Tag Archives: Writing101

Conversation and precious laughter

Smiley faces

I’m not the friend who peppers the conversation with quotes from movies. I’m the one who usually stares blankly when everyone else is laughing at a quote from The Simpsons or Family Guy, unless it’s a smack-you-in-the-face famous quote for dummies like ‘I’ll be baaaaack’. So, despite being a literature-oriented person, I don’t remember quotes, and I don’t remember conversations very well either. Biographies full of dialogue baffle me – did they really remember whole conversations, or did they just make it up based on the theme? So I don’t remember the details, but I am left with vignettes – emotionally imbued settings in which significant times were had.

Picture a dormitory style campsite on a hill above the sea. A site set on grass so green due to constant rain. Communal bathrooms with cold concrete floors and the usual collection of toilet cubicles, showers with bedraggled curtains and basins with water pooled on the surface where you want to set your toothbrush down. I’m not sure if we ran into each other in the bathroom or if we went in there intentionally to chat – hey there’s nowhere else to go when you’re sharing a room with 6 others and the dining hall is locked! We were university students on a camp with our club. My friend was blond and vivacious and a great storyteller. She often made us laugh at her own expense, like the time she was out jogging and she praised the work of some men weeding the creek bed, who jokingly invited her to join them, and so she cluelessly ended up helping this group of prisoners with their community service. She could always have you rolling in the aisles with her tales.

I don’t know how we got on to this topic, but we started talking about hugs. Different sorts of hugs – the awkward ones where the tall man tries to hug the short woman who is almost at his groin level, the big bear hug, the cautious hug with limp hesitant hands stretched out and no body where you don’t want the other person to get the wrong impression about you. We started demonstrating these hugs and we were soon in fits of laughter. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much in one night. This conversation must have gone on for a few hours – it was 3am and a few people complained about us in the morning. But we had surrendered to the doubled-over belly achingly unstoppable power of laughter.

We seemed to have a lot more to laugh about back when we were twenty. Many of the realities of adult life hadn’t hit yet, and if you’d had a childhood that was relatively kind to you – you hadn’t had many friends or family members die – you didn’t realise it could get harder to find things to laugh about. In my city we have a comedy festival, but I often forget to go, or when I have gone, I have struggled to find something really funny to see. I don’t find comedy very clever where the only adjective is the F word, or where everything is sexual innuendo (or just plain explicit). I crave something truly witty – cleverly constructed character and well-crafted words that will make me laugh. Not laugh at others’ misfortunes, or at the brokenness of the world. Laugh with hope. Laugh with a laughter made of light.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you laugh about, it’s who you’re with and how late it is and you’ll find almost anything funny. Playing Balderdash can bring you to tears of laughter over the ridiculous definitions of words you’ve created. Sorting fête donations with my mother we were in stitches over headless dolls and wondering who’d been chewing them last and why you would donate them for sale. Another time we cackled over books on the craft of wood burning that contained the ugliest pictures of kittens with balls of string that I’ve ever seen. It’s the people and the moments and it might sound like a cliché, but if we have an opportunity to bring some humour to someone in the day: a downcast workmate, an automaton checkout operator, a bored petrol station attendant let’s make them laugh, let’s make them smile. There are few sounds more joyful than sincere peals of laughter.

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Childhood in the ‘burbs: books, plants & the occasional cat drama

Camellia

When I was twelve, I embraced mess. To get from the door to my bed you had to clear a yellow brick road through the heaps of clothes, art supplies and toys. It was like a fantasy quest where you have to discover the path to the palace. My room wasn’t really a bedroom. It was actually the sun room and had five windows and three doors – with at least one door or window on every wall of the room! Not a lot of privacy when you think about it. Two of the doors were opaque glass doors that opened into the dining room. We kept these closed. The other door opened onto the family room, which had once been an outdoor verandah. Two windows looked out onto the seasons of the Hydrangeas in the side garden, bulging with green growth in spring as they impinged on the path, blooming prolifically with their large blue, purple or white multi-flower heads in summer. In winter they lost all their leaves and were pruned, leaving behind a view into the neighbour’s yard. The three windows on the other wall looked out on the back garden, an expanse of green lawn, a dominating magnolia that spread its limbs wide across the yard, and the hills hoist, clothesline icon of the Australian backyard.

I’ve always loved libraries. This love has led me to try to re-create a library in bedrooms or houses I’ve lived in. Towering over my against the walls of my bedroom were as many bookcases as I could fit in the room. All my treasured classics, early childhood picture books, horse stories, sci-fi and fantasy young adult novels, and every novel I could find about kids in clubs and ‘gangs’. Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Five Find-Outers, the Lone Pine club and more. I loved our public library with its dark ‘stacks’ full of old hard cover books, where you had to turn a handle to separate the shelves and reveal access to these treasures. Apart from that inspiration, my parents also kept books. Mum had shelves full of Aristophanes and Thucydides, Goethe and Dante, books on Dali and Mondrian and cook books. They were in the hallway and the study in tall dark shelves. Dad’s books were on psychology, movies and radio in the study, and in their bedroom there was an old case with glass doors that opened when the key turned to reveal his childhood favourites: Biggles, H.G. Wells and school tales.

There were no books in the lounge room at the front of the house, it was dominated by a baby grand piano – rarely played – an ancestor’s beloved instrument. It was under this very piano where one day my cat rushed in, bird in mouth, and started to pluck the poor creature in front of the shocked eyes of my brother and my visiting grandparents. That’s the price you pay for having an over-engineered, wooden cat door that the two cats can’t actually push open – hence it has to stay permanently open.

Our house wasn’t usually witness to any kind of violence. The street was a pretty quiet one. There were elderly neighbours, a few bachelors and some families. From the front window of our lounge, you could look out across glossy green leaves and pink perfect camellia blossoms, and when they had been pruned you could look out over the street – as we lived on the high side – and see far away the tops of the fireworks on Sydney harbour on New Year’s Eve.

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Fast-food fine dining with friends

Quinoa dish

I’m ashamed to say that I really don’t remember any of the (I’m sure utterly nutritious) meals that my mother cooked us in childhood – apart from the time she tried to pretend the meatloaf wasn’t made from nutmeat – but we had an innate sense that told us that rubbery substance was not mince! My mother is a great cook and over the years has embraced and mastered the food of many nations. So it’s a sorry thing to admit that the childhood meal that I always wanted for a treat was the trip to the Pizza Hut for all-you-can-eat pizza, salad and dessert. It was so rare to ever eat out that the Pizza Hut was probably the first place I ever ate food that we paid to have cooked for us. Back then there was none of this thin and healthy crust business, I loved the thick crunchy crusts and the slatherings of tomato paste and cheese. It was marvellous to see how many (possibly salmonella-ridden) types of salads could be assembled in the one place. And the desserts! All manner of soft serve, trifles and other mushy goodness that you were allowed to anoint (by yourself!) with a range of improbably coloured sprinkles and nuts. Pizza Hut was the heart of fine dining for my childhood self. Any birthday occasion I’d want to be there, surrounded by our small family, my parents, brother and my mother’s parents. I’m not sure how they viewed the culinary heights of the salad bar, but any sarcasm probably went over my head at this age. All this reminds me that, lovely as it is to have a beautiful, finely crafted meal with exquisitely blended flavours, it’s gathering together that counts. I like to have people to dinner, but in the age of MasterChef etc. there can be a shame factor around cooking. If you don’t produce gourmet delights, it’s just not good enough. But a can of supermarket soup and some went-stale-but-has-been-reheated-crusty-bread shared between friends can be warmer and more memorable than the feasts of kings.

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Pillar box red memory

City view seen through mesh

You have to understand. This is a man who never cries. He didn’t even cry at his own daughter’s funeral, for goodness sake, and here he is weeping like a child at the sight of a red jumper. What was I to think? Was this something worse than all the rest. He’d barely spoken a coherent word of late.

“Pillar box red!”, he cried, “it’s pillar box red.”

How should I know what the significance of such a colour was to him now? Red rag to a bull? I don’t think he’s ever been near a bull. He wasn’t a postman or a painter. I’m pretty sure he’s never seen that French film about the balloon.

“Just like the one she knitted for poor Sammy,” he sobbed, then “he saved us you know,” he said in a calmer voice.

“My best friend, and he saved us all. Pillar box red it was, that silly jumper.”

I took his hand again and patted it, “There dear, you’re so worked up. It’s alright, it’s just a jumper.” It’s not like it’s blood or something.

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I have to admit I sighed when the receptionist told me Mrs Johnson was waiting to see me. Again. She gets so worked up about her husband, and unfortunately there’s not much I can do. I wish there was.

“Dr Stephens,” she began, “yesterday we were walking in the local dog park and he saw a woman knitting – knitting something red and he just started bawling. Bawling and then raving about someone called Sammy and the colour red and being saved. Is he getting much worse? Please. Is it a sign he’s…he’s…”

“My dear Mrs Johnson,” I thought for a minute, “you say he saw this red knitting and started crying? And then he started talking? He hasn’t been talking much of late, has he?”

“No, but it didn’t make sense, it was the ravings of a…a…”

I knew what she couldn’t bring herself to say, but I felt there might be something in this. “And did he keep repeating himself?”

“That’s right. Red and Sammy and being saved.”

“Perhaps he’s remembered something,” I suggested.

“Well I’ve never heard about it! It’s nothing…nothing sane…”

“Perhaps something from childhood? Could you ask his sister about it?”

Her expression changed. A glimmer of hope in her eyes, she nodded, “Thank you, Dr, I’ll ask.”

+++

It was Gloria again, and not the best phone connection. I wish she wouldn’t scrimp on these things.

“What’s that?” I asked loudly. She repeated their morning’s episode.

“Oh Sammy,” I said brightly, “I thought you were saying Nanny. Yes, of course, Sammy.”

She asked me impatiently who Sammy was, as if I were trying to keep a secret from her.

“Sammy was our dog, a black poodle. I was 6 and Bert was 8 when Daddy brought his home.”

“A dog!” She sounded affronted. “But why would he start crying and raving about a poodle?”

I thought for a minute. “Well Bert was away at boarding school when Sammy had to be…put down. He never really got to say goodbye.”

“Oh,” said Gloria. “But what about the colour red? What about being saved?”

“Red?” I’d gone blank, but then I remembered, “Oh yes, that’s right, Mother knitted Sammy this little red jumper for the cold weather. He did look sweet in it.” I stopped talking again, lost in thought for a minute. We loved that dog, especially Bert, he was the friendliest little thing and so smart. “How could I have forgotten! We were all asleep one night and Sammy started barking. We thought he was just being a nuisance, but he was such an intelligent dog that one. Turns out the house was on fire. He saved us all.”

“Oh,”Gloria broke off as if on a sob. “Oh, Bertie. You do remember.”

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Life’s conveyor belt

Shopping centre escalators

From below it’s as if the people are moved by magic, carried across my field of view in ordered lines. Some gaze around glum-mouthed, others stand straight with purpose, phone to ear. Prams travel upwards along with trolleys in this midday insular domed world. On they go towards consumer destinations. Branded bags of many colours pass by me grasped by their eager purchasers. Some people are content to be passengers, carried along, but others quicken their own journey, striding upwards with arms swinging.

Life is like an escalator, sometimes we surrender ourselves to its pace, and sometimes we fight for control, assert our will; stamp our style on the journey. At times we are hesitant to step on or hop off, afraid of stumbling and making a fool of ourselves – but ultimately we are all heading in the same direction, no matter how we travel the distance.

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