Margaret Innes

New Worlds: Reading, Writing and the Imagination


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A Diary of Close Encounters of the Medical Kind

Diagnosis

It began with the ultrasound sonographer saying, ‘I’ll just get the radiologist.’ I had been diagnosed with breast cancer once before, ten years ago. Ever since I have had yearly mammograms and ultrasounds. I had put off last year’s due to Covid-19, thinking it had been a decade, did I really need to worry? My doctor, on the cusp of her last day before she retired, sent me a new referral marked ‘Utmost urgency.’ It was the old procedure, cold jell and the press of the transducer on my skin while I looked at shifting monochrome images on the screen thinking, this is me reduced to those sea-like waves. Before I was released to go home on that day, I had learned from the radiologist that one of those images was almost certainly cancerous, a diagnosis confirmed by the pathology results. Even before my appointment with the surgeon, I was given a barrage of referrals for other tests I had to have. I was on a medical treadmill and there was nothing to do but see it to the end.

Later when the same radiologist was preparing me for surgery, he said to the sonographer ‘This was a good pick.’ Later again, discharged from hospital and discussing the pathology reports with the oncologists, radiation and medical, I learned how good. A just in time good pick of an aggressive tumour about to get into my lymph nodes. The medical oncologist made it clear it would be foolish if I did not have chemotherapy whether I liked it or not. My partner berated me on the way home: ‘Don’t you ever let another test slip by like that again!’

I remember thinking how bright everything looked on that journey home, how vibrant the trees and the sky, how brilliantly white the feathers of the cockatoos. How sweet things immediately within your grasp become when you come face to face with understanding there is only a breath between life and death, that life is a balancing act on a tightrope, and I could easily have slipped another way altogether. I am still not sure I am securely balanced on it.

During my last bout I bought a graphic novel account of breast cancer treatment called Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto. On the front cover is a woman spectacularly taking a fall. That is how it feels. So, I have decided to keep a diary and post it on my blog. Chemo this Friday and I have a pile of information on side effects to prepare me. It is a matter of charting where each step takes me from now on, who I meet there and the outcome, while still thinking there is nothing like fate to trip you up.


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Ladies in Black or What’s your subject?

 

The Ladies in Black in the film of the same name take their places behind the counters of Goode’s Department store in the summer of 1959 when Australia is already changing under the arrival of Europeans displaced by war and a loosening of the white Australia policy. It’s a coming of age drama, where the richness European migration is adding to the nation is contrasted against a telling critique of male-female relations at the time. Throughout the film Sydney looks wonderful, soaked in the summer sun, a harbour minus the Opera House, dominated by the Bridge.

Among the ladies is Lisa, employed for the season in her ugly black dress, having just finished her Leaving Certificate and being in that hiatus between school and some other life. At home in all its suburban dullness, Lisa is Lesley, constrained by her parents and chanting one of William Blake’s Songs of Experience, Tyger, Tyger to herself in bed. Becoming Lisa elsewhere, and especially under the wing of Magda, once a Slovenian refugee and now presiding over Goode’s enchanted realm of Model Gowns, she’s an emerging butterfly, learning who she is, what she can do, what she could wear if she had the means.

When I went to see Ladies in Black, I expected to be entertained. I didn’t expect to be moved but watching Angourie Rice play Lisa/Lesley, I was moved, for the sense of hope and possibility she brought to the role. Noni Hazlehurst, perfect as Miss Cartwright, Lisa’s supervisor, with tears in her eyes tells Lisa she’s a clever girl, the most wonderful thing in all creation. With its light touch, Ladies in Black convinces that it is possible for Lisa to do extraordinary things.

But is that touch too light? Some critics have thought so. The film pretty much stays with the book, The Women in Black (Text) by Madeleine St John, first published in 1993. Stefan, Magda’s husband, a Hungarian, says to Lisa when she comes to lunch with them one day that she should read Jane Austen’s Emma, Austen (he says) being as great a novelist as Tolstoy. And like Emma, both the novel and the film handle the bleakness of the personal lives and the marriages of the women who work at Goodes with a deceptive lightness of touch.

It’s not only about the narrowness of life in Australia at the time and its often stifling, shallow rigidity. It’s Patty William’s husband running in terror, unable to cope emotionally after unintentionally falling into good sex with his wife. There’s the tedium of Fay and her friend, Myra’s dates talking cricket to each other while they ignore both women, other than for Fay’s date to put his hand on her thigh. And Lisa’s father off to spend hours at the pub, leaving his wife and daughter behind to get his dinner. There’s no companionship here, no conversation or good humour between equals such as we see between Magda and Stefan and their friend, Rudi.

There is a darkness behind the book and its lightness. Trapped in a marriage as bleak and loveless as any in the film, subjected to shock treatment and medicated, Madeleine St John’s mother, Sylvette committed suicide when Madeleine was twelve in 1954. Her father, Edward St John’s actions in response only added to his two daughters’ trauma, a trauma which stayed with Madeleine all her life. As Lucy Sussex puts it in her review of Helen Trinca’s biography of Madeleine (also Text):

“The mores of the time dictated that a difficult woman, one who did not comply, was to be medicated into passivity. The alternatives – divorce or a reconceiving of gender relations – were simply unthinkable. Small wonder the next generation of women – the Madeleines and the Germaines – grew up furious, if not actual furies.”  https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/keeping-the-darkness-at-bay/

How does a writer choose what to write about? With the darkest of tragedies in the bedrock of Madeleine St John’s emotional life, she wrote, with perfectly balanced literary skill, a book that dealt with her subject – the loneliness and harshness of empty marriages, how destructive they are – with wit, sharp humour and hope. The deftness of Madeleine’s work rests on the unseen darkness in her sensibility, much like subtle shadows in a painting give greater contrast to the representation of light. The very thing that is out of the picture, the reality not invoked in the text, the bleakness of her mother’s life and death, and Madeleine’s own grief, is its actual strength. Unspoken, it provides the underlying emotional chemistry which makes her writing, with all its apparent lightness, come alive.

 


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Fine & Mellow – talking about love in a few words

Fine & Mellow

In 1957 Billie Holiday sang her own song Fine and Mellow on a television special, The Sound of Jazz with a line-up of some of the most outstanding jazz musicians of the time. It’s a list of a dozen names including Ben Webster, Lester Young and Doc Cheatham. Anyone can view the clip on YouTube, listen to their wonderful playing and hear the great Lady Day use her own voice like another instrument.

The lyrics are simple, deceptively so, especially the last verses.

Treat me right baby
& I’ll stay home every day
Treat me right baby
I’ll stay home night & day
But you’re so mean to me, baby
I know you’re gonna drive me away

Love is just like a faucet
It turns off and on
Love is just like a faucet
It turns off and on

Some times when you think it’s on, baby
It has turned off and gone.
I love the way the music ends so quickly after Billie Holiday has sung those last lines, just like the faucet being turned off in real life. Even as I write this, I can hear her singing them.

Nothing could be more true than those simple words. If you push a relationship way past its limits, to the point that you wear out the love of the person who makes up that other half, then one day, that’s exactly what will happen. The faucet will turn off and the person will be gone. That’s true whether that other person is a friend, or a lover, or a husband or a wife, a brother or a sister, even, in the most tragic cases, a parent and child.

If your partner doesn’t treat you right, then you have two choices. You can stay in a relationship that degrades the both of you: you for accepting the mistreatment and your partner for dishing it out. Or you can leave, however hard that is to do. But if you do stay, the faucet will have turned off anyway and the relationship will be hollow.

This isn’t why every relationship fails. In some cases people just fall out of love, even if their partner is loving and generous; in others people realise they’ve made a mistake. But how many great works of literature, novels, poems, plays, films and TV series have been written, with all their complexities of character and motivation, all their consequences played out in detail, all of which can be summed up by Billie Holiday’s handful of plain words?