Laura McPhee-Browne is truly one of my favourite writers of all. She has a way of capturing life at its most peculiar and its most vivid. It goes without saying, then, that I'm very pleased to walk the halls of Tincture Journal with her this quarter.
ANNA: You're an incredibly lyrical writer - some (me) might even say a poet. What is it about short fiction that creates this mood for you?
LAURA: Well, thank you! I actually started off writing poetry. I don't know if it's just short fiction, but whenever I'm writing the words seem to be a song in my head. Sometimes certain words don't fit purely because they don't fit the tune. This isn't always practical but continues to happen!
ANNA: Poor Fern is having a pretty bad time. Where did the inspiration for her come from?
LAURA: In a funny way I think the beginnings of Fern's character in the story were based on me. I began to think about writing the story after I went to see the Francis Bacon exhibition at the AGO here in Toronto in 2014. I had a very intense and negative reaction to some of his paintings, and the ideas behind them: ideas about the inevitability of death and the potential pointlessness of living. It depressed me, and in some sad ways rang true, if only briefly. Those feelings and thoughts were the beginning of Fern, and then the story.
ANNA: What is one thing you, as a writer, can't live without?
LAURA: The thing I can't live without, as a writer or as a human, is books. A good book is the only way I can truly relax, and the reading of so many good books is the only reason I can write.
When Francis Bacon Came to Stay
On Monday morning after her usual twelve-hour packing shift at Franklin’s No Frills, Fern comes home with a poster in her hand, rolled up and secured with a spam-coloured rubber band. She uses the poster to tap me on my head as she passes by me at the kitchen table, and tells me it’s a Francis Bacon print, and that Pip from work—“you know the one I told you about with the laugh that sounds like a trumpet being played by a drunk person with no fingers”—gave it to her.
“I think it’d go nicely on this wall,” she says, patting the blu-tack cemetery above our tartan couch where the cat we fed ’til it came to live with us, Herb, is licking his groin and purring louder than a Kawasaki Vulcan 2000. Fern did a semester of Art History when she was at university, back when she had dreadlocks and played the harmonica near the jam doughnut truck every Thursday at the Bundoora campus. She knows about art, and I suppose that means she knows where it would look best hanging in our three-room flat.
“Yeah,” I say, opening up my cheese jaffle with my fingers to let the insides breathe. “Cool babe.”
Fern doesn’t actually get around to putting up the Francis Bacon poster for months. The day after she brings it home, she doesn’t get out of bed, and I have to coax her to get up when she asks me if she can piss in the empty fish tank so she doesn’t have to stand properly and walk to the toilet. Fern gets sick sometimes. It’s a big, heavy sadness in her heart and her head and a jelly in her arms and legs, and she says it’s leftover stuff from being gay and having to have a big, shameful secret for so many years, but I think it’s more than that. We live in this tiny shit-brick flat in Sunshine near the train tracks, but Fern hardly ever leaves the house except to go to work. I love her so much though—I’d live in a car just to feel her sleeping breath in the air around me at night. And she loves me too.
“It’s that poster,” she tells me; mostly with her blue eyes because her voice is quiet and low from the effort of speaking. “I looked at it before I went to bed and I remembered the pointlessness of all this shit. I’m not going to work today.” I nod, and hold her damp head against my chest, running my hand across her forehead to get the strands of hair out from her eyes and her mouth.
Before I leave for work I roll out the poster and lay it out on the floor, putting an ashtray at each corner to make it stay flat. I kneel above the paper and try to take it in—it’s a dark sort of painting, with what I think must be browny-green grass rising up around a big grey man who is on all fours, his head hanging down and away. Behind him is the outline of someone else but you can’t see that person’s face—just the outline of their long scribbled body. It’s creepy, and I don’t like it straight away. I actually can’t believe that Fern wants to hang it in our flat—it will make me feel bad every time I see it if she does. I only look at it for about a minute, then I roll the poster up fast. Down the bottom is the name of the painting—“Man Kneeling In Grass”—and that just annoys me. Well yeah, it’s a man kneeling in the grass. Looks more like an ape or a monkey anyway. I’d have liked something a bit sharper than that. Something that could tell me why Fern feels like this painting is the key to the misery of the whole world.
I work as a ticket inspector and do the trams mostly. It’s a weird job—people hate you and they don’t care if you know it. It sometimes feels like the uniform is a Nazi symbol stuck to my chest, or that I’m holding a sign with “I’ve killed a really large number of babies” written on it as I walk up the steps of the trams all day. But I don’t really care, and neither do the guys I work with. Tony, with his McDonalds fetish and sideburns, and Sue, who has a waist like a bag of mandarins and sings “TNT” by AC/DC including all the instrumental bits as we wait at the stops around the city—these are my people. There’s a buzzing thrill in the locker room at night because we’ve got through the day, and even though I hardly ever join the others for beers after work I know they like me, even if it is just because we’re in it together.
After work I get home and find Fern still in bed, her face grubby with half cried tears. I heat us up some soup, and drag the TV from the lounge room into the bedroom and we watch “Australian Story”, which Fern likes, and “Border Security”, which I like, and then Channel Ten is showing “Bad Boys II” so we watch that and play I Spy during the ads. Well, I play I Spy and Fern grunts. But at least she has her eyes open.
For weeks Fern keeps talking about that Francis Bacon poster. It’s actually all she talks about, and her voice goes all low when she does it, like she doesn’t want the scribbled man in the background of the painting to hear her. She asks me to stick it up in the bedroom. I ask her why, and she says “Because I understand how Francis Bacon felt, and the painting reminds me.” I say no, and tell her that if she really wants to hang it up in the bedroom, there is a stick of blu-tack right there on the bedside table and she can do it herself. This makes her cry, but it’s the silent kind of crying with her body facing away from mine and I ignore it for the first time ever, not knowing how to tell her that I hate the poster, and I actually think I might hate Francis Bacon.
We are sitting up in bed on Tuesday night with Mi Goreng in a big pot, too lazy to twirl the noodles up and back down into bowls. Herb is purring soulfully between us and I’m telling Fern about my plain-clothed shift at work today, trying to get her to understand that when I’m not wearing my uniform on the trams I almost feel free.
“And Mike wore a yellow Wu Tang hoodie but when I said I like them too he said that it was his son’s, and he’d thought Wu Tang was some kind of inspirational proverb.”
Fern always laughs when I tell her what everyone wore when we have plain-clothed shifts. She thinks we’re all a big bunch of dags. Sometimes it even makes her want to have sex—but only when I tell her what Stephanie King wore, with her long bleached hair and nose ring.
I hear no laughter, and when I look up, Fern’s eyes are like snow caves. She is a funny colour too, I didn’t notice until now but she’s sort of yellow and veiny, and her hair is slicked back and to the side, like she wants to forget she even has any.
“Go and get the poster,” she says. “I have to see it. I want it up here in the room. It’s beautiful.”
She’s gone mad. The poster isn’t beautiful. Our love is beautiful, and Herb is beautiful when he pads into the kitchen in the morning with his tail all high, and the pink sun outside that we are missing like we always do—that’s beautiful. But the Francis Bacon poster is ugly. I feel hot words in my chest marching up.
“Fern—no. I’m sorry but I don’t understand this stuff about the poster. It sends shivers down my spine, that painting, with that big naked man all hunched over and pathetic, crawling around in the dirt. And that guy standing behind him. I don’t understand who they’re supposed to be.”
Fern smiles and I can see all her beautifully crooked teeth, lined up like icebergs in her mouth.
“You don’t get it, do you?” She says this thick and slow. I can barely make out each word as it’s own.
“Get what Fern? What?”
“He knew!” she screams, and then—“He knew!” again.
She’s crying and gulping at the air and banging her little hands on the doona and the pillows and I see Herb scurry out of the bedroom from the corner of my eye.
I feel like I’m a statue in an art gallery with nothing to say, and that she’s one who made me.
“He knew what?”
Fern stops. She’s tired, I can see it in her gulps, which are becoming tiny hiccups. She rubs her eyes and then I know that really, right now, she’s my child.
“He knew that everything is a stupid, worn-out lie. And that we have to pretend it’s not—that we’re not just going to die at the end.”
Fern’s words stay hanging in the air around us, floating like the little tired flies that visit in the summertime. I can’t tell her it isn’t true, that we aren’t all going to die at the end. I would if I could. I can hear Herb mewling and I suppose he wants to go out—we think he has a boyfriend across the road and like to tease each other that our best friend is a gay cat.
“I’m going to let Herb out now,” I say. Fern looks at me.
“OK,” she says.
I walk out to the kitchen and murmur down at little Herb who stands facing me, still mewling, his tail swishing backwards and forwards against the fly screen. Nothing comes from the bedroom—she will probably sleep now. I’ll take a walk. Maybe find out for real where Herb goes when we say goodbye to him on our HOME SWEET HOME mat.
I open the door and Herb dashes out ahead of me, wiggling his tawny bum as he heads to wait to cross at the side of the road. I will follow him a little way and then branch out alone for just a while down Monash Street—Fern will be waiting for me when I get home, and maybe together we can have a go at putting up the Francis Bacon poster.
Laura McPhee-Browne is a writer and social worker who hails from Melbourne, and currently lives in Toronto. You can find her on Twitter @laurahelenmb, or on her fledgling blog, www.lauramcpheebrowne.com.
Tincture Journal Issue #9 is currently on sale and you should definitely, completely buy it. It features this story, of course, but also others (and poems and essays) from Amelia Marshall, Michele Seminara, Sean Lynch, and bloody heaps of others (including yours truly).
One of my favourite things about Bloc Features is the chance to revisit pieces from the near and far past. Australian journals are putting out wonderful writing year-round, and there are so many gems to uncover. Every month we'll feature a story from an Australian journal, past or present.
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