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?