READING:  Niall Williams’s, History of the Rain

READING: Niall Williams’s, History of the Rain

We yearn. The best of us do anyway and we struggle. Most often the struggle is carried on inside our minds as we attempt to bound and then rebound off walls we’ve built ourselves from beliefs we’ve had or adopted from…..goodness knows where. And this could be seen as futile and perhaps wisely so, if it were not for there being something noble, something best called human in the most fragile sense of the word, in the yearning and the struggling. It is the fact that we may not succeed which is the thing. We teeter on this knife’s edge, windmilling our arms this way and that for balance. We may come from a long line of teeterers and bounders. We might be like Ruth Swain in Niall Williams novel, History of the Rain.

“I am plain Ruth Swain, bed-bound, here, attic room beneath the rain, in the margin, where the narrator should be, between this world and the next.”

She believes she is placed well enough as an invalid to tell the story of her father Virgil Swain. To do so she must go back to Virgil’s father, Abraham, and back further still to his father, the Reverend Absalom Swain, whom she attributes the Swain philosophy of the Impossible Standard.

“In the year eighteen hundred and ninety-five he leaves it to his son at the christening, dipping the boy into the large cold name, Abraham, and stepping back from the wailing, jutting the jaw.”

In this, our author, Niall Williams, has done more than one excellent thing. There are the rhythms and fragments, so very close to poetry and then there’s the dipping of the child in such a name, an impossible standard to be passed on again to subsequent Swains. And all of this Williams feeds to us via the character of a young girl. This is a beautiful story, lyrically told. Maybe it is wrong to point out that our author is Irish and this is an Irish tale and hence, the poetry in it. Perhaps it’s not.

The story takes place in the small parish of Faha, County Clare, and our bedridden Ruth walks us through town often enough.

“That figure ahead of you is Eamon Egan, fattest man in the parish and proud of it, wouldn’t walk the length of himself, Nan says.”

But back to Swains, Virgil’s sisters included:

“We suck small hard-boiled stones of disappointment in everything. The Swain face is narrow and, in the case of my aunts, seems to chew it’s own cheeks.”

This book is laugh-out-loud funny. I could tell you a couple of tales about Virgil’s attempts at farming after a life on boats at sea, but I really, really don’t want to spoil it for you.

There is tragedy too though. The Swains accrue their fair share and then some and there is that Impossible Standard to thwart, but even their wallowing is done with a certain poetry. This is not to say that the author shirks his duty. While Ruth takes us from the present into the near past and deeper still, her undefined illness is everpresent. At times I want her rest, save her strength for that trip to Dublin for treatment. But she continues on.

Of her father, more poet than farmer, she says:

“I suppose large dreams sailed their galleons into his brain and he had that kind of brain where strange is just normal in a bit of a storm.”

I knew how much Ruth loved him then.

And of characters, if I’ve liked one better than I do this storyteller, I cannot remember. I know I run the risk of telling you that with each book, but it is true. Williams’s novel is both grand and small. The tales Ruth tells are like poetry in their rythyms and a grand canvas in their imagery, like life itself, in fact. Life is as present in the sisters’ sunken cheeks and Eamon Egan’s girth as it is in Reverend Swain’s Impossible Standard and I expect these small tales help to soften the blow, not only for invalid Ruth, but for us readers too. They transport us away for a time for each of us has our struggles. Ruth says it like this:

“We tell stories to heal the pain of living.”

I think that’s why we read them too.

Posted by Gabrielle Blondell

I See Everything – A Short Story

By Gabrielle Blondell

I see everything and by this I mean I see too much. I’ll give you an example. Right now, my work colleague, Jonah, is walking down the hall and I know, at the very last minute, he will veer toward me and perform one of two actions. A) He will try out a joke on me; one that he may or may not be put to work later on people he actually wants to impress, or B) he will angle his hips in my direction and practice one of his pick-up lines, like “How’s it going sweetie?” I have started to look away recently and count the seconds. 1-2-3. You see, I have seen it all before.
“Debra, did you hear the one about the-?” he asks me.
So its the joke today and I shake my head, no I have not, because congruence is important even though I will not listen. While Jonah tells me his joke, I am looking toward Michael McGuire’s door. This is the reason I am here. I am waiting for that door to open.
Jonah guffaws. “So what do you think, Deb? It’s a good one, isn’t it?” He splutters and a droplet of his saliva lands on the back of my hand.
“It is a good one,” I say, still looking at the door and wiping my hand on the side of my skirt.
The door opens. My boss, Michael McGuire, pokes his head and shoulders out into the hall to see if the coast is clear. Clear of what, though? Terrorists, ex-lovers, pushy executives. He always closes it immediately to fetch his coat and briefcase and only then does he brave the outer offices. I am at the door ready for this eventuality and we very nearly collide. I would be happy for a stomp on my ingrown toenail if it means he will feel bad and give me a moment of his time, but Michael McGuire is nimble on his feet. He steps quickly to one side.
“Ms Wilson,” he says, nodding at me.
“Mr McGuire,” I counter. “I am wondering if I could have a moment?”
I watch as he clears his throat and while doing so, he places a hand delicately over his mouth. This, and other delicacies, are what I don’t like about him. They make him appear weak and furtive.
“I’m afraid I have no time,” he says. “I have an appointment.”
This has me thinking he is possibly unwell. Cancer comes to mind. I look at him sadly. “Oh, not right now,” I say, laying a hand gently on his forearm. “But could I book in some time for tomorrow?”
He shakes my hand free. “Yes, tomorrow, but I really must go.”
I stand further in his way then. “What time?” I ask.
“Come after 5pm. I’ll be working late,” he says, hurriedly.
“Thank you.” I lower my hand which has remained hovering above his forearm for comfort. “And good luck,” I add, stepping to one side to clear his way.
He is a couple of steps down the the hall before this registers. He stops and turns back. “Good luck for what?”
“Oh good luck for whatever appointment you are off to,” I say breezily, but with enough intent that if cancer is on the cards, he will feel encouraged.

I live in an apartment block twenty minutes walk from my workplace. It is a comfortable walk under big shade trees and is only disturbed when the magpies swoop. That is when I think of driving. Mostly though, I walk, even when it rains. I am at the corner waiting for a break in the traffic, when a sense of satisfaction flows over me. I am sure Michael McGuire will grant me my raise. I am a useful statistician. I am good with projections. It is to me they come to work the numbers on this or that new product. I am the one who collates and analyses the questionnaires from our test groups too. I have a sense for such things.
One of my neighbours in my apartment complex is watering the flowering bushes by the driveway. He is an older gentleman, who has taken on the gardening, for a bit of extra cash. His name is George.
“Nice day for it,” George calls to me as I step carefully around the water seeping onto the drive.
“Yes,” I say, knowing the ‘it’ isn’t at all important. What George means is simply that the day is nice, which is true.
I am at the door to my downstairs flat when George asks me, “Did you have a nice day at work?”
“I did, thank you. Quite successful,” I say. George is a nice man.
Click. As soon as I close the door, I remove my shoes. My toe, which is swaddled in some cotton wool and a light breathable bandage, throbs on its release and I am already boiling my kettle so I can soak my foot in a bowl of warmish hot water with a dash of tea tree oil. While I’m waiting, I take a TV dinner from the freezer and place in it in the microwave to defrost. While the kettle is boiling and the microwave defrosting, I cue up my Game of Thrones DVD. I am late to the series, but having recently succumbed, I am held captive by it.
The microwave pings and the kettle clicks off. I sit with my meal and press play. I sway gently to the opening credits and begin to eat.

“So what’s up, Debra?”
Jonah is checking me out, while I wait in the hall again. I am tired from a full day of spreadsheets and my patience is thin. “I’m waiting for Mr McGuire to consider my raise,” I say. It is the most I have ever said to Jonah.
“Oh, I see,” he says, swivelling his hips away from me. Apparently, shop talk and limp sexual harassment are not compatible.
I watch as he fades away down the corridor like a ghost with second thoughts. “See you later,” he says, but I can’t see him anymore. I walk up to the door. Through it I can hear voices. I check the hall and, finding it clear, I place my ear to the cheap hollow panelling. “So who are we considering?” my boss asks.
I hear a rustling of papers and I am hoping my name comes up. It would be nice to hear myself spoken of. The comments would seem more genuine.
“There is only Jonah.” This voice belongs to Geraldine from HR.
Jonah?
“He has scored rather high on our questionnaire and it did come up at his recent review,” Geraldine explains.
I am wondering what questionnaire that might be and who it was who designed it because I know it wasn’t me. I am twice miffed. I can hear my anxious blood swooshing in my ears, but then there is this.
“Right. I suppose there has been talk then?” Michael McGuire asks.
Talk? I am simultaneously relieved for myself and concerned for Jonah.
“Yes,” Geraldine says. “Missy from accounts has had a word.”
Bugger Missy. Already I know what this is about. Jonah’s come-hither banter and Missy’s wish to be sexually harassed have met in the middle and I am incensed on Jonah’s behalf.
Just as I mean to push my ear closer to the door, a trolley rounds the corner pushed by Thomas, our third floor cleaner. He smiles and waves a gloved hand. I step hastily away from Michael McGuire’s door on the pretence of making room for Thomas and his equipment. As I do so, the door opens and Geraldine steps out into the hall and almost into the trolley. A mop handle glances off her shoulder and she looks more wounded than she should do. I smile at Thomas as he passes to make up for her.
Both of us stand still across from each other, watching Thomas recede down the hall. When he turns the corner at the end, Geraldine clears her throat with a guttural, “Well…”. I smile at her and indicate Michael McGuire’s door. I know she expects me to follow her down the hall and I wish her to know I still have business to conduct.
“Right,” she says. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
“I don’t think you will,” I say, sternly to show a sense of solidarity with Jonah.
She stares.
“I’ll be crunching the data on the pantyhose campaign,” I explain.
She frowns at me, shakes her head.

When I enter, my boss is standing at the window overlooking the river snaking its way through the city below. I move to stand beside him in a companionable way. At first, he does not notice me and I take advantage of the time to compose myself. I watch the cars moving along the expressway which overhangs the north bank of the river, the steady stream of their headlights drawing loops as fireflies do. I realise I do not want Jonah to be another casualty of another sickly hyper-social workplace. No, I do not.
My boss jolts beside me and I imagine his psyche has been pricked by my anger.
“What are you doing here?” he asks, as if he knows nothing of our meeting.
“You told me to come after five,” I say. I look pointedly at my watch. “It is after five.”
“Right,” he says, moving away and going to sit behind his desk.
I stand for a second longer at the window. Sometimes I take the time to honour limbo, to slow it down. It is that place between the past of things and future of things, if you know what I mean. The headlights of the cars still swoop beneath me.
“Debra, take a seat, why don’t you?”
I turn to my boss and I see his frown. I sit and take a deep breath. “I have come to ask you for a raise in salary,” I say it straight out. I had meant to be less blunt, to finesse him a bit, but I am slightly off-kilter.
“Oh,” he says. He makes a steeple of his fingers and with his elbows on the desk, his hands are in front of his mouth again.
“I do valuable work here,” I say. I am meaning that I do more valuable work than I am remunerated for. I can show him the figures, if he should doubt it.
He nods. His hands are still in place in front of his mouth and I wish to knock them away as my mother would have done. I have said what I mean to say though and so I wait.
Michael McGuire’s fingers remain steepled, but begin to pulse, as he relaxes them into a curve and then points them toward the ceiling again. I am reminded of inch worms and jellyfish. A small silence is allowed to grow. Then suddenly the fingers stop moving and are snapped away from his mouth.
“I’m sorry, Debra, but we are in a cost-cutting cycle,” he says. “So you can imagine, it would be irresponsible of me to grant a raise to anyone right now.”
No, I can’t imagine. Not for one minute. He says ‘cost-cutting cycle’ as if it is a seasonal thing, like winter.
I watch him nod to himself. He thinks I am agreeable and this presumption along with my deep shock hurls me onto a distant shore. A tremor begins deep in my belly and I am aware from past experiences that when this breaks the surface of my being, I will lash out.
He looks down at some papers on his desk and picks up a pen. ”Let’s revisit this in a few months or so,” he says off-handedly.
I feel the bubbling pushing outward from my organs into muscle and skin. There are dark patches in my vision now and I know I should leave.
He makes a few notes on a page in front of him, as if I no longer exist. I am horrified and throw my next words out there as a shield to hunker down behind. “Missy is a stupid girl,” I say.
He raises his pen and frowns. “What?”
“Missy from accounts. Jonah Whittaker is harmless,” I add.
“What?”
I feel safer now. The burning sensation on my skin is subsiding. “Jonah means no harm. He sometimes has difficulty with people.”
He sneers at me and then he lies. “I don’t know what you are talking about, Ms Wilson. Were you listening at the door?”
A geometric pattern dances across Michael McGuire’s face. There a bursts of white light in the corners of my vision like decaying stars. They do not soften my boss’s stony glare. I nod. It is true. I was listening at the door.

On the way home, I don’t stop at the corner, but walk straight out into the road. A car horn blares. The driver yells something through his window as he drives by, but I don’t hear him. All I see is a red face and an open mouth from the glare of the streetlight. My head is full of my mistake. It is a new one. In every other circumstance, my coping strategies have been confined to me, but now there is Jonah.
George is bent over weeding around the pedestal light in the front garden. He looks up at the sky as if to make comment on the day, but night has come and even darker clouds have rolled in.
“Long day?” he asks me instead.
“Yes,” I say.
George stands tall and stretches his back. I hear the clicking of his spine. He studies me. “Are you alright?”
“No,” I say, letting myself into my apartment. Click.
I look in the refrigerator for something to eat, but know I’m not hungry. I sit on the sofa and watch an episode of Game of Thrones, but I cannot follow it. Soon after, I am in my car crawling along Kingsford Smith Drive. I remember Jonah’s house is in a side street with a fish and chips shop on the corner from a shared cab ride last Spring. There were large trees with red flowers and a pale-bricked square apartment block across the street.
I drive the streets in a grid pattern the way one might examine a crime scene. Luckily, I spot the pale-bricked building for it is the wrong time of year for the red flowered trees. A light is on in one of the front rooms and I see a figure cross in front of it. I know its Jonah by the shape of him.
Heavy drops of rain begin to fall as I walk along a path to the front door. I knock. A figure crosses in front of the light again and the door knob turns.
By the way Jonah looks at me, I know he thinks me a stranger. He is waiting for me to state my business, so he may get on with watching whatever I can hear blaring from his television. There is an contrarian male voice, cut by a authoritarian female one which both bend around me and twist back together before pushing out into the wet night. In the face of such noise, I cannot speak, and still Jonah waits, his face blank with non-recognition. I move to stand closer under the eaves to escape the rain and that is when he knows me.
“Deb! Is that you, Deb? Come in out of the rain, why don’t you?” He takes my wet cardigan from me, as if this is necessary and hangs it on one of the hooks in his hall. It droops like a dead cat. “I’m sorry,” he says, walking away from me toward the sound of the television voices.
—But don’t you think President Trump has deliberately inflamed North Korea?
—No, I believe he is taking a strict line where a strict line should be taken.
“Sit anywhere,” Jonah says, indicating a large corner lounge in front of an enormous television.
I sit because I don’t know what else to do. I have come to the end of my plan, which was to locate Jonah’s house ✅ and gain entry ✅.
—What measures will be taken to prevent escalation? Is there a belief that the US playing hardball is what will itself be preventative?
—Yes
—But what if it doesn’t work?
Amidst this uncertainty, I realise Jonah has left the room and everything feels strange having moved so quickly since my meeting with Michael McGuire. That seems a continent away….ballistically, I mean. But then Jonah has returned carrying two glasses of wine, one of which he thrusts into my hand. I take it because the alternative is to watch it fall.
“So, what do you think of this?” he asks me, cocking his head toward the television. “Do you think he’s after a war?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“All leaders want a war, don’t you think? It makes them look good.”
“Only if they win,” I say.
Jonah snorts, while drinking from his glass, then coughs and wine sprays out of his nostrils. “Good one!” he splutters. “That’s a good one,” he says, recovering himself and leaning back into the lounge, as it were common for me to turn up uninvited and make witty statements about political affairs.
I want him to ask me why I am in his lounge room. That would catapult us out of this weirdness, but instead he says, “I was thinking of ordering some Thai food. Would you like some?”
I nod with some enthusiasm. This will give me the time I need to say what I mean to.
“Righto, then,” Jonah says, pulling himself together and rising from the lounge. “I’ll order, shall I? I know what’s good. Do you like chilli?”
I nod. Yes to all of the above, the ordering, the chilli even. I really want to tell him that under the circumstances he should start cooking for himself to save a bit of money, but these are circumstances of which he is unaware. I sit very still listening to him ordering our food over the telephone. He is practiced in a way that I am not.
A nappy ad comes on the television. There are lots of babies crawling about like puppies with their diapered bottoms bouncing merrily.
“Do you fancy having children someday?”
The question comes before I realise Jonah is back on the sofa and I am surprised by both events.
“I don’t know,” I say. Really, I don’t know. While I don’t feel that magnetic pull toward babies the way some women do, I am not against them either.
“I’d like a little girl,” Jonah says, dreamily and I want to tell him that it is unfortunate statements like this which single him out.
Instead, I say, “A little girl?”
“Yes.” He nods gravely. “I had a little sister, but she died.”
Immediately, I am sorry for thinking him awkward. In light of things, he has every right to be awkward. “That’s terrible,” I say.
He nods and we both turn our attention to the television because it is safer that way. The political program has resumed.
—I find it hard to believe Trump will be elected for a second term.
—Well, most of us found it difficult to believe he would be President in the first place.
Both commentators fall silent and in a way not good for television. A button is pushed because music begins to play and the camera pulls back from the close-up of confused faces.
“Do you think they care about us as much as we care about them….the Americans, I mean?” I say.
“God no,” Jonah responds. “They don’t know we exist.”
I’m not sure I believe this to be true.
“It’s their media. They don’t report on world affairs like we do,” Jonah adds.
“So do you watch a lot of news shows?” I ask him, thinking of my Game of Thrones addiction.
“Oh yes,” Jonah says. “I like to know what is going on in the world.”
The door bell sounds and as Jonah gets up to answer it and bring in our dinner, I am stumped by how paradoxical people can be. Jonah, for example, is both vitally interested in the world and blissfully unaware of his effect on it.
“Can I help?” I ask, when he returns with a plastic carrier bag full of takeout containers. “Get some plates, perhaps?”
Jonah smiles at this, as if I have said just the right thing. He cocks his head toward a doorway behind him. “The kitchen is right through there.”
I find plates, spoons, forks and knives and a roll of kitchen towel for serviettes. Jonah is laying out the containers on the coffee table and I don’t know why I pick this time, but I do. “They are going to let you go,” I say.
He looks up at me. His forehead bunches upward while his eyebrows come together and slant downwards and I know he doesn’t understand me. “Work, I mean. Work are going to let you go,” I say because now there is no going back.
The takeout container in Jonah’s hands slides free and safely onto the coffee table like a live birth. He stands and comes over to me. “What are you talking about?” he asks blocking me from the coffee table. I juggle the cutlery and plates in my arms. The roll of kitchen towel bounces off onto the carpet and rolls under the sofa.
“What are you talking about, Deb?”
I tell him all at once about the meeting, the raise or lack of one, the overheard conversation and all the while he stares at me. Even when I’m done, he still stares. Finally, he asks me the question it is now too late to ask.
“Why are you here, Deb?”
Something has let go in his face. His lips and mouth have slackened. His cheeks have drooped.
“I wanted to be the one to tell you. I didn’t want it to be Michael McGuire,” I say. I am blubbering now because everything has gone so terribly wrong.
Jonah relieves me of the plates and cutlery and takes my elbow. “Please sit,” he says, but as we round the coffee table Jonah steps sideways onto my toe.
“Fuck!”
“What?” Jonah stops still and stares at me.
Pain has shot to my brain and with it, all the disease of my infected digit. I feel the heat and nausea of it. “Get off my sore toe,” I yell.
Jonah raises his foot and releases me. “Jesus, you really are nuts,” he says.
I ignore this statement. I put it down to shock. “I’m sorry about your job,” I say, pressing hard on that place where the toenail has embedded itself in the skin because now only pressure can help.
“I’m not going to lose my job, Debra,” Jonah says quietly.
I am intent on my toe, but look over to him. He has come to sit on the other wing of the corner lounge and has angled his body toward me.
“It’s quite the opposite,” he says. “I will be taking over from Michael McGuire in a couple of weeks.”
I blink at him. “Cancer,” I whisper.
Jonah’s lips and mouth loosen again and this time I see it is bewilderment. “How do you know?” he asks.
I straighten my spine and continue to apply pressure to my toe. I do not tell him I see everything.

Posted by Gabrielle Blondell in Stories
READING: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

READING: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

“Wherever human beings dream of a dignified and free society in which they can harvest the fruits of their own labor, The Grapes of Wrath’s radical voice of protest can still be heard.”  Robert DeMott says this in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Steinbeck’s depression era novel and its difficult to get past it.  Of course, I read the introduction after I’d finished the novel, so the bit about getting past it is a lie.  What I mean is I could not find other better words to describe what I was left with once the reading was done.
There was churning in the gut which comes with an uncertain future and the need to fight on.  The not-knowing anything more than that the fight would continue because how can it not?  Anger too.  There was anger.  Buckets of it…..and admiration.  Is this an exclusively American novel?  If American novels have come to represent a pushing against inequality and a self-making of the man or woman, perhaps it can be said to be so, but I am Australian and we too like to stick it to the privileged.  We used to anyway.
But Steinbeck’s novel had its detractors.  By some it was seen as a work of propaganda.  It shone its light on the great migration of dispossessed farming families to California with only the promises of a promised land to drive them.  After the banks had repossessed countless family farms, tractors were set to work in place of men and women.  Hand flyers were passed out which spoke of an abundance of work to be had in California where the climate was warm and so, thousands of families were on the move.  Of course, the promise of the promised land was a lie.  There was work picking fruit and cotton, but only a fraction of that stated on the flyers.  It was capitalism at its un-finest.  With many more people competing for limited jobs, the price of labour plummeted until wages were not enough to feed a family.  The Grapes of Wrath pointed the finger at greed and inequality, at the desperation of the dispossessed and the fear of those with something left to lose and Steinbeck did this at a time when unionism was synonymous with communism and communism was a dirty word.
Steinbeck, himself, visited the camps and saw the degradation and starvation.  He wrote about it as a journalist, but somehow this didn’t cut it.  Awful, yes, but not as awful as if the reader had met a family along the way and had come to know them.  If we could only see the faces in our minds and hear the voices.  If we could hope along with them, mile after mile, that the old truck would not break down and then stand by the grave at the side of the road as an old man is buried.  If only we could witness the compassion of new friends as they became as close as family and feel the hard edge of the landowners as they kept the ‘Okies’ down.
“I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied…I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are written.” Steinbeck (January 16, 1939)
Even though its a novel which Steinbeck writes, the journalist is in there too in the way the book is structured.  He alternates between the story of the Joad family and their odyssey with shorter editorial chapters where he pulls back from the Joads and takes a broader view.
So as the Joads cross America, we are also witness to the enormity of the problems faced by all the migrant families.
“And the women came out of the houses to stand beside the men—to feel whether this time the men would break.  The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained.  The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break.  The children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes.”
And then this, as a means to explain the removal of the farmer from the land with the coming of the tractor:
“He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth.  He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedal.  He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself.  ….If a seed dropped (it) did not germinate, it was nothing.  If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain, it was no more to the driver than to the tractor.”
And of Ma Joad, our family’s matriarch, Steinbeck steps in close and we see her as Tom, her son, sees her.
“Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding.  She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken.  And since old Tom and the children couldn’t know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself.”
Above is the woman, who becomes the spine of her family.  It is she who holds them together as long as she can.
And then many miles further on, we have Tom’s promise in response to promises broken:
“Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.  Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.  If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready.  An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.”
Is this a political novel?  You bet it is, but it is also art, I think.  As a journalist, I understand Steinbeck’s compulsion to tell the truth of a thing in fiction. To get to know the family more deeply, so we may care more and so a little piece of us hurts along with them.  The Joads would not have become our family too, if straight reportage had had its way.
Posted by Gabrielle Blondell in Book Reviews, Reading
Writing is Perseverance; Editing is War

Writing is Perseverance; Editing is War

To get to the end of a first draft is a marvellous thing.  It’s hard to know how it happened.  It involves a kind of alchemy.  All manner of things, known and unknown go into it and finally, there it is.  We know, if we are worth our salt, there is more to be done.  Sometimes, there is much more.  We have wandered from the path, dithered about in the wilderness, trying this and that, before we return to the true tale.  We are struck by false epiphanies, which take us places we never meant to go – the severed head of our main character, when there was so much more to tell.

This is how it goes sometimes and so, even as we are writing our last, we are thinking of the time to come when we must split our personalities in two and become, in our writerly moments, what we most abhor.  Needs be that we set passion aside and pick up the sword.  I’ve read somewhere (Stephen King’s, On Writing, perhaps) that we should slash around ten percent of a work as a matter of course.  It sounds harsh, particularly if we (most of us) sweat and hang-wring over our work.  The word attrition can be much more, if we discover a subplot or a character or any other kind of embedded element which does nothing for the story or worse still, detracts from it.

In the first instance, we might look at this monstrosity and turn away.  Perhaps on another reading, it might work, we say to ourselves.  This could be true.  The blood lust could be up and we may be guilty of killing the innocent with the guilty.  This happens.  Ask the despots.  But what if our first instinct is right and we must wade in deep with our sword in hand?

I think we are best to revisit our first conceptions of the story and what we meant it to be.  This can easily be forgotten, submerged under the weight of the first draft, but remember though, this is what forced our hand in the first place.  It’s odd when we rediscover it.  We can feel the exact same way we did so long ago and it is possible that what we have written can be held up and examined in light of it.  And then finally, some decisions can be made.  A NOTE OF CAUTION here:  If a slashing is what’s needed, do be sure to keep your first draft whole, even if you are so very sure.  Even if you are very, very, very sure.  The future is impossible to foresee.

If it is a character or a subplot you are needing to be rid of, remember too all instances of it, in all chapters, must die.  It’s a Medusa we are dealing with.  Cut off all its heads.  Surgical stitching will be needed for what remains, a careful drawing together of the story again.  Watch out for changes in the story’s rhythm.  Things may move too quickly or too slowly with the parts removed.   If it is a character who has fallen, what information was conveyed between them and the other characters?  This could be vital to the story and needs to be told to the reader in another way.

The same could be said of a subplot.  Everything we write is multi-layered.  In one scene, we may provide a sense of place, characterisation, backstory and foreshadowing.  We often do and so editing is not so simple as an “off with the head”.  Sometimes a fine stiletto blade is in order.  It takes a deft flick of the wrist.

And so the work begins.

Posted by Gabrielle Blondell in Writing
READING: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table

READING: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table

How is it that the child’s eyes have the wonder still attached? Reading Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The Cat’s Table reminds me of this. I’m jealous of his story. I want to be that eleven year old aboard a great ocean liner with no adult supervision. I do. The freedom of it, the waking early to swim in the first class pool, napping in the afternoon down in the turbine room so as to stay up late and catch glimpses of a transported prisoner as he exercises on deck. It smells of childhood. To be considered the least important of passengers and placed at ‘the cat’s table’, as far from the captain’s table as possible…how glorious. I don’t remember my childhood enthusiasms so much, but I know they felt like this. They were thrilling and, so my young self thought, dangerous. This novel drew me into my child mind as I romped across the Indian Ocean with Ondaatje’s three young characters.

Ondaatje tells this tale from the perspective of Michael, who, as an adult delves into his past and the seminal voyage from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to London in the 1950’s. There is a lovely lyrical movement between the boy and the man and back again. Innocence and knowing. Black and white, and grey. Michael is eleven years old when he sets off across the Indian Ocean to join his mother in London. He is going into an unknown world, but in the interim the world of the ship provides him with a stepping stone and a place to dip into the complexities of adulthood to come.

He quickly befriends two other unaccompanied boys, the more cautious Ramadhin and Cassius, the daredevil. Ondaatje shows us these different versions of being and positions his narrator between them in temperament. We effortlessly align ourselves with Michael somewhere down that middle road or on that high sea. The three boys roam the ship freely (except for first class, of course) coming into contact with a range of unusual adult characters, who they attempt to understand.

“…the three of us bursting all over the place like freed mercury: stopping at the pool, then the ping-pong table, watching a piano class with Mr Mazappa in the ballroom, a small nap, a chat with the one-eyed Assistant Purser – looking carefully into his glass eye as we passed – and visits to Mr Fonseka’s cabin for an hour or more.”

Amongst the adult characters is Miss Lasqueti, who is travelling with a cage of pigeons and wears a specially designed vest with pockets so she may take the birds on deck. There is Asuntha, who is deaf and carries a deadly secret and Sir Hector who lies dying in his stateroom from a curse. Mr Daniels tends a garden of medicinal and poisonous plants in the hold which he is transporting to London for scientific purposes. Then there is Michael’s bunkmate, Mr Hastie, who by day is a kennel keeper of the passenger’s hounds and by night an expert bridge player. There is the members of the Jankla troupe, who entertain the passengers and a mysterious prisoner, being escorted to London for trial. These are but a few of the people the boys come into contact with. At one point Michael is selected by a shady character, known as the Baron C, to squeeze through the grills on top of the first-class cabin doors for a bit of thievery.

“I could not wait to tell the others at the next turbine room meeting what had happened to me.  I felt my authority grow. But in retrospect I see that what the Baron gave me was another self, something as small as a pencil sharpener. It was a little escape into being somebody else, a door I would postpone opening for some years, at least until I was beyond my teens. Those half-blurred afternoons remain with me.”

At the beginning of the book, Ondaatje supplies us with small vignettes of each character before passing on to another. We meet them in flashes here and there, as the boys do in making their way around the ship, but over time we come to know more of them and the narrative begins to take hold. There is daring and tragedy to come, but I won’t spoil that here. Needless to say, what happens has lasting effects on the lives of the three boys.

Along the way, we experience things such as this:

“She half sat up, then remembered the robe and reached for it. But what I saw hit me at the base of my heart. There was a tremor within me, something that would be natural for me later but at that moment was a mixture of thrill and vertigo.”

It’s lovely stuff. Ondaatje is a master storyteller and the book is peppered with pearls like those above. Despite the author and his main character sharing the same name and country of birth, Ondaatje has assured us the book is entirely fictional. However, so real is his portrayal of his young character, it does start one wondering.  Then again, we say to ourselves he is capable of such realism in his fiction. We have seen it before in novels like The English Patient.  So fact or fiction?   It doesn’t seem to matter.

Posted by Gabrielle Blondell in Book Reviews
The Keeping of a Journal

The Keeping of a Journal

To journal or not to journal? I’m often asked as a writer whether I keep a journal and the truth is it has been, until recently, rather off and on. I’d keep up the practice for a year or more and then for years I wouldn’t. It depended how I was feeling at the time. If I was under stress or suffering an ongoing emotional upset, I would scribble away in a journal to work things out. When I was happy and things were purring along, the journal remained closed.

Why journal?

I’m starting to see there are other reasons to journal though, and so I’ve begun again, this time without the emotional upset. I suspect I may be a better person when I journal. Sure its true, story ideas arise out of life and journaling is a way to capture them, but that is not why I’m doing it now. Journaling forces me to take responsibility, not just for the things I say, but for the kind of life I live.

It keeps me accountable. I might run through a conversation I had with a friend or family member and I realise I should have said something else or listened more attentively. Sometimes I slip into a full-blown rant as I write and its as if it came from nowhere. There’s anger and there’s self-indulgent anger. True anger is something I can and should do something about and a journal can help me think through that. The latter is a waste of time and doesn’t survive on the page. It embarrasses me.

Keeping a journal makes me grateful. When I attend a party I might take photographs, but when I return home, I’ll record it in another way. I’ll relive it and I’ll remember and reiterate how much fun I had spending time with the people I love. It’s brilliant really. In fact, the more I think about it, the more parallels I see between photography and journaling. I am as much ‘behind the lens’ as the photographer and the world is in the foreground. There may be a selfie or two from time to time, but mostly its me looking outward and telling it as I see it.

Recording life is empowering. I become very aware of the life I am living. I know when I need to get out more. When I start to bitch/write about my aches and pains, I tell myself to get moving. There is a sense of being more in charge. The peaks and troughs are noticeable when I write them down.

What do I write in my journal?

I won’t say ‘anything you like‘ because even though its true, its largely unhelpful. I write paragraphs, lists, diagrams (if what I am nutting out is complicated). I can write about my day to come or the day just passed. I write about my friends and family.

I work through issues. I take note of things I have seen like a fantastic building or a beautiful tree. I write about how I feel when I am doing your favourite things and how I feel when I am doing my tax. I can discuss the colour yellow and whether it might suit the walls in my dining room. I write about people I have loved and lost and what I gained in knowing them. I can give myself a good talking to about my various addictions. I can talk to myself about the state of the world and how that makes me feel.

Finding something to write about has become easier over time as my brain becomes attuned to the ritual of journaling. Before you know it too, your pen will be flowing or your keys will be clacking without you consciously having to think stuff up. It will be there waiting for you.

Frequency?

There are no rules about how often you need to write. You can choose to write every couple of months or you can write every day. My resumption of journaling has fast become a kind of warm-up for other writing I do because I have been writing in my journal every day. I didn’t intend this (its a side effect), but it has become a habit. My recent journaling has helped to recalibrate my day. I might wake up feeling a little off and yet somehow the journaling brings me back to where I want to be.Perhaps it wakes up my mind and prepares it for the day.

Today, for example, I wrote about how pleased I was I found all the documents I need to take to the accountant to prepare my tax return.  Really, I did.  I was that pleased.   I wrote how I had anticipated this being far more difficult than it actually was. (There’s a bit of gratitude sneaking in there unannounced). Perhaps next year, I’ll be less of a lunatic come tax-time, perhaps not. Then there was the bit about a gluten-free bread recipe which turned out well in the cooking. That was the crux of it. Glory can  sometimes be found in the mundane.

The clack of the keys or the scratch of the pen?

I suppose its obvious by now. I write my journal entries with pen on paper. There is something contemplative about handwriting for me. It also serves to separate me from my other writing, which is done exclusively on phones, computers or iPads. Working digitally saves time and gives me mostly error-free copy, but in my journal, there are many crossings out. It’s messy, words are often left out. There are arrows pointing from one paragraph to the next when I’ve slipped up in the middle or become bored. It’s pandemonium, but that’s how my mind works and so my journal is as much a visual tell as it is a written one.

For someone as messy as myself, it may seem odd that I care about my pen and paper, but I do. I have a very good fountain pen because I love the way fountain pens flow. I also love the ritual of filling my pen. Crazy, I know. The paper also needs to be good quality, largely because of the pen. Ink for fountain pens bleed on poor paper and I don’t want the ink soaking through the page. I can go on about this for sometime, but I won’t. Just one more thing…..choose a journal you love. Now is not the time to be pragmatic.

What if someone reads it?

I know there is a certain amount of discomfort around the possibility that someone will snoop on our deepest, darkest thoughts. Someone may. It depends on how dark you go, I guess. I knew there were certain journals from the around the time of my divorce which should never see the light of day and so I destroyed them. It’s that simple really. If you don’t want anyone reading your stuff, you could throw each journal away when you begin a new one or you could write yours on a password protected computer or maybe on the back of napkins or single bits of paper which you throw out one after another. It is entirely up to you, but if you are recording a life and the time in which it was lived, it seems a shame to throw it all out.

The last word

You may not think you have a voice in the way a fiction writer does, but you would be wrong in that. We are unique, all of us, and its in our journals where our voice is most noticeable. There is also much of us in what we choose to record and thankfully this seems more incidental than contrived. Its not just that we are writing about our lives, its in the way we do it. It may be that in journaling we are accidentally telling the truth of who we are.

Posted by Gabrielle Blondell in Writing
SHORT STORY: Alapai’s Prophecy

SHORT STORY: Alapai’s Prophecy

By Gabrielle Blondell

Alapai watches the young people enter. It is his first sight of them and he is careful with it. He makes sure to notice the one who holds the shoulders curved forward and defeated. He looks too for the one who holds them high to the ears, defensive. He knows on sight who is dating whom by the way they move together.   They sit as if their race chooses for them. Tongan with Tongan. Maori with Maori. White with white. Samoan with Samoan. Somali with Somali.

“Good morning, students,” Alapai says. “Please settle yourselves.”

He takes a whiteboard marker and writes in large letters on the board, CAROL. When he turns to face his students, some stare quizzically and some are yet to notice. He waits and very slowly the room quietens. Still, he waits, until there is no noise at all, not a voice, a cough, a scrape of a chair leg or clatter of a pencil case against a desktop.

“My name is Alapai Phillip Henare the third,” he says, his voice rising from deep in his chest. “You may call me Sir or Mr Henare. I will call you by your names as I get to know them for that is who you are and no one else.” His gaze travels over each face and then is turned back to the whiteboard. “I want you to meet someone else too,” he says. “I want you to meet Carol.”

Alapai crosses to his desk and leans against its leading edge. “The story of Carol is a long one. It will take all class to tell it to you, but you must listen because there is a question at the end you must answer and this question is the most important ever asked of you, I am sure.”

 

#

“Now I was not always the person who stands before you. I lost my job. I was a bus driver, but I drank too much. I lost my home because I couldn’t pay the bills and I lost my family because I was a worthless man. I would sit outside the fish and chip shop in my town and wait for the end of the day. They were good people. They would put two serves of chips in the fryer and a piece of beautiful white fish and cook for me. I don’t know why, except that perhaps I tell a good story.”

The students do not laugh at his small joke. Itt is too early for that.

“The first time I saw Carol, she was moving along the pavement swivelling her head this way and that. ‘What are you looking for?’ I asked her.

She showed me a small card, while smiling a most beautiful smile. It read, PRESENT THIS FOR A COMPLIMENTARY READING WITH MADAME SAM.

I knew of Madam Sam. Her door was a small black one to the side of the fish and chip shop and from time to time I saw people slipping in and out of that door. I shook my head at the woman. ‘You don’t want to be going to her,’ I said. ‘She knows no more of what will happen in the future than I do.’ I said this then because I didn’t yet know the future could be seen if one was smart enough to do so.”

Alapai waits as any storyteller would. He waits for his students to stop looking at each other with their surprised faces. He looks down at his crossed ankles, at his shoes. He will polish them this evening, making them like new. Ahh, but back to the story now.

“I could see Carol was embarrassed over the seeking out of Madam Sam. ‘It was a birthday present,’ she said. ‘My friends bought it for me.’

‘Well they should have bought you some chocolates or a new hat,’ I said for I liked her and I wished her well.

‘I am Carol,’ she said, extending her hand.

‘Alapai,’ I said. ‘Are you married, Carol?’ I asked her, taking her hand and showing her to the black door.

‘Yes I am,” she said, smiling her beautiful smile.

‘Are you happily married?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘George is a good man.’

‘I am both happy and sad to hear that,’ I said, making Carol laugh before she slipped through the door at Madam Sam’s.

 

I saw Carol one week later. ‘Hello, Carol,’ I called to her.

‘Hello Alapai,’ she said, smiling again.

‘You are back to see Madam Sam?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘There is something that she said that I can’t get out of my mind.’

I did not ask because it was not my business to.

 

It was two weeks later when I saw her again. I almost didn’t recognise her. She was not the same lady. Her head was down, her shoulders rounded. No beautiful smile. ‘Hello Carol,’ I said. ‘How are things with you?’

‘They are not good, Alapai. Not good at all,’ she said, shaking her head.

‘I am so sorry to hear that,’ I said. ‘Can I help?’

‘No’ she said, staring at the pavement between us. ‘I fear there is little that can be done and I must go for my appointment with Madame Sam.’ Carol slipped through the door to Madam Sam’s before I could say goodbye.

I waited outside the fish and chip shop until almost closing as was my habit. It was not within me to make a nuisance of myself as some of the others would do. They would go in brashly and beg for a fillet of fish when paying customers were there. They would push past people at the counter when their requests were refused. I waited until the sun was almost gone before I stepped into the shop. Larry was at the counter polishing the stainless steel surface to a perfect shine.

‘You have the cleanest countertop in all of Booyung,’ I said.”

Alapai pauses in his story and picks out a student in the front row. “It does not hurt to be kind, I think,” he says to her. “There can never be too much kindness in the world.”

The young woman frowns at him.

Alapai continues.

“Larry grins at my compliment even though I know he is not quick to smile. ‘You are the happiest homeless man I have ever met,’ he said to me, taking a piece of fish from the display fridge and coating it in rich batter.

I knew this fish was for me and so yes, I was at that moment the happiest homeless person in Booyung, if not the world.

I watched carefully as Larry coated one side and then the other and how expertly he did this, but the best was coming. As part of his ritual of fish cooking, he would lift the fish fillet high above the deep-fryer, holding it by the tip of its tail and then lowering it smoothly until the thickest and juiciest end sizzled in the oil. Only at the last moment did he release the tail, just in time to save his fingers from the hot oil. I admired his technique and I did not tire of watching him. This, as much as the fish, had become the best part of my day.

On this particular day though, Larry paused. I could tell something surprising had occurred to him. He looked at me keenly then, as if sizing me up for the first time. My fish lay drowning in the batter.

‘Would you like a job, Alapai?’ he said.

I was so astonished, I could not speak. I stared open-mouthed at him like a grouper,” Alapai says, opening and closing his mouth like a big fish. The young woman in the front row laughs at him.

“I pulled myself together. I couldn’t afford to stand there gaping for much longer. ‘Yes,’ I said.   ‘I want the job.’

Larry gave me a nod, picked up my fish with a flick which sent excess batter back into the bowl and raised it high for the fryer before lowering it into the hot oil.   ‘I need someone for the afternoon shift to do the cleaning and you are here every day anyway,’ he said.

I was. Indeed I was. ‘I will do a great job for you Larry. I will polish everything until it gleams,’ I said.

Larry leaned across the counter and looked me squarely in the eye. ‘If you steal from me, I’ll deep fry you.'”

Alapai students laugh at this. Alapai knows they are imagining Larry dunking his big body into the oil.

“I didn’t quaver. I showed no fear. ‘You will do what you must,’ I said to Larry.

So that is how I came by my first job in a long while. I was there two weeks when the bakery in the centre of town was broken into. Larry offered me a small cot in the back room.

‘A caretaker would be good,’ he said. ‘You look like you can handle yourself.’

Sitting on that little cot on the first night of my residency, I am not ashamed to say I cried. I cried for all the good things in the world. A miracle had occurred.

It was probably a month later when I saw Carol again. Larry had left for the day and I was restocking the fridges. I was piling in the cans of cola when I saw Carol pass the front window. ‘Carol,’ I called to to her. She stopped in the street, but she didn’t turn around.

I stepped outside and approached her. As I drew closer, I could see she was crying. ‘What is wrong, Carol?” I asked. ‘Where is your beautiful smile.’

‘Everything is wrong, Alapai,’ she snuffled into her handkerchief. ‘Everything.’

‘Come in for a moment,’ I said. ‘I have a job at the fish and chip shop now. I stay there at nights as caretaker. Come in and tell me your problem.’

I could tell Carol was happy for me, even though she was so sad for herself.

‘Come,’ I urged her.

Inside the shop, I made sure Carol was comfortable on a stool looking out into the street. I fetched her one of the cold colas from deep in the fridge and took a seat beside her. ‘What is your trouble?’ I asked.

For a while, Carol said nothing and I waited. Finally, she drew in a sharp breath, as if coming back to life, and said, ‘My marriage is over.’ Carol put her hands to her face, as if she had uttered the unutterable.

I patted her softly on the shoulder. ‘But you once told me you had a good marriage to George, I think.’

Carol nodded, still crying. ‘I did. I really did.’

‘If you thought you did, then you did,’ I said for this was true. True of me, true of Carol, true of everyone.

‘Who was the one to tell you it was not so good?’ I asked.

Carol drew her hands away from her face. ‘It was Madame Sam,’ she said, looking out into the street. ‘That first time I came to see her she told me there would be problems in my marriage; that I should be very vigilant because there were things I didn’t know about my husband.’

‘So what happened?’ I asked.”

In Alapai’s classroom, there is not a sound. The students lean forward over their desks and he feels their need to know in the air around them.

“So what happened?” asks the frowning girl in the front row.

Alapai looks down at the floor, as if to remember, what is already at the forefront of his mind and then he continues:

“Carol said, ‘I noticed George was coming home late more often than I remembered. There were phone calls he didn’t’ want me to hear. I found payments on our credit card which he refused to explain. And then…..’

Carol began to cry again. I moved closer and took her hands in mine. ‘And then?’

‘I followed him one night after he had left his work and before he was halfway there, it came to me that I knew where he was going. I hoped not. With all my heart I hoped not, but still we drew closer. Finally, he pulled up at the curb outside my best friend’s house. Isabelle’s,” Carol said. It came out like a lament, a cry for the dead. She let go of my hands and was holding her handkerchief scrunched into the centre of her forehead.

‘He went into the house,’ Carol said. ‘I waited, but when he didn’t come out in half an hour, I left. I couldn’t bear it any longer. That night I confronted George. I told him that I knew he was seeing Isabelle.’

‘And what did he say?” I asked.

‘He told me it wasn’t true. He had stopped by to help Isabelle with the lock on her back door. He said she was very afraid someone would get into her house.’

‘What did you say to that?’ I asked her.

‘I didn’t believe him. All I could see in my mind’s eye was Isabelle and George together. I asked him about the credit card too.’

‘And what did he say?’ I asked.

‘He said he was planning a birthday party for me, my fortieth birthday and he wanted it to be a surprise. I didn’t believe him. I was convinced he was spending the money on Isabelle. I told him he needed to leave.’

‘So he went?”

“Yes. George packed a bag and left that night.’

Carol sobbed harder into her handkerchief. There was such grief in this woman that I felt a tear make its way down my face. It was my single sympathetic tear.

‘Have you spoken to Isabelle?’ I asked her.

She nodded. ‘I went over to Isabelle’s a few days later. My anger had grown so big, I wanted to yell at her.’

‘And what did you find?” I asked her.

‘I found George,’ she said. ‘He had moved in.’

‘Nooo, it can’t be,” I said for my shock was very great indeed.

Carol shook her head sadly. ‘Yes, its true,’ she said. ‘He’s not there as her lover, he said. He is there because Isabelle was good enough to give him a room where he could stay.’

I took one of Carol’s hands away from her forehead and patted it. ‘I see,” I said. ‘I see.’

‘But what do you see, Alapai?’ she asked.

‘You have made a mistake, Carol,’ I told her.

Carol drew into herself in shame. ‘It’s true, I have,” she said. ‘I have lost my best friend and my husband and I cannot bear it.’

‘Someone has told you your story and you believed it,’ I said.

Carol looked straight into my eyes and nodded. ‘Madame Sam.’

‘Madame Sam,” I agreed. ‘But you must throw out Madame Sam’s opinion altogether. You must have your own opinion of George and of Isabelle and of your own good self.’

‘You are right, Alapai!” she said.

“Of course I am. I am Alapai, the best cleaner and caretaker of a fish shop there ever was!” I said to her because I wanted to see her beautiful smile again.

#

Alapai stops his story here. It is always better, he finds, to leave a hanging thread. They stare at him waiting for him to finish. The girl’s frown grows deeper in the front row. He waits.

It erupts out of her as if she cannot wait another moment.   “So did Carol and George get back together?” she asks for all of them.

“Of course. Carol knows who she is now. She listens to George, who knows who he is and to Isabelle who also knows her own mind,” Alapai says.

The girl nods seriously.

But immediately there is unrest from the rear of the classroom. “That is a stupid story. Carol was stupid, so why would you tell us this story?”

The young man who asks is tall and well-formed. Alapai has seen him on the running track and knows he is fast. He sighs theatrically and says, “I tell you this story because we must, all of us, tell our own story. We must because there are plenty of people, who will be happy to tell it for us. They will be happy to tell you who you can be and who you can’t be. They will say you are part of this group and that this group is no good at doing the thing you want to do. They will tie you up in knots until you cannot move. All of these people are no better than Madame Sam.”

The young man nods.

“What is your name,” Alapai asks him.

“I am Jonathon,” he says.

“And what do you want to be Jonathon?”

The young man draws himself up to his considerable height. “I want to be a great athlete.”

Alapai nods.

“And you? What is your name?” Alapai asks the girl in the front row.

“I’m Jean,” she says.

“And what do you want to be?”

Jean frowns again and Alapai knows already this is her serious and considerate face.

“I want to be a photographer,” she says.

“Why?” he asks.

“Because a picture is worth a thousand words,” Jean says, as if she has coined the saying herself.

Alapai nods. He nods to Jean and to Jonathon. He nods to the class as a whole. “And so,” he says finally pushing himself away from the edge of his desk, “we have come to our very important question. I ask you, who are you really in that hidden part of yourself and what will your future be? And I promise you if you don’t answer this question someone else less qualified than you will.”

 

 © 2017 Gabrielle Blondell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Gabrielle Blondell
Telling it True:  Sandy Floors and Phantom Plants

Telling it True: Sandy Floors and Phantom Plants

I approach it gingerly as though I’m not looking, but I am.  I always look.  I have been looking at this place my entire life. I pull into the driveway and park beside a mini-skip.  It is bashed in on one side where I imagine someone has backed into it.  I hate the skip.  It reminds me we are selling our family home, my sister and I.  We are being practical, grownups, now our are parents are gone.  It is up to us to be wise.  You see, if we sell we will be more financially secure.  If we don’t, we will need to spend a lot to keep the old place going, a great chunk of what we have.  So, it’s sensible.
As I walk up the ramp and across the crazy slate tiles to the front door, there is a murmur coming from my heart.  It is as if the place and heart are calling to each other.  I key in the code to open the door on a panel attached where a lock once was.  We had the panel installed when my parents became so security-conscious, Seal Team Six couldn’t penetrate.  A code supplied to the local police, fire station and ambulance solved the problem of a potential rescue, not that it ever came to that.
I open the door and I walk across the flowered carpet, straight through, as I always do, to the side of the house which faces the river.  It is the river, along with the house, which filled my childhood to the point that I, writer that I am, cannot imagine an alternative.  The boats, the sand, Mum yelling at us because of the sand we accidentally brought into the house gave the floorboards a good scouring; hence the flowered carpet.  Mum was sick of us not washing our feet at the tap outside.  She had the carpet laid, not the flowered one in the beginning.  It was a green shag pile first, I think and by the time that was too worn to be chic, it was so heavy with sand it had to be cut into small pieces to be removed.  The flowered one came next.
I slide the heavy wood and glass door open.  It catches now on its runners.  I think it has something to do with the tracks it runs along and possibly the sand too.  Just before I go out, I check the grandfather clock which stands against the wall beside the door.  My ex-husband and I bought my father this clock for his seventieth birthday and he loved it.  I knew things were getting too much for him when he reached ninety-five and Mum was gone, but I really knew it when he started to forget to wind the clock.  That was when I got the nurses to come and check on him a couple of times a week.
I was regularly staying with him too, but he was a handful because he wouldn’t leave the house for a nursing home, not in a thousand years.  He was also active for his age.  Too active and ever so slightly awkward, from birth you understand.  This was not an ageing thing.  Mercurochrome was the thing he used, when he ‘barked’ his shin.  He’d run after us with this weird two-tone red-green mix when we hurt ourselves and, if he caught us, whatever injury we had would look far more serious after he’d been dabbing at it.  Still, when he got very old, his skin became thin and the ‘barking’ of the shin was more problematic.  It was not unusual for me to open the door to find the kitchen like a crime scene after Dad knocked himself on the open door of the dishwasher.  I would follow the bloodtrail and find him sitting up in bed reading the newspaper without a clue.
He took to a using a walking stick when he was ninety-five, a gnarled bit of wood my mother found on their travels out west and made him varnish.  It looked like Gandalf’s staff. Wherever we went, people admired it and he would say different versions of, “My wife Maggie was a magpie.  She couldn’t’ go past a thing we found in the bush, if she liked it enough.”  It was true.  Mum was of that era where you picked up the shells off the reefs up north, if you thought they might make a good lamp or ashtray (gasp) and where, if you liked the look of a plant in a garden or a national park (gasp, gasp), there was no harm in taking a cutting.  I remember Mum on walks around the neighbourhood with her small garden shears in her back pocket.  When a resort was built down the end of the road, Mum and my godmother would slip down, similarly armed, and strategically attack the many varieties of hibiscus.
I walk out onto the verandah.  I am careful from habit, even though my reason for being so is long gone.  One of Mum’s favourite pot plants, a big-leafed ornamental thing, used to stand in its pot by the door.  “Be careful of the plant.  Watch the plant,” she’d say, as we rushed past, and we would swivel our hips to avoid it.  It occurs to me as I pass the phantom plant, this might be why both my sister and I are quick on our feet.
Now, I can see the river, with our jetty jutting into it.  It’s not one of those floating pontoons people go for these days, but a proper jetty, so old the oysters have over-colonised the pylons with their version of high-rise apartments.  The boat is gone, though.  It no longer hangs alongside the jetty, floating so high at high tide it is difficult to board, and so low at low tide it is almost, but not quite, on the bottom.  It has been gone a good ten to fifteen years.  It went before Mum died and so was the first loss of my childhood.  I cried bitterly, tipped upside down in the sea locker reaching for the old lifejackets when we cleared it for sale.  If I try only a little, I can smell it now, the diesel and the salt of us two weeks aboard at Christmas time and not looking to go home soon.  I would sit on the roof above the wheelhouse as we steamed toward the bay filled with a sense of Huckleberry Finn adventure and I would sit in the same position on the way back wishing something would happen to prevent our return.  I’d be brown as a berry and unused to proper clothes.
I have come this time for the outside table.  I can’t seem to come for everything at once.  The table is made from a large trunk of a tree and topped with a table top tiled by my mother.  Need I say, Mum made Dad haul the tree trunk out of the river after it floated down in the ’74 flood? Probably not.  We manoeuvre the table down around the side of the house and hoist it onto the truck.  I’ll place it under a large tree in my paddock at home.  I can see it there, not too far from the creek, which floods in its own right.  It is a mirroring, of sorts.
I return through the house, straight through the hall, past the clock, through the big glass door, past the phantom plant and onto the verandah.  I wonder how many more times I will do this.  Not many more, I think.  I will have to come back for the grandfather clock, I know.  I stare at the bare earth on the lawn where the table stood and I wonder how does one leave a place like this?  All I can say is its a process.
Posted by Gabrielle Blondell in Freedom, Love, Telling it True
The Dark Side of the Brain

The Dark Side of the Brain

The origin of a story can be difficult for fiction writers to place. It’s not because we writers are overly secretive. The process in itself is a mysterious one. Big stories take a lot of working out. There’s multiple characters and plot lines. Novels are a process, but short stories are different. They can suddenly appear and when they do, it’s like love at first sight. Seconds before we didn’t know of them and then we writers are involved and not just involved….we are committed.
Sometimes the story tells itself. Sometimes it’s character first. A lot of the time, for me at least, its voice. I hear the story in my head. I wonder sometimes if I’ve heard the voice in real life someplace but don’t remember. Perhaps I was on the train and listening with the dark side of my brain. Is that where I heard 60 year-old Alapai for the first time? Did I hear the actual tonal quality of his voice, the resonance of it as I do now, inside my head, but only just, close enough to the right ear for me to think he may have been real? Did this ‘train’ voice rouse my subconscious archivist, who stored it away for those moments when I wonder what is next? This is a story I tell myself, a narrative of the narrative, so to speak.

So what of the story itself?

At present I’m working on Alapai’s Prophecy (a working title). I heard Alapai’s voice before I knew what the story was. He was an older man, talking to young people and he was telling a cautionary tale. So Alapai was always going to be the storyteller. He would narrate this tale, not me. He quickly became a school teacher in a classroom of young people who have been discounted and his story, is told so they may not be the ones to limit themselves.
So what of the story itself? I don’t know yet.
So we have Alapai and his audience. What was dealt me then was Chigozie Obioma’s use of prophecy in his novel, The Fishermen (I’ve reviewed this book, if you want to take a look). Obioma shows how prophecy can play a defining role in people’s lives and I found that idea fascinating.
Can believing in a prophecy bring the prophecy about? I think it can. It is possible we can become what we believe or fear ourselves to be. So Alapai’s tale will include a prophesy. It feels right somehow. I think it has enough intrigue to interest his students. I also feel he tells this same tale at the beginning of each year as a means to set an intention. I hear him say, “You may call me, Mr Henare or Sir. I will call you by your names as I learn them for that is who you are.” (I know he is deliberate now. Everything which comes out of his mouth is for his students’ benefit)

Still, the archivist comes to me

Hmmmm….The story is not done yet, but it feels good. I’m not needing to force it. Maybe it runs in a way which is true to that initial voice. I’ve had stories which have changed so much from our first meeting they lose their reason for being and we part ways. There is confusion then, equally weighted desires to know (a) what went wrong and (b) to flee the scene.
Still, the archivist comes to me. It could be because I listen to her that she continues to supply me with what is barely heard. As a journalist, snippets of news reports, conversations and texts would come to mind when features called for it and so I guess she was working for me then too. If I have any advice to give those who work with the imagination or wish to, it is to listen to your voices. They might be shy at first, but that won’t last.

Posted by Gabrielle Blondell in Creativity, Stories
Reading as Time Travel:  8 iconic novels

Reading as Time Travel: 8 iconic novels

There are special books, so strong in time and place, they transport us into the past. We walk with the characters through cities and landscapes. We smell the bakery on the corner or the mud of the riverbank. We hear the voices around us and we are immersed. We can begin to feel like Gump, a part of important moments in history.  It’s strange to think we really can live for a time in the past. It’s extraordinary to know that as long as there are people to tell these stories, those times cannot fade away. All readers need to do is pick up their copy and read on.

Books written today contain our present. They cannot help it. They contain what we value, what we abhor, what we do and say. Our streets and towns are captured, the characters and extras, all make it to the page in one way or another. Even those books which bend time and create fantastical places must as a starting point in the author’s mind contain the present. Imagine these books read in the future, the way we now read Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Future readers will be able to see us too as we call into the future and they lay an ear to the past.

Fish the Gulf Stream with the Old Man

Its addictive, this kind of reading. Walk down the Dublin streets at the turn of the twentieth century with Mr Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses or wander around London with Pip in the early 1800’s in Dickens’s Great Expectations. We can push on to New York City post WW2 and feel it via Michael Chabon’s, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Then we can move on to Chicago during the Great Depression with Saul Bellow’s, The Adventures of Augie March. We can feel the pain of Rufus Scott in the jazz haunts in Greenwich Village in the 1950’s in James Baldwin’s Another Country. We can fish the Gulf Stream with the old man and Hemingway.

The thing is we don’t only get a tour of times past, we get a rich story, all that human striving and yearning, whether it be for love, recognition, revenge, a successful life. We humans are in these stories too, just as readers of the future will inhabit our own. And every time we read, is it possible we may learn a little more about ourselves.

All Things Wisdom; All Things Nonsense

I think its true. In seeing what is valued over time and what may be only transitory, we might be able to put our efforts to what is lasting. With no respect for what has come before, we are condemned to find all things important in our own age or nothing at all. All things would be wisdom or all things nonsense and we might dispense with what we should have valued and keep what would inevitably fade.

But even this can be put aside as overly psychological, for we are readers. Our interest in the lives of others is not as theorists. Our writers make us feel and touch and smell and taste these worlds. They sidle even the shyest of us right up to their characters. We ghost them, stalk them even. We need not be archeologists or anthropologists to participate. In reading these iconic books, we are tugging on the string of humanity which connects the past to the present and the present to that which is yet to come.

A String of 8 Iconic Books For You

Please enjoy the books below with this NOTE OF CAUTION: Stepping into the past is addictive. You might find it difficult to return.

  1. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations. (First published in serial form from 1 December 1860 to August 1861) Set in London
  2. Leo Tolstoy’s, War and Peace. (First published in serial form from 1865 to 1867) Set in Russia in the time of the Napoleonic Wars.
  3. James Joyce’s, Ulysses. (First published in serial form from March 1918 to December 1920). Set in Dublin. BOOK REVIEW available here.
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby. (1925). Set on Long Island 1922
  5. Saul Bellow’s, The Adventures of Augie March. (Published in 1953). Set in Chicago during the Great Depression. BOOK REVIEW available here.
  6. Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea. (1952). Set in Cuba and far out in the Gulf Stream off the Florida coast.
  7. Michael Chabon’s, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. (2000). Set in New York before during and after World War II
  8. James Baldwin’s, Another Country. (1962). Set in Greenwich Village in the 1950’s. BOOK REVIEW available here.
Posted by Gabrielle Blondell