For my wife, Lavender's, birthday, her mother, Bernadette, offered us a weekend's free babysitting as a gift. Either that, or she committed some rather heinous act in a past life and this was to be her punishment. In any case we jump at the chance. Or more precisely, I jump, and Lavender takes a cautious hop.
We decide to visit Sydney as an old mate of mine, Andy and his wife, Monique, have just had their first child, ZJB, a gorgeous little girl of 10 weeks. So young that she is still measured in weeks, not months, or years, or dreams decapitated (that comes later). Mothers have a way of knowing the age of their precious ones to the minute. I once told interested parties that T-Bone was 20 months, when in fact he was only 19 months and 3 weeks, and Lavender almost ripped my head off.
With the Harbour City chosen as the destination of our first kid-free trip away for years, I realise that in the time since I last had to book a flight, three airlines have gone bust, six have joined the fray and the Malaysians and Russians have apparently been up to some funky stuff in the skies.
I opt for the budgetiest budget airline I can find and a hotel that requires us to share a bathroom, as I think this will please my wife, who is a touch more careful with money than me. She does some research, however, and reads a number of scathing online reviews about our hotel citing blood stains and malodour.
Who knew that blood stains would be a deal-breaker? I guess I do now, but in any case, I've gone with the no refund/no change/no questions asked option, and we are locked in. I think she's going too far when she packs a 5 litre bottle of Jif in her hand luggage, especially because there is a 7 kilogram weight limit (no checked baggage of course), but I keep my mouth shut given I am the one responsible for exposing her to hepatitis.
Before we leave, Lavender's mum tells us we should visit the Masterpieces from the Scottish Galleries exhibition and we briefly try to humour her with our silence until I can no longer hold in my feelings.
"We could do that ... but we're not lame like you."
Ah Bernie, have fun with the kids!
Arriving at the long-term carpark at the airport, Lavender cannot refrain herself from exclaiming: "50 BUCKS FOR TWO DAYS! ARE YOU SERIOUS?"
I'm all for keeping the piece on such a joyous occasion, but I need to nip this in the bud now, and the newfound assertiveness I have cultivated through more than a year of psychotherapy with My Guy (read more about him here) allows me to gently, yet firmly, ask: "are you going to be like this the whole weekend?", to which she checks herself.
Her mum tells me it's the Scottish blood from her father's side that makes Lavender so frugal. I'm not sure why then, she was so disgusted by the haggis I made, as a sheep's heart, liver and lungs come pretty cheap, not to mention it was so culturally apropos.
We hop on the thankfully free bus to the terminal and I tell Lavender to jot down the carpark number, "G12", as a reminder of where we parked. She's coming back a day earlier than me so I want to make sure she'll be able to find the car as she has a worse sense of direction than these guys ...
"We parked in G12 so when you come home, get off the bus at the 'G' terminal over there. That's how it works, I think", I say to help her out and prove to those around us that we are the most unseasoned travelers onboard.
The bus driver hoons along at a decent clip and sends a few passengers sprawling as they attempt to stow away their luggage. A toddler stumbles following an unnecessarily rapid acceleration and it's here that I remark to Lavender, "this driver's really going too fast. Someone ought to report him."
Then I realise that seemingly overnight we have become an old couple who know no better than to complain and make inane, insipid remarks. Remarks like this one from Lavender: "airports are really big places aren't they?"
Despite all the advancements in modern aviation and travel, I am unsure why at Melbourne airport they have decided to open seven different outlets all of whom specialise in chocolate macadamias. Admittedly, they are pretty delicious, but visitors to our shores would be left thinking they are the only thing consumed by Australians for breakfast, lunch and dinner, thus they are the only reasonable gift to give their loved ones.
Were my carry on luggage not already 6.97kgs I would have bought some for little baby, ZJB, who I am sure would love them pureed with her mother's milk. Nevermind, I'm sure I'll be able to pick up a box Sydney-side.
Despite the fact I have booked an el cheapo airline, it still comes as a surprise to me that they have bizarre optional extras: $5 to pick a seat, $3 to jump the queue (if only it were so easy for the refugees, am I right?), and $7 for a seat belt.
Given my wife's propensity for saving money we forego all the optional extras and are forced to sit in separate rows, completely unharnessed.
Luckily enough, we're diagonally opposite and can still make eye contact. Unluckily though, I am sat next to an elderly man and woman who hold hands, canoodle and engage in the kind of effortless conversation that indicates to me they are surely a new couple. For had they been married for the 50 or 60 years that their ages would suggest, there is no chance at all they would be behaving like they were about to join the mile high club. Lavender and I have been married six years and the most flirtatious we get now is trading farts over a bowl of cereal.
I look across the aisle and it's a Lavender I haven't seen in years - carefree and excited. The Lavender I wooed by taking her dumpster diving on our second date. The Lavender who would buy me a "get well soon" card when I was hungover and happily join in with my mates and I as we broke out into drunken hymns at the pub. It's going to be an awesome weekend.
Kids. What kids?
The old fella next to me has a bit of height about him and swiftly strikes first to lay claim over the armrest. I'm hemmed in like a struggling MMA fighter and unfortunately the newfound assertiveness I am able to apply to my relationship does not extend to strangers. I cower as I receive at least half a dozen elbows without even a hint of an apology and all I counter with are gentle farts offered in the vain hope he and his missus have a keen sense of smell. Unfortunately I do not detect even the slightest disdain. Lavender, however, who is accustomed to my particular scent, turns around immediately, thinking I am putting on the moves. I am not.
We hit a bit of turbulence and my thoughts immediately go to a story about my friend, Andy's brother, Mike who on a school trip where he had a similarly rocky flight, got up and screamed, "WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!"
He was suspended or lost his position as prefect or something like that, but at least from thenceforth gained legend status amongst his peers.
We touchdown safely in Sydney and I head straight for first aid so they can mend my bruised and battered left arm. Having remedied this we traipse off to a Bill Granger café, which must be a très cliché thing to do for visitors and Sydneysiders alike, but who really cares - even a 7-11 hotdog would have been awesome at this child-free point in time.
The food at bills is clean, fresh and has the distinct taste of freedom. Unfortunately we are not seated at the communal table so we are unable to show these other posers what an awesome couple we have again become, but at least our children are nowhere to be seen.
To prove to myself just how unencumbered I am at the minute I order a pre-midday Bloody Mary which is equal parts foul and wonderful. The addition of clamato juice (yes, it is indeed a mixture of clams and tomato juice), is the beverage's one saving grace, mostly for nostalgic reasons as clamato juice is a specialty from Canada and it is in this fine nation while on exchange that I met my mate, Andy whom I have come to visit.
The consumption of this clam-based breakfast cocktail, hideous though it may sound – and indeed hideous did it taste – for some strange reason symbolises for me the end of our year of hell that began with T-Bone's autism diagnosis. The year where seemingly all our hopes and dreams were dashed as a family. The year filled with occupational therapists and speech pathologists and paediatricians and child psychologists, and not the kind of fun stuff a three year old is meant to be doing.
This Bloody Mary is Bloody Brilliant.
To arrive at our accommodation in Potts Point we are required to take a walk through Kings Cross whereupon walking past a seedy establishment we are accosted by two large men in tracksuits and baseball caps who ask us if we "wanna take a look?"
Given one of the principle reasons Lavender chose me as a life partner is that I am "feminist-friendly" (though I don't yet claim to be a feminist), I feel it only appropriate to put these losers in their place, and proclaim in my most authoritative voice, "maybe later, guys", which surely got across my point. Not now, you two oafs ... but what time do you shut?
Arriving at the hotel, fears are allayed as we can detect no visible signs of blood, though I'm sure Dexter would have had a field day. Lavender, with all the compassion in her motherly heart, enquires for the umpteenth time, "are the boys okay?" – and I fumble for an appropriately reassuring response, all the while thinking, to be honest I really don't care ... as long as at least one of the two of them is alive when we get home. Which one, I don't mind.
Traversing between Kings Cross and Potts Point is an interesting experience, like flicking channels between a brutal scene in Game of Thrones to a delicately arranged canapé courtesy of Nigella. In Potts Point one half expects to turn a corner and run into Malcolm Turnbull, in which case you'd gesture with a thumb towards The Cross and say, "forget about the economy, can you please sort that shit out!?"
After a brief rest in the hotel we head out for dinner. After several encounters with pesky restaurant managers, we finally claim a seat at 9pm in a Japanese place called Busshari. It's about 13 minutes past Lavender's bedtime but I am glad I resisted her attempts to grab takeaway in the form of half a chook and soggy chips from the joint on the corner patroned by a lone taxi driver.
We perch at the sushi bar and the katana wielding fish maestro puts on a great show. Sushi chefs just have a way of being that much cooler than you. At one point I catch him sneaking a glance at my wife, no doubt thinking to himself, what the hell are you doing with this chump?
Lavender indulges in her first glass of wine in what must be over a year, which I warmly welcome, but then begins to undo some of her good work when she asks the waitress, "do you think two dishes will be enough?", when I was thinking more like eight or nine. For if you've never eaten with me, I undertake the task with particular gusto. Shout me dinner, I'll prove it to you.
Thankfully the waitress does her job well and cajoles my wife willingly into more food. Everything we eat is magic, in particular the sashimi platter. Anyone who has the temerity and skill to feed me raw scampi deserves adulation. Even better because my wife has a shellfish allergy and I get the lion's share.
The next morning we visit Andy, Monique and lil ZJB, who for the record was precisely 10.42 weeks old at the time we met, lest I incur any motherly wrath. Turns out she is the kind of baby Lavender and I despise. Placid, sweet and completely compliant going to sleep. In other words, the complete antithesis of our own two little terrors.
Andy is one of the funniest human beings I have met and made my year in Canada one of the most memorable ever. I could write a whole other blog about the antics we got up to there, but it's when he didn't bat an eyelid upon seeing me bawl on-stage during a stand-up comedy show that really etched him into my soul forevermore.
It was the Melbourne Fringe Festival and he was one of five people in the audience, one of the others being my mum. Dying a miserable death on-stage, the realisation of my failure as both a comedian and as a son coalesced into the perfect thunderbolt of tear inducing emotion and there all of a sudden I was – a crying comedian on a bright stage, not really making anyone laugh.
If someone can witness that and not abandon you for the fruitloop that you are, then surely they're a keeper.
Fast forward 12 years and happier times are had at a Newtown restaurant called Hartsyard, where Andy, Monique and I are joined by another old mate, Ali. With Lavender now out of the picture, we order a fantastic feast of chicken crackling, school prawns, bone marrow, poutine and lamb ribs. Not one dish of which my wife's conservative palate would have contemplated tasting.
Andrew banters with the waitstaff like a pro, putting even my fine ability trading whimsy with waiters to shame, and we all know that how one treats waitstaff is a universal indicator of your decency as a human being. Well, I don't hear anyone else blowing my trumpet!
Andy and Monique pull up stumps to head home and give dream baby, ZJB, her dream feed, leaving me to wander solo through The Cross and hopefully not get King Hit.
Next day I traipse through the suburb of Surry Hills and wonder more or less constantly why there is no "e" in Surry like Melbourne's Surrey Hills. I like this particular area of Sydney, mainly because it reminds me a lot of Melbourne, which kind of defeats the purpose of traveling, I guess. Like when a bunch of my friends went for a drink in the Aussie Outback Pub in Paris. Call me a snob but I couldn't. I just could not.
I end up plonking myself in the small park opposite the renowned Bourke Street Bakery thinking I'll get a delicious pastry whence the time is right, but my weekend of overindulgence means that time never comes.
Sat there by myself, hours until my flight home, a strange sensation comes over me. A feeling familiar, yet foreign. I struggle for a while to figure out what it is, then suddenly it comes to me. For the first time in what seems like an eternity, I am bored. Where does one go child-free, wife-free, too full to eat, on a Monday afternoon, in a city whose famed harbour you've seen a million times before?
Where else but the Masterpieces from the Scottish Galleries exhibition, of course.
Who's lame now, Bernie?
While I make myself out to be some sort of neophyte when it comes to art, I’m actually quite partial to the stuff and particularly like the schtick of John Brack and Eugene von Guérard (“schtick” is an art word isn’t it?). Brack because his piece, Collins St, 5p.m. is so redolent of the dull life in the public service I left behind, and von Guérard because his capturing of the early (but really not that early) Australian landscape always makes me reflect on the issue of belonging on this land. The black, blurry figures going about their daily lives in the background always making me feel a rather welcome unease. Not quite guilty, but certainly not guilt-free.
At gift-giving times Lavender often tells me I’m a difficult person to buy for. I’m not. I’m really not.
“I’ve already told you, all I want is an original Brack or von Guérard ... and all you keep buying me are these damn chocolate macadamias!”
Entering the Scottish Galleries exhibition I am bewildered that hundreds of years ago these poor sods had to painstakingly reflect life using nothing but brush and paint, whereas I can do something similar with the simple click of a button. Of course this is to reduce the work of the artist to something it often is not.
I cannot even pretend to describe what art is, or what it really means. All I know is that it is somewhat important, and that if I see a piece by someone named Hieronymus Cock, I’m sure as hell gonna take a look at it.