WALT DISMAL

This may be out of left field but I can’t stand Walt Disney. And not because of the anti-semantic stories, although that would be reason enough. 

Walt had a tendency to turn magical fairy stories into crudely drawn, over-coloured spectacles. The wondrous Winnie-the-Pooh was turned from a classic threadbare playmate into an orange lump. The sort of bear won at the fairground after shooting ducks, complete with a too-small red sweater. But that’s nothing to what he did to Snow White and Cinderella. Snow White was made many decades ago now but there was never an excuse for her singing voice. Do you remember when she was getting water from the well and washing steps or something? It sounded like my granny on acid. Sorry, Granny but you weren’t famous for your singing voice. And I’m not suggesting you ever took acid. Undoubtedly the best (in my opinion) version of Snow White was by the Grimm Brothers. 

It starts with a Queen sitting sewing at a window. She pricks her finger on the needle and three drops of blood fall on the snow outside the window (not sure how she manages this but stick with me). The Queen gazes at her blood on the white snow and says, “I wish I had a daughter with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as the ebony window frame.” We all know the story from here. As a child the image of the beautiful Queen and the blood on snow, the ebony of the frame stayed in my memory clearer than it would have if I had seen them in some animated show. 

I also adored the image of the ugly sisters in Grimm’s Cinderella, cutting off their toe and heel in order to squeeze their oversized feet into the glass slipper. The prince discovered their deception, which was pointed out to him by a couple pigeons in a nearby tree, and saw blood pouring from the glass slipper. 

I take exception to the ‘they all lived happily ever after’ phrase. I’ve always been a bit perverse in not liking happy endings. They are two-dimensional and lack depth. Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ ends with the mermaid tragically giving up her prince so he can marry a normal girl and live a normal life. Not Disney. The Mermaid, you guessed it, married the prince and lived happily ever after. Even produced a sequel about their daughter. 

Disney sanitised the Grimm’s and Andersen fairy tales, among many others, and made all the pretty heroines and handsome heroes interchangeable. You may not agree but I also think the bright colours of his films are too intense. They make a child’s real life pale in comparison. 

There are others making animated characters and computer generated villains with the same head-turning-colour storyboards but they haven’t, on the whole, bastardised the old fairy tales from Germany and Denmark, Russia and China. Or anywhere else in the world. Baba Yaga the witch who lived in a house built on chicken legs. The Aboriginal tale of how fire was stolen from the red-breasted cockatoo. I loved ‘The Tinder Box’ by Hans Christian Andersen and my eldest son’s favourite story is by the Grimm’s; ‘The Youth who could not Shudder’. Perhaps you have your own favourite fairy stories and remember having them read to you. 

I’ll climb down and put away my soap box. And live mostly contentedly, occasionally irritably, sometimes sadly. But definitely not ever after.

 

 

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A FRAUD OF A WOMAN

I wrote this story five years ago. It was awarded a Commended in the Short Story Section of the 2011 Eyre Writers Award.

I watch the ocean.  Grip the cold steel of the rail.  Clouds heavy with rain.  Shades of monochrome.  Silver, pewter and layers of grey.  The eerie sadness of the abandoned fairground.  I hear the forgotten echo of children’s laughter, the laughter of my children, now grown.  I find a bench to sit and unwrap my meagre picnic.  Soup in a flask and a bread roll leftover from yesterday’s lunch.  A small hunk of slightly furry cheese. 

     Still sore from surgery, bruised and cut, I can’t move my arm much.  Can’t raise it in an energetic wave or launch a glass of something bubbly skywards.  Not that I feel like celebrating and I am quite alone.  No one to wave to.

     Incomplete.  A fraud of a woman.  It was ugly, the scar.  Angry in reds and purples.  Rough to the touch.  Tight but not tidy.  My appearance has always been so important to me.  Perhaps this is my punishment for vanity.  Nothing would be the same again.  I feel angry, like the sea, like my scar.  I want to surge and flood.  Spoil somebody else’s life.  I know that this isn’t bravery but it is honest.  Real in a world where nothing is as it was.  Maybe I would die anyway and the offering of my left breast would be a futile one. 

     I shake my head as if to banish such thoughts.  My hair flies around me in the cold breeze, unwashed and matted.  I no longer care.  I take a woolen hat out of my pocket and pull it down tightly over my ears for warmth.  Stretch my fingers around the mug of soup.  Minestrone.  Homemade.  The saltiness of the parmesan tingling in my mouth.  There are a few boats out, bobbing on the briny.  Fishing trawlers.  I feel as if the ground I am on has turned to liquid.  Uncertain.  I am at the mercy of its temperament.  Tossing around as if I too am bobbing on the briny.   

     I had taken care getting dressed that day.  Choosing clothes that would disguise rather than enhance.  I padded round my bedroom with a victim’s stance, accepting my fate as it had been delivered, as if deserved.  The fear in my daughters faces always there, peripheral.  I remembered the shock they had worn when I had told them the news.  I had taken them to lunch, somewhere swish.  I had wanted something positive for them to remember.  Jenny had turned to me questioningly.

     “What’s the big occasion, Mum?”

     Her beautiful face shining in smiles alongside her younger sister Kate’s, in anticipation of wonderful news.  A new man, a promotion or a cruise on the Adriatic?  Cancer.  A brief glimpse of fear flickered on their faces before they gathered their features into the concerned but solid masks that still face me today.  I preferred their fear, it echoed how I felt and I had no time for pretences now. 

     The breeze bites my face and I try not to lick the salt from my lips.  My eyes hold the horizon like a seasick fisherman as my mind drifts like the tide.  Neil.  Neil who hadn’t appeared in my thoughts for decades.  Neil who loved me for myself or perhaps despite it.  Neil who I had let go.  We had gone out for six months, a winter much like this one but thirty years ago.  A winter of staring at each other across old tables in country pubs, of bracing walks over silver fields, collars turned up against a chill wind.  The wind for me which signaled a change.  I left Neil for someone else.  That someone I couldn’t remember.  Couldn’t recall a face or name.  Only Neil remained, preserved in memory like onions in pickling vinegar.

     The girl’s father had been called Phil.  I had met him at an evening class; Cultivating Herbs.  He had sat at the back looking morose.  I thought him deep, interesting.  Now I think he was just miserable.  He had walked out when the girls were barely more than babies.  Never to be seen again.  Not that I missed him.  Couldn’t miss what you never had. 

     We had formed a tight circle, the girls and I.  Shared our sorrows and triumphs over hot chocolate and homemade lemonade.  Camped out in the lounge room in sleeping bags eating marshmallows toasted on the fire until we felt sick.  We had grown together, through the heartbreak of first boyfriends, the heady uni days and job interview nerves.  But what if anything happened to me?  I couldn’t bear to think of my girls as orphans. 

     The mammogram had been a last thought action.  At my age I had to start thinking of my body as it began to wear, slowly eroding, disintegrating as time pulled me reluctantly through my fifth decade.  The doctor, a model of efficiency in starched white, hands clasped on the desk wearing his benevolent smile like a hat he might take out on Sundays.  I sat in his rooms in a smarter suburb of town as he called time on my life.  Rang a bell over the bar, started a giant stopwatch I hadn’t noticed before.  How could I not have noticed it?  Do we all go blindly through life ignoring the inevitable?  Why are we not contemplating our demise, trying to explain the futility of our lives?  We seem to hurry through life in a series of elaborate distractions, too busy to see the shadow of the man in black. 

     I reflect on the choices I have made and how I would change them, make things better.  Would I have stopped backing losers and started putting my money on the first ones past the post?  Would I have stayed with Neil and borne his children, different from the ones I had?  If I had seen through Phil’s black moods, seen them for what they were, not imagined them something more exciting, more dangerous.  I couldn’t imagine a life without Jenny and Kate in it.  Not other children.  I didn’t want perfect kids, I wanted my flawed cherubs with smeared faces, making mistakes and laughing it off.  I had never been a perfectionist and it was too late to start. 

     And what now?  Was I to welcome the enigmatic stranger and take what he had planned for my future?  My girls faces again.  The wedding days I wouldn’t be buying hats for, the babysitting duties I wouldn’t  be resenting.  No, I must choose to live.  I would allow myself just one day to brood and reminisce.  To reflect on past mistakes and errors of judgment.  Then I would stand tall, push my shoulders back and go into battle.  Fight this disease which had ignited within me.  Not as young or as beautiful as I once was but still strong and at least as stubborn.

     A child, wrapped in woolens, plays on the sand, now grey with winter.  His father stands close by, hands deep in his pockets.  Patient, letting the child play until he grows bored and moves onto the next adventure.  A young couple walk by, eyes holding each other, laughter spilling from them.  How beautiful that time is, sacred, fleeting.  Time marches on, the tide ebbs and flows.  How different are we to our mothers or grandmothers?  How different are we to a woman in another century?  Another country?  As I stare at the long shadows cast by strangers ambling past, I savour every taste of my picnic, as if devouring a feast.  No small thing will be taken for granted; every wonder must be marveled at. 

     It turns colder.  What light there is fading slowly and inevitably towards darkness.  I replace the lid on my flask, take a long look at the ocean and walk away.

CLICHE AWAY

As a writer one of my worst enemies has to be the cliché. ‘All good things come to those who wait’, ‘blood is thicker than water’, ‘beauty is only skin deep’. It’s my job to make up my own which can be hard when I’m hardwired to trot out these phrases. I remember my mother’s examples. ‘Blue and green should never be seen’ – until the only clean clothes for me to wear was a blue dress with a green cardigan. Then she changed it to ‘blue and green; fit for a queen’. She was fooling no one. ‘Patience is a virtue’ was another. If I didn’t want to scream at her before she made this helpful comment, I certainly did afterwards. 

And when I came running into the room at full speed, brimming with news to tell her she’d look up from sewing, where ‘a stitch in time saved nine’ or peeling potatoes where you can be sure ‘many cooks’ would not ‘be spoiling the broth’, and she’d say ‘you’re like a bull in a china shop’. This sounded awful. Bad enough to be me in china shop let alone a bull. I still have a vision of a china shop with Georgian bay windows and china on every available surface. A bull suddenly appears, walking upright and wearing his best suit. All he wants is to buy Mrs Bull a piece of objet d’arte. Tragic really. 

The husband has a few sayings he over-uses regularly. The most annoying is when he suggests I ‘rustle up a (insert relevant term) salad/meal/picnic’. As if all I had to do was to rummage furtively in the salad crisper and ‘hey presto!’ a lovely big salad would appear. Whilst there is a certain amount of rummaging required, there’s also a lot of rinsing, chopping, slicing, grating and blanching going on. 

Another phrase, he has now stopped using, is when a beautiful woman is being discussed, he will describe her as ‘looking like a model’. Vacuous? In need of a decent meal? Is this the best way to describe beauty? Should Shakespeare have used this instead of comparing a right looker to a summer’s day? Anyway he’s stopped saying it now, he knows ‘which side his bread is buttered’. 

‘Cheap at half the price’. What does it mean? If you halved the price of course it would be cheap! 

Some clichés have wonderful or terrible origins. There are a few theories to where ‘cats got your tongue’ came from. In the Middle East a punishment for liars was having their tongues ripped out and fed to the king’s cat. Or that being whipped with a cat-o-nine-tail was a conversation stopper for the victim. Another from the Middle Ages when it was believed that if you saw a witch her cat would steal control of your tongue so you couldn’t report the sighting. 

‘Caught red-handed’ is used to describe someone who is interrupted in the process of wrong doing. It is thought originally to describe the blood of the victim on his/her murderer’s hands. Although there is a story of the Japanese putting the sap of poison ivy on their money so that any thief would break out in a nasty red rash. 

‘To finish up’ I encourage you to ‘have a nice day’. And if you are a writer ‘it goes without saying’, when it comes to clichés to ‘avoid them like the plague’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ROCKY CLIFFS AND EVER-CHANGING TIDES

I wrote this story on a camping trip in Sawtell a couple of years ago. It recently came third in the Writers of the Coral Coast Short Story Competition

Who does he see when he looks at me? Does he see the girl I am inside or the actress played by an older woman? Someone middle-aged who scrubs up well. I am his mother. I make his lunch, buy his shoes and all I want him to do is tidy his room and not get in the back of his mate, Declan’s car.

     I’m not old but I’m on the conveyer belt that takes you there. Options are few now and I can’t get off. My age has gone beyond the median point, it stretches out before me and I can see how short it is now, how insignificant. How one day I will slowly fade to dust. One cough from a careless bystander and even the dust will disappear.

     Graeme and I share a bottle of wine at the end of another day. Billy’s music throbs behind a slammed door. Does he know that 20-odd years ago I saw the band he’s listening to now, in London with a man who had hair down to his waist. A man who isn’t his father. What would he think of that?

     “Graeme, do you ever feel scared that time’s running out?”

     My husband smiles. “No, love. You know me, I try to concentrate on the now.”

     “Sometimes I can’t breathe properly, thinking about not being here. Billy going on with his life without a mother.”

     Graeme looks at me, his face serious for once. “He’s in year 12 and you won’t always be here, Jo. One day the sun will come up and you won’t be here to see it.”

     “I know, I’m a control freak. I won’t ever let go.” I laugh but there’s fear underlying it.

     When I was seven I would wake screaming, calling out for my mum. “I don’t want to die.” I would wail into the night. Mum would brush the sheets distractedly, she wouldn’t even sit on my bed. “Think of something nice, Joanne. Think of Christmas and all the presents you’ll get.”

     And I knew. I knew that she was frightened too. I watched it in her death mask, as she slipped away years later, still sniping and complaining. Raising a child on her own was hard but Kaitlin Young found nothing easy. In the end I held her thin, cold hand in the hospital, trying not to crush her bird-like bones. She was in her late fifties, perhaps she would have lived longer if she hadn’t given into fear. “You can’t do yoga, Joanne. It’ll send you mad.” “Don’t be late, I can’t sleep until you’re home.” I remember her brushing my hair roughly as her sobs ripped and grated. I had been caught stealing chewing gum and mum had read in a tabloid newspaper about a child who had started her criminal career with petty theft and gone onto murder. I thought she was mad but am I any different? I’m starting to develop an oval look to my mouth, like I’m channeling Edvard Munch. I inherited that from her, that and frizzy hair.

     I remember Billy as a small boy, three years old, how beautiful he was. The best time of all, we were each other’s world. I miss that fair haired child with a grief that’s overwhelming. My big boy is drifting away and the more I try to bridge the gap, the more he steps back. And I become sniping and demanding, trying to mould his life when I have no right.

     Graeme suggests we take a trip, get away for a few days, drive south. He knows I love the landscape, the cliffs and beaches, little coves.

     “Billy has exams, you know that.”

     “I meant the two of us. Billy needs his space, Jo.”

     I know he means Billy needs his space away from me and he’s right. I’m like a dried-up ancient woman sucking away at his life force. I have become my mother. “Sit with me, Joanne. Tell me what you’ve been doing.” I’d slam the door behind me. A chat with my mother sapped my joy, made everything greyer.

     I stand in the kitchen, stirring the sugar in my tea when my son’s shadow reaches the floor, almost touching my feet. It stops, falters. He knows I’m here. “Do you want something to eat, Billy?”

     I hear his retreat like air escaping from a balloon. My attempts at mothering flop empty on the kitchen tiles. He doesn’t need me anymore. But he is the bookend between me and my mortality. Graeme laughs at me, he finds my preoccupation with death endearing. He can’t see the shadows, fingers of fear that live on inside of me, in the womb where Billy nestled a long time ago.

     We pack the two-man tent, the one only Graeme can put up. I sort out some groceries hoping we’ll eat out. I’m not an outdoors sort of woman. We have a deal, Graeme and I, he does the lawns, windows, water tanks and the swimming pool while I have my interior decoration, cooking and laundry. When he’s to be found covered in grime and sweat replacing pumps and washers, gaskets and air filters, I’ll be on the lounge, drinking coffee, my head in a Margaret Atwood. The thought of living outside, if only for a few days, has panic rising inside me. I can’t remember the last time I spent any time outdoors. In my house-car-shopping mall days.

     Graeme pats me on the bum to signal it’s time to leave. Billy is still sleeping. It’s Saturday, no school.

     “Don’t worry, love. He’ll be fine. I told him to go to Ruth’s if he needs anything.”

     My sister has six kids and can’t wait for them to leave home.

     “He’ll be fine.” Graeme rubs my hand as we drive south on the highway. Graeme says that Billy’s a normal boy, attempting to untangle himself from the jaws of his family, into the world. A vision of a mother rabbit eating her young flashes behind my eyes. I look out of the car onto greens, blues and browns. Nature’s palate is not a broad one. I love those paintings where the artists have picked out reds, pinks and oranges. Their eyes catching unseen shades as if some colours have died and the painter is flirting with their ghosts. Graeme asks what I’m thinking but I don’t know how to explain about the colours to him. Billy would know, at least a year or two ago he would have. Now he can’t share a room with me, let alone a thought.

     “Shall we pick up a coffee, Babe?”

     I nod and am aware how feeble I am. Graeme puts so much into our relationship, without asking for much in return. We continue our journey down the highway, driving south to cooler climes and sipping our long blacks. The weight that has anchored my chest for weeks lifts slightly. The breeze rustles through the trees and speaks to me through the open window, as if the words, spoken in tiny fragments, bristle the leaves. My breath deepens and fills my chest. After weeks of wasp-like gulping breaths my body feels as if it’s being fed. I smile at Graeme, who smiles back as always.

     “You look beautiful, Jo.”

     Graeme has booked a campsite by the ocean. Rocky cliffs and ever-changing tides. Slate grey clouds float on a rosy backdrop. By the time Graeme has pitched our tent I have made a modest meal of salmon and crunchy lettuce. We sit in our camp chairs and clink our frosted wine glasses together. I sense something moving in me, not gone but wandering into another room. Maybe there is a life for me and Graeme after Billy has moved out. Giddy with a hint of a way forward and the wine I sigh.

     “I love you, Graeme.”

      Graeme smiles. “I know you do, sweetheart.” He clasps my hand as the weather changes and droplets splash into our wine glasses. And I can’t tell my tears of relief from the rain that washes the past away under a southern sky.

     A couple of mornings later, as Graeme takes down the tent and I watch the tide draw towards the horizon, I’m still frightened. Of Billy growing away from me and my inevitable death but I have made a decision. Not to control, not to grasp onto time that runs like grains of sand through my hands. To respect my fear as if it were a surging ocean and know that tomorrow grey may turn to blue.

     “Ready, Jo?”

     “Yes.”