‘Warm-ups’ by Abigail Ulman
In the first week of lockdown in Brisbane, my friend texted me three words: GET DISNEY PLUS. She has a 5-year-old. I have two little kids. GET DISNEY PLUS, she yelled at me again, even though I had not replied the first time. So I did. Then I bought Stan as well, to watch Normal People, certain that I’d remember to cancel my subscription as soon as I finished it. Or the next month, or the one after that, but here we are in November. Eventually, of course I will cancel my Stan subscription. In short: we’ve sat through a lot of telly this year. In her essay ‘Peonies’, Zadie Smith calls March 2020 the beginning of the ‘global humbling’.
Recently, one night alone, I opened my laptop and clicked on Athlete A, a documentary on Netflix about the systemic sexual, physical and emotional abuse both perpetrated and covered up by members of USA Gymnastics over several decades. Featured are sometime-coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi, who hosted scores of gymnasts at their ranch in Texas. We see them hugging their gymnasts tightly, reaching for them after they spill off the blue mats in Seoul and Barcelona. And in Atlanta, where Kerri Strug tears ligaments in her ankle on her way to winning the gold medal, Béla carries her—seemingly tenderly—off the floor.
I watched Athlete A and re-read the short story ‘Warm-ups’ by Abigail Ulman. ‘Warm-ups’ opens on a mattress in Russia and closes on a mattress in the United States. The first line, ‘Yesterday was my thirteenth birthday,’ already has the reader one step behind, on the back foot. Yet somehow it also propels us forward. ‘Warm-ups’ is about ambitious, innocent Kira who longs to be a world-class gymnast. And it is a perfect short story. In parts we get the mundane musings of the 13-year-old narrator while she fiddles with the camera she got for her birthday and murmurs with her grandmother and flirts with her boyfriend. Littered throughout are clues that, by degrees, move and shock me—no matter how many times I’ve read it—to a physical degree. I set this piece of fiction, or mention it by name, during every short story class I teach.
‘Missy’ by Sean O’Beirne
It’s early March 2020 and in a few weeks I’m due to interview Sean O’Beirne at Avid Reader about his terrific debut short story collection, A Couple of Things Before the End. I’ve never done this before—an in-conversation with an author at a bookshop. I vow to do all the right research, to ask all the questions that I love when other interviewers ask, and none of the ones I hate. But then COVID happens, and Sean’s trip to Brisbane is cancelled. It’s so sudden there isn’t even a Zoom chat (nope, not even a little one). Everybody’s having a shit time of it, pandemic-panic-wise. Trips have been cancelled. Friends have lost their jobs. I find out I’ve contracted Ross River virus. I’m so sore and so tired. We must all stay inside. For my husband and me, that means an apartment with our two kids. I don’t see my parents or my sister for a long time. My sister’s family has a little dog that is especially loved by my nephew and niece, and then the dog gets run over by a car. But I forget to tell my own daughter, so when she and my niece have a sleepover together it all comes out, my not telling her and my daughter’s grief for this little dog.
The second last story in O’Beirne’s collection is titled ‘Missy’, a blisteringly good tale about a little dog. It’s also about the climate crisis, about desperation, about begging for help though the protagonist probably never before thought she was the type to beg. In a series of emails, Genevieve Teale tells her old friend Georgia bits of gossip, the comings and goings of mutual friends, until finally she lands on her true purpose: can Georgia get Gen and her family (and their dog, Missy) into Highfern, an exclusive residential space designed to house citizens during the worsening climate catastrophe? Gen recounts how her family uses only half the house now—they camp in the kitchen ‘where there are the tiles’. The parts of the house that we understand would have once made Gen’s home special like the ‘high French bow windows’ now act like ‘giant magnifying glasses’. It’s 35 degrees by 10am, 46 by noon. Gen is desperate; could darling Georgie help them all out?
A dog, a window, an email, a deal. The genius in O’Beirne’s story is, for me, the recognition of what we’d sound like if we wrote down our darkest fears and then begged for them. American writer Dorothy Allison says, ‘Story should be extremity’. Here we are, then, at the extreme part of Genevieve’s life when it looks for all the world like she and her loved ones might not escape unharmed. In the details of the story, O’Beirne retains enough of our not-yet-extreme lives then puts on the blindfold and spins us around and around and around. In his world of energy police, ripped up carpets discarded by the roadside, and day-long dips in the bathtub to stay cool, this humbling time we’re having, globally, now feels like just the beginning.
‘Disobeying’ by Elizabeth Tan
I met Krystyna in Poland in 2016 where we both gave papers at a children’s literature conference. Our topics were similar, and Krystyna suggested a children’s novel—Harriet and the Cherry Pie by Clare Compton—that I should include in my thesis. When I found it online at a Lifeline bookshop in Canberra, I emailed her to let her know. We emailed a bit more, and at one point she asked me to send her the book. Yes, of course, I said. She needed to check it for her own research and would post it back ASAP. A few months later Krystyna told me her family’s decision: after years of saving they were coming to Australia, mid-2020, for the holiday they’d always dreamed of. Then, on 20 March, a message: We have to stay at home and post offices do not work so I can’t send you the book at the moment. I’ll let you know when the situation gets better. She invited me, someday, to Krakow and sent me photos of its empty town square. She asked if I knew what my government was planning to do about Australia’s borders. I did not. I told her I hoped their June holiday would go ahead. She and her daughter were reading a book about Australia, still hoping.
In Elizabeth Tan’s exquisite short story ‘Disobeying’, an author named Harper Wen-Fox sits at a table at a writers’ festival waiting for readers to line up with copies of her book. It’s a slow day for Harper; the line beside her for another writer snakes its way right out of the signing tent. But Harper is ‘too old to be embarrassed. She has weathered the lonely signing table before’. And then a stranger named Daniel marches forward holding a book with an unfamiliar cover and a title page that lists Harper’s name. Except she has never seen the book before, and is sure she did not write it. But she picks up a pen, and she signs the book. Dear Daniel, the whole time wondering if there is a clue she isn’t recognising? Is it a trick? Is she just holding out hope?
Krystyna and I haven’t emailed in a while. What is there to say? Hope you’re keeping as well as possible in these unprecedented times? I know I should let her keep the antique book—I don’t need it for my work anymore. The 1960s dust jacket is pretty, and in good nick, but I know I won’t read it again. Still, I can’t bring myself to do it, to email her in Poland where she and her daughter might be propped up on a couch, lobbing facts about the Great Barrier Reef back and forth. I should write to say It’s yours now. Keep it. But: a silly thing. I need to see it posted back because that’s what was supposed to happen before all of this. On 3 May, another message from Krystyna: A few days ago we bought T-shirts with ‘Palm Cove’ written on them 🙂 and we’re trying to imagine we’ll definitely go there soon. I believe in the power of good thoughts.
Laura is the author of the short story collections Trick of the Light (UQP, 2018) and Ordinary Matter (UQP, 2020). Her work has also been published in Meanjin, Overland, The Saturday Paper, Island, The Big Issue and Griffith Review. Laura lives in Brisbane.