At the beginning of September I joined a group of writing friends for a week-long retreat at a rented house in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. The five of us originally met on a writing residency at Varuna in 2016, and have stayed in touch since then.

The Sunday before leaving Melbourne, I sent off a grant application I’d been working on, and I had no other outstanding deadlines looming. I had a clean slate and a clear head, and decided I’d start a brand new short story in my week away. I wanted it to be an unsettling tale, with elements of the unexplained. A ghost story, perhaps, or a chiller – something supernatural in keeping with the mood and atmosphere of a quiet old house in the mountains. At the centre of the story would be a character who’d gone away to a rented house for a week, alone, and who would light a log fire in the house each day, much as I knew I’d be doing at the retreat in the mountains.

We arrived at the house on the Monday afternoon, and sorted out the rooms, and quickly settled in to our routines. Each day after breakfast the five of us worked together at the long dining room table, breaking for morning coffee, then lunch. Occasionally, one or two people might eschew this communal industry, and disappear to their rooms, or take off for a trip into town, to shop for groceries, or to go for a trudge through the mountains.

Each night someone would take on the role of preparing dinner. My turn didn’t arrive till the final night, when I prepared omelettes according to the Julia Child method, along with a smorgasbord of leftovers from the fridge.

After dinner we’d retire to the living room. V had found a guitar in the house, and would play song requests while some of us would sing along. Later, we’d read our own written work aloud over coffee and tea and dessert. All in front of a roaring log fire.

My main household responsibility was the building, lighting and maintenance of the fire. The fire was to be a focal point of the retreat, as it had been at Varuna. I’d light it as soon as appropriate, often in the mornings if it was cold enough. One morning was mild but so wet and dismal that I lit the fire as soon as I woke up, to cheer the place.

My other responsibility was looking after the wild birds that arrived each day onto the upper veranda. We’d found a packet of wild-bird food in the larder, and finished and replenished that during our stay.

It was a blissful week, and nothing intruded on the simple routines of the house.

On the first day I hammered out 5000 words of my new story, but was mostly playing around with the set-up. I returned to the piece each day, but couldn’t figure out how it would progress, or what shape it would take.

By the end of the week, the story’s nub still eluded me, though I knew it would emerge in its own time. That happened after I arrived home. One night out walking, I was thinking about an injury I’d sustained in the last days of the retreat, a burn on my leg from the door of the fireplace. The burn, though small, was more than superficial, possibly second-degree, and was taking a while to heal, and it got me thinking about fire, and about the wariness my father had held towards it, and the particular reasons behind his fear or apprehension. This in turn led me to recall a deeply unsettling episode from years earlier, involving a dream about my father and a warning of fire. I’d fallen asleep in the living room and had woken abruptly from the dream to find a chef’s candle and its holder fully ablaze on a bookcase in the hallway. Fortunately I’d been able to extinguish the flames before they spread. And now I realised that suddenly I had the elements of the story I’d been seeking in the mountains, including the ghost. All that remained was to write it down.

13 thoughts on “Retreat

  1. I love this description of the retreat Barry – I felt right there with you in front of that comforting log fire. So happy you found the nub of your story – and it will indeed be a ‘chiller’. Can’t wait!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Elwood Writers and commented:
    Barry published this short post yesterday on his blog. It’s about the writing retreat he attended recently in the Blue Mountains. A house in the mountains, a roaring log fire, and a ghost story. Sounds idyllic.


  3. A beautiful description of the week, Barry. Love how you describe the story evolving for you. So much to be said for walking to help the process 🙂 It is going to be one evocative story, I know it. X


  4. Awesome description of a week to envy… and the unfolding of your story. In the last paragraphs a memory occurred (like a ghost?) of having fallen into a campfire as a small child. It was a story that would pop up every now and then in my childhood, but I could never really figure out if it actually happened or not. Rushing into town from Hawkeye Lake. Anyway… funny how these things happen. I would guess that incident hasn’t crossed my mind for forty years. This morning it feels like a prompt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That definitely sounds like an episode well worth exploring, Chris. It’s certainly dramatic and troubling. Forty years! Wow. Memory’s a fascinating thing. The way a memory can suddenly emerge. It just takes something to tease it out. Sometimes a fragrance or sound or taste will suggest a memory that I can’t quite put my finger on. And though it’s fleeting or the details are just out of reach, it can be very transporting.

      Liked by 1 person

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