I unfurl my yoga mat. It’s a bright winter’s day at Bondi Beach. The concrete platform at the south end has the usual sprinkling of yoga stretchers, tai chi posers and seated coffee drinkers. I spot an especially lithe young woman with a pony tail contorting herself into some pretty impressive positions. But me – I’m just here to do my daily stretch – nothing too fancy (though I will end up in headstand a bit later). I begin my salute to the sun and notice an old fella near a rock with a pair of binoculars. It’s that time of year when then the humpbacks migrate north, so he’s no doubt here for a spot of whale watching. But just at the moment, it’s not whales that he’s watching. I follow the direction of the binoculars and surprise surprise – they are pointed at the pony tailed contortionist. Given he can’t be more than about twenty metres away, the dirty old bugger is getting an eyeful. An eyeful of what exactly is anybody’s guess. I suppose he can focus on whichever part of the lithe body he fancies. After all, it sure the hell beats whale watching.
I’m heading to the snow with my teenage son and am excited. Even he’s been able to ramp up his enthusiasm level – encouraging for someone who just weeks earlier had claimed that he wasn’t interested in skiing with me this year. But circumstances shifted and with the help of a motel with an indoor swimming pool, a sauna and a games room, plus the promise of $50 spending money, he is looking forward to it. It’s been awhile since we’ve last skied together – over four years ago in Japan. After he suffered through a group lesson in another language, we had a private lesson together with an instructor who spoke enough English to improve both of our abilities. My son’s improved so much that he raced off ahead of me. When I caught up with him, he was sprawled out on the snow, motionless. Not a sight any parent wants to witness. I asked him if he could move and he said no. He wasn’t screaming in pain so I took that as a positive sign. So we waited. An Aussie couple caught up with us. The woman had some lollies and, magically, these seemed to revive the nine-year old, who then exercised more caution coming down the mountain. Perhaps that incident contributed to his initial reluctance to ever go skiing again. But we seem past that now. We do a couple of easy runs on Friday Flats, Thredbo’s beginner slope. By the end of the second one, he seems to have enough confidence to head up the mountain with me and ski an area that he managed to cope with about six years earlier. But when we get to the start of the run, he freaks. “It’s too steep!” I’m surprised by the reaction. “No it’s not. You tore this up years ago. You loved it.” This fact does little to bolster his confidence but, reluctantly, he slowly snowplows his way down, kids half his size whipping past him. When we get to the bottom of the run, he wants lunch – anything to delay the next run. Some chicken wings and chips later, we head back up. He’s very nervy. About a quarter of the way down he comes unstuck and falls, one of his skis coming off. He lets fly with a couple of expletives to which I wisely turn a deaf ear. I do my best to keep things calm. “It’s alright mate. That’s just the first time you’ve fallen today.” But this provides no comfort. “This is stupid. I didn’t even want to come here.” We try a couple of times to get his ski back on but it just leads to more frustration. He decides that he’s over it and starts marching down the mountain, carrying his skis while I ski with four poles. At one point he sits down for a rest, fuming. Recalling the magical resuscitative powers of sugar in Japan, I offer him a mini Snickers. “No.” Mmm. Refusing chocolate. Not a good sign. “You made me do this. I told you I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay at Friday Flats. This is too steep. I’m a beach kid – not a snow kid. I’m never skiing again.” I attempt to counter this with a pep talk about how sometimes you need to push through stuff rather than give up when it all seems too hard. But he’s not buying it. Once we’re back at the restaurant area (but still half way up the mountain), I make him a deal. I give him money to buy a hot chocolate. He’s to sit down and drink it while I sneak in a couple of runs on my own. When I’m done, he seems in a better mood. We take the chairlift back down the rest of the way. As we swing between the gum trees, I suggest that we do a couple more runs at Friday Flats, just so he can get his confidence back and not end the day defeated. To my relief, he agrees. And sure enough, by the second run he is going well enough to abandon his snow plow technique. He then waits for me while I get one more run in from the top of the mountain all the way down, enjoying my recently purchased skis. Heading back to the motel, I suggest that if the weather turns the next day like is forecast, that we maybe forget about skiing and return home early. He’s in favour of this plan. He then surprises me by saying that next time (there will be a next time!) he wants to try snowboarding. I reply that this is a great idea and suggest that he learns it next year during his school’s annual five day ski trip. Then once he has the hang of it, we can give it another go – even if we’ll both have different modes of getting down the mountain.
We’re four middle-aged men about to hit the slopes – mates who met in Perth decades earlier but none of whom still live there. Perhaps it’s because it’s a bit of a catch phrase of the times but right from the start the trip is dubbed: “The Fully Sick Ski Trip”. This is even etched out in the frost covered back window of Ano’s four wheel drive – our very comfy mode of transport up and down the mountain (sadly the photo of this etching appears to have melted away just like the frost itself). The skiing is fun and without incident. Until the last day. Coming off a lift, one of my skis gets caught and my right knee is twisted into a position it was never designed to reach. The pain is excruciating. Abandoned by my mates, I somehow make it down the run. It seems to be less painful to ski than it is to walk. So I manage to get through the rest of the afternoon, stopping regularly for quick shots of alcohol. This appears to ease the throbbing and gives some credence to all those scenes in westerns where they give the poor sod a shot of whisky before ripping an arrow out of his leg. Our skiing is finally done and I manage to hobble back to the four-wheel drive. But as we begin the six hour trip back to Sydney, my knee reaches a new level of pain. Maybe having to keep it bent in the back of the car isn’t helping. A couple of hours later, I’m not only in great pain, I have now become a great pain – a distraction to the others who just want me to shut the fuck up. Then I remember that one of our group, who sadly had recently cared for his wife as she died of cancer, had mentioned that he still had some morphine pills with him in case any of us were interested. At the time he mentioned it, none of us were, possibly a little freaked out by the offer. But times change. Now, a bit of morphine sounds just the ticket. So I ask for one and he obliges. I wait, slightly nervous – wondering if I’m about to drift off into a drug haze. But nope – nothing. The pain is getting worse if anything. Could I maybe have another? Sure. So I pop the next one, wondering if two morphine tablets in a short space of time can constitute an overdose. But yet again – nothing. Maybe they’ve gone off. I don’t feel anything except a knee getting ready to explode. Then I have a great idea – alcohol! Some alcohol is the answer. So I ask Ano if he minds if I have some of his duty free bottle of bourbon. Sure – go ahead – anything to shut me up. So I dig it out of his bag and have a sip. Mmm – not bad. Not my usual preference in spirits but definitely hitting the spot. So I continue to swig away while discovering that mobile phone golf can be a fascinating distraction. And so between the bourbon and the golf, my mood improves considerably. In fact, I can’t really feel my knee at all. Actually, I can’t feel much of anything. But I do feel great. Until I don’t. We arrive on the outskirts of Sydney and stop for some petrol. My stomach doesn’t feel so good. Nausea starts stirring. The phone slides from my hand as I lean my head against the window. Uhhhh….. I’m vaguely aware of a couple of the others being dropped off. Ano can sense that I’m not in a good way. He tells me to hang on as he speeds through the relatively quiet Sunday night traffic. I try. But I can’t. I lower the window and empty the contents of my stomach down the side of his car and possibly into the windscreens of anyone unfortunate enough to be behind us at the time. Ano expresses his annoyance in a series of expletives. But I don’t care. I’m dying. I’m being turned inside out as we zoom along towards Bondi at breakneck speed. Finally, we arrive at my block of flats. Ano opens the door and is happy to watch me tumble out of his spew sprayed car and crawl to the gutter, where I intend to remain until I finally die. Shouldn’t be much longer. But my wife, standing there unimpressed by the mess that is her husband (for the time being), tries to get me to move while Ano cleans the puke off his now soiled four wheel-drive. But I ain’t moving. So my wife gets our big burly Kiwi neighbour to carry me over his shoulder and up to our flat. Such a position should make me puke all the way up the stairs but, fortunately, there’s nothing left. It’s all either being washed off of Ano’s car or is splattered throughout the streets of Sydney. I am tossed into bed where, surely, I will soon die. But I don’t. Instead, I manage to survive, albeit with a cloud of shame over my head. My mates of course bring it up on a regular basis, Ano particularly annoyed with how I dispensed with his Jim Beam. So, several years later when three quarters of our gang of four are at a pub and I am reliving the horror all over again, I tell Ano that the time has come to finally put this to bed, in a manner of speaking. So we walk over to the drive thru bottle shop and I tell him to pick a bourbon. He forgoes Jim Beam for something fancier, and more expensive. No worries – whatever. Anything to repay the guilty debt of The Fully Sick Ski Trip.
I’ve just finished twenty laps at the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre and am looking forward to a steam. I turn the corner to discover that the steam room is out of action. Bummer. I look through the glass wall of the adjacent sauna and see that it’s jam packed. Wait a sec – no, there does seem to be a seat on the bottom bench, even though a couple of people are standing near the door. I carefully push it open and the standers make room for me. I sit down and immediately notice that the bottom bench is considerably cooler than the one above it. Oh well. Maybe someone will leave and I’ll get my chance to move up in the world. I also become aware that the Chinese looking middle aged woman standing in front of me and facing everyone else is quite animated and talkative. She starts making odd faces and doing yoga poses, chanting, “Breathe in, breathe out.” She gets herself in a precarious position. It’s too much for the other stander and he opens the door. This unbalances the woman and she topples bum first out of the sauna. She gets up and leaves. Then it starts. The judgment. Bottom Bench Woman: “She was definitely on something.” Top Bench Woman: “Or maybe she used to be on something and is now always like that.” Top Bench Man: “I work at Long Bay Prison and I see that sort of thing all the time.” The door is swung open by a tall handsome life guard. I assume that he wants to checks people’s wrist bands and ensure no one is in there that didn’t pay for the privilege. But I’m wrong. “That woman that was just in here – she’s a regular and has fairly severe autism. Usually it’s not an issue but it’s particularly crowded in here today, so I apologise if she’s upset anybody”. He leaves. Silence. Bottom Bench Woman: “I feel so bad. Here we were, judging her.” Top Bench Woman: “I know.” Top Bench Man: “We deal with autism all the time at Long Bay.”
As an Aussie Rules fan, Rugby League is a game I dismiss as a bunch of no-neck gorillas running into each other. Not nearly as exciting as tall lean athletes leaping over each other. Still, there are at least three League games a year that I make an effort to watch: the State of Origin series. Billed as ‘State versus State, Mate versus Mate’, it is essentially an NRL all stars game, with each team selected based on where the players originated from. This allows for members of the same club to be facing off against each other, playing for State pride. And it does seem to make a difference. These games can be brutal, as was the case with the first one of this year’s series. And remarkably, ‘my team’ of New South Wales managed to beat the previously dominant Queensland in Brisbane. It was so exciting that I considered something I never have – buying tickets to the next game in Sydney and possibly witnessing the ‘Blues’ beat the ‘Maroons’ and take out the series. My son had been talking about wanting to go one year and I’d dismissed the idea. But now I have the opportunity to surprise him. So the day after the first game I fork out nearly three hundred bucks for seats up in the heavens. I don’t tell my son about it, not until a couple of hours before the game. He is shocked. And elated. So off we go, driving to the station then catching a train out west. But the train full of footy fans stops on its tracks, somewhere between stations. The mood remains surprisingly good. After some time, there’s an announcement that the reason for the delay is a police operation at Strathfield Station. A woman in our carriage elaborates – apparently someone has thrown themselves onto the tracks. This is a horrifying thought and I imagine the bloody mess, with police and paramedics attending to the scene. I take the delay as an opportunity to practice a bit of mindful patience – there’s nothing I can do so no point getting worked up about it. Hopefully we’ll get there in time. But if we don’t – we don’t. Finally, the train slowly chugs forward, to the cheers of its passengers. We crawl past Strathfield station. I can see a bunch of cops. They are standing around a man sitting on platform bench, black scuff marks down his back. The guy’s still alive! I am shocked and relieved. The Maori Maroons supporter behind me does not share my sentiments. “They should of just run over the c*nt.” Over an hour after we left, we finally pull up to Olympic Park station. We get swept up in a mostly blue tide. There are dozens of food stands. We grab a couple of chicken rolls and head up to our seats. ‘Up’ is very much the operative word. We climb a concrete spiral ramp that appears to be leading towards Heaven. At last we make it to the top and find our seats, careful not to teeter to the wrong side and tumble down and over rows of disgruntled spectators. Once seated, the site is truly remarkable. One of the reasons I decided to spend a few hundred dollars to watch a code I’m not especially passionate about is that I wanted to see this former Olympic stadium full. I have been at several AFL finals where, despite there being over forty thousand fans, the place looked half empty. But not now. There are over eighty thousand bodies packed in and the atmosphere is electric. After the national anthem (they should really have the two state anthems, should such songs exist), there is an almighty roar as the game begins. It is an exciting first half and too easy to get caught up in the crowd’s antics – chanting ‘Buuuulllshit’ at every dubious call and ‘New South Wales, New South Wales,’ to lift the spirits of the warriors in blue battling below. I also discover that binoculars are a very handy accessory for rugby league. The game moves at a pace that is easy to follow and it’s great to be able to see the player’s faces. Binoculars also prove entertaining between play to check out the sea of blue wigged die-hards camped at one end of the ground. After the first half, our boys in blue are comfortably on top and it looks like victory will be ours. But, as the cliché goes, it turns out to be ‘a game of two halves’. The proud and talented Maroons fire up and, thanks largely to the kicking skills of a Queensland legend playing pretty much with only one arm, the visitors steal the match by two points. Tens of thousands of disappointed fans trudge down the spiral ramp towards Hell. Or in our case, the toilet block. Just outside, my son sees a blue wig abandoned on the ground. He picks it up, dusts it off and puts it on. I jostle in and out of the toilets and then take a photo of my son with the blue lit stadium in the background. A Queensland fan, oddly wearing a blue wig (possibly also abandoned by a blue Blues fan), offers to take a photo of my son and I, lending me his wig for good measure. So we, a couple of Aussie Rules supporters, now have a shot that marks the time we crossed footy codes and cheered a losing side – and loved it (except maybe the losing bit…)
When my son returns from the barber, I’m expecting to see the usual short back and sides. At first glance, this seems to be the case. But something’s different. “Turn around.” He does. And there’s the difference. Instead of the back smoothly tapering off, there’s a defiant tuft at the top of a cliff like edge. It reminds me of Dennis the Menace. “That bit at the top looks weird.” “I like it” is the defiant reply (though later he will admit that he in fact hates it). As dumb as it looks, it’s not even in the same league as my worst ever haircut. I was a year or two older than him and having a much anticipated Sunday weekly visit home from boarding school (aka ‘Canadian Concentration School”). What I wasn’t looking forward to was returning to school for the upcoming haircut day. Every couple of months they would dig up this old bespectacled fossil named Steve. He had been cutting hair at St. John’s Cathedral Boy’s School since its inception in the early sixties. Obviously not one to move with the times, Steve had been dishing out the same two styles for the good part of a couple of decades. There was the ‘page boy’ and the ‘buzz cut’ (which has made a resurgence – though my son refers to it as ‘the shaved testicle’). My ears are too big for ‘buzz cuts’, making me look like a chimp. So I reluctantly always went for a ‘page boy’. I must of shared my dread with my family because to everyone’s surprise, my dad volunteered ,“I’ll cut it for you.” Everyone was pretty dubious about the offer – especially the one whose hair was on the line. “Really? But you’ve never cut hair.” My dad shrugged. “Up to you. Go back and let Steve do it then.” And that was the bait that got me. I knew what the alternative was. But I didn’t know what the possibility was. By some miracle of hidden talent could my father actually give me a better haircut than Steve the Butcher? Was it worth the risk? Yes. Yes it was. I could imagine the looks on the faces of my fellow inmates when they saw that I had come back with a stylish cut that still managed to sneak within the archaic guidelines. “Ok – go for it.” So he did. His tongue poked out slightly as his brow furrowed with concentration. I’m not sure I’d ever seen him so focused. I watched chunks of my hair fall into the my sheet covered lap. I must admit, I was hopeful. The only mildly disconcerting thing was the looks that the rest of my family were giving me as the cutting progressed. Still, what would they know? At last, my dad seemed satisfied. “Ok – go have a look.” I brushed the hair onto the floor, took off the sheet and hurried into the bathroom, my family close behind. I opened the door. Looking straight back at me was…me. Except not really. This version of me still had a freckled face and big ears. But something was wrong. Where there once had been straight brown hair sculpted to resemble a page boy, it now looked as if Picasso himself had decided to paint a page boy – after a few too many. Symmetry – who needs symmetry? Certainly not my dad. Evenness? Boring! Having short bits surrounded by long bits was much more daring. I stared. My family held their breath. And then it started. Tears. Lots of them. “What have you done?” Apart from my father, who was looking a little wounded, the other three members of my family were doing their best not to burst out laughing. “I can try to fix it if you like.” I was horrified. “NO! Don’t touch it! Ever again!” I ran off, tearfully searching for a hat. Of course this head gear was immediately yanked off on the bus back to Concentration School. I’ll spare you the jibes but they were appropriately cruel – my hair a gift from the gods to a bunch of sadistic teenage ratbags. So, after days of hell, Steve finally hobbled into the library to wipe the smile off of faces. But not mine. I had never been so glad to see him in my life. I threw myself onto the chair. “Hi Steve. A page boy please. Or a buzz cut. Just whatever it takes.” He looked at me a moment, startled. He took off his glasses, gave them a wipe and put them back on. And then, for the first time ever, I saw him smile. “Dad cut your hair, did he?” Now, in all fairness to my father and with the gift of hindsight, I can see now that what he did that day was just simply ahead of its time, that’s all. About ten years later, as a post punk student in Sydney, I not only would have paid someone a fair whack of money for such a cut, I would have also got them to squirt a bit of red and black dye into the mix. Maybe my dad missed his true calling…
It’s a no brainer – as I live just around the corner from Glebe Morgue, I’m the logical choice to return the gurney our short film production borrowed for the day. The task also provides me with a legitimate reason for having a film school van signed out in my name. Not that I especially care whether or not I have a legitimate reason. But it might come in handy if anyone ever bothers to check the log books and discovers that I’ve had a van for several months running. One of the fringe benefits of attending such a generously funded institution. It’s dark by the time I get to the morgue and access to the underground parking area is shuttered. There’s an intercom so I press the button. “Helloooo?” The woman’s voice sounds kind of creepy. “Uh – yeah – I’m returning a gurney from a film school shoot.” “Ah – yes – drive in and I’ll meet you in the car park.” I drive in, park and pull the gurney out of the back of the van. I turn around and see an odd looking woman – short with frizzy hair, Marty Feldman googily-eyes and an unsettling smile. “Follow me.” She turns and walks through an entrance. I follow her down a hallway and through a pair of thick plastic doors. The temperature drops. She asks, “So, you’re making a film about death, are you?” I’m about to explain that it’s a short film about a woman who finds out that her fighter pilot husband has been shot down when I suddenly realise that I’m surrounded by dead bodies. I literally see dead people. Old ones, young ones, each as naked as the day they took their first breath. Ok. I get it. Creepy Marty Feldman’s sister is trying to freak me out. Nope. Not going to let that happen. So I casually tell her about the film. Meanwhile, my heart’s racing and my eyes are darting around. There’s a little boy about seven. Sad. There’s a dude with an erection. Gross. Once we reach the other end of the room, the weird one turns and smiles. “This belongs in the deep freeze.” Ok then. We go through another pair of plastic doors and this time the temperature dives. As the freak takes the gurney from me, I spot the strangest thing yet. There in a plastic bag is what looks like a frozen furry giant. It’s much bigger than a normal person. What the hell is it? Before I come to any conclusions, I follow Marty’s sister back out into the main room. I continue to tell her about “Telegram for Mrs. Edwards” but as I do, I notice that I’m now much calmer as I drift through the dead. I look at them with a strange curiousity. So this is death. This is what it looks like. It is what it is – a bunch of empty vessels. I’m escorted back to my van and freaky Feldman wishes me luck with the film. I drive the short distance back to my share house. I’m buzzing. And hungry. I cook myself a steak, fascinated as I watch the blood congeal and sizzle. Meat. In the end, we’re all just pieces of meat.