On a chilly Melbourne morning in September 1998 a bunch of us gathered around a long table at the Tin Pot Café for Surya’s wedding breakfast. Of course, he wasn’t there – he was getting married in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India. So those of us who couldn’t be in Tiru marked the occasion in Fitzroy North, drinking coffee to the health of our friend and his new wife, Pooja. We scattered rose petals on the table and a cranky waitress made us clean them up before we could leave.
Eight scam phone calls yesterday. Time to dump the landline, it seems. No-one uses it these days. No-one with friendly intentions, anyway.
Meanwhile, I have set myself a challenge: if I have the time, and inclination, I consider it a victory when the scammer hangs up on me.
Scammer: Hello, madam. I am Chris and I am calling from the NBN. Your connection is about to be closed—
Me: Chris? Come on. What’s your real name?
Scammer: Yes, madam, my real name is Chris—
Me: Well, I’m going to call you Ranjit.
Scammer: No, madam, my name is—
Me: Okay, would you prefer Rahul?
Beep, beep, beep …
‘It could be worse. You could be waiting for a doctor in an Indian hospital with patients gasping all around you.’
This was a friend – a real friend – on Facebook Messenger last Saturday. An Australian, he’d made a home in Tiruvannamalai, South India, twenty years ago. And when Covid hit he’d decided to stay and ride it out.
I was also keeping up my end of a text conversation with the Mechanic. He’d left in the dark that morning and driven eight hours north-west to take part in the Mudgee Classic bicycle ride the next day. The ride was 120 kilometres, longer than he’d ridden before, and now he was considering his race-eve dinner. There was a Mexican restaurant. We discussed bean enchiladas.
The middle-aged proprietor of our local news stand was sitting cross-legged in a lunghi on the pavement, chewing paan, his newspapers and magazines in neat stacks around him.
‘Do you keep Manushi journal?’ I asked.
He scowled and spat a bright-red, betel-stained gob at my feet. Hmm, I thought – I might be onto something here …
It was 1995 and I was living in Jaipur, Rajasthan when I first heard of the Indian feminist journal Manushi. On my next trip to Delhi I went to Connaught Circle and visited a bookstore, one of those dim, dusty rooms crowded with creaky spinners, cheap Indian publications of Western literary titles, and shelves of Russian classics and socialist texts. ‘Manushi journal?’ I asked. The owner, in homespun Gandhi kurta pyjama, roused himself and pointed at a far wall.
‘We had no idea what we were doing. We had no books, no bookshelves. No cash reserves to speak of. And none of us really wanted to work.’
That was Heather O’Connor, remembering a planning meeting in May 2010. Someone had ‘some damn-fool idea’ of a second-hand bookshop in Cobargo, and five women – Heather, Virginia White, Louise Brown, Annie Lee and Chris Haynes – had gathered to discuss it over lunch.
‘Seriously, we weren’t even through the hors d’oeuvres and there seemed to be no hope… Four months later we opened.’
I discovered recently that my website contact form hasn’t been working since March. If anyone sent a message and expected a response, I’m really sorry. It’s working again now — I can tell from all the spam coming in.
I’ve never been in jail, and I wasn’t educated in a 20th-century British boarding school. So I’m not used to being referred to by my surname and it’s a bit jarring reading the reviews of Long Road to Dry River on Goodreads. ‘Severn is a master wordsmith’ (thanks ‘Lib Kilian’), ‘Severn’s writing encapsulates what is special and unique about memoir’ (thanks, ‘Tash’). ‘Severn’s story is a mish-mash of disastrous life decisions, pseudo-medical theory and pop-psychology’ (OK, I made that one up).
But it makes me ponder ‘Severn’ and how I came by it, because it hasn’t always been my name. It’s not a married name either, in the way that many women, even today, take their husband’s surname.
It also makes me realise that I didn’t cover this in the book.
Our neighbour Hanno finds the walk to school arduous. So when he goes to pick up his big sister Eve in the afternoon, Jens takes him in the wheelbarrow. And sometimes after a big day at kindy, Eve hops in too for a lift home.
Jens and Tash used to have one of those Dutch bicycles with a child capsule on the front of it. Both kids fitted, side by side. But they lost it in the fire when their house burned down.
The fire happened six days after Christmas and four days after Eve’s birthday. Tash tells me that sometimes they remember presents that were in the house. ‘Burnt?’ says Eve. ‘Yes,’ says Tash, sad face. ‘Burnt.’
I wheeled down to the road at 5.30 am, moved by the concept of the ‘driveway dawn service’. I wasn’t sure if my Bermaguee Street neighbours would be partaking, and when I reached the street, mine was the only light. So I headed up to the cenotaph in case there’d been a social-distancing rebellion – no-one. But I knew that Helen and Peter Taylor would be out the front of their place in Bega Street with candles and wreath – and a radio. The ABC was broadcasting live the service at the War Memorial in Canberra.
Who could have known, back in December when I started the immune-suppressant Ocrevus treatment for my MS, that a pandemic was brewing? I’ve been feeling particularly exposed and even asked people at my March book launch (more on that later) to refrain from the usually obligatory hugs at the occasion. But now, a month later, I have the results from my latest blood test. My white cells are ‘completely within normal range’, said my GP (she of The Joke fame). Great! So I’m not immune depleted after all! But hang on—the Ocrevus isn’t working? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.