Shifting Sands

Posts tagged childhood

   “Let’s remember this,” I said to my friend Michael as he plonked down next to me on the bench outside the school library.

“Huh?” he frowned and arranged his crutches on the cement floor, making sure he would be able to retrieve them without asking me to help. I didn’t know why Michael’s legs hung uselessly from his hips, with his feet turned out like a ballet dancer. It didn’t seem polite to ask.

“For when we grow up. Let’s remember this always.”


“I just want to.”

“Okay. What do we need to do?”

“Just close our eyes and say, we will remember this moment for all our lives – until the day we die. We will remember sitting on this bench outside the library. It’s 8.30 in the morning. Wednesday. It’s a warm, sunny day. I’m wearing –“

“It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing!”

“Yes it does. I’m wearing an Indian wrap skirt and wedge shoes with raffia ankle ties. Michael is wearing – ” I open my eyes and glance at Michael, pleased to see his eyes are closed. “A red and white striped T-shirt and jeans.”

“Is that all we have to do?”

“Yes. Now we’ll never forget this moment.”


I don’t remember what happened next. Maybe Michael and I swapped Trixie Beldon books. Perhaps we hurried into the library when it opened and grabbed the best comics. Or my best friend Andrea might have arrived to school early – a minor miracle – and we may have abandoned Michael to play on the monkey bars.

But I do remember that moment in 1978. I was ten years old and determined to remember sitting outside the library with my friend Michael. I wonder if he remembers?

My habit of snatching snippets of time and committing them to memory began when I was five. Late one night I left my bed and crept into the living room, where I turned on the television. The reception in our part of the world for the one television station we received was grainy and I couldn’t put the sound on.

I was thrilled to find a film. The scene showed a woman cutting up tomatoes in her kitchen. I stared at the screen, transfixed by a new idea. Time races by. One day I too would be a grown woman standing in her own kitchen, cutting tomatoes. My childhood would be as dust unless I took steps to remember it. I hoped my adult fate would be better than the tomato cutter’s. An intruder murdered her in the next scene, using her own tomato knife.

I closed my eyes and committed the moment to memory – I’m five years old. I am sitting on the sofa in our house. It’s night – time. One day I will be a grown up lady cutting up tomatoes in my own kitchen. When I am a grown up lady, I will remember being five.

I became aware of another, related idea. Life brings good and bad times. One day I am running after the ice cream truck with my sisters, joyfully clutching my 25 cents. The next day I am lying on my hospital bed, sick with hepatitis and hoping the nurse won’t discover I have thrown my uneaten dinner down the laundry chute. The ice cream is eaten, the hepatitis is cured and life rolls along for another 42 years.

A lot has happened, as it will. But I have never forgotten being five, when I imagined the years ahead and accepted they would fly past, bringing joy and sorrow in equal measure. I still have the habit of occasionally stopping whatever I am doing and deciding to remember a moment in time, in honor of the little five year old who didn’t want to be forgotten by whoever she became.

The photograph is me with my Great Grandmother in Fiji in 1970.


You know you work in a tough high school when you…

1. feel an overwhelming sense of pride when one of your students cares enough to cheat in an exam.

2. are not surprised to find an uprooted tree in your classroom when returning from lunch break.

3. once had a student suspended for plucking out his pubic hairs and flicking them at the girls during class.

4. have at various times confiscated items found in a student’s bag including a pet rat, 2 homing pigeons, a feral kitten, a snake and a bag of filled water balloons.

5. receive an email from a Deputy saying, “If you see Mr. Bloggs on the school grounds today do not approach him. Call me. He may be armed.”

6. set the absolute final, no more extensions! due date for any assignment by saying, “I am doing your reports Tuesday morning. Give it to me before then.”

7. cannot leave white chalk in the classroom because students will steal it to write, “F**k you” and “I am a c**t on the back of each other’s school shirts.

8. regularly receive letters, cards and emails from well behaved students begging you not to quit like their last 14 English teachers.

9. bring soap to class so you can send male students to the bathroom to wash penis drawings from their arms. (my husband wonders why they didn’t draw breasts instead)

10. spend the entire week before Parent Night inspecting files, folders, textbooks, blackboards, display boards and student jerseys for aforementioned penis drawings.

11. are an expert at dealing with belly button and nose piercing emergencies.

12. can’t allow students toilet breaks during class time. The toilets are locked because one of your students keeps setting fire to the toilet paper.

13. regularly send certain students to deliver a sealed letter to the Principal that says, “Please give Bradley (many Bradley’s are naughty) an errand to do and do not, under any circumstances, send him back to my classroom. Thank you.”

14. accept that climbing in and out through the window is a perfectly acceptable way for students to enter and leave the classroom, even when the classroom is on the second floor.

15. form close friendships with fellow survivors (former students, their parents and colleagues).

16. are not alarmed to pass a classroom at lunchtime and see students have made a huge pyramid from their desks and are perched on top of it, watching a video of the Muppet Show.

17. consider not informing certain students (and swearing the others to secrecy) when changes are made to the classroom roster.

18. are delighted when particular students become chronic truants. You are even more delighted when their parents avoid enquiries about the whereabouts of their child through phone calls, letters and the truant officer.

19. understand exactly what a parent means when they say they are, “all parented out” in regards to their offspring because you are “all teachered out.”

20. receive a prestigious teaching award and the first student to send a card congratulating you will be the worst student you ever taught (he actually turned out okay).


When I wore my new red, white and black striped pullover to school for my Year 3 photo, a boy in my class said, “You look like a dick-head.” I received the set of photographs a few weeks later during class and had to agree that perhaps he was right. Completely mortified, I hid the photographs in my schoolbag and wouldn’t let anyone see them. My mother wasn’t easily put off and I eventually handed them over. Of course, Mum thought I looked adorable and sent copies of the wretched thing to my grandparents in Queensland. It’s one of those copies I have now.

I had to admit Year 3 wasn’t going very well. My devotion to the sweets shop had resulted in an alarming weight gain and I was moved to the “dumb kids” Maths class, where I regularly made the teacher weep with frustration. The obvious answer to my rapidly developing self esteem issue would have been to cut down on the sweets and ride my bike more. I could also stop reading books under my desk in Maths and start paying attention in class. Well, that wasn’t going to happen! At the age of 7, I knew myself enough to realise it would take more than one bad school photo and academic demotion before I’d change my ways.

 If I was going to grow up to be dick-head looking and stupid, I needed to come up with a plan. After giving the matter some thought, I decided I’d become a nun. Of course I knew I couldn’t sign on or whatever you had to do for at least a decade but it was definitely an option.

I didn’t know any nuns and had no idea what religious orders actually do in the world. The tiny bit I did know- that nuns didn’t get married and lived in a nice convent, seemed to fit my needs. Being thin and attractive enough to find a husband would no longer be an issue. Nuns get married to Christ – he apparently had no choice in the matter. Becoming a nun also meant that, in the absence of a husband, I wouldn’t have to be clever enough to get a decent job and support myself.  Living in the convent meant no rent or mortgage, no utilities bills and all my clothing would be provided. As far as plans went, this was foolproof.

My sisters and I were interested in God because we were told in Sunday School that if you wanted something you could pray to God and he might give it to you, if you were good. Our concept of God was slightly confused with Santa Clause. We prayed for God to bring us a kitten (granted), puppy (granted), Barbie townhouse (granted), skateboards (granted) and a flying fox for our backyard (declined). It seemed to us the odds of getting stuff out of God were reasonably good, so we  became believers. I spent the next year collecting religious pictures, cards, candles, rosary beads and statuettes in preparation for my life of piety.

The plan was progressing well (I was still eating sweets and hadn’t learned my tables) until one rainy afternoon the usual Elvis movie was replaced with The Nun’s Story, a 1959 movie staring Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke. Suddenly being a nun didn’t seem such a great life plan. For a start, Sister Luke has to study and pass exams. Then she is sent to work in a mental hospital where she is nearly killed by one of the patients.Finally she ends up in the Congo and nearly dies of tuberculosis. While in the Congo she is spiritually tortured by her attraction to the surgeon, Dr. Fortunati, played by Peter Finch. When she reluctantly returns to Belgium, her father is killed by the Nazis and she is forced into moral compromises to survive the Nazi occupation. Eventually she leaves the order. The final shot is of her leaving the convent and walking down the empty Belgium street, carrying nothing but the tiny suitcase she arrived with some years before.

I was throughly shocked. This film was nothing like the religious life I envisioned, which mainly involved me drifting poetically around the convent sucking on sweets, looking holy and doing stuff-all.

Realising a nun’s life wasn’t the cake walk I imagined didn’t prompt me to change my lazy habits. During the next few years I  searched for a Plan B – a road to career and personal success involving as little effort  as possible. I never found it!

Would you share your most embarrassing school photograph with the world?

My life changed forever the year I turned 14. The change was seemingly permanent and caused a lifetime of frustration and expense that could have been avoided if action had been taken earlier. Thirty years earlier.

In July 1982, my mother drove me to her hairdresser and I had my long hair cut short. The die was cast and life was forever altered.

For most of my childhood I had waist length hair, as did my two sisters. It was poker straight, reddish brown and shiny. I was an awkward, dumpy kid but my long “swingy hair” (as my mother called it) was probably my only claim to beauty, besides freakishly long eyelashes. In fact, at our Grade 7 camp at the Lazy Crab Resort, I was involved in a brawl with some girls from a different school who thought I was getting too much attention from the boys at a social dance. My fabulous hair, glamourously blow dried by our teacher, was blamed.

The rot set in when I started high school at Santa Maria’s Ladies College. We had to wear our hair completely scragged off our faces and tied back. This was a terrible look for me with my chipmunk cheeks and rapidly developing acne. In primary school I could wear an Alice band or tie my long fringe back in a style called a “carousel” (probably not the official name!) with the rest of my hair flowing free. It was a softer look and I could still “hide” behind my curtain of hair.


Caramel highlights and a fringed bob

 We were not allowed to wear makeup at Santa but some girls obviously did. They got away with it because they wore makeup on the Year 8 Orientation Day so the Sisters of Mercy believed they actually did have peachy complexions, jet black eyelashes and cheekbones. I regretted not sneaking into Mum’s bathroom and helping myself to her foundation, as I did most weekends before my stepfather took us to the roller disco, where boys invited you to skate around with them. I credited the liberal use of Estee Lauder natural beige to my social successes at the Roller dome.

Natural hair colour bob

Natural hair colour bob

After a few weeks of seeing my shiny, pimply, chipmunky face in the mirror every time I visited the school toilets/locker room, I decided to wear a bit of makeup as well. Of course, I didn’t get away with it. I had barely got off the bus before the Principal, Sister Sheila saw me and made me wash it off. Oh the injustice! I realised my error. I should never have let the  world see my natural face – a philosophy I have followed ever since.

Mum was sympathetic and suggested I get my hair cut shoulder length and permed. The perm was flattering, I was thrilled and got away with wearing my curly hair out for a few weeks until it grew too long and I was pinged by the school Hair Police (a Year 11 prefect). I was thrown into hair hell once again.

a red, layered variation on the theme..

a red, layered variation on the theme..

Mum’s hairdresser suggested I get the old perm cut out and my hair cut into a pixie cut with a side swept fringe. I agreed and admitted that having a fringe softened my features and more height on the crown drew attention away from my full cheeks and heavy jawline. What the hairdresser didn’t mention, however, was that fine, straight hair requires skilled cutting, hair drying and the liberal application of “product” to prevent it flopping and looking like a hairy swimming cap. If it’s cut too short, the scalp shows through. Basically, the only thing that holds a short haircut together for we fine haired folk is hot air, artfully blown in with a hairdryer and the liberal application of $50 hair products.

Lots of bobs- different colours!

The blonde bob- an expensive option!

So the next morning I stood naked and afraid in Mum’s bathroom, armed with her hair dryer and trying to shape my new haircut. This was to be my fate for the next 32 years. My hair as an adult has been a variation of the bob (of various colours and lengths, with or without a fringe) and short cuts. Because my hair is so fine, it doesn’t dry straight. It sticks out in bizarre angles. I was completely dependent on a hairdryer and styling products to make it behave.

My hair in 2012, lots of product and blow drying!

My hair in 2012, lots of product and blow drying!

When we moved to Nigeria a few years ago, I had extremely short hair. I realised it would be difficult to find a hairdresser in Lagos who would be able to cut it properly so I let it grow, with a few trims in London, Munich and Seattle. For the first time in over 30 years my hair is long enough to be tied back. What a relief! I can get up in the mornings, brush it out and tie it back with a band or hair clip. It is also easy to blow dry as the hair just hangs straight and I don’t have a fringe.

It sounds silly but the simple act of growing my hair longer has made life a lot easier. When we went on safari recently I was able to tie my hair back and forget about it.

On safari with my hair tied back!

On safari with my hair tied back!

The time and effort I put into my small ration of hair is pathetically slack compared to the thousands of Naira and hours of time Nigerian ladies devote to their coiffure. My housemaid, Angie, turned up yesterday with an elaborately coiled weave that completely transformed her from a shy wallflower to city sophisticate. She glowed with happiness and seemed taller than her 3 feet 11 inches.

My hair is finally long enough to be tied back!

My hair is finally long enough to be tied back!

  Gabriel Ba, the author of Day-tripper, described the importance of womanly tresses when he observed,  She was the most beautiful creature on Earth- her hair said so in that language only hair can speak.

What hairstyle do you find yourself returning to over the years?

A Australian Green Tree Frog

A  Green Tree Frog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago I had an email from my sister in Australia. It appears my lovely little niece, who is 3 next March, had been at the doctors because she put a bead up her nose. I reminded my sister that I too had once had a penchant for putting objects up my nose at around the same age, although my preference was for crayons. It’s obviously in the genes, I assured her.

My mother and the doctor gave me a stern talk about the dangers of putting things up my nose, even though I was quite young to be reasoned with. We lived in Fiji at the time and one aspect of life on the island was the huge number of dead frogs on the roads- casualties of the increasing number of cars and trucks in Suva. I was fascinated by tree frogs and would often sneak out of bed at night so I could watch them climb around the trees outside. I found the number of dead frogs we passed every day quite distressing.

My mother decided to use this as a teaching moment and explained in quite dramatic terms that if I continued to put crayons up my nose, I would end up like the froggies on the road. Dead! Gone! Finished! Forever! I don’t remember this but I can readily imagine the impression it must have made on my toddler brain.

A few days later Mum, my younger sister and I were walking down the road outside our house. Tina (my niece’s mother) was only a baby but I was in the habit of happily chatting away to her as she surveyed the scene from her stroller.

After staring thoughtfully at the hundreds of squashed- and most certainly dead – frogs on the road I whispered confidentially to my sister, “Tina, did you know that froggies put crayons up their noses?”

Neanderthal Silhouette

Neanderthal Silhouette (Photo credit: erix!)

Before any teaching graduate is let loose on a class of unsuspecting teenagers, the following mantra should be tattooed on their foreheads, “Preview all visual material before showing it to the students. This includes films, recordings of sporting events ( streakers) and documentaries. Ignore it at your peril.” Fortunately most teachers have large, alien foreheads.

The laws as they relate to Australian schools are clear. Any audio visual material above a General (G) rating cannot be shown to students without a permission note from parents. Is it always safe to trust the ratings system? Oh no, no, no as the lady said. Hysteria, tears, pyschological trauma and a tsunami of complaints from hypocritcal parents (who let their kids watch all sorts of crap at home) awaits the teacher who trusts the G-rating.

As a first year teacher in a remote country school, I was eager to enrich my students’ appreciation of the curriculum by using films. It also meant I could avoid the drudgery of lesson plans and well, teaching, for a few lessons while we vegged out in front of the television. In the pre-laptop days of 1995, nothing prompted more exclamations of joy from my Year 8 Social Studies class than the sight of the huge Phillips TV being wheeled across the quadrangle.

In keeping with our theme of “technological change” or some similar rubbish, I decided to show a G-rated film I had found in the local service station/video store called Caveman Monkey Sex. Okay. It may not have been called that, but it should have been. The film was Quest for Fire made in 1981 and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. It won a 1983 Oscar for best makeup and 10 other awards. According to the blurb, the plot centered around 3 prehistoric tribesmen who search for a new fire source after their fire is extinguished during an attack by another tribe. They are unable to make fire themselves. The film is based on a 1911 novel by the Belgian J-H Rosny (1856-1940). It sounded harmless enough.

Excitedly I took the film home to watch in the evening before showing it to the class. I had a vague idea I should make up a worksheet, so the kids wouldn’t think we were having a complete skive.

I watched the film and was completely shocked.

Obviously Annaud wanted to explore what would happen in a world shared by 3 different species of humans; Homo erectus, Homo Neanderthalis and Homo sapiens. Apparently the main thing that would happen is a lot inter-species casual sex. It’s impossible to understate the casualness of caveman sex, as imagined by Annaud. Cavewomen couldn’t bend over to dig up a tuber or attend an infant without some hairy fellow taking her by surprise.

Being relatively mature farm kids, the students would have coped with the numerous sex scenes without being too scandalised. It was another aspect of the film that disturbed me. At some point in the film the Homo sapien woman is captured by an ugly ape man. He promptly cuts off her arm and hangs her in a tree,  like a leopard with its kill. Evil ape man squats under the tree, makes a fire and barbeques her arm for lunch. Ignoring her loud protests, he gnaws away at her arm while she watches. We assume she will be forced to observe her own cannibalisation as her captor hacks of limbs whenever he feels peckish. Fortunately she is rescued but this scene alone gave me nightmares for weeks.

Despite the General rating allowing teachers to show this film without parental permission, I decided it was too graphic for students barely out of primary school.

Foolishly I had told the students the previous day we would be watching Quest for Fire in class (not doing any work) so they were disappointed when we had to drudge through a chapter on the wonders of the spinning Jenny.

“So why aren’t we watching Quest for Fire?” whined Trent, the primary work dodger in the class, besides me.
“I decided it had too much caveman monkey sex and cannibalism.” I replied, thus ensuring Quest for Fire became the most borrowed film in the town’s history.

Anyway, the students had been promised a film so I had to find one. After feverishly searching the rack at the service station/video store for G-rated movies, I found the 1993 film, The Silver Brumby. This was more like it- a sweet kids’ movie about a wild horse (brumby) based on the series of books by Elyne Mitchel. It also starred a young and dreamy Russell Crowe. By now I had abandoned all educational pretext for showing a film but thought I could work in something about technology, horses and cars or whatever. No need to preview this film. What could go wrong?

Quite a lot, it appears. The hero of the film, Thowra (the silver brumby) commits equine suicide at the end of the film rather than be captured. Oh the trauma! Eighteen years later I can still see their pathetic tear stained faces staring at me in horror as the final credits rolled on the screen.

The following year I showed Quest for Fire to the Year 8 class after devising an ingenious way to show G-rated films that include dubious scenes. Every time I showed a film I brought along a large pillow that I (or a trusted minion) could hold against the screen, blocking the offending image.


Twenty years ago I accepted my first teaching position in a tiny town in the southeast of Western Australia. The town population was less than 400 people although it rose considerably once the entire shire (mainly farmers) was counted. Although the town is over 500 km from my hometown of Perth, I wasn’t worried about the isolation as I lived in a remote mining community as a young child.

It may be difficult to imagine in this more connected age, but I had none of the on-line resources teachers take for granted now. No one in the town, much less the school, had Internet or mobile (cell) phone connection. I received two television stations because my house was near the transmitter but families living further out needed a satellite dish.

The school was a little isolated

The school was a little isolated

I liked the freedom of country living and settled into teaching my high school classes without too many hassles. Towards the end of the first term I decided the students needed a more challenging English program. I visited a retired teacher friend and we excitedly planned a “proper Literature” program for the next term.

As a few of my students were no nonsense farm boys, I was slightly concerned by my colleague’s initial suggestion that we develop a program around the theme of Mystery and Romance, using Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca as the primary text. I knew the girls would enjoy the book and Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar winning film adaptation. The boys I was not so sure about.

My concerns were unfounded. The class enjoyed the mystery element of Rebecca and didn’t complain too much about watching a black and white movie. I gave out the final homework assignment that asked the students to write their own short story using the Mystery and Romance theme. Things were going well and I smugly congratulated myself.

The first sign of trouble came on the weekend when I was shopping in the only store. More than one parent commented to me how much little Johnny* was enjoying his homework assignment. In fact, he had stayed up all night to complete it. I may have been imagining it, but I could have sworn one of the fathers gave me an amused look as he paid for his Coco Pops. A more experienced teacher may have sensed the coming storm.

English: Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock would have solved the mystery behind the smirk.

The following Monday the students handed in their assignments, with Johnny solemnly declaring, “This is the best thing I ever wrote,” as he handed over a bundle of closely written pages. Feeling like the world’s best teacher, I took the short stories to the staff room and made myself a warming cup of coffee before settling down to mark them. I decided to read Johnny’s first, guessing he would be eager to know his grade after working so hard on the weekend.

Oh my Godfather. Little Johnny’s romance story was not exactly pornography, but it was a near thing. Page after page described numerous amorous trysts loosely wrapped up in a Du Maurier plot. Suddenly his Dad’s smirky look in the Megamart made sense. Dad had obviously gleaned enough information from his son about the assignment to guess how his son had interpreted the Mystery and Romance theme.

A screenshot of Judith Anderson and Joan Fonta...

Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Did we all watch the same movie?

In a panic I examined the other boys’ short stories and found them all the same. Feverishly scrawled across the pages were long (very long!) tales of entwined limbs and lust in the moors. Spelling, punctuation and penmanship was all forgotten in their haste to get every sordid detail on the page. Good grief.  Grey hairs started sprouting from my 24 year old head.

With some trepidation I examined the girls’ assignments and was relieved to find they followed the standard Mystery and Romance plot without the carnal embellishments. I considered my options. To be fair, it wasn’t the boys’ fault. As far as they were concerned, they had written excellent Mystery and Romance stories and would be surprised to discover their work was more Penthouse than Poe.

It's important to be a good role model...

It’s important to be a good role model…

I wasn’t worried about the parents’ reaction to the students’ assignments. Reflecting on my weekend experiences, it was apparent most had a fair idea why their sons were taking an intense interest in creative writing. I imagined them having a good laugh at my expense. Bastards. As a newly qualified teacher on my first posting, however, I didn’t want the Principal to discover I had inadvertently corrupted my male pupils, the oldest of whom was only 14.

My first thought was to blame my dogs. The boys would believe me as the destructive appetites of my four dogs (including two rescue Labradors) was well known around town after they ate a council picnic table. “My dogs ate your homework, “ seemed an easy way out. On reflection, this seemed a bit dishonest and it would be hard to explain why the dogs had singled out the boys’ work.

My dogs ate your homework...

My dogs ate your homework…

Anyway, I arranged to have a private conference with the boys and did my best to explain the difference between soft porn (what they had written) and the Mystery and Romance sub-genre (what we had read).

They listened politely but insisted they had written brilliant romances with a dash of mystery thrown in. Eventually they agreed to revise their stories so everyone kept their clothes on. For the boys, the romance part of the theme equaled sex and nothing I said would dissuade them. For a woman who had grown up with three sisters and attended a girls’ school, the discussion was quite enlightening and explained a lot of my dating history.

The next year, I substituted Mystery and Romance for the Westerns sub-genre and received boys’ assignments full of horrendous bloodshed, wanton cruelty, scalping Indians and murderous gunslingers. It was a huge relief.

* Names have been changed to protect the not so innocent.

American director Quentin Tarantino. Taken at ...

He looks like such a nice young man…

If you are a regular reader of my blog (God bless you, as we say in Nigeria) you may have noticed I rarely use swear (or curse) words. Some bloggers pepper their writing with profanity to appear hip and funny or because it suits their subject matter.  Mostly it works rather well. An expertly placed expletive is amusing, particularly if the reader is not expecting it.

However, as a frigid, dried-up old vagina (according to a former student) I don’t like reading blogs full of pointless profanities that distract from the writer’s message. Nothing will make me close down faster. I am not alone. Quentin Tarantino’s constant use of the f-word in his script for True Romance prompted one studio rep to write the following to his manager:

Dear Fucking Cathryn,

How dare you send me this fucking piece of shit. You must be out of your fucking mind. You want to know how I feel about it? Here’s your fucking piece of shit back. Fuck you. (Vanity Fair Magazine, March 2013, page 252).

I laughed for ages after reading this and feel the same way about Tarantino’s movies. They would be better without all that swearing.

But I digress. The primary reason I avoid littering my writing and conversations with expletives is the blonde ball of potential fury I will refer to as MM (My Mother).

MM’s mothering style could be characterized as relaxed but she had several non-negotiable rules: blood, pus, spots, swelling or vomit must be presented before staying home from school, bed – time is 7.30 and absolutely no swearing, including blasphemy.

My middle sister (MS) could have me in an apoplexy of terror if she threatened me with, “I’m going to tell Mum you used the f-word.” It didn’t matter I hadn’t said the “f-word”. Merely using this threat ended most childhood disputes and the victim would reluctantly hand over the cat or whatever prize we were fighting over.

Australia in the 1970’s was not a curse-free zone but it was easier to prevent children being exposed to bad language, if parents so desired. Adults generally didn’t swear around children and we never heard our parents’ friends or acquaintances use the f-word. The C-word was completely unthinkable. I can’t imagine what my stepfather would have done to anyone who used  it around “the girls”, as he called us.

We didn’t live in a protected bubble. Sunday afternoons we visited my uncle’s tavern where my parents had a few drinks while we sat politely and sipped our lemon squash, without interrupting the adults. Saturdays we went to the football where my stepfather chain smoked cigarettes and managed to abuse the umpires without incurring MM’s wrath. Radios, television and films were similarly censored. The Internet with its attendant benefits and horrors was decades away.

In fact, I was never exposed to hard-core professional swearing (including liberal use of the c-word) until I joined the teaching staff of a large high school. The students’ language was almost as bad.

Our childhood prohibition on swearing has stayed with me. Every time I let fly when the Internet won’t connect or I bash a toe on the coffee table, I look around to make sure MM can’t hear me, even though she lives in Australia and I live in Nigeria.

This piece cannot finish without sharing the following story.

About 10 years ago MM was rushing around after working late (she had a hat party to attend, as you do) and fell over a rubber doormat carelessly placed in a store door way. I inspected her battered shins and swollen knees and assured her she wasn’t becoming, “One of those stupid old ladies who falls over things.”

MM went to the party but the evening was ruined and her new, specially purchased hat was wasted. The next evening her injuries felt worse (no surprises there, party girl!) so she decided to spend the night watching television with my nephew, who was 10.

At that time MM worked as a mobile banker and received a lot of work calls on her home telephone, as cell phones were prohibitively expensive for long calls. This evening the phone rang constantly and each time MM had to struggle up from the sofa and limp over to answer it, muttering away to herself (or so she thought).

After an evening of this constant painful shuffling to and fro, the telephone rang for the tenth time. My nephew turned to MM and with a cheeky grin on his freckly face declared, “There goes that fucking phone again, Gran.”