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.

Brief Encounter

By Vita Forest

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On a day where the wind roared down the roads, and every sheltered corner contained a whirlpool of flying flotsam, she stepped into the path of the wind.

She had made a commitment and she would go, despite how her ears stung and the way the gusts were pushing her backwards, up, up the hill again.  She slung her arms through the straps of her backpack, slid the toggle of her hat up firmly under her chin and jammed her fists into the pockets of her jacket.  Down the hill she went, leaning forward to make progress, down the path, down the ramp, to the semi-shelter at the ferry wharf.  For the wind still blustered through the perspex-sheeted corridor, irritated perhaps by the thin layer of plastic placed in its way.

She looked out through the perspex to the harbour, so flat and idyllic the day before, but now ridged and rough, with the white foam of breakers cresting the incongruous waves.

Would the ferries still run?

She held up her hands briefly to cover her stinging ears and stood watching the waves and listening to the wind battering against the window.  She was vaguely aware of some people behind her, reading timetables, checking phones, conferring with one another.  She looked down the length of the harbour to the city – were there any ferries?

A figure came and stood beside her.

“Excuse me?”  he interrupted gently, “Is this where you catch a ferry to Circular Quay?”

“Yes,” she answered taking in the tousled curly hair, the leather jacket, the English accent, “Though it’s so rough today, I don’t know whether they’re running.”

Just then she saw a green and yellow vessel, braving the waves.

“It looks like they are.”

They fell easily into conversation.  He, newly arrived in Sydney for work, she a long-term resident.  He, heading into the city, she to Balmain.  Where was a good place to live?  What did he like to do?  Was public transport important?

They stood facing the window, balancing on the wharf’s floor as it heaved up and down beneath their feet.  They spoke of hobbies, interests, life in Sydney (things he should try), life in London (where it turned out they had both lived at one time, he more recently).

The ferry arrived and they edged down to the end of the wharf, she exhilarated, he apprehensive, as the water tossed the large boat up and down, bumping it against the poles holding in the floating platform of the wharf, as the deckhand flung ropes and wheeled out the ramp.

They sat together and continued to talk as she pointed out local landmarks, recommended restaurants, suggested outings.

I could go on such an outing, she thought.  I could become this man’s guide, this man’s friend.  This man whose name I do not know.  I could show him these things that we have been talking about.  We could continue talking in this easy way.  It could go on.  It would be so easy to suggest.

They fell silent as the ferry climbed up and down the rolling waves, slowing as it reached her stop.

“So you’ll recognise Circular Quay?” she asked.

“Just alongside the Opera House right?”

“Right.”

He smiled, and their eyes met, their whole future ahead of them.

Then the moment passed.

And she stood up and shook his hand and they exchanged names but not numbers.  And she put on her backpack, waved goodbye and walked out once more into the wind.

 

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.

W is for… Wedding

By Vita Forest

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Tina was there with her new partner Roman.  He was older than Tina, grey-haired, sporting round red glasses and soft tan leather shoes with black laces.  Tina was pregnant with her first and last child (her words – the pregnancy had not been easy).  Pablo was there with Sharrda.  They had had their second child ten months ago.  Their two children were spending the weekend with their grandparents.  Yes, they missed them, this was their first time leaving Savannah.  They kept checking their mobiles, but all seemed to be going well!  They showed Tina and Roman photos of their pair of plump, curly haired children, all doe-eyed and cherubic smiles.  Tina rubbed her belly and smiled, Roman squeezed her hand and complimented the other couple on their good-looking children.  This would be his fourth child.

They were sitting beside each other in white chairs in a field by a big spreading fig tree.  It was winter and the sun was dipping down towards the distant hills.  The groom (Victor) was there waiting but the bride (Soraya) had not yet arrived.  Tina had gone to school with Soraya.  They had played netball together, back in the day.  Pablo had worked with Soraya.  They started at the large financial institution in the same month, all those years ago.  Tina and Pablo mentioned a few of Soraya’s old boyfriends.  Remember Kai?  Oh yeah.  How about that Christophe?  Christophe! What a jerk.  But she’s got a good one now, Victor is so steady.  Yes, good thing she waited.  They all looked at Victor, hands clasped in front of him, looking over their heads and down the road.

The sun fell lower and they pulled their coats tighter, Roman attentively tucking Tina’s scarf into her collar.  The lights from the lanterns along the pathway glowed brighter and Victor craned his neck.  Then they all heard it and turned around.  A white Rolls Royce turned into the drive and ambled up the hill.  They all stood and smiled and watched as Soraya appeared on the arm of her beaming balding father.  Her bridesmaids did a bit of last minute fussing, while Soraya looked steadily into Victor’s eyes.  He was smiling now.  Widely.

Who knew that two years later Soraya would give birth to Clementine who would never seem quite right and would eventually be diagnosed with Aspergers?  Or that seven years later Pablo and Sharrda would be locked in battle in the courts over custody of their children and who should keep the biggest chunk of their bank balance?  Or that Tina and Roman wouldn’t last either, Tina returning to live with her Mum while she tried to make ends meet.  Roman clocking up another failed marriage on the verge of his retirement.

But for now, everything is good.  Everyone is in love, everyone is healthy and the future holds only dreams of happiness.  Let’s leave them there at this moment as they watch their friend walk down the aisle by lantern light, in a dress made by her mother and red roses in her hair.

V is for… Venice

By Vita Forest

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Phoebe liked the way he talked about music, how his fingers tapped on his leg as if he was playing the drums.  She liked that Gabriel played the piano accordion, the piano and the guitar.  She did not like how he praised the recorder.  All Phoebe could think of was the high pitched shrieks and squeals and ear-splitting blasts of the recorder her brother had played.

“I don’t like instruments you can clean in a dishwasher,” she retorted.

“What?!” he appeared flabbergastered.

“Maybe we didn’t have the high-quality ones you are obviously talking about.”

She liked that he was studying music, but did not like that he seemed to look down on people who worked in ordinary jobs. Weekday jobs.

“You don’t like it when people earn money then?” she clarified, somewhat disgusted.

“No, it’s not that,” he tried to explain.  “My friend was an amazing cello player, but now he works in a bank.  He didn’t give it a chance.  He didn’t try for long enough.”

“In your opinion.”

“In my opinion.”

“My friend Chloe chose to work in Engineering precisely so she can still enjoy music.  She keeps it as something she loves, not as something she has to do to pay the bills.”

“Hmm,” he answered.  “Interesting.”

She liked that she could tease him and he didn’t seem to mind.

Phoebe liked that she could hear his music through the deep passageways of the tube stations, floating up the escalators as she floated down.  Or surprising her as exited a train, “Minding the Gap”.  She liked the private smile he gave her, behind the piano accordion, behind the open case strewn with coins, behind the other commuters watching him play.  Sometimes Phoebe would stop and listen on the way to her job-that-didn’t-pay-in-change.  Sometime she took the chance to watch him from a distance, to look at him objectively, at how he was when she was not there.

She liked his collection of old-style hats – Homburgs and Fedoras.  Except when she didn’t.  Except when they annoyed her, when they seemed a little trite.  A little forced.

Phoebe could not understand how he could live in London and yet go so rarely to Paris, to Europe in general.

“It’s just a train trip!” she shook her head in exasperation.

“Yes but you tourists have to do everything.  It’s like a race.  You can’t just live your life.”

“Life your life?  You mean getting drunk with your friends every weekend?”

That was another thing she didn’t like.  The weekend mornings wasted nursing hangovers.  Phoebe didn’t have time for that.  There were places to go, things to see.

But he did like Venice.  He did have a poster of crumbling palaces, water lapping against them, on his wall.  He had enjoyed getting lost in the maze of streets, had loved sitting on vaporetto and watching the sunset, had watched intrigued as the workers went about their business, carrying supplies through the narrow streets in wheelbarrows.  Gabriel had appreciated the Grand Canal and San Marco’s Square and even the golden mosaics on the ceiling of San Marco’s basilica.

So he was alright, Phoebe thought.  He was good on the important things.  He was good on Venice.