‘HE HAD THE sagacity to realise that, once he was out of Australia, the colours would gradually bleed from his palette, as they have from the palettes of so many Australian writers self-exiled in England.'
– Francis King on Patrick White
DAD'S WORKING DOWN the pit. After years of doing other things. He's back where he began: night shifts, underground. ‘They said if I could pass the medical the job's mine.' He's seventy-four. ‘You're too old, Dad,' I scoffed when I first heard the news. He wouldn't listen. Never has.
On days off we drive up the Hunter Valley, past the industrial remnants of the first pit he worked in, at Paxton, when he was sixteen. Past the first pub he drank in. Down a dirt road to the tiny miner's cottage amid a huddle of four, dwarfed by the bush, that he spent most of his childhood in (‘Stocky' – Stockrington 2 – another mine long abandoned). ‘The women drove each other crazy. Only four families, and there was a strict hierarchy, and they never saw anyone else. God, the fights.' Past the old house at Kearsley his parents built with their bare hands. Dad was born there.
One Saturday afternoon of glaring Hunter light the owners catch us outside taking photos. Stare a tad too long at the pale Notting Hill blow-in, too careful in her high sandals and wide hat (that would be me). Dad tells them about the cylinder detail on the top of the veranda posts: old bread tins filled with concrete. The owners are tickled pink; we're invited in. There were just four rooms when he was a kid. ‘We found the old horsehair plaster.' The house is guarded by a blue cattle dog called Banjo and a red one called Ember.
I chuckle, at all of it; the names, the house, the sheer Australianness throughout, bush simplicity, the craft and care still evident in the building. Dad asks, only half-joking, if he can buy it. ‘Not on your life,' the owner laughs, fierce.
And something is unfurling as I wander around, marvelling at the room my father was born in (‘all I had for pain relief was a sheet to clutch, tied to the bed ends,' my grandmother later tells me). Fingers linger over windows, doors, hinges. I haven't had this stirring for so long. It's the wolf-writer, licking its lips. The old thrill of beginning is back. It's started with place; it always does.
I've lost the will in my adopted land, struggling to finish my last novel; wondering if this is the last one I'll do; I've nothing left to write about. These years have been debilitating, I'm restless to be rid of them, have become as soft as a pocket. But as I stand in this worn, resilient, simple Hunter Valley place, the writer's flooding back.
I want to come home. Be strong again.
I need the vividness again, like a varnisher's hand passing over a painting. Need to feel alive again. England has chipped away at me, stolen my optimism, stopped me from smiling when I talk. All those leaden skies like the water-bowed ceiling of an old house, day after day of them, especially in the cruellest month of all for Australians used to their summer sun: August. My whole being is veered south now; I want shadows again, and squinting, and dust motes dancing in strong light – it's been too long since any of it.
And in this Hunter house there's one thing above all I want: a belonging. As I stand there I understand something of the beautiful circularity of life – its simplicity – that my father is finding again as he returns to his old haunts. For with belonging comes stillness. Strength. I've always championed the side of the outsider, the observer; pushed that it's necessary for a writer; used to think I needed the grate of it to work. But coming home has taught me the great solace in belonging, the ease of it, and it's like a huge exhalation of relief. I've spent twelve years being an outsider in a foreign land and revelling in that status; but God, now, the joy of the known. It hits me like a long cool drink after a sweltering summer's day: life is easy again, familiar, navigable.
I've based myself at Lake Macquarie, at the foot of the valley, where I spent my childhood holidays. Found a fibro shack surrounded by gum trees, watched by white cockatoos and danced on by possums at night. Thrown the two oldest kids into the primary school next door and put rubber bands across the knobs on the kitchen cupboards to repel the youngest, the baby, while I try and find a way back into work.
Because I've come to a stop. Within the thick of my London life, all its glary noise and aggressiveness, all its concrete. And the older I get, the more I need nature. I feel like Antaeus, the giant who grew stronger every time he touched his Mother Earth and forced all strangers to wrestle with him until Heracles, lifting him in the air, overpowered him. Heracles is London for me. I'm overpowered, too often now, by the sheer energy it takes to get by in that place. I need to come home, touch my earth.
My writing needs it. Because it doesn't get easier; five novels in, I'm more uncertain with each one. My last novel took six years of stopping and starting, cutting and reworking. It's difficult to keep the vast breadth of 60,000 words in my head now – is that age, London's distractions, or motherhood?
My working life consists now of stolen moments while the children are asleep or at school or with babysitters. A world of short chapters and snatched thoughts, three-line paragraphs and fragments on shopping dockets. Gone are the fourteen-hour writing sessions, the luxury of sixty drafts, weeklong sojourns in distant cottages. I never leave now. Can't. Don't see things as sharply or clearly; I'll take up the pen and write in bursts, then put it down again when another deliciousness, another baby comes along, milky and mewly with want. Deadlines have slipped away, whole novels.
I've relinquished control of my life, no longer call all the shots. At times the tiredness dumps me like a wave in the surf and I feel, literally, beside myself. And sometimes in those despairing moments I have to leave my little family and grab an hour of solitude in a café down the road. To remember the woman I once was. Reclaim her. So I have the strength to go on.
My love for my children is greedy, wild, voluptuous, but as I face the endless routines of this life sometimes there's a dangerous yearning, wrong and selfish I know, for rupture. To crash change into my world. Hence this trip. Georges Bataille said, ‘the need to go astray, to be destroyed, is an extremely private distant, passionate, turbulent truth.' I'd reached a point in London where I couldn't climb out of my life, couldn't simplify it. And writing demands simplicity.
Discipline. Hard yakka. My world needs recalibrating to remind me of that. Dad told me of his five classmates who all left school between fourteen and sixteen to work down the pit. One was killed in a mine accident; the others all became millionaires. ‘One of them,' Dad chuckles, ‘when asked by his teacher to name two days of the week beginning with T, said Today and Tomorrow. No flies on him.' The secret to their success? ‘Hard work.'
Within him is a need for toil that he can't surrender; ‘I'll die working,' he says. It's a desire for the violent dislocation it affords him, an encompassing removal from all the niggles of everyday life as he slips into the earth. I know something of that. The need of it, to still you down.
Freud was right. All we need is love and work, and there's infinite pleasure in a job well done. ‘When I am painting I feel happy and I let the feeling take hold of my hand,' the Aboriginal artist Fiona Omeenyo said. I feel that too, when writing. It's why I have to keep working around motherhood, in whatever time I can steal. For then the happiness filters through into everything else.
Now, under the gum trees, there's the rush to words. Perhaps, like my father, I'm ready for some kind of return in my life. This trip has saved me. The writer in me is uncurling again. These simple, golden-hued days are dangerous – because I want to stay marinated in them.
With no distractions like school runs and Starbucks and bills to pay and not being able to say no, to so many requests, from so many people, such a lot of the time. ‘I feel a real horror of people closing over me,' Katherine Mansfield wrote in her journal in 1914, and in London I feel that too. I want to be a woman who radiates serenity, because from it flows so much: happiness, compassion, patience, grace. When I'm writing – when I'm doing what I really want to do in life – I have a quietness of the soul. It's all-calming; it shelters me. I'm changing here, becoming looser, lighter, stronger. Another woman is starting in this place.
‘What is marriage doing to me?' I wrote in my journal several years ago. ‘Losing me? Here I am with that dangerous feeling I have to crash catastrophe into my life.'
With this trip, in a small way, I have. Dislocated myself from my marriage, from my regular life. Now, on the cusp of reuniting with my husband, Andy, I'm ready again; cleaned, stilled. This trip has been about regaining a measure of control in some way – and I'm so grateful to him for allowing it.
The days are galloping now; cold is tingeing our mornings; soon we must leave. I'll return to London scrubbed of restlessness, sated; and with a feeling now that I'm ready to relinquish my outsider status and find a way back home. He is too.
So to the beautiful lightness of ageing, as you learn to let go, surrender to belonging, revel in being chuffed by so many simple wonders of life. My father has all that as he heads down the pit, chuckling that it's good to be back. I no longer admonish him about being too old: he's happiest when he's toiling, replenished.
On our final day at Lake Macquarie there's the smell of late gardenias on the breeze and I fling wide the windows and let in the sky and think of the grace of this setting. I feel pared down, righted. Blazing life. Over all my days here is a great giggly smile. Because I've found a way back into writing again. Renewed by all the things that have terrified me for so long – home, the known, belonging. I wasn't expecting it. And I understand, now, the wondrous circularity of life.