Sunday, January 27, 2008

Australia Day 2008

Williamstown beach. There are no waves, not even a lick, as far as the naked eye can see.

The only movement in the water, apart from the thrashing and splashing of humans, is a veil of ripples on the surface, shimmying endlessly under the sun.

The bay is busy with swimmers, paddlers and loafers of all ages and races; all sizes, too.

Teenage girls in bikinis wander in clusters, waist-deep. They don't swim or wet their hair, but stand and talk, surveying the crowd. I'm not sure if they're watching or beng watched. They're probably not sure, either.

Small children play in the shallows. They wear brightly coloured bathers and caps to match. They kick and squeal and revel in the water.

Surf boats patrol the deeper waters, their humming motors providing a backdrop to the soundtrack of squeals and shouts.

Women in patterned headscarves and long sleeves hover at the water's edge. They peel clothes off small children as if shelling peanuts and watch them disappera into the sea. One of the women bunches her ankle-length skirt above her calves and paddles in the sea, turning slow, thoughtful circles in the water. The other rolls up her trouser legs and pads away across the sand.

A surf patrol boat slows at the furthest edge of the swimmers. An Indian man swims towards them expectantly. A blonde lifesaver in long-sleeved red and yellow leans forward. She throws him a football. It bobs between them in the water.
'Can you get that?'
He nods and swims for it, giving a grateful wave first. His companions laugh.

A patchwork of umbrellas and tents spreads across the sand. Towels, eskies, bags.

A ponytailed brunette lies on her stomach, facing away from the sea. She wears lemon yellow bikini bottoms and enormous sunglasses. Her bikini top lies open beneath her.

A brown dumpling of a man, his skin leathery as a reptile's, sits perfectly still at the edge of the rock jetty. His legs dangle in the water below black Speedos and a bulbous belly. His hair is steely grey, his eyes closed, his sleeping gaze directed at the sun.

The headscarved woman in the trousers returns from across the sand, now wearing a sleek, black, head-to-toe swimsuit covered by a short skirt. It's kind of like a wetsuit with a built-in scarf, or Cathy Freeman's running outfit. She strides into the water with gusto.

Fair-haired twin boys teeter along the concrete pipe jutting into the sea. They jump off the edge into the water, one by triumphant one. Then they do it all over again. Their mother watches attentively, hands on hips, toes brushing the water's fringe. She is crisp and fresh in an apple-green floral dress, tied with a sash at the back.

A flash of lightning, quick and unexpected, pierces the clouds. The sky growls in response.

One of the twin boys starts to howl.

A blonde girl in short-shorts walks along the sand, trailing an Australian flag.

The headscarved woman in the skirt leads a naked child out of the water and towards a towel, holding her small hand tight.

A baby roars beneath its hooded black pram.

The clouds gather, dirty grey, high over the water. Charcoal mist streaks from the sky to the horizon, grey shadows against a fading blue sky and glowing white clouds.

'Oh my GOD, I saw LIGHTNING! I SWEAR I saw lightning!' The teenage girl, wrapped in a towel by the toilet black, is right.

'You know, I don't want to go here, because there's too many wogs,' comes a voice from the footpath. It's a well-muscled Maori man, stocky in his bottle-green football shorts and thongs with black socks. His spiral curls are held back from his face in a ponytail. His female companions argue and he eventually moves to the sand, frowning. The women carry a stroller between them, a toddler perched happily inside. Another toddler trails behind them in a nappy and beach sandals. 'There's too many wogs,' the man repeats, sullenly.

A blonde boy enveloped in a towel stands smilingly in the middle of a large Asian family arranged around an eskie. A birthday card is thrust into his hand.
'There is NO WAY you're taking a photo of me with my hair like this!' says one of the girls. A teenager, of course. Another girl passes around wedges of birthday cake.
'PLEASE let's sing Happy Birthday!'
'I don't think you UNDERSTAND about my hair. I CANNOT have a photo taken.'

More thunder crackles overhead.

On the street, a car drives up and down along the beach, blaring Hindi music from open windows.

On the other side of the road, away from the beach, men play a game of cricket in the park, dressed in regulation whites.

A girl in an Australian flag bikini and matching board shorts hovers by the ice cream stand.

It's time to go.

I cycle the long way into the centre of Williamstown, the part where the ferries go to St Kilda and the city. I follow the curve of the sea.

I pass two picknicking families as I leave the beach and pass the adjacent parks, on opposite sides of the road. They are each gathered around old-fashioned wooden benches and a table, a barbecue beside them. One is a Muslim family, the women in headscarves; the other is Indian.

Then, there is just the road and the sea. Black rocks border the road and the water, a rolling expanse of grey-blue under rumbling clouds. Another streak of lightning rends the sky; this one bright silver, a visible leak of electricity. It is thrilling.

A family is poking among the rocks. A man and woman, two children. They are laughing. They are alone.

A tattooed man cycles towards me, long hair straggling down his back. He is somehow eating fish and chips from a paper tray as he rides.
'Hey mate!' he shouts as we pass.
'Sexy mate! Sexy babe!'
I am cured of giving strange men who shout greetings the benefit of the doubt.

I round another curve in the road and the city rises to meet me, tall buildings beckoning from across the bay. Here, an ice cream van is parked by the footpath, selling soft-serve and sprinkles, hot dogs and donuts. A small beach, no wider than a verandah, no longer than a few houses, appears. A bare-shirted man sits on the sand, staring out to sea. A few people are sitting on benches facing the water, eating ice creams. The only sound is the humming of the ice cream van's idling motor.

I stop the bike and sit with my notebook. Fat drops of rain melt into my open page. They are cool on my shoulders and as they soak through my dress. The sky flashes. To my left, the city looms. To my right, there is only sea and sky, fringed by black rocks.

Later, after I have eaten tacos and splurged on a gelati, as I shelter under the rotunda on Nelson Place, I watch a small girl in a peacock-blue headscarf and Converse sneakers moonwalk in the rain, the lawns and the playground and Port Philip Bay stretching out behind her.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Yarraville: January 2008

I've just arrived home from the airport, from three weeks in Adelaide. I am newly entranced by my house full of books and the train station and supermarket down the road. I can walk five minutes and go out for dinner! At my choice of places! I am so lucky.

The Husband and I walk out of the front gate into the fading evening light. The street is bathed in a golden summer glow. All is well with the world.

My neighbour is polishing his car.
'Hi!' he says. 'Happy new year!'
I tell him that F is with his dad this week but will be back after that and will have plenty of time to play with Boy Next Door. I give him F's dad's mobile number and tell him that I know he's eager to get the boys together.
'Oh good,' says my neighbour. 'BND has been dying to see him. He's been taping episodes of Yu-Gi-Oh especially for him.'

There are deep dents in the roof of my neighbour's car. They are new. So is the car. Apparently, it happened just last night. Someone has been jumping on the car.
'Look, footprints.' And there are. Dusty white footprints. 'Apparently it's a new trend,' he says. 'Kids jumping on cars.'


I bought F walkie-talkies for Christmas and forgot to give them to him. They're on the top shelf of my bedroom cupboard; the one that's so high I can only reach it if I jump a little. In Adelaide, when I remembered that I'd forgotten them, I told him about them.

'Oh YEAH' he said. 'I know about them. Me and Boy Next Door [BND] saw them. Cool!'
'You saw them?'

I did leave them on the couch for a few hours back when I bought them, but I thought I got away with it. Stupid me.

The boys were very excited when I installed batteries in the walkie-talkies and presented them to them. I had this vision of the boys chatting to each other in their bedrooms, like some eighties movie. (I don't know which one.) I thought it would be very cool and retro. (Of course, I would never give F a mobile phone, to pretty much do the same thing.)

'You'll have to make a time to call each other in the morning' I told F and BND.
'Well, you can't just call each other, because you won't know when each other have turned your walkie-talkies on. But, if you make a time to do it, you can both turn them on then.'
'Oh. Cool.'
'So, when do you wake up?' I ask. 'F wakes up around 7.30am.'
'Five! I'll call you at 5am!'
'OKAY!' says F.
'NO!' I say. 'You can't do that. He wakes up at 7.30am. Call him then.'
'Okay, I'll call him at 6. I'll be watching cartoons by then, definitely.'
'No. He won't be awake then.'
'I'll wake him up.'
'You can't,' I say, suddenly inspired. 'You see, you can't talk to him untl his walkie-talkie is turned on. And he can't turn it on until he wakes up. And he won't just wake up before 7.30am.'
'Oh.' BND thinks for a minute. 'I'll call you at 7.30am then.'

The next day, they forget to call each other at 7.30am. They plan to try again the next day. That day, after lunch, I am in my bedroom, they are in the lounge room. I hear them talking.

'Were you up at 7.30am?' asks BND.
'Ahhh.' BND sounds thrown. 'Well, I guess you're wondering why I didn't call you.'
'Um ... ye-es, I was.'
'Well,' says BND. 'I didn't call you BECAUSE ... I didn't think you'd be up.'
'Oh, well, I was.'
'Okay. Well, we'll do it tomorrow.'


We get home at about 11.30am. There is a police van parked outside our house. And a police car parked in front of it. We speculate on what they are doing there. Perhaps the van is keeping watch to see if teenage (we presume) hoons will trample the rooves of my neighbours' cars tonight? It seems an elaborate outlay of police resources.

We go straight to bed, where we lie awake, listening for clues. We hear our neighbour, the one whose child plays with F, talking to a couple of unknown male voices on the street. The Husband goes outside. He is gone for what seems like an eternity.

'Did they catch someone?' I ask.
'They've got one of them.'

But this time, it's not teenagers jumping on car rooves. Two burglars have been on the loose, running through backyards in the area. They seem to have robbed a house further down the street.

The police have asked The Husband to check our backyard. He does. No one is there. There's no sign anyone was there. Our notoriously yappy dogs probably kept them away.

As we turn out the lights, we hear the police vehicles drive away.

The next day, we hear that there were helicopters overhead and sniffer dogs on the ground, shortly before we arrived.


I'm walking down the street; my street. On my way to dinner and a movie with he Husband, who is back in the house finding the DVD we plan to return on the way. Our logic is that if I walk ahead and he runs to catch up with me when he's done; timing-wise, it's as if he left the house with me.

As I pass our front fence, my next-door neighbour unhooks his gate. There's no escaping the fact that our paths are about to intersect, so I wave. He squints, frowns, and raises an arm half-heartedly. Vaguely relieved, I quicken my pace.

'Hello!' comes a voice at my elbow. It's him.
'Oh. Hi.'
'I didn't recognise you at first. All in black.' He looks me up and down. 'On your way to A FUNERAL?'
'Um, no. Just dressing like a Melburnian.'
'So, where do you normally live?'
'Sorry?' I've lived next door to him for six months. As he well knows.
'You know. Where are you from, then?'
It's easier to reply to this than explain what I meant about dressing like a Melburnian. This is a man who changed his gym because of all the homosexuals who'd started coming to his. I guess wearing all-black is pretty out there and disturbing for him.
'I'm from Adelaide.'
'Ah, Adelaide. I was in the army there.'

We're talking about police helicopters when The Husband arrives at my side. He has, oddly, never met our neighbour. Maybe because he has never accompanied F next door to fetch the footy. He extends his hand and introduces himself.
'Hello' says my neighbour. 'You know, when you go out, you might want to get some of those automated lights that switch on and off. We've got them.'
This is the first thing my neighbour ever said to me when he first met me, six months ago. He has repeated it many times since. He's even told me where I can buy them.
'Oh' says The Husband. 'Really?'


We have 25 minutes between dropping off the DVD and our movie starting. We order rice paper rolls from our favourite take-away, a Cambodian restaurant with an eating space roughly the size of your average kitchen. The restaurant is packed, so we have to take them away.

'We'll eat in the cinema' says The Husband.
'We can't do that. We won't be able to dip them in the peanut sauce. We'll make a mess.'
'Okay, Let's eat on the bench over there.' He points towards Anderson Street, in front of the post office.
'We can't eat there. That's where the crazy lady usually sits. People will think we're crazy. Or what if she comes along and wants her seat?'
Instead, we eat at the end of Ballarat Street, a few doors down from the cinema, sitting on the street corner, on the concrete step of an abandoned restuarant. It's kind of pleasant, really.

A small boy in cricket whites springs past, a white paper package under his arm. He glances down and spots us at his ankles.
'Hey!' he yells. 'What are you eating? Fish and chips?'
'Nah' says The Husband. 'Rice paper rolls.'
He screws up his face as he crosses the road ahead of us, turning back to express his disgust.
'Euww. You should have fish and chips!'
'Is that what you've got?' asks The Husband. 'Did you play cricket today?'
The boy turns back and comes to join us. He chats about cricket and fish and chips and the match on next week. He asks The Husband if he plays. Then he gives us an appraising look.
'Are you boyfriend and girlfriend? Husband and wife?'
'Yeah, we're married' we say.
'Oh.' He screws up his face. 'But you don't match!'
'We don't match?'
'Nah. You don't!' He waves his arms at us, crouched over our paper buckets peanut sauce. I am wearing loose black linen pants with a looser (black) embroidered cheesecloth singlet and red Birkenstocks. The Husband is wearing jeans, a navy polo shirt and rubber thongs. Maybe that's it?

We chat a little more and, after telling us we should have a baby together, the boy turns back towards home, his fish and chips warming his armpit. He seems about twelve years old.

Inexplicably, what he has said bothers me. I think I have a superstitious belief that the spontaneous observations of a child spring from some kind of deep insight. Maybe I've read too may books, or seen too many films.

Later, in bed, lying awake, I content myself with the reflection that F has told us that we'll be together forever. My child trumps random child.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Don't fight the music

Yesterday, F’s aunt (one of them) took him to the music shop where her friends work.

He had a blast.

He got to play all the guitars in the shop, one by one. He had a go on the electronic music mixer. He made friends with the girl behind the counter.

The boys all thought he was great. They were very impressed that he could play real songs.

F’s aunt bought him a CD single. It was ‘Apologise’ by Timbaland. A bit of a departure from his recent rock songs (ACDC, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple). But he’s been singing the song for days. He must be expanding his tastes.

Last night, I played him his single on my laptop a few times before bed. He sang along earnestly, eyes half-closed, intently watching the computer screen, as if staring into the eyes of the music.

He’d been in bed for just a few minutes when he got up and joined me at my desk.

‘Mum,’ he said. ‘I can’t stop thinking about music.’

I would usually tell him to go back to bed, that he hasn’t even tried to go to sleep yet. But instead, last night I decided to go with it.

‘Would you like to listen to your song in bed? Would you like me to make you a bedtime playlist on iTunes?’
‘Oh, yes PLEASE Mum!’
‘Come on, let’s see what Nana has in her CD collection.’

I took him by the hand, enjoying the sensation of his little fingers curled around mine as we climbed the stairs. I’m aware that he won’t want to hold my hand much longer. Do Grade Three boys hold hands with their mothers?

Upstairs, I made another discovery when F excitedly grabbed my mother’s CD by The Fray, who I’d never heard of. He made a note to listen to Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’, another favourite, tomorrow, as it was ‘too rock’ for bedtime.

It took me about ten minutes or so to load up the new songs and make a bedtime playlist, including The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’.

I was rewarded with a big hug as I left the room and returned to my desk, just outside his door, with my laptop plugged in by his bedside.

Another ten minutes later, faint snores rolled from F’s doorway to provide a soothing soundtrack to my typing.

I just might use that playlist again tonight.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Bionicles, martinis and mortgages

F got two board games for Christmas, both from his nana (my mum): the Bionicles board game and Pixar Monopoly.

He loved the Bionicles board game the most. He asked someone to play it with him every day, at least once a day, from the moment he got it.

‘Later’ was the response, over and over.

If you’ve ever tried to get your head around the Bionicles universe – or indeed, any fantasy universe you don’t have an interest in, you’ll know why we kept putting it off.

If you haven’t tried such a thing, just the read the blurb on the back of a fantasy book. Any fantasy book. Chances are, it will read as if written in a foreign language.

Something like:

The Urf from the Kingdom of Larynx are in trouble. The invading Tonsilmonsters are slowly but surely approaching the Great Wall of Urfnan that surrounds the fabled city of Doogna. There is only one hope: the young Urfling Dooma, a member of the dwindling Noggin race. If Dooma can find the sacred crystal of Larynx, hidden deep within the caves of Inka, the Tonsilmonsters will be defeated. But the obstacles are many, and Dooma has not counted on the treachery of his closest companion, Igghanu.

Be honest. Did you even manage to finish reading that paragraph? That’s my relationship to Bionicles.

F and I were invited to a New Year’s Eve pool party. On New Year’s Eve day, my cousin rang to say that it wasn’t going to be a kid friendly party after all. F was very upset. It was 41 degrees Celsius and he was looking forward to the pool. (To be honest, so was I.)

So, in an effort to cheer him up, I ordered a pizza for dinner and suggested we play the Bionicles game.

I gave up halfway through reading the rules, letting F guide me. A bad mistake, because F, given half the chance, is a cheater. I could sense that he was bending the rules to his advantage, but I couldn’t quite tell how.

He won. I put the game away. And I ran him a bath and plonked him in there with goggles on. (We bucketed it out the next day to put on the garden.)


Two days later, after I submitted some work that was due, I joined a patient F upstairs and offered to play Pixar Monopoly.

We played from 10am til 2.30pm in the afternoon, and only stopped because it was time to go swimming in my aunt’s pool. I won, but only just – a bit of a triumph, since at midday, I’d had $5 left and had half my properties mortgaged.

F thought my mortgages were hilarious for some reason. He called them ‘martinis’ and every time I ran out of money again and put another ‘property’ up for ‘mortgage’, he’d laugh and laugh and shout ‘ANOTHER MARTINI! Oh, MUM!’

In life, I have no credit cards and no mortgage. I have no items bought on store credit. All I have is Centrelink debts. Other than that, I pay as I go. I find it peaceful. It allows me to sleep at night, and to make decisions with little regard for money, beyond rent and food provisions.

I decided to play Monopoly from the opposite perspective, as an experiment. At midday, I felt justified in the way I live. At 2.30pm, when I was $3800 ahead, I wondered if maybe I should have a go at a martini after all.

‘It’s a bit like gambling, isn’t it?’ observed F.

And it is, or so it seems. I think I’ll preserve my ability to sleep well at night and make decisions based on what I want to do rather than the money I need to earn. At least for now, while I don’t have the cash for even one tiny little martini anyway.