An incantation against the dark

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Gabrielle Carey (1959–2023) was the author of eleven books. She was listed for the Stella Prize, the National Biography Award and the Nib Literary Award, and she won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Award for Moving Among Strangers. She wrote across the subjects of literature, mental health, family, travel and grief. Her final book, James Joyce: A Life, will be released in late 2023.  

THIS IS MY address, Gabrielle, to you and to no one else. You are the person I wish to speak to about the tumult of recent weeks. Remember how I told you that when I have my first sentence and have weighed it, then I know I have my piece? I have my sentence now. I have my foundation, I have my structure, I have at last the language that will allow me to speak. 

I AM NOT sure when I began to call you Hobbit. It was in the early days of magic and sunshine, and more than any other, this is the nickname that sticks. It is in our messages and emails, it is in the recent letter and the postcard I sent. You requested the postcard, but the letter was an inspired moment because even though there was an ocean between us, I needed you to know how I saw you, how I valued your friendship, and to remind you that you gave me the most important bit of advice at a difficult point in my life. You were there for me at three precise points of anguish and you put tea in front of me and told me how to claw back what had been lost. I was unmoored and dazed overseas, and with a single sentence you pointed out the way. If you gave me nothing else, I’ll always be grateful for your wisdom and steadiness, for knowing the exact words to say. 

Do you remember that review that annoyed me? You cautioned me against such a hasty reaction. Better to appreciate that the book was being reviewed seriously and by a person you termed a heavyweight. You also took the time to compliment my velvet dress and to carry out an inspection of my new black boots, and we both agreed that the most important item in a writer’s wardrobe is a pair of kick-arse boots to kick the negativity out of the way. You particularly liked my vehemence and how uncompromising I could be, but we both understood that to write anything of value we needed to draw a tight circle around ourselves, and Helen Mirren was right, that the only regret would be not telling more people where to go. We quoted that at each other and remember when you said your main problem in life was your trouble with authority and I told you that included me and just about everyone in the community? There is a time for quiet, a time for defiance, a time for walking away and a time to show your claws. That was always my advice to you, to not take anything from anyone, to stick strongly to your heart, that nothing counts above the spirit and the vision by which we view the land. 

And what of our methodology and how we shared tips and rituals and books? You tried out my writing method of fifteen minutes over coffee. I told you I would not adopt your long sessions marshalling words on screen and paper, your notes on Post-its, on the wall, on the floor, sessions interrupted to talk or to jump into water, to plan the elaborate feasts we had each night. I swear all we did was eat and I blame you for this because my needs were more spartan but you believed in freshness and feasting at dinner each time we were away. 

Even during lockdowns, our primary concern was where our boundaries overlapped so we could have a sandwich together beneath the sun. Lockdowns were a furtive time, and early on you threatened to put your kayak in the river to come visit me and Tell me, who exactly is going to stop me? Sometimes this is the trouble with co-conspirators. You hope that one of you is sensible enough to talk the other out of trouble and there we were encouraging each other to more ridiculous heights. I would call you if someone tried to move my commas and you advocated resistance, and I remember how you bought the paper each time a story of mine ran. 

We had the secret language of a close friendship and we swapped insights and jokes. We went to each other’s events and I lament that you will not be here when the Joyce book makes its way into the world. We spoke so much of culture and religion and spirits and travel and books. Last year was our year of the Arabian Nights. It was a rediscovery for us both and I sometimes believe we were teaching each other a new way to be in the world. I could call on your wisdom and you could ask for my fiery advice. You were amazed by how stubborn and particular I could be with my vision and you remarked it was as if I belonged to a new species, but it was a determined quality we recognised in each other, one we both liked.  

I ask why exactly we hit it off as we did. In the time we knew each other, we brought an energy and vibrancy to each other’s lives. We kept to our list of outings and in our daily phone calls we unpicked the events of the day. You loved catching ferries and being close to water and I always was on the hunt for a bookstore and a good café. Do you remember when we went to that café in Katoomba, when we were on our residency in the Blue Mountains? I went back in by myself because I told you, Hobbit, I need to be alone to write. And you had your notes everywhere in that house and those were Joyce days and you were thinking how to structure what I realise now was the project of your life. At one point, you joked you’d call the book My Dead Boyfriend and my suggestion was Breaking Up with JJ, and I determinedly avoided Joyce and your Wake groups though you insisted I stop by. That was for the best, don’t you think, dear Hobbit, because one Joycean in the friendship was more than enough. 

The most difficult part of your death is that you are gone and I have lost the friend who was most close. Ours was an intense friendship and that is not a taste for everyone and I think it is the sort of friendship that sparks only once. I have been expecting that at some point we will be able to sit down and discuss these last weeks and I realised last night that is the belief I am operating on. 

I was listed for the big one yesterday and all I could remember was how you said Your star is on the rise. I have abandoned my Twitter hiatus because above all I wish to protect you and your writings and your life. I don’t want your life interpreted by your death even though your end gives me no peace. I imagine you cold and alone and how I could not reach you, that you went to the darkest place possible and you stayed there in a room with no life. 

One of our last outings was to St Mary’s and we sat quietly together, and it is this I wish to remember, not how you died. I wish for the magic of our friendship, the mist and greenery, the picking of berries, you meeting me suddenly across the city so I could hug you forever and say to you the greatest action in the universe is the one borne by love. 

IT WAS GOLD, Gabrielle, the gold I found writing about Borges, the gold when one writes out of love. The friendship itself was golden and it is there in every photograph. Do you know we only have one photo taken at night? In the rest, there is sun, the sky and always so much light. It is how I see our friendship. I saw it as golden in the past and I see it as golden now.

The dust will settle with this. It has to, and I ask that it settles into a kind pattern that references the friendship, that we were constant in each other’s lives. I find it funny that I am writing personally when I prefer the story as my mask. This is an acknowledgement of you, a public one, to salute and honour you in the best way I have. I want quiet, Gabrielle, to retreat and to be with my thoughts. I commit to supporting your Joyce book but after that I mean to draw a line, to have solitude and silence around my friend in the privacy of my mind.

THE DUST SETTLES. I have some books and a rug. They terrified me when I brought them home. They were a presence with me and for a week they kept me up until I banished them from my sight. When I put your rug away, I felt I was putting you away and it made me cry. The next morning I woke and thought of you and I heard you say It was the only thing I could do, and I remembered again your final weeks. 

My sense now is my friend is fundamentally gone and there is no trick that will call her back, no spell that will return her to life. What I try to measure is the scale of this loss. What I lost was the friend closest to me, the person I adventured with, the one who brought my life so much light. Your colour was green and the friendship was gold and I have colour again without the dark.  

With my memories now, Gabrielle, I can finally call back the light. 

James Joyce: A Life (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2023) 
Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim (UQP, 2020) 
Falling Out of Love with Ivan Southall (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2018) 
Moving among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family (UQP, 2013) 
Waiting Room (Scribe, 2009) 
So Many Selves (ABC Books, 2006) 
The Penguin Book of Death with Rosemary Sorensen (Penguin, 1997) 
The Borrowed Girl (Picador, 1994) 
In My Father’s House (Pan Macmillan, 1992) 
Just Us (Penguin, 1984) 
Puberty Blues, co-authored with Kathy Lette (McPhee Gribble, 1979) 

Selected writings 
‘Skiva’ (The Saturday Paper, 2022) 
‘On the fear of poetry – and the bounty we are denying our children’ (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2022)  
‘Australia can learn from a Belgian town where people with mental illness live with dignity in the community’ (The Guardian, 2021) 
‘Beginning in a Garden: on Elizabeth von Arnim’ (Sydney Review of Books, 2019) 
‘Breaking up with James Joyce’ (Sydney Review of Books, 2018) 
‘John Clarke: A Postscript’ (Sydney Review of Books, 2017) 
‘On being Australian’ (Griffith Review, 2016) 

On her life and work 
Russell Smith in The Conversation 
Debra Adelaide in The Sydney Morning Herald  
Bernadette Brennan in Sydney Review of Books

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