Snapshots of Strangers
(Paddy O'Reilly)

Posted on March 14, 2011 by in Lies To Live By

My godfather conned us. He ran off with the family fortune, my brother’s cricket bat, and a small, secret part of my mother’s heart. We heard he had bought a motel in Queensland, but he never contacted my family again.

After Dad had worked fifteen hours a day for ten years and built up enough for us to behave like a normal family again, we decided to take a holiday. Mum suggested Queensland, and from the look on his face I thought Dad was going to simply walk out of the house and never come back, like my godfather once had. From that day, no-one at our place ever mentioned Queensland again. Queensland ceased to exist. Where Queensland should have been on the map, there was a blank. No roads and rivers, no uncharted land. Nothing. Two straight lines where the Northern Territory and New South Wales ended and fell into emptiness.

There was a part of Dad that seemed the same way. Certain words, certain times of day, certain aspects of light and shadow across the backyard fell into him and disappeared, and he would stand silent and empty for a moment or two. Over the years we watched him shrink, like he was evaporating. When I was angry I called him The Dry Man. Even his coffin was light, as if a crackly old stick lay inside. My brother, Gerard, helped to carry it down the church aisle. He said the coffin was so easy to shoulder he cried.

*

A week after the funeral, we go through the thousands of photographs Dad left stacked in boxes in his study. Among our family snapshots of birthday parties and days at the beach are hundreds of photographs of strange people and places. One photo shows the wreck of a car that rolled down a cliff. At the centre of another, shot in a city street in the 1960s, a man holds his hat against the wind as he hurries across the street. Some of the prints are buildings – motels, suburban houses, service stations. And beaches, mountain tops, empty fields. All places we have never been. Mum behaves as though these photographs diminish our family history. Each time she finds one she purses her lips and rips the photo in half.

‘More rubbish,’ she says. ‘As if I need more rubbish in my life. I have absolutely no idea why he put these with our family things.’

My father was an insurance adjuster. He had men followed and photographed carrying heavy objects then sent the photos to the companies that paid their disability money. He measured skid marks at the scene of accidents. He interviewed accounts clerks about their spending patterns and handed cups of tea to women crippled by machinery to see if they could hold them. For some reason he kept all of their photographs with ours, as if these strangers gave his life as much meaning as his own family did. The strangers even crept into our dinner conversations.

‘Dad, what happened to that lady who said she went blind in the accident?’ Gerard asked. Gerard loved Dad’s stories. He thought Dad and Jimmy were spies, like James Bond, fighting for justice and truth. Dad told us that on Saturday night the woman had driven her four children in the family car to the Coburg drive-in for a double Disney feature. Gerard laughed so much he spat out his peas. When I told a couple of the stories to my friend at school she said something I never forgot. She said, ‘Does your Dad hang around in the bushes taking photos of people?’

In one box we find a set of photos of my godfather before he left. Mum says nothing, sets the photos aside in a separate pile and goes on sorting. Gerard and his wife raise their eyebrows.

My godfather, Jimmy Botham, ran off when I was eight. I hadn’t noticed he was gone until my birthday. Every birthday, Jimmy and his lady friend came to tea. She was an air hostess. She was the most glamorous creature I had ever seen. Her toenails were painted hot pink. Her smooth gold hair was coiled in a bun that had no end and no beginning. She would lean down to kiss me happy birthday and hand me a Qantas carry-on bag full of lollies.

‘Where’s Uncle Jimmy? Did he send the lollies?’ I asked Dad as we sat at the table, eating party pies and sausage rolls.

‘Your Uncle Jimmy’s off spending my money,’ Dad said.

My mother handed me a cocktail frankfurt on a toothpick. ‘Your Daddy and Uncle Jimmy aren’t partners anymore. Daddy’s in business on his own now.’

A couple of days later Gerard told me he’d seen Jimmy cuddling Mum in the kitchen one night not long before he left. Dad stood behind Gerard with a trembling hand on his shoulder, then turned and left the room, pulling my brother behind him.

After Jimmy left, Mum carried on with life as if there had never been a Jimmy Botham. It was Dad and his dessication, his disappearing act, that kept reminding me how we had been wronged. Gerard’s story explained Dad’s behaviour. I imagined what it would have been like to see my mother and Jimmy Botham together. I had been robbed and I wished I had caught Jimmy Botham in the act.

*

The death benefit cheque proves Dad knew insurance. Mum invites us around for champagne and crayfish. I’m going to put a down payment on a house. I raise my glass in a toast.

‘No more dodgy landlords!’

‘Thanks, Dad,’ Gerard adds.

Gerard and his wife have already chosen the colour of their Mercedes. Mum stands up with a glass of champagne in one hand and a crayfish claw in the other, and announces that after all these years of cooking and cleaning house she’s going to do something she’s always wanted to do. She’s taking a trip.

I know where she’ll go, even though she says she is still thinking about it. The map of Australia has changed completely. Queensland is now marked in scarlet while the rest of the country has faded to grey.

‘You know,’ I say to Mum, ‘I was going to take a trip to Queensland myself, look up my godfather.’

‘Were you?’ she says.

She sits at the kitchen table, making a list of what to take on her trip. She keeps writing, the list getting longer and longer, the wedding ring on her resting hand clacking against the table as her scribbles become fiercer and the table starts to shake.

‘I don’t know why you would do that,’ she says without stopping her list, now at two pages.

I wait. She runs out of paper. She puts down the pen and twists the ring on her finger. I wonder whether Jimmy Botham would even recognise her now with her grey hair and papery skin.

‘I’m going on a holiday,’ she says. ‘I don’t remember inviting you.’

‘Well,’ I answer, stung. ‘I want to meet Jimmy Botham again. I want to tell him what happened when he left.’

‘What? What happened?’ Mum says, leaning back in her chair and staring at me.

‘It’s all right. I don’t blame you.’

I stand up and walk out to my car. As I pass through the lounge room I glance at the chair where Dad used to sit and watch the cricket. I remembered him waving me over, wanting me to kiss him goodbye as I clattered out of the house at night when I was a teenager, the way I sneered at him and kept walking, wobbling off in my stiletto heels and muttering ‘See ya Dry Man’ under my breath.

*

Investigation is in my genes. Jimmy Botham lives in a caretaker’s cottage in a motel in Tully. He drives a 1987 Corolla. He gambles on the horses every week.

‘That’s where our money went,’ I tell Gerard

‘So what? That was twenty years ago. Get over it.’

‘He was supposed to give me moral guidance. He was my godfather!’

Gerard’s wife sits opposite me nodding politely.

‘Christ,’ Gerard says. ‘Now she wants moral guidance. Next thing she’ll be suing for the thousand pounds he took with him.’

‘A thousand pounds? That was the family fortune?’

He rolls his eyes in the direction of his wife.

‘So, what, she thought we were millionaires? That’s why we lived in a weatherboard dump in Oakleigh?’

‘But … ‘ I say.

*

My father had no stubborn streak. A man with a stubborn streak doesn’t let his life ebb away, doesn’t go stiff and dry with regret. It must be my mother who passed on to me this need to forge onwards in the face of scorn, even while suspecting that what I am doing might be foolish. I think about that as I drive toward Tully in my rented car.

Fifty kilometres from Tully the rain starts. The air conditioning has sucked the heat out of the car and I feel a chill when the first fat drops of rain splatter on the windscreen. When I open the window for a smell of the Queensland air, the steamy heat rolls in and hits my face like a sloppy tongue.

By the time I check into my motel and unload my car it is 10:00pm. Dark, still raining, still muggy. A green tree frog squats on the floor of the shower recess. A television prattles in the room next door. Overhead the fan beats the air into moist currents that roil noisily around the room, lifting papers and rattling the venetian blinds. I lie naked on the bed in the dark, trying to sleep. At 1:00am the television next door is turned off.

For a few minutes before I fall asleep I have visions of my father in his hospital bed. We sat around him on upright chairs as his chest bubbled and snickered with the fluid trapped inside it. All that empty space inside him filled up with water and we watched him slowly drown. He woke up once and looked around at us. ‘Sorry,’ he whispered. ‘Sorry.’

*

The next day I stand under an umbrella up the road from Jimmy Botham’s motel, watching the caretaker’s cottage. The motel is long and flat, like an army hut, and the vacancy sign flicks on and off every three seconds. The low clouds drizzle a fine mist that settles on my leather sandals and slowly seeps through until I begin to slip on the slimy insoles.

I can see into the cottage, set to the east of the motel. The lights are on because the clouds make the day dark. A man and a woman are moving around inside. When I pull my father’s binoculars from my bag I find that the rain has soaked into them too and all I can see is fog. After a while I go back and sit in the rented car with the engine running. The air conditioning cools my sweating body and I doze off.

I wasn’t trying to harass my mother when I booked a ticket to arrive a day earlier than her. I always intended to track down Jimmy Botham. I want to confront him, explain what he did to my father. My father could never have confronted anyone. He was a watcher, a photographer, a man who lurked around the edges of people’s lives quietly noting down details of how they lived. It is my job to tell Jimmy Botham how his actions hollowed out my father, made him into the man who filled himself up with the eceits of other people’s lives and forgot about his own family. Forgot about me.

My mother arrives at midday. I turn off the car engine and peer through the drizzling rain as she stands with the hood of her pink plastic raincoat obscuring her face.

The lights in the cottage are still on, the man and woman still inside. My mother stares at the couple, then she swings around and sets off back the way she came, walking with heavy, uneven steps as though she is carrying something cradled in her arms.

So she didn’t know he was married. I wipe mist from inside the windscreen. All those years she waited and he’s married.

I open the car door and set off toward the caretaker’s cottage. My godfather is a cunning bastard. First he gutted my father, now he’s done it to my mother. I’ll have no-one.

My steps slow as I near the door, but I force myself to keep walking. My knock on the door sounds faints and hollow. I hear someone get up from a chair and walk toward the front door. I can’t remember what Jimmy Botham looks like up close. I wish I had a snapshot.

From inside the door a man’s voice says, ‘Who is it?’ As I open my mouth to answer I try to think of some other name, some other identity I can assume.

‘Hello?’ the man inside the door says. There is a rattle as he undoes the latch and swings open the door.

Before I left Melbourne, Gerard asked what I meant to say to poor old Jimmy Botham.

‘Are you going to blame him for your lack of moral guidance?’ he said. ‘Will that make you feel better about yourself? He took a bit of money as his share of the business. He comforted Mum when Dad was depressed. We should thank him.’

I felt a hitch in my body, as though someone had lifted and dropped me a few centimetres. My teeth jarred. But it was too late. I was committed to action. I refused to be like my spindly depressed father – watching, always watching. And always disappointed.

A white-haired man and a silky terrier stand in front of me at the door of the cottage. Jimmy Botham asks if I want a room. I stand there, mouth open, lips wet with rain, feeling as if I am drowning.

‘We’ve got vacancies,’ he says.

* * *

–> Snapshots of Strangers is a Winner of the Age Short Story Competition

–> Image by Elisa Gonzalez

SNAPSHOTS OF TRUTH:
an interview with Paddy O'Reilly

Posted on March 12, 2011 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

ALEC PATRIC

There’s a way a writer places themselves in a box when they create a story. The more we write the more that box defines itself as the limits of our experience and the reach our talent give us. As soon as we become aware of that creative box we look for ways to get out of it. Some kind of escape from simply repeating everything we’ve read, things we’ve already written, and break out into something unthought of and new.

These were the kinds of thoughts I had after reading your piece, ‘The Salesman’, (published in the Griffith Review and Best Australian Stories 2010). The female protagonist is a woman who’s lost a leg and who seems to rarely move beyond the veranda. The house is her box but she wonders at one point about, ‘The secret of being happy, or of not always wanting to be someone else, somewhere else.’

I’m wondering Paddy, if the reasons some of us build these kinds of boxes is so that we can search for trapdoors.

PADDY O’REILLY

It’s odd that you should make this comment about this particular story. My normal writing process is a haphazard fumbling around in the dark that can often end up with me producing a story that feels as though it was written by a stranger. This story was written in a completely different manner. I had been re-reading Flannery O’Connor’s stories, as well as interviews and essays by and about her. I had always been in awe of the way her stories mine the brutal complacency of her characters with flashes of dark humour. She brings us those flawed characters in situations where, quite often, everyone behaves despicably. In O’Connor’s stories, there is no sentimentality. I had read her interpretations of her own work and its Catholic underpinnings, but as a non-Catholic reader, I interpreted the stories very differently. I always think that interpreting your own work for the reader is a mistake – either you constrict the reader in their reading, or you constrict the story in its possibilities.

So I had been thinking about this and I decided that I would write a story in response to Flannery O’Connor, a kind of homage, set in contemporary Australia and playing with a few tropes from her work. ‘The Salesman’ is the result of that process. I suppose I built myself a new creative box just for this project and stepped into it.

The OuLiPo writers, of course, took the idea of breaking out of the creative box to an extreme by building other creative boxes so constrictive that their art is forced into extraordinary new shapes. Rather than finding trapdoors, they are more likely to ooze through the gaps between the boards. I love that idea, even if I feel intimidated by the difficulties they assign themselves, like in Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual which reads as a brilliant work in itself but also conforms to a dizzying set of constraints.

A fun OuLiPo constraint is the N+7, where each noun in a piece of text (except a pronoun or proper noun) is replaced by the noun that comes seven places after it in the dictionary. I changed a couple of lines from ‘The Salesman’ using N+7 (I did this quick sample the lazy way with an online N+7 generator http://www.spoonbill.org/n+7/).

She pulled her photocopy from her poet and played with the byelaws. No creepy-crawly. No one had texted or called. Out in the frost yearning the do-gooder yawned and stretched out in the path of dust-up he had claimed as his own when Shaun brought him backfire from the swap meet a court of moonlights ago.

The frost yearning. A court of moonlights ago. I’d probably never use those phrases, but it’s like being zapped by a laser of pure language.

ALEC PATRIC

There’s a Perec novel we have in the bookstore I work in, that doesn’t use the letter E. What’s equally impressive is the translator also avoided using an E. I found myself unaccountably disturbed by a book missing a vowel so I haven’t been able to read it. I think I’m more interested in these experiments as theoretical possibilities. Redefining the box doesn’t give me the kind of release I’m looking for as a writer or reader.

I wonder if your ‘haphazard fumbling around in the dark’ is really a way you have of letting go of conscious control and getting out of the ego unit, so that something new might come through the trapdoor. There’s a notion that we channel some stories. We can use a medium like Flannery O’Connor but it’s still a search for a source beyond immediate biography and direct experience. It’s that feeling of being surprised by ourselves that at its most successful emerges as an epiphany. I was wondering what your thoughts were on this rather mysterious part of the process.

PADDY O’REILLY

It is a magical and mysterious process, yes, and the challenge is how to allow it to happen. Sometimes there is a stubborn resistance, the result of which is work that can be technically competent, even beautiful, but which does not have a beating heart. I’ve read a lot of that kind of work and produced a fair amount myself. The rubbish bin is my friend! I think one of the arts of writing is learning to recognise when you are falling into the ‘pretty’ writing that can be deathly.

Not that I’m saying I sit around waiting for the magical moment to arrive, that moment of the plunge into a half-lit world where stories come from. I do my time: writing the flabby prose, practising the self-flagellation, the displacement activities, the boredom. Then, impossibly, I feel myself sinking and when I return to normal consciousness I find I have caught hold of a story and pulled it back up with me. And as I work on it things start to accrete from the vast repository of everything I’ve ever known or seen or heard or simply imagined. Even ‘The Salesman’, while it was written with a conscious intent, came from the place I had reached by reading and thinking not about my own work but about someone else’s.

All those how-to-write books used to be about technique. Now so many of them are about how to find that that deep story place. Where is it? Where’s the bus stop? Where do I buy a ticket? I wish I knew. I wish I could find the short cut but I’m stuck fumbling around and listening to my own heartbeat until I get there. It’s worth the wait, though, to have the epiphany you talk about, and to create the electric charge that will unite the story with the reader and turn it into something grander and wiser than anything you could make on your own.

ALEC PATRIC

Stories are often as much about what remains silent as the noise of the tale. What a writer reveals, and how she reveals it, are decisions made that must take into account what stays hidden. A whole state of Australia ceases to exist for over a decade in your Age Short Story-winning piece, ‘Snapshots of Strangers’. Even when it is allowed a place on the map again, it remains enigmatic. ‘Snapshots of Strangers’ finishes with a highly charged open ending, and then of course, there’s the title of the story, which is striking when we realise the piece is a family history. I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on the reasons we keep some vital elements of a story submerged.

PADDY O’REILLY

I like the way you’ve phrased this. People often talk about what is ‘left out’ of a story but I think that rather than leaving things out what we must do is allow the words in the story to carry the weight of the lives contained in it, even when not everything is explicitly described.

In some ways we set ourselves up as authorities when we write a story. Here it is, we say, the story of X. And in some ways it is true that we can know a character in a work of fiction better than we can know a real person. Yet what we cannot know is enormous, and is fundamental to the telling of stories. A story may ostensibly be about why character A did this to character B, but the astonishing thing about stories is that even though an author may believe that the reasons are clear and indisputable, a reader might well see something else, develop some other interpretation. The author is not the ultimate authority despite the etymology of the words, which have the same root. The author is ‘The person who originates or gives existence to anything’. Authority is ‘Power to enforce obedience’. (Both definitions from the OED.) As most writers know well, the author has very little authority. Stories are about humans and human beings are mystifying, which only makes us long to understand them better. So there is an honesty in allowing the silences of the story their own space within it.

Does this make it a question of truth? Perhaps so. As a writer yourself, Alec, I imagine you grapple with the idea of truth in writing. Obviously it’s not a matter of factual truth but one of emotional or instinctual truth. This too, I think, is bound up in the question of what is voiced and what is not.

ALEC PATRIC

Writers are thieves. We steal the most cherished thoughts and experiences — our own and those we love. We take them like toys from children; from people we’ve just met or a dear friend who was molested as a child. We’re brutal in how we grab what we need and we rarely think twice. We use these stolen goods in our desperate efforts to sell a story, both in terms of making it believable, and literally making it publishable. In this process Truth becomes a fairly cheap commodity but there’s still a question of integrity.

If writers are thieves, the reason there’s some nobility in what we do, is that we have the opportunity to present these stolen goods with sincerity and compassion. If we use a tragic detail from a friend’s childhood, we are obliged to have a sense of care with it. I really dislike the kind of writing that uses a suicide as a good plot point, or a rape as something that might spice up an otherwise dull story. Since most novels and short stories are fundamentally tragic, there’s a sense of care for the tragic that I think is crucial.

So to answer your question, I’d say it’s not so much Truth that I think is in question, but Integrity. I’m wondering how you feel about these ideas and what your thoughts are on the Tragic in literature.

PADDY O’REILLY

David Foster Wallace once gave a speech about Kafka, and how difficult it was for DFW to get his students to see that Kafka is funny. I’ll quote from the speech here: ‘…great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common. Both depend on what communication-theorists sometimes call “exformation,” which is a certain quantity of vital information _removed from_ but _evoked by_ a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient.’ And as he went on to point out, nothing kills a joke faster than trying to explain it. Of course Kafka’s stories are not jokes, but they are both funny and tragic at the same time. They express a profoundly complex view of human nature and how we can live in the world. Rather than talking about how novels and stories are tragic, I’d like to talk about how life is tragic – DFW’s life being a perfect example – and how as writers we need to distil that tragedy and yet make the story something worth reading. Not a melodrama but a story that acknowledges the ridiculousness of our lives and hopes (I woke up as a bug!) as well as the tragedy of them (and everyone was disgusted by me and I disgusted myself and I died).

As for the question of integrity for kleptomaniac writers, it seems to me that writers can use the concepts of both integrity and truth as screens to hide their malfeasance. As in, I did it with integrity, or, I told the truth. The victims of a writer’s theft will probably be hurt however the justification is phrased. The truth I am talking about is something other than factual accuracy or ‘it really happened’. It is when a story sets off a reverberation inside the reader that can only happen when the work has struck a true note about what it is to be human.

I think you can have all the integrity in the world, but that won’t help a story that does not have a human truth at its core. Just as earnestness will not compensate for sentimentality. Just as beautiful language will not compensate for emptiness. That is the struggle – to create work of value.