Monthly Archives: December 2007

Miss Wheelock began playing O Love Divine and Tender

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“But soon we shall die and all memory (of others) will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning”Thornton Wilder, The Bridge at San Luis Rey 

And there always was love. Even behind the serious faces of the black and white photographs that we call the past.

So.

There was once a beautiful, dark haired lady named Kate Campbell and, in 1910, she came from Scotland to this windswept, lonesome town clinging to the western edge of a great, dry island continent.  She was my great aunt. At the end of the first decade of the 20th Century my little town boasted a population of less than seven hundred people.  That is, if you didn’t count the local Ingaada people, and no one did.

Kate had come half way around the world to be with her sister, Georgina, who was left with a baby girl to raise after the drowning of her husband in 1907. And as one sister fought to survive the loss of love, the other found it.  In July 1911, on the afternoon of a mild winter’s Wednesday, Kate married a young blue-eyed, brown haired shire clerk who was a popular player in the local football team. He had flat feet and a scar on his left hand. His name was Charlie Lee and he loved her.

The little Congregational church was full and above the door the boys from the footy club had created a banner that read “God bless our comrade Charlie Lee and his bride.”  The organist, Miss Wheelock, began playing O Love Divine and Tender as the bride and groom entered the church.  Outside a quiet breeze blew off the Indian Ocean; there was a faint smell of salt and dust and camel dung in the dirt streets.  Kate held onto a piece of white heather, a token of her homeland, and a spray of fresh orange blossom.   She wore a gown of cream crepe de chine.

Miss Wheelock’s sister, Jessie, walked behind as bridesmaid and Kate’s little niece, my grandmother, stood close by with mauve ribbons in her hair.  She was four and her name was Sheila.

Afterwards everyone returned to Georgina’s house and danced to the music of the local band of which Charlie was also a performer.  Later, he presented his wife with a gold bangle.  It was early morning on Thursday before the crowd dispersed to lives now unknown and gone and dust.

But we do know this: that Charlie and Kate moved to the city 600 miles south and in 1914 she died giving birth to stillborn twins.  Where does love go and where is the bridge to love when love is gone?

A few months later, in March 1915 Charlie, by now a stockman, signed up for World War One. War is a good place to be when you have nothing else to lose. Charlie carried Kate’s memory to Alexandria and then to Marseilles and that bloody battle for Ypres in Belgium. Does the loss of love make us fearless or does it make us reckless? It earned Charlie Lee the Military Medal for bravery. Did he care too much or care too little as he drove his truck through a hail of enemy shells over and over again until the road became impassable?

Then he came home.  He never remarried and like so many of his fellow soldiers he lived out a life of silent dignity.  He left no child to remember him. But I will.

When the little girl with the mauve ribbons grew up and married, Charlie was there to give her away.  So perhaps it is true, that the bridge really is love, the only survival and the only meaning.

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Filed under australia, death, fear, life, loss, Love, Marriage, memory, war

It’s kinda soft, uncooked, like in the picture

waitress.jpgwaitress.jpgwaitress.jpgwaitress.jpgWhen I was a kid my mum never even asked me what I wanted in my lunch box.  It didn’t matter, it was pretty much like what my friends had, always included a sandwich and a bit of bruised fruit.  We redundantly traded the lack lustre fare that was so staple that, even now, I can smell the common aroma of a hundred plastic lunchboxes opened in unison each long gone day of my schooling. 

And the situation didn’t change at home where we all ate the same foods.  This almost always included three vegetables and a cheap cut of meat.  The height of   culinary enlightenment was to find that our friends ate sausages on Thursday and Stew on Tuesdays when we had come to believe that these were the sacred offerings of Mondays and Wednesdays.  Salt and bread were de rigueur and the appearance of chicken would signify that it was Christmas or someone’s birthday. We didn’t eat garlic and our parents didn’t drink wine. At the age of twenty someone offered me squid as an entrée and I battled to disguise the fact that I had only ever used it for fish bait. 

All the goods in our pantries came in a fairly standard range of two although I remember that tomato sauce (Rosella), curry powder (Keens) and cornflour (Nurses) were the same brands wherever one went in my little town.  Curry, I hasten to add, was never actually served to us –the powder was almost exclusively for use in curried egg sandwiches. 

Choice was not part of my childhood.  My opinion was not sought, my destiny was ordained and my menu prescribed.   

So I do marvel at times at my own children’s sophisticated level of discrimination in their consumption of everything from peanut butter to footwear.  I also understand those poor lost souls of my generation, usually men, wandering the supermarkets with creased brows and hooked closely to their mobile phones.  Typical conversations go like this: “Helen, it’s me.  I’m in the tuna section…Eh…The tuna section at the shop…near the sardines…Yeah, I’ve got the fibre enriched white bread with Omega 3 already…Large slice?  Yep….Helen, I can’t find tuna in brine, will spring water do?…No? Well, I can’t find John West in anything but spring water…What?  Near the tuna with capers and garlic or the one with Thai lemongrass?  Got it!  It was just next to the tinned tomatoes section….No, the ones with basil from Italy…No, Helen, I got the chopped tomatoes with onion…You never said you wanted the ones with basil…” And I know, I just know, that even with the phone and a direct link to his wife, this guy is going to get it wrong.  He didn’t even confirm what size tin or if it should be salt reduced.  But for now, he has that happy look that people get when they complete a multiple-choice exam and are positive they’ve nailed it. 

So I grew up not expecting much choice and by happy coincidence, not being offered any.  Which is why I love visiting America.   Americans will not understand this because they are simply used to it and expect it.  Choice is everywhere and choice is good.  Here is a conversation I had in Nebraska in 2000 (it closely resembles a similar conversation about a ham sandwich that I had at a restaurant in Schenectady 5 years later). 

“You ready to order, Sir?” asks my waitress, Lisa.

“Yes, please.  I’ll have the Classic Breakfast (listed as 2 eggs and bacon or sausage).” 

I pause. She lifts her pencil. “With sausages,” I add quickly. 

“And how do you want your eggs?”

“Sunny side up, thanks.”I can see that she has noticed my accent and she asks kindly, “Do you know what that means?  It’s kinda soft, uncooked, like in the picture.”

“No, that’s fine.  Sunny side up will be good.”

“OK, do you want grits or hash browns with that?”

“What actually are grits?” I ask.The answer to this is somewhat incomplete with vague allusions to an unhelpful coloured picture on the wall and similes that only add further ambiguity.

“I’ll have hash browns, please.”

“Would you like cheese melted on the hash browns?”

“OK.  That sounds good.”

“And what sort of toast?”

“Sorry?”

“White or wheat?”

“Wheat, please.”

“Only one more question; coffee or tea?”

“I’ll have coffee, please.”

“I’ll be right back, sir.”And she is.  With agreeable coffee, two perfectly cooked eggs and four small sausages leaning against a pile of fried, shredded potato with orange cheese melted through it.“You enjoy,” smiles Lisa. 

And I do, grateful for the smiling face and honest plate before me. All this choice and it’s only breakfast time!   If this meal and the choices it involved had occurred in my childhood it could only have meant one thing – it was my parents wedding anniversary and we were all at the local roadhouse for a special night out.

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Filed under australia, humour, life, memory, school, USA

At the hairdresser

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I arrive at the hairdressers today and find one of the girls on her knees picking up something from the floor.“No need for that when I walk in,” I say grandly.  “A curtsey is more than enough.”“What?” she asks, like maybe I’ve just propositioned her.“There’s no need to get down on your knees when I walk in,” I repeat but with less conviction.“I wasn’t, I was getting some gum off the floor,” she answers brushing her jeans.  Well, Oscar Wilde would not have been deterred, I think.  Persevere and you can make anyone smile.

“Would you like to take a seat?” asks the earnest employee of the “Top ‘n’ Tail” Hairdressing Salon.

“Not today,” I say, “I have enough chairs. What I would really like is to have a haircut.”  She stares at me.  “No, I meant, would you like to sit down so that you can have a haircut.”I decide to sit down for my haircut and resist any temptation to cast forth further pearls into this porcine parlour.  But my resolution is short-lived; there is something so invariably funny about the humourless.“Have I seen you here before?” I ask as she bedecks me in a blue cape.  She moves my head this way and that like there’s just no angle that wll improve it.“I’ve been here almost a year,” she tells me.  Then she adds helpfully, “But I do change my hair a lot and I am not wearing my glasses.”“Oh, are my ears safe?” says I with a mock air of trepidation. “What?” she has a worried expression that does not look good on someone armed with a pair of scissors.“Nothing,” I say.  I have long been an adherent to that part of the Bushido Code that counsels against being a smart arse when in the seat of hairdressers and dentists.Soon she is singing to the radio and for a moment I feel that the whole room will join in the chorus.  It’s like being in a musical except my hairdresser isn’t very musical; unless Tone Deaf Flat is a genre, of course.“So,” I ask, desperate to stop the singing, “how’s your life going?”She dabs some lather on my neck and reaches for the razor.  “My boyfriend is in an induced coma from a motorbike accident.”“Oh, dear,” I say somewhat helplessly.  Suddenly I wish the guy who usually cuts my hair was behind me regaling me bitterly with the latest exploit of his ex-wife, commonly referred to as “that bitch.”  At least he sees me as an ally even if only by an accident of gender. And the ending is always so reassuringly the same. “Anyway, I hope she falls flat on her fucking face.” Always said with such emotion and with such finality that it is all I can do to resist saying “Hear, hear!” My present hairdresser pauses, looking at my reflection in the mirror.  I hope she’s not depressed, I think.  But she scratches away gently at my neck and says thoughtfully, “The doctors say he’ll be fine soon. I sing to him every night but I don’t know if he can hear me.”I am about to say, “Well, that would certainly induce a coma in anyone.” But bite my tongue just in time.  There are just too many weapons at her disposal. I sit in noble silence. When I leave she takes my money and then suddenly and inexplicably smiles. “That was funny what you said when you came in. I just worked out what you meant.”“Great,” I say. “Next time, I’ll ring through a joke an hour before I get here and we can have a good laugh when I arrive.”“What?” she asks.“Nothing,” I answer rubbing my neck. Even Oscar Wilde would have struggled at the Top ‘n’ Tail.

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How boys say goodbye

lovelives.jpgThis thing happened a long time ago; it was just a few minutes in thousands and thousands of minutes and most of them forgotten.  But I will tell you this thing anyway. 

One day, in the middle of another Saturday morning I began whittling away at a piece of soft wood that some bygone flood of the river had deposited in the branches of a white gum tree.  We called it smoke wood because we cut twigs of it into cigarettes, sucking through its porous fibre, choking back coughs and turning gray.   

We were fifteen years old. Camping on the banks of our river was part of our small-town tradition.  We carried knives, made bows, built fires and stole fruit from the plantations. At night we lay in our sleeping bags telling naïve stories of our future and giving timid intimations of love’s first rustlings. 

This day Bandy and I were camping out over night.   

The smoke wood that I was whittling was bent in the middle so I cut it in half and began creating equally spaced rings around its girth.  Then, between each ring I carved a series of patterns: a Maltese Cross, checks, stripes, circles and stars.  Then I shaved one end into a point like an arrowhead.   

I didn’t even notice Ricky walk into the campsite.  Two years younger than us, he’d grown up close to Bandy and me but high school saw us drift apart.  He stayed on the edges of our lives though, like an unwanted memory of the children we had been. 

Ricky threw some leaves on the fire, which sent pale smoke slowly into the breathless summer air.  Bandy was in the branches of a tree carving FUCK into its thick trunk for posterity. 

“Whatcha doing?” asked Ricky. 

“Nothing. Just mucking around with my knife,” I answered.

“That the same one you got for Christmas last year?”  I was surprised that he remembered.  It was a reminder that we had once been close. We held each other’s secrets.

“Yeah,” I said. I looked at him and noticed he was growing up.  His voice had broken too.He pointed to the discarded, bent smoke wood.  “You don’t still smoke that shit, do ya?”

“Nah,” I said, lying.

“I can get real smokes from my sister’s boyfriend these days,” Ricky went on.  “Lets me have as many as I like.” I felt a strange rush of resentment flood through my body.  “Who gives a fuck?” I answered sticking the carved wood into the ground next to me.

“Not you, that’s for sure.”  His remark struck home and it was so quick and pointed that it took me by surprise.  The last sex I’d had was with him; the last he’d had was with some girl at a drunken party when he was still just twelve.

We sat in silence now, the smoke hovering around us.  “What’s that?” Ricky asked, looking at my carving. I stared into the fire. 

“Nothing.  Just some shit I was doing.”

He was silent again and I could feel him looking at the whittling that I had spent over an hour carefully producing.  “It’s pretty good,” he said.

“It’s nothing.” I said.

“You gonna keep it?”

No. I told you, it’s nothing.”

“Then I’ll chuck it in the fire,” he said and out of the corner of my eye I saw his hand dart towards the carving.  Instinctively, I did the same and pulled it sharply, desperately from his grip.  He smirked.  “So you do like it, eh?  So you are proud of it then.”

I felt my face redden. I looked at him but words wouldn’t come.

Ricky stood up.  “See ya, Bandy,” he called up into the tree.  Bandy grunted.

I watched Ricky climb up the bank of tall grass and disappear.  I started whittling again but somehow shame welled up in my throat like vomit. 

As I said, this was all years ago.  Yesterday I bumped into Ricky for the first time since we were boys. We shook hands, the same hands that had once clutched a piece of carved wood in a smoky haze of mutual defiance and anger at the receding face of love. 

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Filed under boys, friends, life, loss, memory, sex, youth

Old Timer

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Thursday seems an odd day to start anything, let alone an adventure but that’s just how things turned out. The motorbikes were running well and bore us quickly through the low hills around our city and into the yellow fields of canola beyond.  We passed through the old mission town, stopping only for a coffee and felt the strange, cool sensation of the air on our beaded foreheads when we lifted our helmets off for the first time since breakfast.   

By afternoon we had left behind even the marginal wheat lands and the bush arrived in all its muted greens and greys.  We started to be wary of animals.  The sun seemed hotter.  There was this faint knot in my stomach occasionally as I saw myself on this red machine pushing impudently across the dry skin of this harsh, indifferent land. But mostly I was excited like a boy. 

In the late afternoon we were 500 kilometres from home and we stopped in an old gold mining town for a drink.  There was no town left, hadn’t been one for about a hundred years, just this rough and ready roadhouse with some lawn out the back that doubled up as a camping area.  The bush stretched out in every direction and in the distance the poppet head of the one remaining mine poked its head silently above the trees. 

The old man who served us could have been there since the boom.  Lines tracked away from the edges of his lips, his eyes were fixed in a squint from a life in the sun.  He was that kind of man the Australian bush used to produce; dry, laconic, every sentence somehow tinged with faint scepticism. 

We sat on the veranda and drank weak tea made unfamiliar by the strange tasting water.  The old man joined us.  He gazed out across the bush.  A truck went by heading north. 

“I sit out here every morning,” he said slowly. 

“That right?” I said. 

“Yep.  About 5.30 I grab a cup of tea and sit here before the mob arrive and watch the sun come up.  Wouldn’t be anywhere else for quids.”  He sweeps his arm in a quick arc that indicates the great nothingness around us. 

My friend and I are quietly respectful; we picture this solitary tradition stretched across time’s landscape like a long wire fence. 

My friend interrupts the silence.  “How long have you been here, mate?” 

The old man’s stare is fixed on the horizon.   He turns to us and says, “What?” 

“How long have you been out here?” my friend asks again.

The ancient face, like the land, shows no expression as he pauses to think. Then he replies, “Oh, since about Sunday, I reckon.”

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Filed under australia, humour, Men, motorbikes