Writing an Obituary in a Hot Climate

"This is a long list. Let’s start with my mother. Why did she run away with that teenager?"

Winner: The Tashmadada/Writer Conversation/Creative Nonfiction Emerging Writer Prize

1. Women I do not know

This is a long list. Let’s start with my mother. Why did she run away with that teenager? She spent her whole life complaining about living with “bloody poisonous teenagers” and moaning that we had no communication skills, and next thing you know, she’s smoked everyone’s weed and stolen the car and emptied Dad’s bank account and run away to Cairns with a (barely) 17-year-old boy she worked with at Kmart—the manager’s son, no less. Younger than my little brother! And we had to have toast and Vegemite and mangoes for our 1979 Christmas lunch (a mere five years after Santa didn’t make it into Darwin after Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve) and couldn’t even drive to the beach afterward because of lack of petrol funds. Instead, we sat in Lismore, suffocating in the fug of dry heat, and went off shooting magpies down the gully to avoid talking to relatives who might phone, or to avoid having awkward exchanges with neighbors who might drop by, or, for that matter, to avoid thinking about Mum at the beach in Cairns having fun without us. Back then, we didn’t know how, up north, they specialize in the box jellyfish and its sting. Heart failure. Death. You need to swim inside a net and pray its holes are mended. Magpies are protected now. Pity about endangered mothers.


2. Babies go straight to heaven

We all know why, a quarter of a century of Christmases later, I came home to the North Coast of New South Wales to work in a crazy little tin pot of a university: You try deciding where to bury your baby. In Year 8, for our local history classes with Mrs. Keating, we visited all the town and regional cemeteries, which we kids loved. All the bad boys and girls got to sneak off and hide behind gravestones and feel each other up and smoke cigarettes, and all the bored kids got to be bored in the fresh air, and anyone interested, however intermittently, got to learn stuff about death. How babies have tiny plots. How children died—I’m not sure that before then I even thought about the fact that a child might die. How the Catholics have a section of the graveyard, and the Presbyterians, and the Church of Englanders, and some other “weird” and not very Anglo-Saxon or populated sections. How they bury you right outside any inclusive zone if you were not christened. Some larrikin wanted to know where the Abos [sic—well, the whole thing does make you sick if you start thinking about putrid old colonial habits, but, in fact, we all thought Jerry was speaking respectfully, using “Abos” instead of “Boongs”] got buried—“Where’s their section, Miss?”—and Mrs. Keating told Mr. Trudgeon to give him a clip around the ear, and he did, knocking his own cigarette out of his mouth in the process, and a small fire immediately started in the dry blond grass at their feet. Hilarious. “We are doing Aboriginal history next term; now keep your troublesome mouth shut, Jerry Wilson.” The Wilsons were pioneers in the Richmond River region. Came up as squatters with the cedar cutters in the 1840s; they helped build Sydney, with all those big old trees they cut up and floated down the river to the waiting boats in Ballina, chugging down south until they reached their destination and their destiny to build strong and beautiful homes. I wanted to know where they were buried, too, the Aborigines. Our high school was a rough old school on the wrong side of the river. We had lots of Aboriginal kids in our classes. I looked across at Mary, my friend from the relay team and athletics squad. She was avoiding me. Come to think of it, she never spoke to me in class or even on the playground, only over at the oval, in our PhysEd clothes, ready for everything physical. My god, that girl could smile. And run! She knew things I did not; I had always known that. Next term, I thought, I will know everything. Of course, this turned out to be a major vanity. To this day, I swear I knew more—more certain things—in Year 8 than I know now. I came home to bury my baby, like I said. Work had led me to a life in London shortly after graduating university, until there I was—some 15 years later—sitting in pediatric intensive care, morbidly wondering where I would bury my baby daughter if she did not survive her coma. As it turned out, London cemeteries suited Sunday afternoon walks and dead writers, but not my poor little baby. It seemed I could choose no safe, no right, place. I felt alone in this decision. My mother had given up on Cairns, and toy boys, too late to help me.


3. What I know about Australian literature and indiscretion

I sit here on the North Coast of New South Wales, before the ocean in Lennox Head, a long way from London, writing yet another Sylvia Plath lecture. After Ted left her, Sylvia lived close to my favorite place in London, where she did her head-in-the-oven thing, in posh Primrose Hill. To be honest, I would rather talk about Sylvia’s daughter Frieda. What an artist! I would like to write a biography of Frieda and call it “The Bee Keeper’s Daughter.” Frieda used to live in Australia, in Perth, and … I need to concentrate. I should be swiftly finishing this Plath lecture then working on my Australian Literature lecture for the undergraduates who don’t really want to read literature. They just want to write it. I actually prefer to write about Australia, and not Plath and Primrose Hill, but nobody is really interested in Australia, unless it involves red earth or wet oceans. I can prove it: Recently, I attended an appalling workshop for “emerging writers.” I flew down to Melbourne for it, to a rainy welcome. Despite it being only two weeks shy of summer, everyone was wearing winter clothes. That morning, I’d been for a swim and had been sitting around the airport in shorts, sweating it out in the subtropics, and a few hours later, I was sitting upstairs in a large room full of strangers in the beautiful old graffitied wreck of the Nicholas Building—at that time, home to the Victorian Writer’s Centre. Looking out the window through the spot-lit rain, like floating granules of quartz, I tried to concentrate on what our speaker was asking. “OK. Now keep your hand up if you’ve read more than six new Australian books this year?” The strangers all put their hands down. So did I; I didn’t want to look like teacher’s pet. He had begun his talk by asking who remembered the names of the writers who had won the Vogel or the Miles Franklin awards and then betting we’d never even read all those “best” books. He was making the point—successfully—that for all of us writers there, armed with book contracts, to be successful was a dubious, tough, unpromised thing. Publishing was not enough. Winning prizes sometimes meant little. “Who’s ever heard all that much from any but a handful of Vogel winners?” he asked, and I did a tally in my head. I could name them; I had read them, all that “best writers under 35” gang. So while I couldn’t agree that hardly anybody knew about Vogel-winning writers, I wondered, nevertheless, how many of the 19 writers in the room had ever heard of or read my friend B.C., who is indeed a past winner of the Vogel and many other literary prizes. Or if that mattered. And I wondered what B.C. might be writing now, or if he was writing at all anymore after what happened. So here I am now, asking myself: Is it true that even we successful Australian writers don’t read sufficiently, let alone intimately, of our national literature? B.C.’s novels are representative of important developments in contemporary Australian fiction. They herald the emergence of a distinctive post-pastoral urban realism, with their mapping of paranoia in the urban landscapes and blah and blah and blah blah blah. A quagmire: How do you “teach” someone you know beyond their work? Secrets, and their keeping: They exhaust me. He is my friend. I neglect him. I Google him more than I talk to him. Another quagmire: What do you do when friends divorce? When a writer-friend’s writer-wife rings up, saying she has left, citing her own straying heart, claiming I would understand because I, too, had recently left my husband. That’s not true, I said; he left me. She never contacted me again after telling me she just could not put up with his writing anymore. He wrote all night. His insomnia was a form of selfishness, surely? I had no answer. B.C. and I often moaned about sleeplessness to each other when we were neighbors in London, drinking very hot coffee in Russell Square before the sun had bothered to come up properly. My husband had, indeed, left me, too: “Workaholic,” he said. He said I loved writing more than I loved him. Jesus. It’s an epidemic now, I thought, being pissed off at insomniac writers. As if it was fun to be that lost and lonely at 3 a.m. Sulkers. Unbelievers. Betrayers. All those god-awful nights have given us B.C.’s fabulous novels; now I know that the horrors of modern life are less a Kafkaesque nightmare than a sewage-back-in-Bondi dilemma: People swim in that shit all the time. I would say all these things if I were to write critically about B.C.’s work, which would be uncool considering our friendship. His last novel was published more than a decade ago, after he formally separated from his wife and before their youngest child was diagnosed with leukemia, an illness to which that little soul eventually succumbed. Years later, how many, do you think, of the emerging writers there in that room, on that Melbourne night, with the rain raining outside, had read B.C.’s many fine novels? I’d say none of them, at a guess. All that reaching and grasping and writing is grueling: Is it worth it, this exploration of self and nation? Was it worth it for B.C.? What does he hold closest now, while the rest of us follow his chase, now abandoned?


4. Why real estate agents are the scum of the earth

Boom boom! There is a used car salesman, a real estate agent and a lawyer, and you have a gun with two bullets: Which two people should you shoot? You should shoot the agent twice, just to be sure. All I can do is try a gentle socialist prayer to counter this cruelty. I have matured into a person who, having once owned a house, is now a hobo renter. I am that bad with my finances and that kind to ex-husbands. I am exactly like my poor students, always begging for a roof. What do real estate agents do with all those un-refunded bonds so dubiously withheld on the serious grounds of breaching rental agreements by the use of a thumbtack to secure a photo? In my little seaside village, people I once went to school with have these kinds of diabolical jobs. They are rich; they are fat; they are feared. They sell houses at five times their worth to desperate sea-changers and stalk aging local farmers to release their lands for stunning new housing estates that make you drive almost to Mars for a pint of milk, so disconnected and barren is their location. They bang your back and talk loudly about boys you used to kiss in high school while they stand atop the cracks in the poorly poured driveways, hiding the blemishes of crappy seaside architecture from you, then quickly change the topic when you ask if the rental income will truly meet the mortgage repayments on this enduring investment property, whispering that the kids next door have all won sponsorships from major surf companies. Byron Bay, for example, used to be full of artists and eccentrics and homosexuals, and now it’s full of cashed-up, boring baby boomers, and Lennox Head is choking with plumbers and builders and people who can generally afford million-dollar mortgages. So much for the surfers, let alone your odd poet or stray muso. I pray they take their money and go to hell. I hum “Immortal Souls,” that famous Russian burial hymn for the dead, sung after the revolution, when I pass one of them in the street. I remember the seriousness of social reformers in England, this time last century, when Parliament was lobbied to ask the Convocation to restore the socialist prayer composed by Archbishop Cranmer to the Common Prayer Book: It ascribes the ownership of all land to the Lord and implores its possessors to remember they are but the Lord’s tenants and may not “rack and stretch out rents, nor take unreasonable incomes.” We are all strange pilgrims in this world, but do we have to scrabble so? Pray. Pray. Give us the grace to be content with sufficient, “and not join house to house nor couple land to land to the impoverishment of others.” Yeah. Or you can just forget about that everlasting dwelling place. Amen. Because it just isn’t funny anymore, not being able to afford to live in your own homeland. And you, former friend, can forget me RSVPing to that school reunion invite, fatso.


5. The thing about sharks is this

Once, I was snorkeling in that high-class world heritage joint, Jervis Bay, on the south coast of New South Wales. My uncle had gotten lonely and started mucking around with yachts instead of women, and we had just finished a fine morning’s sailing. We anchored off Murray’s Beach (the only north-facing beach on the entire Australian eastern seaboard aside from Wategos in Byron), and while he put our picnic lunch in the dinghy and rowed it beachward, the rest of us snorkeled over. So perfect and otherworldly are the water and light there that it is impossible to gauge the depth with the naked eye, except by knowing how big a shark normally is and how small it appears on the screen of your goggles as it swims beneath. This didn’t have the squat nose of a Port Jackson shark. It was leaner, if still stout looking, with a pointier nose—a gray nurse. On this day of the sailing and snorkeling, I definitely knew more about the world beneath than I do now, as I had just come back from one of those startling, jovial dive-trips up on the Barrier Reef. I’d gone with a friend I didn’t know very well, and she had stayed in her hotel room with a gardener from our resort whom she’d met in the bar as soon as we arrived. While she was bonking her brains out each night, I read dive magazines and got a manicure and wondered what my husband was doing back in Sydney. My favorite thing to read about, as opposed to seeing in the water, was sharks. And there, weeks later, below us right now, was a beautiful gray nurse, about 100 meters down. I estimated that it was probably three meters long: pretty big for them. Too big anyway to cradle before sticking my fingers in its eye, was the first thought that came into my head. The second thought: Whom do I save? Ahead of me was my brother, and my husband was even farther from the shore than us, about 15 meters behind me. Neither of them had spotted Mrs. Nurse. I froze, deciding which way to turn, assuming I might not be able to warn both in time. Nurse sharks eat fish, and rays, and crabs, and octopus, but they also eat other sharks. And people. Lots of people think grey nurses [HF1] are harmless or that they attack only if provoked, but this is not correct. The female gray nurse has two uteri; in fact, that word—“uteri”—was probably invented for them. Why do they have two? Well, all the better to house the feeding orgy, I suppose: The baby sharks developing inside those twinned wombs eat each other until there’s only two left, one in each uterus. That’s not what I’d call harmless; I’d call that bloody impressive sibling rivalry. Scientist types call that kind of thieving nourishment “oophagy,” but “cannibalism” is a closer descriptive, wouldn’t you say? I know a bloke who gave up marine biology for banking after probing the belly of a beached nurse and having two fingers nipped off by one of the nasty twins inside. So I was not fooled by the lazy ambulation of the creature deep below; I was deadwood, already in mourning. Then she just turned and swam away. I saw a turtle. My husband caught up and snorkeled the rest of the way with his hand on my bum. My brother was already ashore. I did not allow my future young, born from my one uterus, to eat each other, but on that nearly fatal day, I did not think to save my husband first. And I have never wanted to kill my brother. These disappointments weigh like Biblical misdemeanors, always compromising my human record.


6. The truth about fire

After the bombing of Dresden in World War II, Dresdeners collected buckets full of golden wedding rings that survived their burnt owners. You can look at these today in museums, the names of their owners inscribed in these tiny, soft, golden tombstones, like lost apologies. For some reason, I had visited this story upon my children, and they were haunted by it. In the bright summer of 2007, we were on the last day of a four-day drive from Lennox Head to Melbourne so I could begin a new teaching post. When we crossed the Murray River from Albury in New South Wales over to Wodonga (which heralded the start of Victoria) then back onto the Hume Highway and could not see five centimeters in front of us due to the smoke from bushfires, tension started to mount in our little car: “Are you wearing your wedding ring, Mummy? Will we melt or explode?” As it turned out, we drove the last five hours of this journey in silence and fear, broken by occasional questions about fire and death ricocheting like bullets in the car. Was it safe to continue? Was the whole state burning? Why weren’t the police stopping us, warning us? We arrived in funky Melbourne, lost and lusting for the subtropics: not a good beginning to a new life. Two years later, the same thing happened on our way back from a summer up north, but this time, we had driven inland and crossed the border out by Swan Hill, trying to show the kids the big country. Same thing, same thing, except this time it was worse. We made it home late Friday night and thought the whole world was about to combust. It was so hot Saturday that the city’s power grid went down from excessive electricity consumption due to all the air conditioners. I tried to make the children less frightened of the heat, taking eggs from the fridge, showing it was possible to fry one on the cement of the driveway. Fried eggs à la cement for lunch on what came to be known as Black Saturday, when 173 people were burnt alive and hundreds more were injured. My friend wrote a poem about two girls who went to save their horses and never came back, and I cry each time I read it. Another friend, a musician mate from my ancient life, had huddled in a small ditch on his farm, with his wife and two toddlers, and his shirt had caught on fire as the wall of flame devoured his property, faster than you could imagine your own death. This story has not ended. People are still fighting with insurers, trying to rebuild their lives. Some of the students and staff on our outer-suburban campus, which is ringed by wild gum forests, were affected by the fires and are still traumatized. In such circumstances, it would be extraordinarily bad manners to suggest maybe we should not impose ourselves on the land in this way. Maybe fires are good and natural—and maybe 200 dead is not so big a deal. Tragedy either silences you or turns you into a loudmouth. I took up smoking again in an effort to bite my tongue. I was brimful with despair and conflicted emotions. Once, I drove through Dresden just days after the Berlin Wall fell. I lived in Pforzheim (in the then West), which had been the second most devastated city in Germany from bombing during World War II, with Dresden taking the flag. As our car fell into potholes as big as time machines in the main streets of that beautiful, bruised city, it was as though the war had ended only minutes earlier. The city was dark—well, not really, but the lighting was pre-war and dim and spooky and sexy. In bars, the locals, smiling all the time at the Western idiots, looked as if they wanted to rob us. I wanted to say to them, “We are your cousins: We have bled the same blood, our city had 17,000 dead in 11 minutes, fire-bombed by Bomber Harris as revenge for Coventry.” But I sat there, silent and blonde and dumb and foreign, drinking. There is a song about the bombing of Dresden: “Houses burn, and children scream/ the bombers keep on coming.” I could not get that mournful tune out of my head—“Bomber über Dresden / sie kamen in der nacht,” on and on I hummed, all day long, in between cigarettes, watching Melbourne mourn. Sometimes grief is not intelligent— neo-Nazis apparently like this song about Dresden’s bombing for the way it recapitulates Nazi propagandist themes of sacrifice and victimhood. I was not feeling smart; I cried for everyone. The whole world was burning, suffering. I had my mundane life to manage in between all this horror and history. Runaway teenage daughter. Twice in one day. While the bushfire smoke choked Melbourne, poor Melbourne, I was being strangled by love. Poor sad daughter, whose tears flooded no heat-cracked plains, only changed the color of city cement. She has lost her Papa to Germany. We squandered our love, he and I. Here I am in Australia with its Black Saturdays and soggy daughters and brown snakes and smoke: I am famous for my bad decisions. We all marry too often; if the gods decreed we had only one chance, our choices would be less haphazard, and the world would be less full of the poetic aftermath of human tragedy. Of course, poets have plenty to say about everything. Keats, for example, felt Wordsworth was narcissistic in his all-consuming quest to wed one’s self to nature. Keats believed in “negative capability,” in the erasure of the self as the only method of experiencing the world’s otherness. Burn, baby, burn. Meanwhile, while I figure this out, I must hunt for my daughter and let her spit at me, not necessarily a waste.


7. In praise of the commerce of alabaster

When I was a little girl in the final year of high school, my two best boyfriends, Peter and Martin, died in a car accident. They were on their way home from work, smoking a joint in the car, as you do after a hard day of plastering ceilings, and the idiot who was driving (not one of my friends, and the only one who survived) overtook another car on a corner and drove straight into a truck full of drums and guitars and keyboards and musicians on their way to Byron Bay from Sydney for a gig at the famous Beach Hotel. Totally unpleasant time in my life, beginning with the cancellation of the gig, to which we had all been looking forward. The boys were covered in white powder like angel dust, Mrs. Wotherspoon told me after she had identified her son Peter, my favorite favorite favorite boy in the world; my first true love. Angel dust or plaster, it was their only blanket taken to another world. Plaster is a beautiful thing; sometimes you can see through it, like a scrim curtain or a petticoat, to the object you really desire. You read about actresses whose skin is described as being like alabaster. If I were married to a woman like that, I would never stop touching her. I cannot touch my friends ever again. Poor Martin was my friend’s boyfriend, but I guess he spoke more to me than her, being my neighbor and former bus-seat buddy before he left school. Martin used to phone me up every single day—more than my real boyfriend—just to laugh and say, “Have I told you yet today that I love you?” and then hang up. Those were my beginnings. And endings. Australia is a tough place.


Have I told you yet today? Anything?

About the Author

Susan Bradley Smith

Susan Bradley Smith began her writing career as a journalist in Sydney and London. Recent publications include the memoir Friday Forever and her latest poetry collection, supermodernprayerbook. She lives in Melbourne and teaches in the English department at La Trobe University.

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