My Grandma Nonie lived in Rosebud, a peninsula town that had, in my memory, more caravans than humans. A holiday destination for suburban Melbourne folk keen for the endless beach cricket game that was summer. As a kid, we lived in WA, then Adelaide so voyages to see my dad’s adoptive mother involved a lot of staring out of a Ford Fairlane’s window, daydreaming. By the time we lumbered through Bacchus Marsh, two hours still from Rosebud, I could allow myself to flex and release the dulled muscles in my legs anticipating an afternoon of uncompetitive sporting endeavour. I knew where the tennis ball was in Nonie’s shed, behind the manual lawn mower, whose operations I would be wrestling with the next day: in a bucket that also housed gloves stiffened by decades of Victorian winters and shears in menacing disrepair. Though I loved her and she showed loving ways, I was never my Grandma’s favourite with my hyperactive, theatrical manner. I knew the ball would be there because, as she had said with no great humour to visitors one day, ‘Give that boy a tennis ball and you won’t see him for a week’.
And now I am 50 years old, living alone in my small apartment in St Kilda. Being mysophobic and a hypochondriac since a difficult time in my mid teens, the last months have found me vacillating between thinking I’m better prepared than most for the current isolated situation, and coiled like a pretzel on the floor in fear: incessant hand-washing, distancing, hot flushes that are self-diagnosed as virulent fevers and a scratchy throat that is the harbinger of my physical disintegration. Working in a bar for the months preceding ‘it’ was loosening the grip of the phobia, in a way that 30 years of singing in pubs didn’t. You cannot feel sanitary after an eight-hour shift tending bar and then cleaning the bugger. And now ‘this’. Three weeks of dread and I was ready to give in, but a long sleepless week of self-flagellation had me resolved to change. My daughter in NYC may need support at any time of night, my friends may need a chinwag, strangers may need a smile and I was doubtlessly fraying the patience of my partner despite us living 247 steps apart. Coffee, my daily gift to myself was out (please do not banish me from Melbourne, overlords), no drinking in the morning to assuage the early fear, smoking was out, work on songs and fictions was back IN. And I am remarkably better, thank you. As for losing two jobs? I live on fish fingers, porridge and cheap local beer anyway. Life’s good. I would love to do one of those ‘My Day on a Plate’ articles for a newspaper. I would rename it ‘My Day in a Tin’ and calmly wait for the cognoscenti to barge my door and slow roast me at the stake with a horseradish sauce accompanying my heretic rump.
My neighbours directly below moved back to Portland seven weeks ago. I was a little sad to hear them go, and was on the verge of be-kneeled prayer for their arduous journey home. Two women and their young boy, a lad who engaged me in verbose conversations on the stairwell about recycling and its importance, his vernacular betrayed his tender years. The women were both avid windsailors and hikers—the outdoors type whose bemusement at my rakish dandyism amused us all, I hope. Their absence has brought a new depth of silence to my existence inside, which I honestly enjoy, but the far greater gift has been their now vacant car space, next to mine.
Our tight carpark is walled on all sides to the height of ten feet, and it is there that I take my tennis ball three times a day to practice my baseball pitching routine. I still harbour a dream to play baseball. That the departed Oregon natives have bequeathed me a space to pitch and that I have warm memories of visiting the Portland Beaver’s baseball stadium many times whilst on tour, is a gentle coincidence that tickles me. I pick a brick that is the perfect spot to strike out my imagined opposition, who is most often a Yankee. Though on my regular pilgrimages to New York for 30 years I have always caught at least one Yankees game a season; it is to revel in the beautiful aesthetics of baseball that I go to the stadium. My team is the Phillies of Philadelphia. I gravitated to them for many reasons, but one long night in Perth drinking with the wonderful musician and radio presenter Lucky Oceans convinced me. He was a fan and had stories that didn’t so much sway me as cudgel me into sworn allegiance. He also believed they were ‘the losingest [sic] team in US sports’. Colour me impressed.
I have heard many say that the gift of turning 50 is that you care less about unimportant things. My enlightenment came two years before. It wasn’t the encroaching mid-century that blessed me, more exhaustion at being so self-conscious for so long. Neighbours who therefore spy my consumptive form shod in ‘ball attire hurling a tennis ball in a carpark dozens of times, are welcome to question my maturity. I dream of Satchel Paige, Tug McGraw, Lefty Carlton, Cliff Lee and unfurl my pitching wind up, an action less like an elite Major Leaguer, more something resembling dirty laundry being cast out of a basket. These months the wind-up and release is not only a chance to daydream but also a tension reliever. Clench then release. Repetitions of adolescent fantasy man, untangling adult skeins of anxiety. And then it happens. I’m thinking on baseball history as a topic of badinage if I get to meet the parents of my daughter’s friends in New York, when I release an errant pitch that clears the brick wall by a foot, landing, I can only presume, in some unreachable nook of the construction site next door. Do I run around to the site and search for it? No. Thankful that I have chosen a time when the workers aren’t there for my pitching arm to betray me, I’m mute and immobile in disbelief. No cursing or self-admonishment. A reaction that puzzles me to this day.
My first clear thought is the hope that either a worker, or a resident of the block having a new carpark constructed is in dire need of a tennis ball. Surely I’m not the only soul needing bounce and vigour in their carpark. Surely I must have another in my apartment. SURELY? A three-room apartment housing six footballs, five vintage cricket bats, three baseball gloves, four cricket balls and enough sweatbands to adorn generations of Globetrotters? Not bloody one. Not an ancient ball with a covering resembling lichen or a fresh ball with the pelt of a kitten. Not a fucking cracker. Searching my home with the tact and delicacy of the Stasi, I uncovered old copies of Viz magazine, my cassette tape collection, a thought-lost Bob Seger T-shirt, but no ball. I would need to venture beyond. And that thought brought me no pleasure whatsoever.
The Reticular Activation System: a wonderful bundle of nerves at our brain stem that filters out unnecessary information so the important stuff gets through. It’s why when you discover a word, or a musical artist, or an author previously foreign to you and then you hear it/them everywhere. I wonder if my RAS was grinding its cogs when three years ago my bed frame fell apart and I zeroed in on pallets as being an appropriate makeshift (cheap) option. Scouring the streets I found none and begrudgingly bought a frame, but since the day of the purchase I SEE PALLETS EVERYWHERE. Fine, sturdy pallets. Constructed of strong woods and shiny nails, fresh from transporting gold, frankinscence and myrrh from sailing journeys begun in faraway exotic lands. Or one hundred slabs of a new unnecessarily stinky microbrewed beer. And so, three days on from hoiking my ball to misery, the suburb is bereft of stray luminous green nuggets. Yards, parks, mouths of gutters … all bare, when previously balls were as common as bubbles in a pint.
I’ll say one thing for phobias and that is they keep you loyal. My allegiance to a local IGA for shopping is based on nothing but the ease of entry, purchase and exit. There are no conversations or lingerings. The staff are courteous in a perfunctory way and I can be in and out with a bag of my ascetic needs in less time that it takes for a panic to bubble up. And I was convinced that in that little market, there was a corner resplendent with children’s toys, party ephemera and the object of my quest. I could visualise it. I could smell it. And I would be there at 9am opening whilst no-one was in the aisles to retrieve my bounty.
Four hasty yet thorough laps retrieved not a cracker. So I summoned the courage to ask at the front counter, whereupon I was told that they usually had some, and will order them in for next Tuesday. To get to this information an endless volley of questions was conducted around the store between employees, answers flecked with incredulity as staff craned their necks to see the child at the counter asking for tennis balls. My frame was meanwhile buckling in mild embarrassment. A reaction I was supposed to be beyond feeling.
For the next two and a half weeks I returned and the saga continued. Still no balls. Whilst I was enjoying a little levity returning to the store employees as the lockdown settled into familiarity, the lack of throwing material was a daily annoyance. At night I’d resolve to venture to a sporting goods store only to have that resolve melt the next morning at the thought of … people. And so I’d wander the streets again, eyes darting toward any bright colour nestled among piles of leaves or at the feet of gates. Couldn’t I just suck up the ridiculous fear and give this crusade a noble denouement? I was uncomfortably reminded of a time decades previous when I was in my late teens and anxiety affliction demanded that all my obsessive culinary trust was directed toward one fish and chip shop. Selected from all others by some neural traffic jam they were deemed ‘safe’, and my 1pm pilgrimage there gave me sustenance for the day. Two potato cakes, minimum chips. Done. My mum bought dinner there one night many months into my tryst whereupon the owner remarked, ‘Geez Maureen, yer boy sure eats a lotta potato cakes ’n chips, eh?’ On receiving this appraisal I buckled like a newspaper in rain. I’d been discovered. For the puzzled IGA employees I would declare ‘I refuse to buy my tennis balls from elsewhere!’ with a flourish and a giggle or announce that ‘this pursuit has become biblical! Join me my brethren, let’s not tarry!’ masking more tremulous emotions.
My neighbours on the second floor are Nicola and Aisling, two young women from Dublin that work in oncolgy and cancer research. They have been wonderful neighbours for half a decade and though we rarely see each other they’re a joy to run into always and there has been a few bottles of whiskey or wine left at doorsteps these months. We had talked of having a ‘corridor drink’ one night, opening our respective front doors and having a yak from our domains. I’m in awe of their day to day demeanour. I discussed with The Hurricane whether offering a delivered dinner or a baked cake was appropriate to leave them as some kind of thanks and respect. ‘Sweetheart, stick to the wine,’ she replied sagely. Returning from my trusted bottle shop two days ago I encountered Aisling as she was returning home in scrubs. With a wry smile she said, ‘We were a little concerned when we saw you in the carpark in a three-piece suit, jumping a skip-rope late at night’.
My answer was, ‘One may be called upon to make a quick getaway, and one may not necessarily be in active-wear.’
As a kid my family had a family tradition that when someone was in actions of oddity there would be a conspiratorial whisper amongst the inactive members of the family ‘Oh boy, first signs of madness’. It was a quote from an English television show when a neighbour was viewed vacuuming the front lawn. I would be the recipient for scrubbing fruit, eggs or anything edible to an inch of its flavour before eating, or washing my hands until they were rendered and incapable of tactility. Being caught skipping rope in a three-piece and tie was at least ‘batty’ rather than pitiful, but I felt an honest explanation was in order. Time has stretched so that a talk with a neighbour need not break protocols. And so to Aisling I told my tale of woe. And that skipping on the spot 800 times, when I would normally pitch and receive, was like my sacrifice to the Gods to deliver me a Goddamn tennis ball.
Yesterday morning was a morning like most others of late—my body dehydrated and gnarled after the most meagre of sleeps. I nonetheless dressed defiantly, optimistically in a powder blue pinstripe suit, white collared shirt, royal blue neckerchief and black boots to go for a walk. My route takes in the less trampled pathways. Not to the bayside which will be fecund with joggers and bicycles, or the main streets of former retail and hospitality but to the streets where the houses are, and apartment blocks. The ones I have walked by hundreds of times yet each morning can appear vastly different, and then at dusk different again, as if a day of activity, conversation and food preparation has transformed the architecture by osmosis.
Despite a gritty head and angry resentful skin, I step out my door with purpose only to be stopped mid-stride at the sight of a visitor tucked into one of my sandshoes on permanent guard at the door. A tennis ball. Frayed at certain coordinates by use of another human, very possibly a neighbour whom I had been talking to the night before about what a 50-year-old like me does to regain un-panicked thought in times of uncertainty.
I’ll be sure to leave a gift on my neighbours’ front step, just six feet away, when I come back in a week.
Postscript: The streets of St Kilda are now teeming with neglected tennis balls.
Tim Rogers is a songwriter, musician, actor, insomniac and indefatigable flâneur, perhaps best known as the frontman of You Am I. His bestselling memoir is Detours.