On the Road

with Lauren Henderson

Being the True and Unexpurgated (well, nearly) Adventures of Miss Lauren Milne Henderson in the Antipodes. Promising Unusual Monsters, Native Flora and Fauna and Of Course Considerable Quantities of Indigenous Grape-Based Beverages...

(NB: I went to Australia to be the keynote speaker (get me!) at the first-ever women crime writers' only crime conference, SheKilda. But before then I was on holiday, so the Byron Bay and Sydney sections are basically descriptions of me pigging out. These may be of lesser interest to those expecting pithy insights into the world of crime fiction. Just a warning.)

Friday 12 October
Grapefruit juice. Water. No fags. A sorry start, I know.

I leave New York. Boyfriend sobs, pleads, begs me not to go, falls to the ground grabbing my ankles at the airport and has to be detached by two of the new-look camouflage-wearing security guards who have barely started shaving and are thus extra-keen to flaunt their great big rifles around.... well, more truthfully, boyfriend escorts me to the airport in order to make sure I actually get on the plane, thus giving him two and a half weeks of relative peace and quiet. (He has just given me a new suitcase for my birthday. Thoughtful gesture or heavy hint? You be the judges.) He waits till I get through security, watching through the glass to make sure I have REALLY GONE, then shoots off ecstatically for two weeks R'n'R -- poker, beer, every kind of sport available to humanity, friends passing out on his sofa and adorning it with new interesting stains to add to the already-impressive collection. But what do I care? There's Duty Free ahead of me! I blow him a loving ki! ss while simultaneously wresting my credit card from my pocket. It whimpers, but I pay it no heed. There are two mini-size bottles of Ralph Lauren Romance up there with my name on them. I also slather my face with very expensive Chanel moisturiser, having read in all the magazines that long-distance flying is very dehydrating. I am thinking about actually for the first time in my life spending some serious dosh on eye cream so try three (3) of them out. Nothing really seems to be working miracles. They are all thin and green, like bile. There goes my Estee Lauder endorsement.

Sleep on the flight, change planes in San Francisco and leave my beloved straw cowboy hat somewhere in the terminal, sob -- and yes, I know there's a song about that -- sleep more. Have been feeling slightly fluey for a few days so have not drunk coffee or alcohol and have brought large quantities of grapefruit juice with me. Drink it all, annoy everyone else by getting up to wee a lot. Sleep. And so it goes for twenty-two hours or so. An eventful journey.

Must start thinking about my keynote speech.

Sunday 15 October (yup, I lost a day)
Three bottles of wine and a half-bottle of dessert wine. With lunch. And cigarettes. That's more like it.*

My beloved friend Robert is waiting for me, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at Sydney airport. I have blagged two weeks with my darling Robert, hooray! Robert and I met in Italy -- he waitered and then managed the restaurant where I used to work. He is Australian and formidably sophisticated, having lived all over Europe, and when we ended up sharing a house together for a year he raised my general gracious-living standards IMMEASURABLY. Unfortunately I have sunk back since into my usual squalor, but what can you do? Robert and I embrace madly and exit into glorious Sydney warmth and sunshine. Blue skies, white arching airline terminal, clean spaces and happy, lightly-dressed people. Toto, we're not in New York any longer. Back to Robert's exquisite flat, where I fall asleep for the morning, and am roused for lunch which we have at the Clock, the restaurant Robert manages. Very chic and incredibly friendly staff. We are joined by Martin, another old friend from Italy, who us! ed to rent a room from me and my boyfriend and remembered when I was trying to write my second book, Too Many Blondes, and used to shout at him for making too much noise in the kitchen when I was trying to concentrate. Apologise retrospectively. Martin is looking gorgeous and successful, since he is now the head chef of the hottest restaurant of the moment in Sydney. Immediately make plans to eat there and drop his name a lot. Eat pate, fried oysters with chili jam, smoked salmon for starters and then order duck ravioli for a main course. We gossip madly and catch up on each others' lives and suddenly the dessert wine is finished, the dessert plate is scraped clean, and it's five o'clock. Unbelievable. I am so floating with jet-lag -- that sensation where your skin seems to be hovering a few inches around your body, a weird dissociation -- that I don't even feel drunk. We go home and I sleep right through till the next day... must start thinking about my keynote zzzzzzz.....

Monday 16 October
Lots of white wine and fags

... when Robert wakes me gently and reminds me that we are LEAVING FOR THE BEACH today. Yee-har! One of Robert's dearest friends, a deeply fab tart called Marianne, lives up (down? Australian subs please check) the coast in a town called Byron Bay, and we are going to stay with her for the next few days and WORK ON OUR TANS. I have met Marianne in Italy, when she came to stay with Robert and me, and remember her with great fondness. At the time she had met a foot-fetishist in Singapore over the internet and was considering whether to stop for a couple of days on her way back to Australia to let him worship her tootsies. Am naturally curious to see how that turned out.#

Robert gives me breakfast -- mangoes and papayas so fresh and rich it's like eating ice-cream or dessert, not just fruit. Can't believe what the fruit's like here. Everyone's been telling me the produce in Australia is a world away from the stuff we get in Europe/America, and they're right. We pile into Robert's gold turbo Peugeot 306 -- very nice -- and I sleep for a good part of the 9-hour drive. Partly inactivity, partly jet-lag, partly Robert's trance-dance music which immediately lulls me into a gentle drowse. It's another gorgeous sunny day. I could sob with happiness. We stop for a little picnic at lunchtime and arrive mid-afternoon to be greeted by Marianne, who has gone blonde and looks I think even better than she did as a brunette. (Makes me want to go blonde again, actually. Hmnnn....) Marianne's house is utterly fabulous, one of those one-level houses that look unpromising from the front (which is really the back) but takes your breath away as soon as you walk i! n the front door. A Zen garden behind glass is the first thing you see, with the little swimming pool gleaming in the sunlight behind it. It's built open-plan with two wings and cunningly allows large amounts of people -- me, Robert, Marianne, her son Woody, and a large itinerant population of friends and family to hang out there every day without anyone feeling remotely crowded. Robert and I even have our own rooms, what bliss. I go to sleep again for a couple of hours and emerge to find Robert and Marianne drinking some very good chilled white wine round the kitchen table, together with Marianne's ex-husband Peter, who turns out to be a top bloke -- they are still running together the cafe they founded many years ago, and have raised three kids in happy amiability all through the separation. Think of my parents' slightly less mature divorce proceedings (Mum: "Your father is the DEVIL INCARNATE!" Dad: "Your mother is the ANTICHRIST!"+) and blanch. Well, too late to point out ! to Marianne and Peter that they have done it all wrong, poor things. Joined by their 20-year old son Sam and his girlfriend Pussycat. They seem happy, stable, and balanced. Dear God, Marianne and Peter have really fucked up these poor children. What kind of material will they have to write about if they want to become tortured artists?

Eat a lot of lovely nibbles that Marianne puts out and then retire to bed again, stuffed and happy.

Must start thinking about my keynote speech.

Tuesday 17 October
Four large glasses of Riesling and a superb Tawny Shiraz to finish. Yum.

Wake at 9 -- I get up really early all holiday because of the jetlag. Robert and I go to Marianne and Peter's Beach Cafe for brekkie. It has a gorgeous terrace overlooking Byron Bay's main beach, and very prettily designed and painted. Also the brekkie is outstanding. Eggs, bacon, corn and potato rosti, avocado. Say hi to Marianne, who is doing important top-level work, ie reading the papers, do some errands in Byron Bay -- what a pretty little town it is, all the lovely Australian bright colours, loads of shops and bars and cafes and yet without a chainstore in sight. Apparently the town council have determinedly kept out McDonalds and its ilk and refused to let developers build highrises on the beach, and Byron is gorgeous. Manages to be very alternative without being hippie. See some cute surfer boys but they are all a bit skinny for my tastes -- suppose this is more aerodynamic or something but personally I prefer a bit more meat and muscle on those bones. I buy two stra! w cowboy hats to replace my lost one -- and because it's Australia I get a fuschia one with silver studs and a lavender one. They are gorgeous but God knows where I'll wear them apart from here -- I'll have to go back to Miami! We hit the beach, which is fabulous. A nature reserve, all white sands and aquamarine sky. It's mainly gay, so a few cute naked men wandering around, but there are some chicks too and I can go naked, which I love -- I hate white marks and my bum always looks better (ie smaller) nice and brown. Read Vanity Fair and Harper's Bazaar in tanning ecstacy, with the occasional swim for exercise. Huge waves in the sea, very exciting, and the water so clean it has ruined me for the Adriatic/Mediterranean/Atlantic for the rest of my life... Robert, being paler than me, retreats to the shade after a while. I go for a pee in the bushes but since this is a gay beach, I immediately disturb some poor sod with his willy out who looks HORRIFIED at the sight of me and runs! away. Feel terrible. Wee in the sea instead from then on.

Dinner at a very, very smart restaurant, Byron Bay's first Sydney/New York trendy place, called Dish. Hugely design-conscious with white padded leather stools and couches at the bar. Great food but the waiters are very unfocussed (trans: I don't get my champagne quickly enough). They aren't doing the New York "I'm an actor/model/Eurotrash and much too beautiful to waste my valuable time on you peons" -- they're just a bit dozy and keep forgetting things. Robert is just itching to get his hands on them and train them up properly. Finish with the most wonderful dessert wine I've ever had, a tawny Shiraz which is utterly exquisite, sort of a Madeira but less sweet and more complex. (Seppelt '85 Seppeltsfield Show Vintage Shiraz, if anyone wants to send me a bottle.) We stagger home. Robert, who has a tattoo of a rose on his shoulder, has been meaning to get an anchor on the other for ages -- he was talking about it in Italy, six years ago -- and Marianne mentions that th! ere are great tattoo parlours in Byron. Robert announces he'll get one done and I say drunkenly: "Oh well, if shou're going to do it I'll gesh one done too!" We shake hands.

Must shtart sshinking about my keynote scchhpeech.

Thursday 18 October
3? glasses of sparkling wine, a Cosmo, Riesling. No Shiraz alas as I was pissed as a fart by the dessert stage.

Wake up remembering I said I would get a tattoo. Panic. Decide everyone will probably have forgotten all about it. Robert and I go for breakfast at the Beach Cafe and Marianne yells across the bar -- "So when are you two going for your tattoos?" Panic all over again. It's a bit windy today -- it being spring in Australia -- and Robert and I spend the day in Byron. I go for a yoga class -- very good, but of course I have to show off as I am a foreigner and don't want to look crap in front of the locals -- and Lance, the teacher, makes me do the near-split position much, much further than I have ever done it before. Stagger away terrified of incipient groin strain. (NB: three weeks later my groin is still feeling it when I do high-leg stretches, think Lance might have been a tad over-enthusiastic.)

Shop in the afternoon for film and take lots of stupid photos of Robert and me. In the evening I do a reading at the local boosktore, Persephone's Window, which has laid on not only a lavish supply of my books but also a ditto supply of wine. Lovely. The Persephone ladies really know how to entertain British crime writers. I have asked Robert to read in the Tom dialogue for the Tom-and-Sam-get-drunk-in-IKEA scene but by the time we get to read it Robert is a bit drunk and so over-compensates by sounding too sober. Irony, eh? We head back to Dish for dinner and bump into some of Byron's very stylish locals. All, in tribute to the trendy vibe, dressed in black -- very unusual for Australia. Marianne points out a luridly-painted hippie van passing on the street, looking so beaten-up it might just break down forever at any second, and says it belongs to what the locals call 'ferals' -- a sort of alternative-lifestyle mix of crusties and hippies, white skinny kids ! with dreadlocks, who live on communes in the bush. She says someone put out an alternative Barbie doll a while ago called "Feral Sheryl", which charms me inordinately. The van's roof is covered with strapped-on oil drums, held together only by the rust patches. "Probably filled with hemp oil", Marianne says.

Really really MUSSHT SHHTART thinking about my keynote sschpeech but have to take two Ssholpadeine first and passh out for a little while.

Friday 19 October
Two beers, considerable amounts of Gewurtztramminer

We go to the tattoo parlour this morning and discuss designs. I am pretty freaked but do my best, in front of the very macho guys, to pretend I'm not. My request for a Cosmo glass, tilted on its side, dripping pink drops, at least takes them aback. Hah! I feel I have the upper hand for a moment. They say they'll draft something but look unsure. Robert meanwhile has found some great anchor designs and is ready to rock and roll. We decide we'll come back the next day, as today it's sunny and I want another day by the beach, which I couldn't have with a fresh tattoo -- sand, sun and salt water. A 24-hour reprieve. Still very ambivalent about the whole tattoo thing, but it feels that by now it has gathered an inexorable momentum. I've been talking about getting one for so long, I can't back out now. I have decided though not to get it on my upper back, which was always my original plan. It's looking nice and smooth and brown right now and it seems a shame to mark it permanentl! y with a tattoo -- and more importantly, I'd spend my life flapping over whether it was being partly cut up by my strappy frocks. Like the idea of being able to show it only when I really choose to. Broached with Robert the idea of getting it on my outer hip, which is nice and muscly, but he says immediately, horrified: "Sweetie, no, do you want to look like a German backpacker?" Recoil at once. Decide instead on the lower back/upper bum. Then I really can only show it off when I want to. And at least that way it will cover a fraction of my cellulite. I don't wear hipsters and cut-off tops, because my tummy is scarcely Britneyesque, so tattoo will never show over the top of my jeans.

Go shopping to distract myself from pre-tattoo nerves and buy a pink and white gingham bikini which looks nice with my tan. Either I've lost weight or the tan is making me look slimmer (it's the latter, of course, with the amount I've been stuffing myself here) but I get one with ties on the side and it actually looks relatively decent. Was expecting to burst into tears and rip it off, muttering something about whale blubber and begging the salesgirl for something with big minimiser tummy-control pants in black, so the bikini does actually manage to cheer me up. Still nervous though. Robert and I take Marianne and Peter for dinner at an award-winning fish restaurant in Byron, Fins, and have a superb meal. I eat parrotfish and it's incredible. Marianne and Peter are actually celebrating -- as it were -- their divorce, which is finalised today. We drink champagne. It's a weird, but lovely moment -- two people actually able to still love each other but move on with their lives.! Doubtless the only couple I will ever know who manage to handle things this well. Jolly impressive. Concentrate on this to avoid the voice in my brain which is yelling: "Tattoo! Tattoo! Run away!!"

Keynote speech worries completely obliterated by tattoo panic.

Saturday 20 October
Celebratory glass of champagne, lots and lots and lots of white wine

In the morning I do a yoga class to calm me down. Lots of backbends and Lance lets me do full backbends over from standing, and then back up to standing again, which I love, so I am feeling a bit more at peace with myself and my imminent self-mutilation when I emerge two hours later. Woody, Marianne and Peter's son, prints out for me a copy of the martini glass on the Tart City website, which I have decided to use for my tattoo, not trusting either myself or the tattoo guys to design something original. It looks much better than my Cosmo idea, and has a really cute cocktail stirrer in it. It is in two colours -- neon green and neon violet. Take it into the tattoo parlour, where they are too cool to comment openly, but I notice they are quite enjoying the idea of doing something different. The guy wants to do it in the original neon but I point out that now I'm tanned and in Australia, but my usual life is being pasty in New York, and neon will look really sad and poignant ! against fishbelly winter skin. So we go for a slightly darker, richer version of the colours, and the next thing I'm straddling the chair like Christine Keeler with someone called Gary sticking needles into my back. Jesus God, what have I done? It hurts, but not too badly. I am lucky enough not to have any problems with needles, and a reasonably high pain threshold, and I keep expecting it to get worse, but it stays bearable, if a bit nastier on the side of my back closer to the spine. I breathe into it in approved yoga style and it's over much sooner than I expected. "Congratulations," Gary says, "you've been initiated." In fact the whole thing was much easier than I thought it would be. Am immediately scared by how easy it is to get tattoos and flash to an image of myself as a freak show in twenty years time with my entire body covered in lurid designs featuring naked young men who wiggle suggestively when I flex my muscles.

Robert and I go off to have a drink, me putting a hand to the small of my back every five minutes to make sure the pad isn't slipping and staining my French Connection orange linen skirt ($120 original price and unlined. Those people are so cheap to sell unlined linen for that money. Still, I bought it on sale half price.) I am officially in shock. E-mail my boyfriend to say I have an exciting surprise for him which he'll see when I get back, realise this might sound like I'm pregnant (which I'm not, thank you, Val McDermid**) and hurriedly add a line saying 'nothing you need to worry about, sweetheart!' Hope this doesn't make him panic still worse. Marianne is hostessing a dinner party at hers tonight -- she buys huge quantities of fresh prawns and oysters. Amazing. I pig on prawns. Can't quite manage to like oysters, but I eat two with loads of lemon juice, not wanting to wimp out. Wish I did like them -- they are clearly the ultimate diet food. They take a long time to e! at and have no calories at all. Then Robert and I make 3 kinds of risotto -- red, white and green like the Italian flag. I have been wanting to do this for ages. I put Robert on white (parmesan and cream) and take red (sundried tomato and tomato puree) and green (pesto). Get Robert to spoon them into stripes on the plates, as he has a steadier hand. Then proceed to get horrifically drunk in reaction -- great excuse! -- for all the tattoo-related stress today. Go to bed early, which is a shame as everyone's lovely. Robert's jewellery designer friend Adrian, who lives in Melbourne, is there with a very sexily tattooed friend of his called Stacy, and there is also a gorgeous chick called Jo who used to be an undercover drugs officer and actually looks as sexy and fabulously-dressed as the actresses who play chicks like her on TV. I always like it when that happens.

Muusssht shhtart.... zzzz...

Sunday 21 October
Two Asahis -- no fags because Robert's car is non-smoking, v good

Wake up very cross with myself at having passed out early and not talked more to Jo and everyone else there. Still, she said she would try to come to Melbourne for the Sisters in Crime conference I'm doing there, so maybe I'll see her again. Meanwhile Robert has decided to go to Melbourne while I'm there, staying with Adrian, so that'll be fun. We pack up and drive back to Sydney, stopping to take photos of me under a petrol station decorated with a 30-foot giant sculpted pink prawn on the top. I am really not making this up. Dutifully, I am washing my tattoo twice a day with soap and water and then smearing it with nappy cream. It seems fine. And, thank God, every time I squint over my shoulder at it in the mirror, it makes me smile. It looks rather cheeky and it is actually managing to redeem in my eyes the least favourite part of my body. Robert and I get into Sydney early evening and I take him out for a Thai meal to say thank you for doing all the driving. Even the c! heap Thai food here is amazingly good, much better than the stuff I get in New York -- cleaner, the tastes crisper. Better ingredients I suppose.

No, enough's enough, I really MUST start thinking about my keynote speech...

Monday 22 October
Two glasses of champagne, two white wine spritzers, glass of wine at home

This is my Sydney media day so I am collected bright and early (7:30 sob sob) by the Random House publicist, Annie. She is an ex-Newcastle girl transported to Sydney and terribly pretty, develop a huge crush on her as the day goes on. Do lots of radio and have lunch with Annie and a very sexy chick from Lesbians on the Loose, a magazine, at a restaurant called Manta Ray on a newly-renovated wharf where the new Ian Schrager hotel is -- very chic, darlings. It's a beautiful hot sunny day and we sit outside watching the giant, luxurious, motorboats moored at the wharf with the sea lapping around them, fantasising about owning one ourselves. Sod sailing, give me a big motorboat with a fully-stocked bar, enough space to tan and a cute skipper called Juan and I'd be ready to rumble. Oh yes, possibly also an outside Jacuzzi, can you get those on motorboats? Eat gnocchi with prawn and brown butter, which is as odd as it sounds. But filling. Then back to more interviews and a merci! ful two hours kip. Am ambushed by a photographer at the offices of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where I have practically been living all day -- knew there was an interview, but not about photos, and it's 9 in the evening after a long day. I blanch and plead fatigue but he is really nice and before I know it I am throwing myself over a black leather chair and trying to look moody and interesting. Luckily he has a digital camera and is sweet enough to show me the shots so I can immediately delete the ones where I look rougher than sandpaper and have two chins. I hope.

Then I have the last interview of the day, a late-night show hosted by a bloke called Phillip Adams who is very big over here. As soon as I walk into the studio, he says to me: "But you're attractive! I thought you'd be an old feminist boiler!" Off-air, natch. This is rich coming from a bald old guy with a bushy beard and a paunch like a kangaroo. The interview, which is done live, is an obstacle course. He does his best to patronise me (and the other interviewee, Sue Turnbull from Sisters in Crime) by referring repeatedly to crime novels as trash. Finally I decide there's no point playing nice and point out firstly that Somerset Maugham repeatedly sang the praises of crime novels. Doubt Phillip has ever read any Somerset Maugham, so this holds him for a moment. Then he says that people get addicted to them, disapprovingly, and I say that Ian McEwan says that Angela Carter is his favourite drug, so being addicted to books is no indication that they're cheap and nasty. Fin! ally he says he likes to read Patricia Cornwell but not in public, so I fix him with a beady eye and say, 'But Phillip, you should come out!' He boggles at me and I add: 'Take that Patricia Cornwell out of the brown-paper jacket and read her on the bus with pride!' Although I hold my own this is very wearing and I'm glad when it's over -- he clearly wanted us on the show just to show off at our expense, so I hope I knocked that on the head. Afterwards, off-air, he says to me: "You're good on the radio... " and staring at my bosoms, he adds thoughtfully: "You're very bouncy." Stagger home to Robert who is ensconced in blissful harmony reading some intellectual tome after a healthy day of gym and steamed vegetables, and decompress by slagging off Adams and all his works for half an hour. At least Adams' producer came out to me afterwards and said she wanted to interview me for a series she's doing on crime novelists, so something good came out of it.

Much too busy to write keynote speech, tomorrow another day and all that.

Tuesday 23 October
Lots of rose, a Cosmo, Riesling again, dessert wine, large amounts of red wine

Robert and I get up earlyish and go to the gym. Hooray! Then we have lunch with his friend Michelle, a hotshot photographer, and her girlfriend Edwina and Edwina's little daughter, at a restaurant called Fratelli Paradiso. I eat carpaccio and calamari and suddenly it's 3:30. It later transpires that Robert ordered another bottle of rose without my noticing. I just kept drinking when people kept filling my glass, but didn't see a new bottle being ordered, so vaguely thought it was OK. Whoops. We go to Michelle's apartment for a pick-me-up. It's an extraordinary place -- minimalism taken to an extreme I've only ever seen -only ever thought existed -- in magazines. A big apartment building with two airshafts towards the front, made of clear glass, and at the base two inches of water over gravel in each. Nothing else. The apartment is all white and black and granite with one orange sofa and a huge colour fashion photo, taken by Michelle -- very striking. Everything away in cupbo! ards. Bathroom like a designer hotel, nothing personal in it at all. Very impressive in its way. Robert and I go home for a nap and then out to the Wharf for dinner, a restaurant co-owned by Anders, the owner of the Clock, who has very sweetly comped us dinner here. It's spectacular, right at the edge of another converted wharf with incredibly high ceilings and an amazing view of the harbour. Boats pass constantly, strings of light on the dark water. Would be incredibly romantic if Robert and I were a couple. Instead we just stuff our faces and gossip as usual. I eat bone marrow and lamb shank and my pudding is a threesome of a miniature lime parfait, a grapefruit jelly and a raspberry granita, all lined up on a long rectangular white plate like chemistry samples. It is utterly delicious. Go home replete and stay up getting very drunk and setting the world to rights (aka talking about sex) till 4. Oh dear.

SPEECH. SPEECH. SPEECH. Maybe I could just show them my tattoo instead?

Wednesday 24 October
Glass of champagne, vodka caipirinha, white wine, red wine, dessert wine

Awake, hungover, at 12. No gym for us this morning. Deep sorrow and guilt but no time to dwell on it because we are going for lunch at an amazing restaurant called the MG Garage, next door to Robert's restaurant, which is a combination restaurant and MG showroom and has four MGs parked throughout the place. Incredible, eh? We walked past it the first day I got there and I goggled and said: "We MUST go there!" It is also renowned for its food and as they know Robert they poured us glasses of champagne as we walked in the door. I actually manage not to drink anything else with lunch though. The food is good -- I have prawns in chickpea batter and then fishcakes -- but a little patchy, only two really good dishes out of Robert's and my four. Still, eating right next to the cutest little MG bottom in the world is very chic and the toilets are fab. Roll home and have another little nap before getting up and WRITING KEYNOTE SPEECH. It needs work still but the bones are there than! k God. Having written the Tart Noir anthology introduction recently with Stella (Duffy), I have statistics to hand on the amount of times women have won major crime awards compared to men (it's pitiful) and I lard the speech heavily with these. It turns out as a bit of a rallying cry, which I like. Short, though. But hell, I'm speaking after the Mayor of St Kilda (place it's being held) and Carmel, one of the major organisers, so bugger it, everyone's going to be gagging for a drink and applaud me extra for keeping it short. Right? Right?

We go to Martin's restaurant, Longrain, for dinner. Now anyone who's got this far with the diary is doubtless staring at it in horror and muttering, "How can she eat all this food? Did they let her onto the plane going home or was she too big to fit into the cabin and had to go in the hold?" Well, Australian food is wonderful, and a lot lighter than one would imagine. The portions aren't huge and we skipped dessert a lot of the time and didn't eat breakfast. Also, I am a major foodie, and having worked in the restaurant in Italy with Robert and Martin and many other incredibly talented cooks, I have always wanted to eat my way through Sydney. So this was my unashamed, pig-out holiday and I wear my slightly larger tummy with pride.

Martin's restaurant is very stripped-down trendy -- big slabs of shiny wooden tables which run the length of the room, it's communal dining, a beautiful dull-gold wall behind the bar and shiny shiny wooden floors so polished I slip and nearly go arse over tit when going to the loo. Told Robert about it the next day and he said: "Are you sure it wasn't because you were completely pissed?" I sneer at him. Anyway, Martin greets us with his house cocktails, which are caipirinhas made with vodka instead of rum and frighteningly moreish. He has just come from a photoshoot (get him!) and is looking very smart. We sit down and have one of the best meals I have ever eaten in my life. Seared tuna salad, a new abalone dish they are trying out which isn't on the menu yet (get me!), beef shank, fried pork, and a whole red snapper with chili jam, sweet flesh and crispy skin... it's all exquisite. Dessert is a platter of every single pudding available -- a clear coconut and vanilla jelly ! which I can STILL taste in my mouth, unbelievably delicate, mango sorbet, coconut cream, sweet sticky rice, and all beautifully presented. I am unspeakably impressed. And even though we stuffed ourselves, the food was so light and delicious that we don't feel too sick. A triumph.

Thursday 25 October
3 glasses of sparkling wine

My last day in Sydney, sob sob. Gym, then lunch at a restaurant called The Pier where a friend of Robert's, Gaby, works. She is one of those chicks who wear no makeup and just radiates beauty from every pore. Potentially rather wearing but she is so nice you can't hold it against her. We eat a little salmon canape for starters and then Gaby brings us a plate of the best smoked salmon I have ever eaten, gleaming pink-orange with a crusty border of crushed coriander seeds. Then we get to the food we actually ordered -- I have kingfish tartare, big chunks of it, really fresh and special, and then a green prawn curry which is as sophisticated in taste as a good wine. Then Gaby brings us a raspberry cream tart to share. Even I am really very full now. Robert loads me onto the plane with a forklift truck and the plane actually manages to take off despite being heavily overloaded on the side I'm sitting. We have turbulence coming into Melbourne and the bloke sitting next to me st! arts talking to me about air disasters. Though this sounds awful he is actually reassuring, as he just keeps saying casually as the plane bounces around, "Ah, don't worry, she'll be right," which is a very Australian expression. He is so relaxed that even when we get hit by lightning (it was lovely, you can imagine) he does manage to calm me down to some degree. Give him my Anne Tyler "Back When We Were Grownups" by way of thanks. (It's OK but not her best.) He turns out to be a Mercedes dealer, of all things.

At Melbourne I am met at the gate by two fabulous chicks from Sisters in Crime, who have invited me to Melbourne for their first ever crime conference. They are Lindy Cameron, a very good crime writer, and her girlfriend Chele, and they both have such evil senses of humour and are so down to earth I feel at home immediately. (mind you, this seems to be the rule rather than the exception for Australian women, they're great.) They whisk me off to our cute little hotel in St Kilda. I have a SUITE, hah hah, with a fridge and lots of chocolate. Excellent. Unpack and meet Lindy and Chele in the bar for a drink or three. The bar has a separate smoking section which quickly becomes the official conference late-night hangout -- small and very cosy. We settle in at once. The rest of the Sisters come in -- maybe the collective noun for a group of Sisters should be a posse? -- and Carmel promptly scares me rigid by checking with me to make sure my speech is at least 25 minutes long. "We! ll, not quite that," I say nervously. "Oh don't worry," Lindy says, "you can just speak slowly." This bracing encouragement is all very well but now I am panicking. Some genius suggests I augment it by putting in the Phillip Adams bit as I have told them the story already and they were very amused by it. Leave relatively sober as have to add to my deathless words (ie pad out frantically) by at least half a page tomorrow. Shit. Shit. Shit. Vivienne, the organiser who got me here in the first place (BIG thanks!) gives me a bottle of the SheKilda champagne they have labelled specially for the event -- great concept. I am too panicked even to crack it in my room alas.

Friday 26 October
SheKilda champagne, red wine

Day a bit of a blur as am buzzing around in panic at (a) writing speech and (b) actually having to give it, have never given a keynote speech/opened a conference/anything like this before. Wonder if I should try to shatter a bottle of SheKilda champagne across my bows to launch conference instead of actually trying to make speech, it could scarcely be worse. Do a radio interview with a station who actually banned Lindy from being on it to promote the festival, because she was lesbian. Am outraged and not only plug Lindy's books rotten but keep saying the word 'LESBian' pointedly on air, which I enjoy tremendously. The inaugural bit goes very well, with a speech from the Mayor -- who turns out to be a single-father 28 year-old with an earring and a definite bisexual frisson. Was expecting something in a blue blazer with Masonic emblems, so this is something of a shock. He gives a speech about his 5-year old daughter threatening to poo on her teacher which is a very hard act! to follow. Glower at him resentfully. Then Carmel gives a speech and then it's me. AAAGH! I start by saying that this is not only the first ever Australian crime writers' conference, but the first ever women writers'-only one, and am about to ask for applause when they all clap spontaneously, bless their hearts. This is so encouraging that I plough ahead feeling more secure, and it seems to go well. Hooray! After that there's a huge weight off my shoulders and we all have drinks and go to a restaurant called Leo's opposite the hotel for a big dinner. Catch up with Ron, a bookseller from Brisbane I met at Boucheron last year, who is lovely, very funny, and more importantly nice and RUDE++, and my sweet Annie from Random House. Go to bed earlyish -- 12 -- as I have a 9:30 panel the next morning.

Saturday 27 October
Lots and lots of red wine, 2 glasses champagne

The panels go really well -- the conference has been organised very smoothly and there's a great turnout with a load of enthusiastic fans who really seem to be enjoying themselves. Lindy chairs the first panel and is great, which is an excellent start. I do one later which is the only panel I've ever been on where the moderator started by reading out a ten-minute speech about how good her and her friends' books were, which was certainly different, but that's a minor blip. Pop out in the afternoon to get my nails done -- I had a terrible accident with a new-fangled vegetable peeler in Byron Bay -- and find a woman who acrylics my ragged edges expertly into place. Thank God, I was beginning to look like an Addams Family reject. Then we have the Davitt award ceremony for the best crime novel of the year by an Australian woman writer. The winner is in Tokyo researching her next book and has nominated her husband to pick it up for her, but he's in the loo throwing up with nerves ! (even though he knew she won) so someone else does the honours. Since the award is being presented by the first-ever woman police commissioner in Australia, some of us naughty spirits amuse ourselves by speculating that she arrested the husband years back and he doesn't want his sordid past to come out. All totally untrue and scurrilous but it strikes the writers among us that this would be a very nice start for a crime thriller...

Then off to the celebratory banquet, which is a blast. The Sisters have hired a band called the Stiletto Sisters, three sexy chicks in Russian outfits who play fiddle, accordion and double-bass, and whip up some jolly mazurkas during dinner. We do a raffle, for which the prizes are having your names used as characters in the next novels written by some of the crime writers present. I pull out Viliama Grakalic, a Croatian woman who, weirdly enough, is sitting next to me at dinner, and even more weirdly, considering that Sam, my heroine, is a metal sculptor, Viliama is a sculptor too. Who works with metal. We are both freaked by this and I abandon plans simply to kill her horribly in my next book and start working out how to put her sculpture in as well. Go out on the balcony for a fag and chat to Vivienne and Carmel and their boyfriends, who turn out to be old-school lefties who know some of the people who I worked on Marxism Today## with back in London. V nostalgic moment! -- knew there was some reason we all got along so well! In the late stages of the evening the Stilettos finish with a can-can, which we all do, and then they leave and the evening degenerates into song. Chele turns out to have a lovely voice and leads us in 'American Pie'. I bow out at 'Bohemian Rhapsody', which Lindy, Carmel, Vivienne, Heather and various other degenerate souls with very nice voices punch out, and we finally stagger over to the hotel bar. Survivors are me, Lindy, Chele and Maya, a very cute fan. The barman finally throws us out just before 2, which is a mercy as we would just have gone on drinking otherwise....

Sunday 28 October
SheKilda champagne, Cosmo, white wine

Sleep in! Get up at 12! Lovely! Toddle over to the Town Hall, where the conference is being held, for my last panel, the final one. It's called 'Fornicating Women, or Just Pussyfooting Around', but everyone has beeing referring to it since its inception as the 'Sex Panel'. It's a lot of fun and pretty silly. People keep trying to raise the question of whether lesbians have more fun in bed, which naturally I dispute hotly. And then it's all over and everyone hugs everyone else goodbye. It's obvious SheKilda has been a raving success, so the atmosphere is really happy and relaxed. Apart from the having-to-pack-up boxes part. I try to help but clearly am only causing more trouble, so peel away and meet Lindy, Chele and Sally, another organiser, later for a final chat. Eat an enormous slice of Mars Bar cake. Meet Robert and Adrian later for a dinner at a restaurant called Pearl which is so fashionably designed I can't work out how to open the front door and have to bang on th! e window to ask someone in the bar to sign-gesture how to get in. The boys are looking exquisite in shades of muted pearly-grey and brown -- ah, the bliss of dining out with two handsome men. Still, we are all fairly shattered after a long fun-packed weekend, and get to bed relatively early. Hate saying goodbye to Robert, God knows how long it'll be till I see him again.

Monday 29 October

A long, long flight home. 3 planes and stopovers in Auckland (I buy a lot of sheep products and some sheep-shaped chocolates at the duty free) and finally home to New York. I got my day back! Boyfriend is waiting at airport (aaah), having done an intensive weight-training programme in my absence to enable him to help carry my groaning luggage. Back home I flash him my tattoo and he says it's 'kind of cool'. Big phew. Was nervous he would be averting his eyes every single time he had to look at my naked bottom -- but then, considering the state of my cellulite, the martini glass must be a nice distraction.

Thursday 1 November

Go to Bouchercon. But that's a whole other story....

* for my public expecting industrial quantities of cocktails, I must point out that though these are readily available in Australia, the indigenous wine is so wonderful that I preferred to drink that, particularly as I had Robert, Sommelier Supreme, to pick out the top tips for me.

# in case you're in suspense I must tell you now that she never went, sadly.

+ which of course makes me Damienne Omen, haha.

** Since seeing me coo over her adorable baby this summer Val has been telling everyone that I'll be pregnant by the end of the year. My poor boyfriend is of course unaware of this, which is lucky considering the possible horrendous tattoo/pregnancy misunderstandings which might have ensued.

++ I like Ron even though I know that in his eyes I am only a poor second to the lovely Rosemary Stevens (Regency crime writer) who is a Southern belle par excellence. Ron has a crush the size of the Watford Gap on Rosemary.

## MT was actually more a European-style Commie social democrat magazine, just to reassure the Americans who are freaking at the "M" word.

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