Monday, January 17, 2011

2011/7 - Making his point

Eric is a fan of speaking plainly. Always has been. And it gets him into strife. If asked a direct question, he is compelled to respond directly. Not for him the side-step of the considerate. Not for him a retreat into meaningless rhetoric. A spade is a spade to Eric, and is called such.

Eric’s father had been a public-servant, a term Eric always found difficult to swallow, the ubiquitous contradiction in terms. It stood to reason that Eric’s father, Roger, neither served the public, nor spoke plainly. In his over reaction to this, Eric has taken his speaking plainly to an excruciating level.

Plain-speaking and speaking plainly are two totally different creatures. One has a hyphen, for starters. Plain-speaking is begot from Plain English, so embraced by insurance companies, in an endeavour to suck the unwary in even further. Take the definition of flooding: is it riparian; is it inundated; is it storm run-off; or, is it flash. Nowadays most insurance policies are written in Plain-English which, on the surface is able to be understood by the ubiquitous man-in-the-street. However, although the legal jargon has been decreased, the hair-splitting has been increased, at the expense of both meaning and clarity.

The one thing that speaking plainly is, is clear.

Speaking plainly is emotive, it is bare, and it can wound. It delves into the surface of a life, paring back each successive layer in an attempt at brutal honesty. The white lie is anathema to those who are adherents of speaking plainly. A white lie is meant as a tender let-down; less than the whole truth. One can only assume that a white lie is so named to distinguish it from a black lie, which is, thereby, the antithesis of the truth.

Eric could not abide any form of lying, regardless of colour. His speech eschewed all form of adornment. It was plain in the extreme. Take the situation Eric found himself in at the Bar Rosa just before Christmas, during his company’s end-of-year celebration. Eric was introduced to the incoming company accountant, who was hired on merit. Candace was the best candidate for the job, with outstanding qualifications and highly relevant experience.

However, her taste in clothing left a lot to be desired. It did for Eric, who was a fan of the well-dressed and the fashion conscious. Eric preferred an ornateness in clothing that screamed at him in language. Things were going along splendidly for Eric, with his view of reality not diverging from the reality that confronted him, meaning that he did not have to comment upon Candace’s appearance, so sleeping dogs were left lie - until Howard came into the picture. And, as was his want, Howard knew exactly how to skewer Eric.

‘Candace’s outfit is charmingly avant-garde, don’t you agree, Eric?’

And the poor man was hoist. To Eric, Candace’s outfit was neither charming nor avant-garde, and his immediate inclination was to say so. Not for him the get out of gaol card, ‘It suits her very well’. This did not respond to the question, it was a non-sequitur.

Eric spoke plainly.

Friday, January 14, 2011

2011/6 - In a holding pattern

They say as you age you grow down, revert to childhood. That was the case with Stan. He sat on the edge of his wire-based bed and peppered me with questions.

‘What does God look like?’

‘Will it hurt when I die?’

‘Will I know?’

‘Will you be here?’

He took a breather between each question. Not just to listen to the answer, though. Somehow he knew most of his questions nowadays didn’t have answers. He took a breather because that was what he needed, sitting on the side of his bed, the white bath towel dangling on his still wet feet, his breath coming in pants, his chest rattling, eyes a watery grey, gazing onto nothing much.

Stan has lived longer than he can bear. No, that is not quite right. It’s not that he can’t bear to live; it’s rather that he could not be bothered. Not that he wants to die, either. Well, he says he wants to die; wants not to wake up in the morning. But the next minute he asks me to turn off the fan, or he will catch his death of cold. Ageing is a conundrum.

The other day when I visited Stan, the nurse tapped me on the shoulder and quietly, yet gravely, told me that he was no longer eating what was put in front of him. I call her a nurse, but I am no longer certain what a nurse is. Many years ago, when I was young, in the middle of last century to be exact, there was a hierarchy involved in ministering to the sick. On the top was a Matron, in the middle was a Sister, and on the bottom of the heap was a Nurse. Now everyone seems to be a nurse, some are Registered Nurses, others are Enrolled Nurses and others are just Nurses’ Aides. I miss that diversity in name - a lot of the ‘romance’ has gone. So, Stan is no longer eating.

I tackle him about this. He is surprised, did not realise. He obviously did not do it on purpose. Well, not with the purpose of dying. I explain to him that God will only ‘take’ him when God is well and truly ready, so not eating will only mean a prolonged agony. He listens, but I know his brain is not engaged. It seems to spend a lot of time in neutral. That would send me bananas, but it does not seem to affect Stan.

There are days when I sit on the edge of his bed, and he tells me that he does not feel well. He reckons he is running a temperature. He wants me to tell a nurse. I don’t ask him what type of nurse. But I do suggest that we go for a walk in the garden. He no longer walks much. He says he does, but I am not convinced. Every time I arrive he is asleep on his bed. He worries about going outside. Should he take a jumper? He would not want to catch a chill. I don’t think this is humour.

I fold his jumper over my arm, and we take the lift down to the garden. We sit on the bench and name all the trees. We watch the birds fly over and name them. We sing ‘Pack up your Troubles’ and he tries to recite ‘The Man from Snowy River’. He thinks that if he can still say this, then he is definitely not losing his marbles. He starts to shiver and we take the lift back up to the third floor.

He doesn’t think he is running a temperature any more. I tell the nurse, the enrolled nurse.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

2011/5 - Following the man in black

Henley is a pretty tough name to give a child, especially if that child is female. Parents are just asking for retribution bestowing a name like Henley, or any outlandish name, on their offspring. It is purely self-love that drives them to it. It is as though a child is a possession, like a car you might call Rita because it is a henna colour. Remember the song penned by Johnny Cash, ‘A boy named Sue’, and how riled that boy would get? There was a boy in Texas somewhere called ‘Marion’ and he changed his name to John. John Wayne. And who can blame him.

I knew Henley as we were growing up, she lived on one side of the railway line and I lived on the other. We walked to school together. We weren’t sweethearts or anything, although our mothers were keen on that idea. We would just walk along with our satchels on our back, scuffing our shoes to ensure the polish was off before we hit the playground. Fitting in with the crowd was important to each of us then. It was only that we aged, that we realised our future was outside the crowd.

As we walked we collected things. Like I recall one time, we collected as many different types of grass seeds as we could between Quinlan Street and the corner into Ogilvie. Henley won that one, but she got into all sorts of strife from her mother who did not realise her pockets were full of paspalum heads, and just threw her uniform straight into the washing machine. Henley had this weird sort of smirk on her face as she told me; a mix of the beatific and the devilish. My mother thought that butter wouldn’t melt in Henley’s mouth, which is a pretty mystifying thought to think.

Henley always had trouble feeling comfortable in her skin. I guess that is understandable with a name like Henley Wardrope. At the end of each summer, as we went back to school, she would come out in the most disgusting of rashes. I guess they got pretty bad in places I could not see, even if I would really have given my eye teeth to see them. The rash was worse in crevices; crevices that were damp and dark. Often times they were so bad that the rashes on the backs of her knees would weep blood. But after a month or so of school, when the teasing would ease up, mainly because Henley refused to respond, the rashes would ease down. Only to reappear for a while after the next set of school holidays.

I lost track of Henley in the final year of high school, and then later when I went off to the city to study aeronautical engineering. She finished her final year and then simply up and shot through. I gather from my mother, that her mother had no idea of her whereabouts. As I said, Henley is a tough name to bestow, and retribution will out. But I always wondered if naming rights was the only wrong that her parents bestowed upon Henley.

Even today, I ponder her past as I trail paspalum heads through my clenched hands, letting the stickiness coat my palms.

Monday, January 10, 2011

2011/4 - Life is a goldfish bowl

Elaine taught herself early to walk with her gaze cast down. Which mostly is different from down cast, just not in reference to Elaine. Elaine didn’t want to catch anyone’s gaze, because she was a sad, introverted sod. She had been this way as long as anyone could remember, even since the start of high school.

She was hung up on her own company, her own little world. Like that was the only bit that she saw in colour, the rest being a murky shade of beige; a form of astigmatism, just of the brain.

It meant, of course, that she rarely encountered the need to compromise, counter ways of approaching contentious situations rarely swimming into view. It was not as though she ventured into the beer-garden of her local for the rough and tumble exchange of views on a Sunday afternoon over summer, while ‘Ray’s Five’ belted out Ellington, or something that resembled Ellington, once in a while. No. Elaine stayed at home, trowling her vegetable garden as her cats chased skinks through the carrot heads gone to seed.

Elaine had always been ‘of the soil’, whereas the rest of us spent our time hanging outside the ‘Happy Daze’ milk bar next door to the 7/11 mini-mart down from the new mall. When I say ‘the rest of us’, I mean the gang of us from the estate who caught the 7:25 to Greenfields High during the ‘70s. Elaine was part of this group, this gang. But she did not actually join in. Looking back, it is hard to say when we realised that she wasn’t with us. Just like it is hard to say she made a conscious decision to take a different path. Suddenly, there she was going down that path, while the rest of us were going down this path.

Something to do with tangents. Our yellow, brick road took us straight to the glittering Emerald City. No passing ‘Go’; no collecting $200. Elaine’s brick road was so overgrown with vines and ivy that it was difficult to disentangle one’s legs. Elaine would have found herself looking at her feet constantly to ensure that she did not fall. Sometimes though, to know where you’re heading, it is useful to watch where you are going. Maybe that is how it was for Elaine.

As we walked up the main drive and into the old auditorium for our High School reunion, I took to thinking about Elaine, and others, who did not live up to the promise that they showed during those high school years. I wondered who calibrated the concept of ‘promise’, and who was I to be doing the measuring. I scanned the ageing faces for features I recognised amidst the wrinkles and the grey, but found my eyes seeking refuge in the name tag pinned to their right breast pocket.

I slunk over to the buffet table, helping myself to lashings of potato salad and bread with real butter, when a firm tap on my shoulder spun me around quick time. I knew who it was instantly, even as my eyes sought reassurance from the tag.

Friday, January 7, 2011

2011/3 - The loneliest night of the year

Robert couldn’t wait to get off the streets and back into his own flat. Pokey it might be, but it was his and he could close the bloody door and keep all this false jollity at bay. The holidays at the end of the year had been the bane of his adult life bringing, as they did, all the false hail-marys out onto the street, wishing him a merry this and a happy that. Robert had long contended that his best company was his own, a view that hardened as he aged. Not that he had tickets on himself, or thought himself better than other folk.

Well, he did think he was smarter. And that was the thought that had long caused trouble for Robert. Certainly until he learned to keep his mouth shut, but even then, his brain churned it over, and the result was laid bare for all to read upon his face.

‘She goes to church on Christmas Eve because singing carols makes her feel good,’ he mutters as he shuffles down the steps into his courtyard, ensuring that he does not trip over the cat as it mewls around his trowsered legs, ‘What must her brain be thinking, or not. Just as well she has a phobia about keeping her body trim.’

Being a nerd, this sets Robert upon a course of endeavouring to determine the corollary of the expression ‘one doesn’t look at the mantelpiece when stoking the fire’. Whilst admitting to its coarseness, Robert allows that the expression served a purpose in his life at one stage. No longer is it their body that he wishes to engage with, just their brain, if they have one. There must be women out there who read the opinion pages and something other than ‘The Womens’ Weekly’, he cogitates as he fumbles the key into the lock.

Otherwise preoccupied, he throws a handful of dried food into the bowl, as he reaches for the bottle of Johnny Walker Black stored on the top shelf of his overflowing book shelf. Out of harm’s way he likes to think. He splashes a goodly quantity into the heavy frosted glass, and eagerly gulps a mouthful, standing stock-still as it warms from the inside.

‘Better than carols in an empty cold church,’ he muses wryly.

He reaches for the crossword on the top of his pile and desultorily worries 18-down for a moment or two: ‘Camels befuddled by liquor (6)’. He pauses as Gould brings Bach’s first prelude to a conclusion yet again, then pencils c-a-m-e-l-s into a random circle on his pad. Pre-occupied, he shuffles over to the oven, checking his apple-turnover contribution for lunch the next day at his sister’s terrace three blocks away, across the escarpment.

He listens to the siren progress along Oxford Street, then ambles back to his crossword and pencils ‘mescal’ into 18-down, swilling another mouthful as he lowers himself into the armchair. He scratches the tabby behind its ears.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

2011/2 - First on the left, after the wooden bridge

‘They must think us city folk starve ourselves’ Ron chuckled, grinding the diff of the low-slung Falcon, as he eased his way out into the traffic heading east from the Bairnsdale Golden Fleece. He reflected that the station had seen better days.

For Ron and Moira, this was always a must-stop as they motored east, taking the coast road from Melbourne to Sydney. It had been this way since that fateful ’82 trip when their radiator blew coming into Sale, and then they lost grip on the gravel shoulder when the offside rear tyre blew, taking the winding bends into Eden, just over the border into New South Wales. Thinking that the hand of God strikes in threes, they had been particularly nervous winding their way along the rest of the Princes Highway into Sydney. That stretch of road had a horror reputation in those days, with much of it single-carriage. It was much improved nowadays, straighter and more passing lanes. Ron was grateful that the Golden Fleece had not changed its breakfast menu much.

It wasn’t a particularly promising location for a petrol station. ‘first on the left, after the wooden bridge’, but word of mouth travelled fast. Not about the quality or price of the petrol, as this was in the days before discounting, when the majors had their cartel firmly in place. What excited the hoi-polloi was the quality and quantity of the breakfast.

In the middle of ’82, just after the flooded Mitchell River had burst its banks and inundated the town for the third time in five years, the Golden Fleece was taken over by a couple who had spent the previous ten years scraping a living grazing Herefords in the lower reaches of the Fairy Dell State Forest under licence. The garage was battered and run down, making the asking price within the reach of the Morris’. Graeme ran the mechanical business, and Jackie was the boss of the cafe. It was the bacon and eggs that brought the crowds in.

She was a generous woman, was Jackie, generous in body and generous in character. She reckoned everyone who passed through her cafe needed a good solid start to their day, and what better way than with a couple of free-range eggs, sunny-side up, and a solid rasher of bacon, all washed down with a steaming hot mug of Lan-choo tea. Way led onto way, and pretty soon the business was doing a roaring trade, both in the kitchen and in the driveway.

Life chugged along in the fast lane for the next fifteen years, until late one Wednesday afternoon, Graeme suffered a massive heart attack flat on his back under the engine of an old ’55 Chevrolet. Nothing could be done for him, and Jackie lost her locus. She only lasted another 8 months in the kitchen before running off with a regular customer who drove interstate trucks and lived in Bright.

Driving through Bairnsdale, both Ron and Moira reminisce about the days of the starving city folk, and pretty soon they are starving and have to stop in at the next cafe en route. Nothing matches up to Jackie’s standard though.

Monday, January 3, 2011

2011 / 1 - Brain food

He never had been one for sitting still, not for sitting in any way shape or form. But this is what stretches out before him, now that the doctors have spoken; now that the tablets have been thrown down from on high.

‘Listen, all yea infidels storming the castle. The sins of your youth will catch up with you.’

If not this, then your genes will not allow you to inherit the earth.

Phil has always been a competitive person. Still is. Maybe this came from being the youngest in the family. It was the type of competitive streak that spurred a person on, rather that tossing him willy-nilly into a slough of despondency; branding him with an inability to achieve.

Not that Phil really achieved. But he thought he did, and who are others to argue. Not to his face, at any rate. Phil did not so much achieve, as talk about achieving. Using figures, and numbers and spread-sheets to give the outward appearance of knowing what he was doing - of being in charge.

It then became a race to find an alternative to digging a veggie garden, of building yet another rock retaining wall, and, replacing the decaying planks in the wooden deck that stretched along the back of the house that he and Marcia had lived in the entirety of their married life. Well, save the three months when they lived in that pokey little one bedroom flat beside the railway line.

Phil had always loved the game of Scrabble. He played it with his siblings, where he generally lost. By the time he could be in a winning position, the others had left the nest. Now, he plays it with his own off-spring; who thrash him, mercilessly. And gloat. The problem with Scrabble is that one needs an opponent. It is a bit sad to play both hands oneself. The race had been on to find a replacement, an alternative.

Each morning, in the local broadsheet, Phil turned to the games and puzzles page. He skimmed the contentious issues on the front page; ignored the commentariat in the sport section; and, turned quickly to the most important section of the paper. Otherwise, Marcia will have purloined the pages already: torn them out, plonking them down on the kitchen bench, to be stained with a coffee ring, and crumbs of pumpkin-seed toast.

Phil’s least favourite puzzle is the matching sketch with ten crucial differences to be circled. Not engaging enough, but good for a morning warm-up. The standard cross-word Phil uses to increase his brain’s agility. His early training with that 1900 illustrated Webster’s Dictionary was invaluable here. What Phil is now branching into is Sudokus and Cryptic Crosswords, especially the cryptic set by ‘DA’ each Friday. These are a definite brain-exercise, with Phil frequently having to wait for the next day for the solution to 7-down, or 12-across.

Phil sits back, contented. Reflecting, that he has found a set of activities to accompany him into that good night.