I was an only child petrified of being abandoned by my parents, a tragedy certain to plunge me into absolute solitude of a kind I was more than capable of imagining. I never assumed that my mother and father would deliberately leave me – they were exceedingly loving, a fact that only added to the horror of the imagined loss – but I intuited early on that the world was a dangerous place, that there were invisible forces at work none of us could control. In early primary school, when a couple of big kids cornered me in the playground to announce that my mother had been killed in a car crash and wouldn’t be coming to pick me up, I largely believed them. Their story confirmed what I already suspected: terrible things were imminent; it was only a matter of time before I would be forced to fend for myself. It impresses and troubles me in equal measures that, in the aftermath of this news, my immediate instinct was to conceal myself, to hide. I climbed a tree. I waited. Without drawing attention to myself, I watched the school gate. In retrospect, I can identify something I couldn’t have articulated at the time: just the smallest fission of excitement, the idea that the worst possible scenario was finally unfolding.
I was frightened and appalled. Underneath that: thrilled.
Before I was able to read it to myself, I listened to Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword on tape at bedtime, haunted by the terrible vision of loss and fear it broadcast into the dark. Set in Warsaw during WWII, the novel is built around three siblings, teenaged Ruth, little Edek and baby Bronia Balicki, in the aftermath of their parents’ disappearances at the hands of the Nazis. The children eke out an existence in the rubble of their city: hungry, persecuted, cold. I borrowed the cassettes compulsively from the library, though it disturbed me to listen. The sibling’s relationships to one another particularly intrigued me, especially the elevation of Ruth to mother, though she was only just thirteen, barely out of childhood herself. When I imagined encountering the horrible circumstances that the Balickis survived, I felt preemptively bereft. In my own post-conflict survival experience there would be no older, wiser, stronger sister to shepherd me through. With horror, I perceived that the children’s ordeal belonged to a time from my real world; it was not a fiction at all.
It stunned me when I heard John Marsden articulate at a literary festival what I already sensed was true: the first thing you need to do in YA fiction is get rid of the adults. He explained that kids must be on their own to have adventures, a terrifying, but also liberating and energising, idea. Without adults to keep them safe, children confront and overcome challenges using their own remarkable capabilities. It makes sense that, if we only get to taste true freedom and its associated empowerment in the wake of tragedy and hardship, we (in the first world at least) might then covet and court the thrilling possibility of collapse.
PULL QUOTE: It makes sense that, if we only get to taste true freedom and its associated empowerment in the wake of tragedy and hardship, we (in the first world at least) might then covet and court the thrilling possibility of collapse.
But in stories, kids are abandoned to have adventures, to ultimately triumph. What of the real world? A petition rolls through my feed: children on Nauru, subject to sexual violence at the hands of guards. Their captive mothers, powerless to protect them. One little girl, just five, has attempted suicide rather than be sent back to detention from the mainland.
“With that sort of remembering and … the possibility of going back there, this is why she acts out,” her father laments.
I was five when my parents separated, divorced. A series of rented houses followed. I became aware of (then tried not to see) the admirable, painful capacity for carrying on in the face of adversity that some adults possess. My good folks were unflinchingly diligent in their efforts to position themselves equally in my life. For thirteen years I swung like a pendulum between homes and rooms and rules, coming to understand that if there were two different ways of going about domestic life – different foods, different furniture, different ideas about health and wealth and leisure – there must be more. An infinite amount.
I was only ever intermittently with each of my parents, but I guessed that their lives continued when I wasn’t there, unfolding in the private spaces I knew intimately but only sometimes inhabited. I imagined what my distant mother or father might be up to, alone in their home. I grew curious about the things that went on when I wasn’t looking. But there was always some doubt in my mind when I pictured the house I was absent from. The knowledge: anything could be happening.
PULL QUOTE: The fire kept coming closer and closer
The fire kept coming closer and closer until it was in my father’s street, raging up toward his house. Black Saturday had burned past just years before but we’d been lucky. Now the fragility of that escape was all too apparent. Safety seemed only a temporary interlude, the breath between one fire and the next. There had been other fires; at least two in my father’s childhood. He had helped defend the homestead then and believed he could again.
In my cottage kilometres away, I listened to the radio and obsessively searched online for updates on the fire, aware that the gap between events on the ground and news reports had diminished but remained. It was maddening not knowing what was going on. When I finally got through to his mobile, my father seemed tense, exhausted, but ultimately unconcerned. Others were evacuating. He lamented that his phone just wouldn’t stop ringing: his friends and wife and brothers, urging him to flee.
“It’s like a war zone here,” he said. “Choppers. Roadblocks. Cops.” But he was firm on the fact: he wouldn’t be leaving. If not him, then who would protect his place? I grappled with fear, a fever: he might not survive. Without siblings, there was no one for me to call.
“Dad’s in the fire,” I longed to share. “Fighting.“
John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began arrived in my life one Christmas morning, a stocking stuffer. As I obsessively devoured the book, I felt the story inside me, like heat. Looking up from the page, staring out across the parched paddocks, I felt an unsettling, exciting click deep in my chest, like the mechanisms of a lock working. I recognise this feeling now: it always makes itself known when a fictional narrative in some way mirrors real life, for the first time.
When the group of endearingly resourceful rural teenagers at the heart of Marsden’s series manage to escape capture by unnamed invaders, it is tragic – but of course, it isn’t the first time such a painful catastrophe has befallen landholders on this continent. The teenagers fight back using whatever they can lay their hands on, guerilla tactics, and they are surprisingly successful, for they have deep knowledge and lived experience of the terrain on their side. They fight a good fight across seven novels, sometimes gaining ground. But ultimately the march of literal and cultural resettlement advances.
Marsden was writing about the connections of rural Australian townspeople and farmers to their properties, about knowing a place intimately, about the lengths one would go to protect land. He was also writing about things going shockingly wrong, about powerlessness and homelessness, about losing one’s place. Both aspects spoke to me. There is an acknowledged danger in loving something as prone to destruction as the Australian landscape. A home in the bush is a home that, unsettlingly, might one day go up in smoke. Disappear. It wasn’t hard for me to imagine the terror associated with losing land. When protagonist Ellie despairs over the loss of her family farm to the enemy, I could imagine the unrelenting agony such a displacement might cause. Later, running across crackling paddocks with my friend Anna, pretending to be part of Ellie’s group of resistance fighters, I felt love like a flame, roaring alight, for lands that already felt lost to me.
We borrowed my father’s little van and drove around Victoria on our honeymoon, too exhausted by the wedding process, shell-shocked even, to do more than drink wine and watch television in a series of rented cabins. But afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Grampians, about the caves we stopped, begrudgingly, to explore. A friend had pointed them out to me on a map before we left home, which was lucky. This wasn’t a place on the tourist route – too small, too quiet. Bundled in hats and coats, thinking only of the next hot coffee we would consume, we walked together across a deserted campground. After a short hike through the bush, climbing around boulders, we stood in the cave. Staring mutely at the stain on the ceiling where the smoke from millennia of campfires, now cold, had risen against rock, I comprehended where we were: at a hearth. It felt wrong then, being there. Trespassing. When I turned to the handprints painted on the walls, the hair rose on my neck. Ochre and red, the paint showed the outline of hundreds of hands, fingers splayed. Some were tiny: children.
We only stayed a short while, perhaps twenty minutes. But later, Dan and I made a pact: if we were ever separated, if ever we needed to escape the city in a hurry, we would meet there. The Grampians. It seemed a safe place.
“Good hiding spots,” I reasoned, taking Dan’s hand. “Sustained life for centuries. Plenty of food. Water.” Not that we knew where to look for such things. I recalled the quiet of the cave, the huge black streak against the ceiling, the stain of soot from ancient smoke.
You couldn’t see the cave from the road.
At many junctures the uncertainty of impending adulthood carried with it a horrible anxiety for me. This feeling grew from my unrelenting suspicion that the incredible opportunities I’d been offered by my privilege would not come to pass, not even close, that the life I was making would ultimately be unsatisfactory to myself.
It seemed a worrisome failure of hard work and imagination: to be continuously assured that anything was possible, then neglect to make good on that promise. When I tallied my shortcomings, I always attributed them to my own ineptitude. At every painful instance in which I was uncertain of the path I should take, I felt a yawning discomfort: pressure to perform. So often I felt unsettled by the decisions I had made. Harsh judgments were cast on my choices by invisible voices.
Is it any wonder that, given this angst about life choices and measuring up, there is some legitimate relief in the idea that all these many, many options and opportunities – to succeed, but also to potentially and shamefully fail – might be swept away in the wake of one massive, unprecedented disaster?
PULL QUOTE: I write a novel, thinking about land and belonging – and destruction.
I write a novel, thinking about land and belonging – and destruction. Almost simultaneously, so that the events of new motherhood and writing become intertwined in thought and practice, impossible for me to unknot, I give birth twice in quick succession. I find myself living in the strange stranglehold between intense despair, and hope. The future will likely be grim, I caution myself. And while conjuring my children in that future: it will be marvellous.
Sprinting through the park, she feared that Dan would be gone by the time she got home. Even so, when she finally plunged into their empty flat, bloody-kneed, choking back tears, she felt disemboweled by silence. She was alone. She had to sit down suddenly then, slumping in the hall. But it was only a moment before she roused, slamming the front door shut. Fumbling, she worked the bolt, applied the door-snake along the crack in case of gas. The thought came unbidden: he would have laughed at her for that. His commentary framed the simplest of her actions: dipping a teabag into boiling water, brushing her teeth, running.
She could hear him teasing, “It’s a goddamned crisis Ali, and you’re sitting around making stuff up!” She looked frantically about the small room, gaze flicking across shelves. Saw it, his note. Scrawled in the margin of the phone bill. Gone to Grampians. Got the first-aid kit. The handwriting betrayed nothing.
PULL QUOTE: This is what I recall from my second dark experience of childbirth: standing in the hospital shower, legs spread, naked. Gripping Dan’s hands, silently communicating terror.
But ordinarily Dan filed bills alphabetically; the choice of notepaper told Alice everything she needed to know. In the next flat, someone shouted, the sound cut off mid-pitch. Out on the street, car brakes squealed like a throat-cut cow. In her writing, fear was a clenching of the stomach, bodies going cold. But in the hallway, it felt white-hot behind the eyes, blinding. How wrong she had been. Fear was not shaking, or quaking, or worrying at one’s hands, the thing she made her characters feel, gleefully writing-in their suffering. Dan had gone without her. She saw it now: fear was being left behind.
This is what I recall from my second dark experience of childbirth: standing in the hospital shower, legs spread, naked. Gripping Dan’s hands, silently communicating terror. Water running, eyes tightly shut, head down. It was more than I could do to lift my head. My body, a stiff coat of armour I was crouched inside. Blood splattered the tiles, shockingly red where it wasn’t made of clots. A good sign, a midwife declared buoyantly, before someone put a hand up inside me to ascertain that I was only half-dilated. The midwives stilled. With every contraction the head of the baby compressed my bowel, making me bear down. That hard fist of skull, ramming. My legs shook, eyes rolled back. Panic – mine and the medical staff – filled the room. I could hear the effort it took my midwives not to shout.
“Don’t push! Come on, control it.” But I couldn’t. The force of the baby ploughed through me. I wondered if my bones might break. It went on and on. Hours.
Piercing, a thought: This could kill me.
Weeks after my child was surgically removed, I recalled the clarity of my insight. It still frightened me to cast my thoughts back – to return to the efforts of childbirth, even fleetingly. But I had perceived the unforgiving reality of the situation during that hard labour: my fragile mortality. I had never before felt the finite edges of my living in such a violent, certain way, but nothing before had ever been killing me. I understand that, from the safety of good health and motherhood, it sounds stupidly alarmist to speak of death. But that is only an accident of time. I was born in 1981, my son in 2014. Lucky us.
Now I feel acute sympathy, borne of understanding, for the millions and millions of women who have died in childbirth over the centuries – and those who continue to die in some parts of the world for lack of resources. As far as history goes, I’ve always known that a startling number of mothers perished in labour, but taking my cues from the nonchalance of this fact in our culture, it had seemed a commonplace, irrelevant occurrence. An inconvenient though inevitable fact of historical life – like living by candlelight.
My experience brought into focus what dying in labour might have actually been like. Like the second birth, my first thirty-two hour ordeal only came to an end because the surgery practiced in this time and place cut it short. But now, I see how a woman might eventually be killed by her efforts, body clenched tight around life.
PULL QUOTE: In that moment, the apocalypse loses some of its gritty romanticism.
Death would take days to arrive.
I nurse my baby boy in the dark, reading James Bradley’s Clade on my iPhone. Agonisingly, I am struck that it isn’t the jeopardy of my own life that really matters. In that moment, the apocalypse loses some of its gritty romanticism. No longer is it just an interesting narrative genre, a possible outcome for the planet – a way off in the future – if things don’t change much. Clutching the warm weight of the child, I really comprehend what is at stake, what might so easily be lost. I feel sick, unaccountably disgusted by myself, and terribly wearied. I can hardly stand to read Bradley’s brief description of a mother being swept along by floodwater, desperately trying to grip onto her little children in the surge. My babies are only two and six months old. My life has been entirely consumed by the incredible lengths I have gone to ensure their well-being: small cheeks tenderly washed; hands held firmly across busy roads; sunscreen applied; immunisations. What is that all for, ultimately, if the future they will grow into puts them in peril? The very idea of them missing, alone or hurting causes me physical discomfort. Their precious little bodies, mine to protect.
Alice Robinson is a lecturer in creative writing at Melbourne Polytechnic (NMIT). She has a PhD in creative writing from Victoria University and her work has been published widely. Her debut novel, Anchor Point, has just been published by Affirm Press.