A crackle on the landline, then a pause. “William?” comes a distant voice. “It’s your godmother Mary. I’ve set the egg timer. We’ve got 20 minutes.” That I may not have even three is immaterial. When Mary Adamson calls from Melbourne, Australia, you rest your fingers from the laptop. Life must pause when godmother Mary comes on the line.
My mother was in her teens when she met Mary, growing up as she did as one of five daughters of my grandfather, Ronald Cross, British High Commissioner to Australia in the 1940s and governor of Tasmania during the 1950s. Her friendship cemented to Mary by making me her godmother, and although we may not have met more than a dozen times across 50 years, she’s like a lovely aunt connecting me to Australia, a lifelong bond that holds across 10 and a half thousand miles. My busy day may be cracking on, but Mary’s got the supper on and time to call.
Today, in the midst of Christmas, we miss our Aussie loved ones more than ever. Few have made the journey to the other ends of the earth this year, so the Skyping between Britain and Australia will have been buzzing these past 24 hours. Us Brits thinking on enviously at the idea of a swim in the balmy sea on Christmas Day. The Aussies, sweltering in the December heat, musing wistfully at the dream of a bracing walk after lunch.
As I listen to Mary’s outpouring of news; births, kids’ birthdays, new jobs, house moves, I think about this great woman of Melbourne. Barry Humphries could have based Dame Edna Everage on Mary Adamson, less shrill but a housewife superstar for sure. Wherever one might be in the world, if it’s early morning in Melbourne, you can be sure of one thing: Mary Adamson has something in the oven.
Soon, if you sniff the air in the streets around Toorak you’ll catch a hint of what she might be baking. Toorak might be the world’s perfect suburb with attractive houses, large gardens, swimming pools and smart garden sheds. Elegant Victorian architecture, the boutiques of Chapel Street and the Royal South Yarra Lawn Tennis Club are some of the many ingredients that make it a quaint paradise.
On one visit I made, Mary’s kitchen was giving off distinct aromas of butter and vanilla and sponge, of chocolate and of coconut. The key ingredients that anyone familiar with Aussie classics like Anzac biscuits will know can only be lamingtons.
If you walk into a decent café in Toorak or its neighbouring inner suburb of South Yarra and you don’t spy lamingtons, familiar as little squares of chocolate-coated sponge dipped in a generous dusting of coconut, you need to check that you are actually in Melbourne.
Mary, a stickler for cookery perfection, turns out lamingtons that would win first prize at any church fundraiser in Melbourne, a place declared a city by Queen Victoria in 1840s, named after the British Prime Minister William Lamb, 2nd Viscount of Melbourne in 1837. Today as the city races into the future, a high-rise financial centre of the Asia-Pacific region, areas like Toorak remain as a warm hint of that very English past.
“Suzy says if she moved into this house, she’d knock through the kitchen into the dining room to make a larger room,” Mary is saying. “So I said, ‘Great, but where would you put my sideboard?’”
Mary’s husband, Mick, is also a great Australian. An accomplished artist in his spare time, and into his retirement he was a celebrated professor of paediatrics who specialised in sleep disorders. When he held my babies, they looked into his eyes and cooed. He has magic hands. He and Mary have those soft Australian accents of the 1950s. Sometimes, to the great irritation of their children and grandchildren, they talk of England as “home”, which, of course, it never was…
Mick is unwell right now and I haven’t heard Mary’s voice in a while. Sometimes it can feel as if the moon is closer than Australia. But if I think for a moment, I can smell her baking and sense her warmth. The memory of a lamington and the kindness of great Australians like the Adamsons helps me to think they’re not so far away after all.