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Big Black Monsoon

Big Black Monsoon

by Stephanie on April 29, 2008

Ann Blainey has recently published a new biography about Dame Nellie Melba, and today I spent my morning in the West Tower Suite on the 35th floor of the Sofitel listening to her speak about her research process, with salmon sandwiches and coffee courtesy of the Victorian Opera and my sweetest grin reserved for their generous, silver-haired patrons.

There have been about five other biographies about Melba, as I found out today, and while Blainey was talking I couldn’t help thinking dryly how lucky it was for biographers that someone so famous also had a life that slipped so easily into the conventional narrative form. Convinced she was destined for fame, family who said she could never do it, a vindictive husband, a son hidden from her for years, a public affair with royalty – if it were happening now, it would have been made for trash magazines.

After the talk, I stuck around for a few minutes, waited to get my book signed and watched my aunt do her PR thing – floating delicately around the pockets of people in the room, knowing everyone’s name, greeting every patron like an old friend. Out of the window and way down below, the trains were slugging through Flinders Street Station, as tiny as worms.

I’m always a bit jealous of people like Auntie K – able to just slide right through society, smoothing over the bumps and sidestepping the snares. Most of us don’t live like that. I don’t live like that. The smoothest thing about me is my ability to make excuses, and the bumps bruise my knees more often than not. It’s hard communicating with real people when so much of your life is inside your head – when you’re constantly trying to unravel the world and find a narrative seam, to pin down the thread between the imaginary and reality. It’s far easier just to stick my headphones in my ears, pull out a pen and smooth the edges over on paper.

And so my life is punctuated by awkward moments and uncomfortable silences.

Sometimes when I know I have to call someone who I don’t know very well, I’ll make a list of things that I can say to them, because I am afraid that if I just go straight to the point, people will think I’m rude, or self-absorbed, or too full-on, or simply not listening to them. My tendency to bluntness is a direct result of my inability to deal with not having something to fill the space with. Sometimes if I don’t have anything specific to say in the first place, I’ll fill the space with verbal jumble, because the last thing I want is an awkward silence. Silence itself is not the problem; I have been wrapped up in silences that are peaceful and warm – drenched in sunlight and completely without negative tension or expectation. But an awkward silence is worse than simply not speaking. An awkward silence, to me, says “We shouldn’t have tried speaking at all.” It sours the space between us and invariably I leave the interaction with a bitter taste in my mouth. I want my conversations to run as smoothly as they do in my mind – like a perfect bel canto aria – or not at all.

When I was a kid I would blush whenever I had to speak to more than one person at a time. I still blush if too many people look at me, or if I’m angry, or if I’m halfway through saying something that I think is really important. That shy, freckled 8-year-old loner bookworm is still in there. Every now and then she comes out of her corner and reminds me that real life does not fit into this perfect narrative box that I want it to, no matter how pretty my clothes or how big my ambitions or how awesome that one-liner was that one time. Real life is awkward. Real life is made of stilted conversations, unsatisfying goodbyes, misunderstood niceties. Beginnings and endings are accidental, love is arbitrary, and nine times out of ten I’m going to trip and scrape my knee.

Sometimes the melancholy swamps me.

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