Sunday, 3 March 2019

A Ripple Here, a Breaking Wave There

Cloudy, autumn, Blue Mountain dawns are, in our front yard, a melange of almost every green on the pallette, leavened by the dull greys and browns of bark and twig, and one brief glimpse of the white house beyond the creek, on the other side the little valley.  Later, the sun will push through even thick cloud and pick out the late roses, and second blooming of the rosemary, but, for now, the shadows and muted colours allow easy concealement for both the hunter and the hunted.

As I stood at the top of the steps, assessing what level of clothing would be adequate for a walk to the village, an anomalous fleck of brightness jiggled into view at ground level.  Brillliant white, bobbing up and down,  crossing the grass (not lawn, it hasn't been mowed for a while, and is only kept in check by the tyres of family who are staying for a while) towards me.

Changing focus from sky to earth, I find our resident Black Ducks waddling towards me.  One has picked up a fallen Cockatoo feather - small, squarish, and ever so white - and is waving it at me while its mate mutters quietly about their need for breakfast.  The feather is dropped in the rush, the moment I toss a few little scraps of (wholemeal) bread onto the grass.

How long do these birds live?  I've looked up a variety of sites and reference works and so far haven't been able to find an answer.  We met them first, eleven and a half years ago, soon after we arrived at our new home in the Valley on top of the Mountain.  I had walked to the letterbox and was standing there, checking the mail, when a soft, repetitive mutter intruded on my reading.  A duck was standing a few feet behind me, looking up, addressing me in his own language.  I don't know where he was while I crossed the yard - there was no flutter of wings to say he had flown in from the creek, so I must have walked past him.  I could hear my grandfather's voice, decades ago..

"Lucky it wasn't a Brown Snake, lad, it would'a got you"  It was a reminder to look about while I walked - what else had I missed?

He followed me back to the house, so I took the hint and threw some bread onto the lawn - he had made it clear he wasn't leaving the verandah otherwise.  A day or two later, he was back - with a friend.  Not long after that, we were introduced to seven fluffy ducklings.  I am guessing that the previous residents had been feeding them, and, despite the house having been empty for some months, they hadn't forgotten what might be possible, if the right questions were asked.

Similarly, it didn't take long for our Magpie Landlords to arrive and let us know what rent would be acceptable to them - and the King Parrot that landed on my shoulder with no warning was another sign of my place in the order of things.  Our new beginning in the mountains was, in the lives of the feathered locals, a continuation - a new, if similar, chapter in a longer story.  Those birds had been dealing with humans for a long time, and not only the owners of this house.  Our Magpie friends had a cafe-crawl that included several other houses along our street, as well as the butcher in the village on the other side of the railway line.

Before we had met many of the local humans, the birds were already greeting us and letting us know where we stood in their world.  It is a world that their ancestors occupyied and shared with humans for a very, very long time.  Only thirty years ago, or forty at the most, this ground was a swamp full of paperbark trees and reeds, frogs and snakes - do these ducks remember those times?  They would have raised many ducklings in such a place. 

The Cockatoos would remember - they are said to live seventy years, perhaps more, and the more I see of them, the easier it is to believe that they have a language, culture, and an oral history.  That would mean it is only just over three and a half Cockatoo lifetimes since Governor Phillip set his convicts and marines to work on the shores of Port Jackson.

It could be as much as a thousand Cockatoo lifetimes since the ancestors of the Gundungurra people first drank from the stream that flows past our garden.  I wonder what stories the Cockatoos have been able to tell each other about this land, and the changes that various people have wrought upon it, even as the ice ebbed and flowed, and the oceans rose and fell.

All who came before us left their marks, and created ripples that reach across time and space to affect the here and now.  Ripples seem tiny things, but when enough arrive at a conjunction, a wave can rise, and break - it can freshen a pond, or crash upon a shore and uproot what was standing. 

Have you wondered, as you paddle your canoe down the stormier reaches of the river of life, which choices of your own have put you where you are?  Most of us do - yet there are waves in that maelstrom that grew from the ripples of the decisions of others, made in other times and places, near and far, just as the ripples of our own making have gone far from our sight, to shores we may never see.  One wave might threaten to pull us under - another might wash us onto a welcoming shore - the voyage, one way or the other, is sure to be interesting.

I stood, mattock in one hand on this sunny morning, and contemplated my vegetable garden. I looked at the waves of pumpkin leaves and froth of summer grass seed heads that were breaking across my once tidy beds, and remembered the source of some of the ripples that led to this verdant tempest.  Hurrying onto rain-soaked steps while wearing old, smooth-soled shoes was one splash that is still making itself felt - one moment of carelessness, followed by months of consequences.  I can still only weild the mattock one handed, so it is going to take time to get the gardens back where I want them.  The winter frosts will probably do more clearing and weeding than me.

Still, it could be worse - we escaped the fire season that was anticipated for The Mountains, unlike so many other parts of Australia (shhhh!  I know - it is only the beginning of March - there is still April to go yet)

Thursday, 7 February 2019

An Absent Voice

When I set out writing this novel I began writing at the point that the protagonist is arriving, with family members, at a place he's never been before, noticing things and people that soon have him drawing on his years as an investigator.  As interesting as I found that scene, it was slow paced, and the protagonist was arriving after the incident that forms the core of the story.  Most of the people in town already know something has happened, and at least one may know all the facts. My protagonist is a late-comer (to me, as well as the story) and an outsider, and not everyone will be happy with his involvment.

I realised that I didn't know all the details of that incident, either.  I needed to write it down - to follow the thread of the narrative and see where it took me.  Who done it, and why?  So, I put pen to paper and set out.  A few pages into this I realised that there were people who had witnessed parts of what happened that night, even if they didn't immediately realise it. 

Though they wouldn't be entering the awareness of the protagonist for hours or even days, I had to write their stories, too, so I could understand what their relationship with the protagonist and other characters would be.  I ended up with four "preludes" to the opening chapter that I first wrote.  This is the one about the the character and the moments around which the story is centred.  It has been trimmed, refined, re-written, and trimmed again, and now feels like it should be the opening pages of the book.  What do you think?



SHORT CUT:

Perry laughed as he urged his utility up the steep, overgrown bush track; narrow escapes always filled him with an exultant energy.  The corrugations shook the Hilux sideways across the gravel surface towards the deep, rocky drain on the left.  He eased off the pedal and fought the shuddering steering wheel until the bonnet pointed up the centre of the track again, and then shoved the accelerator to the floor.  Driving with his window down, shivering and shirtless, he was listening through the wind in his ears for the sound that had sent him on this mad dash; the distinctive, burbling roar of a home modified exhaust, unlike any other car in the district.

A few minutes earlier that echoing, V-8 rumble had roused him from a warm bed and sent him running, boots, jeans, and shirt held close, into the cool night air. He had vaulted into his ute and made a crazy, lightless dash down the potholed wheel ruts that led from the house to the dirt road winding along the valley floor. Moonlight and memory got him to the road in one piece, just as the glow of head-lights silhouetted the trees on his right.

The roar of that exhaust was loud and clear as Perry threw the Hilux hard left and stamped on the accelerator, wanting desperately not to be snared by the approaching headlights.  Sharp white beams pierced the billowing dust cloud outside the farm gate as the Hilux fishtailed round the first bend.  He put his foot down and charged into the dappled shadows of the Eucalypts, hoping the kangaroos and wombats had the good sense to stay out of his way.  Behind him, the V-8 faltered briefly, and then roared even louder.

Three kilometres up the valley, Perry found the entry to his short cut and swung hard right.  The moonlight was enough for the pale, sandy road, but the narrow track up the forest-darkened gulley was invisible.  He flicked the parking lights on and lifted his foot a little.  That noisy exhaust was echoing louder again, though his rear-view mirror remained dark.  As he neared the head of the gulley, where the road hair-pinned right, a hint of a glow appeared, far behind; he took the bend fast, sliding on the loose surface, and his mirror was dark again..

Too late, he saw the cluster of potholes that stretched, trench like, across the track, black craters on a dark surface.  He hit the brakes, but the Hilux slammed into the sharp edge at the far side.  It bounced and lurched sideways towards dark tree trunks at the road's edge.  Perry coaxed it back into line and accelerated again, laughing as he realised that the low-slung vehicle behind him would never get through that last obstacle. 

Near misses piqued Perry's sense of adventure, but this one was too close.  A few minutes earlier, he would have been fatally oblivious to that warning rumble.  There could still be consequences in coming days, but Perry could talk his way out of almost any corner – especially over a beer or two. 

He hit the 'go' button on the CD player and began tapping the steering wheel as Highway to Hell thumped out of the speakers.  He turned his headlights on once he had put a forested ridge between himself and his pursuer, and pushed the ute as fast as the rutted, pot-holed track would allow, savouring the cooling tingle of the night air on his bare shoulder and chest, and tasting the joy of another little victory.

His headlights barely reached fifty metres ahead; just enough at this speed to see a roo or wombat if one leapt out of the shadowed undergrowth, but not enough to avoid hitting it.  The Hilux rattled and shuddered its way across the corrugations and protruding rocks, charging up a flickering, tree-lined tunnel of light.  Perry stood on the brakes again, surprised by a hairpin bend he'd thought was still a hundred metres ahead.  The ute slid onto its new course as Perry urged it towards the next hairpin – the third of five that would see him up onto the ridge, and closer to the little used trail that was his short cut home.  Near the top, he swung right onto a larger track – one used by the timber cutters and trail bike riders, mostly.

The forest thinned in that dryer country along the top of the ridge. A wallaby darted away from the noise and light as he began his charge down along the shallow saddle.  Perry braked carefully, looking for its mates, and the turn off that he knew should appear on his right any second.  It would be nice to be home before anyone tried to ring him. 

When the gap in the trees appeared, Perry braked hard and swung the nose of the vehicle sharply onto its new course. He had to fight for control as the tail swung out too far.  The left wheels found the soft edge before he had the Hilux straightened out, but an ominous, flapping growl announced that one of the back tyres was flat.  He pushed on up the slope to the level stretch beyond the first bend as the metal rim began to scrape on the gravel. 

The Hilux wobbled to a stop at the edge of the track as Bon Scott belted out the final phrases of Girls got Rhythm – the music died just before the engine did.  Perry slammed both hands on the steering wheel, then his forehead, and cursed.  He turned off the lights and listened, but apart from the creaking of cooling motor, and the soft, rhythmic thump of a departing kangaroo, the bush was silent.  He reached across to the passenger seat for his jeans, and began to dress, as a distant owl declared its presence.

The full moon was climbing higher as he jacked up the corner of the ute and glared at the shredded tyre.  The wheel nuts clung to the studs, screeching with each tug on the wheel brace.  It was the sort of noise people would hear miles away.  The spare fought with him as well, reluctant to leave its hiding place under the tray.  Months of dust had built up in every thread and track, jamming everything that should move freely.  Sweat dripped from his nose, and trickled down his ribs beneath his shirt, cooling to iciness by the end of its journey.

The spare, when he pulled it free, was flat.  He dragged it out, stood it up, and dropped it again.  It thumped lifelessly to the ground, and Perry gave it a good kick.  Flat as a tack and he'd left his compressor and tools at home before embarking on this night's adventure.

He looked up, startled by the faint whine of an engine, but the sound was gone as quickly as it had come.  He stood for a couple of minutes, listening and watching and working through his limited options.  He used this track because no one else did.  Now he needed a phone or an air pump, and neither looked likely.  Four hundred metres to the Ironstone Ridge track, and then a couple more kilometres pushing his spare tyre, would see him reach a couple of cabins perched on their isolated blocks on the spine of the ridge. 

He'd scouted these shacks two years ago, fruitlessly, he thought at the time, the day after a dance at the community hall.  He was certain, though, that one had a phone connected, and the other had a fairly well stocked workshop, so a compressor, or even a foot pump, was a chance.  He stood the spare up on its edge and gave it a push.  Half an hour later he wondered why he hadn't just driven to the cabins on the ruined tyre.  It would only have ruined the rim, after all; a very expensive rim, as he recalled.  Perry shrugged, cursed the thrifty genes his distant, Highland ancestors had bequeathed him, and kept pushing the flat tyre.

An hour later, he was still looking for the driveway to the first of the shacks.  How fast can a man walk when juggling a large flat tyre along an uneven dirt road?  Not as fast as he had expected, and uphill was easier, it turned out, than trying to restrain the wheel on the downhill sections. The skin on his palms was raw and stinging and his shoulders and back were threatening to go on strike.

Finally, a trace of pale sand shone faintly between two trees on his right.  He stopped in the middle of the moonlit road and stared into the dark tunnel. Fifty metres further along the road, he could see a glimmer of white painted rocks that marked another property entrance.  Perry held the tyre upright with one hand and searched his memory, trying to remember which one had the shed full of tools. 

Both shacks huddled under the trees, fifty metres from the track, but the moonlight was glinting on something metallic part way down the driveway closest to him.  Would someone be here on a Thursday?  He straightened as well as he could and rubbed the small of his back before moving on. 

The tyre had rolled only a metre or so when an engine roared into life.  Blinding white light stabbed out of the driveway as a vehicle accelerated straight at him.  Perry turned and let the tyre fall as he ran towards the trees at the far edge of the track.   The hard surface of the track changed to soft soil and leaves, and low prickly bushes clutched at his legs as the light and noise surged towards him, and gravel crunched as the vehicle skidded to a stop just short of the fallen spare wheel.

The voice that yelled his name was not one he wanted to hear.



Sunday, 3 February 2019

Inconsistent Voices

The feeling of victory has faded, the next battle has commenced.  The process of editing and revising is now under way - and what a task it is!  In many ways, getting the story written is the easy part, even when it did not always feel that way. It is when I sit down to revise and edit that brain fatigue becomes a much larger problem than it did during the first draft.

Voices - which one for the narration - which one for which character.....  which characters are more important?  When the story was flowing onto paper or screen, there was a no time to consider "voice" or "style" - the important thing was to get down the facts and conversations as they appeared, and the voice happened instinctively.

In some places, the flow was so smooth that the style was elegant, the language was evocative, and the images were clear; elsewhere, it was clunky and flat.  I knew where I was going, more or less, but the prose was wooden, the conversations between characters were stilted or forced.

In some places, narrative and conversation are sparse but good, almost in the manner of Hemingway while in other parts, a degree of poetry has entered the flow, and the prose and dialogue become almost lyrical - at least, until it becomes overly ornate, veering towards florid.  Re-reading the draft, I can't help wondering if whatever I might have been reading the night before had entered into my work, much like the way that the spices and flavours of supper can haunt the bathroom the next morning.  I suppose such flow-through is unavoidable, but is it good?

In this novel, the first character to come to mind - the one who provided me with the spark for theme and story - is dead very early in the story, glimpsed only briefly.  He never speaks directly from the page, instead, his words and actions are known by the traces, even the scars, they leave in the lives and words of the other characters.

The character first conceived of as the protagonist - the person who will pursue the truth - remains important, and I have a solid image of him in my mind.  However, two other characters appear, at first in minor roles, but soon become equally significant and interesting - they need their voices and their back stories too.

Inconsistencies need to be located and eliminated, or smoothed out - unless, of course, they are essential ones in the sense of the different versions of an event told by witnesses, or different assessments of a character by other characters.

Are the clues too obvious?  Or are there too few?  It is a very delicate balance between leaving the reader feeling that the ending is just right, even if unpredicted, and feeling that it is so "out of left field" as to be unfair to them and unsatisfactory/illogical/just plain wrong for the story.  No matter how illogical and inexplicable our real world may seem and feel, our reader expects us, our characters, and our story - especially the ending - to "make sense".

It leaves me wanting to bury the file for the novel and start writing short stories again - quick, simple and complex at the same time, and satisfying in that a job started in one hour can be finished in the next.

But that would be giving up on something that still has a lot of potential (not to mention that bane of the economist and psychologist - "sunk cost"), so, despite the battle cries of the warring bands of grandchildren who are circling my study, and the roaring engine of the mechanic - who knows what he is doing to that car? - only twenty metres away, it is "once more into the breach, dear pen, once more, and tighten up the narrative with our prosey skill"

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

It's a Long and Winding Road

First steps, first words - no matter how long the journey looks, it cannot happen without those beginnings.  Yet those first steps can be so hard to take - even if they are not beginning steps, but recommencement steps.  Especially when they are such - when the first stage of a journey is over, and you have stopped to draw breath, it is easy to notice again just how steep is the road ahead, and recall how rugged were some of the places along the road thus far.

It often seems steeper and rougher after a break than it did before you set out in the first place.  When you looked at the distant peak and imagined yourself at its summit, you could not have known just how many times the road would descend into valleys and dark places before climbing back into sunshine and fresh breezes. Achievements are made, the right words and phrases are found, and victories won - you gain the strength and enthusiasm to push on.

So I am back at my own desk, able to wander out into my own garden - though that keeps trying to distract me with all the tasks that need doing.  If I need a break from writing it is safer to amble along the creek bank.  There I can pause among the tree trunks and wait for the minnows and tadpoles to abandon the caution my arrival has provoked, and resume their browsing in the shallows.

If I stand still enough for long enough the bigger fish might cruise past - striped, red finned shadows, visible only when they move - and send the minnows scurrying for cover again - or the family of Kookaburras who patrol the district may bring their new youngsters to the creek bank to practice their foraging skills.  Standing still allows the mosquitoes to find me, of course - but the presence of mozzies brings those sparkling, translucent, blue-jewelled hunters, the damselflies.

One landed on my shoulder the other morning - my khaki shirt resembling a shrub, perhaps.  It sat there for a while - a delicate, perfectly still moment of transparency framed by fine, black lines, and punctuated by a tiny patch of vivid, sky blue; a jewel with wings  - until I turned my head a little too far towards it.  In the serenity of that shady creek bank I encountered something new - the tiny but distinct 'snap' of a damselfly's wings as it launched itself.  It was back a moment later, circling my legs in pursuit of the gathering mosquitoes - I think it caught one, as it flew off and settled on a twig, with something in the basket of its furled legs.

While I stood and watched the water glide slowly along, other things settled on me, too - memories, thoughts, ideas, and notions that busyness and noise can hold at bay.  Like the damselfly and the minnows, stillness suits them.

 
One of those notions related to one of the current news and discussion trends - manhood, toxic or otherwise; what it might be, how it is constructed and performed.  Is there a single, universal definition of "a man"? There wasn't one when I was growing up and asking myself what I was supposed to be doing to become "a man" - the culture around me contained so many different, often contradictory, versions.

What is "manly" behaviour?  I realised that it was one of the driving issues in the novel I am second-drafting at the moment - though I had not set out with it in mind as a theme.  Each of the five or six main male characters in the book have their own version of manhood, even if they have trouble living up to it. A couple of the characters have significant problems with their own expectations of themselves in this regard, as well as their perceptions of what others might expect of them.

Well - now I am going to have to go back through the draft with this notion in mind, and see what else needs to be addressed.  Is this going to take me into another gloomy valley, or another sunny upland?  On the road again........

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Unravelling

I have not been on holidays, as the lack of recent posts on this blog might lead you to suspect - if I had, then posts with pictures of surf, sunshine, and fish, would have been popping up. I have been busy providing support as various family members deal with the fraying and unravelling of some of the threads of the tapestry of their lives.  Stories have ended, and been lost, and threads have broken beyond repair, remaining only in memory.

It has been a difficult, trying time for some of them, and providing support has meant letting some of my routines slip - but that is life.  No amount of planning can identify the exact time and place when certain contingencies will pounce on us, even when the general form and likelyhood of such events is anticipated long in advance.

As the family have moved through the various emergencies and emerged at new balance points, I have been able once again to find time to write.  The journal came first, of course, as I needed to record and make sense of the things that were happening around me. As a degree of normality returned, I was able to once again address the final scenes of my current attempt at a novel - though that was simmering all the while at the back of my mind, and may even have benefited from the process of fermentation. 

A couple of days ago I was able to declare the first draft complete - the first time I have attempted a full length novel and reached a conclusion that I found satisfactory.  Short stories have always felt easier - the ingredients for the ending or the punch line are usually present in the opening lines or paragraphs.  The threads are fewer, and the weave, though it can be complex, does not have the potential for tangles that a few hundred pages can hold.  Short stories can be knotty, but novels can develop dreadlocks - combing them out can be so painful that the only option is run the clippers over it and start afresh.

Already I am building a mental file of the knots that need undoing or cutting, the trimming and polishing that has to happen to make a draft into a novel, and finding the idea of working on the second draft appealing.  Does that mean I am on the right road to completion?  I hope so, because the concept, characters, and scenes for another novel are already trying to get my attention.  Topical as those concepts and characters are, I need to get started soon.

Tonight looks like being the first in a few days not to be illuminated by lightning storms, so, as I doze off, thinking about my stories, I hope to be soothed by the murmur of the creek that has been refreshed by those storms, and the cheerful calls of the frogs and crickets enlivened by the rain and the rising waters.



Friday, 23 November 2018

Round Each New Corner....

The road goes ever on and on, said the Hobbit, and thus it is also with work in the garden.  As you near the end of one stretch of edging, weeding, or pruning, another space presents itself to the eyes and wakens the imagination, as it asks you to attend to its particular needs or potentials.

Spade an edge clear of twisting, burrowing tendrils of grass, making a clean border twixt lawn and garden, and the neat line of fresh soil calls attention to the weeds lurking between favoured plants, or highlights the dying tussocks that now slump down across next winter's daffodils and next spring's irises.

Though the spade in your hand still has more work to do, other tools are calling - hoe, weeder, secateurs, and rake, all crying out for their chance in the sun.  A bare patch of soil is begging for a cutting, seedling or rhizome from some other, overcrowded corner of the garden.  Perhaps the shade that covers that bare patch says violets, or the bright sunlight asks for a daisy or gazania. 

A newly mowed lawn makes even a slightly dishevelled herb or flower bed look like the proverbial sore thumb - though a wind such as the one that galloped through the Blue Mountains last night and this morning will soon cover such distinctions in a carpet of tattered leaves and torn twigs, and the grass rake will stand up eagerly, hoping for employment.  And so the work begins anew - and all the while the words are gathering in an unused corner of your mind, preparing to leap onto the page when you return to your desk.

For me, the routine work of the garden - be that garden a few square metres next to the house, or a few acres of squarely spaced watermelon or pumpkin vines unfurling their first large leaves towards the sun - is a meditative time in which my mind can wander far and wide across memories both past and future, undisturbed by the demands of society. 

Characters long forgotten, or newly created, can act out their parts on the broad stage of our imagination, unfettered by mere reality, while the hoe continues inflicting its routine, repetitive destruction on the weeds that have dared colonise the territories around these favoured plants of mine.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Tempus Fugit

With all my creative efforts going into the final chapter of my novel, and most of my remaining time going into preparing for the oncoming fire season - mowing and clearing - as well as helping out with a variety of family issues, I've lost track of my blogging - again.  In the absence of any writerly thoughts to offer you, can I instead present a few instances of the beauty that surrounds me, whenever I have the good sense to get outside and enjoy it....?










Australia's own jacaranda - a white cedar about to bloom





The bush has so many tiny treasures - we just need to move slowly enough to see them





The grape vines along my garden fence, enjoying Spring rain and sunshine