Cold Call

By Vita Forest


“Hello?”

As Prue pauses and listens, the phone pressing to her ear, she smells the earthy scent of soil.

She should have worn gloves.

Who is it?  One of those cold calls?  One of those people from a call centre far away across the globe, sending out calls, fishing for callers, waiting until someone finally bit?

“Hello?  I’m going to hang up.”

She starts to move the phone away from her ear, then hears a tremulous, “Wait!”

She sighs and raises the phone again.

She is impatient to be out in the garden again.  She wants to get back to her work.  She wants to finish spreading the mulch around the camellias, smothering the weeds, suppressing the unwelcome growth.  Suffocating it.  Burying it.  Showing it who was boss.

“Yes?  Who is this?”

“Is that Prue?  Prue Glass?”

It’s a male voice, unfamiliar.  Uncertain.

“Yes it’s Prue Glass?  Who is this?”

“Chris.”  Another pause.  “Chris Leong.  Caitlin’s husband.”

Now it’s Prue’s turn to pause.

“Oh.”

She feels the blood rush to her face and her pulses start to pound, senses that all she has held inside is about to erupt.

“Can we… can we meet?  I think we have things to talk about.”

Prue hears the front door opening.  Luke returning from school.  A normal day.  Just like any other day.

This couldn’t be happening.

“Chris…”  What could he possibly say?  What could they possibly talk about?

She knows very well what he will say.  She knows very well what he will want to talk about.

“It’s really…”

None of your business!  Not necessary!  What could he hope to achieve from talking about it?

Luke walks into the kitchen, earphones in his ears, in another world, nods at her vaguely before dumping his bag down and opening the fridge.

Prue clears her throat.

Struggles to breathe.

“It’s not a good time.  My son…  My son has just arrived home.”

“Ok.  But we need to talk.  I think you know what this is about.”

I think you know what this is about. 

The blood burning her face.  Her skin on fire.  Knowing Luke’s eyes are on her, curious.  She turns to the window.

“Please call back another time.  It’s not convenient now.”

She hangs up.  Takes a breath.  Presses a hand into her belly.

Pressing.  Squeezing.

Tries to fling off the feeling of dread, of the floodgates opening, of her life coming crashing down.

She places a smile on her lips, turns to face Luke.

He is still standing at the fridge, one earpiece out of his ear now.  She hears the tinny beat pulsating from it, pounding out into the air.  The bright white light from the fridge sends a garish streak across his face.  The fridge breaks into a hum.

“Who was that?”

Prue blinks.

“No one.  Just one of those… silly call centres trying to get us to change who we get our electricity from.”

She presses the hair away from her temples, rakes it back again and again, goes to the sink and splashes her burning face with water.  Dousing it.  She imagines she hears a sizzle as the cold water meets the heat of her skin.  Feels steam rising.  She squeezes her hands against her cheeks, looks out the window, looks out to the pile of mulch on the lawn.

No matter how hard she tries, no matter how much she shovels and shovels and buries and piles it up, the weeds will still find their way out, still slither up into the sunlight.  She feels her breath catch in her throat.

Has it all been for nothing after all?

“Mum?”

Luke is still there, standing at the fridge.  Still staring at her.  The light shining on his face, the hum turning into a gurgle, the rows of jars gleaming in the coolness behind him. Olives, Strawberry jam, Tomato paste.

“Why is the fridge still open?  You’ll let all the cold out.”

Prue stumbles back outside, back into the air.  She rushes down the steps, past the place on the verandah where she had seen Martin and Caitlin.  Caitlin and Martin.  In the darkness that night.  She had wondered if it was real.

It was real.

It was all coming home to roost.

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Betty 4 Bob

By Vita Forest


This Saturday we are looking forward to a new chapter in one of our school’s very own fairy tales (I borrowed that line from a student). This Saturday will mark the start of a marriage between two staff members.
Betty and Bob have known each other for years. They are both divorcees, both coming from relationships that didn’t work out. Betty has lived for the last few years with her young-adult children, making a new home for them, creating a little sanctuary in her own unique style. This included a fabulous wall of Betty’s cross-stitches, her Four Season plates displayed proudly in her kitchen, and of course, her secret, special paint colour – full strength in this room, half strength in another (the name of the colour was only shared with you if you were very lucky).
She was growing used to being single and enjoyed a full social life with book clubs, stitching groups, movies, mini-breaks, old friends, her large extended family and even a First Wives Club… Betty had made peace with this new life, this life she did not expect to be living, but a life she was finding to be thrilling and satisfying and good.
But one day at school, she was feeling a little sad… One day at school, in her empty classroom she had shed a tear…
This did not often happen, but this day she was feeling a little lonely, a bit down. She went about her day, teaching the children, marking the homework, going out on playground duty.
She stood, as she always did at that time of the week, under the COLA on lunch duty. Opening children’s yoghurt packets and drink bottles and lunch boxes, talking to tiny people in large hats, not knowing that the next chapter of her life was about to begin…
Bob had been working at the school for a number of years, quietly watching Betty, waiting and hoping. He started working there the same month that Betty’s first marriage had really fallen apart (they discovered later) when she was consumed by its crisis, when she was distracted by the end of her life as she knew it. He waited and watched and offered her a kindness here and there in his gentle way.
They were friends, they were colleagues, but Bob hoped they might be something more one day. He watched as Betty ploughed through the divorce, the upheavals and came out the other side renewed and resilient. He watched and waited until that day, that day at lunch, when, hidden in plain sight, he asked Betty if she would like to go to a party with him…
And the rest, as they say, is history… text messaging each other across the staff room, going on road trips in the school holidays, watching The Bridge in matching t-shirts… Keeping their relationship a secret at school for… not very long, but behaving impeccably and professionally at all times.
We were all delighted when during one of their road trips, they got engaged to each other. Happy news indeed! The months have passed, the wedding preparations have been made, the honeymoon planned. Last week, Betty showed me a lovely book her current crop of Year 1s made for her. It included musings and advice on marriage, including when you find the right person to marry, you should play Lego with them, and you should marry someone who is kind to you (wise words indeed).
The happy couple left school on Tuesday, allowing a few days to get the last of the wedding jobs completed. The school threw them a “special assembly” at which they walked down the aisle together, where they received “Bride of 2017” and “Groom of 2017” medallions, where the school captains (all of twelve years old) offered them advice on what makes a successful marriage, and the children serenaded them with “Going to the Chapel”.
All that is left to do now is to wish them a “happily ever after…”

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.

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?