The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte

Australian writer, Steven Conte

Steven Conte hit the headlines in 2008 when his novel, The Zookeeper’s War won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, which, by the way, was won last year by Gail Jones.

That debut novel was set in Berlin during World War II and this one, The Tolstoy Estate, is also set during that war; this time in the winter of 1941 when a German Medical Unit is deployed to the Russian front where it sets up a field hospital in a vast country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, just south of Moscow, that is, in fact, the country home, and burial place of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, better known to us by his German appellation, Leo Tolstoy. The novel’s protagonist, Dr. Paul Bauer, is a Tolstoy fan and one of the senior surgeons of the unit. The estate is lorded over by the head custodian, and Russian firebrand, Katerina Dmitrievna Trubetzkaya. She is a formidable character, a writer herself, and a masterful creation. With her sharp tongue, hardened Russian loyalties, and fierce dedication to the great novelist she becomes a major thorn in the side of the German officers; as if they haven’t enough to deal with: the constant stream of fighting men with debilitating, challenging, and horrific wounds, their isolation, lice, and, most of all, the brain-numbing and life-threatening cold (-43°C). It defeated Napoleon and it would defeat Hitler, as Katerina Dmitrievna is continually telling them.

Conte immerses the reader in the life of the hospital, the officers and staff, their foibles and idiosyncrasies as well as their work at the operating tables. His description of a thirty six hour non-stop operating shift, where life and death tussle with each other like naughty children at play and that seemingly will never end is one of the most vivid pieces of writing I have read in a very long time.

As relationships develop, split, and reassemble it is the one between Paul Bauer and Katerina Dmitrievna that gradually pulls our focus. They have a shared love of Tolstoy and talk often about him and his work, but of course not often enough, especially for Bauer. The stability of the unit is severely challenged by the interactions between the German medical team and the Russian staff, which further complicates Bauer’s growing affection for the prickly Katerina Dmitrievna.

And then at chapter twelve, just over half way through the novel, Conte pulls a swifty. Suddenly we are twenty six years into the future, in 1967, and Katerina Dmitrievna is in Helsinki writing to Paul Bauer in Nuremberg. And so begins another narrative stream, an epistolary one, that, for the rest of the novel, runs in parallel with the harsh winter’s tale at Yasnaya Polyana in 1941.

Yes, we know that they both survive the war and we think we know what then may have happened, or even what might, but Conte is not such a formuleic writer for it was just five pages from the end that I let escape a loud and unwanted, ‘Oh no!’ as I raced to read what had happened. (No spoilers here)

Great stuff!

I loved this book and I hope we don’t have to wait 12 years for the next Conte work.

Here is an extended interview with Steven Conte about the writing of The Tolstoy Estate from Avid Reader Bookshop channel.

You can find out more about Steven Conte and his books here.

The Tolstoy Estate can be purchased in various formats here.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

I started reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, but put that aside to read this, Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek. I was reminded of the similarity in both books of the rigid fathers, each obsessed with Christianity and its dictates so wholly against human biology, psychology, and behaviour bringing pain to their families and perpetuating ignorance of human nature. It reinforced my belief that it is not the religion itself that breeds such misguided fervour and obedience to unshakable rules of behaviour and social relationships but the administrators of religions, who have been for millennia, men, and who for the most part have been, by their own dictates, denied many of the human emotions and subsequent relationships that they have tried so hard to mould. Men have a lot to answer for. 

Salt Creek (2015) is the story of fifteen year old Hester Finch, and her large family, down on their luck in 1855, who are forced to abandon their relatively comfortable existence in Adelaide and move to a scrap of land in the remote South Australian south east bordering the Coorong: a long narrow lake, one of many lakes at the mouth of the Murray River. Lording over this family is Stanton Finch, a failed dreamer and ever hopeful, but inadequate, business man whose financial failings have forced the move. He is a devout Christian and, of course, runs his life and dealings with an indefatigable belief that god is on and at his side and a man whose good intentions are forged by a religion so irrevocably in an English manner that it seems almost incomprehensible that this religion, that Stanton Finch wants to implant onto the land and the people he inhabits, was founded in poverty, heat and dust by a poor Judean carpenter with lofty ambitions for his neighbours. Such a craftsman has more in common with the natives of Salt Creek than the white Englishmen who deem to claim him as theirs.

Life is hard, and his wife, Bridget, feels like a rib in her heart, the family’s fall from society. Her husband, thinking he was doing her a favour managed to retain two of her prized possessions: a chaise lounge and piano. But they fit uncomfortably in the shabbily built wattle and daub house her husband has built and she is reminded daily of their fall as she has to sweep and clutter around such out-of-placed furniture.

Being a good Christian man, Stanton Finch, tries to deal fairly with the local Ngarrindjeri people but his understanding is tainted by white civilisations’s attitudes coloured by ignorance of what is ‘right’, ‘natural’, and in god’s image. A young Ngarrindjeri boy called Tully, joins the family but not because of Mr Finch’s civilising influences, no mater how much the man would like to claim, but because of the boy’s innate intelligence and courage. There is a bible in the house but also a book by Charles Darwin, brought into the house by Fred Finch, a younger son, a sensitive artist and naturalist who sketches Tully as a young man sitting in a chair by the wood stove reading Darwin: an memorable and apt image of the traditional and modern that lies at the heart of the novel.

Hester, tall, independent, and competent is the book’s first-person narrator and its moral backbone; Adelaide, Addy, her younger sister is the tear-away and at the centre of the moral dilemma of the clash of cultures. There is humour, love, tragedy and the tension between god, family, and safety.

The writing is accomplished, impressive, and moving. Highly recommended.

One day I will leave here, and it will not be with another man or because of a man … How could I respect such a person … It was as if he had been wounded and I was nothing but salt.

Here is Lucy Treloar talking about Salt Creek, writing from landscape, literary prizes, and reading from the text.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas pic
Greek-Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas

Writing historical fiction has many pitfalls, writers and writing guides will tell you, the most dangerous is, undoubtedly language. To the people of the eastern Mediterranean in the first and second century CE there were several languages: Latin for the military administration of the Roman invaders, Hebrew for schools and prayers, Greek for civil administration, and Aramaic for the person in the street, plus local languages and dialects. Rendering all this into English for readers in the twenty first century needs decisions. Traditionally, using modern expressions of the potential readers has been considered wrong; although Hilary Mantel took no heed of that with Wolf Hall where the dialogue is decidedly modern.

Tsiolkas too has made decisions. He uses the word ‘sex’ to refer to genitalia and ‘rutting’ to refer to sex; he notes what language characters use, Greek, Syrian, Latin etc.; his chosen lexicon contains many words of the extreme: death, light, darkness, heavens, honour, hades, blood, hate, etc.; and old words and phrases, like ‘beloved’, ‘betrothed’,  ‘begetting’, ‘we have much to be thankful for’, ‘he is wondrous’; no negative contractions; and violence, lots of violence. Life is cheap, monstrous, and death – as well as life – is slow, bloody, and full of pain; and it is dotted with modern expletives, ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’. There is no smiling while reading this book.

Generally his decisions work. Any frowns I found myself making over his use of language were minor and, as readers must, I went with him and tried to give in to his choices. However, as the story progressed I found this more and more difficult; phrases as ‘… he is singing the light’ , ‘he betrays the light’,’…the God is rapturous …’, ‘I am blinded in white flame’, ‘he has to bring him towards the light,’ ‘to never again be in light.’ So many uses of this word ‘light’ that such phrases, as they peppered the pages more and more in the later stages of the work, became meaningless. The language reminded me of second-rate TV evangelists who use generalisations and ambiguity to hide uncertainly, to impress, not to inform. I lost trust in the writer; I thought Tsiolkas himself did not know what he meant. And the editors must take some responsibility for this.

It is the story of the adult Paul, St. Paul, the Paul who has been credited with writing a large chunk of the New Testament, also known in Hebrew as Saul. Tsiolkas doesn’t tell the tale linearly, but in seven sections, each one concentrating on characters in Paul’s life, some in the 1st person, some in the 3rd: a young mother, Lydia, from Antioch whom he converts; his jailer, the crippled soldier, Vrasas, in Rome; his disciple Timothy. But also around Paul himself: his early persecution of Christians; his blindness, his imprisonment, his death?  jumping decades back and forth between 35, and 87 CE twenty three years after his death.

As a piece of imaginative writing it is astounding in its detail but the writer’s attempt to build the tale’s veracity for a modern readership failed for this reader. I was outside of the story, watching it, knowing it was just a story with no emotional involvement. He made too many little decisions but not enough big ones. Too many times I was told how a character feels, never shown. Tsiolkas lost me, disappointed me, but I read it, well, skimmed it, through to the end.

You can buy the Kindle, and other editions, here.

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Trent Dalton pic
Australian journalist turned novelist, Trent Dalton

This is a rollicking good read. Entertaining, insightful, rich in characters, with a heavy dose of autobiography, and only marred a little by the ending; more about that later.

Eli Bell is 12 years old and the younger son of dysfunctional but estranged parents, Frances and Robert, and they all bump along day to day on the outer hazardous rings of petty criminality in Brisbane in the 1980s. Rugby, television, drugs, poverty, junk food, cigarettes, XXXX beer, and a surprising amount of love for each other get them through every day. Well, almost. Eli’s ‘family’ is extended to include his mum’s boyfriend, Lyle, the first man he ever loved – it takes him time to feel that for his dad; Slim Halliday, his babysitter, mentor, and possible murderer, but certainly notorious escapee from Boggo Road Goal; and his older brother, August, who has decided not to talk since he and Eli were possible victims of attempted filicide. He communicates only with Eli who has learnt to decipher his brother’s air writing. They are inseparable.

The story is told in the first person and Eli’s colourful language, obvious intelligence, unwavering loyalty, and passion for words make him an unforgettable character. There’s a love story, or love fantasy, woven into the second half that is centred on a Courier-Mail crime reporter, Caitlyn Spies, eight years his senior. Eli hankers after, not only her lips and other parts of her body, but also a job like hers: he aches to be a crime-busting journalist. But does he make it? No spoilers here.

There is a lot of back-story to get through before the narrative really starts, so the opening is a bit slow but once Dalton gets in his stride you are grateful for the time taken; he also weaves in a flavour of surrealism that doesn’t quite work, for this reader, but it’s easy to go along with it and to allow yourself to be ‘taken for the ride.’

And what a ride!

It has all the flavour and action of a television crime story right down to the satisfying climax and the just-desserts handed out to the bad-guys.  But there is a climactic tag, a chase sequence that is contrived, too long, and unnecessary. It’s like this sequence has been lifted from another genre and medium; it sits uncomfortably, and ‘tacked-on’, at the end of such a well-written story. But this is a minor criticism.

Yes, it would be perfect for a television, and an adaptation is in the pipeline, produced by Joel Edgerton, but, surprisingly, it is the theatre that has snaffled the goods first. The stage version is scheduled for the 2020 season of the Queensland Theatre Company for the Brisbane Festival in September of that year. Sam Strong, QTC’s artistic director will direct the adaptation written by Tim McGarry.

You can watch a promotional video here, where Dalton gives away a few secrets of inspiration for this, his debut novel with the books that helped him write it.

You can buy the ebook, and other formats, here.

The Tree of Man by Patrick White

 

Patrick White pic
Australian writer, Patrick Victor Martindale White, 1912 – 1990. Offered but declined a knighthood in 1970. Won the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature.

I have had a checkered reading of Patrick White: I started The Tree of Man (published in 1955) when I was too young to appreciate it, so stopped; I started The Twyborn Affair (1979) but, not long in, threw the thing against the wall – I don’t remember why; and in 2011 I read A Fringe of Leaves (1976) several times – for academic purposes – and loved it! It was his first novel after the Nobel Prize and the pressure must have been immense.

The title comes from A. E. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad (31):

There, like the wind through woods in riot, 
      Through him the gale of life blew high; 
The tree of man was never quiet: 
      Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I. 

In 1957 Patrick White wrote in a letter, “I felt the life was, on the surface, so dreary, ugly, monotonous, there must be a poetry hidden in it to give it a purpose, and so I set out to discover that secret core, and The Tree of Man emerged.”

“I wanted to suggest in this book every possible aspect of life, through the lives of an ordinary man and woman. But at the same time, I wanted to discover the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and the poetry which alone could make bearable the lives of such people, and incidentally my own life since my return” … to Australia in 1948. 

He uses the word ‘poetry’ in both these quotes. If you see this word on the cover, or more usually on the back-cover, of any book it usually means ‘literary’, ‘difficult’ and such a book won’t be found in an airport bookshop. It is, apart from anything else, informative.

The Tree of Man is about life. Stan Parker, a young ordinary man, (Life had not yet operated on his face) marries Amy, a young orphan (…had not yet felt affection for any human being) and takes her to live with him in a rough hut he has built on a plot of rough inherited land in the bush. What happens to them is the plot. What they feel, and usually don’t understand, and the discovery of meanings, insights, and poetry is the narrative and far more important; the description is the place and what it does to them, and the dialogue is how we get to know, and feel for, all the characters. These are the elements of a novel: narrative, description, and dialogue. And in the first two is where the poetry is.

Early in the book, after a devastating flood Amy Parker takes in a stranded boy, assumed an orphan. During the boy’s first night with the Parkers, she finds the lad late at night sitting by the fireplace looking at the dying fire through a piece of red glass:

‘What are you doing here?’ the child asked. 

‘Why,’ she said, ‘I live here. This is my house.’ 

But her skin was cold. She was uncertain of her furniture.

That last line of two short sentences is an example of literariness. The link between her last spoken line, This is my house and the next line of prose, But her skin was cold is not linear. There is a knowledge gap. And there is another, bigger, gap between that line and the next, seemingly strange one, She was uncertain of her furniture. What has to happen here is for the reader to fill in those gaps. This reader filled in that the child was warm but she wasn’t, so at a disadvantage; the child had control here, and she, not much more than a child herself, was intimidated by him. The second larger gap I filled in with an even stronger feeling of inadequacy: she knew nothing about anything, not even her furniture, which suddenly seemed irrelevant to her, as if she had no say in it; again like a child.

The child was looking at her hand. It was lying with some lost purpose along his arm. She still had to learn the words that she might speak.

This is what literary fiction does: the thought processes are not linear so requiring the reader to use their intuition, experience, and self-trust. What the writer meant by all of this is irrelevant – they’ve either moved on to their next book, or are dead – it’s in the realm of the reader, always, and what the reader thinks is correct.

This is an Everyman story of how people behave based on their own wishes and desires and to each other, the poetic majesty of living, loving, and making a life for themselves out of the scrubby wilderness but without any of the words necessary to express such feelings and mysteries. They talk to each other as uneducated country people do while the narrator reveals everything else.

Like all readers, we make a pact with writers to accept their omnipotence and let them lead us blindly along the tracks, twists, and turns of the narrative, no matter how ordinary the action is. The ‘novel’ is in the narrative. If you pick up a Patrick White novel and open it this is what you have to do. This is where the pleasure is.

Along the way, in the narrative, not in the dialogue, there can be incredible wisdom.

But he respected and accepted her mysteries as she could never respect and accept his.

This is profound. In one short sentence White encapsulates the essence of male-female relations that lie at the heart of countless novels, films, musicals, and, indeed, relations between the sexes for centuries, as in the song, Marry the Man Today, from the 1950’s musical Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.

Marry the man today
Rather than sigh in sorrow
Marry the man today
And change his ways tomorrow.

As a literary work about the essence of mankind such pronouncements are the result of his intention: to discover the ‘poetry’ of human existence. His sentence instantly paints that archetypical relationship in which the husband unquestionably, but usually because he just wants peace between them, follows the tenants of his married life as stipulated by his wife, but she is forever ‘nagging’ him to change his ways. During this scene where White uncovers such universal truths the pair are talking about selling a calf: he thinks they have too many, she thinks the heifer, she calls her Nancy, will fret; she worries about their daughter who has cried over the extraction of a splinter under her fingernail, he thinks she’s doing fine if that’s all she has to worry about. Character based dialogue, simple and personal, but the wisdom and truth is in the literary narrative with language that the uneducated characters of their own story would never use.

His simplicity had not yet received that final clarity and strength which can acknowledge the immensity of belief. So instead of praying he went into a café and ordered a plate of food.

What people mean when they say ‘I believe…’ is often ‘I believe in the believing’. Believing comes with ritual, mannerisms, uniforms, social contact, expectations, and the resulting satisfaction. People pray without a sense of who they are praying to. They believe in the action of praying. It’s comforting. It’s doing something. Something that many people would approve of, and is therefore satisfying; like ordering a plate of food, which, realistically, is far more comforting because it actually arrives.

The narrative follows the couple, their two children, Ray,  who doesn’t turn out well, and Thelma, who marries a solicitor and has the opportunity to wear furs and crocodile skin shoes and so she has the excuse to look down on her parents. Stan and Amy Parker have two grandchildren and it’s possible they might like to make things right with the children and the children’s children; but it’s too late: it’s not their call any more. They missed it, and it’s inferred that the next generation, as parents, will do no better.

White explores the dichotomy of parental love and how we have no control over it: you love them as kids but maybe not as adults. They grow-up and grow-away. Even the people with we live with for decades we learn to take for granted. So when the grandson  comes in wet from a storm …

And Stan 

The old woman began to remember her husband whom she had forgotten. She forgot him now for whole days.

White started out to find the poetry in life, instead he found the truth.

 

 

No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani

Translated by Omid Tofighian

Omid Tofighian pic

Omid Tofighian is Lecturer in Rhetoric and Composition in the School of Literature, Art, and Media and Honorary Research Associate in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at the University of Sydney.

Although Tofighian is the translator, he acknowledges over a dozen people involved in getting Boochani’s original text smuggled from Manus via WhatsApp and Facebook into his hands.

One aspect I was always conscious of was that Behrouz was writing in Farsi, not Kurdish. He was writing in the language of his oppressors, even though he is a fervent advocate of Kurdish culture, language and politics. And the book was being translated into the language of his torturers.

I saw this translation opportunity as a chance to contribute to history by documenting and somehow supporting the persecution of forgotten people; translation for me, like writing for Behrouz, is a duty to history and a strategy for positioning the issue of indefinite detention of refugees deep within Australia’s collective memory.

Janet Galbraith lic

The book is dedicated to Janet Galbraith who coordinates and facilitates the writing group Writing Through Fences, an organisation that collaborates with incarcerated refugees (or previously detained refugees) and amplifies and supports their writing and art.

 

____________________________________

Behrouz Boochani pic
Kurdish-Australian writer and asylum seeker, Behrouz Boochani. Winner of the Non-Fiction Prize and the Victorian Prize for Literature at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, 2019. 

“In 2013, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani was illegally detained on Manus Island.

He has been there ever since.”

Australian law would object strongly to the word ‘illegally’, international law may not.

On a truck bumping through the dense Javanese jungle on a dark and bumpy track heading to the beach, even asylum seekers aren’t immune to the hazards of public transport,

A loud, obnoxious and completely inconsiderate Kurdish guy forces everyone to breathe his cigarette smoke throughout the trip. He is accompanied by a gaunt wife, adult son, and another son, a little bastard. This kid has his mother’s physical features and his father’s character. He is so loud he torments the whole truck, treating everything as a joke, and annoying everyone with his impatient and disruptive manner. He even gets on the nerves of the smuggler, who yells at him.

Finally after much shouting, rudeness, and disrespect as the over-wrought passengers jostle for space, the rotting boat heads out to sea

like a heavily pregnant mare cantering carefully across a dark prairie of water,

where there isn’t enough room for everyone to sit or lie but those who can, sleep.

Even the normal physical boundaries between families has fallen apart. Men lie in the arms of another’s wife, children lie on the chests and bellies of strangers…the young Sri Lankan family, whose bond is maybe the strongest of all on board, has fallen apart. The husband is in the arms of the man next to him, the wife has her head on the bicep of another man, and their child has ended up across the thighs of a different woman.

Those who aren’t sleeping are vomiting as the waves get bigger and pound the leaking boat … then the bilge pump fails …

This whole mess / In the darkness of midnight / Looks like death / Smells like death / Embodies death / The cries / The screams / The swearing / The knocking about / The sounds of the small children / The heart-wrenching and painful sounds of the little children / These sounds transform the chaotic boat into hell.

Why don’t the people, who just hours earlier were in danger of death from the waves but now on the deck of the Australian ship listening to those same waves lick and lap harmlessly against the hull; why don’t they yell and laugh with happiness at their salvation? They sit quietly and still. Even Boochani doesn’t know why. To the Australians they must seem like, like, cargo, soundless cargo, salvaged from the sea.

Boochani has known death and fear; as a young man he wanted to fight for the liberation of his homeland, but he chose the pen over the gun. Was he a coward? Afraid of death? Then on the ocean he faced both fear and death. Saw fear in the faces of others and felt it in his guts, tasted it on his tongue; the ocean provided him with the most intimate relationship with fear and death. Now he is judged and locked up by people who know neither of these two things. Maybe he should’ve been a soldier, at least he would be shot at by people who, like him, knew about fear and death. It would be an equal fight. Just, even.

Boochani tried twice to get to Australia. He encountered fear and death on both attempts. As he scrambled onto another ill-prepared boat for his second attempt he had to admit that such an action wouldn’t be possible but for courage and foolishness. Returning to Iran, unthinkable! He was aware of his fellow travellers not really knowing any of these four demons: fear, foolishness, courage, and death. They soon would.

I’m stopping! I write this post as I read – as I usually do when reviewing a book, but it’s hard to know what not to cut and paste to show you, let you see what it sounds like because everything is worthy of quoting; every line is full of something, something worth passing on. I want to show you all of it. So, do it; just read it.

Writing allows us to “come to understand another’s point of view in the most profound way possible.” (Erica Wagner, writer, critic, and a Man-Booker Prize judge, twice)

I will continue to read this book, not out of a need for entertainment, but for enlightenment, understanding. I’ve only ever seen asylum seekers on the news, voiceless bodies behind wire. The Australian Government has not wanted us to hear what they have to say: journalists are banned on Manus and Nauru. This is the first time I have the opportunity to hear what the Australian Government does not want me to hear. That is why I will read it to the end; as I hope you will too.

You can buy the eBook ($14.99) from Pan-Macmillan here.

You can buy the Kindle version ($US11.99) here.

Arnold Zable, an Australian writer is also part of this story. You can read his SMH article and watch a short trailer for the video Chauka, please tell me the time, here

Watch Behrouz’s videoed acceptance speech, here. He was not allowed to attend the Award’s Presentation.

Gulliver’s Travels (working title) by Michael K Freundt. A work in progress.

Robert Gulliver Cover picAfter sex years I’ve finally finished the first draft. I’m letting it rest for a while. Here is the Prelude and the first three chapters … a teaser.

Prelude

If you ask a family member – of any family – if they are happy, they would invariably pause, not wanting to simply say “yes”, and try to think of a word, or words, that would accurately describe their … but they would all so quickly realise that they have no idea how to describe how they feel so they say, “Yes,” usually adding, “of course.” You know this is a lie, but politeness and fear forces you to acquiesce and you smile and say something limp in acknowledgment, like “Good.” This is an example of two lies being better than none. You can both now get on with whatever you were doing; conditioning your hair, mowing the lawn, doing your tax, without upsetting the balance of the universe, happy in the nameless knowledge that you have successfully bypassed the slippery dip to yelling, tears, and/or the breakdown of your world as you know it. This is the bedrock of why families survive; sometimes, even when they shouldn’t.

 If you realise at any time that you have somehow been perplexingly born into a situation, a family, where you don’t fit in, or if circumstances render your situation suddenly, or slowly, unacceptable to you, you need to – or may be forced to – do something about it.

This is a story of a boy who did just that.

1

Off to School with Daddy.

In the early Monday morning pre-light, a masculine hand hovers over a digital clock’s green numbers as they inescapably eat up time: 5:57, 5:58, 5.59 … It taps the ‘off’ button. Waking up is as close to birth as us humans can get; and we do it every day. If only we could remember to think this, maybe we would then try to make this day better than the last. 

Robert Gulliver, fifteen years old but who has suffered a heavy dose of puberty much earlier than most, desirously handsome and dark, raises his arms, hands clasped over his head, and stretches while he flexes and rotates his feet, clockwise then anti. He lies still for a moment listening to the sounds of the house. All is quiet except for the living hum he hears in his ears: the sound of himself. He flings back the covers of his three-quarter bed, swings his naked body over the side, scratches his hirsute chest and yawns. He stands on tip-toe, raises his arms above his body, and stretches, making sure he breathes normally. Hold. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. He then walks out of his room to the bathroom down the hall confident no-one is around at this hour; his parents are still asleep. He is up early because there is so much to do: the day is his first at a new school, the third this year, and it’s only June.

He uses the toilet. Drinks a handful of water from the tap, washes his hands, rinses his face, and dons running shorts, with inbuilt support, then T-shirt, socks, Nikes, and Raybans. He heads out the back door of the suburban family home, down the drive and through the front garden where a neglected, immense, and loathsome stand of Strelitzia reginae, bird-of-paradise, dominates a sparse and neglected garden. He thinks about its place, the family’s face to the world, and wonders if he should get stuck into the garden as no-one else will, but he knows he won’t. He is scared of the garden. He’s never said this and never will, and certainly not tell anyone. Even now, he is only vaguely aware of an aversion to it. But it is fear, nonetheless. 

A Sunday morning only a few years ago when he was still a boy, a real boy, a hairless little boy, he was watering the garden and he let the curved force of the water from the hose in his hand linger in a spot of dirt. A muddy hole appeared and gurgled and mesmerised him, spoke to him. Yes, the sound became voices, the words were unintelligible but the conversation, was definitely hostile. He was caught by the sound, pulled by it, but repulsed by the tone. He strove to catch the words. Who belonged to these voices? He concentrated to understand but it was impossible to discern any meaning or purpose; they didn’t even sound like words, but there were two voices and they were full of hate, unmistakable hate. He yanked himself away despite the tug of perverse curiosity, but the fear was worse; a fear that at any moment he would be dragged into the hateful dialogue and have to explain himself. He never had anything more to do with the garden, any garden.  

Now that he has looked at his own garden, well, Ewan, his father’s, garden, with the eyes of a stranger, he glances up and takes in the whole neighbourhood. A straight street of single storey houses all built the same distance from the road, as if there was a plan, or at least, an intention or will. They all are of different designs, nothing matched, but the predominant feature of the vista was the low fences and walls, that separate each front yard; all different too, like personalities, but in this neighbourhood not very stylish personalities. Some in tact, some falling down or covered in weeds pretending to be ground-cover, or ground-cover that has escaped the ground. It was all built well before the brief social experiment of no fences, vast lawn-scapes that was supposed to be egalitarian but ended up being separatist. No one had a fence to talk over so nobody talked. But here no-body talks much anyway. Everyone’s life is pretty much like their neighbour’s. He knows the neighbours to the left, Joe and Betty Dodd, nice people but Betty looks at him too hard sometimes, like she’s weighing things up, and he used to have a yen to catch a glimpse of Joe Dodd in the shower, which was possible since their respective bathroom windows faced each other; and he did – he had to stand of the bath-rim to get the angle he needed – but once he did he didn’t want to anymore; so now he avoids any close association with them; the ones on the right are renters and are rarely seen. Both left and right gardens don’t seem to be tended much either, but they are infinitely neater than the Gulliver’s. If location defines you, he’s not too pleased about this location and what it might say about him. Cromer, northern beaches, but annoyingly inland from the beach and so a little suburban self-loathing has crept into the street, called an Avenue but looks nothing like one. He thinks about doing something about it – the garden? – the house? – the suburb? – but not sure what, just yet. 

He sets ear-phones to his smartphone, opens the National Broadcaster, and chooses News. He walks briskly at first, gearing up to a power walk, and then a more energetic lope; but never a jog. He concentrates on the news wanting to hear something to agree with but well aware that that won’t happen, but, news, somehow, is addictive. He’s a left-leaning moderate while the government of the day is conservative although led by a broad-spectrum party failing to come to terms with its outdated conservatism and led by a centrist ditherer desperately trying to maintain his leadership until attrition and bi-elections foster in new blood and through which he can bring the party to where he wants it to be. Wrong! Meanwhile he is hounded by the media and old far-right-old-boys on the back bench in equal measure. He plods two steps forward, two steps back, but smiles at the cameras confident that he is making headway; and sometimes he does, but less of a step and more of a shuffle. He frustrates Robert as does the opposition leader who is too much from the old-school believing politics not policy will be his way to the top-job. Those days are over. Ewan is a backbencher in the Labor opposition but the State scenario is pretty much the same as the national only smaller, narrower, and pettier. 

As happens when exercising, the brain can sometimes randomly rove. Robert, despite the battling political voices dishing up platitudes into his ear, remembers, or tries to remember, this morning’s dream that suddenly impinges itself on his mind. He is aware of a blurry Arcadian scene, of countryside, picturesque vistas, streams with verdant banks, but where farming has disrupted the living cycles. Machines have turned the sod, oblivious farmers have planted horizons of alien grasses, and tend ignorant creatures from other climes. Through this he walks becoming increasingly bereft at the damage he sees – you know what dreams can be like – but finally he discovers a field that looks at peace. The headed grasses have been cut, waiting he knows for another machine that will thunder over them making enormous round bungles of what now lies peacefully where they grew. But not now. Not yet. He feels a calmness and an incredible urge to lie down with the fallen stems and all the other naked men where he knows he will find serenity, and an odour akin to kindness wafts over him and … and … but the rest is gone, buried within the maze of neurones and synapses, hibernating, but ready to return unannounced at any inconvenient moment in the future. Or lost forever. But, he knows enough about the mysterious process of writing fiction, practiced by his mother, sometimes with his help, to know that such neurone memory can serendipitously splutter into his fingers as they dance over the keys in a red-hot spurt of creativity. He shares this glorious, but untetherable creative agility with Edith. It binds them. 

By 6.30 as the day brightens Robert is back home. He shaves slowly, his beard is thick and dark: his hormones belie his age. Personal attention takes time. He showers, with an olive oil based gel, ‘washes’ his hair with conditioner, and then pat-dries himself thoroughly. On his face he uses a liquid cleanser, exfoliant, and moisturiser; for his short thick hair – but longer in front, he likes the floppy look, especially late in the day – he uses Aesop Violet-Leaf Balm. It’s the best. He’s tried them all. He believes soap on the body is as evil as sugar in it.

Back in his room he dons a pair of white Giorgio Armani briefs; always Giorgio, never Emporio. He used to iron his shirt the night before but he now prefers to do it in the morning; for a fresher look. There is something meditative about ironing in the quiet. The ironing board always stands waiting in front of his curtained window, under which stands his broad dresser which holds several photographs of himself as a child, so long ago it feels historic, but really it’s only two years, not ten. There is also a photograph of a youngish Sean Connery. Robert’s clean but creased shirts lie in a deep top drawer. It takes him seven and a half minutes to iron a shirt. He cleaned and polished his shoes last night. He takes his new grey and blue school uniform and tie out of their dry-cleaner plastic and dresses. He always uses a full Windsor Knot and a shirt with a cutaway collar: he likes their proportions which he believes suits his facial geography. Robert Gulliver cares about these things.

So there, in his full length mirror on the back of his door, a model for Everyman; fifteen going on thirty two, in more ways than age; a man in a school uniform which, on any other man would look silly, but on Robert? It’s a head-turning magnet of a look.

By the time he enters the kitchen, his parents, Ewan, the back-bencher, is already at the breakfast table. His mother, Edith, an eBook novelist who produces a generally lucrative line of novellas about a woman called Veronica and her sex and work life – sometimes intermingling, – is, as usual, already at her desk, down the hall in, what was, the third bedroom but is now Edith’s writing room.

Ewan looks up from his newspaper, runs his eyes slowly over his son, and gives a frustrated sigh, or is it something else? “You’re going to school dressed like that?”

“Good morning, Ewan!” says Robert, sarcastically as Edith, pencil in her mouth, comes into the kitchen. “Morning, Mother Dear.”

Through teeth clenched on the pencil she says, “What? Don’t talk to me. I’m not here.” She goes to a cupboard, opens it and takes out a packet of Bushells tea. “Ah, two els.”

“You know, Mum, you could’ve googled that and saved a trip.”

“Ssh! I’m not here.”

“Ewan doesn’t like my uniform,” says Robert.

“Oh, come on, Ewan, you know Robert likes to look neat.”

“And does he like having his neat little head punched in as well?” But she’s gone.

“So how would you like me to dress, Ewan?” says Robert cheerfully as he carefully drapes his jacket over the back of his chair and sits, “flapping shirt-tales, a tie skew-wiff and loose, and a crotch dangling to my knees?”

“You could at least try to fit in this time.”

Edith’s head appears around the door frame, “Your toast is in the toaster. Ah! And Ewan, you know Robert needs a cloth napkin.” She disappears again.

“I’ll get it,” says Robert as he retrieves one from the dresser drawer. As he drapes his napkin, edged in lace and ironed stiffly, carefully on his lap, sits and contemplates his Swiss muesli, Greek yoghurt and red papaya, he says “Oh, and while we’re on the subject of fashion, your national leader dresses exactly like you seem to want me to. You’d think with such a glamorous wife she’d help him out; he could, at least, wear clothes that actually fit him.”

“I have no concern for the federal leader, it’s my state leader I’m focused on.”

“That’s the trouble with the Left in this country: all the branches looking out for themselves; and can’t agree on exactly the shade of left they want to be.” Edith appears and goes straight for the cupboard again. “So, what’s Veronica up to these days, Mum? Bonking a client again?”

“What? Oh, she’s bonking a builder,” she says as she takes the Bushells tea packet out again and takes it with her. At the door she turns and says, “Well, she had to, really. He caught her staring at him on the bus. And she was staring but not because of him, but because of who he reminded her of. She tried to explain that to him while he rubbed up against her in the crowd, but no man want’s a woman he fancies to talk to him of another man, does he? She’s having a little bit of a crisis over this one not because she should’ve known, which she should’ve, but because she quite liked being rubbed up against in a public place.”

“Ha!” guffaws Robert, “I love you Mum, for all your distance, you must have a never-ending treasure trove of unfulfilled fantasies, wouldn’t you say Ewan?” And he throws a look at his father who refuses to look up. “And what does this one look like?”

“A bit like you. Can’t chat. Must go,” and she disappears with the packet of Bushells tea but pops her head back and says, “I may need your help later today, Robert. I’ll text you,” and she is gone again.

“I suppose you know most of Veronica’s roots look like you,” says Ewan without looking up.

Robert ignores the comment. “And what has this Monday in store for you, Ewan?” says Robert making family morning chit-chat.

“I have a party meeting at 9.30 so I can take you to your new school if you like.”

“Isn’t it wonderful that all the world starts their work at 9 but politicians like to start at 9.30; makes them feel so, so, special.”

“No, so fathers like me can take children like you to school. I could also have a word with the principal which may, at least, postpone the inevitable.”

“Nothing’s happened yet.”

“It will. You’re a shit-magnet, Robert.”

“And you think dressing like shit will help?”

“At least you’ll fit in.”

“Oh, yes, that old blend-in philosophy; don’t stand out, be grey and everything will be alright.”

“At least it may save your pretty face being smashed in.”

“Nothing touches my face unless it’s out of a beautifully designed and expensive tube.”

“Be ready in 25 minutes,” says Ewan and he downs his coffee, folds the paper and leaves the kitchen.

“You know he loves you, Robert,” comes Edith’s voice sailing down the passage from her office, or was that a voice from a god somewhere?

Robert says quietly, “And so do you, precious.”

 

The car, a Volvo, faded Green and far from the the latest model, is always in the drive, never in the garage as the garage is full of rubbish, sorry, storage. Robert stands with his jacket over his arm waiting for Ewan who eventually emerges from the house.

“When are you going to tend to this Strelitzia?” asks Robert.

“I planted it for the very reason that it doesn’t need tending to.”

“Have you ever read John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids?”

“No.”

“You should. It’s very prophetic.”

“Come on. Get in. We’re late.”

“Get real! We’re only late because you’re late.”

As Ewan backs out of the weedy driveway and joins the morning traffic Robert tends to his seat belt. It takes him five blocks to make sure there are no shirt creases under his seat belt straps.

Robert has for some years been aware of his dislocation within his family and the precarious position, both emotionally and financially, it holds in the weave of the society in which they live: his mother writes salacious novels, self-publishes them online, and receives payment, eventually, via her online publishing platform straight into her bank account which a debit card gives her access to, therefore rendering her daily working life free from any human contact outside her husband and son; his father sits on the back-bench for a major political party, now in opposition, who does nothing but sit in the seat he is elected to – and continues to be elected to – but should he attract any attention from the media, and therefore the world, which in the realm of political life is more likely than not – the state of his front garden alone – and let’s leave out, for the moment, his proclivities, history, and immediate future – would be enough to send worrying waves to his party, the media, and constituents. Robert seems to be the only one, of the three of them, who understands this.

“Later this morning, Eastern Standard Time, the state opposition will gather for a party meeting behind closed doors to try to wheedle three backbenchers, Thomas Undershaft, Marion Heath, and Ewan Gulliver, into supporting the contentious vote on euthanasia,” the car radio says.

“Ewan! You’ve made the news! Wow. Now you will have to do something about the front garden.”

“Whatever for?”

“It’s the first thing the paparazzi will photograph and the first story the journos will write about. Next thing you know the producers of “Celebrity Makeover” will be banging on our door to bring our front garden into the 21st century. And once the journos dig, Ewan … well, you know.”

The radio continues its morning roundup of news, weather, and not-so-current affairs. Father and son sit in silence in the heavy traffic. Ewan’s knuckles begin to turn white, he indicates, pulls over, and stops the car.

“Ewan! You can’t park here. It’s a bus lane.”

Ewan replies by covering his son’s hand with his own.

Robert quickly pulls his hand away. “If you get picked up by the traffic police they’ll start asking questions and next thing you know your face will be on the front page of some gutter tabloid, and you know what they…

“Robert,” interrupts Ewan, “we have to talk.”

“No, we don’t and there’s a bus coming.”

“Baby.”

“Don’t call me that and that bus is not a figment of my imagination. Ewan!”

Ewan checks his rear-view mirrors and pulls out into the traffic again. It is slow.

The Volvo eventually pulls into the curb outside the high school with a yard empty of children. The men sit: Robert waiting for, but not wanting, Ewan to say something and worried about why he himself is so confused about this.

“Sorry about the traffic,” says Ewan.

“Not your fault.”

“You remember the principal’s name? Mr Steen?”

“I know. It’s tragic.”

Ewan has more important things to say. “… Robert,” begins Ewan in a different, soft, but alarming voice that causes Robert to angrily interrupt.

“Ewan! Stop! We are going to be like a normal, well, normal-ish, family and tonight I’ll tell you about my day and Mum will tell us about Veronica’s day, and you’ll tell us about your day; and while we’re on the subject of your day, do what you have to, to stay out of the media’s sites. And you know perfectly well why.”

As he gets out of the car Ewan says irritably, “Oh, so you want me to blend in, do you? Don’t stand out, is that it?”

“Exactly!” Robert prepares to slam the door.

But in a swift move Ewan, held by his seatbelt, leans low on the passenger seat where he can feel the still, but fading, warmth of Robert’s body and holds the door open, looks up at his son and says pleadingly, “But I don’t understand, Baby, why you are so afraid of what you did. I didn’t mind; don’t mind.”

“I was underage,” says Robert harshly but in a whisper, foolishly, as there was no-one around, “I wasn’t responsible!”

“And you’re still not,” says Ewan with a calm inevitability that renders his son shocked and speechless. Robert abruptly turns, leaving the door open and walks rapidly away and into the deserted playground. He hears the door close and the Volvo pull away but doesn’t turn around. He stands in a sea of black asphalt. He knows he’s late, but since late is late, later is still just late. He might only be fifteen but he’s also a man; he thinks of himself as one, and one that feels responsibility even if the law won’t let him. But here he is; a man in a playground. Its implications belie its flatness. Another school. Let’s hope this one is a little more … accommodating.

2

Pretty Straight Back

Familiar noises and the habiliments of school architecture, direct him into a building and a short corridor turns him down a longer one. He can see up ahead a teacher’s aid in a lab coat mopping the floor next to a free-standing, yellow, warning sign, and heads for him to ask directions. But as he approaches he becomes gradually aware that this man has the potential to be incredibly attractive; not in a conventional sense he thinks, but craggy, well built, and to Robert’s well developed sexual senses, luscious. Dearie me! Look at that! Robert can’t help a sensuous smile begin to teeter on his lips as he excitingly anticipates gazing into this man’s eyes; but just as the smile is involuntary so is the rest of his face and as the man hears Robert’s approaching steps, he looks up and locks eyes on the lad. Robert chucks him a lascivious wink. The man’s shocked reaction has its altering affect and Robert lets his momentum propel him past without being able to utter a word, much to his annoyance, but he can’t help looking back. Be still my beating heart! What is it about those deep creases, like parentheses around a sensual mouth? The man is staring after him, standing next to the yellow sign: caution.

It’s as if another Robert, the man, vies for space in his body and mind of Robert, the boy. He looks like a man, thinks like a man, his penis certainly behaves like a man, but although the chemical cocktail that unleashed the man in him was spilt way too soon there are still boyish elements lurking beneath his adult exterior that bubble up at times sending his mind racing around a traffic clover trying to find the nearest exit to rationality and a calm breathing pattern. Robert has adapted to these moments of libidinal confusion by taking, as he likes to call it, my rational pill: the sensical, almost female, attribute of  attending to the stimuli of reality around him at this present moment: the smell of a school corridor, finding the Principal, being a school boy.

He finds the Principal’s office where he notes the man’s name on the door as C. E Steen: Principal. He knocks and enters and sees the man rise from his desk. He is grossly fat and, when he speaks, flummoxed by a seemingly random stammer and a casual link between tongue and intellect. His desk is messy. A good sign, thinks Robert. A laptop, stacks of papers, a small secretaire of ancient polished wood, and a small photo frame. He’d love to see what it holds. 

“Ah, yes. Am I expecting you?” the man says with a frown.

“Yes, I think so. I’m the new student transferred from Sanderson High. Robert Gulliver.”

“Oh! Is that so? You’re late! And I was expecting someone a little, well, you know, younger, and not so w-well d-dressed. Your file says you’re fifteen, but” Robert’s slightly annoyed look has its effect, “ well, you know what b-boys can be like these days. Yes. Well, now. You’ve got a little reputation stuck to your b-boots, my lad. But Elliot, that’s Will Elliot, the Councillor – old friend of mine from w-way back, says you’re a bold lad, or some such thing. Ah, yes, my lad. Yes. Yes. E-expecting you. Yes, G-gulliver. R-robert. Yes. Robert, I think. Come in. Sit down. Here’s a chair. I’m the boss around here,” and he laughs rather sillily.

“Pleased to meet you sir.”

“Now, no need, no need, you know, around here to be so, well, formal. You can call me Mr Steen or P-principal. Everyone d-does. Someone called me ‘Prince’ once and I quite liked it. Now, there’s a form somewhere around here. Somewhere. For you to fill-in, or is it fill-out? Silly language at t-times,” and he chuckles to himself.

“I filled in all the necessary forms online. I’m sure we don’t have to do them again,” says Robert, trying to help.

“Yes. Yes. Certainly. Of course. Of course. The office staff will deal with that, that you know, computer stuff. So. W-what can I do for you then?”

“What I don’t have is the weekly schedule and …..”

“Yes, of course! Of course. That’s here too, somewhere. Somewhere. Oh yes! Here it is! Glory be! Here’s the whole d-damn thing: a folder with your name on it. Robert Gulliver. This must be yours,” and he hands Robert a full manila folder. “W-what else do you need to know?”

“I was hoping you could show me to my first class. but Sir, Mr Steen, you need to keep this file, I think.” He hands it back.

“Ah, yes. Of course. But now, what? Oh, yes, come with me,” and the Principal rises with difficulty from his seat and leads Robert out into the corridor, talking all the time. “Your home teacher is Mr Luff. G-good bloke. Very knowledgeable about literature and all that. English, I think, is first up this morning,” and on and on about Mr Luff and his string of qualities until they get to a closed door. He knocks and enters. The entire class shuffles to its feet, but the Principle waves them down. “Thank you, people, thank you. Good morning, Good morning, Adrian.” Everyone sits. Robert follows but his view of the room is almost completely restricted by the bulk of Mr Steen. “This is the new chap I told you about, Adrian. Robert Gulliver,” and as Mr Steen steps aside a breathless “Oh shit” escapes Robert’s lips. Mr Luff is the craggy-handsome teacher’s aid minus his lab coat.

There is a pause, like a stop-frame, as Adrian Luff takes in Robert Gulliver, especially his clothes as does the whole class. “You? Mr Gulliver? We’ve been expected you,” says Adrian Luff with a touch of irony in his voice.

“Good morning, sir,” and he looks around the room. It is as expected: students in various states of hormone-induced dishevelment all around fifteen loll on their chairs, or against, or over, their single and double desks, as if to belie the furniture’s shape. Three rough-pretty boys up the back attract his attention as they lean into each other like conspirators, like the trio from Macbeth. One of them, a lanky lad stares at him and mouths a word with derision: an unmistakable ‘Poofta’. Ah, yes. Here we go again, thinks Robert but his attention is taken by a very pretty girl who, of all of them, is sitting up straight.

“Not so formal here, Mr Gulliver. Mr Luff is all that is needed.”

“Fine. Where would you like me to sit?”

“Why not over there, third row back.”

“Ah, a window seat. Thank you,” and Robert walks to his seat, takes off his jacket and hangs it neatly on the back of his chair. All eyes are locked on him as he sits.

“We’re talking this morning about A Passage to India. Have you read it?”

“It’s on the syllabus.”

“Yes, but have you read it,” says Adrian Luff in a tone that suggests that everybody should, but nobody has. There’s a few chuckles of acknowledgement.

“Yes, I have. Twice,” and a few groans punctuate the dying laughter.

“Ah, then you might like to enlighten us on your theories of what happened in the Malabar Caves.”

“I think I’d prefer to sit this one out, Mr Luff, if you don’t mind. It’s my first day. I’ll just gauge the lie of the land, if you know what I mean. But thanks for the offer.”

“Oh, come now, Mr Gulliver. You must know I’ve read your file.”

Oh, fucken hell. So much for starting with a new slate when the one he’s given is already scratched and bloodied. He can feel the look of mischief from Adrian Luff; a little pay back probably for Robert’s audacious wink in the corridor.

“So, come on, Mr Gulliver. Enlighten us with your opinion,” and his soft-looking lips form a little challenging smirk.

I know what I’d like to do to those lips of yours. Stick my tongue through them and press them hard against mine as I run my hand up and under your shirt and then down behind your belt. Robert smiles and says “Do you mind if I stand?”

“Not at all Mr Gulliver. Be our guest.” And it is something about that reply, a little too smug, a little too all-inclusive – us against you, too condescending and challenging with a hope of failure no doubt, that Robert doesn’t just stand but also grabs and dons his coat as he walks to the front of the class – into Adrian Luff’s territory – turns, and boldly and unflinchingly begins – but first he tugs on his cuffs and buttons his jacket.

“Miss Adela Quested, rather plain, has led a slow and very ordinary English life, but despite very little happening in it she has found herself rushing past, at an alarming rate, her marriageable age. No female then would ever contemplate being left on the shelf. However, she is now engaged, probably hurriedly so, to be married, but to a rather pompous and dull prick who has been all this time in India while she has been, all this time, on the other side of the world, being plain and un-noticed.” And then staring at Lanky Lad up the back says, “She’s a virgin, wouldn’t you say?”

The dumb lad falls for the trap and says rather cockily, “Yeah, but I reckon she’d like a bit of the old rumpy-pumpy,” and his two off-siders punch each other and giggle like twits. “Because, you know, she gets all moist and gagging-for-it just lookin’ at all those Karma Sutra statues humpin’ each other, like all over the place.” And the twits giggle some more.

“Ah, so you’ve seen the movie,” says Robert egging the boy on.

“Yeah, I have. Twice!” and the class laughs with him as his chest puffs up like a gobbler.

“But you haven’t read the book, laddy!” The laughter dies. “Because if you had you would have known that scene is not in the book. It’s a little invention from Mr Lean, the director, just to make it a little easier for people who aren’t comfortable just with words on a page, or even pictures on a screen, but need a little extra to help them understand what’s going on.” Lanky Lad sinks a little in his chair and fixes Robert with a hateful stare, although Robert can see that the lad isn ‘t quite sure why he feels put down. Robert’s eyes move from Lanky Lad’s to Pretty Straight Back. She’s smiling at him. “So,” Robert continues, “Miss Quested is a virgin, sexually repressed and about to marry a bore who is also sexually repressed. A disaster in the making. Missionary Position 101 with the lights off. But then she spots the good man, Dr Aziz, with his swarthy good looks,” Robert prances before his audience letting his own attractiveness work for him, “a handsome, exotic, and friendly man,” – he tosses a smiling “Hi!” to Pretty Straight Back – “and poor Adela is hooked. It’s Dr Aziz she wants, although wanting a man isn’t something she would ever contemplate; more like, wanting him to do something to her. So, in the cave, the dark and eerie cave, just the place for a randy man to take advantage of an inexperienced but willing virgin” – and Robert rubs his nipples – “Mmmmm. But Dr Aziz is not with her: he’s somewhere else in the labyrinth with the other tourists. She’s alone in the gloom, exotic, and sensual place with nothing but her imagination” and his hands wander again. “So, what does she do? She lets her imagination go wide to a point where she can’t help herself. She masturbates” – he demonstrates, “Breaks her hymen, gets blood on her hands, -Ah! – panics, runs from the cave, and stumbles into a convenient bramble bush. Now! The real question here – and much more interesting – is not what happened in the cave – I just told you what happened, end of mystery – but, did she accidentally stumble into the bramble bush or did she do that deliberately to cover up her vaginal blood; blood with more blood? Right! I want 500 words from each and every one of you on your opinion on the bramble bush equation, on my desk by 3.45 this afternoon. Thank you for your attention.” Pretty Straight Back leads the mediocre applause. He smiles back at her as he walks back to his seat and, removing his jacket, replaces it on the back of his chair and sits. Adrian Luff takes an unsatisfactory amount of time to get the class back and under his control so he can proceed with the lesson he has planned.

Eventually, a harsh sound of an electric bell, left over from when Brutus was a boy, pierces the air and as the class room erupts with eager but underdeveloped bodies scrambling to get out of here, Robert gathers his things and finds he is the last to leave.

“I’d like a word with you, Mr Gulliver,” says Adrian Luff.

“Certainly, Mr Luff,” says Robert as he alters his momentum and leans against the desk immediately in front of Mr Luff who sits watching Robert’s every move.

“Are you aware of what is in the report from your previous school?” asks the older man.

“No,” says Robert, “but I’d like to be.” And I think there’s a few other things I’d like to be aware of at this very moment, Luffy.

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.”

“You mean, I’m stuck forever with my crumpled past?”

“Aren’t we all?”

“Oh! So you have a crumpled past too, do you Mr Luff?”

Mr Luff chooses to ignore the question; so instead he says, “My job is to make sure you fit in well to this school and keep – incidents – from happening that we’d rather not happen.”

“And how do you suppose to do that?” asks Robert cheekily.

“By understanding a little bit of what’s going on in that head of yours.”

Robert can’t help a smirk distorting his lips, “Oh, Mr Luff, even if you did know what was going on in this head of mine, you may not understand it” which I would greatly regret as I run my hand up your naked body to a nipple and squeeze it ever-so gently while I grab your erect penis in my fist and guide it, expertly, inevitably, into my waiting mouth “Sorry, did you say something?” asks Robert snapping out of his little reverie.

“No.”

“Oh,” and then coquettishly “would you like to say something?”

“Mr Gulliver,” begins Mr Luff in a slightly exasperated voice but he is prevented from continuing by a knock on the door.

“Yes?” calls out Mr Luff.

Oh look! It’s Pretty Straight Back. “Excuse me, Mr Luff, but as Mr Gulliver has a free-period this session, as I do, I thought I’d take the opportunity to show him around.”

“A very good idea, Ms Lately, as it seems he needs a bit of looking after.”

“Oh, Mr Luff,” says Robert, “why don’t we forget about our crumbly pasts and start afresh?”

Again, Mr Luff ignores the question. “I’ll see you back here for the last session de-brief.”

“Oo! A de-brief,” says Robert as he collects his bag, “I look forward to that,” and he pushes himself off the desk and heads to the waiting Ms Pretty Straight Back, sorry, Ms Lately; but then he stops, turns back to Mr Luff, walks over to the man still sitting in his chair, stands a little too close signifying an intimacy that apparently the older man does not object to – Mmm – and says conspiratorially, “What where you doing dressed as a teacher’s aid mopping a corridor earlier this morning?”

“It was a lab coat. I also teach Junior Chemistry. I broke a beaker. I mopped rather than swept to make sure I got every shard of glass.”

The men stare at each other, one looking up, one smiling down and then “Very sensible,” says Robert who then turns and continues towards Ms Lately waiting at the door.

A few steps from the recently closed door Ms Lately says, “Are you always that arrogant on day one?”

Robert looks at her with some surprise as her question was, well, surprising, and then quizzically as if her question consolidates the basis of their relationship and so he consolidates it even more by saying, “Yes. And are you always so abrupt on first meetings?”

“Yes.”

“We are going to get along just fine.”

“Actually, I’m not usually that abrupt…”

“So, you lied?”

“No. There’s something about you that elicits – honesty.”

“Something, what exactly?”

“Something in your face.”

“What about my face?”

“Well, apart from it being incredibly handsome …”

“I know.”

“… really!” with a sigh, “it’s also incredibly open.”

“And it gets me into a lot of trouble.”

“Being open?”

“No, the other bit.”

Ms Lately ignores that. “A virgin doesn’t necessarily bleed when she masturbates.”

“She does if her hymen breaks.”

“Not necessarily. I didn’t.”

“Oh. It’s a good story though, don’t you think?”

“What other theories do you have about Ms Quested?”

“I don’t want to talk about Ms Quested.”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“Adrian Luff.”

“Do you fancy him?”

“Of, course!”

“He’s off limits, I’m afraid.”

“Well, we’ll see about that.”

“I may not know what’s in that report about you, but I can sure as hell guess. You really …..”

“Ah!” gasps Robert, “I haven’t yet asked your name.”

“I wonder why that would be?”

“And you haven’t told me.”

“It’s Penny.”

“Ah, Penelope.”

“No, Penny.”

“Why not Penelope?”

“It’s so old fashioned.”

“But with a noble pedigree.”

“And you’re now going to tell me all about it.”

“She was the wife of Odysseus, better known as Ulysses, who stayed loyal to him for more than twenty years while he was away fighting in the Trojan wars.”

“Was she dull?”

“No, she was very beautiful and had over 180 suitors, but she shunned them all, aching for the day when Ulysses would return to her. And he did. She is known for her connubial fidelity.”

“Why do you know so much stuff?”

“I have an uncanny ability to remember everything I see, touch, smell, hear, and taste.”

“And make-up.”

“You have a healthy skepticism. I like that. We’re going to be very close. Anyway, I’m calling you Penelope.”

“Must you?”

“It’s your name, just like my name is Robert. Robert.”

“Robert. Not Bobby?”

He looks at her as if she just farted. “Robert.”

“Robert.”

“Penelope. Penelope Lately. Nice. And where does the family Lately come from?”

“It’s the English version….”

Anglicised is the word you need, if it’s the adjective you want.” Robert can be incredibly annoying.

“It’s the Anglicised version of some Eastern European name with too many zeds and not enough vowels.”

“You mean like Latzkowzkizitzky?”

“Something like that.”

“So, Penelope Lately, I think you were about to tell me all you know about the delectable Adrian Luff.”

“OK. Ermm … he’s a teacher.” 

3

Rough Pretty Boys

Penelope Lately is tiny with a luscious crop of very bark brown hair, almost black but not quite. Her small stature belies her intellect and sense of humour. It’s as if, when aged seven, all her growing energy was transferred to her brain leaving her frame stationary. 

Robert said one morning, “You have gorgeous hair.”

“Would you like to touch it?”

“Er … No!” said Robert a little taken aback. “Why would I want to touch it?”

“Well, I just thought, since you liked it, you might want to, you know, touch it.”

“No. I just like looking at it.”

“Oh.” Penelope doesn’t quite know why but she’s a little disappointed.

“The Mona Lisa in the Lourve in Paris is covered by a sheet of glass so when you look at it all you can see is the reflection of the boards of people staring at it.”

“And why did you tell me that?”

“Nobody wants to touch it.”

“Well, you couldn’t touch it, even if you wanted to.”

“That’s right.”

” … you’re weird.”

During that first meeting of Penelope and Robert not a lot of ‘showing-around’ went on, which Robert didn’t mind as school-yard geography is very much the same the world over: building, asphalt, building, asphalt, boutique bushes, demountable, worn grass, asphalt, building. But it did set a precedent and all their subsequent free time between classes and other annoying educational commitments were spent together. Robert, basically self-educated, simply is marking time until he comes of age when his real life, he believes, will begin. Robert makes no other friends; he adopts a friendly but sarcastic, slightly belittling tone to all others which they can’t actually recognise as such but know it isn’t welcoming. His feelings for Penelope quickly grow close to love, brotherly love that is, and his feelings for Adrian Luff stay frustratingly close to lust-from-afar; not a feeling Robert is comfortable with. He usually gets what he wants.

“Look at them!” says Robert after a short pause that ended a satisfying but exhausted discussion about the modern uselessness of royalty. “Horsing around like children.” The rough-pretty boys are tagging each other; their shirttails blowin’ in the wind.

“They are children,” says Penelope chewing on her apple core.

Lanky Lad and his two accomplices are energetically teasing each other some metres away, chasing and grabbing each other for no apparent purpose or gain.

“Who are they again?”

“Don’t you know their names?”

“I only remember the names of people who interest me.”

“The tall skinny one is Lenny, Leonard Averset. His family owns a delivery business. Gio Chang is from Korean parents, they have two restaurants in the inner East. He was born here not long after his parents arrived from Korea and they chose what they thought was an English name for their new little boy, Giovanni. He’s the brightest of the three; and the other one is Tommy Masood, Lebanese I think. Don’t know about his family.”

“Look at him trying to get his hands under their shirts, flesh on flesh.”

“Play isn’t all about homo-eroticism, Robert.”

“Wanna bet?”

“You’ve got your hand on my knee.”

“I’ve always got my hand on your knee, your hand, your arm, your neck. That’s got nothing to do with eroticism.”

“What is actually erotic for you, Robert? Humour me.”

“Oh, a mustache, hairy chest, with a truck outside.”

“Does it ever worry you that your sexual fantasies are such a cliché?”

“Constantly.”

“Mr Luff is none of those things.”

“Ah, but Mr Luff has the flavour of all of those things? He’s in a category all of his own.

“So why don’t you want to move your hand further up my leg?”

“I told you. It’s got nothing to do with eroticism.”

“What does it have to do with?”

“Love and affection.”

“Aah, you’re sweet.”

“I know. But, look at them. He’s got his arms around his waist, under his shirt and his crotch smack up against his arse. And loving it.”

“Leave them alone. I’m more interested about why you don’t want to move your hand up my leg.”

“You know perfectly well why.”

“You could still try.”

“Why?”

“Because I want you to.”

“No, you don’t. What you want is a boyfriend.”

“I’ve got a boy, friend.”

“A fuck-buddy then.”

“I’ve tried that. It didn’t work out.”

“No no. What you need is a straight me.”

“And where am I going to find one of those?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll find you one.”

“So, if I have you and a straight-you, how would you feel about that?”

“Fine. You’d have me for 90% of the time and him when you feel horny.”

“And where did you get that statistic from?”

“The point is, he’s there when you need him.”

“And what if he falls in love with me and wants to marry me?”

“And what if you get hit with a plummeting piece of burning space junk on the way to Social Science? Come on!”

“Are you saying that the chance of me …..!?”

“Relax! You know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t exactly. Take your hand off my knee.”

He removes his hand. “My point is, seriously,” says Robert pulling her chin around to look at him to prove he is serious, “you are gorgeous, funny, caring, self-ware, and intelligent but finding a bloke, a straight bloke, to match you is not going to be easy; not if those three are anything to go by. But I promise you, Ms Penelope Lately, I will find him. Where ever he is.”

“…you can put your hand back on my knee, if you like.”

The New Novel

The New Novel
There’s a story there somewhere.

On my dining room table. Each post-it note is a chapter and/or plot point. Over the last 4 years I’ve been spewing out scenes onto my screen in some, but generally no particular order. Today was an attempt to find the narrative arc. Initially it looked a mess – well, it still is a mess, but it’s now a mess with a little more order. It also gave me some idea where the holes are. There are many.

Here’s the Prelude to give you an idea of what it’s about.

PRELUDE

If you ask a family member – of any family – if they are happy, they would invariably pause, not wanting to simply say “yes”, and try to think of a word, or words, that would accurately describe their … but they would all so quickly realise that they have no idea how to describe how they feel so they say, “Yes,” usually adding, “of course.” You know this is a lie, but politeness and fear forces you to acquiesce and you smile and say something limp in acknowledgment, like “Good.” This is an example of two lies being better than none. You can both now get on with whatever you were doing; conditioning your hair, mowing the lawn, doing your tax, without upsetting the balance of the universe, happy in the nameless knowledge that you have successfully bypassed the slippery dip to yelling, tears, and/or the breakdown of your world as you know it. This is the bedrock of why families survive; sometimes, even when they shouldn’t.

If you realise at any time that you have somehow been perplexingly born into the wrong family, or if circumstances render your family suddenly, or slowly, unacceptable to you, you need to – or may be forced to – do something about it.

This is a story of a boy who did just that.

I needed an idea of what this boy might look like and I found this photo on the web and immediately I knew it was him:

Robert Gulliver?
I don’t know whose face this is, but to me it’s now Robert Gulliver’s.

He’s a fifteen year old boy who was hit by puberty ridiculously early and hard.

 

He’s a very naughty boy but affectionate, intelligent, and often annoying

… and he’s still at school.

A boy in a man’s body.

 

Potential titles: Knitting with Fog, Gulliver’s Travels, or just Gulliver.

 

The Attachment by Ailsa Piper and Tony Doherty

Ailsa & Fr. Tony pic
Writers Ailsa Piper and Monsignor Tony Doherty

With the slow demise of intimate snail mail it would seem that the numbers of epistolary books are dwindling, but here’s one to turn the tide; but, yes, not letters, emails.

Ailsa Piper is a ‘walker’, and some years ago she asked friends and their acquaintances if they had any sins they wanted her to ‘walk off’ on a planned pilgrimage along the centuries-old camino in western Spain to Santiago de Compostela. The response was overwhelming and far from the lightheartedness in which the offer was made: she was sent some very serious sins. The walk inspired a book, Sinning Across Spain (2012), now in it’s second printing. It was this book that Monsignor Tony Doherty read and so engaged was he that he emailed the author, a woman he had never met; and so began an extraordinary correspondence that eventually turned into a book: this book, The Attachment.

It’s impossible to say there is no narrative since there is a timeline, or, at least, a sense of time passing: Tony writes, Ailsa replies, Tony replies and asks a question, Ailsa answers and asks one back … a conversation. However, there are pieces written by each of them addressed to the reader, not to each other, which I was very glad about. It saves the work from that tricky sense of rude intrusion that unattractively hangs around a book of letters, like the lingering stench of too much information never intended to be shared. I don’t usually read other people’s letters for this reason.

Ailsa is an agnostic writer, director, walker and performer originally from the red-dry wilds of north-western Western Australia, although, during the writing of this book, from Melbourne; Tony Doherty, an urbanite, has been a parish priest in Sydney for over fifty years. They met well after their conversation began. Initially it must’ve been an admiring reader to an inspiring writer but it soon developed into a friendship that coloured topics like birth, death, child abuse, grace, forgiveness, god, family, belief, siblings, friendship, politics, nature, silence, celibacy, walking, creativity, professional calling, poetry, marriage, language, food, and words.

I once heard of, to my dismay, an Australian fiction writer and teacher who told her writing students to avoid dialogue. I hope I never meet her, but if I do I would simply urge her to read this book, if only as a strong argument for the revelatory and character defining use of dialogue. I should confess here that I know Ailsa but I have not met Tony, although I have recently found there is a close connection; how many degrees of separation are there these days? I had a few thoughts on Ailsa confirmed and a few debunked, but the voice is unmistakably hers, which gives me confidence that the sense I have of Tony is fundamentally correct.

It’s a quick read. Despite its size, the large font, thick paper, and wide spacing make it so – I’d love to talk to a publisher one day about these decisions – although the need to read the next reply, usually short and to the point, is strong enough to add page-turning to its excellent credentials.

Its other strong point is the encouragement, by an annoying urge, to join in the conversation of particular topics, like family, with points, anecdotes, arguments, and examples of my own. Tony comes from quite a well defined family; Ailsa from a messy one, of divorces, other marriages, more siblings, that has morphed into a loving and noisy tribe; mine was neither of these – what two families are alike? – and I was keen to add, “Yes, but…” and “No, I don’t agree because…”.

What this book will ultimately do to you is force you to find your own Ailsa, your own Tony, and tease out what you think and feel about important things that only a duo-logue of dark scratchings on a pale background can ultimately get satisfactorily right.

You can buy both books, Sinning Across Spain and The Attachment, including the audio versions, here.

Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas: a short story collection.

ChristosTsiolkas_pic
Australian writer, Christos Tsiolkas.

These stories are masterful, enlightening, moving, shocking, blasphemous, erotic, breath-taking, and scary: some of the best I’ve ever read. They are so good, they could render a yearning writer silent.

The opening, and title, story sets the bar. A group of young Australian professionals, close friends, at a deliberately over-indulgent dinner party thrown to celebrate an important new editing job in San Francisco for one of their number is destroyed by another: his ego, self-importance, and jealousy – he wanted the job – combine with a silly game to allow him to dominate the room and shatter these long-time university-born relationships forever. The story has a tricky structure: a story-telling within the story, and set-up information is economic enough not to turn you off or lead you to wonder where it’s going, but detailed enough that you understand what’s happening. Tsiolkas also tells the story from a more recent time reminiscing about a lost past, lost friendships, and lost innocence. This creates an expectation that the point is big: it is, even though on the surface it’s a bunch of mates boozing, snorting, talking, and toking at, and after, a dinner party. Thinking back on the story a day later some of the necessary plot-points seem over-stretched but at the time nothing jarred. There is nothing for the reader to do except go along with it. This, I believe, is a sign of a good writer: the reader will believe whatever is thrown at them even if, on reflection, some things are a little bumpy; but in the moment, while reading it, the reader is completely in the thrall of the writer, ready for anything. It’s what a reader – well, this reader – craves.

“The title story of Merciless Gods is stunning and should be read by everyone in the country who cares about fiction. It is worth the price of the book alone.”                   Sydney Morning Herald

Saturn Return is about dying. And grief.

When the door finally opens again, Barney rushes out sobbing and falls on me. I hold him tight. It is not as if he his crying exactly; rather, sorrow is pouring out of him, from every heaving breath, from every lacerating tear. The warm lounge room is suddenly freezing and the only heat comes from where our bodies touch. I strengthen my hold on him. I’m scared that if I let go,not only the room, not only this city, but the whole world will go cold forever.

I cried. Not bad for a story of twelve and a half pages.

Tsiolkas has never shied away from writing about sex, particularly in its extremes. His novels Loaded (1995) and Dead Europe (2005) are testament to that.   There are stories here that may curl your toes; this book may not be a good idea as a Christmas present for Gran.

A reviewer at The Guardian labeled Tsiolkas as “the master of the stain”.

The Slap (2008) was his breakout hit; publication in Europe and around the world set him up as one of Australia’s premier writers. However, he had already established a small group of fans in Australia with challenging works like, Loaded, – adapted for the screen in 1998 as Head On – Dead Europe – which some considered the best book of 2005 – and The Jesus Man (1999). The television series of The Slap (2011) in Australia and the US version (2015) consolidated his reputation and broadened his readership. His 2013 novel, Barracuda, was also adapted for television in 2016.

Read these stories. You won’t forget them.

You can get the kindle edition here.