3:06am. He’s crying. The father groggily wakes and looks at the digital clock on the bedside table. The shrouded corpse far across the bed doesn’t move. He hears the seconds dripping.
3:05am. He’s still crying, even if time has ticked backwards. Confused at first, he realises it was 3:05 then 3:06. But the last three hours sleep? Gone in an eye blink. He’s still crying.
And once his other eye opens, the real day will begin. Post the forced wake up, yesterday’s washing must be hung out, snack for breakfast, shower in between, shave while not being cut by an unsteady hand, the new washing hung out to dry, perhaps most of last night’s housework, then the final reluctant rush to work. She’ll sleep through. And the son too.
Maybe a deep sleep on the bus might save me, he thinks. Yeah! But that’s some hope! Then nine hours of bobbing his head up and down with the interruptions and interrogations every minute or so. Selfish people with trivial wants, urgent phone calls or exaggerated crises. Then he’ll tank ten cups too much of coffee. And on the way home, he’s as jittery as Methuselah the bus driver.
And silently, as a burglar, he enters the empty house of no welcome. A kitchen of bowls, cups, saucers, baby bottles, plastic spoons and congealed saucepans. The lounger with scattered clothes both clean and dirty to be gathered, or worse. Somewhere in the fridge, there is a covered dinner of leftovers. Usually his only friends are the freezer, the microwave and frozen pizza.
He slips hopefully unnoticed to visit to his son. As he creeps through the hallway, she’s there. The mother of their child, back to the nursery door, wordless and childless, a pillar of salt with eyes blazing.
He draws close. He takes the usual half step backwards. Then he pushes down the door handle and skips into the open space. If he’s quick, he’ll glimpse his son. Some days he doesn’t make it that far.
“Perhaps this is the day,” he says to himself. “The day when St Thomas finds out who his father really is.”
There he is, in yesterday’s dirty jumpsuit. A covered head, a small contorted face, dolls hands protruding. “My son?” he thinks. He reaches to touch the arms stretched each side of the cot. He stops his breath to listen to the whispered intake of another’s. But she steps inside, blocks his way, steps into him and shuts the door.
“I didn’t disturb him,” he soundlessly whispers. But the standard admonishment is always administered.
Then the flight back to the kitchen, the clothesline and the laundry. Undresses himself in the dark, and slips unnoticed into bed. To sleep wakefully.
3:06am. He checks. Yes they are now both awake. Dreamily, he finds a small mercy. That cry isn’t the endless one-note scream. He forages for the proper definition: a night terror?
A terror shared both by father and son. For nothing can wake her.
If it was that one-note call from hell, it would be okay. He would be at battle stations ready to repel demon boarders. He’d sprint in the dark. He’d take a nanosecond to snatch the child from cot. Forget about unlatching the cot side. Leave that for later. He’s stolen the baby. For then there’s the piercing shriek that dissolves them both. Then that hour long second to pass inconsolable baby to consoling mother. Then silence. Then the bottomless ocean of post pregnant sleep. Which only subtracts a little more from him.
It’s the mummy cry, he recognises. Not to be confused with the daddy cry. Perhaps that doesn’t exist, he thinks. It might if fathers could become pregnant. No it’s the natural order of things, he muses. But it’s still wrong.
“How can she sleep through this? It’s her cry, not mine.” Perhaps a few more moments and she will wake…
He dunks face first into the first pillow, then smothers the back of his head with the other. He turns over and in on himself. He binds himself in his blanket. And he sets a imaginary alarm. She’ll wake this time and there will be peace for all.
Eyes half open he watches and sleeps. The pile of blankets to his right doesn’t move. She’s going to sleep through.
3:07 He’s still crying. Was there a minute of sleep? He can’t remember. In the dusk, the wall of sheets and blankets opposite is unclimbable. But a small gap, might be enough. If he gently disturbs her, she’ll softly wake, yawn and stretch, hear her baby, go to him, St Thomas will be comforted.
And it will be like the old joke. Now we all can get some sleep. That’s the punchline but what was the joke? He scrabbles across and meets two pillows, one on top of another, pressed down under the blankets. He could burrow through but the danger of course is real. For once awake, there will be the usual set-to in front of the baby.
Yet again it’s come to this, he thinks. Maybe this will be the time, when he’ll be lulled to sleep by his father. And know it.
That would be a welcome addition. Then St Thomas will know he’s not a baby napping stranger. Or an absentee father practising for the future. Knowing that, we both can sleep, peaceably, however long that takes. With his mother grateful for the sleep won.
Now, he’s the reproached lover who has started the long walk back. He approaches the cot, walking on the sides of his feet, approaching unheard. But he’s caught out again, even before unlatching the cot. Same as last night. Same as yesterday. Same as the last three months. Or four?
Through the cry, he hears rustling. He looks back. Blankets, sheets and pillows have flown upwards and outwards. The mother, dishevelled, now a phantom. She strides quickly towards the nursery. He’s too tired to shrug off the blow. He never did duck or flinch before. In case you’re wondering , he rehearses, the mark is shaving rash. That is, if anyone asks.
What is she doing? She’s plucking her head. Pulling her hair out? She’s pulling at her ears. Two or three snatches then, two bright objects appear. She throws the earplugs to the floor.
She bares her white teeth and snarls. “Why didn’t you wake me?” Most of that is lost as St Thomas screams even more loudly. She gathers the child, still robed in her blanket and departs to her queendom.
He’s left standing there, too tired to rub his cheek. He thinks, it’s too late to go back to sleep. But too close to dawn to get up. Same and again.
One happy addition, as they say, but all subtractions from now, he thinks. Twelve weeks, two days out, now, isn’t it? Or is that when mother and child came home? Twelve years after that. Then the six or so teenage years. Chained in a land he will never understand.
3:11. He’s crying.
I paid my money didn’t I? I should be able to take my choice then? No, not when NYC Midnight have their flash fiction competition.
One thousand carefully chosen words, a genre, a scene and an object chosen at random. Forty Eight hours to write it.
And on Saturday 15th July, the email arrived. Genre: Ghost Story, Scene: A Basement, Object: A Tattoo Machine.
I had to find out what a tattoo machine is, didn’t I? That was the easy part. A quick Google search and I found one.
I even listened to recordings of tattoo machines. Which reminded me of the dentist’s drill. That at least ended up in the story. But after listening to that, there was no way I was going to be inked in the name of research.
But me? A ghost story? My first reaction was: I haven’t written any. I was wrong. I’ve written two. One fact. One fiction. Still I researched my genre. And read some ghost stories, some great, some indifferent. And brought to mind my secret love of Edgar Allan Poe.
But a basement. I really don’t know what to do in a basement…Self doubt occurred early. But I persisted…
I scrabbled and scrambled for thoughts. Then came the flood of nefarious ghost-like events. I wrote them out. Then…
I revised what I had written. And threw it all away. Somewhere, somebody is looking at my lost notes and saying, “I wouldn’t write that either.”
Then the premise arrived. The idea was a ghost requesting permission…But I won’t add to that otherwise it would spoil the story.
And I wrote it. And I was pleased with it. But there was a problem…
The rewriting. The last time I wrote a short story (The Great Blow), I went on a re-writing frenzy. Eight or nine rewrites until I could take it no more.
This story (called Ghost Tattoo) was rewritten about four or five times. I only realised it when I posted it on the competition forum. Some of the feedback was similar. And when I read the story, I realised they were right. A few more rewrites…Still when I receive the judge’s feedback, I will rewrite it. And post it. And learn my lesson. Otherwise I will have to take the test again!
Up ahead, in the twilight, two traffic lights turned green. The first traffic light meant that the two cars ahead of me moved forward. Towards the bridge : now single lane as it was under repair. The second traffic light was across that bridge. Waiting to go across was a semi-trailer. I can still hear the sound as it blew its horn. I can still see its searchlights switched on. I can still remember it start to cross the bridge. Against the lights.
I was tired. I had worked back. I had taken the long route home. I had forgotten that the narrow bridge at Maclean, north of Jimboomba in South-East Queensland was being extended. With the only one lane open filled with an oncoming truck.
The two cars ahead quickly pulled off to the side. The cars banked up behind me stopped. The truck sped up towards me. I had perhaps fifteen seconds left.
I couldn’t go forward. I couldn’t move to the side, the two cars had left no room. I couldn’t reverse, the cars behind me were too close. I was in the only space left. I had ten seconds until the truck either went around me or through me. And he was speeding up. It was me versus truck. I briefly thought of abandoning the car like the movie Duel. Except Dennis Weaver didn’t have an LPG tank in the trunk.
I did the only thing left. I clunked the Holden HQ’s gear into reverse. I remember the whine of the engine. I looked forward for the truck. And backward along the road. I was reversing the car around the queue. On the truck’s side of the road. But that’s where I was now anyway. But I did know that not far behind me, the road widened. Hopefully there would be a space for me. I didn’t know how many seconds I had left.
I can remember thinking, I don’t know why at the time, the word “Angels!” But by then the truck had roared past me. I had found a space.
I had to wait an extra fifteen minutes as I was now at queue’s end. It didn’t bother me. I sang instead. I rather enjoyed it.
Post Script : I wrote about the incident in a letter to the editor to two of the local newspapers. Both published me. I also took the other way home.
I had to laugh (out loud on the train)! For My Dad, Kevin Whalan’s latest blog,opens with the same words as the following speech, written and delivered in 2001, while I was going through…
“Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage “
Well, you don’t see that any more do you?
Do I mean horse and carriage or love and marriage?
There is a hidden pandemic of loneliness occurring right now.
It’s called second and third marriage or permanent singlehood.
Actually it’s really divorce.
Most marriages fail. Most second or third marriages fail. Most divorces fail too!
What is the triumph of hope over experience? A second marriage!
But all is not lost! Like flowers in the desert after a rain shower, a new industry has sprouted to upend this trend.
Books, radio shows, tapes, videos, courses, even laws and of course marriage counsellors are lining up to help you and your loved one out of your marriage! I have checked out some of these resources. Unfortunately, few have been helpful.
But I did find something. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, when you take away what’s left, whatever remains, no matter how strange it is, is the answer.
Or what I might call Whalan’s law of failure, success is the path you take when all else has failed!
My neighbour loaned me a book. The basic idea of that book was that the man is the problem. And if he helped around the house a little bit more: let’s just set the scene…
The wife has gone out somewhere or is working and has come home late. The husband has just finished washing up and is putting away the dishes. He’s a bit bald, maybe a bit of a paunch, but tonight to the wife, he has never looked more attractive. When she comes home, she is so glad to see him… scene cuts to the flames burning fiercely in the fireplace.
So you men, if you wash up marital bliss waits. Maybe even a second honeymoon. I wonder what do I get for doing the washing and my own ironing too?
One other book, which I bought and attracts dust, also says the man is the problem. If the man stopped going to the footy or cricket, stopped watching TV, didn’t go out with his friends, gave up his favourite hobbies then marital bliss awaits. Just spend more time with your wife and family.
But I ask you, what man has enough time to do all of this and the housework as well?
And suppose women are the problem.
Yet another book says the above. Laura Doyle’s “The Surrendered Wife: A Practical guide to finding intimacy, passion and peace with a man”. Luckily for me I haven’t read it even silently or aloud to my wife or coloured in the pictures.
For instance her advice is for the woman to stop nagging the man, even covering her mouth with duct tape to do so. She should say, “Whatever you say, dear? “ Talk about the inaudible language of love!
The woman should always say “Yes” and be available for the man. What does this mean? Maybe I should get the book…
The woman should never ever tell the man he is wrong. Does this mean that I’m always right! I can’t remember that time!
Or as I saw in a leaflet which prided itself as a prescription for marital bliss. It suggested that when the husband came home from work, the wife should have all the children lined up to greet him all squeaky clean and neatly dressed. The wife should be perfumed and also neatly dressed, made up etc. She should do all the cooking and housework and hang on every word the husband says.
Obviously, the wife does not work and the children are robotic. Not even in the Brady Bunch, could they make this happen. Even with Alice and Carol Brady slaving away…
It seems ridiculous that Ms Doyle can write a book saying the way to marital bliss is to let the husband do as he pleases. Please no cheering men, for if what she says is true, men are Neanderthals with a no thickening veneer of civilisation and have to be appeased.
It always seems to me that its either the man is the Conqueror and the wife Surrendered. The women’s liberationists hate that and rightly so!
Or the other way around. The man is submissive and the woman a conqueror.
Maybe there’s a market for a book called the Surrendered Man. It would probably sell to the sensitive new age guys (you know, the ones with boyfriends) and I would have the other copy.
Maybe we should live like accountants, counting up and valuing every task and redeeming them for prizes. Like a game show.
Is there no common ground between men and women except mutual selfishness? Its that the answer?
Or is there not another way?
Maybe there’s a market for a book, video series, etc, called the Surrendered Spouse where both husband and wife promise to live for each other alone.
Maybe they could commit to mutual respect and work together and find that two people can do more together than each alone!
Maybe instead of trying to change each other for selfish gain, they could just change themselves one day at a time.
My point is that the only person you can change in your marriage or any part of your life is yourself. How is up to you !
That takes more courage than slavishly following a reverse tit for tat marriage manual.
Perhaps then marriage (And Life Itself) be an unfinished symphony!
“You over-research too much,” she said to me.
I looked up from my desk, covered in academic papers. Then down at the floor, strewn with textbooks, references and more academic papers.
“Do I? I suppose I do.” My wife shook her head at me.
My name is Andrew and I am an over researcher.
My affliction isn’t confined to my studies, now discontinued, it overflows into the workplace and most recently into my writing. I’m insatiably curious. My excuse, as was said to me is “But I want to know everything.”
What I don’t do is approach a topic seeking facts to satisfy a decided point of view. I can’t actually. I do have a question that needs answering. But I don’t know all the answers, even when I’m finished.
Which means the strangest things happen to me when I take this journey.
As happened when I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story competition. I was one of 3000 writers who compete in three rounds. Each writer is placed in a heat, allocated a word limit, a period, a topic, a genre and a character. The first round required a 2500 word story in a week, then 2000 words in 3 days, then 1500 words in 24 hours. The winner was Sarah Martin’s The Undertaker. It is a gorgeous and touching story.
My first round genre was historical fiction, my character a Train Conductor and my topic was a Bushfire. I was daunted. I have never written historical fiction before. What I do know as described by Natasha Lester, author of A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald, was that it required immense and accurate research.
Not really knowing where to start, I choose an Australian angle. Surely, in a vast country, often riven with bushfires, spanned by an extensive rail network, surely there would be such a story. Surely the 1977 Blue Mountains bushfires would have such an incident. I found much about how bushfires are fought, how the technology has changed and how the railways do deal with bushfires. Surely not.
My searches kept turned up another disaster, the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894. I ignored that. I didn’t want to write about that. Meanwhile the days dripped away. But I found nothing that could start a story. My over research was now becoming an over reach.
With only a few days left, I surrendered. And found my story. In fact, two stories. One was the well-known one of the Canadian engineer James Root and how he led a rescue train to safety. The conductor, I felt, only had a peripheral involvement. The second story is more obscure involving a rescue under the supervision of a train conductor named Powers.
Finally! I had found what I was looking for. But I had not yet completed my journey.
Then I became immersed in this story. The newspaper reports, several books and a chronicle written afterwards detailed an apocalyptic horror. The fire, or rather fires, were too extensive and fast to fight or flee. There are stories of impossible survival, people sheltering in ponds, creeks and cellars and pure tragedy where people standing side by side survived or died. Clearly, there are many, many stories that can be told of this event.
Mine went like this.
Hinckley in Minnesota was a logging town and the junction of two railways. After two months of drought, September 1, 1894, was a hot and oppressive day. While fires were common due to thoughtless forestry practices, a temperature inversion (cold air above hot air), resulted in two major fires becoming a firestorm. Ultimately, the town itself and a large area burnt until the fire stopped.
James Root’s train was approaching the town and had to turn back, picking up survivors until they reversed to safety. Unfortunately, not everyone survived. Powers, however, was the conductor of a train that was trapped in Hinckley when the fire struck. They couldn’t leave. Their route out was blocked by a recently arrived goods train. A decision was made to join the two trains together and flee the town. As they began, buildings and house started exploding around them. They waited, then took as many people as they could. They then backed the train at speed through the fire. They picked up survivors as they ultimately crossed a burning trestle bridge to safety.
That was my story. I detested it. I had written a third-person newspaper report summary. This happened, then that happened, Powers did this, his crew did that and they made it to safety. Yes it was a story. But all the while another story was unfolding itself to me. I just was refusing to listen to it. The deadline drew nearer. I started to despair. It looked like the story would not be submitted.
I thought about my dilemma. I then looked for what surprised me. It was the incredibly strong religious beliefs of both the immigrants (mainly Scandinavian) and the first settlers. The Native Americans’ stories sadly weren’t chronicled in much detail. In recounting the disaster, every person described it in apocalyptic terms using Nordic or Christian metaphors. So often people described the fire as appearing from nowhere rather than approaching from any distance. My over-research was about to become useful.
For it was then that the story revealed itself to me. Through Power’s eyes, this would be the end of the world exactly as described from the pulpit and the Bible. And worse, he had delayed the departure of the train to gather more stragglers. And his point of decision was at the burning trestle bridge. And it only had immediacy if I wrote it in first person.
Fifty minutes later it was written.
The story didn’t go beyond the first round. However, the judges’ feedback was deeply appreciated. And I had learnt immensely.
Here is the Great Blow.
My name is Andrew and I am an over-researcher. I’m also a curious and reflective one.
Hardly a call to feminism is it? With a title like “An Open Letter to Neo-Masculinists, MRAs, and General Dudebros Everywhere”, it just has to be click bait. Besides what the heck is a Dude-Bro? I checked the Urban Dictionary and its not me!
But Oliver Chaseling make his point. If you’re a man who is afraid of feminism then you are afraid of your own masculinity.
Then I don’t know what is wrong with me. Did I take the Blue Pill? The one where “You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.” Which isn’t me I’m afraid.
Perhaps it’s Mum’s fault. But then my brother is the same. We were brought up to treat women with respect. We were never brought up to control them. And in the falling forward that is life and learning to walk, I found that I had one job. That job is to ensure others gain their absolute best potential and that others don’t lose out to the worst one has experienced.
Which isn’t masculinity. Masculinity sadly is limiting. Chaseling calls it a tower. Masculinity separates men from women. Women on the other hand see feminism as unifying and freeing.
Fortunately, some men (#notallmen!!!) see feminism as an alternative. One where they can truly be themselves without having to fake masculinity! How do you fake something you’re not good at? That’s masculinity defined!
Besides I’m exasperated with people who focus on those differences alone. They have the same arguments over and again. See any random sample of social media (even the Quasi-Presidential tweets!) for verification.
Yes its Us versus Them. Feminism versus Masculinity. Left versus Right. Winners versus Losers.
Conflict is so boring that I’d rather explore the horizons that we have in common. I’d rather stop yelling. Listen a little. Learn a lot. And wait for the time (like Chaseling) until the barriers dissolve. Then we all can do some good and have some fun! Sounds like anti-masculinity, doesn’t it? I’d rather call it compassion.
If I wait long enough a story appears. It’s my calling to catch and keep it. Usually a pen or Evernote is in reach. Then the work begins: to unravel the story into most of its truth. The rest is for the reader or remains unknown.
Like unravelling a twisted string strand by strand….or unwrapping a layered gift.
Writing is putting pen to paper. Writing is also eliciting words from a reluctant place. And the standard methods that work for other writers may not work. They don’t work for me. I have had to find my own way.
Short stories, yes.
Poetry, yes though not all the time.
Blogs, pages of scribbled and reorganised lines.
Novels, next subject, move along nothing left to see here.
Isn’t there a saying that everyone has a novel in them? I have two. Two and a half. Both and a half will stay unpublished most likely. For there’s no happy ending for heroine or author in either effort.
Reputedly, authors reputedly are either planners or pantsers. In my day job, I’m a planner. I have to be. Otherwise its thank you, good night and bad luck. But after hours, it doesn’t work.
For both novels, I created the story then wrote an outline. It looked great. It even conformed with the hero’s journey. Another tick. Following on I was then able to fill in the gaps. Up to a point.
Then I became stuck. The story refused to stay still. It defied the structure set for it. Each time, each novel had to be set aside.
And of course, I felt miffed. It’s a blog, I’m a writer, miffed isn’t the exact word here. In despair, I returned to short stories, blogs and poetry. Every so often I did try to revitalise the two novels but I didn’t succeed.
I hadn’t learn the lesson set out for me. Like that saying I received the test over and over again.
Until I carried out the following short story exercise. Take a character and sketch out six situations, three highlights and three lowlights.
My first attempt didn’t work. It was pretentious garbage. It now resides in my own personal slush pile.
But my second try…in three quarters of an hour’s work, I had written the synopsis of six possible short stories. Then I wrote them.
Then an oddity intruded. I found I could add to this series, in the future and in the past. I could tell the next part of each story. As the heap of stories increased, I asked myself what the motivation was for these stories. On a whim, I added that as well and the results astounded me.
When other writers asked me, what I was doing, I’d say, “I have all these short stories. I keep adding to them. I haven’t finished. I don’t really know what’s going on.”
Then again, I tried to fit it to a structure. I specifically used the hero’s journey. And here again I became stuck. For the story didn’t fit. Then I tried the heroine’s journey. It mostly worked. Yet it was not a novel. It was a series of short stories that follow a narrative.
And I was left wondering, can this be done? Has anyone done a story in this way? No answer to that question until…
The next conversation with my writers group. I mention what I’m doing again. Then I’m asked, “Have you heard of Junot Diaz?” I say, “No”. Then another person says, “He’s good, you’ll like him.”
I google Junot Diaz. He writes short stories revolving around a single character. He’s also a fan of the original BBC TV series of Edge of Darkness : a mini-series in which each episode is a story that stand she alone. We have more than one thing in common.