John Clare Writings

The Unfinished Book

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I wish I had not begun to read Anne Of Green Gables. Nothing could have lived up to my expectations of what that book would be, in view of its perfect beautiful title. It has been suggested that I might have been more deeply engrossed by the actual text had I read it in another incarnation, as a sixteen year old girl. Maybe. I loved the title when I was a small boy, but nobody gave it to me for my birthday or Christmas.

Anne Of Green Gables.

On French Street high above Maroubra Beach I could see from the front windows of our flat, houses that faced us and others that faced away across Mons Avenue and spurned us with their backyard fences. Those mysterious places looked out toward sand and heath below and out over one of the two major swamps. I looked from beneath the white underside of stairs that disappeared up through the floor of the balcony above. The backyard of one of the away-facing houses was crammed with glossy waxen-leafed evergreens which towered over the grey paling fence and largely hid the red brick suburban house beneath. In there lived Anne Long and her mother.

Many years later my mother explained some of the mystery of the Longs. I can’t remember much of it now. The father was a sailor I’m fairly sure but, but I think there was some other reason why he was never seen. Perhaps he had another wife in another port. Ann was in her mid teens I think, and quite beautiful with her white skin and long black hair – somewhat like Snow White. I was not in love with her. I was a small boy when we lived there, and merely intrigued. That was due to the coincidence of her name – my sister was also Ann but with no ‘e’ – and the fact that her life was largely obscured by the dense glossy leaves of the evergreens.

I knew the book Anne Of Green Gables by name and as a small boy I knew what gables were, and also eves. And though I loved the flat in which we lived through the war, these appurtenances to dwellings of domestic size – like unto the houses of suburbs or villages – wakened a not unpleasant yearning for the homes where children lived in books who were not the children of flats or apartments. Children like William of William books in his English village, and Ken who lived on his father’s ranch in Wyoming. All that was both intimate and remote from me, though the friends in our gang lived in free standing houses. Once my mother and I did go into that mysterious house of the Longs. It was an overcast day.

We stood in the lounge room, too far from their front windows to see any depth of vista in the world outside. Out there was not only Mons Avenue diving toward the beach but Haig Street above and behind us and other references to the Great War before I was born. The war of my grandparents. Indeed our own street was French Street. Furthermore on the hill a little back from the north headland were First Avenue, Second Avenue and perhaps a couple more – traces no doubt of the Americans who were stationed here during the Second World War. America and England were our twin suns, and someone had taken street names from both.

Deep within this complex of memories and sealed from the world outside stood Anne in her Brownie’s uniform. Or, as it suddenly seems to me, a navy Girl Guides outfit, which would mean she was a little older. She stood close to an open door, facing the room in which I waited. I can feel the light of that interior and actually see it in peripheral vision, but not one detail still lives. Then I began to cry, from some depth of distress. I can remember no loss, but this was like a welling of unendurable grief. Sometimes it is hard to tell why a small child will suddenly burst into tears.

Anne Long picked me up then and held me, stepping back into that other room, and I felt her warmth go into me and somehow absorb my grief. Then she put me down and I was fine. I was also filled with admiration for this generous and knowing gesture.

Let us move closer to the present. Yet still some way back.

On weekends my two children stayed with me in various locations and we had many adventures and it was a time of magic. Once we went to see a film called The Fog in the Metro Theatre, where Hair had been staged. No, no, it was the State Theatre in the city. It was a horror movie and we saw it in the daytime. Because there was a very small audience in the day we spread ourselves about upstairs as if we owned the place. Rebecca sat at the end of our row, on the aisle. I sat half way along and Mathew was behind us somewhere. I have no idea why we wanted to see it, but it was genuinely frightening – to us anyway. Something would come in from the sea – the fog I guess – and it brought with it terrifying portents which manifested themselves as malign spirits of the sea, and these could could kill in the foggy lanes of a seaside place which bore little resemblance to our own city of Sydney. As the creatures – humans like pirates or half humans like fish, hung with a rusty hair of kelp and stubbled with moss – condensed in the fog and opened terrible jaws with jagged teeth, fear mounted until Rebecca began to weep silently. I moved along and put my arm around her and Mathew rubbed her back from behind. That bitter sweet blending of warmth and tears enveloped us and slowly we were the three of legend, enveloped by love.

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