Three Kisses

muddamI was fifteen the summer Sarah moved in next door. My mum and dad hadn’t hidden their delight when our previous neighbours—with their all-night parties and motorbikes—had put up the For Sale sign and eventually moved on. The day Sarah’s family moved in, Mum baked a fruitcake and Dad collected a bottle of home brew. We slipped through the strands of barbed wire to spread a bit of neighbourly cheer. And check them out.

Sarah’s dad played prop forward and had a ridiculously deep voice and knuckle-crusher grip. Her mum was a waif and an orthopaedic surgeon. There were three kids; the seven-year-old boy with the bowl cut who was introduced to us as Boofhead, Maxine, his ten-year-old sister who had curls so red and tight that she may have needed an asbestos pillow, and Sarah. She was thirteen. Her hair was red, too, but deep like polished jarrah and long and straight, clamped off her freckle-dusted face in a ponytail that hung to her shoulders. It whipped at the air as she gave me the guided tour of their new home. There were cardboard boxes in every room and we lingered at her door. The bed was made and the box on the floor was open, a single teddy bear’s paw reaching for the ceiling. Pick me, pick me!

‘It’s such a mess,’ she said.

‘It’s … it’s nice,’ I replied, the blood charging to my face. I’d never felt quite so awkward. I’d never seen the insides of a girl’s room before. Well, that’s not true. I’d seen my cousin’s Cinderella bedspread but she wasn’t a girl as such, she was my cousin.

I helped them set up their trampoline and double bounced Boofhead until his laughter turned to tears. Sarah told me not to worry, that it had been an accident and besides, Boofhead cried all the time, but I did feel like a monster. I sat demurely on the edge of the mat while Maxine bounced. Sarah sat at the other end and we talked about where they’d been living in South Australia and that their new house was the fifth one they’d called home in as many years.

I liked her lips. She carried her head like the Arab filly at Thompson’s place. She was confident and smart and used big words and talked about interesting things. She knew stuff. She read books and had opinions about things like world hunger and Islam. The mozzies started eating us as the sun went down and my parents collected me on their way home. Sarah said goodbye and I asked her if she was going to be around then next day. She shrugged, and smiled.

Mum and Dad sighed in unison when we made it home. Dad said they were a vast improvement. I had to agree.

I heard the kids shouting and laughing the following day. I brushed my hair and ran my fingers over the fuzz of moustache I’d been cultivating since I was thirteen. I huffed into my hand and smelled my breath.

I found them in the dam. The relentless heat had all but drained their cultured puddle and the kids had found the mud. Squelching, farting, knee-deep slick clay. Boofhead started throwing it. The girls pelted him and he hobbled home crying with his arms stretched wide and a healthy bolus stuck to his right cheek.

‘Coming in?’ Sarah asked.

I looked at my shorts and t-shirt. Maxine landed a gob of clay in my hair and giggled as I kicked my boots off. I waded into the cool slush and did my best to hold my smile. It squidged between my toes and made the worst possible first-date noises. I grabbed a lump and pelted Sarah. It slapped into her thigh and she squealed.

‘Sorry,’ I said.

She bent forward and cried quietly into the muck.

Maxine frowned at me and looked at her wrist before resting it on her sister’s shoulder.

‘You okay, Sarah?’ she asked.

Sarah whispered and rubbed her leg.

‘Sorry,’ I said again, and stepped closer.

With a banshee yowl and a cake-eating grin, Sarah snatched at the mud and sent me tumbling backwards in self-defence. My feet couldn’t move. My hands shot out behind me and sunk elbow deep into the slush. I managed to hold myself above the mess. My bottom was hovering dangerously close to the slop. I was pinned. I hung there like a human coffee table, unable to get up without getting seriously muddified.

The sun mauled at my eyes and then I was in shadow. Sarah stood above me, rolling a glob of mud from hand to hand, her face cut with an impish smile.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Please. Mercy!’

She grabbed more mud.

‘Kiss him,’ Maxine said. ‘Get him while he’s down.’

‘Now there’s an idea,’ Sarah said, and I started crabbing frantically towards the edge of the dam. Maxine stepped behind me and blocked my retreat.

Oh well, I thought. If you have to go, you have to go.

I closed my eyes. The smell of Sarah’s shampoo cut through the mud-rank air. Her hair tickled my nose, and I finally tasted smooth soft … mud.

I coughed and spat and let myself slump. I wiped my face on my sleeve and began to sink. The mud was cool on the back of my head and the bubble inside me burst. I didn’t care any more. I couldn’t get much dirtier. I grabbed at the squealing Sarah and she fell forward with a flup. Maxine had made it to the shore and bayed laughter at the sun.

Sarah had a fresh freckle on her nose. ‘Let’s get her,’ she growled, and I rolled onto my stomach.

Maxine realised too late that she was croc bait. We took hold of a leg each and dragged her in. She was covered by the time we let her go. She sat there and pretended to cry so we sobbed, too. At the top of our lungs.

‘You’ve got a spot of mud on your cheek,’ Sarah said.

‘You’ve got one on your nose,’ I replied.

‘Here, let me get it for you,’ she said, and smeared her clay slippery hand across my face.

‘Thanks.’

She didn’t fight when I wiped her look with my goopy paw, just cracked the mud with a smile and spat. ‘That’s better,’ she said. ‘Thank you very much.’

I took them to the creek and we clouded up the water as we swam our clothes clean. We lounged in the sun and grew crusty as we dried. I laid on my back in the grass, the crook of my arm shielding my eyes from the summer.

I heard Maxine whisper to her sister. ‘Kiss him,’ she said.

‘No,’ Sarah sighed.

‘Go on,’ Maxine said aloud.

And she did.

Her lips pressed against mine. I got such a fright that I opened my mouth and sat up.

Sarah stood, frantically wiped at her face and spat.

Maxine laughed.

I held my hand over my own lips, my heart flipping around like a trout.

Sarah smiled.

I knew there’d be nothing as sweet as a third kiss.

 

Wood, Water and Words

NightInsectsCollageMy mate Mark is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist, composer and songwriter. He has created about five CD’s worth of material and worked with some of the well-to-do members of the music industry in Australia including compositions for ABC TV and one of the Hunter boys (ex ‘April Sun in Cuba’ Dragon) but you wont find his stuff on the shelves in Sanity. In fact, unless you’ve seen him live at Arthur Boyd’s Bundanon or festivals, it’s unlikely you’d have a reference point for his brilliance. He’s an unpublished musical genius.

Mark is disturbingly Zen about his lack of fame and his life. He’s busy with the chop-wood-carry-water experience of being a musician, father, teacher and partner. And he’s content. Content in a way that a corporate banker might never understand.

I try to model Mark’s Zen in my own life but I’m impatient and prone to fits of rage and frustration. Things never happen fast enough or big enough or never live up to my pyrotechnic vision of what they should be.

I’m an author. My sixth book of young adult fiction (Gravity) came out with Pan in 2006. I prowl the festival circuit, run workshops in schools and give corporate talks like some half-baked pop star. I’ve sat on signing tables with the Carmody/Griffiths/Marsden/Gleitzmans of the world, humbled by the serpentine queues of star-struck kids and parents. I twiddle my pen and know that I’m lucky. That there are writers more skilled and inventive than me who haven’t come this far. I know there are literary geniuses out there, some banging their manuscripts and their heads against the clean glass doors of the publishing industry. We all know some dreadful shit gets published while our manuscripts are overlooked. We’ve all read other people’s stuff and known we could do better. It’s so subjective. It’s the fine art of tickling peoples’ fancy. Your fancy, a publisher’s fancy and hopefully a reader’s fancy. Some published and unpublished writers are content to write as a hobby. They do the thing they love (write) and stay happy, either content to ignore fame, fortune and glory or simply enamoured by the journey with no grand destination.

I’m learning the importance of chopping wood and carrying water in a writer’s life. It may sound like a pissy defeatists aphorism but I can assure you that it is as significant a tool to the writer’s craft as a clear head and fresh ideas. In fact, one leads to the other.

Any published author will tell you that the world doesn’t change colour after you’re published. Sure, seeing your name on the cover of a book is a serious cut, wax and polish for the ego but it probably wont make much difference to the state of your bank balance and certainly wont make you any cooler or sexier. Tomorrow morning, you’ll be up a little earlier with a transitory sparkle in your eye, wood to chop and water to carry.

And that’s a blessing.

I hosted a work experience student for a week last year. She helped me transcribe my current novel from the written page to the computer. She could type faster than me, write with flair and honesty and was fifteen years my junior. She hadn’t finished school and she already knew that she wanted to write. I found myself getting envious of her talent, passion and direction … until the last day. Until I realised that she wasn’t interested in chopping wood and carrying water. She asked me what she had to do to become a writer so I gave her my slant on it.

You have to write, obviously, and the more you do it, the better you become. And you have to read. Der. The more you read, the more you come to understand what you like and dislike about the writing that has found ink before you. That’s your style speaking to you. What you like and dislike about other people’s writing is your innate sense of good writing/story/craft bubbling up from your history. What’s good for you might not be good for the publisher who reads it but may be earth-moving for the publisher in the next office.

That’s the easy part, she said. I love to read and I love to write.

Okay, find a job. Not necessarily one that involves writing because you could end up like a plumber with a leaky tap at home. Good jobs for novelists are not always academic or glossy and professional. For me, a good writer’s job has to provide one of two things: it has to give you the time to be in your own head or feed you with story.

I’m still writing ideas that came to me while pulling blackberries when I was a teenager. Mindless physical work that gave me the space to cogitate. At the end of a day, I’d be knackered, rich (!), buzzing with ideas and I’d leave behind a tract of arable land.

I’m still writing stories inspired by those I heard working with young people in schools. Exhausting and deeply personal work that gave me insight into the lives of others. At the end of the day, I’d be knackered, rich (?!), full to the brim with story and hopefully leaving behind people whose hearts were lighter for the sharing.

My CV’s full of those sorts of jobs. Landscaper, masseur, counselor, waiter, truck driver. Some days I’d have to think about the work more than others and some days I didn’t hear stories, I only heard pain.

Some of the authors I know have come to writing through academia. A lot of kid’s authors were teachers. Some authors I know have worked in the book industry. Their jobs probably opened doors to publication that wouldn’t have been available to a blackberry pulling masseur counselor type of person. But by far the majority of authors I know have done a zillion jobs and toiled away in a dark corner until the book was cooked.

So, you’ve found a job to put food on the table and stop the man from coming to repossess your soul. Now you have to find a place to live that doesn’t cripple you financially and have you working so hard that you can’t think. I like living in the country. The housing is cheap and there has always been work for me. Room to move and room to muse. But the city might be where you’re at …

You find a place then you need to find a place within that place to write. Or somewhere else. You find a place then you need to find the time to write. You find the time and then you have to find the words. You find the words and it’s your turn to wash the bloody dishes. Chop wood, carry water.

You can never really ‘make it’ as an author. Just like you can never really ‘make it’ as a pianist or a doctor or a human being. And in a way that’s the beauty of it. There’s no top wages bracket and no perfect book. Just because you have one book published doesn’t mean there’ll be a second. The fears and self-doubts that were there in the beginning still come up from time to time and your inner critic constantly expands his or her vocabulary.

But I just want to write, she says. So write, says I. Find a way to make it pay or find a pay and make your way. Either way you look at it, you’ll still have to chop wood and carry water.

I earn about as much as a schoolteacher from my writing and speaking. I’m not sad about that. Schoolteachers work much harder than I do and they rarely get the opportunity to wear their pyjamas to work. I’ll be published overseas soon and I know when it happens I’ll probably be washing my kids clothes or getting something organised for tea. Some people in the media have compared my work to John Marsden’s and I’m honoured by that but John and I share a more significant passion: we might be the only people in the world who enjoy pulling out blackberries.

Burning Eddy was shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year for older readers and the NSW Premier’s Literary awards in 2004. It’s been raining at home—at last—and all the firewood my wife and I split for the winter is getting wet. When I get home I’ll have to kick the generator in the guts and pump some of the rain up the hill for our showers. Shift wood, pump water. You’ve got to love it. It’s the wellspring of the writer’s life.

 

Snakes in the Garden

TigerIt’s cool to be frightened of snakes. It’s like being nervous about bushfires or trees falling on your house or running out of water—the fear keeps us alert and aware of our environment and if you live in Australia, the fears are well founded. Venomous snakes are a very real part of the place we call home. How we deal with fear is one of the important ways we define ourselves as humans and when those fears go nuclear or start messing with our joy of life, we need to stop and look at what’s going on.

Quite a few of my mates are keen on the traditional method of dealing with snake-fear and keep a shotgun for that purpose. Just having the gun around makes them feel better. It was their brag stories—about the big tiger they got with the 410 or the copperhead they dismembered with the shovel—that got me revved up enough to do a professional snake-handler’s course and I learned some things.

Snakes aren’t aggressive.

Think about it for a minute; are we part of their food chain?  If they come into our houses, it’s not with the intention of attacking us. They eat frogs and lizards and mice and nestlings and if your garden is gentle on the earth, you’ll find snake food everywhere. Snake food is the sign of a healthy garden, so snakes are probably the sign of a healthy garden, too. They love it when we pile up rocks and make ponds. Like us, they love mulch, to hide under and hunt through. The woodshed is like a live-in supermarket for snakes.

They are defensive creatures.

And here’s why; they are two centimetres tall. Some of us (well, the less vertically challenged specimens, like Dr Barry for example) are ONE HUNDRED times taller than that. Could you imagine being confronted by a creature two hundred metres tall? I don’t know about you, but if a two hundred metre tall monster cornered me, the first thing I’d do is run and hide, and that’s how a snake usually deals with human contact. If there’s nowhere to hide and no place to run then I’d make myself as big as I could, make as much noise as my body could muster and use every thing I had to defend myself. Snakes flatten themselves and hiss and raise their heads off the ground and some strike with sharp pointy teeth. The teeth—and venom—didn’t evolve as weapons; they evolved to grip and kill their prey as quickly as possible so they didn’t get smashed to pieces getting a meal. The teeth are—metaphorically—like digging sticks that can also be wielded as clubs.

Being scared of people, snakes rarely set up camp where we’re milling about. Normally, when you see a snake in the garden, it’s just passing through, looking for a snack or avoiding the neighbour’s mower. Or dog. Or cat. My mates that kill everything that looks even marginally like a garden hose tell me it’s to protect their pets or protect their kids. They’d better get busy because both the pets and the kids are more in danger of dying from the sting of a European honey bee than they are from snake bite. The people who get bitten are usually male, often drunk and almost always messing with or trying to kill the thing.

Last spring, the wrens were going berserk in the passion fruit vine that grows on the dunny, going crazy in the special ‘chat-chat-chat-chat-chat’ way they do when there’s a snake around. I watched them and eventually spotted the glossy tiger snake that was giving them grief. They sometimes climb small trees and shrubs to raid nests. I went inside to get the camera and the kids. We crept outside and I almost got a picture before the snake spotted us and crashed off into the bush. We all squealed.

A few weeks later, I spotted a copperhead in the veggie garden eating a skink. He had his mouth full and I crept up, with my heart banging in my neck, and got the photo. I’ve since learned that copperheads are the benevolent priests of the dangerous snakes in our area. If you’re indecent enough to stand on one and they strike at you, chances are they’ll do it with their mouth closed. A red-bellied black snake is more cantankerous than a copperhead and can flatten out and hiss like a beast but they’d still much rather run. Slide. Whatever. Tiger snakes can feel cornered in the middle of an empty footy oval. And brown snakes, on a hot day, are like professional wrestlers—picture a shaved, tattooed head, a few stray or absent teeth and a face cramped into a perpetual scowl. Not necessarily looking for a fight, but not the sort of creature you’d want to arm-wrestle drunk.

So, I did the snake-handling course and the next time a snake appeared at home, I was interstate for work. A tiger snake, trapped in the corner where the back fence meets the chook pen. Robyn heard it hissing in the half-dark as she went out to lock up the chooks. She screamed—she has more dignity than to squeal in those sorts of situations—and ran inside. Correct response.

Snakes are deaf. They have no ears so squeal and scream all you like. It won’t disturb them. And they don’t sense the vibration through their bellies so stomping through the grass won’t make them slither off either, unless they see you moving. When you’re thinking snakes, think Jurassic Park; the T-Rex can’t see you when you’re not moving. And on the warm nights they get around on smell and tasting the air so take a torch when you’re closing the chooks in.

Hayley from the wildlife shelter came to Robyn’s rescue. Put a bag down and the snake obligingly slipped inside to be released down by the creek.

I think it’ll be a while before my friends go running for the digital camera when they see a snake, perhaps a generation or two, but only a few generations ago my ancestors were guilty of far greater crimes of ignorance.

Are the snakes living in my garden or am I living in theirs?

Maggie

MaggieIt’s magical when you live somewhere long enough to develop relationships with the critters that share the country with you. I know that happens in the city—I’ve fed the possums in Fitzroy gardens and marvelled at the fish at Doctors Gully in Darwin but they’re fleeting romances compared to the relationships we have with the animals at home. We have a bird that has adopted us. She’s a magpie and in a fit of creativity we called her Maggie. Sometimes, I don’t realise how magnificent creatures are until I get to spend a few hours over a few days just watching them go about their business. Even the most humble and common magpie is a delight.

She—and I call her she because we have since day dot and my mate Doctor Barry tells me sexing magpies is like telling the guys from the girls at a transvestite’s convention and definitely not a job for an amateur—she just walked in the front door as we were putting the final touches to the floor eight years ago. She was flighty in those days and didn’t hang around for long. Over the years she has relaxed into our company and now takes food from our hands. She nests in a big Gippsland Grey gum on the side of the driveway and has had one or two chicks every spring we’ve been here. She doesn’t swoop us at all. She brings the chicks down to the house when they’re a few days out of the nest and some are friendly and some are not. None of the chicks eat out of our hands.

My bird book tells me that magpies are catholic to the extreme. That puzzles me. I know she can’t pray the rosary because she doesn’t have an opposing thumb like me. She’ll take the bread part of communion but wouldn’t be interested in the wine. When she comes in to share breakfast, she’ll give the most divine choral blessing you can imagine. Magpie song is magnificent pre-dawn and when it’s solo for an audience of one, it’s something else. Hail Mary.

Maggie epitomises the idea of a low maintenance wild pet. She’ll take a bit of bread or biscuit if you offer but she’ll never nag or snatch or eat enough to make herself ill. If you’re not home or don’t feed her, she attacks the local invertebrate population, many of which are pests. She has taken to dive bombing the rosellas in the fruit trees and the vegie garden but won’t eat the fruit herself. The only drawback I’ve found with our friend Maggie is that her kids squawk like a mob of three-year-olds with party hooters. I’d never tell her that though, I value her company too much.