What make you feel more or less of a man, chainsaws or sewing machines?
I don’t know whether it made your news, but a category two cyclone hit New South Wales this week. Properties were destroyed, whole houses floating away on flood waters and five people died. Less than three days later I’m writing this under a pristine blue sky at which many people who lost their homes are no doubt shaking their fists.
Andrew’s sister Maria and her wife Janine are counting themselves lucky. They live just outside Newcastle and on Wednesday night a huge gum tree came down and destroyed the half of their house they weren’t sleeping in. Their kitchen, bathroom and bedroom are undamaged. Their living-room and spare bedroom no longer exist. On Thursday morning Maria phoned me in a state of elation.
“It’s flattened” she says. “Nothing salvageable except that vase I’ve always hated.”
I ask her why she’s so cheery about it, and she tells me its because they’re both alive and uninjured. A different gust in a different direction, and they’d no longer be on the planet; compared to that property damage is a breeze.
“I do need a favour though” she says. “Andrew’s ringing around for people to help chop up the tree and fix things so we can still live here till things are properly rebuilt. Janine is panicking.”
I know what she means. Andrew will march in, tell everyone what to do, forget to ask the girls what they want and ignore them if they have the temerity to tell him. Maria and he will end up screaming at each other while Janine sits wide-eyed and mute in the corner. It’ll be like Christmas has come early. So Maria and Janine have hatched a plot that I should please head up on Friday with my Project Manager hat on and help them put together a detailed work plan.
“Oh and Ged” says Maria carefully. “I’m so sorry but your curtains didn’t make it. I could only find one of them and that’s ripped and muddy.”
Andrew calls me about an hour later. “Cancel your plans for the weekend’ he barks down the phone. ‘The girls are in trouble and need all the manpower they can get.” I say fine, I’ll see him there on Saturday, not telling him my sewing-machine is already in the car.
I reckon most people who write that somewhere is like a war-zone have never been near one. Your average war refugee would probably laugh at the idea that a few fallen trees and lots of branches on the road resemble what they’ve escaped. All the same, the drive north is a shock. I see a building’s worth of scaffolding fallen like Lego, electricity pylons at all angles, boats in trees. But Maria and Janine are in great form. They’ve found a neighbour with power, had hot showers and charged their phones. Even better, the State Emergency Service has visited and chopped the poor dead giant of a tree into smaller chunks. I can’t help trudging through the mess to try and find where the windows use to be. Maria catches me at it and delivers the dead curtain to me ceremoniously. Damnation. I spent days making those things.
Friday is a day of quiet planning around my laptop (both of theirs have been destroyed – back everything up folks). The neighbour with power also has a printer and by the end of the afternoon we have six copies of what Janine and Maria want doing in what order, what to try and salvage and what to chuck, what to photograph for insurance etc. Then the sun sets and the lack of electricity returns us to the dark ages.
Saturday is not so quiet. Drills, saws, hammers, the constant thrumming of a generator. What we don’t hear is Andrew and Maria shouting at each other because whilst Maria and her bossy older brother are winding each other up, they’re doing it on a low simmer rather than the normal raging boil. The rest of us are having a great time. Mikey’s up on the roof with a nail gun, Tom’s helping Andrew drill into the exposed framework, Janine is sawing one of the larger chunks of tree into something we can lift. I’m sitting on the front deck pushing the fabric Maria has bought through a sewing machine. (‘We might have to live with a wall of plastic sheeting but we don’t want to look at it, or get looked at through it.’). Then Lauchlan and Annia arrive.
“Oh great” says Janine, looking at Lauchlan’s pristine HiLux. “We can chuck all this stuff into the back of his ute to get it to the tip.”
“Yeah, good luck with that” says Tom from his stepladder. “That thing might look like a truck but it’s really an Eastern Suburbs shopping trolley.”
Within seconds of parking Lauchlan’s past me, up the ladder and on the roof with Mikey so he can survey the damage and ask for a go with the nail gun. Annia takes longer getting out of the car, loading herself with bags over shoulders and a casserole which, when she reaches the house, turns out to smell achingly good. She stands on one hip to survey the scene.
“I see all the men are working hard with their power tools” she says. “And how sweet that you’re sitting here sewing.”
I must admit, I can never hear the words ‘power tool’ without feeling a bit inferior and not just because of that 1988 Jeff Stryker movie (don’t google that reference at work). The truth is, I’d love to be using the chainsaw or the nail gun or the drill, but I’m just so bad at anything like that. I think it’s because I’m flat-footed or left-handed or gap-toothed or something. I’m trying to think of something clever to say in return when I notice Maria has come up the side of the house, also carrying a casserole, and has stopped to listen to us.
“Isn’t it funny how men and women naturally allocate themselves different roles?” says Annia.
“What do you mean?” says Maria.
Annia turns, surprised to see her. “Oh hi. I’m Annia.”
“I guessed” says Maria. “What do you mean about men and women allocating themselves different roles?”
Annia repeats her comment about the power tools, making it sound like a joke this time.
“Uh-huh. And when you say ‘the men’ are you including Janine in that?”
For once Annia struggles to find something to say. I find myself smirking and turn away to check my thread-tension.
“It was a joke” says Annia.
“It was a joke about Ged being less of a man because he’s not drilling or hammering or cutting things up. It was a joke about my wife being less of a woman because she’s holding a chainsaw.”
Annia blushes and apologises and for a tiny moment I’m almost sorry for her. Tell the truth, I do feel less manly right now than if I was on the roof with the nail gun. I can sew because I’ve always sewn, but I can’t knit because I can’t bring myself to do it – it just feels too girly. I remember once, a hundred years ago, a lover asking me if being passive in the act of love-making (I think his words were “taking it up the arse”) made me feel like a woman. I replied no, it made me feel more of a man than ever. I wasn’t being smart. Sex is such a strong part of how I experience my gender that whether being passive or active it always makes me feel manly. Why should sewing or knitting be any different?
“Anyway” says Annia. “I brought a casserole.”
“Oh, you’re very sweet” says Maria, summoning a smile. “But I’ve just heated up this one which Ged brought yesterday.”
There’s a tiny moment of tension broken by Maria yelling to everyone to start finishing up because food is ready. This provokes a new flurry of power tools thrumming the air. When Maria turns and carries my casserole into the house, Annia looks at me and I give her a big fat wink. Then I turn back to my own favourite power tool and press the pedal hard to contribute to the noise of men and women repairing a house.
More views that are slightly skewed from 5 Bad Surfers
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