‘Free Love’ is one story from an interconnected collection called That Sky That Sky which I am currently writing about a family set in Australia and Ireland over the last fifty years. The idea for these stories began a couple of years ago when my mother handed me the love letters my father wrote to her soon after they’d met in 1954. She was nineteen. He was twenty-two and he called her ‘Sweetness’. She was away up North working for the summer and they’d promised to write daily but in those days ‘daily’ was dependent on the postal service between Sydney and Queensland, some five hundred miles away. Some letters crossed over, some were delayed a week, and all delays elicited anxiety and misunderstandings. In these letters, of which I only have one side, my father celebrates a wage increase to a pound a week—would that be enough to marry him? He talks about reading the ‘latest’ Steinbeck, listens to Louis Armstrong and gossips that Charlie and Nancy seem to be having sex. My father worries about the boys my mother is meeting at dances or working with but does not want to detract from her adventure, assuring her he would be making the most of things himself. My parents appear to be quietly negotiating their future with a surprising and unselfconscious lack of gendered expectations. Twenty years later, after fifteen years of marriage and four kids, they will divorce, thanks in part to that same curious engagement with the world. It was the seventies. There was pot, swinging, women’s lib, communes and gurus and my mother embraced it all. My father entertained a number of female ‘friends’ before marrying again.
The title of this story, ‘Free Love’ refers specifically to a social movement but also to parental love which should cost nothing but unfortunately all too often, costs too much. Recovering addict Olly has endured a nasty joke of his father’s all his life: that Olly was a cuckoo, the product of his mother’s affair and the catalyst for the separation, something disputed by his mother. Over the years, the more troubled Olly became, the less Jeff was inclined to own him. While in the story, Olly’s trying to make amends for behaviours related to his addiction, it’s Jeff who really needs to make amends but is now too frail to do so in any way that would satisfy Olly. When Jeff dies, Olly inherits his father’s house and wayward dog, resetting the relationship to the natural order.
‘Free Love’, like the rest of the stories in That Sky That Sky, is not autobiographical, rather the letters created a starting off point to write about a family and the individuals within, living through times of rapid social change in Australia and Ireland, trying to find a way to be in a world that was constantly catching up with itself. The first story I wrote for the collection is set in 1972, the day Jeff moves out of the family home. It is called ‘Sweetness’ and was published in The Moth in 2019.
I chose interconnected stories as a way to animate pockets of time, place and emotion, and mimic the ways families tell stories about themselves with their often conflicting and contentious points of view. Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, described as a ‘novel in stories’ and the linked stories in Amy Bloom’s Where the God of Love Hangs Out, are very satisfying as short stories but the myriad connections between the stories adds another layer of joy. The accumulation of linked short stories with the pleasure of recurring characters, brings time, builds place and can achieve a force more potent than its individual parts.
Issue Twelve of The Lonely Crowd, is available here.
Image by Jo Mazelis.