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Authors: Gabrielle Carey

Moving Among Strangers

In Memory of Randolph (Mick) Stow (1935–2010)


Joan Carey née Ferguson (1922–2009)

Truly there is in the world nothing so strange, so fathomless as love. Our home is not here, it is in Heaven; our time is not now, it is eternity; we are here as shipwrecked mariners on an island, moving among strangers, darkly.
Why should we love these shadows, which will be gone at the first light? It is because in exile we grieve for one another, it is because we remember the same home, it is because we remember the same father, that there is love in our island.


{ Voices

Ideal and loved voices

of the dead, or of those

lost to us like the dead.

Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;

sometimes the brain hears them in thought.

And, for one moment, with their sounds,

sounds come back from the first poetry of our lives –

like music at night, remote, fading away.

C.P. Cavafy


One night I dreamt I saw Randolph Stow. He was sitting in a cave, wearing a long robe, his chest bare, ascetic, like one of the desert fathers. There was something magisterial about his aspect, and compelling, magnetic.

I woke with a shock. This is too much, I thought. This is taking literary obsession too far. Clearly, his grip on my mind was burrowing deep. Did I really want to be possessed in that way?

Trying to get to know a dead man you've never met and who was notoriously shy and secretive is not easy. Over the last few years I have read and re-read Randolph Stow, travelled through Stow country, met with old friends and family – who knew Julian Randolph only as ‘Mick' – and journeyed far to get to know this most enigmatic of writers. I have collected articles and essays, letters and quotations, and yet I'm still not sure I know this mysterious man any more now than at the outset of this pilgrimage. Maybe that's the way he would have wanted it. ‘Ideally perhaps a writer should be totally anonymous – a voice and nothing more,' he once said. And yet, when I read Stow's work, and especially his poetry, his voice is persistently and intensely personal.

Randolph Stow was many things: hugely talented, somewhat tortured, occasionally earnest and often very funny. His books are full of the haunted and the mysterious: ghosts, second sight, telepathy, mysticism, magic, wild men from the sea, water-diviners, green children, apparitions and talking animals. He creates complete worlds of imagination that are also utterly real. And he does this with the ease of power that one imagines could only belong to some kind of sorcerer or medieval conjurer.

Amid the paraphernalia of Stow artefacts that have gathered around my desk over the years, there is one item of correspondence that proves to me, more than any other, that Randolph Stow was a magician. It is a letter written by my six-year-old niece (now twenty) after reading the largely forgotten classic of Australian children's literature,
Midnite: The Story of a Wild Colonial Boy
. The beautiful, childish handwriting is illustrated with pencil sketches of the animal character
s –
Red Ned, Dora, Gyp, Major and Khat, the talking, scheming, feline accomplice to the dull-witted but always likeable teenaged bushranger.

Dear Mick,

I really enjoyed reading
. I think I enjoyed it because of the names of the characters and places. Do you have any children? How did you get the idea for the book? And did you get the idea of Mrs Chiffle from Grandma?

I usually ride my bike to school so just when I get to the paddock I leave it at my Grandma's house. There is a cat next door to her that keeps coming in but can't talk.

Grandma gave me the book to read.

Lots of love,


The fact that Sinead felt she had to confirm to Stow that the cat next door to Grandma's
talk makes me sure that Randolph Stow was a genius. A cat that couldn't talk, thanks to the world as re-created by Stow, was clearly an exception.

Stow's postcard in return is typically idiosyncratic. Polite and gracious as always, he carefully ignores all of his young reader's queries.

Dear Sinead,

Thank you very much for your letter and for the lovely pictures of the animals in
. I liked the smile on the cat. I have a black and white cat who is getting a bit old now (she's 13) but is as cheeky as when she was a kitten. When the vicar came to see me she used to sink her claws into his leg, which he didn't like very much. She was a stray kitten, and she picked me up in a pub called ‘The Billy', one hot night when all the doors were open, so her name is Billy. In India that means ‘she-cat'.

All good wishes to you and your Grandma.

Mick Randolph Stow

The young admirer of Stow's work receives none of the information she was seeking; she doesn't find out if the author has children or how he got the idea for
or if Mrs Chiffle was based on her grandmother. (I too see a striking resemblance between Mrs Chiffle and my mother.)

Even if I had met Stow, his responses to my own questions would probably have been similar to his responses to my niece: charming, anecdotal and polite, but nothing to do with what I actually asked. For that reason this book is not a biography. Neither is it a work of literary analysis or scholarly enquiry. It is more like a ‘mostly private letter', to use Stow's phrase, written out of curiosity, and tenderness towards a man whom I have come to think of as an almost-relative, a dear friend of my mother's, and the ideal literary mentor.

While writing this book I came to believe that both my mother and Stow were content to leave this life, in part, because neither of them could cope with what the world had become. Both had grown up in a different era – of manners and customs, hand-embroidered tablecloths, thimbles and engraved serviette rings.
An era that both of them eventually rejected and yet there were aspects of those days that they longed to maintain: the frugality, the quietness, the slowness, the restraint; not to mention the homemade marmalade and elderflower wine. An era with a quality that Stow described as ‘a certain fineness'.

I offer this story in the hope of re-creating some sense of what we have lost from the time and place that produced this prodigy who became the writer Randolph Stow. And so others too might share his vision and his dreams.


I can pinpoint the day my mother began to die. I say
because dying, I have realised, is an active thing, a verb, a doing word, and can take some time. Months even. For my mother it took exactly three weeks.

I date the beginning of her dying from the day she stopped eating. It wasn't that she didn't have an appetite, or the desire to eat. It was simply that her body, now consumed with stomach cancer, could no longer imbibe more than water or weak tea. She looked longingly at other people's food, at my egg and watercress sandwich, at the custard tart brought by friends for afternoon tea, at the bowl of green grapes that sat so temptingly on my sister's kitchen table.

The last thing she ever ate was a grape. Fitting for a woman who'd grown up on a vineyard. Oh, the joy extracted from that one grape! As though she knew it was her last.

Two weeks before she died I pulled out Anthony Hassall's book on Randolph Stow. I could still remember where I picked it up: in the bargain bin outside Sydney's now defunct Norton Street Bookshop in Leichhardt. Why it occurred to me to take it to my mother on that particular day, I don't know. Perhaps because the palliative nurse had suggested we read aloud to her. Perhaps because I knew how much my mother loved Stow's poetry. Or perhaps to help her write one last card to him, to say goodbye.

I handed her the Stow book, having marked what I remembered as her favourite poems. She immediately perused a page, sighed, and then looked up.

‘May I read this?'

We were astonished. Our mother could no longer read, or, even if she could, had lost the faculty for comprehension. For months, we had watched her pick up the
Sydney Morning Herald
from her doorstep each morning and spend the rest of the day perusing it in the lounge room, on the patio, in the park, often reading the same article over and over. It looked as though she was doing it out of habit and that in reality she couldn't understand a word. Long before the stomach cancer, she had suffered a brain tumour that had resulted in symptoms of dementia.

‘Yes, please do,' I said.

{ For One Dying

Now, in that place where all birds cease to sing,

and paths grow faint and melt into the hills,

you pause, tasting the wind; for it is spring,

and down on Ellendale's wide water spills

a dust of petals. In this last September,

opening your hands to seize the golden light

(your hands which flowers and animals remember,

and trees, and children) you will enter night.

I am no more the child whom you made cry

so readily with your sad ballad-tales,

not skilled to soothe the life that prays to die,

not skilled to pray. But must, since all else fails,

trust that your Lord, who owes you some amend,

grant you a quiet night, and a perfect end.

Randolph Stow

My mother stopped. She had read ‘For One Dying'
with flawless rhythm and timing, like someone who had been studying poetry all her life, who had been tutored about exactly where to lay the emphasis, when to pause, when to breathe; like someone who had been in rehearsal, like someone who truly understood both the particularities and the universal truth of that poem.

All three of us – my sister, brother and I – looked at her, stunned.

‘That is my favourite poem,' she announced, oblivious. ‘He wrote it for his aunt. She was such a wonderful woman.' And she sighed.

By this time my mother had been fasting for a week and I had noticed a definite affect; it was as though she was on a high, or was beginning to transcend into a different dimension, or had become a purely physical, sensual being. Or all of those things. She appeared to have undergone exactly what poetry is intended to achieve: a defamiliarisation of the world in all its glorious detail, so that everything – from morning sunlight to the song of magpies in the late afternoon – was a marvel.

‘Oh, look at those flowers,' she exclaimed, over and over, at the display on the table from the many offerings brought to her bedside. ‘Ohh …' she warbled, barely able to contain her delight. ‘The colours! Have you seen the flowers?' she would ask for the umpteenth time.

Colours, scents, textures, birdcalls – all were overwhelmingly intense and full of delight. Awesome, in the true old-fashioned sense of the word, just as the ageing narrator of
e says:

It is for this I live nowadays, for the pleasures of my senses; a scent of leaves, a voice, a breeze on my dripping body.


Before I left that day I handed my mother a card and a pen. ‘Won't you write a few lines to Randolph Stow?' I asked. I'd never been able to drop the habit of using his proper, writerly name. ‘Mick' sounded so ordinary.

‘Later,' she said.

But she said that about everything: ‘Later,' she said, with a wave of the hand. I was never sure whether she was aware or not that there would be no ‘later'. A few days passed but my mother never wrote. So I found Stow's details in her address book and wrote to her friend myself, advising him of Joan's condition.

Of course, we had known for a long time that our mother was dying. The surgery for the stomach cancer had not been successful and we had watched her growing gradually weaker. When we'd visited the specialist psychogeriatric clinic, the clinician had said that Joan could well have dementia now as well as the brain damage. There was no way to distinguish one condition from the other. And it didn't really matter because there was no treatment for either. My mother could no longer find her way from the railway station to my house because I had moved recently and when someone has this particular kind of brain damage, they cannot form new memories. My sister, though, had been in the same house for the last twenty years, so our mother could easily find her way there.

‘She has access to old memories,' the doctor had said, ‘but she can't lay down new memories.'


A nurse had come to advise on how to make my mother's tiny house safe for someone who was increasingly debilitated. She made some recommendations: a slip mat for the bath, removal of the sitting-room rug (too easy to trip over), and handles and rails for the steps leading from the hallway to the lounge room. So I arranged for a handyman to install the necessary bits. My sister, Cathy, was at our mother's house to supervise that day. When the handyman arrived, Cathy turned to our mother and asked if she was sure she wanted handles in the hallway above the stairs. My mother said she didn't, because Joan had never admitted in her life that she needed anything. So my sister sent the handyman away.


A few days later we had a family meeting to discuss the care of our mother. My brother and I were sitting in the study at Cathy's place, listening to our elder sister outline the plan.

‘Now that the extension to this house is finished,' said Cathy, ‘I can put Mum in my old room and look after her here. But if I am going to take time off work, I need at least eight hundred dollars a week. Eight hundred and no less,' she emphasised. ‘So I am going to take this out of Mum's saving account.'

My brother nodded. I said nothing. Both of us had learnt a long time ago that negotiation wasn't part of the deal. Ever since our parents had separated, when I was eight, Cathy had been the de-facto authority figure. Russell and I never dared to question her.


A hospital bed was delivered to my sister's spare room. But at night my mother had terrible nightmares, unspeakable diarrhoea and seemed to be losing her mind.

My sister didn't cope. The morphine dose was too low, she insisted. On the other hand, the nurse suggested it could be the morphine causing the nightmares in the first place.

So the conflict was set. My sister insisting Joan needed more morphine; the nurse saying that if she had any more, she would fall into unconsciousness.


We all took shifts. My sister in the morning, me in the afternoon, my brother in the evening, complemented by a team of carers. Disagreement between the chief palliative nurse, who had been attending my mother for over a year, and my sister, worsened. The doctor was called to confirm the levels of medication, but Cathy wasn't convinced. She wanted Joan to go to a hospice. But my mother had said repeatedly, for decades, that she wanted to die in her own bed.

So a meeting was arranged between the doctor, my mother and my sister. And Joan, delirious and desperately ill, got her way.

The ambulance returned to Leichhardt and took her home to Newtown. The hospital bed went back to the hospital and she settled into her own narrow single bed of white wrought iron. The hospital issue bedding was also returned, and replaced with her floral, embroidered pillow slips and soft, worn sheets.

Among the linen, I found five woollens that I had brought back from five different trips to Ireland: a cream, hand-crocheted shawl from Galway, a fine blue and green blanket from Limerick, a brown angora rug from Clare, a red and mauve mohair with a label saying Avoca Weavers next to a picture of a donkey and a cart, as well as a small heavy mantle of natural wool that still, after a decade, smelt of lanolin and sheep. I had to wonder what had inspired these consistent, somewhat unimaginative gifts – the thought perhaps that my mother, like a newborn, was in constant need of wrapping and cosseting; a fear that, even after all these years, she was still too fragile to be in the world without protection? As though she were missing a skin. No wonder she and Stow seemed kindred spirits.

I laid the mauve mohair on top, even though a hole had worn through in the corner, because I had an idea it was her favourite. As she lost weight and became thinner and thinner, I piled on more.

Our shifts continued, assisted by a team of privately employed and extremely expensive night nurses. One of them took my sister's ‘side' against the chief palliative nurse, arguing for increasing the morphine.

So the war intensified and for those last three weeks of our mother's life my sister and I argued, mostly silently or by proxy, and occasionally not so silently: first over where our mother should die, and then over how.

Every morning of those last three weeks my mother insisted on walking from her bedroom along the hallway and down the three steps to the lounge room so she could sit up and feel she was still taking part in life. She wasn't going to spend her entire day dying. As she approached the steps she clutched at the walls, just in the place the handles were supposed to have been installed, her fingers grabbing at the flat surface for stability. In these moments I loathed my sister. Too late now to ask the handyman to come and drill into the walls, too late to make sense of my sister's decision. It was all I could do to keep our mother safely tucked in under her pile of Irish blankets.

Only much later did I realise that when the handyman came to prepare my mother's house for dying, my sister was also terminally ill. If she had allowed the modifications, it would have been like watching a rehearsal for her own decline, and her own decline, which she kept largely a secret, was much closer than any of us could have guessed.

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