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It was not the call I had ever imagined I would receive at 6:00 am on Christmas Day. At the other end of the line was the overnight nurse at my mother’s aged care facility. ‘We want to let you know that Rosemary is expected to pass away within the next few hours, so if you’d like to say goodbye you should make the necessary arrangements.’

I said thank you and hung up.

I lived 160 kilometres away, and we were in the middle of a heatwave, and I had visited my mother the previous day, but I knew what had to be done. I apologised to my partner Tim, who had spent days preparing lunch. He offered to drive me. I said I was fine—I’d pick up my middle brother on the way.

But as I drove, my chest began to feel as though it was filled with a jittery kind of air; my legs became as heavy as stone.

I should have turned around.

Two hours later we found our mother in the room, the curtains drawn. She was lying on a bed low to the ground, the mattress thin as if for camping, a mat on each side in case she rolled out. She couldn’t roll anywhere. She could barely move. She could barely breathe. Her eyes were closed, and every few minutes we heard the throaty rattle that everyone says is true. A vein on her neck pulsed frantically. Her head was turned to one side, her mouth wide open and forming an O, as if desperate for oxygen. Her hands—the brittle bones, the purple-black skin—gripped the sheets. Her legs were raised, almost as though she had been sitting in a chair and then become frozen before they put her back on the bed.

My brother checked her feet.

‘They’re cold,’ he said.

*

Keep reading at 3:AM Magazine, which published this essay on 3 June 2019.

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.)

Eminent Australia literary journal Meanjin does a job on Canberra - both come out winning.

Eminent Australia literary journal Meanjin does a job on Canberra – both come out winning.

One anthology (two anthologies)

It’s beautiful in design, it feels good, actually it feels perfect – how it all holds together in colour and shape and form and texture.  A glistening cover, inside the gorgeous black and white and sometimes sepia images, and thoughtfully composed essays and short stories and poems and memoir from some of Australia’s best writers – Geoff Page, Marion Halligan, Alan Gould, Susan Hampton et al.  It’s hard to imagine a more lovingly constructed object.  Which is utterly apt for an anthology with Canberra as the theme.  Meanjin should be congratulated for getting together this particular edition, and the context couldn’t be more fitting – Australia’s national capital turns 100 this year.  And for having the guts to do it: across this crusty, leathery old country of ours there isn’t much love for the little southern city, and, rather predictably, there’s a persuasive view that nothing much happens there beyond political and public-sector hot air, and, so the story goes, there’s nothing much of literary note either, which is, of course, complete bollocks.  There’s another anthology about Canberra out at the moment, The Invisible Thread: one hundred years of words (Halstead Press; editor Irma Gold), and that more than proves the point.

City living

I lived in the ACT for the best part of 25 years, from 1987 to 2010, and these days I’m only an hour away.  I moved to Canberra from Sydney by choice, to go to university and start my adult life.  However, university wasn’t the real reason: it was about escaping a city that had leached into my bloodlines (I have ancestral connections to that part of the world dating back to 1797) but had also overwhelmed me with its hedonism and dark heart; moreover, it was about putting myself in an environment which I believed would open me out so that, at last, I might be properly alive.  I knew little about Canberra beyond what I’d gleaned from a handful of trips to visit family friends, but I knew it was different in look and feel to anywhere else I’d been.  Even as a child I understood the territory to be fresh and forward-thinking, and this appealed to someone who was born and bred amongst the well-heeled conservatism of one of the wealthiest parts of Australia, and I had the sense that a new way of being in the world was required.

Much of this Canberra edition of Meanjin focuses on built form and town-planning, which is both unsurprising and perfectly reasonable for a city famous for being designed from the ground up.  And it was certainly a resonating experience to undertake my first degree, landscape architecture, in a place where landscape and architecture are so important.  However, these things are not what I enjoyed the most; these things are not what have ultimately made me remember my time in Canberra with great fondness, often love.  In Canberra I discovered who I was, I met people, I fell in love.  Critically, it seemed – and still seems – a place where pre-judgement isn’t the preferred modus operandi.  Is there really much difference between getting drunk or getting stoned?  Do we wish to demonise people who sell sex and people who pay for sex?  For some years now, Canberra – the society of 380,000 people, not the hollow, hill-top political machine – has been asking the question about whether or not marriage is about gender.  And isn’t it time that the nation stood on its own two feet and became a republic?

Town living

Two old mates, three big rocks, a mountain range off screen, as is a great modern city called Canberra.

Two old mates, three big rocks, a mountain range off screen, as is a great modern city called Canberra.

Almost three years I moved out of Canberra into neighbouring regional New South Wales.  Why?  Cheaper housing – most writers can’t afford big-city mortgages, even the rent.  And I appreciate small-town life.  And old stuff.  Canberra has a rich heritage – Aboriginal, natural, and built – but it’s not the crumbly, slightly depressing sort.  And I’m a big fan of the crumbly, slightly depressing sort.  So these days I live in my little old 1895-era cottage called Leitrim, and I spend my weekends patching up cracks that keep appearing in the walls and I collect firewood for a fire on these cold, damp nights, and I’m as happy as Julia Gillard on a Sunday arvo sitting on the couch in her jim-jams with a glass of red while watching Bruce Willis bash it up in Die Hard.  I love walking down to the mainstreet to visit the post office, which is a truly spectacular late nineteenth-century marvel, and doing a few transactions in a bank where the people know my name, before wandering home through  hidden laneways.  When Goulburn’s good, she’s heart-stopping spectacular.

The future

But still I visit Canberra regularly, weekly in fact, and a hump-day highlight is careering through the rolling back-road Southern Tableland landscape, listening to music (the latest Frightened Rabbit has been getting a good run, which make me laugh in this context – the road’s awash with roadkill) and when I cross the border into the ACT it’s always a joy, a hopeful joy.  Because to me that’s what Canberra is about: the future, and how we can craft it anyway we like, even as a society we can do this.  We can honour the past, live in the Brindabella-boundary present – if you’ve never been around to see snow on those ranges then you’re missing the quintessential south-east Australian experience – but keep eyes open to move forward.  It’s this youthfulness that I admire about Canberra – how my own youth once became a kind of ‘manhood’, whatever that is – and the unashamed optimism.  And the fact that many of my friends still live there.

And that perfection might not be so unattainable afterall.

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