How spiders got me writing

Spiders: the stuff of nightmares, fairy tales, fantasy or fiction? Arachnophobia or arachnophilia – what camp are you in? A recent re-read of a childhood favourite Charlotte’s Web – complete with my nine-year-old joined-up writing signature on the inside front cover – steered me towards the latter.

And what a wonderful story it is featuring Charlotte A. Cavatica, the grey spider and heroine of the piece who saves Wilbur (the pig’s) life. It’s a story of selfless friendship, loyalty, devotion, commitment and love. There’s plenty of humour and humanity too: Charlotte tell us: “Well, I am pretty. There’s no denying that,” seven is her lucky number, she’s a good writer and storyteller and prone to some wonderfully Zen reflections (none of which I noticed aged nine). She compares her web spinning prowess to the building of the Queensborough bridge and how long it took. She adds a comment on the pace of human life: “they just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side. With men, it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I am a sedentary spider.”

She’s also very pragmatic – while still storybook – and unapologetic about being a bloodythirsty predator consuming: “flies, bugs, grasshoppers, choice beetles, moths, butterflies, tasty cockroaches, gnats, midges, daddy longlegs, centipedes, mosquitoes, crickets — anything that’s careless enough to get caught in my web. I have to live, don’t I”?

As we all know, her ingenuity and patience save Wilbur from ending up as crispy bacon on a dinner plate: “She knew from experience that if she waited long enough, a fly would come to her web; and she felt sure that if she thought long enough about Wilbur’s problem, an idea would come to her mind.” Her solution is to weave words into her web to persuade the farmer, Homer Zuckerman, that Wilbur is an exceptional pig who must be saved.  And it works; Wilbur becomes a celebrity attracting attention far and wide, and becomes the star at the County Fair.

“I wove my web for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

If only I had re-read Charlotte’s Web before my first trip to Australia in 1995…

A kayak instructor I met on the backpacker trail lent me his house in rural Gippsland in Victoria. Here was my big chance to have a solo adventure away from my family and friends in the UK. I’d imagined a rose-covered cottage perched on a hill with views over a valley, where I would be able to tap into my inner poet, be at one with nature and meditate into the middle distance.  In reality, it was a wooden shack in Nowheresville and any view was obscured by the mountain drizzle.

Even worse, on my first (and, as it turned out, only night) I noticed a huge black shape profiled against the grubby white duvet covering the mattress on the floor.  It was a spider and I was terrified. Back then, I thought all Australian spiders delivered killer bites. Clearly, I had read too much Bill Bryson. To quote from his book Down Under: “Australia has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip.”

It was in fact a huntsman spider. Although they are relatively harmless, they are hairy, have eight-eyes, can span two hundred and fifty to three hundred millimetres and are dead ringers for tarantulas. I tried chatting to it: “Would you please just toddle off and leave me alone,” but it stayed put, defiant and rubbery, until I raised my boot, praying it would dart off, Alice-like, through a hole in the skirting board. Alas, my prayers went unanswered and so I ended up beating the life out of the poor defenceless thing.

The deathly deed done, I looked around the room and noticed there were webs  everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Plugging the skirting board hole with cotton wool, I swept the sills and then got under the well-worn coverless quilt. I hardly slept, flinching against the spider-like loose threads every time I turned over. As soon as daylight came, I was up and into the shower where – and I exaggerate not – a spider dangled from a bare light bulb. The place had now taken on Hitchcockian associations.

I dressed, packed and fled down to the shop at the bottom of the hill. Distraught to hear that the next bus wasn’t for two days –  a timeframe seemingly exaggerated by the shopkeeper’s slow Australian drawl – I accepted a lift to Warragul station from a kindly farmer who took me the scenic route via the Lakes.  So much for my journey of self-discovery.

Too proud to return to the bosom of my family – my brother was living here and my parents visiting from the UK– I called friends of friends from a pay phone at the train station. “It’s Helen’s friend, Charlotte,” I said in a high-pitched squeak, explaining my flight from the spider shack.  Even though she had never met me, the lovely Connie (now in her late 80s) asked whether I would like to go and stay with them in Kyneton. And that was the start of a beautiful friendship with Connie and Norman and their family.

My four days in Kyneton turned out to be food for mind, body and soul – everything Gippsland wasn’t. There was porridge for breakfast, morning tea on the veranda, roast dinners in the evening and trips to Hanging Rock and Castlemaine. What’s more, under Connie’s excellent tutelage, I wrote my first short story (based on an experience in Parsley Bay in Sydney) on her typewriter. I still have the original today and am proud of it. Thank you spider, you helped to kickstart my creative writing!

In flight from a pest-ridden house…

About two weeks ago my Airbnb guests got back to find the contents of my food cupboard in a plastic crate on the front doorstep and several of my jumpers in the freezer. As you do…

The preparations aka Military Campaign for my extended trip overseas to spend all important time with family began about a month ago. I needed to finish up two jobs – one of them a maternity cover contract with high expectations and ambitious KPIs, organise my travel plans and get my house and garden in order ready to rent out – a job in itself.

I was doing pretty well, even if running on adrenalin, and found it a good opportunity to test drive some of the time-management strategies suggested by Brendon Burchard of the Performance Academy (as mentioned in my last post). To share a few of them: he recommends not checking any social media for the first hour of the day and, instead, focussing on what you need to achieve. I found that to be so simple and effective in freeing up and clearing my headspace. Because, as he points out, the minute we tune into the emails and messages we’re taking on other people’s agendas and demands, and we lose our focus. I put my phone on airplane mode before I go to bed and leave it like that until after breakfast. He also advocates dividing the working day into 50-minute blocks broken up by drinking water and stretching. And, importantly, ditching the social media and screens again at the end of the day and finding some time to meditate or do something that gets us into a less thought-driven and more grounded space before bed.

But then I discovered critters in my cupboards. I was getting ready for a meeting with my new boss (I have an exciting new job starting later this year) when I Googled ‘how to get rid of moths’ and up came ‘how to get rid of moths in the pantry’ and ‘how to get rid of moths in clothes’. My initial search was prompted by holes in my jumpers but then I realised, with a sense of panic, that the worm-like creatures lurking in my food cupboard and on the ceiling were pantry moths – well the larvae anyway. I’d never even heard of pantry moths before, let alone seem them. The hour that I had set aside to compose myself for the meeting was spent frantically chucking out dry foods – the larvae get everywhere even under lids of spice jars. Some were even inching their way across foil sachets of Miso soup while others were hanging out in the rice noodles. Yikes! I scrubbed the shelves and left them clear for several days – hence the food that I had not yet inspected being relocated to the doorstep – until I blasted them with barrier spray and then set up tent-like moth traps that I bought in the hardware store. Fingers crossed that they don’t stage a comeback when my guests move in a week after I leave.

A pantry moth larvae

A pantry moth larvae

My sister has been through the whole saga of moths in her clothes and instructed me to wash all my jumpers and then put them in the freezer for a few days before placing them into individual plastic bags. Sounds simple enough but not when you’re working 12-hour days, getting ready to go overseas AND have about 50 items of wool in your wardrobe. At the time of writing, my departure is about 12 hours away and I am just cycling the last woollies through the freezer and into vacuum-packed bags. The trouble with these critters is that they are discerning and choose the highest quality wool and cashmere, leaving aside the more ordinary sweaters made of acrylic and other man-made fibres, damn them. And, from what I read, they can graduate to other areas of the house and tuck into rugs, linens, towels and curtains. Perhaps I will come home to find my house full of holes like a piece of Swiss cheese…

Just some of my many woollen items

Just some of my many woollen items

deep-freezing my jumpers

deep-freezing my jumpers

One of my mother’s favourite expressions is ‘what a pest!’ meaning what a nuisance. Now I know just how much of a nuisance. My house and garden seem to be ultra attractive to pests. Mid-packing I’ve just zipped out and zapped my lemon tree as some kind of leaf mite was chomping its way through the leaves, then I noticed a bulge where a gall wasp had set up home, and THEN I came back inside and there was one of those European cockroaches crawling across my kitchen tiles. As you might know none of this has anything to do with cleanliness. Regular readers know that I’m a bit of stickler when it comes to cleaning. So maybe it’s payback for something I did in a past life – who knows?!

Needless to say I have not talked about bugs and beasts in the detailed house manual I have prepared for my tenants. But maybe I should have; listening to the science program in the car the other day I learnt that having a pet spider in the house is a great way of keeping other creepy crawlies at bay as the spiders eat them for dinner. The program gave spiders a very good rap.In one of my more Buddhist moments a few years ago, I did allow a Huntsman spider to live in the corner of my study window. The only trouble was that, after a few months, lots of tiny black dots appeared in the web and I realised they were babies. Did I really want to share my house with about 30 spiders? Needless to say I had to dispatch the spider and its babies to the next life. There’s a limit to this co-habitation thing; I’m finding the Airbnb guests enough.

But now it’s my turn to take flight and be a guest myself. By the time this goes out, I’ll be on my way to England to spend precious time with family and friends especially my elderly parents. And true to the original meaning of the word holiday(s), as in holy day(s) – a rest from the daily grind – the blog and are going off air and taking a break to rest and recharge away from the keyboard, the emails and all the stuff I do in my day job! That way I’ll be more available for my family and for new adventures. We’ll be back in October. Stay tuned.

Hazard-proofing my house and drinking gin

I started to build a fan last night – you know, one of those cheapo made-in-China jobs you can buy at the supermarket. It’s not very hard to put together but, then again, I’m not very handy. I’ve only got as far as making the base or ‘cross stand’ and it’s going slowly as I’m using a $7.99 gimmicky little screw driver shaped like a pen with different heads contained in the pen lid. But with temperatures in Melbourne soaring – it’s currently 42 degrees and there’s no let up until Saturday – and my 82-year-old mother due to arrive from England next week, needs must.

The not-even-half-assembled self-assembly fan

The not-even-half-assembled self-assembly fan

Mum’s legs and feet – bless her – are already swelling up (and this in the frosty chill over there) at the mere thought of the interminable plane journey and the heat when she gets here. So I’m doing all I can to make her stay as comfortable and pleasurable as possible. So far, I’ve stocked up on 40% proof gin (and some tonic), red wine, Earl Grey tea and a jar of four fruits jam to go with her toast. I’ve bought a special mattress topper for her bed, cleared away three storage boxes of photos albums (all 38 of them documenting my life from 1963 to 2013) so she will be able to actually get into the bed, and am planning fun things to do and lovely meals to eat. I thought I’d do a cold beetroot soup for lunch on her first day– root vegetables are meant to be grounding (that’s why Bertie dog has a special raw meat preparation with grated turnip and pumpkin), so I reckon that should help her to find her feet even if they have doubled in size.

Some of life's essentials

Some of life’s essentials

We’ve got quite an itinerary planned. On our first weekend, we’re off to stay with Tim and Bruce in Hepburn Springs (luckily they have a well-stocked drinks cabinet too), then Mum is spending a night in Mt. Eliza with old family friends, she and I are renting a cottage in Gippsland for five days, my brother is taking her to Anglesea and then there are trips to the Botanic Gardens, favourite cafes, favourite friends, sitting in on my Monday night choir and more.

I’m thrilled she is coming out and will make the most of every minute we have together. I’m looking forward to sharing aspects of my life in Australia with her. As we reminisce about the good old days, we’ll be creating new adventures and re-stocking our bank of memories and stories. And while I work – how else do I keep the Bombay Sapphire topped up? – Mum has said she is happy to help with the ironing, cooking, grocery shopping and pre-renovation cupboard sorting. Perfect!

But there are still a few things to sort out. It’s not just the heat we have to worry about. Like many young, energetic and over-excitable dogs, Bertie has a habit of jumping up to greet visitors. And it’s unlikely I’ll be able to train him out of the habit in a week. Mum’s skin is very thin and rips and bruises easily so apart from having a supply of Steri-Strips to hand, I’m recommending that she wear long trousers and long sleeves until Bertie has got used to her being here.

Anyway, by last night I was feeling quite happy with all my plans and preparations… until Dad rang. “Make sure there are no whitebacks or white tails or whatever they are called. I would hate you or Mum to get bitten.” Dad has never forgotten that when he and Mum last stayed here there was a white tail in the bed. Not just on the bed but IN it. I was proudly pulling back the bed covers to show them the mattress on one of the new twin beds I had bought and there it was snuggled under the covers. “Actually, Dad,” I replied, “I have noticed rather a lot of spiders recently, from lots of little spiders on the sofa to a white tail on my bedroom floor. Enough said! I spent the rest of the evening charging round the perimeter of my house spraying webs around the downpipes, vents, gutters, window sills etc. And then I went out to the shed. And, sure enough, there was a spider with a fat body (yikes, a redback?!) busily making a web in the hinge of the door. I didn’t dare look too closely. I just sprayed and ran. Then I sprayed the ledge of the laundry window only for a cockroach to jump out and fall into Bertie’s water bowl. Arghhhhh!

It’s at times like this that a quote from Bill Bryson’s book Down Under comes to mind: “Australia has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip.”

Perhaps it’s time for me to pour a G ‘n’ T and let all thoughts of toxic nips or spaniel scratches just float away. Mind you, what about jellyfish in the sea? Should I worry about those too? More gin, anyone?