There is a genre of pub joke which I have come to term the ‘bastard genie joke’. It has many variations, but the structure usually goes like this: someone finds a magic thing which contains a genie, who offers them a wish. The fortunate person ums and ahs for a while before deciding upon a very reasonable request, which the genie then wantonly misinterprets to the amusement of everyone – except of course the poor sap who now doesn’t know what to do with this 12‑inch pianist.
On the eve of 2011 I made a number of new year’s resolutions. I would eat less, drink less, quit smoking and learn to spend more time by myself. Three days later I was diagnosed with glandular fever and jaundice.
So I’m all alone, back at my parents’ house and I haven’t eaten, drank or smoked in five days. Golf clap, Bastard Genie, golf clap.
When my doctor diagnosed me with glandular fever (or the kissing disease if you’re a salacious uncle), I was told that it was not going to go away for a while. The symptoms would persist for at least a couple of weeks, during which time I would eat very little, sleep very much, and when I wasn’t sleeping or not eating, I would probably be vomiting. So far, this has turned out to be pretty bang on.
I’m very aware that this isn’t a serious illness, and that this man gives other people much worse news on a daily basis. I don’t blame him for all this. The fact that I vomited in his bin shortly after he diagnosed me is a coincidence.
Some of you have probably had glandular fever before, but for those of you who haven’t experienced jaundice (which includes anyone who is not a baby, me, or a pirate), the experience is not dissimilar to having your liver shut down and slowly begin to poison you. In fact, it’s so similar to this, that that’s what it is.
I’ve always thought of jaundice as an ailment peculiar to the people of Victorian England, like scarlet fever, consumption, or being accidentally euthanased by Florence Nightingale. I now stand corrected. Or I would stand corrected if I could stand, but as it is, I lie in my childhood bedroom, hug my damp pillow and vomit corrected.
Down the hall from this bedroom, there is a photograph of me hanging on the wall. It’s sandwiched between a large grid of my sister’s wedding photos and an assortment of my brother’s baby snaps. There are two remarkable things about it: first, it is the only photograph of me in the entire house, and second, it is of the back of my head.
The photo was taken when I was 14 and it shows me sitting at the end of the very hall where the picture now hangs, staring out the front door at a small palm tree, with just a hint of the Pacific Ocean in the far distance. There is a tiny dog by my side.
Now, more than a decade later, I find myself looking down the same hallway. I can see that the tree is still there and has grown substantially, I also notice that the dog is no longer a pup, but dead after a protracted battle with dog-diabetes.
As for the boy in the picture, it’s difficult to tell how much he’s changed, largely because I don’t know what the back of my head looks like. But like the tree I’m now taller, and like the dog I’m substantially less healthy.
It’s been five days since I’ve eaten. This is made especially cruel by the presence of a fridge filled with Christmas leftovers. Which includes, but is not limited to, all the types of meat, most types of seafood and a dish which my auntie makes out of mandarin, coconut and marshmallows, and then has the audacity to call a salad.
Being starved and stuck in the house where you spent most of your adolescence is, for anyone prone to long bouts of self-reflection, a very, very dangerous proposition. Add a constant fever of 39 degrees to that, and it’s like being trapped in a sauna with The Wonder Years playing on repeat while you vomit into a red bucket.
But after a few weeks of this I have begun to adjust, and the jumpy, sepia-soaked images flashing before my face of things I almost certainly never did are starting to give way to actual memories of this place; the boy at the end of the hallway with his sugar-loving dog are now coming into sharper focus.
This house is by the sea in Collaroy on Sydney’s northern beaches. It was bought by my family in the mid 90s as a holiday house, but my parents finally moved here for good two years ago. I love the fact that my parents now live in their old holiday house. The idea of moving permanently to your place of occasional respite is at once so idyllic and seemingly reckless, it’s like they’re eating jellybeans for dinner on the grounds that jellybeans are the best.
But they are.
There’s really no way of describing this house without making it sound like Tim Winton lives here. It was built in the 20s as a home for a fisherman and his family, who lovingly laid down the hardwood floors and ignorantly erected the asbestos walls. On these walls hang pots and jars, lanterns and bells, all manner of general miscellany my father collected from his time selling shoes in India and China. There are a bewildering number of places to sit or lie, more than could possibly ever be required. It remains the only house I have even been in where a hammock does not seem contrived. A porch runs around the edge of the house, and as the sun goes down every day, my parents sit out the front, behind the white picket fence and try in vain, with a glass of wine in hand, to stop our two new dogs from barking happily at passers-by.
It’s usually one of my happiest places to be, but being back here now, I’m starting to get a strange feeling of unease. It could be that my brother from the baby snaps is all grown up, brewing his own vodka and dodging questions from Mum and Dad about uni. Or it could be that my sister and her husband from the wedding shrine now live in Lebanon, with a Syrian tortoise named Paul, so named because he was saved on the road to Damascus. Or, it could be that one of my eyes is dark red and the other is a bright yellow, a colour that I’m pretty sure they’ve never been before (although I have no photographic evidence at my disposal to verify this). In the end, I don’t think it’s any of these things. Quite simply, it’s because I’m in this house, it’s summer, but I’m not getting annihilated at cricket by anybody.
By far the most important feature of this house has always been the stretch of grass that sits between the side porch and the granny flat. The house, as such, doesn’t have a front or a back yard but a sideyard. And it was on this stretch of lawn that, over the course of my adolescence, I learned a series of hard truths about the Jenkins family dynamic, the human condition and my own shortcomings as a spin bowler.
It’s as if that fisherman designed this house for sideyard cricket. The lawn affords just enough space for a batsman, bowler, wicket keeper, first slip, a very, very short mid-on, and a little spot for someone to just stand and ask if it’s their turn to bowl yet. For the boy at the end of the hallway and his family, games could last anywhere from a couple of hours to a full week.
Obviously there were house rules. Backyard cricket is built on house rules. It’s a prescriptive set of ethics agreed to by all parties, on the collective understanding that the adherence to these rules ensures no‑one runs out of tennis balls. These rules are generally pretty standard across all back/side yards, and are usually concerned with what to do if a ball is hit over a fence, or caught after a bounce, or breaks open a piece of an asbestos wall.
But there were another set of house rules; rules that I thought were more or less standard across the country, but only now am understanding were specific to our house. These were rules instigated by my siblings to mitigate the fact that I was both completely rubbish at cricket, and entirely oblivious to that fact.
The problem was simple. My brother and sister were both blessed from an early age with natural sporting ability, in fact, my whole family seems to posses a high level of sporting prowess. But as they say in my family: on the day God was handing out coordination, I was probably off somewhere being a massive spaz.
So my siblings spent their summers concocting new and innovative ways to keep me at the crease, even after I’d been clean bowled, stumped, or at one point, caught out by the dog. These included the rule that you couldn’t get out:
Third ball, or on a ball that was too fast, frankly.
On a ball where the sun was in my eyes.
On a ball where someone’s phone rang,
On a ball where it was clear that I was really just trying my best and at the end of the day, that’s all anyone can really ask.
The cruellest and most dangerous thing about all this is, while I was never endowed with my family’s ability on the sporting field, I still inherited their competitive spirit. So no matter how consistently awful I was at the game, I had a never-say-die attitude to rival Lazarus. To make matters worse, chaos theory dictated that every now and again my terrified flailing would actually sync up with the arc of a neat little cover drive, or my impression of a drunk windmill would inexplicably yield a wicket. I took these instances not as the statistical outliers they were, but as proof that when I was in ‘The Zone’ I was just as good as my siblings.
Of course I’m willing to admit now that I’ve spent my entire life as a complete stranger to The Zone. I couldn’t even locate The Zone on a map if asked; if there are any inoculations required before visiting The Zone, I haven’t had them, nor do I have a working visa for The Zone or its territories. In fact, if I ever were to find myself in The Zone it would be entirely in the capacity of a tourist, awkwardly trying to unfold a map to major Zone landmarks, before losing it to a gust of wind and having it caught effortlessly with one hand by a local.
What’s amazing is that I never noticed how much my siblings were rigging everything in my favour. I was outfoxed by an 11-year-old. And they did all this because they knew that if I sensed just how bad I was at the game, I’d just go to my room and stay there over the summer. Which is exactly where I find myself now. And from where I’m now lying, I can see that stretch of grass, still worn deep on both sides by equal parts pig-headed failure and covert familial encouragement.
So you know what, Bastard Genie? I might have spent the better part of a week pining for, and simultaneously vomiting at the thought of, Auntie Liz’s marshmallow salad, and yes, this isn’t going to change any time in the foreseeable future. But at least I’m stuck in a place where people don’t mind if you’re a little weak, if it means you have someone to spend a summer afternoon with, and not in a bottle, you mystical prick.
And know this also, you big blue jerk, when I am well enough to empty the fridge of its contents, I am going to have the strength to stand at the end of that strip of lawn and face up to, quite literally, whatever my brother can throw at me. And if I get out first ball, or second or third or fourth, if the sun is in my eyes or a car backfires or if he puts nine types of spin on his delivery, then I am going to walk, not to my room and slam the door, but to that little spot between the porch and the stumps and ask loudly if it’s my turn to bowl yet.