Category Archives: Fiction

Jack and the tattered weed

sunflowerI’ve been having a lot of trouble getting out of bed in the morning. As I’m working from home, there’s no need to be up at six, or seven, or eight. Or nine, or even ten. And having begun the day late, it’s impossible to sleep early, so each day is starting later, ending later. In the 1990s I had friends who lived in Philpott Street, Marrickville, who had let this process reach its logical conclusion: they awoke just before dusk and went to bed again at first light. I remember being there at about one o clock in the morning while they ate and chatted as if it were one in the afternoon. I can’t let things get that bad, I tell myself. I’ll have to start getting up earlier. But then, suddenly, it’s  morning again. I feel like I only just got to sleep ten minutes ago. I decide to snooze a little bit longer.

This morning, at a time that felt like the middle of the night, I heard a short, sharp buzz. It was a text message from a friend inviting me to have morning tea at ten o clock, two hours hence. I went back to sleep. At five minutes to ten, I hauled myself out of bed and got around the corner to Fiona’s place. I told her that while I was physically present, my mind was not actually awake. She fed me a cup of coffee and the rich smell offered a magic carpet ride to the land of youthfulness, wakefulness and vigour.

She read me Shakespeare’s second sonnet.

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed of small worth held –

It’s about what happens when one is over forty, and one’s brow is furrowed and one is just a tattered bit of seaweed washed up on some godforsaken shore and nobody can even be bothered to look at you …

The solution to this grim state of affairs, says Shakespeare, is to have lots of children. That way, you can continue to be young and beautiful because your children will be young and beautiful. You can gaze upon them and that will comfort you in your hours of pointlessness. Fiona’s brow has been besieged by forty winters; mine ten more. Between us we have not had one child; we are without remedy for the cruel ravages of time’s scythe.

Except for coffee. The coffee did the trick. I’d come as a tattered weed but I was leaving as a strong, bright sunflower like the ones that are growing against the fibro wall out the back, reminding me of all the other sunflowers of my life. They’ll grow anywhere. Galahs love the seeds. I may not have children, but I can always find a galah or a sunflower to get a dose of cheerful, hardy things (unlike, say, the white rhino, whose days are definitely numbered).

MBJBack home, as I did the dishes, I listened to a program on ABC Radio National about George Johnston’s My Brother Jack. It’s fifty years since the book was published. George Johnston and Charmian Clift and most of their children – non-hardy creatures – are long gone, but the book lives on. I’ve carted my copy around since I first read it as a teenager. Images from the book are companions through my life. Insects still drop out of the  dollicus*. Prosthetic limbs and a gas mask clutter the hallway. The gum tree in the front yard that Helen didn’t like because it was messy grows tall and strong in the Australian light; a broken man, falsely accused of murder, tends his roses. The green eyeshades worn by the copy editors at the Argus and the crumpled trench coats and pork pie hats worn by the reporters. When I told my English lit teacher how much I loved the book, she sneered: “What about the development of the female characters?” I was taken aback. I had so thoroughly identified with the tortured David Meredith (endlessly contrasted with his brave, straightforward brother Jack) that I had barely noticed Johnston’s two-dimensional portrayals of Sheila and Helen and Cressida.

lucky_countryThe book keeps company on my bookshelf with Donald Horne’s Lucky Country, published the same year. My Brother Jack has a digger painted by Sidney Nolan. The cover of Horne’s slim paperback is by Albert Tucker. It’s a craggy painting of a bloke with a beer in his hand, an Ace of spades in his pocket and the glorious deep blue sea behind him. In the sea there are bright triangles that might be the sails of boats or the fins of circling sharks. Both books were searing critiques of Australian life that became, as the decades rolled on, part of the pantheon of Australian mythology. The Australia Johnston and Horne both loved and deplored began to vanish and as it vanished, a fantasy took the place of all the messy details. Australia was a wide brown land inhabited by sturdy, uncomplicated Jack Merediths. It is this Australia – this fantasy lucky country – that is brooded over and celebrated in drunken, flag-covered binges on Australia Day. It is the Australia evoked by those who say Fuck Off We’re Full and by John Howard when he laments the “black armband” view of history. It’s a sentiment that spiked during Monday’s Sydney siege but was tempered by Tuesday’s #illridewithyou.

Tracy_Deb_Jetty_early_70sSpeaking of history, I have been besieged by forty years and ten. My brow is not that furrowed, but there’s a whole part of me – recovering from cancer, missing body parts – that is definitely doddery. And like George Johnston in exile on Hydra, I miss the Australia of my early memories. A child’s world is a simple world. Some people are good and others are bad. Your legs can run you up the side of a levee bank or down a burning sand dune. Your abdomen contains its full quotient of pink organs that slide easily over each other as you go into a handstand. The deep blue sea meets a clear blue sky that arches over a wide brown land with a blue EH Holden moving purposefully across it.

It’s driving into tomorrow, where things are different.


* The dollicus is the name the Meredith family gives a creeping vine in their back yard.

Des_Seraphine

My photo of Kirsty’s guinea pig mashed up with Seraphine Louis’ L’Arbre de vie. Oil on canvas (114×145 cm), 1928. Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de
Senlis, France. © Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de Senlis; Christian Schryve, Compiègne; © ADAGP. Retrieved from http://www.medicographia.com/2010/10/art-and-psychosis/ on 9/3/13.

Séraphine de Senlis reminds me of Des, the blind synesthesic guinea pig. They are of a feather. Neither has feathers, of course. Séraphine wears an old crocheted shawl and Des has infinitely soft fur. Séraphine was a real person; Des is only imaginary. Both have a life on the Internet. So, who are these creatures?

Séraphine de Senlis was an early 20th century French painter, an uneducated, working class orphan who grew up in a convent. She had a passion for painting as strong as a Labrador’s passion for water or a Kelpie’s passion for rounding up sheep. According to the beautiful movie about her life that I saw on SBS TV last night, she made pigments out of animal blood, roadside weeds and stolen church wax. She worked all night, ardently, on her paintings. During the day she was a cleaner, mopping the floors of bourgeois families; the sort of person who is of invisible service. Her talent was discovered by a German art collector and suddenly she was someone of note. It all ended in tears at a madhouse. For me the most moving scenes were the stealing of the animal blood (from a big pot in a butcher’s shop), the decanting of church wax from lit candles, the grabbing at weeds. All this work and experimentation was carried out alone, on the floor of her tiny apartment. As she neared the end of a painting she’d start singing. It was a humble life, full of art and ecstasy.

I started watching this movie accidentally. I was washing up, making a lot of noise. I was half-glancing at the screen, noticing that it was a French movie, beautiful cinematography. I started standing behind the sofa to watch it, tea-towel in hand. Then I moved around to sit in the sofa properly, and committed. The blessed relief in watching a movie about a woman who was neither young nor beautiful, holding centre stage, scene after scene. And not in a patronising, comic, overdetermined, Educating Rita sort of way. This was a movie prepared to look at this woman from inside. That in itself was wondrous. And then to see she was an artist, grinding her pigments with a mortar and pestle, dabbing paint on her board with her fingers, lying down to sleep with her paintings … even better. It suddenly made the last film I loved – Ang Lee’s Life of Pi – plummet down the floors like a broken lift.

Séraphine also made me think of Félicité, the servant who loved a parrot in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart. Again, the outward image of a “nobody”; the rich interior life.

And so we come to Des, the blind synesthesic guinea pig. Who is he? Just a guinea pig in a hutch in someone’s back yard. The hutch is moved from place to place in the back yard. He munches through grass like any other guinea pig. Nobody even realises that he is blind; his blindness doesn’t stop him performing any of his normal pet guinea pig functions. Like Séraphine and Félicité, he has a rich, ecstatic inner life. As a synesthete, he hears colours and feels sounds. He has deep wisdom about the world beyond the hutch but no particular need or desire to move beyond it. He is happy to be picked up and cuddled – an explosion of colour, sound and sensation – and happy to munch on grass. He can taste music in the grass. (No, not that sort of grass. This is buffalo grass, mixed with couch and clover and the odd dandelion.)

I got to know Des by tweeting about him. I’d been playing the competitive Twitter word of the day game on Artwiculate for some time, when he quietly appeared in one of my tweets. This has happened to other Artwiculate players: a character arises spontaneously out of their tweets and demands to be included, here and there, in other tweets down the line. The Des tweets were automatically indexed by the Artwiculate site so from time to time I could go back and look at them, like opening a book on a shelf. Then disaster struck, in the form of a resentful hacker (someone who wasn’t winning as often as he thought he should). Mortally wounded, Artwiculate was put into an induced coma. When it came out of this coma, its archive – and the voting system itself – had been removed. All gone. It was as if Des had never existed. It’s true that I could search back on my own Twitter timeline but this wasn’t quite the same as being indexed by Artwiculate. (Only a veteran Artwiculate player can understand the emotional importance of being indexed.) This would not bother Des in the slightest, but it was bothering me. I tried to be philosophical about it (as did other Artwiculate players, many of whom realised they were grieving out all proportion) and remind myself that Twitter is just a branch on a tree with birds on it. These birds might fly at any time. The whole branch might come down in the next storm. It’s a babbling (sometimes shrieking) brook into which you can’t dip your toe twice; it’s a shaft of light moving across a room. This desire to archive, to pin things down, violates the very nature of Twitter and even of Artwiculate itself.

Still.

This morning, as I was thinking about Séraphine, Félicité and Des, it occurred to me to Google him. Perhaps it’s really true, this thing we tell high school students – if you put something on the Internet, it never goes away. I entered “Des, the blind synesthesic guinea pig” and there he was. A whole page! A page of references that were just about Des, the Des of Artwiculate. Des de Artwiculate. Seraphine de Senlis. Félicité du perroquet. Here’s the screen grab:

Des on Google search

The glorious ray of light

I’m waiting impatiently, I’m going to explode – Tiny Tim was apparently going to explode, but that was with sexual tension – I’m going to explode because I want to START. I want to start whatever this Penguin/Varuna Scholarship project is. I think I’ll hear more about it next week, after the Adelaide Writers’ Festival. This interview with Markus Zusak reminds me of the ray of light. That I write anyway, regardless, no matter what.

Squawkin’

So the news of the day, for me, for me, while others die under the rubble in Haiti, is that I have got exactly what I wanted. I have got the Penguin/Varuna scholarship. The answer was yes! The answer was yes!

Note added 28/1/10

So what does it mean? Okay, I get $5000 and time with a Penguin editor to go over the manuscript. Here’s what Ben Ball emailed to Peter Bishop:

“We have, after much consideration, decided that this year’s winner should be Tracy Sorensen’s The Lucky Galah. While the quality of all of the manuscripts this year was certainly high, it was the lyricism and imagination that Tracy demonstrated that truly impressed us. The characters here are well-drawn and insightful, and some of the small details that Tracy incorporated were wonderful.”

Making curtains: the first step

Today I bought 22 metres of light green fabric for making curtains for the back room. Mum is going to help! In the end I bought a cheaper, bog-standard sort of fabric that is not too vile and really not saying much about anything. The curtains can be in background, as it were, leaving paintings and cushions to provide life and colour. I did my usual thing and bought almost instantly, barely deliberating. I just need to get decisions like this over and done with. The Spotlight assistant used a nifty machine to roll all the fabric onto a cardboard tube.

I have promised my friend Anna that I’d write 1000 words a day and report it. This is so that I can continue to see myself as a writer no matter what, rather than relying on permission from Ben Ball at Penguin to be a writer. There are eight people across Australia waiting for Ben Ball to make a decision by January 20. One of us will be chosen for Peter Bishop’s Varuna/Penguin scheme. It’s like being in a dreary reality TV show. Like the parts of Big Brother where nothing happens.

I’m still slow, slow, slow. I’m spending far too much time sitting here at the computer checking emails, checking Facebook, reading about stuff I can’t remember at all on the Sydney Morning Herald site, uploading holiday photos to Flickr, checking out how to order prints from Snapfish. Not wanting to socialise with real people. Not really ready to re-enter society after my long absence overseas. But I did call Kirsty today, and we’ve made a Scrabble date for tomorrow night. And Steve went round for a beer with Helen and Ray after work, so I’m counting that as a bit of vicarious social engagement.

And between all that, bits of cleaning. The frypan needed curly-girling right down to the shine. The sink needed Jiffing. Actually, everything needs a serious go. It was all grubby before I left the country and it’s all grubbier now. Members of Steve’s family, including his Mum, are making a flying visit on Saturday. CLEANING ALERT! CLEANING ALERT!

It’s 7.45pm as I write this. There is pasta boiling on the stove. Made spag bol last night so all I have to do is zap it in the microwave. There are dogs yapping and fighting out there, further down the street. I feel blank, slow, not very bright.

This morning, when I was feeling livelier and brighter, I lapped up the silence. I wrote this in my journal:

Silence. It was very quiet when I was growing up. The silence was like the air I breathed – only noticeable when it wasn’t there. Standing at the sink, it’s silent except for the rattle of dishes and the faintest noises from outside. It was silent, and as the day heated up, the sky was brilliant blue. Like today. These things are like today. This is the exquisite silence. The overseas holiday just now was all about noise; specifically, the noise of music blaring out and no-one ever complaining, no-one ever turning it off, no-one ever preferring silence. This is beautiful, washing up (I’ve broken off to write this) in the deep silence of Bathurst between Christmas and New Year where very little is stirring. It’s why I live here.

Okay, so we are at 550 words. This is only half the required amount and I really have nothing to say. Nothing, nothing, nothing. I’m just taking up space. Taking up bits and bytes.