The camp fire crackles. My son and I stare at it, mesmerised. I look at him and smile. It’s so good seeing him staring at something other than a screen. He was predictably reluctant when I first told him we’d be reviving our Easter canoe trip that we did a couple of years ago. But searching for a positive, he did say he was looking forward to the camp fire. And here we are. One night of nature. “Hey mate – isn’t this great? Just you and me in the bush.” He nods. “I think it’s important for boys your age to do something like this – paddling a canoe for hours and then camping. It doesn’t happen enough.” There’s no reply but no opposition either. I decide to push on. “You know, for thousands of years boys did things like this in order to become men. Do you know about initiations?” He does. He tells me about a clip he saw of an African tribe that make their boys repeatedly stick their hands in gloves full of stinging ants. Ouch! I tell him about seeing the Richard Harris movie, “A Man Called Horse”, where his initiation into a Sioux tribe was to be strung up and hung by his nipples. Double ouch! He asks me why boys are made to suffer such things. “Well, I think the idea is that by suffering through something and then coming out the other side, you learn that you can overcome hardship. A little like this canoe trip. We had to keep paddling to get here. It wasn’t easy and you didn’t always like it but you pushed through and here we are – by the fire.” My son nods, no doubt reflecting that paddling a canoe for a few hours sure beats being hung by your nipples.
I’ve got my rhythm going. I’m gliding through the water. Feel so good. Time to turn. I twist and my legs push off the wall. Collision. I grab onto the edge and lift my foggy goggles. Adrenaline pumps. A middle aged woman dog paddles, glaring at me. I glare back. “What the hell, lady?” “I think the normal response is to apologise.” “I’ve got nothing to apologise for. Didn’t you see me coming? I was about to turn and you thought that was the best time to push off into the lane?” A muscular man slowly swims towards us. “Hey mate – maybe you just need to let it go. Take a breath.” Feeling out numbered, I refrain from replying. I take a breath. The woman turns and continues her lap. Mr. Muscles grabs onto the edge and takes off his googles. “Relax. The sun is shining.” I think this is an odd observation in an indoor pool but technically, he’s correct. The sun is shining through the ceiling’s glass panels. Once my heart rate has settled and seeing that the water witch is a safe distance away, I push off. It’s a couple of days later. I’m about to get into my Mazda when I see a couple of green waste bins on the road behind my car. I noticed them when I parked the night before and thought that where taking up a precious parking spot. I left them then but decide now to move them off the road and onto the verge. I just get the second one out of the way when an old tattooed bald dude comes striding towards me. “Hey mate – leave the bins where they were.” He starts pulling them back onto the road. “Right. So you’re happy to take up a valuable parking spot?” He glares at me. “This your car?” “Yes.” He walks to the front of it. “If pricks like you would park all the to the end of the pole…”, he points to the parking sign about half a metre away, “…then other people could park behind you rather than over my fucking driveway!” He’s full on aggro now. He yanks the last bin into place and yells, “For fuck’s sake!” I ever so briefly consider suggesting that he take a breath. But I figure he’s more likely to punch me in the head. So I just jump into the Mazda and get the hell out of there. Turns out it’s not nice being on the receiving end of grumpy man’s aggro rant.
Back and forth. Back and forth. Nothing beats rocking. Back and forth. Back and forth. I can do this for hours. Back and forth. Back and forth. My little bum glued to the chair. Back and forth. Back and forth. My big people know to leave me alone. Back and forth. Back and forth. They can talk but I won’t answer. Back and forth. Back and forth. They enjoy the peace. Back and forth. Back and forth. Because sometimes… White hot anger. Bang. Blind rage. Bang. It’s so not fair! Bang. Why do they treat me like this? Bang. Don’t they know I’m the same as them? Bang. Only shorter. Bang. My head hits the wall. Bang. The floor. Bang. There’s no pain. Bang. Just exploding frustration. Bang.
I’m running along Bondi Beach on a crowded summer Sunday. It’s over a decade before I’ll call this suburb home. This is a tourist stop for my visiting father, who’s freckled body is laying on a towel next to my girlfriend. My freckled body is enjoying a rare run, weaving around beach goers. I see two boys, brothers, using a stick to poke what looks like a blue bit of rubber about to get washed out to sea. Thinking they might be about to lose a pair of googles, I decide to help them out. I stop, bend down, pick up the blue thing, and hold it out towards them in my palm. They stare at me with a look I’ve never seen – aghast, bewildered and flummoxed, their small jaws hanging. My hand starts to tingle. I look down at the blue bit of rubber, which of course is not a blue bit of rubber. It’s a bluebottle – the local jelly fish whose tentacles unleash an especially nasty sting. Instinctively, I turn my hand over. Most of the blue bugger drops to the ground. But the rest sticks to my hand, which has graduated from a tingle to a throb. I thrust my palm into a wet patch of sand and rub. I rinse it off in a puddle. No more sticky blue bits. Still shocked by what they’re seeing, the oldest brother manages a question: “Does it hurt?” As nonchalantly as I can manage, I reply: “No”. I then calmly continue my jog, aware that the two stunned beach boys are watching the weirdo run off. What they don’t see is my face contorted in pain. My hand is on fire.
It’s after midnight on what’s been a busy Saturday night. I get notified of a job in Bondi and wait outside the building for five minutes. Just as I decide to phone my Uber rider, a dark skinned woman comes running up to my Mazda. “Thanks for waiting. I’m hopping out of one bed and straight into another.” This throws me – being a statement I’ve never encountered. “Fair enough” is all I can come up with. But of course my curiosity is aroused. What’s her story? Is she a prostitute? I want to check her out in the rear view mirror but decide it’s too creepy. Oh well – whatever. As I drive I notice she has a strong, musky yet sweet scent. We sit in silence, except for my music mix which, thankfully, doesn’t play anything I feel compelled to skip. As we come down the hill into Coogee, a heavy mist hangs over the beach and surrounding streets. “Can I roll down my window?” I’m surprised by the request. “Sure. Here – I’ll roll down the others.” The windows slide open and suddenly our cool cocoon is breached, warm humid sea air rushing in. I drive out of the valley and up the other steep incline. Soon we arrive at a South Coogee cul-de-sac. “Thanks. Have a good night.” “No worries. You too.” It’s as she walks in front of my headlights that I get my first good look at what she’s wearing – a flimsy nightie, bare feet and only her phone in her hand. Wow – she really is hopping out of one bed and into another. I decide that she’s probably not a call girl but more likely a booty call girl. Is she returning to her own bed or will she be hopping back out and into another Uber later tonight? Either way, she won’t be hopping into my Mazda. Time to call it a night.
There are buses up my bum. So I crawl further up the road, hoping my Uber rider is close enough to see me. Just in time a tall olive skinned young man opens the door, a plastic bag of bottles clinking in his hand. “Sorry mate, couldn’t pick you up from where you were – bus lane.” He beams with bravado. “No worries bro – thanks for slowing down.” And we’re off – the Uber app (which I find increasingly dodgy) directing me towards Kensington. As many passengers do, this one soon has his head over his phone. Not a problem. Will probably be one of those quiet trips. Except for my music. I become aware that country swing king Lyle Lovett is singing a warped gospel song about a hungry congregation wanting their babbling preacher to shut up so they can all get fed: “Now to the Lord, praises be, it’s time for dinner now let’s go eat. Got some beans and some good corn bread, listen now to what the preacher said.” Suddenly, I feel a bit self conscious. Given that this young dude is probably a rap fan and wouldn’t have a clue as to the quirks of Julia Robert’s ex-husband (how weird was that?), I worry that he’ll think I’m some sort of God Botherer intent on saving his soul. Or not. He puts his device away and actually starts tapping along to the beat. I take this as a good sign and ask him about his day. Turns out he’s moving out of the city to Parramatta. This doesn’t really explain why he’s in an Uber to Kensington. I ask where he works. The city. “Right. So you’ll have a bit of commuting ahead of you.” Yes – he will. But how he’ll do it depends upon the outcome of this trip. “I have my appeal against my drink driving licence suspension tomorrow. I’m on my way to church to get a blessing that the decision will go my way.” I smile. So much for him worrying that I’m a God Botherer. I soon drop him off at a Coptic Church and wish him luck with his appeal. Perhaps he’ll have God on his side. Later that same night I pick up another young man. He tumbles into the car, reeking of alcohol. I look at the app and see that we have a long trip ahead of us. My passenger put his head back and closes his eyes. Probably not much of a conversationalist. As we make our way down a little street in Surry Hills I actually lived on decades ago, his head rises. “Stop the car.” I do. He opens the door and lets loose. I’m thankful he managed to get the door open. Once done, he thanks me. I find a tissue and hand it too him. “Better out than in. You right now?” He assures me he is and we continue on our way. Out of no where, he asks, “How much of the Bible do you believe in?” Whoa – didn’t see that coming! I give it some thought, thinking that he may in fact be a God Botherer and I should be diplomatic. “Well, I guess there’s a few things – but probably not a lot of it.” He nods. ‘From the music you’re playing, I figured you believed in most of it.” Again – whoa! Had this been the guy I drove earlier – then that would be a fair comment. But from the couple of mellow jazzy sort of tracks that have been playing since Mr. Spewy got in, I have no idea how he connected them to me being a Bible basher. I figure that he must be. So I ask, “How much of the Bible do you believe in?” He scoffs. “My job is to defend pedophile priests. They’re scum.” Okaaay then – I take that to mean he’s not such a fan of the Good Book. He then opens up (fortunately not the contents of his stomach – though we do pull over for one more puke stop). He tells me he’s a twenty three year old barrister – pushed to such an early high achievement by his parents. But he’s not very happy about it – seeing his life mapped out in front of him. I feel sorry for him and suggest he travels – especially somewhere where he might experience a bit of culture shock. He shrugs, not optimistic he’ll ever get to do so. I drop him off at a brand new gated community. He looks up at his building. “I’ll now go up to my penthouse apartment where my wife will tell me I’m an arsehole.” Bloody hell – this is not a happy chappy. I wish him luck and drive off, contemplating the wonderful (though extremely unlikely) possibility of this down in the dumps atheist lawyer representing the freshly blessed drink driving Coptic Christian.
I am at Bronte beach staring at an angry ocean. It’s the world’s biggest washing machine, white water churning. Out of the corner of my eye I see a hand hovering near my backpack. “Hey!” The hand belongs to a young woman who grabs a floating plastic bag. “Sorry – this is mine.” She hurries off. And so does my memory – racing back nearly twenty years. I am at the look out below Sacre Coeur, taking in Paris’s magnificence. I’m sitting on the raised railing, my black bag next to me. Despite being in the city for a couple of days, it is the first time I’ve escaped my hosts and am at last able to indulge my guilty pleasure of just being a tourist. Now I’m surrounded by hundreds of them. I take a deep breath and do my best to register the white and terracotta mosaic maze spread beneath me. I feel self conscious about my bag taking up valuable viewing space so place it on the ground behind me. I drift off, looking at a view that’s changed little over centuries. Without reason I suddenly turn to my left. I see someone walking quickly with a bag that looks like mine. I look at the ground. Gone. I leap off the railing and sprint, trying desperately to remember the French word for thief. Just as I’m closing in, my back pack is dropped. A terrified North African woman turns towards me, change spilling from her purse. Without thinking, I pick up my bag, then bend down to fetch the money for her. It’s a surreal scene – and it gets even more bizarre. I’m about to offer the thief her money when two tourists grab her and start dragging her away. It’s only when they cuff her that I realise that they’re probably not tourists. One cop is short with blonde hair and a moustache. The other is taller and better looking. The moustached shorty looks me over. He decides I’m not a local and demands in English: “Papers.” Of course this is the first day during six weeks of traveling that I’m not wearing my ‘life line’ pouch around my neck. “Sorry – I don’t have my passport on me.” Not good enough. “Papers, Monsieur.” I dig out my wallet. The first thing I find is the fake international student ID I got in Thailand in order to get discounts. He sees this and grabs it, just as I find some legitimate ID – my driver’s licence. “No – here – take this one.” He shakes his head. “Non. This will do.” Panic pulses through me. Oh no! What if he does a check and discovers it’s a fake? I imagine sharing a cell with the thief, wondering if fraud attracts a harsher punishment in France than bag snatching. I’m thrust back into reality by the impoverished woman’s big sad eyes. “Sorry.” I’m not sure how to respond so I just shrug. The cop, however, is having none of it. “Sorry? Too late for sorry.” We are taken to a mobile police van set up as a little office. It’s quite the show for the tourists and I hear cameras clicking. I feel awful, like I’m suffocating under a huge weight. I look up at Sacre Coeur cathedral and see white avenging angels bearing down on me. Inside the van is a police woman who speaks English. I ask if I could just not press charges and am flatly told “No.” Fair enough. After all, this is a country where you are guilty until proven innocent. I notice a dark skinned man being questioned, beads of sweat rolling down his face. I’m told he is a ‘bad man’ – the woman’s lookout who actually gets most of what she steals. But he’s playing the innocent. “Je suis pas un voleur!” Oh yeah – that’s the word for thief. Mr. Mo explains to me that I’ll be taken to the real police station to give a statement but not to worry because it’ll be “very expensive.” Say what? The police woman interjects – “Non – c’est pas expensive. Fast – quick.” Mo shakes his head. “Non non – expensive!” I take some money out of my wallet, trying to illustrate the concept of expensive. Realising I risk this gesture being interpreted as a bribe, I quickly put my money away as he grudgingly accepts that maybe his English isn’t as good as he thinks. I am put into a police car and whisked away to the station. While Mo explains the situation to a bored looking cop, I ask his handsome partner if he speaks English. “Oui – a little.” I then tell him that, with his Rip Curl shirt and surfboard pendant, he looks more Aussie than me. He beams and holds up his pendant. “Oui – I’m a surfer!” Finally, the bored detective gestures for me to sit opposite him. His English is about as limited as my French but between the two of us, my version of the story is ever so slowly tapped into a computer two fingers at a time (proving that cops the world over have very limited typing skills). At one stage we hear a woman (surely my bag snatcher) lose the plot – yelling, screaming and throwing things. I feel nauseous. But finally, I’m done. I tell Mo that I need to get back where I was for a “rendez-vous”. He tries to oblige by organizing a patrol car but fails. He then volunteers to take me back via the Metro. Feeling the ordeal is nearly behind me and that I won’t be busted for Student ID fraud, I relax a little. As we board a train, Mo explains that he’s actually a Metro cop and shows me his gun. As if to prove the point, he starts hassling a guy he claims is a serial pick pocket. The guy swears he’s clean and Mo lets him go. As we zip beneath Paris, I confess that I feel stupid for being so careless about my bag. “Non non – you are in Paris enjoying the beautiful view of beautiful Paris and you relax. Not your fault.” We leave the train and he escorts me back into familiar territory. I thank him for his help. “No problem. Enjoy your stay in beautiful Paris.” He then disappears, on the hunt for bag snatchers and pick pockets. I need a drink.