In 2022, Westerly partnered with the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP) to offer its inaugural Life Writing Prize. Here, on the Editor’s Desk, we have the pleasure and privilege of sharing two works which were Highly Commended in the Prize. First is Marina Deller’s ‘Dresses, Heavy with Water’. This will be followed by Robert Verhagen’s ‘Herinnering’.
The inaugural winner of the Prize was Suzanne Hermanoczki, with ‘Doors’. The runner-up was Lily Chan, for ‘avatar’. Both works will be published in Issue 68.1, coming in July!
If you would like to enter this year’s Prize, you can find all the information you need here. The closing date for submissions is June 30!
Dresses, Heavy with Water
We yell co-eeeee into the valley and co-eeee comes right back. Our voices bounce off red cliff faces and towering gums. The sound returns with a cadence different than our own; ephemeral, gone before it is really there. So, we call again, co-eeee! Louder this time. An echo replies and we burst into fits of laughter. Elisa clutches my arm.
‘Let’s call ourselves The Valley Girls,’ she says, ‘our very own radio show.’
The booming echoes do sound a lot like the voices which emanate from our parents’ tinny car stereos. Those very grown-up grown-ups who talk about books and the news and the state of the government. We are ruled by something else, though. When we are eight, we don’t know about Prime Ministers and Cabinets and Budgets and Elections. Instead, we are enthralled by the warbling of magpies as the sun sets. We are puzzled by the possums which scratch their way up inside the walls and chew the TV wires, causing black outs. We are fascinated by the tadpoles which slip through caged fingers in rocky streams. We are governed by sunburned necks and freckly arms.
Elisa says, ‘What do you reckon? What about The Valley Girls?’
So, we become The Valley Girls. We struggle, huff, and puff; we push Elisa’s trampoline right against the fence which encloses her back yard. My parents would be mad—the back fence meets the bush and the bush means snakes. Once, while we were watching Elisa’s dad build a gazebo, carting thick slabs of wood back and forth from the house to the yard, a brown snake slithered right past us. Elisa’s dad chased it down with a shovel while we watched, wide-eyed.
Later, Elisa’s family will build a pool in this very spot—but for now it is crispy, wheat-like grass. We figure we’ll be safe atop the trampoline, so up we climb. We take it in turns bouncing and yelling.
‘Hello everyone, welcome to our show,’ yells Elisa.
‘We are The Valley Girls! We are going to talk to you about our radio show,’ I boom.
‘First, let’s sing a song,’ Elisa suggests.
‘Yes, it’s the most famous song of all!’ I reply.
We spend the afternoon yelling the mangled lyrics of songs which our parents sing, songs we know from school, songs our older siblings let us listen to but which we aren’t meant to know. We sing with gusto and delight in the echoes which return to us, altered, fractured, but assuredly ours.
After a while, our legs buckle and pesky mozzies perch on our arms. We scratch viciously with our nails even though we know it’ll make it worse. We can’t help scratching anyway.
‘Let’s go inside,’ Elisa suggests and loops her arm through mine. We trudge towards the warm glow of a window against a bruising sky.
We spend most afternoons together acting out plays and dances for our parents. We hide when they say it is time to go home. We convince each other that eating soursobs can give us special powers and that each of us has, at one point or another, met an actual real-life fairy. We climb the itchy-pod tree in my back garden (despite stern warnings) and are left tearing at our arms and knees, ornamenting our skin in thin red trails. We didn’t learn from the mozzie bites.
Elisa makes me watch Jurassic Park but doesn’t make fun when I cover my eyes for half the movie. She does tell me to look, though, when the engineered-to-die-first character is eaten by a T-rex while sitting on the loo. She knows I’ll find it funny. She knows it’ll make me less scared.
When I sleep at her house—which is often—we eat slabs of squeaky cheese as a late-night snack. In the mornings, to our delight, rosellas tap at her windowsill.
‘They’re my friends,’ she says, ‘they visit me almost every day.’
I tell her about the magpies I used to feed on my back porch when I was younger. How their smooth beaks, pointed at the ends, pressed gently into my palms, searching. They made my little brother squeal in delight.
‘I wish I’d known you since we were little,’ she says, without realising we are still as good as babies. We are fresh to this world and already old to each other.
We take family trips together. We sit in the boot of Elisa’s parents’ car, ice-cream dripping into our laps as we watch her brother play games on a hand-held device. When we tire of watching the screen, we retrieve our stuffed-toy dogs from pride of place on our bunk beds. We tie real leashes to their throats and drag them across caravan parks, over dust and grass and asphalt that smells faintly of chlorine.
We spend hours at night huddled by the camp light, gently untangling the burrs caught in their coats.
We go to an event—a wedding, maybe?—and afterwards someone suggests the beach. Small feet on hot sand, we rush into the surf, our skirts whipping in the wind. We plunge into foamy sea; our dresses are heavy with water, our motions slow. We flick salty spray at one another until we are salt-scrubbed and sun-dazed. That week Elisa’s olive tone deepens, while my freckled skin blisters pink and raw.
We are only parted once in those early years. Elisa and her family jet off to Italy. She sends me a postcard; my first piece of mail. She writes my name in green marker and tells me that the Colosseum is famus. The postcard almost makes up for the fact that she is oceans away.
When she’s home we sit at her kitchen table, legs swinging. Wide windows sweep across one side of the room and wooden beams hang overhead. A view of the city glints in the distance. We can see the tops of buildings glowing in the hazy afternoon sun.
We are in the company of our mothers. Elisa’s mum hands us milky cups of coffee with two sugars each. She laments, ‘I really wanted a new leather bag, but I didn’t have a reason to get one. So, I filled my old handbag with nothing more than sandwiches and bottled water and kept turning my back on it, praying someone would steal it.’
Elisa and I look at each other, amazed at being let in on our mothers’ chatter. ‘Did anyone take it?’ Mum asks between sips of coffee.
‘No! And we were stuck with sandwiches for lunch. Ugh, right?’ Elisa’s mum directs this to Elisa, who giggles.
‘But we did get gelato afterwards,’ Elisa says.
‘That’s true, you can’t go to Italy without eating gelato every single day,’ Elisa’s mum says. She launches into descriptions of the food, the sights, the people. My mum talks about the backpacking she did when she was young, and how she often chose gelato over proper meals because her budget was so tight. Elisa and I listen, rapt.
We chat with our mothers the way we imagine adult friends might do, laughing at their anecdotes and nodding along. We sip our coffees and swing our legs at double-speed and don’t for a second realise that they’ve given us decaf.
We play a video game we shouldn’t be playing. Well, Elisa plays it and I watch. We close the door to the computer room and turn the screen of the computer. The game is set in a seaside town where pirates roam and women heave seductively out of wooden windows to yell at passers-by.
The objective is to complete tasks—sell wares, find mutineers, assemble treasure maps. All that is innocent enough. Less innocent is the reward: images that reveal themselves when we finish a mission. Women who reveal themselves, splayed and pink and wide-eyed. They’re drawings, not photos, and their exaggerated features seem so alien. Extra-long limbs and balloon-like breasts light up the screen.
We are old enough to know we shouldn’t be playing the game but not old enough to understand why. We don’t understand why these images are such a prize. We click past them, hastily, hurrying to the next mission.
We go to different high schools. We still spend time together whenever we can, mostly on weekends, mostly in a group with our shared friends, Georgia and Merle.
We buy burgers from the local joint, or window shop at Westfield. If it’s rainy we hole up at one of our houses. Georgia shows us how to strum a few guitar chords, Merle makes a mean lentil curry and we spin around on desk chairs until we feel sick. Half-children, half-grown. I treasure these times, but they feel far and few between, and I struggle to keep up with all the changes, everything new in their worlds. Elisa, Georgia and Merle are all at the same school now.
‘How funny was Mr. Colt’s speech in assembly the other day?’
‘Alisha told Chris that she likes him! But I know Chris actually likes Jess.’
‘Jess is such a rule breaker—she never wears the right socks.’
I don’t know who, or what, they’re talking about. I feel I am watching through the wrong end of a telescope. And we—I—feel the uncomfortable weight of our individuality, our separateness.
I see Elisa for what feels like the first time in years. In reality, it’s not even been ten months since we were at school together. We hung out with Georgia and Merle a few weeks ago, but still, change swirls like a hurricane. My mum is sick and I can hardly concentrate on anything at all.
To be sitting on Elisa’s bed, cross-legged, is a grounding force I didn’t know I needed. To give her dog a scratch behind the ears is soothing. We spend the afternoon rearranging her bookcases full of toys, shoes, trinkets and, of course, books.
She keeps animal figurines, clay statues. She keeps those Psycho Bum books she used to love so much. The sight of them makes us laugh.
‘I don’t want to forget what I liked when I was a kid,’ she says, running her hand across dozens of tiny fluorescent bums all face-out on the spines.
We are admiring our tidying handiwork when she says, ‘You know how my mum wrote a book?’
‘Well, it has sexy bits in it.’ She says the words in a hushed tone, as if her mum could hear from two floors below.
‘Like with all the bits and everything? Oh no…’ I lament when I see her nodding solemnly.
‘Mum’s book has a sex scene. I was flicking through the pages and somehow that’s what I opened it to. I almost had a heart attack!’
‘I’ve done the same!’ I tell her, ‘I was poking around Dad’s office looking for a USB to save my English homework. He had a poetry book open, face up, on his desk. I read the poem it was open to. It was about sex; biting necks and hands down pants and that sort of thing. When I flipped to the cover I realised it was his book. His poem. I’ve never ran out of a room so fast.’
Elisa laughs, comforted by our shared horror.
‘What on earth is it with grown-ups and sex? What’s so good about it anyway?’ She asks earnestly, as if I have the answer. We both remember the pixelated women, legs spread, from our computer screen.
‘It seems like a lot of effort, kinda like exercise,’ I half-joke. ‘None of it sounds like any fun at all. Wouldn’t it hurt if someone grabbed your boobs?’
She leans back on her bed and looks towards the ceiling. ‘I know, right,’ she replies. Then, thoughtfully, her head tilting in my direction: ‘Let’s never grow up. Like, let’s get sexy and stuff but we can be kids on the inside still.’
We dress up for Halloween as a sexy nurse (Elisa) and a sexy pirate (me). We dance with people we know well and people we don’t know well at all, and take pictures in a random driveway. No one emerges to berate us, so we snap away for a good fifteen minutes. We fling our hands around each other, Elisa’s arm presses against my exposed waist, and we smile wide for the camera.
Another party. A group of us are standing in a circle in a cosy kitchen playing spin the bottle. When it’s my turn, the bottle spins and spins and stops; points right to her.
She laughs, her shiny dark hair swaying. I am suddenly aware of myself. I’m aware of the floor, cool under my bare feet. She moves towards me. And then, without skipping a beat, her lips meet mine. Ashy-mouthed from weed and cigarettes, throat sore from coughing, we kiss. My first time kissing a girl. My only time kissing Elisa.
By the end of the night I’ve kissed everyone in attendance and seemingly obliterated any profound meaning the kiss might’ve had. But as I think about it now it only feels proper, only feels right, that the bottle pointed to Elisa that first time around.
In art class I paint a picture of us. I paint us running into the surf in our best dresses—an echo of a memory. I have to imagine the colours of the dresses. Mum is really sick, and home is weird, and our teachers are telling us to think about the future. The only sanctuary is this classroom; the paints smell like sweet oil and the faint din of boys playing footy nearby is the perfect soundtrack to paint the past.
We run into each other on a train platform. It’s been two weeks since Mum had brain surgery and longer still since I’ve left the house. My friends from uni have invited me to watch a play in the city and it sounds like fun. I’m telling myself it’ll be fun.
The train station is only a few metres from my house—an all-uphill walk. By the time I swing myself onto the train I’m puffing, out of breath. I sit and watch damp greenery dancing past as I try to calm my breathing. Instead, I feel a pulling sensation in my chest. It’s squeezing my lungs, my throat. An elastic band attaching me to Mum is stretching and stretching the further the train trundles from home.
My heart thumps in my ears as I leap off the train at the very next stop.
I tap on my phone:
I’m so sorry I can’t come after all. Mum can’t be alone.
The replies are instant:
That’s completely okay
You take care!
Sending love xx
I keep my phone open to check when the next train is due: eight minutes. I pop headphones into my ears and hit ‘play’ at the very moment Elisa calls my name.
I pull the headphones out of my ears when I see her cheery smile. I haven’t seen her in months. Not that I really see anyone all that much right now.
She greets me with a hug. I have an overwhelming urge to tell her everything—to rest my head on her familiar shoulder and let it all out. I don’t. I pull back and match her smile.
‘Elisa! It’s been ages. How are you?’
‘Oh, I’m okay, you know,’ she shrugs. ‘But more importantly, how are you? I am so sorry about everything that’s happening. Your mum’s the last person who deserves this.’
Now it’s my turn to shrug and sigh, even though I can feel the elastic still tugging at my chest, begging me to head home.
‘Oh, thank you… knowing we have good people around us helps.’ Then I hastily change the topic: ‘What are you doing here? Heading home?’
We chat about uni, about our families, about the best TV shows we’ve seen recently. As we stand on the edge of the platform and talk as if no time has passed, little water droplets begin to fall and sit atop our hair like stars. Too soon my train pulls up with a loud low horn.
I pull Elisa into a one-armed hug and she says, ‘My parents are out of town right now. I’m going to have a birthday party this weekend. You should come!’
I reply, ‘Maybe! Hopefully I’ll see you soon either way,’ and step onto the warm train, relieved to be heading home. As the train pulls away, I watch Elisa waving heartily through the grimy window.
I see the photos on Facebook—photos from the party I didn’t go to. Elisa is wearing a tight grey dress and a brilliant, half-laugh smile. I flick through snap after snap of her smiling, laughing, dancing. Little streams of light rain down upon her; the movement of a drunken photographer showering her in gold.
‘She’s gone,’ Mum tells me with her arms wrapped tightly around my body. We are standing—embracing—in a patch of sunlight in Mum’s study. I can feel Mum’s bones; the treatments are whittling her away. It takes me a moment to realise what she means.
Elisa’s parents are overseas when she dies. They fly back immediately, but not quick enough to ID her body. Her brothers are the ones who have to do that. They tell me this over whisky at her memorial ‘after-party’ in a local bar.
I don’t order my own drink. I’m technically old enough but it still feels strange. I’m used to sneaking pineapple flavoured concoctions in backpacks and playing spin the bottle with the empties, so, instead of heading to the bar, I take tiny sips from her brothers’ glasses. Even tiny sips burn.
I rest my cheek—hot, liquor-flushed—on one brother’s shoulder. His face looks so much like hers that, just for a moment, I can pretend.
We—the people who love her—sit in a spiral, chairs winding out in big circles. I sit one or two rows back from the middle, with Georgia and Merle and their other friends from school who I never got to know well enough. There are also people from primary school, people I haven’t seen since I was eleven or twelve. Their faces look much the same. I wonder how I look to them.
The event is a nice one with singing and guitar and writing and reading letters to Elisa. I prepared a letter beforehand. Writing it felt strange, like a lie. How could I write about her in the past tense when mere days earlier she waved at me as my train pulled away? But I did write it. And I said the things I should’ve.
At the event I see Elisa’s parents and it takes everything in me not to fall into their arms. I want to hold them, want them to hold me. I want them to know that this pain is not theirs alone. I know that this pain is theirs alone. I’m not sure what claim I can lay to it, other than the fact I can feel it so deeply within my chest.
I give them quick, strong, hugs and tell them, ‘I love her.’ I want them to know how much I mean it. I mean it in the present tense, in all tenses. I loved her, I love her, I will love her always.
After Elisa’s death, her mum gives me a present. It is a ceramic mermaid perched on a jagged rock. The clay sea-maid has a blue tail and ginger hair and is coated in a gloss which makes her glow. The rock she sits on is not glossy, it is gritty to the touch and sand-like. Its edges have been pressed into points by the hands of the ceramicist.
The accompanying card from Elisa’s mum tells me that the mermaid once sat on a shelf in Elisa’s nursery, watched over her. Maybe it can do the same for me, she says.
I place the mermaid on a bookshelf next to a clay statue of Mum’s hands entwined with mine. A shrine of sorts.
The mermaid makes me think about rushing into the ocean in our best dresses. It makes me think about painting us in the ocean, as swipes of colour and movement.
When Elisa and I were small we were convinced we were magic. We thought we could talk to the ocean. We thought that eating soursobs would grant us powers. We thought that animals would talk to us if we listened hard enough. We were so solemn in these imaginings, so invested. We shared an imagination, a sense of wonder. It was not separate to us, or individual to us, but shared. We thought that growing up was strange and unknowable. We thought we might avoid it.
Now my birthday makes me think of Elisa. She will always be nineteen, I will always grow older, grow further away from the self I was when I was by her side. We are no longer in the same world—in some ways we are no longer a ‘we’. But we’ve both owned this mermaid. We’ve both held these memories. And I can keep holding them for the two of us.
Marina Deller is a writer, bookseller and critic with a PhD in Creative Writing from Flinders University of South Australia. Their work appears in InDaily, The Conversation, Voiceworks, Archer and Baby Teeth Journal, and was shortlisted for the 2021 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction and highly commended in the 2022 AAWP/Westerly Magazine Life Writing Prize. When they aren’t chatting books they tell stories of identity, bodies and grief.