When I began work on my short story collection, Suburban Terrors, I never intended to connect the stories, but a mysterious and enthralling woman crept into several of them of her own volition. Nor was she the same every time. Like the ancient goddess she appears in all three stages of life. As the Maiden, she tempts a man into following her to his doom, as the Mother, she comes to the aid of traumatised children, and as the Crone she teaches wisdom to an arrogant writer and a pair of inept crooks. And, between you and me, I believe I may have seen her in action myself.
In 1998 I went to Germany and spent a few days with a friend of a friend in Hanover. One day we caught the tram into town where we witnessed an intriguing incident.
A couple of young students got on the tram. He was dark and handsome and she was pretty with long blonde hair. They spent most of their time in a prolonged kiss. Soon the boyfriend got off, leaving the girl behind, and they lovingly waved goodbye. At the same stop another dark and handsome young man got on with a male friend. He would have seen the fond parting. Although he continued to talk to his friend, he found it difficult to keep his eyes off the girl. She knew he was looking at her and pretended very ardently that she didn’t notice and didn’t invite it. In fact, she could have easily avoided his gaze by sitting in a nearby seat with her back to him, but she didn’t and remained standing where he could see her, even after he and his friend sat down.
All three got off at the same stop which was a major intersection in the city’s underground. The last I saw of them he was following hard on her heels up the escalator. I dearly wished I could see what came next.
The incident was certainly fascinating, but the problem was how to turn it from an anecdote into a story, and a story with a twist at that. It was a while before the answer came to me.
Here in Melbourne our suburban trains also go underground in the city centre in a circular system we call the Loop. Trains enter the Loop, go around the central city then come out where they came in and head back out to the suburbs. This similarity to the original location, its circularity and the hint of repetition in the original incident – the second boy looked very much like the first – all came together in the story, In the Loop, in which a bored and frustrated commuter observes a similar incident seemingly endlessly repeated.
Like many of the stories in Suburban Terrors, The Vandals is based on real events. A retired schoolteacher who lived in my block of flats liked to observe her neighbours’ comings and goings and pass judgement on them. However, late in life she developed dementia and imagined that the children she once taught were invading her home. Meanwhile, my local newspaper reported complaints of vandalism made by a woman who lived across the street from her local high school. Both ladies came together to create the indomitable Miss Anderson.
The Dognappers was born out of an incident told to me by one of my students. Her family’s dog had gone missing and they had received threatening notes. She was convinced the dognapper was her ne’er-do-well stepbrother. I never did find out how the real-life drama ended, but my story took off from there. What if the dog had not been taken by a family member but by a couple of small-time crooks who were holding him for ransom, and what if that dog was not as sweet and innocent as it looked?
The last story reflects a range of experiences, my own, and those told me by several people. While one character, the writer, came together quite easily, I found it hard to pin down his neighbour until I heard a radio interview with the man who created Good Neighbour Day, which gives my story its title. While he’s nothing like Brendon, his generosity and community spirit finally gave my character shape and substance.
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