An Observation – Part 6 – Heart Shaped Garden

Heide I - Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons - Nick Carson

Heide I – Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons – Nick Carson

Miss Three and I were at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne, spending the day there with my mother-in-law, her sister and two other friends. Madam had already charmed everyone at lunch in the cafe, pretending to take our ‘orders’ at the table, charging us all exorbitant prices:

‘Really? A hundred dollars for coffee and cake? It must be good.’

After lunch she wandered with us through the concrete cool of the mid century modernist house called Heide II, once home to artists John and Sunday Reed, lolling on the couches where they had once sat and looking with a child’s eye at the paintings on the rough textured walls, bright arcs of colour and light.

Then we went to the original timber clad farmhouse, Heide I. The rooms were filled with paintings and photographs documenting that golden time when Heide was a hotbed of art and love and friendship, legendary names reclined in sunny group shots, laughing on the green lawns.

Miss Three became tired of it all, not being able to touch anything. She wanted to go outside and I obliged – after all, she had been so very good all day. So out we went, leaving our group behind as we stepped into the walled garden surrounding the house to find ourselves alone. Miss Three chased after butterflies then became entranced by the heart shaped flowerbed on the lawn, created by Sunday after the end of her love affair with Sidney Nolan. I watched as Miss Three danced around the heart, pink skirts blowing, small arms stretched out.

All at once it was as if time slowed and shifted, and it was as though Sunday stood near me, her presence as strong as the scent of roses tumbling over the high brick wall. I could feel her pleasure at seeing my daughter enjoying her garden, and hardly dared move or breathe, not wanting to break the spell sitting like a golden bell over us all.

Then a woman came through the arched opening in the wall, her expression disapproving as she looked at Miss Three who was stopped on the path, smelling a flower. ‘Excuse me,’ she said, moving abruptly past us before we really had a chance to step out of the way. And just like that, the spell was broken, the magic gone.

All except the memory. That remains.

An Observation, Part 5 – A Glimpse of Snow

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It was a hot Melbourne day, the kind where the air is heavy and damp before 9am, holding the city hostage until a cool change blows in from the west. I was waiting for a train at one of the red brick rail stations so ubiquitous in the inner city, federation bungalows and Victorian houses backing onto the tracks. If it weren’t for the prickly pear and palm trees lining the embankments and the sticky, overbearing heat, you could almost be in old England, wrought iron arches and curving brickwork evoking somewhere half a world away. Perhaps that was what they wanted, the architects of this city by the bay – a reminder of faraway home.

I sat on a bench in the shade as I waited for my train to arrive, fanning myself with my hand, though all it did was move the warm air around. The platform was almost deserted. The only other occupant was a tiny old lady with a wrinkled face and improbably black hair, dressed in dark layers that looked stifling in the heat, her small feet stuffed into black shoes. She came to sit next to me and I smiled at her. She smiled back, flash of bright eyes in her lined face.

‘Hot day,’ she said, her strongly accented English betraying her European roots.

I nodded. ‘Sure is.’

‘Where you from?’ she said, lifting her chin at me.

‘Canada,’ I said. It was my answer at the time, my most recent address before coming to Melbourne, the twang in my voice giving me away.

‘Ohh,’ she said, nodding. ‘It’s cold there. Lots of snow.’

I think I said something about how nice it would be to have some snow as we both wilted in the heat, air shimmering on the tracks nearby.

She agreed then leaned in, as though about to share a confidence.

‘When I was a little girl in Italy, we sometimes have snow. Not very often, but I remember one time when I was at school. Our classroom had a balcony with big doors and we all ran out to touch the snow as it fell. When the teacher called us back in, we threw snowballs at her.’

Then she giggled, her legs swinging back and forth like the little girl she used to be, transporting both of us back to a place where snow fell and children laughed. Eventually the train came and we both went on to our destinations – I never saw her at the station again. But I always remembered her story, the small glimpse she gave a stranger of snow on a hot day.

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An Observation – Part 4 – The Fighter

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Hot. Sweat and heat and hurt as fists fly, looking for an opening. Water slick under the plastic coated shin guards, fingers curled in her gloves. Her helmet is tight around her ears and forehead, squashing her cheeks around her mouthguard, which feels dry and heavy in her mouth.

‘Point!’

The fight stops, both women pulled back to their starting position as they wait, fists raised, staring at each other until the centre referee drops their hand again. And it’s wash, rinse, repeat.

The other fighter stays in close. She’s older and more experienced, recognising that her opponent will want to use her legs and superior reach to gain points. So she cuts her off, jamming up her kicks before they can land, reaching over and under and around so all the other fighter can do is block, arms working frantically, elbows in tight, impact hard against her ribs. She will be bruised, later, but for now she barely feels a thing.

‘Time!’

The fighter is pulled back to her chair, her mouthguard removed, helmet loosened. Her coaches crouch either side of her, both of them talking as one squirts water from a plastic bottle into her mouth. She nods at what they’re saying, but doesn’t really hear them. Her focus is all on the woman in the chair opposite, dark eyes staring back at her.

Time is called. Her helmet goes on, mouthguard in and she is back in the ring. And then it happens. The sensation she’s only experienced a handful of times before, a gift from the gods who govern such things. Everything slows and becomes crystal clear. As the other fighter comes towards her again she steps to the side, easily evading her punch and landing one of her own. It’s so easy it’s laughable. ‘Why can’t she see it coming?’ she thinks, only vaguely aware of her teammates cheering, the roar of the crowd.

Pulled back to starting position she feels calm, as though she is at the centre of a storm, pinpoint, absolute. The other fighter comes towards her, oh so slowly it seems, and she does it again. It is almost as though she has stepped outside herself, controlling things from a distance. A heightened place of awareness where is no fear, there is no pain. There is only step, evade, punch.

And she does it a third time. Her opponent is rattled. She has to change her stance, the way she approaches. And as she does so, the strange feeling is gone and the fight resumes as it was before, all sweat and noise and thudding impacts. Experience wins out, as it so often does, but the girl is elated as she goes back to her chair, teammates coming to hug her and offer congratulations despite her loss, for they have seen what happened. She is still dazed, feeling surrounded by a silver mist, the remains of the battle frenzy like mist over a green field, slowly dissipating.

It was the longest six minutes of her life.

Clearing My Mind

What do you mean, I have work to do?

Most days I count my blessings as I sit down at my computer, happy to be writing, to have my family, to be living here.

And then there are days when really, all I want to do is sit on the couch and binge watch Avengers movies or Game of Thrones, or the Tudors. Or something. Just eat crisps and have endless cups of tea and ignore the washing and tidying that needs to be done. Sit in the sunshine and drink cider, go to the shops and spend money I shouldn’t. Be a bit naughty. Let it go.

That’s pretty normal, right?

And so it is today. I have work I should be doing. Work I’m supposed to be doing. But instead I’m fiddle faddling around with Homes Under the Hammer and Twitter, writing blog posts like this one and yes, the crisps have already been opened.

I’ve done some writing, sure. I’ve written a letter to a magazine about something I read recently. I commented on someone’s post. I’ve written this post. I’ve started another. I’ve even written the first sentence of some actual paid work (with plans to write a little more later, honest).

I think I’ve mentioned the fact that I like to meditate. I used to be really good at doing it every day without fail, and in fact it helped me sort out a whole bunch of stuff, clearing my mind in every way. These days I don’t do it as often as I should but I still find, when I do, that it’s a great way to clear the clutter and get set on what I need to do next. And I also think, when I have days like this, that it’s another way of clearing the clutter. As I potter about doing a bit of this and that, I’m actually clearing a whole bunch of crap out of my mind leaving it clear and ready to focus later. I have a deadline to meet, which I know I will do, and editing to work on. I have emails to write and parcels to send. There is laundry and cleaning and cooking to do, the day-to-day minutiae of managing a house and family. You know what I mean. And I’ll get it all done.

But I might watch some X-Men movies first.

(And yes, I know I’m lucky to work from home and be able to do this once in a while. Another blessing counted 🙂 So I’m not complaining, simply observing how my day is today. How’s your day going?)

An Observation, Part 3

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It’s January 2001 and I’m backstage at the Big Day Out music festival, Sydney, Australia. We’ve been backstage most of the day, hanging out, avoiding the heat and crowds and filthy bathrooms, having a couple of beers and pretending like this is all cool, that we do this sort of thing all the time.

By we I mean myself and the man who will be my husband – at this point we’re still cheerfully living in sin, the engagement a few years away, but we know we’re going to stay together. So now we’re walking along a tarmac road at the back of the huge main stages, warehouse type buildings all around, and we’re following the band System of A Down who are about to go onstage.

‘Hey, it’s System of a Down’ says a teenage boy in awed tones as we wander past, his eyes resting briefly on us as we tag along behind, no doubt wondering how the hell we got to walk with his idols. Up ahead Darren, the guitarist, has his arm around Casey Chaos, the lead singer of Amen– they are obviously bonding, swapping stories. Just in front of us is my brother, tall in black jeans and leather, dyed black hair shining in the hot Australian sun. He’s the guitarist for Amen and they’ve already played their gig on the main stage, one of the first acts to go on. But it’s still the main stage and the crowd of appreciative kids kicked off, screaming and slamming and singing along, enjoying the spectacle. He came out to see us, afterwards, and we had to wait while several awestruck fans asked for autographs and took photos while he smiled, always happy to see them, the ones who love music like he does. And I just watch and smile, pleased for him that he’s doing what he loves.

So that’s how we find ourselves walking along hot tarmac and then up metal stairs to the back of the stage. System go through first, then my brother and Casey, easily through, obviously part of the scene. But the security guy shakes his head at the two of us, despite the sparkly laminated passes we’re waving around and, for the first and last time ever, I am a bit of a diva. I call for my brother and he comes back. ‘They’re with me,’ he says, all smiles, and the security guy has to let us through, though he’s not happy (after the set we hear they ban all non-musicians from being onstage). We find a spot standing stage right behind a muscular giant who, despite looking like the fiercest of Maori warriors, is a totally nice guy, smile wide as he kisses me on the cheek in greeting. His girlfriend is petite and blonde and gorgeous and equally friendly. Then System take the stage and the crowd of 50,000 plus goes completely wild. ‘Chop Suey’ has just gone massive and the guys are one of the most popular acts on the tour. And I have never felt anything like this.

Serge is laughing as he moves towards the back of the stage, microphone in hand his face incredulous and joyful and hilarious all at the same time – he obviously can’t believe this. And neither can I. Beside me I hear my brother choke out a laugh on a breath as though someone has hit him in the chest. And that’s what it feels like, like a slam to the heart, the power and energy of the crowd pulsing back to the stage. It is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced. And these guys get to do it every night.

As writers we are often told ‘Write what you know.’ It’s a useful tool when creating reality for the reader – putting in details that are true to life and familiar or describing something you know so well so it becomes familiar, drawing the picture in the reader’s head. So now I know what it’s like to see a crowd from the singer’s vantage, how it feels to be on the stage and feel the pulse from the crowd, power surging up and through you, easy to extend my viewpoint to that of the artist.

All of us who write bring something of who we are to our work, which is why it can feel so confronting the first time you share it with others, like opening a little window into your soul. I’ve had some pretty interesting life experiences, been fortunate enough to meet wonderful and annoying and interesting people, each year bringing with it new events from which to draw references. In my NaNo novel I describe one of the worst dates I’ve ever been on, substituting the lead character for me, her emotions a reflection of how I felt on the night.  All of my work so far has little pieces of me in it – my Ambeth heroine lives in the house I used to live in, for example. And for those things I haven’t done there is research, the Internet bringing places and cultures and ideas from around the world into one place, information on just about anything I can think of just a mouse click away.

But when you write fantasy, as I do, you have to extend even further, into the realm of dreams. I don’t know what it’s like to be dead or keep dragons or find a hidden world in my local park, but I do know what it’s like to be a bullied teenage girl, looking for a job or how an advertising office works. So on the foundation formed from things I know I build worlds that I do not, discovering along the way how they work and passing on the details to my readers, hoping to take them on the journey with me.

‘An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soils of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous.’  JRR Tolkien

An Observation – Part 2

It’s 1983 and I’m sitting in the food court of the Rideau Centre, Ottawa with three of my friends. All around us conversation hums, the clatter of cutlery, the crunch of plastic. We’re all feeling pretty cool, sitting there in our pastel outfits. Just to be extra cool, today I’m sporting my entire collection of Duran Duran pins – five on my top (one for each member, though Simon’s my favourite), with the remainder adorning the long strap of my turquoise bag.

Then a girl walks over to us. She’s older than we are, probably seventeen to our thirteen, and she looks pretty amazing. Her auburn hair is slicked back at the sides and spiky on top, her eyes lined with three different colours of eyeliner – pink, brown and black, elongated Cleopatra style. Her outfit is made up of artfully tattered layers held together with a studded belt, Roman sandals on her bare legs going up to her knees (this is way before Rihanna). She is flanked by two boys, studded and spiked and bristling with teenage menace and her expression, which has settled on me, is distinctly unfriendly.

‘Do you have a staring problem?’ she says, aggressive as hell. I am in shock, feeling my face flame red as my friends all look at me in horror.

‘No,’ I manage to say, still holding her gaze (why do I never back down in these situations?)

‘No?’ She echoes my response, looking briefly surprised. Then the sneer is back. ‘Well, you’d better stop looking at me, or I’m going to give you a f*cking staring problem.’

‘OK.’ I nod, feeling sick. Her voice is loud and her appearance such that most of the food court is looking at us. Her two hulking sidekicks snicker, then the three of them turn and walk away, leaving me and my friends stunned.

‘Were you looking at her?’ This is my closest friend, wide-eyed across the table from me, mildly accusing. I shake my head, not able to speak. I mean, I probably was, but at the same time I could have just been staring into space, thinking about something else. And what’s the big deal if I was? I didn’t mean any harm.

‘Screw her,’ said another friend, looking annoyed. ‘We’re not leaving. Don’t let her spoil our day.’ I loved her for saying that, but still couldn’t eat any more of my fries, sickness and embarrassment curled in my stomach instead.A short time later we left the food court, careful not to look at the girl except for my ‘screw her’ friend, who glared at her as we walked away.

I’ve written before about the fact that as writers we need to observe people, whether at the bus stop or work or out shopping or wherever – in fact, I love to people watch, fascinated as I imagine what stories they could tell. I know it’s rude to stare so I try not to, my dark glasses coming in very handy at times. And I remember the girl in the food court, the embarrassment still there if I choose to look for it, even over thirty years later. What a crappy thing to do to a kid who had done nothing wrong. Bullying and mean girls were a theme in my early teens and it shows up in my writing – the first book of my Ambeth series starts with a bully, a single violent event propelling my protagonist into another world. I drew from life experience there as well, remembering three older girls threatening me on the way home from school. There will be those who argue that it’s ‘part of life, part of growing up.’ But you know what? It shouldn’t be. If my daughter is ever involved with doing anything like that she’ll be very, very sorry. But hopefully I’m bringing her up to be a decent human being, someone who can see another person’s point of view, not take her rage or sorrow or dissatisfaction with life and vent it on others.

And it doesn’t stop with school. Bullies are everywhere, in the workplace, in the queue at the bank, at the park with their kids. My cousin is in music management and one of the bands he works with is The Enemy. Recently Tom, the singer, was bullied (there is no other word for it) in the press, so-called professional writers taking cheap shots at his appearance for no apparent reason whatsoever. Tom wrote a heartfelt response piece to it, and has now withdrawn from public forums, wanting to move past it all.

So while this post is an observation, a rewriting of an event that made an impression on me it’s also, hopefully, food for thought. Bullying others, whatever your age or twisted reasoning, is never acceptable.

Observation

He had been handsome once, but now his hair was greying and unkempt, his face reddened by the elements or drink or some combination of the two. Still there was a twinkle, a lively curiosity in the dark eyes.

‘Hello, little one.’

His voice was roughened, gravelly, but his smile was wide as he watched the child bouncing to the back of the bus, keen to sit on the ‘cool seats.’

‘Do you like school?’ he asked and, when answered in the affirmative, seemed pleased, adding that he hoped she would go to university as well. ‘I never had the chance to go,’ he said, smiling at her. Then he looked at me. ‘I only really learnt to read properly when one of me ex girlfriends sat down to teach me.’ As he recounted his story it was without resentment – simply acceptance of a life lived and choices made, sweet appreciation of opportunities missed that now appeared again, manifested in a small girl.

‘What did you think of the man on the bus?’ I asked the gorgeous child as we walked, hand in hand, to dance class.

‘Nice,’ she said. ‘He was curious.’

Sometimes it takes a child to see to the heart of things.

Okay, so on this post I’ve digressed slightly. But he really did make an impression on me, and I think that taking in your surroundings and the people you meet is a huge part of writing something and making it believable. Many years ago I had the pleasure of meeting the great Margaret Atwood. My friend Mark and I, two nervous high school students, interviewing one of the greats of Canadian (and world) literature – can you imagine? But luckily she was wonderful, absolutely charming and just as interested in us as we were in her. She was particularly taken with the tights I was wearing (from memory they were white and footless, bear with me, it was the eighties) and asked me several times if they had a special name. Then she explained that she kept the people she meets in a ‘filing cabinet’ in her mind, so she could call them up whenever she needed a character for her stories. What a wonderful way to describe something so important to every writer, and a lesson to us all to remain engaged with the world around us, rather than focusing solely on the little screen in our hands.

And finally…

Well, the rejections have started coming in. Just a couple so far, two little stings. I will be writing a little more about rejection in the coming weeks, but let’s hope I have some good news as well. Until next time, xx.