EXTRAS FROM KATA'S BOOKS
WHAT HAVE I DONE?
‘What have I done?’
It is cold, getting dark, the sharp wind is blowing from the Sydney harbour. As it is getting stronger, it almost sweeps me away.
I must hold on tight.
On the bridge the traffic stopped. A huge staring crowd surrounds the Opera House. Police cars flash everywhere. I hear the sirens. Squadrons from the Police Rescue, dressed in black, begin to climb the sails to the roof. They mean business.
This masterpiece, the most known symbol of Australia, was designed the same year I was born. We are the same age. Old, beautiful, and strong.
I am surrounded by more than 1 million roof tiles.
The concrete and ceramic “shells” are icy cold, my skin has long been numb.
I am lying here on the top of this icon, where Paul Robeson was the first person to perform in 1960, when he climbed the scaffolding and sang Ol' Man River to the construction workers as they ate lunch.
Below me is the place where Queen Elizabeth II was standing in 1973 as she opened the Opera house, and Arnold Schwarzenegger won his final Mr Olympia body building title in 1980.
Everybody knows the history of this building, and all those famous people, who celebrated here. But do we know the names of those 16 dead workers, who died during construction?
On Bennelong Point in Sydney more than 10.9 million people visit the Opera House every year but not many could go up here to the top. Except if you are a protester from the Whistle Blowers, Activists and Citizens Alliance in 2017 or a
drunken guy in 2014. All my respect for them, it is not easy to get up here.
The Police Rescue are halfway as they climb and keep shouting at me, but I don’t understand them.
In this moment I don’t understand a lot of things.
How did I get here?
A 63 years old female and naked.
It all started in my editor’s office.
I really like Elenore; we work together very well. Having the same sense of humour, sarcastic, sometimes dark, and always sharp.
After we published my first book we kept in contact. I wouldn’t say we were friends, but we are exceptionally good acquaintances.
Yesterday she wasn’t happy with my whinging.
‘What on Earth do you expect from me Cathy? I don’t do marketing, it is not my responsibility to sell your books. I’ll be honest - selling books is hard! I have a target niche and even I struggle. It's not easy, that's for sure, but if you get your website going and if you can do a bit of promotion here and there it might help.
But if you are planning more books, don't put too much effort and definitely not much money into promoting your first one. Once you have two or more books out there, it will be more worthwhile and economical because everything you do for one book will help the other.
The hardest part is that people don't really buy books, they buy authors. So if they know you as an author, they're more inclined to buy your book, love.’
I felt helpless and I felt all my work was in vain as if it weren’t recognized.
‘Maybe I am a bad, very bad writer and no one is interested in my novel.
I should go and work in a café somewhere in the CBD.
I was waiting for my first book to be published all my life. The day when I got my first printed one I was crying, and laughing and jumping up and down. And now it is 10 months and I only sold 200 books. Only 200 people have read me. Elenore, that is terrible.’
‘Don’t be silly, don’t be impatient. This is your first. Trust me. Your expectations are too high.’
I slammed the heavy door on her.
I couldn’t fall asleep that night.
My thoughts were punching me.
‘So, I have to sell myself as an author? Seriously? I research, I write, I rewrite, edit, and publish. I am not a public figure. The protagonists in my book are interesting, not me.’
While I was spinning in my bed, I was cold, then I was hot, my brain was flashing, my thoughts were running around like a headless chicken. I started building strategies, finding solutions for how I can be an author for sale.
So, I was contemplating joining a reality TV show, maybe the Bachelor, but I am too old for that. Well, there could be a Bachelor for oldies, like: The Vintage Bachelor.
Maybe sign up for Gogglebox? Well, I am funny, I love to watch TV, but I live alone, no one is sitting next to me on the sofa in the evenings.
The Block? Not for me, I have problems even changing the lightbulbs. In my toolbox, there is only a hammer and a screwdriver ... somewhere.
Big Brother? Are you kidding me? I am a misanthrope, and claustrophobic.
Not a good idea.
I was watching the clock on the wall, as the hands circled, 1 hour, 2 hours, 3 am. Towards 4 o'clock I finally managed to fall asleep.
In my dreams a weird, very strange, scary, amazing, but ingenious solution appeared.
In the morning I knew what I needed to do to be famous, to be known.
My name will be everywhere, and people will que up to buy my book.
Climbing up to the top of the Sydney Opera house naked in the end wasn’t a good idea. In September the days are warmer, but after the sun goes down it is chilly.
I was relieved when the squadrons finally approached me. The truth is I was frozen. I couldn’t move my body. I couldn’t come down not even with the help of the ropes.
Elenore came to visit me in prison. I dragged myself from my bleak cell to see her. I was expecting bad news. I screwed up everything. My life, my career, my friendships. My family is embarrassed because of me.
Here, I am content. I move around slowly. I don’t talk much.
I have uninterrupted time. A lot of time to write. I wouldn’t say it is peaceful or quiet, but the other women have learnt to give me respect.
‘Oh, the great author, who climbed the Opera house naked, see…’
I hear them whispering behind my back.
So many lives, so many stories they have!
Maybe I don’t have much personality, but my protagonists are interesting people. There is an old woman, who is waiting to be a grandmother, a young girl who hears the tribe in the wind, a man with rough hands and the sleeping beauty. I was cheated on. I also cheated and there are two sides of every story, isn’t there? I write about a killer brother, serial killers, sex traffickers, and a God, who sexually assaulted a young woman.
I write about the autumn in New York. About a miracle resurrection, and the last sad supper during a pandemic.
I am never alone. Sometimes it’s a little abandoned boy, or an angry dog or a strong proud man. My cell is enough to have them together.
When I walk to the visitor’s hall, Elenore is there.
She is drumming her elegant fingers on the tabletop and smiles cheerfully at me. I catch my breath. I have no idea what was waiting for me.
‘Cathy, good news. You are famous. Everybody knows your name. The author who climbed the Sydney Opera house naked. Your book is number one on Amazon. You are selling fast. Really fast. I hope you have something new to publish now. You know, make hay while the sun shines, love.’
I sigh deeply.
‘What have I done?’
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our spectacular!
The trumpets are blaring and the drums are crunching. The noise is overwhelming. The curtains open and you step into a painted world.
The lights are sharp – they blind you for a couple of seconds – but soon you can see the red faces around you.
Black holes appear in the red faces – open mouths and intense, expectant eyes.
The sand of the ring crackles under your feet and you can smell the horses and the tigers who were just here.
You are wearing a red nose. Your hair is green, your jacket is chequered, your shorts are striped, your socks are purple … and your shoes are oversized.
Your face is pale yellow and there are black dots around your eyes.
Can they see the hope in my eyes?
Red lipstick covers your mouth. Your smile is painted – it’s not yours.
You start walking towards the audience. You open your arms and wink at them.
They stare back at you.
Stopping in the middle of the ring, you look up and around.
Maybe today I will succeed?
You want them to cry with you tonight.
Try it now!
Slowly you place your left leg in front and tangle it with the right one.
You fall …
Look at them, they are laughing!
You are crying.
They are still laughing.
You stand up, shake the sand off your pants.
I want to be a bird. I want to fly.
You are flapping with your arms, jumping around, but you fall on your stomach.
Why are they laughing?
This is horrible!
I cannot fly!
The black holes grow larger in the red faces.
Tongues fall out as they laugh.
But I want them to cry with me!
You make a handstand, but you fall over again. Somebody pours cold water on you. They kick you on your ass and take away your violin.
The audience laughs while you cry.
My tears are real!
You are whining in the middle of the ring. Huge guffaws echo everywhere. Mayhem!
You can see them: the lazy housewife, the naughty schoolkid, the cheating husband and the mayor – all there sitting in the deluxe tent seats.
The mayor’s big belly shakes from laughing.
Startled fear shows in your eyes.
They betrayed me.
No one feels how you feel.
I am tired.
Everybody is clapping. They are cheering, but you have failed.
With dismay you hang your head and see pearls in the dust.
You throw them to the audience, but still they laugh. Saliva drops as red tongues tremble.
You take off your green wig, wipe your sweaty face, tear off your clothes and kick off your shoes.
Naked and bald, you run from the ring.
I am a clown and a buffoon. Nothing more. I don’t exist outside this ring.
People can only see me when the circus comes to town.
But you didn’t see the little boy in the third row. The one hanging his head and quietly crying.
Early autumn came. They arrived in the southern Italian town late in the day. At this time of the year there were more locals on the cobbled streets than tourists, but the cafes and restaurants were still open.
The retired Australian couple’s European roots ensured they visited the old continent every year. After Hungary and Scotland, Italy was their third destination. The school year had started and the tourist season had finished. An Indian summer was knocking on the door.
In this Italian town, famous for its abbey, piazza, Roman bridge and stunning cliff-studded coastline, their accommodation was in a four-century old house with a sea-view roof terrace: three levels of massively-built stone history.
On the roof terrace they could hear the noise from the main piazza, just three minutes away. Sometimes they could hear the locals singing, praising the sun: O Sole Mio.
Most days they sat quietly on that piazza, eating pasta or pizza, drinking coffee, enjoying a glass of wine (her) and a beer (him).
Their walks on the white pebbled beaches of the southern Adriatic coast filled them with peace and contentment.
They saw him the very first day at lunch while eating their pizzas. His sharp eyes on his dark face darted to them first, then to their food.
The teenager, a thin African boy maybe 17–18 years old, wore jeans, a navy jumper and a leather satchel on his shoulder. He asked for food. He was very hungry.
He walked around and stopped at the tables. He was not threatening but stood uncomfortably close. People avoided eye contact. No one gave him food. Or money.
The old couple saw street vendors selling cheap souvenirs, but this boy was the only one to come to the tables every day.
The man always shooed him away, while the woman kept her head down. When out walking, they made a detour every time they saw him on the streets.
One afternoon, after visiting the Romanesque church, the couple went for a walk on the corso. Groups of locals milled around, smoking, chatting, fishing. The mistral had visited last week, bringing the warm desert winds which delayed the cold.
Before long, the couple saw the boy again. He was standing motionless, his eyes on the sea. They stopped, but the boy was not paying attention to anybody. Not that anybody other than the couple had noticed him.
The man said, ‘These people are parasites, criminals. They are dangerous.’
The woman replied, ‘These boys are coming here, without knowing anything about this country or the culture. They also don’t trust anybody. Imagine how hard it could be for them!’
The man said, ‘There are refugee centres. They can get handcrafts to sell on the streets. They can learn Italian. They need to assimilate and work. If not, they should go back where they came from.’
The woman said, ‘I’m sure they just want a safe life. But to survive they are begging. I wonder how long they can live like this?’
The man said, ‘They are not going to survive. Not them. These kids will never belong here.’
The woman watched the boy as he looked out to sea, searching for the coasts of Africa 925 kilometres in the distance.
Mother, sisters, friends, ‘lablabi’ – the rich garlicky soup made with chickpeas – the teacher and the torture, the pain and the decision. The journey and the cold days that followed.
The boy squinted to see better. He seemed to be looking for something behind the white waves rolling on the blue sea. His fingers drummed a quiet rhythm on the stone railing as his lips moved, forming mute song lyrics. A lullaby?
‘He is somebody’s son and somebody’s brother.’ The woman closed her eyes and thought of her own son. He had fought leukemia. He had survived. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for him. His life was blessed with his parents’ love and he was healthy again.
The Australians walked away to the local museum to see the current exhibition of photography and paintings by the town’s only ‘celebrity’.
They were already far away when the boy jumped, his limp body crashing onto the rocks by the waves. He left behind his bag with his name on it: Angel.
No one saw him.
Life went on.
Time didn’t stop.
In the museum the man and the woman also saw the African artefacts collection, which had come to the European coast over hundreds of years. The art pieces were not bought, not borrowed. They were not given as presents. They were looted. These ethnographic specimens on display – these beautiful masks, drums, sculptures, paintings, beadwork, textiles, basketry, these fragmentary documentations of another culture without the identification of the individual artists – didn’t belong there.
Later the man and the woman sat outside a bar, some nuts, olives, salami, beer and a soda in front of them, a candle on the table. The sun was setting, all golden and red.
A white cat walked up to them, reared up and put a little pair of soft white paws on the man’s lap, while meowing for food.
The man smiled as he patted the cat’s back. He fed it a small piece of salami.
The woman said, ‘You smile and you are nice because it’s white and it’s a pussycat …’
The man looked blankly at her – he had no idea what was she talking about – and ordered another beer.