One Down in the Ground

And now, a randomly generated scene …

Nouns: handicap, jellyfish, lace, rate, resolution, screwdriver, shorts

Adjectives: puffy, long, irritating, goofy, kind

Verbs: stage, perform, calculate

Adverbs: gladly


A front runner already, Holly calculated her chances of success, folding gently while her neighbours who shared the same long work bench stirred at a feverish rate. Both would have gladly traded their batters, lumpy on the left and runny as diarrhoea on the right, along with all future prospects of freedom for the smooth concoction in Holly’s mixing bowl. Being an experienced home baker, she had begun the week’s handicap a full half hour behind both Gregor and Tess and without the benefit of self raising flour, as had been bestowed on most of her competitors. She could see the shorts of the young man baking in front of her clung to his sweaty thighs beneath his apron.

They had begun as 16. One week in, they were one down.

One down, one down …

A more ominous than irritating little voice sang at her, overpowering the list of ingredients and methods in her mind.

One down in the ground …

They had been made to watch. She knew they would be – Holly had seen a dozen seasons before being unexpectedly whisked off to the dreaded kitchen herself. She’d known what was coming. Still, she’d been unable to distance herself from the small girl’s scream and the smell of blood mingling with the citrus-infused meringues they had been made to whip up.

The girl had never baked a day in her life. With only the barest instructions, her meringues had emerged colourless, wobbly as a sleep-deprived jellyfish. Holly’s were as puffy and crisp as those she’d called to mind to emulate from her mother’s ancient magazines, and the others’ bakes had at least resembled meringues. Holly could still see bulky Judge Wagner’s screwdriver-like index finger, stiff and cruel, trailing across the line up of nervous competitors before pointing squarely at the hapless girl. She’d been seized where she stood, toes uprooted from the linoleum beneath their feet.

‘Holly,’ Gregor moaned  as she peered in her oven and straightened, cupcakes baking nicely. Tess eyed the sugar lace that Holly wove as decoration, trying to emulate the technique and poorly staging confidence with a flick of her hair and flourish of her fork. Her cupcakes were now baking, too. Gregor, however, still gazed helplessly into his runny mixture.

‘Holly, help … I have to perform, this week. If Shelley had known which end of a wooden spoon to hold, I’d be gone already.’

It was true. Wagner had made a point of ridiculing Gregor’s goofy-looking meringues before spitting out the first bite and smashing the rest into his bench, meticulously scrubbed for the sweets presentation ceremony.

Holly pressed her lips together, nervous in indecision. She sympathised. But front runner or not, Holly wasn’t truly safe, either. Disasters happened – sometimes they were made to happen. If she helped Gregor – kind Gregor, who’d spoken to her those awful, tension-laden weeks they’d already spent in and around that kitchen while the rest of the field avoided her, forming their own segregated cliques of support – Holly would jeopardise her own chances, the firm resolution she’d made to win. To live. She’d sworn to her mother that she would.

‘Please, Holly …’

She felt like a villain for even thinking to refuse Gregor’s plea. Hadn’t she always delighted in sharing her secrets, freely distributing advice on how to best melt chocolate and knead pastry?

This is different, she tried to insist.

But despite her hefty self-preservation, Holly’s humanity refused to be ignored.

Down, down in the ground …

Holly busied herself weaving sugar into delicate strands, leaning close to her work to hide her face from Wager as he stalked up and down the aisles of benches. Internal debate raged. Gregor deflated with her silence, seeming to sink into the speckled linoleum, already feeling the iron grips that would be about his arms in a little over an hour, wrenching him out of line.

Down, down in the ground …

Finally, Holly spoke, whispering from the most minuscule corner her mouth could produce.

‘Wagner can’t see. No one can know. Do exactly as I say.’


Chip Defeat

Got home at around quarter to three this morning. Had a midnight Anzac Day service to sing at in the city, then did the Pancake Manor with all the lovely choir peoples. At least it’s a public holiday – slept to around ten, then had a two-hour nap in the afternoon.  Not exactly helpful in carrying out my wishful plans of spending the day editing.

Back to the Pancake Manor. Ordered a bit less than I normally do – short stack of buttermilk pancakes, basket of chips, and a glass of coke. Twenty dollars for that.  Bit painful, I think.  More painful, though, is that the basket of chips (by chips, I do mean the hot potato french fries-y ones, not potato chips in a packet) defeated me. Suppose it’s a good thing that I can’t eat as much as I used to. But I hate wasting food, particularly chips. Chips are … I have a certain liking for chips.

Used to have a fantasy thought of travelling as a chip connoisseur and writing a book entailing chips around the world – all the shapes, seasonings, and the best cafes and restaurants that serve them.  We’ve already located the best chips in Australia – at least, of all the places we’ve been in Australia.  If you’re ever at the Flinders Chase National Park Visitors Centre on Kangaroo Island, order the chips.  Not McDonald’s skinny, not KFC thick, cooked in sunflower oil (I’m pretty sure that’s what it was) with the most amazing herb seasoning.  We had to order a second basket the moment the first was empty.  Don’t know if they’re still served there, though – this was quite a few years ago.

The chips aren’t too bad closer to home, either. The Pancake Manor, of course, has wonderful chips, hence my reluctance to admit defeat this morning. Another good place for chips is Wordsmiths Cafe at the University of Queensland. When I was eating them more regularly as a uni student, it was a small gamble to order these – one I always took – as sometimes they just didn’t arrive at your table right: oily aioli, lukewarm, or heavily under-spiced. But when they were cooked right – which was more often than not – they’re just brilliant.

Wordies chips are ingrained in my mind as part of a normal uni experience, so much so that they appear in my first novel.  I bestowed student Eva with one of my uni habits – often if I felt anxious about an assignment or an exam, I would go and order a massive bowl of Wordies chips and devour them, all alone at a little round sandstone table.  She does just that in chapter eight – I think it’s eight – only that time, it’s not uni that’s got her feeling a bit tense.

Can’t think of any other moment in my writings when chips get to shine. And I do so love writing descriptions of food.  Maybe I could pop a chips-in-a-paper-cone shop on the Fourth Crossroads in Pulp Runner. They could work in Missing Exhibit, as well – the world is based roughly on late 19th century England/Ireland/Scotland/Wales, so there would be chips around about somewhere.

Probably not important to include chips in writing. Might even be a bit silly. But they work with Eva.

And I do like chips …


The Ancient and Most Honourable Ramen Brothers

Okay, starting to feel a little more concerned by my 10 March novel done-read-and-edited deadline. Halfway through chapter 24, though it’ll be one of the longer ones. Then just the pseudo-chapter and 25 to go, and they’re all sorted out, content wise. But this newsletter I’m editing is taking up more time than I thought. It’s nothing compared to the rest of the committee’s jobs, but still.

Not feeling up to making up anything pretty about the stuff on my desk or wall, I dug briefly around my “Future Projects” folder, and pulled this out: the original opening monologue for the epic Ramen Brothers.

Epic-what, I don’t really know. At one point it was a book, then an anime-esque series, then a radio show (that’s a joke … cause there’s so much physical and visual comedy …). I think the current plan is to at one point turn it into a point-and-click game. Originally, it was an idea my friend Brendan and I played with in high school, then cousin Katie came aboard, then a few other people contributed their likeness/auras to various characters, etc. Never really worked out a great deal of the story line, just had fun chatting about the characters and random, unexpected things they could do/have happen to them. The picture below was created by cousin Katie, depicting some of the main characters.

The Ramen Brothers

Here’s the monologue-thing:

In a time of darkness, when evil doers devoured all the hope and nutrients of the universe. In an era of fear, when the noodles of the world were pushed to the edge of the international plate, crushed to dust before boiling, or left slimy and overcooked, limp at the bottom of the saucepan. It was in this time of need, when all dreams of ever having a decent bowl of carbohydrates seemed to have faded, that two mighty warriors stepped into the light, pledging their lives, chopsticks, and assorted semi-legitimate military arms to right wrongs, triumph over evil, and pour just the right amount of piping hot water on the new super-brand of instant noodles. These brave souls, joined in friendship and in the understanding that if everyone used dried fish stock to cook their noodles there would be peace in the world, became known across the many corners of the globe as The Ramen Brothers!

Behind Glass (section twenty-four)

‘You shot with her, and you almost won?’

After one gibber of disbelief, Jared was reduced to a state of mute shock. The others needing only a moment to digest the unexpected news, Merrick grinned and Mal smiled and shook his head, grabbing a few beef sandwiches and a pear from the escorts’ spread.

Downstairs, the woman had already finished plucking morsels from a delectable array of raw and lightly baked finger food, dipping them in an even greater variety of sweet, spicy, citrus-infused, honey-based, and soy sauces, and bathing their hands in the warm water their escorts held, wiping them on white towels hanging over their forearms. Once every platter was cleared, the escorts were momentarily excused. Needing to get back a hurry, given only fifteen minutes to eat as their women drank tea and socialised to a live string orchestra under the watchful eyes of several Masters, a Director or two, and a squadron of castle soldiers, the four claimed the end of the nearest table and began to wolf down their lunches.
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The Cheese Fondue Tiger Bread Cravings and the Fail Bread

On my ride home from the junior high and elementary schools in Minami Uji (South Uji) each afternoon, I would often stop at a certain bakery, situated just inside the doors of a large shopping centre called Aeon Mall. Rarely would I buy sliced bread here, unless I was in a pinch – a little sweet and shiny for my taste. The bakery a minute from my apartment well suited my loaf needs, though it also boasted some spectacular bread rolls – I think I blogged about them once, not long before I returned to Australia. It became a weekend routine, walking to that nearby bakery in the morning to acquire fresh and warm examples of my two favourites: one with cheese, and the other cheese and bacon, spiced with pepper. However, this bakery didn’t have what the bakery on my ride home from school did.

And what this place had were rolls of tiger bread stuffed with cheese fondue.

Cheese Fondue Tiger Bread

I had no idea, initially. The first time I bought them I failed to read the label properly, and thinking they were common tiger bread rolls, got them to eat with my beef stroganoff that night. Such a surprise it gave me, when I bit one open to find it full of some unknown dairy substance. Perhaps it was sour cream or soft cream cheese, I thought initially, but on closer investigation back at the bakery, I easily read that it was cheese fondue. Not something I ever expected to find in tiger bread.

Quickly recovering from the shock I’m sure any would experience on discovering fondue in their bread instead of coating it on the outside, I realised the taste was just incredible. The bread warm and soft, tiger’s top all crusty and crackly, glistening ever-so-slightly with oil remains, loaded with this amazingly light and flavoursome cheese fondue. I would ride home smelling it from inside the plastic shop bag dangling from my handle bars, the slightly greasy paper bag within catching my eye as I checked for oncoming traffic, full of anticipation.


Recently, I’ve been experiencing some quite full-on hankerings for this bread. Unfortunately, I’m yet to see it in an Australian bakery. I’ve been trolling about the internet in search of recipes, but, unable to find what I’m looking for, more and more I’m lamenting the sweet girl in that bakery on the last day I was there (I was returning to Uji City Hall after the summer closing ceremony at junior high, and had to pause to buy a final roll. Devastated when there were none on display, I asked when the next batch was due and waited twenty-five minutes for them to finish baking, ensuring I was late for one of our final meetings) laughing apologetically and refusing to give in when I begged for the recipe. “You can’t buy bread like this in Australia,” I told her. Still, she refused to relent to my foreigner charm, keeping her bakery’s secrets.

Tired of longing, I put yeast on our shopping list and yesterday evening attempted to re-create the amazing cheese fondue tiger bread from the Minami Uji Aeon Mall Bakery. As the only bread I’ve made before was a basic flat bread to eat with spicy mince, attempting something like this without an exact recipe probably wasn’t the best way to go. At least, not while expecting something matching your wild hopes and imagination to come out of it.

Now follows an account of the Amazing Fail Bread of January 1, 2013:

It didn’t appear a lost cause. At least, not totally. It was definitely something resembling bread coming out of the oven. That  was some consolation.

Beth had been having some major concerns between kneading and shaping and leaving to rise, sitting back in front of “Perfume” in between stages: the yeast in water and sugar hadn’t fizzed and frothed, and she may have powdered the bench with too much flour for kneading. She may, in fact, not have kneaded the dough well enough at all. After the first hour of rising, in her hope Beth though the dough may have expanded minimally, but it wasn’t much to punch down, fist becoming quickly greased and slippery with olive oil as she struck the doughy blob, wet slaps resounding.

Patted into ten little rolls, after another hour again they’d failed to puff out to double their size. But still they were stuffed with spoonfuls of cooled cheese fondue and pinched closed, placed deep within 180 degrees. Fearful that the questionable products of her experimentation would catch alight, Beth checked the rolls periodically, and with increasing sadness saw that they did not develop the lovely tiger crust, nor even brown, remaining only dense doughy blobs on twin baking trays. After forty minutes they were still quite pale, so she left them for another fifteen, wondering if the cooking time should be lengthened to allow such dense bread to cook through.

Removed from the oven, though barely risen, they were now browned. But curse kitchen ineptitude and a lack of appropriate recipes to follow! She had created fail bread!

Fail Bread

They were tough little rounds, more like biscuits than bread and as heavy as lead, a challenge for teeth to meet through. Rock-hard and chewy, her head soon ached, temporal muscles working so hard to tear her sad creation apart. And the cheese fondue within had flattened and solidified at the base of each roll, reduced to a state even tougher than the bread itself.

‘The bread failed,’ she announced rather dismally, her admittedly childish hopes of presenting her family with something not identical, but alike enough to the legendary bread she remembered so well now totally dismantled. But at least the fail bread was edible. It hadn’t exploded, nor caught alight. And having been consoled by stories of professional-standard electric bread makers sometimes failing to produce the bread promised, Beth decided that her experimentation was not in vain. With experience and patience, and flour designed especially for baking bread and pizza bases, the future would surely see her produce a cheese fondue tiger bread roll that she could be proud of.

That future, she thought wryly as she wiped down the kitchen bench, had better come before I’m rendered legally crippled by these cravings.

The Best Thing If You’re Hungry

And now, for the fourth segment of things that make you stop, stare, and get the creativity waterwheel churning.

I didn’t discover this bakery until my second year here in Japan; I can’t believe I wasted so much of the first not dropping in there late on Saturday and Sunday mornings after doing a bit of brisk tidying about the apartment.  It’s called Tamaki (I think it comes under a larger company, but not positive what it’s called – pretty sure it starts with an “M”) and it had been shut for a bit over a week for refurbishing.  I was petrified (should probably get petrified over more important things … ) that I’d be unable to purchase top-quality carbohydrates there again before I left the country for good.  But Tamaki is open again.  Thank God.  My favourite long, skinny cheese loaves and the tasty pepper bacon ones weren’t there, though admittedly I biked down late, around five thirty pm – all the best stuff was probably sold much earlier in the day.  But what I wound up with was still what has always been purchased from that epic bakery … really good bread.

Bread is good.  Bread is simple.  Bread is warm and filling.  And when you’re hungry, such solid basics are, I believe, craved far more ardently than such fare as lobster mornay or a medium rare Wagu beef (steak) with truffled potato mash bathed in liberal amounts of red wine jus.  Through this simple yet uber bread, numerous hungry character scenarios have been imagined, role-played, and fleshed out.  Though I’m very lucky in that I’ve never been chronically hungry, being bereft of such awful experiences can make writing convincingly and honestly much more challenging.  But I have a fair imagination to work with, and use it extensively to build on my own small, didn’t-eat-enough-breakfast-it’s-only-ten-thirty-can’t-stop-work-until-quarter-to-one-but-I’m-extremely-feckin-peckish-right-now-esque experiences of hunger.

I imagine – I’ve just about felt myself thinking through the minds of others – that the crinkle of paper packaging as a small loaf of bread, crust crunchy and innards soft and white and light as summer cloud, is unwrapped is a jubilant herald.  The warm weight of the loaf taken in hand spreads throughout the body until eyes and lips smile blissfully at their wearer’s sudden good fortune, or in satisfaction, at last receiving a hard-earned meal.  The anticipation and simple happiness as the best of bread is raised to lips, eyes half-closed, could make even the hungriest feel – even just for a moment – all light and free within.  Lucky.  Favoured.  Then, the friction of crust against teeth sinking through it is a thrilling release of tension.

It’s your bread.  It’s fresh, it’s delicious, and it’s yours.  And now you won’t feel hungry any more.  Maybe you’ll even be free of the hollow pangs for the rest of the day.

I can think of several characters and scenes for which this bread has been used as inspiration, the most notable probably a young man called Eliyan, a young man not from any of the stories I’ve yet mention.  He has no luck at all (and that’s quite disgraceful in a society that almost runs on luck) and though he makes enough money to feed himself, most of the food he buys and prepares winds up offered at a stone grave marker in the cemetery next door.  Later it’s generally pinched by hungrier neighbourhood children.  So when he manages to get a loaf of bread to himself and is able to keep it away from the graveyard, Eliyan enjoys it immensely.

I enjoy it too, though due to being so well-fed probably not quite as immensely.  But enough.  I do like bread.  Shall definitely have to visit Tamaki as frequently as possible before the thirtieth.

Fuel = Celestial Nectar + ?

Were I asked to compile a list of things I will miss the most about Japan, I think I can honestly (and somewhat terribly) admit that making the top ten would be the vending machine directly across the road from my apartment.

That vending machine has been loyal.  It has been steadfast.  As the witching hour of the coldest winter night is struck.  On the edge of typhoons, gales competing to claim black umbrellas and rain pelting parallel to the street.  The moment dinner comes off the stove so as to be enjoyed hot alongside a cool drink as nature dictates.  In sunshine.  In rain.  In my pajamas.  Only twice, by my count, has access been hindered by the evil refill-carrying truck, evil, but so infuriatingly necessary.  Numerous times, too numerous to reliably recall, have I made the crossing to its always kindly lit-up display of refreshing beverages on offer.

And there are many on offer.  But there is only one, only ever one, that commands my coin.  It is that I consume most every day.  That which tickles throat and tongue with its sweet effervescence.  Described by Nico, a most sage warrior whose opinion I trust (from Michael Pryor’s “The Doorways Trilogy”), as the nectar of the Gods.  That which fuels me.  I speak, as other devotees must now have realised, of coke.

Coke.  Plain and simple.  And tasty.

Coke is my fuel in more ways than one.  I have a bit of a problem with hot drinks – chronic fear of burning lips – so if I need a caffeine hit, coke’s where I turn.  Energy drinks are not an option.  Disgusting, they are.  I maintain that the reason I got sick after doing my first Jägerbomb(s) was the large quantity of Red Bull, not the shot of jäger, it(they) contained.  However, quite apart from being a sublime wakey-wakey concoction, coke is what fuels me through tougher writing slogs.

So yes, things that fuel creativity and the production of solid usable material may include invigorating dreams, train rides served with a side of dub step, exciting travels to exotic locations, midnight runs to the convenience store, thrilling showers, friends (and strangers) who say interesting things, stairs that lead into water, a new notebook, strings of seemingly random coincidences that always leave you in a lurch, and no doubt an endless array of other unusual petrol.  Alongside them are the more practical, but no less important fuels of love and support (morale, emotional, financial, metaphorical, and so on) from those closest to the writer in question.  But sometimes, you have to get even more basic.  Sometimes to keep typing, to keep personalities and events that remain somewhat pleasing filling computer screens, the body just has to be seen to.  The digestive system filled.  And not just to keep everything functioning, heart beating, lungs pumping and kidneys filtering as they should.  Not even to keep awake.

Sometimes it is the pleasure engine within that must be filled.  And when choosing remain before a computer screen, clogging most available “free time” with writing stories, junk food – and coke – is generally the fastest and most immediately satisfying way to go about this.

Unfortunately, junk food is not only the very fastest and most immediate of immediately satisfying foods, but is also – somewhat obviously, given the name and warnings to keep consumption low – loaded with sugar, oil, and God knows what else.  Aside from my happy coke syrup, chocolate is what does the job best – I would say Doritos too, but they often hinder more than help, cheesing up fingertips and the process of reaching into the packet and fishing for crumbs taking time away from the keys.  Karaage, tonkatsu, burgers, chips (french fries) – cravings creep up, and knowing that if I rise to slice potatoes, smother them with oil and spice, throw them in the toaster oven and after thirty or so minutes flood them with mayonnaise, that this horror scene will at last start coming together, of course I get up and take down my sharpest knife.

While undeniably tasty and effective, considering again that I spent most of my free time in front of the computer, this does present something of a problem, sideways-wise.

So, what began as an unnecessarily dramatic description of the wonders of having a vending machine across the street has become a plea:  what food do you find helps best when you’re writing?  Does it depend on the style of writing, the genre?  Pumpkin pasties for fantasy and tomato soup for murder mysteries?  The length –  is shortcake better for brief yarns and Cumberland sausages for novels?  Does food inspire?  Distract?  Change the very tone of a story?  Though I’ll not soon forsake the abundant fuel supply available not twenty meters from my door for only another short month, I hope there are some well-tested fooding options for the writer seeking satisfaction, convenience, and to somewhat maintain their good health (maintaining a perfectly trim figure not necessary in my case, that was abandoned years ago, if it was ever taken up).

And now, to finish in as unnecessary a manner as was begun:  there must be more to starting wars and raising beggars to hero status than simply drinking coke.