My Best Boy

This will come as no surprise to my friends but in a frenzy about the coronavirus early on, when I rushed to the store to stock up, I bought dog food, poo bags and treats. That’s it. No toilet paper, no hand sanitizer, no canned beans. If the apocalypse arrived, I felt, we would be completely prepared.

Because I love my dog. Of course, I love my dog. It’s an old story, old as domesticated grey wolves brightening the lives of nomadic hunter-gatherers 15,000 years ago. Though I doubt paleo dog-love looked anything like the current canophilia happening in my house. Those wolves probably didn’t have a personal doctor, daybeds in every room, a morning snack of almonds munched in happy unison with their owner.

My dog is a small, hairy Cavalier King Charles—of course he is–who sheds so much his fur floats like hay bales through our house. But my god he is cute. Archie is the pineapple of my eye. He is the spoiled youngest sibling of my two older children and is indulged in a way they have never been. He gets fed when he bangs on his bowl imperiously; his stack of treats is bigger and more expensive; he features more prominently on my Facebook page.

The irony is that I bought Archie for my children. I found him second-hand from an online ad. His owner, the mother of a teenage boy who had bought Archie for his girlfriend at a pet shop in a grand romantic gesture, had to sell. The girlfriend was no longer, the boy had moved out and the mother already had a dog and a full-time job and was not prepared for a puppy.

The reason he’s become ‘my’ dog is that he refused to imprint on my children. It is a common problem among mothers I am told. These dogs are not dumb, they know who is in control of the pantry. Archie ignores my children and follows me from room to room, his chestnut eyes intent, questioning, adoring. As a mother of older children, I am naturally flattered.

On the night Archie arrived, he walked into our kitchen and immediately set up the habit of getting away with things my children never could by lifting his leg to the wall and giving it a good squirt. He never did that again, so I’d like to think it was his way of saying hello. He was only seven months at the time. He soon learned to sleep on a new bed, not make messes, accept everyone’s cuddles, eat a new brand of food, come when he was called. In short, be a good boy. Which he is. Usually.

We got lucky. But he got lucky too. An estimated 1.2 million unwanted dogs are euthanized in the States each year. Millions are abandoned at holiday time by owners too cheap to pay for pet sitting. How vulnerable these little beings are. They pass through our lives, slaves to our whims and natures, leaving only memories of worn collars and love. So I try my best to deserve his love. And of course, he is cute.

The joy and fascination with which I interact daily with my dog is undercut by the worry that such kindness and patience should probably be shared with other humans, say other people’s children. After all, in the US, more than 1 in 6 children experience food insecurity while in 2019, the pet industry was worth more than $75 billion. Though I am not a huge participant in this new economy—Archie’s bowls are cast off plastic childrensware and his balls are tennis rejects—I do feel guilty about owning a pet because I know it takes a certain type of freedom, income and time.

But I could never give up this love. Raising children is too often about the future, about all the things I or they must do to be better, brighter, more successful. But life with a pet is a series of contained moments. Like the one I’m having right now. Archie and I are both wet from running around the block in the rain before coming back, happily panting at the exertion and shaking our coats in the hallway.

Now a computer rests on my lap, a cup of tea steaming on one side of me, Archie on the other, snoring like a sputtering propeller. It is so satisfying, so uncomplicated, so filled with love. Archie is a gift for which I am completely responsible.  Which is why when I glance over at my stockpile of Gourmet Beef and Vegetable Nuggets and the Turkey Fillet Prime Treats, I know that we are prepared.

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WE NEVER SAW COMING

Short story by Nina Killham

(To think I wrote this short story over a year ago…)

I’ve always been very fond of you, my father says and instantly I know we have entered the final stage of good-bye. This is a new language between us now and I know I need to pay attention. But I’ve been at his bedside for two weeks and my boss, back in Australia, who had initially been supportive–‘Right place to be’–is getting a bit more clipped in his responses. ‘You coming back anytime soon?’ Your father’s heart is strong, the doctor says, this could take a while. Reluctantly, I kiss the translucent skin on my father’s forehead, smooth the bulging veins on his mottled hand and walk away.

On the airplane, I smile faintly at the man squeezing into the seat next to me and flick through the on-flight magazine, gazing at beaches I no longer have any desire to visit. I remember when an airplane ride was a big deal, a glamorous capsule that would take you to an adventure. Now the five-hour flight from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles feels like a bus ride: sandwiches and iPads carried in, bags jammed into over-head racks, coffees balanced precariously on seat arms while hands fish for seat belts.

The sleeping pill will have to come later–on the second leg of my trip–the Guantanamo Bay-like internment from Los Angeles to Melbourne where I moved seven years ago to be with someone I met backpacking along the crystal hills of the Annapurna Circuit. I only recently noticed that I’ve led my life like the owner of a bolshie dog who doesn’t know how to heel, following instead of leading, often scrambling to pick up the crap left in my wake. I settle into the twenty-four-hour trip with steely resolve and, a fitful snooze later, wake up with my father murmuring in my ear. I lean to the left, trying to hear the words, but his voice fades. I glance at my watch, amazed. We are not far from L.A. I peer over, past my two seat mates, towards the window to look out. I’ve always loved this moment of the flight—the descent through the deep purple night into the Inca gold city. 

I think of my father, bald and unmarked as a new-born pup, curled like a fetus in his nursing home cot. He is alone now, my mother ten-years gone. I try my best to be a good daughter but that is difficult, especially when I am so far away and my father cannot fathom the technology that was supposed to connect us.

It is one of the passengers who first points out the fire. Look! he cries and slaps his hand against the windowpane right next to the nose of his teenage son who doesn’t glance up from his phone. But I do and catch the flash of scarlet and yellow in the hills around Topanga Canyon. They look like a comic book gunfire against the blackening night.

By now everyone is peering over, twisting and straining against their seat belts which have been ordered fastened for the descent. Even the teenage boy looks up and then immediately shoves his head into my view.

When we touch down, people jump up, intent on the next thing. Bags in hand, iPads in the other, they shuffle past the tightly smiling flight attendant who urges everyone to have a nice evening. Soon, I think as I walk past, they will have robots to do that. They’ll have a smooth plastic-molded machine rolling back and forth along the aisle offering snacks and alcohol, a credit card imprint embedded in its chest.

On my way out of the domestic gate I recognize the shop where I bought my family-size bag of peanut M&Ms for the flight to D.C. two weeks ago. I enter again, defeated by the sugar pull–after all, I will need something to keep me entertained for the next fifteen-hour flight, not to mention something to sooth the fact that I moved a million miles away for someone I have lately realized I do not love. I also succumb to the allure of an O magazine which offers optimism in a quick five-minute read.

I make my well-worn way to the Tom Bradley International terminal and smile at the sight of a hijab-wearing security guard telling a passenger to lose his shoes. I wave my little baggie of make-up but no one is particularly interested in me or my regulation clear baggie. I stand on the painted feet signs and raise my arms like a good girl.

Past security the air is rarified–clean and filtered–catering to the new flying class. Images of icy blue water cascade from 90-foot high screens. Jungles of exotic flowers bloom from others. Gucci, Burberry and Bulgari beckon like children catchers. Inside the shops, customers twirl in their webs.

I stop for a cappuccino and sit next to a family slurping through a hundred-dollars worth of Frappuccinos and muffins. I observe the crowd. There is nothing else to do. I have not coughed up for the exorbitant international roaming charges and so am stuck watching men and women staring at their phones, their heads at a 45-degree angle like oil rigs.

What I really want to do is return to Washington and set up camp in a room next door to my father. I like the other oldies at the home—they make me feel so young—and I could sit quietly in the evenings with a good book, eat at the common dining room—I’m used to old people’s unappetizing skin lesions by now—and just be. Just be a successful daughter. Not the failed girlfriend, lover, partner, whatever you call it, that I am now. In another era I would probably have been the daughter who remained unmarried to stay home and care for the parents. There was always one. No one does that anymore. Children are now tossed from their home like old toys. Or they run from it. As if it were on fire.

I return to my walking, willing my body to expend its energy so that it will consider resting during the oncoming hours of captivity in the economy seat of a Qantas A380. I am rounding my fourth cycle of the entire concourse when I notice the jostling at the windows. Was there an accident, I wonder as I join the crowd and lift myself on tippy toes to see over the three layers of heads bobbing up and down in front of me.

I gasp. A fire burns ferociously just outside the window, lapping at the runway. At first, I think it is a car or one of those vehicles always zipping around overladen with baggage. But I can’t see a car and now notice a similar fire burning a hundred feet further down. And another. In fact, a whole line of them stretches in both directions. It seems to be the same fire as before, only bigger. Much bigger.

“Will you look at that,” the young woman next to me whispers, jiggling a fractious baby in her arms.

My first thought is to be grateful. Maybe I won’t have to go back. Maybe I will be able to stay in the airport hotel, order room service, read my book. I could email my girlfriend/lover/partner from the hotel server and finally tell her that… Suddenly the crowd shifts, its murmur rising in pitch, and heads for the far side of the building. I glance back at the gate but no staff is around and so I trail the swarm as they all run-walk through the hall, eyes glommed to the TV monitor hanging from the wall of the faux Irish pub. This time the gasp is in unison.

Shot from a circling helicopter, the view presents LAX surrounded by a circle of leaping fire.

People shush each other so loudly I can’t hear the anchor and can only watch the text that reads: Fire raging at LAX– Exits closed for containment.

I wonder if Jen will see this on TV. What is the time in Melbourne? I picture Jen curled up in the Egyptian cotton sheets we bought with so much fanfare and lust, snoring in that gentle yet relentless way she has. Between Melbourne and Washington there is a fourteen-hour difference. When I call my father from my apartment in Melbourne I love to joke that I can guarantee the sun is going to rise that day. Is Jen worried about me? Of course, Jen always worries about me. But for all the wrong reasons.

Just then the sprinklers go off. We all duck, some starting to flee–but there is nowhere to go. It is as if the ice water screens have sprung leaks and are now gushing with fury. Then, as suddenly as they started, the sprinklers stop. People look around, three teenagers in identical sports jerseys laughing nervously. A businessman with too many expensed-lunches around his girth swats at his soaked suit arm, cursing.

I look over to catch a flight attendant rushing by, pursued by a line of honking travelers, chanting I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know…

In search of answers, the flow of passengers surges towards the west side of the building. Someone with a determined edge to his voice has declared there is an information booth that way. As we pass the vast picture window, we can see how the fire has made a bee line along the beach past the neighborhoods of Santa Monica and Venice before hopping over the water way at Playa del Ray. It now stealthily circles the LAX, waiting to pounce.

At the info booth where a frightened older woman, staining the under arms of her white regulation uniform yellow, tries to fend off chaos, we learn that the planes are grounded — though a few pilots seem to be making executive decisions and careen down the runway just inches ahead of the flames. Flames that now make assured jumps across the tarmac towards the airport, clutching like rock climbers onto trucks and catering vehicles for support.

Panicky announcements crackle from the PA systems–mumbled, incoherent, something about staying put, advise against…what? I can’t hear. Against what exactly? By now my crowd, I call it my crowd, are separating into clumps — families turning to each other and hunkering down around bottles of water and boxes from Dunkin’ Donuts which unlike the other shops is still open. Still manned.

The newsstands have clanged shut their metal gates and people gaze longingly and angrily at the candy.

“It’s just going to melt,” says one astute child.

I look around. No one is catching my eye. I am going to have to ride this one out alone. I’m used to that. It’s fine. I examine the long line at Dunkin’ Donuts. The staff is already making slashing marks of SOLD OUT against most of the menu. My half bottle of lemon-flavored vitamin water and family pack of peanut M&M’s is going to have to get me through.

A sudden screech and a wave of awe flows through the hall. A plane attached to Gate 148 has just burst into flames. Black smoke pours through the door into the departure lounge like a malevolent ghost.

A swarm of incredulous passengers shove their way past the slower, more infirm, who squeak piteously like cornered mice. I trip over a roll-on that some idiot insists on hanging on to and come down hard on my elbow. The pain shoots through my whole body and I cry out. But no one notices or doesn’t care–they are busy running to the other end of the building–past the shut Petrossian Champagne Bar, the Hugo Boss shop, the Porsche Design.

The travel boards are now black. The info woman has fled and no employees of any airline can be found. I stand in the middle of the panic, alone and feel strangely calm, as if I am watching the whole episode all on Netflix, curled in my duvet, a Boatrocker brew in my fist.

The water sprinklers suddenly switch on again. And this time people don’t flinch. Better than nothing we tell each other. This will clear the air. Heads nod up and down in agreement, eyes stuck in wide open mode. But then again the sprinklers suddenly cease and we now know to brace ourselves for the smoke lurking down the hall towards us.

I blink slowly, carefully as I look around. The lights click off. The TV dies. The cool blue water disappears. The building seems to slump as the pressure of climate acclimation collapses. Outside I can see the helicopters circling–blinding white lights peering into the darkened airport. The girl who lamented the melted chocolate is now struggling to breathe. Her mother rummages in her carry-on, screeching ‘Where is it? Paul, you packed it didn’t you? I told you to pack it!’ Paul sits on the floor holding his daughter’s hand and shaking his head rhythmically as if in beat to a song only he can hear.

The heat rises. People loosen shirt collars. Some women strip down to their bras–no longer giving a fuck. Men lie back rasping too much to give a fuck. One sad soul tries to break the glass of an emergency exit and is wrestled back and clobbered. The general consensus being that what is out there is a far worse.

Not everyone is panicky though. Some have managed to pry open the accordion steel shop gates and are looting the high-end stores. Well, not looting exactly. They are grabbing bags and shoes and carrying them out to the concourse only to waddle back still laden with their gains when they see the thickening air. Some resolutely take selfies.

I glance down at my own phone. With my lack of international plan, I can’t alert Jen in Melbourne and I don’t want to distress my father. I am unsure he is even thinking of me now, so intent he must be with his dying. I suppose I could ask to borrow someone’s phone, but they all seem to be on them, crying or texting rapidly. I assume those who aren’t have run out of juice.

Would a text work, I wonder. They’re different to phone calls, aren’t they? Maybe it will go through, pass through the ether and hit its target in Melbourne like a missile. And so I waggle my thumbs over the screen, spelling out ‘I love you.’ I stare at the screen, unconvinced, until I finally pump at the backward button to delete all trace of my affection. I put the phone in my pocket and sit there, watching. Though soon it’s too hard to see through the suffocating smoke. Even when the glass shatters and the burning embers dig into my flesh, I can’t believe what is happening. To the end, I still think someone will rescue us, that someone will do something and not let us die one by one, snuffed out by a rage we never saw coming.

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Melbourne lockdown: How We Live Now

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Here in Melbourne, we’ve been in Stage 4 lockdown for over three weeks now. I fully back the Premier’s decision to place these restrictions on us though I realise how difficult it must be for so many. I am one of the lucky ones. I have shelter, food and family to talk to. My heart goes out to those who are not so blessed.

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In Brunswick the streets have emptied. People look stunned. For the most part everyone is masked, eyes crinkling with smiles as they pass by.

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The Stage 4 restriction means that we are only allowed to leave our house for four reasons: “shopping for food and essential items, care and caregiving, daily exercise (one hour) and work.” I have started volunteering at a food bank once a week and have been given a permit to go there. We are also not allowed out after 8 pm which is sad for us because we love to walk our dog around the block before bedtime and look at the stars. Still, the Covid case numbers are finally coming down and that is a good thing.

Fingers crossed.

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Lost and Found In the Kimberley

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It is a grim scene. The cane toads have been flipped over, their soft insides eaten by crows. They now lie in a mass grave, blackened by the sun and dried to a leathery finish, looking very much how I do after registering for online banking.

There is no better place than the Kimberley in Western Australia to contemplate the passage of time. Home to the oldest continuous culture in the world, its landscape is desiccated and crumbling. Just like I feel sometimes in this super-tech world. But it is also dotted with deep gorges full of cool water, the bright yellow blossoms of the kapok tree and exudes an aura of mature resistance.

I have come to this part of Northwest Australia with my Australian husband, my sixteen-year-old son, and our two closest Australian friends. We four adults range from late fifties to early sixties and we plan to sleep in tents and dine by camp stove for the next fourteen days in the rugged outback, tender hips be damned.

The Kimberley is almost exactly the size of California and you have to make, as in life, tough choices when visiting. We have chosen the Gibb River Road—a 412-mile former cattle track between Derby and Kununurra–and so must hire a 4WD. We glance mystified at the pile of tents, stove equipment, chairs, and cots lined up next to the car. We have been left to figure out how to fit them into the canvas sac rigged to the top. It’s a test before the company signs off its $60,000 Toyota Landcruiser to a bunch of aging city slickers. We ask the manager what dangers to watch out for. ‘Stupidity,’ he replies and goes back to counting his money.

First stop–the liquor store where we become octopus-like, reaching for Shirazes and Merlots to pop into a 12-bottle box. Plus a couple of Chardonnays for the American Sheila (that would be me). Oh yes, we remember, as we glance at our son who watches his alcoholic parents with a studied eye, ginger ale for the boy.

The ‘boy’ is sixteen, 6 foot 2 and glowing with young skin and righteous living. He squeezes into the back of the car, pulls out his book and looks soulfully out at the bush. He has left his phone back home. He is not an addict like his parents whose fingers will twitch regularly to see if we’re in cellular distance throughout the trip.

At the sign for the Gibb River Road, we stop to change the air pressure on the tyres. It is deemed (by the women) to be men’s work and the elders teach the boy to the sound of snapping iPhones and the chorus of ‘Look up, smile! No, do it again…’

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That evening, we notice we don’t have a gas bottle for the rented cooker. Nor do we have glasses, matches, or a beer bottle opener. We do, however, have reduced salt soya sauce, smoke salmon, Lebanese bread and 70 percent dark chocolate.

We watch as all around us the camping pros drape their tables with cloth, sizzle juicy nuggets of beef on state-of-the-art cookers and sip from wine glasses glinting in the dying sun. We stare at each other and our stomachs growl in unison. Our son turns his watchful eyes upon us and for the first time in his life I see panic.

Our friends, Shaz and Jamie, set to work and in no time make a salad of spinach, canned chick peas, and red canned salmon which we wash down with a Houghton Shiraz from Margaret River. No need to go to the dogs just yet. When the next morning greets us with the fine scent of coffee percolating on gas stoves in all the camp sites surrounding us, Shaz shakes the partially frozen milk (we forgot to turn off refrigerator), mixes it with ground coffee and voila: city-style iced coffees. Never underestimate the wisdom of age.

As we drive along the Gibb River Road we pass miles of cubist red rock cliffs on which delicate eucalypts balance like chorus girls. This is the King Leopold Ranges, land of termite hills as big as VW Bugs and pot-bellied boabs with their crazy limbs. When we stew impatiently behind road trains belching clouds of dust, we pull out our baby boomers collection of Leonard Cohen, Moby, John Fogarty—yes, 110 degrees in the shade, of course, KD Lang, and the more local Nick Cave crooning “It was hot…we drove on and on.”

Our son laughs. He is stuck in a car with four adult friends who tell the same stories over and over, ones we have been telling for the duration of our twenty-year friendship. But we are trying to pass down age-old Shakespearean truths. Like ‘All that glitters is not gold,’ ‘To thine own self be true,’ ‘Don’t forget to hydrate.’

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A quick stop at Imitje, an aboriginal-run roadhouse, scores us a new gas stove with its accompanying gas canisters, and we finally arrive at Mornington Wilderness Camp after two and half hours on its rocky cattle gate-strewn road. The outdoor dining area boasts amazing views, handsome tourist souvenirs and a dreamy wine list. The camp is dedicated to tackling extinction and land degradation while providing camp spots, safari tents and first-class dining to the intrepid few. Their remit, which includes feral herbivore fencing and aboriginal-style burn-offs, is to rejuvenate the bush. Good luck, I think, rubbing my sore muscles.

After a dip in St. George’s gorge where my husband falls splat on his back and rips open his elbow, we dine that night on roasted lamb rump and orange cake with passion fruit puree. Discussion turns, naturally, to new knees and blocked prostrates. Did you know you can drill? Jamie, asks. My son winces, his eyes trained like a falcon’s on my last bite of cake.

 

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Later, we gather around the fire ring and sit back to contemplate the pulsing stars in the black sky, so numerous they look like a dusting of icing sugar. It is muscle-tightening cold and in the distance dingos yip in the night. The Southern Cross with two of its bright stars pointing directly to the celestial South Pole, is blazing, even if it doesn’t exist anymore, having burned through its energy long ago.

The Kimberley knows about the mysteries of aging. The continued renewal after the Wet, the aching resilience of the Dry, all combined to create a landscape of utter beauty. My son stares out at the dead trees curled in haunting elegance as they reach for the sky. The bush is majestic in its cyclical demise. Unlike his mother.

Our favorite spot along Gibb River Road will turn out to be Manning Gorge. After hours of rumbling along the potted road, spying bustard birds walking cockily through the bush, yellow finches flying overhead, and poor kangaroos and wedge-tailed eagles struck dead by the side of the road, we arrive at Mount Barnett camping site and immediately attack the hard, rocky sun-drenched hike where dead trees look like broken branches stabbed into the ground. And yet when I peer closer I see bright green shoots emerging. We’re not through yet. At the end of the walk, we find a sparkling waterfall cascading into an emerald pool, surrounded by Pandanas trees. Manning Gorge is so beautiful I would gladly die there. But, like the roasted trees on our walk, not quite yet.

A few days later, at the cleverly-managed El Questro hub which features two restaurants and an outside bar, we settle into some well-deserved R&R. We have, after all, been on the road for five whole days. We munch on pumpkin-spiced pizzas and listen to folksy good ‘ol Australiana entertainment. The warmth and cold beers and the general bonhomie of all the families around us remind us why civilization truly is the civilized choice.

 

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Because let’s be frank: the camping cot feels like stone under my hips. Any appendage left in the open shrivels with cold. In the more crowded camp sites, snores fill the night air like the buzz of mosquitos. I’m too scared to relieve my bursting bladder in case I encounter a marauding crocodile. And so every morning at first light, I stagger from the tent, adding a string of expletives to the deranged cackle of magpies and white galahs swooping overhead.

The boy in contrast seems to emerge from the small tent stronger, straighter, taller every morning. An amble to the table and he wolfs down a bowl of muesli, his taste buds adapting to his older companions’ preference for sawdust. He now drinks coffee, taking his turn coaxing the water to boil on the tiny stove, at home in nature as he is in the computing ether. I envy his comfort in our changing complex world, his commanding way with a browser, his ability to remember more than one password. The stance of the dying white gums with their bare branches raised to the sky reminds me of how I spend much of my life lately, imploring I don’t understand how anything works!

But this trip is about the peace promised in ‘getting away from it all’ and I look forward to soaking in the three main watering holes of El Questro. At Emma Gorge, a clear dazzling bowl of ice water, we are struck with shoe envy as toddlers walk by with newfangled protective water shoes while we pick our way, barefoot, through the sharp rocks, jerking like electrocuted puppets. Luckily, we discover a small tub of warm water hewn from the red rock and we submerge our bones like blissed-out hippos.

Tragedy strikes in Amalia gorge. Not one but two of our iPhones fall into the water. We walk back in stunned silence, our minds focused not on the possible broken bones averted but on all those fabulous photos–which got our best sides, ignored the wrinkles and showed us looking fabulous, darlink—now stewing into oblivion. The boy walks ahead, whistling, deeply unconcerned.

Midway through our walk to El Questro gorge we are stopped by a large boulder. To continue on the trail you have to wade chest-high in water and scramble up steep slippery rock. We stop and stare at each other warily—who is up to this? Just then a couple in their early twenties appears at the top of the boulder. They shimmy down, swim across with their backpack on the young man’s head and emerge before our eyes like the god and goddess of all things we once were. They stop for a happy chat and when they finally wave a cheery goodbye, the boy glances from us to them, his thoughts traveling on in their back pack.

We are quiet on the last drive of the trip, on the Great Western Highway back towards Broome as we contemplate our return to a world we have trouble sometimes understanding, politically and mechanically. But I have seen bright green shoots grow at the base of fading trees and it gives me hope. The boy smiles in anticipation of his return to his friends. He is our green shoot. And when I look at him I feel like a sugar-dusted star, hoping the best for humanity.

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THE STRANGER by Nina Killham

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I have no idea how he got in but there he suddenly is, leaning on my kitchen counter, jelly belly sagging over his jeans, a tattoo chaining his neck, lips plump and greasy.

“You right, mate?” he asks.

How did he get in? I do a quick swing of my eyeballs around the room, past the kitchen table piled with school crap and abandoned in muted fury—like I know anything about cosines–the overflowing recycling bin, the empty hand sanitiser that for the life of me I cannot find a replacement for. Did the kids leave the back door open? How many times have I told them? How many times? I sigh. Well, however he got in, the main thing to do now is to get him out again, as quickly as possible. Maybe, if I pretend I don’t see him, he’ll go away. I open the fridge and lean in, looking for my next snack.

“Anything good?” he asks.

I open my mouth to respond but shut it tight–do not engage–and pull out the roast lamb we had last night for dinner. Slice or two of that with some mayo, two slices of rosemary sourdough, some lettuce, and my life will be complete.

I feel the tickle of his fingers on the back of my neck. “I said, Anything good?”

I put the lamb back. I’ve lost my appetite. I squeeze around him and sit down in the living room. I can hear the kids in their rooms, talking to their friends on Skype. Maybe Netflix will keep me company. The missus is in the garage jogging through the alps on the new exorbitant running machine she insisted we buy before she went mad from not being able to go to the gym. After one particularly expressive day on her part, I gave in. So here I am, alone, unloved, except for the goon who has plunked his nasty ass right down next to me.

“What are we watching?” he asks.

Don’t get me wrong, by this time I am desperate for company. A month of lock-down will do that to you. Oh, yeah, you can still go to the shops, but by this time I am terrified of catching anything. I approach stepping out for some milk like a soldier crawling along the Kabul-Kandahar highway. Everyone has become so jumpy, hands snatching back if they came within an inch of each other. People, now having to standing in line just to get into Coles, are getting pissy if you zone out in podcastland and get too close. The look they give you. That Stand back, motherfucker, I’ve got kids to feed!

So I hightail it back to home. Home. Never gave it much thought before. It fed me, kept me company in the evenings and on weekends. When I was there. But a lot of the times I wasn’t. I was busy, very important. Spent my lifetime in meetings, and strange hotels with shame-tingling TV cable channels. My second home was an airport, and a bar. Yeah, a lot of bars where the light was syrupy golden and the drinks were paid for by the company and the company was, if not dazzling, at least convivial. Knew the difference between a concessional and a non-concessional contribution and didn’t yawn like a cheetah when you told them what you did for a living. Superannuation. It’s going to keep you in chocolate biccies, baby, when your teeth are falling out is how I like to put it. Many a conversation has died a gritty death around the words pre-mix strategy and conditions of release. Well, they’ll know when it matters, believe me. If they’re lucky. My Mary, she still doesn’t know the what an allocated pension is. And is proud of it.

I’m the cheetah now, padding around the house, poking my nose into teenage bedrooms and getting an earful for my efforts. I force myself twice a day to walk around the block, dragging the pudgy spaniel who has already been walked by Mary and is in no mood to move. I’m addicted to endless doomsday podcasts, corona this corona fucking that. How many are dead, that is what I always want to know, first thing in the morning, like it’s fucking Christmas and the answer is underneath the tree.

Everybody going on about how it’s time to refuel, recalibrate like we’re fucking tires out of alignment. Read, they urge. Be creative. Ha. I pick through the stack of books that I have put by my bedside in a bout of self-deception and then just stare at the first page for about five minutes before my hand reaches of its own accord and taps that bloody blue bird on my phone. What the hell is going on out there? Help! Save me from myself. Talk to me, somebody. Please.

So yeah, I’m desperate. I flick through the TV choices: House of Cards, season three, what a fucker that lead actor turned out to be, but man he is good. That twitchy thing he does with his cheek when he gets angry, scares the shit out of me, I would have done anything he asked. Love The Americans who, just whenever you are getting too moist about what good guys the two are, murder some innocent bystander with a deadly neck-breaking snap. Mary and I flesh out our entrenched TV habit with a couple of Nordic Noirs with their sick rape/murder/dismemberments.

I glance over at the guy who by now has oozed himself onto the couch next to me and is nodding enthusiastically at one of the Nordic Noirs with its preview of the little blond number all sliced and diced.

“That one,” he says, raising his finger and grinning.

We settle back and watch in silence for bit, but I start feeling like something is missing. Like a beer: cold and soothing. Naturally, I offer him one—I’m not a dick–and he nods, not taking his eyes off the knife slicing through the pale virginal flesh. In the kitchen I rummage in the refrigerator. We have plenty of beer—I practically took a tow truck to Dan Murphy’s so that is no problem. I just had to find it behind all the other food we’ve also stashed up on: smoked salmon, for Christ’s sakes, coming out of our ears. And Mary upped our ice cream stash by several factors just in case the kids go without a sugar rush for two hours. “But they’re bored, darling, we need to do something.”

Mary has taken to starting every evening with a glass or three of champagne like she’s the mistress of some stone manor in the fox-run wilds of England. We keep telling ourselves that we are saving oodles by not going out to cafes and restaurants and movies and whatever else we seem to fill our endless time with. So we can indulge. And no, I haven’t lost my job yet. I’m keeping to myself the rumours. Which I heard last night at Jeff’s place.  I told Mary I was walking the dog but went straight round to his place. He lives alone, no control freaks in his household. And yeah, Matt and Blue were there too and their alibi dogs. And we had a beer. So shoot me. And that’s where I heard the rumours about the lay-offs. Jeff was freaking out, snot and tears everywhere, and so we took turns patting him on the back. We’re not complete assholes.

No need to worry Mary just yet. Let her keep swilling the champers. I might make the cut. You never know. So yeah, I can spare a beer for the mess taking up space on my couch, watching the Swedish murder scene with way too much attention. I hand him a cheeky microbrew I’ve discovered down the Peninsula and a bowl of peanuts too, just to keep him busy.

“You ready,” he asks, his hand like a limp rag as he dips it into the peanuts.

“For what?”

“For the end of the world…”

“Don’t be an idiot.”

“…as you know it.”

Mr. Drama Prince. No. I say. All these people going on about how nice the world is, so quiet you can hear the birds and all the bunnies swimming in the canals, and everyone being matey and pole dancing on balconies, and chatting with friends you haven’t thought about for twenty years (there was a reason, mate). No, I prefer it like it was before. Give me smog you can chew on any day. Give me the sweet sweat of a stranger. The packed nonsensical lives of a teenager. The complete disinterest of your common man. Hand me over consumption and petty squabbles fixed up over a picnic in the park. Give me love with too many people for your own and their good. Tight Coles aisles and the eye rolling and the bad breath. God, what I would give for a bout of someone’s bad breath riling my day. Or fresh food markets with the barking vendors and the crushing crowd and the bright fleshy root vegetables piled high like tarts showing their tits. Give me heaving humanity in all its glory.

The stranger raises his eyebrows. “Too late now, mate. Should have made your predilections clearer.”

“Would it have made a difference?”

He thinks a moment. “Nah, not really.” He raises his empty beer bottle. “Another for the road?”

“Dad?” It’s Tim, finally coming up for air, his face pouched with boredom, his body slack from lounging all day at the computer. His eyes are slits, barely registering the moocher on the couch.

“Your kid?” The stranger says. Master of the obvious. I nod, unease creeping into my guts.

“Get some breakfast and go for a bike ride,” I bark at Tim. His eyes widen at the thought of so much activity. “Now,” I insist. I want him out of the stranger’s eyesight.

“Yeah, yeah, OK.” Tim pulls his face back from the open door and closes it.

“Nice kid,” the stranger murmurs. “Pity.”

I want him out. Now. No more beer. No more savage television. Time to go. I have been welcoming enough.

He nods his head in agreement. “Yes, yes, you have.” He heaves himself up from the couch, patting his pockets. “Got everything? Probably not. Oh well, onward and onward.”

He holds out his hand for a shake. “No hard feelings, mate.”

I ignore the hand and open the front door for him to leave just as Mary appears, the lead attached to the dog in one hand, her iPhone attached to earphones in the other. Who’s that?” she says, eyeing the grease ball disappearing down our path.

“No one,” I say.

She nods then puckers her forehead as she places a hand to my clammy cheek. “Oh, mate,” she says, “I can’t believe you let him in.”

 

 

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Slow Reading

I had a gorgeous evening last night. I went to a reading group in Melbourne conducted by bibliotherapist, Sonya Tsakalakis.

The set up was simple: a handwritten sign announcing ‘Literary Salon,’ a couple of chairs placed together, a xerox copy of the short story, ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield, and four strangers.

What took place over the next hour and a half was beautiful.

First a short summary of the story:  The Sheridan family is preparing to host a garden party. Laura, one of the teenage daughters, is excited and happily interacts with the workers hired to put up the marquee. She frets over the excessive order of lilies by her mother. She sinks her teeth into a delicious cream puff that is to be served to the guests. Suddenly into this idyllic day comes the news: a local man has been trampled and killed by a horse. Laura has the good grace to suggest that the party be stopped. After all the guests would walk right by the dead man’s house at the bottom of their path. But no one else agrees. Later Mrs. Sheridan sends Laura down to the dead man’s house with a basket of leftovers for the man’s family. Laura is brought in and shown the dead man’s corpse. She is unable to articulate what she feels, managing only: “Isn’t life…”

We took turns reading, stopping about every two pages to discuss. It flowed easily. Sonya deftly molded the evening around the written text and our conversation.

We chatted about what we thought of this comment, that nuance. We laughed. We discussed intimately what it is to be human in today’s world: How we don’t spend time mourning our lost ones. How very apropos the short story remains about poverty and the cluelessness of so many privileged people (I include myself). How we continue to try to distract young women from important issues by concentrating on their looks.

It was different to a book club where you’ve read the book and then get together to discuss. Often by then your first thoughts are forgotten. You are quick to judge. Sometimes the only real question is whether you liked the book or not. Yes, I quite liked it, you might murmur as you reached for the red wine. But what was different about this was that you read together, you remembered the sentences, you remembered your feelings.

I found the whole experience very soul-nurturing because as an author I tend to read too professionally. Either doing research or dissecting a book, wondering how did they do that. Thinking sometimes snootily, Is this really something that got published? Or more often, Wow I could never do this. I never turn off my professional eyes.

Which is sad because the main reason I became a writer is that I loved to read.

So it was good to relax into the story, to concentrate on the text, to fall deeply into the spell. No thoughts of who the author’s agent or publisher must be or any tricks of the trade. Just a long slow deep reading with new insights and conversation.

Slow reading.

If you’re in Melbourne, check out Sonya’s website. You will never read the same way again.

painting: Charwomen in Theater (1946) Norman Rockwell (USA, 1894-1978)

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You’re alright.

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Last month was my second anniversary of living in Melbourne. The time has flown by. I can honestly say we are very happy here.

What I love the most is this three word phrase that everyone keeps saying to me: You’re alright.

It sounds like one word: Yalright.

Having lived in London for 15 years previously I tend to say Sorry. All the time. If I’m late. If I’m flustered. If I’m in the way. If I exist.

But the response here is so life affirming that it’s like being dipped in cool velvety water.

If I bump into someone. “Sorry,” I murmur.

“You’re alright,” says the large man with the shaved head and anarchy tattoo across his neck.

If I can’t get my change out from my purse fast enough. “Oh so sorry…” I implore.

“You’re alright,” says the impossibly young and chirpy supermarket check out girl.

If I’m made a mistake. “I’m so so sorry….” I blurt.

“Y’alright,” says the seen-it-all lady at the Driver’s License Bureau.

It’s….bliss. And each time some one says it I perk up. I pat myself down and think Yeah, I am alright. I actually am.

It’s good to be reminded.

Which is why I love this country.

I’m sorry I am in your space.

You’re alright.

I love you.

photo by yasa_ (flickr)

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Et tu, Robin?

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It’s been a hell of a month, so many conflicts, so many children dying, a disease raging in Africa, and yet it was only when Robin Williams died did I cry.

Call me heartless. But as I watched twitter and Facebook exude grief I realized I was not the only one truly saddened. And I think we were grieving because the two were so connected: the horror of the world and Robin William’s comedy.  And his rage. A rage that increasingly many of us feel deep down. He managed to turn the rage that seemed to burst from his hairy chest into belly laughs.

He made a bleak world funny and found the funny in a bleak world.

Most writers have depressive tendencies. After all it’s not really normal, is it, to step aside and create imaginary people to explain what the hell is going on. His people were legendary. He wrote them and he lived them in front of us like an age-old storyteller: Good Morning, Vietnam, Mork and Mindy, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King to name just a few.

But there is a price to be paid. All that openness to man’s gory details, digging your hand into the bowels of humanity, mucking about to finding a gem, takes its toll.

And I think he’d run out of change.

We thought he’d always be there to get us through. I personally don’t think there is anyone out there within shooting distance of his talent.

And now he’s gone.

And that makes a string of them. The good guys, the guys who are digging deep and offering us gems.

Spalding Gray

David Foster Wallace

Malik Bendjelloul

Uday Kiran

And it makes me very nervous….

 

 

 

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Patrick White on fire

I have just finished reading Patrick White’s ‘Riders in the Chariot.’

Boy, when the Big Editor in the sky handed out talent he didn’t leave any for the rest of us, did he?

Patrick White, for those who don’t know, was an English-born Australian writer who many think is one of the most important English-language novelists of the 20th century. I have to agree. He published twelve novels, three short-story collections and eight plays. In 1973, he was the first Australian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

He is known for his several points of view and stream of consciousness with which each character is so beautifully and memorably drawn. What struck me were his women. He conjured up all shades. From the saintly to the understandably mad to the useless carping self-righteous shrews who can condone such harm.

He is also known for his long florid sentences. The pages blur with so many words and little white relief it took a bit getting used to. But eventually the sentences uncoiled and began to sun themselves and I could see the jewels sparkling along their backs.

Try this one :

“A fellow on a skewbald nag could have been anybody’s almost-extinguished dream, the way he drew a match along the tight flank of his pants, and almost glanced up, out of his burnt-out eyes.”

Really, not a book to read while trying to write your own. It will leave you suicidal.

His descriptions of Australia conjure a world in which he was obviously in conflict–part fascination/part dread. You can feel the prickly heat, the scratchy weeds by the roadside, the majestic and demonic swirl of the overbearing clouds.

Having lived in Australia now for over a year I could recognize the waving gum trees and tricky weather flickering in the sky.

Patrick White was born to Australian parents in London and spent much of his youth going back and forth between the two countries. He spent the rest of his writing career attempting to describe what it was that best summed up this country. When he finally settled in Australia after the war he felt a foreigner in his home.

The more I read about him, the more I understand how he felt. I have often felt a foreigner in my home, the United States. It doesn’t lessen my love and intrigue, it just makes it all very enigmatic. My relationship would best be described, I suppose, a la Facebook: ‘It’s complicated.’ So I am very excited to read more novels by this writer.

At the end of his life, according to David Malouf, Patrick White was asked for a list of his loves: He responded:

“Silence, the company of friends, unexpected honesty, reading, going to the pictures, dreams, uncluttered landscapes, city streets, faces, good food, cooking small meals, whisky, sex, pugs, the thought of an Australian republic, my ashes floating off at last.”

Sounds like a fair dinkum cobber.

If you want to more about him you can go to this website which is perfectly called: why bother with patrick white? Or listen to a Wheeler Centre video discussing the book. (Wheeler Centre videos are brilliant!)

Personally I’m cracking open another book: his A Fringe of Leaves…..

 

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My Writing Process–Blog tour

A fellow writer, Linda Huber, who I met on Twitter, invited me to take part in a blog tour during which authors and writers talk about their process. I don’t have a current book to promote but I wanted to be helpful and I think it’s good to analyze the ways in which we approach our work.

Of course the main question might be Why do we blog? Well, it’s obvious. We like to think we’ve done some cool creative things (like the guys in the photo above) and we just wanted to show you.

You can enjoy Linda’s blog here. (She has a much prettier photo.) Her second novel, The Cold Cold Sea, will be published by Legend Press this summer.

What am I working on? I have just finished the first draft of a historical novel set during the fall of Singapore in WWII. It’s about a young British woman who falls in love with a Chinese man in the midst of chaos. I lived in Singapore for a year and became fascinated with the Peranakan culture. I wanted to attempt to write a romance. The first draft is a cringe-making mess. I am now trying to salvage it. To get at that vision I had which was smooth, clever, sexy.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? I began my career writing satires but wanted to try my hand at other genres. Perhaps I thought I would be taken more seriously. Get invited to the Booker party. I don’t know. But I haven’t been wildly successful lately until I wrote a darkly comic short story called My Wife the Hyena and it was included in the Best British Short Stories 2013. So perhaps I should return to my roots.

Why do I write what I do? I have a friend who laughs when I tell her what I’m writing next. She says Where do you come up with these ideas? Not sure but I do know that writing for me is compulsion. It is how I process the world and my place in it. I examine themes which pertain to me. For example, one of the Singapore story’s themes is nationalism. Because of the several number of nationalities in my family, this holds fascination for me. Successful writing, I find, involves a fine line between using that compulsion and fine-tuning it to interest others. Yes, I write about what interests me but I try very hard to write in a way that will interest others.

How does your writing process work? I write and write and write. Then I write some more. And then a bit more. I wish I had more control. Every time I approach a book I tell myself, Be more focused, Know where you’re going, Understand what you’re doing. But it never works. I just wrote a 85,000 word novel that frankly stinks for the first half. But I had to write that first half to know where I was going. The problem arises when I am loathe to give up sections of writing and spend too much time trying to squeeze them in other spots in the book. My best days are when I can finally kiss those large sections of darlings good-bye and toss them. Sometimes good material, like good men, will only show up if you get rid of the slackers.

Next Week Sarah Wesson will blog about her writing process. Here is her bio:

Sarah Wesson blogs at Earful of Cider so she can avoid writing while writing, and sometimes even while writing about writing. She’s a mommy of two, a spouse of one, a reader of anything, a public librarian, and a biographer of local dead people and rehasher of local history (not your local, her local).  She’s also a keeper of half-written fictional shipwrecks, completer of four drawer novels, querier of what is not a caper novel, because those don’t sell, and WIPping girl for a couple of new projects.
 

photo by Ari Helminen

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