This story begins in a desert. I’ve often wondered what the definition of a desert is – being Australian our idea of desert is a little skew. To us, deserts are perhaps simply an abstraction of distance. The mind-bendingly vast, scrubby interior of the country. An empty landscape hostile to most of us delicate life forms. But this story opens its pages in another country altogether, in Las Vegas, a desert of its own kind.
Eager to exit the glittery wastelands, we had booked a hire car in early 2020 to get ourselves over to the famed State Route 1, so we could drive up the plunging California coastline. I feel sure we’d booked something up to the task – had it been topless? Wide-winged? Just a little too showy? However, when we eventually located the supermarket-grade rental car office, it seemed our dream car had been given away. All that was left was a mini-van. And not a glorious, kooky, Little Miss Sunshine thing, but an industrial white block with disturbingly small wheels and enough cup-holders to be concerned about the mechanical integrity of the chassis.
But to the desert with us! Us and our deeply unfashionable chariot! To get to California from Las Vegas, one must traverse Nevada. Now Nevada. That has some deserts. I had requested an overnight stay at Death Valley Junction, because, well, I can’t really recall now. It just felt like something I desperately wanted to see. Death Valley, though, is kind of the Disney of deserts. It has parking lots and sign posts and Instagram reminders. It’s still spectacular: sunk below sea-level with its miniature cathedrals of salt, lakes of bracken pink, the silver glint of the roads, the disappearing shimmer of the horizon, but it was the drive in the silence of the van, through the low-slung hills, the land scraped clean by aeons of sun and wind, the dry-throated plains that went on and on, with hardly a car passing by us, that gave us a real sense of desert. And of course, Nevada has some of the wildest, and the craziest. The children begged to side-track to Area 51, although I was keen to find Bravo 20, the illegal bombing playground for the US navy, made famous by the photographer Richard Misrach in his desert cantos, with images of craters filled with blood-red fluid and smithereened military vehicles. And of course, just over the state border is the Mojave desert with the dessicating bones of hundreds of abandoned, perishing aircraft, presumably now overflowing post-pandemic like Potter’s Field.
Here I am, though, wallowing around in set-up, without getting to the real story itself. Which was, as we blithely appreciated the immensity of time and space from the hermetic glory inside our mini-van, that we were, as is our wont, I’m afraid, blissfully ignoring the warning light on the dash which had blinked into existence not long after leaving the sadistic outskirts of Vegas. Low tyre pressure, which, of course, couldn’t be right because we’d JUST PICKED THE VEHICLE UP FROM THE HIRE PLACE.
Scene cut for brevity here, but there are not too many ways or places in the world less inviting to discover a flat tyre than coming back to your parked vehicle in the emptying lot at Badwater Basin when the sun has had enough for the day and is clocking out. All I could think about was that ‘one day this will be the beginning of a great story.’
But this is where I was wrong. Because somebody had already told this story, and so much better than me. Again, to resort to some time-saving Nabokovian techniques (garage, spare) we were able to limp our way to the Junction itself, wobbling down the road at a speed recommended on the side of the emergency tyre, not conducive to harmonious behaviour either inside the vehicle or out.
We reached our accommodation. Here I refer you to exhibit one. Armagosa Hotel and Opera House. No amount of description will do justice to crunching into the deserted carpark long after the turquoise of dusk had morphed into a chilling navy-black, to the welcome of only a few buzzing lights. One of our offspring refused to sleep the entire night, staying awake and vigilant for the obviously ghostry that was thumping up and down the uneven faded carpet of the corridors outside the doors with their faulty locks. The place was outlandish, improbable, intoxicating. There was a fully functioning Opera House tacked onto a crumbling ruin of a hotel in the middle, and I do not exaggerate here, of nowhere. But it was this story, the story of Armagosa, that trumped mine, well and truly.
Marta Becket danced for Broadway. She did not, however, want to be constrained. She wanted to dance the dances she believed she was born to. So she took her worldly belongings on the road with her husband, and they drove the wild breadth of the US, unsure how to find expression for her desire to produce her own ballet shows. Cue a flat tyre in Death Valley Junction, in 1967. While her husband was doing the manly thing at the wind-strewn local garage, Marta walked across the road to the ruins of the Armagosa hotel and hall, boarded up with the last of the paint flaking from the walls, and she looked inside and saw her destiny in a single beam of sunlight. She purchased the hall for a dollar and went on to make it her own stage. She performed every single night. If nobody turned up to watch by intermission, she would cut the performance short and return to painting the walls, which filled over the decades with a psychedelically coloured audience of royalty and other regal theatre lovers wearing their finest clothes, silently cheering her on. During one performance, a trio crept in to watch. They were from the New York Times. And the rest, as they say, is history, as obscure as it now is. Marta danced for over four decades, dying at the age of 93, with her last wish that she would swirl into a dust devil above Death Valley.
Below is a link to the Opera House, and Marta’s story.
As you can imagine, I was smitten. In love with the story, with the splendid coincidences, but mostly just because it is the grandest of all human tales: that of divine folly. It is one of the most admirable, endearing, and sometimes world-changing traits. Great, grand folly, despite the critics and detractors, comfortable in their armchairs. Marta, you absolute legend. May you pirouette through the dust over Death Valley Junction forever.
It is a repugnant thing to wallow in one’s own misfortune while the world is suffering its own howling, mortal injuries. As we live, and gasp, through the ancient Chinese curse, we’ve discovered that interesting times are not defined in a way we ever foresaw.
Yet, here I sit, wallowing. I am looking out my window at a sky of crystal clarity, its blueness a result of just the right scatter of light, unimpeded by any stray molecules of smoke. Somebody brings me breakfast on a tray. A kindly soul knocks on my door, simply to ask how I am. People fuss with my arm. I am touched.
But here I am scrolling endlessly through my phone. Social media, news feeds, endless dull dopamine hits, what if I miss something. Determined to show I’m in control I put down my phone with a flourish and immediately open my laptop. Dramatically bang on the little cross to close twitter. Reopen twitter.
My hands shake as I type this, but then again, they’ve been doing this for days.
I reel through twitter again. I funnel all the news into a compartment I am trying to keep walled off, like an encapsulated bacteria; a place for all the terrible stuff. And there is a lot. If I listed all the things producing a whirling rage inside me, this post would contain nothing but, and I wanted to, no needed to, write about something else altogether. The rage leaks beyond its membranes though, and I feel more impotent than normal, sitting in this room, by this window, typing these words.
The good news is I’m sitting. It’s the first time in a week I’ve been capable of it.
The bad news, or should I say odd news (as they say that every adversity is fuel for a writer), is that the bed is not all that comfortable, there is twenty-four hour noise in here, my little wooden bedside table does not include a Gideon Bible and a menu for spa packages, but instead has oxygen cylinders and suction and other resuscitation equipment. Funny I should mention bacteria before, because that’s what has me in here, for my first ever hospitalisation. And it’s a doozy alright.
I will start by saying I am almost definitely getting better. In The English Patient, Booker of the Booker of the Bookers, when Katharine asks Almásy whether they will be alright, he answers ‘absolutely,’ but she responds, ‘”yes” is a comfort, “absolutely” is not.’ I am at that tender point here, but I know I am well enough to feel the compulsive pull to write, so that probably downgrades things from ‘absolutely’ to the aforesaid ‘almost definitely.’ I should, of course, be working on my manuscript for ‘novel 2’, but my head is still not performing its executive tasks all that well – the oddest of all sensations for someone who relies Very Heavily on a brain that functions passably and correctly most of the time – but I’m afraid Typhoid does that. Delirium is common, something to do with the sepsis and cytokines and general raging unwellness, and I have experienced for the first time in my life the rather terrifying yet undeniably interesting phenomenon of febrile hallucinations. Disembodied heads. In conversation. About all sorts of things.
The medical details of Typhoid are tiresome, and tiring. Oh so wearying. And all the stuff in the textbook you can read about anywhere, but it is the things on the periphery that have me fascinated, and like all writers, who are, after all, just a bit slower than normal humans, I must write about them to make any sense of them.
There are big things, and there are little things. The biggest of all is perhaps the most universal, that of confronting your own mortality. It’s all a little raw to be exploring that in too much detail yet, so I’m going to let that digest for a bit (may as well, as nothing much else is). Having said that, suddenly feeling you may imminently die, even if not justified, is a very sound opportunity to tidy up your psychological and emotional drawers. And, weirdly enough, I find out I’m no different to anyone else on the planet. All I really care about is the fate and wellbeing and love of proximity of those that are deeply connected to me during this short wild ride of life, and quite frankly, I can’t talk about this without tearing up, so Let’s Move On.
So aside from setting a tentative foot in the valley, and withdrawing it just as quickly, what else is going on, within and without?
Firstly, Typhoid. I mean, really. I sense the incredulity every time somebody new hears the word. They look at me askance (and I suspect will do for evermore), as though I have somehow escaped from an Edwardian novel. I wish I was making it up. I really do. To be honest it is a label of humiliation. An embarrassment. I have no doubt there is speculation aplenty going on, but this will be one of my New Rules (actually, it’s an old on, which I’ve never bothered to keep). Do Not Mind A Jot What Other People Think And Say About You.
There are all the usual things I could write about, and please just take them as read: how incredible Australian healthcare can be, how diligently I’ve been looked after, how grateful I am to be cared for, but none of that makes for a very interesting post.
Instead, let me tell you about having two grams of ceftriaxone bd. I must not have a bacterium left alive in my body; perhaps just a few hardy souls, loyal to the resistance, white knuckled trying to hang on. I know we contain multitudes. Humans are nothing without bacteria; you may well know we have more bacterial cells than human. I wonder am I more human now? Will I lose weight from the great biomass extinction? Where have they all gone? Is this why I’ve felt a little cray-cray – were the last good ones guarding my blood-brain barrier like centurions?
I have been ‘troublesome’ to get a drip into. The only rash I have is one of circular white spots, stuck on to plug up the holes. I’d always boasted about having great veins, as if life was some kind of vessel contest. Turns out I am wrong. They look good, but are not very useful. Like an Instagram influencer, I guess. I make all sorts of excuses, ‘oh I must just have unusual valves,’ or some such tosh, and I reassure whoever has failed with slightly trembly hands that I would be the Empress of Hypocrisy if I were in anyway critical of missing a line or two. I grit my teeth and get another one.
I’ve had my first CT scan. All I need to say was it was ugly in there. The saying ‘beauty is but skin deep,’ is now so confusing to me I don’t know what to think.
I am experiencing every moment three times. The first in this reality; the happenings that must happen, the drugs, the blood pressures, the merry-go-round of meals which are only missing the merry. The second time is understanding as a doctor what we put our patients through; watching the way the imprecise nature of medicine and pathology leads to thousands of possible decisions, all of them with benefits and consequences. The third is as a writer. The noticings. The sensation of contrast dye filling your throat as it enters your vein. The inconceivable power of gratitude. The way bacteremia focuses behind your eyes, daring you to move them just a millimetre. How pain forces you to live in the moment, and you cannot recall a single second of how it felt to be pain-free. Lips and tongue so dry everything sticks together and makes your words come out sounding funny. Faking the great smile when people walk in the room because you don’t want them thinking you’re not deeply thankful for everything that they’ve done, and really you’re a bit of a wastrel – I mean Typhoid – Really! – how embarrassing – there are people with gold tier, well-deserved illnesses in here, not the illness of stupidity – dear God you’re a doctor, don’t you know better? The opioid anaesthesia of daytime TV which blares out from every room, in every cubicle, wherever one waits. I wonder how anyone can think with this stuff shrieking into their face. I haven’t turned mine on, although I have a lovely nurse who has come in and told me the story of every Christmas movie she has ever watched (which is the BEST way to experience a Christmas movie, I’ve discovered).
And boy, have I had time to think. There have been several Faustian bargains made. And a number of deeper level understandings about humanity. Hardly surprising, it’s all come down again to love, forgiveness, kindness, integrity. All the promises I am making to myself for when I am upright and allowed back out into civilised company. Keeping that rage at the horrific injustices of the world in that separate box, so I’m not consumed and I can examine it a little dispassionately, keeping it super-focused. We’re all in this crazy mess together, and although I may despise some of the decisions being made by those in power, and in my name, I will try to understand why, and forgive, before I take any action. Yada yada. Anyway. I’m going to get better. Absolutely. And strong. Very strong. I have a Christmas to attend, with those that I love.
God only knows if I’ll put this anywhere public. Why does a writer write anything? Yes, to make sense of things, but also to be read, so perhaps I will. Now I shall return to my automaton scrolling, watching endless GIFs of Sydney Harbour being swallowed by smoke like it’s being suctioned into the maw of some terrible Grey Whale. Read about our magnificent firefighters. Read about our ‘leader’ in full smirking denial mode for whatever reasons he has. Read about Leeds and Trump and Brexit and Medevac and make sure I stuff all that anger into that box, to keep it alive and kicking, but away from the rest of me, which will wallow a little more, and recover. Thank you for reading this, if you do, and excuse the moderately dysfunctional neuronal connections. You are wonderful. You.
Books find their way into your life by all sorts of means. Often they’re bought, or borrowed, or picked up from somewhere unremembered. The unforgettable ones then find their way into you. A novel read is more than just a story consumed, pages turned, characters met. Each time I read a good book it somehow steals off the page into my molecular makeup. I may not always remember their details, but it is as though with each memorable book I am laying down bricks, one by one, building a slow Taj Mahal of experience. It means this lamentable little body can be so much more than just me.
My little ‘books of 2018’ series celebrates these ones that have, indeed, become part of me. So to Louise Allan’s The Sisters’ Song. This book feels as much part of me as my own. Louise and I were in a writing trio while both of our manuscripts were emerging from the swamp. We worked on them at the same time, sending each other (along with our third member, GP and writer Dr Jacquie Garton Smith) snippets: long and short, wordy and clipped, drafts and outlines. We took wrong turns together and rescued one another from the mire.
I learnt a lot from seeing Louise struggle with her manuscript – as much as I learnt from my own rejections and failures and dispiriting tussles with this process which seemed overwhelming at times. In Louise’s book I was witness to the characters’ evolution, watching them come into their own and stake their claim in the world of literature. I was also party to the improvements and momentum, from a shortlisting in the TAG Hungerford award, to a contract with a large commercial publisher.
And thus The Sisters’ Song was born. It is a book both contemporary and historical. Its themes are universal – women’s lives thwarted by the expectations of both society and their own selves. Louise examines the relationships within families and within marriages, fraught all of them, with painstaking care. Early 20th century Tasmania is evoked with exquisite detail, and the lives of the characters are incredibly well, and beautifully sketched out. Louise’s book is officially a bestseller. Its gentle themes and questions have resonated with the reading public, and it has sold incredibly well. Louise is also a great supporter of other writers, both emerging and established, and she deserves her place in the canon of Australian literature.
It has been an honour and a saviour having Louise for a writing buddy. Our styles are distinctly different, but that does not mean we haven’t been able to offer one another what we both desperately needed to turn our manuscripts from nonsensical early drafts, into completed books.
Here is The Sisters’ Song.