His name in a barrel:

The year I turned 23 I met a man through friends. A short man relative to my father but a man who impressed me with his sense of humour and his decision to leave the Catholic Church years earlier, much as I had done. 

From our first meeting at a dinner party in Glen Waverly where a friend served pate as first course and this man advised her on what she might have done to improve the flavour – he knew about cooking – this man showed me the pleasure of smoking cigars. 

Not that I smoked pipes, cigars or cigarettes, not then, not until I decided, modelling myself on him months later, that it was cool to smoke cigarettes and a good way to keep other cravings at bay. 

In the first week of that meeting we spent every night together curled up in his bed in the front room of his Fermanagh Road share house in Camberwell. His three-level bookshelf housed several books familiar to me, mostly novels but tucked away in a corner was Kinsey’s report on the sexual habits of people. 

This man knew things I did not know. He was smart, even though he had decided to ditch university and his law degree after only one year and was fast on his way to becoming what he called a ‘career public servant’. Not that he wanted to become the top public servant, Prime minister of Australia – politics troubled him – but he could well become a ministerial advisor to some dignitary and that way forge his career as a person whose advice was essential to others. 

He mocked my choice of career. ‘Social workers,’ he told me on our first meeting, ‘are ‘mawkish dabblers in the dirty washing of others.’ I did not take offence. His was a stereotypical view but so well worded it made me laugh. 

On the third day after we spent the night together, we decided yet again I should rock up at his place after work, only this time I promised to bring fish which he would cook for us and his three house mates. 

I chose flake, as the only fish whose name I knew. He was unimpressed. There were so many preferable varieties to choose from, but we were fast falling in love and in those early days he would forgive me anything. And I him. 

He needed help to unload the car, he told me, after I had unloaded my fish onto the kitchen bench. I followed him back out the front door and watched as he dragged out a pile of suits. 

‘I won them,’ he said. ‘Five suits, five ties, five shirts and they threw in five pairs of socks to match. Only trouble I had to choose them then and there.’ Together we carried in the remaining loot. The man was colour blind and therefore relied on others to help with matching colours, fabrics, and tones. 

I wished I’d been there to help him choose. ‘She did a good job,’ I said praising the efforts of the person who helped him collect his winnings, the young woman at the men’s clothes store where he chose the winning ticket.

‘I put my name into a barrel,’ he said ‘during my lunch break and they pulled it out that afternoon. They rang to let me know and I had to collect it straight away otherwise they’d reach for the next person.’ Within ten minutes my friend was the owner of five new suits, ties, shirts and socks. All in greens and browns and a few in grey and navy. 

I’d have chosen differently but what the heck. I saw it as a sign. This man was lucky. And his luck reinforced months later after I moved with him to live in Canberra where he had taken up a new position seconded by the Commonwealth to work on the Queen’s Birthday honours list, encouraged me to stick by him. 

On Cup Day Eve in Canberra, we went to one of his work functions and there he won one of several sweeps held in honour of the horse race. A platter of sausages and beef. The prize meant little to me and was something of a problem given we knew almost no one there with whom to share it, beyond his few work colleagues. We gave the meat to them. 

We had a dry run luck-wise then for several years past our marriage and the birth of three daughters into the late 1980s while he continued to work for the Commonwealth Government, which he was soon to leave to finalise his career in law with a return to university. 

As a final tribune to his public service colleagues, he won the annual football lottery they held each year. Each member in his team put in $100.00 and at the end of the season the person who guessed the most wins took the lot. Some two thousand dollars. It was his most significant win to date and proved once more that, despite all the ups and downs with this man, good fortune followed us wherever we went. 

I say this in the material sense. Beyond the material, misfortunes have followed us, too, even as we made our way into a life of modicum success. 

But the man who was thrice lucky never saw himself so. His aspirations rose higher than winning the football pools or horse racing triumphs at a local hall in Belconnen to some sense of greater wealth which has long evaded him.

‘We’ll wind up in a caravan park in Rosebud;’ he said. His greatest fear, much as I have promised repeatedly this will not happen. 

No signs of this, and yet the long shadow of childhood poverty follows him wherever he goes, much as it follows me. 

How fast we forget the essence of actual poverty. To think of the starving, those in war torn countries or the indigenous, is to take a path, sobering in its austerity, enough to stop us complaining. 

How easy it is to bypass the luck of a life. When he was 21 this young man’s name was not drawn from the barrel of marbles used to decide who should go to Vietnam to fight. If it had he told me, he’d have become a conscientious objector and hidden from the authorities. But he was spared. This young man was lucky indeed. Not only five suits, shirts, ties and socks, but a reprieve from going to war.

Other people’s words

It’s taken me years to pay attention to the meaning of songs. Typically, the music carries me and as much as the lyrics that accompany the rousing swell of chords and trills and all the other things that make up the sounds in my ears, entrance me, I have forgotten to pay attention. 

By chance the other day I came across an old YouTube clip of the comedian Norman Gunston hamming up the famed version of Delilah. The underlying descriptor: family violence, and I realised this song deals with murder. 

Our narrator takes a knife to his beloved Delilah and begs her forgiveness after he shoves his knife into her for laughing at him. That is after he confronts her for making love to another man, because ‘he just couldn’t take any more’.

A song like this would not make the airwaves today. It conveys everything we know to be problematic about a person’s inability to handle feelings of jealousy or rage or whatever it is that the character who sings to Delilah just can’t take. As if it’s okay to knife someone out of thwarted love or desire.

A couple walking past our house this morning stopped to ask whether the gargoyle in our front garden is one of Graham Foote’s. It is, I told her, and we talked of the sculptor who has plastered Melbourne with gargoyles far and wide, on roof tops and in gardens. 

We bought our gargoyle from Graham Foote when he worked from rooms in a huge and grand Queen Anne style house in Canterbury Road not far from where we live. Foote’s gargoyles graced this old building too. 

Things were tight in those days, and we chose to pay for our gargoyles on the drip feed. Every month I visited the office in the Canterbury house with a cheque for $100.00. I paid off the cost, as Foote worked on the gargoyle. 

It was a tough time for me then. Between babies, I had developed a breast lump that I feared might be cancer – it was not – and soon suffered a miscarriage.

The gargoyle represented something from my childhood. There were gargoyles on the roof of the building over the road from my school which the nuns must have owned. A Victorian single storey house, they converted its interior into a studio were the art students painted on Saturday mornings. 

My elder sister was one such budding artist and one day she came home with a charcoal sketch of a gargoyle and told me about the creature’s origins. How gargoyles sat on roof spires and along the gutters to ward off evil spirits. They were meant to be hideous as a warning to troublemakers. It seems a much gentler way to say ‘stay away’ compared to a knife in the heart such as Delilah copped.

From the bottom of a well, the stars above look huge, or so Haruki Murakami tells us in his Wind Up Bird Chronicles. The notion intrigues me. As though the tunnel of the well becomes a telescope into the night sky and with all other distractions in the landscape eliminated, the person at the bottom of the well gets a clear view of the night sky above.

You can do something similar on a much smaller scale if you cup your hands together to form a cylinder and then look through the space you have created. Whatever you observe seems magnified, purely because it has lost all peripheral elements which might dwarf its size. 

Is this why we speak of tunnel vision when people can only see things close-up but in limited quantities, as though they can’t take in the perimeters of their lives and other people’s lives. Like horses in blinkers who are blocked from seeing what lies beyond the road ahead. They stay focussed on the task. 

It puts me in mind of the word ‘hoodwink’, the way it derives from the hood falconers once used, and presumably continue to use, to cover their birds’ heads when resting, so that they will not be distracted by the sight of potential prey. 

Prey drive, our dog trainer tells us, is a compelling force for a dog and once in prey drive, it’s as if the dog loses all sense of control. The dog does not hear you then, so intent on hunting down their prey. 

For a dog it can be as simple as a ball on the other side of a field. That is for a dog who is ball-obsessed. A look in the eye that in itself becomes one of tunnel vision. A stance that says, I must have that ball. Like our narrator in Tom Jones’s Delilah who just can’t take any more.

I spent eight years of my life working on a thesis that explored the nature of life writing and the desire for revenge. A feeling that can so possess a person, they lose their reason. But as I argued in my thesis, the desire for revenge is part of a journey. That is, if we can hold onto the feelings, the sensations of pain and rage and not act on them. If we can sit in our blinkered state nursing our griefs and rage, pain that is typically attached to shame, then we can emerge with a clearer view. 

Like a rising star or the moon in full glow, to use someone else’s words borrowed from somewhere. I can’t remember where, so many words cross my field of vision, so many ideas clutter my crowded mind. 

Other’s people’s words have long intrigued me. When I was young and read books, I thought that I would never be able to put ideas into words. I borrowed other people’s words almost verbatim, ashamed to put my own thoughts into my own words. 

It has taken me years to get beyond this tunnel view that says other people’s words are superior.

Everybody’s words matter but how they’re used makes all the difference.