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.

Justify

By Vita Forest

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I am right and they are wrong.  Yes her, and them, and those others too.  Wrong.  With the letters after their names.  Wrong.  With their heaving bank accounts.  Wrong. Just plain wrong.

I ignore.  I obstruct.  I cast red herrings into the air like confetti.  If I do it long enough, they will bury and obscure.  Eating up time.

I let her lead it.  The investigations.  The options.  I am at best lukewarm, at worst, indignant.

I bring out my arsenal.  The alternative so ridiculous, so offensive, it will be rejected.

I wait.

I am good at this.  I learned this as a child.  Do something so badly, so wastefully that others throw up their hands and give up on me.  They finish the irritating chores that should have been mine to complete.  I smile smugly as they exhaust themselves.  If I leave it long enough, someone else will step in, someone else will pick up the pieces, someone else will pay.

Works for me.

Bad workmanship brings its own rewards.

I’m worth it.  I deserve it.  I have my own rules.  I am important. I need more.  That is just how it is.

She needs so little.  She has got used to not having much.  It would not hurt.  It would hurt me.  I am worth it.  I deserve it.

I will use the language of a debate and the structure of an argument.  I will get my way. There are reasons and I will list them in righteous indignation.  I will puff myself up until I am red in the face, blood juddering through my temples.  I will thrust my finger back and forth.  Dotting the “i”s, punctuating my points, underlining the main ideas with a thick black texta.  I am right, that is all there is to it.  If I shout loud enough, you can’t hear anyone else.

The reasons are these…

After careful consideration…

I am being fair and reasonable…

It would be petty to suggest otherwise…

I didn’t have it and it never did me any harm.

Look at me!  How well I turned out!

I will catastrophize.  I will weave a story of my own making from out of the air.  One that serves my purpose.  I am completely within my rights…  She is completely unreasonable.  I will pontificate with my friends, discuss it over a beer or three.  Spittle flying from my mouth as my finger swings through the air.  Stabbing.  Righteous.

I am right and that is all there is to it.  It is unreasonable to expect more.  It would not be convenient for me.

If it’s so important, someone else will step in.

What could it possibly cost me?

 

Possessed by who?

By Vita Forest

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Earlier in the week I finished rereading Possession by A.S. Byatt, a book I first discovered over twenty years ago.  I don’t know when it was I last read it, but I can kind of date it by which character I related to at the time. I love it when this happens – when you read the same book at varying points of your life and it has completely different meanings; new events, distinct characters, alternate lines just jump out at you, depending on what is going on in your own life.  (I have written about this before with Tim Winton’s Dirt Music as the book in focus).

In my last reading, it was the early Roland Michell I related to.  Roland, an “Ash scholar” (Randolph Ash being a fictional Victorian poet), finds a tantalising scrap of letter from Ash to an unknown lady poet, thus beginning this literary mystery that moves between the 1860s and 1980s, using poems, fairy tales, letters and prose.  Despite the high level of Roland’s education, he survives on small grants and piecemeal work handed out by those with more power.  At the start of the novel, he is spending his time examining another’s work and living unhappily with his unhappy and disappointed girlfriend Val, who supports them financially through her own disappointing work.  They are a couple that should not be together but are bound by guilt, emotional dependency and fear.  (In fact, I think I can quite clearly date when I last read this book…)

But by the end of the novel, a new life beckons to Roland, full of optimism, independence and opportunity, a new relationship (that works) and his own words.  Unlike Blackadder, his old boss in the “Ash Factory” (as Val dismissively calls the Ash scholars working in the British Museum), for whom the study of Ash had effectively crushed any ambition to find his own creative voice, Roland discovers that he has things to say and the desire to say them.  At this reading, I related to this second Roland, discovering the joy of writing, of his own ideas, unbound or unconnected to someone else’s work – the Optimistic Roland.

And then there are the women.  This time, the ideas of Christabel La Motte, the independent, determined 19th Century poet (again created by Byatt), who shunned conventions in order to live an independent artistic life, also resonated.  She is fiercely protective of her artistic space, of having the time and focus for her own creativity.  Maud Bailey, a La Motte scholar in the 1980s section (to whom Roland turns to discover if there is a connection between the two poets), has similar concerns.  In fact, Roland and Maud both crave solitude and autonomy, even within a relationship, a space for themselves, without being “devoured” or “possessed”.  I see this in myself and in many of my friends. Yes, the fairy tale romance would be lovely, but equally important is the space (both physical and mental) for our own endeavours, for the very things that make us unique.  This is to be fiercely guarded and cherished, as Christabel La Motte well knew.

Which fictional characters do you relate to?  Has it changed with new readings of the same book?

Mermaid

By Vita Forest

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Prue walked deliberately down the hallway, her toes shooting needles of pain up her shins every time they made contact with the floor.

“Please wear them,” Owen had begged her, and she had put on the shoes with the ridiculous heels.  Though she would be on her feet all night, though she would be walking back and forth from the kitchen, from the front door, from the deck.  Laden with food, laden with drinks, laden with plates.  The perfect hostess.

“Please.”

His work colleagues were coming.  The whole office.  The whole lot of them.  He had been in a state all day, adjusting the furniture, checking the menu, checking the bulbs in the fairy lights.  How much it took to give this appearance of unstudied elegance.

They had nearly had words.  Prue had come in from the garden with an armful of gardenias to see Owen, hands on hips, pulling selected cushions from the lounge.  Her tapestry cat, the patchwork number their son had made in primary school, the cheery yellow knitted cover she had bought at a craft market.

“Not appropriate?” she had teased, smiling.

He turned to her, preoccupied, his face serious.  Then he scooped up the cushions, walked by her to the bedroom and threw them in.

“I know you don’t think so, but this is important.”

She blinked and felt her eyes smart.

Then the shoes.  As she was dressing, he dug around at the bottom of the closet and produced the box.  She had forgotten them, they were so uncomfortable, so ridiculous, so not her.

“Please.”

So she had put them on and here she was, mincing up and down the hallway.  The interminable hallway, the endless hallway.  Brandishing the tray full of prosciutto-wrapped asparagus spears.  Prue stopped at the end of the hall, adjusting her eyes to the darkness beyond.  Most of them were down in the garden, there were just a few up on the deck, leaning on the verandah balustrade, drinks in hand.

She paused and then she saw them.  She blinked and looked again.  It was not a trick of the light.  She was not mistaken.

There they were.  Her husband Owen and that Cressida.  That Cressida who he was always mentioning.  Her husband and that Cressida leaning on the verandah looking down at the garden.  Shoulder to shoulder.  Innocent from the garden.  Two colleagues having a chat.  But from behind, from where Prue stood, the light from the hallway caught their hands.  Their two intertwined hands, fingers twisting together out of sight of the party below.

Prue stared.

She backed away, away from the party.  She turned into the dark study and put down the tray on the desk.  She found the chair and lowered herself into it.  And with great tenderness, reached down and removed the shoes.