I've piled some more books in corners and eaten rice pudding. The birdoole has climbed about on toppled fantasy-novel shale and I have made walnut and rocket pesto. I forgot things, and kicked against things, and lifted the corner of the rug and put it down again in a hurry.
In 1992 I went to see Strictly Ballroom with an exchange student called Owen who lived on my hall. Owen had round, interrogative eyes, brown curls like wooden five-cent pieces cut close to his head and the kind of soft, mid-tenor New York accent that's almost a brogue.
It was Baz Luhrmann's first feature.
Afterwards Owen said, 'So what would you say was particularly Australian about that movie?'
In one way, I suppose, I was perfectly fitted to answer that question. My colonial life had been limned by the cultural products of other anglophones: TinyXtin's Sesame Street, The Famous Five, dozens of the cheesy 50s musical films beloved by my mother, strange English-Hollywood mashups like Mary Poppins and The Secret Garden whose weird sensibility collisions I would only see many years later. Top Gun, Gremlins, Three Men and a Baby.
But I didn't even know where to start. I had no idea how to convey the Australianness of Strictly Ballroom. There was nothing narratively distinctive about it. Ugly duckling, boy-meets-girl, Cinderella, follow-your-dreams. Nothing you wouldn't have seen in Disney. Dashing hero, corrupt big man of the town who'd have had a gold watch in his pocket in a western, the catty lady-competition, the henpecked husband. Even a Mystical Negro in the form of our heroine's Spanish father, the one who really knows how to dance, donchaknow, because immigrants have it in their hearts not their heads. They live in a little house by the train tracks. The literal wrong side.
The accents, then? The sense of life in an Australian suburb? The colours, the makeup? The distinctively Australian interiors, corrugated iron roofs? The smell of hot weather on the pavement ...
Perhaps the shop. Her family lives out the back of their shop. Shops are only from the place the shop is. An Australian shop isn't like a bodega, or a village shop, or a shop from anywhere except there. A shop is where all the things are together. But it's not all the same things. It's the things the people there expect to find, tiny dry-good microcosms of shared understanding .
I held up my hands helplessly. Everything, I said. Everything about it.
Australians tell the same stories as everyone else. Of course they do.
My friend Sophie's family always seemed properly English-flavoured. Her grandfather was English, and many, many years later we would exchange whispers about the mythological straitness of his laces. His daughter -- Sophie's mother -- had a mane of glossy black hair and the kind of expression that got her cast as the romantic interest in our seaside musical productions. My mother played the bombshell. Not just because she looked the part, for lo, did she ever, but for a certain glinting side-eye entirely absent from Sophie's dear mater.
Sophie and her brother and sister had breakfast at a set table, with milk in a jug. And they went to Sunday school.
We ate raisin bran standing up in the kitchen. My parents were known for saying fuck and being naked. And boy howdy was there no religion. Except in our sedately Anglican schools, tame little Thursday eucharists and all. But that's another story.
Sophie's father was a rheumatologist and they spent a year in England when she and her sister were little. My mother would tell the story of their return. Oh! she would exclaim, clasping her musician's hands to her chest, they had such sweet accents, you couldn't believe it. Hello Miranda! she would lisp plummily, apostrophising the tiny ones in their little blue garbardines. Sigh, said my mother. You wouldn't believe how quickly that disappeared. A few weeks and then ... oh well.
The tragic relapse to our sad, vulgar tongue. Oh well.
I wondered about this place where everyone talked in this way that made my mother clasp her hands to her chest. Fantastic Mr Fox talks like that, I thought. And Ratty and Moley! Perhaps everyone in books talks like that. Well, except the Muddle-headed Wombat. He's a wombat.
Well, that's something, I thought. That's something.
I keep rubbing my hands together, because they seem sticky from wondering if I know what I am saying. I wash them with the tiny fragrant puck of soap I brought home from the hotel in Melbourne, and dry them and pound out more words, and look at them, and my hands feel sticky again.
So, a letter to my hands. Dear hands. Here are some things I am trying to say.
(1) Carving out the place that feels like home to us is hard. It is a series of traps and pipe dreams and false dawns and botched escapes and we amass the most extraordinary arsenal of tools and weapons to build it and sometimes we cut ourselves with them and lock ourselves behind the wrong doors.
(2) It is very, very important to look at other things that are alive. For a long time. Quietly. To see what they do. To see that they are there.
(3) This is harder than it sounds.
(4) It is very, very important to know their names.
(5) Sometimes people say this is not important, but they are wrong.
(6) Books sometimes say what is real. Sometimes they make what is real. Sometimes what is in a book isn't real at all.
(7) This is less obvious than it looks.
(8) We are always asked where we are from as if there is only one answer. That isn't true.
(9) Sometimes all that connects you with the world are some hooded crows and a wooden spoon and those times are actually no different from the other times. It just seems as if they are.
Well, so much for the first week. Another windy night, another drab not-so-cold day. Crumpets and cheap chocolate and cups of tea and all the lights on all day because I can't see a damn thing.
Trashy novel in bits that last as long as my frozen hands can stand being out from under the duvet, the sense of waking up in a small, warm Xtin-sized pile of leaves in a forest far, far away that slowly makes itself back into percale and magnolia on the walls. Mothers and bales of towels on sale and running the washing machine empty with some baking soda because renewal and, um something. Kitten gifs and the day before yesterday's coffee cup hiding behind the box of good baubles which ought to be under that other box you put away this morning. A tape measure because always, a Christmas tealight never lit, quilting pins, a book about housekeeping, a book about leopards, a book about wizards, a book about walking, a book about nests and the box of marzipan I thought I'd lost.