Writing Workshop

Nerd that I am, the biennial NT Writers Festival is something I always look forward to. It’s a mixed bag of wordy delights, with both literary heavyweights from Down South (where they gots culture) and cross-eyed, local self publishers (yours truly). The heavies are always shocked by the tropical heat and the absence of high quality espresso, but they gamely press on before going home to write something indignant, hand wringing or misty eyed about their time on the frontier. I, on the other hand, choose to stay here and do the same thing (see: this entire blog).

Ah, blessed are the writers…

Anyway, this year I decided to sign up for a non-fiction writing workshop. Mr Tea declined to join me. Wordstorm what? Christos who? Why would he do that when there was perfectly good boat maintenance to do?

So on the Sunday, I turn up solo at Brown’s Mart for the class. It’s a genial group of scribblers, including a self-published traditional owner, a few journos, a technical writer and a poet called Fred. Between us, we hail from Darwin, Sydney, Tennant Creek, Germany and Alice Springs.

The teacher, Claire, is a softly spoken English woman who has written a travel memoir about Tibet.

She has hefty hand outs and talks us through the process of writing and publishing non-fiction.

Questions indeed...

Questions indeed…

“The most important thing is just to write it all down. Put yourself in the story,” Claire says. “You can’t worry about what other people think.”

Fred interjects at this point.

“You know, that’s it. That’s the truth. For years as a poet, I’ve sent my poems to my parents. And nothing. For them, it’s just words on a page. They never got it. Never understood who I was or what I was doing.

But when I read them aloud, suddenly they loved it. Even the time they came up to Darwin and I was onstage reading my poem about fucking a dog. So why have I been worrying all this time about what they think of my work?”

Claire gently cuts in at this point.

“Mmmm. Yes. Well. We might leave it there for now…Does anyone have anything else to add?”

She turns hopefully to one of the other students.

“Barbara, what do you think?”

Barbara pushes her glasses back up her nose and giggles. “Well, I’d quite like to hear Fred’s poem”.

Fred holds up his hand and wiggles it, as if he is one of Beyonce’s back up dancers.

“Now, now. I didn’t say I fucked a dog,” he says.

“I just wrote a poem about it.”

Telescopes and Taxidermy

“I’ll tell you what, the strangest thing about this job is the perverts.”

Bruce had come to quote and measure up for a new set of blinds in our bedroom, but it turned out he had much more to offer than we initially thought.

“Yesiree. Bayview. Tipperary Waters. Cullen Bay. Full of perverts.”

Minutes before, Bruce had been harping on about having to fly to China to order 35 kilometres of fabric in various shades of Loft Grey and Beige Sepia, and I’d been less than subtle about the fact that we were running late to meet friends for pizza.

But perverts? The pizza could wait.

“Yep”, said Bruce. “Perverts. I go round to put up blinds and they’ve got telescopes on the balcony, every last one of them. And I’ll tell you for nothing, they’re not looking at the bloody moon.”

Having been in the home furnishings business for more than 30 years, Bruce had done the empirical leg work.

Just recently, he’d done a quote for a mining executive in Cullen Bay.

“The guy had three phones and he was on all of them: he hadn’t said a word to me, so I got on with the job, measuring up. In his bedroom was a telescope and while I was waiting I thought I’d have a quick look. It was zoomed right into a woman’s bedroom on the other side of the Bay, so close you could almost touch it.”

Bruce shook his head.

“I backed away straight off; not my business if he’s not looking at the bloody stars.

But he saw me.

He said, “Bruce, it’s not what you think!”

“I said you’re right. Look, whatever floats your boat, up to you.

He said, “No, wait, you don’t understand. I got this to watch the stars and then one day it slipped and landed on a woman across the way. She had a telescope too and she waved. Turned out she had been watching me in the nuddy; I never wear clothes on the roof.”

So now they have a thing.”

Like a telescope relationship?

“So he reckoned. A long distance thing. Everyone’s just watching each other. If you live in a block of flats, someone’s watching you.”

How many telescopes do you reckon you’ve seen in flats around Darwin?

“Oh well,” said Bruce. “I reckon round the water, nearly everyone. Oh nah, there’s a few old people. They don’t have telescopes. And one guy who really does like astronomy. But everyone else does. Most of them are Defence. A few of them have even got surveillance cameras, or they’re doing, whaddaya call it, time lapse. Perverts.”

That's me watching you watching me

That’s me watching you watching me.

He finished writing out our quote and ripped it out of the receipt book.

“I’ll come and do the install in a couple of weeks. You guys don’t have any cats do you?”

Mr Tea shook his head.

“That’s the other thing people have got. Stuffed cats, taxidermied kittens. The fur feels that real.”

Bruce shook his head.

“I did a job last week and I nearly knocked one over with my briefcase. Only then, you see, it turned out that was actually a real cat. He was an old one, 17 years old. Hadn’t moved an inch and then it sprang straight onto my back. Drew blood and all. I was in that much shock, I pulled it off and threw it against the wall. And that was when the owner walked in.”

Somehow this was more shocking than the perverts.

What did you say? I asked.

“I said I thought the bloody thing was stuffed! She said, well it is now!”

He snorted. “I didn’t get that job, I’ll tell you that.”

Bruce started pulling on his sneakers and patted his pocket for smokes.

I wanted to get back onto the perverts, but then his wife rang and Bruce had to go.

What happens on the fishing trip…

The intoxicating muddy waters of the Daly River

The intoxicating muddy waters of the Daly River

It was the weekend of the Daly Barra Classic and the Banyan Farm Tourist Park was chockers when I pulled in at dusk.

It had been a long, lonely drive on a road with signs that said “No Shooting”. I wasn’t quite prepared for wall to wall fishermen. But there they were, and with all the gear: tinnies, tents and caravans for the fancy. The uniform was short shorts and thongs, with a Bundy and Coke. The air was ripe with competition and under arm sweat; mosquito repellent and the kind of words you don’t use around Nana.

I was in the Daly for a few days of work and I stuck out like a hipster at a rodeo.

“Dinner’s a communal thing”, said Kerry at reception when I checked in.

“Are you happy to eat with everyone else? Otherwise I can set up a table for you on your own.”

Of course, sure, no problems, I said.

“I’ll put you with some of the nicer fellas”, she said kindly.

At 7pm, I walked into the dining hall, a solo woman in a room filled with tattooed testosterone.

Gazza and Terry waved me over immediately.

“You better sit with us”, said Gazza. “Those other blokes are a bit rough.”

We shook hands. Nice to meet you both, I said. How’s the fishing?

Gaz and Terry laughed.

“Let’s just say this”, said Gaz. “It’s fucking lucky I brought plenty of Devon sandwiches.”

I crinkled my nose.

“Devon sandwiches”, said Gaz. “Life does not get better than a Devon sandwich.”

Terry nodded his agreement.

“I even have my own recipe”, Gaz confided.

What’s that?

“Two slices of your freshest white bread. Make sure it hasn’t been frozen. Margarine. Devon – I like a couple of bits, but each man to his own. And a layer of tomato sauce. Bloody beautiful, that is.”

Terry winked and wrapped his mouth around the steak that had been plonked in front of us.

“I could go on and on about Devon”, said Gaz. “So much you can do with it.”

Every fisherman's friend

Every fisherman’s friend

That started a debate down the table. Was it actually even called Devon? What about Fritz? Polony? Baloney? Was it the same thing?

“Well”, said Gaz. “It’s not fucking Pro-siu-to, I’ll tell you that much.”

Gaz was a Michelin star chef when it came to Devon, and he waxed lyrical about his art for our entire main course. Turns out, there are just so many ways to eat Devon. In potato salad. Pasta. You could even put it in a stir fry.

“What about wrapped around those stuffed olives on a toothpick”, said Chris from Knuckey’s Lagoon who was sitting at the other end of the table. “What do you call those? Cocktail olives. I quite like that.”

Gaz pushed back on his chair and swung his legs. His eyes rolled back in his head with ecstasy.

“Devon and olives on a toothpick? I’ll have to try that one.”

Gazza was about the most delightful man I have ever met. He could have found common ground with Kerry Packer, held court with Somali war lords, made peace on the West Bank. In that dining hall near the banks of the Daly River he kept up a gentle pitter patter of conversation that included everyone: me, Kerry from reception, the young guns from Broome who were ready for a barramundi blitz and the older blokes from Larrimah who were short a few teeth.

Gaz told me he had moved to the Sunshine Coast after a long stint on a block at Humpty Doo.

“Yep, I miss the Territory. But you know something? I left for the education. My daughter was at high school in the Rural Area. And they said she was doing great! Middle of the class. Nice girl, doing well, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.”

“She was colouring in! In Year 9! I’ll tell you what, I wasn’t much good at school in my day, but I’ll be damned if my daughter was going to come middle in her class for colouring in. Now we’ve moved to Queensland and there’s no more colouring in. She’s the bottom of her class, and I could not be happier.”

Gaz beamed with pride and Terry patted him on the back.

The conversation got rougher from there. It started with shoes: how none of the guys would be caught in anything other than a pair of double pluggers. Gaz conceded that he DID, however, have a pair of going out thongs. For special occasions. Adam from Broome said he’d laid down the law to his missus. If she wanted to get married, he was only going to do it in thongs.

Then it got onto footy trips to Bali and what really happened to Adam’s tooth brush when Craig had one too many Sex on the Beach in Kuta.

That’s when I took my leave, but I felt touched to be included for so long.

I didn’t go anywhere near the water, but that Daly Barra Classic was one of the best lessons I’ve ever had on men and fishing and boys weekends away.

I finally got it.

Fishing wasn’t about catching anything. Unless you were a Broome young gun with a competitive chip on your shoulder.

It was about talking shit.

It was about who had the biggest rod and a Shimano reel, and who forgot to bring the gold bombers.

It was about sharing recipes for Devon sandwiches and Bundy and Coke and wearing double pluggers and sweating like a pig.

It was about the time Craig stuck Adam’s toothbrush up his ass in Bali and took a photo, which he didn’t show Adam until the end of the trip.

It was about Gaz telling long stories to Terry and Terry not having to say anything much at all.

It was about male friendship, Territory style.

Madam is very tall, like Glenn McGrath

“Coming to Sri Lanka, your first time?”

Slave Island

Lakjimi, our taxi driver looks like a Bollywood film star. His hair is slicked over to the side, and the English he has flows out in this beautiful sing-song rhythm, verbs first.

I’m a bit hazy off the plane, but Bandaranaike Airport in Colombo has thought carefully about what new arrivals want and they have nailed it.

Post immigration, we’re handed a local sim card and then greeted by a skinny Sri Lankan Santa Claus. The white beard clashes with his skin tone, but his gumboots are impeccable – shiny, black, patent. Then you have your choice of duty free white goods – fridges, driers, washing machines. Everything a traveller could want.

I change some money and Mr Tea activates our sim card at Sri Lankan Mobitel. The Champion Employee Board sits on the front counter. A guy called Dillum has it sewn up – he’s been employee of the month 11 times in the past year, with only one slip up, February. Maybe he was on holiday then. Dillum’s picture looms large – he has big brown eyes, a furrowed brow, coiffed hair.

But Dillum is not working today. I can tell immediately that the other guy behind the counter hates Dillum. When not-Dillum sees me looking at the Champion Employee Board, he moves it a little further away from the counter while he sings the praises of various phone and data plans.

The service might have been faster if Dillum worked weekends, but eventually we have a working phone, a bunch of rupee and our Bollywood star leads us to a limousine…more commonly recognised as a 1990s era Toyota.

The holiday is off to a great start: Sri Lanka FM is playing holiday tunes, including a jolly mash up of Jingle Bells and Pop Goes the Weasel. But it gets better when the DJ announces a “minor reggae flashback”.

We’re on the tollway into Colombo, an engineering masterpiece replete with many bridges and some outstanding uses of concrete, which pleases Mr Tea.  I’m pleased to see that our first hawker is selling colouring in books. He turns the different pages of animals and fairies, all in outline for the budding artist. His showcasing has the same finesse of Adriana Xenides in her Wheel of Fortune hey day. A tuktuk alongside runs out of fuel, so the driver gets out mid tollway and refills with a soda bottle of two stroke.

We tour the National Museum and walk along Galle Face Green, a patchy lawn filled with people flying kites, stands selling roti and prawn cakes and local couples snuggling on park benches. But my favourite part of Colombo is Slave Island. It has a darker colonial history, but today it’s a mish-mash of colourful and decrepit shop fronts, selling everything from “Poo Max” men’s briefs (I shit you not) and Sri Lankan cricket caps, to car tyres and shoe repairs.

Anyone for Poo Max briefs?  Slave Island shopfronts, Colombo.

Anyone for Poo Max briefs?
Slave Island shopfronts, Colombo.

I’m a novelty here, and fair enough. I’m twice the size of the average Sri Lankan, both vertically and horizontally. Mr Tea and I are inundated with well wishes and good mornings, occasionally punctuated with giggles and, I’m pretty sure, some commentary on my breasts.

Luckily for us, the Indonesian phone tapping scandal and our migration policies are not front of mind in Slave Island. Instead, we get thumbs up and “Very nice country!” for being from Australia.

One of our friendly well-wishers gets straight to the point.

“Australian cricket team! Very good, Sir.”

He pauses and smiles widely.

“Madam is very tall, like Glenn McGrath. And Sir, just like Michael Clarke!”

Mr Tea doesn’t even like cricket, but he knows a compliment when he hears one. His balding good looks have just been vindicated on the streets of Slave Island.

This kid thinks I look like Glenn McGrath too.

This kid thinks I look like Glenn McGrath too.

Scenes from a hospital waiting room

Test tubes are more interesting when you filter the shit out of the photo.

Test tubes are more interesting when you filter the shit out of them.

Nothing strikes fear into your heart quite like arriving into a full hospital waiting room. And in Darwin, it’s got a distinctive smell: unwashed clothes, disinfectant and desperation.

I’m here for my latest round of blood tests and there’s only one plastic chair left. An Aboriginal woman moves her handbag from it and she signals for me to sit next to her, so I do.

I scan the room. Under the diabetes information board, an elderly lady is squeezing her veins, trying to get one of them to pop. On the other side sits a skinny man in a baseball cap. He’s in a wheelchair, and the woman sitting next to him strokes his shoulders. Every so often he asks another in-patient if they will take him to McDonalds.

“Can you buy me a large coke? I want a big coke from McDonalds.”

The pathology assistant sticks her head around the corner.

“Daisy? Is Daisy here?”

Daisy’s not here.

On the other side of the room I hear, “Can we get some chips at McDonalds?”

“After, after”, coos his carer.

I don’t want to go to McDonalds nor do I want to be at the hospital, so I keep my head down and try to avoid conversation. But my neighbour doesn’t need much from me to have a chat.

“I’m real hungry, eh?” she says.

“Nothing to eat all morning. I been drinking water: drinking, drinking, drinking. But [she gestures to her specimen cup] nothing.”

Oh well, I say apologetically.

“It’s alright”, she says. “Doctor says doesn’t matter if you can’t do a wee.”

I nod.

“I’m going to Adelaide”, she says. “9th of December. I’ve got to have my operation then.”

That’s no good, I say. I’m still trying to read my book and pretend I’m not in a hospital waiting room.

She continues. “And you know, I’m missing the Christmas lunch! They putting on a big lunch down at the sea front for the education mob.

I tell you what, when I get out of here, I’m gonna get a big breakfast. My daughter, she gave me $50 to get breakfast. But I got to wait! But I tell you what, I’m going to Melissa’s after this, get myself good mouthy food, some chicken, a little bit Greek, you know?”

She puts out her hand and points to her chest.

“Scramenta”, she says.

I’m Miranda, I reply. I’m not sure what to say next.

How do you spell Scramenta? I ask.

“S-A-C-R-A-M-E-N-T-A”.

Oh, like sacrament?

She smiles. “Yep. I been brought up Roman Catholic, Tiwi Islands church.”

I point to her skirt. I’ve just noticed it, purple with a bold white pattern.

That’s from the Tiwis too?

“Yep”, she says. “My cousin gave me for my birthday. When I retire, I’m gonna open a shop, sell these. Maybe in the Galleria, or on the Highway. Nah, maybe not the highway. Too much humbug.”

We keep waiting for our names to be called, and we keep chatting. It soon becomes clear that everyone knows Sacramenta. The pathology waiting room is a hospital thoroughfare, and she’s the main recipient of greetings, catcalls, waves and cuddles. “Eh, what now?” the indig health workers call out to her. Sacramenta teases the orderlies, and tries to humbug their muffins and coffee.  She strokes the many pregnant bellies that waddle through. I realise I’ve ended up sitting next to the Social Queen of Royal Darwin Hospital.

The pathology assistant calls out again. “Daisy?”

Daisy’s still missing in action.

“Then Sacramenta? Is Sacramenta here?”

My neighbour gets up and chuckles. “It’s SCRAH-mentah”, she tells the pathology assistant.

I ask how much longer it will be for me.

The assistant looks at me blankly. “Have you been a patient here before? You’re not a patient at the hospital? Oh…we need a patient number for you. You’ve NEVER been to the hospital?”

Never, I say.

Sacramenta hits my arm. “Eh! True? You never even been to the hospital? You must be real healthy, eh?”

Yeah, I say. I guess I have been. Until this year.

Not having a patient number is apparently an administrative catastrophe, so I sit back down in my plastic chair. Sweat pools at the base of my spine and spills onto the seat.

Sacramenta eventually leaves to get her big mob of breakfast, and the numbers dwindle in the waiting room. Soon it’s just me, elderly vein popper and the skinny guy in the wheelchair who wants a coke from McDonalds. It’s become a stand off – who gets in next?

And that’s when Daisy finally rolls in. She’s intimidating: big strong face, black hair streaked with grey and tied up in a red scrunchie. Her mouth is fixed in a take-no-prisoners straight line. Daisy is flanked by a relative in a colourful sarong, and the pathology assistant meekly opens the door and lets her in. No apologies, no recriminations. No one in the waiting room complains.

No one fucks with Daisy.

Skinny wheelchair guy eventually gets to go to McDonalds, and then I get my bloods done too.

I’m about to walk through the automatic doors when I hear, “Eh!”

It’s Sacramenta. She’s with another doctor this time.

Sacramenta grins at me and grabs the doctor’s arm.

“This girl! Do you know, she’s never even been to the hospital before? True! First time, eh!”

Despite all the waiting and needles and stuffing around, I can’t help but beam back at her. It’s the healthiest I’ve felt in days.

And then there were none. Pathology waiting room, Royal Darwin Hospital

And then there were none. Pathology waiting room, Royal Darwin Hospital.

Broome small talk

Karen's house

Beth: So are you living at Krysti’s place?

Me: Yeah, I am. I just moved in.

Ryan: We used to live there.

Me: Yeah?

Ryan: Yeah. Great place. You won’t have any problems. And you’re far enough away from The Bronx (Anne St).

Beth: But you might get a guy called Harold yelling for Cynthia outside your window late at night. All you need to do is call out that Cynthia doesn’t live here anymore. Cynthia is dead.

Me: Cynthia is dead. OK.