Sweet Revenge

A Story by Blazenka Brysha

“Did you or did you not say: ‘Piss off, you little shit!’?” the magistrate asked, repeating his question.

From his vantage point as the accused, Trevor could see everyone in the courtroom. He looked at the six year-old child to whom he was supposed to have said this. The kid sat there with a bag of sweets in his lap, stuffing one lolly after another into his mouth and entertaining himself by surreptitiously kicking and punching the little girl who sat beside him. She was hitting him straight back. Their mothers were too engrossed in the proceedings to notice the children’s antics.

“I might have said that,” Trevor replied after some thought.

The magistrate went straight on, “And did you lift up that same child, Bradley Ecks, who is here in this court, and hold him over your head near the railing on the second level at Southland Shopping Centre and say, ‘Does action man want to take a shortcut to the lower level?’?”

“Yes,” answered Trevor, getting a bit flustered, “but only if he didn’t stop poking me with that sharp toy, the action figure thing, which is what I wanted to throw downstairs.”

When he was charged, Trevor hadn’t bothered to get Legal Aid because he thought he would not need it. He assumed that he would get justice by just sticking to the truth.

Yes, he had spoken, perhaps a little strongly, to the child who had persecuted him; and yes, he had threatened that same child, but it was done in self defence, after the child had repeatedly assaulted him. Trevor had already attempted to tell the court the whole story, so he resented the way the magistrate concentrated only on the bits that supported the charges.

When Trevor first started as a walkaround character with Henry’s CharactersTM, he liked the work better than he had expected. Dressing up as a chook, rabbit or bush animal and going about in public was closer to his training, as a dancer, than any other paid employment that necessity and Centrelink had forced him into, up to now. Donning the padded suits even inspired a new project, Outer Space, Inner Self, in which he combined various street styles of dance to examine human insignificance in the digitized age. It was a collaboration with a VJ friend who was good at getting small grants. They performed it in a dilapidated dance space, mainly to their friends, who really liked it, some even joining in.

After only six months with Henry’s, Trev was promoted to solo operator, when the company’s resources were stretched to the limit in fulfilling the promotion contract for the “Poss Possum” chocolate bar.

Trev liked the idea of spreading fun and chocolates. In practice, it was a tough gig appearing daily at four different shopping centres, for an hour at each. Although there was no Worksafe ruling on how long the stifling, cumbersome suit could be worn at one time, it was generally accepted in the trade that anything over 90 minutes could be seriously harmful.

But the work was not just hard, it was also thankless. So Trev found as he wobbled his big, foam-padded possum self towards a stroller, holding out a “Poss” bar for the little occupant, who unexpectedly shrieked in fear. As if that wasn’t enough, the mother would start screaming, “Get away from my baby! Can’t you see you’re making her cry?”

Mostly, the mothers apologised for their babies’ wailing.

“I’m sorry but he’s afraid of dogs,” one mother told him.

So much for all the effort he had put into developing his possum persona. He abandoned his marsupial head movements, which consisted of turning his neck sharply, then freezing in a stare. It had looked so good in the mirror at home, especially as the costume had high quality glass eyes. The wearer looked through concealed slits, positioned for human eyes.

By the time Trev got into his scrape at Southland, he had been doing “Poss” for nearly a month.

The combined effect of the school holidays and the mid-year sales, put both the shoppers and retailers on edge.

“Everyone just pushed and shoved,” Trevor had told the court. “It was hard going, I can tell you.”

But even at a quiet time Trev would not have been comfortable in a shopping mall. He was not a consumer and despised the religion of shopping, its places of worship and seasonal rituals. Trev didn’t mention any of this, just in case it cut across the magistrate’s beliefs.

He also didn’t mention the bit about nearly incinerating himself, which really added to his stress on that day.

He had wanted a smoke but couldn’t go outside because a walkaround character was never allowed to take off the costume head in public. It was one of the unbreakable rules of this commercial performance genre. Trev’s only option for privacy was the loos, although they were also part of the smoke-free complex. To his credit, Trev had considered trying to squeeze himself into his car in the carpark but he knew he wouldn’t fit without removing the suit. So, he had no choice.

Seated in a cubicle, his possum head on the floor beside his basket of chocolates, Trev puffed away peacefully. He didn’t notice a lumpy, burning bit of tobacco drop from the tip of his rollie. Suddenly the cubicle was full of smoke and Trevor was on his feet belting his smouldering sleeve with his bare hand. The sprinklers came on just as he reached down for his head and his basket. Hurried on by the ringing fire alarm, he brushed down his wet fur, which now stank, straightened his false head and made his way back into the crowd.

The costume was just singed over a large area but his nerves had been fried to a crisp. Although he wanted to get out of the place, he still had a lot of bars to give away. Experience had taught him that the best way to get rid of them, apart from dumping them at intersections when the lights changed, was to mooch along, ignoring everyone. That way he was never confused with collectors from the Wilderness Society, who dressed as koalas and carried buckets for donations.

The fear of being asked for donations blinded people to the difference between the limp, daggy koala suits whose hooded headpieces did not even hide the face of the wearer, and a state of the art, fully-sculptured costume like Trevor’s.

As he ambled along the walkways surrounding the cavernous atrium, children dipped their hands into his basket. His heavy suit was getting hotter and hotter.

It was from this point that Trev picked up his story for the magistrate. “I was nearly finished, so, I started heading off in the direction of an exit. I felt a sharp jab in my leg. I looked down and I saw that boy.”

He indicated the child, who was now sprawled across two seats and swinging his legs to kick the backrest of the seats in front of him.

“You mean Bradley Ecks?”

“Yes,” Trevor answered. “So I gave him some chocolates and some to that girl, too.”

Once again, the magistrate spoke, “You mean Cantrella Timms?”

Trevor turned his eyes to the girl. She was upside down on her seat, her legs against the backrest.

“Yes.” Trev was doing his best to play along. “Anyway, I tried to go but the boy just kept jabbing me with his hard plastic toy. As I gave him even more chocolates, the girl poured her drink on my foot.

“Then, as I looked around to see who was with these kids, the boy tried to set my tail on fire. He had taken my lighter from my pocket and was lighting it. I grabbed my lighter and tried to walk away but the kid jabbed me again. That’s when I told him off, which I shouldn’t have done because a proper walkaround character must never speak.”

“Why not?” asked the magistrate, intrigued by this legally gratuitous detail.

“It’s one of the rules. Speaking breaks the illusion.”

Trevor found it impossible to go on about the rest of what happened. He didn’t remember anything except the boy’s face as he held him up beside the railing. Having spent many hours hoisting dance partners into the air, Trev was used to hurling much bigger bodies about; picking up the child took no effort and it certainly got the kid’s respectful attention. Then someone screamed. Trev put the boy back on the ground and was nearly out the door when the security guard caught him.

Although the children’s mothers had not seen the disturbance because they were trying on clothes in an adjacent shop, there were more than a dozen witnesses statements against Trevor.

He was glad to have his boss, Libby Henry, vouch for him in person. She was highly groomed and wore a suit instead of her usual jeans. Trevor also dressed more formally for his day in court, donning a jacket that he bought specially the day before at the op shop. At the last minute he had decided against wearing his silk tie because it had The Cat in the Hat on it, which may have given the wrong impression. Libby had not removed the over-sized spider ring that she usually wore on the index finger of her right hand. She also did not tone down her bright lipstick. Although she was twenty years Trevor’s senior, she had retained a lithe body. No one would have been surprised to learn that she had been a Vegas showgirl and was a veteran of Disneyland.

She told the court, “Trevor was a reliable member of our Bush Friends troupe, especially as Barry, the Tasmanian Devil. I had been thinking of training him as The Count, one of our most popular children’s party characters. When all this fuss occurred, I had to suspend him from public appearances.

“But I think he’d been through a lot. The possum costume was ruined. It cost about $2,000; it’s very high quality. Going by the singe mark on it, Trevor would have been badly burnt, if it wasn’t made from fire-retardant fibre. However, between the burn mark and the soaking, it was quite wrecked. I had to make an insurance claim.

“I find it impossible to believe he meant the child any harm. He gets on very well with my dog, Petal, and Petal is never wrong about people.”

Hearing this, Bradley’s mother rolled her eyes and Cantrella’s mother stopped chewing her gum momentarily.

Under the circumstances, Trevor was grateful for Petal’s good opinion, especially since he had inadvertently nearly killed the dog by feeding it chocolate during the “Poss Possum” training programme. Boxes and boxes of “Poss” bars had been delivered for the promotion and everyone was getting into them. Trevor was having one after another and Petal sat transfixed in front of him. It made Trevor feel bad, knowing that the dog really wanted some. Petal was a small, hairy male and the only silly thing about him was his name. Trevor soon broke under the dog’s gaze and he gave him some of the chocolate. Then he gave him a little more and before long they were going fifty-fifty. It gave Trev a gut-ache and probably one to Petal, as well, since the dog vomited a litre of chocolate sludge on the carpet in Libby’s office. It made her very angry and she marched about demanding to know who fed Petal the chocolate and didn’t they know that chocolate can kill a dog? Trevor said nothing but felt, at the time, that it could kill him, too.

The magistrate glanced over his notes, preparing to finish the case.

He addressed Trevor, “Has it occurred to you how traumatic it must have been for a child to be lifted up like that?”

Trevor could imagine that it could be for some children but in little Brad’s case, it was merely enough to bring him to reason. However, Trev tried to appear as if he could suddenly see the magistrate’s point. He cast his eyes down, he stiffened his lips, he glanced up to make eye contact with the magistrate, for a second packed with remorse. All those years of dance training to become physically articulate now paid off. And Trevor was actually sorry: he was sorry to be caught up in this; he was sorry that he had to work in a ridiculous job that found him in settings he despised, surrounded by people he loathed. Yes, he was sorry.

“Nevertheless,” continued the magistrate, “I can see that you were put under extreme pressure. You reacted impulsively but without malicious intent.”

He put Trevor on a six-month good behaviour bond, with the condition that he was to get counselling for stress management.

Winding up the session, the magistrate spoke directly to the children, “You will pick up all those lolly wrappers on the floor before you go.”

The children ignored the order, leaving the clean-up to their mothers, who only picked up the biggest bits of rubbish.

On her way to the bin, the boy’s mother managed to tell Trevor, “You should have been put away!”

Outside, he caught up with Libby and thanked her. She pressed her lips together and nodded.

“Did you really want to train me as The Count?”

The question surprised her.

“Get real! You can’t handle six year-olds at Southland. The kids that want The Count at their parties would wash down their sushi with your blood.”

In the distance, Bradley and Cantrella bashed each other as their mothers talked beside their four-wheel drives.

“So there’s no work for me?” Trevor asked, to cover up his embarrassment at his naivety. He realised that Libby’s motive was to protect her business name.

“Not where children are involved. I’m sorry. But I might have something else,” she went on, guardedly. “I’m developing a Fred and Ginger thing with a show band for big functions. A couple of the girls would be good – Jenni, Lauren.”

“Jenni was my pas de deux partner at college!” Trevor blurted out.

“Also, I thought we could bring it up to date and go into a street thing…”

Now Trevor was excited, “Oh, cool. You haven’t even seen my street side!”

“I think I have. You mean that hip hop shuffle routine you were doing when you should have been cleaning out the store room?

“Need a lift?” she asked. Parking was tight and very expensive in that area. Trevor had trammed it. “Petal’s in the car. Don’t feed him anything, OK!”


Crowning Glory Blindly Assassinated

In 2009, I finally got around to two novels, from this decade, that I had been putting off reading. One justified my tardy reluctance while the other astounded with its depth and originality.

When Karen van Ulzen’s novel, Crowning Glory (Harper Collins, 2002), was billed as ‘revenge fiction,’ and promoted as he done her wrong, she gonna get the bastard back, I had no intention of reading it because genre fiction is not for me. The fact that the author is a colleague, who has been editor of Dance Australia magazine for many years, was not enough to induce me to read the book, billed on its cover as: ‘A quirky tale of love, revenge and hairdressing.’

Then, by chance, I came across an old review of the novel, which referred to the inclusion of ‘unnecessary asides’ about hairdressing history and the author’s ‘spare style.’ From this I deduced that the novel was more than a story about hairdressing and revenge, despite the pair of scissors depicted on the cover, and that it was cleanly written. Straight away I knew I had to read Crowning Glory.

According to the back cover blurb, Crowning Glory was about the ill-fated romantic attachment that the central character, Kathleen Lindley, a hairdresser, forms with a chef who lives in the flat next door. At 32, she has finally left home although she cannot escape her mother’s overbearing selfishness or the pall that her father’s death cast over their lives while she was still only a schoolgirl.

When I read the novel, I found, above all, a moving account of a mother-daughter relationship. That is at the centre of Kathleen’s tale, colouring her relationships with both her boyfriend and the memory of her father. The narrative, set in early 1990s Melbourne, is a present tense, first-person account with memories of the past streaked through it, like a complex, subtle, multi-tone single colour hair-dye job. It is serious, literary fiction, in style, content and broader artistic and critical ramifications. It is also a gripping read.

Recounting a terrible fight between her parents, while her mother was plaiting her hair with crooked results because of the volatile situation, Kathleen states:

That same evening I cut my hair…My mother kept one of those plaits – the best, straight one – in the same wicker basket with my baby curls. The plait is noticeably darker than the curls. Though still fair, it has definitely lost that inner sunlight, that untarnished sheen, that distinguishes the really blond from the merely light brown – Hazelnut Haze, say, compared with Purely Platinum. The plait is bristling now, like old soft twine. The baby hair curls around my finger like a child’s trusting hand.

She has a lock of Dad’s hair in the basket, too. It seems laughable, given how little he had of it. The lock is short and brown. It’s not a brown you would give a name.

It might seem odd, even ghoulish, keeping hair as tokens of others. Yet as a custom it has long existed…Hair is both a part of the body and an ornament; it can be severed without pain or harm and lasts for thousands of years without decaying, still in good condition long after the body has rotted into the earth…

Kathleen knows many facts because she found comfort in books at the State Library after her father died:

The library was my escape from the shop. I would tell Mum that I had some research to do for a school project. I’d inform her in the morning, just before I left for school, so it was too late for her to raise any objections…I could never look her in the face, knowing I was leaving her to an extra hour’s imprisonment. Sometimes she would begin to protest, but would usually stop herself. ‘Of course you must go. I’ll be fine, she’d say. ‘You must do your study.’ The thrill of my freedom was always soured by the memory of her brave face.

Kathleen responds to her mother’s domineering ways with passive aggression, mostly expressed only in her thoughts. Describing her mother’s favourite cookbook, she says: Mum likes this book not because the recipes are particularly good but because of its war-time frugality. Sometimes I think she regrets the war is over. She was born before the Second World War and, though she was only a young child then, the deprivation she briefly experienced seems to have a nostalgic pull on her. At the mention of war-time hardship her face softens and she gives a shiver of pleasure, as if at the sound of rain on a tin roof.

When Kathleen and her mother try to move an old washing copper, the mother suggests they need a man:

What about your boyfriend?” she asks. ‘Couldn’t you have asked him?’
‘He’s busy.’
‘I’ll bet. Lazy, more like it’
‘Yes that’s right. A lazy pig.’
‘Oh, what’s the matter?’ She looks at me more closely. ‘Don ‘t tell me it’s over already.’
I try to turn away but she grabs my face and holds it still, as she has ever since I was a child trying to hide my lies from her. There’s no way to avoid her penetrating gaze. I pull myself free and stand with my back to her.
‘I knew it,’ she says.
‘What do you know?’
‘I knew it wouldn’t last. I could tell from the beginning.’
‘How?’ My voice is sarcastic.
It was obvious. For one thing, you never introduced him. What sort of behaviour is that. It’s unnatural.’
I say nothing.
‘Anyway, men will never be interested in you. You’re too much of a mouse.’
‘Glad you think so highly of me.’
I have my back to her but I can tell she’s folded her arms in that I-told-you-so way. ‘You’ve got no gumption,’ she adds. ‘Look at you.’

This is the relationship at its most brittle and destructive but through the self-contained universe of Kathleen’s inner life, we are also allowed to see the outer reality and learn why things are as they are, not just with her mother but all the other people impacting on her life. In an era when people are still living with their parents and staying single longer than ever before in history, the novel also reflects one face of that social phenomenon. Kathleen is very different to the Biff and Happys of Miller’s Death of a Salesman or the Olives of Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. She belongs to our world and that interests me. The fact that it’s local is a big bonus; yes, there’s a big world out there but some fascinating things are going on in our immediate surroundings and I’d hate to miss them.

I have quoted at length, to give a taste of the novel’s quality. The work was published after van Ulzen submitted a portion to the Varuna Awards for Manuscript Development and won, a fact also acknowledged in a gold seal on the novel’s cover. So, its publication genesis was in the realm of literary fiction and it bothers me deeply to think that with today’s publishing modus operandi of print, profit and pulp, works like Crowning Glory, which managed to sell 4,000 copies, possibly to annoyed and disappointed readers who expected those scissors on the cover to be used for cutting more than hair, just vanish. But, thanks to the internet, not entirely without a trace, and for that I’m grateful. It certainly raises many big questions that the literary community should be addressing in an era ruled by that ruthless overlord, the marketing monster.

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was published in 2000 and has gathered dust on my shelf since it was a hot best seller. The multi award-winning novel was passed on to me by a reader who was not familiar with Atwood’s poetry, just as I was not acquainted with her prose, which, for me, is tarred by science fiction genre associations. Furthermore, the tome’s 650 page thickness, together with the back cover blurb describing a mysterious death and “an epic tale of memory, intrigue and betrayal” covering 50 years, set against “the backdrop of twentieth-century history,” spelt potboiler to me. That smothered some of my curiosity about the quality of Atwood’s prose, because content has always been more important than form, to me, both in art and in life.

The novel is structured as two parallel narratives. One is the first-person account of her life’s story by the main character, Iris Chase, whose sister killed herself by driving her car of a bridge, just after World War II ended, leaving a manuscript of a novel that she had secretly penned. Iris has the work, called The Blind Assassin, published and it becomes a bestseller thanks to the fact that the family is from a socially-prominent Toronto background. This narrative also includes extracts of journalism, some real, some fabricated, both intended to support the story’s chronology and historic background.

The other narrative is portions of the sister’s novel. This reads like a diary in which yet other narratives, offered as fiction that could be categorised as fantasy/science fiction, are embedded. The layering is that of a story within a story within a story.

You are never in doubt that you are reading the writing of a master. It’s all clever enough and mildly intriguing because there is so much elaborately and obviously concocted story-line. Furthermore, you want to know what the plot upshot will be, since you have invested so much time wading through the clutter of distracting detail, as Atwood piles on the paragraphs as if the book will be sold by weight and she needs the money to pay off a massive debt to an underworld financier. You do find out, among other revelations, why the sister killed herself and even why the real novel is also called The Blind Assassin. It was, in the end, only a potboiler and in hindsight, for me, the most fascinating revelation came after the novel’s conclusion, where Atwood acknowledges the help of 17 researchers, apart from her “invaluable assistant”, and five “early readers”, among others.

The work is far removed from Atwood’s collection of poems, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (Toronto OUP 1970), which was my introduction to her writing. This 64-page book, also offers a life story, set against a historic backdrop but it is produced by the poet on her own, not only writing the poems, but also designing the cover and making the collage illustrations. Aside from the poems, the only other text, an afterword, is a detailed account by Atwood of how the poems were ‘generated by a dream. I dreamt I was watching an opera I had written about Susanna Moodie…’ Atwood had heard of this 19th C Canadian pioneer but had never read her books; subsequently, when she did, they disappointed with their ‘discursive, ornamental’ anecdotal style.

Atwood connects with Moodie’s personality and creates a new account of her life and experiences, charting them through the speaker’s observations. We follow Moodie’s troubled relationship with the harsh frontier landscape, more menacing to the European immigrants than the bear that frightens their cattle. Moodie, the omni-sentient oracle, leads us through her history:

I, who had been erased

by fire, was crept in

upon by green


lucid a season)

In time the animals

arrived to inhabit me…
(from Departure from the Bush)

Atwood’s Moodie absorbs her physical environment, finally merging with it as an interred corps. Moodie reflects on her impending death:


I will prowl and slink

in crystal darkness among the stalactite roots, with new

formed plumage


gold and

Fiery green, my fingers

curved and scaled, my



eyes glowing
(from Wish: Metamorphosis to Heraldic Emblem)

Moodie’s cosmology of a powerful, all-embracing fecundity is offered as plainly as possible in poetry (perhaps it is possible because it is poetry?) in the concluding two poems:

god is not

the voice in the whirlwind

god is the whirlwind

at the last

judgement we will all be trees
(from Resurrection)

I am the old woman

sitting across from you on the bus,

Her shoulders drawn up like a shawl;

out of her eyes come secret

hatpins, destroying

the walls, the ceiling

Turn, look down:

there is no city;

this is the centre of a forest

your place is empty
(from A Bus Along St Clair: December)

The Journals of Susanna Moodie can be read in one easy sitting but gives you something to mull over for 35 years. The Blind Assassin takes days to read but it leaves you after 35 minutes. Only one snippet of the novel has stayed with me and that is the description of a woman’s garment frothing like billowing steam on hot tomato soup. The fabric must have been a warm-red chiffon. There were other bon mots moments, but most of them contrived aside from some pleasing descriptions of nature. The most engaging thing for me was the realism of Atwood’s depiction of her central character’s elderly self. It was old-age as felt from the inside. Atwood’s Moodie talks about the pull of gravity, about ‘balancing’ herself inside her ‘shrinking body.’ Her Iris Chase knows she is the shrinking body:

I suspect myself of having an odour I myself can no longer detect – a stink of stale flesh and clouded, ageing pee. /Dried, lotioned and powdered, sprayed like mildew, I was in some sense of the word restored. Only there was still the sensation of weightlessness, or rather of being about to step of a cliff. Each time I put a foot out, I set it down provisionally, as if the floor might give way under me. Nothing but surface tension holding me in place./ Getting my clothes on helped. I am not at my best without scaffolding.

If only Atwood would write a novel about old age, that is something I would love to read.

Blazenka Brysha

Review of Crowning Glory: An old rock pig and a prim hairdresser grow up Rachel Buchanan

Something special from the master – Atwood reflects on the nature of being a literary writer today. A must read.