Fiction

Dramatics

ANNIE DOESN’T RECOGNISE the old teacher at first glance, not consciously. She only registers a vague sense of disorientation that seems carried in by the light in this new room – bright and sharp, streaming through high-panelled windows. A momentary dislocation, time slipping sideways.

There are two women in the beds across from hers, both elderly, both plugged into devices. She finds she has to look back at the one nearer the window, and look again, and a name breaks through the light-refracted unreality.

Miss Farley. It comes to her like some childhood incantation. No first name attached, although she probably once knew what it was. She allows herself another glance. Curly hair with remnants of its original brown, a face still recognisably pixieish through the wrinkled dissolution of features. The young teacher emerging clear and recognisable. Miss Farley! Ninth form, or maybe tenth? English and dramatics. Not Annie’s strong subjects.

She has to tell Rebecca – that’s her first thought, arriving with a little shiver of proprietary pleasure. Bec, her friend at school, had been one of Miss Farley’s pets, a regular star of the productions the teacher directed each year.

She leans over for her phone on the bedside table, already composing the text in her mind – Guess who! – and in her excitement taking her body’s range of motion just slightly for granted. Something twangs in an internal region around her breastbone; her arm, already in the act of reaching, feels suddenly weighted. She retracts it without the phone, pulling it towards herself and holding it with her other hand against her body. She lies back, letting her pulse slow.

A voice says, ‘Can I call the nurse for you, dear?’

Before she opens her eyes she thinks it must be the unknown woman in the bed directly across from her, because the voice, which is low and soft, bears no relation to her memory of Miss Farley.

(Vocal exercises – that was one of the things she was known for at school and mocked for in a gentle way. Use the vowels, girls, Miss Farley would boom in an accent plummier than her regular voice, and then she would ‘throw noises’ around the room: a bop and a boop and an oooooohmay that they had to ‘catch’ and throw back to her or to each other – and in Annie’s memory it is Bec telling her about this embarrassing ritual, the two of them throwing a few of their own bops and boops back and forth as they ate their lunch on the hot asphalt.)

Annie doesn’t respond straight away – still breathing through the tremors and willing the pain to keep its distance – and the same voice says, ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to…’

She opens her eyes.

The woman across from her is still plugged into her screen, headphones on and attention a million miles away. The one who spoke was Miss Farley. She is sitting forward, eyes on Annie. ‘Sorry,’ she says again. ‘I didn’t mean to intrude. I could get the nurse to pull your curtain.’

Annie shakes her head, the pain hovering; she is grateful for the distraction of her own amazement that the small, ordinary old woman she’s speaking to is Miss Farley. The grand, the beloved, the mercurial Miss Farley. Annie remembers, vividly, the way Miss Farley used to sit: with both feet tucked beneath her on a chair, appearing not so much curled as coiled, ready to launch up and forward towards whatever girl she was earnestly addressing.

‘You’re looking a little better,’ the old lady who is Miss Farley says. ‘You went awfully pale for a minute there.’

She has a soft voice, a soft way about her – nothing of her old intensity.

Annie can’t imagine this woman throwing bops.

‘Thank you,’ Annie says. ‘Just a bit of a funny turn. They’re changing my medication and it’s knocking me around a bit.’

Miss Farley sits back into her pillows. ‘It’s a shocking thing, isn’t it,’ she says. ‘Pain. I went through my whole life without a clue how lucky I was to not be in pain. I wish I could do it all again now, not to do anything differently but just to really enjoy all that time when I had barely any pain and I didn’t appreciate how wonderful it was.’

‘Yes,’ Annie says. ‘Oh, yes.’ She has never heard anyone express so directly this thought that she comes up against often, alongside the thicken- ing walls of her body’s limits. ‘Of course there were other times I experienced it.’ In childbirth – and she finds herself telling Miss Farley about those other encounters with transporting pain, and about how she distinctly remembers having the same thought then, every time, when she was lost in pain that seemed impossible to survive, let alone forget. She did forget, and she suspects – unthinkable as it seems – that she would forget the reality of this whole passage of pain as well, and therefore hypothetical future Annie would not truly experience the joy of her pain-free life. There is nothing, no thought, even of death, that makes her feel lonelier.

‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘Sorry for running on, I get a bit…’ Lolling her tongue out of her mouth. ‘Maybe it’s the new medication.’

The silent woman in the third bed shifts her body but doesn’t look away from her screen.

‘Don’t worry, dear,’ Miss Farley says. ‘We’re at a stage to speak openly about things. The others…’ waving her hand towards the world beyond the room, ‘aren’t always ready to speak openly, but we are.’

Annie sits back and shuts her eyes for a few moments. ‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘Yes, I do feel ready to speak openly.’

Perversely then, a polite quietude falls across them. Annie has still said nothing about their historical connection. It feels as though they have travelled out too far already. And there is still the presence of the silent third woman, inflecting everything with a more stolid reality.

Miss Farley says she might watch the early news, and Annie says yes, it’s good to stay engaged in the world (although she wouldn’t know how to watch the early news – she doesn’t own a tablet like the other women and doesn’t even know how to get apps onto her little phone; Bill and the kids do all that). She gets her book out. A novel about a group of people holidaying together. She enjoys this kind of story – amusing and comfortingly predict- able – but it is hard to forget the presence of Miss Farley, whose face she allows herself occasional glances at. Annie can make out more and more of the old teacher – the small, neat mouth, turned up at the edges even in repose, and an archness to her eyebrows, which were once high in a broad forehead. She wonders about Miss Farley’s age. Probably only a decade or so older than the girls she taught; maybe less. Miss Farley must have been little more than a child herself. Of course it would never have occurred to them – to Annie and Bec and their classmates. In their eyes Miss Farley had the wisdom and gravitas of a monarch.

Annie’s mind keeps drifting away from her novel.

Just before 5 pm she gets a video call from Julia and the girls, who want to show her some paintings they have made. Annie can’t make out much in the blobs of paint but she says, ‘You must have worked very hard on this,’ which is what Julia has taught her to say – not ‘good’ or ‘bad’; apparently both are bad. Julia is a primary-school teacher and a very assured person. As always she ends the call quickly.

When Annie takes her glasses off and comes back into focus on the middle distance of her roommates, Miss Farley has her eyes closed.

A disproportionate stab of disappointment. She catches the eyes of the other woman, in the bed directly across. A bland face, wrinkled and set with a sallow look. Annie smiles. ‘Sorry about the noise. Grandchildren.’ Rolling her eyes, hoping her roommate shares in the fond weariness of the word.

The woman nods, her face impassive. She is perhaps about to speak when Miss Farley reanimates, awake and alert in a way that suggests she was never asleep. ‘Little darlings,’ she says. ‘We don’t mind at all. The noise of children is quite necessary in a place like this.’

A wash of happy gratitude – for Annie’s little darling grandchildren and Miss Farley’s approval of them.

Miss Farley picks up the laminated menu they each have on their bedside table. ‘Oh dear,’ she says. ‘Brace yourselves for meatloaf, girls.’ Grimacing with great seriousness.

Annie gets a fit of giggles. She’s not sure why – the food is so terrible, truly; it is one of the sharp pains of life here. There is just something about the whole thing, about Miss Farley in general, that makes Annie feel a bit giddy – it must be from knowing her when she, Annie, was so young. As she thinks this – as she is still giggling and apologising and giving out a loud, embarrassing hiccup and trying to bring herself back under control for the sake of her delicate body as well as social propriety – before the attack of hilarity has even begun to recede, a memory overtakes her. A grey memory of scanning a sheet of typeset paper pinned to a wall, looking for her own name. She scans each character in turn, as though she might be able to conjure the name if she concentrates hard enough. Postponing the dawning truth that her name is nowhere beside any of the major characters or the minor ones or even beneath them in the chorus. Down, down, in a separate list called ‘crew’. Stagehands, that’s where her name is crouching.

The laughter ebbs away.

She closes her eyes and makes herself stay there, surprised to find this old pain, as unruly as childhood itself, big enough to fill even the hidden spaces that have been carved out by later, adult griefs – both her parents’ deaths, and her favourite aunt, and Lily, her third baby, born sleeping and still carried in that pristine state. Somehow all the grief of her life can still accommodate that pain caused by Miss Farley in…she doesn’t know what year. No, years. It wasn’t true, what she thought before about English and dramatics not being her subjects – only that they were not subjects for which she was chosen, anointed the way Bec was. She thinks that the memory – the cast list blaring her failure against a white stucco wall – is probably from the first time, the first disappointment. Antigone, that was the play. Bec got the lead. And she had hated Bec. For how long? Maybe months. And the same thing the following year, that jealous hatred as curdled as old milk, a rotting thing inside her. She had to pretend to be happy for Bec and not to take her own chances seriously. She was relieved, is what she said. Imagine herself, Annie, on a stage in front of all those people. It didn’t bear thinking about, not really.

(It did bear thinking about and she thought about it all the time – the idea of herself in lights on a stage.)

The dinner trays arrive then, jangling Annie back into the present. The small, bright room inhabited by two strangers, one of whom once held the measure of her happiness. Abruptly she has lost all desire to speak to Miss Farley or get to know this elderly version of her. She wishes she had the digital wherewithal of the woman in the third bed, who sets up her device on the tray behind her dinner and adjusts her headphones, checked out. Annie lifts the lid off the dread meatloaf. It doesn’t look too bad. She feels slightly nauseous but knows she should eat.

Miss Farley pokes at her meatloaf in what seems like a slightly performative way and sighs.

‘I really have no right to complain,’ she says. ‘I never learnt to cook. Even this,’ giving the loaf another prod, ‘would have been well beyond me. But I never had anyone to cook for. I bet you’re a wonderful cook. You’re so good with your grandchildren that I can tell you would never have been a microwave dinner type.’

Part of Annie – the part still shaded by that terrible day of the Antigone cast list – thinks there might be a slur lurking in this assessment of domesticity. But Miss Farley doesn’t sound sly or judgmental. Only wistful – vaguely sad about the state of the meatloaf and its bearing on her own cooking abilities. ‘Yes,’ Annie says. Why bother trying to be humble at this juncture? ‘Yes,

I was a good cook. Very good, actually. In the last few years when all those amateur cooking shows began to appear, Julia – that’s my daughter – used to joke that I should go on. Or perhaps she wasn’t joking. It can be hard to tell with Julia.’

She wasn’t joking; Annie knew she wasn’t joking, and whenever Julia said it – You should go on MasterChef, Mum, you’re as good as any of them – Annie tucked the joy of it away like a hoarded thing. She would never do it – go on MasterChef, or any of those other shows. But she had taken real pleasure in the culinary creations she made for her family – she liked taking staples from her own mother’s cooking and jazzing them up: crumbed cabbage rolls, pierogi with spinach and feta. Of course the kids never paid any attention to what was put in front of them when they were young, except to complain if there were too many vegetables, but Bill would often compliment her meals. Although she occasionally wondered if he would have been just as happy with a plate of sausages and beans.

‘It was a passion,’ Miss Farley says. ‘Maybe your art form.’

It sounds so pretentious, but the simplicity with which she says it precludes embarrassment or deprecation.

‘Yes,’ Annie says. ‘I suppose it was.’

‘You’re lucky then. You could practise your art form however you liked, your whole life.’

The strange melancholy of this statement seems like an invitation, an opening that might not come again, so Annie summons her interest and says, as gently as she can, ‘I assume your art form was writing or acting?’

Miss Farley, who had been fixed on the meatloaf, looks up quickly, and Annie can tell she is shocked. Some emotional response ripples across her face. It looks almost like fear.

‘Sorry,’ Annie says. ‘I should have said something earlier. Somehow we never properly introduced ourselves. My name is Annie Novik. I think… I’m quite sure you used to teach at my high school. Millwood Girls? In the late ’60s. Is that possible?’

She knows it is possible – she feels no uncertainty – but Miss Farley’s reaction has jolted her. She had expected marvelling, some pleasure; what are the chances? Now she feels a stab of embarrassment and unease that her body seems to instantly translate into pain: a sharp bubble beneath her ribcage that hovers and threatens to burst. She closes her eyes and takes a few careful breaths.

When she opens them again Miss Farley is looking at her, face neutral.

Annie says, ‘I’m sorry if I… I might have been wrong about you being a teacher. It’s strange how I find myself back in that time – school days. It was a very happy time.’

She doesn’t have space for any thought about why she would tell this lie. Miss Farley looks down at her meatloaf and gives a little sigh. ‘Don’t worry, dear. You’re not wrong. I did teach at that school, for some years back in…’ Swirling her fork vaguely above the bed. ‘I suppose I just don’t think about it anymore. It was such a long time ago.’

She sounds dismissive, uninterested, and Annie can’t evade her disappointment. She feels that she has somehow played this wrong.

‘We all adored you,’ she says. ‘The girls, and the other teachers I’m sure. You were a wonderful teacher.’

She supposes this must be true – that Miss Farley was a wonderful teacher. She remembers very little about the content of her actual classes, although a few rudderless bits of poetry float around the edges when she tries to conjure something. Maybe Miss Farley taught them ‘Kubla Khan’, led them through caverns measureless to man? ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ – water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink. Snatches of rhythm that don’t seem to have much to do with her, their music faint and teasing. They don’t adhere to any concrete memory but to a vague sense of longing, which, yes, she thinks she can associate with Miss Farley – if not her actual teaching then her presence. The animating force with which she could turn her attention onto her chosen students. That is what the poetry expresses and what Annie remembers. Hoping and longing, and only sometimes trying, to get Miss Farley’s attention.

‘Thank you,’ Miss Farley says finally. ‘I suppose one never really knows how good one is at a job.’

She takes a delicate bite of the meatloaf.

‘No,’ Annie says. ‘Well, I never had that kind of job, the kind where you could do well or poorly. I was just a secretary, and only ever part-time after I had my children. I suppose that was my main job, motherhood, and whoever knows whether they’re doing that right. Although these days there are all sorts of books and theories. I did suspect sometimes that I was doing everything wrong and messing up my children like an undercooked soufflé.’

She is trying to be glib, to lighten the mood, but Miss Farley looks up and her face is earnest. ‘Oh no, I’m sure you were a wonderful mother. I can tell these things. I have more objectivity because I’m not a mother, you see. It was the great tragedy of my life.’

‘Oh. I’m sorry.’ Annie feels gratified but at the same time responsible and entirely unprepared for this emotional extremity on which they have somehow washed up. ‘It’s rather thankless and overrated, to be honest, motherhood. I always thought if people told the truth about it no one would go in for it.’ What a flippant and ridiculous thing to say; she is floundering but she goes on with it. ‘They used to call it the most important job in the world, being a wife and mother. I remember thinking, well, you would think the most important job in the world would allow you to exist in the world. Sometimes, you know, I felt as though I had literally ceased to exist. I was just some kind of cipher through which my children etched out the shape of themselves. My friend from school, Bec, never had children and she had wonderful adventures. Bec was an actor as well. In fact she was the lead in three productions you directed at Millwood. Antigone, A Doll’s House and Arsenic and Old Lace. She could do tragedy and comedy equally well – you’re the one who said that about her, actually. She didn’t go on to do it professionally, or not for very long, but somehow when she was off having her adventures in London and Paris I always imagined her still on stage, in the performance of her choice. I always envied her that.’

She stops, breathless and surprised at the distance she has carried herself. Miss Farley is still quiet and somehow out of focus, head tipped back against the pillows, gaze in the middle distance. She must remember Bec, who was such a pet, such a prize. She sometimes used to call her my love – as in, Brilliant, my love, leaping onstage after a dress rehearsal to clasp her by the shoulders.

Annie can see the scene from behind because she watched it from the side curtains. Ready to clean up after the rehearsal ended.

She realises she is breathing quite fast and that she is being silly and melodramatic, imagining Miss Farley’s classes and those school plays as some dress rehearsal for the rest of their lives in which Bec would always be centre stage and she always behind the curtains. It can’t have been so neat. Nothing is that neat.

She reaches for her phone again, carefully this time. The little message bubble, scrolling for Bec’s name. They’re not in regular contact; their last exchange was months ago. She is not even sure where her old friend is living at the moment – she has a house in Byron Bay as well as the flat in Sydney. Annie starts a new message.

No polite preamble. You’ll never guess who showed up in my hotel. (The breezy code they adopted when Annie started moving in and out of hospital – Bec does not do hospitals.) Do you remember Miss Farley? Of course you do, she launched your glittering stage career. Any message for me to pass on?

It is so easily done, sent, and Annie removes her reading glasses. Remarkable, how easily she can contact her old friend, with whom she once had to correspond over seas, waiting weeks or months for a postcard. She enjoys the wonder of the phone. And she already feels vindicated and solidified, somehow, just from sending the message, tying the dangling thread of her feelings about Miss Farley to a solid external point. Bec. Star of the show. The thought is not weighted with as much bitterness now. Padded by the comfort of Miss Farley’s words about her motherhood. She is ready to accept without much rancour the idea that Miss Farley set her on some irreversible trajectory.

Bec’s response arrives quickly. Annie has just turned her attention back to the dinner tray – thinking perhaps she should skip the meatloaf and try to come at the pudding – when the phone buzzes beside her.

It’s a short reply, she sees before she gets her glasses back on.

Annie! No message for that wormy little creature. Tell the maître d’ to upgrade you to a better suite immediately and get you away from her.

Annie looks at the message for some seconds, waiting for the sense of it to become clear. Has Bec misunderstood somehow?

She clicks into the reply box, the pudding forgotten.

What wormy little creature? Not the great and good Miss Farley? In another time she might have tried for a more ironic tone, more equivocal, but her time for irony and equivocation has passed. She writes, Didn’t we all adore her?

This time she is not casually unconcerned about the response; she leaves her glasses on and watches the little screen, relieved when she sees the three dots that mean her friend is typing back. She stares at the dots, only peripherally aware of how the needle of tension is unravelling the delicate barrier between her body and pain.

The new text arrives blessedly quickly but it is long; Annie has to blink to stop the words melding into a blur.

Darling she was a fortune hunter. The only reason she kept casting me in her little plays was to suck up to my parents so they would invite her to parties. And you know she made a fool of herself sneaking around with one of the school fathers. Tell her I hope she married into a packet, no hard feelings. I must visit when you get out of the hotel. Much love.

Annie stares and waits for it to settle, aware of some movement of tectonic plates beneath and around her. Bedrock truths she’d only been dimly aware of. The only reason she kept casting me in her little plays. She sees Bec taking her triumphant curtain call on one of the opening nights; sees it from behind, the camera swinging around onto Annie in her perennial place in the wings. And the camera swings again, onto them: the darkened audience, all those thunderously applauding parents. Was it about them, all along? Their money, what they could offer.

 

‘ARE YOU OKAY?’

Annie looks up, blinks. The world is a blur. She realises it is because she’s still wearing the reading glasses, with which she can’t see past her hands. She takes them off slowly and finds the woman directly across from her – not Miss Farley, the silent woman in the third bed – looking at her with open concern. It is only then Annie realises her breathing is coming in little puffs, as though she has been exerting herself, and there is a sheen of sweat across her face although the rest of her feels icy. She puts her hands palms down on the bed and tries to breathe slowly. The woman in the opposite bed has a small, pinched face buried in a fat neck. She is still watching closely.

‘I’m fine,’ Annie says flatly. She does not look towards Miss Farley.

She looks at her hands and focuses on her breathing, on her body, on the present. What is the big deal? If indeed she was not cast in some high-school plays because her parents – her immigrant parents who scrimped to send her to the school – had lacked the money or connections or fancy parties to offer the teacher. If Bec was not set on her trajectory by Miss Farley and neither was Annie. Or they both were, but in a different way. What does it matter? What she thought she learnt that day, staring at her name down the bottom of the cast list, was only a small inversion where she substituted her own insignificant self for the movements of the world around her. People having parties, fathers being chased, single teachers finding husbands. What did it matter if those things were the drivers? She was still always going to end up in the same place. Exactly where she was.

She closes her eyes, feeling faintly dizzy. Would she have fought harder if she had known? People did fight against that kind of fate. They put their backs into the climb, hustled, took no prisoners. She could have stormed into Miss Farley’s rehearsal and declared that she deserved more. She could have enrolled in an arts degree rather than secretarial school and gone off to Europe to have affairs rather than marrying quiet, reliable Bill whom she met the year after high school. She could have read philosophy books in little cafés and walked around the Louvre all day.

But who would have paid for it? When she and Bill were young they struggled to scrape together the money for an overnight bus to Brisbane.

So there she is again, back where she started. Exactly who she is. ‘It’s pretty horrible, isn’t it?’

Annie opens her eyes and stares at the woman in the opposite bed who has said these weirdly incisive words.

She is looking at the tray in front of her. The meatloaf. ‘Ha,’ says Annie. ‘Pretty horrible, yes.’

‘I always meant to learn to cook too,’ the woman says. ‘Really cook, not the heating up pasta and bottled sauce sort of cooking that got me through. Like her.’ She flicks her head towards Miss Farley’s bed so Annie has to look over. Miss Farley has fallen asleep – properly asleep with her head back and mouth hanging lopsidedly open. ‘Well, not like her,’ the woman goes on. ‘I was just too busy, with work and the kids. And it wasn’t that I wanted to make some art form out of it. Just that I felt sorry for the kids sometimes, all the reheated crap I fed them. Sorry to have overheard. I didn’t mean to.

You can’t help it around here, can you? I felt bad, listening again to all that about her big longing for kids, you know. But at the same time I’m thinking only someone who’d never had them would think about it like that. As if they’d be a reason to make gourmet meals every night. Although it sounds like you did, so maybe that’s just me. Sorry for going on. My son Jim calls me with his little ones – they’ll call tomorrow morning, three boys all under seven, make your little granddaughters look like angels who’ve taken a vow of silence, you’ll see. But I just chat away to them, often haven’t spoken to anyone else all day. When they first brought me in here I had a chat with…’ Flicking her head again towards Miss Farley, who lets out a whistling exhalation. ‘She told me too.’ Lowering her voice a completely symbolic register – it would be perfectly audible to Miss Farley if she woke up. ‘About her great tragedy in life. Barren, that’s what they used to call it, didn’t they? But plenty don’t have kids now. My niece Alison is into her thirties and already paid off her house, she calls it the childbearing trap. Says you won’t catch her falling into the childbearing trap. I told her,’ another head-flick towards Miss Farley, ‘about Alison. Sensible girl. But, you know, some people are determined to make life a tragedy. Me, I prefer a good comedy. And it’s not exactly a tragedy, is it, whether or not you had kids, or made some great art form out of dinner. If you’ve managed three meals a day it’s not a bloody Greek tragedy, is it?’

Annie has lost the sense of whether the woman’s questions are rhetorical or not, but she says, ‘No. Not exactly a tragedy.’ And she does feel a little rush of joy, for all the days when there were three meals and nothing went terribly wrong. The days when the kids performed little plays for her and she laughed along because they were genuinely hilarious, and she read them bedtime stories, a child tucked under each arm. At the same time as a different image flickers through her mind, a completely fabricated image conjured by the word tragedy. Antigone with her sister Ismene: the same blood flows in both our veins, and Annie is watching from the wings and also somehow up on stage. She holds the stage, the lights, she is passionate, wild, she hasn’t learnt to bend before adversity. She closes her eyes and lets herself stay suspended there in the two versions, two stories, and for that one moment the poetry of both goes through her.

 

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