Cloudwish : Chapter One At home, this was her own private view of the world: grimy, tiny, vast. Her go-to hallway window. A fixed glass plate, exactly twenty-six by thirty-two inches. She used to stand on tiptoes to see through it, and every night it turned the city into an electric fairyland. Once upon a long time ago she believed in magic. A creative writing master class on the first day back? They weren’t kidding with the whole pep talk about hitting the ground running this year. The visiting writer, Ronette Bartloch—it had to be a pen name—was wittering about fantasy. She invited them to interpret fantasy as broadly as they liked—thanks, heaps—from fairy tale to political manifesto. She spoke in such a low, humming voice it was almost impossible to tune in at the dozy end of the day. For Vân Ước, fantasies fell into two categories: nourishing or pointless. Daydreaming about Billy Gardiner, for example? Pointless. It always left her feeling sick, as though she’d eaten too much sugar. And there was zero chance of a payoff, because she had observed Billy Gardiner in his native habitat for two years now, and it was a truth universally acknowledged that he only ever went out with girls like Pippa or Tiff or Ava. Foreground, high-resolution girls. And, even then, not for long. Buzz around the lockers was that he’d hooked up with Holly at a couple of parties over the summer break. Vân Ước allowed herself a covert sideways glance at the boy in question. Right across the aisle. Close enough to touch. Stretching back in his chair, oar-calloused hands clasped over the back of his messy blond hair, shirtsleeves rolled up, sharp forearm flexors. His nose in profile, relative to forehead and chin, must be one of those precise proportions that define visual harmony. The golden mean. She smiled as she imagined measuring his face to check it. His eyes were closed. Concentrating? Dozing? He was probably on the river rowing by five thirty this morning … A nourishing fantasy, on the other hand, was okay as long as you didn’t indulge just before bedtime, or you could end up with your nose pressed so close to what you hoped for that sleep wouldn’t have a chance. So, daydreaming about being at her own art exhibition opening? Nourishing. She could see it, taste it, frame after delicious frame. Her dramatic, large-scale work of minutely beautiful things, the artsy yet fashionable crowd. Her modest thanks at the praise being poured over her like honey. No, really…Too, too kind…The flash of cameras. Clothes…something fluidly androgynous, directional, by a Japanese designer. In a slatey gray. Billy Gardiner wishing he’d gotten to know her when they were at school together.
Kicking himself that he hadn’t. In the most lock-and-key part of her dreamscape, she believed the art thing might conceivably happen. Minus the Billy Gardiner element. If she worked hard enough. Maybe. Thankfully, the nature of fantasy was private. Because her parents must never guess. Because in their fantasies she was a doctor. White coat. Stethoscope. Large income. Comfortable retirement for the whole family. A big house in their dream suburb, Kew. (Why the obsession with Kew?) Little hitch. Little inconsistency re dreamsgoalsdesiredoutcomes. So that was one door of the nourishing fantasy that was better kept shut. Behind that door stood her mother and father, her hardworking, first‐generation‐immigrant, barely-English-speaking Vietnamese Australian parents screaming nooooooooooo in a horror film slo‐mo reaction shot. And then attacking her with blunt instruments. She took a calming breath. Still plenty of school to get through before she needed to face hand‐to‐hand combat with her parents over university course selection. This was only the first week of the two-year International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Crowthorne Grammar, where she had been at school since year nine. Anyway, she limited the wishing, dreaming, fantasy activities, too pragmatic to let them take over. She preferred things that could be proved, or held. The plastic fantastic—the trustworthy, physical world. Physics. Chemistry. Art. Most of all, art. She rested her hands in her lap, doing a couple of the gentle stretches the doctor had given her to do after diagnosing repetitive strain injury last year. At the time she was devastated because it meant having to change media from her flick-stroke, photorealist drawings to actual photography for her IB portfolio. Like drummers, people who draw are notoriously fidgety; she missed the pencil in her hand like a ghost limb, and still felt the twitch of its absence. Fortunately, her camera was grafting itself to her hand quite comfortably. Enthused and pink-cheeked, in witchy ankle boots and a retro sundress, Ms. Bartloch was encouraging the class to select from her box of creative prompts. Their challenge for the fantasy class was to imagine things as they might be, not as they were. To let themselves be transported to another place or time. Holly Broderick was talking about a friend’s penthouse apartment in the city that sure was
her idea of fantasy. That girl was the perfectly formed love child of Smirk and Snarl. She spent half her time showing off and the other half looking for someone to squash. Holly was not as pretty as Ava, not as rich as Pippa, not as “Establishment” as Gabi, but boy did she rule at being mean. If she were ever to feel the full force of Vân Ước’s dislike, she’d probably fall over and never get up again. It was easier to avoid eye contact altogether than cause possible mortal injury, even to someone as deserving of it as Holly. Why did these days at the beginning of the year go so slowly, when by the end of term they rushed along at warp speed? Was it only six hours ago she’d slipped into her mother‐ironed summer uniform and looked out at her very own million‐dollar view toward the bay? Although—penthouse apartment in Melbourne? Make that a two‐, maybe three‐million‐dollar view. Real estate was getting ridiculous. Not that her parents paid market rates for their view. It was courtesy of the state government. Low-rent, high-rise, run-down public housing. She was the only girl in her class who lived in a place like that. But the view was great. What you could see of it anyway, out of small aluminum‐framed windows with years’ worth of grime on the outside. By the time the fantasy‐prompt box made its way to Vân Ước, all the interesting stuff was taken. On surrounding desktops she saw an assortment of little plastic dolls and cars, exotic feathers, old coins, a couple of tarot cards, china fragments, and even some bones. She fished about. A few crappy shells and the obligatory vintage postcards were all that was left. Classic. The meek shall inherit the dregs. She hated creative writing. It was her least favorite aspect of English, and she had probably already written in advance enough pieces to cover her in this area. Summer hadn’t been exactly oversubscribed in the social department. There was plenty of preparation time for this year’s work. Ms. Bartloch came over, stirred her hand through the box, and offered it to Vân Ước again. A glass vial peeped out from under the postcards. That looked a bit more interesting. She examined it at close range: a little tube of glass, each end sealed with a twist. Inside, a floating slip of paper on which one word was written in spidery faded ink: wish. The vial warmed to blood temperature in her hand as she free‐associated with the chosen item, as they’d been instructed to do. Wish led straight to Billy Gardiner, naturally. In a different world, she might belong here. She would not live in the dumpbin category of scholarship/poor/smart/Asian. She’d be one of the guys. Plenty of the “guys” were Asian, of course; it was a diverse community. But, unlike Vân Ước, they were from backgrounds of privilege: corporate expats’ kids or second-and third-generation locals. She imagined having money in her pocket for after‐school coffees on Greville Street. At leisure all weekend simply to hang out. Stories to swap about her latest holiday. A family she’d feel relaxed enough about to take for granted, even to bitch about occasionally. And a boy like Billy Gardiner. She had permission—instruction—to wish. Sugar high and depressing comedown on the horizon. Deep breath. She wished, with a quick, hard ache of impossibility, that Billy Gardiner liked her. More than liked her. Preferred her to all the other girls in the school. All the other girls in the world. Found her …
fascinating . “Everyone writing something, please,” Ms. Bartloch was saying, looking at her watch. Her tone was so annoying, like someone leading a meditation. And, embarrassingly, she had her eyes shut. “Start with some free writing…let the words flow … open yourself to your theme … welcome any ideas that come to you … don’t think of spelling or grammar … remember the wonderful
Select All/Delete —your limbering up is completely free, completely private.” Looking around, Vân Ước realized with an uncomfortable heart thump that she was the only person not tapping away on her keyboard. Coming last—at anything, even free writing— was not an option. Cue the idiot life commentators. They lived, uninvited, on the doorstep of all her inadequacies: two of them, old white dudes, heckling as they watched her every hesitation, every failure:
Yes, the scholarship girl has dropped the ball/Will the visiting writer mention her tardiness in the staffroom?/It’s certainly possible/Possible? It’s a sure thing! Vân Ước Phan needs to pick up her game if she’s planning to go the distance. She uncurled her fingers to take one more look at the glass vial, but it was gone. It must have slipped from her hand while she was in Billy‐zone. She looked in her lap. She bent down, scanning the floor under her desk. Checked under her chair. Under the desk in front of her. The desk behind her. Inside her pencil case. Emptied her pencil case. Dropped things from her pencil case on the floor. She was growing hot with discomfort. The teacher might think she’d stolen it—the constant worry of the poorest kid in the room. Where the hell was it? Everyone seemed busy writing. So she risked standing up. Surely it couldn’t have slipped inside her dress. She stood up, pulled her dress out at the front, looked down, shook herself as discreetly as possible. A quick shimmy. A little hop. But nothing fell out. “Lost something?” Billy Gardiner was looking at her oddly. No wonder. He’d obviously witnessed the whole bend‐and‐ stretch routine. He leaned down and picked up a pen. “This?” “No.” She took the pen. “But thanks.” She put up her hand and witchy boots came over. “I’m so sorry. I’ve somehow misplaced the little …” Vân Ước held her fingers up, vial distance apart. Ms. Bartloch nodded, then whispered so as not to distract the other students. “Don’t worry—sorry, what’s your name?” Flustered, Vân Ước said her name with correct Vietnamese pronunciation, the lilting double vowel and upward inflection on “Ước.” She registered Ms. Bartloch not quite catching the pronunciation, and repeated it with the Anglo flatness she used for school, because everyone could manage it: Van Oc. “Things wander from that box and find their way back, Vân Ước.” “But I’ve looked everywhere.” “Better get started, anyway—I promised Ms. Norton you’d all have something to go on with after this session.”
Okay—free writing—free freeeeeeeee meeeee youuuuu blah blah wish theme fantasy wish fish delish wish mish kish pish quish squish what will I write I write the write right wrong free to enter wish wish wish I wish I wish I hadn’t read the article about the fucking government’s new legislation on boat people how dare they how dare they stand in the fortress the high places the towers of privilege stamp down rain down reign down on the people who can’t find the first foothold in the green water floating drowning the soft sand the sand too far too far far far below never making it to shore they are no different from us us and them us is them we are them them and us them us them us them us wish us them them wish us out okay limbered. Select All. Delete.
Creative Prompt: The word “Wish.” Vân Ước Phan. English: 11015EN(N).
The wish many of us share is simple to express but, it seems, hard to achieve: we want a just and equitable society, one that welcomes those seeking asylum from political and religious persecution. My parents found such a society when they arrived by boat in Australia from Vietnam in 1980. The intervening years have seen sympathy waning, and opposing governments have come to office in recent years partly on the bipartisan, and, sadly, popular platform of “Keep out the boats.” I wish for a different … Half an hour raced by in a burst of political outrage. How dare this government describe asylum seekers who arrived by boat as “illegals,” deliberately misinforming the electorate? Her parents’ generation was given asylum after the fall of Saigon, people from Europe were given asylum after the Second World War, and now there were detention centers like Manus Island and Nauru, where
kids from places like Iraq and Afghanistan were imprisoned. This had turned into a country that didn’t care about its humanitarian responsibilities. What had happened? As she wrote, she tried to evoke the fear and desperation that people must feel in order to risk traveling in this way, imperiling themselves and their family. Billy Gardiner did not make an appearance. Did everyone live this kind of double life? Packing up to go home by the lockers after her oboe class, she saw that the only other person still around was Billy Gardiner. And he appeared to be staring at her. “So, did you find it?” He couldn’t be speaking to her. Billy Gardiner did not seek out Vân Ước Phan for after-school chitchat. He came a couple of steps closer. He was buzzing. He pulled the phone from his pocket, glanced at the screen, switched it off, stuffed it back in. “Whatever you thought was inside your dress—did you find it?” He was smiling the question. Had put her ahead of the phone call in his queue of popular-boy activities. Was looking at her with complete attention. Not the
sorry, I bumped you on the way past look, not the
scanning the crowd and not bothering to stop look, not the
don’t really know who you are look. But eye to eye. Waiting. Listening. “No,” she said. “No, I didn’t.” And walked off.
Nice one, Vân Ước , the commentators said quietly.
That’s the way to play it when your dream boy tries to talk to you/Yup, you nailed it, and—what’s this?—look, she’s leaving the field/She’s throwing in the towel/She’s— “Oh, do shut up,” she muttered. Thanks for reading the first chapter of Fiona Wood’s newest novel—a thought-provoking story of self-discovery and first love. Like what you read? Learn more about