Friday, May 1, 2009

The big chill and swine flu over the cuckoos nest

It's cold around here at the moment, seriously freezing, the breaths of the passers by strained as they walk hunched through the streets dreaming of hot showers or warm embraces. It doesn't seem to upset one of our number though, a man of middle age and casual disposition who sits on a bench in the middle of the park drinking tea like an English country gentlemen, not out of a flask but out of a proper china cup. He's got his pinkie extended and no amount of haranguing bogans dangerously loitering nor cold snaps will hurry him back to the office, nor change his penchant for casual knitwear, the ducks on his jumper as uninterested in moving as he is. As he sips his tea unhurried, I'm walking past kicking a tin can along the ground, just as 2wo bogans begin a long argument that ends with one of them doubled over a railing clutching his stomach as if every word is bringing him physical pain. Since the foilament shop closed and had to take down their cheap hand made sign, and since Big W has become a big empty space where people go to huddle for warmth rather than shop, the place has lacked genuine character, and has become, give or take the odd stampede at the top of the escalator, desperately quiet - individual characters stand out against the gloom, a man drinking tea from a cup so noticable in the stillness, arguments resonating vividly so you can hear every word. I went out on a school night foolishly the previous night, so my head is thumping, and maybe I just exist without sharpness today - maybe there are lots of people about, and I just don't notice. We stayed so long in the pub, when we turned around to leave everyone else had left and bar staff were awkwardly watching us to see when we would leave so they could lock up and sneak home early. Above all else though, it's cold, to the point even blue eye shadow girl had to put a jumper on. I'm never sure about the onset of winter, it seems as though everyone just clings desperately on and hopes to get through it and the drives home in the dark and the rain with slow pondering turns of the tyres on the tarmac, but I quite like it. I like the space, I like the dark, I like the quiet, and I like sloshing my way through puddles on the way to nowhere in particular...I'm Scottish, it makes me feel a lot more comfortable than slipping, slopping or slapping...

Whenever it's cold, my mind drifts back to those Scottish winters, especially the ones in the late 80s where everything was new and scary and peppery with swear words and what the TV announcer would call in my head adult themes. Those scarred and wounded plastic shelters with graffiti all over them saying that Jane and Gary were together 4ever, or so and so was a nasty wee slapper. There was a buzz of anticipation around those poorly constructed plastic bus stops, someone certain to cop it as sure as the bus driver would glare beneath a grim nuclear winter face if you thanked them for their time. In the slow moving desperate Thatcherite winter of 89, it was anarchic to stand around those bus stops, to watch little sweet blonde haired 11even year old girls talking about sex like experienced sailors and watch the clinical dissection of personal faults by committee thinking, insults flying thick and fast through the air. It was no place for a nervous disposition, and any steps to regain composure were just seen as a sign of weakness, but having said that, once you got the hang of the discourse, it wasn't all that bad, standing your ground an Olympic sport. Once, a girl called Claire-Leonie gave me a spray as snow bounced off the ground, and I gave her a spray back about her acne, and although the exchange was cruel and harsh, I felt as though I had at least stood up for myself. As we argued though, a teacher with wild Doc Brown hair and a nice line in firm but unfair verbal discipline pushed past us and told us under union rules, it was too cold a day for anyone to be in school, and he gleefully jumped on the bus we had been too busy arguing to notice, throwing pens out the window in a fit of positive giddiness. So myself and my youthful but plooky and frizzy haired bĂȘte noire had to walk all the way home in the softly falling slow, exchanging insults all the way home. I had yet to understand that in actuality, this was a form of Scottish flirting, this strange bickering and arguing, the namecalling and the insults repeated in dark and dingy Irvine nightclubs in later years as a form of foreplay. I should have known when, having danced like a foul mouthed Torvill and Dean through sludge and snow, she turned to me and said in a chirpy voice that she would see me on Monday. Had I understood women better I would have known the intent, but what I did instead was simply stand at my door and watch the snow cascade down onto my doorstep and let the cold wash all over my neatly pressed school uniform. Oddly, given the primary school den I was thrown into and the loneliness I felt at times, it was as good as it got watching the snow fall down - it was alien and strange and discomforting, but also exhilirating at the same time. Not least of all when we went out and threw snowballs at the girl next door, which I now realised in this strange land was a form of signalling interest. Judging by the sheer fierceness by which she threw her own snowballs at me with a shot put like arm, she must have really liked me...

I felt cold in the New Sydney - an Irish theme pub which unlike Irish Murphys actually manages to feel friendly and you aren't going to get a clip around the ear from a surly Maori who can't abide anyone enjoying themselves - when I realised how much time had passed between drinks, how it was a full 7even years since I had stood inside the pub on the first night out I ever had with my new friends, awkwardly clutching a steam cleaner I had bought my Mum for Mothers Day and making fitful small talk with eyes fixed hard to the floor. Where has the time gone I wondered, and how many years ago was it I tried to steal a chip from someones dinner and a waitress slapped my hand and as I drank a pint of a mature persons ale from a clean glass, which was one step away from drinking a flagon of ale and discussing the economy. I spent about an hour in such a place on the weekend in Melbourne, an exclusive Liberal style haunt in the catacombs of Melbourne that my friend took me too, where old boys jowl in the corner over a glass of brandy and yearn for the corpse of Robert Menzies to be re-animated and no one reads the sports section of the paper. I was so uncomfortable as I watched the jowling and the scowling that I drank a beer at the kind of speed only reserved for darts players shaped liked barrels and fled at the speed of light. Back on my own turf with football and netball clubs idling at the bar, curses in the air and no one remotely ordering anything that came in a wine glass, it was only the march of time that made me feel uncomfortable, that and being eyed off by a netballer. Only once in a lifetime I think. As the night dwindled and dawdled to a low key conclusion, 2wo of my friends did their own awkward shuffle towards Customs House, off on a school night adventure, locked together in perpetuity. Sometimes they sleep together, sometimes they fight, and then the cycle begins anew. Sometimes when I watch them, they don't seem to have progressed beyond I did when I was throwing snowballs, and illuminated by the gloomy light as they walk off together, they seem as though they are insulting each other, and if the snow fell on the ground right now it would be an eerie 20ty year on deja vu moment for me - which keeps happening these days anyway, the world contracting into a series of flashbacks and repetition. Which makes me as comfortable in some ways as I do in the plush leather seat of the taxi when I climb in for some reason - at least now, I think, I know how to react to things...mostly...I at least know going out on a school night is destined to lead to trouble, to worrying messages on Facebook, and a staggering out of bed in the morning that makes you wonder just what they are putting in ale these days to make it taste so disgusting in the morning...

The sun came out today - it was gently warm, enough for me to feel good and saunter like my Dad does, although his gallus swagger is because he has to balance precariously on bunions. Apparently the lead singer of The Violent Femmes was in a coffee shop I walked past, but that might be nonsense, and if it wasn't Dave Pirner I'm not interested. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits, even the guy who had to give out leaflets dressed up as the original Joker from Batman, although he couched his happiness with uni student style sarcasm and flippancy, as the goths around JB HIFI threw things at him and laughed. There was an old man and woman outside Sanity who were obsessed with swine flu - well, she might have had swine flu, she looked a bit porky - as the camp Sanity sales clerk tried to make friends with me over the purchase of the Ladyhawke album. I didn't want to leave my house, I thought it would be too cold, which is such an old man concern I forced myself out the door in disgust for even thinking about it. The old couple are scanning the crowd for anyone remotely flu like for so long I begin to think they'll never leave, so terrified are they at the world around them where they can't wear matching tracksuits and look down their nose at everyone. I don't feel much like hiding today though, or worrying about mysterious diseases that may or may not happen. I feel good, at least, until I walk past a pub on the way to the football ground, having left behind the gloomy twins who are cowering in the shopfront in determination not to take a leaflet from the Joker, and in the window I see someone clutching a pint of ale similar to the one I drank in the New Sydney, and it's more frightening than a million conversations with my parents about my so called future. I know I'm doing OK when I'm able to avoid the disgusting reminder of the taste that trickles back through my throat, absorb it, and smile as I move on through the sun, not a trace of any kind of cold anywhere near me as The Joker fades into the distance - the last I see any of them, he's managed to rope in someone who looks like a bumblebee to give out the leaflets, and they skip along the footpath, smiling and terrorising foreign tourists as they go, while the old man and woman stay entirely frozen in their swine flu free enclave, backs pressed up against the wall and arms to the side, as I'd imagine the swine flu prevention booklet would prescribe...

Just a normal day in Hobart I'd say, but with more sunshine...

7 comments:

Baino said...

I remember walking home from school in the snow and making slides on the footpath and having to salt them before coming in for tea so that some old person wouldn't fall base over apex if they stepped on them! Cold is relative isn't it? I'm sitting here freezing my fingers off whilst the sun shines and it's about 17 degrees! What is it about people dressing up in Hobart before accosting the unsuspecting with leafalets? Most weird.

Miles McClagan said...

A lot of people tell me a 30 degree day in Hobart is warmer than a 30 degree day on the Gold coast - or something....the leaflet people are definitely weird and growing in strength...I don't know what The Joker was doling out, but I was scared...

Kath Lockett said...

I remember our school bus getting thudded with snowballs when we lived in Aberdeen in 1981. And you're right: insulting is flirting in Scotland.

Best line - "being eyed off by a netballer". There's a novel in that!

Young Ned of the Hill said...

Femmes watch -it was probably Brian Ritchie (big bass dude), he lives in Tassie these days.

I've never walked home from school in the snow.

Patricia said...

Very interesting to read your words, it is cold here but not as cold...whereas it is supposed to be Spring the last few days feel like Fall. We planted the garden anyway.

I have a group of friends who take camping and road trips together and their kids call them the Violet Femmes! for when I grow old I will wear purple reference.

I am old, though sometimes still in school, I walk everywhere, but I have to really work at reading your post - this is good for me - I like your reference, tho miss sometimes the meaning. Very nice and a joy I look forward to. Thank you

sparsely kate said...

You've made me keep myself in check about being all chubby and crazy about swine flu. Thank you miles :) I do NOT want to be that lady.

Miles McClagan said...

My Mum (and this isn't an obvious joke unless it's said with a Scottish accent) once said a boy told her hair was auburn, as in "Aw burnt tae fuck"...I think he was proposing...a snowball throw was vital in the flirting process...

Thanks, I hope he comes and visits - Femmes watch is always good! He was sitting sipping coffee quite quietly, a sort of Machiato in the Sun if you will...

It takes work to write them, ha ha, but I'm happy to explain any kind of reference people don't get...I don't look good in purple though...orange, way better!

I refuse to get afraid about anything the Herald Sun tells me to be afraid of...except Gretel Killeen...