Andrew James Whalan

Poet Blogger Writer

Tag: writing

The Great Blow

I couldn’t feel the heat through my uniform. I couldn’t smell the smoke that made me cough. I couldn’t even hear the roar of the wildfire.

The hell and brimstone I heard preached so often is happening to me.

And I pray. I place myself in front of God, in faith. It’s like the book of Revelations, I’m amongst the elders, all of us importuning him, surrounded by this fire.

I pray some more. But things just get worse. I cannot pray, its no use, he can’t hear me over the praise of the elders and the firestorm’s roar.

Perhaps it would be easier to join those already lost. A fate too hurtful to behold, let alone poorly describe. Men, women, children, even horses and livestock touched then aflame, then blackened to nothing.

But for me it would be a double damnation. It won’t avoid the certain punishment to be levied upon me for sending people to their death.

My charges and I were in windowed wooden coffins. In better times, you would call them train carriages. But with flames underneath and cyclonic gusts around, we were going to be crushed and cremated. All of us in this life and me in the next.

I remember looking at Edward Barry’s locomotive, the box cars filled with the last refugees and the caboose up front. And I thought, if salvation came to them, it would be more painful than to us. But it would be quicker.

And as for mine, I’m in a carriage where no-one can move. Women, children, some men and their belongings piled like sacks of wheat. I know they’re crying, praying, perhaps even screaming. But I can’t hear them over the roar.

And outside! It’s as dark as night from the firestorm’s clouds. Yet I see the dance and weave of Elijah’s fire as it leaps and jumps every which way. White, red, yellow, orange even blue lightning falls from the sky. Sheet, forked, even ball, lightning that is pure flame.

Next to the line, away from the rails, I see burning telegraph poles, no use wiring anyone now, its too late. And stumps, leaves, branches and sawdust too turned to ashes as if struck by lightning. Let alone the torches that are the trees. A fire that never ends. Even Elijah stopped calling down fire from heaven when so entreated.

And I entreat God again. For now I have fallen forward in front of him. I cannot stand in his presence. I ask that if I could stand that it would be in their stead. Lord, my life for their lives. This is all I ask Lord.

Then I could go down to the depths, sure and certain of that one truth. That I have been damned to all eternity for my irresponsibility. And my small comfort, a drop of water on my hell parched tongue, that I saved the lives of my charges.

He sends me from his presence. Perhaps he couldn’t hear me over the fire. Perhaps the elders were praising him and their voices drowned out mine. Perhaps the saviour’s last but one words were true and he really had forsaken me.

I knew how King David felt. He had to choose Absalom’s life or the plagues on his people. I have chosen a plague of fire.

I had always hoped that I’d lose my faith ere the few breaths before I expired. Hopelessly now I list the many ways we could die. For the cyclone could blow us off the track, telegraph poles could hit the train or fallen trees block the track, the locomotive could derail. Or the windows smash and flames fill the carriage. Or we get cremated. Or…

The train quickened up then. We had left Sandstone. Or what would be left of it. The wildfire too started to be left behind. Next is the trestle at Kettle Creek. I hoped that was the sanctuary where those poor unfortunate souls tried to flee. The ones that didn’t board the train at Sandstone and thought they could out run the fire to safety.

Yes I saw along the way that some of them didn’t make it. How they died, words cannot describe. One moment they were running, the next the fire like a rattlesnake took them in its coils.

If we get over that bridge, then there’s a quarter mile or so between us and this wildfire. And then I can start believing again.

But the train stopped. I push myself up, squat, stretch and stand now hoping no one has seen me fall.

My door opens and the dark moves. A charred black brakeman from the freight train. I don’t recognise him. Even though he’s short, squat, much like all of his ilk.

He speaks. I’m relieved. He is a man, alive. He’s no dark phantom sent to haunt me before my demise. I can’t hear him over the roar. Doesn’t he know that? His lips move like a wooden floor groove. He might as well be silent.

I don’t need to hear him. For I know what he will say. He’s about to tell me that we can’t go on. That the caboose, box cars or locomotive in front of us cannot move. The fire has won the race to the Kettle Creek trestle.

I haven’t answered him. In his rising panic, I can only see his gloves as he starts pushing and shoving me backwards and forwards. He’s being insubordinate and I mean to deal with him accordingly. There’s no time for his anger.

I got angry then. Real angry. I mean I should be angry at God but that did Job no good at all. Nope, I’m angry at me.

I grab his overalls and draw him close. He shouts in my ear, “Powers, the Kettle River trestle is alight.”

He’s asking me if we should go on. I’m the conductor and these are my charges. But it’s already too late. Because of me.

This steel and wood trestle is the only way back to Superior. But now the fire has won and it will take all of us.

This was the wildfire that had turned buildings to flames before my eyes. And then melted fireman’s hoses. And had stopped the train from being watered. And had fused the tracks as they left. And now had finally chased us down.

These last two dry and crackling months had sullied the beautiful Minnesota landscape. Hills once peopled with pencil pines, olive and green meadows all competing with each other to catch the passer’s eye were now an ochre treeless desert.

Today, September 1st was so hot I felt I was living in a pan with the lid on. And on the journey to Hinckley, the smoke which looked like a mist at first became thicker and darker until it was as night. And I noticed something queer : sometimes the leaves, and sawdust and branches left by the sawyers were smouldering.

But that didn’t prepare me for what happened when we arrived late afternoon. We weren’t even a quarter of hour by my watch’s reckoning before fire fell from the sky onto Hinckley. Now so many times, on this very railroad line, I’ve seen fire creep through grass and sweep through trees but I never saw anything like that. Or hope to again.

Then the wildfire engulfed the town. People appeared from everywhere, a crushing crowd rushing the train. Men pushing women and children and their baggage just piling on the train in no order at all. Too soon the carriages were full. And there were more people pushing and shoving.

Somewhere in that tumult the freight train arrived. As it soon as it did we knew it wasn’t going anywhere. The heat had melted the turntable.

I don’t know who got it into their heads first, but William Best and Edward Barry and myself took it on ourselves to hook the caboose, three box cars and the loco to my train.

We helped the crowds onto the box cars. It was all women and children as far as I could tell. Any men that made it were infirm. I remember the children crying as if they were my own.

And then it was time to go. Edward Barry sounded the whistle. The train didn’t move. William Best had put on the emergency brake.  I went to see. And he leant out and pointed.

For there was a new crowd of people, scared, wild eyed and pushing forward. Perhaps some of these were from the gravel pit or other parts of town I couldn’t tell in the dark and the noise.

I delayed the train some more. I went forward and helped pile them in the box car. I was lifting children up and over each other. One of the boys, a tall strapping fine fellow, started helping from inside. A couple of the little ones around him joined in. We managed to get all the women and children aboard.

But by then, paint was peeling off the box cars. I ran back to my carriage. I turned and saw grown men falling down as if dead. Only a hundred or so yards away.

“Can you wait?” A woman small, standing there. “My daughter…”

But a clap of thunder silences the roar of the fire. I turn. Buildings are exploding as if dynamited. I didn’t think. I just acted. I grabbed her arm and pulled her aboard. We got out of Hinckley fast enough before the ties and rails melted. It was too late for the rest of them by then.

Now I’m still angry. Not at God. Now there’s a waste of time arguing. For I know he will outlast me. I’m not even angry anymore for letting the train go late. For I’m not doing enough now. And that makes up my mind for me.

The brakeman asks again. He runs back to the locomotive. The train moves forward. I must have nodded.  I was struck silent.

I turn back to my charges. I don’t know what to do. I bowed my head and pray hopelessly. It was the only way I knew how. In the midst of my desperate reverie, I felt a gaze alight on me, like a match struck in the dark. I almost laughed at that ironic thought.

I opened my eyes. The first thing I see is a moving heap of coats and dresses. I squint a little. The two eyes that are its inhabitant stare right through me. She looks the size of a six or seven year old. I’m not much figuring ages that’s my wife’s purview I’m afraid.

A ragamuffin girl, perhaps it’s all the clothes she has ever had. They’re falling off her, a street urchin, skinny, bony, looks like nobody’s orphan to me. She must have sneaked aboard when I was looking the other way.

She speaks. At first I hear nothing over the roar.

She doesn’t have to say it again. For my years of being a train conductor have given me one unsung skill.

“My soul clings to you, your right hand upholds me,” I lip read.

I hear another voice, one that fills the train, a voice that only I can hear now. The one I had been waiting for.

I start to go backward through the train. It seems almost cooler now. Perhaps providence has sent us a breath of air. I straighten my cap, sip the new air and check my watch chain.

I tip toe through the pile of bodies. I’m fearful of waking them up. But more fearful of them drowning or burning in their sleep.

I wake the men, infirm though they are, roughly with a push or shove. Or a squeeze of their shoulder. But I apply no such ministrations to the women or children, though, a touch of the hand is enough.

I look for God’s ragamuffin but she has disappeared. Perhaps she hid herself under a seat. There’s no time now to go a looking for her.

I don’t shout. That moment’s past. I might as well be Job arguing with God when he spoke from the storm.

Then the shudder that we knew would come runs through all of us. The carriages are starting to cross the bridge. I shiver and shudder myself and will the train across each beam of the bridge.

I only found out later that the trestle fell when we were two thousand yards ahead of it. But by then we had made it back. Over more burning trestles that wouldn’t fall.

I had given up on my fear by then.

Call This Love

You call this the essence of love
It's banal and colourless to me
I can't keep the quickened heart
Or hold the lovers silvered eye

You rest in this so complete love
Always too soon it passes me by
And that languid lingering caress
Becomes the swift kiss goodbye

You tag this an endless love
For at the end of that day
When the springs run dry
All but me will walk away

You call it a lost fairy tale love
A fable with a no happy after
And chastened you pack and leave
To seek another temporary shower 

You then call that a desolate love
No rains will stop your thirst
I stay and divine the water lost
For I knew that love from the first.

The Lingering Look (of a Book Lover)

It’s no task at all. Simply take the books you don’t want and put them into the two spare boxes. But to succeed at this meant I had to be a zombie bricklayer. Pick up a book, one in each hand from the first pile. Then with closed eyes transfer to the outgoing book box.
Book Pile
Then I said to myself, “Don’t look down. Don’t make eye contact with the books.
But books tend to gaze back like long lovers.
And when it happened, I had that second and recurrent thought. “I like that book. I might need to read it sometime.”
My counter-thought. “I haven’t read that one. It’s unlikely I’ll read it now.
And then the thought trap closed shut. “I know I haven’t read it but some day I just might.”
Back and forth it went until I wore myself down. Finally, I could only complete the task the opposite way. I filled the boxes allocated for the books I wanted to retain. To overflowing. I could not fit another book.
 And then I thought. “Perhaps that paperback could just squeeze into that space between the hardbacks.
 Not a chance. No space even for a bookmark. That was the finish. I was done.
Two boxes filled. The next part should have been easier. All I had to do was lift and shift my gift to a charity book depository four train stops away. I picked up one box. Then the other. Suddenly those two boxes were leaden heavy. I couldn’t budge either of them. Spare Book Box
I then chose a course of action calculated to deceive myself.  I grabbed two large IKEA carry bags. And filled each with books. Now I could carry both over my shoulder.
Then on the street, I saw a man with two small black bags. He had just crossed the road. I recognised the bags from Abbey’s : a well known Sydney bookshop.
I thought to myself. “We have something in common”. But  the lucky man was adding. I sadly was subtracting. In truth we were opposed. I let him walk ahead of me. I tried not to imagine his joy at unpacking those bags of books.
Arriving at the station, I dumped the two bags. And sat with my back turned away from the books. But I peeked didn’t I? There was that thought again. “Perhaps I should keep Made to Stick?” I closed up the bag as the train arrived.
On the train, I ensured I sat near no one. I worried that someone would realise what I’m doing and stop me.
Until I alighted at the station. I avoided everyone and stayed unnoticed. I guarded my anonymity carefully, ensuring no one could possibly remember a man staggering with two full blue and yellow bags.
However, during the escape, I noticed a boy who was asking his mother questions about everything. I knew what would happen next. I moved quickly out of sight so he wouldn’t turn his curiousity towards me. But what I really was dreading was her answers. For she spoke with that curt finality that still irritates me even as an adult. I thought, “Perhaps a book would help her?” But that would mean I would need to look down.
Then followed the short climb up the steep street. Over the intersection was the charity’s office. But no book shed in front, or behind or on any side. I thought, putting the bags down, now that downhill trek to the station is a much better option than lugging these now even extra heavy books any further.
I decided to follow the internet directions. I looked for and found the car park. And shaded by trees was an ordinary garden shed. Unlocked. And three quarters full of books, with only some in boxes.
 I opened the door wide. I stepped back and swung one bag and then the other into the shed.
Then I stopped still. I didn’t look down. The shed smelt like a library. It was that semi fresh scent that had always carried knowledge from page to brain!
I was transfixed. I lapsed. I lost control. I looked down.
And I thought as I saw the first book, “Why would anyone throw out books on world geography? That’s fascinating!”
I shut the doors quickly before my gaze was held again.

Waiting for The Sequel

A Not So Crowded TrainOn a not-so-crowded train. She is the only one standing. Back pressed against the only space that is neither seat nor door. Light brown curly but wiry hair, clear open face, same colour eyes (my best guess as far as I can see), all fully engrossed and engaged.

The bumps and lurches of the train don’t bother her. She just doesn’t lose balance. She sways slightly to the rhythm of the carriage. She is not dancing though. Perhaps inwardly.

Her head is bowed. As if in prayer or contemplation.  And her forehead is smooth. Her face serene. And I watch to see if she will raise her head. It’s not just to look at her face.  For I’m curious as to her quiet calm and innate peace. Now she is even more fully engrossed and engaged. With her hands held up in front of her.

Not a newspaper. Not a smart phone. Not a magazine. Not even one of those slate-sized flickering whispering mini TVs.

For a second, time stops and everything around her is removed. So much so that I stop and wonder and look again.  Yes, now I know what it is. It’s like she’s behind a lectern. She’s reading. A tattered dog-eared hardback with yellow threads fraying the red cover. No title that I can see. The Story

I wait to see if she’ll read what holds her so aloud.

For the last person that held out a book like that let me read it.

And I wanted to read it aloud : it was that good…a children’s book too…

Perhaps I’m waiting for the sequel.

Does The Pen Hear More than the Keyboard?

“I probably won’t be using that.”

 

It wasn’t a derisory or demeaning disclaimer. Just a calm statement: this is not for me.

 

I never was much of  a software salesman anyway. I had livened up a not-so-interesting training session by describing an upcoming software feature. It may or may not be in the next future possible major release! Geekspeak for I don’t know what the developers are doing).

 

Simply stated, instead of scanning in notes, they could be typed through an electronic form.

 

As my trainee wasn’t rude or abrupt, I nodded in agreement, at first. Only later did I realise how much of what she said really applied to me.

 

The conversation continued as she expanded upon her point. Besides the training session had ended and time was not of the essence.

 

She said that people say more when you take handwritten notes. She restated her point as people say less when you type notes on a computer.

Blue Pen on Paper

Blue Pen on Paper

 Instantly I thought of my last doctor’s appointment. As soon as he finished talking to me, he swivelled in his chair, he began  typing.

Automatically  I stopped talking. I waited until  he had entered his notes and printed the prescription. I only realised later that had I anything important to say, it would have been lost. Admittedly, medical personnel don’t have as much time as me.

But it was exactly as my trainee was saying to me. But it went deeper than that. It applied to me more than I knew.

 

As a desktop support operative, people used to make fun of what I carried around with me. It was rather ancient and certainly non-technical.  People thought that it was funny that I carried around a pen and two (paper) notebooks. One was a diary and the other was a scratchpad. So many people remembered that when I left, I received an electronic diary as a farewell present.

Sharp Electronic Organiser-open

But those two notebooks had a strange effect on myself and my workmates.  Firstly, it was quite odd how well I remembered what I didn’t write down. For as I recalled my notes, other details would be revealed. And secondly, in the presence of a (real) notebook, my workmates would reveal more detail about their problems than if I turned up empty handed. Often I found I solved more than one problem at once. Thirdly, I also was able to record my successes and failures. Which was useful for future reference and self-defence.

 

And this conversation, threw light on my weaknesses and strengths as a technical writer and trainer. Upon reflection, I found I recalled more from handwritten notes than typed ones. And certainly more from handwritten lecture notes too. And again,in the presence of the pen and notepad, subject matter experts revealed more detail than when the keyboard was listening. Which meant that I found out what people needed to know not what was nice to know. In other words, by picking up a pen and paper, I (unknowingly) did my job better.

 

And now as a writer (there I’ve said it now : there’s no turning back), I find the pen and paper are often better tools for me to express myself and record than a keyboard. I handwrite first and then type into the computer.  Although that doesn’t work for everyone, just me.

 

Besides, that was the role of my trainee : to find out as much as possible about people’s problems before making her diagnosis.

Talent : The Gift is Borrowed.

Blue Pen on Paper

Blue Pen on Paper

Many years ago I wrote a speech called Through the Eyes of a Child. And a story called Medicine Woman.

In both cases the sensation was exactly the same. I’m sitting there, open-mouthed, literally watching the pen write the words in front of me.

It would be great if that happened all the time. But it doesn’t. I still can’t say (arrogantly), that it occurs because I’m talented. That it came from me. No…

I talked with one of my sons about talent. His observation was that others suddenly became envious once they found out you’re talented. The feeling for him was being treated as if you’ve stolen something. My rather strident response was tell them that it’s not theft at all. We did both agree that jealousy towards talented people is unwarranted and untrue.

If talent is not theft and talent does not come from me, then what is it? The shadows were cast away by a TED talk on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Yes…being creative is like unwrapping a gift. The talent (if any) is can you unwrap that gift? To me, it’s like the poet Ruth Stone as described in Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk. The speech or blog or story or poem is told through me not from me. To tell it well, doesn’t require talent so much as listening (and Evernote).

 

 

Once A Writer….

Quite possibly the people in this conversation may recognise themselves so apologies (accolades and gratitude actually!) to all in advance.

I’m in the queue with my two or three bags (by then) of fruit and vegetables. I’m not prone to queue rage as I’m second in the queue.

In front of me is a woman with a large basket on the counter. The cashier unpacks and repacks and enters each purchase. Fruit and veges out, a touch of the button and fruit and veges back in. It wasn’t taking that long. I’m in no hurry anyway as it’s a long walk home.

Behind me is a couple, a man and a woman. The man leans forward, and steps past me. He has recognised the woman being served. She’s a long-lost friend and he greets her as such. I’m happy minding my own business and enjoying one of the better moments life can offer.

Then the introductions begin. The woman at the counter is introduced (to the one behind me) as an artist. Then the counter introduction, the woman behind me is introduced as an ex-writer!

I start laughing. That’s too much for me.I say,”I can’t pay that. There’s no such thing as an ex-writer. They’re always in between books!”

 

Writing Isn’t Safe

Last week I came across this article from the Wheeler Centre by Jessie Cole which talks about the self revelation of writing fiction. As an author, I’ve had that happen to me. I didn’t pay much attention to it until this afternoon.

I’m writing about two characters. They’re not getting along so well.

I’m trying unsuccessfully to postpone the final falling out between them.Revelation

Today, sadly was the day they got into their last argument.

As the author I was clear what they were going to say and how it would end.

What really happened is that I’m crouched behind a bush, listening to these two people I know unfold themselves in front of me.

Until the argument began. It simply doesn’t go to plan. Until several pages later I realise it’s something I always wanted to be brought into the open. It’s even more confronting as its something I don’t think can be resolved. Obviously I need to write some more about that.

So Jessie Cole is right, writing fiction isn’t safe at all.

But upon reflection, neither is blogging. I just think its a safer. To begin with, I ‘m writing about people I meet and things that happen to me. I can choose to leave things in or exclude what doesn’t make me feel comfortable. But…

Upon re-reading and reflection, even that isn’t safe. Unwittingly I have exposed thoughts and feelings and emotions that I wouldn’t shout out in a crowd. I need to write some more about that.

 

 

 

Shoals and Reefs : Self Publishing with Euan Mitchell

Typewriter

Self Publishing

Literally I clicked the email link and found what I was looking for. A presentation by Euan Mitchell on self- publishing.

But it seemed too late in the afternoon to make it.

So I clicked again to book a place. Booked it.

I arrive at St Michael’s Annexe in Melbourne just after 6 o’clock.

Writers funnily enough seem to be a quiet crowd. Everyone is waiting and expectant. Euan Mitchell appears and lightens the room with a cartoon: every one in the room has a book in them (or needs it surgically removed). Finally someone understands me.

His presentation is about his self-publishing journey. Despite being in the publishing industry himself, he found it no advantage to publishing his own manuscript. That starts to confirm my worst-held fears.

He outlines the shoals and reefs that he had to navigate through and in doing so makes a map for all of us. He passes on quite a few tips and sage advice (see also Q&A with Euan Mitchell and this document) about publishers, editors, printers, agents and advertisers.

He mentions that many manuscripts aren’t published, many books don’t sell and many authors aren’t rich. For some reason I’m less pessimistic. Besides some stories just need to be told.

1440526_82817193

The Story Begins

The best option but the most difficult option appears to be self-publishing. One of his recommendations is to use people around you who know books. Suddenly two names pop into my head. This is getting better.

He suggests starting slowly and creating a network using social and existing media. And write. Better get to that.

He also has a book (self published) which summarises his ideas available from his web site.

There are questions at the end. I ask mine and get an encouraging answer. And after that all I want to do is write.

Shoals and Reefs : Self Publishing with Euan Mitchell

Typewriter

Self Publishing

Literally I clicked the email link and found what I was looking for. A presentation by Euan Mitchell on self- publishing.

But it seemed too late in the afternoon to make it.

So I clicked again to book a place. Booked it.

I arrive at St Michael’s Annexe in Melbourne just after 6 o’clock.

Writers funnily enough seem to be a quiet crowd. Everyone is waiting and expectant. Euan Mitchell appears and lightens the room with a cartoon: every one in the room has a book in them (or needs it surgically removed). Finally someone understands me.

His presentation is about his self-publishing journey. Despite being in the publishing industry himself, he found it no advantage to publishing his own manuscript. That starts to confirm my worst-held fears.

He outlines the shoals and reefs that he had to navigate through and in doing so makes a map for all of us. He passes on quite a few tips and sage advice (see also Q&A with Euan Mitchell and this document) about publishers, editors, printers, agents and advertisers.

He mentions that many manuscripts aren’t published, many books don’t sell and many authors aren’t rich. For some reason I’m less pessimistic. Besides some stories just need to be told.

1440526_82817193

The Story Begins

The best option but the most difficult option appears to be self-publishing. One of his recommendations is to use people around you who know books. Suddenly two names pop into my head. This is getting better.

He suggests starting slowly and creating a network using social and existing media. And write. Better get to that.

He also has a book (self published) which summarises his ideas available from his web site.

There are questions at the end. I ask mine and get an encouraging answer. And after that all I want to do is write.

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