When Debbie told Dad she was marrying Brian, her new boyfriend of one month, Dad went ballistic. 'Not Brian!' He leapt from his chair. 'Anybody but Brian. I'd prefer that bloke who stole and hocked my tennis trophies . . . what was his name?'
'His name was Bruce, Dad,' said Debbie, with a sniff. 'And he didn't steal your tennis trophies. You gave them away to St Vinnies.'
'I certainly did not!' Dad switched off the television. 'One of those trophies was for the 1974 Buranderry Tennis Premiership and I certainly wouldn't have given it away. That was the year my backhand slice was so fierce and fast it took a piece out of your mother's backside. Hospitalised her, I did.'
'Only because you couldn't get your backhand over the net that year,' said Mum, peering up from her cross-stitch. 'And all the other women in the team were too scared to be your partner.'
My mum is always cross-stitching. The sunroom at the back of the house is full of cross-stitched fruit. Watermelon, grapes, a green apple, a jonathan, a red delicious, a rockmelon, a mango, an orange and a lychee. Dad reckons it makes him feel like he lives in a fruit shop. Mum says it makes her feel peaceful. She can only cross-stitch fruit. She's tried vegies, but they never work out.
'Dad,' called Debbie. 'We're not talking about tennis now, we're talking about Brian.'
'Oh blimey, him again! How did we get back to him?' Dad sank back into his recliner and closed his eyes.
'He's asked me to marry him,' said Debbie, strands of blonde hair floating with static. 'And I've said yes.'
Mum stood up. She put her arms around Debbie and gave her a big squeeze. 'That's nice Deb. He's a lovely boy, in his own way.'
'Where were you?' I asked.
'In O'Riley's,' Debbie said with a sigh. 'He asked me at the spice rack.'
O'Riley's is the only supermarket in Buranderry. It's small, dim, overpriced and understocked, but everybody shops there because there's nowhere else to go.
'He planned it carefully. He told me he wanted to buy Chinese five spice for the spice rack that he gave his mum for Christmas, and even though they only had out-of-date nutmeg, it was there he got down on his knees and said "Deborah Stone, will you spice up my life and be my wife!"'
Dad slid the recliner back. 'Why didn't you leave him there? You could have put a quick-sale clearance sign on him.'
'Very funny, Dad,' said Debbie.
'So you said . . . yes?' said Mum.
'Of course,' said Debbie. 'They even announced it on the PA.'
For some reason, Stan O'Riley had installed a PA system even though the place is the size of a largish corner shop. The only time he ever uses it is when he's shouting out for his brother Ted to get off his bum, stop watching Oprah and serve customers.
'Stan even gave us a gift voucher,' said Debbie, as if she couldn't believe it.
I've never liked Stan O'Riley. There is something grubby about the way he licks his pointy finger when he's trying to separate the plastic bags. Ted is my favourite checkout rooster. He likes ballroom dancing and when he's working, the place is full of music and the noise of his feet tapping on the linoleum.
'When are you planning to get married?' asked Mum.
'Sometime in spring,' said Debbie.
'How come Brian didn't ask me for your hand in marriage?' asked Dad.
Debbie twirled her gold chain around her finger. 'Oh Dad, nobody asks for permission anymore! That was only done in the Dark Ages when women were viewed as possessions.'
'I asked Bob for your mother's hand in marriage.'
'See what I mean!' shrugged Debbie. 'I am so happy! Brian said it was the most original thought he's ever had - his idea of how to propose. He's adorable!'
And she snatched the phone off the coffee table and ran upstairs to call all her friends.
We sat in silence.
'That's his most original thought!' whispered Dad. He lay still in the leather chair, looking at the large patch of damp on the ceiling.
Mum licked her cotton and tried to rethread her needle.
'What sort of bloke is he? He didn't even turn up with her to give us the news,' said Dad.
'Well, love . . .' said Mum. 'Debbie did tell me that Brian is frightened of you.'
'Frightened of me!' cried Dad. 'What's there to be frightened of?'
'Whenever you see him, you grunt, Dad,' I said.
'As far as I can tell that's the only language he speaks. He's hardly said a word with a syllable since I've met him.'
'He's shy,' said Mum.
'Bloody odd, more like it,' said Dad.
Mum stroked Dad's arm. 'Oh well, love, at least she isn't marrying Birkett.'
Birkett was Debbie's last disastrous boyfriend. She met him the previous Christmas at the Buranderry Markets after he set up his bookstall near the rubble of the Buranderry fountain, right next to Mum's craft stand. He recited his own love poetry without stopping for the whole morning. When he finally paused for a drink, Debbie tossed him a five-dollar note, mainly to keep him quiet - but it only encouraged him to pack up his books and spend the rest of the afternoon describing her silvery gilt hair and her pond-green eyes and her smooth, creamy skin.
Their relationship was doomed. Debbie was a girl who liked to be in bed at eight sharp and Birk was a bloke who didn't wake up until dusk. After two weeks of traipsing into the city and visiting late-night, smoky dingy poetry haunts, listening to Birk's rants against meat, sport, rhyming poetry, dairy products, America, white bread and the scent of fresh grass, Debbie was exhausted. She wrote Birkett a note saying she didn't want to see him anymore.
That night, at midnight, he appeared on the footpath outside our house, wearing a leather loincloth with a black snake draped around his neck. He stood on Dad's lawn and recited twenty different acrostic poetry renditions on the word 'Debbie.'
'Debbie - Delicate, Energetic, Beautiful, Broody, Inamorata, Emerald. Come back to this fool, my precious jewel.' He flung the words out so vigorously the cords of his neck stuck out and torpedoes of spit sprayed the front garden. All the lights went on in the street, one after the other like a Mexican Wave. Heads popped out of bedroom windows and people snuck out onto their lawns in their pyjamas. Birkett barely paused to draw breath. He was the type to ride the wave of his emotions right through to the very end, until he had seaweed up his nose and sand all through his swimmers.
If it hadn't been for his pet snake coiling around his neck three times and squeezing so hard that the only sound that came out of his mouth was a wheeze, he would still be on our front lawn.
These days, in our family, when anyone starts riding the big wave of their emotions, we say they're chucking a birkett. The actual quality of the emotion is not so important - whether it's anger or love or sorrow or fear - but what does matter is whether the emotion has the necessary monstrous power to drive out all of your common sense. When that takes place, when the emotion is larger than you are, you can be certain you're in the middle of a big birkett. The other telltale signs are: redness around the cheeks, shortness of breath, slightly bulging glassy eyes, increasingly agitated speech, and a prolonged outburst marked by silliness and illogicality.
Some people are more prone to birketts than others. Those sorts of people are also usually easily provoked. It's like they have a San Andreas Fault running through their personalities and even the smallest thing can set them off. How else can you explain those drivers that flip their fingers and toot their horns the moment someone in front of them hasn't turned left when the traffic arrow has flashed from red to green?
In my family, you're more likely to see Dad and Debbie chuck a birkett than you are Mum or me. Sometimes when I watch them in full flight, I can't help wondering if maybe they're a little addicted. Why bother getting towed onto waves as big as skyscrapers in Hawaii when you can have all that fun in the safety of your own home?
Later that night, Brian came over. Dad cracked him a beer and they sat on the front fence for about an hour, staring at Dad's prize-winning roses, grunting about the heat, the chance of rain, army worm and Dad's latest attempt to thwart the local dogs from pooing on his lawn. Dad works at a nursery and he is passionate about lawn. He was about to launch in and explain the benefits of kikuyu versus common couch grass, when Mum called them in for dinner.
When Brian sat down at the table, his face had that faint queasiness of someone who had just had their appendix removed without an anaesthetic.
'Let's propose a toast,' said Mum.
'Right,' said Dad. 'To Debbie and Brian.'
Mum lifted her glass. 'To Debbie and Brian! And to lots of spice and all things nice!'
'Mum!' I said.
'It's an important part of marriage,' said Mum, clinking her glass against Brian's. 'Sometimes a spicy love life can be the only thing that keeps a marriage going . . .'
'Shh! Mum! You're grossing me out.'
The idea of Mum and Dad having a spicy love life made my stomach turn. I always imagined they slept with an invisible Great Wall of China running down the middle of the bed. The idea of Mum and Dad . . . no. It didn't bear thinking about. I often daydream at the dinner table. It helps block out the eating noises.
'Anyway,' said Debbie. 'We'd really like it if Gemma could be a flower girl. Brian's sister is going to be one too.'
'Isn't she a little old for a flower girl?' asked Mum. 'She'd be better as a bridesmaid.'
'It's the only role left,' said Debbie. 'She can't be a bridesmaid, I've already asked Rochelle, Renee and Rachael and Brian's only got three mates. What do you think, Gem?'
Spurts of air rolled out of my mouth. The very idea of people staring at me made my skin prickle. I took a deep breath. 'I'm not sure. What would I have to do?'
'Nothing! You don't have to do anything. You only have to look cute and pretty.'
'Just make sure you don't stand with your arms crossed the whole time,' said Mum. 'You've got a nice set of strawberry creams and you should be proud of them.'
'Mum!' I tried to imagine myself as a sausage, parent-less, sizzling alone on a plate.
'Er,' said Brian. 'What are strawberry creams?'
'He speaks a sentence!' grunted Dad.
'Breasts,' said Debbie.
'Oh!' I groaned.
Brian choked. Debbie slammed him on the back so hard his head wobbled and a snippet of carrot shot out of his nose and into the water jug. It floated like a small boat among chunky icebergs.
'It's true, love,' said Mum. 'When you were at the swimming carnival, you had your arms crossed over your strawberry creams constantly. You looked ridiculous in the backstroke.'
'Please Mum,' I begged. 'Be quiet.'
Brian was the colour of grated beetroot.
'And you won't be wearing something sloppy to cover them up either,' said Mum. 'You'll be wearing something that shows off your figure. Something with lace and ribbon.'
Oh,' said Debbie. 'It's going to be fantastic!'
'Fantastic!' said Brian, in a faint, sick echo.
'We'll see . . .' said Dad. And he poured a glass of water and drank it all down, carrot and all.
© Lisa Shanahan, 2006
‘My Big Birkett’ began differently from my other books. There was no definitive ordinary moment, no one thing I saw, or heard that sparked the story. At the time I wasn’t intending to write a novel. That would have seemed far too gigantic. I was merely doodling in my writing book, possibly thinking about writing a short performance piece between a flower girl and a page boy, when fourteen-year-old Gemma Stone’s voice leapt out…
“If I hear one more person say, ‘You look pretty. I’ve never seen you in a dress before!’ I am going to puke. How did I get sucked into this? I am not a flower girl type. I’m a tree girl, a swim in the mud girl, a shorts and thongs girl...but not a flower girl. Never. Do you know that I have had to go for a dress fitting every week for the past six months? Every time my measurements changed, Debbie asked Mum if she could be put me on drugs to inhibit my growth.”
Not much from this rough, original scene made it into the book—the pageboy didn’t make it at all. But Gemma’s voice kept ringing in my head—as did the voice of her outrageously demanding sister Debbie.
This is how stories sometimes start for me—I’ll hear a fictitious compelling voice that refuses to be quiet. At the beginning, I didn’t how what was going to happen. Some writers plot everything out before they write a word but on this occasion, I started writing and kept going. Once I had Gemma’s wry, self-possessed voice though, I had the pleasure of discovering who she was in the context of her family and friends. There was lots of fun to be had writing about a tacky wedding, a school play, her crush on the conscientious Nick Lloyd and her reluctant friendship with the charismatic Raven De Head and his despised family.
It was hard work to make sure that such a large cast of characters were distinct. The thing that helped me then and which helps me now is to carry a notebook wherever I go. In this journal I write down snatches of description—people I might see in the street or at church, conversations I might overhear at playgroup or on a train. I jot these things down, not because I want to put these people into my books necessarily, but mainly because this sort of looking helps train my eye.
For a character to really live in the imagination, they have to be at least as authentic as someone in real life. It’s important that the writing is particular rather than general. My notebook pushes me to see the textures of the world more clearly, with the hope that I can somehow translate that into character and place.
When I wrote ‘My Big Birkett’ I found I was always tasting, smelling, seeing, hearing, touching. And fishing—fishing for just the right metaphor; teasing stubborn, reluctant similes from dark crab holes; always trying to capture a moment, a face, a place—reeling them in to make sense of Gemma’s world.
Things didn’t always go well.
I think it’s important to remember that a finished book goes through many drafts and then many edits.
One of the many things my gracious, gimlet-eyed editor wrote in pencil on the margins of my manuscript was “make it more specific.” She warned me to be careful when using words like ‘sniffed’, ‘smiled’ and ‘breathed’ because they’re actions rather than ways of speaking. And she also drew my attention to the deadly tendency I had to write ‘I noticed,’ ‘I looked,’ ‘I saw,’ ‘I watched,’ continually, repetitively, over and over again!
Sometime I became anxious about the humour in ‘My Big Birkett.’ Would anyone believe that Debbie could choose ‘animals-that-mate-for-life’ as the theme for her wedding, including serviette animal origami for the reception? Would Debbie’s one-legged father-in-law, the Lieutenant Colonel push the limits of believability too far?
Then, as part of my research, I’d attend a real-life wedding fair and I’d come across all these interesting people and products; ice carvers next to invisible breast enhancer stands, wild wedding cadillacs with names like ‘Norma Jean’ and ‘Jackie’ and ‘Dolly’ right next door to personal trainers, spouting slogans like ‘Perfect day, Perfect Body, Perfect Wedding…’ There were tents full of tarot card and palm readers. Wedding bubbles. Wild boys afloat. Old fashioned carriages drawn by horses in nappies. Oversized cupids. Basically whole festivals devoted to the fluffing up of love.
And just as I’d get anxious about the humour being too tame, I’d hear about a couple who had a vampire-themed wedding with black invitations, gothic organ music and who wore—of all things—custom-made fangs!
In a way, writing is like juggling. You’re spinning characters and place and plot and hoping, praying that people will be transported. Nothing makes me happier than when someone sidles up and confides in a whisper ‘I’m in love with Raven’ as if he was just out of earshot, munching on a hamburger with the lot.
It’s moments like these—when you realize your characters are getting comfy, making themselves at home in the imaginations of other people— that all the anxiety and hard work seems worthwhile.
‘Gemma is a lively and astute observer of people and events. As she matures in this ‘interesting’ year, she begins to see beneath the surface of school friends and family and the personalities in her local community. Lisa Shanahan weaves many strands in her complex plot - wedding, school play, adolescent relationships, a fatal prank, and families good and bad, in a small town setting with its entrenched rivalries and prejudices. With fresh dialogue and believable characters, this is a richly layered, perceptive story revealing glimpse of deeper realities beneath the warmth and humour.’
‘Scenes truly memorable and moving, interspersed with rollicking and wacky humour. The end result is a wonderful and refreshing novel guaranteed to both make you laugh and be very moved.’
Children’s Publisher & Bookseller
‘Subtitled ‘the sweet, terrible, glorious year, I truly, completely lost it’, it is truly a delight and will have high appeal for young teens – lots of humour, angst, a tragedy and a bittersweet conclusion.’
‘This humorous but touching read for teens has plenty of laugh-aloud moments, a cast of endearingly zany characters, and an upbeat feel...it is a story about family loyalties, pride and fairness, told through the eyes of a girl who is on a steep learning curve about all of these things.’
Kirkus Reviews [starred]
‘Gemma's observations...provide a colorful spectrum of family life, which is at once funny, engaging and relatable. Set in Australia, the text has a slightly exotic flavor, and despite a few slightly confusing slang terms, her angst and (more importantly) her growth translate flawlessly. Writing with impressive attention to details, Shanahan uncovers life’s small everyday details to encourage readers to look again and appreciate.’
School Library Journal [starred]
‘Shanahan’s quirky characters are a riot, but the depth of Gemma’s growth and heartbreak is genuinely profound.’–Terri Clark, Smokey Hill Library, Centennial, CO
‘Though set in Australia, Shanahan’s novel addresses issues of small-town life that will resonate with many teens, especially the way a community can shift from cozy to stifling depending on one’s point of view. In this funny, touching coming-of-age novel,many readers will respond particularly strongly to the high emotion surrounding the school production of ‘The Tempest’ as well as Gemma’s complicated feelings of love, pity, shame, and responsibility as she awakens to class issues in her community.’ Krista Hutley
‘Australian picture-book author and middle-grade novelist Shanahan's first book for teens is an uproariously funny, surprisingly intense read; a savvy blend of sharp wit and weight.’ grounds its otherwise over-the-top humor.’ Ages 12-up.