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Melbourne (Part1): Twists of fate

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by Nicole Skeltys

Twists of fate

Tanya and I have been back in Australia for just over a week now. And in that short space of time, I have got some news which made me realize that my life over the last 2 years has actually turned into a series of novelistic cliff-hangers. My return to Pittsburgh – which was initially planned to be in 4-5 weeks time – is now uncertain.

Two days before we left for Australia, The Jilted Brides had our debut Pittsburgh gig and CD launch at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. It was a splendid night. Richard Parsakian dressed the band out of his stylish retro clothes collection and we could have been on Top of the Pops in 1969. There was a good crowd, and the band played extremely well. After the show, there was much positive feedback, people bought CDs and even asked us to autograph them. T, Scott and I came back to our Lawrenceville boudoir late that night on a high, cracked champagne and had a mini-party in Tanya’s attic bedroom long into the night.

The first twist of fate happened the day after the gig. When I popped the question to our brilliant new backing band ie are we now all ready to move on to even bigger and better gigs? the answer was well, actually, no. Our drummer, guitarist and bassist all emailed me one by one saying they have other creative and professional priorities. That was it – one great performance that will never be repeated! Its always hard keeping a band together, harder than most ‘blended families’ I imagine…

On Sunday 16 we boarded the first of five flights that would, two days later, deposit us in Melbourne. From Pittsburgh to Denver, Denver to Vancouver, Vancouver to Taipei, Taipei to Sydney, Sydney to Melbourne, my mind circled two preoccupations like a demented vulture – how to make money from music in Pittsburgh, what was the ‘Big Idea’ that would keep The Jilted Brides going and help us prosper? And, more disturbingly, what was going on with my health – I had been in more or less constant pain for three weeks, there was something wrong with my stomache and it felt suspiciously like there was a growth. At the back of my mind I knew the first two years after a breast cancer diagnosis are the highest risk for metastases (tumors) to appear anywhere in the body.

At Taipei airport, T and I tossed around many business ideas – some whacky, some not so whacky. Suddenly, just as the boarding call came for our flight to Sydney, we hit upon it – we actually hit upon The Idea. The more we talked about it, the more excited we got, we thought ‘yes! this might just work, this could combine a lot of objectives, spiritual and material!’. More of the ‘Big Idea’ in a later post, but it felt good to walk out of the departure lounge onto the China Airlines plane with a vision to pursue, a creative way to perhaps make a living when we got back to the USA.

If I got back.

Make-up sex and Brunswick revisited

As the Qantas plane dropped below the cloudline and began its descent into Melbourne, you could see the thick pall of smoke haze that hung over the city and the surrounding north-east countryside. Less than two weeks earlier, super-hot temperatures (47 degrees celsius/ 116 degrees fahrenheit) had combined with chronic drought conditions (or more precisely, global warming conditions) and galeforce windspeeds (up to 125km an hour) to create a firey holocaust – massive tracts of bush, and entire towns were incinerated within hours. And most horrificly, at least 209 people died, many as they tried to escape in their cars but were engulfed by the racing flames.

Despite this sombre context, we were nevertheless joyful to return. My dear old friend Aaron picked us up from the airport and took us back to our old house in East Brunswick, where he treated us to beer, wine and Indian take-away as we collapsed into the beaten up old sofa onto the front porch. My old flatties Roland and Hiroko welcomed us home, and I met the new couple that had just moved into my old bedroom. I noted with great pride that the little backyard vegie patch I had started all those years ago had, under the loving attentions of Roland and Hiroko, doubled in size over the last 9 months, and even the front yard now had been replaced by a permaculture garden. Pipes from the roof had been extended to the ground to ensure the (increasingly scarce) rainwater reached the plants and trees. Australians are famous for being obsessed with their backyards, and I realized how much I missed that connection to earth, the appreciation of fresh food pulled from your own garden.

Tanya moved back into my former backyard bungalow studio where we had spent the previous summer sweating, swelling and panting in the heat, recording our debut CD ‘Larceny of Love’ which is what we had launched at the Andy Warhol museum just before we left. I bunked down with one of my dearest, oldest friends Kerry, and her park ranger husband Chris, at their flat not far away in West Brunswick. The plan was for Tanya to spend a week sorting through and getting rid of the rest of her possessions (either selling them, shipping them up to her mother’s house in Terrigal – just north of Sydney – or simply giving them away), then she was to head up to see her mum and visit her old pals in Sydney before flying back to Pittsburgh a couple of weeks later. Upon her departure from Melbourne, I was to move back into the studio to work out what to do with my remaining stuff, which mostly consisted of my beloved old synthesizers and recording equipment.

While T complained about the heat, which she was really feeling after chilly Pittsburgh, I found myself falling in love with Melbourne again in exactly the same way that you see the very best in your former lovers shortly after you’ve broken up with them. It was like make-up sex, only with a metropolis. I wandered down Sydney Rd, Brunswick and marveled once again at the abundance of fresh, delicious, cheap cuisine of so many ethnicities. Melbourne is one of the gourmet capitals of the world, if not the global food capital. Its actually hard to get a bad meal in inner Melbourne: even the local pubs have menu items like ‘pan-fried zucchini flowers’ or ‘duck wontons with harissa and wild rice’. Before I had left, I had felt the cloudless blue skies and searing heat sapping my energy in the same way they were sucking out any moisture from our scraggy, rock hard lawn. Now I beamed up at the sun (rarely seen during the Pittsburgh winter) and relished the thought of getting a tan. I could even walk into a bar – any old bar – and order a single glass of champagne, my drink of choice, something I had not been able to do at any bar T and I had patronized during our trip through the USA (you could sometimes order a bottle, but that was beyond my capacity, notwithstanding Australians’ notorious reputation for alcohol guzzling.)

But most of all, my spirits lifted because I was back with my network of buddies again. As both T and I had never married, nor bred, all our emotional investment over the years had gone into creating ersatz families from our friends. While most of T’s friends were in Sydney, mine were in Melbourne. As I started the process of catching up with everyone, I started to feel stronger, more myself again. I found myself sitting on the toilet and staring at Hiroko’s motivational notes: “Do not always push the moment away! Do not always push love away!” as well as the household injunctions to be eco-conscious and save precious water: “If its yellow, let it mellow; if its brown, flush it down!” and I wondered, with a pang, if I could find like-minded souls like this in Pittsburgh. Idealists with a sense of humor, eco-activitists who loved to have fun, down to earth visionaries, spiritual trippers with big hearts.

Giant fibroids and rare, analogue synthesizers

As T frantically raced against time sorting through all her remaining possessions, I embarked on a week of nail-biting medical tests. I was prodded and poked up both ends (gastroscopy, colonoscopy), had my boobs squeezed flat (mammogram) and had my uterus zapped by an ultrasound. To my enormous relief, by the time last Friday came around, I had been given the all-clear from cancer again – reprieved again from any threat of imminent demise. But the news was not all good.

I sat opposite my doctor Jeff, a handsome, ridiculously healthy looking man my age, who was progressive by any medical standards (he was also a naturopath) and political standards (I found out during the last Federal election campaign that he was also a member of The Greens and from then on we spent half our consultations discussing my health and the other half whining about ALP and Coalition policy failures). Jeff looked up from the ultrasound report and announced that I had “a giant fibroid”. In fact, it was “the biggest fibroid I have ever seen. It takes up your entire uterus”.

I stared at him. “What does that mean?” I asked, now suddenly a little short of breath. “I mean, how do I get rid of it?” It was a relief to know that the painful growth I was feeling was benign; but I now felt like Ripley in Alien – there was an intruder in my womb! Jeff shrugged “Well, sometimes hysterectomy.”

“HYSTERECTOMY!???” I just about shrieked. There was no way I was having a hysterectomy. “OK, OK!” Jeff leant over to his computer and started typing out a referral to a gynecologist. “Well, we won’t send you to any of the old male gynos then. The old guys like doing hysterectomies you know. When did you say you have to return to the States?” When I explained that I needed to be back in Pittsburgh in 5 weeks time, to finish off a film project we had started, Jeff looked grim. “You’d be lucky to see a gynecologist in less than 4 weeks. And as for surgery, well forget about the public hospital system, you’d be waiting for months.” But the angels had not entirely scampered off – after several phone calls, we found – incredibly – a female gyno who could see me within a few days.

That afternoon, I wandered back to Clarence St and sat in the lounge room slumped in front of my computer trying to do some paperwork, but full of foreboding. If I had to have urgent elective surgery at a private hospital, that could cost thousands. Kerry and Chris had very kindly sold my car for me a few weeks earlier; so I now had only one possession of any serious value left, and that was a rare, analogue synthesizer from the late ’70s – the Roland System 700, which was my pride and joy. I googled it and sure enough, it was worth a pretty penny.

Tanya came in from the studio, leaned against the kitchen counter and tried to cheer me up. I said, putting on a brave face: “You know, if I have to I can always sell my System 700, it would fetch a few grand.” Tanya looked at me with surprise and compassion; I suspect she heard the catch in my voice. When I had looked up the machine on the web earlier that afternoon, one entry had really stuck in my mind. A vintage synth site had described the System 700 thus: “This extremely rare machine is quite possibly the best synthesizer ever built.” And I knew then I couldn’t do it. I felt as loyal to that bunch of modules, circuits and wires as if the System 700 (or Seth as I called him) was my own flesh and blood. Giant fibroid or no giant fibroid, Seth was staying with me.

This afternoon I headed off with Natasha, Robert and his son James to check out the Sydney Road street party and Brunswick Music Festival. Melbournians are addicted to festivals, there is one happening somewhere just about every weekend. This was the big one for Brunswick. We pushed past the dreadlocked men, the veiled women, the overexcited kids, terrible middle-aged punk bands and multi-ethinic world music ensembles. We gnawed on satay and drank middle eastern soup. Tash and I finally ended up at my local pub, The Lomond, nodding and giggling to a ukulele blues band. I’m hitting the sack now, back in my Clarence St studio which Tanya vacated a couple of nights ago, surrounded by piles of boxes, cables and gizmos. And tomorrow I see the ‘gyno’, after which I guess a new chapter awaits.

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