Serendipity is a funny old thing. Months ago, in fact quite soon after the Professional Development Residency at Varuna at which we all met, the other Darklings and I decided this whole five-degrees-of-separation thing was for the birds. We missed each other. And as much as we were enjoying our Virtual Varuna online, it wasn’t the same as working through the day before coming together at sundown, sitting around the log fire in the Blue Mountains, roasting marshmallows, sipping wine, reading our work and talking all night. No, it wasn’t the same at all. So we booked flights to our Secret Destination and started counting the days. One of the Darklings honestly started counting down when there was nothing much to get excited about, like SIXTY FIVE DAYS TO GO or something like that, you know, a decent portion of a year, but here we are now with one sleep to go. One more sleep. I can’t wait for the five of us to be together because, serendipity being what it is, it turns out we all need each other right about now.
(I’ll try and blog during our little writing retreat, but just in case it’s as productive a time for that infernal manuscript as I’m hoping it will be, I will definitely return to fill you in by next Tuesday… the 2nd of March, I think it’ll be.)
I’ve consoled myself in the last 24 hours by immersing myself in the new world of my second manuscript. Its characters have very obligingly turned up to help me think about other things, or, more particularly, help me not think about manuscript #1. It was very kind of them. So kind, in fact, that their combined conversations and thoughts produced 6,000 words since I signed off after writing yesterday’s post. That’s quite a lot even for a compulsive like me. And I may end up salvaging only a paragraph of this from the new wreckage that I know awaits down the track, since every MS promises to be a bloody battle for survival (I’ve just found another block of Lindt 70% in the fridge – essential supplies in one’s preparations for war), but that’s hardly the point. The point is that I found refuge in my own imagination (as well as in the kind words of friends), and I kept writing, and I think that’s all I can do to get out of these nasty pits of post-rejection despair. I just have to write my way out of them. I must. It’s the only thing holding misery at bay.
MS #2 is only in its infancy, and is currently hovering at just under 20,000 words, so you can see what a major surge of production overtook DoctorDi HQ yesterday. Although it probably seems presumptuous to begin another manuscript when I’m still dogged by the first, the truth is I started it after MS #1 was redrafted in great haste for the second round of the Varuna HC thing, because I needed to get away from the first one, and I badly needed to start thinking about something else. This interim waiting period before they announce the winners would have been an excruciating hell (even more of an excruciating hell) had I not started writing something else. And not winning a place, well, that too is going to suck even harder if everything I’ve got is riding on one piece of clearly incomplete work. It’s an insurance policy of sorts to make sure I don’t go to pieces if I don’t make the final cut. And, after yesterday, I doubt I will. I think I may have more work to do on my own before anyone in the B-I-Z wants to pitch in and help show me how it’s done. Certainly that’s the message of yesterday’s phone call. And it’s my manuscript, so that’s to be expected – it’s just so dark and confusing stumbling around on your own, and having someone shine the occasional torchlight is the only reason I haven’t slipped on the rocks and plunged into the ravine long before now. Gently does it. I am really feeling my way quite gingerly through what’s turned out to be a monstrously large and forbidding forest. I don’t know how to get out (maybe I’m in that maze after all…), but I do know I have to keep moving.
Imagine, if you will, that today’s post is one long, unbroken blue streak of wall-to-wall obscenity that I am screaming from inside my concrete cell as the people in white shoes run silently toward the locked door with jacket and needle at the ready. Take a moment. Take all the time you need.
Have you got it clear in your mind? Good. Now imagine I am punching the walls with my bare fists until the skin starts coming away, leaving rather grotesque marks on the wall. I’m still screaming, by the way. Don’t forget the screaming. It’s important to get these things right. I’ve somehow managed to squirrel away lots of breakables during my stay, I’m sneaky that way, and now I’m smashing them against the bare concrete flooring in great piles of glass and bad pottery on the ‘craft’ end of the art spectrum (who’ll miss those ceramic wind chimes? Who?). They make a satisfying din that can just be heard over my primal screams. I look around for more things to smash, and, because this is my fantasy, I find them. For variety, I throw this selection against the wall, where they shatter into little shards that land all over the cell. I’m having a fine time, and I’m starting to feel a little better. I’m even starting to wonder what’s for dinner.
But before all this, you see, I got a phone call today from the literary agent to whom I sent my MS. Actually, I sent a sample before Christmas, and after Christmas she asked to see the whole thing. And she was calling, which was lovely, actually, and I suppose preferable to a ‘thanks but no thanks’ scrawled on a With Compliments slip, to tell me that she was not going to represent my manuscript. At least, not the manuscript as it is now, and not without its being “very heavily revised” (I wrote key comments down as she spoke so I’d be able to punish myself with them later). I curiously neglected to write down a single positive – what sad thing does this say about me? – and there were some, but the main word that kept racing through my mind was “No.” No, no, no, no, no, no. NONONONONONONONONONONO. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!! It’s a no. Not a yes. A no. And there’s no getting around it. I’ll dress it up in my mind’s eye and try and be positive and repeat all the things she did say that were encouraging (but you sort of have to say something hopeful, don’t you, if you’re going to go and call a girl up on a sunny summer’s day and break her heart like that), but there’s no getting away from the fact that the bottom line is N-O spells no.
Fuck and fuck and FUCK.
If I had stuffed toys, you can sure I’d be menacing passersby with them right about now.
Oh look, I knew there would be at least – at LEAST – one more major redraft, because I’ll either win a place on the Varuna HC program or I won’t, and either outcome means more work for this little cuckoo. And in truth, it’s why I only sent it to her, so I’ll hopefully have another agency to send it to once it’s in better shape. Why burn all my bridges at once? Why not drag it out some more, and really make myself suffer? There are other agencies up my sleeve for the day I think I’ve recovered sufficiently to go into battle once more. But that day is not today, folks. Today I want to gurgle and crouch on the end of my cot catching imaginary flies. You’re welcome to join me, but I understand if you’d prefer to wait outside in the rose garden.
My sister has been providing me with daily updates on the Nana front as the respite at St Andrews unfolds. We both have things we need to do about Nana’s ongoing care, people to talk to, forms to complete, waiting lists to join, and I find I’m torn between wanting these reports and feeling really averse to them. Part of me wants to say ‘To be honest, I was hoping I’d get a break from all this while Nana’s up there,’ but I also understand there’s stuff to do, and we need our lines of communication as open and clear as possible in order to do them efficiently. Lady Alzheimer’s care hasn’t stopped just because Lady Alzheimer isn’t here. It’s still happening. Every day. So thanks, sister, for the updates – I do appreciate them even if I don’t always enjoy them! And I really appreciate your taking the reigns for the month.
But one of the daily updates has stuck in my mind because it was the first mention of conflict in an otherwise rosy beginning to the month. There have been bus trips, sing-a-longs, hair appointments and wardrobe changes… wow, it sounds like she’s touring in a musical… Except it seems to be Annie Get Your Gun: Nana called one of the other residents ‘a real bitch.’ Uh oh. And now the woman in question has graduated to ‘bastard’ – never a compliment from one gal to another, no matter the age or mental condition. Them’s fightin’ words, and a fight is apparently what ensued. Or at least, the woman hit Nana. Yes, hit her. Slapped her in the chops, from what I can gather. I think it was a territorial thing. You’d probably feel quite protective of your patch too if it was all you could remember, and since Nana is in the dementia wing, we can safely assume the old bitch bastard is suffering a world of confusion all her own. One that took one look at Nana and computed unwanted interloper.
When I told Llew, he said “I bet it’s that same one that came after me.”
“What? Who came after you?”
“When we were there, checking your nana in. The one that came into the room.”
“The one that was brandishing her stuffed toys at you?”
“Yes, her. That’s her. I bet it’s the same woman. She was not happy with me at all. She didn’t want me to be there.”
“So what did she do?”
“Oh nothing. Just kind of thrust the stuffed toys at me, saying something I couldn’t really understand. But she wasn’t happy.”
I remember this woman myself. I was forced to do my phone interviews for the two commissioned articles in an ante room off the dining room, and the lady with the stuffed toys, once she was done waving them at Llew, came wandering into the ante room to see just what I thought I was up to. She circled me a few times, considering her options and likely deciding just which toy to thwack me with as punishment for my insolence. My eyes followed her every movement. My big fear was that she would be motivated to lunge at me by something I said down the line, and that my interviewee would be interrupted by the sound of geriatric attack. This thought made me nervous. Very nervous. I would have liked to make significant eye contact with a nursing professional at that point, but they really do encourage independent movement in this place, it’s not just something they save for the brochure and government health inspections, and there was no one around. But then to my relief, she completely lost interest in me and wandered out again, and I felt bad for thinking she was going to unleash all hell. She was just a widdle owd wady.
But it seems the instinct was sound, because slapping my nana is not on. Nana must have been quite shaken up by it – can you imagine? It’s not quite Devonshire tea in front of the telly, is it? No, it’s all a bit Cell Block D, which is much harder to prepare for. It makes me worry about what it’s like for Nana overnight… can this woman move around unhindered while residents are asleep in their beds? I don’t know, but it’s a disturbing thought.
It’s always interesting looking at my blog stats, and the search terms people use to find this small page of mine (or how they find themselves here by mistake, like the poor souls who tirelessly trawl the net looking for that perfect combination medical/sexual aid. Piles and pornography: just think of the possibilities). But it’s also disconcerting, because I never know who these people are, and when they search something quite specifically intended to find me – in this case, two searches yesterday for ‘di jenkins varuna australia’ – I find myself feeling quite exposed. Which is ridiculous given that I choose to maintain this site and have knowingly provided my full name on it. What did I think was going to happen? If the fox sits at the stable door and brazenly beckons the worst, is the fox still hunted? I don’t know about foxes and hounds, but I do know I think I’ve sort of forfeited my right to be bothered about the web’s artificially generated willingness to put my name about. I tried Googling ‘di jenkins varuna australia’ myself, just to see how well hidden I am, and DoctorDi came back as result numero uno. And that’s because of decisions I’ve made about what to include on the ‘About DoctorDi’ page, so, really, tough. Here I am. Unhidden. Even sort of flagrant.
So whilst I’m feeling bravely foxlike, if not quite foxy, I thought I’d try and complete a little thing I’ve been meaning to do for a while. It came out of Facebook, actually, when three quite separate friends included me on a note called ’25 Random Things About Me,’ or some such thing. I read – with gusto – 25 random details about each of them, and loved every minute of it, but I’ve been a bit remiss in reciprocating, which was the point of the exercise as these things always are. I think I’ve delayed because I don’t think I’m a very random person – I could name ’25 Quite Deliberate Things About Me’ with far greater ease. Anyway, let’s see how we go.
1. I am not a nauseous person at all. In my lifetime, I’ve only very, very rarely thrown up, and when I have, it was because I was wretched with food poisoning. This has happened to me several times, and just about always with Indian food. I continue to eat and love Indian food.
2. While we’re on India, I contracted typhoid while honeymooning there. I had every conceivable immunisation prior to travelling. Upon our return to Australia, I staggered to hospital, to a doctor, and back to hospital before finally being admitted for a period of two weeks. I threw up once, not from the typhoid, but from something the doctor gave me the day before I was admitted. It was my throwing up that finally convinced Llew I wasn’t putting it on. I then turned a deep shade of yellow; that too helped my case.
3. The older I get, the more afraid I am of flying. As a travel writer, this is a potentially fascinating area to exploit.
4. I can’t stand violence on the screen, and even the suggestion of violence is usually enough to give me the shivers. I always, always have to look away and wait until it’s over. I also have a very low threshold for blood and gore. If they insist on taking the camera into the operating room, I’ll go make the tea and come back when it’s all over. I made the mistake of not looking away just the other night, and saw John Malkovich attack that nice man with an axe in Burn After Reading (which was hugely disappointing). I wish I’d known that was coming.
5. I’m afraid – terrified, really – of sharks and snakes. I used to be afraid of spiders, too, but my friend Jenny has changed my mind about a lot of things in the insect and animal kingdoms, and I daresay she’ll get around to sharks and snakes one day, and I’m looking forward to when she does.
6. I love big cities. Few things in life please and excite me more than exploring a new city with Llew. He’s an excellent travelling companion and many other things besides.
7. My proximity to the ocean and the Australian sky profoundly influence my state of mind and overall happiness. It was only after returning from two years abroad that I realised this, but once I knew it, I knew it completely.
8. My ears stick out a bit, and the other kids used to tease me about it when I was in school. I have very fine hair, and it remains one of my genuine, verging on pathological dislikes about being photographed that sometimes my ears can be seen popping through my hair like a waving hand out a car window. I absolutely hate it with an unreasonable passion. Hate it. I have never had my ears pierced.
9. My vision is really excellent, and working on a computer all day every day for years and years doesn’t seem to have adversely affected it. I often stop and think about how grateful I am for my five working senses. And a mysterious sixth. I also pause to reflect on the privilege of being able bodied – I find it hard to take this stuff for granted because it’s really amazing when you stop to think about it.
10. I am slightly superstitious.
11. I have no fear of heights, but the thought of being deep underwater in diving gear makes me want to scream and scream.
12. To the best of my knowledge – and I have given it a solid nudge – I have no allergies.
13. I’m in awe of people who easily learn other languages. And people who can sing.
14. I was once very good at Maths, but long, long ago abandoned that road in favour of the written word. I know it was the right decision, but every so often I miss what I used to know.
15. I’m not interested in gardening, and I have no talent for keeping plants alive, but I love the idea of having a beautiful garden. I’m absolutely all for someone else tending it for me – knock yourself out, green thumbs. And while you’re at it, please build me a great big maze. Is there anything more fascinating and creepy and magical than a maze?
16. I miss my far-flung friends all the time. Every day. Quite desperately, in fact. There are huge gaps of years in some cases since we last saw each other, and thinking about it now is bringing tears to my eyes. I hope they know how much I miss them. See? I am actually crying. I keep thinking it’s going to pass, but it never does.
17. My grandfather was one of my best friends. See above.
18. I can read and write in moving vehicles, and usually do.
19. The only bones I’ve ever broken were in snow.
20. I have a tuneless whistle. An utterly tuneless whistle. But I click my fingers like a champion.
21. A Canadian friend took me to my first and only psychic reading on my last trip to Vancouver (March 2001). I wish I hadn’t gone.
22. I used to bite my fingernails (from the ages of 6 to 21). Then one day I was sitting on a bus watching someone else bite their nails, and it was so disgusting, so totally repellent, that I stopped biting my own.
23. I was one of the tallest girls in my year at high school, with the photos to prove it, but now no one thinks I’m tall at all, including me. It’s kind of strange. Maybe I’ve shrunk. I’ve heard that happens.
24. I secretly think laughing a lot is the best cure for everything. I really do. I think it has actual healing properties. I believe in laughter as much as I believe in modern medicine, and I’m a big fan of modern medicine.
25. I met, befriended, fell in love with and married my soulmate. His love is life-changing.
If I were in charge, SIM cards would actually retain all your phone numbers, so that when you changed phones (or had to use a temporary piece of shit because your own piece of shit died without warning but, being under warranty, was sent off for possible resuscitation, only to ultimately be replaced by/reincarnated as a brand new piece of shit), ALL YOUR NUMBERS would be there waiting for you. Because, you know, chances are that’s what you were doing all that time you spent building your address book the last goddamn time this happened. Like last month. But no. I’m not in charge, and now half my fucking numbers are missing. Again. If your first name starts with ‘So,’ consider yourself erased. ‘Ta’? Ditto. ‘An’? Nothing for you. ‘Me’? Who’s calling, please?’Ol’? Sorry, drawing a blank. What I really can’t stand is the randomness of the deletions. Last time, I actually wrote out a manual record of all the numbers I got in response to my NOT THIS AGAIN! email, trying to anticipate a possible future where this sort of shit would indeed happen again. And it has. But I thought I’d save us all a lot of time with my manual record. I thought I was being efficient and preemptive. But the numbers I lost in the last changeover aren’t the same as the numbers that have vanished into thin air today. Where did they go? When will they be back? Why is the cosmos so hellbent against my efforts to effectively tele-communicate?
The other thing I’d fix if I were in charge is the weird and inexplicable rollback of consumer design solutions that really work. Take the squeezable tea bag. Good idea. The little tag is perforated down the middle, you pull the two strings apart, and it draws the bag until drained without your getting splashed, dripping tea everywhere, or having to wrangle your bag round a teaspoon (it never ends well). I love the squeezable tea bag. What I don’t love is not being able to find it anywhere anymore. I’ve been to not one but two shops today (including a major supermarket), and while they have all manner of tea, and all manner of bag, they have no manner of squeeze. I just do not understand it. Why would anyone buy the old type of bag when you can buy this one?? (okay, okay, my dear English readers, I know you’re sniffing in terribly refined horror, I can hear you from here, asking why on earth anyone thinks tea bags should ever be employed in the making of tea, and I’ll try to soothe your ruffled sensibilities with the reassurance that I do make potted tea and my own scones, right down to whipping the cream, when guests are involved). But now I can’t buy this one, and it’s maddening. Everything else should be discontinued, goddamn it, not the squeezable bag.
Or, for that matter, the squeezable sauce. If you’re not Australian or have never been to Australia, you may be unaware that the meat pie is nigh on a national dish. We love ’em, and we make pretty good ones, too. And there’s a compulsory accompaniment to the humble meat pie, that perfect lunchtime snack, and that’s a little packet of tomato sauce. In it goes, straight into the standard bakery issue white paper bag with your steaming hot doll’s eye (we also love a good if totally perplexing euphemism), so that when you get to the grass, or the wall, or the bonnet of your car, you’ll be able to smother the pastry lid of your meat pie in tomato sauce and get stuck in knowing everything is right in the universe. If everything is really aligned, you’ll have your meat pie in one hand and a milkshake in the other. How I nearly wept, after two long years away, when I was finally reunited with meat pies and milkshakes. Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. Back to the sauce. A few years ago, one of the sauce companies (competition is fierce) revolutionised the pie preparation ritual with an ingenious packet design. You squeeze the sides of the packet, and the sauce worms out the centre. You don’t have to cut yourself peeling back those corners of foil (the last word in bastardry), and you don’t have to scoop out the sauce with your finger and then paint the top of your pie with tomato sauce like you’re back in kindy playing with the paints during nap time. No, it does it all for you. All you have to do is aim and squirt, aim and squirt. No mess, no fuss. SO WHERE HAVE THEY GONE??? Why haven’t they taken over the takeaway sauce world? Surely Llew and I can’t be the only ones who think these squeezable things are sort of life-changing, albeit in a really, really minor way? Okay. I do have a particular talent for getting food in my hair. And teeth. And ground into my clothes. So these things matter more to me than they otherwise might, because they spare me layer upon layer of public pie eating humiliation. Sauce distribution is one less thing I have to worry about. Or at least it was. Clearly there’s some kind of sabotage afoot, the work of a rival sauce maker, no doubt, because squeezable sauces are increasingly hard to find. It’s not good. It’s not good at all. I’d fix it for you if I could, you know I would, but this is just the sort of ruination I’ve come to expect from a society that pointblank refuses to put me in charge.
Heavy sighing going on here, in between bites of custard tart. Well, until I polished it off, anyway. Now it’s just the heavy sighing, although I wish I had another custard tart. It’s raining again, and although that may have something to do with my sweet tooth, it’s unrelated to the sighing, which is about the story I’ve just posted this afternoon to an annual short story competition. It’s the Alan Marshall Short Story Award, and one of the other Darklings has a much finer, shall we say plumed hat in the ring. Mine’s all moth-eaten and stained.
At least, I’m just not excited. And if I’m not excited, I hardly expect anyone else to be. No, it’s all a bit ho hum, I’m afraid. I’ve now rewritten this particular story a number of times, and while it doesn’t offend me, it doesn’t really interest me either. I’ve written better. One story that I know is better – and the one the Darklings like best (you’ve read an earlier version of it too, Ms. M) just to really spell it out – isn’t ‘appropriate’ for the Alan Marshall, at least insofar as we can figure the award’s style. There’s a lot of cussin’ in my preferred story, and cussin’ doesn’t appear to cut much mustard down Nillumbik Shire way. Past winning entries suggest it’s a slightly more wholesome forum than suits my general f-word loving style. And so I’ve sent a story that’s scrubbed clean of every swear word except a sad, solitary “arse.” I didn’t write this story for the Alan Marshall, I wrote the first draft a couple of years ago, sent it off to something or other – a journal or another comp, I can’t remember which – where it was eventually rejected, and that was the end of that. Except now I’ve rewritten the fucking thing, several times in fact, and now I’ve gone and sent it off again. Let me assure the readers of this blog that one thing I won’t be doing between now and the announcement of the winner is holding my breath.
Another deep, sorrowful sigh (come on, it’s a rainy Tuesday, just indulge me for a second, would you?!). I have so much antipathy toward the overall story that I’m not even sure why I bothered sending it. I suppose just to feel I wasn’t letting an opportunity pass me by. But then, in sending a story that doesn’t even move me, its author, isn’t that precisely what I’ve done? You and I both know it is. Which is a bugger, because there’s not enough time for me to try rectifying the situation with a better story. Not for the Alan Marshall, anyway, although there’ll always be a next time. That’s the sole consolation of rejection, I think, and it’s a big one: there’ll always be another opportunity, and one can always try again. Neither my prospects nor my reputation rest with the story I have just despatched to Victoria, and thank Christ for that.
Anyway, I did want to say something about A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I’ve been meaning to tell you about it since I finished it, but other things kept getting in the way (I’m easily distracted – just look at that fascinating wall…). I first heard about Toole and his book in a non-fiction title I raved about here on DoctorDi at the time, Rick Gekoski’s Tolkien’s Gown. Gekoski recounts the devastating story of young Toole’s failed efforts to get his New Orleans commedia published. Finally despairing after receiving a series of rejections, Toole killed himself, aged 32. But of course the story doesn’t end there. Toole’s mother isn’t given the most flattering portrait by Gekoski – he repeats the view that Mrs. Toole pushed so hard primarily because she felt strongly that her son’s failure reflected poorly on her own reputation – but the indisputable fact is that she doggedly refused to accept defeat and maintained an unwavering belief in the novel’s greatness. At some point in her crusade to find the novel a publisher, she set upon Walker Percy, then a lecturer at Loyola, and hung by his trouser leg until the little terrier finally persuaded her quarry to read the damn manuscript (which Percy describes in the novel’s foreword as ‘a badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon’), which Percy duly did.
Here’s the chronology at a glance: Toole writes the novel in the early sixties. He commits suicide in 1969. His mother starts badgering Percy in 1976. Percy reads the manuscript, promptly converts, and takes up Thelma Toole’s determined quest. A Confederacy of Dunces is first published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1980. In 1981 the novel wins the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Doesn’t it just give you shivers down your spine?
It’s impossible reading this tragi-comic modern American farce without thinking of what we were denied in Toole’s too early death. It’s such a waste. All that talent – and he didn’t live to see it acknowledged. It breaks my heart on so many levels, and I found myself addressing Toole in my head as I read his epic and, yes, screamed with laughter in too many venues to name. But a few: the ferry, the bus, my bed, my courtyard, in company and alone. I’m sure I was quite alarming to sit next to on public transport whilst I had this book eagerly clutched in my paws – there were frequent peals of high-pitched uncontrollable laughter. I was forced to wipe tears from my eyes, not once but several times. Never, ever, ever has a book given me this many occasions to laugh out loud. For that alone, I am forever in Toole’s debt.
As a devoted student of the written word, I know enough to know there’s some rare genius at work here, and the rest of us don’t have a hope in hell of being this good. The pompous, outrageous, revolting, deluded and yet somehow incredibly endearing Ignatius J. Reilly is a character I will never forget and will cherish always. His misadventures through New Orleans, and the cast of absurdist characters – including one, no, two of the funniest, truest voices I’ve ever heard on any page anywhere – are so original and bizarre even as they’re intimately familiar and strangely beloved. I simply can’t explain it. I’ve never read anything like it, and yet as I was reading, I felt like I had walked those streets and known those people always. That feeling remains undiminished.
It’s a sorry comparison to make with my pitiful Alan Marshall entry, let me tell you. I feel like a dunce, all right, but hey, compared to this guy, that’s exactly what I am. Now where’s that white conical cap?
Hello my dears – I am back at the embarrassingly grand monstrosity that is my desk (Stephen King would not approve of its immodest size nor its position in the centre of the room; he advocates a small desk in a corner, just to keep us all honest. Sorry, Stephen, but it just won’t fit anywhere else, and we had to have it). It’s been an admin day today, and I’m not even close to done. I think I have to do my tax return tomorrow – the good paperwork fairies still won’t be roused, try as I might to persuade them. Instead, very bad paperwork ghouls have taken over my apartment and, from what I can gather, Australia Post’s mail run, and the result of their handiwork is a big pile of super boring bills and Aged Care Assessment type things that, when thrown into the air in a fit of frustration, fall back to earth spelling ‘UP YOURS, DI.’ I can hear those ghouls sniggering now.
But speaking of aged care, you’ll be pleased to know the road trip with Lady Alzheimer’s went off with nary a hitch. All things considered, Nana behaved like a dream passenger. Oh, we had our confusion, all right, but I was fully expecting a total debacle that might well have ended with our filing a missing persons report at a police station somewhere on the Pacific Highway. On the way up to Ballina, we pulled into a classic motel for the night (they are so filmic, I just adore them, even the really cheesy ones), and I thought there was every chance Nana would wander off in the night with nothing but her rosebud nightie. This was no idle fear. Nana went over the wall during a hospital stay a few years ago, so I knew she had it in her. She was rescued that time by a kindly cabbie, who saw her attempting to scale a perimeter fence like something straight out of The Woman in White, but who knows what may have befallen her had she left her motel room to explore the unsuspecting township of Taree?
Travelling with Alzheimer’s requires resourcefulness, you see, because I knew she’d wake up, much like the unconscious buck who’s been put on a flight by his hilarious friends on the eve of his wedding, with no idea of where she was, how she got there or where she was going. And that would be AWFUL. A really nasty experience for her, and one bound to lead to panic and, well, a flight response. My solution was packing several poster-sized sheets of cardboard and a permanent marker. Once Nana was happily ensconced in her room, I went to ours and wrote out big notes for her that I distributed around her room in key zones: next to her handbag by the bed, by the door, and on top of her suitcase. They were all variations of the following: NANA, DIANA AND LLEW ARE RIGHT NEXT DOOR, ROOM 8. WE’RE IN TAREE, ON THE WAY UP TO BALLINA TO SEE KATE AND KIDS. STAY PUT!!
I’m pleased to say – quite chuffed with myself, actually – that these notes did the trick. I asked Nana if they were helpful when she woke up, and she said, “As a matter of fact, yes.” And although she was confused about just about everything else on the way up, she wasn’t confused when she woke up in the morning, and that was a win. Unfortunately we had incredibly bad and dangerous weather the entire way – driving rain that they could better use down south to douse those bloody fires – which meant a slow trip and a running (read recurring) commentary from the backseat that occasionally had Llew gripping the wheel. He’s not used to the repetition, you see, whereas I’ve become quite accustomed to it. At least, I know it’s coming, I know it’s not her fault, I know she doesn’t know it’s tedious, I know there’s nothing we can do about it, so I know there’s no point getting frustrated.
“It seems to be taking a long time to get to Newcastle,” was the quote of the first half.
“We’re not going to Newcastle, Nana, we’re going to Ballina to see Kate and the kids.”
“I’ve been to Newcastle before, you know.”
“Yes. And I didn’t think it was this far away.”
So it went, and so it goes. But the good news is, she’s now there for a month’s respite. St Andrews is BRILLIANT, and my sister and the kids are seeing her every day so far, and Nana’s finally been persuaded (thanks to the attentions of one or two of the resident gentlemen – yes, already, they’re frisky these old boys) to do away with her wig and get her own hair styled instead (long story) at the on-site salon, if you don’t mind. I am just so thrilled and relieved to think that she’s enjoying herself so far – when Kate arrived the other day, Nana was off at Bingo. Dare I say it? Bingo!
It’s slightly scary times here at DoctorDi H.Q. You see, the GFC has found its way to my door, and it’s left a big steaming turd on the mat. Here it is nearly mid-February, and I’ve not had a single commission. Yikes. It’s getting a little hairy, especially as Llew works in the finance sector and has no job security at the moment whatsoever. Throughout January, I wasn’t remotely concerned. It’s always quiet. It didn’t mean anything. It was business as usual. But I called up one of my editors a couple of weeks ago – and I called him because well before he was my editor, like ten years before, he was my friend, and in November we talked about writing a screenplay together – and he hasn’t called me back. I can’t help wondering if he’s avoiding me because there’s no freelance work. I know I should just call him again, thus nipping my ever eager paranoia in the bud, but I also hate knowing that he’s immediately going to assume I’m sniffing around begging for a bone. Which a small part of me definitely is. You see my problem. I call up,”Hey! How’s that first thousand words for our screenplay coming along?” and all he’s going to hear is, “PRESSURE! WORK PRESSURE! ANOTHER-FREELANCER-IS-HOUNDING-ME-FOR-WORK PRESSURE!” And pretending that I’m not wondering if I’m ever going to see another payday for as long as I live would be disingenuous. It’s certainly there (I often wish with all sincerity our relationship had never become professional; it has altered our personal friendship in small but significant ways). I’ve also lost my occasional book reviews for WHO, which is a major bummer as I loved doing them. It didn’t pay enough to make it a lucrative job, but it was great anyway. They’ve reduced weekly reviews to monthly (tragically books apparently don’t ‘fit’ the redesign of the magazine), they’ve canned their freelance budget, and, just to make sure we’re really biting the big one here, one of their subs volunteered to write the book reviews free of charge. This ship has sailed. Or sunk. One of the two.
And this is pretty much the scenario across the board. I’ve had it too good for too long – work kind of arrived at nice intervals, a delightful little amuse-bouche keeping excitement high at mealtimes. Ah, I’d think, dashing off another invoice, this is another choice little morsel. The perfect size. Something I can easily digest and won’t regret later. Yes, friends, it was all going so well I forgot to check the final bill.
And then came the G as opposed to the KFC, although it too clogs your arteries and makes you long for something seriously sweet to follow. Damn you, financial crisis! As a freelancer, I am completely vulnerable at times like this, and my income is currently in the toilet. I never crack major money doing what I do, but we’re noticing the vacuum where my earnings used to be. It still adds up to a sizable chunk of cash year to year, if not week to week. I’m missing it already.
BUT – and there had to be a but – the good news is that this rather bleak fiscal forecast is forcing me to go back through my files and find stories and essays I have already written – work I have already done – and look for those pieces that might have publication potential. I have spent today retooling three short stories and one autobiographical essay. The essay I entered in the ABR/Australian Copyright Agency Calibre essay competition, but I didn’t win (damn shame: the prize was a cool $10,000). I don’t know whether or not it even placed (I suspect not; I certainly haven’t received anything silver-lined in the post), but I still think it’s a good essay, and I’m going to send it out again. I’m also adding to MS #2 at a rate of knots, so all is not lost. I may be poor, but I’m happy. I’m working hard and writing like there’s no tomorrow.
POSTSCRIPT: How’s this for weird and telepathic?? As I was clicking on Publish Post, my phone rang, and it was none other – I still can’t quite believe this – than my friend/editor calling in a 1,400 word commission. Yes, I’m serious. And a little bit freaked out.
There’s been a change in the weather today. The temperature has dropped, and it looks like it may even rain. I live on the coast, and on a hot day like yesterday, it’s up to ten degrees cooler here than it is inland. The ocean breeze from the Pacific feels merciful, bringing as it does instant relief, and yet wind is one of the most devastating features of the bushfires that have swept Victoria in the past couple of days. Always so capricious, always so unheeding. It rushes where it will, and cannot be headed off at the pass like a wild Brumby colt. It cannot be stopped, it cannot be second guessed. And if, in this crackling Australian heat, a fire breaks out or is deliberately lit, and if that fire meets that impartial wind, then all hell breaks loose across this baked and tortured land. And that’s what’s happened down south. It is hell on earth down there, and so far 107 people have died. There may be more.
One of the Darklings lives on a property outside Melbourne and for a while, the winds were against her. The fire was nipping at the skirts of her land; had the wind not changed its mind at the last, she would certainly have been forced to flee, and may have faced the very real prospect of losing her home, and her beloved animals, as so many other Victorians have done. She may have had to run for her life and the lives of her children. It’s an unthinkable scenario, and the suspicion that at least one of these fires was deliberately lit does something curious to my brain. I just can’t quite wrap my mind around what would make someone start a bushfire. What kind of thinking might lead to that kind of deed. 107 people, gone. Homes, gone. Livestock, gone. Gardens, crops, native flora and fauna, gone. And someone meant to light this fire and set it on its destructive path? It’s inconceivable.
As I emailed the Darklings this morning, when I hoped for a hot summer, I honestly forgot that this is one of the things a hot summer brings. Fire. And to your average Australian, even a city dweller, there is something in the atmosphere that identifies a bushfire day. Even Llew and I occasionally sniff the air and exchange the worried glances that would look more at home on a farm. “Feels like a bushfire day,” we say. Sometimes you can smell it. Sometimes ash will travel from the national parks and bush reserves to finally extinguish itself along these eastern shores. Whole sooty flakes have landed in our courtyard from fires many miles away. Sometimes it’s in the way the wind and the heat clash like feuding children, two cymbals crashing together to create a deafening flash, the violent finale that no one saw coming. “Uh oh,” we say, “it feels like fire today.”
This is such a cruel country. When this sort of fury strikes, its ferocity is otherworldly. The images are surreal; the colours are too intense, and the scale is too bewildering to believe. The destruction is total. In itself that totality is hard to comprehend, but add to that the loss of life, and it just renders you dumb. That’s how I feel, anyway. Dumbstruck. I think it’s a type of shock. It’s so huge and too awful. How angry these elements seem to me now. The breeze that yesterday caressed my cheek and settled my temperature and eased the sweat off my brow was elsewhere in a fit of blind fury, bearing up someone’s path, bringing an inferno to their door.