Elly McDonald

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Review: Stone Mattress (2014) – nine tales by Margaret Atwood

Stone_mattress_Bernini

Growing old is a sorcery, a transformation.

It’s liminal: the gateway to other worlds, other mysteries.

To grow old is to learn what Merlin knew, what Prospero discovered.

There are powers that come with age: powers of far-seeing; powers to forgive, powers to avenge; powers of release, powers to persist.

Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress (2014), a collection of nine tales, builds on Hag-Seed (2007), her re-working of Shakespeare’s tale The Tempest, to explore aging through the tropes of fantasy, myth and folklore.

She’s particularly concerned with sexual karma (aging people reconnecting with past lovers); entrapment; with how we ‘write’ our personal mythologies; with how the act of writing exerts its magic, its power; and with contemporary ‘folklore’ – genre writing in popular culture, whether fantasy, horror, or crime.

The last tale, ‘Torching the Dusties’, is to my mind the crowning glory: who are “the aged,” in contemporary culture? What do they represent, for us? What do they embody?

The weakest tale, on the face of it, is ‘Lusus Naturae’ (Latin for “freak of nature”), which at first seems rote – I wrote a similar tale myself, aged 22. But this is a collection, where each tale is a facet of every other, casting light and shadow, and with its Frankenstein references, fire-fuelled mob rampages, ‘Torching the Dusties’ is the obvious counterpoint to ‘Lusus Naturae’:

“When demons are required someone will always be found to supply the part, and whether you step forward or are pushed is all the same in the end”.

Lusus_Naturae

These tales are so rich in mythic reference a tale by tale deconstruction would overflow a mere blog’s confines. But, as befits a collection titled Stone Mattress, the most obvious references are to Sleeping Beauty and its kin: the lover preserved, or preserved in fantasy; the lover’s kiss; the awakening. Atwood introduces ambiguities. The murderous who needs her “beauty sleep”. Who are the innocents, who the monsters? Who casts the spell, and when are spells benign?

Related, the trope of imprisonment: the lover spellbound, or cursed – the lover contained. A “stone mattress”, after all, is a stromatolite:

The word comes from the Greek stroma, a mattress, coupled with the root word for stone. Stone mattress: a fossilized cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome. It was the very same blue-algae that created the oxygen they are now breathing. Isn’t that astonishing?

A stromatolite, a stone mattress, is analogous to the archetypal experiences men and women have enjoyed and endured since the dawn of time. It is the very air we breathe. It is our hearts, pumping, hardening. In the tale ‘Stone Mattress,’ the old folks on a cruise ship dance to Hearts of Stone.

Stromatolite

The first three tales – ‘Alphinland’, ‘Revenant’, ‘Dark Lady’ – are a trilogy, concerning what at first presents as a dyad (Constance and Ewan) but transforms into the archetypal triangle (Constance/Gavin/Jorrie). Constance, who as “C.W. Starr” is the author of a massively successfully decades-long fantasy series set in her imagined world, Alphinland, is now a widow but was once the muse and lover of the poet Gavin, the Gawain of her youth.

Gavin has aged into a vain and cantankerous mediocrity, but Constance’s myth of Gavin lives on in Alphinland, asleep, a Sleeping Beauty, in a hidden cask – much as her husband Ewan lives on in a chest in her attic, embodied by his old clothes. (By the way – Gavin is contained within a wine cask, evoking the Duke of Clarence’s death as depicted in Shakespeare’s Richard III – drowned in a vat of Malmsey sweet wine. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest a Shakespeare reference here, given Atwood referred to Shakespeare’s Richard III in Hag-Seed, and given Hag-Seed explored containment, fantasy and the deep sleeps of enchantment in its retelling of The Tempest.)

Constance conjures a number of devices for metaphorical imprisonment: in her mind are filing cabinets; her mind is a memory palace.

Lady_of_the_lake

Jorrie is the Dark Lady who came between Constance and Gavin, transformed in Alphinland into the Scarlet Sorceress of Ruptous (rupture, rapturous), “walled up in a stone beehive”, where “every day at twelve noon sharp, [she] is stung by a hundred emerald and indigo bees. Their stings are like white-hot needles combined with red-hot chili sauce, and the pain is beyond excruciating” – ‘Alphinland’.

Another standout is the title tale, ‘Stone Mattress’: an enchantress enacts a primordial (literally, primal) revenge on the male mortal who wronged her.

Redeemed_Sorceress

I’m a long time, life-long, aficionado of the fantasy genre. As I keep bleating, my attempted MA thesis was on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Literature. I’m also a carer for an octogenarian mother, a daughter who held her father across his last hours through till his death. For me, a big part of the pleasure in reading Stone Mattress is how Atwood shifts her representation of various characters between their archetypes, their counterparts in myth – Nimue, Vivian, Bluebeard, Jessica Rabbit – and their actuality; between their spirit, as undying archetypes, and their material reality, as bodies experiencing decay.

A raven flies, overhead. Can it tell? Is it waiting? She looks down through its eyes, sees an old woman – because, face it, she is an old woman now – on the verge of murdering an even older man because of an anger already fading into the distance of used-up time. It’s paltry. It’s vicious. It’s normal. It’s what happens in life.

– ‘Stone Mattress’

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Andrew Lloyd-Greensmith, The Inner Stillness of Eileen Kramer (2017)

Sometimes the trajectory is from youth straight to decay, as in the tale within the tale in ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’ (where a female Sleeping Beauty is wakened by a monster), and ‘The Freeze-Dried Groom’ (another Sleeping Beauty – but who is the beauty, who the witch or monster?). Other times it ‘magically’ reverses: in ‘Torching the Dusties,’ a slightly ridiculous older man turns into a dignified, honorable Sir Lancelot; a cynical male pulp fiction writer is awakened by the touch of his princess (‘The Dead Hand Loves You’).

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In the tale ‘Stone Mattress’, a ‘prince’ is ‘awakened’ in the rudest terms by a girl he turned into a monster, and a male Sleeping Beauty awakened by a touch fails to recognize the princess, or even the girl, seeing only the monster:

They say dead people can’t see their own reflections, and it was true; I could not see myself. I saw something, but that was not myself: it looked nothing like the kind and pretty girl I knew myself to be, at heart.

– ‘Lusus Naturae’

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Underlying Stone Mattress is the problem of recognition: seeing through the spells, the glamours, recognizing people for who, for what, they are.

In ‘Revenant’ (which means, ‘The Dreamer’)

[…] Maria’s just a nice, ordinary high school girl making a few bucks, dime a dozen, nothing special. Hardly a nymphet, hardly the beckoning sapsucker from “Death In Venice.” […] Still, he likes the idea of Maria as the Angel of Death. He’s about due for one of those. He’d rather see an angel in his dying moment than nothing at all.

In ‘Stone Mattress’

Verna’s heart is beating more rapidly. If he recognizes me spontaneously, I won’t kill him, she thinks. If I tell him who I am and he recognizes me and then apologizes, I still won’t kill him. That’s two more escape chances than he gave her.

In ‘Dark Lady’

“She doesn’t recognize me!” Jorrie whispers. […] Who would recognize you, thinks Tin, with that layer of stucco and dragon scales on your face? […]

She [Constance] knows exactly who Jorrie is: despite the gold flakes and the bronze powder, she must have known from the first minute.

Gold_dragon_witch

When Constance recognizes the truth of Jorrie, the two sorceresses experience a shared moment of truth. They have the opportunity to release each other.

“We live in two places,” says Constance. “There isn’t any past in Alphinland. There isn’t any time. But there’s time here, where we are now. We still have a little time left.”

There always was “an alternate vision stashed in Constance’s inner filing cabinet, in which Constance and [Jorrie] recognized each other […] with cries of delight, and went for a coffee, and had a big bray over Gavin and his poems and his yen for blow jobs. But that never happened. ” – ‘Alphinland’.

Two_Witches

Even as Constance and Jorrie in ‘Dark Lady’ work through their karma, the spells that have bound them, a younger writer watches, recognizing this as her moment of power:

She’s embedding us in amber, thinks Tin. Like ancient insects. Preserving us forever. In amber beads, in amber words. Right before our eyes.

Because that’s what happens to old people. They either turn to dust, or they turn into myth.

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Margaret Atwood as Prospero


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Reviews: Gillespie and I (2011) and Sugar Money (2018) by Jane Harris

Jane Harris is a British author and screenwriter who is the same age as I am and if I were the envious kind I suppose I should hate her. Her writing is brilliant.

Her first novel, The Observations (2006) was a finalist in Britain’s Orange Prize for Fiction 2007. Her second novel, Gillespie and I (2011), is similarly set in Glasgow, where Belfast-born Harris grew up and attended university.

Harris takes obvious delight in setting herself the task of researching a time and place so thoroughly that she feels able to inhabit the first-person voices of people whose fictional lives are, on the face of it, far removed from her own lived experience: a 15 year old ladies’ maid in 1863, a deranged English spinster in 1888 and 1933, a pubescent male black slave on Grenada and Martinique in 1765.

Wait up, you say (or at least, the reviewer in The Guardian says). A pubescent male black slave in 1765? But how can a white female British author presume to take the voice of a black male slave?

We’ll get there.

First, Gillespie and I, a fictional narrative in the form of a memoir: purportedly written by one Harriet Brown, at the age of 80, in 1933, about events that occurred when she was in her 30s – well and truly on the shelf, in the marriage market of her times. Harriet starts out asserting she is writing a biography of the (fictional) Scottish artist Ned Gillespie, but it’s evident almost at once she is writing about herself, in the most self-serving terms.

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I doubt too many are clamoring to protect the authentic voice of privileged middleaged white female spinster stalkers, let alone white female stalkers who deploy the memoir form to write about the victims of their stalking. Those who have read blogs in the ‘Memoir’ category of this blogsite might be aware I am myself a middleaged, verging on elderly, white female spinster with a history as a stalker, who does write memoir pieces claiming relationships with people she has stalked.

Given the parallels between what Harriet Brown is doing and what I’ve done in blogs, Gillespie and I made for uncomfortable reading for me. But it sets out to be uncomfortable – if also, often, hilarious – reading. When I discussed it last night with friends I expressed the sanctimonious opinion it make all of us – not merely the SWF stalkers – question where in our lives we promote delusional stories about who we are and how others perceive us.

Gillespie and I is long, 501 pages. The first half is relatively restrained and sometimes feels unduly detailed and protracted (which makes sense, once you realise it’s the case for the defence). The first-person narrative voice is highly stylized, alternately prim and vitriolic, and initially I found it off-putting. In the very early stages, only a mischievous sentence in the Preface persuaded me to sign on for the duration:

“I never suspected that we were moving towards such a rapid unraveling, not only of our relationship (what with that silly white slavery business and the trial) but also of his [the artist Gillespie’s] entire fate.”

The unravelling, which commences at the halfway point, is rapid indeed. The second half of the book is faultless, a wild savage scamper to a vicious end.

Harris seeds her text with other teasers to make us persist in the early parts of the tale, and by about page 135 I was hooked by the malevolent humour and originality. And the cleverness. Such a very clever text!

I read a review that described Gillespie and I as a “masterpiece of misdirection”. That phrase prompted me to seek out this title, but I suspect that critic misunderstands the term “misdirection”. It has a legal sense, not pertinent to this novel (although it becomes a courtroom drama); it also has a meaning specific to magic tricks. Misdirection, as neatly summarized on Wiki, is “a form of deception in which the attention of the audience is focused on one thing in order to distract its attention from another” – a technique to facilitate sleight of hand.

Gillespie and I does not do that. What Gillespie and I does is create what I’ll call a double narrative, a shadow narrative that reads counter to the narrator’s intentions. Quickly we recognize that this narrator is not merely unreliable: she is so far divorced from ‘truth’ that she’s lost its address. She is either completely self-serving, without conscience, or she is delusional. She’s attempting to reclaim a narrative she’s long since lost control over: she writes untruths that the truth glares through.

Reading ‘Harriet Brown’ made me seriously consider deleting every memoir blog post I’ve written.

My friends asked whether Gillespie and I has a point, as in a moral. I suppose I could take as its moral something like “Be careful how you speak (or write) about other people; what you say about others speaks more loudly of who you are’. But I don’t believe Jane Harris set out to write a fable. Instead, I read Gillespie and I as a strikingly wicked gothic fairytale about the havoc evil forces can wreak on the unsuspecting. Harriet Brown, with her hooked nose, her tall hats, her garb of grey and purple and black, is a witch, a nightmare witch.

She calls to mind the Scottish bedtime prayer; “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us.”

Sugar_Money_Jane_Harris

Like Gillespie and I, Sugar Money is told by a first person narrator, in an act of ventriloquism requiring huge amounts of research. As with Gillespie and I, the first person voice is highly stylized, in this case employing dialect: Creole phrases and sentences, a mélange of French, English and African linguistic elements.

Again, I found the first person voice initially so offputting I almost gave up. I’m glad I didn’t.

The Guardian’s reviewer disliked this book absolutely: she objected to a white writer speaking as a black slave; she argued the stories of black slavery are not the white writer’s to tell; she believed the use of the classic adventure genre (think Treasure Island) was inappropriate to such a serious subject; she felt the way the tale unfolded was initially way too soft in its depiction of the conditions of slavery, and that by the time Harris laid it out in explicit ugliness it was too little, too late; she proposed that black writers have addressed the issues raised in Sugar Money more powerfully, more authentically, such that the white writer added nothing of value.

Also, specifically, that reviewer felt the romance is “underdone” (is it proper to write about slavery with reference to the romance genre?); and that issues are touched on in mere sentences where Toni Morrison would take pages, whole books.

As a SWF – a SWSF, Single White Spinster Female, a SSWFS (Spinster Single White Female Stalker, no less – I can’t argue with those perspectives. Except I will, to say (1) Jane Harris did not set out to write books already written by Toni Morrison – if she alludes to abuses such as black slave couples being forcibly split up without making it her novel’s central issue, it’s because it is not her novel’s central issue; and (2) there will be those of us who, having read Toni Morrison, and others, still find value in Sugar Money, who will learn much we did not know previously, and are stimulated by the particulars of this time and place – the Caribbean, late C18th – to learn more.

I found Sugar Money affecting and educative. It was also entertaining, though perhaps it is not appropriate for a novel about black slavery to entertain?

I’m out of step with the current orthodoxies here. If a novel is properly researched and sensitively written, I don’t myself have a problem with the author’s demographic or ethnicity. But that’s easy for me to say: I’m speaking from a culturally dominant position.

From that culturally dominant position, my own perspective is: What is the novel, if not the creative exercise of empathy? From that perspective, the questions for me become: did the author succeed in engaging me, entertaining me, moving me, enlightening me, encouraging me to find out more? For me, the answer here is YES.

On the other hand: is the choice to use the first person voice of a fictional character so radically different (in race, gender, historical location) from the author primarily a showy literary move, a bravura performance?

It seems to me to come down to: Is a tale about black slaves in the Caribbean off limits altogether for a white author? If not, can it be told another way, without foregrounding the colonial experience, without making white characters central?

Attempting to write from ‘within’ any historical experience is fraught, even with the most thorough research. Historical subjectivity is immeasurably different from contemporary worldviews.

The cultural appropriation debate will continue. For me, I’m grateful writers with the immense talents of Jane Harris are attempting to re-present historical mores. Even if she is a WF.

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Jane Harris – portrait of the artist as a White Female?


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Reviews: Another American war – Manhattan Beach (2018) by Jennifer Egan, American War (2018) by Omar El Akkad

Two strong novels presenting visions of America at war, at its best and at its worst.

That’s the short summary.

Manhattan_Beach_Jennifer_Egan

Manhattan Beach is not an especially long novel, at 433 pages, though the narrative sprawls. It’s set in the early ‘30s, from 1933, and then from about 1942, after U.S. forces entered World War 2. Variously, we see through the eyes of Anna Kerrigan, a splint of steel with a kind of innate, blind mechanical genius; her father, Eddie Kerrigan, a bagman for Irish racketeers on the New York docks; and Dexter Styles, stylish mob boss for the Syndicate.

The characters can be read, allegorically, as embodiments of the traits that made America great: boldness, resilience, resourcefulness, courage, individualism, ambition, idealism, initiative, a certain ruthlessness, ethics that make sense on their own terms but then again – no.

Allegorically, the novel could be read as an ambitious tale of the rise of the American Century, the rise of American world dominance, fuelled by immigrant energy, replete with gangsters and war heroes, chorus girls and dock workers, closet homosexuals, proto-feminists, and systemic racism.

There are nods to other narratives of immigrant reinvention, other relationships between the American Establishment (the world of bankers) and the Mob. In Manhattan Beach, we read counterpoints, echoes, to E L Doctorow’s 1975 bestseller Ragtime, and, more pertinently, to F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby, and The Last Tycoon, albeit less glamorous.

I envisage Dexter Styles as the young Robert De Niro, playing Monroe Stahr, a character based on movie producer Irving Thalberg, in Elia Kazan’s 1976 film adaptation of The Last Tycoon. Which, incidentally, has what for me might be the most haunting final lines in movies, entirely apposite to Manhattan Beach, from a script by Harold Pinter: the master storyteller, the maestro of reinvention and invention, turning to camera and admitting, “I don’t know what happens next.”

There’s a motif of night skies, dawn skies, silver seas, and moonlight throughout Manhattan Beach, as there was in Kazan’s vision of The Last Tycoon.

That last scene, in The Last Tycoon, with the night sky above a beach, is so entirely apposite to Manhattan Beach I can’t help but wonder if it inspired the novel. But then, I also wonder if Jennifer Egan’s project was to write a response to Trump and his ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan. I wondered as I read whether her plan was to present an optimistic reminder of “the greatest generation” – but the ending is not, in truth, optimistic:

“Look,’ [he] said. “here it comes.”

She was surprised to find him watching the fog. It rolled in fast: a wild volatile silhouette against the phosphorescent sky. It reared up over the land like a tidal wave about to break, or the aftermath of a silent, distant explosion.

Without thinking, she took [his] hand.

“Here it comes,” she said.

Final lines worthy of Harold Pinter.

There’s a character whose verbal quirk calls to mind Samuel Beckett: when he repeats a thing, the repetition negates what he’s saying – “What I want from you […] is that you be your own man. Your own man”, or ‘It’s forgotten. It’s all forgotten’ meaning just the opposite (quote here not exact).

Egan does not generally evoke Beckett, or Pinter, her style being fluid, welcomely readable, astonishingly seductive. Very occasionally, there’s a faint of odour of romantic overripeness, just momentary; and then, at other points, she pokes fun of movie, radio, and popular fiction romance.

When she does write sex, as she does as an extended sequence in Chapter 17, it’s erotically charged and intelligent, and does not neglect context:

And yet there was a problem with the girl in his car – this smart, modern girl with correct values, joined to the war effort, a girl matured by hard times and familial tragedy – and that problem was that all he could think of doing, in a concrete way, was fucking her. The rest – vague notions that she might work for him, that her toughness could be of use, that she was likely a good shot (taut slender arms, visible in the dress she was wearing tonight); confusion about how they had originally met (had someone introduced them?) – flickered at a middle distance, well behind his need to have her. And even as that need made it hard to drive the goddam car, he was also thinking: this was the problem between men and women, what made the professional harmony he envisaged so difficult to achieve. Men ran the world, and they wanted to fuck women. Men said “Girls are weak” when in fact girls made them weak.

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Omar El Akkad’s novel American War is a different proposition: a terrifying, raw novel that imagines a future while simultaneously confronting us with the contemporary politics of displacement, radicalization, terrorism, torture, treason, the fall and rise of empires.

It’s a disturbing read that humanizes (though not necessarily forgives) the players.

American War follows the trajectory of Sarat, an American girl from Louisiana’s south in a United States geographically altered by the encroachment of the seas, due to climate change, and altered politically by the Second American Civil War, 2074-2095, with a breakaway “Free Southern State” (FSS), led by the MAG (Mississippi/Alabama/Georgia, South Carolina having been knocked out by biological weapons), proclaimed after disputes about fossil fuels, acts of terrorism, and political assassinations.

The author was born in Egypt, raised in Qatar, moved to Canada, and now lives in Oregon. As a journalist he’s won a National Newspaper Award for Investigative Reporting in Canada for his coverage of a 2006 terror plot. He’s also reported on the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantanamo Bay, Egypt’s Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter.

It seems obvious – to me, at least – that El Akked’s project with American War is to describe the paths to radicalization, the making of a terrorist (of terrorists). Western readers won’t read a novel about children growing up in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan or Kenya; so El Akkad has written about Gaza, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan in the guise of speculative fiction set in America. I was disconcerted, on scanning some online reviews, to see that some American readers failed to recognize that intention, and instead expected a World War Z-style overview of a dystopian social collapse. Reviewers didn’t understand why the author’s focus increasingly narrowed in on Sarat, a character it’s hard – and gets harder – to empathise with. Katniss Everdeen, she is not.

(I was also nonplussed by the person who complained that all the main characters, except Sarat, who is explicitly black, are, according to him, white, with, apparently, “No Hispanics or Blacks”. It seems to me quite evident that just about all the characters are racial blends, with varying degrees of Black, Hispanic and other racial traits, not to mention the Arab and North African characters from the fictional rising power, the Bouazizi Empire. I can only assume the readers who failed to recognize the multiracial nature of this future are the same readers who were shocked, on seeing the first Hunger Games movie, to realize that Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins intended the character Rue, along with most of the inhabitants of District 11, to be black.)

By following Sarat, El Akkat takes us on a dark journey through displacement, to a displaced persons’ camp (clearly, to my mind, analogous to displaced persons’ camps and refugee camps in the Middle East), through the politics of radical splinter groups, to radical activism, to an interrogation camp (clearly, to my mind, analogous to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib) called Sugarloaf Detention Facility, on an island reminiscent of Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was held) but which happens to be the residue of what once was Florida.

The spectral raising of Nelson Mandela seems, to me, intentional. El Akkat intends to explain radicalization and terrorism, not condone it. In how he writes what happens after Sarat emerges from detention at Sugarloaf, he intends to make clear that Sarat still has choices: she could use her horrific experiences for the good, as Nelson Mandela did, or by creating a healing, peaceful life in seclusion for herself and those close to her – she is, remarkably, offered that option, due to unique circumstances her family is blessed by. But Sarat chooses a different course of action.

We are told 11 million people die in the Second American Civil War. Another 110 million die in its aftermath, after a terrorist turns biological weapon during Reunification Day celebrations. It’s a terrible cost. American War is speculative fiction, but no wonder young American reviewers put down this book, incomplete.

The myth of the “Greatest Generation” is that war brings out the best in a people: the myth directs to 1940s Americans, the British during the Blitz. But, without minimizing the undoubted heroism many Americans (soldiers, merchant navy, civilian war workers) did demonstrate during World War II, and the undoubted heroism many British service personnel and civilians showed from 1939 onwards, it is a lie. War does not bring out the best in people. It brings out the worst.

War brings out the racketeers, the profiteers, the exploiters, the sadists, the sociopaths, the people forced to abandon goodness to the slave-god Survival. War breaks down civil order, breaks down social codes. War has its merits if it takes place offshore, if your side emerge as winners, if you’ve invested in profitable war-related ventures. If it takes place on home soil, if you are directly affected, if you’re injured or displaced or your soul is destroyed – not so okay.

As I said back at the start – just, no.

Somewhere, a fog shaped like a mushroom cloud rolls in.

Here it comes.

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Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr


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Author’s notes – the Lenny novella (4 May 2018)

[Spoiler alert – discloses ending]

The Lenny novella was written mostly in mid-2012, with one chapter, Death, written late 2013, then the conclusion in early 2018, six years after its inception.

There’s a range of reasons I abandoned it for so long (other than that I was embarrassed by it).

These include concerns about:

  1. The hysterical tone and narrative content.
  2. Cultural appropriation and pastiche.
  3. How to end the narrative.
  4. Plagiarism.

So, some thoughts on those points.

Hysteria

The first 12,000 words were written essentially in one burst, immediately after I was sacked from a temp admin job, where, among other things, I’d failed to prepare coffee and tea for senior staff and clients to the corporate standard.

I was in that temp job after leaving my previous admin job due to injuring my back, an injury that completely incapacitated me for about five weeks and left me unable to move without pain for just over three months. I’d attempted a return to work, but the firm where I worked was unwilling to modify my tasks: three hours every morning continued to be rote mechanical movement with a twist from the waist (don’t ask).

It’s fair to say I felt evil towards the corporate workplace.

It’s fair to say I had a track record as a misfit in conventional workplaces. I despaired of finding employment again. In fact, I haven’t worked fulltime since then.

But Lenny’s hysteria has other origins.

I’d experienced occasional panic attacks over the previous five or so years, and one way back when I was 18 or 19. At that time I worked in the Australian rock music industry, and being backstage was a way of life. On this occasion something had happened earlier in the night that distressed me hugely; when I went to leave, I could not find the exit. I could not see a door, or figure out the direction to get outside. I was standing on a stage with road crew loading up all around me, panicking. I grabbed a friend I trusted – and screamed “Jim! I cannot find my way out!” He looked at me oddly, half turned, pointed, and said “There”.

There was a missing wall with a truck parked halfway through it. There was a roller door fully opened. There was the night sky. Black and stars.

I didn’t identify that as a panic attack as I’d never heard that term. But if someone had used the words “Panic attack” that night, I would have recognised myself immediately.

Lenny is, in effect, one long panic attack. That might make it hard to read. Or unreadable.

Cultural appropriation and pastiche

The Lenny novella is set in a world that shares recognisable elements with ours but is not ours. In among the fantasy elements, I have lifted imagery from many cultures, notably Japan and Silk Road cultures: China, Persia, Moghul India. I have lifted elements from the myths of many cultures. It might be worth mentioning the post-graduate thesis I attempted was on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Celtic Literature.

I didn’t lift images and narrative elements to disrespect these cultures. But I do understand many readers are uncomfortable with privileged white people using the symbologies of other cultures in cavalier ways.

At the time I began Lenny I was frankly unaware of that debate. I chose to create a cultural hybrid fantasy world partly for the beauty of those varied elements and partly to distinguish this world from the reality (realities) we live in. If I thought about it, I thought of it as a postmodern pastiche.

I needed to distinguish Lenny’s world from ours because this is not a factual tale. At the same time, I needed to retain ties to the world as we know it to ensure the themes – genocide, child soldiers, institutional abuse, collaboration and collusion – recognisably relate to this world. I plucked names ad hoc from different languages and cultures, mostly European, to draw attention to parallels between the events in this story and events during the Bosnian War and in World War II.

I pilfered parts of other people’s stories. A big slab of Lenny’s opening address is straight from the experiences of a Bosnian Muslim combat veteran who I met in 2002 when he was a refugee. Thank you, Sakib Mustafic. The woman who steps from a helicopter at the conclusion is an homage to my friends Tara Young, an Australian Iraq War combat veteran, and Dr Barb Wigley, who manages refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa.

The figure of the Investigator is a tribute to my friend Robyn Dixon, a foreign correspondent since 1993.

The dragons come from the west. Not “the West”. There is no political partisanship intended there.

The End

The way I had set up this narrative there is no escape for these children. I grew more and more depressed, realising any device I used to extract them would be wishful thinking. These children were doomed. Then this morning, I was listening to talkback radio, listening to a woman my age (57) say there was no prospect of employment for her after years of disability. A short while back, a very short while back, I would have echoed her belief. But my instinctive response was, “No! I have two jobs – casual jobs, it’s true, but jobs I love, and I love the life those jobs make possible!”

I might be the lucky exception, but luck does exist: exceptions do exist. The unlikely, the providential, can happen.

I thought, if I am an exception, why should I not allow my characters a Deus Ex Machina? A God from above?

So I sent them helicopters. I rescued them.

Also, as Lenny discusses at the end, these are children. What are adults for, if not to protect children? I, as author, can do that. I am the adult here.

So, I let them live.

Lenny says she can’t speak to the rightness or wrongness of those helicopters being there. I can’t either, and I don’t. This tale is not a justification for wars of foreign intervention.

Quite apart from my pique at being sacked as an admin temp, this story was prompted by issues raised by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, the court of last resort for crimes of genocide, and by the Court of Human Rights. It might seem to allude to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Syria, even institutional child sex abuse as in the Roman Catholic Church internationally. It is not “about” any one of those phenomena specifically. It is “about” social prejudice, exclusion, discrimination and persecution as social and political phenomena.

Plagiarism and due credit

As soon as I wrote that ending, I recognised my borrowings from John Wyndham’s classic The Chrysalids. I loved The Chrysalids as a child. Two years back I repurchased a copy, which sits on my bookshelves, unread. I hadn’t realised how much Lenny’s narrative owes to The Chrysalids till today.

Call it postmodern. Call it homage.

All elements of homage are unintended, with love, or intended, with respect.

The Lenny novella (c.26,737 words) – 2012/13/18

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By the way – the photographs in the Lenny novella blog post, almost all, are mine. Other images I’ve lifted can be identified by doing a reverse images search. When I get a moment, I will do a list of credits and update the post.


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The Lenny novella (c.26,737 words) – 2012/13/18

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When the war was over the true terror began.  It was the time of the Servants.  It was hard for those of us who had been child soldiers.  The Servants sent us to re-education camps to learn what service means. We learnt the tea ceremony and how to fellate our teachers. We spent dawn hours in the fields and afternoons doing data entry.  In the evening we had group sessions to confess our service failures. Then we poured more tea.

I enjoyed the war.  I lived in the hills, sometimes with other child soldiers, sometimes alone. When my home was first burned – when my family was burned – I escaped into the forest and lived alone for months. Mostly on raw bats. Bats taste foul but they’re easy to catch. Beetles are OK. You have to find big ones to get any juice, but the crunchy thing satisfies. I dreamt of pumpkin soup.

But I enjoyed it. The war. The way the sky lit up. So frequent and yet so unpredictable.  I loved those huge chutes of purple and pink. And yellow. And peach. I wanted weapons of my own, but all I had then was a knife. It wasn’t till I met Chapin that I held my first gun. As soon as I had it I wanted to find Servants so I could try it out.

Finding Servants is even easier than catching bats. They don’t take a lot care to cover their tracks. They’d say they do. They’d say they wear black and observe vows of silence to be unobtrusive. To be self-effacing. But except during the hours of the Silent Vow they talk all the time. They yell, they shout, they gossip, they grumble. They’re men.  They even piss loudly.

That’s how I’d take down my first kills. They were outliers, men who’d left the group to piss or wank or just be alone. Me, I like being alone, but for a Servant it’s a vulnerable place. If you come up with a knife, unobtrusive, you can angle it upwards under their lower ribs and slash the vital organs. Lots of juice there. They generally die silent.

Sometimes they grunt, and once in a while they roar.  If they make too much noise other men come running. That’s when it pays to be self-effacing, and it isn’t something I’ve needed to practice. Though as it happens I’ve accumulated experience.

Chapin taught me a lot. I don’t know how he learned, I think it just came naturally.  He told me that when he was small his older sister said he’d be a good person to have around in a war zone. And that was before the war. I don’t know if she saw the war coming then – if anyone did – but that’s what she said. It didn’t help her any. He couldn’t help her. When war arrived she died just like the others, all the others in his family and all the others in mine.

A war arrives like an unwanted guest.  You’re going about your business – working or playing, quarrelling or hugging – and suddenly there’s this presence that interrupts everything. War is a bully. Suddenly everything, everyone, is enforced into its servitude.

I served the war for countless months and I mean that. I lost count. I have no idea how long the war went on. It just went on. Raw bats and blood and beetles and knives. Guns of various kinds and smashed up entrails. Smashed in heads. Shattered hips and crushed legs. Smears of blood with just traces of bodies. It was good up in the hills where it was green and not red, and where the sky lit up like a pageant nightly. Sometimes there were other kids to talk to, and other kids to fight alongside. Sometimes there was food.

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In the tea ceremony, we have to pour just so.  The tea must reach a certain depth of colour – not lighter, not darker. We use a certain quantity of tea powder and whisk just so. The texture must be entirely light.  We pour precisely to a certain level.  We serve with a smile.

The re-education camps are brothels and I don’t know what end purpose we serve here for.  When we reach a certain level we are disappeared. The Servants tell us if we fulfil our potential we will be permitted into their community to represent redemption and model service values. I think they kill us.

The thing is, the Servants have always killed us, and it’s not like they’re dependent on us to serve them tea. The tea service is symbolic. They could do their own tea if the tea was what mattered. What matters is the service, which is what they’ve always been about. Once we erase ourselves and are effaced into pure service they’ve made their point; they might as well kill us. Or not. We’ve ceased to exist at that point. But they like to kill, so I think that’s how it ends.

But then again, I like to kill too, and I know who I am. I am a soldier. The more I meditate on serving the more I want to serve, just not quite the way the Servants have in mind. So maybe it’s not over. Did I say the war was over?

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The tea ceremony? I could perform the tea ceremony with my eyes put out. Maybe some day I will.

These are the elements for the tea ceremony:  tea, a small knife, a small mortar and pestle, a tea bowl, a bowl stand, tea cups, a whisk, a low table, a kettle, a kettle stand, a stove (with charcoal), a trainee, a Servant (or several). The teacake is pre-prepared. It’s imported from somewhere, I don’t know where. I believe it grows wild on forested cliffs. It’s white tea, rare and precious.  Only the new shoots are picked, when they’re whitish, almost translucent. The shoots are picked at dawn, plump with dew. I’m told they must be picked by long fingernails; finger pads would bruise them.

Who told me this? A girl in the camp. She was a bit older than I am. I only talked with her once, after that she disappeared. I would have liked to ask her more.

The tea leaves are steamed, then crushed, then shaped by a mould into the form of an egg.  Why an egg?  I don’t know. I think it’s just aesthetically pleasing. Then the tea-egg is dried. It’s wrapped in a very fine tissue, each tea-egg stored in its individual container. The containers are carved from fragrant wood but unembellished. The tea-egg and the containers are smooth.

When I am called to perform the tea ceremony I am required to be washed first. I report to the cleansing studio. In the cleansing studio I am entirely passive: everything is done on my behalf. I am stripped of clothing and my intimate parts are scrubbed using sponges soaked in tepid water.  By “my intimate parts”, I mean everywhere there is a hinge joint: between and under my toes, around my ankles, behind my knees, in my groin and where thigh meets hip, under my arms, under my chin, in my elbows, around my wrists, between and around my fingers. Also anywhere they are flesh flaps: my genitals, where my breasts would be (if I had breasts, they wash there anyway), around my lips, my nostrils, my earlobes, around the top cartilage of my ears, my eyelids.

My scalp is washed. If hair has sprouted, it’s shaved again. It’s important that no blood be spilt so they’re careful not to cut me. The women who prepare me are expert. They do this fast and silently, never making eye contact. When they’re done they step me into a simple undergarment and wrap a large shawl around me. The shawl is fine cotton and feels not unpleasant. The women tuck and fold so the shawl covers me entirely. There’s no risk of it coming undone. I can move my arms and my torso without fearing cloth will fall into the tea bowl.

When I am clad the women paint a single spot on my face, a red dot just below my lower lip. I don’t know what it symbolises but I’m guessing it means something.

The oldest of the women then presents me with a tea-egg container. I am escorted out of the cleansing studio and guided to the tea house. As if I don’t know where it’s located. Tea is only ever served in the tea house. Everything is already set up there. The Servants are waiting.

So when I enter the tea house I see the Servants, sitting cross-legged on cushions alongside a low table.  The table is plain and utterly smooth.  The Servants wear black, as they always do. For the tea ceremony they wear their indoor robes. The fabrics are fine textured and deepest dark black, but devoid of ornamentation. The Servants’ Silent Vow applies during the tea ceremony, so they do not speak. I keep my eyes down and kneel before the table with the tea-egg container held in front in both hands.  I place the tea-egg container on the table, pause, than prostate myself, forehead to floor. Then I sit back on my heels and pause again.

I open the tea-egg container and lift out the tea-egg in its tissue wrapping.  Very gently, I unfold the wrapping so the egg is exposed in my hands. I take the small knife from the table and here I always falter. I am expert with a knife. I can kill with a knife. If I smashed it into an eyeball, or up under a jaw, through the soft part, I could kill at least one Servant. Or through the base of the throat, I’m spoiled for choice. I always look too long at the knife. Then I take it – it’s very small – and ever so carefully shave a tiny piece of tea from the tea-egg.  I do this as carefully, as expertly, as the women shaving my body.

Because I shave the tea-egg so carefully the fragment I shave does not break up. I place it in the pestle and crush it with the mortar. I grind for just a moment or two and it becomes fine powder. A kettle has been brewing on the small stove to the side of the room, which is fuelled by charcoal and stoked by the women before I arrived. The kettle is a metal ewer worked in a cylindrical shape – tall, flaring out from a flat small base then narrowing to a small, mouth-like opening. Ovoid, like an elongated egg.  The water is boiling now. The water is pure. It’s been sourced from a stream or lake, or so I am told. The higher in the hills the better. I could take the boiling water and fling it in a Servant’s face. There isn’t a large volume of water, just enough for a few tea cups, but hot water stings and I could use that moment to knife a Servant or simply run.

I don’t do that today. Instead I use a section of shawl to wrap my hand and lift the hot kettle from the stove. I pour a small amount into the tea bowl then place the metal ewer back on the stove.  Very carefully, I smooth the fine tea powder into the tea bowl with its shallow portion of hot water. This creates a paste. Then I retrieve the kettle with my left hand, wrapped in its shawl, and pick up the wooden whisk with my right hand.  I pour and whisk simultaneously, ensuring the paste is diluted only gradually, so that it retains a milky white colour. I rotate the kettle as I pour. As I whisk, using a circular motion, a light head of foam develops. This is known as the Milky Way or Star Flight. It is very important that the Milky Way be frothy yet quite firm, so that it remains in place even as I pour the tea into cups.

The utensils matter. The tea bowl must be thick ceramic, pale duck egg blue.  It must be deep, to get a good head of foam, and wide so I can whisk without spillage. The upper lip opens outwards, the texture is entirely smooth. The tea cups are the same duck egg blue, the same smoothness, but thin to the point that to pick them up by hand appears unseemly, even brutal. They look fragile. But so far I have never seen one break, so there must be something in the way they are fired that results in unexpected strength.

I don’t touch them myself.  They are arranged on the table and my task is to pour tea.  I place the kettle in the kettle stand and the tea bowl in the bowl stand. I bow lightly towards the Servant furthest from me. I say

“May you live in peace.

May you live in harmony.

May the universe shape itself for your comfort.

This is what it is to serve.

You do me honour.”

When the words are said I pour tea for that Servant. He then reaches out and takes his tea cup. The tea should look like cloud against a pale blue sky. Then I turn to the next furthest Servant from me, bow, say the words and pour his tea. Then the next, till however many Servants are present are served.

When the Servants have been served tea they drink in silence. They drink slowly, as tea cannot be rushed. During this time I kneel with my head bent. I do not move until I hear knuckles rapped on the table. This signals that the Servants have completed drinking tea. Now it is time for me to sing. It is always the same song:

“For as long as worlds suffer

I will serve.

For as long as chaos threatens

I will serve.

For as long as darkness rends daylight

I will serve.

For as long as time continues and change holds reign

I live only to serve.

O teach me to serve.

Let me honour you with service.”

Then the Servant closest to me lifts his tunic and I am required to kneel over his crotch. I am required to serve. I serve each of the Servants in turn, in silence. When each Servant has been served, the final Servant, the one furthest from where I started, raps the table to signal me to leave.

I return unescorted to the cleansing studio where the women await me. The roster of women changes from visit to visit but the women who prepare me are always the same team who debrief me afterwards. First they use a sponge to wipe off the red dot beneath my lower lip, assuming it’s survived. They wipe my lower lip regardless. Then they unrobe me. Naked, I kneel then prostrate myself. Three times I say “I have served. I have served. I have served.” Then I extend myself fully like a snake, belly to ground, face to ground, and I say “I live to serve.”  The women pick me up by reaching under my armpits and hauling me to my feet. They hand me back my regular coarse clothes and turn their backs on me. I walk to the door and exit, returning to the afternoon’s data entry, if this had been an afternoon session, or retiring to barracks if an evening session.

Generally I do two sessions a day. Some of us are seldom called but I have much to learn about service. Since I would seem to be a slow learner I’m not afraid I’ll be disappeared soon, but eventually I’ll be deemed proficient in the tea ceremony and then my ultimate self-effacement will be imminent.  I am planning.  I pride myself on being canny at planning, even if my service failures are gross, so with luck I will have a plan that works before I graduate as a tea ceremony adept.

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I don’t know what you look like but I know one day we’ll meet. There will be an investigator and there will be a witness. I will be that witness. You’ll ask me about the Servants, and I’ll tell you there’s a lot I don’t understand, but this is what I know:

In our society there are divisions. The First Division is the lawmakers, military, law enforcement and spiritual guides. The Second Division is the traders. The Third Division is the producers: manufacturers, farmers and artisans. The Fourth Division is the Unclean, those who touch the abject. Outside of the Divisions are the Storytellers. These are singers, dancers, visual artists, writers and anyone who imagines the unknown. That is, anyone born different.

The Divisions are hereditary. You cannot marry into a different Division, or buy your way into a different Division. The exception is the Storytellers, as ever. For example, I am a Storyteller because my grandmother was born without arms. Before that my family was military. Chapin is – or was – a Storyteller because his father had visions. His family was military too. A child, or even an adult, may be taken from their family of origin and re-designated as a Storyteller if the governing committee of their Division determines there is no longer a fit with their birth community.

Each of the Divisions, except the Storytellers, has a governing committee. Theoretically members of each committee are rotated every three years. But some members are requested by their community to continue serving for additional terms. Sometimes they serve life-long. How long an individual might serve is influenced by factors like force of personality, financial clout, family influence and prestige, and sometimes even wisdom.

The First Division has a governing committee headed by a single individual. This is unique. In the other Divisions members of the committees have an equal voice and are expected to reach decisions by consensus. In the First Division, it used to be that the ruler had a time limited term, with a maximum of 12 years. But in recent generations two rulers died in unclear circumstances and factionalism spilled into violence. It was agreed the First Division was in crisis. In times of crisis, strong leadership is needed. Stable leadership. So the committee chose a Ruler for Life.

You can see our problem?  The tendency of the First Division is to get smaller: soldiers die young, spiritual guides are celibate. The tendency of the Storytellers is to expand: no family is immune from the advent of a child who needs to dance, or to make images, or born physically different, or who moves in this world in an other-worldly way.

And because the Divisions are hereditary, there are many within the Storyteller families who have no particular gift and no marked difference from their First or Second or Third Division peers. These people are not telling stories, but nor are they ruling or trading or producing. There starts to be an alignment between the ‘silent’ Storytellers and the Unclean. The Unclean touch the abject, which covers all killing professions (except the military, who kill humans), all cleaning professions (all waste disposal, whether garbage, sewage or corpses), and all healing professions (anyone who deals with illness and injury).  The medicos have psychotropic drugs. The ‘silent’ Storytellers seek out the Unclean for their drugs, as a way to access visions, or find their voice, and in that way to claim their birthright.

In recent times, the crisis times, the higher Divisions came to see the Storytellers as a source of instability. Education and special employment programs were designed to manage the problem. To manage us. Governing committees debated the issue in censorious terms. Radio broadcasts railed against us. There were too many Storytellers. Storytelling had become Unclean. More and more people within the Divisions believed it was time for a clean up.

Then the Ruler for Life was killed.

I truly do not know how it happened. My family were at home watching TV when a newscast came on to say the Ruler for Life had been in a military plane which exploded over the hills. The Storytellers live separate from other Divisions, in villages clustered in the foothills. The Unclean live in villages in the plains between the foothills and the towns. Somewhere mid-air between take-off from the airport outside the city and the hilltops near our home, the Ruler for Life had been assassinated.

That’s when war broke out. A lot of us didn’t know how to respond to the newscast. We stayed by our TVs and radios to listen for updates. We logged on to the internet to find out the facts. But no facts ever emerged. Instead, within hours we were dragged from our homes and slaughtered, our houses set ablaze. The roads were cordoned off and anyone caught trying to escape was killed. I was lucky. I wasn’t caught.

This is when the Servants came into their own. The Servants started as the Ruler for Life’s bodyguards. After the Ruler for Life was killed, their numbers swelled. The Servants became those who serve the memory of the ruler.  The killing was an unspeakable act, so the Servants take a vow of silence. They don’t speak between nightfall and breakfast, nor for an hour either side of meals, and they don’t speak during the tea ceremony. They are required to take part in a tea ceremony daily.  The Servants take a celibacy vow. That’s OK. What they do in the tea ceremony isn’t sex. It can’t be sex, because it involves young boys as much as young girls, and the Servants are not homosexual. (To be homosexual is to be a Storyteller and Unclean.) The tea ceremony is about service, and oral service is not sex. Anyone can tell you that.

Service is the Servants’ highest value. Art is ostentation, is ornamentation, is embellishment, elaboration, lying. Art is self assertion. To be a Servant is the opposite of being a Story Teller. The mission of the Servants is to stamp out Story Telling.

That is why I am in a re-education camp. I am being trained in service. I am being given a new voice to displace my Story Teller tales. I might not like the means by which I am being retrained, the medium by which my voice is altered, but my likes and dislikes are irrelevant. I am irrelevant. That is why once I fully understand, I will be killed.

My mission is to find you, the investigator, and tell my stories before I am killed.

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Strange things are happening.

Last week I was standing in the cleansing studio, being prepared for the tea ceremony, watching the women who never make eye contact. The woman preparing to paint the red dot under my lip was young, maybe twenty. She was dark and fluid, poised for a moment with the pigment box held in one hand, a fine brush in the other. She leaned in to paint the red dot, deftly; then, close to my face, she raised her eyes to mine. She made eye contact. So close to my face I could feel her breath.

My own breath caught.

“What is your talent?” I heard her ask.

I didn’t know how to respond. “I kill.”

She paused, her face still intimately close. “I mean your art.”

She had huge dark eyes, deep set. The texture of her skin was imperfect, the curve of her face voluptuous.  “I tell stories.”

She dropped her gaze, then drew back to a less confronting distance. She nodded. Everything continued as before, except that I felt dazed. I kept staring at the woman. The other women proceeded as if nothing had happened. As if they noticed nothing.

When I entered the tea house I had to take particular care not to fumble or drop anything, not to let anything spill.  My hands didn’t feel as if they belonged to me. Nothing about me belonged in that space.

When the time came to serve, I bowed to the Servant furthest from me, as I should, and I said the words:

“May you live in peace.

May you live in harmony.

May the universe shape itself for your comfort.

This is what it is to serve.

You do me honour.”

And as I said that final word, “honour”, I raised my eyes. I looked him in the face. It was involuntary, nothing planned. For a moment time stopped. I heard the hiss of breath intake and time restarted. The Servant was staring at me. I couldn’t drop my gaze. He looked bewildered, more so than angry. I kept staring at him. He was a large man, strong coloring. His eyes were completely round. He held up his hand, fingers pointing up, palm facing out, as if to fend me off.

I lowered my gaze and moved to pour the tea, but the Servant stood up. He motioned to the other Servants. One still sat there, the others made to stand. There was a flurry of confused movement. When I looked up again I was alone in the tea house. I was guessing I won’t be graduating soon.

I stood alone in the tea house for a few minutes, studying each item on the table. The tea bowl, the bowl stand, the tea cups, the whisk. The small knife. The kettle in the kettle stand.  I reached out for the small knife and tucked it under my right armpit. I am left handed. I wondered for the first time who cleans up after a tea ceremony, but I think I already knew. The women do. The same women who clean up me.

The tea was still in the tea bowl. The Star Flight, its crown of froth, had not subsided. It had endurance, for something so light. I studied the tea cups. There was a luminosity to the empty tea cups. Light played in rings within their emptiness. The tea cups were filled with light. Not empty at all.

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Now might be the time to leave. The camp is a grid of corrugated iron barracks. There are shadows and angles. I am small. The tea house is the sole point of beauty. It is elegant and sparse, isolated, surrounded by a moat of fine white pebbles, smooth and perfect as the Milky Way. There is a small plum tree near its entrance. It would be difficult to leave unobserved, and I can’t imagine I am unobserved. I count the tea cups – four, tonight – bow my head, and turn. I leave the way I arrived, heading back on foot, unescorted, to the cleansing studio.

When I take my place in the centre of the room, as I always do, the women gather round me. The girl with dark eyes raises them to mine again.

“Will they kill me?” I ask.

“No,” she whispers. “I don’t think they will.”

“What will happen?”

She smiles. “How should I know? Am I a story teller? You’ll likely do double sessions of data entry this week.”

“Who are you?” I plead.

She smiles again. As the women strip my robe they touch my skin. I don’t recall they’ve ever done that before. Perhaps I’ve never felt it. I feel it now. I can feel that luminous light that lit up the tea cups, coursing through my skin, pulsing through my veins. My body feels warm, even though only a light undergarment covers my torso and thighs. I still have the small knife under my right armpit. None of the women acknowledge it or attempt to raise that arm. They slide the fabric out from between my right arm and my rib-cage as if that’s how it’s always done, as if there’s always a knife.

I wonder why I’ve never asked myself who these women are. Can they be Unclean?

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In the barracks I worry about the knife. Its absence must be noticed. There is no-one I can talk to. No-one talks to me. We are under surveillance by barracks guards. We sleep in bunks, but no-one talks. The woman with big eyes is the first person who has spoken to me in weeks, other than to issue orders.

The next time I’m called, it’s a different team. I am undressed, I am washed, I am shaved. There is no chance hair might grow. I am shaved every day. The woman who leans in to paint the red spot is tiny, she is shorter than me, and I’m only fourteen. She looks to be in her thirties. Curly hair. As she delicately dabs her brush in the pigment box she cocks her head to one side and studies my lower lip. Suddenly it happens again. She looks me straight into the eyes. Her mouth breaks into a crooked smile and her eyelids crease, narrowing her eyes into two young moons. She holds her arms out, one with the pigment box, one with the brush, and leans in so close her lips almost touch mine. I am startled.

Then she draws back slightly and in eyeblink, she’s painted the red dot.

“What is it?” I ask, and my voice sounds like a bleat. “What does the red dot mean?”

She leans in again and moves her mouth close to my ear.

“It’s a bullet hole.”

“Will they kill me?” I ask again.

“Maybe,” she says. “There are worse futures.”

“Who are you?” I ask again. “You are not Storytellers?”

She draws herself back and speaks at a volume I used to consider normal.

“Who made the tea cups? Who made the tea bowl? Who can make a knife?”

I am dumbstruck.

I enter the tea room and there, on the table, is my knife. Only it’s not my knife, I still have that. I have it hidden in the lining of my mattress. It is a knife identical to the knife I stole, lying there, innocent, giving the lie. I have that feeling again, as if I am not here. As if my hands are independent of my body. As if my mouth is independent of my soul. I perform the tea ceremony, and this time I perform almost flawlessly.  Almost.

As I pour the last tea cup – there are five, tonight – my hands waver slightly, as if nudged, and I spill a fine trickle. It leaks from under the canopy of the Milky Way, so little it could almost go unnoticed, but nothing goes unnoticed. The rim of the tea cup is wettened, there is fine white tea dribbling down the tea cup’s outer surface. I complete my tasks but I know I am no closer to graduation. My service values are not as they should be. My service failings are gross.

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It must be a trap. I don’t know what to make of these women. How can I tell the truth to the Investigator if I’m so confused?

I examine each proposition presented to me. First, the women believe they can speak unguardedly. Is that true? Not necessarily. There is nothing they’ve said so far that could not be said in front of the Servants. It’s just that I’m amazed it would be. I cannot believe we can speak unmonitored.

Second, the women speak as if they understand more than I do. Or am I assuming that? Is there anything they have stated as fact? What the big eyed woman said was hedged in speculation. The second woman, the one with the crinkled features, made two statements. She told me my red dot is a bullet hole, and she told me there are worse futures than being killed. Or is that an opinion? Maybe the bullet hole line was a joke. Maybe they’re mouthing a script designed to scare me.

I think about the bullet hole. I mean the red painted dot. I think about that image, “mouthing a script.” There are similar images in our language.  Shooting your mouth off. Getting mouthy. Giving lip. Giving head. A girl can’t say no with a cock in her mouth. Put a lid on it. It takes a Storyteller to think this way.

I think of the Servants who brought us in from the hills. They told us to kneel. Most of us did. A few of us were too far gone to comprehend, or too physically destroyed to comply at once. One boy just said no. A Servant sprang forward and pushed that child soldier down on his knees. He rammed his gun butt into the boy’s back. The boy fell forward. The Servant grabbed him by his hair and pulled the kid back up into a kneeling position. He twisted the kid’s neck as he stepped in front. Other Servants had their guns trained on the boy. The first Servant tried to prise the boy’s mouth open with the muzzle of his gun. The boy – his name was Ciel – jammed his jaw shut and would not part his lips.  The Servant had the gun rammed hard against his mouth when he pulled the trigger. I remember the back of the skull exploding. I remember fragments of teeth flew.

That’s what you get for talking back. For talking out of turn. For talking.

Yet these women talk. How can they do that? Are they mad?

They had questions of their own.  Who made the tea bowl? Who made the tea set? Who can make a knife?

I thought they were Fourth Division, Unclean, but are they trying to tell me they’re Third Division? Can they be artisans? And how would that ally them with us, with me? An artist is different from an artisan; every child learns that. An artisan is a producer. Artisans make utensils, products with use value. Artisans make things that are useful. Artisans are useful.

Artists, everyone knows, are not useful. Artists are an extravagance. We produce fantasies and distractions. The other divisions pay good money to be beguiled. They yearn for magic: they lust for glamour, for something spell-binding. But once that lust is slaked they’re somehow ashamed. As if they had been conned. Some artists do become rich. Rich and famous. But the other divisions, while lauding those artists for a time, at heart despise them, and resent them. Art is a sleight of hand – insubstantial, meaningless, fundamentally immoral.

There is another possibility. I am puzzled, but I’m prepared to ask the question.

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I am summoned to the cleansing unit. When I arrive there are Servants at the door. They don’t go inside. I wonder if it might be unclean for them to enter? Could that be why the women think they can talk? Surely it is unclean for Servants to observe a young person being washed and shaved? That doesn’t take account of electronic devices. Bugs. A room can always be bugged.

The Servants don’t allow me to enter. Instead, a Servant grabs my arms and forces my wrists behind me. There are three of them. One of them is the tall man who halted the tea ceremony when my eyes met his.  He is the leader. One of his underlings keeps a firm grip on my wrists. The other keeps his gun trained on my back. They frogmarch me at gun-point through the alleys between the barracks, to an open space near the camp gates. There is a utility truck there with an open tray.  In the tray, the woman with big eyes and the woman with the crinkly face and two other women are bound to the railings by nylon cords. The cords are wrapped many times around their wrists and ankles, and upper arms and shoulders.  They are lashed to the railings by cords around their waists.  I can see how tight the cords are. The women’s flesh is bright red and mottled in the area immediately around the cords. Their hands are white. There is no possibility the women can move.

I am forced into the truck cabin, not into the tray. The big man gets into the driver’s seat and the other two fall back. The big man starts the truck’s engine, disengages the handbrake and as the truck moves forward the camp gates open.

I know where the camp is situated. It’s on the plains, near the Fourth Division villages. If the cleansing studio women are Fourth Division, I imagine they go home when their tasks in the camp are done. I don’t think these four women will get to go home. It’s a good road leading from the camp to the hills, a bitumen road, but I can hear something sliding around in the tray. It makes a raspy sound, a scraping sound on the metal base. I don’t have to see it to know it’s a shovel. I’ve seen this before, in other contexts, in other times. I have a fair idea what happens next.

It’s a long drive to the hills but the big man says nothing. He doesn’t look at me. I don’t look at him. I have my knife. A knife like this, crafted for trimming tea-eggs, might not be effective against a man this big. I’m wondering about the shovel’s potential.

I don’t look behind me but I can see in the rear view mirror.  I can see the women’s backs, and parts of the cords that bind them. They are not gagged, but they were beaten up. Their faces are swollen and bruised, and they are bleeding. I’m wondering if they’ll have a chance to speak before they die. I’m wondering if they’re still able to speak. I’m wondering why they spoke in the first place. I keep coming back to the one thought: these women were mad.

What would make them mad? What could drive them mad? I imagine the woman with the big eyes making her case.  I am artist, she is saying. I make fine ceramics, lustrewear. How could I ever be anything but an artist? Kill my cousins and you kill me. Kill me, she is saying. Her voice is husky. Her voice is breathy. Her voice is dead sexy. Soon she’ll be dead.

I imagine the woman with the crinkled face. She is crying. She is answering that question I never got to ask. You took my children, she yells. You stole my babies. You stole my babies then you killed them. When you stole my babies you took out my heart. Kill me, she challenges. Kill me now. I am walking dead.

If I tell this to the Investigator, am I telling the truth? Or am I a storyteller, making these things up? What if these women never get to say their truth? Am I empowered to speak on their behalf? When will I find the Investigator, where, and in what circumstances? What action can an Investigator take? Can I trust an Investigator?

We have reached the foothills, not far from where I’d find the ruins of my home village, if there are ruins to find. The big man stops the truck.  He turns the engine off and sits still for a minute. Then he opens the truck door, and steps out without looking at me. Now is a moment when I could run. I don’t do that. I am here as a witness. Besides, he’d shoot me before I made it to the trees. As well as a shovel, there’s a rifle been rattling around in the tray. Within seconds of getting out of the truck he’s reclaimed his rifle and closed its breech, readying it for action. I note it’s bolt action – can’t get as many rounds off as a lever or pump action, but a classic sniper’s weapon. It’s light enough that I could use it, even though it’s set up right-handed.

I stay seated in the car. The man will come and get me when I’m needed. I can hear him clambering about in the tray, cutting first one woman then the next from the railings, throwing them over the tray sides to the ground.  They thud heavily onto the turf. I remember the crinkly woman as so tiny, I can’t believe she’d land that heavily.

When the Servant opens the car door I step out voluntarily and look around. The Servant pointedly does not look at me. He doesn’t need to. The woman are still tightly bound, cords wrapped around their wrists and shoulders. They’re barely conscious. They’re not going anywhere. There is no-one here to witness, except me, and no-one who can help. It’s been raining. The ground is sodden. The grass grows virulent green and long, except in an area about the size of the ute’s tray.  Here, the turf has already been dug out.  A hole has been dug to a depth of a bit more than a metre. It’s rich soil round here, dark and crumbly, and it’s seeped into the water so I can’t see the bottom of the grave. The sludge might be several inches deep. There are two bodies lying beside the hole. These are children. The bodies are naked and I can see they’ve been there for at least a night.  The uppermost parts are eerily white and the lower parts are black with accumulated blood. The bodies are wet with rain but I think these children were killed before the rain began. There’s no mud on them.  One of them is facing to the sky, his eyes wide open. His earlobes are grey and blue.

I don’t recognise these children and for that I am grateful. It’s too much to expect they might be from my home village, or from a neighbouring village.  The war went on for a long while, and the villages hereabouts have been ghost-towns all that time.

The Servant doesn’t waste time. He kicks the children’s bodies into the grave then without hesitation picks up the first of the bound women and tosses her in too. She lands face down. She will drown within minutes. He’s slung his weapon behind his shoulder, and I see he’s moved the rifle safety to ‘Safe’. So he can’t fire, for now. I’m not sure how to make use of this: he’s in-scale with the truck, and he’s angry, while I am small, and I’m terribly afraid. One of the women tries to struggle when he lifts her, she can’t do more than writhe. She doesn’t scream. When he throws her down she lands on her fellow, and I wonder if they were friends, and how far back. He’s picked up the fourth woman now. She makes feeble sounds. I realise her teeth have been knocked out.

Once he’s flung the fourth woman into the pit he gestures to me to pick up the shovel. He’s looking me square in the face now. I can see anger welling in him, and anger arises in answer within me. It rises in a shock of emotion. I can feel the blood drain from my face. I swear I feel blood surge into my limbs. If I stripped off my sleeves my arms would be red. So I roll up my sleeves, and there they are, red forearms. My forearms and hands are pulsing red. Can the Servant not see it?  I pick up the shovel and I advance towards him. He flicks the right-side handle so the bolt is unlocked. I know how this works: the breech is opened, the firing pin is cocked, a new cartridge slots in place in the breech as the bolt closes. He could kill me now.

I halt, he pauses. He inclines his head to where loose turf is piled up in a mound, just at the lip of the grave. He is staring at me now. His eyes are round, as they were at the tea ceremony. He looms enormous. I stare back in anger and he raises his rifle again. I know my face is utterly white. I take a step towards him and as I move I hear a gunshot. The Servant throws his arms out. I see a red dot precisely above his eyes. It’s a bullet hole, I recognise it at once. It takes a sharp shooter to aim that well. I don’t turn around.  I hear voices behind me – two? three? – and I sink to my knees.

Then I hear further gun shots. They’ve shot the women. I shut my eyes and I hear a familiar voice.

“Get up”, the voice says. It’s Chapin. He’s alive.

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“Lenny,” Chapin says. Once my name was Lenora. His face his filthy. He’s emaciated.

“I see they’ve taken care of your head lice.”

Chapin strides across to where the big man lies. He pats down the big man’s clothing and extracts a revolver. He picks up the rifle, flicks the safety, then tosses the rifle to me.

“For you. You need a gun.”

Many months ago, somewhere in these hills, Chapin handed me my first firearms. He’s taller now, but he’s so thin. It’s hard to believe he’s younger than me.

I gesture at the pit.  “Why did you kill them? They were my friends.”

Chapin is squatting, squinting up at me. “What makes you think that?”

“That you killed them?”

“No. That they were you friends?”

“The Servants wanted them dead. The Servants intended to bury them alive.”

“Lenny,” says Chapin, in that slow careful tone we use with idiots. “Lenny. Listen. You have no friends. And we have no food. What use could we make of housewives?”

“You could have returned them to their homes. You could have let them take the truck and drive back to their homes.”

Chapin doesn’t respond. One of the boys with him kneels beside the big man, pulls a knife from his belt, and slashes off one of the big man’s fingers. Then another. And another.

“What is he doing?” I ask, alarmed.

“We have no food,” says Chapin absently. “Fingers are tasty, roasted in charcoal. He’s meaty. He has potential.”

“How many soldiers do we need to feed?”

“Soldiers? There are no soldiers now. Soldiers only make sense as part of an army. The armed resistance was wiped out months back. What we are now is bandits.”

He laughs.

I notice for the first time that Chapin’s eyes are all iris. He has no pupils. He must have a source for the drugs he’s taking.

“Come,” he says, after the longest time. “We have business to finish here. Then we can go home.”

The other boys have shovelled some soil on top of the bodies in the grave – not enough to cover them, more a token gesture. The body of the big man is missing some figures and an ear but is otherwise intact. He lies spread-eagled atop the other bodies. The colours are arresting: emerald, pale blue sky, rich loam, black, white and, uppermost, in a broad white forehead, a perfect red dot.

I lay down the rifle and step into the grave. I have business of my own to complete. I kneel astride the big man’s body and reach under his tunic. I place one hand on the base of his prick and use my left hand, the hand holding my knife, to flick up his balls, slicing swiftly as I left. In my right hand I’m now clutching a wretched entrail-like fistful.  Chapin is watching as I stuff the shredded flesh down the big man’s throat.

I climb out of the grave.

“Are we taking the truck?” I ask.

“No,” says Chapin. “We’ve left enough of a trail. From here we’ll walk.”

We walk into the woods. I love the silver birch woods. They’re infinitely elegant, and easier to navigate than deep forest. I love the slender white and grey trunks, the thin arms and fingers, the sparse leaves. I love the way our path is strewn with fallen leaves, whispering and ssshushing us as we tread our way. We’re easier to spot in here than in deep forest. We’re easier to track. But I can see the pale sky and I can still hear birds, and I realise Chapin is right: I am going home.

No-one is talking and it makes me smile: no-one converses anymore. No-one talked to me in the camp, no-one talked to me in that truck, and no-one talks now. Of course, I’ve seen what happens when someone speaks out of turn. Chapin has often been right, it’s that intuitive talent he has; he might be stating the obvious when he tells me I have no friends. I have no friends. I turn that thought over in my mind. I have no family, and I have no friends. I am walking in the direction of home, but I have no friends and I have no home.

It must have been mid-afternoon when I got out of that truck and now the sky is starting to turn a bruised colour. It’s been a pallid blue since the rain stopped, the blue seeping out and emptying into pale grey, with smudges of white, and now there are flushes of pink, like blood diluted by rain, and darker greys with intimations of violet and mauve. The mauves will deepen into that colour of pooling blood, a kind of prune. The greys will mottle and darker blue tones will emerge. On the edge of a barely visible light cloud bank is a corona of palest yellow. That must be where the sun hides. As the sun dips an aureole of peach will fringe the horizon.

It takes me back to those long nights of exploding skies. Is it possible to be nostalgic for violence? I chew on that a bit. I conclude it’s not possible to be nostalgic for something that hasn’t past. I don’t think the past ever goes away, anyway.

Just as I think that thought, there is the past, looming solid in front of me. I am so shocked I can’t move. We have stepped out of the cover of trees onto a stretch of open ground. The foreground is threaded with tree roots and moss but some way ahead the green and dead leaves give way to dun and ochre coloured dirt, lightly strewn with fine sandy pebbles. Some way ahead of that a walking track emerges. And some way further again is a village. A village where there should only be rubble.

I am beyond astonished. I turn to Chapin with my mouth and eyes round as coins.

“Welcome home,” he says. There’s a slight dilation of his pupils. It’s mostly him there now, the drugs are wearing off.

The village is perfect. It’s not quite my village, not quite as I remember. It’s been rebuilt, with the foundations of burnt-out houses forming a guide, but no attempt has been made to replicate the way it looked before.  I walk down streets laid out as they once were, and on every side I see structures set on the base of structures that are no more, new structures intact and entire, painted, blinds open, houses semi-furnished, unstocked shops. It’s a whole new town, built as if in homage to what went before, waiting to be repopulated.

They must be kidding.

“What is this?” I ask Chapin.

“This is a Storyteller village. Minus the Storytellers. Except for us.” He isn’t smiling.

“What does it mean?” I hiss. I’m asking this question a lot, these days.

He purses his lips and twists them to one side.

“I’m not sure. It was left in ruins, even after you and the others were taken, then construction workers came and rebuilt it. It was a fast rebuild, swarms of workers. The Servants supervised. It’s not just this village. Last we checked they were working on another two.”

“Do they mean to repopulate?” I fret. “Who would they bring here? The re-educated ones? Or another division?”

“I don’t know,” says Chapin. I’m used to him knowing, it throws me that he doesn’t. “There’s a man we see sometimes who I’m hoping can tell us.”

The other two boys are kicking at the gutter. I can’t believe the roads are repaved in the side streets, the older streets rebuilt in the old style. The main roads are bitumen, macadamised, modern.

“Do you stay in these houses?”

“Not usually,” Chapin answers. “It’s too dangerous. Servants come here often. They keep an eye on the buildings. They’re not going to let them deteriorate. Would you like to see your house?”

I can see my house, in my mind’s eye. I live, in my mind, in a large family home. I had a large family. I had two sisters and three brothers. I had a mother and father and four aunts and seven uncles. I had a gang of cousins. I had any number of friends. I had a dog and a cat and a pet goat. My cousins had horses. I had two grandmothers and a grandfather. I went to school. At school I learned Civics and International Politics. And art and history and dancing, singing and oral tradition.

My house – the family home – had a big garden. In our garden there was an almond tree, a cherry tree, a willow, a tree we called a liquid amber, a peach tree, flower beds tangled with white and violet stars, a retaining wall my parents built themselves, and a row of poplar trees demarcating the property’s edge. As you approach my house you duck under a canopy of wisteria. There is an entrance way, an entertaining area, for visitors, a large family enclosure adjacent to the kitchen, a flight of stairs along the left hand wall, and a landing upstairs, with bedrooms and bathrooms leading off the landing. There’s another stairway out the back, leading to an attic with a huge skylight we children would lie beneath to watch the moon in its passage across the night sky. The sky at night was filled with uncountable stars. The Star Flight.

I don’t want to see what the Servants have built. They’ve built a tombstone over my family.

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Night has fallen and we haven’t eaten.  Right on cue the smaller of the boys pulls a severed finger from his belt and starts to absently suck on it.

“Roman,” says Chapin, indicating the small boy. The child smiles up at me, the severed finger in his hand hovering a short way from his mouth. “Roman can’t speak. He was born deaf. And Roberto.”

The rangy boy with a prominent adam’s apple nods.

“Roberto doesn’t speak either. He’s gone to Jupiter.”

I know just what he means. I went to Jupiter once myself, briefly.

“Are they all there is?” I ask.

“No,” Chapin tells me. “There are others, mostly children. We don’t hang together. We use signs and signals if we want to meet up. The Servants do a semi-regular patrol through the woods and the edges of the forest. Mostly we live in the woods and drop back into the forest when we must. Sometimes we spend more time in the rebuilt villages, and once in a while I travel to the Fourth Division villages on the plains.”

“Are the Fourth Division people our friends?”

“We have no friends. But some of the Fourth Division people help us. We have no food. The children eat bark and leaves. There are streams nearby and the lakes not far from here, so we catch fish when we can and we trap small animals. Tinned food appears in the forest sometimes, sometimes packaged food, flat bread, even biscuits. We come into this village and there’s food left on the tables. Dried meats. Salami. Dried fruits. Sometimes something fresh. If we’re lucky it’s still edible when we find it.”

“They’re taking a risk coming out here, aren’t they?” I don’t need to say it. “If they drive across the plains to the foothills they could run into Servants, or be spotted from the air. Are there many who do this?”

“Some of them I know, at least by sight. Some I get to talk with. I can’t say how many. Not many, I think. And they do it by night. Most of them go into the city by day and work in the hospital. The ones I’ve met are medicos and psych workers.”

“Are they your drugs source?”

“Of course,” Chapin says. “You think I know what leaves to boil?”

He’s laughing, silently.

“We can’t stand around here.” And now he’s all action. “We need to be under cover.”

The modern streets are lined with streetlights, but it’s dark now and the streetlights have not lit up. It’s eerie in the village in the dark. In the older style streets most of the houses are in the traditional style, built primarily of wood, steep sloping rooftops with turquoise tiles. In the main strip, the buildings have wood trim, a nod to tradition, but the structures are mostly slab concrete. Some facades have been overlaid with small glossy tiles, in a milky translucent shade a bit like the foam that tops fine tea. A very few have more complex tessellations. It takes time to install a traditional tile façade, and it does not appear the Servants invested time in these rebuilds.

Roman leads the way, still sucking on a finger. He clearly knows where we’re headed. Down the main strip, to the town square. There’s a fountain and stele, an engraved upright stone, located in the heart of this village, just as there was in its predecessor, my village, and in the other Storyteller villages. The stele looks to be a salvaged original but when I come close I see it’s a crude reconstruction. A true stele is sacred to the memory of our forebears. Our steles are deliberately rough hewn, with a subtle kind of sparkle – marcasite or pyrite crystals embedded in the rock. Both marcasite and pyrite occur in the hills. Marcasite is brittle and breaks down in humidity. The foothills, where the Storytellers live – lived – are a temperate zone, so in the absence of catastrophic fire our stele can last many generations. The pyrite is a mainstay of the Third Division jewellers – they set tiny pieces of pyrite splinters into silver, creating a miniature mosaic that glitters and winks and sets off dark eyes. True pyrite pieces can be costly but the jewellers also offer false pyrite items made using shavings of cut steel.

I turn 360 degrees, spinning slowly as I take in the full panorama of the town square. There is the community hall, except that it isn’t quite as it was; there is the courthouse, not looking at all like the courthouse I knew; there is the open air café, tables and chairs stacked up indoors, table shades furled; there is the bus station, without buses; and there is the arts complex: the visual arts gallery, the large theatre house with its specialised theatres for dance, music and drama. At once it hits me what’s missing from this square. Our public art. Where are the sculptures, the light shows, the video strips? This square was once ablaze with light and images. Not advertising. We had conceptual art, and dancers and musicians. We had mimes. We had people singing. People ran across this square holding hands, people kissed. People talked passionately and argued. We did all this in full public view. We were citizens and artists, and we were unashamed.

And now it’s dark. It’s a sparse graveyard, a gesture to what was. I am cold in the night, and I shiver.

Roman has gone to side of the arts complex and disappeared behind a buttress. Roberto follows him. Chapin grabs my hand, as if he’s read my mind, and pulls me towards the building. Behind a courtyard wall, just out of sight of the square, there’s a door that’s unlocked, leading into the arts centre. Roman and Roberto enter the building.

Chapin and I follow and emerge in a storage area just off the main foyer. The internal doors are not locked. We walk into the foyer, which seems enormous empty. The Servants have skimped: where there should be a massive decorative light fitting overhead, there is an empty socket. The fittings in the arts complex were works of art in their own right. It’s hard to know how they could be replaced. Craftsmen can construct them, but it takes a Storyteller to design these pieces. The Servants have not attempted to address their absence. We walk through the foyer, bypassing doors that lead into theatres. There are short flights of steps interspersed with expansive landings. The landings are trapezoid in shape, narrowing at each successive stage towards an apex at the farthest reach.  I know the layout of this building, as every Storyteller school-child does.  The Servants have stuck pretty close to what once was. I know that at the farthest, topmost corner there’s a final door, opening wide into a large green-room. This is the area where the performers relax. It can be reached more easily from the other direction.  The other side of the complex, furthest from the town square, is blunt-faced with multiple street level entrances. Artists can reach the main green-room via a stairwell or a private lift.

The main green-room was always luxurious. Around performance times it was a private sanctuary, but school tours meant every Storyteller citizen was familiar with the green-rooms from a young age. After all, this was our promised future. The green-rooms, the theatre spaces, the stages.  All the backstage areas, where the mechanics of performance takes place. I can’t see that Servants could reconstruct any of this. I doubt they will have tried.

The main green-room is a ghost of its former self. It is green – green carpets, cheap green lampshades, the Servants’ idea of humour – with two or three large black lounge couches.  A coffee table.  A bar, with no alcohol or glasses. A large area pregnant with space. A long, narrow, external window, a slit the length of the blunt-side façade. If the streetlights were on, that slit would be illumined by the lights below and the lights in the living-rooms of town-houses opposite. Except the town-houses opposite are unoccupied, and there are no lights.

“Here is where we’ll sleep tonight,” says Chapin, indicating the couches. “If the Servants come, we’ll know.”

I’m uneasy. I expect the Servants to come. I still have my knife, and now I have a rifle. I have Chapin, and the boys, and they are armed too. We have no food, except for Roman, who has his fingers, and I think Roberto has the ear, for what it’s worth.

Roman takes a couch. Roberto takes its opposite. That leaves a couch for Chapin and me. Instead I sit on the floor, leaning my back against the couch, which is well upholstered. I don’t want to sleep. Chapin sits beside me.

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They come, as I expected. We don’t have to wait long. I hear a chopper first, then I see its light, a swooping red arc that probes the window slit, backs off, disappears, then feints again. The chopper comes in close, several times, but not so close I can see anything but that sweep of intrusive red light. It doesn’t see us.

I can hear voices. They’re in the street, not in the building. The sound rises up to us, the sound of doors slamming, men stomping, shouted orders. I am terrified.

“Where you there when they took me?” I murmur to Chapin.

His neck is slumped into clavicle, his shoulders are hunched. He looks at me through slit-like eyes.

“No,” he tells me. I don’t believe him. “I ran. I wasn’t there.”

I remember how they came at night. The chopper overhead, the trucks pulling up, the squeal of breaks. We had sheltered in a house by the lake, someone’s weekender. It was cold that night, the kind of cold you can’t survive outdoors. There were maybe eight of us, clustered in the living room. I remember the fireplace. We hadn’t lit a fire. I remember it for the stonework – a dry-stone wall of pale beige, coarse to the touch, three-dimensional in texture. I remember the Servants bursting into the room, their torches flooding its space, a Servant shoving me up against that wall, bruising my back, banging my head. I collapsed to the floor but he lifted me up and beat me, smashing his fist across my face, again, then again, dropping me, twisting my arms behind my back. My arms were pinioned as I fell to the floor, the Servant astride my lower back.

There were five of us left, taken alive. Three were young boys, one was a girl about eight years old. I remember their names. There was Lenny, Ciel, Ramon, Trajan and Polixeni. I never saw what happened to Polixeni. I didn’t see because the Servants were on top of me, thrusting their rifle barrels up my arse. I was screaming and crying and desperately struggling. The Servants are celibate, of course, but when the first Servant raped me the others soon followed. Anal sex doesn’t count as sex. That’s when I went to Jupiter.

It’s an odd sensation, going to Jupiter. You disappear totally. You retract in an instant and in that instant you’re light years away. So far away you wonder how you’ll ever get back. It’s far far far and deep into space. It’s dark out there, dark and cold. There’s a hollowness to far space, there at the outermost edge of the galaxy. The sun is unimaginably far. The rest of the cosmos is barely a concept. Where is the Milky Way from here? It took me a long time to find my way back.

When I did return to my body, Ciel was dead. Polixeni was gone. Trajan and Ramon and the other kids the Servants had rounded up, in different raids, were taken to the camp with me but incarcerated in other barracks. I wonder what happened to them next?

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Sometimes I wonder if I’m talking to myself. But then I know I’m not. What I’m doing is remembering: I am committing to memory, like a burning brand scorching my mind. The memory will stay, fixed, until the time comes when I can tell the Story. Until I meet the Investigator.

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All of us are alert, Chapin and me sitting up, the boys laying low on couches. The commotion in the street and overhead goes on for what seems like endless time. At one point I’m sure I hear thudding boots echo through the building. But no-one enters the green-room.

When silence comes, we can’t relax. I see Roman’s eyes gleam like marcasite chips, Roberto’s adam’s apple bobs. Chapin and I are seated with our tailbones on the floor, our backs pushed against the couch, our knees drawn up, soles of feet flat on the carpet. He turns his head to look at me. Our faces are close. He moves his right knee slightly so it touches my left knee. His right hand takes my left hand, our fingers interlocked.

I breathe in as I turn to face forwards once more, then exhale as I tip my neck back. I study the ceiling. The shadows are dark grey, black and malachite green. I shudder.

“We can’t know they’ve gone,” I whisper. “How long must we wait before we know they’ve gone?”

Chapin says nothing.

“How can you take any food left in this town when you can’t be certain who has left it? Why wouldn’t the Servants use food as a lure? Why wouldn’t it be poisoned?”

Roberto looks glum. I notice he has long, straight eyelashes.

“What makes you think the Fourth Division people you think are helping are not spies for the Servants?”

Roman has curled up now. He has an absent smile on his face and I remember, he cannot hear.

Chapin’s hand is still holding mine.

“We won’t know they’ve gone. We’ll have to take a guess. It’s all one big guess. It’s all risk.”

I curl my lips over my teeth and bite down.

“Listen,” says Chapin. “We could be dead, many times over. We should be dead. We could die any minute. We take what we can. If we get it wrong, game over.”

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Fine. Don’t throw up in the toilets. The plumbing isn’t connected.”

I have to laugh.

“Lenny,” says Chapin, with urgency. “Remember we have no friends. We kill or be killed, any one, any time.”

“I have to pee.” I walk behind the bar and piss on the vinyl floor. My urine spreads like spilt wine.  Then I stalk back and lie down on the couch. Chapin stays seated, his head leaning back against my hip.

I’m certain I won’t sleep but almost at once I’m boating on a lake, in a small row boat, with my younger brothers, laughing. Overhead the sun smiles down.

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny22

When I wake up I wake from deep emptiness, the blackness of no dreams. Chapin is standing with Roman and Roberto a short way across the room. He is glancing my way as I open my eyes.

“We’ve been out,” he says. “There’s no sign of Servants. There’s no food either. But there’s a signal telling us to meet a man I know.”

I have no confidence in this. I feel tired and sore and terribly heavy. Also hungry.

“What kind of a signal?” I glare.

“A dead bird. By the fountain in the square. It means we should meet at the old well.”

I am unenthused.

“You go,” I say.

“I want you to meet him. He can help. I’ll go ahead.”

Suddenly I want to hug him. I want to thrust my fingers between his fingers like we did last night.

“Chapin,” I ask. “Is anyone coming? Can anyone outside help?”

“I don’t know.” He keeps saying that. “I think this man can tell us things we need to know.”

So we pick up our weapons and leave the building, using the back stairwell, exiting into the street our window looked out onto across that infernal, eternal night. The old well is fairly close, near the traditional town centre. Chapin gestures to the three of us to stay behind as he steps from the shelter of town-house walls, into the clear space around the well.

He stands there alone, such an easy target. I am uneasy.

The well is hand-dug, in the ancient style. There is a structure built of heavy, flattish stones, flatter and wider than they are thick. The stones were a lightish brown shade, with red-brown streaks, but now they are charcoal-singed, since the fires.  The structure extends down to a depth of about forty metres. Back when it was a water source in daily use you couldn’t see the bottom. I can’t say whether there’s water in it these days, or whether it’s clogged up with half-burnt lumber, maybe human remains, but it does it appear to be the original. This is not some simulacrum created by the Servants.

Chapin picks up a pebble and tosses it over the well lip. He must be reading my mind. I don’t hear any sound from within the well.

We Storytellers believe there are water spirits in a well. The water spirits are benevolent. We talk to them when we need soothing. When their babies are due expectant mothers spend time by the well, hoping for an easy labour. The water spirits guide us through life’s difficult passages. I’m hoping this well’s water spirit is still in residence, and not too pissed off.

As I conjure up the image of a water spirit – a beautiful woman with a snake wrapped round her waist – I hear a pebble strike the pavement in front of Chapin’s feet. He turns towards the laneway it seems to have been thrown from.  He steps out of the full light that surrounds the well and walks, unhesitatingly, into the laneway. A moment later he steps back and motions us to follow.

Almost as soon as we enter the laneway an open door appears on our right. It’s the second town-house in the row. There is a narrow hallway leading from the door, which doubles back to become a wooden stairwell. Eighteen steps up is a small landing, with a sliding door leading to the left, another to the right. We turn right and enter a wood-panelled room, in single file: Chapin, Roberto, myself and Roman. There are no chairs, no tables, no cushions. There is nothing in the room except a short, nervous man, who is seated.

The short man nods to Chapin, then to the three of us who stand behind him. He motions for us to sit. We do, our rifles propped up pointing at the ceiling, the boys cross-legged, me on folded knees. The short man nods to each of us in turn.

There’s a silence while the short man observes us and we observe him.

“Have you got what I need?” Chapin asks. The short man nods.

“Who is the girl?” he questions. “Has she come from a re-education camp?”

“Of course I have,” I answer. “I wouldn’t shave my own head. I wouldn’t dress like this. Who are you?”

“I am Milos,” he tells me. “I work at the state psychiatric hospital. Chapin knows me.”

“Are you a friend?” I ask.

Milos looks at Chapin.  “Storytellers have no friends,” he says gently. “I try to help you.”

“Is anyone coming?” I need to know.  “Is anyone coming who can really help?”

Milos looks thoughtful.  “What kind of help do you have in mind?”

“Is there an investigation? Does anyone in the world outside know what has happened? Does anyone outside know what is going on?”

He frowns.

“Is anyone asking questions?” I persist. “Is there someone I can talk to? An investigator? I have a story to tell. I have stories that must be told.”

I hear my own voice and I sound quite mad. For a moment I feel ashamed. Then I draw up my spine. I am unashamed. Shame is a weapon of the Servants.

“I can ask questions, if you want to talk.”

Here is someone who says he wants to hear my story, but I don’t trust him. I decide I’ll be the one who asks the questions here.

“What do you do in the psychiatric hospital?”

Milos barely hesitates. He no longer seems nervous. “I ask people questions. Mostly Storytellers. Many of the people who are brought to us for help come from other divisions. It used to be that if their condition was intractable they were redesignated as Storytellers, and then we brought them to your villages and helped them transition. I’ve been visiting your villages for many years. I know my way around.”

“And now? What becomes of the people who cannot be cured?”

That prompts a soft laugh. “Fewer people are brought in by their families now. Mostly we diagnose transient mood disturbance, or transient behavioural disturbance. We’re slow to diagnose conditions as chronic. We medicate where we can. Where we are left with no other options, we take them to the re-education camps.”

“Do you understand what happens in those camps?” I am brutal. I am irritable.

“I understand in the camps they are re-educated. Fourth Division specialists helped design the programs.”

“I beg your pardon?” I struggle to manage my irritable urges.

“The young people in the camps are re-trained to provide support services for First and Second Divisions. We designed a program to inculcate service values. Some of our staff monitor for quality control. The fugitives from the hills are quarantined, washed, re-clothed, provided with adequate nutrition and exercise, taught to work in teams, trained in impulse control and encouraged to participate in group therapy. The program is highly successful.”

Chapin is focusing on the floorboards. I’d like him to look up at me but he doesn’t.

Milos continues, as if to convince me. “Our program promotes traditional values. Without the Storytelling.”

“Damn right,” I laugh. “There’s not a lot of Storytelling in the camps.”

“So what’s your version?” challenges Milos. He’s starting to look irritable himself.

“I can tell you the truth of what takes place in the camps. Hard labour, sexual exploitation, sometimes torture, and crude attempts at brainwashing or re-programming. Those who don’t conform are murdered.”

“Have you seen this?” says Milos, cautiously.

“Seen it? I’ve done it. I’ve had it done to me.”

“I see,” says Milos. He considers.

“You know,” he says. “Lenora? May I call you Lenora? I’ve worked with all kinds. Some of the people I’ve tried to help are not very sympathetic. It’s sometimes hard to like them. But I do what I can, because I care for them. How many people have you killed?”

He’s got me there. I really don’t know.

“A few,” I glare.

“A few.” Milos nods. “Wouldn’t it be better it you found another way? Why keep killing? What’s so wrong with admin support? What’s wrong with a smile and a soft word?”

I’m bereft of words, soft or hard.

“I don’t think you’re fully familiar with the programs as they are practiced in the camps. I sometimes find it hard to like people, too.”

Milos tilts his head very slightly to one side. He’s smiling, slightly, and speaking softly.

“The work in the camps is highly sensitive. Fourth Division health-care representatives do go in, by invitation, to observe and record outcomes. We’re satisfied that what’s being done is a humane response to a difficult situation. Everyone wants reconciliation. Reports are made public and footage has been screened on TV-1. It’s a most encouraging process. Once we gain the trust of leaders like Chapin, I have high hopes we can persuade the hold-outs in the hills to allow us to help them reintegrate into society.”

“There.” I am angry at Chapin. How could he be so stupid? Chapin is still looking at the floor.

“And has this TV footage been shown internationally? Have these reports been offered to international bodies?” I am so angry I could spit. “Is there a plan approved by the international community? What did you tell them about the war? How did First Division explain that to their counterparts abroad?”

“Please be calm, Lenora. I am not your enemy, there’s no need to be hostile.” Milos looks pained but sympathetic. “The war was caused by disruptive elements. It was an internal matter, regrettable and damaging for everyone involved. It was discussed at length at the Pan-National Forum. First Division remains in constant communication with Forum representatives to ensure we’re in compliance with international law. And besides, we are now rebuilding.”

“The villages? You mean the villages are being rebuilt?”

“Nooo,” says Milos. “Although I believe they are. That will take time. This village is a test case. We are rebuilding our society, with some modifications. First, Second, Third and Fourth Divisions are working together to find ways to make best use of human resources following restructuring of the Storyteller class.”

I turn on Chapin. “We don’t have to listen to this. This man cannot help us. It’s time for us to go.”

Milos shakes his head, a slight motion, sad.

“If you go, you will die. There’s nothing for you out there. There’s nothing left for any of your kind. The fugitives will die if they don’t come in.”

“Why are the villages being rebuilt?” I demand.

“That, I can’t say. But it isn’t for you. Storytellers will never inhabit these villages again.”

“Can I kill him?” I plead with Chapin. He looks up at me as I unlock the rifle’s safety.

“Have you got what I came for?” he asks the man who calls himself Milos. Milos nods. Chapin rises and holds out his hand.

Milos remains seated but reaches into his tunic and pulls out a medical hygiene bag. He holds up his hand, offering the bag to Chapin. Chapin takes it.

“You will stay here,” says Chapin, speaking to the man. “We will leave the way we came, and you will not follow.”

Milos seems entirely calm as he smiles and nods, again. He is utterly still.

The boys stand up, rifles in hand, and Chapin ushers them out to the stairwell first, then me. He follows last. Milos is still seated. Instead of heading down the stairs the boys slide open the door to the second room, the one that was on the left, leading off the small landing. The second room has a narrow balcony. Chapin slings his rifle across his back, sticks his handgun in his belt, and places one foot on the balcony rail. He swings himself up, then hauls himself onto a gable on the roof. The boys and I follow. We are on the turquoise enamelled tiles before Milos has reached the bottom of the stairs. We are moving across the rooftops before Milos is in the laneway.

“Are we going to let him go?” I ask, touching my knife. It’s too light for throwing, and the rooftop is too steep for me to stand and steady myself to fire the rifle.

Chapin doesn’t look back at me. We keep moving, scrambling across the tiling. Scrabbling like crabs beached by a sudden low tide.

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny16

 

There was once a great lady who was beautiful beyond telling. She had sleek black hair, perfect skin, and almond-shaped amber eyes. Her lips were cherry blossoms. She was born into a very great family, and married into another. Both families were thrilled when the lady conceived.

The great lady, whose name was Milk, was very happy for her families. Everything about her had so far pleased them. She hoped her child would not disappoint.

When her time came near, she took to spending hours by the water well in her husband’s family’s private gardens. There she would sit, surrounded by her maid servants, staring into the well and wishing.

“I wish,” thought the lady, “I wish with all my heart that my child is special.”

As soon as the thought occurred she felt abashed. After all, was she not already so blessed? Was she not privileged? She looked into the depths of the mossy green well and saw the surface break up. Bubbles of air clustered on the surface. The water spirit must be laughing.

“I mean it,” she said fiercely, to the water spirit. “I really mean it. I want my daughter to be different. And by the way, I do want a daughter.”

The bubbles clambered one above the next, creating a crystalline froth. The lady saw it as the head of froth that forms on finest quality whipped tea, the Milky Way, and she dedicated it to her daughter.

The birth was easy. It was almost too smooth. There was no screaming, no remonstrations or urgent pleading. Instead the great lady delivered with the slightest singing sigh. No one at the birthside spoke, and no cry was heard from the child.

“What is it?” asked the lady, as her maid servants drew her up to the squat position.

“It’s an egg,” said the doctor.

“An egg?” gasped the lady.

“My lady, you have given birth to an egg.  It is soft blue-green, and appears to be fragile. I might need to assist its contents into the world.”

“You mean my baby?” said the lady.

“I mean whatever is inside that egg.” The doctor looked extremely apprehensive.

The lady was standing, supported by her maids. She looked down between her legs as the doctor lifted a medium-sized egg, using both his hands, and raised it to chest level.  The doctor and the lady and the maid servants all looked at the egg. The doctor snuck a glance towards the silk curtains, hoping no reports had yet been conveyed to the families. All he had in his favour was that the birth had been so quick, no-one would yet be expecting an outcome.

Vain hope.

The silk curtain was drawn aside abruptly as the father’s father intruded. Close behind him was the lady’s husband, followed by senior advisers, with the grandmothers and sisters and their ladies’ maids crushing towards the fragile egg.

“My baby is different,” faltered Milk. Then she gathered her courage. “My baby is special.”

As she spoke the words, the egg-shell began to crack. First the finest fault-lines, then the smooth carapace fell apart. The shards dropped to the floor, leaving the doctor enfolding in his hands the tiniest child the world has ever seen, a perfect female child, with wings instead of arms.

“My baby,” breathed its mother.

Her husband looked at her helplessly and turned to his father.

“My wife has given birth to a wonder.”

The father’s father was astonished. He stared at his son, then frowned, then laughed.

“It is indeed an age of miracles. My youngest heir is a song-bird.”

So that is what they named her: Song Bird.

Song Bird grew up enclosed in the father’s family home. She never saw beyond its walls, and the people beyond its walls never saw her. But word spread fast about this magic creature, this tiny female with translucent skin, amber-bead eyes, and soft feathered limbs.

She had the range of the gardens and her mother’s apartments. Her mother loved her. It was difficult for Song Bird to learn to walk, as her toes were bent double, like small talons, but she fluttered her tiny wings and stroked the air for momentum. It was difficult for Song Bird to learn to speak. When she opened her mouth, high trills emerged. She loved to explore her vocal range, and the sounds were melodic, but what came out of her mouth did not resemble human speech. Her tiny pursed lips were not formed for that purpose.

Her father worried.

“Song Bird is special, in fact miraculous. But she’s different. You do agree, my dear, she is tremendously odd.”

Milk smiled sweetly. In her heart she thought “Yes! My baby is different.”

The father grew anxious.

“What is the difference between unique and odd? Between magic and monstrous? What will people think? What must they be thinking?”

Milk bent her head meekly.  In her heart she thought, “My baby is the gift of the water spirits. She is air and water. She is wondrous beyond words.”

The father grew fearful, and lost patience.

“This cannot continue,” he told his wife. “The doctor advises there are strangers, magic people, who can help us with this problem.”

Milk thought, “What problem? Magic made my baby. Magic is her friend.”

So the families called in the magicians from abroad.

There were three magicians, a woman and two men.  They approached the father’s father’s divan and bowed.

“What is it needs doing?” the woman asked, her voice low and resonant.

“I have a grandchild who is different,” the father’s father pronounced. The assembled courtiers stayed deeply prostrate.  “She is different in ways that cannot continue. She has wings. She cannot walk but flutters. She cannot talk but sings. She is tinier than ever a girl should be. We need this fixed.”

“In what ways does the great lord wish his grand-child fixed?”

“We wanted her to be just like her mother,” the patriarch continued, and Milk blushed. “We want her perfect.”

The female magician took a long look at Milk. She stared at her so long the courtiers bent limbs ached.

“As you say, great lord,” the female magi replied.  “We shall make it so.”

The father’s father clapped his hands. “Bring the child,” he commanded his senior adviser.

“It is not necessary,” the second magician spoke. “We see the child, and we know its nature.”

“When nightfall comes,” the third magi said, “The child will transform.”

Then the three turned to leave, turning their backs on the great lord, his families and retinues, and made their way out of the audience hall. No-one made to stop them.

The great lord turned to his senior adviser and his son.

“What just happened there?” he asked. But no-one could say.

As twilight drew near, Milk sat in her rooms with her maids and Song Bird.  Her husband and his father’s senior adviser sat opposite. The doctor stood to one side.

Song Bird had been chirping all day, but now she fell silent. The tiny creature shivered. She shivered and shook. She seemed to shrink.

Her mother touched the child softly, then picked her up in the palm of her hand.  She stroked the child’s wings and sang to her, under her breath. She enclosed Song Bird in her hands and bent in close over her, so that Milk’s fine shawl fell across the child, caressing her and shielding her.

As twilight became dusk, Milk sat there with Song Bird. The others in attendance were mute. Finally shades of purple gave way to darkest blue, and the moon could be seen through the window, rising.

“Night has come,” the child’s father said. “Where is my true child?”

Milk said nothing, but lifted the edge of her shawl. In her lap sat a golden eagle.

“What’s that?” the father squawked.

“It’s a raptor!” exclaimed the doctor, then wished he’d held his tongue.

“A raptor?” said the father.

“A hunting bird. A bird of prey.” The senior adviser was on his feet. Within moments the father’s father would be told.

“She’s an eagle,” said Milk, mildly. “She was born to fly.”

And at that, the great bird winked an amber eye at its mother, and took off, spreading powerful wings. It flew straight out the window, towards the moon. It could not sing – it never sang again – but it flew straight as an arrow, up and up and up, through the night-sky to the heavens.  As it flew the moon shuddered, a pearl pendant on a woman’s breast. As the great bird flew, the Milky Way shattered, scattering diamonds across the cosmos. This is why the foam on the highest class of white tea is known as the Milky Way or Star Flight.

On and on the great bird flew. It flew on endlessly on powerful wings, into darkness, and beyond.

They had silenced a fragile song-bird. But what had they let loose?

Bird

“That’s a Storyteller’s story,” says Chapin admiringly. “Is it yours?”

“Thank you. My mother’s,” I respond.

“You know,” Chapin says, “I don’t think Milos set a trap. I don’t think there are Servants near. I’ve visited him in Fourth Division villages and if that was his plan he could have had Servants take me then.”

“There are four of us now.”

“Yes, but he couldn’t have known that. He only expected me. And the Servants last night had a chopper. If there was still a chopper in the area it’d be on top of us by now.”

We are crouched alongside a rooftop gable, wedged into the cornice, clutching the decorative tiling that lines the gable’s dorsal fin.  Roberto and Romano are metres away, pressing back into the elbow of a parallel gable. It’s precarious, but thanks to the tiling being newly installed, and the structures newly built, I’m confident it’ll hold. That might be the only thing I’m confident about.

“Milos is right though. If we go, we’ll die. There’s nothing for us out there.”

Chapin narrows his eyes and shakes his head dismissively.

“Why are buying into what Milos says? You say I was naïve, but there you go buying a story from an amateur. He wants us to believe we have no options.”

“So what are our options now?”

Roberto is listening to every word. Roman is scanning the skies. I note that: not the streets, the skies. Chapin notices too.

“I say we pause here for a short while. Milos wanted to demoralise us. I say we tell stories till we remember who we are.”

“Tell stories?”

“You know, that thing we’ve been doing since before we could crawl? I say we sit here on this roof, with nothing but birds between us and the clouds, and tell stories to the open sky. It’s been years of deep forest and grey woods. I want to tell a story to the sun.”

Roberto breaks into a beaming smile. It’s crazy, but it’s true to us. I like the plan.

“What will your story be about?”

Chapin is smiling too, now. He looks remarkably relaxed. We’re mad, us Storytellers. Mad and dangerous.

“Well, you told a story of water and air. How about my story be fire and earth?”

I nod. “How about it? Go right ahead.”

fire-orange-emergency-burning

 

A warlord had a mighty host. His hall was the biggest hall ever known. The main table on the dais seated one hundred warriors, with one hundred maids in attendance.  The length of the hall was filled with tables, and every table was filled with warriors, with a maid to attend each warrior individually.  The warlord was wealthy and known to be generous; his fame had drawn warriors from every corner of the world, from the tiger lands to the south, to the dragon lands in the west, the turtle lands to the north and the snake lands in the east.

Their armours were of every type: some were lacquered leather, some buffalo or rhinoceros hide, some were disks of bronze stitched together with leather thongs, and some were made of multiple fine layers of paper, capable of stopping arrows. Each warrior had a weapon of choice. Most had a halberd, a long staff with a spear-tip at one end, a hatchet to one side – a hook on the back of the axe-blade could be used to unseat horsemen. Some had a sabre mounted on a long staff, or simply a sabre. There were longbow archers and crossbow archers and cavalry archers. There were broadswords and the finest weapon of all, the long silky blade forged by the great masters, two softer layers of steel surrounding a hard inner core. The softer outer steel makes for resilience, while the hardness at the centre keeps the edge sharp. All of these weapons were murderous, and all of these warriors deadly.

Every night the warlord and his warriors feasted on game in the great hall. Every day they hunted or played war-games. Other lords petitioned the warlord for the use of his men as mercenaries, so always contingents were coming and going, making war, bringing back the spoils.

One day a man came from the west requesting an audience. He was tall and thin, and around his head, shoulders and upper torso was wrapped a red scarf that covered all his face, except his eyes, which were burnished bronze. The man had no weapon except a knife. His knife attracted great interest: it was long, with a single-edged blade that curved forward, the opposite of a scythe. Like the swords of the masters, it was forged ingeniously, softer steel on its back, for resilience, hard steel on the cutting edge. The hilt was slimmer than the blade and was covered in gold embossed designs, which might have been writing.

“It’s a magi,” the men muttered, but the warlord granted an audience.

“What is it you want?” the warlord asked the magi.

The magi bowed low.

“Great lord,” he said. “I come from a land a long way to the west, but even in our territories your armies are harassing peoples who are under our protection. I ask you to stop.”

“To stop?” said the warlord. He didn’t know which territories the man could mean, or which peoples, but the possibility of simply stopping an offensive action, just for the asking, had never occurred to him.

“Stop,” repeated the magi.

“Why would I do that?” the warlord asked, his combative instincts rising.

“To stop would further your prosperity. To continue will bring you ruin.”

“I cannot believe you are making threats.” The warlord really meant this. “Do you have no understanding of protocol? Do you have no common sense?”

“I understand the protocol of civilised lands. Here, to you, I must speak direct.”

The warlord was incensed. “Seize him!” he yelled to the men nearest the guest.

The men made to rise but as they did, they burst into flame. A roar went up across the hall, but no-one moved. No-one except the human torches, staggering into each other as they burned.

“I will return tomorrow,” the magi said. “Think on my request, and come up with a better answer.”

Then he turned and walked out of the hall, each foot-step marked by a burst of flame.

The hall was in uproar. It took many minutes to restore sufficient order for the warlord to be heard.

“This is outrageous!” he shouted. “Tomorrow when this Fire Steps charlatan returns, we will receive him in the manner he deserves!”

So the warlord and his council made plans for Fire Steps’ return.

Sure enough, part-way through the feast a tall figure stepped through the great double doors. As instructed, the men let him pass.

“Are you ready to accede to my request?” the magi asked. “Will you stop harassing the plains peoples of the west?”

“Absolutely not!” screamed the warlord, and on the word “not” a bank of archers with curved horn-bows amassed to the right of the dais let fly their arrows. But as the arrows reached the peak of their arc they burst into flame, just as the men had. The flaming arrows fell on tables throughout the hall, setting multiple small fires the warriors attempted to douse. Sounds of shouting mixed with maids screaming.

The magi stood motionless, his eyes fixed on the warlord.

“Bring back your hosts from the plains to the west,” he ordered, and everyone present heard it as an order. “I will return tomorrow to hear your answer.”

This time as Fire Steps wheeled around towards the doors, warriors fell upon him, but every weapon turned on Fire Steps burst into flame, causing the warriors to drop their swords and halberds, their sabres and daggers, frantically beating out the fires instead.

‘This has to stop,” the warlord growled. The warlord and his generals conferred.

On the third night, the warlord’s warriors had drawn up in battle-lines. The tables – those still intact – had been pushed back against the walls. The women were expelled to the smaller dormitory halls.

“I don’t think this will work,” said a young boy helping fasten the clasps on the warlord’s armour.

“You don’t?” said the warlord. The boy was his grandson, and he liked the lad.

“No,” said the child. “He’s already shown twice over that anything you throw at him will just burst into flames. If we launch a full military action against this man the whole hall will go up.”

“I’ve thought of that,” his grandfather replied, indeed, thoughtfully. “But we can’t let him get away with insulting us – insulting me – in the great hall of power. He must be punished.”

“One thing at a time,” said the boy. “If he can’t be punished, he must at least be stopped.”

“Do you have any better ideas?” his grandfather asked.

“Let me try,” said the child. “Before you let loose your armies, let me give it a go.”

So that night when Fire Steps pushed through the great double doors, in front of him he saw the entire forces of the warlord, arrayed as if for battle, and at the very front, standing alone, a boy, unarmed.

“Stop!” said the boy.

The magi stopped.

“That’s a good start,” he conceded, going down on one knee in front of the child. “You have made a reasonable request. Now I make my request of you.”

Turning to where the warlord stood, he asked again, “Will you stop harassing my people?”

“I speak for my lord,” the child said quickly.

“That’s an even better step,” Fire Steps said, approvingly. “Two sensible responses. I am encouraged. But I thought weapons speak for the great lord?”

“Weapons only speak the language of war. It takes a man or a woman to speak words of peace.”

“You are a remarkably wise child,” the magi smiled. “Are you born into the wrong tribe?”

“What will happen if we do not stop?”

The magi barely paused. “I told you. To continue to kill the plains people will bring you only ruin. To attempt to harm me will bring this hall down on your heads.”

The boy turned towards his grandfather. “I think we have no choice but to stop.”

The warlord suppressed a groan. “We cannot stop. We are born to kill. If you don’t understand that, the magi is right: you are no child of mine.”

With that, he motioned to his banner men. “Kill them!” he said.

As he said the words, the arrows flew, the men fell forwards, and the magi scooped the child into his arms. As he did so a halo of fire rose around them. The headscarf unfurled and extended into the long ridged back of a copper-coloured dragon. The magi became a great serpent, its long tail fanning flames that incinerated warriors in its sweep.

“Climb on my back,” the magi instructed the boy.  “You won’t be scorched.”

The child climbed onto the dragon’s back and wedged himself between where the ridge of spines started and the base of the serpent’s neck, clutching its flaming mane. As the boy looked at his hands he saw he was glowing like an ember.

The dragon beat its wings and a hundred warriors fell. It threw back its head and breathed fire at the rafters. The great beams collapsed, crushing burning men who milled about below. The dragon rose onto its hind legs and took off through the roof. The sound of fire roared in the boy’s ears. As the dragon took flight the great hall fell, a heap of smouldering charcoal.

“Where are we headed?” the boy yelled into the dragon’s tufted ears.

“Home. The end is always home,” the dragon replied, its great voice husky. “You were born out of place. I came to fetch you.”

“Am I a dragon?” the boy screamed.

“Not yet,” the dragon answered. “But in time you will be. You have good genes, and the capacity to learn. Hold tight now!”

And with that, he wheeled towards the west and burst through the sunset.

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny17

 

“That has to be traditional,” I tell Chapin, laughing. “Or was it your father’s?”

“As a matter of fact,” Chapin grins, “It was. What we need now is a golden eagle or a flaming dragon to lift us from this roof!”

“My turn.”  I’m shocked at the sound of Roberto’s voice. Chapin is too. Even Roman, who is deaf, turns in amazement.

“Let me tell my story,” says Roberto, voice husky as a dragon’s, but much softer.  “When the fires tore through our home the roof made a sound like breaking ice and I grew deathly cold. The flames lit up the sky, my sisters were ablaze, but I plunged into darkness. The Servants in black were flame illuminated while I receded. I fell through time, through dark and cold and space. I screamed but my voice rang hollow, then silent. I screamed but nothing came out of my mouth. All around me people were killing, dying, running, falling. I ran and ran and I know I was on fire, but the deep chill had me.

“I ran into the deep forest, where no light penetrates and everything is dark. The deep forest is so thick I couldn’t run further. I couldn’t stand up. I fell to a floor of pine needles and I didn’t move. It was so cold I didn’t think I could live, but I have, and I am here. On a rooftop, telling stories. Truly, I am a magi. I am a Storyteller, and I’m still alive.”

The three of us stare at Roberto in wonderment. Here we are telling myths and fables and in front of us sits Roberto, clutching the corrugated tiles that are a dragon’s mane, pressed close against the serpentine line of the gable. He is transformed, and he’s right: we’re still alive.

“Are we ready to continue?” Chapin asks, directly facing Roman.

Roman, who cannot hear, understands at once.  He scrambles to his feet and leads the way onwards.

—Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny32

It’s hard going trying to move along the roof-tops. The tiles are slippery, and the angle is too steep. We make very little headway but we make a lot of noise. Roman is the best of us. Me, I’m afraid of falling.

“Stop!” gasps Chapin, when we are only two town-houses farther along.

“Stop?” I ask.

“Yes,” he grunts, clinging to another gable. “It’s like the boy in the Fire Steps story. I’ve been fretting about how to get off this roof, and it’s as simple as ‘Stop!’ All we need to do is, get off the roof.”

“Why are we up here?”

“To evade Servants. And I’ve already said, I don’t think there are Servants near. I also said I don’t think Milos is right. He’s wrong.”

I’m hugging tiles. “How so?”

“Let’s get off the roof and I’ll explain.”

I let go and immediately slide towards the gutter above a small balcony. It’s a balcony much like the one we used to access the roofs. Beneath it is the lower floor of the building, not the street side, facing onto what would normally be a small enclosed garden. Except that the Servants have not planted gardens.

From the gutter I swing down the balcony supports onto its railings.  From the railings I swing down towards the garden, then drop. The impact hurts. The others are falling alongside me, thudding pine-cones from a tree. In our legends there are stealth warriors who climb, who jump, who drop, always silently, always landing on their feet. That isn’t us.

Everywhere in this town the imaginary rises up before us, fleshing what the Servants have omitted. Here, in this small enclosed space, dry and brown, we see the garden in memory: a small maple tree, an ornamental brook, a pond, a wooden shelter with a seat. Mosses and leaves. Textured stones. This is the space we inhabit as we stand in a circle.

“Okay,” says Chapin. “Here’s the thing. Milos told us there’s nothing for us out there. He said there’s nothing left, and we’ll die if we don’t come in. What he means is we have no food or shelter, no friends, no home, and we are being hunted.”

“And he’s wrong?” Roberto asks.

“He’s not wrong about that. But he doesn’t see what we see. He does not live in our world. He doesn’t begin to know who we are.”

“I’m not following,” I say, looking quickly across at Roberto.

“Look around you,” says Chapin. “Do you see what I see?”

“You mean the garden?” says Roberto, slowly.

“A garden which isn’t here. There’s nothing left,” nods Chapin. “Yet we all see it, right?”

I see the garden. I know we all do.

“And these houses, what do you see? I know they’re shoddy re-builds, but what do you see?”

I see a dragon lying across the length of the rooftops. I see turquoise tiles on the roof and my mind’s eye fills in the more complex tile mosaics that gird these houses’ outer walls. I see finely carved woodwork in place of what is there, which is utilitarian. I see a small child peep out from over the balcony rail. I know she’s not there, but at the same time, she is.

“I see history,” I say. “I see life.”

“You see life.” Chapin steps very close to me. He’s shorter than I am, but somehow hyper-real. I have a momentary impression of Chapin as a flame-red dragon. He blazes.

I blink.

Chapin turns to Roberto and Roman. “We have no future, we are told. We have no way forward. What we have is a very rich past, and I think all us Storytellers know the past is never past. It lives. What is remembered and what is imagined has untold energy. That’s where we will find our resources.”

“But what about food?” Roberto looks pained.

“Am I alive now?” demands Chapin. “Was I alive last night?”

“Yes,” stammers Roberto.

“Have I lived so far? How many months in the forests? Why would I permit myself to die now?”  He’s agitated. “If I survived on nothing for such a long time, why would I roll over now?”

He sighs. “It’s not like suddenly, we have nothing. We’ve had nothing for so long. Who are they to tell us it’s over? I swear it’s only just begun.”

He stops, then repeats himself. “No food, no shelter, no friends, no home, and all the time hunted. This is new? This is our life. But still we live.”

“What do we live for?” I step forward now. “This is how it is, but this is not enough. We need a purpose. And Chapin is right, we’ve always had a purpose: we live to tell stories. We live to keep alive the stories of the past and the imagined stories that might have been.

“I believe,” I state. “I believe there is an Investigator coming. I believe we will be called on to tell our stories. And even if the Investigator never finds us, our stories still matter. Even if no-one cares, our stories matter, and as long as we live, our stories live with us.”

“If the Investigator never finds us, we’ll need to find the Investigator.” Roberto is thinking.  “Our stories matter, but are they enough? If our purpose is to keep our stories alive, do we not need to collect other people’s stories too? Do we have that responsibility, to the others?”

The four of us are standing close together, almost shoulder to shoulder, height differences allowing.

Chapin is resolved. “We do. That makes our plan simple. We can’t go back to the forest. We need to move outwards. We need to take our stories out there and trawl for other stories as we go.”

I’m troubled. “There are loose ends even in my own story so far. I still need to know, who were those women? Why did they help me? Were they trying to help me? What was happening there that I don’t understand?

“And you,” I lock eyes with Chapin. “Was it chance you were at the grave? Did you know I would there? How could you know?”

“I didn’t know you’d be at that grave,” says Chapin. “I thought you’d be at or in a grave somewhere, but I didn’t know we’d meet there.

“What I knew was that the Servants were coming back. They’d killed two of ours and the grave they forced Robin and Stavros to dig was sized for more. So I knew they’d be back.

“It was luck that it was you, and luck that only one Servant brought you. Usually they never work alone. I don’t know why he did that. I call it luck.”

“So we’re lucky?” I like the sound of this. So far I haven’t thought of us that way.

Roman is smiling up at me. All of a sudden I’m certain it’s him. It’s Roman – Roman is our luck.

“We need food first,” I say. “Come on, let’s find some.”

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny29

 

The vizier’s son was an enigma. He didn’t like to fight up close but he was lethal with a horn-bow. He disdained knives but was an artist with the long blade sword. He designed gardens, and wrote poetry, but was not interested in participating in the lord’s council. In short, he was not rounded. He was, in truth, not balanced – ludicrously skilled in some respects, he abdicated other key tasks.

“What will we do with him?” worried his father. “He’s not suited to service, and he isn’t a conqueror. Poetry is not a way of life.”

“Perhaps an architect?” wondered his mother. “I don’t mean a workman. I mean a master.”

“Does he draw?” asked his father, gloomily.

“’Fraid so,” his mother admitted. “He’s really rather good.”

Her husband glared at her.

“He’s good at lots of things, but that’s no good at all. I need him to be good at what is required of him, to the degree required. No more, no less.”

His wife shrugged sympathetically, and went back to her embroidery.

The boy took to staying out all night, attending long sessions of theatre and dance under the moonlight in the company of expensive women.

“Is he any good at that?” his father snapped.

“Singing? Sings like a bird,” the mother confessed. “The women adore him.”

The boy became a wine connoisseur. The finest foods were prepared for him by the most ambitious chefs, eager for the style-maker to become their patron. He had a palate, but food was not his passion.

“Could he be an orator or a judge?” mused his father.

“They’re rather different functions,” his wife murmured.

“Either. Any. As long as it’s recognised as useful. I can’t have my son spend his life being elegant.”

One day the young man showed up for formal audience with his father.

“I have an announcement,” he said (his name was Caspar). “With all deference due a son to his father, in all humility, I must inform you I have taken a wife.”

“A wife?!” shrilled the vizier. “How dare you? You must realise the son of someone with my prominence is a marketable asset. You don’t dare marry without my permission. You must marry my choice.”

“I’ve married already,” said Caspar, bowing.

“I’ll have her killed!” his father snorted.

“I don’t think so,” Caspar answered, without raising his head.

As he spoke, a young woman slid through the crowd (there was always a crowd for the vizier’s public audiences).  She was tall and slim, and wrapped from head to toe in dark green fine fabric.

“I am Serpa,” she said, addressing the vizier. “Caspar has married me.”

The vizier looked her over. His heart was suddenly heavy.

“What are you?” he asked. “Are you a magi? A serpent? A water-dragon?”

“That’s right,” smiled Serpa, her green eyes gleaming through the fine veil.

“That’s right which? All of the above?”

She nodded, and bent to one knee.  “All of the above, my lord.”

The vizier stared glumly. Then he motioned to one of his aide’s to come close. The aide left the room and returned moments later with a good sized gold casket, inlaid with jade.

“Here,” said the vizier. “You see something in him. You’re smarter than I am. Take him as my gift, and take this gift too. See what you can make of him.”

The aide presented the casket to Serpa, who turned her head demurely to the side, a traditional indication of acceptance. The aide raised the casket’s lid.

Inside the golden box was a necklace and earring set. The necklace had multiple strands, the earrings had loops and long dangles. All was green: malachite, jade, emerald, tourmaline. The stones covered every filament of gold.

“Thank you,” said Serpa. “I will treasure your gifts.”

And with that, Caspar and Serpa departed his father’s house.

In a fortress to the east, they set up home in the highest turret. The fortress was home to the snake clan. Here, elegance was a way of life. The snake clan had mastery of long thin blades and poisons, but also poetry, drawing, garden design and calligraphy. They sang epics which lasted nights, sometimes weeks, stories with sinuous plots and exquisite verse structures. The songs of the snake people had multiple voices, some singing harmonies, some singing narrative, some singing wondrous emotional effects. The songs of the snake clan entered the body, infused the bloodstream, pierced the heart.

To experience the song fully, the snake folk nurtured all their senses. Prior to an epic song event, they bathed, for hours, in perfumed waters. They engaged in ceremonial massage. They opened their voices, practising wailing chromatic scales. They performed traditional exercises that lubricated every joint within the body, working sequentially from the toes to the neck. They nibbled at blind-tasting smorgasbords, to tantalise the tongue.

And there were drugs. The snake clan had the most amazing chemistry. They were alchemists who transformed what is outer – what we see, hear, feel, touch and taste out there – into a wealth of inner astonishment. Their drugs created refinements of experience – and elaborations – beyond the imaginings of those who’d never partaken.

“I live life so much more fully now,” sighed Caspar. “My life has expanded.”

One day as Caspar and Serpa walked hand in hand in their garden he looked up into a tree, and saw himself. There he was, a bird sitting on a bough. The bird was red, white and black, with blue eyes. It cocked its head and acknowledged him.

“See that?” said Caspar, speaking as the bird, looking down at his wife in the garden.

His wife Serpa swayed her head slightly, and would have smiled, except that she was a long green snake. Her scales glistened, like cut emerald.

Caspar, back in his human body, was surprised, but not disconcerted. Life with the snake clan was never dull.

From that time, more and more often he looked out at the world through the coloured bird’s eyes. Of course, he was the bird. There was no disjunction. It’s just that it happened so suddenly. One minute he was a young man, the next a flash of red feather on the underside of a wing. More and more often, Serpa elongated and extended, sliding through their quarters as a glorious green snake.

“Are we suited?” he asked her.

“Of course, my love. Bird and snake. We were made for each other.”  He had to laugh.

Then she started playing her game. It was fun at first. He’d be in the tree, she’d be kneeling underneath. She would sway and sing, and he’d sing with her. As he sang he’d get drowsy. Eventually he’d slip off his bough, and as he flapped his wings to regain height (that flurry of red as the wings beat upwards), her long neck would strike towards him. Her green eyes would snap and then there she’d be, his Serpa, his beautiful wife, smiling coyly, smiling seductively, her green gems winking in the light.

It happened too often. The thrill was intense, but that moment when snake lashed out at bird had a definite edge. It scared him.

“What kind of child would we have?” he asked Serpa.

“A poet. A singer. A storyteller,” she told him. “Not someone you could trust.”

Caspar remembered how he’d betrayed his father and his blood ran cold. Cold like a snake.

“My father is an administrator,” he said. “Perhaps our child might be a genetic throw-back.”

“Not with the drugs,” Serpa drawled. “The drugs change everything.”

“Drugs are not a way of life,” Caspar frowned.

“No?” said Serpa.

Caspar began to think.

In the fortress of the snake clan, there was little room to move. He and Serpa lived in the highest turret. His way was blocked on every side. There was no way out, if he wanted out. Except above. As a bird, he could fly. Did he want to fly?

“My love,” said Serpa, “You do understand? You are our nourishment. I need you to bring forth what comes next. You are the father of something great, but you won’t survive fatherhood. It’s always that way.”

“Always?” asked Caspar. He wished now he had studied logic.

“Always. For a new story to come forth, we need nutrition. You’re it. You are spectacular, my darling. You are your father’s gift, and you will not be wasted.”

“What will become of me?” Caspar whispered.

“I’ll eat you,” she answered. “Don’t worry, you won’t feel much. It’ll be an adventure. Then I’ll send our offspring back to your father in the gold casket. It will be a boy, and he will spawn countless generations of Storytellers. Your people won’t trust them, but they’ll be fascinated. They’ll pay gold and precious jewels, they’ll stay spell-bound for hours and days, and they’ll make celebrities of our descendents. But you won’t know, my darling, because you’ll be gone.”

As she said “gone”, she licked a few red feathers off her jaw. There was no sign of a bird, no sign of Caspar.

Serpa slid across to a pile of silk cushions and lay on their cool surface. She admired her reflection in the gold casket’s lid. Wide face, narrow chin. Green eyes. Soon she’d send a gift to her father-in-law.

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny30

 

“We have drugs,” says Roberto, brightly.

Chapin reaches into his belt, where the medical hygiene bag is wedged. He pulls it out, unseals it, and passes the bag to Roman. Roman takes a pinch of white powder between thumb and forefinger, and snorts it. Roberto follows. Then Chapin. I look at Chapin and I see Caspar, a red, white and black bird with blue eyes, his head cocked to one side. I do as he did.

“Now,” says Chapin. “Not hungry any more. But let’s find food for later.”

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny24

This time finding food is simple. We move out of the back streets towards the town square. We almost glide, and all around is silent. With each breath I feel myself expand, contract. Breathe out, breathe in. I feel powerful. I feel as if with each step I could leap leagues. I feel as if I elevate towards the clouds. Chapin and Roberto, Roman and I are one. There is an eye in the sky and we are it.

I’ve heard it told that way. That’s how it is today.

As we walk into the square Chapin raises his rifle and fires once, twice, three times. Three Servants drop. They’re in full daylight, where the outdoor coffee shop is. There are three others there, but these are not Servants.

“Who are you?” Chapin yells.

The three throw themselves down on the paving stones.

“Fourth Division!” one screams.

“Third Division!” screams another.

“What are you doing here?” Chapin shouts.

“The Servants made us do it!” the third person says. We’re right on top of them now. He’s not yelling but croaking.

We stop and take in what we can see. There are two boxes of food: flat breads, fermented bean paste, pickled vegetables. Salted fish. Dried persimmons. Wine. A feast.

“How many of us do they think are here?” I ask.

“They don’t know. We brought food to flush you out.” The person who spoke second, the Third Division person, is a woman.

“Are there more of them about?” Roberto asks.

The three look at each other.

“Not right now,” says the woman. “We left two trucks in the main outbound street. There are others coming but I don’t know how many or when.”

“Kill them?” asks Roberto, gesturing with his rifle towards our captives.

“No,” Chapin says. “Not yet. I need to question them.”

To the captives he commands, “Pick up the boxes and come with us.”

He tilts his head to indicate the arts centre, and we herd our captives towards its foyer. We enter but only go as far as the first tier level. Then Chapin sits down. Roberto pushes the Fourth Division man down to his knees, and the others voluntarily kneel.

“What is your trade?” Chapin asks the Third Division woman.

“I prepare food,” she whispers. Tears are forming. Marcasite eyes.

“And you?” Chapin nods at the man who spoke third.

“Fourth Division. I dispose of bodies.”

“Your friend?”

The man who screamed first says, “I’m a medic.”

Chapin considers. “All useful functions.”

He reaches into the box, feels around with his fingers, and finds some roasted chestnuts.

“Mmm,” he says, stuffing a handful into his mouth.

“There are boiled chestnut balls there too,” the woman tells him. She seems eager to please. “I make them with honey and sesame and pinenuts. They keep quite well.”

Roman starts to forage in the boxes. I know he can’t hear. Perhaps he can smell sesame.

“Thank you,” I say. I sound foreign to myself.

The woman bows. “You’re welcome.”

“Yes,” says Chapin. “Thank you. Thank you for the feast.”

He studies his feet. The shoes are worn out, held together with filthy strips of plaited fabric.

“Get out of your clothes.”

The woman starts to cry in earnest now. She bows over, very low. With her head against her knees, her private parts are covered: we can’t see her breasts, can’t see her pubic mound or where her groin meets thigh, or the soft flesh inside her elbows, behind her knees, at her waist and at the base of her throat. The back of her neck is exposed.

“Just do it,” Chapin says, evenly but firmly. “I apologise. If this was a real theatre there’d be a wardrobe department. We’d have clothes to change into. I checked where our heritage museum should be and there are no costumed dummies there either. We need your clothes. If you want, you can have ours.”

I can tell they don’t want. Why would they? The boys’ clothes are crawling with vermin. I’m in the robe of a re-education camp inmate, and there’s blood on my sleeves. Also, now I notice, on the robe tie. I stink of piss.

“We’re one short,” says Roberto.

“We’ll share what we can. Roman is smaller in any case, this stuff won’t fit him.” As our captives disrobe, I pick up each item and distribute it to whichever of us I think it will best serve.

It’s late afternoon now and it’s getting cold. The man who buries bodies has tattoos. They’re symbolic, and I can’t read what they mean. Within minutes his symbols are hidden beneath the rags Roberto wore.

“You should go now,” says Chapin, neutrally. “Go to the trucks. Wait there for the Servants. Don’t try to find us.”

“Wait!” I say abruptly. The woman shudders. “There are Third Division women in the camps. They prepare us for the tea ceremony.”

“Third Division?” asks the medic. “Are you sure you don’t mean Fourth Division?”

“Yes,” says the man with tatts. “Fourth Division women, who prepare the dead?”

I’m confused. “I don’t think so. I think they made ceramics.”

The woman who prepares food is too scared to meet my eyes.

“That’s a higher calling,” she tells me. “The artists don’t mix much with us, except sometimes to design wares for ceremonial feasts. Artists stick with artists.”

“They’re not artists,” I correct her. “They’re artisans. Everybody understands that difference.”

“Sorry to offend,” the cook murmurs. “I’m not sure all of us do.”

I think I’m beginning to understand. I feel sad for her, my re-education camp robe wrapped around her body.

“Do you have drugs?” Chapin asks the medic. The medic reaches into a bag hung round his neck and hands over another sealed hygiene bag.

“That’s good,” Chapin grunts. He pushes the man towards the foyer door. We exit back into the square.

“Go,” directs Chapin. We watch them as they stumble, then run, towards the main through-road.

“We should have killed them,” says Roberto. I’m thinking the same thing.

Chapin ignores this.  “Now we have food,” says Chapin, “and we have Servants coming down on us any time now. Where do we go?”

Roman has already started to walk. I can tell where he’s headed. We’re going back to where the water well is, where the heritage museum once was. The old heritage museum was once a castle keep. It isn’t there now. There are remnants of burnt walls, or rather, singed foundation stones. Huge square stones burnt black. I can’t see how stones can provide us with shelter. It gets so cold at night we’d freeze, and the Servants have search lights.

When we reach the well Roman doesn’t hesitate. The well is on a rise, with a large flat area of higher ground beyond it, the area where the castle keep stood. Roman clambers over the blackened stones and disappears from view. We follow, Roberto and me carrying the food boxes, together with our rifles. Past the first ring of shaped stones. Past a few loose stones strewn at random. On the other side of a massive stone is a hollow. I gasp as Roman slips into the shadow at its base and disappears.

“There’s an entry way,” Chapin marvels. “It’s a tunnel under the stone.”

“Our food boxes can’t fit through,” I respond, with a groan. “Will we have to leave them?”

“That’s not happening,” says Roberto. “You go through. I’ll stay here and feed through the food items one by one. We can wrap them in our outer robes and carry them as bundles.”

He means the loose sheets that wrap around our under-garments. Everyone has an outer robe that can double as a sheet or blanket, or a funeral shroud. Everyone except half-clad renegades and prisoners. We’re properly covered now, like regular citizens.

I slide through the lips of the tunnel and sink down a little over a metre. If I stand on my toes, I can pull myself up and lever myself back outside. The tunnel continues on in darkness. Roberto passes the food and drink through to me and I place it aside, in the semi-darkness, till everything edible is with the three of us: Roman, Chapin and I, under cover. Roberto’s feet appear first, then his legs, which are long like a mantis. His feet are encased in leather slippers, not durable, but better than what he had. He slides his torso and his head through, and here we all are. Safe, for the moment.

The tunnel is wide enough that we’re not forced into single file. We do have to bend, or crawl. It’s toughest on Roberto. But Roman isn’t stopping.  We follow him past a bend in the tunnel and light starts to filter through. This tunnel is not long. It’s just long enough to take us under the stone, doubling back towards the water well, then sideways some distance towards another entrance. Beneath the hole where the light penetrates is a space larger than where we gathered at the point we first came in.  Here, we seat ourselves again. We start to unpack the food knotted in the bundles we made from our outer robes.

“We could probably make a fire here,” says Chapin, appraising the earth chamber. “There’s ventilation.”

“But then there’d be smoke,” I point out. “We don’t want the Servants to see our smoke.”

“What do we need a fire for?” says Roberto. “We have food. We have clothes.”

He reaches for some flat bread and tears at it with his teeth. His teeth are jagged. Somewhere, sometime, they’ve been stoved in.

“Can we do this the traditional way?” asks Chapin. Roberto stops.

Chapin stands up and turns a full circle.

“We have food. We are nourished on stories. We have clothes. We are clad in tradition. Storytellers live through all generations. We honour each meal by starting with a story. Roberto, do us honour. It is your turn.”

He does a half-bow towards Roberto and resumes his seat.

Roberto puts down the torn strip of flat bread and swallows. He returns the half-bow: to Chapin, to me, to Roman. We all know how this plays. This is Storytelling. This is how we live.

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny13

The turtle swam lazily up the river. He was in no hurry. He had a mission to accomplish, but there was time. He took his time.

The river was wide, with enormous meanders. In its centre it ran deep. Some of the meanders created shallows. There were mud flats stretching out from the shallows. Where there were villages near by, people worked and played in the shallows: cleaning clothes, washing themselves, swimming for the joy of swimming, trapping fish. On the mud flats in these areas, people appeared to be planting. Canoes shaped like thin fish manoeuvred through the shallows and channels in the mud flats. Slightly bigger canoes ventured farther towards the depths. Away from the villages, tall reeds grew up all along the river’s edge.

The further up the river he swam, the deeper it became. Its colour changed from muddy brown to a mix of brown and blue, with shades of green and yellow. The reeds along its banks were no longer dry brown-green and instead grew a deeper, stronger green.  Set back from the river, behind a stretch of plains, mountains could be seen.

As the turtle progressed further up the river, the mountains closed in. At some places they squeezed the river, forming rapids. The turtle was strong and persistent and negotiated the rapids. He was practiced at negotiation. He focused on his mission.

Canyons rose either side of the river. The mountains were so high their tops disappeared into mist. But the turtle knew exactly where to come ashore. He found the place were rocks gave way to man-made moorings. He admired the streaked orange, white and yellow of these rocks. Very laboriously, he made his way up the long flight of steps that led from the moorings to a flat open space above. This was the common-ground where people in this community met. He knew if he placed himself in the middle of the open-air landing, people would congregate.

And they did.

First just a few people came, and stared. Then some darted off and came back with friends. Before long a large number of people had gathered. They pointed at the turtle, and talked a lot about him, but no-one addressed him. They waited for their leaders.

Before long a small group of men and women arrived accompanied by attendants holding parasols above their heads. It was not particularly hot, but the turtle understood these people’s ways. The parasols indicated status.

The men and women in this small party were dressed in loose robes in shades of red, yellow and orange. The others in the community wore similar robes in shades of blue, violet, mauve and green. The robes were held fast with wide sashes in colour contrasts: a woman in intense orange might sport a dark blue belt; a man in green might wear a belt in pink.

“We welcome you,” said one woman solemnly, addressing the giant turtle. She wore a dark red robe with a vibrant green sash.

“And I greet you,” replied the turtle courteously. “I am the turtle who carries the weight of the cosmos.”

“That’s a tortoise,” a man in sage (mauve sash) retorted without pause.

The turtle fixed his pale yellow eyes on the man. “I am a turtle,” he stated. “I have always been a turtle, and I have always been. I swam in the sea of consciousness before any other creature existed. I was there before God recognised herself as God. I know all things that have ever been, and all things that will be.”

“I stand corrected,” the man murmured, as the woman alongside him (pale blue and flesh) cuffed his shoulder.

The party of leaders bowed deeply.

“It is our custom that guests in our land must earn their safe passage by telling us a story. We grant you safe passage, but please, we beg of you a story.” The man who spoke wore marigold and white, with gold embroidered trim.

“I can tell you a story of the future,” the turtle proclaimed, adopting a Storyteller voice. It echoed off the carved rock plateau and carried up the mountain sides.

“It’s a short story. A long way ahead, in a time far away, men and women came to loathe Storytellers. The balance had shifted from fascination to fear. Other folk mistrusted the Storytellers, who they saw as manipulators, tricksters and exploiters, fluid with the truth.”

“Fluent with the truth?” asked a girl in the crowd.

“Fluid. Fluid like water. It leaks everywhere.” The turtle was patient.

“Where’s the problem with that?” asked a teenager.

“Storytellers could not be believed. They could not be counted on. Their intentions were unpredictable. A long way ahead, in the future, loyalty came to be seen as essential for stability. Conformity was valued. Storytellers did not conform.”

“Why are you speaking as if this is in the past, when you say it’s in the future?” An older woman wanted to know.

The turtle turned his great neck towards her. “Because the past is never past. You of all peoples must know that. What has not yet been is still to come but exists already. I have swum the endless seas for all time, and I know everything time and space can contain.”

“What happened?” breathed a small child.

“The people who mistrusted Storytellers decided the Story must end. They conspired to kill the Storytellers. They killed almost all of them.”

“How could that happen?” asked a man in his prime. “We’d tell each other, wouldn’t we?”

“The Storytellers were wiped out in simultaneous attacks. No-one who was found was spared. The only survivors were children.”

“But they survived?” a nursing mother squeaked.

“They still survive. But their survival is not guaranteed.”

The first woman, the leader robed in red and green, frowned. “O cosmic turtle, you who know everything, do you not know what happened?”

“O lady, great seer and wise word-smith, it is still happening. The story never ends.”

“I thought you said it was a very short story,” the lady smiled weakly.

“You people are picky!” the turtle fussed. “Everybody’s a critic. I said the story was short. Time began and time continues. The Storytellers came into being and the Story must be told. That is the beginning and the end of it. There is no beginning and there is no end.”

“What should we do?” spoke another woman from the leadership group. “Is there something we can do?”

“It’s your responsibility,” the turtle told them. “It is your fate. You must tell the Story, and keep the Story going. That is your mission.”

The people fell to talking amongst themselves. Their voices were excited and incoherent.

“Great turtle,” said the red and green lady. “Thank you for being our guest, and thank you for your gift of this story. We thank you, too, for holding up the cosmos. It must be a burden, but it is your mission.”

The turtle swayed his neck back and forth, his pale eyes studying her. “We understand each other, then.”

With that, he used his flippers to manoeuvre his great bulk around, to face down the stairway, then pushed off with his flippers and skidded all the way back down to the mooring. He flipped himself into the river and submerged.

“Farewell,” said the lady, softly. To her people, she said in a loud voice: “This story must be told!”

gardens-and-cosmos.jpg

“Are you an actor?” I ask Roberto. He smiles.

“I’m sad there are no costumes in the theatre’s costume department,” Chapin says. “If we are the future of the Storytellers’ memory, we should be properly dressed.”

“We can be,” says Roberto.  He places his palms together, raises his hands, and then – as if holding something precious before him – he turns to Chapin. He opens his palms and mimes picking up something from his left palm with his right fingers. He holds the something up and gazes at it admiringly.

“Chapin,” Roberto says. “As our leader, you need marcasite earrings.”

Very carefully, Roberto attaches the unseen earrings to the cartilage at the outer edge of Chapin’s left ear.

“As our leader, you need a leader’s markings.” Roberto places his forefinger on the point on Chapin’s forehead midway between his eyebrows. He draws his forefinger slowly down the length of Chapin’s nose. At the tip of the nose, he raises his forefinger then places it, so deliberately, in the centre of Chapin’s chin.

“Lenny,” says Roberto. I present my face to him. “As a high lady, you should have a pearl pendant. I should draw a teal-coloured line in a bow-shaped curve beneath your lower lashes.”

He lifts the pendant over my bowed head and hangs it gently around my neck. He draws the line under my eyes that mark me as a lady.

“I should also loop my hair up so the nape of my neck is exposed and then drape a fine shawl or veil over my head,” I protest. “I’m not a lady, Roberto. I’m bald. I’ve been whored. If I’m anything, other than a Storyteller, I’m some kind of mutant warrior.”

Chapin is listening. “Lenny, you are a great lady, like the great lady in the turtle tale. You are wise and you see things. You’re also a truly awesome killer. What I’m thinking is this: we are all we have. We are like time – we are separate and we are one, all at once. So it makes no sense to say ‘Chapin is the leader’, or ‘Lenny is the lady’, or ‘Roman is luck’ or ‘Roberto is an actor.’ We are each of us everything. I am a leader, yes, and I am also a lady, an actor and our luck. So are you. Each of you.

“Roberto,” continues Chapin. “May I have a pearl pendant too? Can I wear the teal eye-line and also the leader’s markings?”

“Me too!” I butt in. “Can I wear leader’s markings and a marcasite earring? And can Roman?”

Roberto takes his time, as the turtle taught him. He draws, exquisitely, markings and eye-lines on the three of us. He affixes the marcasite drop-earrings and loops pearl pendants over our heads. And when he’s done, Chapin returns the gift.

“Are our robes correctly draped?” Chapin asks. Roberto considers each of us, then solemnly nods.

“Now we are ready,” says Chapin. “Now we are properly prepared to eat; and when we’ve eaten, we’ll continue the Story.”

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny31

 

When we walked to this village we walked in silence. In the re-education camp, the silence made me ache. No-one talked to me. Now, all I want to do is talk. I love the sound of Roberto’s voice.

“Roberto,” I ask, smearing bean paste on a slab of flat bread, “What does the white mark on a leader’s chin represent?”

Roberto barely pauses. “It’s a full moon. The same as the pearl pendant a lady wears.”

“The same? How can a leader’s marks mean the same thing as a lady’s pearl?”

Roberto squints at me. “The moon is the woman. It gets bigger and smaller. The full moon is a pregnant moon. The moon represents the female side.”

“So traditionally, leaders have a pregnant moon on their chin?” I digest this. “Are you making this up?”

“No, really,” Roberto protests. “The white stripe painted from the forehead down the nose is the male side.”

“For real?”

“Um, yes. The male and the female together make energy. The two signs together represent power.”

“And the teal line under a lady’s eye? Is that for beauty, or does it mean something?”

“It’s beautiful, we think, but it’s also for Serpa. In every division, from First to Fourth, pearl pendant signifies ‘lady,’ but it’s a Storyteller thing – a traditional stage thing – for women to draw the teal line beneath their lower lids. Snake eyes.”

“I thought Chapin made that story up? Because his dad saw visions?”

“No,” says Chapin, “That story is very old. There are variations, but I didn’t make it up.”

I turn to Chapin. “Do you prefer handing on old stories or making up your own? Do you make them up as you go along?”

“Lenny,” says Chapin, “You know our tradition. You know there are the five classes of story: the old tales we hand on; the tales we embroider; the ones we make up as we go along; the ones we plot; and the ones we report, what the others call ‘factual.’ You know we are charged with preserving the old tales and a responsibility to keep them fresh. That’s the first two classes. The highest form of creativity is making tales up as we go along. That’s what I like best.

“The ones we plot are learning exercises. And the factual reports are the lowest form of story.”

“But the other divisions don’t see it that way, do they?” I’m stating the obvious. “They think factual reports are the only stories that should count.”

I consider this as I roll some flat bread round pickled cabbage. The other divisions believe that meal times should be silent. When you place food in your mouth, you should keep your mouth shut and complete the eating process – all that chewing, all the swallowing – then pick up another piece of food and do it all again. All the time in silence. Drinking tea in silence.

“So when we meet the Investigator, will we be believed? Won’t the Investigator think we are making things up?”

“Yes,” says Chapin. “That’s what they’ll think. And the other divisions will tell them to ignore anything we say. Never believe a Storyteller, my dad always said.”

“And you believed him?” We laugh. It’s an old joke.

“What difference does it make, then?” It bothers me. It’s been bothering me for as long as I can remember.

“Lenny,” says Chapin. “We can’t predict what will happen. All we know is this is our purpose. Our mission is to tell. And you know, factual reports might be the lowest form of story, but they’re still stories, they’re still part of our brief. I’d rather sit around telling stories I make up, about magical creatures and transformations, but we have a duty to tell these other stories. About what happened to us, what happened to the people we loved.”

I’d rather tell stories about transformations too.

“Chapin, do you think sitting around telling stories about magical creatures is our way of avoiding telling the stories that need telling?”

He puts down a drink bottle. “No. No, Lenny, I do not. I think they have their place and are just as needed.”

“But we’ve been telling stories from every point of the compass, about snakes and dragons and turtles, but we’ve left silences between each other. I haven’t told you what happened in the camps, you haven’t told me what’s happened since I was taken.”

Roberto says, “I told you what happened to me.”

“Everything?” I sound accusing.

Chapin looks at me. “We don’t need to tell everything at once. There are stories within the snakes and dragons tales. We’ll get to the tiger tales.”

I am relentless. “In the camp, the Third Division women – the ones in the grave – prepared me every day for the camp version of a tea ceremony. They painted a red spot just under my lower lip. They told me it represented a bullet hole. I think it was another woman symbol, a parody of the full moon pearl.”

Chapin is looking directly at my face. He says nothing.

“Roberto,” I ask after another moment’s silence. “Roberto, an actor is a kind of interpreter? Would that be true?”

“That would be true,” Roberto says.

“Could you read the tattoos on that man who buries bodies? Did you understand his symbols?”

“He disposes of bodies,” Roberto repeats. “He is afraid of the dead. He’s afraid they’ll come back. He has tattooed messages on his skin in case they come for him. He thinks those symbols will keep the dead away.”

“He must have been terrified of us, then.”

“I hope so,” replies Roberto, softly.  “We should have killed them.”

“No,” snaps Chapin. “They gave us food. Don’t tell me it was a trap or ill-intentioned. The bottom-line is they prepared food for us. We are their guests” – he gestures at our meal – “and we are grateful.”

Chapin is a traditionalist. I admire him for that.

The pit where we’re eating smells earthy and moist. I look across at Chapin, in the semi-darkness, with his invisible pearl pendant and his invisible leader marks. I like his male-female fusion. I like his power. It astonishes me he’s only thirteen. I find myself silently reaching out across time to the Cosmic Turtle:

O turtle, thank you for holding up the cosmos. Please, keep Chapin alive.

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny14

When did death enter Lenny’s life? When did she slide from the domain of fruit trees and storytelling into the sphere of silence? Did it happen all at once, the night of the killings? Of did death enter stealthily, sliding like a serpent from some moss-covered well, grey and white tessellations camouflaged against the smooth pebbles of the formal rock garden?

Lenny had known death. She’d loitered by death’s door, then crept forward quietly and sat by its bedside. It looked out at her through her grandfather’s eyes, and it fixed her in its gaze. She recognized death for what it was: finality. Death, somehow, misidentified Lenny.

“Edie,” said Death, speaking through her grandfather’s thin, scaly lips.

“I’m here,” she replied, taking Death’s hand. Her grandfather’s fingers were mottled flesh and bone.

“Edie,” the ventriloquist voice of death repeated. “You’re here.”

“Of course I’m here,” said Lenny, holding Death’s gaze, holding her grandfather’s fingers. “Where else would I be?”

“I thought you were gone and now you’re here. I still have you.” Death smiled at Lenny.

“I’m always yours,” said Lenny, and now her voice was not her own. “I’m always here.”

The body on the bed was long and lean. If it raised itself up, it could run marathons.

“You’ll never escape me,” it whispered.

“I’ll come to meet you,” Lenny said. Silence smothered the room.

Silence filled the space and squeezed out the air. Lenny couldn’t speak. There was nothing she could say.

“I met you under a plum tree,” the living corpse said suddenly. “You were maybe thirteen. You look just the same.”

The death’s head turned towards her. Its face flushed pink and her grandfather’s eyes animated its eye sockets.

“You are unchanged, Edie,” her grandfather said. “You will always live.”

“Tell me the story, grandfather,” Lenny pleaded. Time stretched forever on that bed but now she felt urgency. Her grandfather was with her.

“You were just thirteen,” he smiled. His tongue moistened his lips. It was not quite blue.

“You stood beneath the plum tree and the petals showered down. You were laughing. You were beautiful and I knew you were the one. The one who would live. The one who would live always.”

“What was I doing, under the plum tree?” Lenny asked.

“Doing? You were being. You were being the eternal one. The one who cannot die.”

“But grandfather,” she said. “I know I must die. I’ve seen it. I’ve dreamed. We will all die. Buildings will burn and my family will be torched. There was blood. Blood everywhere.”

“Petals were falling. Stars burned in the sky.” Her grandfather’s words were suspended in air. His mouth hung open. Lenny was afraid the silence would return.

“You were standing in the moonlight. You shook that tree and its blossoms fell. You laughed at the sky and then you saw me. You put your fingers to your lips and told me ‘Shhh. Don’t tell.’”

“I said that?” Lenny laughed. “A storyteller telling a storyteller to hush? What was I thinking?”

“I have no idea,” her grandfather smiled. “I never understood your stories, Edie. But here’s what I think. I think you knew the end was coming. I think you had dreams. You woke up screaming. But I know you always laughed at death.”

Lenny felt abrupt grief. Her voice fell flat. “How can I laugh, when I’m not allowed to speak? How can I live, when the silence rules?”

The bones entwined in her fingers squeezed lightly. The bones were lightly padded and lightly veined. She could feel their faint warmth, feel their faint pulse.

“You will climb to the heights and hide in the depths. You will cloak yourself in silence. You will learn to use the silence to punctuate your tales. You will bury yourself in your heritage and live forever through it. You know who you are.”

“The one who cannot die.” Lenny breathed the words.

“The one who will not die. The one who refuses.”

“How can you know this?” Lenny demanded. “How can I know who I am? Even you don’t know me, grandfather!”

“Of course I know you, Lenny.” It closed its eyes. “You are the one who evades and confronts. The one who lives.”

Lenny stared at the death’s head and knew her grandfather had gone. Where had he gone, her grandfather and Edie? To what night-land of star-lit plum blossom had their spirits flown?

She let go of the bony hand.

“Grandfather,” she said softly. “Can you hear me? Is it silent where you are?

She paused, and listened. She thought she heard voices, soft murmured voices. She thought she heard laughing.

And she knew. She knew who she was.

“I am a story teller,” she said to the silent room. “I am the one who will not die. I am the one who tells.”

blossoms 2

She woke up, screaming. Not a memory, then; a dream. Or a memory embedded in dream.

Here, in this hole in the ground, she lay in damp mud, a fugitive curled up alongside three survivor comrades.

“Chapin,” She said, grabbing Chapin’s arm. “I’ve dreamed. I know what I need to do now. We need to get out of here.”

Chapin, half asleep, nodded.

“We need to get back into the light to tell our stories. Not the mythic ones. The stories about what happened to us, about the killings, and after.”

She pressed her face close to his. “We’ve been in a hole. We’ve evaded and hidden. Now we need to confront.”

Chapin, now awake, rolled towards his rifle and rose to his knees.

Elly_McDonald_Writer_blood-moon

Tonight, the moon is full. It glows like a bronze disk, like polished amber, like a memory of fire. The night is warm. I am seated on the lip of the water well. In my hands I toy with a small ornamental knife. It’s the same well I knew growing up, the same well where Chapin and I waited, exposed and vulnerable, for a signal to meet with the man with drugs.

I am ten years older now. Still alive. So much has changed.

It was Roman. Our luck was Roman. We emerged by night from the mud-hole, shy and skulking, and shadowed birch trees through woods that seemed endless. At the edge of the woods, there was open land. It was grasslands that stretched towards a wide river. The river was flat and still but with strong currents visible like molten folds of metal within an iron sword. On the far side of the river was a symmetry of grasslands, and beyond that, birch woods again. Past the birch, we could see violet mountains.

The skies were pale grey with primrose streaks. There was wispy cloud cover, and emerging from the clouds we saw choppers, again. These choppers were giant silver dragonflies. Or maybe silver dragons. They grew bigger, flashed like lightning, their sound a disturbance in the natural order.

I was afraid. I could not contain more terror. But Roman stepped from the cloak of trees and walked forward into the pale grasslands. He didn’t hesitate, just kept walking. The choppers flew over the river and kept coming. Their bellies loomed above us, like luminous, aerial fish. They hovered overhead, conversing in a high, hysterical language I could not translate.

Roman raised his arms and waved. Big windmill arm waves, rhythmic, constant. The choppers dipped their noses towards him. They paused, dropped, and settled, bowing to the boy. They landed not far in front of him.

Roman ran towards the grounded choppers. I wanted to cry out, to yell to him to stop, but I was mute. Roman ran and waved, a tumble of arms, a lash of feet.

A short distance from where they sat, dragon-sized and silver, he stopped. A door opened from a dragon’s side, and a woman paused momentarily before stepping out. She was dressed head to toe in pale beige, a grey scarf wrapped around her head.

Roman ran again, and threw himself at her. Her arms opened wide. He disappeared within them. She knelt, holding Roman close, and rocked gently, side to side. She knelt there, rocking him, a long, long time. The helicopters remained stationary. It was just that woman.

Eventually we saw Roman reappear from within her mass. He held her hand and stayed pressed close between her legs. He pointed towards the woods, towards us.

I shrank back. I could barely breathe. I looked to Chapin, but Chapin was looking towards Roman.

“We have no friends,” I said.

Chapin’s eyes turned a wash of silver. I recognised tears, and I remembered: he’s a child.

Roberto, gazing at the woman with Roman, said, “If we’re to tell our stories, we must tell them to someone. To tell them to someone, we must trust, sometime.”

Chapin stood for a moment. He turned to me again, dropped his rifle.

This is Death, I thought.

Then I thought, this is the afterlife. These are the fields of the dead. There, the river of the dead.

“We can only die once,” I said. Then I thought, I am the one who cannot die.

I took Chapin’s hand. Chapin reached for Roberto’s. The three of us stepped out of the forest shade. We stood, exposed, vulnerable, by the fringe of trees.

Ahead, the woman looked up. She saw us. She was motionless for a moment then turned to her dragon steed, her chopper, and waved, windmilling, as Roman had. From the hole in its side, two figures emerged.  Like her, wholly covered in beige fatigues. The three, with Roman, walked towards us.

I have been afraid, and I have gone to Jupiter. I didn’t now. Now, I thought of the turtle who outlived time. Who was here before the beginning, and will be after the end. I thought of the golden eagle with its golden eye. I thought of the green snake woman, and the water spirit woman with a snake around her waist. I thought, I am the blossom bloom, and I am the stars. I am ephemeral, and I am eternal. I waited.

When the three adults reached us, the woman knelt before me. She stretched out her arms. And I, god help me – I stepped into her warmth. I laid my head against her breasts. I cried.

And here I am ten years later, still alive. I was warmed, I was held, I was fed. I was transported on a dragon’s back, back across the river, to the place beyond. I was cared for and tended. Eventually, I was questioned. They questioned me as if I were blossom, as if I might scatter, might fall apart. I didn’t.

I told my story. I stood witness. When the silver helicopters flew en masse across the river, towards our lands, I watched them on banks of monitors from safety far away.

I thought, it was never down to me. Never down to us. Me, Chapin, Roberto, Roman – we were children. How could children be the sole hope for the future? Where were the adults? Where were the others, the outsiders, the onlookers? Surely someone knew, someone would come?

Someone came.

I can’t speak to the rightness or wrongness of those river crossings. Should the outsiders have remained onlookers? Could they, if they knew?

I can’t speak to that. On that, I am mute.

What I know is I am alive, I had the chance to grow up. Now I am an adult. There are now others counting on me. I know now that children, while not the sole hope, are the best hope for the future, because children, with luck, grow up, and transit past to future. They tell stories of what has been, to the children yet to come.

Now, I sit by the well where a water spirit dwells, watching over our times of transition. My job is to travel my homeland, my damaged homelands, where order has collapsed, where our institutions are now rubble, and to find the ones who can share the stories of change.

I know who I am. I am the one who cannot die.

I am the Investigator.

blossoms

When you’re in a hole, stop digging (2 June 2014)

Author’s notes – the Lenny novella


2 Comments

Work in progress – 31,000 words of rock’n’roll memoir (to be continued)

Elly posted on FB 29 April 2018:

[My friend Holly] has dropped a couple of suggestions to me that I should write a “proper” autobiography, or at least a full-length rock’n’roll memoir.

I don’t have time to do that this afternoon. But I *have* spliced together my various relevant blog posts, cumulatively 30,850 words, in an order that seems to me to make some sense.

This is a work in progress.

I sincerely ask the indulgence of the people I write about who remain my friends, most of all Jen Jewel Brown, Anthony O’Grady, Greg Taylor, Holly Lovegrove, Helen Lovegrove, Mary Christie; and friends who were there, or around, but are not name-checked (including Stuart Coupe, Samantha Trenoweth, Phil Stafford, Chris Stafford, Sandie Kiely, Michele Johnson, Hedda Leonardi).

Most of all I ask the indulgence of people I write about who I know might prefer I did not, and whom I sometimes write about unkindly. Band members of Cold Chisel, band members of the Angels, band members of Dragon, band members of INXS, Paul Kelly and his players, most particularly. And their loved ones, past and present.

I don’t expect folks to read this. The various sections exist as individual blog posts. If you have any comments about any part, please feel free to PM me, Comment here, or Comment on the blog post(s).

Thanks. Love you all.

 

The girl with the glamorous job (Part 1)
May 10, 2016

This week my geriatric father noticed the covered porch and decking area in my parents’ back yard is perfect to stage plays.

“Our first challenge,” he announced, “is to identify an audience.”

So it is with writing memoir pieces. Just as not even my brother-in-law is keen to watch McDonald family amateur theatrics, few can be genuinely interested in reading yer average memoir blog. I have an 84 year old friend who has kept a journal every day since age 12. I love him, but would I read extracts? I think not.

Last time I posted some memoir pieces, close on two years ago, I was met with resounding silence, followed by squawks at my candour / callousness. A dear friend suggested I continue writing but not write about myself. I know that friend has my best interests at heart.

One obvious problem with memoir pieces is that they entail writing about other people. Many years ago I published a book titled Other People (and other poems). Yes, those Other People might have been strangers in public places. Or they might have been people in my life whom my friends would recognize.

My friend-from-long-ago Don Walker tried to get around this issue in his memoir, Shots (Black Inc, 2010), by not naming anyone bar his Cold Chisel bandmates. I read an interview Don gave where he said it’s a terrible transgression to expose another person in print. I’m not sure how effectively Don got around this self-imposed constraint, as I haven’t yet read his book, but he’s a brilliant writer who lived interesting times so doubtless some day I will.

But back to me. LOL.

In those far back days, some people (magazine editors) thought readers (young women) might like to read about me. Not so much me, as that generic type, the Girl With a Glamorous Job. I was a rock music writer for 10 years.

Apparently that was perceived as glamorous, as between 1980 and 1984 I was asked to participate in three feature articles profiling Girls With a Glamorous Job. I was also asked to write or be interviewed for two articles on sexism in the rock music industry, and to contribute to a radio program on that subject. Go figure.

I’ve made it difficult to write memoir pieces about that period of my life by the simple act of burning my mementoes. Almost everything burned or was shredded: the photo of me hanging off Jimmy Barnes’ shoulder, gazing at him adoringly, him charismatic, gazing straight to camera; the cryptic typed note from Don (WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF – I think it referred to the Girl Who Cried Woof); the plastic tag reading EXCESS BAGGAGE – ACCESS ALL AREAS gifted to me by an international star I hung out with in Sydney; the photo of said international star and me having dinner at the notorious Bourbon & Beefsteak Bar in Kings Cross, me starry-eyed (again), him looking like he’d posed for similar shots a time or two before; the various glossy 8×10 pics of friends playing live on stage I’d souvenir’d from rock photographers. Most of the 450 articles I’d written about rock bands. Letters, postcards and admin stuff documenting my life in Oz Rock.

Almost the only thing I kept was a letter Don Walker wrote me some years later, after I had moved to London. It contains a lovely anecdote about a London dinner party and the etymology of the bird name “jabiru”. The fact Don was wrong about the origins of “jabiru” only makes the letter the more delightful. (Does this count as exposing him in print?)

I also kept a handful of my articles that either had personal significance to me or that I thought were rather good. And I kept the magazine articles about me as a Girl With a Glamorous Job.

Here, for the delectation of whomever is still reading, are those articles [not the articles, the blog posts], with comments:

 

In Another Place (1986)

One of us is standing, studying sea waters
I can’t
tell which one of us it is, but I know
the sea is green, and monstrous, and greedy –
it grasps slime-slicked rocks and hugs them
smothers them, swallows them whole
The person who watches (who is part
of me)
is compelled and repelled, alternately – a
subjugated rock
a seething cold sea

One of us is crouched, glaring into desert
face cloaked and eyes blinded, I can’t
say who, but I know it’s another
other of my own
an envious drifter
with needs, with held-grudges
a being of nerve ends
a scorpion camouflaged by heat-holding sand
like a remnant of cultures shattered
forgotten
fragmented, unforgiving

defiantly unhealed

 

Dybbuk (1984)

I saw her through the crowd
waving
A friend, long lost
In black, heart-shaped glasses
A precise little blonde, a Jean Seberg
destined for nightmare
Somewhat feral in flounced skirts
Nipped waist, black and white
like an old newsreel, like propaganda
I used to know
A girl like this, high-heels clipping
disturbing pigeons, slicing air
She came over and put her hand
On my arm
Almost tender
Bent across as though to whisper secrets
Screened eyes, a bloodless mouth – she
Bit
Into my neck
slashing-razor teeth, sharp as malice
smug and savage as a shattered mirror
Doppelganger, a metal-fanged ghoul
gargoyle images reflected in steel
Crowd-bold, sun-defiant
Creature of evil
A restless dybbuk, neck
to knife-edged jaw
with a dupe

Jimmy Barnes and me: Working Class Boy, Working Class Man, and the clueless killer fat chick (2 November 2017)

Working Class Man by Jimmy Barnes (Harper Collins 2017)
Working Class Boy by Jimmy Barnes (Harper Collins 2016)

A boy and a girl are seated on the top step of a flight of stairs in a grand old house. She is 19, he’s five years older, almost to the day. Their knees are touching.

He leans close towards her and says, “You’re a killer.”

She is dismayed. “A killer?”

His turn to be taken aback. “It’s a compliment,” he reassures her. “A killer. I think you’re fantastic.”

The girl adores him. She still adores him 37 years later, even though she’s barely seen or spoken to him since December 1983. A chance meeting on a Kings Cross street in 1985, a moment backstage in 1991, a note in about 2001, another moment backstage in 2007, then a book signing in St Kilda in 2017.

The boy is Jimmy Barnes, known and loved these days as an Australian rock music icon both as a solo artist and as lead singer in the band Cold Chisel. The girl is me, and the book Jim autographed for me at a book signing yesterday is Working Class Man, his second volume of autobiography, following his memoirs of a brutal childhood, Working Class Boy.

Working Class Boy is a gut-wrenching account of a childhood filled with neglect and violence, of a young boy struggling to survive a dysfunctional Glaswegian Scot family who migrated to Australia in 1961 and moved around Adelaide’s tougher, working class suburbs. It is compelling reading, beautifully written, with a fluency, passion and wit that surprises me not at all from the Jimmy Barnes I knew. The voice is authentic. I could hear him speaking in the written words.

I loved every page, every paragraph, of Working Class Boy. Yes, some parts horrified me. Some made me cry. Some helped me understand things we had (and have) in common I hadn’t understood before.

I was born in 1961. My family moved to Adelaide in 1963. We lived in what’s known as the “leafy green suburbs”, the pleasant suburbs housing the professional classes. We lived at the base of the foothills overlooking the plain Adelaide fills, in a place called Glen Osmond, just up the road from the Arkaba Hotel, where Jim and his brother John roomed for a time as young adults.

My dad had Scottish heritage – his name was Donald Angus McDonald – and my great-grandparents were Gaelic speakers. They came from south-west Scotland, and/or from the isles. Some of them were very probably Irish migrants to south-west Scotland, like Jim’s folk. Some of them were Irish from County Galway, the heart of the bilingual Gaeltacht. As best I can tell, they were all heavy drinkers.

Although my father grew up in a nouveau riche mini-castle and his father was a big man in his country town, a self-made man with a successful business, my father grew up with family violence. He very seldom alluded to it. It was only when he was dying, earlier this year, that in his last weeks he fleshed out a little of the kind of violence he witnessed between his parents. Within our family we’d all always known there was something dark and frightening, some things unexplained, but we’d never heard details. It was painful.

Hearing my father recount in plain terms what he’d been subjected to as a child helped me understand some of my dad’s own more erratic behaviour, and his drinking. I could also clearly see, reading Jim’s book, more reasons my teenage self felt an affinity with Jimmy Barnes: if I wrote a list of my dad’s best qualities, and his worse, then wrote a list of Jimmy’s best and worst qualities as I saw them, the lists would be identical. They were cut from the same cloth.

As soon as I finished reading Working Class Boy, I posted on Facebook:

Belatedly, I’ve finally read Jimmy Barnes’ memoir of his childhood, Working Class Boy, a remarkable work. On a personal level, there was so much in the voice, the reflections, the humour, the insights, the choices, the LANGUAGE that brought the Jim I once knew present. Which was a pleasure for me.

On a writerly level, I am blown away. Writing a coherent narrative takes skill. No surprise Jim is a great story teller. No surprise he’s articulate and rock-my-socks-off intelligent. But writing skills come through practice. I hadn’t realised he was so practiced. (Two previous attempts totaling c.60,000 words before a 100,000 dam-burst.)

Writing dialogue takes a great ear. Jim has that. In spades.

On a wisdom level – I always knew Jim as super-astute, with an off the charts EQ, but the maturity he demonstrates here through his writing has me worried.

I’m only five years younger. Can I get that wise, so soon?

Jim’s wisdom is hard won. I would not wish to travel the road he has to acquire it. God bless him.

I am so eager now to read the follow-up, Working Class Man. This will be where I start to recognise more people, places, situations. I did meet Jim’s mum, his sister Linda and his brother John [also his siblings Alan and Dorothy, in passing], but I didn’t get to know them; arguably a lot of the people I met in the next stage of Jim’s life are also people I never truly ‘knew’, but we did share experiences and we share witness.

I knew Working Class Man would cover the period when I knew Cold Chisel – the band’s last four years, the height of their success and their ferocious last year or two – and there was so much I never understood about what went down, what happened between specific individuals, why they behaved the ways they did across that time. I wanted to understand, because I felt I’d been part of the emotional turmoil, that it affected me, and it had blindsided me.

And now I have read Working Class Man.

Early in the tale I meet friends we had in common, when Jim and I both still lived in Adelaide, moving in different circles but, in Adelaide, a large country town with zero degrees of separation, interconnected.

We share some history, this town and I
And I can’t stop that long forgotten feeling…
(Flame Trees – lyrics Don Walker)

Here on the pages is my friend Vince Lovegrove, Cold Chisel’s first manager, and his wife Helen. Helen taught me to go-go dance when I was six or seven. She was a nurse with a close-knit group of bff’s including Mary, one of my earliest babysitters, who became one of our family’s dearest friends. Through Mary I knew Helen and through Helen I met Vince.

Vince when I met him was a minor pop star, sharing vocals in a band called The Valentines with a cheeky singer called Bon Scott. Bon Scott went on to sing with an Adelaide band called Fraternity, later fronted by Jim Barnes (with his brother John on drums), while Bon went on to front AC/DC. That’s Adelaide for you: the city of churches and serial killers, the town that spawned Bon Scott , Vince Lovegrove, Cold Chisel – and, less remarkably, me.

This is a review – or more correctly, a response – to Jimmy Barnes’ books Working Class Boy and Working Class Man. For a few years there his story and mine dovetail, so forgive me indulging in “sentimental bullshit”, settling in to play “Do you remember so and so?”, as Cold Chisel’s principle songwriter Don Walker put it in his lyrics to Flame Trees:

I’m happy just to sit here at a table with old friends
and see which one of us can tell the biggest lies

I first met Jim Barnes in Melbourne. He was standing at the edge of a stage in a St Kilda venue, alongside his bandmate Don Walker, staring down at me. I was staring up, in my Anne of Green Gables floral-sprigged mauve frock, my hair the straggling remains of a dropped-out perm, my chubby upper arms straining at the cuffs of short puffed sleeves.

“Who’s in this band?” I demanded.

I was enrolled in Law/Arts at Monash University, then considered a second-tier suburban university, an offer I’d taken up over the offer from the more prestigious Melbourne University Law School due to some forlorn desire to be just a regular suburban girl. I wasn’t succeeding. I was a misfit, and I spent my days smoking dope and spinning the turnstile at the student radio station, 3MU.

3MU had lined up an interview with Jim and Don’s band Cold Chisel. Except no one owned having set up the interview and no one wanted to conduct an interview. I volunteered. Now here I was standing beneath a stage during a sound check.

The next time Cold Chisel came to Melbourne I interviewed Don and Cold Chisel drummer Steve Prestwich in their hotel room in St Kilda. I wrote it up as an article for the Adelaide-based rock magazine, Roadrunner.

In the hotel room, Don Walker considered me as if I were brain-gym puzzle. I asked Don what he was thinking.

“I’m wondering what social background you come from,” he said.

I told him my father was a director of a household name corporation and my mother was an academic. His mother was an academic too, but Don didn’t mention that.

The band put my name on the free list at the door to see them play one of Melbourne’s big beer-barn suburban venues, and at Don Walker’s invitation I joined them in the band room after the show. It was the tail end of Chisel’s 1979 Set Fire To The Town tour, promoting Cold Chisel’s second album, Breakfast at Sweethearts. The band joked it should be called the Let’s Get Fat tour. Sure enough, Jim did not look well. He was puffy, unshaven, his eyes were glazed, his skin a bad colour, smeared with a greasy sheen, and he was out of it, off his face on god knows what. He nodded bleary-eyed recognition to me.

When Jim was functioning, which seemed to me most of the time, he was funny and bright and kind. Over the next year, after I moved to Sydney and started writing regularly for RAM (Rock Australia Magazine), I saw a lot of him. Briefly, he shared a house with Vince Lovegrove, just around the corner from my place. Then he moved into that grand old house where we sat together at the top of the stairs, also not more than a few minutes walk from my small flat. Bandmates referred to that house as “Jim’s castle”, which puts me in mind of the grand country house my dad grew up in.

Jim and I both lived in Paddington, an inner-city Sydney suburb then in the process of gentrification. Boundary Road formed the boundary between Paddington and Sydney’s red light district Kings Cross. In those days I alternated between dressing in jeans and flannel shirts and dressing in what might kindly be described as outdoor lingerie. It wasn’t uncommon for hoons visiting Kings Cross from the outer suburbs to pick up prostitutes or bash trans people to mistake me for a hooker. Sometimes they were menacing. One time I was pursued: I ran, but they ran faster. I knew the short cuts and ducked down a hidden through-walk. I knew I couldn’t make it to my own home before they spotted where I’d gone, so I ran through the wrought iron gates to Jim’s grand house and hid in the portico by his front door. I watched these boys trying to track where I’d gone. They sniffed around like hellhounds then finally gave up. My heart was pounding.

Jim and his housemates were out at the time. That night I told him the newspaper headlines would not have looked good: ‘Girl raped on rock star’s doorstep.’

Jim grinned and shot back, ‘While rock star at the beach!’

When I first met Chisel I was a fat teen with binge eating disorder, post-anorexic. As one venue promoter correctly surmised, you could write my sexual history on the head of a pin. The surfers, apprentice plumbers and neophyte heroin addicts my popular older sister hung out with had zero interest in me. Being seen with a fat chick was an embarrassment.

So when Don Walker referred to me, approvingly, as an “earth mother”, I failed to hear the compliment and was mortified. When I walked through Kings Cross and saw a porn mag titled Deviations featuring a special issue on fat chicks, my immediate thought was: “That’s me. I’m a sexual deviation.” (My eating disorder did my friendship with Don no favours. I had it in my head that Don only liked thin women, and, since I valued Don’s good opinion, that meant that whenever I felt self-conscious I’d get defensive, even semi-hostile, around him.)

When Jimmy Barnes told me I “looked the way a woman should look”, it was the first time I’d heard male affirmation.

More important, and certainly more intimate: Jim taught me how to punch.

Jim met and fell in love with Jane, the woman he married, not long after we met. But his relationship with Jane was turbulent. He did a lot of drugs. He drank a lot. When I complained I didn’t have money to buy groceries, Jimmy told me I could live on speed and booze. He must have liked that line, because he repeats it in Working Class Man. I didn’t have Jim’s constitution. I couldn’t afford groceries so I lost weight. Men started taking more sexual interest in me. I stayed cautious.

At Vince’s house, the lead singer of a young support band tried, politely, to chat me up. I was so unused to being chatted up and I couldn’t deal. I flung helpless looks towards Jim. He laughed.

Jim writes of Cold Chisel in Working Class Man that “These four guys would eventually become my family. The family I always needed.” With much less cause, I too regarded Cold Chisel as family. Although my birth family, living in Melbourne, were nowhere near as explosive as Jim’s birth family was, as a family unit we were not, across those years, in good shape. My father accused me years later of choosing to live first interstate then overseas in order to be far away from my family. He was not wrong, though it hurt me to admit it.

For me, Cold Chisel were the big brothers I never had.

Jim could be protective. There was a night when white powders were being passed around and when I reached for my turn, Jim slapped my hand.

“Not that! That’s smack,” he warned me, sharply.

 

The huge breakthrough album for Cold Chisel was East, released May 1980. Before it came out I watched Chisel rehearse for the album tour and I remember I was irritable. I recall Jim being unimpressed when I criticised the harmonies on Twist’n’Shout, so maybe that was it.

In the train on the way back to Kings Cross with Don Walker and Don’s partner, the rock writer Jenny Hunter-Brown, I remember Don looking at me like I was a toddler in need of a pacifier and handing me a Walkman, a small cassette player with mini-headphones.

“Here,” he said. “Listen to this.”

It was East, the first track: Standing On The Outside. I was so shocked by how slick and tuneful those first bars sounded, but I didn’t want to let go of being grumpy and give Don the thumbs up. I listened with a stiff face to the whole track, then took the earphones out.

“What do you think?” Don asked.

I think I said, “It’s good. It’s very good.”

 

In Working Class Man, Jimmy writes that when Don presented Standing On the Outside to the band,

“I felt like I was singing a song that came from somewhere deep inside my soul. I had been standing on the outside all my life, never being allowed to taste or touch the world that was just outside my reach.”

Jim writes that on East, Don “came up with a lot of songs about outsiders. We were outsiders, and we were surrounded by outsiders and misfits. There was something about the outcasts from society that fascinated him. Maybe that’s why he liked me.”

Me too. Maybe that’s why Don liked me when he met me, too.

Jim asked me which of the songs from the East live playlist I liked best. I told him Tomorrow (the set opener) and Star Hotel.

Jimmy met my eyes: “Me too”, he said.

In Working Class Man he writes, “Star Hotel let me sing about not being good enough, not being wanted or worth anything, and wanting to tear down the world because of it.”

Until I read that line I didn’t realise this was the “me too” we shared. I came from a relatively privileged background, Jim came from what is sanitised as “disadvantage”. But we both had a fundamental sense of being worthless, and a desperate fear of being abandoned. We both had deep wells of anger and terror.

When Jim writes in Working Class Man about near hysteria at the prospect of being separated from Jane when she fell ill in America, I cried:

“The idea of being separated from Jane again made me feel sick. I couldn’t lose her. If I let her go now I might never see her again. I always had the feeling that I would end up alone. I didn’t deserve her. I couldn’t let her go. […] I was definitely hysterical now. I was crying.”

That is so precisely how I felt about being part of Chisel’s circle. I was terrified of being expelled. I felt that Jane didn’t like me, and I can’t blame her. At my fattest I once trod on her while wearing stilettoes. But not to make light of this (so to speak): it was not easy for Jane being married to Jim. Even then, there were so many hangers-on pressing for Jimmy’s time and attention, and some had no scruples about how to achieve that end. There were individuals hanging out with Chisel who Jane disliked and mistrusted, mostly with good reason. I didn’t try to see things from her perspective. I resented her for seemingly separating Jim from people who had been his friends – for separating him from me.

I hated watching Jim cease to be my friend, and I was beyond terrified to lose my friendship with Don, for much the same reasons Jim and the band valued him: because Don was the big brother of big brothers, the stable one, the calm, capable, trustworthy one, the one who made sure what needed to get done always did get done. What a burden Don shouldered.

 

After I spoke with Jimmy at the book signing this week, I spoke with Jane. I leaned in close and said, “Thank you for keeping him alive.”

Jane instinctively pushed back, saying “It wasn’t me.”

“I know,” I replied. “He did that. But you both did that. You did it together.”

She half-nodded, warily. I know better than to put the burden of someone’s survival, of someone’s thriving, onto their partner. I asked if I could hug her. She wasn’t keen.

“After 30 years…” she began. I hugged her anyway.

I was over-emotional, and it’s not right to force another person’s emotional space. But for years I’ve recognised I was wrong about Jane. Jim ceased to be my friend after he and Jane married and committed to a life together, but Jane was and is, it seems to me, very likely the best thing that’s happened to Jimmy Barnes.

You made his life,” I whispered, as I hugged her.

Years after Jimmy left Cold Chisel, years after Cold Chisel broke up, I was living in London. It came to my attention Vince Lovegrove was living in London too. I made contact and we talked on the phone.

Vince told me he’d worked with Jim when Jimmy Barnes toured Europe, and that Jim had not been in a good place.

“He’s a mess,” Vince told me. “He is drugging and fucking around and he’s filled with self-loathing. He can’t bear to look at the man in the mirror.”

This was not long after Michael Hutchence’s death and I was filled with fear that, like the INXS frontman, Jim might kill himself, intentionally or otherwise. I was in denial. I was angry at Vince for being the bearer of bad news, and for a moment – a long moment – I believed he was exaggerating the mess that was Jimmy Barnes because he was jealous of how much Jimmy meant to me, and because by exaggerating the depths of Jimmy’s personal decline it might distract from his own decline. This long moment – this extended denial – contributed to me not following up the plans Vince and I made to meet up.

I regret that now. Vince was killed in a car crash in early 2012. Friends are valuable. Friends don’t cease to matter because years have passed.

Do you know I reach to you
from later times…
(Letter to Alan, lyrics by Don Walker)

I now know, after reading Jimmy’s account of his solo career and life across the years when we didn’t see each other, that Vince was not exaggerating. I now know that Jim very nearly did kill himself, in circumstances not unlike the circumstances in which Michael Hutchence died.

I am profoundly grateful my friend is alive.

I am profoundly grateful he wrote this harrowing book, painful as it’s been for me to read. I am grateful to his family and the friends who love him, who have been by his side.

I know Jimmy Barnes didn’t write this book so that people he wouldn’t recognise in the street could reminisce 35 years later about their brushes with fame. Seems to me he wrote it for himself, yes, as therapy; and also for the people who he loves, the people he perhaps feels he owes explanations; for people who are children of family violence, children of alcoholics and addicts; and for the people who share experiences similar to his of addiction, self-loathing, the fear of abandonment, the terror of loss.

When Jimmy was a child, he used to run away from his family, all the way down to Glenelg Beach, and watch the world from the jetty. I did something similar. I had a beach where I’d climb over a clifftop guard rail, curl up in a small sandstone depression in the cliff, and watch the sun set into the waters of Gulf St Vincent.

Jim didn’t write this book for me (or just for me). But I open the front leaf of my copy of Working Class Boy, and I see in Jim’s scrawl

And I am grateful.

 

Roadtrain (1986)

Hugh is getting tired. The more tired he gets, the faster he drives. His eyes are glazed; he should be wearing glasses, but he always manages to leave them behind. Constant small losses; Hugh isn’t thinking about it.

Hugh, in all truth, is trying hard not to think at all. The highway is hypnotic – not winding (no deviation), but occasionally undulating, up and down. Endless white dots are an arrow down the centre, an imperative leading straight to the horizon.

Hugh feels as if the white dots power this road. The van is on a conveyor-belt; the white links are the chain on which the mechanism turns. The van rolls forward, propelled by white lines, and to Hugh it seems that speed and destination have been pre-set. A process is in train, and no choice remains but to keep the van on course.

“Where are we heading?” asks Liam, from the back. Part-Irish, part-Aboriginal, Liam is low-voiced and sleepy-eyed. He trusts Hugh.

Hugh does look away from the road. “Wherever the white lines take us”, he says, and Liam, who is used to Hugh’s deadpan humour, nods.

“You’re not still thinking of Jim and Derry?”

Hugh thinks too much. He loves Liam for his intuition; Liam can always tell what’s on Hugh’s mind.

“Naah”, Hugh mumbles, after a pause. He knows he should throw out a throwaway line. Failing anything suitably ironic, he bites his lower lip. Liam leans forward; all he can see of Hugh’s face from behind is the harshness of the ridges marking brow, eye, cheekbone and jaw. Hugh is craggy, closed and worn – sensitive to too-close scrutiny. Right now he feels alone. He can tolerate Liam, but Hugh’s glad the rest of the band is asleep.

The van crests a slight rise. Hugh feels completely disconnected. He imagines he is dreaming, sitting in the care of a long rollercoaster, staring at ground far below. In the dream his hands are off the wheel. He’s waving at the ground, and the expression on his face is amazed.

Over the rise, on the upwards side of an oncoming hill, a roadtrain is ditched. All down both lanes of the bitumen behind it are black and grey skidmarks, coiled tight, doubling back almost over each other. Gouges savage the sides of the road; gravel has thrown up banks, furrowed troughs. As Hugh drives by he stares at the truckie, squatting beside his broken rear axel. The truckie looks scared. Half-blocking the road on the far side of the truck is a long, dented wheatbin. All down the road, twice the roadtrain’s length, are its entrails – spilt wheat, training blood betraying a wound.

Hugh can’t take his eyes off that truck, that wheat, that man. In the late afternoon glare he sees the wheat’s brightness not as gold or blood-red but as flame. He sees Derry and Jim, trapped in the cabin of the roadcrew’s truck: Derry unconscious, barely breathing, Jim screaming, desperately trying to bash through fire. The truck, glowing molten, roars in the heat. It lies on its side, by the side of a highway. Jim can’t get out, and even in his dreams, Hugh can’t reach him. They’ve been trapped there in Hugh’s mind a year now.

“Here”, says Liam, gently. “I’ll drive…”

 

For Steve Prestwich – Take me to the river (7 June 2014)

Note 14 December 2016: The ‘Five Dead Rock Star’ pieces were written when I was depressed. I’ve left them to stand in their original versions, but they could be written very differently.

I want to write about Steve Prestwich without writing about Cold Chisel and that’s not possible.

I wrote about Cold Chisel, a lot, between 1979 and 1984, when I was a young rock music writer immersed in Oz Rock – the Australian pub rock music scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s. I was a fan. I was more involved with Cold Chisel – its music, its band members, its trajectory – than with any other band I wrote about. Cold Chisel is why I moved to Sydney. Cold Chisel is the reason I became a rock writer.

There was a night, in suburban Melbourne in 1979, when I was in a speeding car with hoons – okay, young male tradies, only slightly drug affected – with the car radio playing. There were too many of us in that car. I was squatting in the well of the back passenger seat, curled up to fit, squeezed in. I could hear on the radio the opening notes of a song that stopped my heart. There was a keyboard line – the same notes a metal wind chime plays – and there was a percussive build, a drummer getting jittery with his high-hat. That drummer was Steve Prestwich and that band was Cold Chisel. The song was Conversations, from their second album, Breakfast at Sweethearts.

I interviewed the lead singer, Jim Barnes, and the keyboard player and songwriter, Don Walker, a few months later, as designated music reporter (only very slightly drug affected) for a student radio station.

It wasn’t a great interview – Jim later pointed out my interviewing style was seriously stilted – but next time the Sydney-based band were in town, I interviewed them again, this time as a writer for the indie rock magazine Roadrunner. I interviewed Don Walker and Steve.

Mostly I interviewed Don. The interview was at 2pm, in the hotel room they shared, and Steve hadn’t quite woken up to the day. He was awake: he just wasn’t out of bed, and he wasn’t clothed. In anything. Just sheets. He stayed under the sheets, mostly keeping quiet, while Don and I talked.

Don and Steve encouraged me to move to Sydney and Don Walker always encouraged my writing – my rock journalism and also, later, the creative writing (poetry and short stories) I published across the mid-‘80s. My friendship with Don Walker had highs and extreme lows. His support for my writing endeavours was constant.

But it’s Steve I’m writing about.

I learned from that hotel interview a little about Steve. I learnt his father had been a drummer who played at the Cavern, the Liverpool club where the Beatles built their following. I learnt he came from a large family of boys and had a lively – and sharp – sense of humour. I think I understood from the outset that Steve was a straight talker, a ‘what you see is what you get’ lad, with no time for posers.

Steve was always Steve. He didn’t waste energy on pretension. Not long after I moved to Sydney, I was in another speeding car with hoons – this time, Cold Chisel, heading back from a gig at the Dee Why Hotel on Sydney’s northern beaches – and once again, that car was too full. I was squeezed against the rear passenger door, seated alongside

Don Walker and his partner, rock writer Jenny Hunter-Brown. Steve was in the front passenger seat. The car radio was playing Top 40 soft pap: Babe, by Styx. The lyrics go like this:

Babe, I’m leaving, I must be on my way
The time is drawing near
My train is going, I see it in your eyes
The love, the need, your tears

Steve was making retching noises.

But I’ll be lonely without you
And I’ll need your love to see me through
Please believe me, my heart is in your hands
‘Cause I’ll be missing you

Steve by now had the passenger door open and was hanging out into the highway, poised to jump.

That was so Steve.

He was the guy who would chat with young fans, approachable and friendly, then break off mid-sentence to say,

“Whoa! Railroad tracks! Get a load of the metalwork on YOUR TEETH!”

Steve didn’t do tact.

When I had a one-night stand with the guitarist, Steve made it plain he thought it laughable. There was an awkward few minutes when he teased me backstage. Jim Barnes, whose relations with Steve could be combative, stepped in, demanding ‘What’s this about?”

“Steve’s giving me a hard time because I fucked Ian,” I snivelled.

Jim looked from me to Steve then back again.

“Jesus, Elly,” he snorted, “I wouldn’t fuck Ian. Do you want me to beat Steve up for you?”

It might be only night in my life I had men fight over me.

There was another night Steve stood over me, laughing. That was the night I accepted white powder from a support band and had a kind of psychotic collapse. I don’t know what I actually did, as I had (and have) little recall. It must have been massive, as the fall-out was horrific. What I do recall is sitting on a chair just outside the change-room, sobbing hysterically, with Cold Chisel’s soundman Gerry Georgettis trying to comfort me and Steve standing by: in my memory, laughing.

I’d like to think Gerry put me in a taxi but he didn’t: I know I was walking in stilettoes for two hours or more, with the sun rising over the Melbourne suburbs. I know that when I reached a friend’s house I hyperventilated for an hour or more and the people who looked after me say I turned blue.

That episode threw me. I was already tussling with the terrifying thought that the people I valued might not value me. That the people I thought were my friends, were not. For a long time, that image of Steve standing there, laughing, chilled me. Now when I think back, I acknowledge the fragmentary memories from that night might be inaccurate. I also recognise Steve laughing may well have been a default response to a ludicrous situation: whatever I had done was ridiculous, laughable – as ridiculous as fucking the lead guitarist.

This is not to say Steve was not sentimental. He believed in love. Real love, not the soft pap media drivel. Not long after we met he started going out with Jo-Anne, the woman he married, with whom he eventually had two children, Melody and Vaughan. Jo-Anne when I first met her seemed shy, which baffled me, as she was classically beautiful – tall, elegant, with high cheekbones. The two held hands. She sat on his lap. They nuzzled. Steve told me he believed in the wisdom of the phrase, “my other half”.

“Jo-Anne is that,” he said. “She is my other half.”

Steve wrote beautiful love songs. His melodic sense is often remarked on, but what I notice is the minor keys. Steve’s songs were wistful, poignant. They spoke of loss. Steve wrote Cold Chisel’s biggest hit single, Forever Now, and its most covered track, When the War is Over. With Don Walker, he wrote Flame Trees, a song about small towns and times gone by that I sing to myself, in the small town where I live.

I’ve never written a novel. But I have written an extended novella, and its opening line is “When the war was over…”

When the war was over, the true terror began.” Thank you, Steve.

In the mid-80s, when my poems began to be published in literary journals, Steve asked me if I could help him get some of his mother’s poetry published. He gave me a sheaf of her work. Freda’s poems were good. It was a simple matter of formatting them and sending them to literary journals. I was happy for Steve, and for Freda, that some appeared in print.

Steve and Cold Chisel parted ways during a disastrous European tour and in 1983 the band broke up. Fifteen years later they came together for a “reunion tour”, which blew up in an explosive fight between Jim and Steve. I saw every one of Cold Chisel’s farewell concerts, and I’ve twice seen Jim Barnes live as a solo artist in the 30 years since then, but I’ve never been to a live show by any of the other band members or listened to their post-Chisel music.

I regret that. I would have liked to accept Steve’s invitation to be in the audience when he played at the Basement in Sydney. Except that I live 950 kilometres away. I did suggest we might meet up when I visited Sydney one time. But Steve was living in New South Wales’ Southern Highlands by then, taking sensitive photographs of nature, listening to wide-ranging music, and making a life with a new love. We were Friends on Facebook, so I could see he was happy.

He could see I was not.

“You sound depressed,” he messaged via Facebook. “Are you okay?”

Not long after, I received a Facebook invitation to ‘Friend’ a second Steve Prestwich page. Steve explained in the accompanying note that he was setting up a page specifically for family and personal friends, separate from his public page where fans could post.

I teased him, telling him he’d finally grown pretensions.

A few weeks later when I logged on my pc, I saw a sidebar headline on a news site: Cold Chisel drummer dies. My heart seized up, like it did that night in 1979, when I heard the first notes of Conversations. Please God, I thought immediately, let it be one of the other drummers who filled in with Cold Chisel after Steve was sacked. Let it not be Steve.

It was Steve. News reports informed me he had died during surgery to remove a brain tumour. I learned for the first time that he’d had surgery for a brain tumour 18 years earlier, while I was living in London. I read that he’d suffered head pains while rehearsing for a planned Chisel reunion tour and had recognised the symptoms. Cold Chisel band members had been with him as he was wheeled into the operating theatre.

I can only imagine how Steve’s death impacted Don, Jim, Ian and Phil. I can’t begin to imagine its impacts on Melody, Vaughan, Jo-Anne and Victoria. I know I felt wrenching grief.

When Steve asked was I depressed, asked me what went on, I told him I felt I was at a crossroads. He responded that crossroads are a good place to be: you get to make choices, you get to journey, new horizons open up. I can’t say for sure those were his exact words, because after Steve died, I Unfriended his Facebook pages. I couldn’t bear Facebook’s yearly reminders each time it was his birthday. I didn’t realise that by Unfriending his page, I would lose the messages he’d sent me.

Nearly two years after Steve’s death, I was at a writers’ workshop. I hadn’t written a poem since 1987 – 25 years. We were given thirty minutes to write free-form, and I was not the least surprised to find that what I wrote was a poem, For Steve:

Time was, you set the rhythm.
You kept the beat.
Singing, all the time, your head
Nodding to a melody line.
Your feet forcing out that beat.
You kept
The best memories, the ones that made me
Laugh. And smile. And grow pensive.
And now
I cry for you. Cry me a river, jazzman.
Let that river run through
A cavern, where the beat boys
Burst into the night.
Take me to that river.

 

Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. By Daffy Duck. (10 June 2014)

Last week I was listening to a radio program where the guests being interviewed had both recently published memoirs. One person, radio broadcaster and Australian arts identity Sian Prior, had published a memoir exploring the issue of shyness through her personal experience and research. Her book is called Shy. The other, Bev Brock, had written what she sees as essentially a self-help book, titled Life to the Limit.

Besides being intelligent, adult women who are published authors, these two have this in common: they are former partners of famous men acclaimed as Australian cultural icons. Sian Prior was for nine years partner to Paul Kelly, the much-loved Melbourne-based singer-songwriter. Bev Brock was the long-time partner of motor racing hero Peter Brock; Bev adopted his surname and the couple had three children.

I knew Paul Kelly in the ‘80s. Not well, but enough. He was the brother-in-law – and for a time, the housemate – of a friend and neighbour. I’d interviewed him in my capacity as a rock music journalist and I’d reviewed his records. In the early ‘80s I was a regular at his band’s gigs, where I loved to dance and sometimes hang out with the band afterwards.

I never met Peter Brock but I did know one of his girlfriends. What she had to say about Peter confirmed the sour opinion I’d had of him since the mid-70s, when his second wife claimed he’d battered her from the outset of their marriage, leading to her suicide attempt.

The interviewer, ABC Radio’s Jon Faine, asked both authors challenging questions about, essentially, the ethics of writing about famous others. He grilled Sian Prior on why in her memoir she chose to give her ex a pseudonym rather than using his real name. They’re both public figures, most Australian readers will know who she means, so why not name him?

With a degree of graciousness I have to admire, Sian pointed out she gave pseudonyms to all her friends mentioned in the book. She pointed out that her book, Shy, is about shyness. If she were to use Paul Kelly’s name, people would assume it was primarily a memoir about their relationship, which it is not.

Bev Brock explained her book explored emotional issues and challenges and needed to be truthful. The truth was, Peter was a shit (I paraphrase).

I was surprised by how tough the questioning was, especially the questions put to Sian. People who disclose unpleasant aspects of our idols are often censured. But the reality is, we, the public – listeners, viewers or readers – experience a frisson when the shadow side is revealed. Hypocritically, we might wag the finger of reproof. But we listen up.

I was even more surprised when I went online at my local library’s website to request a copy of Sian’s book, Shy. It was released two weeks ago, and 22 people had logged a borrow request and were on the waiting list. I live in a small town. My small town has the nickname “Sleepy Hollow”. It’s possible 23 of us jumped at the chance to read a book about shyness immediately on its release, but I’m guessing we’re mostly motivated by prurience: a chance to peek inside Paul Kelly’s private life.

As I was listening to Sian and Bev, the program host interrupted the interview to report the death of another Australian icon, Doc Neeson, frontman of the band The Angels. I knew Paul Kelly only in passing, and Peter Brock only through hearsay, but Doc I’d known as a friend. I was prompted by news of Doc’s death to start writing a series of short memoir pieces I’d been considering for some time; over this past week I’ve written five short tributes to five people who I cared about deeply and who mattered in my life.

I think of these linked pieces as my Five Dead Rock Stars series. That’s sounds callous, and doubtless is. It’s a nod to my friend Vince Lovegrove, the fifth of my Dead Rock Stars, who planned to call his memoirs Twelve Angry Women.

Engaging with the writing, inevitably the ethics of writing about people who are famous arose. Sian and Bev wrote about intimates; I was writing about famous people I thought of as friends but whom others might say were acquaintances – certainly, there are many people better placed to write more insightful accounts of my subjects’ lives, having known them longer or more fully. My pieces were not biographical; they were personal reminiscences, and fragmentary.

There was a lot I left out. It wasn’t needed, or it didn’t fit. Or it was impertinent. Or best forgotten. Or I am not ready to write about it yet.

In writing about our experiences, we process them anew, and sometimes gain clarity. I read – then re-read – a paragraph I wrote about myself at 21, accepting a handful of white powder backstage, Angel Dust or PCP. I can’t remember much of the events of that night, but I remember trying to walk home, through suburban Melbourne, from the bayside red-light district St Kilda. I could have died that night. I could have died during that horrible aftermath of strangulated breathing and turning blue. I could have died – as another young female rock writer did, in Kings Cross in the ‘90s – if a rapist-killer had spotted me vulnerable in the night.

If I had died, the futures of the bands who played at that venue that night might have been very different.

Reading that paragraph, I remembered another occasion, in 1981. I was visiting a musician friend at the house he shared with his girlfriend and a couple of Class-A drug dealers. I wasn’t taking drugs; I did drugs on four occasions across a 12 year period and that night was not one of those four nights. Someone OD’d. I remember one of the other people present, not the musician, urging the others to dump the unconscious body in an alley. Whatever happened, it could not be linked to them.

Happily, I can report this suggestion was rejected. The suspected OD case was revived and life when on.

For obvious reasons, I’m not willing to name names when writing about this incident. But as I read my own account of the night I almost OD’d, the chilling realisation hit me that the people backstage that night might readily have dumped my body in an alley. I was writing about the dread I had at that time, the dread that people I thought were my friends, were not. As I read back what I’d written, I knew, and I knew that I knew then: Of course these people were not your friends – how could your “friends” have let you stagger off into the night, alone?

How could I have continued in contact with those people, knowing I knew? Knowing they didn’t care if I lived or died, as long as I didn’t die at their gig, backstage? Of course I must forget.

As I tossed and turned, literally, unable to sleep, remembering what I’d forgotten, I started getting feedback on the memoir blogs I’d posted. I got no comments whatsoever, from any one from that period, on the first three blogs. But the fourth one, the one which recounted the incident with the white dust, that one drew comments from two old friends.

They were angry comments.

I’d written about my reaction on hearing of the blog subject’s death: since we’re not naming names, let’s call him Mickey Mouse. I wrote rather histrionically – “self-dramatisation”, as one commenter opined – about my shock at logging onto a news site and seeing a headline reporting his death. Except the headline didn’t name him, not by his real name nor as Mickey Mouse. The headline referred to him as the drummer in x band (not x, let’s call them Bedrock, in honour of the Flintstones). There had been several Bedrock drummers, so for a moment I had the wild, savage hope it was not my friend who’d died, that it might be another. Let’s call that other Donald Duck. In my blog I used Donald Duck’s real name.

I am told the use of his real name was callous and indefensible. I was told I suffered moral blindness, a failure to imagine the pain his family and friends would suffer, when, inevitably, they read my blog.

I don’t see it, myself. For starters, who is actually reading my blog? I can count the comments on the fingers of one hand. More to the point, if a septuagenarian veteran muso is traumatised reading that, given the choice between his death and her friend’s, some stranger would rather he had died, just hand me a dose of white powder right now. I don’t know Donald Duck, but I strongly suspect he’s old enough and ornery enough to cope.

In writerly terms, using the name was a harsh counter-note to the sentimentalism immediately preceding and following. It’s discordant. It’s nasty. And I never said I was nice.

I have however removed the name. Not because I think the use of the name has magical properties that could harm the person named. Not because my friends called me names. I removed it because the piece was intended as a tribute to someone I thought I loved, and I did not want what I consider a nonsense issue to detract from that.

I removed it with regret. I think the paragraph, and the piece, is weakened by not having that moment of authentic nastiness.

I remain perplexed that people who have been important to me could read all that I’ve written this past week, without comment, read the incident where a young girl is abandoned while seriously drug-impaired (though they might discount this as self-dramatisation), yet a few paragraphs later hurl into moral paroxysm over two words: the real name of Donald Duck.

But I guess there are multiple categories of people, quite apart from cartoon characters. There are famous people, lovers, acquaintances, friends, and “friends”.

 

Backstage (1982)

never believe these people aren’t dangerous
They lie They betray the curve
of jaw neck shoulder
from you I wanted tenderness
Trust and dependence I recall the nights
spent waiting
in cyclindrical gas chambers, backstage
With the band The elite
this might be hell, this doomed this
Damned this Dachau I
can’t live can’t breathe this
Poison bitter this
this spited air

 

Vince Lovegrove. Legend. (8 June 2014)

Note 14 December 2016: The ‘Five Dead Rock Star’ pieces were written when I was depressed. I’ve left them to stand in their original versions, but they could be written very differently.

Vince Lovegrove told me once that he planned to write his memoirs and title them Twelve Angry Women. Only twelve? I asked.

Vince angered a lot of people in his life. He was confrontational. Combative. Phenomenally passionate, with an immense capacity both for love and hate. Vince valued loyalty and yet too many of his relationships – sexual or otherwise – ended badly. He believed in living life on the edge; life without adrenalin was no life at all.

Vince is remembered, rightly, for his massive contributions in two domains: he was a champion of Oz Rock, the Australian pub rock music scene and its bands who went on to success internationally; and he raised awareness of AIDS, becoming a public symbol of tragedy and hope. I remember him as a hero who first appeared in my life when I was age eight, and who, of all the people I knew in my teens and 20s, I most trusted, could say with certainty was solidly my friend.

I turned eight in 1969, when Vince was singing in a Perth-based pop group called the Valentines, sharing vocals with Bon Scott, future lead singer of AC/DC. I met Vince the summer of 1970, not long after he moved to Adelaide, when he was dating the woman who became his first wife: Helen Corkhill.

It’s strange, writing memoir pieces. Every so often, just as a life threatens to flatten into a chronicle of years and events, a name or an incident will come alive as I type, spring up with vitality, and make me pause, and smile. The thought ‘Helen Corkhill’ does that for me. Helen was glorious. She was a drop-dead gorgeous, strong Aussie sheila who hailed from Broken Hill, the mining town BHP built on flat red desert in the Outback, in far west New South Wales. She’d come to Adelaide to train as a nurse, forming a tight clique with a bunch of other gorgeous, glorious girls: among them, Gill Harrington and Gill’s Adelaide cousins, Mary and Ully Christie.

Mary had been one of my mother’s students. She baby-sat me and my sister. She became a close family friend. My parents liked to party, and Mary introduced into our lives a bunch of party people, among them Helen and Vince.

I remember Vince at a party, telling me earnestly as long-haired hipsters milled around, “You are way too clever for a child of eight. You are too clever by half. You are scary clever.”

In 1973 my family moved to Melbourne. Vince and Helen, with their baby, Holly, moved to Melbourne in 1978. Vince had been working as a rock journalist and producing and presenting music television and radio shows, including, that year, Australian Music to the World. In Melbourne, he produced the top-rating variety show, The Don Lane Show, and was youth issues reporter for A Current Affair.

But his marriage to Helen didn’t survive. I left home and moved to Sydney in late 1979, and early in 1980 (a year earlier than Vince’s Wikipedia entry states), Vince moved to Sydney too. Vince and I shared an overnight car ride between Melbourne and Sydney. We dissected the hit singles on the car radio. I liked Linda Ronstadt’s single from Mad Love, How do I make you? I loved Tom Petty’s Refugee. We fell silent as Martha Davis from The Motels sang their hit Total Control. We talked and talked and laughed a lot and bonded.

I hasten to point out the timing was coincidental. It was coincidence, again, that I rented a small flat in Paddington close to the Paddington townhouse Vince rented with his girlfriend Daina. But that did prove handy. I was often at Vince and Daina’s place, for company and morale-boosting, and I baby-sat Holly when a babysitter was needed.

In Sydney, Vince hung out with his rock scene mates who included Cold Chisel lead singer Jim Barnes and the other Chisel band members. In the early ’70s Vince and Helen ran a booking agency in Adelaide called Jovan, which managed AC/DC at that band’s inception and also managed the embryonic Chisel, at that time – in the words of rock journalist Anthony O’Grady – a “hard rock jukebox”. By early 1980, propelled by original material by keyboards player Don Walker, Chisel had two successful albums to their credit and were preparing to record the classic Oz Rock album, East.

Again by coincidence, Cold Chisel were among the few people I knew in Sydney who I had met prior to relocating. Vince tutored me in the back-stories – personalities and music industry politics – of the people I met as I started out as a rock writer. He helped me navigate some of the risks, steering me well clear of drug use and watching out for me as I fielded predators. Because Vince had my back, I felt able to stand up to bullying. Because Vince had my back, I was targeted less viciously, perhaps, than I might have been otherwise.
I do remember standing in the kitchen at Vince and Daina’s place with a group of people, drinking, while a record producer on the ascendant sneered at how I was dressed.

I threw it back at him. “My skirt is $18 from Target. My shoes are $10. The shirt is from K-Mart. The earrings are $300 from Manila.”

Vince thought that was hilarious.

At about that time Bon Scott died. Vince loved Bon. After the Valentines, they were bandmates again in Adelaide, in the Mount Lofty Rangers, then there was the Jovan-AC/DC relationship. I remember the night we heard Bon was dead. It hit Vince hard.

When Vince’s relationship with Daina ended, he moved to a dilapidated top floor flat on or just off Womerah Avenue, near Kings Cross. He was rock music columnist for the tabloid newspaper, The Sun. I was there with Vince one day when I heard the wooden stairs that led up to his flat creaking as a visitor climbed up to join us. I heard the visitor sing, soft and low, no hurry, her voice languid molasses. I was startled by that voice, so distinctive. I stared at Vince. He was ready: he’d anticipated the question.

“That’s my new girl singer,” he said. “Her name is Chrissy Amphlett.”

Chrissy became the lead singer of the band Divinyls, who were managed by Vince in their early years. In her autobiography Pleasure and Pain, Chrissy writes at length about how Vince influenced the Divinyls’ sound and stage act. He believed rock’n’roll should be explosive, should always feel threatening, never safe. He insisted Divinyls gave their guts, every time. Vince’s drive and aggression doubtless took its toll on individual band members. But it got them to America and it bred hits.

In the States, Divinyls were signed to Chrysalis Records. Vince got involved with a Chrysalis publicist. I spent a few months in Los Angeles in 1982 and Vince’s friend, Eliza, was hospitable. She moved to Australia to work for Divinyls with Vince but it didn’t work out, professionally or romantically. She saw herself as a skilled professional who’d been demoted to answering phones. On his home turf, Vince’s macho traits were less attractive. By late 1983, Eliza had a new man, a young New Yorker called Chad or Chip or Chuck, and Vince was increasingly appealing to me to divert them away from him, to keep them occupied socially. I tried. It was complicated by Chad or Chip’s occasional violence. When Cold Chisel split and did a final tour, I was not thrilled at once again being asked to baby-sit, this time for Eliza and Chad/Chip. On New Years’ Eve 1984 I abandoned Eliza at a beachside pub, at a round table of drunken journalists. She never spoke to me again.

I worked for Divinyls with Vince myself, for one day. At the end of that day we tacitly agreed I had no future answering phones.

Vince’s relationship with Eliza overlapped with the early phase of his relationship with his second wife, a thin brunette New Yorker who called herself Suzi Sidewinder: Sidewinder, both for the venomous rattlesnake and for the short range air-to-air missile. Suzi had danced with New York club act Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

Vince was entirely enamoured of Suzi and once she moved to Australia, we stopped being close. I found her abrasive and I thought in her company he was doing too many drugs. I might have been wrong. One time when I was climbing William Street, up towards Kings Cross, I saw them in my favourite pizza shop, waiting to collect their takeaway pizza. I tried to engage in what I considered normal conversation, but what met me was glazed eyes, giggles, and that odd knowing stare that says, “I know what you’re up to. Don’t think for a moment I trust you.”

Next time I saw Vince I remarked on his strange behaviour. He countered that I was the one who’d been strange.

Vince and Suzi had a child, Troy, and married. The bride wore black. Within months, I was hearing gossip. Suzi at a party, asked about her baby, flinging back, “Vince’s baby. Not mine.”

After Troy was born, Suzi had shingles. If you’ve had chicken pox, chances are the virus is lying dormant and may be reactivated as shingles, a painful rash, at a point in your life when your immune system is vulnerable. Usually in old age. It is not usual for a healthy young woman to have shingles. Testing showed Suzi was not a healthy woman. She was diagnosed in 1985 with HIV/AIDS. Further testing showed Troy had HIV/AIDS too.

Vince told me Suzi felt gut-wrenching guilt over Troy’s condition. Her seeming rejection of her baby was the grief of a woman who thinks she’s killed her kid. In 1985, AIDS was thought of as a ‘Gay plague”, confined to male homosexuals. Many people saw it as a consequence of an immoral lifestyle, of promiscuity and, specifically, anal sex. The other high risk group was intravenous drug users. Vince and Suzi rejected any suggestion Suzi injected drugs. As one of the first women diagnosed with AIDS in Australia, Suzi presented a face of AIDS that shocked the heterosexual community: a young mother – a beautiful girl connected to celebrity, her life ahead of her.

Suzi’s life after diagnosis was short and painful. I visited Vince in the large house moneyed friends had rented for them. (Some of their friends, like Jim Barnes, were generous. Others disappeared.) Vince and I talked for a long time. I was hesitant to go upstairs and visit Suzi; Vince told me she did not want strangers to see her as she was.

Suzi died in mid-1987. A documentary, Suzi’s Story, was screened on Network Ten and caused widespread reaction, from concern to consternation. The documentary won awards.

At about that time the notorious ‘Grim Reaper’ AIDS awareness advertising campaign ran, delivering the message that anyone was vulnerable. As it happened, during that period I knew the advertising director who created the ‘Grim Reaper’ campaign, through our mutual involvement with a seminar-based, personal effectiveness organisation in Sydney. I knew Vince was flailing, caring for Troy and trying to think through what his own future might hold, so I invited Vince to an information evening held by this organisation to promote an upcoming “transformational” seminar. Vince came simply because I asked. Because we were friends.

Vince was broke and embroiled in legal actions. He was doing his best by Troy and it was killing him. Troy spent countless hours in hospitals, undergoing countless medical tests and procedures. Vince told me Troy would scream when they headed to hospital; what Troy went through looked to Vince like torture. Troy had contracted AIDS in utero and there were few similar cases in Australia. Vince’s baby was effectively a medical guinea-pig.

The public interest in Suzi’s Story meant people recognised Vince in the street. People he didn’t know were constantly coming up to him and sharing their responses, sometimes clumsily. People wrote to him. Some saw him as a hero for his fundraising efforts on behalf of AIDS research and for going public with his family’s tragedy to raise AIDS awareness. Some saw him as a hero for attempting, as a widower, to care for a child born with AIDS. He received marriage proposals by mail.

I asked Vince whether he planned to continue his involvement in AIDS activism after Troy died. Vince was adamant: once Troy died, he wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted his life back. If he couldn’t have back the life he’d had, he wanted a new one. He wanted to go somewhere far away.

Troy lived longer than expected but died in 1993. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) screened a documentary called A Kid Called Troy. Vince wrote a book, A kid called Troy: The moving journal of a little boy’s battle for life. Once that was completed, he was a man unanchored. Fortunately, his friends cared.

Jimmy Barnes, who had established a successful solo career after Cold Chisel split, invited Vince to manage a European tour for him. This was generous of Jim but proved confronting for Vince, who told me years later he was shocked, on the tour, by the state his friend “Barnsey” was in. It’s no secret, now, that Jim descended into a hell of drug and alcohol misuse before getting sober in 2001, a sobriety he’s maintained. In the early ‘90s, Vince saw his friend in a state of self-loathing. Vince didn’t want that to be him. He wanted his new life.

So in 1994, Vince moved to London, where he returned to writing about music. I’d moved to London in 1992 but I didn’t learn Vince was living there until 1998, when I saw articles he’d written about Michael Hutchence’s death. Vince was writing an unauthorised biography of the INXS singer, which came out in 1999. We had some long phone conversations, where Vince talked through how he saw Michael’s life and death; we’d both known Michael and this was personal. The Hutchence biography came out in 1999 and resulted in immediate law suits initiated by Michael’s partner Paula Yates. In his book, Vince contended that Paula Yates ensnared Michael by falling pregnant. (I don’t recall this as one of the “Michael life theories” he floated with me. I would have warned him off.) The libel case was settled, with an undisclosed sum paid by the publishers in Sydney and London and by the UK tabloid, The Mail on Sunday, which had serialised extracts.

Beyond discussing Jimmy Barnes and Michael Hutchence, Vince and I talked about his life in London. He was newly single, his third wife having left him the previous year. He joked, “I’m always left with the baby!” Lilli-Rae was maybe three.

This was when I heard about the Twelve Angry Women.

“How come all the women I get involved with turn out to be psychos?” Vince demanded, with what sounded like genuine perplexity.

We discussed meeting up. But we didn’t meet. I’d heard something in our conversations that made me worry Vince might hope we’d get together romantically, which had never happened in the past and was not something I saw in our future. I did not want to turn psycho. For his part, Vince might have heard the same echo down the phone line, and might have drawn the same conclusion. He was 50, fat, bald – no longer the brutally handsome heart-throb.

Vince returned to Australia with Lilli-Rae and settled near idyllic Byron Bay in northern New South Wales. Holly and her son Arlo lived nearby. In 2011, Holly gave birth to Marlon, a second grandson for Vince.

In late March 2012, as I was sitting in an office reception area waiting to negotiate a return to work plan with my employer, following an injury, I flicked through a newspaper and saw a headshot of Vince staring out at me. Vince was dead. His Kombi Van had left the road, rolled and exploded in flames in the small hours of the previous morning. Positive identification was yet to be made.

Vince’s death was reported in the media. His loss did not go unremarked. But somehow, to me, it did not feel enough.

Vince was bigger than that. I felt like a bigger noise should be made at his passing, a much louder keening.

So here’s my attempt:

Vince Lovegrove was a legend of Australian rock music. He started as a pop singer, managed bands who remain Oz Rock icons, knew everyone who had any kind of profile in ‘70s or ‘80s Australian rock, had his byline as a rock writer in mass circulation publications, and produced landmark music television shows. In the troughs between successes he always returned to writing about music. When he died, at age 65, he was due to start work in a few days’ time at a small regional newspaper, with a minuscule daily circulation.

Vince could be pugnacious. He laughed like a pirate. He was foolish and wise, all at once.

He was loved.

 

Someone Famous, With Girl – for Michael Hutchence (5 June 2014)

Michael Hutchence asked unexpected questions. Like, “How do you say, ‘I love you!’ in Mandarin?”

“My” Michael – Michael as I knew him – was not the mythic Michael of the tabloids. “My” Michael was a sweet, rather whimsical boy with cosmos-encompassing curiosity. When I think of Michael, I think of Snufkin, the character in Finnish author Tove Janssen’s Moomintroll books. Snufkin has a round head, shaggy brown hair and big brown eyes, and that’s how “my” Michael looks in memory: a round face on a stalk neck.

Snufkin was a wanderer, seeking spring and summer meadows: that was Michael. Snufkin was a provocateur, baiting authority and despising convention. As did Michael.

I first heard INXS at a live gig at Sydney’s Stagedoor Tavern, just after INXS moved from Perth to Sydney and just before the Stagedoor Tavern was closed down. INXS were bottom of a four-band bill. I couldn’t see the stage so I couldn’t see the band (the crowd was packed for the headliners, The Angels), but they sure sounded good. I was writing for a rock magazine called Roadrunner and I marked INXS as a band for me to interview.

The interview took place in February or March 1980, about the time I started writing for RAM (Rock Australia Magazine). I didn’t write the first INXS piece in RAM, but my article ran in Roadrunner, and a few years later I wrote RAM’s first cover story on INXS. Some of the more sensational Michael quotes from that RAM cover story were lifted by Sydney’s tabloid newspaper, The Sun.

In early 1980, INXS were still playing small venues. I interviewed them in a joint off Oxford Street where capacity must have been less than 100. The entire band sat around a table, eager to talk about their music. At that time an interview must have been a novelty. Michael’s curiosity showed up as alertness. He sat with spine long, long neck; not the languid, mannered stance familiar in later years. But whatever the body language, Michael’s physicality always spoke to me of dance. He stood, he sat, he moved like a dancer. On stage, he danced. Michael had vitality and grace.

He also had bad skin. When people started talking about Michael as a sex symbol, I was initially nonplussed. He was a skinny kid with pockmarks. Recently I watched again a music video from 1981, “starring” Michael: Speed Kills, written by Cold Chisel’s Don Walker for the soundtrack to the film Freedom, with Michael on lead vocals. In that clip I see the emergence of the “mythical” Michael – the cool dude with white hot sexuality. I didn’t see it at the time.

At the time, when we sat in that small dark room and talked, Michael was barely through his teens and was dressed like a fan of French new wave cinema, in a Breton fisherman’s long-sleeved t-shirt with horizontal stripes. He told me he was fascinated by post-War bohemianism, especially the literary and artistic bohemianism of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. I thought of Julie Christie, before she became a film star, a boho chick living with actor (and art school grad) Terence Stamp. Michael would have loved Julie Christie.

He talked textiles. Michael’s father Kell had been a textiles trader in Hong Kong. Michael loved colour and texture and trends, so he loved textiles. And he loved Hong Kong. He loved noise and close-pressed flesh and variety and change. Bewilder me, he beseeched. Fascinate me.

Michael could be mischievous, if I may use that word to cover a multitude of, literally, sins. In that first interview, he brought up one of my Roadrunner reviews that he said had made him laugh. It kicked off with some cruel comments about a band who at that time shared the same booking agency as INXS, a brother-sister combo called the Numbers. I liked the Numbers. I just couldn’t resist the impulse to be bitchy about their platinum blonde good looks. Michael had a bit of bitch in him too. Andrew Farriss, the INXS keyboard player and main writer, did not approve. Andrew never took to me, at all.

What sealed it for Andrew was that cover story I wrote in 1984. INXS were touring in support of their album The Swing. I had reviewed their previous album, Shabooh Shoobah, for RAM, and I’d loved it, so RAM’s then-editor Greg Taylor sent me off to Canberra with a specific brief: get an interview with Michael Hutchence.

That may have been the beginning – or an early instance – of that issue that plagues so many successful bands: the focus on the frontman, eclipsing other band members.

As the band and I travelled together to Canberra, I mused on the outfit saxophonist and guitarist Kirk Pengilly’s girlfriend Karen was wearing. It was white and flouncy with pastel trim. To me it looked like a cake decoration, perhaps a wedding cake. In the published article, I reported that reflection. I didn’t know Karen was an aspiring fashion designer, who succeeded in a career as an accessories designer. After publication, I heard Andrew felt my comment was disrespectful.

Michael didn’t have those inhibitions. Michael truly did not have a lot of inhibitions. The Canberra gig was wild; it took months for me to figure out how to remove the Bundaberg rum and coke stain from the drink spilled on my favourite top. It took hours for Michael to come down from his post-performance high, sufficient to consider an interview. By the time I turned the tape recorder on, we were both stripped naked, in our separate beds, in the hotel room we shared that night. For me as a rock writer, it was unprecedented, and frankly unexpected.

That’s when the question was asked: “How do you say ‘I love you!’, in Mandarin?”

Michael was in love. He was dating Michele Bennett, who had studied Mandarin at Melbourne University. Michele was exquisite and Michael was besotted. That did not preclude other flings. But I found it touching, and Michael and I did not fling.

I went round one time to the home Michael and Michele shared with New Zealand singer Jenny Morris, who became an INXS backing singer. The boys were ready to party. The girls were upstairs: Jenny singing, her voice melodic, honeyed and seductive; Michele was tweaking perfection, putting on her makeup.

“This can take hours,” Michael grimaced. He looked and sounded proud.

When INXS were recording their international breakthrough album Kick, I bumped into Michael on Williams Street, the arterial road leading up to Kings Cross. He invited me to hang out with him at the recording studio, Rhinoceros Studios in inner East Sydney, the hippest studios in town. Slack hours in a studio recording an album can hang heavy: an hour of studio downtime lasts longer than an hour of standard time. But I’m not sure that’s the reason Michael invited me. I’m not certain he was enjoying extended downtime with his fellow band members just at that point. They were there, except Andrew, but Michael mostly talked with me.

As I was leaving, I passed Andrew Farriss in the corridor.

“Hi!” I said brightly. “It’s Elly!”

“I know who you are,” growled Andrew, brushing past me.

What did Michael talk about, that day?

He talked about romance. He talked about sex. He was intrigued by the concept of designer baby sperm donations. He was interested in donating to a sperm bank – a sperm bank, I think hypothetical, that specialised in supplying sperm from donors with outstanding talents or attributes. He talked about who and what he found attractive. Princess Stephanie of Monaco. I couldn’t see it, but to Michael she was “Hot!”

He told me his theory of romance. Whether that was a theory of the moment or a life-long perspective, I cannot say. But Michael told me he saw romance as a masqued ball. The dancers are in costume. They circle each other, flirt, retreat, flirt some more. They engage in stylised games to hold each other’s interest. The first one who drops their mask, loses.
Game over.

Early in 1985, I met up with Michael in a Kings Cross night club and we talked poetry. I was preparing to self-publish a small book of poems. I told Michael I couldn’t sleep, pages of typeset proofs scrolled relentlessly through my mind. Michael had a talent, among his many talents, for appearing to listen intently while quite possibly screening out much that was said. He did ask questions about my poems. But the question, unexpected, that struck me was this: “Am I in there?”

In truth, several famous Oz rock identities were “in there”, in my poems. Michael was not.

It was too late to write a Michael poem, a poem for “my” Michael, to include in my collection. But I did write a poem for him, which was never published.

I called it Someone Famous, With Girl.

stops at the sound of
his name called by
a stranger – then
recalls
who she is and forgets
himself: it’s you
he smiles (he always means it)
he laughs (and feels abashed)
her eyes mirror his
she is his (they always are)
they are both young
veterans
they both can
remember
moments of belief, of the only kind
he’ll know
all strangers
his kind. He is
kind, or he could be, this singled out
outsider
he takes her
camera and asks

Am I in there?

 

From W for W (22 May 2017) – When Michael died 

One morning late in 1997 I arrived at my Knightsbridge workplace – the office with W emblazoned above the reception desk – and the tabloids on the foyer table screamed that Michael Hutchence was dead. Found hanged behind a hotel room door. I don’t remember much of that day but I do remember getting home at about 7.30pm and crying hysterically for two hours.

Michael had been an acquaintance, possibly a friend, of mine. He was a year or so older than me and we’d arrived in Sydney at much the same time. In my first week in Sydney I saw Michael and his band, INXS, play at the bottom of a four-band bill at the Stagedoor Tavern. I say “saw”, but the Stagedoor was so crowded, so dark, I couldn’t see the stage.

I became a rock music writer, Michael became a rock star. I interviewed him when the band were unknowns, then when they achieved national fame; I hung out with him while INXS recorded their international breakthrough album Kick, I met up with him occasionally and we nattered.

I wrote him a poem, at his request: Someone Famous, With Girl (1985)

In 2014 I wrote a blog about Michael that stops at that poem and bears its title.

The last time I saw Michael was New Year’s Eve 1988. I was at a party at a Sydney harborside mansion. Michael was there, with model-actress Virginia Hey. I was femme’d up – stiletto heels, a satin bubble skirt, ‘90s long hair – and we exchanged formal nods. My heels sank into the lawn and mosquitoes bit my shins.
As INXS conquered the U.S. charts, and as stories about Michael’s jet-setting lifestyle cluttered the tabloids, I came to see Michael as symbolic of “success”: Michael was the one who’d made it. I envied him his home in the south of France, his London pad, his famous friends. I envied him the Good Life with the Beautiful People. Even when paparazzi ambushed him and Paula Yates that notorious Sunday morning on their weekend ‘getaway’ (as if), even as I grew anxious for his well-being, I still saw Michael as representing success, and I still saw success as luxury and celebrity.

That night, after Michael’s death, I had a nightmare that another of my rock star acquaintance-friends, a peer of Michael’s, Marc Hunter, had hanged himself too. (Marc died a few months later, of throat cancer; I didn’t know he was ill). I wore black to work the next day, and a small cross, and Liza Minnelli sad eyes, and I told my boss and another workmate about my nightmare. Michael’s death was all over the papers, or should I say, the papers were all over Michael’s death. I worked at a media planning agency, with 50 young men, two young female media planners, and four admin support staff (all female). Almost all staff were aged under 30. There were jokes about rock star deaths.

Rock star deaths proved such a hit that our Xmas Party Social Committee decided to make that the Xmas party theme: Dead Pop Stars. The 33 year old who headed up the committee announced his intention to go as Michael Hutchence, in blue face, with a rope around his neck. I said that if Dead Pop Stars was the theme, I – the marketing director – would not attend the Xmas party. The theme was amended simply to Pop Stars.

My boss told me other staff complained I was making something out of nothing. They didn’t believe I’d known Michael Hutchence. My boss told me to buck up. I decided to use the shock of Michael’s death to make changes in my life. I took to jogging around the Serpentine in Hyde Park during my lunch break, a short-lived practice.

On about my second run I emerged from the lift and stepped into the office foyer as my boss was waiting to take the lift down. I glared at him; I was embarrassed at being seen in lycra shorts.

My boss asked, “You look at me as if you hate me. But I’m the only friend you have around here.”

 

Marc Hunter – Forever Young (6 June 2014)

I understand Marc Hunter could be cruel. I remember him for his kindness.

We met cute and we ended poignant. Marc’s parting words to me were among the kindest words I’ve ever been gifted.
But that was far down the track, ten years or more after Marc and I first met in late 1979.

I was 18 and I had just moved to Sydney from Melbourne. I was slightly overweight and not the least bit cool. That’s as it should be, as Marc knew what it was to be a fat teen and I don’t think he ever gave a rats about cool.

He was sitting on a bench by a bus stop on the overpass above William Street, where Victoria Street crosses Darlinghurst Road. These days the Cross City Tunnel toll road runs beneath this spot, and a high-rise building asserts itself where blue sky once was. The area immediately around the bus stop was dusty, with some rubble: a neglected spot with a semi-derelict bus shelter where junkies would shoot up.

As I walked across the overpass, on the pedestrian pavement, I saw Marc Hunter and I recognised him at once. Marc had been the lead singer of Dragon, a New Zealand band who achieved chart success in the late ‘70s. Like almost every other teen in Australia, I watched the TV show Countdown every Sunday evening, and I knew Marc Hunter as a very tall, willowy exotic, with strong features and fierce green eyes, whose costume was influenced by ‘70s glam rock and prefigured the New Romantics of the early ‘80s. Which is to say, Marc dressed somewhere between Pirates of the Caribbean and the Matrix. (On this day he was dressed down.) I knew the words to his hits, I could name bandmates, I could visualise their publicity posters. I hadn’t seen them play live. I didn’t yet know that a Dragon live show was stronger, more menacing and wilder than their pop hits might suggest.

I did know that Marc was no longer with Dragon. I knew he had been sacked by the band, who included his older brother Todd, in consequence of his drug and alcohol abuse and his unpredictable behaviour. I knew he’d released a solo album called Fiji Bitter. I knew he had spent some months in London, and travelling, and that he had only very recently returned. It’s possible I’d read an update in the paper that week.

So I had the advantage. I knew something about Marc Hunter.

What he saw was a young girl in boots, striding towards him.
As I walked past, he said, “You’re very pretty.”

That stopped me in my tracks.

“If you were offered money, would you pose for Playboy?”

I considered, watching him.

“It’s just that we have a friend, a friend of our band, who was offered money to pose for Playboy.”

Playboy had launched its Australian imprint in February 1979. Media magnate Kerry Packer secured the rights and launched it as Australian Playboy, through Australian Consolidated Press (ACP), his magazine stable.

I gave the proposition a moment’s thought. “No,” I replied.

“Why not?” Marc asked me.

“Because I don’t know who I want to be later in life. I might want to go into politics” I said.

Marc reflected on this, and smiled.

I don’t know who raised the prospect of sex. Probably Marc. That would be a typical Marc gambit: say something outrageous, throw someone way off guard, and see how they react, how they reassemble.

I reacted the way I always have: by going on the offensive.

“If you want to have sex, we can do it here and now,” I countered, doing my update of a film noir femme. “Look. There’s a bus shelter.”

Marc backed right down. “My friends are collecting me any minute,” he said. “Their car will be along any minute now. Perhaps another time.”

We nodded at each other, and I walked on.

The next night I was partying at the Manzil Room, the legendary (and tiny) Kings Cross venue that served as a late night hang for musos. I think I was with Cold Chisel band members. Marc walked in with his partner Annie Burton, a well-known Sydney-based rock music writer, whose flatmate at the time, Jenny Hunter-Brown, another well-known rock writer, was Todd Hunter’s ex-wife and had recently begun a relationship with Cold Chisel’s Don Walker.

Marc was wearing a jaunty peaked cap, a Robin Hood hat. As I was introduced to him, he doffed his cap and gave me a slight bow. His eyes sparkled. Marc loved games. Score 1 to me.

I became a rock music writer. Dragon – without Marc – split up in December 1979. In 1982 the band re-formed – with Marc – to pay off debts. In 1984 they released an album, Body and the Beat, that was worthy of their talents. The single, Rain, was a joyous burst of energy co-written by Todd Hunter and his partner Johanna Piggott, who had played together over 1980/81 in the indie pop band XL Capris. (Todd had sounded me out, briefly, one night in the Manzil Room, for a job as the band’s wardrobe mistress.)

In 1985, keyboards player Paul Hewson died.

I did not like Paul Hewson. We had clashed. I’m not going into that story here. What was significant to this story, my story of Marc Hunter as I knew him, is that Paul’s death affected Marc deeply.

After Paul’s death the tabloids went wild. Perhaps not coincidentally, the next Dragon single was Speak No Evil. Reviewing that single, I pondered in print: “Is Marc Hunter going to sound 22 forever?”

Next time we met Marc remembered. “Thank you, “ he said. After his death, from throat cancer, at age 44, a collection of his solo recordings was released under the title Forever Young.

I was assigned to write a cover story on Dragon for RAM (Rock Australia Magazine). I put a lot of effort into writing that story. I had, if anything, an over-abundance of material, given Dragon’s astonishing – and tragic – history. And Marc had opened his heart to me. He had talked with little prompting about Paul Hewson, the band’s earliest days, their hardships, their reputation, their aspirations, his temperament. He spoke with passion. I remember him saying, with feeling, that rock’n’roll is designed to strip performers of poise. His heroes were the great interpreters of American popular song, performers like Ella Fitzgerald, whose poise seemed effortless.

The Hunter brothers contributed two pieces of life advice I continue to use as touchstones. The occasion was a Dragon gig at Sydney University. I had arrived early, backstage, and I did not know their road-crew. I felt their crew were disrespectful to me. When Todd arrived, I bleated a protest.

“Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke,” Todd advised.

Marc arrived. He looked at me appraisingly. “Stick out your tits and walk.”

When I feel someone’s trying to put me down, I recall that line: “Stick out your tits and walk.”

There are things I’m not including as I write. There were moments between Marc and his partner I witnessed, and moments between Marc and his girlfriends, that are nobody’s business. What was curious to me is that Marc seemed unconcerned when I blundered into his personal conversations. He was alternately completely calm, or amused.

The only time Marc savaged me was once in 1988, and he was so right. I had become embroiled in a quasi-cult, a “personal effectiveness” organisation. Participants in one of that organisation’s programs were assigned the task of creating a project as a vehicle for their personal “transformation” – as a means to “breakthrough”. Several participants threw their energies into a project designed to bring together members of Sydney’s Indigenous communities with white Sydneysiders. The key event was a fundraiser rock concert headlined by Dragon.

I danced all afternoon. The gig was great. Everything was cool until I mentioned backstage how (as I saw it) that concert had come about. How some of its organisers were part of this quasi-cult.

Marc never cared for cool. He exploded.

“You mean, this is part of SOMEONE’S FUCKING SELF-TRANSFORMATION?” he roared.

He was furious. He lashed out at me as an idiot for being involved with that group. Like I said, he was so right.

I’m glad that was not the end of our story.

Eighteen months later, my life had imploded. The quasi-cult had wreaked a reverse transformation. Instead of breakthrough, I was in massive breakdown. I was a danger to myself. I made painful plans to return to Melbourne.

This was the hardest time of my life – it has competition, but I think it was the hardest. I gained a lot of weight and was acutely depressed.

A short while before the sale of my home was completed and my belongings packed, I walked along a pavement and saw, through glass windows, Marc seated at a restaurant table, watching me walk towards him. He waved me across. He gestured for me to come inside and join him.

Marc was eating lunch with a friend who worked for a top booking agency, a woman I didn’t know. We had a conversation that felt odd, with this woman across the table, oblivious as she was to the emotional subtext. I was dissolving in the slough of alienation, evaporating.

Tenderly, Marc reached across the table and took my hands in his. He drew my hands towards him.

“So highly strung,’ he crooned. He paused. “So highly strung.”

Then, still holding my hands, he said: “You are a fine-bred race-horse.”

I nodded, unconvinced.

He held eye contact, and repeated softly: “You are a fine-bred race-horse. Never forget that.”

I’ve never forgotten.

 

Cheap Poem, Winking – for Doc Neeson (4 June 2014)

Note 14 December 2016: The ‘Five Dead Rock Stars’ pieces were written at a point where I was depressed. I’ve left them stand in their original versions, but they could be written very differently.

I never slept with Doc Neeson. Not that he wasn’t a charismatic man. Not that we didn’t share moments that felt intimate.

Doc is dead. Doc died today. It’s been months coming, but I cannot say the words. I hadn’t seen him since 1985. My memories of who Doc was are necessarily subjective, and partial to the point of being atomic fragments. But Doc made a powerful impact in my life. As I grow old – my vanity says, as I grow older – I realise the men I loved are the men I never slept with. Doc was, is, someone I loved.

We met in August 1979. I was enrolled at Monash University but spending all my time at the student radio station, locked in a DJ booth, smoking dope and spinning the first LP by The Police. I had fallen into doing radio interviews with touring bands, who included Talking Heads and Doctor Feelgood but also Australian acts like Cold Chisel and the Angels. The touring Australian bands stayed at the Diplomat Hotel in St Kilda and played gigs at St Kilda’s Crystal Ballroom. My Angels interview at the Diplomat was with Angels’ drummer Buzz Bidstrup (then calling himself “Buzz Throckman”), and, I think, Angels’ lead guitarist Rick Brewster and bassist Chris Bailey.

I don’t think Rick’s brother, Angels’ rhythm guitarist John Brewster, was there that day. I’d be confident Doc was not – but then, when and where did he tell me about his interest in the Black Theatre of Prague, its lighting effects and puppetry, and about his time at Flinders University, where, during Doc’s student days, my mother was a senior lecturer in Sociology?

Somewhere in a box in my parents’ garage there still exists the cassette of that interview. I played it to a man a few months later who commented quietly, “You sound scared.”

I showed up at the Diplomat lugging the biggest, clumsiest cassette recorder ever. It had two mini speakers – and by mini, I mean the size of wombats. Buzz and Rick were curious. “Are you setting up for feedback?” Rick asked. Buzz pulled a mini-cassette recorder out of his jeans’ pocket, the size of a cigarette pack: “Have you thought about getting one of these?”

Buzz tells me he remembers that interview. I don’t flatter myself when I say I’m not surprised.

Maybe I first met Doc backstage at a gig, maybe that night. I don’t remember at all. The first Angels’ gig I actually remember was at the Stage Door Tavern in Sydney, the first week after I moved from Melbourne to Sydney in September 1979. The bill was all bands booked through the hot agency, Dirty Pool: INXS, who’d moved to Sydney about that time – must have been one of their very first gigs; Matt Finish, whose lead singer and writer Matt Moffitt was a talent who achieved minor success but died young; Mi-Sex, a New Zealand band then enjoying a Top 40 hit (“Com-pu-pu-pu-pu-pu-com-pu-ter GAMES!”); and, top of the bill, the Angels.

I’ve just realised all four of those bands’ frontmen are now dead.

The Angels at the time were the top live act in the country. They had broken through with their 1978 album Face To Face and were touring in support of their third LP, No Exit. My favourite Angels’ songs date from those albums: After The Rain, Take A Long Line, Straight Jacket, Love Takes Care, I Ain’t the One… everything on Face To Face. Their live show was extraordinary, with Doc’s legendary frenetic performance and its dark twin in Rick Brewster’s entirely impassive figure, nonchalantly tossing off riffs that rang in my head and rebounded in crystalline spirals. For me, Rick’s guitar was musically analogous to the castles of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria; I think of Rick’s playing as baroque on speed.

Though speed was not his drug of choice. (In about 1986 I met Rick in the street and he claimed not to recognise me. We’d slept together a few times, so I was stung. “Must be the drugs,” I’d laughed. “What drugs?” replied Rick. “I don’t do drugs.”)

Doc’s intense kinetics and Rick’s cardboard cut-out guitarist were flooded and swathed and swamped and lashed by vertical bars of blue and white lighting, then red, then yellow I think too, constantly changing, owing much to experimental theatre and German Expressionist film. The Angels’ lighting man was a rangy, laconic introvert named Ray Hawkins, who had done a university thesis on ‘Sydney arts bohemians of the 1930s and ‘40s”. I asked him – backstage, at a Hitmen gig – what that had involved. “Talking to a lot of old artsy Sydney bohemians,” Ray deadpanned. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “They are terrific.”

I realise I am now the approaching the age Ray’s Sydney bohemians were when he interviewed them. The rock musicians I met in 1979 have reached that age, if they’ve lived this long.

The Stagedoor Tavern that first night was crowded so close it was hard to move. I couldn’t see the young Michael Hutchence perform, couldn’t see any of his INXS bandmates: the crowd obscured the stage. I could hear Michael, though. I never had the best ears of the rock critics based in Sydney at that time, or the “best” musical “taste”, but I knew at once Michael and INXS were special.

That night, the Angels ruled. After the show, I stood near the mixer desk and watched as band members filed out through the audience (why would they do that? Memory is nothing but questions!) I remember what I wore: black suede strappy stilettoes; a tight black pencil skirt, from Target; a black short sleeve shirt; beaten gold hoop earrings from the Philippines; a lot of black kohl around my eyes, and copper-red lipstick. When Rick Brewster walked towards where I stood I stared him straight in the eyes, without smiling, almost hostile, and he winked.

A month or three later and it was New Year’s Eve, with the Angels playing on the steps at the Sydney Opera House. A massive, roiling crowd completely filling the Opera House forecourts. I was getting man-handled, so I made my way to the tower where the mixing desk was perched and showed my homemade ID card where the masthead for rock magazine Roadrunner displayed my name as a contributing writer. The crew were kind and hoisted me up into their tower. As a result I had a perfect view when a champagne bottle hit Chris Bailey in the head and a beer can hit Doc Neeson. Chris died last year, from throat cancer. He was a gentle, courteous man with a lovely wry sense of humour.

I must have seen a score or more Angels gigs between New Year’s Eve 1980 and 1982, when Chris Bailey left the band. After Chris left, I never saw them live again. But I did see Doc on occasion socially. I have particularly fond memories of the night Doc tried to teach me to drive. I don’t know how we connected that night – did we coincide at the same Japanese restaurant? Saki was involved – but in the course of the evening we visited my Kings Cross flat, where Doc went straight for the fridge, which was empty, except for a lemon and some lipsticks.

“I see you don’t cook,” he correctly surmised.

“If you want to lose weight,” he continued, ‘There’s this product called spirulina. I stir a few teaspoons into a glass of water before I go onstage, to give me energy. It expands in your stomach and fills you up so you’re not hungry.”

I was thin and had no interest in losing weight. Doc was thin too. Whip thin. Whippet thin. I find it hard to take in photos of him as he looked in later life: puffy-faced, ruddy, fat – like a sad drag queen, with dyed black hair and eyebrows that looked plucked. I am certain it must have been painful for Doc to see how he looked, too. He was a performer; he had an ego. More than that: Doc was a handsome man – a dynamic, flirtatious, sexual man.

I remember him as he looked that night: so tall; his bright eyes blue; his hair a natural black, and strong; his long dark eyelashes and his crazed, cunning Irish smile, that smile like sunshine on hillside, emerging from cloud.

That night, Doc tried to teach me to drive. I told him how my dad tried to teach me in an empty parking lot outside Safeway on a Sunday (no Sunday shopping in those days, so no cars). When I reversed, a large metal object – a part of the car – had dropped out of the undercarriage, leaving me and dad staring at each other, aghast. So Doc proposed teaching me himself. He had a beat-up car with manual gears and he’d show me how – in Kings Cross, Sydney’s nightclub quarter, on a chaotic, bustling Friday night. We were doing alright for about 100 metres, down Elizabeth Bay Road. We made it past the corner of Roslyn Street, almost made it to the Sebel Townhouse, home away from home for rock stars in Sydney. Outside the Sebel, there’s a hill. Okay – a bit of an incline. I pulled the hand-brake and it came away in my hand.

I will never forget the look on Doc’s face as I turned to him, holding the steering wheel with my right hand, the hand-brake loose in my left. I remember us giggling in the closed space of that small car, celebrating automotive malfunction on a night bright with the lights of Kings Cross.

The last time I saw Doc was in Kings Cross. It was 1985, just before I self-published a small book of poems, outside what was once the Plaza Hotel. We talked about writing, about my planned book. Doc told me George Bernard Shaw wrote a quota of 2500 words every morning. I was hungry. I don’t know how that came up in conversation but Doc produced a $20 note and insisted I take it. I didn’t want to. He insisted. He said he was commissioning me to write him a poem. He was wearing black stovepipe jeans. I was wearing loose black cotton ‘Chinese’ pants and a faded indigo short sleeve shirt. He smiled at me.

Last year, when Doc was sick and his friends were raising money for his treatment costs, I repaid that $20. Twenty dollars is nothing to repay Doc for how he contributed to my life, in that vivid time, when we were both young.
The poem? Not one of my best. But here it is, and it’s for Doc:

Cheap Poem, Winking
For B Neeson

As a shadow, she’s much bolder
than I – looms much larger
takes more risks, stretches out and
intrudes: she
ignores bolted gates, and enters
other people’s homes; has no fear
of anything concrete, anything private
anything closed. Unafraid
and irreverent, she touches
those I fear, and smothers
those I love
has no shame, no sense of place
reaches out: no restraint
In a mirror she’s much sharper
than myself – she’s much
lighter, more quick; so much more
the creature of light
being of colour
of angles, so much more
somebody’s dream, someone’s
image – a reflection, my opposite number
laughing back at me, wherever I
look: winking up
from whatever I make
I create
spotlit flirt, knowing
on paper
she’s more brilliant, so much braver
much more startling, more broad
for your dollar
(more a tease)
more alive, even disguised
even dismissed, even derided and
tossed off as a
cheap poem

 

Review: Shots (2009) by Don Walker – September 25, 2017

At its best, Shots is prose poetry:

He’s got himself up in this smock affair over the top of coloured jeans and a scarf collection very few of which are scarves, all of them bestowed, nothing there that ain’t worn as a joke. He has real crow-black hair, dull with a couple of orange patches burnt into the sides. He can be very funny but when his eyes are pinned he’s cold as a crocodile. He’s seen death and he knows it’s any moment and not far off and no fun and he’s back here he knows for a short time and he’s getting as much of everything as he can catch while he can still move and he ain’t moving […]

At its best, Shots is social history, or social satire, or Bildungsroman:

‘Who do you wish to see,’ says the same secretary and I tell her ‘Frank’ like I’ve told her so many times before. ‘Who do I say is calling?’ That’s to tell me no matter how many times I come in here I ain’t worth mentioning. I tell her again. ‘Ya got an appointment?’ she says and I say, ‘I have to pick up a cheque.’ ‘Frank’s too busy today unless you’ve got an appointment,’ she says. I do this every week. I got no dignity now I need that money, so I’m pleading, ‘Could you just check with him, please?’ She wants to see a bit more begging before she tells me to sit down and she’ll see what she can do and then she sits there and does nothing, radiating contempt. When others come in she lights up a big smile for them, shows them through to Frank’s office, comes back – ‘Frank knows you’re here’ – then gets on the phone to a girlfriend, then lunchtime comes and Frank and his visitors pour out of the office and hit the top of the stairs without Frank noticing I’m there and they loudly head off somewhere to eat too much with a view of the river for a few hours then a girlfriend comes and collects the secretary and they head off for lunch, the girlfriend looks at me like I’m a mollusk that’s been dead a few days rotting somewhere inappropriate, they leave giggling, the girlfriend doesn’t ask the secretary who I am.’

At its best, Shots is lucid and explicit:

Back home the new record, East, is released, and goes better than anyone imagined. Success brings its comforts, though I don’t write as much. Looking back, that night in Paris was something of a high point. I was immortal till then. Maybe that’s the way it is for everyone. Immortal, and never knowing it, up until a certain point. Then a pin is pulled. Everything’s the same, but somewhere a clock begins winding down, and it can never be arrested. My companions and I, we ate and drank in remembrance and celebration, but over the next three days in London all profound flowerings were for me rendered meaningless, and many things besides.

These days I’m a passenger, my whole being bent towards a little girl an ocean away. News of her came in a phone-call, then letters, first from London, then Johannesburg, then photos of a blonde, fragile-looking daughter.

Shots, I’m given to understand, refers to shots of liquor: short, strong, intoxicating gulps.

Certainly, the text is not quite sober. The typewriter has been drinking. There are filters casting shadow over every page, tonal filters of sepia and psychedelics. Was that Faulkner I detected in the rural opening sequences? Thomas Wolfe’s Depression New York a little later? Some Kerouac, some Bukowski, some Henry Miller? It’s not really my scene so it’s hard for me to nail. Stylistically, it seems to be a mélange of every blue mood from the Weimar Republic to Y2K; from art movements (Otto Dix and German Expressionism) to mid-century noir to late twentieth-century pop culture homage (Tom Waits?). Sequences set in red-light district hotels. Sequences set in specialist comics bookshops. Sequences set in nightclubs. Blade Runner in Kings Cross.

There is a feel of early twentieth-century modernist art, the kind of art Goebbels labelled “degenerate” and that Cold Chisel referenced in the cover art for their album Twentieth Century. There are femmes fatales, hot to trot rich over-educated girls who knock on his hotel room door then, once undressed, perch on his bed with a “hot flushed face” while the boyfriend bangs on the locked door.

There are women who knock on his hotel room door and undress to reveal “cheap satin lingerie with suspenders and stockings and little bows etc.”

There’s a recurring Girl who Walker calls “the Fritz Lang girl”. Those who knew Walker across the late ‘70s and ‘80s will know who she is. She’s foregrounded as someone “I love her now like a sister”, and in that hint, and in the throwaway “She’s got a sister”, a major relationship, a love, is ellided.

This is where my ‘I’ steps forward. Because I am not a neutral reader.
Maybe I’m a little pissed off he foregrounds people I didn’t care for and ellides people I did.

I think this role of hardboiled unmoved observer refusing to respond directly, relating to his world only obliquely, is a form of Romantic hero, a Bogart character: “You pays your money you takes your choices” – or, as I once put it to Don Walker, “You pays your money, you takes your chances.”

When he writes, “I know to watch her and not make any move is the only thing that might possibly confuse her”, or “she’s pretty obvious with a lot of fluttering and rubbing up and I’m like a fence post ‘cause I take me fun in my own world not here”, or, “she’s right there she is not gunna leave so I’m getting bored and start thinking I wonder what her tits look like purely out of aesthetic curiosity”, I’m reminded of Don Walker as I knew him in 1980, complaining at a party about a woman who he said kept trying to talk to him and who would not, according to him, “get the message” that he was not interested. I asked him how he sent that message.

“I gave her a frosty look,” he told me.

I told him a frosty look is not sufficient. I told him women might mistake that for his habitual expression. I told him he needed to be more direct.

I still think he needs to be more direct, not least in Shots.

I don’t understand his ellipticism. I never did. Don Walker has a particular view of the world that I can’t share. It’s not something I relate to.

I begged him that if ever he didn’t want me to talk to him, to be direct, to tell it to me straight. He looked puzzled.
“But you’re not a problem,” he said. “You don’t want anything.”

Three stories, told with thudding directness (but that would be me):

Story #1: In mid-1980 Don Walker and I had our first falling out. I didn’t know what I had done wrong. I demanded he tell me. After some rattling on my part Don told me a person who was a close friend of the band who I did not realise was a close friend of the band had told him I was overheard describing one of the band members’ girlfriends as “a moron”. I was distraught: because I did know that person was a “close friend of the band”; because I would not have said such a thing, even if I thought it, being terrified as I was of the band members’ girlfriends; and because it scared me to believe that Don would cut off our friendship on another person’s hearsay without telling me what I’d allegedly done ‘wrong’, and without giving me an opportunity to defend myself.

I sat down with Jim Barnes at Jim’s house and told him how upset I was. I asked Jim if Don had mentioned this incident to him.

“No,” Jim had answered quietly. “One thing about Don is he will never discuss that with any other person. I know Don. He would never mention it.”

He’d just end a friendship.

Story #2: About Paul Hewson – the bloke with the coloured jeans and the scarves in the quote at top. Don and Paul were at Benny’s nightclub in Potts Point, well after midnight, in 1984. My ‘friendship’ with Don by then was in tatters. Paul Hewson advised me to try the chili con carne on the menu. “Con carne”, he said, with relish, leaning too close in to my face. “It means with meat.” He smacked his lips. I did not look impressed. He changed tack. “Don obviously doesn’t like you much,” he said. I turned on my heel and left. But I waited outside, sitting on a low wall, so that when Paul and Don exited the nightclub I could block their path and hurl verbal abuse at Paul. He wilted. He cringed. Lots of people remember Paul fondly. I remember him for that night and I despise him. Don walked past fast with a frozen face.

Story #3: One day in late ’85 or ’86 as I was striding along Ward Avenue in Kings Cross I met Don Walker. This was not unusual. By this time relations were somewhat more cordial. We lived two minutes from each other, equidistant from the spot where we coincided on this occasion. What was unusual was that Don was walking very, very slowly, and clutching his hand was a small girl in a dress.

“Hello,” I said. “Who’s this? Friend? Relative?”

Don looked me in the eye and said, solemnly, “Daughter. Danielle.”

My reflex reactions kicked in.

“Daughter?” To the small girl: “A daughter is a very important person. Hello, Danielle.”

To Don I said, “Will Danielle be staying with you?”

As Don started to reply the small girl looked up at me and said fiercely, “I can’t stay too long.”

Don and I locked eyes.

“Then I’d best let you both get on with your day,” I said.

Don Walker had a daughter. His life had changed.

 

For Jenny Hunter-Brown:

Other People by Elly McDonald (1981)

Long and gentle (soft dusky pink),
A girl in a coffeeshop
Closes up, jagged like an oyster.
Her face blurred like a moonstone.
huddled, hunted, in massive tawny furs
(a memory, but raw as a freshly-flayed kill)
can’t feel, can’t breathe, drains away…
her ankles loll like broken necks
The girl in the coffeeshop
Keeps her chin level,
Talks tired and calmly: I’m not
Really crying, she says.

 

X (1983)

Walking past this house the temptation is strong
A brick through the window, a boot in the door
This is white This is open This is fragile This is
Valued – auctioned last Saturday (the bidding was persistent)
This is someone else’s property
now
Someone else’s

Home This is closed to the streets with
No remembrance of past No
Remembrance of loyalties No haven

for the outcast I hope
Somebody
Scrawls graffiti on your walls in
Indelible black and
it lasts

 

Woman of Substances: A journey into addiction and treatment (2017) by Jenny Valentish – August 28, 2017

Jenny Valentish’s book Woman of Substances is subtitled “A journey into addiction and treatment” and sets out to explore how addiction is triggered and plays out specifically in women, across a range of behaviours: drug abuse, alcoholism, abusive or obsessive relationships, eating disorders, self-harm and self-mutilation, and other compulsive behaviours, including sex and theft. She investigates social and historical factors as well as neuroscience, endocrinology and psychiatric approaches.

Organised in three parts, (Part One: Predictors of a problem; Part Two: Gendered adventures in addiction; Part Three: Woman’s Lib), this book is part sociological research, part memoir. Both aspects resonate with me. Valentish writes as someone who came of age in south-east England’s music scene in the early ‘90s, who published a fanzine, was publicly represented in the tabloids as a music groupie, who was immersed in music and drugs and alcohol, was sexually abused, who relocated to the other side of the planet, has intimate experience of addiction and (arguably) mental illness. She now lives in regional Victoria.

[Note: About that reference to Valentish’s range of experiences including “(arguably) mental illness”. I took that phrase out. Then put it back. I am not a psychiatrist. Even it I were, it would be out of order to diagnose a stranger on the basis of their writing. I wrote that line because, for reasons made explicit further in my piece, that is a lens through which I read. Jenny Valentish addresses the pathologising of women’s distress in her book. She reports on psychiatric responses to substance abuse, particularly in relation to BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder). I don’t recall she herself suggests she suffered a psychiatric illness. Psychiatric illness is stigmatised and IMO needs to be discussed. But substance abuse does not automatically equate to psychiatric illness.]

So. We have common ground. I was a rock music writer from ages 17 to 29, writing for rock music publications, pilloried as a teen by Molly Meldrum on Countdown as a “stupid female”, constantly negotiating the crosslines between sexual experimentation, peer perception and shame, witnessing drug and alcohol abuse, occasionally participating, with intimate experience of other forms of addiction, and mental illness. I crossed the planet, in reverse, to spend my 30s in ’90s London. I now live in regional Victoria.

Like Jenny, I am fascinated by the challenges posed by writing memoir.

Jenny Valentish describes her personal experience woven through her research findings as a “case study”. As it happens, one of my freelance employments is editing the psychiatric case studies required of trainee psychiatrists. It’s all too easy for me to condense and mentally reformat Valentish’s accounts of her personal experiences as third person psychiatric reports. It’s easy, too, for me to follow her accounts of different treatment methods and wellness strategies, as set out in the book’s final section. Truthfully, that section is so lucid I would recommend it to anyone who hopes to learn what works.

She writes wonderfully.

I nearly did not read this book. I’d seen a review that commented on how direct her language was, presenting as an example,”I had a cock in my mouth by the age of seven.” I took that to be the book’s opening line. I was concerned this would be a sensationalist, exhibitionist narrative – the “crazy woman as attention-seeker” trope. A part of me felt I already knew this story. Why revisit it through someone else’s darkness?

To learn, to contextualise, to rethink, to reframe, to empathise, to better understand. Because it’s well-researched. It’s useful reporting. It’s entertaining. It’s encouraging.

I had some predictable responses. I found it impossible not to map her experiences against mine, not to place us in relative positions on a graph mapping “Just how bad was that?”

There are no prizes for being the most out-there addict. That said, as a reader, and as someone who had thought our experiences might be loosely comparable, I was shocked, actually distressed, by much that Valentish recounts. I felt outraged on behalf of her 14 year old self, being inducted into music scene sex; her 18 year old self, raped in an alley; her 26 year old self, fleeing an abusive ex across oceans; her 7 year old self, sexually abused by a neighborhood teen – outraged by the continuum of her experiences. I felt shocked, confused, by the extent of her substance abuse. Why would she subject herself to that? How did she function, build a career?

The “Why would she subject herself to that?” is, obviously, the question the project addresses. How did she function, build a career? Seems to me that side by side with – or within, or fronting, or inextricable from – the identity Valentish presents on the page, the person who stumbles and trips and can’t articulate coherently, there was the person who functioned just fine, thank you ma’am, within her chosen environments, aided by considerable intelligence, her talent, her resilience, her humour, other character traits she doesn’t make explicit, and by her social capital (education, beauty, middleclass background).

In the final section, the section about treatment options and the experience of weaning off addictions, Valentish writes briefly about narrative therapy. This is the process whereby a person articulates their story and then, with an appropriately qualified therapist, they “look at some of the dominant narratives that they are using to give themselves a hard time: ‘I’m to blame’, ‘I’m an alcoholic’, ‘I’m a bad mother’ or ‘I’m a failure’. […] The therapist and client will then look for the subjugated narratives of resilience, courage and strength, and work on lifting those to the fore.”

My brother-in-law is clinical director of a private psychiatric clinic and is a senior psychiatrist within the public health sector. Narrative therapy is an approach he promotes. I have gleaned a few hints observing him and asking him about his work, and a strategy I do find useful is consciously noting how I am telling my story – to myself, to others – and consciously exploring ways of representing it that are true to those events and yet empowering.

Jenny Valentish I think employs this strategy too.

In the Acknowledgements section Jenny Valentish writes: “I realised afterwards, once I’d signed off on the book, that I skimped on the love, support and good times. Certainly they’re more obvious now (who really basks in those good fortunes in their twenties anyway?), but they were always there from family and friends, keeping me afloat. To this end, Women of Substance is a memoir of addiction, not a memoir of a girl.”
Good point.

She writes: “My life should have been a Duran Duran video. Exotic climes, open-top Jeeps, gleaming hotel lobbies with marble floors and ceiling fans rotating lazily over potted palms. I should have been thumping hard-oak boardroom tables and powering through airports in my safari suit.”

This is Jenny Valentish being self-deprecating, aware of middleclass privilege. I know I too have benefited immensely from class privilege. In fact, chunks of my life have been a Duran Duran video, especially, but not exclusively, my life in London advertising agencies. I still get to check-in occasionally to glamorous hotels with thriving indoor plants, and though my cashflow is constrained, to say the least, I live very comfortably, in a beautiful upper middleclass environment, and I do not lack.

She writes: “I’m lucky. While Woman of Substances isn’t exactly a beach read, my own experiences only skirt the edges of awful possibility. With my drug use I was just a tourist, albeit the type that overstays their visa. I didn’t get into trouble with the police. I didn’t drive under the influence, or even learn to drive. I didn’t overdose or take drugs with anyone who did. I didn’t get rushed to hospital. Nobody beat me up. I didn’t need to have sex with anyone for drugs, nor for drug debts. I didn’t want kids, so I didn’t accidentally drink through my first trimester, or use through a pregnancy. I had a secure childhood and parents who were able to look after me.”

Me neither. Me too.

Quite apart from the shock of how sordid many of Jenny Valentish’s experiences were (and I say “sordid” as a descriptor, not as a judgement), the shock for me in reading this narrative was realising just how conservative I’ve been. Yes, there were a few months sucking bongs at age 17. But my dope-fiend career was cut short by my complete inability to draw back, a failure I recall one rock musician friend murmuring must be “a terrible handicap for a girl”.

There was the one occasion I attempted to snort cocaine off a mirror; my long hair fell forward and wiped the mirror surface. (That same musician friend laughed and remarked how popular I must have been.) There was the time backstage when I reached for a proffered white powder and a rock musician friend, a famously drug-abusing rock musician friend, slapped my hand sharply, saying “Not that! That’s smack.” There was the life-changing, hideous episode with white powder backstage that led to a blackout and a blow-up my brain never stored in memory. There was the sleazy paparazzo with his date-rape drug.

Thing is, after age 18, I never smoked dope. After 21, I stopped drinking, almost entirely. After the white powder episode, I never touched white powder. After the date rape, I moved back to where my parents lived. As I once told an old friend, I never met a drug that liked me. Every time I tried an illegal substance it blew up in my face (so to speak), and I immediately stopped.

For a so-called groupie (“bandmoll”, we called it), I wasn’t even promiscuous. Over time, in my twenties, I had sex with more men than the girls I grew up with did – I think. But highly discriminately. And rarely.

Eating disorders? Overspending? Compulsive behaviours? Impulsivity? Stalking? I put my hand up. I did those other things that fit within the realm of addiction.

This is not a review; this is a personal response. My personal responses to what Jenny’s written are complex. Foremost, ultimately, they take the form of a chorus of “BRAVA!”, directed with a metaphorical bouquet to Valentish.

 

“Really, I am the interesting one here” – notes towards an article about fame, hero worship and stalking (February 24, 2017)

Sian Prior, Shy: a memoir (The Text Publishing Company 2014)
Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist (Transworld Publishers 2016)

Nearly three years after its publication, I’ve finally read Sian Prior’s memoir Shy. I put off reading it partly because I know it recounts Sian Prior’s relationship and break-up with a (famous) man I once knew slightly, and I felt me reading it would be prurient. Also because as I listened to Sian being interviewed on the radio, back when the book was first released, the interview was interrupted with the news that another (famous) man I once knew slightly had died, and that plunged me into writing five commemorative pieces for Five Dead Rock Stars whose lives had intersected with mine, and that threw me into a depression that lasted 18 months or longer.

I also put off reading Shy because… really, shy? Not my particular problem.

I did get as far as putting the book on request at my local library. When I was notified it was available to collect I chose not to. I had even discussed the book, tangentially, with my psychologist. Then this month, seated on my psychologist’s couch, discussing my father’s imminent death, I broke off and said “I see you have Sian Prior’s book Shy on your shelves.”

“Yes,” said my psychologist. “Would you like to borrow it?”

And even as I replied “Yes”, she reached across and handed it to me.

For a week or more, while I wrestled with my father’s dying, I didn’t open Shy. Then, when I did, I found it addressed many issues I share with Sian Prior: the death of fathers, the loss of lovers, the imaginary man, the invisible self, the unstable self, the magnet that is fame, the halo effect.

As I so often do, I recorded my first responses on Facebook, that antidote to (and aggravator of) the invisible self:

Elly FB 21 Feb 2017:

Embedded in this book about social anxiety is a book about fame: specifically, the impacts on a talented but insecure woman of being with a famous man. Both Prior and [Carrie] Fisher are fearless inquisitors of how and why The Male Hero affected their sense of self.”

Sian Prior, Shy (p.247):

“… although every famous person is different, fame itself doesn’t change much. It always attracts the same kind of prurient and obsessive behaviour. It always draws attention towards itself and away from everything else. It makes potentially more interesting things fade into invisibility. And fame can make the famous feel like gods. Perhaps it’s inevitable. All that relentless positive reinforcement. Toxic.

For me, that paragraph resonates like a 3-hour church bell-toll.

Prurient and obsessive behaviour? Oh my. Oh yes. I recognise that. Toxicity? Yes. Yes. Yes again. Fame makes the famous feel like gods? Interesting. Seems to me it mostly makes them feel like shit. But other people are keen to cast them as gods, to hero worship. The “I am a golden god!” moments, as immortalised in Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous, are perhaps inevitable. In 1984, as a rock writer, I wrote a profile of INXS’s Michael Hutchence where he talked about his “Golden God” moments.

Before I go further I need to make a Declaration of Interest, or a confession, or what you will. I am a stalker. I might prefer to couch that in layers of modifications and justifications, explaining it’s really a bit more complex than that, but the simplest truth is this: I am a stalker. I stalked a famous person for years. I scared him and I made his life – and his then-partner’s life – wretched. There is nothing in my life I regret more, that I am more ashamed of, than this. That the person I stalked has been generous and kind, has been gracious, doesn’t alter that. That his then-partner became – and remains – a close, supportive friend is a gift I do not deserve.

That they responded that way over time does not change the fact that had stalker laws existed in the early ‘80s, we would have faced off in court.

In 12-Step programs, they say you’re only as sick as your secrets. I say you’re as sick as your unforgiven transgressions. I am thankful for forgiveness.

Sian Prior – who is not a stalker, who lived with her famous partner for ten years – writes:

“He was a fantasy figure. So often silent. So often absent. If we’re going to continue this amateur psychologising, I’d say I projected onto him a whole lot of qualities he never had. Filled in the gaps with whatever suited me. […] I edited out the evidence that didn’t fit my fantasy. Because that perfect, imaginary version of him was my safety zone …” (Shy, p.249)

I knew the man I stalked wasn’t perfect, and I didn’t hope to displace his partner. But I needed – believed I needed – what I saw as his calm and strength. I remember telling my psychologist, the woman who gave me Shy to read, that stalking this man who’d been my friend was my way of keeping the planet spinning on its axis, my defence against overwhelming, catastrophic anxiety. I needed to know where he was, to see him. I only felt safe when I could see him.

Sian writes: “There was a woman sitting in front of me talking to her friend on a mobile […] and at one point she said to him, ‘So what is your strategy for feeling safe with other people?’”

Ten years ago, a ‘life coach’ asked me to complete this sentence: “When I’m alone I ….”

My instant response? “CAN RELAX!”

The life coach startled. “You find other people stressful?” she yelped. There was a pause.

“There are things we can work on to change that” she offered, slowly. Another pause. “But perhaps that’s not something you want to change?”

We agreed it was not a priority.

Sian Prior continues (Shy, p.249):

“There’s something more I need to say about love. You’re not going to like this. It will make you squirm. The object of my love may have been imaginary but the love was real. It was the strongest thing I’d ever felt, stronger than my shyness. No wonder I didn’t want to let it go.”

The resonating bells are ringing again, this time a long meditation of Tibetan chimes. Last year, I wrote a blog piece that echoes that paragraph. I called it On Love. And not being able to speak.

It was my way of saying love is real, even when the relationship is fantasy.

This week I read someone else’s blog post, a woman who describes herself as a “matchmaker” pairing up shelter dogs with prospective owners. She wrote about the desire she sees in humans to have a love object, to have a dog, to have anyone, they can love unabashedly, without being challenged by questions of anthropomorphism, reciprocation, fantasy, projection.

I recall being a mature age student at university, talking with a young classmate. She told me, earnestly, that she didn’t put up barriers against love. Barriers like gender. She might be bi-sexual. It was possible the love of her life might in fact turn out to be not a man but a woman.

I remember looking back at her and replying, seriously, that if anyone had asked me when I was her age, I would never have guessed the great love of my life would turn out to be a dog. But it did.

She turned away. I think she thought I was taking the piss.

Earlier this year, I read Carrie Fisher’s memoir, The Princess Diarist.

As so often, I responded on Facebook.

Elly FB 2 Feb 2017:
Finally got around to reading Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist. She spends so many pages klutzing around, apologizing in advance in terror of Harrison Ford’s reaction, justifying herself to us (justifying herself to herself).

Then she goes ahead and makes herself vulnerable anyway.

When she’s not doing the vaudeville shtick, when she’s re-experiencing the bewildered 19 year old mated with A God, she’s very touching.

So far I’m only on their second weekend. She’s (finally) made him laugh, made him momentarily human. She treasures that moment as a high point in her life.

I haven’t yet go to the unearthed poems, which I don’t doubt are excruciating.

But good for her for telling the earth maiden’s side of the story.

Her poems are not excruciating, or no more so than my own juvenilia, written during my stalker phase.

One could never call me a quitter
I take something right and see it
Through till it’s wrong
Auctioning myself off to the highest bidder
Going once, going twice
Gone
Sold to the man for the price of disdain
Some are sold for a song
I don’t rate a refrain.
I guess it was all going just a little too well
If I wasn’t careful I’d be happy pretty soon
Heaven’s no place for one who thrives on hell,
One who prefers the bit to the silver spoon.
Then just when I’d almost resigned myself to winning
When it seemed my bright future would never dim
When my luck looked as though it was only beginning
I met him.
Sullen and scornful, a real Marlboro man
The type who pours out the beer and eats the can
A tall guy with a cultivated leer
One you can count on to disapprove or disappear
I knew right away that he was a find
He knew that you had to be cruel to be kind
Given this, he was the kindest man I’d ever met
Back came my sense of worthlessness
And my long lost pains of regret
I was my old self again, lost and confused
Reunited with that old feeling
Of being misunderstood and misused.
Sold to the man for the price of disdain
All of this would be interesting
If it weren’t so mundane.
(The Princess Diarist, pp.110/111)

That’s Carrie, the 19 year old Carrie of 1976. But it could easily be 18 year old me, in 1979 – or more pointedly, 22 year old me in 1983, recalling 18 year old me.

Which could be interesting, if it weren’t mundane.

Interesting. An interesting concept. My sister tells me that whenever I start a sentence “It’s interesting that…”, what follows is not.

Sian Prior writes about what’s interesting and what’s not; who’s interesting, who should be:

‘So Lucky’

They looked.
I felt them looking.
I worried about what they were thinking.
I couldn’t act normal because I knew they were watching.
I straightened my back and lifted my head higher.
I chose my facial expressions with care.
But I knew they were not really looking at me.
They were looking at him.
And I hated that.
I hated that their focus on him prevented them from seeing me.
Even though I hate them looking at me.
What was that?
Was that the difference between being shy and being an introvert?
Or between being a shy extrovert and an introvert?
If I had been an introvert I wouldn’t want them to look at me.
I might be relieved to walk away and let them take his photo.
I didn’t want them to take my photo.
But I wanted to be the one they were interested in.
Or the equally interesting one.
That’s why I fought it so long and so hard.
Found ways to have my say.
Pushed myself out into the world.
I didn’t want to be interesting only because I was with him.
But I wanted to be with him.
He made me feel interesting.
Interesting, isn’t it?
(Shy, pp.116-120)

In a Daily Mail article (11 Oct 2016), Tziphorah Malkah (the erstwhile Kate Fischer) said of her past relationship with magnate James Packer: “He’s going on Mariah’s [Carey] reality show. He is that bloke, really I am the interesting one here. He is just like fiddling around.”

Tziphorah wrote on Facebook (12 Oct 2016): James Packer will do ANYTHING to continue to be associated with me! And who can blame him? The whole world knows that I’m the most interesting thing that has and will ever happen to him.

People laughed at that. They laugh because now Kate Fischer is no more and Tziphorah Malkah is a broke, trainee aged-care nurse who is obese. Being poor and fat renders women uninteresting. But Tziphorah Malkah had a point. She, as Kate Fischer, had a successful career as an international model and a budding career in major films when she met Packer. Her story since is interesting, in a dark fable kind of way.

Elly FB 21 Feb 2017:

Many years ago I was friends with Jane Campion the film director. She used to say that as a young woman she hoped to find An Artist and be His Muse. Then when she got dumped, again, she started making fierce dark angry art at art school, and her art teacher encouraged her. She realised she was author, artist – not model or muse at all.

Jane Campion made Bright Star from the POV of Keats’ love Fanny Brawne and was roundly taken to task in reviews I read for making Fanny the focus when the “real” “Bright Star” was the poet, Keats.

By the way – see what I did there? I found a way to make reference to a former friend who is famous. Not just any friend who drifted away over time but who said and did things that influenced me: a famous friend. I’d like to think if Jane were not famous we’d have renewed our friendship in recent times on Facebook. But she is, if somewhat less so than she was, and she is inaccessible to me now.

Carrie Fisher has a lot to say about being interesting by association:

“Having grown up around show business, I knew that there were stars and there were stars. There were celebrities, talk show hosts, product spokespeople, and then there were movie stars – people with agents and managers and publicists and assistants and body guards, who got tons of fan mail and could get a movie financed and who consistently graced the covers of magazines. Their grinning familiar faces stared proudly out at you, encouraging you to catch up with their personal lives, their projects, and how close they were to being the most down-to-earth of those famous-to-earthlings.

“Harrison was one of that epic superstar variety, and I wasn’t. Was I bitter about this? Well… not so you’d notice.” (The Princess Diaries, pp.59/60)

That’s just part of an epic, poetic depiction of fame as personified in The Hero. Here’s how she warmed up:

“When I’d first seen him sitting on the cantina set, I remember thinking, This guy’s going to be a star. Not just a celebrity, a movie star. He looked like one of those iconic movie star types, like Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy. Some sort of epic energy hung around him like an invisible throng.

“I mean, let’s say you’re walking along in the twilight, minding your own business (your own show business), and there’s fog all around you – a mysterious sort of cinematic fog. And as you continue walking, you find that you’re moving slower and slower, because you can barely see a few feet in front of you. And all of a sudden the smoke clears. It clears enough for you to imagine that you’re beginning to ever so slowly make out the outline of the face. And not just a face. This is the face of someone that painters would want to paint or poets wax poetic about. An Irish balladeer would feel compelled to write a song to be sung drunkenly in pubs all over the United Kingdom. A sculptor would sob openly while carving the scar on this chin.

“A face for the ages. And seeing him sitting there in the set that would introduce him to the world as Han Solo, the most famous of all the famous characters that he would come to play – well, he was just so far out of my league. Compared to him I didn’t even have an actual verifiable league. We were destined for different places.” (The Princess Diarist, pp.59/60)

It hit Carrie hard. She continues:

“I looked over at Harrison. He was… God, he was just so handsome. No. No, more than that. He looked like he could lead the charge into battle, take the hill, win the duel, be the leader of the gluten-free world, all without breaking a sweat. A hero’s face – a few strands of hair fell over his noble, slightly furrowed brow – watching the horizon for danger in the form of incoming indigenous armies, reflective, concerned eyes so deep in thought you could get lost down there and it would take days to fight your way out. But why run? It couldn’t really be such a hardship to find yourself lost in such a place with all that wit and ideas safely stored there. Hey, man! Wait a second! Share the wealth here. Give the face to one man and save the mind for another and both would have plenty. But no! This was the ultimate living example of overkill. So how could you ask such a shining specimen of a man to be satisfied with the likes of me? No! Don’t tell me! The fact is that he was! Even if it was for a short while. That was way more than enough. It would eventually get exhausting trying to measure up, or keep up. I was a lucky girl – without the self-esteem to feel it, or the wherewithal to enjoy what there was to enjoy it and then let go.” (The Princess Diarist, pp87/88)

This is the toxicity. How could the famous, the shining specimens, not feel like golden gods? But who is it the more exhausting for? Who tries to measure up, to keep up? The lover or the beloved?

An editor friend was arguing yesterday about the misuse of the word “icon”, especially as applied to celebrities. I replied, “It’s not so different. An icon is a portal to the divine.”

An icon is itself a divine artefact.

How tiring, to be someone’s idol. How tiring to keep the earth spinning, the planets aligned. How tiring to be assigned responsibility for someone else’s sense of self-worth.

“I’m a hick,” I recall saying to him.

“No,” Harrison answered. “You think you’re less than you are. You’re a smart hick.”

And then, “You have the eyes of a doe and the balls of a samurai.” (The Princess Diarist, pp.106/107)

The man I stalked has many times tried to soothe my unhealed wounds.

I remember crying “But do you LIKE me? Do you LIKE me?”

Like some demented Sally Field impersonator desperately clutching at her tall, inanimate, manly Oscar.

I remember my friend replying “I like you ENORMOUSLY. I just don’t understand why you do this.”

I remember the first time I realised he found me interesting. I was looking down at a pub table. I remember exactly the cosmetics I had on my eyelids. I looked up and he was across the table, watching, watching me looking down.

I remember sometime after our one night stand (which didn’t last a night), sitting on that same bed, asking him: “Why did you have sex with me?”

I remember him replying carefully, “Because I found you physically attractive.”

I remember hissing angrily in disbelief.

Carrie Fisher writes:

“How I’ve portrayed Harrison is how Harrison was with me forty years ago. I’ve gotten to know him a bit better over time, and as such somewhat differently. He’s an extremely witty man and someone who seems more comfortable with others than he is, or ever was, with me.” (The Princess Diarist, p.181)

I can relate. She continues:

“Time shifts and your pity enables you to turn what was once, decades ago, an ordinary sort of pain or hurt, complicated by embarrassing self-pity, into what is now only a humiliating tale that you can share with others because, after almost four decades, it’s all in the past and who gives a shit?” (The Princess Diarist, p.186)

Interesting.

Sian Prior writes: “I thought we were a poem. In the end, though, we were just a string of platitudes.” (Shy, p.248)

I find that interesting, even if mundane.

 

The girl with the glamorous job (Part 2) – May 10, 2016

Cleo magazine, March 1988:

A writer and publicist, Elly loves to party and to go to the movies or theatre. This sociable woman [yes, that’s what they wrote] walks “absolutely everywhere”, goes to the gym three times a week and loves to dance. She believes physical activity should be enjoyed. On being 26? “I feel confident about growing older, there’s no way I’d go back to being 20.”

Her philosophy: It helps to smile a lot. Life is about fun for oneself and for others.

Did I say LOL? How about, ROFL? It’s true I walked everywhere (I had no car), true I was a gym-nut and true I loved to dance. It’s also true there was “no way I’d go back to being 20” (to quote Don Walker again, in a recent interview he said he’s not nostalgic for the early ‘80s; I don’t think I’m nostalgic so much as puzzled about that period of my life). That stuff about feeling confident, about embracing ageing, about smiling a lot? So not me. And godalmighty, what’s with the “fun for oneself and others” nonsense? That was never me. Even at that interview, what I tried to talk about was the gap between the ideal and actuality. I tried to talk about eating disorders. The writer’s eyes glazed over. She stopped taking shorthand notes and I guess I decided to just go bimbo.

‘Girls with glamorous jobs’, Dolly, 1984 – by Andrea Jones (an outstanding rock journalist)

Elly McDonald would never have contemplated a career as a rock journalist – let alone writing about rock’n’roll – had it not been for a fateful encounter with Cold Chisel four years ago.

Elly was an 18-year-old arts/law student at Monash University in Melbourne when she got involved with the campus radio station. They assigned her to interview Cold Chisel, who were, then, just on the verge of their huge success.

Looking back now, Elly cringingly [good word choice] recalls how inexperienced she was in both the art of interviewing and the ways of rock and roll. But despite this, the interview developed into a deep friendship with members of the band and it inspired her to do more interviews with other bands.

“It was an interesting time for the pub rock scene and people [Don Walker and Steve Prestwich] kept telling me to base myself in Sydney and write for RAM.”

So, at 18, Elly moved to Sydney, with the intention of working for an agency which handled bookings for bands. But when that prospect fell through, she took her friends’ advice and started writing for RAM.

“My first work was unsolicited. I wasn’t being assigned any work and the big features were generally being assigned to established writers. So I was doing features on bands who very often had no recording contract at all.”

Since then Elly has written for The Australian, Nation Review [in fact pre-dated my rock writing], Cleo, Rolling Stone and several literary publications.

“I prefer to do interviews after a show. I like to give the band 30 minutes to calm down after coming off stage and then do the interview, because all the thoughts I’m feeling about them as a band [wtf] are still fresh and the band is revved up and the atmosphere is there.”

Of all the bands Elly has been associated with or enjoys going to see live, her favourites are INXS, Midnight Oil and the now defunct Cold Chisel. Yet, of all of these, only Cold Chisel are personal friends [in 1984 that might have been stretching it].

Elly was quick to point out that being a rock writer didn’t guarantee that you instantly [or ever] became best friends with your favourite bands.

“Although you have the opportunity to meet people who may be interesting, short of actually throwing yourself at them [a tactic I never gave up on], the chances of you continuing contact are very slim – even if you do get on well [or are a drug dealer]”.

Though Elly did say that being a journalist meant you sometimes got into unusual situations with rock musicians. One of the most amusing of these, Elly recalled, concerned INXS and a cover story she was writing for RAM.

“I went down to Canberra with the band and I was meant to do an interview before the show and then come home with the road crew afterwards. For some reason Michael was really nervous [wired] and we didn’t get to do the interview – even after the show.

“We went back to the hotel and watched TV and every time I made interview noises, Michael would suddenly get intent on a piece of the action [that’s how Michael de-tensified]. Two’clock came and went and the road crew disappeared and there I was stuck in Canberra. Four o’clock came and went and eventually the band said, ‘Well, I guess we’d better go to bed’.

“I said ‘Hang on a minute, what about the interview?’ and Michael said ‘Oh yeah! The interview! … What are you going to do about bed?’ [I cannot believe I kept telling this anecdote.]

“I told him I didn’t know since the road crew had gone and he said ‘Well, I’ve got a spare bed in my room so if you come and sleep with me, we can do the interview’. [Shame! Shame!]

“So we actually did that, with him sitting in his bed and me sitting in my bed, gossiping away. It was like a real girls’ all-night pyjama party and it was really enjoyable in a totally, totally innocent way.”

Elly carefully pointed out [but too late] that meeting famous pop stars was not the motive behind her work.

“I am firstly a writer and the subject – rock’n’roll – comes a long way second.”

For anyone interested in creative writing, Elly said rock journalism was a good springboard. And freelancing, she explained, gave her a lot of freedom. “I am completely flexible and I have the freedom to do anything I want, to develop any interest I want.”

There are drawbacks though, like no holiday pay, no paid sick leave, no paid expenses [none of which I’d mentioned or indeed had ever given a moment’s thought]. Plus, the rock press’ rates of payment are only about a quarter of the recommended level.

“I do occasionally have terrible fears of being a little old lady living on cat food,” she joked. [That was no joke. ROFL many times over.]

Though these days Elly has many other creative irons in the fire, she maintained, “I’ll continue as a rock writer as long as I’m able to get the satisfaction out of it that I do now” [about one more year].

‘The powerful business of rock music’, Cosmopolitan, 1982 – by Jacqueline R Hyams

Elly McDonald’s by-line is rapidly becoming familiar around the music scene. At only 21, she’s a Sydney-based rock writer, doing regular weekly columns for The Australian, frequent articles for industry “bibles” like Rolling Stone, The Record and RAM, as well as a number of other different publications.

She describes herself as “a typical rock and roll misfit” but, joking aside [why do they think I joke?], Elly’s a pretty, thoughtful sort of girl, overtly conscious of the writer’s responsibility to both audience and artist, whether reviewing a long awaited rock concert by an overseas artist or commenting on a new band that might be tomorrow’s success story.

“It’s very hard to get a balance between what you, the writer, actually think or feel about a band’s music and what you’re going to continue thinking,” explains Elly. [Say what? I think I meant it’s hard to know whether the band I rubbish now might not become the next big thing.]

In fact, she has a fairly musical background and plays the piano, guitar and viola quite well. [No, I played piano quite well and sang quite well. I’d done a few lessons on both the guitar and the viola.] Even at 13 Elly loved rock and roll and had dreams of being a record producer [for a nanosecond – also video director]. But writing seems to come easily to her; while still at school she wrote underground film reviews for the now defunct Nation Review.

Three years ago, while studying law at Monash University in Melbourne, Elly stumbled upon rock writing almost by chance.

“The university has a radio station, 3MU, and at that time it was pretty disorganized. They’d set up an interview with Cold Chisel but nobody wanted to do it. It seemed discourteous to forget it, so I volunteered, wandered into the middle of a sound check and said ‘Who’s in this band?’ My knowledge of Australian rock was pretty sketchy then!”

But she got the interview [well, I was bloody there, weren’t I?]. And the next time Chisel were in town they rang her and asked her to do another one. “By that time I’d decided I liked it and had written a few more. But I was lucky; I interviewed the bands that kept playing and the ones I chose went on to have an extraordinary amount of success.”

Abandoning her studies [aptly put], Elly moved to Sydney and, she recalls, “through naivety rather than guile” managed to get the chance to write articles for RAM, “by ringing people I didn’t really know” and actually asking for opportunities rather than sitting around waiting for things to happen. She is, she explains, a great believer in risk taking – “you should always stick your neck out.” [My authentic voice. Sticking one’s neck out does occasionally result in losing one’s head.]

Eventually, Elly’s enthusiasm was noticed and editors started to hand out assignments. These days, nearly everything she does revolves around the industry; a night out means either going to a concert to do a review or going to see a band who might be long-time friends. But she claims she never made a conscious decision to become a rock writer: Rather, it was the realization that she could learn about any specific aspect of the industry by writing about it that spurred her on.

“I want to know how it all works so that one day I can get involved in something myself – if you use your commonsense you can have access to all kinds of people and discover, as a professional observer, much more than you would in any other situation. I’m very taken with the idea of getting into rock management even though it would not be the easiest of jobs [and I lasted just one day working alongside Vince Lovegrove when he managed Divinyls].”

Because freelance writing in such a specialized field is so competitive [read: because freelance writing pays so poorly and is not a fulltime gig], Elly has had to supplement her income by working part-time in a friend’s shop.

The women who genuinely love the business often drop out, Elly feels, because they just aren’t strong-minded enough. “It’s easy to believe the things they tell you about yourself in this industry but you have to present yourself in the way you want to be treated – and of course, you want to be treated well. And if you say something offbeat, you’d better be prepared to stick by your opinion because it’s bound to become public.”

I think this interview must have taken place shortly after I had a showdown with Oz Rock legend Ross Wilson in the Sebel Townhouse Bar over whether savage record reviews can be justified. I argued they can: as a critic I am honour-bound to provide a consumer service, warning prospective buyers off crap albums; I am not a publicist or A&R lackey. Ross argued a reviewer has a responsibility not to burn the artists but to provide constructive feedback. We had an audience. Out of that evening, Ross’s bandmate Eric McCusker, from Mondo Rock, became a friend of mine.

The journalist, Jacky Hyams, has a much more interesting story than I do. After many years in senior editing roles back in her native London, she published a memoir, Bombsites and Lollipops: My East End Childhood (John Blake, 2001), about growing up in a gangland family, with a father who was mates with the Kray Brothers. Jacky has a blog at jackyhyams.wordpress.com

‘Women in rock OR Dorothy in the Land of Oz OR It’s a Long Way to the Top – If You’re Not a Band Mole! [sic]’, Tharunka, 1981 – by “Heather”

The last interview is with Elly McDonald. As well as having to contend with insolent attitudes towards females, she has to cope with the fact that she’s all of 20 years old.

We met at a Kings Cross coffee shop, and talked over cups of coffee and the noise of the clientele [sic – all spelling, grammar and punctuation errors hereafter are Tharunka’s].

Elly started out on doing a series of interviews for Monash Radio: “which I doubt a single Monash student would have listened to or remembered. Monash Radio basically is a group of people who hang around the radio station smoking dope and playing cards – and playing records when they remembered. But quite often they forgot to put the switch on so it doesn’t get broadcast.”

Elly then progresses? to “Roadrunner”, “Ram” and [is] now a regular freelance contributor for the Australian.

“I am now a journalist who writes about rock as opposed to a rock writer – and there’s a huge difference. It was accidental that I fell into rock – and it wasn’t until I’d been doing it for a good nine months that I suddenly woke up and realized what I was [that happened?]

“Even then it was obvious it was a dead end job. There are no career prospects for a rock journalist unless you move into other facets of rock or other facets of journalism.

FROM RAM TO THE AUSTRALIAN

“I like the idea of writing to a non-rock audience. I like working for people who my bylines mean nothing [to] and who need convincing rock is worth covering at all, in the arts pages, which the editor does.

“One of the real pitfalls for rock writers is they start writing for the industry and start being ultra-conscious of whether or not attitudes they express are going to go down well with both the public and the industry factions. They start being terribly fashion-conscious [trend-conscious] in music and in criticism. And they also get this dreadful sort of personality journo, famous-rock-writer syndrome.”

TEETHING DIFFICULTIES

“When I first started on ‘Ram’, I had this paranoia, and it was paranoia, that the first relatively intelligent, 24 year old who walked in, who happened to be male, was going to oust me immediately. I don’t want this to reflect in any way on the people who worked for ‘Ram’ but it is male oriented, it is a male scene.

“But most of the problems I ran into was because of my own naivety. When I first started out I didn’t notice the difficulties of sexism. When I play back old taped interviews, there were a lot of propositions there. And I never, ever knew (laugh). It’s only now that I’ve got to be sort of paranoid and slightly more knowledgeable about it that I’ve been aware of a lot of the sexism.”

VENUES

“Venues are one of my big hates in rock and roll. There are few I find tolerable to spend six hours in. – Venues – yuk … what can I say!

“I’m very lucky in a way that if I really wanted to pull rank – if they’re close friends I can hide backstage and if they’re not, I can hide behind the mixer where they’ve closed off an area, so I don’t have to put up with extreme congestion – people standing on my toes, elbows in the face, beer all over my bodice and people pinching my bum all the time – sometimes I do that voluntarily and it usually deters me for a couple of months. So venue conditions – all I can do is look at it and say – ‘ain’t it awful’!

“Mind you – I’ve been thrown out of a few venues – I was thrown out of Bombay Rock (Melb), three times in a row. Just to give you an idea of how some venues operate was when – this was a long time ago – the Angels lighting guy [Ray Hawkins] went backstage, to do his job obviously, and the bouncer said ‘hey mate, you can’t go back stage’. Ray just ignored them, what else can you do (laughs), and they yanked him outside and beat him up. I was going ‘hey, he’s with the band’ sort of thing – they wouldn’t believe me and ended up shoving me out in the street. I had in my pocket at the time my Ram accreditation, my Monash Radio accreditation, my Dirty Pool card, which was the Angels management company at the time, and they wouldn’t let me see anyone. They wouldn’t let me back in the venue. Short of getting a fist in the face like Ray, there was nothing I could do but go home. Both those bouncers were sacked before 12 the next day.

“The second occasion is probably one of your sexist horror stories. I was invited to Bombay Rock by a major band [Icehouse] who were playing. The usual procedure when you’re on the guest list was not to line up in the queue (which this night stretched about four or five blocks), but to go straight through to the ticket box – tell them you’re on the list, they check it, and you go straight through. But the bouncer wouldn’t let me in to the ticket box. So I waited in the queue – 60 minutes later – not on the guest list! There was no way I was going to fork over $6 having waited for an hour, I had also paid a hefty taxi fare to get there. So I caught a cab over to where friends were playing (I though a couple of suburbs away), and I knew they were coming afterwards, so I went over there, and waited for them cause they’ll get in free no worries.

“Turned out that the venue was a long way away, which added immeasurably to my taxi fare, I got there, I came back with the other band [Cold Chisel], I got in with no trouble. I asked the band’s manager what had gone wrong – what had happened was, there had been a very long guest list so he’d gone through and crossed off all miscellaneous females regardless of the fact he knew me personally, he knew I was a friend of the band and that I’d been personally invited there by the band and that both in my social and professional capacity had every right to be there. So I was fairly uncontrollable after that.” [Ah yes. The charming Ray Hearn, messin’ wid me.]

And the third time?

“The third time I’d rather not mention – (laugh). The third one had nothing to do with working in rock [because there was no third time].

“But then again, there are so many people who stand there and bluff till kingdom come that, yes, they are the lead singer’s girlfriend, and yes, why the hell won’t you let them in. There are enough girls who do know all the names and do know all the right things to say. Sometimes the bouncers have a hard job.”

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY

“Last year I worked 50/50 Melb/Sydney, so I had quite a lot of experience with people, bands and attitudes as well as how things work in both cities. There’s a huge difference in the way the two cities operate musically. But it keeps a good balance effect.

“It seems to be moving back towards Melbourne. The smaller bands seem to be more interesting and creative in Melbourne. I think that’s partly because in the ‘79/’80 period when Sydney was really right on top, these little Melbourne bands were looking up at the commercial monsters and thinking – ah, that’s [not] what I want to be.”

FUCK UPS

I put this question for each of the women, purely for its humorous connotations. But in the case of Elly McDonald, I had to tread a touch lighter; for two reasons: Firstly, being notably young in her field gives less time to look back and laugh, and secondly, because of the well known incident when Ian Meldrum called her a “silly female” on national television. Without going into too much detail, the incident occurred when Ian decided to have a special section in Countdown where he picks up mistakes in the rock media:

“You might be getting at the Russell Morris incident. There’s a fair story behind that. It all comes back to me being at fault, but not quite at fault in the way that it appears. I did realize he was using a cordless guitar. I would like that to be known (laughs). It was simply bad wording on my part. If I had looked at it for more than two seconds I would have noticed – and changed it. I apologized to Russell, he apologized to me, Ian Meldrum hasn’t – but never mind.

“In Sydney it was a big joke – ‘Elly wouldn’t know a guitar from a walrus’.”

Elly was confused by the walrus. I did not recognize Russell was playing cordless guitar and I could have stared at my review a long time without ever recognizing I was in error. I wish my editors had seen what I could not. Also, about that apology from Russell – I went to review a pub gig of his and he gave me a lift home, except ‘home’ in Melbourne was my parents’ house in Camberwell, as distinct from my own flat, in Sydney. Russell was happily sitting on my parents’ kitchen bench swinging his legs when I mentioned my folks were asleep upstairs. I have never seen a man so startled. God knows how he thought I planned to deliver my apology, but he was out of that house in seconds. The next time I visited his record company, Mushroom, their publicity manager Michelle Higgins made cracks about me still living with Mummy and Daddy. I can’t say relations between me and Mushroom, and its artists, were ever good.

CRITICAL WRITINGS

“If I didn’t like a band I had to review – there’s no point going out there and running them into the ground. Mainly ‘cause that’s too easy. There are still too many bands who are still in the developing stage, you could kill in one blow. But why? Even if it was wildly averse to my personal taste you’ve got to look at it from the points of view, is there an audience for that band, if so why does that audience like them?
“As Ed St John (Rolling Stone) once said of Australian Crawl – the inherent faults are so obvious they’re not even worth mentioning.”

WOMEN MUSICIANS

“I think they’re in the best position of any women in rock and roll because where they prove themselves is on stage. If they can cut it on stage, it’s very hard for people to put you [them] down. Where it hurts, of course, if where people putting you down is interfering with your ability to do your job well. Women muso’s are in a good spot, because they’re not necessarily obliged to get involved in the politics.”

Speechless. I was so naïve. Even years later, in 1990, I was oblivious. I was asked to write an article on sexism in Oz Rock as it affected women recording artists by Shona Martyn, who was then editor of GH a.k.a HQ magazine and is now publishing director for Random House Australia. She mentioned a couple of women singers whose careers had not developed. I immediately phoned my former RAM editor Anthony O’Grady for the inside story then phoned Shona back saying “Anthony O’Grady says there was no sexism, they just weren’t good enough and record companies are brutal.” I did no further research and dropped the story.

ADVICE TO BUDDING FEMALE JOURNALISTS

“I wouldn’t advise any young, intelligent woman to take up rock journalism because there’s no prospects – other facets of the industry, sure, the day a woman is put in the A&R position in a major record company I’ll cheer, but I think that day is a long way off yet. Again, I don’t want to put anyone down – but they put you into PR ‘cause you’re pretty and ‘cause you smile. But A&R, this is when credibility comes in – [it’s thought that] if she suggests to sign up some band, chances are she’s fucking them.”

 

Peace Love & Understanding (2011)

Between ages 18 and 29 I lived slap bang in the middle of Sydney’s Kings Cross. There were reasons. At that time I worked in the rock music industry, which involved seeing bands play four nights a week from 11pm to 3am. I needed a home close enough to the inner city music venues that I could afford taxis to and from – or could walk (shudder!). I needed to be somewhere open 24/7 so I could buy a snack at 4am. I didn’t earn much, so I survived mostly on my 4am post-gig snack and a late morning cappuccino, with slice of continental chocolate cake, at a sidewalk café.

Many of the musicians I knew and worked with lived nearby. There were also artists, writers, filmmakers and actors, which made for interesting chance meetings and creative cross-pollination. The Cross at that time did have a certain charm: it was bohemian and vital, with a carnival-like atmosphere late into the night.

People have asked me if it was exciting living off Darlinghurst Road during the period dramatised in the top-rating TV series ‘Underbelly: The Golden Mile’. Yes, it was exciting. But I hate people asking me about John Ibrahim, the nightclub owner and underworld figure who was central to the ‘Underbelly’ narrative. I’ve been asked if I met Ibrahim, by a woman who sighed he was so “Sexy!” I don’t know if I was ever in the same room as Ibrahim. Very likely yes, as I did spend a lot of time in nightclubs and the Cross was a close-knit assemblage of characters. I do know that even then I despised what Ibrahim represented, which to me was clear: exploitation and thuggery.

At that time, you couldn’t walk more than a meter or so along Darlinghurst Road without there being drugged out prostitutes standing on the pavement, unsteady on their high heels, their bruised flesh massively exposed by flimsy, abbreviated garments that barely covered their wispy limbs. The prostitutes were young girls and transsexuals. Darting between the prostitutes were people looking to score: some of them hard-core drug addicts, others “sightseers” mostly from the western suburbs. You could pick who was scanning for drugs. Their eyes flitted constantly, seeking out their dealers. In addition to prostitutes and their clients, dealers and their clients, the rag-tag bunch of eccentric residents and the tourists (local and foreign), periodically there’d be an influx of US sailors on “R&R” (rest and recreation). Those nights were especially lively.

Many years later, when I revisited the Cross after 15 years or more away, I was astonished that I had tolerated living there for even five minutes, let along close on 12 years. It was physically filthy, and squalid. The local “colour” I’d taken as a given, even thrived on, seemed to me sad and abhorrent. But at the time, given I was a freelance writer who worked from my own home, producing not more than two articles a week, I spent hours on end people watching. I’d sit somewhere I hoped was unobtrusive and watch the entire parade.

Of course this led to many curious encounters (tarot card readers, random celebrities) and many encounters that were plain tedious (men hoping I was a “working girl”, or trying to recruit me to porn photo shoots or communes in Orange).

It also led to an encounter that I believe changed my life. One incredibly hot evening, I was sitting atop a low brick wall when a group of young people wafted towards me. They were fresh-faced, somewhat angelic looking, handing out brochures printed in pale blue and white containing prayers for peace. I don’t know what, if any, church or spiritual practice they represented, and although I kept the brochure for many years – and later cut out the readings and pasted them in a special folder – there was no text to identify who produced it.

I don’t think these young people attempted to engage me in long conversation. They simply handed me the brochure, told me their aim was to promote peace, and continued on their mission. I turned my eyes to the brochure and the first words I read have stayed with me always: Peace begins with me.

As it happens, that message, and the other prayers, were remarkably pertinent to my circumstances. My life was turbulent. I was not a peaceful or spiritual person, in any way. In fact I mentally dismissed those kind young people as sappy and naïve – but I did keep that brochure.

For a long time, through the toughest time of my life, I read those prayers out loud every day. And when I started to explore related readings – both through the Christian church and through peace activists of other faiths – there’s no question it was those foundational readings that prompted me.

I sometime think of the young people who spent that evening in the Cross, handing out brochures to hookers and drug addicts and drunkards and people who looked at them like they were crazy. It was brave of them, really. They probably wondered whether what they were doing could possibly make a difference. And I am here to answer, once again: yes.

Mission is a challenging concept, easily confused with intrusion. What I took from this experience, amongst much else, is that there’s nothing embarrassing about peace, love and understanding (despite the anti-hippy ethos of my rock music comrades); and that speaking one’s truth can be a gift, if offered with love.

So if asked if I met John Ibrahim, gangster, I will reply that if I did, he made no impression; but the teenage “peace people” I will remember, always.

Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Lord, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen

 

Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan – April 27, 2018 

To be clear: this is not a book about music. This is a novel about time and technology, and change. The music business, being a fast-changing, youth-obsessed industry, just happens to provide a perfect environment for themes of change, aging, redundancy, mortality.

I would know. I spent 10 years in the rock music industry. Now I’m 35 years older. I feel it. So, I think, do my contemporaries.

Jennifer Egan says she didn’t know a lot about the music business but researched in order to write this story – or these stories, more correctly, as A Visit to the Goon Squad comprises thirteen interlocked, interrelated short stories rather than the novel’s traditional linear chapter narrative.

The stories loosely pivot around Bennie Salazar, first met as a teenage bass player in a garage punk band in San Francisco in 1979, and his long-time assistant, Sasha, who we see at her youngest as a small child from the perspective of her uncle, and at her oldest as a mother in her late 40s. Variously, we meet Bennie’s mentor Lou, a big-name, hedonistic record producer in the ‘60s and ‘70s; Bennie’s wife, Stephanie, a sometime publicist; Bennie’s protégé Alex, a one-night-stand of Sasha’s; Bennie’s close friends from his punk days, Scotty, Jocelyn, and Rhea; Sasha’s uncle and her college friend, Rob; Lou’s lover Mindy; Stephanie’s ex-boss Dolly, in her heyday known as LaDoll; Dolly’s daughter Lulu; the ex-rock star Bosco; the flailing ex-ingénue ex-movie star Kitty Jackson; Jules, Stephanie’s brother, who attempts to rape Kitty; and sundry other friends, family, lovers and clients.

The tone veers radically from satire to sour. The forms vary from Proustian to PowerPoint presentation (really).
It’s wildly ambitious and wildly, breathtakingly accomplished, in the best ways.

The title?

Quite early, we meet Bosco, once a skinny, hyperkinetic stage performer guitarist, now an obese wreck. Bosco wants to go out on tour on stage one last time, doing what he once did, but blatantly as he is now: he knows it will kill him.

He tells Stephanie and Jules

“The album’s called A to B, right?” Bosco said. “And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about? Let’s not pretend it didn’t happen. […] Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?”

Later, Bennie echoes Bosco, telling his ex-bandmate Scotty, who has spent the better part of 50 years a bum, ”Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?”

The novel could quite easily be titled A to B, like Bosco’s album: What happened? What took us from A (then) and turned us into B (now)?

Never having heard the expression “Time’s a goon”, I like to think Jennifer Egan lifted the image from Elvis Costello’s song Goon Squad, off his album Armed Forces, which came out in 1979, the same year the fictional Bennie Salazar connected with the fictional Lou Kline:

I could be a corporal into corporal punishment
Or the general manager of a large establishment
They pat some good boys on the back and put some to the rod
But I never thought they’d put me in the
Goon squad […]
Some grow up just like their dads
and some grow up too tall
Some go drinking with the lads
Some are no fun at all
And you must find your proper place
For everything you see
But you’ll never get to make a lampshade out of me …

I danced to that song at my 18th birthday party.

The way I heard it then, and the way I hear it now, Elvis Costello’s song is about paths our lives could take, and our fear that we can’t control how it’ll turn out, and our fear the way it turns out might be completely random, or conversely, that it absolutely might not be: that some of us are born to lose and some are born to survive.

These are themes I read in Jennifer Egan’s book. Among other things, it’s exploring failure and thwarted potential, and unexpected, unlooked for success; the tragedies of getting what you want, or not getting it. It’s shockingly predictive of the #MeToo movement, and predictive, too, of technological change and its effects on human relations (A Visit to the Good Squad was published in 2010).

There were characters I feared for. Please, let them live. Let them live well.

Some pray to survive.

Sometimes I read the ‘B‘ where Egan took individual characters, and sighed in relief. Sometimes I felt sad for where she left them. But if Egan’s book says anything, it says the story ain’t over, until life ends. There’s a recurring motif of sunrises and sunsets. Life ends for only a couple of these characters within the pages of these stories.

 

Of the arcs I found chilling, Jocelyn’s story stands out. We meet Jocelyn as a beautiful Eurasian 17 year-old Californian punk. In 1979 she has the fortune, or misfortune, to be picked up as a hitchhiker by Lou Kline the hot-shot record producer, in his red Mercedes.

Jocelyn’s friend Rhea (“the girl no one is waiting for. Usually the girl is fat […]”) tells us

“I’m two inches away on my parents’ flowered bedspread while she dials the phone with a black fingernail. I hear a man’s voice answer, and it shocks me that he’s real. Jocelyn didn’t make him up […] He doesn’t go, Hey beautiful, though. He goes, I told you to let me call you.”

Later

“A man is sitting in a round corner booth, smiling teeth at us, and that man is Lou. He looks as old as my dad, meaning forty-three. He has shaggy blond hair, and his face is handsome, I guess, in that way dads can sometimes be.

C’mere, beautiful, Lou actually does say, and he lifts an arm to Jocelyn.”

Before long Lou is forcing Jocelyn’s head up and down on his erect penis as they sit in a public booth in a nightclub. But that’s okay. Already “Lou did some lines off Jocelyn’s bare butt and they went all the way twice, not including when she went down on him”.

It is not always okay. Not once Jocelyn forms a bond with Lou’s eldest, best-loved son, Rolfe.

I’ve met a few Lou’s. Happily, I’ve never had the experiences Jocelyn has. Jocelyn is a fiction, but she reminds me sharply of the actor and activist Rose McGowan writing about her early experiences in L.A., in her autobiography Brave.

Rhea says to Lou

I go, do you even remember being our age?

Lou grins at me in my chair, but it’s a copy of the grin he had at dinner. I am your age, he goes.

Ahem, I go. You have six kids.

So I do, he goes. He turns his back, waiting for me to disappear. I think, I didn’t have sex with this man. I don’t even know him. Then he says, I’ll never get old.

You’re already old, I tell him.

He swivels around and peers at me huddled in my chair. You’re scary, he goes. You know that?

A bit over 20 years later, Rhea and Jocelyn visit Lou at his deathbed, poolside at his mansion, as ever.

Jocelyn, who has lost at least 15 years of her life as a drug addict, and has lost the capacity to love, thinks

“Who is this old man dying in front of me? I want the other one, the selfish, devouring man, the one who turned me around between his legs out here in the wide open, pushing the back of my head with his free hand while he laughed into the phone. […] I have a thing or two to say to that one.”

In the last story, the last episode, Bennie tries to make it up to Scotty, the friend of his youth, for Bennie’s former success and Scotty’s years of failure.

Bennie organises a massive outdoor gig at Ground Zero, where Manhattan’s Twin Towers once stood. The gig has been promoted virally through social media. It’s anybody’s guess how many might show up.

In the event (as they say), the ground is packed. Scotty panics severely:

Scotty shook his head. “The goon won.”

Yet, once forced on-stage, Scotty, who has been under the wire, so to speak, technologically, Scotty, who plays “ballads of paranoia and disconnection ripped from the chest of a man you just knew had never had a page or a profile or a handle or a handset [smartphone], who was no part of anyone’s data, a guy who lived in the cracks all these years, forgotten and full of rage”, is recognised as a signifier of The Authentic, “that now register[s] as pure”.

Scotty has the impact of a musical messiah, a Bob Dylan for the 2020s.

Scotty, who commences his set with songs for children, this future decade’s key trend, a Wiggles for “pointers” (infants) and adults alike, moves onto his punk repertoire from 1979: Eyes in my Head, X’s and O’s, Who’s Watching Hardest, and Jocelyn’s song, What the Fuck?:

You said you were a fairy princess
You said you were a shooting star
You said we’d go to Bora Bora
Now look at where the fuck we are…

Jennifer Egan’s characters each ask: Now look at where the fuck we are.

We are at ‘B‘.

We were there. Now we are here.


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Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan

To be clear: this is not a book about music. This is a novel about time and technology, and change. The music business, being a fast-changing, youth-obsessed industry, just happens to provide a perfect environment for themes of change, aging, redundancy, mortality.

I would know. I spent 10 years in the rock music industry. Now I’m 35 years older. I feel it. So, I think, do my contemporaries.

Jennifer Egan says she didn’t know a lot about the music business but researched in order to write this story – or these stories, more correctly, as A Visit to the Goon Squad comprises thirteen interlocked, interrelated short stories rather than the novel’s traditional linear chapter narrative.

The stories loosely pivot around Bennie Salazar, first met as a teenage bass player in a garage punk band in San Francisco in 1979, and his long-time assistant, Sasha, who we see at her youngest as a small child from the perspective of her uncle, and at her oldest as a mother in her late 40s. Variously, we meet Bennie’s mentor Lou, a big-name, hedonistic record producer in the ‘60s and ‘70s; Bennie’s wife, Stephanie, a sometime publicist; Bennie’s protégé Alex, a one-night-stand of Sasha’s; Bennie’s close friends from his punk days, Scotty, Jocelyn, and Rhea; Sasha’s uncle and her college friend, Rob; Lou’s lover Mindy; Stephanie’s ex-boss Dolly, in her heyday known as LaDoll; Dolly’s daughter Lulu; the ex-rock star Bosco; the flailing ex-ingénue ex-movie star Kitty Jackson; Jules, Stephanie’s brother, who attempts to rape Kitty; and sundry other friends, family, lovers and clients.

The tone veers radically from satire to sour. The forms vary from Proustian to PowerPoint presentation (really).

It’s wildly ambitious and wildly, breathtakingly accomplished, in the best ways.

The title?

Quite early, we meet Bosco, once a skinny, hyperkinetic stage performer guitarist, now an obese wreck. Bosco wants to go out on tour on stage one last time, doing what he once did, but blatantly as he is now: he knows it will kill him.

He tells Stephanie and Jules

“The album’s called A to B, right?” Bosco said. “And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about? Let’s not pretend it didn’t happen. […] Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?”

Later, Bennie echoes Bosco, telling his ex-bandmate Scotty, who has spent the better part of 50 years a bum

”Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?”

The novel could quite easily be titled A to B, like Bosco’s album: What happened? What took us from A (then) and turned us into B (now)?

Never having heard the expression “Time’s a goon”, I like to think Jennifer Egan lifted the image from Elvis Costello’s song Goon Squad, off his album Armed Forces, which came out in 1979, the same year the fictional Bennie Salazar connected with the fictional Lou Kline:

I could be a corporal into corporal punishment
Or the general manager of a large establishment
They pat some good boys on the back and put some to the rod
But I never thought they’d put me in the

Goon squad […]

Some grow up just like their dads
and some grow up too tall
Some go drinking with the lads
Some are no fun at all
And you must find your proper place
For everything you see
But you’ll never get to make a lampshade out of me

I danced to that song at my 18th birthday party.

The way I heard it then, and the way I hear it now, Elvis Costello’s song is about paths our lives could take, and our fear that we can’t control how it’ll turn out, and our fear the way it turns out might be completely random, or conversely, that it absolutely might not be: that some of us are born to lose and some are born to survive.

These are themes I read in Jennifer Egan’s book. Among other things, it’s exploring failure and thwarted potential, and unexpected, unlooked for success; the tragedies of getting what you want, or not getting it. It’s shockingly predictive of the #MeToo movement, and predictive, too, of technological change and its effects on human relations (A Visit to the Good Squad was published in 2010).

There were characters I feared for. Please, let them live. Let them live well.

Some pray to survive.

Sometimes I read the ‘B‘ where Egan took individual characters, and sighed in relief. Sometimes I felt sad for where she left them. But if Egan’s book says anything, it says the story ain’t over, until life ends. There’s a recurring motif of sunrises and sunsets. Life ends for only a couple of these characters within the pages of these stories.

Of the arcs I found chilling, Jocelyn’s story stands out. We meet Jocelyn as a beautiful Eurasian 17 year-old Californian punk. In 1979 she has the fortune, or misfortune, to be picked up as a hitchhiker by Lou Kline the hot-shot record producer, in his red Mercedes.

Jocelyn’s friend Rhea (“the girl no one is waiting for. Usually the girl is fat […]”) tells us

“I’m two inches away on my parents’ flowered bedspread while she dials the phone with a black fingernail. I hear a man’s voice answer, and it shocks me that he’s real. Jocelyn didn’t make him up […] He doesn’t go, Hey beautiful, though. He goes, I told you to let me call you.”

Later

“A man is sitting in a round corner booth, smiling teeth at us, and that man is Lou. He looks as old as my dad, meaning forty-three. He has shaggy blond hair, and his face is handsome, I guess, in that way dads can sometimes be.

C’mere, beautiful, Lou actually does say, and he lifts an arm to Jocelyn.”

Before long Lou is forcing Jocelyn’s head up and down on his erect penis as they sit in a public booth in a nightclub. But that’s okay. Already “Lou did some lines off Jocelyn’s bare butt and they went all the way twice, not including when she went down on him”.

It is not always okay. Not once Jocelyn forms a bond with Lou’s eldest, best-loved son, Rolfe.

I’ve met a few Lou’s. Happily, I’ve never had the experiences Jocelyn has. Jocelyn is a fiction, but she reminds me sharply of the actor and activist Rose McGowan writing about her early experiences in L.A., in her autobiography Brave.

Rhea says to Lou

I go, do you even remember being our age?

Lou grins at me in my chair, but it’s a copy of the grin he had at dinner. I am your age, he goes.

Ahem, I go. You have six kids.

So I do, he goes. He turns his back, waiting for me to disappear. I think, I didn’t have sex with this man. I don’t even know him. Then he says, I’ll never get old.

You’re already old, I tell him.

He swivels around and peers at me huddled in my chair. You’re scary, he goes. You know that?

A bit over 20 years later, Rhea and Jocelyn visit Lou at his deathbed, poolside at his mansion, as ever:

Jocelyn, who has lost at least 15 years of her life as a drug addict, and has lost the capacity to love, thinks

“Who is this old man dying in front of me? I want the other one, the selfish, devouring man, the one who turned me around between his legs out here in the wide open, pushing the back of my head with his free hand while he laughed into the phone. […] I have a thing or two to say to that one.”

In the last story, the last episode, Bennie tries to make it up to Scotty, the friend of his youth, for Bennie’s former success and Scotty’s years of failure.

Bennie organises a massive outdoor gig at Ground Zero, where Manhattan’s Twin Towers once stood. The gig has been promoted virally through social media. It’s anybody’s guess how many might show up.

In the event (as they say), the ground is packed. Scotty panics severely:

Scotty shook his head. “The goon won.”

Yet, once forced on-stage, Scotty, who has been under the wire, so to speak, technologically, Scotty, who plays “ballads of paranoia and disconnection ripped from the chest of a man you just knew had never had a page or a profile or a handle or a handset [smartphone], who was no part of anyone’s data, a guy who lived in the cracks all these years, forgotten and full of rage”, is recognised as a signifier of The Authentic, “that now register[s] as pure”.

Scotty has the impact of a musical messiah, a Bob Dylan for the 2020s.

Scotty, who commences his set with songs for children, this future decade’s key trend, a Wiggles for “pointers” (infants) and adults alike, moves onto his punk repertoire from 1979: Eyes in my Head, X’s and O’s, Who’s Watching Hardest, and Jocelyn’s song, What the Fuck?:

You said you were a fairy princess
You said you were a shooting star
You said we’d go to Bora Bora
Now look at where the fuck we are…

Jennifer Egan’s characters each ask: Now look at where the fuck we are.

We are at ‘B‘.

We were there. Now we are here.