By Tony BirchIndigenous Writing University of Queensland Press
In this unforgettable new collection, Tony Birch introduces a cast of characters from all walks of life. These remarkable and surprising stories capture common people caught up in the everyday business of living and the struggle to survive. From two single mothers on the most unlikely night shift to a homeless man unexpectedly faced with the miracle of a new life, Birch’s stories are set in gritty urban refuges and battling regional communities. His deftly drawn characters find unexpected signs of hope in a world where beauty can be found on every street corner – a message on a T-shirt, a friend in a stray dog or a star in the night sky.
Common People shines a light on human nature and how the ordinary kindness of strangers can have extraordinary results. With characteristic insight and restraint, Tony Birch reinforces his reputation as a master storyteller.
No one does a short story better than Tony Birch. Common People is a collection that portrays the experiences of a range of characters – all struggling in ways that many of us can relate to. Birch brings them to life with his characteristic strong, condensed prose and wonderfully constructed dialogue. Every word in this collection deserves its place. Birch makes the short-story form seem easy. It’s not.
Sissy had never been on a holiday and didn’t know anyone at Sacred Heart School who’d travelled much further than the local swimming pool. At best they’d enjoyed a tram ride to the picture theatre in the city, maybe once or twice a year. A girl in the same year at school, Ruby Allison, who lived behind the dry-cleaners with her mother and two older brothers, came back to school after the holidays and told a story about how she’d been to the ocean that summer. Ruby sat in the schoolyard at lunchtime, a circle of girls around her, and talked animatedly about the giant waves and the seals basking on the rocks above the beach. No one else in the group had seen the beach and they had no reason to question Ruby’s story. Except that she’d been seen most days helping her mother behind the counter in the oppressive heat of the dry-cleaning shop. If the story was untrue, and Ruby hadn’t been near the sea, she’d displayed a vivid imagination, which was hardly surprising. If the girls from the school excelled at anything, it was storytelling. As Sister Josephine often remarked, Those who have little or nothing have the greatest capacity for invention.
Each afternoon, following the final bell, Sissy would walk to the House of Welcome on the main street, operated by the Daughters of Charity. She’d join a line at the front gate, queuing to collect a tin loaf of white bread, or fruit bread if she was early enough, and an occasional treat of biscuits, before heading home. She also attended Girls Club at the House on Saturday mornings. The sole reason Sissy’s mother allowed her to join the club was because the morning ended with a mug of chocolate milk and a buttered roll, followed by a hot bath for every girl. Sissy didn’t look forward to bath time. The girls were required to line up in alphabetical order and the bath water was changed only after the Ks – Sheila Kane and Doreen Kelly – had bathed, usually together for the sake of economy. Sissy was sure that more than one girl on the line ahead of her took a pee in the water, out of either spite or necessity. She’d spend all of thirty seconds in the bath, and never put her head under the water let alone wash her hair, which she preferred to do under the cold water tap over the gully trap in the backyard at home, no matter how bitter the weather.
One Saturday morning, as Sissy was about to leave the House, Sister Mary took her aside and asked to speak with her. Although she couldn’t think of anything she’d done wrong, Sissy worried that she was in trouble. She asked her closest friend, Betty Reynolds, to wait for her out front and went and stood outside Sister Mary’s office door. The nun occasionally looked at Sissy over the top of her steel-rimmed glasses as she wrote in an exercise book. When she had finished, Sister Mary closed the book, picked up an envelope, opened it and read over the details of a typed letter.
‘Come in, Sissy,’ she said.
Sissy stood in front of Sister Mary and looked down at the navy-coloured habit covering the nun’s head. She wondered, as she often did, whether it was true that Sister Mary, along with the other nuns, had a shaved head. She quickly looked away in an attempt to purge herself of the thought. Sister Mary stood up.
‘Let me ask you a question, Sissy. How would you like to go on a holiday?’
The thought of a holiday was so foreign to Sissy she couldn’t make sense of what the sister had asked her. ‘A holiday?’
‘Yes. Exactly. Each year the Diocese is contacted by our more fortunate Catholic families. Very generous families offering summer accommodation for those less fortunate living in the inner city. This year, for the first time, our parish has been chosen to nominate several children who we consider suitable. I have nominated you, Sissy.’
The sister caressed the piece of paper she had been reading from. ‘This letter is from a family who write that they are interested in taking a girl for the coming holidays. They have a daughter of their own who is about to turn twelve, your own age, as well as a younger son. I have spoken to your class teacher, Sister Anne, and she tells me that you have been a diligent and well-behaved student this year, with excellent examination results. I see this as your reward, Sissy,’ Sister Mary smiled. ‘What do you think of the idea?’
Sissy wasn’t sure what to think. She was reminded of Ruby Allison’s story from earlier in the year. Perhaps she could return to the school in the new year with her own story of the ocean? A true story.
‘Are you interested?’ Sister Mary asked, when Sissy didn’t reply.
‘Yes …’ Sissy hesitated.‘I’ll have to talk to my mother about this, Sister. She’s never had me away.’
‘Of course you would. And I will speak with her also. Your mother has always been a grateful woman. I’m sure she’ll be happy for you.’
The sister carefully folded the sheet of paper and returned it to the envelope.
‘I want you to take this letter home to your mother. Is she able to read?’ Sister frowned.
‘Yes. She reads well.’
‘Very well then. The details are contained in the letter. You must inform your mother that she will need to make her decision by the end of the week, as there are many girls in the school who would welcome such an opportunity.’
Sister Mary took hold of Sissy’s hand, a rare display of affection.
‘This could be of great benefit to you, Sissy. Many of your people have never enjoyed such generosity.’
Your people? Sissy had no idea which people Sister Mary was referring to.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist