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Posts Tagged ‘true stories’

Here in the sub-tropics, a mile from the Queensland border, it’s all pretty laid-back. Flouting council laws, many denizens of my suburb like to let their dogs run loose — I’ve had to cut a hole in the front and back screen doors so my cats can get inside when the dogs chase them. For the same reason, I can’t lock the glass doors when I’m out during the day. Last week, I’d just come home from town and changed into my everyday rags when it oozed out from under the fridge.

Three feet. Four feet. Five feet. Six.

A black snake.

black-snake

I was barefooted, as I always am in summer. The snake was three feet away. Fortunately, it was only 1 o’clock in the afternoon, noon if you’re not on Daylight Saving Time. What you don’t want is to find yourself with a snake loose in the house when night comes down. The electric lights throw shadows, and it’s much harder to see under furniture etc.

What to do? I’d had snakes in the house before. My now-old cat used to bring them in when he was young. Once on a visit my daughter inadvertently took a shower with a yellow-bellied black. Apparently, the cat had brought him in, taken him upstairs and lost him. The snake had then concealed himself behind a pot plant in the shower recess. My daughter’s screams when she saw him halfway through her shower could’ve woken heaven. All these snakes I’ve managed to catch by upending an empty bucket over them, sliding an unwanted  vinyl record in its cover under the bucket, inverting it, and placing a weight over it. After that, it’s a simple matter of walking to the nature reserve with the snake in the bucket and releasing it.

As luck would have it, all the buckets were outside, full of water. I nicked out thru the front door, leaving the sliding door open and rushed back with an emptied bucket. If I could just get it over the snake, I figured, I could take my time after that.

I returned just in time to see the last foot of black tail disappearing into a rolled-up hall runner lying on the living room floor. Well, I thought, if I could block the ends, that would give me time to think how to get him into the bucket from there. And maybe get some help — though on the three occasions in the past I’ve had snakes in the house, I’ve dealt with them alone; my neighbours are mostly women.

Fortunately, black snakes are more obliging than browns, one variety of which, the tigers, will attack you if you disturb them during the mating season. While I was trying to block one end of the hall runner with books, I noticed a snake sliding under the bookcase and slithering out the wide-open front door.

Was it the same snake? It looked like the same snake. As Gertrude Stein would have said, “A snake is a snake, is a snake.”

gertrude-stein Gertrude Stein

Or were there two, and I still had the other in the hall runner? I dragged the hall runner out of the apartment, all the while wondering if another snake was going to appear from the unplugged end. But there was nothing.

Why it happened took me a while to figure out. In twenty years of living here, I’ve never had a snake come in of its own volition, except for the python that came in thru the back door one night a couple of years ago, see: https://danielledevalera.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/quoth-the-raven-nevermore/

Apparently, snakes eat skinks, and I had a family of these striped lizards living under my refrigerator. (When you can’t have proper screen doors, these things happen.)

skink

They’re very handsome, and quite intelligent, and they like to eat the food the cat leaves behind, a form of al fresco dining. Perhaps the snake came across the skink when it was outside taking the air after lunch and, when it fled to the safety of the refrigerator, the snake followed it inside. That’s all I can figure.

Getting rid of the skinks will not be easy; I don’t want to kill them. Now, whenever I return from somewhere, I always do a check of the apartment. However, I’m very aware that these checks can only go so far. I’m keeping a wary eye on the floor at all times.

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The other day I found myself with nothing to read so I pulled out my old copy of A Book of Australian Verse, selected by Australian poet Judith Wright. I was reading the collection when I came across the poems of John Shaw Neilsen, whose work I’d always admired. This shy, slight figure, who had almost no education, had a love of natural beauty and could produce lines of effortless simplicity such as:

“I was around by the cherries today: all the cherries are pale. The world is a woman in velvet. The air is the colour of ale.” He is considered one of Australia’s finest lyric poets.

Shaw Neilsen

Shaw Neilsen

Whenever I think of Neilsen, I’m reminded of a story my old friend Lyle Freeman told me. Lyle (gone now, alas) wasn’t a writer, but he moved on the edges of the literary circles in Brisbane and Sydney in the 1940s and early ‘50s. In his late teens, he ran away from the family business in Kingaroy, went to Sydney and with friend Lois Whose-last-name-eludes me, they opened a boarding house in the vicinity of Kings Cross, where itinerant writers and artists often stayed while they found their feet. Or not. At one stage, Charlie Blackman and his wife Barbara (not his wife at the time, but) boarded there.

I think it was his friendship with Queensland poet Val Vallis that would have got him the invite to Judith Wright’s house that Sunday.

judith-wrightWhenever Lyle told the story (it was a story I asked to hear more than once), the house he described was in Mount Tambourine, though Wright never moved there permanently until 1950, and the event Lyle described must have happened before 1941. (Neilsen was at that time up from Melbourne; he returned there and died within twelve months of this encounter.) Perhaps Wright toyed with renting houses in the country outside Brisbane as many of us did in those days before land inflated to preposterous proportions; my partner and I had a weekender at Mt Glorious in the ‘60s.

On this particular day, Lyle told me, a group of seven or eight aspiring writers were sitting in Wright’s kitchen debating the state of Australian arts and letters when there came a gentle knock on the back door. Standing there was a shy, slight man in his early seventies. Perhaps an elderly gardener, they thought.

The man spoke only one sentence. He said softly, “I’ve come for my tiffin.” (He meant afternoon tea.) Wright handed him a cup of tea and a plate containng some cup cakes and he went away. “That was Shaw Neilsen,” she explained to the Young Turks. “He’s staying with us for a while. He’s a bit shy.” Lyle said he felt immensely humbled to see this unassuming man shuffle away with his tea and cake. There they’d all been, debating the parlous state of Australian literature, and there he was, the real thing, just wanting peace and quiet and a bit of tiffin.

Lyle had an interesting life. He was a roadie for the Borovanski Ballet when Kathleen Gorham was one of the principal dancers, and he was gay at a time in Australia when it took real guts to come out and say so. He was once insulted at a party by Patrick White, that dour, sharp tongued Australian novelist.

patrick-whitePatrick White

Wine must’ve loosened my old friend’s tongue sufficiently for him to begin talking about his ambitions for a novel. “Hmph,” White said to him. “You’re a small man, and you’ll write a small novel.” That put my friend Lyle, who was six-foot-two, nicely in his place. White was famous for these bon mots.

Lyle never did write that novel. There were no mobile phones when I knew him, and the only photo I have of him is more than forty years old and somewhat blurry. Thanks to the expertise of Paul Smith I’m able to reproduce it here.

The photo was taken on the verandah of the house I shared with Queensand poet, Michael Sariban.

the-presentation-on-the-verandah

From L to R: Ann Hurley, DdeV holding a young Sasha Sariban, Olga Sariban and Lyle Freeman.

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 The Kid

As 2013 draws to a close I find myself thinking more and more about my neighbour Ron, who passed away in October of this year after a long battle with cancer. We lived across from one another for over 13 years and, although we were never in and out of one another’s places (we would’ve hated that), we were there for one another. He was a single parent. When he first moved in, he had a boy who’d just started high school — a wild boy.

A number of years ago, when Ron was still well and I didn’t even know he had cancer, I went over to his place one day for coffee, and he told me his story, how he’d been given less than five years to live and how he’d decided he couldn’t die because no one else would be able to raise his son, whom he called ‘the kid’.

Ron was a born storyteller. The whole story rolled off his tongue and when I came home I simply wrote it down, just the way he’d told it to me. I’ve never done that before or since; I’m not that kind of writer. Later, when I wanted to enter the story in a fiction competition based around the subject of cancer, I added an extra frisson by having the narrator say she’d been on her way to commit suicide and the story of Ron’s courage had stopped her. The story ended up being short-listed in the Cancer Council of Victoria’s short story competition and included in an exhibition of art, poetry and stories, fiction and non-fiction, that toured country Victoria in (I think) 2009.

Ron was stoked to see his story in print. He was one of those unsung heroes who live and die unnoticed by the world, known only to a few friends and family. As his illness progressed, I saw a bit more of him, making him a baked dinner on Sundays when I made my own, but leaving him in peace to eat it in his own time. He had a miniature fox terrier named Bella, and even when things became difficult for him and he was on heavy doses of morphine, we would still see him walking Bella, growing thinner and thinner every week. He used to say, “She’s been so good for me. I wouldn’t get out and walk if it wasn’t for her.”

If you haven’t already done so, you can read Ron’s story FREE at http://www.derekhaines.ch/vandal/2013/11/short-story-the-kid-by-danielle-de-valera/

Remember, though, I’m a fiction writer: I was never a widow, nor am I contemplating suicide. (I left that behind with my youth.) The great part about the story is the real-life ending. Although given only five years to live, Ron lived to see his son all grown up with a kid of his own who promises to be every bit as much a tiger as he was. Life goes on.

The best of everything to you all for the New Year. May we be safe and well in 2014. (Wealth is good, but health is even better.)

Danielle

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Girl looking out window

It’s strange the way things pan out in life. My career as a writer almost didn’t happen.

I was in 3rd grade in primary school, slowly getting on top of things, when we were sent home one day with instructions to write our first composition.

I trudged home, very unhappy. My career as an even halfway-coping schoolkid was over. I knew I’d never be able to write a composition.

My mother was in the kitchen, preparing the evening meal. Unusual for him, my father was also home; there’d been very few ships in port that day. When he saw me slumped in misery at the kitchen table, he asked me what was wrong.

I said, “We have to write a composition about trees, and I can’t write compositions.” and I began to cry.

My father put down his newspaper and said, “It’s okay. Whatever the subject is, you just talk about it.”

“Talk about it?” I wailed.

“Yeah,” he said, “like how they’re green and leafy and they give people shade. Do you like trees?”

Of course I liked trees. I practically lived in the loquat tree up the back.

“Have a go,” said my father, returning to his paper.

I sat there, chewing the end of my pencil, and tried to write as if I was talking about trees. That half-page took me the best part of an hour.

“How’d it go?” said my father, who must’ve been watching my progress from behind his paper. He read through what I’d written. “Not bad,” he said. “But it needs something.” And he dictated a line about leaves dancing when the wind blew; something quite poetic. “Slip that in somewhere,” he said.

I rewrote the piece, placing the line he’d dictated where, I hoped, a teacher was least likely to notice the extra zing it put into my dreary effort.

 

By the time the English teacher came into the room carrying our exercise books three days later, I very much regretted using the line my father had written. Now, it was all too late, as she began to deal with each composition in turn, from worst to best — a tried and tested form of torture even when your conscience is clear, and mine certainly wasn’t. Eventually, there were no exercise books left but mine. I was convinced she’d saved mine ‘til last because she intended to expose me before the whole class. Why had I let my father talk me into adding that line about leaves in the breeze?

To my surprise, she pronounced my composition the best, and read it out to the class. I felt no elation, though it was the first time I’d ever come first in anything. How, I asked myself, was I going to continue this run? My father was leaving in a few days for a job at sea. What on earth was I going to do?

Inevitably, we were given a new subject to write about. I trudged home and sat at the kitchen table. Nothing came. I felt like the girl in the fairy tale who was supposed to spin straw into gold. Or else.

In desperation, I decided I’d pretend to be my father. Clearly, I had no talent for writing, but he did. Okay, Dad, I said to myself, what have you got to say about pets? And I began to write.

I was stunned when that composition also came first. Around me, there were boys in tears, boys who hadn’t been able to get even four lines onto the pages of their exercise books.

I knew how they felt.

It was pure chance my father had been home that day.

 

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