Donkey Love

My hand is shaking slightly, which is troublesome, because so is the tiny chair I have pinched in between my thumb and forefinger. I’m trying to make the seat big enough for a fairy king’s bottom to fit, without splitting the bark with the tip of my Swiss army knife. This is my most ambitious item of furniture so far, with its curved, inset seat-back, and it’s going to go fabulously with matching table and fireplace. Scattered around me are bits of bark, clumps of moss in five different shades of green, sticks of bamboo of all lengths, logs of wood, paintbrushes, saws, drills, tins of paint, glue and wood varnish, and an assortment of miniature furniture pieces.

Welcome to the fairy garden workshop, my “Irish farm experience” turned into Jess Gil’s very own Fairy Tale: A true story. Runaway, the barn cat, is doing figure eights around my legs, and Rollo, the donkey has wandered over from his manger to say hello. He ee-ooors at me and I give his head a scratch. Senile Sam, the golden retriever, might come up from the house and bark at me for a couple of minutes. He was run over by a car out the front of the house and seems to be missing part of his brain. From my work bench in the shed I can hear the geese honking outside – they’re about to start laying so they are especially obnoxious. And the two white, plumed cockerels crow all day over their chestnut flock.

Every morning I take Ronda and Pup, the two working dogs, for a walk around the property. I now have a pair of Wellies, so can trudge through the mud in the bottom paddocks to say hello to the four resident horses, who’re getting fat on all the winter feed. Then I walk through the tropical gardens below the house, or along the Seawalk, if the Atlantic isn’t too mental that day. I might help Eoin vaccinate some sheep, which aside from building fairy houses, is the next best thing I’m good at. I make sure I say good morning to the nervous ewe next door – she’s just had the first lamb of the season and I like to see his little bum running away from me.

And some mornings Salem and I just hang out taking selfies.

It’s my last day in donkey fairy heaven. I have been extending my stay by a couple of days for the last two weeks, partly because I’ve become obsessive about perfecting my fairy creations, and also because I’m determined to see some lamb births before I leave. All Eoin’s sheep are hobbling around out there in the rain, very pregnant, but stubbornly refusing to drop their bundles.

But I’m really going this time, lamb or no lamb. It’s midday, and Eoin comes into the shed to change his rain pants, which he does three times a day on average. “We got a lamb, Jess,” he says. “Top paddock.”

“Oh my god,” I think is all I say. And then I’m legging it out of the shed, into the rain and up the farm road. I’m in my wellington boots, running up hill, and I’m grinning so much my face hurts. My wellies are springy and I’m flailing about a bit, trying not to slip on loose stones or in muddy puddles. Valentia Island is made of slate, so it’s everywhere on the roads, and very slippery when it’s wet. I strain my eyes in the rain, looking at all the woolly bodies in the paddock, trying to spot something small and new-born looking.

And there it is, this little black faced lamb, less than thirty minutes old, staggering around, bleeping, dragging his umbilical cord around underneath him, and definitely taking the cake for cutest animal on the farm.

Within the hour, Mum has dropped another perfect, slimy, woolly lamb on the ground. One has two perfect little horns on his perfect little head. We bring them in to the barn out of the elements, but not before I’ve had a good cuddle, and introduced them to their donkey housemates.







Road trip around Ireland we said. In winter, yes perfect! Everything will be quiet. Dramatic. We’ll drive the entire Wild Atlantic Way in a week, because Ireland fits inside New South Wales seven times. We want to see green and grey cliffs plunging into grey seas. We want to stay in pokey surf shacks on long, deserted beaches. We’ll go for country hikes over luscious green hills and explore crumbling castles.

What shall we do first? We’ll go up to Northern Ireland and hike its tallest mountain, Slieve Donard.

Visibility, temperature and wind speed at the top were optimal…


So we’re two days in, and have just crossed the border back into Ireland, which I’m stoked about because I no longer have to convert miles to kilometres to know how fast I can go. We’ve just pulled up on the side of the road, bright green grass sloping into frothy grey ocean on our right and craggy, steep cliffs ascending on our left. We’re both nattering away, lulled into a false sense of calm and warmth from inside the car. And then Jill opens her door, and it’s like we just let Cyclone Stan in. Two days worth of dash-board debris — including a pair of Jill’s knickers that were drying in the almost-sun — get lifted up and blown out the door. Whilst Jill’s chasing them around the cliff’s edge, I’m legging it across some very springy Irish coastal grass after our road map, which is also airborne and being buffeted erratically around the highway edge.

Here is Jill trying to get her scarf under control on said cliff edge.

We had wanted to get a photo of us and our micro car, Willy, who would in the coming days be jerked around winding coastal roads, through gale force winds and up narrow mountains shrouded in fog so thick it seemed slice-able. He had to wait patiently for us while we tried to make salad soda-bread sandwiches at freezing road-stops, and dealt with detours to damp, crumbling castles so I could pretend I was a 17th century Irish marquess. We passed up the opportunity to surf in 5 degree water in Sligo, and nearly got blown off the cliffs at Kerry attempting to do a video log.

How to conclude what felt like a mad dash through Ireland’s winter elements? By  nearly drowning in Guinness and Irish whisky at a pub in Dublin for my birthday.

Sár-obair Déanta! Which means, ‘a job well done!’

I think.


Keeping up with the Guilliatts

This tapas bar is shaped like a wedge of cheese.

It’s sandwiched in between two streets, somewhere in the old city in Sevilla. There are people pushing their way in through the door in its nose and jostling for a spot at the bar. From somewhere behind the bar plates of tapas are appearing. They’re passed from hand to hand overhead until they somehow find their tables. We’re crammed around a round table. Whilst Dad’s tries to coordinate his legs and jacket with the wobbly bar stool, Mum, P and I are all trying to catch the eye of the waiter.

When one of us finally does make eye contact, a bunch of things will happen, in roughly this order. Mum will freak out and become mute because she’ll suddenly remember she doesn’t speak any Spanish. She might try some French, just in case. Pia will say “Soy vegetariano” – her best phrase – and the waiter will whistle, inhale sharply or grimace. And if Dad has managed to find balance on his stool, he will look up and say “Tienes pan sin gluten?” at which point the waiter might ask what planet we come from. I wouldn’t know though, I don’t know the Spanish word for planet.

When not searching for, eating or recovering from languid, boozy lunches, Mum is searching for shoe shops that stock size 42, Dad is compiling a list of the finest gluten free establishments and vinyl record shops in Spain and P and I are searching for the next best castle or cottage to stay in.

Google maps takes us through strange back roads and national parks and we basically hop from one medieval town to the next, eating, drinking and — on stretches of freeway — bleeping our way through duo-lingo. Instead of learning Spanish, Mum has perfected her left-hand driving skills. After some hairy episodes with anticlockwise roundabouts and close calls with 13th century walled cities, she’s even become bolshy behind the wheel.

In the Extremadura, we don’t drive more than an hour without spying the walls of some ancient citadel clinging to the side of a hill or escarpment. Rows and rows of olive trees stretch out on either side of the highway in all directions – they look like green cornrows on brown scalps. In every town, there’s another variation of Iberian jamón to sample and an amazing story of Moorish or Christian conquest. One village we passed through claimed to have filmed an episode of Game of Thrones in their bull ring.


So we’ve done a full circle, Madrid – Madrid and are now sitting in yet another tapas bar, this time in some pokey alley in El Born, Barcelona. We’re all clutching a glass of our new favourite drink – iced vermouth – and contemplating our onward journey to Milan. Dad’s got a backpack full of gluten free bread to take as carry-on luggage, and we hear the Italians do vegetarian better than the Spanish, so P is in good spirits. Mum’s given up the hunt for shoes, and has instead filled her small suitcase with jamón, olives, Spanish honey and duty-free liquor.

In addition to not liking being a passenger in Spanish taxis, Mum also does not like hanging out at the top of cathedrals. I’ll leave you with a series of photographs of her thoroughly enjoying the view from the top of the Sagrada Familia.



Dear Grandma

We’re sitting in your brother’s lounge room in Wakefield. He’s perched on a wooden chest in the corner of the room, because between the four of us and his boisterous staffy Hector, there is no space left on the sofas and chairs.

We can hear Marcia bustling around the kitchen preparing dinner. It’s 11.30am.

I can’t take my eyes off Ken. You’re twins, but he’s so much taller than you. You were always tanned and sun kissed, but his face is waxen and pale.

He has a mole on his right cheek, in exactly the same place as you did. I remember I painted a portrait of you in primary school and stressed over where to draw it or how big to make it. I called it your beauty spot.

His presence is gentler than yours was, unhurried. I wonder if he has mood swings like you did? Does he hate waiting?

He stands up to scold Hector, who has plonked himself on Mum’s lap.

Then he leans on his stick and reaches towards the ground, trying to pick at a spot on the carpet. It’s just like you used to do Grandma, when you saw some fluff or crumb on the ground.

Dad is making small talk. Ken stares off in the distance when nothing is being said. I wonder what he is thinking, if he’s thinking. Does he seem nervous? You were never nervous.

His pale face splits into a smile, he chuckles, his eye twitches. It’s all familiar.

How did you become estranged from this man, Grandma?

Marcia calls us in for lunch. There’s a mammoth spread of ham, tomatoes and iceberg lettuce, all your favourites. And then pizza and pickles and chips. I find myself fussing over your brother like I used to fuss over you. You see, Ken struggles getting in and out of chairs; so I leap up and around, pouring tea and passing cakes. It feels like slipping into an old mold.

He asks for someone to please pass the biscuits and I stifle a laugh watching his eyes light up as his hand closes in on a dusted jam ring. He looks at me and shrugs with feigned guilt, and I hear you say, “Naice,” as he puts it into his mouth.

We hug them goodbye. You were never good at emotional goodbyes. They were often matter-of-fact, which I knew to be sadness or affection poorly disguised under Yorkshire stoicism. So I’m surprised when your brother wraps us all tightly in his skinny arms, making me feel suspended – just for a moment – in time.

You didn’t ask us to come and see your brother. Did you think we would, when you asked to be brought back to England?

I should tell you – we threw you into a river in the Dales, Grandma. The Dales are just as pretty as you said they were; green rolling hills, rocky escarpments, fluffy white sheep and crumbling stone villages.

You would have liked the spot we chose. Dad thought so.

We’re standing on a mossy, stone bridge that arches over the River Skirfare. The bell tower of a fifteenth century chapel is poking out of the lichen covered trees on one bank, and there’s a low-slung farmhouse on the other. Tendrils of mist and a pale blue frost linger on the hills in the distance. It’s very quiet except for the trickling of the river and the occasional mewing of a lamb.

Dad pries the lid of your box off with our room key and we all lean over the mossy stone and watch as he pours the last of you into the clear water below.

A ten pound-pom, just made the return journey and now forever floating through your beloved Yorkshire.

Much love to you Grandma, wherever you may be now,



Wannabe Darwinian

Monsoon Christmas

After racing through all the possible instances human poo could have made it down to my ankle that day, I’ve come to the conclusion that yes, that’s definitely dirt or mud from the chicken coop smeared just above my sock. I’ve told the nurse I’m handing over to this, but she’s looking at me with a mixture of disgust and amusement. Regrettable that I didn’t notice till she pointed it out two hours before I knock off? Probably. But I’m just stoked it’s not human excrement.

Truth is, before departing for his European adventure, housemate Tom left me with 10 baby Plymouth Rock chicks to hand-raise, which, in addition to the big girls, Eduardo and Lebron AND the vege garden, has turned me into a frantic Mother Hubbard of a morning.

I’ve probably been reading too many how-to chicken forums, but so paranoid was I of coming home to heat-stroked/cooked birds, that I’m down in that coop at 5.45am ferreting about before work.

Just to clarify, we’re talking about a small smear here – I don’t roll around in puddles before work.

Here is a series of photographs depicting a couple of wannabe-darwinian nurses holding chickens and fresh tropical produce:

The earth has gone from crispy and cooking to waterlogged, luscious green and dripping. At night our resident Green tree frog – Terrence – and his mates wage a sound war against cyclonic storms, which now smack and saturate us on a daily basis.

Each storm is more exciting than the last. I don’t even mind being woken up three times a week at 2am. Often the thunder overhead is so deafening and violent that the house shudders on its stilts. There is something eerie about seeing the world lit up in silent white light, then having to wait, bracing yourself for the low distant rumble and ear-splitting thunder clap. Never gets old.

In the first week of the rain, I was that idiot that kept whipping out my phone in public places to take photos of gathering clouds and swaying palm trees. I was at a BP the other day filling up the car and trying to take photos of the storm front at the same time. It was midday but the day was dark. There were two old blokes at the pumps on either side of me, both filling up their troopies. They’re both smirking at me, juggling my smartphone and petrol pump.

“First wet season is it, dal?” Clearly.

I pay for my petrol and jump back in the car. Antonin Dvorak is playing on classic FM, gale force winds are blowing the world sideways and I drive home feeling like I’m in an end of the world movie, grinning ear to ear.




Wannabe Darwinian

Is that the ocean, yappa?

My patient is perched on the arm of the chair in her isolation room, looking out the window. I’m making her bed and having a well-controlled inner tantrum with the sheets, which are sticking to my gloves and making my hospital corners look like, well, not hospital corners. As I’m in an isolation room, I’m also wrapped head to foot in blue plastic, which turns me into a human greenhouse.

“Yappa, what’s that thing over there?”

I turn around, exasperated. It’s 11 o’clock. I’ve got medications due, all five of my patients are diabetic and need their blood sugars done in the next hour and I’ve still got two bed-bound patients that need to be washed before handover.

I look to where my patient is looking, out over the car park, toward the trees that line the beach.

“What thing?”

She looks at me and then back out the window. “Is that the ocean, yappa?” She asks.

I’m confused. I point to the long sliver of ocean we can see just after the trees and below the clear blue of the sky, “The blue? Yeah, that’s the sea.”

She smiles at me and looks back out the window.

“Yappa, have you never seen the ocean?”

She shakes her head. “I was wondering what that bit there was, couldn’t work it out.”

I can’t quite believe it, “Are you from the desert or something?”

Yes, she says, from a community somewhere outside Alice.

I stand there for a moment, staring at my patient, who’s turned back to the window.

She’s lived all her life in central Australia, and at 40-something is seeing the coastline of her country for the first time. From the window of her isolation hospital room.

My brain is scrambling to make sense of what it means. Not because I had no idea there were people in Australia who haven’t seen the sea; but because the only reason this woman is in Darwin is because she’s sick. If she were healthy, she probably would have stayed in her country her whole life, and never laid eyes on that blue bit over there.

She also wouldn’t have this big, white Bondiite dressed in blue standing at her bedside gawking at her.

I’ve forgotten how hot and bothered I am. I push the mountain of tasks I have to complete out of my mind, and for a couple of minutes sit to talk to this woman about her country and the ocean she’d never seen. It’s going to make me late, and there are probably loads of buzzers going off outside. But I’m in this negative pressure room and I can’t hear them, so they can wait.

“Are you going to go to the beach and stick your feet in when you leave hospital?” I ask her.

“Maybe,” she says.