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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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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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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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I’ve Gone Native.

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Trees, that is. I’ve become obsessed with Australian native trees. Gum trees, especially. Their long willowy trunks which reach high into the sky. Their delicate drooping leaves. Their infinitely fascinating bark.

When I think I’ve done enough writing for the day, I like to swing by my local nursery. I’ve become best pals of a sort with the plant man at Bunnings.

You here again? he says.

Yup.

I walk along the aisles, happy as a pig in potatoes, drooling over the choices: cyclads, tree ferns, native grasses, pandorea pandorana…

Recently I’ve discovered CERES nursery in East Brunswick. Oh how my plant obsession runneth over. Here a treasure of Australian natives awaits: grevilleas, banksias, wattles, kangaroo apples, wattles, lilly pillies, blackwoods, chocolate lillies, lemon myrtle. I love the taste of the words in my mouth.

I want to encircle the hot dry garden of our new house with trees and spend many a waking moment deciding which ones. My first dream is to have a pepper corn tree, the most exquisite specimen, sage colored leaves like fine tooth combs waving beautifully in the wind.

Right now I flirt with smaller shrubs and see how they fare in the soil. At Ceres I found a luscious Grevillea Red Hook. Even the cashier was impressed. She looked longingly it at it. “You found that here? I didn’t see it. I’m jealous.”

I hold on to it firmly. I know a good specimen when I see one.

Same thing happened when I found two statuesque burgundy Agonis. “Wow, those are tall. I didn’t see them,” said another cashier with that same jealous look gleamed in his eye.

I’m starting to realize my competitors are not the buyers but the staff.

Today I came home with a dwarf mandarin for my son who will eat no other fruit, and a Silver Princess eucalyptus.

The Silver Princess eucalyptus is very young, barely a metre high. But I have fallen in love with the species. Tall and delicate, often leaning lopsided like she’s had a touch too much to drink. In season her white slim branches will cascade with pink little gum-nuts.

But I must get back to work now–Revisions await–and try not to think about the kangaroo paws I would like plant along the path. They come in all sorts of colors, salmon pink, orange, blood-red, red and green striped, even black. I’m like a kid in the candy shop.

Princess gum photos by Tatiana Gerus (flickr)

Peppercorn tree photo by macinate (flickr)

Kangaroos paw photo by Linda DV (flickr)

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Best British Shorts Stories 2013 and Moi

I can’t believe I didn’t blog about this before. I better blog now before 2013 becomes 2014!

Sometimes in a writer’s life events transpire to really give them a boost. This year it was my turn.

In 2012, Roelof Bakker, a photographer based in London (in my neighborhood of Crouch End, in fact) asked short story writers to contribute to his book of photographs.

I contributed a story called My Wife The Hyena.

STILL is a beautiful book, full of evocative photographs of empty spaces. The short stories from an international group of writers are wonderful. (I will be doing an interview with Roelof Bakker in January. )

In a gorgeous serendipity, one of the other short story contributors, Nicholas Royle, a novelist and editor at SALT Publishing who publishes Best British Short Stories, read my story in STILL and called me up. He said, “You’re not by any chance a British Citizen are you?”

I had just become a British citizen that morning and had celebrated with a delicious English fry-up which I was still trying to digest.

So I was eligible.

It was the highlight of a rather trying year!

Roelof Bakker kindly did an interview:  http://www.neg-press.com/interview-nina-killham/

Sometimes writers have really good years and this one was one of mine.

Thank you, Roelof Bakker and Nicholas Royle.

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Doris Lessing. Mentor or Monster?

The city of Paris introduced me to Doris Lessing when I was twenty years old. I was living there alone and homesick when I wandered into the Shakespeare and Company at 37 Rue de la Bucherie, a croissant’s throw from Notre Dame. It was a glorious place, books lining the walls like wall paper, books lining the floor like walls. I was convinced that if I just stayed quiet enough I could stay all night and not be discovered.

One day I discovered The Golden Notebook. I still remember my eyes devouring the first pages, first propping myself up against a book case, then hunching down and finally just flat out collapsing in comfort to the floor to read what to me was a revelation: a woman’s intimate, psychological life written by a woman, in its intricate, no apologies way.

In the years since I have read many of her books: The Grass is Singing, Briefing for a Descent into Hell,  The Good Terrorist, The Fifth Child and The Memoirs of a Survivor. I worshiped her from afar.

Then one day I read about how she had abandoned her first two children.

It shook me to my core.

Granted, when I read it I had two young children and was hyped up with oxytocin. But I was appalled at her decision to abandon her children for her literary career. As I tried to type out my word count amidst baby bottles and tantrums and the endless chaos of a young family household, I understood her motive. Oh, indeed I did. But I could not condone it. And I certainly couldn’t see past it. From then on, every time I read her books I thought, Well, must be niiiice.

Once my hormones and children were under better control, I reconsidered. After all, even without my ‘gorgeous’ children I knew I would not be so prolific, so erudite, so revolutionary as Doris Lessing. And certainly not on the receiving end of a Nobel Prize. And so I gave her the benefit of non-judgement: something, of course, I owe all people (well most) and began to enjoy her novels again.

Until I read about her attitude toward the women’s liberation movement. ‘The battles have all been won,’ she said, ‘except for equal pay for equal work.’

And I thought Hey! You! You’re pushing it!

Don’t tell me the field has been leveled. Childcare is overwhelmingly done by women, violence is overwhelmingly done to women, poverty is overwhelmingly thrust upon women.

To say otherwise is to abandon the issue.

When I heard she had died yesterday, I felt the passing of a defining literary figure. In more ways than one. We all make our choices. We live with them, we die with them. I owe her respect and yes, admiration.

I like to remember her as one of the commentators did in the Guardian today:

“Very sad to hear of the death of Doris Lessing. I saw her talk at the British Council in Harare in 1995. She was one of the writers I wrote when I was working, through VSO, teaching English in a rural Zimbabwean Secondary School, Chatiza High School near Mutoko. I asked each writer to send a copy of a book which I thought would be inspiring for the students, for the school library . I asked Doris Lessing for a copy of ‘African Laughter’, where she writes about building school libraries in rural schools. She didn’t send me one copy, she sent me a case load of books. And made sure that they were delivered directly to school. An inspirational woman.”

Indeed.

R.I.P Doris Lessing

photo by xjyxjy (flickr)

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House as Character

https://i0.wp.com/pdqpatterns.com/images/zen_animal_alphabet_K_kangaroo.jpg

My house is a character. She was born in 1905 and has sat on a corner lot in the middle of Brunswick, just north of the Melbourne CBD, being grand. I call her the Baroness. She has seen Brunswick change, from a plantation to a brick making center to Greek and Italian conclave to a downright hipster pad with superb coffee and even better graffiti. Down the street one of the shops is still engraved with the name of one of her owners, a not very nice man I’m told who in the 1920’s made oodles of money from his general store but refused to extend credit.

My house is what’s called here of the federation style. It’s a particular Australian style which overlapped the Edwardian era but embraced Australiana themes. Australian flora and fauna were prominently featured: kangaroos, wattles, bottle brush.  Inside we have smoked doors featuring gum trees and stained glass windows glowing with sand and sea. The fireplaces are carved with Art Nouveau scrolls. The molding around the living room features lyre birds.

My house has so much character I have to resist making her into something she’s not. When we first moved in I had so many ideas.  I wanted to lighten up her dark yellow and green trim. I wanted to plant cool clean hedges in place of the granny-fashioned row of lollypop white roses. I was aching to clamp a frilly verandah on her and make her beautiful. But once I arrived I realized she is who she is. For one thing she’s just not a verandah kinda gal. She’d look ridiculous. I have to respect that.

Do you see a writing blog coming a mile away….

I’ll spare you.

I just wanted to say that I’ve painting some rooms in lighter colors. I even painted the yellow tiles in the bathroom white. I didn’t know you could do that and it worked perfectly. The good thing about painting I’ve found is that your thoughts turn to your writing. In fact I thought up a great blog the other day as I painted, tongue stuck between my teeth, the intricate rose molding above the hall. It was witty, insightful, ground changing. Unfortunately by the time I finished the painting I’d completely forgotten it.

But I’m hoping more thoughts will bubble up about my novel as I try to finish rewrite phase. But some days my brain is exhausted. I have squeezed it dry of anything to do with the subject and it must fill up again. So it turns to bits and pieces and that’s fine with me.

The Baroness and I just hang out, listening to the birds outside the doors squawking their little hearts out. Wiping paint off  our noses, we keep going. Because in the end that’s all that works.

Though occasionally I do feel her shaking her roof at some of my ideas.

x

kangaroo window by PDQPatterns.com

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House Renovating for Writers

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We bought a house. We plunked down a fortune and signed an IOU in blood to our local bank. We received keys and a pile of bricks. We are wildly happy.

But today I stand in the hallway overwhelmed. Renovation, even the mildest, most superficial, is not for sissies.

The first couple of days I was so excited. I sat, pleased as purple punch, deciding paint colors. I obsessively poured over magazine pictures which had no bearing on my house but which I had turned to as a template for my future home. I was determined to create something beautiful, awe-inspiring, Zowie-invoking.

But after a week I have hit a wall. The hallway has taken the life out of me. Two coats primer. Two coats white paint. Endless painting of the molding around the ceiling edge and the two roses above the hanging lights. My excitement has turned to a slight depression.

Will this ever get finished.? Paint drips down the walls and splatters all over the floor. Cans of sticky paint and even sticker brushes lie underfoot. I am now realizing why painters get the big bucks: They deserve every penny.

I am also struck by how much renovating is like writing a novel.

You get an idea. You are so excited. You jump in, words flying here and there, until about a week into it you grind to a halt, words dripping down the page, surrounded by sticky platitudes. And you realize why the professional story tellers get the big bucks….

I smile as I reach out and return to painting. The key, of course, is to paint one wall after the other. Write one sentence after the other. Until you reach the end. And then you get to look back and say Ooooh! Or, as with most feats of creativity, see how different your feat is from what you had envisioned. But still you have done it. And you’ve done it the best you can.

Take a bow.

Take a shower.

Start again.

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It’s a bird, it’s a story, it’s Superman

I just returned from a lovely coffee with a friend I haven’t seen since we lived in Singapore. In the time I’ve seen her she has had two children. Two lovely little boys aged five and half and two and half.

I had forgotten how cute little kids are. As mother of a 14 and an 11-year old I’m in a different stage of parenthood. Of course I find my children just as adorable. But in a more elongated, bolshy, complicated way.

Little ones, especially little ones that you have limited time with, are just munchable. The five year old was an adorable little chatterer and the two year old so cute I wanted to wrap my mouth around his little legs and chomp.

We decided to go to the Hollywood Costume Exhibit at the Australian Museum of Moving Images in Federation Square. As we walked in, my friend said, “As you probably remember we’ll be doing the abbreviated tour.

And yes, I did remember: the zooming by all the people looking with great interest and time at each and every costume. We rushed past the the ravishing green dress that Keira Knightly wore in Atonement, Austin Power’s blue velvet suit, the white dress that Marilyn Monroe wore ( just) in The Seventh Itch.

We ended up underneath the costume of Superman which was suspended from the ceiling in full flying mode. In the place of the head was a photograph of Christopher Reeves.

The five-year-old was enchanted.

“Look!” he said with glee. “Superman!” He gazed up at the costume as if the Second Coming was approaching with a big Slurpee in its hand.

With studied eyes we examined every facet of the costume. We oohed over Superman’s rather dashing bright red leather boots which neither of us had ever noticed before.

“What’s his name?” the little boy asked looking up at the face.

“Christopher Reeves.”

“He is beautiful,” he said.

“Yes, he is, ” I agreed. I made sure to use the present tense. Not the time to discuss accidents, paralysis, death, cancer, orphans….

“He’s a good flyer,” he said.

“Well, he’s an actor playing superman,” I said. “He’s helped by wires.”

“An actor?”

“Yes, actors play the characters. That’s what this exhibit is about. The costumes the actors wear when they play the characters.”

“Christopher Reeves is an actor?” he said.

“Yes. He plays Superman.”

The little boy glanced up at the model above us. Then looked back at me, puzzled. And in that look I realized I was walking a dangerous path.

“But he’s a good flyer,” he insisted. “That’s why he got picked to be Superman. He’s a very good flyer. You have to be to play Superman.”

I opened my mouth then closed it. I suddenly realized we were talking about something much more complicated than death. Here, looking me in the eye, was suspension of disbelief. In fact so suspended it didn’t even exist. At least not yet. This little boy was the truest of story followers. I had forgotten his existence. His gorgeous existence. A touch of him remains in all of us. But here he was, unblemished by time and mundane reality. He shone like the largest most brilliant jewel.

So I looked up at the cape suspended by hooks and smiled. “Yes, he is a very good flyer.”

And I left it at that.

I think Christopher Reeves would have approved.

photo by Max-California

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