Decoyed by orthodoxy
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 7: The Lure of Fundamentalism
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Natalie Scott
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Veritee watches the familiar sight of one or other of her parents' backs as it disappears. Separately or together. Bebe and Larry, down the hall, the steps, down the path, its concrete crumbled ... weeds thick in the cracks. Down the street, the city, the state, down Australia, down the world, down the universe. In summers edgy with heat, slatted cool in the shade; winters sliced with cold. Seasonal birds to swoop in arcs, spiral in thermals, gust away to specks.
Normal. Off and away from the chaos they've made of Veritee's universe. Larry, his flesh solid, face impassive if he deigned to look back, Bebe's body brittle on tottering heels, skin taut at her eyes, expression brittle. Unbrittle, her daughter supposes, when they meet up with friends, acquaintances, anyone. Where her mother extends soft hands she creams – left over right, left over right – day and night. Where he bulges with laughs, all bonhomie, mouth wide open, wine-stained teeth.
Bebe and Larry ... who brought her to life, the twins to follow six unsuspecting years later. Did love arrive with any of them? Along with the twins, Veritee would be easy to reach if they tried. More and more she thinks of Bebe and Larry as they or them, or the possessive: their. And pictures form before her eyes from nowhere: Bebe and Larry fond and engaged as they urge their children on in small infant talents: ring-a-ring-a-rosie, oranges and lemons, early alphabet, sums, snakes and ladders, a steadying hand on a wobbling two-wheeler, school sports: soccer for the boys, netball for her, sandy hair dragged back in a ponytail, joint applause ... she blinks. Except that these are no more than pictures of them. Never happened: no substance, no reality. The only certainty – their creed of parental neglect.
Veritee leans into the glass of the window, wraps arms across her head. No, not material neglect, never that. She sighs, holds it jaggily, breathes out. Because – money plentiful enough – they have never gone in for emptiness, the adventure of making do. Or doing without.
Isn't every room clogged with stuff ... the rooms big rooms in a big house? The worst house in the best street to Veritee since she turned 15, though architecturally very superior, she's heard related. By Larry, who else?
The sun dips down. The light changes; creamy blue then dove grey. As usual they didn't specify what time they'd be back but it's a safe neighbourhood, isn't it?
One night, furious, choked up with adolescent bile, she remembers muttering: "Maybe they've run away from us." Suddenly the identical faces of the twins were un-twin-like; one close to pleased, the other agitated, tearful. But they're older now – eight – and Jude, younger by 10 minutes, can fret, though Jason rarely does. Her teeth clench. Over and over unaccountably angry with them, just as often she wants to hug them to bits. Right now, as usual, they're sprawled in front of one of the televisions in Larry's study or the family room.
"Family room," Veritee snorts, puckers her forehead, skews up an eyebrow – the left, which finally she's perfected for what she believes is a breezy appearance, though she feels less than jaunty. For it's not one of her death-defying days when she'd paddle a canoe over Niagara, conquer Everest, oxygen deliberately left at base camp.
Kicking her way through the clutter – cane basket, newspapers, sharp bits of Meccano, mugs, chopsticks, a steel-coloured scarf tangled about red socks – she toes the pile of the carpet and supposes Bebe might have phoned Ludmilla; Ludmilla paid to restore an order of sorts on a regular irregular basis. Lovable Ludmilla who, longing for her homeland, once confided that she, Ludmilla Latsova, opposed bringing modern ways to religion. Would forever cleave to the fundamental, the orthodox, Veritee bewildered, open-mouthed. Ludmilla who in her own country was an engineer, but who now builds order into their mess of a site.
Hurling aside Bebe's latest silly copy of Vogue with emaciated models pouting in slut gear, followed by Bebe's even sillier book Keeping Young & Lovely. At least, lolling on a hillock of pillows, Bebe doesn't go chatty, let alone mumsy with what balloons in her vapid head. Breathless, Veritee's lungs feel squeezed till she sags onto the sofa, kicks off her sneakers, hauls knees to chin. It's not always easy to be tough, rarely cry, and often enough she tries to reason that Bebe – with a not very grown-up name – and Larry, who claims he's a perennial in the springtime of his life, may not be bad-intentioned parents. Just not good.
"VERR ...?" JUDE LEANS INTO THE DOORWAY, SKINNY LEGGED.
"What?" With a head full of questions she'd like to unmuddle from the mess of the web they keep weaving, she sees Jude, his face tight with sunburn. "Come on," and leads off to the only room where she can be sure to find what she wants. Her room. Soothing Nivea on his cheeks, he doesn't protest much.
"Verrr ..." and a barking sound starts in his voice.
"Yep, hungry, yeah, yeah." She frowns under her brother's eyes. "Same as me, you know there's heaps in the fridge."
Bebe buys up big for weekends, has regular orders delivered not just to the kitchen door but as far as the kitchen table. Jokesy, Larry can suggest that she pay for another pair of hands to stack them away. Veritee, Jason and Jude are committed to helping themselves, likely encoded with mother's milk. No, Bebe herself didn't feed the twins. Her?
Though the three of them rarely sit to eat together at night, most times Jude wants to eat with her. That's when they act out what Ludmilla has taught them. Easy to slip up on the Russian cross – left shoulder to right after a ping with one finger to the head – they're okay with the words. Grace ... and, thoughts circling, this appeals to Veritee. A-sort-of-as-yet hazy lure towards something. Or a-sort-of-someone Ludmilla would fiercely declare to be God. Ludmilla never fierce but in this.
"No, no, rabid, I am not. Nor, how you say? A zealot. I conform. I like not disorder. I am orthodox," Ludmilla adamant. "Orthodox, yes."
So Veritee went to the Concise Oxford; "orthodox": holding correct or acceptable opinions esp. on religious doctrine, not heretical or independent-minded or original ...
Index finger tracing the words, this took time to absorb. Class reports consistently tell she's clever, though they judge this a bit of a giggle. It seems that they really don't want her to be clever. Yet if something comes up Bebe's not bad at faking interest ... Larry unwilling to deform himself for convenience. No sinister intention, just Larry. Forehead creased, Veritee continued with "orthodox": generally accepted as right or true esp. in theology, in harmony of what is authoritatively established, approved, conventional ...
Conventional! Lips pulled to a line, colour crept over her cheeks, freckled nose, seeped to the skin of her neck. At her school everyone else's family is soooo bourgeois, soooo conventional, which to Veritee translates to cool. Her family is freakish, crackpot. Uncool. Maisie, her best friend, came up with "different", her second-best friend, Babette, alluded to them as "bizarre" before tactfully softening "bizarre" to "offbeat". Further down the line they're tagged: "oddball", "originals". But beaky-nosed, squinty-eyed Jacinta Smithers-Brown, whom Veritee stuck by when the rest seemed to hate her, and who blahhhs on as if she's Einstein about something called "fundamentalism", has come up with the unforgivable: "unorthodox". Fingering her hair, Jacinta Smithers-Brown could have been fingering a flick knife. Unorthodox! Veritee refuses it. She will not be unorthodox!
JUDE RECKONS JASON IS PLEASED WHEN, AFTER PRISING LIDS FROM A TUB of cold chicken, then spaghetti sauce to splash on potato salad and slices of meat that could be salami, they set three places among a punnet of strawberries, strawberry jam, salted peanuts and Tim Tams.
Veritee wants something more. Candles. Jude finds three ... two yellow, one blue, which he sticks in a milk jug, waits for his sister to indicate which of them is to light them. That done, they'll eat.
"No," she slaps Jason's hands about to wield knife and fork. "Grace first," and is prepared to insist, but docile for once he agrees.
"Who's saying it? St Jude or St Veritee?" And St Veritee smiles angelically to suggest Jason himself.
"If you can find the Golden Fleece, dummy, this is a snitch. Then you ... "
He waits for her to pull the words together. Last time Jason lit the candles he set the bamboo mats and a straw platter on fire, though they managed to douse them quick smart. Later, Bebe had pouted over the mats, despite Larry's reassurance that the two of them would take another trip to Bali.
Now Jason eyes the matches. "Why?" he repeats.
Jude interrupts. "Verr ... why'd you tell us Jude's the patron saint of lost causes?"
"Read it. At the library. OK?" At the library she can feel en-wombed again; nothing spiky. Claimed by a sense that what surrounds her is toned down, not radical not extreme. And if there's a smell to books it's sweet like syrup or wafts of blossom ... pink or white.
"Okay," Jude again, the pitch of his voice rising. "What's a lost cause?"
She doesn't know but has a flashing image of Bebe's and Larry's receding backs. "Dunno."
Thinner air seems to drift through the open window. Thinner light, too, and with deliberate caution, Jason scratches a match that refuses to ignite. Scratches another. Wants to yell but swallows the yell. Because in his head he rehears Larry chuckle that the three of them could have been crisped to chips, reduced to a trio of ash. As if they were lumps of wood ... and he'd felt Jude's heart thud with his. Calamitous, Bebe's contribution.
So, stiff-fingered, he holds the flame one by one to each candle, relieved when it's done, gobs of wax starting down the stems. Then, when lit up in the milk jug, he shudders, watches his sister bend to them. As if she wants to feel the heat on her skin.