Sunday 10 May 2020

Roadkill: ( A blog post about how I began to realise my own privilege)

My friend Beth, nominated me to post some of my top influential albums over in he world of Facebook and today’s choice is Diesel and Dust by Midnight Oil. Posting the cover, I was reminded of this piece of life-writing I did recently. Midnight Oil played a big part in helping my teenage self begin to understand some of the issues surrounding indigenous land rights. The Roadkill story below is taken from real life events, merging incidents and memories and metaphor, in order to explore a little of my own awakenings to the privilege I have - (something I'm always still learning about). 


‘What was that, did I just hit something?’ asked Rose, jamming the breaks. ‘Shit, I think it’s a hedgehog—I’m pulling over.’
            ‘Nah—Echidna—no hedgehogs here,’ stated Ann, peering out through the back window.
            Rose sniffed as she fumbled with the buckle on her seatbelt, ‘Can’t get this bloody thing off. ’ Then pushing the car door open, she jogged over to the creature curled up on the highway— dead.  
My knee joints clicked as I clambered over all the bags crammed around my feet. It felt good to step out of the car into fresh air. Red and green feathered, Rosellas conversed, darting in and out of their gum-tree canopies.  I stretched, touching my toes before swivelling to see what was happening, maintaining my distance. I couldn’t stomach the sight of squashed Echidna just then; I was already queasy from hours of being hunched up in the front seat. We’d been on the Hume Highway, on route to our festival gigs, since 6 a.m. and after five hours non-stop, we were hanging out for the next service station, a pioneer monument— ‘The Dog On The Tucker-Box’, that would signal our halfway marker between Melbourne and Sydney. 
 Bill and Ann hunched beside Rose. Their collective bodies merged into a silhouetted mass against the midmorning sun. Without buildings blocking the horizon, the sky seemed endless and apart from an occasional truck, nothing else stirred on that long straight road. Bill prodded the dead creature with a stick, pushing it onto a grassy verge.
‘I’ll drive now, if you like?’ he said to Rose, before hurling the stick into the wilderness, like a spear. She nodded, handing him the keys.
            ‘Cheer up mate— it’s not like you did it on purpose’ Ann said, as we heaved ourselves back into the car.
‘I just feel so bad—what if it had a family and they’re all waiting for it? Maybe it was on its way back to its little house?’ Rose sighed, half joking, half serious.
            ‘Well what was the bloody thing thinking trying to cross the road there anyway?’ Bill responded, picking up the humour cue. 
‘Visiting distant relatives,’ Rose said, pushing her blonde curls out of her eyes.
‘Her first road-trip’ I added.
Four creative artists stuck in a car, made anthropomorphising road-kill conversations somewhat inevitable. In our unfolding narrative it transpired that poor Ethel-the-Echidna had limped 10,000 miles on a gammy leg (after an incident with a dingo), for a family reunion to fulfil the dying wishes of her Great-Aunt-Eglantine.
Nausea churned my belly again as the car rumbled over potholes. I wound my window half-way, breathing a heady combination of eucalyptus, merged with ‘diesel and dust’, as Peter Garret once growled. Gazing at the dry burnt-ochre scrub lining this endless highway, Midnight Oil’s anthemic tunes began to play in my mind— ‘How do you sleep when your beds are burning?’ When I was twelve, the transition from Kylie Minogue’s popcorn ‘Loco-motion’, into the Oils’ wild rallying for respect of nature and rights of Indigenous Australians, had been a revelation. I’d revelled in singing ‘It belongs to them, let’s give it back’ at the top of my lungs, immersing myself in the hard-hitting political energy of their songs.
 I leaned my head on the car door, feeling the vibrations of our perpetual motion resonating through my bones. My life had been a fragmented journey of repeated migration between England and Australia; ‘Some people leave, always return, this land must change or land must burn’ howled Peter Garret’s voice inside my head. Understanding how much I loved this Australian landscape and all of the privilege I had within it, had been a slow journey of awakening.

At eight years old, sprawled along the back seat of our Holden Camira, an incident occurred that altered my perspective forever. Rush hour traffic and my brothers and I were arguing over who was going to have first choice of TV program when we finally got home from school. My mum’s patience with us all was running out and I could tell from the rising tone of her voice that she was getting very close to declaring no TV at all. We were startled out of our whining complaints when the car in front of us honked loudly.
A young lady and huge Alsatian were wandering in the middle of the road, weaving recklessly between traffic. Cars around us swerved to avoid them and my mum jammed her breaks as the traffic lights ahead turned red. We slowed to a halt, just feet away from the strange lady and dog padding loyally beside her. The lady was tall and skinny, with shoulder length wavy hair, dressed in a navy blue jumper and tight stonewashed jeans that dug into her to her bony bum-cheeks. Her left hand gripped a beer can that she somehow managed to keep the steady, while the rest of her body keeled towards us.
My mum rolled down the car window.
‘Kill me,’ the lady said.
My ears pulsed and my heart hammered against the wall of my chest.
            ‘Go on, run me over,’ the lady slurred with a haunting laugh as she tried to steady herself on my car-door handle.  I glanced at my younger brothers, both alert and silent; we all knew something big was happening.
            Mum was clear and direct, ‘No, I don’t want to kill you,’ she was talking with her kind voice.
The lady looked at the ground and as I stared through my window, I noticed a faint water line trailing down her brown cheeks. Bewildered intrigue and a vague sadness began overtaking my fear. This bizarre, pretty lady with long eyelashes and too tight jeans, wanted to die. ‘But what about her dog?’ I worried internally, watching the creature beside her. 
A car horn blasted nearby and the lady became distracted by men yelling words I didn’t understand, but knew were bad. The lights became green and we drove away.
‘Why did she say that?’ my brother Kim asked.
‘She must be very sad,’ Mum’s voice cracked as she answered. Kim snapped the clasp open and shut on his grey school bag. We’d argued about who got to ride shotgun next to Mum, but he’d won out this time. I could see his confused, six year-old brain trying to make sense of it all.
‘Was she Aborignal?’ he continued.
‘Yes’ Mum said.

Out on the Hume highway, midday sun blazed like a branding iron, sinking its rays deep into my pale, freckled skin. I reached into the glove box and then smeared greasy coconut scented sun-cream across my face.
‘Do you remember that awful zinc-cream we used to wear at primary school?’ Rose asked.
 ‘Yeah, I loved that stuff, we called it warrior paint, but my mum would crack her shit at me for getting it on my uniform,’ Ann countered.
Thinking back to primary school, it struck me that I couldn’t remember Aboriginal land rights ever being taught there, just lots of lessons about pioneers panning for gold; Ned Kelly and his bandit gang; Captain Cook setting sail from Whitby; scurvy for sailors and convicts; world war one ANZACS who’d fought at Gallipoli —
‘Hey Rach, last time we drove this far must have been Nottingham to Germany,’ Bill said, jolting me back out of my thoughts.
            ‘God—yeah— only a year ago,’ I replied.
I couldn’t believe how much had changed from this time last year; Bill and I were now married, we’d moved country, set up a performing arts company and our previous lives in England seemed so very distant—in the dreaming.
             ‘I loved backpacking in Europe’ said Rose.
            ‘DOG-ON-A-TUCKER-BOX,’ Ann pointed at the lay-by sign and we joined her whoops with Mad Max style high pitched hysteria.
The Dog On The Tucker-Box turned out to be an underwhelming bronze statue of a dog poised patiently on a green tin lunchbox, mounted on a plinth outside the road-stop cafĂ©. After urgent trips to the loo, we re-grouped at a small picnic table. Rose sipped coffee, reading aloud from the tourist information leaflet she’d found inside. Ann lolled next to her, puffing a roll-up ciggie. Her shoulders seemed inches lower than they had been in the car.
            ‘When cattle drovers got stuck on rough terrain, they had to leave their possessions while they went for help, so their dogs stayed behind to guard everything.’ Rose paused, nearly spitting her drink out as she read the next section. ‘Oh this is hilarious, in one really old version of the story, the dog shat on the tucker-box—but a poet in the 1920’s thought that was too crude, so amended it to sat.’

            ‘I guess there’s always another side to any story,’ I said.


Here is my song version of the incident with lady in the road.  

Here is Patti Smith singing Midnight Oil's Bed's are Burning (what a brilliant combination- I will write more on Patti soon)

Here is a link to Warakurna from the Diesel and Dust album by Midnight Oil

Friday 1 May 2020

Borderlines: Remembering Rob

I began a Creative Writing module with OU last year- that I completed yesterday. I loved it all and am sad that it's finished, but looking forward to returning to an Advanced Creative Writing module after my next module this October, that explores the nature and construction of stories (which I know I'm also going to really enjoy).

The creative writing module covered poetry, fiction and life writing and many of the exercises used to spark the writing, involved delving into memory.

The piece below is an extract from a larger segment of memoir that I wrote during the course.

It focusses on a moment when my friend Rob, was very ill in the final weeks of his life... I was moved by how vividly I recalled the scene. Today is the 14th anniversary of his death and so I felt it would be a good day to share a little of that piece.

Beneath the story I will also post some songs that Bill and I have written over the years, about our time with Rob.


Rob lay stretched out on a sun lounger in the tiny yard outside his house.  Birdsong cut through intermittent traffic noise of the surrounding streets while bees hummed around the little white and yellow flowers that spilled over their terracotta pots and hanging baskets. Spring had truly arrived that day and the April sun was hotter than expected, especially there in that little patio garden.
We didn’t talk. Every now and then I heard snuffles and grunts coming from beneath Rob’s old straw sun hat, as he sipped water through a straw. I sat upright on a wooden garden chair and let my mind wander, meandering over the past seven years and the strange reality of the moment, babysitting this man—my friend—who was in his early forties, juxtaposed with the beauty of spring and all its promise of new life.
In the sun-lit yard, Rob turned to me,
‘Too hot, need to go in now,’ he rasped.
I watched sweat trickle down his cheek. He was so tired those days, he didn’t fill his sentences with anything other than bare essentials of need; a writer whose love of language was seemingly eroding at the same pace as cells beneath his yellow tinged skin. Once so alert and attentive, asking questions and constantly trying to download multiple ideas that came cascading out of him as poetry and prose, commentary and argument, sometimes all at once. His poetry and prose that had taken us across America and the UK, to festivals and theatres and makeshift stages in unlikely places.
I nodded in agreement and helped him stand. He shuffled slowly towards the door, leaning on my arm. We paused at the step. I’d never noticed quite what a distance it was between ground and house. Rob made several attempts to raise his legs but he couldn’t do it. He had no strength. We stayed there for a moment, stuck in the garden, as my brain lurched into problem solving overdrive. I leaned down to try and help lift his legs, but that wasn’t going to work either, he couldn’t comfortably lean on me and I might unknowingly injure him by trying to move his muscles. Panic set in as my mind conjured different scenarios of us being stranded outside of the house for hours. Maybe I could set up a big shaded area, bring out ice and cold flannels to keep him cool? I had an unhelpful a desire to giggle at the surreal image of myself deftly trying to construct a temporary shelter—like the outdoor dens I had once built with Rob’s young son, Lukas. No. He needed to be indoors, back on the sofa. 
‘Rob, I’ll carry you,’ I said.
He bobbed his head just enough to indicate his agreement and I reached down and scooped him into my arms, as gently as I could, one arm around his waist, the other under his knees, shocked at how effortless it was. He was so light.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been with him on the threshold between life and death. In some ways it wasn’t the first time I’d carried him either, though I had not been alone; his wife Sandra and their son Lukas; my husband Bill; we’d all carried Rob in different ways. Five years previously we’d carried him daily, crossing the border between San Diego, America and Tijuana Mexico, as cancer had gnawed deep into his bones. Then two years after Mexico, with unprecedented full remission, Bill and I had carried him through multiple tours and performances across the UK and America. Now here we were again, existing in a moment where the borderline between Rob’s life and death, had grown very thin.
Stepping into the conservatory, I lowered Rob onto the sofa bed as gently as I could and watched as he drifted in and out of sleep, pondering the way our lives form narrative. Life doesn’t always resemble a linear construct, more often than not it seems to pass in waves, ebbs and flow of connection within time, but sometimes these connections lead to a complete lived out story, with a beginning, middle and end.
We’d first met Rob at a festival. My husband Bill and I visiting Britain from Australia, had caught Rob, performing an energetic one-man show. Most impressed, we’d chatted with him afterwards. It was the moment that became a prelude to our story. Two years later, living back in the UK, Bill and I would find ourselves on tour with Rob and his wife Sandra­­—also a performer, as our story with them began in earnest.
The show was called Grey Daze, a futuristic sci-fi allegory of love and redemption. During the show Sandra as ‘Em’ would scoop a dead Rob as ‘Joss’ into her arms and carry him across the stage. In time this would become a two edged allegory, a symbolic enactment of all that was to come in their lives together. I always marveled at the physical strength Sandra had throughout that scene, a strength that would be matched by her own determined emotional courage, carrying her husband and partner throughout all of his illness.

How far we’d all travelled. How far we’d all come.

My contemplations paused when I heard the car pulling up outside, as Sandra, her mother Analisse, five year old Lukas and newborn baby Lena, just one week old, all arrived home from a shopping trip to the Mothercare outlet.  Sandra entered the kitchen space all strength and smiles, but I could see her anxiety in her posture. As a professional dancer, Sandra always held herself with elegance and poise, but right now her tense raised shoulders signaled all that she was carrying; far too much weight of worry and sorrow for one person to hold.
‘Thanks Rachel,’ she said, placing tiny, baby Lena, into her bassinet next to Rob. Here was that juxtaposition again, all hope and beauty and promise of new life, lying curled up and sleeping, next to her dying father.
I helped Sandra to unpack her bags, while my mind sifted through myriad thoughts, arriving jumbled and incomplete, mostly flashes of our life lived on the road. I saw the car that we’d travelled in, when Rob, Sandra, Bill and I toured the breadth of the UK with shows. I saw us at midnight under a pitch black sky, disconnecting the trailer that held all our theatre equipment, trying not to trip as we fumbled in the dark— one of us holding a torch and the rest of us heaving the trailer off the back of the car… I saw crystalline icicles hanging from snow-laden pine forests, in Sandra’s hometown, Ludwigstadt, where we’d visited after Rob’s dramatic recovery... I saw baby Lukas on my knee, in a shuttle-bus in Mexico…  I saw stages— in halls— and theatres— and festivals. I saw audiences; vast crowds of tens of thousands and rooms holding less than fifty… And I saw myself. So many versions of me; laughing, arguing, crying, succeeding, failing, loving, surviving…

Two weeks later on the first of May, Bill and I sang the song By and By. It was a song that Bill had written in the transit lounge at Chicago Airport, on his way to join Rob, Sandra, Lukas and I, in Mexico... We knew as we sang it we were saying goodbye. 

At that same moment Rob was crossing his final border.