Speaker by Various Artists

97

Dancing with Dingoes, Part I

by Sally Jones

My parents were late developers. They were in their forties when they met, married and began reproducing in a hurry. Three kids: bang, bang, bang. You can guess which bang I was.

In those days, if you married and started a family at forty-plus, you were probably my parents. It just didn't happen -- to anyone else -- and for good reason. Remember that this was long before forty became the new twenty-nine. Long before celebrities made it fashionable and science/society (IVF/the pill) made it fathomable. And long before special support services were set up to deal with the inevitable fall-out of grey-powered parents and their off-spring burdened with the compounded late-developer gene.

In short, in this long-before time, it was a bloody miracle that we -- the off-spring of not one but two late developers -- arrived and survived. Most of all it was a miracle that I survived. We arrived in such quick succession that the doctor wondered if we were in fact triplets. Indeed, if late developers were to produce triplets they may well come out in a delayed relay over the course of several months. The territory was, at that stage, uncharted.

But what was charted -- even back then -- were the difficulties of being the middle child; the bang you barge past unnoticed as you hurry to and from the other bangs. My older-by-a-bit brother and younger-by-a-bit sister might well tell it differently, giving emphasis to the pressures to succeed on the first and the hand-me-downs suffered by the last. And no doubt there will be plenty of people who agree and sympathise with both of them -- there always was.

But, let me just say on behalf of all overlooked, tightly-squeezed, underfed middles out there: how else is one to explain the incident with the turkey?

Okay, so there might be reasons other than late-developer parental neglect and sandwiched-sibling syndrome to explain why the middle-child of an otherwise respectable (albeit Australian) family might find herself trucking across a lawn in broad daylight, unnoticed by her family of late developers playing cricket on that very same lawn, hauling an entire turkey carcass in her toddler-sized arms (or perhaps I carried the bird on my head, as the women of Africa do when carrying anything larger than half their own body mass).

But, there is surely no other explanation for why that child was able to sit down on that lawn in her best party frock and proceed to devour the remains of the bird and attendant twiggery gathered from when she'd had to drop the carcass before hastily arranging herself and the corpse for optimum eating (bird in lap), while the cricketers continued cricketing, obliviously.

Of course, when you're traversing lawns with a turkey carcass in your arms (or on your head) at the age of four, it's anyone's guess what you'll be doing at the age of five. Well almost. One thing even the least insightful observer would probably rule out would be a career in classical ballet.

As I've already mentioned, one of the problems with late-developer parenting back then was the lack of support services available to provide even a tiny amount of common sense advice to those in need. And so it was -- in the absence of insight and support of the kind that Mrs Worthington had doubtless benefitted from in an earlier age -- that my time-challenged parents chose precisely that solution which even the least insightful, but otherwise unchallenged, Australian would have ruled out.

However, to their credit, and true to character (as late-developers), they didn't rush into anything. Before the desperate decision was made to get their middle -- neither fabulous-first nor lucky-last -- child some help, it was deemed necessary to allow her the opportunity to develop a series of life-threatening illnesses.

To access this opportunity, she was enrolled at French's Forest Primary School where a veritable horde of Australians of various human, animal, insect and hybrid form were already in wild residence.

To distinguish one species from the other, the humans were uniformed. With pride and pleasure -- and a sense of exotic adventure in all things Australian -- my English-born mother sewed the school's broccoli-shaped tree-of-the-forest emblem onto the tongue of my uniform. Yes. This was the lucky country. Our uniform had a tongue and a tree.

But it was all a ruse. Not a broccoli tree in sight. No one would ever mistake a gum tree for a vegetable. Great claw-like protrusions sporting vicious and varied insect life and the occasional unnaturally small bear. These were not proper trees! There'd clearly been some miscommunication somewhere along the line. Dehydrated, grey, peeling, stuck-up and stiff all over -- gums are, well, like Once Were Trees, frankly. I don't know what koalas see in them.

Forest? Forest, my arse. Forests are green. Forests are good. Forests have squirrels and badgers (that steal from the rich and give to the poor). Forests are fair. Forests are friendly. This was no friendly forest, mark my word. This was bush. A place where snakes and spiders replace squirrels and saints. Where grizzly hybrid caterpillars -- half hairy spider, half sleezy snake -- patrol the gums to dive-bomb onto the heads of the least suspecting children (namely, the children of late developers), purely for purposes of terrorising them! Hadn't we suffered enough? Apparently not.

By the end of my first year at this fake forest school, I had contracted not one but four serious illnesses, as well as experiencing several episodes of fainting -- partly from sheer disbelief, I think -- during the assemblies held outdoors in the 40 degree heat.

My mother stole a moment for herself to reflect on my annus horribilis in a letter to a friend back home the following year:

Poor kid. She had a rough time last year, with the hepatitis, chicken pox, and then the asthma. [And don't forget the impetigo that covered both knees and persisted for six long, itchy and infectious months before a doctor was called.]

Sally was close to having to go to hospital, her breathing was so laboured, but the suppositories eased it -- though they made her vomit!

Oh well, you can't win 'em all. But thanks, Mother, for sharing.

I suppose chicken pox is not all that serious -- and not the fault of a fake forest school or parental neglect (in fact, I personally blamed the neighbours, who kept chickens). At any rate, as a catch-all cure for my horrible annus, ballet was prescribed. Dance or die: that was about the sum of it.

Now, the one agreed-upon advantage of Australians is their laid-backness -- their 'She'll be right, no worries' attitude (of course only in matters not pertaining to rugby, apples, cricket, hobbits and I suppose anything else involving Kiwis).

But my dance teacher wasn't laid back. She was Russian. What's the opposite of laid-back? She was that. A proper KGB "Ve have vays to make you tvirl" Cold War, Bond-villain Russian. Ballet she pronounced "bullet". The 't' was silent, as a bullet. She took one look at me, saw straight through to the turkey within, and pronounced me: "Sorry, not built for ballet."

Naturally my mother was entranced by the dance teacher's exoticness and quite unfazed by such a verdict -- she was already well-accustomed to hearing bad news pronouncements pertaining to her middle-child. So an agreement was proposed whereby the Russian accepted there was "no harm" in "ze child" coming along to the class for fun (and hard currency): "She can stand at ze back."

And thus it was at the age of six, battling blocked bronchials, suffocating siblings, tempting turkeys, fake forests and one rude Russian, that I finally began to learn to dance with the dingoes -- so that I might breathe.

If breathing had only come easier to me I would never have played Giselle. I would never have gone mad and died at the end of the first act only to be resurrected as a vengeful ghost in the second (and all in a tutu). I would never have seen back-stage at the Wagga Wagga Town Hall. I almost certainly would not have gone to Greece on a bus we called Tragic, nor taken a trip across to Crete on a ferry called fate...

In a parallel universe there is a girl who could breathe without the aide of suppositories, who is living the life I would have lived had I only found it easier to breathe. I wonder if there are proper trees there?

Sally Jones

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