This is the fifth in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
I found Mum’s high school history notebooks, tucked away in a treasure box. On a recent visit, we went through them together. She had written copious notes in beautiful handwriting; no doubt copied from the blackboard or from textbooks, as was customary in the early 1940’s.
The world was at war, Britain fighting to maintain its sovereignty but also its empire. The lessons Mum wrote were all to do with struggles of the past: British royals, the English Civil War, the French Revolution, British dominions in India and Australia. Captain Cook, Arthur Phillip, colonial expansion, ‘troublesome natives’ and ‘lazy convicts.’ ( Mum pulled a face when I read aloud the last two references, rightly shocking today. I was pleased to see her sense of injustice had not been diluted by the years.)
She recognised her old Phillips School Atlas with it’s red cover. Almost half the world was coloured pink back then – pink for the British Empire.
When we discussed her school years, she remembered some things differently. She said she’d had to go to the ‘domestic high school’ because she wasn’t good enough to attend the more academic school. I reminded her that she’d been more than smart enough, but economics and transport problems made attending the more distant school impossible; she’d had to be content with learning domestic science, sewing and cooking at the closer school. She looked both uncertain and pleased by this reminder. Mum was always justifiably proud of her clever mind and aptitude at study and I was saddened to think that this capacity was something she no longer recognised.
The conversation showed that there can be different versions of history, depending on who is doing the telling, when and why. And that memory can be an unreliable narrator at the best of times.
This is the third in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
I wear my mother’s wedding ring. She stopped wearing it several years ago; possibly she worried about losing it. It’s a plain, narrow gold band – my father was broke back then, as for much of his life, so a larger or fancier ring was out of the question.
I love it. I remember as a child, trying it on and pretending that I was a ‘married lady.’ The idea had seemed both attractive and ridiculous. Now I wear it as a tribute to my mother – her absence of need for showiness, her discomfort with ostentation. Mum was – is – a simple woman in many ways, though possessed of complexities in others.
To me, this plain little ring also symbolises the ordinary comforts of Mum’s life: the old houses she lived in, which had needed close attention and much effort to become family homes; the plain but nourishing meals she prepared; likewise the many apple pies, jams, cakes and sweets she made for her family and for community fund raising; the clothing she sewed and knitted for us.
Almost everything Mum did was achieved in less than perfect circumstances, but added so much to the lives of others. All of which is held in the memories evoked by one unadorned golden ring.
These days of concern and self-isolation due to COVID-19 are strange times indeed. To lighten the mood, here is a little story I wrote, before the craziness got too crazy, for the March Australian Writers’ Centre Furious Fiction competition.
‘While these visions did appear…’
From my place in the wings, I can see Ella and her best friend Toni. Ella clutches the edge of the stage curtain, her jaw set with determination to not mess up her scene. Her parents are out there in the audience, their faces probably tight with worry. I know they’d had misgivings about the whole thing.
On stage, Bottom leans back in Titania’s arms. His ass’s head wobbles precariously but stays in place. Titania rests her head on the cushion of soft ferns in the fairy bower.
Ella had gasped when she’d first seen the set, hung with greenery to conjure a park, a woodland meadow. The play cast its magic over everything. In the dressing room, she’d looked into the mirror and squealed.
‘I’m a fairy!’
She wears her yellow gown and fairy wings as if born to them. A long blonde wig completes the disguise, transforming snub nosed Ella into a fairy sprite. Even Rick—the handsomest boy in the school—is convincing as Bottom, the fool with a donkey head. It is all working.
Now here is Ella’s cue. She bounces out on stage beside her fairy friends. Ella has just two words to say, and I know she won’t get them wrong.
Peaseblossom calls, ‘Ready!’
Moth and Mustardseed chorus, ‘And I!’
Within minutes their scene is done and they all run off stage again, giggling and hugging each other.
Ella spots me in the wings and rushes over, her round face one huge smile. She puts her arms around my waist and hops up and down, her excitement spilling over like a fizzy drink.
‘Shhh!’ I warn, but I can’t help smiling back. ‘You did great, both of you.’ I put my finger to my lips, and they quieten to watch the action until the play’s closing lines.
I give them a gentle nudge.
‘Curtain call! Go and take your bow, girls.’
Ella and Toni hold hands with the other fairies and bow to the audience, beaming. The applause and cheers rise to a crescendo. I blink away tears. When the curtains swish shut for the last time, the whole cast rattle off the stage together, breathless with joy.
I wait with Ella and Toni until their parents find them. Ella’s dad is shaking his head. Oh no… Is he unhappy with Ella being in the play? I’d fought hard for the chance for Ella and Toni to take part. Does he still disapprove?
Before I could speak, he takes my hand.
‘Thank you, Ms Roberts!’ he says. ‘What a wonderful night. It worried me it might be too much for Ella, up there on stage. I know the school hasn’t had special needs students in the play before. How can we thank you?’
I grin. ‘Just look at their faces.’ I turn to Ella and Toni. The girls’ eyes shine as they grin back. They are still fairies, inside and out. ‘That’s thanks enough.’
The young woman shimmied across the floor. Bumping her hips to make the coins on her belly belt jingle, she executed a perfect, sinuous camel move, the undulations of her lithe body casting a spell on her audience. She glimpsed the slack mouths and vacant eyes of the watching men as she brought her finger cymbals together with a rhythmic click click, keeping time with the drummer on his darabuka. The music and drumming rose in a crescendo, many of the men clapping along in time. It spurred her to dance faster, spinning around until she finished with a dramatic sweep of her long filmy scarf, before letting it fall to the floor.
She flung her arms out, head high, gleaming hair cascading down her back. Bowing low, she swept up the scarf and disappeared through the curtain, out of sight. The men, she knew, would awaken from their trance and turn back to their meals, order more drinks, perhaps even speak to their wives. They were like small boys, so easily bewitched by female flesh and a sparkling dance costume. She despised them and pitied them in equal measure.
In the small space between kitchen and bathrooms where the dancers and musicians gathered before each performance, she drank a glass of water as her breathing returned to normal.
Zamir grinned at her as he put down his drum.
“Your dance sizzled tonight!”
Yasmin smiled at the compliment, and then grimaced.
“Those men… no respect!” she complained. “Some nights it’s like a—what do you say—strip joint?”
Zamir let out a shout of laughter. “No strip joint ever had a dancer like Yasmin to entertain the audience. You are the queen of dance out there.”
Yasmin sighed. “Thank you, my friend. I know you appreciate the dances. As I enjoy your beautiful darabuka playing. I wish only that our audience were more… more…”
“Civilised?” Zamir supplied helpfully, and it was Yasmin’s turn to laugh.
“Yes, civilised! If only they knew a little about the richness of the music and dance we perform for them, they might not slobber as they do. Now,” she stood and collected her coin belt and bag, “I must go. I promised my little Rana I would be home in time to read a story before her bedtime.”
Hurrying through the darkening streets, she held close the hope for her daughter. Rana would not have to dance in a restaurant to earn a living. No, she would have a good job in this new country. Yasmin would make sure of it. She had a plan.
Yasmin’s eyes widened when she saw the envelope in the mailbox and its sender: Macquarie University. Once inside, she opened it and read through the document once, twice, then gave a deep sigh and looked up at the ceiling as tears gathered in her eyes.
An offer to study for a physiotherapy degree next year.
At last, here it was. Her plan. Her new life.
As Christmas 2019 approaches, my thoughts turn to the many different ways in which Christmas is experienced in Australia and around the world. Whether you see it as a religious celebration or an important cultural festivity (or both), each of us has our own take on the ‘season’. For many, it’s a precious time, an opportunity to get together with family, or friends, or neighbours, to share good food, perhaps exchange gifts, and relax as we move towards the end of another year. For others, it is a super-stressful time to be managed, coordinated and even endured, all the while hoping that the gifts bought are suitable, the food stretches far enough, and Uncle Bert doesn’t get too loudly tipsy. Yet others spend Christmas Day alone, whether by choice or necessity.
Which of the above group do you fall into? Or maybe your plans are hybrid – some time with loved ones and some much needed time alone? Or something completely different?
As we travel through the years, our Christmases change as we do. The thrill of Christmas in childhood, of trying to work out which of the mysteriously shaped packages under the tree are for you, morphs into sneaking presents into the house and hiding them in a spot where our own, or others’ children, won’t discover them. Family members come and go, new people are welcomed and others farewelled. And the elders in a family, who once held all the Christmas reins and (expertly or otherwise) guided Christmas activities year after year, become unable to do that because of ill health or other reasons.
So my Christmas post this year is a short story in honour of one of those elders, to whom I owe a thank you for many special Christmas memories of my own. It’s fiction, but I’m sure you’ll get the idea.
‘Please, can someone help me?’ I call for a nurse. It’s the tenth time tonight. I’ve slipped down the bed and I can’t sit up and I can’t reach the buzzer for help. Something’s wrong with my legs. I don’t know what happened to them or when.
My cheeks are wet. I stare out my window at the thin moon just beginning its rise into the night sky. It’s beautiful but my heart is pattering strangely. Am I frightened? It’s worse at night. I don’t think I used to be like this. It’s the spider webs in my head that make me fuzzy and slow and scared, all at once. Especially when the sun disappears each evening.
There’s a rustle and a nurse appears, wearing a tight, zipped up smile and a pink shirt.
‘What’s the matter, Ida?’ Her heels click as she walks to the bed.
‘I can’t…I can’t…’
Why is she here? Did I call her? I gaze up into her smooth young face, trying to remember. She puts an arm around my shoulder and slides me up onto the pillow.
‘Is that better? You were halfway down the bed!’
‘Katy? Are you Katy?’ I’m squinting to see her face in the half light.
‘I’m Sally, the night nurse,’ she chirrups. ‘I was here last night too, don’t you remember?’ She tidies my bedside table as she speaks, picking up a hairbrush, nail scissors and tissue box and lining them up in a row. I stare at these things. Where did they come from? I give her a watery smile and close my eyes. It doesn’t matter. Objects appear, disappear and reappear in my room every day. It’s very hard to keep track of things as well as thoughts.
I remember Katy, though, with her smooth red hair and soft hands. Katy visits, so the nurses tell me, though I don’t remember the last time I saw her. I strain and push inside my head but my treacherous memory fails me again. I like it when Katy comes. I taste strawberries when I think of her. I have a photo, somewhere, of Katy and me. We are at a table outside, eating strawberries. It must be summer, because I remember flowers in the garden beds nearby. There were eleven different flowers in the garden. I don’t know why I remember that and I don’t remember what type of flowers, but they were pretty. In the photo, Katy is laughing; her hair tumbled about her shoulders and her hand touching mine as we lean together across the table. I don’t know where that photo’s gone. I’d like to see it again. I’d like to see Katy again.
My lashes feel damp as I close my eyes and lay my head back on the pillow. The moon beckons, a peaceful quiet place where I’m not afraid. Murmurs drift towards me from the doorway as I sink into the pillowy softness.
Sally, the nurse, is speaking to someone.
‘I’m sorry, Katy, looks like she’s asleep…’
fourW is one of Australia’s longest running annual anthologies of new poetry and prose from Australian and international writers. It’s produced by Booranga Writers’ Centre at Charles Sturt university, Wagga Wagga NSW. I was thrilled to have a short story included in this year’s collection, the thirtieth edition.
You can find out more about Booranga Writers’ Centre here:
The Sydney launch of the anthology was on Saturday 7 December at Gleebooks in Glebe.
Contributors were invited to read from their work, so as the MC suggested, it was a smorgasbord of poetry and prose.
You can buy a copy of the anthology from Booranga Writers’ Centre at the link above. The proceeds support the continued work of the centre to nurture and publish new writing. A good cause for sure.
Reflections on the Historical Novel Society Australasia Conference 2019, 25/26 October, Parramatta NSW
1: It is enormously endearing for an audience to be referred to as ‘Dear hearts’, which Kate Forsyth (HNSA patron) did as she began her introductory address. She went on to deliver a call to action: to let everyone know of the active and vibrant community of lovers of historical fiction in our part of the world. https://hnsa.org.au/kate-forsyth/
2: Keynote speaker Paula Morris, from NZ, spoke of her Maori culture in which history is seen as a spiral, and reminded us that all characters are a combination of their past and present – and that ‘historical figures’ existed in their own contemporary world and didn’t know they were to become historical. Interesting to contemplate that for our own times and selves.
Literature can make visible the unbroken lines with the past and the unbroken lines to the future.Paula Morris
3: Jackie French, Conference Guest of Honour, never sets out to write a book- she writes scenes which then become a book.
4: Kelly Gardiner, in the session ‘The Versatile Writer’, divulged that she is working on a book about her Great Grandmother who was active in Australia’s Suffrage and Women’s Peace movements.
Definitely a book I’d like to read. https://hnsa.org.au/kelly-gardiner/
5: Jane Caro shares my interest in the life of Elizabeth I, so much so that she wrote a trilogy about her. In Jane’s view, female heroic figures often had to pay horribly for their independence. Not so Elizabeth, says Jane:
Elizabeth I became her own Prince and rescued herself.
6: Paula Morris again, on ‘Respectful research’:
Living in the internet era it’s easy to think we should have access to everything and all information. Not everyone has the right to everything. The notions of ‘no secrets’ and ‘nothing is sacred’ are problematic.Paula Morris
7: If you have emotional connection to a place it comes out naturally in the words you write. (Lucy Treloar on the resonance of place in fiction.) https://hnsa.org.au/lucy-treloar/
8: A strong pitch to a literary agent or publisher will contain the following: Emotion, a strong sense of the protagonist and their challenge, and the stakes will be clear. (First Pages Pitch Contest)
9: When considering using personal or family stories as the basis for fiction (yes, that’s me) look at one aspect or kernel of a story and expand your fiction around that, don’t try to tell the whole story (excellent advice from Nicole Alexander which spoke straight to me as I’m currently wrestling with these sorts of issues) https://hnsa.org.au/nicole-alexander/
10. Madison Shakespeare, a Gadigal woman living in Adelaide, spoke on the panel on Dispossession and Betrayal: Recovering the erased history of First Nations. She reminded us that we were on Dharug land – pertinent land for its history of dispossession and violence.
It’s difficult going back, looking back…Ancestors we thank you, for your tenacity, dignity and diplomacy.Madison Shakespeare https://hnsa.org.au/madison-shakespeare/
On the question of writers worrying that, if when writing about indigenous people or indigenous histories, they might ‘get it wrong’, Madison posed the question: How much more damage if you don’t do it at all?
11. The reason I love dual narrative or timeline books is this, as put by Carla Caruso:
There’s a point in your life when you realise realise that your parents, grandparents etc have experienced loss and heartache. That fashions and technologies change but we humans go on and we all want the same things: security, love, passion.Carla Caruso https://hnsa.org.au/carla-caruso/
12: Expert use of point of view allows the writer to take the reader by the hand and lead them through the story. It’s the first splash of colour on the page. Greg Johnson at the ‘I am a Camera: Exploring point of view’ panel session.
13. Juliet Marieller and Elizabeth Jane Corbett write strong female protagonists set during times in which women did not always have great agency or independence, by focusing on how they confront their challenges, find inner strength, have the courage to face truths and move forward.
14. Watching demonstrations of historical fencing over lunch is surprisingly engrossing.
15: Meg Keneally, when talking about the partnership between novelist and historian, described herself as historian Gay Hendriksen‘s
This in reply to Gay being asked by an audience member if she sometimes comes across a story from the historical record or archives and thinks I wish I could find a novelist to write that.
16: The second conference day (27th October) was the anniversary of the first ever female industrial action since colonisation: otherwise known as the 1827 ‘Parramatta Female Factory Riot‘.
17: Kate Forsyth has had enormous respect for the power of words since she delivered a magic curse to a bully in primary school and it worked.
Magic is for the powerless, when you want something so much you exert your full intention upon the universe until it comes true.
Kate told this story in the conference’s final session, Love Potions and Witchcraft.
18: As I suspected, the historical fiction writing community is friendly, energetic, encouraging and inclusive. And the HNSA puts on a jam-packed and satisfying conference. Thanks to all involved:
I had a ball.
Happy first birthday to my blog. Here’s what I’ve learnt in the past twelve months:
Blogging is fun! I had no idea when I started out a year ago whether I’d enjoy the process enough to sustain it over several months, let alone a year. I have enjoyed it way more than I’d expected, so I look forward with confidence to celebrating my second blogging birthday in 2020.
Blogging can be hard sometimes. This looks like I’m contradicting my first point, but actually no – an activity can be challenging and fun at the same time. In fact, I think the sense of achievement and enjoyment is increased if it’s also a little bit hard.
Blogging is a terrific way to establish a regular writing practice. Even at times when I have been ‘stuck’ on my other projects, sitting down at the keyboard to develop a blog post keeps me connected to the writing process. Committing to a weekly post means I’m always on the lookout for a topic, idea or experience that might just resonate with a reader.
Blogging is a great excuse to read a lot of books. My blog is not exclusively a book blog, but I do post many reviews – of books, but also an occasional movie, exhibition, play or concert. Anything that stirs the creative juices, teaches me something new, or reconnects me with things I enjoy.
So, Happy Birthday to my blog and if you have stumbled upon it in the past year, thanks for reading.
A whole day to listen to women’s stories. Told by women about women. That’s what the Heroines Festival promised, and it delivered. A day to nurture the creative in all who attended, to be part of the community of women and men who gathered to listen to speakers tell tales of grandmothers, daughters, dancers, teachers, brewers, religious hermits, refugees, immigrants, explorers and lace weavers. And many, many more.
Tea Cooper, pictured here signing her books, spoke about giving voice to women whose history has not been recorded. And Karen Brooks assured us that women have always been there: as crafts women, running businesses, performing skilled trades work- even if they were not named or acknowledged.
Little rebellions are the lovely truths we search for…women were always, always there…
Karen Brooks in the ‘Herstories’ session
Both Shankari Chandran and Monica Tan write to explore what it means to be Australian, to be part of a minority but not indigenous…what it means to live on colonised land and make a home there. They discussed their experiences and insights in the ‘Home – Lost and Found’ session.
Shankari, of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage, wrote her novels Song of the Sun God and Barriers ‘to write my way home’ and to say thank you to those that came before her for their courage and resilience. Monica (of Chinese heritage) travelled around Australia on ‘a great big road trip’ in a quest to better understand this country and to represent marginalised stories that the gatekeepers try to keep out. The result was her book Stranger Country.
Both women explored the crucial role language plays in our identity and connectedness. Language is used to express power, relationship, history and it’s no coincidence, said Shankari, that the erasure of language is a key tool and feature of colonisation.
Chloe Higgins’ debut book, The Girls, was published just two weeks prior to the festival. It’s a ‘memoir of family, grief and sexuality’ and Chloe discussed how it felt to tell her story with all its intimacies, not knowing how it would be received. I was happy to hear her say that she’s been overwhelmed by the messages of support and understanding she’s received so far.
Melissa Fagan has also published a memoir, What will be worn, in which she explores the gaps and secrets within her own family story, woven in with an account of an iconic Brisbane department store owned by members of her family for many years.
It was interesting to hear both Chloe and Melissa speak of the ‘emotional inheritances’ bequeathed within families, often over generations.
Jesse Blackadder’s session centred around the motivations prompting her to write her two historical fiction works, The Raven’s Heart (set in sixteenth century Scotland) and Chasing the Light (about the first women to go to Antarctica in the 1930’s.) Jesse said that apart from the pull of travelling to the icy continent to research that story, the thing that made her want to write about these women was learning that women had been barred from going there. Jesse said:
How can a whole continent be closed to half the human race?
Jesse Blackadder, in ‘The Explorers’ session
She applied for and won an Antarctic Arts Fellowship and embarked on a six week round trip voyage (exactly as those women had done eighty years earlier)
Other fascinating sessions included Lauren Chater (The Lace Weaver) and Robyn Cadwallader (The Anchoress) as they discussed women barely mentioned in the historical record: Estonian women caught between the competing horrors of Nazi and Soviet oppression, and the medieval religious hermits known as ‘anchoresses.’ In answering the question ‘What makes a strong woman?’ they agreed that:
Sometimes they are the women quietly working away, making change in the background, trying to survive, remaining true to their own beliefs and experiences.
Lauren Chater, in ‘Hearing our Grandmothers’ Voices’
It was a day filled with riches of thought, conversation and intriguing ideas. I hope I can get there again next year. If you’d like to find out more, or purchase a copy of the terrific anthology Heroines: An Anthology of Short Fiction and Poetry (ed Sarah Nicholson and Caitlan White), launched on the day, go to the website:
#Heroinesfestival #heroinesfest19 #AusLit #AustralianWomenWritersChallenge
My Furious Fiction https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/ entry for August. The requirements for the month’s competition were all adjectival! Our story had to include these words and phrases: shrill, piercing, cold and greasy, ink stained, sweet and pungent, scratched and weather worn, shiny, silver. Using this many adjectives in a 500 word story is harder than you’d think!
My story is a little ode to the Sydney building industry in 2019.
ZIPPER by Denise Newton
The noise was shrill, piercing. Anna sighed and pushed aside her uneaten toast.
“God, I’m so sick of that sound.”
Blake nodded in sympathy. The work in the apartment upstairs was unrelenting. Drills, nail guns, electric saws. Lucky for noise regulations, or they’d be at it day and night.
“Not long now, I hope.”
Anna just shrugged and Blake knew she was right. The people upstairs were very strange. He looked down at his plate. The fried eggs, that had smelt so delicious earlier, had turned cold and greasy. His stomach turned.
When they’d seen the ad, they’d been so excited. Their dream of purchasing their own home could finally come true. The asking price was within their reach. Hell, it was far below what they’d budgeted for. They’d grinned at each other and he’d called the agent straight away.
They should have known better. Hadn’t Mum always told him that when something seemed too good to be true, it usually was? But their excitement got the better of them and they signed the contract two days later. The vendor, a short man in an overstuffed suit, had signed with ink- stained fingers, as though this was the last of a long series of contracts he’d signed that day. Perhaps it was. Each one as dodgy as the last.
So. Here they were, enduring the constant assault of noise from the building works above, the croaking pipes, the ominous rumblings from somewhere in the building, that always began in the deep quiet of early dawn.
“Like the building is haunted,” Anna said, only half joking. She’d made a pot of herbal tea and she passed him a cup, a sweet and pungent brew that he found strangely relaxing. Anything to take his mind off the mistake they’d made in buying into this building.
He began to ready himself for work, collected his coat, and tied the laces on his scratched and weather-worn boots. He’d just kissed Anna goodbye and was making for the front door, when the floor moved. It actually moved, right under his feet. The jolting was accompanied by a louder version of the rumbling that woke him at night. A grinding, unearthly sound. He froze.
Anna stared at him. “What the hell…?”
“Get under the table! In case it’s an earthquake…”
“Earthquake, here? That’s…”
“I’m going downstairs to see,” he interrupted.
“I’m coming with you.”
He knew better than to argue. She followed him down twenty flights in the gloomy stairwell. They exited onto the street with shaky legs.
Hand in hand, they gazed, incredulous, at the huge crack that had appeared in their building. It looked like a giant zipper. An ugly, misplaced zipper.
Their shiny, silver dream of owning a home disappeared into the morning light.