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It’s always the same, and it’s not until the end that it makes sense.
At 4pm the slipping on of holey sneakers and the wearing of beanie and gloves; an old blue-striped hooded top too. Glasses on face, ready to go.
Out the back door, down the side of the house (ducking to miss the overhead rose), out the first gate and then the picket-fenced second. Footsteps on cracked footpaths, arms swinging for rhythm, legs keeping up.
Turn right into Addison and the rising begins, past the church with the imploring billboard, though it’s hard to ignore the peace of the high-peaked rectory opposite the workers cottages with nothing in the front gardens except twigs and dogshit, me eyeing off the twigs because I’m in the market for kindling.
A bend in the road where the school oval forms a corner, the dependable runnel of water entering the drain and culvert. Wild plum trees like weeds. Two Herefords in their ag-class paddock, steer and calf, mother and daughter, or mother and son. The Lanyon-esque house opposite, all chimneys and verandahs, like a set of a TV drama. (What drama behind the walls?) On the same side but further up the local Liberal’s mansion tucked away beneath a thickness of pines, the whine of a chainsaw preparing wood for the hearth and then, oh, a glass of sherry. ‘Sherry, dear?’ ‘Yes dear, sherry.’ In my boyhood I would have admired their fine slate roof and the sherry, but not anymore.
Turn away to the patch of scrappy bush, pine cones out of reach beneath the pine trees on the other side of the fence. The footie oval, or it might be for cricket, roos grouped on the sidelines, a hop here and a hop there, before head down to snack on the winter grass. Now my legs and arms have found their flow and there’s good breath and air in my lungs. Up we go some more. The small, axe-murderish farm with its darkly curtained windows and the goats that run up to the fence. One time, as I charged by, the farmer waved and called out hello, and I waved and said hello back and thought, so he’s probably not an axe-murderer after all. And on and on, past the new houses that are being built on sold-off paddocks, black Labradors running from one side of their unfinished yard to the other, thinking of my own black Labrador who is too old to come with me these days.
Turn left and up I go even further, past PLEASANT RIDGE, no railings on the stairs or on the top landing despite the house, a red-brick 70s shocker, being two-storeys high – how old the occupants are, which always (sometimes) makes me worry. The horse paddock on the other side of the road, the horse I call Melody or Max; sometimes he – or she – whinnies, but I just keep walking, the ground becoming rockier, and steeper, my ankles training.
And then, at last, the road tips over to flatness and I can feel my heart pounding. I draw in the crisply clean air; I smell the waft of the single sheep in the sloping paddock. I look over the animal to the wind-turbines on the ridge far away in the last of the light. I stop at the gate, grip the cold metal with two hands, let my breathing – and everything else, everything that I’ve brought with me but have left along the road, like invisible breadcrumbs – settling and settling some more. Breathing: it’s all about breathing; to have come all this way (47 years) to reach that conclusion. ‘Mr Sheep, it’s me again. I was here yesterday but now I’m back. What’s going on for you?’ Silence. And stillness. That other thing I’ve learnt: there’s breathing and there’s silence and stillness. Which is why I’ve come to the edge of town. Everything is now in place, even me, in my gloves and beanie and sneakers. ‘See you tomorrow, Mr Sheep.’
Cross the road and make sure to walk beside the piece of bush, the smooth white trunks of young eucalypts, the scent that’s sometimes heady. VOLUNTEERS ARE REHABILITATING THIS AREA – DO NOT LITTER. As if I would. Looking north to the new suburbs, the suburbs that are already lighting up for another evening of Netflix and nachos, soft folds of paddocks to the north where the end of the day is making hollows, before the damp comes, then the frost. I shudder and burrow into the hoodie that I’ve pulled up and tightened.
It’s always the same, and it’s not until the end that it makes sense: breathe out, ease in. I am empty.
Something is stealing my water.
It’s actually the chooks’ water, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an important matter, one of life and death. They have a ten-day waterer, but in the last two weeks it’s been depleted every day, and the hens aren’t impressed, not at all. Could it be that with this unseasonally warm winter and spring they are thirstier than usual? But even at the height of summer they don’t drink this much.
Could the sparrows be the ones who are drinking it, the sparrows who are determined to drive me crazy with their pesky ways?
It just might be that there’s something else in my little garden.
Every morning I wake to find the mulch disturbed, some of it flicked over the paving and stepping stones. I always broom it back to where I want it – that is, after all, the whole point of having a garden – but the next morning there they are again, the scatterings of mulch. Something is digging, and it might also be drinking.
Recently, if I’m up early enough and look out into the hopeful dawn, I sometimes see a darting shape, almost as if it’s been flung across the yard by sling-shot. Yesterday morning, I waited for the light to come and got a better look: it’s small, and black, with a bright red beak. It’s a blackbird.
They say blackbirds came to Australia in the 1850s via Melbourne, and since then have formed colonies up the east coast, particularly in the lush, basaltic gardens of the Blue Mountains. But also, quite evidently, in my Goulburn yard (now that Cat the Ripper is nothing more than an ache in my stomach that won’t go away).
Is it the blackbird that’s stealing the water? It’s possible that it is.
Unless I also have a snake. But let’s not go there.
Sometimes I’ve seen a large brown hawk sitting on the ridge of the old shed that is my garage. The hawk could be after the sparrows, or the chooks, or even my blackbird. What a little world is in my garden. There are days when I wish that I could sort myself out, forget about this whole writing madness, and just let plants and birds be all I need, let this small patch of life sustain me, in essence be my water – so I could live out my days simply sipping.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 16 November 2013.)
In her recently published autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson writes, “Where you are born – what you are born into, the place, the history of that place, how that history mates with your own – stamps who you are, whatever the pundits of globalisation say.” For Winterson, it’s Manchester, the rawness of the world’s first industrial city. For me, it’s Sydney, that sprawling urban tart just up the road.
But what is it, this city where I came into being? What is the history that, as Winterson says, mates with me?
I was born and raised on Sydney’s North Shore, amongst towering gums and argyle apples, the screech of rainbow lorikeets never far away, and possums in the roof – one time a pint-sized sugar-glider landed on the handlebars of the mower. Summer weekends at Freshwater Beach, boogie-boarding with my older brothers, on the return home Midnight Oil’s first album screaming out of the car stereo. Going into the city to meet friends, hooking up in Oxford Street, which back then I figured was just another inner-city through-way. Regular family holidays up into the Blue Mountains, where I imagined that dinosaurs lurked just around the corner. Trips down to Bowral in the Southern Highlands to visit my mother’s parents; the house was barely furnished, which wouldn’t do these days, would it.
So, the way I think about it, I was – we were – always leaving, always getting out. And who could blame us? Despite the gloss and glam and glitter, Sydney has the darkest of hearts, a twisted soul. It’s a city formed on the hardship of convicts, the majority male, many professional criminals. Famine caused by frequently failed agriculture. Disease: small pox, chicken pox, venereal disease, measles; one of these wiped out 90 percent of the local Aboriginal people so that their bodies could be seen floating in the harbour.
It’s said that Sydney was to be called New Albion. Albion: that poetic nickname for Britain. It’s a name that may have been inspired by a story about the 50 daughters of Syria’s king, who all got married on the same day and murdered their husbands on their wedding night; as punishment, they were set adrift in a ship before landing at Britain where they shacked up with the locals.
Sydney: she sure does stamp me out.
And there are days when I wish she wouldn’t.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 June 2012.)
Well, you wake up one morning, kiss the partner, put on a cup of tea, and… discover that it’s federal election time yet again. Was it really three years since the last one? It seems the answer is yes – us Antipodean folk are careering towards an August 21 poll. Luckily we live in one of the world’s most stable democracies, so we vote for a local member of parliament who we think (we hope, we pray) will best represent our views. However, since the 1970s election campaigns have been more presidential in style, with people being encouraged to vote on the personalities of the leaders of the two main protagonists – the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Liberal Party. Yes, they’re both called the ALP, and what’s more both have red, white and blue in their logos. No wonder many Australians couldn’t give a rat’s arse about what our leaders do and say, though this might also have something to do with our general anti-authoritarian approach to life because of the country’s Irish heritage and good weather – we really would rather be drinking beer at the beach and perving on the hotties than worrying about political shenanigans.
So how’s the fight shaping up?
In the left(ish) corner there’s Ms Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, although it must be said that she’s been in the job all of three weeks – she toppled Kevin ‘07’ Rudd in a dramatic midnight coup. But there’s a fact here that can’t be ignored: Kevin was going down like the devil wearing velvet trousers and someone had to do something about it. It was Ms Gillard, a proud red-head born in Wales (she’s also unmarried although does have a partner, and she’s an atheist), who stepped up to the plate. Julia’s a no-nonsense kind of person who could easily be a minor character on the TV comedy series Kath & Kim, but she’s smart and tenacious. She’s kicked things off by floating a pitch based on ‘Moving Australia Forward’. As election slogans go it’s a bit on the prosaic side, but after 11 years of ultra-conservative rule under the very easy to hate John Howard and then the wobbly period with the Ruddster at the helm, it’s at least a nod in a better direction.
In the (extremely) right corner is Tony ‘The Mad Monk’ Abbott, a former minister under Howard, who seems to be pinning everything on ‘Practical Action’ (he loves that word action because he’s a budgie-smuggler-wearing marathon runner, so he sees himself as a political GI Joe) and ‘Turning Back The Boats’. By ‘Turning Back the Boats’ Abbott is trying to score votes by saying that – with some kind of Superman sweep of his hand – he’ll stop anyone fleeing political persecution and poverty reaching our shores. We’re essentially islanders and have a deep-rooted fear of invasion, particularly by people who have different hair and skin and languages to us, let alone use funny cutlery like chop-sticks, so there’s a good political reason for pursuing this strategy. Never mind that the numbers of these ‘boat people’ are actually extremely low. Never mind also that Abbott’s on the record as telling us that we can’t believe everything he says, and that only what’s written in his speeches is fair dinkum. At least he’s warned us, I guess.
Of course, there is a third option – the Greens, who are lead by the irrepressible Bob Brown. (Dear old Bob has become such a part of our political furniture – one day he won’t be doing politics anymore and we’ll all wonder what happened.) For many, the Greens are crack-pots keen on issues like legalising marijuana and euthanasia and other supposedly nutty things like saving our natural world from going to hell in a hand-basket. For others, however, the Greens have finally got their act together and the party is becoming more and more attractive to the thinking element of the middle class. At least their logo isn’t red, white, and blue – that’s got to be something.
What does all this mean to simple, dreamy folk like this humble scribe? It means jackshit, because the issues I care deeply about – the arts, the environment, and marriage equality – won’t get the attention they deserve. The Greens will have a stab at it, but they’ll be drowned out by the lumbering political machines of the Labor and Liberal parties. You see, we’re a bunch of Neanderthals when it comes to a genuine political conversation about the value of the arts and creativity. The really tough environmental issues – climate change, reinvigorating our rivers, and saving our old-growth forests – are dealt with in a jingoistic, if not patronising fashion, never with the long-sightedness required; these are complex matters that require complex but decisive solutions. And marriage equality? Both the Labor and the Conservative parties have reconfirmed that only men and women ‘to the exclusion of all others’ (according to our very modern Marriage Act) can have their relationships taken seriously. There’s no doubt in my mind that Abbott would rather gay and lesbian just drown in their chardonnays, whilst Julia would be more than happy to see people with minority sexualities tie the knot, just not at this very moment.
Thankfully, luckily, miraculously, grass-roots activist organisation Get Up!, which came to life in the last few years of the Howard Government, enables those who really do care about Australia becoming a better and bigger country to have a sliver of hope. In 2007, completely dispirited at the lack of progressive political gumption on offer from the main parties, I volunteered for Get Up!, handing out How to Vote cards at a country-town booth. To this day it was one of the most life-affirming actions I’ve ever taken: not only were people genuinely interested in hearing a different perspective, but it also felt bloody great to do something real and positive beyond just putting a tick or a number in a box. Will I volunteer again? Or might I just hide away in my little house with ear-phones clamped to the side of my head and listen to great music by great bands and read great books by great writers?
Right now, who knows. But I’ll be sure to keep you posted.
Thirty more days to go.
PS Thanks to Ampersand Duck for the Abbott ‘Nope’ image. Brilliant.