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June 25, 2007

A story about tolerance

Many years ago, I lived in Edinburgh and worked on the Royal Mile and was forced to catch the bus to and from work under sombre, heavy skies. I have never been predisposed towards early mornings in particular, so it was with a malevolent air that I used to traipse down my tenement building's many flights of stairs into the Baltic mornings to wait in line with the rest of the straggling commuters at the bus stop. Drifting silently as the occasional snowflake, we would slowly band together over a ten minute period and assume the stance unique to all travellers on the United Kingdom's myriad public transport systems: eyes fixed to the dim point on the horizon where the bus would (hopefully) eventually chug over the hill, arms and legs close to the body for fear of accidentally touching a fellow commuter, silent except for the occasional cough or sneeze or shuffle of feet. It was unwritten law that we would not attempt to communicate or, god forbid, make eye contact with each other.

After several weeks, I began to study my fellow travellers with surreptitious interest, stealing glances when I thought they might not be looking. Occasionally caught in the act, I would immediately pretend to be interested in the torn edges of the outdated bus timetable or the burn marks on the plastic seat where some cider-afflicted Ned had attempted to impress his mates with attempted arson. But there was one middle-aged woman my stare turned to again and again and as the mornings grew colder, frosting tears onto my eyelashes and turning my nose into a vermillion button, somehow my ire towards her increased. We hadn't got off to a good start, this woman and I, despite it becoming quickly apparent we were travelling the same well worn path to the Mile. On my first day at The Stop, she swivelled one beady eye in my direction while the other remained fixed on the distant point of "bus approach nirvana" - no mean feat for an oldish duck. In that split second of survey, she managed to convey an intense dislike of everything I was, causing my half-smile to falter and crack on my lips. As her glare lasered over my short, spiky hair, ragged hem, glittering nose piercing and eyes bagged from constant late nights in sweaty, subterranean night clubs, she sniffed once, loudly, scowled smugly, and swivelled the eye back towards the road.

From that day on, that woman became the secret focus of my ire and came to represent everything that was wrong with cold Scottish mornings at bus stops where people prickled with such hostility that smiles weren't allowed to flourish. Perhaps we had had a hidden karmic relationship that had bound us together through thousands of lifetimes - in some doing battle, in others reduced to mutually hostile glares. Perhaps I was just tired, and cold and grumpy, and needed a secret object of derision to distract myself from life's simple miseries. From the secret glances I caught her directing at me on occasion, I think she felt the same way. In any case, from a safe distance behind a tree and with the calculating callousness of youth, I began to study her habits.

I discovered that she walked in measured steps and stepped over cracks on her way to the stop and that she liked to be there ahead of everybody else to assume pole position for the bus-coming-fixed-stare. She wore the same sensible mid-calf length wool-based heavy skirts in brownish-greyish tweed each day (I wore mini skirts) paired with sensible brogues and dun-coloured tights. Her hair was carefully sausage rolled and she would stand, slightly duck-toed, with arms held rigidly by her side waiting for the bus to approach. She did not like newcomers to the stop and would shoot sneaky laser glares to any young head-phones wearing offender who unwittingly stole her waiting space. I have no idea how old she was - maybe late 40s? Early 50s? - but youth had eluded her some years before and assumed a flimsy quality she clearly disliked.

When the bus burped and lurched its way tiredly over the hill, she would stand slightly to attention and tuck one arm protectively over her sensible handbag, quivering slightly as it came to a halt. Leading with the same foot each day, she would step onto the bus, hold out her travel card equidistant to the bus driver's disinterested face and her own, and take measured steps towards the seat on the opposite side to the driver, just behind the rear doors. She would sit on the aisle seat so no one could share the space (one day, just for fun, I bravely asked her to shift over so I could sit down and was rewarded with radioactive waves of silent fury and a slight downward tilt of the eyebrows) and position her right hand just below the red button. As we trundled silently through the eight or nine stops to ours on the Mile (yes, we had the same stop, though she walked up the hill while I walked down) that hand would inch ever higher until we had passed the landmark bakery, at which point she would ping the bell using exactly the same pressure each day, causing it to ring out with a pure tone that would have been music to her ears. Immediately, she would stand, brush down the tweedy skirt and assume in-bus pole position in front of the double doors to always, always, be the first to alight from the bus.

Perhaps only I sensed the barest glimmer of triumph she felt as that ritual was completed day in, day out, with nary a variation except for colour. For weeks I listened to the clomp of her shoes up and down that bus with fascination, watching for a slip-up that would render her human instead of wound with a secret clockwork action. Some days it would bother me more - perhaps when I was running late, or had been forced to miss breakfast - while on others her behaviour would blend into a wider sociological survey of the "people at the stop": the weirdo art student, the boring business man with rings under his arms even in winter, the cigarette flavoured single mother with a roguish wheeze. In any case, I can't remember when my mischievous side took over and I started to arrive at the bus stop early.

The first morning she arrived to discover I was standing in pole position, casually whistling as I studied the horizon, I like to imagine I heard an intake of breath. I pretended not to notice as she clomped to stand behind me, forced to stare at the back of my fire engine red locks instead of the comforting bitumen and pulsing traffic. It was my turn to climb jauntily on to the bus and flash my card at the driver, before strolling down the aisle and plonking myself into the seat behind the double doors and placing my hand on the pole. The lady was forced to clomp into the seat on the driver's side, where she sat rigidly and shot invisible daggers into my side.

That morning, however, I might have won the battle, but I lost the war. As I saw the bakery approaching on the left hand side, my hand headed for the button but there was a resounding ping and the red sign flashed at the front of the bus. I turned my head and saw her clambering out of the seat and she was before the doors before I had time to react. I swear that morning I saw a spring in her step as she headed up the mile.

After that, it was on for young and old. I won't bore you with the details of how many times I was first on the bus, or of the many occasions when my nimble fingers were able to ping the bell as my legs swung towards the exit. There were even times when we were both stymied by an early newcomer to the stop, whose hopeful and cheery smiles up the hill would have been wiped away forthwith if they had happened to glance over their shoulder. There were occasions when one or the other of us would leap triumphantly onto the bus only to discover a fat old man had spread his buttocks over the dingy vinyl of the prized seat and had his plump hand at the ready near the button. But the days when it all came together - the stare, the seat, the victory ping and the stride - made it all worth it.

We never spoke a word to each other.

June 6, 2007

Existentialism

As I took off from Perth staring fixedly out of the window, fresh from an intensive week in Canberra on a journalism fellowship program, I had the oddest feeling I was leaving me behind, earthbound, as I flew up and away from my life. I had this overwhelming sense, as the cars turned quickly into lines of snaking ants and the fields turned into a pretty patchwork, of my own insignificance in the scheme of things. Not in a negative way, of course, just as a point of reflection.

I got to wondering about this funny little microcosm I occupy, the whole process of waking and talking and listening and writing and sleeping with no real sense of what is going on in "the rest of the world". I have just come back from a trip in which I felt stifled by both my lack of knowledge and the desire to know everything about everything, which is virtually impossible. It's a feeling I get every now and again and it makes me reflect on all the alternative lives I could be leading if only I could splinter into many pieces.

Here's me in a cave on a mountain, dressed in yak skin and meditating on the destructive nature of my fellow man, whom I renounced many years ago. Here's me in the front row of a fashion show, taking notes with ink laced with acid remarks, sharp fashionista folly spilling out in the wake of the girls pony stepping down the catwalk. Here's me stalking the corridors of power (ours, not THEIRS), asking witty and incisive questions of politicians who are trying not to look tremulous or of senators who are trying to look down my top. Here's me wandering the streets of New York or London, favourite music plugged in my ears, drinking in a super-soy-latte-with-wings along with the sights. Here's me scrunching up paper and hurling it across the room in frustration as I work on my eighth extraordinarily successful novel, acclaimed by critics and loved by the general illiterate populace. Here's me lying on a beach in Thailand, eyes closed, watching lazily from the inside as the sun dances across my eyelids ...

Here's me in the desert, the real me, wondering where on earth I am.

(Oh, and the yak skin? That might have been going a bit too far. If I'm going to live in a remote cave, I may as well be wrapped in a pashmina).

It's a funny process, this being. I am a little spiritually bereft at the moment because I don't believe in "the universe" or "god" or the "great turtle in the sky" (okay, I made that last one up but I'm fairly sure that someone, somewhere, believes in it). I believe in the individual (but not in that god-awful economically driven individualistic type our country seems grossly populated with) which means that I and only I am the architect of my own destiny. I wonder then who I am and why I do what I do?

I don't ask this question in the midst of some sort of existential crisis or anything like that; I am just taking stock of how I have ended up where I am, at this very point, in this very house. Don't get me wrong - it's not all that bad. My last email to my friends brought forth a barrage of sympathetic replies and a chorus of "you'll be okay" and even a few pairs of lovely socks from one kind soul when I whined about my feet. In fact, since I wrote that last email I have seen a wonder of nature - a gorgeous blaze of sunset over the bleeding great hole in the earth known as the "super pit".
(True environmentalists would be horrified at the sight of the hole, but a mere twist of the neck reveals clouds, refracted light, shadows cast by gnarly gums. The hole might be huge but by god, you can ignore it if you try).

Now where was I? Oh yes. Reflecting on my very existence. I don't have the answers, sadly, and I don't think I ever will. What a cop out, eh?

June 4, 2007

And then a bad fairy waved her wand

... and "pouf!" Flip was transported to a barren wasteland devoid of beauty and populated by strange beings with questionable haircuts. For forty days and forty nights Flip wandered the land in search of waters so turquoise they hurt her eyes, and rocks so red they resembled flames, and sand so white it glittered like diamonds, but she found only spinifex and a deep, deep hole in the ground. Finally, filled with despair, she leaped into the "super pit" and tumbled down, down, down, into the darkness ...

Okay, so it might be a bit dramatic but it works. A week and a day after leaving my beloved Broome, I am typing with fingers like icicles and toes like a frostbitten Eskimos in a cute little weatherboard house on the edge of Kalgoorlie's main street wondering where on earth I have landed. I don't think my heart has caught up with my head, because while I am being completely functional at work I still feel completely unable to form an opinion of this place. I keep studying maps to gain a sense of place, practicing the unfamiliar place names that I associate with bearded men and picks for some reason: Coolgardie, Leonora, Laverton.
Partly this is due to the fact that I am yet to wander further than the self-imposed Bermuda triangle of work, home, and Kalgoorlie's thriving courthouse, which is populated mostly with bogans in possession of some of the best mullets I have seen in all my years. Forget the post- glam rock ironic style mullet (moo-lay), the boys here are rocking the honest-to-god version that would make Barnsey and Farnsey proud.

The other thing of note is breasts, in all their glory. When I had my first drink thrust at me in Kalgoorlie's famed Exchange Hotel, I accidentally caught a glimpse of Charity or Vesuvius or Veronica or whatever their "skimpy of the week" is called bending over delicately to attend to a beer while Dave or Dazza or Bazza or whoever leered on. All I could think about was what an occupational health and safety risk her lace-up knickers posed and whether or not her pneumatic bosoms in purple mesh could possibly be real. A question enthusiastically discussed by my male companions at some length ... and discussed several times over in the past week. The bar man is a relic in this town, it seems.

In comparison to when I first arrived in Broome ...

((Arriving feels like a dream. We fly over the beach, its colours and scope like the brochures had promised. I put down my trashy magazine to watch as we coast onto the runway, the vague thought playing in the back of my mind that I have done something phenomenal at last, at last. My heart stops in my throat as we land.
Xavier picks me up from the airport in his dusty Landrover, filled with the minutiae of country life - tools, fishing equipment, a battered esky
- which he shoves to the side to accommodate my luggage. We drive for miles and I stare. From the pristine sands of Cable Beach to the mangroves alive with skittering crabs, it feels like another planet.
Gantheuame Point, on the very tip of the peninsula, is otherworldly; the glossy beach against red, red dirt and striated rocks in stacked formations stunning and the sky so blue and cloudless it stings the eyes. I am so dazed I barely notice the first tentative nibblings of the sandflies. After a whirlwind tour and truncated history it is clear that this is a land of contradictions ... of pure white coastline stained with a grim past.
The lazy drift of paradise laced with the unease of disgruntled locals.
The light and the dark, the luxurious and the poor...))

... I cannot feel inspired by this landscape, which is scrubby and dry and arid. Every fence conceals a mangy, salivating and rangy dog that leaps and quails at me as I wander past on my walk to work. I keep expecting to see tumbleweeds drift down the main street, past the quaint buildings and orangeclad men, reflective in the undulating light. Yes, men are yellow and orangeclad here, dusty-faced and tired, chasing the great Australian dream in droves while spending lives underground in the dark ...

But I have been pleased to discover that I love my job here already with the same kind of passion and frustration as the last. Things are serious now - I am part of the sausage factory of journalists on daily newspapers around the nation, fingers whirring across the keyboard as I produce, produce, produce for the daily deadline. I am comfortable in the court house, documenting short sorry snapshots of the lives of those who fall through the cracks, prey on children, cheat, lie, speed and steal. A bigger town brings bigger problems and a stronger commitment by the underclass to rob the society that bleeds them dry. Cops, I have discovered, are the same everywhere you go. People ae surprised that I should be so interested in writing about indigenous issues, and possibly a little uneasy; this is possibly a divisive place, with salt of the earth people.

Surprisingly, the deathly dull "transport" round produced my first front page within days of arriving, a fact I can't help but feel gleeful about. A freight train unexpectedly drove into the back of a woman's car; she tearfully thanked her angels and I thanked my lucky stars for such an early break. No-one was hurt, so I wasn't tempting fate.

I already have friends, the media pack that lurks in dark corners looking for entertainment. They took me to De Bernales, where we creased in horrified laughter as we watched people sucking face on the dance floor as their octopus hands roamed the cracks and crevices of the opposite sex. They drank shots and I sat back and watched, trying not to think of the sticky-carpeted comfort of the Pearlers Bar or the flash new surrounds of the Bungalow. This is it, I was reliably informed, and when they saw my face fall: don't worry, you'll get used to it. When the band broke out into a rousing rendition of "Take the Pressure Down" by John Farnham and the crowd's mullets shook as one in a frenzied bout of headbanging, I wasn't so sure ...