Tree of Life

Tree FernIn the refuge of the park I am confronted by the Tree of Life.

A tree fern towers above me, a monument to eternity.  The giant stands dancing in the wind, its feathered shoots coiled in anticipation of greenness, ready to spring forth, to pop and froth like champagne into the sky.  Shoots spreading heavenwards ready themselves to drink in sun and rain, that mother’s-milk cascading from the sky.

Branches, now in middle-age, wave in the breeze, tinges of yellow and brown appearing around the edges.  Their beauty has been in their living, the witnessing of life in these gardens.  Below, the skeleton of a branch has fallen over.  It claws at the earth, its fronds, all traces of green now gone, crumble into dust like a statue in bronze from the Rome we have lost.

A gardener appears, preparing to amputate those signs that time no longer wants, but which remain here on display.  With his machete, he kills in one stroke the beauty that supported any suggestion of history.  The spectacle revealing the cycle of life has been removed for the convenience of visitors.  Death must be concealed, here in this sanctuary for the living.

©2013 S. K. Riley


Rio Moods


Rio MoodsCopacabana, like a hot teenager on Spring Break… Around rock cliffs at Ipanema, the youthful rhythm of sun, sand and string bikinis still moves to a samba beat.  Revelling six-packs in tight, bright trunks above muscled brown calves casually kick balls, throw Frisbees into the surf, while heavenly bodies with fragrant hair and warm, white smiles drape themselves across the sand, each curved buttock accurately exposed to the sun in perpetual worship.  Rio parades through the calendar of carnival, shouting, swaying, jumping and diving to the inescapable chorus of relentless celebration.  Her undulating beats paved into waves of black and white mosaic marble rippled out in crazy patterns across the pulsing promenade, hovering like musical notes above the blue Atlantic.


Rio, like an aging harlot struggling to rise before noon, squinting behind dark glasses into the glare of relentless sun, lighting another cigarette, watching parading samba-schools streaming by below.  Rio, like the hollow ribcage of the ghetto child whose nose is never wiped, picking through rum-drenched refuse after nightly street revelry.  Rio, whose oozing gutters smell like raw petrol spilt from rusting tail pipes mixed with the blood of drug wars in the favelas, rising into shimmering heatwaves of ghosts.  Rio, like a penniless girl shuffling back to a shanty town in wet feathers after the last carnival parade, weeping into grey dawn rain.

©2013 S. K. Riley

Sailor’s Eyes

Nile FeluccaHis eyes were not the saintly grey-blue eyes of the Alexandrian Arab who greeted me at the airport in Cairo, wearing a humble turban above his toothless smile.

They were not the proud eyes of the ‘Chief of the Nile’, the water policeman in Luxor, whose pale skin and straight hair, navy slacks and suave grey sweater leant him an air of self-importance in this sea of dark-skinned, kaftan-wearing Arabs.

Abdulla had African features and the wild brown eyes of an experienced sailor, constantly scanned the river, seeking out the mysteries of wind and water and God.  Though he could easily be mistaken for a Bedouin from the hot desert sands, Abdulla was a man of the river.

Abdulrazig, the name his many cousins, uncles and countless friends affectionately called him, had kinky afro hair which he sometimes covered with a white Islamic scarf.  More often than not, it sprang upwards towards the heavens in dark spiralled peaks while the scarf flapped in the breeze around his shoulders.

When he hoisted the tall canvas sail of his wooden boat named ‘Baby’, the heavy cotton gallābīya he wore also billowed in the wind.  And each time he set out to cross the Nile, you could hear friendly shouts of greeting from the esplanade below the temple and see children running along the banks to wave after him.  After all, everyone knew and loved Abdulla, the young felucca captain.

©2013 S. K. Riley

Teenage Farm Labour

Tin ShedDriving north past retreating suburbs against the morning traffic was the best part of the job.  The low lime green hills and pungent tea tree forests rising up beside the winding single lane highway were a welcome relief from the jumble of industrial warehouses, scrap metal yards and billboards that littered the outskirts of town.

A stillness descended on the hot concrete road as the traffic slowly thinned, until at last I had the highway to myself, and could admire the pattern of grey anthills punctuating the scrub as it flew past, keeping time with the rhythm of the music on the radio.

I never knew the actual address, but had to judge the distance about a mile past where the water pipeline running alongside the road all the way from town suddenly rose up to straddle a steep slope on the left, then watch for an unmarked turnoff onto an orange dirt road.  Just after making the turn, you could see the broken down sign for Shady Glen Poultry Farm on the right, collapsed into the scrub after the last cyclone.  No one ever checked whether I started work by 9 am each day.

I’d push the heavy trolley into the corrugated iron warehouse where hundreds of once-white birds were housed in tiny multistorey cages. Trays at the bottom caught the eggs as they rolled down after being layed.  These warm eggs had to be collected by hand, then cleaned, sorted and boxed by lunchtime.  Feed trays also had to be filled.  There was time after that to read a book and eat a packed lunch under a tree, before working through an identical afternoon shift by knock-off time at five.

All of this seems idyllic until you factor in the sound of a thousand screaming birds whenever anyone entered their sweltering warehouse – a terrifying collective shriek that didn’t stop until after that person had vacated this prison.  Those birds feared and hated human beings for good reason.  Shady Glen Poultry Farm was their Auschwitz.

Crazy Dead Uncles

birdplateThe other day in a tea shop, on my way to a stressful meeting, I called on my ancestors to accompany me so that the upcoming discussion might prove beneficial for all involved.  Often when I call on the Old Ones to gather around, they’ll show me an outward sign to reassure me of their presence.

The waitress instantly dropped an empty plate which crashed into a thousand pieces on the café floor.  Later, the ceiling lights dimmed in the closed meeting room to produce an eerie twilight, then plunged us all into dramatic darkness before flashing on again.

In both situations, everyone in the room first looked at each other in surprise, then smiled at their shared experience.  The waitress grinned broadly as the other café patrons and I helped gather the shattered porcelain, and those flashing lights in the meeting room prompted spontaneous solutions, transforming hardened officials into jovial allies.

Possibly the one thing that’s more gratifying than sharing a laugh with your ancestors is being able to pass on their mad sense of humour to the descendants who’ll follow you.  I only hope I can do it with as much flare.

Fruit of the Strawberry Tree

Strawberry Fruit TreeArbutus unedo, from the Latin Arbutus: struggle. Unedo: I eat only one.

Pliny the Elder (50 AD) said either:

“I struggle to eat only one,” or “if I eat more than one, I struggle.”

I wonder which it is…

Having sampled sparingly of its delicious ripe fruit from my garden yesterday, I believe there’s some truth to the folk wisdom that fortified wines made from the fruit of the Strawberry Tree may have hallucinogenic properties – although I’m told they do make wonderful preserves.  Certainly there’s a danger of toxicity when ingesting more than one or two of the bright red berries directly from the tree.

The answer to Pliny’s riddle may be: both.

Aristotle wisely advised moderation in all things.

My love’s an arbutus

My love’s an arbutus

By the borders of Lene,

So slender and shapely

In her girdle of green.

And I measure the pleasure

Of her eye’s sapphire sheen

By the blue skies that sparkle

Through the soft branching screen.


But though ruddy the berry

And snowy the flower

That brighten together

The arbutus bower,

Perfuming and blooming

Through sunshine and shower,

Give me her bright lips

And her laugh’s pearly dower.


Alas! fruit and blossom

Shall scatter the lea,

And Time’s jealous fingers

Dim your young charms, Machree.

But unranging, unchanging,

You’ll still cling to me,

Like the evergreen leaf

To the arbutus tree.

Alfred Perceval Graves (1846-1931), “My love’s an arbutus”

from Father O’Flynn and other Irish Lyrics, published 1880.

The Moment of Truth

Yes“‘Ohhhhhhh,’ moaned Mrs Fruit. ‘Are any of Mick Looney’s ancestors there?’

Her words hung in the air, she took a deep asthmatic breath.  Suddenly she stiffened.

‘I have somebodyyyyyyyyyyy,’ she intoned.

Looney craned forward, the moment of truth. ‘What does he say?’ he said.

The answer came clear and strong.

‘The fish knives are with Aunty Peggy.’”

Spike Milligan

from The Looney: An Irish Fantasy1987.

Aphrodite’s Cave


All was hushed except for the wash of milky foam along the shoreline.  She scanned the ocean before her for the next set of waves, her back to the beach, legs dangling in warm water.  Aphrodite was sucking her out to sea, or so it seemed, by the strong tidal pull dragging her towards the horizon.

A newly formed wave rose into a breast of moving water, standing up with a roar.  She turned and paddled fast towards the beach, arms windmilling through thick brine, legs kicking madly mid-air. The long wave shaped itself into a coil ready to spring from her left, just as she stopped paddling and jumped into a crouched stand, left foot forward, knees bent, toes gripping the wax, arms flying like a bird.

Now racing parallel to the beach, tasting the salt spray, at one with the board, her fingers reached for the hard wave wall towering up beside her right ear, to feel the tingle of speed.  Back hunched, head forward, balanced over her feet, she carved down the face of the wave, driving the line, enjoying the ride, a curtain of white water slowly swallowing her up from behind.

For one, two, three, four, five seconds, she disappeared under an avalanche inside the crystal cave, stalling in the pipe, staying within it, milking it for speed.  Then, a gust of wind hit her spine and spat her out of the tube.  With the tip of her board she pierced the curved green wall and let it fling her skyward, up over the back, as the wave roared on to collide with the coast.

© S.K. Riley, 2013

Image: Aphrodite’s Cave – Thomas McKnight

Why are dreams taboo in Fiction?

The light in my dream reminded me of Cornwall…


When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes,
All marked with mute surmise
My radiance rare and fathomless,
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes!

–       Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

from ‘When I Set Out for Lyonnesse’

(Lyonesse is a land from Arthurian Legend)


Literary Editors say: ‘have a dream, lose a reader’.

Maybe. maybe not.

I don’t quote poetry in my fiction, unless it drops from the mouth of a character.

I do sometimes describe a character’s dream, though it’s considered a cardinal sin.

The poem fragment above will not appear anywhere in my novel.

But the dream imagery which inspired my search for this verse

will certainly end up on the page.

The irony is that my story is set in the Australian outback.

But if, having seen it, you can’t write about the Cornish light, you can’t write about light anywhere.

It’s all about memory.

Like remembering a dream.

Like a character remembering a dream.

In a story.

The Mystery of Story – Watching the Tide

green-ocean-tideSo you’ve reached a point in your story where you’ve finished writing a scene but the characters refuse to move away. There’s more of the story to come, so they remain frozen in place like a faded tableau.

As the author, there’s nothing you can do but wait for them to come alive again. And when they do, you can feel the action arriving from a long way off.

I’m grateful to Tim Winton for his breathtakingly accurate description of this process…

“Writing a book is a bit like surfing,” he said. “Most of the time you’re waiting. And it’s quite pleasant, sitting in the water waiting. But you are expecting that the result of a storm over the horizon, in another time zone, usually, days old, will radiate out in the form of waves. And eventually, when they show up, you turn around and ride that energy to the shore. It’s a lovely thing, feeling that momentum. If you’re lucky, it’s also about grace. As a writer, you roll up to the desk every day, and then you sit there, waiting, in the hope that something will come over the horizon. And then you turn around and ride it, in the form of a story.”

When my characters resumed their scene at three this morning, I remembered everything I could and wrote it all down in the first light of dawn.  But just as a wave recedes, taking the flood of rich green waters with it, not everything washed up onto the beach, onto the page.  Bits of the story floated back out to sea like seaweed and salmon, bluebottles and baitfish, lifejackets and old flairs, on the ebbing tide.

I have faith that these ‘lost’ parts of the story will come again on the next wave, the next high tide, the next full moon… sometime.  And like all writers before me, I simply trust, knowing that the story is alive.

It will return these treasured pieces to me if I sit waiting on the shore believing in mystery.

– S.K. Riley