Australian politics, society & culture

While Not Writing a Book

Diaries

Cowboys on Boxing Day, 1958. © George Lipman / Fairfax
Cowboys on Boxing Day, 1958. © George Lipman / Fairfax

Helen Garner

Medium length read4000 words
 

These diary entries run from October 2008 to January 2009. The kids I mention are my grandchildren, Olive, Ted and Ambrose, aged at the time eight, four and two; they and their parents live next door to me.

Cover: December 2010 - January 2011
December 2010 - January 2011
Anna Funder
Tom Hooper’s 'The King’s Speech' and Derek Cianfrance’s 'Blue Valentine'
Luke Davies
Alyssa McDonald
David Malouf
Cronulla Five Years On
Malcolm Knox
Murray Bail
The Glory and the Madness of being a ‘60s and ‘70s Australian Pop Singer
Robert Forster
Learning to Swim
Kate Jennings

Early in the morning, after a heavy night of babysitting, I’m watering out the back when I hear a shuffling sound. Olive comes up behind me in her spotted dressing-gown and slippers, looking hunched and dramatic, and holding a sheet of paper in one hand. “Read this,” she says. Dear Nanny I feel really Embarrased about last night and Ted got all the Books he wanted, all the games, and all the things he wanted and I didn’t even get one single thing! And I would like you to acknowladge that. Lots of love Olive xxoo. 

I acknowledge it (it’s true). She straightens her spine and runs off cheerfully. When I come inside I find her on the couch watching the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Together we gaze at those bizarre and wonderful sequences: the tiny ‘scientists’ in shirtsleeves and ties swarming everywhere on the landing site; François Truffaut in his neat, pale-tan bomber jacket; the communication by music, the mysterious riff played on a keyboard by the young nerd; the advance guard of smaller vessels; then the shimmering into view of the colossal spacecraft. I’m leaning forward, holding my breath, with a lump in my throat. The shining object opens its maw and the abducted earthlings stagger out: the navy men in their World War II uniforms who state name, rank and serial number – then the children – then the dog.

 

Jörg tells me that another translation of sayonara, the Japanese word for farewell, is “If it must be.” He shows me a photo he has taken from his high hospital window during his chemotherapy: two blank buildings, and between them a band of clouded sky into which a big hot air balloon is rising, powered by a vigorous burst of flame. He makes no interpretation, of course, but I take it for an image of hope and self-propulsion.

 

Ted approaches me with a strange bashful smile and his eyes lowered. “Nanny. You said to me that you always like my face.” “I do. When I see it coming towards me I feel very happy.” He blushes, and can’t stop smiling, or meet my eye. Soon we are aiming his cowboy pistols out the kitchen window at the red bucket on the woodpile, and firing with deadly accuracy. But when I say “Peeeyow!” he corrects me: apparently only he is allowed to say “Peeeyow”.

 

The cool change runs smoothly through the house. Outside, a shower of dried plum tree petals swirls for a moment and falls.

 

On Radio National, constant talk of collapsing financial markets. Fran Kelly asks Lindsay Tanner what this will mean in pragmatic terms. “Fran,” he says, “you’re going into the end of the world as we know it. I’m not going to follow you there.” I start thinking I should withdraw my cash from the bank, wrap it in thick plastic, and stash it in the roof-space or bury it in the yard. My son-in-law says patiently, “Everybody must want to do that. And that’s exactly what they don’t want you to do.”

 

In a fashionable cafe, five men in shirts and ties sit near me at a circular table. First I think they are having a business meeting. Then I realise they are praying.

 

I ride my bike to collect Ted from creche. He emerges from the playground red-faced, in a lather of sweat. The teacher whispers that he has refused all day to take off his jacket because he didn’t want to get dirt on the rodeo shirt with pearl studs and blue piping that I brought him from Newcastle. He has sweated so much, under his regulation Foreign Legion sunhat, that his eyebrows are flattened and misshapen. He is lost in a cowboy fantasy. As we fly home across Royal Park he says, in a voice forlorn with longing, “Nanny. Do you know where they sell spurs?” Later, on the couch, I make up a story about an old lady who finds a cowboy baby lying forgotten by the roadside. She takes it home and raises it – gives him spurs, chaps, a lasso; some guns, which he fires only responsibly, and bullets that he always takes out and keeps in a drawer. When he’s 18 he gets a horse. He thanks the old lady, mounts the horse and clops away into the desert, looking for work rounding up cattle. She stands waving at the sliprail fence. He requests this story again and again, curled up in my lap with his thumb in his mouth.

 

Rod is visiting from Spain. We sit outside a cafe in Bourke Street for an hour. The angle of the afternoon light shows that his skin is forming tiny parallel wrinkles, very delicate and beautiful, and somehow poignant. He tells me that his four-year-old grandson is greatly exercised by the whereabouts of the police. The family traces this to the fact that one day his kindergarten teacher found her bag had been rifled by an intruder; she called the police and, when they arrived, the little boy thought they had come because he had done poo in his pants.

 

A conversation with the kids about the ubiquity of farts.

Me: “I wonder if there’s anywhere in the world where farting is polite.”

Olive: “Maybe somewhere it could be a worship.”

 

In Peter Sheppard’s shoe shop, a woman of mature years is slumped sideways in a chair with her head on its armrest, sound asleep. Beside her a slightly younger woman, attended by a shop assistant, busily continues to try on shoes. Her unembarrassed physical proximity to the sleeper seems to indicate that they’re companions, or even sisters. To let yourself go out like a light in a public place! How wonderful! How free! I edge closer. Her upper lip, like mine, is an open fan of wrinkles. I would like to cover her gently with a cotton blanket.

 

In the morning it rains. Ambrose has passed his whole two years of life in drought. He looks up at the ceiling and says in a surprised voice, “Noise!”

 

Jacob’s funeral at Springvale. The building is very crowded. Two old women squeeze their way into the seats in front of ours. Another old lady murmurs to them, “Excuse me, I’m saving these two places for my friends.” One of the interlopers, whose hair is dyed bright red, turns to her and snaps, “Look, this is a funeral, not a party.” The service moves along with a brisk grandeur. Then we all file out, hundreds of us, and walk slowly along the cemetery roads to the open grave. Even at the back of the crowd we still flinch at the hollow thud when the first spadeful of earth strikes the coffin. I can’t believe Jacob’s body is really inside it. He had such bright eyes. Later Ambrose wants to stay the night at my house. He won’t go to sleep in the cot. I pick him up, wrap him in the blue rug, and hold him on my lap on the couch. Outside it’s still light, but cloudy, as if about to storm. I sing him the ‘Tennessee Waltz’. His eyes slide shut. His thumb slips out of his mouth and a few nerve tremors run through his left hand. He begins to breathe deeply, then to snore. Meanwhile, Jacob is out there at Springvale under all that dirt. A cool wind is blowing. I still think cremation is more bearable. The beloved one is only air, and some dry crumbs of inoffensive matter.

 

I watch High Noon again on DVD. Gary Cooper solemn, dogged, pained. The white, dusty streets he strides along, ever more hopeless. The scene where he writes his will.

 

At two in the morning, Ted, sleeping in the spare room, has a bad dream and creeps into my bed. He flings himself about diagonally for the rest of the night, cramming me into a tiny corner. God damn it, I think at 5 am, this is why I’m not married anymore.

 

Psychoanalyst at conference: “Paradise has not only been lost, it never existed.”

 

Am I imagining an unusual quiet over the city? A breathlessness? The whole world waits for the news: will the US elect a black president? I don’t dare turn on the TV. But when I do I sit there and sob out loud. Tears absolutely pop out of my eyes. Olive comes in the back door and gazes at me curiously. “I’m crying with happiness,” I say in a trembling voice, “because of Obama. Obama! OBAMA! To think I’m alive when this happened! It’s better than men walking on the moon!” She puts down what she is carrying, approaches me with an ironical little smile, and gives me a mature hug, patting my shoulder. In this she is so like her mother that I cry even more.

 

One young woman to another, walking along Bridport Street: “So I said to him, ‘If I wasn’t your girlfriend, I’d be really concerned about your sexuality.’”

 

I bring home some expensive chocolates shaped like pyramids. Ted comes in to ask me for one. He struggles to articulate their shape, and comes up with “a desert point”.

 

At David and Jason’s in Newcastle, Jason makes me watch a few songs from Kylie’s Homecoming Tour. It’s a bloated spectacle of lights like a Nazi rally, the ‘dancing’ vulgar and clumsy, the songs a series of tiny ideas inflated beyond any possibility of meaning, and Kylie herself a minuscule creature with a very pretty profile and a surprisingly sweet smile. Now that she’s had breast cancer and lost her French boyfriend, she looks almost interesting, her face thinner, darker, shadowed perhaps by adult pain and loss. I find her endearing. David is bored by her. But Jason adores her and seems proud of her. He shows Olive a single sequin that flew off her costume and into his hand when he was in the front row. Together they examine it, reverently, like a religious relic.

 

As the vodka kicks in I begin to make plans. I will go to my office and start work at eight every morning. I will stop drinking coffee and eating lollies. I will hire someone to pluck my eyebrows into shape once per week.

 

Library Week at the local primary school and I am invited to give a talk one afternoon. A boy of nine or so, in a dark-brimmed hat, sits in the front row. He is fidgety at first, then sits stiller and stiller, with his eyes fixed on my face. At the end he comes up with his parents, addresses me by my full name: they have a copy of my book that they would like me to inscribe.

Me: “Is it to somebody?”

Boy: “To our whole family, actually.”

Me: (pen poised) “Will I write ‘To the whole family’?”

Parents: (shyly) “Yes, that would be fine.”

Boy: (holds up one hand) “NO.” (Looks from father to mother and back again, his eyebrows an inverted V. His voice goes up a few semitones.) “No – we agreed that Helen Garner should write each name individually.”

Me: “OK, what are the names?”

Boy: “Right.” (Takes deep breath.) “The names are: Ross. Julie. They’re my parents. Brady. Stephen. And Craig.”

Me: “In that exact order?”

Boy: (firmly) “In that exact order.”

Me: “You’re Craig, right? The youngest?”

Boy: (importantly) “Yes, I am.”

I want to throw him across the back of my bike and speed away with him forever.

 

A thunderstorm at dawn! Roar of rain, drops dancing on the shed roof, the pear tree leaves springing and bouncing on their twiggy branches!

 

The family returns in the evening from three days at Wilsons Prom. Ted, exhausted from the long drive, dresses at once in cowboy gear, and comes through my back door in the dark with the rifle in one hand. “Is anybody home? Where are you, Nanny?” He appears in the doorway of my workroom, very soft and peaceful. I sit him on my lap at the table. Long silences with the occasional remark. He has a need to dress as a cowboy. It calms something in him. I get out the photo album and we leaf through it, back and forth. He establishes a ritual response to every photo of his younger brother – a burst of ‘laughter’.

 

Peter Porter on the Book Show: “The purpose of form is to prevent you from putting down on the paper the first thing that comes into your head.”

 

My old MontBlanc shorthand pen, the kind that’s no longer made, disappears from my desk. It was my favourite fountain pen of all time. I search everywhere. Days later I have one last desolated look through the paper recycle bag beside my desk, and there it is. Calmly lying among the torn-up pages.

 

At the playground with Ted and the boys from round the corner. Francis, at three, has loose blond curls and a face of such louche, wry, heavy-lidded Irishness that I can hardly look at him without laughing. I push him high on the swing. “Higher. Higher,” he commands. In full flight he turns his head and calls to me over his shoulder in a seductive tone: “Hey, Ted’s nanny. Who’s your best boy? Is it me?”

 

Barrie Kosky’s production of Euripides’ The Trojan Women. An ordeal of rape, blood, wailing and casual brutality. The moment that touches me most is when the little prince, in his suit and tie, is dragged into the cell where the Trojan women are imprisoned. Across the space he makes a tiny sign of recognition to his grandmother, the bruised and blood-stained queen, bare-legged and bare-footed in her fouled slip. The queen returns the gesture, the furtive showing of a flat palm. Soon after that, the child is hauled out to be thrown from the city walls.

 

Ted has been sick, some sort of gastric thing, and dozes all day on the couch. At dinner he sits at the table with the rest of us, but without plate or appetite, and begs for someone to play a game with him. Everyone refuses; they want to eat. He lays his little white cheek on the table and weeps. So his father gets him an old bank pay-in book and a pen, and he “writes” out “cheques” and “plane tickets to America”, silently concentrating, shoulders bowed, like a child clerk in Dickens, breaking all our hearts.

 

A tremendously famous and influential European critic lets my friend know that he admires his new novel. I’m thunderstruck. Imagine his having the nerve to send the critic a copy! At whose feet would I lay my little tribute, if I dared? Janet Malcolm’s? She scorched The First Stone in the New Yorker but I was so thrilled by the idea of her having read me that I felt no pain. God, how infantile. While I’m standing in the hall thinking about this, Ambrose with his pants off starts to thunder tempestuously on the piano. He yells for me to come. I enter the room. He leans forward proudly, beaming over his shoulder, to display a large soft lump of shit he has just deposited on the piano bench.

 

At St Vincent’s rapid response skin clinic I am to have a little lesion on my top lip investigated. A young Sri Lankan doctor without confidence but with a very sweet smile runs her cool fingers up and down my arms, and this way and that on my torso. The lesion has retreated and cannot be seen, no matter how hard she presses the magnifying glass onto my lip. A handsome male professor, very Australian, bursts into the cubicle. He spots the thing at once and diagnoses a solar keratosis. She still can’t see it. He takes out his pen and draws a line round the keratosis, in ink that will not fade for hours. “Get the gun,” he says. “I’ll come back in a minute and watch you do it.” The young woman stands beside me, timidly holding the liquid nitrogen cylinder in both hands. I do not want her to shoot my mouth with it, but before I can nerve myself to say so, the professor rushes back in. He seizes the gun from her, explains clearly and pleasantly how she should use it, then does the job himself in one well-aimed icy blast. Peeeyow.

 

In a Fitzroy pub while my son-in-law’s band is playing I become involved in a game of pinball with Ted. Two slightly bigger boys approach the machine. One looks at me narrowly, then says out of the corner of his mouth to his friend, “That old lady thinks she can play. I’m going upstairs.”

 

A hot evening. I go to the gym on Racecourse Road for an ‘assessment’. The whole time I am there I feel out of place, a failure, someone labouring under a deluded idea of herself. In the harshly lit mirrors I look shockingly ugly and old, my hair cut too short, my lips held in an expression of contemptuous, defensive primness. I am put through my paces on the treadmill by one of those hulking young men with unblinking eyes who seem to become personal trainers. Then, as I begin to run and to sweat, the irritating noises of the gym – horrible music, grunts of effort, shrill moronic laughter – fade into an oceanic roar. It dawns on me that the whole thing is about going into a dream state. My defences collapse.

 

The unnerving silence of Christmas morning. No sound of traffic. Sun lies fresh on everything. Birds sing with unnatural sharpness. The air is still.

 

At the health farm, fasting. I must be hallucinating: when I walk past a pile of folded towels I see them as a huge club sandwich. I present myself for a reiki treatment. Irritatingly, the woman announces that she is going to massage my aura. I submit with a sigh. I don’t have any trouble at all believing that people have auras: you only need to have seen a dying and then a dead body to know this. But I wanted the massage to be about my gross earthly body.

 

Ted marches in my back door. “I’m a cowboy. You can be my wife. I want something to eat. Will you cook this cattle meat I brought in?”

Me: “Sure. How would you like it cooked, cowboy?”

T: “Toasted, please, with butter.”

 

A picnic with a friend at the Botanic Gardens. Hot, clear day. We lie on rugs under a huge oak. I am wearing a faded pink linen shirt that I’ve always privately thought was rather becoming. She studies me in silence, and says, “I’m sorry to tell you this, Hel, but that colour doesn’t suit you. It makes your face look flushed. It makes you look older. This doesn’t upset you, does it?” “Well,” I say, “I do feel a bit devastated.” She makes no response to this, and in a few moments our conversation turns to less fraught matters.

 

Ted on the swing: “Come on! We need some attacking here! We need to explode some battleships!”

 

Two women of my age on the Craigieburn train are talking about how to make scones. I’m sitting right behind them, in an almost empty carriage. “Your board’s full of flour?” says the dark-haired one. “And your hands are full of flour?” Her blonde friend, who has golden bangles on each wrist and very cared-for hands with big polished nails, expresses her utter helplessness in the face of dough. She reaches the point of confessing that she finds it repulsive to put her hands in it. They burst into a fit of laughter. The dark one keeps urging her friend not to give up. “You don’t have to handle it all that much.” She makes flat-palmed, downward gestures. The manicured one shudders extravagantly. As we pull into Southern Cross Station I get to my feet and stop beside them. “Excuse me. I can’t make scones either. First lot I made was perfect. Since then – disaster every time.” They welcome me into their paroxysms. The fair one touches my arm. “Don’t give up!” says the dark one. “Try again!” From the platform, as I pass their window, I can see their teeth still flashing.

 

Ted: “Nanny. Buzz told me that when people die they turn into gazombies.”

Me: “Gazombies? That’s not true. I’m quite old and a lot of people I know have died but not a single one of them turned into a gazombie.”

 

At a tram stop near Southern Cross a lovely Asian girl, perhaps still a teenager, with a fall of silky hair right down her back, is standing among the waiting passengers. A man in a T-shirt and jeans approaches her and tries with a dull, unsmiling belligerence to engage her in conversation. His questions strike a discordant note: “Where are you going? How old are you?” I can’t hear her replies, or even if she’s making any. Two young women in business suits and heels, who have been chatting and laughing at the stop, step forward to the platform’s edge and without breaking their flow of talk simply interpose their bodies between the importunate bloke and the girl. He moves off, sullen and confused. The women don’t address the girl. In fact I’m not even sure that they noticed her predicament, but I choose to believe that they performed a spontaneous act of sisterly protectiveness.

 

Jörg and his wife, Keiko, sit with me in Mario’s. His skull is softly furred, his face purified, refined. The chemo appears to have worked. Nobody mentions elation, but the table our elbows are on is hovering a few inches above the floor.

 

Joan Acocella on the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov: “If there is a point in classical art where aesthetics meet morals – where beauty, by appearing plain and natural, gives us hope that we, too, can be beautiful …” I resolve to spend the rest of my life searching for that point.                 

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist. Her books include Monkey Grip, The Children’s Bach and The Spare Room.
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