The World According to Renee

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Lyric: An Original Short Story

The late afternoon sun wasn’t yet orange; instead it hung like a bright golden ball sinking ever lower in the sky. Lyric checked the clock again although barely ten minutes had passed since she had last glanced at it. Still another half hour until close with nothing much left to do. Her supervisor, Margery, was in the office busily typing up reports or short stories or updating the website. Lyric honestly didn’t care what Margery did, but she was sure Margery didn’t spend all that time in the office doing actual work. Supervising was far too important to do menial work, like replacing books to their proper shelves or stamping library cards for kids.

Lyric glanced around the library again. Old Pete was sitting in his usual spot, reading caravanning magazines that he had already read a hundred times. A young woman was browsing the teenage fiction, stationed in front of the supernatural romance genre that the library had highlighted for the month. Over at the cafe in the centre of the library, the barista Daniel waved to her as he wiped the tables for the millionth time that day. Lyric smiled and waved back. There was a lone man sitting at the cafe tables, oblivious to everything except the book in front of him. She watched as Daniel tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the clock, probably telling him the library was closing soon. The man grabbed his book, slurped the last of his iced coffee and meandered lazily towards the toy room at the very back of the library. Realising she hadn’t yet locked the toy room, Lyric grabbed the key and followed. The man was unsuccesssfully trying to coax a young girl into leaving the big foam blocks she was jumping on.

“Toys open tomorrow?” Enquired the young girl.

“Yes, baby, the toys wil be open again tomorrow. Did you want to borrow this book about trains? Or did you want the one about the yellow dinosaur?”

“RAWR!” Said the young girl. The man smiled.

“Excuse me,” interrupted Lyric. “I need to lock the toy room.” The man and the young girl watched as Lyric twisted the key into the ancient lock until the door clicked.

“Toy room open tomorrow?”

Lyric kneeled so she could look into the girl’s eyes. “It sure will be! What’s your name, princess?”

“I Melody,” said the little girl proudly, offering Lyric her book about trains.

“Hi Melody, I’m Lyric. Will you be back again tomorrow? We’ll be having a story time at ten thirty. Parents welcome,” she added, looking up at Melody’s father.

“Ethic,” said the man, smiling. “My name is Ethic.”

“Ethic is an unusual name,” Lyric commented, standing up to her full height. “And Melody… well, it seems like we’re destined to meet.” Melody let go of her father’s hand and ran off to the colouring table.

Ethic laughed. “I was brought up in a religious community,” he replied. “I have a sister named Prayer, if you can believe that. Anyway, you can’t talk. What kind of name is Lyric?”

“My father was conductor for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and my mother was the lead violinist. They were hoping I’d be musically inclined as well.”

“And are you?”

“Hardly. I hated playing piano, I wasn’t allowed to play the drums, I sing like a dying banshee and I’ve forgotten how to read music. I’m more of the artistic type,” Lyric explained. “Painting, mostly. Some of my artwork is hanging in the foyer.

“Well, let’s get these books borrowed.” Lyric, still holding the trains book, started walking towards the front desk, hoping Ethic was following after a detour to retrieve Melody, who was colouring a picture of Alice sitting on a mushroom opposite the Caterpillar.

“Oh. The self serve is down?”

“Um, I just switched it off,” lied Lyric. “So close to closing; I don’t think anyone else is going to be borrowing anything today.” Old Pete never borrowed the caravanning magazines, and the teenager perusing supernatural romance looked to be losing interest.

Lyric swiped each book, chatting with Ethic about favourite authors and subjects. He was interested in astronomy, but upon discovering a lack of viable career options, had settled for IT instead.

“Well,” began Lyric as she finished lending the books, “These are due back in a month, here’s your reminder slip, and of course we’ll send out a text a couple of days before they’re due.” As Ethic took his books, he deliberately brushed his hand against Lyric’s. She inhaled briskly, sure her face was blushing.

“So… You haven’t taken the hint yet, so I guess I need to ask directly. Would you like to have coffee with me?” Ethic smiled. Lyric accepted. As he left the library, Ethic made special note of the artwork hanging in the foyer, particularly the ones bearing Lyric’s name at the bottom.

Romance wasn’t on Lyric’s mind as she met Ethic for coffee several times over the next few weeks. They chatted casually about the world and their place within it. They dissected overseas political issues, raising debate about how the North Korean missile crisis should be handled. Before the conversation became too heated, they caught each others’ eyes and laughed.

“Is this how you pictured your immediate future?” Ethic asked one day.

“Well, no,” admitted Lyric. “But who ever thinks they’re going to meet someone, especially while working?”

“I wouldn’t say working at a library would be exactly challenging,” mentioned Ethic casually.

Lyric almost choked on her latte. “Pardon?”

He shrugged. “What’s there to do? Put back books, help cute guys borrow books, explain to old people how to use the computer. It just doesn’t sound like a hard job.”

“Shows what you know. Anyway, my shift starts in half an hour. I’d better get going. I have to mentally prepare for helping cute guys borrow books and explain to oldies how to use the computers.” Her words came out more bitterly than she intended, but Ethic grinned it off.

“I can’t pretend I’m doing anything in half an hour. Going back to the office and having more coffee,” he said smugly. Ethic was the team leader for cyber security and was pretty lax about the whole thing. Lyric wondered if he actually did any work or delegated everything to his team. She smiled to herself, comparing Ethic to her own supervisor Margery: neither seemed to do anything vaguely important.

Still, Lyric found herself falling for Ethic faster than she’d expected. Despite her reservations about his sense of humour, she was otherwise enchanted by him, and Melody, of course. She hadn’t seen Melody since that first day at the library; Melody lived with her mother most of the time, something which Ethic didn’t speak much about. Obviously it was a sore issue, thought Lyric.

A couple of months into their new relationship, Lyric invited Ethic and Melody shopping. “The real test of a relationship is whether someone can handle a woman’s retail therapy,” smiled Lyric as she snuggled into Ethic late one Saturday morning. Ethic laughed and kissed her forehead.

“I’m game,” he chuckled.

Lyric’s shopping centre of choice was one of the biggest in the country. Sprawling over four levels, with over a hundred stores per level, Lyric was in heaven. Melody ran from store to store, calling Ethic to watch her play with a toy or to find her while she hid behind a rack of clothes.

As Lyric paid for a set of magnetic blocks for Melody, Ethic looked on with a concerned expression. “I didn’t know a librarian earned so much,” remarked Ethic. “We’ll have to do something about that.”

Lyric’s forehead furrowed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Just that, as a man, I’m supposed to earn more than a woman. Especially one is who just puts books away eight hours a day.”


Ethic shrugged. “Look, I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s nothing. Let’s just enjoy our day, OK?”

Lyric felt uneasy as she browsed. Ethic refrained from further comment. As she opened her wallet to pay for an off-the-shoulder maxi dress, she felt Ethic’s eyes burning into her. She turned to see him quickly pick up a necklace, holding it up to Melody’s neck. I shouldn’t be feeling guilty for buying this dress, thought Lyric. She shook the negative thoughts from her head as she made small talk with the cashier, who gushed how great Lyric looked while wearing the dress. “Is it for a special occasion?” Winked the cashier, glancing at Ethic. Lyric smiled weakly, took the bag containing her new dress. Her eyes followed Ethic, who was already walking out the door.

“No,” Lyric replied to the cashier. “I’ve had my eye on this for ages and it’s on sale now…” She bit her lip. Ethic’s remark about her wage still stung.

“Even better! How great is it that you can grab a bargain? Especially one that complements you so well,” the cashier drawled, slipping the receipt over the desk for Lyric to take.

The rest of the shopping expedition passed without further incident. Still, the early exchange left Lyric feeling guilty. No matter her wage, she was entitled to buy whatever she wanted!

“Well, I think you did well,” conversed Lyric later that afternoon.


“You followed me into all the stores and didn’t once wait at the seats.”

“What seats?”

“You know, the seats! You often see men waiting on them when their wives are trying on shoes or something.”

“I’d follow you anywhere,” soothed Ethic, wrapping his arms around to pull her closer for a kiss.

Lyric was working when Margery broke the news. “That singer you like? He’s doing a tour and tickets are on sale next week.” Margery, obviously feeling she deserved a break after delivering good news, shut herself in the office again, leaving Lyric on the floor alone.

When Lyric searched for herself using the public computers, she found Ed Sheeran was indeed touring. Her heart gave a little flutter. The library was empty; the barista Daniel had put on some music and was dancing while cleaning the coffee machine. Lyric texted Ethic. She already knew he wasn’t a fan but maybe he’d still like to come with her to the concert.

Are you sure you can afford it? He replied.

Yes. Why are you so concerned about my finances? She wrote, but after re-reading it she deleted it. It irked her that he thought himself in charge of her money.

She ignored his text, vowing to speak to him later about it.

As Lyric drove home, she rehearsed what she was going to say when she met up with Ethic for dinner. He was coming over and said he had a surprise. He was probably bringing Melody, although Lyric was sure this was the week she was away with her mother. Confidence oozing from her pores with the prepared speech she was going to give, she was ready when he knocked on her door. He was wearing a huge smile and holding a bouquet of purple irises. The flowers took her by surprise; Ethic wasn’t known for splurging money on things destined for the bin in a few days.

“What’s this in honour of?” She gasped.

“I passed them on my way here. I couldn’t resist, they remind me of your eyes.” Lyric’s rehearsed speech melted from her mind as he kissed her. She broke away only to stir the meaty spaghetti sauce – it was not a kiss she would voluntarily leave.

“I grew up vegetarian,” admitted Ethic when dinner was served. “I was twenty before I knew people ate animals, and twenty two before I realised how delicious animals were!”

“Tell me more about how you grew up,” encouraged Lyric, leaning close to him, brushing his arm with her hand. Ethic regaled his unusual childhood growing up in a cult. Only he didn’t call it a cult; it was a ‘religious community’. A self-sufficient community growing their own vegetables and grains, several prayer sessions every day and a sermon every evening after supper. Lyric was fascinated. She’d read about Jim Jones’ Jonestown and wondered how someone can be so charismatic as to brainwash a thousand people to commit suicide. Listening to Ethic, she saw how people can fall under a superstitious spell. Ethic was born into the community and genuinely did not know the wider world outside the walls. His sister Prayer was still part of the community, raising her own family.

“Did you ever think of changing your name?”

He shook his head. “It’s the name I was given, it’s the only name I’ve ever known. It’s a reminder of where I came from, who I am, was and will be. I can’t see that changing,” he said.

Lyric had made chocolate mousse for dessert. Sure, it was from a packet and all she had to do was stir some milk into the powder, but Lyric argued there was still a certain skill in getting the mousse light and airy instead of a dense mess. She also didn’t mention she sometimes made the mousse all by herself whilst watching Bridget Jones films…

“Mmm, this is delicious, Lyric,” he gushed, savouring each mouthful of the silky mousse. Lyric beamed. He could be so charming! He was brought up so constricted, so suffocated, that it took time to learn to speak his mind. It wasn’t his fault. His filter wasn’t quite refined yet. She dismissed it as a character flaw and chose to see him as a perfect person still on a journey of self discovery and learning.

As their relationship progressed, Lyric began making plans for a romantic weekend away at a secluded cabin in the hinterland. She made sure it was his weekend without Melody. She encouraged him to pack suitable clothes by giving him subtle hints about where they were going. She would drive as to keep the destination a secret until they arrived. Ethic had been so nice lately! He’d surprised her with a date night at the movies, Gold Class no less. He had been really sweet, with only occasional jabs which always made her squirm. Still, she was able to overlook these jabs because he always made up for it.

“Was he cute?”

Lyric snapped around. “What?”

“That guy you were looking at through the rear mirror. Was he cute?”

She spat out her words. “It’s the rear view mirror! I can’t even see the driver behind me, let alone make judgements on their looks. Give it a break, will you?”

Her grip tightened on the wheel as Ethic questioned how often she continued to check her mirrors. He looked behind him, trying to gauge the driver behind her. Anger and frustration built up in Lyric even though Ethic wasn’t talking to her. It was his simple actions of constantly looking behind them as she drove. After several minutes, she indicated and pulled over to the side of the road.

“Stop it! Just stop! I am driving, not checking out other guys. Do you want to get to the cabin or not? Because I am this close to just giving up and going home. On my own,” she added dramatically as he opened his mouth to protest. She stormed out of the car, slamming the door behind her. Annoyed, he followed her. Lyric couldn’t go too far; the embankment was too steep and the car was blocking the shoulder. Lyric just needed a minute to catch her breath and calm down.

“Babe, come here.”

He stepped forward to pull her close. Lyric stepped backwards, catching her ankle in a hole by the side of the road, stumbling backwards, precariously close to falling down the embankment. He tried to catch her. She pushed him away, falling hard on her hip. She caught her tears before they fell. Surely he’d have some smart arse remark if she cried.

“I’m done,” she announced. “This constant jealousy, wanting to control what I do and what I earn, I’m done. We’re over.”

Ethic breathed hard. “Babe, I can change. I promise. I’m just afraid of losing you. Come here, let’s just go to the cabin, we’ll talk it out. I’ll change. I love you,” he pleaded.

Lyric took a moment to compose herself and her next words. “No, you can’t change. You shouldn’t change. That’s you. I’m driving you home. I’m not going to do this anymore.”

As Lyric lay on the comfy couch in the romantic cabin, sipping chilled champagne and eating chocolate dipped strawberries, she smiled. “Happy Valentines’ Day,” she wished herself.


February 15, 2018 Posted by | Short Stories | , , , , | 1 Comment

Perfection: An original short story

Mother and child silhouette

Jenny was a Presbyterian Princess. Her hair was golden blonde. Her cherubic face housed an angelic smile and innocent blue eyes. She sang in the church choir with talk of auditioning for a television talent show, but Jenny was too shy. She believed in Heaven and Hell, telling her school friends she was guaranteed a place in heaven because of her faith. Some of her friends weren’t so lucky. They would be spending eternity bathed in Hellfire for unconfirmed sins which only God knew and Jesus could save them. Knowing her ultimate fate gave Jenny a sense of completeness, a knowing, a calmness. She knew. Everyone wanted to be Jenny’s friend. Just being near her brought peace.

By twelve, Jenny had budding breasts and had caught the eye of her male peers. Jenny’s female peers became envious of this sudden attention. They wished they could speak coolly like her, have golden blonde hair and the boys’ attention. Her face, still angelic, drew peoples’ gaze wherever she went. It’s cool to be Jenny.

Rae considered herself Jenny’s best friend, living next door to her. Despite their friendship, Rae felt plain. She did not worship Jenny the way most people did, however she did feel an aura of popularity because Jenny spoke to her. Rae had mousy brown hair, wore glasses, needed braces but too poor to afford them, and wore plain clothes. Rae held intelligence she wasn’t sure Jenny possessed. Rae had been brought up on the fringes of Christianity; her parents attended church occasionally but now her mother was into spiritualism, tarot cards and crystals. Rae adhered to the idea of Heaven and Hell, believing there was no reason she would be sent to Hell. Rae was good, obeyed her parents and kept her room tidy.

“You’re wrong,” said Jenny one day. “You tell fortunes and worship crystals. The bible forbids that, so you’re going to Hell!”

Why would Jenny say something so mean, unless it was true? Jenny was her best friend, and best friends don’t lie. It’s hard to be Jenny.

In her twenties, Jenny developed a product called Fanny Fit, which could be used to strengthen pelvic muscles. It was a hit- woman all over the world wanted one, especially those who’d had children. Jenny became even more popular, her finances quickly growing to match her dreams. She married Timothy McBeale, a successful, older, extremely handsome businessman . Early in their marriage, he was offered a very attractive deal to work in New York, so Jenny packed up her life and they moved to the commerce capital of the world. Fanny Fit took on a life of its own. Jenny watched her one product spawn several products, worth even more money. She was delighted with her success. Her life in New York was perfect: she was a socialite, seen in all the right places with the right people. Her husband worked hard, earning more money than anyone could spend in one lifetime. Eventually,, Jenny sold her business for an undisclosed amount, rumoured to be several hundred million dollars. It’s rich to be Jenny.

Rae lived a different life. She moved from Sydney after her parents divorced, living briefly near Melbourne before finally settling on a large rural block north of Brisbane. She kept horses and dogs, living on the proceeds from her creative works sold online and at local markets. One of her artworks, a large mural featuring the view from her back verandah, caught the attention of a senior politician in Canberra, who commissioned several pieces for his office and Christmas presents for his friends. Rae was comfortable, but wouldn’t describe herself as happy. She survived. Her daughter and grandson lived several hours’ drive away, but they always visited on holidays and for extended stays in summer. Rae and Jenny stayed in touch via irregular emails and the even rarer phone calls. Some years, Rae would receive a Christmas card from Jenny, with an update on how perfect her life was, but how lucky Rae was to have a child.

By the time Jenny and her husband were ready to have a child, Jenny was considered geriatric. However, she fell pregnant naturally and quickly. Her pregnancy was uncomplicated despite her age. Of course, she saw the very best doctors with the very best health care and the very best hospitals. Neither Jenny nor Tim were in any way concerned about their unborn son, who was destined to be the shining light not only in their world but the entire world. He would be someone. Jenny fantasised about the kind of mother she would be: walking around Central Park with baby in his stroller, highlighting her beautiful boy on social media to attract the very best sponsors who would happily pay for her son to wear their clothes and use their products. He would be a household name by his fifth birthday, raking in his own deals to secure his future. Jenny would lovingly feed and attend to her son, smiling through his tears, soothing him to sleep, taking afternoon naps while he slept next to her. She would teach him all about the world. He would be intelligent and worldly like his father, angelic and God-fearing like his mother. He would be kind yet ambitious, climbing the corporate ladder to eventually run his own wildly successful corporation, right here from New York City. Jenny sighed with happiness. Jenny’s life had always been perfect. Her son would be the pinnacle of her happiness. It’s perfect to be Jenny.

Except it wasn’t. Her labour progressed normally for several hours, until a sudden surge of pain tore through her body. Jenny could see the pained faces of her birthing team as blood began gushing from her. She needed an emergency C section. Tim squeezed her hand as she was wheeled into surgery. Woozy with pain, blood loss and baby joy, Jenny’s first glimpse at her new son was not what she expected.

“This is the wrong baby,” she slurred.

“This is your son, Mrs McBeale,” assured the doctor. “The cord is still attached.” He handed Tim an instrument, clamped the cord and Tim cut through the cord with an exuberant grin on his face. His son was born!

Jenny shook her head. “No!” She tried to scream. “This is not my son!”

Jenny’s son had a cleft palate, and his tiny beating heart was visible under the skin. Tim soothed his wife but she was not listening.

“Mrs McBeale, we need to check your son… but I have to tell you to prepare yourself for the worst.”

Surgery on the newborn was a success to everyone except Jenny. She resented this thing, this creature, for impersonating her perfect child. She argued with the doctors that they had switched the baby. She screamed at Tim for conspiring with the doctors to give her an imperfect child. Her real son would not require surgery. He would be born perfect, like newborns should. This child was imperfect. His cleft palate would hardly be noticeable in a few years, she was assured, but he would require surgery on his heart frequently as he grew. No one was able to offer an explanation as to why her son suffered these atrocities of nature. Jenny had another explanation.

“I have sinned,” she confessed to the hospital chaplain.

“What is your sin?”

Jenny gulped back her tears. “I do not know, Father. But I am being punished! My son… he is deformed. It’s punishment for my sins.”

The chaplain reassured her that God does not punish babies for their mothers’ sins, but Jenny could not be placated. She insisted the chaplain leave. If he didn’t believe her, who else would? She yelled at God; her screams could be heard from the nurses’ station. A psychologist was summoned but she too was thrown from Jenny’s room. For the first time in her life, Jenny did not talk to God. He had betrayed her. She was a sinner, destined for the eternal fiery pits of Hell with an ugly creature instead of a son.

Jenny and her unnamed son were released from hospital a month after his birth. Her son was doing exceptionally well, he was a little fighter exceeding everyone’s expectations. Jenny had been prescribed antidepressant medication, which she refused to take. Tim was at his wits’ end, submersing himself in work to avoid dealing with his psychotic wife and his needy newborn. He hired a nurse instead, worried Jenny would do something to her child while he was away. Instead of encouraging mother to bond with her child, the nurse kept them apart, also worried Jenny would harm him. The nurse tried slipping medication into Jenny’s food and drink, but Jenny refused to eat. She sipped purified water from her water bottle which she filled herself. When she slept, the bottle was tucked under her arm or hidden elsewhere to prevent contamination. Everyone was now against Jenny. They hated her for her sins. They judged her for birthing an imperfect child. Tim named his son Benjamin. Jenny refused to acknowledge the child.

One day, the nurse insisted Jenny take a day outside. She organised a day spa treatment, designed to rejuvenate Jenny’s wellbeing. It was unlike Jenny to miss so many days of exercise, self care and skin treatments. Already her athletic body was thinning, her skin beginning to sag with lost weight.

Jenny returned that evening cradling another baby. She had snatched the child while his mother paid for ice cream, distracted by her two toddlers. This baby was perfect. She named him Samuel.

It’s fucked to be Jenny.

January 15, 2018 Posted by | Short Stories | , , , | Leave a comment

The Sense of An Ending

Warning: Contains Spoilers.

There are two ways to look at Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novella The Sense of An Ending: a story about four friends, a girl and a mystery or, a mind-tease involving hints and clues but not telling the full (or correct) story. Either way, it’s probably the best book I’ve read this year.

The narrator is a sixty-something year old man named Tony who says “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you saw”. Memory sets the tone for the rest of the story; the first part tells of Tony’s schooldays when he and his friends met Adrian Finn- a smart kid who likes to mess with your mind. But, like any mind-game played by true genius, you only realise it is a mind-game once you’re out of it.

Three friends and a girl named Veronica make up the narrative of Part 1. Their story becomes deeper entwined in Part 2, where Tony is now in his sixties, divorced and retired. He is told of a bequest, a strange ending to a life he knew nothing about. On a journey to find the purpose of the bequest, Tony finds out much more than he was supposed to know- the biggest mind-game he’s ever been involved in.

However, only the reader knows it’s a mind game, and only after the last page has been turned. Or is it?

(Here’s where the spoilers start.)

Once upon a time, Tony and Veronica were together. Around the time they broke up, they slept together. Tony later discovers his friend Adrian is now with Veronica, until the time Adrian kills himself in a melodramatic show of philosophy. Believing one cannot choose to begin life but one can choose when to end it, Adrian’s death becomes the background to the rest of the story. Years later, when Veronica’s mother dies, she leave a sum of money to Tony along with Adrian’s diary (now in the hands of Veronica). In the attempt to get the diary which is “rightfully” his, Tony becomes part of Veronica’s own mind-games once again.

Therein lies the beauty of the story. Tony is smart, but holds less than the full story (if indeed, his memory can be relied upon). The ending is perhaps not the bombshell promised; I made the mistake of putting the book down and coming back to it later, during which time the ending had already occurred to me. Still, the ending seems nice and tight, until you start reflecting on it and the entire novella starts unravelling itself again.

Tony discovers there is a child connected to Veronica. The ‘child’ is now about 50 years old and mentally handicapped. The narrative tells the reader that the man is named Adrian, looks like the Adrian of Tony’s memory, calls Veronica his sister and his mother recently passed away. Here is when the mind game starts: could Veronica actually be the mother and her pregnancy is the catalyst for Adrian’s suicide (echoing an earlier scene in the story from their schooldays?) Was the affair with Veronica’s mother and her pregnancy the final straw? Or is Tony misremembering both his own dalliance with Veronica and actually, the child is his? Or worse, the child is actually his but with Veronica’s mother?

Time and memory are themes in the novella; the opening paragraphs talk about time and how memory distorts and warps it. By the end of the narrative, it could be as straightforward as it seems or it could be that all the players have been part of Adrian’s mind-games.

Either way, it’s brilliantly written, a story for writers (Atonement by Ian McEwan is another written-for-writers novel) with quotes I would love to highlight and share in regular conversation. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read it again…

November 9, 2011 Posted by | Reviews | , , , | 1 Comment