Northern nostalgia

September 12, 2020 at 4:50 pm (memory, writing) (, )

I’m not terribly good at judging spaces. I can sing Jacques Brel lyrics in French and Flemish, anticipate my hormone levels by the phases of the moon, and nail deadlines, word counts and themes without blinking. My spatial awareness, however, is really not a strength.

My husband still laughs that I thought our snake tank (a huge, heavy wooden monstrosity) would fit on top of our bookshelf (a flimsy frame). Friends have met more than one ex-lover of mine only to lean in and whisper ‘You said he was really tall!’ Invariably, I thought they were. Years later, I would realise several of them barely rose above my five foot six. My regard for them, it seems, continually overrode my realism.

I’m a word worker. I really can’t be trusted with numbers.

But numbers are all that count these days, it seems. It’s a constant source of conversation, especially here in Melbourne: Have you heard the statistics today? How many new infections? How many in ICU? How many on ventilators? How many in my suburb?

My dictionary has been replaced on my desk by a calculator, and I do not like it.

September studio

These are the Melbourne numbers: seven months in lockdown. One hour of exercise a day, no more than 5km from home. One person from each household allowed out to shop. A growing collection of masks. Everyone home by 8pm, the curfew enforced by police roadblocks. The fine for breaking curfew: $1652. Revenue raised so far by curfew fines in this state: almost three million. Three days of online teaching for me each week, three days writing. And waking at 5am most mornings, fretting and fearful.

Lockdown reading and rockabilly mask

I’m healthy though, and for now, employed. I know these are gifts. I have a novel coming out next year through Scribner, and an amazing husband also with a novel being published next year, who lifts my mood and alleviates my catastrophising with jokes aimed both at my large teeth and my complete failure to understand classic movies. I perversely enjoy both. We’re a damn good team.

A Brussels park, and a honeymooning husband (2019)

But it’s the 5km radius that keeps snagging my mood. I cannot see my friends, nor my family. They live in the forest 30kms outside of Melbourne whose lush shades of green I miss so much it causes an actual ache.

But, surprisingly, what I really miss is Northcote. I lived in this inner-northern suburb for twenty-five years, right up until love beckoned me across the West Gate Bridge. Earlier this year a story of mine was published by Quiet Corner in an anthology of Melbourne tales. Described as ‘geographies of love, loss, disappointment and change in a city beloved by many’, we had no idea just how much change would occur between the publication in May and this current situation. Reading my story about Northcote is now a bittersweet experience.

On the Street anthology – click link to purchase

Click to view our online panel for the Williamstown Literary Festival, myself included

I’ve stopped saying ‘When this is over….’ That belies a naivety that I don’t possess anymore. But when the 5km radius is eliminated or extended, I know where I’ll head.

I’ll walk past the vintage clothing store I used to unlock every Sunday, putting on Big Mama Thornton CDs and working on linguistic essays between customers. Past the bluestones of the Wesley Anne where for over a decade I co-ran with my best friend a monthly writers’ meeting, full of sticky mulled wine and red notebooks. Brown and Bunting bookstore where I first saw my name on an anthology cover and was almost sick with the thrill of it. The Northcote Social Club where a Swiss lover bought me burgundy and brûlée the night before his visa ended, and Bar 303 where a date with another man involved a false beard, a tiny doll that looked like me, and a woman who thought she was married to the Berlin Wall. The old Walhalla cinema where I saw ‘Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill!’ with punk pen pals visiting from Amsterdam, and the site of my beloved Bar Nancy, which I frequented so much they named a honey martini after me. And the tram stop where I first laid eyes on my Wolf and his cowboy shirt, chest hair and wide smile, and thought…well, let’s see where this leads, shall we?

That strip of High Street, Northcote may be 11km out of my lockdown zone, and many years in the past, but it still feels like home.

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Thuis (home)

September 29, 2019 at 6:25 pm (Brussels, Goth, honeymoon, memory, writing)

When I was a troubled teen – and who wasn’t? – I was taken to a counsellor. Quite a few, actually. My all black armour, the punk anthems bellowed from my bedroom, my furious scowl and pentagram jewellery, were all causes for
concern. In many ways I was a typical teenage girl; I just didn’t know it.

One therapist wanted me to imagine my happy place, so I could transport myself there in the face of anxiety or depression. A sunny meadow; an azure beach. I chose an imaginary flat close to the Thames in London. I would be living there by myself, with the solitude and silence I already knew to relish, and needed to write. My happy place, when I closed my eyes, was envisioning myself curled up on the floor in a darkened flat, head against the window, watching the rain.

Although I was delighted to finally visit London, as a teen Goth my face was not permitted to show it.

My vision wasn’t exactly cheerful, though it was pure Goth. And it gave me great comfort, for decade after decade. Before a flight or a fight, a magazine interview or stepping on stage at literary festivals, I would close my eyes, and deep breathe as I listened to the rain against the windows.

Here’s the thing, though: London and I are no longer friends.

Earlier this month we took a honeymoon to Europe. Chris’ family all live in the UK, with a stop first in Brussels. The latter is my home away from home; I’ve lived there twice now, and adore it so much I tear up at the first whiff of cherry beer.

London used to charm me – it was the home of punk, and Doc Martens! What more could a surly teen require? This time, however, I stalked Regent Street with its gross consumerism, battled swarms of late summer tourists with their selfie sticks, and struggled to find the awe it had once triggered in me. Could this really still be my happy place? I walked down to the Thames and tried to imagine where my mythical flat would be, but narrowly missed being shat on by a pigeon and scolded by hipsters.

Trying to find London charm

Trying to find London charm

Brussels was another matter. Chris fell for its ‘sleazy charm’ immediately, installing himself on our balcony with a soundtrack of Jacques Brel. We gazed in awe at Hieronymus Bosch and Bruegel paintings, and drank strong Duvel beer in an ornate Art Nouveau museum high above the cobble stones. We posed for photos in front of my old high school from my exchange year, a private Catholic girls’ school whose strict rules I’d hated with a passion, yet which now proudly flies a rainbow flag.

Cherry beer and old school Flemish

Cherry beer and old school Flemish

We scratched our initials into a weathered table top in a Flemish café where Brel drank, and the Belgian surrealists sketched. I brewed coffee and made pancakes in our warm and homey apartment with its red bordello walls and abundance of witchcraft symbols.

Brussels home for the week

Brussels home for the week

Sustenance

Crepes and coffee

Belgian cat medals at the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market

Belgian cat medals at the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market

We ate mussels at dusk and cherry beer for breakfast; we sat together in parks I used to write in, and with camera held high, Chris clicked the button at the same moment he felt me up. The surprise and delight on my face is a favourite souvenir.

Town Hall in the exquisite Grand Place

Maison du Roi in the exquisite Grand Place

Jardin du Petit Sablon

Jardin du Petit Sablon

And this, I know now, is my true happy place. I look over our week there together, showing the city I love most to the man I love most, and I try to pin it down.

And then I find it.

It was a midweek afternoon. We’d walked through the Parc de Bruxelles and had a gorgeous lunch under its trees, washed down by raspberry lemonade. We headed home when the rain began. It was light summer rain, with the air still warm, and the sunshine strong. We curled up in our comfy bed for a nap, with the tower of the Town Hall in the Great Place visible from the open window. Chris fell asleep before I did, a napper so dedicated he actually has a sleep crease etched into his forehead. His back was to me, and I reached out to stroke it. The sun caught the rubies in my wedding ring as I listened to the rain, my hand outstretched. And that was it.

With that memory, I knew I’d never need the Thames flat again.

The places our minds can retreat to when we need escape, when we need solace, are endless. The books we’ve read, the holidays we’ve had, even fantasies of the future. The trick is to recognise them when they’re in front of you, to catch them so gently you don’t break them.

Then they’re yours, whenever you need them most.

Serenity

Contentment and cobblestones

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