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Despite having them in my life for 30 years, more or less, I don’t really know what they are. They flit about like a type of butterfly that may or may not exist.
I can remember being in the Fifth or Sixth Form of the rather well-healed Anglican school I attended on Sydney’s North Shore, my English teacher, Mr Cowdroy, leading us through the reading of a short story, the author of which I regrettably can’t recall. I loved the conciseness of the story – that life could be created and explored and examined in so few pages – and the sense of compression, the cleverness of the ending, which made me want to start reading the story all over again. It also made me want to keep writing, for by that time I had been writing for some years, albeit for school assessment.
Fast forward to my twenties, when I realised that doing little more than hanging out with mates at the pub was not good and deep living and would most likely lead to misery, I began writing stories again, but only because I wanted to. I also read stories, mainly in anthologies. Collections that resonated were Risks (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996; edited by Brenda Walker) and the Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction (Faber and Faber, 1991; edited by Edmund White). I also enjoyed Fishing in the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann (Phoenix House, 1994) and that other Irish chap who did quite well in the form, James Joyce with his Dubliners. I’d go on to discover the short works of Tolstoy and Chekhov, and contemporary writers such as Peter Carey, Annie Proulx, David Malouf, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Tim Winton, Nam Le, and Alice Munro. I subscribed to and read Australian literary journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Island, Tirra Lirra, and Wet Ink.
Over the years that followed I began having my own stories published, at first in relatively minor journals now gathering dust in the National Library of Australia’s vast vaults, before some of my stories were ‘accepted’ (for that appeared to be the termed used) in the journals mentioned above. It was, of course, all very thrilling. To see my name in an edition of Meanjin (2: 2000) alongside writers such as Merlinda Bobis, Thomas Shapcott, Dorothy Hewett, Arnold Zable, and Dorothy Porter. Eventually my published stories were collected in two humble volumes, Homelife (1999) and Joy (2000). The Australia Book Review (no. 224 Sept 2000) described the latter as ‘beautifully poised, warm, lush, humane, with lots of surprises and shocks.’ Which made my heart sing, and still does. I say all this not to brag but to suggest that slowly but surely I have been taking steps; I have, I think, been making progress.
Soon I gathered the confidence to write longer works, including three published novellas and a novel, but rarely does a year go by when I don’t write – and try to have published – short stories. Perhaps part of the attraction is being able to take a break from convoluted, complicated works and spend a week crafting a little tale. But I’m not sure if that’s true and/or wise. Short stories can be just as complex as longer works, if not more so, and they can be just as difficult to write, if not more so. It is common for fiction writers to say that short stories are closer to poetry than prose, in that they are suggestions more than full explorations. In the best fiction, regardless of length, words need to be deployed artfully so life can rise from the page. But perhaps in a short story, as in a poem, each word has to do some impressive – and exhaustive – heavy lifting, often (hopefully) with spectacular results.
Sometimes with spectacular results. My filing cabinet and PC hard-drive are littered with rubbish work.
Recently, to be frank, I’ve been doubting the worth of the short story as a viable form. Australian literary journals do continue to publish them, although, depending on the journal, it could be said that only writers are reading them. On the whole mainstream publishers turn up their noses at collections of stories, claiming readers want a more immersive experience; and some writers who have excelled at the form have simply given up, claiming there is no point when ‘it’s just too hard to find a readership’. So, if the readership is limited, why do it? Isn’t it like, say, insisting on painting miniature portraits, the sort that galleries won’t touch with a barge-pole? But, but, but: every so often single-author collections, such as Nam Le’s The Boat (Penguin, 2008) and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil (Hachette, 2014), make a big public splash.
What am I trying to say? The short story is a surprising and tenacious beast.
A similarly surprising and tenacious beast is the Review of Australian Fiction, which publishes – electronically – two stories every two weeks and often takes the opportunity to publish works that print journals consider ‘too long’ (over 4,000 words); a worthy venture to say the least, considering also that individual issues cost only $2.99. It’s an honour to be published in the Review a second time, especially as I’ve been paired with Marion Halligan, whose collection Shooting the Fox (Allen & Unwin, 2011) was choc-full of literary magic. My story, ‘The Blue Bottle’, has been emerging for many years – decades you could say – because it uses an event from my twenties as a place for jumping off (no, it’s not set in a pub). On the page the story is nothing more or less than fiction, but there must have been something in the original event that had stayed with me and I’d wanted to turn it over with words and sentences and characters and plot. As is so common (predictable?) in my work, the narrative involves an old house and landscape and music and friendship and intimacy and longing and glimpses – glimpses – of love. But I won’t go on.
All I really wanted to tell you is this: ‘The Blue Bottle’ exists, it is here.
It was the phonecall I never wanted to make, but I had to do it, I had to press the buttons, I had to organise the appointment – I had to get this done.
So I did: 9.45am, that would be the time. I hung up and went back to the mini camp-bed beside the dining-room table. I rubbed his belly, scratched his chin, rubbed his belly again. I felt his back legs. Were they cold? No, they were warm, or warmish. Was he purring? If he was, he was doing it quietly, only for himself.
We haven’t always been the best of friends; in fact, to begin with, he was nothing more than a replacement. Our first cat, Cooper, died at six months while being de-sexed – the vet said something had gone awry during the operation, a reaction to the anaesthetic maybe. Two weeks later, which was too soon but these things happen, we found a black and white kitten in a pet store and home he came. His fur was coarser than Cooper’s, and overall he seemed more unruly, wilful. Still he settled in, and we settled in with him. His name? Sam. Which was short for Sambuca, because of his black-and-white markings.
He came with us when we moved house a year later, to a place just around the corner, so I spent thirty minutes driving the streets of the suburb to give him the impression that we’d actually moved kilometres away. For two days I kept him inside so he’d get used to his new digs, but eventually I bit the bullet and let him out – I remember being thrilled to the point of incredulity when a moment later he appeared at the front door as if wanting to be let straight back in. Sometimes he slept on the bed, sometimes on the couch, often on the dog’s bed, making a point about that – his superiority. Often he sat on the armrest of the couch and took a swipe at the dog, just because he could. In winter he stood in front of the heater, warming his face and chest and belly, his eyes closed.
In adulthood, however, he became a horror. No matter how many bells I put on his collar he’d catch birds – magpies, currawongs, cockatoos; early one morning he even brought home a semi-comatose chicken. He was remarkably agile: he could jump straight up as high as the Hill’s Hoist as if he had little rockets on his feet. Twice I invested in a collar that would emit a high-pitched squeal the nano-second before he’d launch an attack, but he still managed to catch birds. And I hated it. Under a bush beside the front door was a spray of feathers – it was a death cave, and I hated this too. He also fought with other cats, and got abscess after abscess, forcing me to pay $300 a pop to clean him up. One day about five years ago a neighbour came around to politely complain about Sam. ‘He’s a lovely cat,’ she said, ‘and he visits us a lot, but he also attacks our cats, and we have to take them to the vet. We had to put down one of our cats after a fight with yours.’
From that day onwards Sam was curfewed at night. Which he hated as much as me. Around two or three every morning he’d want to be let out, which I couldn’t do, so I’d lock him in the other part of the house. Which he hated even more. He’d thump at the hallway door as though he’d made fists out of his claws; some mornings it sounded like he was taking a running jump and flinging his whole body at the door as if he felt sure he could barge his way out. The more I kept him in the house, the more he sprayed the curtains, the corners of the bed, even the hi-fi speakers that I’d bought as a present for my 40th birthday. The more I kept Sam inside, the more he shat everywhere – due to the layout of the tiny Canberra house he didn’t always have access to his kitty-litter, which was in the laundry. Eventually I decided that each night I’d lock him in the double garage so I could get some sleep and didn’t wake each morning to find a nice pile of shit in the kitchen. I thought that I’d get another complaint from the neighbours because out there he meowed incessantly and banged on the metal door. Thankfully, after some weeks, he became used to sleeping out there, and I got used to sleeping through the night again.
To be frank, it was always good to feed him in the morning and then kick him out again – sometimes literally. I distinctly remember thinking that looking after Sam was a burden: all work, not much joy. Really I only spent a few hours with him every evening, before jailing him in the garage. In the column I write for The Canberra Times I began referring to him as Cat the Ripper, because it was like living with a murderer. But each year I took him to the vet to get his annual jabs. He got a cancer on his nose, so I got that fixed; it came back so I got it fixed again. When He Who Is More Of A Dog Person moved to his own place, there was Sam, snoozing beside me on the couch – when he wasn’t out and about causing complete and utter havoc.
Even though Sam was de-sexed at six months (a different vet did the honours this time, obviously), I spotted some kittens over the road who looked distinctly similar to Sam. He Who Claimed Not To Be Fond Of Sam But Couldn’t Help Giving Him Long Tender Cuddles pointed out the impossibility of Sam siring anything, but one day, as we were walking back from the shops, he said, ‘What’s Sammy doing in that garden over the road?’ I said, ‘That’s not Sammy.’ And he said, ‘Oh shit.’ Later a vet would tell me that if a cat is de-sexed very young a testicle can remain inside, meaning that he could still do the deed. Which would also explain the spraying. So he was a lover and a fighter and a hunter. With the cutest face. When he wanted something.
Did I love him back then? It’s hard to say that I did. If he went missing for a night or two I’d go out with a torch and search the gutters for him. I could always tell if he wasn’t feeling the best because he’d spend the whole day on my bed. If I went away for any period of time, I’d always get a cat-sitter and make sure to leave detailed instructions. I’ve found these on the computer; here’s a cut and paste:
- he gets dry food in the morning, about a cup and a half;
- it’s best to leave him outside all day, even if he wants to come in;
- but he must be kept inside at night otherwise he gets into fights; he’ll start meowing around 5am, so you can let him out then and he’ll probably come back an hour later for food; personally I find it best to put him in the garage at night (he’ll meow but don’t worry about that) and then let him out in the morning;
- if you want to get him inside, bang a can with a spoon – he’ll come in pretty quick; and
- warning: Sam meows A LOT! Don’t worry about it – he’s just very chatty. If you ever want to shut him up, give him some watered down milk or, again, just put him in the garage.
But was any of this love?
In 2010, when I decided to quit more-or-less fulltime work and move to Goulburn to put writing and related activities at the very core of every week (up until then it was a matter of waking at 5am to write), amongst the hundreds of decisions to make – which real-estate agent, which renovation, due to all the travelling I’d be doing soon should I buy a new car, if so, which one? – I didn’t make a decision about Sam, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with him. If someone had offered to take on Sam, would I have accepted? Probably. More than once I thought that if I got him up to Goulburn but he then did a runner and disappeared then so be it, in fact it would be a relief.
He settled in – slowly. Initially, despite the yard being small and contained and with plenty of nooks and crannies, he seemed frightened of the outside, which was odd for a cat who was used to ruling the world (he was actually quite shy around humans, only really engaging with the two of us). In the end his innate bravery got the better of him and he ventured out the back door. Which was good, because I was adamant that with this new house, which is actually a very old house, I wasn’t going to have him spraying everything and shitting all over the joint. Thankfully, in my part of town there are no cats and the only birdlife is an unruly gang of sparrows, so he could be outside as often as he wanted.
I remember the first time I had to go away for a couple of nights. I set up an automatic feeder and left him to fend for himself. Would he hang around? On my return, I found him standing in front of the corrugated iron shed that passes as a garage, meowing as loudly as ever, demanding – yes, demanding – to be let inside or be fed, or he just wanted to chat. I think it was James Joyce who said that no one loves a conversation more than a cat. He put on weight and I wondered if he was pinching food. So we eased into a regional-town rhythm, both of us enjoying the slower pace of life and the distance in the air. Visitors commented that Sam looked more ‘chilled’ than ever, which perhaps was because his owner was more ‘chilled’ than ever (though there’s nothing ‘chilled’ about a piece of writing that isn’t coming together, or maybe there is, the shivery chill of the still-born).
For the first time I began to enjoy Sam’s company. He was eleven years old now, and I’d sit in the backyard and have a coffee with him, the two of us staring at the chooks; he barked at them when they first joined the yard but soon realised that being behind wires they were out of reach. I’d find him sleeping all over the house, sometimes on the bed, which was always a pleasure. He had the softest white belly, and a chin that needed scratching, and I was the man for him. Sometimes he’d sleep in the dog kennel, because it was near the back door. Each week I’d have to go down to Canberra for a couple of nights, but he’d always be around when I got home, almost always just in front of the shed, as if waiting for me. In the shed I’d set up a cosy nook out of boxes and an old woollen underlay that was meant to be for The Old Lady of the House before he commandeered the thing. There’s a potted plant at the back window, and sometimes I’d come home to find it knocked over; I’ve always blamed the wind, which can be severe, but now I wonder if he used to sit there waiting for me.
In short, I could imagine us growing older together.
Last winter, just after dawn, there was a commotion in the backyard. Beneath the wattle was an explosion of feathers; Sam had a pigeon in his mouth. But what was that in the fig-tree beside the shed? A large brown hawk. What was going on? Had the hawk dropped the pigeon, much to Sam’s delight? Or was the hawk trying to get at Sam’s catch? Or was the hawk after the chooks? (He wasn’t after Sam, was he?) Whatever the case, I managed to get Sam to let go of the pigeon, but the pigeon was too badly injured and died shortly afterwards.
A few weeks later Sam started hanging around the shed and staring into space – he looked lost and confused. Even when in the house, he hid under tables or chairs; if there was as sudden movement he leapt for cover. I hadn’t seen the hawk again, but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t around. When Sam walked, he looked low down in his back legs, almost like he used to do when out on the prowl. No longer could he jump up to his comfy cubby in the shed. And his voice had changed: it was no longer deep and strong but high and scratchy.
One morning he came into the house and went all the way to the library, where his tail twitched and a pool of urine flooded out from beneath him.
The vet retained Sam in hospital while a bunch of tests were run. They all came back negative. The vet concluded that Sam had had a stroke. However, cats, he said, are extraordinary in their ability to recover and compensate; with a good diet (no seafood apparently), a daily dose of a painkiller called Metacam, twice-weekly vitamins, and tender loving care, Sam could continue to age well into his very senior years. Except Sam didn’t recover. Within days he was by now walking as if paralytic, flip-flopping all over the place. He could get up the back step for breakfast, but only just. He had two preferred spots in the garden, one under a lavender bush, the other under a rosemary bush, and he managed to get to these places but it was a struggle. But how determined he was.
Even though his back legs continued to weaken, he seemed mentally more alert: his voice returned; sometimes he purred after being fed – and he ate more than ever, though sometimes he lay down beside his bowl as if he simply didn’t have the energy to move away. But usually he eventually managed to get around to the camp-bed where he’d preen himself; more often than not he preened The Old Lady of the House, too, something she adored, and maybe he did as well. One morning I heard Sam opening the sliding door into the laundry so he could see if he’d left any biscuits behind. But mostly he just slept, either on dog’s camp-bed or outside under the lavender or the rosemary. Some days I carried him inside so he could eat or sleep with The Old Lady, and some times I carried him outside. If the weather was turning foul, I’d carry him back inside.
Last Thursday I had to drive down to a Canberra Critics Circle event, but a massive wind and rain storm came in. Back home, Sam was outside – would he be able to get himself to cover? What if I came home to find him still lying in the garden, soaked to the bone because he couldn’t get up? Thankfully he’d managed to get himself to safety, but strangely he no longer used the kennel. Every time I put him in there he staggered back out again as soon as I turned my back. These days he spent the night sleeping in a drift of leaves beside the kennel. Was he improving physically? No, he wasn’t. Not at all.
Saturday night. Another storm came through so we left him inside. Around 5am I heard a soft, unsteady shuffling and dragging sound. Sam had got himself down to the bedroom doorway because he needed to be let out. I got up, called for him to follow me, but he could barely move.
I carried him out the back door.
A decision had to be made. On one hand, the vet had made it clear that an old cat should just eat well and sleep well. Sam did these things. Just because he was now partly disabled didn’t mean he wasn’t happy; any pain he was in was ameliorated by the Metacam. But I spent most of Sunday in the garden, Sam not far away under the rosemary bush. He slept stretched out, not curled up. Sometimes he hugged his legs as if trying to will them back to life. But was he really sleeping? His eyes were half-open, or half-closed, staring at something in the near distance.
We watched Last Orders that night, just Sam and me, the movie of Graham Swift’s Booker-winning novel about a bunch of old mates driving to the coast to scatter the ashes of one of their own. It seemed appropriate. For two months now Sam hadn’t been able to get onto the couch, so I picked him up off the camp-bed. He rested his front paws and chin on my thigh, my black track-suit pants becoming stuck with his white hair.
He ate breakfast well, chopped steak, some biscuits, some meat and gravy, his daily dose of Metacam mixed in. When he was done, he managed to get all the way from the laundry to the camp-bed. He preened The Old Lady of the House, then lay down beside her. I wrote for a while, went back to check on him, went back to writing, but checked on him again. Then made the phone-call.
‘There is nothing more you can do,’ said the vet. ‘You’ve done everything for him. You could have another couple of days with him, if you want, but really there’s only one option.’ I said that I didn’t want another couple of days, because I’d already made the decision. ‘Okay,’ he said, his voice softening, ‘let’s do this.’ He explained what would happen. ‘It will take about ten to fifteen seconds.’ He disappeared into a backroom for a minute. Sam hid his head between my side and the crook of my arm. The vet returned with a syringe and his assistant, a youngish girl with a rolled-up towel in hand – I could tell it would be a pillow. The vet got down and looked at Sam in the eye, scrunched his ears; perhaps the vet said something I couldn’t hear.
As Sam’s body relaxed, my mouth, my throat, my chest – all of me, so it felt – sucked in air. I began to weep. The vet’s assistant handed me a box of tissues that had been there all along. I went to go, but turned back and stoked Sam’s soft, warm head one last time.
The yard seems less without him. Whenever I open the back door I expect to see him there, waiting to be let in. I look for him beneath the lavender or the rosemary. Sometimes I feel sure that I can hear him lapping at the water-bowl beside the dining-room table. I still find his white hair on my clothes, particularly my black track-suit pants. I’ve got rid of the food bowl, but I haven’t been able to get rid of the half-full bottle of Metacam and the half-full bottle of vitamins – these things remain on the top of the fridge.
The afternoon before he went, I took photos of him in the garden, more photos the following morning, him and The Old Lady of the House sitting together on the camp-bed, then just him lying alone, hugging his legs. I haven’t looked at these photos yet, but I will. I’ll put the best one on my wall.