I boarded the train. Although I shed my work uniform the hospital smell was still imprinted on me. The twelve-hour shift passed like some hazy nightmare. My matronly shoes – which promised comfort – started to pinch as I got off at Northcote. I dreaded my dinners with Evelyn, but even after all the years, I couldn’t say no to her. A part of me still thought there was something to resuscitate, some common thread keeping us together.
We met at a gentrified pizzeria, where the flour was organic, the pizzas were undersized and the prices were steep. Evelyn was early and she met me with a huge hug, smiling as if she’d had a lobotomy or fallen in love with some charismatic cult leader. Knowing Evelyn, it wouldn’t surprise me if she had. She looked fabulous, wearing her willowing bohemian dress, her hair like an alluring siren.
‘Ciao, daaaarling!’ Evelyn kissed my cheeks. ‘How’s the house hunting, Frankie?’
‘Oh, it’s horrendous, half-a-million dollars for something the size of a prison cell,’ I joked and grabbed the menu. ‘Prisoners at least get free gym membership and meals.’
‘That’s an awful thing to say, we have a terrible justice system,’ she pouted.
‘Yeah because every thug is out on bail.’
‘Frankie! You are so bad!’ she playfully slapped my hand. She was still full of the fervour and naïveté which I had outgrown. Evelyn lived in a pink fog of delusion and good intentions. Sometimes I envied her innocence.
‘What’s new with you?’ I asked and waited to hear a deluge of adventures.
‘Still studying, but I got to take a break and visit Nicaragua to volunteer,’ she took a sip of her mojito. ‘It was just so powerful, so humbling, makes you realize how lucky we are – besides, which employer wouldn’t hire someone who decides to uproot their life and do something radical?’
‘I mainly saw photos of you getting plastered drunk with other aid workers. Perhaps you should finish your degree before you talk about employers. You’ve dragged a four-year degree into seven.’
‘Don’t be such a prude. I’ll finish it, eventually. It’s a bummer I can’t get more government allowance, some rubbish about my parents being doctors and earning too much!’
I didn’t know whether to laugh or slap her. She ordered a pizza which was three times as expensive as the one from my local and didn’t bat an eyelash. Hers was a charmed life. While I worked in a kitchen through university, paid rent and studied at dawn, Evelyn snorted cocaine at nightclubs and holidayed in Ibiza. Naturally, it all worked out for her.
‘Can’t believe you’ll be in the northern suburbs, man, you’ll miss this,’ she looked around and spread her arms like an earth goddess.
‘If I want to rent forever and fight some hippie housemate over kale, I could continue living here. Look around, these people are so spoilt and entitled, they can’t even be bothered to pick up their food,’ I pointed to the line of Uber drivers loitering near the kitchen, waiting to pick up orders.
‘Drivers earn a wage from people’s laziness, that’s the world we are living in.’
‘That’s kind of cool, isn’t it? Ten dollars don’t mean much to one person, but a lot to another.’
Evelyn ran her fingers through her hair and stared into space. She meant well, but she was testing my patience.
Her parents sheltered her from the world and all its ills, wrapped her in cottonwool and filled her pockets with money. I remembered the first time we met at university. I found her crying outside the library because she couldn’t decipher the campus map. I was drawn to her, she reminded me of a stray kitten. I was living alone for the first time and her sobbing revealed all that I had bottled inside me. I led her to her room and she hugged me. From that day on she clung to me like a child. She was my shadow; until she learnt to stand on her own two feet. Then we saw less and less of each other.
‘Can’t believe you are married! It’s crazy that we live in a world where marriage is still the norm. You’d think we would’ve evolved past it. I’d only marry if the detention centres close, or if Harvey buys the pear-shaped diamond ring from Tiffany.’
‘You are a real riot girl,’ I rolled my eyes. Evelyn fished for coins from her hemp wallet. I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t have enough money for her dinner.
‘Oh man, being a student sucks. I’m in poverty,’ she sulked. I didn’t say anything, I pulled out my wallet and paid the bill.
I walked her to her car. We walked past dreadlocked men drumming for coins on the kerbside. Evelyn’s eyes twinkled and she started to dance. People stared.
‘Don’t you just love exotic men?’ she laughed. ‘Melbourne is just so multicultural, I love it.’
‘Evelyn, you hadn’t met a Middle Eastern person until you started university. You didn’t believe me when I told you Niger was a country, you thought I was being racist. You constantly called Macedonia macadamia.’
‘You just have a snarky comment for everything,’ she waved goodbye to the kerbside drummers, not even thinking to spare some coins.
She had parked in a No Standing zone and a ticket was stuck to her dashboard. I couldn’t help but smirk.
‘Look at you Evelyn, an eco-warrior driving such a petrol guzzler.’
‘Present for my 25th birthday and for breaking up with Amir,’ she shrugged.
‘Do you have any plans for tomorrow?’ I suppressed a yawn, dreading returning to the hospital for another mind-numbing shift.
‘It’s just so hot this week. I was planning to go to a rally against racism, but I think I’ll hit the beach. Harvey’s parents own a beach house, you know.’
‘Have fun, don’t forget your fine,’ I handed her the slip and watched her speed away.
Months later I received an invitation in the mail. The cream envelope was covered in graceful calligraphy.
Evelyn Haze and Harvey Garret would like to invite you to their marriage ceremony in Bali. Instead of a present please donate to a charity preserving Bali’s cultural heritage.
‘I guess he bought the Tiffany ring,’ I said and threw away the invitation.
Published by Feminartsy
He was perpetually seasick, while she still hungered for the sea. The sea was a majestic force, evoking fear and worship.
Despite their lifetime of differences, here they were, pale feet sunk in the sand, senses transfixed by the spuming green waves. It was their last outing together. Soon they would be separated by something bigger and stranger than the sea. Soon they would be separated by something people seldom understood or welcomed.
She held his leathery hand as his breathing grew shallow and the wind blew through his silver hair. They didn’t need to say a word; they had said it all. His body was ravaged by illness and age, hers was not much better.
How many waves had crashed against the sand? Was there a limit to such forces of nature? Did the waves ever cease to crash, did they suddenly stop like the fragile human heart?
His heart ceased to beat that night. Her heart beat in solitude, searching for its departed mate. A fortnight later, they were both reunited by a majestic force.
Published by Veronica Literary Magazine
Claire Varley is a Melbourne-based author and community development worker. Her debut novel The Bit in Between, a witty story of love loss and travel was published by Pan Macmillan in 2015. Her second novel is set to be released in 2017.
Varley’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared in many publications, including The Big Issue, Kill Your Darlings, and The Regal Fox. Varley is a supporter of the Australian literary community and frequently reviews Australian novels in the form of haikus. MAGGIE JANULOSKA and CLAIRE VARLEY had a chance to talk books, the joys of writing and creativity.
MJ: The West Australian described your debut novel as “full of heart and humour.” It starts with two unlikely people meeting in an airport lounge and forging a somewhat turbulent relationship. What inspired you to write your novel, The Bit in Between?
CV: I wrote the novel while I was working and living in the Solomon Island and originally I wrote an entirely different manuscript and then put it in the bin. It had a sci-fi idea running through it, I was enamoured with Terry Pratchett growing up and thought sci-fi and the Solomon Islands would go together. After I finished it, I knew it wasn’t the book I wanted to write, I wanted to write something which would better engage with the island and people. I wanted to write about the different people living and passing through the Solomon Island and tell more about these people and what their stories were.
MJ: How would you describe your publishing process? How long did it all take and what advice would you give to writers who might be pitching their novels?
CV: My biggest bit of advice would be to be patient. When I came back from the Solomon Islands, I sent my manuscript out in the world and it was rejected for a year by publishers. I think chance plays a part, especially when it comes to the slush pile. It depends on when publishers go through their slush pile and if they put your manuscript in their maybe pile, then if the publisher decides to look in the maybe pile and if the story resonates with them. Obviously you want to submit your best work and remember that when someone says no, it doesn’t mean your work is the worst piece ever written, it just means it isn’t the right thing for publishers at the moment.
MJ: What can you tell us about your upcoming 2017 novel?
CV: I just got my first lot of editorial feedback and I’m quite hesitant to say what it’s about because it may all change. It’s set in the north of Melbourne and it’s looking at some of the different people living in the inner and outer north. I wrote about where I was living and I wanted the novel to look at the idea of people living suburbs away from each other, but having completely different lifestyles and experiences of the world.
MJ: Describe your writing process; do you set yourself daily goals? Are you a planner or do you just let your story take you to new and exciting places without premeditation?
CV: I used to think that I was not a planner and I went with the flow, but I’ve actually realised I do plan everything. I do a lot of planning with novels because I write about multiple characters and I’m interested in the characters’ intersections and exploring how their journeys mirror or differ from each other. Often I know where I’m starting and know where I’m ending and have some idea of the middle.
MJ: How does an idea for a novel start? Is it a single idea or a character or scene?
CV: With The Bit in Between the first thing I wrote was the end scene and once I had the characters and knew where they ended up, I wanted to explore how they got there. With the new novel, it came out of a rubbish first attempt at a manuscript when I realised I didn’t like anything in it except this one character, so I wanted that character to have their own story. What about you? How do you find your own process?
MJ: It starts with an idea which keeps nudging me in the back of my mind. It wants to be written. If the idea isn’t that good or memorable I usually forget it within a day, but if it’s a good idea it stews up for a week or two and once I sit down it flows out on paper. The idea for my children’s novel came after teaching historical fiction to a class and one student wanted to write about vermin exterminators in medieval times. I thought the idea was really original and strange, so it stayed with me for a while and after my student forgot about the task, I ended up starting a story about a young girl in 1600s France who is sent out of home to apprentice for a rat-catcher.
CV: How do you prepare for writing historical fiction? My biggest fear would be getting things wrong. How do you get over your anxieties about getting things historically inaccurate?
MJ: I’ve studied history throughout university and I’ve had to reference events which happened at the time. My novel involves a plague, so I had to research real plagues and ways people protected themselves. I’ve tried to make the language accessible, without being too old or too modern. Research has been half the fun for me. Is there a mantra which keeps you motivated during the writing process?
CV: Not so much a saying, but I think what’s the worst that can happen? If you write something terrible, it doesn’t matter because you can edit it and improve it or you can write something better. What about you?
MJ: I like to think quitting isn’t an option. I also like the saying, “only dead fish go with the flow,” it reminds me to persevere and stick to what makes me happy. Australian stories are very unique. What’s your favourite thing about the Australian literary scene?
CV: I think it’s a really interesting time for the Australian literary scene, particularly with the changes recommended by the Productivity Commission in terms of copyright and parallel importation laws. I think it’s a really troubling time for the Australian literary scene. It’s an amazing scene and we are producing important stories and moving towards having more reflective writing. There’s still a long way to go in terms of who’s getting published, but we are at a time where the diversity of writers are reflecting the diversity of the community and we are realising that to be an Australian writer means there’s not just one Australian story. We are finally celebrating the fact that Australian stories look like a hundred different things and that’s what excites me.
MJ: I remember growing up and Looking for Alibrandi was the only book which was so radical in the sense that it was about being ethnic and embracing your identity.
CL: There’s value in our stories being about all kinds of people and families, but not necessarily being what the book is ‘about’. That a character might have a background or sexuality or identity that differs from what we’re used to reading about, but that the story isn’t necessarily ‘about’ that point of difference. These stories are all part of ‘Australian literature’. What excites you about the Australian lit scene?
MJ: I like the camaraderie between Australian authors and the quality of work in the last few years and the push towards celebrating what makes Australian stories different.
CV: I agree. Any writer knows how difficult it is to write and maintain any kind of lifestyle. With the proposed changes it would be harder for Australian publishers to publish Australian books. We got to a point where we are reading so much of our own writing, why would you want to step back from that?
MJ: If only Australian writers or creative minds were paid or respected as much as athletes. What’s been a memorable Australian book you’ve read recently?
CV: I found myself reading so many Australian novels last year not by conscious choice but because there is just so much good stuff coming out at the moment. I recently read Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident. I’ve also just read Charlotte Woods’ The Natural Way of Things. It was wonderfully written and it was a wonderfully put criticism on the treatment of women.
MJ: I just finished Lee Kofman’s The Dangerous Bride, your novel and Laurinda by Alice Pung. Do you believe in writer’s block? How do you combat it?
CV: I don’t know if I believe in writer’s block, but I believe that you have to give yourself time and not to put pressure on yourself. It doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating. For me, it’s more about being unhappy with parts of the story and not knowing what fits where. It’s important to give yourself time to get there. It helps with space and time. What about you?
MJ: Leaving your story for a few days, exercise and a change of scenery work for me. Also doing something out of my comfort zone, seeing a foreign movie or reading really helps.
CV: Reading is fantastic for working out problems. If I get frustrated with writing I’ll sit down with a book and two pages in, I’ll suddenly have an idea. I don’t write every single day because I have a day job and I’m too tired after work, but I still think.
MJ: What’s been your proudest writer moment to date and what are your goals for your literary future?
CV: When the box arrives and you see your book for the first time it’s a hugely validating moment. That was a pivotal moment for me, being able to hold my book and see it in bookshops. Also I’m proud that I’ve been persistent since writing is a difficult thing, especially finding time for it and setting up your life so you aren’t penniless and desolate. It’s difficult to find a balance in your life and I’m proud because as difficult as it has been I’ve been persistent.
At the moment I have a vision for where I see the next book and also during the extended period of waiting to hear from publishers, I researched and plotted a third book. My goal is to deliver my stories as I see them in my mind and tell the stories how I think they should be told. What about you, what’s been your proudest writer moment?
MJ: This year I was published in the Award Winning Australian Writing anthology. I don’t know if it’s a big deal but seeing yourself featured among amazing Australian writers has been validating. Not giving up after many rejections and having a tough skin has taught me a lot about myself. Which book has had a profound influence on you and shaped you as an author?
CV: Zadie Smith novels are some of my favourite, not that I think I in any way write like her. I admire her characters and her complexity. She is a profoundly talented writer who writes so well about life. Growing up, Terry Pratchett was one of the most important writers in my life. I read his work from a young age and although his fantasy writing is different to what I write, I’ve been influenced by his ability to take serious or important social issues and write in a funny approachable way. What about you?
MJ: As a child, I read The Count of Monte Cristo. I fell in love with mystery and adventure stories. Recently I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and the story has been with me for months. It’s so haunting and descriptive. It’s not an easy feat to feel sympathy for a murderer by the end and hate you for doing it at the same time. After writing it Capote declared he couldn’t bear to write another novel. Also The Shadow of the Wind series of books have had a profound influence. They are very noir and gothic, with Dickensian elements and lot of heart. If you could have a dinner party with three creative figures who would they be?
CV: Zadie Smith, even though I’d feel very intimidated talking in front of her. I would invite Neil Gaiman who is one of my favourite writers. Also I’d invite Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who wrote Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah. She’s fabulous and wonderfully insightful. I love her feminism and her approach on women’s issues. It would be an interesting dinner party because I’d just be quiet, serve hors d’oeuvres and listen.
MJ: For me it would be Patti Smith. She’s one of the last survivors of that era. I just read M Train and I loved reading about her daily life. Next would be Frida Kahlo who I discovered as a teenager and I fell in love with her art and her spirit. She had a hard life and suffered growing up, but her story resonates with so many women. The last would be the wonderful Leonard Cohen. I was lucky to see him live in 2013. I cried for a week after his passing, it was like losing a dear teacher or a grandfather who’s been there in a strange way. His music is always with me.
CV: I was a wreck when Terry Pratchett died. It’s amazing that people you’ve never met can have such a profound impact on your life and your grief is so real. It just shows how important the arts are how they can reach people and connect with people oceans away.
MJ: That’s why people write, sculpt, paint or make music. The point is to share your story and voice and touch someone. Pursuing a creative path is never easy, but it is so rewarding. What has your creative experience as a writer taught you? Can you imagine yourself not writing?
CV: I can’t imagine myself not writing because it’s something I’ve always done and it’s something I’ve done for myself primarily. It’s taught me a lot about patience and having confidence in myself. In the creative process you get to a point where you are never done. The creative arts are not a linear thing. Every new project you approach as a student and you have to learn and relearn how something needs to be done. It’s a process where you have to be kind and patient with yourself. What about you?
MJ: The creative process has taught me that I can do it, I can write. I can be as good as other writers. Writing is not a passing fancy. It’s something I do and something I have to do for my own sanity and happiness. Claiming the title of ‘writer’ is also a big deal. I’d be miserable if I worked in my day job without a creative outlet.
CV: I work out who I am and how I process things through my writing. I learn so much about myself. For some people writing is a part of their self-care.
She was exhausted, buried by her tweed school uniform, waiting for the tram. The heat was stifling, early summer. That was the fateful day it first happened.
After two sleepless years of cramming, expensive lessons and university-level textbooks, the exam for a Year 10 scholarship was over. Alice’s brain felt dissected. Alice, along with six hundred other anxious girls, pushed through the three-hour ordeal, prudently shading in bubbles on an answer sheet that would determine their future.
Things were black and white in the world of exams. Things were black and white in her parents’ world too. If Alice was accepted into the leafy suburb college, she’d be considered worthy. If she wasn’t, she’d be considered a failure, not as smart as so-and-so’s daughter. It seemed there was no in-between.
The tram was delayed and the heat was scorching, so Alice walked into the air-conditioned Carlton bookstore. Her eyes widened, the store was bigger than her entire home and there were books from floor to ceiling. She circled past the new-releases, memoirs, adventures, classics. Alice picked up a Carlos Ruiz Zafon novel and winced at the $32.00 price tag. She placed the novel where she found it, but a wicked little voice whispered inside her mind. Do it, this can be your secret, you deserve it. No one has to know.
Novels were forbidden at home, an unnecessary frivolity, a hindrance to exams, chores and homework. Novels were for indulged, lazy girls, according to her mother. Novels could fill her mind with silly ideas; fray away all the years of moulding a perfect student.
Yet, the scholarship exam was over and Alice thought she deserved a treat for all her efforts. She looked over her shoulder, the sales assistant was gabbing on the phone. Alice carefully peeled the book’s barcode and slid the book in her blazer. Her heart was thumping; she had never felt so wicked. She felt wicked, but alive. She was defying her parents, she was rebelling against order. In that moment, she was everything she had never been: brave, a rule-breaker, a criminal. Cavalierly, she walked out, alarms were not raised, and no one stopped her.
She returned to the tram stop, climbed aboard and once the tram started rattling, retrieved her prize from inside her blazer. She caressed the embossed sepia cover and dove into post-war Barcelona, a realm where her anxieties did not exist.
Alice devoured the book in two days, tucking it under her mattress as if hiding love letters. Knowing the forbidden item was with her made her giddy, in control of her destiny.
Yet Alice could not keep the novel. That was never her intention. She would read it, copy out her favourite lines and memorise them, allow the words to seep into her soul. Then she would return the book back to the shelf. Her guilt would lessen; she wouldn’t be a thief, just a book borrower.
Returning to the bookstore, Alice placed the book where she found it, careful not to leave any creases or marks on the pages and covers. She was not spotted, so Alice browsed the other shelves, her eyes mesmerised by a book of poetry by Lang Leav. Her hands twitched and she licked her lips. Within moments, the book of poetry was inside her blazer. Alice returned home ecstatic.
As the last term of Year 9 trickled away, Alice’s book acquisition continued. The bookstore was sleepy during the 3pm slump. In the summer months, she read Nabokov, Orwell, and Emily Brontё. She read the words of rebels. She plunged into a pool of vibrancy. Alice felt alive, unchained in those final days of freedom.
Two months after her first book acquisition, Alice received a letter. The prestigious inner-city college accepted her to start Year 10, the following year. She was one of the lucky eighty girls. Her stomach was in knots. This was all she ever wanted, wasn’t it?
That afternoon her parents showered her with attention, they phoned overseas and boasted, bought Alice mud cake and balloons. Yet, the same words flooded her mind: law, engineering, medicine, Maths Methods, Physics, and Chemistry. She was returning to the world of black and white.
The new school year dawned and Alice’s book acquisitions did not recommence. There wasn’t any time to read for pleasure. She was drowning under the weight of glossaries, formulas and scientific journals. She was gasping for air. Her hair fell out in clumps. Her nights were sleepless, with purple rings circling her eyes. Alice carried a mountain of pressure on her back.
The year passed, so did others. Alice’s days were full of academic responsibilities. She seldom thought of the novels she once read and her desire to read others waned. The prospect of reading was exhausting, not worth her limited time. Weekends were spent revising or consulting frazzled friends on their assignments.
Alice’s hard work paid off. She finished high school with immaculate grades and was accepted to study medicine at Melbourne University. Another six years passed in a blur.
One rainy morning, Alice walked past the familiar bookstore. She has just returned from her first serious job interview at a goliath medical research centre. She was offered a salary that doubled her parents’, a neat little office too. She walked home with a spring in her step. Yet a familiar itch found her. After a long break, she walked into the bookstore. The familiar smell met her, but the displays were all different. It was like returning to a home you once grew up in. Alice prowled around the best-sellers, fingering a wartime romance which had been adapted into a film. Her parents no longer cared if she read novels. For once, she had a bit of time to spare. This time, she could easily afford to buy the novel, she had the money.
Yet she wanted to do it again, for old time’s sake. After years of hard work, she deserved a naughty treat. She wanted the thrill, the ill repute. Alice wanted to secretly rebel after over two decades of obedience. She took the risk, sliding the book in her handbag. She exited the bookstore with the same adolescent bravado.
But Alice was rusty. She did not remove the security tag on the book. The alarm was triggered. “Miss, excuse me,” the sales assistant pointed and stomped towards Alice.
In a state of panic, Alice ran. One moment of foolishness could unravel all that she had built. She would be handcuffed and dragged to a police station, her parents would be mortified. Channel 7 would flash her face, a would-be doctor caught stealing books. Who would hire her? She ran in her uncomfortable heels, jostling past people on the footpath. The sales assistant did not slow down. Alice retrieved the stolen book and threw it. She lost the evidence. She looked back and saw the sales assistant stop and pick it up.
Alice ran across the road, not bothering to look out for traffic. A Volvo’s tyres screeched, but it was too late.
My short memoir of growing up in 90s Macedonia has been published by Darebin literary magazine n-SCRIBE. It is a pleasure to be featured with other local writers and poets. If you are in Darebin, pick up a copy from libraries or selected cafes. Below is an extract:
I put on my tartan skirt and tucked in my creased shirt. A slice of bread smothered in hot ajvar awaited me and tried not to smear it on my books. The textbooks were a new edition, printed for the new grade-one students, white-washing any lingering traces of the Communist ideology which lasted over forty years. Stories of partisan bravery, the red star and the red flag were trounced, by something new and uncertain. Yugoslavia crumbled; Macedonia had gained its fragile independence, while the other Balkan countries ravaged each other.