Leaving High school

School leaving

So here we are at the end of my son’s final year of high school.

He is unrecognisable as the pale blond boy, with a mother’s bad haircut, who entered Montessori as a three year old. His hair is darker, barber cut, his face longer and more bored. He seldom laughs, at least around his parents. Some times I glimpse the hair on his legs and it’s, “where did that little boy go?” I see the way he is with the dog and am relieved.

He has always been a reluctant school goer – despite changing from different styles of school, looking for the one with the best fit. Years of early education in Montessori, a few years in the traditional public school system and ending with six years of Catholic all boys school. All different, and yet all the same – approached with dreariness and shoulder-slumping.

I remember him making potions like the neighbour’s six year old does now. There was passion in potion making. Passion in spy make-believe, from the high vantage of the limestone wall. Passion kicking between the paper barks, in being Ablett and Bally. But no passion for school. School equated with work and work was something that adults complained endlessly about.

We wonder, as parents, if we could have done something better – his father laments he was too tough on him early. Did he ask too much of him? In moments of exasperation we did yell and holler louder than we wish. We have all wanted to rewind and take back those words that were blurted out at a child who appeared to be doing something just to make you boil over. I think of taking him to riding lessons at the Claremont show grounds – spurred on by his enthusiasm on a mule ride in the Grand Canyon. After a few lessons he began to hate it and cried in the car on the way there. And I drove on. I pleaded with him to finish the term. The teacher, still a girl, spent time on her mobile as he sat rigid, unsmiling on a barely moving pony, circling her.

I wish I had known as much as I do about dog training and behaviour when I could have influenced him more. How might I have been able to shape behaviour better? Maybe give him more choice? Now he seems cast adrift. I watch from the banks and know that ineffectual waving is all I can do. How do you wave to signify “take care”, “I love you”, “you can do this”, “I have your back.” The generic hand in the air is just that. Bye. He is too far out now for him to hear me. I am shrinking, as he slips away, over the breakers and becoming a barely seen blip on the shoreline of home.

He goes to an 18th birthday party when he is seventeen. He tells me it is in South Fremantle. Another parent will drive them and he waits for them on the driveway, whilst killing time shooting baskets. I don’t go out to check on the address with the parent who is driving, although I know this is something I should do. It is, no doubt, parenting 101. I don’t do it because I know my presence beside the car, leaning awkwardly in towards the driver, and perhaps saying something obtuse and embarrassing, will make him wince. He is waiting purposefully outside so as to avoid me speaking to and being seen by the other parent. I have given him money for the Uber home that he says his friend will order and that is all the information I have. My questions swirl about my head, but I have had my allotted two grunts today, and so further questioning will likely only irritate further.

It seems somewhat deserving that I have a son so abashed by me, as I was equally mortified in the presence of my mother. I would have mostly done anything to have the earth split in two and swallow her when she was with me. And yet she loved me with a fervour. Unerring. She seemed oblivious to the embarrassment she caused – effusive and ebullient with strangers, shop keepers and wait staff, anyone. And loud. I did, over time, get used to it, and even come to admire it, but it took me into my twenties and beyond to see that she did it because it was her. People gave her joy.

It has been said that when a parent or loved one dies the relationship keeps going and evolving. It doesn’t end because they’re no longer in the physical world. I think of my mother and feel a deep ache in the centre of my chest for the woman that loved me so intensely. I feel sorry that maybe she never saw how much she meant to me while she was still alive. My love for her has finally caught up to the love she had for me – if we were twin high divers we would hit the water together, in unison, and the entry would make the perfect ripple. People would applaud.

I swim laps in tepid summer pool and remember doing this pregnant. There are fires and droughts across the country. The internet is full of orange skies and burnt koalas. Climate change is real. Even rain forest can burn. I see mothers coming from the toddler pool with little damp limpets clinging to them. A baby sucks his mother’s bare shoulder. When I was pregnant, before I became too rotund, I was able to get into the pool unaided, by falling off the pool deck like a toppled bowling pin. Afterwards, I hauled myself out. Nearing the end of the pregnancy they had a mechanical hoist and I was freakishly lowered in and levitated out. Dead whale. While I swam, I meditated on the growing foetus – telling the little bean that their future would be bright, anything they wanted. I would repeat “you will be fit and healthy and happy” as I stroked up and down the pool. Now I enter via the ramp on an oversized water wheelchair, so plastic and hospital beige. I swim my laps, while the teenager still sleeps on. At completion a signalled-to life guard returns the wheelchair to the water and it is like being an astronaut manoeuvring it – my weightless body and jaunty legs, getting them in sync, before reaching the shallows and the vessel finds its own solidity and can be propelled up the ramp. More little toddlers dart in front of me and their mothers tell them to be careful.  Careful of what? Me? What am I now? An old disabled woman, haphazard in the beige contraption.

I have not got enough information about the party. As I hear the car pull away I know this. When the boy/man’s father comes home and I explain why I don’t have this information I know it sounds weak and feeble. I am feeling weak and feeble. Feeble mother. How did offending this boy become something I am so reluctant to do?

We watch an episode of Chernobyl, like the middle aged people we are. We watch the flesh melt off the radiation affected humans and a child born die within four hours of her birth. We watch the conscripted soldiers shoot the abandoned pets, who eye them soulfully, and then tip them into deep pits and pour concrete over their corpses. We see bravery and stupidity. Boron and graphite take on new meaning. TV ads telling of the 16 types of cancer you can get from sugary drinks from the toxic fat in your abdomen need to be muted as I take a glance down at my own waist line. Like the hair on my son’s legs I don’t know how my own belly came to be there.

I think about my own going out at seventeen. My parents watching the Onedin Line. How my mother loved Peter Gilmore. I wonder what my parents knew of where I was going or what I would be doing and when I would be home. Of the contraceptive pill in the drawer beside my bed. They could not ring to check on me. I could phone the boy/man now if I wanted. Did our parents lie in their beds wondering? Did they worry about girls in cars with boys? Did they know that we chugged back cans of asphalt black Kalgoorlie Stout till the Broadway’s bathroom walls swayed in towards our brows?

I go to bed, but not to sleep. I think of alcohol being consumed by others and someone punching him hard in the face. I think of him perhaps wanting to come home but having to wait for his friend, the one with the Uber App, to be ready to leave. Will he be cold? I should have given him more instructions. Just the other day he couldn’t figure out how to open the shoe polish tin and asked me to do it for him. Have I done too much? His father says I have. So there we have it – a mother who has done too much and a father who has been too hard. The push and the pull.

At the assembly we sit close to the rows of Year 12 boys. They are spotty faced and embarrassed by the attention of their parents. Blazers are poor fitting and boys have haircuts called curtains that would displease the dapper principal. The Mark Knopfler track, Going Home starts and the year sevens get to their feet and silently move into position. Parents line the gym’s perimeter and are armed with their mobiles high in the air to catch the moment when their year 12 sons stand, the drums begin and they proceed out embraced by applause. Some mothers shed tears and wipe their eyes with tissues. I see the lacquered pink toenails of the woman beside me and her garish platform sandals. Is her son embarrassed by this?

I post the videos of the last school assembly and a picture of a him and a friend taken when they come back to the house, before going to the beach. His blazer is too short in the arms and too narrow across the back, but he has refused to buy a new one, with so little of school time left. His friend’s blazer is awkwardly large. The boy/man is cross with me for having posted and says I should ask his permission. But I refuse to take it down. It is my memory. It is for me that I post it. I have come through this too. It is a graduation from school volunteering, of sitting and applauding, of listening to prayers and not saying the Amen when others do.

From feeling the pang of leaving a small boy at a classroom entrance. to hearing he has been silent the whole day long. to watching as he trails behind the other lonely child. to wondering why he can’t read when others can and have him reveal that the class helper is on her phone when he reads aloud to her. to wanting to bat away another small child who has made yours not want to show his work at corroborree. to hearing that the male teacher yells at children who are only 10 years of age. to not getting a place in a special program and having to tell him so he runs away and hides in a wardrobe. to hear him say “but what about my career?” to waking up at night saying he is being attacked by numbers when he is in grade seven. to seeing him stand on the sideline and wait endlessly to be substituted in. to hearing he is delightful in class and always asks questions when he is unsure of what to do. to hearing that the deputy principal says he is the epitome of a CBC gentleman. all these pangs criss cross a mother’s heart. little stitches in precious thread.

The party is on the beach and they make a fire. There are girls and alcohol. He says he drinks water. I wonder how hard that might have been. I can’t tell. He gets home before midnight and can hear a murmur of conversation between him and his father who has stayed up. I have not slept. I have turned my phone off silent, just in case. I think next time I will ask for an address and give him a curfew.

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Rottnest Winter 2019

Rotto Bike

At short notice I book four nights at Rottnest.

Weather is predicted to be cloudy, raining and cold.

It is all those things. But damp and sodden, the trees turn Tolkien and the earth Hobbitville. Skies are dramatic and brooding to fit with the nature of the teenagers who accompany us. They move slowly, silently except for the synthetic shuffle of puffy jackets and the scrape of ugg boots. Their mouths barely change shape, thick lips hang slackly, despite the grunts that are coaxed from them. Their eyes sometimes glisten at their own jokes, shared between them and their phones. They are big, awkward and take up space – spread out on a couch each, while as parents we shrink, take up less and less space, sitting upright at the kitchen table, doing the nine letter word.

Today, as I look out from the kitchen table to the sea view beyond, the sky and sea meld together – like grey flax cloth – the small ripples on the water the imperfect French weave. There is a grumble of ocean, always. The Rottnest soundtrack. Unlike the summer months the people are sparse, hidden indoors, and hence the noise of humans is rare. Many chalets are closed up and empty. Old people and grandparents come, but families are mainly elsewhere. My facebook feed tells me they are following the sun. Doing cartwheels on beaches. Sipping Prosecco on Croatian balconies.

Here, we watch the storm clouds roll across the horizon and sheets of rain fall like curtains on the sea. Container ships still move with regularity across the straight horizon. We hear there has been a surge in the numbers of quokkas and they seem abundant, but sleepy. They curl themselves into a ball and tuck their heads into their bellies to sleep. Their scaly rat-like tail acts as a stabiliser. Heavy rain has meant they have drunk more than they would and this has changed their biome. Some are suffering poor cellulose digestion and a favourite quokka, who resides near the Longreach shop, is ill and weak. His name is Peanut. He has fallen to his side, cartoon-like, and three vets stand around him. Their expertise comes up wanting. One notes the poor body condition and how this does not look like an acute illness. The desire to give him water must be subdued. The ranger will collect him to see if anything can be done. Later we hear he has been revived, somewhat, and returned, replenished with the pulp from the juice extractor. 

In the settlement the seagulls remain fierce, swooping and stealing croissants right from your hand before a mouthful can be consumed. English women and their young girls in metallic coloured sneakers and plastic tiaras shriek about the persistent scavengers. They cover their food with napkins to get up from their table to get cutlery. A peacock hovers too. He fiercely attacks a quokka over a dropped morsel. In order for the mothers to drink their pink wine in peace the girls are watching Barbie on a propped up cell phone whilst intermittently squealing about a watchful bird. We move closer to the shore to escape them and they follow us.

In the evenings there is the Tour de France, Wimbledon and World Cup cricket. India, despite Dohni, is beaten by New Zealand. Riske nearly beats Serena. One night the boys, pillows in knapsacks, go to the cinema in the shed and see Rocket Man. Who would have thought that in 2019 I would have an Elton John song playing over and over in my mind.

At sunset we walk the coast to watch the sun shoulder its way through the clouds, leaving them bruised and longing. The salt lake, with the surprising name of Lake Baghdad, is full and the sun strikes its surface, so it glistens like polished brass. Pines make perfect tree cut-outs on the hills in the distance. The walls of the yellow cottages are more brilliant and the trunks of the stubborn trees are dark and wet. Their bark is gnarly and textured like the fur of creature intent on camouflage. Graham quotes Edward Hopper – “all I ever wanted was to capture sunlight on a wall.” And I think – all I ever wanted was to write about it. The bay is empty of boats and the beach person-less. A large pile of seaweed takes on the shape of a beached whale. Sometimes someone is bravely fishing from the jetty, but mainly it is barren too. 

Lake Baghdad


Story #1

for Jane

1987. It’s the year when Scott and Charlene get married on Neighbours. The year of the Hoddle street massacre. Bob Hawke is Prime minister and QLD premier Bjelke Peterson is losing his grip on the state. In November MacGyver is to be released on Channel 7. It is the start of summer. We listen to the Bangles Walk like an Egyptian. It is the start of the long dry.

I have just completed a University degree that has consumed my life and I am about to start a career. I imagine mud and striding through fields. I imagine pulling calves in khaki coveralls and scrapping cow dung from the soles of my boots. I dream of soaking in a tub when muscles are sore from physical work. This will be the fulfilment of a childhood dream.

Life changes in an instant. How is it that one back bone can be so brittle and another allow the cord to bungee? Who chooses which spinal cord you have and which way it will bend? Is it soft like liquorice or able to fracture into shards like candy?

Loss of  sensation is instantaneous. The swiftness of it disallows any savouring. Round and round the garden like a teddy bear. A mother’s finger tip makes spirals on the sole of chubby foot. One step, two step, tickle you under there. The touch creeps up the calf to beneath the knee. Movement and sensation here one minute. Gone, when the tin can strikes ancient wood. Such a banal way to lose what you have taken for granted since birth.

Moments before shoe-less feet had etched soles on squeaky sand by an ocean. The surf had thrown my body like a buoy and my heart had surged as my feet had lost contact with the sea floor. A bear of a man had surfed a long board and we had all traipsed sand into the little alfoil car. How long can skin recall the sensation of toes curling in yellow beach sand? Only the night before feet had found the cool patch on the sheets, and then cradled each other, before sleep. How long can a mind hold on to what is no longer possible?

An anatomy teacher visits the hospital and brings with him a bone. It is perfectly sculpted, as if it is made from polished pearl. He says it might be nice to hold, and he is right. It is snug in my palm. My fingers trace the valley of the bone, lie gloved by the trochlear groove. The fact that it is the talus of a horse, an animal I will never treat nor sit astride again, brings tears I let fall, after he has gone. I picture myself running a confident palm down the side of a mare’s leg and cupping her hoof. I feel the warmth from her nostrils as she turns to inspect the back of my neck with a snort. I smell the pasture on her breath.

A country vet, across the continent, is the first to take me on. He has no sense of what I can and can’t do and that is likely a blessing. He is the type to give someone a go because someone he trusted has said I can do it, and that someone is Jane. A blonde bob, brown eyes, strong thighs and tanned muscled arms. She has a kind of bolshie.  She believes in me. She, too, has no idea. We are three people, inexperienced in paraplegia, and how that transects with being a veterinarian. We know little of what it means to a life either. When I arrive she collects me from the airport and drives me to her home, where she carries me, like a new bride, into the house and then leaves me for the weekend trapped hopelessly by the three meagre steps to the outside.

Before heading across the country a surgery teacher says I should come in and do a bitch spay in the Uni lab – just to check I can. After scrubbing up, betadine dripping from my elbows, I sit at the sink unable to move forward – someone will need to propel me from here. We discover some things are more difficult seated. The surgery table is hard to get under and besides it won’t go low enough. It can never go lower than my lap. I do surgery with my elbows out, like an ill-mannered child seated at the big persons’ table. It is the beginning of becoming a dependant again, in the eyes of others. My chest feels perilously close to the incision and I am, maybe, leaning and breathing into the surgery site more than someone would standing. But doing it is all we are checking for here. It can be done, and so it will. Rick says I can.

In the country the surgery table is difficult to get under too, with its large circular base – so I do my surgeries with the animals as close to sliding over the edge as possible, legs draped across the side, like shirt sleeves off an ironing board. Sometimes the single nurse and I are not able to move a heavy patient, so we time the surgery with the approach of the postman, and ask him to assist with the transfer. I am doing operations partially blind, as an incision in a big dog’s belly is level with my chest. But having done it no other way means I judge it is no harder than it should be. It is just what it is.

Jane and I are both new graduates, but she has six months of veterinary experience on me. I have six months experience of paraplegia and the internal walls of a spinal unit. I have learnt a lot about ceilings and how interesting they can be. I have counted the perforations in ceiling tiles and watched spiders spin webs. I have stared at nothing till nothing becomes something and then turns to nothing again. From a blue cloudless sky I have made poems on hue. From overheard conversations and inhaled smells I have constructed lives. I look differently at the small things and hear whole novels when only a word was whispered.

As vets, Jane and I are learning together, and she is my teacher. We both make mistakes – we are often alone, making them without knowing we are making them. Only later do they slip out from their mirage and reveal themselves – late at night mostly, alone and in a single bed. Sometimes we see the error before it is too late, and other times we are saved by the experience of the boss or the equally experienced vet nurse, Edna. Returning from lunch, I see my boss is doing the pyometra surgery I had placed on a drip without diagnosing.

At the end of a day I wheel the hundred yards home to my single bedroom flat on the same street as the clinic. Often I am swooped by magpies who distrust me, like they do stone throwing children. The flat has orange carpet tiles, the type to prickle beneath a bare foot. I toast bread under the grill and spread it thickly with peanut paste. On call, I answer queries about farm animals I have no experience of, other than as an undergraduate, and offer a disgruntled farmer advice to get him through till morning. I flip through Blood and Henderson for a respectable answer. I watch one-day-cricket. I wheel to the laundromat with a bag of washing on my lap. Weekly I slide across the red vinyl bench seat of the EH and drive along the Murray to the big town, The Smiths wailing from the tape cassette. Girlfriend in a coma. I buy myself a cappuccino and a piece of over-iced carrot cake.

The red-headed lad, who has never had a girlfriend, is consigned to me by Jane. We go to a Divinyls gig in a nearby town. He secures me a space at the side of the stage so I can see Chrissie Amphlett astride and thrusting her pelvis into her microphone stand. He stands just behind me and places a hand on the chair like it is any other bit of furniture. But it is not a chair. It is becoming part of me and I will him to unhand it. I view the crowd. I hate that people are able to dance, to crush up against each other and feel another person’s moving hips, sweating against them.

I stay in the country for nine months till the pain of the metal in my spine becomes too much. It wants out. I return west to my port town to have it removed, as the bone has repaired itself to a gnarly fist, and the metal is no longer functional. Who knows what the cord within the bone is doing. Perhaps it has hunkered down in its den of bone and sleeps on. I keep the shiny stainless steel nuts and screws, like spare buttons, in a cracked porcelain cup.

I apply for a job at the Uni I studied at, thinking that equal opportunity means what it says. The job is the pathology internship and will require that I post mortem animals of all sorts. Three middle aged men, tweed jackets with patches on their elbows, invite me in to see if I can complete a post mortem, unaided.  They walk away and leave me with the corpse of a horse, stiff on the slab. I feel so small. I cannot physically complete the task and I can feel the tears, the heat in my face, the crack in my voice. They stand watching, rocking back and forth on the balls of their feet, waiting till I withdraw my application. They say it is better you see for yourself that you can’t do it.

1992. Apartheid is ending in South Africa. Charles and Diana are separating. Native title is recognised in Australia and Paul Keating is Prime Minister.

Alone, I am listening to Nirvana’s NeverMind. I decide I will learn to walk with callipers, as it is something that can be done. It is hard, takes physical and emotional strength, to keep trying to do it, day after day. I rupture all the ligaments in my ankle learning to fall. The tarsal bones slip over each other, like pebbles in a sock. I practice for six months with a young, enthused dark-haired physio and in the end can make about fifty metres. I see that walking with callipers is not walking. It is not freedom. It is lumbering and more disabling even than the wheelchair. Being upright is not giving me anything back. It is precarious and pointless, and I give it away.

In a house with polished jarrah boards and freshly painted white walls Smells Like Teen Spirit is loud and I can sway my upper body, with my arms above my head and with my eyes closed, I am dancing, as I was before. My chair is spinning, silent and fast leaving my hands free. It can dance. It can take me back there, where the memories still synapse.

2019. From my kitchen window I view the neighbour’s child swinging, upside down on the stair rails that lead to the oval. Her legs and feet monkey the hand rail.  Her hair gravitates to the earth. A smaller brother kicks his footy into the canopy of a tree and the flimsy branches nestle the ball. She runs over and leaps towards the branch, grabbing it and swinging on the bough. Her weight causes the ball to dislodge and fall to the ground. They run off.

Rottnest 2017

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It’s all about the silence. Although it isn’t silent when you listen. There is the slap of the sea – constant, background. There is the screech of children. Sometimes a meltdown from the chalet behind. And always the bang of screen doors. There is the latch on the gate, the diesel hum of boat motors, the flip flop of thongs on bitumen. There is the crash of glass bottles entering the recycling bins, the whistle of a boatie to the landlubbers on shore. A father chastises a son for talking back and a mother attempts to smear sunscreen on a wriggling, moaning child. But there are only a few cars. There is a rubbish truck. There are no horns or sirens. There are bicycle bells. There are few telephones ringing, except for those timing the cooking of the pasta.

Rottnest.

The Cairns – they come every second year. They wish for yearly. They are Sydney-siders. Big city people, but lovers of the simplicity of Rottnest. We will always have Rottnest. Rottnest has seen new partners, seen pregnancies and babies added. Beds have been upgraded with bed runners and better mattresses. New tiles, new lights (still too bright), a change in couches (too hard) and outdoor balcony seating. We no longer can move a couch from the chalet onto the balcony, so instead order a foldaway bed and install it out there. The Cairns have a three-bedder and so an expanse of balcony and extra large kitchen and fridge. The three-bedder is looking very good. Another Perth mother arrives with a lanky girl child. She makes wonderful curry and goes to Mass. She talks about her street where she has moved from the wealthy to the poor side, since splitting with her husband, and how wonderfully refreshing the poor side is. They have a gifting shelf in their laneway where people exchange all manner of books and knick knacks. Since separating she has brought back inside a beloved Jarrah table, a family treasure, which was relegated to life on the porch in the home she shared with her husband. A teenager has not come this year – but two small boys are now two older boys, only inches apart. Still boys. Still lovers of cricket and riding their bikes.

Day One Monte stacks it in front of the Visitor centre and requires fixomull to a scraped knee. His diabetes is no longer new. His pump gives him and his parents freedom from needles, but still requires the input of calculations and knowledge of what has been eaten and of how much carbohydrate it contains. It is second nature to Monte to count everything that goes into his mouth. Every chip, every BBQ Shape. “26 Shapes Mumma.” He has a record low of 1.8 one day on the balcony, appearing to the adults unlike himself, a callow meek Monte declares, “I am Low.” Low he is. He is told to sit. Troy gets juice from the fridge and two glasses are downed. In minutes he is back to over 6. We, the diabetes rookies, are nervous and ill-equipped. The parents and the child have it all down pat. No one panics. Juice and jubes and the blood glucose is back on track.

Monte, diabetes or not, is determined to do well. He is competitive with everything. He aims to be the best. He is sore at losing and when things don’t appear fair. He is like a wind-up toy with an Ever Ready battery. He keeps going despite being red-faced and hot. Sometimes his face folds and he hides himself under a Turkish towel on the beach. Sometimes he won’t swim. “Chop Chop young son,” is called to Troy as he stand up paddle boards towards the shore, after-all another man is required on the cricket pitch.

Raff is a harder nut to crack. Brilliant light blue eyes and wry smile. Tells it like it is. He says he is bored, but also that he is having the best time. He rejects the application of sunscreen or the wearing of a hat. He plays cricket but won’t watch it on the telly. He loves school and can’t wait for the holidays to end so he can go back. Both boys love Jasper and he plays with them well, with a patience he does not have for his parents. On the last night they play a game where they must search for each other while trying to get home to the base without being caught. Raff: “The most intense game ever.”

Nostalgic treat – original Tim Tams and Neapolitan Ice-cream.

Middle aged couple pre dinner and lunch time cocktail – Aperol Spritz.

Typical discussion – ailments, need to reduce alcohol consumption, difficulty with reducing alcohol consumption, lack of interest and desire in decreasing alcohol consumption, how lack of alcohol just makes them cranky.

Milly’s laugh – “howabouthoseeagles”

Troy’s story – Snoopy (said with a lisp) and Mr Michaels.

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My lip is burnt and it makes me touch it. I worry it with my front teeth.

Like the teenagers. They too have burnt lips. Mothers give them cream, similar to what used to be applied to nappy rash. We swim at Little Parakeet and are joined by other old friends. They too chaperone teenagers. We reminisce briefly at what Rotto was like when our children were babies. When at nighttime they slept and we barbecued attached to baby monitors. They have a teen girl who has taken to “Fuck you” and giving them the finger. We have a sullen, string bean boy. More broody and somber. Disdainful of questions. Irked by any attempt of mine at humour or dance. Even if it will only be seen by him. My mere swaying with the beat can send him into a frenzy of STOP MUM. Strangely it only makes me want to dance more.

So. Two middle-aged couples on the beach while our teens roam about the beach, without energy, without vim. Sapped. Arms flop about their bodies like lifeless limbs. A French couple squabbles with a small boy having a tantrum on the sand. An open hand strikes the boy. Leave him be, we all think. It is easy to parent from afar, when you are not in the thick of it. Perspective is clear, a way forward, so easy to see. But when you are amongst it, not so much. What should you do when they unleash the “fuck you” we ask, but never seem to get an answer. Perhaps they too, don’t know. I guess we will muddle through, like we have with all the previous parenting woes, only to find out later that, despite trying our best, there was indeed a less painful way. Later we joke we don’t know which we would prefer – the fuck you or the silent moping. They tell the story of threatening to remove teen girl’s bedroom door if it was slammed one more time. Slammed hard. Makita comes out. Door hinges unscrewed. Later, on opening their own bedroom door it nearly falls off as teen girl has loosened its screws with a Stanley knife. Touché, thinks Dad. A valid response to authority.

Then comes Australia day.

I love Australia, but not when it’s shoved in my face. I don’t like balconies festooned with triangles of Australian flags. I don’t like boats with massive billowing flags fit for a parliamentary flagpole. Boats anchor – A Salt Weapon, Reel Xtreme. I don’t like Aussie Crawl played over and over again, or Men at Work, whilst middle-aged men in Australian flag hats and boardies sit with a beer and sing the chorus and play air drums. Later said man will wander from the beach to the shops and take a piss on the brick stairs between the chalets. Choice. When two blondes, fresh from their shower, with large glasses of white wine pass under our balcony to join the Men at Work boat, I ask politely if they might relay the message to turn their music down. The glare – long and hard eyed, the clenching of their teeth somewhere behind their closed lips, the lack of a verbal response, the cackle when they reach their friends, their pointing me out as “that lady on the balcony” was all a tacit agreement that we do no longer (if we ever did) like each other. It makes me think of dogs and their mostly excellent reading of each other’s body language. As humans – we think we rely on verbal cues – but we are just as much influenced by a look, a small movement of the lip or eyebrow. So in dog language we gave each other the “look away.” Don’t mess with me.

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On the mainland it is sweltering. A seaplane, supposed to be part of the sky show ahead of the fireworks, turns without enough speed for a hot windless day, a wing dips, a motor stalls, and it plunges like a poorly made paper plane, into the river, killing pilot and passenger. We think of Big Steve (back in the US) and of his job sorting out the cause of any similar “fatal.” G says he would hate the way a passenger died, because of a pilot’s inexperience.

The sky did its thing tonight. After a hot day the storm clouds have arrived and made a sunset of rose and mauve. The wind, which was playing havoc with the Big Bash TV reception, decided to fade and allow some uninterrupted viewing. It must be hot on the mainland. Cricketers are sweating. The distant lighthouse stood solid and beige while the sky all around changed and morphed. A big white voluminous cloud puffed itself up and all around it other darker clouds swirled and spread. The sea turned from soft mohair blue to beaten pewter. My raised stinger welt begins to itch. The fan ticks.

I dream that I am entering a lift as someone with a thin whippet style dog is exiting. Some how there is a cavernous gap between the landing and the lift and of course, as it always is in dreamland, this is not abnormal or a surprise. What is shocking is that as the man leaps across the dark and endless gap but the dog does not. He, then at one side and the dog still in the lift, urges the skinny thing to jump across to him and as it does so he pulls on its leash and its head slips loosely from the collar and the flimsy dog disappears into the dark. A thump is heard as it hits the bottom and then nothing. It is somehow my fault, in my heart, that this dog was afraid to jump, failed to jump, didn’t leave with the man. I wake up, annoyed and made itchy by the stinger welt across my chest. I itch it. Stop. Itch some more. Think of John Turturro in The Night Of.. and wish for a pointed knitting needle. Itch some more.

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Beach Baby

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Daily I walk the port. It remains cold, despite the onset of spring. A biting wind. The dog has been let off his leash more lately, but, having found the odd chicken bone or two he has taken to wandering away and searching for himself. After all what is more fun than scrounging. Innate dog. His recall is dwindling and it will need some reinforcing with roast chicken of my own.

Still. Nose to the ground he is searching the grassed areas where people tend to eat and leave their scraps. I see him, triumphant, munching, rudely open-mouthed, on something. Ignoring me. Lead back on. We walk the boardwalk by the beach.

 

I see a couple – the man has a baby held to his chest. It looks just born – its hair still plastered down like it has freshly emerged from an egg sack. Even from a distance there’s a newly hatched wetness to its slick of black hair. His large hand cups its skull and presses it into that dip between his neck and shoulder.

I think of the wind assaulting it, pushing at its eyelids. On the beach a woman (the mother, I guess) is in all black – leotards and top – and has her legs wide apart and is stretching to her side, this way, then that. He moves around her with the baby jiggling and thrusting its hungry head into his udderless shoulder. Skin-warmth the vaguest of similarities. Leotard is intent on her exercise – staring straight out into the ocean, her hair an angry blonde storm.

The man has baggy brown pants on – probably cheesecloth – and they bristle in the wind. He has long white arms. I wonder how much fun they are having. He looks cold, but ever so patient. I wonder if they have argued about her time, his time. I wonder if this is her saying I need this space. His way of making it up to her after a suburban meltdown.

Take the baby home, I think. Wrap it in warmth. Soothe it with mohair and mother, real milk. It makes me recall my own mother – shocked at the fact that new mothers no longer have a lying in period – where they stay home, after the birth, and simply look after the newborn, propped up in bed with a mountain of pillows, feed sleep feed. I am turning into my mother. Enough exercise already.

I think of Alain de Botton’s new novel The Course of Love and his writing, “love is a skill and not an enthusiasm.” This father has skill, standing back in the dunes watching the mother bend and twist. He hunkers down so the baby is protected and waits. He waits while she struts the sand. Punching it with the soles of her perfect feet. Asking the world why? More bending.

Still. I think do your yoga, eat your chia, somewhere else, somewhere warm. Leave the seaweed-strewn beach that is cold and bitter to walkers of dogs with thick coats. Dogs made for wind and rain.

Pakenham Living

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First two days in the studio.

 

Murphy makes his grumph grumph noises at some of the passersby, but mainly he is relaxed, despite the heavy noise of the street traffic just outside his door. He is happily urinating on the street on the nearest pole. He had a zoomie on Bathers Beach as the denim surf frothed and the wind whipped around.

 

I speak to the peroxided hairdresser as she smokes a cigarette on the street and compliments Murphy on the hues in his fur, make friends with the Bread N Common waitress from whom I buy my salami flute and have coffee at the High Street Dispensary sitting with my face tilted toward the winter sun.

 

Nightly drunks and carousers holler up the sidewalk. Swear and swerve, stumble and scream. Every morning the street sweepers clean up after them, but the bin is over flowing and the rubbish men are not due, and so a raven does his best to empty it, signalling to his other raven mates to come and feast at the dish of human detritus, dropping what they don’t want on the bitumen. Road = crow canvas.

 

I have discovered that butter (anything other than Watsonia) can be bought at Kakulas Sister for a high price and regular linguini is out the front. Despite the fact that the serving women are sour and I feel invisible in there, I purchase.

 

My hands are dry from too much water and Jiff. I have googled how to remove paint stains from hard wood floors. Rubbing alcohol.

 

I have cleaned the walls and the blinds to the height I can reach but there is so much beyond that I cannot. Not till I purchase the extendable duster. Joy.

 

I have no television and so I watch Masterchef on my computer and follow the Tour on the tour tracker. The radio is my companion.

I query the bill from builder for the skip bins and the services disconnection and feel a sense of bewilderment that we are spending so much money on a house renovation when we can easily live like this, in the small studio, with a very limited amount of stuff and not many possessions.

How we complicate our lives with stuff.

How mouse-in-a-wheel-like it all gets – this owning and then wanting more and more of it. And then, finding nowhere to put it, we decide to throw it out and start again.

It is simple here today. I have my old sink, not thrown out, sliced in two by handy men, but still the familiar sink I have scrubbed at for twenty years. Its grain like aged wood. I have scrubbed it when I am happy, and I have scrubbed it when I am sad. At our neighbour’s their corner sink meant it was not an easy sink for me. I could not reach into it and so never laboured at it. Besides, they had a dishwasher.  Here I am returned to succour of stainless steel scrubbing.

 

The laminex table too has been resurrected. Thankfully it was never discarded. Stored in an attic with other one days. It is mottled tomato red and white. It has shapely silver legs like a 1950’s screen siren, but its top is solid and dutiful. It is milk bar, country town. Graham and I worked at it years ago sorting through black and white prints on Ilford paper. Pored over strips of negatives on light boxes. Now a small transistor sits on it playing the local station’s football coverage. Sydney vs Geelong and Sydney need to lower their eyes. What does that even mean?

 

The men and boys will be out of the winter weather by now. They left at 3 am while the road was still wet and black and the traffic had stopped. I listened to the car start up and drive off and then fell back to sleep till Murphy woke me barking at the some dogs at his door. How dare they sniff.

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I sleep fitfully. One minute hot – throwing back the doona and pancaking myself on the cool side of the bed, feeling the icy sheets on the insides of my arms, then turning cold and snuggling back down, only to find myself hot again another hour on. The rain keeps the revellers down. Still I wake at five and take the dog out, watch the lights of the street sweeper advance up the road towards us, sucking the paper cups and used napkins off the gutter.

Today I discover the Italian coffee maker won’t work on induction. I set up the lap top camera to record Murphy while I duck out to the shops. When I return I see I have made a mistake and not recorded a thing. Later I try again and go for a short outing to the second hand bookshop to purchase a book I had seen in the window called the The Last Little Cat. (Books are never unworthy purchases.) But when I flick through it it isn’t what I had hoped and so I decide not to buy it. I look at the other books and stumble across a 1934 edition of Dogs and Their Management and in it find such sage advice as Do not fidget an Invalid – do what is necessary quietly, gently and quickly, and then leave him alone; no glaring lights or suffocating heat as well as nutritional advice such as Sheep’s brains boiled in milk is nourishing and makes a tempting food: it is a little relaxing.

 

I listen to Radio National – a balm for the soul – a man talks about his love of walking – initially as an escape from a brutal childhood hiding away in wilderness morphs into connecting with nature and healing his past. The treading becomes deeply spiritual. He gets stuck in scrub and only goes 100 metres in an hour. Scrub so thick he couldn’t see the sky. His drawl is strangely hypnotic as he describes the country that he meanders and struggles through. The pocket doc finishes and there is no time to reflect before the news tells of the Dallas sniper who shot five policemen in retaliation for black deaths earlier in the week. If only the sniper had discovered his solace in walking. Or in sink scrubbing.

 

 

 

 

Noosa – from Beach to Light House (almost)…

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Image by Graham Miller

The sick are not on the path –

not the dying,

the undiagnosed illness saunters past,

the diseased gene.

The path is for the healthy, or the fat.

The families. Fathers with babies in back packs.

Mothers in slouchy hats.

Out come the SAKATAS –

because toddlers are always hungry when there is no shop nearby.

Fluorescent Nike, Campagnolo cyclist cap.

A family of four each with a different coloured shoe.

Things go on beneath the skin, in the innards.

Under cloth.

Breathable cloth hides ulcers, bruises, marks.

Absorbent dressings soak up fluid, discharge.

Bow legged men.

A dropped credit card found on the path. A collective What to do?

 

Let’s Talk Language

 

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Today I spoke to vet students studying veterinary welfare, ethics and animal behaviour. It was their first lecture dealing with Animal Behaviour and I wanted to speak about language. I can imagine they might think it is unimportant. But it is the crux of the matter. You will hear it in vet clinics all the time – eroding the bond of compassion and caring that vets have with patients who, through the poor choice of language, become the enemy.

When we describe dogs as wimps, sooks, babies or as nasty, mean, vicious we use loaded terminology. We use descriptors that are full of emotional baggage. When we describe a dog’s attempt at keeping himself safe as an act of jealousy, spitefulness or protectiveness we do him no end of disservice and do not help his owner understand their dog’s choices.

Dogs who display aggressive behaviours do so because they have found a tool that works for them. It is one that people notice (finally) and gets them the outcome they are after – the scary thing stays away.

It is one of the most difficult concepts for clients to understand – that the aggressive dog is most often a very frightened dog, that through practice and rehearsal, and no one listening to his lesser signals (or having had them punished for previous displays), has learnt that going on the offensive early is his safest bet. These dogs are no less frightened than the whimpering, hiding dog that displays his belly, but they have just hit on a more successful strategy. And you can bet they will use it again.

The last thing this dog needs is to have his fears confirmed and continue to not be listened to – then he may resort to his final choice – biting. When we call these dogs protective, jealous, angry or mean we are missing the very point.  The dog is communicating fear in the loudest and best way he can, when all the previous and polite signals have been ignored.

I tell the students to ask clients to describe behaviour. Don’t ask for interpretations and steer clients away from that too. What does the dog do? What did you do? What happened first? What does it look like? What would you like the dog to do? Let’s teach that…

Let’s give the dog cues NOT commands. Let’s make the dog feel safe, so he doesn’t have to protect himself by using aggressive responses. Give him choice, a way to escape safely. Let’s not put him in situations he cannot handle and he has previously shown us he does not cope with.

Let’s use the least intrusive and minimally aversive techniques to implement the change.

A prison officer working with youth offenders once told me that the kids in the centre weren’t bad, but sad, and I remember what a difference that change in label meant. Working with sad children engenders empathy and caring. Helping people out of a sad place is worthwhile, whereas dealing with bad suggests that changes aren’t even possible. One bad apple...It even suggests a contagion that is best isolated and thrown away. Use language that helps owners feel compassion and caring towards their pet instead of puts them in a position against their pet, pits them against one another, and tells them their pet is out to garner control over them.

Dogs, like all animals, including us, do what works for them. It is as simple and as difficult as that.

My Beautiful Laundrette

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This was a hip movie when I was a student but probably not many people would remember it these days. It was also written by one of my favourite writers, Hanif Kureshi. It made being in a North London laundrette something you could feel good about.

When you think of laundromats you think of student days. You think of late nights and weekends spent watching the blur of jeans and t shirts. But I am middle aged. But still in possession of a broken front loader. Its breaking started with a difference to the quality of the sound of the spin before it gave up with a belly full and spewed it out undigested, wet and heavy. It worked again once more on gentle spin, then after that died completely. Not even a spray of WD 40 to the door catch did a thing. Now it is a block of useless heavy machinery in our bathroom – waiting for the next bring out your dead.

I go to a laundrette to find it no longer offers self serve. Probably haven’t operated that way for three years – too much vandalism, says the woman taking a delivery of business shirts from the arms of a customer, as I look searchingly around the room at the silent, disused washers with piles of named packaged clothes upon each one. I know I will not want to pay her to wash my pile of dirty laundry, but I ask – out of interest. Looks like two loads, she says. Thirty six dollars.

She directs me to another laundromat I had never noticed, but I drive on by when I see it has steps. I know one without steps. It is twenty minutes away, but the drive is familiar and never feels long. Down roads that I once peddled my bike with a transistor strapped to the handlebars. Afternoon Delight on the radio, a White Knight slowly dissolving in my mouth, as I ride the bitumen in the hot sun. I never tire of these streets. The smell of them.

The laundromat is called a laundrobar, but of course has no bar. I expect students. No one is there. One machine is in use – all the others are vacant and free with their lids up saying come feed me. It is five dollars for a load and two machines are labelled as taking both $2 and $1 coins. I figure they are the new machines and so use them although they all look identical. I imagine developing a rapport with a machine and wanting to come back to this particular one. Like the favourite seat on a bus, on the train, in the cinema. Such a creature of habit.

A small Indian man enters and asks me about self serve dry cleaning. I say I have never heard of that. It is very expensive otherwise, he says. Yes I imagine. He wears a checked woollen scarf tied around his neck despite the fact it is nearly forty outside. The drier makes the laundrette hot too and I wonder what mental illness he might have to ask about dry cleaning and be wearing a scarf in this heat. I decide to tell him how the normal washing process happens in case his choice of words was incorrect and he really just wants to do a regular wash. He listens to me drone on about how to use a washer and a drier and then says politely yes so No dry cleaning here and turns and walks away.

I think of the laundrettes I have used. The time spent watching clothes fall about themselves in a drier. It is dead time. But still beautiful. They appear to dance, but be boneless too. All flesh and jiggle. I am distracted by my phone, but stop myself scrolling through Facebook and instead watch the clothes do their disco in the machine. There are the clothes of a partner and a son in there. Spinning. I fold underpants, not mine. I think how in my youth it was always just my stuff. The regretful pang at a loved t-shirt shrunk by the intense heat of the drier. Not responsible for anyone but myself. How easy it is to care for yourself. When you are one.

 

 

 

 

 

Magic Miller

One hot day trapped inside a Fremantle cottage the boy discovers card tricks.  After the I’m bored. Forced into finding something other than my offerings. The excitement of washing up is declined. Knock yourself out hanging up the wet washing, I suggest. He will not mention the boredom again. The plantation shutters are closed, the jarrah boards still cool beneath the bare sole. The overhead fan shifts chunks of hot air about the room. In the distance there is the holler of children in the municipal pool, running the length of the giant inflated crocodile. A sliver of me remembers having to be there, steamy by the pool, while the boy did this. The interminable waiting till his finger skin was pruned and pale and he would finally agree to leave the chlorine and head home.

At first it is ordinary cards. Later Bicycle cards. The magician’s choice. Difficult for hands with a small span. Still. Soft touch. Cushioned. False cuts. Shimmery and capable of the perfect slide.

He is learning terminology. Like a new language. As pretty as French. Like we, the would-be renovators, learn that bricks come rumbled.

He is sent his grandfather’s old magic books. They arrive in a regular post pack to Jasper (Magic) Miller, despite the old man’s mistrust of Australia Post. The grandfather had, only the day before, taken them to the second-hand store. He went back down to retrieve them before they were placed on the shelf. That is something he might not do for anyone. It is hard to describe magic in photographs and harder still to relate tricks in words. There is tenacity to admire in a man who learnt his skills from the mustard Scarne. The print is small. It takes more patience than most people have these days. It takes concentration and rereading. Peering. It makes you do that thing with your brow. It requires your brain to muscle hard. Deciphering. Who has the time these days?

 

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Magic Miller can use You tube and the internet. He can see the trick slowed down in front of him and practice before a screen like it is a mirror. He can replay and rewind till all he needs is practice. This too is something harder to do these days. Who really wants to practice to be good at something? Just as people don’t expect to suffer, or wait or have pain, they don’t expect to have to work at something. Yet there is no other way. Not for anything. And certainly not for magic. For the reality is so very ironic that really, really good magic takes the opposite of how it seems. Effortless. It is all work. Very very hard work.

The texts are old and musty with that familiar old book smell. Like the taint of an old Aunt’s house, or a dimly lit second hand shop. The internal pages have yellowed and the text block grey. Fingers have smudged and marked. I think of restorers who sand paper the edges of books, taking a grain of paper from the book to restore it to whiteness. Graham recalls the books from his own childhood in his father’s house. They are instantly familiar. Like they have been shelved in his memory, along with the smell of them, down a dark hallway. He may have thumbed through them, on a monsoonal afternoon, in a Hong Kong house at the top of Peaceful Bay. In the background an older brother’s Bowie’s seven-inch Star Man on the turntable.

Magic is good for the boy’s adolescent brain. It is hands on. It is concrete. A perfect brother for a single child who lies on his belly in his bedroom. From the seventies. Like playing with a yo-yo. It is still real. The repetition. The practice of moving his hands. Of doing something smoothly and succinctly. Just as juggling is. Just as skate boarding is. Sleight of hand, sleight of cognition. Synaptic magic.

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