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CALUMNY WHILE READING IRVINE WELSH

Martha Elliott is a clever, determinedly single, borderline anal retentive who lives with her family: a silent father, a mother who does not notice her, a sister who is inveterately stoned, and a younger brother who makes Martha want, in her own words, ‘to disembowel him’. She’s not too bad at number crunching, but in the kitchen she is a true artiste, albeit more domestic gorgon than domestic goddess. She hates instant coffee and will not suffer fools or anybody who displays bad railway station etiquette.

The same day her best friend Grace lends her a copy of the Irvine Welsh novel
Trainspotting, Martha is stricken by a bout of ‘escalator-rage’ when she sees an elderly woman standing on the ‘wrong’ side of the escalator. She forces her way past, but then the woman falls to her death. Unfortunate for Martha and, rendered even more unfortunate when the elderly woman turns out to be the mother of the popular politician Sean Delaney, a champion of children’s rights and moral causes, there also happens to be an election looming.

So, did Martha actually cause the old woman’s death? How will her dysfunctional family and best friend Grace, who has her own demons, cope with the unwanted attention from television crews and police investigators? Will Martha get her life back and finish reading Trainspotting?

In Store Price: $AU29.95 
Online Price:   $AU28.95

ISBN: 978-1-921406-53-9
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 340
Genre: Fiction


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Cover: Clive Dalkins

 

 

Author: Simone Bailey
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2008
Language: English

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AUTHOR BIO.  

Simone Bailey was born in the miniscule town of Merriwa, New South Wales and spent most of her adult life working in the Sydney legal industry. She has been writing stories since she learned how to structure a sentence. Some have been published, some have won awards, some have been rejected and some have been relegated to the Council-issue recycling bin.  

Calumny While Reading Irvine Welsh is her first novel, and she is hard at work on the second, with the seed of the third germinating in the recess of her brain. A music tragic, she enjoys quizzes, reading, community theatre and mixes a mean Caesar salad. She now lives in Muswellbrook, New South Wales with her husband and two children.

 

PART I

 

1985  

 

Chapter 1  

 

The school holidays were on, and that suited eight-year-old Martha Jane Elliott down to the ground. Although she did well at school, the holidays were much more preferable. She was a slender child, with straight black hair and green eyes. Her sister also had green eyes, but her hair was fair. Erin was two years younger, and loved Barbie dolls. And although she was only eight, Martha knew that Erin had more natural charm than she ever would. But that didn’t worry Martha. Things were fine as they were.

But things were going to change soon. Martha looked at their mother Dorothy, who sat in a fawn velvet easy chair, her hands crossed over a swollen belly. Soon there would be another little brother or sister. That was quite exciting. Martha looked from her mother to the mantelpiece, where sat a framed photograph of a toddler with blonde hair. That was Ryan, who died just before his second birthday. Maybe the arrival of the new baby would bring about other changes.

Like in their father, Neville. Before Ryan died Neville used to sing Cracklin’ Rosie whilst he shaved. Dot would walk past the bathroom and shake her head, saying, ‘God, Neville. You and that bloody Neil Diamond. I don’t know.’ Maybe the new baby would get their father to sing again. Maybe their mother would notice them again. That would be pretty choice, actually.

The afternoon soaps were over, and a cooking program came on. Dorothy lit a cigarette. Martha glared at her; wasn’t it supposed to be bad for the baby? And the smoke stank, too.

‘Change the channel would you, love?’

‘No, this looks interesting,’ said Martha.

The chef whisked eggs and chopped herbs. Martha frowned. She had only ever seen eggs boiled and served with toast soldiers. She had not been aware that there was such a thing as fresh herbs. She thought they all came from small glass bottles with green or brown plastic lids.

The chef poured the eggs over a flat pan filled with sliced zucchinis and tomatoes and potato. It came out of the oven looking glorious. Martha shot her mother a reproachful look; why couldn’t she cook like that?

‘I’m going to try and cook that one day,’ declared Martha.

‘Are you, love? Why do you want to go and do that?’

‘It looks like fun. And there’s nothing else to do,’ she added pointedly. ‘I’m not allowed to play with Grace.’

‘You know she’s not from a nice family,’ explained Dorothy.

Grace Carpenter was Martha’s best friend at school. Dorothy didn’t like her because she lived in a Housing Commission flat with her unmarried mother, who had been only sixteen when Grace was born.

‘There’s nothing wrong with her.’

‘I’ve told you, oh, never mind. You wouldn’t understand. You’re not playing with her and that’s final. Why don’t you play with Felicity?’

Their cousin Felicity was a few months older than Martha, and at the same school. Her mother was their Auntie Kath, who had a beaky nose, glittery beady eyes, and a cruel smile. Martha thought Auntie Kath looked like one of those awful stepmothers in the fairy tales her mother occasionally read to them.

Not that there had been too many fairy tales since Ryan died.

But Uncle Bill was a different story. Even though he was an uncle by marriage, Martha and Erin always said they liked him better than Auntie Kath. He was a tall man, with blonde hair and blue eyes. He always smiled and was friendly, unlike his wife and daughter.

 

A few days after the cooking program, their father arrived home and said he had a job on at the Commission flats; the regular plumber couldn’t do it because he was sick.

‘Want to come for the drive, Martha? You can play with that little mate of yours.’

‘Okay!’ Martha was pleased for the opportunity to catch up with Grace, and also pleased that it would get on her mother’s nerves.

‘Hey, Erin,’ said Neville.

She looked up from her dolls.

‘How many of those dolls do you have? You’ve got bloody Barbies everywhere! Surely you can do without one of them?’

‘Oh, okay.’

Erin handed one of the older, rattier dolls over, and Martha asked why he wanted a doll.

He shrugged. ‘Well, that little kid hasn’t got as many toys as you girls do. It’ll be nice for her, don’t you reckon?’ He looked back at Erin. ‘And what about some of those clothes, and that little pink handbag for the doll. What do you reckon?’

Martha and Neville arrived at the flats, and they knocked on the door of the flat with the offending toilet. A man in his late twenties answered, and invited them in.

‘Go on,’ said Neville. ‘You go and see that little buddy of yours.’ He explained to the man about Martha being friends with the little girl in number eleven.

‘Oh,’ said the man with a knowing leer. ‘Perhaps you’d better tell her a time to come back here, rather than go up and fetch her. That piece up there, the kid’s mother – blimey! She’ll try and rip the daks off you faster than you can say g’day.’

Martha wasn’t sure of the implications of what the man had said, but as she climbed the stairs she wondered was it one of the reasons her mother didn’t like Grace.

She was shocked when the door to Grace’s home was flung open and a stocky man barged out. He turned and yelled back inside, ‘I’ve got a right to see her, and you can’t frigging stop me!’

He stormed past Martha, not seeming to notice her.

Nerida, Grace’s mother, appeared in the doorway and screamed, ‘Up yours! You kicked me out when I was pregnant, you never come and seen me in the hospital when I had her, you never gave a shit about her before, and you just show up like everything’s all right! You want to see her, you start paying some bloody money!’

The door to another flat was opened, and another man looked out and roared, ‘Keep it down, will ya? Some of us have to work tonight!’

From behind a closed door, a female resident threatened to call the police.

‘Oh, hi, Martha,’ said Nerida distractedly. ‘Come in. Grace! Martha’s here!’

Martha looked around the living room, and distastefully regarded the overflowing ashtray on the coffee table. Grace entered, a rather plump child with wavy mousy hair and freckles. She hated her looks, not even caring about her expressive hazel eyes. Today she looked pale and scared.

‘Got something for you.’ Martha handed over the doll and accessories. Grace smiled wanly.

‘That’s real nice,’ said Nerida. ‘Come on, Gracie, what do you say?’

‘Thanks.’ She looked at her mother. ‘I was going to say thanks, you just didn’t give me a chance to.’ She then asked Martha had the doll come from Erin’s collection.

‘Yeah,’ Martha said, and decided to skew the truth for the sake of Grace’s pride. ‘She got a bit sick of it and wanted to chuck it out, and I told her that you would look after the doll better than she would.’

Grace looked like she didn’t quite believe her, but smiled anyway. They went into Grace’s tiny bedroom and sat on the bed.

‘What have you been doing today?’ asked Martha.

‘Oh, not much. Watched Dr Who! It was unreal.’

‘I hate Dr Who. He’s ugly.’

Grace shrugged to show she didn’t care about Martha’s opinion on Dr Who’s appearance.

‘Hey, who was that man? That angry one that was here?’

‘That was my father.’

 

Martha answered the front door to Uncle Bill, Auntie Kath and Felicity.

‘Peabody’s Babysitting Service!’ laughed Uncle Bill, sweeping Martha up in a hug. She smiled and hugged him back. He set her back down and said to give her auntie a hug. Martha politely said it wouldn’t be necessary.

Neville Elliott carried a suitcase in one hand, and rubbed his wife’s back with the other. She stood caressing her stomach speculatively.

‘Come on then, darlin’,’ said Neville. ‘We’d better get to the hospital.’

Over her shoulder as she walked through the front door, Dot advised there was sliced ham, and tinned pineapple, and salad stuff, and didn’t get to say anything else because Neville shushed her and egged her into the car.

Erin and Felicity went to the bedroom to play. Martha decided she would rather stay with Uncle Bill. Auntie Kath settled herself on the sofa with a copy of Woman in You magazine.

‘How long does it take for a baby to be born?’ asked Martha.

‘That all depends, love,’ said Uncle Bill. ‘Some babies take hours and hours, and some can’t wait to get out.’

‘You had your poor mother in pain for ten hours,’ said Auntie Kath, with a smile that looked like a thinly disguised smirk.

‘Whereas Erin was a bit faster, from memory,’ reminisced Uncle Bill. ‘I think it was six hours.’

‘And what about Ryan?’

‘You mustn’t talk about Ryan!’ Auntie Kath admonished.

Uncle Bill shot her an exasperated look. ‘Why not? He lived. It’s not healthy for her to bottle it up.’

Martha added, ‘And it’s all Mum ever talks about sometimes.’

Uncle Bill and Auntie Kath gave each other a look Martha didn’t like; she knew they were thinking something and it wasn’t necessarily flattering of her mother.

‘Well, sometimes grown ups are a bit like that,’ said Uncle Bill vaguely. ‘Hey, what’s that your auntie’s reading? How can she read that drivel?’

‘There’s nothing wrong with it.’

‘But it’s so mindless, Kath! All crap about the Royal family – look, there’s a photo of Charles and Di on the cover! And scandals about celebrities, and the odd knitting pattern thrown in.’

‘I like to knit! I’ve knitted booties for all of Dorothy’s kids. And for your information I’m reading a political story.’

Uncle Bill snorted, and she handed him the magazine.

‘Oh, give me a break!’ laughed Uncle Bill. ‘This is just a fluff piece about George Dwyer’s press secretary.’ He turned to Martha and added, ‘You know, the premier of the State.’

‘I know who George Dwyer is,’ said Martha. She tapped her finger on the page. ‘Who’s this man?’

‘He’s the Premier’s press secretary,’ explained Uncle Bill. ‘See? His name’s Sean Delaney.’

Martha scanned the article about the thirty-three-year-old politician who had degrees in economics and law, whose wife Mary was a doctor, and they were parents to three-year-old daughter Athena. Described by the magazine as handsome and family-oriented, Sean Delaney enjoyed painting and political history. He was also sporty, having been involved with the Northern Beaches Surf Life Saving Club since childhood, and a passionate rugby league fan that followed the Sea Eagles.

There were three photographs accompanying the article. One showed him standing before a canvas of a landscape painting. The second was with him with his family, arms around the shoulders of his wife and daughter. The final was a head and shoulders, which gave glorious detail of his angular face of mismatched quarters, and sticking out ears. His smile was thin and crooked.

‘But he does have a lovely, warm smile, doesn’t he?’ said Kath.

‘No, not really,’ Martha replied. ‘The painting’s pretty good, though.’ She looked at Delaney’s wife, a short-haired woman apparently hiding behind her spectacles. The pig-tailed daughter grinned inanely. ‘Why would they do a story about him? Is he important?’

Uncle Bill said, ‘He no doubt thinks he is. I don’t really know. Maybe he’s after a bit of publicity himself. You know, he could be after the top job.’

‘Well, I’d vote for him,’ cooed Auntie Kath. ‘He’s very handsome.’

‘Well, that’s no reason to vote for someone,’ said Martha.

‘Your aunt’s just joking,’ said Uncle Bill. ‘At least, I hope she is. What about a game of checkers?’

Martha was a strategic player, and Uncle Bill respected her enough to not let her win merely because she was a child. She had to admit Uncle Bill was no slouch at the game, either. He won their second game, and looked at his watch.

‘Blimey, is that the time? Better start thinking about some dinner, hadn’t we? We’ll get out some of that stuff your mother left you.’

Martha said, ‘It’s okay. We’ll have a frittata.’

‘And what might that be?’

‘I’ll show you.’

‘Where’s it kept? Is it in the cupboard?’

‘No. I’ll have to make it.’

Auntie Kath looked up from the magazine. ‘You’re making it, Martha?’ She said ‘Mah-tha’, like a sick crow.

‘Yeah.’

Uncle Bill said, ‘Is that a fact? Well, supposing I keep an eye on you?’

Insulted, Martha replied that she could manage it quite well on her own.

The corners of her uncle’s mouth twitched, and he replied, ‘Well, let’s look at it this way. Your parents wouldn’t like to think you were unsupervised. How about we tell them that I kept an eye on you, but what we’ll do is: you show me how it’s done?’

‘Okay, then.’

They went to the kitchen and Martha foraged in the refrigerator for eggs and vegetables.

‘Why haven’t we got fresh herbs?’ she complained. ‘I’ll have to use the dried stuff.’

‘Worse things have happened.’

Martha donned her mother’s floral apron. It hung like a caftan, and she looked quite the oddity as she turned the handle of the eggbeater.

‘You look like Demis Roussos trying to crank up an old Model T Ford.’

What?

‘Don’t say ‘what’. You know better than that.’

‘I beg your pardon? I look like who trying to do what?’

‘He’s a fat Greek singer who wears funny clothes that look like that apron, and a Model T is a vintage car. You know, one of those really old cars where the people wear scarves and goggles.’

‘It doesn’t matter if I look dumb. We have to get it right.’

‘You don’t look dumb. You look very sweet. I’ll always remember you like this.’

Eventually she slid the dish into the oven, and Uncle Bill suggested he prepare a salad.

‘I’m not sure.’

‘It’s all right. I think we need something to go with it.’

Martha chewed her lower lip, and acquiesced with uncertain grace.

‘All right, if you’re sure you won’t wreck it.’

Martha’s frittata was most palatable. As he placed his knife and fork together on the plate, Uncle Bill said, ‘That was a superb meal, absolutely superb. My compliments to the chef.’

‘Aw, I didn’t like it,’ whined Felicity.

Erin innocently pointed out Felicity’s apparent dislike of the meal didn’t stop her eating it all.

‘That’s enough,’ warned Uncle Bill. ‘Everybody knows when dish hands have to work together, there are to be no squabbles.’

‘What do you mean, Daddy?’

‘What I mean is, you and Erin are to wash up. Now.’

Nooo. I don’t want to.’

Martha said menacingly and deliberately, ‘Wash. Up. Now. Felicity.’

Auntie Kath glared at Martha, and Uncle Bill told Felicity and Erin to get into the kitchen now.

Later in the evening, the girls were sent for their baths. Erin went first, then Felicity, and Martha third. Martha sneaked her mother’s good sandalwood scented soap, and her own Fozzie Bear bubble bath (the lid was Fozzie’s hat). She worked the soap over her arms and tummy, inwardly gloating about her frittata. She had known she would be able to make it; she had shown everyone!

She finished her bath, dried herself, and donned her pyjamas before going to the bedroom she and Erin shared. She found Erin and Felicity sitting on one bed, the controls to the Atari game lying useless between them. Erin was sobbing.

‘What’s the matter?’ cried Martha. ‘Did Dad ring? Is this baby dead, too?’

Felicity rolled her eyes. ‘Nobody rang. Erin’s just a little bit upset because your mother and father won’t have time for her with the new baby, that’s all.’

‘That’s not what you said!’ blurted Erin.

‘All I said was that your parents will be busy, and this new baby will make up for Ryan, and they’ll love it.’

‘You meant they’ll love the baby more than us!’

‘That’s not what I meant.’

‘You did!’

‘I didn’t.’

‘You must have,’ said Martha. ‘Erin’s all upset.’

‘I can’t help it if she’s a sook.’

Martha looked into Felicity’s eyes and knew her cousin had deliberately upset Erin. But it was not this fact, but the realisation that there are genuinely nasty people in the world, that made Martha curl up her fist and land it hard in Felicity’s solar plexis.

Felicity hit the floor with a thud and an, ‘Ooof!’

Erin’s eyes were huge, and worshipful.

Felicity gasped, ‘You are in so much trouble. I am really dobbing on you for this.’

Martha shrugged. ‘I don’t care. It doesn’t matter if I get in trouble because it felt good to hit you.’

The telephone sounded.

‘I’m telling Mummy and Daddy you hit me.’ She managed to stand and started to walk away. Martha grabbed her arm.

‘Just wait. Didn’t you hear the phone?’

They waited in silence: Martha philosophical, Felicity seething, and Erin confused.

Uncle Bill burst into the room, grinning warmly.

‘You have a new brother!’ Over Erin and Martha’s cheers, he continued, ‘His name’s Sterling Ryan Elliott! Isn’t that a nice name? He’s as healthy as an ox and he can’t wait to meet his two big sisters tomorrow!’

‘Can’t we go tonight?’ pleaded Erin.

‘No, love, visiting hours are over. Your Dad’ll take you there as soon as they start tomorrow, at ten o’clock. He’ll be home in a while. Now in the meantime: to bed. Come on Felicity, there’s a bed in the spare room for you.’

‘When’s Dad getting home?’ asked Martha.

‘Not for a little while, yet. And I daresay he and I will wet the baby’s head. It’s just a saying,’ he laughed, seeing their appalled expressions. ‘We’re going to have a shot of whiskey. Come on, Felicity.’

When they were alone, Martha and Erin climbed into bed.

‘You didn’t get into trouble for hitting Felicity. I’m glad you hit her, though.’

‘So am I. I suppose everyone’s thinking about the baby, I mean, Sterling. That’s why I didn’t get into trouble.’ Martha rolled on her side and regarded her sister. ‘You know what, though? Maybe when there’s a lot of stuff happening, you can get away with things because nobody notices what’s really going on.’

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