Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Mermaid

‘Pack your stuff,’ she whispered as I drifted back into sleep. I dreamt I was swimming in a blue-green rock pool. I could feel the breeze lifting the hairs on my arms with each stroke. The moss growing on the rocks swayed when the waves splashed over the edge. I could hear the sound of the surf washing in and out like someone breathing.
‘C’mon, it’s time to head south.’ More insistent now as the dream faded and my mother’s face lunged at me. I could smell the nutty tang of her breath.
I continued treading the waters of recent sleep.
‘Get up, Lily!’
Anger glinted in her voice. I watched her thin back, the tie dyed cotton dress already clinging to her spine in the heat as she stalked from my room. There were soft thuds as she tossed things into her fraying floral pull along bag. Threads hung limply from the pastel flowers and one of the wheels fell off a few years ago. I could hear her swearing at the cantankerous zipper.
I threw off the covers and walked to the bathroom feeling grit from the floorboards on the soles of my feet. I splashed my face with water and gazed at my reflection in the spotted mirror. The pillow had scored my cheek, leaving furrows like tidemarks in the sand. Someone older and sadder stared back.
I’d known it was coming. I could read the signs now. Mum hadn’t slept the last few nights. I could sense her in the room next to mine. Her disquiet jangled through the thin wall, demanding my attention. I imagined tears streaking her pale skin. I lay awake and watched the translucent fingernail of moon through greying muslin curtains, longing for morning.
Life was unexpected with Mum. There was a terrible, dizzying sense of freedom. School was my consolation. I felt safe in the routine and order of the classroom and was surprised at children who complained about being there. Miss Evans went to the canteen and made me a cheese sandwich when I didn’t have lunch and she gave me her own copy of Anne of Green Gables to read. I fingered the soft pages where the corners remembered faint folds from when she was a girl.
My favourite place was the library. I found solace in books, escaping from reality in pages of adventure where the conclusion was complete and satisfying.
Real life was never as tidy. Once or twice I was invited to play with a friend after school. I tried not to act like an observer in the peach living rooms and the bedrooms with beds piled with stuffed toys. I worshipped Annabelle Carter, mostly because of her mother. She invited me to play when no-one else could come. Mrs. Carter smelled of fresh makeup and served fairy bread on pink plates. ‘So, you’re from down south, are you Lily?’ She made it sound exotic. I nodded and reached for another slice of bread.
Away from Mrs. Carter, Annabelle wanted to know about my father. I told her he was the captain of a submarine hit by enemy torpedoes. The men’s skeletons still drifted in the sunken ship at the bottom of the ocean. It was too deep for them to retrieve the bodies. Her mouth made a pink ‘o’ as she dressed her dolls while she listened. She plucked tiny clothes from a box and wrenched plastic limbs into wedding dresses or miniskirts and crop tops with high heeled boots, holding them out occasionally for me to admire the complete outfit. She pondered handbags and miniature earrings with fierce concentration.
Annabelle’s bedroom was the pink of anatomical drawings in books we read furtively at the back of the library. Even her jewellery box was organ pink. I slipped a silver necklace into my pocket. A tiny mermaid hung from the chain and I fingered it compulsively until it was time to leave. I knew it wouldn’t be missed from the tangle of pendants and charms. Annabelle didn’t look up when I left, engrossed in a doll wedding which involved most of her toys.
Mrs. Carter walked me home when Mum didn’t turn up to collect me. At the mutinous front gate which had to be jiggled and cajoled into opening, her eyes widened as she took in the riotous garden, the verandah festooned with cobwebs. I ran up the steps, calling, ‘Bye, thanks for having me!’ before Mum came out. I glimpsed my mother through the living room window, her cigarette trailing streamers of smoke as she rearranged the bracelets on one white wrist, oblivious to Mrs. Carter’s agitated presence at the front gate.
Mum didn’t like the girls from school or their bossy mothers.
‘You don’t need them. You’ve got me,’ she announced, phoning the school to tell them I wouldn’t be coming back.
‘But I like school. I want to go to school,’ I tried.
‘I’ll home school you,’ she said. I heard the principal, Mrs. Clarke, her voice sounded high and thin though the receiver. ‘It’s the law, you know. Lily must attend school,’ before Mum put the phone down with a bright smile.
‘No wonder you hated it, Lil,’ she said.
I watched the cartoons until six then woke Mum and made toast for dinner. Bill was away a lot now.
I missed the classroom with its smells of lunch boxes and pencil shavings, where the day was divided up like the black lines on a wooden ruler. I wished I could say goodbye to Miss Evans.
I knew there was no going back when I woke to the sound of Mum and Bill shouting after his latest trip.
‘Why do you hate me?’ her voice was thin and high like the sound from a single violin.
‘I don’t hate you Maeve! I just can’t live with you anymore. Nothing’s ever right, you’re never satisfied. And the drinking…’
The words chimed through me as I lay holding my breath in the narrow bed.
‘You have to get your act together Maeve. Go south where you have family to help you. For the kid’s sake, you have to …’
‘Don’t bring Lil into it. She’s nothing to do with you!’
Finally, I heard Bill’s footsteps in the hall.
‘I’m going to stay at a mate’s for a few days. I want you out of my house when I get back.’ His voice sounded flat.
He left, closing the screen door quietly, as if he didn’t want to wake me.
I didn’t mind Bill. He was nicer than Nick, who slapped Mum when he came home from the pub. I learned to hide under the bed on Friday nights when we lived with Nick. Before Nick it was John. I don’t remember much about him.
Bill’s face was tanned and leathery except for his pale, vulnerable forehead. Some weekends, he took us out in his dinghy and Mum sat up the front, trailing her hand through the water, her fingers like white fish. She smiled a funny, crooked smile from under her faded straw hat and gazed at the houses lining the bay.
‘I wonder what you have to do to live in one of those?’ she murmured.
‘Marry a millionaire, I ‘spect,’ Bill answered shortly. I gazed down into the bay, watching for the flash of whiting darting in and out of the weed. I was itchy with sweat and longed to dive into the water.
I don’t remember my father. He drowned in a fishing accident when I was a baby. I sometimes dream he’s washed up on the beach, covered in seaweed and barnacles, with crabs crawling from his empty eye sockets. His skin is blue white. Mum sits on my bed and strokes my hair to put me back to sleep when I cry in the night. She talked about him all the time when I was little.
‘Your father had these dark blue eyes. Almost navy,’ she said, ‘the colour of stormy water, I used to tell him.’
My father loved to surf. Mum said he moved like a tightrope walker from years spent balancing on his board. I liked looking at a photo of me when I was newborn, small as a kitten in his huge arms.
He collected heart shaped stones for Mum when he went fishing. Mostly grey, the rocks were worn smooth from being tumbled in the ocean. For years she kept a plastic tub of little rock hearts in the bottom of her bag. I don’t think she has them anymore.
Mum threw the bags into the back of the van as the sun cracked over the red roofs and slid across the pavement. I knew better than to ask where we were going. I might have prayed if my prayers had been more successful in the past. I would have prayed for a miracle so we could stay here in this white house with its trimmings of blistered green.
I saw our neighbour Theresa in her faded chenille dressing gown taking a bag of rubbish to the bin and waved. She grew tomatoes and beans and sometimes passed me fresh veggies over the fence. Theresa cooked huge lunches when her grown up children visited. They sat on plastic chairs in the garden for hours, eating and talking, interrupting each other in their eagerness to speak. Sometimes I lay on the patchy grass in the backyard so I could listen to the banter of her family until the mosquitoes began biting and they went home in a flurry of hugs and kisses.
Theresa glanced at the van and, sensing gossip, came over to see what was happening. The footpath was littered with mauve trumpet shaped flowers dropped by Jacaranda trees lining the street and some blooms stuck to her slippers.
‘You two off then?’ she asked Mum, her face guarded, as if my mother was someone with whom conversations must be cautiously navigated.
‘Yes, heading south again!’ Mum fluted.
Theresa looked at me, concern creasing her face. ‘That’s a shame, you seem so settled, love.’
‘I’ll be right, Theresa. See ya!’ The sympathy in her face made my heart pinch. Theresa fiddled with the handle of the shopping bag and stood too far away, uncertain if she should say more. She brushed perspiration from where her moustache would have been and said doubtfully, ‘All the best then love.’
The engine spluttered into life as I climbed in next to Mum. I waved again to Theresa as we pulled out. A few minutes and we crossed the Harbour Bridge, the waters slightly shirred by the light breeze. The white sails of the Opera House reminded me of clean washing strung out against a blue sky. I wound my window down and felt the wind on my face.
‘We’ll go and stay with Nan and Pops for a while,’ Mum announced as if she’d only just decided what to do. I watched her hands at the wheel, the nails yellow and bitten short.
I didn’t mind staying with Nan and Pops at their unit in Bateman’s Bay. Sometimes they took me fishing off the wharf. We’d throw in hand lines, stunned by the heat and squinting in the glare from the water. I would sniff the plankton smell of the mud and stare out at the bay until everything dazzled and disappeared in the light. We never caught anything so we bought fish and chips on the way home, burning our fingers as we pulled the hot chips through holes torn in the paper.
I knew we wouldn’t stay for long. Mum hated the unspoken criticism, hanging in the air like dust motes. Last time we slept in the foldout lounge and Mum flung her arm across me in the night. I lay awake listening to Pops snoring from the next room. The days were punctuated by meals and cups of strong Bushell’s tea. A week of this and Mum offered to drive to town and pick up some shopping, appearing at the door pale and red eyed the next afternoon, smelling of stale beer. Nan and Pops gave each other looks that said, ‘Not again.’
My ears popped as we wound down towards Wollongong. Mum veered into the left lane, readjusting a thigh as she changed gears, her leg making a sound like a band aid being torn off as her flesh stuck to the warm vinyl seat.
‘Change of plan,’ Mum’s voice was girlish, ‘we’ll pop in and visit Rob at Stanwell Tops. I haven’t seen him since high school. I heard he was divorced last year.’
She nodded to herself and seemed to have forgotten I was there. ‘He probably needs cheering up. Be glad to see an old flame.’
‘Rob Hartwell,’ she raised her head and pursed her lips, as though tasting the name.
I looked out the window at the fractured cliffs and felt the pointed tail of the silver mermaid in my pocket.

Abracadabra, the Disappearing Dependants Trick

Sunscreen. Check. Water bottles. Check. Snacks. Check. You might think we were preparing for a day at the beach. But no, we’re doing the rounds of the rental open for inspections. Agents don’t show houses during the week, preferring to wait until Saturday when all the desperate would-be renters can visit en mass.

Navman is in charge of finding the quickest route between inspections. Nevertheless, at the third house, the agent is making as hasty an escape as a short tube of black polyester and three-inch stilettos permit. She scrambles into her BMW, pretending not to see us as we pull in front of her.

I jump out and she reluctantly rolls down the window.

‘Sorry, I’ve locked up and,’ glancing at her watch, ‘I’m due at my next property.’

‘We tried to get here on time,’ I fail to control the whine in my voice. I must avoid sounding like a whingeing tenant.

My husband smiles winningly. She seems to soften before spotting the kids slapping each other in the back of the station wagon and her face hardens.

‘Sorry. If it’s still vacant, come next weekend.’

It’s easy to spot the next house. Traffic is at a standstill in the ‘quiet cul-de-sac location’ so we park around the corner.

The kids devour packets of chips and argue in air-conditioned comfort while we queue to inspect the house. Potential tenants eye the competition as the line shuffles toward the front door.

Surprisingly, the house actually resembles the photographs on the website. This is less common than you might imagine. Photographers are the magicians of the real estate industry. There had been no sign of the crowd of statues surrounding the pool in their naked, armless glory in the online pictures of the previous house. And miraculously, the electric blue shower recess with its rows of massage spouts like the gills of a particularly unattractive sea creature had been made to disappear from the bathroom.

We eventually make it inside the ‘perfect family home’. The experience reminds me of seeing the ‘Mona Lisa’, squeezed shoulder to shoulder with the rest of Europe for a glimpse of something you have been told is amazing but turns out to be much smaller than you expected.

We ask for an application.

‘Do you have pets?’ the agent asks before unclipping the forms.

Naturally, we lie. A landlord will always choose an applicant without the potential for a flea infestation.

Still he hesitates, looking us up and down.

‘Kids?’ he asks.

‘No,’ we chorus.

If estate agents can make statues disappear we can perform the same trick with offspring.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Recycling and the Spring Sale

In these environmentally conscious times, recycling is a fact of life. Kuringai Council recently issued Lilliputian bins so we’re forced to cram our cardboard into one container and our jars and plastics into another if we’re to have any hope of jamming genuine rubbish into this miserly receptacle. Husbands can be seen performing a midnight pirouette across the street, tossing chicken bones into the bin at number 24 and smuggling leftover takeaway into number 15's bin in a desperate bid to clear the household rubbish.

It was in the spirit of recycling that I honed a story originally written for a magazine last year (rejected) to send to the Gold Coast Writers’ Competition. I gave it a thorough edit, refined the imagery in keeping with the theme of ‘Déjà vu’ and edited it some more. Then I shelved it for a week before editing it again. The July holidays loomed, signaling an end to writing, or anything else for that matter, except shopping for meals, cooking meals, cleaning up meals and washing clothes with meals spotted down the front of them. And don’t get me started on snacks.

‘The Mermaid’ tells the story of a young girl whose father drowned when she was a baby and a mother who grapples with alcoholism and depression. I wanted to show the terrifying vulnerability of a child but also her resilience in the face of parental neglect. The breakdown of another relationship is the catalyst for more upheaval for a child who longs for stability and security.

After several more rewrites, I still wasn’t happy with the story but the kids were on holidays and I was typing to the tune of ‘Mum. Muuum! Muuuuum! I’m hungry!’ so I read it through a final time and clicked ‘send’. Then ran downstairs to make more toasted sandwiches. I buttered bread and thought about how small things can mean so much to children, like the fairy bread served on a pink plate to the girl in ‘The Mermaid’.

By the time the holidays ended, I’d forgotten about the story. I’d submitted another piece of writing to a competition earlier in the year and was disappointed but unsurprised when a letter arrived telling me it was unsuccessful. It was a relief to be able to write uninterrupted but I wondered if I was wasting my time. I didn’t think about ‘The Mermaid’ for almost three months.

It had been a busy Friday. Grace was having a karaoke party after school and in a fit of creative insanity, I decided to build a cupcake tower for her birthday cake. I spent the day in the kitchen surrounded by cupcakes, mounds of pink icing, Styrofoam moulds and toothpicks trying to construct something stylish, fun and impressive to a group of nine year old ABBA fans. Angus and Lucy came over for moral support (and to jump in the pool as it had suddenly turned hot). One of the benefits of having a 4 year old in the kitchen is that anything covered in pink icing looks incredible. Pink icing on its own is incredible. The beaters were polished to glistening silver by the time Lucy had finished with them.

It was almost pick up time and my tower toppled precariously from a round plate as I ushered Angus and Lucy out the door with a box of cupcakes to take home. I noticed an ominous yellow envelope poking out of the letterbox as Angus strapped Lucy into her car seat (and she took advantage of a momentary lapse in concentration to open the cupcakes designated 'for later!’).

From bitter experience, I suspected a peevish letter from State Revenue, relating to my Audi. It’s not my fault the car accelerates so quickly, Officer. Angus waited, smirking, while I extracted the speeding fine and was confused when I began screaming and jigging on the lawn. I’m not usually so enthusiastic about speeding tickets.

‘I’ve won! I’ve won!’

Lucy looked up from her third cupcake.

‘Mum, that’s great!’ lots of hugs followed before I had to dash inside to share the news with everyone I knew, and quite a few I didn’t. At last, some recognition for all the hours sitting at my computer, rewriting until the story was seared onto my cortex. A chink of hope that I won’t have to polish my hula hoop and embark on a career in the entertainment industry or take up shopping cart wrangling at St Ives Village. Compensation for my expanding ‘writers’ bottom’, the inevitable consequence of my sedentary occupation. Perhaps there is a career in writing out there for me after all.

People have asked me how I spent my winnings. Books? A writing course? Laptop? Myer held their spring sale on the weekend, so I came home with two Leona Edmiston dresses – vintage style, silky non-iron fabric, elbow length sleeves to hide budding tuck-shop arms… what else could an emerging writer possibly ask for?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ignore the Ironing!

I have decided to change my attitude to writing. Seeing my work on the page is not going to happen quickly. So, rather than wait for the moment when my book is published,  I’ve come to realize that if I’m to retain a sense of self worth, then I have to learn to feel satisfied when I send off a proposal, instead of waiting for the thud of my new book landing on the doorstep. If I decide that my job is done once the work is edited, polished and posted, I can at least look forward to some sense of achievement from this process.
I am also discovering the value of recycling material. Instead of deleting scraps of text or ideas for stories, even lines of poetry, I now save everything. You never know when you might need a few handy lines about a dead wombat being dragged from its burrow, or a knitting scene to throw into a story about the Granville Train disaster.  Possibly I need to rethink my policy on using real names when telling stories about wombats being shot. (Sorry Stephen).
I have also realized that there is no such thing as a ‘finished’ piece of writing. You might reach a point where you think something is good enough to publish, but leave any piece of writing for a few weeks, and without doubt, you will see things that you can improve when you look at it again. James Michener claimed that he was ‘not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.’ Sometimes it’s tempting to ignore that niggling voice inside your head saying, You can do better than that. It’s not quite how you imagined it. Unfortunately, I’m discovering that I must heed that voice and keep rewriting until I’m satisfied… I have discovered that I must listen to my inner voice and keep rewriting until I’m satisfied…It must be acknowledged that the inner voice…
Finally, I am coming to realize that I have to plug away, no matter how stupid I am feeling. Peter Carey advised aspiring writers:
You have to treat this as the single most important part of your life. You do not need anything as fancy as inspiration, just this steady habit of writing regularly even when you're sick or sad or dull. Nothing must stop you, not even your beloved children.
So I have not picked up the thirty pairs of satin harem pants waiting to be sewn together for the ‘Aladdin’ concert at Grace’s school and I look away when the canteen mums call for volunteers, suddenly spotting something fascinating in the car park I need to investigate. Urgently.

Of course the advantage of writing is that I have the perfect excuse to indulge my love of reading. Caught out basking in some Sylvia Plath before breakfast? ‘I’m doing some reading for an article I have in mind.’ Rapturously devouring novels by Alex Miller or Vikram Seth? ‘It’s all part of the creative process.’ So I ignore the ironing, ditch the Dyson and let my eyes slide past my untidy house, to gaze out of the window in search of the perfect word to describe a tsunami. The household can wait. For now, there are stories to be written. (After that, I’m off to the library.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Alice in Wonderland and the Vomitous Blanket

Safe in the knowledge that I won’t get a reply for at least three months, I nonetheless rush to polish my manuscript and bolt to the Post Office just before closing so I can send the latest version of my children’s story to a potential publisher in the UK. A slimmer, easier to read version of the story has already been rejected by Penguin but with sufficient praise to inspire me to rework it and try elsewhere.
I had a day of excitement when an agency in New York replied to me after an impulsive late night email about my story. There was something so 'Sex and the City' about it all. It sounds so much more exciting if your stories are going to an agent in New York rather than Crows Nest or Artarmon. They actually wanted to read the entire manuscript. They wanted a bio about me and was I available for book signings and promotional work? I thought I might fit it into my schedule.

I told all my friends and, like Hyacinth Bucket in ‘Keeping Up Appearances’, I didn’t stint on the references to a ‘New York Literary Agent’. I have learned the hard way that it’s best to check up on the agent before you tell your mates. Disbelief was quickly succeeded by dismay as I read the comments on my New York agent online. If the postings were true, the agents were little short of crooks, inviting writers to submit their work so they could suck them in to spending money on editing with almost no hope of ever seeing their work published. Humiliation that they had so deftly stroked the writer’s ego, my ego, was followed by a determination to find a publisher for my book without an agent at all.
I spent a day researching potential publishers and combing book lists to find comparable stories to mine. Once I had targeted a publisher, I spent the weekend re-writing my book to conform to a new set of Writers’ Guidelines. Today was the day I planned to do my final edit, polish my letter and hone my synopsis. Fortified with a few skinny lattes with my girlfriends, I came home and pulled out my laptop only to feel a faint buzzing in my chest. It wasn't from the caffeine, it was my phone vibrating in my pocket.
Now wasn’t the time for taking calls, but I answered anyway because my daughter had discovered a tick in her scalp this morning and hadn’t been feeling the best when I dropped her at school. Having determined that today was The Day I was posting my manuscript, I gave her Panadol and sent her despite my misgivings and I was about to pay the maternal price. The faintly judgmental tone in the secretary’s voice when she told me that Grace was sick, ‘and says she felt sick this morning before school’, (I already knew that, I was there wasn’t I?) was enough to project me from my office and into my car in an instant.
So while I fervently prayed to the God of being Sick in Cars for protection from vomit on the short drive home, my daughter shivered and swallowed ominously. Once home, she curled up on the lounge and watched ‘Alice in Wonderland’, for the eleventy-hundredth time, dozing occasionally. It was perhaps fitting that I typed my synopsis of the children’s book to the sounds of Alice defeating the ‘Bloody Big Head’, Red Queen. Perhaps the final version had a few more puns and a little more word play because of the literary story playing in the background.  
Grace saved her vomit for the five minutes flat it took me to fly to the shops and post off my manuscript. Dad got to deal with the sick coated blanket and spattered bowl while I sent my little piggy (Bridget the Piglet) off to market. Now I just have to wait until next year before I begin my paranoid checking of the letterbox for the ominously familiar envelope that signals the return of my manuscript. Meanwhile, like the Red Queen, I will keep a closer eye on the size of my head.