I loved Time Team. It tickled every archaeological pipe dream I ever had (I should have listed it higher on my Uni options, I know I should.) But just once, wouldn't it have been nice for them to dig up something really cool? Like an unknown Roman Legion, or a Harrier jump jet?
"Now get out there and give us a battle Time Team will be proud to dig up!"
Well, here we are. The 29th, and final, Precious Things post. And I can't think of anyone better to round off the whole thing than the woman I call 'Luscious', Lyn Battersby.
Lyn is a talented author and editor, with a writing voice I think is utterly unique. Her writing has taken a back seat over the last couple of years while she finishes a University degree. She's currently in the final stages of a post-graduate teaching internship, and as one of the top two or three students in the state, she'll have her pick of assignments when the adverts are answered towards the end of this year. Once she's settled in her new job, she'll be back amongst the pages where she has made her home over the last 15+ years.
For now, however, with thanks to the 28 friends, colleagues, peers, and artists I like and admire who have created this series, it's time for the artist I love to speak.
Dedicated to Lee and Connor.
And Rebekah Holyoake.
This is my prized literary possession. It’s not a book, or a poem, or a letter from an author. It is a piece of jewellery created for me by fellow Perth author Stephanie Gunn in honour of a story I wrote in the early 2000s. Called “The Memory of Breathing necklace”, it has pride of place in my jewellery collection and is one of the few pieces I own that is mentioned by name in my will.
So, what did I do to deserve such a beautiful gift?
In early 2004, I began work on a story called The Memory of Breathing. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, it centred on the execution of a child, brought back to life after being put to death for murder.
The story was a hard one for me to write. I was in the midst of a fierce custody battle for my first three children and facing the loss of my pregnancy. The day the story was bought (by Sally Beasley for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine), I had lost the battle with my ex-husband (he used my ill-health and threat of miscarriage against me) and started to bleed heavily.
No, I didn’t lose the baby and now I have Connor, a highly spirited child who is the life and joy of our entire family. I have a close and loving relationship with all my children and I feel I actually won the war with my ex.
I still struggle with the memory of that loss. The ramifications of the custody battle have taken a battering ram to my psyche and I don’t think I will ever heal from the wounds. Connor is a beautiful child, but his health is never great and I still live in fear of losing him. I don’t take his existence for granted because I know it doesn’t matter how wonderful you are as a parent, fate can easily rip your children from you.
This is why the necklace is so important to me. The twisted stand of beads represents the double-helix of human DNA and it is this which ties me to each of my five children. At the centre of the strand is a large stone, which I see as the relationship that Lee and I have forged. It is my strength when I feel I can’t go on.
I’ve had many moments in my life when I’ve found it hard to breathe. I feel so overwhelmed by life and how quickly it all changes. And yet, there is Lee and with us are our children, the most precious things I have in my life. I wear this necklace quite often, because it grounds me and reminds me what really matters in my life.
Today I don’t write as often as I used to. I have many other things going on in my life and I barely find the time to create fiction. The Memory of Breathingremains my best-known story and even now it sits with a production company awaiting development into a movie. I love that story and I’m proud of it. It reminds me that loss is always with us, but that we go on because of the love we receive from our friends and family.
Thank you, Stephanie, for the gift of my Precious Thing.
Cat Sparks has done pretty much everything there is to do in Australian speculative fiction. She's been a publisher, illustrator, and editor. These days, she's expanding her long-standing writing repertoire: she's just released her debut novel, Lotus Blue, and is putting the finishing touches to a PhD in climate fiction.
Here, she takes us back into the depths of her childhood, and goes some way to answering what so many of those of us who call ourselves her friends have wondered: how did she get like that?
I had thought this particular gem lost to the mists of time – or the travails of practical adulthood at least, but when Rob and I moved house last August, a process by which so many peculiar things went missing (including our Optus set top box and half my winter smalls), at the other end when we unpacked, there it was, a book I swear I had not seen for decades, the book that freaked out my living ghoulies back in the day when I was a 70s preteen.
The introduction to Aidan Chambers’ Book of Ghosts and Hauntings explains that such things fall into four distinct groups: experimental ghosts, crisis ghosts, post-mortem ghosts and ghosts who persistently haunt the same place. The book contains everything my nine-year-old mind could possibly have wanted to know about ghosts, mediums, séances, haunted houses and things that went bump in the night.
The pages were peppered liberally with fanciful black and white illustrations of things people really might have seen: The ethereal ghost of Lady Hoby; a redcap brownie jigging on the tiles; young men tumbled from their bed by a poltergeist; witches cavorting around headstones; a lubin bewitching a ploughman; evil spirits lifting cows by their tails.
The book also featured stern photographs of old stone buildings in which supernatural incidents reportedly took place. Other more interesting photographs of spiritualism in motion included: psychic energy table turning, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, an infra-red light séance room photograph in which a medium levitates a table. A section on fake spirit photography: the (paper cut out) witch on a broomstick, the loving (cotton wool) ghosts, a ghostly figure on the stairs -- the product of photo-montage and transparent tissue.
And there, nestled in innocently amongst all the rest of it, sat chapter four, page 27, The Hideous Face with Flaming Eyes. No photographs were offered as accompaniment, instead a rather fetching ink illustration.
The story was excerpted from In My Solitary Life by Augustus Hare, set at Croglin Grange in Cumberland. No date was offered, only the fact that the Grange had been owned by the Fisher family for hundreds of years. The Fishers, so we were told, moved out, renting the house to two brothers and a sister. And then one fateful night…
… the sister still felt the heat too great for sleep, and sat up in her bed, still watching the moonlight through her window, for she had not closed her shutters…
She became aware of two lights flickering in a nearby belt of trees… The lights belonged to something moving closer…
Suddenly, she could never explain why, the terrible object seemed to turn aside, and to be going round the house, instead of straight towards her. She sprang from her bed to unlock the door, but at that instant she heard scratch, scratch, scratch at her window, and saw a hideous brown face with flaming eyes glaring at her. She took comfort in the thought that the window was securely locked on the inside, but all of a sudden the scratching ceased, and a kind of pecking sound took its place. The creature was unpicking the lead! A diamond shaped pain fell onto the floor, and a long bony finger came inside, and found the latch of the window, and turned it.
Cutting to the chase -- eventually one of the brothers shot the window-scratching creature, which limped off into a vault in the nearby churchyard. Next day, they found the thing, wounded leg and all, inside a coffin!
My spongy, susceptible nine-year-old mind believed every word of this account. Every. Fucking. Word. And the knowledge that such a creature had been discovered in the everyday world slid beneath the surface of my comprehension, forming an impermeable layer. That thing was out there somewhere, which meant it might come after me some day.
A couple of years later my parents decide to take me & my younger sister on a trip through Europe by way of the Panama Canal and Italy. We eventually wound up in the UK to visit a bunch of relatives.
One of the aunts we met had been making Wombles to sell at a local fete. You remember Wombles? They were everywhere at the time. For no good reason that I can recall, I decided to make myself a doll out of leftover scraps of Womble fur. First I made a skeleton out of pipe cleaners, then sewed on the fur and gave the thing big round sewn-on eyes. I named this doll Miss Fuzzy Wuzzy and my mum made her a little outfit out of denim scrap. Mum was good at making clothing for our dolls.
But Miss Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn't like other dolls. She was an absolute hairy-scary fright. So frightening, in fact, that I then went on to make a magic talisman to hang around her neck to stop her coming alive in the middle of the night and murdering me. Miss Fuzzy Wuzzy was so much like that scratching thing with the hideous brown face and flaming eyes at Croglin Grange. The talisman was a bright pink plastic bead with multifaceted sides, like a dewdrop crystal. I guess it worked because I'm still alive to tell this tale…
Given the lined note-paper, and the care I took sketching out, I'm going to say it was one hell of a boring team meeting I was stuck in at the time. I clearly was too bored to come up with something funny.
"Hello? Base camp? I haven't found the elephant's graveyard yet, but I think I know someone who has..."
If you enjoyed Magrit, then Sue Whiting is the person to thank. Sue is, to put it simply, the best editor I've ever worked with: I learned more from working with her on this one manuscript than I've learned from the rest of my career combined. Her ability to pull threads together, to identify logic gaps and tighten sentences I thought screwed to their maximum torque, was astonishing. She did such an amazing job that she's indirectly responsible for the difficulties I've had with my next work-- now that she's left Walker Books and gone back to her first love, writing, I'm no longer certain how much of my greatest success is mine and how much is hers, and for a long time I was paralysed by the fear that it was all down to her.
This is harder to answer than one might think. At first my mind went to my musty and age-spotted edition of Famous Five Go Down to the Sea by Enid Blyton. It was printed in 1953, but found its way to me as a hand-me-down from an older cousin probably in about 1968. I credit it as the book that turned me into a reader, which eventually led me to being a writer.
But there is actually another tome that I hold most dear. And that is A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I have three copies: two hardbacks (one signed by Patrick) and a paperback, plus the audiobook narrated by Jason Isaacs. When I left Walker Books my gift from the company was a signed print of the cover art. I couldn’t have asked for a better or more apt parting gift. (I am yet to see the movie – but I will!)
This book is incredibly sad and deeply affecting. But it is one of the most beautifully written and crafted books I have ever read. It was “required” reading for my editors when I was Publishing Manager at Walker and I always recommend it when mentoring emerging authors. There are so many lessons about what constitutes good writing within its pages. Quite simply, I adore it.