Alex Jones, from ’ Helen Garner and the Meaning of Everything’


The butcher, when I arrived, was at the back of the shop, engaged so far as I could tell in flensing a side of lamb. I watched curiously. The knife moved in deft, calculated strokes till each rib stood up distinct, and they began to cry in unison ‘rack of lamb’ rather than ‘chest of sheep’.
‘Sorry to keep you waiting, sir,’ said the butcher. ‘What’ll it be?’
‘It’s a pleasure to watch an artist at work,’ I replied. ‘Could you do two nice slices of veal schnitzel for me?’ There was probably a tautology in there somewhere, but if it’s worth saying once, it has to be worth saying twice.
‘No worries, mate,’ said the butcher, selecting and wrapping the requested items. ‘There you go, sir, seven bucks. Have a nice evening.’
‘I was still planning on a nice afternoon,’ I replied.
‘I get ahead of myself, mate. Comes of getting up so early in the morning.’
‘Rather you than me,’ I said, ceding the moral authority. No skilled tradesman I – I am a mere drifter. It’s not a good idea to get offside with shopkeepers. Some of those pieces he had been trimming off didn’t look too savoury, and I wouldn’t have wanted them to end up in my mince.
Now if I pre-prepared the veal, I thought, while proceeding to buy the broccoli and the lemon, there would still be time to make a start on The First Stone before seven o’clock should signal the start of my evening’s viewing. Milk and flour and egg and breadcrumbs for the veal – it’s a mistake to season the flour, because there’s enough salt in the meat as it is, and don’t forget that there will be salt in the butter. That is, there will be if you’ve bought proper Australian butter and not that insipid, unsalted, European-inspired apology for butter that you see in the shops. Unbranded butter is the best, because not only is it always salted, it’s usually sour, the way butter is supposed to be if it hasn’t been blandified to suit the childish tastes of Generation-somethings who wouldn’t know a cow if they saw one. Which is probably why, I reflected, people give their children cows’ names. There’s a model you see on the television – Gracie remembers her older sister from school – and apparently the whole family have cows’ names, like Clover, and Daisybelle. Come up Whitefoot, come up Lightfoot.
So in my reverie I prepared the schnitzels, ensuring that once fried their coats would take on that desired texture, like the softly wrinkled skin of a baby rabbit. I quartered a potato; I cut the florets from the broccoli and put them in the microwave, ready to steam. Now for The First Stone.
The library copy of this work was graffiti’d but sparingly. The title page had a tetchy two-line inscription in blue ballpoint that read: Stick to fiction and this is a fiction book. The inner pages were highlighted here and there in violet, though the force of the highlighting was rather lost because of the roughness of the paper; besides this, a number of passages, I noticed as I flicked over the pages, were marked with pencilled stars in the margin. Whether or not these two critical hands were the same I could not tell, though they seemed to be of similar mind. Ms Violet, for example, in the sentence
I think they felt that Shepherd, as a man, was part of the power clique, and that they were victims and vulnerable.*

had singled out the words Shepherd, as a man, was part of the power clique for highlighting, whereas Brenda Starr, as I silently named the second hand, had drawn the attention of the reader to Sexual harassment is an abuse of power.*
Over the whole text as I began to re-read it brooded the presence of Ormond College: menacing, hierarchical, anachronistic – a gothick fantasy come to life. Here was the high school for Poppy. I could see her rubbing shoulders with Elizabeth Rosen or Nicole Stewart. ‘An amazing place’ someone had called it to Helen Garner’s narrative persona, and amazing it was, not in its banality, the way the personalities of the Big Brother housemates were constantly referred to as amazing, but in the context of a meta-narrative that included the household of Monkey Grip and Sweetpea Mansions. It would have been no more appropriate for the students’ complaints to be ventilated at a gathering of the tribe than for Ray to pursue Maxine for his misappropriated money through the Small Claims Tribunal. Or would it? For a leading theme of the book seemed to be the transformation of narrative into meta-narrative. A story of a dance and of a hand became a story of sexual harassment and of Woman with a generic singular and a capital W. ‘Give us back our plurality,’ Garner was calling: ‘we are not Ws on stilts.’* If a knee in the groin was good enough for the pushy boyfriend in Sweetpea Mansions in the old days, it should be good enough for a drunken professor at Ormond College. It’s not an anti-feminist tract, Brenda, I thought, it’s a pro-anarchist tract; I’ve marched in many a demonstration behind the black and red banners of the anarchists. They stir the blood in just the same way as those green flags blazoned with the words of the Prophet that led the hosts of the Mahdi into battle. Are you too young to have seen The Four Feathers? You can get the same thrill whether or not you are in the front rank. Having your arm broken by a policeman, it seems to me, doesn’t contribute to the downfall of capitalism so much as to reinforcing the cash nexus that corrupts the relationship of doctor and patient.
Odd that I should have been thinking of demonstrations, for at quarter to eight, just as I was beginning to heat up the oil, the phone rang.
‘People are rude to ring when we are just about to have dinner,’ I said to L.
‘You can’t blame them,’ L replied. ‘Most people would have no idea that we had dinner so late.’
‘I suppose they have nursery tea,’ I said irritably, ‘and like to be tucked into bed at eight for a good early night. Try and buzz them off; if they’re such rude people themselves, they’re probably too insensitive to have their feelings hurt.’
‘I’ll do my best,’ said L loyally, and went to answer the phone.
After a period in which most of the talking seemed to be at the other end, I heard L say, ‘Yes, Erna; yes, certainly, I’ll tell him. You can count on us.’
My heart sank, for Erna – Erna O’Malley – was none other than the partner of Gerald, deceased. I had thought we were safe from campaigns for the time being. Now it seemed that Gerald’s passing, the word we had been so quick to mock, was more of a passing in the Andrew Johns sense, and Erna had caught the ball and was running with it.
L came back into the room just as I laid our plates on the table.
‘That was Erna,’ she said.
‘I heard.’
‘She said that Gerald’s last wish had been that everyone who was kind enough to come to the funeral should be asked to contribute to the campaign he was working on.’
I felt we could hardly refuse, as they had asked on ecological grounds for no flowers to be sent.
‘So how much are we up for?’
‘They don’t want money; but there’s an action on tonight, and I said you would go.’
‘What sort of action? I’ll tell you here and now that I point blank refuse to be associated with street theatre in any shape or form. If people want to strut round in Uncle Sam masks they can do it without my help.’
‘I shouldn’t think there’s anything like that involved. She said it was for Angry Penguins, and to meet at Cabbage Tree Bay at midnight.’
I groaned. I had read something about this campaign in the local paper. Cabbage Tree Bay was a small indentation in one of the inner harbour bays not far from here. There was a miniscule beach, about the width of a regular house block, and passing it in the ferry I had noticed pilings from a long-vanished wharf and some dressed stones that could have been part of a 19th century harbour pool. There are sites like that all around the harbour. Now someone, I think the owner of a nearby marina, was proposing to put down a concrete slab and install some sort of apparatus for lifting yachts out of the water. A routine harbourside development in other words – you would expect opposition from homeowners close to the site, talk about excess traffic in residential streets, and on the other side a lot of rhetoric about nimbys and the working harbour etc, etc.
But what gave this situation its special significance was that the beach – if it was this beach – had been mentioned in a journal dating from the 1790s, Watkin Tench or one of those people, as a haunt of the little penguin. No one as far as I knew had sighted a little penguin west of Cremorne Point in the last hundred and fifty years, but close on council approval of this development had come a report that a little penguin had come ashore and looked as if it was going to nest in Cabbage Tree Bay. How you would divine a penguin’s intentions, I wasn’t too sure, but that didn’t stop Gerald – he had founded a group to liberate the beach from commerce and return it to the penguins, a campaign on which he had been working right up till his death. I communicated these facts to L.
‘Little penguins?’ she asked. ‘Is that the same as fairy penguins?’
‘I believe so,’ I said, ‘but there’s a lot of prejudice about activities on harbour beaches. Someone probably thought it would be better to change the name in case neighbouring householders should object.’
‘I’m sorry I can’t drive you,’ said L, ‘but I have a working breakfast on tomorrow, so I must be in bed by ten. Will you be all right?’
‘See these shoulders?’ I asked.

from  Helen Garner and the Meaning of Everything   by Alex Jones





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