I took a breath and buttoned down my shirt. As I pulled up my pants, I regretted even getting out of bed. I’d already gotten through the first round of Lofty Speaks, along with Callista. My chances of further success were not good. Nausea rose like a tidal wave within my chest and I rushed out of my bedroom in pursuit of the bathroom, then hesitated in the hallway. Gripping my stomach for dear life, I suppressed my own vomit. I needed to be able to get through the day, if I was going to provide my speech, bearing my soul like a nudist’s boobs. My palm cards were somewhere, not that I needed the prompts, not truly. When I made my way out to the kitchen, Mum had prepared breakfast. As I swallow it like a pill, it hits me like a weight that this is my life. This is the precise story which has been bestowed upon me, and I can’t hide from it, as much as I would have like to, trying to keep my toast and scrambled eggs down on a too-warm October morning. I felt a pang of pain in my stomach, like a period cramp. Once I returned to my room, I made sure to have packed supplies. I could have stayed there, looking at my bed with deep regret, not made and unlikely to be so anytime soon. All being well, it would not be until after the support group meeting that I would finally get to return to it.
Go to Western Sydney University for Lofty Speaks. Drive back to work. Actually work. Attend the support group meeting. Go back home. Try not to throw up throughout the whole thing. Rinse and repeat. Not really, but I liked the sound of it. At least theoretically. I made sure that I had my palm cards and my phone. It was flicked onto silent, but I clutched it like a crutch while heading out to the car. The breeze was too warm on my cheeks, clouds hovering overhead. We climbed into Mum’s car and the ABC radio faintly played while she drove me down to the bus stop, recounting the latest horrors of the world. The whole trip I sat like a limp weight. Finally, Mum pulled the car into the kerb. She told me that she loved me and I returned the favour, then emerged from the vehicle. A part of me wished that she could come, that she could stay and hear me speak, but I knew that it wasn’t to be, this time. Undoubtedly she’d be there if I made the state final. I just had to hope, wait and expect. Walking through to the office, I introduced myself and the staff member greeted me with a grin.
“Let me take you through to the library. Some of the others are already here.”
I gave Callista a hug as soon as I saw her. Her older sister, Astoria, had come to watch. I greeted her with a wave and tried to ignore the lump in my throat. I stayed quiet while we were led through into the library. It seemed to be a relatively recently constructed space. I greeted the other speakers with a kind smile. The adjudicator was present. Therefore, the order of speakers was drawn, for the ten of us. Callista would be third and I would be seventh. We took our seats. I stared at the floor just beyond my feet. The competition was introduced. Most of the others seemed to be women, which wasn’t uncommon.
“Please welcome Alex Swift.”
I applauded politely. They stood to speak, followed by three more contestants, including Callista. The flickering lights overhead were giving me a headache. Fifth, then sixth, then me, and I was ever so glad to rise to my feet in response to my name. My brain sprinted while I spoke like an Olympic runner. I focused on Astoria. Never had I felt gladder than to reach the conclusion of my address and to be able to sit back down again. I don’t think I caught a word of what the others after me said. We were comfortably far away from the fires, even though I could see a pale orange sky when I peered through the high windows. Finally, the adjudicator rose to address us. My eyes bulged at the sound of my name, in third place. The audience applauded. All I could think about was how proud of me Mitchell would be. I couldn’t wait to tell Geoff. Before I could get out my phone, though, I needed to huddle around with the others, for feedback. It would hopefully come in handy when I spoke again in the second round. I didn’t have to give the same speech, or deliver whatever I said in the same way. My issue, though, was that I got so swept up in the moment that I could barely recall what I’d said. Once I’d spoken with the adjudicators, I finally got the chance to approach Callista. My heart thumped, smelling smoke, hands shaking a little from the adrenaline of the day.
“Look, honestly, I was probably expecting that,” Callista admitted. “You were fantastic.”
“So were you.”
I felt a little guilty that I’d gotten through and Callista hadn’t, but she and Astoria stayed around for the second round, to watch me speak again. The other speakers were two other women – Jean Bono from Western Sydney University, and Jess Sheehan from the University of New South Wales. I was drawn to speak last, which didn’t bother me. Getting myself psyched out when listening to the others first wasn’t a good idea. We took up our seats, and were introduced by the MC.
“Our first speaker will be Jean Bono.”
I happened to notice that Jean rose without her palm cards. Perhaps she had decided that she would switch up her speech, after coming in second place in the preliminary round.
“There’s something else I need to tell you.”
The room fell silent. All I could hear was my own heartbeat and the sound of Jean’s voice. I knew that she had been married before from her original speech, but I didn’t know the story of just how her marriage had ended.
“Revenge, after all, is a dish best served cold.”
The audience applauded. My heart thumped. I was frozen, a little in shock, until I needed to pull myself from my chair in response to my name being called. Just like in the rounds before I gave my speech, holding up my necklace, vowing that I was waiting, hoping and expecting my brother. Once I was finished, the adjudicator sat at her table. Everybody tried not to stare at her. I spoke third, given I’d been the third to qualify for the second round. I’d not registered anything of the person who spoke second. I was followed by the fourth-place speaker. In every likelihood, Jean would get through, even though we were solely judged on our second speech, rather than our first. A hush fell over the library. As the adjudicator wrote her notes, I found myself wishing I had access to my phone. Scrolling through social media could have made me feel a little bit better, right? By the time the adjudicator rose to her feet, any temptation the audience might have had to chatter had to be put on hold for a short time.
“Each of the speakers today gave passionate addresses. When making our decision, we considered storytelling, the manner and the matter of each candidate.”
I breathed out through my nose. Sometimes you could tell, as the adjudicator spoke, but I remained none the wiser.
“Today’s winner is Nina del Reyan.”
The small audience applauded. I beamed. Once I stood, taking my palm cards with me, I accepted feedback from the adjudicator, although I found myself in a daze, barely listening. Callista gave me a tight hug, to congratulate me. I stepped out from the library into the smoky air. The bushfires weren’t close enough to place me in personal danger. I’d never seen the sky so pale orange before. I drove myself to work, feeling more alone than I ought to have. My body was buzzing as I got out of the car. Finally inside the library could I escape the stench. I worked throughout the afternoon, even though I just wanted to sleep. Eventually, the clock ticked over to five. I made sure that the library was locked up, other than the automatic doors for the support group meeting in the evening. There were still some books to pack away. Still, I eschewed the idea in favour of studying. Just as I got out my books, Lizzie called.
“How did you go today?”
“Yeah, great, thanks, I won.”
“Wow, that’s incredible.”
“We should celebrate.”
“Yeah, well, like maybe we could go to the movies or something.”
I knew that was pedestrian compared to what Lizzie likely had in mind. Ultimately, I didn’t mind.
“Do you like the new Harry Styles album?”
“Yeah, yeah I do, it’s great,” Lizzie confirmed. “What do you think about it?”
Admittedly, I hadn’t listened, although I was trying to keep up with her interests.
“Oh, yeah, I like it. It’s good to listen to.”
I’d told a lie. I didn’t mean to. It just slipped out of me, which was something that I didn’t appreciate. I should have been better than that. Glancing up towards the doors, orange light filtered into the library.
“Um, actually, I’ll text you through the invitation, but I’m going to have a birthday party on the tenth of December. You’re invited, of course, the whole family’s invited.”
I needed to remember to actually text the invitation.
“That’s great, thank you.”
“And it will be good to see you Friday.”
We would be celebrating Lizzie’s birthday, which should have been taking priority over mine. I felt a little guilty to bring it up, but there was a part of me which felt better as a result of placing a marker in the future.
“Do you remember my cousin Laurel?”
“She’s Aunty Alison’s daughter, Dad’s sister.”
“The one with the boyfriend?”
“Yeah. Well, she’s gone and got herself pregnant.”
“To the same bloke.”
“Yeah. I thought that her parents would totally lose it. Mine would have. They’re being sort of chill about it, though.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“She’s going to keep the baby.”
I didn’t have a comment. The state of the woman’s uterus was none of my business, either way.
“If you say so.”
We ended the call. I checked my notifications. There was nothing which I needed to attend to. Therefore, I dropped my phone back into my bag and departed the staffroom, the door shutting behind me. The members of the support group started to file in. I sat down and breathed out, trying to focus on my surroundings. With these people, I could feel safe, given that they’d shared similar experiences to me. Naturally, Zipporah would be first to share. She seemed to have more life within her that I’d noticed previously.
“Thank you very much for all coming to Natalia’s baby shower last Sunday,” Zipporah commended, while cradling the news bear. “I really appreciate it, that you’d all support her.”
“It’s the least we can do,” Brigitta insisted. “I mean, I had Summer when I was a few years older than Natalia.”
“How old were you when you had Summer, Brigitta?” Lorelai asked.
“I was eighteen,” Brigitta answered. “I fell pregnant on the night of my high school graduation – September twenty-first, 1996.”
I rubbed my eyes.
“Did it come as a shock to become a mother so young?”
“Yeah, I suppose so. Plenty of people have had babies young in my family and Jerry’s family, so it wasn’t necessarily strange.”
Brigitta shook her head, albeit with a bit of a smile.
“I sometimes wonder what would have happened in my life if I’d never gotten pregnant. Of course, I don’t regret my children. I’m not just saying that, it’s true. They’re the best thing I received out of being with Jerry and being married to him.”
Finally, the meeting came to an end. I bid my farewells, locked up the library, then drove home, feeling that way you get sometimes, when no amount of sleep seems like enough.
The younger sister of missing Sydney man Mitchell del Reyan, Nina del Reyan lives on Dharug land in western Sydney. She has recently commenced a teaching degree at Macquarie University. Nina loves her family and friends and is deeply committed to finding answers and justice for the families of missing people.
Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey desires to explore themes of hope, love and longing through her storytelling. She is the author of 'Shadow' and 'From the Wild'.