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.
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
If you’ve read “Falling Glass” you will have met Qwerty the cat . . .
Here is Qwerty’s story:
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?
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.
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:
FROM THE BALCONY – Julia Osborne ©
My freshly washed bed sheet has blown off my balcony. A sudden gust has ballooned it from my railing, dropped it sunshine-fresh and crisp onto the balcony below. I can see it lying twisted among the pot plants.
This is my chance to meet the woman who lives on the first floor and quickly I run downstairs, taking two steps at a time. But my knock is unanswered although fragments of music filter from the room. When I lean out from my balcony I can just see the sliding door. It’s shut.
From the garden pathway, I jump upwards to her balcony, trying to feel the cotton beneath my fingers, but it’s too high. I laugh, and think that if anyone’s watching, how ridiculous I must look: a man in a suit, apparently leaping at nothing. Even with a chair, it’s too high.
It’s my only good sheet. I consider my options. None. Only the woman below can help me. I stick a note on her door saying, Help! My sheet has blown onto your balcony . . . giving my name, Steve, and flat number.
During the day I monitor both the still-shut door below and the sky. Early morning blue has turned into heavy cloud cover that threatens my sheet with a second, unwanted wetting. And it rains. A gentle drizzle begins and the crisp white peaks of my fallen sheet subside into puddles.
She will arrive home tonight, finger the note as she unlocks the door. Hmmm. Then she will open the sliding door to check on this phenomenon. Yes, there’s a sheet there, rather draggly-looking from the rain. Who is this person upstairs who has lost his bed linen? Gently the door slides shut again as she shakes then folds the sheet, climbs the stairs with it neatly over her arm, knocks on my door.
But she doesn’t knock on my door. It’s two days before I hear the woman below again. Arriving home from work I find the sheet dropped in a still-damp pile at my door. If only I’d been there when she knocked, I’d have said, thanks very much . . . mad, hey? and I would have met the woman below. Could I have said, Come in for a coffee?
But there is my sheet, looking a bit stained from its ordeal among the pot plants, with weather marks like a stenciled spatter painting.
I hear her playing jazz or blues and sometimes rock. It gives me a comfortable feeling to hear the sounds of this separate existence in the flat below. Some days, maybe when she’s melancholy, I hear over and over the same passionate, moody piano. What is it, lady below, that makes you so sad?
These days of melancholy music and smell of burning milk are days when I’m sad too. It seems that these days everyone on the bus is deep in gloom, or perhaps just the abstraction of their headphones. On these days I notice the small, disused doorways filled with windblown detritus of the street. These are the nests of the homeless ones. I see them, a dark hunch on a park bench; a stooped load-bearing shape competing with birds to peer and peck in a rubbish bin. Sunlight strikes through late summer leaves along park and street, touches the rough, damp shoulders of those who sleep outside; touches hat and cheek and raggy coat, the backs of hands. I would like to stare, wondering how, or why. Instead, I turn my face away, reading notices on the validity of bus tickets. These are long days when I look forward to five o’clock.
Going home to the woman below is almost like going home to someone. It’s the anticipation. As I climb the stairs past her door, I smell garlic and mushrooms and I decide to cook my piece of steak tonight. We’ll eat together, although the floor is between us.
Does she have a tidy room, or is it like mine with accounting papers scattered among cushions and books? The way she dropped the sheet at my door indicates she’s fastidious. She picked up the damp grey thing between finger and thumb, held it out and away from her body. Yuk! Often I hear her washing up late at night, with china and cutlery clunking in the sink. It sounds like a cafeteria.
There is a narrow arc of sky between these units and the block of brick next door. One morning I’m both stunned and fascinated to discover projected on the wall opposite – by a freak combination of sun and glass – the reflected image of the woman below on her narrow balcony. She is doing her exercises. I see the geometry of her elbows, knees and curving back as she stretches, bends and twists. She wears a leotard, or nothing much – the larger-than-life image of her body in sharp focus shows limbs as smooth and strong as a dancer. I hear her rhythmical breathing to a count of four. Suddenly embarrassed, I retreat from my balcony, flip shut my venetian blind. Now that I know about this occasional fluke, it’s difficult not to look for it.
I realize I’m tired of being alone. I miss a companion, someone to care if I wake suddenly in the night, someone to curse the noisy garbage truck with me; to compare notes and ideas at the end of the day and share our achievements. When I get up at three in the morning to go to the toilet, I hear a similar tinkle in the plumbing upstairs and I wonder if the woman below is echoing mine. Are we all setting each other off, starting from the fifth floor down, with our nightly micturition.
Each day I wake with the soft, slow sliding open of her balcony door. I am tuned to this tiny sound. I lie sprawled across my sheets listening to the early morning city, like a distant hum punctuated by sudden, closer abrasive noises. I hear the burble of the news broadcast filtering up, get out of bed and turn on my own radio. I hear her front door bang, her footsteps running down the stairs, the noisy flump-shut of the security door.
Eight o’clock and I leave too, wearing my conservative suit, with my conservative briefcase in my hand, full of late night work for my conservative job. I look okay, I reckon, but I don’t care. I’m conscious of a new, restless energy. I want to know The Woman Below. Who is she? What does she do all day? Who are her friends?
It’s a sunny Sunday when I hear her laughing. I know she’s home alone and being curious, I stand at my door to listen. She’s giggling, quite close by. I could lean from my balcony – she must be sunning herself – almost within touching distance. Very carefully, I lean. But leaning far out I can only see her feet. She lies stretched like a cat with her face in the shade. A duvet hangs over the railing to air. Her pot plants need watering; their leaves droop like sad green flags. I hear her turn the pages of a book, giggle with a throaty, rippling little sound. Her feet are bare; small pale feet with pale pink toe-nails and her toes curl under with each giggle as she waggles her feet up and down with pleasure. It must be a very funny book. I try to remember when I last read a book that made me laugh out loud. I can’t recall when I last read a book besides accounts. I make a salad sandwich for lunch and sit in my doorway to read the paper, listening to her laughter that makes me smile so easily.
Most people spend Sunday afternoon with friends, or shopping, or see a movie. The Woman Below is packing boxes. This must be her weekend job. Box on box on box with a ripping sound like brown-paper-tape. There will be boxes stacked right across the room at this rate. I lie on the floor, my ear pressed to the carpet. Riiiiip clip. Riiiiip clip. She is so busy down there, what is she doing? Who is she? What does she think . . .
I wake up on the floor, fuzz in my ear, the grey of evening outside and silence from The Woman Below. Then I hear the sudden Bang! of her door and scraping my fingers through my hair I rush out, hurrying downstairs. What for, what to say? Put out the garbage bins . . . buy some milk, a newspaper? Damn! I left my keys . . . I see her silhouette against a lamp, glimpse a quick reflection as she passes a shop window and then she vanishes. Lucky my door didn’t blow shut. There is a gentle night wind and the air is filled with the scent of frangipani.
It’s quiet tonight without The Woman Below. Somewhere, beyond this immediate silence, is the whirr of an exercise bike. I watch TV, and wonder when she’ll come home. I know I’m listening for the sound of her footsteps over the commercial gabble. Where does she work? Where does she go at night? She is walking, walking along the street, sometimes in the shadows of trees, sometimes lending a long street-lamp shadow to the footpath. Her face is in darkness. She wanders into a cafe, finds a seat near the wall, sits as long as possible over a coffee. Is she meeting someone? Her hair drops across her cheek; the silver disc of an earring gleams against her neck. I don’t hear her come home.
There will be an election soon for a new government. Television and radio are full of big, better, best. Every day the newspapers headline the latest claims or accusations. Letterboxes sprout leaflets that blow and litter. The Woman Below is very quiet. I miss her companionable noise. The leaflets jammed in her letterbox have been there for days. I think about taking them out, taking them up to her door. I leave them to blow and litter. It rains and the little papers flutter and droop, sticking to the pavement. She’s not collecting her mail. She’s gone.
While I was out she packed her things and left. I didn’t see each basket and box as everything was carried downstairs. Her cushions, her duvet, her saucepans and plates that she washed up so noisily; her neglected pot plants. What will I do without her? I’ve got used to living with her below, shutting my cupboards softly and treading quietly so as not to disturb her, turning up the radio when there’s some music I know she’d like; smiling at her laughter, wondering at her funny books.
It was silly that we never met, but I try to think that if something’s meant to be, it will happen. I catch myself repeating this like a mantra.
To cheer myself up I buy several CDs. I stock my cupboards with food and buy another shirt and some jeans. I visit the laundry with an armload of clothes. I tidy my papers into parallel piles. None of this is particularly cheering.
There is a new tenant downstairs. I hear her strident British accent on the phone, pulling me awake too early on Saturday with its dissonant note. ‘Ullo!’ it yells to its mate. ‘Ow are yew?’
This is no way to start the weekend.
In the subterranean tunnel beneath the station, a flute is overwhelming the recorder, is competing with the guitars. It gives me a strange walking-doppler effect. Up in the sunshine, Saturday building teams overwhelm the jazz duo on the corner and a workman letting the steam valve go on his machinery drowns the string ensemble in the mall.
I wander through an arcade, going nowhere in particular. My life has been like this lately – days without shape or form, with no direction – obsessed with a shade, a translucent image on a piece of glass, a collection of sounds and fragrances.
This morning I had looked with objective keenness in the mirror. The young man staring back had a slightly haunted look in his eyes. His cheeks had the same colour as before, his hair the same gloss, but there was some subtle, indefinable turn in the mouth. Perhaps this man takes himself too seriously, I thought. What about the tennis you used to play? You haven’t tossed a ball into your racquet for months. What about Marietta? Doesn’t she matter anymore? She’s given up leaving messages for you to call her.
I push through the casual Saturday crowd, oblivious to knocks and bumps and probably score a few of my own. Pedestrians weave among the cars banked up at the traffic lights. I lean my elbow on the button for Walk. A baby-stroller hits me in the back of the ankle. I smell hot salty chips from a straw-haired girl beside me.
I pass the Town Hall, the steps sprinkled with the rendezvous crowd of travellers, decorated students in their boots; shaved hair, long hair, trendy hair. Charity collectors shake their boxes. Just seeing myself in perspective is a start, as though all my senses have become sharper, clearer. The Woman Below has been my spark, the light to show me my unremarkable life. I see my direction etched with the precision of crystal.
My footsteps beat to the rhythm. Feel. Think. Decide. Do. I could skip in the air, I feel such a rare, incredulous pleasure of discovery. I can’t help laughing as I swing onto the bus for home.
I’m balancing two new paperbacks and the weekend paper with my bags of grapes and peaches, milk and bread, when a voice behind me says politely, ‘Hi, excuse me, are you Steve?’
I’ve never seen her but I know it’s her. She’s dressed in black with an armful of artists’ brushes, papers and boards and I probably look astonished. She shakes the white-blond hair away from her face. Her eyes are blue blue blue.
‘We’ve never met,’ she rushes on, ‘but I used to live in the flat below you—’
‘Yes . . . I remember,’ I say, shifting my bags to stop the peaches rolling out.
‘I couldn’t have a cat, so I moved. Now I’ve got a cat, a kitten. Well, I’ve seen you around—’
‘—and I thought, if you didn’t mind, I’d really like to draw your face . . .’
I can feel my face smiling hugely.
‘. . . but I was too shy to ask. Would you mind? Maybe we can have coffee?’
And I hear the mantra in my mind.
A friend and I exchanged unpublished stories recently. I sent him this one, written some years ago and when I read his lovely comment, I decided to publish it on my site. This is what he wrote:
“… a talented observer of sights, sounds and scents – and you paint them with great talent – From the Balcony is a very sensitive story – a lovely tale of loneliness, or a longing for companionship, a wondering about matters observed, ultimately of a meeting that shows some promise…. I love your imagery – including the sheet plopping down as it settles; sunlight; sounds – I could go on analysing, but you know them all, because it was you that noticed them for me. That’s what writers are for, isn’t it? They are sort of “awareness raisers,” aren’t they?”
Thank you, my friend B.S.
As I ate my lunch today, seated on the high veranda overlooking my garden and the forest at back, it occurred to me that creating a garden is also similar to writing a short story or a novel.
Basically, I throw everything into a novel and in a short story I take everything out. Simple?
My garden has several sections of varying nature: far down near the back fence I planted many trees and bushes, and after watering them over the first summer, I told them, You’re on your own now. This area of very tall trees and shrubs has to be a novel. It was reasonably well planned, apart from one huge tree that I allowed to self-sow and which surprises me with its height. I am happy with my group of she-oaks (casuarinas) and their needle leaves which whistle in the wind, rather like a musical section (think: The Midnight Pianist).
The lemon-scented gum (eucalyptus citriodora) which I planted 4 years ago is now way taller than my house and still going Up. Considering its height as I ate my sandwiches, I wondered at the etymology of ‘gum tree’. Anyone know? Titles for stories and novels can be hard to figure out. Sometimes a title arrives, Boom, that’s it, and at other times it’s difficult. Ho hum, best go for a walk . . .
The middle section of my garden is very untidy. This section needs serious editing. It is definitely full of short stories which can be periodically culled if they don’t prove successful. I’m not good at throwing plants away, so there is wild confusion here and there, but it’s generally very entertaining.
The front garden facing the street is rather like a novella. Neither a short story nor a novel, plants come and go according to their life span, regardless of my decisions. Sometimes I cut adventurous plants back with the shears, but they enjoy this and throw brilliant green leaves back at me, rather like unexpected ideas.
The stairs from my veranda to the back garden definitely comprise a poem or two. I planted climbing ‘star jasmine’ at the base, and now the railings are covered in new emerald-green leaves which eventually will hold masses of sweet-smelling white flowers – the perfume will drift into the house, quite sublime. A sonnet, perhaps?
So there you have it . . . how I see our creative urge. Whichever direction it takes, it always leads us somewhere, if we allow it time to develop, and when we look at the result and decide that perhaps it works . . . that’s where contentment lies, and the seeds for every new work of art that follows.