Posted on January 2, 2013
On this date twenty years ago I stood on the banks of an irrigation channel with my cousin, desperately trying and failing to save my father and brother from drowning before our eyes. My cousin was a hero on that day, almost drowning himself in his efforts to stop the tragedy unfolding, but nothing that we did was enough in the end.
On that very hot Saturday afternoon, the second day of 1993, Dad and Grant lost their lives.
Drowning did not look like a very peaceful death from where I stood. I struggled with the vision of what I had witnessed, unable to express it to anyone who hadn’t been there with us. One day, at the age of 21 I came across a book in a university book shop in Lismore, and within the blurb on the back cover, I found a voice which mirrored my own experience.
‘Feels the water that was for a few seconds benign change its character immediately to that of a mad, rushing sadist, forcing his head forward and down and under.’
The book was Death of a River Guide, the first novel by Australian writer Richard Flanagan, and it did not disappoint. The character is drowning throughout the novel but it is a book filled with love, humour and grace along side eloquent grief. The novel provided me with an intangible flood of relief and gratitude, and the very moment that I finished it I penned a letter to the writer in a cathartic rush, sealed it and put it away.
About a month later I decided on a whim to send it, via his publisher. Then I pretty much forgot about it, until some five or six months later when I received his reply, handwritten and posted in an express envelope. The letter was three handwritten pages sincerely attempting to respond to the small river of words that I had written to him. It was a beautiful and special response for which I have always been grateful.
Early last year I was moved to write another letter to Richard Flanagan when I read the first article from his book of short pieces ‘And What Do You Do, Mr Gable?’ This letter I haven’t sent, though it has sat waiting.
I read about the release of your collection of short pieces while I was waiting to meet my midwife on Wednesday. As I have always bought all of your novels since Death of A River Guide, I went to my local St Kilda bookshop and picked up a copy on Friday.
I’m 24 weeks pregnant with my first baby and I have found reading difficult. My mind strays. I spend an hour and a half on the bus to and from work and had always spent the reverie with a book. Now I find myself gazing out the window at Punt Road and dreaming of my baby instead of reading. While this is nothing if not pleasant, it does detract from my usual consumption of the written word.
I have found that short stories are easier for me to focus on right now, and so your little collection moved immediately to the top of my reading pile. This morning I read the first piece, Out of a Wild Sea. As I read, I wept, Richard. I wept for you and again for myself. I wept for the rare gift that I unearth when I read something that you have written about a man drowning (and I weep that that man was you), that you tell a story that fits, like a spooning pair, my memory and experience of witnessing a drowning man, and men.
So it is that I find myself compelled to write a response to you when I finish reading, just like it was for me when I was 21 years old and turning the last page of your first novel. I wrote that letter to you in one mad rush, folded it, sealed the envelope, and let it sit in my bedroom in Lennox Head for weeks or a month before deciding to just send it. Your book touched me because your protagonist Aljaz reminded me of my father (and probably does even more so now, with the passage of years), and your descriptions of his drowning finally gave voice to my nightmare visions. But then, of course, the main reason that I wrote to you was to thank you, not just for giving me voice, but for the ending that you granted Aljaz, for the post script to the churning water, for the bouncing, living chubby leg of a baby. It must be the pregnancy hormones Richard, but my vision is presently blurred with tears at the memory of reading that postscript.
I never expected a reply to my letter. I never expected that it would reach you. That is probably the only reason that I was brave enough to send it off. Your reply meant a great deal to me, and I still have it with me. And now I am almost 38, and sitting at my kitchen table, writing to you again.
Your words always bring me back to my own story. I suppose that that is why I am so deeply touched by them. I suppose that that is what I search for in all the pages of all of the words that I ever read. Though your experience in Bass Straight was terrible and though it built the kind of fear that lingers on your whole life (a fear that is a little like my own), I felt honoured to read about those moments and how they made you feel. I was glad to read that meeting Majda helped to heal you, and that your daughters help to salve the wounds. I’m glad that love, for you, hauls you back from the wild sea. In the end, I too have found that love is the only consolation.
I look forward to reading the rest of your short pieces.
With Kindest Regards to you too,
Dani Netherclift (Danielle S Perry)
Love to all of my family today xxx