There’s a package the size of a manuscript on my doorstep.
I’m not expecting any packages, or manuscripts. I’ve been away on a family camping trip to the Snowys where I read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. (I’ll often bring a classic, or a book I feel I’ve missed, on holidays. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina came with me to Lord Howe Island, as did Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Last year when I went to the Tarkine I took Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.)
I’m dirty and exhausted, craving a shower and a cup of tea without twigs floating in it. It’s only days since my forty-seventh birthday—my teenage daughter managed to bake me a cake on the campfire—and as I pick up the package and spot the sender’s ornate Gothic handwriting, loose and shaky now but unmistakable, it feels like a gift.
Sylvia Plath started it.
Or perhaps it was my high school English teacher, Mr Baines, when he handed me a slim book of poems with red tulips on the cover. ‘Let’s start with Daddy,’ he said, his eyes alight with the anticipation of blowing my little teenage mind.
It’s not overstating things to say that, at sixteen, I became obsessed with Sylvia Plath. I gobbled up her poems, her only published novel The Bell Jar, and a swathe of biographies (not always great) about her brilliant but short life. I stared at photos of her (why did she always look like a different person? Why was nothing reliable about her face?) and listened to grainy recordings of her reading her poems aloud in a deep, controlled voice that kind of scared me.
I still have my Year 12 copy of Ariel, Plath’s second book of poems, published two years after her suicide and notoriously edited by her estranged husband, poet Ted Hughes. It sits on a shelf in my writing room alongside Hughes’s Birthday Letters, the excellent biography Red Comet by Heather Clark, and a first edition copy of The Colossus, the only book of poems Plath published in her lifetime, which my husband gave me for my fortieth birthday.
I take Ariel off the shelf as I’m writing this piece and, for the first time in years, open it. It smells stale. Mildew tumbles down its pages like grey snowflakes. Words like ‘half-rhyme’ and ‘alliteration’ and ‘confessional’ litter the margins, pencilled in my earnest schoolgirl handwriting. Below the final line of Lady Lazarus, I’ve made a spelling error and written ‘cannabul’.
I didn’t grow up with books. The closest things in our home were Dad’s Scientific American magazines and medical reference texts. Inside those, I found words too long and complicated to make sense of, and frightening images of bodies gone wrong. Bedtime stories these were not.
When I was six, I borrowed a book called Millions of Cats from the school library. I have no idea why I chose it—we didn’t have a cat, I didn’t especially like cats—but I remember loving this book with a greediness that overwhelmed me. I watched the due date approach, then slip past… still, I couldn’t bring myself to return it. I started to copy the book out—illustrations and all—so I could keep it forever. But the task must have proved too monumental or, being six, I probably just forgot about it.
I struggle now to remember the story. I have a sense it was dark; that it disturbed as well as thrilled me (and perhaps set a tone for my adult reading); that something horrible might have happened to the cats.
I google ‘millions of cats’, not expecting to find anything, and am stunned when the familiar cover appears on my screen: an old man striding across rolling black hills, a red sky above him, a line of yellow cats stretching behind and ahead of him, a trio of kittens in his arms. I learn that it was written and illustrated by Wanda Gag in 1929; that it is the oldest American picture book still in print; that all the cats, except for one who did not consider itself ‘pretty’, ate each other in a jealous rage.
At twelve, I was part of the dancing chorus in our high school production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. (I was a nervous dancer, but my acting was worse; waving my arms around in a toga at least avoided me having to speak.) It was the first Greek tragedy I’d read, the first piece of theatre I’d been involved in, and I was mesmerised.
Mine was a small high school in northwestern Sydney, with teachers and students performing together in the play. Mr Baines, who I didn’t know yet (he mostly taught the older years), had the role of ruthless leader Creon. His costume was a black cloak, and his long, angular face and commanding voice were suitably fearsome for the part.
Backstage after the final show I remember him sweeping the entire cast, me included, into a hug. I was taken aback by it—his black cloak, his towering height, his effusiveness, startled me; also, my family did not readily hug. ‘Well done!’ he cheered, still buzzing from the performance, shamelessly proud of us all. ‘We’ve made art!’
At fourteen, he gave me Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Shaw’s Pygmalion and Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie. At fifteen, he gave me Dickens’s Great Expectations, Miller’s The Crucible, Browning’s My Last Duchess and Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River. At sixteen, he gave me Austen’s Persuasion, Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, Levertov’s Ways of Conquest—‘What I invaded has invaded me’—and he gave me Plath.
When he gave me Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, I was inspired to write something as clever and veiled myself. And when my story turned out to be a disaster—self-conscious and overblown, incomprehensible, half the words mined from a thesaurus—Mr Baines wrote reassuringly on my paper, in his Gothic handwriting that was like no one else’s: ‘More honesty and imagination is needed here, Kylie. But it’s great to see you’re experimenting with words!’
My hands are grubby. There’s days-old camp dirt wedged beneath my fingernails. But I open the package anyway, right there at the front door.
Inside is, indeed, a manuscript: a spiral bound copy of The Last Wave, a long short story by Richard Baines, my old teacher, my friend now of thirty years, with a print run, I read in the accompanying card, ‘you could number on the fingers of your hands.’
He is eighty now. And unsure why he has left it so long to write his story.
The waiter brings us two coffees. They smell good and I start mine straight away. Richard seems eager as well but leaves his to cool.
We’ve caught up often over the years—mostly like this, in cafes, where we chat about literature and art and family and the world for hours. The last time I saw him was three years ago on the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic. (‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there was panic buying of books,’ I remember him saying. ‘Rows of empty shelves.’)
He is practically a robot now, he tells me, with one knee and three hip replacements. ‘Full house,’ he jokes.
He asks what I’ve been reading. I say I’m enjoying short books—Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow and Claire Keegan’s Small Things Things Like These; restrained writing that hinges on the unspoken. I tell him I’ve pre-ordered Max Porter’s Shy since I loved his Grief is the Thing with Feathers with its nods to Hughes and Plath.
I get a feeling Richard hasn’t heard of the books or writers I mention but, if so, he doesn’t say.
I ask what he’s been reading. ‘Spy stories. Huge fun.’
He reaches for his coffee, but his hands are so shaky now and the cup is so full it’s clear he’ll spill it, so he draws them back. He repeats this a few times—goes to pick up the cup, then decides against it. Eventually, he says, ‘I only have to do this once, okay?’ I nod and watch as he grips the edge of the table with both hands, lowers his mouth to the cup and slurps his coffee like a cat.
When he lifts his head, Richard shrugs, smiles sadly and says, ‘I’m learning to be old.’
Today, I mailed him a package in return. My first novel. He asked for a signed copy. He is shamelessly proud. And when I wrote to him in it, I tried to find words to say thank you.
* * *
Kylie Needham is an award-winning screenwriter. She has won two AWGIE (Australian Writers’ Guild) Awards for television scriptwriting. Her work has been published in the Better Read Than Dead Writing Anthology 2019, The Quarry Journal and the exhibition catalogue 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart. She lives in the Southern Highlands of NSW. Girl in a Pink Dress is her first novel.