Saturday, 12 April 2014

Secrets of a Social Outcast


 

Term One
28th January
Hello diary and welcome to my life! I’ve never had a diary before but I’ve decided to keep one this year because I know it’s going to be a really important year for me and also because I need somewhere to vent my feelings. Sometimes it seems like no one in the world understands me and I’m just going to bust if I can’t let my emotions out somewhere. Before you decide I’m a total Nigel-no-friends I do I have a bunch of besties, including my BFF Katie who lives two houses away from me. I tell her nearly everything but there are some things you just don’t want to tell anyone because you don’t even want to say them out loud.
I wish I could keep this diary on my laptop like a normal person but my parents check my computer all the time in case I get stalked by a paedophile (or more likely to find out if I’m looking at stuff I’m not supposed to). Seriously! Do they really think I’m going to hook up with a total stranger I meet online? I’m not completely brain dead but they obviously don’t agree because I have no privacy whatsoever. I’m not even allowed to have Facebook until I’m 14 and that’s almost a year away. I don’t know how I’m going to survive till then. All my friends and even my 10 year old cousin are on there. It’s so embarrassing being the odd one out. It’s totally my parents fault for depriving me of the basic necessities of life. If I end up being a social outcast it will be all their fault.
Tomorrow is the first day back at school in Year 8. It just seems like yesterday I was so nervous about my first day at St Barfs (it’s really Bartholomew’s but Barf’s is so much more appropriate). This year it’s my turn to give the Year 7’s a hard time. LOL. Not that I would ever actually do that to anyone because I remember what it was like being the newbie. Last year the older kids gave us wrong directions to classes and generally tried to mess with our heads. They thought it was so funny but I just thought it was mean.
I have a lot of hopes and dreams for this year but my biggest one is that Tyler Martin will notice I’m alive again (and ask me to marry him!). We used to be sort of friends in primary school but when we got to high school he started hanging out with a bunch of cool kids. He hasn’t talked to me since the second week of Year 7, not that I’m keeping track or anything!  Now half the girls in our year are in love with him.
We get the same bus to school and that’s my favourite part of the day. You should see him, diary, he has floppy, sun-streaked blonde hair that’s always falling in his eyes and the cutest smile ever (well, I think his hair is sun-streaked but Katie’s convinced he gets foils. She’s just jealous because her blonde streaks aren’t natural). Katie says I’m hopeless for liking him but she can’t talk because she has a crush on Jamie French and he doesn’t know she’s alive either.
My other wish is that I will finally grow decent sized boobs this year (at the moment I’m AAA cup. Tragic, I know) and start to look more like my older sister, Lucy, who everyone says should be a model. Grrrrrrrr. I was one of the last girls in my year to start wearing a bra and I’m still almost completely flat-chested. I still look like I’m about 10.
In the holidays I went to some street markets with Lucy and I wore my hair tucked under a baseball cap. When I was lining up at a hot food stall the old lady behind the counter said, “How can I help you, young man.” To be mistaken for a boy at 13 is total humiliation and it had to happen right in front of Lucy who has never let me live it down. Sometimes when I’m talking to her she’ll pretend she didn’t hear and say, “How can I help you, young man?” She thinks it’s so funny because she was practically a DD cup by the time she was 13.
I’m just so tired of feeling inferior and being told that I’m not in the same league as my sister. Like I didn’t already know that. At least I’m not completely delayed because I finally got my period last October. Now that I’ve had it a few times and know what it’s all about I kind of wish it would go away for another 13 years.
Lucy is starting Year 11 this year and she loves herself to death. That’s enough about her. I’ll have to make sure I hide this diary very well from her because she’s such a snoop and I wouldn’t put it past her to go through my stuff when I’m not around. KEEP OUT, LUCY, OR I’LL TELL MUM AND DAD ABOUT THE NIGHT YOU SPENT AT JACK’S HOUSE WHEN YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BE AT SHERIDAN’S!!! (I found this out when she left her laptop on the dining room table logged into her email account. How dumb can you get!).
My other big wish is that me and my friends become more popular and get invited to the best parties this year. My group is kind of in the middle. We’re not popular but we’re not losers either. This year I’m going to make a big effort to move up the social ladder by getting noticed by all the right people for all the right reasons (that’s the secret to social success according to Lucy’s Cleo). I can’t really make witty conversation over cocktails like the article says so I’m not sure exactly sure how I’m going to achieve this yet but something will come to me. I hope by this time next year all my dreams have come true. Gotta go to bed now. I can’t wait to see my besties at school tomorrow. It’s been 5 weeks since I’ve seen most of them and I’ve missed them soooo much.
February 5th
School has been back for a week and things are different this year. I can’t really put into words what it is but something has changed. Maybe it’s because over the holidays everyone kept in touch with each other on Facebook and Synced (the latest thing that everyone at our school is into). I’m not even banned from Synced cause Mum and Dad don’t know it exits but it’s a bit hard to be on there when I don’t have an iPhone. I still have one of Mum’s ancient mobiles from the prehistoric era because they’re too stingy to buy me a new one of my own. Lucy of course has the latest model because she’s sixteen. That’s their answer for everything. I really hate my parents sometimes.
I visited Nan for 3 weeks in the holidays which was really nice but the only people I talked to over that time were Katie and Brooke. Me and Katie went to the movies when I got back and we spent a day at a beauty spa getting pampered (one of the few decent Xmas presents I got this year). We went shopping a few times too for clothes and stuff. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as what the other girls did though. When we were sitting in our new seat in the courtyard today, Charlotte and Stacey told us about how they went to Sydney to visit Charlotte’s sister who goes to uni there. They met some boys on the train and snuck out to meet them at night in the city.
 It sounded like fun but I told them I don’t know if I’d be game enough to do that. Stacey said, “Oh, Gabby, you’re so cute,” and they all laughed. “But what if they’d turned out to be weirdos or something,” I said. Charlotte rolled her eyes and said, “But they didn’t, did they. At least we actually did something in our holidays besides go to the movies like we’re still 10.” She said it in kind of a bitchy voice and I felt bad, but I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it. Things will go back to the way they were soon and I’ll laugh at myself for worrying over nothing. We’ve all been friends since we were in Year 4 and I know we’ll all still be friends when we’re old and grey and 40.
PS. Tyler hasn’t been a school at all yet. Hope he hasn’t moved away or got sick or something : - (
February 7th
Tyler came back to school on Wednesday and he looked hotter than ever. He just got back from a holiday in America and on the bus on the way to school I heard him talking about all the amazing things he did there. His family can afford holidays like that because they’re filthy rich. On top of that they all look like super models. They live in this mansion on the hill and Katie calls them the beautiful people. I always ask her if I’ll be one of the beautiful people too when I marry Tyler. She just rolls her eyes.
It was so funny because Katie kept trying to talk to me on the bus but I wasn’t paying any attention to what she was saying because I was listening to Tyler. When she finally realised why she put her ear buds in and poked her tongue out at me. She hates Tyler and can’t understand what I see in him, but I can’t understand what she sees in Jamie, so that makes us even.
In maths I heard Annakey Lucas say how cute he is, but I know he thinks she’s a ho because he said so on the bus once (Katie and me call her Skanky Annakey). She’s one of the worst bullies in Yr 8 and the only reason she’s so popular is because everyone’s scared of her. I’d die if they started going out together but I don’t think that’s going to happen. One day I just know he’s going to start talking to me again and he’ll see that I’m the perfect girl for him! Until that day I’ll just have to wait and be patient. Good things comes to those who wait!!! (that’s what my Nan always says when she buys a lottery ticket. She’s been saying it for as long as I can remember. The way things are going she won’t have many years to enjoy the money if she ever does win, but I don’t point this out to her. LOL).
February 8th
OMG, I have the best news ever! In history today Mr Collins put us in groups for an assignment and Tyler is in the same group as me. This is the first time we’ve had a class together since primary school because he’s always been in lower classes than me. It’s not because he’s dumb or anything but just because he doesn’t try and he’s always getting into trouble.  They’ve decided to mix classes together this year which totally works for me!
Normally I hate group work because I’d much rather do things on my own, but this time I’m so glad. Now he’ll have no choice but to talk to me. *Doing a happy dance in my mind.* It doesn’t even bother me that one of the other people in our group is Creepy Kevin who always tries to talk to me and even asked me to dance last year at the school disco. Rumour is he likes me and wanted to ask me out. I don’t think so!!! I’m supposed to be moving up the social ladder this year, not down it and Creepy Kevin is definitely at the bottom. I can’t believe he actually thought he stood a chance with me. Talk about deluded.
 The rest of the day wasn’t great because Charlotte and Stacey were acting really strangely. They kept whispering to each other at lunchtime, but they wouldn’t tell me, Katie and Brooke what they were talking about. Then they got out their phones and starting texting each other right in front of us. How rude! Normally we all sit together for the whole of lunch but today they left early and I saw them near the canteen talking to Skanky Lucas and her megabitch friends. Weird. Normally she won’t have anything to do with any of us because she thinks we’re beneath her. Who knows what’s going on with them and who really cares because on Thursday I get to be with Tyler in history (well not really “with” him but you know what I mean. LOL).
February 11th
I can’t believe what happened today. Me and Katie and Brooke were sitting at our table in the courtyard at lunch time when Charlotte and Stacey turned up late. As soon as they sat down I could tell something was wrong. They just looked different, like their faces were really hard and cold, then Charlotte said they were going to sit with Annakey Lucas and her friends from now on. Katie said, “But why, what have we done?” They said it’s because we’re too immature for them now, and they need friends who are on the same level as them. What is that supposed to even mean? Do they need friends who hike their skirts up really short and have fake orange tans?
It got even worse when Stacey turned to Brooke and asked her if she wanted to go with them or stay with us. Brooke kept looking at us and then looking at them, and then she kind of shrugged her shoulders at us and said “I’m sorry.” What a complete bitch! If it wasn’t for me she wouldn’t even have been part of our group. When she started at our school she didn’t know anyone and I felt sorry for her and started talking to her. The others didn’t like her at first and I had to convince them to let her sit with us, and this is how she repays me, by dumping me for the popular kids. I was the one who was supposed to be moving up the social ladder this year, but I would have taken ALL my friends with me, not kicked them to the curb like garbage.
They even brought up the fact that I’m not on Facebook and Synced as one of the reasons we’re not on their level, which is totally not true because Katie’s on there and they still dumped her. They said that we can all still be friends but they just don’t want to sit with us anymore. Then they just got up and left. My heart was pounding so hard and I couldn’t breathe, like the time I pushed myself too hard in the marathon and fainted at the finish line. Me and Katie were too shocked to say anything for a while and we just sat there staring at each other. I could tell Katie was trying not to cry.
Who are we going to hang out with now? We can’t just hang out on our own. No one at our school is in a group of just two, you get called lezzos and other worse stuff. Not that there’s anything wrong with lezzos. My cousin Penny is gay and she’s one of the coolest people I know, but this is high school and no one wants to stand out or be different. It’s like those wildlife shows where you don’t want to get separated from the pack or you’ll become a prime target for the predators. Believe me, there are plenty of predators at our school.
 Now we have to find a new group to get in with really fast. This whole thing is so unbelievably stressful and I don’t know what I’m going to do. Thank god I have class with Tyler to look forward to. It’s the only thing that can take my mind off this nightmare. 
February 13th
Things are a bit better because Katie and I have started sitting with Jasmine and her group. They’re pretty cool. The only one I don’t really like is Bernadette. We were friends in Yr 3 and used to go to each other’s houses and have sleepovers and stuff but then I became best friends with Katie. Back then we only used to hang out with one best friend so I blew her off (hey, I was 8). Bernadette still wanted to hang out with me and she even got her mother to call mine and ask why I didn’t want to play with her anymore. For weeks she followed me and Katie around the playground crying. Talk about awkward. I don’t think she’s ever gotten over it, which is pathetic considering it was YEARS ago. I could tell she didn’t want me in the group, but luckily I’m friends with all of the others.
 I saw Charlotte, Stacey and Brooke with Annakey and the cool kids today near the canteen. When I walked past them they ignored me. So much for staying friends! Brooke sent me a text message the other night saying sorry for everything but I didn’t write back. I might one day but at the moment I just hate her too much. I know that sounds terrible but it’s true. I thought she was a real friend, but I guess you never really know anyone and what they’re capable of. They can walk out on you just like my real father did to us when I was a baby. Makes you wonder if it’s worth trusting anyone when they can hurt you so badly. 
Tomorrow is the swimming carnival and I’m so not looking forward to putting my flat-chested, lily-white body on display. All the hot girls will be parading around showing off their great figures and tans. God I wish my boobs would just hurry up and grow! I know that’s one of the reasons why they don’t think we’re good enough for them anymore, because I still look like a little kid. In primary school I never had to worry about any of this stuff. Life was so uncomplicated back then. Sometimes I wish things could have stayed like that forever. High school really is no different from the animal kingdom but instead of the fittest it’s the hottest who survive. That is just so depressing. I’m sure for those who are at the top it’s pretty great, but for the rest of us it sux epically. *sigh* Humans are no different from baboons.
Hey, at least I’ll get to see Tyler in a pair of board shorts tomorrow. Yum!
February 14th
One thing became very clear to me at the swimming carnival yesterday: teachers should never be allowed to show their bodies in swimmers under any circumstances. They should be made to wear neck-to-knee gear like in the olden days (except Mr B who is young and hot and should be made to come shirtless every day of the school year hehehehe). Mr Konrad on the other hand shouldn’t even be allowed near a swimming pool, especially in a pair of budgie smugglers. *shudder* How am I ever going to get that image out of my mind and be able to concentrate in maths again?
For most of the day me and Katie and the other girls sat in the shade as far away from the pool as we could get and gossiped. I had to sit under an umbrella as per usual and even then I still turned red. I went in one race because I knew Mum and Dad would chuck a fit if I didn’t “participate.” I actually got first place without even trying. When I was walking back to my friends after the race Charlotte, Stacey and Brooke were sitting with their new friends. Queen Skank (Annakey, who else) said really loudly, “I’m not surprised she can win a race. It’s not like she’s got any tits to slow her down.” They all burst out laughing except for Brooke who just looked away. It was awful and I felt my face turning bright red. Hopefully everyone thought it was sunburn.
 Seriously, isn’t it bad enough that that Charlotte and Stacey left our group and made us feel like absolute rejects but now they laugh when their new BFF puts me down? I know they’re just trying to look cool in front of Annakey. Katie said she’s jealous because she couldn’t win a race if she tried. The only reason she has big boobs is because she’s so fat and if she got into the pool she’d sink right to the bottom. Her family are all a bunch of complete bogans. I’ve heard that she lives in this really horrible housing commission house that’s falling down and filthy and her parents are always fighting. The boys wouldn’t look twice at her if she wasn’t such a big fat ho. I’m not going to let myself worry about someone so pathetic because it’s not worth my time.
February 18th  
I haven’t told Mum anything about what’s going on at school but she must have seen the text messages from Katie and Brooke or heard me talking on the phone because she asked me if everything was okay on the weekend.  I told you I have no privacy whatsoever! The reason I haven’t told her we’ve been dumped is because I know she wouldn’t understand. She’d just say lame things like, “If they treat you that way then they’re not your real friends anyway,” and, “You’re better off without them,” or, “You just have to be yourself and the right friends will appreciate you for who you are.”
Yeah Mum, great advice but it doesn’t apply to high school where image is EVERYTHING and what you’re really like on the inside doesn’t count at all. No one wants to be friends with someone who is “genuine” (Mum’s favourite word). The only people who count are those who are:
1.    Hot. This is the single most important thing in the baboon teenage world. If you’ve got this going for you then you don’t need anything else. All the cool kids will want to be your friend and you’ll be envied by everyone.
 
2.    Funny/Outgoing. If you’re not good looking you have to make people notice you some other way by being a class clown or just loud and obnoxious . For people like Skanky Annakey this means putting other kids down to try and make themselves look cool. I hate this part of high school the most. There are some kids at our school that get bullied really badly, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m just glad I’m not one of them.
 
3.    Rich. If you’re not hot and can’t be funny or outgoing the only other way you can get status is by having heaps of money or something people want, like an awesome boat or a holiday house somewhere great which makes people want to be friends with you.
 
Some lucky people like Tyler hit the jackpot and have all three things. He’s hot, funny and his parents are loaded. The things you don’t want to be in high school are ugly/fat/too skinny/flat-chested/pimply/gay/nerdy/quiet/sensitive/different in any way. These things mean social death. Things haven’t really changed at all from what they were like in the 80s movies me and Katie love to watch like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. In those movies the decent kids always get what they deserve in the end and the jerks are put in their place. If only real life was that fair.

Friday, 4 April 2014

My Workshopping Nightmare


 
My first creative writing workshop was a total disaster. It was my first year of university and I was painfully shy and awkward. I managed to avoid speaking up in tutorials for other subjects but thought that creative writing would somehow be different. I’d always been told I was good at writing, so surely this was the subject that would bring me out of my shell. The lecturer was a sleazy older guy who put me on edge from the start. After I dropped the subject I saw that someone had scrawled on a toilet door in the union building “Paul K is a sexual harasser.”
 About twenty of us sat around a long table for these workshops, and in the first class the lecturer made everyone come up with a story off the top of their head. Being put on the spot in front of a large group of strangers is pure torture for an introvert and I just froze. I’d been reading a lot of New Age books at the time so in a panic I told them that I’d recently had a near death experience and “seen the light.” Other people had told stories that were obviously fictional and everyone realised this but for some reason they thought I was telling the truth. I was too embarrassed to set them straight so from then on I became pegged in their minds as a nut job. To make things even worse just after I’d spoken the lecturer told everyone to keep the stories they’d heard to themselves, “no matter how weird you think someone is.”
That was all bad enough but a couple of weeks later we had to share something we’d written with the class. For some totally unknown reason I volunteered to go first to read my story about this lovely, kind, intelligent girl who is being persecuted by a bitchy friend. It was so transparently autobiographical that I still cringe when I think about it. You can guess which character I was. After I finished reading there was dead silence in the room and I can’t remember any of the comments that were made. I’m not sure when it dawned on me just how bad my story was but I dropped the subject soon after that and hoped never to run into any of these people again. It actually put me off creative writing for a very long time.
Last year I finally overcome my fear of creative writing workshops and enrolled in a subject at university. Things have changed dramatically since my last foray into workshopping, and being able to do everything online is a godsend for people like me. I still wasn’t thrilled with the idea of workshops because I thought it would involve plodding through a lot of boring stories until I finally got to share my own writing. A selfish attitude I know, but thankfully I’ve been proven wrong.
Not only do I find reading and commenting on other people’s writing to be extremely beneficial to my writing, but I actually enjoy it. It’s fascinating to see how ideas develop and I love the feeling of being able to give people constructive feedback and encouragement. In fact I like it so much that I’ve even started looking online for sites that allow you to critique writing. One of the best is Flogging the Quill where you can analyse the first page of well-known published author and newbies.
When I finish this course I will need to find a critique group to continue workshopping. I’m just glad there are so many out there and it’s just a matter of finding the right one for your needs. I’m not interested in polite praise and only positive feedback, I like getting down to the nitty-gritty and hearing the truth because it’s the only way to grow as a writer. This hasn’t always been the case but one of the other major benefits of workshops is that you quickly develop a pretty thick skin, and that’s something that comes in pretty handy for writers.
Now I’ve procrastinated enough for one day so it’s time to get cracking on the two major assignments which are due in the next week. Gulp.


Saturday, 15 February 2014

My Reading & Writing Life



Many years ago I went through an extended period of unemployment. I spent this time stressing about not having a job and wishing that my life was different. I was incredibly unhappy and could only focus on what was missing in my life. I was envious of everyone around me who seemed to have it so easy as I lamented my lack of money and long days with nothing to fill them. I lived just a few minutes away from an amazing beach and beautiful park at this time, and although I used to go for walks there occasionally, I was too miserable to really enjoy them.

Fast forward to the day I got a full-time job and suddenly the leisurely life I had known came to an abrupt end. No more staying up late. No more lying in bed reading till lunchtime. No more strolling to the library and having a relaxed lunch before taking in a movie in an almost empty cinema. No more sitting in the sun just watching the world go by. Now my life was all about alarm clocks and trains and deadlines. Weekends were for doing all the chores that I didn't have time to do during the week and trying to repay the sleep debt caused by those early starts. My old life began to look a whole lot better and I truly started to regret that I hadn't savoured all that free time when I had the chance.

It's human nature to think the grass is always greener on the other side, but over the last two years life has given me another big chunk of free time that I've been determined to make the most of. Living in an isolated area where no one else wants to live is not much fun, but it's truly the only way to step out off the treadmill and free yourself from the shackles of a huge mortgage / rent. My partner earns enough for both of us and my paltry wage from 2 days work a week barely makes a ripple in our income pool. A few years ago when I was teaching high school I thought that my life was set in stone and that for the next 20+ years I would be too busy lesson planning and marking to do much else. Although it was my decision to leave teaching I have been very surprised by the direction my life has taken since.

My current situation would be much easier if I had a beach / cafĂ© / shopping centre / theatre / gym to turn to for entertainment and distraction. The nearest decent town is 100 kms away so on my days off I have to fill the hours all by myself. It would be easy to become despondent and feel like life was passing me by out here (which I do sometimes, I can't lie), but after my previous experiences I've made a big effort to ensure that none of this time is wasted. My reading used to be confined to a few pages before bed or some snatched moments on the train, but now I'm finally able to catch up on all the books I've been wanting to read for so long, while keeping on top of new releases.  Writing has been a godsend for me and helped to keep me sane since we moved here. I'm using this time to do an MA in Creative Writing, something I might not have worried about if I was working full-time.

I was prompted to write this entry when I read over  some of my old journals from that long, lonely stretch in my life. I dumped them in the garbage where they belong and made a promise to myself that I would never become that negative again. If I'd started writing back then instead of feeling sorry for myself then I'd be a much better writer than I am today. This current period in my life won't last forever and when it's over I will miss the solitude, the silence, the time to think and dream (and sleep in!).  I'm not going to waste any of it on pointless misery and regrets. I've come to understand that time is far more precious than money and that's why I'm very grateful for this period of freedom to step away from the daily grind and nurture my spirit a little.

What do you have to be grateful for?

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Writing Quote for 2014



Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist master, said, "We must continue to open in the face of tremendous opposition. No one is encouraging us to open and still we must peel away the layers of the heart." It is the same with this way of practice writing. We must continue to open and trust in our own voice and process. Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg

Friday, 31 January 2014

My Strange Addiction


 

Wow, here it is February already and I haven’t even welcomed in the new year in my blog! One of the side-effects of living in the middle of nowhere is that when you finally get back to civilisation for the holidays they tend to be very action-packed. This year has been no exception. Now the Australia Day weekend is over and life is settling back into its familiar routine. We’re adapting again to the very slow pace of life in the bush. At the moment this mostly involves lying on the lounge under the air-conditioning as the Riverina endures another week of 40+ degrees.

The good news is I’m finally ready to put my head down and get stuck back into some serious writing on my badly neglected WIP. The bad news is that I have a new addiction which is interfering with my writing and which I can’t help indulging in even when I’m at work. This addiction is time-consuming and frustrating but when I finally get that hit the exhilaration makes it all worthwhile. It’s somewhat akin to the shopping addiction that many suffer from, but my shopping takes place purely on Amazon and only involves the purchase of books.  People who know me will not be surprised to hear that I’m addicted to books, but my new obsession involves finding popular books and new releases for bargain prices. My most recent find is Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam for just $1.29. Is that a bargain or what!
There are far worse things to be addicted to and I will eventually read all the books I download so I really am saving money. I know Amazon lists special deals but the bargains I've found aren't always included. There are probably countless websites which list bargains in popular literary fiction but the hunt is all part of the fun for me. I don’t want to deny myself this little indulgence, just as long as it doesn’t get too out of hand.
My writing goals for this year are fairly modest and involve completing my current WIP, doing at least two more subjects in my writing course and writing 4 times a week. I hope to start a new project and write a few short stories too.

 May 2104 be a wonderfully productive and exciting year for all writers out there as we face the tyranny of the blank page and keep coming back for more! We are a masochistic lot and only others writers can understand what compels us to keep going.

 

Monday, 11 November 2013

And the Mountains Cried


 

 

This was Frodo and Sam’s own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world.

 The Return of the King, J.R.R Tolkien

 

It’s dark as I lie in my bunk bed, straining my ears for a faint tapping sound coming from beneath our house at Edgeworth in Lake Macquarie. Everyone else is sound asleep, but I can’t sleep because I’m scared of what is lurking in the shadows of my room. I’m sure I just saw something move in the partly opened wardrobe, and any second I expect a monster to jump out and devour me. To distract myself I think about the men toiling in the coal mines underneath our street. My mother told me when I couldn’t get to sleep that I should listen carefully and I might be able to hear them down there. The miners, I imagine, look like the dwarfs from Snow White, whistling merrily as they work, with long white beards and tools slung jauntily over their shoulders.

To me they are almost mythical creatures, and I’m desperate for some evidence they actually exist, but try as I might I hear nothing except my father’s snoring. My mother mutters “shut up, John,” a dog barks in the distance and my sister stirs in the bunk below, then there is silence. It doesn’t matter, though. It is enough to know that even when I close my eyes and fall into the abyss they will still be there, working hard to extract the coal to chase the darkness away. Human progress, it seems, knows no bounds when the blackest recesses of the earth, where the scariest monsters lurk, have been penetrated by the beacon of light on the miners’ hats.  It’s not until much later that I discover that human progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and monsters don’t always hide in the shadows.

***

The mine that extends under the home where my parents still live is part of the Glencore Colliery at West Wallsend. Coal has been mined in the area since 1888 and underground mining has taken place since 1969. When my parents brought their block of land in 1971 they were told they couldn’t build a brick home due to subsidence issues. This may seem unusual but the reality is that most of Newcastle is under mined, including the CBD, apart from the railway corridor. Mining takes place so deep underground that it would be impossible to hear miner’s working down there, but I have never forgotten my mother’s words.

 The Glencore Colliery is located in the Sugarloaf State Conservation Area, which was created in 2007 and covers 3937 hectares. Conservation areas have been created by the state government ostensibly to “protect and conserve significant or representative ecosystems, landforms, natural phenomena or places of cultural significance.” 1There are 219 species that live in the area, including 16 that are endangered. Longwall mining is currently conducted under 23 per cent of the conservation area, 2 making a mockery of the notion of conservation and betraying the governments true commitment to environmental protection.

A major portion of the reserve is taken up by Mount Sugarloaf, a 412m range with two huge television antennas perched on its pinnacle. I was fascinated by these antennas as a child and I used to imagine scaling their ladders and vanishing into another world just like Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk.  The antennas back then looked like giant robots that might come to life one day and trample everything in their path. They were further examples of the dizzying reaches of technology, just like Skylab, the American space station that came crashing back down to earth in WA in 1979, and the massive computer at my father’s work that took up an entire room. Only the bushfires that occasionally ripped over the mountain in fiery red lines like lava from a volcano hinted that there are forces beyond human control.

Because it was so close to our home Mount Sugarloaf lookout was a popular destination for family picnics and lazy Sunday drives during my childhood. I remember my ears popping in the car as we rose towards the clouds and my sisters and I strained to catch glimpses of the world we knew receding between the trees. I can understand why the mountain was important in the Dreamtime stories of the Awakabal tribes that lived in the area because it is truly a special place. From the top of the mountain you can see as far as the ocean and the twinkling blue waters of Lake Macquarie. It is a lovely view but it is marred by the ugly, gaping scar where the Pasminco zinc and lead smelter once stood.

The smelter, where my father worked for years, was until recently, a dominant feature of the landscape, sending its plumes of smoke high into the air and dispersing its pollution far and wide. It coated the surrounding houses with lead dust, causing lead levels in people’s blood to soar and children were banned from living in the immediate streets around the smelter. It remains one of Australia’s most disgraceful cases of industrial pollution, and I still recall the strange smell my Dad used to bring home on his clothes every day.

In 1991 the company lobbied the government for exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act so that lead levels in its workers’ blood would be allowed to “exceed the level at which foetal damage occurs in pregnant women.”3 The application was denied but it shows very clearly the companies disregard for its workers. I’ll never forget the stinking, stagnant pools of water near the smelter, or the creek down the bottom of our street that we avoided as kids because it was filled with sludge. An old lady told us that when she was young the creek had been crystal clear and people had fished and swam in it. The smelter closed in 2003, not because of the damage it was inflicting on people’s health and the environment, but because it was no longer economically viable. The land where it stood is now a barren wasteland, and a stark reminder of the legacy of environmental neglect.

There are fewer houses to be seen on the other side of Mount Sugarloaf and more open green and gold fields, dotted with trees. It’s a God’s eye view of the world, and for a young child it was as wonderful as any place could be. Even the name of the mountain was magical, and what made it even more wonderful were the stories my parents told about the day it had snowed there in 1974. There were cars lined up all the way down the mountain, they said, and kids had had snow fights and built snow men. We sometimes slid down the grassy slope on cardboard on sunny days, and photos from this time show all of us smiling and red cheeked, with the view stretching out behind us.

Later when I got my licence I drove up the mountain regularly, and gazed down upon a world which was so rich with possibilities. I had only one dark memory of Mount Sugarloaf until recently, and I can’t help thinking about even now when I visit, after all these years. A young man who lived in the next street over from my parents murdered his girlfriend and then drove up the mountain and crashed his car, killing himself. It was a terrible, senseless tragedy and a reminder that even the most peaceful of places can be marred by ugliness and destruction.

****

I currently live many hours away from Newcastle and only get to visit my family a few times a year. It was during my most recent visit that I learned about the damage to the Sugarloaf Reserve caused by longwall mining. As I read the Newcastle Herald at my parents’ dining room table I only had to raise my eyes to see the mountain in the distance. It looked as untouched and enchanting as ever in the deepening twilight. I was overcome with burning fury as I read about the neglect and sheer contempt which has caused massive, irreversible damage from subsidence. Cliff faces have collapsed, huge cracks have opened up in the earth, and all the trees in one large area have died. Even a waterway has been filled with grout, and I imagine the anguished tears of the mountain have been frozen there in time.

The extent of the damage was uncovered by Fairfax Media reporters who visited the site to witness it for themselves. The Newcastle Herald’s photographer, Darren Pateman, wrote:  “On the journey towards Mount Sugarloaf I had no idea what to expect.” 4 What they found was concrete being pumped out to fill the myriad cracks opening up in the ground. As they followed the cracks they “slowly they became bigger. Crevices sliced through what used to be a waterfall, cutting off big slabs so any water trickling down led into dark depths….. they have tried to fill in many of the holes, but some of them are just too deep.” 5

Pateman’s horror is palpable: “Seeing the creek bed had shocked us but it paled into insignificance when we followed more trails of destruction further south and over a hill. I don't really have words to describe what we stumbled upon. The land had just given way, it was a massive chasm, like a construction site, like a bulldozer had driven through it. The sight blew us away and the amount of destruction was astonishing. It was quite eerie, imagining how the earth would have trembled and groaned when it collapsed. Once again the cracks disappeared off the edge of a cliff and continued, we could only guess how much further they travelled.” 6

Through my own tears I was reminded, as I read this, of The Scouring of the Shire, a chapter in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this chapter the Hobbits return to their beloved Shire to find it has been terribly disfigured: “It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. The great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the Water, through the rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a steaming and stinking outflow. All along the Bywater road every tree had been felled.” 7

Tolkien, of all people, would understand my anger and heartbreak over what has happened to the sacred land of my childhood. He had a deep and abiding love of nature which was expressed in his books. His views were shaped by the effects of industrialisation that he witnessed on the English countryside, and he was greatly alienated by the ugliness of the modern world with its "mass-production robot factories and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic.” 8 Tolkien has been dismissed by some as a Luddite and a hopeless romantic because he longed for an “oasis of sanity in a sea of unreason.”9 I think he just wanted to live in a world where nature and “progress” are not seen as mutually exclusive. We’ve been conditioned to believe that such a world is an impossible dream. Instead rampant, irresponsible development and endless new mining ventures are portrayed as inevitable. Economic disaster is wielded over the heads over those who dare to question the continuing reliance on fossil fuels.

The catastrophe at Sugarloaf reserve is further evidence that governments cannot be relied upon to protect the environment. Companies like Glencore act with impunity because they know the consequences for their negligence will be minimal. Sugarloaf Action Group has accused the company of ‘‘sitting on its hands for nearly a year’’ over the matter. According to the group’s president Anne Andrews, “the mine appears to be a law unto itself and the government seems happy passing the buck from one department to the next so no one has to take responsibility. This is not good enough. How can we ever trust the government’s regulation of mining when this is allowed to happen and they choose to cover it up until they are caught out by the paper?” 10

Community outrage has forced the company to take some steps towards dealing with the issue at Sugarloaf reserve, but this is like putting a band aid on a life-threatening wound. It is far too little too late. Have any lessons been learned from this and other environmental disasters? Has longwall mining been banned under conservation areas? Will the government be more vigilant in protecting the land in the future, or will they always bow to pressure from industry? The fact that new “mega” mines are being approved in the face of overwhelming consensus from the scientific community on global warming suggests that nothing is going to change. Those with vested interests pour concrete into the channels of public debate by denying the existence of climate change while “once-in-a-lifetime disasters” and “record-breaking” weather events multiply with alarming frequency.

Shortly after learning about the damage to the conservation area I went for a drive to Mount Sugarloaf with my eight year old niece, Ella. As we ascended towards the sky I wondered what state the planet will be in when she and my other three nieces are grown up. The afternoon light filtering through the trees was gentle when we got to the top, and none of the devastation is apparent from the lookout. Unlike so much else in this rapidly changing world, the smoky BBQs and old wooden benches in the picnic area were exactly as I remember them. Apart from a couple of people taking photos with their iPhones, this place felt untouched by the technological revolution of the last few decades. If you try to forget the ugliness that lies so near, the mountain is somewhere you can still go to listen to birds sing and watch clouds drift by and hear yourself think. Up here it’s easy to feel that you are part of something bigger.

As I get older I’ve become much more conscious of how precious and fragile life is. This awareness only grows stronger as I watch my parents’ age. It won’t be too long until they sell their house and move into a retirement home, and a huge part of my childhood will be gone forever. I try to cherish every moment I have with them and appreciate the beauty in the world. The love I feel for family is inextricably tied up with my love of the sky and the trees and the earth beneath my feet. When I learn of the reckless, senseless destruction of the land it feels like a huge fissure has opened in my heart. Tolkien knew that protecting the environment is not just about romanticism or good sense. When we degrade nature we degrade our own souls and lose touch with what makes us human. The land is part of us, of our bodies our heritage, our memories, our lifeblood.  How can we allow it to be treated with such contempt?  Urgent action is needed now, not tomorrow or the next day.

I still think about climbing the antennas on top of the mountain and disappearing into the swirling clouds. Maybe there’s a saner, kinder world up there where stupidity and greed don’t rule. Down on earth the monsters I was so afraid of as a child no longer lurk in the dark. Now they are bold enough to show themselves in the light of day, and there don’t seem to be any heroes brave enough or strong enough to really take them on. I try to find comfort in Tolkien’s words which seem more relevant than ever, but they can do little to stem the wound in my heart:

 The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.
But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now
mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.10

Without action to back it up it, love alone cannot save us from what lies ahead.


 

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Plains: A Short Story


 
 

Ouroborus is a tiny outpost in a vast sea of nothingness. No one can remember how the town got its name or why it took root like a desert flower on the Hay Plains in NSW, Australia, where only low bushes and clumps of brown, tussocky grass thrive beneath a barren sky. Lizards and snakes take shelter beneath the bushes from the heat and scorching winds that whip across the plains, but these are the only other living creatures to be found for miles.

The landscape around Ouroborus bears more resemblance to the moon than the earth, and for some, the sheer magnitude of the emptiness is soothing to the soul. They can lose themselves in this no man’s land and forget who they are. For others, the desolation of the land gives them nowhere to hide, and it is their own fears they try to outrun as they hurtle through the void in air conditioned cars, their eyes on the distant horizon.

***

“God, is this it?” said Danielle as they pulled up in what passed for a main street in the shitty one-horse town. There was nothing but a general store, a post office and a derelict looking pub. “What a dump. I won’t be long.”  Tom leaned back against the headrest with his eyes closed, his hands still on the steering wheel as if they were frozen in that position. She hadn’t wanted to stop here but he’d insisted he needed a break, and she couldn’t very well argue considering he’d done most of the driving since they left Adelaide.

“Get me a coke,” he said as she opened the door. These were the first words he’d spoken in almost an hour. The conversation had petered out when they got to the plains, and after a few attempts to revive it she’d given up and stared out at the flat, ugly scenery. She was still glad they’d decided to drive to Julia’s wedding instead of flying because it gave them more time alone together. They had a long way to go yet but it had done them good to catch up with old friends.

They were booked into a motel a couple of hours away for the night, and she hoped Tom didn’t want to stop here for too long. In years to come they would both look back on this day and recognise Ouroborus as a very significant landmark in their lives but now Danielle just wanted to get across the plains and back to civilization. Being out here in the middle of nowhere gave her the creeps.

The heat assaulted her as she stepped out of the car and she could feel her skin shrivelling beneath its onslaught. No wonder all the people they’d seen on the road looked so dried up and defeated. Nothing could thrive in this sun; it sucked the life out of you and left you feeling like a piece of old meat. She raised her hand to her face. Her skin felt paper thin beneath her fingers, like her grandmother’s when she’d stroked her cheek as a little girl. She immediately pictured Rebecca with her dewy, supple glow of youth, and she made a mental note to book in for a chemical peel as soon as they got back to Sydney.

Danielle realised she should have brought her hat, but she couldn’t be bothered going back to the car for it when she was already halfway across the street. She kept going, glancing around at the deserted town. It was just after three in the afternoon and apart from a couple of ancient cars parked in front of the pub, there was not a single sign of life. Even the breeze was absent.

Pushing open the door to the dim general store she expected to find some relief but it was even hotter in here. The shelves were filled with tinned and packet foods and there was a small fruit and vegies section. She looked around for the drinks fridge but it was behind the counter. There was no one in sight and she drummed her fingers on the laminated top and wished she had her phone to look at while she waited. A fly began buzzing around her head and she waved it away.

She could hear movement out the back and she cleared her throat a few times then called out, “Hello, is there anyone there?” A soft dragging sound came from that direction, as if someone very old was shuffling towards the front of the shop. A tingle danced down Danielle’s back as she waited to see who or what was going to emerge from the backroom. She smiled at her overactive imagination. She would have to tell Tom about it because it was the kind of thing they used to laugh about all the time.

Before the mysterious person could come into view something outside caught Danielle’s eye and then drew all her attention to the window. It was a long black hearse gliding slowly down the street, right past their car. The glare from the shiny vehicle was intense in the hot sun and she raised her hand to shield her eyes.  The driver wasn’t visible behind tinted windows but in the back the gold-handled coffin was covered with wreaths of red and white flowers. Danielle drew her breath in at the vision which was so unexpected it almost seemed like death itself had come calling.

 “Funeral in town today,” said a voice behind her, causing her to whip back around. “It must have just finished.” A lady with silver hair pulled back in a bun and a faded smock over her clothes stood behind the counter. She was old but not quite the withered crone Danielle had been imagining.

“Oh,” was all she could think to say.

“Sally Brown. Only 35. Three kids. Breast cancer’s what took her. Terrible disease.”

“I’m really sorry to hear that,” replied Danielle.

“Real nice lady she was, not like some of the other nut jobs around here.”

Danielle began searching through her wallet for money.  “I’m just after a couple of cold drinks. Coke will do.”

The woman didn’t answer immediately but turned and took something from a shelf behind her. “Can’t help you there, I’m afraid,” she said as she turned back. Danielle looked at her in confusion. “The power’s been out since early this morning and I don’t want to open the fridge. You’ll have to go to the pub, they’ve got a generator.” It was insect spray she held in her hand, and as she spoke she walked around to the front of the counter and took aim at the fly that had followed Danielle in. It dropped to the ground and the woman moved over to the fruit and vegetable display and waved her hand over it. A cloud of tiny insects rose up and scattered in all directions. “Damn bugs,” she muttered as she pointed the can over the top of the food and sprayed. Danielle watched in horror as the fine mist drifted down over the vegetables like summer rain.

“Okay, thanks,” she said, trying not to let her disgust show as she turned and left the store. The sound of the fly’s death throes followed her out the door. She was still shaking her head as she crossed the road and wondering who she could report the woman to when she saw that Tom was leaning against the car, smoking a cigarette. He looked so handsome in profile that the sight of him caused her heart to jump slightly in her chest. After all this time he could still affect her.

He flicked his ash as she approached then dropped the cigarette on the ground without bothering to stamp it out.

“What happened to the drinks?” he asked.

“We have to go to the pub. There’s no power anywhere else.”

“Suits me just fine. I could do with a beer.”

***

Danielle expected the pub to be deserted like the rest of the town and she was surprised to see there were over thirty people in the front room. The walls were covered with old black and white photos and it smelt of smoke, sweat and dust. Cobwebs trailed along the ceiling like wispy clouds. A couple of old men were seated at the L-shaped bar and they glanced up from their beers as they entered and then looked away without interest. Behind the men was a pool table that separated the main bar from a long section furnished with faded lounges and a wooden table with a lace cloth over it.

 Most of the people were gathered in this area and it wasn’t until they’d found a seat near the door that Danielle noticed that only the men appeared to be drinking alcohol. The women wore old-fashioned floral dresses and head scarves and all of the men had beards. They must be some kind of church group, she decided. As she continued to observe them she noticed a photo on the table of a dark haired woman. There were flowers around the photo and the table was laden with plates of homemade food.

“Oh no, we have to get out of here,” she whispered urgently to Tom. “We’ve walked into a wake.”

“Oh shit. Well, they wouldn’t have let us in if it was private,” he whispered back. “We’ll just stay out of the way over here.” Feeling very uncomfortable Danielle tried not to stare at the mourners as she sipped her drink, but there was one man she couldn’t look away from. His sadness was etched so deeply into his face that he looked like a statue of grief. Three children, including a little girl with long blonde hair in plaits clung to his side and she guessed they were Sally Brown’s family. The girl was around the same age as Emily and Maddy. Danielle smiled gently at her, but she turned away and buried her head in her father’s sleeve. Oh, what a waste of life to be taken so young, she thought. And those poor children left without a mother. The unfairness of it tore at her heart and reminded her of how important it was for them to work things out for their own girls’ sake.

Pulling her eyes away from the melancholy scene she told Tom about the strange woman in the store. He just grunted in response. “Can you imagine living somewhere like this? It would be so hard,” she said, trying to coax him into conversation.

“I don’t know, it might be nice to escape from all the stress,” he replied.

“And what do you have to be so stressed about?” she asked, her tone light and teasing. “I think we’ve got it pretty good compared to a lot of other people. At least we have each other.”  Unconsciously she glanced back at the bereaved husband.

Tom didn’t answer for a long moment but just stared into his drink. “You’ve really got no idea have you, Danielle,” he said finally, looking up.

“I was just kidding, we all have stress from time to time, it’s part of life,” she said, trying to divert the conversation away from the dark alley he seemed intent on dragging it into.

“It’s more than stress. I haven’t been happy in a long time but every time I try to talk to you about it you just don’t want to hear.”

 A lead weight dropped onto her chest. “My God, you’re still seeing Rebecca. That’s what this is about, isn’t it?”

 “No.” The word was said softly but it came from a place of such deep anger and frustration that it exploded in her ears. “This isn’t about Rebecca, it never has been. It’s about me, about us and what we’re going to do.”

“But we’re fine, everything is fine between us now. This trip is proof of that. Haven’t we had a good time?” she said, her voice rising.

“This is exactly what I mean, Danielle, you never listen,” he said. “You never listen and you never see what to see what you don’t want to see. I can’t do this anymore.”

 “What do you mean you can’t do this? You can’t just give up like that. I thought we agreed you need to focus on your family and get over this early midlife crisis or whatever it is before you destroy everything…….” The rest of her words were drowned by a deafening roar from outside.

Tom swallowed his beer in one gulp and stood up abruptly. “I’m getting another drink,” he said. Danielle watched as he walked towards the bar but then kept going right past it. He disappeared through a door leading out the back. She wanted to follow him but his words had been like a punch in the stomach and she couldn’t stand up. As she tried to compose herself the front door of the pub flew open and a man with the black leathers and tattoos of a bikie stood on the threshold. Behind him were two other men dressed the same way. They didn’t appear to be locals and as they entered they glanced around like animals staking out their territory before claiming the pool table as their own.

Danielle barely noticed them or the tiny bugs struggling to stay afloat in her drink as she stirred it mechanically with a straw. As her shock subsided, anger arose to take its place and she stood up and walked out the back to the beer garden where Tom had gone. There was nothing out there but dry grass and the skeleton of a lizard trapped beneath an upturned glass on one of the tables. Back inside she asked the middle aged barmaid if she’d seen Tom. The woman was wearing a sleeveless singlet top and her upper arms wobbled as she pulled a beer, reminding Danielle of her own loosening flesh. Was that why he didn’t want her anymore, why he’d found somewhere younger and firmer like Rebecca? She could have worked harder to stay toned, and she still could if he’d just give them another chance.

The barmaid hadn’t seen him so Danielle went back to the car in case he’d gone there, but it was locked and empty and Tom was nowhere in sight. Her phone was in her bag inside the car so she had no option but to go back to the pub and wait for him there. This time she sat outside on the veranda and watched the trucks roar through town, barely slowing down even though it was a 50km area. The air was thick with diesel fumes as they passed.

“It’s the UFOs, you know,” said an old man with a white beard sitting a couple of tables away from her. He was the only other person on the veranda.

“What?”

“On the plains. That’s what brings them here.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replied, hoping he’d take the hint and leave her alone.

The man got up and moved to the table next to hers. “Them lot in there. They’re waiting for the UFOS to come and take them away to somewhere better. They think if they wish and hope for it enough it will come true. They spend their whole lives preparing.” Danielle vaguely remembered reading something about a religious cult that lived out this way, but it was the last thing she cared about at this moment.

“I don’t believe in UFOs,” she said dully.

“But you should,” he moved his chair closer, scraping it across the cement. “It’s not like that lot think, but they do come at night. I’ve seen the lights on the plains.” His eyes shone and Danielle flinched as he leaned in closer to her. “They might come tonight.”

“I have to find my husband now,” she said, getting up and stumbling towards the door leading back into the bar. Her eyes were stinging with unshed tears and she wasn’t watching where she was going when she crashed hard into someone coming the other way.  The man was built like a road train, and even before she looked up she knew it was one of the bikies who’d come in earlier. As her gaze moved over him she noticed he had a large tattoo on his upper arm of a serpent swallowing its tail. She expected him to be irritated but to her great surprise she found only sympathy in his expression.  

 “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, steadying her with a hand on the shoulder. He had obviously mistaken her for one of the mourners and she shook her head and tried to correct the mistake.

 “Oh no, I’m not …...” For some reason the words wouldn’t come. The tears she’d been holding back spilled down her cheeks instead.  “Thank you,” was all she could manage to get out as he patted her on the shoulder before and moving away. She had lost something and she could no longer deny it. Tom might still be in their marriage physically but in his heart he had left her a long time ago, and no amount of wishing and hoping was ever going to change that. It was time for her to accept the fact that her marriage was over and that her husband didn’t love her anymore. This was one thing she’d never be able to fix not matter how hard she tried.

***

She found him an hour later in a tiny park on the edge of town, just staring into the distance. The afternoon shadows were beginning to stretch over the land and the temperature was dipping with the sun. She took a seat beside him without saying anything. There was nothing to see at all out there except emptiness, but for some reason she couldn’t look away.

“You could just walk into it and disappear,” he said softly. “No one would ever find you.”

“You don’t really want to disappear, do you, Tom?” He turned to look at her, shook his head almost imperceptibly.

“Come on, let’s have one more drink,” she said, standing up. She was not in a rush to leave now. There was no reason to hurry. The old man was still sitting on the veranda when they returned to the pub. He called out to them as they passed him.

 “They’ll be here soon, I can feel it in the air. The planets are aligning and there are big changes coming. You do believe me, don’t you?”

 Danielle tried to smile at him as Tom held the door open for her and she stepped back into the pub. The UFOs might not come tonight but there was some truth in the man’s words. Nothing would ever be the same again.