When I was a little girl of about eight, I found a set of abridged books that had once belonged to my mother when she was a child. They included Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne, a set of three macabre tales by Edgar Allan Poe, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and my favourite, a set of three Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This book included these following stories: The Red-Headed League, The Speckled Band and The Copper Beeches.
This post is about The Adventure of the Copper Beeches – namely the television version. It belongs to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes story collection. We are introduced to Holmes while he is having an ardent discussion with Watson regarding the chronicling of his cases. Then afterwards he produces a letter in which a red-haired young lady, Violet Hunter, asks him advice on whether she should accept a position as a governess in the Rucastle household in the countryside. She is offered an overly generous salary, only one six-year-old male child is under her charge and the offer of pay is increased when she rejects the offer after learning that cutting her tresses is a necessary condition of her employment. After some deliberation, she thinks her rejection is hasty and accepts the position when Mr. Rucastle writes to her. But she does consult Sherlock Holmes before she leaves and he warns her to take care and to send him a telegram if she would need his assistance.
Violet finds the situation she is in very odd. The estate is very large and she is told that there is a mastiff that is only fed every two days to keep him perpetually hungry if intruders break in to the premises. Her discovery of a set of tresses similar of colour to that she cut off from her own head puzzles her. The two servants, Mr. and Mrs. Toller seem like an unsavoury pair. She is sometimes told to wear an electric blue dress (electric blue came into vogue in 1890 – two years before the publication of the story in Strand magazine) and with her back to the window, she is told a series of funny stories by Mr. Rucastle which makes her laugh. Mrs. Rucastle sits in on these sessions but does not ever laugh and when Violet sneaks a glance in a mirror hidden in her handkerchief, she notices a bearded man behind the bars of the gates. She is most frightened when she wanders into the mystery wing with the shuttered turret and then Mr. Rucastle discovers her intrusion as she wanders out. He first makes a pretense of soothing her fears but when he threatens her with the dog, she decides its high time Holmes became involved in the affair.
Holmes and Watson arrive at the Rucastle estate when the master and mistress are away. They decide to break into the tower but finds the room empty but obviously someone had been kept shut up there. Mr. Rucastle returns and with the thought the trio had helped his daughter to escape with her lover goes to release the mastiff. Unfortunately he is mauled by the dog as it turns on him because Mr. Toller had not fed the hound for two days. Watson shoots the dog with his revolver. It turns out Miss Hunter had been hired for the express purpose of impersonation due to a matter of inheritance.
Mr. Rucastle (played by Joss Ackland) comes across as a bit of a creep from the start owing to his tone of voice. I think the sinister veneer this bestowed on him made it rather obvious he was the villain of the piece but you rather expect him to be more dastardly in his actions. Violet Hunter (played by Natasha Richardson) is incredibly beautiful and was a wonderful actress until her life was tragically cut short. The fact the TV version is highly faithful to the original is a credit to its producers as you feel it would have met with distinct appreciation by its original author.
After watching Love Never Dies, I read this book of short stories of the above title by Raymond Carver on the one-hour train trip home. Given his status as a demigod of American Literature and staple diet of university literature courses, I wanted to know what was so amazing about his writing. To be honest, while I liked the short stories and the how he made the humdrum banality into a tale worth telling, it didn’t particularly strike me as a must read!
Three of them which stood out to me was the one about the man who attempts to abandon his dog, the one in which the husband of a waitress has her diet to see what customers say about her appearance and the one about a mother who is frightened of her son who displayed a disposition towards violence.
Al, the protagonist in ‘Jerry and Molly and Sam‘ is about him feeling that his life is about to fall apart. He feels that the loss of his job is impending at any given moment, he has had an affair and is terrified by how insecure it makes him, he has just rented a new apartment and worst of all, his sister-in-law had bought the kids a useless dog that pees on the household carpet. Thinking that getting rid of the dog might ease all the pressure he’s feeling, he decides to abandon the dog in his old neighbourhood where it would be adopted by a family that wouldn’t find it a burden. But when Al tries to leave the dog to fend for itself, he feels an inner turmoil as guilt bubbles in him. When he returns home, it is clear the dog is sorely missed by his kids. So he goes back to reclaim the dog, realising he can’t simply fix a problem by putting it somewhere else.
‘They’re not Your Husband‘ is another striking story about the marriage of a man to a woman who works as a waitress. He feels embarrassed when his wife is insulted by a pair of customers who make comments about her weight. So he gets her to go on a diet program and has her do exercises until she becomes a lot thinner. She comments her work mates have been worried about her rapid weight loss but her husband tells her they are not your husband. Carver’s writing does not glorify the human beings in his sparse short stories. His description of the main characters shows little mercy and brutal honesty but somehow he manages to grasp the stream of thoughts, feelings and events that led to the aftermath. Then her husband tries to see what the customers say about his wife after the transformation while he masquerades as a stranger.
The story titled ‘Why, Honey?’ which was written in the format of a letter by a mother who had sought to hide herself from her miscreant son who has since become a famous politician; he has now unearthed her identity even though she had changed her name and moved away in the hope he would never find her again. The family cat, Trudy, had apparently been a victim of his cruel childhood prank where she was forced to have firecrackers explode in her ears and “you-know-what”. It is obvious the son has brought upon himself a reputation for being an accomplished liar; he lied about the amount of money he made at his part-time job, he lied about going to the show when he attended a dance and he lied about going on a field trip when he played truant. The most climactic moment comes when his mother asks him to tell the truth and he asks her to kneel. Given we only have the fearful mother’s perspective whose faith in her dishonest son is quite shaky, it’s a bone-chilling moment.
Each story has its own individual trait but somehow appear to be interconnected by a common thread where each seems to communicate with the others. There might be merit in the approach taken by the film Short Cuts which rests on the belief all of Carver’s work is one storyline about occurrences.
Have you heard of Cate Kennedy? She wrote the short story ‘Habit’ which has more than one veiled meaning. The plot is about the experience of a dying character who adopts a master disguise to smuggle cocaine using an ingenious manuevere. Torn between the remainder of life left and the dilemmas imposed by an impulsive choice, the protagonist throws caution to the wind to face a massive risk and succeeds.
The gender of the main character remains ambiguous to the reader and contributes to the sly tone satire peppered through the narrative but the voiced internal thought process gives us some insight. Clever phrases are interspersed within the tale which make plenty of sense when the disguise used to conceal her true intentions is finally revealed. It is clear Cate Kennedy has used creative writing techniques in a skilled fashion to craft the plot and is fully deserving of the regard she has attained.
The author of Habit also has the following advice about distractions caused by the Internet for aspiring writers. You can read it here at Overland’s blog. But Jo Case warns you to not go to Luddite extremes either by reflecting on her own blog writing experience here. With that I bring my week of highlighting Australian short stories to a close.
‘Wedding’ by Glenda Adams is a short story about the fatality of incompatibility. The main character looks forward to marital bliss with her chosen life partner and takes it upon herself to be selective in her choice of negligee for the wedding night. But the dialogue around her, even on her wedding day, includes all but the bride herself. It is unclear whether her husband truly loves her or not but it is clear marriage does not grant her entrance into his world of intellectuality.
You cannot help but feel sorry for the story’s protagonist who is uncertain about the conversational duties of a wife, feels everything she does not go quite as planned and finds winning affection from her husband on her honeymoon a daunting task. Her dress is lost during travel, her wedding cake is ruined and the fault line is repaired with a border of funeral flowers while her lover prefers to watch Wuthering Heights starring Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff rather than get busy.
The first line of the story makes you hope her sweet, girlish dreams come to fruition. Anticipation is slowly built up when things keep going wrong but its turning point leaves you deflated in defeat. Yet the writing by Glenda Adams is superb in keeping you hooked through all the pages till the very end.
What do you think the worst case scenario would be on a flight that faced no crash disaster? Airline food has its negative points when flying economy but significant steps are being taken by at least some airline carriers to address this deficiency. As the admin of this blog explains in their article, our perceptions of the saltiness and sweetness of food are affected on a flight by white noise. Identification of a suspicious object that might be harmless also may give some passengers cause for alarm. In Peter Goldsworthy’s short story given an attention-grabbing title, The Duty to Die Cheaply, his protagonist faces a dilemma which I hope to never encounter on a long plane journey; imagine enduring sitting with a corpse!
Written from the perspective of an irritated doctor whose field has little to do with patient examination, he recites the trials and tribulations imposed on him by the deceased passenger. The tone of the narrator clearly expresses he feels injured at the indignity forced upon him due to his occupation. While unwillingly accommodating the desires of the airline’s purser, he takes it on to be as irksome as he can for the duration of the flight which makes for some amusing reading.
Curious after my first introduction to this novel situation, I did some research on what measures are enforced if this were to actually happen and if this had ever occurred. My search unearthed the following information:
- British Airways reported there were 10 deaths each year during flights from a total of 36 million passengers.
- Singapore Airlines has introduced ‘corpse cupboards’. If there is no row of empty seats for use, the locker is used. There is also the possibility that any spare vacant restroom might be used.
- If it is a short domestic flight, planes may divert for a while. Technically by law, passengers who have passed on cannot be declared dead in the sky and is regarded as indisposed until the plane lands on the ground.
I know this is rather morbid subject matter but if you are fascinated , here are some interesting stories about corpses on planes:
- One good reason to fly economy
- One good reason to be sanitary in the restroom
- First-hand perspective from pilot
Thea Astley’s short story ‘Coming of Age’ subtly evokes the feelings felt by a girl who is bridging the gap between the preteen years into adolescence. It starts out with a narrative of a playful childhood spent outdoors with the family where she hangs on trees, upside down, wearing no more than a navy skirt and an embroidered red sweater, and observes her parents and their peace shattering spats.
She amuses herself with strange pursuits such as reading life histories of those in graves in cemeteries, skidding down an ancient canon in Newstead Park or taking pride in sinking the gun Oronsay not too far from the mouth of Breakfast Creek. Being incredibly perceptive, she realises her parents live in strained harmony as they whisper things far from pleasant to each other in acid tones and simple arguments escalate.
Her main focus though is on a day at Newstead Park that has been ingrained in her memory. Her parents are fighting yet again trying to conceal the fact but even though she is only twelve, she realises a truce is needed between the warring factions. In her innocence, she makes a display of acrobatics as a diversionary tactic. This backfires spectacularly when her mother beckons her and delivers an embarrassing blow with one simple line which ensures that she will never climb trees again.
Mr. Gleason, a ‘small meek man with rimless glasses’, is the title character of this particular short story but the largest impact he has on his small country town only surfaces after his death. Told from the perspective of a young resident who has since grown older and wiser, it starts with this gem of an opening line, ‘No one can, to this day, remember what it was we did to offend him.’
Initially the town is described as a nondescript, ordinary place in a little valley where people use it as ‘somewhere on the way to somewhere else’. So all of its residents dream of the big city, of wealth, modern houses and motor cars. The father of our narrator calls these ambitions, American Dreams and thus the story by author Peter Carey (Oscar & Lucinda, Bliss, Parrot & Olivier in America) derives its title.
We learn after his retirement, Mr. Gleason starts to build a wall around a two-acre plot up on Bald Hill. This does not please the townspeople because the wall being erected blocked the view of the town and he does not bother to explain his reasons.
When Mr Gleason passes away, the walls are torn down by the Chinese labourers who were originally hired to build it. The revelation inside excites the town until they realise it also has the ability to expose their secrets. But they are thwarted in their desire when Bald Hill is declared a tourist attraction.
This works to the benefit of the town for a while and people regard Mr. Gleason in a new light as they prosper. Then the long awaited Americans arrive . Life goes on as usual but the Americans keep coming as people start to realise their once longed for dreams are quite different in their obtained reality.
Larissa Behrendt is a Eualeyai and Kamillaroi woman who decided to become a lawyer at the tender age of eleven when her Indigenous father found his mother’s removal certificate. This poignant and touching story titled Home about Garibooli, a naive young Aboriginal girl who is displaced from her society to an alien Western world, tells us subtly how advantage is taken of her childhood innocence.
Garibooli, after being taken from her people is put to work in the mansion of the Howard family under the name, Elizabeth . The domestic servitude encumbered upon her during her youth is exploitation enough but worse follows when Mr. Howard begins to pay her flattering attention. Her ignorance and lack of education makes the resulting consequences ultimately tragic.
The story is interspersed with comparisons of Indigenous traditions and Western culture. Highlighted is the friendship between Xiao-ying Chan (Helen Chan to white people) and Garibooli (Elizabeth to white people), her cordial relationship between the strict but kindly housekeeper Miss Grainger and the perpetual annoyance of Mrs Howard when she tries her best striving to get praise for a job well done. Imposition of barriers created by the inability to communicate is well articulated within this tale. The author neatly ties in the impact inflicted on Garibooli by the separation from her family through indicating her conflicting desire to please the Howard household while showing her discontent through nostalgic, contemplative reflections.
The story appears to indirectly comment on the plight segregation had forced on the protagonist since in Australia, similar conditions were faced by many other young Aboriginal girls when oppression against the indigenous people were rife. Prejudice held against this native community has lessened considerably with the passage of time and the public apology but politics and the current legal system still has a big part to play in improving conditions for our indigenous citizens. If you did not know about the Stolen Generations, you might find some enlightening information within this fact sheet.
I have discovered short stories are something I put by the wayside unless they are the sort written by Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl and Jeffrey Archer. Thinking it is time I should end this discrimination against the poor genre which is overlooked, I have opened myself to reading and reviewing an Australian short story per day for just this week. We will see how long I manage to keep it up!
The Sandfly Man by Matthew Condon is a short story about convictions that spring up and take precedence in the innocence of childhood; he expresses with convincing imagery of the pesticide man of the park how fears that inspire terror from back then can remain with us until our transition into adulthood. His reflective glimpses of how mundane our life can be in the world of the beach caravan park as a home away from home is insightful in its banality.
Queensland in his idyllic narrative setting of Tallebudgera Creek Caravan Park is described so well you cannot help but feel through how he radiates the hot, sticky feeling of summer and the pleasure evoked through moments at the Burleigh Heads beach in adolescence, that it is being conveyed by a native. It is an odd contrast when he details the pleasure of his parents and their friends in a simple game of canasta while he lies in abject terror of his conception of the Sandfly Man. This figure which has arrested his imagination causes him to fear it far more than the fearsome combination of the ‘government, devil and God all rolled into one’.
In its conclusion, we are left to contemplate the inability of the author to return to the caravan park even though his sister does. The family tradition is carried out by his sister after she had kids herself since she forages out her own caravan park space and the card playing scenario continues with a younger generation in her circle of family friends; but the author is an outsider who sits by himself in the lounge on Christmas morning watching television. The door to the past is not open to him.
The fear of the ghost of the Sandfly Man with his swirling mist is still to elude our writer.