A sense of place has always been important to my writing, but perhaps never more so than in A Hundred Small Lessons. I’d arrived in Brisbane in 2008 with two manuscripts – The Body in the Clouds, set around the Harbour Bridge; and The Railwayman’s Wife, set on the NSW south coast. For almost two years, I sat in Annerley and conjured Dawes Point or Thirroul every day, sinking into their sights and sounds, only occasionally glancing outside to notice – via a curlew, a mango tree, a tiny sliver of the Story Bridge visible from my driveway – that I was a thousand kilometres north of where my imagination went to work. Even at the edge of the Brisbane River, I thought of the surface of Sydney Harbour, the tempers of the Tasman Sea, rather than that speedy snake of water in front of me. Brisbane was a friendly place – friendly people scooped me in. But my topographical mind was somewhere else.
By the time The Body in the Clouds was published, I’d moved to Fairfield and the Harbour Bridge had left my working mind. It would be intriguing, I thought, to play next somewhere closer to home. My writing room had an easterly view across a park full of leopard trees (Libidibia ferrea) and Moreton Bay figs, with the squiggle of the river to the west. Perhaps I could write my way into this space, write the crests and troughs of Brisbane’s landscape, its volatile palette of weather, the funny way the city’s skyline seemed to loom not quite where I expected it – never obviously north, but tucked instead around a slightly more crooked curve or corner.
I first saw Lucy Kiss standing on her front porch one wintery morning in mid-2010 as she steadied her young son on the stairs.
He was eighteen months’ old, with the daring, darting gait of exploration. I saw her as I stood on my porch with my son, steadying his just-a-year-old steps. But while I noticed my son’s own footprints pressed into the dewy grass, and while I was heading for a busy day with friends, and while I had a sort of birds’ eye view of where we lived – river, city, rising sun – I saw that Lucy had none of these things. She couldn’t work out where she was: my feeling that the CBD shifted sneakily up- or downstream was for her a sense of constantly malleable landscape. And she had no people by whom she could orient herself: she was at home, alone, having tiny conversations with her boy.
Most importantly, the footsteps she noticed on her lawn belonged to someone else entirely. And I realised that I knew whose they were. I saw that before Lucy arrived in her house, someone had lived there for almost all of her own married life, raising her children. I saw that she’d fallen, as in so many stories I’d heard from friends’ parents, aunts, grandparents who fell and lay trapped – sometimes for too long – before they were found. I saw that after this fall, she’d been taken somewhere else to live. And I saw her, tucked into an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room, and longing to get home.
And that was Elsie, turned up just like that.
You know the way weatherboards creak in the summer? The way houses breathe as the temperature turns? As I sat down with my Lucy and my Elsie to work out who they were, I heard my own house talking around me, the boards muttering as the afternoons cooled down. Sometimes the wind slammed a door, or something pattered fast across the roof. And as I listened to this domestic percussion, I began to wonder if Lucy’s house might talk to her. How does a house carry the stories of its previous occupants, and how might it transmit them to the people who next live there? How might Lucy sense what Elsie’s life had been?
Was Elsie a ghost, or an idea? Was she some sort of preserved image – a photo, or a painting? Or was she something more?
Calling these two women forth felt more like an act of accretion than an act of recovery or revelation. And as I saw more of them, so much of their worlds became clear – their husbands; their children; their secrets; their fears. In an essay in This Writing Life, David Malouf describes beginning new work with a sense of ‘the whole universe attending, taking an interest, turning itself as it were in the book’s direction, so that everything one comes across – in the daily papers, in the street, in what begins to come up out of the depths of memory – out of the depths too of an experience one may not have had yet – immediately finds a place there, in indissoluble connection.’
This was how I came to these two lives. Incidents I glimpsed; encounters I had; spots of history and memory I came across; sparks of research that flew up from a page. Sequences of events unfolded in front of me but I saw the book’s characters step into them and push them in another direction. And it was my job to piece all this together like a jigsaw, so that a whole suite of new lives – discrete, yet strangely intersecting – started to come into view. I moved both families into my own small, boxlike cottage: it was easier to have them all close by.
It’s six months now since A Hundred Small Lessons was published, and I miss my Lucy and my Elsie. I loved them both so much that it was hard to let them go – although it’s nice to have them out of the house. It was crowded, with all those lives jammed into our six rooms … no matter how polite my own husband and son were about it all.
But I know that I carry them with me still – I see them sometimes, ahead of me on the Corso, or disappearing around a corner in a busy, city street. The other morning, walking the dog to the river, we reached the water as a small flotilla of rowing boats paused. There were tiny lights on the bow and stern of each craft – four or five sweeps in total – and the little dots of green and white floated in the pre-dawn dim like messages from some other fairy world. And I thought, as I always think, that I could give that view to Elsie or to Lucy – I notice things to gift them every day. As long as I’m in Brisbane, I think perhaps I always will.
Ashley Hay’s work has been praised for its ‘incandescent intelligence and a rare sensibility’. Her awards include the Colin Roderick Award and the NSWPLA People’s Choice (for The Railwayman’s Wife) and the Bragg/UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing for ‘The Forest at the Edge of Time’. Her latest novel is A Hundred Small Lessons. She lives in Brisbane.
This article first appeared in QWC’s Writing Queensland (WQ), a quarterly magazine and online site for QWC members featuring articles on writing and publishing. To have access to all WQ articles, join QWC today for as little as $50 per year: qldwriters.org.au/membership.