I don’t have to tell you that the most famous stories happen in great cities…Oliver Twist suffers in London, Quasimodo in Paris. But I’m afraid this story takes place in Middleborough, which is not a borough at all but a middle-class suburb squeezed between river and ocean (the Council motto), in a minor city with dry summers and wet winters, well away from the humid metropolises of the East. Like most settler colonies, Middleborough has stolen its name from the motherland and copied and pasted it all over the place, as if scratching your initials into the side of a mountain neatly dispenses with the problem of history.
So as far as stories go, things are stacked against this one; already we have a failure of originality, scale, location and, perhaps, as we will see, character. But as my father used to say, prepare to be disappointed, and you never will be.
And yes, short stories are supposed to be economical, like my long-dead mother’s weekly food shop. My mother’s favourite line was dispensed as my sister reached for the bucket of Peter’s ice cream: ‘You don’t need that!’ And she was right; we didn’t need it but we damn well wanted it, and if the life of a child is to be reduced to basic need she may as well live in solitary confinement on dry biscuits and water.
So, at the risk of someone coming up behind me and declaring You don’t need that! I am going to go right ahead and tell you that everyday life for the mothers of Middleborough consists largely of a series of forays to and from oikos philos. And were the mothers to map the individual journeys undertaken from home-sweet-home and colour code and calibrate them to signal frequency, such a map would be dominated by thick straight lines that advance and retreat with uniform regularity, with finer coloured arcs looping and threading to and from shopping centres, doctor’s surgeries and the gym.
As you imagine these characters and their habitus, think of ants rather than birds; simple routes, rather than complex trajectories; the dragging of feet rather than the soaring of wings. Running alongside these major movements, which have been repeated so many times over so many years that they ought to have gouged sticky furrows in the bitumen, are the lesser paths, the broken lines and feint marks that would not be evident unless one were to come in very close and adjust the lens. And even then, there are paths that remain hidden from all but the most careful observer.
Up until she enrolled in her new class, Ramona Wallace had been one steady plough in the Middleborough furrow. At around 4.50am on most week days she would wake to the flushing of the toilet and the faint clunk of the cat flap against its plastic frame, followed, fifteen minutes later, by the retracting of the electric garage door. If she were to peek out the front window she would recognise the thin man in Lycra shivering astride a quaver of aluminium as Marco, her husband of twenty years, doing his 20 kilometres before work.
As you imagine these characters and their habitus, think of ants rather than birds; simple routes, rather than complex trajectories; the dragging of feet rather than the soaring of wings.
As the sun balled up in the east the wind would drop off and the quivers and shivers unite into a frantic interlude (think Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’) punctuated by the odd hi-hat or crashing cymbal to stand in for expletives as the mothers of Middleborough scoured for lunch boxes and jettisoned yesterday’s half-eaten sandwiches. Fresh bread was buttered, fruit was rinsed and carrots peeled in a register that could only be described as frantic resignation. No woman whistled as she worked.
Then and only then there was the clipping of dogs to leads and the gathering up of school bags and water bottles. Missing hats were noted and threats issued, giving rise to solemn promises to visit Lost Property once at school. Signed notes for exemptions or inclusions were tucked into front zips. Doors opened and exited the children. Wriggling toddlers were strapped down into car seats, kindy kids climbed into their boosters or onto their Micro scooters (Don’t forget your helmet!), and the armada sailed forth.
A faint disturbance of air, then nothing. Some of the women rushed off to spin the dog around the block, while one or two women lingered – and let’s get this clear right now – this is neither prejudice nor stereotype nor an easy trope trotted out to appeal to a certain readership or a specific literary prize but evidence-based truth: they are almost always women.
The left-behinds would watch the back of a son’s head in the rear vision mirror, or wait as a daughter rounded the corner into the safe embrace of the schoolyard. Before she enrolled in Art 101 History and Practice, Ramona would kiss her children goodbye at the school gate, then bend down to tighten the laces on her runners or find some other pathetic excuse to linger near the parking bays in case there was a call for coffee or the chance for a quick whinge about some minor issue with a teacher.
She would wave hopefully at Jane Frankel, who lived a few doors down and worked part-time in her husband’s renovation business. Jane was only 34 and probably voted Greens with a preference for Liberal and they had nothing in common; deep down Ramona knew she ought to be grateful that week after week Jane made a quick excuse and headed to the Gym – Pilates was at 8.45; Pump at 9.00; Crunch at 10; Body Balance at 11.00. Exercise was scheduled as tightly as a life-saving medication. Or else.
Or else you were lonely, like Ramona.
Today, however, was different. Today Ramona was not a left-behind. Today she had purpose and direction; she had completed her set readings and their first practice assignment was due after the weekend. And, so what if the other mothers thought she had ‘let herself go’? Too bad if she had grey hair and wore baggy saggy track-pants; no one could say she wasn’t getting on with the job – it was a Friday early in Term 1 and already she had completed a series of repetitive tasks made all the more arduous by their low status in the hierarchy of jobs. Had she not found the top of the fucking blue lunchbox and located the long-lost sports sock inside the rubber rim of the front-loading washing machine? Had she not made the kids’ beds and sprayed a light mist of stain-remover on the neck of her husband’s white shirts? Had she not hung out the washing and fed the cat and gritted her teeth through her daughter’s violin practice and signed her son’s reader, trying not to tick him off for everything he did wrong? All this and more had been achieved by 8.15 in the morning.
Fresh bread was buttered, fruit was rinsed and carrots peeled in a register that could only be described as frantic resignation. No woman whistled as she worked.
She had even checked in on Facebook and noted that a group of women from school were on a yoga retreat in Ubud. Thank god she and Marco hated Bali. And then, to top off the morning, she had trekked from home to school with her two children and had not pretended her shoelaces needed tying.
When the school year opened Ramona had glimpsed the edges of the yawing hole ahead of her. She had been in that space before and swore she would never return. With the help of her new course she had been developing different routines after drop-off; this being Friday she left the school promptly and walked briskly up the road past the blocks of public housing to the hill high above Middlemarch.
I know what I need to do, she told herself as she sweated and puffed up the hill, and I am doing it. It was quite an effort, but she managed to jimmy up and crawl astride the enormous green artillery gun, where she sat one leg on either side looking out to sea. The artillery was the remnant of a lookout built in the 1930s and once a year was used for the Anzac dawn service, and from the look of the used condoms hanging artfully from the bushes like spent blossoms, far more often as a hook-up spot.
For some reason she thought of Betty Grable and pointed her toes. She still had a superb arch. Seven years of dedication to ballet and then, at twelve years of age, to have Madame Smithers, the ballet teacher, whisper in her mother’s ear something about thickening legs and a large bosom. ‘No point in those expensive lessons now,’ announced her mother. ‘You either have it or you don’t.’
It was quite a view from the hill – to the right the river, ahead the sea, and left to the mobile tower that set a plague of cryptic messages upon the mothers of Middleborough.
Her phone beeped; a message from Marco. Don’t forget the accountant. A red heart exploded when she touched it. A love-bomb. She returned the bomb and a photo of the sea. Everything was changing, even texts. Instead of words she got ambiguous icons of steaming cups followed by a thumbs up and a question mark, or a person running up a gradient or riding a bike or swimming across a raised wave, and most recently a surprising icon of an erect penis adjacent to a dollar sign, which could have been a random offer of paid group sex with strangers, but was in fact a message from the P&C Class Rep reminding the mothers to put in your child’s note with $2 for the Sausage Sizzle.
It is back to the future in Middleborough, she typed on her diary app, We mothers are throwbacks, recidivists, the left-over stubs of a tail that no longer has a social or biological function, before deleting it in case Marco read it and made her do something about it again.
Sure, she had a little problem with sadness which could skew her objectivity; sure, she was alone on the hill and not @ Spin© or Les Mills Pump©. But she was not thrashing about in the pit; she was instead pondering the genre of landscape painting and the relative ignominy of still life.
Still life was the lowest of all genres in the hierarchy of painting, said her tutor, the bottom of the aesthetic barrel. She took a few shots of the vast sea with her phone and then deleted them. What was the point? Pretty soon they would be using GPS to send you photos based on your imminent location. Don’t bother wasting your storage; here is a compressed jpeg of your current view taken by a Leica wide angle, adjusted for glare and flare. Set your filter! Nostalgic or futuristic? Share it with your friends and you will feel the love.
Still life was the lowest of all genres in the hierarchy of painting, said her tutor, the bottom of the aesthetic barrel. She took a few shots of the vast sea with her phone and then deleted them. What was the point?
Ramona had thought long and hard about going back to work. She had resigned from her position when her maternity leave ran out, and now she was not sure she was up to starting out again. She had lost touch. The Family Court had been demanding and exhausting, but the courts had nothing on motherhood. Mina was born six weeks early in an emergency caesar. She was very underweight and failed to thrive and struggled to feed and then they thought she might have global delays. What does that mean, Doctor? Do children in South African slums get to have global delays? Mina was a gorgeous, funny girl, but she still needed ‘scaffolding’ for her learning, regular speech therapy and OT, and had to be gently coaxed through every assignment.
Why hadn’t anyone told her that motherhood could be such a lonely destination? Marco was born in Italy and left as soon as he finished studying. He had this weird family that he had happily escaped. Her own mother was ‘unwell’, as her sister euphemistically called a life-long problem with alcohol, and moved to Melbourne years ago and then refused to fly, and her father was a depressive who had left them when she was seven. Her older sister, Laura, had been a whizz at maths and economics and went straight to a big bank in Sydney and then on to New York to make squillions, but left for Goa straight after 9/11 (The shock, she wrote in her first email. I am in recovery). Presumably she was still in recovery, because she rarely wrote, and their one visit to India with the kids had been a disaster. She and Marco didn’t get see eye to eye with Laura or her boyfriend, who was some kind of autocratic Ashtanga expert from Sweden who believed in self-actualisation, even for the limbless beggars on the street.
But she could have used a sister after the birth – even one like Laura. Marco negotiated an extra month off work, but then she had her own shock – not a 9/11 type of shock, of course, but a shock nonetheless. They had already decided that one child with delays was quite enough. But who would have thought that after all that time spent trying to get pregnant with the first she would have so little trouble with a second? What about that story about breast feeding being a contraceptive? A statistical generalisation cannot account for individual anomaly, she told the mothers over coffee.
‘Pardon, Ramona?’ they said. ‘Pass the sugar.’
The sea was iced grey, like liquid mercury. How clichéd. The sea was impossible to put into words, and even harder to paint. If she was ever to attempt landscape painting she would have to break up the flat grey ocean into wild, jagged pieces. You would need a lot of white for the edges of peaks, and blues and greys; Turner would have known how to do it. She had a collection of beautiful large art books with colour plates – Caravaggio, Géricault, Goya, Velásquez, Turner – and she spent whole evenings trying to work out how the hell they got white paint to rise up on the tip of a wave and refract the sun.
The sea was iced grey, like liquid mercury. How clichéd. The sea was impossible to put into words, and even harder to paint.
An old man with a patchy silky terrier was coming around the corner up the path.
‘Good morning,’ she called out before he saw her, not wanting to startle him.
Landscape painting did not interest her as a practice, but she was drawn to still life. Poor still life, tossed to the bottom of the artistic ladder. She touched the army-green cannon. Ramona knew very little about military history; was it the Japanese that they had feared in Middleborough? Or the Germans – surely not?
‘Good morning up there!’ the man answered, shading his eyes. ‘Be careful not to fall!’
She smiled at him. He had some kind of European accent. What did he think of this gun, forever pointed in readiness at the enemy across the sea?
Ramona thought about Marco as she walked home. Small birds were kicking up a fuss in a puzzle of red flowers. He was a kind man, if a bit self-contained, not at all like the men of her suburb, who liked beer and rugby and apparently couldn’t cook or clean, and certainly could not make gnocchi from scratch, but were very good at making money and excelled at swimming to and from Rottnest. But then there was the downturn, and now Marco had to travel too much for both of them.
It was his birthday in a week, and he would be 52. I don’t want anything but you, he said when she asked. It diminished him, his lack of wants; it made him selfless and self-effacing, but she said nothing because she didn’t want to hurt him. Despite a lacklustre childhood Marco did not understand sadness at all. We have a choice, he said matter-of-factly, and I choose to be happy.
She stopped to check her shoes for dog shit before opening the front door. I am 51 years old, and in ten years I will be 61. Ten years after that I will be 71. If I make it.
She would book a babysitter and a restaurant for Marco.
The house was almost ready. She quickly folded the children’s pyjamas and put them under their pillows and was about to flush the toilet (why can’t children flush?) when she spotted what looked like a nub of chewing gum in the bottom of the pan – that would be Alessio, of course. On flushing, it refused to budge. Damn. She nudged it with the toilet brush and it grabbed hold the bristles and would not let go. She shook it hard and banged it against the rim of the toilet. How could you ruin a toilet brush? Was she going mad? Why did she have to think about such things? She walked the brush out to the rubbish bin and dropped it in. Children were disgusting. A small wave of exhaustion passed over her; she was too old for chewing gum in the toilet.
Ramona knew a thing or two about older mothers – her first at 39, her second at almost 41. A miracle, said the gynaecologist, after all this trying! But surely there was nothing miraculous about it? In the end everybody was born, and unless she was mistaken, women were the ones who did all the giving birth. So why the miracle? It’s because of religion, said Marco in his matter-of-fact way. They try and turn everything into a gift from God.
For a while her age didn’t matter. She blossomed in early pregnancy, and then vomited for five months solid. In between vomiting she read articles about older mothers and careers, about how good it was to have one before you became a mother, which was crap of course, because if you didn’t come from a wealthy family and you really needed a good job and you studied hard and worked long hours and were passionate about your profession and/or were good at it and/or felt it contributed to society it was a terrible thing to give it up.
Until Mina went to kinder she had felt no different to the 20-somethings and early 30s; if anything, she felt a teeny bit smug and superior – at least I had a life, she told herself, at least I made an impact in the real world. At least I have some Super in the bank. At least I’ve had sex with more than one person.
I don’t want anything but you, he said when she asked. It diminished him, his lack of wants; it made him selfless and self-effacing, but she said nothing because she didn’t want to hurt him.
In her twenties Ramona had sex with many men and several women. Marco had so many girlfriends he didn’t bother counting, and had even been married briefly, in London. Was it possible to have too much sex in your twenties? She and Marco thought not. Once Marco said he wished it had been him in her bed, and not those other people. But Marco, Ramona reasoned, we would have just fucked and we would never have fallen in love.
In the beginning the other mothers liked to hear about her stint in Amsterdam and London, and her trips to Italy and her career in the court, and about the kinds of terrible things people who are divorcing will do to hurt each other and keep their children. They will do anything, she used to say to them. If they asked her now she would say, it is none of your business, but they stopped asking her about her job when they realised she was not going back to it. She was one of them now.
When the kids were little there was the odd question about the children at the supermarket, the suggestion she might be their nana, but one of the benefits of Middleborough was that most people were too polite to ask. In India that had not been the case. ‘Are you the grandmother?’ the women asked her when she and Marco took the two children to see her sister. ‘Where is their mother?’ asked the man at the hotel in Delhi. ‘Young children should be with their mother.’
Marco wanted her to go back to work. Mina will be in high school soon, he reasoned, and you need to get out of the house. But Ramona had other plans.
She made a mental note to buy a new toilet brush, then took out her diary and folder with the readings for this week’s tutorial, neatly marked up with a pink highlighter and handwritten notes clipped to the front of each article. It was the creative task that was proving difficult. She was to draw or paint (in any medium other than oils) something from her everyday life and share it with the class.
In high school Ramona had a reputation for being artistic. At the time she had no idea why this reputation attached to her, other than that her clothes did not match because they came either from the op-shop or from the pile on the floor. ‘Ramona is an original,’ a teacher wrote in her Year 9 report. The real reason she was an original was because unlike most other mothers at school, her mother spent a great deal of time in bed recovering from the night before, and rarely did the washing and never took Ramona shopping for new clothes.
By high school Laura was on a scholarship to Sydney University, so Ramona was all alone in the house. But there was some kernel of truth in her reputation, a yearning that was enough to have made her always want to study art. In Year 10 her drawing of an autumnal leaf (an anachronistic oak in the school grounds) had been entered into a group of ten selected from a pool of fifty. After it won first prize it hung for years in a corridor leading from the science laboratory to the staff tea room, where it might still be on display were it not for the fact that the school had been demolished and the land sold to the developer of an upmarket retirement home.
Ramona could remember hovering over her paper, pencils in hand, unable to decide between cadmium yellow or a burnt sienna. Her early attempts were a failure; she managed not so much a leaf as a puddle of colour. One day she came home from school and found her mother sitting in the sun on a chair, fast asleep. Up close her mother’s skin was blotchy and bruised, like a soft stone fruit. A network of fine red capillaries crossed her cheeks. The next day in class she borrowed the finest nib she could and ran fine lines of India ink over the puddles of colour, drawing out the veins of the leaf.
She called it ‘Autumn Study’, and worried that someone might see through the drawing to the real subject matter. When it won she received a voucher from a bookstore and a certificate that said the judges deemed her entry ‘most likely to be real’.
Her first idea for the still life assignment was a study of the dishes in the dishrack. She had discussed it in class, and her tutor had been mildly encouraging, if confusing.
‘When framing your work as an allegorical study referencing the symbolism of the Masters, be sure to think carefully about your subject, particularly if you are working with the vanitas tradition. And as you will recall, a particular object in any still life ideally transcends its particularity and becomes generalised, so as to represent not just some mundane everyday object, but the essence of the thing.’
‘Of course,’ said Ramona, scribbling notes on her page.
On Sunday night she asked Marco not to put away the dishes after he dried them, but when she went into the kitchen on Monday morning after he left for his ride she saw he had completely ignored her. Never mind; perhaps she could draw the empty dishrack? It would be almost abstract, grid-like, minimalist.
After drop-off she had placed her paper on the kitchen bench and studied the dishrack. The white plastic was in fact a dull cream colour, and spots of mould had set up shop in the corners where the mesh intersected. The underside was far worse. She recalled with horror the time she decided to dismantle and clean – I mean, really clean – the children’s plastic drink bottles, and discovered that the insides of the rubber mouth pieces were black with mould.
With this in mind she gave the dish rack a good going-over with Gumption, then did a quick job on the stainless-steel sink. While she was at it she might as well do the fridge door and shelves – just a quick wipe. Half-way through the quick wipe the lid came off an old sun-dried tomatoes jar at the back of the fridge and sent sticky liquid down into the vegetable tray, which meant she had to do the entire fridge. She couldn’t help but take a look at the rubber seals around the door. Thick oil from the tomatoes had seeped down into the seals to the freezer below – why had she let Marco talk her into getting a reverse fridge/freezer? She would have to empty the freezer.
The next night the kids had karate and she was late home and forgot to remind Marco not to put away the dishes and woke to a pristine dishrack and the breakfast bowls ready on the dining table. Damn her husband. After drop-off she set out to capture the cream ceramic cereal bowls with their glossy lips turned down in regimented frowns, but the form and colour were impossible to master. On Wednesday and Thursday, she tried to draw the bowls on the table using soft graphite, but after hours of toil and much discarded paper all she had were her own particular bowls on her own particularly new oak dining table already with a permanent ring where Mina had forgotten to put a placemat under a hot dish.
And now it was Friday, and she was under pressure. The class was first thing Monday and the weekends were hopeless, so today was the day. On the hill she had made up her mind; she was returning to her original idea. It was back into the kitchen and the dishrack. She was getting out her acrylics, and as a last resort, the pastels.
Last night after dinner Marco and the kids were banned from the kitchen, so the dirty dishes were thankfully still stacked up in the sink. Ramona turned the hot water on full and squirted dishwashing liquid into the sink. As soon as she had her paper and paints ready Ramona turned the extra-soapy dishes out into the rack in a random, nonchalant fashion, breaking with the family’s strict habit of lining up plates and bowls and placing cups and glasses upside down on the edge of the dishrack.
Breathless, she went back to her paper and observed the arrangement in the dishrack. It was perfect. The disarray of everyday crockery represented the random chaos of human life and how draining it can be, and there was even a cracked egg cup with its allegorical reference to the passage of time (and her daughter’s most recent temper tantrum).
But how to best capture the inevitable sliding of an ephemeral, pointless, symbolic soap bubble down the slippery face of a glazed coffee cup? Or the circle of life, as represented by the mouldy lid of a large yoghurt container, bound for recycling, that she had pulled from behind a shelf (how many times had she asked the kids to put on the lid before putting the yoghurt back)?
On command, the clouds parted and a shaft of strong sunlight broke through a rent in the sky and bounced light off the white wall of the house next door (how could the council have allowed them to build so close? Eight years on and it still drove her crazy). Sunlight illuminated the blue-green glass of the cheap Ikea cups the kids kept dropping (there used to be six, but now there was only two and no doubt soon there would be none), lending to the ordinary objects in her dishrack a true Dutch-like sheen. Ramona rushed for her phone, but she was too late. The clouds closed over. The glass dried. The suds evaporated.
Ramona took a photo anyway, ignoring what her tutor’s warning about not conflating the very different history and functions of photography and still life. Who cared anyway? And how were you supposed to ‘capture’ a soapsud, and why would you want to? Still life was nothing like real life – in real life Marco always got the kids to rinse the dishes with clean water and would never leave soap on plates. The women in Velásquez’ paintings were always in the kitchen, but those great male painters were always outside looking in – there was a message on her phone; she checked it in case it was about the kids but it was just was a reminder about Mina’s OT after school – all that glassy sheen and superb technique were clearly an elaborate excuse to stay well out of the kitchen. So much easier if everyday life is something to show off about, something to look at from a distance (she must remember to call the accountant). And why set out to paint a soap bubble at all…as if cups were forever wet, soap forever soapy, as if no one was ever going to do the drying up? Which was the point of course: the old Masters never were going to doing the drying up, were they? Ever. She and Marco never left the dishes till the morning.
Ramona picked up the tea towel, then stopped herself and folded it over the handle of the oven. She filled the kettle and put it on to boil, and wondered if the washing on the line was already dry, because the temperature was dropping and it looked like rain.
Her legs were suddenly very tired from the walk up the hill. She pulled out a chair from the dining table and sat down to wait for the kettle to boil. What the hell was she going to do? She was in real trouble now. And hang on, what the fuck was that great big scratch on her beautiful table? When did that happen? And more to the point, who did it and why didn’t they tell her?
Ramona Wallace gritted her teeth. Now someone really was in trouble.