Illustration © 2018 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood
© 2018 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood
3rd June 2018
“Got a sore throat. Don’t bother turning up tonight,” This was the advice of Grammy-winner Kurt Elling gave to his drinking pal Cameron. Something Cameron in turn passed on to Son-of Calcutta. Who passed it on to me in Bunnings. Too jet-lagged, traumatised and marrow-chilled from home disasters to care I told nobody and went along with the missus anyway, both curious to hear the bod the New York Times reckoned “the standout male vocalist of our time”.
A good move, for after an hour every man jack crammed into Bird’s Basement jazz club’s inky schmooze clamoured for an encore. Dapper suited, the tuft of arty fuzz snug to his bottom lip spot lit, Kurt obliged. With ‘Skylark’. Originally a Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer number. From 1941, I think.
At over 8-minutes Kurt’s rendition was in keeping given that in wild skies the skylark and a lengthy song come hand in glove. John McLean’s breathy guitar and Stu Mindeman’s tinkling keys accompanied Kurt’s soaring octaves to transport the missus and I again to a sun-warmed wooden bench edge-perched on precipitous Devon sea cliffs where hovering skylarks sing, each a budding muse.
The hot breath in my ear was the missus catching my thought. “This song reminds of the Valley of the Rocks,” she whispered.
I forced back a nostalgic tear for the tranquil, the Exmoor cream tea, the wildflowers, the feral goats even of 4-days ago. Gawd, it’d only been 48-hours since the kangaroo mob alongside the twilit freeway had blanked our Melbourne return during the taxi journey home from the airport. And the short time since had been eventful.
Kurt singing the line “Haven’t you heard the music in the night?” kind of rubbed it in.
“Think he knows about your ‘broken cicada’?” I muttered. “Ouch!” The missus had thought me deserving of a rib-dig.
“Did sound like a broken cicada,” she whispered, defensively.
“And what did I say? ‘More like crackle of sparks.’”
“Still can’t understand how you could laugh.”
“Had no blimmin idea I was right, did I? You spotted the spewing firework fountain.”
“Was hard to miss, my love.”
A cliché pork pie hat sharing our table tore his rapt gaze from a svelte lady’s plunging neckline to shush us. The inclination fluttered to inform him an outer wall junction box can assume a worthier spectacle.
I relived gawping in the front garden of my rented home, lugged luggage abandoned to distraction. Where public mains electricity supply cable met household wiring sparks leapt higher than boing-de-bounce marsupials. Mesmerising blue arcing was value added.
Braving the inside of the house, I admit to trying the switches. The flickering ceiling lights worthy of a B-movie haunting I found I could pacify by turning on the oven. A short-term fix, though. A minute later: blackout and a sudden deathly silence from the dodgy, hulking central heating appliance. Jack Frost hooted hoorah.
United Energy (the equivalent of UK’s National Power) arrived promptly after an anxious phone call. Melbourne homes burn down all the time with a fault like this, they said. Not their problem to fix, they said. It’s the house owner’s wiring that was faulty – a house owner who happened to be holidaying in Russia. So UE disconnected their power cable and left us with a sheet of paper – an official incident notice giving warning there’d be no reconnection without a certificate signed by an approved sparky. Every local then received a “Power outage may impact” SMS. The impact on the missus and me was no light and no heating. The upshot meant sleeping in our clothes and pootling 6-kilometres to a kind friend’s for hot showers.
Chug forward to mid afternoon the next day. Repair electrician Andy pitched up and looked at the height of the junction box. The job, he judged, needed the long aluminium ladder off his van roof. But fiddlesticks, his padlock code was “not responsive”. Refusing to use a metal grinder, he called the cavalry, which was his mate. Who arrived an hour later. His ladder, the twin of Andy’s, achieved a silliness far short of sea cliff perpendicular. It was returned to the van roof with the cavalry’s comment: “I find it so funny they make ladders out of the same stuff I wrap my sandwiches in.” Followed by: “Reckon what we need is a step ladder.”
“Hey, got a one of those inside me van,” says Andy.
Ten minutes later, the melted junction box was replaced with a natty new one. “You told me it’d take 3-hours,” commented the cavalry.
“Hadn’t seen the job,” Andy retorted.
“You charging for 3-hours?”
Andy turned to me. “Well mate, we’re off.”
“Woah,” I said. “I need a certificate.”
“No, you don’t. It’s like for like. I do a dozen of these a year.”
I waggled UE’s sheet of paper and finger jabbed a sentence. Andy read it in daylight’s ebb. “Oh,” he said. “Haven’t got any certificates on the van. Have to drive to the wholesaler. It’ll be least an hour there and back. Let me ring UE and see what they say.”
He did. I earwigged. Keenly.
“Can I photo and email a copy? … no? … Can’t I give you the number and send a photo of the certificate? … no? … You need the actual original copy? Shit.”
I began worrying about candles and matches, and a further Bunnings visit.
(“Skylark, I don’t know if you can find these things,” sang Kurt.)
Andy left on his mission. Hurriedly. Fifteen minutes later, surprise. Andy knocked on the door. “Had to get a win today at some stage,” he grinned sheepishly. “Found an old certificate in my book. It’s part filled out but not signed. Can I borrow a pen? Promise I’ve called UE. They should arrive soon.”
And they did. Reattached once more to the national grid the pity was despite a renewed surge of steady current the heating system obstinately refused to do a whoomph of Lazarus.
The specific cause of the affair remains a mystery. But I have a suspicion. Up to skylarks itself, the possum had glared at me from the wretched junction box. The stamp on which said it all: ‘Manufactured in Australia.’
Perhaps Son-of Calcutta can pass it on that as songs go I can compliment Kurt on his choice of encore while I dream of that sun-kissed wooden bench. “Oh skylark won’t you lead me there,” Kurt closed. Well done, throat. As Stu Mindeman fingered a last few tinkles, the missus and I sought thermals of our own.
Text & illustration © 2018 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.
21st May 2018.
Live YouTube streaming of the neat and tidy Royal Wedding attendees filling Windsor chapel prompted the missus to flick at the unruly mop flopping weightily over my eyes. “My Prince Scruff,” she said. “Soon you’ll be needing Irish Gegan’s crane.” It was a nod to the doody gadget the inventive local 90-year-old cyclist had knocked up helping lift his carbon-fibre pedal bike into his car boot.
“Okay, okay, I’ll go find Grant’s clippers and scissors,” I said, the twenty bucks in my wallet assuming better purpose than the usual two almond croissants and small tub of soba salad that left only an echidna and a lyrebird worth of cents. “Won’t be long… hopefully.”
Grant Ellis is a man who loves his job and whose barber’s shop snuggles slightly to the left of Gardenvale station’s city bound platform’s down ramp. Inside hang portraits: Greg Norman, a shock of blond hair falling beneath a straw hat, and Bernborough, once the outstanding Australian-bred Thoroughbred racehorse. An old fashioned till shows ‘$2’. A price from a past age when garages were practical because cars were smaller. Like Grant’s MG midget traded for a Toyota sedan, a more practical carrier of his golf clubs since he won Tatts Lotto.
His shop’s a gossipy blokeish sanctuary where ‘footy’ forms a probable part of every second sentence, separated by grumbles politic. While offering among the best value for dollar haircuts in Melbourne. Period. Judges to ex-cons, architects to tradies, are united in agreement, patiently browsing the daily tabloids waiting their turn in the worn, 1930s leather-upholstered, oak embossed Koken chair, a veteran of the Great Depression. Which makes Grant a whippersnapper. He’s been shearing and bantering in Gardenvale since the year after his adored St. Kilda last won the premiership and England the World Cup in 1966.
More noteworthy than my leaning towards ‘The Saints’ is Grant noticing we’ve something else in common: matching pairs of Spanish made, comfy Pikolino loafers. Mine from Middlesborough, his from a Mountfords’ Melburnian shoe store, making for a particularly small world.
One in which, at mid-day, I found Grant’s tools idle. A stoic white walrus moustache occupied the customer bench observing the barber otherwise absorbed. In sharing. Fervidly. Finger-stabbing at his smartphone. Aided by a silver fox. Both flummoxed how to send a super important photo via satellite to the phone in the silver fox’s palm. The subject: the tattooed ‘Tiger’ Dusty Martin, celeb of current AFL champions Richmond. Him nipping across the coincidental Martin Street from Sons of Mary, a convivial bar cum restaurant owned by his mates, to bid “gedday” to the legend that’s Grant, had left the barber wowed by the player’s size. Dusty having to “kneel to get through the door’ was perhaps though an exaggeration.
I settled beside the walrus and picked up the Herald Sun. A quick riffle tickled my chuckle-box. Teddywatch, Mount Buggery and Titwobble Lane, I learned, were odd places in Victoria. Then came further distraction.
“Hey, Grant! That heist in Brighton. It was Bint Street.” said an agitated voice appearing from the door. “Police are after a 5-carat ring. Can I be done by 1.00?”
“Hi, Vern.” Looking up Grant gave his wall clock a glance. “No. Try again this afternoon. Thank you. And it was Bunt Street.”
“Reckon mob money,” said the walrus tapping the nose upon his ruddy face. “Must have been a stake out. Knew what they were after.”
I nodded in unison with Grant and the silver fox.
Even I’d caught news of the two million dollars worth of daylight robbery. Apart from the bling ring, Cartier bracelets, Rolex watches, a 100 kilo safe and a security camera’s SIM card of incriminating evidence had gone walkies. “Could easily have been Wyatt,” I offered, meaning Aussie crime writer Garry Disher’s popular, enigmatic anti-hero creation. Flinty. Totally criminal. The true cool pro.
“Me grandparents pet kangaroo kept in the back yard was good as any bloody Wyatt,” declared the walrus, straight-faced. “Called it Joey. Ate five carrots a day. From the veggie plot. Stole clothes pegs off the washing line. And them having twelve kids meant lots of pegs for the sneaky bastard.”
The walrus, real name Russell, a former union official and coach to Collingwood juniors, took the opportunity to reminisce about life in Longwarry. A bush town of nothingness a decade ago, it’s now within an hour’s drive of Melbourne’s east and boasts 600 new commuter houses, a roundabout wreathed in flowers and a street named after Russell’s family. Selling his grandparent’s plot had made him “flush”. Auctioning other clan properties off to developers was his latest wheeze, he said proudly. At which point he too glanced at the clock.
A revisit to the topic of the family milk cow was interrupted by a whoop. The silver fox. Dusty had achieved heaven and back. “Brill! Thanks so much, Grant mate. Sorry for the wait, guys.”
“No worries,” said the walrus, heaving himself upright only to plonk down again. Presenting a task beyond the powers of Gegan’s crane.
After a quick broom sweep Grant had vanished behind the saloon-bar-like swing-doors of his inner sanctum. Then an almighty sneeze. Hair up his nose, perhaps. Or was it just Dusty? A grumble politic as time passed. And more when his phone burred. The call about besting a par and a tee time.
That sorted it was back down to serious business: Russell slumped draped with the barber’s cape. The missus would wonder where her Prince Scruff had got to, I thought, as Vern took a perch. Forget Teddywatch. My patience though, I knew, would be rewarded. Such is the legend.
Text & illustrations © 2018 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.
5th May 2018.
Son-of-Calcutta’s chuck-away snippet over a bowl of fries about Prof Swiggit’s travel plans had put me in a right pisser of a mood. Even Somerset County Cricket Club beating Yorkshire – yes, Yorkshire! – thereby winning their initial two Championship games of the season for the first time since 1993, couldn’t snap me out of it. So if not that, what could?
Our amiable Muscovite had the answer. Escape Melbourne for a day trip west. Go see the belly up iron horse, the work of sculptor Joanna Rhodes. Enjoy a glass of wine. Maybe discover a little grub with an Asian twist. Surely distraction enough to conclude a mixed week. Simply dodge Geelong, and the dreary salt pans and reeking fishing shacks of Avalon that mock the Arthurian idyll, until hitting the opposite rim of Corio Bay, a bulge of Port Phillip.
Quest achieved, the missus and I lolled with our comrade in Terindah Winery’s ‘Shed’. A structure as unfitting for humble solitude as for a gardening fork. Hangar-sized, it’s an okayish Bellarine peninsula eatery of floor-to-ceiling glass. Where the radish flavour’s daikon and the mint, shiso. Brill.
But drat my chosen Shiraz. Nothing wrong with the bouquet. The sniff of black fruit and the hint of tobacco was gorgeous. What set me off grumbling again about the freelancer’s lot was the first sip – the surprise palate kick of white pepper. So cheeky. Like, um… Prof Swiggit! He who, I now knew, had an invite to London. To personally present his wonderful thesis. The one that from its first draft saw me graft a whole summer month red-penning punctuation, syntax amendments and referencing Harvard style in ‘Operation Polish’ (as in floor, not pierogi). A backtracked pledge on dollars meant the prof’s pan searing a few Moreton Bay bugs became my only reward. “Pooph-tooph,” I said, ire again raising its head.
“I worried from the start,” admitted the Muscovite, frowning at her Zinfandel. “Swiggit has… form.”
“Sometimes you have to go on trust,” I replied, meaning penury’s curse rather than the local red of iffy Californian ancestry.
“You were too trusting,” the missus chided. “Eat up your raw kingfish. You’re dampening the day.”
I pointed out a better job about to be done. Upon the sea were narnu ngawurrwurra – the cast shadows of chasing clouds – headed fast our way.
The deluge splashed on the iron steed’s rust. Residents Poppy and Tess, two podgy labradors, waddle-loped for cover. Finches in a persimmon tree quit their bickering. Five bucks worth of quince dropped from its bough to perish.
Only when the triple digit lunch tabs readied to tumble from the till, did the sun re-emerge radiant upon the vines. It was the cue for my phone to chirp as I nipped out to explore the fresh air.
“Dad? Got awesome news,” said a crackling voice fighting wind noise: my son, the scoop peddler, first-class honours.
“The uni’s been evacuated!”
“Which uni? Not RMIT?”
“Why?” I asked, hoping fingers crossed it it had much to do with the prof’s karma.
“Gas leak crisis. Because of … (crackle-snort) … a DURIAN! Some wazzock dumped one to rot in a library cupboard. Bet it was on purpose. Fire Brigade’s bloody livid, but it’s hilarious!”
Always problematic that deathly-spiked fruit I’ve endured in kitchens from Thailand to Singapore, whose garbage stench the Smithsonian magazine honed to a precise: “turpentine and onions garnished with a gym sock.” In a hugely bigger issue than Marmite, it baffles me anyone can delight in something Yank chef Anthony Bourdain fancies makes your breath pong “as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother”. Anyway I trotted back to pass on the latest. Doing so I revived the memory of the missus’ blessed pot of Thai shrimp paste.
An aeon ago the pot had been sniffed out by the mum-in-law efficiently as a wag-tail airport security spaniel. Her revulsion saw the object migrate from the safety of the Wiveliscombe cottage fridge to sit forgotten on the the downstairs loo’s window ledge, hidden inside a cardboard carton once containing a scented candle.
Fast forward to the winter shivers as I languished in-between Aussie visas. My reclusive bobble-hatted neighbour, a musical wannabe forever big-noting about a track in some dark corner of iTunes, had leaned out his bedroom window to rant red-face furious: “I refuse to move. I’m composing. Turn off those flashing lights and your effing van engine. Now!”
Merv, a bushy-bearded National Power emergency engineer – flap-eared lumberjack hat and a Merlin’s trove of sensor gizmos – replied he couldn’t. His ignition was buggered. Switch off and he couldn’t restart. This mirrored the worry I held for my old boiler, knocked out an hour earlier, killing the central heating. Which was down to Bill, the British Gas boiler service chap. Swearing blind about the whiff of ‘gas’ while peeing into my loo, he raised the alarm and skedaddled. Assuredly the cottage had morphed into an icebox in the hastily sealed off street.
Martin continued to rant. Merv repeated himself. Louder. Over the feet away churchyard wall Reg from the garage now squawked Flower of Scotland on the bagpipes at poor Mac’s graveside. Merv soon holding aloft the shrimp paste and the boiler’s floomph of life summoned further mixed emotions.
Still, durian cannot be dismissed as a lesser threat to sanity. And yet I found I was smiling in a world where the next downpour fell as angel tears of laughter. Therapy for the worst mood brought on after being diddled. Back in the Shed we all agreed that, like some promises, decay’s a moveable feast.
And never mind imagining how my mum-in-law’s nose might twitch in Avalon, in Australia an Asian twist can far exceed expectations.
Text and illustration © 2018 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.
21st April 2018.
The word ‘glamping’ conjures for me a comfy bed, a ceiling, preferably plaster moulded, and a warm gentle breeze brushing the cheek because the sash windows are wide open. I bore this in mind when, a month ago, the missus made an announcement: “We’ve got a sleepover in Bong Su’s old pad. She’s popped across to a new build.”
“Who’s Bong Su?” I asked.
“Fine. Great.” Absent-mindedly I stirred a third tablespoon of smoked paprika into the on-the-hob goulash. Distant English spring portending a new cricket season’s clatter of wickets was proving a distraction. “Um, when?”
“Dunno yet. Gotta book it. Need to take sleeping bags and pillows. Course we’ll have to buy organic carrots. To help a giraffe see in the dark. And us… You listening?””
The missus’ belated birthday gift from MGR, the minted gym-rat, had been generous. A discount voucher. Regular price: an eye-watering four hundred dollars. For a night’s ‘glamping for two’. At Melbourne zoo. In the former elephant enclosure. MGR’s unsubtle prod the missus and I could lose a few kilos, perhaps. Or was I just being cynical?
Historically, the elephants had had their old zoo digs since 1883 when Ranee fetched up to trumpet and flap ears at the cost of sensible pounds and shillings of gold rush money. Adventurous Homo sapiens bunking down as replacement is a recent wheeze marketed as Roar ’n’ Snore. Which ties into last night.
Having plumped for a stylish wooden based teepee slightly more private than others of its ilk, sadly for the missus and I snoring didn’t come easy. Categorically not.
For starters it was super windy; the hubbub of cicadas melded with alien shrieks and chitters; and, courtesy of my left Birkenstock, two cockroaches found themselves splattered quick as that. Fast food for some imagined lizard. Or snake.
Our own appetites we’d already fed whilst chatting to a demure Asian couple. The girl petite as a marmoset. And it’s worth adding the barrel-vaulted Elephant House turned dining room had kept a ‘woah factor’. Hung from heavy chains, cabers worn smooth by the past comfort seeking occupants doubled as designer tray-bashers. I helped ensure supper’s African Feast of jerk chook and random salads got properly demolished.
Our subsequent guided constitutional saw that giraffes indeed chomped carrots. Good we’d forgotten those at home, I thought, letting a dear, darling slow loris act as instant bellyache balm before a horrifying scream had me clutch at my heart. The culprit? Burhinus grallarius, a scuttling ‘Murder Bird’. An aptly named timid curlew.
“Bloody thing nearly gave me a coronary,” I whinged.
“You’re safe. I wouldn’t forget ‘Nelly the Elephant’,” the missus soothed.
“Yeah, yeah.” I considered the song about packing a trunk and trumperty-trump, and the missus’ two hands pumping away at my chest while she drew attention to herself singing the chorus twice, a compression on each beat, thirty in all: CPR’s international standard. Worth a cardiac. Almost.
Putting the unlucky tapir blinded by over-bright rays of Aussie sun aside, the moon and park lighting meant nobody suffered the total pitch black at bedtime. Although a teepee world reduced to shadows and silhouette was dramatic enough; the wind sending the humungous tree branch above us nuts. Funny not noticing the thing sooner, I mused, as its leafy tip scritch-scritched the canvas. Relentlessly.
Out to the side, more noise. A grunt. Then another, much louder. “EEUURGHHHH!”
“Whazzat?” the missus piped from inside her sleeping bag.
Twitchy within mine, I mumbled an opinion. “Must be a yak.”
“Way to go, Attenborough. Yaks are supposed to be silent.”
“Then I’ve no bloody clue. Camel, maybe.”
“Piss off. Can I share something?”
“Cricket result. Somerset won. Beat Worcester Pears. We’ve played one. Won one. Pretty tidy. The Aussie Renshaw bagged a hundred. Only fifth Zum debutant to do that. Cool, eh?”
The missus burrowed deeper into her cotton-polyester cocoon and began to sweetly whistle-snore. I, however, tossed and turned. Caution toward paw, claw, jaw and wriggle kind of focused my mind.
Harboured hope of drifting towards sleep counting mythical creatures I abandoned. Abruptly. The teepee shook to its pegs. As if walloped by a pantechnicon. My leg resting against the tent pole suddenly wasn’t. Instead the pole listed away drunkenly. A furry shape slid starfish fashion from branch to earth down the sloping outer canvas. Seconds later its doppelgänger followed. Sat bolt upright, I readied for more. Thump. Think I missed.
“What are you doing?” hissed the missus, now bolt upright herself. The pretty much perfect ‘L’.
“Punching possums,” I confessed.
“Really? Go to sleep, numpty.”
“Absolutely. Love you, too. But if this is glamping I’m a mugwump.”
By the time possum passels slipped into their nooks for weary snooze, the missus and I had clocked a couple of hours kip between us at best. “Bugger it,” she decided, “let’s explore.” Outside the tent flap, a worm-tugging blackbird. The missus whispered “Happy dawn” to more than that feathered soul. Familiar grunts had rekindled. Their passion now blinking obvious, burst from an adjacent teepee. The marmoset!
We tiptoed and shambled further. Kubwa the lion yawned infectiously. Or maybe it was one his brothers, Kito or Kashka. Their keeper would know. But sod asking. I really was too knackered.
Did I mention the monster branch was actually a twee twiglet? Such is the trick of shadows. And what with one thing and another, least we can report to MGR of a few grammes shed.
A list of better ways of blowing mega-bucks we’ll politely keep to ourselves. A resolve laminated while cuddling mugs of tea and with the bedroom sash thrown up.
Text & illustrations © 2018 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.
6th April 2018.
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”.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
2nd April 2018.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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?”
“Gosh. When was the last?”
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.
26th March 2018.
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.
“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.”
“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.
“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’.
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.
17th March 2018.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.