Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Adelaide. It's weird how it makes me feel completely at home, yet completely alienated as well.

My dad now lives in the suburb where I grew up, where we lived until I was 14. Since he moved there, earlier this year, I feel a deeper connection to the place. Walking the streets, I feel like I belong. Memories I can often sense more than shape, embedded deep under my skin, tweak at my consciousness as I tread old paths. Like it or not, this is my foundation.

Yet I don't fit.

People ask what I do and I keep my answer as brief as possible, watching their gaze skip away. Books and bookshops are not, generally, seen as very interesting. Freelance work sounds flighty. They are a bit embarrassed for me. It's as if I haven't grown up and got a real job. Or, I'm a bit of a nerd.

Last year, my sister offered to pick me and F up on her way to my mum's house. We were at the library, opposite the local Westfield shopping centre. It was late December.
"Oh," she said when I told her where we were.
"So, we'll wait out the front and you can drive past and pick us up."
"Is that a problem?"
"We-ell ... can you go across the road and we'll meet you at the Plaza?"
It seemed odd - choosing a full carpark over a half-empty one. Later, she confirmed the suspicion I’d thought far-fetched when she told mum, "I couldn't be SEEN at the LIBRARY."

My sister is a cheerleader. She schedules regular appointments for applications of spray tans and squared plastic fingernails adorned with diamantes. She was a professional nightclub dancer, but her fiancé has asked her to stop - even though they met working at the same nightclub, her as a door bitch/dancer, him as the bouncer. These days, she is back working as a retail manager. We're all pleased, as she and her fiancé were the only two staff at the nightclub (which was owned by bikies) without a drug problem.

My brother lives around the corner from dad, opposite the same creek we lived opposite as children. His baby daughter will probably go to our old primary school, eventually. I can't get over these facts. And I can't decide if I'm envious, or horrified at the smallness of it. To be honest, I have both (conflicting) emotions - though they are both overridden by feeling pleased for him. It's what he wants, and I can see that it suits him.

He loves Coopers beer and Nirvana and AC/DC and Smashing Pumpkins. He loves his boat and his cars (the new 4WD and the old one he's hotting up) and his motorbike and his Foxtel, which plays all day as background noise on his big screen LCD television. More than these things, he loves his partner and his new baby, three months old. And he works astonishingly hard in a bank to pay for all their toys. He is paid astonishingly well and is set for a promotion and a pay rise, which will enable him to fulfil his dream of doubling his house in size.

We (my siblings and I) are almost used to the bank job. It still makes all of us - and him - smile, at odds with the preceding decade that he spent ingesting colossal quantities of drugs and drifting from odd job (Hungry Jacks), to Centrelink, to odder job (door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman).


I moved to Melbourne when I was 21. Not because I was dying to escape. My flatmate, who had recently split with his girlfriend (my former best friend) said to me one day, "I'm really sorry Ariel, but I'm thinking of moving to Melbourne. Just for a change of scene, you know."

"I'd love to do that!" I sighed. We'd visited Melbourne for a couple of long weekends and I had been captivated by its possibilities. The bohemian splendour of Fitzroy: its elegant Victorian terraces and the throngs of interesting-looking people crowding its pubs and cafes. The sticky floors and cavernous interiors of the Punter's Club. An array of multi-storied city nightclubs with gothic upper floors, tucked away in laneways. The way the buildings cast a shadow over the city streets. A choice of publishers to aspire to, instead of one adult's and one children's.

My flatmate invited me to come, so I did. I found a job first, pulling a sick day to attend my job interview in Melbourne. He was a chef, and assured me he'd get a job when he arrived. ("It'll be too easy," he assured me. "It'll take me a couple of days. Best wait ‘til I get there, or I'll have to leave early.") His dad, a truck driver, drove all our furniture and meagre belongings over, free of charge. My flatmate and I followed him by bus. On the long twelve-hour ride, too excited to sleep, we talked all night. He told me about all the female friends of mine he'd had a crush on (most of them). "I'd never feel that like about you though," he said. "No offence, but you're just not my type. You're like my sister." I wasn't offended, or so I thought - though I remembered it. I think it was partly because I was so surprised at some of his selections. They were girls he'd always played at being wearily repulsed by.

We stayed in a caravan park in the inner west while we looked for somewhere to live. It was on a main road that throbbed dully with trucks and cars, next door to a 7/11 and opposite a McDonalds. He had the double bed; I slept under a quilt on one of the padded bench seats that bordered the laminate table where we ate our meals. At the end of a fortnight, in which he didn't find a job and we didn't find a house, he told me that he was moving back to Adelaide. The next day. He drove me to a backpackers' hostel first - on Nicholson Street, opposite the Exhibition Gardens. I started work at my publishing job using the hostel as my base, sharing a dorm with mostly English backpackers, who I got smashed with each evening. I swore never to live in the area where the hated caravan park had been. An ugly suburb, entirely without merit, just a thoroughfare for traffic with a sad string of drab Vietnamese-run shops nearby. (It was Yarraville, where I’ve now lived for five years. And the shopping strip that had so horrified me was Footscray.)


Twelve years later, my experience of Adelaide can be as disjointed as my first encounter with the Melbourne suburb I now call home. It's a patchwork of the familiar and the alien. On Rundle Street, Big Star, where I bought CDs in the period of my life when I was obsessed with music, is a familiar beacon amidst garish clothing and outdoor shops. Alfresco's, the first place where I discovered the joys of lingering with a coffee and people-watching with friends, is still there, comfortingly dowdy, though many of the cafes are new - and have nothing to do with me or my memories.


Shopping in the city with F this week, we are twice hailed by admirers of his AC/DC tee shirt. This doesn't tend to happen in Melbourne - certainly not twice in two hours. The first is a father who stands companionably beside me as we watch our sons bond over the Ben 10 toys in Target.
"I've got this one," says the boy.
"Me too!" says F, proudly. "I've got the Ominatrix, too."
The man chuckles and shakes his head fondly. He is wearing a black tee shirt and jeans; he has a ruddy face and a thick goatee. As he takes his son's hand and moves ahead, F's top catches his eye.
"Hey!" he waves broadly over his shoulder. "Great tee shirt!"
F beams. The man nudges his son and points back. "Look!" The boy grins and gives F the thumbs-up. He looks four or five years old.
"Thanks!" says F.
"Start 'em young, hey?" I say. I find myself saying things like that in Adelaide, even altering my voice to sound less polished, drawing out my words in a laconic half-drawl. The Husband (who, incidentally, went to one of Melbourne's leading private schools) has commented on it. It's something I know I did in my high school days. Then it was conscious. Now, it's a habit I slip into, like walking a worn path.


One of my sisters lives in my dad's granny flat, saving money to buy a house. She is the identical twin of the cheerleader and she is studying to be a primary school teacher. She is forever destined by people who know both my sisters to be "the quiet one". Like me, she doesn't drive and has no wish to. This means she has to walk 20 minutes to the Westfield to do her grocery shopping. I buy a black shopping cart from Coles and tell her that she can use it whenever she wants. Her eyes brush over me.
"I don't think so."
We've talked about this before. She says it would be too embarrassing and everyone would stare at her. “Who cares what people think?” I tell her. Surely it's not that strange. I have figured that she'll look at this nondescript black cart (which they sell at the local Coles - someone here must be buying them) and agree it's not so bad after all. But her disdainful expression says otherwise. For some reason, I am hurt and annoyed. Generally, these days, I take a kind of pride in inspiring eye rolls at my zaniness (shopping carts! buying interstate newspapers! Birkenstocks!), but for some reason not today.
"You know why I moved to Melbourne?" I sigh, trying to sound amused. "Here, you think I'm odd. In Melbourne, I'm normal."
"Ha!" says my sister, actually rolling her eyes now, hand on diminutive hip. "You ARE odd. You just are."


In Coles, earlier that evening, I'd noticed an old school acquaintance a few aisles over, paying at a checkout parallel to mine. I ducked my head quickly to avoid eye contact, glancing back to take in her white blond hair, pulled back in a puffy ear-level ponytail. Her face was puffy, too: pink and white and oddly swollen, as if she'd been recently stung. I remembered that she’d always looked like this, if perhaps a bit thinner. That she’d always talked down to me, always flirted ridiculously with the boys in our group - none of whom were very attractive, all of whom were slightly infatuated with her, as she'd intended. I did a snap assessment and decided I've survived the years better. Acting on impulse, I took off my glasses and shoved them hurriedly into my bag. The world softened, blurred at the edges. Even as I did it, I felt ashamed at my competitiveness with a girl I don't even like and don't particularly care about, someone I haven't thought about for years.

After I'd paid and left, I put my glasses back on. And reflected that if any of the boys we once knew were with us, at that very moment, they would have chosen her again, without even thinking about it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When the bee stings

I don't run into people I work with very often, living in Yarraville. Which is probably why I frequently walk F to school wearing the trackies and tee shirt I slept in. And why I developed the disturbing habit, last winter, of doing my grocery shopping or picking up the post wearing my ugh boots. With tracksuit pants.

When I go to Fitzroy or Carlton or St Kilda, I wear make-up and real shoes. Sometimes I even brush my hair. On Saturday morning, in Brunswick Street Bookstore, I ran into someone I freelance for. And when she called my name, I looked up to see not just her, but someone else I used to work with long ago, looking askance at me over a stack of biographies. Amusement and dislike twitching at her lip. Which was fair enough, as the last time I saw her, about three years ago, I:

a) skulled several glasses of wine in order to deal with being unexpectedly seated beside her at a work function. Both of us were freelancers and neither were expecting to see the other.
b) apologised for having slept with her boyfriend a year earlier, which she forgave me for, and we agreed he was an asshole
c) threw up the wine
d) ordered another glass of wine alongside her at the bar we all moved on to, as she eyed me critically and slurred, 'you know what, I DON'T forgive you at all'
e) excused myself to the toilet, where I locked myself in a cubicle and rang my friend I was due to meet later at a club, telling him I was too drunk to move (true)
f) left said toilet cubicle two-and a-half hours later, expecting everyone to have gone home, but instead ran into, outside the toilet door, the four people left - the girl I'd wronged, the editor of the publication whose party it was, and another freelancer. They all said 'is THAT where you were all night?' and the editor tried to get me to have a drink with them. I declined and ran for a cab, nuttering lame excuses.

Yes, it's a tawdry, awful tale. For so many reasons. (In my defence, I don't make a habit of sleeping with people's boyfriends, and I was madly in love with him, and he'd told me he was dumping her, though he in fact didn't.) You know how you say you'll never drink again? Well, I didn't have more than two drinks at a time for a year after that incident. And have never had more than three at a work function ever since. In fact, I could count on one hand the number of times I've been drunk since.

I am now a grown-up.

So, I pretended I didn't see the girl from the past look at me, instead effusively greeting the person I freelance for, remembering that when you live on that side of town, you run into people you know everywhere.

"What are you doing today?" she asked F.
"I'm going to the soccer."
"Who's playing?"
"Australia and Zimbabwe."
"Oh. Wow."
"It's the Homeless World Cup," I explained. "My husband is taking him, and I'm going to the pub for the afternoon."
"And my mum's not wearing her wedding ring!" F sang.
There was a long, quiet moment as we all thought our separate thoughts. Chief among mine, both amusement and horror that F had inexplicably implied that I was plotting an afternoon of random adultery.
"A bee stung my finger," I explained. "It's swollen and I can't get my rings over it."


Cricket. Friday night games. F's new sporting hobby. I loathe it and admire it and am relieved by it, all at once. One of his friends plays football and cricket with this club, in this team, and had suggested that F join. His mother kindly takes them to practice on Tuesdays after school; I feel that I really must come to watch his Friday games. Even if they are three hours long.

I felt sick when F first told me he was going to do this. After a year of him not coping very well emotionally with Auskick, I was expecting more of the same. More crying in frustration and genuine despair when he didn't get the ball, or wasn't winning. More throwing himself to the grass in wanton tears as the game ran on around him. More fierce, edgy, unforgiving competitiveness. Instead, he seems to be going just fine.

He is the smallest boy in the team - a good year younger than most of the kids. His cricket shirt billows about his knees; his kneepads rise stiffly towards his thighs, rendering his running wooden and clumsy. In his first game, he threw the bat towards the wickets in a misguided attempt to stop from getting out. Unsurprisingly, the boys on his team shouted at him that he can't throw the bat. But then, they patiently explained why he can't do that, and that it would only count if he threw himself, still attached to the bat, at the wicket. When he did just that later in the game, they cheered, and he stood as upright and proud as I've seen him: chin held high, face glowing. The fact that the other boys are older, with an insouciant calm about them that makes it clear that tantrums would be, well, babyish, seems to have guided his behaviour. And cricket is a much more structured game. It's a benchmark for fairness. ('That's just not cricket.') And he is not as passionate about it as he is about football. Football is a heady, dangerous affair. Cricket is a pleasant relationship.

"It's very social," said his friend's mum, E, selling the attractions of the game to me. "The parents all have a few drinks as they watch and stay and have a chat afterwards. It's really fun."
I like E. She is earthy and no-bullshit; a single mother to two rambunctious boys. Their father lives in New Zealand, on his family land in a small town near the sea. One of the boys, F's friend B, has ADHD. He is called to the school office over the PA twice a day to take his Ritalin.
"He's a danger to himself if he doesn't take it," E tells me. "The other day, he didn't take it in the morning and in the afternoon I caught him about to jump off the roof."

We've talked about how annoying it is when well-meaning people say that they don't believe in labelling children, in THAT tone, the one that means that those labels don't exist. The ones who say, 'yes, don't all the kids have that nowadays?' and laugh, in a dismissive way. It's not helpful at all and it doesn't make you feel better. It makes you feel worse. It's suggesting that a problem or challenge someone lives with is not authentic. Suggesting they are a fraud making up excuses for their own poor parenting. There is a difference between over-diagnosis (which is an issue, I'm sure) and making up a syndrome. So, we commiserate. And when E's child, B, overheard me telling her that F has Asperger's Syndrome, his face lit up with a kind of relief that connected in the pit of my stomach. As if he'd stumbled upon a kind of belonging. Someone else who is different.

B is not one of those kids you see on A Current Affair, jumping on furniture and screaming in their mother's face and upending jars on the carpet. He's a nice kid. Polite, friendly. A bit jumpy sometimes, likes to touch things. Yes, he can be mouthy. But he always greets us with a smile and a wave; he has mentored F with his cricket as gently and kindly as we could wish for; and he is interested and considerate with F's younger brother, two years old. He takes medication to make him calm and centred during the day and medication to help him sleep at night. And it seems that he needs it and it's doing him good. It's not drugging him into submission; it's helping him.


Cricket. Friday. I was sprawled across a patchwork quilt that F had over his cot as a baby, eating crackers from a box. F's brother was seated on his dad's knee as he read to him from a picture book. E was stately on her canvas chair behind us, her sunglasses a headband for her long red hair, a beer comfortably in her hand. Relatives were taking her boys for the weekend and she was planning a big night out. I was facing her, chatting about the weekend, when I was stabbed in the hand. Or so I thought.

"FUCK!" I bellowed, involuntarily. "Je-sus."
A bee was disappearing from view; in the direction it was fleeing, a long spike stuck through my finger. I tweezed it out with my fingernails and leapt to my feet, jumping about the lawn in pain. I apologised to the parents and their young children as one of the mums took the lid off her esky and gestured for me to plunge my hand in, batting away my apologies. I wiggled my wedding and engagement rings over my expanding finger and slipped them away in my purse. Across the field, a sprinkle of small white figures squatted and ran and stood solemnly against a backdrop of fading grass and rainbow-splashed graffiti.

Ten minutes later, I was helping F's brother climb a tree, following B's younger brother, who watched, laughing, from the branches.


F wants to join B's football team next year. I had said no. His Auskick coaches said he has the skills, but perhaps not the emotional maturity, to play competition next year. It's all the same boys, the same club, as this cricket team. After his first exemplary performance, in last week's game, I told him that if he can keep his temper and emotions under control for cricket, he can join the football team.

He was changing his muddy, grass-strained cricket whites, peeling them off in the hallway, stepping out of them and into his bedroom, when he asked me again.
"Yes," I said. "If you keep going like this. It's looking good."
"Thank you Mum, THANK you!" He squealed in delight and threw himself at my waist in an enveloping hug. We left the house to get fish and chips for dinner in the ebbing light. Walking back towards home, he put his hand in mine.
"Mum," he said. "I haven't got a care in the world right now."
"Yep. I'm just really happy."
I bent and squeezed him tight, carefully negotiating the fragrant paper parcel in his arms, translucent grease spots spreading across its surface. "Well, that makes ME really happy."
He thought. "I suppose I DO have a COUPLE of cares. I care about global warming, of course. And wars and people not having enough to eat and running out of water. But EVERYONE cares about that."
"True. Well, at least, everyone should."
"But I don't have any PERSONAL cares."
"Oh good. That's great."


Saturday, I got home from my pub afternoon - a blogmeet - feeling slightly tipsy, my finger throbbing dully beneath the alcohol haze. (Two gin and tonics. That's all it takes these days!) It was The Husband's turn to cook. He suggested we go to a local pub for $5 chicken parmas. All I wanted was to sleep on the couch in front of the television, but I agreed.

It's a pub unfortunately located on a major truck route, with a view of shipping containers and a smelly, diesel-choked streetscape. That could be why, despite having a great, artfully dingy atmosphere (lolly-coloured laminate tables and chairs, red velvet curtains, old brocade couches), it doesn't seem to be much of a success. It changes hands approximately yearly. In that time, it's gone from good gastropub fare to lacklustre parmas and pasta, going more downmarket and less attractive with each change.

We ate our meal to the soundtrack of, among other gems: Eye of the Tiger, Jessie's Girl, Heaven is a Place on Earth, Dancin' in the Dark, Karma Chameleon, Money for Nothing. The menus now proclaim 'Bazza's Menu' and signs on the wall shout 'BAZZA'S BACK!' On the menu, there is a fat man in a chef's jacket and baggy pants with the adage, 'never trust a thin chef!' Love hearts on the menu denote vegetarian meals. And the atmosphere - the one thing I always liked - is WRECKED. There is a mirrored wall and harsh fluorescent droplights. An enormous wooden fork and spoon hang over the serving window. A vending machine bursting with chips and lollies proudly greets you as you enter the dining room.

"I don't like this place anymore at all," I whispered petulantly to F as we sipped our water and grimly awaited our food.
"Neither do I," he hissed back, to my surprise, not taking his eyes off the Ripleys Believe It or Not book I'd bought him from Brunswick Street Bookstore.
"It looks horrible," I said. He nodded sagely. "And the music is terrible."
"Well, not ALL of it," frowned F, turning to look at me. "Not Eye of the Tiger."
"Of course not. Not your music performance song. That's okay."

The food turned out to be no worse than usual. And cheap. Fine, really.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking, Mum?" F asked through an open mouthful of chips.
"I doubt it," I muttered, glaring around at the lights and the mirrors, Karma Chameleon trilling overhead. "I have no idea, darling. I doubt it."
"I don't know."
"I don't like this place AT ALL anymore," he whispered. We smiled at each other over our plates.
"Yes," I laughed. "I was thinking what you were thinking."


On the couch at last, greedily devouring the last episode of The Wire, my finger began to throb and itch in unison, a purple bruise protruding from my hand. Puffy white knuckles attempting to escape, like the insides of a sausage oozing from its casing. At first, it was almost interesting, watching it change colour; by the time The Husband went to bed, leaving me to watch the AFIs and then Lantana (great film), my hand wrapped in a packet of frozen peas, it was just plain painful. By the time I went to bed, the stale smell of increasingly soggy peas was in my nostrils.

At 4am, I woke up, stumbled out of bed, and stuck my hand in the freezer for a while.

At 7am, I awoke to a Coles catalogue in my face; F mysteriously trumpeting, "WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH THIS?"
"THIS. What should I do with it?"
Groan. "I don't know. I don't care. Do whatever you want with it. Please go away."
Ten minutes or so later:
"LOOK, Mum. Look what I found! What should I do with it? Should I give it to Pretend Cousin?"
I opened my eyes. F was beaming at the end of our bed, a bike helmet emblazoned with superheroes almost balancing on his head. Hands on hips.

"Huh? I don't know. What are you DO-i..."
An image of last night flashed into my brain, an image of that bike helmet under a heap of discarded clothing, on the floor at the end of his bed. The Husband's grim tones, telling him that he'd need to clean it all up the next day before he did anything else. It's the next day. He's cleaning it up.

"Are you cleaning your room, F?"
"Yes! I am!"
"GOOD boy."
The Husband turns to smile blearily at me and then at him.
"SO, can I give this to my brother?"
"Yes, of course."
And he was gone. I realised I was obsessively scratching my finger.
"Yes?" Looking worried, tentative.
"Can you please go get Mum the peas from the freezer and the hand-towel from the bathroom?"
"Of course."
Moments later, my hand was cradled amidst the peas, still soggy and smelly from the night before. As the numbness crept over my hand, the cold snapped me wide awake.

At the pharmacy, the woman at the counter called over her colleague to inspect me.
"Look at THIS!"
"You've had a really bad reaction. Wow. That looks painful."
I bought every medication she suggested and, once home, applied hydrocortisone cream, took an antihistamine and some Panedeine. Sat slumped over the weekend newspapers at the kitchen table until midday. Time to take F to the cricket club Christmas party. There, I had to sit down in the clubroom while F played on the jumping castle outside, trying my best to make smalltalk with The Husband through the fog in my head. It was clear that if I couldn't even talk to my husband, I wasn't going to cut it with the other parents, so went home, leaving F behind.

I barely remember the rest of the day - only that The Husband cooked, I slept a lot, and woke up the next morning with a normal-coloured finger.

Monday morning, I had coffee with a friend and told her about my bee sting. She told me about her friend who is arriving from doing aid work in the Sudan on Friday.
"I hope they let her through the airport," she frowned over her flat white. "They might put her into quarantine. She thinks she's got typhoid."
"She THINKS she's got typhoid? She doesn't know?"
"There are probably no doctors where she's been, I guess." She shrugged. "She told me in an email: I think I have typhoid."
"Do you think it's contagious?"
"I don't know. I think so."
"Yeah. Me too." Pause. "Is there a CURE?"
"I think."
We are quiet for a moment.
"So," I muse. "Your friend has typhoid, and I have a bee sting."
"Yep." We laugh. "I guess I don't have much to complain about."

F has a friend over to play on Monday nights. His mum is a nurse. I tell her, briefly, disparagingly, about my bee sting.
"OH," she says, sympathetically. "Lucky you had that treated. You had the first stages of [some technical term for a skin infection]. And those antihistamines can really knock you out, too."

I feel a little less pathetic.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I'm a little scared about what I'll find at 3.30pm.

The Husband - who was responsible for the morning school run - rang from work this morning to tell me he'd given F some money for today's Munchie Stall.

'I thought it was for lunch,' he told me. 'So I gave him $7.'
Cue speechless laughter.
'Then he said, don't worry about packing lunch, then. And that's when I realised my mistake. It was too late to take it back.'
Luckily, I was too tired and relieved that he'd remembered the money I'd forgotten about when I got up at 5.30am to say anything much.
'But it's okay,' said The Husband. 'It's a healthy Munchie Stall.'
I glanced at the honey-streaked notice wedged under a half-eaten crumpet on the dining room table. I read the words 'Healthy Muchie Stall'.
'Ah,' I sighed. 'You see, what they MEAN by healthy is no lollies. There WILL, however, be cakes and cookies.'
There is momentary silence while we both picture F gorging on a small mountain of $1 cakes and 50 cent cookies.
'It doesn't matter,' I laughed. 'He'll live.'

And that's the kind of parent I am this week.

* And yes, I have been an amazingly slack blogger and this is a woeful return to blogging. All I can say is that life is very busy indeed lately and that I am reading the blogs on my blogroll(though not generally having the leftover mental energy to comment). Back soon. Sooner or later, anyway.

Monday, September 08, 2008


Our neighbour has been loping up and down Anderson Street all morning, mostly empty-handed, though once he was purposefully clutching a carton of milk. He’s a retired accountant – and with his solemn moustache, square wire-framed glasses and a revolving wardrobe of collared shirts and slacks, he looks like one. Only his impossibly wide eyes and alarmingly arched eyebrows signal his impassioned second career, as a dogged community activist. He goes to council meetings and makes speeches; sets private appointments with our local MP and other politicians; has the local paper on speed dial. He regularly crosses the city to Camberwell, where a lady types up his petitions and letters of protest for $30 each. (“She’s very good,” he tells me. “If you ever need some typing done ...”) It’s not unusual that I’ll be walking past and he’ll shout “I spoke to Wade Noonan today!” or “they’re starting to listen!” from behind his roses and geraniums.


Two weeks ago, I was walking to the train station when I noticed Keith (not his real name) striding towards me from the railway lines ahead. His face was set, sharply focused in my direction. He crossed the road and opened his mouth, raising an arm to flag me down. Or so I thought. The power walker at my side, in his lycra shorts and gleaming white sneakers, iPod at his waist, audibly sighed as Keith blocked his path.
“We’ve got em now! I’ve ...”
“Not now, Keith.”
“No, no, it’s okay. I have to tell you ...”
“Keith, no. I’ve got my pulse up. Got to keep going.”
“That’s fine. I’ll walk with you.”
“NO, Keith.”
With the beatific inner smile of the newly reprieved, I watched them round the corner just ahead of me, Keith just centimetres from the power walker’s side, his moustachioed face leaning into the man’s grimace as he waved him off angrily. Their disjointed symphony of furious monologue and equally emphatic dismissal faded to a hum as I passed the hairdresser’s.


Keith spends much of his time these days crusading on two causes: reinstating the underpass at Yarraville train station and cutting back the buses that cruise up and down Anderson Street. He’s not the only one campaigning for an underpass – there’s a community group headed up by a local trader, too. There have been two accidents at the level crossing on Anderson Street in the past year: a cyclist and a council worker driving a truck have both been hit by trains. (Admittedly, both times the security barriers have been firmly up, and the unfortunate victims have dodged or broken through them.) During peak hour, it’s not uncommon for crowds of commuters and locals to be stranded at the railway crossing for a solid five minutes or more. An underpass would be handy. I’m all for it. I’ve even signed Keith’s petition, which is sticky-taped to the counter at the local fish and chip shop.

I’m very much not on his side when it comes to the bus issue. Yes, many of those buses are empty. But it takes time to attract users to a new service, and until recently, the buses were scheduled so haphazardly (not linking with trains, no buses for two hours at lunch time, no buses after 6pm-ish, barely running on weekends) that they were only useful to pensioners with time on their hands and shopping to do. Or, occasionally, before I moved from the far side of Yarraville: me. I have no car and a lazy streak which sometimes compelled me to skip the 20-minute walk from the shopping strip, in favour of a bus ride that took exactly the same length of time.

I was always amazed at the fortitude of my elderly fellow passengers, as the bus lurched along the back streets and over speed humps, jolting me from my seat as I clung to the steel poles and braced my jarred back. Tree branches were often clipped as the bus spun around corners. There were so few passengers that, instead of abiding by the scheduled stops, you were encouraged to call out when the bus passed nearest your house. At your shout, it would crunch to a sudden halt, sending shopping bags and any standing passengers skidding along the aisle.

Two years ago, when I was working full-time, I got sick. The kind of sick where you don’t really get better after a week at home, and you force yourself to return to work because it’s obvious that this is going to last a while, and you can’t very well not work for weeks. I couldn’t walk very far without pain – and certainly not the distance to the train station – so I was forced to rely on the bus to get to work. I would cross Cruikshank Park in the morning dark, my breath melting into the surrounding mist as I powered through the gloom towards the lights of Somerville Road. There, I would huddle outside the Hungry Jacks and make small talk with the teenage boy who caught my bus every day at the same stop. (“Don’t walk through the park,” he warned me. “Girls have been raped in there after dark. And my sister has friends who’ve been followed by guys who’ve exposed themselves.”) The bus was inconvenient and irregular, and the drivers were mostly terrible, but it meant that I got to work each day, through the six weeks that I was ill. And every time Keith starts growling about the buses, I wonder how I would have continued to work without them.

I don’t have the courage to tell Keith what I think about the buses, though I do politely decline to sign the petitions he brings to our door. I nod and I listen and I purse my lips, but he knows I’m not with the program. I think that’s why he brings up the waste of fuel caused by the empty buses, fixing me with an challenging stare. How can I argue with that? Not long ago, he handed me a photocopied printout with the names, addresses and email contacts for our local member, council members and the transport minister. There was also an example letter that I could write, calling for the bus times to be limited. When I shut the front door and returned to serving up spaghetti bolognaise, F was watching me closely. “Did you tell him he’s wrong?” I don’t think I did, not really. I think I chose good neighbourly relations over my ideals. Who knows when we’ll next need to fetch a football, or when the dog will burrow under the fence into his backyard? And even though I disagree with him, I do like him.


This morning, at 7am, there were footsteps at our window, the dull thud of something hitting the verandah, the metal creak of the front gate being latched, then a slow fade of steps, now on the footpath.

Some hours later, at 9.30am, The Husband slapped the Sunday Herald Sun on the kitchen table, on top of yesterday’s Age.
“What is THAT?”
“I’ve got you the Herald Sun.”
He dropped the charade.
“It was on the doormat when I opened the front door.”
“I don’t know.”


Rewind to January this year: F’s first day back at school. One of his friends was over. The friend’s mother, M, and I sat companionably on my front porch, sipping gin and tonics and ignoring the squeals and shouts from the backyard. My bare legs rested on the wooden railing, the dark green paint peeling beneath my toes.

“I was on The Price is Right today.”

We looked up, startled, towards the open front gate. Keith was halfway up the front path, wearing a navy suit and striped tie – looking unusually formal.
“He-llo,” sang my companion. I heard the alcohol in her voice before I felt it tilting inside my head.
“Hi. I was on The Price is Right today, that’s where I’ve been this afternoon and it’ll be on TV this Wednesday. You should watch.”
“Wow, that’s great. I’ll ... I’ll certainly try.”
He said something about picking suitcases and that he picked one that won him $500.
“I can’t complain about that,” he grinned. “$500, hey? Well, make sure you watch.”
“Okay. Thanks for telling us. That’s great.” We both waved at him as he fastened the gate behind him and moved on, briefcase in hand, to the next house. We heard the gate open, footsteps, and a surprised voice at the front door.

My friend and I looked at each other.
“Is he a sandwich short of a picnic?” she whispered.
“Yes,” I giggled, pouring a trickle of gin into each of our glasses as two small boys crashed through the screen door and spilled at our feet. “I think he is.”


At our dining room table this morning, as The Husband spooned rice porridge into his mouth and I chewed a muesli bar, I spotted Keith lingering outside on the footpath. He put a hand on the front gate, stepped towards the house, then changed his mind and moved away.

“Maybe it was Keith,” I suggested. “Maybe he’s in the Herald Sun today and that’s why he put it there.”
“Could be.”
“Should we check?”
“If you want to.”

We couldn’t find him. But it’s still the best explanation I’ve got for why someone went to the trouble of carefully delivering us a Sunday Herald Sun.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Birthday (1)

The birthday begins on Thursday afternoon at 4pm, when The Ex informs me that F wants cupcakes to bring into class the next day, and can I bake some that evening?
“No,” I say. “I can’t.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, I can make them, then, and bring them to you when I drop him off.”
“Sure, fine.”
“Oh. Okay. I thought I’d give you the chance to do it, you know, because you do it every year.”
“He’s in Year Three now. They don’t do that anymore. I’m not baking him cakes to take to school on every birthday for his whole life.”
“Okay. It’s just ... he wants them. He’s asked about it.”
“Well, he should have asked earlier. He can’t just ask for things the night before. I have work to do tonight. I can’t do it.”
“It’s fine. I’ll bring them in.”

F is dropped off on Swanston Street, below the blue fairy lights of the Arts Centre, at 7.30pm. He slithers out of the car, feet first, as his father passes two bulging supermarket bags through the open door; each tied in a filmy white bow.
“Here are the cakes and the icing. It’s all there. All you have to do is ice them!”
“But I don’t have time! I told you that.”
“The icing is made! It’ll take you no time at all.”
“Well, I can’t. I have work to do.”
We glare at each other as I close the door and back onto the footpath, pulling F with me. He chases the car along Swanston Street at a leisurely jog, easily keeping pace with the sluggish traffic. He skips off the kerb and onto the road to tap at the window of the crawling car. I scold him and pull him back again. (“You could get yourself run over!”)
“Bye Dad! Bye Dad!” he sings, dancing along the footpath now, against the tide of slickly suited office workers and carefully groomed theatregoers.
“I’m sorry, I can’t do it,” I tell him, throwing out my words in cross little bites. I explain that I have to prepare and practice for a big talk I have to give tomorrow, that he can’t ask things at the last moment, that I told Dad I couldn’t do it. My thoughts whirl furiously as I talk, an undertow of resentment: I’m already here picking F up from the city so that The Ex, whose car is at the mechanic’s, won’t have to catch public transport from the inner south to Yarraville tomorrow morning. This is one favour too many. As F accepts his fate, that he will bring naked cakes to school tomorrow, I realise with a twist of the stomach that I will, of course, ice the bloody things.


“You are a good mother,” hums The Husband, watching from the couch as I untie the bags and wrestle with the plastic containers of icing. One is gluey-white; the other iridescent blue. I dip a tentative finger into the blue and lick it, recoiling at the chemical assault on my tongue. It must have been just as vile when I made blue-and-yellow cupcakes last year, when he barracked for the West Coast Eagles. Maybe it tastes worse when someone else makes it. I cross the room and extend a blue-tipped finger to The Husband. He squints at it.
“Taste it.”
“Just a little bit?”
“It’s disgusting.”
“Yeah, I know it will be. It’s bloody bright blue, for god’s sake.”
I scrape the knife across each cake as quickly as I can, working my way through the bag and arranging them on a plastic tray. Do I have to do all of them? There’s not going to be enough icing anyway. There are 30 cakes.

“F?” I’m at the doorway of his darkened bedroom.
“How many kids in your class?”
I’m pretty sure he is making it up, to make sure I ice all the cakes. I’m pretty sure there are 24 kids in his class. Or is that 26? The icing runs out at 26.

It’s 9pm when the plastic-wrapped tray of blue and white circles is finished, and I can start work.


It’s Crazy Hair Day today. The pharmacy at Flinders Street station was closed last night, and by the time I finished the cakes, the last local one was, too. It’s an early start, so we can take a slightly different route to school and buy the obligatory coloured hairspray on the way. First, I smother F’s hair in surf wax and tease his hair upright. He looks like a sandy-haired Robert Smith from The Cure, in school uniform.
“I look SO crazy!” he shouts at his reflection. “I will DEFINITELY win the prize for craziest hair! Yeah!”
He poses, perched on the rim of the bath, plucking at the strings of his imaginary air guitar.

On the footpath outside our house, he bends to waggle his head at his shadow, a miniature Narcissus at his bitumen looking-glass.
“I’m a PUNK, Mum!”
“You certainly are.”

At the pharmacy, we tie Snuffy to a yellow pole in the carpark, away from the glass shards that stud the gravel. There is only one can of coloured hairspray left: orange.
“There must be a school sports day or something,” apologises the bemused sales assistant.
“It’s Crazy Hair Day!” beams F.
“Ahhh,” she smiles. “Well, your hair certainly is crazy.”
“I know! It’s my birthday, too.”
She nods at the tray of cakes as she hands me my change and says something complimentary about them.
“Yes! All the kids always LOVE my Mum’s cakes. She makes the BEST cakes!”
Weirdly, I am touched even as I remind him that his dad actually made them. Snuffy watches, wide-eyed, as F dips and twists his head and I attack it with a sticky, hissing mist of fluorescent orange. His ear is streaked orange, as are my hands. I spit into a crumbling tissue from my jeans pocket and clean his ear. My hands remain stubbornly bright.

F bounds alongside Somerville Road and its growling chorus of trucks and cars. He practices leaping, in a kind of flying crouch, landing with his feet wide apart, his tongue firmly protruding in a defiant pink arrow. “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAR!” It’s a sort of unconscious perversion of the Maori haka. He is especially delighted when the first uniformed kids emerge from a cross-street, their longish hair defying gravity with the help of tightly woven pipe cleaners. “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAR!”
“Oh, hello F!” laughs their Dad. He looks at the cakes. “Is it your birthday?”
“Yes! It is!” He turns to me, suddenly serious. “Can you come to assembly today?”
“Sorry darling, I can’t. I have work to do. My talk today.”
“Please? They’ll give me my birthday card. I’m going to achieve my dream today – to get up on a stage in front of people looking like this.”
“It might not be until next week.”
“No. My name was in the newsletter this week.”
“I’m so sorry, darling, but I just can’t. I have to be in the city to give this talk at 12.30pm and before that I have to have a shower and wash my hair and get dressed and practice again.” I appeal to his finely developed sense of logic and justice. Then I appeal to his sense of humour, for good measure. “I can’t get up in front of people like this, can I?” I am wearing jeans and sneakers, with a hooded tracksuit top. My hair is scraped back in a greasy ponytail.
“Sure you could.”
We’re at the school gate now. I hug him tight and wave him off as he leaps into the schoolyard, tongue flickering, tray of cakes held before him. “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAR!”

Monday, July 28, 2008

At least it's a bit different

I wonder how many mothers spent about ten minutes positioned awkwardly up a tree this afternoon, as if playing Twister, shouting mournfully, at intervals, for their son to hurry up and emerge from the toilet to help them. At which point, having been handed the garden rake from below, they managed, after much manoevuring, to snooker the football from its perch in the uppermost branches and jump back down onto the muddy lawn.

And if they did, I wonder if that was after meticulously delousing their child (and themselves), explaining as they combed still-squirming giant bugs from fine boyish hair how The Simpsons reinvented a movie called Pulp Fiction in a recent episdoe they watched: leaving out The Gimp, of course.

And if they then decided, at midday, to keep their son home from school for the whole day, as so much time had passed in the process of delousing.

If the morning had stretched out partly due to one of their dogs digging under next-door's fence and having to be fetched home. If they had to finish serving up cheesy scrambled eggs for their son's breakfast VERY carefully, their fingernails embedded with damp black mud from having to fill in the hole their dog had dug, before returning to the kitchen to warm up the eggs and serve them.

I wonder.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Not so bad after all

I wouldn't say I'm a football convert, but I did have a great time at the MCG this afternoon, I did cheer and shout for F's team, and I have agreed to do it again some time.

It wasn't, of course, about the game. It was about the delightful company of F and Boy Next Door and the fact that, once we sat down on our raindrop-streaked plastic seats behind the goal posts, F caught me in a surprise hug and said 'I really do appreciate you taking us, Mum', in a voice that really meant it. And that BND leaned across and echoed his sentiments. I am so lucky to have such a lovely boy, with such a lovely friend.

And the book I'd brought along stayed firmly in my bag all day long ... though I did read the Sunday Age at half time.

My worst nightmare

I have been coerced into taking F to the football today. I can't think of anything I'd like to do LESS on a rainy Sunday afternoon (or any afternoon, really), but if I don't do it, I'm a Slack Mum. So, off I go. Feeling very sorry for myself indeed.

The only other time I have ever been to a professional football match is when my brother was about F's age and I took him to see Port Adelaide play a game for his birthday. I remember being grossed out by the bogan girls offering to eat one player's shorts, and not in a Bart Simpson kind of way. There were shouts of 'show us your DICK, Scotty!' and much stamping of ugh boots and clicking of synthetic nails. Of course, these days it's not just bogan girls who wear ugh boots and horrible plastic nails. And it's postively un-Australian not to like football (or un-Victorian, anyway).

When I was a starting drinker, aged 17 (of course), I remember being told by a horrified male friend, an afficionado of footy and Nintendo and dope and the arcade machine at the local milk bar, that I was 'un-Australian' because I don't drink beer.

Still don't.

I'm very, very un-Australian.

And I really, really hate football.

Maybe there will be some kind of natural disaster on our way to the MCG and I will get out of it.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The morning after

It’s the kind of awakening that makes you realise you did get to sleep after all. You gradually realise that you’re conscious, which in turn makes you realise you must have been unconscious at some point, even though your memories of the previous night are full of staring at the red eye of the digital clock: 1am (you’re wide awake, might as well get up), 3am (back in bed, surely you can fall asleep now), 5am (please, please let me get to sleep).

It’s 7.10am, so you – I – close my eyes again, squeeze them shut, and try to eke out another half hour of sleep before I get up for Auskick.

My thoughts are full of work undone, deadlines looming, interview subjects not returning calls, work submitted ... and a dog biting a child on the face. A child who is coming over soon, to go to Auskick.

Once again, those thoughts stubbornly push aside the fog of sleep that hovers tantalisingly close. This means that I when I get up at last, at 8am on the clock (which means 7.45am), I am awake.

Mum is buried under a quilt on the couch, only her hair visible: light golden brown with a bolt of silver at her hairline. The Husband and F are at the breakfast table, eating rice porridge and crumpets respectively. The dogs are pattering around the room, their toenails clicking on the wooden boards.

I am in the hallway when the doorbell rings, and duck into the bathroom, pulling the sliding door behind me. The Husband is in there too, peering into the mirror. He looks at me for a moment before leaving to answer the door. I hear murmured conversation, lowered voices, excited small boy yelps.

How was he? I whisper, as The Husband rejoins me in the bathroom. BND’s father is still quietly angry, but affable enough, he reports.
“He’s here,” he calls over his shoulder, as he moves into the hallway. “That’s a good start.”
“Who’s here?” asks F, bouncing on the carpet outside the closed door.


The wind grows colder as we walk down the road towards the oval, climbing the path past the skate ramp and towards the hole in the wire fence. I duck and stand, holding up the wire that runs horizontally across the hole to make more room for Mum.
“I hope you remember soon that I am getting older,” she says, as she straightens her back.
“Nah, you’ve got at least another ten years. Or more. Look at your mother!” Her mother was still tap dancing, performing in travelling revues at nursing homes in fishnet tights, when she was sixtysomething. HER mother, when the show stopped at her own nursing home, would stand in the aisle, holding tight to her walking frame, to shout and wolf whistle.
“Hmmph,” says Mum.

We queue for coffee and carry our stryofoam cups to the edge of the oval, where we sit on a bench side by side and squint across the grey expanse of sky to where the boys – The Husband, F and BND – are forming lines and starting their drills. The wind assails us, sending a spreading chill through my body that settles in my toes and marbles my hands, even as the coffee warms my palms through the Styrofoam.

We move onto the grass, where it is even colder, and I shrug into my (fake) fur-lined gloves and hunch into my scarf. BND’s father appears behind the goal-posts, drinking from a silver column and sucking on a cigarette. I try to catch his eye, then try not to. Mum demonstrates how penguins take turns shielding each other from the wind as I think about the mark on BND’s cheek and watch warily, intently, as F frowns and pushes his shoulders out in the first sulk of the match: disturbingly early.

Needless to say, my early, unwanted hunch is correct. Mum tries to distract me with stories about football matches on the oval at the high school where she teaches as F’s behaviour descends from bad to worse. I watch him throw himself onto his stomach on the grass; wander the oval crying; limp behind the ball, crippled by tears; punch an opposing team-mate in the arm; wave his arms in the air, giving himself up to the rhythm of his wailing. Finally, he drags himself towards us, his face red and eyes swimming, shouting that he doesn’t want to do Auskick anymore, not ever again, that he wants to go home.

I am glaring into the wind and the grey day that I have unwillingly emerged into after a sleep I don’t remember having. I am thinking that I have a dog who bites children in the face and a child who has tantrums on the football field and punches people and that this is the first day of Auskick for Boy Next Door and that his father is there watching, watching our family’s atrocious, antisocial behaviour once again.

“I don’t want to EXIST,’ wails F and I snap back at him, like a rubber band suddenly let go:
“Neither do I.”

Mum, on holiday from Adelaide, on the second real day of her long service leave, looks at us both as I grab him by the arm and pull him after me under the rails surrounding the oval, hissing at him that I am ashamed of his behaviour and that he is a bad sport and that I will be very happy to take him home.

Tears and snot run into his mouth.

The Husband calls from the oval as we stand by the hole in the fence: me on the street side, F on the football ground: just. He beckons F back, and I let him go, on the provision that he doesn’t let him back into the game. As The Husband holds him by the shoulders and talks him out of his hysteria, the team begin shedding their red and black bibs, dispersing to kick a shower of footballs towards the goals in a celebratory frenzy.

The Father who has told his children not to play with F because he has a bad attitude climbs through the hole, his two sons behind him. He smiles at me, too brightly, as he passes.
“Terrible weather we’re having.”
“Yes,” I say, as his sons look at me with interest. “Yes, it is.”

I wave at the mother whose son plays at my house every Monday, standing by the canteen at the bottom of the hill, but she doesn’t see, or pretends not to. When I climb down to join my boys – and the next door boys – she is gone. Through the grey haze in my head, I impute dark motives to her disappearance.
Our next door neighbour chats about the football game and his son’s enjoyment of it before his tone drops an octave, and he addresses the elephant (or dog) in the room.
“I was angry as all hell yesterday,” he says. “When I saw how close it got to his eye. But, as I was saying to The Husband, we don’t want to make you get rid of your dog. Maybe you should get him a muzzle?”
“Oh no! We want to get rid of him. I can’t have the risk of ... I feel sick about what happened ...” Tears enter my voice. “I’m so sorry.”
We change the subject quickly, as he gives his son money for a second hotdog.

The coach pulls me aside after The Husband kisses me goodbye and escapes to his scheduled Chi Gung session in South Melbourne.
“Are you alright?” he begins, his hand comfortingly on my arm. I nod. We talk about what he said to F, and what I’ll say to F, and how I lost it a bit, too. I tell him that we’re getting F emotional management therapy, which might help, and he reiterates that he has good football skills, if only he can manage his emotions.
“I told him that he’s my star player, and that I rely on him. That when he gets down, he’s letting down the team. Because they rely on him for morale.”
There are no words for my appreciation, but I do my best.

We all walk home together – Mum, me, F and the next-door crew, the boys running and skipping ahead, stomping their spiked football boots into the cement pavement. As we reach home, F is invited over to play. He comes home first, to change his shoes and socks, and I apologise a bit, explaining that although I was disappointed and his behaviour was bad; I’m tired, too, and I might have overreacted.
“I only slept a couple of hours last night.”
His warm body is a soft blanket around my chest and shoulders.
“Mum, you should go inside and have a nap, Really!”
And he is running to the gate and across the footpath, leaving Mum and I alone on the porch.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Thought of the day

Sitting in the floral armchair in the corner of the study, F is bent over a 'Healthy Eating' find-a-word in his North Melbourne Football Club Activity Book. I am checking my emails and carrying on a half-assed, half-to-myself monologue.

"Mum," he says matter-of factly, temporarily abandoning his search for the word 'lettuce', "You worry too much."
"About what?"
"About everything."

I take him by the hand and lead him back to the lounge room, where we huddle over the activity book together on the couch, looking for various fruits and vegetables together until we have circled them all.


Less than an hour earlier, the Evil dog bit our next-door neighbour on the face while he gently stroked his fur, sitting cross-legged by the heater. Evil barked frenetically as I leapt from the couch to stand between them, then chased him into the laundry. When I got back, blood was spilling down Boy Next Door's cheek in a bright stream as he sat, stunned, where I had left him. It was 10 long minutes before he could remove the red spotted tissue I'd handed him and follow me to the bathroom for a band-aid. His cheek was pink with smeared blood and had to be wiped clean with a face washer.

The Husband was the one who had to explain to his mother what had happened, including the assurance that we will get rid of the dog.

We will pick up Boy Next Door for Auskick in the morning and I am dreading looking her in the face.

I wonder if she, like me now, is awake at 2am, trying not to think about how much worse things could have been if BND had turned his head and the dog had bitten his eye.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hypothetical bad mother story

Imagine you gleefully told your son that you were going to mention him on the radio the next morning. Imagine you told him exactly how you were going to do it and then together you giggled at the thought and looked forward to his moment of glory.

When you put him to bed and kissed him goodnight, you smiled at the thought.

Imagine you walk out of the radio station this morning and realise, as if someone jumped from around the corner and splashed a bucket of water in your face, that you FORGOT TO MENTION HIM. You forgot the whole delightful anecdote that centred around him, without seeming out of place in the context of what you were there to talk about.

Imagine you then call him from the street on your mobile as you wait for your tram home, hoping against hope that he slept in this morning. You can't hear much over the morning traffic, but you do hear that he is hurt and disappointed. You can only decipher every tenth word, but you can tell he is reciting, word for word, exactly what you had planned to say this morning, followed up with 'that was what you were supposed to say, why didn't you say that?' All you can say is 'I can't really hear you darling, but I'm really really sorry. I was just really tired.' It's a crap excuse.

Imagine you then spend the whole tram ride going over and over it in your head, unwillingly replaying the dawning disappointment on his face when he realises it's not going to happen, cuddling up next to your husband under the quilt in his mismatched flanelette pyjamas with the stuffed dog he still takes to bed. You wonder how you can make it up to him. Can you mention him on air next time? Not really. This was a one-off chance to do it without sounding like you're appearing on a game show ('Can I say hello to my son F at home? Hi, F!'). Can you buy him a present to make up for it? Let him eat chocolate after school, despite his sugar restricted diet? No. You can't buy his forgiveness. You don't want him to think money excuses thoughtless behaviour. Okay, you need to be thoughtful. What if you go to school and pick him up and spend the day with him?

You know that you're going over the top, but you can't help it. You try to talk yourself out of feeling bad, but it doesn't work. You call your husband, in his car on the way to work, hoping he'll talk you out of it, but - unsurprisingly - you only succeed in annoying him.

Imagine you stop off at the CAE Library on the way home and borrow an armful of manga graphic novels, a Simpsons graphic novel, a Pokemon he hasn't read. You are making up for it with a thoughtful gesture.

On the train, you still feel sick with guilt, but you move on to wondering how this happened in the first place.

Why did you promise your son you'd mention him on air, when you know it's difficult for you to prepare anyway, let alone with a random obligation like this thrown in? Why did you put the extra pressure on yourself? Why did you feel the need to bring him into your work life, make him the centre of that, too? Especially when you started feeling tired just after lunch yesterday and were nearly comatose by the time his two friends went home after 6pm. (The main reason you forgot was due to being very, very tired and forgetting to write down that you would mention him last night - thus, forgetting this morning.)

You realise, with the click of recognition that you get when you hit on the right answer, that you did it to impress him. You wanted him to think you were cool and interesting and that you could provide him with benefits like 15 seconds of fame. You were feeling a bit insecure after not seeing him for a week. The easy camaraderie you shared at the end of last week, when you were finishing each other's sentences and laughing at each other's jokes before you even said the punchline, had dissipated on his return, and you are once again feeling your way towards that easy intimacy, and you cheated and thought this might be a nice shortcut.

You write a blog pretty much all about him and most of your writing ends up about him and you think about him all the time. But sometimes it doesn't feel like enough, because he only spends half his time at your house.

But this is all hypothetical, of course ...

Monday, July 14, 2008

A hairy situation

It's very strange indeed to send your child away for a week and have him returned with a new haircut. A haircut that is exactly the same as his father's, that makes him look exactly like his father, so every time you speak to him, as you're getting used to it, you have to concentrate hard not to hear his father in his voice.

You don't speak about it, but when your husband nonchalantly offers to give your son a buzz cut, you know that he is thinking the same thing.

And a couple of weeks ago, when your friends and your mother-in-law were remarking admiringly on his shaggy mane, you received an email from his father that said 'Time for a haircut!' When you replied that he looks fantastic, you were informed that there was no way he was sending him up to his parents on the Gold Coast 'looking like that' and had to have an argument behind the closed door of your study that afternoon while your son and his little brother kicked the footy around the lounge room.

Your son's father said 'no son of mine is walking around looking like a rock star!' and you said ' ' in such a way that he laughed at you and called you a child, because he knew what you were thinking. And what you were thinking was that you LIKE him looking like a rock star. And you said that he always gets his way, because he always gets all your son's hair chopped off when he's got him safely at his house, and you never get to have him looking the way you would choose. And you argued like this for far longer than was sensible. Secretly, you reflected that you will let your son get his ear pierced and have tattoos when he is a teenager and his father will not be able to do anything about it. (Well, maybe not tattoos.)

Life's hard enough for him as it is, you thought, without stupid haircuts. 'Life's hard enough for him as it is,' said your son's father, 'without stupid haircuts.' And he meant something quite different, even if you were thinking in the same words. You meant that kids already judge him as a bit odd anyway, with the Asperger's, and that a faintly cool haircut couldn't hurt in evening up the stakes. He meant that teachers already judge him as a bit odd anyway, with the Asperger's, and a nerdboy haircut couldn't hurt in evening up the stakes.

You were also thinking of your own childhood, when your mum plaited your hair in two braids and made you wear a skivvy and a navy pinafore to school, with white knee socks and navy Mary Janes. While the other kids wore tight denim jeans or skirts and striped polo shirts and sneakers. And that it really would have helped if, instead of sending you to school as Nerd Barbie, she'd given you sneakers and jeans and bought you an AC/DC album. (You wrote 'I love AC/DC' on your pencilcase because everyone else did, but you didn't even know what it meant.)

'You're just thinking of your own childhood and your mum making you wear those crazy outfits,' said your son's father, and because it was true you couldn't help laughing, and then you both sighed and agreed to a compromise - that you would take him to get a haircut before it was time for your son's father to take send him to the Gold Coast to stay with his parents. And that it would be neater, but still long.

On the way home from the barber's, you realised that the haircut you'd kind of instructed him on hadn't quite worked out. That it was a bit bizarre. That he looked like he had stepped out of a 1970s clothing catalogue (if you didn't look at his clothes) or run away from The Partridge Family. And your son's father, who had just pulled up at the kerb, fell about laughing as he assured you he would get it fixed up.

So, a week later, your son came back to you looking like he always does after a haircut - exactly like a smaller version of his dad, not at all what you would choose. And you feel disconcertingly like the balance has been tipped and that he's his dad's son, and you are borrowing him. The feeling doesn't last long, and you know it's irrational. But it's the cost of compromise, of co-parenting, along with the impossible dreams to move to New York, or to live in a coastal town, or send your son to an alternative hippy school, or to go back to Adelaide and live near your family.

And you have to admit that the result of your attempt at getting his hair cut was almost as anachronistic as your mum's dressing you up in a pinafore and Mary Janes.

Still. When he had long hair, they said that he looked more like you.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The man date

“I met a Colombian guy today,” says The Husband.
“Oh yeah?” I am at the kitchen table, working my way through my inbox.
“Yeah. We’re going to meet for coffee next week.”
“That’s nice.” Typing away.
“Yeah. I was working on my report when the doorbell rang. It was this guy fundraising for the Asthma Foundation. He had this big card around his neck with his name on it. It was [The Colombian]. So I said, hola, com est as? And he just stared at me. And I thought ... oh no, I’ve made a mistake. So I said, sorry, do you speak Spanish? And he just starts talking to me in Spanish, doing his whole fundraising spiel – in Spanish. I think he thought I was Spanish-speaking. You know, that it was my native language.”

I have stopped typing.

I am staring at my husband in a kind of awestruck amusement. What I like best about this bizarre story is the fact that he’s telling me about it as if this is a perfectly normal way to behave. I don’t want to interrupt or alter the flow, so I just watch and nod, acting as if this is the most ordinary story in the world. All the while, I’m thinking this is shaping up to be the kind of thing I might pay to hear at a comedy club. I congratulate myself on having married such an interesting man.

“Anyway, he’s from Colombia, he’s a student here, and he wants to stay. He’s actually an engineer.”
“Wow, really? And he’s knocking on doors fundraising?”
“Yep.” He shakes his head. “So I gave him some money, and he was leaving, going out through the gate and onto the street, and I thought ... hang on ... so I chased him onto the footpath and stopped him and said do you want to meet up for coffee?”

“You DID?”

I have broken the spell. He is starting to ponder the strangeness of his behaviour. I watch his expression flicker and regret my reaction. I was really enjoying this.

“So, what did he say?”
“He said okay. We’re meeting at 11am on Thursday.”
“Wow. Was he surprised?”

He considers.

“Actually, he was a little.” He seems on the cusp of crestfallen.
“I think that’s fine,” I assure him. “There’s nothing WRONG with it. It’s really nice. I’m just surprised, that’s all.”

My husband is a softly spoken man, friendly but reserved. I don’t think of him as the type to befriend strangers on a whim. Although, come to think of it, in Mexico he once followed a man in a Socceroos tee shirt while he worked up the nerve to approach him. “Are you Australian?” And he was. And my husband earned the blessed relief of a conversation in English, amid the waves of sped-up Spanish that crashed over him daily, along with the breakers of homesickness.

He must have been driven by empathy – and, maybe, a rare moment of reverse homesickness, for Mexico.


I am daydreaming in the shower the next Thursday morning when The Husband arrives unexpectedly through the steam, making me jump in fright.

“You’re back early. What happened?”
“I got stood up,” he says glumly. “He didn’t show.”
“Oh darling, I’m sorry.”
“I waited until 11.30am, thinking ... maybe he’s working on Colombian time. Maybe it’s like Mexico. But ...”
I pat his sleeve sympathetically with a wet hand.
“I guess it WAS all a bit weird,” he sighs.

It turns out that the Colombian was operating on a misunderstanding, a cultural mistranslation. He assumed they were meeting at 11pm at night.

“Really?” I laugh. “For COFFEE?”
“Well, I guess that’s probably common in Colombia.”
“Mmm, I guess so. So, are you going tonight?”
“No, next week.”


Thursday morning. I am due in the city at midday to meet friends for lunch. At 10:30am, I peel myself away from my laptop and shuffle into the bathroom in my flannelette pyjamas, holding my unwashed hair from my face in one fist. My nose is thick, my eyes prickle and my ears swim. I feel as though there is a clothes peg pinching the bridge of my nose. It will be an effort for this Cinderella to crawl out of the ashes.

The Husband is at the bathroom mirror, meticulously attacking his beard with an electric razor, centimetre by agonising centimetre. For the first time in days, his tracksuit pants are replaced by jeans and a collared shirt.

“What are you waiting for?” he asks, as I watch him silently in the mirror, the doorway propping me up.
“A shower. I don’t want to fog up the mirror and disturb your work.”
“Well, I still need to have MY shower after this.”
“Bloody hell ... what are you ... ohhhh, that’s right. You have your DATE.”
He makes a face at me in the mirror.
“Where are YOU going anyway?”
“Lunch. With The Godmother and Old Friend.”
“Vue Du Monde.”
“The cafe part. It’s $15 for lunch.”
“That’s still expensive, for lunch.”
“A bit.” I sigh and return to the study, where I wearily click send/receive on my Outlook over and over, killing time in the most useless way I know how.

Shit. I was planning to get an early train at 11.16am, to make lunch at midday.

The Husband examines himself in the disappearing glass as I step into the shower, wiping a porthole for his reflection.
“Have fun,” he sings.
“Yeah, enjoy your date. Don’t put out.”
“Even with a man?”
“Really? You’d be mad if I had sex with another man?”
“That would count?”
“But I wouldn’t mind if you had sex with another woman.”
“That’s different.”
“Because you’re a man. You’d LIKE me to have sex with another woman.”
“Of course.”
“So, the idea of you having sex with another man doesn’t do it for me.”
“Doesn’t it?”

And he’s off, looking very neat and handsome.

I get out of the shower and check the time. 11.20am. Loads of time to catch the 11.56am or the 12.16am and be at Cafe Vue in loads of time for midday.

I actually think that. These are the words that run through my brain.

I fuss with my clothes and linger with make-up, bothering with eyeliner and mascara. I am too tired to wear anything fancier than jeans, though I do wear my nicest cardigan. I check my email again.

And then I wander down the road just before 12 midday, feeling relaxed despite the dragging weight in my head.

At the train tracks, I see The Husband across the road, with a dark-haired man in jeans and glasses. He squints at me, as if concerned. I wave back at him.
“HI!” His friend looks at me, then back at The Husband, who shouts over the stream of cars running between us. “COLOMBIAN, THIS IS MY WIFE, ARIEL. ARIEL, THIS IS COLOMBIAN!”
“HI!” I shout back. “NICE TO MEET YOU!”
The Colombian smiles slightly, looking a little perplexed, and waves back, his movement as tentative as mine is energetic.
“JUST GONE 12!” The Husband points at his wrist and gives me a strange, concerned look.
There is a flurry of waving, then I wander on to the newsagent to buy a new pen.

Plenty of time, I think. I can catch the 12.16am and be there at 12, not a worry. I choose my pen, testing it on the scribble pad on the counter. As I hand over my money, a switch flicks in my head.
“Um ... what’s the time?”
“It’s 12.10.”

Oh shit. Finally, I think: 12.10, and I was supposed to be there ten minutes ago.

I go home and leave a message on my friends’ work phone, explaining the whole sorry affair and that I will see them another time. And I return to work in my study, much better dressed than usual.

My date is over before it’s begun.

Friday, July 04, 2008


The ocean sings its siren song in a stage whisper that carries from the shore to our house, a few streets away. It sucks and spits, sighs and roars, sends the salt water rippling out in shimmering curtains that are quickly dragged back again, leaving pearly beads of foam to sputter out on the sand. The dogs chase each other in snarling, joyful circles, kicking up gritty clouds in their wake.

F peels off his clothes impatiently, tossing his hooded jacket and balled-up socks into the wind. A citrus orange beanie keeps his shaggy hair covered; tendrils escape as he runs: chasing the tide in and out, skimming his toes in the shallows, planting his feet in the sinking sand as the ocean forms sucking corridors on either side of them.

We are in our bathers at the edge of the world, the sea and the sky stretching out forever. We hold hands and run into the waves at the lick of the ocean, shrieking and dashing back to the sand dunes and the dogs. We run back again, metres apart this time, venturing further, until the waves slap at my knees (his thighs). More shrieking. More running. And again and again. We mirror the rolling, repetitive rhythm of the sea.

“My thighs are hurting!” F shouts into the descending darkness, as I rub a towel over his mauve marbled legs. “Ow! Ow! It’s like knives! Be gentle!”
His trackies are pulled on, with difficulty, over damp, sand encrusted legs. His bare toes shuffle through the sand, chasing The Husband over the rising inlet and up the hill towards home. I know how he feels, though I don’t tell him that. My thighs are tingling too. Numb toes, numb feet, prickling calves, stinging thighs. A thousand tiny needles dance over my legs with every step up the beach; pricking especially deep as I reach the sandy gravel of the road. I am The Little Mermaid, suffering for her sea legs. Only I’m being punished for dipping into the sea, not for venturing onto land.


It’s only 6pm when we venture out to collect our fish and chips dinner, but it’s already dark outside. F plays with a torch in the hallway, flicking it on and off like a disco ball. He shines it into my eyes and laughs when I flinch away. He shines it into his own eyes. And into mine again. I snatch the torch away and set it down firmly on the washing machine.
“But it’s dark outside.”
“We don’t need a torch. There are street lamps.”
There are, in fact, no street lamps. As we leave the lights of the house and step into the driveway, we’re entering an eerie blackness. True darkness. We walk with our arms outstretched, feeling our way forward.
“Keep to the right!” I warn. “Away from the dirt pile!”
I hear F veering to the left. The dirt pile in the driveway holds an inexorable attraction for him. In the daylight, when we’re watching him, he creeps around the edge of it, his sneakers half-touching its muddy plains. I yank his arm.

As we reach the road, it’s still dark, but we can see again. Our way is lit by the windows of the houses we pass. I tip my head idly back and gasp at the view.
“F, look!”
It’s like static fireworks. Trails of glittering dust streak the ceiling of the enveloping darkness. These are real stars, not the isolated, faint pinpricks of light we see at home. I explain to F that normally we can’t see these stars, because they’re drowned out by the streetlights.
“I know, Mum.”
We walk to the main road with our heads tipped to the heavens.

At the fish and chip shop, F marvels at the ice creams on display in the freezer while I graze on a Who Weekly. We walk home from the bright lights of the shops, passing through a stretch of darkness on our way to the main road. There is a squelch as my foot sinks into an invisible puddle.
“Oh Mum,” wails F. “I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry?”
“Because I didn’t save you from the puddle.”
“That’s okay.”
There is a long pause as we continue towards the main road.
“We really should have brought the torch,” says F.
“Yes. I know.”
“I could have saved you from the puddle then.”
“I know. I am very silly.”

At home, we dry our ugh boots by the fire and munch our way through mountains of chips.


We watch four episodes of Round the Twist in a row. It’s an old ABC TV series that used to screen after school when I was a kid, based on Paul Jennings’ surreal short stories. There’s a haunted lighthouse, an evil real estate magnate who wants to sell the lighthouse to developers, a close-knit coastal community, green babies who grow in the cabbage patch, a little brother with feet so stinky they’re a secret weapon that makes people pass out, and a spaghetti pig-out that ends in lots of vomited-up spaghetti ... that’s eaten again thanks to the rewind button of a magic remote control. F loves it because he loves Paul Jennings. I love it because it reminds me of being a kid. I love the 1980s puffed-up fringes and rolled-up jeans with white socks and lace-up black shoes. I can taste the Milo (three heaped spoons, half-stirred, half eaten) and hear my brothers and sisters squabbling beside me on the couch.

The series was filmed here. The lighthouse where the Twist family live is the one we can see from the lounge room window. You can buy the whole series on DVD at the video store next to the fish and chip shop.

When we hike up to the lighthouse, F stands and looks longingly at it, itching to go in. You can take a tour for $20 per head, but so far I’ve resisted forking out for it. He points at the cottage nearest the lighthouse.
“Is that Nell’s cottage?”
“Yep. We stayed there when you were little, you know.”
“I know, Mum.”
I told him last time we were here, when he and his ‘cousin’ discovered the joys of Round the Twist.

I’m amused by the fact that Round the Twist gazumped Sea Change by a decade with the crazed, shifty real estate developer and kooky, but loveable, community thing. (And the romance between Dad and the teacher Miss James was surely a forerunner to Laura and Diver Dan.) But more than anything, I can’t help reflecting on how Aireys seems to have changed since the series was filmed – certainly, since my mother-in-law bought her beach house here about six years ago. House prices rival those in the city. Tour buses are commonly sighted not just during summer, not just on weekends, but even mid-week in winter – and the lighthouse is a key attraction. And tourists (yeah, like us) are seen everywhere.


The whole of Aireys Inlet smells of smoke. It is the aroma of wood fires burning in every house.


I am sitting on the balcony, eating vegemite toast and sipping plunger coffee. I am wearing my mother-in-law’s robe, which swims about my ankles and threatens to swallow up my arms. The pants leg of my purple polka-dot pyjamas protrudes from the hem. I am basking in the sunlight that flashes on and off all day here, alternating with shrouded grey skies and light curtains of rain. F stands at my side and we look out at the lighthouse in the distance, the postcard-perfect view marred only by the blocky mansion that seems, from this angle, to climb from its base.

A trio of rainbow birds pass overhead in a shock of primary-coloured feathers, alighting on the balcony rail, barely a metre from where we stand. F runs inside to get my camera. He leaves the door open, and Snuffy rushes the balcony, sending the birds fleeing to the electrical wire nearby. F arrives with the camera and shoves it into my hand.
“Quick, Mum, quick!”
I point the lens and focus. There’s only one bird left. I lean in. And they’re all gone, streaking across the yard and disappearing into the uppermost branches of a nearby tree.
“You were too slow, Mum.”
“Well, I had to set it up first!”

I return to my toast. F decides to fish out his own camera and do some nature photography, inspired by my failure.


We play Indiana Jones on the paths winding through the scrub and down the sandstone cliffs, past the lighthouse and down to the beach and the inlet. A stone monument is an “icon” that Indy is hunting. F chants the Indiana theme song as he leaps and runs down the path, occasionally veering into the scrub to look for “relics”, which he solemnly tucks away in his cloth library bag, embroidered with his name and a red-and-white gingham star.
“We’re on a search for the opal shell!” he announces. “Chase me! You’re that French baddie!”
I halfheartedly run down the cliff, pausing every few jogged steps to photograph the view.
“Hey! Come on! You’re meant to be chasing me!”
“I’m documenting our journey,” I ad-lib. “I’m recording evidence. Explorers need evidence.”
He considers this, hands on hips, peering up at me from down the hill.
“Okay! Good thinking! Now, take a photo of this bush. I reckon there’s evidence here.”


It is just hours before we leave for home. We are squatting on the edge of the beach in the rain, the dogs wandering at our feet, sniffing around the toilet block just metres away. The Evil One's lead dangles from his collar. I am distracted, helping F wedge his wet, sandy feet into his sneakers. No one is around. And then there is.

A tall man in a navy beanie. Broad shoulders, blonde hair just visible, an outdoors tan even in winter. He nods at us, and I nod back, bending back to urge F's heel into his shoe. An eruption of barking and scuffling rends the air, just over my shoulder. I jump up to see the man kicking the dogs off his leg. The Evil One tumbles in one direction, the Good One, who never bites, or even growls, only jumps on any human being nearby as if she can't believe her luck to have this chance for attention, goes flying in the other direction. He's not just kicking them off; he's aiming at and kicking them. Hard. There are terrible, piercing squeals, like they've been hit by a car.

F and I gape as the man strides over and leans into us, shouting and swearing. The dogs run to us and sit still, barking. I am mortified, but I don't know what to think. As I gather my jumbled thoughts, he draws back his leg and delivers a hard kick to the guts of the Evil One, with the force of a footballer aiming for the other end of the field. There is a sickening thud as his foot connects with the dog's underside and it flies across the sand, literally twisting in the air before it lands, dazed, on the grass.

"You could apologise," he yells. "Your f*ing dog f*ing bit me!"
"Well, I would have," I find myself saying. "I am sorry, but you shouldn't have done that. I would say sorry if you hadn’t just kicked the dog like that. You can't do that."
"Well, he can't bite me! You're going to pay for this. You're going to get an $800 fine for this. I could report you!"
"Fine, do it," I say.

F dissolves into tears as he runs for the Good Dog, burying his face in her damp, gritty fur.
"She's a good dog!" he shouts. "She didn't deserve that! How could you kick her? She's a good dog!"
The man stalks off. F sobs into her neck as he strokes her.
"She doesn't deserve it," he cries. "She loves everyone! She just doesn't deserve it."
I hug him and hug the dog, pulling the Evil One back towards us. I pat him, too. I can understand the first kick – a reaction to shock. But the second, calculated revenge kick was just wrong. And it could have seriously hurt the dog.

When F is composed enough to keep going, we get up and head for home. The man suddenly appears again, beside a glossy four-wheel drive. A woman and a teenage girl are shutting the doors behind them.
"Their dog bit me!" he is yelling. "I got bitten!" More swearing.
“Right! I want your name and phone number,” he says, and I see that he is holding a scrap of paper and a pen.
“No.” I keep walking, holding F’s hand.
“So you know you’re wrong!”
“I could report you to the RSPCA for kicking the dog like that.”
“Fine, give me your name and I’ll see you in court. We’ll see who wins!”
F turns to look at him and clenches his fists.
“Well, it won’t be YOU!” he yells. I squeeze his hand.

I know what happened: the Evil One barked at his heels, the Good One joined him – barking with excitement – he kicked at them, the Evil One bit him, the Good One barked, he kicked them both properly. I know I was wrong for not having Evil at my side, but the truth is I’m just too shaken by the big kick and the aggression to know what to do – and my instincts are to just get out of there. So I do.

“I wonder just what happened back there.” I muse, half to myself.
“You know how they say dogs know if someone is a nice person or not?” says F.
“Well ...”

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Their sister has been carried away by giant wasps

On our way back from the supermarket yesterday, at the end of a long and enjoyable day in the city, we passed a couple of buskers: vaguely shaggy twentysomething guys set up on a bench in the dwindling triangle of park next to the train station.

F gripped my arm, urgently.
"Mum! We have to give them some money!"
This wasn't unusual. He likes to give money to buskers, especially the ones who seem to be down and out, or play one of his favourite songs. I encourage it: it's nice.
"Their sister has been carried away by giant wasps!" he continued.
"Their sister has bee carried away by giant wasps and they need money to buy fly spray!"
"WHAT? Where did you get THAT from?"
"They've got a sign."

He was utterly earnest. I looked down at his small, solemn face, his hair brushing over his eyebrows and stroking his cheeks.
"And you think that's true?"
Of course, Mum."
"I'll tell you what. You can give them some money if you ask them if it's true."
"Okay!" He ran back through the dark, his shopping bag banging against his leg, while I waited in the pool of train passengers who had spilled off the platform, and were waiting for the gates at the level crossing to let them over the road. I watched him bend to drop his money into the open guitar case; the boys smiling their thanks over their instruments.

"Sorry Mum," he said, rejoining me. "I couldn't do it. If it is true they're probably really sad about it. They probably don't want to talk about it."
"Hmmmm. Yes. And you really think it's true?"
"Why wouldn't it be true?"
I consider this. All the many, many reasons.
"Well ... they're being funny."
"Is that FUNNY?"
"Well ... giant wasps ... it's not very likely. Have you ever heard of someone being carried off by a giant wasp? And the wasp would have to be pretty big. And if it was that big, I don't think fly spray would kill it."
"Maybe." He was unconvinced.
"Do you believe it now?"

"If you found out they were making it up, would you be sorry we gave them money?"
"What if it was your money? Then would you be sorry?"
"Really? Because they're good at making music?"
"So if I told you that the money, that the $1.50, was actually your pocket money this week - all that you have left after paying for the train ticket you lost - that's fine with you?"
"Uh huh."
"Oh." I looked at his perfectly serene countenance, puzzling over how children can surprise you. "Well ... it's not your pocket money. You still have your $1.50."

And we changed the subject, to football (sigh) and continued on down Anderson Street towards home.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The shuddering wouldn't stop ...

No, that's not a description of my life right now, it's the beginning of my results from a random page meme Mark Lawrence has just tagged me for (and that he got from Galaxy).

You grab the nearest book, turn to page 123 and post the fifth sentence.

So, from page 123 of Novel About My Wife (Emily Perkins):

The shuddering wouldn't stop, even at home, even in bed through that cold, cold night.

The one that's more like my life (from under a cold) on the same page:

My meagre productivity slowed to a trickle, nothing more than surrounding myself with pages of redrafts and spending hallucinatory afternoons watching the telly at the foot of the bed.

I'm really not that sick though. Productivity has slowed to a trickle, but I only dream of abandoning myself to telly at the foot of the bed.

Okay, and a really GOOD sentence (or clutch of sentences) on the facing page, page 122:

I despised myself for the nervous middle-class grandad routine, getting down with the kids, but was aware of having no alternative. This was me: this was all I could do. For at least the last decade I'd been under the illusion that I was invisible to male aggressors, whether they were my own age or younger. It was the one decent thing about getting older: guys with something to prove didn't give a shit about you any more. Unless, like now, you were trapped on the other side of some bars like a monkey in the zoo, an early evening entertainment.

I tag ... anyone who wants to do this! Otherwise I'm just going to tag all the usual suspects AGAIN. Come back here and tell me if you've done it.

A good little five minute procrastination meme, this one.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Yarraville eatery reviews: 2

Midday yesterday, we did the trawl of Yarraville eateries, looking for somewhere to have lunch: my mother-in-law, her partner, their six-year-old foster child, The Husband and me.

I’m a big one for eating out – especially lunch. As I work from home, I figure that eating lunch in a cafe most days is really exactly what I’d do if I worked in an office, so it’s allowed. And Saturday breakfasts with the newspapers is a ritual I’ve had since I moved to Melbourne 11 years ago.

We had a horrible experience at one place, a great one at another, which inspired me to start this free-form, very amateur, completely self-absorbed review of the three cafes I go to most in Yarraville.

Cafe Urbano (Anderson Street):
okay for grown-ups, bad for kids, patchy service

Coffee: 9/10
Kid friendly: 6/10 (it has chips)
Ave price of meal: $10
Service: 5/10 (inconsistent – can be terrible)
Setting/atmosphere: 7/10 (you can sit in the window and people-watch on Anderson Street)
Flexibility/adaptability: 0 (eg. they charge $2-$3 for extra bread with soup!)

First we headed for Cafe Urbano. I get take-away coffee from here most mornings to kickstart my day. (Once again, if I worked from an office ...) And it’s a good Saturday spot – they do a traditional big breakfast with poached eggs, sautéed potatoes and roast tomatoes on crusty toast. I like to sit in the window and watch the world go by as I graze on the arts sections of the newspapers.

Yesterday, they pushed two tables together to accommodate the six of us: good start. But the waitress was pretty belligerent about not being able to adapt to accommodate the kids. We didn’t want to feed them a bowl of chips. They’d had crumpets at home for breakfast.

Toasted cheese sandwiches?
“Sorry, we can’t do that. We have a griller.”
Okay, no problem. Grilled cheese on toast?
“No, sorry. We can’t.”
But, you have a griller ... you do toast ... you have cheese ...
“No, we can’t. We can’t do that under our griller.”
Bullshit. Sigh. Try again. Okay, we choose the burger and chips, without the egg or onion jam.
“It’s very big,” she warns.
Oh, okay. Split it.
She frowns.
“Can you please cut it in half for us?” I ask.
“Oh no, we can’t really do that.”
“It’s a kind of open burger.”
So, it’s not two hunks of bread with stuff in between?
“Yes, it is. It’s on a roll. It’s kind of a big roll.”
So, can you cut the roll in half?
“No. It won’t work.” And she looks at us dumbly.

All through this tortuous negotiation, there’s no suggestions, no attempt at all to try to help. It’s as if she takes a kind of mute pleasure in popping up these obstacles. I’ve worked in powerless jobs. They suck. There’s a biggish turnover here. Maybe this is her power trip. Maybe she’s bored and tired and can’t be bothered helping. Maybe she’s stupid.

But we’ve had enough. I glance back at the menu and up again. We exchange looks around the table.
“Shall we just go?”
I look back at the waitress. “I’m sorry, I think we’d better leave it. This is too hard.”

And we all get up, grab our football cards spread over the table, jackets and bags, and file out the door, leaving out two pushed-together tables behind us. The chairs have been left out. I realise I will want to come back here for take-away coffee and – let’s face it – another breakfast, so I walk around the table and push them back in as I follow the others.

“Goodbye,” says the owner, and I smile and wave. Both of us are speaking through gritted teeth.

Hausfrau (Ballarat Street, off Anderson St):
fantastic food and service, good for kids

Coffee: 9/10
Kid friendly: 8/10 (it has sausage rolls)
Ave price of meal: $6
Service: 10/10
Setting/atmosphere: 9/10
Flexibility/adaptability: n/a (never tried it out)

I come to Hausfrau often. Nearly every day, in fact. It’s an upmarket bakery cafe: stylish, cheerful and cosy; decked out with brightly coloured cushions on the window bench seat; jaunty 1950s aprons as decorations; and beautiful big floral lampshades on the ceiling lights. Much like the famous cake shops of Acland Street, St Kilda, the food is a decoration, too: especially the window of cakes behind the counter, ranging from old-fashioned treats (lemon meringue pie) to more exotic fare (chocolate torte ganache, pear and almond chocolate tart).

We sit by the door, me and the two kids along the powder-blue vinyl bench seat, the other grown-ups ranged around us. We all find something to eat easily. Sausage rolls with tomato relish for the boys, who squint suspiciously at the carrot embedded in the meat (vegetables by stealth!), but eat them anyway. Pumpkin and leek tarts for me and the mother-in-laws. A beef and mushroom pie for The Husband. And then cakes for everyone, the best part of the meal. Our meals are about $5 each, plus another $5.50 for the cakes.

So, we spend less than we would have at Urbano, get dessert, and benefit from the cheerful (and patient, I must say) good service of the staff. After we’ve eaten, the two boys push their bottoms up to the window ledge immediately and sit, hunched over comics on their lap, their feet resting on the seat. (And yes, I peel off their shoes immediately and wipe the dirt off from the milliseconds of contact F’s muddy shoes made when we leave).

While I’m reviewing it ... the daily vegetable soup (revolving flavours) is really good, and well priced. And if you get it to take away, it’s $4 for a small cup and $6 for a large. If you buy a loaf of bread to take home and cut your own to eat with it, it’s a good lunch and a good deal.

The coffee is excellent – and the owner, Christian, is nearly always at the helm of the coffee machine, making sure it’s consistently good.

And the service ... the people here are friendly, accommodating, nice to kids, and when I, bleary-eyed, do things like forget my purse and have to come back for it, they very kindly don’t blink an eyelid. And one of the women there signed F’s petition against the dredging of the bay and has chatted to him about it since, finding out what happened with it. So, Hausfrau has my heart forever, of course.

My favourite thing here is the lemon meringue pie. My mum makes the best lemon meringue pie evey year, at Christmas. Every year, we all hang out for it. Twice now, I have convinced her to make me one for my birthday. Which my whole family has appreciated: TWO chances a year to eat pie!

I took Mum here a few months ago. She tried a forkful of my pie.
"Well ... what do you think?"
"Hmmm," she said, cocking her head to think. "Mine has a bit more of a kick to it."

A month later, Dad came to stay. (He and Mum are separated - have been for about four years.) I took him to Hausfrau. He ordered the pie. I asked him what he thought.
"It's great!"
"Mum said hers' is better. She said hers' has more of a kick to it."
"Well," he said. "She is right."

Feedback (Ballarat St, off Anderson St):
great atmosphere, great service, great food

Coffee: 6.5/10
Kid friendly: 8/10 (they’ll make grilled cheese on toast)
Ave price of meal: $10
Service: 10/10
Setting/atmosphere: 10/10
Flexibility/adaptability: 10/10

I like to alternate Feedback with Hausfrau for lunch. I didn’t so much as pop my head in there on Saturday, but I can’t do a casual review of Yarraville eateries without mentioning it.

Feedback has the atmosphere of a Fitzroy or Brunswick cafe, transplanted to Yarraville. It’s mellow, laid-back and effortlessly hip. (Well, I’m sure there’s effort, but it’s subtle.) My latte can sometimes come with a third of a glass of froth, but the cosy setting, my favourite people-watching seat on a stool by the window and the chicken and leek pie make up for my frothy coffee. And the people here are great: really friendly and effusive but also give you your space. If you want to chat, they’ll chat. If you want to sit and look out the window or write in a notebook, they’ll take away your empty latte glass with a nod and a smile. (I’m generally a sitter, but I hear the chatters in the background.)

One really cool thing about Feedback that I just love: the walls are lined with books and magazines. Kids’ books and grown-ups’ magazines, from Vogue to Famous to SPIN to Time. And they have The Age. F has always been able to come here and pluck a book from a shelf and start reading. How often does a place provide for kids to do that? It’s special.

They do scrambled eggs. They have home-made salsa. I’ve asked them to make me scrambled eggs with salsa (hey, they do it in Mexico) and even though they laughed, they did it – and told me to tell them what I thought of it, because they were really curious. (It’s good.)

I had a lunch meeting here once with a colleague I like and mostly speak to via email. It was our day off. We were talking for three hours and didn’t notice. And nobody made us feel unwelcome. When we apologised (we’d only bought two coffees in that time), they just laughed and waved us off.

Here’s some notes I took at Feedback one day. That might be the best way to describe why I like it, because it’s less any one thing than the whole picture:

Bob Dylan is on the stereo, then some sixties crooner: a scratchy old recording. The retro laminated tables and counter are lipstick red and marbled grey. A pink-and-orange painted phoenix squats halfway up one of the buttercup yellow walls, lined with magazines and children’s books. The hiss of the coffee machine, the squirt of foaming milk, the hum of a blender punctuate the staccato symphony of conversation over food and drinks, much of it unhurried, unfurling in the warmth and calm. Outside, a youngish man in a suit opens the Age wide over his table, his pages spilling over the barrier into the street. His suit is neat, his hair deliberately messy, stiff with product. Tan trainers are on his feet. A local activist I remember seeing at a recent protest is kissing her companions goodbye on the footpath. Her hot pink t-shirt complements her spiked hair and fluorescent toenails. Garish flowers run riot up and down her legs. The dreadlocked waitress chats about dance and drumming workshops behind me. She seems, in my long, hazy experience of her, one of those socially talented people: effortlessly charming and at ease with all comers; manages to seem as if she loves her job here – something not many in the service industry manage. I turn back and my suited slacker is gone, his empty latte glass pinning his folded newspaper to the table.