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Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Rushing across eight countries on a bicycle sounded like a good idea prior to flying solo to Paris to begin the journey. The author knew how to mend a puncture and change a tyre, but did not reckon with how she might fill in the never-ending hours as the kilometres hummed by under her wheels. Humour and courage are brought to the test. Worries are juxtaposed against the backdrop of European life and the lives of her fellow riders as they pedal from Paris to Istanbul, following the route of the Orient Express. Her adoption and the subsequent rather strange relationship with her adoptive parents; her early marriage and violent divorce; the troubles of being a single parent; going in and out of relationships in an attempt to heal psychic loss - universal themes in the lives of many women and mothers. The story weaves between the present and the past, Europe and Australia, and the author’s life as daughter, mother and wife. Wry wit is always close to the surface in this emotionally engaging and wholly entertaining book.

Mastiff lit crit for the day- Emmy says: Read this if you get a chance!

An excerpt from the book ~ Although I'm going to miss you

Out on the Ring Road, its six lanes curving around Melbourne’s West, traffic moves fast, unless someone has driven into the median barrier or tipped a load off their truck or crashed into the back of another vehicle. On the morning I leave, all is quiet. No crashes. No sirens. No horns. Just grey sky and fine rain tracking across the windscreen, persistent enough to obscure vision, yet light enough to make the wipers screech on each downward swipe.

Today is the twenty-seventh of May and I’m boarding a plane that will take me to Singapore then onto Paris. There I will meet up with riders from faraway places who have signed up for a four thousand kilometre bike tour to Istanbul. And the staff, who we expect to feed us, lead us, and keep us safe for the fifty days we will be on the road. I know this is my last glimpse of Melbourne until late August.

‘How’re you feeling, Des?’ I say to my husband who is driving me to the airport.

‘Alright,’ he says, ‘although I’m going to miss you.’

‘Yeah, me too.’ I think about the last time we made love and can’t remember. I wonder if he can.

When I booked a place in the tour, there were two hundred and forty days remaining to prepare for the ride. Two hundred and forty days and nights to let the rhythms of habit take hold and lead us into smile-filled sleep. Making love. Having sex. Rooting. Fucking. Doing ‘it’. I used to schedule my life around sex. Swimming in the early morning only occurred after a relationship was beyond its establishment phase. And to get to the establishment phase, afternoon drinks seemed as good a way as any. Beer, brandy, gin – the spirits were introduced as my income rose. And wine. It was mellow and crept up slowly. Sex seemed to go with mornings followed by a cup of tea, afternoons followed by a cocktail, and evenings followed by a sound sleep. When the children left home, the time after work was the signal to rush home and undress, all the better to feel my lover’s hands and lips on my body. But right now it is too late. We have squandered most of the chances. Right now there are only minutes left between us, and then a bare five days before I mount my bike for days on end. No time left to be anything, not even scared.

For three weeks before I leave, I wake each night in a sweat. One or other hand grabs the fold of flesh on my belly and pinches it round, as if I’m sealing the top on a Cornish pasty. It is true that I have not lost any weight. I swore I would, again and again, just like I swore that I would not drink another glass of wine or swallow another beer until… Until when? This date continued to baffle me, night after night. Would I drink a wine with my meal in the plane? What about a beer if Singapore is hot? Then there’s an old school friend I’m catching up with in Paris. If we go out for dinner, will I suggest champagne? As D-Day draws closer, I begin to feel easier. It is too late to lose weight. I can’t get fitter. What I know about bikes is how to change a tyre, just that, no more.

‘I’ll get you a trolley,’ Des says as we pull into the kerb outside the international departure terminal, ‘then I’ll park the car while you queue.’

I place the brown-taped cardboard box containing my bike onto the trolley, then the two seventy-litre bags purchased as per instruction, packed with a new water-repellent tent, put up once in the back yard; a fancy self-inflating bed mat; an old faithful sleeping bag dubbed the Swedish Princess, that I have forgotten to launder; maps of some of the countries we will ride through, but not all, as eight maps were too expensive and too bulky to consider; two sets of lycra and assorted man-made fibre cycling gear, chosen from an American website and delivered promptly and efficiently; old shirts, a pair of shorts, my bathers, a going-out shirt and pants, underwear, pyjamas, sandals and flat shoes; and a collection of toiletries, first aid and medications in case I come down with something bacterial. I like it that my doctor has prescribed two types of antibiotics for different ailments and I have already forgotten which is which.

People lean against the terminal wall, sucking in cigarette smoke. I hold my breath as I push the trolley past them. It’s seven years since I last smoked. I hate everything about it now. It no longer looks sexy or friendly; instead it looks desperate and foolhardy. When I last smoked, I needed it as a friend for when I was alone. I took it up from the time my third husband left me until I stopped being a born-again adolescent, and before that, I had been free of cigarettes for nine years. The smell revolts me. I hope I don’t have to sit next to a smoker all the way to Paris. I wonder though, if Des were to depart, would I again find a friend in the fags.

There’s no queue at the Qantas check-in so by the time Des joins me, I’ve completed the process. Thirty-seven kilograms including the bike therefore I am under the limit. This makes me feel superior to other travellers who pull giant suitcases on wheels, with assorted handbags, beauty cases and backpacks strewn over arms and bodies to soak up the overflow.

We head off to the oversize baggage depot to deposit the bike, which, once done, will leave me with only a very small bag containing one unread novel, my passport, a cheap vinyl wallet, two lipsticks, my old white sunglasses that I wear when riding, a scarf, a comb, a mirror, my new camera, a notebook and a pen. I’ve always felt self-righteous about travelling light, having once gone round the world for eleven months with a backpack that started off at fifteen kilograms and ended up nearer to eleven.

‘Who’s goin’ riding?’ asks the bloke in charge. Des explains that I’m about to ride across Europe. I hear the pleasure in his voice as he tells the man how far I’ll be going. ‘Bloody hell,’ the baggage man says, ‘don’t you know they’ve got trains over there? Be a helluva lot easier.’ I chuckle, as I have each time people have delivered the same gag, and head off to the money exchange. I buy some antacid tablets to quell any potential heartburn I may experience in the next three months, before entering the bar. It’s crowded. We share a table with a couple who are watching planes depart in preparation for a flight they’re taking to Sydney the following week. He’s one of those talkative types and I can see her willing him to shut-up. He turns out to be a tennis expert, tipping a big win for Lleyton Hewitt over Roger Federer in the French Open.

‘Nadal won’t get near it,’ he says, ‘because there’s too much riding on it for Roger and Hewitt. Hewitt needs another win in a big one. He’s still young and he won the US a couple of times. He’s good enough, and he’s got the confidence, that’s for sure.’ The Open began three days ago and Hewitt is still in the draw having won his first-round match. For this bloke, Hewitt is his only hope to be brushed by pride in a game that was once dominated by Australians. But, wanting something as a spectator isn’t going to be near enough to get Hewitt over the line. Even wanting it as a competitor isn’t enough, as only one of the 128 men in the singles is going to win. Presumably all have entered with the dream of winning forefront in their minds.

Winning is important for me, too. A team I was in once came runner-up in a tennis competition, a crested teaspoon being the prize. I like to win at word games, mental arithmetic challenges, and general knowledge quizzes - anything where a win proves my intellectual authority. I caught myself several years ago winning the automatic teller machine game, a game I invented to show how clever and smart I was by being the quickest to withdraw.

I’m fond of thinking that I win distance-swimming competitions when I swim laps, and I do, especially if no one else is swimming. Once I did eighty laps just to show any onlookers that I was the best. There may or may not have been onlookers, but in my mind there were, all stunned by my abilities in the pool.

I like to be out first on the bike rides I take with family and friends. It started because I felt safer that way. I’m not sure this is evidence of my desire to win, but in all likelihood it is just another thing I use to make myself feel good in the moment.

There are other games I play too, to show the public at large that I am a cut above average. These include accomplishments such as reading quickly, parallel parking without looking over my shoulder, calculating discount values before the salesperson has reached for their calculator, and being able to understand the dialogue on ‘Inspector Rex’ television shows without needing to look at the sub-titles. Well, sometimes, at any rate. There are other things too, like not spilling food down my front when eating in an aeroplane, being better at pronouncing common French phrases and having the capacity, more than others, to identify garden plants.

I realise that indulging in these covert playoffs, especially seeing my fellow combatants aren’t even aware there is a contest afoot, must illustrate some lack of psychological robustness. I think it began because I was the youngest in my class and because I was fat, ‘chubby as my mother preferred to refer to my state of pudginess, and no good at sport. Being first gave me something to be good at.

‘It’s going to be a big sport time, Des, while I’m away,’ I say, as we down the last of our beer. ‘The French Open, then Wimbledon, the Tour de France.’

‘Not to mention the soon-to-be-famous Orient Express,’ he says.

This is the ride I am doing, named after the great train journey that began in 1883. The original train left the Gare de l’Est in Paris and travelled to Vienna. Gradually the trip increased in length and in its heyday, it was possible to take one of three routes on the way to Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was known prior to 1930. Passengers were able to join or alight at many of Europe’s finest cities such as London, Calais, Venice, Munich, Budapest, Bucharest, Sofia, Belgrade or Varna, the seaside resort in Bulgaria where we are to spend a rest day. The train became synonymous with luxury travel and its tickets sold for prices ordinary people could not afford.

Back in 1992, I stood on the platform at Venice nursing a broken heart and watched as passengers were disgorged from the blue and gold painted carriages of the Venice Simplon version of the train. The women were turned out in a deal of diamonds and pearls, as well as de rigeur garments made from tweed and wool and silk and cashmere, fine hosiery and tan leather. The menfolk displayed similar good taste. Bespoke porters handled Louis Vuitton luggage onto the pre-arranged vaporettos that were lined up on the Grand Canal to whisk the travellers to their hotels. All I knew about this train I knew from Agatha Christie, Graham Greene and Paul Theroux.

I have loved train journeys since I was a girl making the long trips to Melbourne and Adelaide to visit aunties. I have always chosen trains whenever possible, and seeing those passengers alight that cool day in late autumn stirred in me a strong desire to do the trip. I knew then I could never afford it, nor did I want to share it with those who could spend my entire annual budget on just half a day’s shopping in Paris. Doing it by bicycle, however, swapping silver service and linen, for a plastic bowl and a nylon sleeping bag, is now my reality.

Des and I stand outside the stainless steel doors for a while talking and laughing. Then we hold each other tight and stay there. We kiss. We kiss again. I can feel tears stinging my eyes. Not the same tears I cried in 1992 when I hugged my best friend and flew off on a one-way ticket to London.

Some years later she married my third husband. Just before he walked out the door he said, ‘I love you Janice, but I can’t live with you any more.’ Now what’s that supposed to mean? Small wonder I took up smoking.

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