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Making America Great Gatsby again

Perth Festival review: Elevator Repair Service, Gatz ⋅
Octagon Theatre, March 1 ⋅
Review by David Zampatti ⋅

It’s impossible to claim that Gatz, Elevator Repair Service’s heroic word-for-word performance of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, is a reaction to the state of America under its current president (after all, the project was conceived under Clinton and first performed under Bush II).

But I doubt if anyone who experienced this demanding, adventurous, beautiful, funny, desperately sad tour de force of theatrical daring and skill during the dying days of this year’s Perth Festival would have failed to feel the sense and personality of Trump reverberating uncannily through it.

ERS performs The Great Gatsby in its entirety, and without a single additional word of dialogue. For the record, the performance of those roughly 50,000 words takes 360 minutes (there are three intervals, one long enough for a meal). According to one ready reckoner, Fitzgerald’s novella (he insisted it was a novel for commercial reasons, complaining that novellas didn’t sell) takes a minute under three hours for the average reader to complete.

There’s little needs saying about the story – it’s a known commodity: the mysterious, obsessed tycoon and the woman he (foolishly but inevitably) loves to his death, and the damage they do, as reported by a decent, ordinary man who fell into their web, ensnared by their charm and his timidity.

It’s hard to believe that performing a novel word for word could work so perfectly on stage, but Gatsby is no typical novel. As Gertrude Stein wrote admiringly to Fitzgerald: “You write naturally in sentences.” T.S. Eliot, for whom compliments did not come easy, was also a fan. He read Gatsby three times, repaying, I think, a compliment Fitzgerald had paid him through the novel’s tone and sensibility – Gatsby may be the great American novel, but it is also its Waste Land.

That natural economy of Fitzgerald’s phrase and structure makes the transition to the spoken word and the stage easy. Whether it’s in the long narrations that Nick Carraway (Scott Shepherd) delivers, or in the dialogue between the book’s characters – Gatsby (Jim Fletcher), Daisy (Annie McNamara) and Tom (Pete Simpson), Jordan (April Matthis), George (Frank Boyd) and Myrtle (Laurena Allan) – Fitzgerald’s language is vivid, easy to grasp and imbued with life.

Let me explain: the world of the play is a humdrum office some time in the late 1980s, judging by the computers and remnant typewriters. One office worker (Shepherd) fills the tedious hours reading The Great Gatsby aloud. Others go about the desultory business of the modern administrative workplace until, unobtrusively at first, they assume the personages of Fitzgerald’s East and West Egg on Long Island and hurtle down to the book’s scandal and its tragedy.

Three men in office attire lean against a desk.
In the office: Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway, Pete Simpson as Tom Buchanan and Jim Fletcher as Jay Gatsby. Photo Toni Wilkinson.

Once the characters are established and the action mounts in the first “section”, it’s an exhilarating ride, with the atmospherics created by Fitzgerald – and amplified and enriched by director John Collins – anticipating much of the best of American literature, cinema and theatre.

When it moves to the Gatsby mansion parties and Jay and Daisy’s reunion, the production becomes a comedy of New York manners worthy of Damon Runyon and Dorothy Parker. As the screws tighten in the Plaza Suite scene – where Gatsby and Tom Buchanan battle for possession of Daisy – there’s a Tennessee Williams shift in mood. And later, when Myrtle Wilson goes under the wheels of Gatsby’s automobile and their battle turns fatal, Gatz reads like James M. Cain.

Finally, we are left with Nick looking out over Long Island Sound at the dark water and the green light, and the voice – its admonition and its premonition – belongs to Fitzgerald alone.

Shepherd is astounding as Nick Carraway. Apart from the enormous feat of remembering almost an entire book (he pretends to be reading it, but that ain’t so) and holding the stage for six hours, his habitation of the character of Nick is complete. You don’t doubt him for a second.

Nor do you doubt the other characters. Fletcher’s Gatsby is imposing, humorous and threatening (he’d be an extraordinary Kerry Packer); McNamara makes Daisy not an alabaster beauty but a woman a man might ache for; and Simpson’s Tom Buchanan is manspread and dangerous. Even the sound designer, Ben Williams, who steps out from his cleverly camouflaged sound desk to play minor characters, is perfect.

Daisy sits by a window, flooded with light from behind.
Annie McNamara’s Daisy Buchanan is a woman a man might ache for. Photo Toni Wilkinson.

But it is the contemporary parallels – Gatsby/Tom Buchanan as precursors to Trump, the inheritance man and cagey outsider; Gatsby’s bootlegger Wolfsheim and Trump’s Russian oligarchs; the racism and the womanising – that make Gatz such a fascinatingly relevant work.

For Gatsby, it was not enough that Daisy loved him; he needed her to have always loved him. It’s his expectation of, and demand for, complete loyalty and possession that destroy him. Perhaps it will destroy this president, too.

The worst thing about them all – the Gatsbys, the Buchanans, the Trumps – is that, as Fitzgerald says, “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, and let other people clean up the mess they had made”.

And the worst mess they have made – the one they are still making now, from Wall Street to the Oval Office, from sea to shining sea – is the retreat from the promise of the American future: the green light that Gatsby believed in but was too greedy to attain. And so “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.

POSTSCRIPT

Two years ago, we marvelled at The Gabriels – another eight-hour American epic, set, coincidentally, in the year leading up to the election of Donald Trump. It remains the best experience I’ve had at the theatre. I would gladly see both plays – The Gabriels followed by Gatz – back to back over 16 hours.

I thank Perth Festival’s departing director, Wendy Martin, for bringing them both here, and congratulate her on a wonderful four years of theatre programming. I’ll have more to say about it later.

Picture Top:  (left to right) Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway, Jim Fletcher as Jay Gatsby, April Matthis as Jordan Baker, Annie McNamara as Daisy Buchanan and  Pete Simpson as Tom Buchanan. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

 

 

 

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Creative, News, Prose

A Short History of Toast

At 11.32am a piece of toast falls out of the mist and down the length of Meg’s window. It lands on the lawn. Meg makes a note, “Friday, August 18, 11.32am, two slices and a crust. Toasted golden brown.” As an after thought and not without satisfaction she writes, “This is the 100th toast entry.”

Meg puts the notebook away and sips her coffee. She likes to set herself tasks like this, it gives her day a bit of shape. Like the laundry. Every morning she puts it on before settling in to write and at the end of the day she folds it neatly away. When the fighting started Sally used to taunt Meg for sorting the coloureds from the whites. “Laundry apartheid” she called it. Sally hadn’t liked Meg’s folding ritual either, preferring to drape her laundry over the night store in a steaming pile of chaos, just picking off what she needed in the mornings. One hundred days ago Sally walked out taking chaos with her.

Afterwards Meg cut back to part-time at the Gallery and concentrated on her book. At first she worked in the bedroom because she enjoys the burrowing in aspect of writing – the huddle of herself closeted away in a small room, but last week Meg, her computer and Caring for Contemporary New Zealand Art moved into the lounge. Here there is a view of the sea but for the past few days there have been overhead thuddings in the night. Reluctantly (and realising that she used to let Sally do that sort of thing) Meg went upstairs to meet them, the Toastmen – Charles, Milo and Sam.

***

Clustered in a phalanx at the door they looked out at her standing amidst a clutter of skateboards and shoes. Meg, who knows herself to be stylish and self-assured, felt suddenly like the Minister’s daughter on their case. But the Toastmen were friendly. They suggested a demonstration and Meg followed them inside. Here they each chose a piece of furniture and bounded gleefully into the air. Behind them a vivid purple and orange canvas was propped up against the window, partially blocking the view. Trousers flapping, bony feet askew the Toastmen twisted and spun in a purple and orange haze, narrowly missing the ceiling and thudding to the floor.
“That’s a 360 degree kick flip,” Sam had grinned, “Providing you can land it.”
Silence.
“Skateboarding,” offered Charles.
“Oh, I see,” said Meg.
And she did see. She could imagine what it must feel like to sail by on a skateboard casually dropping tricks and ollying over the curbs but…
“My bed,” she said, “is just under there,” and she pointed to where Milo and Sam had landed.
“Lucky we didn’t go through eh?”
Instantly a vision of the Toastmen crashing through the ceiling and onto her heirloom counterpane had sprung into Meg’s mind. She would be pinned underneath the three of them, a wad of proof reading in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, coughing up plaster and struggling like a cast sheep.

“Yes,” Meg laughed, “very lucky,” and she made her own way out – past the shoes, the skateboards and the white plastic toaster sitting on the stove top – past the clothes line and the letterbox, and the sneakers hanging off the overhead wires, past the dairy and the bus stop and the women pushing prams…

Meg walked on down the hill to the park and pushed her grown-up hips into the meagre U of a rubber swing touching her toes to the ground. The swing squeaked and the smooth soles of Meg’s shoes skritched on the gravel. Only a small movement until she forgot about the hip-squeezed feeling and leaned back. Grasping the knobby chain with her hands and bearing the weight of her torso on her arms she arched her back and swung – swooping up over the esplanade wall to the sea-lighthouse-hill-sky. The sun fell into her and Meg’s eyes wrinkled as they snapped at the sharp sparkles. The swing squeaked along singing a silly abandoned song –

Meg and Sally made a house
To last the life long day o
Sally met a man named Mick
& now Meg lives alone o

Eyes half shut Meg swung and swung until she made the smug little wooden houses tumble over the hills-light-wall-sea and into the foaming waves. Ahhhh….Whoosh. And then the most extraordinary thing happened. Meg laughed. She laughed out loud. A big right out loud laugh. An in your face laugh. A “One more of those Miss Carruthers and you’ll be standing in the corridor” – make the teachers hate you sort of laugh.

***

Meg cradles her warm but empty coffee cup and stares out into the mist. She remembers that laugh. At school Meg Carruthers was the original laughing gnome but these days she has an ordinary play-planes with the plane players laugh. Meg has come to realise that her life, her personality is a tenuous construction. In her mind’s eye she sees it as an airy structure featuring paperclips, and string and whatever else the artist found in his or her pockets that day. Meg’s decision to become a conservator for example was entirely arbitrary, hardly to be expected of a theologian’s daughter growing up in Oamaru. But for an article in the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, Meg might have lived an entirely different life. Having chosen this one she seeks to make her experiences fit the Gallery image. Suitably selected, arranged and stuck together with reliable adhesive she offers herself back to her colleagues and friends. Meg, the bric-a-brac queen. Meg, stylish with a quiet laugh… Sometimes Meg fears that her bricolage of paper clips and string might break apart, leaving her pointing at a pile of debris like a child – “Gone fell down”.

***

The mist still hasn’t cleared later in the day when Meg comes home to find a note stuck to her door with red insulation tape. She guesses that the pointy green writing belongs to Sam.

Dear neighbour,
We are sorry for previous disturbances and we will get better but… TONIGHT we are having a party. Come on up for a drink or call us if it gets too noisy.
Cheers,
Charles, Milo and Sam.

Meg goes into the bathroom, tucks the note into the mirror frame and draws herself a bath. It isn’t every day she gets invited to an X-generation / skateboarder / Toastman party. Meg lifts her arms out of the warm water, relaxing her hands so that silver droplets fall back into the bath.
Perhaps I’ll go.
She imagines herself appearing at their door in her exhibition opening clothes – black top, black tabard, black trousers, a little jewellery placed lightly at the throat…
Perhaps not.
Meg closes her eyes and the Toastmen slip through the ceiling to hover in the moist air. Sam and Milo are the real skateboarders, a double act, small and dexterous and full of cheek. They appear in Meg’s bathroom like brothers in a tale from “The Arabian Nights” – their skateboard transformed into a magic carpet, their hair ornately braided. Meg prefers this to Charles who appears in nothing but his underwear…
By 8pm Meg’s kitchen is vibrating with the sound of the Toastmen’s stereo – David Bowie. She’ll go out.

Down in the city visiting rugby fans storm Courtenay Place – high on the scent of tomorrow’s game. Meg rides their animal tide reluctantly, escapes into a sushi bar and watches small plates of food trundle past her on a conveyor. The little bricks of rice and miniature fillets whisper to her of perfection, balance, design. Meg sighs and selects a brown plate, settling the delicate edges of her chopsticks into the nest of her right hand. After dinner she will walk sedately to the Gallery, breathing small sushi scented clouds. She won’t stay long. She’ll just slip in do the shots and slip away.

Set up on a mannequin the dress appears luminous in the darkened room, like a ghost skin, an empty chrysalide. Meg flicks the lights on. The armour-like bodice is plated with paua shell, painstakingly cut to size and stitched into place; recycled hat brims have been used to shape a waist that supports a wide silk skirt; the feathers, trimming bodice and headpiece, were scavenged from a 1920’s cocktail dress. These are the elements, varied and requiring specialist care that caused Meg to choose the dress for her book. Chapter three, page one hundred and twenty, “The beauty of the whole depends on the care and conservation of the parts.”

As Meg sets up her lights and considers different angles for the shoot, it seems as if the dress is preening itself, cooing, a coquette rustling her petticoats. A tide of pleasurable anticipation permeates the room. The dress chuckles and whispers to Meg –
“Try me. Take me dancing…”
Meg smiles and adjusts the folds of the skirt. It’s not the first time she has felt this pull of possibility. Removing her white gloves Meg stands behind the tripod –
“Snap”, goes the camera.
“Dancing,” says the dress.
The voice, persistent and mocking, reminds Meg of Sally and the borrowings. First they took two big packing cases from the Gallery to make a wardrobe for their room, then they took the zebra light…borrowed for Sally’s thirtieth, and then one at a time and in quick succession, they borrowed the whole of Colin McCahon’s “Moby Dick” series. Sally had a thing about whales –

Snap went the camera
Dancing said the dress
One girl’s gone and
One girl’s left

Meg turns away, yanking at the trigger lead, the Sally voice fills her head…whispering, whispering …and the dress insistent and gorgeous and irresistible. Well, why doesn’t she try it on? Sally would. Meg hiccups into laughter and slips her clothes off as if she were about to jump naked off a summer jetty. Carefully she eases her way into the dress – first the under skirt, then the bodice, finally the skirt and head piece. Closing her eyes she turns toward the mirror imagining herself transformed. And then she is.

***

David Bowie billows around Meg as she disembarks from her taxi and the air inside smells of smoke and heat and too many student bodies. Sam and Milo just grin and made half-cut gorilla noises at her before turning back to their group of skateboarder acolytes. It’s Charles who comes to greet her –

“Fabulous frock Meg girl.”

Meg can tell he means it and goes with him to admire his paintings. Aside from the purple and orange abstract in the lounge Charles has a landscape on the go and in another corner there is a wire grid for a triptych made entirely out of toast. He got the idea from Maurice Bennett who runs the supermarket in the next suburb.

“He’s doing portraits of people, Marilyn, Elvis, Princess Di.”
“Bricolage” says Meg.
“Yeah”
Suddenly Meg who had wondered if she would find anything to say to her youthful neighbours finds herself talking freely and for pleasure, arching sentences and stretching words, putting ideas together at random until she and Charles become fellow artists cruising the edges of the global village selecting things, combining and re-combining them in new ways making intoxicating conversation making their voices rise and fall over their empty glasses ordering the world in the eye of their minds dazzling each other behind glasses full again with brilliance pondering small life mysteries making sounds with their mouths emptying and filling reason up again like a clay pot piggy bank…until wondering stops – “why do people tie their shoelaces together and throw their shoes over the telegraph wires?”

Curled inside the layers of talk, tucked away between words and inside the sound of shared syllables Meg feels the tide change within her – sand and water, shift and return. She feels drawn and a bit after-midnight wobbly but she’s standing in her own place again behind the dress. It’s as if by donning an outer layer of feathers, silk and shell, she’s become the thing she feared most and now withstood it. She is, herself again.

“Something to do with capping isn’t it?” says Charles referring to the shoes which Meg’s forgotten and then –

“Mind if I try your dress?”

Meg looks at him sideways and realises that Charles has been lusting after the dress all night so, despite her reservations, she helps him into her best bra and plenty of tissue paper, their laughter punctuated by gentle crumpling sounds. Eventually she eases the dress down over his padded frame and they smooth the folds into place. Charles is much thinner and taller than Meg. He looks like some fantastic bower bird.

“Thank you,” he says and passes her like a queen on his way out.

Meg persuades him to return the dress eventually but he dances away into the night still wearing her bra. At dawn he appears at her window like a dervish flaunting his tissue paper tits and pushing his tongue up against the glass.

***

The following weekend Meg goes to Oamaru for a family wedding. She flies back to Wellington on the Monday afternoon. Stopping at the letter box she pulls out a plain envelope with her name on it. Just “MEG” it says in red. There is a $50 bill inside and a note scrawled on the back –

Buy yourself a new bra.

Meg smiles as she remembers Charles and his silly tits but wonders why he doesn’t just give her the money in person. She stops at the upstairs flat. The door is wide open and the grass on the bank has been trimmed. Meg puts her head inside. She can hear a radio and a gentle clinking sound. A painter is working in the far bedroom –
“Hello” she says.
“You must be the lady from downstairs.”
“Yes. Meg. Nice colour.”
“Spreads well.”

Meg walks quietly through all the rooms. The shelves by the fireplace have been emptied and the purple and orange painting is gone. The toaster is gone too. A pocked formica table stands like an island in the middle of the clean kitchen, fallow, bric-a-brac. Meg laughs at the randomness of it all, opens a window and leans out into the sunshine as if she were signaling someone. The envelope flashes white as it drops from her fingers and falls, down the length of the window to land on the lawn.

– Carol Millner

“A Short History of Toast” was first published in Indigo journal.

Carol Millner is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Curtin University. Her poetry, short stories and articles have been published online, as well as in Australian and New Zealand journals. Carol’s first full length poetry collection was shortlisted for the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript (UWA Press) 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

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Ada, Creative, News, Prose

Ada – Chapter Two

Ada is the working title of a novel-in-progress by Varnya Bromilow.  This is chapter two. For the first chapter click here

DENNIS     

He poked at the yolk of the egg with a butter knife.  There was a thin skein of albumen still there.  He flipped part of the white up over onto the yolk, partially covering it.  That should do it.  He turned the heat off the pan and looked at the clock.  She should be back anytime now.  Would she want an egg?  If he cooked it and she wasn’t back it would be wasted.  He decided not to cook her an egg.

He removed a plate from the cupboard and popped the bread down to toast.  Where was the salt?  He turned back to the pan and scooped the egg out.  Then he remembered the toast and put the egg back in the warm pan.  He retrieved the butter from the fridge and set it next to the plate.  The toast popped and he pulled it out and tossed it on the plate, blowing on his fingers.  He turned back to the pan and scooped the egg out with the spatula, landing it neatly in the middle of the toast.  Then he remembered the butter and scooped the egg back to the pan and buttered the toast.  This time when he lifted the egg back to the toast, the yolk broke when he flopped it down.  He grumbled to himself and then laughed.  Old brain.  The egg leaked vivid yellow onto the toast.

Just as he sat down he heard the car.  Well, he could give her this egg if she wanted it.  It was probably too undercooked for her liking.  He salted the egg and shook a little white pepper over it.  He could hear her fussing with her keys at the door.

“Hello?”  She called.

“Hello!”  He replied.

Her footsteps clipped down the hallway.  She came in holding two chocolate bars.  Her hair was a little mussed, white strands clinging to her cheek.

“Eggs eh?”   

“Would you like one?”

“Nope,” she grinned, holding up the two chocolate bars.  “I have these!”

He laughed.  “Nutritious.”

“For my mental health.”

“There’s nothing wrong with your mental health.”

“Chocolate’s good for your spirits.”

“I thought spirits were good for your spirits?”

“You got any?”  She giggled.

She went through to the kitchen and returned with the two chocolate bars cut up on a saucer, accompanied by a glass of milk.

She raised her glass at him.  “To your mental health, dearest.”

He smiled and poked some egg into his mouth.  “How was the dentist?”

“Fine.  They wanted to do an X-ray but I told them to nick off.”

“What for?”

“What?”

“What did they want an X-ray for?”

She screwed up her nose.  “I don’t know.  Something about roots.  They always want to do X-rays.  They’ve got to recoup the cost of those ridiculous machines.”  He watched her jaw as she chewed the chocolate.  She had retained a suggestion of jawline, despite her age.  She looked marvelous really.  Her white hair, still thick, framing her old face in a neat bob.  He was relieved that she had never gone in for that short, curled style so popular amongst women of their age.  Why did they do that, he wondered.  Did they think it made their hair look somehow fuller?  Didn’t they realize that the only people who cut their hair short and permed it were old women?

“What are you looking at?”  Ada said.

“You.”

“Thanking your lucky stars?”

“Always,” he winked at her.

She grunted happily and held out the plate to him.  On it was the last piece of Cherry Ripe.

“No, you have it.”

“Go on!”

“No, I don’t want it.”

“Alright then,” her mouth curled into a smile.  She popped the chocolate into it.  “What are your plans today?”

“I’m going to have coffee with Bert,” he said.

“Now?”

“Soon.”

“Then I thought we could go to the park for a walk.”

“Yes, let’s do that,” she said.  “I’m going to call Leonie.  I thought we could have them over on Wednesday?”

“Wednesday?  Okay.”

“Should we have Helen and Affan over too?”

“I don’t know.  We could ask them.”

“Yes, I’ll ask them.”

He pushed his chair out from the table.  “I’m going to water the garden.”

“Yes, I might do a little weeding.”

“Is that all you’re having for lunch?”

“I’m not really hungry,” she said. “I’ll have something later.”

He shrugged and went out the back door.

They lived in a one-bedroom flat on Carr Street in West Perth.  The building, which dated back to 1918, was surrounded by a relatively large garden, cordoned into four different sectors, each belonging to a ground floor flat.  There were another two flats upstairs, larger but with no garden.  Their garden was an unnatural green wreathed in a colourful haze of blooms this time of year.  He loved it here.  Cocooned by an ivy-covered red brick wall, his patch was an ever-changing pattern of flowers and vegetables, cottage-style.  Leonie had lectured him more than once on the water he and Ada used to sustain their non-native verdance – she kept encouraging them to plant natives – but Ada had never become accustomed to the dun khaki and paltry blooms of her adopted homeland.  It was an acquired taste, he thought, Australian flowers eschewing petals in favour of meagre tendrils, the prevalence of spikes and thorns.  When he was young, in the first half of the century, his mother had spent hours replanting the thin Australian soil with plants from the Northern hemisphere.  He had grown up essentially repulsed by the native flora.  In marrying a Canadian, he had effectively given himself an excuse to indulge his own horticultural preferences.      

They had lived in the flat for 17 years, the longest they had lived anywhere.  When they were younger they had moved about every few years, perplexing their friends and annoying the hell out of their children.  He was glad, when he looked back, though it had left them bereft of the well-established communities enjoyed by their more stationery friends.  It didn’t matter – for the most part he found anyone apart from Ada quite irritating.

“Oh!  Look at that one!”  Ada was pointing at a giant dahlia, its head a full mass of curled white petals, tipped with pink.

“And this,” he said, admiring an example in deep fuchsia.  “They need more staking actually.”

“I’ll get a couple.”

They spent the next quiet hour staking the stalks of the heavy-headed flowers, weeding the beds and instructing each other on gardening techniques.  Eventually Ada retired to the wrought iron table on the small patio while he gave everything a good spray.

“It’s so lovely,” she smiled, removing her boots.  “I can’t remember when we’ve had a better year with the dahlias.”

“You’re 84, you can’t remember anything!”  He retorted.

“My memory is better than yours.”

“Rubbish,” he said.  The sun was starting to burn the skin on the back of his neck.  He turned off the hose and went and sat with her.  Ada was staring at the garden, unfocused.  He reached across the table for her hand.  Canadian hands they were, even after 40 years, pale and unspotted.  His rough, freckled paw looked monstrous next to hers.  She turned to him, the same small smile playing around her wrinkled lips, the skin around her eyes deeply creased.  For a long time he had kept expecting to wake up one day and not love her, but it hadn’t happened.  This amazed him.  He had been ambivalent – perhaps ambivalent was too strong – he had not been as sure as she had, 52 years ago.  His lack of certainty had bothered him.  He felt sure it was a sign that his feelings would not endure.  But by the third year of their marriage he felt that the tables had turned and that he was surer than she.  That had been a terrible period, unconfided to her.  He had been convinced that she had belatedly changed her mind.  It was terrifying to realize how smitten he was after all.  He had lost whatever edge of distance that separated them in the beginning.  Now he was in, well in, and unable to control how he felt.  But in the end, she had stayed and he had stayed and they had endured, both besotted, in their understated fashion.

“Look at your hands!”  She chastised.  “You should moisturize them.”

“It’s too late for that,” he said.

“You’re beginning to look like a bit of leather with eyes.”

“Well aged,” he looked at his watch.  “I’d better wash up if I’m going to meet Bert.”

“Shall we meet at the park?”

“Yeah.  About 3:30?”

“Okay.”

“You coming in?”

“No, no I’m going to sit here for a while,” she said.

“Okay.”

He went inside.

 

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Ada, Creative, Literature, News, Prose

Ada

by Varnya Bromilow –

The doctor was looking at her in a way that she had avoided for 84 years. 84 years she had avoided that look! It was an achievement in and of itself. And it wasn’t as though she’d done anything in particular to avoid the look. She had been cognisant of the fact that it was a look she wanted to avoid, very much, but she had actually taken no conscious steps to avoid it. She had done, by and large, whatever the hell she felt like doing, firm in the belief that what you did didn’t matter in the slightest when it came to avoiding the look. She was surer now of this than ever before. For although she had now received the look, and its associated news, she had survived 84 years without getting it! 84 years of eating whatever she liked; of smoking one cigarette a day, (except for when Jemima died, and that time when she was sure that Dennis was cheating, and that time when Lawrence was in hospital, and when Leonie was pregnant…okay, there were a few times); drinking two glasses of wine a day; doing no exercise whatsoever and certainly no yoga or meditation or whatever else it was that Helen did. She had done as she pleased and she had not received the look until now. It almost made her feel victorious.

“Is there someone I can call for you Mrs Horroway?” The doctor, having given her the look, could not seem to take it off her face. “Do you have a husband or a family member I could call to take you home?”

“No. No, I’ll be fine. Thank you doctor.”

“Is there a doctor you usually see, someone I can send the results to?”

“No. I just moved. I used to live in Melbourne,” she lied.

“Oh,” the doctor looked at her computer. “So…you have family here?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear that. I can also arrange for you to see a counselor if you like? To talk things over? Perhaps with a family member?”

“I’ll think about it,” Ada said carefully. Better to leave them thinking she was considering the offer. Refusing all help just meant more pestering. The doctor was still talking. Something about care plans. The window behind the doctor’s head framed a vivid square of blue sky with a barely discernible wisp of cloud. Was that a cirrus cloud? How could she have lived 84 years and still not know what a cirrus cloud was? In fact, she only knew the name of that one type of cloud. Or was cumulus one also? A cumulus cloud? That sounded right. Cumulus sounded like it might be puffy. Cirrus sounded thin and high. She was pretty sure the cloud in the window was a cirrus.

“…so we can sort that all out on your next visit, okay?” The doctor said.

“Sounds fine.”

Ada got up to leave. Her knees creaked in protest at the doctor. Poor old knees. They had served her well, really. Still her own bones, the same knees she’d had as a small, runty child, clambering over moss-covered logs. Her own bones. She didn’t know a soul of their age who hadn’t had at least one replaced. The very same bones, child bones, sitting there inside her withered flesh.

The doctor stood awkwardly. “Could you make an appointment with the receptionist for next week? That will give us time to get things in place. And remember. It’s your prerogative to change your mind of course. I do think you’re making the right decision but it’s natural to have second thoughts. We can talk more about it next week perhaps? After you’ve had a chance to talk about it with your family.”

“Yes, yes, fine.” Ada interrupted in an effort to wrap up the doctor’s speech. She opened the door.

“Good-bye Mrs Horraway.” The doctor had that damn look on her face again.

“Don’t look so sad dear,” Ada said. “I’m the one with the cancer, not you.”

The doctor looked shocked and then embarrassed. Then she laughed and shut her door.

 

Outside, Ada sat down on the brick wall outside the doctor’s office and stared at the sky for several minutes. She was overwhelmed, in her usual way, by the constancy of its blueness. Where she came from, skies were not usually this colour. Though she had lived in Perth for 40 years, she was routinely surprised by the unerring blueness of the sky. It would be boring, she imagined, if you didn’t come from a place where it was unerringly grey.

After a little while, she got in the car and drove towards home. On the way she stopped at a petrol station and bought gas and three of her favourite chocolate bars. Normally she only had two. She scoffed one as soon as she got back in the car and was noticed by a smiling youth, though it was unclear whether he was smiling at her or her car. She flipped down the rear vision mirror and had a look. There was a very faint trace of chocolate wedged in one of the deep corner wrinkles of her mouth. Her tongue darted out and attacked it. Her eyes looked back at her. You are now a person with cancer. It was intensely irritating. She was also irritated at the condition of her eyes, magnified through her thick glasses. Her eyes used to be bluer, she was sure of it. Bluer irises and whiter whites. In general she didn’t care a fig about looking old but the decline of her eyes bothered her. Chunks of pterygium, bulging from their viscous surfaces. Fine lines like someone had got out a red biro and scribbled on her eyeballs. And where was all this fluid from? This icky moisture that now collected so readily around her too-pink eyelids. It was as though she was starting to leak from the inside. And that was just above the waistline.

She hissed out a sigh, flicked the mirror back up and drove off. Well, better pack it all in while she could. She should make a list of things to get done. Is that what they meant by bucket list? What bucket? Whose bucket? Silly term. It sounded like when you died your remains were scraped into a bucket. A list of things to do before I am scraped into a bucket. She giggled. Then sighed again. Poor old Dennis. He’d be left alone. They had always thought he would be first.

Heatwave by The Supremes crackled on the radio. She turned it up, blasting it around the tinny insides of the car. She roared it out, insofar as one could roar it out with the voice of an 84-year-old. It was more like a warbly shouting.

Whenever I’m with you
I get all caught up inside
Maybe you know me now
Or maybe I feel so alive
Heatwave!

Her left window was down to catch the sea breeze. She stopped at the lights. A middle-aged woman with two small children in the back of a gigantic truck-car looked over and smiled at her. The kids giggled and pointed. Ada grinned and sang straight at them:

Whenever I see your face
Tears all over the place
Don’t you want me still?
I think I’m going to be ill.

It was, without doubt, the best thing about being so old. The utter lack of care for what anyone else thought. Ada loved being old. She truly loved it. She had been an eccentric child and while children were permitted to be eccentric, and to a limited extent so too were young adults, the long years between 25 and 65 rendered any wildness of character wholly inappropriate. She remembered vividly walking along the sea when she was 40, listening to some bossanova on her headphones and starting to dance. There were only a few people around but her behavior was so noteworthy, so unusual, that she fielded several patronising smiles. They think I’m crazy, she realized. So, she stopped. It wasn’t until she was about 67 that she slowly realized she could begin to act like herself again. It was now acceptable, because like children, eccentricity in seniors was thought of as charming rather than insane.

She loved being old. That was the worst thing about it.

 

“Ada” is the opening chapter of a novel-in-progress by Varnya Bromilow

 

 

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