By Allee RichardsUnpublished Manuscript
In Real Life
In Real Life centres on the experience of Eva, a young woman who has fallen pregnant after a one night stand with Pat, a man who dies by suicide weeks after their encounter. Eva decides to go through with the pregnancy – a decision she makes while supporting one of her best friends, Hattie, through an abortion. While Eva and Hattie are both floundering – Eva has left her successful acting career, and Hattie is on a downward spiral of non-stop partying – their other best friend, Annie, is in a stable relationship and is on a bright career trajectory.
As Eva’s pregnancy progresses, her relationships with her friends, her mother, and with an on-again off-again sexual partner all shift and change. Eva is a privileged person: she has savings in the bank, a supportive mother who plans to move closer to help with the baby, and close friends who would do anything for her. She is talented and beautiful – many things come easily to her. But she is still subject to the conflict, both internal and external, that can come with life changes, and of course with loss.
With In Real Life, Richards has captured a moment in time succinctly and realistically. This is very much a novel of inner-city Melbourne, of the friendships formed and fortified in our 20s, and of grief, self-absorption and desire. This absorbing story’s greatest strength is in the exploration of the space between friends, and the crossroads each has arrived at.
There’s a house party in Coburg. I say I’m not going. Hattie mentions Travis will be there and I say I’ll go. An hour, two at most. We leave the dishes for Annie and James tomorrow. We order one car for the four of us.
‘Drive carefully she’s pregnant.’ Hattie tells the driver from the backseat.
‘There’s lots of drunk people out tonight.’ The driver says to James in the front.
The Coburg house is huge and, even full of people, it feels open. The kitchen has a high peaked roof. Large square windows with dark wooden frames make up most of the rear wall facing the big backyard. It’s a stunning place that nobody we know will be able to afford to even rent in ten years. Maybe five. I follow Hattie to the laundry when we arrive. She collects beers from the trough and hands me one.
‘Are you serious?’ I ask her.
‘I can’t hold them all it’ll look like I’m stealing.’
She takes another beer and puts it in her handbag. I crack the tin and take one small sip, which I’m relieved to find tastes like shit. Maybe because I’m pregnant or maybe because, I notice, it’s a cheap beer, bitter and watery.
‘Cheapskates.’ Hattie shuffles the beers and ice around looking for something better.
For the first hour of the party I’m unbearably anxious. I give my beer to Annie and then regret it. Without something in my hand, I repeatedly touch my face. A disco album is playing. Long tracks, some over ten minutes. No more than four bars repeating again and again. The musical equivalent of a dog turning on the spot, chasing its tail. I see Travis early and avoid him. He’s sitting at the back of the garden around a fire. Occasionally he goes inside and each time he does I keep my eyes on the back of the house, waiting for him to return, hoping he’s gone to pee not to dance. One time while waiting for him, I notice another guy. Someone with long auburn hair and a beard is standing in line at the outdoor toilet, staring at me. I stare back for a few seconds then turn away. When I look back again he’s still looking at me. The door of the outhouse opens and he smiles my way before he turns around and steps inside. He must be doing a shit, I think. Otherwise he’d just pee along the side of the house.
Annie and I have lots of half conversations with people, some we’ve met before, some we don’t know. Engineers and web designers and one doctor. All people with degrees, supposedly smart people. Someone asks me what I do and I say I’m unemployed, confidently. No added reasoning of being between work or freelancing. They stare at me and say, ‘You’re an actor aren’t you?’
‘No.’ I smile to Annie beside me.
The most painful thing about acting is that people mistake it for being interesting. Acting in theatre is as repetitive as working in the same café every day except worse because you serve the exact same people the exact same menu items at the exact time. In this analogy television work is the equivalent of someone ordering something and then sending it back to you and you having to repeat the entire process again, beginning at hello, somewhere from twenty to sixty times.
I’ve always known how to act. The secret is not to learn. Go: I snap my fingers and you act. All through my short career, all through acting school and right up to my recent, short career, I’ve despised people who before a performance insist on doing yoga or pronouncing all the vowels slowly like they’re deaf. An actor I once worked with would walk up and down the aisles of seats in the auditorium, occasionally stopping at a chair, like D 25; she’d stop and say an ex-boyfriend’s names. D 25 was Derrick and B 17 was Robert, or some bullshit. She walked every row of the 700 seat auditorium. A fabricated ritual enacted like a religious ceremony or something actually consequential, like brushing your teeth. I’ve always been told I’m a talented actor simply because I can act and I’ve basically always hated it. I shouldn’t say hate, because I know I don’t really hate it. I can’t even really know what hating work is. Some people work elbows deep in shit or have a racist boss or something. I never wanted to be an actor, but everyone told me I was good at it, so I changed my audition to the prestigious state arts institution from dance to drama. I believe now that I did that out of fear. That I didn’t want to fail the dance audition and I saw acting as a safer option. But I also know that it’s possible I did once want to be an actor, and that my memory has been warped by how wildly I disliked it once I was working. Whatever my feelings were, everyone else was right. I was the best actor in the class who cared the least about her craft. Just act! Now. Do it. After school I got all the jobs my peers didn’t get. Auditions are like dates – if you reek of desperation it’s over before it begins. The same as walking on stage. Newspapers loved to call Eva McMillan the one actor who kept the drowning ship afloat. I saved the show. I made the show. For years I was told I was the show. For a while I believed like everyone else that I had some strange talent, because I couldn’t see it all then like I can now. That what I had that was so strange in the acting world was actually what I didn’t have – a fuck to give. Reflecting on this now makes it seem as though I am looking back on all of this from some great distance; which I am, but only I can see that distance. To everyone else I am still only twenty-seven years old. Only I know how much older I am than the nineteen-year-old girl who was full of expectation when she moved from Queensland to Melbourne with her two best friends in a dinged-up Ford Festiva packed right up to the hatch-back.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist