“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin
Despite a chill wind straight for Antarctica and a train strike I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with two special writing friends, Mairi Neil and Jillian Bailey. We listen to each other, share our hopes and dreams, keep each other’s secrets, workshop our stories and make time to catch up, drink wine, eat cheese and chocolate in ridiculous amounts. Most of all we laugh until our cheeks hurt and our sides are splitting.
This is my first ‘selfie’ picture. Not great, but with practice I will improve. A bit like writing a story. The first draft is always full of mistakes and can only improve with the input of others and a rewrite. To belong to a writing group means having writing friends willing to give you constructive comments about your work that can greatly improve the finished story.
We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives. (Heilbrun, 1995)
Mairi Neil has her own amazing blog here at wordpress. She formed the Mordialloc Writers’ Group twenty years ago. Over those years she has edited and published eight professionally printed and bound anthologies showcasing the short stories and poems produced and work-shopped throughout the year. Every anthology has a theme such as Off the Rails about the Frankston train-line or Carnival Caper featuring the Mordialloc Carnival, once a regular feature near the mouth of the Mordialloc Creek.
When asked to write a short story with a carnival theme the only thing that came to mind was my unexpected meeting with an elderly woman in Queensland. You know how sometimes you are waiting for a bus and start chatting with the person next to you. Before long you are swapping life stories even though you know, and maybe because, you will never see each other again. Soon a bus arrives and you have to leave but her story stayed in my heart. I decided to weave it with fiction for this anthology.
Roses for Robbo
I can hear it, smell it, long before I see it. My skin prickles. Horses whinny. The bittersweet smell of nuzzled hay and sugar laden fairy floss saturates the early morning air. Years ago the Merry go round churned out an off key rendition of Roll out the Barrel and local boys were the clowns. Molting camels spat at unwary visitors, and…I quickly drag my mind back from the past and concentrate on the footpath, lengthen my stride, quicken my pace. I pump my arms to try to tighten years of flab, but it never goes away. Use it or lose it. Got to keep fit. Got to keep going. Concentrate on tomorrow.
Sleepy shops, blinds half raised, doors partially open and not quite ready to welcome visitors, line the shopping strip. My nostrils quiver at the smell of hot baked bread. A couple of whole grain bread rolls from Bakers Delight and a banana will see me through the day. The Shorehaven Motel is cheap and clean, but I don’t order breakfast. I can look after myself. After rearing five girls and a boy on my own I know how to manage. They’ve all gone their separate ways. I’ve got twelve grandchildren. Imagine that. Twelve, and soon I’ll have a baker’s dozen. But that’s not what I’m here for. This trip is about Rob. It’s always about Rob.
I moved to Queensland ten years ago after my operations. I nearly died five times. Intestinal infections and a stuffed up repair job meant I had to be near my kids. I’m closest to Jenny, my youngest. She built a granny flat on their property in Gympie and I help with the garden and take care of the boys.
‘Do you have to go again this year, Mum? You know how I worry about you,’ she says.
‘But you’re seventy-five now. Surely it’s time to give it away’
‘While there’s breath in my body, I’m going.’
Twenty-seven years ago Rob was nineteen, six foot five tall and bulletproof. For years, I’d rented a rundown house in Ozone Avenue and the kids grew up on the beach. Mark lived next door and often fled from raised voices and smashed crockery.
‘Would you like to stay for a sandwich, Mark?’
‘Sure would Mrs B’
‘You can stay the night if you like’
‘Thanks Mrs B.’ That night became every night. He shared Rob’s bedroom in a covered in section of the bull nose veranda. Mark relished sleeping on a blow up camp bed on the floor next to Rob’s bed. They talked and laughed long after they should have been asleep. I didn’t have the heart to chastise them. Every day, Mark and Rob helped me suck sand out of the roof between the rafters with a vacuum cleaner so the ceiling wouldn’t cave in. Sand seeped into everything. We became used to the grit of it in our teeth and missed it when we moved. Food just doesn’t taste the same without a bit of sand. On stormy days, I’d look at two eager faces. ‘Get going then,’ I’d sigh.
‘Surf’s up,’ they’d shout, grabbing their boards and racing out the door.
‘Morning, Mark’ I call. He is arranging several boogie boards beside the entrance of his surf shop.
‘Back again Mrs B,’ he says wrapping his arms around me. ‘Give me a kiss you sexy beast.’ I punch his paunchy belly
‘You’ve put on weight, you big log. Time you joined Jenny Craig.’ He kisses my cheek.
‘Thought you’d be by sometime today.’ He points inside. ‘Let’s have a cup of tea.’ The walls of the tiny lunchroom at the back of the shop are covered with pictures of Mark, his wife and their three girls.
‘No boys yet?’
‘We’re working on it,’ he says with a smile. Childish kindergarten scrawlings of bright yellow suns, and lopsided houses cover the refrigerator.
‘Strong tea, milk and one sugar,’ he pours boiling water into mugs. I stare at my mug. ‘To the best dad in the world,’ I read.
Mark leans forward and holds my hand. ‘He would have made the best dad,’ He lowers his head. ‘Rob a dad?’ I notice a few grey strands among Mark’s brown curls. ‘Weren’t you both going to remain single and surf forever?’ It’s good to see Mark smile.
‘Like some toast and vegemite for old time’s sake?’ he says. I shake my head.
The shop door clangs open.
‘Sorry, Mrs B. Got to go. Must keep a roof over our heads.’ He hurries to greet his first customer for the day. I follow him. ‘See you tomorrow?’
‘Same time, same place.’
Lisa’s bridal shop window displays a gown of frothy tulle and seed pearls on the forever-smiling virginal model. I push open the heavy door. Gwen takes pins out of her mouth and sticks them into a pad strapped to her wrist.
‘Good to see you again, Marg,’ she says, giving me a bear hug. ‘Seen Mark yet?’
‘Just a couple of minutes ago.’ She looks deep into my eyes. ‘How have you been?’
‘I’ve been better.’
‘Take care of yourself.’ She reaches under the counter. Gwen hands me a familiar square packet. I fumble in my purse.
‘They’re free this year,’ she says with a smile. I tuck the packet of dried petals into my bag.
Twenty-seven years ago the circus was just a well worn tent surrounded by a few mangy camels and two Shetland ponies munching on hay. Rob would live, eat and breathe the circus. He would do anything over the summer, muck out the horses boxes, groom the camels, cart water and help with the rigging. He painted his face in a big clown grin and he seemed to grow even taller when the children shrieked with delight. He was so proud of the pennies he earned and the eight of us could go to the circus as many times as we liked. We ate chips, donuts oozing raspberry jam, hamburgers, sausages, dripping fat and smothered in onions on a slice of squishy white bread. Silly when I think about it.
I walk back to the motel to rest, but my memories won’t leave me alone. Was it really twenty-seven years ago that Rob put on his red clown nose, long shoes and baggy pants and ran out into the ring with the other clowns? He and Marko honked the horn of the comedy car, pulled floppy ears and the more the kids laughed the sillier Robbo got. He did somersaults; back flips, and pretended to throw a bucket of water over the kids ducking in the front row. The bucket was filled with red rose petals. He hid behind Marko, moved when Marko moved and then curled up on the sawdust and rested his head on prayer like hands. I heard his pretended loud snores. The girls and I waited for him to jump up, to laugh and clap his hands. It was such a good trick. But he didn’t move. He lay there like a baby taking a nap. Other clowns ran over. They poked and prodded and laughed and honked horns right by his ear, but he didn’t move. I clutched my cardigan across my chest, not daring to breathe. When Marko gathered Robbo’s limp body up in his arms, I jumped the barrier…
The light of a dying moon relieves the pre-dawn darkness. Mark and I walk in silence down the bush-lined track until we reach the wide expanse of white sand. Tiny wrens sleepily call to each other, sand scrunches between our toes. We finally come to the place where day after day I would sit and watch Rob and Mark paddle out to sea. Rob was so happy then. So big and strong. Brimming over with life.
‘Scatter my ashes here when I die,’ he said jokingly one day as seagulls wheeled and cried overhead.
‘Sure, mate,’ Mark replied and splashed him as they raced each other into the sea. Did Rob have a premonition? Did his enlarged heart; so big it could encompass the world, warn him that time was short? For the twenty-seventh year, Mark places a half circle of candles in the sand. Their flames flutter in the early morning breeze. We sit together cross-legged at the edge of the water.
I look through a rainbow of tears at Mark’s manly features and the red clown nose. Marko and me. Fifteen minutes is all we need. Fifteen minutes once a year. The first tentative fingers of sun turn the clouds rose pink and I quietly talk to Rob, tell my son what has happened during the past year. Births, deaths, joys and sorrows. As the sun rises, I stand and throw my arms wide to embrace all that he was, all that he is. Mark wraps a comforting arm around my shoulders. Rose petals float out on the waves as I say goodbye to my boy for another year.
I used to worry about taking small incidents in my life and writing about them until I discovered this quote by Helen Garner
What I know about is domesticity; about marriage and families and children, so that’s what I write about and therefore a lot of my events take place in people’s houses. Anyway, I was feeling particularly bad about this one day I was walking along the street thinking, “My God, my scope is so small, it’s so small.’ And I looked in the window of a print shop and they had that Van Gogh picture of the inside of his bedroom. I stood there and looked at it and I thought, ‘that’s a wonderful painting and everyone knows it’s a wonderful painting and what is it? It’s only a chair and a bed. It’s a painting of someone’s bedroom, their own bedroom.” I found that very encouraging. There’s no way you can know if your own work’s important, you do it because you like it and it’s the only thing that makes you happy.
These days I happily write anything and everything and don’t care a toss about whether it is literary or not. There is incredible freedom in writing what comes from the heart