Jul 12 2014

Disappointment

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

Image

What is disappointment?

I know it now.

Having failed my oral Animal Behaviour membership exam the feeling is of huge disappointment. The word is not being enough.

We are driving in the Byron hinterland when my friend calls my mobile to tell me my result. Immediately on hearing her voice, flat and lifeless, I know the call is not what I want. It is a moment of disbelief. I have spent most of my time imagining what it might feel like to pass. Imagining how relieved and elated I will be. Instead I am feeling that spiraling, hideous feeling of chagrin. There is shock too. There is disappointment.

Graham pulls the car over on to the verge of deep winter green grass. Two women, out on a morning stroll, peer into the car to see me in tears, hauling myself through the gamut of negative emotions. Perhaps they think the man and the woman are fighting. Perhaps he is revealing an affair. No one can see the 12-year-old boy in the rear seat. He has collapsed down on his belly with his head in his hands and is sobbing too. It seems I have wrecked everyone’s dreams in a moment.

So how can I explain what went wrong? A subject I love, and have taken into my soul, and have studied endlessly, was not able to be revealed to the two examiners seated beyond the table with the navy blue tablecloth. We are on the 21st floor of a Gold Coast Hotel. The sun is over the water and shining into the room. It should be a view to savour.

My brain becomes a series of ill-fitting cogs. It jams with a wooden block, allowing it neither forwards nor backwards movement when confronted by a question that no longer makes sense. The examiners continue to ask for the same information over and over again. Time warped. All I can do is repeat the question back to them – making no sense of the words, like a new arrival trying out a foreign language. There is a question on the welfare of circus dogs and despite my knowledge of canines and welfare I suspect I don’t give them the answers they want to hear. Why else are they repeating their interrogation? Haven’t I just answered that? Nightmarishly repetitive. They hammer away, driving the block deeper, with each successive repetition. There is a question on cockatoos invading a grain field and the way to control them, and despite knowing much about feral animal control, the picture of the swarm of birds lodges the block even further into the mechanism of retrieval of memory. Asked about the disadvantages of lethal methods it is as if the word lethal has never been heard before. Suddenly I have become a non-English speaker. When asked about drugs to help an old dog sleep I talk about benzos. They want more, and despite knowing other drugs, I give them nothing.

My hands are sweating and I am balling up tissues in my palms, as I try to get my brain to move forward out of the cog it is stuck in. I try joviality and humour. I mention my lucky shirt. I am dying on stage like a comedian with no jokes. Like turning the key in the ignition and hearing the dead sound of a car that won’t start. Still I keep trying. Repeating the questions seems to take the answer further out of reach. Answers flutter out through gaping holes never to be retrieved.

What is it about stress that sees it screw with my mind?

Having studied behaviour we all know that stress destroys the ability to remember. But I had never expected to become a blank page.

The tears come again, recalling what a dunce I must have appeared.

In the lead up to the exam my partner and child make up behaviour questions to test me. It is fun in the kitchen by the stove revealing my knowledge to them. Jasper asks me to tell them what I would do with an orca that is attacking the other orcas in his pool. In his eyes I am a behaviourist. Graham asks me for my treatment for a dog who is anxious travelling in the car. I practice to myself too. Nothing is the same as the way it is in the Hotel room.

One day after hearing the news of my failing the oral I am alone in the hut on a coffee plantation in the Byron hinterland. The boys have gone hiking. There is sun on the hillside and cattle in the distance. It is hard. I want the opposite feeling to what I am experiencing. I need not practice more resilience. I want to be making plans for my future as a behaviourist. Instead I am imagining being here again next year and again awaiting news of pass or fail. How can I change my brain to cope better under the stress next time?

 

 


Apr 26 2014

Hemming Grey School Trousers

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

hemming

Today I have traces of my mother running through me.

For lunch I cooked corn fritters. Jasper ate them like I did at his age – pulling them apart with his fingers and dunking them in mayonnaise. After we might have settled down to an afternoon of Tarzan or else a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy. The square box television. Instead he has a comic. It has absorbed him all day. He leans half-on and half-off the couch in what looks like an uncomfortable position. He is still in his pyjamas. He has the dog for company. Graham attempts brioche that fails. Old expired yeast. Or maybe he’s just not a baker. But the pulled pork for dinner has slow cooked all day and…

After corn fritters my Dad would have taken to his garage. My mother might have watched the movie with us whilst writing her letters on her lap. Scrawling off letter after letter on pale pink notepaper. Some letters to friends, other searching for autographs and letters back.

I take Jasper’s long grey school trousers up by three inches. I take the waist in too. I use a needle and a thread. I jab myself more than once with a pin. It’s not a great job, but it’ll do.

I take the dog for a walk because I need a break from the study (how does a ewe recognise its own lamb, the flehmen response in cattle…) and the moment I am out of the house the rain starts. It is soft. I think gossamer. I think georgette. Walking along I try out words to describe the sky. A favourite distraction. The old skate park is empty now there is a new one in town. But a small boy takes his father there because it is empty. He has it to himself. No teenagers. The rain softens and fades and soon is gone. It does not sink through the dog’s heavy wire coat. Little balls of wet silver rain just travel with him. Rain brings memories always. Wet roads do that. Wafts. The jacarandas have a scent when they’re wet. I am back in my yard beneath the trees where the chooks scratched at the dirt. My dad is in the garage and there is the smell of motor oil. Rain makes the train louder too. Smell the metal off the tracks.

Scent is like that. It pushes its way forward – just sometimes.

For animals scent is everything. A trained canine is capable of detecting a finger print left on a glass table six weeks earlier. Having two nostrils separated by just several millimetres is enough for a dog to discern from which direction the odour is coming. Sometimes us humans can barely smell smoke. Our vestigial noses. Hardly smelling a thing in comparison. To the rest of the animal world we are almost anosmic. Yet. Sometimes we do. When we smell it feels ancient. The world gets big and small at the same time. We are connected. Suddenly thrust back into childhood. A molecule of odour passes through membranes and assaults our brain as if it is memory itself. This might be a fraction of what animals feel and know as they busily sniff and sneer at each lamp-post, each blade of pissed-on grass. For them it is more than memory. They are sending email, on dating sites, telling each other of their sexual availability, their state of oestrous, whether or not they can tend offspring or fight off other suitors.

Chipotle chillies are smokey flavoured and remind me of pimento and a meal I once had in France full of intestines and innards. Visible amongst the red tomato sauce was the tell-tale texture of an animal’s stomach wall. It was inedible. The smell reminds me. 


Apr 2 2014

Vinculum

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

maths

Today I learnt what was a vinculum.

It is the kind of thing you might learn when you help an eleven year old with his maths prior to a test. Yes I remembered what was a denominator and even a numerator but I had no idea the line that separated them was called a vinculum.

To spellcheck the word does not exist.

To google it is a tendon before it is something in mathematics.

Lately I have learnt how to do factor trees. It is something brand new to me. Not quite as much fun as learning that leaves transpire water from their surface just the same way we breathe. But. It’s maths. Quite fun really, but something I feel I have never done before. Did factor trees exist in the 1970′s? Where were factor trees when I was in grade seven? Between the rise of the white board and the demise of the blackboard did the triumphant factor tree emerge? Surely maths doesn’t change. Then, between straw-sucks of a liquid cereal breakfast, he tells me two negatives multiplied make a positive number. Are you sure? This rings a bell. I will have to check since I don’t do negative numbers. Pass me the iPad again. How is it that two negatives multiplied make a positive? Please don’t ask me why. My mind is spinning. It is only 7.30am. I wonder why negative numbers exist. You can’t have minus three apples any more than you can have minus six.

Then there is the school tie. If you want to wear a jumper – and it is cold outside – you need to wear a tie. But it looks ridiculous. No it doesn’t. Everyone will look ridiculous. It feels wrong. You’ll get used to it. Scream. Scream.

Under my breath and not under my breath – God save me. Save me from myself and my pettiness. Just wear the tie, so you can wear the jumper. Please.

If a submarine is 160 metres below the surface and then rises 90 metres and then submerges again by 170 metres how far is it below the surface? In my underlining you can see my purpose. I want it in cement. I want it drummed in. If I rub hard enough, underline often enough, say it louder it works, right? It makes me hate myself.

He trudges across the oval with the heaviest of chiropractor approved school bags. Must weigh ten kilos. He has the legs of a stick insect. There is dew on the oval. I call out looking good and a smirk creeps out. Don’t let her see it. Turn your body in case. Your morning track across the oval, like a giant snail trail.

I so wish the vinculum was just a tendon.


Mar 13 2014

Rubbish Man Jogger

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

joggers

An Autumn morning. A splatter of rain. Spits really. The boy is excited. He loves rain. It hasn’t rained for years, he says. It can feel that way. A sky permanently blue. A sun a constant burning white. Today the sky is filled with storm clouds and there is the crack of thunder in the distance. A sky of substance. Something to look at and make into animals. Somewhere else it rains. Here a few drops dry instantly on the pavement.

 

From my verandah I see a man hopping on one leg up the steep embankment of the park. He is not injured. It is not the hop of a lame man. It is a vigorous hop. I watch him to see what he will do after he reaches the crest of the bank. He jogs now down the slope on two healthy legs. He weaves in and out of the eucalypts, occasionally bending down to pick up rubbish. He is the rubbish-man-jogger. Daily, on the oval, he performs his series of exercises mixed with the task of collecting food wrappers and tin cans. His jogging shorts are pulled higher on his waist than those of a regular jogger. The shorts are old and thin, worn constantly. He has no fat on him. His muscles are always working, if only at a trot. Up close you can see the tension in his face. In his neck you see the sinuous muscles of a man under strain.

 

Maybe this jogging is his meditation. It keeps him calmer than he would otherwise be. I imagine him as a tightly wound clock. Does he count his steps too?

 

I am leaving the house and come across him again – this time outside my house weaving his expert steps between the bollards that line the park. How large do the blades of grass appear? He has his head down, intent on purpose, but he senses me there and raises his head and smiles and waves. We exchange the wave of pedestrian and jogger. In his hand still is the collection of waste he has collected from the park. He will deposit it in the bin shortly, and then run on.

 

I wonder about him while I wait for my train. Something about him reminds me of my father. It could be the high pants. It could be the loose skin over muscles straining hard. It could be his work ethic. His doggedness. His assault on the hill on one leg. I see his tight tendons. Everything at breaking point. A mind stretched taut?

 

I miss my train by seconds, still fumbling with the notes at the ticket machine, as the train pulls up. I mutter a Fuck to make me feel better. It does nothing. I try it again a couple of times. Fuck fuck fuck. But in truth I am not late for anything. I have a date with books and words and texts. Twenty minutes later they will all still be there. In the library, joggers are not.

 

And it means the train will be empty. Only the late people. And ones who bring their bicycles. A middle aged woman wearing a shirt with paws on it – giving her away as a volunteer at the dog rescue, asks a younger man in high viz gear, cradling a hard hat, How is it that you are that handsome? then quickly steps off the train. Never on the 8.40am.

 

A nice morning for the jogging rubbish man. Man jogging rubbish. Jogger man. Rubbish man. Hopping up hill.


Feb 8 2014

The Giant, the Cook and the Cripple.

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

Image 3

Pat Metheny plays. I stare at the knots in the wood of the orange pine ceiling. On my single bed. I remember studying ceilings; a past time of the spinal patient.

 

I think of yesterday.

 

On a quad bike. Held between the thighs of the Giant. Meanwhile the Cook roasts the chickens and tomatoes with fennel. Roasted sweet potato encrusted by macadamia crumble. Stone fruit tarts for after. Her kitchen is her castle. Stainless steel. Plywood. His is the scrub. The glades. The sandhills.

 

But after all what will I remember?

 

Freedom. Air rushing past. Being without my chair. The spray from the ocean waves as we hurtle along the wet shoreline. Hubert, tan galloping, keeps pace 38,39,40km/hr. His ribs showing. Tongue lolling. Eyes of an athlete. Hound. Rescued, he must think he is the luckiest dog alive.

 

After us comes the eleven-year-old on a tinier bike and then my Small Good Man. The eleven-year-old wears a motorcycle helmet that makes his head look like a pumpkin. He putters. But he’s getting the hang of the lean. Always into the hill. Faster too. He hits a bush. He learns to reverse. The Giant tells him whatever happens don’t let the handlebars hit the ground.

 

It is another lifetime ago since I straddled a machine. European pine forest roads, mountain switchbacks and black ice. A tasselled leather jacket because I could. Thighs that clenched. Now, I don’t feel the seat.  Mine is a flaccid lower half – legs like the stick insect the boys later find. When he lifts me my limbs dangle like laundry off a line. This is a different kind of pillion. Think disfigured damsel. Wedged. With my right hand I link his forearm and he grips me around the middle. His brachium is like a leg about me. He is my seat belt. My saddle. After he says, some embrace.

 

There is a grove of peppermints and a fairy forest; a place for taking children and singing lullabies to the chugalug of an engine. The black trunks and the feathery green leaves. The Giant and the Cripple hum along. There are reeds and rushes and swarms of small midgies. The ground water is close and the mud gluey. There are gouges raked into the earth where a tractor bogged. But on the bike it is all just a surface on which to ride. A platform to view the rear of a big roo bounce away. Hubert takes chase. He’s called back by the hoot of the horn. Lean forward, scoot. Lean. Fly.

 

A dragonfly hitches a ride to a giant’s woodshed. A dead snake twisted into dried leather hangs from the wire fence.

 

He lifts me from the bike like I am a sleeping child to place me back in my wheelchair. Like laying a toddler in a pram. I am lofted high. A memory of being plucked from a pony ride floods back. Being placed on your feet by a large man. A momentary lapse between you and the earth. Like stepping from the rollercoaster.

 

Later at the table we talk of surviving house fires and losing stuff, of book edges turning sooty but not burning right through. Of losing to fire the exact same George Haynes’ etching of a naked woman under the dappled light and shade of a south Fremantle tree. Of waking to the sound of picture glass cracking. The Cook once found an unexpected photograph of me in the rubble of another house fire in a whole other place. She picked the photo from the detritus and placed it safely in the elbow of a tree. The man and I had long since parted but somehow the image of me was there for her to see. And rescue.

 

Image 16

 

 

Pat Metheny plays the theme for Cinema Paradiso. Guitar strings squeak. Hearts break. A child hits a tennis ball against the wall of a mud brick house. A dog lies on a three-dollar charcoal wool blanket from an Op shop in Albany where white-haired women helped a homeless man clothe himself. A Small Good Man says the best reception for the phone is in the toilet.

 

He works outside on a large jarrah table, in this pocket of still bush. He has postcard sized images that he shuffles about. They are photographs of another forest place. He worked long hours, from dawn till dusk, but it is the crepuscular shots that form the ballad. A place of mountains and the people that are drawn there. More treacherous than here. Beauty turns to tinder. He stops and looks again. He moves them like someone arranging cards for a magic show. Eventually they settle where they will hang on a gallery wall to speak a narrative of place.

 

Assassin flies make roads in the air three inches off the ground as if involved in a grand prix circuit across the grass. Sometimes a magpie picks one out of the air. Teaching its baby, who squawks beside it.

 

A large karri stands near the house, orange spirals about its trunk. Some branches are dead and grey. It is bigger than all the other trees. It spreads itself wide in ownership. Beneath the karri are peppermints and kangaroo paws and smaller gums. Closer to the water the chalky white of the Paper Barks can be seen. The karri’s rusty skin catches the sun and shines. It is windless but still there is the sound of bark falling. Like footsteps in the forest.

 

Sometimes a distant cow can be heard, baying morosely, as if for a lost calf. At dusk the waders from the mud flats take to the skies. The sound of their flight suggests air is not nothing. They go to their place to sleep high in the trees. Tomorrow they will stalk the mud once more.

 

Image 12

 

 

 

 

 


Feb 7 2014

Coolidge Effect

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

Frank Beach

When an ethologist, Frank Beach, needed to name an effect he had noticed whereby male animals show a renewed interest in sex when presented with a new and receptive partner he chose to use the anecdote of the 30th President of America, Calvin Coolidge, as he toured a farm with his wife Grace.

The President and his wife visited a government chicken farm in Kentucky and separately were taken to inspect the workings of the farm. In a large barn a rooster was busy servicing many fowl. Mrs Coolidge asked the stock man if a single rooster was capable of mating many times a day. Yes Ma’am. She asked the attendant to make sure he told the President when he came by. When the President arrived in the same barn the rooster was still mating. The manager said to the President – your wife wanted you to note the capabilities of a single rooster, Sir. The President, known to be a man of few words then asked the stock man - Same hen? To which the attendant replied, No Sir, always a different hen.

Make sure you tell that to Mrs Coolidge, said the President.

 

This is how the phenomenon, witnessed in mammalian males whereby there is an increased appetite for sex with a new partner, came to be called the Coolidge effect. It is the reason why a single bull can service many cows. It is the reason why a single ram can do the same with a flock of ewes. Maybe it is the reason men are aroused by affairs and strip tease. Maybe it is the reason why marriages fail or become loveless. Is it why men use the service of brothels more than women seek the service of male prostitutes? And is it why fluffers are required in the pornography industry? After all we are all just animals in the end. We like to think we are more than hormones and brain chemistry.

Frank Beach was a great scholar with a keen sense of humour. He also believed in seeking knowledge and continually learning. Beneath a list of things “to do” he wrote, “Of course, I shall never accomplish all the goals just listed, but that is unimportant. What counts is to have aims, to be able to work hard toward them and to experience the satisfaction of at least believing that progress is being made. I do not want to cross the finish line of this race – not ever – but I do hope I will be able to keep running at my own pace until I drop out still moving in full stride. It’s been one hell of a good race.”

Compare this effect with that called the Bruce effect after its discoverer, zoologist Hilda Bruce, in the late 1950′s. She discovered that mice could block their pregnancy if they were placed with an unfamiliar male after mating. This effect is seen only in some rodent species but is thought to have arisen because male rodents tend to kill offspring unrelated to them. Evolution has ensured that mice are capable of miscarrying and then mating with the new male rather than wasting time and energy gestating young that are likely to be killed after they are born.

Don’t you love science?


Jan 8 2014

Fear of Falling

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

fear of falling

When orderlies move the non-ambulatory patient they slide their hands between the person and the bedding. It is a delicate, intimate thing to do. To touch someone there. But not just touch – hold and lift. Support.

On my count, the lead-lifter may say. One, two, three.

In the non-ambulatory patient support of this type is vital. It is a kindness to prevent panic and fear.

Do you remember before you walked? I don’t think it is a memory most can recall. It is just too far back. What fear did you as a toddler feels as you pulled yourself on to your two stumpy feet and tottered away from the safety of the sofa?

For fear of falling is a primal fear. There is no stopping it. We have it like the rest of the animal kingdom. It is deep in our ancient brain. When animals are lead to slaughter one of the biggest improvements in their welfare is seen if you can prevent them from slipping. When a hoofed animal’s foot moves rapidly beneath it to prevent it from falling then this is slipping, and slipping is scary and causes a stress reaction and release of cortisol. Of course it is measurable in observable ways that does not need test tubes. It is written over the face of a slipping cow and it is in their vocalisation. When you see the white of a cow’s eyes you know you are seeing panic. What makes pain and fear so unrecognisable to us with the big brains?

An abattoir of high standard should have less than 1% falling and less than 5% vocalisation in their animals.

Walking calmly to your death is not as stressful as slipping your way there. I think of the hangman and the fall away beneath the feet of the box or opening of the trapdoor floor. A fraction before your neck is snapped no doubt there is that unsupported feeling. Falling.

What then makes some people able to override their fear of falling and take to the rocky sides of mountains or the sheer face of cliffs? Do they have an insufficient amygdala incapable of arousal?

You hear screams of panic at amusement parks where people willingly place themselves in positions where they feel unsupported and as if they are falling. Somehow the knowledge that the ride is safe is enough security for people to voluntarily place themselves in a simulated fall. They feel the adrenaline release as they plummet and soar again, await the rise and then the fall. People report that they feel more alive after the ride. It is the brain chemicals that have fired and their release is addictive.

A pony-tailed man throws a delighted toddler in the air. He is unsupported and higher than ever before. On his face is pure pleasure. A squeal. A laugh. A giggle. Machine-like. He looks forward, not down. His mouth agape, his eyes twinkling. Each time caught and then thrown up again. Like the surprise of the jack-in-the-box, the thrill gradually subsides, and the fun wears off. The chemicals are exhausted, depleted. Kaput. Till next time. Throw me higher. Make it faster. Spin me more. Us and our addictive brains.

 

 

 


Dec 31 2013

The Need

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

Image

somethings just need

there is an ache

there is a want to write without punctuation, without capitals. No stops. No starts.

just on and on

like drawing without lifting the pen

without an eraser

the dog just sleeps. endlessly

so capable of filling his time with breath

yoga of the most perfect type

i have an exercise physiologist now – a branch of physiotherapy – she tells me I need to breathe whilst doing the exercises she has given me to strengthen my already strong arms so I use my neck less. apparently i have taken to doing this and there are only so many joint hours left. use them wisely. learn to breathe.

I think of the snake bite dog and its paralysed respiratory muscles. A diaphragm no longer capable of action. It died in a flurry of spit and froth. The tube helped a bit. Its heart remained strong. Pounding its beat. Asking us to believe in it. But the breath. Gone. the gums the colour of concrete.

Control your breath. control your life

in front of me sits a book open for study. its text is turgid. it has tables and diagrams. i write instead in a journal. i make it pretty to help me. I bring out coloured pencils and draw images of brains and neural pathways. i hope it means it is making its own pathway. walk and a path will form. read and a track will open up.


Nov 26 2013

A Finnish Sock Knitter and The Marine Mammal Researchers

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

Jasper

Rottnest.

This year we have new comers. Old friends have new partners. But even though couples have split, friendships are secure. They’re those thirty year friendships that, like good wine, age and mature. They become deeper, richer, more satisfying. There is the familiar laugh. There are the remembered stories. The retold jokes. Almost like siblings. Maybe better – because you choose them. You live separated by oceans and deserts. The world could be cleaved in two. You could have lost contact, but you didn’t.

Sam. A boy – his skin the pale blush of an apricot – is a natural enemy of the sun. He is plastered, covered, drilled into a cap. The older boy needs less instruction regarding the sun. By eleven, the routine is second-nature. School has taught them something life-saving. No hat. No play. Sam has natural exuberance. He is a born story-teller. He amazes his own father with his natural right-fit. How did I end up with a kid so bold? He is the kind of kid who trusts himself, already. He can belly laugh. He can still be fooled by stories of pirates and sea caves. Up the beach he has made friends already with kids from another chalet and is involved in building a castle.

The first day brings wind. So much that a woman on the beach in front of us merely play-fights with a sun shade like a washer woman with the sheets at a Hill’s hoist. She speaks to the balcony where her husband sits watching – Who bought this one? Where are the sand bags to keep it anchored to the sand? Instead it billows and becomes parachute, threatens to carry her, Mary Poppins-like down the beach. But it is Rottnest and even an husband’s failed purchase can’t make you stay cross.

Jasper. The first ocean swim of the season. Forced to cross into the weeds to collect the skim ball has him balking. A year ago he would have refused to swim and have the feathery weeds finger his skin. A father prepares to go after the ball, heading towards the shore to take off his shirt. But then the boy dives in and crosses the weeds. Done it. Tick that fear off.

Friends. Despite staying in Bathurst, they meet us at the Big Blue of Longreach. Tania has bought Exit Mould to clean her accommodation’s bathroom – saying the fungi on her bathroom tiles is so bad that it has turned to moss. That they even sell Exit Mould in the General Store says something. Back to our chalet for bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches on toasted white bread. After lunch on the Longreach balcony perhaps they are thinking of a change in accommodation next year. Move from the ghetto. The kids are sent to the shops for a lolly treat so peace can be extended on the balcony. They return with deodorant style sticks that deliver sugared corn syrup and additives to your tongue via the rollerball. It is all about the delivery. The BrainLicker is examined and declared an evil sweet. Made in Spain. Who would have thought? Only at Rottnest.

Professor of Parenting. Five-year-olds are on the beach in front of us. A small powered boat is anchored in the shallows. It is the only thing to target. They throw bombs of sand toward it. The wet sand sticks to the boat’s side and lands in it too. The failed husband calls from the balcony to the kids and asks them to refrain from throwing sand at his boat. They don’t stop. We all watch from our vantage as he heads down the stairs to the beach. He squats on the sand and motions with his hand for the kids to come speak to him. He speaks too softly for us to hear but we can see him pointing to his boat and explaining perhaps why he would rather they didn’t continue to pelt it with wet sand. His body language is soft, kind, gentle. The small tribe of boys runs off down the shore. After all a pelican is in the shallows fishing. He turns and walks back to his balcony. We want to applaud. We nickname him Father of the Year. We imagine what he might have said. We expected a telling off. We imagine what we might have said, had the boat been ours. We admire the man who has chosen to make himself small in front of little children rather than wave his fist, point a finger and shout.

On the index finger of my right hand I have an infection in the nail bed. A cut hair from a canine patient somehow made its way down the side of the nail and festered there. Eventually the body repelled it. I was driving the car, when I noticed a black hair poking from the nail bed and I worked it out. A long hair emerged. For several weeks since the nail has still not been right. It has a scar to its surface as it grows, and the skin is still sore around the base of the nail. The nail grows furrowed, like it keeps a memory of the hair in its surface.What else will work its way out from beneath the skin? I paint the cuticle with betadine. It reminds me of doing the same thing for my mother shortly before she died. She had an infected nail too. She needed some one to look after it for her because it was hard to look after your right hand with your left when you are right-handed and nearly ninety. I took her hand in mine and tended the nails. Her hands are so familiar to me. I can still see them in my mind. They are almost easier to recall than anything. Of course they aged over time, but their essence was always the same. Long fine fingers.

bil

Marine Mammal Researchers. She is exactly how you might imagine a marine scientist to be. She is beer bottle brown. Her tan is so deep it can’t fade, not even in a Scottish winter. They live by the beach in the Bahamas so the sound of the water on the shore is their traffic noise. They have mongrel dogs who share their house. One was killed by a stingray barb to the chest as it chased the fish in the shallows. On their first morning Charlotte goes out running and decides to cross-country. Why you may ask. Because she is Charlotte. She has head phones and music, maybe a podcast of This American Life, as she lopes out. Fearful suddenly of snakes in the knee-deep shrub, she turns her music off and takes to the bushes with a stick. She comes across a fence with a sign that says trespassers face a $1000 fine. She wavers. But the way back is two hours. She scales the fence and finds herself on the runway and the sound of aircraft above. She runs the airstrip to find the airport closed and another fence barring her escape. She tests this one with a stick, incase it is electric, before over she goes. Back on the road she meets some other tourists, but they are lost too and can’t give her directions to “Long Bay.” Despite the three-hour run she still has the energy to ride to the West End and see the seal colony. That night many bottles of wine are drunk. Charlotte = Excess. We hear how the marine scientists fell for one another. How Charlotte didn’t know what was coming over her when she was compelled to drop things just to reach down to retrieve them and somehow find her body closer to that of the other woman. Being in love is like that. Genderless.

Perri. When she wakes in my house she tells me her dream of killing a man with a dart. She has a white towel around her, like she has stepped from a sauna. The man wouldn’t die. He needed slashing. Not just prodding. In dreams the killing is always protracted. Then we talked about knitting. Knitting needles can’t be brought in your hand luggage, not unless they are made of bamboo. Too weapon-like. I must go to work but I can direct her to the wool shop where she can buy the double-ended needles she needs to make the Finnish socks. She has three to make for a friend going somewhere cold - where a Dutch heel is needed and the love of a hand-made sock can do more for your health than most things.

finnish socks

When Jasper is sulking Perri suggests I try asking; “What do you need to feel better?” Charlotte says that is therapist speak for “So who’s grumpy now?” He cannot be jollied from his hump. He stands back at the beach. He won’t join in the cricket. Watching him is hurting my brain and my heart. I want him to pull himself out of his mood. I think of my father and his favourite line, “buck up” to a child with a sullen face. But wanting it doesn’t make it so. Asking him what is his mood about does not receive an answer. The more you pry with Jasper the deeper he sinks into himself. A touched snail. I wish I could learn to stop asking. I try Perri’s line. Nothing is his response.

We are about to have coffee at the Geordie Cafe when my phone rings. The phone says it is Jasper but it is not him. Instead a woman says – is this Jasper’s mother? He’s had an accident and asked me to ring you. He’s fallen from his bike. He’s grazed his face. I ask the woman where he is and tell her to tell Jasper that his Dad is on his way. Graham wants to know how bad the injury is? It’s his face, I say. Gravel rash is always painful but especially so as it crosses your lip and cheek and eyebrow. Luckily the teeth are intact. We never discover what was the cause of the bike accident. There were no Quokkas to blame. No other cyclists or random sticks or potholes. Just over the handlebars he flew, seeing the road as he came down hard to meet it. At the nurses station they cleaned the wounds and trimmed the flap of skin hanging over his lip with a scalpel blade.

Confined to the chalet for the afternoon with three new Simpsons comics. His good mate stays with him. Later Charlotte describes his scabs perfectly – fried egg and creme caramel.

Just Graham and I go together to The Big Blue. It is rare to be together, alone on the beach. I swim and then once back on shore Graham goes to the far end of the beach to snorkel the reef. I am alone on the beach in the sun. I can’t really manoeuvre far but can position myself towards the sun and close my eyes like a cat sun-baking in a windowsill. I am alone. On the beach.

If you are able-bodied this might not seem significant. But to someone dependent on the propulsion of others, this is deeply gratifying. To be that person who wakes up before the rest of the chalet and strides out with nothing but their bathers and a sarong and then dives into the ocean for a morning swim and then takes a leisurely walk home along the shoreline – this is the thing I yearn for most.

At Magnetic Island there are times of the year when you are unable to swim in the ocean because of the Irukandji jelly fish and their deadly stings. For me the ocean will always be full of the Irukandji –  a thing to look at and long for.

A family pass by. Perhaps they wonder how it is that I have come to be plonked here on the sand. Like a forgotten something. I pretend not to notice them as they dawdle by.

I make do with being on my low slung beach chair sitting in the sun. The ocean is endlessly comforting. Like watching a fire, the shore line is movable and beautiful. The wetness receding. The dryness taking over. Beach sand like blotting paper. Sand as lip, wave as tongue. Over and over the lap and constant sweep of the water. It is company that is perfect. I reach down into wet sand. I feel it slip through my fingers. I plunge my hand deep. Bury me. Water laps about my wrist.

blanket

 

 

 

 

 


Oct 30 2013

Nearly there…

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

New Yorker _ behaviour cartoon

The year has a way of picking up speed at the end.

 

Like a train with failing brakes – headlong down the mountain. Where’s the man with the Mars Bar when you need him?

 

Today is one of the first warm days. Only a moment ago it was still jumper weather. But then suddenly, forcefully it hits – Summer. In Perth it is usually dry and endless. The sky is Texas big. The blue is cornflower.

 

People seem glad summer has come. But by the end they will be feeling differently. Already the grass is losing its moisture. Turning cracked and dry. The gum is stressed by its home hemmed in by a concrete driveway. Its roots need to breathe. But instead like a face Glad-wrapped. Tortured.

 

It withers on.

 

I have one more module to go for my animal behaviour course and then it is over. Kind of. Because I have enrolled to sit an exam. You idiot!

 

I will have six months. To Memorise. It is a long time since I memorised anything, but it is my plan. Memorise, like I did when I was a student trying to get into vet. When I thought my world would collapse if I did not get in. Then, I memorised whole passages of literature, loads of French verbs, chemical equations, rules of physics. My brain was fitter then. I had determination. I rose at 4am to study before school when the rest of the house was still asleep. I tiptoed to the kitchen and made myself an instant Nature’s Cuppa and held it between my hands as I read over my notes. Over and over.

 

I did not have to take an eleven year old to tennis, to swimming, to piano. I did not have a floor to sweep. I did do the dishes. I still do the dishes.

 

I pray that memorising might be fun. It want to memorise to relieve the stress I might feel going into an exam unprepared. Memory will save me.

 

In the meantime I will brush my teeth with my non-preferred hand – believing it is forging new pathways in my brain.

 

The boys are out tonight on a twilight sail. There is no wind. Even better. Lulling around. Adrift. Becalmed. Graham’s preferred sailing. Bobbing really. Beer in hand. Bombies off the side. Jasper with the men. Armed with a hacky sack for entertainment (and brain training). Soothed by the slap of the water against the side. Taking in, as if by osmosis, the gentle way the men have of being together. No need to inquire really about the state of each other’s minds. More just being together, while the sun goes down.