Monthly Archives: August 2007

A broken shell



A couple of years ago, a friend and I spent five days camping on these isolated cliffs about a thousand kilometres from where we live. We spent the time fishing and swimming and sitting in this big cave on the beach.  Each sunset we’d drink beers in our cave.  Then I’d cook tea on the gas stove, we’d eat and finish the day with wine.  One night a small kangaroo came into the campsite and we fed it lettuce from our hands.


Steve and I had been friends for more than 20 years.  We had worked together, lived together for two years and travelled to Europe and Asia.  Now he was getting scared of things, talked too much about doctors and specialists, anxiety attacks.  When we fished he would no longer come to the cliffs with me but prefer the beach even when he knew the chances of catching something were less. 

When I climbed down the short rocky cliff face into the cave, he went down a sandy path and then walked around from the beach.  It was sad to watch because he is not old or unfit.  He’s just become scared of stuff, unnameable, ill defined but real like a toothache.  I made a promise to myself never to get scared like that but I also knew that sometimes you don’t have a choice.  Sometimes life breaks you and there is nothing you can do about it.


On the last day we went out to the end of a rocky point to watch the surfers.  I climbed to the top of the tall scythe of rocky cliff that pointed out to sea. On the way I frightened some kangaroos escaping the mid-morning heat under some low trees.  Then we packed up and headed south again.  We’d promised ourselves to stop at beach we’d spotted on the way in a few days before, just on the off chance that the fishing might be good.  But the water was shallow and the bottom mainly rocks and reef.


The tide was coming in and waves were pushing up under the low cliffs we were standing on.  Broken coral, rocks and shells were being bustled up and back by the surging water.  I walked a few metres then stopped when something dark caught my eyes in the sand below.  A cowrie shell, still intact was sitting shimmering in a momentary lull in the tide’s relentless attack on the cliff. 

I found a point midway down the cliff where I could get enough footing to launch myself safely into the water below.  But the shell had disappeared already.  Under the cliff there was a narrow strip of sand where all the detritus of the reef was being tumbled together, broken and scratched.  I searched for the shell for about five minutes and had nearly given up when I found it resting high and dry under a low ledge.


I held it in my hand.  It was old and its colours had run together like wet paint, blacks and greys and white.  A few dots of the original pattern still clung to the bottom edges.  One side had been scratched of any pattern at all.  That shell was a survivor though.  The air was hot and the sea raced up around my legs filling my shoes with sand.  Except for swimming, I had not bathed for 5 days.  I was brown, my hair stiff with salt.  There was salt too on my lips and in my mouth.  I held the shell.  I looked for Steve but the cliff top was empty.  I stared down at the shell then out to sea again.


The shape of the cowrie in my hand started to become the only sensation.  Then gradually I knew that I was exactly where I was meant to be; this moment, this piece of the earth, this age, this friend, this me. And the shell was sent there to remind me that I was alive.  And there was nothing to be scared of.  I felt happy.


When I climbed back up my friend handed me a pile of shells he had found further along the beach.  I noticed his hand shake slightly. 

“Did you find anything down there?” he asked.


I slipped the shell in my pocket.  There are some things men don’t talk to each other about.  “Nah, nothing, mate.  Just broken stuff.”



Filed under australia, fear, friends, life, loss, Men

Pa on Mars

mars.jpgWe are sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner and my 10-year-old son starts rattling off all this stuff about Mars.  I mean, he really rattled it off; facts figures, theories and the history of exploration.  “Where did you hear all that?” I ask in quiet awe of this seed of my loins, this progeny of my potency. “I learned it at school today,” he replies. Now, I being a father of great perspicacity, immediately recognise THE LEARNING MOMENT!  Yes, here is my opportunity to take that spark of knowledge and build it into an inferno of inquiry, a veritable cognitive conflagration!  In short, I shall lead him into the light.   I rattle off a few offhand facts of my own.  “Did you know that?” I say with only a hint of provocation. “No,” he answers looking up from his mashed potato.  He looks just a bit dismayed like he wishes he had said nothing.  Well, my boy, do never challenge an old warrior. I am on a roll.  “When you finish dinner, “ I announce gazing benevolently around the table, “ we will get on the Internet and find the NASA site.  From there we will find facts and photographs to awe and amaze.  We will Google until you have more information than you can poke a stick at. ”  I pause in the pregnant silence. “Well,” I beam, “what do you say to that?” My son loves me.  He is a gentle boy and wise.  He looks up at me with eyes that know no guile. He says gently and with great patience, “Dad, I said I learned it; I didn’t say I enjoyed it.” 


Filed under education, humour, school


japanese-food.jpgThere is so much I could tell you but I will only tell you the end. Or, as Mr Greene might say, “The end of the affair.”  So, to begin (or to finish?): 

It is Melbourne and winter.  Rain clouds bustle importantly across a grave skyline.  I am dressed in a suit for some conference or other although it is just a pretext to be with this girl beside me.  She is buried in a long woollen coat; she looks at the pavement in front of us as we walk; looks at me sideways and smiles.  She is taking me to lunch. 

And sure enough, down a small lane, so appropriately hidden, so aptly furtive is a small Japanese restaurant.  And it is a strange thing but as we enter I know this affair is over as sure as I know I will get on that plane tomorrow and not return. 

O, you say, how can this be that the smell of Japanese food can kill love?  Who is this schmuck who will sunder affection on the grounds of too much sushi? 

So shoot me!  I didn’t invent the world.  I’m sorry that its great moments hinge on its great littleness.  I – who eat anything from anywhere and in situ and, yes, including in Japan, that straight jacketed incestuous land of sly grog and child porn – I lost love before the Miso soup. I’m sorry but this is just not the food of illicit love; it is the food of people with no cholesterol and gym shoes.  It is not for those feasting at the table of forbidden desire.  This thing between the girl and I is an affair, not Pilates. 

But there grows in that restaurant this emptiness so big that all the sashimi in Tokyo could not fill it.  Later, in my hotel, we try to make love like we did before but it ends in tears.  I am such a whore, always capable of sex but I cannot kiss whom I do not love.     

And, you are thinking, she sensed this and rushed crying away.  No, she wept for her husband who was at home cooking her dinner.  See how beautiful she was?  For this I should have loved her again, for this I should have risen above the teriyaki.  But I lay there while she showered and I was hungry only my old solitude. 

The next day I get home and she texts to say she loves me.  O how quickly we love what we can no longer have.  Months ago I said to her, “I think I love you.”  She looked at the wall. “Love is such a big word,” was all she said.   

Standing in the arrivals terminal I read her text message over and over.  I realise that there is a whole country between us.  Who can say where love goes? 

Well, time now for us to leave that man standing in the airport looking at his mobile phone; time for us to leave that girl in Melbourne waiting almost sick for his reply.   And let’s all be very careful about what we eat.


Filed under affairs, australia, cheating, Food, life, Love, Marriage, sex

Geography and the Spectre of Richard Venner


So, it goes like this: I come home from school.  I am fifteen.  My father says, How did you go in geography today? And my mother looks up from her dinner and waits.  O father, do you think the world will be more or less beautiful if I can learn to name its parts?  Mother, do you really think I can fail?  You are educated, he brings in an income; I am not fat or ugly.  Read the research, dearest mater and pater!  I come from a winning demography and, anyway, one day they will invent Google and GPS.  I spit on your Geography and scorn it through a glass darkly. 

Well, asks my mother.  How did you go in the test today? 

And I can feel the spectre of Richard Venner hovering above the dinner table.  Good, pure, studious Richard Venner.  Ten years of listening to my parents’ ode to Saint Richard.   

And it goes like this: Richard doesn’t mind wearing his hair short; it wouldn’t hurt for you to comb yours occasionally.  Why can’t you wear a school uniform; Richard is head boy and it’s good enough for him?  Richard’s mother says he is studying half the weekend so that he can go out every Saturday night with Janine.   

Now, fuck it, mother;  stop right there.  Don’t even mention her fucking name, Dad.  I have loved that girl from O such a distance since the time she sat in front of me in Year 8.  My God, thank you for that pale strong skin and the long dark hair and the little silver bracelet that slid silently up and down her arm as she wrote and paused and slowly touched her ear.  But she was untouchable, of course.   

Except to Richard Venner.  Polite and groomed Saint Richard, the only boy in our school with the self-confidence to touch while the rest of us wallowed in our unworthiness.  But let me tell you, Ma, he did not touch her.  Not really.  I know this because as he grew older he told us every minute detail about the sex he had with every girl with whom he had it.  And he never once mentioned Janine Bannister.  Why so shocked, Pa? Did you really think good schoolboys became good men?

 But let me tell you, Mother and Father, one day, one day years from now she will take my hand in the darkness (like I’d dreamed for a hundred years!) and ask me to give her a call.  She asked me, O venerable ones, your son to ring her.  One day I will tell you this story; O will I tell you this story! 

But now is now.  I am fifteen and there is a Sahara between this kitchen table and the touch of Janine Bannister’s fingers. And we are all agreed that I am not Richard Venner.  I do not work hard enough; I confuse worrying with studying but it is not the end of the earth.  Never in the field of human endeavour, I tell you, has so much been achieved by one who did so little! 

I have learned the precarious art of doing just enough; one slight miscalculation down and I’m a failure; one slight miscalculation upward, and I am subject to an irresistible flood of high expectations.  Dad! Mum! Do you know how clever I have to be to achieve this mediocrity?  Why must I be compared with the vacuous, easy high achievement of Richard Venner?  He studies, Mama! Success is what you get if you study! What did you expect, Papa? 

Anyway, today I am calm for the reign of Richard Venner is about to end.  Here is the moment I have waited for all day or perhaps for half my life.  I wait like a man with four aces. 

Well, asks my Dad again.  What did you get for the test today? 

65 percent, I say. 

O come on, he starts, you know you can do better than that.  Sixty-five is not good enough. 

And now my moment comes. 

But, I say all wide-eyed and smug, Richard Venner only got fifty five percent. 

I wait O I wait.  I savour their imminent confusion as the truth dawns.  Today, Mother, Mrs Venner is groaning, Why O why Richard, can’t you be like that Oscarandre? 

But I am the fruit of inscrutible loins.  Without a pause, without a blush and with all the conviction of love unbounded, with all the emotion of filial love so cruelly rewarded my Father and Mother sigh at me with shimmering eyes: 

O Oscarandre, we don’t care about Richard Venner; we only care about you…  


Filed under education, humour, life, memory, mother, school, sex, youth