Will you take the risk?

By Vita Forest

Lots of good things happened this week.  This is one of them.

Our final dress rehearsal before the audition for a big interschool production was scheduled for Thursday.  On Tuesday we discovered that one of the key players – the girl who was going to read the introduction explaining our piece to the audition panel, was away on holidays and would only arrive back at school next Monday – the day of the audition.  My teaching buddy and I discussed who we could get to fill in for this girl, someone who was in the performance and who hadn’t already got a “special job”.

I thought of Ivan, a Year 6 boy who I had watched run a Peer Support Group.  He had been friendly, firm and had handled the younger kids well.  (Besides this, he seemed to possess a strong, expressive voice that could be clearly heard across the room).  Neither my buddy or I particularly knew Ivan, but we knew he was a nice kid who always tried his best.  He seemed like a good place to start.

I approached Ivan on Tuesday lunchtime carrying the script in my hand, and asked if he would like the job of filling in for the absent girl, with the slight possibility of having to read it for the actual audition.

Ivan wasn’t sure.

I was a bit disconcerted.  I hadn’t expected this.

I explained that I thought he could do a really good job so why didn’t he take the script and look it over?  If he really didn’t want to do it, we would find someone else.  He reluctantly agreed.

The next day I mentioned this encounter to one of the Year 6 teachers.  She stared at me in alarm and told me a different story about Ivan.

Apparently he was prone to anxiety.

Apparently he was not very confident.

Apparently he could get a bit tearful sometimes.

Oh.  No.

Maybe we should have gone with one of the school leaders who speak at every assembly.  Perhaps we should have chosen someone on the Debating team.  But I had wanted to give someone different a chance.  Was this going to be a mistake?

Thursday was the day of the dress rehearsal.  Feeling increasingly worried that I had caused Ivan some major stress, I sought him out at recess time.

Was he ok to read the script in front of everyone?

Yes, he told me.  He had been practising.  He would do it.

After lunch, the kids changed into their costumes and got into their starting positions.  Ivan stepped forward with his script and…

Absolutely nailed it!

He spoke confidently, clearly and with excellent expression.  I gave him the thumbs up.

The principal went and got us “an audience” of five classes of various ages from across the school.  Ivan would now have to speak in front of over one hundred people.

Again he did a fantastic job.  We continued on with the rehearsal.

Later Ivan told me – public speaking really scares him as he sometimes stutters!

The next day I found his teacher and was telling him the story.  I was in the middle of the story -telling him how I had decided to choose Ivan and give him a go.  He too, like the other Year 6 teacher, immediately looked worried and started to tell me he didn’t know whether Ivan would be a good choice – he didn’t know it had already happened!  I told him how great Ivan had been.  I told him how I hadn’t known Ivan had a stutter.  His teacher was thrilled to hear of his success.

I love these times when a kid steps up, takes a risk and really shines.  I hope Ivan will always remember how brave he was that day.  I hope he will recall how despite feeling terrified, he was able to accomplish something wonderful.  I hope it gives him confidence.

Sometimes we go to school to teach the kids.  Sometimes we get taught by them.

 

We need that girl

By Vita Forest


While carrying a bag of cat litter through the supermarket

I was startled when three pigeons swooped up

the Jams and Spreads Aisle

Over the Fruit and Veg

And across to the Frozen Food section.

 

Three birds!

In this underground supermarket!

Taking off and flying over the shelves in formation

As if migrating together over rows of tall buildings

All the same height.

 

And I thought

How did they get in?

And I thought

How will they get out?

 

And I thought

We need that girl from school

That wide-eyed uncertain girl

peering sideways, talking hesitantly

But she certainly knew what to do

That time on playground duty when a group of breathless girls

Ran to report

A mynah bird in the classroom!

It couldn’t get out!

 

I advised opening blinds and windows

And carefully herding it toward freedom.

But this girl, this uncertain girl

Marched into the classroom

Swooped down on the anxious mynah

Cradled it in her hands

Walked determinedly outside

And released it.

“Wow!” I thought

(“She has chickens,” I was told.)

 

But today

we need that girl again.

In the underground supermarket

Can someone make the announcement on the loudspeaker please?

She is needed in Aisle 12

Near the Frozen Fruit.

 

 

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.