Harry Saddler. Small Moments. Ginninderra Press, 2007. ISBN: 9781740274258
Small Moments is a memento of everyday life and the preciousness of ordinary days. In the days following the 2003 Canberra bushfires, a Deakin family go on with their lives, getting ready for a long-ago-planned party. The smoke haze that continues to hang over Canberra, and the momentousness of what has gone on the last few days, has them each thinking of what they have, and also of what they have perhaps lost.
If I was going to recommend a single book amongst those I’ve read this year to give a stranger some small understanding of Canberra, it might just be Small Moments. It is a book about the simple pleasures and mundanities of suburban life, observed in a context of something important but external. Life changing events that exist alongside and slowly merge with daily life.
Many of the small moments in the book are very small indeed. Robert’s bus ride through Manuka, and his minutes in the office going page by page through his report are the commonplace in the extreme. I did wonder at times just how much dull detail might really be needed to set the scene or make the point. But there are moments of poetry even in this.
Unseen behind the two men, unheard as the world receded into silence around them, the paper of Robert’s report drifted softly from the printer; drifted, rocked in the air and settled like birds on a ledge. But the pigeons beyond the window showed little interest in settling; the slowly warming air made it ideal for gliding higher and higher between the buildings…
The book follows each family member in turn as their thoughts drift between the humdrum now and various points in the past. While even the dog, Amy, has a viewpoint, the majority of the reflection comes from father Robert and daughter Sacha, whose thoughts meander from today to their weekend bushwalk through Namadgi the year before.
From each of the characters we hear an inner voice, observing and remembering and following whatever progressions that thoughts might take. It did make for some confusing moments at times, as the thoughts of Robert or Sacha in particular drift from the past to the present without any markers or borders, much as our own train of thought might do.
If they both stopped to listen, and there was no longer any crunching of boots in the twigs and dry leaf litter on the track, they could hear a faint trickle of a creek somewhere among the grass in the middle of the small valley, perhaps twenty metres away.
Robert stretched and turned towards his computer and switched it on.
What is slowly revealed, through the inner reflections of each character and the narrative of the days, is a measure of what was lost, or almost lost, by Canberra in that time. And a little of what was gained.
As the family members go about their business, they learn of friends and colleagues, friends of friends, who have lost their homes. There are words of condolence and encouragement, but little that anyone can really do. Sacha and her mother, Helen, detour from shopping in Woden and Phillip to head to Weston Creek and the fire zone. There they find houses stopped forever at some small moment before the world changed.
Opposite the hi-fi was a bookshelf. Opposite the hi-fi there had once been a bookshelf. Stuffed in a cupboard in a hallway had been a box full of Christmas decorations, recently put away for another year.
Small Moments voices well what I think much of Canberra went through in those days and weeks immediately after the fires. Shock, and grief. Thankfully for most of us, for the grief is for the loss of something unspecified. A feeling as we contemplate the seeming randomness of it all, that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. A grim satisfaction that Canberra was making the news as a place where people live, not as a synonym for unpopular decisions.
Helen feels guilty, feeling she might be “jumping on the grief bandwagon”, but Sacha has a response: “The whole city lost something. Just think of Mount Stromlo, say, or Tidbinbilla.”
The whole city did lose something in those days. But perhaps we also gained some things, like an appreciation of the small moments.