Adam Aitken is the author of four collections of poetry and a new book is forthcoming from Giramondo Publishing next year. He is currently living in Cambodia. (Photo by Juno Gemes)
Fin de Siècle
Between two climates she’d be waiting, the slender young émigré
so dark and delicate the wind passed right through her,
always there before you, the bright architect of love
who knew her way around the café chairs, the Latin lovers.
How she’d inspired that horizon, the penthouse, the tower.
Greek, French, Ukrainian, all of the above? No-one knew for sure
what drove her south one winter, a whim or a storm?
Her age or why she had promised to see you again,
or why she always promised, sighing, mood wracked,
hat wide-brimmed with daisies and gliding towards you
through the fun palace colonnades before sunset – no one knew
why she always promised to be there
under the whitewash crumbling that left its stain
on your waiter’s apron and in your hair, as if you had emerged
unscathed from its collapse, the blast driving you back,
grasping your last tip.
She would arrive after work (though no-one knew what she did),
complement your menu, then a final swim
before the chill shadows enclosed the beach.
Statues murmured in the dusky shadows, mascara dusk
and in the golden bracelet of a rockpool children sparkled
among their castles, before they flooded at high tide.
Were they her children? If so they could never be too careful
building their moats, before she moved to a bench in the sun.
The Latin lovers waved and she didn’t wave back.
She was the pleasure of the world passing, about to shake
her wings free of the disaster, and take off, and leave you
once again thinking this had been the best century ever
and you were haunted by what she could not forget,
already beyond your knowing, what she is and was.
That year they rode low in the water
on ballast of oaths and convicted emotions
moved on to springtime ports
past the Pig and Sows reef
and the ridiculously expensive prison
lost steerage in a lull of unconcern
and absent-minded fishing.
In those days an invasion
was a kind of plague jellyfish,
laid back remorae, or cold front
that blew in early, unseasonal.
Everyone was hitching rides.
When someone entered
new seasons of exchange– fluids, fire,
language and metal–
someone else exited.
They were what they made, and what they couldn’t
someone else did.
Another’s lack seemed
no more than their own.
All land codified
as the visible
scoured and clearfelled,
of the forever language.
At Rozelle Hospital
At Rozelle Hospital, his final destination
some quartermaster who’d cracked
on a sandstone pier
a worldly fish, a navy frigate in its port,
a tropic bird of seed.
Full sails, great promise,
a kind of escape
from a madder Captain.
King’s botanist inside
who made the book for all
with his names – each new flower and tree
and new stiff Latin, the whole evolutionary kit,
the iron bars of genealogy.
Doctor, I ask you: what inky blot liberates
or draws together us
between the covers of hand-bound books
when you want your name
a legacy to crown the sky?
Fig trees, for instance, just
appear between the stones, green
as immigrants or refugees
hidden by the dark?
Are they natives now by instant decree?
You wear their leafy heads, and see
yourself once again,
historical footnote, crazed misfit
scattered, afraid, frozen
in unseasonal rain.
Or are we wasted now, due to
lack of name or use: seedy fruit
scattered in the grass,
imports that multiplied?
What of the bigger machines, like
destiny, meaning, sanity?
The fork and divergences
of who we want to be?
on that ship
will catch the breeze,
“are war and peace
playing their little game over your dead body?”
If, Eastern Asian time, you arrive
at the cove
to begin your holiday,
small figures camp in ruined hills,
waiting to advance.
Luckily we have
a Western point of view:
all timetables and maps: each hill,
the coordinates to fame
the minefield, the track
to that strategically useless
hilltop village, a tour guide,
and parking for buses.
Now, the snipers (retired codgers
your great-great grandpa couldn’t kill)
fish on the quiet beach, sipping
hot mint tea.
The winning cavalry
ride scabrous donkeys
and for a nominal sum
escort you through the ruins.
Tides regroup like armies
and the opalescent waters
whet your Byronic taste
for filigreed pistols, severed heads,
slavegirls, broken columns.
Filling the boats with trench-bootie:
proven property, like heritage,
gorgeous sunsets, or the exact
scent of victory –
too subtle for my words.
Reid Mitchell lives in New Orleans. Following Hurricane Katrina, he refugeed one crucial year in Hong Kong. There he and a Hong Kong poet began work on a series of dialogues, some of which have been published in Admit2, Barrow Street, Caffeine Destiny. Poetry Monthly Magazine, and Poetry Superhighway. [http://www.sighming.com/dialogue] Mitchell has published some short stories as well as the novel A Man Under Authority. He has also published several books on nonfiction.
Two and two-thirds red columns, roofless
House left unfinished?
Mansion in ruins?
2. Singapore River
(An answer to Mingh)
A word misconstrued
does not necessarily lose
a path obscured
by leaves and words
may lead somewhere in the end
two people lost
in dark woods
may wander in circles
3. When I Imagine Us
When I imagine us
I see you, golden in Italy,
your small face peeking through Umbrian green, Tuscan dust, Sienna sienna, as
in an excited way, excitable you run ahead, one finger pointing.
Didn’t we walk, hot and dry, between blood orange and olive?
Didn’t we look down on the sea blind Homer promised would be wine-dark,
and the beach that slaughtered Athens,
and where we nonetheless smiled and kissed?
You watched me eat artichokes with garlic.
We strolled from ghetto to Pantheon,
past the Mandarin restaurant
and you announced you would kiss no more foul foreign mouths?
No, sad no.
The South China Sea does not lap Sicily
and those fish will not swim to Hong Kong to be sold in Causeway Bay.
And you? You were fighting with your sisters, washing your hair on the street,
finding out that words, even more than boys, could be playthings.
I was by myself, with passport, poetry I forget, and faint, unquenchable hope.
But when I imagine you,
I see us in Italy, between orange and olive,
your head glistening, your feet dusty.
You run with index finger pointing toward a miracle I cannot yet see
4. Ghost Bodies
Seducing a woman twelve time zones ahead
is like bringing a ghost to bed:
a nice thing to write about
I do not want your body without your mind
nor your mind without your body.
But seeing I may have the attention of one
I would like to swap briefly for one night,
or most likely one long sunny afternoon
spent in Singapore or other southern port
“Physical intimacy?” you say.
I don’t want an abstraction.
That patch of dry skin,
the crooked toe,
the ears that don’t quite match,
your breath gone sour, hair hot with sweat.
I want to touch you all the places you hope that men don’t notice
in Saigon, Singapore or some other southern port
one long muggy afternoon when sweat refuses to dry.
I want your body,
perfect in its imperfection.
5. In Praise Of Youth
Show her no mercy,
She showed no mercy to us
calling this love dry
and another fat.
Pointing out teeth that have yellowed
worse than old photographs.
Let her be humbled before she turns thirty
by teenage girls gawking on the escalators at Kowloon.
Let them say, “What does she mean by wearing that?”
as she passes down with bare midriff and blue velvet cap.
Let young girls’ eyes be her only mirrors.
Tammy Ho Lai-ming, aka Sighming, is a Hong Kong-born and -based writer. She is the editor of HKU Writing: An Anthology (March, 2006) and a co-editor of Word Salad Poetry Magazine. Tammy’s creative works appear or are forthcoming in Australia, Hong Kong, India, Macao, New Zealand, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, USA, and Great Britain. More at www.sighming.com.
In This Massive Hallway
In this massive hallway the mahogany
reception desk is guarded by a woman of
mixed ancestry. The owner of a well-trimmed
moustache, an old man, told me he
has been hanging out there for more than five years:
too long, indeed, too long for his original to wait,
and he died of lung cancer. The old man has five
poems: three on canoeing, two
on the Canadian poet-cum-singer Leonard Cohen.
I am newly sent to this New York journal armed
with three petite prose poems: one on fishing,
two on post-postcolonial Hong Kong. My original,
naive and expectation-laden, is sending numerous mes
to different magazines, e-zines and whatnot. Us –
all of her invisible outer doppelgängers –
carry her manuscripts and wait, sometimes for days,
sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months, for
responses from editors. We haunt waiting rooms,
store rooms, nearly-empty rooms, forgotten rooms.
(This poem appeared in a different form in 21 Stars)
In The Summit Of Greying Snow
A poet died in the summit of greying snow.
He wrote about the realistic unordinary angst
of ordinary families, or vice versa,
and the human’s subconscious wish to be short-lived,
fast-mated insect (no mid-life
crises). Some envious poets thought aloud
to each other: oh it was wonderful to die
in the sacred cold, don’t you think? The icy weather
effortlessly formed a natural tomb for the sealed
and healed spirit. Other poets took up the task
to console the poet’s wife: her cream marble face
scarred with two non-parallel one-way tear tracks.
At the funeral, the wife asked the poets
to recite a poem of her husband’s – any poem
from any period of his writing career would do,
she said. Even the insect poems, she added.
The request drained away all sounds in the hall
in which the coffin was appropriately centred.
No one present, except the wife, had read
the poet’s poetry, and they called themselves
members of the same community of practice.
They spent too much time complaining at meetings
about the shrinking of the reading public
in the junk-layered village and being jealous
about other more successful writers –
Stephen Oliver’s latest collection of poetry is titled, Either Side The Horizon, Titus Books, Auckland / Sydney, 2005. His next collection titled, Harmonic is forthcoming from IP Interactive Publications, Brisbane, in 2008. IP is to release his CD recording of poems read by the author, to music composed by Matt Ottley, November, 2007. The CD is titled: KING HIT Selected Readings.
An Avenue To The Sea
Knowledge comes by indirect paths,
found addresses, by moonlight’s note left on the
back doorstep, molecular puzzle
of pigeons (brown and white potsherd)
in the high air at mid-day over this raucous town.
By panels of light cantilevered off cloud
that signal the departure of angels to earthly realms.
City of property investors, real estate mania.
City of rack renters and home renovators.
City of bladed light and blue-grey harbour.
City of broken contracts and sybaritic compulsion.
City of up-front rip-offs and council rorts.
City of jasmine and the eternal summer party.
City of shimmer dreams-sans-memory.
The most famous of living poets remain anonymous
and unrecognized in foreign towns,
ghosts before their time.
An avenue of artists, philosophers, poets, musicians
leads from the city square out through suburbs,
past terra cotta, yellow, and liver-brick villas –
(smoke twists through pine and laurel grove)
an avenue wide enough for a phalanx of soldiers
or two tanks grazing side by side.
Flags of spiritual battles won and lost adorn poles
set at intervals, diminishing
whitely into distance,
where it is observed that a central point at the close
of the avenue, bright as diamonds streaming in
the light, (barely larger than your pupil) is the
sea burning in its cauldron of watery fragmentation.
For Night To Roll Its Camber Over
The ruddy glare,
yellow, blurs its palette in rain,
at the boundaries of vision
flaring to white, blindingly, passes on (reassuringly)
into darkness, a rubbery hiss.
August is the windiest month,
west, sou’ westerlies rattle the Sydney basin.
Light beams search down through underside
of cloud where planes lower unwaveringly toward
North East, South West runways.
A machine screams slowly backwards over rooftops
(a sound that moves away-and-toward)
pushing space apart, seemingly swallowing itself.
Reverberations directly overhead wrap around
the room you’re in and rooming under
for night to roll its camber over.
Gareth Sion Jenkins: writer, performer and digital media artist. Gareth currently teaches creative writing at the University of Newcastle, the University of Technology Sydney, and the University of Wollongong where he is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Creative Arts. His theoretical work focuses on art-makers who have experienced schizophrenia and he has presented his research in Australia, Europe and the U.S.A. Gareth’s creative work explores poetry, prose, digital media and performance. He has performed and been published in Australia and internationally.
Swallows loudly in ancient architraves wake me
diving onto cobbled stones washed each morning.
The motion of my mind towards you,
lips bent and feeling no thing, no thing
I remember every dream in which you sing,
your voice a hedged rustling;
aural snow drifting into the Pyrenees rift,
your breath moves me breathing –
breathe me in.
I remember every dream in which you say:
“My heart is four chambers singing your name.”
Come stand with in me.
Watch the morning light bright with Swallow’s wings uncoiling.
I looked for you on the subway and in Washington Square;
thought I saw you wandering through Central Park
as the light fell into the ice.
In Brooklyn there were rumours of your movements
spoken at the edges of basketball courts,
amid the crumble of brownstones.
I waited for days outside Printed Matter at 195 10th Avenue,
I was sure you would come and read their hand-made books.
Descending into Tahir Vintage Clothing Boutique at 412 & 9th St
I thought at last I had found you
chatting with the warm-smiling creature behind the counter.
You turned and morphed, striding away into another life,
leaving me seduced by a loosely-woven scarf.
“Premonitions,” said the psychic at 1091 2nd Avenue,
her ringed finger coiling the curtain.
I listened to the passage of feet on the pavement outside,
hearing you again and again stop to check your watch, straighten your hat.
I have left my breath for you in Manhattan’s subterranean steam,
my fingerprints in the American Folk Art Museum,
my footprints in the tangled subway,
my laughter in the budding Central Park trees.
Skin Drink Rain
I ask her if she minds me smoking, holding before me a packet of rolling tobacco
as explanation. She holds up her own and as the carriage blunders the length of Spain
we fill the air with smoke. It soars forth between lips parted as if to speak,
though silence reigns;
clouds of silence fill the air, more convincing of a union than any words could be.
She runs out of paper and I lend her. Each time I set out to smoke I offer,
each time watching her hand as it reaches over,
veins rearing up under her skin.
Morning comes with mountains, waking me from an unknown sleep.
The wind is back, drawing dead leaves from trees.
Rain, hard against the metal roof, blurs and magnifies the world.
After the changeless weather of near Sahara, upper Africa – this blessing,
the air is laced with ice.
I take off my shirt and press my chest against the cool of the glass,
hang my head out of the window,
let my skin drink rain.
She sleeps, immersed in a pool of dreams. “Come in the water’s beautiful,” she says
without moving her lips.
I wake later and she is gone.
Not even the depression of her weight marks the spot where she sat.
I run out of paper and curse her for hours, trying to read –
trying to ignore the tapping of my foot,
voice in my mind, restless tight rasping
demanding to be fed.
Heng Siok Tian has published three collections: Crossing the Chopsticks and Other Poems (1993)My City, My Canvas (1999) and, Contouring, (2004). She has been published in Harvest International (2006/2007), Idea to Ideal (2004), Love Gathers All: A Philippines-Singapore Anthology of Love Poems (2002), No Other City: An Anthology of Urban Poetry (2000), More Than Half the Sky (1998), Journeys: Words, Home and Nation (1995), The Calling of the Kindred (1993), Singapore: Places, Poems, Paintings (1992), New Voices in Southeast Asia (1991) and Words for the 25th (1990). One of her short stories has been translated into Italian for a collection of Singapore short stories published by Isbn Edizioni (2005). Her short play, The Lift, staged in 1991, was selected to be read at the Third International Women Playwrights’ Conference in Adelaide in 1994. Siok Tian holds a Master of Arts in Literature from the National University of Singapore and a Master of Science in Information Studies from the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. In 2000, she attended the Iowa International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, USA on a National Arts Council Fellowship.
in the centre of a baba home
a mosaic of blue.
Like a pre-hologram,
glimpsing an early sky:
I see amahs in samfoos
in their time and space
washing, working within the marbled tiles,
for big master and mistress who slept above,
for little masters they would sayang and love..
Where was their half of the sky?
next to babas and nonyas twirling, whirling with a gramophone in an upstairs dance studio
which became the play den of fruit bats when owners upgraded,
layered with droppings, so decomposed they become
To first lose the turquoise of mosaic-blue, then the shapes of carved zodiac animals,
to leave them with the wings of bats,
to touch again these losses
as I linger on the airwell,
My noise won’t stop.
Elephants howl for no reason
I could not get
my clown-act right
and the master trainer
threatens to whip me.
I fear so much
I wish so hard
he begins to change from pumpkin to marsh-mellow
I stop believing I have a wand
to magick away
baking them into cup cakes
which I serve my audiences,
as they reach for them,
the cakes become bubbles,
they become angry at my alleged deceit.
Did I ask
to cruise into midnight
to meander into side-alleys,
to be led
where cobwebs become
that sink into dry flesh,
running through my head
lines of a chair
become dancing skeletons
that slip near to me?
I lost my posture as a chimpanzee,
broke my brittle back with stilettos,
rectify with surgery, pilates, yoga…
only to find myself
fetal-like in bed,
licking words off the edges
the knowledge of names.
Margaret Bradstock is a Sydney poet, editor and critic. She is an Honorary Visiting Fellow at the University of NSW, a long-term committee member of Poets Union and co-editor of Five Bells. She has published four collections of poetry, the most recent of which are The Pomelo Tree (Ginninderra, 2001), which won the Wesley Michel Wright Prize for Poetry, and Coast (Ginninderra, 2005). She has also won Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson awards. Margaret was Asialink Writer-in-residence at Peking University, Beijing, in 2003.
The Butterfly Effect
(after Decompose, by Gaye Chapman)
‘Is the moon not there unless I can see it?’
Back home, but never back,
exploding like ectoplasm
across the empty rooms,
the decomposed gardens.
Old responsibilities, seasons
rise up, numinous
as Christmas ghosts, this space
that once took us in.
For the cabbage nymph, or neophyte,
it’s chaos theory.
Dust on the snooker balls
the moment of collision,
the dense stars wheeling
in the firmament,
or the response.
In Albert Brown Park
The night-stroked suburbs,
flare of occasional street lights
holding us in shadow,
and drought-starved gardens.
Downhill, past the Alsatian
revving up behind meshed wire
patrolling his square of concrete,
past the corner park, more
strip of green than park.
On the signpost
(frogmouth or nightjar),
a soft churring
shaping its gentle breath.
We douse torches, so close
I might have touched it,
waiting for prey.
Light plane over Sydney Cove
(after Brett Squires)
Crossing the Blue Mountains
soon after dawn
the air like torn canvas
you stretch the limits of reflected light
promontories reaching out
the Harbour glimmering.
Those Dubbo mornings
flying back from Emergency
the nightshift routine
of work, sleep, eat, repeat . . .
broken and restless for harbours.
Cupping the city
in the curve of your hands
you photograph the moment
the propeller’s beat.
Brenda Saunders is a Sydney writer and artist. She is a member of the Poets Union NSW and the Round Table Poets. As an urban Aboriginal artist and activist she is also a member of the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative. Her poetry and articles have been published in journals like Thylazine and Poetrix as well as being broadcast on ABC Radio National. Brenda was selected for The Red Room Company’s Poetry Crimes, and more recently for Poetry Without Borders ( National Poetry Week 2007).
Truth can spill out
with little hooks
caught in photos
stuffed at the back
of a drawer.
Families of black people
camping in tents
faded to sepia tints.
A loving couple
one white, one dark
uneasy in a boat on a lake.
And the negatives
give nothing away.
Vanished frames of secret lives
pale squares on wallpaper
In the silence of the old house
my fingers leave traces
in the film of dust.
beat the silence.
Curled tight they hold
the anxious moment,
let others slip by.
Years of blackness
spread across the palms
– rivers dispossessed,
Time runs out
with the present fear,
a lifeline held
in metal cuffs
caught at the wrist.
‘Sista girl need money to get home Native title
case ‘Big time!’ she raps, edgy.
She’s young, black and living in the city:
‘Gimme a dolla
Pay the Rent
Up in court, on the run. Stealing stuff,
‘This is a refuge’ I say, ‘OK? For Koori women at risk
Rape and violence, you know.’
– RIGHTS FOR WOMEN pinned to the wall,
a poster men don’t read,
(after the rage he’s blotto on the bed.
She plays dead.)
I give her money, refer her on.
Now I hear she’s working
on the Block,
tradin’ for cuz
speedy in the fast lane:
Live for the day.
Locked in jail,
singin’ up country.
… cuz: cousin, friend, singin’ up country: remembering tribal land
Carolyn van Langenberg is the author of the novels fish lips, the teetotaller’s wake, blue moon and sibyl’s stories (Indra Publishing). In 2000, fish lips was short-listed for the David T K Wong Fellowship, East Anglia University, UK. After many years of writing prose, she has returned to poetry, recently publishing on the net and print journals like Shearsman (UK), Cordite, Aesthetica (UK), Antipodes (USA), Staples, Macau writing and Poetando. She is co-poet with Shé Hawke of the chapbook tender muse (Picaro Press, 2007).
The Tricky Light
Coles Bay, Tasmania
i) At Freycinet National Park
unusually bathed in sunshine
how I stood on the rough path
above the still composition
ochre rocks and rubble,
brown tussocks bristling up
sand like pale, crushed shells.
Time stopped where my heel sank.
When I pointed my camera,
how I clicked the shutter on beauty.
Or was it breath taken away.
ii) Home with holiday snaps
how I studied the nature pics –
white banksias and orange moss
under whisked shadow of flight,
wingspan wide across sunned air –
then her face staring, straight
hair pinned off broad forehead,
hand shielding eyes from glare,
dressed in a calico pinny, black smock,
body wedged between rocks and grass
below the high-tide line of the cared-for shore
fetched up in conjuring gold.
White saucer snagged in reeds
gleamed under watery green
for the slide of long-fingered curiosity
to fit with story and cup.
A mouthful of sky empty of nothing,
it leads an unremarkable life,
no name to lose in riversand,
no dream to hold in mud.
Vanished for years without a word,
the flooding currents of the river
sank unwritten history
at the bend near the big red house
where the date palm widened midday shade
and pink begonias flushed the lawn, the favoured spot
for the clean-up blitz when orange flames licked
waste paper, empty tins, cracked saucers.
Dumped, eventually, in the back of a boat
with scavenged things, it found
a mismatched cup, but no cloth spread
over the roots of a sprawling tree,
no table set for afternoon tea.
An oar knocked silence. The saucer trembled.
A cow with its tail frisked flies from its back.
And a spoonful of sunshine slipped upstream.
Dave Murray, 44 yrs old. Still studying (Masters at Newcastle Uni) between full-time work as a Public Servant. Married to Michelle. Two children: Joe, 24; Shani, 11. Two Russian Blue cats. Likes reading Shakespeare for the words, gardening, drinking beer on Fridays and supporting The Sydney Swans. Dreams of surfing the North Coast one last time.
from "The Passenger"
The photos are mostly from my mother’s side: cousins, a great-grandmother, aunts, uncles with half-remembered names grouped in backyards or on “days out” at the beach. The eyes have a trapped-animal-gaze, caught in that moment freezing out death. Some of the faces are beautiful, some contorted from squinting against the sunlight. I look for inherited noses or lips, any gesture connecting the silence of ancestry – but find black & white uneventfulness rather than any dark secrets: labourers, compositors, housewives, nurses, teachers. Teetotallers or drunkards, prone to underachieving. All British, all intimate with depression and wars. The great-grandfather and wife in a Tasmanian portrait after the ship from Ireland in 1802; he was a shoe-maker. His face is severe. Victorian. His grandson (Mum’s Dad) followed the Newspaper trade to Newcastle after returning from French trenches dragging a six-pack Catholic family and a body (like so many) restitched and recycled in a front-line field hospital. He survived with medals and a belief in struggle, worked hard and gambled, a long shot in the 4th at Broadmeadow covered a cash down payment on a Blackalls Park block – a quiet Lake Macquarie backwater, protected by eternal gums, the penultimate stop on the Toronto line. The house my grandfather built sloped gently all the way to the forty-foot long jetty, that through certain angles disappeared into the still water, broken only by silver mullet flashes, confused by predators in the shallows. As these things go, it was sold after Nan carked it, the new owners replaced it with a terracotta, two-storey, mock Italian seaside villa, with uninterrupted water views.
* * *
The bodies are lithe from basic training and austerity rationing, just thicker than scrawny gums pinning the landscape in place. It is Dad’s first time away from his fucked-up violent soak of a father. He is Joe’s age. Half the men will not return, will never replace the mud and blood of Borneo followed by a future of prisons, disasters, marriages or working. Just over my father’s half-hunched shoulder – is one bloke rehearsing this, squatting down to shit in a hole. Dad’s eyes subconsciously avoid the lens. They suggest his private nature but also the eternal imperviousness of youth – no thinking of families, financial planning. No women. No future indicated here: hauling goods trains up the Hunter Valley after the war to the barracks at Werris Creek, the dislocated existence at the whim of the car I heard pull up out the front at night, the call boy’s feet trampling on the concrete stairs, as he slipped under the door the godforsaken wake-up call for Dad’s next shift. We wouldn’t see him for weeks at a time; he kept his homecomings low-key. One stinking furnace of morning I heard him ghost on the floorboards, got out of bed and spooked him through the house, following silently to the kitchen, watching as he quietly poached some eggs, leaning over a frypan, appraising them as they floated in simmering water, fresh eyes staring at the ceiling.
* * *
Dad avoided carpentry in the shed, reconditioning pushbikes, home handyman work. We were a mechanically inept family in a utilitarian town – never daring to understand you sometimes need to pull something apart to find out how it works. We kicked and slapped at machines that would not work. This instilled a misguided belief in magic and the potential for disaster. Dad’s training notebook from the war therefore seemed a fake: class notes on learning signal code phonetics, map reading, how to construct a mobile telegraph, use Morse code, work the Trembler bell, set up mobile aerial cabling. They are a family betrayal, a confirmed relationship with the world of things, the metamorphosis of electromagnetism into language; or a roundabout means to silence, power, breaking the connection – turn it off at will. The notes were the easy looping style of his day, where the pencil never left the page. No spelling errors, no mess of scratched syntax expected from 4th class schooling. Another Great Depression child. Dad also had a violent, growling drunk of a father to keep John Bull. Pop Murray’s reclining-Buddha seriousness betrayed the brass razoo in his pocket. Pop Murray’s World War One service records report three instances of losing two days’ pay for being drunk in a place called Zagazig (somewhere in the Middle East); one of verbally abusing a sergeant, and a week in some camp hospital for VD. My Dad on the other hand took to wowsering and gave up smoking at war’s end. His War Gratuity of 81 pounds, 15 shillings arrived a week before his marriage – he got a wife and the Catholic church for this investment. This released his latent Jesus gene, doing for others without reward, something useful, selfless and stoic – the full two-bob. It complemented his loner silence, cultivated in overnight train-driver barracks. He was his generation’s silence: coping, the denial of pain, the guilt of survival. My father doesn’t fit within the Aussie tradition as far as working class toughness – he accepted the boredom of local destinations but was never wounded by loneliness. He groaned about his country’s generation of lost cricketers. Wog Ball gave him a weekend acceptance of refugees and their hatred of Communism . He cut his hair American matinee idol fashion, if only to save on Brylcream. He travelled thousands of predefined kilometres sitting on his arse in trains. Always in the present while moving forward, or returning home in the rear cabin after a shift, his back to the future, half-awake, staring into where he’d just been.
* * *
Water is the city’s compensation. After the war, some workers nomadically obeyed the summer solstice. Lake Macquarie in some places became a six month shanty town/tent city. Fathers drove into Newcastle each day to work; older kids caught the train to schools or stayed to fish, sail and swim. Jim Holes can still tell you about somersaulting off the bridge into Throsby Creek during the annual regatta. The council started learn to swim classes for women in the fifties. The beach was a freedom from self. My wife sniggers at her image of me with straw-dry hair, wet towel, red back salty eyes and a board-rider’s wax-rash on my chest. To her, my office hands are too soft, unreliable pointers to coastal secrets. They are clerk’s hands, made for tapping keyboards or replacing photocopy paper. She gets smug about her North Coast origins – little coastal hamlets dotted with modest beach homes lined by sandy paths, half-hidden away in subtropical bush; water tanks for showers, a shit and shave; time measured by shore dumps just outside a window. She mixes country and coast. Newcastle to her is essentially metal. Catching the bus to the beach was my first independence, a rite of passage starting as an egg with a surfmat at Nobby’s shore dump, hiding your pie-milk-and-bus-money – to a twin fin, and a local home-break at South Newcastle. It kind of didn’t matter what you did or who you were. You could even ignore school, where the shit-hot surfers expected deification. It didn’t matter. The waves were the ultimate judge, and the salt-encrusted, sunburnt skin peeled away like my self-consciousness. It was after all about learning to stand up straight by yourself. Like any democracy there was a class system and fuckwits, with the occasional chest-puffing gang wars. But the ocean was too big even for that shit – it forced you to shut up and listen. Beach time avoided time. Tribal but monastic, ironically communal, you watched, minded your own business and learned to talk turkey in a clipped, monotone, coded cool. The harbour had a reasonably steep right-hand peak that broke perfectly (in the right conditions) just inside the breakwall. Here I managed my first fair dinkum barrel – pure adrenaline silence, stretching three or four seconds into minutes, with time to sketch the whole thing in my head. The sun miraculously flashing through the wall of water: its industrial-harbour-soup turned stained glass; its rush-and-suck dynamo hum; transfixed eyes on the exit; a sniper’s target site formed on a distant Kooragang smoke stacks; pimple squeezed back into the minor cosmos.
* * *
Stars eventually burn out and die. Your super massive stars do this quickly – millions of years, while smaller stars can take even longer. Nick went Red Giant in his late twenties and after numerous rehabs settled into a mild, White Dwarf. We meet occasionally – black coffee has replaced beer. We shake hands like foreign dignitaries greeting each other for the first time. His huge laugh remains, and his once-a-sentence apology for everything. In his eternal black suit, torn at the arms, he tends to frighten children, who see a potential monster rather than a wild, rare teddy bear. He chain-smokes – ultra-lights, 4 mg. His nicotine-stained, Byzantine gold finger points at the sugar. He pours too much into his cup. His barrister father has finally died, lifting the suspended sentence of failure he imposed upon Nick. The Nick who had potential. School dux, an atomic laugh, he played his Dylan/Taj Mahal/ Lennon influenced music on pub slow nights. He searched out trouble as an antidote to his family, who manicured and frightened pain into dark corners, never to be let out. He got drunk in public in the day time, as preparation for the dark, nomadically sleeping on lounges and friends’ spare beds, paid for with Oscar Wilde routines. He was known as a bed-wetter. His mess of unwashed black hair and hyper-nervous politeness frightened everyone’s girlfriends. He was known to the local working girls. He once almost married a Christian – until she spiked his left eye with a broken beer glass when Nick suggested handcuffed S&M sex held the secret to spiritual liberation. He was arrested for drunkenly reciting T.S. Eliot on a public bus. He lost ten kilos living on Cornettos and speed in Newtown. He hated Les Murray and his White-Trash-Dreaming. He called me one night at three am, stuck at some party (unsuccessfully chasing a girl) somewhere on the Central Coast, wanting cigarettes and a lift home. I said fuck off. He apologised. I imagined him next day – another morning of empty bottles, disappearing, rattling into a Wiz Bin, that sound muffling the sharp edges of another day, waiting at a bus, or a train stop, or walking home Jesus-style when there was no shrapnel for the fare. The goddam sun burning his shadeless eyes. Our relationship had reached that point health workers advise on – the alcoholics must hit bottom by themselves; I stopped day-tripping him around town trying to find a spare rehab place or valium scripts somewhere in his garbage tip wreck of a housing commission flat. There was a reason to this, removing the garbage meant passing his neighbours, skinheads who kept a bull terrier chained to their front door.