Portrait

Author Jessie Cole strolls through the  northern NSW bush of her childhood, the setting for Deeper Water.

By Romy Ash.

Jessie Cole, and a life in isolation

“There’s the shack from my book,” says Jessie Cole. We are taking her dog, Jet, for a walk. She used to be black, but she’s greyed and her fur is ashy around her snout. Jet looks up at us, wondering why we’ve stopped. She has soulful eyes, black pools of them, and the velvety ears of a beagle. Her wagging tail bangs against the back of my legs.

“We used to play in there when we were kids. It’s the old homestead,” she says. Jessie and her brother. Her two sisters were older, too cool to play.

The tiny shack squats in a paddock pockmarked by hooves. It has the look of a face. The two smashed-out windows are dark eyes. The door, a slanted mouth. The whole thing is falling to one side, as if about to give up. The cattle surrounding the shack turn their heads to look at us. “Seeing it every day, it just got into my head.”

Behind the shack is a creek that weaves its way down the valley. The road we’re walking follows the creek’s course. “Jet’s in the book, too,” she says. Hearing her name, Jet gives us a tooth-bared grin, and pulls on the lead. We follow her. A ute roars past us, sucking Jessie’s long hair and the billow of our shirts, with it. Jet pulls on her lead, so that she’s standing on her back legs, and barks.

Jessie is small; she has to use her whole body to tug Jet back down. “Jet, you’re embarrassing.” Jet hangs her head, feigns a sniff of the roadside grass. There’s a sort-of township further up the valley. It used to be a real town, with a pub and a shop. All the houses are still cheek to jowl, a clump of suburbia in the middle of nowhere.

I grew up on a property, just a valley away, 30 minutes by car. It’s the same foliage, the same bird calls, the same smell of damp earth. Walking, I can hear the sounds of my childhood. I haven’t been back for a long time, nearly a decade. We never knew each other, even though we lived so close. I met Jessie at Varuna, The Writers House, two years ago, when she was writing her novel Deeper Water. The book with the shack.

It’s a strange joy, walking with her, seeing how her imagination might have transmogrified this landscape into the landscape of fiction. Readers are often ready to make quick links between a writer’s life, their lived experience, and the experience of the fictional characters they’ve created, the fictional world they’ve imagined – but it’s a false kind of satisfaction, one that allows for none of the subtlety of creation.

The main character of Jessie’s novel is Mema,a girl who has never left home, a girl who has lived her life in this rural landscape, protected from much of the “modern” world in a black spot beyond internet or mobile reception. Jessie, too, lives in a place beyond mobile reception, where the internet is so slow that until very recently to view a short YouTube clip she had to let it download overnight. She has lived for most of her life on her family property. But it is wrong to draw a connection too closely between Mema and Jessie.

The property where Jessie grew up was a site of trauma, one where as a very young woman she nursed her grief after her father lost his mind and committed suicide. A state brought on by his own grief after his daughter, Jessie’s sister, also committed suicide. Jessie chose to stay, to be nurtured by her home, rather than leave it. The forest grew with her, up around her. Hers is a different story to Mema’s.

As we walk, Jessie tells me things, not just from the book, but stories from her life. She tells me about each neighbour as we pass them. In the way of small towns, everything and nothing is known about everyone. We turn around at a sharp corner that evokes the story of a car crash. The late night twist of metal and an ambulance siren in the quiet valley. The landscape tells her stories.  

At a rickety bridge we look down into the creek as it pools into a deep waterhole, the same creek that makes its way through her property. Reflections play on the water’s surface, but beyond them I can see right to the bottom, to the layers of leaves and fine gravel, and for a moment we just watch the water pass beneath us. There’s the thud thud of Jet’s wagging tail on the bridge wood.

“My friends say I’m like Jet,” she says. “A soulful face and short legs.” Jessie makes a face and I laugh. We walk down her driveway. The trees touch limbs above us.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 9, 2014 as "A life in isolation". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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