Marie, Andy, Laura

Marie

Marie often dreams she is flying. If she’s had enough of something or somewhere, she’ll just stretch out her hands and start rising into the air. As she speaks, she pushes back her chair, stands up, lifts her arms. It’s easy to imagine her floating off the floor. “Just… with my hands… like that…” she says, “and I keep going up, and I can go anywhere”.

When I interview Marie, she’s in her office in Versailles and I’m in our kitchen in Hobart, and it’s afternoon and it’s evening, and we’re far away and face to face. This will never stop amazing me.

Marie has stylish black-framed glasses, and equally stylish short, dark hair. Even without the accent, she’s cute.

She looks, from what I can tell, exactly the same as the day we met. I was a student living in a share house, she was a traveller staying at a hostel, and we were waiting to cross the same street.

I wonder whether she remembers too and whether, twelve years on, our memories will match.

“I met you in Hobart at a traffic light,” she says. “I was about to cross the road, and I was with my Lonely Planet. I don’t think I talked to you first, I think you talked to me, because you saw I was looking for my way.

“You, I don’t know if you say ‘proposed’ your help, and then you asked me a few questions about my travelling.

“You said you were having a French dinner in the evening, this evening or another evening, and you asked me if I would be happy to join you and I said, ‘Yes, I’m very, very happy,’ and you said something like ‘Come with your dirty clothes if you want, because I’ve been travelling abroad; I know how it is’.”

Later, we met at her hostel. “You said something like, ‘I was afraid you wouldn’t come’—you were afraid to be considered as a crazy person,” she says.

The dinner invitation wasn’t quite as strange as it might sound. At the time I was living in a grand old house with many rooms and many housemates. Two French girls who’d been staying with us—Sean’s friends, I think—were cooking a feast to thank us before leaving. It seemed—how do you say?—meant to be.

The dirty washing part, which I’d forgotten, was probably taking hospitality a step too far. Surely Marie thought I was at least a little bit odd? Surely she had second thoughts?

“No, no-no-no,” she says. “Because I think I was a bit lost; I didn’t know where I was going, and when you see a smile and some connection with someone it’s reassuring, and even if you don’t feel at home you feel like, ah, just… there’s someone on your way to help you.”

*   *   *

A few years ago my husband and I visited Marie in Versailles. She met our first child, we met her boyfriend, and they cooked us something wonderful with pastry and apples and camembert. In the years since, we’ve chatted occasionally online. A book recommendation here, a recipe there. But more recently it’s been less flippant. Despite the distance—or perhaps because of it—she’s confided in me.

It’s not any one thing, it’s everything. She’s not happy in Versailles. She’s thirty-five, she lives alone and worse, she feels alone. She works in the library at a local university, but feels stifled there, and her only friend is leaving. She doesn’t know what to do or where to go; how to stay or how to leave.

“I think it’s tough yes, at the moment, for many reasons… I don’t want to stay here, I left my boyfriend… I’m a bit worried.”

Her voice is trembling a little and I can only see part of her face.

I ask Marie why she broke it off with her boyfriend. “I was missing things from him. I think I knew it from the beginning… he had a long story with someone and I think he didn’t recover, and his life is here and mine is not.

“I wasn’t happy enough anyway.”

Andy

Andy can’t bear to have the television volume on an uneven number. “And I hate it, I hate that I care,” he says, but he does; he can’t help it.

Andy’s honesty is one of the things I love about him.

“I can forgive fives, like between one and ten—I can forgive fives—but generally, it has to be an even number.”

It’s not really fair to start his story like this. Andy doesn’t have obsessive compulsive disorder and he’s pretty relaxed about tidiness. But as far as idiosyncrasies go, this one delighted me. I actually used it as an example when I asked Rob if he had any similarly weird quirks. I was shocked when he said, “Yeah, yeah, I have a little bit of OCD like that as well, I like it to be on an even number”—as if it were normal! It’s not… is it?

Another delightful thing about Andy is that he’s accidentally “made it” (my words, not his) in an industry that would normally require serious hard work, determination, and networking to enter. I ask if he has his dream job.

“I think so,” he says.

The funny thing is, he didn’t even know this was what he wanted to do until he was doing it. He didn’t work toward it for many years with stubborn perseverance and single-minded focus. He just worked in whatever job came his way, started a blog, and played computer games at every opportunity.

*   *   *

Andy is a nice guy, with a nice-guy face. He’s usually clean-shaven and sometimes wears rectangular glasses which make him look a tiny bit more serious—but still nice. About twelve years ago, he married his college sweetheart, Julie. They’re now outnumbered by kids.

I can’t remember meeting Andy. It was around the time I met my husband, so I was probably distracted, but I can remember taking photos at his wedding. I was an Arts student with a chunky analogue camera and no wedding experience. I didn’t charge, but they paid the price in quality, and although they never said a word, I still feel bad about it.

I’ve since had a wedding of my own. I married Julie’s brother, so now Andy’s more than a friend, he’s family.

As I interview him, over chocolate peanut-butter cookies in our kitchen, the cousins run through the house, through the garden, and into some other place. There are probably princesses and knights, dragons, magic and battles—and there’s definitely a headless octopus—but there aren’t any chocolate peanut-butter cookies, so we know before long, they’ll return.

*   *   *

As the interview progresses, it becomes clear that Andy isn’t someone who gets jobs, he’s someone who stumbles into them. It first happened while he was at uni, with a job testing software. He quit uni but kept the job—until there was some kind of mess with the business and he was forced go elsewhere. His dad worked at a music retail store, so he started working there. He stayed for months, then years, until his old boss happened to walk into the shop and offer him a job. It was another computer-based gig and he did it for five years.

At some point along the way, he started a blog where games and technology were common themes, and one day, “on a whim”, decided to cold-pitch some editors with story ideas. They happened to be looking for people and decided to give him a shot.

“I’d been doing that for about six months before I realised it was something I really wanted to try harder at,” Andy says.

He dropped a day a week of his regular job to write and found himself getting more and more work. He was surprised by how much he enjoyed it.

“I found a passion there I didn’t know I had,” says Andy, who has always “enjoyed” words, but hated English at school.

He was just getting the hang of the whole games writing thing when the website closed. “It all went away, and I was gutted—more than I thought I would be,” he says. “I think that was probably ‘the moment’.”

After a series of “panicked” emails and messages to fellow freelancers, he found work with another tech site. The editor was a nightmare to work with and Andy soon quit, but he started pitching again, and eventually found an even better publication.

“That was my entry into the games industry,” he says.

Laura

“It’s a horrible thing, to go to the hospital and know you’re going to give birth, but you’re not giving birth to a live baby.”

We’re about halfway through the interview. Laura is in her bedroom in Sydney with a block of chocolate and a cup of tea; I’m sitting by the fire in our lounge room.

“I was like, I don’t know how I’m going to do this day,” she says. She called her brother’s wife—they’d had a stillborn baby. Even after going through it, her sister-in-law didn’t know what to say.

“There were no words that she could have given me to say: this is how you do it.”

*   *   *

Laura had given birth twice before, but she says giving birth to Amy was an utterly different experience.

“It’s an anguish or a grief that you push out, something that you know you’ve created, but isn’t for this life.”

It was confusing to give birth into such stillness, she says.

Instead of hearing her baby cry for the first time, she was the one crying.

*   *   *

Laura and Joe knew Amy wouldn’t look like an ordinary baby. When she was born, the nurse said, “This baby doesn’t look right,” wrapped her up and offered to take her away.

Perhaps it was an act of kindness, as they were obviously so broken, says Laura.

“I almost thought, ‘Oh, maybe I don’t want to see her,’ because I was afraid that she would look so ugly that I wouldn’t like her,” she says.

“I was so obsessed with this idea of appearance; what would she look like? I almost thought I wouldn’t, but then I didn’t want to live for the rest of my life thinking I hadn’t chosen to see her. So we did.”

*   *   *

Laura is from NSW. She’s lived in Wollongong and Wagga, and the inner and outer suburbs of Sydney. Soon after my husband and I moved to Sydney, we went along to the church Laura and her husband were attending at the time. About five minutes after we’d met, they invited us round for lunch. We’re no longer in the same state, but we visit every chance we get.

As a teenager, Laura “self-consciously tried to be different”. She wore green docs, listened to Triple J, and resented the fact she lived walking distance from high school because “all the cool things” happened on public transport.

When she was sixteen, Laura exchanged her life in Australia for a life in Malaysia. She had a Singaporean mum, a half-Filipino-half-Chinese dad, and a Muslim boyfriend; she didn’t miss home.

At uni, she majored in ancient history, lived with her grandparents, ate fresh bread with them in the mornings, and drank sherry with them in the evenings.

Laura has volunteered with an aid organisation, worked as a teacher in a special school, studied theology and worked in ministry. She is now devoted to her two young kids. Laura still dresses distinctively—she wears bold colours, funky glasses, and stylish shoes—but these days she’s not being self-conscious, she’s being herself.

*   *   *

Laura is uncompromising. She knows what she likes and what she doesn’t, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. Initially, she didn’t like Joe.

They’ve now been married for ten years, which is almost as long as it took her to realise she loved him.

Marie

Marie was in Australia for about ten months, all those years ago. I ask why she came.

She says she’d talked about going to Australia since she was a kid. Part of the appeal was the sheer distance. She also imagined something “wide and natural”, new, big, and adventurous.

Then, when she was living in Ireland, a friend suggested they go together.

She’d just finished a marketing and communications degree and thought she should find a “proper” job in France, but sensed that once she did, it would be hard to escape.

“Already, at this time, I didn’t feel I will be much in the box,” she says.

*   *   *

“I remember when I was travelling,” Marie says, “there was a girl… she told me something like, ‘you’re not conventional’. And I was wondering why, and she said, ‘because you do what you want’, and I said, ‘for now’.

“When I compare to now, I think I was enjoying really the freedom. No thing is waiting for me, nobody is waiting for me and I do, really, what I want every day or every week—with some limits—but I don’t have to be someone in society… I just have an experience of myself.

“I also had some fears,” she says, “but I was in it, so I didn’t have to jump—I’d already jumped into something”.

As much as she loved travelling, Marie couldn’t shake the feeling she should be starting a proper job. It’s as if she was afraid that if she tasted too much freedom, she’d never be able to go back and start a career, and if she didn’t start a career, she might end up doing something even more mundane, like being a cashier.

“Mum did it for a living before she had us, but I did it a summer and I was very bored,” she says.

Marie now has a good career and is financially secure—but also feels trapped and miserable.

Normally, she is “quite straight” and likes to say what she thinks, she explains, but her managers are obsessed with political correctness. She’s even been reproached for asking a colleague, “Have you done this?” instead of “Has it been done?” because “I am not the chief of this person”.

It sounds like these interactions happen on a daily basis, and are slowly destroying her. But she can’t seem to escape.

“Once I am accustomed to a work situation I find it difficult to change—even if I’m not happy or I’m bored, because I’m a bit afraid of… I’m a bit afraid.”

Andy

I ask Andy about his childhood and am surprised to hear that this well mannered, well spoken thirty-two-year-old spat, littered and fought in high school because, well, that’s what everyone else was doing.

“I was one of the nerds… I was one of the kids who did their homework and stuff, but I was still very much immersed in that culture. Having a foul mouth was just the way that you spoke, and if there wasn’t a bin in easy reach it was ‘their’ fault for not having more bins around, and if you needed to spit you just spat.”

College—and Julie—made him realise this wasn’t “normal” behaviour.

“I was able to compare myself to the people around me and I suddenly realised, this isn’t how people behave; this isn’t appropriate.

“I realised once—I have a very clear recollection of it—I could walk through the college with other students my age and I could stand upright and make eye contact with people and not be at risk of getting beaten up… I could just look around and be myself.”

*   *   *

One thing I didn’t know before, and find hard to believe, is that Andy used to have a terrible temper—“a rage problem”—that he’s had to work at to overcome.

One time in high school, he was playing hand-ball on a bitumen basketball court with a friend who started riling him.

“All of a sudden I went from standing next to him to sitting on the ground by the fence with my head in my hands, and he was lying on his back on the ground, and I don’t remember what happened; I had to have it described to me after the fact.

“I’d never got in trouble before in a serious way and so the school didn’t drop any serious detentions or suspensions or any of that stuff on me. But they did tell my parents—they recommended I see someone about it, which scared me.”

He didn’t want to do it and his parents didn’t make him. Then, in college, it happened again.

He was walking through town with Julie when some guys started making jokes at her expense.

“Julie was really upset and I ended up kind of shoving one of them up against the building and being about to hit him before Julie shouted out.

“She told me that that really scared her, that I was really scary to her… If that’s how I reacted in that situation, what happens if we get into an argument?”

Since then, Andy has deliberately avoided situations that could get him riled up.

The only time he came close, he and Julie were watching a show at the Theatre Royal. “Some jerks didn’t like it and were just knocking it the whole time, and I could certainly feel myself getting into that scenario again,” he says.

“I was with Julie and she could tell, and she said, ‘Do we need to go?’ And I said ‘Yes’. That was the end of it; that was the closest I’ve come.”

Laura

Laura’s extended family celebrate Christmas every year with… a theme party.

“We’ve had Hawaiian Christmas—we all went to the op-shop and the men got Hawaiian shirts and the ladies wore leis, and we had pineapple and ham on the BBQ.” They’ve also had a Greek Christmas, where the women dressed up as Greek widows, and a Biblical Christmas where they all dressed up as bible characters.

Is it just me, or is this weird? I thought Christmas was the theme?

*   *   *

Laura was about seventeen when she met Joe; he was a year younger. He was the guy who always came to church in a football jersey, because he was always coming from a game, and he was most definitely not her type.

Laura had already ruled out Joe, and all of the guys she knew, when she started obsessing about meeting someone. She was going to find love “out in the world”, not under her nose.

Years later, when a friend informed Laura that Joe liked her, she said she’d rather be single for the rest of her life than marry him.

*   *   *

Joe got an apprenticeship as an electrician as soon as he finished year twelve. For the first six years of his working life, the only thing he spent money on was going to the football, Laura says.

Then he went to Europe, developed a taste for craft beer, and spent a little bit of money on that too. By the time they got married, he’d already saved a bunch of money and bought himself a house.

If I didn’t know Joe was a tradie, and if he didn’t wear football jerseys so often, I’d probably assume he was a bright young academic. He reads non-fiction as if it were fiction, and actually remembers the details. He’s interested in history and politics, is obsessed with Europe, and read Calvin’s Institutes for fun.

“When we went to Poland, he knew what every single monument that we saw was—and there’s a lot of monuments in Europe,” Laura says. Knowing Joe, she’s not exaggerating, not even a bit.

*   *   *

In his wedding speech, Joe described courting Laura as being “like trench warfare”.

“He dug in, then he’d pop up and throw a bomb over, and then sit back down and wait,” she says.

Laura remembers she once told her minister that Joe “wasn’t an appropriate person to be leading a bible study because he had no people skills”.

“He’s very blunt, and that’s one of the things I still find hard about him,” she says, “but he does have sympathy and compassion for people; I don’t think he has no people skills.”

In a way, Europe is what brought them together.

Laura had recently been overseas and was showing Joe her photos—despite not wanting to marry him, ever, they were friends.

“I just told him about every single photo and what we did and where we went and what we ate and then I was like, ‘He’s really listening to me; he’s actually quite a good listener’.”

She was beginning to thaw.

*   *   *

Laura and Joe married in 2006. Joe now has his own business and Laura takes care of their two young children. I ask if it’s by choice.

“My mum stayed at home with us and that was what I was used to, and I liked having her around. I think Joe would like me to go back to work, probably earlier than I might, but I think part of that is my fear of thinking, ‘I don’t really know what I’m good for’.

“I can say I really think it’s important to spend the time with your kids and not regret that, but then I think it’s hard in practise when you’re around other people who are doing other things as well,” she says.

“It’s hard not to feel inadequate or… It’s hard not to feel like you’re not capable, because other people can look after their children and work and run something else, you know, whereas I feel like I’m only looking after my children.”

“Only looking after my children?!” I think, but I resist saying so. I know that’s not what she means.

Next →