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.