Oof. Nearly there. I worked on my story all day and night yesterday – no runs, no swims, no breaks, and I was still at my desk at midnight and back again at 7:20 am this morning – and filed at 9 o’clock. That’s what I call a load off. I immediately ran outside for some fresh air and kept right on running, and now I’m satisfyingly damp and salty, the scent of the Pacific still detectable in my hair. That’s better, my body groaned.
I’m not quite done. Because we fly out first thing tomorrow morning, and because my service provider doesn’t have a roaming option for broadband, I’m a little uncertain about my capacity to get online from the ‘Hai, so at the very least I have to write my final post for the Varuna Alumni blog and send it to Simonne in readiness for next week. Hopefully I’ll be able to find an internet cafe without too much trouble – it’s an international city of 18 million, after all – and post comments from there, but I don’t want to risk the post itself. Speaking of the Varuna blog, Llew appears to have been right as usual. When he read it on Sunday prior to my sending it over to Simonne, he was underwhelmed, casually dismissing it with, “It’s not as good as your other ones. I can’t relate to it.” This naturally set me to a manic panic, but he assured me he thought this was just because he’s not a writer so couldn’t possibly have had the same experience. “But you related to the other two,” I pressed, at which point Llew clammed up as though I’d asked if my bum looked big. So I sent it, it went up, and it’s generated a fraction of the response of the first two, which fills me with regret and an intense, long dormant urge to bite off all my fingernails. Ah well. You win some, you lose some. But you can see why I’m anxious to end on a high note with this final post. I have errands to run for the next couple of hours, and then I. Am. Into. It.
Anyway, the title of this post refers to something I discovered while writing my story yesterday, which is that England’s Alnwick Castle has been the family residence of the Percy family for the last 700 years. Leaving aside the fact there’s something preposterous about that, I’m personally intrigued by this little factoid because my maiden name was Percy. I always knew it was an old English name, and that there are Percys in line to the throne – way down the line, way, way down – but I’d never really looked into it. After going to the castle’s website on an entirely different mission yesterday, imagine my surprise to find this phenomenal spread is owned by…what? Relatives of mine? I find that highly unlikely. And to deter all comers, they’ve helpfully attached a family tree, including only those in the line of inheritance. Unsurprisingly, they forgot all about me.
Oh, the fantasies I used to have about a Little Lord Fauntleroy-style rescue from my life, so there’s something quietly hilarious about the near-and-yet-so-very-far fact of this shared name. Apparently my Nana Percy used to say there was some connection with the English toffs, but given she used to bang our heads together when we fought as children, and raised her ten kids in a tiny two-bedroom house in Bangalow, northern NSW (well before Bangalow became trendy and artistic), and from dim memory didn’t even own a full headful of teeth, I don’t think we can trust the veracity of her account.
In fact, one line I was repeatedly told as a child is forever burnt into my memory:
“In Bangalow, there were the poor, the very poor, and the Percys.”
Alnwick Castle, we hardly knew you.
Another hectic day here at DoctorDi HQ, but my story is coming together. Research, research, research. More on that in a moment. It’s also another perfect day, so I have had a quick run and a swim, and I’m pleased to report that the water temperature has increased by what feels like a solid couple of degrees. How does this happen overnight? I just don’t know.
So. Research. For this story and the past two in the series, my research is taking me right around Europe, and I am getting very, very hungry for some more Continental travel. I know, I know, I’m about to head to the ‘Hai, so even talking about it makes me horribly greedy, but I really do find myself poring over certain information pertaining to all these countries and thinking, “What I wouldn’t give…” – nothing whets one’s appetite for travel more than discovering where one most assuredly is not. I love Sydney, I love my home, but there’s a whole world out there. All that history, literature, art, music, architecture… all those people, all those lives. People unfairly think of Sydney in particular and Australia in general as a lifestyle mecca/cultural vacuum. It’s not true, but I can see why the label sticks. Most of the best of our architectural heritage was criminally destroyed, not by the ravages of war but the shortsightedness and poor taste of state politicians and developers. It’s sunny here, a fact some cultural elitists brandish at us with ill-disguised disdain, as though good weather were any sort of impediment to the creation of good art. Still, it’s true we don’t have a visible history of venerating our artists and intellectuals. Some suggest we all but drive them from our shores, but I don’t think that’s true either. I’ve met far too many vastly talented people throughout my life in Sydney to give that idea more credence than it deserves. I’d also suggest that particular hostility is rarely a one-sided thing. Some expatriates do a mighty fine job of coming over all sneery and patronising about Australia from the safety of their Manhattan lofts and London pied-a-terres. It’s like a kind of cultural peer pressure. Say it’s a vacuum, or you can’t join the Euro Club, say it’s a wasteland, go on, admit it, say it, say it, say it, damn you, infernal colonial! Kill the pig, cut his throat, spill his blood. You know the drill.
I don’t think there’s anything contradictory in my love of country and my insatiable lust for elsewhere. So there.
The week has started with whales: a pair of spunky spurters, offshore and looking to be heading south, which at this time of year means they’re wildly off-course. As in, heading completely the wrong way. Maybe they came inshore a bit earlier in the morning and were only just finding their way back out… or maybe they were male whales and refused to ask for directions. Whatever the case, I was very glad to see them. Llew let me know they were out there when he started walking to the ferry (upon reaching which he texted to say there were dolphins and pelicans harbourside – I mean, really, it just never gets old!), so I dragged myself out of bed to catch a glimpse of them before they went under. Some people, I know, awaken feeling bright-eyed and almost frighteningly full of zing, whereas I am always slightly resentful and peeved. Even though I generally find my pep in due course, it does take me a while to wake up. I’m quite grizzly until that moment arrives, and coffee is usually involved in my resurrection. But this is the amazing thing about whales. They cheered me so much that I just wanted to get out there with them, so I went for a nice long run, jumped in the surf, and was at my desk with my cup of coffee just before 9 o’clock. It’s a beautiful day, and they did motivate me to enjoy it.
I’ve spent the remainder here at my desk researching my last story before the Shanghai Surprise begins. And here it is already after six. My word these longer days go faster. Oh, and before I forget, my third Varuna post is now up.
My sister-in-law was supposed to come over for brunch yesterday, but Llew had to go into the office all day – actually, what am I saying? He was there all night too, getting home after 10 pm on a Sunday – so instead I was left to my own devices. This turned out to be a very good thing, because I was and remain pretty shattered, and I needed that stillness we were talking about a little while ago. Hence I slept in until a thoroughly shameful hour, then decided to wander over the headland to Freshwater with nothing more than my book (I’m appalled to admit I’m still reading Lilian’s The River Midnight because I’ve been so under the pump), parking myself at the Pilu cafe, the low-key little outdoor annex that’s opened up beside the main (very good with special occasion prices to boot) Pilu restaurant, surely one of the great sites of Sydney. Really glorious. So I sat back with Lilian’s vilda hayas, a coffee and a toasted sandwich, lamented Llew’s absence, and then decided I’d just have to struggle bravely on without him on this occasion. Yes, it was terribly hard work as I’m sure you can imagine. I stretched my stay until they closed by ordering another coffee, then walked back home for some more sunshine and reading in my courtyard. Truly I can’t remember the last time I was able to just read my book for virtually a whole day like that. It was wonderful. Blissful. I shan’t be leaving it so long again.
It’s not often I feel moved to post on a Sunday afternoon, weekends are generally my time away from the computer, but this past week has been so patchy I basically feel I owe you one before a new week begins. Friday I’d arranged to see an old PhD colleague and friend for lunch as he’s on school holidays at the moment (W’s become a high school teacher, and my god it just sounds like the most stressful job imaginable), and we changed our meeting place because I was veering quite close to his suburb on my passport reclamation mission. Even just rocking into the Chinese Consulate gave me a shot of adrenaline. The scene was one of organised chaos, and most of the people pressing toward the head of the queues were Chinese. I was instantly transported; immediately, I was the Other. It’s a feeling some people really dislike but I flat-out love – out of my comfort zone, away from the familiar, deep in the unknown, it’s one of my favourite feelings, and it’s a big reason why I love travelling so much. I love being rendered agog. Look there, and there, and there, sights and sounds, flavours and scents, people and places I’ve never seen before…I don’t think there’s anything like travel for a pure energy surge.
I can’t wait.
I was out of the consulate quickly as payment and collection queues were brief. I had some time before I was due to meet W at Better Read Than Dead, a great bookstore on King St in Newtown, so I went back down Missenden Rd to Parramatta Rd, crossing the street to the Deus Ex Machina cafe. Llewie spied the cafe when he dropped off the passports early in the week, so I thought stopping in for a coffee was the least I could do. I actually intended to blog while I was there, but administration management ate my homework. Anyway, what a cool space. A converted warehouse with soaring ceilings, the cafe smells just wonderful, a mix of coffee, warm bread and pastries and hearty home-cooking, and the atmosphere is warm, a kind of non-threatening funk. I was sorry W and I had organised to meet elsewhere, and next time I’m over that way, I’m definitely eating here. All the food delivered to the communal tables made my stomach groan, and it was all really reasonably priced. If I lived or worked anywhere near the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, I’d be scooting down to the Deus cafe every day if for no other reason than their coffee is excellent, but the truth is the place has much to recommend it, including the fine machines for sale next door.
It was a pleasant walk back up to Better Read Than Dead, and I found W browsing philosophy and politics titles just inside the door. He’s much more familiar with Newtown, and quickly decided we’d head to the cafe at the Berkelouw Bookstore, which ended up being upstairs in another artfully converted warehouse. We settled in there with good Caesar salads and cold drinks and proceeded to talk for four hours straight. I must say, it’s one of the things I really miss about postgraduate days: great, challenging conversations just as a matter of course. Now I work alone, and I miss the ease with which I used to be able to strike up a conversation that tested my intellectual chops at every turn. Exchanging ideas, debating different theories, really thrashing out the meaning of the things you have read and thought and wondered about. One thing that academia really has going for it is that these pursuits are considered valuable and important. Outside a university environment, I’ve personally just found it harder to find a similar outlet for certain interests of mine. I’m no longer surrounded on a daily basis by those who share them, and so I find those conversations harder and harder to begin and maintain. Everyone keeps talking about Master Chef instead, a TV show that became something of a phenomenon in Australia over the course of its first season, and while I love cooking, I’d rather sink my teeth into a difficult debate than a serve of reality TV. It’s just the way I am. Luckily Llewie loves a good verbal stoush, and we have great conversations, as we do with all our good friends, but I guess there’s still a difference between that and really being able to put all that theory into practice. W and I and everyone like us spent long, difficult years studying the ideas of others while pursuing our own, and to me it’s very much like a dormant bilingualism – the second language starts to die if it’s not used. So it was great to see W and tune my mind into that other frequency. I think I stumbled a number of times as bilingual people do when trying out their second tongue after a long spell using only the first, but there was a lot of satisfaction and pleasure in discovering over the course of the afternoon that my second language hasn’t abandoned me altogether, it just needs to be put to more frequent use.
Wow, that’s better! I’ve filed my story and all’s well (yesterday I was sick with anxiety over whether or not I’d done a good job – I’d been recommended to the editor by my Volunteer Reader, and the idea of letting down VR made my gut twist), which is a huge relief and just a load off because it required a lot of work, a lot of research, as have my other big jobs of late, of which the last in a three-part series is due next week. So I haven’t quite cleared the decks, but I can breathe again for what feels like the first time in weeks. Without doubt this has been the busiest Sept/October of my freelance career. Financial crisis? That old thing? We just threw it out and now it’s business as usual.
Anyway, I feel a million times better having had the okay, because I went for a 10 km run, jumped in the water and even caught a couple of waves for my trouble. Then I came back to my desk – scene of my recent 12-15 hour days, and I know a lot of people put those hours in all the time, but man, I didn’t move from out behind this big old block of wood – and drafted my next post for the Varuna blog, and now I am finally back here for what feels like a breather. Hey, gang, how you doin’?
So the good news is we’re going to Shanghai (cue desk dance). As Darkling Deb said, it’s just like Thredbo. Llew and I are just up and leaving town for a couple of weeks. As in, we leave next Friday. I didn’t really believe it would happen, but then we just got online the other night and booked our tickets and now we’re going. I’m heading to the Chinese Consulate tomorrow to pick up our passports. It’s starting to feel real. It’s been soooo loooong since we’ve been anywhere together. Three long years since we had an overseas holiday, or really any sort of holiday at all. We did go to WA for a week for the Surf Lifesaving Championships about two and a half years ago, but that was a surf club thing for Llew’s rowing crew, and I was sick, freezing and convinced I had hypothermia the whole time. Thank god we were near wine country. I managed to self-medicate with three straight days of dedicated wine tasting before we flew home. But even that was many moons ago. I’ve aged since then. I need a holiday. We both do.
Shanghai. Shanghai is one of those cities I’ve always been busting to see. I’ve always been fascinated by hubs of grubby iniquity, and there’s nothing like an opium den to really pique my curiosity. Not that I expect I’ll actually get to see one, but that’s where they used to be. I know the deplorable reality of drugs, they’re not glamorous, and they destroy lives, but still there’s always seemed something, dare I say it, romantic about an old-fashioned opium den… I don’t know when or why I first thought, “Cool, I’d like to get me some of that” of Shanghai, but it’s one of those towns that’s always been high on my hit list, and one of the only ones in my top ten I’ve not yet seen. Also still to come: Havana, Cuba (I’m riveted, always have been, and can’t believe I’ve never clapped eyes on the place) and Cairo, Egypt (not only home to the pyramids, but also the great city that graciously spawned a very old and dear friend I never get to see because she’s, you know, an actual Egyptian). But Shanghai is only 10 hours from Sydney, so this time, Shanghai it is. I’ve heard some dicey things about that People’s Republic firewall, but I’ll definitely be trying to blog direct from the Bund. Won’t that be fun?? I really think it will.
In other news, the tenants upstairs have moved out, and we took the opportunity to beg the body corporate to do something about the lack of sound-proofing between our two apartments. Finally the owner came round, although it took some doing, and for the past two days I have listened to the thump, crash and chatter of workmen overhead, thinking, Gee, I hope the underlay’s not down yet, because that’s as loud and clear as ever… It pains me to say the new underlay and flooring is now down, and there’s been no improvement whatsoever. I gaped at the workmen yesterday when they did the sound test between floors. I was trying to proof my story and wanted them all to die. And then one walked past me holding a roll of what looked like yoga mat material, and I pointed at it and said, “That, that’s it? That’s all?”
“It’s very expensive,” they assured me.
“Oh, I’m sure it is.” Yeah, they’ll get that right, don’t you worry. No mistake there. “But it hasn’t done anything. It’s no better at all. Not. At. All.”
And then I started pulling out tufts of hair, standing on the upstairs landing already seeing into the future, when the new tenants move in and I’ll be able to hear their every conversation, argument, phone call and sex act. Tears sprang to my eyes.
“Sorry,” they said.
I tried to speak but just had to turn on my heel and walk away. And now I’m down here listening to them finishing up and all I want to do is scream my head off. I’m confident they’d hear it.
I thought I’d better pop in here and post some sort of progress report before you all get sick of the silence and give up on me. I’m afraid it’s going to be a Manic Monday, team. I’d already conducted three lengthy phone interviews by 10:30 this morning, and now I have the fun, fun, fun of transcribing them all, as well as the interview I recorded (still loving 1300RECORD, by the way) Friday afternoon. And I still have another couple of people I need to speak to by the end of the day. Then I have to write the damn thing. I’m filing the story Wednesday, and life will get back to normal once I’ve met that deadline, after which I promise I’ll stop neglecting you.
In the meantime, my second post for the Varuna blog is up for the week. I’ll be back here at DoctorDi on Wednesday 14 October – we have so much to catch up on!
Many of you who read DoctorDi and the comment streams therein have, like me, come to know and love Grad, a.k.a ‘Graddikins,’ she of the Nantucket Grey kitchen and Sultan’s Palace powder room. I’ve just popped in to The Curious Reader because Grad’s gone all quiet in recent days, and I thought she might be saying something sweet that would lift me out of my self-involved petty doldrums, but instead I found my Graddikins heartbroken. There’s nothing to say except how very sorry I am that today she and her family are saying a last goodbye to her daughter’s sweetheart, or as Grad tells it: Robert Sanchez, Soldier, Patriot, and Friend, who was killed in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan on October 1, 2009.
May he rest in peace.
All seems to be going well for this week’s maiden post over at the Varuna blog, which is more than I can say for the current state of affairs here at DoctorDi HQ. I won’t bore you with the details – actually, I have every intention of subjecting you to a blow-by-blow at a later date, I just can’t do it right now because I am on deadline and having a prick of a day – but I’ll be back as soon as possible to fill you in.
And just when I thought I’d absorbed all the noxious fumes in the atmosphere myself, it seems Llew too is having his own shocker on the other side of the harbour. It may be completely and utterly irrational, but I have an obscure sense that this pervasive air of negativity is somehow related to last Friday night’s ill-fated appeasement campaign, and now – on this admittedly baseless and paranoid reading – we’re being punished for not doing things well enough, often enough, and soon enough. I think the word is ‘beleaguered.’ Perhaps ‘harangued’ would also suffice. And shat off pretty well captures my present state of mind.
What was our phrase of the week? Oh yes. SCREW YOU, CHARLIE BUCKET. Hey, that almost works… and – incredibly – ‘Charlie Bucket’ also starts with a C and ends with a T, although in truth that’s not quite what I had in mind. Good to know, though, good to know. Especially in company. I must remember to scream “CHARLIE BUCKET” next time instead…
Hold that thought. I’ll be back. In the meantime, I sincerely hope everyone else is clicking their heels and whistling Dixie.
Well, the good news is I survived the weekend. Only barely, but still. I’m alive. My liver is in tatters, my skin is diabolical, my exercise program has stubbed its big toe, and my apartment is a complete disaster zone, but I’m alive. I slept for ten hours last night, and may I just take a moment to recommend a good night’s sleep to anyone feeling similarly off the rails (it seems to be going around)? Because it really works wonders. I’ve even recovered a small measure of my vocabulary, which I smashed like a dropped compact all over the footpath outside the pub at some point on Saturday night. Shudder.
Over-committed. That was the problem. For some reason, everyone was around this weekend, wanting to do things. And when we over-commit, we under-deliver. In the end, no one’s happy with us. No one was ever going to be. Llew called on his way home late Friday night, and at some point in the conversation he said he was just trying to keep everyone happy. And I said, ‘Yes, we both are. We always do this, and what happens is that we do it at our own expense, and then no one ends up happy with us anyway.’ Then I told him how I was feeling about the weekend, and we had an argument.
Perfect. It played out like clockwork. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Guilt, obligation, good intentions: that unholy trinity. It’s so powerful, and we fall for it every time. We haven’t figured out the means of managing it, and so it sucks us right in, time and time again, always spitting us out the other end like chewed tobacco hitting a hillbilly’s porch.
The expression ‘running around like a blue-arsed fly’ perfectly describes my weekend. By the end of it, I felt like a fly caught by a cruel and curious child. This child deliberately pulled off my wings. Then the child tore my body in half. Then the child trod on me, skipping away to find something else to kill, the mangled fly already forgotten. And I’m partially responsible for the way it all went down. I was too slow, too weak, too dumb to stay out of harm’s way. I buzzed too close to the child’s ear. I landed on the child’s nose even knowing my being there would come to no good at all. But I never learn, because as flies go, I’m a bit stupid.
The good news is that my first post on the Varuna alumni blog is up.
I’ve just spent the past few hours sweating over the maiden post for the Varuna Alumni blog… it’s due Sunday, and I know we’re about to have one of those weekends when everything goes arse-up – I can feel it in the wind, rain and plummeting temperature as surely as I can feel on the arid plains of my face that I need all the collagen soup in existence – so I thought I’d do myself this one small favour and draft the post now. I’m glad I did. It just eases the tension in my neck. That tension has another name: acute procrastination syndrome.
Why are writers such awesome procrastinators? Or is it that absolutely everyone procrastinates and writers just talk and write about it because that’s what we do? I have two big freelance deadlines breathing down my neck, and do you think I did what I should have done today? No. I did not. I was sort of…. paralysed. This happens sometimes, mostly when I really need to get a bomb under myself. I sit at my desk, and I mean to do it, I really do, but then something happens and I just sit here instead. So eventually I drafted my first post for the Varuna Alumni blog, and now I can declare today’s not been a total dead loss after all. Phew. It was touch and go for a while there.
But next week is going to be a shocker. I’ve got a lot of work to do, which is great, and I’ll be trying to keep up with everyone’s blogs and trying to keep up the daily posts on mine, but who am I kidding? This is a preparatory disclaimer, just in case. But wish me luck on Monday – I’ll let you know how it goes. Everyone take care, and have a good weekend.