Stephanie Dale | Author | Journalist | Journeywoman
Something precious has been returned to me – and I hadn’t noticed it was missing. And with the finding come tears for a safe world, an honest world, a world I trusted with no thought for trust, long forgotten, decades past.
I first met Diane in our second-last year of primary school. I have no memory of how we became friends. We didn’t play together at school and we didn’t share the same groups of friends. We played at her house after school and on weekends.
Ours was a world of laughing and spinning, a realm shaped not by concern for logic, proximity or mutual interest, but by the natural affiliations and affections of children.
Diane lived on the other side of the hard dirt paddock across the road from the school; my house was a few blocks and streets further away. Our friendship was forged in a rainwater tank. I remember Diane wheeling it out in her back yard, a corrugated iron circle with tin in the bottom, tipped on its side for easy rolling. She grabbed a pillow and laid it inside the edge of the circle, and she made me get in and lie down on the pillow. She showed me how to press my arms and legs hard against the inside edges, so my body made a tight triangle inside the circle. And then she rolled me around the yard.
We took turns, laughing and spinning.
The only time I ever truly thought I died was at Diane’s. Her parents had a block of land in nearby Queanbeyan, a dusty, rocky, steep patch of dirt. One year, for her birthday, they took a group of 12 year olds out to the block for a campfire. That was the night I learned to roast marshmallows at the end of a stick. Earlier though, when the day still had light, us girls went for a walk down the steep block. I didn’t know the others well, if at all; they were from other schools, Diane’s gym friends – brave girls trained to be sure on their feet and in the air. Their lightfootedness was contagious. Only I wasn’t trained. I took an exhilarating step too long and in the time it took to draw my next laughing breath I was out of control running down the hill. I remember the enormity of the space beneath me, the air between me and land so steep I felt like I would never land there again. I took three giant steps, bouncing lightly off the earth, before rolling straight down the front of my body over my face into a tumble – that I remember thinking at the time was really quite elegant. And then I tumbled like a cartoon character bump bang dang crash smash on the hard dirt and stones until I crashed into the barbed wire fence beside the creek at the bottom. And there I lay, in soft green grass, staring at the sky, wondering as I slowly came to my senses if I was alive or dead.
Laughing and spinning.
Diane was a gymnast. When we were friends she was in with a good chance of becoming the Australian champion. Her parents would take me along to competitions and I would sit in awe as she bounced and tumbled along the mat, somersaulted above the beam, pointed her toes in masterful directions as she stood on her hands. And while I watched I felt the sensations in my own body, it was me bouncing and tumbling along the mat, standing on my hands pointing my toes – in my imagination I could do it all, but I drew the line at somersaulting high in the air expecting to land on my feet on a thin plank of wood. That was the magnificence of Diane.
I spent many nights over at Diane’s. Dinner was a cacophony of strange foods, like goulash and sauerkraut, savoury treats for a girl from 1970s suburban Anglo Australia raised on meat and three veg. One night I went over to celebrate Diane’s new bedroom furniture. It’s Jackson she said proudly, running her hands lovingly along the polished wood. That was the only time I ever got anywhere near her older sister Suzanne’s room, at the end of the hall. Suzanne was haughty and beautiful. She had long blonde hair and breasts. She was never not nice, but her coolness and distance reminded me every time we crossed paths that it was impossible for me to be anything like her. She had new Jackson furniture too. And during those nights laughing and spinning at Diane’s house, she entrusted me with secrets I know she told no-one else, big secrets for little girls to share, the enormity of which was not lost on me then or now.
One night, Diane was to come over to my place to sleep. I was so excited, for if Diane had ever been to my house, it was only briefly to wait for me. I walked around to pick her up in the early evening. She was packed and ready, and she burst into tears at her front door. I stood there awkwardly while her mum took her to her room – and returned to tell me Diane was not feeling well and she was sorry, but she wouldn’t be coming over to my house. I walked home alone, acutely aware that Diane undoubtedly didn’t want to spend a night beneath my father’s roof. I didn’t blame her. I’d spent my whole life praying my father would have a car accident and wouldn’t make it home, leaving his family in peace beneath their own roof.
When puberty spilled us into high school, my wilder streak drew me to rougher crowds, to friendships where I played out my lost and angry self.
Still, I’d call by for Diane on my way to school, stubbing out my cigarette and hyperventilating to get rid of the smell of smoke before her mother opened the front door. Diane’s parents must have witnessed my rowdy descent to a place well beyond the control of ‘authority’, yet as far as I know they said not a word. They trusted their daughter. They must have trusted the girl they knew to be me. For theirs was a world that allowed for the best of me, in world in which I fought for nothing and desired nothing more than what was offered: perhaps this is the definition of peace.
They were people among whom I had a measure, and when I was with them my enraged, unmanageable self was an other self, some distance from me, and as far as I know I didn’t let them down. Perhaps Diane’s parents understood that angry teenage girls are fighting for their survival, that we are the ones who refuse to drown in the hostile demands of mean hearts and bitter souls from whom there is no means of escape. Now I think about it, for all the trouble it causes, this trait, that refusal to drown, is really quite admirable. I don’t know what their story was, but I loved them for their acceptance of my friendship with their daughter.
When I was 14, I cut my long blonde hair. The plan was to wear it like Diane’s, short and straight and cut close to my head. Gymnasts’ hair. The hairdresser failed to explain to me that no matter how short she cut my hair, it would never be straight. I walked out of the hairdressers in tears, looking like a little woolly lamb – and, despite the demands of teachers to take it off in the classroom, I spent the rest of that year wearing an orange beanie (that I crocheted myself) snapped tight to my head, in a desperate bid to straighten my hair.
I don’t know when I last saw Diane. Our family moved away at the end of third form and even though we returned to Canberra, for me these were disruptive years, lost years, school-less years that finally gathered direction when I birthed my son the same week I turned 19. It was the late 1970s, my son was the first generation in modern times not to be forcibly removed from his unmarried teenage mother, although that was not without effort by medical authorities hyper-vigilant about maintaining the social status quo. Thanks to a progressive social worker who recognised a young woman’s meagre material resources were no measure of her ability to mother, and a Labor prime minister (Gough Whitlam) who introduced a living social wage for single mothers, I was able to defy social expectations and keep my son.
I had nothing when he was born. Just the clothes I stood up in. My mother bought him nappies and singlets. I found a small flat in which to live. I was isolated from friendship and community, as those were hard years for young women to birth babies alone. Each morning I would pack my son into his pram, snug from Canberra’s cold and wind and rain, and we would walk the streets until it was time to return to my little cement box for dinner. Diane came to visit me but in truth I have only vague memories of her coming.
I am an adult now, telling stories of a child’s world – are they true? I don’t know. Children remember how they felt and build their stories to suit, like a goldfish in a bowl describing the world beyond the tank. They see it. They’re in it. But it would be a mistake to ascribe meaning to it, because that meaning is well beyond a child’s ken.
Thirty-five years have passed since my son was born. The other morning, I was standing in my mother’s kitchen in Byron Bay listening to a radio interview with Julie McCrossin about Coastrek, the annual 50km walk along Sydney’s stunning coastline to raise money for the Fred Hollows Foundation. Inspired, I rang my sister to suggest we form a team. My sister was part of a regular walking group that had walked Coastrek a couple of years previously. It was a yes, we would walk together this coming year and my sister, who lives in Sydney, went along to the presentation night.
Soon afterwards, I received a message on Facebook from Coastrek organiser, Di Westaway. Before I answered the curious message I rang my sister. ‘Do I know Di Westaway?’ She started to laugh. She refused to tell me. She told me to Google, which I did and found a sturdy looking woman described as a mountaineer and founder of an organisation called Wild Women on Top. No matter how much I blew up the photo, I could find no-one I knew in her face. I rang my sister, who made me guess all the Dianes I could remember, which amounted to three, one of whom was my friend.
I had always been proud that I could spell my friend Diane’s last name, more so that I could pronounce it. Once again the peculiar syllables spilled from my mouth. My friend and Di Westaway were one and the same woman. My sister told me Di had given the Coastrek presentation and had mentioned her early life, including that multi-syllabic last name with its strange string of consonants. My sister had been playing for time, holding out for Diane – Di – and I to meet at Coastrek.
Instead, Diane called me last Sunday morning. I’d been visiting friends on Coochiemudlo Island in Moreton Bay and was bumping my suitcase along the rough road to the ferry. I pulled the phone from my pocket to find the voice of an old friend on the other end. I sat down in the dirt on the roadside, and there in the shade of a spindly gumtree observed the years peel back as girls met as women grown.
Diane remembered more clearly than I the last time we’d seen each other. She’d called by my little flat to visit me and my newly born son.
“Can I share what I remember of that visit?” she asked.
I grinned into the sunshine.
“Sure,” I said.
“I walked into the room and you were breastfeeding your son. I’d brought you a packet of after dinner mints,” she said.
And I knew, without remembering, what she was going to say next. I started to laugh.
“And I sat there and watched you eat the whole box.”
We laughed, time spinning around us as we roamed along the threads that configure the webs of our lives, touching lightly on conversations of depth whose time is not on the roadside in the sunshine beneath spindly gums, but later.
I asked Diane about climbing mountains.
“It started as a way to promote Wild Women,” she said. “I decided I was going to climb the highest mountain on all seven continents.
“Then I realised I didn’t want to climb the highest mountains, I wanted to climb the most beautiful. So I climbed Mt Ama Deblam and did the world’s highest handstand . . .”
As Diane talked on about the mountains, my mind snagged on the truth of a woman – not the highest, but the most beautiful.
I lay back on the earth in wonder as I realised how much Diane and I have in common as lovers of wild worlds. We love walking. We love mountains. We love challenge. Thanks to small bouts of undisciplined yoga practice, these days I can not only touch my toes (which I couldn’t do when we were kids), I can lay my hands flat on the earth when I double over. To this day, whenever I walk along a thin plank of wood I bend my knees and do little dips with pointed toes. I can still do backbends. And, like Diane, I can still do handstands.
I picture her doing the highest handstand in the world. Diane, the magnificent one, stretching further than I.
Lying on the earth in the sunshine beneath the gums, I long only to take the next flight to Sydney and sit with Diane until we have finished speaking our lives, our voyages, our vision.
We have journeyed far and wide from each other, climbed our own mountains – personal, metaphoric and geographical.
My eyes fill with tears for friendship, returned. For memories of a precious world that contained no hurt, no betrayal, no wound and no danger.
For friends, laughing and spinning.
For the clear blue air of the beautiful mountain.