Tag Archives: death

View from a bridge

The woman sees the man climb on to the bridge railing as she arcs down the sweeping bend towards the river. She pulls to the side of the road, calls 000.

She gets out of her car and approaches, carefully. Tells the man she wants to talk. More importantly, to listen to what he has to say.

The second car passing is driven by a ‘tradie’ on his way to work. He also halts mid-way across the bridge. Now two people entreat the man on the edge, trying desperately to connect with him.

Perhaps he is past listening. Bereft. Beyond hope of help or understanding. As the woman continues her heartfelt appeals he topples.

A third motorist, another tradesman, recognises his colleague’s ute and stops. He follows their gaze down from the bridge. Sees a person bob up from the dark green water below. No. No. No.

He’s not a confident swimmer but determines to sprint down to the water. Shed his work gear and plunge into the current. Do something, anything. The woman beseeches him not to, saying he will be dragged down and may also perish.

The man below bobs up again. Then, after an agonisingly long moment, a third time. The second tradesman runs to his car and returns with ropes to lower as a lifeline but they’re not long enough. The bridge is too high.

The man in the water doesn’t resurface.

Another car approaches. It jags to a halt and is abandoned in the middle of the tarmac. Minutes earlier, this distraught fourth driver found an envelope. He tore it open to find a statement of intent. A farewell from a friend.

The letter writer had an appointment with the Immigration Department on this day. A fortnight earlier his cousin’s application to remain in Australia was refused. The cousin was taken to the airport and put on a plane. Immediately, unwillingly, fearfully, forcefully returned to his country of origin.

The letter writer couldn’t, wouldn’t face that same possible fate.

The man’s death echoes through the lives of at least five families. Those who stopped on the bridge are left asking what might have been. Could they have said something different? What if the ropes were longer? What if they hadn’t lingered over a cuppa at breakfast? Seconds and centimetres might have made a difference.

And, leaking through the morass of unanswerable questions, comes a bilious realisation that sours with each hour. An awareness that the system failed this man and his loved ones.

The system that criminalises people for seeking sanctuary or refuge in a safe place.

The system that takes the desperate, despairing and traumatised and compounds their suffering, yet seemingly washes its hands of their welfare.

The system that incarcerates children.

The system that doesn’t specify time limits on detention (while in the justice system convicted killers and rapists get minimum sentences).

The system that is devastating the staff working within it.

The system administered by Australia. That means us.

Funeral for a friend

The first time I met Wendy she asked to see my report card. By asked, I mean demanded.

This was a lady I’d known for a matter of minutes. As I was 16, stomping away muttering that my school performance was none of her business was a possible response. Instead I found myself slinking back into the kitchen and compliantly handing over my academic record. Wendy had a way of getting results.

It transpired that this loud and unusual woman wanted intel so that she could make an informed decision about recommending me to a new school – if my father got the job she was scoping him for. Dad got the job. Wendy made her referral. While I’ll never know how influential it was, I was accepted into the school. It was a reluctant transfer for me but proved to be one of the most formative intersections of my teen years, if not my life.

In my first month at the new school I was asked to partner a lovely girl in the debutante ball. She must have mistaken me for someone who could dance. Wendy was one of the deb coaches and far from fooled. Her commentary on my waltzing (or my version of it) was brutal but humorous. Not that I appreciated it at the time. I knew Wendy was forthright. It took a little longer to see the funny and caring side of her personality.

This formidable lady would become ‘Aunty Wendy’ to my family. She was someone who spoke out, often, and took no prisoners. As the fantastic saying goes, she would truck no nonsense. It’s fair to say she ruffled a few feathers and lost a few friendships because of this trait. It’s also true to say that if she saw the good in you, you gained a generous and unfailingly loyal supporter.

When I moved out of home, with little in the way of furniture or furnishings, Wendy loaded up my car with mugs and bowls and items a 21-year-old male wouldn’t have thought of. I probably failed to fully appreciate how good she was at anticipating need and striving for a solution.

Wendy grappled with several illnesses, some of them prolonged. My contact with her in recent years mostly involved hospital visitation, during which she was always remarkably resilient and good humoured. During a recent visit she insisted I hunt down nursing staff, not for her own welfare but out of concern for a lady sharing the ward. Wendy’s astute eyes missed nothing. Even facing her own trials, she was alert to the welfare of others.

Wendy passed away in August. The small bluestone church where her funeral service was held was packed to the rafters. A video camera was set up to screen proceedings to the multitude gathered in the adjacent church hall. Three people spoke at the funeral, one of them my father. Listening as they stitched together the fabric of a life I was struck by how we might know some of the stories that explain a person, but rarely all of them.

I’d known Wendy for the best part of thirty years. I knew she had an extensive track record serving church and sporting groups and the Country Women’s Association. I didn’t know she’d been a pioneer in the field of welfare for women and children, working side by side with the indefatigable Dame Phyllis Frost.

Having met Dame Phyllis during my work as a social justice journalist (even experiencing a lock down in the women’s prison that bears her name), I can say with confidence that she and Wendy are probably enjoying a riotous reunion now. Perhaps over Devonshire tea. They will no doubt tut-tut over the way services for women experiencing domestic violence in Australia can’t keep up with demand now. But they will also see progress and hopefully feel pride that women have more options for assistance and independence today.

As for me, I’ll miss the strident, ‘Hello, Timothy’ greeting at family gatherings that could come from no one but Wendy. I’ll miss the incisive questions that, like a good editor, could cut away unnecessary verbiage and access the heart of a story. I’ll also miss Wendy’s laugh, a chuckle that outlived umpteen challenges.

Thank you Wendy, for your friendship and support. You will be missed.

On talking to readers, not at them

Regular travellers down Thunder Road will have noticed I’ve turned off and meandered along Michael Morpurgo Lane lately. (If there isn’t a mossy lane somewhere in the UK with this name, there should be.) I was just about to indicate and head back onto the highway when I had cause to flick through an old notebook while preparing for a media interview about Five Parts Dead.

And there, among my crypto-calligraphy, was a page of notes on the talk Mr Morpurgo did at the State Library in September 2007. After decoding, I can share some of what he had to say:

On targeting a specific age group when writing:
“What dictates the tone of the story is the story itself.”

On writing for children, not at children:
“If you are writing something for children because you think they could learn from it or that they would like it, you are probably patronising them.

“You don’t have the children in mind when you are writing , you have the story in mind.”

On protecting children from topics such as death and grief – don’t do it:
“Children have always had to deal with pain … At some stage they are going to have to deal with the loss of a grandparent.”

On character arcs:
“I like the idea of redemption … but not if I have to work too hard to get it in there.”

On where to find stories:
“I had a teacher who used to say, ‘Use your imagination, Michael’. What she should have said was, ‘Use your eyes and use your ears’, because that’s where your imagination begins.”

I particularly like that last quote because it’s essentially what I tell students when conducting writing workshops.

Mr Morpurgo also spoke of how he uses poems, songs, nursery rhymes and folk tales to flesh out and give structure to his books, stating that ancient tales still speak to us all as human beings:
“We survive, as long as our stories survive.”

Amen to that.

Snapshots from a novel #3

Extracts from the sensory and beautiful How To Make A Bird by Martine Murray.

‘I didn’t mean to say it like that. Sometimes sentences rushed out before I checked them over for holes or hidden weapons.’ p6

‘I spent a lot of my life waiting, to tell you the truth, which was why I was getting out of town. It was a deliberate strategy, a counterattack to waiting, which wasn’t getting me anywhere. There are two types of waiting. There’s the waiting you do for something you know is coming, sooner or later – like waiting for the 6.28 train, or the school bus, or a party where a certain handsome boy might be. And then there’s the waiting for something you don’t know is coming. You don’t even know what it is exactly, but you’re hoping for it. You’re imagining it and living your life for it. That’s the kind of waiting that makes a fist in your heart.’ p16

‘It’s not surprising that someone in my circumstances would always be wanting something. Probably ever since I started out with the wrong shoes. There was the wanting and there was the waiting, too. That’s two feelings that move all out of step with each other. Waiting doesn’t really move, it doesn’t have direction, whereas wanting dashes out of you, like an arrow. So if you wait and want and wait and want, then you live in a jagged way. You go along in zig zag, not in a clear line forward, like most people do.’ pp41-42

BTW, I was reading Martine’s Henrietta Gets A Letter aloud to the Little Monkey (5) recently and was pleasantly surprised when the Little Dragon (9) joined us, then my god-daughter, aged 10. Moments later my god-son (7), added to the throng. Only a good story draws kids in like that. The Henrietta books are junior fiction in the vein of Lauren Child’s Charlie & Lola books – quirky & fun.