Saradha Koirala

Reading Medea on the Train

I stand for the woman whose feet

strain at the straps of her shoes

stare daggers at the snorer

slumped in priority seats.

 

The 7.17 chorus tells

of a recent Greek wedding

her brother’s? The audience invested as

festivities fill the carriage from a phone.

 

Jason’s woken early, texts a busy day ahead

we’ll be promised an ending

as long as we plan the next beginning.

His paged namesake remains oblivious.

 

Medea’s children smile at her

and she breaks down again.

 

I give her one more station

to change her mind.

 

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Stuff I’ve Been Reading on the Train

When I got my new job at the end of June, the hour’s commute was initially daunting to small-town me. I talked about moving to Richmond, I investigated cycle paths (and therefore a new bicycle), I accepted rides from kindly colleagues, but ultimately the silent hour each morning on a train with a book won me over. Here’s what I’ve been reading en route to work:

Cargo – Jessica Au

Set in the 90s and beautifully, gently written, Cargo tells the story of Gillian, Frankie and Jacob one summer by the sea. This is a coming-of-age novel in dreamy long sentences and alternating points of view (something I can either love or hate in a novel). Jessica Au is a Melbourne writer and Cargo, her first novel, was highly commended in the 2012 Kathleen Mitchell Award for a writer under 30. http://www.jessicaau.com

Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

I had been meaning to read this for a while. Obviously it’s a classic, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so post-modern in its telling (self-conscious narrator, leaps in time and perspective, historical fact mixed with absurdist fiction) and funny in that dark and quirky Vonnegut way. Not your average war story and probably hugely therapeutic to have written.

9781921656231Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green and David Levithan

Somehow I have a class of Year 8s who are convinced I’m in love with John Green. It’s not even an English class! I guess I haven’t convincingly argued to the contrary, because seriously… he is wonderful. This book is so charming and funny and important. Written in alternating chapters by two outstanding young adult authors, the voices of the two Will Graysons are distinct and believable. It made me teary at times and the sweetness and bravery between the two boys who fall in love is pretty inspiring.

The Ties That Bind – Melbourne Social Writers’ Group

I’ve been so lucky to be part of two very active and supportive writing groups, both of which put together an anthology this year – no mean feat! The Ties That Bind is the second anthology from the Melbourne Social Writers’ Group and includes a range of work from writers at all stages of their craft. https://www.facebook.com/MelbWriters/

wild-surmise-2Wild Surmise – Dorothy Porter

This is an amazing work. A verse novel in different voices, following the characters, Alex, Daniel and Phoebe. It has a marriage breakdown, astrobiology, space travel, poignant poetic references, explorations of sexuality, death, love. The verse style is almost operatic and allows the tone to shift from light-hearted to heartfelt to heart-breaking, page by page.

 

 

The Transmigration of Bodies / Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera

Two novellas from a Mexican writer, I confess I’d never heard of before. I found this a bit of a stretch for me and out of my usual realm of poetic stories about human interaction. It had a fable-like quality with the main character called The Redeemer on a journey to restore peace. It’s hard to put my finger on the actual style of this, but I’m always happy to be challenged thusly!

Funny Girl – Nick Hornby

Shout out to Nick Hornby in the title of this post, by the way (‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading’ is a phrase that belongs to him http://lumiere.net.nz/index.php/stuff-ive-been-reading/ ). I enjoyed the lightness of this novel, which is both about and in the style of a 1960s sitcom. The main character is a determined young woman with a robust sense of humour. This is the kind of book most people probably read on the train – pure entertainment, leaving one with enough brain power to function effectively at one’s destination.

36541689In the Dark Spaces – Cally Black and Because Everything is Right, but Everything is Wrong- Erin Donohue

Another slightly-out-of-my-comfort-zone book, In the Dark Spaces is YA sci-fi, while Erin Donohue’s debut novel is a poetic, gentle treatment of mental illness. You can read my full review of both of these here at The Sapling.

 


Midnight’s Children –Salman Rushdie

I’m supervising a student who is writing an essay on the narrative voice of this novel. It’s so complex and clever and in talking to my student I have a deep appreciation for the way Rushdie has combined so many styles and techniques to create a character who creates a world. Describing the first 30 years of India’s Independence by personifying it through Saleem, born at the exact moment of independence, the world seems to revolve around his every move. Every sentence is packed full and perhaps takes a little more concentration than standing on the train at 7am allows.

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How Not to be a Boy – Robert Webb

I’m a big Webb fan, as in Mitchell and Webb, as in Peep Show, as in Jez. This is Robert Webb’s memoir, interspersed with reflections on masculinity. Webb’s trademark humour is present throughout, but particularly in describing awkward interactions and encounters. Typically too, he is quick to acknowledge his privilege and careful not to come across as too complainy. An important read in this era of calling men out on their behaviour – I recommend this interview as a taster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4A4KHm3brJE&t=16s

A New Beginning – Women Who Write, Melbourne

The first anthology from the second writing group I feel so lucky to be part of! Another lovely collection and so much work has gone into making sure it’s a polished and cohesive range of writing, on the theme a new beginning. Women Who Write is a non-profit supportive group for women in Melbourne. They hold regular meet-ups and currently have over 600 members https://www.facebook.com/groups/wwwmelb/

 

 

Blackcurrant Honey

Here’s another little snippet of my somewhat-unwieldy current work in progress, called Dear Billy… This scene is set in 1991.

(You can read another scene from this here, set in 1996)

I’m pretty sure Danny woke me, but he’s teasing that I woke him when I traipsed clumsily down the hallway. Mum’s out of bed now too and we’re all eyeing up the Christmas tree in the semi-dark.

Danny says he was just getting a drink of water.

‘Well I can’t sleep,’ I whine

‘It is technically Christmas day,’ he says pointing at the glowing digits on the microwave that shine out a time so unfamiliar it takes me a while to figure out.

‘It’s past three in the morning!’ Mum wraps her dressing gown tighter around her, frowns, and folds her arms.

‘Yes, technically Christmas day.’ Danny knows how to disarm Mum, with his cheeky smile that comes out so rarely these days. ‘And we are all up,’ he says.

Mum rolls her eyes, but it’s already decided and there’s no going back once she’s flicked the switch on the kettle. My brother gives me a wink.

We agree the first thing we should open is the gift basket from one of Mum’s colleagues, since it’s covered in cellophane and we can mostly see what’s in it already. The rustle of unwrapping wakes the butterflies in my tummy. Mum pulls out some boring looking crackers, a small bag of candied nuts, a solid brick of real coffee that smells horrible and some nougat. Pretty disappointing.

‘Where’s the chocolate?’ I ask, rummaging through the discarded cellophane.

‘Ooh this looks good though – blackcurrant honey,’ Mum reads from the label. ‘Yum!’ She leaps up suddenly with the jar in her hands and heads back to the kitchen, which is now full of steam from the franticly boiling kettle. She pops some bread in the toaster.

‘I’m having blackcurrant honey on toast!’ She calls out.

We laugh at her excitement. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mum at three in the morning before.

‘Okay, well, me too!’ I call back.

‘Okay.’ She whispers loudly and peers around the kitchen door. ‘But, let’s not wake…’ she points to the ceiling which represents the couple upstairs. Our landlords.

‘Okay.’ I whisper back

‘Okay, okay.’ We whisper at each other and laugh.

I choose the next present to open and hand it to Danny. I’m grinning with excitement as he takes it and feigns complete shock at receiving something. I can’t sit still. He unwraps it carefully, knowing how long I spent in my room wrapping and compiling the items from my trip to the mall last week. He probably knows how long I’d been saving my pocket money for too, since he’s had to do the same. His reaction when he opens it is better than I could have hoped for.

By the time the sun comes up the three of us are a pile of shiny new things and ripped wrapping paper, sticky with blackcurrant honey. Mum’s beaming smile at every silly little gift she opened from us was completely priceless. She’s had a million cups of tea and no one’s even mentioned the gap under the tree where presents from Dad should’ve been.

Ride

In the 80s bikes were

handed down from someone taller

gearless

back pedal braking

daydreamer

I rode so slowly I

ended up on the ground

daily lessons in

momentum and

the way a knee-scab dries, lifts

from the outside edges in.

 

90s bikes faux mountain bikes

Shimano gears a point of pride

fluorescent touches on the frame

double towbar car rack family weekends

there have always been bikes.

 

The red one that moved

house to house with each break up

makeshift shelter beneath outside stairs

or leaning against a laundry wall

still so much to learn

about hills and hearts

about maintenance, about holding on.

 

Red was my favourite

my next bike was blue

bought days

after I changed my life

for a love that matched in hue

I fell off into a rosemary bush

smelt amazing, sure

but that feeling of betrayal

again and again

flat tyres

slackened chain

forever loosening the brakes

so a buckled wheel can still turn.

 

In place

I’m digging beneath trellised nasturtium in the garden of someone new. Planting star jasmine in the sun as a rain cloud approaches, but it’s the other kind I long to breathe in. The kind of jasmine that gushes over fences, escapes rambling front gardens, permeates shared paths. I pick sprigs of it always, carry it until it wilts. It takes me places.

So much has happened and I wanted to tell you. I’m astounded at my capacity to forgive. I’ve opened my heart to the gently damaged people of this world over and over, let them project their hurt onto me. I get it, but I won’t do that anymore. They seek help or not, move back home as I work through, work through, work through. Soil under my fingernails and the smell of almost-rain.

But I wanted to say something about the visits home. The places where family live lives I couldn’t have predicted and I’ve decided to tell the truth now. Stop listening to that voice in my head that nags at me to speak aloud the words and just speak aloud the damn words. I’ve lived long hours in transit, just to reconnect.

It seems everything I’ve ever written has been a metaphor for clouds: looking down on them from planes, watching them roll in darkly from the east, trusting they’ll rain themselves empty or just move on. It’s always been about clouds. The way they look reflected on the water’s surface, distracting me from the reedy depths.

Seasons change and I let anniversaries pass through me like a southerly at first, but even the wind feels warmer when you look back. The red flag of that first betrayal wilts like picked jasmine, fades in the briefly sunlit garden of someone new.

Passage

Auckland, 1942

The man who will become my Grandad waits by the gangway of the Devonport ferry. Yesterday, he missed his usual trip home and took the later ride. He’s decided now to always be late, deliberately miss the more convenient passage home and wait half an hour for the one ‘the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen’ will be on. He steps into the queue just in time to walk on board with her. Later, at a dance, she throws confetti on him like a prophecy. The woman becomes my Grandma, of course.

Pokhara, 1978

The other man who becomes my Grandad quietly follows his son to the bus stop, where a significant goodbye takes place.  His son stays on board with the woman he loves for as long as he can then watches the bus leave. As it happens, they meet again, become my parents, but now he needs the comforting arm his father predicted. Both men walk home together, tears along the dusty road.

Melbourne, 2017

I’m on a train, swiping left, left, left. Attraction exists not in digital form, a few bad snaps of your weekend shenanigans and a poorly written bio. I look up to see people interacting with the space around them, the way they hold themselves as they stand, their expressions, absorbed in their own distractions – paperbacks and podcasts, a phone conversation. Someone photographs the sunrise. I hear a favourite song tinnily through someone else’s headphones. But I’m just trying to get to work these days.

Balance

The last time we were strangers was on the roof of a party / you’d climbed higher to photograph bands playing at one end / view of whatever suburb we were in / I’d lost my sense of direction long ago

I pictured a fall, but you reassured me / only on your second drink and I guess I’ve always liked that about you / always only on your second drink / always just that little bit higher / even when the rest of us are on top of a roof

I was dancing solo to Paul Simon’s Graceland / not my favourite track on that album, but a definite favourite album / a link to my past in a place still so new / I was only a little self-conscious at that point

you introduced yourself and I felt this kind of safety, like, my situation was difficult then – disappointed in the man I’d moved here for                    struggling

to fit in –

but there would be people to know and to meet, I mean, if the roof collapsed out from under us…

I’d be okay, you know?

and with that clumsy realisation, clunky metaphor

my awkwardness around you was born

it’s hard for me not to look back searching for signs / even though I’m coming to understand there is no fate, no destiny, just good old-fashioned cause and effect / although that in itself can get pretty metaphysical

like the retroactive significance of you being / the first person I bumped into in the city. As in / my first ‘bumping into someone I know in the city’ experience / I was counting things in firsts / until they recurred

less mystical, more meaningful the moment you brought me / all the chocolate you could find from your cupboards / sat with me under a tree / I was pale that summer and in need of your blue-eyed chatter

I ride the two right angles / between your house and mine / lights if you let me stay late, or with you / your arms wide on the bike path, because of course you don’t need to hold on / of course you’re not going to fall.

Looking up

Did you see me at the platform

as your window approached, passed?

 

Or was my head down as you boarded

same train, different carriage.

 

I’ve taken a vow of silence in your direction

shifted bags so someone else can sit.

 

Conclusions are drawn

with sweeping gestures in the street

 

sparkly things catch my eye, I won’t stoop to collect

it’s enough just to know they’re there.

 

The optometrist prescribed looking up more

and I don’t blame her.

 

Look out the window through your own reflection

she could have said

 

focus your gaze beyond the tips of your fingers

as you stand, core engaged, legs strong

 

eyes on that chunk of universe

floating just ahead.

 

It always helps to know which station

is the one before yours

 

and which you’ll be at if you’ve gone too far.

A Brief History of Seven Killings

That summer I was reading A brief history of seven killings, a weighty hardback issued from the library. Too heavy to lug out to parks or café courtyards, it anchored me into my new home. I lounged on the daybed and when people asked aloud what I’d been doing, the book’s title drew out my kiwi accent almost as thick as the tome itself. A reminder of the recency of my migration.

An odd choice of book, perhaps, but held in place by it I felt the sun pass through the house and, when I needed a break from the intensity, I walked to the supermarket in my new neighbourhood; each day a little taller, feeling more present. Roses bent their heads over picket fences and I learnt to recognise those worth stopping to breathe with. I took in the street names, smiled at locals, became one.

See-saw

Here’s a little snippety-bit of a scene I wrote this morning, from a larger work-in-progress called Dear Billy… This scene is set in 1996.

 

Harriet’s dancing self-consciously in the kitchen, still with bottle in hand and white dress looking only slightly worse for wear. Mark catches me watching him watch her and smiles, but only with his mouth. He pushes himself up from his doorway lean and moves over to me.

‘How are you still so compos mentis while your friends are completely wasted?’

‘Who said I was compos mentis?’ I’m not entirely sure what it means, but it doesn’t sound like how I’m feeling right now. The room is spinning gently and I’ve been standing at the kitchen bench gorging on corn chips like an animal.

‘You look very together. You can hold your booze.’ I can’t tell if it’s admiration or accusation as he looks me up and down.

‘I haven’t had that much to drink,’ I lie.

Mark leans across the bench towards me, which forces me to lean in too, his warm whispery breath is on my cheek and I close my eyes. The room spins more predictably now. Like I’ve tuned into the rhythm of it and it kind of makes sense. His voice is soft and low.

‘Most of the people here are morons, Sam Knox. Killing off their brain cells and flailing around.’

I smile, but keep my eyes closed, keep still. His breath smells boozey and smokey. He uses words no one else does.

‘I’m not saying I’m any better than any of them, Sam, but you probably are. You look like someone with better things to do.’

I open my eyes and shake my head, ‘No, no I’m having fun. It’s a good party.’

Mark grins at my protest, ‘you don’t have to be polite. Parties can be stupid. Wanna go for a walk?’

Outside I think about the cuddly jersey lying on the floor of my room. At least I have stockings on, but my skirt is short and jacket open.

‘Love the Soundgarden t-shirt, by the way.’ Mark says this without looking at me but puts his arm out just in time for me to grab as my shoe fails beneath me.

‘Thank you.’

Ant gave me the t-shirt for our four month anniversary, but something stops me from adding that piece of information. I mean it would be the perfect opportunity to mention my boyfriend. I let go of his arm.

‘Maybe walking wasn’t the best idea.’ He looks at me now. There’s that slightly creepy edge again and I wonder if it’s actually just how he smiles. ‘Those are very high shoes.’

It’s true, but his noticing makes me feel silly and girly. Who am I tonight anyway?

At the end of the street is a small park. There’s something invigorating about the cold air and starless night. Mark holds the end of a see-saw down for me and I get on, hitching my skirt high without even thinking about it. He gets on the other end and slowly bends his knees to lift and lower me. My feet don’t quite touch the ground when I’m in the air and that moment of lost control makes my stomach flip a bit.

‘So what’s your life like, Sam Knox?’ Up.

‘My life?’ Down.

‘Yeah, your life. Is it good, bad, has life been kind so far?’

I give it a moment’s thought as my legs dangle. How can I even be the judge of that?

‘I guess life’s been kind. I mean my dad’s a jerk, but he hasn’t come round in a while. My mum’s cool and my brother’s super smart.’

‘Ah family eh. What about you though? Who are you?’

‘Ha I’m Sam Knox!’ It comes out louder than I mean it to and I quickly cover my mouth with my hand, losing balance on my end for a moment.

‘Woah! Are you okay?’ Mark asks but simultaneously jolts the see-saw. I squeal and grab on tight. He jolts again and my heart starts to pound.

‘Wait stop!’ He doesn’t. ‘Stop! I said stop!’

‘Okay sorry, sorry.’ He straightens his legs so he’s at the top and I’m on the ground catching my breath. ‘You’re okay?’

I quickly clamber to my feet before he can move us again. My end of the see-saw rises and Mark ends up on the ground.

‘I’m okay.’ I look beyond him to the dark tree shapes, their leafy tops flailing gently.

‘Sam Knox.’ He says. ‘You’re Sam Knox.’ When I look at him he’s smiling, eyes and all. I almost smile back.