Up early, damn, still can’t find the missing key card for the hotel room. Come on, boys, come on, the bags are in the car, we need to be going. Driving, breakfast in Goulburn, driving, feeling drained. Pull over an hour short of the airport to splash water on face and take a cold & flu pill – maybe the pseudoephedrine will perk me up. Something works because I’m much clearer as we make the last few kilometres into Mascot. Plane’s delayed but not too much and after a rollercoaster ride we’re in Adelaide, home at last, just got to cab across town, drive car for another hour, do some shopping, make pizza and then collapse. Anna, who herself only got back that day, is gearing up to read to the boys but I know how long we’ve been up so gently but firmly tuck them in. The holiday ends, as they should, with everyone tired but happy and tucked up in their own beds.
I had plans: Questacon, Parliament House, the National Gallery if we had time. After breakfast in Tuggeranong, we made it to Questacon at about 10am. And that was the day. We left when it closed, at 5pm. We did not even stop for lunch. I couldn’t shift them. By 4pm I was sitting in the foyer drinking coffee and holding two bananas which I intended to administer on a compulsory basis when they emerged so as to avoid the inevitable zero blood sugar Armageddon. In the end, they ate them willingly, the first pause for anything other than water or wee breaks all day.
From there, straight to Happy’s Chinese Restaurant in Garema Place, then the hotel. After yesterday, the aim had been to make it fun for the kids. Mission, this time, nailed.
Into the city, and there have been changes in the 20 years since I was last here. The most obvious is the sprawling enclosed mall that now essentially comprises the eastern city centre. It’s clean, modern, has good toilets (not a trivial thing when one has a six-year-old in tow) and goes on forever. Anna would hate it. But then, there isn’t much about Canberra that Anna wouldn’t hate.
After filling up with high calorific content breakfast, I decide that we can walk to the War Memorial. We can, and the visit itself seems to reach Raf on some level, although he probably didn’t need his father banging away trying to impress upon him the significance of the events commemorated, including the social changes – significantly for women – that flowed therefrom. Still, not a complete waste of time, and I got to renew my acquaintance with my favourite piece of commemorative sculpture, the naval memorial. The fountain’s not working, regrettably, but the androgynous frogpeople emerging from twisted metal are still the same odd combination of sensuality and menace that I recall. The whole thing is a curious creature – Soviet heroic by Picasso.
From there back to the car, which means we’ve already walked about three kilometres, although some mitigation is achieved when we find a shopping trolley in Glebe Park and I put Seb in it, feeling a bit like the man in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. We deliver the trolley back to the supermarket and pick up the quadcopter. Casting about for a good place to fly it, I suggest the Australian National University campus. It’s at least another kilometre, but we do, and Raf has his second proper go at the new toy. His control is coming.
But so, here I am, on ANU campus for the first time in two decades, and right next to the new Research School of Chemistry building, which manages to look exactly like a building would if it were grown like mould but without giving the sense of being in any way organic. Which means that I am, quite possibly, within a few yards of the kind, nurturing, gentle man who was my academic supervisor and on whom I walked out, work uncompleted, twenty years earlier. I waver, but decide eventually I must go in to – do what? Apologise? Exorcise? As we are going in, Seb needs a wee, so back we go across campus to the public toilet and then more wavering. I offer to leave the kids in the refectory with a smoothie but Raf, I think sensing that this might be an opportunity to see me in an interesting situation, decides he wants to come, so back we all go, through the airlock-style double doors designed, no doubt, to keep out the winter chill, and up to the security desk. Nobody home. Someone is passing – a member, I’d give odds, of the academic staff – and I ask if Professor Easton is in. There is a phone on the desk and I’m given an extension to call. No answer. Some more enquiries follow before I’m told he’s out for the day. And so, back to the car, mission, if such it was, unaccomplished.
A quick detour to take a photo of my old house in Ainslie and earlyish back to the hotel. In all this – probably six kilometres walked, no real fun – Seb has just kept going, singing to himself, finding amusement in the smallest of things – a kerb to climb on, an automatic door – and not a hint of dismay or complaint. Tomorrow, I will do better by him and Raf. I can start by taking them out for a good pizza, which I do, and then all in big bed for the last few chapters of Edward Tulane.
The day started with another breakfast meeting. We must be in Sydney. This time it’s Jill, my favourite cousin, with her daughter Rhianna and friend, Nadine. Rhianna, a thirteenish collection of acute angles when I saw her last, is now a poised and beautiful seventeen-year-old, just back from France. Jill is still the genuine and caring person she always was. She looks a little older than I remember. No doubt so do I.
After packing up the apartment, off to the car rental. I get some driving-in-Sydney tips from the taxi driver. Dropped just around the corner, we are practically inside the shop when the taxi reappears, honking at us. Seb’s bag, of course, has been left inside.
The car is a Corolla hatch, which gives me some comfort as there is no car on the road in which I have more experience surviving a serious road accident. However, the intervening few years have meant quite a change in cabin layout. Most of it I can work out pretty quickly but not the hazard lights, which I would have liked to put on when we hit some fog south of Sutherland.
That is getting a little ahead, however. A couple of hours at the Albanis’ give the kids one more chance to catch up and then it’s the drive south. Fog, as aforementioned, and rain but only briefly so bad as to make me consider pulling over. I don’t, and we live long enough to dine at the Tuckermans – David very kindly cooking for all of us at short notice. Jack seems well and happy, and I got the short version of his trip to Mexico with his dance company. Also met the new puppy. Arrived that day, he has no name as yet. By the end of our hour I’ve dubbed him Rufus (after Mr Wainwright) and might even get away with it.
Back on the road at 7.30, it’s a nominal two and a half hours to Canberra. We’re slower, however, as the windy road up through the hills takes its toll on Seb, who loses his dinner. After that he’s comfortable, and we make the rest of the run in good time, driving in to the city lights past giant trucks to a soundtrack of Infected Mushroom and Bloc Party. Late, but satisfactorily, to bed.
A day of rest, mostly. I tried to encourage thoughts of Things We Can Only Do In Sydney but it was like pushing blancmange. And fair enough – we have done much, and we needed a break from our holiday. Raf’s thoughts, in any event, are in a very tight orbit around the naked singularity at the heart of the universe also known as a quadcopter, and no true happiness was going to be possible until we had returned to Hobbyco and done the necessary.
Who am I to fight the laws of physics? But I did nudge a slight detour into our path, if that metaphor is not wholly backward (which would make it what, a phoramet?). “Just half an hour” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, I promised, and was very pleased that the exhibitions made it unnecessary to insist on the letter of the contract – the boys, I think, found enough to intrigue and engage. The picture above is of Raf in front of his favourite piece – an animated work commenting puckishly, if I am any judge, on the relationship between humans and the land, both before and after European settlement. Perhaps the medium will spur some notions in Raf of the artistic possibilities which digital tools present. Seb selected for praise another work of bold, flitting colours called into life on display panels using a technology of small, reversible black and coloured discs, electronically controlled, akin to that on airport departures and arrivals boards in the era before LCDs became ubiquitous. He liked, he said, the movement.
From the MCA to the QVB, where the copter was acquired. Seb chose another pack of nanoblocks. Thereafter, Raf would not let the copter from his hands. Notwithstanding that, a new wallet was acquired for Seb, while Raf continued to hold out hope that his old one might turn up. To that end, we walked the kilometre and a half to Central Station and the Lost Property Office, a tiny, unkempt room with a staff of one. The only person ahead of us in the queue was a man in deeply worn corduroy trousers – once good quality but now not so much worn as patchily alopecious – enquiring after a lost item of jewellery. After describing the stone, its cut and colour, the official enquired, “So, a sapphire?” The man allowed as how it might be a sapphire, yes, or something like that. While we sat on a low step and waited, the man sat sadly and listened to the staffer’s rote speech, delivered not unkindly, to the effect that the railway’s internal processes meant that it might take a few days for anything discovered to find its way to this office. Finally, he rose and stepped to the door but changed his mind and resumed his seat to ask, as he happened to be there, whether his house keys had by any chance turned up. When the railwayman enquired as to how long ago they had been lost, the sad man confessed it was some months ago. “Ah, no,” said the railwayman, “we keep things only for 28 days.” “But what happens to things after that time?” asked the sad man, and when told they were destroyed or given to charity, he shook his head at the world’s uncaring nature and finally ceded us his place. We had no more luck, of course, but the officer smiled in co-conspiratorial empathy at our confession that the wallet was, unbeknownst to us until after its purchase, made of elephant hide, clucked in sympathy when his computer searches turned up nothing, made a handwritten note in his exercise book of special cases to keep an eye out for in case it should come in in the next day or two and started with every sign of infinite patience to give us the same explanation for the likely delay in retrieval that he had just delivered to Mr Blue, the sad sapphire man. We thanked him for his time, and went to find a train back to the Quay.
We got back to the apartment quite early and settled in for some feet up time. Of course, a try out of the copter was unavoidable, so while Seb tabletted, Raf and I went over Macquarie Street to the grass. While the battery lasted, Raf got his first try at piloting and seemed satisfied.
For want of anything better nearby, Butter Chicken was taken away, and some preliminary packing done. Plans were made by text for the following day and bed was achieved. Seb and I alone for Edward Tulane tonight – perhaps pilots are beyond such things. If so, it is the pilots’ loss, for the book remains a shimmering delight, albeit one that tonight had the reader in tears by the time the light went out.
Oh, what a difference a metre makes.
A good night’s sleep and a good thing, too, for Sylvano is live tweeting his crossing of the Harbour Bridge while I am still encouraging sleepy boys out of pyjamas and into daywear. Then out into the rain, in which the lack of an umbrella is noted, triggering the first of the day’s observations from the back seats about the amateurish nature of the expedition leadership. We find the café without too much sog, however, and Sylvano is not kept waiting too long. Coffee and croissants. More hot chocolate. At least if there were marshmallows, I did not see them.
From there to the shops, which were shut, and so at Raf’s suggestion to the top of Centrepoint Tower – my first visit. There is a “4-D” movie before one ascends. It is four minutes of bland tourism commercial, certainly, and about four seconds of creative thought went into the planning stage, at a guess, but I was struggling to work out where the extra dimension fitted in. The answer came when, in a surfing scene as stereotypically Aussie as an emotionally inarticulate labourer in a blue singlet drinking VB while holding barbecue tongs, we felt a mist on our faces. So pleased were the creative geniuses with this trick that we were subjected to it twice more, along with a moderate wind effect from a hidden fan. As we left, Raf and I decided that, henceforth, we would always use the term 4-D to denote turning on the sprinkler.
Once up, the views are fine, of course, but perhaps the best effect was provided by the clouds scooting past below us. I ducked out of the no-it’s-not-obligatory-just-a-bit-of-fun photograph in the foyer on the way up, which meant that I was not included in any of the badly photoshopped pictures in the personalised souvenir book shown to us as we left. It was almost worth it for the “now-show-us-your-scared-face” photo of the boys looking mock-terrified in the presence of an enormous koala, which was so tacky as to be nearly funny. But not funny enough, and I didn’t even ask how much more of the quaint local currency the bored teenagers on duty were expected to try and extort from us foreigners in exchange for our portrait with Blinky Zilla. We got coffee and juice round the corner instead.
The shops were open by then, and I found several pairs of shoes which were each different in precisely one respect from my mental image of my next pair – one was the wrong colour, one was only a smidgeon off in the styling and one was just slightly twice the price I was prepared to pay. I assume I was feeling reasonably good about myself at the time, because I failed to buy all three pairs.
So it was off to the Powerhouse, where Raf showed his increasing independence (aided by his now familiarity with the place) by disappearing off ahead for periods, imbuing the entire visit for me with a sense of low level anxiety caused by not knowing where, in a city of five million, one’s firstborn is currently located. Seb did some weaving.
Walking out of the museum, I relied on my phone to get us in the direction of Darling Harbour and the restaurant district at which we’d eaten the previous day. We ended up in Sussex Street, which turned out not to be Darling Harbour but still adequately supplied with Chinese restaurants. Raf spotted a food hall which was downstairs and pleasantly authentic. The only white faces in the place, I clearly surprised the stallkeeper who fed us with my request for a pair of chopsticks. Raf’s choices of dish were good, too – the pork meatballs going down a treat with all three of us.
Bellies full, feet sore, it was time for a break. Another few hundred yards up George Street took us to the cinema, where we discovered that the makers of the Ice Age films had, at their fifth attempt, gone once too many times to the well. Seb laughed uproariously at the slapstick but Raf contented himself with an occasional chuckle. I fell asleep. Raf & I agreed afterwards that it lacked the joie de vivre of the earlier films and even Seb seemed content for it to end.
From there, a quick visit to the Queen Victoria Building – highlight: Hobbyco. Quadcopters were admired. Lego was considered. I restrained myself from buying an X-wing. We bought some takeaway and came home to what would have been a very comfortable evening save for the disaster that befell Raf on the train from Town Hall to Circular Quay – his wallet got on the train with him but failed to alight. He was very sad, but fortunately went through the entire grieving process in about an hour and was comfortable again by bed time. Edward Tulane for the third night in a row, and for the first time even Raf too tired to get through a full six chapters. Tomorrow, we have promised ourselves a sleep in and breakfast in the apartment.
First job of the day: pack to leave hotel. First crisis of the day: cockroach in Raf’s bag. First entomological question of the day: did we bring it with us or do we have the hotel to thank? Close inspection suggested Cocky held New South Welsh citizenship – we breed ’em bigger and tougher in Adelaide. But not more tenacious. Vigorous shaking, cursing and poking with a used drinking straw failed to dislodge our visitor. Eventually he (or she) was trapped under a drinking glass and sent to her (or his) fate down the bath drain. Packing could now be completed.
From William to Pitt Streets – hardly much of a move, a student of history might think, but geographically a pleasant stroll through the Park of perhaps a kilometre in total. There, the unbreakfasted mass was restored to vim and vigour by the application of a cinnamon bun and an iced chai while I entered into a counselling session with an optometrist whose job was to convince me that my need for multi-focal glasses is not a symptom of ageing on a par with a diagnosis of bowel cancer or the conviction that all modern music is rubbish. She was only partially successful and I promptly threw away any rekindled spark of youth by selecting two new frames precisely the same shape as my old ones. New colours, though, the main ones agreed upon as very suitable and stylish by the shop assistant and Raf.
From there to the apartment which will be home for a few days and then the ferry to Darling Harbour, where stood the Australian National Maritime Museum and Stilgherrian, both impressive edifices containing much fascinating information on matters naval. The museum I last saw about five years ago, the man about fifteen. Sushi for lunch – good, the only complaint being no tsukune – and then onto the destroyer HMAS Vampire, the submarine HMAS Onslow and the bark HMB Endeavour, the last a replica but, we are assured, pretty close to the original save perhaps the for the mandatory fire extinguishers and the lack of rats. As always, the gun turrets of the Vampire terrified me when I tried to imagine being in them while the guns were firing. On the Endeavour I learned that Cook was 6’2″, Banks 6’4″. Given that the gun deck headroom was – no attempt at humour – about 3’6″ (I was bent double), it is remarkable that either man stayed sane for three years, if indeed they did. The stuffed ship’s cat was not, I believe, also a replica of the original, but I confess that I neglected to ask for confirmation of that surmise.
The ferry back, parting with Stil at Circular Quay, and home for an hour. The Indian Restaurant was not a complete success – the food was good, but Raf and I could not find consensus on the ratio of white naan/white rice to meat/vegetables that comprises a balanced diet. The strawberry and rose lassi was a winner, however, and after some more chapters of Edward Tulane – a magical story, new to us all – lights out.
A busy day and late to bed should presage a good night’s sleep. Alas for the unfamiliar sounds of a hotel air conditioning system in need of maintenance and the familiar sensations of repeated knees and elbows to the soft parts delivered by a six-year-old who, like a flower tracking the sun, seems to rotate on a twenty-four hour cycle. Thus, six hours after lights out, he has invariably spun through ninety degrees and is well placed to kick one’s kidneys. Or worse.
After breakfast, first stop: the Australian Museum. Annoyingly, the Attenborough-narrated virtual reality exhibition on early Cambrian life is “not suitable for under 13s”. Didn’t ask why – perhaps Anomalocaris led a risqué life in some Burgess Shale demimonde. Toyed briefly with the idea of plugging myself in anyway and telling the children to amuse themselves but decided I wouldn’t enjoy it – would spend the entire time envisaging the inevitable dénouement and practising the words, “I’ve never seen them before in my life, officer.” Fortunately, the rest of the museum was worth the visit anyway – explorers (not one but two of Andy Thomas’s space suits), dinosaurs (a complete giganotosaurus skeleton) and (presumably also a cast) H. floresiensis in her pomp, about the height of Seb, if not quite as cute, being mostly a skull and a some leg bones.
To the shops – new jeans for Seb and a denim jacket for Raf. I told him I used to have one just like it that I wore until it fell to bits, which is true. Whether or not that impressed him much I can’t say, but he has fallen in love with it and understandably so, as he looks quite the teenager, suddenly very street.
After lunch, Ella and Owen, John and Lucy. J & L not much changed – both still very funny and easy to chat with. Amused to hear about L’s band(s) and unrock’n’roll lifestyle. Ella looks exactly like I saw her last save that she’s twice the height without changing any other dimension – an infinitely bendable pipe-cleaner of a girl, not yet entangled in adolescence. Owen unrecognisable, but only because when I last saw him he was the undifferentiable blob that other people’s children all are before they’re old enough to pinch your phone or tie your shoelaces together.
By the time we’d finished with the Botanic Gardens, battling the crowds by the Opera House, buying an ice cream and settling for a Starbucks, we grown ups were ready for a sit down. Cue the kids, who had their happiest hour playing on shop fronts, sliding down bannisters and generally climbing on a couple of hundred square metres of Sydney not designed for the purpose. Many expressions of regret on parting, sketchy plans that might lead to a second catch up later in the week.
Hotel, nearly napped, call from Dad in which due to fatigue I sounded unenthusiastic and miserable, probably fuelling further parental concerns at the state of life. Pizza, story and bed.