An excerpt from Too Many Cooks, a novel by Renée.
Belle Vista was beautifully located on top of a hill looking out over Wellington Harbour. There were three pine trees artfully placed around the hill so the view wasn”t too perfect. Could you have too perfect? Wasn’t perfect, well, perfect? So maybe in this case, the owners were right to call it a beautiful view, deadly unoriginal and clichéd, but accurate. Anyway there was nothing wrong with clichés. Clichés were groups of words that conveyed exactly what they wanted to say. They didn”t roll their eyes and imply in that falsely vague tone that the people who went to Drama Teachers Conferences did, no, clichés just came straight out with it, no frills, no bloody resonances, they just said it. And that was another thing. She was never going to another Drama Conference ever again. The surroundings had been wonderful, an old very large house, surrounded by trees and gardens with lawns going down to an orchard which, at the time of the conference, was all in blossom. Pity about the people. She would never have agreed to go if she hadn’t been told that she had to go on behalf of the school. “All right,” she’d said in the end, “all right but don’t anyone say I should have got first.”
“Hello Hester, you should have got first. What a shame. You must have felt terrible.”
“Oh well,” Hester said, “these things happen.” You pathetic excuse for a drama teacher.
“Of course I always think that alcohol should be banned for the entire production.” Does that include you? Everyone knows you drink like a fish.
“I make it quite clear, right from the start,” said this drama teacher from somewhere no-one had ever heard of, “and I’ve never had any trouble.” Never got into the finals either, not even the semi-finals. Sucks to you.
Hell, did I say that out loud? I don’t care. What did it matter what they thought? Especially the one whose production got first. Which he probably got for cheek. I mean, teenagers playing Pinter’s Betrayal? With some extra characters dreamed up by the drama teacher? Who should have been shot. And would have been if Pinter had still been alive.
The moment you stepped inside Belle Vista you were faced with a lot of dark wood, walls, doors, sills, and wallpaper that had peacocks and lawns and old oaks against a sort of murky dark background. It looked like something, a presence rather than an animal, was waiting to leap out, bring down the peacocks and then start on any sightseer who happened to be around. Ominous. Come in Madame Arcati. Hester liked the wood but the wallpaper was deeply suspect (that comment would have gone down well at that conference had she thought of it). Her imagination was probably over-heated (mother dying yeah yeah) but as she climbed the stairs she muttered, “Just try it, that’s all, just try it. “
Someone said, “Kia ora Hester.”
Medusa, Medusa, Medusa. Auden. Looking down his long nose. At least her New Year resolution to stop swearing even to herself by substituting this snake-haired goddess of Greek myths was working. How long would it last? Who cared? She knew the day she’d said to a student, “For god’s sake Miranda, get to the fucking point,” that something had to be done. Miranda, tall, beautiful, hung-over from sex, alcohol and shame, had stumbled on with her apology – probably written and rehearsed by her father – but Hester knew she’d been lucky not to be on report.
“Hello Auden,” she smiled dazzlingly (she’d learned how to do this from Lily in Drama classes a long time ago), “how’s the moving business – carried any more illegal substances lately?”
One of Auden’s drivers and his mate had picked up a house lot, packed it all in the large truck and then the truck had been involved in a slight accident, not his fault, but the cops searched the goods and found three pots of very luxuriant marijuana in a locked wooden chest, the kind that was once called a Glory Box, giggled Carrie in the school office. Only made the news because Auden was an ex-cop. “Ex-cop involved in marijuana scam” the headlines screamed.
He ignored her question except for a slight twitch at the left of his mouth. “How are you?”
“Fantastic,” she said.
Delia and Charles were standing by the doorway. Delia, who still had the most beautiful skin, big blue eyes fringed (cliché alert) with dark lashes, and lustrous black hair, was a large woman who persisted in dressing like a small one. Hester had no worries about someone being fat and if the alternative was people like Charles or those anorexic weather presenters on TV (she had stopped watching the weather because it was too painful), then fat was good. And it had to be admitted, fat faces didn’t get lines. Today Delia was dressed entirely in black. Black boots, over which black stockings bulged, black shirt strained over breasts that would have looked wonderful in something the right size, voluptuous, Rubens eat your heart out kind of look. But that black skirt, unfortunately with a slit at the back, the short black jacket wedged on a roll of fat, black trailing scarf were more Modigliani meets Beryl Cook than Rubens.
Delia ate too much. She couldn’t seem to not. Probably a protest against Charles forever weighing his daily ration of butter and measuring out the meat according to Food that Wins Marathons by some idiot with the unlikely name of Rick Adze. “Rick says” was Charles’s mantra although he puzzled over a few of Rick’s statements. The second to last time they had all been called into the hospital (Marissa was the Shane Warne of dying – just as you thought this had to be the last farewell, she’d rally and they’d all go home again and wait for the next one. Well that, at least, was over). “Rick says that the portion size of daily meat intake should be the size of the palm of a hand. Does that mean my palm or your palm?” she heard Charles ask Delia, “or maybe his palm?”
“Mine,” Delia said firmly, “I’ve told you before – yours is too small.”
One thing you could say about Delia, well there were lots of things you could say about Delia, but one of the nicer ones was that she didn’t shilly-shally about. Delia had no intention of reducing her steaks to the size of Charles’s skinny palms, however much he nagged.
“Heard from the boys?” asked Hester. Her two nephews were in London. They’d gone off on their OE and instead of smoking dope, taking drugs, fucking everything in sight and getting roaring drunk along Oxford Street, they found a flat and got jobs in “their field” in a London office five minutes after they arrived. Of course they had. To her certain knowledge neither of them had ever opened a book in their life and as for spelling correctly, forget it. “Who needs to spell, Hes? We’ve got laptops, iPads, iPods, hey they do checks.” Both had degrees in some sort of business area. Hester didn’t even ask what “their field” was because she didn’t care. “They rang,” said Delia, “they would love to have been here but it’s very expensive, and they both have work commitments. They sent their love.”
“Mmm,” said Hester, and moved on.
She took the seat at the end of the front pew, ready for a quick getaway in case of earthquake or fire. Hester knew if she’d lived in Christchurch she’d be a gibbering wreck by now. She’d come away from the documentary When a City Falls barely able to see, and still cried if she thought about it too long. She had begun crying (silently, thank god) almost as soon as the opening sequence began and since there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of tears, kept it up during the whole two hours. She had used up the packet of tissues she kept in her bag for emergencies and had started on her sleeves by the time it ended. She had to put on her dark glasses to buy a packet of frozen peas to hold against her swollen lids before she could trust herself to drive home. How could people be so heroic? Just ordinary people. But extraordinary at the same time. She thought of portaloos, no water, no power, munted roads and the continual (continuous?) shaking. Very reminiscent of camping.
Camping was one thing Hester would never, ever, ever, ever do again, never never never. She would find motels, cheap motels for sure, but at least they’d have a shower and a toilet that flushed. How long had the quakes been going on in Christchurch? September 2010 and now it was June 2012, and they were still having aftershocks. Face it Hester, the truth is you’re a complete and utter coward and if you’d been around in the Blitz you’d have lain down on the footpath and waited to be blown up – it would have been easier than trying to summon up a non-existent stiff upper lip.
Where was Daisy? Oh there she was, talking to someone, everyone knew Daisy it seemed. Much loved, that was Daisy. Once Daisy had told her that when she was working in Auckland “in the days we were going to change the world” and Judy Chicago had made her wonderful installation The Dinner Party in New York, there’d been a play where one of the characters talked about getting the table ready for special people to sit down and have dinner. Daisy and her partner Lily used to speculate about who might actually sit down at their table. They mentioned Gertrude Stein, Mother Jones, Te Puia Reikorangi, Betty Wark, Adrienne Rich. Hester had started her own list of who would sit down at her table. So far there was only one name. Daisy. Daisy would sit down at Hester’s table. Daisy had helped lots and lots of people. She had saved lots of people and one of them was Hester.
Too Many Cooks appears every Wednesday at www.WednesdayBusk.com.