I spend the weekend with my grandmother, in her little house on the south coast. She is eighty years old and stubborn: she insists on living alone, hundreds of kilometres away from us. I try to see her when I can, help her out if she needs it. This weekend she wants to clean out her books. She has two cheap pine bookcases filled with paperbacks; she has wanted to sort them for months but her arthritis makes reaching and carrying difficult. The PhD I am undertaking means I am qualified enough to do the heavy lifting for her.
I bring armloads of books to her where she sits in her recliner, hold them up so she can pass judgement on them: keep, donate, or toss into the recycling bin I’ve dragged into her small lounge room. The books smell of aged paper and one of them has a cockroach crushed between its pages, dead so long it is almost dust. Amongst them there is high literature, science fiction, westerns, memoirs of long-dead politicians. No romance – I won’t read that trash, my grandmother says. Anything else, though, is fair game. She tells me the plot of each book as I hold them up. Many of them seem to have some fatal flaw: stupid ending, she says of one thriller. I knew who did it all along, she says of a sixties-era murder mystery.
When we break for lunch I tell her about the PhD. I tell her that I am writing about Sydney. Well, I clarify, I’m writing about writers writing Sydney. I laugh, a little embarrassed, a little anxious. These books we are sorting – most of them were bought second hand, at garage sales for five cents, twenty cents for ten: I know because many of them still wear their handwritten tags. She bought them when she first moved here, after her children were grown and her marriage dead. They were a luxury, and one she was only permitted after escaping. I feel ridiculously over privileged, telling this woman of work-worn hands and six kids raised in poverty that I am getting paid to spend three years writing about writers.
If she thinks of it in this way, she does not say. Instead, she tells me about her first job, aged fifteen. She worked the switchboard at Angus & Robertson, at their offices in the city. Writers, she says, and shakes her head. She tells me about one of them, an ‘authoress’, as my grandmother calls her. She was an older, distinguished lady who would blow in to the office in a whirlwind of bravado and plum vowels, the managers flocking to greet her at the lift doors. Sixty-five years later, my grandmother has lost the name but remembers exactly the fox stole the woman wore – in great detail she describes its fine russet fur, the sharp black claws clinging to a worsted wool breast. It still had its whole head, my grandmother says. It was the most remarkable thing I’d ever seen.
I do some research; I want to know who the ‘authoress’ was. 1950, a woman published by Angus and Robertson, worthy enough to be fawned over. I can’t help but hope that she might be one of ‘my writers’, the women whose books of Sydney I am writing about in my thesis. I am in love with their work and thrilled at the idea of my grandmother in the same room as one of them. I’m already planning the essay in my head: my grandmother marvelling at the fox stole, me marvelling at the prose. I throw out names of potential candidates, hoping my grandmother might recognise one. She can’t be sure. Maybe, she says to each one. Maybe it was her.
I give up, and we go back to the books. By the end of the afternoon, we’ve cleared the shelves and filled the recycling bin. Just before I leave, I tell her that I am thinking of writing about the woman in the fox stole, and the fifteen-year-old girl who admired her from behind the switchboard. All right, she says, after a beat. As long as you get the facts right this time. She is referring to a piece I wrote a few years ago: it was about a childhood memory in which she had a small speaking part; it won a prize and my mother sent her a copy. I liked it, she said at the time. But you got some of the details wrong.
Okay, I say to her now. I don’t tell her that in fiction fact will always lose out to poetry, and I’ve already decided for myself who the woman in the fox fur stole was. I just say okay. Okay, I’ll get it right this time.