One of the great joys of life is to watch manifest all of the dreaming, planning and myriad decision-making as our new Belair home rises seemingly magically from its slab.

We live at Hindmarsh Island on Fleurieu Peninsula, and distance keeps us from the site, so when we come to Adelaide we dash to Belair and are thrilled at the sub-contractors’ speedy progress.

Today, instead of a grey slab, we have discovered a house of sticks at the end of our driveway with carpenters finishing off the 25 degree roofline.

Our rooms are now defined by timbers and we walk from room to room bursting with pleasure at the layout. Our house plan is the brain-child of building designer David Frazer and Olivier and I loved his initial plan the moment we saw it. Its stylish winged roofline was abandoned to bring the construction costs under budget, but we retained high ceilings and  bulkheads in the entrance hall, lounge and kitchen.

Most baby boomers, such as our neighbours on the River Murray banks opposite, are building McMansions, but our new  home is a relatively modest single storey, four-bedroom home with two bathrooms and two living areas. We each have a study and my friends need to take credit for the second bathroom, added after much pressure that a “housing product’’ of four-bedrooms needed two bathrooms.  As a former property editor (and a judge for a few years with the Master Builders Association) I should have known this, but I didn’t want to clean two bathrooms as an older woman and believed in one-bathroom, compact retirement housing.

 “It’s a dreadful planning mistake,’’ they would warn.

When I suggested we would never use the bathroom and the two-way big single bathroom was a brilliant idea, they would insist any future buyers would want two bathrooms for four bedrooms.

“Think of those teenage years,’’ they continued.

“You don’t need to use the main bathroom, but it’s there for guests and for socialising at home,’’ one would say. “I would want my own bathroom anyway when I’m 80,’’ another quipped.

So, David Frazer cleverly tucked in an en suite without increasing the roofline.

Today we can see, at last, that there is ample room for everything.

Our home offers 229sq m of living space and includes a double garage (Olivier’s old house had no garaging) and an outdoor living area all under the main roof.

For active retirees, it is going to be a wonderful living space – and it will be a “Smart House’’, wired for technology and home entertainment.

Most important,  with its high, white walls and subtle lighting for our art, it will become our unique retirement home, tailored to our lifestyle.

The Cullen

They are the last three days of a dismal summer and we are in Melbourne living a lesson in style at the zany boutique hotel, The Cullen.

It is one of the new Art Series hotels, strategically placed on Commercial Road, Prahran, opposite the famous market and a block from fashionable Chapel Street.

The Cullen - Reception Hall

However, the hotel itself is a delightful artful accommodation experience dedicated to works of the eccentric Australian artist,  Archibald Prize winner Adam Cullen.

His irreverent works plaster the walls of our contemporary hotel room, (those that are not mirrored) and even the frosted glass walls of the en-suite are etched with his extraordinary depiction of Phar Lap with lush eyelashes. Everything about the hotel is a statement of style.

The foyer is a riot of eccentricity with two motor scooters and two red bicycles painted with Cullen’s signature portrait of his dog, Growler. Then there are the two life-sized cows – one of which is covered in blue mosaics, the other decorated with graffiti.

Adam Cullen earned the tag “enfant terrible’’ in  art school and was already renowned as a Sydney grunge artist when he won the controversial Archibald Prize for his portrait of actor David Wenham in 2000.

He also illustrated Mark (Chopper) Reid’s book.  However, behind the bad boy image, his works have brilliant elements reminiscent of Salvador Dali.  Ours is a studio apartment slick and modern with black curtains, dark grey carpet and a grey lounge with orange soft furnishing highlights.

Ned Kelly is on one wall and on another is Lady Luck 2002 reflecting a strong social issues statement about men’s attitude towards women. It’s a fabulous artwork of a bikini-clad blonde girl winking as she sits in a champagne glass and alongside a wicked, lustful  fox/man hellbent on carnal intent!.

“I know these crushed people because I grew up noticing them,’’ says Adam in a book by Ingrid Periz in his biography Scars Last Longer.

“I feel for them, their lives are so hopeless, useless. I see them everywhere and bleeding…..I see the black humour in their stumbling lives as they just endure their package and their pretence.’’

Adam Cullen's dog "Growler"

Edmund Capon director of the Art Gallery of NSW commented on Cullen’s  mid-career survey show in 2008 and wrote of his “inherent disobedience” in the catalogue foreword.
“His ogres, freaks, fantasies and weirdos are the stuff of dreams.’’

But  others describe his works as crude, distasteful and grotesque.

However, the four big Cullen prints in our room bear out  his own testament “I romance the dark side of life.’’

They also an astute social eye when he says “I think Australian men are very disappointed and disappointing. I don’t know why because we have such a great  life.’’

Yet, we are surprised at how uplifting and inspiring artworks can be, even when they are repulsive, even demonic to the eye.  They also enliven our living environment if only for three days and triggered much conversation about art and life.

“It’s a big story from a little finger”.

Monday,  January 24.

In one of the Beatles’ popular songs, there is a line “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans’’, and this captures the terror of today.

We are sitting in another doctor’s surgery – this time, a renowned Adelaide neurosurgeon. He is the doctor who operated successfully on our friend Mary to rid her of debilitating pain.  Olivier had turned to him before Christmas to discover the cause of chronic pain in his left forefinger, which has had all the symptoms of a neuroma. The doctor had despatched him to have an MRI to determine if his finger pain is not localised to the hand where he has been treated for six years, but the spine – somewhere in the C6/C7 region where the nerves for the left forefinger originate.

We expect an “all clear’’ here because over the past month, miraculously the finger pain disappeared two or three weeks ago following physiotherapy by a renowned sports physiotherapist. Now it is reduced to nothing more than an irritating tingle, rather than the debilitating, excruciating shots of chronic pain.

However, the doctor is sombre. Saying nothing. He is reading intently a long report from the radiologist. And now he takes out the X-rays and slides them one by one up against the illuminated glass panel. The light reveals the outline of Oli’s curved spine and I see that one vertebrae is blacker than the others.  An uneasy feeling creeps across my chest.

The doctor takes his seat and looks at Olivier and says.

“There is nothing here which shows any connection to your finger pain. It has nothing to do with it.

“But these results present more questions than answers.’’

He tells him that there is evidence of metastasis of the spine in three or four vertebrae.

Of course Oli asks “What does that mean, doctor?”

“It’s a kind of spraying cancer and it has metastasised  so what we are looking at here is a secondary cancer.  There must be a primary cancer somewhere else in the body.’’

I stare at him in disbelief.  I sneak a look at Oli who catches my eye and I feel like vomiting.

“I need to find my notebook,’’ I say. “I am a journalist and I must write this down.’’

It is as if I must get the facts here in case I forget them. They won’t be real unless they take form in my shorthand scribble.

And I quickly write down T1, T3, T7, T10, T12: “T” is for “thoracic spine. And then he adds, the shocking sentence.

“What we have here is spinal tumour diagnosis.’’. The doctor is speaking in a kind, low, mellow voice.

“.. A spreading metastatic disease that has gone to the spinal bone in multiple places. Most of the spine has some involvement.’’

There is a moment of absolute stillness. I am sure I have stopped breathing. My beautiful husband has secondary bone cancer. Oli is stone-faced. Emotionless.  My body begins to shake and I fear I will be unable to stop it. Surely my very heart is trembling.  Tears well up and spill down my cheeks and I sob aloud.

“You are allowed that, too,’’ the doctor says. And, he adds, looking compassionately at me. “It’s a very big story from a little finger.’’

He lists a number of tests that Oli must have – and Oli speaks again.

“This will take time, won’t it doctor?’’

“No, this will be very quick. My staff will organise these tests within 24 hours and you should think about an oncologist if you have any preference.

“One of the tests involves a full body bone scan and the dye we inject will light up and sparkle wherever there is a cancer,’’ he continues and he  runs his fingers like I did so many years ago when singing Twinkle twinkle little star to my young children.

Tests are organised for later this evening and 8.45am tomorrow morning.

I go into the toilet, sit down on its lid and feel as if I will pass out in shock.

As my daughter would say, “Put on your big-girl bloomers, mum”.   Olivier is waiting  and speechless we walk to the car, holding hands. The sun still shines in a cloudless sky in a kind of mockery.  At the car, I take his arm and ask him how he feels.  “I feel numb,’’ he replies.  Ironically, the car is parked outside the Memorial Hospital balcony where almost 7 years ago, Oli had visited me there when I had my hysterectomy.  Memories flicker of that Saturday night up there sitting on the balcony, all sore and stitched after the operation, and remembering how he had brought into the room an Esky filled with lobster, aioli and salads and how he had opened up its lid with so much style,. And how impressed I was that he had sliced already the lobster into two halves and arranged them on two plates at home and sealed them up. And into the pervading sadness of the present, I remember a delicious moment of the past and how we devoured it all from its red shell, and drank from two crystal wine glasses some French white wine he had carried in a bag over his shoulder into that hospital.

I knew then he would be a  tour de force in my life.

So our romance evolved into a wonderful marriage and life since with Oli has been such an extraordinary adventure and a wonderful loving human experience, that this one memory brings some comfort. Yet, today, on the pavement, no more than 30 metres from that balcony,  my happiness bubble burst. My husband has lost something so precious – his health.

Feminism fails girl in the telephone box

International Women’s Day, when we celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women, calls to mind an incident yesterday.

I had called into a supermarket close to the controversial The Parks Community Centre in Mansfield Park, one of Adelaide’s western suburbs where the Westwood inner urban housing redevelopment is transforming large tracts of public housing into privately-owned new housing.

I noticed a skinny young woman making a call in the public telephone box with a boy of about six years old hanging around outside.  When she turned around to check up on the child, I was shocked at her drawn, tense appearance. She looked unkempt with untidy long hair, black stovepipe tights and flimsy top, but it was her face which told the story of a hard life. She had few front teeth and her complexion was sallow. It was hard to imagine she was only about 30 years old.  A male partner was close by and after she had finished the call, the duo sat on the cement curb running alongside the shopping centre.  The scenario dripped with despair and disillusionment.

And I wonder today, on the 100th anniversary of the founding of  International Women’s Day, what needed to happen in this woman’s life to break out of that poverty cycle, to change her outcome to achievement, home ownership, career or vocational success and accumulation of wealth. These, by the way are the fruits of feminism wrought in our lifetime. We have lived through the days when women had to make a choice – marriage or a career – when their fortunes were tied to men – to when our female Governor-general, Quentin Bryce officially launched UN Women Australia this morning.

At one end of the equality spectrum we have much to be proud of and newspapers have been filled with congratulatory statements and praiseworthy facts and figures this week. Yes, we have a female Prime Minister, an achievement I didn’t expect to see in my lifetime. Three states have female premiers and here in South Australia, the Leader of the Opposition is Isobel Redmond.  Professional women can be found in management positions in many industries – and Heather Ridout is chief executive of the Australian Industry Group.

And even the old boy club of corporate Australia, that rock-solid male bastion, has mounted a new focus on the promotion of women into top management roles, which is beginning to bear fruit. Numbers of women on boards of the top 200 companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange has move upwards from 8 per cent in 2009 to 11 per cent. This follows an aggressive push by the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the Business Council of Australia. But the Business Council of Australia can only boast a handful of female CEOs – Gail Kelly, who heads Westpac being a standout figure.

Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick acknowledges that the prominent women at all levels of business, politics and industry are too often the exceptions rather than the rule.

In my 20-year journalistic career as a feminist writer at The Advertiser, I covered the underbelly of women’s lives as well as celebrating the  achievements of our top women by writing up women newsmakers. I always interviewed winners of the Telstra Business Woman of the Year awards each year. But my heart went out to the many victims of domestic violence who shared their troubles with readers.

Women such as the girl in the telephone box never put their hands up to be interviewed as they sense the hopelessness of their lives and suffer low self-esteem and sometimes dependency problems and mental health issues.  But I covered the issues.  Their lives are steeped in poverty and they often suffer endemic domestic violence, sometimes inter-generational, from father, male partner and even from teenage sons.  Violence within the home is certainly not confined to the poor and here we should remember the violence of high profile media personalities such as Mel Gibson and locally Matthew Newton.  Poverty and Violence remain the two vital issues in women’s lives which still need to be addressed and then we have to grapple with pay inequity (unacceptable in 2011), and be vigilant against covert discrimination against young women following paid maternity leave (our great recent achievement).  The figures that interest me most today are the ones which read that one in three women experiences physical violence after the age of 15, and that most women experience sexual violence in some form in their lifetime and that most single older women  live in poverty on the pension. The latter being the clear result of broken work patterns due to child-rearing,  discriminatory social mores and inequality during their working lives.

Education is still pivotal to improving women’s life chances and their ability to build independent lives for themselves, where they can rely on their own resources and skills whatever life dishes up in relationships and child-rearing.

But achieving equality in society is still a work in progress. So we need to reflect that 100 years have passed since that first international Women’s Day and to celebrate amazing achievements. However, I still need to write as I have for 20 years of my life, that there is still so much work to be done to for the sisterhood to enjoy true equality economically, politically and socially.

Most important, we need to reflect that all this is examining our own back yard and if we look worldwide to the discriminatory injustices that impact on women’s lives, then the task ahead is awesome.