Building Up

The day had apocalyptic overtones from the get go. I crunched two dead cockroaches going from the bedroom to the bathroom. The milk was already off, three days before the expiry date. The front door opened into an early morning oven, littered with rutting geckos and Ritalin-deprived skinks. I recoiled from the distinctive broil of rubbish in the wheelie bin. It smelled like yesterday’s onions and armpits. My fingers burned on a Domino’s pizza voucher roasting quietly in the letter box.

No mail for us.

I wrestled Little Tea into the car along with Rabby and George, his soft toy sidekicks, and an orange plastic tractor. You never know when you’ll need one.

“Air con?” he said. The kid’s not stupid.

It’s bloody hot, there’s no way round it at the moment. It’s Suicide Season, Mango Madness. In the Top End, we’re all going troppo. We fuck and fight, cry and cuss, drink and drip and dance. The build up starts sniffing around us like a dog on heat in September, sometimes even at the Darwin Festival if you’re really unlucky. This year, we are definitely unlucky.

But you really know that the build up has hit when you get breath tested at 9:30 in the morning, taking your kid to Fun Bus at the Anula Playground.

I’ll tell you, that’s where all the booze hounds are hiding out. Clearly the local constabulary had seen last week’s artistic efforts.

“What do you make of these, Officer?”

“Hmmm. Looks like they’ve used fingers, a dish scourer, and a toy car to spread those paints around. And I smell trace elements of food colouring.”

“Definitely under the influence.”

I wasn’t too worried though. After all, Little Tea wasn’t even driving. But the HiLux in front obviously knew what was coming. He pulled off onto a side street, ignoring the officers waving him over. The wheels squealed and he took off into the badlands of Wagaman. No one gave chase.

Too. Fucking. Hot.

I cleared the breathalyser and turned off Lee Point Road. As I drove past, just one hundred metres away from the alcohol and drug testing station, I could see one of the many old mates of Darwin’s Northern Suburbs leaning back in his plastic chair, pulling on a bong.

Happy Thursday to you, Old Mate.

I drove a bit further and soon enough I was standing at the playground, reenacting The Hunger Games with a bunch of other parents as we unleashed a dozen toddlers on three toy cars. Ah, peace at last. We raised our luke warm water bottles in silent toast. The children are distracted. We are free. At least for ten minutes, or until someone gets seriously maimed by a stick.

But it doesn’t take long for our own frustrations to bubble to the fore.

One of my fellow Mum mates was a bit over it. She’d been overlooked for a promotion at work; someone considerably less qualified and committed had snaffled the position.

I shook my head. Typical.

We stood there for almost a half an hour, beading perspiration in the sun, swapping our stories of fury, disgust, and woe. People who had unfriended us on FaceBook. Unreturned emails. Banking bust ups, bureaucratic battles. The driver who beeped at me because he had to wait while I turned right into the Casuarina Pool car park. A good friend who is waging simultaneous war on Darwin City Council, Kmart, Woolworths, and Big W over abandoned shopping trolleys on her street. The Weetbix encrusted on our kitchen floors like cement. One hour waits at the doctor’s surgery. Things you can’t unsee, like band aids floating in public pools and people using the Foreshore BBQs as a place to relieve themselves. The stale ham and cheese rolls I bought at Coles. Anyone using a leaf blower.

“Why are we even talking about this?” my friend asked. “Who even cares? For starters, that job would be a whole lot more work for no extra money.”

I shrugged. All personal slights are worse in the build up, I said.

Don’t sweat the small stuff, they say. But what if all you’re doing is sweating?

On the way home, I got cut off mid-lane while going through the traffic lights.

Jesus! I slammed on the brakes. What even was that?

“Jesus!” parroted Little Tea from the back.

I decided it was time to abandon the road rage and the griping and the personal slights and find some joy in all this humidity. I started stalking the suburbs, the shops, the twists of beach and creek and bike path near my house. It might not fill a stadium or even a cinema, but there were definitely pockets of the stuff.

Humidity joy.

The tata lizards that frenzy along the fence line and across Trower Road.

Mildly rubbish image because they move so fast, definitely not because I’m a shit photographer…

Scales of light shimmering in the swimming pool.

Frill-necked lizards that prance down the middle of the street, like yoga divas in active wear.

Mangos the colour of sunset, spilling out of crates and car boots, for sale all along the Stuart Highway.

Licks of thunder and unexpected early rain wrung from passing storm clouds.

Flocks of magpie geese gathering on school ovals, like teenagers swapping swigs and ciggies.

Then the bursts of colour on suburban verges, flowery ice cream cones amid the foliage.

The bright ‘80s pink of stretching bougainvillea strands. Frangipanis rimmed with gold. The flame trees that blind the weary driver.

If you’re really glass half-full about the whole thing, there’s even novelty in the temperature drop when you move from the side of the footpath in full sun, to the side shaded by building awnings. Hot. Slightly less hot. Hot.

And when I think about it some more, I realise how many significant life moments have happened for me in the build up.

There have been road trips and relocations, from Darwin to Broome, and Alice Springs back to Darwin. Some regrettable and highly avoidable boggings. A particularly outrageous house party that featured gold lame bikini cartwheels, a recreation of the crucifixion, and illegal skinny dipping. Another which featured rainbow leggings, leotards, and a memorable dance-off between the People’s Republic of Jingili and the United States of Millner. The Cold Chisel concert six years ago that marked the beginning of Mr Tea and me.

Over a decade of build ups, I’ve found people and I’ve lost them, too.

Maybe I can see the build up’s virtue as a time of transition. Of growth, change. Anticipation and evolution and creation instead of damp, unruly catastrophe. The season becomes an active verb. We are building up.

I don’t have to search too far for more examples; one of them is sitting in my living room. A robust nearly two-year-old: the epitome of frustration, sweat, and tears. A boy who tantrums when he is separated from that beloved orange tractor to sit in the high chair. Because he needs the green shorts, not the blue ones. And he wants popcorn instead of vegetables for dinner.

But around these gusts of rage, there are also joys, plenty of them. There are micro steps and great leaps forward. Two months ago, Little Tea didn’t know his own name. Now the sentences have two, three words, sometimes four. He can drink from a cup (sort of), make fart jokes, pack up his toys (if he feels like it) and pull a coffee table book filled with Northern Territory wildlife from the shelf and identify all the birds. Brolga, jacana, ‘poonbill, darter, he recites, flipping the pages from my lap.

Strange to think that almost two years ago, I was sitting right here, gestating in the build up. I was cooking and cleaning and packing a chest freezer with meals, mostly stews and soups, comfort food ill-suited to our life in the tropics. Then I’d put up my legs when my ankles tripled in size. Those were hot days, too, a hot daze, in the hottest part of Australia, during a heat wave. The air was as warm as my blood and the poinciana trees were bright red, as they would be every year on Little Tea’s birthday.

And this year, I’m building something again. Eyelid by eyelid, toenail by toenail, organ by organ. My body is swollen with the construction of it all, with the weather, and also the $1 packets of mixed lollies I’m compelled to buy at the Nightcliff IGA. It’s familiar territory, and also different. There are new symptoms, flutters I might not have recognised previously, but I’m still waiting, wondering. Watching, worrying, and waiting some more. Our daughter is due in March, along with the last of the rains.

The more I think about it, the trudge towards the proper monsoon season is just like pregnancy. Overwhelming, all-consuming. Like build up air, you breathe it all in, every clammy mouthful, until the taste ricochets from tongue to toe. Until you’re spent, exhausted, wasted. The small joys are profound, but so are the indignities, the frustrations. The melancholy can be crippling. The craziness is gripping.

But eventually the waters break. Sometimes early, sometimes late. You scream or you don’t, while the whole gushing thing plays itself out, like the best and worst music of your life. Epic, grinding, bloody, and finally, euphoric.

Then, the build up is over. There’s relief. New life. And the caravan goes on.

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Dr Rainlove

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wet Season (again)

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I moved to Darwin seven years ago this January, so I know the monsoon deal well.

Dark clouds, thunder, lightning, pouring rain, sunshine, humidity, repeat.

And I loved it too. The chaos of the storms. Negotiating sudden flooding on Bagot Road in a hatchback. The thrill of the temperature dropping to 25 degrees and reading a book on the couch in your tracksuit pants, fans turned off.

I loved all the different kinds of rain: fat rain, skinny rain, sleeting rain, sheets of rain. I loved the way it smelled and I loved the way I’d get out of swimming laps because the pool must close during a thunderstorm.

I even had three different umbrellas for the spectrum between casual and formal wear.

But somehow, somewhere, in the two weeks of monsoon since I got back from holidays, I lost the love. I’m prepared to take hate mail now from rusted on Territorians, bushfire beleaguered Southerners and The Farmers, but there you have it.

I’m not sure what tipped me over the edge. It all started with 12 straight days of rain, load upon load of washing that never dried and a cupboard full of mouldy shoes that even ten bottles of oil of cloves, three pairs of pantyhose and Shannon Lush couldn’t fix.

There was the smell in the back of Mr Tea’s car like something had died, nay that something crawled in between the spare tyre and canvas fly with the sole, spiteful intention of inflicting stench. Then again, that could just be the golf buggy Mr Tea found at the dump. (“Just $5! And I’ve wanted one of those for ages”, he told me.)

Every social invitation we received was to a farewell, as friend after friend moved south for new jobs, study, opportunities and to bring their kids up closer to family.

The only song in my head was by Mental as Anything. I found myself humming in the car…“If you leave me, can I come too?”

Add to this the general climate of back to work blues, or in my case, not back to work blues. And by the end of last week, the inside of my brain smelled like an open sewer in South East Asia and the soundtrack was even worse.

…You’ll never get better your career is over you’re hopeless you have to lie down after you have a shower you won’t be able to work full time ever again you’re a financial burden you’re a shit friend you let everyone down you’re a burden to your family everyone thinks you’re boring now why can’t you just get better why do you have to be such a broken down loser…

Yep.

I was ready to curl up in the car with the thing that died (or the golf buggy) and call it a day. So it was with limited enthusiasm that I agreed to join Mr Tea for a monsoonal weekend away.

And we didn’t get off to the best start.

“Shall we go down the back road to Litchfield?” asked Mr Tea

Umm, OK, I said.  Is it even open? Won’t it be flooded?

“Why don’t you check the road report?” said Mr Tea.

I checked the road report.

It’s flooded, I said.

“Let’s try anyway”, said Mr Tea.

Let history record that the road was, indeed, flooded, and we had to turn around and go back the way we came.

The dark space in my brain was still pretty fetid at this stage.

But over the weekend, the black clouds hovering over the highway started to become beautiful again. The magpie geese honked, the station horses brayed. The termite mound scarecrows, dressed in high vis and sodden Carlton Draught caps, made me smile. So did the bullet holes in road signs and the Stuart Highway wit who put up the placard “Emerald Springs: Population 1”. I drank a delicious mango smoothie in Pine Creek and we stripped off for a brave swim in the raging flood waters of Mother’s Day Gorge.

Termite mound scarecrows near Adelaide River.

Termite mound scarecrows near Adelaide River.

I remembered that this time of year there are more shades of green than we have words or Dulux paint chips for. Fluorescent green, pandanus green, eucalyptus green, green with a sheen of mud, where the water levels have dropped. Kaffir lime green, spear grass green, unripe guava green and dew soaked green.

On the way back to Darwin, we drove back to Litchfield for a walk and swim in my favourite secret spot.

Just as we arrived, the rain began again, with interest.

I was a bit nervous about scaling a waterfall in torrential weather, but we walked in anyway. And as the rain soaked my hair, my shirt, my trousers and then my sneakers and socks, I felt more and more elated.

Pink pretties in the rain (also known, I think, as native ginger flowers, step in now naturalists...)  Litchfield National Park.

Pink pretties in the rain (also known, I think, as native ginger flowers, step in now naturalists…)
Litchfield National Park.

The rainforest was alive and green—all those many kinds of green—and the trees were covered in intricate fungi. An entire corridor of native ginger plants had burst into pink and yellow flowers. The path had become a creek and every step up the escarpment was trickling with water. By the time we got to the top, the waterfall was bursting at the seams. I was so sodden, I jumped into the falls with my clothes still on.

“You look like a drowned rat”, said Mr Tea. “An excited drowned rat.”

Isn’t this terrific, I enthused.

Mr Tea agreed that it was terrific.

Isn’t this just life affirming!

“Yes”, he said.

There was a 40% chance that Mr Tea was not finding our walk in the rain especially terrific or life affirming, but he’s good like that.

We sloshed back to the car, made sandwiches out of the stale bread we had left over and I felt a sense of calm for the first time in weeks.

This morning, I’m back in Darwin and it’s raining again. The record in my brain is still playing, broken bore that it is, but at least it’s a bit quieter. Like any good tailings dam, my mind might take a few decades to clean up, but it’s nice right now to have fresh memories of all those beautiful black clouds and the many, many shades of wet season green.

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Cyclone Season

January 3, 2008. Trees over the road in Nightcliff after Cyclone Helen

January 3, 2008. Trees over the road in Nightcliff after Cyclone Helen

I flew into Darwin during a cyclone last night.

Well, to be fair, it was ex Tropical Cyclone Alessia by the time we actually made it to the Top End, but I didn’t know that when I got on the plane. I was sitting at Sydney airport with my fellow Territorians, all of us checking the BOM tracking map online. There were mixed opinions at Gate 12: some certain we wouldn’t be getting on the plane (too dangerous by far), others thought a bit of turbulence would just help them sleep through the four and a half hour journey.

There have been a few cyclones in my time in the Top End. Tropical Cyclone Helen threw down a few African Mahogany trees in early 2008. Cyclone Grant tried to spoil Christmas one year and failed (I got to drink champagne in a backyard pool while people sent me texts to see “if I was alright”. I think they had bigger hailstones in Melbourne that December). And then Cyclone Carlos was all drain pipe trousers and big moustache swagger, but then he got drunk, fumbled around in the dark and fell asleep on the bed with all his clothes on.

For me cyclone season is usually about being on standby at work, some trees down, a few whistling winds and debating whether I should go with baked beans or tinned dolmades for the cyclone kit.

I’m being glib, but I’m not really. Especially when I think about what happened to Darwin 39 years ago.

The stories from Cyclone Tracy get me every time. My uncle remembers taking refuge in a car, drinking the last of the Christmas party booze and waiting to die. Everyone describes “that sound”: the roar of the wind, the scream of it, like a freight train pounding down the rails towards you.

I’ll never forget Terry Kenwrick’s version of Tracy. Terry was a teacher, actor and man about town; he spent Christmas Eve 1974 in a house in Tiwi with his wife and child. This is how he described the experience:

It was like a giant had grabbed your house and was literally shaking it really hard. He was going to kill you. There was no way out. And then the power went off and we lay on the floor next to the bathtub, with our feet keeping the door closed. Terror kicked in… I can’t remember much after that. We could barely scream to each other. I just thought there was no way out of this one. I tried praying, we all did. We tried everything.

By dawn, the wind was dropping. And as dawn came up, it was raining like hell and very, very windy but lessening. I squeezed out of this cubby hole and stood up.

The view was incredible. 360 degrees of total destruction. Not a building left habitable.

Then I saw a policeman in nothing but a hat and a pair of underpants, with a double barrelled shot gun slung over his shoulder. He was stumbling towards me.

I said, What do we do now mate?

And he said, I don’t know, and went on, looking for something to shoot.

But last night was no Tracy, not even close. When I got off the plane, the wind had died down and the roads had just a dressing of leftover rain.

Today in the grey light of morning, I can see the damage of (ex) Tropical Cyclone Alessia, the Category 1 that never was. The blinds in our bedroom are hanging on by a thread, and two of the large pot plants on the balcony have been knocked over. Never mind. As the internet meme says, We Will Rebuild.

I’m enjoying the scattering of clouds and the silence and the cooler temperature.

It’s actually a bit nippy.

I might even turn the fan off.

Might be time to buy some new blinds.

I’m leaving this job for Mr Tea.

This is the build up

Yesterday I was doing the washing up in my bra and undies.

I hesitated on the undergarment terminology for a second there, but yes. I’d like to say knickers but that suggests lace, and the word panties makes me want to stick my finger down my throat. Or make random accusations of paedophilia. Nope, they’re definitely undies when you’re sweating it out over the sink.

I wasn’t trying to give the neighbours a show. Nor was I getting ready for a surprise visit from the electrician, wow wow wackka wackka wow wow. There just wasn’t any point in wearing clothes. It was 32 degrees, eleventy hundred percent humidity and I’d already had my second shower for the day around noon.

This time of year in Darwin is perverse. It’s even worse when you go from a sanctuary of air conditioning into the fray. When I was working, to go get lunch we’d have to cross two alleyways of pavement to awning concrete. My friend Anna used to call it 30 seconds on High. It was a gauntlet you’d brave only to grab a sandwich or laksa.

The build up makes you fantasise about rain. Dream about rain. You can be doing something really nice, like getting a massage or eating a piece of cake and you think, how much BETTER would this be if it was raining? You count clouds. You refresh the BOM website. You start tapping your veins. You’d break into someone’s car to get rain if it was sitting on the passenger seat.

And I moved to Darwin FOR the rain. I was tired of drought and water restrictions and the lit up sign on Barry Drive that reported how low the dam levels were in Canberra. I wanted lush green lawns and tropical gardens. I wanted to be in a town where the locals watered their driveways.

Most Territorians encourage people to visit in the Dry Season. I waxed lyrical about all the rain you could see from December to February.

You can just sit on the verandah and watch it, I enthused.

Well, Mother Nature must have felt sorry for this rain crack addict. Or she wanted me to put some clothes on. At around 3am this morning, it rained.

No, it didn’t just rain. It poured. Fat rain, horizontal rain, stinging rain. The lightning curled around the street lights, the thunder smashed like dinner plates. 98 millimetres at the airport, 85 at Nightcliff pool.

When I lived in Tonga, they had a word for rain that heavy: faka’uha. And yes, it’s pronounced as per the expletive.  Faka’uha was rain you could have a bath or shower in. Whenever there was a downpour, I remember my Tongan host mother grabbing the shampoo and running outside to lather up. The chickens and pigs would be scuttling for cover, but she’d be out in the yard, singing in the shower.

I should have gone out at 3am this morning to faka’uha.

When I woke up again, the rain had finished. The sky was grey and the air was cooler and I could think again.

By lunchtime the steam was rising.

And in two hours I’ll be washing up in my bra and undies again, tapping my veins, sweating into the sink and dreaming of rain again.