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I think of her every time I open the book, which isn’t so much a book but a white plastic ring-binder. It’s where I keep recipes; I’m a messy cook so all that plastic makes it easy to clean. At the front, tucked into the clear-plastic sleeve, is the recipe I use the most, one for cooking rice.
For years I’d used the absorption method. I had a clay pot that I’d bought from an Asian grocery in Dickson. I’d soak the rice in the pot for an hour, drain the cloudy water, add more water so the rice was covered, bring to the boil, turn off the heat, and let the clay do the rest. It never failed to make good rice.
But then I went to a Greek restaurant with my Greek friend, Helen.
I said, ‘Greek rice is so tasty – how do you make it?’
She said, ‘It’s not really “Greek rice”. It’s just rice.’
‘But how do you make it?’
‘I’ll send you my recipe.’
And so she did. She emailed it to me.
Just before she died in a motorbike accident.
For some months I couldn’t open the email. But one day, after two decades of service, the clay pot gave up the ghost and Helen came to the rescue. I opened the email, printed her recipe. I went through the steps to make what I’d insisted was ‘Greek rice. Heat olive oil, coat rice until transparent, add chicken stock powder, stir, add water, boil, turn heat to low. It’s a more complicated procedure than the one I was used to but it leads to perfect rice.
However, it’s not just perfect rice that the recipe makes.
It could be that I’m always cooking after having a glass or two of wine, but I don’t think so. When I’m cooking rice, Helen joins me at the stove-top. She’s small, black-haired, good fun but relentlessly honest. Now she’s saying, ‘Let me do it, Nigel, you’re stuffing it up.’ So I stand aside, have another sip of wine, and watch as Helen takes over. And then, as is usual these days, I tell her what I think of her. ‘You’re an excellent friend.’ She turns to look at me, then looks at the bottle, shakes her head, then smiles, laughs gently.
This is how it is now. Every time.
And, no doubt, it’s how it’ll be for as long as I’m alive.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 22 November 2014.)
There are plenty of satisfying things to do. Walking the dog is one. Reading is another. Working in the vegetable garden. Helping a friend move house. Baking a cake. Listening to music. Finding your way through an unfamiliar city without a map. But there’s something I know that’s even more satisfying. It’s something that happens so rarely, at least in my humble abode, but I always look forward to it. When it’s done my body feels lighter, better, and my mind is settled and free. Come on, Featherstone, spit it out. What on earth are you talking about now?
I’m a jar cleaner, as in I like – love – cleaning a jar, getting it ready for re-use.
Perhaps the jar used to contain pasta sauce, or some kind of pesto. Maybe it had contained herbs or ginger or garlic. But once it’s been emptied the real fun begins. The scrubbing and cleaning so the glass is crystal clear and the lid as perfect as can be. Then the label must be removed. Usually the label itself comes off easily enough. How good it is to tear it away with a finger – it’s like removing old skin. But that sticky, stubborn glue residue: isn’t it awful, it barely budges. So, in the jar goes for a soak in warm soapy water, for an hour, for hours, for an entire day if necessary. Slowly but surely, perhaps with the aid of a knife, the glue residue is removed. And there it is: a new jar.
It’s an empty vessel, that’s what it is. How can it be used now? What will it hold? Perhaps that’s what all this is about: the future, hope, wishes and dreams. Might it also be about renewal? That we all believe so passionately in recycling, in minimising waste? The thing is, in my place, the jars are almost never refilled. They just sit on their shelf, a dozen in a row, waiting there like birds on a fence. To my mind, it’s actually about emptiness, about emptying out, about not holding on, or not filling up. When we’re empty – of expectation, of busyness, of desire – we are open to everything that might come our way. When we’re empty we can feel that lightness of being that novelist Milan Kundera called ‘unbearable’.
When we’re empty we’re no one. We’re back at the beginning.
And there’s no better place than the beginning.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 13 September 2014.)
It’s there beside me on the desk, adjacent my elbow, and it feels like the most valuable thing, but also the most useless.
It’s orange, A4-sized, and inside are twenty pages – a short story and a covering letter. On the front of the envelope, written in my dreadful scrawl, is the name of a literary journal and its overseas address. On the back is my own address, in the hope that good news – the best – will be sent in reply. This is what I do: I write short stories and send them away, even though the odds are firmly stacked against me, against this thing that occupies so much of my time, the vast majority of the last twenty years.
For weeks, months, longer, so much longer, there has been in the guts of my computer that strangest of beasts: a story, something conjured, concocted. Part dream, part idea(l), part concept, part theme, part wish, part ambition. Imagined characters discovering, solving, unravelling, opening out. Blue pen ink on pad page, before becoming black lines and angles on a flickering screen, before becoming – always becoming – black ink on crisp white print-out paper. All those words, words formed up to make sense, to be read.
What is the purpose of this? To entertain? To move? To anger? To be admired?
It’s all this and more. A great deal more.
I have tried to stop; like a smoker or an alcoholic I have tried to give up. But can I give up? No. Because I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Couldn’t I have been good at something much more useful, like fixing electrical wiring, or building decks, or progressing propositions of law? I could garden: rip out weeds for a living. Or walk dogs for cash. Or breed chickens and sell their eggs and their precious manure.
But it wouldn’t be the same. There’d be no wrestling with words and their meanings. Oh what words can do: they can illuminate. There’d be no heartache when the story comes back with a slip paper-clipped to the top: Sorry, but this isn’t what we’re looking for. But even that doesn’t bring me to a halt. Because stories are beneath my skin, and, so I’ve heard, they are beneath yours, too. Because that’s all we are in the end – stories.
Bye for now; I’m off to the post-box.
To send away my valuable, useless, infinitely beautiful purpose.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 August 2014.)
To be under the doona, to feel the rush, a warm, warm gut, fizzing ribs, tingling fingers – well, it was such a surprise, let me tell you. It wasn’t because I’d over-done the port before going to bed, or had swum a million laps across the afternoon. It was because I had something in my hands. A book. A new book.
It might have been because it was the recent novel by JM Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus. I am a Coetzee fan; his Disgrace knocked my sideways when I first read it, and I dip into it annually. How to write as well as Coetzee? I’d like to know.
The warm, warm rush of a feeling might have been because the book was so beautifully produced, as in manufactured. A hard back. A hard back! How rare in this electronic day and age, in this era when the dollar drives every decision. (But was there ever a time when the dollar didn’t drive every decision? Only a fiction writer would be able to answer that question.)
Perhaps the warm, warm gut-rush of a feeling was because Coetzee, an exile from South Africa now living in South Australia, had decided to explore Australia’s current obsession with turning away those who come to our land of plenty by boat. How to take this on and make sense of it? Only Coetzee would be able to find some kind of adequate response.
Perhaps, though, the gut-rush that other evening was because reading has become so integral to my life. Sleeping, waking, eating, breathing – these are the essentials. Is reading fiction now essential to me? It could be. Is it critical? Can a day go by without being a part of the imagined lives of others, the worlds of others, the problems and dramas, the learning that comes as a result? Perhaps the answer is yes, a day can go by without reading fiction, without being a part of all that make-believe. But there’s that related question: should a day go by without reading fiction? No, I don’t think a day should go by without reading fiction.
The essence – the whole point – of life is experience. Surely that’s the truth. So, then, doesn’t reading fiction amplify and diversify and illuminate experience? That has to be the truth, too.
Perhaps, in the end, I’m just in love.
With the feeling of reading.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 24 May 2014.)
I hear trains.
That isn’t an admission of something unhinged in my mind, or a euphemism for a kind of illegal activity. It’s just that where I live, on a hill behind the mainstreet of an old town, I can hear trains.
Even when I’m putting clothes on the line I can hear the sound of trains coming and going, freight trains especially, as they heave and clatter in and through and on to the other side.
As is obvious it’s a sound I adore. After twenty-five years living in Canberra I’d begun to miss it, though I didn’t know that then – sometimes it’s only when you move from one place to another that you realise what’s important.
Perhaps the sound reminds me of being a boy in Sydney and having to catch trains to get to school and back, all of us jammed into the clunky, stinky ‘Red Rattlers’, the windows so hefty that if they suddenly closed they would chop off arms or fingers. So we imagined, or feared. Of course, back then, having to catch trains every day wasn’t anything unusual; it was just part of living in a city. These days I look on it nostalgically, as though I once lived in a more exciting land, somewhere big and dangerous and overflowing with life. Strange then that whenever I return to Sydney, even on a train, I’m filled with terror – that place always reminds me of a snake trying to eat its own head.
So why this love of the sound of trains?
It could be because it just feels old-fashioned, a delicious thing of the past, and for those like me who find the present a trial the past can be a good place to go. It could be a reminder of the sort of adventures once discovered in books for children. But trains aren’t necessarily historical. Look at the sort that can be found in Europe and the larger cities of Asia – those trains are like something out of Star Trek. Maybe the sound is a metaphor. For arrival: the joy of becoming, of making real the new, the hope there is in that. For departure: the melancholia of leaving behind, of letting go, of saying good-bye. Because it’s somewhere between arrival and departure that life can be found most readily, whatever that life might be.
Oh how much there is in a sound.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 15 March 2014.)
Summer is the land of tradition and regrettably I’m no different. Making the morning cup of coffee before heading to the writing room and getting stuck into it is one, as is marinating in a glass of wine at 6pm to celebrate the end of the day.
All things considered, however, these are relatively recent traditions, one befitting of a man who’s slipping disastrously into middle-age. If there’s something I’ve done for a very long time, from when I shared a home with parents and brothers, it’s this: to celebrate the completion of some writing, a novella say, I play the soundtrack to the BBC’s serialisation of Brideshead Revisited.
My family, avid ABC viewers the lot of us, had the Brideshead soundtrack on vinyl record, but these days I have it on CD. It’s dated 1981, so perhaps the series aired in Australia that year, or the one after. I would have been thirteen or fourteen years old. With the music playing I’d spend whole days on the couch under a blanket, a pad in my lap, pen in hand, and make up a story – a school assignment. I can remember the plot of one of them: two country-town boys who aren’t old enough to go to war are forced to stay home and do the hard work of grown men. Where on Earth I got that from I don’t no.
I simply wanted to listen to Brideshead Revisited and write and wish that I didn’t live on Sydney’s North Shore but in a humble abode called Brideshead Castle and be a Marchmain or a Flyte (but not Sebastian – he was too uptight, even for me); perhaps I could be Charles Ryder and waft here and there and fall in love with this and that and do a watercolour painting whenever the mood had me.
It’s odd, because I’m not fond of classical music, and my music knowledge isn’t sufficiently refined to know how to describe the Brideshead score – contemporary chamber music? All I know is that, just like Eveyln Waugh’s famously fading English family with their own twisted traditions, I still like to play the soundtrack to Brideshead Revisited whenever it feels as though a piece of writing is on the home stretch. Perhaps it reminds me of being under that blanket on that couch, crafting a story without a clue as to what I was doing. How comforting.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 25 January 2014.)