I HEAR THE CHOPPER GOING OVER

I HEAR THE CHOPPER GOING OVER

I rent an apartment that is not far from the centre of the city. The apartment is on a main road where trams run in the middle of the road and two lanes of cars go on either side of the tracks. We are not far from the zoo and I have sometimes heard what I take to be the roaring of the lions in the early hours of the morning. Opposite the apartment is a public hospital where the ambulances drive in and out, day and night, day in and day out. Police cars and fire engines drive along the road at high speed, flashing their lights and sounding their sirens. In the sky above the apartment I often see helicopters. There’s always plenty of noise from outside, and I keep the TV on to counteract it. Sometimes I don’t know whether the sirens are on the TV or coming from the outside world. Once when Diane who lives in the next apartment had locked herself out, she came in here to wait for her flatmate to come home. She sat on the sofa watching the news and I was making salad in the kitchen. When the ads came on Diane called out to me to come and look. See that girl advertising skim milk, Diane said, well she’s got a heart transplant. And guess whose heart it is really? I said I couldn’t guess. It’s my fiancé’s ex-wife’s brother’s heart. I asked her how she knew that and Diane explained that the brother died in a road accident and his heart was flown to the hospital across the road by chopper. The same night the girl with the skim milk got the heart. Must be his, Diane said.

When Diane and her fiancé get married they are going to move out to a house in a suburb as far away from here as possible. They are saving up to put a deposit on a house because they just couldn’t stand to bring up children in a place like this. Diane is frightened of the woman in the apartment across the hall, even though I have tried to tell her the woman is pretty harmless. The woman pins up notices on the door of her place saying things like, ‘Jews and Chinese Keep Out’ and ‘Meat is Murder’ and ‘Jesus wants YOU for a sunbeam’. Diane’s fiancé, Alan, is a helicopter pilot, and in December he gets to fly the Santa Clauses around to all the shopping plazas and sports ovals. Alan says that because of the stress that comes with their job the Santas drink. They get into the helicopter with their sacks full of scotch and they make Alan fly them round and round in circles while they get up the courage to go on with the job. The drink takes different ones in different ways; some get tearful and sentimental, and some get violent. Two of them have fallen asleep in the air, and once one had a mild heart attack and had to be flown to a bayside hospital. Diane told me these things about the Santa Clauses the night she was waiting for her flatmate with the key. By the time the flatmate, Bronwen, got home, Diane and I had eaten the salad and some chops and half a frozen cheesecake. When I was grilling the chops the woman from across the hall came over and started banging on the door with a wooden spoon. She always does that. You take not notice.

Bronwen sat down and told us about her day in the department store where she works as a Gift Wrapper and also as a Christmas Hamper Consultant. She got a special award for selling the most gift items aside from food items to go into the hampers. I asked her what sort of things went into hampers and she said everybody, just about, got straight-forward things like potted cheeses from England and special honey from the Holy Land. Then there were amusing things like chocolate-covered ants and pickled cactuses. But it’s easy, Bronwen said, to persuade people to include some jewellery and china and glassware and lingerie and linen and perfumery. One woman spent nearly $700 on a hamper that she sent to the people she had just bought a house from in a really beautiful area. The house cost $700,000 at the auction and the $700,000 explained the figure of $700 for the hamper, Bronwen said. When Diane and I said we didn’t get the connection, Bronwen told us the whole story. She said she heard the story from Kevin in Jams, Jellies and Imported Condiments.

The house had been completely restored before the sale, with new leadlights and carpets and ceiling roses. The garden was a showplace, and when the wisteria was in bloom people used to get out of their cars and take photographs. Once a bride asked if she could have her wedding photos taken in front of the wisteria, and one of the pictures appeared in Harper’s Bazaar as an ad for something. The people who sold the house loved it, and sold it to this woman who said she was going to love it too. The gave her spare tins of paint for touch-ups and left-over pieces of the carpet. But as soon as the woman had taken possession of the house she had it knocked down. Bronwen said such things are done these days as a matter of course, and so it was unusually kind of the buyer to send the people the hamper. The hamper contained a dozen Moët et Chandon and four tins of Scottish grouse, as well as chocolate-covered ants and a Norwegian mystery parcel. Bronwen said that when she told Mrs Pepper from Lingerie about all this at morning tea Mrs Pepper said $700 for knocking down a person’s house was nothing these days. She told Bronwen that people were paying $2000 for nighties for their mothers.

Bronwen gets a discount on everything she buys in the store and she got a set of brass things like ice tongs and bottle openers and corkscrews for Diane to give to Alan for Christmas. Some of these had dog heads, and some had bird heads. Bronwen said she had wrapped dozens of them for customers. She said she had also wrapped six step-ladders and one wheelbarrow. She did the ladders up to look like giraffes. Mrs Pepper from Lingerie said she should get a prize for her wrapping. Then Diane asked Bronwen if it would be possible to wrap up a helicopter. Diane’s idea was that she would arrive at the church on her wedding day in a chopper decorated to resemble a wedding bell. Bronwen said of course she could do it, but she didn’t think it was very good idea. When Diane asked her why not, Bronwen admitted that as a matter of fact whenever she saw a chopper going over it always reminded her of the angel of death. Diane said no, quite the opposite, and just at that minute the girl with the skim milk came on the TV and Diane said to take the instance of the girl in the ad. If it hadn’t been for the helicopter she wouldn’t have been alive; she wouldn’t have been able to get Alan’s ex-wife’s brother’s heart. Bronwen said she realised all that but she didn’t think a helicopter was the right note for a wedding. They were still arguing about this when they went next-door to their apartment. I think Diane will persuade Bronwen that the helicopter would be a good idea for the wedding. She has the example of the Santas on her side, and the argument about the girl in the skim milk ad is very hard to ignore.

(This story was published in my collection ‘The Common Rat’ 1993) 

 

Euthanasia and the Good Butler

The Good Butler

So mum, do you think this is really Nicole?

Nicole who?

Nicole Kidman.

Hmm, I’m not sure.

Or is it someone made up to look like her?

Or is it her made up to look like someone made up to look like her.

 

Caroline is the mum and Daisy is the daughter. Caroline has terminal cancer, and she’s got about six months to live. Perhaps a year, they say. She reads a lot of magazines. Daisy is showing her an advertisement where a glamorous woman in a deep red satin dress is stiffly posed on what could be a bed in a motel, staring into the camera half crossly, with a half smile and half sneer, as if she is thinking – get on with it you idiot. Or does she look a bit scared? It’s hard to tell really. She certainly looks uncomfortable, whoever she is. She has long blondish movie-star hair, groomed and falling over her shoulders. Long arms and hands, knobbly knuckles. Probably a wedding ring. High-high heeled shoes, coffee-coloured, lie carelessly on the carpet in the foreground . One leg dangling over the edge of the bed, stockings containing her toes in a little silken sack. And the shadow of her foot points to a message.

Look at what is says, mum. This is hilarious. It’s an ad for Etihad airlines. You don’t just travel First Class, you travel in a thing called ‘The Residence’.

Listen:

‘The Residence’

‘Three room retreat. Separate living room. Ensuite shower room. Double bedroom. Personal butler. Flying Reimagined.’

Caroline took the magazine from Daisy and read what it said. Her only comment was: No hyphens. I wonder why they don’t do the hyphens.

‘My God, this wouldn’t just cost an arm and a leg, they would have to take your heart and your liver as well. Kidneys too, said Daisy.

But Caroline had fallen asleep.

Daisy closed the magazine, added it to the pile of others on the broad table beside the bed, smoothed her mother’s rug, patted the pillows, patted her hands, kissed her lightly and left the room, taking the tray on which the tea had gone cold in the silver teapot, and where the delicate cress sandwiches lay almost untouched on the delicate green plate.

She sat in the nearby sunroom, looking out across the tops of two old apple trees that were busy with white blossom. She knew there were bees. Caroline would never see another spring. Daisy had a pot of hot coffee and a croissant. Her iphone was charging on the table in front of her. Whenever Caroline needed her she would send her a text. When she was a child with chicken pox she used to have a little brass bell from India beside her bed, and she could summon her mother or her father to her bedside. Her brother Dan got jealous and hid the bell in the garden where it turned up years later none the worse for wear.

She opened the newspaper and read:

‘Flight attendant union calls for UN women’s ambassador Nicole Kidman to stop endorsing Etihad Airways over claims its practices are discriminatory toward female staff.’

So it was Nicole in the picture. That cleared that up.

 

But the main news story was about the Germanwings A320. The picture on the front page showed a crumpled fragment of the plane. The jagged fragment bore a clear print of the German flag, bold bright black, red and yellow stripes. The whole thing resembled a battered cigarette packet, lying on a harsh grey slope. Dust.

 

‘The pilot at the controls of a Germanwings jet that crashed in the French Alps accelerated the plane into the mountainside, killing all 150 people on board, according to French investigators.’ She read.

 

Caroline was only dozing, drifting in and out of thought and memory and daydream. She had heard what Daisy said about selling your body to pay for The Residence. It would be more apt to sell you house. Then you could reside in the little air-borne house in the clouds. With the butler. The butler? Was that a title and a euphemism? Would he attend to you every need? Did sexual preferences apply? Or perhaps he could procure for you from a wardrobe or refrigerator of gorgeous men, women, trans-sexuals and pets. All tastes catered for, all things re-imagined. The butler did it. The butler made up to look like someone made up to look like the butler.

 

Her mind had become strangely fertile in recent weeks. It operated with a startling clarity, but moved into realms before unknown, or untapped. As her body faded, her imagination flourished. She had moved beyond fear into a weirdly manageable world of relentless fantasy. She even realized that this was ‘a stage’ of ‘the process’, and she made a decision to stay in the stage. They told her ‘life is a journey’, but in her private conversation with them, the conversation they never heard, she said ‘death is a journey’. And there were staging posts. She was going to remain forever in the stage of brilliantly-lit imagination. It was strange that Etihad spoke of ‘re-imagining’ even though they couldn’t quite get the hyphen. Caroline had always loved punctuation. The name ‘Etihad’ sounded like some sort of medication. Ten milligrams of Etihad with food.

 

She opened another magazine. There was the Nicole figure again. The interior of The Residence seemed to resemble a somewhat dreary motel in Sydney. Of course the butler would make a big difference. She turned a few pages and found a story about a house in New York that had been sold for sixty-hundred million American dollars. Was she reading straight? Yes, sixty-hundred million. Good grief! Now if you sold that you could fly round in The Residence for quite a while. Not that she knew how much The Residence would really cost.

 

Caroline owned her house – her husband had died some years before. She imagined selling the house which was probably worth about one million Australian dollars and taking off in the flying motel that was The Residence. With Jeeves, a lady’s gentleman. Of course. They talked about a ‘bucket list’. She had said she didn’t have one. Maybe she did. Maybe she could sell the house and go for a ride in The Residence. Then she really did fall asleep.

 

When she woke up, Daisy took her out into the sitting-room where they watched ‘The Antiques Roadshow’.

‘Look that teapot is almost exactly like mine,’ Caroline said.

And indeed it was.

‘Eight hundred pounds!’

Then they watched the News, and the leading story was about the airbus near Seyne-les-Alpes. An image taken from a helicopter – a leaden grey ravine in the base of which lay a fragment of the aircraft resembling a crumpled dark red handbag.

‘Imagine if that had been the Nicole Kidman plane, instead of a cheap German one,’ Caroline said.

‘Well it wouldn’t have made any difference.’

‘No, of course not. I just meant that the person in The Residence, and their butler, with all their Mouton Rothschild Pauillac 1982 could easily end up as a squish of DNA in the French Alps.’

 

And that is how the idea took hold. Caroline had always had bit of the gambler in her nature. A punctuator and a gambler. Other things besides of course, but they are probably irrelevant here.

 

In her bright imagination stage, she would lie in bed devising simple, oh it was so simple, plans to sell the house and buy a flight in The Residence on the chance that the pilot would fly into a mountain. The End. Did she spare a thought for the other passengers who would be unlikely to be intent on death by suicide-pilot? Actually, after the first excitement of the plan, she did.

 

Naturally she wasn’t silly enough to put any of this to Daisy – Daisy and her brother were supposed to be inheriting the house. How could she be so unkind as to deprive them? She seemed able to brush this thought aside. And gradually the second plan took hold of her. Not a gamble on having a suicide pilot. It was this: She would sell the house, pack her bags, take The Residence to somewhere and quickly make her way to Switzerland or Mexico or wherever she could find a good service from Doctor Death. Or perhaps, even better, perhaps the butler was in fact the answer. A good butler, yes, a good butler will do whatever you ask. Oh this was a bucket list and a half. She smiled a lot, and sometimes laughed aloud at the delicious fruits of her imagination. She recalled the old TV advertisements about AIDS – the Grim Reaper comes forward out of a swirl of eerie clouds, he cuts the family down. All fall down. Horrible. But the Good Butler. He comes with the goblet of Mouton, and there is quiet chamber music and Sevres crystal and he has the best cocktail ever and you lie back on the Residential motel blanket – dark red dress, long long blonde hair fresh from a blow dry blow dry sip and kiss and sip and you sip and you sip and you drift and I sip and I drift and the apple blossom clouds drift by and by and bye-bye bye-bye.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PROLOGUE to FAMILY SKELETON

Prologue by the Storyteller

 

Imagine you have a talking skeleton in the wardrobe. That’s me. I still have my own teeth.

Once upon a time, in the years between the great wars, there was born a baby girl named Margaret. This happened in the artistic atmosphere of Eltham in the shire of Nillumbik, twenty kilometres to the north-east of Melbourne. Margaret’s childhood was happy, although during some of it the whole world was at war for the second time. When Margaret grew up she married Edmund who was a very distant cousin, and she went to live in the wealthy atmosphere of Toorak in the city of Stonnington, five kilometres to the south-east of the Melbourne Town Hall. And lived happily ever after. You think so? There was happy and there was sad. Life’s like that. Even Cinderella died in the end. Margaret and Edmund had four children, and in the way of things, before he was quite seventy years old, Edmund died. So Margaret lived alone in the lovely old house built by Edmund’s father. She was known as a philanthropist and patron of the arts, and people from the news media would sometimes come round with various recording devices and would then tell stories about her and her good works and her pretty family life in Toorak. These stories didn’t get very far beneath the surface. How could she possibly be as good as she seemed? One morning she said to her faithful housekeeper, Lillian: ‘I think I’ll write my memoirs.’

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Family Skeleton is published by University of Western Australia Publishing

THE MATTER OF THE MOSQUE

                                                The Matter of the Mosque

Week One: Hairspray or Mousse

Carly and Tara and Kelly are sitting on the floor. Each has a brush in her hand, and they are all brushing their little daughters’ hair. The children sit with heads bowed, very still, legs crossed, hands gripping their feet. The feet are in pale pink ballet slippers. Legs covered with the powdery cloth of ballet tights. Silky black leotards, skimpy skirts, crossover tops with long sleeves concealing skinny little arms.

‘Sometimes, I can’t decide which is better, hairspray or mousse,’ Carly says. Her daughter Peyton shifts a fraction sideways on the carpet.

‘I know. Sometimes I reckon it’s the spray,’ says Tara as she slowly draws the brush from Nevaeh’s forehead towards the centre of her skull.

‘I love spray,’ says Kelly, holding the brush in the air above Cadence’s head.

Sunlight entering in strips through the half-closed slat blind, falls on the hands and the hairbrushes, and on the smooth round surfaces of the children’s heads. All heads glint dark gold. There could be a halo around one of the heads.

More small girls flutter in with their mothers. One father. He’s a paramedic. The air in the room wriggles and shifts while he unzips his daughter’s jacket, and positions the child on the floor where she waits quietly for the door to the studio to open. He leaves, a handsome shape in navy blue with badges.

Week Two: The Blazer and the Common Cold

‘So is Cadence going to Vincent Street next year?’

‘Yes, we enrolled. They’re restoring the old assembly hall.’

‘So they’ll all be at school together then.’

‘Did you get the uniform list?’

‘I did. Now I need to get the name tags done. How many prep classes are there?’

‘Two I think.’

‘I like the summer dress, don’t you?’

‘It’s OK I suppose. How about the blazer though? Why do they have to have that great big blazer?’

‘Yes it’s so expensive.’

‘And thick and heavy.’

‘Good in the winter.’

‘Not as good as a fleece. In my opinion.’

‘It’s traditional. They’ve always had it. I went to Vincent Street. We had the blazer.’

‘Same thing?’

‘Exactly the same thing. I hated it.’

‘Has Peyton got a cold then?’

‘They all have. Mum had it and they all got it.’

‘Nevaeh’s had one all the winter.’

‘Cadence seems to have a permanent sniffle. I don’t know.’

The other mothers and children are wafting in. Snot running out of noses. The paramedic comes, ruffles the edges of the air, leaves his daughter, and goes.

 Week Three: The Cake and the Twins

‘Is your mum making the cake for Cadence’s party?’

‘She’s already done it. It’s Elsa. She had to cut the legs off the doll.’

‘Well she would I suppose.’

‘She left them on the table at my place and the cat decided to play with them.’

‘You ought to throw them out.’

‘Oh I will. But everything’s pretty hectic. My sister just had twins. Boy and girl.’

‘God! But she already had twins.’

‘I know. Crazy isn’t it?’

‘What’d she call them this time?’

‘She’s into magic and goddesses and stuff.’

‘So what’d she call them?

‘Jataya and Isis. One’s an Indian eagle man and the other one’s Egyptian. I think. A goddess.’

‘Really pretty. Where’s the party?’

‘Its going to be at Scallywags. Peyton’ll get an invitation. And Cadence. We’re actually sending them in the mail. Old style.’

‘Nice.’

Other mothers, children, paramedic, coming and going.

 

Week Four: Costumes and The Matter of the Mosque

‘So did you get the costumes for the concert?’

‘Yes, Peyton’s is a bit big.’

‘Same here.’

‘I got mum to take it in a bit.’

‘I thought I’d do that too.’

‘Cadence is always looking in the mirror at home, doing the doll dance.’

‘Yes, they love the doll dance.’

‘You live round the corner, don’t you, from the – ah – mosque.’

‘We’ll have to move of course. They park all over the nature strip. Blocking the drive. And those prayer calls all the time. Waking up the children, setting off the dogs.’

‘And the way they treat women.’

‘AK 47s.’

‘Well, yes. You only have to watch the news to see what they’re like.’

‘No way they’re getting their hands on our girls.’

       Raping, murdering, hacking off heads, guns, those sword things, bombing, looting, executing innocent children. Ours was a peaceful neighbourhood until they got their fucking bloody hands on everything in sight. Terrorists. We have to move. God knows where we’ll go. Moving’s so expensive too. Torture. Raping and murdering and hacking to death.

Mothers, children, paramedic.

Week Five: Nothing Works for Nits

‘I need to warn you, Cadence’s got nits. Everyone at her kinda’s got them. I’ve tried everything.’

‘Only thing that works is using the comb and squashing them with your fingers. I’ve spent hours.’

‘Me too. Hours.’

‘Of course we can’t cut their hair because of ballet, can we.’

‘Right.’

‘There’s nothing you can do.

‘Nothing.’

‘I thought maybe hairspray would help.’

‘Not really.’

‘No, nothing helps.’

Carly and Tara and Kelly are sitting on the floor. They are brushing the children’s hair until it is smooth and can be twisted into a tight, tight bun. Then they wind a filmy net around the bun and jab in several golden pins. Other children drift in. Other mothers. Handsome paramedic and his daughter. Sunlight slants through the slats of the blind, falls on the heads of the children. Glints. Halo. Like a blessing.

(This story will be published in the next issue of ‘Antipodes Journal’, and will also be published in my November 2017 EBOOK collection of eight stories ‘The Dead Aviatrix’.)

EXTRACT FROM NOVEL ‘THE BLUEBIRD CAFE’

 

A LETTER TO CHARLES DICKENS

Extract from The Bluebird Café

(Letter written in the 1950s by Virginia O’Day, who is seventeen, an aspiring novelist, as she sits in the nineteenth century library at The Palace Hotel in the remote town of Copperfield, Tasmania. Virginia is suffering from anorexia. She survives.)

Dear Sir,

I have recently come to stay with relatives in the town of Copperfield, which is on the far north-west coast of the island of Tasmania. I will be spending much of my time in the library of a friend, Mr Philosopher Mean. It is called The Charles Dickens Library. In this library are all your books bound in leather, and there is also a lovely painting of you sitting in your chair, with many of your characters floating in the air around you. I have been reading ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, and I must tell you that the sound of the name ‘Drood’ echoes my feelings because I am moody and drooping and brooding.

I should explain to you that I am not simply a reader and a student of writing, but an aspiring novelist.

As I read ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ my mind kept returning to thoughts of you, the creator of the novel. I somehow summoned the courage to write to you in this way, and I hope I am not being troublesome. I tried to imagine how the writing of the novel might have fitted into your life. And then I imagined how my unwritten books will fit into my life.

When I wrote the words ‘my life’ I saw at once that I should try to describe to you my life, which is, I must warn you, practically non-existent. I am seventeen years old. This island where I live used to be called Van Diemen’s Land. The old name will certainly mean something to you because of your interest in the lives and fates of prisoners. It was first populated by white people who were looking for a safe place to put their convicted criminals as far away from England as possible. Because of this, the island was for a long time a Very Very sad place. I have always been struck by the name ‘Diemen’ which is close to the word ‘demon’, and by the presence in the subsequent name ‘Tasmania’ of the word ‘mania’. The names evoke a demon madness that I am inclined to think is present here.

One of my ancestors and four of his brothers were sent here from Cork for setting fire to a house and several barns. This part of the history of my family is never mentioned and is a complete secret, a source of dreadful shame. If my father knew I was revealing this to you he would probably kill me. You may wonder how he could do this, and you may consider that I am being fanciful when I say that he would probably wall me up in the cellar of our house. The ancestor of whom I write was Martin O’Day who was a well-behaved prisoner, and he was pardoned and given a grant of land on which he eventually built a lovely house called Goodwood, and where he raised sheep. Although my family are ashamed of him, I personally wish he had been a more colourful convict. I wish he had been one of the ones who escaped and became a ‘bushranger’. They were more romantic than the ones who behaved themselves and became respectable. What do you think?

I may say I have never revealed this to anybody before. It occurs to me that it is even possible my father and other members of the family don’t even know about it. There is nobody who shows the same interest in the details of the past as I do. You will wonder how I know the secret myself. Well when I was twelve I went to Hobart for a holiday. While I was there I spent a lot of time at the museum, and in some old faded documents that nobody ever looked at I read the names of a group of prisoners who arrived here from Cork in 1820. Among them were Martin, Matthew, Thomas, Joseph and James O’Day. My ancestor and his brothers. Their crime was also listed. I was shocked but excited and secretly pleased. Our stuffy respectable present is terribly dull, and I was thrilled to learn of some action and daring in out past. I should explain that my father is a surgeon and my uncle with whom I am staying in Copperfield is the manager of the copper mine. I have other uncles who are lawyers and town councilors. One uncle I have never met, and who is never discussed, is a hermit and probably an alcoholic who lives in a hut at a disused tin mine. I believe he used to share the hut with a Chinese woman, but she died.

My grandfather once told me that Martin was given the land at Westbury where he built Goodwood in 1825. Then I read in a book at the library that two ex-prisoners were granted land in the Westbury district in that year. So it all fits. There is a nice thing I know about Goodwood: they used to keep peacocks there as watchdogs, and the call of the peacocks was very effective when bushrangers or blacks tried to raid the farm. So that was a rather romantic detail from my family’s past. However the present is truly dull and stifling. My father wants me to become a schoolteacher, but I would rather die. I want to write novels, and by great good luck I have the chance to spend my days in this library where I can read and write. I have decided to make a study of your work – not only because I admire and enjoy it very much, but because I hope my reading will instruct me and inspire me in my own work.

I loved the first paragraph of ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ where the ten thousand scimitars flash in the sunlight and thrice ten thousand dancing-girls strew flowers. Not to mention the white elephants caparisoned in gorgeous colours. I loved it so much I copied it into my commonplace book. Also the second paragraph of Chapter Three where you mention the children who grow small salad in the dust of dead abbots and abbesses. You have observed so much, and you have such an exciting way of describing what you have observed. You have invented so many ways of doing things in your novels, and I know that I will also have to invent new ways. Many of your characters have become household words, so that ‘Scrooge’ for instance is a synonym for ‘miser’.

I have so much to read and so much to reflect on, and so much to write. I am longing for the day when I can hold my own book in my hand. When that day comes I will most certainly send a copy to you.

I am your sincerely, Virginia O’Day

(‘The Bluebird Café’ is published by New Directions, New York)

MY HEARTS ARE YOUR HEARTS

In the Beginning

In one of the tents at Adelaide Writers’ Week, Antony Elmer read from his latest novel, answering questions from a large audience of keen journalists and adoring fans. It was hot in the tent, there in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens, and Antony sweated, the audience sweated, but it was worth it. He was brilliant. In another tent, Viviana Vincent did much the same, ditto the journalists and fans, except while her audience also poured with sweat, Viviana appeared cool (also calm and collected). Antony’s novel, his seventh, was what is called ‘literary’, and it concerned a murder in Oxford in the 1990s. Viviana’s was the latest in her Venus McVicker romances. The audiences in the two tents were different. Antony’s lot was drawn from what is called the intelligentsia, and was clearly male, fellows packing down with the big boys. A smattering of women, mostly middle-aged. Viviana’s people were predominantly women, women of all ages, their faces alight with excitement at being so close to the darling of their reading groups and book clubs. Antony’s books sold very well, were warmly reviewed in all the best papers and journals, won prizes; Viviana’s sold in fantastic numbers. They were ecstatically reviewed (in women’s magazines). They did not win prizes.

Who is Antony?

Antony Winston Elmer was born in Canterbury in 1949. At Oxford he studied Medieval History. He has been married three times, his current wife being the celebrated TV presenter Minki Sackville. He has four sons and three daughters (the youngest daughter is screen actress Leaf Bath-Dickens). Three of his novels have been short-listed for the Booker Prize. Two have been made into films: The Clear Spring and The Mourning of Exiles.

Who is Viviana?

Viviana Maria Vincent was born in Hobart in 1960, named after her mother’s favourite aunt. ‘It’s a lovely old-fashioned name, darling, a romantic name. Your great aunt was a very romantic lady.’ The name was tailor-made for a writer of romance, and, as fate, luck, or destiny would have it, that’s what Viviana became. Her Venus McVicker novels took off, and Viviana was a success, a sensation, a star. Fortunately she had a heart-shaped face, a dazzling smile, long lustrous chestnut curls, long legs, a lithe and seductive body. A lilting speaking-voice. A certain wit and charming manners. Clothes loved her, the camera loved her also. She was a true gift to any publicist.

She lives, her biography will tell you, in a rambling Georgian house overlooking the Derwent River on the outskirts of Hobart in historic Tasmania. With, it says, her husband (childhood sweetheart – can this be true? It is.) Her children (a film-maker, a barrister and a sculptor) all live overseas. There is soon to be a baby grand-daughter. (Imagine!) Viviana and husband Will also have a most beautiful house in Provence. The children are called Xenia, Yvonne and Zac. VWXYZ. Yes. Please don’t give this a moment’s thought.

The Novels

The latest St Valentine’s Day was heralded on long banners in airports across the world, alongside, as it happened, banners shouting out Antony’s title Carnival of Lust. When people stopped at the airport bookshops, the two books were dropped into separate bags, and they left on different arms. Supermarkets discounted both. It has to be said that St Valentine’s Day outsold Carnival of Lust in the supermarkets. But the latter novel was going to win important prizes; the former, naturally, was not. Viviana has read several of Antony’s novels; Antony would not be seen dead reading any of hers.

In the Book Tent

After the sessions in the tents, Viviana and Antony (she in pale green silk and sandals, him in white jeans, white shirt, pale blue linen jacket, bright pink face and panama hat) were shepherded by their publishers to the table in the Book Tent where they would sign the books bought by their fans. They sat side by side, some distance from each other, and each had a glass of chilled champagne. Queues of readers wanting books signed snaked round the tent and out the door. Viviana’s queue was longer than Antony’s, but not by so very much. Some equal opportunity readers carried both books, and would lean across from one writer to the other for a signature. I probably don’t have to tell you that Viviana signed her books in deep juicy pink, with a fountain pen. Antony also signed with a fountain pen – his ink was black. Velvety black. Both pens were Mont Blanc. His was the Mark Twain Limited Edition; hers the Boheme Pirouette Lilas. (You’d better believe it.)

All this is as it should be, as is to be expected. Viviana’s publisher had provided a large silver bowl, and in the bowl were chocolate hearts, covered in scarlet foil. These were for Viviana to offer to her fans when they handed her a book for signing. When Antony reached across and slid the bowl towards himself, then offered the hearts to his readers, Viviana (surprised) simply smiled and said: Be my guest. My hearts are your hearts. (She really hated bad manners, and his were pretty bad.) I think I said Viviana’s smile was dazzling. Antony caught the ping! of it right between the eyes, and that, as far as Antony was concerned, was that. His biography might not say so, but perhaps it suggests the idea that Antony was susceptible to a pretty face and a long leg and a dazzling smile. Chestnut curls were also very nice. He wasn’t good at telling one perfume from another, but the miasma of ‘Josephine’ that drifted across to him from Viviana was having a bit of a funny effect on him too. He rather liked her ghastly colonial accent, in a way.

After the Book Tent

When all that was over, the two stars and their publishers returned to the hotel. Showered and changed into fresh cream shirt (him) fresh grey cotton sundress and small diamond earrings (her) they found themselves (fate, luck, destiny etc) side by side again in the lounge, drinking chilled white wine and nibbling from bowls of nuts. Publishers and publicists and journalists and fans had all melted away. You can’t count on a fan or two not turning up again, but for the time being Viviana and Antony were in a soft leather sofa world of their own.

Now I haven’t told you before about the fact that Viviana, for all the views of the Derwent River and the adorable house in Provence, sometimes felt – how shall I put this – bored by the very idea of Will. Particularly when she was alone at a festival in the company of a wolf like Antony. (I believe I suggested he was a wolf.) Yes, this princess of romance was not above slipping upstairs with a troubadour of the Oxford college. You are saying – oh, for heaven’s sake, she’s fifty something and he’s ten years older. What is going on? You must try not to be ageist. They make rather a handsome couple there in the subdued glow of the hotel lounge, in their nice fresh clothes, with, now, a bottle of Mister Big Mouth Pinot Grigio on the low table between them. Viviana ordered it as a joke – Antony chuckled. It was a good joke, and a very nice drop.

In the light of, in the face of their differences – and these were several, not least the nature of their writing, and their idea of manners – they were getting along quite nicely. Antony is in the habit of coming straight to the point. No use wasting precious time on beating about the bush. We could have dinner later? He says. And she says – Yes let’s have dinner later. And he says – You want to come up to my room? She thinks for a minute and says – Well, why don’t you come up to mine? When we’ve finished this?

So they finished the bottle and went up to Viviana’s room. They ordered champagne which fortunately came with lots of nuts and olives and things on skewers. And he said – St Valentine’s Day – is that about a massacre? And she said – Carnival of Lust – is that about Venice or about animals madly mating in the Adelaide Zoo? (I never said either of these people was particularly witty.) He hadn’t expected that. He said – once I won the Bad Sex award you know. And she said – Was that for a book or for some terrible thing you did in bed? He said – Probably a bit of both. And she said – Well I think you can have the Good Sex Award today. And afterwards they had a long bath together and drank the champagne and nibbled on the nuts and things. They didn’t ever have dinner, but they ordered some of the tandoori chicken open sandwiches for which the hotel was renowned – and Tony also gobbled up some of the chocolate bars from a basket on top of the mini-bar.

Now when Viviana indulged in these episodes, she thought very little of it all, and returned refreshed to Will in the lovely old house overlooking the Derwent River. But Antony was, in fact, more romantic than she was. He wanted to see her again. Maybe in Provence some time? Maybe one day soon in the house overlooking etc etc. But after breakfast which they shared in the sitting room of Viviana’s suite, before some journalists were due in her room and also in his, she said no to Provence and no to the house on the Derwent, and said she had to hurry now. The hairdresser was coming. So she kissed him softly at the door. And handed him a small paper bag containing six chocolate hearts, wrapped in scarlet foil.

 

 

 

 

The DEAD AVIATRIX and the STRATEMEYER SYNDICATE

 

This is the title story of my 2017 ebook titled just The Dead Aviatrix, published by Spineless Wonders. 

The aviatrix sat looking on through all this tumult with a happy smile.

Now once upon a time – to tell the truth it was 1922 – there was a survey conducted in America. Yes, they checked out, I believe, the reading habits of 36,000 children and discovered that most of the books children were reading were produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. But the nature, and even the existence of the Syndicate didn’t really become public until the late 1970s when the Syndicate was involved in a court case over copyright. The intelligent Edward Stratemeyer had realized that children were less interested in reading for moral instruction than in reading for thrills and pleasure. So he turned this realization into a fortune based on an assembly line of millions of exciting stories, beginning in 1899 with The Rover Boys. And maybe you remember the Bobbsey Twins – they were Stratemeyer inventions. And Nancy Drew of course. Edward wrote under many pseudonyms, and he also had ghost writers who were sworn to secrecy.

Now one of the series, written under the name of Margaret Penrose, was The Motor Girls. Intrepid girls with cars. I am interested here in a title The Gipsy Girl’s Secret. Here is the synopsis, short version:

“On a camping trip to the Adirondacks, the Motor Girls become involved in a mystery involving a Gypsy girl and a stolen purse.”

Quite a lot of involving there.

I set out to tell you the tale of the Dead Aviatrix, and in the process I discovered a quotation from The Gipsy Girl’s Secret, and then I uncovered the fascinating history of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and became a Productively side-tracked. Anyhow, this was the quote:

“The aviatrix sat looking on through all this tumult with a happy smile.” I liked it – see above. You don’t often come across the word ‘aviatrix’ you see. I have had half the title of this story you are reading for some years now, have had the story ready to tell, but it wasn’t until I got onto Edward and his Syndicate that I discovered how to go about it. So that was a bit of a preamble. Here is the story. It’s a publishing story.

Characters: Finch One (Aviatrix)

Finch Two

Publishing Person (PP)

Airhead Intern

Ron

I do apologise for the term ‘airhead’, but I don’t know of an alternative that fits the case – well in fact I do know some, but airhead is the nicest.

Finch One, you will be happy to learn, was a famous Australian aviatrix. At last, the Aviatrix. Like the Motor Girls before her, she was intrepid, a flying pioneer. She was born five years after the Motor Girls made their appearance in A Mystery of the Road. And unlike the great and mysterious Amelia she did not disappear in the skies, but died in the fullness of time in 2009. Needless to say she produced an autobiography The Flying Girl which, while it did not attract those 36,000 American children, was a very pleasing account of a vital chapter in Australian history, and had a nice little echo of The Flying Nun. In her final years Finch One lived in a charming and romantic house that nestled in the trees at the top of a cliff looking down on the waters of Sydney Harbour. The only access to the house was by water, and by a long, steep unforgiving stone staircase. Finch One was ever agile, but you will probably have realized that.

Now while Finch One was happily fading away at the top of her pretty cliff, Finch Two was herself quite busy in her bushland retreat writing a book. Let’s call this one The Novel. Matters were quite advanced, and Finch Two was waiting for the parcel in the mail that would be the final proofs for her attention. And they didn’t come and they didn’t come. In those days Ron the postman would knock on the window of Finch Two’s study, would hand in parcels of all kinds, and Finch Two would say to him – oh, nothing yet from the Publisher Person, is there, Ron? And Ron would open his eyes wide and say – No, Finch, nothing from there. And Finch Two would give him a chocolate anyway. And so time went by and time went by, and one day, the PP took to the telephone and spoke sharply to Finch Two saying – So where are the proofs. We need to go to print tomorrow. We sent them three weeks ago.

NB: Finch One has died by this time.

And we are involved in a bit of a mystery about the proofs.

So now is the time for a flashback. Remember that Intern? Airhead Intern? Yes, well there she was with a pile of parcels to take to the mail room. So much to think of, so much to do, tattoos to consider, a new bikini, an appointment with the footbinder etc etc. She quickly flew through the addresses on the database, attaching sticky labels to parcels, zip zip slip slop slap then off to the mailroom and out into the sunshine grab a coffee get the nails done sniff a little coke. Rave.

The manuscript of The Novel was, as you will have realized by now, addressed to Finch One, author of The Flying Girl, at the top of the winding stone stairs in the trees, on the cliff, looking over the sparkling waters of the celebrated Harbour. If Ron had been leaping up those stairs, he would have knocked on the window in vain. Alas, the parcel was, strangely, not returned to sender. Could it be that Airhead had not registered a return address? This is possible. Probable. There is, at the end of the rainbow, a place called the Dead Letter Office. And there the proofs of The Novel reside to this day.

PP got cracking and new proofs were sent to Finch Two under her supervision to the trusty hands of Ron who duly delivered them to the window of the studio and in due course The Novel was published as if by magic. Airhead was awarded a PhD in Writing and Editing, and went on to become an important person in the mysterious world of publishing. The Aviatrix sat looking down on all this tumult, from her gallant machine in the sky, with a happy smile.