Onions, he knew his onions.
Strange phrase, I know it’s meaning who else does?
Grumpy, cantankerous, obdurate, offending were all ways he could be described. Was it the sweat stained canvass floppy sunhat he insisted wearing inside and out covering a balding carcinoma covered scalp, or the knowledge within which was most attractive to me.
I couldn’t tell.
He had as his office a dust laden and paper strewn cubby hole office on the mezzanine floor of the plaster mill, Concord Plaster Mills. Built during the World War, the second one in 1942, its construction echoed its times. Concrete and brick, but mostly concrete of an era when lightening a structure to save effort or materials was unheard of. Or maybe a direct hit with several tonnes of TNT. Solid, like the men who cajoled tons of plaster from its bowels. When it was built metrification was not even contemplated. Mechanical gates and chutes operated by sinewy human muscle power, mostly migrant’s muscle who manned the plant post war.
He lived not far from the plant somewhere in Ryde on land which had not been squeezed by the urban sprawl and on it he grew onions of which he was proud. A strange thing to be proud of I thought but his foremanship at the plaster Mills didn’t define him. It was his onions.
Thinking back now over the forty odd years since past, it’s the onions I recall. Lessons learnt from him about technical aspects of plaster making, brattice plaster, hardwall plaster, mine plaster, pottery plaster and curse of curse plaster for plasterboard manufacture are all forgotten. What of the man do I recall?
Pulling off his boots after a day’s toil in the change room alongside the HR office, he could always be seen there right on knock off time. Though his going home clothes were barely distinguishable from his work clothes his demeanour on exit said one thing, I’m off now to do what’s important. It’s that which remains.
He started earlier than all of us office types. There at the crack of dawn for the change off of night shift he stayed abreast of everything that happened in his Mill. No amount of electrical then electronic monitoring said more about what was happening in Cec’s domain than what he intuitively knew. Being in harmony with the rhythms of production came from continually prowling the plant, listening to the creak of straining equipment understanding the stresses the plant could take. Most of what I learnt from Cec was by observation, his way of being, and his experiences. These were hard won, requiring a closeness of men, awkward for insular Cec and near impossible for a young Chinese lad to develop with a grumpy Anglo man.
But we worked at it, and slowly after various trials and many mistakes a grudging acceptance developed, both ways. Long hours in the Plaster Mill, I learnt the lessons that only experience can teach. It was as though the apprenticeship I’d served under Arthur Collins at Brunswick Plaster Mills at Tinning St Brunswick Victoria continued. Brunswick though had been brown coal briquette fired whereas Concord was oil fired. It was hot and dusty work, very dusty but the days were career young and enthusiasm undampened.
Slowly the years passed and oil gave way to gas, the plant reshaped for the volumes of plaster now required for plasterboard. The proportion of niche plasters requiring art and craftsmanship slid down the production schedule. The need to know more about styling the product diminished till the plaster mill was merely an adjunct to a plasterboard plant.
And with this decline knowing how to craft plasters for customer’s specific needs gave way to producing tonnage, now metrification had arrived, for the plasterboard plant. The care factor diminished, the onions shrivelled and one morning in the change room as he pulled on his boots for a day’s unsatisfying work he died. Vale Cec.


The Temp

A new girl sashay’s [” to walk in an ostentatious yet casual manner, typically with exaggerated movements of the hips and shoulders” ] in,to take up a temporary role as an administration assistant proudly announcing ,
” I have degrees so this will be no bother to me”
She will to us though!


Back when I was in sole charge of a large manufacturing plant south of Brisbane I enjoyed relative autonomy. The site was large, 40 acres, with a large plant building at the rear of the site, and up front near the main road an office amenity built into a converted house. 

When the new Group Manager for Queensland moved into the office, there wasn’t much change. I didn’t report to him, they were our site tenants really; we were pleased to accommodate them.   

“I’m Eric and I want to see you up here in my office.” 

Of course I thought I’d love to meet him, having not done so. 

“I want to know why the gardener up here is wasting water hosing down the front entrance of this office with a half in hose. And besides that, there’s lantana growing up through the soffit of the outside veranda.  

“Mmhh” I thought serious matters for a General Manager and a State Operations Manager to discuss. 

I’d heard that Eric was a cost cutter and had already cut the morning and afternoon teas budget for the front office dramatically. Of particular concern to staff was the elimination of chocolate biscuits, plain and no name brands now predominated. 

“Ok, I’ll be right up,” I said. 

As I wandered through the leafy glade to the left of the main entrance roadway I waved to the waiting truck drivers. Sure enough Eric had come out of the office and was berating the gardener Frankie.  Frankie looked perplexed. His English wasn’t that good, good enough though to have served faithfully for thirty years.  He’d retired from working in the plant several years before and his pride and joy in his retirement for the past few years was maintaining the grounds. They looked like a garden. 

“Me I use the tree hose huh” I overheard him saying. “But it not sqwerta  da leafs right away propa,” I caught the twinkle in Frankie’s eye as I mounted the two steps to the entrance. 

Eric stood there, legs spread arms akimbo. The stance of a General Manager, of intellectual greatness and short man stature syndrome.  

” Well what you gotta say about all this waste of water”, he railed at me, not allowing a word in between the drenching flow. 

“I’m appalled you’d allow this much waste of precious costly drinking water on a garden, let alone to clean pathways!” 

I too was appalled; hadn’t Frank been told to use the ½” hose and not the ¾” tree hose to do the pathways. He’d get more pressure for blasting and his squirt would be more impressive. I’m sure this was what he was trying to convey to Eric in his broken English. 

None of this made much sense to Frank really, not I when I thought about it.  

“Well what are you going to do about it?” Eric snarled, in a lowered tone which managed to convey both threat and superiority. 

I wondered. A modern-day dilemma. Sustainability was a few years away as a societal concern but being in the presence of the runner up to University of Queensland Prize Winner helped quiet my fears. I’d heard Eric expound in different fora how Ken, the State Accountant had been the Prize Winner in their graduation year, but that Eric was the General Manager and therefore Ken’s boss. 

“Mmhh”, I thought, so every dog has its day was the learning I’d gleaned from Eric’s gloating over Ken. 

“Perhaps use a 3/8″ and not ¾” hose”, I muttered. 

“That won’t save any water worth saving! Look at the pressure its pouring out at, and you’re an engineer, aren’t you?” 

I thought about that. Perhaps I was and was this the right time to tell him that the reason for such a high pressure was because we were pumping garden water for the site from the adjacent creek. 

“It’s water from Stable Swamp Creek, over there. My guess it’ll be back there within a day or two.” 

I could hear Frank chuckle as I turned and walked away. 

The freshness of the air was just that little clearer from the dew spray on the path. 

Philip Island Lady – Tasmania

Walking to the bin I felt the holiday through the stones in my soles. Gingerly I approached the high level dump bin. The task of taking out the rubbish looses urgency, here on holidays. I folded the crumpled, six pack outer over and over. Sauntering slowly, makes me feel on holidays. It’s the undulating unevenness of the ground, the retained warmth of the dirt, the clouds of dust raised as I walk, I could be anywhere.
I choose to be here.
On the slatted wooden decks of the cabins and other tin caravans, the noise of holidays resounds. Sounds which at home would cause annoyance, a sense of interruption are here the sound of families being families. Walls seemingly thinner than paper, tents flapping and billowing in the onshore breeze, all say holiday.
Without my rubber thongs I can feel my sole/soul. I step lightly from foot to foot, its mincingly indirect. The bins become a meeting place.
‘G’day, where ya from?’
It’s an age old question and here everyone is from somewhere else.
‘Well Geelong actually’
‘Shit! that’s a long way to come round’ she squints at me. ‘Did you come by the fairy?’
I think it’s the fairy cause that’s what it sounds like, the first vowel drawn through a sieve.
‘No came round the bay, it’s longer but the ferry costs an arm and a leg, especially when they charge for the passengers too. They don’t miss ya, do they?’
‘Yeah, right,’ she says, ‘We’re from up in the big smoke, Preston, d’ya know it? We come here every year’
And with that she lifted her stretching straining plastic bags over the edge and let them drop into the bin.
A large swarm of flies rose angrily in uninvited disturbance and waited for the air to settle a little before diving back into the darkness of bin’s interior.
‘Yes, matter of fact I lived there from when I was first born. It’s changed a lot I guess by now’
“There’s not much there now of the house in which I first lived. I knew little of it then and recall less now. It’s a place built from the words of my Mum.”
“What d’ya mean”, she cocked her head at an angle before I went on.
“Well it’s preserved in a few grainy photos, of me in a toddler’s woollen bathing suit, and my skin remembers that. The feel of the soft prickling, perhaps even its wetness though I can’t recall its colour”
“What did you think it was?” she asked.
“Well maybe green and it had a duck sewn into its bib front I think, but maybe the duck flew into my mind from the somewhere else?”
I stood there, the dappled sun playing tricks with the light, the sun rising over the cabins promised a hot and lazy beach day.
“So where was it you lived then?’ she went on
“High Street just down from the corner of Bell St, 286 I seem to recall, but then we moved to Clifton Hill.” I replied, my mind wandering to the days of my childhood.
“I’ve been back there several times and the house has gone, demolished I think”
“Oh” she replied, “Yes they widened Bell Street so many times it’s almost a freeway. Me Mum says it was a real community back then” her voice trailing off as her recently deceased Mum came to mind.
“ So did your Mum live around there then?’ I enquired. It seemed ok to continue I thought.
“ Well not far from there, the folk always lived up that way and when the men came back from the war they took up again where they could get a place mostly with friends or relo’s’
I wondered about those times, the hope of the fifties and new beginnings, the baby boom era.
“My Dad worked making radio’s for the army in South Melbourne” I said with some pride. Though I only knew of it by what I’d been told by Dad, he gold plated soldered joints to beat the corrosive jungle heat in filed radio making.
We looked at each other for a brief moment. Something about sharing time and places draws a bond between people. Our separate experiences, our story, come from within. Like cassettes conveniently packaged to be trotted out when appropriate, or worse when not appropriate.
She shifted on her thongs, the sand swishing slightly as she prodded it round.
“So you …. um ..Chinese?” she unsteadily stuttered.
I looked back. The tautness in her wrinkled throat showed the strain she felt at asking that which she couldn’t suppress.
“Yeah born here too” I said “We moved from Preston to live in my grandma’s house at Clifton Hill”
“Oh, ok,’ I replied. In fact for me it was more than ok. Carefree days compared with my current state of life.
‘What was it like there then?’ she asked. Preston being slightly more middle class back then than the deeply working class Clifton Hill.
“Today it’d be called multicultural but we ching chongs along with the wogs and refo’s. Wasn’t the yuppied up place it is now. It was very working class.”
She looked at the kids playing at the tap at the end of the shower block. Ready for the day they had already been up for hours. Now mucking up with camp water they were enjoying the time before the sun dried up their first morning burst of energy.
“Well, best get back and see to brekky, I guess” she said,
‘Nice meeting you” she said as she turned to leave.
“Yes you too” I said, “Maybe we’ll bump into each other again, I’m sure the kids will”
“Yeah, it’s a great place to make new friends, see you later”
I threw my garbage into the bin too; the flies were annoyed again and rose as one into the sunlight in a swirling pack
And she turned towards her tent, walking into the slight breeze rustling her skirt.
The flies though resettled, on the new garbage.





Through convoluted paths our lives crossed. It started long ago. Untangling the threads takes time. Is it easier to say,

“It’s complicated”.

I meet angularly attractive Maria when I was a mid teenager. She was a rebellious soul, banished to an austere convent school in Ballarat. Perhaps that was part of the attraction? Maria’s misbehaviours and anti parental surliness gained her admission to the nuns, but were no doubt driven by a smart arse older brother, dux o’the high school and an over achieving younger sister who in her turn became like her brother a chemical engineer.

Jammed between them, Maria wasn’t as bright academically as her two siblings. She needed to stand out.  She was arty, and accentuated this to further differentiate herself, to find a space to stand. But the spotlight never shone on her. It reflected off of her behaviors drawing the attention she sought whilst simultaneously the punishment of her parents. Well to be truthful, her father was the one who meted out discipline, while her mother acquiesced in a blue haze of chain smoking.

High school for her ended when she ran off with Ted, no not the Ted of this story, the other Ted. Ted of Ted’s Camera store in Elizabeth St City.

They created a nest in a fusty old two storey terrace on Punt Rd, at the Brunton Avenue intersection just below Richmond Station. The traffic sounds and smells there are horrendous now, they were then. I risked a visit to see how she was getting on here one night. In the months since I’d seen her she’d grown in womanly knowingness, while I’d kept up my naive concern for her wellbeing. Ted was at least a decade older than Maria, and for what I could tell she was being used. I didn’t see her much after that. There were always phone calls to alert me to the latest of her adventures. It was the time of 10B tax breaks for film making and somehow she inveigled her way into the periphery of the movie making scene. There were tales of this and that party and how there was always going to be the big break. She said she’d bought the rights to the story of a cat burglar who’d terrorised Melbourne’s richest suburbs with his external wall scaling to access high rise apartments. She moved in circles I barely imagined existed, back and forth to the US of A, always with tales of daring do. Whilst it seemed fascinating for me there was always an air of unreality. As she moved from place to place in Melbourne it seemed she was barely aware of her surroundings. It was clear to me by now she had no real paying work yet she always in the lap of luxury. Naivety makes its own reality unencumbered by the facts. Occasionally borrowing from me with repayments made less and less frequently should have been an early warning for me. She told me in the end she was working a few days a week as an escort, allowing times for the movie social life and hubbub. This didn’t worry me, she seemed to be able to hold it all together but I suspected that much of what I was told was a figment of her imagination.

Years later I pieced some of it together. She’s moved to the Central Coast of NSW and she-horned herself and possessions into a tiny downstairs bed sit surrounded  by her few possessions. It seemed a long way from how things were when last we meet. Living off of the government she said she’d run away from some violence in a relationship and was busy now supporting domestic other domestic violence victims. This cause gave her access to authorities who investigated family matters, strangely she’d managed to sleep her way through a fair proportion of the Central Coast police hierarchy, or so she said.

Modelling for artists had become a source of income to supplement the dole, and tax free too, a nice little earner!

She’d meet a guy at the Patonga jetty, and she modelled for him and the classes he taught. It seemed idyllic.

Months later she’d moved in. Into the house he’d built behind the dunes on the Central Coast. It was, as they say, an interesting relationship. There was at least a thirty years age gap. She denied there was sex, though later on she claimed they lived as man and wife. I couldn’t get over the niggling feeling that she was using him, though he seemed besotted. Struck me that never really having had a live-in relationship but spending a lifetime looking after his early widowed mother he was a mummy’s boy.

Maria’s flights of fancy included a handmade self designed eco friendly mud brick shack built from soil of the plot he’d bought in the Dorrigo high country. Granting the in situ cow shed and a few acres beside it to the local indigenes was also part of the preposterous plan. I never found out if the soon to be blessed local land council were made aware of their impending bad fortune. It all seemed pie in the sky, and in time the clouds silver lining turned to a golden crust, the pie was setting. It all came to nought. Ideas soared beyond any reasonable budget, the more tragic when the money being budgeted was not your own. The sale of the property when they moved apart lead to a so called division of assets in the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Through her self-represented dogged pursuit of perceived rights, Maria was ultimately declared a vexatious litigant. Ted got most of his money back and set himself up close to Bellingen, in a brick veneer cream brick house which he turned into a gallery.

Memories of his car building and racing days filled his days. Tales of racing Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss at Oran Park kept me enthralled. He painted, travelled the outback in his converted Kombi.

Slowly Maria faded from my memory; Ted had taken her place in the symmetry of life.


An Office non-Encounter

Several passings of the passer. By my open office door. Head down, steadfast and striding. Her whole frame sloping forward, head past the door opening before the feet appear. Actually thrusting forward to avoid any chance of being swept up or stopped by a “Hiya” or a “Chew the fat” conversation. A non-encounter.

The swish and ruffle of a longish cross cut skirt on thick black nylon stockings catches my ear. Its a sensible sound, the way some sounds are, yet so very hard to achieve; especially when I glance down at my crushed black work trousers.

What a difference our new leader has made! The much vaunted leader came as a breath of fresh air. A fresh voice in the upper levels of management when before the leader’s arrival our team’s voice was muted. The passer supported the new leader because of their deep personal rapport. Three of the rest of the team didn’t know the new leader. But at least the strider did. The new leader would make it easier for agendas to be pushed. and so the leader was a convenient foil to hide behind, behind which secret agendas could be developed.

But slowly, almost imperceptibly the leader began to develop an independent voice. It started by not attending some of the myriad of committee meetings. Committees to review the decisions of some lower task forces. Most of the committee members were also members of the subordinate taskforce. The task forces were separately composed of representatives of lower action groups. Everyone at each level had to be informed. Multiple group emails were cc’d to keep all up to speed. Of course there were also the interminable morning meetings. Even the these dreaded morning meetings had to have minutes taken and action lists written on top of handwritten personal notes.

But over time the leader created a distance between our needs and the leader’s other work. The morning meetings went unattended. We were not the centre of attention.
Slowly our voice was silenced at upper levels. Multiple cancellations of meetings meant that even the investigative work the team did went unacknowledged, and the rot had set. Watercooler chats now became bitch sessions. The leader’s attendance times and location were a source of constant fascination. Why were department’s apparently misinformed after the leader’s visits. Every slight was misinterpreted, each mote in the eye an instant plank.
Slowly the morning meetings dissolved and barely a shred remained of the chatty days. The dropping in to discuss events, problems or advice evaporated.

Striding became the norm. Striding past doors now often closed, or almost closed. A cursory g’day to avoid the accusation of rudeness obligatory.
So hard to say what is learnt from the experience.

Perhaps its that one can only really rely on one’s own effort and not invest emotion in what others might do for you.

Mary – A Bunch, Another, then Another

How did it happen? I’m stretching to know. The fragments of a relationship in shattered pieces, picked up and reassembled, only to find the missing part is the one which made everything watertight. Without this piece all meaning flowed away.

I simply can’t remember. Perhaps a stroll through where I was will evoke the past, allow floating tendrils of memory to again enthral me. There was the gentile middle classedness of it all. The deep red cut brick of the one flight up, six pack apartments, spaciously garden set behind a grey green shrub lined garden, slightly unkempt. Pleasant voices floating through open windows while cooking dinner, but here no one dared to stop and eavesdrop. It wasn’t done. For listening pleasure the conversation was muted scudding below the dull drone of the backdrop television sound. The mottled shadows of the branch overhang, the glistening droplets on the just sprayed foliage, and the aroma of the decaying leaf litter.  I’m starting to be there, that place, those moments that time.

And yet frankly I wasn’t there. I lived sixty miles away in industrial Geelong, a town, declining as its car maker, wool spinners, and educational institutions watched vainly. Their jobs went to cheaper countries somewhere but here. My house was in a tiny little dead end called Cogens Place, on the margin of the Geelong CBD, a once grimy workers area, fearing oncoming gentrification, well placed twixt the beachfront and parklands. I loved that little place, one and quarter bedrooms with sloping back veranda covering laundry and enclosing the other outside dunny. Yes, so old yet sporting two dunnies, how chic I felt. I couldn’t get my hands on it fast enough, when shown by the real estate agent. I’d spent two nights in the car after being turfed out of the local motel, They’d over booked me for a regatta weekend when I had arrived from Queensland … but that as they say is another story. In fact ‘if memory serves me correctly'[My tribute to The Iron Chef] I also spent some nights living at bay side Port Arlington, which now comes to mind. The place however deserves its own zinger.

I’m unclear how we got here, internet most likely. I can recall  a vegan café on second thoughts a restaurant, on the wharf at St Kilda, seafood at Mordialloc, doesn’t that name conjure more than the place really, Moor-dee-al-oc.

And over time we feel for one another. She had married well, very well, nineteen years earlier. In those days they were unable to have a kid in a petri dish or baked elsewhere. They adopted a Korean girl. Perhaps this lead to their greater sexual dysfunction over time, which I gleaned from deeper and deeper conversation.

She and the lass lived together in this redbrick idyll, the father elsewhere, financially well supportive though divorced many years earlier. The girl had matured beautifully into a gorgeous svelte gymnast. We enjoyed weekends together when I made the Friday night drive up the northbound highway, away from industrial grim.  The birthday parties in somewhat up market surrounds. I felt slightly out of place. A Cirque de Soleil performance in the centre of the city.

We listened to CD’s and cooked fusion dishes. And at the back of the collection Leon Cohen. My Lord Leon Cohen. That gravel mourning dirge of meaningless tripe. It was played over and over. I enjoyed it then as now, muted.

Times change, and an argument to 4am one Sunday evening capped off  the relationship. It was time to leave, time to wish our time together goodbye. Looking back I can’t remember the argument details, but I do recall that we hacked over the same ground over and over from 10pm.

So I wondered less and less over the next week. I settled into the routine of work trying to find reasons for the factory’s poor performance, analysing reams of figures to glean some meaning from data. Each night leaving the office with yet another conjecture and arriving the morning after, sometimes with a new possibility.

I was closing in on a solution one morning when there was a knock on my partially open office door.

“Yes, what is it?” I mumbled without turning around from my flickering screen.

“These are for you, I think” said Karl, as he proceeded to set down the large bunch of flowers on my table. He maintained a snide knowing look as he slipped back out into the corridor. The flowers were from Mary, a large scented bunch, with a card, Surely Karl had read the note. How to respond? Well certainly not to Karl.

A week later another bunch, arrived delivered down the long corridor to my office by the receptionist I never knew we had. These flowers were the prickly long lasting type made of Australian natives. It was time to strike back, I plonked them fair square in the centre of the wooden conference table dominating my office. Of course I placed them on a place mat to save the varnish, but dominate the room they did. They lasted longer than the first week’s scented floral tribute. For something like three weeks, enough time for the next delivery to arrive. A smaller bouquet, more posey like I felt, more like a going away present. It soon decayed and ended up in the bin after a few days.

After this there were no more. No flowers no colour no calls.