The Party of Life was published by Flying Islands in the Pocket Book series in 2015. Translated with love and care by Ruby Chen. Huge thanks to series editor Kit Kelen.
Beth Spencer is an award-winning author of poetry and fiction. Her work has frequently been broadcast on ABC-Radio National, and her books include How to Conceive of a Girl (Random House), The Party of Life (Flying Islands), Vagabondage (UWAP) and The Age of Fibs (ebook published by Spineless Wonders and winner of the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award). She lives and writes on Guringai & Darkinjung land on the NSW Central Coast; she has a website at www.bethspencer.com, and can be found on social media @bethspen
The party of life
For my twenty-fifth birthday the invitation said ‘wear black.’
An old primary school photo with my anxious face circled
(including the big white bow in my hair)
had an arrow and the words ‘Will this girl make it to 25?’
scrawled across the bottom.
Perhaps it was those sixties cartoons
that declared ‘Never trust anyone over…’
Or maybe I just always felt
I would burn myself out.
Each new crack in my heart —
each new cut of experience
digging a grave in soft soil.
So we called it an ‘instead-of-a-suicide party’
and told everyone to wear black.
In the kitchen my housemates prepared a storyboard
out of the pickings from a cardboard box of photos and souvenirs.
Below a snap of my cubby house up on a trailer
(taken on the day it was given away to neighbours)
Lynne wrote: ‘Never knew a permanent home’
and stuck a pin in it.
Ridiculously, we fought over this.
The historian, versus the journalists and fabulists.
I was over-ruled, of course (howled down / wriggling).
They evicted me from the party room — after all, I was dead.
Leaving them free to sift and interpret the traces
with latitude and glee. (Never let the facts, etc.)
And here I think about this
twenty-five years older and wiser,
as I draw the curtains inside my
wash my cup and plate,
climb into my narrow bed…
On the evening of my twenty-fifth birthday
I was shoo-ed out of the kitchen, away from the party food,
and commanded to lie in state in my bedroom.
So I put on my Miss Haversham wedding dress
(complete with faint patches of mildew)
and arranged myself on top of the covers.
Jill’s boyfriend came in to keep me company, sitting quietly
in his black turtleneck, my unofficial confessor.
Each time I heard the girls calling
‘Oh she makes a lovely corpse’
— their voices drifting down the hallway —
I stubbed out my cigarette,
stashed the champagne under the bed,
clasped my rose, closed my eyes,
crossed my bare feet neatly.
Mostly, the guests were speechless.
The flickering candles,
the baby-powder on my face.
The bandaids just visible at the edges of my wrists.
(Did we go overboard?)
Even the trendy-punks from down the street muttered
‘This is macabre’ and left.
Only Theresa and Jenny after pausing in the doorway for
just a heartbeat (or two, maybe three)
flung themselves at my feet weeping, wailing
and gnashing their teeth.
I listened to them recounting our lives together
(‘Oh, remember when, remember when…’)
and smiled a secret smile in the candlelit dark.
Outside, in the bright living room the guests bonded
over the polystyrene tombstone,
the epitaph from Plath,
the black crepe-paper-chains
and the cardboard coffin
containing the dips and chips.
The volume grew steadily as they became ever more
Exuberant (relieved just to be alive).
Through the wall: voices rising, laughter, music.
— The Clash, Blondie, Human League, Marvin Gaye —
every now and then
the brittle sound of a glass being smashed.
Never knew a permanent home.
I honestly can’t say why that one rankled so much.
A fibro cubby house with its fake Fred Flintstone-walls.
As if that was my childhood home —
that small, that flimsy?
(‘From the town of bed-rock
there are things right out of his-tory.’)
But I guess it is true
I always had
an urge (or a habit, not entirely conscious)
— a penchant —
to cast myself adrift,
trusting to the invisible parachute.
The schools I chose, the uni where I knew no-one,
moving state, jettisoning relationships.
Always an eye out for the clean slate,
the chance to reinvent (write the storyboard).
At midnight on my twenty-fifth birthday
and joined the party in the living room.
We sang Happy Birthday and
Hip hip hooray.
And I shed the lace wedding dress
emerging whole in a vintage white mini
with a beaded neckline and danced till dawn.
Virginal amid the inner city black.
I rise… I rise…
Here I am
trailing wisps of stuff down the highway
(the odd patch of mildew).
In a cubby house again on wheels,
for the living room.
*audio version here: https://soundcloud.com/bethspen/the-party-of-life
The Party of Life – launch speech by Bernard Cohen — https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/01/19/eccentric-sustaining-bernard-cohen-launches-the-party-of-life-by-beth-spencer/