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The things that come back to you

It was a funny night last night. Rigby was unwell and throwing up, it stormed for a while outside, and later when I switched off the light I couldn’t get to sleep for ages.

After a month or two of sleeping very well, the last few nights have been ordinary. Last night I felt unsettled and restless. I felt it in my stomach as if there was something unwelcome I should be aware of. It teased at me. Naturally, it leads one into reflection.

What thoughts it leads too is an endlessly fascinating subject to me. How does one thing get linked to another? Why does a general sense or feeling call up something seemingly totally unrelated? Is it random? Or is there some true sense to it?

Life has random elements, but I’m generally inclined there is some meaning to it, even if obscure. In this case, I suspect it’s not the details of the thing that matter, it’s the feeling they engender. What is recalled is not the facts, but the emotion. Today’s emotion resonates with an emotion in the past, and what follows are the thoughts associated with it. So I reckon.

What I remembered was a seminal moment in my life many years ago.

I’d been in love with Berni and for about 3 years we’d been on and off. She had wonderful qualities, a mighty heart, a generous spirit – but she also struggled often. A shocking episode abroad with a man had left her with trust issues, and poor self-esteem. At its best, our relationship was vibrant and happy. She had a great sense of humour and took great pride in giving me a rollicking hard time. I thought we would marry, and in fact, I recall one day sitting down with her to map it out. But then, for seemingly no reason it would become hard. It was the cycle of the moon, every four or five weeks she would plunge into despair and I would hang on for dear life. It was very hard and I used a lot of my energy trying to reassure her and make her feel better about herself and about me. That makes me sound noble, but on reflection, I doubt I was as good as that. At times I was exasperated, even angry, sometimes I felt despair. I loved her though and though we must have broken up ten times over the years we made up nine of them.

This story is about the last time when we failed to. I remember it was like yesterday. It makes me so sad and the thought recurs to me all the time – what if things were different? What if I’d done this instead of that? We might have married, who knows, but more importantly she might be alive today.

I always felt as if I was working on Berni. Over time I felt as if her default mood had improved to the extent that she could hope to be properly happy. I remember the day she told me she trusted me. That was such a big moment. I felt as if most of the hard work had been done and we were happier than we’d ever been.

But then I heard about a skiing trip she was going on the next weekend. I had no problem with that except that she hadn’t told me – I heard it from someone else. I felt a little put out and wondered if I was justified. I didn’t want to make a big deal of it but it sat in my stomach like an undigested meal. In hindsight, I can see it was another attempt by her to assert her independence, but I don’t know if I recognised that then.

I didn’t do anything at first, but coinciding with this she had begun to withdraw again. I was so sick of it, especially now when I felt as if we might be past it. I understood – she couldn’t be hurt if she didn’t get involved, but I was a part of that and she – she had to get beyond it if she ever hoped to be happy.

It was a Wednesday night in the middle of winter that I got in the car to drive to her place. I wasn’t sure what I was doing or if I was right. I wanted to talk to her about what was going on but feared that might be the worst thing to do. I was unsure, but the whole thing was taken out of my hands.

I parked outside her home and sat there for 5-10 minutes just debating the pros and cons. 50/50 I would just drive away. Instead, I got out of the car and started walking up a street. I got to the end and turned and was halfway back when a car drove up the street and stopped beside me. Two men got out. What are you doing? They asked. I was salty even back then and said who wants to know. They flipped their police badges at me and said they had someone report a suspicious character sitting in his car and come to investigate. They asked to see my ID and what I was doing there. I explained my girlfriend lived just there and that we’d had an argument. Fine, they said, get in the car – we need to check the story with her.

That’s the last thing in the world I wanted but there’s no arguing with a couple of cops. I got in the car, we drove down the street, and we knocked on the door. “Do you know this man?” they asked when she opened the door. She confirmed she did. The first words out of her mouth after they had gone was to ask – quite reasonably – “what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

That pissed me off. I’d done nothing wrong and I’d just been sitting in the back of a cop car. I felt tainted. We argued, to and fro, and I stormed out, that’s it, all over.

And it was. We saw each other occasionally after, and when I cooled down I knew I still loved her – but every time it looked like we might reunite something would happen.

This changed me. I was distraught. I’d been an exuberant personality beforehand, now I became guarded. I had suffered so deeply that I knew I couldn’t face that again so I made myself strong by building a wall. It’s crumbled a bit in recent years, but the remnants remain.

By itself, this is a sad story but there’s a tragic kicker.

We went our separate ways and didn’t see each other. My life went on, I had other flings without giving myself to anyone, I travelled and lived. I thought of her sometimes hoping that she had found the happiness that had so eluded her. I loved her still, loved her soul, she was someone I had cherished. I wanted her to be good.

One day I’m speaking to a friend on the phone and he asks out of the blue, whatever happened to Berni? I was sitting at my desk and on impulse typed her name into google. To my great surprise, a result came up – a funeral notice.

I was shocked. Over the next week, I did all I could to discover what had happened. Eventually, I got onto someone connected to the cemetery. He told me much as I had suspected – that she had taken her own life.

I think something broke in me then. I felt so miserably sad for her. Such a tragic life. And I thought – if only it had been different. If only we hadn’t broken up. If only the nosy parker hadn’t dobbed me and the police take me to her door. If only I’d been more reasonable. If only I’d gone to her the next day and told I was sorry. There were hundreds, thousands of if onlys. I felt responsible, at least in part.

I visited her grave after that. I had too. I drove to the country and spent the night in the town she grew up in and stood by her grave. I’ve never forgotten her. Ever since I’ve felt as if I should make my life worthy of her too – as if I had to live for her as well as me. It’s one of the things that has made me endure and be brave – I could fail for myself, but I couldn’t allow myself to fail for her.

It’s an awful story and a tragic life. It was in me last night. Writing it today I feel it deep. I wish I hadn’t started now – the sadness abides. It’s a true thing though and perhaps more than anything else this has made me into the man I am today. I wonder if that’s why it was in my mind last night – and what it means.

Old Melbourne

It’s easy to develop a fat arse when you work at a desk and so most lunch breaks I’ll go for a walk. I’ll head out in any direction with some destination in mind. It could be the Vic Market or the Aldi, it might be a book shop or department store or a little boutique. I’ll aim to walk for 30-40 minutes at least, rain, hail or shine.
Yesterday I set out for the Hill of Content book shop at the top end of Bourke Street. I’ve been going there since I was a kid, and recall – I think – actually visiting with my bibliophile grandfather. It’s a beautiful store with the just the right ambience for fine literature to nestle in. These days I browse the shelves without buying anything much, such was the case yesterday, but I had no intention of buying. I went for the walk and to survey books I might want to buy one day.

After the Hill of Content I walked the short distance to the Paperback Bookshop, which likewise has been there forever. It’s very different from the Hill. It’s small and inelegant but crammed full of nourishing books. I reckon I’ve been visiting it for 30 years and probably bought 30-40 books from there in that time. As much as anything else it was good to be back in such a familiar and warm environment. Once more I bought nothing.

Between the two book shops is Pellegrini’s, another Melbourne institution. Pellegrini’s has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. It was a couple of weeks ago when the alleged terrorist threatened with knife in hand, injuring some, and killing one – the co-owner of Pellegrini’s, Sisto Malaspina.

You’d have to have been living under a rock not to have heard of this. The outpouring of grief at the death of an iconic Melburnian has been immense. Everyone had a Sisto story, including me, such was his influence on the café society in this town.

Yesterday Pellegrini’s was shut. Not far away a state funeral was in progress for Sisto. Still, there was a small crowd outside the restaurant, loitering there and peering in the window and taking pics with their phone. There’s a strange, ghoulish aspect to many people that I can’t come at. I admit I looked twice at Pellegrini’s as I walked by but I wouldn’t dream of stopping. That’s just a bit too shabby for me, and somehow disrespectful.

Learning from the movies

Over the weekend I caught a Danish film director discussing how Nicolas Roeg and his film Don’t Look Now, influenced his vision and style. It was a fascinating and thought-provoking conversation. What I knew I could agree with. I’m a fan of both the director and the movie, which is a classic. What I didn’t know – or hadn’t thought of until then – was intriguing, and sent me off in a new direction.

What caught my interest particularly was a conversation about how Roeg edited the movie, and how effective it was in communicating mood and sense. It was discussed how the things left out shape a story – a not unfamiliar notion as Hemingway was big on this from a literary perspective.

I like talks like this because I’m curious and have a passion for the arts (and most things actually), and like to understand. I especially like how discussions like this set off different trains of thought in me. Things like this can reverberate in me for days. I’ll examine it a bit at the time before letting it go, but it’ll keep coming back to and until I have my own, 360 degree perspective of it. I have an objective understanding, but I’ve also got a personal understanding of it.

Occasionally there are more practical applications for such information. As my mind span off on Saturday it naturally occurred to me that I can apply these tricks to my writing. It’s a different medium, there’s no vision I can play with, but I can break things up and dictate the flow easily enough. Till then it was something I’d given only cursory consideration to.

As it happened it was a very timely reminder – but then these things reverberate especially strongly when there’s something to attach to. This time it was a section of prose I was uncertain about how I should proceed. Here was the answer.

It worked, too. I took the lessons of Nicholas Roeg and applied them to this writing and it changed entirely the feel and mood to exactly what I wanted.

Last week I explained how some weekends I’m more productive than others. This was a productive weekend. I managed to put down a couple of thousand words, on top of sketching out in some detail the scenes to come.

All art is a form of communication. How you communicate is just as important as what you communicate: substance and form.

Democratic processes

Did my civic duty early and voted today in the Victorian state election. Election day is not till the 24th, but there’s always a rush on the day, besides, I’ll be away on a golf weekend. Good to get it out of the way, and an easy decision too – one of the candidates gets things done, the other is a ratbag.

As usual, there were people handing out flyers with earnest persistence. I escaped the clutches of an eager Socialist asking if I knew about the “upper house deals being done.” I told her I knew all about it – a slight fib, I know some, but the truth is I know all I want to know about it.

I stood in line and as always refused every bit of electioneering guff with a polite no thank-you. It’s a waste of paper and I always know who I’m voting for regardless. It’s fascinating nonetheless. The unassuming Labor types, a grim-looking woman telling us it was time to ‘take back control’, another earnest and passionate Socialist I’d happily share a bottle with, and a lovely middle-aged woman who seemed to epitomise the Greens.

It took me back to a time – many years ago – when I was one of them. I’ve written about this before, so will keep it brief. I was a scrutineer for the republican movement for the referendum in 1999. It was an interesting and unexpected experience – I became ‘it’ because there was no-one else there to do it. I set up that morning stringing our banners up early on a cold winters morning and ahead of our monarchist opponents who arrived after I did. Take that royalist scum, I thought.

On this occasion, the royalist scum happened to be a lovely, reasonable man who’d had the foresight to bring a thermos of hot coffee with him. When he offered me a cup midway through the morning I hesitated, wondering if I would compromise my political integrity if I accepted it. I was easily bought it seems, and that little episode has informed much of my political thinking ever since. We demonise our opponents when they’re in the abstract. Face to face we realise often they are reasonable people with a view a little different from our own. I guess it’s about respect, ultimately. As it happened this guy was not against the republic per se, just against the model being voted on. That’s all down to John Howard, a man I have no respect for.

Funnily enough this week I had a passing thought that I would nominate as an independent senator prior to the next federal election. It wasn’t entirely random, I’ve thought about it occasionally in recent times – and why not? I’m informed, I’m informed and I’m educated – which is more than can be said for much of the riff-raff being voted I these days. I’d like to make a difference.

Even if I did nominate it’s a million to one against being voted in, but I’ve got a lot better chance in the Senate than in the house of reps. It’s unlikely I’ll do it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

How I write

When I’m writing I try and get around a thousand words a day on the page. I only write on the weekends between doing domestic and social stuff, but I still aim to get a couple of thousand words added over the two days.

That’s the aim, but it doesn’t always work out that way. As I write this I’m about 36,000 words into this novel – about 18 weeks of writing in this context. Except for many of those weekends, I only wrote one day out of two, plus the trend is it goes in fits and starts. I remember for about a period of about three weeks I was becalmed. I might have written 500 words, and probably deleted most of them as being inadequate. But then you strike a patch when it flows like honey. Suddenly it’s all clear, you know what you want to write and the words are there just waiting for you to transpose them.

I’m said to be a pretty quick writer, but last weekend I added about 800 words. That’s because right now I’m less certain of the direction I want to take in this phase of the book, and the words are a lot stickier in me. I did a lot of editing though and that has to be taken into account also.

Before I start writing I’ll probably read the previous two chapters to get into the groove, but also to clean them up. First time I put things on paper I’m not overly fussed about the details. I want to get the major points and the framework on the page. I’ll probably re-work it a little more before the session is through, and I’ll certainly return to it next time.

By the time I finish this first draft most of the manuscript will have been re-worked two or three times already. Often the edits become pretty big – changes are made, bits are taken out, other bits put in, and in general, the writing itself massaged to the point that it expresses what I want both clearly and somewhat lyrically.

I’ve been writing this since around March, I think. Say eight months, thirty-two weekends. Over that period I’m averaging about 1150 words a weekend, which sounds about right.

I’m actually considering taking a pause from this book. I’ve made some recent mental adjustments regarding how it ends. Not major changes, but significant. I’m at the stage now leading up to it – I reckon this’ll top out at about 75,000 words. The last three chapters as I’ve conceived them will be around 10,000 words. That leaves around 30,000 words of content leading into that. Much of it I have mapped out in my head, but I’m uncertain about the best way to get there.

My experience is that taking a break is pretty productive. It becomes less familiar and you view the story more objectively. Distance lends a perspective that allows you to see the whole rather being mired in the detail.

This is what I’ve done with the book I’ve finished. I stuck that in my bottom drawer around February and left it there. I’d think about it every now and then, but gradually it went from front of mind to back. At the same time, I had someone read it who would report back to me occasionally with their impressions. Over time my thinking on the book has changed quite a lot, which is what I hoped for.

I’ll pull that out of the bottom drawer sometime in the next few months, maybe sooner than later. When I return to it it will be with a changed perspective and quite radical notions of how I want to re-write it. If I can nail that I think it will be a much better book, and much closer to my original conception of it.

I’m sure I’ll be doing that with this novel too. Can’t speak for others but reckon it works for me. Come this time next year I hope to have two novels finished and in a state I’m proud of.

No shame

Okay, this is another grizzle about work, just for the record.

I got out of the engagement committee about six weeks ago for reasons I explained at the time. It’s gone through a rocky patch since but has started to steady. The key guy on it has close links to me and is now running with some of the big-ticket proposals I put forward at the time – namely a proper rewards and recognition program, plus a wellness program. That’s basically my IP and so he comes to me often seeking guidance on it and general info – though, naturally, it’s being obstructed at a management level.

As each week goes by another engagement initiative is either announced or is seen as an obvious need. All of these, bar just one, are things I proposed back then and documented. At the time they were held up by office politics or personalities or the general disorganisation of the committee. I’m glad to see these things happening, but it twists the knife a tad.

This follows on from the creation of a new function on the floor which I first submitted as a proposal around the middle of last year. Back then it was ignored, or else I was told it was too advanced for this place. Somehow it got resurrected a few months back. Whether it was because of their good graces, or because they were scrambling, but at least this time they contacted me to get a copy of my original and very detailed proposal. That was the only reference to me – I wasn’t involved with or consulted regarding the set-up, or acknowledged in any other way. As it happens they’ve implemented it in a half-arsed fashion, always the way here, as if lacking the resolve to take the final step to do it properly. It’s a nice idea, and better than nothing, but lacks the metrics and reporting that was such an integral part of the initial proposal.

Now an email has popped up in my inbox advertising for a new role almost exactly as that I put forward around the same time last year. It’s an overarching role that should tie-in with the function I proposed as above while taking on additional responsibilities and being a conduit to related areas. Once more this was subject of a detailed briefing paper. It seems like it’s been adopted 15 months later, even down to the job title, but of course, it came as a complete surprise to me when I saw it.

I wonder if I’m entitled to be put out by all this. It feels a bit petulant. And, if I’m honest, I’m glad to see my ideas being adopted. What pisses me off is that after being basically pooh-poohed initially (for pretty spurious reasons), my ideas finally see the light of day but without any reference to me, without any input, and certainly without acknowledgement. As one of my colleagues said, pretty de-motivating.

I’d cop it easier if I was being properly paid. It wouldn’t matter so much, it would just be the product of my job. Here I am though, paid a pittance, on top of which they have the temerity to pinch my IP.

PS A day later and I feel a little embarrassed by this. Everything I wrote is legit, except it amounts to a mighty grizzle. It’s done now and I should be above feeling sorry for myself, and my ego has no business getting involved. Easier said than done, but time I attended to what I wrote the other day: just be.