Every evening, at 6pm, as the darkness comes and the damp falls, he goes into the living-room and gets down on his knees. First, he scrunches up newspaper sheets into balls and places them in the black metal box. Once done with this, he screws up pages of an old manuscript and piles these up too. Once done with this second task, he gets the smallest pieces of kindling – really they’re just twigs – and places them on top of the paper balls. Then bigger pieces, then even bigger pieces. Once he has some kind of confidence in what he’s made, he flicks the pink plastic lighter and puts the flame to an ear of paper, and another, and another. And then he waits to get the heady whiff of burning eucalyptus into his nose and mouth. Soon there’s the crinkle and pop of the flames and his wood-fire heater is away.
This routine – this autumn, winter, and spring routine – is not just about the fire, as important as the fire might be. After a day of writing, of wrestling with words and their meaning, with characters and story, with plot and point, liking some of it, hating a lot of it, sometimes hating the majority, once the fire is off on its own accord, he leans to the left and presses one button, two buttons, three buttons. Once the little green lights are shining, he selects a CD. Something by Max Richter perhaps? Or Johann Johannsson? Or Olafur Arnalds? Anything by Arvo Part if he needs extra fortification. Or a Godspeed you! Black Emperor album if he has anger in his veins. It’s the maudlin he’s after, the melancholic, and the more minimal the better. One chord for thirty minutes? Ah yes: perfect. Only two or three notes of a cello or viola? There’s nothing better. He’s not looking for complication. He’s looking for melancholic simplicity.
He’s in love with melancholic simplicity. It’s a strange obsession to have, no doubt. And obsession is the word. He’s not keen on major-key music; he’s not keen on any kind of happy buoyancy. What’s the point of happy buoyancy? That’s all around: on reality television, on commercial radio – Justin Bieber doesn’t do a good trade in disaster and destruction (at least not intentionally). Happy buoyancy seems to be all over the newspapers too, especially online. How to lose weight? What do successful people have in common? The top six breakfast cereals you’ve never heard of. The sub-text of all this online nonsense? How to live happily. He remembers as a child hearing Patrick White say that happiness wasn’t the point, and he’d thought, Oh you silly old grumpy bugger – of course happiness is the point. But now he’s not so sure. Actually, he’s very sure. Happiness is indeed a red-herring. Living deeply is the main game. Living intensely. As deeply as one long, low note of an oboe. As intensely as a hot, hot flame of a wood-fire heater.
All this happens when he’s alone, alone at least except for the dog, who more often than not is curled on the old red couch, exhausted after her late-afternoon walk up to the park, or up to the hill on the edge of town where there’s a long view of the wind turbines to the west and to the dark blue ranges of Canberra to the south and beyond. Yes, alone. Except for the dog and the fire and the music. This melancholic simplicity has to happen in an environment of retreat, of solitude. He’s not trying to connect; he’s trying to empty, to bleed out. It’s the stillness he’s after. There’s no stillness on Facebook or Twitter – social media of any kind abhors stillness. But as he ages it’s stillness that’s become so critical. Fire. Music. Melancholia. Simplicity. Stillness. Growing up on Sydney’s North Shore, spending his first eighteen years wrapped in the cocoon of an Anglican private school, attending the weekly chapel service, all those stained-glass windows and hymns and prayers: back then was there a hint that fire and music and melancholia and simplicity and stillness would become his religion? He doubts it. Then again, maybe he should give his earlier self more credit. Maybe he did have the sense of what would become important. It’s just that it’s taken him ages to find it.
The last thing he does before going to bed, once he’s eaten soup for dinner, once another CD is over, once his eyes are half-closed, he opens the door of the wood-fire heater and gets back down on his knees. He feels the heat on his hands, on his chin and cheeks and forehead. What a glorious dry feeling. What a beautiful glow of yellow and orange and red. And that heady whiff of burning eucalyptus. Now there’s only silence in the house, silence except for the soft collapse of the last of the coals. He puts his hands to his face and smells the wood-smoke on his skin. It makes his heart beat slowly, it slows him down. After all this, this nightly routine, he feels more alone than ever. But he also feels more alive, more connected than he’s thought possible. More connected to everything that has ever mattered.
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of contemporary adult fiction, creative journalism, and, more recently, review. His most recent work is I’m Ready Now, a novella published by Blemish Books in November 2012 and short-listed for the 2013 ACT Book of the Year Award and the 2013 ACT Writing and Publishing Award for Fiction. He blogs at Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot.