Friday, December 19, 2008

The weather and the land

My student left halfway through the movie Australia that we’d all gone to see at the cinema. Afterwards she said that she hadn’t expected it to be a story. She thought that the movie would be about the weather and the land.

After nearly a week of no internet

After nearly a week of no internet, during which I had had been on the phone with countless representatives of two different internet providers – both our actual internet provider and the provider that had tried to poach our business by setting up an unwanted contract, sending out an unwanted modem and then changing the coding on our ADSL line without our permission – after nearly a week of phone calls with technical support staff (mostly in India) and customer relations staff from the poaching provider (mostly in Australia), during which I was becoming more and more incensed and given to venting my frustration on any hapless person on the other end of the phone line, it was humiliating to have it discovered that the supposed fault I had been railing about, since the original coding was finally reinstalled three days after it was removed, had been caused by all the plugging and unplugging of cables that I had been doing under instruction from various technicians – where, in short, the phone line had fallen out of the back of the modem and got lost in the tangle between the wall and the desk.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Numerous arguments and examples

He told me about a girl he knew who, while teaching English in Tokyo, had discovered that all of her Japanese adult students without exception believed, as a race distinct from everybody else in the world, they possessed an extra foot of intestine and were alone in being able to perceive every colour in the rainbow.

Even when this girl had insisted that these claims couldn’t be true – and attempted to prove it by numerous arguments and examples – her students had continued to believe that they were in the right and she the one being misled – a situation evidently astounding.

Of course, both of us had already had a couple of drinks at the time and so were in no position to judge.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The common myna

The common myna which, I have read, is a communal nester, gorges in quantity on the streets of the city. Yesterday morning I saw one in the gutter pecking at the soft, flecked turd of a dog that had probably been eating a boil-up of vegetables. In the afternoon I saw another pulling flesh from a chicken wing near a telephone booth.

The balding one I saw crossing the road with his several mates only two days before had the look of someone determined to behave as if he hadn’t been drinking – or at least as someone who doesn’t need his drink to sound like the most knowledgeable, prescient, firm-thinking figure that anyone has met in the ornithological world.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Second time around

The main difference between a hundred day memorial service for the dead and the funeral itself is actually very small, my student told me. In each case there is the three thousand dollars for the prayers of the monk and six hundred dollars for the food – a whole pig, a whole duck, and a lot else besides, as she said – but at least the second time around there is no expense on the coffin. And neither is there anything to be decided about the disposal of the dead.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ideally positioned for lifestyle

runs the description of a house for auction in the labyrinthine backstreets of Newtown, where a car has sat with a smashed windscreen for over a week and jacaranda petals make a soft, purple-brown carpet over everything in a five metre radius from the trunk of the tree.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Man on a bicycle

My friend told me that last week, while crossing the street where she knew David Malouf to be living, a man on a bicycle passed her – a late middle aged man with tanned calves, a white helmet and a small white moustache under a recognisable nose – a man who could even have been David Malouf himself, if I wanted to believe it, but she knew couldn’t have been.

Not only was he far too wiry and peddling far too fast, this man on a bicycle was not the sort of image that occurs in any of his books, she said.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Missed observing

Walking along the street only minutes before half past twelve in the middle of the day, I realised that I had avoided being in a public place for eleven o’clock and had therefore missed observing the one minute’s silence in remembrance of the end of the First World War.

In the same way, almost exactly one week earlier, I had missed observing the Melbourne Cup.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Now, no one could control

He told us how Pierre Boulez had the habit, every couple of years, of declaring one or other young conductor the greatest conductor alive, after which, with very few exceptions, the young conductor would begin an exhilarating career of dizzying disaster that was fuelled by the hubris that, now, no one could control.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Whatever it was

At about the point on the tarmac when the plane we were in was beginning to lift, I noticed a largish pond within the airport grounds that was entirely covered in black netting. A pelican was circling above, no doubt drawn there by whatever it was that the staff at the airport were careful to keep to themselves.

In case of an emergency

Just before the plane began to taxi out to the runway, I heard one of the flight attendants telling the people near the exit doors that they would be the ones responsible for evacuating the plane in case of an emergency. At the signal, ‘evacuate, evacuate, evacuate’, these people near the exits should be prepared to open the doors as she’d instructed them. Of course, she added, they would have to use their discretion as to whether it would be safer inside or out.

Had I not heard the later, more standard announcement, with the attendants miming the seatbelt, lifejacket and crash position procedures that a digital voice was putting through the speakers, I would have begun to believe that an emergency was more likely to happen during this flight than any other that I had ever been on, and that I would have to rely on the discretion of the several people now seated at the doors, whose ordinary shirts and hair had, for no rational reason, failed to inspire my confidence.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Difficult to explain

It was difficult to explain, my friend told me, why she was so affected by seeing the famous Dutch conductor on one of the main streets of the city the next morning.

All he was doing, she said, was walking up to a rubbish bin to put out his cigarette and then, turning, heading to the newspaper stall on the corner, near the station, his hand already in his pocket ready to buy something.

It was these simple actions in the street that affected her, she said – she hadn’t felt the same when she saw him with his friends in the artists’ bar not long before the concert. In the artists’ bar, even though she knew who he was the moment she saw him, he had seemed just to be one of the many artists and friends of artists that are always sitting around in that place during the festival.

It was only in the street the next day that she could sense what it might mean to be interested only in music, to talk only of music, as someone had once told her when describing the conductor. She said that it had almost broken her heart to see him in the street the next morning, but she was still at a loss to explain why that was.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The signal

Last week, on the site of the old Kent Brewery on Broadway, of which nothing more than the scraped shadows of walls and the skeleton of a building were still standing – and from behind a fence that might have been made of giant Manila folders placed side by side – a large metal claw raised a single wooden window frame and then lowered it again.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Out of sight of the men

The pilgrims had come, she since discovered, from the Territory of the Wallis and Futuna Islands, and when the women were housed in a completely different part of the city from the men, the organisers of the religious festival found it impossible to get them to come to a single special event.

All the rest of their lives they had to look after the men folk, the women explained, and so now they were out of sight of the men, pope or no pope, they would far prefer a holiday on their own.

Her working life

My parents told me that the woman sitting down the front, not far from the stage, had been a real estate agent for the last seventeen years of her working life, and it was from her that they learnt of a Japanese businessman’s plan to lease the Northern Territory from the Australian government – a plan which, evidently, has never come to fruition, but not for want of trying, or so they had heard.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The last thing

In death she was smaller, the niece told me afterwards. She had lost all resistance – or rather become the crystalline resistance itself. She was a leavings. The last thing. The word ‘remnant’ came to her. Clearly her aunt had gone, leaving this last thing on the bed.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Handling them quickly

The longer she worked as an interpreter and translator, my new neighbour said, the more she was astounded by its common impossibilities. Take the word ‘harm’, she told me. This was often referred to in her work at the courts, but could I give an accurate explanation of it in English? And as for ‘exciting’ and ‘adventure’ – words that had no existence in the Asian language she worked in – that must have been pressed from centuries of pamphleteering on colonial expeditions – these two words came up every day in cases to do with travellers and, when they did, she found herself handling them quickly.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The secret gambler

At the station, she said, when she read on a billboard that the three steps of a gambling hangover were, first: a sick feeling, second: anxiety and regrets, and third: not liking yourself, she began to wonder whether she might have been gambling in secret, and in such a clever and deceitful way that she had erased all memory of what she’d been doing, and so now would never be able to be sure whether this was the cause of her symptoms or not.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A dream of flowered walls

Last weekend, the night before the ashes of a friend of ours were scattered in a park, my daughter said she woke after a nightmare about flesh-eating vampires only to slip quietly into the most wonderful dream she'd ever had.

It was already Sunday, she said, and she had gone to the park for the scattering of the ashes. Nobody else she knew was there – none of her family, none of our friends – but for some reason this didn’t worry her. On all sides of the park there were walls of greenery covered in flowers. The flowered walls were high and thick, like the walls of buildings, and soon she saw that there were many of them ranged in rows all around her. She wanted to stay in that park forever – so happy did she feel in it – so free, despite the walls, but she woke up and all she could do now was hope to draw or paint or describe in words or one day, even, try to recreate that park with its tall and flowering walls.

Needless to say the park we went to was nothing like the one in her dream. My daughter said she couldn’t even remember the person whose ashes were being scattered – a person who had gone back to the country of her birth and died there after only a couple of years – a person remarkable for her intelligence and the generosity of her nature – a person who’d had neither children nor animals; who, with her partner, had kept several gardens but had always moved away.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

While out hunting deer

At the bus stop a woman told anyone who would listen that she had just come across a plaque that said someone called Dr Robert Wardell – co-founder of The Australian newspaper – had once owned most of what was now the Municipality of Marrickville and that he had been killed in 1834 while out hunting deer on his property – and killed by bushrangers too, which surprised her not a bit.

Nothing much had changed since then, in her opinion. She herself was too scared to be out and about after dark. Of course, as for Marrickville proper, it was hard to imagine how it had once looked for this Dr Wardell. And nobody seemed to read newspapers any more, except for her sister who bought three every day.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The result of a generator

Had I not overheard those nuns in the bus I would never have realised that the smoke rising from the foot of the cross for so-called World Youth Day in Sydney this year was not the kitsch visual effect of a production team who’d spent too many hours in their adolescence watching midday films like Barabbas, but was instead the result of a generator which, having caught fire under the floor, had been doused just in time to prevent too great a reference to other moments in Christian history, such as the burning alive of Giordano Bruno in the Campo De’ Fiori in Rome, or the much larger conflagrations in England or Counter-Reformation Spain.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Wet lab

It was her first ‘wet lab’, Alicia told us, and that evening in the School of Anatomy at the university, with the storm slipping its eerie transparencies through the dust-filmed windows – when she had tried to concentrate on the leader of the session who, flanked by a pair of skeletons on slabs and a bucket of brains, had paused for a moment during the worst of the thunder – she wondered why her mother had been at her all her years at high school to do this course, having implied that physiotherapy was not only a well paid, but also a benign, even innocuous profession.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

No Pavarotti

The bus driver sang, my neighbour told us, all the way into the city. He was no Pavarotti, in fact he was completely tuneless, she said. He sang the most banal ditties imaginable. He sang about stopping at the lights and about how he was not going to start off until the woman and the baby had sat down; he sang about how much he liked to sing and about the way the rain ran in patterns down the windscreen – anything seemed to get him going. Anything at all.

Each time someone new got on the bus, my neighbour would look to see whether they were discomforted by the singing. People are such very good actors, she said. They would walk to their seats as if everything was ordinary.

Most of the passengers would smile now and then, but all the same, when they did, they would avoid each other’s eyes and would smile, instead, at the rain. My neighbour said that there were some that gave no reaction at all but stared fixedly ahead.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


She introduced herself to us as Juliet and, since we were in Verona, she forestalled any comments by saying that at the hotel where she worked, someone would always be remarking on the co-incidence – always very pleased with themselves and their wit – and she would tell them about the full-time position in the tourist bureau where a man called Ernesto signed himself as Juliet, responding to letters that the lovelorn and the crazy from all around the world kept sending to Juliet in the city of Verona.

Of course, this Ernesto would always reply in longhand, she told us. To respond in typescript – let alone email – would cost him his job.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The boat is filling with water

As I approached his room in the nursing home on Father’s Day, the masculine words of a television documentary pressed from the room, louder than anything else in the corridor: Barnes and Clark have slumped lifeless in the cockpit and the boat is filling with water…

The fact that he, too, lay as if lifeless, his feet stretched out before him on the bed, his eyes half closed either in concentration or in sleep, made me hesitate just a moment before entering with the flowers.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Had I noticed

Had I noticed, he asked, that it was always the quiet ones that wrote with the most exclamation marks?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Arrogant as

Brett told us how when they were invited to China to do aerial gymnastics for the Beijing Olympics, one of the kids from the ensemble had bought a super powered laser light, of the sort that has recently been banned in Australia – a super powered laser that he bought at a street stall for fifteen dollars – and shone the light from the window of his hotel, dispersing the police in the street below and sending them running like ants in all directions, as the kid later boasted (or so Brett said).

The police had been furious as hell, Brett told us. They stormed into the hotel, demanding to know who it was that had shone the laser. Everyone knew who had shone it – even the police had been able to pinpoint the room – but the kid wouldn't admit it, and even tried to make it seem that someone else had shone the laser – his laser – that someone had stolen it and had somehow broken into his room to shine it.

This same kid got the super powered laser through customs into Australia. One of his friends had his Ninja star confiscated, Brett said, but that kid with the laser seemed to slip past trouble and was always a jerk and arrogant as.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Going to report it

All she talked about these days was the refrigerated truck that parked every other day outside her house and on the wrong side of the road, what was more – a danger to anyone coming around the corner. She was going to report it. She just didn’t know who to ring.

It was always the same truck, she said. The dashboard was covered with car magazines and she often saw the shoes and sometimes the bare, hairy calves of the driver who slept along the seats. When he awoke he would probably sit up and look down the street to watch the trains as they passed behind the fence, on the other side of the road that ran perpendicular to hers, unless instead he looked sideways, hoping to get a glimpse of whoever he imagined was living inside the house that he always parked next to.

She bet it was the trains, though. Otherwise there’d be girlie magazines on the dashboard and she’d never seen any of those.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Rat corpses

The second was so large, so sleek, so nearly beautiful, she said – its fur flecked with brown and gold, its eyes receding but not yet infested – that, before she wrapped it in newspaper and dropped it in the bin, she spent time on the internet – to the great derisive amusement of her husband – just making sure that they hadn’t poisoned a native rat by mistake.

The first might have spent longer as an intact corpse than it ever did alive, as she told me: its small, desiccated and completely flattened body a rushed impression of a running rat. She said she’d had to flick it with a stick last week from the path where she walked under trees along the railway line, so that it might not continue to be trodden on where it lay, camouflaged by bottle caps and brown glass and turpentine leaves.

I could therefore see, she said – as far as the corpses of rats were concerned – she was fast becoming an expert in the field.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Any half-brain on the motorway

Yesterday, one of my students – an Iraqi in his early twenties – told us how, the day before, he had accidentally driven the wrong way down a motorway exit and the only vehicle coming the other way – a large truck – leant on its horn but, otherwise, made no attempt to slow down or stop or in any way avoid what was going to be a head-on collision. My student had then pulled on the hand-brake and, after spinning around two or three times – narrowly missing the truck – found his car, by chance, facing in the right direction, and so was able to drive up beside the truck, which was now at the traffic lights, waiting to turn left.

He then told us that what had most shocked him about this – he, who as a taxi driver in Baghdad had had many near misses with explosions and drivers that panicked during sniper attacks – was that, at the lights, he could see the truck driver laughing. He wound down the window and shouted that the truck driver had very nearly killed him, but the man called back that it wouldn’t have bothered him as it wouldn’t have been his fault. Anyone watching – any half-brain on the motorway – would have seen by half a mile it was the car that was in the wrong.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


In the one shop in Cabramurra they told us that, despite being Australia’s highest town and always sure of a good snowfall in winter, business was usually far better during the summer, when the Khancoban Road was open.

As we were leaving the town, our daughter noticed that the one, small petrol station looked as if had been built out of giant Lego pieces. This comment made us all look at the houses a second time: at the steep, Lego-like roofs and the Lego-like, thick walled courtyards – all of which, we had read in a leaflet somewhere, had been built for employees of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme.

We realised, then, how far this architecture was from anything we were used to in Australia and, while we had all grown up making towns out of Lego, none of us actually had ever expected the world to resemble the pictures on the box. We could now see that Lego assumed a world where, it not only snowed, but, unlike the rest of snowed-covered towns in Australia – which have largely been built for the inhabitants of resorts – everything had to be built for people who faced the drear ordinariness of work in the snow.

One of us even went so far as to say that Lego had nothing whatsoever to do with Australia and, the fact that this tiny town received more of its visitors in summer was probably less to do with the town – whose aesthetic was evidently incomprehensible to us – and all to do with the practicalities of being able to use the Khancoban Road to get from one end of the Snowy Mountains to the other without having to go the long way around.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The sole survivor of the family

When I told my colleague how our pet rabbit had died suddenly this morning, after struggling as I was trying to administer the 0.5 ml dose of antibiotics that was intended to stop her dying from pneumonia – how I had virtually killed our rabbit by insisting that she take all of the medication, despite the desperation of her struggles, when instead she might have died in peace, her lungs filling up with bacterial fluids – this colleague then said that she would comfort me by telling a story too ghastly to believe.

On the weekend she had run into an old classmate and this old classmate had told her how, some years ago, another classmate of theirs had gone to hospital to have her fourth child and, learning that it had been born with severe disabilities, had left the child at the hospital to return to her family. Subsequently – and my colleague wasn’t able to remember how long after the birth this had happened, but together we conjectured that it must only have been a matter of a day or two, if not a matter of hours – the husband of the woman went mad, as my colleague said, and murdered all three of the children, his wife and then finally himself, and so the child with the severe disabilities became, by virtue of its neglect, the sole survivor of the family.

The story had indeed comforted me, if ‘comfort’ could be the word to describe the way my mind moved for a moment beyond the repeated image of a rabbit struggling and then lying still – as I attempted to give narrative form to the gruesome plight of six people I had never met and now will never meet, unless it is to meet the last: the sole survivor of the family.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Matching shoes

I overheard her saying that, while being fitted with a colonoscopy bag at the hospital clinic, she told the nurses the joke someone had passed on to her – the one that said the worst thing about having a colonoscopy bag was the difficulty in finding matching shoes – only to learn that the very nurses she was talking to had made up the joke in the first place, and then, pleased with their efforts, had spread it through the community – very likely via those annoying emails that always come in clumps, as she said, and particularly on a Friday morning.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Red Tree

The red-painted tree had been there for weeks, my son told me. We had been walking past it every day. It even had ‘Red Tree’ painted in red on the asphalt in front of it, but that I’m yet to notice.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The great Théophile

My friend Elaine, whose doctoral thesis Sojourns of the Literati in Nineteenth Century Istanbul was published to modest critical acclaim seven years ago, said that she was so taken aback to hear her hairdresser refer to Gautier while he was sculpting the fabric of her hair, as he liked to call it, that she hadn’t been able to stop herself mentioning the great Théophile out loud. It was only some hours later that she realised, of course, her hairdresser – a young Canadian who wore his own straight black hair slicked behind his ears – had meant Jean Paul, and Gaultier with an ‘l’, which probably explained, she told me, the slow shake of his head that she caught in the mirror as he was putting the electric razor to the back of her neck.

Monday, July 21, 2008


For some days, after hearing about the body of the as-yet unidentified woman found in a barrel on the outskirts of Sydney, I couldn’t help thinking of the figure I had seen walking along the one road that leads into the town where one of Australia’s most feisty early twentieth century writers was born. This figure, whose tentative steps between the road and the ditch and whose thick, pale blue synthetic jacket with matching beanie and scarf, worn as if in anticipation of the novelty of snow in the nearby mountains, had made me think, not so much of a child, but of those vulnerable people in institutions who are dressed by others and so will always resemble children. I remembered, too, that the murdered woman in the news had been naked except for a garish Swatch watch still attached to her decomposing wrist – a garish Swatch watch whose soft plastic band had been red, orange and yellow: the three colours, by co-incidence, of the backpacks on the supposedly young and eager pilgrims who, even then, were beginning to pour into Sydney, one group after another, to see the pope.

Taking the cue rest sticks

As my cousin was describing how surprised he was to see a World Youth Day pilgrim at the intersection of Broadway and City Road – outside The Lansdowne Hotel in fact – with a pair of cue rest sticks over his shoulder, his wife interrupted to point out that the supposed cue rest sticks had actually been very simple crucifixes, made from plywood and dowelling, and that this was the third time Bruce had attempted to tell this pointless and idiotic anecdote.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Where to see the pope today

She told me that when she saw her neighbours Ted and Clive on the street yesterday, their shaved grey heads held together as they waited for the lights to change, she realised that their choice of wearing identical black jackets printed all over with cavorting gold skeletons would have been less in solidarity with the women selling POPE GO HOMO t-shirts than a deep nostalgia for something in the groups of uniformed teenagers with lanyards and caps that we were seeing everywhere in our city for so-called World Youth Day – for that time, perhaps, when just the sight of Ted and Clive together and holding hands, as they had once put it to her during a chat over the front fence, could still upset the stiff-arsed passers-by of Sydney.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A pair of grass trees

It was the fact, she told me, that the pediment over the door of the School of Public Health and the School of Tropical Medicine in the university had been carved, perhaps a century ago, with those very words – words that connoted the paternal figure of the striding male doctor in pith helmet and breeches – that she couldn’t help thinking about the magnificent plants at the end of the path leading up to it, which have been known variously over the years as ‘black boys’, ‘grass trees’, as well as the faintly off-putting, botanical name of Xanthorrhoea.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Our neighbours wanted to know whether we had noticed that, for nearly three weeks now, by seven o’clock every morning – which is the time that one of them leaves for work – all the windscreen wipers of the vehicles parked in our street had been flipped into the vertical position – standing like sentries, in the way of Stalin’s supporters, as they put it, who were too afraid to sit down before the man himself did. By the afternoon, only a few of the windscreen wipers would still be vertical, which was a sure sign to thieves that those particular cars weren’t being looked after in the way that other cars were.

The thing to do, they advised – and this they had been telling everybody they knew in the street, and we should do likewise – was to resist the temptation to lay the windscreen wipers flat. In this way, they thought, the thieves would be confused and would go and find another street of cars to harass.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


They told us that, when they awoke one morning to find their seven metres of James Stirling pittosporum hedge had been stolen, they were relieved to find that the police took their predicament seriously. Their gardener, who had been working in the area for nearly fifty years said it was ‘unreal’, using the expression – or so they had to assume – in the way of a septuagenarian rather than a teenager.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Out of its box

Last summer, while waiting at the lights alongside a woman and her children, we saw on the traffic island opposite a young girl in a blue and white checked dress, pinned pinafore, red court shoes and careful, Judy Garland hair. Look Tarlana, the woman had then said to one of her children. It’s your Dorothy doll, like it just come out of its box.

The young girl – who, as it happened, was of Asian appearance as the newspapers put it – might not have heard the children’s exclamations as they passed each other crossing the road because, besides the usual noise of the street, whose decibel levels have been compared to a plane that is starting to taxi, the park towards which she was heading has been known for years as a haven for misplaced, forgotten and hard-to-control, small and irritable dogs.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The score

After the concert, during which the six musicians had worked from scores made, not from staves and notes, but arrangements of colour in a precise, timed sequence, the viola player forestalled the usual expressions of sympathy and surprise when we learned that he was completely colour-blind – and therefore, had needed to have his score marked over in pencil – by telling us that he could see many more shades of grey than those of us who weren’t colour-blind. Very obviously, I realised, we would never get to appreciate this fact.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

No right turn

It was surprising, said my colleague, that the man who had insisted on waiting to turn right at a ‘no right turn’, despite two or three cars honking at him from behind, had been the same man she had seen at the previous intersection, helping his small daughter spell out the word ‘y-e-s’ through the window to a passing young friend on the street.

She said she was glad she hadn’t helped out with conveying the message to the friend on the street – who, as it turned out, must have been either unable to hear them or unable to spell – a situation in which my colleague had been sorely tempted to intervene, as she put it. She was too soft hearted and she often regretted it afterwards, she said.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The black umbrella

When I saw her in sunglasses and carrying a black umbrella open above her along a shaded street, I imagined either that she was protecting herself from the glare reflected off the upper parts of the buildings on the other side of the road or that there was something in the high, blue and completely cloudless winter sky that neither I nor anybody I know understands to our peril.

Monday, June 23, 2008


Their argument had begun even before they arrived – the one argument, as far as we could tell, whose incomprehensible, uncomprehending presence in our house had our children cowering in the farthest corner of it, frightened that the shouting and threats would soon take the shape of television violence, and when the argument dissipated many hours later, we had nothing to say to their parting explanation that Sydney didn’t agree with them.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The small menagerie of Indiana Jones

Some weeks ago my daughter saw two men on the small sloping piece of grass at the back of a car park in Newtown. One of the men she described as Peruvian, the other as looking like Indiana Jones.

While the so-called Peruvian was playing on pan pipes, the Indiana Jones look-alike had lowered a small metal cage and then released, for a short run on the grass, a single guinea pig whose extraordinarily long and multi-coloured fur looked, she thought, as if it would have to be brushed every day to prevent it from turning into a dirty and tangled mat. She did not think that the Indiana Jones man – of whom she had felt a little afraid, for reasons she could not identify – seemed as if he was the kind of person to care for a guinea pig of that sort.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A personal attack

She’d only been expressing her opinion, she told me – and not even her opinion but a passing observation – but when she’d said that toddlers with thick ears were destined to become market analysts, he had taken it as a personal attack even though he’d never had thick ears – as far as she knew – and nor did he work in the financial sector.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


It is said that Australia’s jury system is under threat from Sudoku – a solitary pursuit whose addictive lures have been distracting jurors from the details of rape, embezzlement, murder and robbery, and all for the chimerical pleasures of the completed square.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Today the bus I was in came to a sudden halt just after it turned the corner onto a bridge. There were no cars ahead of it. There was nothing blocking its way. A blonde woman in a navy uniform then called out – despite the fact that she was standing near the front of the bus – for the driver to open and close the back doors. It was the dust, she announced, that had forced the doors apart and jammed the system. It often happened on this bridge.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The carved timber clock

When the mother of a man convicted of bashing a woman before attempting to set her alight informed the papers that his bedroom had always been unnervingly neat – the bed made with military precision, as it was put, and the hanging clothes precisely spaced in the wardrobe – she probably had no idea, my newsagent told me, that she was only further convincing the public of the guilt he continues to deny; and the detail of the carved timber clock was macabre, my newsagent thought. It would have been better to leave out any reference to the carved timber clock.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Your familiar name

Hers was a country, she said, in which you should never tell your friend that her baby was beautiful or cute. It was an ugly baby, you had to say. Its mouth was like a dog’s, its skin like the underside of a snail. Only in this way could you be sure that you weren’t bringing bad luck on the baby whose familiar name among friends and family would soon settle into ‘dog’ or ‘snail’ – never the name of a flower, never anything beautiful or sweet. You could even be called ‘poo’, she said, and this would be the only name used among those who knew you well. Among family and friends this name was to protect you, to keep evil away. If you lived a long, happy and healthy life you would be glad, in the end, that they named you ‘poo’.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The unlocked car

Some years ago I remember reading about how a man hoped to deflect the blame for the murder of his wife, whose corpse he had trussed and concealed in the boot of his car, by parking it in the streets of a suburb known throughout the city for its high rate of crime. He then appeared on national television, the tears coursing down his face as he pleaded with the viewers for any news of his wife who was missing, as he said, last seen in a car park with their now missing car.

The car, which the man might have gambled on being stolen from where it had been left near the heart of this notorious suburb, was found much sooner than anybody expected. Even the dogs of the suburb had been quick to smell the lie of the unlocked car.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I saw

I saw: men, women and children, all of whom were exactly those men, women and children, who looked as if they could be no other than those men, women and children, who looked as if they had chosen those very noses, jowls, tufting hairs and bouffant fringes; those peculiar gestures, funny walks; their very ages; as if they had all gone out that morning and chosen themselves from a display, paid up front, and now were, all of them, satisfied customers.

I saw: myself.

A man who loiters

My friend told me how surprised she had been to realise that the youngish man she often passed on her way home from work in the mid afternoon – a youngish man who usually walked not on the footpath, which was narrow, but in the middle of the street, walking slowly, without shoes on, as if he had no good, no honourable purpose, and so was beginning, in her words, to freak her out – was in fact none other than the trombonist whose virtuosic solo performance nearly a year beforehand at Angel Place had astounded her, since it had come from a man with so slight a frame and whose moustache, in her opinion, had been grown only to hide his gentle, too effeminate lips. She now saw him, she told me, in a completely different light.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The communist occupation

A student told me recently that, more traumatic than being forced to work in the rice fields in South Vietnam in 1975, when she was beaten for pulling out rice shoots which she hadn’t yet learned to distinguish from weeds – a young privileged girl, as she had been then, her possessions reduced to a rice bowl and a pair of chopsticks that she carried with her always – were the very first days of the communist occupation, when the soldiers had jeered at her taste in miniskirts and the breadth of the flares in her trousers. To this day, she said, she has never regained her confidence with clothes.

Sunday, June 8, 2008


Having passed, during the last week, so many people out walking with schnauzers, I have come to the conclusion that either there has been a revival of interest in the hobbies and interests of Patrick White - who is the most famous of neglected Australian writers - or there are a lot of devoted Tintin readers in the inner west.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The author

This morning, my kids and I walked by someone I used to work with – and with whom, over the years, I have stopped to chat several times. This man was staring under the bonnet of his car. He was looking concerned.

I called out a greeting to him, using his first name – and lightly, or so I thought, I referred to his car trouble but, although he looked up, he seemed neither to recognise me nor to want to try to remember who I was.

Knowing that he has become somewhat famous as an author of crime fiction since the days we worked together, I then wondered whether he must often be greeted by people he doesn’t know – and that in fact he has come to loathe this presumption of intimacy on the part of the world. I continued with my walk, feeling both sad and a little hurt.

It was only when my son told me that he had heard a small, high voice as we were passing – a small, high voice which might either have belonged to the author or someone else who had been sitting in the car – this small, high voice rising to a: Will you let me deal with it? – that I realised my greeting would have seemed as presumptuous as any stranger’s, and that both to the author and to the possible person in the car, my so-called light and joking greeting could not have been any more badly timed.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

An injured woman

In the days following the recent earthquake in south-west China, which is now said to have killed over sixty-eight thousand people and injured five times as many, my Chinese-born students were particularly struck by the plight of the young woman who, when faced with the necessity of having her legs severed from her body by a long and painful operation with a knife - so that she might not die where she lay, pinned down by the collapse of everything around her - expressed the single fear that, as the only child of her parents, she would be unable to care for them in their old age.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The jazz singer

My friend, a woman from Neutral Bay, who in the last ten years has gained moderate fame as a jazz singer, told me that it was only recently that she had been able to get any perspective on her achievement. She had gone to have dinner with a couple she had known for many years - a couple who still lived in the street of Victorian terrace houses in Marrickville where she and her ex-husband used to live - and the conversation at the table had turned on many things but inevitably, as she put it, on her sudden rise in fortune when she had been invited to sing at a festival in New York. It was while she was leaving the dinner party - in fact she had gone no more than two paces from the gate of her friends' house - that a young, roughly dressed and overweight man she didn't recognise hailed her by her first name and subjected her to a violent hug. It was lucky, she told me, that the man had been drinking. He kept exclaiming how good it was to see her and then went on to talk for so long and with so many repetitions that it soon became clear she had just met one of her former neighbours whom, when she had seen him last, had been no more than a thin, pale and spotty boy. He had come to see the old place, he told her. He too had moved away, although he didn't say where. In the last two or three years when she had lived in Marrickville, this young man, then a teenager, had made her life unbearable, my friend now told me. Surly during the day - he never addressed a single word to her - he would often become violent and irrational at night. These episodes would start in the early hours of the morning, beginning with a sudden noise as if he had fallen out of bed, and would escalate into what would always sound like one side of a desperate and vituperative argument, his bitter invective resounding through her house as if he were pacing around her kitchen or even closer - at the foot of her bed. In the mornings she would often see the boy's mother hurrying up the street to knock on the door of a friend's house. She had felt sorry for the family then, but more sorry for herself. Wanting now to say something in return, she had then asked after his mother, and this question of hers seemed to make him extraordinarily happy. His mother was wonderful, he said, though her ticker had been giving trouble and she was working too hard, but really, he wanted to say how much he had always loved living in this street, and particularly next door to my friend and her husband, who had always been fantastic neighbours and good to his mum and his dad. She and her husband, he said, had never complained about him and his parents, and he and his parents had never complained about them. In fact, he now said, he used to like the wailing she used to do with that trumpet music, as he called it, and that little playing up and down on the piano, always missing some notes - the wailing and the playing going all over the place - and just thinking about it now was bringing it all back to him. It was making him remember how happy he had been as a kid.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Van and the Pirates

One of my students, Van, a Vietnamese man in his early forties, once told the story of how he had saved himself from being killed by Thai pirates because of his ability to dive and swim very well. He explained how he and his brother had escaped the Communists in Soc Trang province in Vietnam at the end of the eighties by joining a group of more than a hundred other people in a small boat and how, after a couple of days into their journey to Malaysia, three fishing boats - or what had seemed to be fishing boats - had approached them with the offer of food and water. The people on the boats were Thai, as it turned out, and they had asked to talk with the Vietnamese captain. When the refugees saw their captain being pushed to his knees with a knife held to his throat, they began to despair. All the men, including Van and his brother, stepped forward to protect the women and children, standing near the edge of their boat so that the women and children might shelter behind, but the Thai boats had then rammed theirs. They rammed them so hard that Van and several of the other men had fallen into the water. Van then explained how he had been good at swimming when he was young - unusually good - and so, when he fell into the water he had dived down as deep as he could and then swum some distance beyond the boats. As he began to swim to the surface he could see that the water was red with blood and that he was swimming among bodies. One of the pirates saw him as he surfaced and leaned from the fishing boat with a knife, making ready to kill him. Van told us that he was too tired to dive again, so he just smiled. He couldn't speak Thai, so there was nothing he could do or say but smile. To his great surprise, the pirate had then turned away and lowered his knife.

As Van was telling this last part of the story, he demonstrated the smile he had given the pirate, and thus it became clear to the rest of us that it was not so much his ability to dive and to swim that had saved his life but the extraordinary quality of his smile. At the end of the story - a story which continued on for some time, and which involved an attack by a second group of pirates as well as the kidnapping of all the young female refugees - and the stranding of all that were left in a boat that now leaked, without food or valuables or clothing - Van told us how happy he was that we had allowed him to tell his story. It had happened nearly twenty years beforehand but in all the years since - during his time as a refugee in a Malaysian camp and then later as a new migrant in Australia - he had never had the chance to tell it to anyone, and particularly not to anyone Vietnamese. Nobody had wanted to hear his story about the pirates. It was far too depressing, they said.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Ginger Cat

That ginger cat has been lying on the road all day, I was thinking. When I saw it in the morning it had been lying there, still, stretched out on the asphalt in front of a parked car. It might have been enjoying a lie in the sun. For a very short moment I thought that the cat was only lying in the sun as cats like to do – but there had been a small, soft, pink bundle of something on the road a short distance from its head – a small, soft, pink bundle of something that, more than the stillness of the body, had alerted me to the obvious: that the ginger cat was dead.

The bundle of pink had seemed fresh, I remembered thinking. I hadn't been able to stop myself looking at it. I hadn't wanted to look at the body of the cat either, but even so, without looking at the cat straight on, I had noticed that its head was flat and had been tucked in an unusual angle to the body, and as such it should have been obvious that the ginger cat was dead. There was something, too, about the stillness of the body – the quality of the stillness – and this I had gathered without looking straight on at the body of the cat on the road. I am a wimp, I had thought – not only a wimp, but a wimp that is morbid and curious. I should have looked at that dead cat’s body straight on, I was thinking. I should have placed the body of the dead ginger cat at the centre of my focus rather than only at the periphery.

There was something shrunken about the cat now, I could see from the bus stop. It was nearly four o’clock in the afternoon – many hours had passed since I had last seen it. Even from where I was standing I could see that the cat had shrunk and stiffened, looking less like a cat. I had forgotten to look out for it as I passed by the car (still parked) on my way up the hill to the bus stop. It was only as I looked back from where I was waiting for the bus that I saw that the cat was still lying on the asphalt in front of the car, but when I looked for the small, soft bundle of something near the head, I could see no trace of it and so I began to think that, perhaps, it had shrunk in the sun, or that another animal or bird had eaten it. From the bus stop it wasn't even clear that what I was looking at had once been a cat; it might have been a towel or a jumper that had stiffened with dirt. Many people would have passed the dead ginger cat since the last time I’d seen it. If the cat had been a human an ambulance would have taken it away, but you don't call an ambulance for a cat, I was thinking. I should have stopped and done something for the cat that morning. Even now, at the bus stop, it wasn't too late – not too late to save the cat from a foul and gradual disintegration on the road. But I didn't have anything with me – this was what I told myself: I don't have any newspaper or bags or anything that I could use. Soon I began to think about other things; the thought of newspaper and bags must have lead to other thoughts into which I slipped as gently as into sleep.

I didn't see the arrival of the man, but I saw him bent over the cat with his legs wide apart. He had a young man's way of bending over. He was wearing rubber gloves and with one hand he held open a stiff white bag that looked to be the kind of parcel packet you can buy in a post office; with the other, he slid the dead ginger cat into the bag, sliding it in easily without lifting it far from the surface of the road. The man carried the bag to the footpath, holding it a little out from his body. Once on the footpath he bent down once again to push a thin ginger limb – or what looked to have been a thin ginger limb – further down into the bag. He then seemed to be doing something to secure the top of the bag. I was thinking about this word ‘secure’ as I watched the man working. He seemed to be trying to fold over or tie or stick down the top edges of the bag, but from where I was standing I couldn't tell how he was doing it. The cat is probably already beginning to smell, I was thinking. Perhaps the man wants to avoid looking at the cat any longer. Soon the man had secured the cat, I could see – or at least such I imagined him describing it. Now nobody would get see the body of the cat again. Even the owner – if she or he existed – would never see the cat again or learn what had happened to it, because the dead ginger cat had been successfully secured as the man, as I was already imagining, would soon be telling everyone in his office – all of them standing for a moment at the windows to listen and to nod – an office which very likely overlooked the parked car and the bus stop on the other side of the road, its long line of windows watching over us all.