Saturday, December 08, 2007

A hypothetical holiday

There’s nothing like a holiday to refresh the mind.

That is, unless your holiday is punctuated by a helluva lot of work. Including spending your first day finishing up an already overdue 3500 word assignment - albeit in a beautiful setting, your laptop perched on a deck overlooking bush and framed by jasmine, taking breaks to swim and eat fish and chips.

And by getting up at 6:30am the following day to catch the bus back to Melbourne, where you will do more work and attend your work Christmas party.

At said Christmas party you will proofread the publication you had hoped to be proofing for the last time at lunchtime that day, amusing yourself by scaring people off, waving said publication at them and inviting them to help. To your horror, said publication will still be unfinished at this time. (It will have, since the weekend, been under the control of Someone Else.) Someone Else suggests you come back at 3pm the day after the party to do a final proofread. You point out that you will be at the beach, approximately three hours away, and that you will have no internet access. You reluctantly outsource your editorial duties.

Despite the fact you don’t drink much anymore, you down successive glasses of white wine and champagne in an effort to erase the panicked anxiety you feel. Luckily, you don’t (you think) say anything particularly stupid to anyone. You are pathetically, overwhelmingly grateful for the presence of your Longstanding Friend, who offers to help you proofread. In fact, without you asking, she takes half the pages from you and follows you to the doorway of the club where your party is being held, where you both settle behind the counter with your pens and your wineglasses, squinting through the dim light and battling your lightly toasted brains.

You catch a cab home after midnight and fall into the empty bed awaiting you at home. You wake feeling ill at 4am. And again at 5am, 6am and 7am. At 8am you tumble out of bed, check your emails, throw some clothes on and catch the train to Footscray station, where you embark for the beach again.

The journey to Melbourne approximately 24 hours earlier was peaceful, drowsy. Your few fellow passengers had slept on the bus from the beach. Today, just a couple of hours later, the bus is full of tourists: backpacking teenagers in skimpy singlet tops and short shorts, a Japanese couple with cameras swinging from their necks, pensioners in polo shirts. The mood is festive; instead of air-conditioned silence, the bus is noisy with piped commercial music that assaults your hungover eardrums. Luckily, you have come prepared with your i-Pod and a selection of music loud enough to drown out Sneaky Sound System or Celine Dion or whatever the hell is popular at the moment. You mainline The Smashing Pumpkins at full volume as the bus navigates the Great Ocean Road.

You are cranky. You are aware that you are deserting your post by leaving your work unfinished, but also aware that this is not what you signed up for. And that staying would be deserting the post at your marriage. You try very hard not to think about work.

Back at the beach house, you bundle yourself in a pink blanket and huddle on a cushioned bench on the balcony with a book. Sulphur-crested cockatoos flock in a tree over the road, like jaunty Australiana-themed Christmas decorations. A pair of magpies swoop towards your head, flying low over the balcony. You retreat inside. The book blocks work out of your mind for a while. While you’re reading it. Every time you stop, the details of work and all the things you can’t control crowd in once again.

The following afternoon, you walk on the beach. It’s cold: tracksuit weather. Still, you know that the water is your best chance of feeling better again.

The water is choppy, magnificent in its fury. This is a grand tantrum, not a petty, circular buzzing argument: your own state of mind. You stand, thigh deep. The waves loom above you in the near distance. Turquoise walls of water rise, curve and dissolve into dramatic sprays of foam, spat back to shore. It is so cold that your skin actually tingles; tiny electric needles of shock. It is strangely pleasant after the initial sting. You throw yourself against the waves, over them, with them, standing still as they crash over you and through you.

You realise that perhaps you don’t find the sea relaxing, as you’ve always thought. Perhaps a better word is ‘exhilarating’.

You scan the distant waves for dark shapes. Against your will, you imagine a sudden pressure on your thigh, jaws clamping around you. You creep towards the shore. You tell yourself how silly you’re being, remind yourself how few people are actually attacked by sharks each year in the whole of Australia. Remember that it’s more dangerous crossing the road than standing here. You make your tentative way back towards the horizon. Followed by the slow creep back. It’s like a clumsy underwater dance.

You are no longer thinking about work. And on the way home, it remains, if not gone, banished to the dark corners of your mind.

Another day at the beach; this one glorious, sun-soaked. It leaves your hair thick with saltwater and your back streaked with sunburn, despite your regular applications of sunscreen. You finish two books: really good books that you don’t have to read for work. You eat lots of fish and chips and Magnums for dessert and walk the beach and the tracks around the lighthouse.

On the car ride home, you and The Husband manage to chatter about inconsequential matters. You remember your wedding two years ago at this same coastal retreat (your mother-in-law’s house, in fact) and reflect on how life has changed for the better.

At home, you unpack the car, hand your straw hat back on the hook in the bedroom, and sit down in your bathers and shorts to read the mail you unpicked from the mailbox.

You read the letter from Centrelink advising you that they want to prosecute you for fraud as a result of overpayments from three years ago (the result of a disputed phone call; overpayments you have been paying back, in instalments, for approximately three months).

That hard-won holiday insouciance dissolves as you read.

All those high-voltage thoughts, not just about this but about work too, crowd back into your head before five minutes have passed.

You lie awake past 3:30am and are almost (but not quite) late for listening to kids read in your son’s classroom the next day.

Welcome home, you think.


redcap said...

Those bastards! That's horrific! Have you rung and asked what the hell's going on?!

I know it's small compensation for such a horrid Christmas gift, but I spent most of this post thinking, "What a great post. Ariel is an amazing writer". Double plus not cool to make you proof at the Christmas show just because Someone Else can't get meet deadlines, though. Very unprofessional of them.

May the tables be turned on the Centrelink Nazis so that they find themselves having to work out exactly what their income is down to the last half a cent. That's just not right. (Can I fill their letterboxes with sauce?)

Ariel said...

Yup. And yup. Sadly, this is one of those cases where their records are the word of god and the fact that I did not note and date all my phone calls back then means I am fucked. Sigh. PUR-LEEZ fill their letterboxes with LOTS of sauce. (JOKE, in case any Centrelink apparatchik is spying on me here.)

Thanks for the small compensation, Redcap. It's much appreciated. GRRR re. Someone Else and deadlines. I love my job but I also HATE it.

Helen said...

I hate Centrelink.

redcap said...


Ariel said...

DITTO, Helen. And Redcap. Even my poor grandmother has apparently been in trouble in the past with them not having recorded her phone calls and overpaying her as a result, then blaming her. That smart woman keeps dates records, with reference numbers for each call and the first name of the Centrelink apparatchik in question. I shall follow her example from now on.

Penni said...

Oh my godfather, I loathe and detest centrelink. You poor thing. We got a bill for $1200 from them for Christmas. Noice. Plus we have to report in every five minutes because no one understands us because we are complex (basically Centrelink wants to break up with us because things are just getting too complicated but we have co-dependency issues).

I wonder if we were at the same Melbourne publishing Christmas Party. I didn't notice anyone proofreading. But then I parked myself near the bar, and changed locale exactly once.

Beach sounds good, in an invigorating, tequila shots, eating raw chili, facing your inner drama played out in the raw power of the ocean kind of way. I'm getting me some of that soon.

Ariel said...

Oh, that sucks, Penni. Sounds like we got a similar Christmas present. Maybe they actually time it for this time of year?! Good luck on breaking up with Centrelink some time. If only they were a nice cuddly efficient Swedish social security office!

No, I think you were at the Tuesday party by the sounds of it (don't know why I think that actually) - I was at the beach by then, facing my inner drama ...

My work party was a bit of a closed shop this year - staff and previous staff only. No partners, even.

Penni said...

I think my party was a Wednesday evening. But it was so long ago now, in a world where I went out without children. But allen & unwin. And it was huge, I'm pretty sure they invite anyone they ever met. I'm an author and freelancer for them.

Ariel said...

Ah, I thought it might be the A&U party (being someone they once met!) How funny, if I wasn't at the beach, we may well have met.

Was it fun? I have somehow been unable to make their party for the past three years.

However, my son has been a couple of times with his dad. He had a brilliant time - bowled up to Danny Katz and Terry Denton and told them how much he loved their work. I think they were a little startled!

Penni said...

It was extremely fun. I had about half a dozen glasses of champagne which is a lot for me and caught up with lots of people and felt distinctly not like someone's mother. It was grand. It's my social event of the year (which in itself is a touch tragic). I bet F had fun last year at the bowls club. I totally get his fanboyness, I wanted to do the same thing to Margo Lanagan at the A&U reading matters dinner this year. And I know one author who got drunk one year and kissed Danny Katz on the lips in a moment of heady drunken fannishness. Snigger.

The Blakkat said...

Noice post. I was going to write a quick centrelink antecdote of my own, but we've heard them all before! Who doesn't have a centrelink story, right? (Oh don't mean the bulk of Malcom Turnbull's constituents of course).

Does your son like Andy Griffiths? I've read his stories to death to children (I've even got a couple almost completely memorised) in the 7-10 age range. His appeal is amazing - and frankly, alarming on some level, but the kids just luv 'im.

Ariel said...

Ha! That's anecdote gold, Penni. Sounds like it was a great bash. Maybe next year ...

Blakkat, I'd love to hear your Centrelink anecdote. The more the merrier (or not, as the case may be). My son ADORES Andy Griffiths. He met him at a bookshop event earlier this year and told him that his friend's mother thought he was INAPPROPRIATE. Andy loved it.

The Blakkat said...

Wowser adults - love it! I've tried a couple of times to get to a book event with AG, but they're always been on at inconvenient times. I've hinted to our librarian that she might want to get him in for the author talk we have each year during book week. Not getting the hint, unfortunately. He'd be a big hit, that's for sure.

Maybe I'll start work on a centrelink post actually... I've got few stories!

Penni said...

I think I'm doing a panel with Andy Griffiths at the VWC in 2008 (in far off November or something). I'm a bit scared. He's like a stand up comedian and I'm so not.

cristy said...

You should appeal the decision. Just write an affidavit about your phone calls in order to provide the necessary evidence. A community legal centre lawyer should be able to witness it for you.

Helen said...

Yes, what Cristy said, I don't have a brain at the moment or would have suggested that (having worked in the Pubic service once) Try it, at least it'll make more work for them!

Ariel said...

Blakkat - Boo hiss to wowser adults!

Penni - That's impressive! But don't be scared. Every comedian needs a straight man (or woman, as the case may be).

Cristy & Helen - Yeah, I plan to do so if (when?) I actually get the official charge. I've been burning up the phone line to the Vic Legal Aid Centre and they've told me to come in if/when I'm served to assemble my case. Sigh. Wish me luck ... And thanks for the advice.