The author Garrison Keillor is rumoured to have said that ‘cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a purpose’.

But on the loneliest nights, I reach past my knees to feel for the familiar curve of a spine, the fossil shapes of vertebrae beneath fur.

The cats like to sleep at our feet, suckers for the warmth on long winter nights.

Sometimes I wake from a nap to discover one of them curled nearby — pure coincidence, of course, that they happen to be in the same room as me at the same time yet again.

I read somewhere once it’s a sign of trust and affection when a cat looks you in the eye and pauses to blink. In the feline world, closing your eyes in the presence of another is the supreme gesture of confidence and vulnerability. I try to return their gaze steadily, play it cool, but there are days when it’s all I can do to resist burying my face in the whorls of the ginger cat’s belly, brush my lips across his sweet little head, run my fingers along the length of his plume-like tail.

The other one nests, perpetually grumpy, in our clean washing, knows the evening ritual of rooibos tea: the click of the kettle on our kitchen counter, the reassuring chink of the red ceramic cups, the inevitable splash of lactose-free milk in his dish.

‘I don’t like your manners,’ I scold, when the campaign for an early dinner escalates to his most frenzied repertoire of meows.

Deep down, though, I don’t mind.

To be chosen by a cat is one of life’s smallest but sweetest triumphs, I believe. ‘Dogs are too good and unselfish,’ Anne explains in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of the Island. ‘They make me feel uncomfortable. But cats are gloriously human.’

And so we must endure and forgive the occasional patch of vomit on carpet, the errant strands of fur that fuzz an otherwise immaculate black work blouse.

I think of the French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, frequently ill following her divorce from first husband Willy (Henry Gauthier-Villars), who retained the copyright to her early novels and rendered her penniless, depressed, and desperately alone. ‘Our perfect companions,’ she insisted, ‘never have fewer than four feet.’

Charles Bukowski — having endured an adolescence marred by physical abuse from his father and the cruelty of Baltimore school kids who ridiculed his thick German accent and teenage acne — commented that ‘when I am feeling low, all I have to do is watch my cats and my courage returns’.

Perhaps this is the meaning of life, I wonder frequently these days. A nose briefly touches my tear-stained cheek.

I get out of bed to top up the biscuit bowl.

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  • ladyberg

It feels like forever since I’ve dropped in to share my Five for Friday.

Next weekend marks Easter, which means that we’re already a quarter of the way through 2021 (!), and I wonder why I feel so preoccupied with time at the moment, so conscious of the weeks and months passing in a blur — or sometimes as slowly as molasses tipped from the jar.

At the end of January, I tearfully confided in my partner that I wasn’t sure I’d survive this year.

‘What do you mean?’ he asked.

‘I mean I can’t physically do it,’ I tried to explain, my voice thin with panic.

Two months later, I’m starting to breathe again.

Only last week, I walked, umbrella tilted against the rain, to a book launch in West End, and I found myself feeling… OK. Enchanted by the sparkly lights. Reassured by the smell of new books. Comforted by the goodwill of women gathering around another woman with something important to say.

Probably the most together I've felt since something 'broke in the machine' around Christmas.

I feel like I’ve finally settled into the teaching semester (REAL STUDENTS OMG) — even though it turns my work week into a seven-day commitment — and that the worst and hardest prep is out of the way, at least until marking season kicks off. I’m in the process of putting another quarterly journal issue into production. An unenjoyable freelance project is winding up. And my full-time job is levelling out into work that’s more predictable, more writing-based, and less reactive.

Work aside, Mr Ladyberg and I have made some big plans and decisions recently, and I’m experiencing a lot of hope and peace I haven’t felt in such a long time. I’ve been reading consistently before bed and chipping away very slowly on some writing. I’ve also been feeling content with my quieter social life and more and more convinced that having this space is the best choice for me. I don’t miss the constant negativity, and the resulting anxiety, that certain interactions and alliances were starting to bring, and I feel as though I’ve been exposed to some healthier dynamics over the last six months that have given me a useful yardstick against which to measure toxicity versus nourishment.

Life is just such a mixed bag, y'all.

I wish someone had warned us in school. But I guess that, if we had an inkling the real order of operations was merely a shifting kaleidoscope of existential angst layered with new and different pressures, we mightn't have felt much anticipation for the future.


Alongside the marginally cooler Brisbane 'autumn' weather, here are some lovely little bits and bobs I’ve been enjoying lately:

One. Does a cinnamon tea cake in chewy cookie format sound irresistible to you? We made these pan-banging snickerdoodles for my partner's birthday last weekend, and they are perfect.

Two. I'm only happy when I'm... tuning in to creepy crime shows. So I'm glad one of my best friends recommended I give Ozark another try. Now that we've watched the first two episodes of the third season, however, the shift in storyline gears is starting to feel rather grating, but we'll see what happens (Julia Garner as Ruth usually saves the day). I also started listening to a new podcast this week: The Doodler, a true crime series that maps out a spree of as-yet-unsolved killings among San Francisco's gay community in the mid-1970s. Good for evening walks in well-lit areas.

Three. The past few months have represented a bit of a lull in my music consumption, but I'm enjoying new-to-me 'Free' by Sault and 'Broken tongues' by Miiesha.

Four. If you live on Brisbane's south side and are on the hunt for delicious coffee made on plant-based milks, look no further than Paper Moon in Annerley. Bonus: there's a vintage store next door full of vibrant retro clothes and other odds and ends.

Five. Brené Brown has a way of articulating really social complex realities so simply and gently. This recent post perfectly captures one of the foundational problems with 'self-care' (and indeed with self-help more broadly): that selves suffer when systems and societies render them sick, sad, and alone. We can't heal in isolation, and individual solutions to systemic problems can have only limited success.

*I was perhaps being overly ambitious thinking I'd be able to squeeze in a Five for Friday every week, so I might go for the end of each month after this one. :)

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CW: I mention suicide in this post.

My eldest nephew recently turned 11, and knowing he’s a ravenous reader, I asked my partner what he liked to read as an older kid or younger teen so I could explore some new options.

‘The Wheel of Time series,’ he offered, without much hesitation: easy-to-read high fantasy with plenty of dragons and battle scenes.

The first instalment is now sitting on my dining table, ready to be wrapped and delivered. (The thing is gigantic. Good luck, little man.)

Thinking about books for kids, however, has prompted me to reflect on some of the books that had a real impact on me as a younger reader.

Some of my favourite books from when I was around the same age as my nephew included The Secret Garden, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and a little purple book of short stories all about mother–daughter relationships, which I think I might have ordered from the Scholastic book club catalogue.

Every Christmas holiday, when my family travelled back to Australia on furlough, I loved to visit the local library in my grandparents’ tiny town and borrow as many Nancy Drew novels as I could. My friends and I chomped through a steady diet of The Babysitters Club. (And why were we always reading about horses?)

I can see now how the types of books I read had a direct influence on my nascent writerly self. I remember — acutely, uncomfortably — writing a ‘mystery novel' for my Year 5 teacher as a gift; I used to make up stories for my siblings about a bunch of very small people called ‘the Shrinkies’.

But if I had to name some books that really shaped me as a slightly older reader — books that opened or blew my mind, books that influenced me as a writer — these are the three that spring to mind.

1. The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer

Recommended to me by my Year 9 English teacher, The Convenient Marriage represented my foray into the regency romance genre, a phase I’m yet to outgrow. As questionable as this admission may sound, if you’ve ever read a Heyer novel, you’ll know how addictively atmospheric and witty they are.

I actually remember very little about the plot of The Convenient Marriage, aside from the protagonist Horatia Winwood’s expressive eyebrows. What I remember most is the language, the delightfully twisty plot lines, and the exquisite attention to detail that brought a distant and unfamiliar era to life with bustling intensity.

Heyer herself acknowledged the novels of Jane Austen as her inspiration, and like many of Austen’s heroines, Heyer’s are likewise headstrong and recalcitrant — outspoken debutantes who can be only superficially tamed within the misogynistic 'marriage market' that signifies both the setting and central tension in most of the novels. Ploughing through my mother’s yellow-paged collection instilled in me a sense that, as a woman, I could somehow write my way out of the status quo, and that frivolity is often a façade giving way to something much fiercer.

More than that, though, The Convenient Marriage persists as a treasured example of a teacher’s kindness and personal investment. As a desperately shy and unhappy teenager who felt largely invisible both at home and at school, a personal reading recommendation from a respected educator was affirmingly special. I still can't look at a Heyer novel without also thinking of my English teacher's embroidered jumpers and quiet command of an unruly classroom. Every teenager needs a teacher like that, someone who can say: 'I see you. I think you'd enjoy this story.'

2. The Underwharf by Gaby Naher

The Underwharf, first published in 1995, was literary agent Gaby Naher's debut novel, and I plucked it off the Toowoomba City Council library shelf primarily because I liked the cover!

Having read Melina Marchetta's Looking for Alibrandi a couple of years before, perhaps I was keen to sink my teeth into another Australian YA novel — this time something grittier and more literary. But there was just something hypnotic about the crop-top-clad young woman stretched behind the magazine-cut-out title that lit up my teenage brain: I was drawn to its dark glamour, the late-90s grunge aesthetic that I remember seeming alien and exotic against the metal library shelves.

Set in Sydney and London, The Underwharf straddles the unlikely realms of mother–daughter intimacy and the contemporary publishing scene, centring on Sophia, the daughter of an ambitious literary agent (surprise) who is haunted by the anonymity and absence of her biological father. Sophia prefers the company of her grandmother, Nella, and spends weekends scavenging the harbour shores with her best friend, Sammy.

As a character, Sophia could not have been further from the reality of my own life at the time: she reads tarot cards at the Camden Markets, seduces her mother's assistants, and peppers her speech with what I would have called 'colourful language'. But I connected with her hunger for identity and self-worth, something more tender and accommodating than the spiky maternal censure we did have in common.

It was only much later that I realised the extent to which Naher infused both her novels with painful autobiographical detail. I've read all of her books, including her memoir, The Truth about my Fathers, and I wonder why she didn't keep writing (she still operates a literary agency out of Sydney); The Underwharf was my first encounter with Australian literary fiction, strikingly similar (but superior, in my opinion) to Nikki Gemmell's earlier novels, which I also devoured in my early 20s. Reading The Underwharf in my senior high school years felt like a series of interlocking 'I didn't know you could do that!' moments: sentence fragments, non-standard punctuation, vivid sensory detail, and difficult, sometimes aggressively unlikeable, characters.

I wanted, in some ways, to be Sophia, but I wanted to write, in most ways, like Naher.

I still do.

3. The Interpreter by Suzanne Glass

When I got my first job after high school, I'd sometimes roam the local shopping centre after work: Donut King was conveniently close to the QBD bookstore, and I'd scan the tables for bargains, cinnamon doughnut in hand, still chuffed by the novelty of being able to buy whichever titles I liked.

The Interpreter was another novel I picked out by its cover. I'm pretty sure it set me back all of $5.00, but I've re-read this book so many times in the intervening years that the wash per wear must now sit at zero.

The story unfolds from the perspective of two characters caught in an unlikely impasse. Dominique, a simultaneous interpreter, overhears a conversation between medical researchers at a conference in which one discloses some information about a promising advance in HIV intervention. She is immediately hamstrung: she's bound by the oath of confidentiality, so she cannot pursue or share additional information, yet she feels compelled to find out more because a close friend is dying slowly and painfully from AIDS.

When Dominique unknowingly strikes up a relationship with the scientist in question, neither knows what the other must keep secret. Dr Nicholas Manzini has also stumbled into his own critical dilemma, tugged in dubious directions by his pharmaceutical employer. But although the narrative is premised upon the inevitable tension between ethical frameworks and uniquely personal circumstances, it's also a story about voice and agency, the limits of language, what happens when communication does not (or cannot) achieve what we want it to.

Suzanne Glass was herself a trained interpreter, and as an aspiring linguist, I was fascinated by these glimpses into the real world of interpreting and translation. But the book struck a personal chord, too. Only a year earlier, a friend of mine had killed himself, revealing in a hand-written letter that he'd been diagnosed with AIDS and couldn't afford to access experimental antiviral treatment as an American without health insurance. At the time, effective management of HIV/AIDS was still years away; I felt Dominique's heartbreak along every crack.

The Interpreter was also a lesson in the poignancy of truth — mindfully excavated — unpretentious writing that is elegant because it is precise. It was in the pages of this book that I first came across the French saying le coeur connait ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas: the heart knows reasons that reason cannot understand.

And did you know that vertigo is not the fear of falling but the fear of wanting to fall?

I can't wait to read The Interpreter again once I've worked my way through some new books on the bedside table.

Which books would be on your list?

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