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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(Not so) Great Boggings of the Northern Territory

I’m coming up to a decade in talkback radio and there are some things I know will light up the switchboard. Leadership spills. Parking regulations. Your favourite collective nouns. Forgotten cocktail recipes from the 1970s. Anyone for a crème de menthe?

Up North, some of those talkback topics take on a more local flavour: how to deal with bush chooks, 101 ways with mangoes, the strangest place you’ve found a snake and Great Boggings of the Territory.

All of those concepts were new to me when I arrived in Darwin. As I might have mentioned, I did not grow up in a family known for our bush skills or for our technical and practical prowess. No one was out the back rebuilding car engines or mastering crystal sets. Our garden was a suburban wasteland where only dried up lemons and patchy grass grew. I was scared of chickens and would hide behind a curtain with a book when my Grandfather rallied up the kids to collect eggs on his farm. Mum outright refused to go camping although she did let us put up an old canvas tent in the backyard that no one ever slept in, what with beds inside and all. In lieu of extensive time in the Great Outdoors, my siblings and I played school sport, mostly badly. Very occasionally, we went for bushwalks on marked paths. If there were snakes, I didn’t see them. And mangoes? Annabel Crabb recently described the experience of a friend bringing a mango to school in South Australia when she was 7 as akin to being seen with a talking monkey. We were slightly more cosmopolitan in the nation’s capital, but mangoes were for Christmas and my brothers, sister and I fought over who got to suck the pip. I don’t recall even having seen a 4WD – I certainly didn’t know anyone who had one. And if we had bogged our family car, I can only imagine that we would have collectively shrugged our shoulders and abandoned the vehicle to its muddy grave. Vale Ford Falcon. No more car for us.

I had so much to learn.

And still do. I got on top of mangoes pretty quickly and I’ve now seen my share of snakes, although I wouldn’t rush to wrangle one. But the bush chooks have defeated better gardeners than I’ll ever be, and I’m light years away when it comes to mad bush mechanic skills. You probably have to learn to change a tyre in the first place, before you can stuff it with spinifex and snake skins and get back on the road, Warlpiri style.

But Mr Tea tries to put me through my paces on some of the North’s lesser known tracks. We’ve spent quality time bogged on the sandy banks of the Pentecost River. There was a memorable birthday on which I spent a couple of hours in a muddy ditch on a back road near Wagait Beach. Two hours (and a clutch) later, Mr Tea snatch trapped us to freedom (which it turned out, was but 50 metres away on the main road). The car resembled one of Jackson Pollock’s lesser known masterpieces by the end of it and Mr Tea wasn’t too far behind. I, contributing far less (read: nothing much) to proceedings, was pretty well unscathed but I guess it was my birthday.

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And then most recently, there was an incident at the boat ramp at Hardies Lagoon.

I blame the baby.

Just a week before, we had been at our first day of birth classes and the midwife was holding up a doll and a plastic replica of the pelvis. She also had a cotton wool stuffed placenta replete with cord, it was quite the bag of props.

“It’s amazing how flexible the birth canal is,” she enthused, pushing the coccyx back and forth.

“Look,” she said. “No problems at all! It really can just bend with your baby…”

At that point, the plastic pelvis rebelled. The coccyx broke off in her hand and flicked across the room.

“Oh!” she said. “Oh dear. That’s never happened before.”

One of the other partners scrambled to pick up the broken and brittle faux coccyx, and she put it back on the shelf.

“Now where was I?”

My third trimester of pregnancy wasn’t looking promising at this point, and I decided that we needed to go away for the weekend. Immediately if not sooner. So we pencilled in a trip down to Mary River just on the fringes of Kakadu: a cabin with air conditioning and a pool, a wood-fired pizza or two and some time on the tinny.

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We launched at Hardies Lagoon late Saturday afternoon, where the water was low and crocodile infested. We puttered around, past jabirus holding court and egrets relaxing on the bank, surrounded by slack jawed salties. They seemed particularly foolhardy, those egrets, like chickens having a casual hang out with the Colonel. Mr Tea threw a line out and trawled back and forth for barra; I tested out our new camera and attempted to master the zoom and macro settings. Not far down the billabong, en route to our favourite fishing spot, the boat bottomed out. Another four-metre crocodile sunk into the water just metres from us. We turned the tinny around in a hurry. I waved to the only other boat on the lagoon, a young family fishing away, and we headed back to the muddy boat ramp. I held onto the boat and watched the water for wayward crocs, while Mr Tea reversed the car into position.

Then, with the tinny hitched on, he hit the accelerator to pull the boat out of the water. The front wheel spun out. He did it again. Gravel and mud flew everywhere; there was no traction. Mr Tea got me behind the wheel and pushed. No luck. We tried backing the trailer further into the lagoon and then out again, in an attempt to grab onto a firmer piece of embankment. The mud just churned and the trailer dug in deeper.

This went on for about half an hour. We had no retrieval gear. I was 30 weeks pregnant; there had been no plans for 4WD adventures or a good old fashioned Territory bogging.

At this point, the only other boat on the billabong offered to help, and we reluctantly accepted. Our saviour arrived in a Hilux with his three young daughters crammed into the back seat. He got out to assist Mr Tea, and I made small talk with his wife.

Thanks so much for helping, I said. I’m not much good in these situations. And…I pointed to my belly. I can’t really push the car out at the moment.

“Oh!” She said. “I thought you were looking a bit useless. Well, fair enough then.”

It’s nice to know that while some people have resting bitch face, I have resting useless face.

Anyway, in five minutes flat, we were snatched out, grateful and shame faced, just as the sun was going down. The air was smoky with nearby bushfires and the mosquitoes were getting more frenzied. We got out of Hardies Lagoon as fast as we could.

So there it was. Another entry into the canon that is (Not so) Great Boggings of the Northern Territory. I told the story on the radio the Monday after, and sure enough, the switchboard lit up. More tales of shortcuts gone wrong, car drownings and sudden thunderstorms on the back blocks of Lee Point that defeated better cars than ours.

And then there was some discussion of the price of assistance. A gentleman named Frog rang in – greatly concerned that today’s Territorians weren’t paying the proper price for bogging retrieval.

“It’s definitely a carton,” he told us on air. “But people forget! I’m owed so many cartons! The tourist bus I pulled out near the Arnhem Highway. The truckie I helped just outside of Palmerston. And the copper I got out of the Daly River…actually, nah, he doesn’t owe me a carton.”

When I spoke to Frog again off air, I confessed my own failure on that front. We’d forgotten to reimburse our Hardies Lagoon samaritans.

“Yeah, well just you remember for next time,” he told me. “If you get pulled out of a bogging, it’s definitely a carton. But Miranda? I know you’re from Canberra. And I reckon you’re fitting in up here real well.”

It was the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.