Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Pretending

Winner- Katharine Susannah Prichard Short Fiction Award (Under 20s) 2011
Excerpt Read at Annabel Smith Wine and Words event, April 15 2013


Marnie stood at the edge of the pool, her feet bare and water running out of her hair.  Her toes curled over the top step; her fingers twitched lightly at her side.  She stared at her rippling reflection.

            “Marnie?” Thomas called, pulling himself out of the water.  The sun heated his skin again almost immediately.

Marnie said nothing in reply, and Thomas reached for a towel hanging over the pool fence.  He rubbed his hair and dragged the towel down his face, lengthening his jaw until he looked like the character in The Scream.  Marnie still hadn’t moved.  Thomas opened the pool gate, but paused before passing through it.  He looked at his step-daughter, not knowing whether to leave her there or not.

            “I’m going inside now,” he said, meaning it only if it would get a response.
            “You’re not my father,” Marnie said.

He detected a hint of hopefulness in the way she’d said it, and it made him uncomfortable.
            “Your mother will be home soon,” he said, shutting the pool gate behind him as he walked over to the patio table where he’d left his shoes.  Marnie looked at him over her shoulder, her head moving almost unnaturally.  With her hair wet and slicked back, her eyes seemed so big as to take up most of her face; and she was thin, so thin that Thomas imagined her standing there without her skin on.  A shiver ran through him and he blinked a few times to get the image out of his head.
            “Come on, Marnie.  I have to cook dinner.”
Marnie raised herself onto her toes, held herself there for a moment and then launched into the water.  Her body grazed the bottom of the shallow end of the pool and glided along, an image broken only by the dappled light reflected through the waves.  When she rolled over, her eyes were wide open and a thin stream of bubbles blasted out of her nose and from between her parted lips.  Thomas dropped his towel on a chair and leaned over the pool gate.  She broke the surface and he realised he didn’t know what he should say next.
“Marnie.  Please.  Get out of the pool,” he begged.
            “What are we doing Thomas?” she asked, skulling her hands in front of her.
            “We’re supposed to be starting tea.”
            “I don’t mean now.”
He thought he saw her shiver then.  He took her beach towel from the fence next to him and held it out to her.
            “I don’t know then.”
She shook her head.  He pulled the towel back over the fence and walked around to the gate.  Approaching her, he held it out in front of him.  Her eyelashes had stuck together in the water, and the chlorine had turned the corners of her eyes red.  Thomas thought he saw a tear run down one cheek, or was it just a drip?
            “Pretending,” she said.  “Pretending to be happy.”

He turned away as she climbed the steps out of the pool and didn’t look back until she’d hidden herself in the cocoon of her towel. Thomas expected her to pass him then without acknowledgement, and head to her room to listen to loud music and read magazines, but she stayed.  He felt like she expected him to perform; a bad comic in a low grade comedy show.

She looked at her toenails, painted crimson.
            “Thomas,” she said.  “Are you happy with my mum?”
            “Of course I am,” Thomas said, pulling his shirt on.  “Why?”
Marnie shook her head.  “Forget it.”

He hesitated, wondering what to say.  She looked at him through the curtain of her wet hair.  “It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that I don’t have any friends.”

Thomas stared past her at the creeping bougainvillea which encroached on their property from the house behind theirs.  She waited for a response.  Thomas knew that silence was like assent.
            “You have friends,” he said.
            “Have you ever met any of my friends?” she said, wiping her nose on her towel.  “Name some.”
            “I don’t know any of them.”

Marnie fashioned her towel into a dress and sat on one of the lawn chairs.  “If you weren’t married to my mother,” said Marnie.  “Would you want to know me?”

She looked straight at him; straight through him.  He wanted to shed his own skin, but instead he swallowed and looked back at her.
            “Marnie,” he said.  “It’s not okay for forty one year old men to hang around with teenagers.”

Marnie pushed herself up.  “I know.  You’re right.  That’s stupid.  And you’re not my father, so you don’t have to lie to me like Mum does.”
            “That’s not what I...”
            “Look, Tom, I was just trying to say that I understand what it must be like for you with her.  I was thinking that you don’t have to think of me as your daughter or anything, but if you wanted, I could be your friend sometimes.  I know Mum can be hard to handle.  I’m actually really sorry I brought it up.”

She paused to give him a chance to change his mind, but he was too stunned.  As she ran inside, her bare feet slapped against the tiles.  He heard her door slam, and the muted ‘doof’ of a radio turned up loud enough to drown out the rest of the world.

**

If he had been asked to describe his wife in three words, he would have picked bright, impetuous and independent.  Thomas had fallen in love with the way she spun the world around her into elegant arcs of tragedy because like most men his age, he believed that he could save her. 

At forty he’d still had no idea how the world worked, but at forty-eight, she’d seemed to have it all worked out.  He’d met her in the supermarket, juggling a basketful of groceries in one hand and her wallet in the other.

            “I’ll hold that for you,” he said, watching the curve of her back as she tried to pull her money out of her wallet without dropping everything.  Without even looking, she handed the basket to him.  He was struck by the whiteness of her hands, and the bare finger where a wedding band should have been. 
            “Thank you,” she’d said.  Her first words were like a precursor to the rest of their relationship; her taking, him giving.  She put her wallet into the basket and then took her shopping back from him.

Thomas felt like he should say something.  They’d just shared what felt like a moment of sorts and she’d barely even glanced at him.  He tilted his body inwards; to an outsider, it must have looked like they knew each other.  And they were close.  Maybe people would think he was sleeping with her, Thomas realised. He inched back a little way.  She raised her head to blow her fringe out of her eyes and waited, leaning her weight on one hip.
            “I’m Thomas,” he said.  
            “Jasmine”. 



At their wedding reception they’d danced to “Drops of Jupiter” by Train.  As they spun like the frosted figures in a music box, Thomas couldn’t help but wonder how many other thousands of couples had danced to that same song.  It was her favourite, she’d said, and with a spotlight singling them out, it with like they were the only ones who could possibly have done it.

He smiled at Jasmine; his at last, after months of negotiation.  Her eyes were wide as she took in the crowd.  There was so much lace on her dress that she hardly felt real.  Thomas pulled her closer to him.
            “Are you happy?” he asked her.  She leaned her head on his shoulder.
            “Mmm,” she said.  Her hair tickled his neck.
Thomas smiled again and pressed his lips to the hair-spray hardened curls on the top of her head.  He breathed in her citrus-scent and it made him thirsty.

When the song ended, Thomas closed his eyes and tried to hold onto the last few notes.  The voice of their D.J. grounded him.
            “Alright, ladies and gents, it’s time for a father-daughter dance.”
Jasmine pulled her head off his shoulder and looked around for her father.  Mr Hawthorne limped stiffly out to them from the head table, his face shining with pride and alcohol.  Thomas shook the old man’s papery hand, and then passed Jasmine back to him.  He was suddenly obsolete, and drifted off the dance floor as other pairings drifted on. 

Back at the table he sat next to Marnie, who was picking at her chicken with a fork.  
            “Some party,” she said to her plate.
            “Yeah,” he agreed.  Sitting down, his legs felt heavy.
            “You could have picked a better first dance you know.”
            “It’s a good song!”  He paused.  “It was your mother’s choice.”
            “It’s a nonsense song.  I would have picked “Make the World Safe” by The Whitlams.  That’s love.”

He  looked at her, impressed by her insight.  Her mouth had set into a thin un-made-up line.  She leaned her elbows on the table.  Thomas nodded, and took a sip of champagne.
            “That’s a good song.  Keep it for your own wedding.”
Marnie looked at him sideways, one eyebrow raised.  “Yeah,” she scoffed.  “Right.”

Thomas tried to imagine her older, in a wedding dress.  He wondered if he’d be the one to dance with her on her wedding night when they called for her father.  His heart felt heavy, or drunk, or both.

Looking at Jasmine, spinning under her father’s raised arm, he opened his mouth to ask Marnie to dance with him and then stopped himself. 

**

Thomas sat in front of the television but didn’t turn it on.  He listened to the sounds of Marnie’s music coming through the walls, felt the vibrations from the bass line in his toes.  He wondered if his own parents had ever sat like this, thankful for a closed door to hide their helplessness behind.  He leaned his head in his hands and counted wrinkles with his fingers.  When had he grown so old?  When had he forgotten how desperately he wanted to be liked and accepted?  Was it when he graduated?  When he got his first job?  When he married?  He wanted to pin point the exact moment, and show it to Marnie like a gift; wait, just wait until this moment, and you will be okay.
The sausages lay half-thawed in the sink, forgotten.  Thomas had lost his appetite.
He reached for a vinyl record from one of his yet-to-be-unpacked boxes, and wondered if he would feel any better if the room wasn’t so silent.
Then, a key scratched at the lock in the entry and the front door clattered open.
            “Hello-o!  I’m home,” called Jasmine.  He heard the crinkle of shopping bags as she stacked them on the counter and hung up her bag.  “Marnie?  Tom?”
            “In here,” Thomas said.
He counted Jasmine’s steps as she came down the hall: less than fifteen.  “I think I must be the only person in Perth who actually had to do their job today,” she said, sweeping her hair back behind her ears.  “What’s with the Marnie melt-down?” she whispered.
Thomas wanted to bury his head in the softness of her and have her hold him.  The line between wife and mother blurred endlessly until he felt confused and impotent. 
            “I screwed up with the Dad-talk.”
Jasmine frowned, the creases in her pink lipstick showing as her face stiffened.  “Tom, we talked about this.  I said I’d handle the Marnie stuff.”
            “What was I supposed to do, Jaz?  She asked me a question.”
            “We have an arrangement, Tom.  Marnie is not your daughter to worry about.  All I ask is for you to make sure she’s safe, and fed, and I will deal with the rest.  It’s not brain surgery.”
            “I’m sorry, Jaz.  I panicked.”
            “I don’t get it, Tom.  I thought you liked not having the responsibility.”
Thomas tried to shrug her off.  She slid her sunglasses up onto the top of her head so that he could see the look she was giving him.  He couldn’t stand it.
            “What happened to Marnie’s father?” he asked, his voice softened.  She turned her face away from his, to stare out the open patio door.  Wet footprints decorated the tiles.
            “We don’t talk about that.”
            “Why not?  Don’t I have a right to know?”
            “Tom, I don’t want to talk about it!”
            “Well I do!”
His voice echoed between them, and his heart beat faster in his chest.  Jasmine took a deep breath.  Her voice choked unattractively in her throat, and the lines around her eyes tensed and drew together for support. 
            “He left, Tom.  I said I was pregnant and he said well you keep it if you want but I’m outta here.”
Thomas opened his mouth to speak, his dry lips edging apart slowly and the words forming at the back of his throat.  Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he registered that the music in Marnie’s room had been turned off, and there was only silence around them.
            “I wouldn’t do that to you,” he said, a weak offering like a child trying to share a toy.  “I wouldn’t do that to Marnie.”
            “Oh grow up!  You’re only a kid yourself.  Nobody takes you seriously as my husband,” she snapped.  Thomas took a step back, stunned.
            “Nobody, Jaz?”
The way she said nothing held a note of judgment.  He almost heard the gavel bang down; it was when Marnie appeared in the living room that he realised it had been the sound of her shutting her bedroom door behind her.
            “I knew it,” she said, glaring at Jasmine as she pushed between the two of them and ran out the back door.
**
He found her out there an hour later.  Jaz had locked herself in the bedroom, and Thomas found himself aching for company.  He remembered Marnie’s earlier offer.
            “Hey, Kiddo,” he said.  She was leaning against the pool fence and staring up at the stars.  Her fair head turned, and her lips twitched in a sad smile.
            The two of them moved onto lawn chairs. The air was thick and scented with frangipani. 
            “Why did you marry my Mum?” Marnie asked.  “Really.”
            “Because I love her,” he said, running his bare feet through the grass.  She nodded.
            “But that’s not enough, is it?”
Thomas looked at her sideways.  She was so young; he didn’t quite know how he could make her understand, but she was so willing to listen.  Her eyes were wide and welcoming, like open doors leading him to a safe place to stay.  Finally, he stumbled onto a poor sort of metaphor.
            “It’s like you with your music, I suppose.  You find a song, one you really love, and you listen to it as much as you can.  You listen to it loud.  You use it to drown out everyone else, as if it can fill you up and make you whole.  But songs end.  And when they do, you realise that it’s just a recording.  It’s an illusion.  Like when you said we were all pretending to be happy.”
            “Things which end aren’t any less beautiful.”
            “Mmm,” agreed Thomas, leaning his head back and taking a swig from the beer bottle he held.  He listened to the sound of the river and the sound of cars on the freeway, and the sound of cicadas and crickets in the bougainvillea bush.  Marnie scratched at a mozzie bite on her leg.
            “I didn’t mean to start all of this.  I know it’s my fault.”
Thomas lifted his head and put down the beer bottle.  “It’s not your fault.”
Her little mouth twitched as her mind chewed over her thoughts.  He laid his head back and closed his eyes, wondering what Jasmine was thinking, locked in their bedroom upstairs. 
            “Thomas,” said Marnie, and he opened his eyes to see her standing right behind his chair, her body inverted against a panoply of stars right above his head.  For a moment, she was like an angel. 
            “I want you and my Mum to get through this.”
Her words hung in the air for a moment, alongside those she hadn’t said; please don’t leave. 
And Thomas, acutely aware of his place in the world for a moment thought of the way his identity had come from what he was not; not a real husband, not a real father, not a real man; and knew that he could never leave.  It was the pretending to be happy that allowed him to exist.

© Emily Paull, 2011


                   

1 comment:

  1. This was just gorgeous writing, Emily. Some real gems of sentences at play. It was poignant and bittersweet with characters that I'd like to know more about. Thanks for sharing this story here. All the best with your current writing and submissions. xo

    PS "Make The World Safe For You' is one of the most romantic songs ever in my opinion too! ;)

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