Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bum-cracks, Bats and Bloggers

I was lucky enough to be invited as a Melbourne Blogger to the Zoo's 'Earth Hour: Unplugged on the Rug' concert. We told to arrive an hour earlier than the public to enjoy a tour of the zoo, sign in for our freebie hamper and sit in our special roped-off-from-the-great-unwashed section before our dinner was served:

Naturally I insisted that my entourage were also included....

.... and I was mighty glad of their company as I shyly checked out the other bloggers present. There was around 40 of us - a Bugger of Bloggers? A Bunch of bloggers? A Blerk of Bloggers? and most looked as though they were serious foodies or stylish young fashionistas. There were perma-tanned, model-slash-PR types, street culture magazine writers, new-wave hand-made craft artists, jewellery designers, sophisticated travel writers, food stylists and gorgeously talented home chefs.

And me, the daggiest of the bunch. As usual.

This reality was soon forgotten. Our tummies started to rumble as we languidly explored the zoo and saw what our animal friends were getting for din-dins.

The meerkats were let back into their enclosure. When their look-out gave the 'Coast is Clear' signal, they all started digging industriously for the hard-boiled eggs the keepers had buried in the sand.

The giraffes were eating sticks hung up the top of palm trees. Yes, sticks, not leaves, and they seemed very content about it, even wandering over to get a closer look at us when they were finished.

The lions, on the other hand, hadn't yet finished their (very) late afternoon nap.

'Hey Barry...? Bazza! Are you awake yet?'

'Stop tickling, Nigel, you're killin' me!'

'I swear, Nige, if you don't stop I'm gunna piss me --- oh, bugger.'

'Well looky here. Could it be.....

...... my evening meal, hanging from a tree?'

On our way back to the flagged-off area I spotted Tim Rogers having a smoke by the wheelie bin. This is possibly my first papparazzi shot ever.

Sadly, it went to my head, and as the general human populace were scoffing beers, BBQ shapes and brie, the inevitable bum-crack appeared.

Sapphire's mouth formed her usual cats'-bum of disapproval before she noted, "Hmm yes with a view like that ahead of us, we're not really VIPs, we're SIPS: slightly important perverts."

Wagons band started as the evening light grew dim and bats began to fly overhead, but Henry's red wine and gravel-marinated vocals didn't impress everyone.

The rain started to drizzle down, putting even the cordoned-off SIPs in danger of dampness:

.....whilst the sheltered and dry Henry Wagons looked for all the world like the new Aussie cast member of MythBusters but with a voice that surely came out of the Louisiana struggle-towns of the 1930s.

His groupies braved the rain and a fair bit of banter to stake their claim right at the front of the stage, er, rotunda. We could hear the roar of the lions and the buzz of the hospital helicopters in the quiet bits and Henry proved that he could also score a spot in the Comedy Festival with his semi-autobiographical song about his childhood suburb, Waverley.

Tim Rogers was next, explaining that he turned the front of his hat up so that he could kiss people without jabbing their eyes out.

His groupies consisted of slightly swaying mums wearing babies on their fronts, all misty-eyed about their mid-90s carefree 'You Am I' live gigging days. A brave couple, clearly emboldened by the 'Earth Hour' darkness and the wine, stood up to dance to the jangling, country-inspired music. Both made Elaine from Seinfeld - and myself, when sober or drunk - look like Bolshoi ballet contenders.

Still, you can take all of these observations with a fistful of salt considering that they were made by me, a Potato in Poncho.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Small Talk

He puts his coffee cup down and takes a few moments to answer.

"It's an interesting question you ask, Kath, because up until two years ago I had been working at the university student union for twenty two years before John Howard came and ripped it all to shreds."

I push the box of Lindor balls closer towards him. "It still really gets to me, you know? Having something so good destroyed on a ideological whim and plain mean spiritedness." His chin quivers a bit and it's clear that he's aware of it and tries to smile.

"I might pop out and have a smoke if that's okay with you."

He stands outside, his back to the door, wiping his palms down the side of his trousers.


She sits at her desk, surrounded by neat-but-tall piles of reports, administrative forms, booklets, papers and letters.

"This stuff----" she waves her hands at the wall of paper dismissively "----isn't important. I have to do it but it's not what keeps me here till 7pm."

The door opens and a child rushes in, crying. She takes him to her bosom and strokes his hair. His gulping sobs and explanations soon die down to silent tears as she listens intently, my presence forgotten.

She then asks, "Did he mean to punch you?"

"No," he said quietly. "He didn't mean it."

"Did he say sorry to you?"


"Well that's good, then. It was an accident and I'm sad that you got hurt, but Mrs L will put an ice pack on your back until you feel better, okay?"

He nods and smiles, leaning in for another hug before leaving with the nurse.

She looks at me. "My husband is retired and wonders why I haven't joined him yet but I just can't. He wants us to take a big trip, you know, around Australia or overseas but it's not time yet. Not for me. I can't leave this; I love the kids too much."


I put my note pad down. This is no longer a story being told; this is the suffering of a woman who was orphaned at eight years old, raped repeatedly by the age of ten and a confused and frightened fifteen year old who arrived in Australia alone at fifteen.

We've only known each other for two hours, but we embrace as I awkwardly reach around behind me for the tissue box.

"I need to tell you," she says, over and over. "I need to tell this. I need to get it out."

I nod, feeling small and swamped and worried and useless.

"I didn't ever cry, not once when I was in Somalia or Sudan. But when I got here, I sat in the community centre on my day off and stared into nothing and cried and cried. Now I'm thirty and still the tears are flowing."

I cuddle her eight week old baby boy and we talk of her other three children. No father any more, which is a good thing. "He kept telling me I was stupid and an embarrassment. After ten years, I finally told him to leave. Last week I walked past the cafe and there he was, sitting with a white woman. He never once took me there."

We drink more juice and the baby falls asleep. "I only did six months of school here before it was time for me to work in a factory," she explains. "My English is good, isn't it, because I learned on the job. But I can't read very well, or write."

The baby sleeps on as she haltingly reads Dr Seuss to me. "You're better than you think," I say, meaning it. She smiles, eyes dry and shining. "I'll see you again next week," I say.


He ruffles Milly's ears as we walk past.

Seeing an unabashed dog-lover I stop as I always do, feeling a mixture of pride and fellowship, allowing him to pat her back and stroke her chest, Milly's tail wagging joyously.

His arms are full of faded green and blue tattoos, all badly drawn. "She's a beauty, isn't she? What is she, part-staffy part heeler?"

"Nah, the vet says she's half Jack Russell, half Corgi," I reply, trying to match his battler voice.

"We had a dog that was a dead-ringer to your one here when I was working in the market garden program. Pretty bloody fat though."

He is now squatting down to keep patting Milly, but looks at up at me. "When I was in prison."

I hope I'm not overdoing things when I squat down too, and pat Milly's side. "They're worth everything to us, aren't they?"


She taps me on the shoulder.

"I finally got around to reading your blog the other day. That’s a very cathartic little site you’ve got there. Very open and brave the way you bare your soul."

My ego instantly inflates (I'm a writer!) as she sits next to me in the cafe, effortlessly stylish and always the woman I've envied for sophisticated style and wit. "I can't even count the sessions I’ve had with several different psychiatrists over the years and I’m still on anti-depressants now."

It was then I notice her red-rimmed eyes, and nod. "Me too. It's just like having any other medical condition. Diabetes, high blood pressure, glaucoma or Love Chunks taking fish oil capsules. They work and I'll keep taking them for as long as they continue to work and make me feel normal again."

She pats my hand. "And yet it's hardly something we're going to brag about at a dinner party is it?"

Small talk can be anything but.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tough crowd

There's 438 of them.

Some are whispering and others are staring blankly in obedience with their eyes up front but their minds are clearly elsewhere. All are fidgeting.

An hour has rolled by. Slowly. The morning sun is shining directly into the school children's eyes and the PA system has died. I'm so nervous about getting up to speak that the BBQ tongs in my right hand are starting to clatter.

A father is up on stage, trying his hardest to make himself heard via a megaphone that still has cobwebs clinging to it after being dug up from the sports shed. "You see, kids, at my workplace - a restaurant - we too have to show responsibility like you do. If there's a bit of tomato left on a plate that's not washed off and then my chef serves food on it....."

My bottom is being patted, ever so gently. I turn around and see my little friend Patrick, holding a battered VB carton. "HELLO KATH, I JUST GOT THIS AND HAVE FOUND SOME FEATHERS TO PUT IN IT."

I cringe slightly and kneel down to his face level: "That's nice sweetie. Can you whisper?"


His mother, Amy, scoops him up as he cheerfully waves goodbye to me.

My shoulder is patted this time, so I assume it's an adult with a clearer understanding of personal space. I'm correct. Brendan the PE teacher mouths, 'You're ON' and points towards the stage.

I know exactly where Sapphire is sitting and as I clear my throat to start, I can see, in the fog of nerves and flop sweat, that she is now covering her face in embarassment.

My vision blurs, my hand grips the ancient grey plastic mouthpiece with the connected stretchy-curly telephone cord that requires me to lean slightly towards the left and I blather away nervously, vaguely hoping that I can be heard clearly by the teachers and by the disinterested parents standing way up in the back beyond the railway-sleeper-constructed ampitheatre under the peppercorn trees---

----my BBQ tongs are brandished at some stage as my nerves ramp up to heart-attack level and I realise that there's no stopping this eye-poppingly ill-prepared ramble and the 438 children blur into a kaleidoscope of blue and green that allows the wriggling, sighing and chattering to fade out and stop affecting my presentation -----

---- but I'm aware that my right knee is shaking and the rhythm perfectly matches the quaver in my endlessly wittering voice so I decide it's time to conclude and I had the speaker back to the Principal and dash over to the ill-favoured privacy offered by a strugglinng melaleuca.

A few deep breaths and brow wipes later and Sapphire is tugging at my sleeve.


I refocus. "Yes, love? That wasn't too bad, was it?"
"You said 'SEXY' in your talk!"

A blush creeps up on my face. "I did? Are you sure?"

"Yes," she hissed, blue eyes burning. "You said, 'Some people think that picking up rubbish isn't very sexy' and then went on to say how it's still a worthwhile thing to do---"

I interrupt, my delayed sense of pomposity starting to wake up. "Well, it is a worthwhile thing to do, and---"

Sapphire holds up her hand. "I know, Mum. But you said 'sexy' and there are---" she looks around to check that no-one's nearby "----- little kids here."

She stalks off to join her departing classmates before I can say "See you after school," so I walk back home, tongs now hanging limply by my side, t-shirt showing two unbecoming armpit sweat stains and I'm harbouring a fervent desire to not make eye contact with the principal.

My waist is tapped, so I assume it's a school-aged child this time.

Seven year old Alifah smiles at me, a child I chat to every day after school at the side gate as I wait for Sapphire and she waits for her mother.

"You were funny and a little bit crazy," she said.
"Er thanks Alifah. I was very nervous and hope that I wasn't too rude or hard to understand."
"Oh no," she assured me. "I've always thought you were funny and a little bit crazy."

Fair enough.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Just the spot

In between obsessive litter ninja-ing, paid article research and writing, chocolate reviewing (Easter is my favourite time of year), running, worrying about Sapphire (things are better, but 'Worry' is permanently on my Position Description), saving the garden one bucket of old shower water at a time and babysitting, the strangest reminiscences pop up.

It was 1978 and I was nine-and-a-half years old, wearing hand-me-down jeans and a bright red skivvy that I kept tugging away from my neck to ease the choking sensation an old top one-size-too-small was inflicting on me.

We were returning from a week camping in the Flinders Ranges.

Mum and Dad had just purchased their dream car (well Dad's at least) - a Toyota Landcruiser; a big hulking truck-like vehicle coloured not unlike a giant metal Cadbury Top Deck block. Dad had welded his own roof-rack complete with a side ladder painted a shiny black enamel and a huge bull bar that could raze houses to the ground, let alone any stray roadkill.

The result of an inheritance, the financial windfall also allowed us to move from our old boy scout tent accommodating only three with the two leftovers shivering in home-made sleeping bags (two blankets stitched together by Mum) on the front bench seats of the EH holden to a brand new mission-brown tent. This canvas luxury item had an inner lining that created two separate bedrooms and space to stand up in whilst pulling on your jeans and shoes. There was even a window made from clear plastic that was revealed when the zip was pulled and we all had inflatable mattresses and shiny blue sleeping bags.

Sleeping bags' range of temperature control puzzled me then and continues to puzzle me now. It always seemed like I was drenched in sweat at night time, but would wake up early in the morning with chattering teeth and icy feet and the scary 'Aaaagh!' reaction before realising that the bag had twisted and the hood was now covering my face.

Transport and sleep weren't the only things under consideration during our trip. Mum's domestic needs were also taken care of. In addition to the card tables and folding chairs was a bright orange double gas burning stove (that would always blow out) and hand-held toasting forks (again made by Dad, this time without a welder but just some strong hands and several wire coat hangers).

Unfortunately, camping food in the 1970s was basic at best. The only milk available was the powdered version that Mum spooned into an old mayonnaise jar and shook vigorously. This was then poured all over our bowls of meusli that we'd reluctantly receive in white enamel bowls. I used to fancy that I could still taste a hint of mayo during breakfast but it was difficult to tell with the nuts and bolts posing as 'healthy and sustaining cereal' and what was known as 'milk' but tasted like warm curdled vomit.

Lunch - after a hearty walk, of course - tended to be toasted sandwiches if we were at the fire or, for a change, fresh cheese and tomato sandwiches, with bread that by day three had started to dry and curl up at the edges and required considerable jaw strength to chew through. Apples, carrot sticks and Yo-Yo biscuits (the boring ones from Arnotts, not the home made variety) completed the meal.

Dinner - again, after a hearty walk or a play in the creek bed trying to catch yabbies or hop across the stones - was to fill us up, not to entertain or enlighten our taste buds. It would again feature toast or potatoes wrapped in foil and cooked in the coals and usually baked beans, chicken noodle soup from a packet or barbecued sausages.

Despite all this, the food actually tasted delicious. There's nothing like a piece of toast that you've held over the fire yourself using a slightly dusty stick and dropped into the ash at least once. Or a sausage, blackened and taut on the outside and pink and icky on the inside, dipped into the baked beans and eaten in the dark. Or when Dad showed us how to make damper for the first time and we were each given big warm chunks slathered in butter and jam.

However, a week of this dust-covered diet and using a toilet that meant walking off into the bush with a spade and a few squares of toilet paper (and, invariably, returning with fragrantly splattered ankles and hands not washed all that thoroughly on the edges of the creek) meant that eventually my digestive system started to react.

It was our last day and Dad was intent on driving home with as few stops as possible. He and Mum were always very strict about making sure that we all 'went' before he set off and no other trips were to be tolerated unless the car needed more petrol.

My bowels weren't prepared to fit into this tight timeframe.

I leaned forward and tapped him on his shoulder. "Dad, can you please stop so that I can go to the toilet?"

Dad was never someone you back-chatted or argued with. He was a high school teacher and spent most of his waking hours dealing with sulky teenage cheek, and 'grizzling' at home was never tolerated. I knew all this, but the churning sensation below my belly button meant that another tentative shoulder tap was needed.

"Um, Dad, I went before we left and I really need---"
"I said NO!" His hands were gripping the steering wheel in the classic 10am and 2pm position and there was no room for negotiation. Or stopping.

As we all discover when we have our first attack of diarrhoea, it doesn't slow down or wait for any man, however strict.

To my horror, my personal plumbing went into overdrive and I, well, erupted.

The stinking orange sludge exploded over the back of my jeans onto the car seat and flowed, lava-like, over to my horrified younger brother. Some of the satanic sludge was splattered onto the circular stereo speaker in the door (these were the very latest and greatest thing in car cassette sound systems) and.....

........ the piece de resistance

...... was noticing, amongst the stench, screaming and horror

...... a tiny mustard-like blob that had settled like a topaz jewel on the back of my father's neck.

My memory becomes hazy at this stage, no doubt the result of a wise decision by my sub-conscious to repress it but we did of course stop; mercifully near a flowing creek. Somehow Mum managed to sloosh the worst of it off the seat, door and my brother and bury most of my clothes so that I made the rest of the trip back home entirely nude and wrapped in the picnic blanket. Robert and David sat so far away from me that Robert had the perfect imprint of the clean speaker on his upper thigh and David ostentatiously gripped his nose tight shut. I sobbed and shivered.

What I do remember very clearly is that I never told them about the spot on Dad's neck.

It still makes me smile.

I love you, Dad!

Monday, March 15, 2010

I'm the type of gal....

After you've banked your dog-eared Christmas gift cheque, been to Medicare, dropped off a faulty watch at the jeweller's and popped into Bunnings for a gas refill, have you ever taken the time to have a roam around and check out your surroundings?

When I'm not compelled by an appointment or an alarm to be anywhere or do anything I love to observe. Usually the subject matter is people but they are very tricky to photograph on the sly. Stuff around my own local area is pretty fascinating as well.

I passed by a haphazardly-combined Indian and Lebanese mixed-grocery store and, lured in by the hookahs and water pipes on display - as well as the smell of spices and coffee - I spotted this pigeon, trying its hardest to get at the boxes of rice under the counter.

He reminded me of how often I notice - and smile at - the tiny sparrows who fly into food courts, cafes and our local supermarket. One was cheeping away at me earlier that morning from its position on a fluoro light suspended from the ceiling by a chain as I debated what brand of dry dog food to buy. Their existence in our world is often almost invisible, and yet they continue to thrive amongst some of the uglier man-made buildings and facilities.

Further along the same side street was this sign at an Optometrists' clinic. An identical notice was stuck on the left-hand side as well, so that those with poor vision wouldn't keep smacking their short-sighted faces into the glass display windows. I know it was supposed to be helpful, but that didn't stop me snorting out loud to myself.

This sign is much closer to our home, advertising a block of apartments currently under construction. They are situated less than 200 metres away from the grim-looking housing commission tower blocks and are likely to have less space per dwelling but the irony seems to be lost on the people who were eagerly visiting on an open day. As is their acknowledgement that the black glass and silver-balconied boxes' view from the other side directly overlooks the Salvation Army's homeless men's shelter and detox centre. 'Tarting from' is rather apt.

One Star....? Even as a self-rated coffee shop, they couldn't stretch the truth a little...!?

....and it's not far from the Sensible Sandwich. What is considered sensible in a sandwich, anyway? Multigrain bread for sure, maybe some low fat cheese and some fresh salad? It still makes me wonder if some wag might set up a competing shop next door selling Ludicrous Lunches or Un-Fun Falafels. Farty Pasties, Dodgy Donuts or Drunken Doner kebabs..... Oh wait, the last one is already operating around the corner from our house.

A strong statement; shame about the spelling. Although, given my utter lack of street smarts and innercity cred, 'herion' could very well be the new Smack. Or crack. Whack? Or is it 'Dack' in Australian parlance?

There's some real effort made on security at this house. Two mops crossed to ensure that the freshly-cleaned marble entrance remains pristine and no-one slips over and cracks their heads on the white balustrades or cement 'front lawn'.

And let's not forget the totally unoriginal and unrealistic thought I always think when it's late afternoon and my shadow stretches along the road: Ooh, I wish that was my real shape and proportion. *sigh*

Friday, March 12, 2010

It. Over. Get.

I stand by her door, listening, trying my hardest not to breathe or make a sound.

There's no sound coming from her side either.

Very carefully, I sneak away.

Best leave them to it, I think. Go back and finish your article, feed the dog and take the clothes off the line. Those two will be fine, I think.

As five-thirty rolls around, I tap on the door again.

"Girls? It's time for us to take J home." I pause for a few seconds, waiting for an answer and the door to open. Nothing.

Knock knock knock "Girls, you've got five minutes to clear all this ------ empty egg cartons, plastic wrap, wool, sticky tape and beading wire all over Sapphire's bed ------ before we're walking to J's house, okay?"

Sapphire's hunched over the side of her desk, busily threading some string through a bag filled with stones and connected to a home-made slippery dip. "Mmm hmmm."

J is sitting on the edge of the bed, eyes not meeting mine. "I'm ready."

She only lives a few streets away and we always walk. Milly joins us, joyful for a bonus scamper on the lead as always. It's been the first time in three weeks that we've done this.

Sapphire skips ahead, urging J to join her. "Hey, I dare you to walk up the way up the street with me like this" and does a rather good impersonation of a hyperactive gorilla with knuckles nearly scraping the bitumen.

"Um, no way Sapph."
"Do you want me to carry your clarinet case?" I ask her.
J continues to focus on the footpath. "No thanks."

Sapphire tries again. "Hey-ba Jay-ba How-ba Are-ba You-ba To-ba Day-ba?"
They used to spend hours in Fat Albert-speak.
"Look I'm tired, Sapphire, okay?"

I see my daughter's shoulders slump as she drops back to my side and reaches for my hand. We've reached J's gate and instead of chatting for a while and letting Milly sniff their rose bushes we turn and leave without looking back.

When we round the corner, Sapphire says. "I was so happy when she finally said she'd come over after school, but it was horrible."

I wait, having learned over the past three weeks that too many interruptions and anxious questions make things worse.

"She thought everything was boring, she didn't like what we gave her to eat, she didn't want to help me, she didn't like the rabbit-shaped cushion I'd sewn for her and kept saying 'whatever' to everything I said."

We walk on up the hill, letting Milly sniff the old urine-action that had occurred at the base of a plane tree. "I tried so hard, Mum. I was so glad she wanted to be friends with me again, that it would be like it used to be, but she only came over to make me feel bad."

I pull her close to my side and her arms wind around my waist as we continue walking. It feels physically awkward but nice. "I know, love. I snuck over to your door a few times and didn't hear the usual happy chatter you guys used to have."

Sapphire sniffs and her voice is quivery. "Can we walk faster?"

I don't dare look at her puzzled and hurt blue eyes. Our pace quickens and I keep blathering. "......And I could see how happy you were to bring her home with us, and heard how nice you were in offering her things, starting up conversations and stuff. You should be proud of yourself because you tried everything."

"I know I did, Mum. I don't know why she's doing this to me."

My beautiful darling girl. How cruel it is to see you get hurt deliberately by someone you used to trust and love wholeheartedly. I have no real words of comfort and my advice is always waved away -"Yeah Mum but it's hard to make new friends because everyone knows that J is my best friend and they've already got their own," - or rejected - "Mum, stop worrying, you make me feel even sadder."

There are no phone calls for her after dinner now, and the weekends are spent entirely in the company of two adults. Two adults whose hearts ache for her. Any offers to invite other friends are always refused. "No Mum, stop it! I see them enough at school!"

I want to crack heads together, throw a tantrum, ring parents and get angry. But I can't do what she wants most in the world: turn back time and make her friend love her again.

After dinner and a shower, Sapphire's back in her room. I hear the 'brrrrip brrrrip brrrrrip' of the sticky-tape dispenser and see that there's considerable progress happening on her Rube Goldberg interpretation. She's humming to herself and Milly's snuck in there too, not only to sniff Sapph's schoolbag but also to just be a warm presence. She's good at that.

I know my child will be okay but the ache is there. And the concern and the indignant fury. How dare you do this to her?

"Hey Mum?"
"Yes love?"
"Do you think Dad will be able to help me do this on the weekend?"

Just you try and stop him.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Drugs, Dog vomit and Distinction

You know it's going to be a pearler of a long weekend when there's vomit in several places on the living room rug and none of it is human.

Instead there's some chunky parmesan-smelling piles that contain blades of grass, snaffled sausage, tinned dog food and the scary remnants of a raw chicken wing and the culprit has slunk outside to hide in her kennel. She knows that her offering isn't a nice one, but we've never ever punished her for it, and nor would we. As if a dog or a human can help it when Mr Technicolour Yawn tortures the intestines...!

All was forgotten when I donned the very first Litter Ninja t-shirt ever invented and attended the Clean Up Australia Day thingy at our local park. Luckily it wasn't an entire day, but 10am to noon: I guess 'Clean Up Australia In a Coupla Hours' ain't quite as catchy a slogan.

After pulling on the rubber gloves, my nervous attempt at conversation to the man standing behind me - "Hey, bend over and touch your toes" - didn't quite endear me to him or the organiser, so with two large bags (one for recyclables) I gratefully set off, eager to escape my chatting catastrophe.

On the far edge of the park - away from the bloke who now assumed I was insane - the tune 'Woolly Bully' was playing in constant repeat in my head as I set to work. It soon ceased when it became evident that syringes would form the majority of what I collected; as were disinfectant sachets, balls of alfoil, spoons and the hard thin plastic that is commonly used to tie up cardboard boxes. It seemed that drug deals alfresco were occurring only three streets from where I lived.

In theory, I already knew this. That's life in the gritty innercity, right folks? But seeing needle after needle in a spot only three metres away from the walking track was instantly sobering. I took a quick photo but could not bring myself to move the camera thirty centimetres to the right to snap a child's pink hair scrunchie and squashed Happy Meal Box.

A hundred and twenty minutes, two fifty-cent scones from the fund-raising stall and a few speeches later I was able to escape the damp and sordid proximity of the drug spot and head home.

Over lunch, I idly started reading the box of Love Chunks' antibiotics.

'Avoid excessive skin exposure to sunlight and sunlamps while being treated with this medicine', urged the green label.

'Do not take alcohol while undergoing treatment with this medicine unless otherwise advised by your doctor or pharmacist' urged the hot pink sticker.

'This medicine may affect mental alertness and/or coordination. If affected, do not drive a motor vehicle or operate machinery,' warned the red one.

"Geez, all that concern for your toe fungus!" We both chortled into our second cup of Krups-machine coffee. I leaned over to squeeze his hand; we were both aware of just how lucky we are.

Only the day before, we three returned home from a bike ride and lunch at the paint-peelingly decrepit Fairfield boat house and saw the sky darken, the wind pick up and that forbidding ozone smell lurking in the air.

The ultimate weather nerds' clouds had arrived: the Mammatus. Yes, so-named because they look like boobies. Well, boobies if there were hundreds of them dangling from the ceiling like light globes.

No sooner had we wheeled our bikes through our narrow gate and up the even-narrower side path to our tiny shed than the hail hit. Hellishy hard.

So hard we might as well have been standing in front of the Marshall speakers at an ACDC concert. We rescued Skipper the rabbit from the outdoor playpen and as he coolly enjoyed Sapphire's cuddles and sweet nothings, Milly dashed inside and hid, shaking in fear, under my desk.

We screamed at each other but couldn't be heard as ice the size of twenty cent pieces pummelled our roof. Some of the larger specimens were put into the freezer at Sapphire's urging and the grass rapidly turned white before the trees went into shock and dropped all of their fresh green leaves.

We were all home and safe and dry and for us it was exciting. Exhilarating even, as I snapped away with the camera and whooped each time a larger hailstone was found. We were all wet from the splashes and our street was a raging river, piling up leaves behind the wheels of the parked cars. It was the first time I felt glad that our bingled magna was at the crash repairers' and not in danger of being made into a dodgy piece of hammered copperart outside.

When most of the din and destruction was over, we towelled ourselves off, put the rabbit into his weatherproof hutch and went inside for a cup of herbal tea.

The lights flickered on and off intermittently as the thunder boomed but we risked it all to watch 'Up' together on DVD. Milly had now come out of the study and was sitting at our feet; I was busy knitting and Love Chunks and Sapphire were snuggled up together on the sofa.

I knew how lucky I was.

And it is only now, as I hurriedly finish this, that I realise that the syringes I picked up the day after the hailstorm were not covered by mud, leaves and wet debris. They were fresh and more recent, presumably used and discarded by people desperate enough to risk being hit by lightning and be soaked to the skin in order to score a fix and feel better.

I know how lucky I am.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Frickety Frackety Froo

Sapphire has Whooping Cough.

We found this out a month ago after being told by a doctor with all the warmth of an Eastern Bloc passport controller that she only had a 'wet chest'. On our second visit to the multi-medi-mega-clinic another cranky quack with the bedside manner of a cool person enduring our company whilst looking behind us for someone cooler to treat just announced that it was merely the Hundred Day Cough and she'd be right as rain.

Yeah, as in the kind of rain that drums down ceaselessly from December to March, washing away all topsoil, roof tiles, small cars and cement garden statues in its path. Decent Doctor Number Three actually took an interest in properly examining a pale and exhausted ten year old kid who clutched her head and sides every time a thirty-second coughing fit commenced and ordered a blood test. This revealed that it was (is) Whooping Cough.

Four rounds of antibiotics and a visit to an Allergy Specialist later, Sapphire has now caught a cold and the sort-of-sedated Whooping Cough Wanker has decided that it's no longer okay to just attack her spasmodically and eventually fade away. No, now it's time to make her decide between blowing her nose, breathing, sleeping or breaking out into a red-faced, sweaty ball of agony when WCW forces her to endure a gasping round of coughs so violent it makes the room ring.

After two days of fresh misery, we knew it was time to take her back to Decent Doctor.

Here's where I admit something to you, dear reader. No, not the black dog or the fact that I blow my nose in the shower. It's that I don't like driving in Melbourne.

Even in our little local neck of the woods, lying in the shadows of the Big Yellow Cheese stick and Jeff's Red Hair at the City Link entrance, it is busy, incessant, fast and confusing. Our main thoroughfare, Racecourse Road, is, unfortunately, not full of race horses these days. It has four lanes - two each way - and two tram lines running through the middle of it. Trucks, vans, cars and bikes travel on their way to the city from Ballarat, Sunshine and Geelong and the sound is deafening. Sapphire's doctor works on this road.

Safeway supermarket is there too. I decided to leave our car in their park so that if we needed to get anything for the chemist after the doctor's appointment, we'd be right there. Plus, it would mean that any need to find a spot down a side-street large enough for me to glide into (the last time I parallel parked successfully was my driving test in 1985) like Greyhound bus would not result in us finding a spot roughly further away than our own home.

I drive this way at least once a week to do the grocery shopping and dread it every time. It’s always a bugger to get in there because it is a right turn on the very site of two tram stops and an adjoining intersection that has been marked KEEP CLEAR. No matter how I approach this turn, I get angrily beeped if I take time to stop and turn right safely or get flicked The Finger if I pull out onto the tram lines and try to squeeze through just as the light clicks to red.

Yesterday, as I was turning (on a green light, with a merciful break in the traffic from the opposite direction) I noticed that there was a tram at the stop, still collecting passengers. It's general knowledge/courtesy that you must give way to trams, so I tried to reverse back. Unfortunately there was a car right behind me with no space to move and several more behind that one. All I could do was stop. My nose was over one line.

I expected a few angry 'ding ding dings' from the tram driver before he'd let me turn in front of him, but instead he started driving, taking the right front bit of my car with him.

The painfully slow screeching sound ended and I drove into the carpark, tram passengers all open-mouthed and shoppers idly entertained by the latest bingle.

Pulling the handbreak on and yanking the key out allowed the sobbing to start as my hands wildly groped around for the phone and a hankie. I slowly got out of my seat and Sapphire - the sick one, the ten year old old child - rushed around to comfort me.

She peered around the front. "It's not bad at all Mum, honestly."
I couldn't look, but kept crying, waiting for Love Chunks to answer the phone. "Breathe Mum. Breathe." Her hands were so soft and her eyes so big and blue.

The tram driver came over, still dramatically shaking his head and muttering. Part of it was a performance for his passengers, part of it might have been shock. Then he saw me up close, blubbing on about trying to take my daughter to her medical appointment for whooping cough.... He ended up giving me a hug and some comforting pats on the shoulder before we swapped details. Some onlookers brushed the hair out of Sapphire's eyes. "You poor thing. Get better soon, okay?"

Sapphire was utterly brilliant; it was she who was the mature and calm one, despite feeling sick. I still couldn't look at the car and figured that it might as well sit there whilst we saw the doctor.
The second round of Whooping Cough blood test results weren't back yet as they had to be sent to an Infectious Diseases place for more analysis. The doctor found that Sapph had a temperature and needed to have a couple more days at home taking it easy. "At this rate I'll be up to season five of Friends," she grinned. "Oh Mum, don't cry."

The expense, the inconvenience, the shame, the stupidity! LC had got on his bike, left work and met us in the car park as Sapph and I sat on the kerb waiting near a stinking wheelie bin. "Hey Mum it must be bad if I can smell it," she said giggling, "because my nose doesn't work right now. Maybe someone did a sh--- sorry 'a poo' in it?"

LC was so kind, so reassuring and could see how stupid I felt about it. This made me cry even more. After wrestling with the bit of the bumper that was dragging on the ground, he drove the car home and I wheeled his bike back with Sapphire, who insisted on joining me. "Hey Mum, none of us were hurt, or anybody else and our car is already old. It doesn't matter. And look - they've finally painted the haunted house over there!"

Her chatter was incessant and forced me to reply. So funny and so wise.

As LC rang around for quotes to get the front fixed, Sapphire and I lay on her bed and she talked about the friendship woes she was having. "She's changing, Mum and I don't like how all she wants to do is be with the cool kids. She used to say how silly they all were and now she runs away from me and tries to be like Alyssa."

"You're changing too, love. You're seeing that being cool isn't what it's cracked up to be and you're wanting to go in a completely different direction. Both of you are growing and changing."

"But I want my old friend back," she said quietly. It was her time to cry now. "I want my old friend that I could tell everything to and ask her for advice. I don't want the new one."

"I know and I also know that it's not easy to see who else is out there and what things they like. But you will. There are people there who don't know you yet because you've been joined at the hip with your friend and haven't allowed anyone else in. Now it's time to do that. And trust me, they'll want to get to know you."

"Thanks Mum. You've been really helpful. You're my friend too."

Dammit it was my time to cry. Again.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Fanta Feet

So now I'm officially a fully-fledged Litter Ninja: council-funded and newspaper-supported. Even the local police station have put up my recruitment posters. Sure, the two officers were actually just walking back up Wellington Street after having bought their lunch at Subway, but hey, you take your opportunities as you find them.

Trouble is, I now feel the need to go looking for rubbish to pick up every day instead of the once or twice a week amble up my street that was happening before. These days it just isn't acceptable to have my beat fluttering with Maccas wrappers and beer cans when I'm poncing about trying to get other locals to do the right thing.

But carrying around a long-handled pair of BBQ tongs is fraught with difficulty.

For starters, if I shove it into my shoulder bag, at least a third of it sticks out and I'm naturally ear-marked as one of those weird old ladies who carries around her most precious possessions. All I need to do is let my one (as at last frantic 'count the wrinkles check') chin hair grow and wear my crocs out in public with knee-high pantihose unravelling at the ankles and it's a done deal.

If I just carry them in my hand during my walks with Milly or off to the corner shop to buy two litres of milk it frightens off pensioners, who automatically assume:

* It's a dangerous weapon
* It can pick pockets and wallets out of old peoples' shopping trolleys and it is therefore vital to shake one's head in disgust and immediately cross to the other side of the street
* The anti-psychotic medication isn't working and neither is the secure lock-down facilities at the accommodation centre that Mr Divvy Van favours; and
* If I'm not terrorising humans, I'll start randomly decapitating the roses and azaleas of the cottage gardens I pass.

Teenagers think I'm collecting cans for money, and I guess my unfashionable state lends itself to their assumption of poverty, both financial and sartorially. "Hey lady," one said to me a while ago, "You know that you only get a deposit if you live in South Australia, don't yer?"

As I nodded and kept bending down, his buddy sniggered and pointed to a trio of beer bottles under the park bench. "Ya missed some."

But if I don't include the tongs in my travels, I invariably see a heap of litter just waiting - begging - me to pick it up and put it where it belongs. Today, under a plane tree, was a nappy bag so full it resembled the rump of a palomino. And this pear-scented bag of human excrement was rudely dumped alongside a Cold Rock Ice-creamery carton (how come? There's not one within coo-ee of here), an empty tin of chopped tomatoes, a car ashtray's worth of cigarette butts, yellowed junk mail brochures and the ubiquitous bourbon and coke can.

After wrestling with my do-gooder instincts agaisnt my concerns of bacteria collection, I ignored the lot and walked away. And felt terrible for doing so. Ninjas are renowned for stealth and invisibility: what if one of my fellow rubbish renegades saw my callous disregard?

To make up for it, I waited until 5pm when Love Chunks had cycled in from work and Sapphire was still happily playing with her best buddy Juliet. As soon as Milly saw me heading towards the laundry cupboard to find her lead and the saggy long sock full of shopping bags, she knew: it was Litter Ninja time. Or, in her mind, walkies and finding bonus food (read: Red Rooster chicken bones and squashed chips) time.

The high school is my territory. I clean it, therefore I feel a sense of proprietory ownership towards it long after the kids have walked home in their skinny jeans, hoodies and gladiator sandals. The cleaners wave hello and the vice principal has come out and said that I could use their skip to offload any hard rubbish as often as I need to.

Today however, the school was surprisingly clean. Could it be that the kids have noticed that it's clean, and that any crap thrown on the ground sticks out like a sore thumb....? That they spend at least a third of their waking hours at this place, so why not look after it.....? The fruit box cartons and yiros bags shoved into the railings under the verandah provided the real answer. It had been too wet to eat outside.

And bugger it, I was wearing thongs and, for the third time that session, tipped up a can of Fanta to put in my bag only to have it gurgle out the orange sticky contents straight onto my toes.

Down but not out, I decided to clean up the main road in front of the school as well. Milly had to be put back on her lead as the traffic roared dangerously close, loud and fast up Mt Alexander Road. She was told very firmly to SIT as I leaned out and plucked run-over aluminium cans and cigarette packs from the bicycle lane before the lights down at Travancore released another avalanche of cars.

Squidge-stick, Squidge-stick, Squidge-stick was the sound my feet made as they struggled to move in the increasingly glue-like residue of the Fanta. It'd be easy enough to rinse off under the tap when I got home and it would be nice to pick up the greasy brown paper bags that had blown up the street from the service station's all-night souvlaki van.....

Doof-Doof Doof-Doof Doof-Doof. "Yer Pharkkin LOSER" a man yelled out at me from his commodore before roaring off ahead of the stopped tram.

I recounted this later to my friend Helen, who said, "Maybe he thought you were a bag lady."

Oh. Am I that bad a dresser?