Review in Antipodes Journal blog

Women of the Bush: Equanimity under Threat — Barrie Smillie on the short stories of Julia Osborne

Australian writer Julia Osborne spent many years in outback parts of rural Australia. These three stories, “Maitland’s Cow”, “Hard Grain” and “Always, Never” have cried out to me to be analyzed side by side, because they have something in common: a female central character facing and overcoming challenges to her equanimity. To the remoteness and the harshness of the setting are added problems of human relationships—with a brother and a friend (in the case of “Hard Grain”) and with an unsympathetic male partner (in “Maitland’s Cow” and “Always, Never”).
Like Henry Lawson’s “The Drover’s Wife”, these stories by Julia Osborne concern outback women coping with the threat to their equanimity, but her narrative is more drame intérieur than a mere linear sequencing of events. There is a strong feminist message. Julia Osborne, once an artist in pen and water colour, reveals in these stories her discerning eye and with great economy she carries forward each story to a fine dramatic climax.
In all three cases, too, dramatic irony arises from discrepancies between what the reader sees and how the central character sees the world—for at least some of the time. The woman with the baby is unaware that she has set her loving man at arm’s length, the farmer girl unwittingly invests her female visitor with the evil garb of a spider, and in “Always, Never” the woman lives in the nostalgia of their romantic past, while her partner abuses her psychologically and physically before she finally succeeds in escaping this torment.
André Gide’s work is redolent with the aveuglement of such self-deceiving personalities—Alyssa and Jérôme in “La Porte étroite”, and the pastor in the well-known “Symphonie Pastorale” being just two of them. The depictions by Osborne, while perhaps exhibiting less permanent afflictions, are arguably keeping with that great Gidean tradition.
In “Maitland’s Cow”, a sex-starved partner finds solace in drink. The mother’s first loyalty is to her baby. Unaware of terrible events, she is pleased to be freed from her man’s importuning behavior. The visual, auditory and tactile images are rich. A cold morning in the country: “mist and the bark of a fox as the stars vanish. The early sun touches dew on the grass [….] a horse snorts, blowing misty clouds.” The man’s feet feel cold on the veranda while inside “a dark, warm cave” mother and baby are snug, the mother not unsympathetic to her man’s needs: “he has already gone. Peace […] He needs me too much.” Maitland, her man, reflects, “Why is she like this? It isn’t me. It’s her. Selfish bitch.”
In “Hard Grain” Jenny narrates. She and her brother form a superb work team. Girlfriend Noma from the city stays with them, annoying Jenny by flouting certain canons of rural life. Jenny is also suspicious of Noma’s flirting. “Did she slide closer beside him as they drove squishing across the field? [….] I wonder if he reached to hold her as she folded her pale arms around his neck, waiting for his kiss.” To Jenny, Noma takes on spider-like attributes: with “a domed look” she likes to walk in the garden at night. Her dress “hangs from such thin straps” and in the rain, Noma “steps onto the lawn, points one foot in front, her arms over her head.” More luscious word pictures abound: a “vast field, shimmering in summer haze.” Moths “sketch their erratic geometry around each globe.” As a storm develops, “indigo clouds are piling, lit within by sporadic stabs of lightning.” Dinner is a veritable feast of visual, auditory and olfactory images: “the room smells comfortingly of roast meat and the wine glimmers in our glasses, casting circles of colour on the tablecloth.” In the water tanks, “frogs boom.” Unaware of her effect on Jenny’s equanimity, Noma heads home. The sibling relationship is intact. Sound rural practice prevails. But spider-like Noma makes our flesh creep.
The narrator of “Always, Never” flings at us her anger and desperation: “If I don’t get out of this house I think I’ll smash something.” Her wretchedness results from physical isolation and a male partner’s mental and physical violence against her. The opening paragraphs amply demonstrate Julia Osborne’s expository skill. In a series of time slides, she devotes three paragraphs to the present moment, then three paragraphs that recall Matt’s story, their early relationship and her girlfriends’ adulation for this man. Back in present time, Matt embraces her. Significantly, her fellow prisoner drags its chain outside. Alone all day, she is “spinning time into unnatural skeins” and reflects, “Did I imagine once I’d be a teacher?” She is now “Matt’s extension, stunned by circumstances into a sort of accepting limbo […] The women covertly watch my silhouette for signs of pregnancy, […] try to be friendly […] but we are flying on different thermals. I am higher, higher, unreachable. They wave their fingers at me, their recipes, their childcare books.”
Loneliness places her very persona under threat. Her partner ridicules her reading. She’d happily help in the yard but he won’t have that. Marriage has taken her to a magical place. The rising sun fills her with girlish wonder: “the giant fiery sphere like I’d never seen before. Never awake so early. Never lived out so far. It carried with it all power and poetry, fixing my feet to the boards. “Look at the sun!” I called. Matt’s view is prosaic: “he came, hauling on trousers. “It’s going to be bloody hot!” he said, dismissing it.”
Her life with Matt has failed. She still loves him. He has been everything to her—childhood sweetheart, lover, tutor on bush lore, but is often away. Agonizingly, she exclaims, “Matt, oh Matt, where is the man who showed me the colours of new crops, the emu’s egg, the fires of sandalwood in a room lit with candles?” We sense heat, dryness, remoteness. “Mid-morning sun is already sucking up moisture […] eyes glitter beneath wide brimmed hats; […] women will stand in darkened rooms cracking ice in their mouths.” Our woman says to herself, “You don’t have to put up with this shit, kid!” Her initial bid to escape provides the pretext to try again. The conclusion carries the explosive drama of a Hedda Gabler final curtain.
These stories are engrossing reading and are highly recommended. Julia Osborne’s women of the bush are resilient, they are tough—like Henry Lawson’s drover’s wife. And in subtlety and the emotional strength of their loyalties, these three leave their male counterparts behind.
These stories can all be read on Julia Osborne’s website http://juliamaryosborne.com
Maitland’s Cow – Regime Magazine, Vol 1/01, 2012
Hard Grain – Meanjin 1/1992; Families: Modern Australian Short Stories, Five Mile Press, 2008 – broadcast by ABC RN 2005, 2006, 2009
Always, Never – Antipodes 17 (USA) 1991; Panurge (UK) 1992- broadcast by ABC RN 2006, 2007

 

Playing with Keys – chapter One

In Brief:

Fifteen year-old Sandra is daunted by life in Sydney after her father’s transfer from the Australian country town, Curradeen. She is confronted by a big new school and upset with leaving best friend Emilia and her beloved piano teacher, and Nick Morgan – never quite her boyfriend.

One

On the first morning that she woke up in her family’s new home, Sandra looked out the bedroom window but all she could see was the neighbour’s brick wall. She sat on the side of her bed to think about it . . .

In Curradeen, her upstairs bedroom window in the bank residence overlooked the main street, where on countless Saturday mornings she’d watched through her curtains for Nick Morgan to drive into town, park his dusty ute across the road, and stroll into the newsagency.

All gone now. Gone, Nick and the polocrosse ponies. Gone, her dear piano teacher, the familiar high school, bicycle rides to the creek. And gone, best friend Emilia, consigned to a papery chaff of letters.

Her parents were happy with the move; she could see it in their faces. It was a good promotion for Don to the Randwick branch of the bank, and Angela was pleased to be back in Sydney after so many years in a country town. While her younger sister Prue danced around with excitement, it was only Sandra who rebelled.

Stupid brick wall. Prue’s bedroom had the same dull view, but she’d shrugged and said she didn’t care. Still, Sandra had to agree it was a very nice house that her father had bought, in a quiet street lined with similar old houses: tiled front veranda, hallway down the middle, and a garden out the back. After pouring over glossy catalogues with Prue, it had been fun choosing their furniture in a city department store, and Sandra was happy with her brand new bedroom suite . . .

Searching for a handkerchief in her dressing table, she found the Violet Crumble wrapper – souvenir of the rainy winter evening when she’d bumped into Nick at the Silver Moon Café. Back then, she hardly knew Nick – a hello at the polocrosse, a brief barn dance at Denalbo hall . . . little more.

She smoothed the wrapper with a fingernail, remembering how Nick had smiled in recognition, raised a quizzical eyebrow at her damp hair, the briefcase clutched to her chest.

Thrilled by this unexpected encounter, words had tumbled from her mouth: ‘I’ve been to a piano lesson, my sixth grade exam’s next week . . .’ She stopped, suddenly tongue-tied.

‘Wow, maybe one day you’ll be a famous pianist,’ he’d answered, his eyes dark under the café lights, glisten of rain on his hair.

‘I’d love to try . . .’ she’d managed to say.

Then Nick had shouted Sandra the Violet Crumble bar, and told her he’d won at poker. She remembered her shiver of excitement. Nick was a gambler! But he’d gambled with his life, that October night when he stepped into his ute with Angus.

* * *

. . . Gradually Sandra’s ambition to be a concert pianist is overwhelmed by an unexpected, dangerous friendship, testing her loyalty to family and friends . . .

PWK is in layout stage by Paper Horse Design & Publishing

 

Qwerty’s Story

If you’ve read “Falling Glass” you will have met Qwerty the cat . . .

Here is Qwerty’s story:

Monty_Qwerty

One warm winter morning a small grey tabby cat found his way into Irene’s home. The front door of her Sydney terrace was open to catch the sunshine, so of course, the little cat wandered inside. That’s what any sensible cat will do, isn’t it?

Creeping and sniffing along the hallway, keeping close to the wall – just in case – the little cat found himself in a room filled with unidentifiable, interesting smells. Golden eyes looked about, arriving at a pair of woolly slippers hooked on the rung of a stool, these slippers attached to a woman in a dressing gown, eating her breakfast at the kitchen table.

Irene quietly puts down her bowl of porridge, hardly daring to move as she and the little cat gaze at each other. ‘Puss puss?’ she whispers. ‘Puss puss?’

When the cat doesn’t answer, she asks, ‘Where’s your home, little cat? Are you lost?’

Her voice is gentle, sweet, and the little cat relaxes. He sits by the hallway door for an easy escape should it prove necessary, but his tail wraps around his front paws, and he regards Irene with a seemingly calm demeanour.

‘Oh, you’ve a brave little cat,’ Irene smiles. ‘You’re really not much more than a kitten. Perhaps you might like some breakfast?’ Taking a jug from the table, she pours milk into the saucer from her teacup, leans ever so carefully to place the saucer on the floor, then resumes her position on the stool.

The little cat is bemused. What is this on the floor that smells so enticing and encourages him to stretch forward to sniff and tentatively taste? Reassured, he laps continuously until the saucer is empty, then he sits back to wash his face with a paw, which takes all of five minutes to complete.

Satisfied with his grooming, the little cat decides he will investigate and resumes wandering about the room, poking into cupboards, to the hallway again, then into a bedroom. Irene quietly follows at a distance, intrigued by her morning visitor. She has decided the cat looks a bit scruffy and unloved, and he was certainly hungry. A stray cat, maybe a dumped kitten that once had a home but now nobody wants – searching for a new residence where a sympathetic human will provide love, food and security.

Irene has lived by herself for years, with occasional visits from her nephew, an unpredictable boy who turns her house upside-down for a couple of weeks then goes home to his family in Taree. A cat would be nice company as she sits at her typewriter hammering out stories for the local paper.

Meanwhile the little tabby has vanished around another doorway and Irene follows . . . there he is, perched on her untidy desk in the bedroom, his tail wrapped tidily around his paws. ‘And a handsome tail it is too,’ Irene agrees as he gives the tip of his tail a single twitch.

She reaches out a hand towards the small cat face, strokes his forehead so that his eyes can’t help closing in a small state of bliss at this gentle touch.

‘Would you like to stay here, little cat?’ Irene says, still whispering. ‘You can be my editor, and we’ll write wonderful and amazing stories together. You’ll grow big and strong, and never be hungry again.’

Now the little cat settles on her bed, choosing the rug still rumpled from Irene’s sleep. Beneath the grey tabby fur, she feels a purr begin, runs her hand along the cat’s spine as he curls into the rug.

‘Guess what, little cat,’ Irene announces, ‘I’m going to call you Qwerty, because you sat right next to my typewriter and that’s how the top keys go, which shows you have an artistic and writerly nature.’

Irene returns to her stool in the kitchen, to the remains of her breakfast, her tea and toast, leaving Qwerty asleep and dreaming. He will live with Irene for the next ten years when his story picks up again in January 1991.  And so it begins . . . who knows for how many more cat-years after that?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Harmony of Limbo

Since I began to write fiction quite some years ago – short stories and then novels – my head has often been a scramble of strange events and characters. Sure, there were many times when circumstances drove me in other directions and the draft stories were shelved.

I worked in Sydney for many years, changed jobs and houses, moved in radical directions, but most of the time at least part of my brain inclined to the fictional . . . for better or for worse.

It’s no small thing to have this racket going on in your head, as writers all know. But it’s all too real when you’re asked ‘was that you?’ or a reader sends an anguished email to say ‘I’m worried that this story really happened, please tell me it isn’t true’.

Oh dear. No, I haven’t shot  or drowned dogs; I was not hit over the head with a saddle bag while I read about King Zog of Albania; I didn’t lose my husband to another man; no child of mine got lost in the bush. I’m not Irene from Falling Glass, and yes, I rented an apartment once but they were not my sheets that blew off the balcony. It’s true, that as a teenager I learned piano for many years and of course I fell for an older boy – who doesn’t?

It took a while to quieten the clamour of my fictional people wanting to be heard. After writing the 3 books that now comprise The Midnight Pianist series, I became tired of being 15 years old, even though in the final book Sandra is 19 . . . I wanted to catch up with myself, if you can understand that, and I wonder how people manage when they write about past centuries!

To write successfully, you have to think yourself deeply into each character. It’s wonderful when it works, and I’m grateful when I hear from readers that they love what I write and how alive my people are.

It’s now been about 8 weeks since I decided it was time for a break. Sometimes a small voice from somewhere odd creeps into my head, but I say to it, Shoosh . . . please come back later.

So life goes . . . quietly now.

 

Flashback: 2002 Launch of Falling Glass

Julia launching Falling Glass

Julia launching Falling Glass at Gleebooks, 2002

In December 2002, I launched my novel Falling Glass at Gleebooks, a well-known bookshop in the inner west of Sydney.

Listening to my speech now, in 2015, I can still agree with the review by Debra Adelaide in the Sydney Morning Herald January 2003 Spectrum, In Short column, that events of the 1991 Gulf War seemed prescient: as the U.S-led invasion of Iraq loomed, you only needed to change some of the names to fit the scenario.

Donna Coates from Calgary University, Canada, launched my novel, and midway through her speech made some wonderful remarks about both story and research. Donna was in Australia doing research for her PhD on women writers in the wars.

I was very excited, as you can hear in my voice. It was a wonderful event, and I was thrilled to have so many friends, family and colleagues attend – some old friends I had not seen for years due to the tyranny of distance in Australia.

I hope to publish a second edition of Falling Glass with an Afterword, so please stay in touch. I would be delighted to hear from you on either this website or my Facebook page for Falling Glass: https://www.facebook.com/fallingglass.com.au

Listen to the launch here: