Poetic justice? Acknowledging Grace Perry

Grace Perry – the name is not widely recognised now. But in the 1940s Grace Perry, teenage poet, was hailed as a genius. In the 1950s she graduated as a doctor and had three children. In the 1960s she founded a literary press and a poetry magazine. A prolific writer herself, she launched the careers of many others and encouraged many emerging writers through prizes and literary events.

Grace Perry, teenage poetry sensation

I saw Grace Perry occasionally at events that she had organised. Like most writers, I would turn up at cultural events without giving a thought to the administrative chores behind the scenes – the phone calls, the invitations, the funding crises, the publicity campaigns. All these things I took for granted. I bought my ticket, caught up with friends, and hoped to workshop my poems with someone well-known.

Grace Perry introduced the early sessions of the 1975 Poetry Write-In at Macquarie University. She wore a floaty, colourful caftan, and was justifiably proud of having writers present from Indonesia, New Zealand and all states of Australia. She came to some of the small seminars also. She was obviously a close friend of some of the well-known poets, but she was generous to other participants also.

I have written about Grace’s career in the Summer 2020 issue of the State Library of NSW’s magazine, Openbook, so I won’t repeat her story here. Sufficient to say that she published eight books of her own poetry, founded South Head Press, managed Poetry Australia magazine, and helped launch the careers of half a dozen well known writers.

Openbook, Summer 2020 – the journal of the State Library of NSW

About a year ago, I had an inkling, more a glimmering perhaps, that Grace Perry was a hugely underestimated figure. Her own poetry was groundbreaking: she wrote lyrical verse in her teens, but in maturity took on topics such as death, pain and heartbreak in a confident, contemporary style. Her cultural contribution to Australian literature was significant.

What a joy to find that the State Library had 35 boxes of her papers, and copies of all her books, even the ones published while she was still at school. She kept meticulous business records of South Head Press, Poetry Australia and events such as the 1975 Poetry Write-In. I was abashed to find three of my own poems in the bulging file from that event.

Grace Perry, a whirlwind of energy and generosity, deserves acknowledgement as a cultural pioneer.


December 2020

Mini-delights of travel

Moments. Unexpected encounters. Odd conversations. The mini-delights of travel are most intense when you’re travelling alone.

What seems an age ago now, I had a Eurail pass that allowed me to swan around Europe on marvellous trains in first-class seats, mostly without booking ahead. These are some of the memorable moments.

Pessoa in Lisbon. Unlike my fellow blogger Robin Sen, I did not find Lisbon tedious. My room overlooked very noisy renovations, but the managers moved me to a quieter room. I loved the scale of the place – the hills, the harbour, the crumbling alabaster masterpieces. The food was fine. The side trip to Sintra was lovely. But I wanted to see Pessoa, the weird many-named poet whose statue was somewhere nearby. On an uphill road, I was about to take a seat in a cafe when young man came up to me. “We’re environmentalists,” he said, “approaching tourists to ask for support ….”.

I handed him a couple of euros. “I wonder if you could help me,” I said. “There’s supposed to be a statue of Pessoa somewhere here but it’s very hard to find.” He grinned and waved his hand. There was Pessoa, just beside us, waiting for his caffeine hit.

A bronzed Pessoa in his Lisbon cafe

The Indian architects. There were only two other passengers in the carriage. The young Indian men responded in English to my stammered German enquiry about a free seat. We each said something about our travels. They told me about their conference in Frankfurt on architectural cues for crowd movement. They offered me snacks that their wives back home had prepared. It was the first time I’d eated Bombay mix. I remember the nice tang of curry on my tongue, the charm of those guys and their enthusiasm for their work. And I remember their shared shame-faced laugh when I asked I whether they’d tried German beer. “Here, yes,” one confessed. “But never at home,” his friend added.

The German businessmen. Late in the day the train to Bonn was crowded. I was lucky to get the last seat in a first-class carriage. My companions were smartly-dressed businessmen, all silently working on laptops or reading. After half an hour, the silence was broken by a trolley-wielding waitress of spectacular beauty. “None of you gentlemen,” she announced with a smile, “will refuse a nice aperitif or a coffee!” Papers rustled. Laptop lids went down. “Meine Dame!” She smiled at me too. I accepted the coffee. Then one man asked for cheese and a whisky. The next man chose wine. So we went round the carriage until everyone except the young man in the window seat was buying food and drink and even sharing a few words. The waitress clicked the last credit card, thanked us all, and backed out of the carriage. I took a closer look at the one hold-out, the young man in the corner, whose “Danke, Nein, nichts!” had been quite emphatic. He was deep in a book. I could just make out the English title – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Hotel de France. Arriving in Paris on the swish train from Brussels, I was met by a taxi driver with my name on a card. We drove and we drove and we drove. He was not familiar with the hotel that I’d booked online. He double-checked the address. When we finally drew up at the door he could not suppress a look that said arrives in style but stays in a dump. There was nothing glamorous about the Hotel de France. After lugging my bag up several floors I was in a drab room with shabby furnishings. One consolation was a window that looked down on a three-cornered space where people seemed to be setting up stalls. If I went to sleep now, I’d be able to get an early breakfast at the market. I was still awake, however, when two young Germans came into the neighbouring room, every remark audible through the paper-thin walls. “Well,” said one to his friend, “if this is the Hotel de France, I’d hate to see the Hotel d’Europe!”


Life Writing’s expanding waistline

Life Writing. The term keeps expanding. The category is gobbling up its neighbours. It now includes

Memoir, biography, autobiography, eulogy, family history, personal anecdotes, blog entries, autobiographical fiction, case studies, diaries ……

You get the idea. Life Writing has flexible boundaries. It’s not just a branch of literature. Disciplines such as psychology, sociology, history and anthropology rely on it.

Memoir heads my list.

For me, the best memoirs linger in the mind because the author seems like someone you know. There’s an immediacy, a personal connection. You are attracted by tone, shared enthusiasms, humour, frankness or novelty. You empathise with suffering. You are drawn right in to someone’s viewpoint.

Memoirs can evoke key personalities; a time and a place; remarkable experiences, or a life story linked to a theme.

My own memoir, Penny Dreadful, evokes circles I knew in the late 1950s and early 1960s, mostly in Sydney. That puts it in the personalities/time and place category.

I recently read a good thematic memoir. Tracy Tynan’s book has a clever title, and an astonishing cover photograph.

Tynan and Dundy, in matching leopard-print tights

Tracy’s parents, Kenneth Tynan and Elaine Dundy, are pictured gazing entranced at one another. They wear matching leopard-print tights. The Wear of the title is all too apparent. This is a family with an eye for clothes.

Tracy Tynan made her name as a costume designer in Hollywood. She knows clothes. How could it be otherwise? Her father, theatre critic and director Kenneth Tynan, was a noted dandy, arriving in postwar Oxford with a purple suit and a cloak lined with red satin. Her mother, writer Elaine Dundy, also dressed dramatically. As the picture shows, neither paid much attention to other people’s opinions. The teenage Tracy, of course, longed for a mother who dressed in conventional clothes from Marks & Spencer.

Tracy Tynan was opinionated about clothes from the start. She adored her mother’s sealskin coat, with its delicious texture and unmistakable scent of Ma Griffe and tobacco. Her own scratchy toddler’s wool coat held no such charm. She objected to the clothes her parents chose until she was given her own clothing allowance.

Chapter titles in this memoir are clothing items. My Mother’s Fur Coat. School Uniforms: Purple, Blue and None. The Apple-Green Shoes. White Jeans and White Denim Jacket. My Mother’s Pucci Dress. The Striped Silk Socks… There is a sketch for each:

As a child, Tracy lived in London, where her father was a theatre critic, writer and friend of the also-famous. Elaine Dundy was a New Yorker whose books included the sparkling novel The Dud Avocado. The family eventually moved to the United States, but by the time Tracy was in college her parents’ marriage had gone the way of most marriages marked by heavy drinking, loud quarrels and smashing crockery.

We are getting to the Tear of the title. Tracy was an only child. Her parents loved her and went in for intermittent displays of affection. However, their main passion was celebrity hunting. They were out at parties most nights, and often entertained. Tracy was left with babysitters or au pairs, or sent to boarding school. None of her schools worked out particularly well. It was embarrassing to be the daughter of the first man to use Anglo-Saxon expletives on the BBC. The quieter lives of her friends’ parents seemed enviable.

There are many ways of telling such a story. “Misery Memoirs”, tell-all stories of abuse and terror, sell better than quirky, uncomplaining stories like Tracy Tynan’s. She loved Kenneth Tynan, despite his narcissism, haphazard attention to other people’s emotional needs, and reported appetite for sado-masochistic sex. She was devastated by his reduced life in Los Angeles, marked by downmarket non-dandy clothing, and many visits to hospital. He died of emphysema in his fifties, and was given three memorials by his second wife. Tracy Tynan’s description of these events – in Los Angeles, Oxford and London – is a remarkable melange of grief and hilarity.

Elaine Dundy, meanwhile, had been in and out of rehab for years. She outlived Tynan by decades. Her daughter was astonished by the grief of many friends.

Why did I not see Elaine? Tracy Tynan wonders. I saw only the Elaine who struggled with alcohol and drug addiction for over fifty years. The Elaine who was in and out of rehab so many times that I lost count. She was always Elaine, never Mother. She never took care of me. I took care of her, albeit reluctantly.

Clothes provide a triumphant note for the concluding chapters. With a lifetime of strong opinions about clothes, and familiarity with film and theatre from a young age, Tracy Tynan had a good background for a costume designer. She’d studied art history and was good at handcrafts. Her first tentative steps in the costume van of a film set led to a fulfilling career.

I won’t go into details about her emotional life, apart from mentioning one more chapter title, The T-Shirt Wedding Dress. What a hilarious chapter that is, with bride and groom dashing round Las Vegas in sparkly Charles and Di T-shirts, trying to get their documents to the right place on time.

Wear and Tear – The Threads of My Life, by Tracy Tynan, is published by Scribner.


Plague in 1900 in Sydney

2020, 1919, 1900 … what do these years have in common?

2020 doesn’t bear writing about, what with fires, Covid-19 and now recession. And we keep hearing comparisons with the worldwide disaster of Spanish flu in 1919.

But the history of plague in Sydney is less well known. That’s plain old bubonic plague, the kind they had in London in the 1600s. Turning up here and there over the decades, it was carried from rats to fleas to humans. Sydney’s first encounter was in January 1900.

The rats came by sea. In Sydney the main dockyards were at Darling Harbour, and that’s where the plague took hold, among dock workers, local traders and carriers, and residents in crowded housing nearby.

The first sign was not a sick person, but an increase in the number of dead rats. It had never occurred to me that rats were also victims of the disease. Soon there were big campaigns to kill rats. The official number killed in Sydney that year, 108,308, looks a bit too precise to be believable. It could be an under-estimate.

Cover of Peter Curson & Kevin McCracken‘s book

Rat catchers proudly photographed great piles of rotting rodents. When Leichhardt Council Chambers was announced as the a local collection depot, the town clerk was besieged by people bearing dead rats and demanding the “captitation” fee of sixpence. The depot was actually in Canterbury Road. Some inner city districts were barricaded off until rat eradication and cleaning could be completed. Huge barge-loads of dead rats, contaminated material and other rubbish were towed out to sea, and some unsavoury items turned up on Bondi Beach. The Bulletin commented,

Break, break, break/ At the foot of thy crags, O Sea.

But the pungent smell of the cat that is dead/ Will ever come back to me.”

The disease spread rapidly, with the inner suburbs hardest hit. The Rocks and Chinatown were badly affected, as were Alexandria, Surry Hills, Botany, Waterloo and Woolloomooloo. City boarding houses, crowded cottages and cheap hotels were also at risk. Plague seldom penetrated the graceful streets of Mosman, Vaucluse or Strathfield. Manly was the only north shore address to be affected.

When a case was suspected, public health officials inspected the patient and the premises. Confirmed cases were quarantined – transported by launch to Quarantine Station at North Head. Close contacts were also taken to Quarantine Station where there was separate accommodation for contacts, up the hill from the hospital. People from small households usually complied with these arrangements, but when authorities insisted on quarantining 80 people from one hotel, there was violent resistance. Most contacts spent only a couple of weeks at North Head, but a few were there for months.

In all, there were 303 cases, of whom 103 died. Young men, at high risk because of their jobs near the wharves, were the largest group affected.

Restricting deaths to 103 represents a triumph for the authorities, but the figures mask untold tragedies. A terminally ill 3-year-old was snatched from his mother’s arms and taken to die alone at the Quarantine Station. Many families lost their sole breadwinner.

The city had much to learn about the need for decent sanitation, but in the meantime snake oil salesmen had a grand time promoting various preventive substances and cures. With its centuries-old name, The Black Death, the plague inspired terror, misinformation, and the desire to find someone to blame. The rumour mill went wild, with false claims that the Chinese community was the source of the infection, or that rich families were bribing officials not to identify them as plague victims. There was little clarity about which level of government was responsible for what. No one knew what the future might hold. Plague was not the only threat to health: doctors could offer little to combat scarlet fever, measles or flu.

But when winter 1900 turned to spring, the plague had run its course. Health experts warned that there would certainly be another epidemic one day, but most residents of Sydney just sighed with relief.


More information: Curson, P. & McCracken, K., Plague in Sydney, UNSW Press

A stolen painting

This is a story about two men, a painter and a thief.

A few boats and boatsheds on the shoreline – I’ve known this painting all my life.

The pale green shed catches the eye, its paintbox colour setting off the yellows of the sand. Several fishing boats lie on the beach, and the one in the foreground has been turned upside down.

Untitled beach scene, signed Picart Le Doux ’38

The painter was Charles Alexandre Picart le Doux, 1881-1959.

My father stole this painting.

It’s a long story, one that he told more than once, the details changing a little each time.

David McNicoll, 1914-2000, a war correspondent for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, covered the D-Day landings of 6 June 1944. He crossed the Channel to Normandy with Canadian troops, anchoring near “Gold” beach, Bernieres-sur-mer. Journalists were not allowed to land during the assault on the beaches, so they watched from the ship. The noise of low-flying aircraft, gunfire, cannons and bombs was terrifying. Dozens of badly wounded men were brought back to the ship – the Hilary‘s dining room became a hospital.

Fighting moved inland, and the correspondents went ashore. Corpses lay everywhere, Germans and allies alike. Fifty young Canadians, newly dead, lay neatly lined up on the sand, their wounds barely visible. It was a sight my father could never forget.

Such was his first visit to France.

Some days after the landing a small group of journalists followed Allied soldiers into the newly-liberated Nazi headquarters in Cherbourg. I don’t know whether the German HQ was a town hall or a big villa, but my father always described it as a big place, “stuffed with loot.” Occupying officers had surrounded themselves with the best of French furniture, glassware, ornaments and paintings. “Very good taste, some beautiful pictures,” my father remembered in a 1989 interview.

At this point in the story he would point out that soldiers around him were helping themselves to what they saw as Nazi loot. Sometimes he said, “The Canadians were stuffing gold candelabra into their pockets hand over fist.” In a 1989 interview with Tim Bowden he said that G.I.’s were slicing paintings out of their frames.

It was a free-for-all.

My father told Tim Bowden that he knocked the picture out of its frame, removed the nails, and folded it as tightly as he could so that he could carry it in his kitbag. Several years later he had it framed in Sydney, where it hung on a wall until his death in 2000. At some stage he discovered that Charles Picart Le Doux was quite well known in France.

He made no attempt to return the painting, but in 1989, asked about its provenance, he no longer gloated about Nazi loot. “Probably belonged to some poor unfortunate Frenchman,” he admitted.

Over the years David McNicoll bought a number of paintings. All Australian, they looked at home with the Le Doux. The light, the colours, the informal composition, the subtle details – perhaps the stolen painting was the keystone to my father’s taste, and possibly mine as well. If you put the stolen painting in an exhibition of Sydney Moderns, people would take it for a Roland Wakelin.

Charles Le Doux, born in Paris, studied at the Beaux-Arts de Paris before going to live in Montmartre, where he made friends with many other artists including Suzanne Valadon, her son Maurice Utrillo, Charles Vildrac, Jules Romains and Georges Duhamel. He began exhibiting in 1904 and had his first one-man show in 1910.

Serving as a medical orderly in World War I, Le Doux witnessed many horrors near the frontline. By the time peace came, he was a committed pacifist, and suffering deep depression. Soon he renewed his focus on work. He resolved to let his subject matter dictate form and style. He would “oublier la technique” – abandon technical theory.

The 1920s were good to him. His paintings were on show in galleries in Paris, San Francisco, New York, Rio de Janeiro, London, Berlin and Munich. He moved to Montmartre; some of his paintings were acquired by national museums.

His output included landscapes, portraits and designs. In 1938 he painted the untitled beach scene with fishing boats, probably on site in Brittany or Normandy.

During the World War II Le Doux lived in Tours and painted nearly 100 portraits. After the war he resumed work as a professor of painting in Paris, and accepted a number of commissions to illustrate books or decorate buildings. He wrote poetry and continued to paint. Two of his sons were artists, one of them, Jean, becoming well known for tapestry designs.

Charles Le Doux died in 1959 aged 79. His paintings still sell at auction, for fairly modest prices. His contemporaries, Matisse and Picasso, took painting in new directions. Le Doux was neither a pioneer nor one of the big names.

After my father died in 2000, my brother and I sold his paintings, each keeping a few favourites. I grabbed the boat scene – fortunately it was not one my brother had his eye on.

In 2001 I contacted Australia’s cultural liaison officer at the Paris Embassy, outlining the story I’ve just told, and asking if there was a restitution program under which I should return the painting. She said that she would make enquiries, but that if I heard nothing further, I could enjoy the painting with a clear conscience.

I heard no more about it.

Do I enjoy the painting? Yes and no. In the last year of my father’s life the painting acquired a couple of noticeable scratches, visible above and below the black boat. Unsure what to do about restoration, I’ve done nothing. And I have to confess to slight disappointment that nothing came of my approach to the Embassy. It would have been an adventure to take the painting to a gallery in Cherbourg or a descendant of the painter’s.

Now travel is out of the question for the foreseeable future.

The painting can’t be sold. An online French auction house gives three conditions for sale. The work must be authentic. Yes, it is. It must be in good condition. No, it isn’t. And finally, its provenance must be impeccable.

Hmmm – a big black cross for that one. The provenance is fascinating, but it’s far from impeccable.

I am left with a lot of what-ifs. What if the painter and the thief had ever met? Would they have got on well? Would they have marvelled at the contrast between this peaceful scene and the bloodbath on the selfsame beaches that my father witnessed? Would the wartime thief have bought a Le Doux or two legitimately?

What if someone develops a vaccine fast, and I turn up in Cherbourg one day in the future with a big brown paper parcel?

What if, what if, what if….


A note on sources

Tim Bowden’s interview with David McNicoll is an audio recording on the Australian War Memorial’s site, awm.gov.au/collection/C235674

Wikipedia has a biography of Charles Picart Le Doux; he and his son Jean feature on many French art sites.

Google “auction results Charles Picart Le Doux” to see many more of his paintings.

Finally, my thanks to David Burden for untangling a tricky French phrase.


Pandemic style invades Paris

I saw it with my own eyes. Heard it with my own ears.

There on the French news, was an item about sloppy at-home attire taking over the streets of Paris. The Covid effect, they called it.

Pandemic style.

It’s summer there of course. Even so, do you expect to see the kind of daggy shorts men wear to Bondi Junction being sported on the Champs Elysees?

There was worse to come. French women have been abandoning their bras. A French bra is a thing of substance, a “soutien-gorge”, or breast-upholder, but French women discarded them while working at home. Now they are in no hurry to struggle back into them.

As for feet. The camera panned downwards. Yes, it was true. Sneakers, trainers, sports shoes of every colour. In French these are called “baskets”, pronounced bass-‘ketts, but whatever you call them, they are not the chic leather slip-ons or lace-ups of the formally attired. They are rubber-soled canvas footwear, pumped out in their millions by Asian franchisees.

Les baskets, the latest thing in Paris

Formal wear for men has vanished, for the summer of 2020 at least. A boutique owner reported that the sales of suits were down more than 25%.

Women were wearing skimpy sundresses or cut-off trousers.

Paris Fashion Week had to go virtual this year, but its fashion leadership is over.

We are the leaders now. Australian summer style has finally taken over the world.

Les Murray wrote a great poem, “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever,” of which one stanza reads:

Scunge, which is real negligee

housework in a swimsuit, pyjamas worn all day,

is holiday, is freedom from ambition.

Scunge makes you invisible

to the world and to yourself.

Free at last! Liberty, Equality, Sisterhood.

Paris is taking fashion tips from Parramatta.


Aged care – the powerless are downhearted

Submissions to Australia’s Royal Commision into Aged Care close on 31 July 2020. Google those key words to find the easy-to-use online submission form.

Mine is brief, so I’ll repeat it here.

What would you like to tell the Royal Commission?

My overriding concern is the low standard of Australian aged care, and the way it is run by agencies to institutionalise inmates to their way of doing things. People lose their choices, their individuality, their privacy. They don’t choose their meals, their rooms, their clothes, their times of doing things, their activities, their companions. They are part of a system. They are supposed to co-operate in making things cheap and easy to run.

Forget human rights.

Is it any wonder that depression is so prevalent among residents? The powerless are downhearted.

Staffing is inadequate and underpaid. There is no ratio of skilled staff on duty at all times. Young people on temporary visas, supposedly being trained, provide what care they can for the lowest pay the organisation can arrange.

Whatever I write, whatever you report, the same old agencies will go on delivering much the same services. I only hope you can mandate a few legally enforceable improvements.

The death rates in aged care druing the COVID19 pandemic is in part a reflection of age and co-morbidities. But “hospital in the home” was clearly a failure at Newmarch House, which could not access trained staff, proper santised equipment, or implement secure infection control measures. NSW Health must bear some of the blame, but the dismal staffing practices in the sector were on stark display.

Undertrained, underpaid, casual staff are unable to meet the complex needs of such an emergency.

I urge you to make human rights the core message of your report.


My Grandmother

She was my grandmother but I never knew her. Born in Russia, she never spoke Russian, only Yiddish. Jews were second-class citizens in Russia. In those days my grandmother was not entitled to speak the national language. She and her family were persecuted and despised for no reason except that they were Jewish.

My grandmother was forced to marry my grandfather, who had fled Russia with his first wife during the Pogroms, a time when Jews were robbed of their property, tortured and evan killed. My grandfather settled in the East End of London in England, where my father was born. When my grandfather’s first wife died having their fourth child, he sent for his wife’s younger sister. She was duly dispatched at the age of eighteen to marry my grandfather and her dead sister’s four children. That was the tradition among Orthodox Jews at the time.

She had another eight children with my grandfather, who died just before my father’s Bar Mitzvah, leaving my grandmother with twelve children to bring up alone. I can only imagine how terrible it must have been for my poor grandmother, a stranger in a strange land, far away from her family.

(copyright) Dina Davis

It was ridiculous

It was supposed to be a simple job. My daughter’s house had a leak in the roof. “No problem,” I said, “I’ll fix that tomorrow.”

It was a two-storey house in Newtown. It was obvious what the problem was: part of the lead flashing against the chimney had been dislodged and bent up by the wind, allowing the rain to get in.

All I had to do was climb up with a silicon gun, push the flashing back into place, and seal it with the silicon. Simple!

I took my ladder and leant it up against the back laundry wall. It was easy to climb on to the corrugated iron roof of the one-storey laundry. Then I dragged the ladder up after me and placed it on the laundry roof, so that I could climb up to the second-storey main roof, which I successfully did.

I clambered up to where the problem was, pushed down the bent flashing and applied a generous amount of silicon. Suddenly I heard a loud noise. My heart sank when I saw that the ladder had slid down flat onto the laundry roof and was now completely out of reach.

It was ridiculous. I was stuck. My daughter was at work; no one was home. No phone. I sat there on the top of a two-storey terrace roof feeling ridiculous. What to do?

Just then a schoolboy was walking past. I yelled out to him, “Could you please help me get off this roof?” He readily agreed, but there was a problem. Well, several problems actually. First he had to get over the fence into the backyard, which he managed to do with the help of some nearby milk crates. He then opened the back gate and brought in the same milk crates so he could climb up to the laundry roof to rescue the ladder. He then held the ladder up to the main roof, enabling me to climb down. What a hero he was!

I thanked him profusely but he said “No problem” and went on his way. I often wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t come along.

Yes, it was ridiculous. I have now sworn not to do any more roof jobs.



“You have a double!”

It’s disconcerting when someone tells you this. An old friend nearly embraced a total stranger in Hyde Park. “At the very last moment I realised she wasn’t you at all. So embarrassing!”

My brother saw my absolute double on Antiques Roadshow. I managed to find the episode. Surely not, I thought. Perhaps I have faded to a pair of specs and a haircut.

But once it was serious. Disconcerting. Haunting.

San Antonio is a dot on the map near Highway 25, just south of Socorro, New Mexico. It is famous for two things, the Bosque del Apache Bird Sanctuary, and the green chile hamburgers at the Owl Cafe.

The Owl Cafe, known for green chile hamburgers

The first time Michael and I went south to the bird sanctuary, it was dusk. Whooping cranes, herons, ducks and other water birds were gliding down to spend the night in the trees of the Rio Grande. The last rays of sun glinted on the rocks as birds shuffled and carolled. But it was Sunday, and the famous cafe was closed.

We tried again on a Wednesday evening. Dozens of cars were parked outside, and only one table was free. We were about to sit down when a man at the adjoining table spread his arms out and said he was expecting a big party of friends. We stood back.

An elderly foursome nearby took pity on us. “Plenty of room at our table,” they said. “Please join us.” Gratefully, we did.

“Did you see the turkeys?” our rescuer asked, leaning towards us. We looked baffled. “You saw the deer at least,” she insisted. We said we hadn’t come from the bird sanctuary; we’d only just driven down from Socorro.

“That’s funny,” the woman said. “You look just like the couple who were following behind us in the Bosque.”

We smiled politely. We ordered beer and hamburgers with chile on the side.

Then another couple came in, dressed for a nature tour. The man had a beard. The woman, while younger and bigger than I am, was wearing similar glasses and a shade of turquoise that I like.

Our table mates, thrilled, motioned to the newcomers to join us too. “He combs his beard different, but it was an understandable confusion,” our rescuer said, as she explained the situation to the new couple.

They sat down, the man beside Michael and the woman next to me. The two guys were too embarrassed to look at each other, but the woman and I stared frankly and laughed. She had longer, curlier hair, and a robust laugh: she was a younger, brightly coloured, more outgoing version of me.

The elderly foursome picked up the conversation they’d tried to have with us. The new arrivals had not only seen the turkeys and the deer, but owls too. They revealed an interesting fact about themselves: they were brother and sister.

The hamburgers were very good.

As we drove home later, I remarked that we had been mistaken for quite an attractive couple. “If we must have doppelgangers, we could have done much worse,” I said. “What do you make of them being brother and sister? Is there some kind of incestuous attraction in our relationship, do you think?”

Michael didn’t know, but he agreed there was something unnerving about the experience. The other two were so bright and talkative, so vivacious. Beside them we were pale and no longer young. Our vision of ourselves had been turned upside down. My doubleganger, or wraith, Walter Scott wrote.

Who was whose double? “What if we’re not really who we think we are,” I wondered. “What if we’re only the doppelgangers of the couple in the cafe? They’re the real people and we’re the wraiths?”

It was winter, but winter alone did not account for an alarmingly cold feeling that started at the back of my skull and then crept down my spine, inch by shivery inch.