Category Archives: Creative non-fiction

One Delhi winter, ‘Manushi’ and that scene from ‘The Piano’

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.

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The writer, stripped bare.

Write what you know, they say—and I know night.

Jet black, dark of the moon night. Crisp shadows on bright, silvered lawn night. Still night of hush and mopoke hoot. Howling night of seethe and crash.

Doona-burrowing, extra blanket, bed-beanie night. Night of sweat and swelter, sheet-tangle, turn and tumble.

On a steamy summer night, 4.12 gleams greenly at the bedside. Blackbird song, else silent. Then a creaking, then a tearing, a ripping, a shearing, a shredding … the crackling subsides, then silence again. Re-enter the blackbird. Later I awake and step outside to rolls of pink bark and new, smooth, fragrant, pale trunk exposed. A gum, stripped bare.

I started writing my memoir nineteen years ago—unknowingly. In a cosy sharing of Quaama women writers, I jotted down vignettes. Longhand pieces, dislodged from memory’s dim corners to briefly breathe fresh air, then closed tight again in notebooks. Fifteen years on, I wrestled with a novel but the memories, old and new, kept breaking through. Refocus.

Two years of filling the gaps, explaining, considering, blaming, absolving, reckoning. Pain, fear, confusion, exposure, realisation, understanding. Relief.

The writer, stripped bare.

Long Road to Dry River will be launched by Jack Miller at Well Thumbed Books in Cobargo at 10.30 am on Saturday 7 March. Then I’ll be in conversation with publishing industry icon Mary Cunnane, there’ll be a couple of readings, then we’ll hoe into one of WTB’s renowned morning teas. If you’re around these parts, it would be wonderful to see you there.

The joke

I told my GP a joke the other day. It was only a short joke, one of the few I know by heart. She pressed her hands to her cheeks and stared at me.

Dr G is a broadminded, competent, compassionate doctor. She’s quite easy-going. I arrived at one appointment to find her wearing shorts and a T-shirt; she shrugged—’I just didn’t feel like wearing work clothes today’. But she does come from a culture not known for its ready sense of humour. She was probably concerned for the character who was the butt of the joke—so to speak. That character, through a degree of dementia perhaps, had a self-inflicted injury—okay, maybe not an injury as such. But there would have been some discomfort. Not to mention inconvenience.

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Dry River

dryriver600It’s hard to spot, but there’s a path into the bush in the far corner of the Quaama Cemetery. As you pass the main cluster of graves – the smart new granite of the Colemans, the Conways with their river rocks and shells, the green trellis over Pato Taylor – you may see it. Enter the scrubby remnant forest here and continue down along the path, deeper under the trees. It’s cooler in here. The light is dappled, filtering through the canopy. You can hear bellbirds’ chimes, the occasional whipbird, the zim-zippery wagtails’ calls.

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Nine dead wombats

There are nine wombats on the road between Bega and Bemboka. Nine dead wombats. And it’s not even a bad season, a dry season, when what little rain we get runs off the roads and pools in the ditches beside them, creating green oases in a land of brown. Those oases bring the wombats to the roadsides in drought. But this time we’ve had plenty of rain, and still they come to the road. There they die bad deaths: deaths bouncing off bumpers, deaths crushed under wheels, deaths dragged by undercarriages until they’re just stains on the bitumen.

My friends Vicki and John hit a kangaroo once, on the Tanami Track, in the Tanami Desert. Didn’t kill it. But they got out and had a look, and it was clearly injured. No WIRES in the Tanami. They made a decision; who knows if it was the right one. What would you do? They decided to finish what they’d started.

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Cemetery Reverie

I’m gazing across my desk and out the window as a hearse glides down my street, a seemingly endless parade of cars in its wake. I wonder briefly who has died in this small town, to attract such a crowd. I mentally list the old and the sick, reach no conclusions and return to my work.

The next day I take my usual mid-afternoon ramble with the dogs, out the back gate, across the small village common and down the dirt track to the cemetery. It’s not hard to spot the new grave, still heaped with dirt and strewn with flowers, a small white wooden cross at its head. “Arnna Marie Clarke”, it reads, “aged 45 years”.

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