In a final interview for Penguin, the man who has regularly been Australia’s most popular novelist said he was going to die at precisely the right time, while he still had his intellect and energy. ”The time is right, it’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous.”
Bryce Courtenay passed away today after a battle with stomach cancer.
I have only read a few of his books so far, but there are scenes in The Power of One that are so deeply embedded in my mind that I know I’ll always carry them in my memory. I read the book when I was barely a teenager, and when I discovered the sequel Tandia I devoured it in a weekend. I just couldn’t put it down, and that was a thrilling feeling when I was 13.
I often wonder how those books would stand up now that I’m an adult.
When I was sixteen I worked for a family as a nanny for a few months travelling all over the world. Our final stop before home was a short stay in Sydney, and by the time we arrived there I was jetlagged and exhausted from head to toe. I’d hoped for a sleep-in that morning but the kids had other ideas. Their body clocks were confused and they needed to be fed and entertained.
We got dressed as quietly as we could and snuck down to breakfast in the restaurant in the foyer of the hotel.
I remember taking the two smallest children up to the buffet to help them choose their breakfast. They were pointing wildly at all the sugary foods that they weren’t allowed to eat at home, and as I filled up their plates there was a lot of negotiation and compromise going on. I was slowly inching my way backwards along the counter while we talked, keeping an eye on their little hands in case the temptation of chocolate for breakfast was too strong.
What happened next was like a cheaply-written sitcom. I took one backward step too many and bumped right into a man who had been doing the same thing from the other end of the buffet. It gave me such a fright that I almost overbalanced, and I would have taken both plates of food to the ground with me. The man instinctively stuck out a hand to steady me, straightened me up and we both apologised at exactly the same time. The kids had the giggles because it was so ridiculous that we’d collided at such a slow speed, and the laughter was infectious.
When my embarrassment had finally subsided I looked up from the ground and realised that the grinning face in front of me was the same as the one in the dust jacket of my books. I was doubly mortified and made a swift exit after apologising a few hundred more times.
He seemed amused.
My grandmother (right) and her sister.
But Bryce Courtenay wasn’t the only wonderful person that the world lost today. This afternoon another wonderful storyteller took her last breath and left behind some pretty heavy hearts. She didn’t have a chance to say her goodbyes like Bryce, but perhaps that’s a blessing of a different kind.
She’ll be so badly missed, especially by her sister – my grandmother. They’ve been next door neighbours for 17 years, and best friends for 97 years. My grandmother has been a widow for longer than she was married and in January she will turn 102 without her best mate by her side.
We’re so worried about what’s next for her. She’s seen two world wars, the sinking of the Titanic and buried her own husband. But how do you survive another broken heart when it’s been working hard for more than a century?
Every day is such a blessing. I hope my grandmother will find the strength to live many more.