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It is true that on a daily basis I find myself thinking of much better – that is, more productive and less harrowing – ways to spend my life.

For example, I could be a breeder of chickens: I could put this bird with that bird and then there would be eggs before chicks, which I could sell. Or I could make my own tomato sauce from home-grown tomatoes and sell it on a card-table at a town market. Sometimes I have dreamt of having a lavender farm and being in a shed with the radio on and packing dried leaves into little pillows. How good it would be to only worry about the growing of plants and the harvesting of leaves and the drying of leaves and having enough material to make the little pillows (I don’t excel at sewing but that is a minor point at this stage, isn’t it?) and packing it all into the boot of the car and setting up my little stall and selling my wares to passers-by, who would undoubtedly adore what I’d made. A writing colleague and I often talk about opening a café or, when we are feeling especially despondent and therefore less sociable, we consider running an online shop selling fancy scarves – wouldn’t we just wait for the orders to come in and then package up the goods and into the account the money would go?

RAF_VOL9_ISS_1But then I realise – yet again – that the constant in my utterly inconsequential existence has been reading and writing. I have moved between towns and cities, I have had a variety of jobs, I have fallen in love with rock bands and fallen out of love with rock bands, I have made friends and some friendships have dissolved. But all the while there has been reading and there has been writing.

In terms of reading, books – novels especially – have provided daily company. Books that I loved when I was younger include The Day of the Triffids by John Windham (my edition is dated 1981), One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (again my edition is 1981), The Dingo Summer by Ivy Baker (1980), The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (I’ve owned a number of editions, but the one currently at hand is dated 2008), The Lotus Caves by John Christopher (1978), The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow (1968), and Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1972). Those novels have been plucked from my bookshelves more or less at random, and here’s hoping that I will have copies of them nearby in my final years, as portentous as that sounds. It would be good to return to the early stories.

And writing: it seems that I have been doing it from the very beginning.

RAF_VOL14_iss_2I distinctly remember being in Year Four – so we are talking 1978 – and having a double creative-writing period. I loved that time of the school day. It didn’t seem terribly difficult to fill a few pages of an exercise book with words written in my illegible hands – indeed, thinking back on it now makes my belly come alive with butterflies. No doubt they were terrible words, but that didn’t seem to be a major concern, for me at least. Towards the end of one particular class, the teacher asked for someone to read their work aloud. Up shot my hand, but the teacher chose someone else. After the boy read his story, the teacher again asked for a volunteer. Again my hand shot up. ‘Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!’ This time the teacher glared at me and said, ‘Nigel Featherstone, you’re being very rude. Put your hand down – I will not be choosing you.’ I was shattered. I had always been a well-behaved child who rarely got into trouble. All I had wanted to do was read my story aloud, and, obviously, dazzle them with my boundless literary skill.

Later, around Year Nine (or ‘Third Form’ as it was called where I went, an Anglican private school), my English teacher gave an assignment that was to be completed during the holidays: write a long short story on any theme. For days, if not weeks, I sat – and at times lay sprawled – on the couch and wrote my story. Over and over I did it, rewriting and rewriting. I know I have spoken about this detail before, but on repeat in the background would be the soundtrack to the BBC’s serialisation of Brideshead Revisited. Curiously, to this day I still sometimes write to that music.

In the early 1990s I took a job in Perth, the world’s most isolated city, and I began keeping a sketchbook-notebook-diary. It wasn’t long before my notes twisted into fiction. Perhaps it was because I didn’t know a soul in Western Australia, or I found reality rather limiting, or that it was easier to be an expert in a pack of lies. Or there was something I wanted to work out, and the best way to do that was through fiction.

RAF_VOL17_ISS_2aAnd now, in 2016, I am still doing it: I dream up stories of various lengths, I write them down (by hand), I rewrite and rewrite and then edit and polish. It is probably true to say that the writing of a story becomes a fixation – it occupies my thoughts. And then it is either published or it isn’t. No doubt it is all about the lure of the imagination. The lure, yes, but also the safety of the imagination. In my imagination I can control what happens. I can make a big drama out of a careless conversation. I can resolve a life-long hurt. I can bring someone to justice. I can experience something that I would not dare experience in ‘the real world’ (whatever that is). Through writing, life becomes an object for play, something to be pulled apart and opened out. Through reading, the world becomes more coherent.

My trusty Roget’s Thesaurus (1976) provides the following phrases for ‘imagination’: ‘fine frenzy’, which is lovely; ‘thick-coming fancy’, which is quite something, all things considered; and ‘coinage of the brain’, which I like very much.

So I am not a wannabe chook breeder or lavender farmer/craftsperson or co-managing director of I am a purveyor of brain coinage.

Good to know.

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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The past