|Tessa Smith McGovern
|The Literature Group
So she says to me, Mandy, I have great faith in you; I know youll make a go of this. Probation is so much better than jail, isnt it? and I think, bloody right it is, and I give her my biggest, brightest smile, and she peers at me over her small, red-framed glasses, and shes got these warm, blue eyes that are like, No matter what youve done, Ill like you anyway. Her gray bangs have a gap, and her forehead is shiny with sweat. Her shoulder-length hair is thin, and I bet shes had that hairstyle her whole life.
She pours tea for herself, me, and the two guys sitting silently across the table. One is black, one is white, both wear gray hooded sweatshirts. I notice a pack of chocolate wafers in her bag.
The thing is, she says, were going out on quite a limb here. Its experimental, this Literature Group, and if were successful, you know, if no one gets re-arrested, well keep our funding and itll be so good for everyone who comes after you.
That obviously matters to her, so I nod. So do the two guys. Theyve seen the wafers, too.
This short story is called The Garden Party, and I think its a nice choice for a lovely summer day like today. Its by a writer called Katherine Mansfield, and were just going to read it and see what you think, okay? Mandy, why dont you do the honors while I read? she says, handing me the pack of biscuits.
So she starts reading and her voice is sort of hypnotic, like being back in junior school, which I quite liked before Mum passed, but then I couldnt stand it. I empty the biscuits onto the stained white saucer my cup of tea was sitting in, and the two pigs opposite grab the lot. She notices, but doesnt say anything, so I keep hold of whats left and eat the rest of them, one by one, and they are crispy and delicious. As shes reading, I can see the garden being set up for the party and the pink lillies and the girl in her hat who goes to visit the dead mans widowa complete stranger living in a hoveluntil suddenly she says, The end. Thats it for this week. Your assignment is to read the story again and think about it, and next week, share your thoughts, okay? And theres no wrong or right answer in this group, okay? Whatever your opinion is, is the right response.
The guys are already halfway out the door. Please remember, she calls, attendance is mandatory or we can reconsider custodial sentences. She picks up her blue file. Does she really think the notes in there are me? Mother died, alcoholic stepfather, ran away from home at age 14. Not everything is there, though. If she knew I went after him with the scissors, she might not have so much faith in me.
I want to ask, Do people still have garden parties? but I dont want to look stupid, so instead I say, Same time next week? and she nods, looking over those red (but not rose-tinted) glasses and says, Stay away from old friends and old haunts, all right, Mandy?
And thats where she loses me, because she hasnt got a clue; she thinks Ill get caught, but in all the time Ive been on my own14 to 29, whats that, 15 years? In all that time, Ive only been caught once. Because Im good. And not just good. Im the best.
* * *
That evening, I buy a kebab and a six pack of Heineken. I sit on my bed in my new bedsit, back against the wall, reading the story, while two women argue in the room below. Im trying to concentrate but the voices get louder and I have to keep starting at the beginning again. Im re-reading the bit about how lovely the garden looks before the party, and then theres a massive thump that makes the wall vibrate and I jump half out of my skin. I rip the door open and scream down the staircase, Will you shut the f*!*! up! A tall woman with long, black hair comes out of the room below, holding a bottle of Guinness. She stares up at me with such crazy eyes that I take a step backward, and at the same time she leans over and starts heaving. Vomit splashes all over the thin brown and orange carpet. No wonder this place stinks. I give up trying to read the rest of the story, grab my key and my bag, and go out for a walk, past Eskis Sports with its dirty metal shutters, past the jewelers and the Paki shop and Woolworths and the kebab shop.
And for six days, I make it just like that, no problemsleep late, go to the library where I sort of look for a job but the socials good for months yet and my bedsits paid for too, so I surf the web looking at houses with big gardens for sale and I really am doing all right, keeping my nose clean, not even thinking about lifting, not one tiny thought about how simple it would be to knock off some stuff from Woolies and sell it in the Black Horse until the morning of the second Lit. Group meeting. I wake up extra late, hungover, and with only half an hour to get ready before the bus. My room is sweltering. I open a window and even hotter air blows in. I get in the shower, thinking about The Garden Party, about pretty clothes and how much fun it would be to live like that, and this feeling like, I dont know, a cyclone or whatever, comes up inside me and I think, Its not fair! Nothings ever fair, why shouldnt I have what I want, why should I be the only one to play by the rules and have nothing my whole life? I want to be special, I want people to look at me and say, hey, whos that? I want to be Someone.
I throw on my shorts and tee shirt, go out the front way to avoid the junkies, and Im passing Eskis Sports with its metal shutters on my way to the bus stop when I think, I dont know, maybe the Group is a waste of time. You cant eat or drink a story. I could say I was ill. Id probably only get a warning. And if I did lift, I wouldnt get caught. Im too good. So I stop walking, and lo and behold, Im looking in the jewelers window, wondering why I cant see the old man who usually sits behind the counter reading a newspaper. Then I see the handwritten sign on the door: Back in ten minutes. I check my watch. Its ten to twelve. Ten minutes till the bus comes. Ten minutes till the old man comes back. I can get the bus, or wait for him and make a hit.
I step back, out of sight, and my elbow hits the shutter of the sports shop, making it rattle. I step away. The shutter is covered with black bubble graffiti that says F*!*! YOU. Above the building is empty blue sky. Somewhere, a bird is singing and the traffic is light and it barely smells of exhaust fumes and its a warm, perfect summer day. Words from The Garden Party pop into my head: They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Like summer when I was a kid, when things were easy. But what a cow that girl Laura in the story is. How stupid can you get? If I was in her shoes, Id stay in the bloody garden. She didnt know she was born. She wanted for nothing, and still she wasnt happy. And what a useless, brain-dead writer to write such a story. Look at me, world, shes saying, Im rich but look how sweet and sensitive I am! What a load of bollocks.
The old man reappears. Not the easiest place to knock off, a jewelersnot like hunting for untagged clothes and wearing them out of a department storebut hes so old, I could definitely slip something off a tray without him noticing.
And then I think of Mrs. Red Glasses at the Lit. Group, bringing the teapot to the table, checking her watch and hoping Im just late. And I imagine walking in there and sitting down, telling her right to her face how stupid that short story was, and why it made no sense in the real world. Shell be shocked, probably, when I say its stupid, except for the garden description, and if she doesnt agree with me, Ill throw her own words right back in her face: Theres no right or wrong answer, whatever your opinion is, is the right response.
I check my watch. Six minutes until the bus. I can make it if I get a move on. So I start running, and I feel my heart jumping about, like Im sort of excited, but its probably because I havent run anywhere in God knows how long, but anyway it feels good. And who knows, there could be chocolate wafers again and this time, Ill get them first.