Vigil (John Clanchy)

Posted on September 12, 2014 by in Lies To Live By

Vigil (John Clanchy)

Lake Shore 2There had been a moon earlier on. A scimitar moon, Pete Davis had once heard it called. A curved blade of white light on a bed of black velvet.

Black velvet. Jesus.

Now the only light came from the watch lamps which Manny and Forensics had laid out: a fat, yellow squadge of light that ran down the bank from his car and settled on the dark water at the lake’s edge. Manny – Manolis Papa – was his work colleague, and the only real friend Constable Pete Davis still had in this dump.

The lamps lit the area where the bundle had been found, snagged on some reeds. A young couple had been out walking their dog, taking in the sunset, and they’d Triple-0’d on the boy’s mobile. Manny had been first to the scene. By then it was chaos, he said. The girl’s black labrador was chasing ducks all over the shallows, the blue shawl in which the bundle was found had been partly unwrapped, and the girl had vomited on the fucking thing. Un-be-lievable!

His first instinct, Manny said later, had been to rip into the girl, but she’d already seen the anger in his face.

‘We rang you,’ she’d said, retreating before him. ‘It’s not our fault we found it.’

It was dusk by the time Davis got there. Manny had finished staking out a crime scene and salvaging what evidence could still be salvaged. The cold was rising off the water and Manny was shivering from splashing about in it for the previous hour. When the station Commander arrived and ordered Manny home, it didn’t take a genius to work out who was going to draw the short straw. The night watch. Yet again.

Still Davis could hardly complain. Manny was a family man, after all. He had a wife, kids, a hot shower and dinner waiting for him at home. While stripeless Constable Pete Davis had barely started in on his punishment.

‘Never know – maybe sumpin I c’n do for you, eh?’ the black girl at the counter had suggested. After she’d told him what he could do for her.

Pete Davis had still been a Senior Constable back then. He’d come to this place on the back of a promotion, hoping to make Sergeant in three, maybe four years, and then get posted on somewhere decent. All he had to do in the meantime was keep his nose clean. How hard could that be?

‘It’s already in the charge book, luv,’ he’d told her. ‘I can’t do anything once it’s in the book.’

That wasn’t true, it wasn’t in the charge book. It should have been by then. It would need to be by the end of his shift. He looked at the large black and white clock on the Station House wall behind her.

‘Yeah?’

He knew her, of course. He’d spotted her the first day he arrived in town. She was in the supermarket, buying lollies for a mob of kids, who were milling around her, their long fingers plucking at her dress. How old was she? Seventeen? Eighteen? Christ, it was hard to tell. She could be anywhere, he guessed, between eighteen and twenty-three. He’d seen her a few times after that first day and always smiled at her. She’d never smiled back.

‘Yeah.’

She was smiling at him now, though. From under black brows. One thonged foot twisted this way and that on the linoleum floor. The smile, the twist of her foot, her leg, her hip, could be signalling shyness. Something told him otherwise.

Not long after he’d arrived in town, he’d stood in a queue in the Post Office behind her. Her shoulders were bare. Usual thongs, cheap cotton shift, spaghetti straps, no bra. He’d breathed in, letting the smell of her sweat and the cocoa butter in her skin come to him. And along with it had come a sudden painful rush of childhood. A swarm of small creatures, boys and girls, running wild on a station – different breeds, different colours, white, black, yellow, brindle, the five slanted, tawny kids of the Malay cook and the two Chink kitchen maids all mixing together, teeming like bush rats though the homestead, the outbuildings, the kitchens, the stockyards, the blacks camps, sharing everything, scents, skins, sweat, germs and, above all, games.Games riding stock animals, games by the river, swinging on ropes out over the water, secret games of show-and-tell – and show-and-don’t-tell – games that kids in towns and regular schools never got to hear of. Until the day he turned eleven, and his mother, without warning, blew the whistle. Sounding full-time on all their games. His. His father’s.

He’d hated town, Toowoomba, school. In his first year he’d run away three times, but they always knew where he was headed and dragged him back.

The girl had shuffled forward in the queue at that moment, breaking into his thoughts. He’d looked around quickly, wondering who’d been reading his mind. The Post Office clerk behind the counter, a pimply boy of eighteen, met his eye. Might even have winked at him. He kept his own eyes off the girl after that, simply breathing.

‘Heaps of them yellas round here,’ the pimply boy had bragged. To the newcomer in town, when Davis had finally made it to the counter, and the girl had gone.

‘That right?’ he’d said back, and frowned. He handed the boy a form – his details, Christine’s, the two boys’. ‘I’m just here to organize the delivery of mail.’

‘Some of them still camp out,’ the boy had gone on, ignoring his frown. As if some connection – some kind of complicity even – had been established between them. ‘By the river, or on the old Reserve.’

‘You don’t say.’ He’d fixed his gaze coldly on the boy until he blushed and was forced to look away.

‘In the charge book, or not,’ now it was the girl who was offering helpful advice, ‘you could jus rip it out, cou’nt ya?’

The yella wasn’t right, either. On a school tour of Government House he’d once seen gifts presented by the Queen. One was a smooth metal dish, so smooth it begged to be touched. Plate gold, the card in the glass case said. Even today he couldn’t say exactly what colour plate gold was, but it wasn’t yellow.

‘Every page is numbered. You can’t just tear one out.’

Her eye broke from his. She dropped her head. A pink thong pivoted and squealed once on the resistant linoleum surface of the floor. There was no one else in the office.

‘’Portan man,’ he thought she said. To the floor. ‘Police can do anything he want.’

‘Look, there’s nothing I can do. He was speeding, and he was drunk,’ he began to tell her again. But she wasn’t finished.

‘C’n have anything he wants.’

Her eyes came up to his again. Black. Not smiling no more. He felt the blow of her look in the centre of his chest.

‘Everybody want sumpin, eh?’

He stood, breathing again, and spread his fingers on the counter.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Lily.’

‘That your real name, or your town name?’

‘Real name.’ A quick smile. That was shy this time. ‘Same like water lily, eh?’

‘Lily, did your father tell you . . . did he ask you to come?’

She shook her head.

‘You sure?’

The clock behind her loudly ticked away the minutes to the end of his shift.

‘Scratchim name outa charge book, nobody gonna know then, eh?’ She wasn’t going to accept no for an answer. Or believed that he wasn’t.

‘But, Lily, people do know. I know. You know.’

‘Me?’ her astonishment was genuine. ‘I not tellin no-one. Bout anythin.’

Twenty-three, he guessed. It was the outfit, the gestures, that made her seem much younger. The downcast eyes, the twisting of her whole body on one ankle, the girlish pink thongs.

‘Jus goin now,’ she said. And stood. The best part of a minute passed before he spoke again.

‘Going where?’

‘Dunno. Down the lake nice now, eh?’

‘The lake? Why the lake?’

‘Dunno. Fishin. Swimmin maybe.’

‘Swimming?’

Water washed over gold plate. As he looked on.

‘Swimmin, n’ things.’

 –

Six by John ClanchyEvery hour or so someone checked on him. About nine a patrol car cruised by – Watts, his colleague, the Station’s other junior constable – bringing coffee, a cold burger and chips. Standard police issue for a vigil. At ten, then again at midnight, he was checked on again. On his car radio this time.

‘You weren’t sleeping out there, by any chance?’

‘Like a baby.’

He caught the swift intake of Manny’s breath, followed by a silence while they both weighed what he’d just said. Without intent.

‘You understand something like this, Pete?’ Manny’s mood had shifted down. ‘How people can do something like this?’

Manny’s own family was Greek. Everything revolved around family for him. His mother, father, his wife Helen, his kids.

‘Pete?’ he said again. When there’d been no answer.

‘People feel they’re in a corner.’

‘Yeah, but there’s always a better answer than this. There’s gotta be. . .’ For a time there was only radio static between them. ‘Pete?’

‘Yeah, mate, I’m here.’

‘I’m finishing up now. You want me to swing by? Bring coffee or something?’

Manny and he were still close. Not as close. For a while after it had all happened he’d continued to swing by their place for a beer, a coffee, coming off shift. Or on a weekend, after he’d dropped the boys back to Christine, and an empty night was opening up in front of him. Manny understood all this. Helen was okay too, always greeted him with a brightish, ‘Hi, Pete’. Set out chips and nuts if he and Manny were having beer, olives if it was a glass of wine. It was what she didn’t say that counted. Didn’t ask about. Didn’t reminisce about. When the four of them had once been so close. He knew she kept up with Christine, but never mentioned the fact, and after a while – when there were more and more things not to mention – he stopped swinging by. Manny would still ask him in for a beer if their shifts coincided and they were sharing a ride. But it was a formality, not a offer he could accept. They both understood that.

‘Nah, mate, I’m okay. It’s after midnight, Helen’ll be expecting you home.’

‘Watts said he brought you something.’

Junior Constable Watts. Nineteen. A raw kid, just starting out. And now his equal, and – who knew? – a future rival. It wasn’t the kid’s fault. He was just trying to fit in, be accepted as one of the team.

‘Yeah, coffee, a burger. I’m sweet.’

‘You didn’t take a thermos?’

Their conversations these days had as many holes as a used target. For a stake-out, a night-long watch, Christine had always made sure he was properly kitted out. Sandwiches, a blanket, a thermos of hot coffee. A stack of his favourite music disks to keep him company.

‘I got a lakeful of water out here, remember?’

‘Okay,’ Manny laughed. He wouldn’t press it, his laugh said. Days were, Pete would always be pressed to eat, drink, take a plate of something. It wasn’t hard to imagine the conversations, the quarrels that must have gone on in Manny’s home – Helen feeling awkward, divided, Manny protesting, defending him but in the end wanting peace. Still, imagine it, a Greek not pressing you to stay. To have a drink, a bite to eat.

‘So, what do I put in the book – No incidents? Nothing to report?’

‘Just me and the ducks, Manny, minding our own business.’

Manny laughed again. Then was quiet. He’d be writing, updating the report sheet.

‘There,’ he said when the notes were finished. ‘I’ve spared them the ducks.’ He was about to switch off.

‘This made the News yet?’

‘Not yet. Coroner’s suppressing it till the morning. He wants to see the site first before the next lot of labrador elephants trample all over it.’

‘Manny?’

‘Yeah?’

‘They say what it was?’

Manny cast about. For the point of this question.

‘A girl. Six, maybe eight days. Why?’

‘The blue wrap. Made me wonder if it was a boy. You get to thinking, sitting on your arse out here all night. You know?’

‘You sure you don’t want company?’

‘Nah, mate. Get home.’ He was the one moving to switch off now.

‘Don’t forget,’ Manny warned him. ‘Coroner will be out there at sparrow fart. Six sharp, he said. You know what the bastard’s like, so set your watch in case.’

‘I’ll be awake.’

‘Set it anyway.’

‘Appreciate it, Manny.’

‘Say hi to the ducks for me, will you?’

‘You bet.’

This is an extract from ‘Vigil’, a short story that appears in Six by John Clanchy, published by Finlay Lloyd, 2014. This extract has been published in Verity La with permission from Finlay Lloyd and John Clanchy.

Sound bites (John Clanchy)

Posted on May 21, 2013 by in Lies To Live By

Sound bites (John Clanchy)

Cafe 2

Three words. Three tiny, banal words that had somehow – among the tens of thousands of others spilt in the cafe that morning – made their way through the clashing of voices, of cups and coffee spoons, and tugged at the sleeve of her thoughts.

‘Are you happy?’

All her instincts were to swing about and look. The voice, a man’s, had come from behind her, somewhere close behind and to her left. The next table perhaps, or the one over from that. She slowly adjusted the angle of her head until two figures – still blurry and amorphous – were trapped in the corner of her eye. She knew she mustn’t turn her head. Not just for the sake of good manners, but because she knew that any further movement would alert the pair of them to the fact that she’d heard. And spoil everything.

She continued to sit, rigid with attention, poised to catch the woman’s response when it came.

While across the table from her, Jane sat equally poised. Having apparently asked some question of her own.

‘I must say,’ Jane said when Charlotte still hadn’t answered, ‘you don’t seem very surprised.’

‘I’m sorry?’ Charlotte said back. Though in fact her only regret at that moment was at being interrupted. At losing the fleeting echo of the man’s question. She’d been playing his words over inside her head, trying to gauge the source of the strange calm with which he’d spoken. Was it merely a routine question between them, one to which he already knew the answer? Did he even care what it was? Or was it the reverse? Was this the gambler’s ultimate bluff, and his question the most extravagant bid he’d ever made?

‘Are you telling me,’ Jane’s voice and features had sharpened by now, ‘that you knew? That you already knew?’

Jane’s face, normally so pretty, so elfin and blue-eyed, was positively ugly when she was like this. All het-up and inquisitorial like this. Charlotte wondered whether she didn’t actually hate this woman – this lifelong friend who didn’t know when or how to shut up. Because right then, while Jane was carrying on about something that Charlotte, her best friend, was apparently supposed to have known and should have told her,  another woman was beginning to speak – but so softly and, like the man, so inexplicably calmly that Charlotte almost missed it.

‘I’m always happy,’ the woman’s voice, much younger than the man’s, claimed, ‘when I’m with you.’

Charlotte did almost turn then, in pure frustration, only at the last moment managing to check the movement of her head and shoulders. She raised a hand instead to signal their waiter for fresh coffee. But the gesture still allowed enough time for first impressions – a young woman’s pale cheek in profile, the redness of her lips, the black office suit, regulation fall of straight blonde hair. And opposite her the man, mid-forties, already greying, white business shirt, immaculately ironed – not by her, Charlotte guessed. Insurance, real estate, banking, retail management, something like that.

As she turned back to Jane, the sketch of an apology on her lips, she found that  it was the girl’s voice that now wouldn’t leave her. I’m always happy. That small pause. When I’m with you. So young, and yet so assured, so knowing. Assuming, that is, that the girl was just being playful, just teasing him with these clichés. Because the only other possible explanation, given the uninflected calmness her voice, was that she was perfectly serious. She was speaking from the heart.

‘You knew all along?’ Jane said in disbelief. ‘And you said nothing?’

‘Jane, I’m sorry,’ she said again. ‘I seem to have missed something . . .’

But by then the waiter was already beside them, checking on their order. Which, now that she’d summoned him, Charlotte found that she was incapable of giving. Found she could only refer him with a gesture of her open hand towards Jane, because the words reverberating at that moment in her head would have made no sense to him at all. Do you really mean that? the man had just said, Or are you only saying it to please me?

Which told Charlotte that the girl hadn’t been teasing after all, or not in a way that the man understood as teasing. And that therefore either she was speaking from the heart, or she didn’t care for him at all. And was merely mocking him. And that somehow the man sensed all this, and was desperate to know which it was.

Just as Charlotte – listening in – was.

‘Of course not . . .’ the girl began, but her next words were drowned out by the chatter of the waiter, as he gathered up their plates, their cold coffee cups. By the time he’d gone, the girl had finished. So that all Charlotte was left with were those three words, Of course not, and the mystery of whether it was the first or the second of the man’s questions she was answering.

‘That couple . . .’ Charlotte bent across the table towards Jane and whispered.

Jane looked at her. ‘What?’ she said, as if she hadn’t heard properly. Or had, but could make no sense of it. ‘What couple?’

‘The two just behind me, on my left,’ Charlotte hissed a warning. Hearing, even as she did, the squeak and scuffle of chair legs and shoes on the tile-and-matted floor of the cafe. They were getting ready to leave.

‘What about them?’ Jane whispered back. Obviously missing something herself this time.

‘What do you think?’

‘About what?’ Jane’s attention was having to be dragged. But at least she was now looking. Then looking away.

‘It’s pathetic,’ the words came spitting out. And just as abruptly dried. ‘All this . . .’

Charlotte sensed rather than saw the man and girl leaving. The withdrawal, the sudden  empty space at her back.

‘This hole and corner business . . .’ she heard Jane say, and regretted that she’d drawn attention to the couple in the first place. To the girl especially, whom in some odd way she felt she’d let down. Betrayed, even.

Of course you can never be sure, Charlotte was about to say. They could be anything, father and daughter for all we know.

But she didn’t say it, thrown off course by the hissing intensity of Jane’s words, and then by the sudden appearance of the couple in the street outside, framed in the cafe window at Jane’s back. The girl, looking a little older in the sunlight now, thirty at least, the man a little younger, less jowly than in the shadowy cafe, some of the heavy flesh pared from his cheeks by the bright blade of the sun. Almost an ordinary couple, she thought as she watched them pause on the pavement beyond the glass, the girl idly swinging one of the man’s hands between both of hers, the man bending down and kissing her on the lips before stepping out onto the road and making off. The girl stood for a short while perhaps waiting for him to turn and wave, but when he didn’t, turning herself and making her way, head thoughtfully down, off along the pavement towards wherever she was headed.

Not father and daughter anyway, Charlotte was about to smile and say to Jane. But then realised that this would make no sense either.

Besides, Jane herself had something she still wanted to say. And this time Charlotte understood that she really would have to pay attention. In view of what was happening right before her eyes. Jane’s face was crumpling, her lips trembling, the contours of her cheeks folding in on themselves,

‘Was I really . . .’ Her face was brave, smiling one last time through its tears. ‘Am I really the last to find out?’

The old, old story (John Clanchy)

Posted on August 7, 2012 by in Lies To Live By

The old, old story (John Clanchy)

Spring in Paris. It was the spell cast by the words themselves which had drawn her there. Which had led her to squander on airfares and a cheap hotel the seven thousand dollars that she’d slogged through a semester’s teaching to save, and which she’d mentally reserved for buying herself out of bondage. For purchasing the space, the time to write. And had splurged instead on three talismanic words. Spring in Paris. Simply in order to be able to say to herself, to other people, Spring in Paris. Paris in Spring. I’m going. I am here. I was there.

What had she expected to find? Not love surely? Not that old story?

On her first morning there, a Monday, it had rained. Not the melancholy, misting rain which, on a postcard, could ravage the heart, but hard slanting rain that drove in under her jacket and umbrella and chilled her bare legs. People – mostly young people, students at this hour – ran for the bus stops, for the metro, heads down and hands clutched about their midriffs, protecting bags, papers, books beneath their coats. One or two muttered ‘Pardon’ as they side-stepped around her, pursuing their lives. She might have been a fire hydrant.

The rain eventually drove her indoors. Into scenes straight from the Middle Ages – their gloominess lit, as her eyes adjusted, by an occasional shaft of coloured glass. By a glint off ivory, or enamel. A stone set in gold.

She moved slowly around the exhibits, half-taking them in. At least it was warm in here, quiet, the subdued lighting restful to the eye. It would be astonishingly easy, she thought, to believe that people’s lives had been as inspirational as this. As inventive, as artful, as devout, as dreaming as this. Instead of the bleak, possessed squalor that she knew from history books and from the gargoyles on the walls outside that it actually had been.

Because it was a Monday, and early, the Musée was virtually empty. And silent. Even the sounds of the traffic from the busy morning streets outside, from boulevard Saint-Germain on one side and boulevard Saint-Michel on the other, were unable to penetrate the metre-thick stone walls.

And yet there was one sound. A hissing which went on and on in a continuous stream. And which rubbed on her nerves. It had pursued her, she realised, from the Ground Floor up here to the First, and therefore couldn’t just be a leaking heater or air vent. She peered around, her annoyance giving way to anger, as she tried to identify the source of the sound. The hissing that was driving her nuts, simply because it was so low in all this silence. And because she both knew and didn’t know what it was.

Until she spotted them. An old couple, gnomically small, in long raincoats that reached almost to the floor, the man in a beret, the woman’s hair bare, absurdly yellow, and flattened against her skull by the rain. Their backs were to her, but she knew instantly then what the sound was. It was a human voice, pitched deliberately low, but persistent, practised, unstoppable. She looked for the tell-tale cord, the black box of the audio-guide from which the voice must be issuing, but could seen no sign of it. The couple’s heads were locked together, the man’s face actually resting on the top of the woman’s head, as the low hissing commentary went on.

She moved away to another corner of the room then, but the sound pursued her. As the couple themselves did – their figures still attached, moving as one, a single block of coordinated shadow in the already gloomy space. While the voice continued. Until it was interrupted by a different voice altogether.

‘Yes, but what is it, Maurice?’ the woman asked. When, even from a distance, it was obvious what it was. A bible. An illuminated page, with the capital gleaming, as if still wet with gold. The woman had her nose against the glass. The man’s lips lay against her hair, behind her ear. He was old, she could see more clearly now, the reflection of the capital laying down patches of dull yellow on his forehead, his cheeks, in his thin beard.

‘It’s a bible, luv,’ the sibilance returned, and the instant of compassion she’d felt when she’d seen the age, the tiredness in his face, was negated once more by the stream of unbroken commentary. ‘It’s an illuminated page of a bible from Basel. The capital’s a V, and it’s done in pure gold . . .’

My God, what a know-all, she might have breathed aloud, as she wrenched herself away from this slightly sinister couple – the man’s left hand, she now noticed, clamped on his wife’s shoulder, on her neck, as if permanently fixed there. She shuddered, seeing a whole life of possession. Of a hand on a neck. A voice. Still announcing.

‘It’s fourteenth century . . .’

‘So old?’

She longed all of a sudden to be outside again, to feel the rain in her face. Breathe air that hadn’t been recycled through centuries.

She looked quickly into the last room, spent a few distracted moments glancing at carved altarpieces, at choir stalls, reliquaries, and was about to head for the exit when she spotted them again, slipping through a narrow wall-slit into another gallery she’d not seen for herself. She would still have gone but for the way the man seemed to drive the woman before him, never letting go of his purchase on her neck, even when they had to pass singly through the narrow doorway. She convinced herself that she had to look – not from fascination or repulsion – but just to make sure the woman was all right.

As she approached the slit in the wall, the sound reached her, seeming to issue from the stone itself. Then it stopped, mid-sentence, and she was compelled to look in.    The couple stood no more than four feet away. The man looking back at her. A miniature frieze of guilt – and what, for a moment, looked almost like pleading. His left hand was on the woman’s neck but his right hand was closed over hers, their fingers,  tightly entwined, tracing together a carved apostle’s head on a wooden altarpiece. PRIERE DE NE TOUCHER PAS.  DO NOT TOUCH, the sign in black capitals over their heads spelled out.

Don’t tell, a child’s face emerged from within the old man’s. We meant no harm.

The woman’s head turned slowly then, following the direction of the man’s gaze – though that could only have been by instinct, or through long years of habit and companionship – since the eyes, when they finally landed on her face, were opaque, sightless.

Oh, Jesus.

She directed a tight smile at the old man. Whose secret, her smile tried to say, would be safe with her.

Spring in Paris. Her heels rapped out the words on the wooden floors as she hurried through the empty rooms and back out into the wet streets. Having already seen enough for one morning.

OUTSIDE THE LINES:
an interview with John Clanchy

Posted on June 6, 2012 by in Lighthouse Yarns

If you haven’t heard of John Clanchy then Verity La is going to fix that.  Clanchy was born in Melbourne in 1943, but has lived in Canberra, working as a counsellor and academic at the Australian National University, since 1975. Clanchy has published nine volumes of fiction (five novels and three collections), as well as many uncollected short stories in magazines, newspapers and anthologies. His stories have won many awards, in Australia, Europe, the US and New Zealand. His novel The Hard Word won the 2003 ACT book of the Year in 2003, and his collection of stories Vincenzo’s Garden won both the same prize in 2006 and the Steele Rudd Award the year before. In addition to literary fiction, Clanchy has co-authored two detective thrillers with Mark Henshaw If God Sleeps and And Hope to Die, both now appearing in French and German. His most recent collection Her Father’s Daughter, five long stories dealing with the complex and often fraught relations between fathers and daughters, was published in 2008.  Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.

 INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing? And what was the original motivation?

 CLANCHY

I guess there are two ways of answering these questions, both relevant to what happens later.  I first began to write – in the simplest sense of beginning to form my letters – in Grade One under the fearsome eye of a very tall Irish nun with a wart on one cheek, in an ugly red and cream brick building on the outskirts of north-western Melbourne in 1948. This was the parish church school of St Raphael’s in West Preston where we were ‘learnt’ for sixpence a week, and beyond it lay the open fields and farms which became the suburbs of Reservoir and Regent. There were sixty of us in one perpetually chilly classroom and we wrote in cheap, lined exercise books with narrow black lines for making small letters and more expansive blue lines for big letters.  My motivation for writing back then was pure fear. Sister Xaveria roamed the rows of desks like a malevolent mobile metronome, a heavy wooden ruler flicking left and right in her hand and cracking the knuckles of any child stupid – or simply cold – enough to go outside the lines. This was the first lesson I learnt about writing: you’ll come to no harm so long as you don’t go outside the lines.

At the age of eleven my father rescued me from the nuns and sent me to the Jesuits.  Here we learnt Latin, the language of the Church, and one clearly superior in every respect to English. We learnt to parse, to break sentences into their constituent parts and classify them.  We learnt to write essays – usually on social, historical or ethical topics – never poems or stories since these were frivolous forms of self-expression. The purpose of education was to master what had been said by scholars through the ages, not to give vent to our own callow thoughts or feelings.  An essentially mandarin education.

I was quite a stupid child and accepted all of this on faith. I was in fact so slow that it wasn’t until the middle of a Classics examination at the end of my second year at Melbourne University that I looked up for a moment from the tasks I was engaged in – composing a sonnet in Latin in Vergilian alexandrines, and translating into the Latin of the Age of Augustus the back page of the previous weekend’s Melbourne Herald newspaper, most of it, as I remember, cricket results and a long account of a golf match – and asked myself, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ I switched the following year to English language and literature, and began doing bits and pieces of my own writing, which always seemed to involve going outside the lines, though it was years before I gathered the courage to show anything to anyone else, even friends.

So – to get, finally, to the real point of your question – I was a very late starter in the business of writing and publishing stories. I was probably thirty-five before I settled to it seriously, and I’ve been caught up in a love-hate relationship with the practice ever since.  My motivation? Two-fold, I guess. First, an inward, inexplicable pressure to get stuff down (there was a lot of personal turmoil in my life at the time and writing stories about it and about my life to that point – autobiographical material, family stories – proved a way of releasing that pressure and also a way of objectifying things which troubled and puzzled me and which no other form of expression offered).  I had tried poetry but found that every poem I wrote was a tired echo of what I had studied or read. 

Second, I wanted to become part of the community of those people whom I admired most in the world – writers – and that was the reason I began, very hesitantly, to show a few of them my work, and it was through them that I got both initial encouragement and later entrées to publication.

  INTERVIEWER

From fear and writing between the lines, to community and writing outside the lines – might that be every writer’s journey.  Despite starting ‘late’, as you say, you’ve achieved a remarkable publishing record. Ultimately, what does publication mean to you?

 CLANCHY

When I first draft a story I never think about publication; in fact, it may even be dangerous to have thoughts of/desire for publication at the forefront of one’s mind. You may be tempted to tailor your story to notions of what is acceptable – to contemporary readers, to editors, to what is in fashion at the time – instead of attending to the organic demands of the narrative you’ve set in motion. Stories have their own inherent requirements – in length, in structure, in voice – and writing to external ‘public’ requirements can falsify the relation between a writer and their material.  I’m talking here about getting your story out and down in a satisfactory form in the first place. I’m not saying you shouldn’t think about the reader at all; naturally you should, as in any form of communication. The crucial thing is when you do so.

For me, the reader swims into view when I feel I’ve understood the story I’m telling, and I’ve got it down in a form that is vaguely approximate to my original intention.  In other words, thinking about the ‘receivers’ of the story occurs for me only in the revision and editing stages, and issues of ‘signalling’, of style, of clarifying language etc then become important. Until that point, the story is private, not ‘public’ and the only reader is the perfect Platonic reader, who is, I guess, in fact a shadowy, mythic projection of the writer’s self anyway.

More practically, publication is important to me for four reasons.

First, when all is said and done writing is ultimately an act of communication and even if publication means reaching as few as a dozen readers, then the circle of intentionality is nonetheless satisfactorily completed in reaching them.  I’m talking about creative writing here, not the consciously ‘private‘ writing of, say, a diary. Writing which never reaches anyone else seems discouragingly incomplete to me.

Second, there is an undeniable thrill in seeing one’s work made public, arising partly out of vanity (That’s me/There’s my name in print), and partly out of a genuine and reasonable pride at having created something that didn’t exist before (You see that? I made that).  It’s the same pride as that felt by any maker: a composer, say, or a skilled cabinet-maker.

Third, beyond the initial thrill there is a deeper satisfaction in knowing that others value what you have made.  Most writers are congenitally self-doubting, and writing can – in the act – often be more miserable than exhilarating. Getting published is a vindication of all the hard days.

Finally, if you’re lucky you might even get paid for your work. Inevitably any money you do make simply gets ploughed back into further writing (‘buying time’) – but that’s one of the ways you know you’re a writer in the first place.

  INTERVIEWER

Is there a story or publication of which you are especially pleased, perhaps even proud?  If so, why?

CLANCHY

I suppose the story I should be most pleased with is the novel The Hard Word. It gained some good reviews; it won the ACT book of the year and was shortlisted for other awards.  And it does have some worthy features: it’s a complex, cross-generational story, and it addresses a range of important contemporary social issues, including the phenomenon of aged dementia (Alzheimer’s), the plight of refugee and migrant under-classes in Australia, as well as the issue of work-life-family balance for women.  Technically too it meant an advance in my writing: I wondered whether I could write a multi-layered story (i.e. with vertical levels – thematic, generational) but combine it at the same time with an onward driving narrative (the ‘horizontal’ level, which essentially is provided by the progressive decline and eventual death of Grandma Vera).   And I thought I pulled this ‘double-axis’ story off with reasonable success and with a degree of humour – a fair achievement, given the potential grimness of the content.

But actually, you know, the stories writers are deeply (privately) pleased with are often different from the most ‘worthy’ or well-regarded ones. The story of mine I’m privately most proud of is Lessons from the Heart, which is the sequel to The Hard Word. This novel appeared, received a couple of pleasant reviews and disappeared without trace in a matter of a couple of months.  In a recent reading group about a different book, one of the participants said to me: ‘You know, I think your best writing is in Lessons from the Heart. What I don’t understand is how a nearly seventy year old male can get inside the mind of a seventeen year old girl like that – let alone sustain it for 300 pages.’

It’s the nicest thing any reader has ever said to me.