A Minor Victory

Photo of a tractorThis is what I like about the dairy farmer: he never seems phased that I’m a woman. He just tells me to do stuff and I do it. “Move those tyres off that maize pile and pull the tarp back.” “Take the quad bike down to the end paddock and let the cows out.” He’s never like, “Oh wait, are you strong enough to throw tyres? Can you handle driving a quad bike?”

The other day we went out into a field where row upon row of freshly shorn, frayed maize stalks poked out of the earth.

“Come with me Helen, I’ve got a job for you.”

I followed him up into the cab of the tractor and he started driving.

“Mumble mumble mumble…” He was turned away from me, looking out the back window. I couldn’t hear him over the noise of the engine but I thought he was asking me to look at the mulcher that we were towing behind us. He pulled a lever and the mulcher rose up off the ground. “Mumble mumble up and down.”

“I can’t hear you,” I yelled.

He flicked a couple of switches and the tractor came to a halt. “This is the clutch, this is how you make the tractor go forward,” press, flick.

So I think he’s expecting me to drive the tractor?

“This is the throttle,” push, “the number here should read around 570. These are the gears, up and down.”

“Was that right button for up, left for down?”

He nodded. “Three is good. If you hear the engine struggling go down to two. The mulcher is here.” Click. “That’s it on. If you see a stone lift it up. Got it?”

“I think so.”

He stopped the tractor again.

“Sit down. See if you can do it.”

So I took my place behind the wheel and went through all the controls he’d just shown me. The tractor chugged along the field, mulching the gnawed off maize stalks into the soil. We got to the end of a row and I turned the tractor round.

“Left a bit. No, right! Look, can you see the line where you just came down?”

“Where are the brakes?” I suddenly thought to ask.

“Down there,” he pointed to a pedal on the floor. “But if you want to stop, just flick into neutral and take the throttle down to zero.”

He opened the door to the cab and swung a leg out. “I’ll be back to get you in a couple of hours!” he called, leaping out of the moving tractor and slamming the door behind him.

A couple of hours?! It was hot in the cab and I’d left my water bottle in the ute, and was I allowed to be in charge of a tractor? And who let the cows into the field??

But as I settled into it I thought this is actually kinda cool. I liked that the farmer trusted me just to get on and do something that I hadn’t done before. In general I think you live up to people’s expectations of your capabilities.

So I was surprised the other night when we were watching a reality cop show on TV and he suddenly said, “I don’t agree with women being police.” I couldn’t understand why he would think a woman was less capable than a man of doing police work. It turned out he was basing this on the idea that on a Friday night, if trouble kicks off amongst a drunken crowd, you need someone big and intimidating to restore order; in his view, a man.

What followed was a strange and stilted discussion where I wanted to change his mind but I didn’t want to come across as disrespectful or force my opinion onto him.

“I think that with the proper training, a woman could do just as well as a man in that situation. You don’t need to be physically big to take someone down.”

He shook his head. “I’m not talking about taking someone down. Just about intimidating them.”

I went into the kitchen to do the dishes. I could see where he was coming from. I know that in general men are bigger and stronger than women, but I just can’t shake the idea that a woman can do anything a man can do. I’m not saying that every woman can do something that one particular man can do, but that there is no activity on earth that a woman cannot do, purely because she is a woman.

I walked back into the living room with soap suds up my arms saying, “I think the problem is that we’re assuming that the only way to resolve drunken violence is by intimidation but there might be another way that doesn’t require a large male, that a female would be equally as good at.”

“What, like talking to them?”

“Maybe.”

“No, that would never work. Trust me. Have you ever been in a bar fight? No? Well, I’ve seen enough to know that a big, intimidating guy is the only way.”

“I just think it seems a bit harsh not to let women join the police in case this one particular situation arises where they might not be intimidating enough.”

I went back into the kitchen. He must have been starting to come round a bit because he came in a few minutes later: “I see what you’re saying that the Friday night violence is only a small part of the job. I suppose there are other areas where a woman would be better than a man…”

Which was not quite what I was saying either. I’d like to think that a man could do just as well as a woman in an task that’s been traditionally thought of as a woman’s role. But I appreciated that he was thinking about it and changing his mind, so I said, “Maybe having men and women working together would be the best thing,” and he agreed with me. And I was pretty happy with that, until he added: “But women in the Defence Force. I definitely don’t agree with that.”

Sheepshape

Flock_of_sheepI’m staying with Gaye and Michael on their farm in the Wairarapa. They run sheep for meat and for wool, some of which Gaye keeps to spin into yarn. Recently I helped Michael round up the sheep for their annual shearing.

“The sheep are really nutty,” he warned me. “They’re Finns, a Finnish breed, and we got them because their fleece is good for spinning, but they like to jump around a lot.”

The shearer told Gaye off. “You should have got nice, quiet Romneys,” he said, because he’s the one who has to wrestle them to the ground to get the fleece off them.

I hid behind the chicken shed while Michael chased the sheep up the field. There were ten of them, all rams. When they got close, Michael called to me to come out of my hiding place. “Wave your arms so they can see you!” I wondered if I just looked like a blob in the landscape to the sheep, indistinguishable from the gorse bushes. I raised and lowered my arms and the sheep stopped in their tracks. They looked at me then turned their heads and looked back at Michael, uncertain. I moved ever so slightly and they bolted back down the field.

We resumed our starting positions. I edged out from behind the chicken shed like a table football goalkeeper when the sheep came my way. They weren’t getting past me.

I waved my arms again but the sheep were bolder this time. They looked for ways round me.

“Make a noise!” Michael called to me.

When Michael makes a noise to chivvy along the sheep, he claps his hands, bangs sticks together, makes a harsh, staticky-sounding kshkshksh noise in his throat or yells, “Come on you bloody idiots!”

This is what I did: I looked at the sheep and I said, “Not this way,” shaking my head, as though I could reason with them. I didn’t even say it that loudly. I just assumed that the sheep at the front would relay my message to the rest of the flock.

Just for a moment, I thought I had them. Then one at the front leapt up in the air, all four legs kicking out as if to clear an imaginary fence, and raced past me. The rest bounded along after him.

Finally we got the sheep over the bridge and through the next two gates into the pen. The pen is divided into three enclosures. We got the rams in one and the ewes in another. Then, disaster. We heard a metallic clash as one of the rams threw himself at the gate and managed to squeeze through the gap where it didn’t quite meet the gate post. He quickly became lost amongst the ewes.

I pointed to a sheep that I thought had a manly looking face. “Is it that one?”

Michael shook his head.

“How about that one peeing on the ground?” That seemed like an uncouth, male thing to do.

“No, that’s a ewe.”

Right enough, the way it bobbed its bum and bowed its legs a bit to pee should have been a giveaway.

“How about that one there?” I pointed to a sheep with a pendulous mass quivering on its underside.

“No, I thought that too,” Michael said, “but it’s just a ewe with a fat belly.”

He waded through the sheep, lifting up their tails, searching for the one out-of-place ram. Sometimes one of the sheep would startle and run crazily round in the pen before leaping up to land on the backs of the other sheep.

“See what I mean? Nutty.”

Michael searched and searched and searched but could not find the ram. Eventually he concluded that his first count had been wrong and he actually had twelve ewes, not eleven, and one had just been misfiled with the rams. Indeed this proved to be the case. After the sheep had been shorn it was clear that none of the twelve ewes had an unexpected appendage.

Shortly after returning the freshly shorn sheep to their paddocks, three of the rams bounded over electric fences to join the ewes. At least now it was very easy to spot which of the sheep were the interlopers.

I Love Libraries

Some weeks ago I went to Brunswick Library looking for Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (it was recommended to me by some members of my non-fiction writers’ group in Edinburgh). The book should have been in the stacks but when a librarian went down to check, he couldn’t find it.

“It’s really unusual for a book to go missing from the stacks,” he said. “There’s not much I can do except reserve it for you and keep an eye out for it.”

Fair enough, I thought, because I don’t have unreasonable expectations about what can and can’t be retrieved from library stacks.

I pretty much thought the book was a lost cause so imagine my surprise when I popped into the library today and the librarian said, “There’s a message here for you: since we couldn’t find the book you were looking for we’ve ordered a new copy.” Then she apologised because that would mean a bit of a delay in me getting it!

I told her not to worry; I thought it was amazing that they were ordering a book for me, just because I requested it. What wonderful customer service!

Book Black Hole Conundrum

I knew it would cause trouble as soon as it happened.

I thought the trouble would come in the form of a bitchy post-it note stuck to the book I’d requested. Something along the lines of This is the second time we’ve had to pull this book for you, written in red biro, of course, with SECOND in block capitals and underlined twice.

Instead I got a phone call just as I was about to board a train into the city. You already had that book yesterday, the voice said.

I was quick to set the record straight. What happened was this: Yesterday I tried to request a book from the stacks but there was a system error and my online request didn’t go through. I asked a librarian for help. He clicked around with the mouse. “There we go. Your book will be ready in half an hour.”

“Oh, but I wanted it tomorrow.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll just put another request in for tomorrow.” Click click click. “Done.”

I’m afraid you’ve been misled, the voice on the phone said. It’s not that simple. We’ve got millions of books, and get hundreds of requests a day. We took back the book you requested yesterday and haven’t been able to locate it today. I’ve had two members of staff looking for it.

I asked if I could request it again for sometime next week.

No, it won’t work, because we’ve got millions of books and hundreds of requests to deal with each day…

“But what happens if you’ve got someone doing long term research who needs to use the same book every day over a long period of time? Is that not possible?”

In that case you can reserve the book. If you like I can give you a tinkle when we locate it and put it on reserve for you.

“Ah, OK, I understand. That would be great, thanks.”

But I don’t really understand. I don’t mean that I’ve got no sympathy for the people who manage the library’s huge collection, or that I’m unforgiving about the situation. I mean that I cannot comprehend what it’s like to work with millions of books..

A million dollars. I know what that’s worth, but I don’t know how many suitcases it would fill in $10 dollar bills. 10 suitcases? 100? A room full of suitcases?

It’s the same with the books. Are we talking about kilometres of shelving here? Is my book on a long overnight journey in a robotic car through a canyon of shelves back to where it came from? But it can’t be, because it took half an hour to get from its shelf to the library reading room in the first place, so surely only it should have only taken half an hour to get back to where it started? It must be sitting there on the shelf right now, right under the noses of the two staff that have been looking for it; that phenomenon where the very thing you’re looking for becomes invisible the moment it comes into direct eye line.

It’s the physics of the situation that’s so difficult to get to grips with. There must be some kind of variation in the properties of time depending on whether a book is moving in or out of the stacks, or a change in the light reflecting properties of recently disturbed books. A book black hole, perhaps?

It’s a mystery, all right.

Aerial Assortment

Back when I was living in Edinburgh I did a few trapeze courses at The Big Red Door. I kept meaning to find somewhere else to take lessons after it closed down, but I never got round to it.

Eventually, yesterday, I started an aerial assortment course at the National Institute of Circus Arts in Melbourne. Boy, was it hard. It turns out I have got almost no upper body strength at all.

I used to be able to do almost all the things that we were shown yesterday in the class but when I tried them myself I really struggled to hold my own body weight. The strength in my arms seemed to gradually deteriorate over the course of the evening so that by the time I got home, even pulling on my pyjama bottoms was almost impossible.

I asked one of the teachers what I could do to practice. I was worried she was going to say press-ups (my worst nightmare) but she didn’t. She said to try hanging from monkey bars. I’m going to do it. There’s a park near my house where I can practice. That’s it; I’m determined. Even though I’m scared of getting chased away by a gang of school bullies.

It’ll be worth it if only so that next week after class, I can get changed into my pyjamas without too much difficulty.

A Very Poor Feminist Role Model

A few weeks ago I was visiting my parents in Scotland. My dad left his laundry in an IKEA bag in front of the washing machine, presumably intending to put it on once the current load of towels had been emptied. When my mum hung out the towels she put his washing on.

Later, I came downstairs to make some tea. My mum was working on her tapestry. She jumped up when she saw me and said, “If you make the tea, I’ll hang your dad’s washing out.”

I said, “Dad can do that himself.”

“But he’s busy writing.”

“So? Why’s that more important than you being busy doing your tapestry? You’ve just decided that it is. If you get up and hang out his washing then that will make you a very bad feminist role model. Sometimes women complain that men keep them trapped at home doing domestic chores, but you’re trapping yourself.”

“You’re right. I know you’re right.” She sat back down and continued working on her tapestry.

My dad came down to join us for tea. We got into a bit of a one sided discussion about what’s wrong with my generation and what we have to do to change things. (Revolution! is my dad’s answer). While that was going on, my mum excused herself to go and get some coat hangers for my dad. Apparently they agreed at some point to experiment with hanging his shirts on coat hangers on the line instead of clipping them on with clothes pegs so that they dry more neatly.

Next thing I knew, my dad had finished outlining his three point plan for revolution and my mum was coming back into the kitchen from the garden where she had just hung all of my dad’s shirts up on the washing line.

“Tell me you didn’t just hang Dad’s shirts up!” I cried with exasperation, although the evidence was plain to see through the window.

“Well, your dad’s never hung his shirts up on clothes hangers before.”

I started to have some kind of apoplectic fit that involved a lot of wild hand waving and head slapping. “Oh my god! I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I wish you could hear yourself! Did you seriously just say that?”

My mum blushed furiously. “I mean your dad doesn’t know to use a clothes peg to secure the coat hangers to the clothes line.”

“What? And you think he’s too dumb to figure that out? You could have just told him that’s what he’s supposed to do. You didn’t have to do it for him!” I shook my head and tsked. “You’re a very poor feminist role model, Mum.”

“Oh look,” she said, “That’s one o’clock. “Would you like me to make your lunch now?”

“Yes please,” I said, fully and guiltily aware of the irony.

Illegally Dumped Rubbish

Not long after the two television sets appeared on my street, an assortment of sofas, tables and chairs were also dumped. Unfortunately, it rained on and off that week so the unwanted furniture was quickly rendered unusable.

Yellow tape appeared round all the offending items, stating “Illegally Dumped Rubbish – Under Investigation”, which just made the unsightly pile of junk even more of an eyesore.

I’m very grateful for my free TV and my free heater, but I do think that if you set something out on the kerb, you have a responsibility to bring it in again if no one takes it. There’s no excuse for just leaving rubbish on the street because the City of Melbourne will collect hard waste for free once a year, you just have to phone to arrange a collection time. Perhaps they should put more energy into advertising this, instead of plastering yellow tape all over the place.

The unwanted furniture on my street has since vanished and all that remains is a torn off strip of tape fluttering on the ground. It was so ironic, I just had to take a photo.

More of Melbourne’s Hidden Cafes – Patricia and Grace

Patricia – it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but notice the green milk crates outside the door.

Some months ago I was discussing with Anna and Alex and Grace where we would go for a coffee.

“I know a place,” I said. “My coffee guy recommended it.”

Anna laughed. “That’s so Melbourne.”

Jason is my coffee guy. I know he reads my blog so I just want to make it clear that I don’t think his role in life is simply to try out different coffee places all over Melbourne and then tell me which ones to go to. That’s just one of the things he’s good at. He also tells me where to get brunch.

Every so often I get a text message from him like this one: If u r in e city,check out Patricia,btwn LtBourke&Bourke b4 William. And then I go and track down the place he’s recommended, which is usually down some dingy looking side street that seems at first glance to contain nothing but a few wheelie bins.

Have you ever seen that film, Nick and Norah’s Ultimate Playlist, where these two teenagers go from one underground New York bar to another in search of their favourite bands, following clues that have been scribbled in the toilet stalls? I was thinking it’s kind of like that, except I couldn’t keep it up for more than, say, three coffee places in a row before I’d get the caffeine jitters.

I wondered how Jason found these places. I thought maybe he stood around on street corners studying laneway activity, looking for clues such as an unusually high proportion of people carrying take away cups, or stacks of empty milk crates on the ground. It turns out he uses an app.

I don’t have an app, but I did manage to find my own hidden coffee place a few weeks ago, right next to the Rose St Market. In this case, my clue was the people sitting outside drinking coffee. OK, Grace is not that well hidden. As well as the outdoor tables, the building is covered in graffiti. It’s pretty conspicuous. But, there’s no sign outside, which made me very excited when I spotted it because everyone knows if you make good coffee, you certainly don’t advertise it. At least that’s how it works in Melbourne.

My theory is that if you wanted to open up a very successful café here, the best thing to do would be to set up shop in some anonymous block, and then just wait a few weeks for it to fill with people who don’t necessarily know good coffee from dishwater but who get a kick out of going to trendy, undercover cafés. Then again, Melbourne is full of aficionados so you probably couldn’t keep your business running for very long unless you were serving good quality coffee.

Anyway, I’m pleased to have graduated from being the person who hears about good coffee places to a person that finds them. So check Grace on Rose St out, and remember, you heard about it here first, unless you heard about it from Indolent Dandy, Slicing Almonds and Zesting Lemons or The Thousands.

Electric Avenue

I was planning on buying a heater. That definitely fell under the category of something I would die without. After the third night in a row when I’d woken up from the cold, I realised I urgently had to buy a heater that day. I opened my front door and there was one on the street, literally right in front of my house. I didn’t think it would work. Who throws out a functioning heater in winter? You would at least wait until the worst of the cold weather was over, right?

Before plugging it in, I checked the location of the fuse box in the house, just in case. But it worked fine. In no time at all my room was toasty warm. Thank you, universe.

Then, the other day I was walking to the laundrette when I saw a TV at the end of my road with a note stuck to it saying, FREE TV, GOOD WORKING ORDER. The universe works in mysterious ways. I would rather have had a chest of drawers, say, or even some cardboard boxes to put my clothes in, but what the heck; if the universe wants me to watch The Shire and MasterChef, then so be it.

The only problem was the TV was massive, huge, enormous, and I was already laden with bags full of dirty laundry.

I ran back home, past two men loading up a trailer with furniture from a house a few doors down from mine. I shot them a warning look over my shoulder: they’d better not think about grabbing my TV.

“Quick, I need some help!” I yelled to my flatmate.

“What is it?” she appeared at her bedroom door in her dressing gown, face half made up.

I threw my arms up in exasperation. Why can’t my flatmate be in a constant state of readiness to help me move large items up the street at a moment’s notice?!

I dumped my bags of dirty washing on the floor and ran out the door again shouting “Never mind!” as I went.

Running back up the street I saw a shopping trolley bumping against the kerb. No, no, it would never work; the TV was far too big.

“Excuse me,” I accosted one of the men loading the trailer. He was either moving house or robbing the place. Either way, I guessed he would be sympathetic to my plight. “Could you please help me take that TV back to my house?”

So he kindly loaned me trolley to wheel the TV along the street. It was so big, I couldn’t get it through the front door face on but my flatmate redeemed herself by helping me shuffle it in sideways.

That evening, when I went out to meet some friends, I saw a second TV at the other end of my street smaller than the one I’d nabbed earlier. If only I’d seen one first! I thought, before I could stop myself. I smacked myself on the forehead. What’s wrong with you? You’ve got a free TV! Rejoice!

Obviously the universe must really want me to watch bad reality shows. Either that or everyone’s switching to flat screens.

Loneliness

Sorry for my long absence from the blogosphere. I’ve been travelling on the west coast of Australia where a good internet connection is hard to come by. I’ve still been writing posts, I just haven’t had the opportunity to upload them till now so they’ll be appearing over the coming week.

Don’t feel bad for me when you read this one, because I wrote it two weeks ago and of course everything has changed since then.

Yesterday I left the tomato farm. The time I was there passed so quickly. I wish I had appreciated the stability more, maybe taken a few moments every evening to be thankful for my own bed, the regularity of the working hours and the nice people that surrounded me.

In seven months in Australia the longest I’ve stayed in one place was seven weeks. There were the six weeks on the tomato farm and the rest of my time has been a patchwork of two weeks here, ten days there. Stability has definitely been lacking.

I feel so lonely to be hitting the road again on my own, leaving friends behind. I spent the day in Adelaide today brimming with tears. I watched a video installation in the art gallery for half an hour just to be in the company of other people, focusing on the same thing.

I’m not homesick, but I miss the comfort of being able to stay in one place with loved ones close by. I miss being able to meet friends for tea in Edinburgh at a moment’s notice and then decide to spend the whole weekend together just because we could. I’m sad because I can’t imagine I’ll ever have that again in the future.

When I left Melbourne to go to Tasmania I felt the same way, lonely and lost, and I wrote about it in my notebook. A few days later I was in the Barossa Valley working on a vineyard with a great group of people. When I reread my notes from Tasmania I couldn’t believe that I’d ever felt like that. The loneliness passes so quickly.

Tomorrow I’ll be in Perth and I’ll be meeting friends so I know I’ll be fine.