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My heart sank, emptied. There were only two of them, not three.
But I had to keep moving.
I went into the shed and got the pellets and scratch-mix together, and then went back to the coop. Still just the two of them. I filled the feeder and then lifted the door to the coop proper. There she was, on her side. Dead. My heart sank – emptied – even further.
I poked my head in just to be sure. Amazingly her eyes opened. But how sick she was. She could barely move. She appeared paralysed, or half-paralysed. She looked as though she’d been run-over. She had been such a beautiful bird, so black, almost crow-like, but what a deeply glistening chest of red. And placid. And very friendly. Never any trouble. I knew what I had to do, but it was first thing in the morning and I wasn’t up for it. I needed a coffee first. Strong, black.
When the coffee was done I went back out to the run. I could hear her chirping (as though still a chick) to her sisters outside. Despite barely being able to move her body, she wanted to be feeding with them. I found an old stainless-steel cat’s bowl, filled it with pellets and scratch-mix, topped it with a dollop of natural yoghurt, and placed it beside her. She looked at the food but her body was too weak to eat. I went back into the house, made myself a second coffee. I googled ‘sudden partial paralysis in chickens’. Marek’s disease. That was the obvious answer. No cure.
There was only one way to solve this.
I went back outside. Somehow she’d made it down the ladder-ramp but was huddled in a dark corner. I checked the cat’s bowl of feed I’d got together for her – it hadn’t been touched. How on earth had she managed to get down to the ground? Desperate to be with her sisters, had she simply tumbled out? I had no way of knowing.
I went back inside, went down the hallway to the writing room, and got to work. Tried to get to work. I remembered how some months ago I’d suddenly lost a hen who’d come over half-paralysed and had died by day’s end in the dark corner of the coop. Her body looked contorted; it hadn’t been an easy death. I’d give today’s sick hen till lunchtime.
At noon I went outside. Now she was moving around in the sun, gingerly, but she was pecking at this and that, as if she was trying to find a kind of natural rhythm. At 3pm I checked again. Now she was giving herself a vigorous dust-bath. She looked as steady as ever. Three chooks again: all of them back to being as happy as I’d ever known them. What had happened during the night? How come she’d become so squashed and mangled and mostly motionless?
The only explanation I could think of was this: now that winter had come they’d huddled themselves right up, but she’d found herself beneath her sisters. They’d squashed her in their bid for communal warmth. Almost to the point of death. All it had taken was a handful of hours in the sun for her to unravel and feel herself again.
Just before going to bed last night, I went out with a torch to see how they were. All three of them were roosting in a row, staring at me as if to say, ‘What do you want?’
One of the most thrilling events that has ever happened in my literary life is this: an Australian poet has created a ‘found poem’ out of something I wrote a long time ago.
The poet? Stuart Barnes. The poem? ‘Stern Man’. The written thing of mine? A novel called Remnants. It really is magical, this poem, for many reasons. Reading it, working it out, returns me to 2001, when I was completing a Master of Creative Arts/Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, which I’d thoroughly enjoyed. An early draft of what would become Remnants was produced during that deliciously immersive period of study.
I never thought the manuscript would see the light of day. But buoyed by something that my external examiner, Ian Syson (the then editor of Overland), had written in his feedback, that the manuscript would ‘surely’ find a home somewhere, I shopped the thing around. With no luck. Eventually a colleague suggested I meet with Ian Templeman, who at the time was the publisher at Pandanus Books, the Australian National University’s press (which appears to no longer exist). Ian had read a short story of mine in Overland and enjoyed its ‘intimacy’, so agreed to read my manuscript; months later he made an offer to publish it, though I would have to wait ‘some time, years perhaps’ as he needed to create an imprint to do so.
So, in 2005, out into the world came Remnants.
It’s a quiet story, a humble production, but somehow it received a large number of reviews, including in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra, Times, the Age, and Antipodes; all but one was more than positive.
What’s it about?
Following his wife’s death, Mitchell Granville, retired barrister and son of a celebration politician, spends his twilight years hidden in a village in the Blue Mountains. For company he has his books, his late father’s semi-wild peacocks, and a sculpture of a naked woman’s torso. Over time he succumbs to loneliness and realises that there is at least one person he needs to rediscover. When he finally makes contact, all does not go as planned. Soon he finds himself being coaxed into at trek that crosses the breadth of his country and the depths of his past.
At least that’s the story according to Pandanus.
I loved writing Remnants, and rewriting it, and editing it, and polishing it (though I admit to moments where I thumped the desk because the story and/or the prose just wasn’t up to scratch), and it was a thrill to see it make its way in the world. However, almost a decade later, I feel as though I’ve moved on. In 2010 there was the Launceston experience, those four weeks during which the way I wrote was turned on its head. Since then, I’ve been working on the Blemish novellas, which are much shorter works than Remnants. It’s almost as if that novel was a blip, an aberration, some kind of literary miracle, and perhaps it was. But now I’m thinking about that book again, because of Stuart Barnes’ ‘Stern Man’.
Stuart’s lines are collected mostly from the short proem that opens the story: Mitchell Granville, a melancholic man at best, is taking a bath in what was once an apple-picker’s shed, though something more serious is going on. What I admire most about ‘Stern Man’ is that Stuart has lifted the chosen lines and created something entirely new, something – yes – magical. I do love the idea of a peacock collecting firewood.
Magical, also, because I based Mitchell’s bath on the one I used to enjoy in the Blue Mountains holiday cottage that my family rented for many years every summer and some winters. You had to make a fire in a barrel and wait for it to puff like a steam-engine before turning on the tap so the water would warm and dribble through. When I was nothing more than boy, when I was soaking in that rust-brown water after yet another day of exploring wild bushland, did I used to imagine that my brain would spark a novel and that my novel would spark a poem written by someone else? I may have been a relentless dreamer, but I could never have dreamt that far.
Enough from me.
Here’s ‘Stern Man’ by Stuart Barnes, which was first published in Four W twenty-four (2013). Please note: what’s not included in the image, but is included as a footnote to the original poem as published, are the words ‘a found poem; source: Nigel Featherstone, Remnants, Pandanus Books, 2005′. These things are important.
Three cheers for literary miracles.
The audience gasped and it was because of something I said, or, at least, had written in a humble novella called I’m Ready Now. I didn’t think much of it, because I had to keep reading, engaging the crowd as much as humanly possible (especially when your hands are shaking and your legs feel as though stuffed with porridge). It wasn’t until I finished and stepped off the stage that Greg Gould from Blemish Books said to me with a cheeky glint in the eye, ‘Some may have found the reference to X a shock to the system.’ Of course, Greg didn’t say ‘X’; he told me exactly what some may have found a shock to the system. But I didn’t mind, not at all, because it’s better for an audience to have a strong reaction than to have no reaction.
Now it’s time to focus on the next public-speaking gig: the 2013 Southern Highland Writers’ Festival, which runs from Friday 12 July to Sunday 14 July in Bowral, New South Wales. Shit – next weekend! Check out the festival’s website for the program. As mentioned before around these parts, my session, which is with Wollongong-based novelist Christine Howe, is at 4pm on Saturday. Not only am I looking forward to participating in this amazing festival and gratuitously rubbing shoulders with eminent writers like Anne Summers, Mark Tredinnick, and Ursula Dubosarsky, I have a few familial connections to the region.
My father worked in the local hospital, my parents lived on neighbouring Mt Gibraltar, my maternal grandparents lived opposite the town oval (now named Bradman Oval, which is apparently a reference to some cricketer or other), and family lore has it that in the late 1700s, after immigrating in a boat – yes, Australian politicians, IN A BOAT – my forebears, convicts the lot of them, were granted land just south of Bowral. These days, my kin are all over the joint, but I’m just an hour down the road, in bloody-boiling-one-day-and-fucking-freezing-the-next Goulburn, which is, quite frankly, where I’m happiest.
But I’m getting carried away.
If you’re not doing anything next weekend, why not head for the Highlands? It’ll be great to see you. I might even tell you about X.
About a launch
Somehow it’s all happening at once, so to keep track of everything that’s happening, and to share some of the goodies, here’s a very rare mid-week Under the counter post. Firstly, just a reminder that my second novella with Blemish Books, I’m Ready Now, is being launched tomorrow (Thursday) night, at 5.30pm at Electric Shadows Bookshop, Mort Street, Braddon, ACT; it’s a thrill to have journalist and biographer Christine Wallace cutting the metaphorical ribbon. Cue sleepless nights and trembling hands.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been leaking bits and pieces about I’m Ready Now, so to keep the tradition going for a little while longer, this novella manages to meander its way between Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney, and northern Vietnam and south-west Ireland also get a mention. And ‘Sail On’ by The Commodores features, and this is a band that can apparently walk on clouds – make of that what you will.
Relating to I’m Ready Now, the increasingly influential literary blog Whispering Gums recently asked me for a guest-post. I wrote about novellas (no surprises there), raising children (yes, you read that right), and how family-life is the raison d’etre of the contemporary Australian novel (I really believe that). Oh, I also mention zombies. Massive thanks to Sue Terry for the opportunity.
An anthology of giants
More broadly, I’ve mentioned before that a story of mine, ‘Severance’, which was first published in the Canberra Times in 2003 and republished in Island in 2004, has been included in The Invisible Thread: one hundred years of words (Halstead Press), which celebrates the Centenary of Canberra in 2013. Creative Director of the Centenary – and singer, writer, and arts-luminary-in-general – Robyn Archer says in her introduction: ‘The anthology includes names such as Roger McDonald, David Campbell, Blanche d’Alpuget, Barbara Blackman, Rhyll McMaster, Alan Gould and Jackie French; but there are also equally beautiful emerging voices such as those of Omar Musa, Nigel Featherstone, Sarah St Vincent Welch and Melinda Smith. That so much good writing, past and present, should emerge from this region is a powerful challenge to the silly cliché of Canberra as a city without a soul.’ Needless to say, it’s a real treat to have work included in these pages.
Oh look, I’m now on YouTube
The tireless editor and project-manager of The Invisible Thread, Irma Gold, who is a very fine author in her own right, has video-interviewed seventeen of the writers involved, including yours truly. You can watch the interview here. Mostly I talk about how ‘Severance’ (which, perhaps, has turned out to be my biggest hit) was written, the benefits of living in Canberra and now Goulburn, and juggling everything that life throws at us. The Invisible Thread is being launched in Canberra on Thursday 29 November.
I hope you enjoy the links, but it’d be great to cross paths with you in person at the I’m Ready Now launch tomorrow night, or The Invisible Thread launch next week.