I’ve always been impressed that the apostrophe is in the right place on the old neon sign. It would have added to the cost, but I guess the original ‘Chick’ wanted everything to be just right.
Somehow, the old diner has continued in business with parking in rear, despite sitting on an expensive piece of real estate.
The block would have been on the edge of town when the diner opened, but these days it has been gobbled up by progress.
Steak and Chops are still on the menu, but I prefer the sausages and eggs.
Back in the day, it is said that ‘Chick’s’ stayed open twenty-four hours. These days, it’s open until two in the morning, which is okay by me. The opening and closing hours are flexible, and if the diner has customers at closing time, it stays open until they want to leave, which kind of makes you feel wanted, and I guess if you are up at that hour, you are in need of a bit of comfort.
When I can’t sleep, I wander down to ‘Chick’s’ and sit and write. As long as I buy coffee, they don’t seem to mind.
Taxi driver’s and emergency workers love the place.
The girl who works the late shift is friendly and knows how to listen in the same way that a good bartender does.
No-one messes with her because the short-order cook is a big bloke and rumour has it he strangled someone over a parking space.
Speaking of parking — I rarely drive to the diner, living as close as I do, but when I do arrive in a car, I’m allowed to park out the front. Someone said that it was like receiving a gold medal at the Olympics. Only me and the cops are allowed to park out the front. I don’t know what I did to receive such a high honour, but I have learned not to argue with good fortune. I park out front now and then to show that I can. It has raised my standing in the community.
I found a wallet on the floor of a booth once. I returned it intact even though I hadn’t sold a story in a long while. There was fifty bucks in that wallet, and I was sorely tempted, but I knew my mum would have been disappointed in me if I lifted the money. I remember the look on the bloke’s face when I banged on his door and gave him the wallet.
“Thank you,” he said, “I wasn’t supposed to be in that part of town that night,” he said, handing me the fifty. “Please don’t mention where you found it.”
“Who are you?” said an aggressive woman who reminded me of one of my aunties — the one I was still scared of.
“Just came to return a wallet,” I said, taking a step back.
She pushed her husband to one side and stared at me.
“Where did you find it?” she said.
I looked over my shoulder and noticed the flowers growing on the lawn.
“Just over there, near the footpath,” I lied.
The woman glared at me, and behind her, I saw the man give me a nod.
“Don’t think you’re getting a reward,” said the angry woman.
“No need for a reward lady. It’s enough to see your smiling face,” I said as I stepped back out of range.
I could see my mum smiling as I told her the story. She would be proud of me, and I wished she was still alive so I could see her smile one more time.
Making her smile was my greatest delight.
“That’s what it says on the side of the cartridge,” I said.
“Bloody hell, I haven’t seen one of those in a long time.”
“Well? Do you have one? Do you know where I could get one?” I said.
The shop was a tiny brick building wedged in amongst other more significant brick buildings. Maybe the builder miscalculated. Perhaps he didn’t measure up accurately. Maybe it was just easier to build one small shop than go back and start again.
Someone will rent it.
And they did.
CARTRIDGES ARE USS — yes with two’s’ s, (I’ll bet he sat up all night thinking up the name), was conveniently located at my local shopping strip. Someone had bought up all the old shops, pulled them down and built new shops with convenient parking.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of those.”
“So you said,” I said, “Maybe if you look out the back?”
“We don’t have ‘a back’,” he said.
Everyone has a back room, don’t they?
A quick scan of the shop did not show any sign of a rear door (where does he go when he needs to pee?)
There were racks on the walls and glass cases forming a counter, all crammed full of colourful packages.
“I know it’s old, but it was a very popular brand back in the day, and I thought, seeing as how you specialise, you might have one or know where I could get one. I don’t need colour. I only need black so that I can print out my stories.”
The shopkeeper was still staring at the cartridge as though it might tell him something.
“T026, well there’s a blast from the past.”
The thirty-something neatly dressed shopkeeper with CARTRIDGES ARE USS embroidered on his jumper, was beginning to annoy me.
“Well, if you don’t have one, I’ll just have to look somewhere else,” I said, holding out my hand in the hope of retrieving my cartridge — which still had a bit of ink left in it.
The shopkeeper scratched his head and gave the cartridge one final turn in his hand.
Reluctantly and gently, he handed it back to me. I felt like Lord Carnarvon must have felt as he examined the contents of King Tut’s tomb.
“You take good care of that,” he said.
“I will,” I said as I backed out of the shop.
I never did find a T026 cartridge, but a week later I found one hundred dollars in an old jacket. So I treated myself to a new printer — colour. It’s been handy, and it costs almost as much to buy replacement cartridges as it does to buy a new machine — it’s a bit of a scam someone said in an article I read.
The cartridge shop closed about a year ago and the Pizza shop next door knocked a hole in the wall to create a warm place for people to wait while their pizza is being prepared.
As I wait for my pizza order, I sometimes wonder what happened to the shopkeeper. Does he still have the embroidered jumper? Does he wear it on cold nights and think back to when he had his own shop? A tiny shop, but his nonetheless.
I kept the old printer, but finally, I had to concede that to continue looking for a cartridge was probably a fools’ errand — so I put it out with the recycling.
That’s the trouble with living, in general — as soon as you can’t get the parts anymore, all the fun goes out of it.
The remnants of my final dream drift away.
A quick check of the clock says it’s time to get up.
I weave my way to where hot water soothes my crusty eyes.
More weaving — toilet, then kitchen.
Bleary eyes won’t slow me down — I could find the coffee machine with my eyes closed.
I choose a favourite cup from among my favourite cups, all lined up on top of the machine.
Plenty of water in the tank (I fill it religiously – coffee is a religion of sorts).
The pods nestle in a ceramic bowl I bought at our local market, years ago. The glaze soothes my soul.
I choose a pod (nothing magical or spiritual about the choice, just the top one), drop it into the machine, close the lever and pray that the precious liquid ends up in the mug and not oozing out the side of the device. The life span of these machines is about six months, then the paper towels come out to sop up the leakage. The makers give them away once a year to lure new customers from a crowded market. It works on me, but then, I’m not very bright.
Within seconds, the liquid starts to flow, and as long as I don’t hear a spluttering noise (like I make when I’m drowning), I know my coffee is not far away.
A spoon of honey, stir well, hold the cup in both hands and inhale the same way you do with a sixteen-year-old Lagavulin.
Take the cup and stand by the window, wait for the parrots to have a bath in the creek.
The sun has been up for quite a while, but the tall eucalypts make me wait for direct rays.
After bathing and squabbling over the best bathing location, the parrots will fly to a low branch and preen in the sunlight.
The voices in my head haven’t woken yet, so I’m free for the moment and the day is full of possibility.
My dog wants me to go outside, but he knows to wait until that first coffee is consumed, then it is time to play.
From there I wait to see what the day has in store for me. It may be a day just like yours. It may be a day best forgotten, but whatever it will be, it is another day and another chance for redemption.
I wrote this essay on one of my other blog sites (not in use now) in 2013. As it happens, it’s Melbourne Cup Day today as well. I’ve posted the text as it was and I’ve added notations, so you know how things have changed over those six years.
The first thing to note is that the dog in the foreground, Honey, died earlier this year and she is sorely missed.
MELBOURNE CUP: A Day Off.
It’s a public holiday here today, which tells you a lot about the city I live in.
As far as I know, this is the only place in the world that has a holiday for a horse race [it’s Melbourne Cup Tuesday here].
This also tells you a lot about my city of Melbourne, and it’s love affair [obsession] with sport.
It’s a beautiful day, which is not a given for this time of the year and we are taking it quietly in our house. My wife just ventured out into the garden for only the second time this year! (Not this year. We went to an excellent birthday party last night, and she is sitting up in bed ‘recovering’.) Weeds are now in bags, and a very nice cup of coffee was consumed on our recently rebuilt back deck. (The deck is now six years old and in need of another coat of oil — it’s on the list, but not at the top. I sit on this deck every morning drinking juice and listening to the birds. It’s an awesome way to greet the day.)
My lawnmower died a few weeks ago (I got it fixed, and recently it threw a blade but did not hit me — some days you are just plain lucky!) and it is difficult to get such things fixed at this time of the year, so the lawns are getting a bit jungle-like. It has been raining quite a bit (It has this year as well) but now it is warm, and the grass is rapidly getting to be taller than the dogs. The lawn looks great when it’s long, but it is impractical when you have small dogs. (Only one small dog in our house now — we have up to four at one stage — and he is feeling sorry for himself because he hurt his hind leg chasing a cockatoo)
Speaking of small dogs, Zed is having ‘one of those days’. His tummy hurts. He eats possum poo, and his tummy gets very sore. This usually manifests itself in the middle of the night, and no one gets any sleep, but today it surfaced at breakfast time, and he is working through it as I type. Nothing we can do for him until he feels like eating [just got told that he is in the kitchen eating his breakfast….. 6 hours later]. Hopefully, he will be feeling well enough to go for a walk on this beautiful day. (No walk for Zed today. He needs to rest his sore leg. Since I wrote this, we have changed the dog’s diet to raw food, and it has made a world of difference to Zed and his tummy. His bum does not hurt as often either.)
Work has well and truly begun on the McDonalds store up on the highway and as one of the security guards loves one of my dogs, he gives us the inside tips on how it is going. January is the expected finish date. With all the silliness that has been going on around this project, it will be good to see it finished. It will be the Maccas with the best view in Australia. (It did open but not until March, and it has been going strong ever since. I have partly written many of my books while drinking coffee. The young people who work there have become friends. One of the original protestors still chalks signs on the pavement outside the shop every Friday morning!)
Not feeling all that well today, but my spirits are high after a week where I got a lot of positive feedback on stories I have written. One story obviously struck a chord with a lady who had recently lost her father. This is a story that I’m very proud of, and it has gotten a lot of attention. (It is still one of my favourite stories.)
I also received some positive feedback from writers I follow, on a recent story. My ego needs constant feeding, and it got a lot this week. (My ego still needs continuous feedback. Since I wrote this, I have written a lot of stories and published more than a dozen books. I have taught myself how to make audiobooks and have published most of my back catalogue in this form. Audiobooks take a long time to produce, and I’m very proud of this achievement. My audiobooks have sold reasonably well, but my ebooks have not done so well — no, I don’t understand that either.)
If you are in Melbourne, I hope you enjoy your day off, and if you are anywhere else in the world, I hope your day is a good day.
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.