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



And here we are in the depths of winter - and the coldest snap for fourteen years - and immersing ourselves in stews and soups; and toasted sandwiches the size of doorstops, with cheese melting out onto the plate; and porridge with honey in the morning and raisin toast with honey at night; and red wine and black beer and mashed potato and well-roasted pumpkin and caramelised onions cooked in ghee piled up on mountains of rice and red lentil cooked with cardamom and nutmeg and cinnamon and black pepper.

All well and good. But not if you can't taste it. I had a slight winter chill last week and thought nothing of it. On Saturday morning I got out and set myself the task of removing a section of invading agapanthus. I took a splitter out of the shed. It was like digging up a rainforest. The further you go in, the more there is. I turned the radio on and listened to Off the Record and that kept me going. They played more of The Dingoes' new release and a bunch of other great music including an old live track from Ummagumma and something from Levon Helm sounding like Billy Thorpe at Sunbury. I dug and cut and threw roots and leaves across the yard. The tubers were four feet high, entwined over each other. They couldn't grow out, so they had grown up. I kept finding lost treasures such as tennis balls from the days when they were white. Remember when tennis balls were white? Of course you don't.

It was a sunny day, but cool, and I was wet; and I stayed wet from sweat while I pottered around and carried armfuls of chopped agapanthus and stacked them and threw the splitter down and said the hell with it. Then I put the tools away and shut some gates and changed my shoes, and then I realised I was cold. Next day I was still cold. Then I started shaking.

The doctor checked my ears and told me I didn't have flu. So far, so good. Then he got out the stethoscope. 'What have got in there?' he asked, rhetorically. Or ironically. Or mischievously. You can never tell with doctors. Each of my lungs felt like one of those paper bags of concrete you used to see at building sites along with hand mixing machines and Italian migrants with knotted handkerchiefs on their head and a Rothmans in their mouth.

The doctor told me to go home, and take penicillin, and go to bed. The downside had an upside. I get to hibernate for a few days, and see the house the way you never see it at this time of year. The sun, low in the northern sky, comes right into the room and makes pools of warmth on the walls, and then on the floor, and then across the bed. After that it jumps out the other side and crawls up the other wall.

So down comes the curtain for a week or two. When it rises again, there might be another player on the stage.


Afternoon tea.

It was the nicest cup of tea I'd ever drunk. Perhaps it was where I was, or who had made it. I was standing in the enormous reception room of an old Anglican rectory at three o’clock on a cold Thursday afternoon. Gas heaters flickered high up on the walls. It would have been a very cold room when not in use, which seemed to be most of the time. Several large trestle tables, laden with food, ran almost the length of the room to the western wall, where a large stained glass window with a dove and a cross in it stretched up about twenty feet. Behind tables, ladies were wielding giant teapots and the tea was flowing, like the Diamantina in flood, into a regiment of cups and saucers all lined up in perfect formation. There must have been forty people in the room, queuing for tea and eyeing off the spread, which consisted of rolled-up asparagus sandwiches, tiny pastries, scones topped with jam and cream, strawberry and lemon lamingtons, butterfly cakes, rum balls and more of the kinds of items that will die out with this generation of CWA ladies. The conversation was animated now; rueful smiles giving way to the odd laugh, more of relief than anything. It's always the way after the funeral of someone who has lived a reasonably happy life and has died in old age.


It was a bitingly cold June day, and the sky had been a brittle grey as we stood, earlier, outside the funeral chapel in the grounds of a sprawling cemetery full of bare trees and clipped roses waiting for spring and gravelled pathways. We had huddled under the porch as a shower of rain moved across and fell on the chapel and passed. When we went inside, three people moved into the front pew, and the rest of us filed in behind and sat at a respectful distance.


I had known R. for thirty years at the sports club, but not well. He was always there, part of the place. Sometimes you barely notice them until they are gone. We knew he had been an Olympian and was a home-town hero in Melbourne in 1956, and that after retiring, he had continued to take part in the sport as an official and a judge; and then later, when he could not be so active, he kept records and took photos of events and ran the website and posted results and wrote reviews. Beyond that we knew nothing.


The funeral director gave his one-size-fits-all oration, which was nice enough but he'd probably given the same speech twice already that day. Then he called on a relative to speak. One of the three in the front row, a man about sixty, got up and came to the microphone. He started from the beginning. R.'s parents had married in the late 1920s at Christ Church, Brunswick - on the corner of Sydney Road and Glenlyon Road - and had had a child the following year. R. was born a year later. When he was twelve months old, his brother had died. He would not remember him. Another year went by and a third child was born, a girl this time. But tragedy struck again, and around R.'s fourth birthday, their mother died. This was at the height of the Depression. No social welfare, no benefits, no family allowance. No work. A man could not raise two infant children. The family was disbanded. The children were farmed out to distant relatives – apart – and were never reunited - with themselves, nor with their father. In succession, R. had lost a brother, a mother, then a sister and a father at one blow.


The nephew's speech produced a deadly silence, such was the hidden tragedy it revealed. He said the rest of the family had known about R., and had seen him in the news in the 1950s. But there had never been a reunion, and it was not revealed which party, if either, had failed to make contact; or alternately, had refused overtures from the other party. Nor why. After his speech, the nephew returned to the front pew, next to a woman in her early sixties whom he resembled, and a much older woman, plainly their mother. The funeral ended and the three family members went out into the clear, cold afternoon. The rest of us followed. As she walked down the aisle, the older woman's head had been erect and her eye dry.