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?