Grieve Writing Competition

The Grieve Live Reading held last Friday 29th August in Newcastle, NSW, was a great success. In addition to the shortlist of 23 pieces, we also enjoyed two musical items courtesy of the Hunter Singers and Catherine Mahony who wrote a piece especially for the evening.

I was long-listed for the Australia-wide Grieve Writing Competition, and my short story, June’s Death – an excerpt from my unpublished memoir See No Evil: story of a war child – was published in Grieve: stories and poems for Grief Awareness Month 2014.

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The Opening Aria

The Opening Aria

The Readers

The Readers

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June’s Death

The events of that fateful day are seared into my memory. My sister, ten-year-old June, developed a raging fever one night. At seven, I couldn’t understand how ill she was.
The next morning, June sat bolt upright, pulling the blanket off me with her abrupt movement. She muttered strange, garbled words and I sat up too, suddenly afraid. Beads of perspiration stood upon her brow, and she seemed unaware of me. Staring straight ahead with a glassy gaze and unseeing eyes, she kept muttering through parched lips.
I slid out of bed and ran to my mother. ‘June’s looking strange, and I can’t understand her.’
My parents rushed to June and spoke to her. She lay on her back, her eyes darting all over. What was happening to my sister? I’d never witnessed her so helpless and so sick.
Mum fell to her knees at the bedside and stormed heaven with her prayers. She pressed a crucifix to my sister’s lips and kept repeating, ‘Merciful Mother, have mercy on her.’
Mum’s face turned pale. Her lips moved in prayer. Dad remained strangely quiet, watching June who appeared relaxed. We gathered around. Moments later, she gave a few gasps, her head rolled to one side and she who but a mere twenty-four hours ago bounded with fun, life and energy, now lay still and silent.
I froze at the sight of my sister, so young, so active, stretched out on the bed.
Dad placed a small hand mirror against June’s face. His Adam’s apple slid up and down. With a look of anguish, he left the room.
His gloom rolled towards us like a damp fog, and plunged us into despair. Mum shut the door and hastened to June.
My sister stared at us, but the light had gone out of her eyes. After attempting to close her eyes without success, Mum placed a coin on June’s eyelids until they remained closed of their own accord. She kissed her forehead and told us to do the same. Then she fell on her knees beside her.
The hand of grief gripped me, giving a choking, stifling sensation. A lump stuck in my throat. I stole away and threw myself upon my bed, shaking with sobs. A solemn stillness prevailed. The room grew dark, as if a black cloud had passed over the sun.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned around, trying to distinguish, through my tears, the figure standing behind me.
‘Don’t cry,’ my brother Bertie whispered. ‘June’s in heaven, you know.’
His words of sympathy only caused me to break into more frenzied sobbing. He did his best to console me, but to no avail. Totally lost, I couldn’t survive without June, my constant companion. At nights, I had shared her blanket, her bed and her bodily warmth.
Days passed. Desolation greeted me from every direction. I curled up in bed like a wounded animal and sought solace in slumber.
Overwhelmed, I lost part of my childhood.

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More holidays in the UK and the Republic of Ireland

We could not keep away long from the land of Colin’s birth. We thought of the beauty of England, of the winding roads and hedgerows with its verdant fields and returned two years later.

I was enchanted with the green planes, buses and letter boxes. I had attended a school run by Irish nuns and loved their sense of humour. The speech of the Irish people I met, reminded me of my days with the missionary sisters.

We’ve always associated St. Patrick’s Day with green clothing, leprechauns and shamrocks. However, we never saw a leprechaun.

In a half-day tour of Dublin we viewed the Book of Kells at Trinity College, visited the crystal factory at Waterford and Kilkenny Castle, staying overnight at Killarney. In Cork we toured Blarney Castle, kissing the Blarney Stone and buying souvenirs from the Woollen Mills. Despite kissing the famous stone, neither of us obtained the gift of the gab, and we remained bashful and quiet as we always were.

‘Famine walls’ and ‘famine houses’, relics of the Potato Famine, were dotted all over Ireland.

The coach drive through the Ring of Kerry reminded us of the Snowy Mountains in Australia. We went on to Limerick, home of Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis. Colin recalled his own poverty during his early days in Portland when his Dad worked for the Cockies and we lived in a shack with hessian bags as walls.

We travelled to Galway Bay and on to Knock, where we stopped at the Basilica of Our Lady of Knock.

We returned to Dublin after a week, and flew back to England.

Uncle Clarence looked slightly thinner, but still held himself tall and straight. He picked us up from our hotel and took us to meet my youngest cousin, Matthew, born since our last visit.

Using Nottingham as our base, we travelled to Matlock by rail and walked along the Limestone Trail to Abraham’s Heights. Returning via the Derwent Valley Walk on the Derbyshire Downs, we listened to the chatter of chaffinch. Bluetit and blackbirds regaled us.

While dining at the Magna Carta Hotel, Uncle Clarence, who was usually reserved about his past, spoke to us of his work in China during World War II.

‘When hostilities broke out in 1939, I registered as a conscientious objector and joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, a Quaker organisation. I was based in the city of Kunming, in Yunnan province, near the Burmese border,’ he said.

He was still a pacifist and, although over eighty years old, he and his son, Paul, worked as ministers in the Church of Christ. The epitome of kindness, Clarence was always ready to do good for others. It was a pleasure to meet him each time we returned to England.

With regret, we said goodbye, little knowing he’d pass away in less than a year. Paul wrote, informing us of his death. In his e-mail, he attached the first few pages of Clarence’s unfinished memoir.

When I read it, I said, ‘I must complete his book for him.’

The result is my manuscript, The Chocolate Soldier: story of a conchie.

Our adventures took us to many points of interest in England before we boarded a plane at Heathrow to enjoy a wonderful week touring Italy.

I felt a tug at my heartstrings when we left for Brisbane, Australia. As the aircraft circled over the approach to the city I gave a contented sigh of relief and, looking down at the vast, open spaces, thought of our home—our Arcadia, our piece of heaven

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Holiday in England, Scotland and Wales

dunrobin-castleWarwick CastleWe took the train via the Conway Valley to Snowdon National Park in Wales, alighting at Holyhead. The hills and pine forests with snow-capped mountains in the distance enchanted us. As it snowed heavily, the weather prevented us from hiking up the mountain.
The sun showed its face at Conway Castle and the Peak District, smiling at us as we rambled among the ruined ramparts, climbed the parapets and looked down at the countryside. We’ve always been attracted to ruins, and I recalled the old haunted house in Portland, where Colin played with his childhood mates.
At Edale, the start of the Pennine Way, we set out for a long hike. Chased by a snowstorm, we hurried back after a short walk by the canal. Before departing from the Peak district, we went to Bakewell, home of the famous Bakewell puddings. The aroma of freshly baked cakes lured us into the shop. The delicious cake melted in our mouths.
We dropped in at Eyam where, in 1665, the villagers chose to isolate themselves at home rather than travel and take the plague to surrounding villages. I leaned forward to read about the courage of the people and my pulse raced at the thought of their concern for the safety of others, marvelling at the ancient village, which thrived long before white settlement in Australia and still survives in its original setting.
Warwick Castle at Easter presented the days of yore. Knights, knaves and kitchen maids went about their chores, seemingly oblivious of wide-eyed tourists. A sea of colourful tents lent an air of authenticity to the atmosphere. A procession of knights in armour filed past. A mock battle followed. My heart beat fast to see how people lived during those times.
From Chester, the train passed through wild country on its way to Carlisle. I was enchanted by the beautiful Royal Doulton plates decorated with fairies, which covered the walls of the bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
The train travelled to Haltwhistle, where we took a taxi to Hadrian’s Wall, which had been built by the Romans to keep out the Scots. From the ruins of a Roman garrison, we looked down from the ramparts on to the verdant pastures. Cattle grazed tranquilly. Had the Roman guards had enjoyed the peace and quiet too, or did they have to be always on the alert against the enemy?
Peter Rabbit and other characters came to life at Beatrix Potter’s World in Bowness at the Lakes District. We boarded a double-decker bus and alighted at Ambleside and had a pleasant walk in the village.
Grassmere and Windermere were overflowing with tourists. We rambled in the same pristine places that inspired Wordsworth. The scenery was exquisite, leaving us longing for more.
A scenic rail trip took us past snow-capped mountains to Inverness, where on a tour of Loch Ness, we hoped to catch a glimpse of the elusive monster. We wandered along the banks of the river as far as the Ness Islands.
Passing clear lakes and snowy mountains dotted with pines, we arrived at Kyle of Lochlalsh, but we missed an opportunity to visit Skye, made famous by the Skye Boat song which I’d learned as a child from my music teacher.
From Inverness we travelled to Golspie and hiked on the path by the sea to Dunrobin Castle, home of Lord and Lady Sutherland. Our childhood dreams of fairy tales came alive at our first glimpse of the stronghold perched on the hills. The furnishings were splendid, the gardens charming. Hazel and I wandered around, calling to mind another garden in Adelaide, where we had rambled together, lost to everything else when we fell in love.
We chose to return to Golspie via the woods, then by train back to Inverness, charmed by the hospitality of the Highlanders, the beauty of the land and the fine weather.
Across the border, Nottingham welcomed us with a shower of rain. My cousin Paul was at the station to greet us. Uncle Clarence was waiting for us at Paul’s home. He was thin and tall with snowy, white hair and clear blue eyes suffused with kindness. Our fondness for him grew each time we met. We had a family gathering, getting to know the other cousins June and Geoffrey.
On our previous trip, Clarence had taken us to Orlando Drive where Mum was born. Now he drove us to Sherwood Forest. The great oak, beneath which Robin Hood bled to death, still stood, its large horizontal branches propped up by beams like the crutches of an aged man. The tree is reputed to be over one thousand four hundred years old.
From London we visited Dover Castle, where we entered the secret wartime tunnels and learned how they were used during hostilities.
We spent our last days in London at the Portobello markets and Petticoat Lane. Here Hazel threw up her hands with delight at the sight of the souvenirs. She bought three teapots with Shakespearean themes painted on them, besides other curios.

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Review of View from the Faraway Pagoda

View from the Faraway Pagoda: A Pioneer Australian Missionary in China from the Boxer Rebellion to the Communist Insurgency by Robert and Linda Banks, Acorn Press, 2013
Authors’ Blog
This book describes the life and service of an inspiring woman, Sophie Newton, the grand-aunt of Robert Banks, whose desire to serve God led her to the forefront of missionary work in south-east China from 1897 to 1931. She lived through the tumultuous events of the Boxer Rebellion and Nationalist Revolution, as well as warlord conflicts and early communist uprisings.
Sophie spent her life empowering women through establishing schools and training Christian workers, as well as opposing the opium trade and challenging the practices of foot binding and infanticide.
Drawing on a wide range of family journals, personal letters, official records and newspaper reports, this story describes how the conviction, sacrifice and compassion of one single-minded woman can make a real and lasting difference to a community.
Robert and Linda Banks have worked in churches, universities and other educational institutions. Robert has taught in history departments and theological colleges and written several award-winning books. Linda has been a teacher, pastor and chaplain. Together they have produced a range of creative Christian resources.
Review by Hazel Barker
The story opens with an excerpt from The Sydney Morning Herald, August 1895. Due to the recently installed cable system, it reaches the ears of Australians, with life-changing consequences for the protagonist, Sophie Sackville Newton. She longs to serve the Master, but her father’s death delays her departure as family responsibilities require her to wait.
Early the following year, the Church Missionary Association accepts her, and, after undergoing six months of training, she joins a little band of missionary sisters and embarks for China.
Besides spreading God’s message to the Chinese, Sophie and her co-workers endeavour to stop such practices as foot-bind, opium addiction and the disposal of unwanted babies. She writes that Chinese fathers squeeze the little ones through openings in miniature round towers specially built for the purpose.
Sophie suffers from migraines despite prayers to remove her affliction. She lives in fear of her life during the Boxer Rebellion, when ruffians attack mission stations. The inmates are hacked to pieces, set alight or skinned alive.
Even during her leave back in Australia, she does not rest, but spends her furlough speaking about China and raising money for the CMA.
Sophie Newton dedicated 34 years to the cause of Christ in China.

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God’s Panoply by Anne Hamilton, Even before Publishing, 2013

When I opened God’s Panoply, I thought I was about to read a heavy theological treatise, but as I continued, I found the book a refreshing read. The author presents a theory and uses biblical quotations, mathematics, literature and fables to prove her premise. She quotes from various translations of the Bible and relies heavily on the Hebrew Bible.
That green is the colour of fairy folk and magic was news to me, as I’d always considered it to represent hope when trees break into life once again. Upon consideration, however, hope does raise one’s spirits, as if by magic.
I’d heard of the manner geese migrate in formation, and can relate with the author’s comparison of that phenomenon with Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. So too, I have always marvelled at ‘the golden ratio’ and the way ‘this proportion appears everywhere in nature.’
The themes of forgiveness, armour, covenant and the power of words are woven together into a rich tapestry depicting God’s love for us, and, just as Our Lord often taught us in parables, the author teaches us through stories. Her thoughts are profound, yet laden with meaning. The language is lyrical.
E.g. A thousand years ago, a Jewish teaching of the first century emerged from its chrysalis and took full flight into Christendom.
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Like a lark ascending, it fills the air with the sweet music of lifting off, lifting up, forgiveness, removal of sin, burden-bearing, helping, supporting, covenant, submission, obedience, oneness. Armour-bearing.
The theme of forgiveness rings a special note to me, and the final words of the author, So put on the armour of God. And remember to lift your face for His kiss, are particularly appealing.
I urge everyone not to be daunted by the title but to spend a few hours meditating on the mysteries revealed in God’s Panoply by Anne Hamilton.

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Holiday in the UK

A few months after our trip to Thailand, we took off for a six-week holiday in the U.K. Colin longed to see more of his English heritage and now that I had retired from teaching, we could travel during the off-peak season. We bought a Brit Rail Pass, and had a glorious time touring England.
At Kew Gardens, we stood enchanted, reluctant to leave our charming surroundings. We drank in the beauty of acres and acres of daffodils. Their fragrance wafted towards us and brought back memories of Portland, Victoria, as a child when wandering round Daffodil Farm.
We spent April Fool’s Day visiting Penzance and St. Ives on the Cornish Coast but as the tide was high at Penzance, we were unable to visit St. Michael’s Mount.
The stunning scenery of Cornwall was a hiker’s paradise with trails scaling rugged cliffs and descending to isolated sandy beaches. The silence was only broken by the roar of waves or the shrill cries of the birds.
At St. Ives we climbed steep slopes, stopping to taste Cornwall’s famed clotted cream. The plaintive cries of seagulls filled the air as we looked down at the colourful fishing boats sheltering within the harbour. Ghosts of coastguards still patrolled the area on dark stormy nights and smugglers’ caves beckoned us to explore their depths. I stood motionless and Colin recalled his misadventures at sea, shivering visibly, remembering when he and his Dad were swept out into the ocean at Portland.
The following week, at the Salisbury Plains, Stonehenge with all its hidden history and mystery left us strangely silent and speculative.
At Exeter, we boarded the train to Ivybridge, a quaint little village not far from Dartmoor National Park, where the walking tracks were well sign-posted.
As we hiked across the moors, the wind whistled through the hilly tussocks.
The bleak conditions conjured up the deep baying of the Baskerville hound in the distance. Dartmoor looked forbidding.
At Eggleston, we rambled in forests of beech and larch.
The sheds on the Liverpool dockside housed a market, filled with craft stalls. The docks were much larger than the one at Portland, where Colin used to wander about as a child. We sheltered from the cold wind and peered out at the Liver Building and the two metal birds perched on top of the twin clock towers like watchful guardians. They glinted in the sunlight—a beacon guiding ships into the harbour. Legend has it that if they flew off, the city would cease to exist. The edifice still stood, though buildings just across the river were razed to the ground by the Luftwaffe during World War II.
After wandering around the craft markets, we went on a sightseeing cruise of the Albert, Victoria and Gladstone Docks. The swell of the water rocked the boat. Seaweed clung precariously to the side of the pier, dancing to the tune of the wind that whistled past, sweeping away leaves and paper in fierce gusts. Barnacles shut their mouths against the air.
The rhythm of the rocking boat, and the sights and smells on the dockside, made us think of the war. The navy had stationed the Liverpool Escort Force at the Gladstone dock and destroyers, sloops and corvettes had docked there. Scarcely able to control our excitement, our thoughts turned to the Compass Rose, made alive by Nicholas Monsarrat in his book, The Cruel Sea. I visualised it steaming in, battle-scarred and belching smoke, still smarting from encounters with Nazi submarines and planes. It was freezing even where we sat protected from the winds. Fifty years ago without air-conditioned cabins, the cold would have been unbearable.
We disembarked, my head filled with thoughts of war. The gale drove us to the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the Beatles’ Museum—a magnet to all Beatles’ fans. Anything connected with the sea attracted Colin, so we spent hours there.
Excerpt from my memoirs.

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Review of After Darkness by Christine Piper

After Darkness by Christine Piper
Author’s Blurb
It is early 1942 and Australia is in the midst of war.
While working at a Japanese hospital in the pearling port of Broome, Dr Ibaraki is arrested as an enemy alien and sent to Loveday internment camp in a remote corner of South Australia. There, he learns to live among a group of men divided by culture and allegiance.

As tensions at the isolated camp escalate, the doctor’s long-held beliefs are thrown into question and he is forced to confront his dark past: the promise he made in Japan and its devastating consequences.
Review by Hazel Barker
After Darkness by Christine Piper is a story of conflicting loyalties and an emotion-packed novel of grief and guilt, where secrets hover like shadows over the book.
The protagonist’s actions display his inner sensibilities. This was first brought to my attention on page 45 when Dr Ibaraki hears of Japan’s bombing of Broome, while in an internment camp. He worries over his Australian friends back there. Surely they would have evacuated. The uncertainty made me feel sick, he thinks, glad for the pocket of darkness that hid his tears.
When Ibaraki worked in a laboratory in Japan, he was haunted by images of blistered skin and a child’s black fingers – the results of Japanese experiments on the Manchurians.
The author’s terse prose is honest and compelling. Chevalier describes the methods used by the Japanese in their tests on humans, and specimens are brought the Japan in jars. The description of the severed head of a human experimented upon is particularly gruesome but it depicts the evil of biological warfare.
The protagonist says, ‘I felt stained by my association with the laboratory.’ He longs to explain his actions and reveal his work to his wife but refuses to break his pledge of secrecy and continues his loyalty to his Emperor, with dire consequences.
Poignant scenes are scattered throughout the book. The theme of empathy for human sufferings and the desire to help those in need is prevalent in the book, which has been thoroughly researched.
I particularly enjoyed After Darkness because as a young child during the Japanese occupation of Burma I also suffered from their experiments on the population. I recommend this book as an eye-opener on the horrors of war – especially germ warfare.

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