UNDERSTATEMENT – from ‘Dear Writer Revisited’ 


One of the most useful and powerful devices for the fiction writer is understatement. You tell the reader less so that the reader knows more. Instead of having everything spelt out, the reader is given, in a very careful way, just enough information for the imagination to go to work. From understatement the reader can derive great pleasure and satisfaction.

In popular fiction, and in romantic fiction, for instance, understatement is rarely used. This kind of fiction is often an exercise in overstatement. I will give you an example of overstatement from a romantic novel, and then two examples of understatement. All three pieces of writing are meant to give the reader an image of a man and a woman embracing. The images in the second and third “literary” examples are achieved only in the mind of the reader, whereas in the first one the romantic writer explains things graphically for the reader. Many readers love this kind of writing. How you do things depends on what effect you are aiming for. I generally prefer understatement myself.


“He advanced towards her with a purposeful expression, and she backed away, laughing, trying without success to ward him off with her hands. He caught her to him and kissed her, bending her dramatically over his arm like a twenties film heroine, and exploring her lips unmercifully until she could do nothing but wind her arms around his neck and kiss him back.”

—Daphne Clair


“And by the harbour, in the midst of the wagons and barrels, at every street corner, the citizens opened their eyes wide in amazement at the spectacle, so extraordinary in a provincial town, of a carriage with drawn blinds, continually reappearing, sealed tighter than a tomb and being buffeted about like a ship at sea. Once, in the middle of the day, when they were right out in the country and the sun was beating down at its fiercest on the old silver-plated carriage-lamps, an ungloved hand stole out beneath the little yellow canvas blinds and tossed away some scraps of paper, which were carried off on the wind and landed like white butterflies in a field of red clover in full bloom. At about six o’clock the cab drew up in a side-street in the Beauvoisine quarter, and a woman got out; she walked away with her veil lowered, and without a backward glance.”

—Gustave Flaubert

“In town, the lights were going on, and we were sitting on the bank on the other side of the river, and we were full of what they call love, that rough discovering and seeking of each other, that sharp taste of one another—you know, love.”

—Italo Calvino

Of the Flaubert quotation from ‘Madame Bovary’ I think it’s fair to say that once you have read it, you will never forget it. The imagery is so vivid and sexual, and your imagination is given the chance to see what is going on inside the carriage without your being told about who did what to whom.

Take a scene from your work, and rewrite it in two ways, first using overstatement and then understatement. You will see how dramatically the use of understatement can affect your work. You could try showing the two versions to your potential readers to see how each version is received. Don’t be surprised if people seem to prefer the overstated version. Reading understatement requires the reader to do more work than reading overstatement. It depends on which kind of readers you are looking for, but it also depends on what kind of stories you want to write, and what kind of stories you enjoy reading most yourself.

This is an extract from ‘Dear Writer Revisited’ published 2014 by Spineless Wonders

Now Ida Haunts the Car Park

In November 2017 I was invited to launch an art exhibition inspired by the motifs of fairy tales. In a glass cabinet there was a book illustrated by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, an illustrator of the early twentieth century. Here is a story I wrote about Ida, first published by Bruce Pascoe in ‘Australian Short Stories’ in 1994.


In certain lights you can see the impression of a vanished building hanging in the air. The towers and turrets and chimneys of what appears to be a fairy castle may come into view in the mad blue flash of lightning or at the turning point of dusk or dawn. You look up, uncertain of what you have seen, and it is gone, a fanciful silver image fading on the square reality of day, the strange obscurity of night. You imagine you might have glimpsed movement behind the tower window – a hand, the turn of a head, the gentle swaying of a velvet curtain. In the very dead of night it is sometimes possible to catch on the ear the sound of vanished laughter or the faintest tinkle of a bell.


A paving stone under your foot tells you in bold gold type that on this site there stood a college for young ladies, founded, it says on the stone, in 1875, demolished in 1966. In place of the absent castle is a vast white assembly hall where gatherings of men meet to perform occult rituals. Nearby, the Day Procedure Centre of a hospital in which human babies can be brought into being by astonishing modern technology and thought.


Deep in the earth underneath these visible buildings is a place for parking cars, a kind of layer cake joined through the middle by an elevator. The elevator has a voice all of its own, a disconcerting hollow voice, announcing in its strange blank way the names of all the elevator’s destinations, such as ‘basement three’ or ‘ground level’. Underneath the very bottom of the car park is a little stream of running water which connects this world with the next.


Young ladies who vanished long ago, taking their easels and their violins and their tennis racquets, sometimes come back to this place of happy memory, of former life. Girls such as Ida or Nellie or Henry – an odd name for a girl, but she is a writer, and the times being what they are or were, she felt the need for a man’s name in a man’s world. In one of Henry’s books she told the story of her schooldays – the title of the book was The Getting of Wisdom. These days Henry haunts the State Library where she is doing the research for a trilogy to be published at the turn of the present century. It will be a great Australian saga (inspired by events that have taken place since 1950) produced on CD rom. The title of this one is, you will have guessed, The Forgetting of Wisdom.


Nellie is an opera singer who was celebrated throughout the world. On odd occasions she has spent an evening in the car park elevator, singing the ‘basement one-two-three’ and ‘ground level’ lyrics to the astonishment of the public. Many of the people who heard her were returning from the bars nearby, and so they were inclined to treat her as an hallucination, a large woman in a beaded gown singing in the elevator. In nineteen hundred and seven, Nellie was the President of the Old Collegians Association, and when she materialised on the other side she was re-elected to this position for eternity. The Association is one of the most active organisations on the other side of the water. It is in fact as a member of the Old Collegians that Ida haunts the car park. It is her job to see that the presence of the old school is maintained on the spot.


Ida is a painter. She does delicate pictures of fairies with the fabulous wings of butterflies and other insects. She has illustrated books for children, and once was asked to paint her joyful pictures on the walls of schools and hospitals. Dressed as a fairy in a dark blue tea-gown, she haunts the hospital and the car park. There is a bright hint of mischief in her eyes which sparkle. She carries a large handbag that is shaped like a butterfly’s wing, embroidered with silks the colour of the sunset and studded with sapphires from the heavens and pearls from the depths of the sea. In her handbag she keeps a wand made from a long stalk of evening primrose, and a telephone of morning glory. The technology of these things is primitive in the extreme – the telephone must be connected to the bright blue fire extinguishers in the car park before it will work. The evening primrose has the power, when waved, to stop the elevator between floors. Before doing a tour of the hospital, Ida always gives Nellie a call to let her know she has arrived safely.


Ida’s outline behaves like that of the old school building – now you see her, now you don’t. However, one day she discovered that people who are suffering from the pain of a lost love are gifted with the sight to see her in all her radiance and beauty.


She was standing in the elevator, wincing at the hollow sound of ‘basement three’ when a distinguished-looking fellow with silver hair and sad pale eyes got in. The white silk scarf around his neck slipped and slithered to the floor. He seemed distracted, didn’t appear to notice that the scarf had fallen. Without thinking, Ida stooped down and picked it up. She then realised he could see her, and she knew therefore he must be suffering. She handed him the scarf, he smiled sadly, the corners of his lovely eyes crinkling as he did so. Ida’s heart missed a beat and she felt she had to act at once. She whisked out her evening primrose and there, between the ground and basement one, the elevator settled gently to a halt.


‘I do believe we’re stuck,’ he said. And he began to press the buttons on the wall. Nothing happened. They introduced themselves – his name was Lawrence, Lawrence Honey – and he explained he was on his way to Lodge. Which Lodge is that, she asked in innocence, and he told her he belonged to a society called the Invisible Lodge. She said she liked the name of that, and then she explained she was a volunteer, a visitor to the hospital. He said he hoped she didn’t suffer from claustrophobia, stuck there in the elevator, hanging by a thread between the floors. She said she wasn’t frightened. My ex-wife, he said, and tears came to his eyes, my ex-wife Georgina was terrified of things like this. She was very young – always insisted that we use the stairs. As you can see, I miss her. You must excuse me, he added, and took out his handkerchief and wiped away his tears, and then he opened up his attache case and took out a silver flask from which he drank. A nip? he said, and handed it to Ida. She took a swig of brandy and felt it go straight to her head. They both began to laugh, and then he offered her a bite of his peanut butter sandwich. My secretary, he said, always insists that I bring a sandwich with me on Lodge night. She’s a most practical woman – makes the sandwich for me. I think you’ll find it satisfactory. And it was.


We’re moving – are we moving? he said this several times and Ida felt it prudent to give the evening primrose an imperceptible wave. The elevator slid gently into motion and they arrived at the ground floor. The security guard at the front desk woke up from a little dream he had been having, unaware that on his elevator monitor he had just missed something that resembled a scene from a silent movie – a man and a woman both in evening dress having a sort of picnic between floors.


Ida found that her imagination was gripped by Lawrence. Ida had fallen in love in that brief time between the ground floor and basement one. She was moved also by the thought of the obvious cruelty of his ex-wife Georgina. Ida would comfort Lawrence; he would not have to weep again. She dashed down to a fire extinguisher and plugged in her morning glory. Nellie, Nellie, she said, all excitement. I’m bringing someone home to dinner. A simply lovely man. I met him in the elevator on his way to Lodge. Do we have cognac – I think he would like that.


It is a coincidence, Ida said to Lawrence in the elevator when he was going home after Lodge, that we should meet again. They both laughed and hoped the thing wouldn’t stick between the floors. You have your car? he said, and Ida said that actually she didn’t have a car – had something else to show him. Perhaps he didn’t realise, but the very latest thing to do was to travel round the city by underground waterway. He said he thought he had read about it somewhere. Perhaps is was in the colour supplement of the Saturday paper.


Lawrence Honey, as if in a trance, stepped into the rowing boat. He felt a drowsy humming feeling running through his blood. The beautiful woman, so reminiscent of a fairy from a ballet or a picture book, took the oars, and smiled. He smiled. The small black attache case of the Invisible Lodge slipped silently from his hand into the water.


They found the attache case caught in weeds some miles downstream. They never found a body. Vanished into thin air. The white silk scarf embroidered with Lawrence’s own secret symbol turned up at the State Library some years later. A baby boy who was manufactured in the hospital was named Lawrence Honey Hamilton in a gesture of reparation for the man who disappeared. And in certain lights you can imagine that you see a gorgeous fairy and a man in evening dress as they step into a little rowing boat on the water underneath the car park that is underneath the Day Procedure Centre.



Rose of Jericho – remembering war – November 11, 2017


Beside a few delicate teacups and a piece of scrimshaw, on a shelf in a glass-fronted cabinet, my mother kept a pepperpot. It was of classic Georgian shape, a tiny phallic basilica of a thing, not silver, but made from dark golden imitation wood, intricately carved with designs of multiform roses. You unscrewed the dome and put in the ground pepper; but it you unscrewed the base you found a secret compartment in which my mother kept a treasured twig. This twig was a small shrivelled claw from a bush called the Rose of Jericho, and it came from somewhere in the Middle East, a souvenir brought home to Tasmania from the First World War by an uncle.

Take the twig from its hiding-place and submerge it in water for about twenty minutes. The dried-up claw, in the water, gradually opens out, stretches tendrils, until it blossoms, resembles a freshly-picked bunch of soft brown herb. Tiny bubbles of ancient air bead the delicate branches. Then take it out of the water, let it dry, and when it is utterly shrivelled and dead, replace it in the secret compartment. Return the pepper-pot to its place in the cabinet.

So the Rose of Jericho is now in my possession. I keep it in a cupboard with such things as old prayer-books and a pair of small white china hands. I removed these hands from my grandmother’s grave after vandals had trashed all the ornaments, leaving the hands behind. Whenever I take the twig from its hiding-place and let it come to life again, like a beloved piece of music, played over and over, it can make me stop quite still, make me hold my breath, stare in simple amazement. And it can trigger memories long rested. Sometimes I remember to bring it to life on November 11, when many Australians remember wars, in particular the two world wars.




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’.


‘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 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