Saturday, 30 July 2011

Interview on Words with Writers

I mentioned it over on my other blog, the crazy one about the Italian Divorcée (shoes, sex, fiction, parties, skiing, teenagers, cherries). Also pointing out that my daughter says I look like a man and my eldest says I look like a goth. Help!

The interview speaks about the novel coming out this autumn and about my wonky writing life and passion for short stories. Marissa was a delight to work with and I wish her well with the site, she has some top writers in there!

If I were you I would nip over for a visit, vote for Catherine McNamara, and call it a day.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Elton John's Mother

A blog friend wrote a piece about reviewing a not-current piece of work and made me think of a story I pulled out the other day, to use as reference for an article I was writing. The story was the first story I had published and it was in sad way, funny. The blog thread continued with writers expressing how they usually felt distance/horror/disdain for their past work, even when it was up for publication.

I remember the revue arriving with the diplomatic pouch in Mogadishu, where I spent three years as a young wife and naive mother. Though the story was distinctly Australian, reading it again made me think of the chalk white of our house in Somalia, the spiral staircase to the flat roof looking out to sea and the eclipses of the moon I watched there. I loved that house in the middle of the noisy city. I read through the story and I was fine with it, that was where I was then.

After its first publication the story was selected several years later for the publishers' big anthology, where I rubbed shoulders with some of Australia's finest. The photo used in the anthology showed me on the verandah of our house in Ghana, where I was living by that time. You could not see that I was expecting my third child and my life was about to change drastically.

Here is my story, Elton John's Mother:

After the third delivery I find Lyndall on the sleepout in the annex moaning that her feet are swollen up like fish. It’s a girl and she’s called it Crystal.

Lyndall gets up and has a cranny at herself in a pocket mirror. The lump had gone out of her, but the slack’s set in. She yawns and sucks her tummy in only it won’t budge.

‘Like jelly’, she says. Her stilettos are on the rack.

Lyndall’s worried whether or not Aaron is on his way up with the latest monthly so she can get Medibank out of her hair. More than anything she’s worried about Aaron latching onto a new girl. She’s holding onto him even though there was Gareth. She kept swearing that if it had been a boy (and think that it wasn’t even his) it would have been Little Aaron.

‘Do you remember that song of Crystal Gayle’s Diamond Love? Had it on my brain the whole time.’

The little face screws up at Lyndall looking for something to eat.

‘Looks like Aaron somehow, don’t you think? I reckon by now I must have some of his genes in me.’

Aaron my foot. She hands her over and goes inside to make up a bottle. Funny, I had the depression after both of mine and they wouldn’t let me near them. I had to look at them in those glass cribs for two months before the sister let me take them home.

Elton John busts into the annex almost knocking over a tent pole holding up a string of bras and hunts for his mother. The beads hit together in the doorway for a full five minutes, enough for Lyndall to quit shrieking and shove the bottle in the baby’s mouth.

Elton wants money for an ice block. At six he knows all the words to Yellow Brick Road and Daniel. He’s Terry’s son, the surfer, though he’s only got eyes for Aaron. They’re all a bit like that here.

A lot of people at the park took a nab at Lyndall when she turned up with two kids Cassandra and Elton John. Not because of the kids’ names only, but because Aaron set her up here, and comes once a month to see the kids. Only Cassandra’s his. Most of us are on our own here and the dads never even give a look-in, but after Aaron chucked Lyndall out he felt sorry for her, and then there was his inheritance. Lyndall stuck hard for an allowance for the kids seeing as Elton calls him Dad. Everyone knows she went straight out with four thousand dollars and bought a waterbed and an electric guitar.

The next time I see Lyndall is outside the school gates waiting for the infants’ bell. A couple of us are there including Roberta, whose ex beats her up. Roberta is an Aboriginal from up north and it’s a wonder she was game enough to show up here. But people are over it now, and Roberta’s kids are ratbags like anyone’s.

Lyndall’s back in stretch jeans. We give her the once over but in a woman’s way. We’re glad to see her in shape. Close up though she’s got a mug look on her face. She tells us, it’s like family now.

‘Aaron’s got a girl.’

Apparently Aaron was up during the week but stayed at one of the motor lodges. There was a girl with him, a blond girl, Lyndall tells us. He didn’t come along to the disco. He and the blond girl wanted to take the kids out for pizza.

‘You could see that coming a mile off with the inheritance,’ Roberta says without a lot of tact.

Lyndall tells us that he brought her into the van and she asked where the toilet was. Lyndall marched her out onto the footpath and showed her the bloody dunny block. Then she tells us what we’ve all heard before, how he was carrying on with her back in Sydney. She’s the girl from the video shop.

‘They stayed at Currumbin Lodge,’ she repeats. ‘That’s three stars.’

Lyndall breaks down and we bunch up around her while the kids scoot past to their bikes. We’ve all been in her shoes: in love. The last one I was with kept promising me a ring till he cleared out with my Bankcard. It’s a wonder you keep falling for them time after time, when it always ends up like that.

‘At least he doesn’t beat you up,’ Only Rob could have come out with that one.

On the way back through the mall Lyndall has her nails done at the salon. She flirts with the manager Guy who’s a fairy anyway. I hear her say she’ll call the next one Guy but there’ll be no mucking around. At least Aaron hasn’t taken the goat out of her.

In at Target we pick up a few sun tops and pairs of lace-up shorts. Lyndall’s got her cheque and is on a bit of a spree. Both of us ought to do the food shopping but we’re in no mood so we sit down in the garden café. That way the kids have something to do and we can have early dinner.

We order shakes but I can see Lyndall’s not in it. She takes out the mirror and the eye shows up full of water. Lyndall’s mascara starts to run.

‘Give me a hankie,’ she says. Lyndall’s eyes look like Alice Cooper as she blurbs it all out.

By the time we’re back at the caravan park she’s got it out of her system. We walk in along the gravel path just as everyone else is in their vans having tea. You can hear saucepans hitting and water pumping up into the sinks. The tellys throw up shadows in everyone’s annex. Lyndall says she wants to buy a microwave. She’s got the baby all wrapped up.

‘I can smell Cassandra’s up to something.’

Lyndall’s oldest Cassandra was named after a song of Sherbet’s that stayed at number one for ages. Lyndall says she met Daryl Braithwaite after the concert backstage and he gave her his scarf. Nothing like that ever happened to me. The closest I ever got to Daryl was kissing the TV Week poster on the back of my door.

We’ve come to her van and there is no TV on, only the one small lamp in the corner. Lyndall stalks up cramming the baby into her side and trying not to set off the beads.

‘Sssshhh,’ she says to Elton and then to me, ‘Take a look at this.’

I creep up behind her and look through the window flap. There are two of them, Cassandra and Jodie I think, dressed up to the nines with soccer balls in their bellies.

‘Oh me bloody back. Don’t come at me from behind Aaron. Not from behind no more.’

Cassandra is doing a take-off of Lyndall and Aaron on the sleep-out. Jodie wrestles with her and Cass says, ‘You have to take the ball out, stupid.’

Lyndall is about to laugh but comes out yelling, ‘Get that gear off you little buggers! Get on home Jodie, your mother’s waitin’ for you. Elton John go and have your shower right now! If I don’t see youse all move by the time I count to three – One – Two – Three!’

The kids scram off and there’s only the baby left in her arms getting ready to scream. She dumps it in the basket and rolls it round a bit, then when it’s quiet fills up two hefty glasses with cask wine. I can hang around a tick because my two have run off too.

We end up going to the disco. Roberta’s afraid of her ex coming around so she comes across to mind the kids. We leave them in front of a repeat of Starsky and Hutch.

‘I love Hutch, he’s a spunk,’ Roberta says.

‘You’d get a belt if you know who heard that,’ Lyndall tells her.

Lyndall and I head towards Surfers in my Escort. The traffic all along the new freeway is full of good time seekers like us. Everyone’s radio is turned up loud. The guys are all cheeky with earrings and hair nicked high up over their ears. You get checked out a million times.

We pull into the Pink Panther and it’s jam-packed. Lyndall’s a bit wobbly on her stilettos after such a long time on the ground. She reckons her back’s always out of kilter after a kid. She takes a swig of the Ben Ean in the back seat.

‘This ought to do the trick,’ she says.

Shane’s on the doorway so he wants to hear about the baby and so forth. He’s a real fox, he must have at least six of his own around the park. Straight away inside the cigarette smoke hits you, plus the smell of beer and lots of mulling over it. It’s rough on your eyes and nostrils, but like anything you have to be in the thick of it. To one side everyone’s gawking at a new group just like the Mentals. Some of our friends are out there. I see Alison with her new boyfriend. They’re all holding beers. Down in the Disco Chamber everyone is moving something strong. The DJ on the stage is belting his fist in the air. It’s the Village People, from what I can make out. I wonder if half of them know they’re all poofters.

Lyndall comes up out of the blue and gives me a hug. She screams something in my ear but I can’t work it out, then she jives off letting the music belt through her, has a guy in a white shirt after her straight away. Her belly’s a bit of a ball but you’d never guess she had a kid three weeks ago.

My little one gets hit by a car the day after that so I don’t see Lyndall for a good stretch. They transfer Josh to the Mater in Brisbane for a while and his Dad even shows up one night in the corridor outside the ward. We go out into the carpark just like old times, and he gets into me all over the back seat. Then he asks for a quid and he clears out with the usual load of bullshit. Josh’ll be on crutches for six months so I take him down to my mum’s at Coffs Harbour. There at least he doesn’t have to bung up and down the steps of the van. By the time I get back to Lyndall, Crystal’s on solids.

I tap on the window shield one afternoon and Lyndall comes out in a green tunic with a zipper holding a coffee. She’s got a job in a sandwich bar.

‘The office guys are real cute,’ she says. ‘Crystal stays at my sister’s.’

She looks dumpier than before, as if she’s letting it go to her hips. Anyone could tell something’s getting at her and not just the late night feeds.

‘Come in and have a cuppa. I’ve got five minutes before Toni picks me up.’

Inside the caravan there are photos of Cassandra stuck everywhere – her school shot above the sink, at the sports carnival, and playing totem tennis at Burleigh over the water bed. I haven’t heard anything from anyone in ages and I don’t read the papers. It gives me the gulp in my throat like when the police rang to tell me about Josh. I wish I’d gone around to Roberta’s first.

‘What’s happened Lyndall?’

Lyndall switches on the jug and puts a spoon of Nescafe in a cup. I see she’s bought the microwave. It must have happened ages ago or she wouldn’t be so under wraps.

‘It’s Cassandra. She’s missing.’

There’s not much time, but Lyndall’s got a lot on her chest. Aaron and the blond girl turned up and wanted to take the kids over Christmas. Lyndall gave them Cassandra, but not Elton John. The day before Christmas, Aaron told the police that when they woke up Cassandra had cleared out. She was wearing a sundress and a pair of joggers and stole ten bucks from Aaron’s betting money. The blond girl had had a nervous breakdown.

‘Cassandra speaks to me through telepathy you know. I can see her on the Pacific Highway, if some mug hasn’t picked her up.’ Lyndall sniffles. Aaron’s halved his maintenance until Cassandra turns up. ‘Just think if I’d given him Elton too.’

Nobody hears any more about Cassandra again, even by the time Josh is off crutches. The police come around and interview a lot of people including the owner. At one stage Roberta’s ex gets picked up for carrying a knife which means she’ll be in for it when he gets out. They even try to pin it on him when they find kids’ clothes in the boot of his car, but they’re Jodie’s and her sister’s. Roberta packs up and goes back north to her brother’s. It’s sad when she goes as Roberta really knew how to take the mickey out of you. We all follow the ute out to the gate for the last time, trying to tuck down her curtains and the fly screens she’s pinched from the van.

A new lass moves in Roberta’s van, Eileen. Her huband’s a competition wrestler so he’s always on tour around the state. Eileen has two little girls Marion and Rosalee and does Jazzercise. She gets us all into it. She wears a headband across her forehead. We all laugh at first, then we all end up buying them. It really suits Lyndall and she’s got her form back. I’ve just found out I’m nearly two months gone and I feel like a little girl so I’m keeping it. Brett, the father, is blond so she should be good looking.

One afternoon I come round to pick Lyndall up for classes. She’s not back from work yet and I find Elton sitting at the card table in the annex. It’s funny how he’s turned out. After Cassandra disappeared they found out he needed glasses and Lyndall said he started to write songs. She says he wants to trade in the electric guitar for a keyboard.

Lyndall comes in and dumps a bag of leftover sandwiches on the TV. She says that Aaron called her at work and he’s taking a week off to come up. Lyndall’s pretending to be really offhand.

‘He’s said the blond girl’s not coming up. There must be something wrong.’

During the week, I see Aaron’s car parked outside but I don’t go over because it doesn’t seem right. Aaron’s a heavy and you wouldn’t want to get on his wrong side. The car’s there all day and all night so obviously he’s not staying at the motor lodge. Lyndall gets Eileen to watch the kids one night when they go to the disco, but that’s the night I’ve got typing. I don’t see her or Elton or Crystal for a whole week.

On Saturday I go on over, dying to know what’s been going on. Lyndall tells me straight away.

‘They want to adopt Crystal. The blond girl can’t have kids.’

I ask her what she said knowing pretty well already.

‘My hide, they’re not having her – after scaring off Cassandra like that. The best bit is,’ she goes on, ‘that I bet the bastard’s done me in again. This is my hot week and I told him I was on the pill.’

A few months later we’re both at the back of the Jazzercise class doing half sit-ups. There’s a row for expecting ladies at the back. We spend a lot of time talking about names. Lyndall thinks hers is another boy and has decided on Mel after Mel Gibson. I’m going to call my little girl Lucinda after a book I read when I was a kid.

It’s funny the way it happens at the end. On the day I’m due for my caesar, Lyndall’s waters break. She’s almost two months early so Eileen races her to the hospital. I’m under when all this happens and as I wake up they’re shifting her into the bed next to me.

‘What are you doing here?’ I ask her.

She tells me that when everything started she thought she’d burst the water bed. She had another little girl.

‘What about you?’

The nurse comes over and tells me I’ve had a boy. Three and half kilos. I can feel the depression coming on already like a cloud in my head. I feel like running outside under the nearest truck.

‘Bad luck,’ says Lyndall. ‘You could call it Luke instead, like the guy in Star Wars.’

Afterwards we go down to the nursery and look at the cribs. Lyndall’s is in a humidicrib and is all orange. Mine is kicking its legs into the air. It looks beefy and red and tough already. I feel like putting a pillow over its face. Lyndall nudges me.

‘We can swap them when we get out.’

I know she is crazy enough to mean it.

Someone has mixed up the hospital records and they don’t know anything about my depression the last two times. They let me take the baby home as if I’m the same as anyone else. They put it in my arms and I feel like crying. If it weren’t for Lyndall I don’t think I’d be able to cover it up. We sign our family allowance forms and check out.

Lyndall stops the taxi on the way home and turns around to me.

‘Let’s swap them now,’ she says. ‘No one will ever know.’

The cab driver is Asian, and chews his gum. ‘Only him,’ Lyndall laughs.

She gives me the tiny orange-faced girl and I hand her my big red boy. The cab starts off. Aaron and Lyndall’s little baby girl looks up at me as if it knows.

‘What about Aaron?’ I remember. ‘Won’t he try to adopt her?’

‘Aaron doesn’t even know it’s his and what can he do anyhow?’

We slow down on the freeway before Surfers Paradise, taking the turnoff to the caravan park. Eileen’s kids and my kids and Lyndall’s kids are throwing stones at the entrance, waiting for us.

Lyndall turns around. ‘Besides,’ she says. ‘I’d have sixty babies before I gave one of them to that lump of muscle.’

from Fabulous at Fifty – Fifty of the Best from Australian Short Stories. First published 1995

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

My kitchen tiles

I have always loved ceramics. I still have a bowl and a green jug I bought in Budapest when I used to have cropped blond hair. Now that was an age ago.

Three summers back we began renovation of the ground floor of this house. The walls are thick and porous and my lungs had suffered since we moved in. Soon after the builders started, a little bulldozer drove inside and churned up the earth where my kitchen used to be (the house has no foundations) and dug down deep. We walked on planks over the damp earth for months, plastic sheeting flapping, the dogs confused.

When the work was done it was time to decorate. I pulled out a crate of tiles a very good friend had given to me, painted by his very old mother. I had driven down to Le Marche with a mate to fetch these and other relics that had been saved from their country house which had been sealed off by the police. S told me to keep a few of the tiles, the ones I didn't need, for his house in Corsica, which he urged me to visit.

I loved the tiles. They were white, painted in the Delft style, each one had a hunting dog, a parrot, a pair of women in clogs, a rigged ship, or a windmill. They were each signed at some point in the design by his mother whom I had never met. They are now placed in a panel on one wall of my kitchen.

Before S and his partner ever came to visit my improved house they had both taken their lives. I knew it was going to happen. But I was still caught by surprise, and angry. I couldn't see why they hadn't gone along with it a little longer. Their beautifully furnished life. Their poisoned beliefs.

They told S's old mother he died of a heart attack. That the pain of losing his lover had killed him.

Somehow, I feel guilty because I have the work she pored over - the tiles that were less successful and the ones that came out well - on my wall, along with the many books and porcelain and furniture S gave to me over the years. And I have never seen her face.

The extra tiles, the ones for S's house in Corsica, have been put away somewhere safe.