New and Old

By Vita Forest

 

The old ones arrive

dragging feet and

bags full of books and

clothes and shoes and

heavy hearts and

guilt for the heaviness

which makes them lean

even further

into themselves.

 

Up the new stairs

to the new room

the worst room

the room left over when

the other ones were taken

by the new ones

new and shiny

and pretty

and docile

and compliant.

Everything the old are not.

 

You will do this, he says

hands them a broom, a brush, a spade

always some job to fill in the time

while he lies back in his chair in the sun

scratching the dog

under her chin.

 

The new, the pretty watch

offer to help

No, he thunders

Do you know how much I pay?

How much they cost?

They will work.

The new stare

while the old slog away

and wish away the time

and wish they were not wishing it away.

Lizzie and the bath

By Vita Forest


She sits on the edge of the bathtub and trails her fingers in the water.  The water is hot, but she knows it will not stay that way for long.  Still, she finds she feels slightly touched that he has tried to make it comfortable for her.  A lesser man would not have bothered.  She knows plenty of that kind.  She hopes he will work fast however, it is not the weather for spending long in the water.  He has moved the tub in front of the fire but she does not have great faith in that gesture either, although it too, was kindly meant. 

She decides to sit there waiting until he is completely ready.  How they fuss these fellows!  She looks down at the dress he has procured for her and runs her hands over the silver embroidery.  It is finely done.  She squints down at the stitches, noting the skill in the design.  She wonders who he borrowed it from.

He clears his throat.  She looks up a trifle scornfully.  She will make him speak, she decides.  She will not splash eagerly into the water like a playful puppy.  This is not an ordinary request he has made.

He has already described the scene to her; the dark water, the rushes, the ferns and flowers, the muted, cold light.  And the body of Ophelia reclining in the current, dead and beautiful.  Luminous and mad.  Yielding to the river.  Her fingers curled over a garland of wild flowers, the current gently loosening them as she floats downstream.  The flowers drifting over her skirt.  Lips parted, palms turned upward in surrender.

Lizzie had sniffed loudly as he demonstrated the pose (standing up, mind you).  He was quite caught up in it all, she must say.  He reminded her of those pictures of Mary or the saints.  Their palms exposed, a look of ecstatic agony on their faces.  Like they were enjoying the pain, finding comfort in the life draining through the holes in their hands.  She could understand that look.  She thought of Dante and sighed.

He clears his throat again and gestures to the bath.

‘Would you mind?’

She swings her legs over the bath and sits down in the water.  She grimaces as the water penetrates through the folds of the brocade, to her skin.  This was not going to be pleasant.

‘Now if you move down the bath a little, so your hair will float.’

He gestures again.  She stares up at him balefully.  He had it all worked out didn’t he?  She sighs and lowers herself down.  The water rises and she tips her head back, shaking her hair onto its surface and then pushing her head down through its web.  The water fills her ears until she is lying alone in a silent void. 

She looks up and sees him doing that saint imitation again.  She raises her hands out of the water curling her fingers against each other.  She looks down the length of the bath and settles her gaze on the top of the window behind him.  She glances quickly at him.  He nods at her.  She looks back at the window and tilts the top of her head under the water.  She can feel her hair drifting around her and then settling.

She can feel him looking at her.  She stares fiercely at the window.  She thinks about drawing.  Dante has been trying to teach her.  He stands behind her and points out small details that he feels she should include in her sketches; the shadows in the depths of a rose’s petals, the pearl of light in the eye of the stuffed pigeon he brought out one time.  She can see what he means.  It is as if she has been given a magnifying glass.  There is more to things when you actually look hard at them and forget about what they actually are.  She raised her pencil to the paper, fully aware of his solid presence peering over her shoulder.  She felt them both hold their breath. 

Forget about the word – forget Rose, forget Bird. 

Only look!

Just record what you see…

And yet…

If this was so, why is it Dante doesn’t see the shadows under her eyes, hear the fury in her voice when he talks of doing another painting of Fanny?

Her hands are sinking beneath the water.  She adjusts her elbows and lowers them down onto the bottom of the bath.  It is entirely uncomfortable.  She will have to get something to make it more comfortable.  She sits up hurriedly and the sound of water rushing back into the bath is as violent as an avalanche. 

John frowns at her.

‘I need something for more head,’ she says.  ‘To hold it up.’

‘I want your hair to float around your head,’ he mutters as he rubs his chin.

She waits in the bath, not looking at him, looking around at the room.  She needs to be made more comfortable.  This is not an unreasonable request.  He leaves the room and comes back with a blanket which he folds up into a parcel and then passes to her.  She adjusts it, then lays it down in the bath.  It should work.  She lifts up her hair and lies back down again, resting the back of her head on the wad of fabric.  Now she can relax her neck.  She nods up at him.  He stares at him a moment then hurries off.  What is it now?

He had forgotten the flowers.

She looks up and sees him standing above her clutching a hearty bunch of wild flowers, full of colour.  He stands solemnly over her and one by one, tosses the flowers about her face and along her body. 

Blue cornflower.  Red poppy. 

She feels a chill run through her body; it is as if she is looking up at a mourner at her own grave.  She remembers her mother’s burial, the gash dug out of the earth, the open grave, peering down into the darkness as she dropped the small posy of violets among the clods of dirt. 

John opens the palm of her right hand and closes it again over the few remaining stalks.  He walks away again.  She settles back.

She imagines wading into a river in this dress.  The ripples swigging at her fingers, the iciness of the water making it tempting to go no deeper.  And this dress – the fabric so heavy and long, she would have to fight it too.  Hauling her feet, one by one, into the cold, over the smooth stones, through the current, until suddenly it would be deep and strong enough to lift her and she would be part of the river.  She cannot quite think how death would occur, not knowing how to swim.  Would she float for a time before drowning?  Or perhaps this dress was so heavy there would be no floating.  Perhaps she would end as a pile of brocade and swirling hair among the stones of the riverbed.  She will have to ask John how it would happen. 

She glances at him.  Not now.  She knows that look.  She has ceased to exist.  He is busy with Ophelia.  His eyes move back and forth between her body and the easel but his mind does not register what he is doing.  He is under a spell.  He is possessed.  His brush is guided over the palette.  His eyes squint and frown. 

Lizzie looks away. 

 

Eye Contact

By Vita Forest


Sean trundles along with the herd, following the signs to the Sistine Chapel.  He has lost the others.  He glanced away for a moment and when he turned back, they were gone.  They must have been pitched away from him on the tide of tourists they are travelling in.  Too late to even throw him a life line.  He supposes they will meet again at the exit, when they are all spat out some squalid hole in the wall like the rest of the waste products.  Why didn’t they make a plan?  They should always make a plan.  There are so many people here.  He feels giddy.  If he really needs to stop, he will have to fight his way to the side, cling onto some statue and get out of the pull of the current. 

Every surface seems to be busy.  The clashing colours of the clothes of the tourists pressing onwards, the paintings smothering the walls.  The noise too!  It ricochets off every surface.  He is being pelted with syllables from all sides.  He can’t understand most of it.  He would just like to rest.  They swing out of a gallery and into another corridor, but even in this between-space there is no relief.  The walls of the corridor are decorated too.  Can’t even rest his eyes before the next room!  There are fat babies balancing on towers made of fruit and veg – not how Phoebe would describe it, but it about sums it up for him.  Pattern crawling over everything like a disturbed ant nest.

The floors in these places were so hard.  He should have worn his hiking boots.  Tomorrow he will wear them.  He can feel each step jolting all the way up his spine.  Hiking boots…  Not for walking over peaceful, green fields, but to cushion the blow his heels make when they slam down on hard, city surfaces.  Both inside and out.  If it wasn’t marble floors, it was cobblestones.  What were they thinking?  All very impressive, as long as you didn’t have to walk on it.

Green fields…  He liked what they did in Austria.  Climbing up from the lake, walking through the arch of the trees, balancing on boulders to cross the streams, the smell of crushed pine needles prickling their nostrils.  There was still snow on the peaks of the mountains and the water stung their feet with its iciness.  He and Phoebe had paddled barefoot into the stream, shrieking.  Later, they sat looking down over the valley.  He cut thin slivers of apple, passing them over to Phoebe as she leaned back against a tree.

That had been a good day.

He sighs and treads water in the bottleneck at the narrow doorway at the end of the corridor.  If he loses his footing he will probably drown.  He glances out the window and sees the Papal gardens.  He would prefer to be out there in that soft greenness.  He could snooze under a tree and wait for Phoebe.  They should have arranged a time to meet.  They could be waiting all day now.  The others wouldn’t mind arranging a time, setting a limit.  He knows their interest in museums is minimal.  The Vatican is just one of those things you have to see.  When in Rome… ha ha.  He wonders if they were as bored by his suggestion of bush walking? (or hiking or whatever it was called over here.)  Possibly.  They are all being so polite.  It wouldn’t last.  This gentility.  They should set times to meet up.  If they had done this earlier, say in Austria, he could have climbed just that little bit higher and seen what was making that sound they were hearing.  Bells?  Was it goats?  Bells hanging from their necks as they strolled through the long, wet grass? 

He’ll never know.

He supposes he could just get out of here, have a quick coffee and sit on the steps in the sun to wait.  Close his eyes.  Shake his ankles out.  They would all have to come out the same exit surely?

The crowd spills out into a huge open room.

And suddenly he is there. 

This is it.  He thinks flatly as he glances up.  The Sistine Chapel.  Woo Hoo.

First things first.  He looks about at ground level and spots some bare wood – a space has opened up on one of the benches that line the walls.  He makes a dive for it and sinks blissfully down, leaning back on the cool, hard wall.  So there is the ceiling.  There is the altar painting thingy.  Yes it’s good.  He can see why it’s on the list of things to do in Rome.  His feet hurt.  He can feel the blood descending to his toes, pooling there as if his feet were made of stone, like Jesus and his mates out on of top of St Peters.  He will have to rest there for a while.  He can’t move.  He looks at the ceiling and then folds his arms and looks at his watch.  He wonders where the others are.  Maybe they aren’t too far behind him.  Mike and Louise anyway, he can’t imagine that Phoebe would get here this quick.  He leans his head back against the wall and closes his eyes.  He can’t block out the noise.  The whispering.  The oohing and ahhing.

All these people from all over the world.  He is one of them.  One of the multitudes.  These all-devouring tourists.  It is making him queasy.  Going to a place where they can’t speak the language and trying to have the right experience.  Sucking it all in during their three or four days.  What he would really like to do, if he is honest, would be to go on a three or four day bushwalk, by himself.  Take a tent and camp beneath the stars.  Alone.  He needs some space.  He needs some time. 

He is still not sure what was happening with Louise.  That time on the train to Sorrento…

They were sitting two across, facing each other.  Louise and Mike on one side and he and Phoebe on the other.  Phoebe was asleep, her head leaning on his shoulder, her jacket worn backwards over her chest like a blanket.  She felt the cold, that girl. He had the window seat, looking out at the scenery.  Mike sat across from him, reading some book or other and Louise was there beside him.  Sean had glanced away from the view and back into the carriage.  His eyes had flicked over Mike and were on their way past Louise, when he realised she was staring at him.  She was sitting right next to her boyfriend, studying him.  If Mike had glanced up, he would have thought she was just looking out the window.  But he didn’t.  He was engrossed in his book.  Sean had let his eyes pass over Louise and down the train, as if he was counting the passengers, as if he was looking for an old friend, as if the blood wasn’t rushing to his face.  His eyes drifted back and there she was, still staring at him.

What?   He wanted to snap.  What are you looking at?

But he didn’t of course.  He looked out the window again and stared grimly outside, as if he was being dared.  Which he was.  She was sitting over there, staring at him, laughing at his discomfort.  He rubbed his hand over his chin and willed his vision to stay outside the train.  He was intensely aware of Phoebe’s head on his shoulder, of the gentle little puffs of her sleeping breath that only he could hear, of her hand resting in his.  He must have moved.  Phoebe stirred and opened her eyes.  He had pulled her close and kissed her rather passionately on the lips. 

And that was that. 

He had tried not to think about it too much.  What was the point?  There was enough friction on this trip without thinking about that, without reading anything into that.

But here he is, momentarily alone and thinking about it again.  He is sitting in the Sistine Chapel with very, very heavy feet.  He opens his eyes and runs them over the crowd.  The place is packed.  There are people standing in the centre of the room, craning their necks back, mouths open.  There are people walking to and fro, trying not to collide with those who have stopped.  There are others sitting on the benches that line the walls. 

And there she is.

He catches his breath sharply.  In a sudden break in the crowd, he had seen through to the benches on the opposite wall.  To Louise sitting on a bench on the opposite wall.  Staring at him again.  Is he simply being paranoid?  His vision is blocked again as a tour group leans into the tide of people and forces their way toward the exit.  The leader holds a yellow flag above her head as if going into battle.  They move on and he can see her again.  No, he is not being paranoid.  She is leaning back on the wall, not looking at the ceiling.  Ignoring the ceiling, staring over at him.  He has the solitude to test her this time, to really make sure.  He holds her gaze.  He holds it as it is crossed by gaping teenagers, retirees, parents dragging kids, people of all nations.  The whole world.  The whole world rushing past.  He looks through them and finds her staring still.

They sit across from each other, their gaze stretched tautly from wall to wall.  They sit and look as they have not looked at the ceiling, or the altar, or the statues, or anything else in this museum. 

Then all at once, Louise slowly leans forward away from the wall and rests her elbows on her knees and clasps her hands.  Moving in closer. 

Closer to him.

 

A truthful fiction

By Vita Forest


Big Little Lies.  I didn’t read it for a while but I kept hearing about it.

“It’s about a group of North Shore Mums,” said a friend from one of my old mothers’ groups, “We should have written our own version!”

“It’s about a school,” said a young colleague, “The parents are really crazy.”

“It’s about a single girl who finds love!” giggled a friend who until recently had been single (until she had found love).

One of the book clubs I belong to had read it but I had missed that meeting and the book.  It seemed to have a got a big thumbs up though.  I was really intrigued how everyone kept describing it differently.  How it was about different things to different people.

I asked Fleur if she’d read it on one of our long phone calls where books often came up.  She had not.  A few weeks later however, she had.

“Oh my god!” she enthused.  “You have to read it!”

And so eventually I did.  On a short trip to Fleur’s house in Canberra.  She pressed it into my hands and basically watched me read it.  I laughed.  A lot.

“Which part?  Which part?” she kept asking and I kept telling.

But then I stopped laughing so much.

Celeste.  It was Celeste.

Celeste, who had it all, perfect looks, perfect husband, beautiful house, beautiful children, overseas holidays.  More money than she knew what to do with.  

And a shameful secret.

For me, this book was about a woman deciding whether to leave a destructive relationship.

Celeste, who kept thinking about leaving, then changing her mind, planning to leave, then staying.  The excuses, the justifications, the damning self-talk.  The shame.  She could not trust her own instincts, her own thoughts, her own eyes.  The toxic relationship had become normal.

I talked to another friend about it who was in the middle of an awful divorce.

“There’s no way I could talk about that book at a book club,” she admitted.  “No way I could listen to the flippant conversation about it.”

I’m kind of glad I missed that meeting too.

I just reread it (probably due to the hoop-la about the TV series – I haven’t seen it yet but the word is that it’s very good).

There’s a lot of humour in this story about a group of women encountering each other as their children start school.  The competitive Mums, the bitchiness, the small events that get blown out of all proportion and become major dramas. All the “types” seem to be covered – the New Age Mum, the career Mum, the ambitious Mum, the helicopter parent, the single Mum.

But all the characters have secrets, hidden dimensions behind their clichéd facades.  I liked that too, because for all the snide remarks and petty back-stabbing, the women come together to protect and stand up for each other.

There’s a lot of truth in that too.

She should be

By Vita Forest

You sat grim-faced in the sunshine

Facing away from the view.

You gave updates on

Your friend’s illness,

Her husband’s wavering mind,

Their fragile son,

Their absent daughter.

 

Your voice rose in indignation

Your neighbour’s arthritis,

The manager’s incompetence,

The man who talks too loud,

The woman who is so fussy,

The friend who is always stopping by

Right on dinner.

 

Look at the boats on the river

The white triangles of the sails – see how they shine!

Sammie turning cartwheels on the grass

The dog snuffling at our feet.

 

Rosa says she couldn’t go away, you say

Too many bookings to look after the grandkids

Couldn’t possibly manage it,

Couldn’t possibly.

 

She could just say No!

Does she even want to go?

 

And Thea in that big house

can’t manage

will have to sell.

If she isn’t stressed now

She should be.

 

But you are healthy and Rosa too

and Rosa’s husband

You can still do what you like.

 

Yes my foot is better

Yes I saw the sails

And the rain has stopped falling, But

Did you know?  Did I tell you?

Your childhood friend

That laughing boy

Dead.  Dead now.

Terribly sad.

Alcohol.  Drugs.  Divorce.  Hadn’t seen his kids in

Years.

Moved back in with his Mum – no friends

Dead.

 

No I hadn’t heard.

A glint of triumph

I am silenced remembering that freckled boy.

 

Then Sammie comes and leans against me

slings her arm across my shoulder

blows a butterfly-kiss on my earlobe

and the sails still shine in the sun

and the wind breathes its warm breath on my cheek.

Crow

By Vita Forest (based on a story of Pemulwuy’s escape)


He came out of the forest, across the river to fight them.  They were taking his land.  They were killing his country.  They had tried to kill him.  One time.  Two times.  And though the muskets had filled his leg with lead (they had seen it) he had gone back into country and re-emerged.  Alive.

But now he was locked in their dark cold cave.  The iron bands around his feet.  The iron bands around his hands.  Trapped.  They had him now.

He stared coldly into their hooting faces.  He turned himself inside.  And waited.

The cave got colder, the night got darker, the iron on his wrists, cutting into his skin.  They had his death in their minds.  They were hungry for it.  They wanted it like nothing else.  But they would wait for the morning, for the sun to rise and flood the valley with its light.  For the whole world to be full of light.  Illuminated.  They wanted to show everyone his broken body, his broken spirit.  They wanted to show his people he was gone.

He closed his eyes and turned himself inside.  Made himself part of the darkness.  The blackest black, the deepest crevice between the stones.  He called up his totem animal, buried into it, danced its dance, sang its song.  Whispered its name.

He snapped his beak, clawed at the gritty ground.  He breathed and blew the air down through his bones, down to his fingers, flattening, stretching, flicking them into shards of feathers.  He jerked his neck and shook out the collar of black across his skull, across his back, drew his claws in, slipped out of the circles of iron.  Folded back his wings, rattled out of the chains at his wrists.  Unrestrained.    

He swivelled his eye, cocked his head, listened to the snoring sentry and the whispered secrets of the moths at the lantern, the crying bats in the fig trees beyond.  The world was alive out there.  Waiting for him.  Waiting for him to leave this place. 

With a spring, he was up on the ledge, slipping through the bars, gripping the wall with his claws.  The world outside flooded him.  He drank it in, breathed it.  Rolled back his shoulders and was gone, back into the world, into the night.

Gone.

On the other side of the world, after the election

By Vita Forest


This morning I walked down to my classroom after a staff meeting to hear my class engaged in vocal warfare. Believe it or not, my Year 1s and Year 2s were screaming each other down with “Donald Trump!” to which some of them were adding “Sux!”

I thought

A). Where do these children pick up this language? and

B). We were going to have to start the day by discussing the results of the U.S. election.

I got them all to quieten down and take some deep breaths before entering the classroom. They were not allowed to enter until they calmed down (this meant one boy crashed into the door frame and needed an ice pack on his head…)

They took their places on the floor and we began our discussion.  There was a mixture of fear, anger, excitement and confusion.  Some of them had heard that a war is going to start.  Some of them had heard that Trump calls girls and people from other countries mean names.  Some of them had heard he is going to build a wall near Mexico to keep the poor people out.  Some of them had heard that he lies.  Some of them heard it is going to hurt Australia.

I took a deep breath and launched into it.

At school, and in life, should we be screaming into each others’ faces?  (An issue we have quite often during soccer games).

At school, and in life, should we be calling each other names?

At school, and in life, should we try to include or exclude others?  How does it feel when we are excluded?  We did a show of hands for who had been born overseas or who had parents or grandparents who had been born overseas (everyone’s hands went up).

We talked about how lots of people in the U.S. and in the world were very surprised about the election results and some people were very happy and some people were very upset.  We talked about how to be a good winner and a good loser (as we do for any game we play).  We talked about how sometimes things happen that we don’t like and whether it is a good idea to panic straight away.

Then when everyone was more or less friends again, I called the roll and we started the day.

At school we are trying to teach children to get on with each other, to treat people with respect, to be kind, to be inclusive, to solve their issues with words not their fists.

No wonder they felt confused.