Interview with Bendigo writer Mary Pomfret on her book Writing in Virginia’s Shadow

 

 

A review of Mary’s ‘Writing in Virginia’s Shadow’ can be found here.

1.      Writing in Virginia’s Shadow is a collection of interconnected stories that ponder the writing life for working class women. The title suggests influence from Virginia Woolf’s work. Can you talk a little about how her work influenced the inception of your book?

Well, I guess it all starts with Virginia Woolf’s wonderful essay “A Room of One’s Own” which addresses the many issues that might influence a woman’s practical capacity to engage in a writing career should she have the talent and desire.

Woolf makes it clear in her analogy of “Shakespeare’s sister” that talent and drive are not enough for any person, male or female, to devote themselves to a writing life. However, she makes the very strong point that in a patriarchal society the demands and expectations of women are different from those imposed on men.  I know that Woolf wrote the essay in 1928, and of course things have changed a lot since then for women.

And although women’s lives have improved greatly in the last century, material matters, social expectations, and familial responsibilities still impinge on the artistic freedom of women. Clearly, most women in the contemporary western world do not spend Monday mornings hand washing and wringing the family laundry and generally they do not scrub the floors on their knees. Most have computers, electricity and hot water on tap. Yet still, women who write encounter difficulties, particularly if they are not from the privileged classes.  Although much progress has been made, women writers whatever their social class, still experience psychological struggles as a result of the dominant patriarchal order, which still might seem to favour the writing of men and the subjects that promote the perspective and interests of men.

Virginia Woolf noted, “This is an important book, the critic says, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room”. The description of a child eating an orange sitting on her mother’s lap by the fire in a suburban lounge room, can be just as vivid as the description of Napoleon riding a horse in the battlefield. Woolf was well aware that it is not the ordinariness of the subject but the quality of the writing which matters but that this is not always recognized in a patriarchal world.

2.      The collection utilises different forms of writing: short story, email, letters, and vignettes. I’m intrigued about how this lovely group of writings came together. Did you write with a theme in mind? or did you select from work that had previously been written?

Much of the writing in this collection formed my creative honours thesis. Because I possibly am more of a creative writer than an academic one, I used the ficto-critical approach which allows a certain creative freedom to address theoretical concerns. Hence the letters and emails from and to Virginia Woolf. And here I must give credit to my honours supervisor, Dr Sue Gillett, who introduced me to the ficto-critical form.

The short stories came together in the organic way that most stories do. I began by writing three separate stories, as a trilogy, and then I saw how easy it would be to link the characters because the themes connected them.

3.      Most of the protagonists are women, excepting a story about Sam and his book launch. How do you see this particular story fitting into the work as a whole?

Oh dear, poor Sam and his book a launch. Sam is perhaps more of a caricature than a character. And the same could be said about the egotistical Nigel, who launched Sam’s book. Sam appealed to Nigel’s vanity and attempted to emulate his cool confident style but without much success. I guess what I was getting at with these two, is that Nigel had a wife at home, Leah, with considerable writing talent, yet he failed to recognise her talent or support her work. He preferred to promote the work of the talentless Sam who stroked his ego by his hero worshipping attitude. Leah clearly did not give Nigel the adoration his ego required. As Virginia put it in 1928:

‘How could he go on giving judgment, civilizing natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and dinner at least twice the size he really is?”

4.      The character Sam shares the same name as Samuel Clemens. Can you share with us any meaning or connections we can take from your use of Samuel Clemens as a character?

Most astute of you, Julie, to ask me this question. Samuel Langhorne Clemens was Mark Twain’s pseudonym. I think perhaps “our Sam” wasn’t legally his name at all, but maybe he was a “John Smith” who felt Sam Clemens was a more suitable name for a writer of his perceived, but in fact dubious talent. My attempt at irony I guess: Mark Twain was a wonderful talent, “our Sam” clearly was not.

5.      For me as a reader, a theme that came through strongly is the idea that attitudes and responses to particular fiction vary widely depending on age, socio-economic status and gender. Is this an idea that you considered when putting this project together?

Once again, my fictional stories just tend to evolve. I rarely set out to write about a particular subject or issue. The theme of women, captivity and the material matters which influence their ability to fulfil their creative potential just seemed to develop and then fictional letters and emails sprang from there. I think I have read somewhere that the way in which you perceive the world, depends on your position in it. Your perspective in other words.  So, I figure that your age, gender, socio-economic status and perhaps race and family of origin are the basic footing for your view of the world. In the case of the writer’s perspective, my own included, these factors undeniably have an influence on the stories we write and the point of view we take.

6.      In the fictional letter from Margot to Virginia, Margot writes:

…I feel that writing of stories, stories with female characters who are from the working class, will do more to advance women’s position in society…because such stories would be accessible to more women than are the writings of academic theorists.

Can you talk a little about this idea and how your own work might relate to it?

Well, I guess I have a thing about  “ivory tower” perceptions of life. Take for example the writing of the French feminists – beautiful as it undoubtedly is – I don’t feel it is as easily understood by people who have not had the opportunity to study literary theory. Perhaps I am wrong, but I feel fiction has the power to explore complex issues in simple ways which touch the imagination and heart of the reader.

7.      Thank you for taking the time to chat with us Mary. I’m hearing rumours of another book. What else can we read by Mary Pomfret and what can we expect in the future?

Yes, Julie. Most exiting! My new collection of short stories ‘Cleaning out the Closet’ will be launched at the Basement on View (next to the Bendigo Art Gallery) on April 10, at 7.00 pm.

You can read a review of ‘Writing in Virginia’s Shadow’ here

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Book Review: Writing in Virginia’s Shadow by Bendigo writer Mary Pomfret’

 

Writing in Virginia’s Shadow

by Mary Pomfret

56 pages

Ginninderra Press

Writing in Virginia’s Shadow is an eclectic collection of short fiction works presented as short stories, vignettes, email, and letters that explore what it means to be a female, working class, fiction writer. The writing contemplates similar ideas as those addressed by Virginia Woolf, hence the title.

It would take a long essay and a month of days to delve into the many themes presented through the fictional characters within the interconnected works so I only touch on a few.

We begin with Margot, an aspiring writer, who receives a rejection letter from a magazine, and is confronted with harsh criticism:

The devices you use to connect stories, such as recurring metaphors, motifs, related characters and the repeated theme of the ‘poor woebegone struggling women writer’, are tedious, pretentious and far from subtle. …We feel we want to scream at all these characters, ‘Get a life!’ but of course we wouldn’t; we are far too polite.’ 7

As the reader you feel the immediate sense of Margot’s despondency as she attempts to take an objective view of the criticism that is inherently a personal attack on Margot as a writer. The fictional letter pulls the rug out from under her and seems to mock Margot in such an awful way:

‘Margot, your namesake, who is seemingly the fictitious author of all the stories, intolerable. Eliminate her.’ 8

The rejection letter read in the context of the book as a whole is at once comical and awful, but we die a little on the inside for Margot at the thought of such a letter which can also be read as instruction to Margo to eliminate herself. This idea of exposing Margot is replicated in a letter she receives from Virginia (Woolf):

And as for you Margot. Where are you? You are weaving in and out of text, hiding behind words and phrases like a frightened child hides behind her mother’s skirt. Who are you? You must come out and declare yourself. You are the author, the writer of stories, are you not? 38

Margot is given opportunity to respond to Virginia Woolf in a letter and says simply:

If I am honest, I guess I am just plain scared. 41

but she defends herself in explanation:

…I feel that writing of stories, stories with female characters who are from the working class, will do more to advance women’s position in society…because such stories would be accessible to more women then are the writings of academic theorists. 42

One of the common frailties of the writer is explored through the character Leah – the not-good-enough-fear – shown in the form of Leah chastising herself:

When it came to her turn to introduce herself, she felt vaguely fraudulent. It had been over a years since she had written anything of substance. She muttered something about hoping this workshop would cure her writer’s block. 19

Leah, an emerging writer who competes for literary attention with her unsupportive writer husband,

He was getting sick of minding the kids every Tuesday night while she went off to her writing group. Old ladies and retired nuns – what would they know about the art and craft of writing? 11

finds herself struggling to live up to the standards of a writing group due to her family commitments:

This was a tall order – writing for a solid hour. It was a rare event for Leah to have the opportunity to write uninterrupted for an hour. Most of her writing was done in opportunistic snatches, while waiting to pick up children from soccer, or when a DVD was so engrossing that no one asked her where their socks were or what was to eat. The last time she wrote for an hour at a stretch was while she was waiting in the hospital room when her son had broken is arm. Leah picked up her pen and gazed around the room. All of the group were writing with such intensity. 22

It  is brought home here, that Leah’s lack of confidence stems directly from her lack of support from her husband.

A message that comes through strongly in this book is that of how subjective (while hiding behind the mask of objectivity) reactions to fiction can be. Margot takes a battering of a variety of opinions from her email critique group:

‘She always had to steel herself for this monthly task of reading the email responses of her fellow writers.’ 27

She faces a maze of subjective advice,

…I am a Poet after all.) I suggest you condense it a little… 27

…Loved your story. I do suspect, however, that your male protagonist is a bit of a wank. Sometimes, Margot, I think that you don’t think much of male writers. Got to watch that, you know. It can sometimes sound like sour grapes.’ 27

and has to decipher the intentions of critiquers:

The problem with your story is that it doesn’t really make much sense. Even so, I like it and I’m not really sure why. I think you are headed on a quest. Do you know what it is that you are looking for? XX Nyall.’

I think Nyall has something else on his mind. We all know a Nyall don’t we?

One of my favourite sections in the book is an interaction between the character Louise and her plumber husband Norm.

Why the hell are you always making up stupid fucking stories? Why are you always telling lies? Her reply was stuck in her throat like snow white’s apple. She spluttered, struggled to get out the words. ‘Because…because I’m a writer – that’s what I do. I make up stories. Fuckhead. I make up stories to survive.’ 31

I’m a bit partial to calling someone a fuckhead so this appeals to me, but as she blurts out ‘I make up stories to survive’, it’s an instinctive blurt, and she hits on a truth for many writers that they write because they have to; they write to understand themselves, and the world they live in.

I love the reference to the poisoned apple, intentional or not.  Those words Louise speaks to her husband, Norm are bound to begin a rift that may cause her to have to ‘go to sleep’ in relation to writing, to keep the peace, and forget writing completely.

Writing in Virginia’s Shadow is abundant with themes and ideas about writers. It can be read as simply as a series of stories about the lives of writers, or, it can be read as an insight into the state of the writer in all her phases, or, you may go deeper and read to examine the reflexive, post-modern style of the work. As a fan of meta-fiction, I find the latter adds a meaningful depth to the writing allowing a sense of realism that draws the reader in.

Either way, I urge you to take your time with Writing in Virginia’s Shadow, and give it the thought that it asks you to, and it deserves.

Interview with Mary Pomfret 

Mary lives in Bendigo, Victoria, Australia. You can find out more about Mary at her Blog.

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Fuckadoodle! It’s just_a_girl. Interview with Castlemaine author Kirsten Krauth

just-a-girl

When the opportunity arose to chat with Castlemaine author Kirsten Krauth about her unique debut book just_a_girl, I jumped at the chance. The novel is bursting with themes of loneliness, sexuality and relationships in a modern world, and we had a lot of fun exploring and unpicking those themes and it was great to get some insight into the evolution of the book. I hope you enjoy it too.

1                    Just-a-girl is an intriguing novel written in a non-traditional format, with a mix of diary, and third person. Is the final book as you had initially planned, or did these formats evolve over many drafts?

The mix is pretty much the same as when I started writing, but the draft I sent to the publishers was different in some ways to the final book. Layla is pretty much the same, with her choppy and cut-off sentences. But Margot’s sections were originally written in the form of a prayer, each one starting ‘Dear Lord’. If you look at those entries there is a rhythm to them that intones, as if she is speaking to someone. It still works, but more as a stream of consciousness. Tadashi was always in third person and past tense, because I thought you needed a character who offered a chance for pause, a bit of respite after the two very strong and direct female voices. He is also quite removed and I thought that style suited him.

2                    The characters in just_a_girl are believable and well-drawn; you’ve been able to get into each of these character’s heads to portray them in a realistic way, but all three characters are very different to each other. How, as a writer, did you prepare yourself to get inside your characters heads?

The strong voice of each character emerges first and if I like that voice, I run with it. Using certain stylistic phrases helped me get into the psychology pretty early-on and quickly. For instance, Layla’s character has virtually no commas or run-on sentences; whereas Margot’s character has a comma whenever she pauses, and her sentences can go on for pages! Simply saying one of Layla’s made-up words (‘fuckadoodle’) would make me laugh and I’d find the mood of the piece. Placing characters in a particular location, with a particular emotion, helps dramatically. I find it easy to empathise with a character, and I get to an emotional place where the language stems from where they are (whether it’s on the train or on a rollercoaster).

3                   As you mentioned earlier, the sentences in Layla’s diary are often cut up, short and stuttery and ignore normal punctuation rules in a way that might do an editor’s head in. Can you talk a bit about conversations with editors and readers you have had while working on just-a-girl about writing it in this style? 

That’s a beauty of a question! I didn’t really see it as a diary but as an insight into how Layla’s mind works. As an editor, I was aware of the difficulties of this kind of writing. It runs the risk of turning readers off very quickly. But as a writer, I wanted the style to completely reflect where Layla’s head was at. At the beginning of the book she describes her thoughts as being like a ‘grasshopper’s spring’ and it was more crucial for the writing to reflect that, than to be grammatically correct. With texts, messaging, and other forms of writing these days, the rules of grammar are being relaxed, and I don’t see this as necessarily a bad thing. My editor did query the style and encouraged me to run on some of the sentences. But I stayed pretty firm on it as I wanted the character to be distinguished by her strange use of language. I’m lucky that nearly all of my readers have had the resilience to push through and run with it. I love books like Trainspotting and A Clockwork Orange that play with language and style.

And  what lead you to the decision to have Margot’s character italicized?

I see Margot as a character who is unravelling. Her anti-depressants have been keeping her together (but numb) and now, having gone off them, she’s starting to spiral. It’s like she’s trying to convince herself (not convincingly) that everything is okay. The long sentences in italics give a hint that she is not coping, but also that she is immensely lonely. Her long rants (to herself) are a way of venting when she doesn’t have someone else to connect with. And this juxtaposition of styles points to the lack of communication between Margot and Layla, too. I’m very sensitive to the way looks on the page, how text is arranged. We experimented in final drafts with doing Margot’s chapters in roman text, but I couldn’t do it, because the italics had become an integral part of her characterisation.

4                    Margot and Layla are mother and daughter, but your third character, Tadashi, comes out of left field, and although he connects with Layla in the story, he has a very separate story line. In her review of just_a_girl, Angela Meyer draws a connection between the three characters and says of Tadashi,

…there’s a disturbing metaphor of objectification in his story, which echoes some of the actions of male characters in the story threads of Layla and Margot. He has literally replaced a flesh-and-blood woman with a doll who keeps quiet and is available whenever he needs her. She is pretty and poses the way he wants her to. There are parallels with the sex video that Layla makes for Mr C, an older man, and in her relations with her 18-year-old boyfriend, and also in the harassment she suffers—and never reports—from her boss.

What do you see as the connection between the three characters, or what drew you to connect Tadashi to Margot and Layla within the novel?

I see all characters as not-quite connecting, either with each other or the world around them. I liked the idea of Tadashi being a commuter on the same train as Layla, appearing and disappearing, almost as if Layla summons him when she needs him, but with a fragility that never quite extends to friendship. All the characters project their fantasies of what ‘real life’ and an ‘ideal relationship’ should look like onto others. In Margot and Layla, it’s their shared Mr C. Tadashi imagines love and nurturing in the only space he feels comfortable – and takes this ideal to an extreme. In general, I like leaving the threads of narrative untangled so the reader can weave them together how they like. It’s one of the reasons that I love Murakami’s novels (who is a big influence on this book) because he’s not interested in tying all those threads together. All the characters are also exploring sex and power, the way they are cast (aside) sexually, who they can trust, how others’ look at and respond to their bodies, to what extent all of this can be controlled. Angela’s interpretation is terrific as I think it’s about posing: how they present to the world versus how they really feel, and what happens when they are truly exposed.

5                    Leading on from this idea of sexual identity and objectification, in her review of just-a-girl, titled, Are Teenage Girls Just Like That? , Elizabeth Lhuede delves into the portrayal of sexually precocious young teenage girls in literature, and the written compared to actual motivations of girls’ behaviour, whether it‘s born out of early sexual abuse, suffering that shaped the parents who raise them, the invasiveness of the internet, or perhaps simply ‘teenage girls are just like that’. Is this something you explored and constructed in just-a-girl? Or did you write the book as it came to without delving into those themes?

The idea of sexually precocious (or physically precocious) teens came out of my direct experience. I was an early developer, like Layla. I found this intensely challenging, as my body was garnering unwanted attention in public (from older men rather than boys), before I had any emotional or intellectual capacity to deal with it. I wanted to explore this divide. My experience did not come out of sexual abuse, so that’s a realm I didn’t research, but was very moved by Elizabeth’s analysis.  I thought it was an area that hadn’t been explored much in fiction. As with Layla, though, by the time I was fifteen all the other girls had caught up, so it was a very particular timeframe. If you read closely, though, Layla is actually quite naive and inexperienced when it comes to her sexuality, but she masks it by talking about sex a lot, and putting herself in dangerous situations where she has to confront things head on.

6                    Lastly, I hit my elbow in the shower the other day, and instead of my usual expletive I blurted out that word of Layla’s that you mentioned earlier, Fuckadoodle! I’m thinking you’ve started a new catch, what do you think!?

LOL, we are in sync! As I mentioned earlier, I just had to say that word to myself, and I was off in Layla-land. My dad has developed a whole string of profanities that go along after it in a poetic way; quite hilarious. It does make reading in public hard though, if there are any kids around! Feel free to move it along. I love Kath n Kim and J’amie and all those characters who make up their own words. That latest one, ‘quiche’, just absolutely cracks me up.

Thanks Kirsten!

Kirsten can be found at her blog, Wild Colonial Girl , and on twitter @WldColonialGirl . There is also a great interview over on ANZ Lit Lovers  called Meet the Author, with Lisa Hill and Kirsten.

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Writing Literature Outside the Square

Church on the Hill

Literature and writing were on the table for the fifth Outside the Square gathering at The Old Church on the Hill on July 31st.  The event is a perfect lead in to the Bendigo Writers Festival to be held on the 9th-11th August.

The fabulous speakers on the night were Dr. Sue Gillett, who is a lecturer at Latrobe Uni Bendigo and co-founder of Bendigo Writers festival (along with Rosemary Sorensen), and Larissa Romensky from ABC Open 500 Words project.

An energetic group of word-lovers milled in the cosy and crocheted Russell street church. They came in the form of readers, authors, students, librarians, and bloggers, and they nibbled the tasties and drank the wine. (Or the tea and coffee for those like me who wanted to keep their rowdies in control.)

Sue Gillett is a personable speaker with a passion for literature. She spoke of the big picture of The Bendigo Writers Festival, which is in its second year, and what it means for Bendigonians to be a part of this great event.  The Bendigo community has been aching for a program like this for some time, and as Sue said, although most booklovers like to stay at home in their cosy chairs with their books,  a chance to share ideas and passion with like-minded friends is a wonderful opportunity. Sue also paid attention to the nitty gritty of words with a close look at dissecting poetry into phrases as a way to amplify the meaning in words.

outside the square

Sue came to Bendigo’s Latrobe Uni twenty years ago and injected new energy into the staid social sciences. As a student of Sue’s Sociology and Women’s studies classes I can tell you they were new and exciting and relevant to a growing Bendigo. So it comes as no surprise that among the many things Sue has achieved in Bendigo, she is also a pioneer of The Writers Festival.

Larissa Romensky melted into a cosy chair for a chat as a representative of the ABC Open project. The project is an ongoing initiative that produces and publishes photos, stories, videos, and sound from regional communities.

Larissa spoke passionately to the Outside the Square group about the 500 Words workshops that are held across Central Victoria in Castlemaine, Bendigo, Kerang, and Woodend.

The workshops assist with online writing, publishing, sourcing pictures, and the technicalities of uploading stories to the ABC open website.

The current topic for the 500 Words project is ‘on the job’, and will be on until Aug 31st when a new topic will begin. If you want to get involved you can get a sneak peek here of work already uploaded.

Each month one story is selected to appear on Radio National on both the Life matters and 360 programs. It’s an exciting endeavour for anyone who takes it on, and a great way for country writers to dabble in publishing.

The Outside the Square meetings are fun but carefully planned events that are run by founders Karen Corr of Make a Change and Bryley Savage of I heart Bendigo. It’s an ideal forum for people with mutual interests to share ideas and set seeds for new projects big or small, or simply a well for individuals to drop into and immerse themselves in what is important to them and/or their community.

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Truth, grief, and creativity, with Michael Leunig.

 

In general use of the word ‘cartoonist’ we think of humour, but Michael Leunig is serious when he says people’s lives are full of grief and sadness.

On the way to see Michael Leunig in conversation with Robyn Annear at Bendigo’s Capital Theatre for a taster of the Bendigo Writers Festival coming in August, I glanced down Bath Lane in central Bendigo, with its new buildings that loom and lengthen the street, and I thought, Bath Lane used to be intimate, and secluded, and inviting.

So I was fitly framed to lament change.

I was seated in ‘V’ row, (I thought the receptionist said ‘E’ row, but as change goes, I’m losing my hearing) and even way back there in the far seats Michael’s tranquil ability to connect had me feeling as though he had come to see me, only me.

When he speaks of grief he refers not only to the passing of a loved one, but grief over the past. Like going back to places you new as a child to find they’re not there anymore. When asked what we are to do about this, he says, ‘there’s nothing we can do. It’s just the way things are.’

On creativity he quotes the negative talk we’re all familiar with, but in his meditative and quiescent way gives it due process:

‘I can’t do this. This is stupid. I’m stupid. Why do I think I can do this? Why do they think I can do this? Saying these things to the point of giving in, and then not caring, and then becoming childish, and rebellious, and that’s when we go deep, and deeper inside, down, down, down, and that’s where we find all of humanity.

He refers to truth here, and Robyn took this lead to veer him to explore further:

‘I’m talking about getting to the truth, universal truths, the ways that people think and feel about life’s goings on.’

He relates this to a favourite mantra of his: ‘the artist’s job is to express what is repressed’. It’s a short version of his quote from the age: ‘the work of the artist is to express what is repressed, or even to speak the unspoken grief of society.’

Leunig’s speech rambles and weaves, just as he might trample a bush landscape – a place he is said to enjoy spending time – while he ponders, with what seems to be no direction, answers to questions, and then strikes on gems as though he heads to that conclusion all along. I’m sure we’ll never know if this is the case, as he gazes at his knees and says, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know’. He is Australia’s Woody Allen, in all the good ways.

The Gorgeous Voices Choir closed off our trip with Leunig, and it was a trip, by serenading us with a poem penned by Leunig that has been put to music by various musicians. It’s a poem that sits above my desk, and has done for over twenty years. It’s a photocopy from the age, worn and torn from pulling it down and putting it back up every time I move house. It was a surreal moment to hear it echoing through the Capital Theatre with Michael Leunig in the lights of the hot seat, head bowed, no doubt contemplating the meaning of it all.

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It can happen to us all: Bendigo’s Extras.

I think the term ‘Life-Extras’ came from a Seinfeld episode. In a small town like Bendigo, it’s likely you have a few Life-Extras – people you don’t actually know, but see regularly in day to day meanderings. They hover around the periphery of your life, and you begin to feel like you do know them.

Over my twenty-five years in Bendigo I’ve chanced upon a few extras. Of course there’s Claude, but he’s everyone’s extra, so I won’t claim him.

There’s the speed walking woman who traipsed five or six hours per day, all over Bendigo. Her waist moved in a circular motion. Over the years she developed a slight limp.  As she reached middle age, despite the exercise, she plumped up. Occasionally she took to her bike, I assume to manage the limp which gradually became more pronounced. She always stood up on her bike and loped from side to side, favouring the good leg. After a few years she was only ever on the bike, and these days I no longer see her.

For many years, every morning, a rotund man wearing stubby shorts and a blue bonds singlet, sat on the bench on the corner of Mitchell and Wills streets. His face was Bert Newton round and if it was raining he wore a thin blue raincoat. As I zoom in on Google maps I’m disappointed to not see him there, indelible on the bench.

There are others, but the extra that has stayed with me in heart and mind hovered in my outskirts for more than twenty years. When I first came to Bendigo I frequented the showgrounds market on Sundays and there was one man I saw regularly. He was very striking, I could not miss him. Perhaps you have seen him too? Very tall – 6’3”or 4”, lanky, tanned, dark brown hair. He browsed up and down the aisles for hours, as I did, and bought fruit, vegies and the odd trinket.

Once, I saw him in Safeway, Golden Square. Then in the CBD, briskly on his way to somewhere. But always at the showgrounds market. He began to bring an elderly man with him to the market. I assumed it was his father, for their relationship seemed intimate but at the same time, aloof: passing bags to each other, standing close, minimal manly words.

A few years passed and I did not see him. Then one day, there he was again, at the market. He seemed unwell, slightly stooped, grey spikes populated his brown hair. He had aged more than the years that had passed.

Then on a crisp morning, in an outer suburb, on a quiet street we moved by each other like trains on tracks that never meet. His gait was uneven. He mumbled. He was drunk.

After that day I regularly saw him in the CBD, usually drunk, often pacing the streets. Never at the market anymore. He began wearing the same clothes from one week to next and they became tousled and dirty. Over time he became more stooped and developed a strange crick to his neck as though frozen to holding his head in shame.

In all these years, twenty or so, I saw him maybe thirty to forty times. Our eyes never met. Not so long ago, on a sunny midweek lunch hour, I saw him hunkered down in the alcove of a closed shop wearing a thick army coat, talking to himself. Unshaven, and so far from the man I first laid eyes on so many years ago.

I imagine a scenario of events in no particular order: his marriage broke up; he lost his job and was unable to gain another; he lived with his father; his father passed; he had no home; he drank; he developed a mental illness.

I haven’t been able to shake the sense that he was placed in my awareness for a reason, I was his extra too, and I failed him.

It could happen to any of us.

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