A few years ago, my friend Terry Whidborne (also my co-conspirator on the Word Hunters series) signed up for an art exhibition. Each artist was paired with another, and together they had to come up with something connected with the number four (it was the fourth exhibition in the series). Terry and his partner decided to create Four Horses of the Apocalypse. Terry, as is his way, created striking and intriguing work, which you can glimpse on his blog, along with a hint of what he went through to get the horse skulls.
Exactly how, in Brisbane in the 21st century, do you get yourself some pristine horse skulls to make art? Terry told me about his journey into the Sunshine Coast hinterland to source the heads, and it stuck with me. He said I could give my own version of it to a character. So, I had an artist to write about. An artist planning something. And there the idea sat, for a while.
Then I decided the narrator wasn’t the artist, but someone running an errand for the artist. Who was that going to be? Was that person by themselves? No. I’ll put someone else in the car, so they can talk about things and so there’s more potential for story. So, who’s my narrator? Why is someone else along for the ride?
Filed away, I had a separate idea for a story about someone retrenched after the collapse of the mining boom and living with his rich sister and brother-in-law, and how small his world gets and what it’s like to find meaning in it. At the time that occurred to me, Coles supermarkets stopped stocking Maggie Beer’s Burnt Fig, Honeycomb and Caramel ice cream. I was a huge fan. Still am, in principal, even though my access isn’t what it used to be. I contacted Coles, urging them to reconsider. I realise the text of that complaint now appears as a footnote to any dictionary definition of the expression ‘First World Problem’.
I decided to give my character my fandom of that ice cream, and my moment of learning it was no longer stocked, but give it to him at a time in his story when he’s just had his low self-esteem lowered a little further. He goes out for a walk to buy that ice cream, has to settle for another brand and sits on a wall eating it, pondering, trying to deal with how stuck he feels.
It could have been a short story, but I thought, that’s the guy. The guy sent on this odd errand to the hinterland for horses’ heads. His sister’s the artist, his brother-in-law’s a dentist, he’s living with them and feeling purposeless. And now he’s picking up horses’ heads.
Who’s he with? Clive Frost, a cranky 90-year-old WWII veteran. I read corporate outplacement material and it pointed out that it can feel positive to do something for others. So, Clive’s a guy my character, Ryan, takes shopping weekly – he’s been matched with him through a community program. And they’re also with Ryan’s four-year-old nephew, Harrison, who he’s minding.
So, what’s Harrison like? He’s lost in a big house, a bit crap at swimming lessons, obsessed about a range of things on his LeapPad tablet, particularly science facts, but with no one who’s got the time to talk about them, as his father works long hours at his dental practice and his mother works on an installation for a gallery in LA and waits to hear if she’s been chosen as Australia’s rep at the Venice Biennale.
Venice looms exotically. The story never goes there, but the prospect of Venice permeates the house and makes Ryan’s world and life feel smaller. His sister Natalie has her sights on a city of almost mythical proportions, and on national honours, while he’s lost his Sydney-based job and ended up in her downstairs flat in Brisbane, with what appears to be next to nothing.
The more I developed the nephew the more potential I saw for story there. Clive got smaller and smaller. He still got written, but he got pared back with each draft until, near the end of editing, I cut him altogether, and the road trip was just Ryan and Harrison. A man and his nephew, on a road trip to pick up horses’ heads, two adults and a foal, for Natalie’s installation on the theme of ‘family’.
Two smallish lives with prospects, I thought, if I put them together and sent them off on a mission.