Chris Mansell has written six books of poetry and a number of other smaller collections. She has published non-fiction books and had a number of plays performed. Her children's book, Little Wombat, was a favourite of many children. She has worked as a writer and editor for all of her professional life and is skilled at working with new writers. She has been writer in residence at universities, and lectured in writing at others, and been editor in residence with the Royal Australian Historical Society.
Her latest book is Letters (Kardoorair Press, 2009). Recent collections include Love Poems (Kardoorair, 2006), The Fickle Brat (Text + Audio CD, IP Digital), Day Easy Sunlight Fine (Penguin) and Mortifications & Lies (Kardoorair Press, 2005).
Chris Mansell has worked with many writers throughout Australia Council mentorship programs as well as teaching writing. A prize-winning poet in her own right, she has won the Queensland Premier's Award and been short-listed for both the national Book Council Award and the NSW Premier's Award.
There is a man who lives in the mountains, not far from here, who hardly comes out. He has a few friends – they try to fix him up with a woman now and again, although it never works. The women take one look at his uncertain gaze and he sees their capable hands and they look away because it’s too difficult. Once he was an artist he says and he is still building his studio, and they find out later he has been building it for ten years and will be for another five, at least, everyone says.
Elanora knows nothing of this. When she meets him she wants to know what made him put down his brush and what made him turn off the inquisitive eye but he will not explain it to her no matter if she tries to be kind, jocular or intimates that she understands. He doesn’t want to say, and so she wants to know far more than if he’d said a woman left him or he had a nervous breakdown or he became bored with his work. There was nothing left that Elanora could imagine for Echidna, except how he would look with his clothes off. She wasn’t impressed, though she could have been wrong. You never know with men. The solitary spiky monotreme. There was an absence that she could not put her finger on. Perhaps it was lust, her own, that obscured the man and made him more interesting that he otherwise might have been. Random lust.
Actually, Echidna had lied to Elanora. Why he had told her he was no longer painting he didn’t know. But it had seemed to interest her. Perhaps that’s why.
The town is small and when she sees Echidna in the street she turns and before he has realised that he’s staring at her. There’s something about her he thinks.
She thinks he is handsome enough but she doesn’t want to say. She is looking away and trying not to flirt but her body is flirting anyway and when she goes to move, she notices that she is sashaying, sashaying! and when she tries to stop her hips they just keep on doing it as if they want to show who’s boss – and it isn’t her. She stops. Gives in. Turns around.
Echidna notices but all he says to himself is, I bet she wouldn’t be interested. And that’s all. He can’t think past rejection. It has been a long time. Next thing she is holding him, his hand, but her hands are so dry and firm that it feels like she is holding him with her whole self.
Hello, she says, We’ve met.
He hasn’t been held by a woman, in any way for a long time. Bits of him that haven’t taken any notice of anything for years suddenly flip into action and he has to have a coughing fit to reassure himself that everything is all right, that is, just the same defeat as it was before.
And what passersby see is, she says hello and shakes his hand and he smiles uncertainly and coughs and she turns and says See you later and then walks off. There is nothing going on.
It’s true of course, there is nothing going on. Except he rings her later on a very flimsy pretext. He has to look up her number in the phone book which means Echidna has had to ask someone her last name and how to spell it.
He rings three times but she does not answer and he doesn’t put a message on the answering machine because he knows that the flimsy excuse will sound even flimsier there and, besides, there will be no reason for her to ring back. He’s beginning to think that she will never be home and he will never be able to talk to her and now, not before, he really wants to talk to her, because he knows he can’t.
What he doesn’t know is that she has caller ID and has looked at her phone, and at the unfamiliar number, every time he has called and would have picked up the call if she had heard his voice but he’d always hung up.
Finally she rings the unknown number and there he is. They are both surprised and they talk for some time giving each other the résumés that potential lovers give.
He tells her he has money. He is surprised at this. He didn’t think it was important to him. But it seems it is. It’s also a lie. He doesn’t have money. Why would he think that she would be more interested in him if he had money: because most women are interested in it. He doesn’t even want a woman who is the sort who is interested in money, but he goes on and on and on about it anyway.
She doesn’t know what to say. She’s not interested in money either, or rather she’s trying to be but, up to this moment, has not been. Now she thinks she probably should be. Her mind is sashaying and she can’t seem to stop that either. The conversation goes:
If you’re over this way you should visit sometime
I’m not often over that way, but I’d love to – if I’m around that way. Sure.
I’ve been quite successful (He is cringing at himself as he continues to praise his meagre accomplishments.)
Oh, really? That’s interesting, she says. She gets off the phone and can’t believe that she has turned into a raving caricature of a 1950s tammy and, as she’s thinking this, her disapproving face is smiling to itself and her voice is light and flirty and those hips are doing it again in the privacy of her own lounge room.
For years there had been only a few poles stuck into the ground up the hill from the caravan. He had cut them himself out of the surrounding bush. The idea is that you use local materials so that the wood would be immune to the local pests. Echidna has no idea if this is true but it’s cheap.
He carefully selected a number of the stoutest looking trees which he cut down and more or less dressed before burying them deep into the ground. He didn’t need to worry about council permits up here. No one except the census bloke came unless they were invited or knew you well: too difficult to get to, too cold in winter with the icy fog creeping in under the ill-fitting door of the caravan.
There were the logs planted in the dirt that he had levelled out to form the floor of the studio. He’d already made the footings and poured a rough sort of slab – mixing the concrete by hand and shovelling it out one cold day in May. It had rained shortly thereafter and he had worried that the cement would not set but his friend Ben had told him that rain was good for concrete and that it was a chemical reaction, not a drying action that made it hard. Sounded all right to Echidna so he gave in and watched from the caravan as the cement hardened in the light rain. He wished that he had made it smoother but he’d done his best.
Once the floor was more or less done and the posts were up he began to make the mud bricks. This is not easy work and he had a slim back for it. There was plenty of clay soil about if you knew where to look. This was not a problem, but as he loaded up the mould and put the newly formed bricks out to dry he could see that this was going to take longer than he thought. There was only enough shelter to build a few bricks at a time, and, although they were big, the progress was slow. He would have asked Ben for his help on the weekends except that he could not have stood being lectured through every brick. It kept him saner to do it himself.
Over the years the walls had grown. The western wall was complete and he smeared it over with more mud and whitewashed to see the effect. He liked the idea of a studio that was white on the inside and on the outside.
Then there were the big rains, torrential fallings out of the sky and some hail and he went out one morning and even he could see that his wall was starting to deliquesce.
He must have done something wrong. All the work he had done was beginning to be washed away. He was ashamed that he didn’t know to cover the walls, or perhaps he had not let the bricks dry well enough to begin with.
He left the wall for months while he thought about it, or did not think about it. He avoided the eroding white wall as much as he could when he came out of the caravan and refused to think about it. Keeping warm was more important. He went to get the firewood out from under the blue tarp and found that some of it was wet as well and he felt like a failure. Inside the caravan the living was cramped and smelt of linseed oil. He had tried to do a few small paintings while he erected his studio but it was a summer occupation. He could not stand the stench at such close quarters during winter.
In the winter, his hands were cold and he found it hard to sketch as his mind focussed on the small things of the winter more and more. He felt as though he were becoming an animal – worrying only what he would eat and when and how he would keep warm. There was something comforting in that and he almost didn’t mind, except when he saw his failure of a wall. Now it had eroded even more and he could discern where he had packed some of the mud more effectively than elsewhere. Some bricks were strong and some weren’t. Echidna knew that he would have to knock it down and start again. Maybe he would put the roof on first. Big eaves to protect the earth from the direct weather. He would have to earn the money for the iron or find some second hand.
And this is what he had invited that Eleanor woman to visit. He must be crazy.
He didn’t see how he could achieve any of the work he knew had to be done, so he sat in his caravan and pretended to himself that he was reading or thinking but he was avoiding the job that he knew he wanted to do, but not how to do it. It was best to avoid people, anyone at all if possible when he was feeling like this. Before he moved here, when he was still in the city, he would paint when he felt like this and somehow the painting made him feel better and as though he knew what he was doing in the world. There were times when he hated the bush – even though he had given up everything to move here, he had never thought of himself as becoming an old man here – when the winter would make him cower indoors like an arthritic dog.
The bush started to take him over in ways that even he would not have anticipated. There were whole days when he could do nothing but look at the pattern that the leaves of a tree made when you looked towards the sky. He knew the fascination that he felt was supposed to have something to do with chaos theory and the human brain’s recognition of chaotic patterns implicit in natural formations. This is why we liked ferns and waterfalls. He was sure that he’d read some analysis of Pollock’s Blue Poles that showed that it wasn’t just a mess of paint after all. When Echidna had tried to render this complexity in paint he had come adrift. The paint had seemed too clumsy and the closest he could get to the idea of implicit, pure, order in random event was a white on white abstraction in which the surface of the paint was the random element and the white pure order. This was too simple a resolution and did not satisfy him. He knew that these white paintings were the sort that meant a lot in the execution but not much in the viewing. He had painted them over and over again. He made sure that he did not show them to Ben who would have had a theory – as Echidna did – but a theory that would have become prescriptive. Echidna looked more and more at what was around him and became more and more paralysed with ideas and the impossibility of moving onwards towards anything else.
If Echidna thought about things too much it stalled him. So first thing he did was to clean the caravan thoroughly. He always found that if he was going to make a decision he needed to have order around him. There was nothing much to clean, but he did it anyway. Airing the mattress, washing sheets, running a damp cloth over the windows and along their narrow flat aluminium sills that seemed to collect black mould no matter what he did. It wasn’t the right weather to clean in. Too much moisture in the air. He should have waited until spring.
Schadenvale Road is a place that exists in all the secret hearts. In these stories, old women rebel, God is chained but breaks free, lovers accidentally kill each other, friends are saviours and the world is seriously never quite serious.