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.