Belonging Place – Everywoman’s story on life, learning and love

Posted: November 7, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Here is the first chapter of my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) manuscript. Of course unedited at this stage, but nevertheless here.

LILIANA’S STORY

Chapter One:

Liliana brushed her long brown hair off her face and gazed dreamily out the window. Behind the thick pane of glass, the countryside whirred by – green trees and order was giving way to the yellow straw colour of wheat crops that had just been harvested. The sheep were already beginning to eat at the stubble. Everything in the country was about use and reuse. Everything was valued, accounted for and had a place. Unlike her.

It hadn’t taken much to get her to leave her home in Sydney. She hardly ever saw her mum anymore and the reality was they just didn’t connect. If they ever had, it was long, long ago, when Liliana was a child. She liked to think that her mum would have given her those giant cuddles and plant copious kisses on her baby cheeks…but she knew that probably wasn’t the truth. Liliana did have one fond memory – the day she had been beaten up at school. When she brought her bloodied lip home to show her mum what ‘they’ had done to her, her mum had responded with an uncharacteristic tenderness. Sitting down so she was at eye level, she had held Liliana’s head between her hands and had said: “Girl, don’t you ever let those bastards win. Alright. You fight back, you hear?” And then she had started sobbing in Liliana’s ear, deflated and defeated, the black circles under her eyes deepening to a purple colour before Liliana’s child eyes.

As Liliana grew up and didn’t need caring for, her mum came home less and less. It wasn’t unusual for her mum – everyone called her Mrs Smith – to do a runner with some man. When Liliana was 16, her mum stopped coming back at all. And that was a relief.

Of course the neighbours in her dingy block of units in Blacktown all tried to help, but she invented an aunt and pretended to speak to her ‘aunt’ loudly at night, while shutting them all out. With enough invention and cold shouldering they left her alone, probably reasoning that she was, after all, 16 years of age and eligible to leave school and go to TAFE or get a job. Well that’s what Liliana did. She went to TAFE, but not to do a typing course like the 90 percent of girls in her school year, she went there to get her Higher School Certificate. With the help of a few caring teachers, Liliana finished school and enrolled in the University of Western Sydney. Of course it wasn’t as prestigious as getting accepted by Sydney Uni with a tremendously high score, but her pass enabled her to get into a Bachelor of Librarianship. And for that she was happy. You see books were Liliana’s life. For as long as she could remember, she had immersed herself in other people’s words, and worlds. The grimy yellow walls of her flat, and the mildew growing on her bathroom ceiling, couldn’t contain her fiery imagination. She left her life behind in bounds when she travelled with the characters that inhabited those pages. At first she learned all about England through the eyes of a 12 year-old heroine who had magical powers and lots of friends. Bethany Flint became Liliana’s ideal and she began styling her hair like her – braiding the front so it didn’t hang limply around her oval face. Unbeknown to her, pulling her hair back away from her face showed her eyes – almond shaped and golden, and was a distinct improvement on the Emo look she had been cultivating, well not trying to cultivate. It was around that time she added Flint to her name in memory of her heroine, the beautiful, rich and popular Bethany Flint.

She marked her serious stage with an ode to Hemingway, again reading copiously and learning about cosmopolitan Paris that was a friend to the eclectic artists that roamed its streets and through Hemingway’s experiences as a writer. She took on the same je veux  vivre as Hemingway after that – at once distant and detached, and passionate and life affirming at the same time.

So as Liliana Flint-Smith, she had progressed through her three years at university, barely there in the back of the classroom but soaking up her lectures and the knowledge of her generous tutors. Although her reports always said she needed to find her voice, Liliana let the books do the talking for her. Between her books and letting everyone else speak, she really didn’t have to make much of an effort, seeing as all the people she knew, the writers in her books and the real people in the streets and at uni, loved to speak…a lot. It really didn’t much matter that she had little to say each day.

They got used to seeing her turn up to class, her black tights under a straight jersey skirt and large flapping black jumper. The old doc martins she found in the opp shop, complemented the multi-coloured woollen cap she pulled over her long, at times straggly hair. Oh Liliana, she often thought to herself as she stared back at her reflection before catching the 301 bus to Campelltown before uni each morning, who are you? She would never spend long on this question, instead pulling her woollen cap lower, almost over her eyes, and tramping hard in her doc martins out the door…with enough attitude to warn off the would be bullies who were always looking for easy prey on her street corner.

She loved to make up little games in her mind. Sometimes she would put on a posh voice when she got on the 301. Other times, she put her hair in a bun and changed her usual black, sombre Emo clothes, instead donning a colourful skirt and heels and wearing her mum’s tight fitting blue cardigan. Looking feminine and a bit stand offish, the cool students in the canteen would smile at her, thinking perhaps she was redeemable after all. And some well-toned, good looking boy with his blue eyes and swept back hair would give her a look which distinctly said, ‘maybe you would be worth taking to bed’. But she never kept this pretence up for long. Pretty soon she was back in black, invisible, and blending into the grey winter skies that so inspired her sense of style.

Learning about cataloguing, databases and references during her Bachelor of Librarianship was pretty routine for Liliana and tested her maths ability which was surprisingly strong. What she really loved was the literature major that was part of her degree. In another lifetime, she would have been a writer and studied books, but the cataloguing mattered to her too, and she felt safe in the routineness of being a librarian. After all, everything had a place and books needed to be in their place when they weren’t in the hands of the readers. To keep them safe and preserve them for the next reader – for all the Liliana’s whose world was made tolerable through the encouraging voice of the writer casting their eyes over the promise of an unknown landscape. That expansiveness had given Liliana hope during her short life, that there was a place in this world for her too…beyond the yellow, grimy walls of her Blacktown flat.

While other uni students generally left her alone, her teachers were far more generous with their time. One particular teacher, Haricula Theodori, had taken a particular interest in Liliana. A greek immigrant who also knew what it was like to sit at the back of the class and be largely ignored by the world, she made a special effort to draw Liliana out whenever she could.

Liliana, of course, had a giant girl crush on her. Hari – the shortened name she liked the class to use in her tute’s – asked Liliana what she thought the novelists were trying to say. Liliana rarely ventured a long dissertation in those tutorials, but was comforted when a few in the class would start nodding. That meant they agreed with her and that was something. When people agree with you, she thought, then they have listened to what you say, and Liliana was not used to people listening to her. She was a realist. She knew that shy people rarely make the impact above the egos in the crowd.

“Liliana can I speak to you,” Hari said, one overcast, morning after class. “Are you free for a coffee?”

Liliana didn’t stop for a minute because she wasn’t sure whether Hari was speaking directly to her or not but when Hari raised her voice: “Liliana, do you have a minute?”, she knew her favourite teacher was talking to her directly. So turning around, and brushing her long hair out of her face, she said: “Yes, Ms Theodori.”

“Hari, Liliana, call me Hari.”

Hari’s brown, round Greek eyes were full of welcome Liliana noticed and she took a few steps toward her, deciding that she would interrupt her solitary journey to the canteen to buy a baked bean sandwich for morning tea, to talk with Hari.

Hari moved toward her and touched her arm in a gesture of closeness, Liliana thought.

“I’m free for coffee, Hari,” Liliana said.

“Great, then let’s head over to the quiet coffee shop on the other side of campus – not the canteen, it’s too crowded. I want to talk to you about your studies.”

Liliana raised one barely visible eyebrow. “Nothing’s wrong is there?” she said, starting to worry. She really needed to get through this degree. The money her grandmother had left her was starting to run out, and Mr Liazzorini from the pizza bar could only give her two shifts a week. She was tired of the endless baked bean sandwiches, eggs and mince, supplemented by loads of vegetables…because they were cheaper than meat, with the exception of mince. As she approached her final semester at uni, she wanted out, and to begin her search for her place, she thought wryly as she fingered the corner of the books in her hands.

“Nothing’s wrong at all, in fact everything is fine Liliana. I just wanted to talk with you about an honours year next year…in English. But more of that when we’ve got that much needed coffee in our hands. I’ve only had one this morning and it’s nearly 11am.”

She linked arms with Liliana and half propelled her off in the direction of the coffee shop. Once they were seated, she took out a piece of paper which resembled Liliana’s academic transcript.

“I hope you don’t mind Liliana, but I was able to access your marks in this English major and I have to say they are impressive.”

Liliana’s eyes widened, and she waited for the joke to come next. When it didn’t, her expression became one of puzzlement. “Ah…I’m not sure I know what you mean. I’ve not done that well in my English major.”

Hari smiled as she took a long sip of the soy latte she had ordered. Liliana was waiting for hers to cool, a little bit nervous of testing the heat against her lips in case it spilt.

“I’m telling you Liliana, your marks are better than good and I think you have the right attitude to take on honours…you seem to understand what the writer is actually saying…the guts of it, if you know what I mean and not what academia wants you to think. You’re a complete natural and I think with a little bit of mentoring, you can make a place for yourself here.”

Liliana finally took a sip of her coffee and noticed with disappointment it had gone slightly cold. “Here? Oh I don’t think so…I mean I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I don’t want to stay here.”

Hari looked slightly puzzled, and a little bit hurt, Liliana thought.

“I’m not sure I know what you mean Liliana. What I’m offering you is a career path to perhaps one day lecture at this university. Perhaps write yourself. I really think you’re capable of all this,” she said, waving her arm in an expansive gesture in the general direction of the university.

Liliana couldn’t help smile but she quickly forced it back.

“Thank you. I really mean that but I can’t stay here. I’ve got to find my place and this is not it,” she said. She reached into her purse and took out $3 in silver coins. She placed them on the table and bit at her lip. She really was quite nervous at having to disappoint Hari Theodori.

Hari touched her arm again. “I understand Liliana, but promise me you will think it over.”

Liliana nodded before hurrying out of the coffee shop. She could still make the 301 back to Blacktown. Luckily the term was nearly over and if she arrived and departed Hari Theordori’s classes on time for the next week, she wouldn’t have to talk about the prospect of studying honours. If she didn’t say much at all, it would all fade into the background, and she could slip comfortably back into herself. Besides. Liliana had another plan, one that would take her away from everything she had known in her short life. Towards another place.

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