WINTER

First day of winter. I’m here in a north-facing room – in front of the heater! – looking out of the window, and the sun is shining. There are still lots of coloured leaves on the fruit trees in the garden and as they catch the light, they glow. And there must be tasty things – insects, gum blossoms? – around, because the crimson rosellas, with their distinctive calls, are swooping down and settling for a bit and then flying off again. The house is calm; today I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything or be anyone. Deep breath. Ah.

It may be the time of year, or perhaps it’s because I’ve just had a significant birthday, but I’m having all these elegaic thoughts. Best expressed, I think, by Sonnet 73.

What time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, nor none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which is was nourished by.
This thous perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Actually, whoa there! Maybe not that elegaic. I’m only 60, after all. “Ere long” will be, I hope, a very very long time. There are places to go, things to do, and after all, I have to get value from my Senior’s Card.

…and there are all those leaves to rake up, and put in the compost, so the cycle continues.

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STUFF

Last week was the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death. The camellia a friend gave me only a few days afterwards is always beginning to bloom by her birthday, and smothered in flowers by now. It’s a beautiful reminder.

I think about her often, usually lovingly, but at times I also curse. It’s the stuff. There’s so much of it. Superannuation records, tax files, appointment diaries. Every card I ever made her. It looks like every drawing my son did, too, even those wild toddler scribbles and scrawls. She kept everything. Only last week I got into a box that contained things like certificates for cholera vaccination in 1952 and though I’m not the despairing kind, I…well, at times it’s tempting to chuck a whole box of these relics into the bin and be done with it.

I’m not sure of her motives. Did she perhaps intend to write a memoir or an autobiography? Mum, amongst other things, trained as a librarian; she was quite the archivist, and there is plenty of well-ordered material on her and my father’s lives and careers.  Perhaps she hoped I’d take it on. Yes, it’s a possibility.

But I am a fiction writer. Just the thought of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth brings me out in hives. It isn’t the burden of research; I love research, and did heaps of it for the three Verity books, and heaps of it, again, for How Bright Are All Things Here. It’s just that my bent is for imagination. Not necessarily invention, for making up novelties, completely new things. My attempt at a fantasy novel taught me that I’m a realistic novelist, and that even if I include supernatural elements (as in Verity) I like to have the plumbing and public transport sorted. What I love most is to imagine myself into facts.

Underneath the mass of material – the facts –  my mother left, is a mystery. I knew her, of course, as my mother growing up and as the one I cared for as she aged. But before she and my father were my parents, they were themselves. Their young selves, newly married, exploring Europe, seeing such sights as two young Australians had only read about or seen in books or films. Realising how much I myself had changed from my twenties to my fifties – I was almost a different person! – I began to wonder, who were they? And I knew, that though there were hints and signs in that mass of archived material, I’d never really know.

And perhaps it’s not for me to know, anyway. In How Bright Are All Things Here, I wanted to get at a truth that I think – I hope – is an important one. It’s certainly one that has preoccupied me for a long time. It’s not original, it’s not earth-shattering, but it’s this  –  you can never truly know anyone, even the ones you are closest to, even the ones that you love. It’s the mystery of other people. Perhaps that’s what many – most – books are about, anyway.

 

 

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HOME BEAUTIFUL

It’s six months since we visited a kitchen show room in nearby Bendigo to choose our cupboards and bench-tops and knobs. It’s five months since a handyman came to rip out our old kitchen.  It was shortly before Christmas that the incorrectly cut stone bench-top was replaced, and a range-hood (left out of the initial plan because I didn’t realise that it was the same as an extractor fan) installed. Our old kitchen was a shabby 1970s affair, but we wouldn’t have bothered replacing it if had been able to accommodate a dishwasher. We (well, it was actually foolhardy me) reckoned that you could just cut the end off a cupboard and book in the plumber and it would be done. But no. It’s not that simple. As I have since found out, in the world of home renovation, it almost never is.

I’m not a natural at Home Beautiful. There’s so much stuff you have to keep track of. Endless decisions about very small details. Purchases. Tradespeople. Things you’re meant to know about, like the wiring and where the waste water exits the building. You have to care enough about the colours of tiles and reconstituted stone and melamine joinery so that you can choose from a bewildering number of alternatives. I won’t say it’s been hell. That would be ridiculous in a world where millions of people are not only without kitchens, but without roofs. But it’s been a journey, and a frustrating, time-wasting, delay-ridden one. Friends kept saying – we kept saying this to each other, too – “But you’ll love it when it’s finished.” Well, we shall see.

Yesterday the tiler came to affix the last five tiles. The plumber connected the gas to the cook top. And now – in perhaps the lengthiest and yet tiniest kitchen renovation on record – my husband’s just cooked the inaugural meal. Baked beans on toast with fried eggs. (It’s not to be sneezed at – the perfect Saturday night dinner on the first really cold night this year). I’m planning roast chicken tomorrow, but I think it will take a lot of dinners before it feels like “my ” kitchen. It’s probably the absence of grot and clutter – at present we’re fanatically wiping and rinsing and putting away –  but a little time will take care of that.

All of this made me think about those perfect kitchens that feature in interior design books and TV shows and magazines. Home Beautiful kitchens. The ones with only a basket of quinces on the bench top, or else an artful platter of  heirloom tomatoes. They may be stainless steel quasi-laboratories, or so-called “country style’ or retro or mid-century or whatever else is in vogue, but these shiny clean spaces usually have something in common; they don’t appear to be actually cooked in. Lived in. How busy the stylists must be, stowing tea towels and oven mitts and food processors and t0asters and the compost bucket.

My 1984 book of essays, Female Desire: Women’s Sexuality Today by Rosalind Coward, is dated in some ways (how could it not be?) but not the chapter called Ideal Homes.

This regime of imagery represses any idea of domestic labour. Labour is there all right, but it is the labour of decorating, designing and painting which leads to the house ending up in this perfect state. We hear about how much the wallpaper cost and how much it cost to get the underlying wall in good condition. We don’t hear about how long it took for some woman to get the room tidy, or who washed the curtains. But the photographs only show the ever-tidy, clean and completed home. The before and after imagery endorses the joint work of couples, the husband and wife who plan, design and decorate the house. The suggestion is that together men and women labour on their houses. The labour is creative and the end product is an exquisite finished house-to-be-proud-of. Domestic labour, the relentless struggle against things and mess, completely disappears in these images. The hard and unrewarding ephemeral labour usually done by a woman, unpaid or badly paid, just disappears from sight. Frustration and exhaustion disappear. Instead, a condition of stasis prevails, the end product of creative labour.

I had the great good luck to be raised by a stay-at-home dad. Many women of my generation had mothers with ferocious standards of housekeeping, up to and including the requirement for a toilet so clean you could almost eat from it.  For some of them, there’s a residual guilt that their houses don’t measure up to Mum’s ideal. This was not my father. His emphasis was on comfort and good food. I remember being shown how to sweep dirt under the mat when visitors were imminent. Don’t take that to mean he despised domestic life; I think he loved it. As I do. He was aware of the large and small ways in which he was responsible for this machine/organism we call “home”. I gained a sense of the seriousness of the task. A well-run home is important to everyone – the adult partners and the children. You could say, to society in general. But it’s still seen as women’s work. And – how wearying this is! – still so undervalued.

However uncritical women may be of bearing the responsibility for the home, it is a rare woman who has never experienced home as a sort of prison…bearing the awesome responsibility for the survival of young children, or torn by commitments to work and children, the home is often a site of contradiction between the sexes, not a display cabinet. Even in the most liberated households, women are well aware of who remembers that the lavatory paper is running out and who keeps an eye on what the children are up to.

Female Desire; Women’s Sexuality Today by Rosalind Howard, Paladin Books, London, 1984

 

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BOOK OF DELIGHTS

I was talking yesterday to a friend who’s confined to bed in a hospital ward with a few tubes and wires stuck into her to treat a major infection. She’s a serious, intelligent woman who always reads serious and intelligent books, but she confessed that at the moment, she just can’t. She’d never really been able to understand why anyone would want to read ‘fluff’ – popular fiction, ‘women’s fiction’, light fiction, whatever you want to call it –  but now she does. It’s soothing and undemanding. You don’t have to concentrate unduly. You know everything will turn out in the end.

My book club title for this month is Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie. It begins in Nagasaki, three days after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I started it a week ago, but after only 16 pages of beautifully written prose, I was feeling breathless and oppressed. This wasn’t going to end well. I’m not in hospital, but I knew that this is one of those times when you just have to go lighter.  Our group meets this Tuesday, and I will have to front up without having completed the book.

I’ve turned instead to junior fiction. In a recent blog post, Kate Constable wrote about The Midnight Folk (1927) by John Masefield. This book is an old favourite of mine. I don’t know how many times I read it when I was a child; one summer, when I was around eleven, I tried to re-write it with a little girl instead of a boy as the main protagonist. Kate commented that she wasn’t sure that it would appeal to a modern audience; the plot is convoluted and confusing, and even though it’s quite humorous, she thought that children might have to be led through some of the jokes. Even though I love this book to bits, I quite agree. Kate also noted that some elements – such as transformation into animal form, comic/scary witches and talking portraits – predate later children’s classics by TH White, Roald Dahl and JK Rowling.

I thought about reading it, but since lately I’ve become a bit wary of re-reading beloved childhood books (feet of clay, fallen idols, all that stuff) I decided to skip on to its companion book, The Box of Delights (1935). I never obsessively re-read this one and so it wasn’t lovingly engraved in memory. Actually, I may well have skimmed long sections, because on this re-reading, the first in at least 30 years, parts of it seemed entirely fresh. And utterly delightful in its own eccentric and unpredictable way.

A brief summary doesn’t really indicate all that is within this magical box. But here goes… Kay Harker, on his way home from boarding school for the Christmas holidays, encounters an old Punch and Judy man called Cole Hawlings at the railway station. Cole later performs for Kay and his friends Peter, Jemima and Maria at Kay’s home, Seekings. And there, Cole tells Kay that he’s being pursued. Is it by wolves, criminals, or the forces of evil? It’s not clear. Desperate to evade his enemies, he entrusts Kay with his ‘Box of Delights’. It’s only a shabby little thing, but it enables Kay to magically ‘go small’ (shrink in size), ‘go swift’, and journey into the past.

The plot then explodes all over the place. There are encounters with philosophers, magicians, Roman soldiers, Renaissance alchemists, talking animals and mythical beings like the Celtic hero Herne the Hunter. Gangsters pilot futuristic flying cars and the cast of police and village people wouldn’t go astray in a Miss Marple mystery. To top it all off, Kay’s old enemies Abner Brown and Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, mixing witchcraft with criminality, plan to stop the Christmas celebrations at Tatchester Cathedral by a mass kidnapping of clergy and choirboys.
My favourite parts were where, using the box, Kay slips into the deep past. There is a genuinely gripping and scary scene where he helps a band of Bronze Age herders defend their hilltop camp against marauding wolves. And another where, escaping from the sack of Troy, Kay is at first rescued by pirates and then cast by them onto a deserted island.  After many adventures, Kay defeats greed and dark magic, releases the kidnapped clergy, and Christmas – with presents and feasting and carols and a midnight mass at the Cathedral – goes ahead after all.

Like The Midnight Folk, I don’t think The Box of Delights would stand a chance of getting published today. Too long. Too complicated. Too uneven in tone. Too much. And I loved it.

Masefield, writes Piers Torday, in the Guardian Book Blog 30/11/17,

…reminded us of the midwinter feast’s true origins (without killing the festive fun). He piled the snow up outside the windows while the fire roared inside and let wolves roam in the shadows beyond. He made the feast of the nativity as much a time to celebrate the legend of Herne the Hunter, Arthurian legend and Roman myth, as the son of God. Masefield allowed children to imagine, at this most traditional and domestic time of year, a thrilling sense of winter mystery that felt as old as Christmas itself.

Before The Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Dark is Rising and The Children of Green Knowe, and way ahead of Harry Potter and Northern Lights, Masefield allowed the darkness and mystery of old magic to seep into the modern light. For that alone, he should be cherished.

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A DROWNED MAIDEN’S HAIR

I like my own book, The Truth About Verity Sparks, very much. Is it wrong to say so? It’s just that, since I wrote it myself, I was able to include all the kinds of story elements that I love. A young milliner with a mysterious past and a supernatural gift in a world of spiritualism and seances, eccentric friends and dastardly villains, bustles and carriages and foggy, gaslit streets.
If you like those kinds of things too, then A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama will be right up your alley. It’s absolutely my kind of children’s book; after reading it, I felt I could tick off all the elements I love and get a perfect score.
It’s 1909, and Maud Flynn is an inmate of the Barbary Asylum for Female Orphans which is somewhere near Boston in the USA. She’s eleven years old, small for her age, clever and defiant and  – according to the Superintendent, Miss Kitteridge, not the sort of little girl that anyone would want to adopt. But she’s wrong. She’s exactly what Miss Hyancinth Hawthorne is looking for. Maud loses her heart to the enchanting Hyacinth, and she’s overjoyed when she goes to live with her, her sisters and their rough but kindly servant, Mufflet. But  – of course – all is not as it seems. (How I love those words!)
Hyacinth and her sisters Victoria and Judith make their money as mediums, providing false comfort to the grief-stricken by providing carefully staged seances. Maud is a valuable asset for the family business; she can hide in small spaces or under the table in order to provide ghostly sound effects. Which she does, willingly, because it seems a small price to pay for such a good home. Besides, Maud would do anything for Hyacinth. But soon the trickery escalates. With five thousand dollars at stake, they all travel to Hyacinth’s seaside cottage at Cape Calypso where Maud is kept inside, hidden, while Hyacinth perfects her plan to fleece the rich Mrs Lambert. Maud is being prepared to impersonate Mrs Lambert’s drowned daughter, Caroline…
Maud is a feisty, complex character; Hyacinth is a fascinating, manipulative, amoral villainess and the unfamiliar (to me) setting in 1900s America added a bit of extra interest to the ‘gaslight’ scene. My only criticism is the cover. I’m sure it’s a lovely painting, and the subject matter is perfectly appropriate, but it lacks punch.

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SCARBOROUGH FAIR

These are Scarborough Lilies (cyrtanthus elatus, according to my gardening book, originally from Cape Province in South Africa) and each year I am bowled over by how bright and beautiful they are.

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DARKNESS INTO LIGHT

I haven’t been a Michael Leunig fan for some years now. I write this in full knowledge that a hit elf from the Michael Leunig Appreciation Society may shortly arrive in a goat-drawn curly wagon attended by ducks. He will proceed to recite relentless whimsy while the ducks flog me with daffodils. I can’t run, I can’t hide. They know where I live, as I have the the weekend Age home delivered.
To tell the truth, way back in the 1970s I did fall in love – like most people I knew –  with Leunig’s quirky visions in the Nation Review, ‘lean and nosy like a ferret’. I treasure some of those early cartoons. And yeah, OK, I admit it; I do occasionally rejoice at the way he can still hit the spot for poignancy or damning political insight.
It’s really his columns. Can’t stand them. Don’t read them. Call me a cynic, but the whole ‘holy fool’ schtick sticks in my craw. So it’s unusual that I even skimmed Moon Eclipsed By a Memory, in last weekend’s Age. Skimmed, and then stunned myself by actually reading it. By loving it. How can this be?

The column was about the recent super moon – and how it wasn’t all that super, after all. However, it reminded Leunig of an eclipse he’d once witnessed. The memory of this amazing natural event has never left him. His description was magical.
Many years ago I was near Whitfield in the King Valley in north-east Victoria, standing by the car at a lookout and gazing at the steep green bush-crowned hillsides. A murmuring creek was hidden by the undergrowth in a deep valley. It was peaceful and lovely. And then, there was an eclipse. Perhaps it was the same eclipse. Like Leunig, I heard the eerie sound of hundreds of cattle bellowing. Birds – flocks and solitaries –  streamed through the air in the descending darkness, calling, calling. I knew that it was only (only?) the moon passing in front of the sun, and yet my heart thumped in my chest. Fear? Awe? I held my breath. For a short time, as the daylight dimmed and then returned, I changed perspective. I could put myself in the place of my distant ancestors, a place of deepest wonder. It was powerful, mystical, natural magic and I have never forgotten it, either.

This time Leunig, in words not pictures, hit the spot for me. Dark and light. He wrote:
It’s as simple as this: disillusionment precedes creativity.
Currently I’m feeling disillusioned, disappointed, melancholy and futile. Not quite despairing, but certainly in a dark funk. This column was a graceful and timely reminder about the cycle of descent and return.
Thank you, Michael. I’m sorry I said those bad things about you. And now, can you call off the ducks?

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BLACK OUT

I’m thinking of another news blackout for myself.
I have the weekend papers delivered, so that I can read them over breakfast; sometimes I do the crosswords as well. A nice, cruisy way to start the day.
And I have updates from The Guardian, too, and The Monthly.
It’s important, I tell myself, to keep up. But is it? This morning I spent an hour or so in the garden, raking leaves and picking up twigs while haranguing Donald Trump on the issue of gun control. Then I had a go at that creature Wayne LaPierre, leader of the NRA. I kept asking myself how it’s possible that such obviously paranoid and unstable old men have so much power. As I told them both what I thought of them, my blood pressure was probably stratospheric. Every now and then I found I’d stopped still, transfixed by my inner slanging match. It was exhausting.

You see, like so many others I’ve been moved to tears by the  footage of those Florida teenagers speaking out. Calling out the nation’s leaders – such grief and such rage . I find it hard to stop thinking about them. The awful thing is that most probably nothing will change. Donald Trump’s solution is to arm teachers. Teachers with guns! Is that really the best they can do? I keep recalling the face of my own son as he went off to high school with his friends. I imagine what this kind of event would do to them, to any young people. Or just anybody at all. The madness of it. Who, apart from the military, needs a military rifle?

Don’t think about it, I told myself as I barrowed a load of gum leaves and twigs up to to the  green bin. But Barnaby Joyce’s glum face intruded, then – oh, the horror! – Tony Abbott’s, complete with idiotic grin, and I began again, reflecting on the stupid, ignorant, dog-whistling, self-serving  men in our own government.
I tried to think about women – Penny Wong, I reckon, would make a great Prime Minister –  but ended up with the MeToo movement and memories of my 18-year-old self (this was not traumatic, merely unpleasant) washing dishes at a steak house where the cooks liked to cop a feel when I was up to my elbows in sudsy water and dirty pots…
And far sadder, the realisation, when I was around 12 and puberty had just hit and we started having lectures at school about skirt lengths and modest behaviour and unwanted pregnancy and keeping safe, that now everything was different. Everything had changed. Because – damn, damn, damn! – I was going to have to turn into a woman.

In my own backyard with a rake and a broom, I’m usually happy as can be. I like the exercise; I love the way that, so quickly, the paths and paving look neat and tidy. The green bin is now groaning with garden waste; I’ve picked up the dog poo; my rake and broom and brush and shovel have been neatly stowed away in the shed. I should be peacefully and happily tired, but instead my mind’s been roiling with discord and I feel kind of grumpy and itchy. A couple of very rich cakes for afternoon tea have helped somewhat (sugar coma?) but it’s only temporary. I could knit, but that leaves my mind to wander.

I’d better find a book. Something nice and cheering, with a murder in it.

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SUMMERTIME

Summertime….
And I’m helplessly drawn to crime. I’ve been re-visiting the Kinsey Milhone “Alphabet” mysteries as a homage to Sue Grafton after hearing of her death late last year. It’s been years since I’ve read them; they vary, of course, and I find that I’ve enjoyed the earlier ones more. But still, it’s fantastic to find that they are, in general, just as good as I remembered. Fast, often funny, sometimes unexpectedly moving, with great, tricky plots. Grafton travels up and down the social scale in her characters and locales, so we have the rich and corrupt in one novel and ‘plain folks’ in another. Kinsey is a feisty, smart, all-t00-human narrator and protagonist.  And you could say that the setting, the entirely fictitious Californian city of Santa Theresa, is another character. The sunsets, the beaches, the weather, the faux Spanish architecture and the dry hills above the city just waiting to burst into flames in the fire season… It seems utterly real. Grafton’s ‘California Noir’ novels are in a direct line from Raymond Chandler.

I also read a couple of Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware murder mysteries, Blood Test and Therapy. They were well-plotted, too, but…well, kind of pervy. “Blood Test”, in particular, was disturbing – spoiler ahead! – because it was about a young girl who’d been raised by her horticulturalist father as a kind of sexual fruit for his delectation. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but many other commentators have noted that there can be a kind of pornography in the depiction of violence against women in crime novels and films. In the two Kellerman novels, the violence, obviously, is crime; but it’s sometimes portrayed with an almost voyeuristic quality and I felt a little soiled when I finished. Plus, I have to say – that Alex Delaware is a complete tosser. The gourmet meals and the designer pad…give me Kinsey and her junk food habit any day!

A coincidence, but I learned in Jane Sullivan’s February 17th column for the Melbourne newspaper The Age about a new award. It’s the Staunch Book Prize, which is to be awarded to a thriller “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.”
Jane Sullivan, though initially enthusiastic, came to question the terms of the Staunch Prize, noting that several crime writers have spoken against it. It’s not so much the violence against women, but the way it’s portrayed. Quoting from Sullivan’s article again, here’s Sophie Hannah: “If we can’t stop human beings from viciously harming one another, we need to be able to write stories in which that harm is subjected to psychological and moral scrutiny, and punished… There is no life-changing experience that we should be discouraged from writing and reading about.”
Rather, Sullivan concludes, it might be better to have a prize for books which tackle the issue of violence against women in intelligent, powerful, thought-provoking ways.

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ONE AND A HALF BY TWO INCH MYSTERIES

I’m ‘resting’ at the moment, like an out-of-work actor. With a nagging chronic pain problem, plus the heat (ugh!), there’s not a lot of writing happening in my office. So I’ve been doing a little more sorting of my late mother’s archives. Archives? Yes, I use that word deliberately. She wasn’t a hoarder, as such. She just filed, and filed, and filed
It will be ten years since she died this May, and it’s only recently that I binned  the superannuation  records of her 40-year career. I also gave a packet of photographs of our town taken in the 1960s to the Historical Society. My brother Charles got some travel snaps taken during early 50’s, but I scanned some of those photographs first.

Mum and Dad’s travels formed part of my own history, for they were told again and again (“Tell me a story!”) during my childhood. When I look at the tiny one and a half by two inch images, I’m also looking through the eyes of the young Doug and Helen. I know they’re excited, curious, exhilarated. They’re just married, they’re in love – it’s summer and the Festival of Britain is on – it’s Autumn and they’re in Rome – they’re in Bombay or Aden or Chartres or Madrid.  The pictures are so small and grey and indistinct, but they contain an expanding, vivid world of love and wonder and adventure.
That’s why I find these little pictures deeply mysterious.

My character, Bliss, in How Bright Are All Things Here, says:

…I stood on the promenade and in the pleasure grounds, watching through the viewfinder as passers-by floated in and out of focus. Click! I’d catch this one. Click! And that one. It became, in time, more about the people. Like collecting butterflies. In the boxes at the flat, there are hundreds of one and a half by two inch photographs…
If you look closely, if you adjust yourself to their black-and-white 1950s tininess, you can discern faces, gestures, little glimpses of lives.
Are those two in love? Her shoes are too tight. That man looks ill.
Last summer, before I came here, I looked at them again, and imagined I heard a rustling sound as a crowd of trapped, snapped souls, stuck in a shoe-box since the summer of 1951, took flight.

Fanciful? Oh yes, I am that. In the slivered fragment of time, they’re framed, captured, caught in the act. You move on, of course: is it unreasonable to wonder if part of you stays as well?

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