Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Cheeky Girl Continues to Celebrate!


It's a little early for fireworks but I feel I have them in my brain. Not drugs, it's just that every time the thought returns my brain produces a pink bloom on a black sky. Water, light, night. Who would have thought in January, as we clutched our vodka and cranberry in Sydney Harbour on Paul's boat, that this could happen?

'PELT AND OTHER STORIES' HAS BEEN ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION BY INDIGO DREAMS PUBLISHING. IDP are also putting out my women's commercial novel in April. I've already written about it on my other blog http://thedivorcedladyscompaniontoitaly.blogspot.com but now that the stories have a home I am going to crank up this blog with a bit more verve and information. This week I'm signing my contract. Next, I'm going to have to stop telling everybody I bump into, and wipe the crazy smile from my face.

This year most of my efforts have been towards preparation of 'The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy' for publication. I've had edits moving through my thoughts over the past months, cover designs in my head and promotion beginning to happen in the big wide world, and while I have managed to squeeze in a few new stories this year and entered my best pieces in competitions, I haven't had the time to plump up 'Pelt' in this blog.

Although I should have! Looking up my blog title ten minutes ago, I saw that the collection was a semi-finalist in this year's Hudson Prize by Black Lawrence Press. I had no idea! Probably better that way, as my hopes to reach the final may have agitated my uncharacteristically relaxed state in Corsica this summer. No matter that I didn't win (I'd already written that competition entry off), but it serves as greater validation for my publisher, whom I must inform.

I am beyond thrilled. Next year will see my novel hit the shelves and hopefully make a few readers laugh, meanwhile I will begin edits for my short stories and watch the book strengthen and mature. Not easy work, but how blissful to have reached this point.

Christmas Cheer to all and never abandon your dreams!

* * * *

PS I am featured on the Ether Books Advent Calendar www.etherbooks.com on 24th December with a link to my title story and interview. Do visit!

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Muff Coat from Florence


Nuti dragged me there though I had no wish to leave the warm house. That was Nuti, always dragging me off course, always putting a drink in my hand, wearing down my thoughts. As usual I was doing the parking, I was pushing a pram. This was long before Nuti became the late mother of twins clapped up in the Tuscan hills.

A huge hall, a vintage market. That smell from my grandmother’s cupboard.

We didn’t agree of course. I found an Audrey Hepburn coat. Shiny silver buttons and a brash Prince-of-Wales weave, a hyper red in there that I knew I could pull off.

But Nuti dragged me to another stall where she pulled out the ultimate rock chick coat. It was original 1970s from Pakistan - tan sheepskin outside embroidered to within an inch of its musty life, with rough cave-woman fur within. More luscious woolly fur spewing out at the sleeves and neck.

A perfect fit. A life of sexy rock chicks on my shoulders.

‘You’re not leaving that here!’ said my six-foot swimming-shoulders friend. ‘There’s no way!’

It didn’t come cheap. The guy handled it with pride. I saw a vision of what I see from intercontinental planes - a horizon of dusty hills and, somewhere, a woman with coloured thread and calloused fingers. Whole months of chatting, laughing labour.

I could also see another woman in Chelsea wearing it naked underneath. Mmmm, fetching.

The Muff Coat, Nuti named it. And every winter, as soon as there is snow, my muff coat seems to inhale and expand, to breathe even, taking on its own life. Inside the fur is scratchy but hellishly warm, encouraging the slinkiest clothing underneath. It is the sexiest garment you could imagine.

Talk about notches on my bedpost.

* * *

MANY MANY THANKS TO ETHER BOOKS WHO HAD ME AS WRITER OF THE WEEK RECENTLY
www.etherbooks.com

THANK YOU ALSO TO POET JOHN SIDDIQUE WHO POSTED MY CULTURAL DIARY ON HIS BLOG
johnsiddique.blogspot.com

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A Figo at Ether


Last night I received the absolutely gas news that my stories were liked by Ether Books' fiction guru and they will be up this week. What followed was a quite funny discussion about how to translate Cool! into Italian, but we eventually agreed it was Figo, which can do.

Ether seems the ultimate in cool (stories are downloaded as iPhone applications, bite-sized fiction that gives short story appreciation a kick in the pants) and I have already hooked up with one lovely author and look forward to joining the very active and warm community. Still not sure how many stories they are publishing, and I must download some of the other writers and start to give back.

Do you give back to other writers?

I must say that, using my ex-husband's credit card and calling it 'work expenses', I do.

On another note I am reading Grace Paley's superb and sweeping stories. I sit there laughing in bed. All the unchanging human nature she manages to tighten into a small nut, with such playful language that in anyone's else mouth might sound just overwrought.

What a mistress, what a striding pace.

+ + +

P.S. Now I am crew member of The View From Here www.theviewfromhere.com and my first article 'Interlinked Stories - Do They a Novel Make?' is up online. I took Raymond Carver as my springboard, never tire of that man.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

So much to say, should I say it?


When I was much younger I wrote a novel which still, somehow, exists. That was in the pre-history my kids cannot truly believe it was possible to suffer. No computers, no mobile phones, no Facebook, no copy-and-paste. (In fact, of all the aforementioned, my love affair with copy-and-paste is deep and shall be neverending.) Although for years I haven't looked at this book. At the time I was possessed. I worry about this. I thought I had a brilliant story, brilliant characters. I think I killed a stand-in for my smug ex-boyfriend in a miner's pit in the desert. Nice one, that. The book also mapped my going away, my departure from the Sydney culture of the 70s and 80s that I was steeped in. It's grown quite trendy I see, going back there. Perhaps I could glean some material?

I wrote several books after that, all came close to publication until the last - bless her! - was taken up and is coming out soon. What remains are dozens of short stories, my deepest most fitful passion, and a huge Ghanaian love story/novel requiring major revision that I don't want to lay to rest.

Importantly, no agent wants short stories. No matter how kindly good short story writers tell you to push, to try, there's a market out there. Even friends who borrow my english books, they have to be urged to try stories, and may or may not come back raving. That's why while I am back with my laptop in the graceful morning light of my bed - my camp site - eeking out my new stories, the printed draft of my novel is sitting patiently on the covers, expecting my red pen and a trip to the bar.

And what about interconnected stories? Long ago a super agent told me if I couldn't provide the Big Novel (she loved my story in a Virago anthology) why not a series of interconnected stories? I was horrified, almost insulted. But how could a short story assume its place next to something else, something pre-conceived or pre-packaged like some cheap confection? Neither one nor the other - pah!

And yet this year I started it. Or they came to me, they were not forced. An event perhaps too close to my own bones and a group of people going backwards, pulling against each other. Am I wrong to enjoy writing these? Coaxing out stories with their quick cadences and reachable word limit - so much less oppressive than the stamina and pace and self-drive required for the production of a 200+ page novel?

Am I a cheat?

That is what is happening now and I am wondering. Whether each story is coming from the right place - the turning-over-of-your-stomach that has to be pinioned and unveiled, and whether the stories will truly stand up together as a credible bound thing or look like a 3-in-1 offer, neither one nor the other?

In the meantime I won't stop too long to question. Just get it down, just get it down.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Unwilling


I didn't think it would be so unsettling.

Every time I come back here it is such a struggle these days. Going away makes me so restless. Even the water with its damp salty air and the waves creeping up my legs, tossing into the greeness each morning for a lengthy swim. It had me thinking. About place, about language, about seasons. The seasons of one's life.

I'd love to live near water again. Speak French.

I grew up in a sub-tropical country. Came to Europe when I was a spindly thin and had no idea how to dress for the cold. Then ended up in tropical Africa for a decade. Always sweating, avoiding the sun, eating spicy soup, wishing I had darker more suitable skin. Roving across borders with acquired African calm.

Now though I live on the Veneto plains it seems I have fallen for the snow, the mountains to the north, the oxygen high and cristalline dawn mornings. How did that happen? A need for space I guess, and that Australian sportiness that never went away. And yet, lately, any time I brush with the big city smells and energy I am primed, ready to go back, ready for crowds and community. Bookshops and Asian food, variety in politics and poise.

How confusing, and oh! the only constant is a wish to write more, write more cleanly. Does anyone have a big picture that is so messy?

I can't wait for the end of this heat and some focussed autumn rationale.

* * *
The best news upon my return from Corsica: a story accepted in Tears in the Fence! I wrote it as a sequel to a story whose characters I couldn't leave alone. The original story is appearing in Tears in the Fence. The autumn issue, number 54. Called, 'At the Malga'.

When I finish with my novel revisions - which are really gnawing into my brain - I am dying to plunge into new short stories. It seems so long since I have grappled with new material, new twists and people. I do miss this! I also read four books while away, three story collections and a novel, all lovely journeys: Storm Warning by Vanessa Gebbie, A Little Javanese by Andre Mangeot, If I Loved You I Would Tell You So by Robin Black and The Women by T.C.Boyle. All highly recommended.

Time for a sultry aperitivo.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Interview on Words with Writers


I mentioned it over on my other blog, the crazy one about the Italian Divorcée (shoes, sex, fiction, parties, skiing, teenagers, cherries). Also pointing out that my daughter says I look like a man and my eldest says I look like a goth. Help!

The interview speaks about the novel coming out this autumn and about my wonky writing life and passion for short stories. Marissa was a delight to work with and I wish her well with the site, she has some top writers in there!

http://wordswithwriters.com

If I were you I would nip over for a visit, vote for Catherine McNamara, and call it a day.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Elton John's Mother


A blog friend wrote a piece about reviewing a not-current piece of work and made me think of a story I pulled out the other day, to use as reference for an article I was writing. The story was the first story I had published and it was in sad way, funny. The blog thread continued with writers expressing how they usually felt distance/horror/disdain for their past work, even when it was up for publication.

I remember the revue arriving with the diplomatic pouch in Mogadishu, where I spent three years as a young wife and naive mother. Though the story was distinctly Australian, reading it again made me think of the chalk white of our house in Somalia, the spiral staircase to the flat roof looking out to sea and the eclipses of the moon I watched there. I loved that house in the middle of the noisy city. I read through the story and I was fine with it, that was where I was then.

After its first publication the story was selected several years later for the publishers' big anthology, where I rubbed shoulders with some of Australia's finest. The photo used in the anthology showed me on the verandah of our house in Ghana, where I was living by that time. You could not see that I was expecting my third child and my life was about to change drastically.


Here is my story, Elton John's Mother:


After the third delivery I find Lyndall on the sleepout in the annex moaning that her feet are swollen up like fish. It’s a girl and she’s called it Crystal.

Lyndall gets up and has a cranny at herself in a pocket mirror. The lump had gone out of her, but the slack’s set in. She yawns and sucks her tummy in only it won’t budge.

‘Like jelly’, she says. Her stilettos are on the rack.

Lyndall’s worried whether or not Aaron is on his way up with the latest monthly so she can get Medibank out of her hair. More than anything she’s worried about Aaron latching onto a new girl. She’s holding onto him even though there was Gareth. She kept swearing that if it had been a boy (and think that it wasn’t even his) it would have been Little Aaron.

‘Do you remember that song of Crystal Gayle’s Diamond Love? Had it on my brain the whole time.’

The little face screws up at Lyndall looking for something to eat.

‘Looks like Aaron somehow, don’t you think? I reckon by now I must have some of his genes in me.’

Aaron my foot. She hands her over and goes inside to make up a bottle. Funny, I had the depression after both of mine and they wouldn’t let me near them. I had to look at them in those glass cribs for two months before the sister let me take them home.

Elton John busts into the annex almost knocking over a tent pole holding up a string of bras and hunts for his mother. The beads hit together in the doorway for a full five minutes, enough for Lyndall to quit shrieking and shove the bottle in the baby’s mouth.

Elton wants money for an ice block. At six he knows all the words to Yellow Brick Road and Daniel. He’s Terry’s son, the surfer, though he’s only got eyes for Aaron. They’re all a bit like that here.

A lot of people at the park took a nab at Lyndall when she turned up with two kids Cassandra and Elton John. Not because of the kids’ names only, but because Aaron set her up here, and comes once a month to see the kids. Only Cassandra’s his. Most of us are on our own here and the dads never even give a look-in, but after Aaron chucked Lyndall out he felt sorry for her, and then there was his inheritance. Lyndall stuck hard for an allowance for the kids seeing as Elton calls him Dad. Everyone knows she went straight out with four thousand dollars and bought a waterbed and an electric guitar.

The next time I see Lyndall is outside the school gates waiting for the infants’ bell. A couple of us are there including Roberta, whose ex beats her up. Roberta is an Aboriginal from up north and it’s a wonder she was game enough to show up here. But people are over it now, and Roberta’s kids are ratbags like anyone’s.

Lyndall’s back in stretch jeans. We give her the once over but in a woman’s way. We’re glad to see her in shape. Close up though she’s got a mug look on her face. She tells us, it’s like family now.

‘Aaron’s got a girl.’

Apparently Aaron was up during the week but stayed at one of the motor lodges. There was a girl with him, a blond girl, Lyndall tells us. He didn’t come along to the disco. He and the blond girl wanted to take the kids out for pizza.

‘You could see that coming a mile off with the inheritance,’ Roberta says without a lot of tact.

Lyndall tells us that he brought her into the van and she asked where the toilet was. Lyndall marched her out onto the footpath and showed her the bloody dunny block. Then she tells us what we’ve all heard before, how he was carrying on with her back in Sydney. She’s the girl from the video shop.

‘They stayed at Currumbin Lodge,’ she repeats. ‘That’s three stars.’

Lyndall breaks down and we bunch up around her while the kids scoot past to their bikes. We’ve all been in her shoes: in love. The last one I was with kept promising me a ring till he cleared out with my Bankcard. It’s a wonder you keep falling for them time after time, when it always ends up like that.

‘At least he doesn’t beat you up,’ Only Rob could have come out with that one.

On the way back through the mall Lyndall has her nails done at the salon. She flirts with the manager Guy who’s a fairy anyway. I hear her say she’ll call the next one Guy but there’ll be no mucking around. At least Aaron hasn’t taken the goat out of her.

In at Target we pick up a few sun tops and pairs of lace-up shorts. Lyndall’s got her cheque and is on a bit of a spree. Both of us ought to do the food shopping but we’re in no mood so we sit down in the garden cafĂ©. That way the kids have something to do and we can have early dinner.

We order shakes but I can see Lyndall’s not in it. She takes out the mirror and the eye shows up full of water. Lyndall’s mascara starts to run.

‘Give me a hankie,’ she says. Lyndall’s eyes look like Alice Cooper as she blurbs it all out.



By the time we’re back at the caravan park she’s got it out of her system. We walk in along the gravel path just as everyone else is in their vans having tea. You can hear saucepans hitting and water pumping up into the sinks. The tellys throw up shadows in everyone’s annex. Lyndall says she wants to buy a microwave. She’s got the baby all wrapped up.

‘I can smell Cassandra’s up to something.’

Lyndall’s oldest Cassandra was named after a song of Sherbet’s that stayed at number one for ages. Lyndall says she met Daryl Braithwaite after the concert backstage and he gave her his scarf. Nothing like that ever happened to me. The closest I ever got to Daryl was kissing the TV Week poster on the back of my door.

We’ve come to her van and there is no TV on, only the one small lamp in the corner. Lyndall stalks up cramming the baby into her side and trying not to set off the beads.

‘Sssshhh,’ she says to Elton and then to me, ‘Take a look at this.’

I creep up behind her and look through the window flap. There are two of them, Cassandra and Jodie I think, dressed up to the nines with soccer balls in their bellies.

‘Oh me bloody back. Don’t come at me from behind Aaron. Not from behind no more.’

Cassandra is doing a take-off of Lyndall and Aaron on the sleep-out. Jodie wrestles with her and Cass says, ‘You have to take the ball out, stupid.’

Lyndall is about to laugh but comes out yelling, ‘Get that gear off you little buggers! Get on home Jodie, your mother’s waitin’ for you. Elton John go and have your shower right now! If I don’t see youse all move by the time I count to three – One – Two – Three!’

The kids scram off and there’s only the baby left in her arms getting ready to scream. She dumps it in the basket and rolls it round a bit, then when it’s quiet fills up two hefty glasses with cask wine. I can hang around a tick because my two have run off too.

We end up going to the disco. Roberta’s afraid of her ex coming around so she comes across to mind the kids. We leave them in front of a repeat of Starsky and Hutch.

‘I love Hutch, he’s a spunk,’ Roberta says.

‘You’d get a belt if you know who heard that,’ Lyndall tells her.

Lyndall and I head towards Surfers in my Escort. The traffic all along the new freeway is full of good time seekers like us. Everyone’s radio is turned up loud. The guys are all cheeky with earrings and hair nicked high up over their ears. You get checked out a million times.

We pull into the Pink Panther and it’s jam-packed. Lyndall’s a bit wobbly on her stilettos after such a long time on the ground. She reckons her back’s always out of kilter after a kid. She takes a swig of the Ben Ean in the back seat.

‘This ought to do the trick,’ she says.

Shane’s on the doorway so he wants to hear about the baby and so forth. He’s a real fox, he must have at least six of his own around the park. Straight away inside the cigarette smoke hits you, plus the smell of beer and lots of mulling over it. It’s rough on your eyes and nostrils, but like anything you have to be in the thick of it. To one side everyone’s gawking at a new group just like the Mentals. Some of our friends are out there. I see Alison with her new boyfriend. They’re all holding beers. Down in the Disco Chamber everyone is moving something strong. The DJ on the stage is belting his fist in the air. It’s the Village People, from what I can make out. I wonder if half of them know they’re all poofters.

Lyndall comes up out of the blue and gives me a hug. She screams something in my ear but I can’t work it out, then she jives off letting the music belt through her, has a guy in a white shirt after her straight away. Her belly’s a bit of a ball but you’d never guess she had a kid three weeks ago.



My little one gets hit by a car the day after that so I don’t see Lyndall for a good stretch. They transfer Josh to the Mater in Brisbane for a while and his Dad even shows up one night in the corridor outside the ward. We go out into the carpark just like old times, and he gets into me all over the back seat. Then he asks for a quid and he clears out with the usual load of bullshit. Josh’ll be on crutches for six months so I take him down to my mum’s at Coffs Harbour. There at least he doesn’t have to bung up and down the steps of the van. By the time I get back to Lyndall, Crystal’s on solids.

I tap on the window shield one afternoon and Lyndall comes out in a green tunic with a zipper holding a coffee. She’s got a job in a sandwich bar.

‘The office guys are real cute,’ she says. ‘Crystal stays at my sister’s.’

She looks dumpier than before, as if she’s letting it go to her hips. Anyone could tell something’s getting at her and not just the late night feeds.

‘Come in and have a cuppa. I’ve got five minutes before Toni picks me up.’

Inside the caravan there are photos of Cassandra stuck everywhere – her school shot above the sink, at the sports carnival, and playing totem tennis at Burleigh over the water bed. I haven’t heard anything from anyone in ages and I don’t read the papers. It gives me the gulp in my throat like when the police rang to tell me about Josh. I wish I’d gone around to Roberta’s first.

‘What’s happened Lyndall?’

Lyndall switches on the jug and puts a spoon of Nescafe in a cup. I see she’s bought the microwave. It must have happened ages ago or she wouldn’t be so under wraps.

‘It’s Cassandra. She’s missing.’

There’s not much time, but Lyndall’s got a lot on her chest. Aaron and the blond girl turned up and wanted to take the kids over Christmas. Lyndall gave them Cassandra, but not Elton John. The day before Christmas, Aaron told the police that when they woke up Cassandra had cleared out. She was wearing a sundress and a pair of joggers and stole ten bucks from Aaron’s betting money. The blond girl had had a nervous breakdown.

‘Cassandra speaks to me through telepathy you know. I can see her on the Pacific Highway, if some mug hasn’t picked her up.’ Lyndall sniffles. Aaron’s halved his maintenance until Cassandra turns up. ‘Just think if I’d given him Elton too.’



Nobody hears any more about Cassandra again, even by the time Josh is off crutches. The police come around and interview a lot of people including the owner. At one stage Roberta’s ex gets picked up for carrying a knife which means she’ll be in for it when he gets out. They even try to pin it on him when they find kids’ clothes in the boot of his car, but they’re Jodie’s and her sister’s. Roberta packs up and goes back north to her brother’s. It’s sad when she goes as Roberta really knew how to take the mickey out of you. We all follow the ute out to the gate for the last time, trying to tuck down her curtains and the fly screens she’s pinched from the van.

A new lass moves in Roberta’s van, Eileen. Her huband’s a competition wrestler so he’s always on tour around the state. Eileen has two little girls Marion and Rosalee and does Jazzercise. She gets us all into it. She wears a headband across her forehead. We all laugh at first, then we all end up buying them. It really suits Lyndall and she’s got her form back. I’ve just found out I’m nearly two months gone and I feel like a little girl so I’m keeping it. Brett, the father, is blond so she should be good looking.

One afternoon I come round to pick Lyndall up for classes. She’s not back from work yet and I find Elton sitting at the card table in the annex. It’s funny how he’s turned out. After Cassandra disappeared they found out he needed glasses and Lyndall said he started to write songs. She says he wants to trade in the electric guitar for a keyboard.

Lyndall comes in and dumps a bag of leftover sandwiches on the TV. She says that Aaron called her at work and he’s taking a week off to come up. Lyndall’s pretending to be really offhand.

‘He’s said the blond girl’s not coming up. There must be something wrong.’

During the week, I see Aaron’s car parked outside but I don’t go over because it doesn’t seem right. Aaron’s a heavy and you wouldn’t want to get on his wrong side. The car’s there all day and all night so obviously he’s not staying at the motor lodge. Lyndall gets Eileen to watch the kids one night when they go to the disco, but that’s the night I’ve got typing. I don’t see her or Elton or Crystal for a whole week.

On Saturday I go on over, dying to know what’s been going on. Lyndall tells me straight away.

‘They want to adopt Crystal. The blond girl can’t have kids.’

I ask her what she said knowing pretty well already.

‘My hide, they’re not having her – after scaring off Cassandra like that. The best bit is,’ she goes on, ‘that I bet the bastard’s done me in again. This is my hot week and I told him I was on the pill.’

A few months later we’re both at the back of the Jazzercise class doing half sit-ups. There’s a row for expecting ladies at the back. We spend a lot of time talking about names. Lyndall thinks hers is another boy and has decided on Mel after Mel Gibson. I’m going to call my little girl Lucinda after a book I read when I was a kid.



It’s funny the way it happens at the end. On the day I’m due for my caesar, Lyndall’s waters break. She’s almost two months early so Eileen races her to the hospital. I’m under when all this happens and as I wake up they’re shifting her into the bed next to me.

‘What are you doing here?’ I ask her.

She tells me that when everything started she thought she’d burst the water bed. She had another little girl.

‘What about you?’

The nurse comes over and tells me I’ve had a boy. Three and half kilos. I can feel the depression coming on already like a cloud in my head. I feel like running outside under the nearest truck.

‘Bad luck,’ says Lyndall. ‘You could call it Luke instead, like the guy in Star Wars.’

Afterwards we go down to the nursery and look at the cribs. Lyndall’s is in a humidicrib and is all orange. Mine is kicking its legs into the air. It looks beefy and red and tough already. I feel like putting a pillow over its face. Lyndall nudges me.

‘We can swap them when we get out.’

I know she is crazy enough to mean it.

Someone has mixed up the hospital records and they don’t know anything about my depression the last two times. They let me take the baby home as if I’m the same as anyone else. They put it in my arms and I feel like crying. If it weren’t for Lyndall I don’t think I’d be able to cover it up. We sign our family allowance forms and check out.

Lyndall stops the taxi on the way home and turns around to me.

‘Let’s swap them now,’ she says. ‘No one will ever know.’

The cab driver is Asian, and chews his gum. ‘Only him,’ Lyndall laughs.

She gives me the tiny orange-faced girl and I hand her my big red boy. The cab starts off. Aaron and Lyndall’s little baby girl looks up at me as if it knows.

‘What about Aaron?’ I remember. ‘Won’t he try to adopt her?’

‘Aaron doesn’t even know it’s his and what can he do anyhow?’

We slow down on the freeway before Surfers Paradise, taking the turnoff to the caravan park. Eileen’s kids and my kids and Lyndall’s kids are throwing stones at the entrance, waiting for us.

Lyndall turns around. ‘Besides,’ she says. ‘I’d have sixty babies before I gave one of them to that lump of muscle.’


from Fabulous at Fifty – Fifty of the Best from Australian Short Stories. First published 1995

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

My kitchen tiles


I have always loved ceramics. I still have a bowl and a green jug I bought in Budapest when I used to have cropped blond hair. Now that was an age ago.

Three summers back we began renovation of the ground floor of this house. The walls are thick and porous and my lungs had suffered since we moved in. Soon after the builders started, a little bulldozer drove inside and churned up the earth where my kitchen used to be (the house has no foundations) and dug down deep. We walked on planks over the damp earth for months, plastic sheeting flapping, the dogs confused.

When the work was done it was time to decorate. I pulled out a crate of tiles a very good friend had given to me, painted by his very old mother. I had driven down to Le Marche with a mate to fetch these and other relics that had been saved from their country house which had been sealed off by the police. S told me to keep a few of the tiles, the ones I didn't need, for his house in Corsica, which he urged me to visit.

I loved the tiles. They were white, painted in the Delft style, each one had a hunting dog, a parrot, a pair of women in clogs, a rigged ship, or a windmill. They were each signed at some point in the design by his mother whom I had never met. They are now placed in a panel on one wall of my kitchen.

Before S and his partner ever came to visit my improved house they had both taken their lives. I knew it was going to happen. But I was still caught by surprise, and angry. I couldn't see why they hadn't gone along with it a little longer. Their beautifully furnished life. Their poisoned beliefs.

They told S's old mother he died of a heart attack. That the pain of losing his lover had killed him.

Somehow, I feel guilty because I have the work she pored over - the tiles that were less successful and the ones that came out well - on my wall, along with the many books and porcelain and furniture S gave to me over the years. And I have never seen her face.

The extra tiles, the ones for S's house in Corsica, have been put away somewhere safe.

Monday, 13 June 2011

This is a true story


This is a true story.

Many years ago a skinny anorexic found work with an arty French couple in the pre-chic 11th in Paris. It was love at first sight - as soon as she pushed open the door she was in a painted summery garden with a whole hall of bookshelves, a studio with the renowned set designer's models and a darkroom where the young woman could print her shots.

The couple and the young woman grew very close together, at the end of a cobbled cul de sac with a warren of friends through the jumbled mice-filled buildings.

Years later the woman was no-longer-young and her life had panned out, she lived in Africa and things had been quite dramatic. She found herself on a visit to Addis Abeba, sitting at a dinner table next to a French theatre director. Squirming, she said to the woman, I used to work for CM, you wouldn't know him?

Oh la la! said the theatre director. He's coming tomorrow! CM who has never had a passport in his life! Quelle coincidence!

So for the following week the no-longer-young woman hung out at the main theatre in Addis, where CM painted the sets with a paintbrush attached to a long stick. Together they drank wonderful Ethiopian coffee and were incredulous.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Design of My Life


Do our lives have a design? Do we sow the seeds when we are twelve years old staring out the window at school? Or bickering brothers and sisters in front of the television? Why do some of us leave and some of us stay put? Why do some cause calamity and pain and seem to ride freely, while others suffer and suffer?

I always knew I would run away. Initially, the cost was great. Massive waves of guilt flooded through me each day, when I was a skinny vegetarian clothes-stealing au pair in Paris who told her poor parents she wasn't coming home.

I was so stubborn. Cropped my hair and wore huge earrings and went to clubs I couldn't afford at night. Caught the first metro home and sunk into bed. Wrote my first forgettable novel in a turret above a sweatshop with the boiler whirring next to me and learned to ignore mice.

Then for a while a man softened all this. And child-bearing and arduous travel made me refocus and begin to travel beyond myself. There was more restlessness, ever more. Again I yearned to slip out of my life.

Now, years on, it seems that there was a design all along. Seeking exile in order to be centred, reproducing in order to release the burden of self, being alone on a higher plane in order to attempt what I hoped I was designed to do.

Long red hair now and no mice. And today I finished a fresh new story.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

the cherry orchard


The idea appeals. And I understand Chekov's tugged heart when his cherry orchard was chopped down. For it hurts to see a tree severed, its pale interior revealed.

But for a week now I have been dealing with cherries. Eating them by the gutful, hands like I've done an organ transplant, droplets on all my clothes and a smeared face. Cherry jam, cherry vodka, cherry grappa. They brings me bowls which I set on the outside table as the sunlight thins, after piano practice or I couldn't bear to watch my hands on the keys.

And I sit there pitting cherries, chucking the flesh into the pot, the stones into a bowl, looking at the corn growing in the field at the front, looking at my own trees inching upward, trying to think in a soothing way about the beauty of what I am doing when in truth I am wondering if anybody has ever invented a cherry-pitting machine, how much would it cost? could I model one myself?

Then the breeze hushes my thoughts and I think more roundly.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

after the rain


Though the rain was pelting the shutters early this morning and wind whipped the garden and trees, I curled up smiling under the covers. No angst, just delight. Wasafiri, a distinguished literary journal publishing writers I adore, has after a year or so of waiting, word cuts, more waiting, approval by the achingly intimidating Board (Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Ondaatje, Gordimer) finally recommended my story 'Infection' for publication!

I am more than thrilled. I was expecting the usual close-to-the-mark-but-not-for-us. But this, approval by the gods!

I don't know when it is coming out, but surely I will be renewing my subscription. (I also have 3 short stories coming out in The View from Here this month. Hoping to see them soon.)

The best is that 'Infection' was written several years ago, it is heavy with Ghanaian heat, with illness, with contrast and deep pain. It all started from the postcard of the Princestown fort I have framed over my bed, an old concrete bastion on the rough road to Cape Coast. Not a slave castle like Elmina and Cape Coast, but still a disturbing and redolent sign of the country's mottled colonial past. In the story the protagonist, Eugene, comes back from London to reckon with a domineering mother and a dying half-sister, 'from the world of glass to the world of tin.. a man with an elaborate, undeserved education.. '

How far away are those days of palms and saltiness. I still see us driving along the plains and through the hot tin villages, plantain on tables for sale, smoked grasscutters, Winneba pineapples, the ragged sea a breath away.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Stardom


When I was eighteen I very nearly became a journalist. I called up the features editor of a big newspaper in my city and said I was going to interview John McEnroe. McEnroe at the time was a swearing, racquet-throwing idol for me, but the closest I ever came to him was grazing his arm as he passed through an annoying, off-the-court crowd.

However, needing to maintain the attention of the doubtful features editor, I claimed I had an interview with Ivan Lendl instead. Ivan, cold-blooded Czech champion, stared me down in a tiny elevator I managed to squeeze into in his semi-posh hotel (Kings Cross Sydney in the 80s, pre-terrorism, general snazziness). In my shaky suburban voice I asked the tall unearthly-looking man for an interview.

Ivan Lendl said No and when the door opened he walked away.

What was I thinking?

However. Still determined to maintain the attention of my adopted and now smirking editor, I hunted down someone else. I went down to the tennis courts, found a big sweating American player on a bed being massaged. Third rate, Steve Something. He was happy to be interviewed. They actually ran the piece. No picture of the player. No picture of his moustache. I was thrilled. I was a journalist. My parents were utterly relieved my pretensions to become a writer would disperse.

And it lasted. The next guy I hunted down was the fastest water skier in the country. He was local. I was so frigging charming he asked me out. And there was a photograph too, sure the copy was small, a big photo of the a guy holding on for dear life in a helluva spray. Wayne Something, it was miles before the internet.

This from the dreamy girl who grew up on Simone de Beauvoir and D.H. Lawrence and was determined to flee to Europe.

And did.

Friday, 8 April 2011

evolution


More work sent to a good home so delighted was I yesterday heading back to Veneto from the mushy Tuscan ski slopes. Dee-lite! It's with the very hip Kerouac's Dog Magazine and to be published in fine hard copy (300 pages of chic photography and quirky words) in October, Issue 4. I've been told the magazine sells out quickly so copies have been ordered. Have a peep at the site and you will understand why.

The funniest was, as we drove through the milky light of the green plains with spring so vigorous and the mountain edges gone, that I told my twenty-one year old the story. My young man/baby-in-the-basket, who doesn't know it but he was witness to my first story acceptance decades ago, when he truly was a babe-in-the-basket on the floor of our old chunky house in Mogadishu, Somalia.

He listened as he drove, he really did.

Hey, he paused, seeming to weigh it all up, making me feel like the desperate kid. That's good Mum, that sounds really good.

*****

And what else? 'Janet and the Angry Trees' is out online in Australian Reader. Do have a look! A Ghanaian streetworker living in northern Italy uses her village-life skills to become a carer for her lover's ancient parents, who have been discarded by modern, brash Italy.

Tears in the Fence, a lovely literary review where my story 'At the Malga' will appear in Issue 54 this year, desperately requires subscribers. Don't let another review go down!

Friday, 1 April 2011

cherry blossoms

It's been a long haul and suddenly sweaters are off and arms are bare. I am ready to regenerate the mind with green fresh growth, pruned a little, if it should become too vivacious.

I am closing off with the snow which has become gluggy and unpredictable of late, noisy and slushy so that I feel I am on a pair of water skis. I feel like real water, I am ready to roil up and down the pool.

Good news has come my way. Not a publication, but a story with a prestigious magazine which after a year is in the 'final phases' of consideration. Pray with me! I would love to find this baby a home. I also have another reply coming soon, I've been assured.

It's enough to drive one bonkers. Forget love, the words are ringing in my head. The cherry blossoms are buzzing.

Friday, 25 February 2011

true love

No news is good news, perhaps. I have slowed down, been distracted, the flutter in my head has stopped. I am not thinking but skiing. My translations are mechanical, thrifty. I just have to untangle the Italian and clip around the edges. Easy stuff. A sociology piece that beckons will be more challenging.

But I have lost the pace. I am working on promotion of my novel on the other side, and this takes up hours of productive time, grinding me into the desk, layers of cardigans, an escape to the piano with frosty hands.

I have no stories today. Nothing creative.

Just plumbers, a lunch, my love hit in my heart keeping me awake at night, and the promise of more skiing. And more.

I want my words back. I want my head to stagger.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

acceptance

February used to be my most depressed month. The month when my hands would stick to the icy gate and fog glue up my throat with cotton wool.

But today some steamy news flew over from Australia. I have had another short story accepted, in The Australian Reader, which will be appearing around February 20th.

Everything after I read that news fell into place, or if it didn't, who cared?

Like the awful peas they decided to throw into the salads my friend and I ordered. My empty bank account. My grotty kitchen a victim of my uninspired overgrown boys. The empty fridge and my driver's license left in a pair of trousers up in the mountains so I am freewheeling, hoping some nitpicking carabinieri won't catch me out along the brittle country roads.

I am so very glad. It's a great hit and a good omen. Of the seventeen stories in my collection only five are still homeless. With these I am aiming high, and responses will be as long as the summer is from now. But now that I know that 'Janet and the Angry Trees' will soon be appearing, I'm ready for another round of the rest.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

swiftness

Another request for a full manuscript! I am quietly thrilled, though beaten up with a head cold and I had wild skiing dreams all night. The woman who ventures out with wet hair into the fog has been punished! I would like a grappa or two to ease this head.

So the manuscript is now wending its way to the fiction editor of a small, reputable company, continents away. Send good wishes, cross fingers.

Plus I had another near miss with Granta dammit. The narrator was admired, oh yes she was quirky, and I've been invited to send more work. It feels like a soft bummer, not so bad. I reread one of the stories this morning and was entranced.

The thing is I must finish a hefty book revision before I return to story writing. I've promised it to myself, before this novel dissolves again as it has done before. My laptop is lying on the bed waiting for me, the winter sun is even poised at the window so kindly.

The stories in my head will just have to wait.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

My title story still moves me


PELT

Rolfe triggers it. In the way that is the way of all men. In his case a type of athletic bragging ruined by the self-defeat he hangs his hat on. I feel a plock and, with his surprised, involuntary retreat my waters come splashing out, gay and heralding, whereby he bounds back to inspects the folds of his manhood.

My abroni baby will come this day. I roll onto my back and raise my knees in sweet excitement, the baby nestling back even though her head is plugged within my pelvis. Soon after Rolfe is agitating with a towel, peering cautiously at my dark opening. No action there, I laugh. He looks perplexed. Despite his thirty-nine years Rolfe is unfamiliar with the mulch of his own body. A fever sends him into studied ecstasy. The tumbleworm in his butt, whose head and long wrinkled body I inch into the light, is repellent and edifying.

At the apex of his growth curve I suspect I must place myself. This is the man who continues to daub his hands on my sheeny back and breasts. He told me that in Ethiopia, his last posting, they call girls like me ‘slaves’ because of our broad noses and skin a shadow cannot cross.

This is Rolfe’s first child. His wife Karina was barren. I have led Rolfe to believe that this is my first although I had two others before. They are at the village and I send them money. The midwife will no doubt perceive all of this.

(published in Pretext, U.K.)
---
This is the title story of my collection. I remember being possessed by it. Scribbling on the bed for days. Figuring out the last page while on a train going to Florence, needing to finish it before the train stopped burrowing in and out of the hills, transfixed by the poor man in front of me as the final scene coursed onto the page.

Want to know what happens?

Let's hope this collection finds a well-spined home.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

wind in the machine


how rotten! Now that my early burst of glee has found a warm home I was kept awake half the night by a throttling thought: I checked my email just as I dropped my book (The Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee, very transporting) and read that yesterday's accepted story had been longlisted for a big fiction competition prize! Dammit! What the?!

Yesterday morning I'd written off to two other magazines and the friendly bloke running the competition I'd entered late last year with the same story, apologising for sending a spanner into the works with my simultaneous submission - but whoever thinks a story is on the brink of being accepted in two places? And yet what is one to do? Sit back and wait nine months for a reply or a total void? Or sneak out the same piece five or six times?

So there it swims away, flashing in the light, my first longlisting for a fiction prize. Grrr!

The only good bleep is that I even met the competition judge (glazed eyes, I know he thinks I am an ozzie wimmin's writer because of the title of my upcoming commercial book) and I have secretly scuttled under his 'serious literature' door. He longlisted me!

This is quite satisfying.

Monday, 17 January 2011

We wish to inform you


A story from the collection accepted! What lovely news as we wind down the mountain valley after a dodgy day of skiing (helicopters, snow like wet sand, broken legs a-go-go).

It will appear in Tears on the Fence, a green movement/feminist established journal of poetry and fiction.

I am so pleased. Plus the story speaks of injury, acceptance of injury, and how a woman's world softly shifts in a vivid summer mountain setting. I wrote it last year in the autumn - and whoever knows where these compulsions spring from - and remember enjoying discovering the characters as they moved on the page. I knew where I wanted to take them, but it is always a mix of knowledge and acceptance what happens in between.

That is why I love short stories. Departure is so swift, so decisive, then comes the meddling of the mind, the evolving of the characters themselves, and then the crackling at the end, the cusp, the moving away. I love writing the story behind the greater story and was delighted to read this comment once, spoken by an interviewer to Robert Drewe, whose stories I loved as a young woman:

'These stories remind me of Hemingway’s adage about the iceberg – that a strong writer only need reveal one eighth of what he knows about that story, and the reader will sense the submerged whole. Many of these stories seem to contain a novel within them, a wider story that is only hinted at. Is that accurate – do you know a good deal more about these characters and their situations than you reveal?'

Why of course.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The smooth warmth


Of the wooden jetty under bare feet.

Of water swilling around the boat the morning after fireworks, moored in a harbour bay.

How lovely to change continent, change season, change light and breath. I realise how much I have missed movement, water, light. How steathily winter has crept up. And how I am hunched and my bones cold.

I miss the water.