Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

30.12.09

Kookaburra Christmas.

Each year, someone volunteers to host Christmas and this year it was Tracy’s only sister. House in mid-renovation, two teenage children coming and going between her house and her ex-husband’s, two dogs in the back yard and a crowd of thirty to feed. Brave.

So off to the mountains mid-morning, before the heavy Christmas day traffic got started. We pulled up to the house on the high side of a valley that is not quite Selby and not quite somewhere else and there was my mother-in-law sweeping the drive, a Sisyphean task in the Dandenongs where it rains eucalypt bark. A kookaburra also welcomed us, sitting on the telephone wire that crosses the unmade road from one side of the valley to the other. He didn’t laugh but had his beak apart as if smiling widely. He was fat and jolly like Father Christmas. He hung around most of the day, perching himself on various trees, stumps and fences.

Lunch cranked into action around 2 p.m., in an informal buffet style so you could move around in between replenishing food or drinks and catch up with people in turn. A long table was in the dining room and one on the high front verandah overlooking the valley and another in the back patio at the bottom of four terraces of garden overgrown with tall trees high up, and at mid-height rhododendron and photinia with the occasional blackberry cane arching out threateningly, and understoreys of azalea and advent bells and weeds. The serving table was loaded with too much ham, beef, turkey, chicken, pickles, salads, and breads and like Norman Lindsay’s Magic Pudding it never seemed to diminish throughout the afternoon. Christmas pixies. Same with the drinks. There was more wine left at the end of the day than at eleven a.m. when I had fetched three bags of ice from BP Tecoma and sluiced it over two cases of Pinot Grigio in three large buckets shaped like old-fashioned baby baths.

Mid-afternoon there was a Christmas pudding the size of a Mallee root and a large pot of brandy custard and I forget what else. Probably a trifle in a bowl the size of the MCG. I was losing interest in food at that stage. I sat at a chair on the verandah trying to hold up my end of the conversation with some aunts. A cool breeze was moving across the valley and the tops of the eucalypts moved. Just the tops. The fat kookaburra dropped down to the garden and flew up again heavily with a piece of ham or beef in its beak. That kept him quiet for a while.

Late in the day, about six. I drove with my sister-in-law out of the depths of the fern gully and into the late afternoon sunshine. Her car was blocked in by several others at her house and I said I’ll collect your son from his Christmas Day job. She came too, just to direct me and escape the mess in the kitchen. We drove past the theme restaurants and the jam-and-cream cafes and the bed and breakfasts hiding behind coy hedges under towering mountain ash and up through the villages that hug the sides of the hills up towards Mount Dandenong.

It was quiet up there. The lunchers had gone back down the mountain and anyone who lived here would be inside their house full of Christmas cheer and slurring. Her son is seventeen, and he works shifts in a restaurant high up in the hills and she has to drive a sixty minute round trip to collect him, almost to Mount Dandenong. He is a kitchen hand. We drove up through Olinda and around a sweeping bend and pulled off the road into a drive and stopped on a gravel car park at the side of the restaurant and waited in the car with the last rays of Christmas Day in our faces and after a while he came out and we went back down the mountain to the house. There was a strong sharp acid smell of coffee and the kitchen was clean. Pixies.

We had coffee and drove home at nine o’clock across the top of the city and the boys fell asleep along the way, close to home, just when it got dark. We carried them inside.

22.12.09

From the Chiloé Archipelago to the world.

The potato is the workhorse of the vegetable family. Never really fashionable, let alone faddish, the potato remains eternally popular thanks to its endless applications, of which the following two have graced our table in the past week.

Buttered potato chips.

I do this for the boys, who adore potato chips. It’s a cross between a hot potato salad and traditional potato chips and it’s dead easy.

Slice several potatoes into chip size; two inches long with centimetre sides, if we can mix imperial and metric.

Boil until not soft, but getting there. Drain. Toss in a little butter, salt and a little pepper; place on a baking tray. Bake until almost crisp, scattering the pile over once or twice. Tip the whole mess into a large bowl, add more butter if desired.

I served these at our barbecue* the other night, omitting the oven stage. I placed them in a heavy cast iron frypan after parboiling instead, and sat this on the grill over very hot coals. I gave the pan a shake every now and then and, when brought to the table, they were steaming in the butter. I splashed them with white vinegar and the aroma brought noses to attention all around the table. Offer home-made mayonnaise or tartare.

(*Also on the menu: spring lamb loin chops dusted with salt and pepper and fast-grilled over sprigs of rosemary and mint torn straight from the herb garden; grilled zucchini strips with home-made pesto; salad of iceberg lettuce, tomato, capsicum, onion, cucumber, fetta and olives.)

Coucous with boiled potatoes and chili.

Cook up a pot of fluffy couscous, adding butter and salt if you wish. Or not. Just make sure it’s fluffy and not heavy. No tips here, it’s all practice and the right ratio of water to grain.

Chop a couple of unpeeled medium red potatoes into eighths and boil them. When almost done, add a dozen trimmed butter beans and some florets of broccoli. Cook another few minutes. Drain.

In a lidded frypan, slowly cook two red onions chopped into rings, almost until caramelised. Later, add lengths of red capsicum to the pan and a clove of garlic if you wish.

Place a mound of coucous in each bowl, tumble in the potatoes, butterbeans, broccoli, capsicum and onion; top with thick yogurt or sour cream and serve with chilli sauce of the Tabasco type.

The humble potato, native of the Chiloé Archipelago, in all its manifestations will always leave faddish vegetables in the shade. Celeriac remoulade anyone?

20.12.09

Christmas music.

It was the week before Christmas. The wave of humanity surfed the street in search of something it couldn't quite find, probably a shop in which to trade in unwanted money. It's the spirit of Christmas. Tracy paused for a hundredth of a second to bend down and adjust William's hat, causing a woman behind to check her speed. She glared and tutted and overtook at race walk pace and disappeared into the throng. Compliments of the season, ma'am.

It was eleven on a Saturday morning. Once upon a time, before we were civilised, shops closed at midday on Saturdays. Then they let them open all day, in order to stop the late-morning rush. Now they just rush all day. William and Thomas's much older sister rang me from Northland the other day. The background noise sounded like eighty thousand elephants stampeding, but it was just the food mall and it wasn't even lunch time. Looking for a career? Forget restaurants. Get into fast food. There's money in it.

Earlier I had walked through Victoria Mall and around the corner past the smokes shop and the Italian butcher, and the old derelict leaning unsteadily on the butcher's window stammered Merry Christmas to me and laughed a dry cackle as if it were funny to wish someone a Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to you too, sir, indeed. He has been around for years, used to sell The Big Issue in Lonsdale Street but now he's past it and he just walks up and down and sometimes sits on a chair outside the cafes, and talks to everyone and himself in a growling ravaged voice. Years ago, when he was a Big Issue seller he had the dry, cultured voice of a barrister before he went downhill.

You never know where they come from, and you never know where they end up.

*

Jingle Bell Rock sung by chipmunks on the supermarket PA doesn't make me buy crackers or turkey or plum pudding or anything in particular at all, if that's their intention. Christmas music in supermarkets drives me nuts, pardon the semi-pun. I think I wrote about this some other year but it still happens. There's something about the sheer vapidity of bells and sleighs and snow set to hokey music. What the hell are chipmunks anyway?

If you want to avoid jingle bells and partridges there's plenty of Christmas music around. You just have to find it. Not all of it comes out of the same dumpster. The best way to judge Christmas music is to play it in April. If it doesn't sound wrong, then it's good. Take Kate Rusby for example. She has the voice of an earthbound angel. Put Sweet Bells on during Christmas lunch and watch your diners stop dead, forkful of turkey halfway between plate and mouth. Mix it up with some Loreena McKennit for an unearthly blend of voice and medieval instruments with some kind of middle eastern influence. Ageless. Perfect. Add in some tracks that are not specifically about Christmas, but mention it in some way. The Pretenders' Two Thousand Miles is a favourite. Of course, you can always toss in some Lobby Lloyde and the Coloured Balls or Max Merritt and the Meteors to keep the aunts alert during the dessert course or wake your grandfather before his face drops into the shortbread and scotch. I like to mix it up. I never like anything to be too themey. It's kitsch. Follow the Tallis Scholars with Guns'n'Roses and they'll really sit up and take notice.

(Thanks to Australia's best radio station, 3RRR, for playing Kate Rusby and Loreena McKennit this morning.)

*

Radio announced this morning Mary McKillop is to be canonised, thanks to the Pope recognising two miracles. The second was someone's cancer cured. Talkback was full of it. It always is when such arcane minutiae gets into the public arena. Miracles? "That's a concept I can't get my head around!" the announcer reassured listeners, unwittingly confirming some kind of truth. What dangerous medieval nonsense. Who could believe that?

Then an ad break came on and it was Santa Claus selling Bertocchi Christmas hams.

18.12.09

Conversation on a plane.

KEVIN RUDD, PRIME MINISTER (WAKES, YAWNS): What day is it?

ADVISOR: Tuesday.

KEVIN RUDD: So we must be … where are we?

ADVISOR: Several miles above quite a lot of water on a very fast aeroplane.

KEVIN RUDD: On our way to what?

ADVISOR: Denmark, Kevin. The climate change conference. Remember? Like your ‘best and brightest’ conference in 2008. Except this one’s about the weather.

KEVIN RUDD: Weather? That’s all we discussed at that one as well. The rest was all bullshit. Christ, what a bunch of rubbish actresses talk about. Can’t imagine why I invited them.

ADVISOR: You didn’t. I did. If you don’t have actresses at conventions, the media and the photographers don’t turn up. And if the photographers don’t turn up, you don’t get your face in the paper next morning.

KEVIN RUDD: Is that why I had to cosy up to Cate Blanchett every five minutes?

ADVISOR: Yes. Don't complain. Better than cosying up to Barry Jones.

KEVIN RUDD (LAUGHS): He was there, still trying to flog that Knowledge Nation diagram that nobody understood. It was looking a bit tattered. By the way, where’s my lunch? It better be hot today or I’ll hit the fucking roof. (LEANS ACROSS THE ADVISOR AND INTO THE AISLE) Meanwhile I'll see how Penny's going with my proposal. Hey Penny, come over here.

PENNY WONG, CLIMATE CHANGE MINISTER (BLEARY): For God’s sake, Kevin! What do you want now? Could we just let it rest for ten minutes? I had just drifted off. I haven’t slept for three days trying to word this climate change draft in a vain attempt to please everyone from Bob Brown to the Coal Coalition. Not to mention you.

KEVIN RUDD: Good luck with that, by the way. It’s all in the language, Penny. Just bluff them with double speak. Add the words 'moving towards' before every definitive statement, then you never have to actually do it. A bit like the frog progressing with 50% shorter successive hops to the edge of the pond. He never gets there. It's a great out. Without bureaucratese, nothing would get done. (LAUGHS AT HIS OWN JOKE) I had an idea, Penny.

PENNY WONG (SIGHS): You really are not going to let me rest are you?

KEVIN RUDD: The world depends on it, Penny. And so does Gracie.

PENNY WONG: Gracie is a six-year-old girl, Kevin. To introduce a six-year-old girl into an international conference to score political points is cynical populism of worst kind. Apart from that, my world depends on me having a sleep right now, Kevin.

KEVIN RUDD: I won’t keep you long. It’s about the Chinese.

PENNY WONG (SLIGHT PAUSE) What about the Chinese, Kevin?

KEVIN RUDD: I thought I might get you to deal with them at Copenhagen, Penny. After all …

PENNY WONG: After all what, Kevin? And don’t say because I’m Chinese.

KEVIN RUDD: Well you are.

PENNY WONG: You’ve spent the last two years since you became Prime Minister spouting off in gratuitous Mandarin to anyone who would listen - and millions who wouldn’t – and now when it comes to the real crunch - the most difficult international negotiating position we’ve ever been in - you hand the hard ball to me. Because I had a Chinese parent. Christ.

KEVIN RUDD: Well, you are the climate change minister as well.

PENNY WONG: As well? As well? You patronising bastard!

KEVIN RUDD: Settle down Penny. You know what I mean. I mean you have the clout.

PENNY WONG: You have all the clout when the cameras come out, Kevin.

LATER. AROUND A BIG DANISH TABLE IN A MEETING ROOM IN COPENHAGEN. A TEA LADY IS SCURRYING AROUND WITH A COFFEE POT AND BISCUITS ON A TEA TROLLEY ALMOST THE SIZE OF A TOYOTA PRIUS.

CHINESE ENVOY: Good morning. The answer is no.

PENNY WONG: What was the question?

CHINESE ENVOY: Whatever you asked.

PENNY WONG: I haven’t asked it yet.

CHINESE ENVOY: Doesn’t matter. I read it in the paper. Don’t get fancy with me.

PENNY WONG: I have to abide by the rules of the convention.

CHINESE ENVOY: We don’t. And we’re not cutting our emissions. So pick on someone else.

PENNY WONG: You’re the biggest.

CHINESE ENVOY: You’re the richest.

(DRAMATIC PAUSE)

And we might be big, but back home right now I have 150 billion people in rural villages scratching out a living in the dust and in the mountains tending goats and by the sea putting out their grandfather’s leaky boat each morning to catch fish to eat and above the rivers where they reap barely enough rice in the terraces to feed their families and teeming millions in the factories on the outskirts of the big cities working seven days a week for a bowl of rice a day and soy sauce on Sundays to make air conditioning ducts that get shipped across the ocean to keep your people cool while they dine out on thirty buck steaks and fifty buck bottles of pinot in fancy restaurants that are lit up like Christmas trees. And as your Kevin says, ‘guess what?'

PENNY WONG: What?

CHINESE ENVOY: They get cold at night.

(LONG PAUSE)

CHINESE ENVOY: And if you think I’m leaving here and going home and telling them to turn off their heaters you’re wrong.

(PAUSE)

PENNY WONG: I’ll get Kevin.

16.12.09

Extreme bureaucrat danger.

They decided, after due deliberation, to scrap the old perfectly functional fire danger indicators outside country towns.

In a brilliant exposition of the internal workings of a bureaucrat's mind, the new signs do not actually tell you the day's fire danger rating. Instead, they direct you to a website.

I'm driving through the country and I want to know if I'm going to get fried or not. Great. Where's the internet cafe?

Today is the season's first fire danger day, with an expected top of 39 celsius. The website crashed.

14.12.09

Language cannibalises itself.

On page three in the Aldi catalogue that fell out of my letterbox on Saturday morning:

Beef Rump Steak, $9.99kg. These rump steaks are the perfect cut to throw on the barbecue with friends ...

I’ll stick with chilli sauce, thanks.

(I really must cut back that pelargonium. It is covering the No Junk Mail sign.)

11.12.09

The bulldog clip.

The bulldog clip hangs on the right side of the tall cupboard in my mother's 1950s kitchen.

It's a big bulldog clip, and it has to be. It has hung on grimly for many years, quietly performing the job it was designed and built to do. It is an engineering marvel. Two pieces of chromed metal and a spring that would hold up the front corner of a truck.

That's the problem with things that are well built. People take them for granted. Think they will never fail.

I did warn her. Many times. But did she listen? No. She never does. Headstrong.

It took many years and the bulldog clip yawned wider and wider but she never noticed, like you don't notice someone growing when you see them all the time.

But I noticed. I didn't see it every day like she did.

It's her 'desktop' recipe file. The one where you store recipes you've ripped out of the paper, intending to later file them away properly in the appropriate folder or drawer.

But she never did. How could she? She doesn't have any appropriate folders. My mother just has shelves and shelves of cookbooks; and drawers of them that you have to wrestle open because they are jammed in so tightly the cover of the top book is locked onto the inside of the chest.

The file must have been three inches thick the last time I saw it. Three inches of yellowing papers of every possible size. Whole newspaper pages, single columns, tiny cut-out sections, L-shaped sections, entire lift-outs, cardboard recipes from the sides of flour packs, plastic recipes from the front of pasta packs, label recipes she'd floated off sauce jars, even recipes cut from old books that had disintegrated. All in the grip of the bravest bulldog clip that ever existed.

Today it exploded.

When I arrived, the bulldog clip was still on its peg but its jaws were snapped shut. Its spring had returned to its resting position for the first time in, I don't know, twenty, thirty, forty years? Beneath the now-mute clip, and not beneath it but farther away, on all parts of the perfectly-preserved 1950s design linoleum floor, were a thousand, perhaps ten thousand, pieces of paper.

'You like cooking,' she said, brightly. 'Want to help me sort them out?'

10.12.09

Seeing the trees.

It rained hard this afternoon and the jacaranda down the street shed some of its shimmering flowers and the flowers made purple pools under the tree.

*

This house was built in 1948. It is an ‘L’ shape, a plan favoured by post-war architects as being practical while making best use of materials then in short supply. The design is austere; by name, not necessarily by nature. I like simple lines and a clean design in any case. The style was enhanced by the original owner who treated the interior window surrounds, architraves, skirting and doors in a deep wood grain finish, and walls in soft greens. Afternoon light through the west-facing glass paneled front door makes the timber and the green walls glow with suffused light.

It’s a pleasant house, but a hot one in summer. The lap of the ‘L’ faces north west and catches the sun at its most intense, in the afternoon; the morning sun gets the heat off to a good start by bouncing off the tall brick building to the west of the house. Air conditioning a sash-windowed weatherboard like this would be as pointless as pumping electricity into space, especially given the proposed higher costs for power, even if it’s available. Air conditioning was banned from use several days last summer. Not enough electricity.

The answer is trees.

When we bought this house four years ago its only tree was a sad grapefruit, never pruned and sagging all over the ground. It was a canopy without a trunk. But citrus is hardy and I cut most of the branches, reshaped it, found the trunk and got it going again. Now I can stand (at 6'2") under its canopy and it casts a deep shade on the back lawn, which is lawn again following all the rain.

But the grapefruit was all there was then.

So that year I planted a ten foot maple in the front. It is now twenty feet tall. I put another ornamental of a similar size at the back and that, also, has almost doubled. A red-flowered crepe myrtle went below the north-facing bedroom window and that is now just creeping up the pane.

After last summer's extremes I knew we needed more shade. Over winter I put in more four more deciduous ornamentals, placing them in positions that will make shade for the house in summer, but let the light in through winter.

Trees are not expensive. Each tree - in a pot - was six to ten feet in height at the time of planting and the cheapest tree was $35 at Bunnings at the end of the selling season. The catch is you have to wait for them to grow. (And you need a rake.) The species I chose are relatively fast, especially compared with the crepe myrtle. But one day we'll be luxuriating in dappled shade about the time the electricity grid crashes.

(Tangentially, if there’s such a panic about energy, why are they still approving mock Georgian houses with no eaves on giant housing estates only accessible by car – and a long way from the city? Beats me. I once stayed in a sheep station house with shady verandahs on all four sides, and in the heat of the day the kitchen - the whole house - had a coolness that felt like a refrigerator compared to those glassed-in wall-less rooms they call open-plan living in houses they’re building now.)

*

I looked down the street at the wet jacaranda and its pools of purple. The rain had slowed and drifted across the valley and then it was gone and the sun came out and the garden glowed lurid green, again.

And the trees are watered and they are in leaf and they are growing.

8.12.09

Smell the coffee.

Does Melbourne have more cafés per head of population than any other city in the world? They are everywhere. There are cafés in old milk bars, greengrocers, real estate offices and butcher shops. (I like it when they retain the old butcher-shop decor - return window, exterior blue-striped awning with leather tie-down straps, recessed door and 1950s blue tiled walls with a cow tile here and there to break up the blue.) There are coffee shops in nurseries, hospitals, skyscraper foyers, hotel lobbies, building sites and indoor swimming pool centres. There are cafés in churches that are not churches any more. Hell, they are even in churches that are still churches. There’s a drive-through coffee outlet in Sydney Road north of Gaffney Street and I’m sure there are more. The place is awash with coffee, which is fine as long as the coffee is good. The coffee is mainly good, but it’s all espresso.

(There used to be a saying that you couldn’t get a decent coffee east of Hoddle Street. That was never true. I had a great coffee in Glen Waverley once, and another time a passable one in Neerim South.)

But what was there before all the cafés? Apart from the shops mentioned above, the answer is other cafés. Earlier ones. Older ones. Different ones. Forgotten ones like the White Hen in Little Collins Street and an excellent place with white-linened tables in Swanston Street, whose name I forget, that you had to walk up stairs to get to. Neither of the latter had espresso machines. Crash! Sorry. I didn’t mean to make you fall off your chair. You read that right.

They didn’t have espresso machines.

Oddly enough, espresso machines were more common in the cheaper cafés and coffee lounges and mostly ghastly coffee came out of them; pale beige froth flecked with powdered chocolate sitting on scorched milk, flavoured with something that tasted like burnt toast. You had to put six sugars in it to make it drinkable. (Of course, the Italian institutions like Pellegrini and Campari were exceptions and made excellent espresso.) The better restaurants mostly served filter coffee, for the simple reason that excellent filter coffee is better than espresso coffee; especially with food, or immediately before or after. Espresso was fine as an early or mid-morning pickup but it is too heavy with food. Eventually the espresso lobby muscled in and convinced the entire food trade that everyone wanted espresso and filtered coffee largely disappeared.

Very good filter coffee has a better and more complex flavour than espresso. You can drink more because it doesn’t bloat you and it doesn’t jackhammer your head with caffeine. Some of the best filter coffee I drank was in a café in Block Place, a glass-panelled white door off the alleyway, run by an immaculately dressed couple of Austrian origin. In their late fifties, she was a stunning woman with big dark brown eyes and mocha skin and wore a silk two-piece and medium heels and strode the quiet, carpeted front of house like a queen; he had combed-back hair and wore a suit and polished shoes and hardly spoke and reverently made the coffee, which was filtered into glass and brought out in china and served with little cruets of unthickened cream and a silver sugar bowl on a tray. Drinking it was like sunrise lighting up your morning. The aroma was perfect and never overpowered, and the flavour achieved that holy-grail perfection of bitterness without astringency, and it never palled. You could drink two or three without going back to the office shaking or suffering that four o’clock fall-asleep comedown syndrome that drinking espresso blights you with.

Then the place closed down and someone ripped up the axminster and turned it into a modern place with an espresso machine the size of a small truck and music from speakers on the walls and a waiter who called you ‘guys’ and wore sandshoes. I liked it the other way.

*

Last week, I heard filter coffee was coming back into favour. Good. I was getting a headache from all that espresso.

Earlier today, to coincide with the Copenhagen limousine shortage, a carbon emissions 'expert' warned that filter coffee's emissions are unacceptably high. His solution? Drink instant.

The world is nuts.

7.12.09

Agapanthus wary of heat.

Early November rain preceded the two-week heatwave, then there was more heavy rain. No wonder the new agapanthus shoots are confused. Several drooped mid-shoot (heatwave) and then shot up again (rain).

They are out there right now in the December breeze waving their misshapen spikes like cursive 'n's.

The droop point on several spikes has borne a floweret. I'll keep an eye on them.

They are obviously paying close attention to the weather following last year's heat - the first time I recall agapanthus being severely scorched.

4.12.09

After Many a Summer.

William looks like a runner. He has stayed lean; Thomas is stockier. William trots along while Tom has the luxury of a ride. That won’t last. Enjoy it while you can, Tommy. The three-wheel stroller won’t hold you much longer.

William was happy to trot the two kilometres to the beach.

*

It was another warm day. We had a hot November a few years ago. 2005? William’s first summer. This past November was hotter again. Then again, there was hail in the same month of 2007. No-one talks about the weather in the old way any more. Now, they just argue about whether it means the world is getting hotter or not. Point-scoring. Look! Out the window! See? I was right and you were wrong! The weather is a competitive sport. I’ll tell you the winner in ten thousand years. It could be a long game. Like a Test cricket match, just not quite as boring.

*

It’s little hills all the way. The road is paved over ancient sand hills. Then up and down one last larger one and when you crest that, you see the blue bay spread out before you beyond the ti-tree foreshore, and boats in the distance, and on a clear day the topmost floors of the tallest buildings in Melbourne directly across the water. The chopped-off top floors look like low steps, or a rainfall graph. Then you come down the paved sand hill to ti-tree level and the sea disappears and you cross Point Nepean Road, carefully, because drivers – except for the driver of the Portsea to Frankston bus, who waves - are in a hurry, and you scramble through a sandy track that zig-zags under the ti-tree canopy and then you stumble onto the yellow sand and blink if the sun is as intense as it was that day.

I had taken Tom out of the stroller just in off the road, under the ti-tree, because the wheels don’t work in the dusty sand; and I dragged the stroller behind me and the boys ran ahead of us, chirping like squirrels or some other small happy exotic animal. There is no small happy Australian animal. Koalas are grumpy, possums are timorous, wallabies are nervous and the Tasmanian tiger is extinct. The only outwardly happy Australia native animal is the kookaburra and he is, of course, a bird. A laughing bird.

*

I waded out about hundred metres. It stays shallow for a quarter of a mile, then the shelf drops away into deep blue. Half-way out I stepped on something that felt smooth and it buckled under my foot and a dark flash shot away in the water. A small stingray. They rest on the seabed under a thin layer of sand. I turned and looked at the shore. It shimmered in the haze. Some houses rose out the line of trees and there was a lazy buzz of cars along Point Nepean Road but the beach itself was quiet.

The water was a mirror, flat. A perfect afternoon. William and Thomas were tiny crouched figures making sand tracks with small toys. Their mother sat by them, face shaded under the same blue cloche sunhat she has had since I have known her. She has others, but that is her favourite.

I lay back in the water and floated and thought of a hot day in 1973 when I had bobbed around in a different bay on the inner tube of an old tyre that I found in the shed of a beach house where my parents were staying. That day was one of the hottest I can remember and I floated for most of the afternoon, thinking about nothing much at all except for how good it feels to float around on the sea on a day that is as hot as hell and there is no more school for two months.

Now I'm back on the water, decades later, closing the continuity loop of that day; and it seemed that the rest of your life is just an interruption, a kind of white noise in the background, and then you get back in the water.

*

It also makes you hungry. Early dinner was a large piece of pink ling (a.k.a. several other names depending on where you are in the world). Two slices were tossed in flour and a little pepper and salt and quickly fried in olive oil and served with a squeeze of lemon juice and a squirt of vinegar. That was William and Thomas’s dinner, alongside battens of potato boiled and then finished, brushed with butter, in the oven to slightly crisp. And florets of what they call ‘white broccoli’. Cauliflower.

Later, I cooked an onion in oil and added two tablespoons of curry powder, three or four crushed cardamom pods, a chopped garlic clove, a teaspoon of ginger and a shake of cinnamon; stirred it around, added a cup of water, brought it to a boil, turned it down to a simmer, dropped in rest of the pink ling in large cubes, and waited eight minutes, just enough to make the fish turn white. Any longer and it will start to give off fluid and get too dry. I finished it off with a swirl of Greek yogurt to give it a little thickness and that was it, fat ling pieces served on a bed of fragrant rice and lentils, curry fluid as a sauce over the top and a hail of chopped coriander to finish.

2.12.09

The aerogram.

Tuesday. My twice-weekly check on my mother. She’s doing well, already started her walking again. Keilor Road once a day, sometimes twice. Three kilometres return. Sometimes she gets the bus home. I usually stay for lunch on these visits; make hers as well.

I parked the car in the hot bright driveway, got out, went to the letterbox, emptied it, threw five handbills (Woolworths, Priceline, Chemist Warehouse and two pizza places) in the bin near the side gate, and went inside. I gave her the mail. There were Christmas cards, and bills, and one or two of those appeal letters with blackmail lines on the front of the envelope. Donate $20 or this dog dies.

An aerogram floated out of the bunch of letters and drifted down to the floor. I picked it up. I recognised the handwriting on the front. She’s been getting these for years, longer than I’ve been around. The return address is - always has been - a small West Midlands town in England.

Do they still call them aerograms? You write on fine blue paper and then you fold it up and seal it and then you walk to the corner and flip it into the post box and they fit a million of them in the sack for the overnight mail plane to the other side of the world. Light as a feather. Zoom. A million stories. If people still wrote them.

This person does. My mother receives three or four a year, and one always arrives just before Christmas.

He’s been sending them since the war. He used to send photos as well, of his English garden and his too-neat flower beds and a tabby cat by the back door and sometimes his wife standing near the flowers with a pair of secateurs in gloved hands smiling at the camera in the pale English sunshine.

My mother opened the aerogram. The handwriting used to be a robust hand with fat, confident capital Bs and Ds and florid lower-case y and g tails. Now it was uneven and jittery, and ran down a hill to the end of each line, as if tired.

One day the letters will stop.

*

1944. He was a sailor in the British navy. She was farewelling a relative at Port Melbourne and he was onboard the ship and they struck up a shouted conversation over the side of the deck amidst hundreds of others and he wrote something on a piece of paper and screwed it up and threw it at her and she caught it.

Had she not caught it none of this would have happened. It could have fallen in the sea.

They wrote to each other, and they never stopped. He married and she married and they kept writing. The families became acquainted and after the war her family sent food parcels to his; the favour was returned with sewn household items and clothes. There wasn’t a lot of food in post-war Britain, but they had plenty of skills and some material. Probably not a lot. But they sent them anyway.

I asked my mother if she had kept the letters. "I did for a while," she replied. "I think I threw the old ones out a year or so ago. No room."

50-plus years is a "while". I love understatement.