense to be in the midst of grieving for your own baby, and have tale after tale of similar tragedies laid at your feet.
“It was a little bit overwhelming—so many people. I wasn’t going to go to church the week after it happened—directly after it happened—because I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can face it’, but then in the end I went because, well, where else would I want to be apart from with my Christian family that share the same hope that they’ll see her again?
“I didn’t go into church, I stayed in the creche room, and some people who saw me went through and I went out a bit later, after a lot of people had gone, because it was pretty raw.
“That day about six different people told me about babies they’d lost,” Laura says, “and one lady told me she now doesn’t have any children because she and her husband lost seven babies”.
“It was slightly overwhelming, but actually made me feel like, this is a broken world and these things do happen, and I was glad not to feel alone in it.”
[ * ]
Before Ada was born, Rob and Ellie spent six months in England, then travelled around Europe for a while. In England, Rob worked but Ellie didn’t. I remember worrying about her being lonely without colleagues and family and friends.
“It was lonely, but I love my own company, oh my gosh, I’m awesome,” she says laughing.
“I’m an introvert anyway, so I was quite happy. I got into my little routines.”
These included going to a run-down abbey and taking close-up photographs in its rambling gardens.
I remember being startled by their beauty: a droplet of water suspended in space, a spider’s perfect web, a lady-bird preparing for flight.
My sister-in law, who was thinking of her too, sent an orchid through the local florist. Ellie says she put it on her window sill and gave it a name.
“We also had a really awful black spider that sat outside the window. I talked to that too.”
“It was a strange time.”
One thing Ellie wants to change about herself, is the way she lets fear—not only of failure, but of mediocrity too—stop her from taking risks. Taking her photography to the next level is one of them.
“Other people go out and do it and they win an award or sell a book because they actually did it.
“I really, really want to try and actually do something without letting that fear get in the way. And then if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but just giving myself the chance to do something instead of just holding back all the time; that’s what I’d change.”
There’s this dream Ellie had as a kid that she’s always remembered.
It was an amazing, very vivid, “almost spiritual” dream.
She was behind a rock on a beach with golden light shining down on her, and she could hear operatic singing. It might have been angels.
“I’ve always remembered it, and I remembered waking up the next morning and describing it to mum, and she said, ‘try and draw it’. I can’t draw for shit so it looked really bad, but I still remember that dream.”
Rob and Ellie recently showed Ada “The Little Mermaid” for the first time.
“There was a rock on the beach and it was just like my dream rock, and I went, ‘Oh my God, that’s my dream rock!’ but you know, the other elements weren’t there.
“Then this big golden light shone down and I’m like, ‘That’s just like the light from my dream!’ but the music wasn’t there.
“We kept watching the movie and about half an hour later, this operatic angel singing music starts up—‘Yes! The music from my dream!’
“Obviously I’d watched ‘The Little Mermaid’ and the elements of it had come together in this dream that I thought was this immense powerful thing, and it was just a Disney movie, and I did not know until twenty-five years later.
“It stuck with me, this incredibly powerful thing,” she says.
“And it was ‘The Little Mermaid’.”
Soon after I started this project, I realised the stakes were higher than I’d first thought.
In one sense I had nothing to lose but time—I wasn’t writing for a degree or a wage, and I wasn’t paying my subjects.
I was, however, writing my friends—twelve funny, strange, beautiful souls—and once they’d given me their stories, I couldn’t bear the thought I might not do them justice.
I was also delving into painful experiences I’m definitely not qualified to deal with. And when the silence was long, and I didn’t know quite what to say—well, I asked another question.
You might think these people are not representative of the general population, and perhaps they’re not. All are from a similar socio-economic demographic and are in their thirties, most are married and many are Christians, all are connected to the same small, wondrous island—and to me—and all let me record our conversation.
In another sense, they could have been any combination of my friends, or yours, of any age, from any place. All of us have more stories than we could ever tell; all of us are caught up in this wonderful terrible thing called life; all of us are characters.
As I wrote, I was struck by how impossible it is to plan or predict your future, how easy it is to fall in love, how hard it is to make sense of it all. I started thinking about how we’re all stronger and more fragile than we realise, and I kept coming back to the idea that it’s a broken world, but we don’t have to be alone in it. I think those were some of the most beautiful words I was given.
I want to close by thanking the friends who read my early drafts, and the twelve who said yes. I know you a little better now, and love you even more; I hope readers love you too. Thank you for your time, your honesty and your friendship.
One day, after years interviewing strangers in my job as a journalist, I started wondering what it would be like to interview my friends. My husband, who is responsible for stopping me when I get a crazy idea, encouraged me to pursue it. I rounded up twelve of my bravest friends. I gave them baked goods, hot drinks and questions; they gave me their stories. The result, a short work called â€œAll My Friends Are Charactersâ€, weaves together the stories of twelve "ordinary" thirty-somethings. The friends it features include a social worker with firstÂ-hand experience of abusive relationships, a French woman suffering from ennui, and a father of four who recently stumbled into his dream job. There's also a woman who suffered preÂ-natal depression, a man who chased the woman he loved across the world, and a nurse with chronic fatigue syndrome. The book is a testimony to the fact that each one of us has stories worth telling.