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I have a thing for light, quite a thing. Sometimes days go by and it’s all I’ve thought about. Light. It’s such a simple word, and it sounds exactly as it should – it sounds light, as in light to carry, but also as though it would be possible to turn the word on and off, that it glimmers and glows, that it shows us the way, and indeed it does. In the early evening, after I’ve poured myself a glass of wine and struck a match to the fire, I close the west-facing curtains over the French doors only when it’s well and truly black outside, because I like to see the final blue hue as the day darkens.

I’ve written short stories about hurricane lanterns, because I love the idea of a light – at least a carrier of light, or a protector of light – that’s designed to withstand the worst of storms, the worst of seas.

One of my all-time favourite songs is ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ by The Smiths, which is such a jaunty tune about young people going for a night-time drive: “And if a double-decker bus/crashes into us/to die by your side/ is such a heavenly way to die”. But it’s the lyric to fade that’s the real killer: “There is a light that never goes out”, repeat, repeat, repeat until – irony of ironies – you feel more alive than ever.

Recently I bought a light-shade for my hallway, a simple Art Deco design found in a second-hand store up the road. I’d been looking for it for weeks, months, my whole life perhaps, and there it was in all its frosted green-glass glory. For an entire evening I turned the light on and off, on and off, as if electricity had just been invented and there I was amazed, gob-smacked. Each time I walk down the hallway I look up and see the light-shade; it makes me feel as though I’m in love for the first time. I’ve found myself thinking, I feel so happy at the moment, I wonder why, oh yes, a new light in the hallway – best go and have another look.

Light may be, as my Oxford Dictionary claims, an electromagnetic radiation whose wavelengths fall within the range to which the human retina responds, but really it’s the opposite of hopelessness.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 1 September 2012.)

  1. Going blind.
  2. Going deaf.
  3. Losing my love of music.
  4. Running out of ideas for stories (or would this be a great relief?)
  5. Choking to death.  Alone.
  6. My little old house falling down.
  7. Not meeting my expectations for my writing.
  8. Receiving a horrible review, one so bad that I’d never write again.  (But if I must never write again, I’d rather it be by my own hand – e.g. from running out of ideas – than by someone else’s.)
  9. Contracting AIDS.
  10. Waking up to the realisation that my on-line life is more active than my real life.

There’s something outside my study window.  It doesn’t have sixteen eyes or antennae for ears or hands in the shape of claws.  It’s not growling or pacing back and forwards.  But it’s there.  And it’s watching me.

Don’t panic, I tell myself.  Just focus.

It’s red and green and grey but only small, perhaps no bigger than a king-sized bed.  It’s luminescent, all of it.  A sprawling red rose by the gate, purple irises looking regal against the wall.  Celestial Violets that have finished their winter run, lavenders about to light up.  Everlasting Daisies claiming the last of the spare ground.  In the middle an old metal table, on it a white-orange cactus in a terracotta pot.  Off to one side, covered in an autumn’s worth of leaves, an old metal chair that’s never sat on.

Yes, what’s outside my window is a secret garden.

I’m meant to be able to get in there via the gate or around the side of the house, but the gate is permanently locked and the side of the house is so weed-infested that you’d have to use a machete to get in.  Whilst I can’t remember the last time I went into my secret garden, I know The Old Lady of the House frequents the place – she’s formed a path through the weeds so she can patrol the perimeter, or bury bones.  Sometimes I’ve spotted Cat the Ripper slinking his way through the gate, no doubt hoping to sink his fangs into a Soldier Bird or Silver Eye.

I really do have a real live secret garden.  How good is that?

As a boy I loved Burnett’s strange, dark novel about such things.  There was something about a secret garden that had healing powers.  And there was something about those children: Mary Lennox, precociously desperate to escape the mansion; Colin Craven stuck in bed with his bung legs; and the bucolic, servile Dickon.

I think about the three of them at night, lighting their fire and chanting magic spells.  Maybe one night I should brave The Old Lady’s path and go into my secret garden.  Hell, maybe I could get a fire roaring on the pavers (although perhaps it’d be more responsible to do it in the Webber).  I could even start chanting.  Caveat emptor!  Caveat emptor!  I’d need something better than that.  Carpe dium!  Carpe dium!  No, that wouldn’t work either.

I could just rattle off some gobbly-gook:  I call on you, oh Maradonna Lily of Secret Gardens, I wish…

Exactly what is it that I wish for?

I don’t know the answer to that question – it’s too big and I’m too adult.  All I know is that, in contrast to the half-dead garden Mary Lennox stumbled upon all those years ago, my secret garden is beautiful.  Beautiful despite the drought, despite a hose or a trowel or a pair of secateurs not going anywhere near it.  All those plants I’d put in and then forgotten.  And no doubt they’ve forgotten about me.  It’s a sobering thought but we humans can be so unnecessary sometimes.

Maybe I don’t fear what’s on the other side of my study window at all.

Maybe I fear what’s inside this room.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, November 3 2007)

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