Life is a series of beginnings and endings. That’s what my Aunt Nan said to me the day I arrived with my two children at at the bottom of her caravan steps a long time ago. Over the years I’ve had occasion to reflect many times on those words. But our visit that day was spontaneous and unannounced, her initial greeting understandably sharp.
Nan Coton was my Dad’s sister, an Australian who made a name for herself as a songwriter and pianist in London during the war years. She was wild, quite fierce, utterly forthright and openly gay in the forbidding atmosphere of the twentieth century. Apart from her lifelong lover and devoted friend Betty de Villiers, she had two other passions: the piano and cats.
I met Nan only twice in my life – once as a four-year-old when she visited us in Tororo, Uganda, when her mother Eileen was dying, and this second time on a visit with the children to England when she was living in the caravan with forty-three cats on a greyhound farm in County Sussex. The visit was opportune. I had corresponded with her via postbox somewhat sporadically since childhood and knew the village she lived in was easily accessible by train from London. Once there we asked at the local cafe. “Oh, you must mean the Cat Lady,” said the owner giving us directions to the farm. I have to admit I questioned my parenting when the taxi driver refused to go further on the rutted road and dumped us on the track in the middle of a wood. “It’s somewhere down there,” he said as he slipped into reverse. (Wimp. I wonder what he would have made of a Sunday jaunt along our Gibb River Road!)
Once in the van, the children were spellbound (i.e. quiet and unusually well-behaved) as Nan swept the cats’ urine-saturated newspapers off the cushioned bench and encouraged us to sit. The broken window in her caravan happened last winter she told us. One of the landlord’s greyhounds had caught one of her cats. For some reason the door of the van wouldn’t open so she had smashed the window, leapt into the snow, half-throttled the dog, saved the cat and drove relations with the greyhound-owner to breaking. She slept nights with the cats a living duvet, ate tinned cat food when there was nothing else.
But on that afternoon she was both charming and generous. She walked us around the farm, showed us where she stashed her pension money, told me we shared the same birth sign (Virgo), gave my daughter Tammy her prized keyboard piano, introduced us to Betty who miraculously arrived to look after the cats while she took us into town for afternoon tea.
Quite why I felt compelled to write about Nan today I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s because of the unsteady mix of relief and loss I feel at the completion of the final draft of my fourth novel. Another ending. For me there’s always that feeling of emptiness until the excitement of seeing the work in print. Another ending with the seed of beginning tucked into its tail. Nan was a compelling character and I wrote to her regularly after that visit to England. Quite possibly my thoughts today foreshadow the beginning of another book. The circularity in her words “a series of beginnings and endings”. The yin yang of life.
Unfortunately my family photographs are still in store pending the end of our renovation, but if you are interested in finding out a little more about Nan, there are a fair number of articles and photos available through Trove and online.
Meanwhile I couldn’t resist adding a pic of our own little yin yang – Bella and Bandit – two little rescue dogs who trotted up our garden path exactly a year ago.
Just a shout-out of some of my favourite places to hang out – both virtually and in the real.
Centre for Stories – Once Perth starts opening up again so will this terrific venue for stories, talks, eats and conviviality. With the storms across our State right now, Robert Wood’s “A storm is on the way” in newsletter 10 is particularly appropriate – and beautiful. https://centreforstories.com/
Varuna Writers’ House – Yes I know we have our own writers’ houses in WA – the lovely Katharine Susannah Prichard in the Perth hills is one example – but somehow for me Varuna is particularly special in terms of what they have on offer in the lovely town of Katoomba. Love to combine Sydney Writers’ Fest with a train trip to Katoomba where they also hold festival talks. https://www.varuna.com.au/about.
Writing WA – We’re very lucky to have a resource like this in our beautiful State. Check out the very last week of their Love to Read Local on https://www.writingwa.org/
Australian Society of Authors – Very useful association at https://www.asauthors.org