I have a fondness for house sparrows (we don’t have them in the Dandenong Ranges). When my father retired, he taught a male sparrow to eat from his hand. It took months of patience. I was very impressed.
My father died suddenly.
The little bird kept turning up at the back door at the appointed time, and it broke my heart.
After a long time, the little bird stopped coming.
It has always been my wish to have the patience to repeat my father’s achievement. During MIFF this year, I went to Fed Square to eat a bread roll between movies. All the usual characters were there — lots of noise and bustle.
I found a ledge to sit on and was eyed by a seagull. I shared a bit with him and was ‘joined’ by a bunch more. Two young Chinese children and two young men speaking a language I did not recognise (I’m not good at speaking them, but I can usually recognise a wide range of languages) kept trying to frighten the birds away. While all this was going on, right next to me on the ledge were two male sparrows so close that they could easily have hopped into my pocket. I looked at them, but they didn’t seem frightened. I distracted the seagull with a bit of bread and optimistically put a crumb on the palm of my hand and slowly moved it towards them. After a few seconds, (the bird kept looking at me trying to decide the level of my character) the nearest bird jumped onto my hand and took the crumb.
I could not believe what had happened!
The two sparrows had flown off to eat the crumb, but they soon returned only this time on the other side of me where the seagulls could see them.
I performed the routine again with the same result!
There was no one to see what was happening — it was just me. I hope my dad was watching.
At this stage, I had nothing to lose, so I slowly took out my phone and tried to get a video. I was successful, so I did it again only in slo-mo, and at the exact moment the bird takes the crumb, my phone maxed out its memory!
I’ve been away for a long time, and now I’m going home.
My whole life is in this bag except for the clothes I stand up in.
I couldn’t go without one last look.
I wouldn’t say that I love the sea, but I would say that it sustains me. This little coastal town took me in when I needed to be invisible.
I was expecting the usual small town attitudes, but that’s not what I found. They didn’t exactly embrace me, but they didn’t run me out-of-town on a rail either. Funny expression that; where the hell do you get a rail at short notice? And why not just chuck them in the back of a ute and dump ‘em at the city limits? Seems like a lot less trouble to me.
But what would I know?
I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, so I went looking for work as soon as I arrived. I packed groceries on a Friday and Saturday, worked at the service station whenever one of the boys needed a day off and did odd jobs at the distillery during the whisky season.
Getting somewhere to live was also mysteriously easy.
Ma Weston runs a boarding house. The kind of boarding house you read about in books.
Breakfast at 6:30 am dinner at 7:00 pm, and if you were late you went hungry. Ma Weston could cook — boy, could she cook — no one was late to the table in this house. Not only was the food amazing the portions were ridiculous.
Ma Weston got her start in the boarding house business when her husband was killed working on the rigs in Bass Straight. It was one of those huge storms that Bass Straight is famous for. Someone said that it’s one of the roughest stretches of water anywhere in the world and on the night Mr Wilson was washed off the rig it was close to Armageddon. The wave that took him went over the top of the rig. Think of how high those things are and then imagine a wave big enough to go over the top of it.
And I thought that I had troubles.
The rig workers did what they could for Ma Wilson and their most practical contribution was to make sure that her boarding house was always full of rig workers. Some even stayed a night before heading home.
Now that’s loyalty.
After six weeks on a rig with a bunch of smelly, hairy men with nothing to do but work sleep and jerk off, the last thing most blokes would do would be to prolong their absence from home, but that’s what they did, and it got her through those anxious years.
These days most of the rigs have shut down, but those that are still going continue to remember Ma Wilson. I got to know a few of the regular blokes. We would share the occasional beer on a Friday night.
Landing in an oil rig town was a wise decision.
Oil rig workers are a strange lot; a bit like the Foreign Legion. They come from all over, and most of them are running away from something, so they understand a bloke who never wants to talk about his past. They don’t speak of the past, and neither do they ask.
I enjoyed my time here, but it is time to go home.
Alister McLean is dead.
I got the word a couple of days ago.
The rest of his gang are old and behind bars.
No one is looking for me anymore.
I’ve lived this way for so long I’m not sure that I can live any other way.
Never own more than you can shove into an old suitcase and be ready to go at a moments notice.
They nearly caught up to me a couple of times, but my luck held.
I remember a particularly talkative bloke on a train from Melbourne to Bendigo. Lots of annoying questions.
I’m pretty sure that he knew who I was but he wanted to make sure before he made the call.
Ten thousand reasons to dial those numbers.
He wasn’t too bright, and I gave him the slip. The second last time I saw him, he was in a phone booth gesticulation wildly. I wonder what they did to him when they found out that he’d lost sight of me?
I could see him frantically searching the platform as my train back to Melbourne pulled out.
I felt a pang of sorrow for this poor bloke. I know what it feels like to get that close to the brass ring — except in my case, I grabbed it.
I’d been giving McLean’s missus a really good time for several months.
She was discreet, I’ll give her that. She needed someone; don’t we all?
I treated her as well as I was able. She was just like the rest of us who were living this life; she was juggling a grenade with the pin pulled out. It was exciting, but if you dropped the damn thing, it was going to end very badly.
McLean was an arrogant prick, and he never thought that Agnes would be looking when he punched in the code to open the safe. She played the dumb blond to perfection; she was anything but. I liked her a lot, and I was surprised to find that she knew what I was up to.
She came right out and said it.
“Billy, I know why you’ve been so nice to me. You want to know if I know the combination to the safe?”
You could have breathed on me, and I would have fallen over.
Honesty seemed like a good idea.
I’d rarely tried it, but there had to be a first time.
“It’s not just that Agnes, we had some good times, didn’t we?”
“Yes we did, and all I ask is that you leave some of it in the summer-house, behind the books.”
“There’s a lot of books out there kid. Exactly which books do you want the money to be behind?”
I’m not sure that McLean could read, at least not complete sentences, but he had me stock the summer-house with “lot’s of books that rich people like.”
He was old, and his wife was off with the fairies, and he really needed the money.
He obviously didn’t want to sell, and he’d knocked back a heap of book dealers, and by the time I got to him, he was practically in tears. He’d spent a lifetime compiling the collection.
It was the ‘first editions’ that the dealers were after.
This bloke had one of the most amazing collections of children’s books I’ve ever seen.
The only photos of children in his house were very old, and they didn’t look like photos of grandchildren.
He looked sadly at me when I handled them.
I knew better than to ask.
I offered him five times what the dealers had bid. What did I care? McLean could afford it.
I gave the children’s books and the first editions back to the old bloke.
He didn’t say thank you, he just took the money and the books and walked back into his house.
As I loaded the boxes into the back of McLean’s Bentley, I wondered if he would notice that the books were way over-priced.
They had leather bindings with gold embossed titles.
They looked like they belonged in a posh library and that was all he cared about.
Eventually, Agnes chose the complete works of Charles Dickens as her hiding place. She thought about it for quite some time, and I smiled.
I don’t know what she was expecting me to leave her in that literary hideout, but I was impressed that she didn’t set a figure; she left it up to me.
The pile of money made the Dickens editions stick out a bit, but there was no way McLean was going to notice.
I knew he didn’t trust banks, but I have to say that even I was amazed by the amount of cash jammed into that safe.
Mostly large denominations and they fitted nicely into an old brown suitcase.
Paintings by Jack Vettriano, and Edward Hopper.
We grew up together in the way that cousins do.
We sometimes visited her house, but I don’t remember them visiting ours.
Mostly, we met up once a year on Christmas night at our grandmother’s house in North Fitzroy, just down the road from the Fitzroy Cricket Ground and even closer to the Lord Newry Hotel, although we were way too young to see the inside.
An added ‘meet up’ bonus would be the numerous weddings and christenings that my family were famous for, but mostly it was Christmas night.
While the aunties would do their best to outdo each other with a staggering array of food including cream cakes that were probably shortening our lifespan, we young ones would play and talk.
There were two waves of cousins.
The slightly older ones and us slightly younger ones.
One Christmas night sticks out above the blur of all the others.
It was probably 1968, and we were huddled in the small front room of my grandma’s double fronted Italianate Victorian house which, legend had it, was originally built for a doctor in the 1880s.
My grandfather bought it for his new bride from the profits generated by two fruit and vegetable shops. The house had two concrete fountains in the front yard which we climbed on when we were a lot younger. I harboured a desire to restore these fountains to their nineteenth century working glory.
Sitting in that small front room us cousins talked about our hopes and dreams and the phenomenon that was the TV show ‘Laugh In’. I was off to Teacher’s College the next year, and I was full of excitement, and I’m sure I spoke about my ambition.
Therese was a couple of years behind me, and of all the cousins she was the only one to go into teaching as I had.
Unlike me, she stayed in the profession and, by all accounts [her’s included], she loved her job. I can imagine the children loving her as well.
As the aunties and uncles died off, the family ‘jungle drum’ went quiet. Family news no longer reached me. Therese’s mum died quite young, and I missed the news of her father’s passing. He was probably my favourite uncle, and this made me sad.
I made an effort and tracked her down earlier this year, and we exchanged letters.
Yes, letters; she was distrustful of the internet and preferred ‘snail mail’.
Her handwriting was impeccable, as you would expect from a lifetime of teaching children how to write.
Unfortunately, our correspondence petered out after a while, and I left it at that as I felt that she wanted her privacy.
I planned to try again sometime this year, and possibly arrange to meet up for coffee.
On the way to visit our grandchildren, my wife noticed an entry in the newsletter that she receives from her old secondary school.
She did not want to leave it until she got home, so she texted me.
Therese had died suddenly in early November.
An email to another cousin revealed that she had been dead for three days when they found her.
This created a lot of questions which will only be answered after a Coronial inquiry.
I guess I missed her funeral and I could not find any reference to it in the newspapers.
The ‘jungle drums’ don’t reach me anymore, so my relatives live their lives and deal with their triumphs and tragedies without my participation.
In my head, we are still young and still sitting in that little room at the end of the 1960s, with our whole lives in front of us.
Therese never married and I have no idea if she had any near misses.
She leaves behind a brother and a sister, and she is reunited with her mum and her dad and a sister who died when she was twenty-one.
Sleep well cus’, I remember you.
My very talented friend John built this little retreat at the bottom of his garden. He lives on an ordinary suburban block but he has transformed it into a wonderland. This is one tiny part of that wonderland, and it is my favourite. I have not visited for a couple of years and I’ll bet that there are new wonders to behold. John is one of those blokes —– always on the go. His house is just as amazing as his garden and it is a place to renew your soul.
This photo includes my talented son before he grew his beard
For more than twenty years I was associated with Albert Park Basketball Stadium. It was started in the 1950’s as a way to promote the sport in Australia. American soldiers had brought the sport here in the 1940s and European migrants, fleeing the devastation of WW2 formed the backbone of the sport for many years. The late Ken Watson and his wife Betty were the driving force.
My family and I arrived at Albert Park in the early 1990s. Our sons were keen to stretch their skills and I quickly found myself coaching for the famed Melbourne Tigers, the most successful junior basketball club in Australia. I loved it and so did the boys.
As the years went by we got to know many of the characters around the game.
Even when the government decided to pull down the amazing old basketball complex and build a shiny new soulless complex the game continued on. I took up refereeing which extended my time long after our boys outgrew junior basketball.
The bloke in the photo was around for all of this time. He came from one of those war-torn countries and when this photo was taken, his hip was so bad that he could barely walk but he turned up every Thursday night to coach his team. They were a pleasure to referee. They were tough but they were successful even though they were not young. They did it with skill and knowledge and discipline. Their coach had a lot to do with their success.
It was sudden, at least it was for me.
Tony was old and each time I saw him he looked older and a bit slower.
Eventually, I guess, life caught up with him.
He came to Australia a very long time ago and when we first met him he had just taken over a large old milk bar in the heart of Belgrave. He quickly turned it into a cafe by day and a restaurant by night.
He lived at the back of the cafe with his family in the way that families have done for generations.
For many years he employed a belly dancer to entertain his customers on a Saturday night.
Tony had been there for so long I was beginning to think that he might live forever. Of course he didn’t, but while he was alive he worked hard. ‘Jean Claude’s’ was open from early morning till late at night 365 days a year. On Christmas day I took the dogs for a walk to Belgrave and the only shop that was open was Jean Claude’s.
I never did ask him why he named the cafe Jean Claude. I would like to think that there is a cool story behind it about his life in a war torn part of the world, but I suspect that he just thought that it made the place sound classy.
Tony’s home country had been racked by a prolonged civil war and he had brought his family to Australia to escape the fighting. This was a long time ago. He made a life for himself here and he supported many members of his family though his cafe. We watched them grow up around this happy chef.
You could never get a small meal when Tony was the chef because he would always insist, “I cook something special for you.” And he always did. He loved my two boys from the first time we ventured into his cafe and the last time I saw him he asked me how they were getting on, he always asked. Family was very import to Tony.
When my boys were little we would sit in the window of the cafe and play ‘spot someone who you know’. One point for each recognised person. My eldest son was usually the winner but he was not above cheating.
When Tony died the cafe closed and stayed closed. It would not be the same without Tony. A little notice appeared in the window thanking people for their kind thoughts and after many months a ‘For Lease’ sign also went up. Tony owned the building and rather wisely the family has decided to lease it rather than sell it.
In an era when cafes only open during the peak earning times Tony’s cafe was always open. In recent years there was the addition of a pizza section which operated at night. More work for someone who Tony knew, probably family.
I took Tony for granted while he was with us but I hope he knew how much I admired his devotion to his family. I’ll miss his delicious food and his broad smile. We knew and liked each other and I’ll bet that wherever he is he is not letting his friends order from the menu, instead I’ll bet he is “cooking up something special.”
I don’t remember the first time I met him and, as often happens with people you lose touch with, I don’t remember the last time I saw him either.
He had a creative eye and worked in the business that his father had founded.
His dad was a builder but somehow ended up with a business which made decorative patterns on glass via sandblasting.
His business gelled with the business I was in at the time and we worked together.
Before he took over his dads business he worked as a shopfitter and I worked for him for a few weeks during my holidays when I was still a classroom teacher.
I loved it and I enjoyed his company.
Sometimes creative people have a loose relationship with sanity, and this is how it was with him.
I remember sitting in a car with him while he told me fantastical stories in a language only vaguely associated to English.
In my naivety I thought that I could keep him calm and when he got better he would remember that I had been there for him.
He didn’t, of course.
I found out recently that he had died a few years ago and I still don’t know how.
His brother and partner in the business died just recently and the business that their father had started is now shuttered and closed for business
I feel sad about all of it; the losing touch, the untimely unexplained deaths and the ending of a dream.
Of all the conversations and all the adventures we had the thing that keeps coming into my mind is a story that he told me about his dad.
Apparently, his dad built their family home with his own hands and every hinge in the house had only one screw in it.
The promise to return and screw the rest of them in was never kept.
It’s funny; the things you remember.