Bull Dust (a short story)

alice springs

There were accidents.

There’s five of us in a grey industrial yard on the very edge of Alice Springs.  The final footprint of humanity before the red desert, which shimmers all around.  The flies fizz off my face like they’re popping in the heat.

Shane’s face is bleeding.  He jammed the brake on too late and reversed the CAT into a telegraph pole.  How do you miss a telegraph pole?  How do you hit a telegraph pole? To be fair to him, how do you drive a CAT?  Shane’s been learning the past week.  Now he’s embedded in the control deck.

“Mark!  Do not phone the ambulance!  We’ll take ‘im ourself!”  Snarls Bob, the fat embodiment of Yorkshire, and for now, our boss.

“But his head’s bleeding.”  I say.  There’s a crimson stream exiting his temple.

“Yeah I can see that!”  Bob’s rummaging through the trailer for a clean rag to stem the flow.  They’re all filthy but needs must so he starts smearing Shane’s face with degreaser and oil.  The two Aboriginal guys are leaning on their rakes and shovels, taking it all in.  Poor Shane looks at them through a sheet of black and red, which is now dribbling on to his overalls.

The real boss turns up, his Audi braking too sharply on the new gravel.  He looks a lot like Bob, but older.

“Aw, we’ll have to make that level again.”  Moans Monti, leaning on the rake.

The real boss is trying not to lose his temper.  Another accident.  More wasted time. “Well boys, don’t just bloody stand there, Shane needs bloody ‘elp!”

“He needs an ambulance,” says Dural, leaning on the shovel.

“Do not phone a ruddy ambulance!”  Yells the real boss, getting out his car.

“I know that dad, I already told ‘em!”  Yells Bob back, helping the bulk of Shane out the CAT.  Never has such a large man looked so unsteady on his feet, I’m sure he’s concussed.

“Right, dad – “ Bob’s motioning at the key’s in his father’s hand –  “start the Audi, we need to get him moving!”

“You must be jokin’ me son!”  The keys are popped back in his pocket authoritatively.  “Just got it valeted at the garage at a great expense!  Bloody rip off!  Get the Scottish lad to drive the Toyota.”

I dramatically pat the numerous pockets on my own work shirt.  “Who’s got the keys?”  I ask.

Dural and Monti shrug passively.  Bob checks his shorts with his free hand.  He’s got Shane’s blood on him now.

“Where are they?  Aren’t they in the ignition?”

We all turn and realise the Toyota’s at the other end of the yard, a good hundred metres away.  Behind it, the yawning desert.

“Just get me… To a fuckin’ hospital!” Screams Shane maniacally, spraying the gravel with blood.  Dural and Monti move aside and Bob chaperones Shane into the back of the sparkling Audi.  The boss fixes the Aborigines with a pitch-black scowl and gets behind the wheel.  They turn sharply, kicking up more stones and fire off through the industrial estate towards A & E.

Monti saunters over to the CAT and turns off the engine.  Without speaking the two of them start smoothing over the indented tyre tracks, concealing the chaos in a few strokes.  The truth is, we didn’t put enough tar down in the first place so the gravel won’t stick anyway.  All 1200 square metres of it will be lumpy and exposed at the first sign of a large truck, God forbid a road train.

“Hey Mark, how much you getting paid for this shit?”  Asks Dural, looking up from the raking.

I go for half.  “A hundred and twenty a day I think.”

“We knew it.”  They both stop immediately.

“Those old white men ripping us off G.” Dural says.  “We been here a week longer than you and we only on a hundred.”  Guilt rises in me like steam.

“Yeah, but they’re putting you up.”  I reason.

“In the campsite?  Yeah, it’s better than the bush, but it’s not the Hilton.”

My mind casts back to our first job together, a whole two weeks before, laying a new drive for the Alice Springs Hilton Hotel.  We didn’t charge them so Bob and his dad Robert could get free bed and board for a month.  Who names their son Bob when they’re called Robert?  We laid enough tar that time.

“Were you in the bush before?”  I ask.  I’ve been desperate to know, just didn’t know how to ask.

“Nah G, in Tennant Creek.”

I knew this much already.  Bob had shown me the article in the Tennant & District Times commemorating the day these two Aboriginal teenagers had been given an opportunity to work ‘for the notable Yorkshire construction firm, B&R Construction.’

“But we have to share the campsite with Shane, and he’s always pissed off his face.”  I’m sure Shane was pissed when he crashed the CAT into his face.

“Maybe not anymore.” I say, raking over the last of his blood.  The poor drunk had come all the way from Brisbane for this.

“Yeah, about that.”  Monti, the darker of the two sidles closer, Dural on his shoulder.  “That was us.”

I stop too.  “What do you mean?”  Images of severed brake cables or nefarious engine tampering come to mind.  The two teenagers are close now, I can smell their sweat.

“We dreamt it.  And then we made it happen.”

I look them both over.  Neither of them blink. “What about me?”  I say.

They both laugh.

***********

The next morning is just like the previous twelve.  It’s dark and below freezing and I’m cycling from the hostel through Alice Springs suburbia towards the campsite.  High fences and walls crowned with glass stop the frenzied dogs behind them from tearing me to strips.  Trucks scream down the 87 so I stick to the pavement, work my way to Todd Mall and rattle by the smiling Dutch waitress opening up the cafe for breakfast.  Alternating my hands from warm pocket to handlebar, I eventually pass through The Gap, an ancient split in the MacDonnell Range and a natural entrance to the town that has become Alice.  Monti told me the plateaued mountains either side were giant caterpillars.  Indigenous tribes used to battle over The Gap.  Now, The Stuart Highway makes a beeline through it, an unrelenting 1700 mile stripe of tarmac from Darwin to Port Augusta.  I cycle along it until I swing left and down towards the campsite.

Monti and Dural are up for a change.  They’re reversing the Toyota towards the trailer with the steam roller on it.  Bob is sitting in the cabin of the Tar Truck, checking his phone.  The headlights are on but the sun is rising to meet them.  The bull dust is never redder than at dawn.  The gum trees pepper the green and orange tents with shocks of white bark, even whiter than the gallery of campervans by the toilet block.  I’m definitely in Australia.

“How’s Shane?” I ask.

“He’ll live.” Bob swings his phone round to show me a photo of Shane giving a goofy thumbs up, his head swaddled in bandages.

I wonder who will drive the CAT now, and Bob seems to read me.

“And so we’ve got a new start today me lad.”  He lowers his voice.  “Another bloody Abo.  It’s Monti’s old man would you believe, got in touch last night.  Been working the mines but he’s out now, prob’ly drunk on the job!”  He pops Shane back in his pocket.

After the usual half hour of jostling trailers into place we form a convoy of sorts.  A circus train of dented trucks, welded tanks and lazily secured machinery.  Mad Max made by Yorkshiremen.  We are a merry band of cowboys.   Who are we going to rip off today?

****

“I’ve heard of you boys.”  The creased farmer has his hands on his waist.

“Oh.  Really?”  Bob hops down out the truck and reaches out his hand.

“You boys laid the tarmac on the KFC last week no?”

“Er, yeah, a night job that was.  Pissed Abo’s everywhere, it was a tough one.” Bob looks round to make sure Monti and Dural are out of earshot.

The famer spits in the dust.  It sits, like a blob of wax.  He kicks more dust over it and turns.  “Well do a better job on this will ya?”

Robert is out now, holding a clipboard.  “What he say son?”

“Nothin’ dad.  Mark, get the water tank round ‘ere, we got to soak this dust.  Boys!  Dural!  Monti!  Where are you?”

The two teens slouch round the back of the trailer.  There’s a heavy set guy in a baseball cap with them.  His frown seems carved into his face.

“You met Roy yet Mark?”  I shake his hand.  The frown inverts slowly to reveal a vast grin.  I immediately see the resemblance.  “Hiya fella.  I’m their dad.”

“Right boys,” Bob seems tetchy, “let’s do a good job today.”

We spend the morning watering dust.

The cold snap of dawn becomes a fierce bake by 10 am.  Blue sky.  Red ground.  White trees.  A green hose splurging a precious, finite, underground water source into the unquenchable dust.  Roy rolls the CAT slowly over the wet dirt, leveling dips with excess muck and clumsily leveling humps with the bucket on front.  We hose and rake, brush and scoop.  Bob tells Roy where to drive and Robert holds a clipboard.

“Guess what we were dreaming last night?”  Monti says.  His face is so dark it’s tricky to make out his expression from afar.

“You gonna tell him G?” Says Dural.

“Yeah.  Mark is black, aren’t ya G?”

I don’t really know what to say to that.  I’m not.  If anything I’m pink.

“Well you’re black to us, ‘cos you listen G.”  I feel accepted.  Privy to a world these other white men will never enter.

“We dreamt Bob and Robert were gonna be gone too.”

“Gone?”

“Yeah.  Gone.  Like Shane.  But worse.”

“Worse than Shane?”  Poor swaddled Shane.

“Yeah.  We dream a lot.  One time we were sleeping and a bad spirit came through the window and paralysed us G.  We were both awake but couldn’t move.  It stuck us good, we were stiff.  Dad says its ‘cos we left the family.”

Monti and Duval share a sideways glance.  Who’s going to speak next?

Duval takes his cue.  “And now we working for white dicks who don’t treat with us with any respect.  They don’t give a shit about us.  So we gonna pass on the bad spirit to them, just like we did to Shane.”

I suddenly have the urge to tell them what I’m earning.  I must look worried.

“Oh, don’t worry G, like we said – you’re one of us.  We won’t harm ya.  Even Roy knows you’re good, he got no beef with you.”

I look over at Roy, who is methodically ploughing the bull dust different shades of wet.

Once the drive way is flat and dark the tar truck is edged in from the road.  But there’s a problem.  Bob and Robert can’t get the tar to flow through the pipes and into the dispenser which hangs precariously out the back.

“How bloody cold was it last night?” Asks Bob. Robert’s looking at his clip board for answers.

“It’s midday and the tar’s still solid.  Scottie get the blow torch.”

He has me fix up a gas canister to some rubber tubing and a blow torch.  As he turns the gas on I notice all three Aboriginals hiding behind the CAT.

“Look at them bloody Abos!”  Laughs Bob.  “First sign of gas and they think there’s gonna be an explosion!”  This really tickles Bob.  Robert doesn’t seem to find as hilarious.  He’s just checking his watch.  The blow torch is attached precariously to a nozzle on the tar tank, blasting an arrow of blue flame inside.  “Right, someone go and check if it’s bubbling yet,” directs Robert, looking round at the cowering Aboriginals.  “Scottie, you’re up it seems.”

I clamber up on the roof and struggle to twist the lid off the top of the tank.  After a few knocks with a wrench the handle budges slightly and I start turning it anti-clockwise.  Two rotations in, there’s a sharp whoosh and the lid rockets off and into the sky, under a vast projection of warm tar. I stumble into the gravel-filled tipper behind the tank and take cover as the black geyser erupts spectacularly on to the cab roof, windscreen, windows and most grievously, the inside of the driver-side door.  Someone had left if open.

“Jesus bloody Nora!”  Screams Robert.  “Fuckin’ hell!” Screams Bob.

“You alright chief?”  Asks Roy.  My hands and legs are clotted black but I’m fine.  Oddly, it really isn’t that hot.  Just viscous and unnatural.  I get up and shuffle back to the ground, speckles of gravel from the tipper clinging to me.

“Yeah, someone get me some degreaser and I’ll scrub this off.”  I say.

“Never mind ‘bout your legs Scottie!”  Yells Robert.  “Get scrubbing the truck now before it sets!”  It’s so hot that by the time Monti and Dural are at the stained door with rags, they’re too late.  It is truly set.  Neither of them seems too fussed.  “We’ll need a lot more degreaser to get this off G,” Dural points out succinctly.

Robert looks at Bob.  Bob looks at Robert.  They appear disproportionately angry.  We’ve been hosing dirt in the desert for 4 hours and they’re furious about some tar on their truck.  “Alright!”  Yells Bob, clearly aimed at his father, “I’ll go and get some more degreaser!”

And with that he clambers aboard the dirtied truck, jams it into reverse and hurls it back up the driveway towards the open road.  The blow torch, which had thankfully been turned off, falls loose out of the socket with the motion.  It bounces into a drainage ditch.  The black and white truck is a cloud of bull dust as it hammers back towards the Gap.

“Gee,” Monti rubs his head, “these white boys really need degreaser.”

Robert swivels.  “Yes we do Monti.  These white boys like to have things done proper!  These white boys like a clean engine and a job done proper!”  He jams his finger into Monti’s chest.  “You lot wouldn’t understand!”  He realises he’s outnumbered.  As the tar hardens, I find myself standing in solidarity with Monti, Dural and Roy.

“Now get to work!”  Robert shouts a little less convincingly.

Roy steps forward.  His shoulders loom ominously.  “We’re done.”  He says simply.

“What do you mean?”  Robert asks, his voice unusually high.

“We’ve hosed the dirt down, I’ve pushed the stone round.  We need the tar and gravel to work.  We’re done for now.”

“Well.”  Robert exhales and looks around for something to do.  “Clean then.  Young Bob’ll be back shortly like and we can finish the job.”

On cue, his phone rings.  Robert glances at the screen and he takes one solitary, long blink.  It rings again.  The Aborigines are in a row, one on a rake, one on a shovel, one on a brush.  I can feel the tar tighten on my legs, the hair matted and stretched.

“What’s up son?” Asks Robert.  Pause.  “What do you mean police!”  Pause.  “A weigh station!  Why’d you stop you pillock?”  A shorter pause. “OK, OK calm down son.  They wave you down you have to stop.  What’d they say?”  Long pause.  A clearly significant pause for all concerned.  Robert hangs up, poking his phone slightly less gently than he poked Monti’s chest.

He knows he has to give an explanation.  He owes us that much.  And it’s too hot to lie.  “Turns out the truck was overweight.  By quite a lot actually.  And the tar tank was open.  And it wasn’t welded correctly to the frame.  We’re in a bit of trouble.”  He lists off and focuses on the horizon where the cloud of bull dust once was.  We follow his gaze.  The Gap is barely visible through the shimmering heat.

“And Shane blabbed in the hospital the silly drunk.  Good God it’s like Dubai all over again.”

He turns back to us.  “You boys.  Get in the Toyota and head back to the campsite.  We’ll call it a day for now.  I’ll go speak to the farmer.”

Monti and Dural look to Roy.  He shrugs those ancient shoulders of his and they jump in.  I’ve not seen them move this quickly.  I hop in the rear and we set off back to Alice and back to the Gap.  I spot Robert in the rear view mirror bending slowly to pick up the shovels, rakes and brushes.  On our way we pass Bob at the weigh station.  There’s a police car and a couple of men in needless luminous outfits taking notes, the neon redundant against the red MacDonnell Range.  Bob swivels meekly to watch us fly by.  No looking back.  We get to the campsite, I wave good bye and set off on my bike, back home to wash the tar off.

The next morning is even colder.  My breath hangs like bull dust as I puff my way back to the campsite.

Nothing.

No Robert and Bob.  No trucks.  No Dural, no Monti, no Roy.  I imagine even Shane has been seconded out of hospital.  None of the tourists in the campervans are up yet.  It’s too cold to rise.  It’s just me.  Not even a goodbye. All that’s left is the KFC carpark and a few lumpy industrial yards.

I ride back to town, back through The Gap for the last time and pull up next to the Dutch waitress heaving out tables in front of the café.

“Any jobs going?”  I ask in my most exotic Scottish brogue.

She laughs.  “It’s Alice Springs.  There’s always jobs for backpackers.”

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Malteasers

 

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The day Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States of America, we made our way to the charmingly decrepit beach side resort of Marsalforn to find our Air BnB apartment, which was called Sea Spray.  The name didn’t quite do it justice on this occasion, as there was a violent storm offshore which had flooded our street with a lot more than spray – sea water, seaweed and rocks of different shapes and sizes.  Outdoor furniture was being tossed down the promenade, while waiting staff attempted to secure remaining chairs and tables in between the swells.  “Is this normal?”  Catriona asked our waiter at a nearby bar.  “Oh this is just a seven.  It can get waaaay worse than this.”  Worth remembering that.

Malta has had its fair share of batterings, from Nazis, Napoleon and Normans to name a few (well just the ones beginning with ‘N’).  No invasions during the week we were there thankfully, just a storm to contend with and the great news regarding our pal Donald.  Malta’s history makes for some pretty varied sight-seeing.  The Maltese islands are home to the oldest free-standing structures on earth – although the one we saw was being helped along a bit by some very un-Neolithic scaffolding.  This was on the northern island of Gozo, which is the diminutive, quieter version of the two main Maltese islands.  Less than ten minutes away we found ourselves in the Victoria Citadel, a walled nub of fortifications and churches with views of every coast of Gozo from it’s almost perfectly central location.  The Turks had besieged it in 15 hundred and something and the town’s elders hit upon a deal with them, where 40 of the besieged would be spared (I’m guessing the elders) while the other 5000 would be taken back to Turkey and sold as slaves.  It really can get a lot worse.

The local men of Gozo have clearly taken this siege mentality to heart.  Every time we found ourselves in the countryside there’d be a bloke in camouflage poking his head out from a makeshift stone hide.  They shoot birds by the hundreds of thousands every year apparently.  On one walk to Ramla Bay the path was lined by the primary colours of shot gun shells – really welcoming.  Talking of primary colours, it was surprising to see the vivid red sand that made up Ramla Bay, a searing contrast to the white Virgin Mary statue peering out to sea.

The main island of Malta is a congested maze of roads too small for the traffic and towns that look like convoluted sandcastles.  The capital, Valetta, doubled for King’s Landing in season one of Game of Thrones.

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This was in Game of Thrones too 

Streets run on top of each other, tiny staircases and shuttered windows run between red British phone boxes and signs for 10 Euro Maltese platters (anything salty and wine – perfect).

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The Co-Cathedral of St John is the highlight.  Another big yellow block from the outside, a gilded marvel within.

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The place is adorned with the spoils of war and crusades, of which there were clearly quite the number.  Anyone who thinks Christianity is or was a religion of peace, should witness the statue of a cute little angel crushing a turban and a human skull with its dainty little feet.  In a separate chamber is the goose bump moment, the Beheading of St John by Caravaggio.  This stark painting is fantastically minimal in comparison to the rest of the Cathedral.  Caravaggio painted it as payment to the Knights of St John for protection essentially (he was in hiding in Malta after killing a bloke in Rome over a game of tennis).  All was well until the law caught up with him and he was ceremoniously de-robed in front of this very picture.  It is a story worthy of the image.

The rest of our time in Malta was made up predominantly of eating (fish, olives, pasta in buckets) and drinking (red wine, white wine, wine in buckets).  I spent the last morning at St Peter’s Pool off Marsaxlott, which my dad later told me was where my grandpa learnt to dive when he was a boy.  The sun was shining and the sea was blue, as it was for him I imagine, and I’m sure it will continue to do so despite Trump and all that follows.

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Fringe Friends

In case you’re wondering where the pun is in this title, please see a previous project that Cammy and I made many years ago.  There’s a movie coming out now called Sausage Party that looks VERY similar, albeit more professional, big budget and funny.  I may sue.

Talking of all things professional, big budget and funny, the Fringe Festival (cue second part of said pun) is on and I’ve tried my hardest to avoid anything that can be attributed to those three notions.   So far I’ve sat through five acts, which is roughly 0.04% of the total shows on offer this year (there are 15,000) but I’ve been privy to the full spectrum of quality, from 1 star head-shakers to 5 star spine-tinglers.  So, like an Olympic camera man at the beach volley ball, I’ll start at the bottom and work my way up.

Suzanne Lea Shephard – Rapscallion   (FREE)

She’s from New York, she’s in a tiny room that seats 18 people and she basically sweats for 45 minutes.  I didn’t not like her, so to speak, she seemed quite affable and all, but her routine was more of a facebook profile scroll.  She just went through her average American life, complete with average American anecdotes, in chronological order.  Stuff got stuck in trees, she has pimples on her bum, she was an extra once – I felt like a bored psychologist, clock-watching as a patient who doesn’t need me wastes both our times on drivel.  And sweat.  Lots of sweat.  She actually stopped one story to say how much she was sweating.  Not for comedic purposes mind you, just to let us know.   1 STAR

Peter Dobbing – Armchair Futurologist Part 3  (FREE)

He loomed on to the Sneaky Pete’s stage with a lot of laid back bravado and big words.  He began by defining what a futurologist is and then culled momentum by spending ten minutes asking if anyone wanted their phones charging.  What seemed like a vaguely funny gimmick soon became pretty awkward and a pretty obvious attempt at winding down the clock so the hour slot could be filled.  In amongst the memory lapses and missing props there were some genuinely interesting thoughts on passwords (we’re doing it wrong), education (that’s wrong too) and less interesting stuff on free-diving.  He’s clearly very clever but appeared a bit jaded or hungover and no-one really laughed.  I had a lovely pint of Innes and Gunn though.  2 STARS

Ellis and Rose – Obsolete  (FREE)

A double act playing on the idea that Stewart Lee told them double acts were obsolete (hence the title), I laughed quite heartily at them, especially when they got surreal or tightly choreographed.  One of them dressed up as a superhero, they both did awful Christopher Walken as Laurel and Hardy impressions and they were clearly having more fun than the majority of the audience, which was pretty infectious, even if my laughter wasn’t.  They were on the verge of something properly funny, just a bit too indulgent and a bit too loose in too many places.  By this point I was feeling like a comedy expert.   3 STARS

Sleeping Trees – Sci Fi?  (£9 I think)

OK, I’m not an expert, these guys are.  It was just three blokes in trekkie outfits with a drummer and a keyboard player behind them.  By changing lighting, music and accents they managed to take us on a 60 minute voyage through every Sci Fi cliché imaginable, complete with robot karaoke, pig impressions and Ronan Keaton references.  It started so sharply it was bound to blunt a bit by the end but it was hugely impressive, and the most quintessential ‘Fringey’ show you could imagine.  Two pints for £11 though.  4 STARS.

Manual Cinema – Ava:Ada (£11.50)

The real deal.  Properly, instantly mind-blowing.  Its only problem is that it defies decent description.  It’s a shadow puppet show with accompanying live music.  That sounds shit doesn’t it?  It’s a surreal horror movie constructed live in front of the audience with shadows, props and music.  Sounds a little better.  Probably the best thing I will see all year.  Yeah, that will do.  Complex, weird, beautiful and wait until you hear the singer!   5 STARS!

Commission Impossible

Harper Robson HQ

So job hunting is fun.  I had a strange experience today, after an initial interview for a ‘Direct Marketing’ company called Harper Robson, I was immediately called back and informed I was the “stand-out candidate.”  Blushing with pride I accepted the invitation for the second interview, which would take the shape of an ‘Observation Day’ followed by a ‘Test.’  I inquired as to the specifics of this ‘Test’ but the chipper guy on the phone told me it was a secret.  Oh what japes!  Seeing as the initial interview process felt like a Fresher’s Helper audition I imagined I might have to down a Topical VK, or arm pit fart to The Vengaboys.  Seriously, the ‘MD’ who asked me a short series of questions was 20 years old.  He didn’t listen to anything I had to say.  Things like, “What does this job actually entail?”  Or, “Will I be paid?”  He continued regardless and drew three bubbles on a sheet of A4 and wrote in the first one, ‘Entry Level,’ the second one, ‘Management,’ and the final one, ‘Managing Director.’  He told me I could navigate this intricate series of bubbles in six months.  I nodded and left.

And for some reason, I returned for the Observation Day.  Upon arrival, there were a whole bunch of teenagers in suits, which I have since found out were in the middle of a daily morning ‘Atmosphere’ ceremony, whereby they would gee themselves up for the shift ahead.  I was sat in an adjacent room and watched agog as a conveyor belt of ridiculously over-dressed teenagers traipsed by, all three piece suits and sticky hair, like a sinister sequel to Bugsy Malone.  Us newbies were left for an hour to talk among ourselves.  We chatted about wasps and our favourite breed of dogs.  There were badly painted slogans on the walls which said things like, “You don’t have to be great to get started, but to be great, you have to start somewhere.”  Powerful stuff.  I prefer, “Listen to your Bullshit Detector and Bail Accordingly.”

The other Managing Directors milled around, flirting with each other.  Then a bloke introduced himself to me and I was taken to his car.  He informed me that I was heading to Glasgow with him and another associate.  I asked what we were doing.  He avoided this and began to tell me about Thomas Eddison, who made 1300 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb before he got it right.  This was the Law of Averages.  And we were now going to utilise The Law of Averages ourselves!  Uh oh.  “How are we going to do that?”  I asked, foreseeing the answer like the asteroid in Armegeddon.  “Where are people are most relaxed?”  He asked me rhetorically.  “In their homes!”  I looked at him with my best attempt at disdain.  They wanted me to sell stuff door to door all day in Glasgow for free didn’t they?

I asked them to stop the car, I got out and went home.

Harper Robson are basically a pyramid company.  Saps are brought on and told to sell all day, only getting paid on commission.  After a while of this they get to look after a team of saps and get more commission for the sales the team generates.  After six months of this they become a ‘Managing Director’ – which is a little generous for a job title and a bit unfair to actual Managing Directors in actual companies.

Harper Robson used to be called Meraki Rose, based in Glasgow.  Their website no longer exists.  The management team still do, they just took two more generic surnames that sound vaguely legitimate, duct taped them together and spawned a new pyramid in Edinburgh.  I feel like a sap for wasting my time on them and I feel for the saps who were being processed through their doors all day like sausages in blazers.  And of course for the poor citizens of Glasgow who are currently being harangued in their homes to buy nonsense they don’t need.  So if you see a job vacancy for Harper Robson, market yourself elsewhere.

Guns

This awful killing in Orlando appears to have cracked another chasm into the porous crust that is American society.  Back with the Columbine shooting it was bullying, films and computer games that made them do it.  The Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook massacres brought to light mental health issues and the lack of support vulnerable individuals received.  The San Bernardino shooting raised the issue of Islamist extremism, as did the atrocity at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.  Then we have the shooting in Killeen, Texas in 1991 when George Jo Hennard killed 23 people and wounded 27 others, because he hated women.  What about Binghampton in 2007, where 13 people died at the trigger fingers of Jiverly Antares Wong, whose motives included being degraded for his poor English skills.  Dylann Roof killed 9 people in a Charleston church last year because he was trying to incite a race war.  The Orlando shooting was a hate crime too, this time solely aimed at the LGBT community.

It appears that with every awful incident, a new discussion is dredged up.  Homophobia, Islamophobia, Xenophobia to name a few.  The motives change, the discussion changes, but the results remain the same.  Large-scale death in a country that is A) largely at peace and B) the wealthiest nation on Earth.  I’m not a scientist but it would appear fruitful to attempt to dilute the emotion that quite expectedly pervades these post-massacre discussions and try to distill some common factors on all these mass-shootings.  What is quite obvious is that motive is largely irrelevant.

When your country has had 133 mass shooting incidents THIS YEAR (as of only June 13th),  it’s time to approach the problem not case by case but as an overall trend.  What is the common factor in all these massacres?  It’s not terrorism.  It’s not religion.  It’s not race.  No, nearly all the massacres are committed by men and every single massacre is undertaken with a gun.

Why is it nearly always a male?  Testosterone?  Societal pressures to be macho?  Late development of impulse control and the awareness of consequences?  Probably these and loads more.  But 98% of all mass-killings in America are committed by males.  Not sure how even Trump would succeed in justifying a ban on all men in America, so this may be the trickier side of the coin to address.

The gun issue is surely the most straight forward.  Right?  RIGHT?  Here is the gun that was used in the Orlando killing spree:

Not sure it’s what the founding fathers had in mind when they scribbled down every citizen’s right to bear arms.  This was the gun of choice in 1777:

On average, it fired 3 rounds a minute. The AR-15 Assault Rifle on the other hand (the first picture if you’re wondering)…..

Its firing speed is dependent on how quick your trigger finger is, but it’s capable of firing 800 rounds a minute.  So 13.3 bullets A SECOND!  Seeing as the magazine only has 30 bullets, this greatly reduces the number of shots you’ll get, especially considering you could finish off a magazine in under three seconds.   It seems peculiar to have a gun on the market that can fire more bullets than you can humanly carry in less time than Usain Bolt takes to run a lap.  I mean how many quail are you trying to kill when you’re out hunting with Hank and the boys?

The AR-15 Assault Rifle was the gun of choice to kill 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook.  James Holmes used it as his predominant firearm when shooting up the cinema in Aurora, killing 12 and injuring 58 (motive largely accepted as insanity).  It was one of the guns used in the San Bernardino atrocity.  The Orlando killer, Omar Mateen, bought the rifle legally one week before his rampage.

Now, politicians in the US seem stricken by some sort of NRA-funded paralysis on the issue so it seems like it’s down to the citizens of America, those who the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment for in the first place, to stand up, have a word and get the most bleeding obvious factor to gun crime off their streets.  Namely, guns.  And if we have to start somewhere, specifically automatic assault rifles like the AR-15.

Tokyo Drift

We flew from Tokyo to Paris, which took ages unsurprisingly.  Everyone knows Paris is beautiful.  It is.  Look at it.

We spent a truly wonderful day frolicking in the endless conveyor belt of architecture, geometric gardens and sunshine.

I took more lovely photos in one day than in ten days in Tokyo.  But Tokyo is beautiful too, it really is.  Not just the neon and the lanterns and the hordes of meticulously attired cosplaying selfie addicts.  No, it is a city that makes function beautiful.

Take the metro system for instance.  It’s confusing.  Even calling it the metro system is confusing as one of the 48 transit operators for the city is called Tokyo Metro.  That’s right, there are more than double the number of train operators in Tokyo than subway stations in Glasgow.  They have 158 lines in Tokyo.  Not stations.  Lines.  According to Wikipedia, on these lines are 2210 stations (recounted for additional operators).  Just think about that for a moment.  Paris has 303 stations.  Here are the two important maps you require to navigate the Tokyo Subterranean Labyrinth as it shall now be known:

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Map 1.

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Map 2.  Ridiculous. These maps go on top of each other.

Yet the system works embarrassingly well.  Embarrassing because Scotrail can’t appear to schedule one piddly little train to shunt its way from Stonehaven to Montrose on time.  Embarrassing because when a train in Tokyo is a few SECONDS late, the screens in the carriages apologise for this delay with an explanation for their disappointing tardiness.  Admittedly pretty low in detail, things like “Personal trauma,” and “Wind,” I still felt like warm treacle inside because they cared.  The system moves 40 million passengers a day.  That’s 14.6 billion a year.  That’s ten times more than the whole of the UK!  Yes, Tokyo is beautiful because it makes mind bending statistics look ordinary.  It takes the logistics of infrastructure to such a level, you feel like a 15th Century sailor grasping that the earth is round and then shrugging your shoulders and jumping on the next available galley to the New World.  Tokyo has been forced into extraordinary feats by necessity.  It’s not showing off, it’s just keeping the wheels turning.

It requires unprecedented levels of politeness and discipline too.  People appear to slide around on their own personal rails, gliding seamlessly between each other in great swelling oceans of non-contact.  Baggage handlers bow at departing buses.  We played a game to see who could count the highest number of bows between departing friends or business associates.  The winning total was 17!  Of course, this odd number meant that one person bowed once less than their contemporary, an unforgivable act of barbarity!  Shame on them!  When I lived in Shanghai I basically had to become an asshole to get by.  The queue for the train was like that harrowing Planet Earth episode where all the wildebeest get massacred by crocodiles in the river.  In Tokyo, it really did feel like clockwork.  It was regimented chaos.

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As a visitor it was a joy to behold but also as a visitor, I stood out like a particularly clumsy, sore thumb.  Our pal Akiko, who put us up for the first three nights in her parents’ lovely house, took us to a traditional restaurant one night.  Upon entry, we placed our shoes in lockers and the waitress shuffled forward in her beautiful kimono to instruct us on our table location.  Sidling round to hear her better I missed the door step and immediately fell over, my body sprawling across the cobbles as my head clattered against the back of the door.  Everyone turned to see the source of the commotion, with just a dull-eyed foreigner on his arse to greet them, his backpack still on like a dying turtle, legs prone in the air like hairy antennae.  The waitress just about managed to suppress a laugh (manners kicking in again see?) and we were led to our table.  I doubt any of them in there had ever fallen over in their life.

Cat Empire

Konichiwa from Tokyo!

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Just got home after being smoked out of a yakitori restaurant near Ueno in north Tokyo, (well north of central Tokyo, north Tokyo is about 60 km further up) our lungs ruptured, eyes stinging but bellies full, oh and of course wallets completely empty.  The place was tiny as is de rigeur for all restaurants here, with lanterns adorning the entrance and booths marginally larger than bird boxes for the customers.  There was the poor guy working the grill behind the glass divide, plumes of smoke engulfing his poor sweaty face as he turned various parts of chicken.  There was the waiter who wore a ninja headband and said “Hai!” a lot, which means ‘yes’ but more forcefully.  And there was the really drunk old boy in the corner who tried to tell us how much he liked the Rolling Stones.  He made his front teeth move with his tongue and said he was just like Mick Jagger.  Anyway, it was another fantastic eating experience here in Tokyo, marked confidently high between the X axis of ‘Delicious’ and Y axis of ‘Weird.’  Sometimes, the mark deviates slightly, none more so than our visit to a Cat Café in Shibuya, one of the more hectic areas of the city.

First up, for those who haven’t got round to going, a cat café is a café with cats in it.

Second up, this one had loads of rules, which we were handed in laminated A4 sheets upon arrival by a stern looking old woman from behind a counter.  Things like, ‘don’t touch any cats with collars,’ and ‘roll up your trouser legs if they are too long.’   There were diagrams of how to pick up cats but then strict instructions on not picking them up unless they wanted to.  As we all know, no cat wants to be picked up ever.

We ordered our coffees, which had porcelain lids on top, I guess in case the cats fancied a dip, and took a seat.  The place resembled a crèche but populated by awkward adults and even more awkward cats.

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The cats wondered around aimlessly, their dead eyes reminiscent of washed out strippers avoiding contact with customers that only wanted a touch.*

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The place was deadly silent, save for the occasional bell of a cat toy rolling like tumbleweed across the pink carpet.  Then someone ordered a cup of cat food and the place went batshit crazy.  It was like Jurassic Park.  Cats started fighting and leaping on people.  Catriona tried to get a photo of this and sat on a cushioned box in the centre of the room.  The old lady who had remained mute up to this point, came bounding of her booth like the wifey in Tom and Jerry, yelling a stream of Japanese expletives and muddled English at her.  Apparently, the cushioned box was not for humans.  The cats continued to kill each other.

Soon enough our 30 minutes were up and we stumbled out into the light.  Turns out the woman who ran the Cat Café was legitimately a crazy old cat lady and we’d just paid her a lot of money to keep her animals hostage in a pink padded prison.  I’ve heard they’ve opened a similar venture in Edinburgh, so this sort of thing is either becoming normal or we’re all getting weirder.  Guess there’s a graph for that sort of thing. Meow.

* Joke/Observation initially made by Catriona Elizabeth Brennan Rist at 3.30PM on 30.04.2016

My First AFL Match

Catriona’s boss very kindly granted us his tickets for an AFL match at the Etihad Stadium last week.  He has some sort of season pass but only bothers showing up to the Northern Melbourne games.  Seeing as Melbourne – just one city remember – has not one, not two, but NINE of the 18 AFL clubs currently playing (and that doesn’t count Geelong which is less than an hour away) there’s a lot of matches to see.  Fortunately, we had the best seats in the house for this one.

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LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THAT BLOODY PITCH!

Which was handy as we needed a good vantage point from which to try and interpret what on earth was going on.

First up, who was playing?  Well that was easy as the team names were on the big screens.  The Bull Dogs from the Western Suburbs versus The Saints from St Kilda.

Now who was who?

This was trickier as although AFL in Melbourne is the most tribal of all the sports, the opposing fans still sit amongst each other, so whenever someone scored the cheering or swearing was pretty evenly spread.  Calls of “ya bloody idiot!” could have been aimed at any number of vested individuals and they usually were.

It didn’t help that the players were all mixed up on the pitch as well, rather than restrained to their own halves like rugby or football (you know, proper sports).

On top of this, the pitch in question was marginally smaller than the surface area of Holland.  No wonder only Australians play this sport!  They’re the only country in the world with enough room to play it!   A field this size would actually be utilised as an agricultural field in other countries.  Huge swathes of the world’s rainforests could be saved from becoming grazing land if the AFL donated a couple of pitches.

Some players were so far away I was sure they must have been on some sort of adjacent training pitch but after a minute or so they’d run close enough to prove that they were in fact, playing the same game as everyone else.  Even then, their uniforms were so skimpy it required a sniper’s vision to determine what colours they were sporting.

After a few minutes of detective work, we’d determined who was who – The Bulldogs were in blue, red and white.  St Kilda were in black, red and white.  Easy.

Now to figure out who was winning.  This would’ve been easy if we’d been there for the first goal, but we were 5 minutes late.  A vast error.

There were three numbers under each team name on the big screen.  It took us almost until half time to understand what these numbers represented.  Let me explain.

The first number listed the number of times the ball had been kicked through the middle posts.

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Exhibit A

The second number was for kicks through the outside posts. 

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Exhibit B

The third number was the total score. 

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Exhibit C

Using trial and error we deduced that the kicks through the outside posts were worth one point, and no-one ever celebrated these kicks.  In fact people around us got really agitated if the ball dared to go through these posts, like one measly point was insulting.  People were “bloody idiots” if they kicked a goal through these stupid posts. However, a kick through the middle posts was worth an astonishing 6 points, and people were very happy indeed if this happened, approximately six times happier by my estimation.   Despite these extra numbers on the big screen, the only one that mattered was the overall score.  Why did we need to know how many times the ball had gone through various posts when only the score mattered?  I have no idea, but people needed to know. 

Aussie sports fans are a bit like American sports fans in that they need stats and facts.  And snacks and beers.  But less commercials.

On top of the 36 players on the planet-sized pitch there were numerous referees, I think about 6, which is understandable as they each had to police an area larger than an actual police jurisdiction.   Every time a player caught a kicked ball one poor ref had to blow his whistle.  This is basically all the players do throughout the game so the whistle had to be blown a lot, like every four seconds.  The constantly whistling ref had to run the most as well as he had to keep up with the action.  He clearly pulled the short straw.

The other refs’ main responsibility seemed to be throwing the ball back into play if it went out. Players weren’t allowed to do this, only the refs.

But you should see these guys throw!  They would coil themselves forward like a taut trebuchet then release the ball back over their heads with astonishing force.  The players would then compete for this neutrally hurled object after it had re-entered the planet’s atmosphere.  Surely these refs missed their vocation as Olympic hammer throwers?  Or maybe, in Australia, this is what kids with good throwing arms aspire to.

The final rule involved catching a kick that must be over 15 metres in length within a specially designated 50 metre bubble near the goal posts.  A giant stopwatch then appears on the big screen and counts down from 30.  I’m not making this up.  The player must take his kick before zero or something will happen.  We never got to find out.  The refs threw hammers at them presumably.  Just as I was configuring the tackling laws and the weird non-specific ‘running-with-the ball-in-hand’ rule it was full-time and the stadium was empty.

Really what this demonstrates is that AFL is a very odd sport. But all sports are weird.  Religions and manners are weird too.  We’re just used to the ones we grew up with.  I guess what infuriates me is that huge swathes of Australia obsess over a game that no-one else on the planet plays and yet they still find time to be really good at cricket, rugby league, rugby union, swimming, cycling, rowing, netball, BBQs and swearing.  Fair play.

Hopefully, we’ll be catching another match before our visas expire so I can start heckling with confidence.

Another day, another drama.

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I’ll float your boat

I was stationed on the small boat, waiting patiently on the wharf for passers by to be persuaded to become passengers when the unthinkable happened.  Our larger boat broke down!  To give you a sense of scale it is the largest boat on the Yarra, admittedly not a spectacular bragging right, but in comparison to the river itself, it is a lumbering juggernaut.  It’s roughly the size of a tennis court and the height of a goal post from the water.  And there it was, in front of all the other ferry cruise stalls, floating aimlessly like the feather in Forrest Gump, other boats maneuvering around it like the inconvenience it was.  My captain on the smaller boat knew we’d be required imminently, but knowing this would mean dealing with ‘The Captain’ on the bigger boat in crisis mode was an awful sensation.  Like waiting for the whistle to blow in the trenches.

Sure enough, The Captain somehow squeezed his upper half out the improbably small engine room hatch and waved at us frantically for help, dozens of passengers flanking him with varying degrees of anxiety.   Now our boat is much, much smaller than his.  It’s about 15% of the size.  Yet here we were, sidling up to the behemoth (while The Captain screamed at us to move faster like we were concealing a jet engine to spite him) and attaching lines to her starboard bow as if planning an attack.  My captain then expertly shepherded the Titanic to a safe berth as people from the riverside bars and restaurants laughed and jeered at The Captain’s frenzied verbal assaults.  It wasn’t over though.  We now had to fix the engine and fix it fast because 48 passengers would be shortly demanding refunds, which on a public holiday (Good Friday) was not an option.  The Captain and the captain seconded themselves in the tiny cave of the engine room.  They would yell orders from the abyss at me and I’d relay them to the other deckhand, who with as much boat handling experience as me – zero – was now sitting at the wheel.  Orders like, “Keep trying!!!” and “Oh!  Turn ignition off NOW!”  The passengers were having a royal time of it.  Some of them started singing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.’

Needless to say it took almost an hour to get the engine running again, flooded thingy and a jammed whatchacallit apparently, but in that time we only lost 7 passengers.  By lost I mean they demanded to get off the boat and get their money back.  Our rivals watched this unfold with unbridled joy.  As the newly fixed juggernaut sailed blissfully upriver towards the untold delights of Herring Island and the Parks Victoria Depot, The Captain’s screams still ringing in my ears, I took a moment to reflect upon how I had reached this point.  Then a group of 11 Indian tourists boarded my boat and their kid did not stop screaming for 45 minutes.  It was like a tiny air raid siren.  Happy Easter.

Tiger Tiger

I was describing the exhilarating landmarks of the upper reaches of the Yarra River when a large brown snake swam into my purview.  Its head was popped above the surface like a snorkel with eyes, while it’s lithe body did the gymnastic ribbon routine below.  About 1.5 metres long it seemed pretty intent on getting to the nearby bank, probably to kill a duck or a jogger.  With Google activated I determined that we had just witnessed a Tiger Snake, native of Tasmania but often spotted in the wetter reaches of South Eastern Australia.  And it’s venomous!  My first brush with actual dangerous Aussie wildlife, what a rush!

With all the European architecture and Manhattan sky scrapers, it’s easy to forget where in the world you are in Melbourne.  Just cockatoos, occasional snakes and the organised chaos of AFL to remind you.  Another good indicator is the non-stop parade of festivals and events that are held every other day.  Construction teams spend so much time assembling and disassembling temporary stages and stands it’s a miracle anything made of brick has actually been erected.

Last weekend we had the Moomba Festival, which involves water skiing and extortionate carnival rides.  I’m instructed to tell tourists that Moomba is Aboriginal for ‘let’s get together and have fun.’ According to my colleague who looked it up it actually means, ‘up your bum.’  So every March you are cordially invited to the River Yarra for the annual Up Your Bum Festival.

Before this we had White Night, whereby the city’s museums stay open all night and various buildings of note are illuminated by elaborate light displays.  The Exhibition Centre in Carlton Gardens hosted an Aboriginal interpretation of the seasons, complete with massive crocodiles and flocks of birds cascading across it’s façade.  It was jaw-dropping.  We took the opportunity to hit up the NGV and pay half price for the Ai Wei Wei and Andy Warhol retrospective.  Poor Andy didn’t weigh up too well to his Chinese contemporary.  Ai Wei Wei’s pieces were more intricate, more striking and had a lot more to say.   His art comes from a more angry place, I suppose because he has a lot more to be angry about.  By the end of the exhibition, Warhol seemed indulgent and unnecessary.  However, the overlying impression was that without Andy we wouldn’t have gotten Ai Wei Wei, and in fact the art world, for better or worse, wouldn’t be the same either.  Even at 3am it was a welcome dunk into modern art.

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Warhol portrait – auctioned for $4.50

But enough of the culture, the single best thing about Melbourne is Messina Ice Cream and I am still working out ways to extend my visa so I can keep stuffing my fat, red face for eternity with it.  We took our Argentinian mate Jo there recently and his face was a picture, like a war-stricken child tasting chocolate for the first time.  Incidentally he had chocolate ice cream and made a noise that can only be typed as, “oooooooohhhhhhhhhwahhhhhyjaaaaaajaaawaooooo.”

The Tiger Snake is an easy trade-off.