Writing Prompt: A Familiar Scent

At a recent writing group gathering, we wrote to a prompt of ‘A Familiar Scent’. A few of the pieces have been posted on Writers in The Mist – you can find them here. Below is my contribution.

There was a familiar scent in the air. Annie paused, momentarily struck. It was the soft, sweet scent of freesias, a fragrance of her grandmother’s garden on a warm spring day and not something that she expected to smell in hospital in the depths of winter. She cast a look around the room but there was just one other woman resting opposite her. She was snoring softly and hadn’t woken when Annie had been wheeled into the corner.

Annie leaned forward, thinking that perhaps it was just a floral scent being worn by one of the nursing staff. But there was no-one in sight and all that she could smell now was the brazen note of antiseptic, strong enough to singe nasal hair and cover most of the bodily odours in the ward. She sighed and closed her eyes. It might have been the effect of the medication or a delayed impact of the anaesthetic but as she closed her eyes, suddenly drowsy, she could smell it again.

Annie let her mind wander back to when life was simple and relatively pain-free, when her school holidays were spent at her grandparents’ house and days passed by playing in the wonderland that was their garden.

The freesias were planted in a neat row along the driveway, forming a fragrant guard of honour along the entrance. There were several garden beds at the front and back of the property, and Annie could picture the native trees marching along one fence line, bristling with banksia men and their fierce brown faces. The front garden was encircled by camellias, their blooms both large and small providing a colourful carpet of petals as the seasons changed. A large macadamia tree stood sentry over the driveway, its barbed leaves protecting the tough nuts. Bright bottle brushes and grevilleas tempted the birds, honeyeaters dancing swiftly about when the shrubs were in bloom.

The steep back garden had been terraced in part to grow vegetables. Crisp beans grew against the back fence, sharing a space with colourful sweet peas in spring. Parsley grew in pots, and Annie had loved to pluck and lightly crush the curling herb between her fingers. Large cabbages grew in winter, their dark green and purple leaves encasing the heavy hearts of the vegetables. The cumquat tree had enchanted her; the zesty skin of the carefully harvested small fruit later transformed into jam. A gum tree towered high above the clothes line, a favourite podium for the magpies to sing their beautiful songs.

Annie walked herself around the garden again, taking slow steps to enjoy the multicoloured freesia blooms, almost too heavy for their stems. She walked over to the camellias, marvelling at the marbling of pinks and whites and reds on the petals, such a contrast to the glossy emerald leaves. She reached out and felt once more the soft and comforting warmth of her grandmother’s hands as the scent of freesias surrounded her.

Sydney, Her City: Short Fiction

She had watched the bridge take shape. It had seemed an impossibility, an absurd idea that the sheer expanse of the harbour could be tethered by steel and iron. There had been talk of it for so long that it seemed like an intrinsic part of her childhood memories, its design a favourite topic of debate. Then suddenly whole streets and entire neighbourhoods began to vanish, houses and shops and factories that had been familiar were pulled apart and families were forced to relocate.

Ella’s family had been lucky. They had been earmarked for relocation but changes to plans meant that their street was spared. She could recall heading off to school of a morning, walking through nearby streets with her brothers and sister, then the shock of arriving home to find rubble and dust where houses had been. Her mother had complained of the dirt and the rats that seemed to be in plague proportions as buildings that had stood firm for decades were pushed over and destroyed within a day.

Her eldest brother had landed a job on one of the many construction crews that worked on the bridge. He would come home with stories about the movement of massive sandstone blocks that would form the pylons to anchor the bridge. Bert’s excitement at being part of something momentous was tangible and contagious.

But the building of the bridge took so long that Ella’s interest eventually waned. By the time it was almost complete, the magnificent arch tantalisingly close to joining, she was working at a tea shop in the city, down near Circular Quay. The bridge was visible, a looming presence in the background, but she was busy with work and stepping out of an evening on dates and going to dances.

After marriage Ella stopped working, settling quickly into domestic life. She found herself drawn to the harbour, taking the pram along the narrow city streets and steep gradients down to the foreshore. She loved to walk past the ferries, puffing out smoke, their sturdy shapes seemingly insignificant as they motored their way underneath the enormous arch of the iron coat-hanger.

When Ella and her husband moved to the suburbs, she still managed to visit the city occasionally, especially when Christmas shopping trips came up. To turn into a street and glance up at the bridge gave her a thrill that she couldn’t quite explain. The bridge became less extraordinary over time to most Sydneysiders, just a way to get from one side of the harbour to the other. But for Ella it remained one of her favourite things. Her birthday treats invariably included a trip to the city to take in the splendour of the bridge, now a constant presence against a changing city skyline. For Ella, the bridge was the essence of Sydney, her city.

Inspired by a writing prompt using a postcard painting of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Do landmarks appear in your writing?

Writing Prompt: A Musical Moment

One of my earliest memories of writing to music was when I was about ten years old. I can still picture the classroom and the pens poised over exercise books as we were instructed to listen to the music and to write what it brought to mind. The music was the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, and I wrote a poem about war and battle – hard not to as the canons boomed and the music built to a crescendo. The rattle of the drums and the call to arms was impossible to resist.

On a recent writing retreat, music was used as a prompt. There were three short pieces played, all exquisite and evoking surprisingly similar responses amongst the writers gathered around the table.  The first piece was a Norwegian folk song called Heiemo Og Nykkjen performed by Kirsten Braten-Berg. For me, the music was a melancholic song of farewell.

The music swirls around me, holding me close in its grasp. I want to weep, to turn back, to return to where I belong. But it is my song of farewell. My people are letting me go. I walk slowly, one heavy foot in front of the next. I know the tune so well; it is carved into my heart from so many other farewells. I have sung it myself when my brother left the valley, leaving our village behind. We were sure that he’d return, that it would only be a brief separation. But he has not returned. And now I, too, must go.

My sister’s voice lifts and as the notes tremble around me I stumble. But I cannot turn back now, as much as my heart breaks. I must continue on.

One of my fellow writing group members has written of the impact of the musical prompt session here.

Have you used music as a muse for writing?

[Photo: mural spotted in Hornsby next to second-hand bookshop The Bookplate]

Short Story: Five Dollars

Christmas comes around at the same time every year, but some years it seems to arrive quicker than others. In the festive spirit, I have dug out a short piece that I wrote in response to a prompt in which all you have left in the world is five dollars. This is what I came up with.

It’s gone. All gone. The last gold coins in my pocket, tossed with feigned carelessness into the open guitar case. I pause, waiting a long moment for some sort of acknowledgement, a little recognition. But his eyes are shut, he’s lost in his music, his fingers nimble on the frets as the notes echo and pulse along the tiled entrance to the station. People are bustling past, buffeting me with the tips of handbags, nudging me with their luggage. Snatches of conversation clatter around and still he plays, his eyes closed, his expression borders on bliss.

Someone bumps me forward and I’m caught in the flow, barely able to glance back at him, my gold coins insignificant against the notes and shrapnel massing in his case. I let myself be moved along, barely registering my surroundings. My feet move of their own accord whilst my head throbs in a staccato beat. Gone. Gone. Gone.

How could I be so stupid, throwing away the last that I had into the case of a stranger? It was his handwriting that undid me, lessening my resolve. He was playing Christmas carols, not the usual mainstream drivel, but the sweet, melancholy songs that I haven’t heard since mass on Christmas Eve, several lifetimes ago now. The sign said he was making music to pay for his trip home, that he had miles to go and only music to get him there. The letters were messy, his spelling jarred my attention, and I was wondering if it was a deliberate ploy when the music overtook me, taking my breath away, shifting my mind to the place I called home when my life meant something and I had everything that mattered.

I’m suddenly free, separate from the jostling crowd. I’ve somehow shuffled to the side  and I slowly walk up the sloping gradient towards the platform. There is a almost a hush, now I’m out of the bustle, and I feel my heart settle into a steady rhythm. The platform is nearly empty, just a few people gathered in clutches on the scattered benches. I make my way past a family, two children holding bright helium balloons. One is marked with ‘Merry’ and the other ‘Christmas’ and I can’t help but smile at their obvious excitement. Their mother smiles at me and for a moment I forget, forget I am broke and alone on Christmas Eve. I close my eyes, hearing again the sweet notes of the guitar, smelling the rich tang of incense, my eyes drawn towards the candles at the altar, my hand held tight by my mother. I am home.

{Previously posted on Writers in the Mist}

[Photo: one of my favourite Christmas shop window displays in Katoomba]

Writing Prompt: Pessimist and Optimist

I love a good writing prompt. They have a way of taking you somewhere entirely unexpected, or viewing something familiar with a different perspective. At a recent writing group session, one of the prompts evoked insight into the creative tension that I feel all too often. It is set out as pessimist and optimist.

Prompt: I reached for a glass (or cup) and let my inner pessimist and optimist fight it out.

Pessimist:  There’s no point in trying. You might as well give up while you’re ahead.

Optimist:  But what if this is the start of something great, something that we’ve been striving towards all these years? I know we can do it. It only needs a bit of effort.

Pessimist:  Effort? That seems like hard work to me. Is this just going to be yet another of those fanciful notions that you have which requires time that we don’t have or skills that we lack and don’t have the capacity to develop?

Optimist:  I don’t know why I even ask for your input. You are such a glass half-empty kind of thinker. 

Pessimist:  And talking of glasses, how about you pour a bit more alcohol into this one? It might change my viewpoint.

Optimist:  That’s the way. Here you go, you drink up while I remind you of some of the excellent things we’ve managed to achieve when we pull together, rather than apart.

Pessimist:  Steady on. Don’t get too carried away. It’s going to take more than a glass or two to forget all the failed attempts you’ve got us started on.

Optimist:  But there wasn’t anything like this opportunity. And I can think of loads of times when my ideas and energy have resulted in great changes. 

Pessimist:  All I can think of is the littering mess of failures and half-baked schemes. And who’s got the energy to try anyway? All this talking is making me sleepy. (Snores).

Optimist:  (Quietly) So that’s a yes, then? No reply means yes. That’s my rule. Looks like we’re going to learn to crochet after all.

The above is alarmingly close to my decision-making process on a regular basis, with enthusiasm trying to outlast practical limitations. And whilst I can knit, crocheting remains beyond my powers of coordination.

What is your internal monologue like with new creative challenges? Optimistic, or otherwise?

[Photo: one of the bars at the Hydro Majestic Hotel, Medlow Bath]