Anxious Times Before Kickoff… A Contest Ensues… This Cruel Mistress That Is The Game We Love…

 

The text message comes in moments before kickoff. ‘Talk to me, mate. What’s going to happen tonight?’ It’s a question I’m unable to answer as I watch the two teams stream onto the park, Manly looking fit and confident, Brisbane somewhat nervous, not sure themselves of what’s to come.

As the pandemic has eased over the past weeks, there’s actually a crowd in at the Central Coast Stadium, albeit a small one – 178 it’s later revealed, a handful of diehards allowed into the ground to cheer, to back their Team. They all seem to be old blokes, Manly supporters draped in maroon and white, waving flags, sipping beer from plastic cups, eyes bright under the brims of logo’d caps.

What is going to happen tonight, I think to myself, a cold can in one hand, the other nervously twirling the edge of my moustache, my go-to when I’m nervous, anxious, not sure of what’s going on.

After last week’s mauling at the hands of the reigning premiers, it seems a fair few changes have been made, but how effective could they possibly be? Coach Seibold has wielded the axe in the ensuing seven days, players shifted up, others moved across the park, some on the bench, yet more this week watching from home; still beset by injury and suspension, it’s a Brisbane team that projects little more than uncertainty.

Indeed, the two pre-pandemic rounds, as is pointed out by Andrew Johns in commentary, seem a world away, two games Brisbane took relatively easily, only to stumble so overwhelmingly after the break that those games have almost ceased to exist in the minds of the Faithful.

Still, Faithful we are and so I’m on the couch, myself draped in maroon and gold. I’m not too concerned on the result, I write in reply to the text message, but I do want a good game of footy. A competition, at the very least.

From the outset, it seems this might be a tall order. Brisbane receive the kickoff; their ensuing runners are easily muscled into submission; Croft, at the end of the first set of the game, kicks out on the full. Manly then, with their first set, seem to be able to run the ball with consummate ease, their forwards chewing up post-contact metres.

I shift uneasily on the sofa, take a sip from the can.

It seems, at this very early point, and indeed, over the past fortnight, that what Brisbane have needed is two-fold (three, if you count their dire need for ball, over the last two games) – one, they need someone talking, leading. Two, they need someone (either that leader, or anyone else), to provide a spark. This is Brisbane after all, they’re not a shoddy team (at least not on paper), and so one gets the impression that if someone were to just do something good, then the team would automatically lift.

As the opening ten minutes tick past, agonisingly slowly, it gradually becomes apparent that this is a vastly different Brisbane team to the one which failed to show up last week. I sit up straighter, lean forward, begin to hope that perhaps that contest I’m wanting, will actually happen.

For Brisbane are beginning to play football. Manly, no doubt expecting the same opposition the northerners provided last week, are knocked off their game – Brisbane begin to look cohesive, they begin to move with purpose, the momentum begins to shift their way, they start to get the ball, keep the ball, use the ball.

It comes down to possession – give Brisbane an equal share of said ball, and they’re dangerous; give them the majority, and they’re looking near impossible to overcome. Starve them though, and they immediately retreat to survival mode, which in this competition, as has been evidenced by teams like St. George, Canterbury and the Gold Coast, isn’t enough to stop a rout, a rot, a general collective falling apart.

And then the spark – a high kick on the fifth across field to the right and the lightning fast figure of young Xavier Coates is there, takes it mid-air, manages to offload to a rampaging Kotoni Staggs, back from a week in the sin bin, who steps, pivots, decides against a safe pass for a certain score and instead kicks, chases, grounds it.

Brisbane are playing football, and it looks like we’ve got that contest on our hands.

Coates, who only last year dominated for QLD in the Under20 State Of Origin, looks set to begin, properly, what may well be a long and successful NRL career – a Greg Inglis clone, as Johns points out, multiple times, in delight, and that he is. The intuition, speed and power, not to mention his freakish ability under the high ball in attack, that he exhibits throughout the first half, is prime and indeed, just what Brisbane need; Croft and Milford constantly kick high to him on the right, and more often than not, he answers the call, scoring once, coming close again multiple times.

It could well happen, as a result of the youngster’s solid game, that Brisbane will need to swap out an Oates for a Coates on that right edge. Shift big and tall Cory to the left, fill the gap currently being juggled between Farnworth and Arthars, both of whom seem, at a glance, too slight to play a position that these days, is as much about power and brute force, as it is speed and grace.

Just look at Manly’s Moses Suli – playing in the centres, he harks back to the likes of Gene Miles in that he’s got grace (not that Miles had much grace, lets be honest…), but is as big as most front rowers getting about these days. Up against him on the Brisbane side was Darius Boyd, who obviously, during the week, knew what was coming his way and so aimed to tackle low in order to stem the man’s rushing game, which Boyd did to decent effect throughout the course of the match.

It all proved too much for Brisbane though, their collective foot coming off the gas not long before halftime, and not really returning until the final five minutes. During this gap, they didn’t capitulate, more just lost touch, not something you can do against a team like Manly, even with a three try lead. Manly scored three times, once shortly before half time, again shortly afterwards, again soon after that. A couple of soft penalty goals and it’s gone from 18-0 to 18-20, and the lead has slipped away.

Despite the fact Brisbane were offered a couple of opportunities to snatch it from the proverbial jaws of defeat, it wasn’t quite enough to overcome an opposition they should have, after leading by three converted tries, wrapped up and disposed of easily.

But, as I think to myself as I drain the last of the can and flick off the teev, I wasn’t too concerned about the result. Yes, they should have wrapped that up. Yes, they should have maintained focus for the full 80 minutes, not put on 18 points then leaked 20.

But to have played a game like that, having played as they have for the past fortnight, is such an improvement as to bring much joy to hearts north of the border, hearts that have been in mouths (if not downright shattered and left lying, bleeding, on loungeroom floors all over Queensland), hearts that would have been questioning what the fuck is going on?

There’s a long way to go, and indeed, this could again be ‘one of those seasons’, one where the word ‘rebuild’ gets thrown about as a damp and clammy bandage attempting to cover the wound of ‘not that great right now’. But this young team have promise, and as such, if blunders like the past two weeks can be forever vanquished, they should begin to gel properly and so reap the rewards us, The Faithful, know they’re entitled to.

ADDY & I: walking the streets of jaffa at dawn…

 

It’s dark and still, for just a little while more, nothing moving out there except the cats. Rogue and freeform, they pad along stone pavements ducking under heavily-flowering bougainvillea, spiky trees written bloodshot that yawn over ancient walls and cascade down to the ground below.

I roll over behind shuttered window – glassframe beyond open to the encroaching summer heat – left side numb, not attuned to the feline wander but awakened through an odd juxtaposition of ancient and infant as the former, the salat al-fajr, begins its eerie wail and at almost the same time, the latter, Adeline, stirs at her mother’s breast and rolls, four months alive, onto her back and almost smiles.

We’re halfway across a world as we, two of three of us, awake. From cold to hot, from quiet to loud, from the antipodes to Tel Aviv; a four-month-old girl with the promise of golden curls, myself and Claire, lodging with her brother in digs as alien as they seem familiar.

We get here late in the night prior, and despite that, Adeline down, the three of us older ones sit up and drink Israeli beer and talk and the moon traces its silvery path across the desert sky and yet we still talk and drink in each others’ stories and experiences because it’s been a time between meets and each of us thirsts for knowledge of what each other has done in the ensuing time and then, eventually, we sleep.

***

And so when I awake, my left side is numb because I’ve been propping Claire upright, back to back, so’s she can accommodate the nugget who, since we’ve left home, has ceased to sleep on her own and will only drift off when she’s touching her mother and so both haven’t slept well.

I rise in the dawn light and walk to the bathroom to piss, drink some water. I quickly, noiselessly across richly-rugged marble floor, dress and pull on my battered old Blundstones, moulded to the shape of my feet, and strap on the carrier, thick loop around my waist, pick up Adeline and press her front to mine and encase her in the canvas, loops over my shoulders, a clip in the back to hold it all in place.

Her tiny, white legs hang from the side and tap against my hips as I walk out of the room, her hands gripping the front of my shirt, her head sideways, eyes drooping and she’s asleep again before I’ve made it to the kitchen.

Behind me, Claire has rolled over for the first time all night and is asleep too and will be for hours.

We walk through the kitchen and down the steps to the front door, street level, and haul it open, stepping out onto HaTsorfim, crouching to pick up copies of The Jerusalem Post and the international edition of The New York Times which have been delivered before first light and which I stuff into the back pocket of my shorts lest I have a chance to sit and drink coffee and read while she carries on sleeping (something which, as I discover as we do this over the coming days, never happens as nothing opens early in Tel Aviv, much less the city section of Jaffa, ancient or otherwise).

We walk down HaTsorfim, a small single-lane one-way street that passes under old arches and becomes too small for any traffic other than foot – follow the curve past a couple of restaurants, closed at this hour, follow onto Tayelet Mifraz Shlomo directly opposite the Ottoman Empire-era Mahmoudiya Mosque.

There’s no traffic, there are no people. The cats have gone. It’s quiet and still, warming up as the sun begins its ascent proper as we walk down Russlan to Retzif HaAliya HaShniya on the foreshore, the deep green-blue of the Mediterranean stretching as far west as I can see. We walk along the stone boardwalk above it all heading south towards the ancient port, her small legs swinging slightly, she turns her head, breathes out loudly, continues to sleep.

As we wander further along the path, watching the sun dance off the water’s surface, on the left the old city rises from the scrubby bluff sloping down from Segev Street, golden stone walls building southward until they’re all-consuming, rising from the cobbled footpath and soaring high, a buttress against the ever-surging sea and whatever and whoever has coursed across it over decades, centuries and centuries.

Now the southern-most part of Tel Aviv, the port section of Jaffa – or Yafo, in Hebrew – was established almost two thousand years BC, built on a high ridge above the water, a site associated with myriad biblical stories, a site of military importance, a bustling centre for trade over the course of the ensuing four thousand years.

Today, in the early morning light, it stands serene, like it’s made peace with whatever has happened in the past, and whatever happens next hardly matters at all.

***

(The week prior, we’d been in England, in Yorkshire, staying with an uncle, and it was here that Adeline had stopped sleeping in the manner to which Claire and I had become accustomed and so I’d been walking early with her for seven or eight days. There though, it’d been along misty country lanes, bordered on both sides by woodland, the sounds of pheasants running through ground growth and pigeons in trees, the odd hare pulsing across verdant fields.

It’d been just as solitary – the two of us, in a place far from home – but as different a setting as one could possibly imagine from the one in which we find ourselves now).

***

At random, I turn into an archway hewn into the yellowed wall and we slowly make our way up stone steps worn smooth by the footfalls of countless people both ancient and modern. We leave the Mediterranean behind us, the smells and sounds of the sea and the greasy green lower walls against which it’s pounded for aeons fading along with the sunlight as we’re encased in shadow, into the gloom, the stairway curving left and upward.

On ledges above, cats now sedentary regard us languidly from under heavily lidded eyes.

It’s a maze; the steps crest to a landing running back north, more steps head toward the east, another landing above heading three ways. Doors dot the stone leading to small artisan studios, galleries, homes in there too, tiny windows high above with small pots of coloured flowers on the outer sills, the glass behind them open slightly to let in any hint of a breeze.

(I quietly, as much to break the silence as anything else, describe the surroundings as we – two of three of us, from so far away –  pass through places where so many have been before but which to me, and so to her, are of another world and even though she will never remember this, I feel she might need to hear. She sleeps and clutches my shirt, her ear so close to my words and yet so far away.)

We follow landings, go up steps, around corners. We have the place to ourselves, not a soul about. Even though we’re in shade and the stones are cool, I’m sweating but she seems fine, legs still hanging, hands still clutching my shirt. A small flock of birds flutters overhead and land as one high up on a wooden beam jutting from the stone.

We pass the Vatican Embassy, wend our way around about and up, eventually coming to the top and into the Kdumim Square at the Zodiac Signs Fountain, back into the sunlight and the mounting heat, the white stone almost blinding as my eyes readjust. There’s no one up here either, normally a bustling mass of fleshy tourist surge, but at the moment bereft of it all, tranquil.

A breeze in off the ocean cools us for a second and brings with it the sounds of the city awakening below.

Even though we’ve been turned all about whilst climbing, I have a general idea of which direction is which and we head past St. Peter’s Church and over Segev via the Wishing Bridge, carved with more signs of the Zodiac. I stop and look down the hill now we’re in the open, the crescent moon bay below stretching north, the sea a constantly moving, rippling jewelled sheet. The modern city of Tel Aviv in the middle distance – tall glass towers, reflecting the light and seeming to shimmer – presents in stark juxtaposition to where I’m standing, to where I’ve been walking.

I look for respite from the heat across Abrasha Park, past the Ramses Gate, restored from an archaeological site dating back to the Egyptian ruler’s time in power (not long after this port was first established), and we find palms throwing skinny shade where we stop, and down the hill on the other side we can see the house we’ve come from.

I count the top floor windows from the left and find ours, know Claire is dead asleep behind it, in the cool of the tiled room, away from the sunlight, ever-present now, dancing on the water, the stone, off the pale walls of houses shuttered against the building heat.

I fan the two of us with one of the newspapers pulled from my back pocket. She moves a little, changes the position of her head, the outward breath, keeps sleeping.

I begin to wander down towards HaTsorfim, through the Sha’ar Ra’amses Garden, out into a carpark and onto the street. To the left a little way is the house. To the right, past the end of the street and down an alley is the suspended orange tree, heavy in the morning still, not swaying at all.

We pass across, through a covered side road and wait by Yefet Street, beginning its morning bustle, sloping downward towards Yossi Carmel Square and the clock tower. I dart across and we’re in quiet again, shade by the side of more modern buildings for a block or so, apartments and bodegas, small businesses, some smart, others shabby, flyers pasted haphazard on their front doors, across the glass windows.

All locked, no one here yet, nothing to sell at this hour in this old town. No one here but mounting traffic back across the way, and the two of us, wandering odd streets at an odd time in what seems like an odd city.

I think to myself that it’s probably us who are odd.

For want of something to do with my hands, I gently tap Adeline’s butt through the canvas carrier and she breathes and doesn’t even stir.

We’re in the flea market now, a maze much like the ancient stone web we’ve already made our way through, but flat and in place of stone walls and glass-smooth footstones are endless alleys bordered on both side by cafes and restaurants, open spaces where people are erecting small canvas roofs to escape the sun and protect the wares they’re preparing to sell, odd switchbacks and deadends where nothing seems to be happening until you look closer and see, through small unwashed windows, short rows of tables, another café, somewhere to eat, part of the fabric of this tiny cut of Jaffa.

Alleyways and narrow paths are covered with swathes of coloured cloth, nothing is open and we’re hidden from the sun under the faded blush cover and old, distressed sun-shades stretched across alleys entwine with electrical wires and ornate strands of fairy lights to create a glorious chaos, a melange of old and new painted ochre with desert dust and baked under a middle eastern sun.

I don’t know what the time is at this point, my watch is on the small table next to the bed and I can’t see a clock. It can’t be much earlier than eight, I think to myself, and yet the place is almost deserted.

Nothing starts early in Tel Aviv, and why would it?

***

(Later on, the three of us venture through the market, the maze of small streets, and it’s a different beast entirely, awake and going about its day, gently pulsating, slowly heaving with people both alert and not-so-much. We sit and drink weak coffee under the shade of a faded orange sheet strung across an alley outside a small café, watching the people – young and old, some with children hanging off them, in prams and strapped to chests, men on scooters with cigarettes dangling from lips and mobile phones pressed against their ears, the sound of car horns always on the breeze which comes in from the Mediterranean and becomes a part of the city noise.

Cars and trucks and bikes through the round-about at the clock tower a few blocks down, horns and shouting, street hawkers and people gawking and yelling.

The sound of a city shifting restlessly in the midday heat).

***

As we slowly walk these streets and alleyways, I think to myself how interesting a prospect this is, how almost familiar and yet never quite Jaffa is, how it almost seems like a place I know, a typeof place I know, and yet it never quite makes it there and I then feel like I’m lost somewhere in the world and not a soul – not one who can do anything about it, anyway – knows where I am or what could happen to me.

Most likely nothing will happen, and yet this place is indeed as alien as it is familiar. I’ve wandered streets in much the same fashion (sans small child) in various European cities, southern American rural settings, Asian markets and English villages and yet this is New and Different and, with my tiny sleeping charge, exciting and Real and seemingly Raw.

I tell her this, dropping my neck forward so’s my words rustle through the light fuzz that adorns her skull, my eyes still upward, mapping our path ahead. She’ll not remember it, but perhaps she’ll soak it in.

I smile to myself as I gently tap against the canvas, in time with my slow footsteps and she sighs and turns her head again and I see on her cheek, a small imprint of one of the pearl snap-buttons from my shirtfront.

***

We wend our way toward where I think the house is, down new paths and alleys, across actual streets, albeit small ones within the warren – Rabi Khanina, Ami’ad, Rabbi Yohanan, in no particular order – the place gently waking up and coming back to life. I recognise this and that, eventually marking a bodega as one I know if close to Yefet and we find the winding road and wait, traffic building bigger now, and quickly cross onto the shady side, a bit further north and so down HaHalfanim, a foot alley, a trickle of grey water down its centre, out onto the restaurant curve of HaTsorfim and left a couple of small blocks to the front door, digging in my pocket for the key, unlocking and reefing the heavy wooden door open and into the stone cool, up the steps and into the kitchen where I put the kettle on and Adeline wakes up and looks up at me and her blue eyes sparkle like the Mediterranean we’ve just left behind us.

I step out onto the covered terrace, shaded and bordered by myriad plantings, overflowing tomato stems and terracotta pots in long and ungainly formation, a long table, cool tiles underfoot. I unclip the carrier and lay her down on a small blanket and she lies there and waves her legs around and clutches the small, woollen sheep an aunty had given her in the UK.

I make coffee and spread the papers on the long table and spend more time talking to her about where we’ve just been than reading the news.

She won’t remember any of this.

But, four months alive, she rolls from her side onto her back and smiles.

Wherefore Art Thou, Maroon & Gold?

 It’s late, sometime after ten, when the malaise sets in. My phone, now silent, lies on the table amidst the debris; two or three empty beer cans, a half full bottle of Makers, the overflowing ashtray.

Claire has long since gone to bed and I’m left in the semi-dark to contemplate the cruel nature of sport, of life in general. The immediate post-game analysis has petered out, a series of rapid-fire text messages with others around the country, and aside from the chill wind through the palm trees, it’s quiet.

I know it’s naught but a game, but the malaise thickens, swirls overhead, settles on the cold concrete beneath my feet. What can one really do about it, I suppose to myself. I pour another bourbon, splash some on the faded wooden table-top, try but fail to think of something else.

Conceding some ninety-three points across the space of two games while scoring only six, is another level, a level previously unheard of, at least north of the border. There are no doubt many heads being scratched as people search for answers, backs of necks being rubbed while eyes are downturned, those responsible lashed by torrent after torrent of verbal kickback, asking the question, What’s Gone Wrong?

Boys playing men it seemed in large part, one team so much more suited to the game than the other, that it became embarrassing as it dragged onward to its eventual sad and desperate conclusion.

Embarrassing for those watching at home, yes, but surely more so for those on the turf in the face of the booming hurricane, little before them but a sort of red, white and blue miasma, wave after ferocious wave pushing them closer and closer to the rock-strewn edge, where, after 80 minutes, they eventually beached, bruised and battered, on the shores of sporting oblivion.

Or so it seemed at the time.

Not much can be read from the final result other than one team was far better than the other – far, far better, essentially a non-contest, which at this level of professional sport is almost an affront to the game itself.

For two weeks now, this once proud team (and indeed, proud before the pandemic break, having won two from two), have succumbed, they’ve capitulated almost. They’ve been starved of possession, robbed of top-flight players due to injury and suspension, they’re the youngest team, on average, in the competition, they’re much maligned anywhere south of the 25thparallel, and yet these excuses, as they were, are no longer useful.

Perhaps if the contest had been closer, but two consecutive results like these, hint at something else, something deeper and more sinister than the likes of an injury or two, the odd suspension.

So what did go wrong? What has gone wrong?

A lack of communication, for sure; a lack of commitment, most likely; a lack of passion, a lack of confidence. A team Lacking. A team struggling to adapt to even the most simple of situations. A team better suited to a level well below that of ‘elite’. A team not even there. For if they were, a contest would have resulted, which while it may have still been one-sided, wouldn’t have been embarrassing. It’s one thing to lose, but to have fought. It’s another entirely to lose and to have done very little, if anything, about it.

People, many people, will be sitting with elbows on knees, chins cupped in hands, staring at a dark television screen thinking, so what next? Is this the nature of it all now? Is this what we, as supporters of this team, have been waiting for these months of lockdown gone?

Perhaps. It’s easy to pick up the draw and look ahead to what’s on the cards for next week – indeed, isn’t Forward the best direction in which to look? Yes, but moving forward is a struggle if you’re not acknowledging what’s come before, and as such, these past two weeks’ results can’t be merely swept under a rug.

No. The root cause needs to be found, and a rebuild needs to begin. Again. For otherwise, the malaise will thicken all the more, the miasma will build and swirl, the hurricane and the rocky edge, the shores of sporting oblivion, will become all the more prevalent. But where to begin such a rebuild? Sitting in the semi-dark, pouring more bourbon, flicking a butt into the ashtray, the malaise rises and boils again. I don’t even know where to begin.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.16 – The Football Is Back. Long Live The Football…

This evening, you’ll find me on the couch, a maroon and gold scarf draped around my shoulders, a cold can of beer in one hand. I’ll have rushed back from work and, via the fridge, come straight into the spare room, where the teev is. I’ll be watching football, and I’ve been looking forward to it for months.

Professional sport the world over came to a grinding halt along with everything else a few months ago, but rugby league, the ‘working man’s game’, will be the first top-flight sporting code to restart during this pandemic, and people who’d never before deigned to watch this particular code of football, will at least now be paying attention to how it all pans out.

During the game’s hiatus, I’ve been living in the past, delving into the catalogue of ‘Classic Matches’ that NRL.com have been posting online, scanning the list and picking off old games that have fallen in my team’s favour. I’ll watch these matches late at night, like it’s a guilty pleasure, with the sound turned low, revelling in victories past, when live sport was something you took for granted, and it looked like it’d never end.

Round Two of the rugby league season, the final round before it all got called off back in late March, was played in empty stadiums. Watching from afar, you could hear the hollow knock of bone on bone, the thumping and grunting, the swearing and whatnot. You could almost hear the sweat fall and smell the turf as it got churned under cleated foot. It wasn’t the same though, without the roar, without the pulsating background noise that confirms that people, a lot of people, are living and dying with every pass of the ball, with every kick and tackle.

Watching these old games has been somewhat of a tonic for that, seeing and hearing crowds barrack for their team, sledge the opposition, shout and yell and go hoarse, spill beer on the hill and queue in long lines to piss at half time. Get a pie and another beer on the way back to the seat.

It won’t be like that tonight, still vast empty stadiums, and this is, truthfully, regrettably, how it should be and how it should stay. The NRL’s call for socially distanced crowds by July 1 is a ludicrous suggestion, the absurdity of it (and, indeed, the arrogance), almost undoing all the good work they’ve managed to achieve thus far in restarting the game at all.

At this stage though, away from the backroom brawls and all that’s gone on in order to get a game back on a field, this is what it’s about – the game is back. If you think too closely on it, it’s quite a ridiculous notion, one of grown men running about after a ball in order to score more than the other team and therefor justify high salaries and a certain celebrity status among the general public.

But the notion of professional sport is an extremely important one within society and the barracking for a team is a quintessential part of humanity, no matter the perceived silliness of whichever sport you’re talking about.

For me, it’s about rushing back from work and grabbing a can, sitting on the couch and throwing my arms up in frustration, or jumping from my seat in a moment of excitement. It’s about boring my wife witless with details on how it’ll possibly play out, of texting with likeminded mates on which team is likely the most prepared after the break.

It’s about the fervour and passion that abounds when one invests time and energy, as a supporter, into a group of people, no matter what they’re like off the field, because it’s about The Team and The Game.

So you’ll find me on the couch this evening, a maroon and gold scarf draped around my shoulders, a cold can of beer in one hand. At this point, I’m not sure if I’ll have a broad grin spread across my face or if my brow will be furrowed in vicarious frustration. Regardless, I’ll be watching football and I’ve been looking forward to it for months.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.15 – The Times Are Over. Fuck The Times…

 

These are king-hell-ass odd Times. They’re different, no less real, more confronting and a cold and somewhat harsh reality that we’ll all need to embrace or be forever damned.

I’ve always been someone to keep to himself, and the curtailing of social possibility has only heightened this. Working at the bottle shop is a sharp reminder of the fact that the behaviour of others is something I don’t trust, and so I feel I’ve been personally slighted if someone doesn’t follow the rules.

But truthfully, what do I care? As was written in a column in The Paris Review recently, the bread is over. Fuck the bread. Indeed, but where does that leave us? Wallowing in yet more self-induced isolation, the vacuum becoming so intense for many that any screams are snuffed out before they even spew more than a nanometre.

Someone asked me recently if I’d noticed a change in the behaviour of people frequenting places like the bottleo and I returned with a lengthy par on how it’d changed in the preceding weeks so many times I could barely count. Someone else, writing somewhere else, summed it up perfectly – “People are still being people.” Yes, they are, and in many cases, this rubs the wrong way.

In others though, it brings odd shaped acts of kindness and light, sometimes so obscure and, indeed, surprising, as to be viewed with veiled suspicion. Don’t you know the situation is potentially dire? What is driving this act of benevolence?

Oh, ye of little faith (as I remonstrated to someone at work earlier this week), people are, at heart, a kind and considerate species. You, are the one who is all doom, a little bit of gloom, no one cares what you think and so you should return that favour, with extra, and put a smile on your face and carry on doing whatever it is you’re doing, and to hell with it all. The bread is over. Fuck the bread.

This phrase is ringing true, and I’m using it more and more.

I need to learn how to translate good news to my own advantage. Sometimes, knowing a lot doesn’t help. You become tied to graphs and infographics, analysing the resulting information in your head until it leaks from your ears and dribbles down the side of your neck. This is no good, stop it at once.

In the age of Bad News, there’s plenty of Good News, and in truth, it’s not too hard to find. In adapting life as we know it now to that Good News, therein lies the challenge. Nothing incites as silent and unearthly a rage as someone telling you to smile. But then again, I think to myself, what’s the harm because these are fucking odd Times.

The Times are over. Fuck the Times.

The Times are different. For some the Times are bad, others good. Some in between. Occasionally, I think of a schooner of beer off the wood at the local pub. I think of a room full of people watching a band. I think of catching a plane and buses and trains to libraries and people’s homes to ask them questions about their lives and walking cobbled alleyways in the dark on the way back to digs from meetings with people who know about things. I think of shaking someone’s hand when I meet them for the first time.

Outside the window, it is heavily overcast and a slow and lethargic drizzle is falling. It’s not a depressing scene though, more one of quiet contemplation for what is and was, and what will surely be. Stop for a while and think about it. Maybe write a few things down.

These are fucking odd Times. We might yearn for Times gone by but that’s the ubiquitous fevered dream of mad men, and indeed, someone without an eye on the future, for these are the Times we now need to keep that eye on.

The Times are over. Fuck the Times.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.13 – On Writing In Isolation…

 

I’m finding, in this age of isolation, that I’m looking at writing in a different light; I’m confronting it differently, and indeed, it’s confronting me differently.

In writing purely for myself, the goalposts have moved and truthfully, I’m not sure in which direction to kick. Without journalism, the only subject matter is what I pull from my own head, the only deadlines are self-imposed, the only results are intangible.

As such, I’ve been struggling, somewhat, to see a point. This leads to self-doubt and to a degree, a certain amount of self-loathing. I’ll start writing something, the germ of an idea having popped into my head while standing in the sun out the back with a coffee and a smoke, only to stop after a paragraph as what I’ve come up with I deem to be sub-par, the idea, to my mind, going nowhere, and so I delete it all and am left with that most horrible of manifestations, The Blank Page.

Where I’m lucky however, is in my surroundings. The people around me who love and support me unconditionally; the place where we live, in itself a paradise; the fact I have the means to be able to spend as much time as I like, sitting at my desk in front of my computer, the sole intention being to write. It’s these things which erase any self-doubt or loathing almost as soon as they appear.

And yet, it’s a tricky exercise. It’s almost as if I’m having to find my ‘voice’ all over again, as if I’m needing to develop a style and a method as I endeavoured to do when I began doing this seriously, some fifteen years ago. I never thought I’d truly found my voice as a writer, but I did think it was on its way, so to speak. To have it almost reduced to ‘beginner’ levels is confronting, confusing, frustrating.

On an ego level too, which while less important still exists, I’m finding it hard to adjust. When I submit a piece of writing to a newspaper or a magazine, I know it’ll be read. Perhaps by only a few, perhaps by people who vehemently disagree with my premise – but it’ll be read. I’ll post links on social media, the publication will likely do the same, it’ll hopefully generate some sort of discussion.

Here though, in the vacuum of isolation, there is absolutely no guarantee of this, and despite the fact this in itself is no reason to not write, it’s been hard to get my head around; despite the fact I crave solitude, I still want my words to resonate around the world. Show me a writer who disagrees, and I’ll show you a liar.

There is, however, a flip side to all this, as I’ve come to discover. And that’s that this situation isn’t just a confronting reality, it’s also an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to pull ideas from my head, ideas I’d not be able to write about usually; it’s an opportunity to continue developing my voice, to find new and challenging ways to get a point across; it’s an opportunity to really get down and dirty and write as freely as I want, which is something I’ve always wanted (and, occasionally, have blamed journalism for getting in the way of).

It’s an opportunity to create afresh, unfettered by any sort of guideline or boundary, a time to lay everything out and to see what sticks.

The important thing then, as frustration creeps in, is to remember this. Remember that it’s an opportunity as well as a cold and sometimes harsh reality. Combine the two and make them work to your benefit. Revel in what’s good in life, and channel that energy. Sure, the goalposts have moved, but if you can manage to kick one straight through the middle, well that’s an achievement, and a reason to keep on writing. At least to my mind.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.9 – On Frustration…

 I’m drinking cheap wine at my desk while Claire does a crossword in the loungeroom. Addy is supposed to be in bed, but is sitting in her doorway, reading books. There’s some music playing quietly on the stereo. This is, to be sure, a quiet Saturday night.

This morning I woke up early and went for a run. I don’t usually run on Saturdays, but it was quiet and still and I thought, why not? No one else had the same idea and so my route was quiet, no one to dodge, no one to nod good morning to – which means more time to think, to sink away from the physical exertion of it all, to fall into one’s head and ponder what, exactly, is going on.

In answer to that, not much is going on, at least from a writing perspective. No freelancing, no journalism, no criticism, no pitching, no story development, no back and forth with editors or PR folk or interviewees or tight-lipped PAs. This is fine, I accept publications are belt-tightening and indeed, reporting in the traditional sense is next to impossible at present, at least for someone like me who would typically spend hours, or even days, with people in the pursuit of a good yarn.

Elsewhere, The Book, while majority written, has ground to a halt as further research proves impossible given the travel restrictions, and the hope of finding a decent publisher grows dimmer the longer the economy is left to dwindle in the face of a global pandemic. And this is fine too, it’s understandable and to not put too fine a point on it, shit happens.

But I’m still frustrated. As I ran this morning, thinking more and more about it all, the more frustrated I became. I imagine this is true with anyone in any creative realm – the frustration, and this is how it is for me at the moment, of it not mattering.

Journalism gave my writing, to my mind, some point, some reason to be. The Book was the same, and so without them, as I write fiction and bits of oddball poetry and these Observations (which, as a writer, I need to do in order to maintain my sanity, regardless of whether or not I’m making any money from the endeavour), I’m wondering, as I jog across the local oval, onto the long path by the river into town, if there’s any point?

I’m also wondering if it’s any good. I’m wondering if I’m adding anything new or unique to anything, anywhere, and I’m wondering if I should hang it all up, and just work more hours at the bottleo (which, along with my wife’s job, is paying the bills, allowing me to write whatever the shit I want). I get more frustrated the further I run, and so I turn back earlier than I usually would in order to get home faster so’s I can stop thinking about it.

This might be construed as some ‘woe-is-me’ shit, and it is, but that’s not all it’s about. I know many people have it far tougher than I do, but this is what I do, and I’m questioning it and it’s frustrating the hell out of me. So I’m sitting at my desk drinking cheap wine, with some music in the background and the computer in front of me writing this.

Does this even matter? I don’t know, and that’s frustrating too.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.8 – Grandpa, And The Three Generations Since…

Observations From Isolation: Ch.8 – On The Death Of Grandpa, And The Three Generations That Have Come After…

Grandpa died a couple of weeks ago, drifting off in a morphine fog sometime in the night. It wasn’t anything to do with The Virus, just the slow and dignified end to a life spent, in the main, stalking first the fertile sheep fields of the English and French countrysides, then in classrooms and boardrooms and finally his bedroom, slipping away between the sheets on a dark, early summer’s eve, the only sound the lowing of cattle in the verdant Yorkshire fields outside his window.

I knew him, of course, all my life, but I never really knew him until around ten or twelve years ago. By then, he’d mellowed with age, and having accomplished more than many men or women of his ilk, found more joy in his own garden surrounded by a sea of colour, all of his own planting, and at his table, surrounded by a glass, several glasses, of French red wine.

He revelled in it all and had more time for, in particular, his grandchildren and rapidly multiplying great-grandchildren.

***

Dad died a little over four years ago, a life cut short in an instant, an unknown heart condition calling it all off as he dozed watching ABC’s 7:30, an empty bowl on the coffee table in front of him, half a glass of wine next to it, the dog tucked up against him on the couch. He was only fifty-nine, and the shock was numbing.

Dad was Dad, no matter what he did. He was Business Dad for a long time, then with age, he mellowed and became, almost alarmingly, hippie Dad. He was always kind and strong though, he was always laughing, he was a Good Dad – there was little he wouldn’t do for you, for those he considered close to him, to those he felt in need. Indeed, he was a Good Person, and the shock of his death was, is, numbing, for years afterwards.

***

I was born almost forty years ago. I am, quit obviously, still here and I have indeed known myself all my life. Better, perhaps, in the past twenty years, as I’ve come to make my own path in life, taking cues from the two men before me, but also creating my own, melding them with my wife’s, forging a life for us in a town, in a state and country, on a planet that continues, at least at this stage, to turn and to carry on and to exist.

***

Adeline was born a little over three years ago, the first of the paternal line to be born in Australia, and I have certainly known her for her entire life; indeed, I feel as if I’ve known her for my entire life. She met her great-Grandpa, but not her Grandpa. She knows his picture though, and the star my sister and I designated Dad Star, she knows where that is and can point it out and tells me Grandpa Bill is up there somewhere, looking after us all.

***

One of my cousins refers to Yorkshire as God’s own country. Grandpa wasn’t God, but he could have been confused as same by those only vaguely familiar with him. He wrote books, he taught and he lectured, he invented sheep breeds and was honoured by the Queen; he was, by many accounts, a formidable man in his prime, to the extent that he as a father perhaps wasn’t what he could or should have been to his five sons.

Whatever happened over the years, or didn’t happen, he and Dad made up at some point and Dad called him “the old boy” and I think they enjoyed drinking wine together in the final few times they spent in each other’s company.

We’d find ourselves in the mother country every two or three years, making the long journey from the Antipodes to visit him and Granny, the uncles, the aunts, the cousins and the kids. We did it the two of us, Claire and I, for years, then the three of us, with Addy. The last time we were there, Grandpa didn’t really know who we were, but he happily sat in his chair, smiling at us, at the tiny hurricane that bundled across his living room carpet, bumping off the couch, the dozing dog, the glass doors out to the patio.

Granny would chat constantly, asking us questions by the barrow-load, and so Grandpa was, or had learned to be, quite content to just sit and listen. He didn’t know who we were, but he knew we were special to him in some way, and that seemed to make him happy.

***

Dad knew my wife. Claire and I met almost ten years before he died. He loved her, couldn’t believe I’d found someone like her. In a nice way, I’d like to think. When we used to visit him and Mum at their place in the middle of nowhere, a couple of hours north of Melbourne, they’d get into great debates on the business merits of this and that, what he was doing, what she was doing. They both had out-of-the-box ways of thinking, and so quite often agreed with one another, while Mum, my sister and I were left rolling our eyes and wondering, if they agreed so heartily, why the conversation had gone on for so long.

***

I wanted to, had planned to, head over to the UK for Grandpa’s funeral. I knew it’d be happening at some point in the reasonably near future, and I wanted to be the one from Australia to head over and represent the family from Down Under. In the current climate though, this wasn’t possible and so I chatted with an uncle over the phone, another over email, and received the updates on the progress of Grandpa’s funeral arrangements. I saw the photos, and read bits and pieces on the family WhatsApp thread.

I’d emailed Granny a few days before Grandpa died, telling her how we three were doing, how we were in isolation, but that we were lucky in that we had the space to move, to breath. I told her how, given the weather, we were spending so much time at the beach and how much Addy loved the beach. I sent her some photos, which I assume she showed Grandpa.

***

I look up and try to find Dad Star any time I’m outside at night, it’s become as normal as breathing or eating. In the winter, the star slips over the western horizon almost before if becomes visible in the gathering darkness, but I know it’s there. Addy knows too, although she’s not sure where it’s gone right now.

I keep on living life, trying to be a good person, looking back at the two before me.

And looking forward at the young one after me, trying to help her do the same.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.7 – On The Demise Of Civility…

Observations From Isolation: Ch.7 – The Demise Of Civility (As It Were… And Still Is…)

(Originally written in August, 2017, but still pertinent today…)

For the past ten months or so, as befits a hobo journalist with relatively new paternal responsibilities, I’ve been moonlighting at the servo in town. Slingin’ petty, as the local grommets call it. It is, for the most part, a good little gig that affords me both the flexibility to continue plying my literary trade, all while allowing me to provide a bit extra for my fledgling family; a good balance at this point in my life, I feel.

With this newfound outlet though, has come a startling realisation. For these months past, as I’ve slung petty to countless people both during the day and through the night, I have come to realise that the demise of civility is upon us. A dark day is dawning, one where people care little for others and where good manners are naught but mere refuse, cast from the windows of speeding cars, left to fester in roadside ditches along with other antiquated and little-used notions like respect for one’s elders, chivalry and downright common sense.

In this day and age, it seems, people are far too wrapped up in their own lives to spare a thought for anyone else. Even the simple task of greeting someone is beyond some people, the thought of a ‘thank you’ come the end of the transaction now little more than a flight of fancy. I have lost count of the number of times someone has come in to pay for their fuel, and hasn’t even acknowledged that I exist, not even a look.

I was brought up to be polite, so perhaps that’s why this lack of common decency sticks in my craw. And I too, over the course of my adult life, have been wrapped up in whatever it was I was doing, and so have spared little thought for other people at times, of that I am surely guilty. But I have never thrown anything at anyone, I have never unleashed a torrent of abuse at someone, I have never told anyone they were worthless. All of this has happened to me in the past ten months, and it fair makes me wonder what the world is coming to.

Eighteenth century English writer Mary Wortley Montagu said that “civility costs nothing, but buys everything” – it seems, in an age where instant gratification is king, where a sense of entitlement, as bold as day, has settled over the landscape, that not many are aware of how cheap civility is, and how far it truly goes. Granted, giving me a smile and a cheery greeting won’t pay for your fuel, but I can guarantee it’ll get a smile in return, a bit of pithy banter and a good feeling buzzing about in your stomach. It’s basic human interaction, but I can tell you it’s beyond a vast majority of people I come across.

So why is this? When did civility begin its demise? Has it been this way for a while, but because I’ve not been privy to it on a daily basis, I haven’t realised? Perhaps people have become so used to online interaction that a face-to-face exchange has so become alien and strange, the muscles in people’s faces slack and flabby from underuse and so unable to form a simple smile. Good lord, it paints a grim picture of the future, make no mistake.

All I can do then I suppose, is try my best to ignore what I find abhorrent (along with practising my ducking and weaving). All I can do is stick to the ideals on which I was raised, and try my best to pass them on to my own daughter. All I can do is get on with my own life, paying proper respect to others along the way, all the while hoping, just hoping, that perhaps people will return the favour, and we can do our little bit to help restore the civility this world so keenly needs.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.6 – Life On The Frontline During COVID-19…

I should begin by qualifying the above title. For you see, I am in no way a medical professional, far from it, and even further from it for me to insinuate that what I’m doing is anywhere close to being as ‘frontline’ as these people; these doctors, nurses, pharmacists, GPs, paramedics and countless other medical pros are the ones who are doing it tough in order to keep people healthy and alive, and hats off to every single one of them.

No, my frontline activities are far more trivial – I work in the local bottleo, and while the government has deemed this an ‘essential’ service (indeed, woe betide any Australian governing body which sees fit to deny The People a drink, and in a time of crisis, no less), it hardly seems fair to call it, really, ‘frontline’.

So I’m naught but a humble slinger of suds, a bourbon broker, a vino vendor. I am also, for better or worse, a talker of entertaining shit, a sometimes surly retail worker, someone who in order to pay the bills as freelance writing all but dries up, dons a logo-d t-shirt a few times a week, punches a clock and serves the grotty masses their daily swill.

A bottle shop is a decent enough place to work. It is, as you’d expect, a good source of exercise; the money is solid; the hours are fine. It’s also a front row seat to the spectacle that is humanity, in that the constant flow of human flotsam that wanders in through those sliding glass doors provide an unending source of amusement, disgust, of sympathy and displays out outright eccentricity.

The big, burly, shirtless bloke who one would think the quintessential iconography of something like Tooheys New, or XXXX Gold, who is well and truly addicted to Passion Pop. The young surf guys who come in and, between five of them, split a case of Vodka Cruisers. The 19-year-old girl whose taste in shiraz is far more advanced than most three times her age. The older lady who wears hearing-aids but delights in not turning them on and so speaks at top volume, listens to nothing (not that she can), berates you in good humour and waltzes out, leaving those not used to her, in a state of shellshock.

Steve – old and grey-bearded, scrawny and sun-leathered – comes in from mowing lawns all day and walks straight up to me to talk footy. I’m a known Broncos and Queensland supporter among the League tragics in town, and so usually, playful banter is at a premium. In the current climate though, rivalries are forgotten as we commiserate together about how there is no football, and when will the football return?

Old ladies will walk towards me to ask a question but they won’t stop a metre and a half short and so I’m backing away from an old bird half my size, lest she get too close. I back into a shelf and have to tell them to stop where they are. They always apologise and look embarrassed.

Bus driver Dave, with his huge and droopy white moustache, buys the same two bottles of cheap semi-sauv every couple of days and then stays to chat for ten minutes, forgetting that people are waiting for him to move away from the counter so’s they can buy. Alicia, always in big hat and sunglasses, no matter the weather or time of day, buys her two bottles of slightly more expensive sauv-blanc, and always asks how you are.

Max, who used to run pubs, shuffles in for his XXXX Gold longneck and a bottle of chardonnay and cracks jokes but is very much concerned with your welfare. He’s just had a hip replacement, and I ask him how he’s feeling. “A lot bloody better now,” he snaps over his shoulder, “although I can’t bloody well go anywhere, can I? But how are you going? Surviving?”

People don’t read signs. They’re incapable of reading signs. A bank of fridges broke down last week, seven doors behind which sit all the pre-mix spirits and ciders, getting warmer and warmer as the fridge backfired completely and, sometime on the Sunday night, started pumping hot air instead of cold. It got up to 35 degrees in there.

So we put signs, at eye level, on each and every one of those fridges while they were being fixed, a two day operation. I lost count of the number of times someone came up to me, genuinely concerned for the most part, to tell me that they thought the fridges might be broken, and did we know, because everything was warm. I look at them for a second, a long and silent second, before saying, yeah, that’s why there are signs on the doors. They stare at me, and then laugh, and they walk off as I roll my eyes and continue stocking the longneck shelves.

I wear black, latex gloves, the same kind you’d see on a tattoo artist. I stand behind the Perspex screens that have been erected in front of the two tills at the counter. I sanitise the gloves every few customers. If I’m heaving cases, I’ll not wear gloves but I’ll wash my hands ever ten minutes or so. I use my shoulder to heave open the heavy coolroom door.

People walk in and make jokes about Corona beer. There’s a stack just inside the door; people laugh and say they feel sorry for whoever makes it. It’s still selling like hotcakes. Someone says they drank ten Coronas last night and so this morning they had coronavirus (to be fair, that one was pretty good… at least the first time I heard it). Someone else will pick up a case and feint a pass to a mate, “Look out mate, Coronavirus” and they’ll guffaw and I’ll roll my eyes again.

Occasionally someone will get testy about something. (“But the customer is always right,” they’ll say indignantly. “A common misconception,” I’ll deadpan back). I feel, in the current circumstances, a bit of dry humour works well. At least in the main.

To be fair to the flotsam flow, people are generally well behaved and if they fail to follow a sign, or the arrows marked in blue tape on the floor, a quick and friendly remonstration is all it takes for an apology, and an about-turn to follow the correct path.

You’ve got to keep it tight, in the bottleo, people know that, for if they want a drink, well, you need to toe the line. I tell them this, and they look at me a bit worried but I’ll smile and they’ll smile and we’re all good.

Every person is a threat, every piece of money a potential carrier of infection, every cough a gun-shot. But a bottle shop is a decent place to work, and while we’re not saving any lives, life on the ‘frontline’ flows on.