Three Kisses

muddamI was fifteen the summer Sarah moved in next door. My mum and dad hadn’t hidden their delight when our previous neighbours—with their all-night parties and motorbikes—had put up the For Sale sign and eventually moved on. The day Sarah’s family moved in, Mum baked a fruitcake and Dad collected a bottle of home brew. We slipped through the strands of barbed wire to spread a bit of neighbourly cheer. And check them out.

Sarah’s dad played prop forward and had a ridiculously deep voice and knuckle-crusher grip. Her mum was a waif and an orthopaedic surgeon. There were three kids; the seven-year-old boy with the bowl cut who was introduced to us as Boofhead, Maxine, his ten-year-old sister who had curls so red and tight that she may have needed an asbestos pillow, and Sarah. She was thirteen. Her hair was red, too, but deep like polished jarrah and long and straight, clamped off her freckle-dusted face in a ponytail that hung to her shoulders. It whipped at the air as she gave me the guided tour of their new home. There were cardboard boxes in every room and we lingered at her door. The bed was made and the box on the floor was open, a single teddy bear’s paw reaching for the ceiling. Pick me, pick me!

‘It’s such a mess,’ she said.

‘It’s … it’s nice,’ I replied, the blood charging to my face. I’d never felt quite so awkward. I’d never seen the insides of a girl’s room before. Well, that’s not true. I’d seen my cousin’s Cinderella bedspread but she wasn’t a girl as such, she was my cousin.

I helped them set up their trampoline and double bounced Boofhead until his laughter turned to tears. Sarah told me not to worry, that it had been an accident and besides, Boofhead cried all the time, but I did feel like a monster. I sat demurely on the edge of the mat while Maxine bounced. Sarah sat at the other end and we talked about where they’d been living in South Australia and that their new house was the fifth one they’d called home in as many years.

I liked her lips. She carried her head like the Arab filly at Thompson’s place. She was confident and smart and used big words and talked about interesting things. She knew stuff. She read books and had opinions about things like world hunger and Islam. The mozzies started eating us as the sun went down and my parents collected me on their way home. Sarah said goodbye and I asked her if she was going to be around then next day. She shrugged, and smiled.

Mum and Dad sighed in unison when we made it home. Dad said they were a vast improvement. I had to agree.

I heard the kids shouting and laughing the following day. I brushed my hair and ran my fingers over the fuzz of moustache I’d been cultivating since I was thirteen. I huffed into my hand and smelled my breath.

I found them in the dam. The relentless heat had all but drained their cultured puddle and the kids had found the mud. Squelching, farting, knee-deep slick clay. Boofhead started throwing it. The girls pelted him and he hobbled home crying with his arms stretched wide and a healthy bolus stuck to his right cheek.

‘Coming in?’ Sarah asked.

I looked at my shorts and t-shirt. Maxine landed a gob of clay in my hair and giggled as I kicked my boots off. I waded into the cool slush and did my best to hold my smile. It squidged between my toes and made the worst possible first-date noises. I grabbed a lump and pelted Sarah. It slapped into her thigh and she squealed.

‘Sorry,’ I said.

She bent forward and cried quietly into the muck.

Maxine frowned at me and looked at her wrist before resting it on her sister’s shoulder.

‘You okay, Sarah?’ she asked.

Sarah whispered and rubbed her leg.

‘Sorry,’ I said again, and stepped closer.

With a banshee yowl and a cake-eating grin, Sarah snatched at the mud and sent me tumbling backwards in self-defence. My feet couldn’t move. My hands shot out behind me and sunk elbow deep into the slush. I managed to hold myself above the mess. My bottom was hovering dangerously close to the slop. I was pinned. I hung there like a human coffee table, unable to get up without getting seriously muddified.

The sun mauled at my eyes and then I was in shadow. Sarah stood above me, rolling a glob of mud from hand to hand, her face cut with an impish smile.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Please. Mercy!’

She grabbed more mud.

‘Kiss him,’ Maxine said. ‘Get him while he’s down.’

‘Now there’s an idea,’ Sarah said, and I started crabbing frantically towards the edge of the dam. Maxine stepped behind me and blocked my retreat.

Oh well, I thought. If you have to go, you have to go.

I closed my eyes. The smell of Sarah’s shampoo cut through the mud-rank air. Her hair tickled my nose, and I finally tasted smooth soft … mud.

I coughed and spat and let myself slump. I wiped my face on my sleeve and began to sink. The mud was cool on the back of my head and the bubble inside me burst. I didn’t care any more. I couldn’t get much dirtier. I grabbed at the squealing Sarah and she fell forward with a flup. Maxine had made it to the shore and bayed laughter at the sun.

Sarah had a fresh freckle on her nose. ‘Let’s get her,’ she growled, and I rolled onto my stomach.

Maxine realised too late that she was croc bait. We took hold of a leg each and dragged her in. She was covered by the time we let her go. She sat there and pretended to cry so we sobbed, too. At the top of our lungs.

‘You’ve got a spot of mud on your cheek,’ Sarah said.

‘You’ve got one on your nose,’ I replied.

‘Here, let me get it for you,’ she said, and smeared her clay slippery hand across my face.

‘Thanks.’

She didn’t fight when I wiped her look with my goopy paw, just cracked the mud with a smile and spat. ‘That’s better,’ she said. ‘Thank you very much.’

I took them to the creek and we clouded up the water as we swam our clothes clean. We lounged in the sun and grew crusty as we dried. I laid on my back in the grass, the crook of my arm shielding my eyes from the summer.

I heard Maxine whisper to her sister. ‘Kiss him,’ she said.

‘No,’ Sarah sighed.

‘Go on,’ Maxine said aloud.

And she did.

Her lips pressed against mine. I got such a fright that I opened my mouth and sat up.

Sarah stood, frantically wiped at her face and spat.

Maxine laughed.

I held my hand over my own lips, my heart flipping around like a trout.

Sarah smiled.

I knew there’d be nothing as sweet as a third kiss.

 

Thanks, Dad.

dad and kev lgI have a nice balance between home and work life at the moment and I think I owe most of it to my dad. I know that sounds trite but my dad is a really hard worker. When I was growing up he carried what you might call a protestant work ethic.       He didn’t have the religion but he had the ethos—hardly missed a day of work as a draftsman then advisor with the State Electricity Commission of Victoria. One man and more or less one job for thirty-five years. A feat of endurance that the likes of my generation would consider a kind of self-abuse or prison sentence, but he survived. I can’t say he came out unscathed, but he survived.

At home we had one mum, one dad and three boys. Mum taught exercises in the back shed and later studied Diversional Therapy and worked in adult day care but when I came home from school, she was always there. Dad would arrive some time around dusk and whisk us away in the sky-blue VW kombi for camping holidays in the summer and at long weekends. My most significant memory of my childhood is the months of long service leave that dad took when I was six. We got to hang out together for months on end—day and night—as he drove us up the east coast to a tropical wonderland. My childhood was idyllic in a kind of seventies pre-digital way.

My dad’s job at the SEC eventually got Economically Rationalised. He took The Package. Looking back, I think it happened just in the nick of time. I remember, as a seventeen-year-old, staggering home very early one morning after a blinder and Dad almost running me over on his way to work. His eyes were open as he was driving the ute but he wasn’t there. He hadn’t seen me. He was on autopilot. His work had made such a groove in his life that he was just going through the motions. I dived into the gutter and decided I’d never work that hard. Scary. I’d never loose myself in a job like he’d done.

Dad helped me get my first job out of school: as an apprentice gardener with the local council. He said it was a good job and, if I played my cards right, I’d have it for life. I worked hard but never stopped dreaming of doing something different. I got my trade qualifications then my job got Economically Rationalised. I was offered re-employment under contract with the new amalgamated council but my boss whispered to me one afternoon that I should go back to school. It was that or push a mower for the rest of my days.

My boss gave me the impetus and my dad supported my decision to step outside the protestant work ethic of one man one job one life and I reinvented my work self again and again and again in a long train of self-discovery. Massage, counselling, professional musicianship, landscaping, hypnotherapy and a host of gap-filler jobs in the service industries.

And I fell in love. I had a few rough starts but Dad assured me that when the right person came along, I’d know they were The One. Maybe I just subscribed to his romantic vision of the world but I eventually found her. She came fitted with two gorgeous girls (five and six-years-old) from a previous relationship and we had an instant family experience that we complimented with a child of our own a couple of years later.

Work life and family life. I had one of each but I was skewed towards work. My experiences of growing up were good and I wanted to give my kids the same. Better. I wanted to be there like my dad had been during his long service leave. I even bought the kombi—a green shit heap that cost us a lot of money and gave us a lot of pain. When our little bloke was three-months-old, my wife was ready to go back to work. She’d done her fair share of parenting with the girls and could bring home a better income than I could anyway so it made good sense for us. Childcare didn’t seem like a feasible option for me. Why pay somebody to do something you’re yearning to do yourself? Being a home dad—or, as my brother says, a professional boy farmer—was something that challenged the shit out of me and fed me when I didn’t know I was hungry. I learned how mind-numbing daytime television was, I learned how vulnerable you can feel if you’re not the one bringing the money into the household and I discovered all the things I’d been missing—the little things that are family-sized miracles, like all the steps along the way as the boy started to speak and crawl and walk and become a little man.

I skewed—very nicely, thank you—towards family. My wife was the primary breadwinner but I still had a few little work interests that were a welcome distraction from housework. I was working on a novel (isn’t everybody?), I maintained a website selling Australian Didjeridus to the world and produced a newsletter for the Didjeridu playing community. We’d bought our house in the country for $32,000 dollars and decided to go with the Hyundai instead of the BMW Z3. I guess that’s internal economic rationalisation.

When the little bloke found an afternoon sleeping pattern that suited him, I used the time to write. Usually a couple of hours a day, max. I wrote some articles for Earth Garden magazine and got paid for them ($150 for about six weeks worth of writing and editing!) and the floodgates opened. I found something new that I enjoyed, something that needed a good balance of head and heart to be worthwhile, something that I could do as time permitted—from the comfort of my own home—that fitted with my family life AND brought in the cash. A type of alchemy—money from words. So, as the boy grew older and went to school, instead of going out and finding meaningful full-time work, I took on a few part-time contractual jobs and my good woman supported us while I wrote.

I write novels for money now. It’s not a huge income but it’s supported by work as a speaker—visiting schools and festivals, hopefully inspiring young people and adults to read and write their hearts out. I work from home on average three or four days a week—during school hours—and have to travel quite a bit for the speaking work. Like a schoolteacher, I don’t have to work during the school holidays and I usually spend the time building things or knocking around with the family. I feel connected to work and more than just the ghostly moneymaking member of the family. My wife retired from paid work in 2005 and came home to look after her mum who suffers dementia.

And my dad? He works a contract job now that sees him on the computer at the paper mill three days a week. He fills the rest of his time—between luxurious semi-retired holidays—with line dancing, kayaking on the pondage and handyman work—for Mum and for other people. We’re agreed that it pays to work hard, but not at the expense of a life.

Boys, Books and Story

scot and shaund reading 3yr lgI’m not sure why there’s so much fuss about boys and their reading habits. Maybe it has something to do with their over representation in crash statistics and suicides. Maybe there’s some sort of subliminal link between how boys perform in life and how much they read. I guess that could be true at school but it’s a bit of a stretch to see it affecting their life choices and their sense of wellbeing.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe stories are the way we connect with our history. They help us develop our imagination and capacity to visualise. Packaged stories in the form of books are a fairly recent invention for our tribe and there are other, more recent inventions that have a greater allure for some of our young blokes.

Games machines and the video culture are still story telling mediums. They have beginnings, middles and ends. They have characters and plots, heroes and villains. Anybody who thinks that young people have a short attention span have never watched them hooked into a movie or a game. When something captures their attention, it’ll hold it. The pathologies associated with excessive gaming are similar to workaholism. It’s staying focussed for long periods of time and the invariable effects on posture, concentration and sense of wellbeing.

I know kids who hide from life through gaming and video. I know kids who hide from life with books, too, but we don’t see that as so much of a shortfall. We strive for balance.

In the library at the secondary school in Kerang they have a dozen or so computers networked and the kids are allowed to play games on them at lunchtime. The library is certainly a boyzone and I watched a few guys browsing the bookshelves while they were waiting for their turn on the machines. It would have been hopeful to think that gamers would become readers due to the placement of computers but there was no doubting that the library was a popular place to be.

Kerang illustrates the passive way some boys relate to reading. They’re not ‘reluctant’ readers as such but more perfunctory about the process. They read when they have to—under duress in English classes—and at other times as a gap filler, not as a recreational pastime. Do we jump up and down about people who are reluctant to appreciate visual art or music or movies or dance or any of the zillion other story telling mediums we have?

I was a reluctant reader, bordering on recalcitrant. I didn’t read a novel of my own volition until I was seventeen. There was too much else going on in my world and the shit they made us read at school meant nothing to me. I did okay in English due to the fact I could wrangle the language and I enjoyed telling stories. I read the first and last few pages of the set text and winged the rest. It was something to be proud of in year ten to get an A for an exam on a book that I’d never actually read. Young people still get away with it and I get a perverse sort of thrill when I hear about it.

You can lead an eye to words but you cannot make them read.

In the same way you can’t make them appreciate any other form of art. But that doesn’t stop us adults from getting excited about books and sculpture and theatre and trying to foster an openness and enthusiasm for the dynamic expressions of life captured therein. That’s our job as parents and teachers and it’s important to keep shoving the books and art in their faces.

I know I was seventeen when I read my first novel because it was an epiphany. It was an obscure book called My Side of the Mountain by an obscure (to me) American author with the awkward (if not memorable) name of Jean Craighead George. It was a book handed to me by the librarian at school. I told him I’d look at it, like I did with all the other books he handed me, only this time I did. It hooked me in. A story about a runaway boy and his pet falcon subsisting in the wilderness. It was my school holiday adventures captured on the page. It was a fantastical slant on life as I knew it and it resonated to my core. It may have been the book or it may have been that I was ready, but it hit me. It put me on a journey—one that has taken me to amazing places and has no real end. It’s a journey that has challenged me, thrilled me and paid the bills for a number of years.

My mum and dad didn’t read much—other than the Sun—but they are fantastic story tellers and listeners. My own kids have book habits that we’ve variously encouraged and discouraged (to keep in balance with the rest of life) over the years and we read at bedtime. We have a family ritual around visiting the local library on Sunday afternoons. These are probably the habits of a bookish family but we rough and tumble, play sports and music and watch movies, too. There’s no pressure to read. It has grown out of a family habit of telling stories and reading aloud at bedtime. Just one facet in a myriad life.

Mark Latham and the Labor Party probably hit on something with the Read Aloud Australia policy they launched way back in January 2003. They proposed to give free books to new parents, develop parental literacy and read-aloud skills and make a bit of a fuss with Read Aloud Ambassadors and Read Aloud Week. I was concerned that the Read Aloud initiative didn’t mention libraries. My kids buzz into the library with the same thrill I had at that age (and to a degree, still fight to suppress) … all those books, all those possibilities, all those stories. And it’s all for free! But how do you choose? How’s Mark Latham going to choose ‘up to three books’ to give to the new parents of Australia? Will they be Australian books? Will he pick the eyes out of the national and state literary awards lists? Will he grab bestsellers?

I’m glad it’s not me trying to make the choice. Even if he decided to support Australian authors by choosing only Aussie books for the list, there are still hundreds of great books to choose from. I think the ‘up to three books’ could go into the libraries and the infrastructure money spent on promoting libraries on television to sex-up their status as community hubs in this information world. To attack our reading habits as a culture, I think we also need to bridge the gaps the way Harry Potter, and so many others, have slipped effortlessly between mediums. From book to screenplay to video game and pencil case.

Boys are probably well served by being familiar with the art of telling their own stories and listening to others. It’s the way we become connected to our community. It’s how we get our needs met and our point of view across. Reading is one way of enhancing that ability. There’s more than one way to bind a story.