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.”