“There’s no such thing as perfect writing, just like there’s no such thing as perfect despair.”
Haruki Murakami, Hear the Wind Sing
Illustration by Selcuk Demire
“There’s no such thing as perfect writing, just like there’s no such thing as perfect despair.”
Haruki Murakami, Hear the Wind Sing
Illustration by Selcuk Demire
That’s grandson 1, looking through the door and noting how the hot coloured slabs of glass bake the light into something we can digest.
I said, ‘That’s from the door slamming.’
‘I do that. And Finny and Noah’, he says, pleased.
‘Maybe close the door a bit more softly.’
‘Maybe. Where’s all those bits of glasses from?’
‘From a bridge?’
‘Near a bridge.’
‘It’s good how that glass looks like superhero clothes.’
Then he lays his head and shoulders on the table in a dramatic gesture to show me that he is under the light, and the light is on him and he is not melting, but maybe some of his bones are melting, but luckily it doesn’t matter because they will just grow again. And we sit there together under the evening light melting.
I went to Tasmania. It was magnificent.
Here are memories:
In Strahan. We went on a cruise out to Hells Gates, Macquarie Harbour, and saw on the way rainforest that dates back 60 million years. We sailed through cold crystal air of probably the same vintage. We saw a lighthouse where the keeper, from his workstation, watched his wife and daughters drown. Looking down into the black water, I thought of those women and their stout woollen clothing, protection from the cold, but now holding them down and away from oxygen, and him, watching from above and unable to act, looking at them perishing, eyes still open and small cold hands clawing at water. We saw Sarah Island, where men and women sank to death, grateful in the end, or, along with their jailers, went mad. Nobody seemed to have repented or been rehabilitated.
On the boat we had lunch. The staff were young and wore shorts, moving fluently through the freezing air. Getting down on their knees to speak to passengers in seats. Managing the cutlery and a lecture on penal colonies, piners, convicts and the dramatic timber of the Sassafras trees, all at the same time. One convict escaped with a small number of companions, some of whom he ate on the way. What price freedom. They captured him again, anyway.
Huon pine trees, 800 years old. They grow one golden millimetre each year. One, fallen next to our path, is 2300 years old, born when Julius Caesar was alive, but right now, is lying in front of me. The wood perfectly preserved, but now a log garden bed for 320 new trees and plants, which all tread delicately across its furry back and thread roots into its spine. Life, on this innocent tour, cutting new deals.
The piners raised their families by logging the Huon pine trees. Felling 600 year slices in a matter of minutes. Cut it down in impossible conditions, marking the logs and waiting for the winter floods to carry it down to Strahan. It was cold. Four meters of rain a year. Getting home after a long haul and hoping your kids were still alive but knowing that at least one of them no longer would be.
There’s a log on the foreshore only just washed down. The pioneers missed out on that one.
And then the logging of Huon stopped.
Rest back in our seats on board. Good to get out of the wind. And good that we, thank God, we didn’t live back then.
Behind my seat, a nanna and a grandson, aged five. She says, ‘It’s good to get out of the wind.’ He says, ‘Can I have an orange?’
In front of me, another family, mummy taking photos, dad taking the kids for walks around the boat, looping inside, then outside, and through my window, I see the children gulping at the air, so much of it, so cold and clean. Their cheeks are red. The little girl carries a barbie doll with a green shiny dress.
There’s a talk about the Greenies. What they did. What they saved (everything). We are sailing through World Heritage, ticking seven out of ten boxes for the World Heritage application, and not many places on this planet able to do that, possibly none. The young staff acknowledge the First Australians with reverence, one young woman with closed eyes, ‘the Togee Tribe’, the the Lowreenne and Mimegin bands. But there are no words. No way to express the shame.
‘I didn’t know that.’ This said by the young dad who is still looping his family gently around and around the boat. He is carrying the barbie doll now. ‘I never knew’. His small daughter looks up at him, learning something.
Next to me. A man with a huge watch which he keeps checking. No need. There are 60 million unhurried years out there, leaning over the boat and breathing slow green cold all over us.
A man on the top deck takes a picture of his wife wrongly and has to do it again. But still wrong. Sliding behind her back unnoticed is the silent forest, and it is deafening. There’s a waterfall, and then it’s gone.
Trees clustered at the sunlight.
People clustered at the bar.
Through my window, a man with an expensive whirling camera; people moving aside respectfully to let him through, the expert.
Wind. The glass doors are closing loudly. People come in.
‘Arctic out there.’
‘I didn’t dress for this.’
‘Did you get the waterfall?’
‘Can you get my coat?’
Lunch is served.
The nanna and grandson behind me eat side by side. ‘How’s he doing?’ This is dad, calling from the seat behind.
‘Oh very well.’
But he still wants an orange.
‘I want an orange.’
‘We have to be sensible don’t we.’ Nanna is hopping into the chicken. There are rice and noodles under their chairs, and now under mine.
‘Nan, can you get me one?’
‘Well, I don’t think they have those.’ The child presses his nose to the window and looks out at World Heritage. Dad stands up from behind and stretches. ‘Might go out the front.’
On Sarah Island. Led by a speaker who told the awful stories. Two little girls climb a pile of bricks, remnants of the olde bakery. They hop over it, light as birds scratching at history, but they are told to hop down. ‘Please, everyone, stay off the ruins’.
The tour guide invites the group to participate, and we all stiffen. Nobody wants to be wrong about history even though this is normal.
The guide points to a young father whose daughter has a Barbie doll and who hopped across the ruined bricks of the bakery.
The young dad gets the answer wrong. His eyes swivel to see if anyone notices, but we are all just glad that WE didn’t have to answer. What was the question, anyway.
The worst of the convicts were punished on a smaller island nearby with no shelter. A small group of women sheltered in a tidal cave there where they mostly died. We stand on deck in the not so cold wind and feel cold.
Now in Hobart, and old buildings around the harbour are made of henpecked blocks of stone, pecked into perfect desperate oblongs with convict held tools, and today they hold up history. They hold up culture. The price of not getting freedom. Tourists admire them, and then have to find something else to do. The price of never having to pay a price.
In Hobart, at a fish restaurant. A man and his teenage son quarrel. ‘Go home then’. The boy lurches out, on his phone, looking at nobody.
In Hobart at an Indian restaurant. An old place but not fancy. People lining up for takeaway mostly, but we dining in. The waitresses in sneakers and rushing. Mild air through the windows over old Hobart Town, keeping the hen pecked stones going.
And the magnificent bathroom. I went there after we’d finished, and I opened the door into a rich orange experience that seemed to sum up everything on that night, our last night, and having to fly home the next morning and masks on again. Why paint your life so bright? We do. We must.
This conversation whipped past my shop door and was gone before I could catch the interesting tiger tail. This single question sang out clearly and steadily and remained in the air after the talkers had gone; it hung there. I saw it.
What had she done? Fault is awkward because we all have a bit. So I wanted to know. A sustaining dose of someone else’s faults will quieten mine. For half an hour.
The walkers were walking shoulder to shoulder and leaning in, as you do when sharing things delicate. As we do.
Once I found keys in our shed door that ought not to have been there. They were jammed in awkwardly and left there for three days. I said, ‘Who left those there? We could have been robbed.’
But a grandson owned up immediately. ‘Me, Nanny. I wanted to get Pa’s wire scissors and make a hole in your fence.’ He looked at me, pleased with the vision of himself making a hole in our fence. I said delicately to Pa, ‘Do we need a hole in our fence?’
The walkers who passed my shop discussing the apology were women and young. I can tell that because of the pace and strength of the walk. They don’t lean forward. They were upright. They challenged the sky: get out of our way. They frowned slightly, aware of the footpath, the kerb, and approaching traffic. They gave the apology a chance. Their shoulders were soft. They give the criminal a chance. Their eyes were considering. I saw that.
I myself gave the keys in our shed door a chance. I like those keys and their crooked hopeful insertion into the aching lock.
I wished those young women hadn’t been walking so fast. Why didn’t they hang about the doorway like men do, with time available, nothing to do, and an argument to win; a country to conquer. But they didn’t hang. They moved on.
Once a friend told me, ‘Apologise. Just fucking do it. If they’re worth it, apologise.’ She said this when we were raising kids and getting it wrong. Now I ache with the wrongness and the need to have apologised more. The keys must still be there.
Sometimes we don’t get an apology back. The same friend said, ‘So what. Get over it.’
She won me a country.
I wonder who those young women were, and who had the key in their lock, crooked.
Illustration by Ferdy Remijin
Windows are good places for ads. I use mine for advertising theatre shows and music groups, art exhibitions, Covid information, and books by local writers.
So this morning when I arrived and saw a notice sticky taped onto the outside of the window, I was intrigued. What’s the ad for? Who might be communicating? Who wants to say something?
There was a lady standing reading it as I approached, and she was kind of frowning. It hadn’t been stuck up very well. It was crooked, and the corners were not secured. Also, the writing was not neat. I always admire a good, neat notice; I like brevity, clarity and precision! These show confidence and organization. I think, always do a draft. Always edit.
But this one was careless. There were spelling mistakes. The person spelt their name without a capital letter. Also, when they advertised free head job’s, they ruined “job’s” with an apostrophe of possession. Makes you suspicious that if they can’t spell it, they also can’t do it. The drawing was not to scale. The phone number was written too many times. The lettering was uneven, and “session” was spelt wrongly.
The lady reading it tore it down. She said it was disgusting. I just think it was sloppy work. There’s no excuse for that. Always take pride.
There’s a pair of gumboots on the floor. There’s a fruit bowl with the ends of three bananas just seeing over the edge. And a stack of paperbacks placed by me yesterday right there with care. Carpentaria is on the top with the bookmark in page 22, place by me this morning right there with bliss with coffee and toast.
There’s washing not folded.
There washing folded not put away. Not mine.
There’s a lego model lying about in tiny crystal pieces. This model, an ice-cream van, even has tiny lego coins and tiny green lego iceblocks made of clear green plastic that looks like glass. There’s a boy with a skateboard and a dog, all part of the ice cream van, left there on the cupboard not quite put together.
There’s a set of MASH, The Recovery Collection, every season, pulled out and begun. Cups and plates on the sink, tin cans and jars, a chopping board, unread letters, a lemon.
Some fabric cooling in a coffee dye that’s mine another project not another one says my mother but it is: another one. My mother in law, Mary, left a bag of stuff that she never finished. I took a bit of wool out of it. I’m going to do something with it.
There’s a puzzle left on the floor, not finished because one letter is missing. So it’s always going to be unfinished. Still, the grandsons pull it out and fiddle. Encouraging any letter to soothe the blank space, but nothing will agree. So it’s left there again. Undone. What’s not there outranks what’s there. We won’t part with what we don’t have.
There’s a box of wood shavings that smell like wine and a computer chord abandoned next to the fireplace. There are three toilet rolls and a cork with a pin in it, treasure for a later game. A doll’s house my grandfather made me, now filled with mostly matchbox cars and stones.
There’s a series of windows looking out at cold hopeful August.
There’s a stack of photos everyone’s been looking through because the person who took them is lost to us now, and because what’s not here outranks what’s here.
‘I read your blog. I read it all the time.’
Then she withdrew and began to move away. Then she moved back and put her head through the door again. ‘I do enjoy it.’
There hadn’t been much happening that day. I still remember that. I was just sitting there wondering about the value of things.
After she put her head in the door and said that, there was value in everything.
I found a tiny plastic box with tiny library cards that I made for my dolls. There was a tiny pencil and erasure. There was obviously no greater outing than the public library. So my dolls must’ve gone there and borrowed stuff.
I found a large mandarin coloured glass ball that my brother dug up in our chook yard and gave me. He said it probably had something to do with Merlin. I tried to glue it to the end of a long slender piece of wood, but no amount of aquadhere would do that. But what can you know when you’re eight years old. Except that I wasn’t eight. I was about fifteen. Weird.
I found an old diary with “I wish I had a boyfriend” on the first page. But there was no one interested in me, except maybe useless Merlin who didn’t even bother to turn up. Bastard.
I found a little jam jar full of pebbles from Lake St Clair in Tasmania. I found gumnut cups that I’d kept as proof that the Banksia Men were real. I found three matchbox cars and a cloth bag with a coat hanger about one inch long. A daughter made that. It was to hang up a mousie’s jacket.
There are marbles, nappy pins, pieces of glass, pencil sharpeners, memory sticks and nail files. A man made from a cork with clothes glued on and a nail coming out of the top of his head. A box of little fragrant candles too valuable to use. A jar of sapphire blue glass too beautiful to give up. Photographs. A tiny metal duck. An essay written by a 7 year old about why we should never give pins to babies.
There’s a glass jar filled with strips of paper carefully cut out. On each one, a thought printed in black pen. It was a birthday gift. I pull one out:
“Dear mum, thank you for the glasses gene.”
There are cross stitch kits, embroidery books, mosaic instructions, packets of seeds, knitting needles, a long stitch kit never even opened. My mother saying, ‘Finish something.’
There are about 12000 books.
Have a clean out. Declutter. As if.
Last Sunday, Mary died. She was my mother-in-law. When I met her, I thought she was a bitch. Turned out she thought much the same of me. Back then.
I remember the afternoon I met her. I was wearing a hot pink sweater with a big cross stitched flower on the front, which I thought looked pretty impressive even though it didn’t. She came out of the door at the unit on OG Road and descended on me, eyes boring into mine, assessing the future, taking control. I dug in and began building the defence.
She moved straight through it. Told me what to do, and when. Told me what I owed, and where my responsibilities were. Told me to come and stay and not to leave. Told me I was ridiculous, presumptuous, selfish, all of which were possibly true.
I visited the family farm and tried to go home again. We fought in the back rooms, and she threw a book at me. I worked on plans to make distance. She worked on different plans.
She told me she hated cooking because it was a waste of time, and I looked at her with sudden respect and then looked away. She said, ‘Come and sit with us.’ I resisted. She sat with me. I plotted to move away.
Once, in Cleve, we parked the car in the main street. There was a group of lads in a tight circle, all wearing black, all with earrings and tattoos, and one shaved bald. Mary sailed right into the middle, scattering cigarettes and plans of anarchy. She said, ‘Well how are you young Jonesy? How’s the farm?’ They straightened up and answered appropriately, sensing, unlike me, that her interest was genuine and would not be easily satisfied. She asked more questions, and more questions, and they answered obediently.
I thought, she goes anywhere.
Once she told me she had to travel across Sydney, all by herself on a train, for a women’s group meeting. She said she was terrified. I looked at her and took a small defence down.
Still, I dug trenches and avoided. Launched missiles which came straight back at me. Complained to my own mother who said, ‘Don’t be so silly.’
Mary was first at the hospital when all the babies were born. First to let everyone know. First to pick up the babies. One of my babies was born on her and Leith’s wedding anniversary. She told me by phone that she thought about that all night. I took another small defence down. We squabbled about boundaries and privacy.
We bickered and fought and disagreed, and I placed obstacles in clever places so she could not reach me. I thought, I’m strong too. Don’t tell me what to do. But she did. She went anywhere. This included the dark defended areas of my own fear. In she went. Once on the back veranda of my own house, when I had little children, I cried. She stepped in, dropped a bunch of grapes on the decking, and stepped in. ‘It’ll be ok.’ She wasn’t bothered by what it was. She just knew it would be ok.
I criticised and bitched and angered at her and about her. I would be a better parent than her. I wasn’t. It all fell in pieces. She never said a word. She loved conflict. She loved chaos and problems. ‘It’ll all come out in the wash. No need to worry about that.’
I took down bits of defence, cautiously.
She loved to eat cream buns, and would say, ‘Look at this. Oh well, going to die anyway, aren’t we.’
She went everywhere.
I heroically fought off her invasion even though there wasn’t one. I mistranslated energy for obsession and appetite for control. I fought off her interest as something dangerous. I noticed that my growing children didn’t agree with me.
Mary kept on, each day seemingly worth the effort. She said, ‘Once, when I had four small children on the farm, the head shearer threw his dinner at the wall. That was a sign that it was not a good dinner.’ I looked at her in horror. Once she said about her own mother, ‘It didn’t matter what I did, mum’d have a go at me.’ Once she said that she nearly didn’t make it with four small children on a farm and nobody much to help out. I moved my arm a bit so that it went next to her arm. She was watching Keeping up Appearances and laughing loudly. She gripped my hand and kept on laughing.
Once we saw a new product at the supermarket. Corn Chips. I said in the aisle, ‘Look at these’, and she bought three packets, and I was shocked. Unfluent in generosity and impetuousness, I was shocked. She said, ‘Well, why not.’ She got Windows 95 before anyone else, and said, ‘Don’t open too much stuff on the screen at once, or it’ll freeze.’ She said things like, ‘Oh well, it’ll be all right.’
‘Well, buy it, then.’
‘Well, there’s not much we can do about that.’
‘I think so too.’
I got older. My energy fell away, and my jokes became feeble, but Mary still laughed at them. I said, ‘I’m getting old’, and she fell about laughing and raised one leg in the air.
She looked at all my children, and said, ‘Look at them. Nothing wrong with them.’
She got some great grandsons. Three little fellas. I noticed how much she approved of their naughtiness. How interested in the conflict. How she valued the problems. How she laughed and raised one leg in the air. How the worse things got, the more valuable they became.
When she got sick, when her mind fell away gently in flakes, and she had to go into care, she still laughed at my poor jokes. I said, ‘My hip is going.’ And she was delighted. She said, ‘Where are the men?’ Her men were everything to her. And I said, ‘Who knows, who cares?’ And she laughed with her arms straight up in the air, and I saw she was getting thin. She said, ‘Tell them to come in, dinner’s ready.’ But there was no roast lamb. That day, there was just the disinterest of Resthaven, and me, and I had so little to offer.
Once, she said, ‘Felicity.’
In the hospital, when she wanted to go home, she said, ‘I’m not well, am I.’ She hit one of the nurses. Once when I visited, she pointed one arm toward me as though in desperate recognition of something from some long ago place, and she got up and walked towards me, and I said, ‘How are you?’ and she said angrily, ‘I’m dead.’
She gripped my hand so hard.
She always wore pink hats. At Resthaven, she still wore pink, and I was glad. She always had good shoes. She used to buy clothes and things, try them on and return them. ‘Get it, you can always return it’, she always said to me. Rich in life and mistakes and great fields of wheat, and fruit trees by the gate that shrivelled because Leith put Roundup on them by mistake.
She always said, ‘Here you are with all your books.’ She broke through everything I put up. I don’t know how. She always said, ‘Allo, allo, allo, how are YOU?’ One of her sons still says this same thing, and means it, thank God.
Once, a long time ago, my mother-in-law’s mum, also called Mary, told me that she rocked all her kids to sleep in a bassinet on the veranda at the farm, and it was so hot. One of those kids was my mother-in-law. A nurse came, who was young, and said my mother-in-law’s mum needed to do things a bit better. Then my mother-in-law’s mum got old. She used to make shepherd’s pie at Aberfoyle park for me when I was still new to the family, and she agreed with my criticisms of my whole new family. Then she fell away into the different and awful place of dementia. I was busy with babies then, but I went to St Agnes and visited, and she looked at me and smiled and nodded, despite everything.
When I was young and new to this family, I sat on a sand dune at Port Neil and listened to my new mother-in-law talk about her own mother, the one who had made me shepherd’s pie. I sat stiffly on the sand dune next to my mother in law, who she sat with her knees under her chin, looking at the sea. Next to her, a younger aunty, complaining about being told what to do.
‘She won’t stop telling me what to do. I’m forty years old.’
Mary said, ‘I’m 50, and she’s still telling me what to do.’ And they laughed.
I was 23 back then, and knowledgeable and wise and sulking as I looked at the sea. I listened to them and thought that I won’t be like this. I’ll sort this all out. I won’t be part of this.
But it was too late, I already was. Thank God.
And I still am. Thank God. Thank God.
“Even as he turned the little handle round and round , the room remained under the tenuous authority of sleep. As yet unchallenged, somnolence continued to cast its shadow over sights and sensations, over forms and formulations, over what has been said and what must be done, lending each the insubstantiality of its domain. But when the Count opened the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contained were transformed by that envy of the alchemists – the aroma of freshly ground coffee. In that instant, darkness was separated from light, the waters from woods rustled with the movement of birds and beasts and all manner of creeping things. While closer at hand, a patient pigeon scuffed its feet on the sill.”
Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
Image by Daniel Krieger