by paula morris
2001 SFWP Finalist Paula Morris was born in Auckland, New Zealand and now lives in Iowa. She is a Glenn Schaeffer Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It’s our pleasure to present an excerpt from “Queen of Beauty.” The novel will be published by Penguin Books New Zealand in October of 2002.
There was a bridesmaid’s dress to try on in a smart shop (design studio, Julia called it) above another smart shop in High Street. Virginia’s linen shift dress, bought months ago at the Saks sale — shown to (and approved by) Bridget, Margaret and the landlady at 1826 Adams — had been waved away as unsuitable. Clashes with the colour scheme, explained Julia, zooming into Victoria Street car park and waggling her hand impatiently at the ticket machine.
They climbed a flight of orange-painted stairs up to the studio, an airy room with long grubby windows and wooden floors that creaked. Thin, silky dresses hung from two clothes rails and one waif-like mannequin. Virginia counted them (there were twelve in all, just twelve dresses in the whole place) and then stopped herself: she was beginning to sound like Nana.
“Hey,” said a pink-faced girl wearing two skinny tank tops, one black and one white, and a floaty chiffon skirt that started an inch below her belly button and ended an inch below her knees. She turned to pull a dress from another rack, behind the desk (thirteen, fourteen, fifteen), and Virginia noticed the string of Chinese letters tattooed up the back of her neck.
“Big sister, right?” said the girl. “Noo Or-leens, right?”
“I’ve heard all about you. God, you two look so the same.”
“Virginia, Sara Jane,” said Julia, feeling in her bag for her ringing phone.
“You’re the designer?” asked Virginia.
“God, no! She’s in Sydney right now. Lucky bitch.”
“Oh,” said Virginia, squinting at the dress. It was a clingy, bias-cut slip, a deep shade of navy blue.
Sara Jane held the hanger out and raised her eyebrows meaningfully.
“I guess I should try this on,” said Virginia. Sara Jane pointed to a puddled velvet curtain in the corner, held open by another smiling girl in a chiffon skirt.
Julia finished her phone call and climbed through the curtain after Virginia.
“What do the characters mean?” whispered Virginia.
“Up her neck.”
“Sara Jane’s? Her name, I think.”
“It says ‘Sara Jane’ in Chinese?”
“No, no. I think it’s phonetic. You know, Sa-Ra-Jayn.”
“But what if that means something bad?”
“Like ‘Pig Dog Shit,’ you mean?”
“Presumably it was done by a Chinese person. We could ask Lia.”
“Rob’s girlfriend. She’s Chinese.”
“Really? Lia’s not a very Chinese name.”
“Her mother was a hippie. Or a Samoan — one of the two.”
A hand reached around the curtain and wrenched it back.
“How are things going in here? Want to check it out in the big mirror? Hey!”
Virginia stepped out.
“Looks pretty cool,” said Sara Jane admiringly.
“Pretty damn sexy!” said the other girl, nodding very slowly.
“It’s just a bit big here and a bit small there, I think,” said Virginia. The dress wrinkled and stuck to every protrusion, like it was made of Sellotape.
“That’s the style, eh,” said Sara Jane, clutching at the dress to drag it into place.
“What do you think?” asked Julia, frowning. “I mean, really?”
“It’s … nice. I guess I can’t wear a bra with it, right?”
Sara Jane gave a short, explosive laugh.
“Just a G-string and a dab of perfume, I’d say,” she said. “You can always stick pasties over your nibblies if you’re feeling self-conscious, you know.”
“Pasties,” nodded the other girl.
“Would you wear it again, Jinx?” asked Julia. She was absent-mindedly chewing the antenna of her mobile phone. “Do you think you could?”
“Well, it’s … it’s not out of the question. Given the right occasion.”
“Balls, parties, New Year’s Eve,” said Sara Jane. “Sexy dinner parties. Launches.”
Virginia and Julia exchanged glances.
“You know, product launches,” explained Sara Jane. “Not like launches as in boats! Not like launches as in big yachts without, you know, sails! I meant film premieres.”
“Charity thingies,” said the other girl, turning on her heel and disappearing into a curtained back room.
“I see,” said Virginia. “Yes, I can imagine that.”
“Turn around again,” said Julia. “You’ll have to wear different knickers.”
“Or none at all,” said Sara Jane.
“And be careful not to bend over,” said Julia.
“Or sit down too suddenly.”
“It’s a beautiful colour,” said Virginia. “Very elegant. Very chic.”
Julia’s eyes filled with tears.
“You think so, Jinx? You really think so?”
“Your wedding’s going to be lovely, Ju. Just lovely. Every detail will be just perfect.”
“Because that’s what I want, for everything to be right.”
“I know you do,” said Virginia, stretching a reassuring hand towards her sister’s arm; it didn’t quite reach.
“It’s been so much work,” sniffed Julia, “and nobody really appreciates how hard it is, trying to please everybody.”
“Weddings are so — whoa!” said Sara Jane. She scratched her tattoo with the end of a pencil. “It’s just a lot, you know, to think about? That’s why this is the perfect bridesmaid’s dress. It doesn’t say ‘wedding.’ It says: ‘everyone, chill.’ ”
“I don’t suppose you have one size up?” asked Virginia. Sara Jane’s smile drooped.
“We don’t do bigger than this,” she said, plucking at Virginia’s thigh. “But don’t worry. It’ll breathe with your body, you know?”
“OK, great,” said Virginia. She looked sideways at Julia, who was rummaging in her bag for a tissue.
“Do you want to give me your credit card so I can get things rolling?” asked Sara Jane, looking both sly, Virginia thought, and rather coy: She tapped the pencil against her lower lip like it was a lollipop. “While you’re getting changed? Brilliant.”
Behind the curtain, Virginia peeled the navy-blue slip over her head and got dressed again. She could hear Julia tapping around outside, blowing her nose. She’d told the truth: The dress was chic. The dress on her was another story. It looked like a silk handkerchief patchily glued down. But there was never any point in arguing with Julia; as long as Virginia could remember, she’d been a small force of nature, like an insistent front moving in from the Tasman, a hard-blowing gale. It had always been easier to hunker down and watch it pass; no point in trying to persuade her to change course. Easier to soothe, to comply, to smile and look on. Why should anything change in six years, or sixteen, or sixty?
“Sign here, Virginia,” said Sara Jane, waiting expectantly at the desk. “Cool name. Did you change it to that, you know, in the States?”
“No, it’s always been my name.”
“Kind of an ‘ia’ thing going in your family, right? Yeah.”
Sara Jane wrapped the dress very precisely in pink tissue paper and then, trying to slide it into a thin plastic bag, accidentally dropped it on the ground.
“Fuck that shit,” she said. “As they say in America. Isn’t that right? See you, ladies!”
Julia said she was dying for a flat white but refused to go anywhere on High Street, because all the caf’s there were packed with bank clerks and shop assistants and lawyers; High Street had been ruined, Julia said, just like Ponsonby Road. So they crossed the road to Lorne Street, where they could drink their coffee alongside the right kind of people and go through Julia’s to-do list one more time.
Karangahape Road smelled.
Once upon a time it stank of heavy, sickly incense swung by a writhing procession of Hare Krishnas, turning the footpath outside Rendell’s and George Court’s ice-block orange every Thursday during late-night shopping. Virginia remembered the sight and smell of them perfectly, along with the tinny, tinsel sound of their tambourines. That was the only time the Setons went walkabout on K Road, Thursday nights, before they abandoned it altogether for Friday nights at Lynn Mall, past Waikumete cemetery, just ten minutes drive from home.
Later, when she was a teenager, the odour became more subtle and greasy, fried food from takeaway bars wafting through the open car windows on the way home from occasional strained family outings to see musicals at the Mercury, speeding past the Pink Pussycat on the way home. And the Mercury itself had its own scent, audience smells of sweat and powder, freshly applied lipstick and melting ice-cream, part of the indelible aroma of her adolescence.
There was still a touch of chip and kebab-fuelled grease about the street, and traces of incense, too, lingering in the acoustic-tiled India Emporium. But it was traffic and coffee you could smell up and down the length of the road — not as long as it once seemed, elbowing Grafton and Grey Lynn out of the way, but really just four bridged blocks.
It was Sunday morning, and Virginia had driven in with her father to see Rob’s new place and meet the elusive Lia, who looked, as it turned out, neither Chinese nor Samoan.
“If you ask me, she looks about fourteen,” muttered Jim, peering obediently into the hot-water cupboard during the tour of each of the apartment’s slight rooms and narrow closets. The ninth-floor apartment was hermetically sealed, pale and still and new inside, like a suite in a hotel.
“So pleased to meet you, Ginny,” said Lia, squeezing Virginia’s arm. She was an olive-skinned waif, not even half Rob’s height, Virginia thought, despite her spiked hair and thick-soled shoes. She peered up at Virginia, intent and curious, as though she couldn’t quite make out the family resemblance. “Has Rob shown you the terrace?”
“I thought it was a fire escape,” said Jim, and Virginia nudged him.
“Jinx, did you see the tukutuku panel?” asked Rob. “And the koru tiles in the bathroom? We like to buy M’ori art and design.”
“And Samoan,” added Lia, glancing sideways at Rob. “You have to be careful, you know,” she told Virginia. “If you’re buying tapa cloth to take back with you. There’s a big difference between Tongan and Samoan.”
“Fijian,” said Rob.
“People don’t realise,” said Lia, her voice bright.
Jim asked if anyone was planning to put the kettle on, but, after some cajoling from Lia, he agreed to go out to a caf’. They strolled back along K Road to St Kevin’s Arcade (bit scruffy, Jim told Leeander when she got home) and turned their chairs to face the giant palm trees of Myers Park.
Virginia watched her father sipping frothy coffee from a white bowl, bobbing his head in and out like a child dunking for apples, oblivious to the splashes on his face. He was telling Lia about catching the tram to school, along Karangahape Road and down Queen Street, past the park. Lia stared back at him with a slight frown, nodding, her teaspoon suspended in the air.
“Do they still have the lift in George Court’s?” said Jim.
“I remember that,” said Virginia. “The lift attendant would slam the cage doors shut and announce each floor. Not that there were many floors to go to.”
“It was really something, that lift,” said Jim. “It went right up the centre of the shop.”
“They’re apartments now, Dad,” Rob said impatiently. “There was an article about one of them in New Zealand House & Garden; doesn’t Leeander get that? The lift’s gone. Security reasons.”
“That’s right. I did hear they were turning the place into flats.”
“Apartments,” said Rob.
“I drive this way sometimes, you see,” Jim said to Lia. “If I’m getting on to the motorway at Newton. I know they’re doing some of this up, but it still looks a bit tatty to me.”
“You know, there are a lot of important and historic buildings in Auckland,” said Lia, nodding at them, frowning for emphasis. Something about Lia’s manner irritated Virginia; she was treating Jim like an old man and Virginia like a tourist. “That caf’ we walked past on the way here, Brazil. You should go in there sometime. It has a vaulted ceiling, you know. It used to be the entrance to the Mercury Theatre.”
“Caf’ now, is it?” said Jim. He lowered his latte bowl; it clanged onto the saucer. “Used to be a fruit shop, and once upon a time it was the entrance to the Prince Edward, long before it became the Mercury. First custom-built picture theatre in New Zealand, you know.”
“Did you go there, Dad?”
“Quite a bit, to the movies. Crowds of people, cramming into that narrow entranceway. Couldn’t be more than twelve foot wide.”
“You never said anything about it before, all those times we went to the Mercury,” said Virginia.
“All those bloody musicals,” said Rob. He raised his eyebrows at Lia.
“Nobody asked me,” said Jim, gazing out at the palm tree. “Never came up. And anyway, nobody used to think of those places as historic then. They were just out-of-date, old-fashioned. It’s lucky that the Prince Edward didn’t go the way of the Regent and get pulled down. Remember the Regent?”
“Just,” said Virginia. Rob and Lia shook their heads.
“A lot of changes,” said Jim, looking down.
“You should come into the city on a weekend more often, Mr. Seton,” said Lia.
“Call him Jim,” said Rob, climbing to his feet. “I think I’ll get something to eat. Anyone else? Jinx? Dad? Want to split a panini?”
“No thanks,” said Jim. He gulped the last of his coffee. “You know, Lia, there used to be a nice little tea room-type place at the top of Rendell’s. Not a panini in sight, in those days. Though you know what they say: One man’s panini is another man’s filled roll.”
Lia gave Jim a long, tight-lipped smile as though, Virginia thought, he was not only old but quite possibly mentally ill.
Although Virginia left her mother’s address and telephone number with Arthur in case of an emergency — all her plastic bags getting burned in a fire, say, or Margaret winning the PEN/Faulkner — she didn’t expect him to call.
He just wanted to check in, he said, and his voice sounded both loud and hesitant, as well as roundly, brazenly American. She’d never thought about his voice before as a separate entity, but then, they rarely spoke on the telephone at home. That is, in New Orleans. Where was home in her head?
He just wanted to make sure she’d arrived safely, he said, and she felt guilty for not calling herself; She hadn’t thought of Arthur worried, Arthur anxious, Arthur lonely (and he sounded all three today). What was there to worry about in a flight to New Zealand that he wouldn’t have already heard about on the ten o’clock news?
He just wanted to make sure she was OK, he said, and Virginia told him she was fine. Still tired and a little disoriented, still overwhelmed with being back, she said. Here it’s all wedding and family and arguments and dresses. I haven’t really done anything.
Just business as usual here, he said, his voice shrinking, disappearing into dead air. Virginia said his name to make sure he was still there. He wasn’t calling from the store, he told her. It was late and he was upstairs, about to go to bed.
How’s the weather? What time is it with you?
OK, Arthur said; I’ve written it down. For next time.
I’m glad you called, she said.
I’ll call again, he said, strangely formal, as if he were picking up his hat and gloves and bowing before he left the room.
Virginia put the telephone away in its basket by the front door (another of Heather’s recent innovations and the focus of widespread derision, especially from Julia, who hated anything made from straw or cane or wicker) and walked into the kitchen.
“Who was that?” asked Heather. “He sounded like Rhett Butler.”
“It was my friend Arthur, and he would be horrified by the comparison.” Virginia opened the pantry door and yawned at the shelves, reaching for the biscuit tins.
“He was very polite. Is that what they mean by a gentleman caller?”
“Chuck me out the butter, please.”
“I should have bought two Advent calendars this year,” said Heather, pinning a multicolour scene to the fridge door with magnetic plastic letters. “One for Christmas and one for the wedding.”
“Only four days to go,” said Virginia. She spread butter onto the flat side of three digestive biscuits and passed one to her mother. “Four shopping days.”
“That reminds me: your stepmother rang as well,” said Heather.
“Wondering if you’d like to help her choose a hat.”
“She’s left it this late?”
“She had one picked out, apparently, but now she’s changed her mind. Perhaps it didn’t go with her broom.”
Virginia started to cough, spitting a fine shower of Digestive crumbs across the kitchen counter.
“Why does she need me?” she said, wiping her mouth with a paper kitchen towel. “I’m tired of it already.”
“Tired of what?” asked Heather.
“Acting the accomplice. Beck and call.”
“You talk in shorthand nowadays — you know that, don’t you?”
“Getting dragged along everywhere. Going shopping with people. Dancing attendance.”
“Dancing attendance, dancing attendance,” she sang, beginning a backwards out-of-time waltz around the kitchen floor, the dishwashing liquid held at arm’s length. The tune, Virginia supposed, was meant to be “Waltzing Matilda.”
“Very funny,” she said. She snapped the last biscuit in two. “I forgot — everyone’s a comedian in this family. Getting ready for the big show.”
“Yes, and the dress rehearsal’s on Friday,” said Heather, backing into the rubbish bin. “Nick’s parents. Don’t forget.”
To hat or not to hat: initially, that had been the question. For a while it was just a jumble of thoughts and possibilities, trickling through Leeander’s head — the pro’s, the cons, the hairstyle and accessory implications. But then the hat took over and became the mother of all starting points, until nothing mattered but the hat, and the hat was the thing. Never choose your dress first, her mother had told her, and she was right: Find the hat and the rest will follow. But it wasn’t easy to put her hands on the hat, the right hat: no amount of scrimmaging on the old-lady table at Smith and Caughey’s would turn up the perfect chapeau (as she’d told Tuku; he wasn’t listening), and it wasn’t as if the city was abounding (“positively abounding!” said Alice, over-dramatic and precocious, in some English accent she’d picked up at school) with milliners.
But, in the meantime, there was a hat (the hat) to find. Parnell, Newmarket, Remuera, Takapuna, Herne Bay, St Heliers, Milford, Epsom: these were her stations of the cross. Not thrilled with the selection on offer, she considered the final solution: Sydney. But there wasn’t time, not with the new shop and the school holidays starting, so she’d had to compromise. She’d ended up with a hat that was rather less than she’d hoped for. Calvary, rather than Valhalla, Tuku said, obscurely. Not like the Queen at all, Alice assured her.
The wicked Queen.
Because there were issues, impossible to ignore. Things to consider, like her age and station. Her husband might laugh, but Leeander wasn’t thick. She could hear them now, especially that old battleaxe, Nana Croft: Mutton dressed as lamb, fur coat and no knickers, the evil stepmother, the bad fairy at the christening. No matter how sweet she was to those kids, how welcoming and forgiving and easygoing and stylish and cool and generous (which she was, in buckets and spades), they didn’t like her. The boys made sly jokes at her expense and as for the sisters, the Crown Princesses, neither of them would give her the time of day. Especially Julia, the madam. The whole family revolved around Miss Julia, just because — as far as Leeander could tell — she was pretty and cried easily and Jim and Heather still felt guilty about the effect of the divorce on her School Certificate results.
Virginia might have changed, but it seemed unlikely. She was always a cold thing, aloof and withdrawn. Reserved, Tuku said. Seems like she’s away with the fairies, he said (“patupaiarehe,” sang Alice, who’d been one at Brownies), but she’s not. Just self-contained, he said. Not needy — and Leeander could hear each carefully weighed ounce of implied criticism in that — or grasping. Virginia set her own course, he said; she always had.
He was blind. Virginia was his first child, so he couldn’t see her for what she was. He called her Ginny, but she wasn’t soft or sweet enough for a name like that. She was Virginia, lofty and stern and withholding, expecting everyone to walk one step behind. She was never rude — Leeander could give her that, even though with Virginia it smacked of noblesse oblige — but she knew how to turn the knife. (She’d learned that lesson from her mother, who could teach night classes, run correspondence courses, on the subject.)
The annoying thing was, she was always looking away. Leeander hated that most: the inattention. Virginia refused, simply refused, to engage. Even now, after all this time overseas, she couldn’t behave properly. Leeander watched her because someone had to, someone objective and astute and unsentimental. She saw Virginia perched like a morepork at the edge of the family, assessing them with secretive, gimlet-eyed displeasure, as though she were still undecided about belonging. Hovering as though she were above them all, while Leeander wasn’t allowed in the nest at all — was, in fact, in exile in another part of the forest.
Bugger them all.
Leeander decided to buy another hat, a huge hat, a shocking hat. A hat that would obscure views and command attention. A hat that would turn heads. A hat that, inexorably, would draw everyone’s eyes, even Miss Virginia Ng’tea Seton’s, away from their smug, self-absorbed family cluster.
When she asked Virginia to go hat shopping with her, Leeander wasn’t reaching out to her oldest stepchild, visiting from abroad. There really wasn’t any point.
It was simply a declaration of intent.
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