April 2022

Vox

Both barrels

By Helen Garner
The author’s diaries record the early months of a year with change in the air

No, I’m not writing. I’ve got no work. I haven’t written anything for months, maybe a year. Am I too old? Am I past it? My hearing’s packing up. My eyes can’t look properly, let alone see, and they’re always gritty. I feel helpless and weak and vague. I don’t know what to do with all the hours. So, I pull on the gloves and go out the back and get down on my haunches and I weed. My labour doesn’t seem to bring about any lasting effect. In our street, the plane leaves are coming down. Drifts of them, all along the gutters. How can this be happening, so early in the year?

*

I’m lucky if I get five hours’ sleep these nights and I don’t know why. Woke in the dark, thought I heard rain, lay here hoping it was rain, wanting it to be rain, but I knew it was only my fan on its lowest setting; listened for a while, turned it off and pulled the light cotton over myself, but too late, I was properly awake. Thinking about the apocalypse. Waiting for the dawn.

*

I read an interview with the poet Anne Carson. She says, “The best one can hope for as a human is to have a relationship with that emptiness where God would be if God were available, but God isn’t. He’s not available because he’s not a being of a kind that would fit into our availability.” Okay. But still I have this urge to pray. And I’m not ashamed of it, not anymore. Not the way this world is going.

*

Hot, hot, hot. Everything’s very still and weighty, until mid afternoon when there’s a faint stirring in the air. Everywhere I look I see dirt, neglect, wreckage. I know it’s stupid, but I can hardly bear my ugly face, its disagreeable expressions, my disgraceful house and yard. At dusk, I approached the chicken run and saw a rat leap out of their feed dish and make a dash for the side fence.

 *

And now, without warning, rain. First, I smelt it, through the venetians and the thin cotton curtains. Then I heard it lightly patter, then start to fall. I closed the windows where it was blowing in, and ran to watch it out the back, darkening the red brick paving; thought of it penetrating the mulch and reaching the roots of the little cos lettuces I planted yesterday. I wished for a sharp crackle, for lightning, but it was already over. Please come back! Shut me in for the rest of the day!

*

I was about to close the car door outside the supermarket when I saw a tiny flash of metal, a goldy colour, peeping out from under the driver’s seat. Bent down and pulled it out: bonanza! It was the tip of the brand-new sunglasses I lost a month ago. Undamaged!

*

A fine summer morning. I walked along the Maribyrnong. How fresh and clean the air is down there, when you step out of the car at dawn and set off across the enormous shaven football field towards the river. I’d forgotten the modest glory of the place. There’s such a lot of SKY over it, and I saw three dogs of transcendent beauty: two sheepdogs with crazy grins and flowing fur, and one brown kelpie pup, mad-eyed with joy, skipping and bounding along.

*

Beep beep beep. I rushed about the rooms checking everything that might blow up and burn the house down, but beep beep beep beep beep. I opened the fridge. Behind the crammed shelves, two lines of lights were rippling up and down like a wartime landing strip.

The heat was forecast to last a week, so I moved the perishables into next door’s fridge and went down the coast. For three days, I was a fridge bore to every stranger I met. Women or men, they all made the same reply: “How old is it? Don’t fuck around. Once they conk, they’re stuffed.”

I slept in the caravan, under a clean sheet and a green and white quilt. The light inside the van was creamy. I swam with my grandchildren in the ocean. The water was flat, almost waveless, that silvery, silky pale blue that makes the horizon disappear. When we were drying ourselves, we looked back at the water and saw that there were waves, right in near the shore, but so tiny and low that their undersides looked like long, straight lines drawn with a black pen and a ruler. Every now and then we’d hear a faint, low rumble. Is that thunder? “Nah,” said the teenage surfer, “it’s an earthmover revving its motor.” We walked back to the house in our wet bathers, and as we walked, the rumbling got louder and more frequent, and the sky behind us went bruised and purple. And then down came the rain, in a wall. My caravan didn’t leak, but when the thunder crackled, it shivered all over.

*

Back home I sneaked up on the fridge and flipped the switch: maybe it had healed itself while I was out of town. Beep beep beep. I cracked and bought online at The Good Guys a big black shiny one with bottom freezer. They said they’d deliver it, and take away the beeping one, tomorrow. Wait, sorry, not tomorrow, maybe the day after, they weren’t sure, because of COVID. The friendly young woman was very sorry: a new lot of fridges would arrive in their warehouse in a couple of days, and the minute they did, she’d put my name right at the top of the list and they’d make the delivery on the weekend. I heard myself quaver, “I’m actually getting a bit desperate.” I was only just holding back from playing the old lady card: “I’m nearly 80, you know. I have to walk all the way over to my daughter’s place just to get a droplet of milk for my tea.”

Then it was not to be the weekend.

Oh, I gave it to her hot and strong. I said I knew it wasn’t her fault, and all that wet nanna stuff, but then I spat the dummy. And she played it like a pro. That young girl held the line, courteous and apologetic – “Have you got an esky?” – until I ran out of puff.

*

High summer, without a fridge. My domestic life was gutted.

*

I pulled up at the lights on Racecourse Road and a desperado of a junkie offered to clean my windscreen. He did the job in three smooth strokes and everything glistened. I opened my purse. No coins. Only a 20-dollar note. He waited at my open window. We looked each other in the eye. He was young, but shockingly haggard; he was ravaged, ruined. I held out the 20. He stood there stunned in the traffic, gripping his squeegee and his pump pack. He said, “But… will you be right?” I said, “Oh, please take it.” He took it between two fingers and stepped away. The lights changed. I put the car in gear, and he called out after me: he said, “God bless you!” We smiled at each other. We waved. I cried all the way to Camberwell. A stranger, a lost soul, speaking out of his purgatory, had blessed me.

*

I called the first name that leapt out at me: Fridge Repairs TODAY. Two rings and an actual person answered. A man of mature years, polite and kind and old-fashioned – a voice from the past. His name was Sergio. I poured out my Good Guys tale: “And I was so furious when they told me they didn’t have my fridge that I gave them both barrels!” He laughed, and said in a mild, paternal tone, “Both barrels? That’s a good expression! Have you got a smartphone? Open the fridge and make a video of the little lights that are flashing and send it to me.” I obeyed. “Right,” he said. “Yes, I think I can see what the trouble might be. How would it be if we came and fixed it tomorrow morning?” 

“Tomorrow morning? Where are you?”

“More to the point,” he said calmly, “where are you? Right. Fab will be out between 6.45 and 12 tomorrow. And if he can fix it, maybe you can get your money back from the Good Guys.”

Sergio? Fab? I boiled the kettle and I went at that fridge. I stripped the outside of magnets, emptied it, and scoured it to within an inch of its life. All the shelves and ice trays, the door sections where the milk drips, the butter-holders with the lids that flip – I applied serious elbow grease. It shone with the purity of a shrine. I was not about to shame myself before an old-world Italian tradie.

*

A knock at the front door just before 7am: a man with a greying buzzcut and a black mask. “Morning. I’m Fabio.” He trundled his Big Max trolley into the kitchen, dragged the fridge from its cubby and yanked out its rear inner wall. A tangle of wires sprang up. In silence he sorted them and pressed them back in.

“Nothing wrong there. Good brand. I’d always recommend it. Do the doors close by themselves?”

“No. I have to give them a little push.”

“That’s what I thought. This model’s got one fault. Drainage. It needs to tilt slightly towards the back so water won’t build up.”

He squatted down and gave a few turns to the fridge’s invisible front legs. It sat up like Jacky. “Right. You’re good.”

“Can I ask – are you and Sergio related?”

“Brothers. Been in this game for, oooh… 26 years.”

He got out his invoice pad and looked around the room. My laptop was open on the table. “Are you retired?”

“Sort of. I write books.”

Above the mask his eyes lit up. “Books? What sort of books?”

“Nonfiction. I like courts, and trials.”

“Mate of mine,” he said, “is in the Homicide Squad.” He rattled off a famous cold case that his friend had recently solved. We kicked it around, reminding each other of the details, marvelling at the detective’s dogged persistence. “I love these stories,” said Fabio with a sigh, tearing off the invoice. He had charged me a tenth of what I’d paid for the black fridge that didn’t exist.

“Now I’m going to ring up Good Guys!” I said. “I’m going to get a refund!”

“Not yet,” he said. “Two days before the delivery date, turn off your fridge. Leave it for 24 hours and turn it on again. If it’s working fine, then you make your call to Good Guys.”

*

Later, I harvested the garlic. It’s hard work. You have to sink the fork, carefully but deep, right down into the soil beside the stem, and wiggle it till the roots give way – you can hear them pop – and then you see the fat white globe of the garlic bulb. You work it out and shake it till the dirt falls off in hunks. I laid them in rows along the back verandah, to dry. Then I cleaned out the chooks’ laying and roosting boxes: I heaved their shit and straw into one of the big black compost bins, washed and scrubbed out the boxes, flooded them with boiling water, and dried them with rags and paper. Around 7, I made myself a gin and tonic and sat at the outdoor table, under the umbrella. I sat still for a long time, filthy and calm, just breathing and looking around.

*

Tonight, there’s an elegant whiter-than-white full moon. The yard is pure with it. The air is mild and sweet and still. The streets are silent. No trains pass. The stillness of the city, under a raving moon.

 

A version of this piece was presented at the Better Off Said spoken-word event in Melbourne.

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is is a novelist and nonfiction writer. Her most recent books are Stories and True Stories, and her diaries Yellow NotebookOne Day I’ll Remember This and the upcoming How To End a Story.

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