The Inexplicable

Many years ago, before I’d turned my back on teaching for the first but not the last time, a student of mine was murdered. She was a beautiful person. I can say that because it was true.

I was teaching an all female Drama class. It hadn’t been planned, it just worked out that way because the boys had all chosen something else, I suppose. The were extraordinary young women and I was their teacher. A young woman myself.

One day, she didn’t turn up which was unlike her. One day, the rumours were flying that someone had been killed. One day, one of the girls said, I think it’s her, miss, and I said, no, no, it’s not. One day, the school psychologist came to my classroom door and took me to the conference room and told me yes, yes, it is.

We journeyed and negotiated through the grief process together. A bunch of 17-to-18 year olds and their not-quite-24 year old teacher.

I knew nothing of that kind of grief.

We would make Milo together and eat Tim-Tams because some professional development I’d attended once suggested all teachers keep a packet of Tim-Tams in their office for student emergencies. This was so much more than an emergency. I’d say, let’s take class outside today, and we’d sit in the sunshine and someone would cry and we would forget about the lesson plan for that day.

I don’t know how her family got through it. I don’t know how her friends got through it. I assume they haven’t. It’s not the sort of thing you just get through. I was too young and too inexperienced to approach the family, to knock on their door and offer them a Tim-Tam. I wish I had. But I did what I could with the young people I was responsible for. My drama class.

And then, years later, a man turns up in my inbox. He is writing a book about it and would I be willing to be interviewed. He needed different perspectives, stories, things his careful research wouldn’t uncover. He had her parents’ blessing and trust and he was a respected journalist. He was good at what he did. I Googled. He was. Would I agree? To be interviewed? I said yes. I don’t know why.

And we meet at the coffee shop and he wants to record it and he does. And I cry and say sorry a lot because I shouldn’t be crying. I have no right to cry. Not after all these years. Do I? I don’t think I ask him that but I think it. I offer stories and details, those seemingly unimportant things I remember and probably never got to tell anyone. People get bored of other’s grief pretty quickly. They don’t care for anecdotes. Silly little details you remember and want to share and hold on to. During the funeral, one of my students reached out and held onto my hand. She squeezed my hand tight and cried and we walked up to put a rose on the coffin together. She is a teacher now.

I talk with the man, the stranger, the respected journo, for hours.

He pays for the coffees.

He says, do you want to mentioned by name and I think, no, no, no, this isn’t my story. This isn’t about me. But I say, let me think about it and he says that is fine. He says he will send me the pages and I can see how I feel about it. About my name being in his book. He says he’ll check in with me first and I believe him.

Only he doesn’t.

He emails and says, the book is done, I’ll invite you to the launch.

Only he doesn’t.

And then people I barely know message me on Facebook. Some write on my wall: is that you? Are you the Katy Warner, the Drama Teacher, in the book? Thumbs up. Like.

What the hell is going on?

I email the respected journalist turned author and, with respect, I say what the hell?

He replies, I’ll send you PDF copy.

Only he doesn’t.

And he still doesn’t.

And he still doesn’t.

And he Tweets, today, with a gif of a cat high-fiving a human, that his book is a top five, non-fiction pick of all time for someone who must be a Someone. And I think: a GIF? Really? A cat gif? Really?

And I think how difficult it is to write a book.

And how much more difficult it would be to write a book about someone who lived and breathed and was loved and was taken from us too soon, too tragically, too violently, too inexplicably.

And I think about emailing him, again. I think about Tweeting him in 140 biting characters. I think about why I agreed to the interview in the first place. I think about that drama class and how they’re all about to turn thirty. I think how this isn’t about me. Or him. Or launches or top-five lists or cat gifs.

I don’t know what it is about.

But it still makes me cry.

 

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Otto: A soppy story

A lot of writers have cats. That wasn’t my reason. I’d always wanted one, you see. Or, maybe, I’d wanted the idea of one. Anyway …

Like they say, the cat chose me. I’d been set on getting a Ragdoll or Scottish Fold or Russian Blue or something. A cat with title. Instead, I got Otto.

We hadn’t expected to get a cat that day. At least, I hadn’t. Visiting the shelter had been a surprise but I was very aware of the current inmates they were housing as I was in the habit of liking the many photos they shared on their social media pages. I was also in the habit of tagging my boyfriend in aforementioned photos. He got the hint. I had talked, liked photos and generally been a pain in the ass about a sweet, pretty, delicate, princess of a cat called Delia and I was finally going to meet her. We met. I felt nothing. Delia felt nothing. I thought that was that. Until we almost walked right past Ulysses. Like his namesake, he had clearly been on quite a journey. Ulysses had an injured ear; someone or something had taken a good chunk out of the top of it. Ulysses was huge. Ulysses filled his little cage. Ulysses had a cool name. He was proud and made eye contact and never felt the need to perform.

He kept on staring. So, I gave in and met him and that was it. We knew. He knew. I knew. The moment he stepped out of his cage. The moment the shelter volunteer picked him so easily despite his hefty size. He was huge, even bigger outside the cage.

We went away to think about it but not really think about and came back and said yes. Sign us up.

He came home.

We called him Otto because Ulysses didn’t have the greatest ending, really. And we wanted him to realise his travelling days were done; no more epic journeys, no more ear-biting-crusades, no more Helens to save. He had retired to a life as an indoor cat because he had to. They said that would be fine. But nobody asked Otto.

When I was teenager I wanted a kitten. Desperately. I was anxious and miserable at high school. I had this dream that a kitten could help all that. A cat would understand. Just as Mum finally gave in to the idea, I backed off. The idea, the dream, of a kitten was easier than reality – maybe? Or maybe I just got scared. What if it didn’t work out? What if I wasn’t quite ready, quite yet, to be a cat owner? What if it didn’t like me? What if … So, it just didn’t happen.

I tried the cat thing again, in my late 20s; supposedly happily married and ready to take the plunge into pet ownership with my supposedly solid relationship as a foundation. It had been eight years, three nearly four of marriage, of course we were ready. We named her Scout because of the book and hipsters weren’t naming their kids that yet. But he discovered a cat was too much commitment too soon and found someone else. They now have a baby with an incredibly hipster name and undeniably big expectations to fulfil – clearly, this child must grow up to front an alternative/indie/pop/rock band with such a name. Somehow, he left me but I moved out and Scout stayed. There was no talk of custody. I didn’t fight the decision.

So. Cat Attempt Number Three. Here I am. A woman on the wrong side of thirty, as I have been so delicately told, once again wondering … is this the right time for a cat? If I don’t do this now, will I ever do it? Will my lifestyle change too much? I mean, no more jumping on a plane for a spontaneous weekend in Sydney. Not like that ever happened. Not once. Although it could. As non-cat owners it could happen. We had that option, that choice. Is our relationship stable enough yet, it has only been three years (zero of that marriage): To share the responsibility of cat could be, I don’t know, a big step. It could change so much …

And yet …

There we were. Bringing Ulysses-now-Otto home. To our home. We hid the delicate artworks that adorned the mantle. We paid far too much for a bit of carpet stuck on a wooden post which doesn’t much our furniture whatsoever. We bought toys which scatter over the floor and trip us up.

We don’t get a good night’s sleep.

We don’t stay out too late.

We clean up poop and furballs and pick cat fur from our black pants and sweaters and sweep and vacuum like we have OCD.

We consider how we could go away and where we could leave him overnight or for a few days and we read blogs and forums about other cat owners.

We learn what his different meows mean and what he is communicating by the shape his tail makes or the position of his ears.

We say how cute, whilst he is sleeping.

And still, I wonder, have I done the right thing? Is this the right decision? It’s too late to change my mind now. When I attempt to get him to stop scratching at the mirror (why the goddamn mirror?) at 3am or crying incessantly at 4.30am or leaping on my pillow only ten minutes before my alarm goes off … But it is too late now. We love him. The commitment has been made. And our lives are, probably, better for it.

Otto.

Otto.

Short thoughts from a messy notebook: Two

The tiny butterfly flew out of his mouth.

He thought he had something important to say. Instead he got a butterfly.

He cupped it in his hands. Its colourful wings folded upwards. It wasn’t flat and colourless like a moth. If it has been a moth that flew from his mouth he would have been worried. And disappointed. But it was a butterfly. And that was OK. Impressive almost.

The Monarch - Heard Museum Butterfly Exhibit via Axel.Foley (Flickr)

The Monarch – Heard Museum Butterfly Exhibit
via Axel.Foley (Flickr)

This is the Place (part two); I Heart Berlin (OK?)

BERLIN WALL

I am not cool. It has not and will not ever be a word I could associate with myself. I mean, it is a dumb word anyway, when you think about it … Cool. And we say it far too often. Regardless. Cool is cool and I am not that. Berlin, on the other hand, is the epitome of cool. At least, it seemed that way to me which is why I had assumed we just wouldn’t, you know, hit it off …

I had no intention of making Berlin The Place. New York, yes. Paris, obviously. But Berlin?

I was wrong.

Berlin is cool. And that’s OK. The thing is, you don’t have to be cool. And that’s OK. In Berlin, everything is kind of cool. So, by default, you are cool … OK?

On my first night in Berlin I dreamt of an old man selling fruit. I say dreamt but he was standing right beside me. He didn’t know I was there.

There are ghosts all over this city.

The ghosts and the people live side by side.

From my little apartment I can hear them all. It’s a noisy street. Traditional Turkish music mixes with the chimes of church bells. Apartment buzzers buzz. High heels click on cobblestone. Talking. Laughter. Clinking of beer bottles. Kids throwing tantrums (which sound the same in every language).  Cars parallel parking. Double parking. Sirens (which sound different in every language).

On my street, like many other streets in Berlin, are kindergärtens. I see dads and mums dropping their kinder off in the morning. They don’t just drop and run. They ride in together. Walk in together. Converse together. Together.

On my street, like many other streets in Berlin, are informal gatherings at little tables and chairs set outside little shops. They drink and smoke and chat with the shop-owner, who keeps half an eye on the store.

On my street, like many other streets in Berlin, people tumble out of clubs at all hours. No one minds.

On my street, like many other streets in Berlin, is a stolperstein. A stumbling block. A brass plate set in the cobblestone to commemorate a victim of the holocaust. On my street is Johann “Rukeli” Trollman. On another are the families Adler and Heilfron. On another is Max Bayer

Here they remember.

Here is the Berlin Wall.

And the Brandenburg Gate. And The Fernsehturm. And Karl-Marx-Allee. And Alexanderplatz, Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg, Mitte …

Here is green space and parks and the river Spree and people using them. Here are big people, small people, overweight people, thin people, all people riding bikes. Everyone. Everywhere.

Here is the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn. Frequent and on time. Here is public transport where the most difficult thing to deal with is pronunciation.

Here are galleries and museums and galleries and museums. And architecture. And street art, street art, street art. Here are bullet holes in the walls. 

Here is me feeling like me in a place where I don’t speak the language. All I can say is Sprechen Sie Englisch and Nein and Ja and Schwarzer Kaffee and Hallo (which is German for hello) and Ciao (which is Italian and Berlin for goodbye). I know that zahnfleischschutz is toothpaste but I have no idea how to say it.

Here I pack my own groceries into my own bag. Here nothing is open on Sunday. Here I leave my empty bottles outside the bin so those who collect them for cash don’t have to rummage through the rubbish to find them. Here I lie to the gypsies who ask me if I “speak English?” and feel terrible about it.

Here I meet writers and artists and people not from here. Here I sit with writers from Egypt and Italy and Munich and Hong Kong and the UK and USA. Here we sit amongst the tumbling bookshelves, the rising damp, the lamplight in the basement of the bookstore. We talk about writing. We write. We watch films. We drink. We listen to stories about the East and the West. And the Wall. My tutor smokes, inside, amongst the paperbacks and I try not to plan my evacuation route. They make me realise, without doing anything in particular, how big the world is …

Here I try to eat my lunch but instead get told off by two old East Berliners for not following the rules: You Can’t Eat Here. I smile. They do not.

Here at the train station a man I do not know carries my suitcase down three flights of stairs. He doesn’t speak a word. He just does it like it is the most natural, expected thing in the world. It’s OK. Here the junkie at the top of the stairs offers to carry my bag back up. He offers like it is the most natural, expected thing in the world. His arms are skinnier than mine. I decline but say Danke because that is another German word I know. He smiles. It’s OK. 

Here are thunderstorms in the late afternoon and warm evenings and bright mornings.

Here is The Place.

Now that I am back here, which is away from there, I am the ghost – wandering the streets of Berlin in my dreams. I stand next to an old man selling fruit. He still doesn’t know I’m there.

The post I wrote about not knowing what to write about

I wanted to write about breathing and homesickness and how long it took me to learn how to tell the time and jump rope and how meditation looks a lot like the word mediation but it is a very different thing and kiss-chasey and the idea of toxins in the body and hating the smell of hospitals and being too polite and not comparing yourself to others because YOU ARE ENOUGH and why hasn’t my agent called in months and (kind of) meeting your idol (kind of) and joy and how our printer sounds like some song I can’t remember the name of whenever it starts up and not drinking enough water and sometimes I will ignore the phone and Paris and expectations and are you ever too old for a treehouse and weird nightmares that make no sense when you wake up but are terrifying at the time and looking up when you walk and what if no one remembers me and packing and credit cards and breathing … just breathing.

Maybe tomorrow …

 

autumn leaf - katy warner

 

Finding inspiration or: The joy of writing in your local café

After all, most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game, or whatever, or even talking to someone you’re not vitally interested in.

Henry Miller

 

Cafe Writing

 

Lately I have been trying to write in cafés. OK. I tend to do less writing and more eavesdropping-disguised-as-writing. It makes me feel a little bad.

A little.

Because I know I am going to stumble on some gold soon.

I remember chatting away with Steve in this little teeny coffee shop hidden away in some teeny lane-way, as Melbourne likes to do, and there was this guy sitting nearby with his notebook open, pen poised … I was sure he was writing down our conversation. It made me whisper even though we weren’t saying anything all that intriguing or eavesdropping-worthy. If we had I would have written it down.

That is the gamble you take if you enter a relationship with a writer.

Just saying.

I remember thinking how I couldn’t do that. Sit in a café and steal write.

Until I did.

During my masters I wrote an entire scene (even stole some direct quotes) from the very loud, very interesting, conversation a mother and daughter were having near my lonely table in a café. I took it to my lecturer for a dramaturgy session (code for – I am going to rip your writing to shreds and you are going to take it) and waited, with bated breath, as he read through it. He loved it. I, not good at taking compliments, had to dismiss it in some way and explained how I had stolen it from a conversation at a café. “Do more writing in cafés then,” he said.

So I have been.

And I think that’s OK.

I like my café. The coffee is good. That helps. And there is a sunny table. And whole range of characters to watch and listen in on. That helps too.

I watched a woman gulping water. It made me feel sad for some reason. Her shaky hands sneakily applied lipstick, one hand holding a tiny mirror, the other wobbling around her lips. She kept her bag nestled on her lap like a precious pedigree cat. She kept her head lowered at an angle that suggested she wasn’t well or didn’t feel worthy to look up or both.

I saw another woman looking at the waiter through squinted eyes as he explained the specials. She kept her hand elegantly under her chin and asked a lot of questions in one those affected Australian accents. She ordered a latte to have after the meal. The meal she chose was not the one she had asked a lot of questions about. She had wondered if the goat’s cheese was very strong. She didn’t like strong goat’s cheese. The waiter told her it was very young, very fresh. I don’t think she believed him.

At another table I saw someone who used to be someone. He kept his head in his hands, pretending to not want anyone to notice him or attempting to recover from a hang-over or both.

Another waiter was just waiting. Cloth in hand. Hoping for a spill. I hoped not to accommodate but I do have a tendency for spilling things and other general clumsiness … “Spilling things and other general clumsiness” – could be the title of something, someday, maybe … The man who used to be someone makes me question why I even bother writing at all. He used to write and star in a sit-com. And now look at him. I wish he’d speak so I could scribble down his conversation.

I overheard a couple talking about dividends and CEOs and maintaining the asset and fragile infrastructure and the sector. They talked about the sector a lot. And repeated what the other said, a lot. She was very agreeable. He was very loud.

SHE:   You’re sounding a bit disillusioned about the sector.

HE:      I’m not disillusioned about the sector.

I think they’ll be popping up in something.

I overheard a conversation that jumped from conspiracies about MH370 to Shane Warne to the GST on baby clothes.

Gold? OK. Maybe not yet … but I am filling up my notebooks with characters and ideas and weird little snippets of conversations that could, maybe, one day, turn into something. Hopefully … we shall see. It could be the change of scenery, it could be the ridiculous amount of coffee I am drinking but, either way, there is inspiration to be found and stolen from your local café.

Ruby (a short story)

Ruby didn’t want to be there. She had been promised a visit to the park. This place was the complete opposite of the park (she knew all about opposites and this was most definitely an opposite). It was dark and smelt weird and her new sneakers stuck to the dirty carpet. She was not happy and showed her dad this by staring at her sneakers. He didn’t seem to notice.

She loved her new sneakers. They were purple and lit up with sparkles of colour every time she took a step. She liked to imagine she was walking on stars. But her sneakers didn’t light up here – they just stuck stubbornly to the thin carpet. It made her sad. Her new sneakers were for running and sliding and jumping and most definitely not for sticking to dirty carpet.

He had been promising to take her to the park for ages now but there was always an excuse; he was busy or tired or it was raining or he had one of those headaches he always seemed to have. But today he didn’t have a headache and it wasn’t raining and he had said put on your new sneakers we’re going to the park. So she did. She was wearing her new sneakers but this was not the park.

He hadn’t kept his side of the bargain. Ruby knew all about bargains and so far she had done her bit but her dad was letting her down. Again. Like those times Jake would want to make a bargain with their lunches and she would end up swapping a chocolate chip cookie for an apple. Yes, Ruby knew all about unfair bargains.

She sighed.

She wasn’t going to lose out this time.

She pulled on his jacket but he didn’t look at her. She squeezed his hand so tightly it made her screw up her nose but he didn’t look at her. She jumped on his foot, her left sneaker lighting up like a Christmas tree, but he still didn’t look.

She took a deep breath and used a voice louder than any voice she had ever used before; “Let’s go!” She knew it must have been really loud because Mrs Peachy always scolded her for being too loud even when she whispering secrets to Jake in her quiet voice. She was terrible at keeping secrets and she was terrible at being quiet. “I don’t wanna be here,” she said in the loudest voice she had ever used. Ever.

Ruby’s father still didn’t look but the old man sitting behind a table full of empty glasses did. He stared. She pulled her hair over her face and peered at him through the fine curtain. He smiled at her, a toothless smile that made her stomach feel like it was full of angry, mean butterflies. She stuck her tongue out at him, even though she knew it was rude, and got a mouthful of hair. The old man laughed and belched at her as she hid her face in her dad’s jacket. But still he didn’t look.

He was looking at someone else.

Ruby removed herself from the jacket and tried to see what he was seeing. She followed his gaze to the other side of the room, to a table tucked in the corner behind which sat a woman with messy hair and dark eyes. She had her elbows on the table and one foot resting on the chair in front of her. Ruby frowned at the woman’s very bad manners (she knew all about manners and these were most definitely bad ones).

“Who’s that?” Ruby tried to use her quiet voice. It felt like the right time to be quiet.

Ruby looked at the woman at the table again and wondered whether she had put her dad under some spell. Maybe she was a witch. Maybe she had frozen him to the spot with her dark, magical eyes. Maybe she had stolen his voice box.

“Dad …” she was starting to worry that they may never make it to the park. It felt like they had been here for a long time.

“Go say hello.”

Finally, her dad was looking at her. She tried to smile at him but there was something about him, about his voice and his eyes, that didn’t seem quite right. She pulled her hair over her face.

“Don’t do that.” He gently pulled her hair back. “Go say hello.”

“To who?” She hit his hands away, he was always trying to make her hair neat and she hated it.

He pointed to the woman at the table with the bad manners. “We can go to the park after. OK?”

Ruby had never seen her dad look so small but right there, right in front of her, it looked as if he had lost all his air – like the last balloon at a birthday party, sad and unwanted. She was sure that woman was a witch. An air-stealing witch. She didn’t want to say hello to a witch but she didn’t want her dad to look so empty. It made those mean butterflies start doing laps in her stomach again.

She took a deep breath and let her sneakers take her on a sticky star walk across the galaxy to the witch at the table in the corner.

Melinda needed another drink. She got up from the table, steadied herself and took a step towards the bar. Suddenly, right under her feet was a little girl wearing sneakers that flashed like police lights. Melinda winced as the girl said something in a loud, high-pitched voice. She pushed past the little thing to get to the bar.

Ruby turned at looked at her dad and shrugged her shoulders. She told herself she was most definitely OK but somehow all those angry, mean butterflies escaped and burst from her eyes and her nose and her mouth and suddenly she was crying. Ruby never cried. Jake cried more than she did and he was boy and everyone knew boys weren’t supposed to cry so much. Ruby knew all about crying. She hated it but she couldn’t help it.

Melinda tried to ignore the scene in front of her and ordered a double. She gulped it down. It didn’t help. She ordered another.

Ruby watched her father refill with air and rush toward her. As he hugged her she felt butterflies disappear.

“I said hello,” she said. “Can we go to the park now?”

Ruby’s dad took her hand and walked on her stars out into the sunlight and towards the park and didn’t look back – even though Ruby was sure she heard someone call their names in a voice which was trying to be quiet.