A Writers’ Other Jobs story from Dieter Barkhoff

Writers call their regular job Moonlighting. It’s our second job, the job that keeps us alive and puts bread and butter on the table. It helps us have normal relationships, even families. In effect, Moonlighting means spending the bulk of the week at a masquerade ball wearing an appropriate mask.  Writers masquerade,  as taxi drivers, security guards,  car park attendants, hospital cleaners, waiters, cellar door hands, school  crossing supervisors, census collectors, telephone  marketers, charity collectors, meter readers, chauffeurs, drivers, lawyers, doctors, hey, you name it. I’ve worn many of these masks in my forty six years as a moonlighter.

Recently on an ABC morning show a writer pointed out that according to a 2011 survey, there were exactly twelve Australian writers who made a living exclusively from writing. I’m sure that’s a near universal phenomenon. I think of Raymond Carver with a young family to support – though most of the financial support came from  Maryanne, Carver’s wife – toiling as an  orderly in a hospital, as a labourer in a sawmill, almost having to shave opportunities to write from the huge weight of obligation to his family.

My urge to write began in adolescence. When I was eighteen that urge was derailed by marriage. My wife was sixteen. I worked for Western Mining Corporation as The Purchasing Officer. During the day, bored out of my brain, I’d compose lines of poetry. After our son’s first birthday my wife became a waitress at McClure’s restaurant in the Bourke Street Cinema Complex in Melbourne. I’d get home as she left for work. I’d cook dinner, put our son to bed and put flesh on the sparse snippets of poetry I’d composed during the day. After that, while I waited for my wife to come home, I listened to Beethoven and Sibelius and read the classic novels: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Flaubert, Zola, and, because it was now the early seventies, the Tolkien of the day, Hermann Hesse. In the meantime, I developed a crush on the Financial Controller’s new secretary.  She and I and another secretary played French cricket at lunchtime on the roof of 360 Collins Street and twice the tennis ball flew over the encircling wall and fell nine storeys onto the lunchtime-swelled pavement below. Luckily the ball landed on the footpath, not on some luckless office worker munching on a pie or salami sandwich.  We’d have served time for manslaughter otherwise. Soon the Financial Controller’s Secretary asked if she could type the poems I’d written. One of them was called ‘Ode to a Scruffy Carrot’.

Another child soon followed, I worked for Yellow Express carriers and wrote letters of lament to my ex-school chum, Robert Rainbow, who had moved to Horsham. His real name was Robert Redford.

Dear Robert Rainbow of the Plains, I’d write, I am a genius bogged down by the trivia of Accounts Payable reconciliations. None of this happened to Homer.

Rainbow replied, Isn’t Homer in the Flintstones?

After toiling with the adding machine and the boredom and the office politics all day, I’d walk to Patricks Stevedoring in King Street to sweep the floors and the carpets and clean the toilets till 9.30 PM.

Our marriage disintegrated and many, many jobs and a few relationships later, I’d started a novel and abandoned it. It was an ambitious, first person narrative, mainly the musing of an idealistic young man who meets a bedraggled swimmer  on St Kilda beach who claims to be Homer. I wrote most of it while on the dole. The Monash University Student Newspaper, Lot’s Wife, published some of my poetry.

Then I worked as a tram conductor and overheard a tale about a Polish Tram Conductor who had thrown a school boy off a tram: literally, by the seat of his pants, out you go, straight onto the bonnet of a parked Holden. The schoolboy had been dropping things through the open door onto passing cars. Unfortunately for the tram conductor, the schoolboy attended Scotch College and his righteous parents had the tram conductor sacked.  The ex -tram conductor went mad when his wife died. I wrote a short story about it called ‘The Crackow Despot’.  It wasn’t half bad, though full of flowery phrases and pretentious words. The mother of the woman who would become my second ex-wife typed it for me. I then became a Postie and wrote a Postie story, about dogs, and shallow, empty-headed bosses and dressing gown clad pensioners waiting on the street for me to deliver their pension cheques. And bike crashes. My mother-in-law typed that as well.

Many fallow years went by. I struggled through a second marriage, tried to be a decent ‘weekend’ father to my kids and found a job as a Sales Rep with a Wine Company which was satisfying and challenging. I still read a lot:  Patrick White, Rushdie, Marquez, and a disturbing novel,  Malcolm Lowry’s ’Under the Volcano.’

When that marriage also disintegrated I managed a Wholesale Wine Company and  had a lot of spare time. I began to write again, stories, none of them any good, but I became  aware  there was stuff bubbling away, stuff I wanted to find a way to express.  I started a Course at Victoria University majoring in writing. Up until second year my writing was major crap. I started to write less crappily when my tutor demolished a story I’d submitted for an assignment. She encouraged me after that because I accepted her criticism.

I wrote more. The more I wrote, the more I began to encroach on my boss’s time. I’d leave wine tastings early because I’d thought of a new twist for my story, probably the first good story I wrote: I called it  ‘Every good boy deserves fruit’.  I’d write on my tiny typewriter till midnight and then sleep in. Business suffered and most of all I became sick of having to attend dinners with international and local principals at  some of the best restaurants in Australia, places like Stephanie’s,  Florentinos,  and Miettta’s . It was now a major chore and took time away from my writing.

At a  post- En Primeur  Bordeaux Tasting dinner at Kews Restaurant I was surrounded by accountants and business men whose politics I despised. I walked most of the way home that night and, possibly because I was half drunk, I imagined the trees were talking to me. I imagined they were telling me to get away from all this distraction, I heard the trees telling me to just write.  I became a taxi driver and assumed I’d be able to split my day into 3 compartments: 8 hours sleep, 8 hours work, 5 to 6 hours writing. On my first shift I learnt I had the taxi, and was expected to use it, for twelve hours.

Because I was single again I managed to write. I accumulated a catalogue of short stories – 83, I used to count them. That was after finishing two drafts of a novel, Sins of the Father.

I lived on take away; Schawarmas, Fried Rice, Roast Pork on Rice, Fallafels, Kebabs, Souvlakis, and after three months of driving, now in a routine where I felt relatively comfortable, I picked up a couple in Ivanhoe. They were going out. It was their wedding anniversary. I drove them to Stephanie’s Restaurant in Tooronga Road.  When they got out I sat in the taxi and stared at the restaurant. Wealthy diners made their way to the entrance and a car behind me sounded its horn because I was in the way. I drove off slowly and there was a part of me that wished like hell that I could dine at Stephanie’s again.

For a while I sent the novels and stories to publishers and have a great collection of First Class Rejection Slips. My favorite is from Allen and Unwin, dated August 1992: We really like your work, the letter goes, but they are short stories and our Accountant doesn’t think we’d sell enough copies.

In the middle of last year, while on a long daily walk, a huge swell of yearning finally erupted again. I had become aware of it over the past few years, little messages  from somewhere inside me making suggestions about how to use this or that for a story. I went home and wrote the first three pages of a new story. I called it  ‘Tess’s Garden’. I emailed the pages to my wife of twenty five years, a published short story writer and playwright, and wrote; Hey, this is more than half good.

She suggested I send it to Sleepers Publishing because she was sure they’d like my work. As usual, she was right. ‘Tess’s Garden’ was published early this year in Sleepers Almanac 8.

I’ve now re-written three of my old stories, written two new ones and am working on another. In the meantime, I work in a bottle shop part time and run a Wine Agency business.

I like being a published writer.

Dieter Barkhoff lives in the wilds of Box Hill North with his wife and teenage daughter. He writes when he can and his story, Tess’s Garden, was published in Sleeper’s Almanac 8. Watch out, he is still writing!

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