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When I was a kid, I lived in Toowong, a suburb of Brisbane that bordered the base of Mt Coot-tha. At that time, the mountain was covered in trees and undergrowth, but I was determined to find a track through the bush to the top. (There was a narrow road to the top, to a small kiosk that sold Devonshire Teas and ice cream, but who wants a road when they’re an explorer?) Every so often, I’d come across a track that seemed as if it just might lead there. I’d follow it, always hoping that this would be the one, that secret one known only to me, that would lead me to the top of the mountain.

I spent many weekends doing this. The tracks were interesting; you never quite knew what you might find — a broken weir, a hermit who lived in a cut-down, corrugated-iron water tank near a creek (we ignored one another) — but always, eventually, the tracks I chose petered out. Already only one-person wide, they’d inevitably close in further until eventually I’d find myself standing in dense bush with no way forward, and very easily lost if I didn’t backtrack quickly to my original path while I could still find it.

Forty years ago, I moved to the northern rivers of New South Wales in search of cheap rent. (Stick with me, this is going somewhere.) A single parent with two children, I found an isolated farmhouse with no car, no phone and no power. Later, I moved into the township of Mullumbimby, only just recovering, thanks to the hippy movement, from the recession caused by the collapse of the area’s primary industries. When the children grew up and left for the city to find work, I moved to the beach, to a very isolated spot in the far north of the shire, where the rough roads had no footpaths or guttering, few streetlights, and where, if you walked one mile along the beach, you’d find yourself at the southern end of the Tweed Shire.

Years passed, and slowly the shire got discovered. Byron Bay had always had a reputation as a holiday town, and Brunswick Heads had its school holiday seasons, but for many years the rest of the shire remained undisturbed. The locals in the north had a few more tourists to contend with, but life went on pretty much as before. Later, though, things began to change: the amenities in Brunswick Heads began to disappear. First, the butcher went. Then the town lost the National Australia Bank. This year it lost its only newsagency. All these places depended upon for decades by the locals were replaced by restaurants and/or high-end clothing shops. When this happens you know the end is nigh. Sure enough, people with money began to move into the shire, people who could afford to pay high prices for the old houses in the towns and at the beach.

After a while, friends began to take advantage of these prices. They sold their houses and moved to places more isolated. Others left the shire for different reasons — aging parents who needed their attention, partners who’d scored jobs down south … Bit by bit, over a period of about ten years, my circle of friends dwindled. It happened so gradually I didn’t notice at first. One day, I woke up to discover I was down to two friends.

Sitting in my back yard one day over a cup of coffee with Tim, the cat (below), a sudden realisation came to me: I now had more friends back in Brisbane than I had in Byron Shire.

When the opportunity came to return to the city of my childhood, I was torn. I loved the shire, but it was changing. I could remember when the Gold Coast was just a series of hamlets scattered along a narrow, two-lane highway with scrub in-between. People bought land there cheaply and threw up fibro weekenders. Now it was a concrete jungle of high rises. If I stayed, would I watch the same thing happen in Byron shire? Sure, the local council had a 2-storey-high building code, but that could be overruled at any time by the state government, who’d already shown its hand by overruling the council on the fate of a caravan park in Brunswick Heads.

There was also the problem of transport. About five buses a day passed through my suburb. To get to the Writers’ Centre in Byron Bay took two buses, a commute of around seventy minutes, one way. To reach a specialist in Lismore or Tweed Heads required two buses and a taxi — a travelling time of about an hour and a half. One way. I was older now, and not well heeled. On foot, it was difficult to meet new people.

The track was petering out.

What to do? I discussed it with the cat, and he advised me to move north, back to the city in which I’d been raised.

More later.

 

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Here in South Golden Beach, just a few miles from the Tweed-Byron border, we’re having an easy time of it. There’s water in the streets, and people are boating up and down the lower end of my street, the end closest to the canal, but up on the higher end, we’re warm and dry. The water hasn’t even risen up the driveway and the biggest problem we have to face is that the rubbish trucks didn’t come this morning and we’ve had to retrieve our bins unemptied.

But many of the other parts of northern New South Wales have not been so lucky. The levee banks Lismore was relying on to keep its CBD safe from the floods have broken and they have feet of water in the main streets.

Murwillumbah’s CBD is also flooded, and thousands of people on the south side of Mur’bah have had to be evacuated.

Anyone who’s lived in the area knows this is nothing new, but the amount of water that fell in the catchment area this time was, depending upon what radio station you’re listening to, between 500 and 750mm, all in a matter of 24-36 hours.

So we’ve been lucky this time. The worst flood I’ve seen here in twenty years was the 30 June 2005  flood when the water came to within 15cm of the floor boards. For us here in South Golden Beach, this particular flood is nothing like that.

In truth, the biggest danger we’ll ever face here is from the ocean and our depleted dune system. Our dunes are so low now that the next time a cyclone storm surge coincides with a high tide, we’ll have seawater in the streets. It won’t be dangerous, not like a tsunami, but it will be unnerving for the new chums and for anyone who lives in a house that’s built low to the ground.

Fortunately, there aren’t many of those. The hippie settlers who built here in the ’70s and ’80s understood about flooding.

SGB Cottage. jpg

Their little timber cottages, spurned by richer folk for not being built of brick on a concrete slab were all built at least a metre off the ground.

We’re lucky.

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I recently had occasion to reread the in-depth review (below) by Paul Smith, and thought his unusual take on the story might be of interest to others.

Paul Smith

Paul Smith

Back in July 2014, he reviewed “Remains to be Seen”, the 3rd story in my linked short story collection entitled Dropping Out: a tree change novel-in-stories. Paul has a blog at  http://twogreytoes.blogspot.com.au/ The unusual title for the blog comes from a cat he once owned, which he and his partner called Two Grey Toes.

Two Grey Toes

Two Grey Toes

Below is Paul’s review of “Remains”, reprinted with his permission.

VIETNAM VETERAN BUCKS THE TREND

REMAINS TO BE SEEN BY Danielle de Valera – Some thoughts

Remains-cream-khaki

What is it about human nature that, no matter how much some blokes get blown off course, their homing instinct swings them back around so that their deepest urgings drive them to have a crack at what evolution made them for. Just being born male is enough to be led in the wrong direction. Peer pressure to transgress for the hell of it is just the start. Being born working class ensures that options that lead to independent success, taken for granted by the privileged few, are rarely considered. Going to war all but seals the fate of too many who take that route, whether voluntarily or by ballot. Existing, even if only briefly, as an agent of human destructiveness all but strips away the tissue of connectivity that makes us human – all BUT! The bond that men form with one another when the life of each depends on the loyalty of others endures more widely than marriage. That bond makes it difficult in some cases to overcome the nearly universal condescension of their gender towards women. Women therefore exist in the lives of such men as a convenience at best or an unavoidable encumbrance. Children, the evolutionary point of there being men and women in the first place, are a fearful and even distasteful prospect. Yet, here’s the story of a bloke and his woman, mired in pitiful relationships with his peers, who choose each other and embrace the prospect of having children – even if the likelihood of failure can’t be ruled out.

Danielle de Valera has done something I once thought I would never tolerate: writing in the first person about the life of a Vietnam Veteran. I first encountered this phenomenon in a writing course. One of the other students wrote about an incident in Vietnam, not only as though it had happened, but as though he’d been part of the action. I was incensed! In that moment I understood the outrage of indigenous people when a non-indigenous person writes (or paints etc.) as though they are indigenous. Anyone remember Wanda Koolmatrie? Or Eddie Burrup? Well, Ms de Valera has cured me of my possessiveness. (Yep, I am a VV.) I think what made the difference was that, in her use of first person narration, she does not come across as a “wannabe”. Her extensive knowledge of David Hackworth, one of the most acclaimed Vietnam Veterans certainly helps her achieve an authentic sense of “being there” without intending to claim as much. She also strikes the right tone in narrating events in Mullumbimby in the mid eighties – not as they actually happened, but as they would have, given the cast of characters in her story. There can be little doubt that she was there – as participant and as observer.

Ms de Valera’s story alternates between events in Mullumbimby in post-Vietnam war times and moments in the thick of it in-country, as we used to say. Each episode is a panel of an unfolding mural. The first combines inconsistent messages about the Japanese – as a former enemy on the one hand, and as purveyors of the stuff of our prosperity on the other. Being denied entry to the Ex-Services Club provokes cynicism and confirms the sense and fact of isolation for the two Vietnam Vets. This commonplace episode resonates with the animosity of Second World War Returned Servicemen towards Vietnam Veterans until 1987 or thereabouts. As they drive away in the slashing rain the story segues to an operation in Vietnam, as chopper-borne Diggers are dropping through the rain into a clearing for a rendezvous with US forces for what was to be a joint operation. Not for the last time in this story would the Diggers be let down, and worse, by their so called allies. Do we hear the voice of David Hackworth, disillusioned with his own country’s military, in this story? It wasn’t just the Diggers who questioned the professionalism of their overlords. Each of the alternating snapshots has such issues embedded in the narrative.

This is a story that can be re-read numerous times without exhausting all that is hidden between the lines. It is a Coming Home story that, in this and other works by Ms de Valera, unfolds over a number of years. That thought suggests a link with the film that bears the name of its genre. Is Michael O’Neill an Aussie version of Luke Martin – emotionally rather than physically disabled– who decides that the best way to help his mates is to escape the horror of their post-war life (for its destructive nature is every bit as horrific as their experience in Vietnam) is to throw himself into something resembling a “normal” life? Does Azure thus have her Lucky Out in Michael’s self administered “cleansing”?

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The other day I found myself with nothing to read so I pulled out my old copy of A Book of Australian Verse, selected by Australian poet Judith Wright. I was reading the collection when I came across the poems of John Shaw Neilsen, whose work I’d always admired. This shy, slight figure, who had almost no education, had a love of natural beauty and could produce lines of effortless simplicity such as:

“I was around by the cherries today: all the cherries are pale. The world is a woman in velvet. The air is the colour of ale.” He is considered one of Australia’s finest lyric poets.

Shaw Neilsen

Shaw Neilsen

Whenever I think of Neilsen, I’m reminded of a story my old friend Lyle Freeman told me. Lyle (gone now, alas) wasn’t a writer, but he moved on the edges of the literary circles in Brisbane and Sydney in the 1940s and early ‘50s. In his late teens, he ran away from the family business in Kingaroy, went to Sydney and with friend Lois Whose-last-name-eludes me, they opened a boarding house in the vicinity of Kings Cross, where itinerant writers and artists often stayed while they found their feet. Or not. At one stage, Charlie Blackman and his wife Barbara (not his wife at the time, but) boarded there.

I think it was his friendship with Queensland poet Val Vallis that would have got him the invite to Judith Wright’s house that Sunday.

judith-wrightWhenever Lyle told the story (it was a story I asked to hear more than once), the house he described was in Mount Tambourine, though Wright never moved there permanently until 1950, and the event Lyle described must have happened before 1941. (Neilsen was at that time up from Melbourne; he returned there and died within twelve months of this encounter.) Perhaps Wright toyed with renting houses in the country outside Brisbane as many of us did in those days before land inflated to preposterous proportions; my partner and I had a weekender at Mt Glorious in the ‘60s.

On this particular day, Lyle told me, a group of seven or eight aspiring writers were sitting in Wright’s kitchen debating the state of Australian arts and letters when there came a gentle knock on the back door. Standing there was a shy, slight man in his early seventies. Perhaps an elderly gardener, they thought.

The man spoke only one sentence. He said softly, “I’ve come for my tiffin.” (He meant afternoon tea.) Wright handed him a cup of tea and a plate containng some cup cakes and he went away. “That was Shaw Neilsen,” she explained to the Young Turks. “He’s staying with us for a while. He’s a bit shy.” Lyle said he felt immensely humbled to see this unassuming man shuffle away with his tea and cake. There they’d all been, debating the parlous state of Australian literature, and there he was, the real thing, just wanting peace and quiet and a bit of tiffin.

Lyle had an interesting life. He was a roadie for the Borovanski Ballet when Kathleen Gorham was one of the principal dancers, and he was gay at a time in Australia when it took real guts to come out and say so. He was once insulted at a party by Patrick White, that dour, sharp tongued Australian novelist.

patrick-whitePatrick White

Wine must’ve loosened my old friend’s tongue sufficiently for him to begin talking about his ambitions for a novel. “Hmph,” White said to him. “You’re a small man, and you’ll write a small novel.” That put my friend Lyle, who was six-foot-two, nicely in his place. White was famous for these bon mots.

Lyle never did write that novel. There were no mobile phones when I knew him, and the only photo I have of him is more than forty years old and somewhat blurry. Thanks to the expertise of Paul Smith I’m able to reproduce it here.

The photo was taken on the verandah of the house I shared with Queensand poet, Michael Sariban.

the-presentation-on-the-verandah

From L to R: Ann Hurley, DdeV holding a young Sasha Sariban, Olga Sariban and Lyle Freeman.

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 The Kid

As 2013 draws to a close I find myself thinking more and more about my neighbour Ron, who passed away in October of this year after a long battle with cancer. We lived across from one another for over 13 years and, although we were never in and out of one another’s places (we would’ve hated that), we were there for one another. He was a single parent. When he first moved in, he had a boy who’d just started high school — a wild boy.

A number of years ago, when Ron was still well and I didn’t even know he had cancer, I went over to his place one day for coffee, and he told me his story, how he’d been given less than five years to live and how he’d decided he couldn’t die because no one else would be able to raise his son, whom he called ‘the kid’.

Ron was a born storyteller. The whole story rolled off his tongue and when I came home I simply wrote it down, just the way he’d told it to me. I’ve never done that before or since; I’m not that kind of writer. Later, when I wanted to enter the story in a fiction competition based around the subject of cancer, I added an extra frisson by having the narrator say she’d been on her way to commit suicide and the story of Ron’s courage had stopped her. The story ended up being short-listed in the Cancer Council of Victoria’s short story competition and included in an exhibition of art, poetry and stories, fiction and non-fiction, that toured country Victoria in (I think) 2009.

Ron was stoked to see his story in print. He was one of those unsung heroes who live and die unnoticed by the world, known only to a few friends and family. As his illness progressed, I saw a bit more of him, making him a baked dinner on Sundays when I made my own, but leaving him in peace to eat it in his own time. He had a miniature fox terrier named Bella, and even when things became difficult for him and he was on heavy doses of morphine, we would still see him walking Bella, growing thinner and thinner every week. He used to say, “She’s been so good for me. I wouldn’t get out and walk if it wasn’t for her.”

If you haven’t already done so, you can read Ron’s story FREE at http://www.derekhaines.ch/vandal/2013/11/short-story-the-kid-by-danielle-de-valera/

Remember, though, I’m a fiction writer: I was never a widow, nor am I contemplating suicide. (I left that behind with my youth.) The great part about the story is the real-life ending. Although given only five years to live, Ron lived to see his son all grown up with a kid of his own who promises to be every bit as much a tiger as he was. Life goes on.

The best of everything to you all for the New Year. May we be safe and well in 2014. (Wealth is good, but health is even better.)

Danielle

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A former client of mine, Chris Shaw, recently sent me one of the short stories from his lately released book, My New Country, a collection of short stories about his experience as a newbie in the wild and woolly country of Australia. He also sent me a great page with photographs of the book’s cover, plus the blurb, a photograph of himself, and information on how and where to buy the book, which is available in both hard copy and e version.

Being digitally disadvantaged as I am, I find I am now unable to insert his material into this post.  I used to be able to do such things, but for some reason, totally unknown to me, when I try now, all I keep getting is a link – which is something, I suppose, and I should be grateful, but it’s not the same as having the cover right there, here and now, in front of you.

But, it’s the best I can do for the moment. I apologise to readers and also to Chris. The link for how to find and buy his book appears at the end of the story.
 

My First Drink in North Queensland

I came to Australia in 1973. Originally, I’m from Felixstowe in gentle East Anglia, but I had spent seven years in the Caribbean, prior to emigrating to this really big island.

I arrived with my Trinidadian wife and three-month-old son in Sydney International Airport, but we had already decided to settle in a northern beach suburb of Cairns, Queensland, mainly because of its similarity to the tropical environment of the West Indies. We flew there after a ten-day stopover in Brisbane.

In Cairns we secured the land, built the house and bought a successful business, thus taking on a twenty-year debt – as you do; or at least, as you did then.

The first drink I had in a pub in the area was in the Trinity Beach Hotel, a large corrugated iron shed, with floor-to-ceiling louvres to the east and the west of the building. It was sixty metres above sea level, on top of a hill overlooking the Coral Sea.

It was around noon, in February 1973. The temperature would have been 33+ degrees Celsius, with humidity hovering around 90 per cent. The sea was flat calm, as blue as an advertisement, and dotted with green islands. Bougainvillea and frangipani blossoms tumbled down the hill below me.

The bloke on the next stool to me swivelled around.

‘G’day, mate’, he said. ‘Haven’t seen you in here before.’ No question mark was needed, but it was a question.

‘Nah, mate. New chum; just arrived,’ I said, desperately hoping he didn’t pick the falseness of my accent. ‘Can I get you a beer?’

‘Yeah, thanks. What do you do?’

‘Me, mate? Pharmacist. What about you?’

‘Surveyor. Been doing some work with my team in Papua New Guinea, up in the Highlands. Of course, there’s not a hell of a lot of law and order in those villages. We came on a situation not so long ago, where a white missionary was fooling around with the young boys and girls in one particular village. The head man of this village was very worried and came to talk to us about it.’

‘What’d you do?’ I asked.

‘We killed the bastard, of course.’

‘Seriously?’ My eyebrows hovered near my hairline, along with my voice.

‘Yup. Only thing to do under the circumstances. Think about it: a long, drawn-out, expensive court case with lawyers and all that flying in from Australia, and the family travelling all the way to Port Moresby? Children giving that sort of evidence? Nah! Would’ve brought huge shame on the families, and they couldn’t have paid for it, anyway. So, we told the head man we’d take care of it.’

I just had to ask him. ‘What did you do with the body?’

‘Dropped it into a septic tank, mate. Ten days, no evidence, see. Can I get you another drink, mate?’

So this was Australia. Bloody hell, this is a rough country! I’d better keep my eyes wide open, but, by God, I loved the sensation of this cutting-edge, pioneering stuff!

A1 sheet for My New Country book

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Recently, only a few days ago in fact, a long term friend of mine called me ‘a f–k–g Luddite’ on Facebook. I wish I could’ve repudiated this accusation. Unfortunately, it’s all too true.

Down with tech'y

I knew I was one; I just didn’t realise that I was actually a bona fide 100% one. Klutz I might be, I thought, but only partly. When I received the first file for proofs from the print book designer and found that I couldn’t upload them to CreateSpace, no matter what I did, I discovered that I really could appropriate one of those lovely 100% stickers with a clear conscience.

Klutz 1

Turned out that, for the past ten years, I’d been saving anything I wanted to save that came to me as an attachment via email, through View and Save, instead of through Download. I’d tried Download a couple of times, but the things I downloaded always disappeared, never to be seen again, so I gave that up as a bad job. During that 10 years, I often wondered why I could never print out anything I’d saved in this way, or Forward it successfully to somebody else. But then I’d get involved with my fiction writing and forget all about it. Besides, the horse needed shoeing.

Consequently, when I finally discovered what was wrong and actually had a proof in my hands, it was the first time I had seen the novel on paper in its final form. Ah, the horror, the horror ….

I had been scrupulous about printing out my last three drafts and editing them on paper, rather than onscreen, BUT: manuscripts in final book form look vastly different from the way they look when you’re viewing them on A4. I had to reedit the entire novel (I got a 2% cut; that was something)  and rewrite four chapters completely, using different characters from the ones I’d originally intended. It was all what you might call, interesting …

desert

Having crawled out of that desert, I’m hoping the next set of proofs will prove to be just a matter of checking punctuation. Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but anyway, here’s hoping.

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