Pizza boxes

Two weekends ago the grown-ups in our household went away, leaving the teenager in charge of himself and with prior permission to have a few friends sleep over (people that we knew).

It was with some trepidation that we bade goodbye and drove off. Last time we left town without him we came home to a hole in our precious ‘tango strawberry’ couch (according to the brochure).

We learnt over the ensuing days that the hole was caused by an experiment to do with matches. Hmmm. So the accident could have been much, much worse given the flammable nature of the piece. He complicated matters by stuffing the hole with a cut out piece from his red bed sheets; hence two casualties instead of one.

We hope he learnt his lesson after having to pay for a replacement sofa cover with his own money and being grounded for a fortnight. The recent trip was a test to see if this was the case.

In another environment we may not be so trusting. But where we live we are surrounded by thirty one other ‘villas’ ie one level apartments on the ground joined by garages. Hence a multitude of prying eyes await us when we open the front door, the majority of whom are retirees with a lot of time on their hands.  Getting into the car is akin to running the gauntlet – who will be coming round the corner ready for a chat? It usually happens when we are in a hurry to go somewhere.

The only feedback we received this time round from our reliable spies was the smell of bacon and eggs cooking on Sunday morning and the removal of twelve pizza boxes at some stage of the weekend to our communal rubbish area at the top of the drive.

There was evidence of some activity indoors too: the contents of the pantry had been ransacked. Even the walnuts we bought for a biscotti recipe had been consumed. Our son ended up sleeping on our bed – for the first time since he was little – as there was no room for him elsewhere in the house. And the place was impeccably clean; in fact in a far better state than when we left (he reckoned it took him four hours).

Suprisingly the beer bottles in the garage fridge were still standing up as straight as soldiers. None were missing.

These weekends away have made me think of the passing of time. The various stages of parenthood are a reminder of this elusive commodity that we try to grapple and control.

Said teenager now towers over me in his size 12 shoes. I came across some of his quotations from a seemingly long time ago in one of my journals recently:

Aged 3

I don’t think I will kiss you Grandpa because you have too many whiskers.

Dad, I got the haircups.

Dad when you grow up what do you want to be? (perhaps my favourite!)

Mum can we drive there because I don’t have my cape so I can’t fly.

Me (putting him to bed): Mum loves her little boy. Him: I’m not your little boy, I’m a big boy. I’m the greatest hero. I’m Batman (I stopped calling him a little boy from then on)

Aged 4

I know why Dad has olive skin. He eats too many olives (pronounced ‘olibs’)

That table was in the way and bumped into me.

Isaac Biscuits (ANZAC biscuits)

I’m not L…. I’m Spiderman (he’d just had his face painted after his favourite action hero at a shopping centre. He drew quite a crowd with his fervent announcement and accompanying show of skills)

Mum when am I going to get a big willy like Dad?

All fond memories.

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Among strangers

I slept at the other end of the bed (see previous post). Underneath the skylight with its silhouette of trees. This cell of a room with its monastic feel, softened by my personal items strewn across the floor and onto the other bed. I have met some colourful people here, types I would not have met going about my ordered life in the city.

Perhaps the absence of distraction in the youth hostel – no radio or TV, alcohol, computers – has rendered people more colourful than they really are.

Or is it that we are all in a kind of limbo, untethered from that which defines us – family, friends, jobs, homes? It brings a candour, even a humility to the situation. We are all on the same level.

I hear John downstairs preparing his breakfast and pontificating about something to do with cars. I can visualize him navigating his big frame round the confines of the small kitchen, skirting around the little Japanese guy with the Elvis hairdo. ‘Elvis’ cooked a late dinner last night with his diminutive girlfriend – chicken schnitzel. It set the smoke alarm off. I wondered: wasn’t the meat dead enough already without them having to crucify it as well?

I am waiting for John to put his foot in it. He can be very politically incorrect. I am relieved that there are others here to dissolve the brewing tension he carries around in his bulky frame. I know that if it was just me and him here, he would take up all the space, so palpable is his neediness.

I feel enriched by this weekend away to read and write. An indulgence. Yet it didn’t cost me much in monetary terms. The enrichment continues when I think of my family and the life on the city’s fringe I will be returning to soon and my place in it.

 

Youth Hostel

I have come here to write. Yellow tailed cockatoos and gang gangs are the noisy welcoming committee. My destination is an A frame building on a ridge, clad on both sides in corrugated roofing and badly painted in pale yellows and blues that have faded in the sun. There is an otherworldly eeriness to the building, so incongruous to the soft native bush surrounding it – kangaroo grass, ti tree and hop bush in amongst the paper barks and iron barks. The iron exterior looks like armour. And perhaps it is. The previous youth hostel, a humble fibro contraption, was decimated in the 2001 bushfires.

Native vegetation is huddled around this corrugated iron monolith, as if protecting it. Though their efforts will be lost I fear if another fire rips through this ridge. I think to myself how hot the iron will get and the steel mesh window covers…

I drive down a steep driveway to get here, where straggly gum trees stand awkwardly sentinel on either side. Some of them have huge gnarled trunks – the old men of the forest. I wonder how long they have been standing here and how many fires they have survived. Thankfully the noise of the busy road up top is left behind. It is the arterial route that connects the Lower Blue Mountains to the small neat towns of Windsor and Richmond and then the sprawling outer metropolis of Sydney beyond.

John, in his early 40s, has been here for a week. He is hostel hopping until he finds a place of his own. He cooks sausages for his dinner. I sense something immensely sad inside his equally immense frame. Loneliness perhaps.

Dorothea and her daughter Jessica have also been here a week, spending quality time together doing what they love – bushwalking – away from the rest of their family on the Victorian border. They will be heading off on their 8 hour journey home at 7 in the morning. I hear them speaking German together later when no one else is around and they don’t have to be considerate to them.

There are 2 other people staying here. Both single. A man who is too chatty and inquisitive for my liking, perhaps late 50s, who wears his battered Akubra hat indoors (my father wouldn’t approve!). We pass silently like ships in the night later on, en route between communal bathroom and our bedrooms. He looks stark without his chosen head gear. At least he doesn’t wear it to bed I giggle to myself!

The other person, a large round woman in her 60s with dyed black hair and glasses tells me by her grumpy expression that she doesn’t want to talk to anyone. Dissatisfied with life? The white frangipani she is wearing as a head piece is at odds with her demeanor. Perhaps she is uncomfortable with the shared domestic arrangement. Perhaps she is here against her own will.

While cooking a simple dinner for myself – scrambled eggs with toast and sautéed English spinach (reveling in the simplicity of it, sans meat. It wouldn’t pass muster at home!) – frangipani woman is reading at one of the 2 adjoining dining tables with her little book light. I have brought mine along too. A good idea if you haven’t been to a place before, it turns out, and you are unsure of the quality of the light for reading by.

On the next table Akubra man is in conversation with Dorothea and Jessica. From my observation he is holding them hostage to his ramblings about the delights of the Blue Mountains. I become an expert on Bluegrass music – his other passion – by the time they all break up to go to bed.

I am curious that frangipani woman chose a spot near all this action when there is a lounge area that could serve her needs better. But then maybe one of her needs is to be in close proximity to other people.

Time has stopped still for me. It is an hour’s drive from my home in the suburbs with all its distractions. Up here I am not punctuating my day with other people’s routines and their quiet demands. It is a blank canvas.

My room – No 3 – has 2 single beds positioned in an L-shape. The one I have chosen to sleep on is under a skylight, where the roof slopes on a 45 degree angle. I make out the silhouette of gum trees through the square see – through plastic. If I look straight ahead I see more gum trees through the other window covered in steel mesh.

I have made myself an eyrie in this little tree house of a room, propped up with extra pillows from the other bed, the natural light from the skylight illuminating the pages of my notebook.

I hope my little family are enjoying the break from our usual weekend routine as much as I am. Change – however small – can bring much light and shade to any situation.

Next morning I hear John downstairs washing up his breakfast dishes. I know it is him as his room is next to mine and I hear him click it shut and make his way heavily down the stairs. He calls this place the Bed and Breakfast without the breakfast. A bargain at $30 a night!

John remarks how there is little wildlife here (though I notice a sign asking guests not to feed the possums or goannas). He surmises grimly that the fires of 5 months ago – unseasonably in October – may have either decimated the local population or moved them on.

Tonight when I return from the library I will sleep unconventionally at the other end of the bed. The end I have been using bears the deep indentations of strangers who have slept here before me. I could try my luck for more comfort on the spare one, but I am drawn to this spot beneath the skylight and the canopy of bush beyond.

I hear the magical tinkle of Bell Mynah birds in the distance, an emblem of my youth spent in this part of the world only 15 minutes’ drive from the hostel. This deep association with my past greases the wheels of my creativity as I write of time passing in all its joy, sadness and mundaneness.