Summer Reading: Why I wrote Driving into the Sun

Marcella Polain

by MARCELLA POLAIN

AS with all novels, Driving into the Sun has many influences and reasons it came to be.

But let’s get something out of the way first – it took me 10 years to write.

I could point to a demanding job and chronic health issues, but I could equally say I write meticulously and slowly, honing each phrase before I move on.

I’m not saying this is the right way – there is no right – it’s just my way.

However, what I really want to say is: why do I need to make excuses for this? Taking a decade to make a manuscript is okay, in fact, it’s normal.

I can’t see the shame or error in working on something for a decade, and yet the news is frequently met with surprise, leaving me feeling the need to explain, as I’m doing right now.

I hate Lolita, or at least what I’ve read of it. I’ve started it three times.

Many writers – some whose opinions I greatly value – say it’s one of their favourite books.

I try to remember this as I plough on. But I can’t do it. My whole being recoils. I just keep thinking, but what about the girl?

Years ago at a café on the banks of the Swan River on a sky-blue day, I was privy to some slightly older women reminiscing.

They said Perth in the 1960s was a wonderful place to be a young woman, that they could walk safely wherever and whenever they wished. I was astonished.

I don’t remember it that way at all. Listening to them, I wondered if class played into this, if growing up in wealthier suburbs (as they had done) made a difference. And then I remembered serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke.

The protagonist in Driving into the Sun, Orla, is a bit like me and also quite unlike me. My father died when I was young. We kids didn’t attend his funeral.

For a while, I didn’t believe he was dead. I understand this now as necessary protection from grief I wasn’t sure I could survive.

But there are two things which stayed with me and anger me still, and propelled Driving into the Sun – children, particularly but not solely girls, remain at risk from predators (now also in the virtual world), and the world in general continues to disregard children’s inner lives.

I’m tired of hearing that children are resilient. Very often, this seems to be code for it doesn’t matter what happens to them, they’ll bounce back, they’re not like us – adults with feelings, a sense of justice and ethics, a sense of self.

Very often it’s used to justify adult action or inaction.

And it persists despite us knowing it’s fantasy, because we have all been children and because there are royal commissions into the stolen generations and institutional child abuse.

I think we should ask whose interests are served by this persistent fantasy.

When my father died, my family entered a world I didn’t know existed.

Without a man we became vulnerable to those with unsavoury intentions who circled the periphery, awaiting their chance. And others, with power to help, couldn’t or wouldn’t.

The 1960s Perth I remember had a thick, dark underbelly: no bank would lend to a woman without a male guarantor, kids were fair game and they learned by example to keep secrets or they were branded liars, and a woman could call the police and the promised patrol car would never arrive.

What happens to Orla is what happens to some of us – and can happen to any.

EXTRACT

It was loud, close; Henry bolt upright before her eyes opened.

She knew what it was, the only one thing it—. The curtains were openthe room so high no-one could look in, so they left them wide to see the starsand the room now full of moonlight.

She knew she should spring up, get there while there was still a chance. But her legs wouldn’t. Beside her, Kit whispered, ‘What was that?’

And those three words threw some switch. Henry felt herself leap to the window in one fluid movement, as if she were a girl again.

She gripped the sill, looked down, saw only blocks and lines of shadow, some silvery, some grey, some velvet black.

The moon-licked arms of the Hills hoist. The kids’ makeshift cubby against the base of the sheoaks all textured and luminous.

The squat, thick dark of that ramshackle shed behind, horrid thing, nine sheets of corrugated iron, three walls and a roof, all rusted and holed, sunlight piercing it in the day like tiny crazed searchlights.

Half a front to it, and no door. Just a black opening at night. She stared.

‘Henny?’

‘It’s…the window,’ she whispered.

‘What?’

‘Sshh. The window. The latch is broken.’

‘What? Turn on the light.’

‘No.’ She heard Kit fumble behind her. ‘Don’t! He’ll see.’ Then the click, and the room bright.

‘Jesus!’ Henry tugged the curtains closed, spun to face her. ‘Why did you do that? I told you not to do that!’

Kit’s face was flushed, her hair dishevelled. ‘What the hell is going on?’

Henry put her face in her hands. ‘Oh, God, God. It was the window. The broken latch.’

‘What do you mean? What latch?’

‘For pity’s sake, are you deaf? What do you think I mean?’

Kit flung back the covers, swung her feet to the floor. ‘I don’t know! Why did it bang?’

Henry held out her arm. ‘Stay there! Turn off the light. He’ll see!’

Kit stared at her friend. Everything frightened Henry: driving in cars, a plant growing too close to a door, insects, swimming pools, the sea; she thought the worst would happen wherever she was.

But Kit couldn’t deny she had heard it. ‘Henny, darling,’ she said gently, ‘why would anyone trying to get in a window bang the window shut?’

Henry gasped. ‘The children!’ And she was at the bedroom door, saying over her shoulder, ‘Wait here, just in case.’ And then she was only the quick, muffled thud of bare feet running.

As she had run from one end of the house to the other, Henry had tried to think: she couldn’t remember opening their windows. But she couldn’t remember closing them either.

She remembered tucking them in and she was usually carefulbut that nightthat daymaybe she had not been as careful, not a good mother, not herself.

There was the shadowy doorway to the laundry, the darker space of the toilet and bathroom beyond. She was the swish of her nightdress, a sound like breathing, the creak of the floor beneath her.

Orla’s bed was beneath the window, along the wall and hard up against.

She had insisted and they had thought what did it matter? But now. These blinds open, too. Surely she was old enough to close them herself?

Henry looked through them to the street but there was lawn and verge tree and the neighbouring houses, all moon-blue, a couple of yellow pools of street-light.

She listened, heard her own breath and heart and the girl’s deep sleep-breathing.

He wouldn’t stand out there, would he, as bold as brass.

He’d be gone. Or in a shadow like that shed, watching. She squinted into the dark of the shrubbery, beneath trees. He could be staring back at her now. Her skin prickled.

She peered at the window latches. They were both closed firm.

She reached across her daughter for the cord by the head of the bed, eased the
blinds shut.

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