Absolutely Unapologetic Celebration of Things and Folk I adore.

Tis the season. Time to yoke the Yule grab the antlers and ride the scarlet beast in sideways down the slippery holly-strewn luge of festive funk, knocking your Santa hat sideways and, eggnog in hand, screaming ‘Rudolf Rocks’ – standard five bonus points for making the littlies cry.

Okay – this time of year.
One thing we can count on is it stirring the pot. It’s the time of year when the heat gets turned up on the “we are all in this together and hang on just why are we all together?” mojo that families are experts at burying under the panaceas of distance, platitudes and indifference that keeps most blood ties at least loosely knotted most of the time.

For a real sense of danger just add a suburban postcode, a few collective midlife crisis (wonder what the collective noun is for that? Hmmmm….give me a moment to ponder) a batch of growing kids, a financial downturn and the obligatory river of grog. Best of the festive season to you and yours!

But as crazy as it gets – and anyone who knows Cook County knows we’re no strangers to the crazy – I am enjoying a big bask in the Seasonal Love swamp and thought I’d share it with you.

Marcus’ sister Pen is down with her two kids – Seth is two and Tuhina is four. They saw my big boys and it was on, them climbing all over them, getting piggy backs, playing hide and seek, getting thrown all over the place. Just like Marcus did with them. Just like his Uncle Jim and Uncle Bertie did with him. Glee. Bliss. More glee. And today my Miss Nine has run up the driveway to keep a pre-booked appointment with Miss Four.
“Tuhy said we had to bounce on the tramp today”.

A seriously gorgeous Tuhina.

Keziah, Tuhina and that is Atticus holding Seth.

Then there was the big gathering last Sunday gone. Marcus was home briefly between Sydney trips and his Mum invited her younger brother over. Now Rae and Michael’s parents divorced when Michael was two and they lived with their Nana for about five years until their dad remarried. Rae has always said it speaks volumes that she had six children and Michael had seven. Family matters.

So I’m walking up the driveway with my Atticus, 11, and there they all are – sitting on the veranda, running in and out of the house. At least 30 of them – tall, big shouldered men and kids of all shapes and sizes being tended by the women folk. And that was with heaps missing.
Atti looks at me and says “Do you mean I’m related to everyone here?”

Ain’t it? Even after more than 25 years around these Cook’s and nearly 20 years of being ‘one of em’ it still spins this one-of-two-daughters out. I sat with my sis-in-law Karen and watched our kids play stacks on (yep, it’s a theme) and we quietly raised our glasses and drank to us and where we had landed. Now Karen. I could write a blog, perhaps even a book on her. But all I am going to share now is that this woman who I used to play with as a little girl, can navigate the hidden trails between my silences and my shouts as surely as Vasco De Gama. For Christmas I gave her a necklace that says ‘Hope’ – quite simply, she fills the tank.

Then there are the quiet moments. The unexpected moments.
Coming home to find a note from Mum that there is a plate of corned beef in the fridge and….this makes me teary, $200 under the plate from my step-dad, Alby. This is because they caught me at a vulnerable moment the night before when they came over unexpectedly. They asked how Marcus was going on his big job. And I’d just got off the phone and it wasn’t good. Payment was being delayed. Again. And despite hubby’s assurances my wife-tank was empty after putting on usual ”hang in there honey, we’ll get through this” game-face. And although I do know it will be okay, it always is (really, please don’t call or fret, we ARE fine, honest – really! It has already turned – it always does) they could tell that in that moment, sitting at the table, I was not okay. And Alby? He’s one of those men – you know the kind. Stern, proud, would rather crack a rib then show emotion. I adore him to the other side of the black stump and back again. His quiet strength saved my mum and made her smile. So that corned beef sandwich I made my son? Best ever.

Then Rae, the Matriarch of the Cook Catastrophe, also dropped in – how do they know??
And so that night when I went up to say hi she’s there, wine in hand, waiting for me on the veranda.
She’s utterly exhausted from having all the grandkids all the time but she really wouldn’t have it any other way. But amidst the madness she sat with me and we slipped into that quiet banter her and I have and we talked about her firstborn, the man I wed and as the words washed over me the wife-tank began to fill. Then Pen came out and said ‘that sucks about Muke’. Yeah, it does. But what doesn’t suck is being flanked on either side by people who love him most. That, my lovely ones, seriously rocks.

Ah. My heart just reminded me of my eldest son’s graduation. Grade Six. I know. I find the notion quite absurd but the sentiment? Let’s just say standing there watching your baby tell you that his favourite memory of school was riding the dodgems with his little sister and that he wants to get a job he loves (so he can make more money than Bill Gates) is magnificent.

Zeke graduating.

But Marcus was away. And I knew that it would be a bit (read terribly) sad without him. Fate was having fun gutting my usual army of familial support. Mum was away, Rae was out, Aunty Miranda left for Perth. But Marcus’ youngest brother Nat was home.

The first time I met Nat I sat on the lounge room floor with him and helped him fire up his whirly-gig helicopter thingy. He was perhaps six years old? That’s about right. Or not quite six. Anyways, he was little. But he’s not now. At all. And Zeke adores him. And he said he’d come to his graduation with me. Poor bloke didn’t know what he was letting himself in for. Actually I think he did – which makes it all the sweeter of him that he came along.

Walking up with him and the kids – and nearly dying of laughter at Nat’s absolute agony at being pulled into a ‘family’ photo – worth every cent of the $15 for the expression on his face – I was quietly proud.  Standing next to my husband’s brother, my children’s uncle. Not the usual kind of family. But my family. The best kind.

So this all got me thinking. About those who make it better. Here’s some treasures from my black velvet bag that I’ve taken out and held up to the light.

Best advice was from my friend Benita who told  me ‘no’ is a complete sentence. And sent me texts to make sure I was following her advice.

My darling friend Stella who holds my heart so gently – and when I forget and put myself unwittingly in the middle of all kinds of wars (some real, most imagined) she quietly takes my hand across a cafe table, squeezes it and reminds me who she is.

And my Mallee Root (yes, it’s a nickname, you work it out) who I met for lunch after the longest time apart and we laughed and laughed until our sides hurt. Mainly at how completely unsophisticated and utterly un-grownup we were despite the years. And we decided it was exactly the way we liked it.

My Duska who despite a schedule from hell came to mine armed with “Galaxy Quest” for pizza and a daggy nite in while my hubby was away. She left and I felt as if I’d had a complete system reboot – God the power of laughter and a friend who knows your soul trails.

Then there is hot chocolate and Nadia who, pausing between sips, mulled over her thoughts for a while and said. “I don’t know how to say this and I hope it doesn’t sound like an insult because it isn’t. But when I think of you there is this savage affection you have when it comes to the way you talk about your children. And your friends. You love them but you REALLY love them. You’re like a lioness. And I love that.”
I was very very proud and couldn’t speak. But that was okay. Because that is what hot chocolate is for.
And then there is the singing and music nite and our beautiful Elizabeth and Mandy – the first with her hugs that truly set the world to rights and the second with her strong, calm strength and wicked smile.
And Andy – our travelling singer who calls me “possum” and every time he does I just stand there grinning like a teenager. Very cool.
Marty drew this. Very cool indeed.

And Marty. Mr Armstrong who never doubted for a moment that I could play the harmonica. Or the guitar. And that it was an excellent idea that I did. His advice? “Play it like you mean it”. So I did. And they turned out to be words to live by. We did our first acoustic set together this year. And I remember standing there singing amidst the ridiculous fun and thinking “who would’ve ever thought?” Dreamed, yes. But thought? No. Dreams are good. As I said afterwards – again! And again! Sometimes things are just too special for words. Which is why there is music. Play it like you mean it. And I do.

Dean kicking back between sets at the Balaclava Hotel

Then there is Dean – him who I call Rock God – the bloke I play with in Fallen Angels – this man just calmly accepts that yeah, cool, I’ll nail that vocal and hell yeah I’ll play the tambo too. He’s even letting me roll up his mike cords – yep, seriously. Faith. Gotta have it. Glad I got it. More please.

And the women folk. Those mums who despite the slights and stings of a suburban existence that can strangle you with superficiality and drown you in a world of judgement manage to shrug it all off and smile at me with open hearts and arms. Kindness, sweetness and laughter. These things matter. To me. A lot. 
Yep, the black velvet bag is full.
Just one more.

Marcus, coming home after a week – well weeks – of hard grind and slog building his dream piece by piece against all kinds of odds. Carving out a life for us. After hugging the kids he puts his arms around me. And holds me. 

And whispers quietly into my ear “It’s going to be great”.
I just bury my head on his shoulder and think “It already is”.

Merry Christmas All

Oh and that collective noun? A toss up between ‘a spray tan of mid-life crises’ or ‘a porsche/audi (insert car of suitable stauts) mid-life crises’.

The Black Velvet Bag

I keep a black velvet bag tucked quietly away for keeping special treasures – beautiful, strange, surprising – things that make me go ‘Mmmmm!’ It’s there for when I forget that I can write. It’s where I hoard the words of encouragement, of praise lest they get washed out with the tide of my own self-doubt.

I have told my creative writing students – actually I’ve told all of my students – that they all need their own black velvet bag. Because writing can be lonely. Because when it is just you and the pen or the screen your own demons can think now is a find time to waltz you around the floor of your own insecurities.

So my black velvet bag is there for when I forget that I can soar.
When thinking the best of things feels like lugging a load of wet laundry up a hill on a rainy day.
When I can’t be bothered finding the candles to put on the celebration cake let alone a match to light the damn things.
When I feel I wouldn’t have the energy to blow them out anyway.

But over time it’s become more than just a little scrap of something to turn to for when I am swamped with creative chaos. I find myself searching for it when I think I’ve forgotten certain things that I need. You know, those times when reality does its level best to show you that loving and celebrating and expecting bliss to jump out from behind a corner is fool’s talk.

That’s when I’m glad I have a little pocket of hope trussed up with a golden cord.

Don’t ask me where I hide it because it changes and quite frankly I never quite remember where I put it but I know it is always there when I need it. Because that is its job. And I’m pleased to say it seems to take its responsibility very seriously indeed.

Lately it’s been washed up on the shore between my soul and those precious moments when I lie in bed in the morning and haven’t yet opened my eyes.

But then there was today. Stuck in traffic on the way into uni. Amidst the cars nuzzling each other under a bright blue just-rinsed Tuesday morning I saw this in my mind’s eye.

My friend had shown me a picture of his daughter the night before. She’s three and a bit (and maybe a little bit more) and yes, she is a piece of Heaven sent to walk amongst us. I could tell you about her beautifully complex nature – her seriousness, her curiosity, the way every emotion and thought dances across her face so fast it’s like watching the wind blow clouds across the sky. And, how, when she’s used to you being around her, she’ll talk.

Well talk isn’t quite the word. She’ll un-dam the stream of thought that tickles her sparkly synapses and let it flow so that you’re immersed in a string of delicious wordles (that, learned friend, is pronounced similar to ‘wombles’ – yes, I just made it up but it kinda comes close to the half-and-then-more-than-that sounds and phrases she threads together like beads) that confound and delight.

But of course she wasn’t speaking in this pic. She was smiling at the boy standing next to her, who is all of one year older than her (is that a lot when you’re three? I think it’s the equivalent of three of adult years). He had his arm slung over her shoulder.

He was looking at the camera, big grin splitting his “Look- at-me-I’m-a-boy-and-me-and-her-built-this-REALLY-REALLY-big-cool-thing-out-of-Lego-and-it’s-a tower-a-real-tall-tower-and-mine-is-the-blue-bit-there-and-the-red-bit-there-and-the-green-bit-she-did-and look-at-it – it’s so-so-so-so BIG” face.

And her?

Well the expression is priceless – she’s looking at him with such a gorgeous, confident, “yeah, I know we’re great, we did this, we ARE the best, EVER and hey, I NEVER doubted it for a second! Damn straight you’re lucky to know me!”

Ease. Grace. Strength. Beauty.
In one glance.

So yes, that image is in my black velvet bag and now it lies there gleaming like a diamond – burning with its own fiery heart. And wrapped around it, always, will be the look on her dad’s face as he showed us the photo. Have you ever stood next to someone when they swell with love? They fill with it and you get to bask as their heart glows gold.

Now this is an old-fashioned, archaic kind of a word but I’ve reached for others and this one keeps getting hooked on my line so I’m going to use it. Here goes. Humble. I feel humble in the presence of it. And privileged. I tend to hold my breath hoping to make the moment last longer.

So it got me thinking what else lies in my black velvet bag. I’m going to write a list. For anyone who knows me you know I adore a list. The sheer abecedarian nature of it – the neatness, the flow! Lists ROCK!

And it also got me wondering – what’s in your black velvet bag?

Tell me. I must know. (And don’t anyone dare quote Princess Bride to me just because you can!)

And yes, I know by asking this I’m clearly breaking my own rather bizarre and self-defeating rule of “I may write a blog but I don’t really want anyone to read it cause that would be scary and strange and altogether too much of a ‘look at me’ kinda thing”. I know. And now you know. If you didn’t already. But there it is.

So until you show me yours I’ll content myself with tipping the contents of mine onto my lap and foraging through the jewels that lie there. Oooo look! Bright, shiny things!

Wide Awake and Dreaming

I’m propped up in bed at 2:45am and have given up trying to sleep at least for the minute. My mind keeps being pulled back to a soggy piece of carpet across the other side of town.

The Balaclava Hotel on a Sunday afternoon.

From the moment I pushed open the heavy wooden double doors and stepped inside I felt as if I’d been thrown back twenty years. It’s that smell. If you ask me in daylight hours I’ll tell you it felt like coming home. I’d grin and a part of me would mean it. That beer sodden smell saturated with years of cigarette smoke.

I’m ten years old at the Mitcham Hotel with the family. It’s hot and I’m drinking lemon squash and about to order a chicken parma (you know the kind – with tinned beetroot on the side with a slice of plastic cheese and some limp bits of shredded lettuce) when Dad is told we can’t be served because my sister and I are wearing thongs. He’s furious and after giving the hapless manager a piece of his mind (my Pater Familias always did a great line in self righteous rage) and sneering at the offer of a free meal and my mum’s quiet attempts to soothe, we were whisked home for poached eggs on toast.

“A bloody insult is what it is. A bloody insult. I’m not putting up with that. I shouldn’t have to. All those years of us going there. The nerve of them. The absolute bloody nerve.”

I can still hear the tinge of pleasure in his voice at getting the chance to puff himself up. And see the way Mum tried to swallow her sighs and stared out the window at the passing traffic.

That’s only a small part of my sense memory of that pungent miasma. Pubs. Bars. Most of them in country towns from long forgotten holidays spent traipsing up and down the coast with my then-boyfriend-now-husband. When “going away” meant filling up the Mini, chucking a bag of ice in the back to keep the dog cool and throwing in the tent for guaranteed sleeping luxury.

But I’m not storming out or stopping in on the way somewhere at the Balaclava. I’m here to sing. Every second Sunday up to and including Boxing Day from five to 8pm. With my friend Dean. “Fallen Angels” we call ourselves. Later that night I’d joke that perhaps we’d fallen into Hell. Just as long as we didn’t melt wax to fix our wings and we could fly on home.

When we arrived mid arvo the place was already filling with young drunken Irish punters – the place is a magnet for them. I don’t know why but later the barmaid Allie tells me it’s because they have $5 pot of Bulmers cider – the cheapest in town. A Lily Allen look-alike (think down-at-heel-smudged-mascara-Lily) drapes herself over a skinny boy called Rufus.
“I like you, ya know? I mean you’re not the sort of guy to…” (she lowers her voice and leans in close to his ear – I can only hear the faint sharp kick of a ‘fuck’ or ‘Christ’)
 “I mean you’re a real person – you know what I mean?”
I grab my raspberry and soda water and resist to the temptation to say “As opposed to what? A fucking unicorn?”

Rufus would later distinguish himself as being the first of a string of annoying prats who sway on up to Dean and I only to drape themselves all over me, intent on grabbing my microphone, or my arse, or both – all the while rather skillfully managing to drool on my neck. A little distracting whilst trying to sing “Rehab” but hey, that’s show business. Or so I’m learning.

It’s a strange swamp of a place the ‘Clava. On the one hand it is the dedicated haunt of a tight core of locals. There’s Eddie – 77 years old and unable to walk without a cane. Something he seems to forget after God knows how many pots. If he’s lucky he’ll grab an umbrella – also handy to swing at a singer who isn’t paying him enough attention. But more often than not he’ll make his shambling way to the loo only to get stuck and have to lie there until his mates remember him or else he’ll grab my music stand on the way back and take it and him down with him.

Then there’s his friend Peter from Croatia who told me in the first breath of meeting him that “I may live here but every night I put my head on the pillow I sleep in Zagreb.” At the time I sighed with the poetry of it. And then later I shrank back when, five or so beers in, that he has “done things I can never forgive myself for. Things no man should ever do.” The demon drink unloosing past ghosts as the amber flows and the music stirs the pot.

And there’s K9 – he’s got to be 65 and has the build of a trucker and the head of a pit-bull. He wants Dean to “sing more” – so do I – but, unlike K9, for reasons other than being smitten with his quintessential blonde rock god looks. When K9 isn’t playing a pool shot his eyes run up and down Dean like a paint-roller.

He told me he used to sing Roy Orbison. That’s another thing. Every second punter at the ‘Clava seems to have been a muso in a past life and they don’t feel any qualms in telling you all about it and how you could sharpen up your act. Like the bloke in the filthy sheepskin jacket who told Dean “You’re not bad – not great – but not bad.” Oh and did he mention that last weekend he jammed with the drummer from Powderfinger? Not for the first time I’m grateful for Dean’s quite calm. He just smiled and nodded – his face open, his body language carefully benign. Later we nearly choke with laughter at the unadulterated prick-ness of the guy. Dean dubs him “the arsehole in sheep’s clothing”.

Later, in a break between sets K9 asks me  if I know any Charlie Pride. I sing him a few bars of “Oh the Snakes Crawl at Night” – I was raised on that and Perry Como.
He looks me up and down and grunts and says the last time I played “You told me to go fuck myself because I was singing along and you said you’re the singer and you’re the one getting paid and I should shut the fuck up.”
“No, K9, I didn’t.”
“Yes you did.”
“No, K9, you know I never said that.”
He adjusts his cap and grins at me. I can’t tell if he believes me or not. It doesn’t matter because he’s already gulping down his drink.

And so it goes. It’s like two countries. The world of the old-timers and the young drunken punters.  Each of them with their own separate eco-system. The young ones flow into each other, drinking to connect, to dive into the arms of their friends, to sway to the music, to get lost in each other’s rhythms, to crash on each other’s shores.

But the regulars aren’t interested in the other puddles around them, they’re just focused on making sure their own patch gets filled. Sure they’ll talk to each other while shooting pool, or putting their foaming pots on the table. Or as another of their crew walks in the door. Then it’s shouts of “Trip!”, “Westie!”, “Herman”!

But most times they’re just as happy to sit and stare at us or talk to thin air. I’ve learnt not to make eye contact when they do this. At first I thought they were talking to me. And they are. It’s just not important to them at all that I hear them or respond. In fact it’s a nuisance if I do. It interrupts their train of thought.

Like the old bloke who came in with the Little Witch. The Little Witch is a woman no taller than four foot and about as round. My Gran would say she’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic. I’d say she was still trying to find a napkin to put in the basket. She came in all smiles with her pointy black plastic hat on – it was Halloween after all – and demanded to know if we played Elvis. When we told her we didn’t she asked if we played the Beatles. Out of luck again. She then sat down at the table in front of us and proceeded to yell at the top of her voice “Elvis! Beatles!” before, after and during every song. Sometimes she’d remember her manners and include an “Excuse Me!” All the while clapping out of time so skillfully it reached something of an art-form. The anti-clap.

But the bloke who was with her came very close to freaking me out. Not at the time. No. I tend to cope very well in the moment. It’s afterwards when I let myself really see what happened that I get clammy. And a bit scared. It was mid song. It always is. He got up from his seat where he’d been doing this weird jiggy-up-down dance that had him looking like a kind of a jack-in-the-box and stood right in front of my music stand. Where he knew I would look. And he kept bobbing up and down – jerking.

Then I saw he was doing this weird thing with his mouth. Bizarre, like he was puckering and pulling and stretching his lips as fast as he could. That was when I heard what he was saying. Over and over and over in this urgent whisper. That was also when my brain slammed tight like a bank vault and I slipped into my lyric “been driving, Detroit leaning”.

But I did hear it. His words seeped back into my brain at the song’s end, when he sat down. Like a dirty stain.


And when I looked at him, as he slumped in the plastic chair, fat fingers wrapped around his glass, I saw a flash of something, like a shark’s fin above grey waves. Cruelty. It was his face that woke me up. It just took me a while of spinning out the memories onto this page to remember that was what it was. His face.

So now I’ve fished him out of my dreaming river perhaps I can sink back into sleep?

But there’s so much I haven’t told you – the fight that erupted like a plume of lava, sweeping locals and tourists into a vortex of violence that spilt out onto the street. The way Dean stepped in between the mess and me, shielding me.  All the while I kept singing “Mr Jones” – “Cut up Maria”. Not for a second did I feel threatened. Just a bit bemused. And touched by Dean’s protectiveness. His innate sense of chivalry.

Or how I sang Pink songs to Westie – a bloke probably no older than 30 who looks 45.
Missing teeth, lank rat hair hidden under a holey beanie. How he apologised for how rough it was and told me quietly that the locals were “a good mob”.  The gentleness of him.

Or Carol who stopped and thanked us for playing and told us to “hang in there”. Or how Allie the barmaid came up and wanted to know what was that song we played that reminded her of her ex? I could tell she was still very much in love with him. She has an eight-year-old little girl called Tanisha who loves to sing but hated having lessons.

Or the woman who I saw in the toilets when I was just putting on the last of my make-up to start playing.
She was quietly sobbing to herself as she smeared palm-fulls of foundation on her red, blotchy and cut face. I wondered if I should ask her if she was okay. Usually I would. I’d think it was what I should do.

But God she was so brittle. And the anger came off her in bright waves. It was hard to even look at her except out of the corner of my eye and even then it was as if she was an octopus that could squirt ink to hide herself. You knew she was there but you couldn’t quite make out her edges.

When I whispered to my husband about it later I said it was as if she was cornered. Injured and cornered. He said that was exactly what she was. I left without speaking to her. I left and walked through the bistro and into the bar and smiled and Dean and took a deep breath and began to sing. And so the night began.

And now this day has begun and I think I can finally put my head on the pillow and sleep. Now the demons have been released into the dawn. It is 4:30am and of course I have a full day tomorrow.

But first I want to share something with you. I’m a clever little squid myself. Surrounding myself with ink so you can’t quite make me out amongst the rank smell of beer, the sway of the drunks, the smashed glass crunched into the carpet, the drone of the flat screen TV.

Because amongst it all I stand with my microphone, Dean beside me with his guitar between us and we play. He strums and pours himself into the music and somehow you forget where the guitar ends and he begins. I sing along feeling like a little boat tossed upon waves of sound. We play. And it all falls away. No, that isn’t quite right. It somehow becomes more. It shifts and swells a little. Song after song threading through the room, soaking into skins, wrapping around hearts. I’ve got used to seeing grown men sit quietly, heads bowed, tears dropping onto clasped hands. Or the bloke who sits up the back and never breaks his gaze with me when I sing “Chasing Cars”. The women are far tougher. But they erupt with joyous anger when they hear the opening bars of  “Tainted Love”.

Take my tears and that’s not nearly all.

Amidst all the mayhem I am strong and I am happy and I’m sitting here smiling softly to myself because I know that feeling. Home. And when I put my mike stand and bags in the back of the van amongst all the speakers and cables and gear I feel like I’m eight years old and I’ve just got my first bike. Every damn time. That’s why I do it. Because of the fun. And because I can.

Now I can say good night.

That Place

I’m there again.
That place between writing and not. Between believing in my words enough to open the laptop, create a new file and begin. I’ve clicked on “discard” a number of times. I’ve perfected the art of discarding blank documents – go me! I read the other day that a writer is someone who finds writing more difficult than other people. I wish I hadn’t read that. And I’m glad I did. You can see where I am. In writerly hell. Or worse, purgatory.

And then – and this is what I adore – life gets in the way. Thank God. My eldest son Zeke comes in and proclaims ‘hugs!’ and next thing the laptop is shoved aside and I’m in the arms of a 12-year-old freshly showered soul that – by some miracle I am not nearly brave enough to stop and figure out -loves me. He’s followed by Atticus who I swear grows every time I look away. And let me tell you about this kid – he puts his head on my chest and it is as if my blood sings. Or stills. Can a child be like a moon pulling a mother’s blood like a tide? How can it not? We fit.

I wasn’t graced with my daughter’s hugs – I’ll go and tuck her in soon – she was in the bath. She hops in after me because then the water is “just right”. Yes, I wonder how long before that becomes “just gross”.
Keziah has spent most of the evening scooting about the house on pink plastic roller skates and asking me, oh, about every nanosecond, “what’re you doing now?” After patiently listening to my replies of “dinner”, “dishes”, “putting a load on”, “calling your father”, “cleaning up”, “getting a hot water bottle for the ducks” (yep!) she got the answer she was looking for. “Nothing. What do you want to do?”

Which is how I ended up watching “Hellcats” on tele – a series about cheerleaders that I really loved but then I’ve had a thing about cheerleading movies ever since “Bring It On”. But my obsessions aside, watching tele with Miss Nine is grand. She told me very sternly that I wasn’t to do what the mum in the show did and embarrass her daughter. Ever.

I told her it was my job and I wouldn’t if she promised to be kind to me when she was all grown up and I came to visit. She considered this and laughed at me. The sound bubbled out of her. It cascade. I remember my mother-in-law saying how she used to hold down my husband when he was little and tickle him until he begged for mercy just so she could hear him laugh. I haven’t done that (yet) but I understand the visceral need of it.

What Keziah was laughing at was the strange thought that there may be a time when she’d “be the boss” – have that kind of power over her mother. Of course I don’t tell her she already has that power now – no-one can ever know that, least of all her. So shhhh! Oh yes, so where was I? Nothing to write?
Saying I had nothing to write about? Ah yes. As you can see, I’m a creative wasteland. Lucky life gets in the way.

Did you meet him?

I was walking with my friend the other morning, tramping through the streets of the surburban enclave in which I live, dodging rain puddles and hoping I’d warm up enough to stop my nose from running and my ears from aching. We walk before the kids go off to school, up when it’s still dark. But with the coming of Spring the light has crept in earlier – a couple of weeks ago we’d watch the sunrise peep over the tops of sleeping houses. My friend says she loves her suburb at this time of day. She says it feels like her very own secret. Her home-town’s hidden face. And she’s right.

We have walked later, when the 4WDs are out and the tennis ladies are busy taking glad wrap off their cream sponges, when the old bloke is walking his pair of greyhounds, when Charlie’s wife and Sandra’s mum are busy taking cuttings from neighbours’ gardens. And it just isn’t the same. I was surprised at how exposed I felt. We’d lost our pre-dawn cloak. We had to share our streets. We didn’t do it again.

I love the conversations we have with people when we’re moving. It’s as if our minds hold hands with our body and skip along together. Or as if the mind, lulled by the rhythm, relaxes enough to trust that the body knows what it is doing, where it is going and it might like to take this moment to untether from the tiresome job of ‘keeping it all together’. And this friend of mine suits me. She has this sparkly mind that leap-frogs and dances over itself. Her thoughts burst and blaze like flares. I never quite know what we’re going to talk about. It could be kids, cakes, politics (we’re on opposite sides of the divide), the weather, the dogs, the husbands, the in-laws, our mates, my work, her work. Or all of these things or none of them.

Like this particular day I mentioned my brother. Which is strange. Because he is dead. Died before I was born. Why did David’s name come up? Ah – I remember now. It was a conversation about grief and pain and loss and the different ways in which people cope. I told my friend about my mother describing my dead big brother’s funeral to me. David was one month off turning six when he died. He was born with a rare, inherited muscular disease, a type of dystrophy that meant he had extremely weak muscles – he lacked the muscle fibres the rest of us had.

My parents were determined he’d walk – this was nearly 50 years ago now. My mum used to tie her tiny son’s legs to his trike and make him ride up and down the yard. “You think I’m hard with you lot? You’ve got no idea how hard I am.” It hurts to remember her saying this because her eyes were filled with tears and she clenched her hands into tight balls until her knuckles were white.

But despite the cycling and the exercises and the Vicks vapor-rub massaged into his chest, David got weaker, not stronger. The day he clicked the top down of one of those ball-point pens was a good day. He went to kinder with kids who were mentally handicapped, who were damaged by Thalidomide. Mum and Dad both said he was as sharp as a tack. Could name all the types of cars on the road. My favourite story is the time he was sitting in the back seat of the car with Mum driving and her best friend Margaret in the passenger seat. He couldn’t get a word in so he threw a banana squarely at Margaret’s head. This is the same woman who would resuscitate him more than once as his little chest gave up on the effort of taking his next breath.

David had a number of operations. He had to have one to cut the tendons in his legs and another to remove some of his teeth. Because he couldn’t chew very well they had rotted. My mum was 21 when she had him and she’d turn him every 20 minutes overnight so that he wouldn’t get bedsores. I’m not sure which operation came first, the tendons or the teeth but it seems they were too close together for his five-year-old body to handle.

They say now, after looking at slide biopsies, that his heart was just too weak to cope with the anaesthetic. The heart, the softly spoken woman in the doctor’s white coat told us, is a muscle and his was just not strong enough. But, she told me and my sister, the chances of the disease being carried on through us was slim. And we should go ahead and have children. Which we did. My three and her one. Mine were unnaturally strong babies – gripping my mother’s hand and lifting their heads as if to tell her ‘See? We’re fine! It’s all fine.”

But I was telling you about his funeral. Mum told me that ‘it was alright because he had a white coffin. Once I saw the white coffin I was okay. I didn’t want a black coffin.’ After his funeral Mum and Dad went on a holiday to Cairns and it was there that I was conceived. Mum was six months pregnant when Margaret threatened to drag her to the doctor by her hair if she didn’t go herself. She did and was told I was on my way. And I duly arrived eleven months after my brother’s death.

Mum and Dad hadn’t planned on being parents again. They were exhausted and had decided to buy a milk bar and make some money. They were both terrified I’d have the same condition as David. I didn’t. And they never for a second made me feel as if I was anything but the most wanted, special, treasured creature to ever fall into their laps.

And I can’t remember a time not knowing I had a big brother who had died. I remember sitting on the floor in our hallway looking at his funeral book which was kept on the third shelf of the linen press, tucked between the embroidered table-cloths. It’s his wallpaper with the hunting dogs I remember staring at from my cot. This stuns Mum because, by her reckoning, I couldn’t have been much more than two. To me David was just a part of our story. I’m the eldest but not the first born.

I remember telling my friend from over the back fence about David and she told her mum who promptly decided to speak to mine about me making up stories. Mum very calmly told her it was true. I’d give anything to have seen that nosey, nasty woman’s face when Mum held her gaze. She’s quiet, my Mum, but she has a steel to her that you can taste like blood in your mouth.

So this is what I told my friend as the day dawned and the air warmed. And as I went to say goodbye she asked me – “did you meet him?” Now this may sound like an odd question after all I’d told her. But I knew exactly what she meant. This is what happens when hearts touch in the half light of a coming day.

In between us hung images of me with David, him laughing with me, watching tele together. Me pushing his wheelchair. Or me as a baby, playing on a rug, him handing me a toy. His toy, a red rattle, one he no longer wanted. I let those pictures float in the air for a little. I thought about that for a minute.

A part of me wondered how much do you tell people? How much do you unpack your heart and your soul-stories? And then, looking at my friend, I knew the words I chose didn’t matter. So I let the answer float off into the air like a red balloon and smiled. No, I repeated, I never met him, he died before I was born.

But I did tell her how my sister-in-law, who is a couple of years younger than me, was adamant she’d met David. She can remember playing with him. She can see him clear as day standing in the back room of our triple-fronted-brick veneer in Donvale. Her Dad went to school with mine. My grandfather taught her grandfather how to drive cabs. Her mum got married in my mum’s wedding dress. We married brothers. But no, she did not meet my brother. She took some convincing. That’s how vivid her Dad’s stories were of him. I envied her that feeling. And I felt a little cruel taking it away from her.

I said goodbye to my friend and walked across the road towards home. No, I never met David Charles Martin.

But I have never not known him or not felt him swimming in my blood. The hand-me-down memories of a skinny little blonde kid with blue eyes the size of saucers and a lop-sided grin have coloured in my edges for years until the place where he dies and I am born blurs. My brother, David. Yes, I know him.

Winter sunshine

I need to tell you about ‘the hug’. I was sitting at the St Andrews’ pub – which for those who don’t know it it quite simply one of my favourite places in the world. On the outskirts of Melbourne’s east, it’s a beautiful little town past Warrandyte that is all rolling green hills and tall stands of ghost gums. The pub is a sprawling timber barn with a big deck and inside it’s all dark timber and a blazing fire. There’s a yellow helmut on the bar with a slot cut in it for donations to the local CFA. There’s a sign saying how much money has been raised for Maddy, a girl whose entire family died in the Black Saturday fires. There’s rows of big golden brown timber tables with bench seats and they’re filled with young mums nursing newborns, dads chasing toddlers and dread-locked hippies nursing pots of beer. A guy in his fifties fills the place with the sound of his voice and his guitar. There’s the smell of hot chips and people are hunched over slabs of parmigiana.
I’d settled at a table by the window after being at the Saturday market with a couple of friends – one of those impromptu “how bout coffee?” texts that turned into lunch, wine and wandering in the Winter sunshine. It was over a glass of semillon that I saw them. Funny how my gaze was pulled. Like I heard a note ring in the air. There they were, outside on the decking, embracing. I’d noticed her earlier, wearing a sheepskin coat dyed the strangest pale green. I’d turned to my friend and asked if she’d wear that colour, saying it would drain every drop of blood out of my face. I couldn’t help think of minty sheep leaping in a paddock. Odd.

But now it wasn’t the shaggy coat or her messy blonde curls falling softly about her pretty forty-something face that I was looking at.
It was the way he was pulling her close to him.
He was taller than her, shaved head and wearing a black leather jacket. He had a strong build, broad shoulders and a gut that was large enough to let you know he didn’t work out but not soft enough to even consider he’d let himself go.

But ah, how he was holding her. As if she was keeping him afloat. Pulling her in so tight that she had to lift her chin up onto his shoulder, balancing on her toes. She didn’t mind. Not at all. Her eyes were tight shut and she was smiling. I couldn’t see his face. I didn’t have to. The way the fingers of one hand spread out across the small of her back, the way he slung his arm across her back. The way he buried his head in her neck. Every part of him said ‘mine’. Through the cold sheet of glass I was sure I felt him sigh. I saw her melt into him. They swayed a little with the moment. I heard a voice in my head say ‘home’.

I leant over to my friend and nudged her, flicking my eyes over to where they stood.
“Affair? Married? New love?”
My friend considered. “Nah, not married. Or if they’re married there’s something going on – a reconciliation?”

That’s when I saw she was holding back tears. And failing. The air seemed to hum around them a little. He let her go. She stepped back, looking at the ground. He did the same. Then they looked at each other and smiled, he patted her arm and she seemed to give herself an internal shake and rested her arm on his shoulder, but just briefly. The moment was over.
He walked inside ahead of her. She followed.
“God, she’s blushing. She’s all aflush.”
My friend smiled and nodded. “Something definitely going on.”
“Yep, that was a moment. That was definitely something. Look at her. She knows it. And look at him. He knows it even more and is trying to keep it together.”
We looked at each other and raised our glasses. “To them”.

Meanderings on things…

I’ve had a strange week – huzo’mine took off skiing Saturday nite and I packed up the kids and went over to my friend’s place for spaghetti bolognaise and to watch the election results with her and another journo mate from ‘back in the day’. On the way there my 9-year-old daughter Keziah asked what happens if it is a ‘draw’ – and I laughed and said that wouldn’t happen. Mind you I also got lost in the backstreets of Northcote, ended up somehow in Ivanhoe and managed not to faint from low blood sugar. So suffice to say I’m not sure I was all neurons firing! I blame this on the damn “flu-oh-look-now-we-have-a-chest-infection-and-two-courses-of-antibiotics” vileness I had picked up.
But we finally arrived, the kids clinging to the notion that one day they’ll be old enough to move out of home away from the crazy lady. I ate. And then I tried to digest the night’s events as they unfolded all too quickly. No clear result. No clear result. I sat there shaking my head trying to look vaguely astute with my mates who knew all the candidates, their policies, their battles and their plans. Then I gave up because they are my mates and they’d know if I was foxing them. I have no game face. But a great thing I’ve found with journos is they don’t mind at all if you ask questions. Even silly ones. Not my journo mates anyway. Just as well because I like to know things and I like it even better if I can be told something simply – preferably over a glass of wine.

So where did it go wrong? Maxine McKew summed it up beautifully – the ALP should have run the campaign on the fact that Australia is doing so well in the midst of that dreaded GFC. Then there’s the whole carbon emissions crap. Sigh. So now it’s down to the wheeling and dealing – when isn’t it?
But that isn’t really what I wanted to talk about at all.
I am still quite mesmerized by the radiolab podcast on Musical Language – you may remember it from the last post of mine. It talks about the music in langage, the sound of sounds. In fact if you listen to this episode you will be able to hear the sound of sound being made. Yep. I kid you not.

It got me thinking about people’s voices. The voices I love. I’m not talking about singing voices – that is a whole other topic for another time. I’m talking about the everyday speaking voices of people around me. I’ve realised over the years I’m very sensitive to the tone of voices. I love Marcus’ voice – that be huz – I can still remember falling asleep on his shoulder as a teenager as he read to me (It was The Hobbit) and feeling so soothed. If I had to choose an instrument to describe his voice it would be a cello. In fact if I think of my closest friends, male and female they all have voices that are low, rich and smooth. They have a warm timbre. I love that word – timbre. It does make me think of polished timber (I married into a family where the Patriarch was a cabinet maker – you burn wood, you build out of timber.)
When I hear the voices of my friends there is that zap of ‘ah, that’s you’. They of course have different ‘grains’ and hues but yes, there is a depth to all of their voice that warms me.

My kids have a different effect on me – their voices dance across my skin, lighter, brighter but somehow the sound of them feels right. It makes things seem right. They talk and their words flow into my blood and make my heart beat.

And then there’s the laughter. The laughter is something else. That bubbles and bursts and erupts and cascades like a waterfall and makes me smile and giggle along with them. Keziah’s laugh often makes me gasp in surprise at just how full of life it is.
It is music. Our music.

Like when I’m soaking in a chat with a good friend. The fantastic banter, the quiet asides, punctuated by plumes of laughter,the rat-a-tat-tat rhythm of someone you love telling you a story that defines their day or THAT moment when it ALL changed. The sighs and the smiles. And there it is. The gaps between talking. Those spaces when you both sit, holding each others hearts and don’t need to say a word. Music. And on that ‘note’ – time to sleep.

Whisperings from the cave

I just had one of those floaty, in-between thought and daydream moments when I knew that magic was afoot – or at least giving the venetians a quiet little shake.
I am presently holed up in my office at uni. Let’s just ponder that for moment. I am sitting in a corner office at Melbourne University, heaters on, door locked, all by myself. There is no washing machine to load, no bench to wipe, no table to tidy, no dinner to plan. And yes, of course Virginia Woolf is whispering in my ear – “I told you so”. It is made all the more delicious because I have a thermos of chicken soup and am riding a pseudoephedrine tinged cloud of cold medication – I’ve entered the woods of the cold but yet to trip-trap across the bridge to full blown flu. (And with my quiver full of chemical and herbal remedy arrows, who knows, I may defeat this lurgy yet).

So I was curled up in the comfy chair – yes, the room is that big! – getting lost in Kevin Brophy’s book on “Patterns of Creativity” when I decided I needed to come up for air. I put Kevin down just as he was trying to explain to my fuggy brain Aristotle’s take on mimesis and it’s implications for understanding poetry (I’m sure I’ve got that wrong but I’ll enjoy correcting myself). I wandered (ooo I realised I had typed ‘wondered’ instead – I kinda like that) over to the computer – one of those indecently large, sleek, lovely-to-behold “apple” things that I adore and my husband loathes and there it was. Exploding into starbursts of crimson, aqua, gold and emerald. Unfurling streamers of colours, waving at me like those fantastic balloon creatures that they have outside of used car yards. I was transfixed. I let it lure me. It saturated my tired irises and sparked something off deep inside my neural pathways. I think I mentioned my love of pretty, shiny things. And look where that has led me on this cold, rainy, Melbourne lunchtime. To you. I told you magic was afoot. And then, and then, and then….. I found this. And it changed everything. And now I’ll share it with you. Here it is, imagine it is in a small, turqoise box (no, not that pale blue Tiffany hue). You lift the lid, it sticks a little because the cardboard is thick and this box wants to be kept safe. And there, nestled on bright yellow tissue paper is this….now click. And enjoy. We can talk about it later.

Slippery when wet…

Well here I am. Virtual swim-suit on and standing on the high-board looking down at the patch of blue that is my open lap-top screen. Big breath and dive – arghhhhhhh! Splash. Sink. Swim? And emerge in the wonderful world of the blog-o-sphere. Kick back, blow some bubbles and look around. Come on in, the water’s fine!

My first blog. Scary. As a writer I tend to guard my words – the written ones are special. I seal them up in password protected files and unlock them when I’m alone, turning them over in my mind, rolling the words off my tongue, letting them take me where they will. And I’ll keep doing that – it’s an integral part of my bower-bird personality, the “look at that glittering thing over there, let’s take it and keep it safe” thing.

My “walking out in the world out loud” self is another thing altogether. I throw words about like confetti – explode them like those party-poppers, wave them about like sparklers. Delicious, gorgous treats to be shared. Here, take some, I’ve got plenty more cooking. No, no, really, you have to try this – you’ll adore it, promise. In other words “come play with me”. Ah ha! I think I’ve found it – yes. It’s the “come play” factor of the blog that I like. It’s what has got me reading blogs like Penni Russon’s beautifully whimsical Eglantine’s Cake. Or the whip-smart Pursuit of Harypness – and the divine Mixed Nuts by Nadia Niaz – and yes, I’m just naming a few because quite frankly it is taking me a while to get the hang of this stuff and if I list any more we’ll be here till Armageddon. Good. So yes, I wanna play. I do. Even if, just like the playground, I may get the cyber equivalent of the odd football to the head (crikey I was a magnet for that as a kid!) or step into a game I’m really not equipped for – remember British Bulldog? (An outrageously violent school yard game where you had to run from one side of the oval to another, dodging thugs whose job it was to take you down in any way they could. It was banned at Donvale Primary because of the broken bones and bloody noses – which made it even better). But hey – I’ve got a sneaking suspicion it may just be fun. And that is something I’m always up for. Except when I want to nap. Then I want you to pat my head, tuck me in and tell me everything will be just fine. Napping is its own kind of fun. So I am now going to do the terrifying thing and hit “publish post”. And then I’m away. Let the ride begin.

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