I like my lawn neat.
I like to do the edges and I don’t mind doing the verge. In the country everyone mows their own verge because the Council will never do it. In the city no one does their verge, because if they did the Council would never do it.
My father likes his grass tidy, as do my brothers. Hours are spent in our yards. We try to resist the urge to cut the lawn short. Too short and it gets burned, bald and brown. This urge has to be balanced with the displeasure of cutting the grass and not having it look mown. We can’t give our lawns a trim, we have to cut.
I learned how to clean a spark plug from my brother. I learned how to clean out the fuel pipe from another brother. I learned from my father how to angle a whipper snipper just right to get the edges. When I bought my own house my grass just had to be cut, no matter the heat. Lawn-mowing sweat is like no other. You become covered in dust and grass that sticks to you tight, it gets in everywhere. I used to like to walk inside and see my face filthy in the mirror. I had done a good job. If I was looking like this the lawn would be looking smart.
Our family drive to keep our lawns short is tempered by our difficult relationship with the tools. Mowers never start. Whipper snippers are no better. I’ve worn blisters on my hands wrenching starter cords over and over. It’s as if there is something in our chemistry that snuffs out spark plugs. We swap and change our mowers, passing around the ones that work, cursing the ones that won’t. We walk them through the streets of our small town like prams. My father holds the record: he walked two mowers from my house to his with a whipper snipper balanced across both.
When I had to leave my little house with the big lawn and move back to the city I was imprisoned in a house with no yard. A small courtyard was all I had, two metres by three metres and covered in stones. I was hemmed in.
I went into denial. I didn’t miss losing my weekends to a recalcitrant mower and a haughty whipper snipper. Not at all. I almost forgot about them. Yards and lawns and gardens didn’t exist anymore, not in my world.
Until we moved house. A big three bedroom Federation with a front and back yard. Grass. Long and looking for attention. We were here two weeks and I went and bought myself a mower. I dug out my boots and my yard hat and put on some old shorts. The mower started first go. I had to resist flicking the blades down to the lowest level. After all this time I knew I had to take it easy, not rush in. The lawn was long, it wouldn’t take to being shorn low. I had to be patient.
I did the back, I did the front. I stopped the mower and stood there with my hands on my hips. The verge was looking untidy. Surely just this once won’t hurt. The Council won’t notice.
A single piece of fine wire roped off the roads, keeping the cattle in their place. When I decided to take my bike off the dirt road and into the paddock I found myself on the ground, strong-armed off my bike by the almost invisible force of the single wire. The bike lay across it. I grabbed the handle bar and felt a deep throbbing into my body. Electricity. I left the bike and ran back to the house.
My parents were friends with their parents and we went there on weekends sometimes and stayed overnight. We loved the sloppy joes made by their American mother – mince cooked in tomato sauce and served on white bread – and we loved the river. It was wide and made no discernible movement toward the sea, 50 kilometres away by river, less if you drove. We thought it must be deep. We wouldn’t swim in it, we didn’t know what might be in there. I saw my legs kicking and swirling with kilometres of water underneath, nipped by catfish and eels.
My brother and I fancied we’d catch something in there. The river was so big and so full of possibility. I got the feeling my father never really liked fishing, or perhaps it was just that he didn’t like fishing with his five kids in tow. When we got the chance to fish at the farm it was special. We had once caught a crab and a bream off a small wharf at Ballina. My brother caught a catfish at a local creek. We talked about these catches for months. This river would surely deliver us something that would outdo these.
We went to a part of the bank that was flatter than most. Us kids had hand lines and they didn’t really work through the grass and rocks at the side of the river. We moaned about needing a boat but I knew if we had one I would be nervous about it tipping over. My father had a long beach rod. It was maroon with little loops of yellow along its length. There were two big round handles on the simple reel, neat and perfect wooden mushrooms.
The meal we were going to eat when we caught our fish! Mum was going to be surprised when we bought the fish back. Dad would be happy and we’d go fishing again after he saw what we could catch. We threw our lines out and dragged them back in almost immediately. Got snags. Had some of the food packed in the picnic basket. Got no bites.
Until something bit Dad’s line. We could see the rod bending right over, the line running off the reel really fast. It must be HUGE. Dad struggled with the reel and wound it and wound it and bent the rod from this side to that side and then flung the rod back violently behind his head. The catch arched up and sailed through the air and back onto the bank, some way up the hill behind us. We ran to where it landed to see what it was. An eel was flinging itself around in the long grass. It was almost green and had some spots near its tail and sort of wings that ran along its body. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen.
This is a small, surfing town. Groups of teenage girls and boys wander from the beach to the convenience store, hanging around, girls sometimes in only bikinis, boys without shirts. I often catch myself marvelling at the boys’ bodies. The effortless muscle, lean and supple. I rarely went to the beach when I lived here as a teenager. It is pretty obvious why: it’s the body thing. And I was skinny. Effortlessly so. I didn’t know this at the time but putting in so much effort now for little result makes me realise how good I had it. I wasn’t comfortable in swimwear and I was frankly a little scared of the girls who did hang out on the beach. I had read bits of Puberty Blues and I was pretty sure these girls were the same and I wasn’t having a bar of it.
I gave up surfing when my family moved here, in the 80s. I had tried for a number of years to surf when we lived further north. Mum and Dad would fill up the Kombi and drive us to Byron Bay every weekend. I really loved surfing at the Pass. On good days the waves rolled gently for miles down the beach. When the tide was full they didn’t come straight into the beach but rather went alongside it. On those days I could catch a wave and have it take me softly along, without much speed or violence, until I could ease myself off it down the beach. Paddling back wasn’t too much of a chore. I lost my mother’s signet ring at that beach. I’ve never forgiven myself for it.
When we moved here I was 13. I lost all my confidence in the water. I lost interest in surfing because my fear didn’t allow me to continue. It’s come as a surprise then having moved back here, I have granted myself a little window of interest again. My son has become fixated on surfing. He badgered my brother for a board, knowing he had four or five of them lined up in his front room. They stand there like boards in a surf shop. As a child my brother would have wet himself with excitement if he knew one day he would grow up to have his own RACK of surfboards. The little pieces of wood that stand perpendicular to the wall between the boards are even wrapped in foam to protect the fibreglass.
On the second last day of the school term my brother brought learner’s softboards around to our house in his newly-purchased 1969 Ford Galaxie. I couldn’t believe he bought the car, and from e-Bay no less, but I secretly admire his ability to ignore practicality for the sake of owning such a incredible thing. On the night of the school Christmas carols he picked up Dash and I and we rode along with his wife and their three kids in this hulking, low, pale blue beast as he crawled it through the streets. It’s so big it has the unearthly air of a train. My brother borrowed the boards from the high school so Dash could spend some time learning to surf over the holidays. There is one short red board, for Lou, and a long, blue board, for me. One day I had mentioned that I might like to give surfing a go again when the waves were small and rolling. My brother didn’t forget I had said it. I had fantasies of catching waves in a clear ocean on a day when there is no breeze. I conveniently forgot there would be 50 other people trying to do the same thing, and they could actually surf.
Once Dash has an idea in his head he doesn’t allow anything else to jostle with it, he spends all his time thinking about that idea and verbalising the thoughts most of us keep in our heads. It drives me crazy. Surfing is his current idea and until I took him out on that board he wasn’t going to shut up. As soon as my brother delivered the boards he wanted to go. I tried to explain it was too late, the morning would be best. I promised to take him the next day. This didn’t really placate him but the fact that it was soon going to be dark meant he couldn’t really argue anymore.
The next day I packed his board into the car, sliding it from the boot, through the back and in between the front two seats. We went off to the headland to check the best place to get into the water. It was pretty windy at home and remembering that as a child we spent many hours agonising over wind, hoping for still days, I knew that the beach was probably going to be un-surfable for a small, skinny boy of six and his overweight mother. The tide was also at its peak. The waves would be full and lacking sufficient, even break to provide a satisfying, safe ride. When we got onto the beach my fears were confirmed. The wind lashed us from the north-east and the waves were scraping at the beach from various directions. This was not a good day for surfing, we should come back later. He wasn’t having this. I saw him tear up. I wasn’t going in the water, it would be a disaster. I told him we’d come back in a couple of hours, when the tide had gone out a bit. I promise. Somehow I managed to get him back in the car.
Of course, two hours barely made any difference and the waves were pretty much useless for learning to surf. He caught two or three, me pushing him onto the waves as they came through, and promptly the nose of the board dived down and he slid, legs splayed on each side of the board, off and under the water. This put the fear into him. He refused to come out again and stood in the shore break, battling to keep hold of the board.
The next time we went down to the beach wit both the boards and he did the same thing. He stood next to the board and wrestled with it as waves broke just ahead of him. I tried to get him to paddle out but he was not doing it.
I shouldn’t point too much at his fear, it took me an age to get the board into the water. When we first got to the beach we went towards the spot where there were a lot of surfers. Most of them were on long boards as the waves were small and full-ish but had a good form. They were graceful on the waves. Some of them would walk up to the end of the board and back as they rode just below the crest. The blokes on shorter boards would smack their rides up and down trying to generate some kind of speed. It was not one of those days. It was a day for longer, slower boards. Just the kind of day I had wanted.
There was no way I was going out there. All it would take was for me to break one of the rules and I would be done for. I also knew my limitations. I hadn’t surfed for more than twenty years. I took Dash up to another corner of the beach where there were practically no waves and no other surfers. There was a bloke in the water having trouble balancing on his expensive-looking board and I didn’t really want to have people looking at me in the way I was looking at him right now.
Putting the board in the water felt ok. I leaned on either side and pushed it through the white foam. A whole heap of physical memories came back. They took me by surprise. I heaved my bulk onto the board that had looked well wide enough in the shed but now felt narrow. I was trying to balance a sausage on a pin. I paddled and immediately realised how strenuous paddling can be. When you watch a bunch of surfers meander about in the water beneath the headland it all looks so easy. The effort felt good. I paddled out until I felt I probably couldn’t stand. My boobs pressed hard against the board and it hurt. I tried to lift my upper body off the board to give them some space but trying to keep your shoulders elevated with several kilos of fun bag strapped to them while laying on a slippery board is not easy. I sat up on the board, almost involuntarily. Where did that come from? It just felt like the obvious thing to do. I had to work hard with my legs to stay balanced. I swirled them around underneath myself in small circles, working to keep everything the right way up.
I knew the waves weren’t really there for catching but I didn’t honestly want to catch them as I didn’t know what I would do when I did. I need to work on paddling and balance. In the end I just had to give it a go. I paddled hard trying to catch some but they were too full, not close enough to breaking. I could hear Dash saying “Go Mum, go Mum” as I worked my arms hard through the water. I turned the board around and waited. Finally. One came through that I could catch, even if it was only going to give me a short ride. I paddled hard, hard, hard, and the board was moving at the speed of the wave. I felt the wave take over. I was on it. I immediately grabbed the rails and made to stand up but thought better of it. I focused on not nose-diving the board and managed to stay on it. I landed on the sand, beaching myself, as it were, but I hadn’t fallen off. I looked up and my partner was sitting on the beach laughing. I started laughing. I picked the board up and headed back out and I didn’t care who was watching.
“In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
Bur for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
That’s Auden. The picture is by my Mum.
Thanks to a wonderful high school English teacher, as soon as I saw that photo those words came into my head.
I think I’ve mentioned it before but if I haven’t: I really miss Chinese food. Country Chinese just doesn’t cut it. It’s ok once in a while, like when I’m feeling nostalgic for the food I ate at Chinese restaurants as a child: the sweet and sour that looked radioactive, ‘combination’ chow mein, beef and black bean, lazy susans, back pages of menus that listed ‘Australian’ meals of steaks and chips. They probably knew what they were doing. Not everyone would embrace the food. There would invariably be someone who turned up their nose at the bright red sauces and the battered pieces of goodness-knows-what, not for reasons of taste but to demand something with which their palate was familiar. As kids we used to wonder why you would turn your nose up at Chinese. You would have to be mad.
Some adults went too far in the opposite direction, wearing their imitation cheongsams in an embarrassing attempt to…do I don’t know what. Fit in? Send them up? When in Rome? Who knows. Whatever they were doing seemed denigrating and small.
As kids a big treat for us was to go to the food halls in Chinatown when we visited relatives in Sydney. Usually we would end up eating from the “all you can cram on a plate” buffets because it was all so good and we didn’t want to miss anything. And probably because it was food like that we were used to in the country. And then there was the bbq pork. Dad used to buy a kilo or so and we’d sit in the back of the Kombi, Mum doling it out on pieces of paper. We’d demand more and guzzle and fight until it was gone and we’d be at Hornsby on our way back up the coast. Our parting gift from Sydney.
It wasn’t until I was older that I began to appreciate the finer tastes of pure, exhilirating wonton soup, rice cooked in stock and served with various bits of bbq and roast meats and steamed chicken with ginger and shallots. Simple dishes with strong and honest flavours that I used to calm and comfort myself at some points, indulge and wallow in at others. (I’m talking Chinese here so I won’t even mention my love affair with pho).
When I moved closer to Ashfield I became more appreciative of buns, dumplings and dim sum in general. A few times I walked out of yet another Chinese joint in Ashfield knowing I’d overdone it. It’s just hard to resist. When I left Sydney I knew it was the dumpling houses of Ashfield that I would miss immediately. And I did.
The other day though I found a restaurant that is approaching those I used to visit in Sydney. The staff speak very little English. They have a choice of over 30 dim sum, including dumplings, buns and green onion pie. They give you tea when you sit down. They play suitably bad 80s music (Roxette was churning away when I visited). The excitement I felt when I stumbled upon it was embarrassing.
The first time I went in I ordered some Shanghai vegetable and pork buns to takeaway. I wanted to try them to make sure they were real. It was lunch and I had an hour. I ordered, figuring I would get the food within ten minutes. I sat there for 15 minutes in which time there were various problems with food orders. There were four floor staff standing at the counter pointing at menus, at customers, looking at what they had written on their pieces of paper. Of course, I couldn’t understand what they were saying, except that things weren’t going as smoothly as they would hope. A customer, frustrated at overhearing their discussions, started translating for them.
When they started another discussion and were pointing at me I knew there was a problem. Two of them came over and told me that there was an issue: my buns had been given to another table and they had started eating them. The waitress mimed putting a bun in her mouth and chomping up and down. I looked around the restaurant and saw an older lady biting into a bun and nodding at her friend. They said they would cook more. When I asked how long the first waitress looked at me searchingly then looked at her colleague who translated what I had said. I said no, sorry, I had to go back to work. They offered to give me the buns uncooked and started to give me instructions for cooking them at home. I declined, knowing I could no doubt cock it up. So I left and no doubt they thought I would not be back. I wasn’t going to give in that easily. I was intrigued.
I went back today and ordered the same buns and some short soup. They recognised me. The waitress who had last time been given the job of telling me my food was being eaten by someone else rushed off without giving me a menu. She was back in a flash with a freshly made cup of instant coffee, a silver cup of sugar and a silver jug of milk. On the house she said. I looked sideways at the table next to me, they had tea. I had been commanded to enjoy my coffee, I didn’t have the guts to ask them to bring me some green tea instead.
The buns were soft and bouncy, but not too much. They tasted just the way I thought they would. I had two and couldn’t move. When I got back to work I was so full I was almost puffing and my colleague asked if I’d been running. No, it’s probably not good for me but I don’t care.
(Update: Thanks to Zoe for taking this and running with it over at Progressive Dinner Party).
Someone was holding a garage sale down the road on the weekend. They had a big hand-painted sign:
They also had a couple of other signs:
Sail of the century!
Everythink must go!
I decided to give it a miss.