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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Deeply buried treasure

The perfect Australian short story

I was 16 going 17 when I went to Teacher's College in 1964. One of the courses we took was English Literature. There, I came across one particular short story I had all but forgotten about in subsequent years.

What jogged something in my memory was the delicious fruit I've been raving about recently on the blog. Out of the blue, it reminded me of a mental image dredged up from that first year of Teacher's College. The image was of a row of these fruit on a window ledge. It came from a short story, but I couldn't recall whose, except that the author was a woman, and it was named after the tree which bore these fruit.

I couldn't remember how the story went, but I knew I had been both fascinated and perplexed by it. Suddenly, with the stirring of that flash of memory, I very much wanted to read it again. If you've forgotten everything about a story except for these sorts of impressions, then you didn't understand it well enough to appreciate it in the first place.

It became important for me to locate it, and re-read it with an extra half-century of experience under my belt. I wanted to know why I was both fascinated and bemused its message.

Google being everyone's friend, my search began there, and it wasn't long before I turned up the author's name and title of the volume of short stories it was in.

The entire volume was named after this one short story. Oh, I daresay that squillions of people are now going to tell me they know it well and have a copy on their shelves. Bully for you. I don't.

Next task was to locate a digital copy of the story. I don't have time to muck about, you see. When I want it these days, I want it now.

I was delighted when I discovered the complete volume online. It had an odd history of getting to that point, funding having been made available to an American university to have the volume scanned and digitised and placed in the public domain.

I downloaded a text version but was affronted on the author's behalf that the OCR text was disgraceful. The pages had simply been scanned into a very poor quality optical translator and dumped online. The text was full of errors in spelling. Some of it was unreadable. Obviously, the money didn't go far enough to do a decent job.

I went back to the site and downloaded a kindle version, hoping it was better. It wasn't. I was determined to put that right, and began the long and tedious process of correcting obvious errors. But at the same time, I located the one short story I was looking for, extracted it from the mess, and read it.

Fortunately, it was better scanned than many of the others, and I had little trouble doing the corrections on it, except for one just word. That frustrated me greatly, because the story was a gem; one that I could now appreciate as never before and couldn't possibly have hoped to understand at the age of 16. It was beautifully written, but its elegant symbolism was all but lost on me at that time. Now, I've seen that tree grow and bear fruit, and I have looked death in the eye, as the author did.

Now, I understand.

I went back to the University site and, on a whim or some intuition, downloaded the pdf version of the book. Why I should expect anything to be different in that one I've no idea, but I did want to know the one word in the story I couldn't be sure of.

Imagine my delight when I opened the pdf to find it was composed of the original page images, not the poorly-scanned digital text. I found the word I was looking for, and it surprised me. At last, I could create a perfect digital copy.

I want to share this short story with you. It's only five pages, and I'm certain it will resonate vividly with many, especially with women. So here are the original pages as they appeared when the volume first published. I believe the publication date was 1943.

If you think I've been coy about not mentioning either the author or the name of the story in this searchable text, or the original site on which a copy of the volume that offends me resides, there's a good reason.


  1. Well, I think the writer was looking in a mirror, watching herself. And I won't say further, lest I confuddle myself. But it is a very lovely story.

    The thing I have found, in recent years, is just how much I less care about what others might think of my life or my doings. I't might sound silly or inconsequential, but there's a freedom to be found when you no longer care what others think; when you know that you can live however, say whatever, and there's no piper to be paid, because you probably 'gave at the office'.

    Off-track, I guess, but I did enjoy most everything about your story, so thanks.

  2. #1 was kvd. Sorry 'bout that.

  3. How strange that it fits you so well. It's a woman's story right enough but you have such an affinity with it it is almost breath-taking. You are a gentle soul, Dennis.

    1. I think the experience of the illness, a hugely life-changing thing that was impossible for me to understand or appreciate, plus seeing our little tree go through all those phases makes a difference and put her and I on the same wave-length.

      "Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches." Ironic to spout that at you in your wheelchair. There's another thing I and anyone else can't appreciate if they're not doing it.

  4. What a beautiful ,evocative story. No wonder you remember it so well.I'm glad you have given it to us, because I've always meant to read some of "Barnard Eldershaw's' work. This is purely "Barnard' but her collaborative work with Florence Eldershaw is a major part of her literary heritage. Eldershaw was a teacher at my mother's school, PLC Croyden in Sydney and mum often includes her in little remembrances (she was known by students as "Old Eldie"). Their first well received novel was 'AS House is Built'. As for persimmons, I remember one of the first winters I was ever in Armidale and saw in mid winter a bare persimmon tree, bedecked with golden globes, in Dangar St. It was one of the most magical sights I'd ever seen!


    1. How interesting about your mother's connection. I admit to doing some research on the Eldershaw partnership while trying to find out who had written that mysterious story. Incidentally, she died just a couple of months off her 100th birthday.

      The thing is, I didn't remember it in terms of content; just like a presence. That was why I wished to acquire what I had never gained in the first place.

      I've been quietly editing the worst of errors from the whole collection to make ready for a kindle version. The other stories look terrific though I haven't really read them apart from the patches I was correcting. She writes with such grace.

      The irony in that is my painstaking editing is no longer necessary if one is happy to read the original page images. Let me know if you want a copy of the whole!

      I have film of our tree in a snowstorm at night, no leaves, with persimmons. Where is that now?

  5. The best stories ARE like a presence -well said. (as usual:))
    This book is in the UNE library -I just checked. What a great idea to do a kindle version.

    Sounds like a lovely photo..

    Julie-who-doesn't-trust Google-sign-in

    1. I'd be surprised if it weren't in the uni library because she was an important part of Australian literature. In the old days I'd have driven up there and got it out. Not any more.

      As I said the official Kindle version is downloadable but a disgrace. I enjoy editing it and to distill a Kindle version, but it takes time. Priorities!

      It's not a photo of the snow on the back garden, by the way; it is video, and rather beautiful. It makes me want to find the clip.

  6. I particularly liked that she took down the bland painting and instead enjoyed the pattern made by the shadow of the bare branches on the wall. So zen. Like Lady Li, tracing the shadows of bamboo on her rice paper screen.

    A delightful story, pregnant (as they say) with innuendo and meaning.

    Was she gay? I began to think I'd read wrong and that the protagonist was a man when I arrived at the reference to women's breasts, and then in the end, was sure it was a man she was writing about and I had to go back to the beginning to confirm it was a woman.

    1. I agree with you on the picture removal. Some of those in hotels/motels are a great lesson on what art isn't. Oddly enough, I wrote a tiny piece on the blog 10 months ago, with the apricot tree and birds making a shadow play on the curtain right here in the study; something repeated this morning right down to the wayang wrens.

      The other part of the discussion has moved on, so I'll talk about it there.

  7. Hi Joan -actually, I had wondered the same, about Marjorie Barnard and Florence Eldershaw being lovers as well as writing partners -they also shared a flat which served as a Sydney literary salon. But Marjorie had a lover called Frank Dalby Davison, though she never married.Flora was a career woman, a teacher and historian and later a quite influential political and cultural lobbyist. Interesting women! I'm definitely going to read some of their works, now. Thanks Denis!

    And by the way, relating to the story as you did - long ago when sick with chemotherapy,my days alone were spent lying on the couch, watching the sunlight passing, and the clouds, through the gumtree leaves outside.One of my most treasured experiences. For me, though, it IS a memory.

    Julie xx

    1. I knew for certain it would strike a very responsive chord, Julie, given your chemotherapy experience [and age bracket!]

      In those days, I suspect women's being gay simply wasn't mentioned if known or suspected, or if so, only amongst a select group of trusted friends. It was "respectable" for women to share accommodation anyway - I imagine not quite so for two men. Of course, they lived through a long period of dramatic social change in the twentieth century.

  8. I remember now. Yes, they were a couple. My sister visited them in 1985 when they lived on the Central Coast.

    I particularly enjoy watching the shadows of dead tree branches on the bamboo screen I made in the zen garden. It's becoming obscured with living bamboo, which is also a pleasant development, despite my having to poison the bamboo into submission. In the mornings, Carl and I enjoy the tracery of dead mistletoe hanging from the gum tree outside our window. Both of these images in our garden have deeply influenced my painting and pottery designs.

    Removing a human-made art work in order to enjoy nature's shadows is a profound image to me. It's like returning to the original, dare I say, face. Perhaps I go too far. But I can imagine the pleasure such simple sights must give to those who are convalescing.

    1. Whether she was gay or not seems to me to be irrelevant to the story anyway, which is more about recovery, coming to terms with her 'narrow escape', the human sense of loss when confronted by what she felt she had lost in terms of her own physical being, and its psychological effect.

      You have no idea how closely I identify with that. So for me, gender is secondary to her story, although many would look on it as a 'feminine' thing and not masculine.

      Not so. A man may not articulate it, but he will feel it no less keenly. [And yes, I mean 'articulate' and not just 'express'.]

    2. I agree that the story was about convalescence and recovery and the melancholy pleasure of moments one otherwise would not notice in the thick of living. But there was also another person in the story, who had her own story, which in the end, contradicted the projections of the convalescent. As well as recovery there was loneliness and longing -- for love, for intimacy, for tenderness. The protagonist admits this for herself, but has projected self-sufficiency onto the other, which in the end was a fantasy.

    3. I think you are absolutely right. Those last two observations are much better said than anything I could have said. Thank you.

    4. It's a beautifully written and conceived story. It makes me realise that I've been depriving myself of good literature. Thank you for posting it.

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  10. I have enjoyed the conversation here as much as I enjoyed the story. Thank you.
    I have an epilogue of my own: about three weeks ago, a friend came unexpectedly to our door. It was not a good time to have someone drop by because dinner was in full swing. She was holding a gift for us in a small paper bag. I invited her in, hopefully concealing my reluctance to do so. In the bag was one small, perfect, not-yet-ripe, persimmon. It was the first persimmon she had picked from her tree, and she was proudly, generously, gifting it to us. I have been waiting and watching it for it to ripen. I had not tasted a persimmon since my youth. Yesterday, I divided the glossy flesh into two small bowls and we ate the velvety deliciousness and was reminded of lost imaginings. Today, I read a short story.

  11. Thank you for sharing the story and I will immediately share it with a friend of mine currently convalescing in hospital. Beautiful.
    In the past I made a series of images which were purely about the play of light on my dresser in my old house. The light would become weighted in the late afternoon and play across the wall in such a way that you could not overlook it. I'm not sure why but always when I watch the tremulous play of light at certain times of day, something melancholy and lovely arises in myself.
    Best Wishes


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