Scavengers at Woolworths in a Remote Mining Town

By the time we disembark in the town we have travelled most of the day. The streets are a desert in the empty way of a Sunday afternoon in the country. We need to buy food supplies but all is quiet. Nothing moves. The air tastes hot. Breathing becomes an effort.

Up and down slow wide streets we prowl, looking for a supermarket. Hello! This is Woolworths. A cluster of cars baking in the carpark. Signs of life. Or recent life.
We tumble out, one grizzled grandfather, two ratty ten-year-old twins. Woolies is open! In the course of the following twenty minutes I load a trolley with fruit, vegetables, cheese, pasta, milk, yoghurt, confectionary bribes, cans of tuna, smoked salmon for the sybaritic grandsons.
The boys have disappeared. All other customers have disappeared. Someone turns off a lot of lights. I wrestle the trolley to the check-out where the twins lie face down, arms outstretched, fingers groping in the narrow cracks beneath the checkout counters, Their long curly hair wears a diadem of dust. Their once-clean shirts from long ago – this morning – are grimy. Their faces are coated in dirt. They wear expressions of intense concentration. When I call their names they do not respond. They pay no heed. Business as usual.
I pay a distracted-looking checkout person who asks me whether the boys are mine.

Technically they are not. But I admit to the connection. 

Checkout person says: ‘That money doesn’t belong to them.’

‘What money, I wonder?’
I call the boys and advise them I am about to leave, the store is about to close, and I will collect them at opening time tomorrow. If I remember.

The boys surface, faces aglow with dirt and triumph, their hands full of coins. ‘Look Saba! We found all this money under the checkouts.’

‘That money doesn’t belong to you’ – checkout person again.  

‘It doesn’t belong to you either’, says one cheeky voice.

‘Who does it belong to?’ – challenges another.

‘Woolworths!’

‘No it doesn’t.’ – two voices in chorus.

‘It can’t belong to the shop, Saba. The people paid the shop. The people dropped the coins. It’s not the shop’s money.’

‘Whose is it, do you think?’ – asks the grizzled grandfather, who isn’t really too clear on the legalities or the morals here.
The boys have an answer: they’ve spied a tin chained to the checkout counter. The tin has a slot for coins in its top.

The boys are busily feeding the coins into the tin, counting as they go. ‘Twenty two dollars and thirty-three cents, Saba! All for charity.’
The boys were unerring in their reading of the moral landscape: the label on the tin reads: HELP DISADVANTAGED CHILDREN.
 

My Nephew’s Tip

English: A Windsor knot.

 

Like most adult males, my nephew is taller than I am. Standing side by side, knotting neck ties before a formal social event, the nephew and I compared notes. Nephew slid the tie – a useless garment in our temperate clime – around his neck, the short end hanging a bit below breast level, the long end hanging between his legs. I did the same.
Nephew knotted and his knot slid into place in front of his throat with the precision of a Mercedes car door clunking true: one deft movement and there it was, perfection.
Uncle knotted and slid and there it was, a tie at half mast, marooned between navel and pubis, the ‘short’ end poking out below the ‘long,’ looking for a place to hide
I tried again – result a little better, but no Mercedes car door.
Nephew untied his knot, explained his technique and demonstrated it. I copied him and there it was, the perfect Windsor.
Now nephew is, as I wrote at the start, a lot taller than I. Our anatomies differ markedly. Yet, using a common anatomical marker, nephew’s technique works for all sizes. And, remarkably, in all seasons. Not all of my readers will enjoy an opportunity to share a dressing room with my nephew, so I pass on his advice verbatim:
“You lower the long end of the tie so it hangs precisely at the level of the end of your penis. Then you tie your knot and slide. It works every time.”
(Now, the nephew is, I repeat, longer than the uncle. But the advice works.
Winter has followed and the advice still works with the same precision.
A niece tried her cousin’s advice, making a correction for what I guess is a guess, and she found the tie tied true.
I commend the advice to you.

 

Lost in the Garden of Sweden

The family sends me to the big Swedish store to buy a wall unit. I’ve seen the brochure; it’s a handsome thing, tidy, somehow compact while commodious. Elegant actually. It has a first name, something like Edmund. The e-savvy ones (my family) who despatch me to the big shop have checked, and yes, they have Edmund in stock

It’s a big place. You should ask for directions when you arrive.

This should worry me. I am willing but stupid. I was born with one organ missing – a sense of direction.

They have parking there.

This is intended to reassure but it simply reminds me that I have to get this Edmund bastard into the vehicle. I have seen the dimensions: Edmund is large, Howard is not.

They’ll help you load up.

Well, that’s good. But they won’t be at the other end when I need to unload the monster.

I find the parking lot. I park my son’s vehicle, a sort of truck pretending to be a car. They call it an SUV.

Emerging from the parking lot I walk to the street and look for the Swedish shop. I can see it clearly from the street – only about 2 kilometres distant.

Wrong car park.

I drive to Sweden and park again. This car park is a multi-storey affair, like the one at the airport, only bigger. It turns out that I have arrived at a mall, a place where shops metastasise, where the air is a thick substance imported from the natural world and treated to a muzak consistency. If you have never visited a mall, allow me to congratulate you. A mall is a maze designed to amaze – meaning to lock you into a mental state and a physical state. COSTCO is such a state. It is one of the states of the American Union. You need your passport to get out.

But I digress.

In this particular mall-state the Swedish shop is a city. Designed by Dante: give up all hope, ye who enter here.

I look for the Information Desk. There isn’t one. Instead a route map advises me: You are here. Edmund lives at 19. Follow the numbers.

I follow numbers all the way to 4, a dead end.

I need directions. There are no shopkeeper people in sight, but there are plenty of shoppers, gathering coat hangers, light fittings, pillows. All of them push trolleys. Where did they get those? I suppose I’ll need one if they do. Who told them about the trolley phenomenon?

Whom to approach? All the shoppers are young women, all somehow pregnant yet skinny. Slim catlike creatures, they wear black leggings and tops. Leopards in leotards.

They walk quietly in the altered mental state, the amazed state that is the mall phenomenon. How to ask directions from a person in a trance?

Hello, here is a shopkeeper person. Fair of skin and hair, healthy and unmalled looking, she wears a shirt that is a Swedish flag. She speaks in a Swedish accent. Charming. She smiles and points the way to 19 and utters the fatal words: You can’t miss it.

I follow pregnant trolley-pushing women through 4 to 12.

No more numbers. A Swedish person – male – listens courteously to my problem. He looks at me kindly; he has helped the mentally infirm before. The numbers resume “down the stairs, one level, maybe two.” Of course. Stupid of me. Mister Sweden doesn’t actually know the whereabouts of the staircase: “Should be there, somewhere.” Vasco de Garma setting out on oceans unknown, I find the stairs.

Now in a basement in the Underworld I follow numbers to 18. Here, at the end of the counting, is a cafeteria. “Foods from Sweden”, reads the notice. No sign of Edmund.

A third Swede directs me to 19. Nineteen exists in its own suburb, an unpeopled wilderness like Docklands. It has no connection to 18. Nineteen is a unique destination at the end of the world, a cavernous space traversed only by nomadic tribes of pregnant women.

Someone tells me there is a blue desk where someone will help me. The blue desk is sighted in the distance. One kilometre further on I approach the desk with racing heart and altered breathing: this is either a panic attack or orgasm.

There is indeed someone at the blue desk. A good bloke. Yes, he knows Edmund. Yep, Edmund comes in white and a desert sand colour. Yep, we should get supplies again soon – possibly in four weeks. World shortage. None in this store, none in any store in Australia. None in Japan or China or Malaysia either. Those well-known offshore provinces of Sweden.

“But we checked on the net. Your website says it’s in stock.”

“When did you check?”

“Last night.”

The good bloke shakes his head. “You don’t want to look at our website, not at night. Better to check on the morning- before you come in.”

So no Edmund. “Would anything else do? Since you’re here, look around…”

I do. Billy is available. I call my son who lives in the outside world, on the surface. He checks the net. Yes, Billy will do.

Billy is a bookcase two metres in height and three metric tonnes in weight. Howard is 1.7 metres high and 72 kilograms. We will need two Billies. One Howard: an unequal proposition.

The good bloke directs me to the suburb, kilometres back, where the wise have collected their trolleys. When I return he helps me lug the two long flat boxes that are Billy Incognito onto my trolley. “How do I pay you?”

He smiles, shakes his head, directs me towards Payment: I know, I know, I can’t miss it.

I pay with plastic. Naturally.

Ms Payment sings me “have a nice day’ in Swedish singsong.

There is a way to get out. I go there.

No escape. I haven’t validated my parking ticket.

Of course.

Back to the payment-accepting Swede who is my validator. Once valid I head for Loading Help. The helper is a tall, bulky bloke, built like a centre half back. He’d match up ok on Dermott Brereton or Wayne Carey. He’ll guard my trolley and my two Billies until I return with my SUV.

Back to the car park. I know where my vehicle is parked – close to the entrance. I can’t find the Entrance. I don’t know my son’s rego number. There are columns with helpful letters of the alphabet that register your vehicle’s whereabouts. But my particular column letter did not register with me. Keep calm.

There are three hectares of car park. Mine is not the only SUV. In fact every vehicle is an SUV. I walk the three hectares in a cunning grid devised by myself as I go. Whenever a dark SUV looms before me in the underworld dark I click the electronic gadget that unlocks an SUV without touching it. A lot of vehicles have these remote gadgets; you click and your car lights up, sometimes farting a short musical beep to cheer you. I click but nothing lights light up. No music either.

Keep calm.

I keep calm, keep walking, keep breathing exhaust fumes that cheer me; they remind me of real life. Outside.

Calmly, I ascend one level, walk the alphabetic columns, walk the clever grid. Nothing.

There remain two more levels. More calm ambulation, more gridding.

Here is a vehicle that looks just like my son’s. (Down here they all do.) I click like mad – no light. I peer inside and sight my red striped jumper. I click again. No lights, but the door opens to my touch. I examine the remote controller. I have been pressing the wrong button, the button you press when you want nothing to happen.

I drive out. Well, no I don’t, actually. Instead I find myself driving in circles – wrong level. The same happens on the next two levels. The circling offers a comforting familiarity.

On the fourth level I find the Centre Half Back who will help with the Billies. He bends, hoists, grunts, herniates a disc and retires, allowing me to complete the job alone. I do so.

It is time to say farewell to Sweden. Travel broadens one. A better and a broader being, I drive carefully, calmly, out into the sunlight.

How Many Camels?

I
How many camels will you take for your daughter?
Not such an unusual question in the Gulf perhaps, but on the deck of a
large passenger ship bound from Genoa for Fremantle, it takes Herbert
unprepared.
I will give you ten camels. What do you say – ten camels for your daughter here?
The man indicates the elder of the two girls.
Herbert looks at his girls. He looks and sees Helenka, his firstborn,
an elf flitting and dipping at will as she plays with Masha, who is
not yet ten. They are playing with their dolls.
At this lull in adult conversation, Helenka looks up. She sees no sign
that she is the subject of the stalled conversation – nor an object.
She takes Masha’s hand and pulls her across the deck to play
hopscotch.
The stranger is watching too. His appraising eye follows the movement
of the elf as she leaps and glides at hopscotch. He sees slim legs
flashing, a hint of fulness at the hips. He looks at the child – a
question still unasked, sees womanhood – a trader’s answer.
The stranger takes Herbert’s silence as rejection of an insufficient
offer. He speaks again: Twenty camels then. What do you say to twenty?

II
In his little dress shop, Herbert is in the clothing trade. Fort
Street, Fremantle is not a chic address, but his clientele is worldly
enough – they come from all corners of the world: in the course of
their escape to Australia, to Fremantle, they have seen the worst of
the world.
Worldly – and fussy too. Never mind the quality, is it cheap? Never
mind style, what’s the price?
But Herbert is worldly too. He understands that his heavy accent is
not a marketing advantage, but that a pretty face and a winning manner
might be.
His older daughter is worth twenty camels: this is Helenka whose face
might have launched so many ships of the desert. So, every day, after
school finishes and on Saturdays, Helenka works as a marketing
advantage in the clothing trade.

III
A couple comes into the shop. The lady has little English, has brought
her man as interpreter. They converse in a Slavic language, which the
marketing advantage happens to comprehend. Helenka shows a seemingly
intuitive understanding of the lady’s needs and her budget. She
selects and shows the lady dresses which cost no more than she is able
to pay. No more, but scarcely a penny less. The lady makes her
purchase and is content. Her bored interpreter notices the imminent
woman inside the child’s school uniform, and loses his languid air.
The child is the only person in attendance and his hungry eyes take it
all in.
A week later, the couple returns to the shop, this time as last time,
well after school closes. The lady needs her new dress altered, which
is quickly arranged. Hungry Eyes is not quickly ready to leave,
however. He chooses dresses, brings them to the young shopgirl, makes
slow enquiries, appears very interested but makes no purchases. He
says he will think about it.
I come again back, he says.

IV
Here in Australia, people are slow and casual. Herbert and Alida are
intense and restless. After a short time, they open a second shop,
this one in Station Street, Fremantle. They still live above the Fort
Street shop. Alida has newly-arrived cousins, fresh from Europe. They
have no home and no income. Alida and Herbert install them above the
second shop, where there is sufficient space for the cousins to live,
and to sew dresses for the shops. Now the newcomers have both a home
and a business.
Freda runs the Station Street shop and it consumes her.
Herbert is an early riser. Each morning he practises yoga, standing on
his head for up to an hour at a time. During this time, his scrotum is
suspended upside down, practically weightless. At all other times, he
feels its full weight and urgency. As soon as Helenka returns from
school, she takes over in the shop from Herbert and he is free to go
elsewhere and attend to his urgency.
And above the shop, Helenka’s mother, back from Station Street,
mothers Masha, washes and cleans, and cooks for two households. Soon,
more cousins arrive in Fremantle, then more, washed ashore, wave upon
wave, generated by the after shocks of Europe. Alida helps them all,
feeding as many as will come and eat.
At such times, Helenka is alone in the shop. She is alone when – true
to his word – Hungry Eyes comes again back.
He asks for an item of apparel which cannot be found on the racks in
the showroom. Helen says she’ll go and look for the item in the
stockroom. She is taken by surprise when Hungry Eyes follows her
there. She turns to explain that he can wait in the shop – she will
bring it, but he moves forward, keeps on moving until he has backed
her against the back wall. She discovers then, as his body rubs
against hers, upwards, downwards, forwards and backwards, that he is
just like her violin teacher back in Hamburg: he is a rubber. At least
he is not like her French teacher, not a feeler.
She is not surprised when the rubbing abruptly stops, nor by his
moments of gasping, nor by his rapid retreat with that funny gait.
And she is not surprised when he comes again back, again.
For his part, Hungry Eyes is most surprised by the large Alsatian in
the stockroom, which Helen has borrowed from the Greek boy next door.
And when the Alsatian snarls and bares large fangs at him, Hungry Eyes
runs, with very efficient gait, from the shop and does not return. Continue reading

Wedding Rings

A voice says will you marry me?

Annette looks up in surprise – I am a bit surprised myself: where did that voice come from?

Annette says are you joking?

The voice says no, Annette says yes, and a week or so later we are buying a ring to make the meaning of our voices concrete.

A few months later, our voices exchange promises before witnesses, and we exchange rings to cement the promises.

I have never worn a ring before. In my family, real men never wore rings – were we too modest, or simply too poor? – I don’t know. There was certainly a feeling of disdain for ostentatious jewellery. The ring that Annette gives me is a narrow band of white gold, quite weighty for its modest size. It is a discreet, silvery statement of love and commitment. It feels fine and it sends a message to all from Annette that she claims me. The inner surface of the ring is engraved with my name and the date, 3.12.69. This is the date that marks my movement from my family home and ways into a new way.

But surgical asepsis allows no concessions to love and marriage. I am newly wed also to medicine, so the ring comes off for every surgical scrub in the operating theatre and for the delivery of every baby in labour ward.

And I slip the ring off my finger every morning for the ceremonies of worship: I wash my naked fingers before prayer, then wind the leather strap of tefilin around my left fourth finger while reciting the threefold declaration of betrothal to the Creator.

After these rituals the finger is ready to resume its conjugal connection to Annette. I slip that silvery band back onto the finger with a feeling of conscious pleasure.

On the seventh morning of the month of December in 1976, I take that ring off for the last time. I place it on the shelf in our bedroom, wash and say my prayers. Hurrying away to work, I leave the ring on the shelf. I never see it again.

When I return to my destroyed house a few hours later, the exploding hot water service which sat for years in dutiful silence beneath our home has torn, enraged, through the floor, through the ceiling and through the fabric of our lives. The bedroom is unrecognizable: there are no horizontal surfaces, no shelves, no ring.

Annette and our children are intact, we are all intact, the three goldfish – Shimmy, Pizza and Coco-Pops are all intact. This is no time to grieve for a ring.

Twenty years pass, the children are adults and the goldfish have gone the way of all flesh, fowl and fin.

My finger itches again for the trappings of marriage, so I buy a slim band of white gold and wear it. The world at large makes no comment but Annette marks my wearing of the ring, and understands.

A few years later, the second ring falls while I am praying, onto the floor. My search for it is anxious then rapidly frantic. I find to my surprise that I am sobbing as I bend and scrabble on the floor for a small piece of absence surrounded by an annulus of gold.

That little circular symbol of the big fact of my life is never found. In its place is rediscovery of the intense nature of my commitment.

Some fingers never learn. After 32 years of marriage, the fourth finger on my left hand demands a third wedding ring. My friend Colin is on his third ring and his third wife: he has three mothers-in-law and he has earned his jewellery.

In my case, I still have Annette and I wish to show that fact to the world. So I buy a new ring.

This ring is heavier and tighter – harder to lose, but also harder to pull off and to put back on. This is no simple sensual pleasure, no slip off – slip on, but a struggle in which three fingers from the right wrestle with the left fourth. Before every scrub, before every morning wash and prayer, I shed some skin on the altar of marriage, a small sacrifice of my flesh. After twelve months of the third ring, my finger is scarred. There is a cicatrice, a ring of flesh which is permanent. This is a ring which no-one can remove and I can never lose.

It looks like I am married. For good.

Two Propositions at the Zurich Cafe

Barcelona, Ramblas

Barcelona, Ramblas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barcelona in the sunshine. Annette and I stroll down the Ramblas, admiring everything. The weather is benign, the street theatre brilliant, the shops alluring, the cafes innumerable. Everything is old and quaint or new and gaudy. Or Gaudi.

The Rambla is famous among tourists for all of the things I´ve mentioned, all the things that seize our attention, and while our attention is seized, our wallets, handbags and purses are also seized, by pickpockets and by bobby dazzlers. The bobby dazzler operates by doing something unexpected or outrageous that grabs your attention at just the moment that his accomplice jostles you and relieves you of your wallet and runs.

The Rambla has played host to many, many shoppers, but none the equal of Annette. Annette has a plan with which she will foil the pickpockets: she´ll spend all her money before they can catch up with her.

And so it is that Annette hits the Rambla running. Single-handedly she rescues the Spanish economy. Her targets are shoe shops, jewellers, children´s outfitters, leather clothiers, and dress shops and dress shops and dress shops.

I am dizzy with admiration. Spain is in surplus. Only the pickpockets have a bad day.

I take my vertigo to the Zurich Café, where I will drink coffee in the sun and read my book, until  Annette, the Goddess of Commerce, exhausts her resources.

Of the lavatory arrangements at Café Zurich, I will say little, beyond noting how cosy it is to squeeze past a line of ladies waiting in the basement, then, upon reaching the immediately adjacent gentlemen´s Lavabos, to note how the charm of proximity is enhanced by the absence of a front door to either the Ladies´ or the Gents´.  Continue reading