Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Maori and the Music.

I am woken at lunchtime by a text from Mr Wild:

Hey Thea. You in upstairs?

Yes love.

I need to print manuscript paper. Is there a printer there? Hi!

There is. Although how it works is anyone's guess.

Ta. X

A moment later the full force of his personality is stood in the kitchen as I try and figure out why the kettle keeps short circuiting all the electricity. I fix it. I have no idea how, I've only been awake four minutes but the feral need for coffee briefly transforms me in to an electrician.

'Coffee.' I state.

'GREAT!' He booms.

I take him in. He is barefoot, his long white hair wild as usual. The only alteration are his glasses which are now held together with masking tape upon which he's stuck a small plastic red heart, the sort you find in children's sticker packs.

'Nice heart.'

'Pin fell out. Decorated it.'


We take our coffee and go to stare at the printer. It stares back. A Phd and a First Class Degree and we haven't got a fucking clue between us.

'Well it's a wifi printer so I should be able to connect it to my mac without too much trouble,' I say uncertainly.

Mr Wild presses some buttons and shouts; 'What about now?' for twenty minutes or so, and a mere decade later it is up and running. We are ridiculously pleased with ourselves. I have been conscious for less than an hour and have knocked two pieces of electronic equipment in to shape. In normal circumstances I wouldn't even try. I'd just call a friend and scream 'Make it work! Make it work!' until they capitulated and came round. If the day continues like this world domination is on the cards.

We celebrate with a fag and another coffee.

'So what are you up to today Mr Wild?'

'Welllll,' he sighs. 'I'm supposed to be finishing my Phd but a friend has a show on in a few days and the composer is having some personal issues and has had to bow out, so I've been recruited to prepare the music.'

'Is that difficult?'

'Not normally but there's two problems. The first is that it is pop music, which would be okay, but its done in the style of the late 19th century, late romanticism to modernism. Self absorbed bores they were, and their whole thing was that nothing should be predictable. So it jumps from one thing to the next and it's impossible to second guess.'

'And the second problem?'

'The composer only managed to drop off some of the music. And its gobbledegook.'


'Yes, complete gobbledegook. He did provide some additional information. At the bottom of the sheet it said “PTO” and when I did there was a note saying “These are my favourite things” and two pictures. One of a penis, the other of a cat.'

We think about that for a while.

'I'm sorry I missed your show last week. I was stuck up a mountain with Madame M,' I explain.

'Oh that's alright. It was bloody good though.'

'How did the Glass Harmonica sound?'

'Great! Particularly with the Horse head fiddle and the throat singer.'

'The what and the what?'

'Bloody thing kept breaking down though. Y'know a glass harmonica is basically a sewing machine with glasses attached yah?'

'I did not know that.'

'Oh yeah. Peddle, spin, turn.'


'Got a man in. He fixed it. It broke again. He fixed it. That's the thing with instruments back then. Volatile.'

'Horse head fiddle?'

'Mongolians. Obsessed with horses.'


I tell him I've been researching Grants for a writer's retreat at the Banff Institute in Alberta.

'Ah Canada. Going to live with the grizzlies are you?'

He starts giggling and I know why.

'You've watched that documentary haven't you. Grizzly Man.'

He giggles some more. My friend BGR told me about it a couple of years ago. A bloke called Treadwell decides to go and live with some bears. Like a bear whisperer. The documentary is pretty full on and Treadwell believes he has a connection with them and its all about the love, until of course one of the bears gets bored and rips his head off.

'I just keep thinking of Herzog's voiceover saying: “I believe the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” And then sure enough, dead.' He is still giggling.

It reminds me of something else BGR told me that I found fascinating. Apparently a bear cub has facial expressions much like a human child: Fear, Joy, Sadness etc. Until it makes its first kill, after which its face loses expression. I've tried to verify this with online research but all I can find is evidence that cubs have facial expressions and bears mostly use their stance and ears to communicate. I say 'research'. Google, ten minutes.

I went to a BBQ the other day. My first proper Aussie BBQ. Anything that ever had a face was on that BBQ. I ate Goat steak and African Sausage and chatted to strangers. Initially I was talking to a retired couple who have recently returned from a nine month drive through America. The woman was clearly head over heels with the place.

'So we started off in Hawaii and made our way to San Francisco...' she told me about every state they visited and what they ate and how the Deep South is very much the Deep South. It was really interesting and I enjoyed her stories but when she finished and I said;

'Well it sounds like you had a blast!'

She responded with;

'Well we started off in Hawaii and made our way to San Francisco...'

I was able to fill in some of the details myself by the third telling of it; 'No silly, you wore the new hat in Texas. I think you'll find the best steaks you had were in New Orleans.”

I also met Madame M's new flatmate Miss T. She didn't know anyone either and looked as startled as I do when taken under the wing of Madame M.
We end up chatting over chicken wings. She asks about my tattoos and reveals that she has one of her own. She pulls down her lip and inside she has 'Go fuck yourself!' in Italian.

'But you're so pretty and dainty to have that inside your mouth!' I exclaim.

She grins. 'I used to do a bit of modelling but I'm also a tradie.'

'A tradie?'

'I'm an electrician.'

I like her very much. Nothing about her is expected. A bit like late 19th century music but without the self indulgence. She is getting the inside of her upper lip tattooed too. And possibly her tongue.

'Why all the internal inks?' I ask.

'Well in part the modelling. I would like to have had my chin done too but my Dad says I look beautiful regardless.'

'Your Dad think you're beautiful despite not having your chin inked?'

'I'm half Maori.'

I stare at her blankly and she explains their tribal markings;

'One half of your face belongs to your mother, the left, and one side belongs to your father, the right. So the 'Moko' you see on a Maoris face represent their family and tribal history. The chin, the 'Mana' is your self. It represents you.'

'And how do you know what your self looks like in ink?'

'Ah you go to the tribal elders and they look at you and tell you.'

I am about to propose marriage to her when someone passes around a dish of pork lollipops and I'm momentarily distracted.

We then get in to my favourite discussion, after food, which is the importance of storytelling. We talk about oral histories, fairytales, mythology and the importance of sharing your stories openly with others if you want to have half a hope of making a connection with anyone. We pause briefly as I fall upon a mountain of what look like lamb cutlets and before long I have the meat sweats, we have exchanged details and she has offered to tell me anything at all I want to know about her and her life so far on this earth for writing purposes.

'I'll give you a pseudonym,' I offer graciously.

'Just use my name, I don't care. It's Tai. Tai Emery.

I have been spending a lot of my time lying on my back in the last couple of weeks. And not in the fun way. I need constant external motivation or I would do nothing at all and have to be poked with a stick to check I'm still breathing. After nearly three weeks I'm missing Kate and Keir's company and the sound of their music drifting through this house. I'm looking forward to seeing them again in Darwin this weekend.
Kate sent me a message on FB the other day. It was at the end of a longer discussion:

Thea, make sure you don't forget to
  • put music on

  • drink herbal tea
  • go for a walk
  • have little routines

She also gently suggests that I write at least an hour a day and that maybe this time could be spent working on 'That Novel'.
I mentioned to her a while ago that my darling Ex Tom always used to softly but relentlessly kick me in to action and it was the only reason I ever finished the first draft of 'That Novel.' She remembered and has wholeheartedly taken it on board and I love her for it.

I think about the list as I lie on my back on her big red sofa staring at the sky for an hour or two and I wonder if she'd agree that this constitutes a routine.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

She made me.

The church is too big really. The mourners tip toe towards their seats whispering and waving to family and friends not often seen, except in churches. There are plenty of mourners but even full this place feels too large. The ceiling so far away, the stone walls cold.
It is a sad occasion. Margot was well loved and had many friends. But it is not a tragic occasion because Margot lived to be ninety two. A good innings as everyone keeps saying. Who ever came up with that expression to describe a long life? And why has it survived?
The only real sadness in the room is felt for me I think. They believe because I am so very old and so very wrinkled that I do not really hear them or see them as they do me. And so they speak freely as though I'm not there.
'He'll not be far behind poor thing. They never are.'
Bloody hell! Thanks for that.
'Are you alright Dad?' This from my daughter Bella.
'Fine, I'm fine.'
'Do you need anything?'
'Is Dad okay?' This, my son George. He is speaking to Bella.
Bella speaks to me. George speaks about me, for me and regarding me. I'm not sure when that happened.
'Gramps, d'you want a sweet?' My grandson Sam. He's a child trapped in the body of a thirty five year old man. I like him very much.
'What have you got?'
'Sours, wine gums and lemon sherbets.'
'I'll take a sour.'
He hands me the sweet and kisses my temple before wandering off.
Everyone is settling down and a sombre silence fills the echoey room. The odd cough.
The priest takes the pew and starts talking about why we're here. Margot's body lies in a box before us. When I was young I fantasised about this day and I'd cry. The horror of Margot trapped in a box, away from me, unable to return. I don't feel that way now. Margot isn't in that box.
The priest talks and I check my pockets. Glasses. Yes. Eulogy. Yes. Keys. Yes. Handkerchief. Yes.
Before long Bella is squeezing my hand and I lift my head to see what she wants.
'It's time Dad,' she whispers, tears rolling down her lovely cheeks.
'Oh right,' I say. 'That was quick.'
I go to stand and find my legs are as stiff as all blazes. Bloody cold church. George helps me up and I totter toward the front. Christ the body is a bastard. It doesn't reflect the inside at all. This old sack of skin and bone once ran through the streets of our home town, chasing a tipsy Margot. I shouldn't be so unkind to the old shell. Its never said a bad word about me.
This is the last thought I have as I step up to the mike.

'He can barely stand,' George whispers.
'He's fine,' Bella says. She wipes at her tears. 'He wanted to do the eulogy George.'
'I know!' George rubs his hands together nervously. 'I just don't think its appropriate. He hardly seems to be here these days, his mind isn't ri-'
'Shut up George.' Bella's patience is worn thin with her stuffy brother and his sense of propriety.
She knows he's written a back up eulogy just in case Dad loses his thread or forgets where he is.
'Go for it Gramps,' Sam whispers his eyes locked on his grandfather.
Bella smiles at him though he can't see it. She turns her attention to the front and watches as her father locates his glasses and puts them on. Removes the folded paper from his pocket and spreads it in front of him. Then he looks up at the room, his eyes confused. And then he looks a bit longer and slowly a huge grin spreads across his face.
'Oh,' George says.

'Firstly Margot would like me to thank you all for coming.'
'Oh God,' George mutters.

'She's sorry she can't be here herself but she upped and died on us last wednesday.'

Sam laughs in to the stunned silence and pops another sherbet in his mouth.

'Thank you for respecting her wishes. She always hated flowers at funerals. She believed flowers were for the living. Although she did love a good ritual, which is why we're in this bloody freezing church despite her life long atheism. She was contradictory like that.'

He stops speaking and stares at the paper in front of him. Bella can feel George poised to leap at the lectern and places a restraining hand on his arm.
After a moment that to George feels like a century Dad grins once again,

'I'd like to tell you about the day before Margot died. You all know what you know about her; she grew things, had green fingers, spoke Italian, had two children, married me when she was thirty. You know what you know. The day before Margot died was much like the sixty years preceding it. Bloody good fun. We woke around noon. Since my retirement Margot always insisted we stay in bed for as long as humanly possible. She said I'd earned a lie in and she never understood why when people retire they maintain the same routines. So, we woke at noon and the sun was streaming in through the open windows. We always have the windows open in summer. She was lying on her side facing me, already awake, and when I opened my eyes she said “Morning sailor.” She said that every morning. And I said “Hello Gogo.” We lay there in silence for a bit as people who have been in each others constant company for sixty odd years are want to do. And then slowly Margot pulled herself up and clambered out of bed. Its strange to watch someone you've known most of your life slow down. We both have so many pills to take on daily basis. But for ninety two she was doing alright. No zimmer. No stick. Just slow. She went off to make our morning cup of tea like she has done every morning for as long as I can remember. But when she returned she didn't have the tea. Instead she struggled through the door with a bottle of cold champagne and two glasses. I pulled myself up in to a sitting position. What's this? I asked. Is it another bloody anniversary? She smiled at me. “No love. But why not eh. We might be dead tomorrow.” This did make me chuckle. Margot has been using that excuse for as long as I've known her. We might be dead tomorrow. Those five little words have started more adventures than I can begin to recount to you now. The only reason you're here George is because of that sentence.'

George sits there speechless. Bella stifles a laugh.

'We had no intention of having kids. We were quite happy just the two of us and we hated everyone else's children and thought bugger that! Then Margot forgot to take her pill and I said what if you're pregnant and she said “Sod it! We might be dead tomorrow.” And so there you were George. And then Margot said you might grow up lonely or strange without a sibling so we had Bella too. You still grew up strange but I think Bella keeps an eye on you don't you love.'

A ripple of good humoured laughter rolls through the room. Bella looks sideways to see George trying not to smile.

'Margot crawled back in to bed and I went about opening the bottle. I had a moment of thinking how we'd look to a stranger. Two wrinkly old sods in Marks and Spencer's Men's Pyjamas sat up under our yellow duvet opening a bottle of champagne at lunchtime. I thought we must look marvellous. If I hadn't met Margot and convinced her to marry me I'd have been a very different man. Every adventure we had. Every good and bad decision was made by Margot. She made me. I've used that as an excuse quite liberally over the years. When we missed your wedding anniversary party George, remember? We got drunk on cocktails in the garden and never showed up and you were so angry with us. And what did I say to you?'

George coughs, embarrassed by the sudden attention. 'You said “She made me”'

Another ripple of laughter.

'That's right. We went to Morocco, India, Italy, Canada, Greece and Alaska because she made me. We saw the Northern Lights because she made me. And we'd bring you kids back hideous souvenirs knowing you'd hate them but put them out whenever we came around. God that made us laugh. We sold the house and bought a bungalow in the middle of nowhere because she made me. We held boozy extravagant dinner parties way past an age when it was deemed respectable because she made me. We took up painting because she made me. And she made me because we might be dead tomorrow.
We spent the whole day in bed drinking champagne and smoking cigarettes like we used to when we first met. We got drunk. Margot read me a poem from a book on her bedside table which made me cry a bit. I won't recite it here, its none of your business. We ate cheese in bed too and we stayed up later than we have in years. And we talked. We reminisced. We laughed a lot the day before Margot died. And then when I looked out of the window and saw the moon and the stars hanging themselves up for us, Margot curled in to my side and fell asleep. And soon after so did I, my breath matching with hers. I woke first the next morning. Margot didn't wake at all. And here we are, a week later. And yes Clare, you're probably right, I'll not be far behind. And that's good. That's as it should be. The world is a dull place without Gogo, but the last sixty odd years have been gravy. Every single day. I think I'm the luckiest old bugger alive. Now. If someone could help me down off this lectern, my grandson Sam over there has promised to take me to the pub. Because we might be dead tomorrow. '

Monday, 15 July 2013

Mr Beau Tia and the Magic Water.

I get in the car and Madame M deposits a large ginger cat in to my lap.

'What's this?' I ask with my hands up in a position of surrender.
'Mr Beau Tia is coming sailing with us, aren't you Mr Beau Tia! Yezzz you are! Yezzzz you are! He likes sailing.'

Mr Beau Tia looks at me with an unusual blend of resignation and terror.
As Madame M backs out of the driveway he shoves his head in to my armpit and remains there quietly shivering.
I don't mind a cat. As long as its got a bit of personality and doesn't sit there preening and silently judging me. But I am allergic to them and if I touch one and then accidentally touch my face I end up with welts, my eyes seal themselves shut and I am transformed in to John Merrick “I am not an animal, I am a human beinggggg.” I delicately mention this.

'Aw, me too,' Madame M nods. 'Just don't touch your face.'

That's how it is with Madame M. I frequently find myself in situations that give me pause and find that I only have two paths of recourse: Bluntly refuse and ruin everything. Accept that it is happening and broadly assume I won't die. It's working out pretty well. So far.
She has a brief conversation on her mobile;

'I'll pick you up now,' she says and disconnects.

'Who are we picking up?'


I never really know what's going on. I'm usually told what the destination will be (though not always) and she's very bossy about my wearing the appropriate clothing;

'It'll be freezing. Here have this hat, scarf, gloves, boots, raincoat, galoshes, cape, umbrella, survival pack.'

'It won't be freezing. It never is.'

'Put them on.'

But I never know exactly what the plan is and often there are other friends involved. I wonder how she holds down a full time job and functions at this level of organisation until I spend a few days with her and see how she interacts with others. She just invites everyone to join in. Always. No matter what it is she has planned. And most of the time the person being invited will instinctively go to decline and find themselves nodding. When someone does have the audacity to express uncertainty or a very specific reason why they absolutely can't join in Madame M will just think up an immediate solution or incorporate their plans in to hers:

'I'd love to come for a drive in the mountains but I have been vomiting consistently for six hours and I'm in agony.'

'Aw well then the fresh air will do ya good. We'll stop at a chemist on the way.'

'A cigar and whiskey night sounds great but I'm a recovering alcoholic and I have a collapsed lung.'

'Aw well I'm sure they serve coffee and you still have that other lung.'
Only one of those is true.

She'll invite Methuselah and an eight year old to partake in the same activity. She throws people together that otherwise wouldn't think to tread the same piece of carpet. And it more often than not works. The thing that I like about Madame M's particular brand of bossiness is that its not about getting her own way. Its about trying to make every available opportunity as inclusive and as fun as it can possibly be. And on the occasions where I do say no, I only have to say it eight times before she shrugs and laughs and tells you she'll see you tomorrow for that other thing or wednesday for that thing you thought was just a possibility but is actually booked and written in stone.

We pick up Lawrence whom I would describe to you but he doesn't take his cap or sunglasses off for the next eight hours.

When we arrive at Madame M's parents house she calls out to her dad who comes to unlock the gate which is heavy with ripe looking passion fruit. Randall is easy to describe. Think salty sea dog. He has long white wild looking hair in a pony tail and an open friendly smiling face that looks like its been slept in. He greets me with a big tight bear hug and I like him immediately.
We enter through the garden which is full to the brim with growing vegetables, salad, herbs, coffee beans, fruit and five or six fat paranoid chickens who waddle around at great speed looking flustered and terribly busy. I don't know what kind of chickens they are but they look like pom pom balls and their legs are far too far apart making them rock from side to side as they dash about. They are the Liberace of chickens.
Randall and his wife used to own Antique shops and both the inside of the house and the garden are rammed full of interesting things to look at. A moroccan lamp shade hangs next to a glitter ball suspended above a naked male mannequin. I sit and smoke whilst Randall makes coffee, Madame M wanders around with a basket collecting fruit and salad for our lunch later and Mr Beau Tia sits imprisoned in a separate part of the garden for his own and the chickens safety.
Randall comes out with a glass of almost clear liquid.

'Taste this,' he says. 'It's a coffee liquor I've been making from those beans over there. It's very subtle.'

I take a sip and the back of my head melts on to the floor behind me.

'That is not subtle,' I rasp.

'Aw yeah, its overproof. Its what I call an 'End of the day' drink. I mix it with a bit of fresh whipped cream. Lovely. Pour some in your coffee, not all of it mind.'

I swear I go from stone cold sober to emotional in less than a thimbles worth.

He goes on to tell me that he uses a sour mash whiskey recipe and he's cultivated a way of ageing the drink quickly using a freezer. He talks about fractured particles as I blink at the vapour trails forming in front of my eyes.

The car is packed up and we head down to the harbour where Randall's magnificent sailing boat is docked. It is bright red and white and old and I am very excited. He has brought Swordfish steaks for us to BBQ and a couple of trays of oysters for later. I'm disinclined to have the oysters after the whole anaphylactic incident in Nimbin which makes me a bit sad. We also passed a place earlier called 'I got crabs Seafood Cafe'. Everywhere I turn I'm taunted by crustacea.

Five minutes out of the harbour and we see half a dozen tiny sailing boats bobbing around on the water nearby. They look like toys, their individual sails bright paintbox colours. In each boat sit two people in a stunning amount of safety gear.

'That's the rotary club members,' Randall explains. 'They take out the disadvantaged once a week.'

'Hmmm?' I ask staring at a man who is swatting flies in one of the boats.

'Aw most of them don't even know where they are,' he says.

I grit my teeth to stop myself laughing. I'm the sort of arsehole that laughs involuntarily at funerals.

'Think how lovely it must be though. To get out of the prison of a wheelchair for a few hours,' he observes, and the desire to laugh leaves as quickly as it came.

It's lovely to be on the water. We glide along. Lawrence is sat on the edge fishing. Randall is stood behind the big steery thing (sorry) drinking beer. Madame M is curled up on a bench on the deck with Mr Beau Tia in her lap reading a book. I crane around to see the title; The Power Of Now. I want to take it out of her hand and frisbee it overboard. Just look up, my friend, that's where the thing you're searching for lives. Easy for me to say though eh. I'm on the holiday of a lifetime, I don't have to work and I can fill every day with the things I want to do (turns out I really like lying on my back staring at the sky and doing nothing much at all). We'll call it Faux Enlightenment.
Randall shows me how to light the stove using a blend of white spirit and his own concoction which has a skull and cross bones drawn on it and I make a pot of coffee which I drink on deck watching the water and the sky and never getting bored. Randall points out Peel Island which used to be a Leper Colony.

'I don't like going on the island,' he confides. 'Its too sad. And I always think of that old wives tale that leperosy can be caught through the feet.'

We dock on an island somewhere round the corner from Moreton bay and ask to use the public BBQ. Randall buys us scooners of beer and he and Lawrence go about cooking the fish whilst Madame M and I prepare the grandest of salads.
As we eat the most delicious swordfish I have ever tasted I tell Randall about my reaction to the bad Mussels and how my throat still feels swollen and scratchy. He tells me to drink some of his magic water. Madame M rolls her eyes but as he explains she starts chipping in and it seems that this is something they believe in. Randall only drinks rain water. He filters it through, I think glass or porcelain, then leaves it to rest with pieces of silver and gold sat in it. And then he adds lemon from his garden.

'Water is where it all begins,' he says. 'Get control of your water and the rest will follow.'

I call him a wizard and he laughs. I drink the water and my throat is fine within minutes. Maybe because I really like Randall and want to believe him.

We get back on the boat around four pm because Randall wants to collect the crab baskets he dropped in the ocean on our way out and he wants to do it before it gets too dark.

We're all a lot quieter on the way back, tired from the sea air and the good food. I sit on deck and watch the colours change as the sun sets. There's a moment when the sea and the sky are indistinguishable and everything is washed in a pale blue grey. I miss my dad very much. He would have loved this. Maybe because Randall is such a good father, or maybe because he's such an old sea dog but I have the most childish irrational want for him to be back in life, sat here, drinking his rum, his pale blue eyes squinting out to sea, the smell of his cigar wafting around. He would have told me something about the sea that I don't know and I would have remembered it.

Before long it is pitch black and I go below deck and lie on the long cushioned bench which has been heated by the engine. It is the most comfortable thing and I fall asleep on my back and dream that I am lying on a magic carpet staring up at the night sky.
When I wake we are docking and once everything is secured we sit around the little wooden table with its lamp light at one end and I eat cheese from Tasmania and passion fruit from Randall's garden whilst the others gorge on oysters and we all yawn and agree that a thoroughly good time was had by all.
Mr Beau Tia says nothing.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Mussel and The Ark.

It's early saturday morning and Madame M and I are having breakfast with her friend Tim before heading off on the long drive to Nimbim.
Madame M goes to the counter to order. Tim and I have been introduced mere moments before.
'So Tim, do you go down to Nimbin often?'
'No. I don't do much of anything really. I have this recurring nightmare that I'm trapped in a mine shaft and all the lights go out and I go to switch my head lamp on and its not there and I wake up in a blind panic and don't know where I am. I thought about wearing a headlamp to bed for a while but in the end I just put a backlit sign next to my bed that says 'Home.''
'I see. Do you think the weather will hold out?'

We head off in separate cars and for the first hour or so I read to Madame M from a book of David Sedaris essays I found on Kate and Keir's book shelf. One of the essays describes an old house in great detail and prompts Madame M to tell me about the home she lived in when she was growing up.
'We had Possums living in the roof. It's not that unusual. They were right above my bedroom and I'd listen to them scratching about, running up and down. The thing is there was also a snake up there.'
'A python.'
'Aw we didn't mind too much cos Dad said it kept the water rats away.'

I think about 'Boshog' the crocodile I met at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary. He lay in his man made pool utterly still watching us with ancient calculating eyes. Its strange knowing that something is looking at you as a potential meal. Unsettling no matter how much fencing is between you. The guide was explaining how Boshog came to live in the sanctuary after he attacked a farmers bull and ate it. He went on to mention that this kind of croc can be found in Broome. We are going to Broome.

'Excuse me,' I squeak. 'What should you do, y'know, for safety if you were to stumble across a crocodile whilst on a two week drive through the outback that your friends have arranged and you are now having severe second thoughts about?'
'Aw well, stay the fuck away. And don't go within 25 metres of the waters edge. And y'know, just stay the fuck away. Don't give it a reason to eat you and make its reputation worse than it already is.' He is almost accusatory as though I am planning to throw myself at one in order to muddy its name.

The others wander off and Keir and I remain staring uneasily at Boshog who stares back, confident that it is only a matter of time.
'I really don't want to get eaten by a crocodile,' Keir whispers.
'Me either. It would be so embarrassing.'
Its amazing to me that Australia has thrived as much as it has when there are so many things here that want to kill you.

'Anyway,' Madame M continues. 'I used to hear the Python hissing. And every so often it would slither across the floor and there would be the sound of a scuffle and then this awful screaming which seemed to go on forever. It would be squeezing a Possum to death, these terrible screams would go on and on until the Possum eventually died. Sometimes blood would trickle through the ceiling.'

I'm about to call the airport and change my flight when Madame M suddenly swerves off to the left, leaves the motorway, ascends a grassy knoll, bumps across to the other side and joins the adjacent motorway.

'What just happened?' I ask with one hand on the ceiling and the other covering my face.
'Aw, I just nearly missed our exit.' She smiles and turns the music up.

We stop in a small town called Murwillumbah for coffees. I want to remember the name of the place and repeat over and over again “Muriel and William have a Lumbaaaah puncture.” It's a trick my brother taught me and if I've spelt the town correctly then he has succeeded.
We continue on and pass through 'Uke.' A few days previously whilst driving up to the Glasshouse Mountains I noticed a place called 'Terror Creek'. What kind of country names a place Terror anything? The kind of country that is 58 times larger than your own and probably ran out of ideas pretty swiftly. 'Yeah sure its a lovely lake Greg but we already have 123 Lovely Lakes, just call it Certain Death, it'll shit the tourists up. 'Nother beer?'
On tour we passed by a place called Mount Disappointment and Kate twittered about it. Someone responded saying his family had planned a day out there but they couldn't find it.
About an hour outside of Nimbin Madame M pulls over.
'Are we there already?' I ask. 'Its only been three and half hours.' She ignores the sarcasm.
'No, I'm just going to see where he's headed.'
I look around and see a serial killer stood by the side of the road with his thumb out.
'Noooooooo!' I cry but she's already out of the car.
In the UK women do not pick up hitchhikers. Not never. I learn later that they don't over here either, unless you're around Nimbin in which case its perfectly normal and pretty much obligatory. Bloody hippies.
There's a brief discussion and moments later Terry has joined us. Terry was born in France, brought up in Senegal and has lived in Italy, Spain and for the last twenty five years, Australia. Which he believes to be paradise. Terry's parents are both living and have visited twice. Terry is a handy man and speaks four languages and enjoys moroccan spiced food. I know all of this because Madame M holds a forty five minute interrogation of Terry which only lets up when he begs to be let out of the car and can be seen in the wing mirror running back in the direction we've come from leaving a small cloud of dust behind him.
Nothing prepares me for the sheer unadulterated beauty of the rainforest surrounding Nimbin. It is both vast, and high and drips with colour. We drive in silence soaking up the lusciousness until we arrive in Nimbin town centre.

There's a sign. The sign says: WELCOME TO THE AGE OF AQUARIUS!!!
They are not fucking kidding.
When people describe a notable place to you in advance they often over bake it and you're left a little deflated. Its always more touristy than you'd expected. Or less scary. Not Nimbin. Its like time stopped in 1966. We get out of the car and I take three steps before a man with entirely red eyes and Satan on his heels asks me if I'd like some weed or acid. I demur politely.
The central drag is full of shops with handwritten signs. There's Peace and Love graffiti everywhere. Children run up and down the street barefoot and muddy all full of grins and chatter. The smell of weed and patchouli oil is overpowering and I notice at least a dozen people of pensionable age wandering about with long dreads, tattoos, harem pants. An elderly lady is sitting on a bench as we pass. She wouldn't look out of place in the W.I. (C.W.A for you Aussies), she smiles at me:
'Would you like to buy some cookies dear?'
'Oh how lovely, you're selling...oh. No, I'm fine thanks.'
Madame M takes me in to the Nimbin Museum. The entire interior (one tiny room) puts me in mind of an 'A' level Art project. There's half a VW Van with plastic dinosaurs glued to it, a painting of an Aboriginal man looking a bit cross and a CND sticker. Its a testament to the fact that marijuana is a gateway drug and what resides on the other side of that gate is acrylic paint and a glue gun.
As we continue down the street looking for somewhere to eat I casually glance at a rail of hemp tie dyed clothing and am immediately pounced upon by a woman in her late forties.
'Everything's cheap. I make my own jewellery too. I was at a party all night. Four hours sleep. Not drugs. Natural stuff. Its all cheap.'
We run away. We eventually settle upon the Rainbow (of course) Cafe. The menu reads like a stoners manna from heaven munchies list. I am in no mood for anything that spells 'Vege' as 'Vegiiiiiiiiii' and we decide to order the Beany Yummie Guaco Nachos. They are excellent. We sit in the sun watching these beautiful little birds hop from table to table. Madame M tells me they are called Rainbow Lorikeet. They really are every imaginable colour and it is impossible to get a good photograph of one.
As we stroll back to the car I overhear an elderly man saying to some very excitable children:
'Hey, chill out man. Just chill. Peace.' Really. I'm not making it up.
I may sound like I didn't approve of this place or the overwhelming number of completely caned people wandering about with nowhere to be, but actually I found it charming and funny. And very nostalgic.
We hop back in the car and make our way to our hosts house which is in the middle of the rainforest. We take a wrong turning and end up in the middle of a lot of trees, thick grass beneath us. Madame M attempts to turn around and we hit something hard (a tree root as it turns out) and the car is bogged. We try to reverse and end up deeper in mud. We try to push the car then pull the car then merely insist that the car stops pissing around. All to no avail. Madame M decides to chase a Bush Turkey that's been minding its own business whilst I smoke a cigarette and listen to animals killing and raping each other nearby. Night falls. It really does 'fall' in the rainforest. Eventually our host and Tim, from breakfast, wander down the hill with beer and find us. They send us up to the house and arrange to tow the car out before it gets any darker. How can it possibly get any darker I think? It gets darker.
The house was built by our hosts father in the 70's. Its called The Ark and it is like something out of a children's fairytale. It reminds me of a tree house. Vast and tall, full of winding staircases and hidden rooms. All dark wood and hundreds of perspex windows giving a panoramic view of the surrounding beauty. Its almost like camping, the place needs work. But there's light and gas, a flushing toilet (very recent), head lamps should you need to use the toilet and incredibly, wifi!
We are greeted warmly and given drinks and fish pie is cooked and slowly bit by bit neighbours pour through the door, the youngest being a charming eight year old boy, the oldest, a man in his 60's with an impressive beard. Madame M sits chopping rhubarb for her legendary crumble. Junior, a large and jolly south african cracks macadamia nuts that have been brought in from the garden. Chris fetches me some mandarins and lemons from the trees overhanging the veranda to put in the mulled wine I'm making and everyone is chatting and laughing and eating cheese as our wonderful feast takes shape.
The following morning the charming child bounds in and finds me lounging on the decking with a fag and a coffee.
'Hey, d'you wanna come on a bush walk?'
'No. But ask Madame M, I'm sure she'd love to.'
He bounds off.
Two hours later he returns.
'You could NEVER have handled that walk,' he grins. Covered in mud.
Five minutes later Madame M staggers in all wild haired and breathless and throws herself in a chair.
'He had me climbing ravines,' she wheezes.
'Goodness,' I say.
'And swinging from trees,' she coughs.
'Oh my,' I say.
'And then of course we had to fight off aliens. I had to replace my weapon twice.'
'Poor you.'
She told me later that at one point he had slipped down a muddy embankment and trapped his foot in a bog. As he struggled to free himself he called out:
'Go on without me! Save yourself!'

Tim took me back to the Rainbow Cafe for breakfast and made me laugh for a solid hour. I said that he should live down here as he has a skill to offer the community (he's an electrician) and that was one of the deciding factors when they were vetting you. He looked momentarily perplexed.
'Skill? What – Lechery and ambivalence? Maybe.'
He shows me a picture in the paper that at first glance appears to be a man and a bull posing with their heads close together grinning for the camera. It then becomes clear that the man is not grinning, he is grimacing, and the bull has a horn right through his stomach.
I imagine the man walking home with a carrier bag containing his intestines muttering that it was the shittest day out ever.
Tim takes it a step further: I went to the running of the bulls and all I got was this lousy colostomy bag.

Before leaving we went to meet some friends at the local market which was huge and arranged in a large circle. Christian, Sandra and Christian's daughter Lily are lovely and we wandered around buying Limoncello and oohing and aaahing over handmade things before grabbing some food. Everyone went for something from a different stall and seduced by the smell I bought a plate of seafood paella. We sat and ate and chatted and within about three minutes of finishing I suddenly felt very hot and dizzy. My heart rate shot up and my throat began to close.
Oh shit, I thought. I decided to wait for a minute and see if it passed. My tongue decided to grow a bit.
'Christian, I think I'm having some kind of reaction to the seafood.'
I sat there and Christian went away and returned with a nice looking elderly couple who sat down next to me. The man had his hand on my lower back and the woman asked me questions about my throat and my head until they decided I was having an anaphylactic reaction. The man continued to touch my back whilst a woman at the next table came over with some anti histamine. Christian gave me one with some water. The woman kept suggesting I go to the hospital which was just making my heart beat faster but then I caught Christian's face as he kneeled in front of me. He was smiling and shaking his head subtly, the telepathic message being 'Don't worry, she's mad. You're going to be okay.' And I started calming down. Christian is kind. Kind eyes. If you cut him down the centre you'd see the word 'Dad' written over and over again.
The couple were from the medical tent. And it turns out the man with his hand on my back was performing some kind of Reiki. That's what you get for having a turn at a hippie commune. If ever you find yourself in Nimbin with a medical situation demand drugs. And back up drugs. But be nice about the reiki, cos y'know, they're hippies, and they mean well. And if nothing else the placebo of that man's hand on my back was a feeling of being cared for.
And so, whilst my throat still feels like it has razor blades in it, I am delighted to say that I did not die today. All that time fretting about being killed by a crocodile when a mussel could have done the job quite efficiently. Can you imagine how embarrassing that would have been?

Friday, 12 July 2013

What noise annoys an oyster?

Madame M is trying on a wedding dress and I have resigned myself to the fact that it will henceforth be impossible to write anything without mentioning her.
She isn't getting married you understand. She just wants a wedding dress. The fact that we are shopping for said dress in the company of a bride to be who has yet to find her own gown lends further absurdity to an already intolerably funny situation. It is a vintage 80's affair that could be described as hideous but on Madame M looks like heaven. She poses for my camera like a blushing virgin and I have to go outside to have a cigarette and weep with laughter.

Later in the day we find ourselves at a wine tasting somewhere in the mountains. This particular vineyard makes a red wine vinegar that Madame M wants but is not quite ready for consumption.

'Not to worry, I'll be up this way again in a few weeks to collect my wedding dress,' she declares.

'Oh!', the gentleman behind the counter smiles. 'You're getting married?'

'Well,' she drawls. 'I've got the dress...'

I go outside with my summer berry cab merlot. Cigarette. Weep.

Whilst out there admiring the view I meet the chef of the attached restaurant whom it transpires is from london. He's been here eleven years and has no intention of ever leaving.

'I'm never going back. Nor should you. It's better here.'

'How so?'

'Look around you. There's a fackin' skippy hoppin' around right there. Look at it. In england, when you tell someone you're a chef they look down on ya. Like its just a trade. Over 'ere you tell 'em and they're all impressed and full of questions. I love it 'ere. I am never leavin'. Nor should you.'

'Where in London are you from?'


'Oh, well now it all makes perfect sense.'

'Everyone's so busy in london. Even on holiday they're rushin' about. People have time to talk here. They smell the roses ya know?'

He has picked up a slight Australian inflection, something I have consciously refused to do. I have however started saying 'How're you going?' Instead of 'How are you?' I've made my peace with it.

I've been meeting friends of Kate and Keir's in their absence which is lovely and strange. Developing friendships when the source of the introduction isn't present and they are the only thing we really have in common. Everyone goes out of their way to make me feel welcome, I know I've mentioned this before, but it still constantly surprises and delights me.

Later in the day as Madame M hares her way down a mountain, in the dark, in the tin can that is her car, we listen to old songs from MGM techni colour films and sing along. All three of us, loud and unapologetic. Calamity Jane really gets us going and reminds me of some happy times in truly appalling karaoke bars back in Brighton. Then a song comes on that we haven't heard before. Its called 'What noise annoys an oyster?' We listen perplexed and gamely try to sing along. It is now my constant ear worm companion. Annoys annoys annoys.

When Madame M drops me back off at Kate and Keir's place she reminds me that we're going to Nimbin early saturday morning.

'Bring warm clothes.'


'And bedding.'


'And something you can walk in.'


I definitely have bedding. It'll be fine.

I was queuing at the local IGA today to buy some more tobacco. I now circumvent the horror of how much it costs to keep smoking over here by thinking of the money as silly coloured monopoly paper. A pink one is useless but one of those yellow ones will get you 50 grams of the good shit with some daft bits of english looking metal to weigh your pockets down. And as for those green ones, well one of those can keep me in smokes for....almost a week. The server hands me the pack and this ones 'Wake up and smell the carcinoma!' photo is of a gangrenous foot. The colours are spectacular. A pale azure blue, spattered with vermillion red and framed with a hazy pale cadmium yellow. It is the only packet non smokers around me move out of eye sight when we're together but if you squint it looks like a beautiful expressionist painting. And you can almost block out the toenails entirely. I miss Dead Bryan.
Anyway I was queuing at the IGA and the man in front of me was one of those tall, brawny clean cut sorts. All chiselled chin, white teeth and branded sports wear. The type of man I will never in my life have more than a passing nod with. The type of man who would have no idea what to do with me in a social setting. Or any setting.
The server smiles at him and he gifts her with a winning smile back, blinding her momentarily.
'Hey there, can I get a pack of six featherlite condoms please?' He looks earnest and I have to say, a little smug.
'Sure thing.'
Kerching. 'Here's your change.'
I am simultaneously impressed by his candour and disapproving (jealous) of his planned afternoon delights. The British don't have sex in the afternoons I'll have you know.

In other news I have been trying to become a concert standard pianist for almost a week now. I can play the first 30 seconds of La Dispute by Tiersen. With my left hand. Badly.
I have also been sketching. I used to be very good at this, about twenty years ago, and now I am shit at it. It really isn't like riding a bike. Which is another thing I haven't been doing despite Kate leaving me all the instructions for her own bike. I say that I haven't made use of it because I worry about the roads over here but in truth the helmets look absurd and its illegal not to wear them.

I am just over half way through my big Australian adventure and there is still so much to look forward to. I am off to Darwin at the end of the month with a dry yet jolly sort of fellow called Dave. He is commentating a roller derby and has graciously asked me along. A couple of days later Kate and Keir will join us and we'll begin our epic drive from Darwin to Broome. Keir reckons five hours a day in the car should do it and we'll zip in to Broome for a luxury beach holiday after a mere two weeks on the road.
The expression that 'It's not about the destination, its about the journey' is something the Australians have really taken to heart. They have no choice. Everything is fucking miles away.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Madame M and the Glass Harmonica.

A good friend of Kate's, whom I will call Madam M to spare her any blushes, has been keeping an eye on me in Kate and Keir's absence. She was the one who originally collected me from the airport in an electric blue bubble car wearing a red knitted beanie at a rakish angle. Its a bit like spending time with Dorothy Parker. She has an arid sense of humour that utterly contradicts her girlish pixie like giggle. Last night she came over with some stuffed capsicums (what the Australians call peppers for some reason best known to themselves) and a bag with hiking boots in it. I noticed them halfway through my second glass of wine and asked if they were hers.
'No I borrowed them for you to wear whilst we're hiking in Nimbin.'
'Oh, right.'
That's how I found out we'd be hiking in Nimbin.
She breezes in, usually with some kind of food to share, and announces what I'll be doing tomorrow or next wednesday.
'So, we're going to a cigar and whiskey night at this place called Fumidor.'
When we arrived we discovered that we were practically the only women there. A gaggle of cigar lovers and Che Guevara wannabes almost jumped to attention at the sight of her. All blonde and sultry with her pointy chin and razor sharp fringe. We purchased a couple of good San Cristobal cubans and made our way on to the roof where men fought over themselves to light her cigar with their special tiny bunsen burners. By day the Fumidor is a coffee shop and so this event was a BYO affair much to my dismay. Madame M produces her best slightly forlorn drawl:
'If only we'd known it was a bring your own drink affair....'
And immediately the men are tripping over each other to offer her their whiskey or perhaps the limoncello because it goes so well with a San Cristobal!
'I think I'd like to try that one there,' she smiles.
I could learn a lot from Madame M.
Last night we were in a bottle shop buying some wine and the old sod behind the counter explained in great detail how and why she should open the wine and leave it for thirty minutes before drinking it to open up the flavours.
'If ya gonna drink the wine straight away ya may as well just buy a four dollar bottle, ya'll get the same results as ya would from a twenty dollar one.'
Madame M's eyes go wide like Marilyn.
'Oh yeah?' She breathes. 'So I could open it and maybe go and take a bath or something before I try it?'
'Yeah,' he says wistfully.
When we leave the shop she rolls her eyes.
'Like I don't know what letting a wine breathe means. Honestly. And a four dollar bottle? As if such a thing exists in this country. I get so tired of old men thinking they have something to teach me.'
She then points at a building and starts giggling uncontrollably. Its the Brisbane Mormon Centre. It is palatial and roman looking and upon its highest tower stands a huge golden statue of a small boy with a bugle to his lips.
'I'm pretty sure there's several mentions in the Good Book about not worshipping false idols,' she says. 'When the place was first built the people of Brisbane just said “What the fuck!?” Some reviewer wrote that the inside was a perfect spiritual retreat.....for a gay man looking at a luxury spa holiday.'

'So, I'm coming to get you tomorrow, be ready at 9am.'
'Where are we going?'
'Wait and see.'
She texts at 9am the following morning.
'Make it 10. I had a lie in Xx'.
She texts again at 10am.
'Ok – 10.30. I swear!'
We head off in the blue bubble car, Madame M weaving in and out of traffic on the motorway. She drives like a boy racer and I find myself occasionally grabbing the seat beneath me. I am one of life's dedicated passengers. I do not drive, nor will I now ever learn. I have no sense of direction whatsoever and frankly don't give a damn about getting myself anywhere off my own steam. I feel like I'm travelling in a tuna can but its fun.
She puts the radio on and we listen to Gabriel Gatte, The Tour De France chef murmuring about dishes from different regions whilst the woman interviewing him sighs and gasps.
'This is like porn,' I remark.
Madame M giggles.
Between recipes they play songs that Gatte has chosen to reflect the region or a time in his life. We listen to Charles Aznavour croon about “Yesterday, when I was young”. It is very french, very sentimental and borderline histrionic. We laugh and laugh and laugh and attempt to sing along.
Two and a half hours later we arrive in Lennox Hill. Australians think nothing of hopping in the car and driving hundreds of miles for a great doughnut. In the UK we'd call it a day out. In Australia its popping out for a snack. We meet a couple who are friends of Madame M's for lunch. She has mentioned in advance that the husband is a Life Coach 'of sorts' and doesn't expand. After speaking to him for an hour or so I mention this and he cringes. It takes a further thirty minutes to establish that he is in fact a sort of psychic healer. He is horribly embarrassed by this and finds the whole business of spirituality and the characters it draws to to it hideous. I find this hilarious and spend the rest of the day calling him the reluctant ghost whisperer whilst he stares balefully in to the distance. It never stops being funny. To me.
After lunch we drive down to Byron Bay and have a walk on the beach. Its a beautiful little spot and upon entry there is a sign saying 'Switch off, calm down, chill out.' I take exception to it. There are signs everywhere in Australia telling you what to do like you're some idiot child with no internal gauge. 'Don't Forget To Drink Water!' No shit Sherlock. 'Don't Be A Tosser!' This next to a public ashtray. 'No Butts!' In case you didn't get it from the first message.
We mooch around some shops and Madame M buys a tiny black dress that makes her look like a felony. 'Is this suitable to have dinner with my grandparents?' She asks turning slowly from side to side in front of the mirror and knocking the earth off its axis. 'Yes, absolutely,' I answer. 'Maybe with a shawl.'
She takes me up to the lighthouse and I stand on the most easterly point of Australia watching the water crash against the jet rocks. I watch it for some time, dolphins appear and disappear, the sun starts to set and I have that feeling of returning to a place I've never been to.

A fair few of Kate's friends in Brisbane have been calling to invite me to things, from markets, to concerts to protest marches. I don't know if this kindness and inclusiveness is an Australian quality of nature or the result of Kate emailing them from the UK saying: She needs to be walked twice a day. Don't leave her locked up in the house for too long or she'll start scratching at the furniture. And if you do have to leave her then crack a window because she's bound to smoke.

This morning one of Kate and Keir's neighbour's called me. Mr Wild is a terribly talented musician. He plays several instruments the primary one being the violin. He joined us for a few gigs on the tour and he is breathtaking to watch. He has a booming baritone voice and shouts at you when he's chatting as though there's an entire orchestra playing in his head, which I suspect there is.

'I do! Come on up.'
He bounds through the door all tall, wild haired and wired on exhaustion. He grabs the coffee and starts pouring like a crack addict on the hunt for a fix and rolls a ciggie.
He always seems to be working on 74 projects simultaneously.
'So, what are you working on at the moment?' I ask, noting how tired his eyes are.
'A performance in the city on thursday night. Come. If you want. It'll be good.'
He has a staccato way of speaking that I like.
'What instrument will you be playing?'
'Glass Harmonica. Invented by Benjamin Franklin in the 1880's. Based on the wine glass thing. You know?' He makes a circling motion with his finger as though running it around the rim of a glass. 'Franz Mesmer used it. Fascinating. Madness really. Literally. The sound is so pure you see. They believed its pureness sent people mad. Come. If you want.'
I sit there thinking; Remember this, remember every detail, you'll want to write about it later. I miss the next two minutes of what he's saying as I repeat the words 'Mesmer', 'Franklin' and 'madness' over and over.
'...and she was the first Australian opera diva which is very interesting.
'When did you start learning to play?' I ask. I am deeply envious of anyone who plays an instrument and constantly make bargains with the devil: Take my German, I hate the language, just take it and give me piano instead. I'll practise every day, I promise!
'Piano at nine. Guitar at ten and violin at twelve. Which is very late actually. I wasn't really interested until I was fourteen.'
I sit amazed.
'Is that it?' I ask.
'Well,' he reels off a list of instruments and ends with, 'and Banjo.'
'But you know I enjoy them all in different ways, I get interested in one more than another for a while. But violin is my main as you know so I have the most complex relationship with that one. That's the one that can produce anger and hate.'
He laughs and I think the windows will implode.
'Anyway, thursday. Come. If you want. Let me know. Look up the glass harmonica. Its fascinating.' And then he's gone in a whirl of sound and frenetic energy and I go back to contemplating my naval and missing B.