Avoiding the Fairies at Halloween

Avoiding the Fairies at Halloween

Bronwyn Rodden

God, three matches left. This game is killing me.

How am I here, at Halloween, avoiding the rough-necked trick or treat teenagers who grunt without making any effort to dress up like dead people to get their sweets. Well, no tricks for me, I’m lying low – I don’t want to confront any tough guys with buckets who just hold it out like it’s their right to get a truckload of sugar for the night. While I wait for the ‘witching hour’ – around five to six – I’m playing e mah-jong, autumn version, lots of confusing brown leaves and toadstools, and waiting for darkness when all of this silly American stuff will go away.

I’ve connected with two completely different groups of people today – bush regenerators and artists, and my slim capacity for name-recalling has really been stretched. I start thinking about names, how remembering them is so impressive, how it’s a skill of politicians and of a particular art critic I met once who recalled my name years later. But whenever I think about remembering names, I think about the McKilhaffeys. Two brothers, Stan and, can you believe it, Oliver – or Ollie, that I only recall from playing touch football with them in the nineties in Glebe Point Park. I mean, I don’t even like football. I really don’t. I only played because a woman I worked with said it was a laugh and nobody took it seriously and they were writers and stuff – and I’d just really gotten into writing. So, I went along. I don’t think I was particularly good at it, I liked to run a bit, not too much, and it’s a nice inner-city park to play in. We didn’t talk much about writing, but we all had a laugh.

The McKilhaffey brothers were very competitive. They tried to pretend they were being ironic, but they really did care who won. They were boys underneath all the erudite quips. Both tall, broad shouldered and obviously experienced in this kind of ball sport, they were polite to us ‘girls’ and feigned disinterest when a goal was scored, but if anyone kept count it was the McKilhaffey boys. My memory of Oliver was that he was the senior one, the serious older brother, the responsible sibling. Stan, on the other hand was the younger, the less serious, the frankly silly one, who dyed his hair with henna which ran onto this tee shirt on a rainy day. Yes, we’d play in the rain, why not, it wasn’t cold.

Whoosh, the ball launches off a boot – well, running shoe, into the air and we look up in wonder at how this happened, some action on the ground got this projectile high into the air, drawing our eyes to the blue sky with puffy pink clouds that always seemed to drift in from Rozelle.

Bloody hell, kids are yelling outside, already mad with sugar: ‘Oo ah, oo ar’ they cry, louder than the summer crickets or the last call of the butcherbird. They won’t walk all the way up our path though, it’s a long path and there are 14 steep steps at the end of it to reach the front door (I’d have a drawbridge if I could): they have enough sugar for the night. I wore my favourite Salem tee shirt to the bush regen gathering, and bought bat biscuits as well. Somehow, I wanted to participate but in a way that was fun, non-intrusive and non-confrontational. I did visit Salem once, scarily driving for the first time on the wrong side of the eight-lane highway from Boston Airport into a macaroni minefield of tarmac. I asked the guy at the rental desk if he had some information about road rules in America. There were two main ones as I recall: when there’s a yellow school bus you cannot pass it, just stop and wait for it to pick up passengers. The other rule I found bizarre and somewhat alarming: when you arrive at a cross junction, whoever arrived first has right of way. I imagined many court cases with one word against another.

I’m saving this and it’s wild how the memory stick reacts with a flashing red lightshow when I back up in this gloomy light, I am staying in so the kids don’t see I’m home. I like the little ones, cute in their fantasy get-ups, but older, less cute ones have started invading the turf, demanding sweets with menaces or at least, bad grace, so I avoid the trick or treaters altogether now. Funny, I’m trying to fix a serious spelling error in the previous paragraph but somehow the mouse has a mind of its own and won’t land on it. Must be Halloween. We didn’t do Halloween in my day. It just didn’t exist.

It seems completely dark as I sit before this bright white screen and my backlit keyboard and outside there are a few streetlights but it’s not Glebe anymore, not all that halogen and tired bitumen and crabby café staff and grooviness. I like the ungrooviness here, it invigorates me.

Now the curser is shuddering like the witches have gotten to it after all.

I arrived at Salem on the spring Equinox. It wasn’t planned, but it was exciting to find this was the case. Walking around town I was confronted by several people who looked like they might know a spell or two, and drifting from various public rooms came the sound of chanting: low, bizarre, threatening.

I am trying to use my curser but it has gone a bit mad and I have to use arrows to move around my document and fix spelling errors. And still, I am not concerned. Because one thing I know is that all this supposed witchcraft, Warlockhood, otherworldliness, is not actually from another world, but from ours. It is the flowering of hopeful people who want to reach out to something other than the routine of their daily lives. For that is the real, ultimate truth that we hesitate to tell to young people: keeping your daily life going is work enough. But it can also provide sustenance enough for the soul, so you don’t really need to worry, life is unbelievable if you are open to it.

God, I have to really push the save icon to make this document stick, what is going on here?

I’m having a food break. Well, not really food, Himalayan Pink Salt Thin Crisps. Limited Edition.

I bought the tee shirt: Destination Salem with a witch on a broomstick passing a yellow moon. I do like it – I like the antsiness of it, like I’m going to hell with those poor women whose graves I saw in the cemetery at Salem. I have a photo of the sign on the gate in the last light, warning people that the place is closed at sunset. They weren’t all burnt, some were pressed. I mean, how cold hearted would you have to be to put increasing numbers of stones on top of someone until they died? Not a quick death, that’s for sure. Would you talk to them as they died, as they asked you to remove the weight, trying to convince you that they weren’t an evil, supernatural being, just someone people didn’t like.

The curser is going wild again. Must be all this witch talk.

I want to put on a candle – there is something comforting in candles, as if we really could survive if we had to return to absolutely rudimentary power. But a trail of fairy lights on the road outside hints there are still fairies and witches abroad, so I stay in the twilight.

I typed McKilhaffey into the search engine and found Stan on Linked In. He is a scriptwriter. His most recent work has been for a reality TV show. I had no idea someone actually wrote scripts for those things. Not that they make it obvious – he is one of the last people listed on the credits. Is that what he expected as a writer? Did all those years of chomping through the classics prepare him for the embarrassment of structuring a drama around DIY? Well, lots of those books were about disappointment – at least they would be helpful. But some made your mind sing, elevated you to another plane, perhaps where the fairies live: a place of possibilities, of washing yellow light and reassurance that you were special. And you don’t care about anything else because it’s your place, you can bath in whatever the fuck glow you like, and those books took you there.

As I said, when we played touch football Stan was the unserious one, the one who was writing romance novels for fun but his publisher thought his name too long and cut it short so it would fit better on the spine of the book. He grinned as the red dye ran down his white and branded tee shirt and we laughed along with him. We are funny, life is funny.

Somehow the computer has gone into touch mouse mode. This is getting spooky.

Anyway, I found Stan on LinkedIn. I hate that medium, I tried to get off it but someone who I really had to let connect with me wanted me to stay and here I am again. It’s a long story that involves affairs, forensic science and friendship, let’s not go there. It’s hard to say to them that this is just me deciding not to use it, it feels like you will insult someone if you don’t. Bugger.

Driving from Boston airport to Salem was quite scary. I had never driven on the other side of the road and it just felt all wrong. I had to reset my brain to autocrat mode and kept telling myself ‘you will do this even though it seems completely mad.’ Intersections were a nightmare. I kept letting everyone go so I didn’t have to make a decision about who got there first. I actually did encounter a yellow school bus and just pulled over to let it get away from me so I didn’t have to worry about it. This is weird, I’m trying to save this document and I am getting screens with previous documents and then my various mah-jong games. It is definitely Halloween.

Sometimes I change to Chinese characters in the Mah Jong. It is more of a challenge, but makes it seem more authentic. Now there’s an overused word.

I take a sip of wine. All right, yes, I’m drinking while writing. So arrest me. Actually, with the plethora of alcohol-related illness carrying off my family I am extremely cautious to the point of neurosis. So, I will make this my last of two glasses of wine and focus on the work. Fuck coffee spoons – I measure my life in restraint.

Outside I can hear the sea. The waves rumble, not crash, there is a constant strong collision with the shore, and I thank my lucky stars, or the fairies, that I am in this place and hearing such wonders. Does everyone else in this village hear it or just me? With all the striving and chasing and reality TV have we forgotten the wonder of the natural world? There is a photo of a starving polar bear on Facebook. Sometimes it is truly alarming what appears on your screen, animal cruelty shots must surely be to shock us into attention. I decide to take a break from it.

We’ve had a visit from Darwin recently. Not the naturalist – this isn’t magic realism – but a 2-year-old with a father besotted by the Galapagos Islands and travel. His parents barely seem to notice nature, but Darwin loves it, he drinks in our garden, a chunk of bark chip, a stray bottlebrush flower, the sound of a honeyeater marking out his territory. Darwin loves it all, he wanders slowly amongst the deliberately unkempt garden, eyes open as wide as possible to take in these new strange surroundings his parents have brought him to. You will say, everything is amazing when you first discover the world. But it’s not just that, it is that he looks at things in such detail, from a perspective close to the earth. He makes sounds that might be words, but they could be Mandarin or Flemish, his parents’ main languages. It doesn’t matter, I get it.

Oops, I do need a Facebook break.

Back. I have to be on FB or I won’t know what is happening to my younger family members. That’s an excuse but also true. I wouldn’t willingly make myself learn yet more technology unless I had to. I’m a dinosaur, in my first job I was dazzled by a ‘plugs and keys’ switchboard I had to master. But, having done this I quickly learnt to touch type on heavy old machines at the Receptionist Centre, alongside other women and a few burly policemen, which explained the robustness of the machines. Bash, bash, bash, went the keys following the tempo set for us, and if you didn’t have strong little fingers at the beginning of the course you certainly did at the end. You might do without a q or a z for a bit, but you absolutely had to be able to type an a. That short course, just a few hours a week for a few weeks, has given me a skill I have used all of my life. I’m using it right now. Not unlike Darwin, I was like a sponge in my new environment. Hurt but unsurprised that I had to leave school early, I was determined to make the most of what was on offer. My brother and I decided to go to night school together to gain our Higher School Certificates. We had enough energy to attend relatively diligently five nights a week after work for a year, rewarding ourselves some nights with the highly seasoned chicken that was on offer in a brand-new establishment near the technical college. Fridays suffered somewhat, but then Fridays were History nights, and I had no illusions about my abilities there, after four years of being taught by rote to recall dates and names of famous foreign people who won wars. I scraped through for a Level 3.


I’m now thousands of miles away. Flying is still some kind of magic, despite the accompanying illness that should really be expected from transporting you so quickly to the other side of the world. Perhaps in the future we will really have a Star Trek style of transporter – I hate to imagine the jet lag then! We are making our annual pilgrimage for my partner to see his family in England, and for me to see mine in Ireland. Amongst our friends and acquaintances this is a regular occurrence, flying north for the winter. I check my e-reader for the time, haven’t sorted out a phone yet: four-thirteen. Practically normal for an early riser. Only a few more days and all trace of my Australian body clock will be gone. And of course, a few reminders of Australia appear here. There is a story about a shark jumping into a fisherman’s boat off the NSW coast; that is the kind of Australian story people are interested in. We are a passing glimpse of an island beset with dangerous animals and spiders, with some sporting ability but this is fading. Nobody would be aware that Sia of the magnificent voice and song writing prowess, combined with a mysterious stage presence, is the daughter of a Men at Work (‘Land Down Under’) member. Why would they? Is it important? Where you live is not relevant in social media, just what you post. Probably much more egalitarian than in the past. Sia is clever, surely her father’s knowledge of the business has helped her to take more and more control of her own brand. Something poor Jane Austen didn’t get right. Yes, we are in England and there is yet another program about her in the continuing effort to make up for her inability to make more than a few hundred pounds out of her blockbuster novels in her lifetime. I appreciate her supporters’ desire for proper recognition, but also wonder, in this increasing magnification of her life, if all the other women writers are being ignored. She is a great story, living the poor life of her heroines and succumbing to a romantically-young death without finding romantic happiness. This single focus is easier in a world beset with too many people in your face.

And don’t get me wrong, I like fairies, I like the idea of them, their promise of hope. Once in Ireland, my niece and I found a fairy tree – one of those small shrubs, often hawthorn, all alone in the middle of a field. They are supposedly left as it is bad luck to cut them down. When we approached, we saw many bits and pieces tied to it – people’s efforts to partake of the magic. There were ties, scarves, handkerchiefs, all sorts of paraphernalia. My niece and I couldn’t resist adding our hair ties – you never know, as they say, it might bring luck. I also want to partake of a tradition that protects small, spiky trees fending for themselves in the wider world. It is all about hope.