Free days

I woke this morning after a good nights sleep with the rain falling in a gentle, steady hush. That was a couple of hours ago, and it’s rained for most of that time since. Today is a free day, a public holiday with nothing I must do or anything I must be. Together it made for an easy peace of mind as went about my holiday rituals – coffee in bed with a book and an iPad, the dog close by, nestled into the curve of my body as I sat up on my side, or leaning against my back behind me.

As always Rigby is alert to everything even with his eyes closed. He knows the routines and the little tells he reacts to immediately – the picking up of my glasses from the bedside table, the snap shut of a book when I have finished reading, the book being replaced on the pile beside the bed – and he is up immediately, standing on the bedclothes with his head turned to me, before leaping down to the floor and turning my way expectantly. It’s the dregs of the coffee he’s after, the dregs he drinks every time cleaning out the coffee mug, just as he has for many years since. Both of us are creatures of familiar routine.

It feels fine to be free of obligation, and I wish there were more days like this. Though there is nothing I must do, I know what I will do. I’ll read a little, write for a while, and towards late afternoon I will cook. With the food in the oven or on the stove top slowly cooking I’ll fire up a hot bath and laze there reading my bath book while Rigby attends me bath side, licking the soap from my skin as he’s so inclined. I’ll wash my hair and shave my face in anticipation of the working week. For a few moments I’ll reflect on this and that: some of my best thinking comes in the bath.

Then it will get dark. I’ll eat my dinner with the TV on and by then I’ll be resigned to the fact that I must work tomorrow. Depending on how the day has been – particularly, how the writing has gone – I’ll feel either satisfied or searching for more. In either case, my mind may be busy with thoughts and conjectures. I’ll wonder at things, at words and probably at life itself, then possibly the latest footy scores. With work ahead, I’ll be aware of the things I intend to do. I start refreshed, as I do every week, as if this week I can change things, that the frustrations I’m victim of will clear, as if all I need do is keep going, persist, stay true and strong. Bending to the situation is not a consideration, and never has been. I’ll succeed on my terms, or fail, but it’s not obstinacy that informs that but irrepressible optimism.

Yesterday was a different day. We had arranged to drive down Red Hill way and attend the annual Winter Wine thingy. We’ve done this before, though for many years. I caught a train with JV to Frankston were we were picked by Donna on the way through, a couple of her friends with her. We spent the afternoon going from one winery to the next, though fewer than I hoped for. Navigation let us down once or twice, and a late, extended lunch at T’Gallant meant that by the time we left most of the openings had closed. I missed out on Manton’s Creek and Aringa Estate and one or two others I wanted to attend, but never mind.

I got home near 8pm last night, glad to be home and with Rigby again.

This week

I love a social life, but I also crave ‘me’ time. I love to be out among the bright lights eating and drinking well, talking, laughing, flirting, but I also cherish the quiet moments when I can curl up with a good book, a good movie, or listening to tunes whipping up some culinary feast. There are days I’m happy to see no-one, do nothing, and many days I barely walk out the door. I love the fizz and pop of a night out on the town, but in my heart H is a solo beast who plays at being one of the pack.

Last week was a social week. I was out for dinner and drinks twice and had a great old time basking in the balmy evenings and downing pisco sours. Another night a friend visited me and we ended up at a wine bar. And on another occasion, I drove an hour to get to the other side of town to have lunch with cousins and my aunt and uncle in the salubrious Eltham Hotel.

This week I look forward to being sedate. It’s the last week before I go back to work. I’ve achieved a lot this break but there are still things on my list. I’ll tidy them up and once they’re done what I’ve got left is a week of reading and writing.

It’s a warm, sunny day. I’ve just come from coffee up the road and posting a card to my nephew for his birthday (due to arrive before it for a change). I’ll give Rigby a walk later but otherwise, I’m home for the day.

These are the things I must do: update this blog; scan a few more pics; call up the doc about an ultrasound I had yesterday (suspect there’s a problem with my toe); call up the local salvos about donating some stuff; pickle or preserve something; and take my old massage shop manager to the doc tomorrow. Jobs something in there as well (have a live opportunity with NBN but don’t have the telco experience).

I have mixed in this last week of my leave. In some ways, it will be harder than ever returning to work. It could have gone either way, but in this case my absence has solidified my feelings about the office being unprofessional and slapdash. I wish it wasn’t so. I’m disappointed nothing more substantial has popped up in these weeks. There’s not a lot about. If I’m patient something will eventuate, however.

Have I resolved anything in myself? You have to understand I live an intensely interior life, especially when I’m writing. My real life refracts my writing experience, and vice versa. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to write. That’s especially true of this book, which has a dense psychological perspective. I want to get it right, though I know it instinctively. Once I write it out I often find that instinctive knowledge becomes conscious knowledge. The act of writing drags up things from deep within me I sense more than know. When it hits the light it becomes true in a way and I can look upon the written word and understand it for myself (sometimes I think there’s a form of automatic writing at work). I reflect upon it as an individual. It informs my perspective and potentially my behaviours.

What I’m saying is that while I’ve given little direct thought to my situation it is thrown into relief by what I write. It has a heft I cannot shrug. In a way it feels like a dark secret – I am the man who writes this; I carry this within me.

It’s little wonder that writing is therapeutic for me, but as yet I don’t know the fullness of what it means.

Saturday morning rituals

As much as I like to think myself a free spirit I am, like most people, a creature of habit. This is no more evident than on Saturday mornings.

It’s the end of the week and there is a mental reclining into the weekend. I wake, whenever, feed Rigby, make a coffee, and go back to bed where I catch up with things – Facebook and Twitter, the newspapers, and whatever book of non-fiction I’m reading at that time (fiction is for bedtimes).

Somewhere between 9 and 10 I’ll get out of bed and get myself ready for the day ahead. Sometimes that includes a walk for Rigby, though mostly I leave that for later. It always means a trip to the local shops at Hampton for my weekly shopping.

I enjoy this. In fact, I look forward to it. Maybe it’s because it’s such a simple thing. All week I’ve been catching the train to and from work, and in the office have done battle (truer than just a throwaway line). The simple task of shopping for groceries at my cosy local shops is a form of mental cleansing. So off I go.

I’m pretty organised. I have a fair idea each week of what I’m going to buy. About 80% of my shopping is to plan – replacing things I’ve run out of, the weekly staples like bread and milk, and the ingredients I’ve identified for my cooking in the week ahead.

I walk around with about ten recipes in my head I plan to make. Depending on what I feel like and the weather will determine which recipes I select for the week ahead, though generally one will certainly be meat, and hopefully another meat-free. The recipes I browse each week on sites like the NYT, and some I will add to an app on which I’ve got stored about a thousand recipes of all types. I’ve made about 300 of them.

So when I go out I have in mind what I will make and the ingredients I need to make them. Mostly these recipes are new to me and I’ll rate them afterwards. Most recipes score a three, but it’s my hope to get about a hundred recipes with a rating above that which will be the staple of my diet going forward. That’s a fair way off – I’m an adventurous cook and a fussy one, and I’ve got no more than twenty odd recipes that score that well.

So I set out. Occasionally I’ll catch up for a coffee with Cheeseboy on my way, but mostly I’ll head directtly to the shops.

I’ll know if it’s going to be a big shop or a small shop. If it’s a small shop I’ll take the red cloth shopping bag I bought in Hong Kong fifteen years ago. It has memories for me, not just from when I bought it – from the markets on the far side of the island – but of the many occasions I’ve used it, and how, once, mum repaired it for me.

If it’s a big shop I’ll take with me the very sturdy L.L.Bean canvas bag. It holds a shitload, as they say, and can bear a greater burden than I’ve yet tested it with.

First stop is the supermarket. I’ll be about half an hour in there buying my groceries. Next stop is the greengrocer. Most of my meat and vegies I buy from Vic Market during the week, but often I’ll need to supplement my stores with something extra. Finally, I get my weekend bread. Mostly it’s from Baker’s Delight, which embarrasses me some, though it’s adequate bread at a reasonable price. Sometimes I’ll walk a bit further and across the railway line to the French bakery. Sometimes I’ll pick up some artisan bread from the greengrocer. Regardless, there’s always bread of some type – a baguette, something sourdough, maybe some Turkish bread, or something grainy and/or seeded (today it’s Turkish rolls). There’s always bread though, that’s my ritual too.

I’ll head back then. If I’m bold or have some loose change I might stop for a coffee somewhere, but mostly it’s straight home.

At home, I’ll unpack the food while listening to music (today it’s Peter Gabriel). Recently I’ve got in the habit of including a milk drink in my shopping and will drink that while I put things away and then, once that’s done, cleaning the kitchen proper, to cap off the routine.

At some stage, I’ll make myself a sandwich and sit down in front of this thing to catch up with my emails, check out some recipes, browse some music. Today I’ve interrupted that routine, but not broken it. Now it’s back to the kitchen for the cleanup.

My street

Last week, an old townhouse up the road and across the street from where I live was demolished. They were there a few days with an earth digger dismantling the property. This is not uncommon these days. Properties are always being torn down to be replaced by shmick new apartment complexes, and I expect something similar will appear here.

One morning on my way to work I passed by. The house was gone and cleared away, but the tractor was at work tearing apart bit by bit an old tree in the corner of the property. It tore one limb from the tree, then another. I walked on, feeling uneasy, as if I was witnessing something fundamentally wrong. I didn’t want to see anything more. By the time I returned that evening the tree was gone, the block vacant, and the tractor carted away.

Yesterday after getting home I put on a pair of shorts then when out to the bins at the front of the property with some rubbish. A skinny old man with a floppy hat was standing there looking up at the sprawling old gum tree in the nature strip. He turned at my approach and said affably. “Great old tree, isn’t it?” I agreed it was. Unwilling to be rude I lingered a little longer talking about the tree. He told me he believed it was this or that particular type of gum tree, but would “have to smell the leaves” to confirm it was. He picked up a handful of fallen leaves and inhaled from them. Nodding his head he said, yes it was as he thought. At that moment a woman approached.

She was my next door neighbour. I’d see her around but we’d never actually came face to face. She was dressed casually and had a towel spilling over the edges of a large shoulder bag. She had paused deliberately to meet me. “Hi,” she said, “We’re neighbours. I’ve seen you but we’ve never met. My name’s Eva.”

She had a slight accent and combined with her blonde good looks I thought she might be Scandinavian or Eastern European. Somehow I’d never considered as anything else but Aussie on the occasions I’d seen her. I’d found her alluring right from the get-go, not just attractive, but seemingly with a lively, vivacious quality that resonated with me every time I saw her. Yesterday she smiled at me, friendly and wanting to engage and I found it a gracious quality.

I introduced myself and then made the obvious comment that she’d been to the beach, adding “good day for it.” She agreed, we parted, see you around.

Boxing Day traditions

I know right now a bunch of crazies are duking it out at the Boxing Day sales but gee, I couldn’t think of anything worse. My Boxing Day tradition is very different. It’s a time to chill, a day to put the feet up after the exertions and excesses of the day previous, a day to quietly review gifts given, to tuck into the plenitude of leftovers and – above all – to settle down in front of the TV for the start of the Boxing Day test match.

This year there’re leftovers, but not so many gifts, and though I fed well throughout the day the excesses were kept to a minimum. As for exertions? Quite.

I’m set, all the same. I’ve been out, bought some milk for my coffee, plus some avocados and a good loaf of Turkish bread for lunch of leftover chicken in sandwiches. As I write this the national anthems are being sung before the start of the test match. I won’t stir much from here on in.

Yesterday was predictably modest. Lunch was good, but I went easy on it. I watched some Netflix, then a Bergman movie. Initially, I was going to watch Wild Strawberries, but upon reflection decided that wasn’t a good option, being all about regret after all. Instead, I settled for The Seventh Seal.

Somewhere amid that I had a nap and did some reading, before hopping in the car and making the short trip to JV’s. It was low-key and pleasant there. They’d returned from a predictably full-on family day. We had a glass or two of wine, fired up the barbie, and talked long into the balmy night.

That was enough for me Christmas Day. Until then I was feeling it a little, but that ticked it off.

Today I’m spot on. No dramas. All the related pressure of the festive season has dropped away. I can be a normal person again.

Christmas morn

It’s Christmas morning and I’ve just returned from walking Rigby to the beach. It’s the kind of day you want to bottle – 26 degrees and blue-skied.

As always on Christmas morning the streets seemed unnaturally quiet. Behind closed doors, I imagined, children rampaged and parents smiled indulgently in this precious family time. They would get out and about later, crisscrossing Melbourne as they went to parents and grandparents for the day’s festivities. Now, it was all theirs.

The few people I did see were in their shorts and nodded festively to me as I greeted them. The beach was quiet too. It had been groomed overnight and had been insufficiently disturbed to hide signs of it. A few odd couples walked along the pathway at the rear of it, and on the beach, there were widely spaced specks of individuals and families with their towels.

We walked to the water’s edge and, as always, Rigby plunged in. Soon enough I’d waded in up to my knees. We spent 5-10 minutes in the water before we clambered atop the bluestone breakwater extending into the sea.

All of this had become recent tradition, a touchstone for the day. Christmas is all about ritual, and if I no longer have my old rituals then I must invent new. Part of it is the breakwater, which has taken on meaning far beyond its modest purpose.

We always clamber atop it and look out to sea, at the tankers lurking in the distant haze, at the random yachts scudding across the bay. Turn the other way and there’s the shore, people coming and going, and beyond that the nearest thing I have to a home.

In the book, I’m writing there’s a hill that has significance for the protagonist. Over time and through habit it has been imbued with meaning. It’s the place he goes to get away from the world, the place he comes to think. It’s his refuge, if not quite a sanctuary – but it is his.

I walk by the beach occasionally with Rigby and often we’ll stop to climb atop the breakwater, but at those moments it means nothing. It finds its meaning at Christmas because it has become a part of my ritual. I don’t think a lot about it while I’m there, but I feel it. It has become a touchstone for me, something personal on a day when I no longer have anything personal to share.

Earlier in the night, I’d been woken at about 3.30 by Rigby wanting to go outside. I realised as I led him out that it was Christmas day. “Merry Christmas”, I told him.

I woke at the normal time after that, and as I would on any normal day off I made myself a coffee and returned to check up on the news overnight, before turning to my book.

I finished the book at about 8.30 and I got up to collect the few presents waiting for me, and to give Rigby his Christmas present (a pork bone, devoured with relish). I returned to bed to open my presents – an excellent bottle of boutique Japanese gin, and a couple of gifts from the kids – a cooking set and a big box of liquor chocolates, gratefully received. My sister probably bought them for the kids to give, which gave me pause.

Soon enough I’ll commence preparations for lunch. There’s a butterflied chicken I’ve been brining overnight I’ll roast with lemon and garlic and a sprinkling of thyme. I’ll have all the usual trimmings to go with it. Later on, I’ll be at JV’s for a barbecue, for which I’m grateful.

Now? I might just have a glass of eggnog.

Merry Christmas everyone. Hoping you all have a warm and loving day.

On the day before Christmas

Back to work this morning but I was much more leisurely about it than normal. I got up at the usual time but made myself a coffee and went back to bed to read a chapter of The Dawn Watch, a very good biography of Joseph Conrad.

By the time I walked out the door, it was about 7.40. It was a sunny morning on a hot day, and it was lively out.

Much of Melbourne has taken today off, and why not? Up at Hampton street, there were people everywhere in their Saturday clothes. It was not 8am yet, but the butchers were open (even though his sign said opening 8am Christmas Eve), so was the fish shop. The greengrocer is always open early, and there was a line snaking out of the bakery.

I looked about thinking this was nice, wishing I had the day off too to be part of it – but then I’ve not really anything I have to plan and purchase for last minute, and no place to be.

As I walked towards the station I heard a general hubbub coming from the café leading to it. The courtyard was full of people in a festive mood. Cyclists in their lycra sat around a long table. Others – friends, families – caught up for a relaxed Christmas Eve breakfast together.

By comparison, the train only filled halfway, which is one of the bonus’ this time of year. I sat by the window, as usual, this time listening to an old Christmas story. A family sat in the seats around me about Elsternwick, dressed in shorts and t-shirts, though elegantly so. Something about them reminded me of my own family back in the day, and I found myself observing them.

It was an adult family, the two kids in their early twenties, their parents in their mid-fifties, handsome and elegant. The mother sat opposite me. She looked nothing like my mum, but she shared some similar quality. She was elegant and well turned out, without any obvious effort being made. She was an attractive woman, engaged with her family and the occasion. They seemed like a family out on a jaunt together on the eve of Christmas. The train was probably a novelty to some of them, and they exuded an unpretentious class different from most on the train.

It felt innately familiar to me, and so it bit more than I expected. I’ve been part of a family like that. I was one of those kids perhaps, safely aware that I was loved and that I existed within this comfortable framework I took for granted. I was reminded – I had long forgotten – that many of my contemporaries when I was a kid looked upon us as a bit different, a bit less raw, a bit more polished. That was my milieu.

It’s very different now. Economically I’m in the lower class even if in outlook I remain comfortably middle class. The important fact, regardless of class, is that I have no family to blend into, no role to play, no expectation to satisfy.

I looked out the window feeling gruff and lost. I might recognise them, but they could never recognise me. And I knew that even if I was doing nothing of significance tomorrow that it was better than to pretend otherwise. I spoke the other day of knowing the forms of things without sharing in any of the blessings. That’s an exaggeration, but it attends a truth. This is why I choose to decline all well-intended invitations tomorrow, because I know the form of it, because I was totally immersed in it once, because I was loved and cherished as an essential part of the festivities – and anything less than that is a counterfeit likely to remind me of all that I have foregone.

It sounds sad, but I take a pragmatic view of it. I’m stoic by nature and I tell myself it won’t be forever. And it’s not quite as stark as all that – I caught up with Donna last week, on Saturday I saw the kids for lunch and an exchange of presents, and even tomorrow, in the evening, I’m off to a friends for a barbecue – after the day has settled.