Archive by Author

Cherry Bomb (Cassandra Atherton)

30 May

I wished it were a phantom pregnancy.  I prayed I was really Christine and had been impregnated by the Angel of Music.  Or the ghost of Gaston Leroux.  Not you.  Never you.  Never Dale Fiddich.  Not Mr Dale Fiddich of Ascot Vale.  No letters after your name.  Just the school roll at your fingertips.  I scrolled through the results thinking that ‘yahoo’ must be a sick joke in this context.  A sorry smorgasbord of choices.  ‘It won’t be long now,’ I told myself, ‘not too much longer.’  I scrolled more furiously.  Titles blurred.  Blue font filled the screen.  I felt the buzz in my veins.  Life blood.  Blue veins.  Blue like the computer screen.  And the Wedgwood my mother had locked away in the crystal cabinet.  Just in case.  Fear of the two ‘S’s: smashing or selling.  But I had never wanted to break china.  Only men’s hearts.  And I couldn’t be bothered stealing either.  China and hearts weren’t worth all that much in the end.  They couldn’t smother or suffocate or crush so I had no use for them.  I clicked on the third website.

Sheryl Lynn Massip placed her six-month-old son behind the tyre of her car and ran him over, repeatedly crushing his head.

Josephine Mesa beat her two year old son with a toilet plunger then buried her battered baby in a trash bin.

I didn’t have to read the screen, I knew it off by heart.  But seeing it in print made it real.  Made it possible.  Made the blood rush to my head.  Made the plane ticket under my pillow my last chance.  Last week I had been given a Barbie suitcase on wheels.  Small enough for hand luggage.  Pink enough to be mine.  You told me that New York would make it dirty.  Your orange case was filthy from all the travelling.  But I wasn’t going to New York.  Not this time.  No little apartment in Brooklyn.   No Empire Diner or Tom’s Restaurant.  No celebration eggs sunny side up.  No eggs at all.  Ever again.

If only they had photos on the website.  Photos of the dead babies.  Photos of the mothers’ relief.  The mothers’ first uninterrupted night of sleep since the baby’s birth.  No conscience.  No Macbeth to murder sleep or somnambulist Lady Mac to wring her hands.  Just joy.  Joy at the silence.  At having your life back.  At being in control again.  And having bubble baths and a social life and young friends who have never contemplated being stitched up after giving birth.   My best friend’s dad fainted during a video of a woman giving birth in a Health and Human Relations class when I was in primary school.  He had five daughters.  We thought it was funny.  He didn’t faint during the video of the abortion.   I closed the lid of the computer.  I knew when I opened it again that Sheryl and Josephine would still be there.  Waiting for me.  Inviting me to join them.  Special club.  Perhaps there would be an addition.  I decided to refresh the screen when I returned.  Just in case I was already there.  For my murderous thoughts.  And vanity.  I wanted a caramel macchiato.  For all of us.  Bitter but syrupy.  If the barrista asked me if I wanted extra caramel on the top I would tell her ‘only if you criss-cross it across the top.  Like ballerina’s ribbons’.  I wondered fleetingly if anybody had ever strangled a baby with a pointe shoe ribbon.  Starbucks.  I remember what it was like.  Before I knew.  Before the plane ticket.  Before the search for filicide.

I didn’t know I was carrying your baby then,  I just wanted more tenderness.  But you were always scared.  Too scared to touch me or bring me daffodils until I asked.  You wanted the schoolgirl and I just wanted to play house.  But I only had six more months to be a schoolgirl and a lifetime to be a wife.  Meeting lonely men in Starbucks was the saddest thing I have ever done.  Up until now.   If they have sex with me then the onus is no longer on you.  It could be any of their babies.  It wouldn’t necessarily be yours then and that would make it easier.  For when the time comes.

He sees me and I can feel him smiling into the back of my head.   I continue writing.  It’s his lucky afternoon.  He sits down and he tells me about his daughter and his passion for swimming.  Solitary sport.  Too much time to think in a place too much like the womb.  I’m afraid of drowning even though I am a good swimmer.  I represented my school in backstroke at the interschool sports.  At Oak Park.  I got caught on the ropes.  Perilous zig zag.  I peek at the clock on my mobile phone and hope he doesn’t see me looking.  If he had a knitted hat with a pom-pom on the top and a set of mittens he could be straight out of an American Christmas movie filled with snowmen and turkeys.

I know he is the one I have arranged to meet because he looks out of place here.  Argyle scarf.  Hair too long and shaggy.  Not as good looking as Darcy in Bridget Jones but just as dated and daggy.  He might even have looked better in a reindeer jumper than Colin Firth.  If he has a daughter he could easily be the father of my baby after we have sex.  Except of course that I am already pregnant.  But that is just a minor detail.  Insignificant in the scheme of things.  He is nervous and tries to look into my eyes but I can’t give him that.  I can only give him my body.  Once.

‘How old are you?’ he asks before we leave Starbucks.

‘Old enough.  Does it matter?’ I smile at him.

‘Well, I guess not.  Are you older than my daughter?’ he presses, taking my elbow like my old-fashioned grandfather.

‘How old is she?’ I reply.

‘Fifteen,’ he continues.

‘Absolutely.’ Absolutely leaves no doubt.  I will absolutely have sex with him.  Dale is absolutely the father of my unborn baby.

‘But not by much?’ he pushes.

I wanted to scream Freud and Oedipus.  I wanted to fiddle with the salt shaker but there are no salt shakers on the tables at Starbucks. I always feel better when I feel up a salt shaker.  I don’t mind the glass ones but my preference is for the cold, metallic, phallic ones.

‘Look, are you up for this or not?’ I snap, already knowing what his answer will be.

I return to my computer.  Hand on my stomach.  Throw my sodden panties in the wash.  I pick up Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born.  I pin up a poster of Brooke Shields and her children.  I fantasise about leaving my child with Gwen Harwood in the park.

Late at night.  I don’t rely on the moonlight.  I have an electric lamp.  I switch on my computer.  There is another one.

Asuka Lee electrocuted her baby in a bathtub and then buried her in the basement beneath her old toys and clothes.

It wouldn’t be long.

Blurred Impressions (Callie Doyle-Scott)

23 May

I wish I could say that I had a plan.

But when I eventually decided to say something… it was as if the awkwardness in my gut dissolved and carried me along with it. A moment before, I had been prepared to shut down Skype, close my laptop, and go to bed as though I didn’t have a thousand threads of disappointment squirming like tapeworms in my belly.

Looking back, maybe it was because I could see Mum’s face, not just hear her voice.

‘Actually, Mum… there’s something else I have to tell you.’

Immediately I could see she knew that it was serious, whatever ‘it’ was. Which only made me even more nervous.

‘Don’t worry… I’m not on drugs, I’m not gay, and I haven’t got anyone pregnant.’

What else could she possibly think it could be now? That you’ve murdered someone?

She won’t like it she’ll look at you like you’re a monster and that’ll be it over done finished a disappointment

THAT’S ENOUGH. Just say it. Say it. She’s your mother. Think of your stepfather, your stepbrother- no, she’s my stepsister now… quickly, before you run away again, say it, say it, say it, say it!

‘Mum… I… I have a condition called Gender Dysphoria… I’m a girl.’

Beat. Mum nods slowly.

‘O-kay.’

Another silence. In hindsight, a second.

‘Well, I can’t say I’m surprised.’

That was when the mouse escaped into Mum’s kitchen.

*

‘What if… hypothetically speaking… I was your daughter instead of your son?’

‘Darling, I’ll always love you. No matter who you choose to be, you’ll still be you.’

I wish I could remember that conversation as it happened. All I know for sure is that we were driving away from the theatre one afternoon. It was cold, but the sun was shining so brightly.

*

I take a quick look in my wardrobe after hanging up from Skype two hours later. A fluffy black scarf, complete with matching hat. Kitty ears. My favourite skirt. Two pairs of jeans, carefully shaped. Elegant leather boots with perfect heels that I’ve never had the courage to wear in public.

*

I always told myself that I was good at hiding who I really was. Even now, I’m still surprised when someone, usually someone who I’ve never met, manages to actually see me. That friend of Mum’s whose first thought on meeting me was ‘what a lovely woman he’d make.’ Katie’s first boyfriend, who, just after I’d figured out who I was, took her aside after a long day of Dungeons and Dragons to ask her if I was transgendered. Another friend of a friend, after seeing me from a distance, asked Katie who her ‘gorgeous’ companion was.

Every time it happened, I couldn’t figure out why. I wasn’t beautiful, or even pretty. I was about as feminine as a gorilla, with the hair to match. … or so I thought.

*

Did you know that every human being is female in the womb? It’s a difference of a few degrees in temperature that determines our eventual sex, but every single tiny embryo starts off as a girl.

‘I wonder if you’re transgendered because you were born premature, Callie?’ Mum muses one evening. We’re both curled up in our respective thrones in that sleepy half-hour between eight-thirty to nine o’clock at night (she in her red-and-white striped armchair, me buried in my nest of pillows on the couch,) so it takes a little while for her question to filter through my daydreams of maiden knights kissing sentient stories and even longer for me to think of a response. It’s honestly never something that I’ve thought much about before, but the thought that I might have been born in that magical period of time just before my sex was imprinted on my brain by those few extra degrees makes a lot of sense.

I try to convey this as best I can without sounding as though I’m about to fall asleep. The last thing I see before I close my eyes is Mum smiling to herself.

*

Whenever I think about telling my Father, I seize up.

It’s not that I don’t know he loves me. Or that I don’t think he’ll support me. But in the moment that I do tell him, I know that I’ll be taking away his son. And the disappointment in his eyes when I do… I don’t know if I can take that. I really don’t.

*

‘I’m sorry darling… right in the middle of the most important conversation we’ve ever had- ACK! Kimba, no!’

‘Drop a towel over it, Mum! Drop a towel over it!’

‘Right!’

Finally, after a frantic minute of shrieking from both of us, flying towels from Mum, and hysterical laughter from me, the furry invader is trapped underneath a fluffy white bathtowel. Our cat, a sleek ginger specimen, looks up at Mum with an expression of shock on his gormless face. It’s not surprising: to him, we’ve just taken his squeaking, scurrying dinner and erased it from reality.

After that talking about my situation is easy. I tell Mum everything: the visits to the endocrinologist that I’ve been keeping secret, the hormones I’ve been taking, the wonderful way my body is slowly changing. I tell her about how scared I’ve been to say anything, how every time I’ve tried, my fear of disappointing her has paralysed me. She shakes her head.

‘I’m only sorry that you had to go through all of it alone.’

*

After I tell him, my father sits silently, staring at me. My stomach slowly begins to fold in on itself.

‘I think you’re wrong,’ he says finally. ‘I’d rather you lived a little more of your life before you made a decision like this.’ He sighs. ‘Go on. Get it over with.’

I blink. ‘Wh-what..?’

‘The name. What name have you picked out for yourself?’

‘Callie,’ I mumble.

‘Thank God for small mercies. When was Gender Dysphoria first recognised as a condition?’

‘I-I don’t know.’

‘I say this to all my patients: become an expert on your condition.’ He takes a sip of wine. ‘If you expect me to take this seriously, you’re going to have to put in the work for me. Can you do that?’

Something inside me snarls. What do a few dates have to do with how I feel, with what I’m trying to explain to him?

‘You haven’t disappointed me. I’ll always love you, and I’ll never judge you. I’ll do whatever I can to support you.’

Silence.

‘But I am going to challenge you every step of the way.’

I don’t reply. Around us, the bustle of the restaurant continues unabated.

It’s my twenty-second birthday.

*

Growing breasts hurt. They remind me of the growing pains I used to get in my elbows when I was younger: dull, prickling aches that can last anywhere from a few seconds to an hour or two. Sometimes they grip me so tightly that I have to grit my teeth. Once, I forgot that they were there and whacked them against a doorframe: I used expletives that I never thought I knew and have never thought of again. So many different pains, large and small, chasing each other across the growing wonder of my chest.

I love them all.

*

When I first talked to my supervisor about possibly putting the story of my coming out into writing, he was enthusiastic, if a little wary.

‘I think it’s an amazing idea… I just hope you can do it. Whenever I try to write about my own coming out, it comes out sounding like rubbish!’

I think I know what he means now. This story is so close to my self, the core of who and what I am, that actually trying to put it on paper is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Impressions become mixed, events and dates blur, feelings whirl together in a maelstrom of extremes eight years in the making. How could I possibly set out a story like that in a way that makes sense?

Perhaps I don’t have to. Perhaps I can be content with this. After all, my journey has only just begun.

Clue Five (Duncan Felton)

16 May

I’m hunchbacked over keys, typing faster than electricity, and I’m melting into the couch and the clackettyclackettyclack is the erratic rhythm of everything and everything is about to come together when a subtle sound (‘fftt’) jabs my reverie. I swivel my neck, possessed, looking for the sound. My eyes laser to the sliver of blue hall-light under the door. A sudden white rectangle slid there also. I clamber over the back of the couch, scamper over electronic, organic and uncategorised waste. An envelope. No address, just two words: CLUE ONE. Grasped. No contents. From that, my first and last case begins.

My apartment: an office. I make a sign bearing ‘P.I.’ and affix it to the desk/couch, then venture out into the aqueous corridor, to the garbage disposal. The two-doors-down lady across the hall, she doorway glares, all curlers and stareful judgement circuits, bags of fluid. I size her up with detective instinct to instantaneously decide she knows nothing and so hiss at her. Slam. Well, good. I investigate the chute, peering down darkness. Nothing. Process of elimination rocketing to victory. Scuttling return to office, shifting eyes, swipe my card and enter, almost slipping on another rectangle, deposited while my back wasn’t watching.

Horizontal, I later lay in wait, forehead to doorjamb, eyeballs moist and freshly peeled, scanning up and down the glowing hall sliver.  But: fruitless.  I reluctantly hobble off to excrete stench into my cubicle. Awaiting my return, secreted into my cleared sentryway is yet another accursed postal infiltration. Clearly a well-matched adversary, pending nemesis. Roll the dice, make a move, hide, seek, repeat.  I hold my poor poker player hand triptych and consider the portents of their contents. CLUE ONE: empty. CLUE TWO: ‘get out’. CLUE THREE: ‘or else’. Certain of warning and meaning in the envelopes, I deduce espionage.

Constant beyond shutters, dark hours hurtle into light relentless, like the insect vehicles below far.  My cybersearch yielded little, my calculation literature: inconclusive, but I hesitate to look further than askance. Through the dim, I  sustenance slurp from tins of oiled cabbagefruit, keep attuned with high-vol rumblewave. Perseverance. But the peeking mystery morning prickles my retina, vicegrips my mindmince. A vendetta to sleuthtaunt, sinister epistles, communiques of gumshoe confoundment, slow beckon, stupor greyout. I awaken in sixth-sense seizure. CLUE FOUR arrived as I snored. ‘Final Warning’: the fine-fonted memo within. My clockwork jigsaw conundrum clicks and whirrs, self-constructs revelatory panorama.

It’s that trickly hepcat downhall: Klaus Dagmar! With his cursive whiskers, typographical spectacles and poisonous flares – Nemesis! Incipient checkmate, elaborate takedown. Finally: hallbound. I go to grapple with his doorbell, with bundled documents, holstered eviction drafts. But affixed beneath his door numerals: CLUE FIVE. Prodigal evidence. Victory grin. Momentary clutched, then taloned apart. I blindburst inhale a choke of white. Spore scrabble, hollering revulsion, jarring bellowing enemy mirth behind doors. Headpipes sizzling, tumbling elevator evac, whooshing earthbound, spluttering apocalyptic.  My initial mission: de-mystery. Now: pending detective infection hospitalisation bracket incognito vagabond eviction peripatetic itinerant endbracket. End investigation. Ever-closed case.

Out of limbo

12 May

‘Look at me. Listen to me. This is who I am.’

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

A special project of Verity La, and a collaboration with Calli Doyle-Scott from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Out of Limbo is a web-based series that aims to collect the ‘coming out’ stories of Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex and Bisexual individuals, as well as the ‘secret stories’ of those people who haven’t yet come out but want to do so.

What we’re looking for:

  • short stories of up to 2000 words, based on or telling the story of your own ‘coming out’. We’re also looking for ‘secret stories,’ the stories of Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex or Bisexual people who haven’t yet come out, but who want to do so, that tell us why they have decided to remain silent. These could be anything from the first conversation you had with your family about your sexuality, to the moment you first realised the truth about your own sexuality. Be creative, be brave, and above all be true to your own thoughts and feelings.
  • We want well-written stories; the better the quality of your writing, the higher the chance that your story will be selected.
  • If you wish, you can submit your story anonymously or under an alias.
  • Send all submissions to limboverityla@yahoo.com.au
  • Submissions close on the 22nd of July 2012.

From Out of Limbo project editor Calli Doyle-Scott:

‘For Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex and Bisexual (GLTIB) individuals, the realisation of their sexuality, and the moment they reveal that realisation to someone else, are two of the most important moments of their lives. For many of us, this act of ‘coming out’ can define who we are, how our family and friends see us, how we live our lives from that moment on, but in my experience this transition isn’t widely recognised for just how important it actually is. Instead, despite the many advances that have been made towards a tolerant society, people like us are still subject to levels of hatred that are bewildering in their intensity. However, being Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered, Intersex or Bisexual isn’t a lifestyle choice, a sickness, dishonourable, or immoral. It’s who we are. The moment we reveal that self to the rest of the world can be the most exhilarating and frightening experience of our lives.

These stories deserve to be told.’

Calculations (Elizabeth Bryer)

9 May

The alarm goes off early morning, and in her dream she is thrust into a hospital as the monitor of a ghostly someone makes the piercing sound of a heart stopped. It’s been ten years since she found her father cold on the kitchen floor and yet still her sleeping mind throws up such things.

After fumbling with the clock she reaches for the warm body beside her and, when she finds him, burrows her face into his chest until he slips an arm across her back. It’s only after they have breakfasted and showered and he has left for work that she is struck by something: for some time now she has been sleeping on the left-hand side of the bed. No longer the tangle of limbs, no longer the rolling apart while dreaming to a different side each night.

She checks beside the bed and it’s as she suspects: her books are piled there, a few pairs of earrings lie there, her hair ties are scattered there. And, on the right-hand side, on the floor, are his things: three DVDs, a scarf, some socks. She stands there a moment—freshly showered, freshly kissed goodbye—and wonders at her alarm.

The coffee she brews finishes what the shower began; after downing it, she sits at her desk to start today’s accounting job, alert. But she is also restless, oddly, so after an unproductive hour she scrounges around for a scarf and, not finding one, grabs his (from the floor beside his side of the bed) before hurrying outside.

She finds herself heading to the supermarket but once there she can’t think of anything they need and so doesn’t go through the glass doors when they part for her. She encounters some women spilling out of a cafe, loose limbed and giggly, the bubbling of their conversation punctured with laughter. She finds herself smiling in their wake. And then comes, just as abruptly, the dread of the dream made fierce by memories of her father (his careful explanations to her queries; his drawing her attention to the beautiful orderliness of numbers; his sudden, brutal abandonment). She’ll have to change the tone on her alarm clock.

When she returns home she brews another coffee and gets back to work. She relaxes into the comfort of the figures behaving as she expects them to, the symmetry and rhythm of her calculations and, finally, a perfectly exact balance sheet.

But she finishes early and the solace fades. She distracts herself by googling around until she remembers something she vaguely considered reading once. She decides she must search for that book right away. She finds it; it’s cheap; she means to buy it. She clicks through the payment-details pages, hoping that the knowledge of a purchase in the mail will help ease this creeping discomfort.

‘Ship to same address? Yes / No’

She stares at the question a moment and then hesitates before making a move to click ‘Yes’. She checks the clock. One hour until he’s home. He is perfect in every way—she can’t remember a time when someone made her happier—and now they have their own sides of the bed.

‘Ship to same address? Yes / No’

She stills her breathing and makes a final calculation: x + y = z, where x = love, y = loss and z = grief. The chance of y, she knows, is much greater than most people imagine. And the only way to avoid z in the case of y occurring is to stifle x before it grows too deep.

She closes the laptop and goes into the bedroom, where she pulls her clothes from the wardrobe and starts shoving them into a suitcase. If she finishes quickly, she can make the break before the sight of him melts her resolve.

Good luck, Alec, and thank you

3 May

Nothing stays the same. 

Of all people, writers know that.  In fact, it’s our bread and butter.  Our job is to map change, to explain, as best we can, and to move people by our telling.  Verity La isn’t immune to change, which has been made clear by the departure of Alec Patric as co-editor. 

Almost two years ago, when the concept of Verity La found the light of day, Alec jumped at the opportunity – maybe literally.  His energy, enthusiasm, and literary intelligence helped to take Verity La from idea to reality.  This journal – which really is nothing more than an internet space where people donate their work for the enjoyment of others – has grown almost exponentially because of Alec’s involvement.

But now he’s stepped away.

What happens from here?  Verity La will keep going, and growing.  The journal will continue to publish the best writing submitted, and there’ll be more reviews and interviews, as well as social comment and photomedia.  The mission has always been to publish brave writing that moves people.  Be brave – yes, that’s the masthead motto.  So the journal will bravely keep sailing.  What about you?  Keep subscribing, keep reading, keep submitting.  There are uncharted territories ahead, which – it’s hoped, desired even – will be truly exciting for all concerned.

Verity La and its community wish Alec the very best for what’s ahead in his creative life.  No doubt there’ll be more of his stories to read and enjoy and be challenged by.  Some of them maybe, just maybe, you’ll read here.

Good luck, Alec, and thank you.

Scenes from Orbital Brides: The Lady’s Request (Daniel East)

25 Apr

A cream-coloured door with two deadbolts ajar; through it walks a young woman in blue trackpants, her strawberry-blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, three shoeboxes in her hands, nails unpainted. She enters a room to the left of shot. A man in jeans climbs three front steps, boxes obscuring his face. Bumps into the doorframe, swears, then walks toward camera down the hall and exits to the right.

PAN LEFT. Scuffed floorboards, high wooden ceilings, lopsided venetians, a citrus tree and a fence.

‘You okay?’

‘Ran into the door.’

‘Be careful, honey.’

‘Yeah yeah.’

More boxes, a purple futon, another doorway leading to a linoleum kitchen.

CUT TO: the woman is standing at the sink, kettle boiling, stacking plates into the cupboard, hanging spoons on a cutlery tree. She wipes beads of sweat from her neck. Turns around, opens the uncurtained window, stops. Her face hardens, softens, her top lip twitches.

‘Tom?’ With urgency. ‘Tom!’

BACKYARD: two eucalypts, a steel Hills hoist and a clearing beneath it in which can be seen a tribe of tiny aborigines. They hunt through the lawn, pushing through overgrown buffalo grass with twig spears. Thumbnail-sized babies suckle at freckle-sized breasts, mothers crosslegged under the wavering shadow of the clothes line.

The couple on the back verandah. Tom scratches at the wristband of his watch.

‘Come on in, Jen. I’ll call the real estate in the morning.’

Jennifer’s hair is pulled over one shoulder like a question mark.

LOUNGE ROOM. TIME LAPSE: Tom moving through the room, boxes appear and disappear, Jen huddled on the couch, on the phone, then with a cup of tea, an argument, a cuddle – behind the futon, the lemon tree glows green, yellow, purple, now the window mirrors the room. Time lapse over, they eat a pizza from the box.

‘What do they want?’

‘Babe, don’t worry. Eat my artichoke.’

‘I don’t want it.’

They are lying in bed. She is staring at the ceiling. He mumbles in his sleep. A windy night, trees whistle, sirens wail, midnight to predawn to sunrise.

FLASHCARD:THE NEXT MORNING

A cluster of chest-high skyscrapers, paddocks of clover extending from the suburbs to the soil quarries by the back door. A red helicopter swoops past the space needle. She speaks with choked pauses.

‘It all looks so small from up here.’

‘They’ll send someone out this afternoon.’ He goes inside.

FLASHCARD: THAT AFTERNOON

The suburbs deserted, shattered glass and overturned cars. Burnt homes like teeth with the crowns rotted through. Fields empty and torched. Cables reach up to the arms of the Hills hoist, red and green lights affixed to the four cross beams. He stands alongside, rubbing her shoulders. She puts her ringless left hand on his to cease his idle movement and says:

‘Tom. I want a baby.’

Eulogy for a fisherman’s village (John Smith)

10 Apr

I’d never thought of my father, Len Smith, as an imaginative person. He’d always seemed very practical and applied to the task at hand, so to speak. However, I began the eulogy at his funeral with a short anecdote describing an innovative tactic he had used to make some money, as a boy, in the early 1920s. It was the sort of story you can use at a funeral. Nevertheless I was a bit surprised at how much laughter it generated.

He’d told me about how they used to snare seagulls. He and his mate, Ray Jones, would fashion a string of snares out of fishing net twine and lay them out on the dry sandbar. They’d cover them a bit with sand here and there and then spread dried, broken and torn bread about the place. They would then ‘draw back a’ways’ and wait.

The gulls would swoop down together and land. Then as they ran all about pecking at the bread they’d snare their feet and get captured, three or four at a time, by trying to pull away. They literally caught each other up by tightening all the snares with the jerking and tugging as they struggled to fly off. It was an ingenious trap. And their fate was in his hands.

He often told us about how there wasn’t money for things when they were kids and how you had to make your own fun and all. But this was the other side of the coin. This was about making a few bob. The boys clipped one wing on each of the gulls and then they hawked them around to people; sold them to eat the bugs out of their gardens and off their vegetable plants. It was a shilling for the black-legged ones and one and threepence for the red-legged ones, ‘because the red-legged gulls looked better on the lawn’.

Maybe the recollection generated a surprising amount of laughter because of the way I told it. Or maybe because it was the first formal opportunity to release emotion for all these people, who had been arriving, greeting and filing in through the last half hour or so. But it worked like a charm, I settled a bit and launched into the rest of the eulogy; it was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do in my life, I guess.

There was a good-sized contingent of local Koori fishermen from Wreck Bay present. When I was talking with them after the service, at the graveside, one of the younger Adlers, Paul, whom I’d never met before commented on the seagull story saying how he enjoyed it. I’d started at the beginning of my father’s life and it was nice to have one of the local Wreck Bay crowd comment on it. And then he gave me one of his recollections of Dad and his grandfather, old Charlie Adler, from the last part of their lives.

He recalled how Dad had arrived out at their place one time with his ‘new discovery’ and he was so excited it made them laugh, as he told old Charlie about how you could see right through the water with these new Polaroid sunglasses. He’d brought a pair for himself and another for Charlie. Dad and Charlie often sat up on the sand-hills watching to see the travelling mullet coming along. When they saw a patch they would yell and wave and indicate to the boys at the water when to shoot the net around them. And now here they were sitting together, the two of them wearing their Polaroids and as pleased as punch with themselves and their newfound sight.

I had heard some version of this story before, perhaps from Dad himself, or more likely, Mum. But it seemed more real hearing it from the younger Adler bloke. Perhaps because he’d been there and it was like an echo or seeing through a reflection. Anyway, it had a real lively feel about it, there by the grave.

*

I was born and raised on the foreshores of Botany Bay at the end of an era, the end of a place called Fisherman’s Village. Four generations of my family had been fishing professionally in Botany Bay since the early nineteenth century. The Fisherman’s Village community was situated around the area known as Booralee in the very north-west corner of Botany Bay. It grew into a community of about two hundred people. My great-great grandfather, Charles Smith, joined it in about 1840. However, vague records show how some families, like the Puckeridges, had been there for decades at that time. A group of families – Smiths, Duncans, Thompsons, Jones’s, Byrnes, Bagnalls and more – established a working community and developed a fishing family lifestyle that evolved and continued for over 150 years. Gradually the cart tracks became Booralee and Luland Street and Fishing Town, as it was also known, centred around these streets, growing to encompass an area of about fifty acres.

*

At the bottom of Booralee Street was a large expanse of shallows in the very north-west corner of Botany Bay where the original mouth of the Cooks River flowed into it. This area provided good mooring for the boats and the fishermen could work from here and sail or row their Carvel and Clinker-built, open twenty-foot ‘yachts’ to anywhere in the bay. They were net fishermen. They worked by ‘shooting’ hundreds of metres of rope and net out from the beaches and sand bars in large semi-circles and then slowly hauling them in. Sometimes they trawled the shallow floors of the bay for crabs and prawns. Occasionally they set nets in a straight line across a large, tidal shallow and waited for the fish to ‘mesh’.

The fishing village community developed a working lifestyle and culture that, while integrated with the emerging South Sydney area, maintained certain internal patterns that were determined by the weather, the seasons and the travelling schools of fish that would come into Botany Bay to feed and spawn. The bay provided the community with a focus for both work and recreation. They used sailing to survive but also for leisure. Working practices and strategies for recreation evolved and changed in relation to the greater Sydney community. My father, for example, became a very accomplished sailor and raced ‘eighteen footers’ on Sydney Harbour. He eventually skippered an Australian boat in the world championships in New Zealand in 1950.

However, during the late 1950s, the area known as Fisherman’s Village was absorbed into a greater industrial zoning in Botany. This generated the situation wherein I was raised and the Fisherman’s Village was compromised until the time my father and uncle retired as the last two full-time professionals from Fisherman’s Village, in the late 1970s. For myself, Botany Bay was always a place to leave, not to stay. When the last professional net fishermen retired they moved south to Jervis Bay and I headed off in the alternative culture drift that drew many people to the north coast of NSW in the mid-1970s.

Botany Bay was the official site of first British contact with Australia. It has been marked as a place of Captain Cook’s arrival in all official, symbolic and historical contexts but I had a very real sense of the place as a site of deterioration. It remains, symbolically, the site of the ‘first landing’. But the decision to establish the colony in the harbour to the north was like placing a metaphorical time bomb in Botany Bay. As I grew up the industrialization swallowed the houses, paddocks and sand dunes, slicked the foreshores and then poisoned the water. By the time we left they were measuring the mercury content in the fish. Breakwaters built for the protection of shipping caused erosions and ruined spawning grounds for the large travelling schools of fish. Dredging for airport runways reshaped the shorelines and then came the reclamation of most of the north shoreline for the port.

This inversion and the contradiction that I took for granted has always stayed with me. I watched the fishermen moving against a changing background. A backdrop of industry was replacing their foreshore scenery. It gave me an appreciation of the irony of life whilst providing an underlying sense of loss that I later came to see reflected in many aspects of recent, Western culture. And the irony of the loss of the native Kameygal people to small-pox, displacement and their nation, compared to the relative comfort of the displacements of my generation, is haunting.

*

This essay is part of a longer work that was first published in Halfway House: The Poetics of Australian Space Eds. Barbara Holloway, Jennifer Rutherford. (UWA Publishing, 2010).  For more information about the Botany Bay fishing village, go here.

The Waiting (Elizabeth Bryer)

6 Apr

She sits quietly, ankles and knees pressed together, hands settled neatly into her lap on the faded flower print of her tired dress. She is not going anywhere but would much prefer to be and indeed imagines she is, even though in her imagination it is not to somewhere but to someone. That would be preferable to this waiting that gnaws at her as it has for long years past.

She unfolds and refolds her hands.

There is a glossiness to her eyes that could be hope, but could just as well be the pain of memory and its fixedness, its fact, threatening to overwhelm. She hears children before they come into view, their glee tumbling ahead of them. She notices without contempt that they quieten their chatter as they hurry past her house, and she wonders if they think she is a witch. If her frailty, unkempt appearance, crinkly skin and lonesome existence reveal that her broom has aspirations far above sweeping the floor and that her kitchen cradles a cauldron.

She wonders this as she sits on the veranda, bones creaking gently, waiting with glossy eyes as she has for many years. But above all what she wonders, as she has wondered countless times, is this: Can what I am doing be called waiting when I was the one who left?

Untruths Sculpted into Truths (Tristan Foster)

29 Mar

In a recent interview with Amitava Kumar, Michael Ondaatje spoke about the need for multiple voices and various narratives in stories of political or social consequence. “You want the politics of any complicated situation to be complicated in a book of fiction or nonfiction,” Ondaatje said. In an oeuvre that has become increasingly complex, it is a belief that Merlinda Bobis has come to share; her latest novel Fish-Hair Woman is a narrative of knots. Set in Manilla and the village of Iraya, on the surface it is a fictionalised account of events during the civil uprisings of the seventies and eighties that led to dozens of Filipinos who opposed the ruling regime ending up at the bottom of the river. And it is this, but Fish-Hair Woman is many things.

Attracted by revolution, Australian journalist Tony McIntyre visited the Philippines in the 1980s. He fell in love with the country and its people, but, like so many others, disappeared. Now, over a decade later, he makes contact with Luke McIntyre, the son he abandoned. Luke reluctantly flies to Manilla where he is whisked away by his father’s wealthy patron, the missing man himself nowhere to be seen.

It’s this narrative that serves as Fish-Hair Woman’s spine. But at its heart – and in this novel as in all of Bobis’s work, it’s the heart that matters – it is a story about story: the untruths that are sculpted into truths, the myths that lives are built upon and the truths that corrode into myth. Myth and superstition run through the story like rust. But the meta-lesson of omens and old wives tales is that the world is a complex place; mythologising is an attempt at ordering a universe that stubbornly refuses to offer up a reason.

It is out of this same tradition that the novel, the grandmother of storytelling, rises. A novel is an attempt to order and explore, its existence relying on the fact that there is no single, straightforward story. The world is still a complex place. It’s why we need the novel – to remind us that nothing is simple, and to help us find comfort in this notion.

As if to underscore this idea, punctuating Bobis’s novel are clippings about the Iraya case from the Philippine Daily News. They offer some clarity, and give the story some real-world context. But the clippings are small, some cut from the margins, the kind of news-in-brief article that can be scanned in the short moments between bites of toast or jolts of the bus on the morning commute.

Presenting these concise paragraphs alongside Fish-Hair Woman’s elaborate narrative has the effect of making mainstream media’s attempts to grapple with any complex story appear futile. Perhaps pushing the case of multiple murders and government corruption to a page’s edge is an admission of this: a newspaper’s obligation is to skim a story’s top, as it only can. ‘Our sadness very big,’ Pay Inyo, Iraya’s medicine man, says to Luke. Leave it to the novel, a form without pretensions of truth, to attempt to unravel “big sadness”, to reach to a story’s heart, because, of all the storytelling mediums, the novel does it best.

“Why is the past more present than the present, the old stories more acute, more in the flesh?” Throughout the novel, the past persistently nudges through. “This is the hum of memory,” writes Estrella, the “fish-hair woman”, to the missing Tony. The merging of memory with the present gives the prose the quality of a dream that’s risen in the blue hours of dawn. The reader is asked to hop from the lyrical, Tagalog-peppered storytelling of Estrella to the stiffer prose tracing the stories of the Australians; occasionally the shift is in the space of a few short chapters. The styles are not so disparate from section to section as to appear written by different authors but this tangle of past, present, voice and place makes for challenging literature.

A text of this nature is going to pose challenges for the author, too, and Fish-Hair Woman is not a novel without flaw. At times, sub-stories are dropped and picked up and eventually concluded with little consequence. There are also occasions that the novel trades being poetic for being nebulous, thus losing the momentum it works hard to sustain. It’s at these times that the meandering narrative could have used some knocking into line.

But then there are tales like that of how Bolody, Estrella’s brother, became Belody da Teribol that Bobis gets it just right. Semi-present for most of the story, Bolody appears in full to have his heartbreaking story told. It is in these examinations of life in tiny Iraya that Bobis is at her best, the glow of fireflies all but visible just off the page.

As I was reading my thoughts kept turning to Wide Sargasso Sea. It shares with Jean Rhys’s masterpiece more than just a threat to topple into tragedy, but Fish-Hair Woman takes a wider view. It is a love story, a murder mystery, a story about family and a story about the impact of the kind of self-perpetuating government corruption that so often befalls a country in political turmoil. It’s ambitious and sprawling, and things could quickly go wrong. Fortunately, they don’t. Bobis is a talented, passionate writer who is unafraid of exploring the storytelling potential of the novel.

Fish-Hair Woman by Merlinda Bobis
Spinifex Press, 2012
306 pages