Interstate – by Paul South
The autopsy occurs between friends in a chain of telephone calls.
“Mick – that’s right, hit by a car in Prahran.”
They imagine him standing on Dandenong Road, glaring into the sun.
“Poor guy. Of course, he wasn’t very happy.”
“You know he was using again.” Those who didn’t know pause to reconsider.
“Well, he certainly has been isolating for a while. I haven’t had a call from him in months.”
They talk about him as if he’s gone interstate.
In the following days the focus changes to who has been told, and exactly how much. His daughters are organising the funeral.
“Daughters? I didn’t know he had daughters,” they say. Everything seems to be up in the air.
The phone calls finally peter out, but the awareness remains. At moments throughout the day, they stop to look at the pen in their hand, or the car in front of them at the lights. Or the train they are on takes a sudden bend and the land drops away, and all that is left is rooftops and a faded sky. They share a deep sigh.
By mid-week the world is returning to normal. The city has no time for death; life’s current pulls everyone along, down corridors, up escalators, through loud and busy streets. There are moments brimming with activity, even joy.
There are moments, too, where an inexpressible shame overtakes them. They feel guilty for enjoying the small moments of their day. But when they stop and unpack these feelings, they know it’s not that they don’t care about Mick, but that his death has made them see life’s vibrancy and colour.
A text is received late in the week. Funeral on Sunday – details to follow. There is no sender’s name attached. The week is now weighted toward Sunday, and everything stumbles forward. Car-pooling is discussed.
“It’s at the Holy Trinity in Cheltenham.”
“Jesus – Cheltenham?”
Some begin organising baby-sitters; others simply can’t afford the time. It should be in St. Kilda: that’s the general opinion.
“I mean, he’s lived here for – what – twenty years?”
“More like thirty,” say a few older heads.
Sunday morning is a dim time. Bodies groan, scratch around – where is my shirt? Finally everything is ready. A lull follows: it’s too late to do anything much, yet too early to leave. All across St. Kilda bodies hunch on couches, wearing cheap microfibre suits and job-interview clothes. Throats reflux; mouths taste of toothpaste. Although their minds are quite muddled, they keep returning to the same kind of thoughts:
What use am I? How does my presence make any of this better? The man was a junkie all his life. He was not a happy man. And now I’m going to meet his daughters.
But when the time finally comes, and they drive down Brighton Road with the sun streaming down and the windows open, it doesn’t really feel so awkward or unpleasant.
In fact, it doesn’t feel like they are attending a funeral at all. They are going somewhere, into the blue, a car-full of old friends going on some long-awaited holiday.
Only in Saint Kilda – by Marika Rothbaum
Saint Kilda was always frayed around the edges, but oh so comforting. Our neighbour, Mrs Smith, felt sorry for us as we ate our dinner of stuffed cabbages instead of a good bit of steak. Like us, she didn’t have much, but used to share whatever she did have, such as Lamingtons on baking days.
The rest of the people in our street were surrogate family, fellow Jews who embraced us. They passed around used clothing and bits of furniture to each new wave of refugees.
Sailing down memory lane on board the Galleon Café in Barkly Street, I recall all the shops in the neighbourhood that have now vanished. They gave me a sense of stability and permanence. The Galleon is furnished with Formica tables and cushioned plastic chairs, as if time stood still and we Baby Boomers are just kids, resting in our mother’s kitchen, dipping into pastel canisters for a biscuit. The places has no-nonsense dishes such as bubble ‘n’ squeak and “drunken sailor’s brekkie”.
Nearby, on the corner of Mitford Street, an elderly watchmaker in a small nook once repaired the watches of fellow Holocaust survivors for next to nothing. The exclusive dress shop that now stands in his place sells the same style of clothes I wore as a teenager. Opposite, the former rock-solid milk bar is now a high end sportswear boutique. I feel the original shops are still in there somewhere, lurking behind the new facades.
St Kilda was brown sourdough bread covered with caraway seeks, vanilla scented European cake shops, Saturday night dances at the Town Hall, icy poles beckoning from the pavilion at the end of the pier, and the artist Mirka Mora’s angels floating overhead.
The helping spirit is still alive and well here. Breakfast at Sacred Heart Mission in Grey Street is served by ladies your nanna’s age, wearing red baseball caps. They dish out porridge and ask how you are doing.
Luna, the rag doll cat, drops in regularly. There is something supernatural about her. She targets the saddest, loneliest-looking person and sidles up to him, calling out in her scratchy voice. The man, morose and rejecting, turns away, but Luna repeatedly extends one of her paws and places it on his knee. She keeps doing his until he stares at her in wonderment. A couple of minutes later, Luna is purring on the man’s lap, and he is wearing an ear-to-ear grin.
A mother walks past the mission’s opportunity shop, holding her small daughter’s hand. She is talking about red tape, mutual obligation and how hard she finds it to get someone to look after her daughter while she goes to job interviews. The girl, Amy, holds an ice cream cone, and is lost in chocolate heaven, ice cream dripping all over her dress. Her mother shrugs.
“Amy has a good head on her shoulders,” she tells her companion. “She’s not going to do it tough like we did. She talks about running her own business and making heaps of money when she grows up.” By now, Amy’s face is a dark chocolate brown. She licks her lips, waves goodbye and give me a pink-washed smile of promise.
I walk past the pub Misery Guts, near Fitzroy Street. The sign outside reads, “28 days since the last bad review on Facebook”, proudly proclaiming this as a quality joint. Centrelink can cut off your income, but it can’t kill your sense of humour.
I’m So Sorry, Shirley Curley – by Andrew Bairn
Some years ago, the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts invited printmakers to submit three pieces of art for consideration in an upcoming exhibition.
The special guest artist was David Hockney. David was to send his art installation piece live from America via fax machine – cutting edge technology in the 1980s.
I submitted my three prints, and happily told anyone and everyone that I was really excited and incredibly nervous at the prospect of my art being accepted or rejected by the Academy.
One morning the phone rang, and I heard what sounded like a false, feeble old-person’s voice claiming to be a “Shirley Curley” from the Academy. This person advised me that my three prints had all been accepted.
My brain went into overdrive: I was immediately suspicious of the name and fake-sounding voice. I genuinely believed this bizarre situation was a set-up perpetrated by a friend of mine, Sue. She would have thought this prank was hilarious, even priceless, at my expense.
I started yelling into the phone that this was not funny, and that getting accepted into the Academy was very important to me. After swearing several times at this person, I hung up, fuming that Sue would do this to me. (Later, of course, Sue denied all knowledge of this alleged phone call.)
At midday the postie arrived. I stared at the envelope emblazoned with the logo of the Academy. Then I ripped it open. The letter inside advised that all three of my art pieces had been accepted. I was beyond words with joy, happiness and a great sense of achievement.
Along with the letter was my invitation, with a plus-one, to attend the opening ceremony of the exhibition. I was advised to please bring the invitation along to the event.
The exhibition opening day arrived. Debbie, my plus one, celebrated by having a few glasses of wine with me. Throughout the late afternoon, several other friends arrive to congratulate and celebrate. Caught up in the festivity, time eluded us. Suddenly realising the hour, we said our goodbyes and swaggered off out into the early evening.
Clearly quite drunk, we arrived at the Academy. Built in the 1930s, it was an imposing, industrial-scale art deco building. The security guards looked very suspicious as we swayed on the doorstep. They asked to see our invitation.
In the fun and chaos of the afternoon’s celebrations, I had carelessly neglected to bring the invitation with me. Now, at the entrance door of the Academy’s grand hall, we stood at an impasse. Security would not allow us to enter.
I stuck my head around the corner and was surprised to see that the first three art prints on display were mine. I advised the security guard of this fact. He replied, “Yeah, right. Of course they’re yours. Look, mister – no invite, no entry.”
Suddenly from nowhere, I found myself asking the security guard if there was a Shirley Curley who represented the Academy. He replied that yes, indeed there was – in fact, she was in clear sight. The security guard proceeded to fetch her.
Now embarrassed, drunk, and with a sinking heart, I watched as an elegant, immaculately dressed 85-year-old lady approached me. Her purple-rinse hair, twinset and pearls oozed old-world glamour and style.
Shirley shook my hand. “Mr Bairn,” she said, “it is an absolute pleasure to meet you. Please do come in and enjoy yourself.” I attempted an apology, but Shirley brushed off the bout of swear words I’d unleashed on her over the phone, blaming it on artistic temperament.
We entered the grand hall in all its splendour, awestruck that I was now officially part of this esteemed establishment – a place of fine art, artists, and plus-ones.
The Key – by Patrick McAnelly
The sea was just visible between the pine trees and the high rise. The blue was so blue, it could just sit still and be a blue block if it so chose.
I recall the smell, and always will. It is salt and surf and fish and seafood, and it is all rolled right up to the very edge of going off …that deep saltwater smell that gets thick in your throat and nose, and clouds your eyes, and makes you sniff and snort to get it into your lungs and stomach through the clearest paths possible.
My balcony was huge. I knew then that I didn’t and never truly would deserve its size, its scope of view, its wonderful use, its absolute privacy.
This huge open space atop the little block of units was mine alone: no entry to others in the building except via my apartment, my heart, my soul, my friendship or my desire.
I loved that place and rue the fall from grace and beauty that caused us to part ways.
That day was pure, though. That day was promise and hope and the future and smiles, and deep, deep breaths of that blue fragrant sea. That smell.
Today I begin another part of my life. That smell, the hopes that blueness evoked, is pure again. In my insignificant arms and puny fists and flailing windmills of belief I hold keys, passwords and gifts to survive and live. To ensure that I do not fall again from grace and beauty.
The Road – by Bob Love
The 1950s bitumen popped and crackled in the savage heat. Mirages swirling, magpies staggering in the brown and dusty grass. No worms today.
I could feel the road burning through the soles of my sandshoes. I was sticking to the soft bits. My eyes widened and I thought, I wonder…
I jogged down to the chook shed and stuck my hand in the flap – sorry girls – Florence kicked up a fuss, but that was Florence. I grabbed an egg and rested in the little bit of shade near the house.
Our dog Bluey got interested and followed me out to the road, sitting on the verge.
I looked through the heat haze both ways: I didn’t want to be squished by a rampaging motorist.
I found a bit of smooth bitumen, put my finger on it and wished I hadn’t. I broke the egg and got off the road quick-smart.
The egg took a long time to cook, but the proteins (I was teaching myself about proteins) were firming up on the bottom and edges. A car came along, missing the egg – just.
That’s enough, I thought. What could I use to get the egg off the road? I had some cigarette cards in my shirt pocket and quickly looked through them. Nah, I didn’t like that player, so he was sacrificed for the cause.
The egg was gooey and runny, not really cooked through. As I carefully slid the card under it, I lost a bit. Bluey jumped onto the road, leaping around like Fred Astaire on steroids. He stuck his nose into the hot egg, and wished he hadn’t. He ran back to the verge, shaking his head and lifting one paw after the other.
Better idea: I chucked the egg and card away and ran past Bluey, yelling Hose! Hose! Bluey knew what I meant and followed me, gingerly lifting his paws, still shaking his head.
I ran the hose for a minute then sprayed Bluey, making a puddle. We both stood in the middle of it, blissful looks on our faces, with the hose cascading cool water over us.
Two ten-year-olds beating the Blacktown summer.
One Sunday Evening at Peanut Farm – by Sue Tan
I took my friend Ray to Peanut Farm in Saint Kilda one Sunday evening.
The sky was blue as we caught the 96 tram to the Luna park stop around 5.30pm.
As usual, a crowd of people was queued up for free food. The food here, is supplied by Father Bob, and it’s really great.
We were halfway down the queue when suddenly a shower poured down, and we were caught in the rain.
There were about 50 people there that day, including the volunteers serving the food. There were a few tables and chairs set up inside a tent, but it was not big enough to accommodate us all. So the early birds sat inside the tent, and we late ones had to wait in the rain for food.
Luckily, after we had been served, the shower stopped. We could eat inside the tent now: most of the crowd had left immediately after eating, because they were afraid the shower would fall again at any moment.
It’s better to stay dry in the cold winter weather, especially for homeless people, because we do not have a proper place to take a hot shower and change our clothes. We spend the night either on the street, in an abandoned building, or in the Salvos Café.
The Avalon clothing van came at 7pm, later than usual, because of the rain. That night nobody came to get the free clothes, except for Ray. He needed an extra jacket. I didn’t get anything, because I have no place to store any extra clothes.
We caught the tram back to the city and I went inside a building at 206 Bourke Street 206 to use the free Wifi. On the way back to Salvos café, where I sleep at night, it started raining again.
The weather changes so fast in Melbourne: one moment sunny, the next moment raining. Sunny, then suddenly raining again.
When you have no home, you can’t ignore the weather.
Visiting a Friend at Surf Beach – by Helen
The night before, I caught the bus from Adelaide to Canberra. I spent the night in Canberra, as the bus to Surf Beach left early the next morning.
I knew she would be waiting for me, had some idea what to expect from the letters and phone calls we’d been exchanging since we met at a “Survival and Beyond” conference.
I arrived tired and cold, but the sun shone and I could see the waves crashing on the shore. It was peaceful there. I planned to stay a week, and looked forward to seeing what was so special about this place.
When I saw her waiting for me I was both relieved and excited. She looked different than I remembered, more relaxed and at peace. She talked about where she was living, the cat that followed her to the beach, the things she had been up to. Her dark brown hair reached below her shoulders, longer than I remembered, and her eyes were dark brown too.
That first day, we had few hours before the community bus came to take us back to her place, so we explored the shoreline. Dolphins frolicked in the waves as we walked along the beach and jetty.
Over that week we went to different places. My friend is a keen fisherwoman, and I was happy to sit and watch her, taking in the beauty of the area. Once, travelling on the community bus with a group of passengers, we took in the sight of a whale cruising happily by in the ocean.
Walking along the beach at low tide one day I trod on a stingray buried in the sand. It shot out from under my foot, leaving me both scared and relieved. My friend laughed, as she knew it was part of the low-tide amusement. Treading on its head meant I wasn’t stung, but I was more careful next time we paddled in the shallows.
I could see why she liked living there, the energy of the place so calming and relaxing. I was sure I would come back again, perhaps next time to live.
Later, I did move to Surf Beach to live, and shared a place with my friend. I thought moving away would be a fresh start, a new beginning. But it didn’t turn out the way I’d planned. My problems followed me there. I did not change. And it ended in tears.
Jackaroo in the Flinders Ranges – by Roderick Waller
There I was in Rundle Street Mall, Adelaide, at Mrs. Mac’s guesthouse. I’d been there for a year, wasting and drinking, when I saw a job ad in the Adelaide Courier. “Wanted: Jackeroo, Balcanoona Station, Northern Flinders ranges.”
With a Diploma in Agricultural Science, I could have done better, but needs must. Well, I got the job, and there I was, anew – a jackeroo in remote South Australia, 300 miles down from Adelaide. I’d never been in a more isolated place.
Like it or not, I now had a new family: Mr. Philips the manager, his wife Anna, their kids David and Julia, Annie the governess, Wick the overseer, Harold the camp cook, handyman Cliff, and his seven brothers, the stockmen.
Pay was $120 a week, with a room in the stockmen’s quarters: six foot square, tin roof, dirty concrete walls. An old wardrobe, a rusty bedstead and lumpy mattress. Five panes of glass, two cracked, a torn fly screen, one dirty lightbulb on a ten-foot ceiling, and dead flies and goanna shit everywhere.
I was the quintessential pommie jackeroo, as green as Adam’s apple.
The brutal starkness of the landscape was awesome, and its beauty only grew over time. In the sweet-smelling salt bush, the rugged range trails, the searing heat, there was only one road: graded dirt, it ran 50 miles north to Arkaroola station, where it ended.
Cliff and his brothers taught me the essentials of working on a sheep station, all 1500 square miles of it. I watched and practiced how they went about their jobs, and by leaps through rings of pain, physical toughening, and often humiliation as the butt of jokes, I gradually learnt to be self-sufficient and competent.
Never in a million years did I expect to become skilled in throwing a 500kg bullock, branding, castrating and dehorning it with my team. I learnt to throw a freshly shorn sheep’s wool on the tables, crutch sheep, de-tail lambs, castrate and ear tag. I could kill, skin, and chop the weekly ration wether; maintain windmills and water troughs, do basic fixes to generators, water pumps and cisterns.
I never thought I’d learn to shoot rabbits, goats and roos, or tan roo skins to trade with RM Williams for a knife or a hat.
I had been riding since I was a boy, and was confident in the saddle, had ridden at hunt and played polo, but that was in sedate Kent, in southeast England.
I never thought I’d learn to muster and drove on horseback in the high ranges and the flat plains down to Lake Frome. The boys showed me how to saddle up, tighten the girth, adjust the stirrups and bridle. How to shoe a horse, to bring the herd in from the night paddock to the yards.
I learned how to get on with the tough men on camp, growing a thicker skin; to light a camp fire with a few twigs of blue bush, boil a billy and throw in a gum leaf.
Life did get easier. I began to smile and laugh at the stockmen’s jokes, to join in as they made fun of each other in a friendly way.
And I never expected to be out there and not drink – but I did it, the first time completely sober in 10 years. I felt well: body, mind and soul.
Only once did I witness something ugly. It was a Sunday morning, a bright blue sky and already a sun shimmering in fierce heat over Lake Frome. Around dawn I heard a commotion and stepped out onto the verandah.
Harold, a big man, was incredibly drunk. He was staggering across the yard, slamming a piece of four-by onto Cliff’s shoulders. Cliff whimpered and stumbled, bent over, walking crablike in his cowboy boots, spurs jangling.
“Get outta here, ya mongrel” Harold screamed. In due course Mr. Phillips, an even bigger man, subdued Harold, then frog-marched both men to the gate. “Get on to the mission, come back when yer sober,” he said. They slunk off to the Catholic mission for the homeless.
Round the dinner table that night we heard about the drama. Harold had drunk his stockpiled quota of beer, 14 cans (that’s two cans a day), then proceeded to drink the metho used to start the generator. He was in the shed when Cliff burst in, howling that Harold had stolen his beer ration. Nobody ever found out if Harold did take Cliff’s beer.
We all had a laugh over it at dinner. Just as well it was a quiet time in the station’s cycle, because we didn’t see Harold or Cliff for a week.
As I put my head down that night I pondered on how booze can destroy a man’s life. It made me feel grateful for my sober year as a jackaroo.
Not long after the Harold incident I got a new job in Papua New Guinea. As I left for the Leigh Creek airport, I thought about how lucky I’d been to live and work in outback Australia.
I waved Mr. Philips goodbye as I boarded the plane for my next destination.
The Cubby (A.K.A…) – by Bob Love
The kitchen smelt of burned dinner I saw the look in my guardian aunt’s eyes and the spittle on her lips out of her mind time rare but epic I dove for my bolthole between the wall and the icebox head in bum up uncomfortable but reasonably safe from the whistling iron cord hoping the cord had detached from the iron itself the cord whispered against my shorts in her frenzy my aunt didn’t seem to know what she was doing striking out against the world not at me the kitchen door opened and bluey our dog bounded in between my aunt and me I tumbled out and made it through the still-open door and ran as I had done before not always from the cord but from being told I was a nuisance and useless I was going to grow up like my mother who was my mother running to the back of the block to my cubby cobbled together from tin and anything I could find my cubby my grand mansion my arthurian castle my pirate ship my other place am I really a nuisance and all those other things perhaps so but I am me and only me good or bad but mostly good I hope.
Countryside to City: Childhood Memories of Borneo – by Sue Tan
Modernisation and urbanisation have changed our natural scene to a great extent.
When I was little, I lived in the countryside. My dad had bought a big piece of land for farming in the northern region of Borneo (an area now known as Sabah).
We reared a lot of chickens, they were all kept in cages. We sold the eggs every day for our livelihood. We had pigs too, and some fruit trees like papaya and coconuts. These were all for sale to earn money for the family to live.
The environment was quiet and peaceful, and we used to go to bed and get up early. My dad used to ride his bike to city once a week to get household goods and foodstuffs.
That was during the early 1960s, when we didn’t have a television set and mobile phone yet. But we had radio to update us with news from around the world, and songs in English and Mandarin too.
Later, we moved to the capital city of Jesselton (now known as Kota Kinabalu), because the farmland was sold for a high price to develop into a new housing estate.
I remember when I first reached the city, I accidentally fell down a staircase, but luckily just had slight bruises.
City life in the mid-60s was still quiet, because the city was still in its early development. There were still some wooden shops with rooftops made of leaves. There were also many wooden houses built on the water, just across the road from where we lived.
As modernisation and urbanisation gradually came to Malaysia, coupled with the advance of new information technology, the place changed. The countryside where I once lived was turned into new housing estates, with new infrastructure, and the city also expanded into a new dimension.
Life still keeps moving in the midst of fast-paced changes, but my childhood homes remain in my memory forever.
An Island Watches Over Me – by Andrew Bairn
The smell of the ocean as I step out of the car… On the horizon stands majestic Kapiti Island. Just before sunset, perfect timing. I smile: I feel like I am coming home.
Opening the front gate I walk up the crushed shell path, each step bringing me closer to the family home of a dear friend.
Warmth as I open the door; I’m greeted first by a wide smile, then a rush of two small children as they clamour to hug me. A glass of red wine awaits me (indeed, several additional wines await me).
Paekakariki: this place is so familiar, welcoming and calm. A small seaside community, located on New Zealand’s west coast, just north of Wellington.
A simple yet vast dinner appears, and we all sit down at the dining table to catch up on events. A spectacular sunset flares across the sky, beautiful yellows, reds and oranges.
The two children refuse to eat broccoli. When it’s re-named “green carrots”, they are suspicious at first, then relent and happily eat this intriguing new vegetable. (Salad, however, is another matter.)
Throughout the night more wine is consumed than is strictly necessary. Conversation flows easily and continues into the wee small hours of the morning.
The evening comes to an end: the children have been asleep for hours, and the parents are envious, knowing too well that they’ll be up again very shortly.
In the spare room, I finally collapse into my bed. I soon drift off, warm and safe. Comforted in knowing that an island watches over me.
Check Mate – by Bob Love
As the new mayor of our GREAT CITY, I am here to announce a BOLD NEW INITIATIVE. An INITIATIVE that WILL MAKE THIS CITY GREAT AGAIN – yes, GREAT AGAIN!
NO MORE, NO MORE will my par– I mean, our elderly and disabled citizens have to make do with cobblestones and tram tracks.
MY monu-MENTAL DECISION is to cement over all the impediments that make my par– er, our infirm citizens too afraid to come to MY GREAT, GREAT CITY.
To make my GREAT and BOLD NEW monu-MENTAL PLAN work, I will have to shut this GREAT and WONDERFUL CITY down for two years. (I will not take questions – I said, I will not take questions).
BOLD NEW INITIATIVES and GREAT PLANS take a GREAT MIND – and I have a GREAT MIND.
To fund MY WONDERFUL, WONDERFUL PLAN I am going to raise the taxes of the middle class, and lower the taxes for corporations and for those of us who – er, I mean, those of you – who are worth $10,000,000 or more.
(No I will not take questions from dissenters, these are faux questions and you are faux reporters working for faux news.)
TRICKLE-DOWN ECONOMICS WILL MAKE THIS CITY GREAT AGAIN! And I don’t mind where they trickle down from. MAKE THIS CITY GREAT AGAIN, NUMBER ONE IN THE WORLD, and ONLY I CAN DO THAT.
If foreign– er, I mean dissenters – come and try to disrupt MY GREAT CITY with their lying disgusting criminal behavior, I WILL BUILD A WALL AROUND MY CITY and I WILL MAKE MY CITY GREAT AGAIN, and WHO WILL PAY FOR THE WALL? THE DISSENTERS WILL.
I will change laws and increase the powers of the paramili – er, the police – to enforce MY power to MAKE THIS CITY GREAT AGAIN, and you will wear your cap with PRIDE.
Only great minds – and I have a mindboggling mind – can make my BOLD NEW INITIATIVE WORK and MAKE MY CITY GREAT AGAIN… (Security! HELPppppp!)
Open mic: Mayor, I don’t think –
Dirty Old Fitzroy – by Andrew Bairn
I lived above a florist on Smith Street for over 15 years. The rent was very reasonable.
It was a small, bright, open studio apartment and always smelt beautiful, due to said florist located below.
When I opened my front door – in fact it was the only door, and bright red – quite often I’d immediately be greeted by a Safeway truck attempting to run me over. In hindsight perhaps they were just trying to park and unload, and not attempting a hit and run.
I would often walk past the latest trendy George Colombaris restaurant, very handily located next door to my apartment. But I never went in, as it was too cool (and expensive) for the likes of me.
Further on down a side street, paved in old bluestone cobbles, I’d pass a few very old, small workers’ cottages. They looked almost too picturesque, unreal, next to all the brand new apartments for rent.
The rubbish bins were always overflowing with debris discarded throughout the day by visitors, tourists and residents alike.
Dirty old Fitzroy: I always felt right at home there.
Diagonally across the road from the grand Fitzroy Town Hall (just next to the police station, for those in the know), I would finally arrive at my destination, the Napier Hotel.
Regrettably for me, visiting the pub was not for fun or recreation. I’d be arriving for my shift at work, washing dishes. Helping to clean up a very small part of dirty old Fitzroy.
The kitchen crew was only the three people, very small for such a busy pub restaurant. The head chef would create delicious meals with the assistance of his second chef, who would finish off the dishes to the required level, then send them out, meal after meal after meal.
An avalanche of dirty pots and pans, dishes and cutlery always greeted me at the sink when I arrived at work. This would be perpetually topped up by the wait staff throughout my nine-hour shift.
At 11pm the head chef would declare to all the staff, and indeed the entire world, “kitchen closed!” Under my breath I’d always murmur “thank Christ”. The kitchen crew would then step up the pace to clean down every surface. It was remarkable how the hardest part of everyone’s shift was right towards the end: one solid hour of cleaning up.
After mopping the kitchen floor, I’d always be the last to join the other staff in the bar. Exhausted, I would savour my emergency knock-off beer, then say my farewells and head home.
Now well after midnight, there were still crowds of people out on the streets of Fitzroy, looking for more fun to be had.
Finally I’d reach my bright red front door. Walking up my stairs I’d be greeted with wafts of jasmine, jonquils and freesias from the florist below.
At this point I’d often realise that I stank of sweat and food, and that my clothes were filthy, covered in all sorts of stains. I’d chuckle to myself, knowing I belonged here: dirty old Andrew, in dirty old Fitzroy.
El Dorado – by Roderick Waller
“Home is where you hang your hat,” my old mate Des would say.
He was right, but I felt uncomfortable. I was tired of being a gypsy, upping goods and chattels on a whim, to a better town, new friends, and a fresh start. Learnt the hard way it’s all delusion, but couldn’t break the habit.
The class of my father shaped my destiny. He was a working-class fitter on the shipbuilding River Tees. Some escaped to a better life: those who were willing at any price to lift the quality of life for their families. My father was one.
We moved, always we were moving, toward this El Dorado my father had fixed in his mind. But none of us could see it. It was only in the packing and unpacking to a new place that we understood father was engaged in the journey once again.
In the 1950s, Northern England, you could still see the mine shafts and huge steel rope wheels on the hills, lowering and raising the miners. Still see the men in cloth caps, lunch tins in one hand, their faces coal black. And mother would have the tin bath of hot water by the fireside for the breadwinner’s return.
Home in our early years was Lancashire, a place of coal mines and cotton mills, though the latter were dying then as India flooded England with its cotton. The irony was that the British expansion of wealth in India resulted in poverty in its own industrial counties.
But our family never suffered such hardship. Wherever we lived, we were close to countryside air. Huncoat Lane was a one-sided row of semidetached, pebble-stoned houses. We looked across at small hills and fields, a tadpole stream and a path to the next village, and a view of the wood, a dark place, filled with mystery and evil.
Me and my brother played cowboys and Indians for hours. In wintertime we had snow sled races down the lane to our neighbor Ed’s farm. Most times we ended up in blackberry bushes. In school holidays I’d be at Ed’s farm stacking haybales, working in the hay field raking hay into stooks, pitchforking sheaves onto the dray on a warm summer’s evening. These things were shaping our lives.
Huncoat was a place for growing and happy times, birthday parties, a secret society for boys in the shed at the bottom of the garden. And the ease to see the changing of the seasons, to be in the breath of life.
Then we moved again, father’s El Dorado beckoning.
But what a new home! The garden of England: the village of Hoo on the Isle of Grain, near the Medway towns of Kent. Within an hour of hop gardens, fields of barley and wheat, apple orchards, Friesian dairy cows. For a budding nature freak, this was heaven.
It was also a place for regrouping, we brothers emerging into teen-hood, two baby sisters starting out. Father on shiftwork, life as vibrant as ever; occasionally the flare of maturation, sullen silences, heated talk, threatened violence (the leather strap hanging on the dining room door). Some crying and domestic fury, troubles with the law, chronic adolescent pain. Mum and dad moving into middle age.
Then El Dorado called again. I went to college to study agricultural science, furthering a passion for country life. My parents went to Africa, taking our two sisters.
The village of Hoo in Kent was the last home we all shared together. After that mum and dad bought a series of houses, but the death knell had been dealt for a family under one roof. Me on the hippie path, Howard starting a fortune in London, Pam in boarding school, Kate in university. Howard married; then suicide. Kate married then divorced, then remarried. Me married, then divorced, remarried then divorced again. Pam never married but firmly independent. Mum and dad growing old.
Dad has passed on. Mum is bedridden in a nursing home. Pam and Kate appear to be settled.
I still chase El Dorado, but the price is high – no sense of “home”, of a building growing alongside you. I’ve lived in Vanuatu, and now Melbourne is my base.
But now, growing old myself, I find the chase less compelling.
As old Des said thirty years ago, “Home is where you hang your hat.”
Perhaps I’ve hung mine up for good now?