BETH SPENCER The Age of Fibs: extract
Award-winning author Beth Spencer ranges across popular culture, the environment, and the body in her new collection.
Forthright, feminist, full of wry wit and insight whether dissecting relations between men and women or contemplating the fragility of nature, The Age of Fibs is a collection of short stories, microlit and memoir that repays rereading. We’re delighted to be able to bring you a taste of it with this extract from the story ‘Fatal Attraction in Newtown’.
The ‘fibs’ of the title The Age of Fibs has multiple resonances throughout the book: the lies men tell women, or that women tell each other (and themselves). But it also refers to the 1970s underwear brand Fibs. Fibs bras were quite the thing in their day. The title story – winner of the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award and originally published as an ebook – captures the experience of being a teenager at a time when the bra-burning of second-wave feminism was still new.
Why were they called ‘Fibs’ you ask?
Well, because it looked like you weren’t wearing a bra (only fibbing that I’m that kind of girl).
But as the story goes on to demonstrate, there were many other fibs on offer to teenage girls in the 1970s, from a mother telling her daughter that menstruation is ‘just a little brown spot on your pants’ to the proclamations of underwear manufacturers (‘No woman older than twenty can go without a bra …’)
Shorter pieces like ‘Extinction Event’, ‘The Angel of the Forest has a Migraine’ and ‘In the Hologram Forest’ address environmental themes.
Popular culture is interrogated in stories like ‘Bewitching’, which succinctly unpacks the TV sitcom Bewitched (‘Who would believe that Sam, who can conjure anything at the twitch of her lovely nose, would willingly trade wizardry for a kitchen whizz?’), and ‘Daydream Believing: The untold story of the Monkees in Lilydale’, which ends its teenage fan-fantasy with: ‘And Tina reckons (and this is really wild), maybe we’ll even start our own band.’
‘A Despatch from Cheryl in the Museum of Lost Desire’ imagines the inner life of Barbie’s brunette sister, Cheryl. In recounting the expanded career options for Barbies over the years – not just Nurse Barbie but Paediatric-Doctor Barbie, too – Cheryl observes some gaps:
But never Breast-Feeding Barbie, which is strange when you think about it.
Or Stripper Barbie. I know I spent half of my time with my clothes off, even in my prime.
Factory Worker Barbie. Sweat Shop Barbie.
How about Baby Butch Barbie? Or Queer Shoppin’ Barbie?
‘Fatal Attraction in Newtown’ is one of the longest stories in the collection. This extract is the first of its four parts, and juxtaposes watching the 1987 film Fatal Attraction with the narrator’s experiences in Newtown.
Extract courtesy of Spineless Wonders
FATAL ATTRACTION IN NEWTOWN
In a world not far away / thirty years ago / yesterday
1 The Plague Years
I love matinees. I avoid Saturday nights, because it’s always couples. I prefer daytime, midweek: playing solitaire with the old, the homely, the chip rustlers and furtive chocolate eaters, the hanky-bringers.
We space ourselves out in the cavernous interior, settling back in the velvet seats. Wrap our arms around ourselves – like Alex in Fatal Attraction, shivering in the cold outside the Gallaghers’ warm bright country house.
In the village, miles away from New York, it was safe for them to stake your heart.
Everyone agreed you were a witch. You didn’t belong.
In the Village Cinema they cheered when the bullet went in.
A man has unsafe sex while his wife’s away and a woman dies, what’s new? They were calling it the AIDS movie. It was 1987. The end of the weekend fling.
A dark plague-ridden world, illuminated by soft glowing hearth-fires through leadlight windows…
I was a couple once. Floating around the room joined at the hip. So engrossed in the steps. Not knowing where one body ended and the other’s began, but so conscious of all those points of contact (fingers, back, elbow, hand, shoulder, oops – foot). I liked the way you’d sometimes bump into another couple, look across, smile, apologise …
Complicity. Dancing the world into circles.
(Alex on the outside, trying to get in.)
You went at each other like animals.
Alex keeps phoning him, tells him she’s pregnant; he breaks into her flat, looking through her private things.
She lies to get into his house, meet his wife and get their phone number; he goes to her flat and assaults her.
She breaks into his house while he’s away and kills their pet rabbit; he bashes her.
She goes completely mad and attacks his wife with a carving knife; he chokes her, pushes her under the water. She is still alive, rises up again; his wife shoots her dead.
Oh God, poor Dan…
I was in here, because I’d just been thrown out of court. Landing with a thud and a cra-a-ckk on the pavement, a million pieces.
I needed somewhere warm and dark to hide; so I came here, to plug myself into that great collective-unconscious of the cinema, to be embraced.
Alex: `All the interesting guys are always married’ – passing him food in her loft apartment, listening to his boring stories after having walked his dog.
`Well maybe that’s why you find them interesting,’ Dan says, `Because you can’t have them.’
She is already devoted, bitter, bitten, obsessed – why can’t he see this?
Later, Dan: `I thought we could have a good time.’
Alex: `No you didn’t, you thought you could have a good time, you didn’t stop for a second to think about me.’
True. But she’s a total maniac in this scene, so we side with Dan and his urge to get away.
When I told friends I’d been called up for jury duty they were envious: `Aren’t you lucky.’
I lay awake all night.
Alex’s loft: the white virginal clothes, the white bed sheets and white walls; the lonely exercise bike in the corner.
No. 5 Court was small and low-ceilinged; not plush like the movies but with wigs and black capes, nonetheless. Those of us seeking exemptions were ushered to one side.
Shirking your duty was considered a crime. Flimsy excuses were given short shrift (sarcasm, humiliation, refusal). The early camaraderie of the exemptions section quickly gave way to a thick, heavy dread, like gravy.
Light and whiteness, showing up the blood so well when she does her knife trick to get his attention…
Almost everyone swore on the Bible. Occasionally someone would ask to take an affirmation and the judge would look up from his papers and peer silently at them over his glasses.
When my turn came I took a deep breath. `I’m sorry,’ I said, `but I’ve thought about this long and hard. I’ve been an anarchist for ten years, and I just don’t feel I can sit in judgement on another person.’
Gave herself a few gashes to show how she felt: a slit here, a slit there…
The gravy froze.
… Got her hands covered in blood; rubbed Dan’s face in it.
A pin dropped somewhere near the back. No one moved. It was as if I’d opened my fist to reveal a small time bomb.
Then the judge turned puce and exploded, spluttering questions at me in an outraged voice. (I closed my palm, quickly.)
`Do you know what an anarchist is?’
He rolled the words around and spat them out, poking at them as if they were rodents. I reminded him I’d been one for ten years.
`An anarchist,’ he boomed, `is someone who wants anarchy in SOCIETY!’
(Well, hard to argue with that.)
Dan forces Alex to the sink, binds her wrists together with cloth. Men hate that (blood). Can’t forgive being reminded.
`An anarchist is someone who wants decentralised decision-making structures …’ I began, but he cut me off.
`If you committed a crime,’ he paused for a moment, his tone suggesting I probably committed at least five a day, `wouldn’t you want to be tried by a jury?’
I said I wouldn’t have a choice.
He spluttered and turned even more red (outraged!) and said, `Get out of my sight, out of my court.’ And in a voice full of disgust and loathing, `I wouldn’t even inflict you on the defendant.’
Your logic: thin, sharp, pointed and dangerous. You kept missing and cutting yourself. Even the weather and the music turned against you.
As I left the box there was a nervous rustling in the aisle seats. A woman tucked her skirt in, another edged a briefcase closer in beside her legs. My knees felt wobbly.
At the door, I tried to turn the shiny handle but I couldn’t work out which way it went and fumbled hopelessly until after what seemed minutes a man sitting nearby leant across and gently opened it. I felt pathetically grateful because he dared to almost touch my hand when the judge had just said what a piece of scum I was. He even half smiled.
Dan says: `That’s crazy. You knew the rules.’
Alex says: `What rules?’
Outside in the hallway, I waited for the elevator, and when it came I heard someone speeding up to catch it so I held the door. It was one of the women I’d been chatting to earlier in the exemptions corner. She stopped dead when she saw me. Took a step back. I held the door. Eventually she got in, standing as far away from me as she could, staring rigidly up at the numbers.
I said, `The judge was rather severe, wasn’t he?’
`Oh, they have to be,’ she said. And then she assured me that she had a good respectable reason for not serving but would certainly be doing her duty next time.
Alex: in bed now, white and clean, neatly bandaged. All the blood safely locked back up into her skin, a pale heroine. She hears him lie into the phone and whisper `I love you’ to his wife.
I went out into the street, it was eleven a.m., and I felt like a piece of shit.
So I came here to lose myself in the movies.
There are twelve of us, I’ve counted. We sit in the dark eating chocolate peanuts and crackling chip papers, watching and feeling the contact of our bodies soft against the seats.
Alex opens the door to Dan wearing a sexy teddy – after having invaded his inner sanctum and lied to his wife to get his phone number.
Someone in the dark behind me says, `Ugh,’ loudly, and there is a ripple of agreement.
Alex is a parody, a poor imitation. So unlike Dan, Beth and little Ellen at the start of the film, safe and vulnerable together in their sensible cotton underwear. Real intimacy.
She makes us sick and angry
I tried to have sympathy with her, but there is so much violence in the film, and most of it is against her and it all seems so reasonable: I mean, if she is going to be so unreasonable.
Come on, Alex, just accept reality! (Dan’s.)
Defence lawyer to alleged victim – now be reasonable, dear. Surely you don’t want to ruin a good man’s life over this? Isn’t there some more polite, less public way?
Alex wanted to play by her rules, which said that if a man is happy with his wife then he doesn’t fool around.
But the audience sides with Dan. She’s not playing by the rules (the ones that make it safe for men), she’s ruining it for everyone.
She wanted to be Madame Butterfly but she was Madame Reptile, slithering along the floor, with Dan chasing her down the hallway, throwing her against the wall, grabbing her legs (a pregnant demented thing, a witch, a bloated repulsive evil …)
She wants respect, but look at her, running after him, begging and pleading.
Dan with his sarcastic lawyer’s tongue and impeccable logic, battering her up against the wall…
`You tell my wife and I’ll kill you.’
`Kill her now, Dan,’ a woman in the audience says, thumping the edge of the seat in front of her gently with her fist.
Alex says: `I love you, Dan… Why are you so hostile? I’m not your enemy.’
Dan’s anger, so logical; Alex’s, so hideous and terrifying.
Dan says: `It’s over, Alex.’ An incantation.
She is repulsive, but the rejected and abandoned become that way, no one wants the stink of failure.
(The man in court today, leaning across to open the door: thank you.)
She is a clinging vine. Spotted the cracks, the flaws in his family life, chiselled her way into the hairline fractures and split them apart. Gate-crashed his defences: got past his secretary, deceived her way into his house. Dan is foiled by politeness, forced to be a gentleman in public; it was his Achilles heel and she took it in her mouth and bit, hard.
And when she shakes his hand her thumbnail is red, like a bird of prey.
I ease open my peanuts slowly; the cellophane crackles and the woman in front looks accusingly over her shoulder at me.
`I love you, Dan.’
She circles his house in the country with its warm hearth fire and happy glowing faces. Hugs herself in the cold. Vomits in the bushes. Moves in for another bite.
Evidence, your honour: what normal woman would grow sick at the sight of a happy healthy family?
She throws herself in his face. Etches her initials on his family Volvo with acid.
My lord, my lord, a pregnant, abandoned and frightened one might …
Terror tactics: forcing Dan to tell more lies.
Alex: `I’m not going to be ignored, Dan.’
And then she boils the pet bunny rabbit in the family cooking pot.
It is as if the air-conditioner has malfunctioned. All the breath suddenly sucked out of the cinema. Ellen’s scream inside my chest.
`You bitch,‘ the woman behind me hisses, a long slow exhalation. It moves softly over the backs of the seats in a wave, connecting up our anger like a current, a thin taut wire.
Once there were two men, Dan and his friend Jack, and they created the ultimate sexy fantasy woman – sensual, energetic, full-blooded, abandoned, wild, independent, even intelligent. Dan had sex with her and afterwards when he went to put her back in her box she said no. Inch by inch the dream (male porno movie) turned into a nightmare (horror flick).
She became possessive, clingy, demanding, pregnant.
Dan in his Volvo.
Alex following him obsessively in a red car.
Alex’s voice on the cassette tape: `This is what you’ve reduced me to. Part of you is growing inside of me, Dan. I feel you, I taste you, I think you, I touch you. I bet you don’t even like girls, do you? Fucking faggot!’
We close in around Beth and Dan, and cute little Ellen, forming a protective circle.
A woman gets an emotional stranglehold on a man and so he gets a real one on her: an old story. (Watch out, Alex!)
There are two sides to every coin and Alex is the dark one, the swept under the carpet side – the nuclear family flipped out.
In the bathroom: barefoot and pregnant.
Alex’s face behind Beth’s face in the misty mirror. Standing there with her twisting knife. (So difficult to kill with your double life.) Slashing at the skin of her thigh like a madwoman, talking calm like a lawyer. The room steaming up, the bath overflowing, the blood collecting in a pool at her bare white feet. (Had your Salem witch dress on.)
Leaky fluids, seeping through the ceiling into the clean kitchen below.
`Quick, Dan! Now!‘ someone shouts.
Your honour, my client held her under the water and strangled her till she stopped breathing purely in self-defence. And when she rose up still alive, there was no choice but to shoot her in the heart.
After all, a man’s home is his castle.
The audience trembled in the dark while Dan grabbed her by the neck and choked and pushed her under the water. (Drowning, just the test.) You could see the light flickering on the faces of those closest to the front.
Stone her, burn her at the stake, drive a nail through her heart!
When she rose up out of the water we screamed, and when the bullet went in (the final solution) some people cheered. The blood streaming out of her like a thick black stake, nailing her to the wall, arms outstretched …
I stayed till the very end, till after the ambulance took the body away and the calm ambient music returned and the last slow zoom shot of the happy family photo in the hallway.
I guess I wasn’t surprised to see Alex (Glenn Close) in the cinema powder room – white tiles, mirrors, taps – after all, a bathroom was where I’d seen her just a few minutes before.
In the powder room she looked like anyone else. Her curly hair tight and ordinary now, more like her character in The Big Chill (Artemis, the Earth Mother).
She had on a fawn wool wraparound coat and tan stockings and a big black leather bag on a strap and she was leaning over the basin, splashing cold water onto her face.
When I came out of the cubicle she was gone.
2 A Close Encounter
I saw her again a week later on the Newtown 423 bus …
Beth Spencer The Age of Fibs Spineless Wonders 2022 PB 180pp $27.99
You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.
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