Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: January, 2015

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LET US REJOICE AND REFLECT

Graveyards are wonderful places, crammed full of life. All our losses and all our loves rest here – or will eventually. Tales of unspeakable tragedy, of quiet endurance, of blooms snipped far too soon, of greatness celebrated and gentle smallness that barely touched the earth, every conceivable journey through this world lies behind these stones and plaques.

Magical places for storytellers. I can’t look at a headstone inscription without sketching up a narrative of the owner’s life, or seeing a ghost glimpse of them – silk flowers set on the brim of a bonnet just caught out of the corner of my eye, a pair of tall ox-blood boots striding across the grass…

And sometimes, they bring happy little history-nerd surprises, like this headstone I came across at Millthorpe Cemetery belonging to John Hardman Australia Lister. Yes, that’s his real name. And he discovered gold in Australia in 1851. Of course, at first glance I thought someone was pulling my leg. Who would give their child the name ‘Australia’ and how could I not know this name if the fellow discovered gold in 1851 – the year the goldrush began in New South Wales?

Everyone knows Edward Hargraves was the one to first strike gold here that year, and he struck it in Ophir, on the Macquarie River northeast of Orange. Big strapping prospector who swashbuckled in from California and informed the governor that he’d single-handedly turn around the economic fortunes of the colony by calling a rush on, and indeedy he did. That’s what we learned in school. Right?

Not exactly the whole truth.

Turns out that John Lister was the young man who showed Hargraves where to find the stuff, having discovered traces of gold in a creek near his family’s pub at Guyong – about five minutes from where I live. And furthermore, it was only by accident that Hargraves even discovered Lister, only meeting him while stopping the night at said pub. Lister and a couple of brothers called James and Henry Tom then went on to help Hargraves make the famous find at Ophir, but Hargraves – I might call him a selfish, arrogant, braggardly bastard here – did not include them as partners in the deal.

History promptly forgot Lister and the Tom brothers – except for one tiny mention in the Australian Dictionary of Biography under Hargraves that states they are undoubtedly the real and unsung discoverers of that shiny, shiny loot. Meantime, Hargraves got the government reward for finding it and a town named after him – as well as a whole blinking legend.

Not even the pub – the Wellington Inn – where Lister and Hargraves met survives to tell the truth. Just this humble little headstone in my local graveyard.

As for the name Australia, well, that’s another story… Lister was born twelve thousand miles away in Herefordshire in England, in 1826. His father was a sea captain who greatly admired Matthew Flinders, and Flinders having coined the name ‘Australia’ for the continent he circumnavigated so heroically in a tiny open boat with his cat, it was decided by Captain Lister that his firstborn son should bear this magnificent name. Two years later, the captain moved his young family to that same continent, eventually settling in Guyong, up the road from me.

And this, lovely readers, is why I will never cease exploring Australian history, and why I’ll never have to move too far from home to do it.

It’s also, on this Australia Day, a reminder that our history is always more than the myths and narrative sketches we are fed at school, by commercial TV and by the Lamb & Snag Department of the Meat Board. We’ve got so much to rejoice about – we are young and free, and so very, very beautiful. Sometimes, though, we forget to look for the gold that lies in the truth. We should ask ourselves why Matthew Flinders’ cat has a statue cast in its honour, and Lister doesn’t. Why we don’t honour his magnificent name or can’t have a drink in his old pub to toast him. The truth will only make us richer.

trim cat

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SMOKE AND MIRRORS

Five years ago today I had my last cigarette. I’m not so much proud of this fact as relieved – daily, with every clean, clear breath. Free.

I hated smoking, but the claws were in deep. Twenty five years’ worth of addiction deep. A packet a day, for most of those years – at least. It wasn’t just the physical, chemical processes of nicotine that had me ensnared, but a mental bind that was, in a way, just as powerful.

I believed I wasn’t me without a cigarette. I thought my creativity might dry up if I stopped smoking. I thought I might not be able to think. Of course these kinds of ‘beliefs’ are just some of the most compelling of all the little lies that addicts tell themselves in order to justify their behaviour, but what non-addicts rarely understand is how devastatingly real these lies can seem.

For me, I never quite believed I was good enough not to smoke. And beneath this, I never believed that I was good enough to be respected by others, in any sense – as a mother, a friend, a colleague, a writer, a person. This is horribly sad – it was then, and remains so.

When I finally stopped smoking, it wasn’t any physical, chemical reaction that hurt. It was grief. Weeks and weeks of it. All sorts of dreadfulness dredged up from the centre of me. All manner of monsters of my own creation, and a few uninvited ones. I had to say goodbye to each of them and slam the door, even on those who’d seemed such firm friends. The experience was so profound, and so damn painful, I’m unlikely to take up smoking again.

I’m lucky. I had the assistance of varenicline tartrate, a prescription drug that reduces withdrawal symptoms (yeah, right) at the same time as short-circuiting any pleasurable or self-bullshitting effects of nicotine on the brain. It’s not for everyone, though, and must be taken under strict medical supervision, especially if you suffer from any depressive illness. But, as some kind of emotional convulsant, it worked for me.

And so did love. I couldn’t have even begun the course of this drug without the certainty from those near to me that it was as okay to fail as to try. I was incredibly lucky to find myself at that right place and time in my life where I was not only hanging around with some loving people, but ready to believe them when they told me I was worth the attempt.

When I see a young woman smoking now, my immediate response is one of despair. I know a lot of people enjoy their cigarettes, but I didn’t. When I was that young woman, smoking in the street, I was ashamed.

Today, I want to rush over to her, to tell her I love her. To make her stop, To make her see the truth: that she is good enough, and always has been.

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LOVE BIRD

Nothing can so predictably raise a tisky grumble from me as people being late for dinner. Especially when dinner has just been dished and is then left to grow cold on the table. Growing up, my sons well knew the pitch of the call, ‘Dinner!’ and did not dare disobey (at least in that).

But the thing about my husband is, not only is he regularly tardy at the table, he always has a good excuse. Ten minutes before a meal is the time to fix the leaky tap/dodgy internet connection/wonky cupboard door. Or, in the case of yesterday evening, the time to dash outside to try to take a photograph of a hitherto elusive bird.

This bird has followed us from the Mountains and through two house moves, to find us once again here at The Bend, in Millthorpe. Its call is as distinctive as mine – loud, high and insistent – but brightly conversational too, as if it’s declaring with some particular enthusiasm, ‘Oh, it must be dinnertime!’ or in the mornings, ‘Breakfast! Marvellous breakfast!’

In Leura, on lazy afternoons, we’d lounge about waiting for its chirp to burst above the silence. But we never saw it. Our house there was perched on the side of a steep gully, snug in the trees. We were surrounded by birds of all kinds, from tiny flame-flecked finches that would swarm the grevillea in flower, to magnificent sulphur-crested cockatoos that would come to merrily destroy the woodwork, sharpening their beaks. We loved them all. But the call of the one we could never see was always the most striking. Intriguing..

It became Our Bird. In strange, dark times after our move west to Orange, when Dean was ill and I felt lost, dislocated, scared, alone, that little bird returned to us, and it sang me away from strange, dark thoughts. I came to think of it as some kind of totem, a tiny orb of magic tugging me back to the light. A love song, imploring, ‘Come on! Cheer up! You’ll be fine!’

It would call me into a smile right under the bedroom window, where the garden was sparsely suburban, all neatly edged and snipped. But still, we never saw it.

When the call came again at The Bend, though, not long after we finally found the place and settled here, the bird quickly revealed its location. ‘Oh dinnertime!’ .It had to be coming from somewhere in the line of thickly foliaged mop-top robinias at the front of the house. Sat as our house is in a paddock largely waiting to be filled, there was nowhere much else for the bird to hide.

Or perhaps it wasn’t hiding at all but only singing us home.  At last.

And then Dean saw it – a grey bird, a black pencil-point of a beak, a flash of something gold, hanging from the grape-wire strung against one of the verandah poles. He stalked it with his good camera, across the yard to the paddock gate and back again as our curry cooled.

‘Got it!’ he grinned.

Snapped on a magnolia branch, a jaunty pose before disappearing back into the mop-tops, where it nests.

And here it is. It’s a yellow-faced honeyeater. Apparently.

Perfect, lovely thing. It’ll always be Our Bird.

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RANDOM

The grass is high along the verges of the track into town, blue chicory blooms are everywhere, and everything has fallen into a deep summer laze. Even the rangy old hare, who usually bounds around our yard as if he owns every tender shoot in it, stops and stares dopily when he sees me. That is, until I try to take a picture of him – then he bolts away.

On days like today, it’s easy to be lulled into believing that such tranquillity might be somehow sustainable. Peace will be ours forever. Under the right conditions. The right temperature. The right song of the birds. The right contrast of blue between sky and chicory, of green between leaf and field.

If there were any such thing as right in our world. On days like today, it’s just as easy to believe in the rightness of chaos. The struggle of each seed to sprout along the track, a triumph over sheep, roo, tractor wheel, a mistimed dry spell. While each pebble that crunches underfoot holds its own epic story, of ancient volcanoes, ice-age blizzards, raging floods. Everything we see and sense is forged.

And all of us in one way or another are miraculous survivors. Determined to be, and uniquely beautiful. Somehow essential. As perfectly in place as we are random. Like this native paper daisy I spied among the grass. It’s called Yellow Buttons, or the Common Everlasting, its present botanical name Chrysocephalum apiculatum; I don’t know what the Wiradjuri, the original keepers of these Millthorpe hills, called it, but I wish I did.

Whatever it is, it is exquisitely itself. Each of its flower heads a globe of captured sunlight, blazing gold, before fading back into the earth. The glimpse of something imagined made real, just for a moment. Heroic. Wonderful.

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