Gillian Mears working in the back of Ant and Bee. Photo from the collection of Mike Ladd.
Essay: Mike Laddon Gillian Mears

Meetings with Gillian Mears

I first met Gillian in 2004 on a sparkling November day. She was staying at a cabin at the Brown Hill Creek Caravan Park in the Adelaide foothills. I’d suggested the location because I knew she’d prefer it to a city hotel room. In the caravan park she would have birds, a creek, fresh air, and rates an artistic writer could afford. Gillian had come over to plan her move to South Australia to write her novel Foal’s Bread. There were several reasons behind the move: she wanted the peace and obscurity of the Adelaide hills and she found the cool winters and dry summers less aggravating to her multiple sclerosis than the steamy warmth of her native Grafton. There was also a guru she was attracted to here – someone who promised an alternative way to treat her disease, or even cure it. With Gillian, there was often a guru in the picture somewhere.

When I parked outside her cabin, Gillian was already waiting in the doorway. We’d never met in the flesh before, but we knew each other from articles and photos and from reading each other’s work, and, most importantly, from years of exchanging handwritten letters. Juicy, generous letters on her part, multi-paged, novelist’s missives. Thinner letters on my part, a poet’s response. In that first eye-contact there was deep recognition; an attraction of spirits. We had already revealed so many things to each other: our mutual admiration of Ruth Park and John Berger and Tove Jannson, what shade of blue was our favourite, did we believe in reincarnation – she yes, me no.

Slowly (Gillian was already walking with more difficulty) we took a thermos of coffee down to the creek bank and picnicked under a young gum tree. We both looked up at the same time and saw a koala quietly browsing the leaves just above our heads. Gillian took this as a very good omen about moving here. She was always finding messages in things – a bird at a window, the heart-shape of a stone, the name of a cat. She planned her life around these signs.

It ended up being nearly four years before we met again, though she came back and forth to South Australia on visits to various therapists. Gillian had first felt the symptoms of MS in the mid-1990s, but it took until 2002 to get a correct diagnosis. She had also been through an operation to implant an artificial mitral valve after a bacterial heart infection had nearly killed her. She’d delayed going to hospital until it was almost too late, because she was in the thrall of a macrobiotic healer she was living with on a property by the Nymboida river. He’d convinced her to avoid western medicine and the bacteria had grown unchecked.

In 2004, with her new valve ticking away in her chest like an ever-present memento mori, Gillian decided to face her future with MS by doing something typically brave. Instead of retreating into an invalid home, she bought a thirty-year-old Ford F-100 ambulance and converted it into a mobile writing studio. It was a rattling novelist’s cubby in which she could also cook and sleep, with everything to hand. She named it ‘Ant and Bee’ after a favorite children’s book series by Angela Banner. The name stood proudly where the old ‘Ambulance’ sign once shone.

She camped and wrote in Ant and Bee, making her way slowly from Grafton to Micalong Creek Reserve near Wee Jasper, and then through the Mallee to South Australia, always choosing quiet campsites away from crowds – places where she could swim naked in a stream or cook on her own campfire. In the meantime, the letters kept coming, and always on the return address she named the Aboriginal land she was writing from: Bundjalung Country, Nguunwaala Country, Ngarkat Country. I began replying in the same vein, but, being more of a stay-at-home, my letters always came from Kaurna Land.

Her travels in the ambulance became the source of one of her finest pieces of writing; her memoir Alive in Ant and Bee, which first appeared in Heat. Years later, when she was living in Mount Barker in the Adelaide hills, we recorded her reading Alive in Ant and Bee for ABC Radio National. I’d wanted to set up the microphone in the back of the ambulance, to return the story to its source, but for practical reasons Gillian opted to record in the lounge room of her house. However, she drove Ant and Bee past me several times on a road out of town, so we could use the authentic sound of the old F-100 to open and close each episode. The series was broadcast in 2009, despite the threat of legal action from her macrobiotic ex-lover.

Something else delayed her move – on the way, she fell in love with a man thirty years older than her. Gillian had a thing about older men, particularly outdoor types: bushmen, horsemen, woodsmen. This time it was a man called Marr. She was staying with him on his land at Tanja near Bega, New South Wales. She described it as ‘a truly enchanted and holy place with pleasure domes and quiet writing rooms looking out to spotted gums on curved hills.’ The property and the beach nearby featured in Paradise is a Place, a collaborative book Gillian had published back in 1997 with photographer Sandy Edwards. The handsome, white-bearded Marr appeared in several of the photographs. Gillian wrote, ‘I am rapturously daring to love again. Because Marr is much older, tears often overwhelm me. Why did you f–ken well fall in love with a 76 year old! I can upbraid myself. But well, that is what happened.’

In January 2007 she wrote to say, ‘I am feeling sort of sad though. Set to head off in my van as soon as the bushfire time is over. I will be leaving behind my beautiful man Marr.’ I don’t know the details, but she was driving solo again.

Gillian was to spend another year in her golden ambulance. ‘Dear Mike, have reached S.A. and fallen so in love with camping in the Mallee that I’m postponing looking for rental accommodation just a little bit longer. In fact I feel pretty panicky at the thought of my Ant and Bee days drawing to a close. On the other hand Ant and Bee’s storage ports are full of manuscripts panicking that this way of life has led to their virtual abandonment.’

Finally, in 2008, she arrived and settled in at Mount Barker. She’d found a house at Ray Orr Drive on the edge of town. It was a suburban box, but it had a large garden and a back fence that looked out on a horse paddock. Ant and Bee was parked outside the Macrocarpa café when I arrived for our long-anticipated second meeting. At Macrocarpa, sustained by her love of chocolate brownies and lemon tarts, we talked of boobook owls, she oaks, and spider egg sacs. Of Leonard Cohen, Mary Oliver and Colin McCahon, and ‘the ever present knowledge of finitude’, realisations of aging and doubts about the writing life.

The coffee meetings at Macrocarpa became a ritual. They had to be planned and not too often. There was no dropping in on Gillian – she might be mid-sentence in a crucial paragraph. The novel was everything. As her MS grew worse, Ant and Bee spent longer and longer parked in the driveway of her home, and I began picking her up to take her to the café. Whenever I did this she made sure the manuscript pages of Foal’s Bread were safely packed away. She was very secretive about the book, never discussing the plot, though she did tell me what foal’s bread was – a rubbery object sometimes found with the placenta of foals, which was said to bring good luck. Gillian owned a heart-shaped foal’s bread. It was one of her most precious talismans. On one occasion she asked me if I’d read Michael Ondaatje’s novel Divisadero and what I thought of it. ‘Great,’ I said. Though she hadn’t yet read it, she’d heard it contained horse-riding scenes – and she was worried he might have stolen a march on her. ‘They’re not central,’ I reassured her.

The Macrocarpa café was also an organic greengrocery and later our ritual involved me buying Gillian a box of vegetables to take home with her. At that time, she said she was living ‘just above the bread line’. Gillian told me she was tired of writing books that made no money. She’d won the Vogel Prize early on, but lately her royalty cheques had been minimal and she was dependent on her invalid pension. She was determined that Foal’s Bread would be the kind of book that would sell, the kind of book that the people it was written about would want to read. Her research for the novel involved conversations with old-timers in Grafton pubs and she conceived of them as part of the readership. ‘Give us a yarn,’ they said.Foal’s Bread did make her money; it went on to win five major prizes, including the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, but it didn’t reach the best-seller figures Gillian had wanted. I never told her it was not my favourite of her books. I preferred Alive in Ant and Bee or the brilliant stories in Map of the Gardens. Nevertheless, I later produced a fifteen-episode book reading of Foal’s Bread for the ABC, with Eugenia Fragos as reader.

Between the coffees, the letters kept coming, despite Gillian’s fears that the art of letter writing was disappearing: ‘I can truly feel though that the time of letters is coming to its end. Do you feel this too? Something is demanding that we move faster. At first, receiving SMS messages with the words all mangled, I could barely bare to read and decipher them. I felt outraged. I felt contempt and scorn! Whereas l8ly now I mangle the language myself with some delight…’

She began to take months longer to reply to my letters and was apologetic and apprehensive about her ability to keep writing: ‘I used to be such a letter-writer. Fueled by substances I now basically must avoid, I had a vast and rich correspondence with many friends. I could send reams in a day.’

Her neatly inked fine-point letters that combined curly ‘y’s and ‘h’s with blocky ‘a’s and ‘t’s became more and more spidery: ‘This letter is long overdue. Meanwhile something unanticipated – this accursed disease has now entered my hands so that it feels like I am again in kindergarten learning to handwrite…My left hand must steady my right.’

But I don’t want to talk of the end yet. In her corresponding prime, Gillian’s letters arrived in fat envelopes, five or six pages, with all sorts of interesting inclusions: photocopies of John Berger stories, snapshots of her studio in the back of Ant and Bee, copious instructions on how to sew a panel for her ‘Wisdom Quilt.’ Let me explain.

Gillian asked (cajoled!) all her friends to hand-embroider a message or image onto calico flour bags that she would then sew together into a very colourful Wisdom Quilt. NO PRESSURE! her letters said, but you knew she really wanted your contribution. The only thing I had ever learnt to sew was a button onto a sleeve, but I took up stem-stitch one summer holiday so that I could fulfil her wish. At the rented holiday house my nephews laughed at their weird old uncle, embroidering in the corner while they watched the cricket on TV. But Gillian had done me a favour. This stitching art was restful, meditative, and used a part of my brain long ignored.

I chose to embroider a small verse:

This life is no more
Than a day by the sea –
You come, you go,
The beach remains.

Gillian was delighted to receive it, and adopted one of the lines, often asking how my day by the sea was going, or sometimes wondering how much longer her day by the sea would last.

After Macrocarpa went out of business we changed to another Mt Barker café, Sazon, for our catch-ups. To these meetings Gillian often brought along a notepad with a list of questions and reminder notes. She mentally ticked them off as we talked. At first it was disconcerting. Was this an interview? What if I couldn’t answer her questions about this or that writer? But I soon learned to relax because we laughed a lot too. I think for her the list was about not wasting precious time. The meetings were months apart, so she stored up thoughts just as she stored up notes for novels.

In 2009, at Sazon, Gillian told me she was planning a trip to Venezuela to visit a shaman who could cure her. What did I think – should she go?

‘If you want to visit South America, that’s fine. But if you’re giving all your money to this shaman – I’d say don’t do it!’

‘But they have powers we don’t understand. That time I went to the Philippines and a faith healer pulled a three-inch rusty nail out of my back, and it was covered in blood. It was real.’

I couldn’t help shaking my head. ‘You know that’s the oldest trick in the book. If you really had a nail in your back it would have shown up on all those X-rays.’

‘That’s the kind of doubt that makes it not work,’ she said.

‘But if they get you thinking that way, then you have to believe anything and everything, no matter how absurd.’

She nodded dejectedly. ‘I know.’

But she went to Venezuela. The trip cost her dearly. Gillian confided to me that she could have put down two or three house deposits for the money she’d spent on all these treatments. I didn’t judge her. My scepticism was easy to hold onto. I wasn’t facing a life-ending disease for which western medicine had no cure.

Venezuela was a disaster. Three months later, seated at the same café table, she told me the whole sorry tale. By now she needed help to travel, and her companion on the trip was a young writer friend called Brian Carman. Brian helped Gillian get around, sometimes carrying her when she was unable to negotiate the terrain. The shaman lived on top of a mountain, which meant Gillian had to stay with him, without the comforts of a hotel. The all-night healing ceremonies involved taking ayahuasca and San Pedro cactus and they placed a heavy burden on her fragile body. Then, with no obvious improvements happening, the shaman’s wife declared that Gillian was bewitched and that was why the ceremony was failing. Gillian was banished from the shaman’s house and had to live in a broiling tent that only made her MS symptoms more acute. Her journey back down the mountain on horseback was an agony of failure. Yet, back in the café, wry laughter accompanied her story, and the look in her eye signified something between ‘how could I be so deluded’ and ‘I’ll keep trying.’

Occasionally, my partner Cathy Brooks came along to the meetings with Gillian. They liked each other very much, but it’s true that Gillian preferred to meet me one to one. There was never anything physical between us, but there was an intimacy that she didn’t want to express in company. There was love, but it was the love of friends. There is a rich channel of lust in all Gillian’s fiction, but it was only after I read her confessional essay Fairy Death that I fully realised what an erotic being she was before MS had made sex too punishing for her. She lamented to me that this disease made sex remembered, not current in her body.

Cathy and I went up to Gillian’s house to meet Brian Carman, and another close friend of Gillian’s, Claire Aman, the short-story writer who was visiting from Grafton. We gathered around a campfire in Gillian’s back yard, sipping bancha tea under the stars and smelling the beautiful stringy-gum smoke. Gillian was in contradictory spirits. She’d completed Foal’s Bread and her agent Gaby Naher had several big publishing houses clamouring for the manuscript. But that excitement was tempered by the feeling that her body was going downhill fast, and her regrets that she would never drive Ant and Bee again. ‘Part of the grief is to have cantered such a crooked circle right back into wheelie bin land, when my plan was to keep going, cracking the whips of change to Alice Springs, Tasmania and then WA,’ she said. Sometimes she slept in her back yard by the campfire, just to get the feeling back again.

Our next meeting was in the women’s ward of the old Royal Adelaide Hospital. It was bedlam. These were the days when the new site was being built, so no maintenance was being done on the old hospital. Paint peeled from the walls, cladding drooped from exposed pipes. Gillian was in a middle bed in a smelly, overcrowded room. There must have been a dozen women packed in there. Across from Gillian a crone with a shock of uncombed white hair standing up from her bony scalp howled continually. As I came in with take-away coffees and a fancy cake in a little white box, Gillian said silently with her eyes,‘get me out of here!’

She’d been hospitalised because she’d developed a large ulcer on one buttock that wouldn’t heal. It had grown over long hours of sitting and editing Foal’s Bread which Allen and Unwin had won the right to publish. Working to a deadline, she’d spent too long frozen in the one position. Someone had prescribed a rubber donut ring to perch on, but it had only made the problem worse. This is the private hell of writers – the torture of the chair. Perhaps it’s why I prefer short-form poetry. Gillian had developed a technique where she worked on the floor at a low table – Japanese style, but this had not saved her. That day she was miserable, picking listlessly at the miniature Griottine I’d brought from Murrati’s Patisserie.

We talked about our mutual friend George Papaellinas, another writer afflicted with multiple sclerosis. His disease was more advanced than hers, and she dreaded his fate, ‘an MS home with invalid contraptions’ waiting to snare her. She also told me she was not going to allow herself to reach ‘the cocoon stage’ when she would be unable to move her muscles at all, not even to swallow. She would end her life before she got there.

Everyone will tell you (and they will be right) that Gillian Mears was a brave person. But there were days when she was consumed by gloom. Days when she said all she wanted for Christmas was to die. My wan attempts to cheer her up were completely ineffectual. I should add however, that even when she was at her lowest she never stopped encouraging me, commenting on things she’d heard on the radio or a poem she’d read somewhere. She had a spring of generosity inside her that never dried up, even as her body withered.

Foal’s Bread was published in 2011 and the early notices were effusive. Cathy and I met Gillian at the Stirling Organic Café to celebrate. One reason we changed location was that this café had good wheelchair access and Gillian now needed the chair to get around. She was wearing a new black linen jacket that Cathy had found for her at Woodford Folk Festival. Gillian was in demand again on the publicity circuit and she’d asked Cathy to help improve her wardrobe. Television producers were seeking her out, but she had a deep mistrust of TV and some anxiety about her appearance. ‘I just have a fear of looking like Mr Squiggle,’ she laughed. She also hated the format of ABC TV’s Book Club. ‘I wouldn’t go on Jennifer Byrnes. I find it all too ridiculous, each guest often trying to outsmart the other.’ Australian Story were after her for a ‘sensitive’ profile. Gillian wanted some advice, not that I had much experience.

‘Hmm T.V, a very fickle medium. Hopefully you’ll get a good director who doesn’t want you to soup it up too much. Don’t wave your hands around in that desperate jig you see some coached people do. Just be yourself and talk to the interviewer, don’t worry about the camera.’

My checklist was suddenly interrupted by Gillian grabbing my hand. ‘Hurry. We have to get to the toilet.’ MS also brings incontinence, so when she had to go, she had to go. I gripped the back of the wheelchair and we raced out to the laneway behind the café to the dunny, laughing as we sped along like kids with a go-cart.

Not long after this, Gillian packed up her house at Ray Orr Drive to head back east. I was saddened to see her advertisement: ‘King of the Road in Ford F100. 1974 Vintage Camper, fully fitted for Adventure. Woman owner for last seven years. Drives like a dream on the open road. Regretted sale due to illness.’ Ant and Bee was eventually sold to two Queensland doctors who used it for a fundraising rally. What happened to it after that I have no idea.

For the next couple of years I watched Gillian from a distance: her literary prizes, her increasing gauntness, her advocacy for Dying With Dignity. In 2014, she sent an invitation to her fiftieth birthday party: ‘Some of the happiest times of my childhood were spent with horses in the Grafton Showground Ring. So why not come dance with me at my 50th not my funeral?’ I missed the party because I was overseas, but Claire Aman told me Gillian’s big celebration was held in the showground barn with the completed Wisdom Quilt pinned up to the walls, mulled wine and songs from the beautiful Siskin River sisters.

In the next two years the handwritten letters stopped. Only a few brief emails arrived.

Summer 2016. Last meeting with Gillian. Thirteen kilometres out of Grafton on the Summerland Way, through Junction Hill, past Boneyard Road, I swung left into Clarence Way, then up a farm track, the green drummers loud in the perfect blue. After heavy rain the track was washed out and blocked by a pile of stones. I parked the car in the trees and Gillian’s father Peter came to meet me. We walked the rest of the way uphill through a horse paddock of yellow daisies and purple flowers in the lush grass. The horses paused to watch. On top of their hill overlooking a high bend of the lazily winding Clarence River was Gillian’s final house.

Her granny flat had a front kitchen, polished floorboards, and a big bedroom with a view to the remnant sclerophyll forest. Gillian was in the bed, surrounded by clippings and bags of notes. She could still haul herself onto her chair if need be, but could no longer walk, so the bed was now office and living room. Her handwriting, always a little spidery, had deteriorated into runic fragments, still done with the fine-tipped pens she preferred. Gillian explained that she couldn’t write back to my last letter because the MS had taken over her hands. She showed me a bag of correspondence sent to her from all over the world in response to Foal’s Bread. ‘I feel a duty to respond,’ she said, ‘but I’m not able to.’

In the corner was a television and a box of DVDs. Dickens’s Bleak House on top. ‘For someone who never watched television, I now watch quite a lot.’ I asked if she was still writing. ‘That’s a question I don’t like to answer.’ A few months before, she’d published a children’s book, The Cat with the Coloured Tail. As if on cue, her Siamese cat Paul Galico jumped onto the bed and into her lap and started yowling at the visitor.

Gillian said, ‘I need solitude to write and my time is not my own now. I always have carers about. Toileting me, showering me. I fast every second day just so they don’t have to come.’ She was always intensely secretive about her writing, superstitious even. Hiding manuscripts away from the light, not wanting her writing space encroached upon, her talismans re-arranged. One of those talismans sat on top of her heater. It was an axe head, found in the forest here. Heavy, smooth black stone. She asked me to bring it to her. ‘Feels like men’s business,’ she said, ‘like it could have taken a life.’

She showed me the completed Wisdom Quilt. Helen Garner’s contribution was accidentally left out. ‘We’ll have to tuck it in somehow,’ she said. We talked about living and dying. She was so frustrated, lying there day after day, not able to go where her mind wanted her body to take it. ‘But I’m not like Jean Paul yet,’ [referring to Jean Paul Bauby, the author of The diving bell and the butterfly who suffered from locked-in syndrome] ‘but I don’t know how long I can go on. I have the Nembutal. I was going to end it after my fiftieth birthday party. But then my oldest sister who hadn’t spoken to me for three years gave me a birthday cake and a white Arab stallion called Koru. “Koru” is Maori for “new beginning”, the unfurling of a fern tip – so how could I not go on?’

That long-standing feud was over her second novel, The Grass Sister. It mixed too much family history into its fiction. Gillian told me more than once that she regretted that book. ‘It was cruel,’ she said. ‘Blind.’ Écrivaine fatale. Tell all and regret. She could be savage to the real people who are easily recognisable in her novels and stories. As well as her sensual warmth, there was a killer streak to her observations.

‘My sister told me I must not go to death. I have to let death come to me. But do I want to lie here until I can’t turn my head or even swallow?’

‘You have the right to choose,’ I said.

Her face was so bright, her mind sharp. We discussed Geoff Page, the Clarence, Thea Astley, her dislike of Garner’s The Spare Room and the hours disappeared. ‘Maybe you’ll meet death halfway,’ I said. ‘You’ll choose, but you’ll have a beckoning, a sign that it’s time. Perhaps you should wait for that?’

‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’

‘Do you still believe in re-incarnation?’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but I wonder if I bring on my own death how that will affect it?’

We both looked out the window, past the horse run and into the sclerophyll. Peter returned, offered to make us coffee. Gillian suggested I take over. ‘He’ll probably do instant.’ A strong, tanned, white-haired man in his seventies, Peter was a soil regeneration expert. He told us about his surveys in Rhodesia working with an assistant named Lazarus. It sounded so long ago, almost mythological. Gillian was worried both about Peter dying before her, and her dying before him. She wanted me to read a poem for him, Richard Eberhart’s Rumination. This was the poem our family chose to read at the funeral of my own father, who was also a soil scientist. Gillian sent Peter to look for a file marked ‘Farewell.’ Her memory was good. We found the poem there in the manila folder.

When I can hold a stone within my hand
And feel time make it sand and soil, and see
The roots of living things grow in this land,
Pushing between my fingers flower and tree,
Then I shall be as wise as death,
For death has done this and he will
Do this to me, and blow his breath
To fire my clay, when I am still.

After coffee, Peter shook my hand and left us, asking me gently not to tire her out. Gillian told me an Aboriginal healer had promised her that she would ‘dance in the desert.’ She wanted to believe him, but after his potions failed this shaman stopped answering his mobile. ‘I’ve accepted now that I won’t walk again.’ I found that ominous. I’d never before heard her give up. Our talk turned to the past, the Ray Orr days, her ambulance Ant and Bee. It was time to go. I kissed her hands, her lips. ‘Goodbye.’ Knowing and refusing to know, this was the last time. ‘I owe you a coffee,’ I said as I stepped out the back door and headed down hill to the car.

There was one more letter from Gillian, hard to read, the handwriting like the faint footprints of small birds. It arrived in a large envelope that also contained a book. Inside the book’s cover were pasted two black and white photographs; one of a naked Gillian waving from the Nymboida river like a naiad, the other of an empty stretch of the river. ‘Now you see me, now you don’t.’ Was that the hidden message? But wait, scanning the second photo again with a magnifying glass, I found her, a tiny naked figure, hunched down, almost indistinguishable from the white river boulders, as though she was saying, ‘I am going to become part of this landscape.’

The book itself was something that I knew to be very precious to Gillian. It was a copy of John Berger’s Pages of the Wound. Inside Berger had written ‘for Gillian from everyone between these pages and also me, John.’ To which Gillian had added, ‘and now dear Mike for you with affectionate love.’ Her letter made it clear that this was the last time she would write. ‘Alas because I really liked writing to you. Bequeathing instead the hand-signed Berger for I know you will cherish it.’

From this I knew she would be leaving the world soon. That she would follow through with her promise never to reach the ‘cocoon stage.’ Three months later it was so.

I found it difficult to read the obituaries, preferring instead to re-listen to her voice as she read from Alive in Ant and Bee: ‘I think I’ll keep driving south tomorrow. No matter if it rains. No matter if all the meaning I’ve attached today to my strange life drifts away with the light of sunrise.’

Gillian Mears working in the back of Ant and Bee. Photo from the collection of Mike Ladd.
Gillian Mears working in the back of Ant and Bee. Photo from the collection of Mike Ladd.