The arse in question

Back in Melbourne and this morning in Armadale, having a coffee, waiting to visit an eye specialist to look at my cataract.

It’s an area familiar to me from many years of living or working nearby. I lived in the next suburb for over a decade, and my old massage shop is probably no more than a kilometre away. Sitting here with a coffee and a cinnamon scroll, I’m enjoying the ambience.

I caught the train here because I don’t have my car right now and because they advised me I shouldn’t drive after seeing the doctor.

I got off the train and started walking towards High Street, passing by a cafe I remember visiting many years ago – 1988. It seems a world away in time and memory.

I was there with my mum and my girlfriend at the time. We’d been out looking at places to rent. I’m not sure if I was in love at this point, but I had the notion I wanted to settle down with this woman.

I remember returning to the table we shared to find the two women discussing how good an arse I had. Remembering it, I felt like weeping. My mum is dead 10 years this year, and the woman – Margaret – is long gone.

Walking on

As I was leaving the hosp[ital this morning after my treatment, I stood at the lift doors when they opened, and a man started to exit. When he realised it wasn’t the ground floor, he stepped back, confused, and I entered, brightly asking, “going down?”

It was hard to judge his age. I tend to do it taking myself as a reference point, but even given my recent travails, I’m more sprightly than many and certainly look a good deal younger than all but a few of the same age. Considering that, I’d estimate he was around my age or a couple of years older.

He was thin and bent, clutching at the handrail in the lift for support. He had wispy grey hair and a thin grey beard. He turned to study me as the lift doors closed. “You sound jolly for a man leaving hospital,” he said.

There was no judgement in the comment, nor even curiosity, really. In part, I think it was a reflection on his own condition compared to mine – he had a walker – but he took some reassurance from it also, I think, as if to say, good onya mate.

I don’t know if I was jolly – or if I could ever be described as jolly – but I was feeling pretty bright. I hadn’t realised until he said it, but I saw myself as he must have, seemingly healthy and full of vigour, a friendly tone to my voice, striding into the lift after him. “I’m jolly because I’m leaving the hospital,” I told him.

I got on at the second floor, and it took no time to get to the ground floor. We exchanged a couple of extra pleasantries and wished each other a good day. I was fairly certain that my day would be better than his, and perhaps the weeks and months ahead also. Not for the first time, I blessed my good fortune. There’s nothing like visiting a hospital to appreciate how many desperately sick people there are.

It was cool, but the sun was out. On impulse, I turned left instead of right as I left the building and walked down to the French restaurant near the corner. I ordered a flat-white to go, and the tall, slender French girl served me, smiling and friendly as she has been each time I’ve visited. I left and started towards the station.

I have headphones on while travelling on the train and to and from the station. With noise reduction switched on, I feel like I’m in my own little world, which is welcome in the cold mornings. I occasionally listen to music, but mostly it’s an audiobook I listen to pass the time. That was the case today.

It’s a well-worn route by now – this is my seventh week of treatment. Next week is my eighth and final week. I’ll be very grateful for the end of it, but the best part is when I’m heading home. Mostly I listen to my book and whatever thoughts in my head pass through without lingering long. For some reason, it was different today.

I thought of the man in the lift. I saw him as an individual and hoped his story would end well. Often, coming and going from the hospital, I’ll see patients in their robes, attached sometimes to a wheeled contraption, outside taking in the fresh air and activity or, alternately, having a cigarette. I always feel fortunate that that’s not me. Thinking of the man today, I felt grateful for what I have.

I don’t know how or why, but I then recalled, very vaguely, a woman I went out with many years ago. She had cottoned on me after getting all the details of my birth and doing my chart – she dabbled in that stuff. Her analysis proved that our stars were almost literally entwined. She proclaimed us a great match, which was the primary reason she had latched onto me. It was in the stars. Needless to say, it wasn’t.

Then, as I passed by a street, a nagging memory came to life. I’d gone out with a cute lawyer for a while and should have made much more of the relationship than I did. Walking to and fro all these weeks, I felt sure she had lived around here, and suddenly. It was the street I was passing where she lived.

I remembered her again. She was intelligent and attractive. A good type. I knew I should make a go of it, but I was coming off a recent disappointment, and my heart wasn’t in it. She’d have been good.

I walked on. That’s life. You walk on.

Before I sleep

I’m lying here in bed feeling quite sleepy, but fighting it. It feels too early to switch the light off – it’s not gone 10.30 yet.

For the last half hour I’ve been reading, as is my custom, though usually I read for over an hour before sleeping. I’ve set the book aside because I feel too tired to do the book justice. And so, I write instead. Somehow it’s easier to write than it is to read.

When I think about it, it’s not overly surprising. Often as I read I find words forming in my head and coalescing into the thoughts in the shape of complete and speculative sentences. It happens often through my day, probably because I think so much, and am so used to putting my words onto (virtual) paper.

What I was thinking about tonight was the book I had started reading and the memories it brought back to me. The book is Agathe, by Robert Musil. I was unaware it was actually an excerpt from his great series of novels, The Man Without Qualities but, on reflection, I was fine with it. But that’s when the memories began.

I’ve read The Man Without Qualities and lived it. It feels one of those books that was significant to me when I read it. I connected to it, if you like, but I was then at an age and stage of my life that such writing felt important to me.

This must be 25 years ago. I can picture the books – they’re in my bookcase – thick and with a spine of rich gold. There had been books in the previous ten years that had influenced my being. I went through the whole existentialist stage, reading Sartre and Camus, before moving onto other literature.

TMWQ is set in prewar Vienna – right on the unknowing cusp of it, which is a part of its power – in what is known as the fine De Siecle period. It’s one of my favourite eras and if I had a time machine, I would go back and visit. The old empire was tarnished with age but still held an appeal; life was rich and indulgent, Vienna beautiful, and just out of sight was the war that would destroy it forever. It’s the last moments of glorious, glittering innocence and the last remnants of an age that would never come again.

I read Zweig as well as Musil, and Schnitzler too, my favourite.

As I read, I remembered that, remembered how vital I was – how important it was to me – and wondered if I would feel the same this time around.

Last week I bought a bookcase to house the last boxes of books. There are now four bookcases crammed full of the reading of a lifetime. I look at the books arrayed there and remember the stories – not just within their covers, but where and when I bought the book and what led me to it. And the experience of reading it. I’m so glad that all my books are on display now.

After putting the bookcase together, I spent joyful hours filling the shelves with a logic all my own. This is one of the pleasures of owning the physical book.

I imagine one day someone walking into my study and clapping their hands together at the sight of so much great literature. I’d look on with a paternalistic satisfaction and imagine sitting down to speak of this book or that over a cuppa or a glass of red. Man or woman, it doesn’t matter – though very likely I’d fall in love if it were a woman.

It’s never happened. There’s no one I know I can discuss Musil with, or de Montherlant, or even Camus. I doubt they would even know who Musil is – de Montherlant, no chance. It’s disappointing.

It’s lucky my memories and my mind in general is so rich. There’s pleasure in that, at least.

It’s time to sleep now. Perhaps I’ll let my mind wander, pondering the abundance of all that’s possible in dreams.

Final judgments

One night, lying in bed, not falling asleep, I was thinking about Shakespeare and about Macbeth specifically. I’d read some commentary on the eponymous character, which I thought too simplistic. Macbeth is a fascinating character, but to say he’s all about gaining power is to discount the complex psychology of the man.

It’s the sort of conversation I’d very happily conduct over a glass of red, but it’s not what I want to kept awake by.

As these things do in the murky depths of night, that passing thought morphed into a distant memory. The sort of obscure memory I probably haven’t been exposed to since the time it was created – over 40 years ago.

I find it strange it can be so long ago because so much of it remains fresh. I remember myself then very well, though I was still just a boy.

I was at school in Sydney. Turramurra High School. It was year 10, I think. We’d moved from Melbourne to Sydney after term one of school because dad, the managing director of a plastics company, was transferred up.

It was an English class I remembered. Miss Betts was the teacher, quite young, not yet 30, I would have thought.

I’m trying to remember the books we did that year. Was A Catcher in the Rye one of them? I had the habit then of reading these books in my own time, which was quite often after we were examined on them. I was a great reader and had no problem with the task; it was just that I didn’t like to be forced.

I got by mainly on the strength of classroom discussions and picking up the key details. It rarely had a significant impact on my exam results. Later that year I would read catcher and love it, but there were other books I liked less well – The Chosen, I remember, by Chaim Potok and The Inheritors by William Golding. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember the other books, though there would have been many. We did the Greek plays by Sophocles in my final year, back in Melbourne, and Richard III in Miss Betts’s class.

We performed the play in class. By that, I don’t mean we got up on stage and acted. We sat at our desk and read the role assigned to us when our part came up.

I can imagine it probably made for some motley performances. I doubt I was any better – I was no thespian. Nonetheless, I was given the central role, that of Richard.

I wondered why I was made Richard. I had the sense at the time that Ms Betts favoured me. Was it because I was new to the class and from Melbourne? Or was it because she saw something different in me? I’m sure she would have approved less of me had she known about my habit of not reading prescribed texts until after I should have (I was actually quite proud of this).

Before entering the NSW education system I had to complete some pretty extensive testing to assess where I was up to and how intelligent I was. I’m sure I’ve written of this before. Until that point I had no real awareness of my intelligence, or lack of it. I’d occasionally blitz tests with near-perfect scores, but it was erratic, and I didn’t wonder at it one way or another. I was a kid and had other priorities.

Something changed after I took those tests. I remember my parents being taken aside and being told that I was of “well above average intelligence”. Of course, they shared it with me, no doubt wondering why I hadn’t shown it on a more consistent basis. I can only say I was a rebellious kid.

For me, suddenly I was aware of something I hadn’t thought twice about previously. In a way it felt like a burden, like something I had to live up to. But in another way I was chuffed. I certainly didn’t want to be average, and the thought that I was smarter than the rest of the kids appealed.

When I look back, it was one of two seminal moments of discovery in my school days. I lost my innocence a bit. From that day forward I’ve been aware of the advantage gifted to me.

I think Miss Betts saw that in me. For all I knew, maybe there was a report on me that she’d seen. Perhaps I stood out in the class I’d been allocated. I seem to think that English classes were graded, and, despite my results, I’d been put in one of the lower graded classes. THS were one of the best schools in the state, and perhaps they thought they knew better.

Lying in bed unable to sleep, I remembered all that. I remembered the play. It was the first time I’d been exposed to Shakespeare, and it sparked a lifelong love for his genius. I was proud to play Richard, but I was also fascinated by the dark convolutions of the play.

I was 15. There’s a lot going on at that age. I was the newcomer and relative stranger. I remember copping some low-level grief at being a ‘Mexican’and about ‘aerial ping-pong’, as they liked to describe Aussie rules footy. I made friends soon enough, though, one of whom is still very close. I’d had my lusts before – I was precocious in that regard – but look back with special fondness at some of the ripe attractions I felt in that year.

Here I am now. I realised the other day that I’m at the page, possibly exacerbated by recent events, when you look back and wish you could ‘redo’ some moments. More keenly, you wish you understood better back before, and appreciated the wonderful moments more keenly rather than brushing them off. When you’re young, there’s always more. Whatever you’ve had, there’ll be more to come. And for a long time, it’s true, just as it’s true now – just that the more is less than what it was before. And the decisions you’ve made before now dictate what is to come. Or maybe not.

I know that probably sounds a bit grim. Consider it no more than a fair appraisal. I can’t redo things. There’s so much that I wish had been different. But not to be and no point dwelling on it. I’m alive now, awake and alert. I have more time to come now and an awareness I didn’t have before. I can make a difference still.

And there, in a nutshell, is the sort of stuff that flows through my mind unimpeded as I try to sleep. It’s all there – the memory, the conjectures, the revisions, the leaping sense of wonder and flights of logic, and the final judgment.

The Anzacs I remember

It’s Anzac Day today, which I’m sure I’ve written of many times before, though mostly in relation to the big footy match that takes place on this day – though once I also wrote on my visit to the place where it all started, Gallipoli. Today, I want to write about something different.

Both my grandfathers served in WW2. My father’s dad was posted to Darwin, in the north of Australia. My mum’s dad fought in New Guinea and Borneo with the 7th division. Both my grandfathers died in the early eighties.

I have strong memories of both my grandfathers, who were quite different from each other and who – it seemed – had a different relationship to the time they served.

My father’s dad was a gentle, kind, reflective man who loved books and reading. I sometimes wonder how my father came from him – a hard-edged, aggressive type, and even myself, just as hard-edged but a lot more progressive. But then, I inherited from my grandfather his love for learning and literature.

He worked as an accountant for over 50 years at the PMG (Postmaster-General – now Australia Post). He probably got a gold watch out of it. He was always immaculately dressed in the manner of his more genteel generation. As a young boy, I remember a few times being by his side as he shopped at Henry Bucks.

I would also go with him to the cricket, which he loved. I remember, we were there on what I remember as the greatest single day of Test cricket I’ve witnessed – the 1981 Boxing Day test against the West Indies. We saw Kim Hughes score a dashing, wonderful century as the team collapsed around him, then the West Indies four down for not many, with the great DK bowling the equally great Viv Richards on the last ball of the day.

I spent many of my school holidays with them in their Strathmore home. They were quiet, easy days. They had a border collie called Lassie we would walk. In the backyard, my grandfather, a very clever amateur botanist, had grafted one fruit tree on another. There were several types of apple, a pear tree, and a quince – we always had jars of homemade quince jelly. In the corner of the yard was an almond tree.

He was also a keen and handy carpenter. He made me a bookcase once and I still have a scrapbook of his containing designs and handyman articles clipped from newspapers in the fifties and sixties. I remember him measuring me when I was about 16 on a home-made ruker and proclaiming I was ‘six foot and three quarters of an inch’ tall.

Inside the house, I would scour Grandpa’s extensive bookshelves for something new to read. (Sadly, when he died, my grandma sold all his books as a job lot, including an original The Art of Cricket by Don Bradman. I wish I could have kept some of those books). In the evening, when my grandparents would sit down for a drink (brandy and soda?), They would mix me a Claytons and dry.

I don’t recall my grandpa ever talking about his service in the war. I’m surprised I never asked him. I was quite the war buff in those days, as many of my generation were. Had he survived longer, I’m sure I would have asked him more. I remember his last days in the old Prince Henry hospital but recall nothing of his funeral.

My mum’s dad – gramps – was quite a different character. He’d been a master brickie all his life, and I remember well how he would claim to have laid the first ever brick at La Trobe University.

He was a rascal-ish, cheeky character. While I would often spend school holidays with my dad’s parents, it was my mum’s parents who would babysit us often when my parents were out together. They lived in a compact house in Reservoir, built in the large backyard of my great-aunt/uncles (Elsie and Bill) home.

I remember how gramps would call ‘Brown’ – my nanny’s maiden name – when he wanted her. He called me ‘Tiger’, or ‘Tige’. He had a gimpy leg from some injury incurred during the war, the details of which I’ve forgotten. He would read Parade and share it with me and occasionally take me to the movies. I remember seeing The Crimson Pirate with him and, another time, Young Winston.

He adored me. He would say how I was ‘as heavy as a brick’ when I was born. I adored him too for his garrulous, irrepressible nature. He was much more forthcoming about his service in WW2.

He was a sapper with the 7th divvy and fought in New Guinea and Borneo. His great mate was a bloke he called ‘Popey’ (Pope), and he returned from the war with an insatiable taste for rice. Nanny was very adept at concocting rice based desserts – rice custard, rice pudding, rice cream, and so on.

There was one story he told me that I later used in a story I wrote about how a sentry one night in New Guinea had shot one of his comrades who’d gone out into the jungle to take a dump. He would laugh as he told the tale, but the smile would fade from his face as he remembered.

I don’t know that gramps was terribly reputable, but he was lots of fun. They were quite different characters my two grandfathers, but I loved them both, and both were very good to me.

I wish they had lived longer and that I had got to know them as an adult. There’s so much I’d like to have asked them.

They’re just two of the many thousands of Anzacs we celebrate on this day. It’s good to remember them.

How it happens

Speaking of overreactions, I think some of the commentary over what happened yesterday at the Oscar’s ceremony verges on the absurd. Admittedly, it was a shocking event – in terms of being totally unexpected – but it is hardly uncommon. What made this different is that two famous people were involved, and it happened on live TV.

Should the police have become involved? It falls within their ambit, but that would have been a mistake. Should Smith be banned because of this? Once more, I think not.

I read someone claiming that the sight of casual violence being normalised like that would have repercussions. To be honest, that horse bolted long ago. Both casual and formalised violence is on our TV screens every night. It’s part of the problem that violence, in general, has been co-opted for entertainment, and the more graphic, the better. Feel free to complain about that, but it started long ago. It doesn’t excuse what happened yesterday, but it puts it in perspective.

I may be a special case, but my first reaction on seeing the footage was a surprised amusement. I’m the cool type, and it’s rare that anything will get me het up. It was basically a bitch-slap, much like you’ll see outside a nightclub any Saturday night. Smith portrayed Ali once, and had he struck Rock with a closed fist, that would have been a different matter.

Smith has since apologised, which is appropriate. I’m surprised more people aren’t taking Chris Rock to task because of his insensitive joke.

I suspect that my view of this is primarily informed by my generation. I don’t know what it’s like for kids and young people these days, but I know there is a cultural thrust that wasn’t present when I was their age. I’m aware of it and largely sympathetic as someone older, but it’s not ingrained in me. I’m liberal by inclination. I weary of some of the didactic, tedious commentary, but I’m in broad agreement with much of it. Even so, it’s important to me that I think for myself without reference to a structured position. It’s my habit to reflect and reason things through, using my knowledge and experience. As for what I feel, I firmly believe there should be no filters on your heart.

Laying in bed last night, I was reminded of the times I’d been in a confrontation. There’s not been many since leaving school, and mostly nothing more than some fierce verballing and a bit of push and shove. It may be shocking to the casual reader here, but I never shied from these confrontations and felt quite invigorated by them. I felt like cleaning out the pipes, but times were different.

Back in the day, it was important how you did this. It shocks and shames me these days to hear of some of the violent episodes perpetrated in the pubs and streets. It was a matter of honour that you wouldn’t hit someone when they weren’t looking; indeed, you’d never king-hit someone from behind. And you’d definitely never glass anyone. It probably sounds stupid, but half the time, the confrontation would be ended with a wink and a yeah, alright. It wasn’t that serious.

Two minor altercations came to mind. In one, we were in a pub in South Melbourne, Cheeseboy and me and a girl. We were playing pool. A group came in and started making comments. I was happy to shrug it off, but Cheeseboy took offence. There ensued a verbal confrontation that threatened to become more.

In a very Australian way, I looked on with barely a word. I was supportive of Cheeseboy, but he had it under control and didn’t need me jumping in. In between, we continued to play pool. I was ready to back him up if it came to that, and the others knew it in my body language. In the end, it never went beyond the verbal. I may have said something towards the end. They went away.

I’m walking down Toorak road on a balmy Saturday night in the other incident. Beside me is a mate’s wife, who is about 60% deaf. My mate and other friends are following about 30 metres behind. We’re talking when suddenly there’s the sound of men yelling. They’re yelling at us, at my friend particularly, making all sorts of improper and inappropriate comments.

They’re in a minibus, stopped at the lights and leaning out of the window at us. My friend can’t make out what they’re saying and thinks it’s probably something fun. When I stalk off to confront them, she starts to follow until I tell her to stay behind. The men, louts in their early twenties and probably half-pissed are delighted at my approach. Watcha going to do, big fella? I hadn’t thought about that, but I was open to pulling them through the window and teaching them some manners.

The thing is, I didn’t think about any of this. It was automatic – much as it seems to have been with Will Smith yesterday. My body took over. I went to them, full of disdain and cold anger. I had no fear. No part of me had begun to question what I was doing. It felt right.

In the end, the lights changed, and the minibus moved off with the hoots of the men inside it. I turned and went back to my friend.

Nothing came of it, but something might have. Was it wrong? Part of me thinks you can’t let such behaviour go without acting – but then, I know a large part of that may well be my masculine ego. I think mostly I was shocked that people could be so disgusting towards an innocent and very kind woman who happened to be a good friend. My intrinsic reaction was rage. I couldn’t let it go unpunished. But this is me afterwards, trying to explain it. At the time, my body took over.

Perhaps it is wiser to turn the other cheek. It would have been wiser for Will Smith to do that. But sometimes, it just doesn’t sit right.

No excuses, no explanations, and that’s the point – right or wrong, sometimes things just happen, and you can’t know unless you’re there. That doesn’t excuse it. It’s just reality as we know it.

Hospital reading

When I discovered that I was going go be sent directly to the hospital the other day without the chance to get home first I asked Cheeseboy to pack a bag for me and bring it to the hospital. Grab a book from the side table I asked, hoping he’d grab the Clive James book of essays I’d just had delivered. He remembered everything else, but forgot that.

Fortunately, I’d downloaded a book to my iPad before journeying to the hospital in August, prior to my surgery. I never read it then, but it was waiting for me this time – and it’s a perfect book for an extended hospital stay (I’m still here).

One of the people who introduced me to reading was my spinster aunt. My grandfather, who had a great library, played a part, as did my mother to some extent – and also my own precocious curiosity.

Every birthday and Christmas I could expect at least one book, exquisitely wrapped, to be presented to me. She has her own bookshelves also filled with quality classics and contemporary fiction, as well as history. She was a learned reader and fierce intellect. I read many books from her shelves.

I remember one of the books I plucked from them was James Clavell’s rollicking Taipan. This must have been the late seventies/early eighties. I loved that book. It was a great read and a wonderful insight into the history and culture of the times – British colonial expansion into China in the 1850s, and the establishment of Hong Kong.

I was big into books then, as I have been ever since. At some point I was a member of the Book of the Month club – quite a thing, then – and ordered in hardbacks of other Clavell books. He was a big writer for a while. I loved King Rat, and then I got Shogun.

That’s the book I’m reading again now. I loved it then – for the grand adventure and the fantastic writing about traditional Japanese culture, which I was much impressed with. I don’t think I’ve read it since the mid-eighties, though I watched a surprisingly good mini-series staring Richard Chamberlain back in the day.

What I’m saying is that reading it again now brings back many memories – and that I’m finding it as enthralling an experience as I did the first time around. I’m ripping through it, which is just what I need.

I’m only about a third through, but it’s a long book. I find I have to ration myself reading, as you do sometimes with the best books. God knows why I must now, I’ve got nothing better to do – habit, probably. A book like this at a time like now is a godsend. Time in hospital is bleak and sometimes painful and often tedious. Anything that gets you through it is welcome.

Tomorrow I’ll be home, to the hot bath I crave and my own bed. The things you cherish when you don’t have them. And back to Rigby.

How we rolled

Walking back from the shops the other day, I spotted a couple of young teenage boy with a homemade Billy cart trying to get going on what is a pretty level road. It brought back memories.

I reckon it’s ages since I last saw a billy cart, but when I was a kid, they were all the rage. I remember mine very well, as it was pretty well a deluxe version – it even had a brake (more usually, you would break with the heels of your shoes).

I can’t remember, but judging by the construction, there must have been some adult involvement in constructing the thing. Outside the breaks, it was pretty typical of most billy-carts – old pram wheels, ideally smaller ones at the front, bolted onto a box in which you sat and connected to the front wheels via a length of timber sufficient to reach with knees half bent. There was a loop of cord connected to either end of the front axle to allow for steering, and, in my case, there was a hand lever brake on the right that, when applied, would fix a block of wood to the rear wheel.

Most of us had billy-carts then and would spend time fixing them up and racing them. There was a lot of kids in our street and so a fair bit of competition, but as I was bigger than most and had the primo billy-cart, I would win most. We lived in a culture de sac that had a good slope on it so that you could get a lot of speed up and momentum after the initial push-off. A sweeping turn to the right – maybe a 70-degree curve – would bring some riders to grief if they were going too quick. It made it really interesting, though.

That was back in the day when various prangs and accidents were part and parcel of growing up. I remember once riding a scooter down the footpath of the same street. I got to the end of the street to find a hole where the pavement should be and a block of bricks preventing any exit to the right. I crashed, and later on would proudly count about 30 odd different scrapes, bruises and cuts on me.

Another time, I remember, we were building a tree hut in the neighbour’s pine tree. Somehow we’d got an old door up the tree, which we planned to use as the floor. It hadn’t yet been fixed in place when I climbed on top of it, planning to put a few nails through it. Not to be. Before I could do anything, the door began to slide out from under me, taking me with it. We came crashing to the ground below with me basically surfing the door down. It was a crazy, surreal feeling, like a disaster unfolding in slow-motion, but pretty heady, too. I’m not sure if I somehow found myself under the door once we hit the ground. I can remember the ringing in my ears and a sore head – I was probably concussed – but I shook it off, and we went back to it. I was about 10 then.

Then there was another occasion, the same street, we were playing kick to kick with the footy. WE would do that plenty in the winter months. I was probably 10-12. On the corner was a big water tank behind a high, barbed wire fence. Someone kicked the ball into the enclosure, and I climbed the fence to retrieve it.

It was not unusual for mischievous boys like us to go where we weren’t meant to (there was the time we nearly burnt down my old school – another story), but this time it didn’t work out so well. Getting over the top of the barbed wire, I managed to snag my wrist on it. The skin tore as I freed myself. I retrieved the ball, kicked it back, then climbed back over the fence.

There was a fair bit of blood, but I was happy to continue until the father of one of my mates suggested I should get my parents to look at my injury. I don’t think they did much. Put a band-aid on it, probably. I was out kicking the footy anyway within 10 minutes.

I’ve still got the scar – about 15 mm long and jagged. I’m pretty certain I should have got stitches, but that was how we rolled then.

The things we keep

From what I can tell, there are many through the pandemic and the various states of lockdown who have taken the time to re-organise and reset their home. It’s a convenient occasion to do so, but I can’t help thinking that it’s a psychological reaction to the times. Locked in, uncertainty all about, and peril at the door, it seems natural that people would attempt to assert some order on their life, however, they can. There aren’t a lot of options, but the decision to spring clean is one of them. Out with the old, and what remains is re-sorted and classified.

I know of a few people who have done this, Donna foremost among them, and I’ve had several unusual conversations on the subject – that is, unusual if these were normal times, but quite standard these days.

I’ve certainly indulged in this, though it could easily be argued that it was long overdue in my case. I’ve got a lot of stuff generally and, while not a hoarder, am inclined to hang onto things.

Early days, I spent a lot of time going through stuff. I threw out or gave away a fair bit from my kitchen and study, and even books, of which I still have boxes full of them. I sought to get rid of the containers in my study with bits and pieces spilling from them and spent a lot of time going through the various clippings I’d collected over the years and either tossing them in the bin or digitising them. All of this is ongoing, and there’s a permanent pile of stuff by my front door that I’ve either got to throw out (including DVDs and CDs) or stuff I’m waiting to get the proper storage for (my old photos).

The other day I came across another cache of stuff dating back to the late nineties, I reckon. It was interesting to go through it and a bit lame, too. There were a bunch of work emails I’d printed out, most of the type that people used to send (but no longer) of jokes or interesting stuff. I still chuckled at some, but to the bin, they went.

Then I came across a poem I’d printed out. I couldn’t recall doing it, and all these years later wondered what it was that inspired me? Was it a woman? Was it a simple appreciation for the poem? Or was it something else?

We do that, and me more than most – we squirrel things away. I guess most people don’t save poems, but I’m a sucker for good poetry. For many years, I had a party trick I’d trot out occasionally whereby I’d recite Byron’s poem, So We’ll Go No More a Roving from memory, line by line.

As it happens, the poem I came across the other day is another by Byron (who is a favourite, along with Donne and Marvell, Yeats, Rilke and some of the modernists like William Carlos Williams and Cummings).

As I’m about to toss this in the bin also, let me first record the poem here for posterity:

When We Two Parted

When we two parted
In silence and tears,
Half broken-hearted
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.

The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow –
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame;
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.
They name thee before me,
A knell in mine ear;
A shudder comes o’er me—
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well—
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.
In secret we met—
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?—
With silence and tears.

How many moments like these in our life, where we’re so moved to write something of it or read something meaningful and copy it out? And how many of them are forgotten? I’m grateful at least that for the last 20 years, almost those moments have been recorded here, more or less, even those now passed from mind.

It’s a beautiful poem.

Nothing is forever

I’m glad to have the day off, but Good Friday must be the most boring day of the year. In a way, it’s good in that it forces you to slow down and attend to the simple things. In celebration of that, I didn’t climb out of bed until nearly 10 am. Later, I’ll check on the footy perhaps, though I expect a dull match, or do some reading or watch a diverting movie. There’s always housework, and then there’s my writing – I have to get to that.

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time I loved Easter. I recalled it yesterday as I took Rigby for his second walk of the day. This time, we went in the direction of the beach. It was a warm and sunny afternoon, and around the time, I thought, when once I would have been gearing up for a long Easter weekend away.

For many years, the extended family would gather at the property at Yarck at Easter to celebrate the relationship between us. It was a lazy, easy long weekend. If the weather was cool – and I always reckoned Easter marked the seasons’ turning – then the pot-bellied stove would be on non-stop. We would sit around, reading in recliners or playing board games at the dining table. There’d always be drinks come around 4 o’clock – beer and then wine; and often a glass of sherry over lunch. Dinner was an extravagant affair, with each family group responsible for separate days, and all of it washed down with the best wine.

There were occasional day-trips, and most years, we’d make it to the Mansfield fete on the Saturday. There’s a picture of me riding a camel there, and one year my sister bought a pet goose (which later disappeared).

On Easter Sunday, naturally, there would be an Easter egg hunt. In the early days, the young adults, like my sister and her husband, my step-sister and me, would take part. I won every year for some reason if winning is to be measured by the most Easter eggs collected. Later on, it was exclusively for the kids.

Orchestrating much of this, and exuding delight throughout, was my mother, who took an extraordinary pleasure in having her family around her. She was the life force that made Easter such a memorable occasion for all of us, for her delight would infect us. Beside her was her husband, my step-father, who found late in life the same pleasures as my mum took, and because of her. He would stand by watching, a smile on his face, urging and supporting.

For me, it was a serene period of rest and reflection. I would try to get away early on the Thursday before and drive the 130 kilometres (about 2 hours) to be there in time for dinner. In later years, I slept in the log cabin in the corner of the property. I loved that. I would retire to it late at night, coming down from the house and likely taking a piss in the bushes on the way. In the morning, I would have a coffee in bed reading before heading up to the rest of the family.

I would read a lot – maybe 2-3 books over the weekend – and would take the time to think about life. What I thought about, or who has passed from memory, though I do recall occasions when I’d be struck by a passing conjecture that I’d wonder at through the day.

There was always work to be done too, and tasks allocated – gardening perhaps, cleaning up the tennis court, or mending a fence, or chopping firewood – there was always that. But then we might spend an hour in the spa with a bottle of bubbles, or have a game of pool.

There’s so much in this I miss. I miss my mum and, just as much, I miss what she represented. I miss my step-dad, who I loved and felt loved by. I miss my step-sister, K, who I lost after my mum died and the family exploded. And I miss the meaning of all that, the love and affection, the casual joy, even the sense of tranquillity, which is entirely absent these days.

It was always a bit sad returning to Melbourne at the end of that. The property at Yarck was like a sanctuary for all of us. It was a place outside of the world in which we could be ourselves and together. It was much commented on how calming and restful it was just to walk in the door. I felt safe and happy and loved there, always, and I think it was the same for everyone.

On the drive back, I would follow the familiar road feeling relaxed by the weekend but already looking ahead to the week ahead and returning to regular life. Another year gone, but Easter would come again, and so too would Yarck – until one year it was no more, and nothing left of that life.

Looking back, it feels like the fall of an empire. When you’re in the middle of it, you can hardly imagine it ever ending. Then, afterwards, you realise that for every beginning, there is an ending, and though it endured for about 15 years, nothing is forever.