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Betwixt and between. It’s a wonderful phrase, partly because it sounds so good, all that alliteration and rhythm and balance, and partly because of its meaning – neither one thing nor the other, somewhere between the two. Grey is a good example: it’s neither black nor white. And Grey is my middle name, and I’m telling you the truth, so being neither one thing nor the other has been etched onto my DNA. But what exactly am I between? I’m between the old and the new, I’m between old age and youth – I’m stuck in the middle.
Increasingly, just like most people, I’m spending more and more of my life on-line, running websites, writing blog posts, handling a weekly avalanche of emails. And then there’s Facebook and Twitter, those necessary evils if you’re trying to make a go of a creative career and there are people out there who want to know what’s happening. It’s all very stressful, isn’t it, juggling these digital balls, making sure you don’t miss something important, even though 99 percent of what’s on the internet is…well, let’s not go into that. But there are joys, it has to be said –someone who regularly comments on my blog, someone I’ve never met in person, sent me a book to read, a real book, it turned up in my letterbox.
Speaking of my letterbox, something else miraculous turned up recently. A postcard. An actual postcard! On the back were handwritten sentences about a trip to a rehabilitated clay mine in Cornwell, followed by fish and chips overlooking the water, we just hope the weather holds for our canal-boat trip starting Monday. What really caught my eye, however, was the correspondent had correctly addressed my house: she’d used my house’s name: Leitrim. Yes, my house has a name, because it’s an old place, 1890s, high ceilings, picture-rails, a Hordern and Sons coal-burning fire, and leadlight windows. I adore it, I really do. Slowly I’m filling it with old furniture – my guilty pleasure is spending Sunday afternoons scouring shops selling secondhand goods in the hope that I can find something beautiful I can afford, like a chair, or a piece of cast-iron.
But still this house is where I update my Facebook status and send tweets.
Betwixt and between indeed.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 28 July 2012.)
It’s a small space, just ten metres by ten metres, approximately, of course, there’s no point being accurate about these things. Open the back door and you step into it, out there, a cast-iron doormat beneath your feet. To your left is a small nook, terracotta pots of geraniums beneath the bathroom windowsill, lattice covering the Colourbond fence, plastic terracotta half-pots screwed to the lattice (plastic only because real terracotta would be too heavy), some type of sedum clinging on for dear life in the pots. At the feet of the lattice is the narrowest of garden beds, bulbs emerging, grape hyacinth from memory. Also on your left is a Koppers-log shade structure covered in potato vine – smothered is a better word. It protects the kennel for The Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper’s food-and-water station.
But come up the path, do.
Now you’re in the guts of it, the cottage garden proper, though it’s winter so it’s looking worse for wear, it’s the frosts, and the wind, always the wind, because it’s relentless. On your left is a small veggie patch beneath the clothesline, the patch packed down with lucerne bought from the stockfeed supplier up the road, strawberry plants growing amongst it all. A timber bench at one end – it’s here that I drink coffee or tea, sit in the sun, watch the chooks, and let my brain empty. The chook run, painted deep red and a faded kind of light green to match the house, the roost half-covered in potato vine for shade in summer. A grey concrete stepping-stone path leading to the back gate; the gate’s flimsy so it’s secured with an old chain. And the single-car corrugated iron garage, though it’s more like a shed, no door, a lean to the whole thing but somehow it’s weatherproof.
Much of the space to your right is covered in lavender and rosemary, lamb’s ears, more bulbs coming through, daffodils I think, two standard roses (white), one has a lean to it, because of the wind. Another timber bench, this one I’ve had for thirteen years, one of the slats is broken so I don’t sit on the bench often, but it’s surrounded by a sparsely planted English box ‘hedge’. One day soon I’m going to buy a whole bunch of old bricks and pave the area beneath the bench and within the squared outline of the English box ‘hedge’, and probably put a small cast-iron urn on each side.
Speaking of cast-iron – even more cast-iron – there’s a cast-iron birdbath, it has an old-tractor-seat aesthetic, two cast-iron sparrows stuck onto the rim so they look like they’re drinking, but at this time of year they also look like they’re comatose with frost, so says He Who Notices These Things. Along the side fence, screening the neighbour’s yard, which is so filled with junk, even an old boat, that we call him Catweasel, or Weasel, or just Weaze, is an old fig tree, and a short run of wattles (I think they’re wattles), they too are windblown, and a Manchurian pear tree that will one day grow too big, too big for this space. A Chinese silk tree, bulbs beneath, more daffodils I seem to recall, but maybe bluebells as well. A low, old-brick wall. An old rusting watering can perched on a bush rock.
Between the old rusting watering can and the house is a small paved area, in the corners geraniums in pots, in the middle a timber outdoor setting, a white pot in the centre of the table, the pot overflowing with some kind of sedum that flourishes in Goulburn conditions. Sometimes I sit at the table and eat lunch, leftovers mostly, or eggs on toast, but I don’t sit there as often as originally envisaged, because of the mozzies that seem to love coming out from beneath the shade of the wattles.
Despite its small size, despite the fierce heat in summer and the frost in winter and the wind, always the wind, despite being fond of wearing black jeans, black T-shirts, listening to The Smiths and PJ Harvey records, despite loving a glass or three each evening, despite everything else I’ve put in my body, and done to my body, this space, this tiny tiny space, my garden, is where I love being. It’s my retreat, it’s my sanctuary. If I don’t spend at least an hour or two out there each week I unravel just a little bit (more).
Margaret Atwood said, ‘Gardening is not a rational act.’ So my garden is where I’m going now this post is done, and gardening is what I’m going to do. Drop over, drop in, have a cuppa and sit for a bit. Just make sure to bring a beanie, maybe gloves, perhaps even a scarf. And nothing – absolutely nothing – in your brain.
This post was inspired by a piece over at Broadside titled ‘Flowers and plants and shrubs – oh my!‘
Wow. Today, right now, I find myself feeling peaceful, so very peaceful. It might have something to do with the blue sky, which is such a relief after the weather we’ve had around these Southern Tableland parts, blustery and drizzly, sleety even, so it makes your hands turn grey-black and your nose feel as though it’s going to snap off. But it’s not just the weather, that deep dark blue Goulburn sky. No, it’s because yesterday, I feel, something momentous happened. It’s not momentous as in a change of government, or a great sporting achievement (as if sport can ever be such a thing), it’s just momentous to me.
You see, yesterday I submitted my second novella to my publisher. Yes, I’ve done this before; I’d thought I was finished, because I felt finished. It must have been some kind of trick, because Blemish Books came back with changes, good changes, and wise, which then set in train changes I wanted to make. So that’s how the last seven days have been, making changes to a manuscript and thinking about changes, even at night, and making more of the bloody things, until everything – everything – is perfect.
So I hope.
I’ve been going through I’m Ready Now with a fine-toothed comb, well, in reality it was just a Bic pen. I’ve agonised over words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters. I’ve never forgotten something that the Australian children’s-book author Mem Fox once said: ‘Care about writing because it matters. Ache over every detail. Be involved in the painful and intolerable wrestle with words and their meaning.’ So that’s what I’ve been doing: wrestling with words and their meanings until I’ve ached. Until the deadline loomed, the deadline that was 5pm yesterday.
At 4.45pm yesterday I bundled up the manuscript onto a flash-drive, loaded it onto my laptop, crafted an email…and pressed SEND. The next time I see the manuscript it will be professionally laid out, and the opportunity for making changes will be limited. Oh, what a relief. Last night I celebrated with a glass of wine and a fire in the hearth. And two steaks of salmon, which was an extravagance, but why not. I slept well.
Today, yes, such extraordinary peace, as though every worry I’ve had has simply dissolved. But I’ve not given myself a day off – I’ve been in the writing room, in uggboots and tracksuit pants and an old stripy-brown jumper my mother knitted for me when I was a teenager and I’ve kept it with me all this time, it has holes but who cares. And I’ve worked, going back to another project, except I’ve taken it easy. I’ve even allowed myself to listen to music: the soundtrack to the BBC serialisation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. When I was a teenager I loved nothing more than wrapping myself in a blanket, lying down on the couch, and writing school-boy fiction to the Brideshead soundtrack, which would be on LP and on repeat.
So here I am, thirty years later, doing exactly that, although I’m at a desk and the music is on CD and I hope the words I write amount to more than school-boy fiction. Whatever I write, however I’m Ready Now is received, today has been one of the most peaceful days in my life. And I am so very thankful that writing remains with me. Tomorrow I might feel differently, perhaps even the opposite, but today is today and today is calm, serene, still. So very still.