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“Hi, my name’s Beth Spencer and I’m reading from a novel in progress and this section’s called The facts of life.
In the house across the road from the farm where I grew up – right in the middle, there was a special tiny perfectly square hallway, like a rocket. You went in and closed the door and waited, then opened another door into the bedroom. This was the way to see the baby without waking him.
… In the days when the house was still empty, Natalie and her sister Norma and I would play in there. We’d spin around and around and grab a door-handle. And then one day, instead of the musty smell, behind one of the doors, a baby crying. In the bathroom, a pair of cream fluffy His ‘n’ Her towels.
I liked to visit the zebra grass in the garden, and under the cypress tree an endlessly deep carpet of needles in which you could always (again and again) dig up terracotta flowerpots, some of them not broken at all. And a back-door and a side door. And passionfruit vines.
When my cousin’s wife Sally moved in, she gave Norma an old red lipstick and an empty perfume bottle that still smelled of perfume.
I was six when Sally’s baby was born.
I used to get terribly annoyed when we went to visit and she would go off into the bedroom to feed him, leaving us bored and restless in the living room, looking out the windows, listening to the radio, kicking our heels against the Rambler Vynex fler lounge and the triangle-shaped coffee table. Counting the stitches in the picture of the prancing horses on the black velvet ground.
“Why can’t Sally feed Gordon in here so we can see?” I moaned one day in exasperation. And my mother very quietly and matter-of-factly explained that mothers feed young babies milk from their breasts, and that was why we couldn’t watch.
I don’t remember being horrified. Perhaps because we lived on a dairy farm. But I was certainly startled. (How bizarre.) I went into the garden for a while and stripped bits of zebra grass between my teeth.
Well obviously, if Sally did feed him milk from her breasts (her naked breasts), then it was perfectly understandable that we had to wait outside.”
ABOUT BETH SPENCER:
Beth’s first book of fiction, How to Conceive of a Girl, was runner up for the Steele Rudd award. She’s also published a book of poetry, essays and newspaper columns; won the Age short story award; and written and produced work for ABC Radio National. She’s had several Literature Board fellowships, and a novel she’s been working on for a long time was also a part of her PhD.
“I was extremely fortunate to get a Writer’s Fellowship to Varuna back in the early 1990s, and again a few years later. It was a wonderful experience to feel so completely supported — even to having meals supplied — and to be in a place where writing is so deeply valued. I have had many excellent discussions with some fabulous people at Varuna over the years, as well as given readings and talks and had a book launched there. It is a truly special place.” Beth Spencer
Things in a Glass Box (SCARP/Five Islands New Poets Series, 1994)
How to Conceive of a Girl (Vintage, Random House, 1996)
Body of Words (CDs) & Box of Words (CD-Rom) – teaching resource (Dogmedia, 2004)
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