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Moving (short story)

I thought I’d post one of my short stories today. This is an old one, written in 2009 just before I moved into my house. It’s one of those stories that contains a bundle of truths about your life, but also a bundle of things that never happened. I guess your aim as a writer is to make all of it feel true. Happily this one won a placing in a competition a few years back. It could probably be improved and reworked again, and I could try submitting it to another competition in future. Maybe when I’ve finished working on my novella…

Hope you enjoy : )

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Moving

There’s something heavy about packing your life up for removal, as though it shows that’s all it really is – bits and pieces stuffed into cardboard boxes and Coles green bags. You realise how much you’ve gathered over the years, and you see exactly what you do have and what you don’t.

It’s just as heavy to trawl through the pieces and decide which ones you’re ready to throw away, which ones you need to hang on to. It’s not a mindless process. And there’s always that box.

I remember I was in an op shop once; I can’t walk past them without going in, maybe because you never know what you’re going to find. I love the promise of chance, that lottery of goods – some damaged, some with cracks, some in such perfect condition that you wonder if they’ve ever been used, or if they’ve stayed locked away for special occasions that never came. And you might find something you’ve subconsciously been looking for, something you never knew you needed. 

That day, in that op shop, I was scouring through someone’s old bits and pieces when a woman came in with a box and dumped it on the counter. ‘That’s it,’ she said. ‘That’s the last of her.’ Then she burst into tears and ran out.

The lady behind the counter quietly picked up the box and disappeared through the curtained doorway behind her. She must have seen my face when she came back. ‘Her mother just died,’ she said. ‘She’s been in every day this week with more boxes.’ Then she pulled back the curtain to the storeroom. ‘Come in. I haven’t priced everything yet, but you’re welcome to take what you want. I’ll give you a quote.’

I ran out myself. Perhaps it was the thought that everything left of a person, a person someone loved, was sitting out the back of a crinkled op shop in boxes, waiting to be probed, fingered and priced, then put on display where it could be probed and fingered some more. Or perhaps it was the thought that I might pay fifty cents per memory of someone else’s mother. I didn’t go back into an op shop for some time.

Now, I’m dealing with my own collapse into boxes and green bags. This will be my fifth move in less than five years. I like my new house (and for the first time, it’s really mine), but already I know that I won’t fit into Prahran, itself a green bag of young couples, pregnant mothers and new families. This doesn’t matter, in the end – what matters is that I’ll finally have somewhere that belongs to me and that holds all of my belongings.

If I think about it, I suppose I’ve moved more than five times these past years. When I was ill, I was flicked between my share house, my apartment, my parents’ house, Lorne and various hospitals. It’s been a five-year period of dislocation, and I’ve learned to draw the feeling of being settled from other things – habits, customs, routines. While such things are, I think, undervalued in their ability to pay for the illusion of permanence, the idea of a fixed place in the world is something that appeals.

So I’ve spent the last two months reducing myself into bags, some of which are bursting at the seams. Perhaps those particular bags hold things from periods in my life when I myself was bursting at the seams, eager to move forward, to grow, to achieve. The other, emptier bags might be from my life now, when I seem to have fewer lipsticks and bangles, fewer things I really need, when I feel unsure of just how many things will fit into a single bag, and am not convinced that anything fits at all.

This time, packing up my life has been an interesting process. I’ve had a couple of months between the auction and the day of settlement, and every weekend I take a load of things to my parents’ house, where it lies in wait until I get my new keys. I’m doing this to avoid the need for removalists, to fulfill some unexamined desire to see the hierarchy of my belongings – and also, perhaps, so I won’t really notice I’m moving at all.

Week by week, green bags are painlessly taken away and I can pretend that my endless dislocation is coming to an end. It’s also a matter of practicality, I suppose; when I vacate my apartment and need to deal with the usual hiccups that will inevitably happen on the day, there won’t be much left to remove before I hand over the old keys.

And so far, it has been painless. Except for that box.

For my weekly deliveries to my parents’ house, I began with the things I knew I could do without for two months. The old clothes that should have been thrown out long ago (but probably never will be), the food processor I absolutely had to have, the dresses I will fit into again (perhaps in two months).

The first few carloads were easy, but there came a time when I needed to think a little harder about what I was packing. And it soon became apparent that I was no longer choosing things based on whether I could do without them, but on whether I could be without them. The photograph of my school friends that I sometimes take out when nostalgia strikes, the pile of novels on my bedside table that I promised myself I’d start reading last year, the recipe books I haven’t opened for a while but, well, I just like the look of them on the bookshelf.

This selection process has been quite tormenting. And there’s that box.

That box. It’s a small, silver jewelry box, given to me last year. It’s heavy, looks expensive, and winks like a mirror in the light.  Scratched on its surface are the words – Tutto é possible. Anything is possible

‘This is for us,’ he said when he gave it to me, showing how well he knew me – my love of Italy, my need to hang on to those words, how I’ve always kept everything in boxes.

Soon after, I told him he didn’t fit into my life, didn’t belong. I needed to remove him. I said I’d never been sure about us, because I’d met him during my illness and I didn’t trust my selection process then.

He spoke of the random circumstances of our meeting, of the few opportunities the universe will ever give us, of our duty to follow the hands of chance and be life’s passengers sometimes. I said that wasn’t enough. He told me to let go, although he didn’t say it so nicely.

We met in our doctor’s waiting room. We’d both changed our appointments at the last minute and our doctor was running late. When he came in, all the seats were full of impatient patients, but the woman beside me told the receptionist she’d waited too long and left. He sat down.

Destiny is something I’ve always tried not to think about – if you believe, this shows you can’t hold responsibility and decision. If you don’t, it shows you can’t stop holding.

I let go of him. But I kept the box.

It’s the sort of box you put on display and people say nice things about, but for the last year it’s been hidden beneath the I’ll-never-wear-but-won’t-throw-out-for-some-reason clothes in my bottom drawer. Where it belongs, perhaps.

I’m annoyed with myself that I’ve kept it. The same way you’re annoyed if you have a sex dream about someone who’s treated you badly or whom you don’t particularly like. You wake up, burning, feeling like you’ve given them something, something that’s yours, something you can’t do without.

And I do. I feel like I’ve given him something. Because I’ve kept the box. Not only that, I keep giving him something because the box didn’t go to my parents’ house in any of the early bags. I’ve kept it here, ‘till now, when there’s little left to remove and my apartment feels barer than it ever has, even when there was nothing in it.

I haven’t put the box into the last green bag. I’ve kept it hidden, like I’m trying to convince myself it’s not there, that it’s been thrown out or shipped off with the things I can do without, that I haven’t given him something.

I move in three days. All that’s left is my mattress, those bedside-table books (ridiculously), some clothes and toiletries. Even the fridge was carted off this morning to be hidden in the back shed of my new house (don’t tell the vendor), until I finally get the new keys and relinquish the old.

I can live without a fridge for three days, but I can’t live without that damn box.

Or maybe it’s not the box I can’t live without, but what’s inside it. A telephone number, scrawled on a torn envelope. The number I deleted from my mobile in a fit of rage, to send him a never-to-be-received message through the universe that I never wanted to speak to him again, and to stop any late-night dialing when things got dark. The number I wrote down before deleting, in case it became something I needed. The number I’ve wanted to call so many times but never have; the number that hums in my sleep.

I’ve spent hours staring at that number, when night falls and my mind hangs on to spooling pictures of happiness, bickering, despair. I’ve even had it keyed into my phone, ready to hit the green button, ready to tell him that my life is nothing but green bags without him, or something just as dusty and stale.

I’ve never called it. I’m holding the box now – shimmering, blinking, warming. I breathe and put it down, letting my hand fall away. Why is it that empty rooms always smell like dust, like old op shops, even when you’ve scrubbed? I stare at the box. Maybe I’ll lift the lid, take out the envelope scrap and call the number that’s held me at night for so long. I’ll call him and tell him the truth – he beat the fridge.

I’ll tell him I couldn’t bear to send him off with all the things I don’t desperately need, and that he doesn’t fit into any of the green bags because he’s inside them all. I’ll say I didn’t feel I could stuff him into one of those bags because, one day, they’ll be all that’s left of me in some op shop. And he doesn’t belong there.

I’m heading out soon because there’s (another) inspection today and I don’t want to be here when the droves arrive. Before each inspection, the agent warns me (again) that I’m not to leave anything lying around – jewelry, watches – because they tend to go missing.

I look at the box. Silver, terrible, wonderful.

There’s a built-in shelf beside the front door, about hip height. My agent said hoards of people are coming through today, because it’s the last inspection before I vacate.

I pick up my handbag and check my keys are inside, wondering briefly how many more times I’ll use these keys before handing them back, never to see them again. They’ve been good to me, these keys. They’ve let me into a period of my life when, although the green bags haven’t been bursting at the seams, they’ve been gently, weightlessly full. These keys have taken me, day by day, away from my illness, and they’ve unlocked the door to a place where I’ve waited for, and felt, impending settlement.

But it’s time for new keys.

I walk to the door. I’m holding the box, knuckles white. Quietly I place it on the shelf by the door, where it shines against the dusty stillness. I open the door, close it behind me. That lottery of chance.

Soon, I’ll be ready to move.

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Filed under my works, Short stories

Travel observations from a writer

So someone really thought through this design…

This post is a variation of one I just wrote for my life blog (http://littlewhitetruthsblog.blogspot.com.au/2014/06/little-white-travel-truths-and-quirks.html), but I’ve re-cast it from a writer’s perspective.

As a writer, one of your tasks is to observe – whether with an objective eye or with a subjective one (when you’re writing from the perspective of a particular character).

I’ve been fortunate enough to have done a good deal of travelling – fortunate in the sense that this is where most of my disposable income has gone in the past, and I don’t regret it. As part of these travels I’ve lived for a few months in Florence, Italy; Seville, Spain; and New York, Yemen (had you there for a second…; ) ). My husband and I also migrated to Berlin for just shy of two years at the beginning of 2012 and returned to Melbourne in late 2013. Over my travels I’ve noticed various quirks about different countries – including my own – and I wanted to share them. I’d be excited if anyone wants to add to the comments below about their own travel observations. They always make me smile, and please note: they’re meant well and not meant to be taken the wrong way!

Also, if I’m lucky, some of the observations below might be useful to fellow writers and spark off some ideas about content to include in their own writing. That would be really cool : )

The list!

Nowhere else in the world does washing strung high between windows look so amazing as it does in Italy.

Greece: I totally agree that a large bottle of beer should cost less than a small bottle of water.

Laughter sounds the same in every language.

Dear Germany: there’s more to life than potato and sausage.

Dear Australia: There is no need to treat your citizens like two-year-old children and over-regulate to the point where breathing the wrong way may soon be a punishable offence (which of course will carry an extortionate fine that most of us can’t afford to pay).

If we all smiled as much as the locals in Thailand, the world would be a happier place.

Mexico… Where every salt shaker is filled with salt, and every pepper shaker is too.

The Swiss embarrass me. They speak better English than I do.

German is a useful language when one is in a foul mood.

Egypt: I get that tipping is standard when you provide good service in restaurants. I’m not sure the same applies when you remove all the toilet paper from the cubicles in public bathrooms and then hand it to me in scrunched bundles, expecting payment for this ‘service’.

So Canada… What’s with the gross yellow cheese? You know that’s not the only cheese on the planet, right?

Melbourne: Where you can get off a train at a station you don’t know, in an area you don’t know, and yet be certain that decent coffee is a stone’s throw away.

Italy, I like your style. Smoking in underground train stations might be illegal but when people do it anyway, ‘eh’ is a great response.

Um, Germany… For all the hoo-hah about the brilliance of German design, you do realise that your traffic lights are placed in such a way that you can’t actually see them unless you bend over your steering wheel, cock your head and peer upwards, right?

Having said that, dear Germany – I LOVE your autobahns. Please publicise to the world (and particularly to my own dumbarse country) that you have one of the lowest road tolls on the planet. Speed limits do not always mean safety.

Oh Australia, I am happy to drive at 40km per hour in school zones. I am not happy to do same for phantom roadworks.

You learn things when you travel. Like snow really does fall on beaches. And Texans really do speak and act as they do in films. And even the smallest country town has an Italian restaurant, a Chinese one and an Irish pub.

Hi Mexico, just a suggestion – not every dish has to be drowned in condiments. If I order meat, I want to taste meat – not a gluggy, soupy mass of seven or more unidentifiable sauces.

So, um, America… Portion sizes, obesity… Yeah? Speak to the French for more information.

Dear Europe: Light switches should be placed just inside the room you intend to illuminate, not in random positions in the room outside it.

Dear Europe 2: I love the large bathrooms you have in many of your hotels, really I do. So luxurious, so much space – I could play mini golf in some of them. Do you not think, however, that the showers could be enlarged at least slightly? As it stands, I don’t have enough room to wash my hair without smashing my elbows on the shower screen. And I often accidentally turn the tap off with my arse when I bend down to pick up the shampoo. Not ideal.

G’day Australia, I’ve been thinking – if you want your citizens to prosper, perhaps you might consider reducing your prices so we can all afford to eat? And speeding/parking fines shouldn’t bring one to the point of bankruptcy. Just a thought.

So Belgium… What’s with the local attitude? Are you still p*ssed over the fact that the French claimed fries as their own?

‘Ladies and gentlemen, our sincere apologies for the delay in opening the boarding gates. However the hostess tells me that you are all on board and seated and your luggage is correctly stowed, so we can in fact leave 20 minutes early.’ (Christ I love Germans.)

Hi again Mexico, another suggestion: If you’d like to solve your traffic problems, you might consider introducing rules and actually enforcing them.

Dear Western Europe: Why can’t I ask for a glass of tap water with my meal? I mean, what’s the problem? Do I need to pay for air too? And can’t I just use a public toilet without paying for it? Please???

Dear Eastern Europe: Thank you for giving me tap water with my meal without me having to ask for it. And for not charging me to use public bathrooms. I love you.

Oh Australia and your over-regulated ridiculousness, the whole cigarette plain packaging thing didn’t really work out, did it? You turkeys.

Asia… I thank you from the bottom of my heart for bringing us some of the best cuisines on the planet. I have to ask though, what’s with the desserts? Is bean curd flan really such a good idea? Really???

South America, I ask you kindly to please reconsider your bus system. Tiny two-way lanes high up on mountains, paved in gravel and with no lighting, and crazy drivers doing crazy turns at night are not a good mix. I do rather like travelling with cages full of chickens though.

Someone seriously needs to explain to the Germans that a coffee is not a jug-sized cup of boiled foam.

Attention: India and France. Please learn how to queue.

Turkey… Why do you get angry when I want to pay in your national currency? I’m not European and I don’t want to pay in Euro. Thank you.

If Italy and Greece can’t stick to timetables for public transport, why have them at all? What a waste of paper.

 

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Slow walkers beware

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I wrote this article back when I was studying Professional Writing & Editing at the CAE in Melbourne. It was written for a project and it’s meant to be a humorous rant. It’s one of those pieces I’ve been reluctant to publish because I may come off as a little crazy… But I am crazy so I’ve decided to live with that.

Please note that the statistics quoted are valid as of 14 December 2008. I realise that’s a while back now, but I don’t think I need to update them for these purposes.

I’m also posting this on my life/being human blog (http://littlewhitetruthsblog.blogspot.com.au/) because it’s definitely a nod towards those little quirks and pet hates that we all have, the ones that make us human.

 

To all you dastardly dawdlers…(footpath rage accelerates)

Over one million disgruntled pedestrians have now joined the Facebook group ‘I Secretly Want to Punch Slow Walking People in the Back of the Head’. 

Inconsiderate walking behaviour has long been an issue close to my heart, so you can imagine my glee over being able to vent my frustrations when I found the gripe group earlier this year. No longer must I suffer stragglers in silence. And, as membership swelled, I felt vindicated to see just how many people feel strongly about this issue.

The vast membership is significant; it’s very rare that any group achieves such high numbers, let alone one that isn’t related to some specific cause. (Facebook doesn’t release group statistics but, as an indication, ‘Barack Obama (One Million Strong for Barak)’ remains just shy of its target.) So interest in the walking group suggests that footpath rage is fast overtaking road rage as a social dilemma.

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Of course, some may have joined as a joke, along with such other associations as ‘Denny Crane for President’ and ‘What would Chuck Norris do?’; but humorous groups like these are lucky to attract 5,000 members, so there must be more to it. The founders of the walking group have clearly exposed a social nerve, and it’s a nerve that signals broader issues, including inconsiderate public behaviour in general – particularly on thoroughfares.

Let’s consider what’s meant by ‘slow walking’. This isn’t about tolerance; us speedsters are generally sympathetic to the pace constraints imposed by such factors as age, pregnancy and pram pushing. And we understand that some people enjoy a leisurely stroll. But the notion of ‘slow walking’ runs deeper: it relates to those mindless moochers who refuse to keep to one side of the footpath, who dawdle erratically with no consideration for the rest of us, and who seem unable to just get out of the way.

There’s a certain lack of awareness to slow walkers, an inherent thoughtlessness, and they carry general characteristics and behavioural patterns. They often travel in packs (walking three or four abreast) when dilly-dallying in pairs or single file would suffice. They’re the random swervers, the ones who cut you off – again – just when you’ve finally spotted an opening through which to pass them. 

They’re the couples whose interlocked hands block a person-sized space, the people who linger in the centre of the grocery aisle with their trolleys, rather than placing themselves to one side. They’re the ones who push through to the vanguard at the traffic lights and then proceed to walk at 0.2 kilometres per hour, the ones who thwart your passage when you’re rushing to make the little green man – even though their light is red and they’re not going anywhere.

Several repeat sightings of weasel waddlers confirm they are the same people who can’t get it into their heads to keep left on the escalator, the same ones who stop in the middle of the street to gasbag, or to decide whether the restaurant door they’re obstructing – along with the entire footpath – is the door they want to enter. And the self-involved nature of dawdlers creates an inability to hear ‘excuse me’. 

One suspects that, if you stuck a slow walker on a bike, they would be the ones taking up both lanes of the road when peddling with their lycra-clad pals, or the ones who don’t understand the concept of ‘bike lanes’ in general (thus forcing entire lanes of traffic to merge right – just for them).

Yesterday I was rushing home, desperate to use the bathroom (know the feeling?), when I got stuck like a pinball behind two amblers on their mobiles. They happened to live in my building and, when we finally reached the lift, guess which button they pressed?  Level one!  For the love of… Take the stairs.

Should we, as a society, really have to tolerate this kind of behaviour?

Think I’m self-indulgently ranting about nothing? Perhaps. But so many people feel rage over this issue, and not just those who’ve stumbled across the gripe group on Facebook. People expect a certain level of consideration from others – and why shouldn’t they? Society is acutely bothered by those who conduct themselves with such blatant disregard; you should see the comments on the group website – particularly those from inhabitants of New York, London and Tokyo (unsurprisingly the cities worst hit by the slow walking phenomenon). Many members have detailed what they’d like done to idlers and, without going into graphics, for some this involves choice orifices and heavy artillery.

For those of you (probably dawdlers) who can’t understand these levels of frustration, have you ever been stuck behind a slow vehicle on the Great Ocean Road? And how do you feel when that driver, despite your rampant tailgating and fiery honking, doesn’t seem to grasp the purpose of slow vehicle turn out lanes? Exactly.

This isn’t just about frustration. The point is, such drivers encourage dangerous behaviour in others – tailgating, harebrained overtaking, distracting horns and slamming fists. The same applies to slow walkers. Yesterday a dallying flock of schoolgirls created the situation where people were forced to walk on the road to overtake them; some even jaywalked to the other side in despair, weaving through oncoming traffic.

Hardly safe, is it? 

I raised the slow walking issue among friends and received an impassioned response. We had some brilliant ideas to combat the problem, such as dividing the footpath into fast and slow lanes, and fining those caught transgressing. Is this suggestion so outrageous? We keep left on highways unless overtaking, don’t we? And public swimming pool lanes are divided by speed.

So to any dalliers who still question the importance of this issue, I ask you this: just how many times have you and your brethren affected someone’s day? How many people have missed their trains because of you – perhaps on their way to some crucial appointment or job interview? Just how does your behaviour impact other people’s daily lives? Some of us like to walk quickly to get some exercise, to ensure punctuality, or to squeeze an hour’s worth of errands into a forty-minute lunch break. Spare a thought for us. Please.

In the end, I think the intense irritation society feels towards selfish slowpokes boils down to the simple fact that, in the vast majority of cases, this disgraceful situation is so damn easy to rectify.

Keep left, think straight, move aside.

* Statistics are current as of 14 December 2008.

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