Ella Meagher strode down the corridor of the Bon Marche building in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Her long skirt billowed and threatened to trip her up. Her blouse was an aboriginal dot painting. She wore her steel-wool hair in a high bun and carried her head at a tilt, the way she always did when hurried.
Ella was the oldest member of the faculty. She taught everything. She knew very little. At heart she was a writer and even published a novel a long time ago. Today, she held a tattered document in her hands, which she’d received from one of her first-years. She thought maybe it was the stuff of genius but couldn’t be sure. Not until she’d shown John Darley, the head of writing.
He was at his desk in his dark office when she came in. Strips of daylight glowed between the gaps in the curtains. She stood with her back against the wall as John read under the meagre lamp on his battered old desk.
‘God’, he said, as he turned the first page.
He chuckled a couple of times, at the exact same places she had chuckled. Page 4, first paragraph, and again on page 6.
‘What did you say this kid’s name was?’ asked John, placing the story back on his desk.
‘And what’s he like?’
‘Quiet of course. I’m yet to hear him speak.’ Then, after a silence: ‘I think we should let Dalrymple and the others know. The publishing houses too.’
John cupped the back of his head in his hands. ‘Yes’, he said. ‘I suppose so.’
At the end of class the following day Ella pulled aside Gabriel and told him not get too excited and not to think for a moment he didn’t have a precariously steep and maddeningly long road ahead of him, but certain people in certain places wished to speak to him about his work.
‘Not the early stuff you wrote’, said Ella, frowning, ‘which frankly lacked… what’s the word? Oh, you know, it lacked. I’m referring to the more recent stories. The one set in Warriewood in particular.’
The one set in Warriewood, what? But Gabriel hated that story. He shuddered at his hatred. He shuddered at everyone and everything, always. To not shudder — to sit down and be, simply, still — was a faraway dream, a foreign country, the faint chime of a distant bell, rung by a distant hand.
‘What do you say?’ said Ella. ‘Can you do next Thursday at 1 pm?’
He muttered something that Ella took for confirmation and left the room. He left the Bon Marche building. He boarded an L88 bus and sat in the back corner with his hood pulled down over his forehead and his hands jammed into the pocket on the front of his jumper and there, in rhythmic motion, he slipped into reverie.
Gabriel lived in a boring room in a boring house on a boring street. He sometimes hoped his parents would find a way to quarrel — a smashed plate, a mad roar, anything to interrupt the ennui that wracked his little life. Warriewood was a boring place. There were McDonalds and Pizza Hut, the cinema, a shopping centre, a sewage treatment plant, and that was it. Gabriel could join the dots between these actants, could find cause and odorous effect, but, he asked, to what end? Why look for meaning in Warriewood when what he longed for, really, was freedom from it? He pined for something different. He knew nothing of what was out there — he’d only ever lived in Warriewood — and yet, whenever he walked the coastal paths atop the headlands along the beaches, he’d peer into the great unknown, across the roiling sea, and make out the vague shapes of a great world. He’d hear, in those moments, the great world’s distant music.
They wanted to speak to him about his work did they? He couldn’t for the life of him see why, so obviously reflexive were his stories. So weakly weaved. So thin.
But! By meeting them would he find the path…
The next Thursday at 1 pm, he waited in Warriewood Pizza Hut for Ella Meagher, John Darley, Clive Dalrymple and certain representatives from Allen & Unwin to arrive. He was resigned to hearing them out. He had before him an open book — Dubliners by Joyce — and a moist slice of Hawaiian.
‘Here he is’, came a voice from behind. ‘Reading away as ever.’
It was Ella. She slid into the booth and sat opposite him.
‘Gabriel’, she said, ‘allow me to introduce Charles Wilke and Christina Southern from A&U. You know John of course. And this is Clive from the university’s commercial affairs office.’
They all piled in.
‘Apologies we’re meeting here’, said Ella, addressing the group. ‘But Gabriel, young lad that he is, wasn’t able to get himself out of Warriewood.’
‘Not at all’, said Wilke — a gaunt fellow. ‘Christina and I love our pizza.’
Christina forged a smile and nodded. ‘We’ve had a chance to read Distant Music’, she said. ‘Remarkable, truly.’
‘What Christina means’, said Ella, ‘is, do you think you could write more stories like it? A novel even?’
‘We’re not here to pressure you into anything’, said Wilke. ‘You have a rare talent with colour and light. It needs time. Take as much as you want. All we’re saying is, if you happen to find an idea worth rendering in longer form, we’re happy to talk to you about it.’
‘With one proviso’, said Christina.
‘Oh, yes’, said Ella reaching over the table to pat Gabriel’s forearm. ‘Nothing major.’
‘Nothing major’, said Christina. ‘That’s right. All we ask is that your novel be set here in’ — she coughed — ‘Excuse me. In Warriewood’.
Distant Music took place at dusk. The sun off to light the world anew and leave Warriewood behind in darkness; a young boy standing on a headland, silhouetted against the sky, his head cocked as if straining to catch the words of a song and catch its aching melody. He wrote it in a single sitting. He wrote it from his heart.
‘We think you’ve hit on a place that, as far as we’re aware, has no representation in Australian literature.’
‘Christina’s right’, said Wilke. ‘Warriewood isn’t merely unrepresented, it’s energetically overlooked. A black hole, young man!’
‘Until, of course, Distant Music.’
‘Yes’, said Wilke. ‘Exactly.’
Gabriel sat there mute. Were they out of their effing minds? Who did they expect would buy such fiction? Even Joyce would struggle to sell Warriewood to the world, he’d likely not sell it to Warriewood! Worse, though, was that they’d not understood what he’d meant by the story. It’s not about here, he thought. It’s about over there.
‘We can tell’, said Wilke, ‘by the beauty in your writing, how much you must love Warriewood.’
‘That image’, said Ella, ‘of the blade of grass being borne down the gutter…’
She stopped. Her face changed. She was… yes, she was crying.
‘It’s a rare gift indeed’, said Wilke, ‘to see the kind of truth you’ve seen in Warriewood.’
‘Warriewood’, said Christina, and she raised her cup to Warriewood.
In his bedroom that afternoon, Gabriel lay and looked at the ceiling. He wanted out. He wanted to stow away on a ship bound for the Horn of Africa. Do ships go to the Horn of Africa? He wanted out. Normally he’d write himself free, but no more. For all he had was Warriewood. To imagine effing Warriewood. A novel (or novella) set in stinking Warriewood.
He left his house in Warriewood, past the treatment plant, along the road by Pizza Hut and high up to the edge of the continent. It was dusk again. Far below white foam heaved into the rock face, each wave shaping its jagged cheekbone. There was a glow above the horizon, a violet thread, the distant shape of a distant song. And here I am in Warriewood. That beach down there, oh Warriewood.
That night he dreamed of Warriewood. There were fires. A pizza oven caught alight and the flames touched each corner of the suburb. Before long McDonalds exploded spraying out showers of burger grease and the grease, it made the fires worse and the flames were tall as headlands and all they left behind was the charred, smoke-haze outline of a place once known as Warriewood. Only he survived the blaze and walking through the charcoal mess he saw that ash had buried the good citizens of Warriewood. Just their hands remained, poking through the silt as if reaching, ever reaching, and he wiped his tears with blackened fingers which left their marks in shocking streaks and… the wind blew.
He woke up, heart pounding, there in his little room, and wrote the first lines of a novel.
So here we are in Warriewood.
Yes (I know!) in Warriewood.
We lay our scene here. Can you effing believe it?