October 2015 archive

Photo shoot

On the night of the school dance, my father rested the white board against the bookshelf in order to take photos of my sister in her evening dress.

‘Sit there,’ he told her. ‘Sit straight. Now turn right.’

My sister climbed onto the chair, a high backed wooden chair with a tapestry seat. I sat at the other end of the room, pretending to read my book, Emily of New Moon. I had reached the second volume and Emily was about to fall in love with the boy from across the road. I felt a thrill at the thought that something exciting was about to happen.

‘I have to hurry,’ my sister said to my father. ‘I’m going to be late.’

‘Hold on. I have to get this right.’ My father put down his camera and took another lens from the table. He had a pile of lenses, all different shapes and sizes. He fitted the longest lens to the front of his camera and then clicked the whole thing into place on the tripod he’d erected in front of him. He stood behind his camera at one end of the room while my sister perched on the edge of my grandfather’s chair at the other end. I could see the strain in her eyes, the fidget of her hands.

‘Turn to face the door,’ my father said. ‘Now squeeze back into the chair and tilt your head.’

I could see the silhouette of my sister’s face, the way her nose turned, hooked like the prow of a ship. We all have this nose, all the girls in my family. My mother reckons it’s a sign of aristocracy, Roman, aquiline like an eagle. But my sister looked anything but aquiline. She looked like she was stuck there on that chair, itching to move on, but stuck like cement.

‘Can’t we finish now? Julian’ll be at the door any minute now.’

‘He can wait,’ my father said. He put down his camera, walked over to my sister and pulled her up towards him. He folded his arms around her, all the way around to adjust the zip that held the dress together. I couldn’t quite see what he was doing; whether he was letting it loose or zipping it to the top but the look on my sister’s face was one of horror. My mother who sat behind her newspaper reading looked up once or twice, but she said nothing.

My sister stood as stiff as the white cardboard backdrop under my father’s administrations, until he pushed her back into the chair, and pulled at the top of her dress to address her cleavage. She had pinned a flower made of tissue paper like material just there at the centre of her dress. I thought she must have put it there to hide the mole in the middle of her breasts, an ugly brown thing that looked like a miniature mountain and sometimes wobbled when she laughed, or otherwise moved up and down with her breathing.

‘You don’t need this,’ my father said as he unpinned the flower. ‘Much better without it.’ All this attention to detail and my sister’s eyes brimmed with tears that refused to spill over and down her cheeks. She clenched her hands together as if to hold back the dam when my father took his place once more behind the camera.

What he saw was nothing like what I saw. I saw my frumpy big sister in a mushroom brown dress, that my auntie had loaned her, a dress that came in tight at the waist to accentuate her middle. It ballooned out into a full flowing skirt and exploded on top into her bosoms, those things my father went to so much trouble to capture.

The doorbell rang and my sister leapt up.

‘Stop. I almost had it,’ my father said.

My sister ignored him and shot off through the door. My father looked surprised as if he was a kid and someone had just taken away his favourite toy. Then he looked around the room. My mother was still hidden behind her newspaper and so I buried my face back inside my book. I pretended I had taken no notice of all that went on before.

‘You,’ he said. ‘Get yourself up here on this chair. ‘I don’t want to waste the light.’

I looked down at my faded blue shorts, my baggy t-shirt. Why take a photo of me? But I did as I was told. The chair was still warm from my sister. I pushed my bum into it and felt its wide arms enclose me. As long as my father stayed back there behind his camera I was safe, but he looked into the lens and up again, frustrated.

‘This is no good.’

I froze as he moved towards me. His hot arms were around my waist as he twisted me into place. He pulled at my t-shirt first this way then that. He stank of cigarettes and of sweat and the tips of his fingers were yellow from the nicotine.

I felt like a parcel wrapped in a hurry, a parcel that would not fit the sheet of paper my father had cut out for me.

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Elbows, head, legs and arms, all the wrong shape, but soon I would be delivered.

Memory bright as a star and equally mysterious: Freefall Writing

I tried to open the blind in our bedroom this morning and the toggle snapped off. Just like that, after only thirty-five years, who’d have thought the thread holding the toggle in place would eventually wear out and snap.

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This blind pulling ritual is one I have come to hate. I usually leave it to my husband who’s mastered the art. I can’t quite work out why it is with this particular blind I can never get it right.

Either I pull down too hard and the whole things comes out of it’s moorings and loses touch with the mechanism up top that allows it to spring back or I pull too hard and the whole thing snaps back, furls up too far and flips over itself at the top.

Then you need a chair or ladder in order to reach up high enough to get back to the toggle- that has now come off – and to unwind the whole thing manually so that it can continue to operate as these blinds do.

It has long been a mystery to me as many things are.

Last week my husband and I spent a week away in Yarck, in North-Eastern Victoria on the way to Mansfield and near to Alexandra on a writing retreat of sorts. We joined a group of ten others, including our mentor and teacher, Barbara Turner Vesselago, to enjoy the experience of writing Freefall.

This is my preferred style of writing, to write without looking back over what I have written; to write in an effort to bring forth all the sensuous details, the sight, the taste, the touch and smell, including dialogue; to write what comes up for me and makes me sweat; to go fear ward; and to avoid writing about material that is less than ten years old when writing autobiographically; unless something screams at me, you must go into this now.

We stayed in cabin number one at the Mittagong Homestead in Fawcett, close by Yarck. Two small bedrooms, a kitchen and living area with separate and large bathroom and spa.

We had only one table on which to write, so I dragged it out of the kitchen area and into bedroom number two, while my husband, who had hoped to write outside in the morning sunshine, found there were no outlets for his computer there. So he dragged the outside table from the veranda and into the living area, thus creating two separate writing spaces for the two of us.

‘A room of our own’, a writing space of our own, a prerequisite for any such event.

And there was structure. We wrote every morning from whenever we woke up and felt like making a start. We wrote till midday or thereabouts, as we then needed to drive to the main house Andana, ten minutes away, where the other participants stayed, all except one who holed up in the nearby Yarck bed and breakfast, attached to the Giddy Goat cafe.

Every day at 12.45 pm we brought our writing, printed, double spaced, numbered and dated with our names on each page, to Barbara and she took our offerings away to read.

We were free them to walk or shop or drive around the district for a few hours until 4.30 pm at which stage we re-joined the group and Barbara who had read as much as three thousand words per person and had ordered our writing into some seemingly mysterious, but meaningful order.  Then she read to the group from our writing and we all discussed each piece in turn till 7 pm when we shared dinner together.

We took responsibility for the preparation and presentation of evening meals in pairs.  Wonderful food.

Barbara is one of the best readers I have ever known, both in her ability to take in work through her own silent reading and as a performer who reads other people’s writing out loud. She brings words to life.

And so we sat in a circle in the Andana house on large comfortable chairs and couches listening to the lull of Barbara’s voice as she read excerpts from our writing. She did not identify the writer of the piece but over the course of a week it became easier to put writing and writer together.  But that was not the point of the exercise, though some of us could not help but wonder.

Sure it was easy for me to recognise my own stuff and my husband’s and to hope that our writing would be read, as everyone hopes their writing will be read.

It is as if in reading your writing out loud, Barbara affirms some sense that this piece, however long or short and whatever its shortfalls, has merit.

It’s amazing how tortured the process can feel, at least for me in those first few days when I pitched myself up against myself, determined to write into a more fictional state of mind, the way one or two of the writers at the retreat spoke, of going into a trance, and of letting the writing flow.

Not for me. Never for me. No trance like states just the hard slog of trying to follow the contours of my thoughts, lulled back into memory and then using my imagination to fill in gaps where my memory failed, which it does all the time.

Memory is like that. It’s there for a moment, bright as a star and then becomes indistinct and so I draw on other memories, the colours, the smells, the images, to bring together something meaningful. To tell a story which might not be the absolute and actual truth of what happened but carries the emotional essence of it.

Out of this mystery come stories, some of which I’ll share.

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