Mr Leaky’s Possum Hole

6th April 2018.

Uninvited drifters

Whereas The Fall of Gondolin, JRR Tolkien’s “first real story” set in Middle-earth, out for the first time as a stand-alone book was proper news, I considered Friday’s “Sorry you were out. See card for collection details” text message fake. I’d been in. All afternoon. And bollocks had any StarTrack driver stuffed a card under the door.

To top that, there was no ruddy notion where my packet got dumped. Calm down, I thought. Apply common sense.

Consider the gent from Optus who rang a few days ago. What if, instead of updating his business records, he got distracted? By a redback, perhaps. Or another Commonwealth games gold medal celebration. That would mean my abode was still ‘Leaky Shed’. Where over six months – three with a broken toe caused by a chair and a watermelon – I’d adjusted to Aussie life after an incautious arrival, almost four years ago now.

To confuse things, Mrs Leaky was my landlady. Which wasn’t her real name either. Just it stuck after she drew immodest attention to her menstrual cycle. “It’s my bleeding. Gotta change my rags,” said the lissom, frizz-blonde, alternative-spirit. Much too loudly. In a hushed cafe. Had my new found friend Son-of-Calcutta pop-eyed, choking on his Welsh rarebit.

Anyway, now I couldn’t help a nostalgic twinge for the place a pizza delivery lad had called “kinda magical”.

“Kinda magical”

A lean-to, Leaky Shed loomed via an arched heavy wooden double gate between a cycle shop and a pilates studio, and up a narrow brick-sided alley draped with fairy lights. Placed where the outer office wall of Mrs Leaky’s other half and the pilates studio met kept it separate from the family residence around the corner. “Nobody really knows you’re here,” was how Mrs Leaky put it.

Leaky Shed (right)

Agreed to online, the missus impervious to a Wiveliscombe barn owl’s cautionary shrieks, the erection rested on a concrete slab fit for a chook house and appeared rude. The front was tin sheeted, punctuated by a door and three windows; the exposed end clad with comely wooden shingles. Rusty corrugated iron served as a roof. Where a hole, through which pee dribbled during nightly possum percussion and rain dripped, gave grounds for the ‘Leaky’.

Erstwhile car dump

A zillion wheelbarrow loads of straw and horse poo, plus bucketfuls of Mrs Leaky’s manky, kitchen slop compost had transmogrified an erstwhile car dump to organic garden. Bougainvillea trailed from a bald tyre four-stack. A rotted 1980s sedan’s. Citrus and herbs did their obliging best. Roses tried. And agapanthus grew ecstatic.

The showpiece was big and circular. Gravel pathways, pebble-edged. Painstakingly laid. A ‘Firebird’ – some fab crystal – buried middle for diddle. Sum total: a labyrinth. Endowing super positive energy. Revenue from thirty buck per bod perambulations. And a loo for Blossom, a gutsy bichon frise.

Rising above the whole, a towering gum tree. From where rung my dependable dawn alarm: a currawong’s exotic ‘jabawok! jabawok!’

A few feet away from my pillow was Mrs Leaky’s ‘Space’. A superior shed that odd people would visit. Above the heads of the bald she’d wave branches of burning sage. Asphyxia was a risk, but sunny Melbourne days absolutely meant I open my door. Or melt in an outsized oven.

Drifters sneaked in. A sketchy bloke wearing a bowler hat was one. A strutting myna bird another. Making mellow liquid notes, it exited through a window of its choosing. Cockroach and skink pitched camp under the room temperature fridge. And given brazen snails made a maze of trails, dodgy spiders did at least help limit flies. Any whinge on my or the missus’ part got met by Mrs Leaky’s beatific smile.

Shed skink

Certainly it was worth giving her a shot about the packet . After a rummage I sent a text. The reply was surprisingly quick: “Sorry. Can’t help. I’m in California! Hubby’s at home though…” She gave his number followed by “xxxx”. Wowza, how time can heal.

Tall as Tolkien, Mr Leaky, a goatee-bearded lawyer, cherished an Akubra, a perfect blue feather in its band. A man unto himself, he took his Jewishness badly, instead romanticising about Aboriginal life. Homage paid through an elemental totem – a burning joss stick and a tiny bowl of water sat on a sand-filled plate – perched on his office self.

In the first days he taxied me and the missus for a mingle at a Macedon ranges’ mutton roast. Flukily I bent his feather. Still, sometimes we shared the wicker seat outside the shed’s door. Chat about life. Often he’d pull Blossom off my leg. He’d deliver my post, including a mail order, battery powered safari kit: a pull-trigger spider grasper, a vacuum bug sucker and a mozzie zap racket. At his dinner table we’d swap anecdotes. Like the tail he saw hanging from a hole cut for a light fitting. A tug, and both ceiling plaster and a possum landed on his noggin.

The wicker seat

Suburban safari kit

He observed I called out the elephant in the room.

“Ivan Andreevich Krylov actually wrote ‘museum’ rather than ‘room’,” I replied. To which he retorted, “In each man is the greatness of all men.” Sparking a failed attempt to recruit me into his open circle of New Age Warrior training. Popping two bucks weekly into his hat to cover the office electric before baring my soul to a huddle of men – reforming drug addicts, alcoholics, and the low on confidence – in preparation for role play as a dolphin and to scream at the outback hills wasn’t really my thing.

However, Mr Leaky did merit a huge “Bravo!” for preserving my integrity. Blossom’s bout of “the shits”, he swore, came from gobbling an oodle of Mrs Leaky’s stinky compost. Rather than the binned congealed curry under my kitchen sink. And he confessed his taking my whacking wodge of rent money out of Mrs Leaky’s hand to put somewhere safe. Adding she really should apologise for the dog poisoning accusation and writing such a nasty letter about not being paid the dosh at all. Nevertheless, a tedious rift occurred.

Receiving the message from America saw me text Mr Leaky immediately, saying: hello again, who I was, and asking if he’d found a StarTrack card with my name on it.

The answer was prompt: “Yes.” 

“Great. Please leave it in porch. I’ll pick it up first thing Monday.”

“Not convenient. Come now. Knock hard when you arrive.” 

Fiddlesticks. My supper borsch came off the hob. Next was hitting the Nepean Highway rush in the dark. Double the time, I thought. “Will do. Give me 20 mins.”

On the button Mr Leaky looked me up and down with zero recall. “Did you use to live here?” he asked, handing me the card. His goatee, I noticed, had grown lengthy as a wizard’s. Had I disguised myself? What with badger turned eyebrows and having long stopped walking with a limp.

Crystal clear was after the weekend I can go jog and get my packet. A new phone for the missus.

 

Text & illustration © 2018 Zum Beamer/ Charles Wood.

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Rips And Car Alarms

2nd April 2018.

Lunch choice

We’d stiffed a galah. The careless bird’s bounce off the car bonnet and its limp back-flip had been lamentable. As was its mate’s descent into mourning. Whereas the smirking bogan’s speeding ute dinting my windscreen in a shower of dirt road grit shrapnel was basic frustration. Both incidents coming to pass within the hour. And all for nowt. No other winery steered to was open.

I reflected on this while slightly tipsy, watching a Buddhist monk kick surf beside Point Lonsdale pier. Above it, the lighthouse. There to blink warning of ‘The Rip’ – the globally infamous entry to Port Phillip, Melbourne’s only sea approach. A tough to take casualty had been the George Roper, a four-master eclectically laden with curtains, booze, steel rails and dynamite on its maiden voyage from Liverpool. Fred Kruger, a Berlin born upholsterer cum photographer noted for his cricketing aboriginals, captured the 1880s drama from where the monk splashed.

Point Lonsdale pier…

… and lighthouse

Wreck of the George Roper

Steaming through ‘The Rip’ now, the Spirit of Tasmania ferry. I joined my two companions, Riesling Swigger and Son-of-Calcutta, for a gawp and to cross our fingers. Soon we’d catch a ferry ourselves. The Queencliff to Sorrento one, for the 5.6 nautical mile stretch homeward. A guarantee the round trip via the Mornington would end in darkness. Victoria’s clocks having gone back an hour, daylight saving’s departed.

Evening ferry arrival

That sobering news can’t match Son-of-Calcutta turning contortionist. His achievement to repeatedly squeeze in and out of the back seat of Bess, my little black Fiat 500, defied also being coined ‘The Rip’. Be it muscle, shorts or Panama hat. Though I must be clear, he volunteered his ample frame for the ordeal.

Assuredly, Son-of-Calcutta had reasoned, the lure of a gorgeous wine warranted a very spontaneous road trip. Just Melbourne to the Bellarine Peninsula. A trifling 200 Ks or so there and back. He’d navigate as Horace, his venerable Holden estate, wasn’t the realistic journey option; becoming more a water boiler than a kilometre eater an annoyingly short while ago. Upon word of honour that Bess boasted boot space he’d booked lunch at Basils Farm, an artisan winery overlooking pretty Swan Bay. And dollar-wise he was “totally prepared”.

Artisan winery

Ergo, after elevenses, chivalry had Riesling Swigger, a slimming lass, in the front passenger seat. Necessity had me tucked behind the steering wheel as chauffeur. And Son-of-Calcutta, picked up exhibiting a bit of leg on a Port Melbourne street corner, bundled behind. Our combined body weight whanging passed 250 kilos was a test for the coil springs.

But no worries, things went spiffingly. Until we were passing Geelong’s bland foreshore warehousing, the point Son-of-Calcutta’s smartphone announced an old friend with a problem. I caught the gist: “Breathalysed?… That’s a relief… Oh… Police noticed rego’s out of date? … They’re threatening to remove the number plates? … Accept the fine … HOW MUCH!?… You MUST cough it up… Oh… Seriously? … I’ll call you back… Yep, yep, yep, bye.”

“Everything alright?” I asked.

“We might have to pay this.”

My sphincter twitched. Riesling Swigger tensed, her face a show of alarm. Son-of-Calcutta’s wallet trembled. I consoled mine. “We?” I faltered. His response was to tap methodically at his phone before dictating digits and odd hyphens that Riesling Swigger penned on a scrumpled receipt for Panamax. “Done,” he eventually said. And of course, he’d meant the royal ‘we’. Corporate speak always his stress default. “Could we, please, find a cash point,” he added.

Balance checked, he became hangdog. Though no worse than the sad Border Collie we found tied beneath an old tree, company to a rust-iron something-or-other and a battered bicycle, a marrow bunged in its basket: a rustic idyll bidding arrivals at Basils Farm welcome at the distant end of a car-shuddering trackway.

A rustic idyll

Son-of-Calcutta’s directions had proved exemplary. Uncannily so. Although Riesling Swigger and I preferred to mull over the underwhelming grub menu. “Bourbon and sugar glazed ham, crushed spuds, fried egg and braised red cabbage. Suppose that’s us two sorted,” I said.

“Compliment that with the Pinot Grigio,” our navigator advised.

“Nope,” I said. “Rather share your choice.” Riesling Swigger agreed and shoved him the exorbitant menu.

“Perhaps the veggie croquettes for me,” he sighed, choosing quickly. “Save myself … a buck.”

A drastic economy. And inappropriate. “SOC!” I blurted. “They’re laced with homegrown kale. The stuff’s staring at you from the veg beds. You never eat greens. And kale’s the real hard-arse. Said yourself the seeds should be cremated.”

A convincing enough argument for him to accept the ham before a short vanishing act. He reappeared holding three glasses and an ice bucket chilling a bottle of Chardonnay. Kiltynane 2015. “A wonderful year,” he told us, pouring shares.

Then a swirl. A nasal whiff. “Mmmm, what notes can you smell?” he mused, his mood brightening.

With scurrilous theatrics, I sniffed. “Hint of kale. Maybe lettuce. Definitely egg. Potato? And basil, obviously.”

Riesling Swigger laughed. So bad form on both our parts. The bottle’s label mentioning peach and floral whatnots, Son-of-Calcutta looked away in chagrin to where an ibis spied.

Nosh scoffed indifferently, he went hunting the cellar door. “Really wanted a couple of boxes,” he mumbled ruefully when soon cuddling a brown paper bag. Inside, three bottles of the 2015.

The Bellarine

Re-aboard the Fiat, the bag clinked loudly at the first whooshed turn. “Four wheels, please!” Son-of-Calcutta whinged.

“Sorry! Blame Bess. Such a frisky filly,” I said, over my shoulder. “She so loves it here. How many times have you visited the Bellarine in your 48 Aussie autumns, SOC?”

“Only twice.”

“Gosh. When was the last?”

“Yesterday.”

There was no answer to that. But had me thinking how sometimes we suffer little disappointments for our friends.

From atop the ferry deck and with Bess tucked below I suggested ‘RIP’ was most fitting for the galah, while Riesling Swigger best summed up our day: “Perhaps call me ‘Chardonnay Sipper’ from now on,” she smiled. So, cheers to yet another Son-of-Calcutta achievement. Dynamite, indeed.

 

Text & illustration © 2018 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.

Bangers And The Cockroach Crossbow

26th March 2018.

Parts to a drama

Sunday’s sun had risen. Just. And gusty abrasive winds blustered away Melbourne’s summer leaf over twig-tip. A Brekkie croissant uppermost in my mind meant bed to bakery. Taking for granted the first Qantas 17-hour, non-stop flight Perth to Heathrow had touched down to a welcome of beefeaters and didgeridoos and blooming spring, the morning’s news could wait.

Behind her Brighton bread counter display of artisan spelt loaves, baguettes and hot cross buns, Sydney-raised Nora wasn’t quite herself when I said a bleary-eyed, “G’day”. The large lenses of trendy green-framed spectacles magnified her look of upset. “I reckon they should be tarred and feathered and sent to Pinchgut Island,” she snarled.

“Where’s…? Never mind. Who’re ‘they’?” I asked.

“Those cricketers.”

“Course.” Thinking she meant England’s, Nora’s suggestion took me quite aback. Definitely the opposite to Biryani Bill when, less than 48-hours earlier, he’d rung me. “Focus on what you’re doing right this second,” he’d chuckled. “Store it in your memory bank. Lock it. Chuck the key, metaphorically speaking, in the bay. Okay?”

“Hmm-hmm, okay,” I’d said.

“What exactly are you doing?”

“Asking Abigail how’s she’s gone and mislaid half a feeler in the past hour.”

“Who’s Abigail?”

“The potted lemon tree’s lodging pink-eyed praying mantis.”

“You quite alright? Having a breakdown? Don’t blame you. Fox Sports’ running with ‘Shocking Poms historic Test horror show’… 7 wickets in the first hour’s play. Plenty of feelers at the pink ball. None finding the middle. Open gates and nick-offs. 58 all out. Their sixth lowest score, ever. Trent Boult the decimator.” A big guffaw. “Had to let you know.”

“Ta. Cheers. Thanks.”

He rang off.

Course, I already did know. Among the grisly stats, a ray of light. Somerset all-rounder Craig Overton, England’s no. 9, had top scored. 33 of the 58 his alone. None too tardy when 5 was the next highest score. Just to rub the debacle in, Abigail manoeuvred into a sunbeam, the shadow of her legs not dissimilar to a set of splayed stumps.

Shadow of splayed stumps

“Er, an almond croissant, please… But yeah, 58’s pretty abysmal,” I said. “But there’s mitigation. Cooky was out lambing in Leighton Buzzard only a fortnight ago and…” I caught her pique turn to puzzlement. “We’re not talking England v Kiwis in Auckland are we?”

“We. Are. Not!” Nora vented. “We’re talking CHEATING!”

“Is that right? Do tell,” I said. And deary me, she did. The story a bigger hoo-ha than Brexit. A ball-tampering scandal. Blatant. Brazen. Premeditated. Farcical. A baggy green caper to blight the happy day of Qantas – an Aussie Cricket sponsor. Infamy enough to have PM Turnbull growl, “It beggars belief”. Not to mention have red bandana wearer Peter FitzSimons, Chair of the Australian Republic Movement fume, “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING, YOU IDIOT?” The idiot being ‘Australian of the Year’ Cap’n Smith.

Then the miscreants’ misleadings began. The fibs. The whoppers. The porky-pies. ‘Twas only pretend sandpaper. Just sticky yellow bat tape and Cape Town pitch crumbles. Balderdash. It was honest-to-goodness sandpaper. Though not actually Cap’n Smith’s cunning plan. That daftness reputedly fell to naughty vice-skip Warner. Who then bounced Overton’s newest Somerset County Cricket Club teammate, Cameron ‘Bangers’ Bancroft to do the dirty work.

That was until a prying TV camera – one amongst 38 of its ilk – zoomed in on Bangers sheepishly stuffing the offending item down his trews front. Which was naive in itself. Any lens is fraught with danger. Bangers knew that. Golly, in 2013 he’d tweeted, “Speed cameras are very sneaky nowadays.” No good being a silly sausage 5-years on simply because, rumour has it, money saving Avon and Somerset police have made the cider county’s yellow roadside sentinels flash-less and blind to bad apples.

The croissant quick on a plate and milk sploshed into my coffee mug, I opened the cutlery drawer to lay hand on a teaspoon only to loose a skittering bad boy of a cockroach. I decided to hold the sugar.

Teaspoon transformed to offensive weapon, I multi-tasked. My agonising dogged: Bangers was a repeat offender. Allegedly. THWACK. Pocketed a pawful of changing room granulated sugar during the last Ashes series. THWACK. Seen on Twitter doing it. THWACK-THWACK. Somerset already had a singularly magnificent ‘Banger’. The West Country one. The mint sucker ‘Banger’ Trescothick. THWACK. He who confessed to sweet deliveries in winning 2005’s Ashes. THWACK. THWACK-THWACK-THWACK. So best not mix the Bangers up.

And there lies the rub. THWACK. Say no more. STOMP.

Suppose it was too far fetched to claim meddling with England’s bats? Worse for wear on that sunny kitchen floor the cockroach pointed to the obvious. Its feelers and shadow forming the shape of an elegant crossbow. The only thing needed was an unerring ‘Boult’.

Cockroach crossbow

On a happier note, my croissant was magnificent. Fortified me to discover Pinchgut Island’s in Sydney harbour. Isolated, the most scampish cons once spent starved weeks there. So did Nora speak for her nation? Biryani Bill hasn’t yet returned my call for me to ask his opinion.

And, although Abigail’s half feeler’s vanished forever, in Blighty Qantas passengers are likely becoming aware of a few forget-me-nots.

 

Text & illustration © 2018 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.

Beleaguered Beagle And A Blue Moon

17th March 2018.

 

The dark-rat-hours

Standing in the flowerbed, rapping sharply on my front window, Son-of-Calcutta wore his Panama hat and the look of a beleaguered beagle. Only setting eyes on him once in a blue moon I reckoned on something very amiss. I paused Leonard Cohen’s ‘My Oh My” on iTunes.

“Apologies,” said my wine buff pal. “I’m not my usual positive self.”

“No worries.” Which was total bollocks for starters. The chap was clearly in need of solace.

But lordy-lor, what ailed him? He didn’t follow the cricket, so an Aussie Test loss in South Africa wasn’t in the frame. Neither, obviously, was the relegation plight of the Potters, my beloved Stoke City. And although Son-of-Calcutta had long tied the knot with Russian Ms Neotpolirovannyy, Putin’s possible shadow over murky doings in well-heeled Salisbury wasn’t his bag at all.

Had to be something closer to home. I had an inkling, but preferred some imagined catastrophe. A corked Yering Station pinot noir, perhaps? Or worse, an off bottle of Kilikanoon Revelation Shiraz? Got me thinking we should give ‘Bright n Sandy’, the ever so close by Food and Wine festival, a go.

Bright n Sandy

Entry a hefty couple of bucks, the event was about the size of an English village fete. Good then that the council put in some effort. Giving credence to the ‘Sandy’, a beautifying dump of sand on the adjacent beach’s ugly clutter of slimy stone and broken brick happened. The fickle Melbourne sun though failed to provide the ‘Bright’, deepening a rather bleak Sunday. Still, I suggested we try to wander across.

“Hurry along, gents,” said the gallant lollipop man asserting himself, four abruptly static traffic lanes grumbling at his clenched gut and buttocks. Aware of Son-of-Calcutta’s hair loss I tugged my forelock on behalf of us both. “Feel like a school kid, again,” I said. Lollipop Man and I traded smiles. Son-of-Calcutta stayed glum.

He remained so over a sad chorizo in a bap. He coughed over a thimble-sip of below par Pinot Grigio. Then a lingered hesitation at the Prosecco van. Finally, hallelujah. Within a spit of the balloon stall – a floating kangaroo a further distraction overcome – he filled me in.

Distraction of a floating kangaroo

Turns out he’d risen that morning happy as a possum with a fig. Business was perky, his fine wines Instagram account kept attracting plonk bibblers in their hundreds and he’d had a lovely time the previous weekend: an overnight at a boutique winery. A private affair. The hoi polloi banned. Tastings by invitation only. Even a room share with his good friend Prof Swiggit and a snuggling Portuguese Water Dog hadn’t dampened the joy.

Which only begged my question: why hadn’t Son-of-Calcutta taken along his missus? By asking it, I touched the nerve.

As wife number three, hopes were it’d be third time lucky; confidence in the Russian bride app absolute from the moment Son-of-Calcutta’s swipe presented the first view of Ms Neotpolirovannyy. Course, additionally helpful were a) the smart phone being a passion shared, b) the charm in her articulating ‘stamp’ as ‘schtamp’ and c) the cutsy tattoo – though quite where she wore it, he blushed to say.

Of Ms Neotpolirovannyy’s unforeseen eccentricities, Son-of-Calcutta bore them stoically. Like on occasion her walking the streets of Port Melbourne barefoot and her strong loathing of, well, quite a lot really. Hoovering fell into that camp. As did dogs and curry. Pepper – the condiment – also. Unforgettable the chic French restaurant incident: Her grabbing from the plate a pepper sauce coated fillet steak. The waggling it aloft. The wiping it with a napkin. The shrieked, “I wanted mushroom! I’m allergic to ‘paper’!” Sure as eggs are eggs Son-of-Calcutta stared at nothing, wishing himself elsewhere.

“Not her thing,” said Son-of-Calcutta. A trite explanation but enough to justly cover the winery jolly.

Curiosity needled me. “What actually is her thing?”

Son-of-Calcutta took a deep breath in and out. Adjusted his Panama. Scritched the side of his nose. “Pokemon hunting.”

My puffer fish impression was instantaneous. “You’re not serious?”

“I am.”

“Wow. Condolences. Ages since I saw seeker legions hound the wretched Pikachu. Thought the craze was dead.”

“Nope. Not for her. When Melbourne sleeps. When I sleep. She’s out playing.”

Somehow, somewhere, Son-of-Calcutta’s beloved had befriended a gay couple. Chinese blokes. Fanatical. He’d sussed, the trio used the caprice of virtual reality gadgetry to spoof hunts in Ms Neotpolirovannyy’s old haunt of Stockholm. But that wasn’t the worst of it. From the trio’s local meeting place – an underused Tesla electric vehicle charger – Ms Neotpolirovannyy arranged the transport to embark upon dark-rat-hour upon dark-rat-hour of petrol driven fun around the City’s suburbs. Of which there are 321.

“Well, it’s not too bad a vice.” I offered.

Son-of-Calcutta chewed his top lip. Shook his head. A man in despair. “Has to stop. Gave the month’s bank statement a glance over brekkie…”

“Ah. Okay. And?”

“Found I’m paying for the Ubers.”

My consoling pat of his shoulder triggered an invective on the mores of matrimony that’s best glossed over.

Following a repeat forelock tug to Lollipop Man and glad my day’s beef could be confined to Stoke City’s underperforming hoofers, I bade the now unburdened beagle toodle-oo. And of course I absolutely forgave him for not being his usual positive self. Mates are mates after all.

For me it was back with the gravel-off-a-shovel voice of Leonard Cohen. Mid-way through the Canadian bard’s ‘Leaving the Table’ I pondered: how soon before the next blue moon?

 

Text and illustration © 2018 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.

 

Puppy Love And A Pinch of Salt

9th March 2018

A root of rumour

People around Melbourne’s swanky Bayside love their dogs. And Great Dane to bichon frise reciprocate. Some though err and have a sudden crush. With slight embarrassment I can relate a case in point.

I begin with yesterday where the early autumn sundown still saw plenty of flesh-exposing souls on Brighton beach: lying on tums, or paddling, or poddling. In essence doing nowt in particular. I though was busy in the company of seabirds. Distracted. Immersed in aim and shutter click. Camera snapping the freshly raised wooden frames of two bathing boxes for posterity. Logically ‘Visit Victoria’ will need nudge 82 to 84 in its tourist info.

Newly framed

A soft impact wetted my bare knee. A small bounce-bundle. Curly white coat soggy. Almond eyes shining. A black button nose nuzzling. A panted “Hi!”. A Westie.

“Hey, dog! Come ’ere!” Approaching briskly, a lightly whiskered thirty-something. Designer T-shirt, shorts and trainers.

‘Dog’, a pup really, paid no heed. It chose instead to happily socialise and wuff a tale that required several roll-overs. Light Whiskers, accelerated to a short gallop, all glaring possessiveness. At silly mid off a pair of mollyhawks gruffly chuckled. From a gang of silver gulls at backward point, the odd guttural ‘kor’. The cormorant at mid wicket, hanging out wing feathers as if drying laundry, simply observed.

Boxes and seabird life

This ain’t my fault, fella, I wanted known. However, after Light Whiskers’ grab of double-furred neck-scruff we merely said our goodbyes. A mug of Earl Grey in mind, I headed homeward. Which meant scooting across four lanes of fast moving Beach Road traffic before dark. Never easy. But take a window of opportunity, I did. About six seconds worth.

After a heartbeat of sanctuary joy personified was capering around my feet. I’d been stalked. Super quick.

Behind me, a panicked Light Whiskers. Dodging. Fast lumps of metal honking. Brakes squealing. Interferences to his shouts of “OI! OI! BAD DOG! COME ’ERE, DOG! NO-NO-NO. STAY THERE, DOG!

‘Dog’ chose the sensible option. Mainly due to being ruddy delirious back in my shadow.

All a jitter, Light Whiskers loomed tetchy over his charge. A finger wag caused canine bafflement. Three more created a small deflated bag of dejection. “YOU BAD, BAD DOG! What were you doin’, dog? You can’t go running across the road like that.”

He glared to me as I was about to disappear up the garden path. “Hey, mate, what are you? An effing dog whisperer?”

I could only shrug. “Really sorry, chap. Honestly. But ssh, you’ll start a rumour.”

Fast forward to the foreshore early this morning and my crossing paths with a guy, fiftyish, wearing a trilby hat. Barefoot, tall and skinny he was armed with a Chuckit! – the endemic long, thin-handled ball launcher for humans bemused at how to arm-throw. A toned black Labrador bimbled at heel, ball in maw. Both stopped beside me. “Seen the stingray? It’s around here somewhere,” said the trilby.

“Oh gee,” I breathed. How exciting. Stingrays are those endangered members of the shark family, much flatter and never quite as long as the Spirit of Tasmania ferry docked across Port Phillip bay. Though anything up to 6-metres is sizeable enough. So add in the barbed venom stoked stinger and it’s best to be cautious.

“Mega this stingray, some say,” advised the trilby. “Don’t let your dog in the water.”

“Good thing I don’t have one.”

“Whose is that, then?”

Oh. Ah. “Hiya, Bounce-Bundle!” Gawd. Such a fuss of sea-sop and drool. Delightful. “Not mine. Though could say we’re acquainted.”

“You reckon? Look out for the stingray.”

While the trilby and Lab ambled off trailing their sand-sunk foot and paw traces I stayed put, puppy loved. Both knees damp. An ear too, after a token bend down to tickle-scratch earned a rapturous lick before Light Whiskers materialized.

“Sheesh, not you again!” His tone one of puffed irritation.

“Chill, mate,” I said, having a straight-face struggle. “Dog’s got news. Beware the sea. Goss is there’s a stingray about.”

First me, then the Westie, got a sideways look. “This true, dog?” Light Whiskers gave no time to translate an answer. “Home, dog. Now!” Scooped up and tucked underarm, the wriggly, confused carry-away headed in the direction of the now distant trilby. I focused on the Chuckit! whang, sending a splash of black chasing into the wavelets. Big stingray? Really? Proof that down Bayside any rumour’s best taken with a pinch of salt.

But pleased that the new beach boxes continued their excellent progress, I sensed my teapot call. And also sensed tomorrow.

 

Text & illustration © 2018 Zum Beamer/ Charles Wood

Weeping Willow Clouds

23rd February 2018

Belting willow

Without beating about the bush, a crop of the well heeled appears hip. Small surprise three years after Fifty Shades of Grey troubled my local cinema comes Fifty Shades Freed. The value of which quite escapes me. Be that as it may, I’ve happened upon a tie-in to an Aussie fashion brand, stitched and labelled in China, and a far cry from Dakota Johnson’s strapless G-string gummed to her bits.

Truth is, for in the past few hours the togs designer has had me bushed. Dogfighting for difference it’s achieved… how can I phrase it?…. an altered state of perception? Pretentiousness? Safe to say, on this heavily overcast day I’ve had to take stock.

Seldom do I enter the swanky menswear shop. The convenient Church Street one between the ANZ cash machine and Middle Brighton station. And generally the visit’s quick. Roughly knowing what I want selections are spontaneous and budgeted. This afternoon was planned. Precisely. After a ponder I’d succumbed to a cut price, lengthy essential, spied when modestly harvesting the summer sale.

Church Street, Brighton

Sailing to greet me, a galleon. Her floral pattern dress catching the wind, an attendant sheila. Of a certain age, she was built in a manner that my mum would have pigeonholed: ‘big boned’. “Hello, sir. Can I help?”

“Yes you can. I’m after one of your buckled, grey elasticated belts.”

She frowned a definite frown. “Sorry, we haven’t any grey.”

“Seriously? You had a whole pile on the counter only a fortnight ago.”

“I assure you we didn’t.” An awkward moment. Then inside her head a hurricane lantern surely flickered. “Oh, think I know what you mean.” Pursed by a broad-waisted dingy she headed to a back of shop rack. “We have these. This one’s double length.”

“Wonderful. That’s just the job. And… yay, I’d say it’s grey as noisy miner feathers.”

“No sir, this colour’s called ‘willow’.

Most puzzling. Straightaway cricket bats sprang to mind. A willow each and every one. Wheaten, beige, sandy fawn even. Never in all my born days have I held a belter that’s grey. But bugger debate. “I’ll take it,” I said.

An inarticulate sound and it was full astern for the till where her colleague was staring at a blank monitor screen while absorbed in an gloomy phone confab. Her input a monosyllabic “Shit” for the most part. A customer that headed chuntering for the door allowed me space at the counter. “Sorry, our computer’s down.” said the galleon. “Are you local?”

“Hmm-hmm, yes.”

“Can you come back later, then?”

“How much later?”

“An hour, maybe. Or tomorrow. At present I can’t enter the belt. And what with the computer, the card reader isn’t working.”

I eyed my desire, by now dumped on the counter top.

“Can I be old-fashioned and pay cash?”

The galleon’s mouth fell open. Quite at a loss. She looked imploringly to her offsider whose response was to place a hand over the phone’s mouthpiece and say, “You’re the boss.”

The elected flagship pulled herself together. “I suppose you can pay cash.” She paused for thought. “Possibly I could jot your purchase down on a slip of paper and enter the details in a while. Are you on our members mailing list?”

I nodded.

“Address?”

I told it.

She made the vital notes. I crossed her palm with dollars and clasped the accessory. “Perhaps you can send me the receipt by carrier pigeon,” I said, lightly.

Back on Church Street the sun kept itself hidden. Behind weeping willow clouds. The hue surely to be added to Fifty Shades Freed. Though a colour chart might be needed for a muddled Chinese stitcher.

 

Text & illustration © 2018 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.

Possum Woes And Kiwi Life

7th February 2018.

Kiwi Land… quite ‘possumly’

Me and him. A ratio of 1:1. Crotchety, leaf-chomping Pie-Podge, the garden brushtail, makes the patio jacarandas appear alopecia sufferers. Any criticism and the grotbag emits a steam train hiss, rudely bares the naked tip of a fluff-fur tail before galloping the back fence. A racket, I imagine, akin to a knight’s steed at full throttle. Now I’d gone and subjected myself to a conservative possum to bod ratio of near as dammit 25:1. In New Zealand.

With Melbourne’s eastern suburbs far, far behind us, ‘us’ being the three ladies and me,  South Island bade welcome for a stretched weekend jolly. Sunshine and more sunshine, mountains, mountains, mountains, odd rocks, loads of water and… yeah, well, merino sheep. Upstairs in Winnies, the ‘pizza-centric joint and happening bar’ on Queenstown’s Mall, we debriefed. Our third day. First and second? Wowza-wow.

Water and mountains…

…more mountains…

…and Queenstown

I mean, this was Lord of the Rings country. Proper Hobbit Land. That aside, twenty-four hours earlier we’d already fed a croissant to ducks, ticked off two wineries, opened enticing bottles, had a long, long soak in clean, clear Lake Wakitipu and, in dim infra-red light higher than hang-gliders, had the thrill of Tawahi and Nati, a flirty brown kiwi bird pair touching whiskers and rasping sweet nothings, hopeful of starting a family.

Lake Wakatipu

Tawahi and Nati’s home

Oh stoic little Nati. Proportionate to body size, he’d be the one sitting on the largest bird’s egg in Christendom for 80 days. Tawahi’s former partner had been crap at the job, resulting in separation. Given kiwis mate for life Nati’s introduction has made her blooming promiscuous. Such is compromise after naive farmers introduced the stoat. Into burrows. A rabbit’s defence is to run, a baby kiwi, like its mum and dad, freezes. Better I switch back on to day three: bus one, boat one – Lake Manapouri, hydroelectric power station, jetty once a fur seal butchery – bus two, boat two – Doubtful Sound – then same again backwards.

Riesling on the vine

Jetty once a fur seal butchery

“I love Kiwi Land.” purred my Riesling swigger, a soft faraway look in her eyes. “On the second boat I kept pinching myself, not quite believing we’re here.”

“Until that rather large lady from Cheshire belched into her cuppa stressing our return to Doubtful Sound,” I threw in. Both Muscovites, the rosé glugger and the kolbasa craver, best friends for yonks, chuckled agreement. My Riesling swigger, too.

Doubtful Sound, oh my gosh. From the topmost serpentine of gritty, remote Wilmot Pass, New Zealand’s dearest road – $80 per square metre in the 1960s – the wing beat alchemy of keas, the planet’s only alpine parrots, had dissolved the morning mist veil. The reveal, a lofty glimpse of loveliness.

Keas beside…

…the dearest road…

… to Doubtful Sound

The place is a hush-hush haven. Here the marine sanctuary of South Island’s fiords meld into the Tasman Sea at twin pointy rocks sweetly called the Hare’s Ears. Unlike myself, formation flying gannets didn’t appear to give a fig for the affable bubble-blowing dolphins, the sun-basking fur seals, a paddling penguin or the gliding albatross. The gannets appeared cut from the same cloth as Captain Cook. 1770 saw him take the merest gander at the Sound before shoving off. “Doubtful it’s worth a closer look,” he said.  Soon after the Spanish proved him wrong. That’s to say Malaspina the Italian explorer gainfully employed as a Spanish naval officer, together with his intrepid botanist Née proved superiorly inquisitive becoming New Zealand’s first tourists. Following them, the fur seal hunters and a bloodbath. After the slaughter of thousands, the pelt ripping, the rendering of blubber into lamp oil and near extinction, small wonder the name Doubtful stuck.

On the  horizon the Hare’s Ears…

…where gannets fly formation…

…over bubble-blowing dolphins…

…safe-basking fur seals…

… and wondrous fiords

Licking my fingers oily with cheesy goo cum pistachio sour cream cranberry ooze, I had one and a half eyes on the shared, fast diminishing, dubiously famous Montonara pizza and half an eye on a vast mute TV: Tom Curran bowling yorkers in Sydney. Wickets a-tumbled in clumps. 12 runs England’s margin of victory. Truly I had thought to be there. Clapping self-consciously. Mustn’t complain the rosé glugger kiboshed the whim for a superior alternative. The C19th mapping surveyor named the local glacial peaks The Remarkables purely from personal observation. Indeed probably wouldn’t change his mind today. High summer, 8º hotter than average, and still they brag clinging summit snow.

The Remarkables

“Anything stick that Mike the bus driver mentioned whilst tooling us through the Boonies?” I put the question out there, sifting for info like the long ago Chinese prospectors of nearby Arrowtown sifted for gold nuggets. For in the fast flow of Mike’s spouted fact fountain had been nuggets aplenty. So many absorption needed a brain sponge-like as sphagnum moss.

Sphagnum moss

“The Boonies?” My Riesling swigger.

“Middle of nowhere. Kiwi slang.”

“Show off. Have cabbage trees.”

Yep. Absolutely yep. Exotic and of interest. Dotted around the landscape the spikey yucca-like jobbers are profuse. Their name arose from the cooked cabbage stench when burned by settlers clearing the land, although perversely the hollow trunks were saved for chimney pots. And unlike the lichen dripping, leafy ancients thick beside the Wilmot Pass that inspired his Ents Fanghorn and Beechbone et cetera, Hobbit man Peter Jackson loathes the sight of cabbage trees. “Rid me of them,” he instructed a randomly picked studio editor.

Laboriously, frame by frame from the final cuts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the trees vanished. Almost. Adventures drawing towards a close Gandalf, Frodo, dwarves et al. happen to wander passed the occasional troublesome thingo. “Did it on purpose,” the editor told Mike. Apparently.

“Something about deer,” offered the rosé glugger. “Dunno what. Fell asleep.”

“Bulldogging! That was it! Thank you!” How did that slip the mind? Cider perhaps. Ironic. Blokes in pubs were plied with booze and convinced that for a few bucks leaping from a helicopter onto a running wild stag on a mountainside was a bonzer idea for obtaining venison. Good God. Only recently have Kiwis seen sense, taking to farming deer like cattle. Purring passed brown pastures we spied plenty of each.

Brown pastures

“Said they farmed possums too,” recollected the kolbasa craver. “Also said they look like a cat with its face smashed by a shovel. Horrid. And they’re eating everything. Plants, baby birds. Everything.”

“Understandable why Mike lives the mantra, ‘See possum don’t swerve’.” Sobering thought there being over four times more possums than sheep. And every possum a climbing, swimming, foodie brushtail. Daft it is. All because two numpties attempted fur farming a handful. A bankrupting affair, I might add. Didn’t occur to them to mix marsupial fur with merino wool for cosy clothing. Decidedly not aimed at freezing kiwis, exporting worldwide scarves, mitts and willy warmers is the latest thing in entrepreneurship in hope of snuffing out New Zealand’s entire brushtail population by 2050. So between Oz and Kiwi Land vive la différence. The former outrageously fines any possum murderer, the latter doles out super brownie points. If ever there was a local order of sentient beings possums would appear way down from fur seals.

The rosé glugger sighed. “So many possums. They must love sex a lot. But the kiwi birds seemed happy about it too.”

“Be that as it may, I’m definitely denying Pie-Podge access to a dating app,” I concluded. In truth I’m deaf as the Hare’s Ears to having anything more to do with him.

As we had a last lick of our digits the kolbasa craver confessed to be missing her daily twin slices of the Russian sausage. No big surprise. Despite vanishing easily as a cabbage tree it really was an odd pizza. But hey, day three debrief over, safe in the knowledge both the pizza and England’s cricketers were quite the lesser Remarkables. Bring on day four and another croissant shared with ducks.

 

Illustration © 2018 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.

Fruity Signs And Entanglement

18th January 2018.

Fruitful temptation

To confess can be therapeutic. Fascinated by a funnel-web happy in a roadside hole, my mate Steve admits to rousing his inner chimp, poking his bike’s padlock key at the spider to see what it would do. Mercifully I merely wanted to rediscover my inner child. So poo to the Australia versus England one-dayer at the Melbourne Cricket Ground when the Russian and Moldovan possums had the spontaneous idea for a road trip. Our destination a pip spit from Trafalgar, a blink-and-miss-it rural straggle a ton and a tad kilometres to the city’s east.

Halfway, near the sign to Mount Baw Baw, an eight-foot crimson rosella. Wow. Showy buggers, crimson rosellas. Common as muck. Yet still my heart skips with delight at the exotic. Darn’em, I thought. Sorry, Darnum. The Aborigine for ‘parrot’. Which accounts for the edge of highway Darnum hotel having a ruddy great mural of the bird on the front wall. A landmark we whooshed passed on route to the nets.

I’m not talking about the obvious ones at the Aussie Open tennis nor those at any cricket club from Armadale to Nar Nar Goon. I mean the nets, the bird frustraters, where my hand went to my mouth. For two reasons. And neither of them to pop in another yellow raspberry. “No-no-no! Oh God.”

A quick lift and a nifty double duck and the possum pair were out of bounds. The ‘DO NOT PICK HERE. Thank you’ sign flouted. Very, very naughty. As if the hugger-mugger rows of boysenberries, blackberries, Silvan, Marion and Ranul, red currants, raspberries of course, various hues, and sweet goosegogs weren’t enough.

Pick your own

Three small white plastic buckets filling with abundance. Juice splotched togs. Vermilion fingers. Itchy bites. Sweat. Lots. And entanglements. That’s what the arvo had already bestowed at Sunny Creek Organic Berry Farm.

Abundance

“If you see anybody coming warn us with something,” said the Moldovan possum giving a conspiratorial wink.

I frowned. “Cavē,” I suggested, complicit now.

“Nobody says cavē.”

I cast around for inspiration. In a brown grass field a Black Angus cow bellowed. Mournful. The day of calf separation. So ‘moo’? Nn-nn, unusually bad taste.

Brown grass fields

The Moldovan possum gave a distracting gasp. Pointing at a raspberry leaf, her expression wonderment, pulled focus on microcosm. Ah, a froglet. A berry-sized sweetie-pie. Much too small to be a pobblebonk. Name alone had that particular anuran on my bucket list. “Gribbick-gribbick.”

“Gribbick-gribbick? What? No.”

“Um… chi-chi-chi.” I said sotto voce.

“Pardon?”

“Grasshopper.”

A look of disdain.

Sod it. “KAA-KAA-KOO-KOO-KOO!”

“Kookaburra! Perfect. See ya!”

Self-conscious, I sidled back onto legal ground. From somewhere amongst the adjacent wood of gums and tree ferns a genuine specimen laughed. Secretly I hoped it didn’t confuse the miscreants.

A blueberry bush shivered. The Russian possum was quick indeed into her illicit work. A flash of freshly manicured mauve painted fingernail. A dainty paw become rake. A Moldovan gulp just as deft.

A dainty paw

Around the corner, a young girl’s voice. “Strawberries! Oh, I’m so happy!” Bless. Quite caught the kookaburra in my throat.

“Excuse me, how do we get in?” The dad, I guessed, and baffled. Maybe he wasn’t a twit, merely too much sun.

“Under the net,” I said. “Careful though, watch the ears and nose. Yet to invent the door here.”

The kid grinned. The dad didn’t.

Behind their backs netting rippled. The possums return. Pictures of innocence artfully handing their lookout booty. Fat blueberries. Five. The most I deserved though the best ever scrumped.

Job done…

… and butter wouldn’t melt.

Dollars paid at the weigh-in it was time to make a move. On cue a fuss of red and blue feathers arrived on a gatepost. A crimson rosella, what else?, come to bid goodbye.

Returned to the sofa I bore witness to the MCG empty quicker than a tin of Ferguson Plarre shortbread bickies. England didn’t often win a cricket match humpty doo. The unexpected reverse had the home skipper Steve Smith give a troubling excuse: “We lost wickets in the middle and it stopped us going as hard at the back end.” Best they rest and not attempt Mount Baw Baw just at the moment, I reflected, musing too on the pobblebonk.

Googling ‘Victoria frogs’, after ‘frogs of Trafalgar’ found xenophobic comments about 1805, the sweetie-pie turned out to be Litoria ewingi, the whistling tree frog. On the day, my antithesis, I suppose. A berry guard, by leaps and bounds it’s a top-notch pest controller. And it whistles. Why didn’t I think of that?

Confession complete. And I’ll continue to parrot it until feeling able to fully wash my hands.

 

Illustration © 2018 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood

Lurking Things And Pudding

10th January 2018.

Petal-Podge

The waves that tickle Melbourne’s Brighton beach are more bonsai than Bondi and there’s a tidal range little more than the height of an Aussie’s Ashes winning thumbs up. Yet for a pom caution is a given. Things lurk in Port Phillip Bay.

It’s less than six months since news desks from Anipernza to Zacatecas posted shock and awe photos of teen Sam Kinzay who immersed lower legs for a cool down after AFL practice. Stood still for far too long he had his feet reduced to gore by amphipods suckered into thinking him dead meat. Why the surprise? For the past 350 million years, give or take, the shrimp-like beasties, ‘sea fleas’ if you will, have been carcass nibbling in rock pools. And Port Philip is just that, a rock pool, albeit a gargantuan one.

Nobody’s been reported eaten since young Sam, mind you. Yet has any boffin cogitated whether Neanderthals paddled? The thought furrowed my brow when last week at five to midnight and sipping a mug of rooibos tea – a habit inspired by Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ – I stood a couple of steps back from the water’s edge. Room enough to toss a 10 cent coin. Head or tail? Tail. Good. A head, and my New Year resolution would have meant constructing a catapult.

For on a bench hidden from the foreshore the annoying drone couple sit side by side smirking shamelessly. Twenty-somethings, VR goggles, sized like those old school seaside viewing binoculars, strapped to their bonces, they fly their little weapon-like objects on these drowsy summer evenings about my ears, and around those of other beach strollers and their mutts, like thumping undiscriminating, potshot worthy, zizzing mozzies.

Instead, after the firework dazzles and their drifting cordite clouds above the towers of CBD had celebrated 2018’s arrival, the ‘tail’ meant I simply had to be nice to ‘Petal-Podge’. Yes, I’ve given the back-yard possum, the catalyst of the catapult notion, a name reflecting both its diet and profile. A sweet but evidential snap had the ruddy marsupial blissfully munching the wisteria. There’re also before and after photos of the roses. But a resolution is a resolution. I’ve even gone so far as to show the mug shot around.

2018 has arrived

“Wanna see something cute?” I said, conscious of my gritted teeth.

Maja, way north of six foot, Serbian genes, gave Petal-Podge a mere momentary glance. “Urgh! Sorry. I hate possums. They scare the crap out of me. They hang out in the tree beside my house making horrible noises. Rather than walk under the tree I give it a huge wide berth getting to the front door. One pissed on my mum’s hair. Made it stink of eucalyptus. Couldn’t get it out. They also shit on my car. And you can’t kill them. The Government stuffs you a $10,000 fine if you do.”

“10,000?!”

“10,000. Dr. Bob told me that after telling him I shooed away two possums canoodling on the pavement. The lovers ran straight under a car’s wheels. Tragic. That’s 20,000 bucks right there.”

“That wasn’t really your fault.”

“Yes, it was. I instigated it.”

“Hmm. Perhaps the possum I spied chewing on traffic light cables at the busy Moorabbin/Hampton junction was a relative seeking payback. On your way home isn’t it?”

At the lights…

… a possum chews what it shouldn’t

A look of horror crossed Maja’s face. “Anyway,” she said, “now I go red if I see the police. When I told Petrina what Dr. Bob said she panicked. Didn’t you Petrina?”

Petrina, south of five foot, Greek heritage, nodded vigorously. “I did! Blade, you know, one of my huskies? he bought a headless possum into the house and it was dead.”

“But… er… Dead? Was it really Petrina?”

“Yeah, it was. It was dripping blood all along the corridor. I didn’t know what to do because of the fine. So I buried it deep in the garden. Otherwise I’d have worried having to save for years and years.”

“That’s awful,” I sympathised. “You should have chucked the carcass into the bay. It’d likely vanish without trace. That simple.”

So to Monday’s result from the Sydney Cricket Ground. Another England loss. The Ashes series gone four-zip. Doh! I should have expected it. It’s not as if there weren’t clues. A monitor at the MSG’s wacking edifice hailed England off break spinner Moeen Ali bowling ‘offbread’. The Plan B to dislodge Cap’n Smith and Co., perhaps. Certainly crumbs of insight that help fathom my homeland’s stuffing. On whom could I vent my frustration?

Offbread?

Best I resist temptation. Instead I’ve inspired myself to concoct bread and butter pudding. Comfort food before any blues set in. Might even go so far as to wish Petal-Podge “goodnight”, if I survive this evening’s beach drones. Problematic these resolutions.

 

Text & illustration © 2018 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood

Mince Pies and Sea Life

11th December 2017

PenguinsCrop

Instinctive anxiety

Continuing my humpty doo life, the lure of being entertained by the extraordinary songstress Renée Geyer had me pootling towards Bird’s Basement jazz club. Where King Street cuts beneath the Flinders to Southern Cross PT rail I blinked. Purposefully to inform, a poster’s been pasted to the wall opposite Melbourne’s Sea Life aquarium. ‘Seal’ it announces, giving a forthcoming date. Course, it’s apropos the Brit singer-songwriter and his sole Melbourne gig. However, if the penguins can read they’ll need counselling. Weird home aside, cancel Happy Feet. Education meets exegesis.

Hence, at this time of seasonal cheer and cherries, I instinctively wonder at my own learning curve, and with it the process of coping, better still adapting, begun in County Antrim, continued in Devon, being furthered here. And I’m in good company.

Organising the mince pie display and kale in the organic shop tucked away in the local suburb of Patterson there’s Mandy, her accent so familiar. Our schools in Northern Ireland weren’t far apart. The distance between hers in Belfast and mine in Lisburn a mere eight miles as the crow flaps. A ridiculously small world. What she left she doesn’t overly miss. Calls it “Shite”. Now she and her bearded Aussie underling George provide a bantering service that ensures my psychological stability.

Patterson

Today the need was great. I had mentally prepared a double topic: an ‘Australian School for Lepidoptera’ and the necessity for school inspectors.

The SMS I received from Victoria State Emergency Service warned of flooding risks but failed to mention caterpillars. Cabbage white butterflies are so named for good reason. The clue’s in the word ‘cabbage’. The wriggly green caterpillars cause brassica massacres, full stop. So who taught uncountable little buggers to chomp my knock-your-socks-off peppery backyard nasturtiums to stalks? Can’t be their inborn tendency, surely? Too late wagging my finger.

That said, in the Devon corner Somerset CCC all-rounder Craig Overton hails from, and where I grappled with O-levels, doing different is part of the everyday. Like to tar and feather the school inspector critical of kids mucking in with the sardine harvest. Hang convention. Hence, for Overton to pitch up in Adelaide to receive his England cap and pass the second Ashes Test – a tough exam – with flying colours, butterflies free, was exemplary.

Loaf and bottle his secret, he top scored in England’s first innings. No debutant wearing the three lions has done that batting No9 for 118 years. Then, pink ball in hand, four wickets in the match. The first, Aussie skipper Steve Smith received a Jaffa. Indeed an all-round gig. Later gilded by a bonzer plough-dive of a catch in the outfield. No fault Overton’s, England’s consecutive loss.

My subject matter though had to stay under wraps.

Mandy, normally so sunny, wasn’t. Eyes flashed annoyance behind her specs. Astonishing.

I gravitated towards George. “$20 of your scrummy cherries, kind sir,” I said.

“No worries. I’ll treat you a fresh box.” Casting Mandy an amused glance he disappeared out the back. I occupied myself scrutinising the mortgage-necessary cost of mangoes and eco laundry liquid. For the mince pies I’d maybe need to sell my West Country cottage.

Upon George’s return he dilly-dallied, hand-weighing. Flavour checks repetitious, cherry-juiced fingers needy of apron wipes. Beside the front counter’s indolent scales Mandy grew proper narked. Her nails tapping a staccato. An irritating noice. Best option, bravely distract her. What else food-wise could I do with? Ah, yes. “And a box of ‘Kangaroo Island’ eggs. Found they’re super scramblers,” I said, adding, “Such a confusing country this. Of the marsupials surely it’s the platypus that does the laying?”

Mandy joshed not a jot. “Is that a box of twelve? Or do you want six. We sell them by the half dozen, too. AREN’T YOU DONE THERE YET, GEORGE?”

“Twelve,” I answered. “Please.”

Still George dithered.

“GEORGE, HURRY UP WILL YOU, THERE’S A QUEUE HERE!”

Turning round I nodded a smiley hello to my only fellow customer, a lady absorbed in making biscuit choices.

“Our Mandy’s hangry,” said George, finally squeezing gently passed her to reach the scales. “Had to stop her munching the mince pies. She’s smashed them. Told her the price each.”

“I couldn’t help it. They’re so pretty with their pastry stars. My hand became a rake.” A confession. “So cross with myself. I’m starving in penance.”

“And easily wound up,” chortled George. “$21.63 for the cherries.”

“Bloody fine guess, mate,” I praised. “you’re living proof of gut instinct.”

A nonchalant shrug. A trio of cherries subtracted, he took my dollars and offered Mandy a shortbread from under the counter. She snatched it gleefully. “You’re so sackable.”

“Aha. If I’m not here next time you come you’ll know why,” said George, passing over my booty.

“Absolutely. She’ll have eaten you,” I said, wolfing a cherry and awarding it my seal of approval. “Either of you ever thought butterfly brats need schooling?”

“Not a day passes,” smiled Mandy, adapted back to sunniness. What with the caterpillars and the cricket instinct tells me I have some catching up to do.

But sometimes we just can’t help ourselves.

 

Illustrations © 2017 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.