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They are beside me, in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, though I never look at them. Except, for the first time in fifteen years, that’s exactly what I’ve just done: got them out and spread them across the floorboards. Canberra Times headlines; front pages, to be precise.

The first is dated September 11, 2001. TERRORISTS STRIKE U.S.’ in the biggest, blackest letters I’ve ever seen in a newspaper. And that photo of a World Trade Centre tower collapsing in white smoke. And that other photo, of ash-covered New Yorkers scrambling for their lives.

What we keep: a reminder of the darkest days?

What we keep: a reminder of the darkest days?

The next front page, dated October 15, 2002, says ‘Terror Blast’. A photo of stretcher bearers carrying bodies out of a twisted Kuta Beach nightclub. The next is dated January 20, 2003: ‘Our worst day’. More twisted metal, but in a bushfire-blackened landscape. Then, at last, there is change.

November 25, 2007: ‘Rudd buries Howard era’. A fresh-faced new prime minister holds up his hands, ten fingers spread as if he’s giving himself ten out of ten. Only three months later, February 13 2008: ‘Sorry’ says the headline in big white letters, the faces of four elderly Indigenous men, three with grey beards, two wearing beanies, one with glisteningly red eyes. November 6, 2008: ‘American revolution: first black president; a David Pope cartoon of a beaming (and only slightly grey-haired) Barack Obama, a patched-up Uncle Sam slung over his shoulder. Before disaster strikes again. February 10 2009: ‘Dreams in ashes’, which wasn’t a reference to the United States but Victoria: more twisted metal, another bushfire-blackened landscape.

Yet all is not lost. June 25, 2010: ‘History in her hands. Look at Julia Gillard’s face looming large on the page, her eyes full of hope, and perhaps there’s a dash of relief too. December 7, 2013 and there’s a different face: ‘Nelson Mandela 1918-2013: ‘Our nation has lost its great son’’.

The most recent front page in this collection of headlines? March 21, 2015: ‘Malcolm Fraser, 1930-2015’. The former prime minister’s quoting of George Bernard Shaw: ‘Life’s not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.’ What exactly are we to make of this private archive of tragedy and triumph? Maybe, just maybe, these headlines are reminders that we live in a world that’s infinitely bigger – and much, much more fascinating – than our tiny little daily worries. And yes, every so often it can even be delightful.

*

(This was to be my 81st piece for the First Word column in the Canberra Times. Regrettably the column came to an end before it could be published, so here it is. Thanks to Gillian Lord, Natasha Rudra and Sally Pryor for allowing me to have such a long run with the paper.)

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What happens when cooking.

What happens when cooking.

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.)

The Goulburn Post Office, where stories are sent away. (Don't worry: we have cars now.)

The Goulburn Post Office, where stories are sent away. (Don’t worry: we have cars now.)

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.)

It was an odd thing to do but I was getting desperate.  Within minutes I’d be on Melbourne radio by telephone link-up and talking about a novella of mine published last year, but I was already into the writing of the next novella.  I made a coffee, hoping this would break my concentration, but it didn’t have the desired effect.  I quickly fed the chooks, but still my brain was filled with the work-in-development.  As the interview crept closer, the only idea I had was to just return to my writing room and hope my head would clear.

But my head didn’t clear; all I could think about was the new story, the one that’s still in the process of being born.  On air would I mix up my titles and characters and plots and themes and end up sounding like a fool?

Highly likely.

Could it be that all we have to do sometimes is sit in a different chair to sort everything out?

Could it be that all we have to do sometimes is sit in a different chair to sort everything out?

As a last resort, I stood up, walked to the other side of the room, and breathed in slowly, deeply, breathed out.

There’s a chair on that side of the room.  It’s a simple 1930s piece which I bought just after I moved in – my house is old so it seemed only right that I have some old furniture.  I’m not into antiques per se; I don’t like gloss and shine and perfection.  If I find a piece that’s been discounted due to an obvious flaw, I’m more interested.  This particular chair was so unloved that the shop kept it outside under a lean-to.  No one wanted it.  Except me.

I sat down and – oh my – what on earth was happening?

I like writing, I like working hard, so when I’m in my writing room I’m always at my desk, not in the old chair in the corner, which really just exists these days for decoration and atmosphere.  But while I sat and waited for the interviewer to ring, I saw a completely different view of the room.  From this angle, the room appeared larger, taller; it even smelt different.  For a minute, two minutes, three minutes, I just sat quietly in the old unloved chair and felt altered.  It felt as if I’d stepped outside myself, the way some people describe an out-of-body experience at the time of near-death.  Of course, I wasn’t dying.  I was just being differently.

After three minutes, the phone began ringing.

I stood up and calmly answered the call.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 25 May 2013.)

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