Fortnightly Story: Around the World in Fifty Steps

a man and a woman with backpacks looking at Leaning Tower of Pisa

‘Around the World In Fifty Steps’ was my first published short story. It was 2001 and I’d just graduated with an MA in Professional Writing from the University of Technology Sydney. A heady time to see my name in a prestigious literary journal like Overland, progressive culture since 1954. I’d written the story originally as a synopsis for a book. Although the book never did find a publisher, I was very happy that the synopsis was published as a short story. Not bad for a high school dropout.

  1. Joanna lives in a Sydney suburb with her two sons. It’s 1992 and Australia is in recession.
  1. “I’m sick of licking arse in a service industry,” she says of her marketing business. “And I’m fed up with financial insecurity, the feast or famine of too many projects or not enough and chasing new business and getting clients to pay their bills.”
  1. “I’m thinking of renting the house out and travelling,” she tells her grown up sons after reading “The Pitter Patter of Thirty-Year-Old Feet” in the Sydney Morning Herald.
  1. “You’re ready to leave home are you mum?” said one son.
  1. “Why don’t you just go on a long holiday instead,” said the other.
  1. “I want a new beginning, a change of career, a new home, a community of people, an intimate relationship with a significant other, that sort of thing.”
  1. “You could always get yourself a dog,” suggests a friend.
  1. Her son moves out when she puts his rent up.
  1. “Are you going to wait till he buys a new house for cash before you ask for a decent rent?” her mother had said.
  1. “I’ve decided to go and live with Dad for a change,” says the other son.
  1. “I’ll be away for six to twelve months,” Joanna says as she throws her client files on the rubbish tip.
  1. She spends the spring in Italy. The summer in England, Scotland and Ireland, the autumn walking the gorge country of the Ardeche in France.
  1. In the winter she rents a studio apartment in Villefranche on the French Riviera. The studio belongs to a friend of a friend so she’s able to get it at a good price.  She works as a casual deck hand on one of the luxury cruisers in dry dock for maintenance.  “The first thing I want you to do,” says her boss when she arrives at work on the first day, “is blitz the tender.”  After a backbreaking morning of hard physical work cleaning the small run-about she goes to lunch.  She orders a salad nicoise and a coffee and realises her lunch will cost her a morning’s pay.
  1. A young and handsome French man who lives in Paris but comes to Villefranche to visit his grandmother most weekends, pursues her. Joanna comes to realise that French men love and cherish women as much as they appreciate good food.
  1. She shops at the markets, paints and reads and falls in love with the light and the colours of the south of France.
  1. “I’m able to live contentedly alone without a regular job, without a car, without speaking the language,” she writes to her friends back home.
  1. In the summer she moves on again before the tourist masses arrive and the rent goes up.
  1. She gives away to her new friends in Villefranche all the things that won’t now fit in her backpack but keeps her paint brushes and pallet knife.
  1. On the Greek island of Skyros she joins a group of landscape artists led by a famous English painter.
  1. “My purpose in leading this group is to help everyone find their own unique style,” says the woman.
  1. Joanna spends the autumn in London meeting with other artists from the island and the woman becomes her mentor and they meet for a cup of tea every week and talk about the isolation of being an artist as well as many other things.
  1. “It’s important to stop and regenerate before the creative battery runs flat,” she says.
  1. Joanna paints every day and goes out with an English man named Clive.
  1. “Your painting is vivid and alive,” says the famous English artist. “I’ll write you a letter of introduction to my contacts in Australia when you’re ready to exhibit this collection.”
  1. Clive has a strong face with chiselled square cheekbones. Dark brown eyes and dark hair that falls in a square fringe on his forehead.  His fingers are long and sensitive for playing the piano.
  1. “What are you doing there?” her mother asks on the phone from across the ocean.
  1. “I’m painting,” says Joanna.
  1. “But what are you doing?”
  1. “My mother is like a poisonous gas that can cross from one side of the world to the other,” Joanna says.
  1. Joanna dreams about her sons every night and Clive tells her she cries in her sleep.
  1. She yearns for the bright Australian light and for the sound of the ocean.
  1. She returns to Australia for her eldest son’s wedding.
  2. In Sydney, Joanna supplements her income from the house rental by getting a job as a casual for a clothing company. She unpacks boxes and steampresses the garments.  Her back, neck and shoulders ache and she suspects she’s getting RSI from the steampresser.
  1. Clive rings to say he’s coming to visit her.
  1. In preparation for his arrival she moves all her furniture out of storage and rents a small place near the beach hoping that he’ll love it in Australia and decide to stay.
  1. Two weeks before his arrival Clive rings to say he’s not coming and Joanna finds out through a friend that he’s met someone else and is moving in with her.
  1. She tears up his photos and throws his Christmas present at the wall.
  1. Joanna stops painting.
  1. She reflects on the past and all that she’s lost.
  1. I thought when love for you died, I should die. It’s dead.  Alone, most strangely, I live on.  Rupert Brooke.
  1. Joanna stays in bed most days but still feels so tired that she can only remain vertical for four hours in any twenty-four hour period.
  1. The phone stops ringing.
  1. She rehearses her own death by going to the edge of the cliff.
  1. From the edge she sketches the waves breaking on rocks, the lone seagull on the shore at the water’s edge.
  1. At home she fills in the drawing, blending black charcoal and white pastel reminding herself the darkest hour is before the dawn.
  1. And, after winter spring always comes.
  1. Joanna sells the house where she lived with her children and spends half the money on a home unit overlooking the ocean and the rest of the money on Australian shares.
  1. Her new home faces the east and she can smell the salt from the ocean.
  1. “It takes twenty years to be a successful artist,” echoes in her mind.
  1. On a new canvas she drags the colours of the sunrise across the blank white space.

Copyright © Libby Sommer 2017

First published in Overland literary journal

Header image:  Creative Commons

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