The dentist’s surgery was upstairs in a Victorian-era Newmarket shopfront just down from the old Flemington post office. You climbed the steps into darkness and came out in a dim hallway with name-plated doors on both sides all the way to other end, which seemed a couple of buildings away. The dentist owned two of the doors; the second being the grey waiting room where you sat on 1950s steel and leather chairs, and you either picked up a Women’s Weekly, or stared out the long narrow window at a vertical cross-section of slate roof and a terracotta chimney and blue sky. When the muffled noise of the drill through the adjoining wall fell silent, you could hear the dentist and the ug-ug-ik reply of the patient, and behind that the soft murmur of a radio. It was November. I was about six. I sat on the chair and read the comics in the magazine while I waited.
When I was called in, the dentist and the nurse were statues as if someone had switched them off. The radio was louder, but not because I had just come into the room. One of them had turned it up. It was saying something about President Kennedy being shot.
Then someone mentioned a scene out of one of the Star Wars movies.
I said I hadn't seen it.
They were staggered.
I added conversationally I hadn't seen any of the Star Wars movies.
They all but fell off their chairs.
'What, not even on TV?'
Not even on TV.
'But ... why?', as if I'd murdered my mother or something.
I didn't know. I just hadn't. I didn't object to Star Wars movies; well, the idea was a bit boring, but I just hadn't gotten around to it. (I did once see a Star Trek movie by accident; the plot was several hysterical people run up and down inside an asteroid-bound cylinder with blacked-out windows for ninety minutes.)
That started it. They reeled off movie names, trying to pick one I'd seen.
'Lord of the Rings?'
No. None of any of the various series. Read the books though. Twice.
'Superman? Titanic? Gone With the Wind?'
No. No. No.
Getting desperate now. 'Ghostbusters? Pearl Harbour? Batman? Austin Powers, either of them? Men in Black?'
No. None of those.
'Forrest Gump? The Exorcist 1 or 2?'
'Surely you've seen Saving Private Ryan then? Surely!'
Someone mentioned ET.
Yes. Saw that when it came out, took my now-grown-up children to it when they were small in the 1980s. Found it corny, over-sentimental. What, me a snob? Can't be: I still call them movies. Snobs call them 'films' and they watch them in 'cinemas'; as in 'Have you seen the new Shankenheimer film? It's called The Pleasures of Total Silence and it's playing at the Flea Pit Arthouse Cinema'.
Of course, I've seen hundreds of movies over the years. They just named the wrong ones.
History kind of repeats. Recently I saw an earlier Spielberg movie with my children: Duel. Amazingly, it was made for TV. It was good. After that we watched that 1970s Clint Eastwood movie where the avenger gets the townspeople to paint the town red before it burns to the ground ....
Hot afternoon in the shade. The first of the season. A noise bubbled quietly in the background; as if from long ago and far away. I drifted somewhere and it was green and a shaft of sunlight fell to earth. Flute. A flight of children came into the garden and the slanting sunlight pixelated them into medieval elven sprites wearing mirrored tunics that blinded me. Mellotron. Melismatic notes fell out of the bubbling noise and lay on the ground in neatly ordered lines. I woke. The elves had gone. The music was amusing itself now with little introverted self-congratulatory notelets as if rewarding itself for lasting forty-five minutes.
That was the thing about progressive rock. Some of the over-serious stuff was not as good as those who were satirising it.
Thick as a Brick: Jethro Tull, 1972; Trilogy: Emerson Lake and Palmer, 1972; Music inspired by Lord of the Rings: Bo Hansson, 1972.
Highlight: From the Beginning from Trilogy, a lost diamond of a song lost in a forest of endless prog. rock.
Gnocchi in olive oil, a scattering of parsley growing wild - approved wild - in the back garden, and a dusting of parmesan sent me sleep (I found a bottle of red as well). I had worked until after sundown.
Now it was 7.30am. I walked down the hill for the morning paper and it was a ghost town, even in the early morning sunshine. The permanents must have been still quaking inside their houses set behind front gardens fussily manicured as if in purse-lipped contrast to their enforced back-to-nature neighbours. Now, back at the house, coffee and the paper, and back to work. The mountain of thistles lay behind the old bungalow, the original fisherman’s hut that sat further down the block a couple of decades before the modern square flat-roofed timber house was built on the crown of the hill to catch the 1970s sun. I got the mower out of the shed.
By mid-afternoon the place looked half-civilised again, the mower modified by leaving off the catcher and wiring the flap to half-open. I cleaned up, locked the house and set off again down the long sloping hill to the bus stop on the beach road. The overgrown gardens looked even wilder than yesterday.
It was late afternoon now, and I stared at the once-lawn. My thoughts raced ahead of themselves, and one of them won, so I abandoned the idea of resting after the four-hour journey with a cup of tea and one of several half-finished books on my chair at the north-facing window of the lounge room. No motor-mower could cut down a hundred four- to five-foot thistles. And I didn’t have any other power tools. A combine harvester would have been handy. But that was wishful thinking. I might have to pull them out by hand.
The sheer force of unbridled nature had produced an almost perfect three-tiered wild garden. The thistles towered over a lower level, those weeds that grow to about two feet and produce seed heads that stick to your socks. The understorey below that was a mess of assorted flora of the weed and non-weed kind. In one corner, a poppy about four feet high was about to raise its several heads into flower. I hadn't had poppies here for years, but this was clearly offspring. Its seeds had lain potent in the ground, waiting for their chance. How is this possible?
I pulled a four-foot thistle. The stalk at its base was an inch thick. It came out in a clump of dirt the size of a tennis ball. Ninety-nine to go, in round figures.
This time there were no trapped birds or mice plagues, and the ever-present unkillable cockroaches were minding their own business in dark corners. They were probably hibernating, long having finished off any micro-crumbs of food that might have been left the last time humans were here.
First things first: the refrigerator. I couldn’t remember what I’d left in it, if anything. Having travelled directly by tram, train and long bus ride, I did not want to set off again to the supermarket which in any case was several kilometres away - and furthermore - was off limits, due to lockdown regulations. I opened the freezer door. One pack frozen pumpkin gnocchi, one pack frozen mixed vegetables: that’s dinner. Frozen bread rolls and sliced bread, and frozen sliced ham. That’s for tomorrow. Oil, salt, pepper, tea, coffee, sugar in cupboard, plus random cans: tuna, beetroot, tomatoes. Rice. I could live here for a month without leaving the house.
Then I passed through the kitchen and unlocked the back door. I’d kind of hoped - meaning I instinctively knew otherwise - that the back garden might be generally in the same state as the front lawn; overgrown to foot-high grass, barely - but still - mowable. The back garden was a jungle.