Pip Smith

researcher of unusual narratives, writer of poems
and stories, thrower of story-telling parties
and devisor of story-telling projects.

Stories

FIVE HUSBANDS

She was married to five different men with the same name, which was both convenient and confusing. Convenient because she didn’t have to switch between names herself, or remember to call out the right name when making love, but confusing because sometimes the husbands blurred and she couldn’t remember which conversations went with which husband. SSShe colour-coded them, but they tended to wear identical clothes on any given day, making Husband Red hard to distinguish from Husband Blue when all five husbands were wearing purple.

She had to stay very alert and watch the nuances of their behaviour very intently. She noticed it was Husband Red who had a slight sneer, puckered nostrils and swore at taxi drivers when they changed lanes on the highway. Sometimes, when she and Red were fighting in circles, for hours, he would punch his fist through a wall on his way out of the room. But Husband Yellow had gentle eyes and a face that melted slightly at the sight of their dog in love — too much — with running. He also liked to lie with his head between her breasts and listen to the sound of her voice through her chest.

Husband Blue had a tight, still face. He could lock himself away for hours, carving intricate sculptures out of wood. As he worked, he tapped into some ancient place that lived beneath them like an underground ocean filled with urchins and prehistoric molluscs. He could feel the vibrations of those invisible creatures, and turn them into polished messages that fit in the hollow of her hand.

Husband Pink was wild and had tried every drug on the market, but Husband Green was an elderly soul who thought that drug users — like rugby league players and people who drive utes with six exhaust pipes and no muffler — were an insult to all reasonable members of society. He grew meticulously trimmed olive trees in their back garden and listened to Radio National over tea with two sugars.

She preferred some of her husbands to others, and never knew what to do after making love to Yellow and waking up next to Green, or — worse — Red. She would stay silent and roll her back to him, pretending to sleep but all the while staring out, trying to compute the change. What time did they change over? Did they share a roster and check in? Did they have meetings in their workplace where she could never go because she didn’t have a security swipe? Perhaps they didn’t even know about each other’s existence?  She asked herself these questions as she cooked, as she showered, as she lay in bed well into the morning. So many times one of her husbands would ask her what was wrong and she would say, limply, that nothing was wrong, again and again, until he finally squeezed out of her that she thought he kept changing. But then he would look at her as if she was the one who had changed.

It worried her that her husbands might be right. But then Yellow would ask about the holes in the wall, or she would catch Green holding one of Blue’s sculptures, marvelling at it, as though he couldn’t possibly understand how it was made, or where it had come from. And when she quoted, directly, the things Pink had said to the women who hung off him at parties, all of her other husbands would adamantly deny that he would never say anything like that.

She wondered: if she conceived a child, how could she be sure which husband’s it should be? Or would be? What if she went to bed with Blue and Red slipped in at the last minute? He was, after all, the one most likely to have aggressive sperm that could find an egg and crash into it with life-starting intensity.

She’d always wanted children, but she could never see how they’d actually fit in to the lives they’d made for themselves. Now, her head was full of future babies — pink and bubbly, like marshmallows, or dusted with that yellow, scaly grit. But they all had her husbands’ faces, age 40, tacked on to their tiny bodies. Perhaps these visions were telling her something. If she had a baby it might centre her, like a sinker line weighing a buoy through a school of flighty fish.

She knew she couldn’t conceive unless she was 100% sure who would make the best father. If she let them see all the parts of herself she tended to keep hidden, the right one might step forward, and even stick around longer than his allocated shift — long enough to have a child with her, and stay to see it grow.

So she gave Yellow her favourite book and asked him to read it. He looked at her the way children do when they are given twice as much homework over long weekends, but she stroked his hair and told him how important it was to her that he try and finish it.

After a week she noticed her other husbands had discovered the book, and were reading it in their own ways and at their own rates. Pink slept with the book splayed open on his chest, the weight of the cover crushing the bent pages. Blue read quickly and briefly, moving the bookmark exactly two pages forward each sitting. Green read by running a finger under the words, and left the bookmark sticking out horizontally under the last line he’d read. But Red left the book hidden in unusual places. Once it was in the bathroom. Another time she found it bent and shoved down the composting drain. A third time she found it propping up the one short leg of their kitchen table. But one thing was certain: each time she found the book, the bookmark had moved backwards, moved forwards, gone missing, or returned again to the beginning.

 

When her birthday came, Husband Yellow decided to make her dinner. He told her she wasn’t allowed to do anything but sit still and let herself be waited on. It was a wonderful feeling, having everything fall into place around her. She watched the bare table turn a crisp white, the candles come alive with yellow, the mauve flowers move under the flickering light. The table was unusually steady, and she looked down to see the book propping up its one short leg. She felt weightless, as if she were cruising through the night in a sedan chair that Yellow would never let fall to the ground.

Then he placed a silver object, pronged with four spikes next to her plate. It seemed stiller than all the other objects on the table, as if it were about to rise up from the tablecloth and strike her in the face. Its colour was so slippery. It was grey for a moment, then yellow with the light of the candle, then mauve, then white. It seemed to take on the colours around it, but all the time it sat so sure of itself, with its four spikes curving their way up off the table, like the jawbone of an ancient, vicious fish.

Yellow laughed:

“Are you all right?”

“Yes I’m fine, why?”

“You’re looking at that fork very strangely.”

And she laughed too, because it was only a fork.

That night she had to watch Yellow even more closely, so that she knew what to do with the fork, the fish, and the tiny bones inside the fish. But the more she watched him, the more his face seemed to have no colour at all. She wondered why she saw him as ‘yellow’. He was more of a kind of beige, with brushed red edges. But there were hints of blue and green veins in the crooks of his elbows, and the skin around his mouth was slightly pink. She realised, staring at him pull a fish bone from his mouth, that he could have said — right then — that he was a Green Peace whale activist or a Neo Nazi, and she wouldn’t be able to say she was surprised, because she had no idea who he was.

Yellow disappeared into the kitchen, and Blue returned and placed a white ceramic dish in front of her. In it were lemon-scented mountains peaked with brown. The mountains were sinking, slowly. She watched him place the dish in front of her. He didn’t think about the way his arms moved, the way he rearranged the other things on the table to make everything fit. It was as if he had many arms, all moving faster than his brain could possibly be keeping track of — the way a spider moves: totally unaware of itself, capable of killing, but incapable of the simplest of thoughts. She couldn’t let those mindless arms touch her. As he let go of the dish he almost brushed her arm, and she flinched away just in time.

She could feel him bristling under the skin. She looked up at him and could see nothing in his face. No colour — or lots of colours, but they added up to nothing. He was looking for something in her eyes, though. It felt as if his eyes were digging into hers, turning over each cell and reading its underside, then turning them back, unable to make out the strange language she was written in.

 

She began to lose her sense of days and weeks and repeatedly forgot engagements. Her friends left abrupt messages late at night, some reminding her that she had forgotten them, some suggesting they make another time, others cutting her off altogether. She didn’t tell her husbands this, as they all seemed to be spending more and more time at work. Perhaps they were fighting each other, out there in the world - or fighting over her, and for the right to be the father of her future babies. She waited up for them every night, even on the nights none of them came home. Those nights were long, in the way a circle is long. She would sit up in bed and listen to the crickets. She began to think of them as tiny engines turning themselves over, keeping the night moving on and on, never needing fuel, never running out of steam.

One night, as she was waiting, she noticed how the crickets were oddly quiet. The night’s engine had stopped, she thought, and she felt her eyelids starting to droop. But she wanted to be here, to see the winning husband, to know who would be the father of her children, so she went to look for the book to keep the night going.

She found the book wedged behind the toilet cistern. It had been there long enough for a spider to have built a web around it. The cover was torn and the edges of the pages were stained with partially decomposed vegetables and coffee grounds. She started from the beginning, but the beginning bled into the end which looped back into the middle and the whole story (or lack of story) made her want to scrunch the book up and shove it down the composting drain.

 

Later that night, winter came. It came noisily, howling up the drainpipes and under the tin sheeting on the roof.  She’d never known a winter to begin like this. She put on two coats and went out into the garden. The olives had frozen, blackened, and dropped to the ground like gangrenous toes. The dog shivered in his kennel, too cold to yelp at the moon. There had always been a quiet, steady place she’d gone to when the winter set in. She had forgotten. She had been too busy keeping check of her husbands to think about winter, about the outside world and the stillness that could be found in it. She looked up. A few stars hung above her head, buoyed, somehow, in all that black. She had to remember to move her mouth, to unstick her lips from her teeth.

Published in the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories, May 2011


BATTLE HYMN OF A SYDNEY-SIDER

Westside Story

What gets me every time I watch Westside Story is the factional warfare. The Romeo and Juliet-style forbidden love story thumping its heartbeat against Bernstein’s sassy counter-rhythms. Tony and Marias’ was a world where people were shackled to the families they were born into, and it made me shout at the screen – no! The world wasn’t like that in 1961! They were progressive! They were all about free love and open relationships and no jealousy and they didn’t even have a class system anymore in Russia! But the awful truth is that now, in 2011, there are still families you’re not allowed to infiltrate and places you’re not allowed to go if you’re not from the right hood. The sensible truth is that sometimes that kind of exclusivity is necessary.

One of those families is the Westside Writers’ Group based at the Bankstown Youth Development Service, where you are especially not welcome if you grew up on Sydney’s North Shore. And that’s fair enough, considering the Bankstown Youth Development Service is there to service youth from Bankstown, and the Westside Writers’ Group is there to generate writing set in Western Sydney, written by those who live in Western Sydney. As a Newtown-dwelling ex-North Shore Girl, it didn’t really matter that I’d lived in Penrith for three years, this group was specifically not for me.

Westside was run by Bankstown-based actor/writer Mohammad Ahmad and captain at the helm of Giramondo, Ivor Indyk. At Westside, a collection of writers at all stages in their development sat on couches around a plate of fruit. You’d read your work out once, before everyone else jumped in, dodging the fruit, to gnaw at your sentences.

I knew I wanted to join the group after I’d seen them read at a night called Alleyway Honour as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2009. I had been slapped out of my Inner Western daze by the freshness of the writing I’d heard. At the time I was six months into running a monthly short fiction night, Penguin Plays Rough, in my flat above a convenience store in Newtown, and was starting to get bored of the wry, ironic tone that had started to white wash the night. And white wash was right: the voices that I’d selected to read at PPR were distinctly Wes Anderson-inspired, metropolitan, white, middle-class-turned-bohemian/indie/hipster voices. My face was starting to freeze in a permanent smirk. Any more irony, and my heart would have stopped from lack of use.

But at the Westside Writers’ Group’s Alleyway Honour, irony was used sparingly, and complimented by a generous splattering of heart. Listening to Luke Carman read it was clear that he was standing on the shoulders of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Dylan – but there was something so distinctly honest, brave and virtuosic about his story – something I had never heard before: the way his prose made the “Luke” inside his head, and the “Luke” in the outside world do the tango, lose their personal boundaries, and switch identities. His original idea spun through his story before finding some kind of hazy, bruised end point.

What I particularly liked about Alleyway Honour was the urgency in the stories. There was a sense that these stories had to be told, and didn’t retreat behind a veil of irony. But at the same time, they didn’t strain for earnestness or wallow in sentimentality. Alleyway Honour was not confession-on-a-stage re-iterated in the same story-formula over and over again. These writers weren’t there just because of what they saw, but because of how they, as individuals, saw and felt it.

Despite my distinct lack of western-suburbness, some time last year I managed to weasel my way into the group. I only went a handful of times over the course of the year – each time walking in with something I thought they might like, only to walk out with my confidence in ribbons and my hunger for a solid bout of idea-slinging satiated.

After a few of the meetings, the group went to the Bankstown RSL for a drink. The Bankstown RSL is like a building-sized snow globe. It has things you might find out in the world, but squished into an unassuming building opposite a carpark. Yes, it has the obligatory pokie machines, but it also has a waterfall, a mini rainforest, ballroom dancing retirees and an indoor Italian town square, hedged in on all sides by two-story chipboard house-façades.

It was in the indoor Italian piazza that Mohammad and I had our Jets vs Sharks Westside showdown. He asked me what I thought of the group, I asked him why he insists that everyone write realism. He told me that real stories from Bankstown need to be told, because no one’s telling them. I argued that if a kid in Bankstown isimagining stories about vampires – if that’s what’s really filling his or her imagination, then surely that is part of the real Bankstown. Voices rose, ideals were invoked, fists were waved at the imitation sky.

At Westside, everyone went too far, said more than they should, and had no respect for personal boundaries, which is possibly why it was so sadistically enjoyable. There was no precious toe-dipping into an issue – only running leaps and bombs right into the heart of everyone’s insecurities – and if you couldn’t take it, that was your problem. It was fun because the people there cared about something: full stops, cultural identities, vampires, you name it.

Perhaps I was particularly vocal because at one of my first Westside meetings I’d brought an allegorical story called Five Husbands to workshop. It was about a woman, with five husbands. Or the same husband. Who could tell! Brilliant. It was Lydia Davis, it was Borges, it was emotionally true, man. Or at least I felt I’d treated what had felt to be true, as if it was empirically, visibly true. It featured characters without names and was set in a non-descript place. It was met with nods, but the general criticism it received was that it didn’t have a strong enough sense of identity or place. They wanted to know what suburb it was set in, because suburbs, it seemed they believed, were the ultimate markers of identity.

Mohammad and I had had a few arguments about identity and place, but I’d been under the impression that we were having them for the love of good brain exercise, and that neither of our deep dark emotional selves were getting wounded. I agreed with Mohammad that stories from Bankstown needed to be told; that the issues raised in the writing from the group needed to be raised and written about. It’s something I care very deeply about, too, and have done ever since I started slinging the word “racist” around in my North Shore private school. But Mohammad seemed to be claiming that the only way you could write about the West, or about racism, was if you were from the West, or if you were of an ethnicity distinctly other than Anglo Saxon. This prescription made me very uneasy, possibly for selfish reasons. If I was going to apply this rule to my own situation that would mean I’d be fated to spend the rest of my life writing about the North Shore, or about Newtown – and I would like to start writing to stretch my mind away from these places, not to tread water in them.

Simultaneous to the workshops, a journal was being put together with writing from members of the group. The theme was Deep Suburbia, which in any other circumstance would make me groan with boredom, but Westside was turning out to be the Ultimate Writing Challenge that I wanted to face head on.

Because Five Husbands was met with muted glares, I thought:Fine. You want social realism? I’ll write a story about the suburbs I know, about my Grandmother (who grew up with untouchable “workers” on a plantation in Fiji), and all the racist brats I went to school with, (who said things like: “I’m not racist, but I hate it when two different races mix. It makes me sick.”), and about my own naïve, arrogant 12-year-old self who fantasised about being black.

So I did that. And brought it along to Westside, and read it out with shaking hands. The general consensus was that it was ok, and that I should finish working on it. But when it came time to putting the journal together I was told the story “wasn’t appropriate”. I called Mohammad to find out what was actually going on.

There are several different ways I could set the scene of our conversation.

Here’s one:

I was in the warehouse I lease in the inner west, the bond of which had been paid for by my North Shore-residing Grandmother (the same grandmother who grew up on a plantation in Fiji with Indian “workers”).

Mohammad had to call me back on the landline in his Dad’s army disposal shop in Bankstown, where he worked every Sunday to give his Dad a break.

The conversation was heated, voices quavered, tears were shed. If a halfway decent scriptwriter had been there, they would have tapped us on the shoulders and quietly, disparagingly shook their heads.

I believe I said at one point:

“Yes I have stayed in 5 star hotels, Mohammad, but I worked out very quickly that that didn’t make me happy.”

I believe Mohammad said at one point:

“Does anyone like me even like you? Do you even know anyone like me?”

To which I replied:

“What do you mean, “people like you”?”

“People from my background.”

“I taught English in a Detention Centre Mohammad, and they seemed to like me there."

In short, it was one of the most revealing and embarrassing conversations of my life, and the conclusion of it was that perhaps I shouldn’t go back to the group.

The Westside Writers’ Group is now no more, though I have been assured its cessation had nothing to do with our fight or my preconsciousness.

I still very much believe that all communities need to occasionally lose or gain an electron to stay energised, but I can also appreciate the necessity to bandy together in the writing world, to strengthen aesthetics or voices that are vital and not being heard elsewhere. Even if being labelled a Western Sydney Writer, or a North Shore Girl, can be limiting to those who want to lead a broader, fuller life than the few pages in Gegory’s that their labels’ prescribe them; even if identity politics is being increasingly seen as something that should stay in the nineties with Pearl Jam, the distinctions can be useful as ways of nurturing what isn’t heard, and needs to be.

I hadn’t joined Westside to blow it up from within. I had joined the group because I personally needed to hear the voices that were being fostered there, to shake up my own electrons, or to crack the smirk that had caked itself on my face from too much Inner Sydney Irony. I craved hearing stories written by people who had something urgent to say, and I still do. I will no doubt continue to try and hang with the groups that don’t want to share their sandwiches with me at lunchtime, but I might try and infiltrate them with ballet slippers next time, and leave the steel-caped boots in the shed.


The Ramon Glazov Experience

Two years ago I saw Perth-based writer Ramon Glazov read at the launch of Cutwater at Serial Space in Chippendale. Ramon was dressed in a cravat and read a tangled up Tales From Within a Beaurocracy-type story that lived up to his outfit. He was 30% Kafka 70% Alistair Cookie, and I thought: now that’s how you do a reading – whack on a plummy voice and get all ironically “literary” on everyone’s arses.

After the reading I shook Ramon’s hand. Up close, I could see that absolutely no element of the Ramon Glazov Experience is whacked on. The 30:70 Kafka:Cookie ratio is, in full light, 100% Glazov Original.

A few months ago, I was stuck for a Penguin Plays Rough reader at the last minute. I electronically bumped into Ramon on facebook and asked if he had any fiction he could read. Ramon said he only really writes creative non-fiction these days. So I asked for the most creative of his non-fiction.

Ramon responded by reading a story about his time fucking a barely legal prostitutein Burma; a story that expended a great deal of wordage commenting on the poor hygiene of her cunt and the stuffed toys on her bed.

Ramon’s reading was met with the kind of silence that might be felt in a crowded room if someone walked up to you and slapped you in the face with her labia. It wasn’t so much the content of the story, it was the ironic tone, the wry distance with which he treated his subject. A wry distance which I, ironically, might be guilty of replicating here.

Usually, when people write about prostitutes they either are one, or they sympathise with them, or they’re a football player texting his mates after a night out on the Jim Beam. But Ramon was crashing right into the middle of the Prostitution Story Arena with a big fuckoff placard that read: I Use Prostitutes for Sex and Sometimes Their Vaginas Aren’t to My Taste.

I think I could safely categorise the PPR crowd as: inner western, left-leaning, politically correct, with a sprinkling of feminist sensibilities. While we like to believe we’re spontaneous, in actual fact, many people have commented on our facebook wall that they’d like to be in bed before 11, so could we please not carry on too long. I think I could safely say that our audience found Ramon’s story an ethical struggle.

After the readings, Ramon proceeded to antagonise anyone who claimed they liked David Foster Wallace or William T Vollman, spilt wine on the floor then came with us to the Pastizzi Café. I met his eager questions and genuine attempts at conversation with cheerleader- grade standoffishness. When he was talking to my flatmate, Monica, a friend and I walked a safe distance behind and mouthed “WHAT DO WE DO?” to each other, vaguely aware that his back was prickling and that he could feel what we were saying, even if he couldn’t hear it. After the obligatory post-beer pastizzis were purchased I turned to Ramon, with a curt:

“Ramon, it’s time for you to go home now.”

“Oh. OK. No, I understand. I’m sorry Pip. I’ll go home now.”

which re-booted my conscience, and oiled up the empathy cogs.  Monica proceeded to power walk ahead of me all the way home, lock herself in the loo, and not talk to me the next day as payment for being such a royal bitch.

I didn’t sleep that night, and kept thinking about Ramon’s story. What I liked about it was that Ramon hadn’t tried to drench the story in any saccharine “rags to riches” bullshit. He hadn’t even tried to glorify his reasons for seeing the barely legal prostitute. He had written about it exactly as he had experienced it - objectification and all. He wasn’t trying to make himself out to be a hero – just a tourist partaking in a service that was offered to him. I’m still not sure I agree with Ramon’s ethical position – something that emerged from the flippancy of his tone, more so than the actual words he consciously chose - but I certainly respected his honesty, and was thankful I had the chance to try and work out exactly why it was so wrong.

I used to rant and rave about how you knew you’d seen a piece-of-fluff play if the rhythm of your conversations went something like this:

Pip and friend sitting in a theatre waiting for a play to start:

Pip: I don’t reckon we should go to that Thai place again.

Friend: No, neither.

Pip: I reckon we should go to – oh hang on, look…

 (play happens)

One hour and twenty minutes later:

Pip: Sorry - that place around the corner next time.

Friend: Yeah. Or maybe the Indian place.

Pip: Yeah.

Etc. etc.

Ramon’s story was well and truly NOT an example of (play happens). It had people talking for months (though possibly not in the most constructive of ways). I’m much more interested in that kind of writing than writing which pats me on the back for having the “right” world-view - that re-affirms my deep-seeded belief that the only men who see prostitutes in Asia are rotund CEOs with broken capillaries in a sunburst effect radiating out from their noses, or footie players who have already date-raped their way through their fans and need to get laid off-shore. Considering we run PPR within a 2 minute walk from about 3 different brothels, the ideas in Ramon’s story were quite literally closer to home than a great many of our PPR guests would probably like to think.

So I facebook messaged Ramon to apologise for my horridness, and to explain that his story had made me a little uncomfortable. This kicked off a facebook message rally that lasted weeks, and spurred other conversations with other people that would never have happened if it hadn’t been for Ramon’s story.

Which brings me to that part of my article where all the loose ends are neatly tied up in a pink Sunday School ribbon and we all feel a sense of moral certainty, completion and calm:

Ramon’s story threw into relief the kind of moral laziness we tolerate at PPR and other Sydney circles – where we hang out with people who share the same values as us, tell the same stories as us, make the same type of art as us – notwithstanding subtle differences in nuance. The Ramon Glazov Experience made me pay attention to Sydney’s art scene parochialism. Its tendency to keep its circles sealed for freshness, and to treat interlopers like bad taste-breading aomebas. I cannot count the amount of times I’ve heard an electronic artist call a poet “one of those weird writer people” or a performance artist say that they “hate theatre” or myself cruelly impersonate a slam poet.

I’m sorry, slam poets. I’ve learnt my lesson. I’ll never do it again.


Published in the Lifted Brow, No. 13