*Tales of the Unexpected

I have just spent a few days in the country. This is because my aunt died, and so my mother, my sister and my sister’s boyfriend had to hare up to the north coast of New South Wales to attend to the customary death-related matters. My aunt was eighty-four, and had had a good innings, as they say, so there’s no need to talk about all that, except to mention that I extend her my best wishes, wherever she is. The point is, rather, that it’s a great novelty for me to leave Melbourne. I am too lazy to do so and the man I live with can’t be bothered to leave the city either, as is evidenced by the fact that, even though he has lived in Victoria for a very long time, he insists that Hanging Rock is in South Australia. So, as I’ve no idea when I’ll ever be making such an expedition again, here are some of the phenomena that I found most remarkable about my time away.

On the drive up the coast, the members of the Rebel Motorcycle Club surrounded us for about half an hour. This was a great thing because it happened on a particularly dreary stretch of the Pacific Highway, travel on which usually makes me lose any desire to go on living. This was the nearest I’d been to a really large number of bikies since I’d watched Stone on video on New Year’s Eve 2001, and reminded me how much getting to see bikies while in transit had been a reliable tonic for boredom right through my childhood holidays. What was worrying, though, was that only about two of the Rebels seemed to be under the age of fifty, indicating to me that bikies, like Australian religious orders, may be in danger of eventual extinction. This would leave the Uluru-shaped shell of the long-defunct Leyland Brothers World as the only likely cause of excitement on this particular route.

The holiday apartments we were staying in had so many warnings about keeping every door locked and bolted at all times that it was as though they were situated in Fort Apache, the Bronx. That night, we dined at the town’s bowling club, at which a singer-songwriter, who went by just the one name, was performing. He seemed gifted enough but I had to take issue with a couple of things that came out of his mouth. First, he sang a song of his own composition about the town we were in and its proud history of fighting for what is right, when, as far as I’m aware, it initially existed solely as a dumping ground for convicts and these days is a haven for retirees; in terms of social activism, it’s not exactly the Berkeley campus in the nineteen sixties. Second, he claimed that it is common for people to approach him and ask how he ‘got into the music industry’, which I find difficult to believe.

The next morning, my family and I had to go to the funeral home to sign some papers. I was looking forward to, Six Feet Under style, choosing a coffin but, unfortunately, this had already been done. (Incidentally, I can attest that ‘eco-friendly’ caskets are unspeakably hideous.) The lady who dealt with us mentioned that she had an ‘Aboriginal funeral’ coming up in the next couple of days and that she was a little concerned about the prospect, because ‘You know how it is, there’ll be hundreds of them’, but then told us on our way out that she was just off to see Bran Nue Dae, which seemed unlikely to take her mind off this predicament.

On Monday, the (non-Aboriginal) funeral that we were in town for took place. Suffice to say, that in the grand tradition of employment at such occasions of vastly inappropriate songs executed on the pan pipes, we were treated to ‘You Light Up My Life’. At the end of the service, the minister asked us if we would like to say a few words in front of the coffin, an opportunity that we declined. Aside from the out-and-out discomfiture it would have involved, this practice seemed a prime example of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

While going through my aunt’s things, I came across several unopened boxes of extremely strong prescription eye drops, all of which I saw fit to take home with me, even though both my mother and my boyfriend have warned that they will probably send me blind immediately. Best of all, though, I found a superb Kelvinator booklet from, I would guess, the early seventies, called ‘how to use and enjoy a freezer’ and, yes, the title is all in lower case. The photograph on the front cover features a group of people whose relationship is difficult to determine: two women and three men, all of whom are in early to late middle age. They have a luscious spread before them of a potato salad, a fruit salad, white bread rolls, a cheesecake and an apple pie, and one of the men is carving a barbecued chicken. It appears that all this bounty has somehow come to them directly from the freezer.

Brimming with random capitalisation, the booklet’s prose leaves one in no doubt that, as it confidently states, ‘owning a freezer is like having a supermarket in your own home’, but cautions that ‘you could be disappointed’ if you attempt to freeze cooked white of egg, or aspic. It has valuable hints on preparing and freezing your pets’ food in advance, but, strangely, its author feels the need to state that ‘no member of the family will object to feeding the pets’.

Perhaps the best part, though, is the section ‘Let your freezer take all the pain out of entertaining’. It comments that ‘everyone admires the poised, unruffled hostess’ but, while recommending that you treat your guests to iced coffee, made from leftover coffee ‘from the last three or four days’, warns that the adorning cream must be whipped into rosettes in advance, as ‘Nothing sounds worse than the muffled whirr from the kitchen of an electric or handbeater whipping the cream when guests are present!’ The booklet’s author thus goes from giving details on how to store and carve an entire lamb, to approximating the voice of Joan Crawford in her comprehensively bonkers etiquette book, My Way of Life.

The morning before leaving to return to the city, I purchased breakfast from the only café in existence anywhere near where we were staying. I ordered a simple meal of toasted banana bread and coffee. Now, it was all delicious, and the staff could not have been nicer, but I do wish that things in the country would not operate at such a leisurely pace. I was the only customer in there and I could have got financial backing for a remake of New York, New York in the time it took them to hand over the food.

It appears from this incident that people in rural areas think that our time on earth is infinite. Of course, having just been to a funeral, I am feeling particularly cognisant of the fact that it is not. What’s more, it is sobering to think that the bell could be tolling sooner rather than later for me if I get what I deserve and have some kind of massive allergic reaction to the purloined eye drops.

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