Every time I play a favourite old Ray Charles LP record on my stero, I am transported back in time to my student days, and more specifically, to an old inner-Sydney terrace house at 361 Bourke Street, Darlinghurst. I used to play that LP over and over again in the dimly lit lounge room of that fine, old house. Often, while listening to Ray Charles, I would also be in conversation with a housemate and sipping on a glass of port wine after “the girls” had gone to bed. One evening the aforementioned flatmate and I were complaining that we often seemed to wake up in the morning with headaches. After doing some backtracking, we suddenly realised that between us, we had consumed eleven bottles of port over the last ten consecutive nights. We had unknowingly developed a routine. The girls would retire for the night and we would walk to the hotel on the corner at Taylor’s Square, buy a bottle of port, take it back to the house and share the entire contents while chatting and listening to records in the lounge room. One night we drank two bottles. The LP we often listened to is entitled “The Sensational Ray Charles” which is appropriate on two levels; the quality of one of the greatest musicians of the last century and the fact that the year spent in that house as a young man was a sensational time.
I was studying Economics at the University of Sydney and shared 361 Bourke Street with three other students. Steve, Alexandra (Alex) and Maryann were all art students who attended the now venerated East Sydney Technical College. During that year, Alex’s Bulgarian asylum seeking boyfriend, who was also an impressive sculptor, moved in for a time. These people introduced me to a world of art, art galleries and artists during that year. One of the best things about that was the numerous exhibition openings I subsequently found out about and attended. We were impoverished students so of course, we never bought any artwork, but always enjoyed the largess of wine and food provided by the galleries; sometimes we enjoyed it just a little too much. The art was interesting too.
It was the first year that each of us had lived away from home and our parents. The Conservatives had lost political office after twenty-three years of continuous rule a few years earlier. The new Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, had just made universities free from tuition fees and more accessible to young people like us from the working class, outer suburbs. All three of us had also won Teachers’ Scholarships from the New South Wales Department of Education. We were young, relatively financial, unconstrained by responsibility, fun loving and had abundant free time. It was a year of parties, alcohol, music, art and the opposite sex- Halcyon days!
Our student household was naive and inexperienced in living away from parents. All of us took management of the household very seriously, including financial contributions and the cleaning chores. It was not long after we had moved in together that the girls sat me down and read me the riot act concerning my inadequate cleaning contribution. I had come from a home where men were not expected to do domestic duties and I had, in all honesty, not understood what needed to be done. I responded to this “ticking off” by feeling guilty and overcompensating, continuously cleaning the house in my free time. I remember the girls coming home early from classes with some of their girlfriends one day and laughing at me trying to beat the dust off a heavy rug while holding it over the wrought iron balcony railings. I was wearing my pyjamas at the time and it was the middle of the day. Not a very cool look for a young guy who was desperately trying to impress every female he came into contact with.
Alex was a slim, vivacious and sexy girl from the outer western suburbs of Sydney who was arguably the dominant personality of the household. She had a very close plutonic relationship with Steve that everyone else speculated about. I was in awe of her oozing sexuality; she even talked dirty. Steve was the comedian of the group, bringing regular and almost constant laughter to the household with his sharp wit and strong sense of the ridiculous. Steve was flamboyant and almost never took anything seriously, except for his highly creative photography that made him something of a celebrity among his fellow art students at college. Maryann was a rather meek and insecure young woman, who did not want to be. Ironically, sometimes her insecurity would manifest as what we now call “passive aggressive” when she felt dominated by others. I suspected that Maryann felt somewhat overshadowed by the rest of us, especially by Alex. This led her to occasionally try to assert herself but it never quite worked out. Maryann’s efforts at being noticed often seemed a little comical and overexerted. Maryann was never, ever, seen without wearing makeup. The fact that she would apply makeup before coming down to breakfast suggested a serious lack of confidence.
I think I was perceived as more brooding, and the studious one who actually enjoyed studying and writing essays. I spent hours alone in my room playing guitar, singing and writing songs about unrequited love. I remember the three art students coming home one time and catching me with copious notes spread all over the kitchen table, while I was writing an essay. They were amazed at the amount of effort and research I made for just one assignment. One time I was actually booed in a lecture theatre at university when the other students noticed that I was handing in my assignment, early.
The last member of the household was a green and yellow pet budgerigar who was named “Gough” after our leftist, arts loving, hero of a prime minister.
We all thought that we were like special characters in an amazing theatrical production. I remember facetiously replying to someone at the house who called me “a character”:
“Yes, we are all characters! This is not a house, it’s a humerous novel!”
Around the beginning of our residency, Alex had decided that she wanted to learn how to cook and needed to practise her cooking skills. She explained to us that she would be willing to cook all evening meals for the household if we, in turn, did the shopping and washing up. This sounded like a great plan to Steve and me but Maryann was hesitant. I think that Maryann felt as though she would be pushed back even further into Alex’s shadow and loose the occasional chance to impress with her culinary skills. So, Maryann agreed to the tentative arrangement only if she was allowed to cook the evening meal “every now and then”. The rest of the household felt empathy with Maryann’s feelings of subordination to Alex and sympathised with her, so we agreed to the arrangement. The only problem was that Maryann was a terrible cook. The meals were awful on the occasions that she cooked, but we did not want to hurt her feelings and so pretended to enjoy them. The food was either raw and undercooked or dry and/or burnt. The meals were also either flavourless and unpalatable or overpowering and nauseating. It would have been difficult for Maryann not to notice the large portions of her meals that were not consumed and regularly left on her flatmate’s plates, but she seemed oblivious to our obvious hints, or perhaps she was just being stubborn. It was not long before Steve, Alex and I began to dread those ominous words that periodically emanated from Maryann’s mouth: “oh, you know, I think I’ll cook something this week”. At different times, each of us would desperately try to work out ways of avoiding the meal by going out early, coming home late or use some other excuse not to be present at mealtime when Maryann cooked. But Maryann was determined and would counter by saving us our portion of the meal and making us feel so guilty, that we would have to eat it when we returned home.
There was one meal in particular that became infamous.
One night, Maryann decided that she was going to impress us all by cooking a homemade pie for dinner. We were, of course, apprehensive, but a homemade pie did sound interesting to ravenous young students who always seemed hungry enough to try anything. We left Maryann alone in the kitchen during the evening as she never seemed to want any help cooking. Steve and I had pleaded with Alex to offer her assistance in an attempt to raise the quality of the meals to edible status, but Maryann never wanted to share the glory. Not only did Maryann never want any help cooking, she also refused to use any proven recipes, preferring to make it up as she went along in an attempt to prove her cooking prowess and creativity. She seemed to have a strange concept of cooking. It was as if she would think “mmm… this tastes nice, this also tastes nice and this tastes nice, too. If I combine all three, it will taste three times as nice.” This made for meals with some very strange combinations of ingredients.
Leaving Maryann alone in the kitchen was our first mistake. The poor girl must have worked quite hard as preparation of the meal seemed to take ages. She even made the pastry herself. My hypothesis is that the main reason her meals were always such a disaster was that Maryann, in her attempt to impress, was always far too ambitious. She may have been much more successful keeping it simple- the K.I.S.S. principle (Keep It Simple Stupid). But this approach was not for Maryann.
Anyway, the anticipated moment had arrived and we were all called into the kitchen for dinner. The three gastronomic guinea pigs sat down at an attractively set table. The cutlery was already laid out on the clean and brightly coloured tablecloth and there was a little vase containing a single flower, at the centre of the table. Maryann smiled. We were nervous. She opened the oven door, reached in with her oven mittens and pulled out the pie. She placed what looked like a perfectly cooked, golden-brown crusted, family sized pie on the cutting board that sat on the kitchen table. I was impressed and pleasantly surprised.
“Wow! Maryann! What is this called?”
“This is my own recipe. I just used up all the meat and other things that were in the fridge. I call it “Emergency Pie”. You know, like when you have unexpected guests for dinner and you have to make a meal out of whatever is available.”
I was nervous again.
Maryann did the honour of carving out a wedge of pie for each person and placing it on their plate. By the time she had placed a segment of the pie onto her own plate and sat down, there was already looks of consternation and some disquiet among the flatmates. Steve spoke up first:
“Maryann, why is the filling such a strange colour?”
The filling contained chunks of meat and sausage that appeared to be blood red and they were set in a jelly like substance of various colours, with the dominant colour being of a greenish hue.
“What do you mean Steve?”
“It looks like the meat is raw.”
“Oh, yes, it does look a little underdone doesn’t it? Funny, but the pastry is cooked perfectly? I can’t put it back into the oven or the pastry would be burnt.”
Alex piped up.
“Maryann. Did you remember to cook the meat before you put it in the pastry, before baking the pie in the oven?
“I suppose that means no.”
“Oh, never mind. Silly me! I’ll just cook it in the frypan and it will be just fine.”
Alex, Steve and I watched incredulously as Maryann walked around the table, took back each of our pieces of pie and attempted to cram all of the wedges into a frypan that was obviously too small to contain them. She then judiciously placed the frypan containing the mangled mess onto the stove hotplate. The three of us looked at each other in utter amazement and terror. Alex made a suggestion:
“Maryann, maybe you should just cook the filling in the frypan?”
“Oh, no. I think I’ll keep the pieces whole. I want to serve it as a pie.”
By this stage, sympathy and incredulity was giving way to hilarity and it was difficult to keep a straight face. We all tried to muffle our laughter in order to spare Maryann’s feelings but it was too much. One by one, each flatmate left the table trying desperately to hold in the laughter with one hand over their mouth. All the while, Maryann continued to face the stove and prod the crumbling remnant of pie in the frypan while engaging in a fatuous monologue in the hope of distracting attention from the gastronomic disaster, until she was left alone and talking to herself. By the time she realised that she was the only person left in the kitchen, we had long gone out for a pub meal, a beer and hilarious post mortem.
We later decided that “Emergency Pie” was an apt name for what Maryann had cooked that infamous night- one bite and it would have been a medical emergency.