We are driving north from Coolangatta airport. Beside the road the ocean heaves and heaves into waves that do not break. The swells are dotted with boardriders in black wet-suits, grim as sharks.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved these three lines, which open the title story of Helen Garner’s Postcards from Surfers, published thirty years ago this month. I bought the book, Garner’s only true collection of short stories, from a second-hand bookstore in Manly sometime in the late 1990s.
Postcards from Surfers is probably one of the lesser-known works in the Garner canon. Perhaps it was overshadowed by the critically-acclaimed novella The Children’s Bach, published the following year. Maybe it just doesn’t fit neatly with the rest of her repertoire; it lacks the domestic hyper-focus of Monkey Grip and Honour and Other People’s Children, and the controversial tone of her later nonfiction. Maybe, like the postcard itself, it has become an anachronism?
Yet, it is a book that I keep coming back to. Each time I rediscover myself, or at least a younger version of myself, in the series of unnamed narrators—many of them young women, many clearly versions of Garner herself. I smile each time at her description of a male musician in ‘Did he pay?’, who would ‘hold your gaze a second longer that was socially necessary, as if promising an alliance’, who ‘was so passive that anyone could project a fantasy onto him, and so constitutionally pleasant that she could well imagine it reciprocated’? I have fallen, too many times, for that man.
When I was a child, my grandmother lived on the Gold Coast. At least once a year, during school holidays, we’d head north from Sydney, leaving home at daybreak. By the time the sun was up, we’d be on the Brooklyn Bridge, the sandstone gorges of the Hawkesbury basin glowing golden. We’d stop for a milkshake at the Oak, and try our hardest to keep it down as we wound up through the narrow roads beyond Buladelah. It was a two-day odyssey in those days and we’d stay overnight at a motel in Coffs Harbour. The next morning we’d drive out of town past the Big Banana before the road swung inland towards Grafton. Driving fast through the cane fields alongside the wide brown Clarence River, our excitement grew. If we wound the window down we’d hear the cicadas. We could almost smell the sunshine, the heat.
The road takes a sudden swing round a rocky outcrop. Miles ahead of us, blurred in the milky air, I see a dream city: its cream, its silver, its turquoise towers thrust in a cluster from a distant spit.
‘What—is that Brisbane?’ I say.
‘No,’ says my mother. “That’s Surfers.’
Unlike the story’s narrator, we knew that when we crossed the border into Queensland and saw the dream city, that we were almost there. My grandmother lived in an old-fashioned suburb of Mermaid Beach in a blonde brick bungalow with a low fence and a garden full of kangaroo paw and poinsettia. She lived in the shadow of the Magic Mountain fun park with its red-turreted castle. The castle sat perched on a headland overlooking the Pacific and was the image of choice on local postcards, alongside the buxom bikini-ed women with old men’s heads as masks, and the skyscrapers of Surfers.
Throughout Postcards from Surfers, and especially in the eponymous first story, the postcard is emblematic of the push-pull relationship between the desire for new experience and the longing for home.
I had a Brazilian friend when I lived in Paris. He showed me a postcard, once, of Rio where he was born and brought up. The card bore an aerial shot of a splendid, curved tropical beach, fringed with palms, its sand pure as snow.
‘Why don’t you live in Brazil,’ I said, ‘if it’s as beautiful as this?’
‘Because,’ said my friend, ‘right behind that beach there is a huge military base.’
Years later the narrator finds herself rummaging through a box of old postcards in Melbourne. Most of the images are suggestive of a wider world, a traveller’s world, a world beyond her home town, ‘damp cottages in Galway … Raj hotels crumbling in bicycle-thronged Colombo … glassy Canadian lakes flawed by the wake of a single canoe.’ But she buys the ones symbolic of home: ‘a picture of downtown Rio, in black-and-white [and] Geelong, the town where I was born.’ She sends the cards to Rubens, her Brazilian friend: ‘de nos deux villes natales’, she writes in French, the language of their shared experience—our two birthplaces.
The collection was written while Garner was on a hiatus from The Children’s Bach. In her memoir Other People’s Words, Hilary McPhee, Garner’s publisher at the time, recalls a note Garner left for her one day: ‘I’ve put the novel aside for the moment and am pouring out a weird tale called Postcards from Surfers which makes me burst into tears nearly every day … it sure is dragging the fucking pond.’ There is a sadness at the core of many of these stories; they are filled with the exquisite longing that the Welsh call hiraeth: ‘a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or never was.’
In the ironically titled ‘A Happy Story’ the narrator buys tickets for her and her daughter to see Talking Heads but fears she is too old to enjoy it. ‘I won’t have the right clothes. It will start too late. The warm up bands will be terrible. It’ll hurt my ears.’ She sells her ticket to her sister instead and drives them both there. She begins to regret the decision as the approach the Entertainment Centre and sees the crowds, ‘They are happy. They are going to shout, to push past he bouncers and run down the front to dance. They are dressed up wonderfully, they almost skip as they walk.’
In ‘La Chance Existe’, the narrator muses:
I hate going back to England. I hate being able to understand everything that’s going on around me. I miss that feeling of your senses having to strain an inch beyond your skin that you get in places where people aren’t speaking your language.
In this story, as well as ‘In Paris’ and ‘A Thousand Miles from the Ocean’—all set in Europe—a sense of disorientation, of homesickness, is pervasive. In ‘Civilization and its Discontents’, the narrator confesses that, when she worked in a school in East London, her eyes would fill with tears at the sight of the map of Australia. In ‘A Thousand Miles from the Ocean’, set in Germany, the protagonist sees a body of water and asks, ‘Is that … the ocean?’ Her companion laughs and replies, ‘But we are a souzand miles from the ocean.’ Earlier, when she on the plane on her way to Germany she sees another plane heading in the other direction and thinks, ‘If I were on that plane I would be on my way home. I am going the wrong way.’ Later, in the man’s apartment, she finds letters and postcards from other women ‘scattered around the apartment like little land-mines to surprise himself’. She realises her stupidity, ‘I have spent thousands of dollars to come here and see myself on these pieces of paper’. She leaves.
The finite space of a postcard means that messages must be kept short; you can never tell the whole story. In ‘Postcards from Surfers’, the narrator eventually chooses ‘twelve GREETINGS FROM cards with views, some aerial, some from the ground’. Later, when she sits down to write she notes: ‘I make my writing as thin and small as I can: the back of the postcard, not the front, is the art form’. All the cards are addressed to Philip, a character who reappears in many of her stories, an archetype who she once called ‘very talented, charming, usually a musician or an artistic figure of some kind, who is morally completely slippery’. The messages she writes are a mix of mundane observations, a ‘big red setter wet from the surf shambles up the side of the unit’, and intimate revelations about her father, ‘Once, when I was fourteen, I gave cheek to him at the dinner table. He hit me across the head with his open hand’. On one of the postcards she writes, ‘Dear Philip. I know you won’t write back. I don’t even know whether you are still at this address.’ The postcards are never sent, but dropped in a rubbish bin next to the post box.
The shorter form—as it is used in Postcards from Surfers or the non-fiction collections The feel of steel (2001) and True Stories (2008)—seems to suit Garner’s ability to create what Katherine England, in a review of The feel of steel, called ‘intimate crystallisations of experience’. Peter Goldsworthy, who reviewed Postcards from Surfers on release for the The Sydney Morning Herald, wrote that Helen Garner was a natural short story writer. In his review titled ‘The coming out of Helen Garner, short story writer’, he said of Monkey Grip: ‘There seemed to be a well-written short story somewhere in the book— but that short story was repeated too many times within the same covers.’ Kathryn Kramer, reviewing both Postcards from Surfers and The Children’s Bach in The New York Times in 1986, wrote: ‘Ms Garner’s stories share characteristics of the postcard: they flash before us carefully recorded images that remind us of harsher realities not pictured’.
Postcards make a reappearance in ‘Tutto Sereno’, a three-page micro-essay in The feel of steel. After a relationship breakup, Garner moves from Sydney to Melbourne in the pre-smartphone era. A week after her arrival, she still has no internet connection, and no access to email. ‘It takes me another three days,’ she writes, ‘to realise I don’t care.’ She wakes early, feeling calm: ‘No point rushing to the computer: I’m cut off from the fast world … I get up, wash, make breakfast, read the paper, start work—the way I used to, before email came into my life to obsess and fracture me.’ Later, after receiving two postcards in the mail, she contemplates the ‘chaos, the abyss’ of email which ‘tempts you to behave neurotically—to pour into its appalling infiniteness a cataract, a haemorrhage of words, bottomless, boundaryless.’ The postcard, by comparison is human: ‘elegant and spare’, it forces the sender to be disciplined. ‘You cannot go on and on and on. It challenges you to get straight to the point, to fill its tiny oblong with energy.’
As a means of communication postcards have been superseded by other, more immediate, forms, each one more ephemeral than the last: first by email, now by the various ‘social’ mediums. It could be argued that Twitter, with its 140 character limit, also challenges you to get straight to the point. But you can —and people do—send tweet after tweet after tweet ‘a haemorrhage of words, bottomless, boundaryless’. And while you might pin a tweet to the top of your stream, you don’t, as a rule, pin one to your fridge. You don’t bury it in a box, or use it to mark your place within a book. You won’t find it again by accident, or by design, the way you might discover an old book at a second-hand bookstore and, because it seems to speak in some way to both your present and your past, experience it as a moment of serendipity.
We spend so much of our time in digital spaces, where the rest of the world is at our fingertips. It’s easy to forget, or ignore, the physical distance, to ignore the time it takes for a postcard to wend its way from the far corners of the globe, the time it takes to write it.
My grandmother died around the time I bought Postcards from Surfers. The castle near her old house no longer exists—it was torn down along with the rest of the fun park to make way for the Magic Mountain Resort Apartments. The house she lived in is no longer there. I recently visited a friend who lives nearby, and we went for a walk along the beach. We walked north, towards Surfers. And it was just how it was in my childhood: a dream city shimmering in the morning sunshine, bright and misty and always in the distance; we never seemed to get any closer no matter how far we walked.