June 2010

The Nation Reviewed

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By Catherine Ford
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Every evening before dinner, I escort my infinitely forbearing dog out of the house and into the world on his nightly constitutional. Lance and I don’t walk where we should, which is to say the closest neighbouring parkland. That’s been intruded upon by the sprawling new Royal Children’s Hospital, and what’s left of the park is overrun by socially inclined dog-owners. So, not feeling talkative at that hour, I put Lance in my car and we drive to the sporting grounds behind Melbourne’s zoo, a lonelier place where four cricket ovals cluster together in tight formation like a Brobdingnagian four-leaf clover, and where Royal Park’s nine-hole public golf course offers the illusion of walking in another country altogether: a groomed place, exotically emerald-lit.

Lance and I have made a habit of taking the pale gravel pathway that meanders between these cricket ovals and the golf course, or fairways three to six of it at least. At this time of day the ovals are deserted, but occasionally there’s another person strolling or jogging beside the golf course. Sometimes, there are golfers to watch. Depending on the weather, players – men mostly – hop in and out of white motorised golf buggies and stoically work their golf balls up and down the holes. I say “men mostly” because I have only once seen a woman golfing there and she was playing a round on her own.

That woman, a suburban athlete with a light tan, svelte in a polo shirt and hot-pink shorts pleated and cuffed at the knee, wielded a seven iron in fingerless white-leather gloves. She was immaculately kitted out and seriously intent on her game – an anachronism on this course, as far as I can tell – and she bore an uncanny resemblance to my sister, M. As she prepared to tee off on this particular evening, I grabbed Lance by the collar and paused to watch, because of the remarkable sibling resemblance and because my sister has been dead, now, for close to seven years. I was smitten by her or, rather, by the phantom reunion with my sister.

She swung her club, this woman, bringing the same formidable concentration to the task, indeed the same panache and sexy noblesse to her game, that I’d seen M bring to hers decades ago. With a punishing, bullseye smack, she sent her little white dimpled ball rocketing up, up into the stratosphere, darkening and deepening above that Parkville evening. This chance sighting of a lost sibling bewildered and moved me, and I watched her make her way briskly down the fairway, playing her ball to the green, where she dropped it for a birdie and retrieved it as the pros do, balancing stork-like on one stiffened leg, with the other cantilevered behind her. I observed her greedily, as if she really were M – hair bobbed and blonded just so, body trim as a whip – returned to the world.

As a teenager in the 1970s I caddied for this sister, helping her around her favourite course in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, distributing, at intervals, the various clubs she required and the pellets of chewing gum she depended on. I would listen to her philosophical meanderings as she mulled them over. One inexplicable paradox of life, she informed me, was this strange fact: playing golf once or twice a week could improve your game, playing more often would destroy it. A pearl of wisdom, I would come to understand, that had a far wider application than just the game to hand.

The other golfers I’ve seen on this course, the men, are quite another story. They’re either retired or in their early twenties – off-season footballers, perhaps, or nightclub bouncers getting their vitamin D. The latter are buff, with an arrogant gait and attire that’s more Grandmaster Flash than Bing Crosby: huge shorts belted low with brand-name underwear showing, muscle singlets, baseball caps. Few of them know how to hit a golf ball, and when one of them swings, leaving the ball sitting on its tee, a stubborn little egg in its virginal little cup, the others laugh cruelly at him and break out with insults.

No matter the season or the weather, if it’s a weeknight in these parts, the adulterers will be here. The isolation of the place makes it attractive to lovers on their assignations, and five nights a week they drive in separate cars to the verge of the links, where they recklessly park side-by-side. The woman leaves her car for the man’s, where they proceed to have indiscreet, old-fashioned, front-seat sex, before heading home, presumably, to their respective families and the nightly routines they have with them.

It took me a while to figure it out, to understand why the same cars were parked side-by-side, or why a man sat behind the wheel, his seat half-reclined and his head lolling oddly on the headrest, while the passenger seat was empty. Only when Lance, sensing something on a car tyre and trotting over to lift a leg on it, managed to both alarm the driver and make his passenger sit bolt upright, her face flushed pink, her hair wildly tousled, did I realise I had stumbled on a place where dedicated married people park.

On weekends, the adulterers aren’t there, for obvious reasons. On weekend nights, the verge of the golf links is given over to teenagers getting down and dirty, it seems, rather than their frustrated parents, because come Monday, Lance and I must pick our way amongst the detritus they leave behind: glow-in-the-dark condoms, balled-up tissues, drained 2-litre bottles of Coke Zero and cans of V energy drink, empty Cheezels packets. I gaze at these abandoned, litter-filled sites of Saturday-night orgies with middle-aged melancholy. Lance, however, shows them nothing but disdain and the underside of one of his rear legs.

The good news, surely, is that even when young people find themselves laid out, dazed and horizontal in the dark, on the regularly mown, moist lawns of the third-hole green of a metropolitan golf course, they are having protected sex. But, as my philosophising, suburbanite sister might have observed, once or twice a week on a golf course is progress; more than that and you’re probably asking for trouble.

Catherine Ford

Catherine Ford is a freelance journalist. Her books include NYC and Dirt.

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