It’s Sunday morning and the sky is clear. The football season is over and the cricket hasn’t started. I have no deeds to do and no promises to keep. I mooch around the house for a bit. I consider getting stuck into re-alphabetizing the shelves of compact discs which resemble a tottering stack of teacups. I don’t, saving that job for a rainy day. I tour the estate. I could deal with the veggie patch and prepare for summer plantings. But I only really like gardening with Dr Sternlove and she has an extensive desk bound to-do list, so that’s not going to happen. Sulkily, I do a few loads of laundry and hang them in the sunshine. I’m getting morose at the prospect of more laundry and the likelihood that this will represent my greatest achievement today.
The Chook scarpers past me, onto her bike and down the street for a day of tree climbing and creek side mischief. She doesn’t even look back I’m strangely pleased to note. In contrast Sputnik, in classic teen style, is yet to emerge from the pile of clothes and duvet in which she sleeps. Good luck to her, it’s a great blessing to be able to sleep so free, so unencumbered by limitations of mind and body. Swallowing my envy I do the dishes and sweep the kitchen floor. Domesticity, yeah it’s cool, but I know it quickly segues into shopping so fast that I begin to feel uneasy at the likely prospect of going to the mall unless I can find something to do with this fine Sunday.
Beargirl is also fidgety. She could clean her room; she could do her own laundry. I consider saying this to her but think better of it. Instead I propose we join forces and double the power of our indolence. The two of us google things to do, local events, and free fun which might make this springtime Sunday a day to remember. Then we choose. We’re going to go and see the tulips in Bowral. This is Beargirl’s wish and while it doesn’t ring my bell sometimes it’s just fun to make a wish come true. Tulips it is. Within ten minutes we’re in the car and headed west onto the tablelands. The music is loud, the windows are open and we turn down the highway.
We talk. She asks questions, very good questions. I try my best to provide answers, but probably not quite up to the standard of the questions. She’s focused on France, where she’s headed in just a few weeks, and her curiosity is happily rampant. I worry silently that my answers aren’t quite up to par.We cover a lot of ground. The French revolution; the Committee for Public Safety; guillotines and the First Republic; Robespierre and St. Just; sans culottes; the Vendee rebellions; the early campaigns against the First Coalition; Carnot, Valmy and the fate of Louis XVI; Tuileries Palace; Marie Antoinette and the cake thing; Thermidor, Marat and Danton. I haven’t given revolutionary France much thought for twenty years but I recall the narrative as a kind of vast political soap opera so that’s how I tell it. Beargirl has always liked my stories and she seems pretty satisfied with what she’s hearing. We stop for coffee.
Soon we’re back on the road we’re rolling and my memory provides some meat to a spine of dates and places. Jacobins and Girondins, political lefts and political rights; red and green houses; the tricky position of the clergy; the Directory; what the rest of Europe was doing, especially the nation of shopkeepers; the increasingly fragile French economy and the decline of the assignat; 13 Vendémiaire and the whiff of grapeshot; the rise of Napoleon and the invasion of Egypt; the Coup of 18 Fructidor and its twin coup of 18 Brumaire; the Consulate and then the Empire. Beargirl has got more French history out of me this morning than she can possibly use but she’s grinning like she hit the jackpot with a five cent piece she found down the back of the sofa.
After a while we stop again. There’s a market and a sausage sizzle and a car show: a paddock filled with old blokes and beautiful shiny cars of many vintages. You can smell the love, it is more powerful than all the frying onions on the Southern Highlands. We wander around together; she asks more questions and doesn’t hesitate. We cover Napoleon; Josephine; Austerlitz; Tilsit; the Peninsular War; Nelson; the grand armee; Borodino; Berezina; the fall of the Empire; Waterloo; and by the time we’ve got back to our car I’m describing Napoleon’s lonely demise on St Helena.
Beargirl is loving it and teases me by asking if Napoleon had pets on St Helena, she suggests that maybe he had a little dog? Initially I don’t notice that this a joke and start talking about how remote St Helena is and how fragile the ecosystem is on small islands and that probably he didn’t…but then she’s cacking herself at my earnestness and I have to laugh too. Back in the car we take a series of lovely back roads through the highlands following a circuitous route to Bowral. I tell the story of Bill O’Reilly and Don Bradman as we slowly go through Wingello. A cricket story breaks the reverie and her interest fades. So before I’ve got to the bit where O’Reilly says “You don’t piss on statues” she’s telling me that she’s really hungry.
As it happens I am too. We look for a counter lunch at a pub but this is Bowral and the 1970s are long gone. We eat at an overpriced pub restaurant and sneakily we split a pint of Belgian lager. Satiated we cruise on foot through Bowral looking at patisseries, book stores and knickknack shops. It’s a wandering without timetable or purpose, the pleasures of the flâneur. Eventually we find ourselves approaching the queue to enter the vast garden where the tulips are and we tack ourselves onto the end.The crowd is thick and slow moving. There are thousands here and everyone is very well outfitted. Quality coats and ladies in Melbourne Cup hats, proper lace up shoes and older gentlemen wearing stripy ties.
I feel a bit conspicuous in my mucking about on Sunday outfit. I’m beginning to think it may have been prudent to shave but as the queue shuffles forward it’s clear that no one is looking at us. I’m the only one who is feeling a bit class conscious. Beargirl isn’t in the slightest uncomfortable, she’s loving it and when we enter the park she’s immediately entranced by the tulips. She stomps off in her doc martens and even though there isn’t room enough to take a proper stride she’s waving her arms around in joy and admiration for the tulips. The tulips are spectacular; the plantings are clever and deft. They are also a bit twee but shit they’re tulips, it goes with the territory.
I join a conga line of tweeded gents and buy coffee. In the rotunda a jazz band plays in support of a young woman who is, perhaps, attempting her best Ute Lemper impersonation. There are even little Teutonic echoes of Dietrich in The Blue Angel coming through in her vocal which speaks to the sincerity of her effort. I look at the tulips, I watch Beargirl meander through the displays and the crowds. Suddenly the band switch tempo and another singer is on the microphone, with enormous hair and brown leather pants she starts into Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide (“but time makes you bolder/Children get older/And I’m getting older too”). I don’t notice but then Beargirl is beside me, in time with the music we sway and lean into each other.
The performers start into something I don’t recognise and with a shrug we start off toward the exit. When we reach a point we can speak and be heard and Beargirl says “I want to buy some tulips.” We’ve come a fair way and had a lovely day so sure, why wouldn’t we buy some tulips to take home? Dr Sternlove adores cut flowers on the dining table and while we’ve been on the lam she has been hard at work so a little offering from our expedition could only be well received. Could we find a tulip for sale? Not a chance. Uphill and down dale we tried to find tulips. We found some plastic tulips and we found some paper tulips but cut flowers, none, not a single tulip. Resigned we go back to the car and begin our journey home. Exiting the car park Beargirl says with a sigh “I really just wanted a few tulips for my bedside table.” I commiserate and suggest that we can stop at our local florists on the way home and pick up the a bouquet for Dr Sternlove and something for a vase on her bedside table. Reluctantly Beargirl allows that this will do, but is clearly thinking that this is a very ordinary result, barely tolerable.
We make our way out of town and then beside the road is a vast planting of tulips. I slow down, cruising past them. I bite my lip and I check the mirrors. It’s a country town on Sunday afternoon so there is not a soul to be seen. With a quick and entirely illegal u-turn we’re back beside the tulip planting. I stop the car and, before I give myself a chance to think about it, I’m down in the garden bed using my keys to cut tulips from their green moorings. I notice that Beargirl has joined me and between the two of us we take a dozen flowers. Without a word we are back in the car and making our getaway like Bonnie and Clyde, accelerating away as if we might be pursued, and then we’re laughing, cackling with the adrenalin and the frivolity of what we’ve done. When we’re done giggling we turn toward home, travelling in silence as Sunday draws to a close.
“Thanks Dad,” she says as we pull into the driveway.