Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Unfinished Anecdote of Apricot Grove

My treadmill, should any would be burgulars be out there, is through quirk of fate in my living room. If I get on it and forget to close the curtains, which I sometimes do and then can't be bothered getting off because my treadmill is telling me it's on "Pyrenees" setting and who wants to go back to base camp, sometimes a walker will, well, walk past obviously. Usually a Kingston walker will glow not just with health but sheer smugness. One yesterday, a blonde woman in a blue tracksuit, was so smug it was no wonder she had to walk off the excess. So I'm excercising for no other reason than to get to that level of smugness that they are, self evident health without the need for injections. I'm standing around on it most days watching some like an S Club 7 concert on DVD from 2000, or a Catatonia VHS tape, and the singers equally glow with smug good health, although the bit in Popbitch which says Rachel Stevens has webbed feet makes me feel better. Everything is basically as it should be, an unremarkable Saturday in Suburbia with only the prospect of some gentle shopping and a Liverpool FA Cup tie between now and going back to work. There is always the hammock to jump into I suppose, sleep through this. Just as I'm contemplating the wonder of a pointless weekend with nothing to do but throw Doritos at the TV, when Dad rings, and tells me that a family friend has died. It's the guy with the big red face who, at Xmas, we looked at his much younger photos while he flinched with poignant embarrassment. So it's off to a grief circle at his now emptier house to sit around and look uncomfortably at shoes in the face of other peoples loss. Not easy. In a situation like this, all you can do is wait to be called upon, to wait to be engaged in conversation, because you don't know, even asking for juice might spark some sort of desperate memory that encapsulate the loss. In the midst of this upset, someone asks me a question about work, and suddenly I'm an absolute conversational dervish out of necessity. Every detail, every story, just anything to make the silence go away - but you can't. You can't dominate, it's not your family, it's not your scene...and I'd give anything to go back to my unopened Dorito packet...

I've mentioned before, I'm pretty terrified of dying - as much as anything it's the little tiny bits of life left behind I can't stand. At one point when I stepped outside the grief circle, I went to get some plastic chairs and his cigarettes were on the table. There's also a cruise voucher he got for Xmas which sits on the top of the television, unused, unboarded. Such little things upset me far more than people crying or doing awkward reminiscing. In my case, someone would find an IPOD full of songs - would they know what most of them meant to me - a case full of soccer programmes and an unfixed sundeck in need of a paint. What does that say about me? Man he was lazy but he sure loved his S Club? Unlike me, the guy who died had a well kept garden, and there's undone work all over the place, unpicked apricots and tomatoes lying to the side waiting to be bagged up. At least in my case a quick mow will do it in regards to the garden. My brain isn't really working I must admit, the widow is propped up in an armchair fussing about nothing, biscuits or some such nonsense, the tale of his life recounted with jocularity or upset depending on who turns up at the door. My Mum shows a Mrs Doyle like determination to help, making sandwiches and tea with aplomb, and my Dad has several ice breaking tales of high school paranoia he can fall back on, not to mention a teacher like tendency to say the words yes and I know in a tender tone when things go wrong, but all I can fall back on is schtick, and it's not really called for in this situation. So I'm pretty useless I guess, no matter how much mere attendance can be re-assuring. I certainly could make a sandwich, but it'd be one of my own special sandwiches, like when I was a kid and make a Coco Pop and butter sandwich. Ultimately this day is nothing to do with me really, so I wait patiently, and do what little I can to help. The next door neighbour at the house is a keen racist, having previously made a distinctly UnPC comment about a black guy who filmed me and her in one of his documentaries. I can see her out the window, tending to her own garden, getting really angry when she can't pull a carrot out of the ground. She swears at it and comes back with a rake, to try and dig it out. Her frustration is very funny, since the neatness of her little old lady dress and the thinness of her frame don't match her overuse of her favourite swear word, which must be burning the ears of the poor carrot. Of course, it's not the time to bring it up - in normal circumstances I could run with this as a conversational outlet, get some laughs and move on, but it's not possible of course. Not least because in these circumstances, I'm generally thinking quite melancholy thoughts about what happens when the racist dies, who will sit in her house and tend to her garden, and what little bits of, well, possibly Nazi memorabilia will she leave behind to be poignant in the face of those traipsing through her house looking for things to nick...

Eventually in a gap in the pregnant pause, I'm off to do something useful. I go and get some wine from the local store. There's a woman in there with thick horn rimmed glasses pretending to be some sort of wine expert, and she's reading labels and vintages on eight dollar bottles of wine like she's Stuart MacGill. Her pink tracksuit is hurting my eyes, so I move on, confused with my own knowledge of wine. Pink MacGill leaves after a while, muttering to no one in particular about the lack of quality in the wine department and how Adelaide wines aren't as nice as French wines. She leaves masked in bewilderment when she realises that her wine expertise can't help her manage the automatic doors, which stands nonplussed to her efforts to get it to open up. Much like a first date with a Tasmanian male, I idle in my car, listening to a radio station, but not really keen to return if I'm honest, not sure what to say.. My local store now has tables set outside it, newly minted wicker furniture outside one of the worlds least glamourous shops, set up just in case anyone has a deathwish to take their girlfriend on a date to the local store to dine al fresco, you know, if Beirut is all booked up. On the wall is an empty tin of baby food to put cigarettes into, the furniture balancing on uneven cracked concrete, while bogan mutant children circle outside on scooters and over inflated egos. The teenage girl with red hair of an oddly dyed shade and a dress of a colour which is surely a one off throws me not just with her psychedelic colour clash but also with a look which is either lustful or means she's about to mug me. If it's the latter, I don't know what she thinks she's going to get out of me - unless she's so desperate for a scouring pad, she's willing to mug for it. She doesn't seem the domestic type to be honest - no dish pan hands. I leave them to their standing and posing, as they huddle for warmth around the smouldering cigarette embers fading to nothing in the baby food tin. Eventually, the red headed girl fades to nothing in my rear view mirror, as I drive off in a bewildered trance, nip home to check my e-mails, and in the circumstances with the trivia of everyday life is made to feel meaningless, I can even make it through an ESPN ad without feeling sick at the smug tone, and the misguided abilities of the Australian cricket selectors glitters like ephemera in the background of my mind...

When I return, things are difficult. Time moves slowly and with difficultly, like Waiting For Godot with more vol-au-vents. Kids come in, grandkids, children who don't know what to do or who to blame for losing their Grandad. I pull my plastic bucket seat out of the way and move aside. The guy who died, I saw him, oh, three times a year if I was lucky? It doesn't mean it's not upsetting, but taking front and centre stage pounding the ground would just be over-reacting and grandstanding. Things thus unfold to me like quite a sombre play, if for no other reason than a life complicated and uneven always seems to be reduced in the end to three or four anecdotes, some of them unfinished, all of them suddenly poignant. My contribution would be the time he fell asleep when he was driving us home and nearly ploughed into a tr...and then I look over into the kitchen, where his son is. His son, a much better person than I am if the standard is being nice to people, is so utterly bereft of any movement, energy and is just encased in sadness, that it renders though incapable. He's standing next to the mans brother, and they shuffle from side to side, foot to foot, just staring blankly ahead, sometimes at the unpicked apricot tree, sometimes at the beer in the fridge that was his dads, now being drunk by strangers and well wishers, and sometimes just at the ground. No one can say anyhing, no one can do anything, and eventually, the only thing you can do is look away, maybe towards a mountain of my Mums mountainous pile of quickly crafted sandwiches, maybe start a conversation with an interloper about cricket, a specialist subject for me, maybe even wonder what the Grandkid is watching on TV...just anything, but don't intrude on that scene...

Maybe by doing that, I actually did help a little bit...

9 comments:

squib said...

You know that's a short story all by itself. I hope you are sending your stuff off?

Miles McClagan said...

Not yet, but I'm going to - a) once I learn how and b) when I get famous doing this!

Jannie said...

Vol au vents - i haven't had my pastry of the day yet!

I agree with Squib! Send this genioud off.

squib said...

Check this out on a monthly basis and look for anything you might be interested in submitting your stuff to, whether it be a journal or a competition

http://www.tasmanianwriters.org/content/view/46/64/

the projectivist said...

oh at the end there i got really soppy, even the prickle-eye was happening. it was really good, Mr Miles.

should you die suddenly, do you have Arrangements for the dissolution of things like:
old loveletters
porn
sex toys
undergarments with holes in them?

Miles McClagan said...

I've ended up really hungry for vol au vents now...I wish I'd just had a pastry of the day blog now...what an idea!

I'll definitely be keeping an eye on that...I'm guessing now I have that link, no excuses!

I have an arrangement for who gets my collection of poptastic CDs, everyone who ever dissed my taste in music! Everything else, so far, is very much in the lap of the removalists...good luck kids!

Doc said...

"but all I can fall back on is schtick, and it's not really called for in this situation."

I can't tell you how many times I've felt this way. Great writing, and you really should be sending this off. You have painted quite a picture here and it's one I think others would enjoy.

Looking forward to reading more of your stuff.

Doc

Kath Lockett said...

Aw Miles, you've made me eyes water, yes you 'ave.

I like this: "a teacher like tendency to say the words yes and I know in a tender tone when things go wrong" - my Dad is exactly the same and yes, is an ex-high school science teacher!

Miles McClagan said...

Thanks, I appreciate that a lot. I will definitely send some of this off, as long as I can stop watching the Simpsons...it's funny, I keep thinking today I need to stop schtick, but it's keeping me sane at the moment!

Dads a great talker and a great listener - i suck at listening. I had a goldfish attention span I must admit. Dad just got teacher college training...I kind of envy him for that...