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.