Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden. Welcome to Queerstories 2020, stories written by incredible LGBTQI+ writers, inspired by the events of this past year.
Normally on this podcast I present you with one story at a time, but a strange thing happened during the commissioning phase of this 2020 version of the podcast – the stories, through no real intent on my part, came together in themes. And today’s theme, is grief.
Back in April, my Nan passed away in England. She was 92 so we weren’t surprised – in fact, when I saw her last year she told me she was pretty much ready to go. She had great grandkids, she’d lived a life, she’d read a lot of books and played a lot of bingo. What we weren’t prepared for was not being able to travel to England to say goodbye. The rituals of loss were scuppered by the pandemic, and I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about what that means for my family. And once you think about the parameters of grieving, and all the ways it can be interrupted – by the pandemic yes, but also by the state and machinations of power and… – well, you can spend a lot of time thinking, is all.
Our first story today is by Patrick Lenton, who is the editor of Junkee dot com and a bloody wonderful writer to boot. You can order Patrick’s two books – A Man Made Entirely of Bats and Uncle Hercules and Other Myths – from your favourite independent bookseller.
This story is called Fight Me.
I went into coronavirus lockdown, earlier this never-ending year, with all the dignity and grace, of the ghost of a civil-war era widow.
I rattled around my cold, dark, inner-west sharehouse in a perpetual state of melodrama, shaking my sadness around like chains. At any point of the day or night, you might have found me weeping silently at the top of some creaky stairs, lying face down on the carpet and sobbing, sitting in the backyard amongst rotting flowers and old cigarette butts, which were scattered like memories of Mardi Gras past.
But mostly I stood at my window and stared forlornly into the distance, waiting for my husband to come back from the war. My husband, clearly, being the life I’d so thoroughly enjoyed before the pandemic.
In my defence, things legitimately were a bit grim. Mostly due to the global pandemic, but a couple of other fun things too. I was just lonely – I think a whole month passed where I didn’t see a single human being who wasn’t a Zoom call. I did not deal with it well, with aplomb – but in my defence, I’ve never committed to treating any situation with aplomb. No plombs were promised.
I got into running, I wrote several chapters of a book, I journaled the pandemic, I started and forgot about a dozen creative projects. I got into day-drinking, I stopped running, I watched 12 seasons of Drag Race in a row. I forgot to wash my clothes.
On a weekend in mid-May, I was really excited because I was going to see five of my friends for a socially distanced picnic, with no food obviously. The night before, I’d drunk beers with a friend and we looked at the moon and chatted. I felt happy, I felt like myself again, like I was thawing out after a long winter. An unrecognised number had called me three times during the day, and I never pick up my phone, because it’s always Nandos PR trying to tell me about a new type of chicken burger that they want me to write about, but nevertheless, I did.
“Hi, Patrick. This is Sam Langford’s mother, Catherine.”
I had time for the briefest glimpse of hope that this was maybe some kind of surprise birthday situation, something innocent — before her voice broke, and she told me that Sam had passed away overnight.
I’m sorry if I lulled you into a false sense of levity before this, with my little jokes, but I wanted to try and capture that juxtaposition, that shift in perspective you get from the life you had before your close friend dies, and then the life you find yourself in afterwards. If I’m doing my job right, it should feel like a cold glass of water down your neck, like a slowly climbing elevator suddenly in free fall.
I am not trying to use the grief perspective to lessen my pandemic experience, or anyone elses. I’m not saying that I didn’t deserve to be sad from lockdown. I want to pull back the lid and show you the full Neapolitan spectrum of different flavours of sadness. There’s pandemic depression, nestled right up against a thick vein of grief.
I’m not using grief for anything in this story, and it makes me uncomfortable to even try – it sits here, unmovable, as a lump in my life that is unable to be digested by narrative. Loss like this is insoluble, too much of a meal for paragraphs and sentences and motifs and symbolism and lessons to grind down into something you can swallow easily in a story.
After Sam’s mum called, I went and sat down on my balcony for a bit. I don’t really know what I said to her, but I’m not too concerned. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my crash-course in grief speech, it’s that while you can definitely say the wrong thing to someone mourning, you can’t say the right thing. There’s no such thing as the right thing in this language, nothing is actually going to help.
I called my friend Clare first, because I was in that brief moment of shock where you don’t feel anything, and I knew I had to talk to somebody before I started telling people who also knew Sam, which I’d been asked to do, spreading the sadness around me like some kind of virulent airborne virus.
The first person I told is my friend, housemate, and colleague Jules. She made an indescribable face that I would happily never see again in my life. We told other people, we kept busy. It wasn’t until the following Monday, when I wrote a tribute to Sam on Junkee that it properly hit – there’s nothing like the process of entering the eulogy of someone you love into the backend of the website you both worked on. I sat there at 3pm on a workday, drinking whiskey and shaking and crying.
You might have noticed that I haven’t actually talked about Sam yet, or Slang as we called them, and that’s not because of rampant narcissism, this time. I wanted their absence from the story this far to feel notable, rude, like when you run your tongue over the new gap where a tooth used to be. I wanted you to spend this story being painfully aware that they are not here in it. That’s sorta what it’s been like for us, this awful feeling that they are not here. That gap.
I also don’t want to write a eulogy – they had enough of those at their funeral. I don’t want to write another tribute. I just want to capture this moment, of loss and grief in the middle of a pandemic, for better or worse, like one of those fucked up boards full of butterflies stuck with pins. So, I’m just going to tell you a couple of the more notable things I remember, in no particular order.
When I started at Junkee, Sam and Jules took me to see Call Me By Your Name as a queer welcome party, and we all cried. Sam and Jules taught me that very quickly that queer community isn’t monolithic, isn’t just defined by parties, or crowds, or nights. It can be as little as one other person accepting you, welcoming you. Sam was my queer community.
At Sam’s funeral, as we shuffled into the chapel, I realised there was exactly twenty of us because of COVID restrictions, and the room swallowed us up, and maybe it’s because I love to perform that I got so angry that there weren’t more attendees, more audience. They deserved more people there to be sad.
At Junkee, Slang and I sat next to each other, which mostly involved watching them get enormously pissed off when people in the office were talking over their head, and the inevitable meltdown that followed. In fact, most of my memories in that office involve them being royally peeved, stomping around, flushed, brilliant and eloquent and angry.
At the funeral, I remember Sam’s mum.
At the wake we threw in the Junkee office for everyone who had worked with Slang, we turned all the lights off and danced to Green Light by Lorde.
If Slang had a catchphrase, it would definitely be “fight me”. It’s how they responded to pretty much any challenge, form of criticism, or even praise. It’s the mantra that powered their journalism, in which they were always giving voice to marginalised communities, and speaking out against injustice. They were threatened with legal action, with defamation, from big corporate lawyers while I worked with them so many times, it actually stopped being interesting.
If I was going to try and wrap this up all nicely, I’d say that their death taught me the value of that phrase, “fight me”. But it didn’t. I was getting a far more thorough lesson in what that means from when they were alive.
They were also just a brilliant writer, and on a practical level, I miss the feedback and advice they gave me. We often spent lunchtime going over the stories I would be performing that night, often at Queerstories. They were always a cheerleader, but always honest with their notes – they wanted the piece to be better.
I’m so annoyed that this is a bad story. I want them to help me fix it. I mean, a story about a story being bad? Metatextuality is very lazy in 2020. But I also know how I could make this story sound better – I could wrap it all up in a neat narrative bow. I could invent some skerrick of a lesson, of a moral to this whole thing to anchor it all on. I could finish this story by saying – and in the end, Sam taught me the importance of… something. Living my truth. Font choice. Ibises. They were obsessed with all those things. But that would suck.
I refuse to falsely try and neaten this piece up, polish it into something that will make me feel accomplished, that will make you, my suffering audience feel a sense of relief, of catharsis. This is a piece about being sad, about being angry at the pointless, spontaneous, mysterious death of a 23-year-old. It’s about grief, and we’re all going to sit in this feeling uncomfortably.
There’s no lesson to be learned from my friend Sam’s death, and on that, you can fight me.
That story was performed in July at the socially distanced Queerstories we held at Giant Dwarf in Sydney.
This next story is by comedian Aurelia St Clair, written during Melbourne’s many months of lockdown.
Aurelia has performed at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Melbourne and Sydney Fringe Festivals and Brisbane Funnyfest. She received the Stand Up! Grant, an initiative by the Andrews Labour Government, in 2020.
My mother was an Aries.
I spent $4.49 to find out more about her birth chart because my friend Julia told me that
Our star signs were sister signs.
At times it really felt like she was my sister, not my mother, I told Julia.
That’s so lovely, she said.
Co star allows you to manually add contacts, so you can calculate compatibility without texting the other person “Hey where and when exactly were you born? “
But my mother is no longer with us, so that wasn’t an option for me anyways.
I relied on my memory. 26/03/1967, 6am, Monatele Cameroon.
I love star signs because I’m queer and because my mum would never let me read horoscopes. Horoscopes are the devil’s work, she said.
I loved reading women’s magazines as a teen. Cosmo, glamour, vogue. Whenever I’d buy one, mum would go through the whole magazine to rip out any pages with sex advice and horoscopes.
But now, I’m a a Libra and I love to fuck.
Mum didn’t want me to be influenced by the devils’ work because she was superstitious and strict and also a Jehovah’s Witness. She had been brought up catholic, by a strict single mother in a small Cameroonian village and now she was raising me, as a single mother, in a small German village with 1200 inhabitants.
Naturally, there were a lot of rules for me. I wasn’t allowed to watch Harry Potter because of the witchcraft. I wasn’t allowed to watch twilight because of the vampires. I wasn’t allowed to watch sex and the city because of the sex and the city.
My parents met in a disco in the 1980s, when my dad was working for a company that exported Uranium from Gabon, where my mother was living at the time. They started writing letters when my dad had to go back to Germany, and decided to get married after 12 months of correspondence. Via letter! He was 36 and a Saggitarius, but told her he was 24, she was 19. Due to the broken bureaucratic processes of 1980s Cameroon, it was impossible for my mother to get a passport. Airports were also different back then, so when they were due to leave for Germany, my dad simply checked in, came out of the airport with the stamped ticket, gave that ticket to my mother, and then checked in himself for the second time. When they were due to land in Frankfurt, he turned to her and said “Can you act? I need you to cry and pretend you lost your passport, as we go through immigration”. Either immigration back then was way more relaxed, or my mother was a great actor, because they looked at their marriage certificate and said “Welcome to Germany.”
Shortly after I was born, my parent’s marriage fell apart. Jehovah’s witnesses knocked on her door. She was lonely, in a new country, didn’t have a support network and their teachings resonated with her.
When I was 6, we moved from a city with 80,000 inhabitants of all types of different backgrounds, to a mostly white rural area, one state over.
When I was 7, we started going on adventures together. Money had been tight as long as I could remember. We went dumpster diving, because when you’re 7, you’re the perfect size to fit in a dumpster.
Mum called me clever when I suggested we take dishwashing gloves with us so I’d be able to rummage through the bottom of the dumpster more easily.
Once, we found a whole bin of blue gatorade and my tongue was never not blue for a whole month.
When I was 9 or 10, we slept outside for the first time. And I don’t mean camping. Jehovah’s witnesses have quarterly 1 to 3 day conventions where several congregations meet for larger assemblies. They usually take place at purpose built assembly halls, meaning they’d be hours away from the village we lived in. Public transport was non-existent, mum had failed her license test three times, and her pride stood in the way of asking other members of our congregation for a ride. So we walked or cycled 8 kilometers to the nearest train station, got on a train for 2 hours and a smaller regional train for another hour to make it to the location of the assembly a day before it started. Then, we walked around that town, got a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket and went to the one hotel there. It was about 100 Euros a night to stay. There was no way we could afford it. That was a quarter of our monthly rent. We slept in a bus shelter that night, and it was fucking freezing. We cuddled against each other. At the time I was obsessed with Crowded House, and mum hummed the melody to “Weather with You” to lull me to sleep. The next day I slept through the whole convention, missing out on all the lessons about being a good Jehovah’s Witness. Yet mum was proud about getting there without asking anyone for help.
Aries and Libra are sister signs, meaning they are exactly opposite each other in the Zodiac. When I became a teenager, people asked us if we were sisters, even though we have different skin complexions and an age gap of 28 years. I guess it was also the first time I realised white people really can’t tell black people apart.
We went on our first big adventure when I was 12, and about to turn 13. The plan was vague as fuck. I had never seen the ocean. We’d visited Cameroon when I was four, but hadn’t left Germany since. We were overdue for a vacation. After reading about a beach town called Narbonne Plage in a holiday brochure, we packed out backpacks, took our bicycles, rode to the train station 8 kilometers away, took two trains to get to Metz, France. From there, the train to Narbonne would take 8 hours. Tickets were more expensive than we expected. As a compromise, we purchased 2 tickets to Montpellier, which is a stop 2 hours before Narbonne. We’d read a bible passage earlier this morning, as we did every day. And now we were boarding a train knowing we would fare evade. I felt queasy. We’ll be ok, Jehovah is protecting us, mum said. Surely god’s protection doesn’t work like that when you break the law, I thought.
I started thinking about the things I’d packed in my backpack, unsure if I’d chosen the right stuff. When I travel now, I’m limited by Jetstar’s 7kg carry on limit. Then, my carry-on limit was what I could carry on my back while cycling, and I had to make sure my sleeping bag and a water bottle would fit, too. Also, warm clothes for cold nights, my bible, a bike pump and tyre patching kit. The most exciting thing I’d packed was a red bikini I bought at the Op shop, and never wore before because I imagined that the person who donated it would be a classmate, see me in their old bikini, and know how poor we were.
I looked out of the train window, feeling like the protagonist in my own little movie. The French towns we were passing through, the canola fields, other families in the train carriage. I spent a lot of time imagining what the ocean would look like, feel like.
The ticket inspector came through our carriage before Montpellier. We made it to Narbonne, fine free, feeling fine and free. I could practically smell the ocean once we stepped off the train. Maybe Jehovah had protected us from the ticket inspector.
The last leg of our trip required us to cycle 20 kilometers on our raggedy ass bicycles from Narbonne to Narbonne Plage, the beach town from the holiday brochure. My bike was black, mum’s was pink. The night before, after disembarking the train, we’d gone to the supermarket, got a free tourist map and walked through the historic part of town. Then we slept in a field a few kilometers out of town, the sound of crickets accompanying the stories mum would tell me to distract me from the fact that we were sleeping in a field surrounded by crickets. Like a griot, mum would re-tell stories I’d heard before, and usually some kind of lesson would be attached to it. I’ll never forget the story about her classmate who overestimated his ability to swim and sadly drowned in the Sanaga, Cameroon’s longest river. The lesson from that story was to not go too hard once we got to the beach, I guess. My favourite stories were about grandma taking mum and her siblings to shamans to predict their future. I loved hearing about their trips through the unpaved roads and dense rainforest of Cameroon. I carried a machete when I was your age, she said.
I realised that we were doing our own version of a shaman trip. But our destination was the beach.
When in Germany, we attended Jehovah’s witness congregations 3 times a week. But there was no Kingdom Hall in Narbonne Plage. For four glorious weeks, I only had to read the bible in the morning, and I could look up at the mediterrenean sea. Somehow I felt closer to god that way.
While camping on the beach, or as the French call it, Camping Sauvage, wasn’t illegal, it wasn’t exactly legal either. The workers cleaning the beach with traktors saw us every morning, as did people walking their dogs, who’d often run up to us. I turned to my mum on one of those mornings and said: “ I finally understand why homeless people have dogs. It’s so they can protect them”. She laughed. “Homeless people have it a lot harder than us. We’ve got a home. But you can’t tell anyone back at home we’ve been sleeping on the beach. Tell them we were camping”. Of course, I said. We both already knew that I’d never tell anyone back home the truth.
What I did tell my classmates and brothers and sisters at the church, as Jehovah’s witnesses call each other, was that we were camping, legally, in a campground, and that it was fun and I made lots of friends.
Which was true, since I’d never been more popular. On our first week at the beach, I made more friends than in 6 years of school. Why do you have so many bags with you? One of the French girls I befriended asked me. Because we’re camping and our stuff might get stolen if we leave it at the campground, I said. Oh, that makes sense, she said, and we continued building sandcastles. There was a campground in Narbonne Plage, of course. We’d cycled past it, but it was just too expensive for us. It’s hard to fathom now, but was envious of the people paying $30 a night to sleep outdoors, on an uneven floor.
The best person I met in Narbonne Plage was Felicitas. Over the next 4 weeks we were inseparable. She was in Narbonne with her parents and brother, they were from Berlin, and we discovered our birthdays were days apart, making her a libra, too. We became friends with 2 other German girls, Janina and Katrina. I was jealous of them because I suspected Feli liked them more than she liked me. Then we both fell in love with the same French boy, Rafael, who ended up kissing Janina. On a long walk along the beach we admitted that we were both in love with Rafael and he clearly ended up with the wrong girl. You can have him, I said, I don’t think I really love him, it was just a crush. At the end of the vacation, we exchanged addresses and promised to become penpals. I finally told her we’d been sleeping on the beach this whole time. Aren’t you scared? She asked. I just said no. My mum was there to protect me, so I oddly wasn’t worried about unrolling a sleeping bag and using a backpack as a pillow on a beach 1000 km from home. Nobody assumes the two people sleeping on a sand dune at the end of the beach belong to a mother and daughter on vacation.
They probably think damn, that’s some tough ass campers out there. And we were.
We went back to Narbonne for two more summers. The thing is that I have so many memories from the different years, they all blend together into one never ending summer.
The year my mum made me steal a waiter’s tip that was left on a dining table and asking god for forgiveness in prayer for months to come.
Eating stale bread and overripe cantaloupe from the market’s dumpsters.
Floating on an air mattress in the mediterrean with a bunch of French kids.
Canned cassoulet soup, 2 euros from memory.
Making a fire pit and grilling fish.
The time I was sitting on a bench, surrounded by our many plastic bags, and 2 children came up to me and handed me 5 euros.
Singing Katy Perry’s I kissed a Girl while cycling along the promenade.
The summer I had a secret holiday boyfriend, mum found out, and endless sermons ensued.
Begging to buy French Cosmo, sans horoscope and sex advice pages, of course.
Also our first year, when we didn’t have a tent and had to use a broken beach umbrella and the big ol tarp to shelter from the rain.
Getting better at hiding our tent in the bushes at 5 am.
Mornings of watching the sunrise and reading the bible.
Countless hours of storytelling.
According to co-star, our signs are very different, but complement each other in a way that balances out perfectly. We can instinctively empathise with each other’s moods and feelings and once we decide we want to do something, neither of us holds back.
My mother suddenly passed away from a brain aneurysm when I was 15.
I’ve thought about my mum a lot recently. The lockdown in Melbourne started during Aries season. This year she would have turned 53. I kept my promise to not tell anyone about our wild beach camping trips for a long time, and this is the first time I’ve written it all down, to recount to an audience. I now realise how many of her stories my mother shared when I was young, and what we were up to must’ve seemed inappropriate for my age to most people. Our trips to Narbonne taught me everything I know about budgeting, resilience, camping and sharing a crush with your best friend, skills I use to this day.
I miss everything about going on adventures. Mostly, I miss my mum. We didn’t have a lot of time together, but we made the most of the time we had. And I can say that, thanks to these trips, Co-star couldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about my mother.