COUCH

I’m sitting on the arm of the leather couch in our family room. Its brown skin is pocked with scuffs and scars; ribbons awarded for fifteen years active service.

In the house where I grew up there was no couch. The lounge room had two armchairs and a matching ottoman. It had two in-between chairs too, used by my sister and I when we were big enough, but no sofa. The family living in this house did not sit next to each other. They didn’t do closeness.

So I’m looking with affection at the careworn covering of our family couch. Careworn. Worn through care. We’ve sat on it to watch Thomas The Tank Engine and The Terminator. In the cracks between the cushions are layers of crumbs and debris that probably support several complex ecosystems. Life on the surface filtering down, nourishing those below. I hope the microbes are happy in their microbey lives; falling in love, producing little microbes, making beds out of skin cells and sporting fields out of lost shirt buttons.

This lilliputian reverie is abruptly interrupted by the impact of my fourteen year old son, hurtling across the room and rugby-tackling me so that we both collapse backwards onto the cushions. He’s done it a thousand times before, a game we’ve played forever. A decade ago I used to have to push myself backwards to achieve the desired result—a tangle of limbs and giggles and a victory squeak from the boy as he grinned down at his vanquished Daddy. 

But he doesn’t need any help now. Almost as tall as his Mum and more than half my body weight, the moment of impact has a combined mass of 140kg. So backwards we go, thump! Ha! So loud and deep was the young fella’s triumphant shout that I did not hear the crack of splitting timber. It was only later in the evening when we were siting in a line watching a bit of TV that I noticed I was sliding forwards. Not just bad posture; the sofa had developed a pronounced tilt. Inspection revealed a fault line gaping between arm and body, the latter having subsided to floor level as if finally succumbing to years of play wrestling.

I pointed out the collapse to the others. They both stared at me, seeking to gauge my reaction. Because I am not always OK around stuff being broken or damaged. In the house of my childhood objects were supposed to last forever. Breaking things through overuse was frowned upon, even growing out of clothes viewed with suspicion. Wilful damage was a capital offence. I once hid at the top of the back yard willow for three hours after breaking a garage window playing cricket.

A kind of reverse scarring results from this insistence that things have to last. An obsession with protection stifles exploration and kills spontaneity. Scarring is the inevitable by-product of use. It’s a result of life.

I looked at the couch and at my partner and son, and smiled. It took a little effort. This couch has been good to us. It has opened its arms to a thousand cuddles, hundreds of rough-and-tumbles and we are sitting on it together now, despite the list to starboard. We continued watching tele.

Things wear out. People too. 

But love doesn’t.

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ALL THINGS MUST PASS

I’m sitting on the verandah railing of a rambling wooden guest house in hilly Warburton. Rich smells from the surrounding bush push against a pervading odour of serene decay. Once a retreat for Melbourne’s genteel, now ghosts whisper along the wooden balconies and sigh like puffs of dust when morose teenagers throw themselves onto faded sofas.

One of those teenagers is me. Despite the chill in the air, I prefer the verandah to the communal lounge. The dim light and musty carpets of the interior depress me but more importantly, I stand a greater chance of glimpsing Kirsten by lurking on this semi-sheltered thoroughfare. Not that I’ll speak to her if she wanders past. For starters, she’ll be with one or more girls and thus surrounded by an impenetrable field of femaleness that my wistful glances simply fade from like breath on glass.

It is day three of this Year 10 German camp. The time has passed slowly, and quickly. Soon we’ll be packing and taking a bus back to school. And I haven’t managed a single interaction with Kirsten in either Deutsch or English. No wonder I’m morose. No wonder I’m sitting, shivering just a little in the damp Winter air, hoping for one more chance to not talk to a girl who probably hasn’t even noticed my intense, meaningful glances. 

I did try. Yesterday morning I ordered Speck und Spiegelei in a voice loud enough to carry to her end of the table. There was a titter, but I don’t know who. This morning, in an act of heart-tingling bravery, I approach her group and looking more-or-less straight at her, or at least her toast, I said Kafee? with an upward inflection that surely demonstrated my passion. Surely.

Back against the solid verandah upright, one leg is crooked nonchalantly on the ledge while the other dangles over the garden, I’m gazing poetically into the middle distance and wondering how long I can stay in this position. Sounds of my room-mate packing are a reminder of time passing, of opportunities fading. He smuggled in a small transistor and has turned it up a bit louder this morning, reasoning that he can scarcely be sent home early at this stage of proceedings. I reach down into the garden and pluck a daisy. The radio starts playing George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”, the strummed guitar and plaintive melody fills me with something, but I don’t know what. I really want to see you, really want to be with you. Frowning, I pluck a petal. It takes so long, my Lord. Another petal flutters onto the weathered boards. She loves me, she loves me not. She loves me, she loves me not. Yeah, yeah, yeah. A tiny snowstorm of teardrop shaped petals. Kirsten appears at the end of the verandah, walks the uneven boards to her door, three before mine. She fumbles with the handle, but doesn’t look up. 

Really want to see you, really want to see you.

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The music theme of this post continues at Vinyl Connection

DOUBLE FAULT

It’s dull outside. And cooler too. The stillness is a little uncanny after the hot winds of the morning. I umpired the boys tennis match and could feel the sun on the back of my neck. Did I put sunscreen between collar and cap? Lately I’ve been worried about melanomas, especially on the forearms. That’s the place that gets the most sun, other than your face.

Sunscreen didn’t really figure when I was a kid. We’d joke about the first burn of summer and boast about how much skin we could peel off after the radiation subsided. Didn’t wear hats, either.

Hot on the back and windy too. The courts are raised, at the south end of a large oval. The northerly whips across the grass and through the cyclone wire fencing, shredded into turbulent spears. One end of the court gives plus twenty kph, at the other the smallest boy can hardly hit the ball over the net.

Our team won because the opposition only had three players. We fiddled the rules so that all four of our lot got one set each instead of two. Winning by forfeit isn’t satisfying but it’s winning none-the-less. Last time I took him he didn’t get a game in two sets and I was angry. How could you be that bad? I didn’t say anything but he knew he’d been rubbish. By the time we got home, he’d forgotten (maybe) but I hadn’t. Not the crapness, nor the loss, nor my disappointment. Always remember your failures. But don’t worry about sunscreen. Family lessons. Terrific.

I’ve just delivered him to a friend’s sleep-over birthday party. The family has a pool, which the kids love because they get to mess about and the parents love because it tires them out. Later they’ll play video games and try to get away with watching an inappropriately violent movie and my bloke will go along with it but won’t necessarily enjoy the entertainment.

He asked whether he could run through the stuff he was taking. Big trip: Saturday afternoon to Sunday morning. I said, sure, but I’m legendary for forgetting stuff. Anyway, we thought he had the bases covered. Swimmers, towel, toothbrush, clothes, phone (a new item, to go with Big School), sleepwear, book. Book? Well, he said, if I don’t like the video game I’ll go and read. Or if they are noisy until really late. The first weeks of secondary education have been full-on.

As we walked down the street it started drizzling. Guess we won’t be swimming, he said. It’s actually quite nice, I said, swimming in the rain. Peaceful.

Dropped him off, said hello to the host parents who are good friends, and the other parents. Offered a drink, but said I needed to get back.

Back through the drizzle, as refreshing as sorbet. Back to the stillness of an empty house and my turntable and vinyl to pierce the tranquility. And maybe a book.

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OF FLEAS AND FAUST (REDUX)

Like a down-market department store for heads and hippies, Goesunder Flea Market in the heart of Melbourne’s retail district was the unlikely venue for an import record shop, yet it is where I first ventured outside the confines of AM radio hits via a close encounter with the multi-hued constellation of musical meteors known (ridiculously, but pervasively) as Krautrock.

It was the mid-seventies and my first year at the university, a 15 minute walk north of the city centre. I was callow, confused and desperately earnest not to appear the first two. I knew no-one in the entire university and hadn’t made friends; the multitudinous clubs and societies spruiking their charms during O-Week were much too intimidating. I remained resolutely and unhappily alone, perfecting a kind of alienated aloofness that, sadly but not unpredictably, only reduced the chances of connection even further.

My regular solitary ramble back down Swanston Street each afternoon led to an acquaintanceship with Space Age Books, specialising in science fiction and fantasy. Bookshops were (and are) one of the few retail spaces you are at liberty to browse unassailed by over-zealous staff. Generally quiet and slow-moving, patrons studiously avoid interacting with each other and only converse with staff when absolutely necessary. You can be alone and safe in a bookshop; they are a sanctuary for the socially inept. And fans of Sci-Fi and Fantasy—especially neophyte ones—need that kind of refuge.

The space next door to Space Age was, however, another universe entirely.

Through the wide portal was a large shadowy space whose air was redolent with the mysterious scents of incense and patchouli. Stalls swathed in sheets and shawls of strange design formed uneven rows like a gypsy marketplace. Kaftans rubbed shoulders with tie-dyed t-shirts; handmade leather sandals reclined next to hookahs; essential oils whispered heady secrets to psychedelic posters.

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Artist’s reconstruction of the scene

And there was a record stall. I thought I knew a bit about music, having secured my first record store job the previous summer and slogged through eight years of piano lessons. But not one album did I recognise. All were strange, exotic, alluring, impenetrable and—for one of extremely constrained means—unattainable. Most weeks all I could do was leaf through them and devour the covers.

High School German classes were sufficient to reveal the origin of these exotic treasures but that was little help. Neither were the staff, whose alternative noses doubtless picked the smell of a tightly wound suburban boy as easily as clocking a virgin at an orgy. Or so I imagined. Maybe they were simply stoned out of their gourds. Certainly they did not seem fazed by my leisurely browsing and absence of purchases; Goesunder was like Space Age books but in a phantasmal underworld.

This shy courtship might have gone on forever had I not got a lead from Billy. These were the days when the only access to new music was radio. For those not drawn to the music mainstream, the Sunday night Album Show on 3XY was compulsory listening. Late one evening Billy Pinnell played a long instrumental piece that blew me away with its distorted guitar and hypnotic rhythms. It was a cosmic storm blowing in from another galaxy. Hell, the drums only came in over halfway through the 12 minute piece yet the groove was monumental. At its conclusion Billy’s nasal drawl announced it as ‘Krautrock’ by Faust. It was the opening track on their fourth album, mischievously titled IV, and the piece took its name from—and a sly swipe at—the casually racist term coined by English journalists for a disparate conglomerate of independent German rock music. It’s a term that is still used today.

Back to Billy. He went on to describe the cover: empty music staves on a parchment coloured background with minimal print in a plain typewriter font. The simplicity took my breath away. Op art? Pop art? Minimalism in the age of flares and platform shoes? Who knew? I had but one mission: find that album.

There was no chase, no excruciating search; I knew exactly where to go. A day later I marched into Goesunder with a new air of confidence and a fistful of Deutschmarks. Aussie dollars, actually, but I was pumped for Das Vaterland. This would be my triumphant entry into the mind-altering world of sinuous long-haired women and men who said ‘Man’ a lot. No more Neil-sodding-Diamond or ultra-boring Allans Music stores. Brave new alternative world, here I come.

Do you have Faust IV?

No.

Oh.

It’s Virgin.

(Was this a sly comment on my interpersonal development?)

Virgin?

(I may have blushed at this point)

Festival Records does Virgin. We don’t stock Australian pressings.

Oh.

Try Allans.

Exit Goesunder, deflated.

Pause for a calming cigarette. Probably St Moritz, an expensively foul menthol concoction I had adopted to mark myself out from the tobacco pack, thus proving beyond reasonable doubt you can be lonely and ignorant and still be a complete plonker.

Fortified with 666 deadly chemicals, I strode off to Allans muttering under my breath. Yet the setback failed to suppress a thrill of anticipation as the sales girl put my ‘local’ copy of Faust IV into a bright yellow Allans carry bag.

Here was a soundtrack for my still unpopulated world. There may not have been women, lithe or otherwise, but there were books and records and both would become long-term friends. These inanimate yet exotic companions would ultimately lead towards a scary yet longed-for domain: relationships with living, breathing—possibly even sinuous—human beings. I couldn’t wait.

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An earlier version of this piece appeared at Vinyl Connection in 2014