Groups matter

One of the first things I did when I moved to Canberra was joining a writing group. I’d been writing for almost ten years, and I’d never had a peer group to read my work aloud to and hear feedback from. I didn’t even think I needed a support group until I had one.

Not only did they coerce me to share some of my work, but they were also accommodating and friendly in their suggestions. For the first time, I felt as if people read my work, not just to tell me they’ve read it, but to actually help me improve it.

It felt amazing. We bonded, sent over our short stories and poems to see what others thought of them, and even met up outside our allocated meeting times to write together.

Within myself, triumph blossomed. From being the written counterpart of a bathroom singer, I went on to become a voice they thought was worthy of their time.

Not long after I joined the group, we all went on a retreat. Thirteen in all, to an ancient manor set in the heart of small Victorian town Goulburn. It was a two-day getaway in the dead of winter. Beautiful Goulburn is perched a little north of Canberra and a little more south of Sydney.

Victorian mansion in Goulburn

With my minimalist backpack and a well-equipped laptop in my friend’s car, we drove up to this strange town I’d never heard of, to spend the weekend in a stranger’s house with a few people who were strangers until a couple of months ago.

I couldn’t have been more excited. I was looking forward for two days of writing, sharing, and revising. 

What I didn’t anticipate, however, was that a roaring fireplace, wine and whiskey, and impeccable homemade food on a Friday night don’t always add up to a night of relentless writing. The frost hugging our windows didn’t help much either. 

None of us wrote anything that night.

We drank and talked. Someone told about his experiences with ghosts. Many of us laughed. 

Except—unlike drunk college students, waking up with guilt stretching over their faces, the next day we woke up full of fervour for the art of writing—and a little light headed, of course. 

We spent the day in silent rumination, writing. Some continued perfecting works-in-progress, while some others picked their brains, chipping away at creating new ones.

That night, we shared, laughed, drank, and danced again. As the weekend wound, and the sun shone on our faces on Sunday morning, we packed up our recyclable bottles and editable writing and drove back home to Canberra.

Looking back now—a month away from our next retreat—I realise that weekend wasn’t about drinking. It wasn’t about escaping from family and responsibilities. It wasn’t even all about writing. 

That retreat was about presence. It was about sharing our personal selves with others like us, telling family stories, ranting, and reassuring each other. It was about sitting by someone as they struggled to get words onto their screen, silently motivating, never judging, and being there when they needed to talk to about the best way to end a murder mystery.

Everyone needs a group like that they can run away with.

Joy, unexpected

“Happy Wednesday!”

She called out to me, clicking her mobile phone off. We passed each other outside the shopping mall—I was going in, and she out. Her leggings, shirt, braid, and hat mostly comprised of pink—which often is an immediate turnoff for me. However, that bubblegum look did catch my eye, and she caught my eye for a quick second, enough to smile widely and wish me a great day. 

Instinctively, my face broke into a wide smile, and I responded with an enthusiastic “You too!”

This was new to me. And as I turned back to face my path, the smile on my face was fixed, ecstatic for no good reason. Perhaps she sensed it, for “Pass it on!” she waved after me.

“I will!” I meant to say, but it came out as “Thanks!” instead.

Regardless of what I said, for the next few moments I felt elated, as if I’d won a competition and nothing could bring me down. All of a sudden, I wanted to yell at the couple and their two children walking ahead to have a great day. I didn’t, though, because a lot of folks I’ve seen in my neighbourhood aren’t too receptive to strangers addressing them.

That said, my good mood continued throughout the day. I remembered that woman and her flip phone, and imagined her wheeling her travelling bag down the street, cheering up many other people’s lives. 

It was a small gesture, negligible some might say—a smile and a greeting. But it made such a difference to me. And it made me think. 

It costs us nothing to be friendly, and yet so many of us walk the streets with impassive expressions, eyes cast down, afraid to look at the person walking past us. We meet new people and mechanically say “hello” and “how are you,” not even looking at them. As they speak, we nod but don’t listen. We converse and co-exist without knowing or understanding the other person. 

Not everyone’s like this, I admit. However, I have come across a lot of such people. Enough to know that that’s what makes the lady in pink so special. She stood out from the masses—she was bold, and became an encounter I cherish.

It’s nice to be nice. It’s contagious.

Closure

“You can’t avoid it forever,”

Simon’s voice thundered in her head. Of course he was right. She couldn’t run away from it anymore. Fifteen years was as long as she could go.

She weighed her options. Michael wasn’t far away. One knock on her neighbour’s door, and there he’d be, visiting his daughter and ex-wife. Andrea swallowed the bitterness gripping her throat, contemplating telling him. At last. After all these years. Now that she considered, it seemed trivial even. Why would he care how he’d made her feel all those years ago?

Oh—wait.

What?

She snapped at her inner voice.

How he made you feel? Are you even listening to what you’re thinking?

Yes.

Silence.

Was it a bad idea, perhaps…?

The front door opened and Michael caught her staring right at him. Andrea jumped, as though struck by lightening, and dropped her eyes to her basil bud instead.

“Howdy neighbour!” His voice floated through, bringing with it a warm breeze kissing the spring blossoms that’d risen between them. She looked over their eager, upturned heads, smiling, pulling on years of practice pretending nothing had happened. She waved back.

He drove away in his red jeep. A decent upgrade from the second-hand Toyota he’d driven when they were in school together. He’d grown up, moved on.

She hadn’t.

“You can’t avoid it forever.”

She’d felt Simon even before his voice came from behind her. She turned, wearing her mask of disinterest.

Who was she kidding? Simon was her high school sweetheart—he knew her better than anyone, herself included.

“Andrea, don’t let the past ruin your future. You need to get past it—just tell Michael what an asshole he was in your trivia club.”

War

The darkness pressed his face as cold air brushed against his exposed arms. He stepped forward tentatively—he didn’t want to trigger whatever was lurking just beyond his vision. Or perhaps it was sleeping. He couldn’t tell.

Bling!

Suddenly, out of no where, light was everywhere. Bright, white, blinding. Jason doubled over—he’d never thought lightness could hurt. As he crouched in pain, his grip tightened around Lyfe, his custom-designed handgun. Whatever was out there, he would get it. He would get it and thrash it, and get out of this hell alive. Couldn’t afford to lose this battle.

He raised his head from his navel, and—bam! A big blurry blob knocked the wind out of him. Searing pain shot up his head as blood flow scattered. Hitting the ground hard, he rasped for breath while peering for a glimpse of his attacker. It was Marcus. Marcus, his friend. Marcus, his partner. The same Marcus who who’d spent all his childhood weekends playing soccer with him, had almost cracked his skull open.

Towering over six feet, with shoulders as wide as a guitar, and muscles that bulged from its sockets, Marcus waited for Jason to stand. Jason took his time. He knew Marcus. Knew that he never liked killing dead rats. Regaining his breath, Jason stood up—there was no use stalling the inevitable. It had to end, and it had to end today.

“How dare you?” He spat at Marcus. Marcus wasn’t rattled—years of practice had taught him never to let personal emotions get in the way of getting the job done. And his job was clear—kill Jason and get the others one by one.

“Spare the chit chat.” He growled and attacked. Thrusting his fist at Jason’s unprotected ribs, he drilled his way deep, cracking a few as we did. Despite a seasoned fighter, Jason stood foolishly, his weapon still in his limp hand. But his mind raced, and he retaliated even before he’d recovered from the hit.

Swinging his arm at nothing in particular, he pulled the trigger hoping to hole Marcus in the shoulder.

The bullet never made contact.

Before he knew what happened, a grand fire erupted around him, searing his skin, tearing away at the tiny fragments of torn cloth wrapped around his calves. His brain paralysed the body, and he stood helpless as the fire enveloped his shoulders, as if assuring everything would soon be over.

Marcus was still standing, unmoved from his stance. The fire danced about him without a single graze. Jason took a great shuddering breath, and preparing to fight his way back, looked up at Marcus’s black eyes boring into his.

And it happened. A tiny piece of metal pierced Jason’s chest, crookedly making its way to his heart. In less than two seconds, the world went black.

Beep!

Game Over. The mechanical voice rang through the living room.

Gone too soon

Dear stranger,
I knew not much of you
except that your eyes glowed
at the prospect of new horizons
that your curiosity piqued
and your spirit lightened up
when your fingers were at play
on the vastness of a canvas
I knew not much of you
except that you dreamt big
that you craved experiences
which will change your art forever
that you remained in patience
and eagerness-pulsing heart
for the one big opportunity
of great exposure of your talent
I saw expectation in your eyes
for all the world’s appreciation
and the applause you deserve

Dear stranger,
I knew not much of you
yes I’d planed to change that
but alas, you moved on in a flash
I know now—death is dismissive


In remembrance of a colleague who went too soon.