Murder in Mt Martha
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.
‘Tight and terrifying yet funny enough to make me laugh out loud. Not everyone will embark on a long-distance bike tour where the only sponsor is a dry lubricant manufacturer, but everyone should read this book to discover bits of themselves they may have mislaid in their struggles with daily life.’ Carolyn Morwood
‘This book sneaks up on you. What feels like a bike tour soon turns into a tour of the heart. Humour, pathos and observation combine in a tale that people-watchers will love!’ Tricia Fidler
‘An exquisite evocation of life, of secrets, of death.’ Catherine van Wilgenburg
The weather hangs. I brave the tight-fitting waterproof jacket I have purchased at considerable cost, even though I feel like a sausage too tightly stuffed into its skin. ‘I’m sure I’ll grow into this jacket,’ I say in the morning, struggling to even see the bottom of the zip fastener I must first chase into its housing before pulling it up to my chin. ‘I like to call it my banana skin.’ Stewart smiles but the others do not know me well enough as yet to risk a chuckle.
We ride through Alsace, a region that has changed hands between France and Germany over the last one and a half thousand years since the Romans were vanquished. Presently it belongs to France. Where I come from there has only ever been the one war on home soil, that between the colonists and the aborigines. Pretty much total genocide of the first nation was the swift result. Europe, on the other hand, has had more wars, skirmishes and genocides than I can imagine. The most recent handing of Alsace to and fro occurred in the World War II period, when Germany occupied and claimed French Alsace, only to have it returned to the French at the end of the War.
The houses change shape as we move westwards. Stone cottages give way to timber houses boasting three storeys, and I think about how extended families might live in these: children at the top, parents in the middle and grandparents at the bottom. At least this was the arrangement when I stayed in such a house years ago.
The roofs are sharp-pitched, ready for the annual snowfall, and gargantuan stacks of precision-laid firewood are tucked up under eaves or nestled into a corner of the garden. Canny hoarders have spray painted the top row of their stacks, all the better to see where a thief has made away with a log. I recall how a shrewd South Australian farmer drilled a hole in one or two of his bits of firewood, and stuffed the holes with gunpowder. He claimed it was an easy way to see who the thief was, after the stove door was blown off, or the chimney came crashing down. He recommended the method as a deterrent against further thieving.
I look for Alsatian dogs but see none.
Billboards and signs start to inform us in both French and German of the nearby snowfields, and I concentrate on translating them to make the kilometres pass more swiftly in the drizzle. It is grey and wintry, easy to imagine that the villages we pass through spend months covered in snow.
Before we get to Germany we have to cross the Rhein, but before that we need to climb a hill, the Col de la Schlucht, one of the classified climbs sometimes used for the Tour de France route.
‘It’s about thirteen kilometres to the top,’ we’re told at lunch, ‘and you’ll ascend about a thousand metres.’ I do a quick calculation. Wasn’t the Tawonga Gap climb nine kilometres long and the same height? That took me about two and a half hours so I am expecting a relatively pleasant climb. This climb begins at La Bresse where the rain comes down again. Bernice is nowhere to be seen. Instead John, a wiry red-head from Canada, is keeping company with Stewart and me.
‘Hello, hello!’ cries a middle-aged woman at the lunch-stop as I pull in last. ‘You are so brave, you would like coffee?’ She beetles off to her pink three-tiered house with its many window boxes spilling red geraniums, and comes back with cups of steaming black coffee for the three of us. It tastes good even though I don’t like coffee. ‘Here, some of this too, please,’ and she presents us with blocks of dark chocolate. ‘I am from Croatia but I live here thirteen years. My daughter, she live in Sydney,’ she says when I tell her I’m from Australia. ‘I love Australians; they are so kind to my beautiful Marianne.’
Another family shattered by war blown to the furthest reaches of the globe. I suspect this woman has not fitted in very well to Alsace life. Before we go, she insists we use her toilet facilities. I am grateful and give her a big hug which she cuddles into as if she hasn’t been touched for an aeon. It makes me want to hold her for a long time, but I don’t. Instead, I join Stewart and John who are waiting for me to remount. We call our goodbyes and press on uphill.
I can imagine John as the nine-year old red-haired kid he once was, hooning through the town hurling newspapers into people’s front yards. He is a recent veteran of the Tour du Canada, an annual 7,500-kilometre cycle trip that takes in Canada’s ten provinces.
‘You must have strong legs, my friend,’ John says from behind me. ‘You’re not even in your lowest gears yet.’
I don’t have energy to respond. He overtakes and soon I can no longer see him or Stewart. The rain is steady and the mist hangs low. Every now and then a small group of serious cyclists comes by. Some call out encouraging words as they pass. I imagine they are practising for the Tour. I daydream about Lance Armstrong who climbs hills like these in minutes, and wonder what it takes to accomplish such a feat. Whatever it is, I haven’t got it.
I come to a crossroads. There’s a sign indicating five kilometres to somewhere downhill. I have no idea how far I have come, how long it has taken me, and how far I have to go, but the prospect of a further eight kilometres uphill is daunting. I think about crying. Instead I shout out loud, ‘Shit bugger bum bitch fuck piss root.’ These were the worst swear words I knew as a kid, some of which I learnt from Dad when he rounded up a mob of sheep. I added ‘bum’ and ‘root’ and made them into a mantra for when really bad things happened.
The rain makes the pedals slippery and I find it hard to keep my left foot in the toe clip. I need the extra purchase to get me up. There are deep ditches along the side of the road and I almost ride into one at a point where water spews down the mountainside. I stop and eat the Croatian’s chocolate. Occasionally cars go by, their lights on high beam. I get back on and pedal a few more metres, setting myself the challenge of remaining in the saddle for at least three switchbacks. It gets easier and I stay on for longer at a time. The mist gets even thicker.
‘Hey, is that you Janice?’ I peer ahead. I have abandoned my glasses, which are dripping wet. I make out the shape of the lunch truck. A couple of yellow-clad figures huddle under an awning. They clap and cheer.
‘Here, drink this down,’ says John, and hands me a cup of hot chocolate that I gulp in one go. ‘It’s all downhill to Munster now,’ he says. ‘Ready to roll?’
I pull woollen gloves over the top of my saturated cycle gloves and start the downhill. This time the drop is on my side but because the fog is so dense I cannot see enough to terrify me. The road is wet and I slip a bit, releasing the brakes more often than I want to, but my frozen hands stop wanting to squeeze. Half way down the mist clears and below me, nestled in the valley is a storybook village. Down some more, round a corner, down again and into a village, through another, then into Munster, where the cobbles rattle my brain as I ride over them.
‘Look at the stork nesting on that chimney,’ shouts Stewart, but I can’t see it. We pull into camp and busy ourselves with tent erection before the next shower of rain passes through. There is a laundry in the campground so I line up to take my turn at washing and drying everything in my bag. Tonight there will be warm clean pyjamas to pull on.