Sunday, September 27, 2015

Five months

My leave to remain expires in 147 days. It will get colder, and then it will be Christmas, and then my visa will expire.  

It was issued nearly three years ago. I remember the day it came, because it really might not have. I held it in my hand in my living room. Outside a magpie rattled the matchbox in its throat. Three years, I thought, three whole years. Plenty of time to turn into a terribly important, awfully successful person -- a person so obviously A Person that the Home Office wouldn't dream of not stamping me into righteousness forever. That hasn't happened, though. I'm still the fairly unimpressive quotidian person I was back then.

I haven't a partner, or children, which seem like the proper kind of roots to have. The ones that seem honestly dreadful to uproot. I'm not fleeing anything. The country where I was born is not at war. It was not persecuting me. Nothing bad will happen to me if I go back there. I'm an immigrant because I like . . . here. It sounds like not much of a reason, even to me. Not life or death. Not true love or the faces of children. Just robins and ash trees, hedges of hawthorn and sloe berries, the strange underwater dry land of the fens, the first time I crushed a hard frost under my boot, every neatly rabbit-trimmed blade of grass wearing lush crystalline fur the day I found a lone badger paw. 

My hair was short that day the visa came, and now it is long, galloping past my shoulder blades raggedly. It needs cutting, but I have become strange and possessive about it, as if it is physical evidence of my being-here-ness, my careful scratches on the wall. My hair would be deported along with the rest of me, but it feels like English hair. Hair made of English food and English air and the hopelessly, scabrously hard water here in Cambridge that coats it with scale and robs it of the gleam it might otherwise have. Sometimes I rinse it with cider vinegar to strip out the bits of the chalk strata south of town where the bore-holes are and I think of knapped flints in wheatfield ploughlines all over East Anglia. 

I do breathing exercises in the border control queues at the airport. I have learned to focus carefully on the soles of my feet, on the way my heels press into the sandals that I wear because security usually isn't interested in inspecting them. I have learned not to make small talk with the officer sitting in the tall white laminate pulpit. Don't smile. Give short answers. Don't stare, but look them in the eye even when they say, you are a liar. Especially then. Answer everything unequivocally.  That is hard because I am a desperately, richly equivocal person. Except about this. Except about England. I don't have any trouble telling you whether or not I want to stay. Yes, yes, I do, with all my heart. They don't ask you that.

I haven't looked yet to see what my options are for renewing my visa, because I don't need to know yet. There may not be any. Or there may now be some which no longer exist by the time I will need to lodge my application in eighty-seven or so days. There may be new options by then. Perhaps ones that I cannot meet. Perhaps ones that I might have met, if I'd worked harder or been braver or spent less time watching police procedurals. Perhaps it will be fine. Surely, says everyone.

For a while I read newspaper reports describing the Home Secretary's plans for immigration control, but I stop. Sometimes I describe myself as an immigrant and people look at me with expressions that tell me I don't fit their mental picture of that word. They mean, of course, that I'm white. That I speak English with an acceptable, even charming, accent. My deluxe assortment of privilege curls around my toes treacherously, mercifully, like a vine tethering me against the vicious current and strangling someone else. People's sons and daughters are drowning trying to get away from a war. I am nothing like them. I am ashamed of my fear that England will be taken from me, and still more ashamed that my shame doesn't make me less afraid. I am terrified.

Sometimes I think about what I will do if I cannot stay. I wonder if Ireland will take me. It is green there. They have robins, too. Or perhaps I will take my English hair back to Australia, find a little house with a corrugated roof in the mountains and make the very lightest of my love for England in cafés when people ask me why I left.  

Last November I was there. Cicadas chirped and rainbow lorikeets kissed and bickered on my brother's balcony railings and I drank coffee with him and we laughed our two different-same laughs. The light was bright and the shadows sharp and Christmas street decorations glittered in the yellow late spring sunshine. Moreton Bay fig trees twice the size of an earth-mover, magpies caroling in the dawn. Not the magpie with the matchbox in its throat. Not really a magpie at all, but it sings like it knows its true name and not the one it got for its black-and-white similarity to a corvid on the other side of the world. 

One day I found a family of tawny frogmouths in a sugar gum in the You Yangs, a stark ripple of granite ridges fifty-five kilometres south-west of Melbourne. Handfuls of butterflies like scuffed snow into the air everywhere you step, gorgeously decked in amber with chocolate trims. Common browns, they're called, in another stellar display of failed nomenclature. Spotted pardalotes and koalas sleeping through the bus-tour people taking pictures.  

That morning the sugar gum held two adult frogmouths and two fledglings. The parents did uncanny impressions of eucalyptus branches, in the way of tawny frogmouths, stretched out as if to be tickled under the chin, long and straight in cleverly unbirdy shapes, fuzzy bark-coloured eyelids almost-shut over huge copper eyes. Almost, because as you walk around they shift with parallax-scrambling intuition, a part of the tree from every angle. The babies hadn't learned to do this yet, or perhaps the sight of me was just too exciting. They sat stock still but bolt upright, their glossy pebble eyes fixed on fascinating, dangerous me, turning their leaf-litter heads as I tried to line up my phone lens with the binoculars.

I long to wake up having learned how to look exactly like a part of England, soft-edged and cunningly merged into the background, even if you walk around to try to see my mismatched Australian underside. But instead I am like the tawny frogmouth fledgling. A bit like the tree, but mostly like a bird, still and watchful, hoping that nothing bad will happen. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


I've piled some more books in corners and eaten rice pudding. The birdoole has climbed about on toppled fantasy-novel shale and I have made walnut and rocket pesto. I forgot things, and kicked against things, and lifted the corner of the rug and put it down again in a hurry.

It's still windy.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


Gifs have taught us that there are so many kinds of nope! 

God's own nope octopus. Which is like omg you must be kidding get that away from me no way oh god I can never unclench kind of nope. 

Beyoncé nope! Which is like oh man I can't believe you actually said that you're gonna find battery acid is eating your curtains someday when you least expect it kind of nope. 

Steve Carrell nope! Which is like yeah I am so extremely not getting involved in whatever this is, bring on the heat death of the universe kind of nope.

Andrew Scott IS Moriarty nope! Which is like I'm just saying dude that if you go there things are going to end very badly for you kind of nope.  

Jon Snow nope! Which is like seriously man what is this world of shit kind of nope.

What does this have to do with anything? Well you may ask. ALL THE NOPE. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Tale as old as time

In 1992 I went to see Strictly Ballroom with an exchange student called Owen who lived on my hall. Owen had round, interrogative eyes, brown curls like wooden five-cent pieces cut close to his head and the kind of soft, mid-tenor New York accent that's almost a brogue. 

It was Baz Luhrmann's first feature. 

Afterwards Owen said, 'So what would you say was particularly Australian about that movie?'

In one way, I suppose, I was perfectly fitted to answer that question. My colonial life had been limned by the cultural products of other anglophones: TinyXtin's Sesame Street, The Famous Five,  dozens of the cheesy 50s musical films beloved by my mother, strange English-Hollywood mashups like Mary Poppins and The Secret Garden whose weird sensibility collisions I would only see many years later. Top Gun, Gremlins, Three Men and a Baby. 

But I didn't even know where to start. I had no idea how to convey the Australianness of Strictly Ballroom. There was nothing narratively distinctive about it. Ugly duckling, boy-meets-girl, Cinderella, follow-your-dreams. Nothing you wouldn't have seen in Disney. Dashing hero, corrupt big man of the town who'd have had a gold watch in his pocket in a western, the catty lady-competition, the henpecked husband. Even a Mystical Negro in the form of our heroine's Spanish father, the one who really knows how to dance, donchaknow, because immigrants have it in their hearts not their heads. They live in a little house by the train tracks. The literal wrong side. 

The accents, then? The sense of life in an Australian suburb? The colours, the makeup? The distinctively Australian interiors, corrugated iron roofs? The smell of hot weather on the pavement ...

Perhaps the shop. Her family lives out the back of their shop. Shops are only from the place the shop is. An Australian shop isn't like a bodega, or a village shop, or a shop from anywhere except there. A shop is where all the things are together. But it's not all the same things. It's the things the people there expect to find, tiny dry-good microcosms of shared understanding .

I held up my hands helplessly. Everything, I said. Everything about it. 

Australians tell the same stories as everyone else. Of course they do. 

Friday, January 09, 2015


My friend Sophie's family always seemed properly English-flavoured. Her grandfather was English, and many, many years later we would exchange whispers about the mythological straitness of his laces. His daughter -- Sophie's mother -- had a mane of glossy black hair and the kind of expression that got her cast as the romantic interest in our seaside musical productions. My mother played the bombshell. Not just because she looked the part, for lo, did she ever, but for a certain glinting side-eye entirely absent from Sophie's dear mater.

Sophie and her brother and sister had breakfast at a set table, with milk in a jug. And they went to Sunday school.

We ate raisin bran standing up in the kitchen. My parents were known for saying fuck and being naked. And boy howdy was there no religion. Except in our sedately Anglican schools, tame little Thursday eucharists and all. But that's another story.

Sophie's father was a rheumatologist and they spent a year in England when she and her sister were little. My mother would tell the story of their return. Oh! she would exclaim, clasping her musician's hands to her chest, they had such sweet accents, you couldn't believe it. Hello Miranda! she would lisp plummily, apostrophising the tiny ones in their little blue garbardines. Sigh, said my mother. You wouldn't believe how quickly that disappeared. A few weeks and then ... oh well.

The tragic relapse to our sad, vulgar tongue. Oh well.

I wondered about this place where everyone talked in this way that made my mother clasp her hands to her chest. Fantastic Mr Fox talks like that, I thought. And Ratty and Moley! Perhaps everyone in books talks like that. Well, except the Muddle-headed Wombat. He's a wombat.

Well, that's something, I thought. That's something.

Nine things soundtrack

Hem, Pacific Street

The Weepies, Little Bird

Jim Croce, I've Got A Name

Josh Rouse, His Majesty Rides

Paul Kelly, Dumb Things

The Eels, I Like Birds 

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Nine things

Ethel the glitter Stegosaur, by @Pictmatrix

I keep rubbing my hands together, because they seem sticky from wondering if I know what I am saying. I wash them with the tiny fragrant puck of soap I brought home from the hotel in Melbourne, and dry them and pound out more words, and look at them, and my hands feel sticky again.  

So, a letter to my hands. Dear hands. Here are some things I am trying to say. 

(1) Carving out the place that feels like home to us is hard. It is a series of traps and pipe dreams and false dawns and botched escapes and we amass the most extraordinary arsenal of tools and weapons to build it and sometimes we cut ourselves with them and lock ourselves behind the wrong doors.

(2) It is very, very important to look at other things that are alive. For a long time. Quietly. To see what they do. To see that they are there. 

(3) This is harder than it sounds. 

(4) It is very, very important to know their names.

(5) Sometimes people say this is not important, but they are wrong.

(6) Books sometimes say what is real. Sometimes they make what is real. Sometimes what is in a book isn't real at all. 

(7) This is less obvious than it looks.

(8) We are always asked where we are from as if there is only one answer. That isn't true.

(9) Sometimes all that connects you with the world are some hooded crows and a wooden spoon and those times are actually no different from the other times. It just seems as if they are.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015


Well, so much for the first week. Another windy night, another drab not-so-cold day. Crumpets and cheap chocolate and cups of tea and all the lights on all day because I can't see a damn thing.

Trashy novel in bits that last as long as my frozen hands can stand being out from under the duvet, the sense of waking up in a small, warm Xtin-sized pile of leaves in a forest far, far away that slowly makes itself back into percale and magnolia on the walls. Mothers and bales of towels on sale and running the washing machine empty with some baking soda because renewal and, um something. Kitten gifs and the day before yesterday's coffee cup hiding behind the box of good baubles which ought to be under that other box you put away this morning. A tape measure because always, a Christmas tealight never lit, quilting pins, a book about housekeeping, a book about leopards, a book about wizards, a book about walking, a book about nests and the box of marzipan I thought I'd lost.