Category Archives: australia

I’m funny, like me

So, like a living cliche of unrequited love, I decide to run away to a distant outback town of miners, dust and gold. I say it is for work so that you won’t know it is because of you. Probably you guess anyway. You tell me I will love it there.  You sound excited but I can only notice that it is the first time you mention me and love in the same sentence. A few nights before I leave – this is summer, the nights are close and there’s the ring of crickets in the air –I drive my car far into the flat, moonlit wheat fields. I watch road trains sweep past me and am desperate for something I cannot name. My heart is swimming for you; I want to run or scream or cry.  Instead, I turn around and drive home.  David Crosby is on the radio and he pours harmonies into my blood.  I am full of the things I cannot touch:  the night, the music and love. I sing along “I just want to hold you; I don’t want to hold you down.” but I know this is not true, that I really feel the opposite. Then I am gone and the summer grows between us and our one night together, a night when I drunkenly kissed your laughing face, everything so brilliant and you out of focus so clearly.  Months later you write me a letter to say you have met someone. You write, “He reminds me of you” and you do it without irony or cruelty, just the heedlessness of early love. You are right about one thing though: I do love that mining town and I marry this beautiful teacher there.  I hear that you marry a policeman with a sense of humour. Now the teacher and the cop are gone and the years have swept us together again on this strange promontory.  You send me an email out of the blue and when I reply you write, “I’d forgotten your dry sense of humour.” Oh you and your funny men, I think. But I can’t be bitter, not really. Instead I write you a story that I know will make you laugh.  Then I press ENTER.  I wait.

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By the way

Without any warning, the dentist in my little town got religious indigestion; overnight he shed his tatty cloak of atheism for the snug jacket of God. The speed of the dentist’s transformation was second only to his new found zeal for the conversion of our town’s somewhat generous supply of lost souls. It was not that he had a particularly compelling theology; he did not display a style of argument that subtly blended passion and reason into an irresistible confirmation of the existence of God; nor was it that the dentist was remotely articulate. He lacked even that capacity of that persistent kind of bore to wear away the steely armour of our adolescent disbelief into at least an appearance of acquiescence.  Yet, for all this, our dentist was effective in ways that no preacher had ever been.  Lowering us back into his chair, he would murmur, “Open wide.” Then, as almost an afterthought, he would add, like John the Baptist with a drill, “Oh, by the way, have you been saved?”

Eventually they took our dentist away.  He had started bursting into the pub and spoiling our fathers’ nights with loud admonishments on their evil ways, something they could abide in the church or the bedroom but not the bar.  It was a shame though; everyone agreed that once you said you were saved, that dentist had the touch of an angel.

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Want

When I was still just a boy, I learned that to want is a weakness and to want too much is to give power to others.  Now I know that this is the history of the world but back then it was just another hot Saturday afternoon as I pushed my bike across the bed of a sandy creek and then rode up the dirt road towards Marinko’s house.  I passed the field where Marinko told us he had killed the kittens.  He had been about to dash their heads against a wall, as he’d done previously, when he decided instead to put the sightless, newborn cats in a hessian bag. Then he left the bag in the  middle of an empty tomato field to bake in the summer sun.  Each hour he would come back and make bets on which kitten would survive the longest. He was cruel, that boy, the cruellest boy in our town.

And, one day, in the fruit-packing shed at Marinko’s, I came to want the German greatcoat. I had seen it many times before, its black leather covered in stains, the tears where white undercloth showed through. It hung in a corner of the corrugated iron shed with the smell of rotting fruit and fertiliser.  On this particular day, Marinko pointed it out to me. “My Dad got it off a German during the war. It was an officer’s jacket”

“How did he get it?” I asked.

“He was a partisan in Yugoslavia,” Marinko said and then, seeing I was interested, he called to his father, “Hey, Dad, tell us where you got the jacket.”  Mr Vujkovic didn’t look up from the bunch of bananas he was de-handing with a knife.  He said something I didn’t understand and Marinko shrugged.  “He never tells you anything.  It’s true though; he was a partisan.”

Marinko’s father showed us only the top of his greying hair, head down, washing the hands of bananas and laying them in neat rows on the bench in front of him.  His white singlet was covered with the stains of banana plants, his black shorts smudged with mud. He never spoke to us and only pointed towards the house when we found him in the fields and asked about Marinko.

“Can I have a closer look?” I asked.  Marinko climbed onto the fruit-sorting table and unhooked the jacket with two hands.  We were only thirteen and he groaned with the weight. “It’s heavy; real leather.” Marinko handed the jacket to me and I held it clumsily, unable even to hold it upright in front of me.  I longed to put it on even knowing that it would not fit.  Marinko seemed to know what I was thinking.  “It’s too big for you,” he said as he took it back and he wasn’t able to resist smirking at me.  I hated him then, not because he was right, but because I felt something shift between us that made him powerful and me weak. 

Then summer came and the cicadas shrill ringing in the trees added a familiar accompaniment to the trembling landscape of greens and browns. I rode my bike past the shady rows of bananas on the Vukjovic plantation which sat on the edge of the dry river.  It was early afternoon and the fallow fields seemed to sway in the heat. I leaned my bike up against the wall of the fruit-packing shed and squinted into the darkness.  The Vukjovic home, a small rectangle of fibro and tin, adjoined the shed with a single door and I heard this open.

Mr Vukjovic came out, paused for a moment and stared at me.  “Is Marinko home?” I asked.  He said nothing and moved toward bunches of bananas lying on their backs on a rusting trailer. I stepped into the shade and gradually my eyes adjusted to the light.  I asked him again, “Is Marinko here?”  Mr Vukjovic lifted a bunch of bananas onto his shoulders and then onto the bench.  He picked up a short knife stained black with banana juice.  “No,” he said. His voice was thick and guttural. We had had this conversation before and it never went any further.  Each time I would get on my bike and ride away.  But now my eyes briefly sought out the German greatcoat.  Mirenko’s father noticed this and he put down the knife and handed the jacket to me.

I stood there holding it and feeling him watch me.  “Germans,” he said.  “We come out of the hills like this.” He made the sound of a machine gun and waved the imaginary weapon backwards and forwards. Then he laughed and I smiled back still holding the coat uncertainly.  “Did you kill this German,” I asked.

Mr Vukjovic dropped his arms and his smile disappeared.  “He was dead already,” he said and then he added, “But I made sure anyway,” He lifted his head and dashed an upraised thumb across the white stubble of his neck. Then he looked down at me with his arms by his side.

I heard him say something under his breath.  When I didn’t reply he appeared to grow angry. “Do you want the jacket, boy?” I nodded. “Then you take the jacket,” he said abruptly.  He motioned me away with his arm. 

“Can I really?” I asked.

“You take it.  I won’t shoot you.” But he didn’t smile when he said this.

“Thanks,” I said quietly, feeling confused like I sometimes did when my Grandfather made a joke that was like some kind of trap.

I walked towards my bike, the coat dragging on the ground.  Marinko’s father followed me and stood by me as I tried hopelessly to fold the greatcoat, tried to place it on my handlebars knowing that it would not stay there. It fell and I picked it up, refolding it into a clumsy parcel.  Somehow I managed to gain my seat and went a few metres before falling sidewards against the packing shed wall and then the hard earth.

Marinko’s father stood beside me and said nothing as I rubbed a scratch on my leg made by the bike pedal. “You put the coat on,” he said and pulled me to my feet with one arm. I said nothing now as he jerked the army jacket roughly over my arms and shoulders like a cape. The weight made me hunch forward.  Mr Vukjovic picked up my bike, put an arm around my waist and lifted me onto the seat.  “Go,” he said.  “Go.”  But part of the jacket had fallen over the back wheel making the pedals harder to push.  I felt the man’s hand on my shoulder and knew that this was all that kept me balanced.  Then the front wheel twisted in the sand and I fell.  Again Mirenko’s father pulled me to my feet, placed me on the seat and pushed me forward.

When I fell once more, he turned me over roughly on the ground and pulled the greatcoat from my back.  Then he walked into the shed and I could hear him dropping the hands of bananas into the water of the cleaning trough.  I was crying silently, pushing my bike to the harder edge of the dirt track that led away from the house. I felt the sun’s heat on my neck; saw that I was covered in dust and that my tears had made strange patterns on my arms where I’d wiped my eyes.

A few weeks later I waited for an excuse, some small provocation, and then, without warning, I punched Marinko Vukjovic as hard as I could in the face.  Blood spurted from his nose and water sprang to his eyes. He was in pain but he was also hurt; he thought I was his friend.  “Why?” was all he said and then with sudden anger, he screamed at me “Why, you little bastard?” Other boys pulled us apart but I had finished. I walked away, my hands in my pockets to stop them from shaking. I never hit any one again in my life and I learned not to want things.

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In which I discover I have sired a prodigy and then am cruelly disabused of same

Early in parenthood, each of us has the secret and smug suspicion that our child is, in fact, a prodigy. This seemed to be confirmed for me one day as I was snapped out of my driving reverie by my 4 year old daughter’s voice from the backseat of the car.  “Dad, will you tell J. that he doesn’t know everything.”  I turn briefly to her six year old brother and say, as instructed, “J., no one knows everything” and swallow the impulse to add, “With the possible exception of your mother, of course.”

There is silence for a while as the two of them ponder this gem of fatherly wisdom. A truce descends and, then, almost as if to test my sage hypothesis, my daughter asks, “OK, J., if you know everything, who was the first president of the world?” This should be good, I think.  There is hardly a pause and my son, only half way through his first year of school, replies with eminent confidence, “George Washington.” My daughter, perhaps feeling the first limitations of a public kindergarten education asks me, “Is he right, Dad?” And I have to admit that he is mostly right even if the USA is not quite the whole world yet.  And there it is: that uniquely parenthood moment, that sly suggestion that maybe one of our offspring has dipped into the deeper end of the gene pool than we were aware existed.

I put my shoulders back and start to consider which university J. will enrol in. My illusions, however, soon evaporate as the backseat conversation reaches its intellectual zenith.  After a pause, my daughter, feeling that she should take advantage of the now confirmed genius beside her, asks, “J. are there any animals that can fly?” Once again, the answer is unequivocal and instantaneous. “No.”

J.’s sister’s next question is tinged with anxiety, “But what about Father Christmas’s reindeers?”

The air becomes palpable with uncertainty.  Then my son in a single moment relegates himself back to the realm of sandpit mortal.

“Oh, yeah,” he says, “I forgot about them.”

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Don’t talk

As they get nearer, the mountain that emerges from the surrounding bushland reveals itself to be a cluster of tightly grouped stony hills. There is no apparent entrance but he has been here before and pulls off the dirt road that has taken them about two hundred kilometres from the coast.  Soon a rough track shows itself as two faint wheel ruts that appear and disappear up the side of the hills.  Large stones and ditches cause the vehicle to sway and dip as it climbs slowly upwards.

This is their first trip together and she has never been here before.  She doesn’t say anything but he senses her excitement.  The Toyota reaches a gap between two hills and they begin a steep decline through thick bushes and washed out waterways.  The spring sky is clear and the air already warm but in a thickly aromatic way that makes his head swim.  Gradually they emerge into a small valley nestled and hidden between the hills.  A fading bed of green cloaks the valley floor and gum trees grow out of empty creek beds.

“Oh God,” she says.  They park at the foot of a trickling waterfall and he takes her hand and helps her up the ragged red rocks towards the top.  “Look,” he says and there on a rock beside her she can make out a faded Aboriginal etching.  Then she notices that they are all around her. The two of them sit down on a boulder and the valley stretches east and west below them.  She doesn’t say anything and he is glad.  He hates the banality of language and how it pollutes beauty, how inadequate words hang over the indescribable and tarnish it with the prosaic.  He feels her hand on the small of his back.

Later they make their way back to the homestead. “You love all this, don’t you?” she says.

He nods.  “I do, I always have.” Then he adds, “It’s my country.” And she knows he doesn’t mean Australia, only this small part of it where he grew up and where she met him when they were still teenagers.  When the next question comes, he is not even surprised. “Did you used to bring your wife here?” she asks. It has become important to her this knowledge.  It insinuates itself into everything that is important to her and him; into everything that she wants to make her own.  She has a need for a new history with him, not one that is shared. He understands this even though they don’t talk about it.

“No,” he answers. There is a silence and he can feel her longing to know more but also that she is slightly afraid of spoiling this moment. “My wife loved beautiful things,” he says, “but she didn’t have time for beauty.”  He reaches out and touches her hand.  “You’re different.” She clasps his hand and looks out the window and says, “Don’t talk” and he senses emotion coursing through her like a tide that stops her speech.

He remembers that there is a flat ground in some low hills not far away where you can still make out the outline of strange lines of gathered stones.  A black stockman told him once that the Aboriginal people around here used to spend weeks making the intricate patterns and colours and then one day they would just dance all over them. He will take her there tomorrow.  She will understand how beauty is not always for keeping and how you can dance it away and how not holding it makes it grow more beautiful still.

He suddenly wants to tell her that he loves her but then he realises that he loves everything.

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The neck of the sea

I grew up on a great river that flings its tail far back into the grey and green bushland of Australia.  Impotent tributaries spread unevenly from its snaking body like tentacles sucking at the dryness.  It is a wide river and long but for most of the year its sandy bed shimmers dry and hot under the indifferent sky. In summer the hot breath of the eastern deserts blows across the country around the river and stuns it into silence but for the ringing of cicadas. In the hot air, mirages float above the ancient water course and blur the image of gum trees and strange animals moving slowly through the glassy illusion of water.

But the summer also brings rain.  Wild cyclones that swing in from Asia, all noise and anger, grow calm and leaden as they are swallowed slowly into the endlessness of the land. Then they drop their rain and die and the river fills quickly and sends a brown frothing bounty rushing towards the West. And there, where the river opens into a wide and shallow mouth that forks around a scrubby, sandy island, the land spews its brown stain far out into the ocean.

Before my people came here, there was only the sound of the ocean and the birds and the wind, always the wind.  Sometimes it blew from over the waves for days and nights on end, pushing the cool salty air across the green fringes of the mangroves towards the country’s deep belly.  Sea birds pointed to the West and rode the moving air, hanging steadfast over the tidal plains of shallow water where stingrays and sawfish basked. Each day the tide made timid excursions around the toes of the river and each day retreated again towards the waves.

The Mandi people of the floodplain called this place the neck of the sea.  By the time I was born, the Mandi had long gone and their stories of the river are lost like the voices that told them or fading on red rock walls far from my town. The sickness of white men carried them away by the hundreds and for a long time their bodies would be found floating in the mangroves or lying under the wattles.  The old people simply walked away from their camps to die. They returned to the dust of a home turned strange by the feet of sheep and foxes.

Only the river dreams of the Mandi now.  And one day it will dream of me.

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Sunday afternoon in Nebraska

On a late Sunday afternoon in Lincoln, Nebraska, I emerged from a movie theatre feeling like someone had just put a skewer through my life and slowly barbecued it for three hours. I was alone in this big, flat, corn-fielded state; there was a slight coolness in the air and colour was leeching from the denim fabric of the sky. The movie I’d just seen was American Beauty and I’d spent time in the darkness wincing at the truth about myself and my marriage that I had somehow submerged beneath the surface of work and achievement and dutifulness.

I stood uncertain in the street feeling a long way from home and with the need to do something welling in me like panic. And then it struck me that I didn’t know what to do or even what home was anymore.  Not really.  I could see the kids playing on the floor in front of the television, the furniture, the garden; the comfort of known things spread before me like a gift to which I could always return.  But then there was my wife with her sad eyes and observations stained with disappointment, her angry accumulation of lists and things and places for everything.   I remembered that before I came here I would escape from her and plan the study tour of America in fine detail so I could fee l some control over my life, so I could apply order to growing uncertainty of where I fit.

Now I was where I had planned to be and the only place that was left to go was home.  There were to be no more easy decisions about airline schedules or early morning pickups; no more hotel beds turned back at night or the respectful handshake of strangers. I was in the movie, I was returning to a place where there was no time to watch the miracle of leaves dancing.

Some Nebraskan college students walked ahead of me up the street.  They were laughing about something. Their heads were full of themselves and their cleverness and they had an air of immortality.  They were full of fries and philosophy and Friday nights and they thought that death comes only once.

I looked at my watch and made the now automatic calculation of Australian time. They are all still asleep, I thought, but in a few hours they will wake up.  It comforted me, the thought of my children dreaming.  And then I realised that I had just woken up too but that I could not go to sleep again.

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