Friday, December 23, 2011

A very country Christmas

Guest post by Tim Sterne.

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house could be heard Aunty Lilian having a whinge about "those slutty pop singers" on Carols By Candlelight.

"They've ruined that hymn," she says. "Why not just sing it?"

She gives a brief demonstration of just singing it in her trilling soprano. The rest of us make noncommittal grunting noises and return our attention to the tiny TV set, upon which an alleged slutty pop singer is thrusting her pelvis to the disco beat of "Silent Night".

Aunty Lilian makes the same complaint every Christmas Eve. Prior to the introduction of television, she had descriptions of Melbourne-based carols events telegraphed to her in real time so she could complain about the melismatic depredations of the slutty (read: female) singers of the day. But that's Aunty Lilian's way: repeating the same conversational pablum year after year, like a primitive automaton with Mallee dust in its cogs.

Aunty Lilian isn't the only one with a bung replay setting. The whole town seems locked in an eternal cycle, reenacting the same rituals every year: closing the modest main drag so Santa can throw lollies from the back of a fire engine; curiously depressing Christmas Day church services; endless seasonal socialising with people you see every day anyway, because in a town this small you see practically everybody every day. As a city-bred child visiting for Christmas I enjoyed the sense of community, the stability of small town routine. As a teenager I find the place stultifying and cloistered. I dream of traffic lights, graffiti, and alleyway muggings. I dream of drinkable tap water, proper footpaths, and--

"What's Santa bringing you this year?" Carols has gone to an ad break and Aunty Lilian is looking at me with her kindly, wrinkled face.

"I... huh? Oh, I don't know." Santa? I'm seventeen with a nicotine addiction and a girlfriend who drinks cask wine for breakfast. I haven't believed in Santa for at least a year.

"I remember..." says Aunty Lilian, falling asleep then waking with a start. "I remember you and your brother playing in the front room with the train set Santa brought you. You were naked as babes!"

"That was a long time ago," I say. "Things change."

"They do." Her head droops again. "They certainly do."

By the time Carols ends Aunty Lilian is snoring in her chair and the rest of us are discussing the logistics of Ray Martin's hair, which looks the same as it did last year and the year before that. Some things never change.


Ouyen, pop. 1000, sits almost exactly one hundred kilometres south of Mildura and approximately six hundred kilometres north of anywhere I wish to be. Later at uni I will be delighted to learn that in 1931 the residents of Ouyen barricaded the main street and took up arms as rumours circulated that communists had overrun Sydney and were preparing to march to Melbourne via the middle of fucking nowhere. History is silent on what the Ouyen Falangists did when the expected revolutionary army failed to arrive. Probably they retired to the Victoria Hotel to discuss how bloody hot it was, because it is always hot in Ouyen, even in winter when people warm their houses by simply summoning memories of the months of baking summer heat.

We arrive the day before Christmas Eve. Aunty Lilian pecks my cheek and quiet, watchful Uncle Bill crushes my hand with his powerful carpenter's muscles. The clear, hot air buzzes with the sound of cicadas and enormous air conditioning units. A ute passes, the driver raising a hand in greeting.

"Jimmy McIlvaney," Uncle Bill says. "Used to have a farm out near Walpeup until a wheat silo collapsed on his missus. Then his baby was eaten by a possum. Oh, and in September he lost three toes to native wasps while signing his farm over to the bank."

"Go on," Dad says with affected disbelief.

"Then his dog got bitten by a snake," Uncle Bill says. "And his horse got gout."

"Go on," Dad says. I wonder if he is glad he left all those years ago. Dad is hardly an urban sophisticate, but I can't imagine him here, in a world so small and cruel.

Later I go for a walk, chain-smoking Peter Jacksons and dodging untethered dogs. The footpaths are compressed clay infused with gypsum which sparkles in the sunlight. I walk past the weighbridge and trackside silos and stand for a moment under a peppercorn tree. I stood here ten years ago with my grandfather, not long before he died. He taught me how to spit peppercorns with speed and accuracy - a country kid trick - but now when I try all I get is a foul taste of peppercorn and dribble down my chin.

I walk on to the Victoria Hotel and, without giving it much thought, push the weathered door and step inside. It is cool and quiet, only a handful of drinkers at the bar. I am suddenly conscious of my long hair and torn jeans but I step up to the bar and order a beer in my manliest voice. The barman doesn't ask for ID or so much as raise an eyebrow at my appearance. He pours my beers and starts talking to an elderly man at the bar. Like most conversations in Ouyen, this one concerns a farming accident.

"... was out putting up new fencing," the old man says, "and sure enough the bloody wire snapped and went whoosh across his front, quick as you like, and Barry looks down and his nipple is lying on the ground! Severed the bloody thing perfectly. Barry was about to bend down to pick up when some bloody ants grabbed the bloody thing and carried it back to their bloody nest!"

"Go on," the barman says.

"Reckon those bloody ants ate well that night!" The old man gives a hoarse laugh.

"Go on," the barman says.

I sip my beer, feeling conspicuous even as the other patrons make a point of not noticing me. I consider staying for a second drink, but I don't want to push my luck. I walk back to the shade of the peppercorn tree. Overhead a broad streak of cirrus cloud drifts south, which seems eminently sensible to me.


"Happy Christmas!"

Uncle Bill crushes my hand with all the compliments of the season. The kitchen is alive with clatter and women's voices. Traditional gender roles are upheld: the men walk around with glasses of sherry and talk about crop failures and amputations; the women do everything else. I set the table, then it's present opening time. Santa brings me a video game. He must have received my letter.

It's thirty-five degrees and climbing outside, so of course we are having hot roast meat - ham, pork and turkey - plus roast potatoes and assorted veg. Bonbons are opened, paper hats donned, shitty jokes told.

"Made in China," somebody says, examining the fine print on their bonbon joke.

"Isn't everything these days?" somebody else adds. My brother Rob and I exchange looks. We know what's coming.

"Well, they're better than the Aborigines. At least the Asians will work.

"... and he was as black as the ace of spades! Almost purple. Gave me quite a start. He had the loveliest smile though."

"I don't mind them driving a taxi or something like that, but I wouldn't see an Indian doctor."

"Vick's chest rub doesn't smell the way it used to. Probably made in China now."

"It's political correctness gone mad..."

The torrent of casual bigotry is staunched only by the arrival of dessert. Heaving platters of pavlova, cake and pudding, bowls of trifle and jelly studded with cherries.

"Diet starts tomorrow," Aunty Lilian says. Rob and I roll our eyes. It's another of her classic lines. The room falls silent as we tuck in. "We must be hungry," Aunty Lilian says, right on cue. Rob makes satirical "Mmm!" noises and I laugh. The routine is so rigid that even our sibling in-jokes roll out at the same time every year.

After lunch the adults nap while Rob and I walk to the school to play basketball. We will do it all again at dinner time, with the addition of further relatives and family friends. The same dishes as last year, the same conversations, the same stories. A performance, really, rather than a celebration. A hollow tradition.

The ball clips the backboard and falls swish through the hoop. I light a cigarette and vow that this is my last Christmas in Ouyen.


In the twilight I sit at the outdoor table, drinking a VB and plucking the acoustic guitar I insisted on bringing. I'm not playing anything in particular, just adding random bright chords to the still night air.

I feel bad for feeling bad. Not long ago I was happy with holiday routine and banal conversations and seasonally inappropriate food. I was loved and I loved in return. I was fed and given presents and asked predictable questions about school and Santa. Simple.

Now I am all drive: sex, booze, friends, music, experience - even if gained through brash stupidity, of which there is plenty in my future. I want the new. The old, the routine, that which in my arrogance I perceive to be the unthinking, rubs against me like sandpaper against raw skin.

I strum a few random chords.

"That's nice."

Aunty Lilian opens the sliding door and steps out. She still has her apron on and a tea towel flung over her shoulder.


"Do you still play piano?" It was Aunty Lilian's dream that Rob and I would become professional pianists, a la Richard Clayderman.

"A little." I don't know how to explain the disparity between who she wishes I would be and who I actually am.

"When are you going to come up for a visit?"

"I'm here now."

"I mean on your own. Or with Rob. Like when you were little."

"We're not little anymore."

"No, I suppose not." Aunty Lilian looks at me, appraising. I wonder she is really like, behind the cliches and social niceties she wields in place of conversation. I wonder what she thinks about.

"Well," she says, "the offer is there." She dries her hands on the tea towel and goes inside.

I strum a few chords and look at the stars. One thing about this place, the sky is bigger, brighter than I've ever seen at home.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Write soon

I'm really not in the mood for blogging today. It took the usual three million hours to get Luka off to daycare, and that's without me attending to the bench full of dishes, the two bags of rubbish on the balcony that need taking to the basement, the bed sheets that need changing, the bath that Luka hasn't had for two weeks, the floor that needs sweeping, and the nappies that need buying.

So here I am, finally, set up at 1000 Pound Bend (free wifi, power-points, good tunes, fuck-off strong coffee, no air con), and all I want to do is write letters.

I got my first penpal when I was 13. 'Got' sounds silly. What is the word for how one acquires penpals? 'Met'? 'Read'? Anyway. She's from Finland (though she now lives in Austria), and 18 years later we're still writing.

I've currently got about 20 penpals (I think - sometimes I lose count), though the count peaked in around 1995 when I had 43. There wasn't much to do in Warrnambool as a teenager. I wrote a lot of letters.

Before you ask, my penpals and I correspond on paper, with pens that we hold in our hands, then we put the paper in an envelope and put a stamp on it and put it in a post-box. No, really. Most of them are on Facebook too, but we mainly use it to tell each other when we've posted a letter.

Having a stationery fetish contributes greatly to my enthusiasm for letter-writing (and judging by some of the letters I receive, the same goes for a lot of my fellow penpals). I have a filing cabinet full of letters and a chest of drawers full of writing paper, stickers, cards and envelopes.

There's also a certain joy to be taken in phrases that don't quite bridge the translation gap (I'm pretty sure I have been responsible for numerous ones myself when I try to write in French).

Introductory letters are always a strange beast. Some penpals introduce themselves: “Dear Australian friend, I am your corresponding,” while others prefer to jump straight to the facts: “Dear Friend, I’m 155cm tall and I’m normal." Some first letters are affectionate: “Hi from a big kiss”, some are more formal: “Due to some unavoidable circumstance I could not reply to your letter which you posted December 12.”

There are often important facts about Australia to be cleared up: “Are koalas very dangerous? Do they kill people?” Once, I sent my penpal from Japan some Vegemite, and her next letter came back, “I’m sorry. Vegemite is rot. Because it is summer in Japan, winter in Australia. It is rot.” When I assured her that Vegemite was supposed to be black and somewhat pungent, she wasn’t convinced: “Is that Vegemite really not rot? But it was very bitter, and very smell.”

They tell me about their family, their brothers, sisters and pets:
“Do you have any pets? I have a sister called Anja.”
“My mother is a housewife, my father is a business.”

And of course they tell me about themselves:
“I like sunburnt on the beach.”
“I dream become top model. I laugh."

My penpal from Bangladesh took the prize for best double entendre sentence with: “My mother is interested to intercourse with your papa and mama.” My mama and papa were flattered but said they weren't really into that sort of thing.

These women and I have exchanged our handwritten lives, in some cases for more than half our existence. We've gone through high school, uni, jobs, boyfriends, husbands, break-ups, breakdowns, and children together. We've dropped off the radar for a few months or years and then picked up our correspondence again. We've discovered, as adults, that we've gone through the same things in our pasts and never knew (the amount of eating disorders I've discovered we have in common since I 'came out' has been truly surprising).

Writing to these women is probably the most important form of writing in my life. Letter-writing for me is a treat, and discovering a new be-stickered envelope in my mail-box at the end of my work-day can wipe out all the frustrations of dragging an incessantly babbling toddler home from daycare when all I want is a glass of wine and some peace.

So why am I blogging and writing fiction today, when I want to be letter-writing? I think it's because I privilege writing according to how hard I find it. Letter-writing is easy and pleasurable (not to mention pretty), so it mustn't be of as much value as poetry, which is harder but short enough that I don't have a massive crisis of confidence before I've finished a draft. But poetry mustn't have as much value as fiction-writing, which I find harder and more nerve-wracking. And novel writing? Well, let's just say I've spent most of my life trying very hard not to write a novel.

This hierarchy of value is a crock. It's pure writing-snobbery on my part.

How is it a less valuable form of writing to share these women's lives, my life? How is it a less valuable form of writing to create something that is for one person only, something that is always right the first time, something that will never see the rounds of multiple editors, re-drafts and self-doubts?

It's not.

In my handbag at the moment is a letter from a woman in Sri Lanka that ends so sweetly: “Have nice days and dreams, write soon.”

If you'll excuse me, I'm going to write a letter.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Sandwich hands

“You honest?”


“You honest. Can I trust you?”

“Um, yeah, of course.”

“Some of these girls, money goes missing – pfft – from the cash register, you know?”

“Oh. I wouldn’t do that.”

“Ok. You start now, ok?”

“Right now?”


This, apparently, is to be the extent of my job interview for the position of Sandwich Hand at the Uni Bite Café. I’m 20 years old, and my only previous job has been five years working in a book store. This new job, which is about all I can squeeze in around my uni contact hours, will prove to be a somewhat different beast. For one thing, there will be vastly greater amounts of scalloped potatoes involved. The levels of scalloped potatoes I encountered while bookselling were suprisingly low. So low, in fact, that I eventually concluded that thinly sliced tubers gently absorbing large amounts of milk and butter were not actually relevant to selling books at all. I know, go figure.

My new employer, Joanne, having decided that I am probably not going to pilfer vast amounts of cash from the till, hands me a black apron and tells me to tie my hair back. She comes up to just under my boobs and keeps up a contant stream of muttering in half-Lebanese, half-English.

“You start training today, maybe three hours, this on your own time, then you do lunchtimes 12-3pm and we see how you go. What days you can do it?”

“Uh – I can’t do Thursdays.”

“Ok. I trust you, I give you these Monday Tuesday Wednesday Fridays.”

“Um, thanks.”

“You make coffee?”


Joanne looks up at me with an expression I will quickly become familiar with. If the expression could speak, it would say “How can you be at university, enormous white girl, and yet be such a complete idiot?” I don’t really have an answer for this, but luckily all Joanne actually says is: “Can you make coffee.”

I stare at the large metal machine. It’s got lots of knobs on. I get briefly distracted by my need to make a knob joke, and then realise that a) I haven’t answered Joanne yet, and b) there appears to be small ribbons of smoke extruding from her ears.

“I haven’t done it before, no.”

Joanne sighs, grabs a metal jug of milk and thrusts it at me. I’m going to be bad at this. On my first shot at frothing a jug of milk, I don’t dip the steam nozzle thing in far enough and I send a spectacular spray of milk all over myself and the bench.

“Aieeee!” yells Joanne.

On the second go, I can’t get the milk to foam before it starts to boil out of the jug.

On the third go, we switch to sandwich making. I sucessfully only drop one large salad sandwich on the floor. Joanne’s stream-of-Lebanese-consciousness has started to reach quite audible levels by this point.

After my three hours of training (on my own time, as she reminds me regularly), we’re both pretty much nervous wrecks. “Ok, enough for today,” Joanne says. “You clean the bella marine and then you can go.”

I look wildly around the café. “Clean – clean the what?”

I get The Look. She points silently at the bain marie. “Oh, right, the bain marie,” I say.

Joanne shakes her head witheringly. “Yes, the bella marine. Newspaper under the sink.”

My hands gradually learn the automatic movements required of the café assistant. True to my job title, I develop sandwich hands: my left hand is a pair of tongs, my right hand a sweaty latex glove with horrible powdery stuff on the inside. I have about twenty tiny burn marks on my arms and knuckles from the bain-marie and the damned frothing jug. But I have skills.

I can halve and wrap a towering salad roll in greaseproof paper, and twirl the corners of the bag shut without spraying shredded lettuce at customers. I can separate and layer hundreds of cheese slices into star-shaped dairy-plastic constellations and wrap them gently in cling-wrap so as not to break off any of the corners (an important lesson from Joanne’s reaction to any food wastage: don’t break the cheese.) I can grate large amounts of onions for sausage rolls as long as I breathe through my mouth and don’t mind smelling of onions for a week. I know at what point the spaghetti cabonara in the bain-marie needs re-hydrating. (This, for the unitiated, means that when the pasta starts to dry out under the heat lamps, it gets the leftover milk from the coffee machine jug poured over it. That pasta sits there all day, absorbing luke-warm frothy milk. Don’t buy it.) I can shuffle the bain marie trays around like Tetris with the added prospect of third degree burns. I can re-layer the biscuits in the jars so that the older ones are closest to the top. I can roll hundreds of plastic forks in paper napkins and stick them shut with my wet fingers. I can even avoid getting whipped with a tea towel when I don’t get out of Joanne’s way fast enough.

But I still can’t froth a jug of milk to save my life.

“Yalla, yalla,” says Joanne. I’m struggling to plate a sausage roll that keeps threatening to disintegrate. Yalla means ‘hurry up’. This is followed by a longer phrase that I’ve gathered means ‘Move your arse’. Joanne’s not in a great mood, because it’s her birthday and her two sons have forgotten. She’s dealing with this by picking up things and slamming them down in other places. The bain-marie trays cop most of it.

SLAM! The lasagna tray.

“[muttering in Lebanese] BLUDDY MEN [mutter mutter] NO RESPECK”

SLAM! The scalloped potatoes.


SLAM! This time it’s a soup tureen.

“Why I have these sons [mutter mutter] I don’t know which one of them has more cuckoo-brains; both of them.”

SLAM! etc.

Frank, her husband, who looks like a cross between Nero Wolfe and Fat Tony, and whose main function is to fry the chicken schnitzels and sit on the back step smoking, calls out “Shut up woman!” and goes back to his cigarette.

Joanne narrows her eyes at me and shakes her head. “You learn this one, girl. You got to treat the boys mean, keep them wanting or BANG they give you all kind of trouble. And no RESPECK!”

She shouts the last word out into the kitchen and I hear Frank mutter “All the time, shut up, bluddy hell.”

I’ve washed the last scraps of scalloped cement potatoes out of the tray, and then scraped off the creamy slime that’s coated the hairs on my arms. There are long washing up gloves provided but none of us bother with them as the time taken getting them on and off usually earns me and the other sandwich hands a “Yalla!” or two. It’s pay day, so I shuffle up to Frank’s chair on my way out of the kitchen.

“How many hours you work this week, twelve?”

“Fourteen,” I say. “I did extra on Monday and yesterday.”

“Joanne!” yells Frank. “Anna do extra on Monday and yesterday?”

“What? Ah, yis, yis on those days extra hour.”

Frank grunts reluctantly and leans sideways in his chair to pull out his wallet. He rifles through a thick wad of notes and pulls out my pay. “See you next week then.”

I fold the notes over and stuff them in my bag. I’m paid the princely sum of $8 an hour, but I can make a sandwich for myself whenever I like (as long as I don’t use any of the expensive ingredients like meat). Frank has informed me that if ‘The Tax Man’ ever comes in, I’m to say I’m paid only in food. I’m not sure how sounds more legal than cash-in-hand, but as ‘The Tax Man’ doesn’t appear to have The Uni Bite high on his list of venues to personally investigate, I haven’t thought too much about it.

“Um,” I say. Frank looks up. “I’ve been offered a job in a library, so this week will be my last week.”

This is true. Last week after my lunch shift, I ran across to Union House, dressed in black (plus a light dusting of sandwich crumbs) and smelling a lot like scalloped potatoes, for an interview as a library student casual at the Rowden White Library. There were lots of questions, but strangely none of them were about whether I intended to steal from the till. Also no mention of frothing milk or breaking the corners off cheese slices. I got the job.

“Joanne!” yells Frank. “Anna going to another place, put the ad back up.”

Joanne appears in the doorway. “You leaving us? You no like us any more?” She wipes away a pretend tear but grins at me, and I can see it really is her version of a good-natured farewell. Sandwich hands don’t tend to stick around very long.

“I’m going to work in a library,” I say.

Joanne and Frank stare at each other in disbelief. “With the books?” says Joanne.

“Pretty much,” I say.

“Why would you want to work in a library?” says Frank.

I look over at the sink, where a pile of onions are waiting to be grated, and a couple more lasagna trays are soaking. I smell like elderly cream sauce and I’m a sweaty mess after only three hours of running between the bain marie and the sink.

I consider explaining the attractiveness of a job where I won’t be covered in food and sweat, and will most likely be paid a legal wage.

I shrug. “I like books.”

Friday, November 25, 2011

Friday is writing day.

To misquote Thomas Mann*, "A parent is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."

Friday is my designated writing day. It's my one day off work a week. Luka doesn't know that. There are lots of things he conveniently doesn't know, like how sometimes he goes to daycare in what are technically pyjamas, and that batteries can be replaced. The day that fucking Elmo guitar with no volume control wore out was one of the best days of my motherhood.

Anyway, on Friday mornings I resist the urge to potter about the house in my pyjamas while my son creates a small yet surprisingly adhesive trail of Rice Bubbles along the lounge room tiles.

Up! Shower! Pants! Relatively clean bra! Top! Shoes!

(that's me)

Nappy! Clothes that may or may not have been intended to be worn as pyjamas! Hair gel so you can see out from under that mop! When did I last clean your teeth! Oh well we'll do them tonight! Shoes! Rice Bubbles!

(that's Luka)

"I want you to do it."
"You want me to do what? You want me to feed you your Rice Bubbles?"
*blonde head nods*
"But you can do that yourself! I need to comb my hair out."
He gently rests his forehead on the edge of the table and pushes the Rice Bubbles away.
*sigh* "All right."

I shovel spoonfuls of breakfast confetti into my son with one hand while running a brush through my hair with the other. Occasionally my multi-tasking limbs get confused and I run a spoonful of warm milk through Luka's curls. He thinks this is hilarious.

Right. We're ready to head to daycare. Then writing day will commence.

"Mum, I've got a big poo."

I stop at the front door, keys and four thousand bags in hand. "Really?"

He stand on his toes and shuffles towards me in poo-stance. I smell him before he gets to me. Birthday cake has a lot to answer for. Bags down, into the bedroom.

"Righto, lie down. No, lie down here, I can't reach you there. You can play with Thomas when you get home from daycare. Lie down here. Luka. Now. We have to go catch the bus, come on, lie down. No, dummies are for sleeping, you know that. Luka. Lie. Down. Now."

10 minutes later the poo has been dealt with. Back to the front door.

"Luka, where have you put my keys?"
"I made a hide-and-seek! You count!"
"We haven't got time, can you find them for me?"
"You count!"
*pause* "I'll count and you see how fast you can find them, okay?"
"Okay!" (Another thing that Luka conveniently doesn't know are the technical points of hide-and-seek.)
"One, two, three, four, five - leave that jacket there we've got another one in your bag - six, seven - you're looking for the keys, remember? Eight..."

Another 10 minutes later and we are successfully on the other side of the door.

"I'm a bit sad," says Luka in a small voice. I squat down.
"Why are you a bit sad?" I ask.
"In my face," he answers. I put a hand to his face. It's pretty warm. I put my hand up under his t-shirt. His back is pretty warm too. I hesitate.
"Do you want some medicine before daycare?" I ask. Maybe Panadol will head things off at the pass.

Back inside.

"What do you weigh, Luka?" I study the dosing guide on the bottle of Panadol.
"Okay," he says.

One weigh-in, 9ml and another 10 minutes later, we have made it to the bottom of the stairs and Luka is clipped into the stroller.

"Right!" I am triumphant, we've made it out of the apartment and it's still only 9:30am.

"I want to hold my bag," says Luka.

I reach for his bag. I've left it in the apartment. I glance up and down the hall. There's no one around. "You just stay here, okay, I'll run up and get it?"

"No, I wanna go with you."
"I'll just be a minute, I'll just run upstairs and-"
"Noooooo I wannna go with yoooooou!" He starts to wail. I do some involuntary fist-clenching, followed by some voluntary quiet swearing.

"Fucking," says Luka. I glance around to see if anyone is proffering my Parent Of The Year award, but there are no gleaming statuettes in evidence.

With my teeth carefully pressed together, I unclip him from the stroller, unwind the complex pretzel of my handbag strap from the handles and hold his hand while he takes the stairs one step at an interminably slow time.

"Do you want to put your bag on your back?" I ask, once we're inside again.
"I've got a big poo."
"Can I have a look down your pants?"

Fifteen minutes and another nappy later, I am re-pretzeling my handbag strap around the stroller.

The next bit runs so smoothly that I am quite unnerved. We stagger up to the bus stop three minutes before the bus arrives, and I manage to wrestle my wagon-load of child, stroller and bags onto the bus while only gouging out a relatively small chunk of my calf.

The traffic is light. The bus stops right outside the daycare centre. This is going well.

"This is where we hang up your bag, this is Luka's hook."
"That's MY bag."

"Hi Luka! Our friend Luka is here, everyone!" Winnie waves to Luka and he waves back in that whole-body toddler fashion that threatens to take out any object within arm's length. Toddler arms are a bit like Labrador tails. Enthusiastic and fatal to heirloom china.

"That's a great top, Luka!" says Winnie.
"These are my monster pyjamas!" replies Luka.

Ah. Scratch one thing off the list of 'things Luka conveniently does not know'.

Forty minutes later I'm back at my apartment, cup of tea in hand, laptop on. I glance at the pile of breakfast dishes, but I don't let them distract me. I choose to believe that they will be taken care of at some point during the day by my invisible, domestic-hero boyfriend. He really is a dear, and always knows just the right time of evening to suggest I stop hanging up the washing, put my feet up and order pizza. (I have to order a large pizza, obviously, because there's two of us. Invisible boyfriends can really put away the slices.)

"Right," I say. I say 'right' a lot.

I open the story I have been working on to reacquaint myself with where I was up to, and wonder why my characters roll their eyes and nod so much. I think they need to say 'right' more often.

I've written four halting paragraphs when my mobile rings. I swear, press ALT-F-S (which can theoretically stand for File-Save or Fuck's-Sake) and pick up my phone. It's the daycare centre.

"Hello, is this Anna? This is Winnie, from the daycare. Ah, was Luka unwell this morning?"
"Um, he seemed pretty okay, a bit warm maybe."
"Yeah, he's seeming a bit unwell today, I think his temperature is about 39, and he just want to lie down on the floor and rest all the time?"

I look at my laptop screen. There's a nice little standoff between Guilt and Annoyance in my head. Guilt pokes Annoyance in the eyes and pulls her hair. Guilt fights dirty.

"I probably should come and get him, shouldn't I?"
"Yeah, I think it would be good. Thankyou Anna, see you soon!"

I gently shut my laptop and pick up my keys. The weather has heated up. When I finally get back to the daycare centre, I'm a sweaty mass of frustration and chafed thighs. I stride through to the toddler room, and each step echoes like a diminishing word count. Annoyance has obviously picked herself up off the ropes and bitten Guilt on the nose.

"Hey, Luka."
He turns his soft face up to mine. He's so pale he's almost translucent, and the rims of his little eyes are red.
"I'm a little bit sick," he says.
I pick him up and he leans against me, resting his head on my shoulder. He's very warm, and I can feel his little arms quivering.
"Can we go home and have a little sleep?" he asks in a small voice.

Guilt pulls an AK-47 from her pants and efficiently obliterates Annoyance.

"Course we can, buddy. I'm sorry you're a little bit sick. Do you want some Tiny Teddies when we get home?"

I cuddle his hot little body a bit closer.

There's a Friday every week.

*In case you're wondering, the original is: "A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."

Friday, November 18, 2011

Mixed selections

"What does 'mixed selection' mean?"

"You don't want to know."

"No, really, what does it mean."

"It means - well, let's just say it's a good idea to keep a note of which meal was served on which day of the week."


"You don't want to know."


It's about my fourth week living at a Melbourne University residential college that shall remain nameless except to say it's not Trinity, Hilda's, JCH, Ridley, Whitley, Queens, Newman, St Mary's or Ormond.

All of us first-years have started to lose our country-stunned expressions and drift vaguely into groups. We're all just out of high school, so from the footy-heads to the musical theatre nuts to the science nerds to the constantly drunk medical students, the social groups are roughly the same as in high school. I've determined that all the male students are named Andrew or David, and all the female students are named Jenny or Kate. This saves a lot of time. I personally have decided to answer to Kate, as I am not blonde enough to be a Jenny ('microwave Jenny' or otherwise).

We've gotten past the stage where all we can think of to ask each other are the two first-year-student-from-the-country questions: "Where are you from?" and "What course are you doing?" (Warrnambool; Arts/Science), and have moved on to discovering that we both taped the same obscure 1970s Jacques Rivette film off the telly, and have well-loved copies of 'The Castle of Cats' in our bedrooms.

We've also moved on to the most important and long-running intellectual discussion of our residential years: college food.

College food has a reputation. It starts off okay, I'm told, to lull the first-years (and their nervous parents) into a false sense of security. Then there is an almost imperceptible slide into a kind of tolerable yet soul-destroying mediocrity you can only otherwise experience by listening to Coldplay on the headphones that came with your iPod in a Hoyts cinema foyer while eating supermarket potato salad.

The first thing to note about college food is the smell. It doesn't matter what's for dinner, it still makes the dining hall smell sweet and meaty, a bit like the smell of a McDonalds hamburger bun. It's the kind of smell where for a minute you can't tell whether it's something nice or something rotting.

"What's for tea?"

"Armenian lamb, apparently."



There are many varieties of stew served at college. They go by such names as Armenian Lamb, Mongolian Beef, Indian Lamb, Mediterranean Beef, Moroccan Lamb and they all look and taste exactly the same: they are basically brown meat in a pot. The BMPs that are supposed to be curry-flavoured are often served with enormous amounts of pale, not-quite-deep-fried-enough pappadums which have been dumped into large metal bowls without being drained properly, so by the time we get them they have cooled, and developed little pockets of solidified fat in their undulations.

It doesn't pay to be vegetarian at college, either. The vegetarians are faced with a seemingly endless procession of 'slice': lentil slice, zucchini slice, and several others that go by different names but are essentially lentil slice and/or zucchini slice. I find this baffling: it is so easy to make tasty vegetarian food, even in slice format. The vegetarians at college go through a lot of tomato sauce.

Friday is the holy grail of college mealtimes. We all come back to college for dinner on Fridays, following some kind of deep, primal instinct that leads us to the dining hall like cartoon mice drifting nose-first after an illustrated ribbon of cheese-scent.

Friday at college is fish 'n' chips and ice-cream night.

*cue heraldic trumpets*

True, the fried-solid planks of fish-like substance are affectionately referred to as 'surfboards', but there's CHIPS and there's ICE-CREAM and there's shitloads of toppings and nuts (which you may also put on your chips if you wish, it's your call. We've all dipped McDonalds fries into a chocolate fudge sundae, so no one's judging). Those of us who return multiple times to the industrial-sized bottles of topping develop a kind of fiddler-crab-esque, overly muscular right arm from pumping the sauce.

I'm a bit funny about food at the best of times, so - Fridays aside - college food fills me with a combination of revulsion and amazement. I attend dinner like I'm performing some kind of experiment:

How many different sorts of soup can possibly just taste like thickened cornflour broth with salt? (Twelve.)

How thin can meat be sliced so as to feed as many students as possible? (0.3mm.)

How many servings of chocolate ripple cake can one footy-head balance up in a single bowl? (Five, but it isn't pretty.)

What is that? (It's carrots. Really. It's actually carrots.)

I try to work out why this sort of food unnerves me so much. I find the volume of it, the sheer enormity of a curry for 160 people, quite repulsive. There's so little detail in that amount of food, it reminds me of feeding the pigs on my friend’s farm. I know it sounds melodramatic, but there's something dis-empowering about being served up 3 mass-produced meals a day. I'm not an individual to this food; I'm an 18-year-old Jenny-or-Kate from the country who needs x amount of nutrients in order to get to three 8am Biochemistry lectures a week. In a way, this is true. So why does it make me feel like I should start learning synchronised gymnastics routines and move to North Korea?


“What does ‘mixed selection’ mean?”

“You don’t want to know.”

I’m standing in front of the daily black-board menu next to Sean.

"No, really, what does it mean."

"It means - well, let's just say it's a good idea to keep a note of which meal was served on which day of the week."


"You don't want to know."

I find out what ‘mixed selection’ means that evening. At my college, ‘mixed selection’ refers to the entire week’s leftovers, re-heated and served up in the bain-marie. You choose your poison. The trick is to try to remember if the dried-out Beef Wellington (another form of BMP – brown meat in pastry) was first served closer to Saturday or Thursday.

Sean, Laura and I survey the gently steaming array of food on offer.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“I think that’s Tuesday’s rissoles mixed with Thursday’s risotto,” says Sean.

“Why are there chips in with the croissants?” I ask.

“Oh,” says Laura. “I think I’ve worked it out. They’re serving things alphabetically.”

“That doesn’t explain why the lasagne is next to the zucchini slice,” I say.

Sean and Laura reply in unison: “That’s lentil slice.”

We make our choices. My choice is to move out of college with Laura at the end of the year, into a terrace house in Carlton that has a rosemary bush which threatens to take over the backyard every couple of months, and neighbours who regularly seem set things on fire:

“Who lit the fucken bin?”

“Don’t call the fire brigade Belinda, the car’s on fire but I’m puttin water on it!”

“Look Belinda, I’m a fireman, I’m a fireman!”

On the first night in our little house, I fry an up an onion with garlic, a tin of kidney beans and a tin of tomatoes. In case you can’t tell, I really don’t know how to cook yet. Laura is kind enough not to comment. I ladle the weird concoction into two crazed white bowls that my parents have had since the 70s, and we sit down in the tiny kitchen.

The onion is undercooked and crunchy, the whole thing is crying out for salt, and I didn’t rinse the kidney beans well enough.

It’s one meal, made for two people, to be eaten on one night.

I eat my whole bowlful. It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted.

Monday, November 14, 2011

We have rendered the impossible into life

We have rendered the impossible into life.
Upended our lives on three words
and found the best things underneath.
We thought ourselves empty flower pots
face-down over earwigs and the skeletons of flowers.
We lifted our terra-cotta helmets
and when the sun hit the dirt
it was full of tiny seeds
curling up toward daylight.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

You may as well start now.

“Do I have to write down a birth plan?” I ask. I’m seven months pregnant.

“Well,” says my obstetrician, “You can write down that you plan to give birth, if you like. That one’s a definite. But you can make up the rest as you go along. Unless there’s anything specific you want, of course. I had a woman once who was adamant that she needed this giant red oil painting in the delivery room to focus on and channel energy through.”

“Did it work?” I ask.

He frowns a little and gazes up at the ceiling. “I think by the time she entered transition, her energy was more focused on another channel.”


After scouring the pregnancy forums, I pick my OB because the words that come up the most are ‘laid-back’ and ‘non-alarmist’. Also the fact that he doesn’t do internal examinations ‘unless medically indicated’. I’m not a fan of internals. A few months later when I am in labour, I will kick a midwife halfway across the room as she quite roughly performs one on me. She will raise her voice: ‘Come on, be a good girl, it’s not as bad as the contractions is it.’ I will growl ‘YES IT FUCKING IS’ but be in too much pain to point out that given I am currently giving birth, I am obviously no longer a ‘girl’ and probably haven’t been a ‘girl’ for quite a while, thank-you very fucking much you patronising medical professional. Five hours later when I am attempting to push out a baby, I will accidentally shit on this midwife and not mind at all.

I’m getting off track here. Back to just-pregnant.

I phone up to make my first appointment somewhat apprehensively, as my OB’s receptionist has A Reputation For Being A Little Bit Difficult. “Um, I’ve got a referral to see [redacted name of OB]?”

“How far along are you?” comes the terse reply.

“Three and a half weeks,” I say.

“So you haven’t missed your period yet.” She sounds really annoyed.

“Um, no,” I say. I’m standing outside my GP’s office in the wind, and I’m a bit frazzled at all of this. I hate making phone calls at the best of times.

“Then how do you know you’re pregnant?” she accuses.

“I have a positive pregnancy test,” I say. I nearly add ‘it’s a bit of a tip-off,’ but I’m too intimidated to rise to my usual level of smart-arsery.

She sighs. “Hold on I’ve got another call.” I wait for the usual waft of on-hold music and am slightly perplexed to find I’ve been hung up on. I ring back.

“I was just talking to you and we got cut off - ”

“You’re the three-and-a-half weeks?” she says.

“Uh. Yeah.”

“24th May at 2pm?”

“Uh. Ok.”

“See you then.” She hangs up, and I burst into illogical tears. But hey, I’m pregnant, I now have special dispensation to burst into illogical tears whenever the fuck I want. Also I get to swear as much as I like because once I have a two-year-old with a talent for repetition, I’m going to have to try to behave myself. I may or may not prove to be very successful at this, and my two-year-old may or may not prove to be very good at clearly announcing ‘fucking computer!’ at inopportune moments.

But back to the early days, when my future swearing blonde moppet is little more than a tiny prawn made of snot floating around somewhere a lot lower down than I imagine my uterus to be. Should have concentrated harder when the Life Ed van came round to my primary school.

I like my OB even before I meet him. This is mainly because he has a Playmobil operating theatre and hospital room set up on his office book shelf. I’m easily wooed by the presence of these little German pieces of plastic. When he does enter the room and begin to speak, I’m soothed by his soft voice. He’s kind of like a really nice dad. He’s probably in his mid-fifties, has inoffensive grey hair and wears chinos.

“I have heaps of Playmobil,” I say. “I asked for it for every birthday and Christmas present from age 4 up until I was way too old to still be asking for it.”

It’s probably not the usual first thing he hears from a new patient, but I’m not going to be a usual patient. I am going to be weirdly low-maintenance for a first pregnancy. I’ll have hardly any questions or worries (that’s what the internet is for), I’ll never call him after hours, or even during hours, I’ll never page him and I won’t have a single medical problem even when I go 10 days overdue.

“Do I really have to follow all those food rules?” I ask. “There’s like a million of them. And I really like soft cheese.”

He leans forward and steeples his fingers. “Look, you can be as cautious as you like about these things, really. I would say: don’t eat undercooked meat if you’re in France, don’t eat anything that’s off, other than that just eat whatever you’re comfortable with.”

I must look pleased. “Oh,” he says, “And you’re going to need to drink to get through your second pregnancy, so you may as well start now. A small glass of wine each day isn’t going to do any harm at all.”

It’s official: I am in love with my OB.

I’d like to say the next 9 months fly by, but they don’t. Increasingly, they waddle. I outgrow every bra size ever invented. I stare in confusion at ‘hospital bag’ suggestion lists that insist I pack thank-you cards so I can write my thank-yous while I’m still in hospital. Why don’t I just write a novel and find a cure for cancer while I’m learning to breastfeed?

I manage never to have heartburn or need to wee more often than usual (even when I’m 9 months gone I don’t ever have to get up at night to take a piss. I try not to mention this to pregnant friends or friends with new babies, because their eyes take on a certain murderous gleam that I vaguely think I’ve seen once before and I think it was during ‘The Hand that Rocks the Cradle’).

Pregnancy is weird. Everyone is suddenly interested in me, and a bit grabby (which oddly enough, I find I quite like). I do consider having a set of business-sized cards made up that say “January. Boy. My first.” in order to save answering the same three fucking questions from every single person on the planet.

I also note one weird pregnancy thing that no one ever told me about: when you’re really, really pregnant and your baby moves around while you’re having a poo, it feels like your poo is alive. True.

And suddenly I’m 10 days overdue, lying on the couch moaning about how I’m going to be pregnant forever. Then something…squirts. I don’t usually spontaneously piss myself, I think. I leap off the couch and in ridiculously stereotypical Hollywood style, my waters break spectacularly all over the floor. It goes everywhere. I get the giggles. “Labour doesn’t start like this in real life!” I exclaim, “I’m an episode of Friends!”

I’ll spare you the labour. It’s actually quite boring, for the most part. It hurts, it takes fucking forever, I get really tired, I kick a midwife, I have an epidural. Epidurals are awesome. Everyone should have one, maybe once a week.

Then suddenly it’s time to have a go at actually giving birth, and I can’t manage to push properly (apart from the aforementioned shitting upon the patronising midwife). My OB, who has arrived with his hair tousled from sleep, says kindly: “I think I might need to give you a hand. You have one more go, I’ll get the salad servers ready.” I assume he means forceps because I don’t recall ordering a salad.


I’ve meandered all over this blog post, not knowing quite how to end it. I can only think of one way how it ends, and when I mention it to @matchtrick, he replies: “Then that’s how it ends. You get very few chances to tell a story that ends that way.” He’s right.


I admire my stripy Juno-style socks as my numb legs hang in the air, propped up by stirrup thingies. I can’t feel a thing, but my OB appears to be tossing the salad. (This is not intended to be a euphemism, but I suspect it already is.)

A few moments later a curled up creature is slopped onto my chest, apparently covered in tinned tomatoes and cottage cheese. It’s not a bag of kittens after all.

One of his fists clutches around the strap of my nightie. He’s all shiny and gross and a lot bigger than I expected and completely amazing.

I burst into logical tears.

It ends with baby.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Visiting Chats

It’s been a quite a long time since I last visited her. Too bloody long, actually.

When I blink and think of her, she is frozen in place at high shutter speed, a tiny firecracker of a woman who would stride in to Camp Hill Primary School, clasping my little hand, and demand to read to my class (to the bemusement of my Prep teacher, who very wisely allowed this elderly dynamo to entrance our class for half an hour).

Now, as I struggle with the spring on the low gate, it feels like someone else's life. Other children’s sun-faded drawings are stuck to the sunroom glass. The pencil scratch marking my height has long ago rubbed off the front yard lamp post.

My mother is by my side, pleaded along for the visit, just in case. In case of what? If I'm honest, I've asked to her to come with me in case the woman I am visiting has finally grown old.

I push the black plastic button on the wall and a startling string of clangs bursts from inside the house. I’d forgotten the assault of that doorbell.

Darling girl!” A familiar silhouette, dwarfed by the doorway. Heather Chatfield, or Chats, as I quickly dubbed her as a 6 year old.

She was my mother’s English lecturer, and my childhood provider of endless Tim-Tams and endless aggressive enthusiasm. She is now seventy-eight. Her faded blonde hair is arranged in vague curls around her head, and her open mouth reveals worn down bottom teeth.

“It’s our girl! And mother!” trills her deep theatrical tone. She has the voice of everyone's Aunty Beryl who smokes ten packs a day and sounds like a bloke, crossed with Bob Downe.

“Now give me a hug.” she orders, and I bend almost double to embrace her tiny figure. She holds me at arms length and purses her lips. “Let me look at you, aren’t you a beautiful girl - isn’t she beautiful, mother? Come in, now - will you have a cup of tea?” She bustles into the house and we follow. The darkness inside feels familiar; a stillness of decades in every ornament and stagnant piece of furniture.

The grandfather clock still blocks half the passage, and my Year 7 pottery sculptures (including an incredibly un-lifelike replica of an icecream sundae) still adorn the television. Chats steams through the lounge into the piano room and perches on an embroidered chair. I wonder if the piano’s Middle C still plays two notes at once. For those of you playing at home, neither of the notes are actually Middle C.

Every time I get one of your letters,” she begins, “I go down to the Bendigo library and search for those books you tell me about. Those librarians must be saying to each other - ” she tilts her head in the air and flares her nostrils “ - ‘Who is this old trrrrollop who knows all about these new books and keeps pestering us about them?” She breaks into the throaty laugh that always threatens to turn into a cough. Sometimes it does, and I remember her emphysema. “It’s all those cigarettes I smoked, dear girl, I’ve had to give them up now.” When I was in Prep I used to hide her fags and she would chase me all over the house with a fly swat, me giggling hysterically. There were a couple of packets that she never found. I think I even flushed some of them down the bog.

Chats presses her hands into her lap. “I don’t regret a single smoke, if they told me I was going to die tomorrow I’d buy a huge pile of them -” she throws her arms wide, “ - and smoke myself to death!”

“I don’t understand all these people clinging desperrrrately to life,” she continues, “Half the ladies down at the Red Cross are grumbling about getting old and how their medicines are prolonging this and that - I think every day after seventy is a bonus, darling, and I won’t be claiming I didn’t get enough time.”

As we finish our cups of tea she presents me with a flat, green book. “This is the latest one darling, I thought you might like a copy before you go.” Chats writes English text books for primary and secondary schools, and now, as she approaches her eightieth year, she has finished another. “Because you’re off to university this year, aren’t you? Oh, you are a clever girl.” Her lips draw back in a sneer. “Not like those girls who think they’re intellectual giants because they can say -” she bursts into a whirlwind of quotation; arms sweeping, r’s rolling, ' - ‘O wearrrry night, O long and tedious night, abate thy hours! Shine comforts from the east! That I may back to Athens by daylight, from these that my poor company detest: and sleep, that sometimes shuts up sorrow’s eye, steal me awhile from mine own company.' " She pauses, and her expression sharpens. "And not like those people who are lazy with their language, either.”

Chats detests ‘lazy language’. God help me if I ever ended a sentence with 'with' (unless I really couldn't think of any other word to end it with). Once, aged seven, I was vigorously told off for starting two consecutive sentences with the word “Then”.

Then it’s time to leave. Then it’s hard to leave, too. But there are relatives who hold polite conversations about school to be visited, relatives who, unlike Chats, will probably not announce things like: “I’ve given up wearing a bra now, darling. I don’t see the point any more.”

We stand at the gate, and her gently trembling hands wrap around my wrists. Her blue eyes shine a bit too brightly from her pink face. “You’re a dear, clever girl, and you must visit again soon. Not very many people like me, darling, so the ones who do I drag close to me. Kicking and scrrrreaming!”

She huffs a laugh and leans closer towards me. “Don’t you let anyone stop you from doing what you want to do.” She wiggles my arms up and down. As I smile and turn to leave she pulls my face down to hers and cups her hands against my cheeks. I swallow, it feels like her eyes are pressing against my own. She square her small shoulders.

“People might try, you know. They might try to stop you doing whatever it is you want to do. Remember darling girl, if one door closes - beat it down.”

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Trojan Bra

It will not surprise you to learn that my grandfather ran a pub, and my great-grandfather ran a pub.

There's something about this publican history that passes with the amniotic fluid in our family. While I am decidedly of Librarian Stadium Status, I often think my library will be the most perfect place on earth on that day where I can pull you a mean pint as I loan you a copy of At Swim Two Birds. Or, if you're that way inclined, mix you up a Mint Julep to go with your Great Gatsby. I can pour you a delicate liqueur to go with your Poirot (sirop de cassis, ou creme de menthe?). If you're borrowing anything by Bukowski, however, I might duck after I heave the four jugs of of vinegar-masquerading-as-red-wine over the counter.


I'm in a very small country town, sitting in the front bar of the pub my grandfather used to run. It's a local bar, for local people, and I'm wearing way too much black (actually, only my socks are black; it's still too much). But I have special dispensation to sit here at ease, as the blood of this pub runs in my veins.

There's a lot of yellow pine paneling and the ceiling feels lower than it actually is. It's 1pm, and the regulars lean against the bar like old tree trunks, curved over their beer mats and occasional exchange of words. There's a comforting smell of stale ale and stubbed-out hot chips. A wishing-well's worth of foreign currency is blu-tacked to the wall next to the register, and beside that is a small picture of a kitten hanging onto a tree branch, captioned: "Lord, help me to hang in there!"

I recall that one of the previous barmen here refused to serve anything except beer, regardless of what you asked for.

"What can I get you?"
"White wine, please."
You get lager.

"What'll it be?"
"Scotch and coke."
You get lager.

"Another round, boys?"
"Yep. 6 tequila shots mate."
You get lager.

"And for the lady?"
"Where are the toilets, please?"
You get lager.

"What's your poison?"
"A single plum, floating in perfume, served in a man's hat."
You get thrown out.
There are limits.
Zero tolerance for Simpsons references round these here parts.

The weekly Tinna Shit raffle will come around later. These are so-named because the prize may as well be a tin of shit, that's not the point. You don't weigh up whether you really want a meat-tray or free entry to the footy-tipping, you just buy the bloody ticket. If you're stupid enough to actually ask what the prize is, the reply will come swiftly from the Greek chorus: "Tinna shit."

I'm perched on the cracked leather of a bar stool, attempting not to knock back my beer in one giant mouthful. These days, I only seem to venture into country towns for funerals, and the pub becomes vital because apparently it is a universal law that only chardonnay may be served at wakes. For me, chardonnay has a tang of corpses.

In between 'sensible' sips, for I glance upwards. I'm not sure why. Probably because ever since I got here I've had the distinct impression that the distance between my head and the ceiling is ever-so-gradually diminishing.

Directly above me, fiercely secured with yellow stick-pins, is the biggest bra I have ever seen.

It's tacked to the pine boards in four places. It's very, very beige. The cups hang low: plumped, pendulous, emptily sensuous. There's a kind of drag against the elastic that isn't the result of polyester and gravity alone. The straps have torn a little against the rusted spikes that trap them against the ceiling.

There's something in that bra. I really, really hope it's not a pair of boobs.

The barwoman places an elbow conversationally next to my own. "Punch girl?" she asks. It's not really a question. We Punch girls look alike.

"Yep," I reply. "Mick's grand-daughter." I glace upward at the bra again. The barwoman smiles and her eyes crease into fans at the edges. Her lipstick is immaculate.

"Lady left it behind upstairs in the rooms. It's a double G-cup. The fellas been throwing coins up in it."

I look up at the bra again, and can just make out half-moon edges of coins pressing against the cups. It must be pretty filled out.

The barwoman nods and her verandah of hair bobs stiffly. "Brings them in, of a weekend," she says. "Their bloody aim gets worse as the night goes on of course. Number of times I've had dollar coins bounce off my nut."

I look back at the ceiling, and the men at the bar tilt their heads to match my upward gaze. Does the elastic tear a little further against the stick-pins, or is that the sensible sips of beer talking?

The barwoman speaks again. Her voice is firm and confident. She is in charge here, proud and comfortable.

"When it comes down, all that money's going to the Children's Hospital."

Every pair of eyes is fixed upon the Trojan Bra. Necks crane and chins tilt.

The leather men at the bar lean sideways and fumble in their pockets for change.

Friday, October 14, 2011

I'm turning the world into birds

The last 1.5 hours of my library shift last approximately 5.4 hours (5.9 if Daylight Savings has ended).

10am-7pm is hardly an epic work day, but that dingy hour-and-a-half after everyone else goes home appears to turn my brain into some kind of weary meat soup, and my only intellectual ability is to create more misunderstandings than that time I went to the supermarket and only bought a packet of AA batteries and a carrot.

Typical exchange #1:

Borrower: "Can I borrow these please?"
Me: "Sure." I scan their student card, hand it back and then attempt to check out the dvds. The student card hasn't scanned.
Me, enunciating badly: "Sorry, can I have your card again?"
Borrower, looking down at their cardigan: "Sorry?"

Typical exchange #2:

Borrower: "Sorry, these are a few days overdue. Is there a fine?"
Me: "No, that's fine."
Borrower, frowning: "What's the fine?"
Me: "No, it's fine, no fine."
Borrower: "Can I pay it here?"

etc. I'm tired.

At 6:55pm I wander around the library using my best Mum-voice to break through to the iPod-deaf students in the Science Fiction collection, and the stellar examples of young love that lie entertwined and lust-deaf in the bean bag room.


The iPod kids nod vaguely at me and re-prop their George R. R. Martins back against the door. The young lovers spring apart like I'm their dad and I've just walked in on a particularly practical homework session.

I turn off the music (I've recently discovered that playing the Labyrinth soundtrack just before closing is a good way to get rid of everyone, for some reason), click the bolts across the doors and turn off the lights. There's a muffled shriek and some mad rustling from the other room as someone who has fallen asleep both on and under a bean bag realises they're about to be locked in. They shuffle to the exit and I let them out.

The fluorescent tubes flicker out and I stand alone for a few minutes. Have you ever hung out in a closed library? It's really nice. Warm and dark and booky. Given that I start work again at 8:30am tomorrow, sometimes I consider just making myself a nest of bean bags and sleeping over. Pretend I'm Lynda Day sleeping at the Junior Gazette headquarters. But even without the frizzy perm, it might scare the cleaners to find a bleary-eyed, flannel-pyjamaed librarian where there should really only be empty bean bags and the occasional mouse.

So I wander through the deserted Union House, with its permanent aroma of sushi and feet, across campus to my bus stop. I put on my headphones, partly to listen to music but mostly as a kind of hipster head-band to keep my hair out of my face.

In the peripherest of my peripheral vision, I see two sparrows flitting confidently along the ground towards me. I like a small brown bird as much as the next librarian, but I don’t often, well, hang out with them. I turn my head as slowly as I can so as not to scare them and discover that my new feathered friends are in fact scrunched-up-brown-paper-friends, probably originating from Baker’s Delight, that have blown along the steps towards me.

I’m vaguely disappointed at this dissolution of my prospectively Hitchcockian moment. But only briefly because at that point my bus turns up. One minute early! I wonder why everyone else looks so bloody grumpy about this, but after a few travelers ask the driver “Are you the 6:42?” I realise that this bus is not in fact 1 minute early but 29 minutes late.

The bus skittles towards Clifton Hill and past the tennis courts. I’ve let shuffle choose the tunes and it’s chosen Dolly Parton. While ‘9 to 5’ isn’t entirely accurate for my day, I’m the first to admit that ‘10 to 7’ doesn’t have quite the same je ne sais ménage à trois. (I may have done 1st year uni statistics, but I only did French to year 10.) And at least it's not 'His Eye is on the Sparrow'.

I gaze into the middle distance as we pull up at Clifton Hill station. My gaze scans lazily along the bottom of the tennis court fence.

At the base of it I see a pair of seagulls. They are waltzing.

Their white bodies shuffle back and forth in perfect three-quarter time, like little pale boats cresting the same wave.

I blink, and lean forward in my seat. The feathered flamencos gradually resolve, and I realise the mesh that covers the fence all except the bottom 30cm is obscuring the very human, tennis-playing legs that are connected to the seagulls that are, in fact, a pair white sneakers. As the player dances back and forth, my eyes still catch a bird-like echo in his feet.

So at this point I'm seriously considering either taking up twitching or getting my contact lens prescription checked.

As the bus flings itself up along towards Alphington, I let shuffle take over again and am pleasantly rewarded by a corny rendition of 'Two Hearts Swing in Three-Quarter Time' by Michael Feinstein.

The bus lurches to a halt outside a shop whose signage simply proclaims "TOOLS!" and I try not to take it personally.

I lean my head against the bus window. An enormous raven whizzes right past my head and I instinctively jerk away from the glass in shock.

"Fuck me dead!" I exclaim under my breath. At least, I think it's under my breath but the looks from my fellow passengers suggest it is more 'under my breath while I have headphones on' than 'under my breath when I can hear the volume of my own voice'.

I peer out the window down the road, trying to catch the flight-path of this over-sized cousin of the writing desk.

I can't see any birds, but there is a cyclist waiting up at the red light ahead. His head is at about the height of my bus window, and he's wearing a large, black, aerodynamic helmet. It doesn't look much like a writing desk, but I think I've located my giant Quoth.*

I'm turning the world into birds. What am I going to ornithologically Rorschach next? Does Rorschach** even work as a verb?

My bus purrs on towards Ivanhoe, and the evening light clicks over to that syrupy golden haze that singles out each tree and tells every leaf it's a miracle. As the bus reaches the top of a hill, a large tree rears into view. It's been pruned vigorously to allow the power lines to run through the middle.

Large leafy limbs curve up on either side, straddling the electric tightropes. The evening gilt fades in an instant and the tree arcs in flightless silhouette. I briefly hold my breath at this clipped delusion. The bus drives on.

My iPod shuffles and the first notes of The Leisure Society's 'Love's Enormous Wings' curl around my ears.


* Apologies to Terry Pratchett.

** Autocorrect suggested 'cornstarch' in place of Rorschach. I expect the next gelatinous mass I see will look like a pigeon.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Not a rooster

It’s 5am. I get up early, but the small Tim Brooke-Taylor impersonater in my life gets up earlier. This morning, his blond locks hang over me in a similar fashion to my hangover. It’s draped gently over my brow, not a very bad hangover, more like having your gumline carefully stroked with a chisel made out of Wil Anderson.

“I want some Rice Bubbles,” says mini-T.

“I just need to have a cup of tea, and then I’ll get you some Rice Bubbles, okay?” I say. It’s safe to say at this point, I’m lying. I just need to have a cup of tea, 2 Codral Cold and Flu tablets (Original Formula), Vegemite toast, maybe four pieces, 1.5 litres of soda water, a text from my mother asking if I’ve sent my grandmother a birthday card, a funny ache in my leg that may or may not turn out to be middle-to-upper-calf cancer, a Lego brick embedded in the arch of my foot, another cup of tea, a scribbled note to myself from last night that reads “if you stand on the table you can touch the ceiling!!!”, and a small child patting my face with his tiny soft hand.

I turn my head towards him and he grins. Little shark teeth. Then his expression changes, he looks amused but somehow admonishing.

“You’re not a rooster,” he says.

My eyes dart about briefly, but the lounge room appears to be in its usual state: ie. mainly held together by fossilised Rice Bubbles and granola-type clumps of hair and cous-cous.

“Sorry?” I say.

He turns his small face up to mine. It’s still lightly flushed with sleep, and I brush his blond curls out of his eyes. He reaches out a hand and cups my cheek. It’s such an adult gesture, I almost blush.

He smiles and shakes his head. “You’re not a rooster.”

Kids say the darndest etc and out of the mouths of etc and never look a gift horse in the etc unless you fancy an equine-spit facial. But having a two-year-old cradle your face in his hands and gently inform you, apropos of nothing, that you do not belong to gallus domesticus, is unnerving.

I assume it’s from book he’s read, or a daycare song, or something. We don’t take it any further. I go get the Rice Bubbles, and douse my hangover.

A few weeks later, we get home from daycare one evening and embark on the dinner/bath/tantrum/fine/whatever/I don’t give a shit/no bath then/straight into pjs routine. We curl up on the couch and he picks out every single book on the shelf that features a digger. The heavy-machinery epic tale is prepared. He opens the first book, and as I draw breath, he turns his little face up to mine and rolls his eyes. He looks amused.

“You’re not a rooster,” he says. He turns back to the book. “It’s the yellow digger!”

At this point, I need more information.

“Hey, buddy,” I say, then pause. How to ask a 2 year old to explain this? “I’m not a rooster?” I ask.

“Nah,” he says. “You’re not a rooster.”
I struggle to form my queries. “Why am I not a rooster?” I ask. He looks confused. I try again. “I’m not a rooster?” He confirms this, and pats my hand consolingly. “What am I?” I ask.

“It’s the yellow digger!” he says, and points at the book.

I try again. “I’m not a rooster – is that from a book too?”

“Yeah,” he says. The problem is, he says ‘yeah’ to pretty much everything. “Are you just saying yeah because you don’t understand the question?” I say.

“Yeah!” he says.

“Is it from a song?” I ask.

“Yeah!” he says.

“How does the song go?” I say.

“Goes,” he says.

Once he goes to bed, I Google the phrase ‘you’re not a rooster’, hoping it’s a song from some show featuring a genital-free chap in an orange lycra jumpsuit whose name I would know if I ever turned on the tv. The top twenty Google results instruct me in rooster management. Which would be very helpful, but I’ve already been informed that I am not, in fact, a rooster.

A few days later, I bring up the subject myself. “Hey Luka,” I say.

“Hey Ma,” he answers.

“I’m not a rooster, am I,” I say.

“Nah,” he flashes his little sharky teeth. “You’re not a rooster.”

“Are you a rooster?” I ask.

“Nah. I’m a boy,” he says proudly.

“What am I?” I try.

“You a mother,” he says.

“Yeah, I am,” I say. I reach out and take his little hand. He closes his hand over mine. He’s two years old, and even now his grasp can barely encompass two of my fingers.

“You’re Ma,” he adds.

“That’s right,” I say. “I’m your Ma.”

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m gonna get my digger truck.”

“Okay,” I say.

He jumps off the couch and trots to the toy box. He turns back to me, grins, and the shine in his eyes just floors me. “You’re not a rooster,” he says lovingly.

“No, honey,” I say. “I’m not a rooster.”

Late that night, when everyone else is in bed, I think about what he’s told me. I’m a mother. I made a boy that I learned to love. I’m almost certainly not a rooster. But at only two years old, how does he know what I am, and what I’m not? And why does he tell me about it with such joy in his voice?

Friday, September 30, 2011

My Day on a Plate

Every weekend in The Age Sunday Life magazine, I read the ‘My Day on a Plate’ section. I read it first, and I make self-conscious scoffing noises every week. Apparently, every human being on the planet follows this daily routine:

  1. We start the day with lemon juice in hot water. (I look forward to future columns about our dentist bills)
  2. We adore untoasted muesli with natural yoghurt and ($8 a punnet) blueberries. Go you antioxidants go
  3. Occasionally (we should capitalise that, really) OCCASIONALLY we indulge in a skim-milk latte mid-morning.
  4. Somehow we have lunch prepared for us by a professional chef because it’s always lightly seared tuna steak with quinoa, raw grated beetroot and and light dusting of fear. Dressing on the side.
  5. Whereas most people I know have four dim sims from downstairs and three chocolate coated teddy bear biscuits and fifteen tomato salsa rice crackers and some of that slice from Emma’s going-away-afternoon-tea last week and a bottle of Diet Coke.
  6. Sorry about that. Ignore point 5. We’re back on track for afternoon tea, where we have a cup of sencha tea and a handful of raw almonds. No more than ten almonds. Usually five or six. No more than ten. Definitely not the whole bag. Because raw almonds aren’t very nice so why would we eat the whole bag anyway? Unless we were a bit bored.
  7. Right. So, at 7pm, when we were supposed to finish work at 6, we catch a train and get home by 8 and instantly prepare a perky combination of grilled chicken, more fucking quinoa, and some kind of colourful combo of vegetables (steamed) and a delightful squeeze of lemon if we’re feeling crazy. After all, it’ll be in our morning teeth-eroding drink so we may as well kick on.
  8. In no way after this virtuous day will we crack open the block of Fruit ‘n’ Nut our in-laws left behind and nip down to the bottle-o for another bottle-o.


So I wrote the above based on what I think normal people might be like. I don’t eat like ‘My day on a plate’, but I don’t eat like the above version either. I eat like a person who has an eating disorder. And I wanted to write a version of it based on me, at my worst, though I suspect it’s at the blacker end of black.

But what the fuck. My day on a plate has just as much right to be out in the world as green tea and quinoa.

First, a disclaimer: I do eat at relatively sustaining levels at the moment. However, this was my average day back in January.

4am: I wake up early because I’m pretty hungry; I haven’t eaten for 24 hours. I set my tea to brew and take off all my clothes (including my watch, rings and glasses), go to the toilet and then weigh myself naked. I note the number, but also note that I haven’t taken a dump yet today, so I am probably 200-300 grams heavier that I would be otherwise. Having an eating disorder means you know the weight of everything, including your average shit.

6am: I inhale a litre of tea while reading. My child wakes up and demands Rice Bubbles followed by Vegemite toast. Afterwards I stare at his buttery crusts and milky cereal. I place a single piece of bread in the toaster, look at it for a bit, and then abandon it to have a shower.

7am-12pm: 1.5 litres of water. I do a lot of shelving and counter work. I try to be as active as I can in the morning, because I’m less likely to pass out at that time of day, and it stimulates my metabolism.

12pm: I’ve been at work since 8:30am and when I stand up things are starting to swirl a bit. I chuck back four Tic-Tacs to attempt to kick up my blood sugar levels while I get the pickled cucumbers out of the work fridge. Pickled cucumbers contain 15kj per 30 gram serve. A piece of bread (also 30 grams) by comparison contains 305kj. If there was an anorexic supermarket it would have entire aisles devoted to pickled cucumbers, mustard and salt. Somewhere between the laxative aisle and the toothbrush aisle.

12:30pm: I’ve finished my allotted amount of pickled cucumbers. I usually have to sit down as much as I can for the rest of the day.

1pm-5pm: 1.5 litres of water. Everything gets a bit blurry. I won’t remember if you come to see me at the library or if I see that cat that looks like the cat I sort of adopted when we lived in Carlton that you hated because he woke you up at night howling outside your window and annoyed you and I didn’t know. Oh right, sorry, you’re not my old housemate, you just want to borrow a book.

5:30pm: End of the day. I’m tired and dizzy and I have to double-check before I cross roads. I take the train home, plough up the hills toward home. At some point I lurch sideways into a fence and it’s just another bruise.

7:30pm: My child is asleep. I don’t want dinner. I never want dinner. I have four glasses of wine (because alcohol doesn’t count as calories) and I type words onto a screen until my fingers hit all the wrong places and all the songs I listen to are too meaningful.

11pm: I fall asleep on the couch, wake around 2am and drag myself to bed.


I’ve struggled about how to end this. Flippant, caustic, matter of fact?

Matter of fact wins.

4am: I wake up. My limbs feel like they’re filled with sand. My heart is beating like a hammer inside my chest. I have to sit up slowly, stand up even slower. I hold onto the door frame. And the whole day, the same as every single day, begins again. I feel like I’ve been alive forever.