July 15, 2013

The Snooze Button

As any of my long-suffering bedfellows will tell you, I’m really not a morning person. It’s a Herculean labour simply to wake up and peel off the cocoon of sleep, and it takes even more time to sift through the cryptic dreams that have infected my sluggish brain. You want to talk to me before I’ve had my first coffee? Fine, but I hope you’ve prepared an amusing monologue.

So about ten years ago when the opportunity came up to live at a remote Buddhist monastery I wasn’t too concerned about the monks’ fanciful views on reincarnation or the fact that I wouldn’t be having sex for twelve months. What I was more worried about was their strict 5 a.m. wake-up call and whether or not I would last a whole year without murdering the little man who clanged the bronze bell as if a forest fire was breaking out each morning.
The monastery itself was hidden deep inside the Dharug national park, isolated from the nearest Hawkesbury town by miles of sandstone escarpment and a treacherous clifftop road. I felt carsick as I was driven along the track for the first time, and my queasiness was only made worse by the unnerving cries of dozens of black cockatoos.
“Do you know people have died taking a wrong turn up here?”
This was reported with unbridled glee by one of the resident monks who was in the back seat with me. To be fair he also pointed out the fern-clad valleys and towering eucalypts, but I was too busy gripping my stomach to care much about the astonishing view.
It was late when we arrived and dusk was settling over the motley collection of wooden sheds and rammed-earth huts. Grey-brown wombats were just starting to appear from their burrows while orange-robed monks were shutting themselves in for the night. “You’ll see the temple in the morning,” I was told, but at that point I didn’t really care one way or the other. I simply wanted to lay my head on a cool pillow and wipe the vomit from the side of my mouth.
The next morning I heard the vigorous clang of the bell for the first time and immediately wondered what the emergency was. I sat up in bed like a startled cat and jumped half naked out the door only to realise that this would be happening every morning for the next twelve months and that I’d better get used to it. The fact that I’d arrived in winter only made it worse, and a bleary-eyed dread would often creep over me as I fumbled in the cold blackness for my torch.
After a few weeks I found the only solution was to roll out of bed when I heard that monstrous, metallic sound and force myself outside to the rain tank where I would splash my face and chest with freezing water until I was shocked into wakefulness.It seemed to work, and gradually I stopped resenting the little man who clanged the bronze bell.
His name was Sujato and he was from a village in northern Thailand, and to my surprise we soon began walking to the temple together. I’m not sure how it first happened but one morning we must have found ourselves approaching the narrow dirt track at the same time and instead of politely allowing the other to forge ahead we chose to match each other’s stride and walk close together. There was never any chitchat as we walked, no ‘good morning’ or ‘how did you sleep’.
It was a walk of pure silence interrupted only by the crunch of our boots on some banksia twigs or the sound of Sujato sighing as he shone his torch on a spider web covered with dew.
In the weeks and months that followed it became a habit for him to wait for me each morning at the same point on the track so that we could amble to the temple together, and it’s the memory of his dawn silhouette that has stayed with me more than anything else, more than the endless days of meditation and chanting, more than the constant rounds of chopping wood and cooking and cleaning and composting.
I can now say with confidence that this was the only time in my life that I became a morning person, but now that I’m back in the city the magic has clearly worn off.
Bitch, where’s my goddamn coffee?

September 23, 2012

The Bummer Summer

We landed in Madrid during high summer, the time of year that everyone advises never to arrive. The parched streets and plazas lacked any perceptible movement except for a policeman lazily shifting his cap and a bored waiter inching a cigarette towards his lips. In our neighbourhood alleyways we looked for signs of life, but the more we looked the less we saw, and for the rest of the afternoon we retreated to a friend's rooftop terrace to drink beer and watch for ground movement like snipers. "It's too hot," our friend sneered, "not even God would bother to move."
It's a tradition for los Madrileños to take an annual vacation somewhere cooler: the mountains, the sea, anywhere that doesn't bake like a bread oven, but this year the exodus of the city was more awkward than usual because of the smouldering eurocrisis.
Those locals lucky enough to still have a job had probably had their hours cut or had seen their pay slashed. Which meant that if you were still in the city in August you couldn't afford to escape the heat and dust and bedraggled tourists. In other words, you couldn't escape me.
When the beer ran out and we'd finished arguing with Javier about leftist politics (which is still a thing in Europe) we decided to take refuge at Piscina Del Lago, a public swimming pool surrounded by pine-clad terraces and swathes of freshly hosed grass.
On such a blistering day the lawns and benches and terracotta paths were jammed with semi-reclined locals, and the size of the crowd forced everyone to lay their towels fringe to fringe like a giant quilt, but no one seemed to mind.
If people were annoyed by their neighbours they tried their best to appear indifferent. No one blinked at a gay couple quietly sharing a joint with each other, but in the same moment a lifeguard came over to reprimand a young family for spreading their edibles across the pristine grass.
There was a yes and no for everything it seemed. Under the shade of an elm tree a young man strummed a guitar and people nodded approvingly, but when someone younger switched their  iTunes to speakerphone everyone winced and clicked their tongues.
When I walked to the edge of the pool I noticed a large sign with another rule: no sunglasses while swimming, no flippers allowed, and no nudity please.
That the last warning was necessary made me laugh, probably because the women were already treading a fine line with their bare breasts and tasselled g-strings, while some of the men wore Speedos only slightly larger than a condom.
The water was colder than I expected and I should have dived in and let the iciness pummel my skin, but instead I sat near the metal ladder and paddled my feet like a child. The pool was square-shaped, not something I was used to, and the equidistance of those in the water created a keener sense of acquaintance.
Strangers were laughing and chatting to each other, but thankfully not to me because the little Spanish that I knew seemed useless when faced with the challenge of aquatic small talk.
I kept wanting to jump in, to break the spell of indecision, and it struck me how fundamentally I'd changed since I was a boy. At the age of ten my only interest had been submerging myself for countless hours in our backyard pool, gyrating like a dolphin or diving more solemnly like a whale. Every summer my obsession with becoming a sea monkey would wear away the skin on my feet and I would start bleeding whenever I was forced back on dry land.
It was during one of these torpid summers that some unfamiliar children arrived to swim in our pool - friends of friends of friends - and I remember quite clearly the moment that an adult cried out, "he's gone under!" It was a young boy, pale and skinny and quiet, and nobody had noticed that he'd sunk to the bottom like an anchor.
A woman jumped in and managed to drag his limp body to the edge of the pool. Someone else turned him on his side and stuck their fingers down his mouth and that seemed to work. He coughed and spewed some chlorinated water and sat up with a dazed expression.
There was yelling afterwards, probably between his parents, and that was the only time I spent sitting on the edge of the pool that whole summer. No one was allowed back in. I was only permitted to sit and paddle my feet, something that I remember thinking was the worst thing that had ever happened in my life.

May 27, 2012

If Life Gives You Lenins

This morning the Bondi sky looked like a wedding dress rolled tearfully in grey ash. Dramatic and interesting, but not something you’d want to contemplate for more than a few minutes. I remember having the same feeling when a friend turned up at my house one day with a badly bruised face. I was startled and impressed by his purplish skin but I didn’t want to dwell too much on the violence that had precipitated his chipped tooth and broken nose. If I was a different friend I might have offered to round up a vigilante posse, but he knew me far too well.
I’ve never punched or been punched, not even at school where every day without fail a thunderous Teen Wolf chant of fight, fight would erupt from an obscure pocket of the playground. I was once labelled a coward for not wanting to join a brawl that had something to do with someone’s lunch being insulted, but I didn’t care. What was more important was keeping my uniform free from unnecessary creases.
Which brings me to another unsurprising revelation: as a child I was inordinately fond of games that didn’t involve bloodshed or bad language.
At family celebrations I would always rush to take charge of my cousin’s toy ironing board and happily steam my way through an afternoon of crushed doll clothes. (‘Silk’ setting, if you must know.)
I had a special outfit that I wore for these occasions which involved a snow white apron and a Florence Nightingale cap, and I was always miffed when the festive lunch took so much time out of my thankless job.
During one interminable Christmas feast when I piped up about a blob of mint sauce that someone had managed to spill on my shirt sleeve, my grandmother turned to me gravely and said I was lucky to have any clothes at all. ‘Some of those African children have to survive barefoot and naked,’ she said.
I must have looked completely unmoved because she took a deep breath and loudly informed my mother that I needed to learn more about gratitude. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I did know that Africa was hot and if those kids wanted to run around in their birthday suits it was probably because they were working up a sweat playing hopscotch.
Okay, okay. So the idea of abject poverty had not yet penetrated my Enid Blyton existence, but that was all about to change.
Around the time I turned ten the underpaid headmistress of my leafy north shore primary school decided that we needed to learn more about the differences between the haves and the have-nots in this world.
Her brilliant Soviet idea was to kill off our cherished Easter Parade (where we were encouraged to garland ourselves with bespoke bonnets and fascinators) and replace it with Hobo Day, a secular celebration I’d never heard of but which apparently involved dressing up as moochers and itinerants.
Despite my advanced vocabulary I still had trouble comprehending what this theme was all about, but when I finally understood that my hobo costume would require frayed pants and a threadbare shirt I became inconsolable and consumed with prepubescent rage. (Think miniature Joan Crawford wielding a wire coat hanger, or a pint-sized Mel Gibson being pulled over again by the Zionist traffic police.)
I was only becalmed when my mother patiently explained that a denim patch (!!) on my corduroy slacks (!!!) could be easily and swiftly removed as soon as this travesty of a celebration was over.
But our bleeding heart headmistress wasn't satisfied with a modest parade down Lenin Boulevard, she wanted a hobo feast as well. At recess she handed out cupfuls of pancake batter that we were supposed to cook using only a tin can and a tea candle. Are you fucking kidding me? Is this how the downtrodden do brunch?
At some point I think I must have slipped quietly away from the other Children of the Thunderdome because my lasting memory is of sitting alone in the classroom quietly enjoying a piece of iced orange cake that my mother had baked that very morning. I know what you're thinking, it all sounds very Marie Antoinette, but at least the peasants outside weren’t going hungry or throwing Bastille punches at my porcelain cheeks.

May 18, 2012

When Bees Do Their Job Properly

I remember his caterpillar moustache, his puffy jacket and his fish hook glance as he cruised me in a record store in Milan, but I have no memory of the conversation that passed between us. His small talk must have been revelatory because twenty minutes later I was on a crowded train with him choo-chooing through the snow laden countryside towards the town where he lived.
I remember his shaved head as it bobbed slightly with each jolt of the train, but a decade later I have difficulty recalling anything about his voice or how pronounced his accent was. At some point he must have told me his name, but this obvious detail is now lost to me too.
The train came to a shuddering halt in Cremona and after we disembarked he led me through the dark, silent streets of the town as if we were cold war spies. It was obvious to me that no one cared about our clumsy progress (I was hefting a backpack, he was lugging groceries) but nevertheless he would stop suspiciously at each corner before pushing on with more purpose than before.
We kept to the shadows like rats until we reached his apartment, stopping only once so that he could point out the grey, nondescript building where Antonio Stradivari used to live. I must have looked unconvinced because he repeated the word violin a number of times before I nodded and said yes, I know who he is.
My new friend’s building was equally grim and unremarkable, but when I followed his shopping bags through the front door I was stopped short by the bewildering sight of violin after violin suspended in the freezing air. They were strung across his ceiling like small monkeys and each instrument was in a different stage of construction: some were as pale as pine and still waiting for their first lick of glue to dry, others were varnished a deep shade of walnut with strings freshly gutted from the innards of some unfortunate creature.
I wanted to stand absolutely still and admire them but he’d already tossed my backpack in a corner and was dragging me to the cold bed where we kissed and fumbled around like amateurs. I’d travelled a long way but I wasn’t in the mood anymore. All I craved was to sit in the adjoining room with a glass of wine and ask questions about his astonishing wooden treasures.
I tried to sleep but in the dead of night he brushed my forehead and told me with great seriousness that he loved me, although perhaps this is something that every Italian feels compelled to say when they know that time is short and that their beloved has to catch a flight to Sydney the next day.
In any case he woke me at an early hour with toast and fresh coffee and said that before I left he would play me an arpeggio with one of the walnut violins.
I sat up promptly and waited for him to test the strings and adjust the pegs, but as he dragged the bow across the instrument I knew it was a mistake to have shown such unabashed interest in his craft.
The sound was horrible, the same high-pitched vampiric noise that chalk makes when it screeches across a blackboard.
When he finished playing he stood there beaming and asked what I thought of the instrument and the only thing I could say was honey, it sounds just like honey when the bees are doing their job properly.
He wrote his name and address on a scrap of paper but I’m sure I tossed it away as soon as I reached the train station. I figured that if he loved me that much he would have played at least four and a half minutes of John Cage.

April 21, 2012

King for a Day

You won't find this information in that Lonely Planet guide you just shelled out for so I'll give it to you for free: Melbourne is a fairytale locale for gritty urban romance but it's a shithole for a break up. If you've got a busted heart the city's geography can play havoc with your sanity. Turn left and the cold brown river bisects the city like a giant conveyor belt. Turn right and the gridded lanes and cobblestones slice the greyness into terrifyingly small parts.
Mine was a bad break-up and the only thing that seemed to help my black mood was the brisk walk to Collingwood farm, a dung-filled city oasis where I could glimpse cows and chickens and goats roaming happily inside their muddy pens. Animals like these are perfect for troubled times, they are patient listeners and won't say 'I told you so' or 'I think you're drinking too much'.
It took months of bad television and not sleeping before I was able to smile again at Melbourne's small, ordinary things. Tram lines glinting like cake skewers, hot air balloons forging across the dawn sky, hipsters guzzling shiraz while they watched their street art dry.
Before I knew it summer had crept over the city and one afternoon when I was dozing on the couch he knocked on my door. He looked more handsome than before: sleek and tanned from his morning swims, his hair cut regulation short for his new career.
'You look different.'
'So do you.'
His cadet training had finished and he was heading west to fly tiny planes for a big company. He'd bought me a ceramic bowl as a present, the same thing he'd given me every Christmas since we'd been together. This year the bowl was yellow and fragile and I remember thinking how perfectly it suited the occasion.
'I'm not coming back so we should catch up properly.'
I ignored the thump in my chest and said yes, we should.
'Keep next weekend free,' he said and with a rough kiss it was like the grey months had vanished like a fog. Next weekend? Of course I'm free. Those barnyard animals can find someone else to entertain them for a few days.
On a windy afternoon he picked me up and drove me to the airport. He wouldn't tell me where we were going, just that we'd be flying on a small aircraft.
'How small?' I asked nervously.
'Just you and me. Romantic, yeah?'
I shrugged and said nothing because two things I hated most in the world had suddenly collided: surprises and planes the size of mosquitoes.
The flight was beautiful though, how could it be anything else? The stretch of water over Bass Strait was flat and blue and the sky seemed limitless in its reach. Sitting in the cockpit made me forget every poisonous thought.
We didn't talk much, I was happy just to listen as he muttered at the instrument panel or made the occasional call sign to other planes in the vicinity.
An hour later when we landed on an empty King Island airstrip he switched the engine off and sat quietly for a few moments before telling me that he was in love with someone else.
'That doesn't make any fucking sense! You fly me across a small ocean to tell me that?'
'I wasn't sure until now,' he said.
I gritted my teeth because it was another ugly surprise, one that I could barely acknowledge until I'd climbed out of the cockpit and punched the wing with my fist.
There was nothing else to say.
Another plane was coming in to land and we walked across the tarmac together like small boys, one of us kicking at stones on the ground while the other stared vacantly at some cows in the green distance.

January 05, 2012

The Frog, the Chair and the Aristocrat

At a recent Chrimbo gathering where the drinks were clinking and the crackers were triple-dipping I found myself being quizzed by an acquaintance vis-a-vis the oddest job I’d ever held. Despite ‘purveyor of quality books’ not being a separate category on the national census form (whereas poultry husbandry is?) I wouldn’t regard my current bookshop job as freakish.

When I was still at university however I managed to put my hand up for a number of employment opportunities that can only be described as offbeat. The first was as an earplug tester (yes, you heard me!) at a squalid inner city office building where my elven ears were given the once over by a pursed-lip assistant before I was shunted into a pitch black, soundproof cupboard and asked to press a red button every time I heard a high pitched squeal.
Before this I don’t think I’d experienced a complete and utter absence of light and sound, and after a few minutes of hallucinating that I was trapped in a Transylvanian coffin with Gary Oldman the only squeals I could hear were my own.
The next job I applied for seemed like a straight forward babysitting gig where all I had to do was watch over a latchkey kid for a few hours every second afternoon, but when I turned up at the appointed time it turned out my task was to escort this mute, underfed toddler to the local police station so her estranged father could enjoy some legally awarded custody time. “Don’t let him out of your sight,” the mother warned and she would slip me an extra twenty to surreptitiously follow the father and child as they visited a playground or stopped at a café for a hot chocolate. “Did he let her eat cake?” the mother would ask with slitted eyes, but my vague reports always fell short of whatever incriminating details she was hoping to add to her dossier.
Around the same time a friend was opening a gift shop and her plan was to sell all manner of mystical candles, supernatural crystals, potions of enchantment and those hideous therapeutic sandals that massage your feet while you walk. (Honey, if I want cheap reflexology I’d rather put gravel in my Reeboks.)
My friend asked me to help out with the grand opening and she offered me a hundred dollars ‘to be part of the magic’. As it turned out my job wasn’t to flog the merchandise but to sit at a small table in the corner and give complimentary tea leaf readings to big spending customers who wanted to know what their future held.
Of course I knew nothing about this Lipton form of divination, but my friend insisted that my ‘gypsy face’ and those brown dregs at the bottom of the cup would be ‘a real conversation starter’. She then gave me a small booklet that contained hundreds of symbolic meanings that might appear during a reading, including ‘The Frog’ (beware of gossips!), ‘The Chair’ (fortune favours the bold!) and ‘The Aristocrat’ (to thy own self be true!).
As it turned out I never had to say much since each person who sat down immediately started telling me their problems while I nodded patiently and watched them sip their tea. By the time they’d finished their cuppa I’d pretty much heard their life story already so it was no big stretch to tell them their year ahead would be ‘full of mountains to climb’ or ‘smooth sailing ahead, captain!’
There was one woman though who was angry that I couldn’t tell her if her husband was cheating on her. ‘Just tell me yes or no!’ she demanded, but when I admitted I could see nothing in her cup she continued a long and voluble rant about men being the scourge of the earth and why they should have their genitals surgically removed if they were caught breaking their marriage vows.
As her voice got louder and the other customers edged out of the shop I suddenly longed to be back in that sensory deprivation chamber where I was earning much better money by shutting my eyes and ears to the low, incessant growl of the world.

December 10, 2011

Swapped At Birth

The day I finished high school my fellow classmates headed to the nearest beach to get royally stoned, but I decided to celebrate in a more elegant fashion. By lining up at Hoyts George Street cinemas to see Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler in ‘Big Business’.
The anticipated joy was that these sassy comediennes were about to play two characters at the same time.
A screwball comedy with a double helping of mouthy twins? Yes, ma'ams!

My popcorn was popping, my Sprite was spritzing, and as I settled into my seat I thought of my unfortunate classmates who would just at that moment be extracting sand from their arse cracks while arguing about which Doors song made the best sex soundtrack. (“Riders On The Storm? Are you fucking with me dude?”)
The lights in the half empty cinema started to dim but as the film started I began to feel a growing sense of discomfort. The plot was classic diva slapstick but involved a twist that was a little too close to the bone for me: within the first five minutes Baby Bette and Baby Lily somehow got swapped in the maternity ward which led to a further 92 minutes of *hilarious* nature versus nurture jokes.
“I don't see how it is that you, my own sister, can stuff your face and nothing happens and I subsist on 60 calories a day or else blow up like a Macy's Day float!”
Side splitting. But also unnerving because a few decades ago I had almost suffered the same mix’n’match fate.
Flashback to Tim Denoon’s first day on earth: my mother’s waters had decided to break on a sunny afternoon in June, but after arriving at the hospital and waiting hours for the first contraction the doctor who examined her had a grim, unamused face.
“If nothing happens by sundown we’re going to have to take steps,” he informed her.
Oxytocin, anyone?
When there was still no sign that I wanted to leave the womb my mother did what any practical, nightie-clad woman in the seventies would do. She headed straight for the car park and started jumping on the asphalt like a spring-loaded watermelon.
Which was annoying for a foetus that had already lost its amniotic cushion.
Christ almighty woman, I get the hint!
So after the nurses had cleaned me up and swaddled me in a non-Egyptian cotton blanket I was taken to the ‘holding room’ where all the other newborn babes were being kept until their mothers had recovered their dignity.
The only problem was that my father’s cousin had just given birth to a daughter that same evening and both babies’ plastic bracelets were casually inscribed with the same surname. Cue the comedy of errors: it took my mother at least four hours before struggling clear of the painkiller haze to insist to the nurses that her baby had been born with a penis.
Oy, vey.
Thank God there was something like that to tell us apart or I’d now be a divorced Garnier sales rep with a fondness for macarons and toddler pageants.