Jolley Prize 2014 (Shortlist): 'The Art of Life' by Faith Oxenbridge

Inherit your great-grandmother’s wild red hair and hear the boys sing Griffin’s Gingernuts are so spicy when you walk past the Four Square court. Feel like a freak. Ask your mother if you can cut your hair short when you start high school and hear her say but it’s your best asset. Worry about your assets. Regret not cutting it on the first day of school when your form teacher christens you Orphan Annie and everyone laughs. Eat your vegemite sandwiches alone at one end of a wobbly bench outside the gym and ignore the fat girl wobbling it at the other end. Howl into the headwind as you bike home from school. Hate your mother when you arrive red-eyed, wind-whipped and she sighs. Wish you were Orphan Annie.

Be a ‘surprise’ baby for your ‘older’ parents and feel ashamed of your granny mother when she picks you up from school. Ask why you don’t have brothers and sisters and hear her say you were a miracle. Hear your father laugh evilly from behind his newspaper and your mother shush him. See your father’s forehead furrow when you ask him questions, when you can’t remember your times tables or the chain falls off your bike and leaves oily stains on your white socks. Hear him tell you to stop being ridiculous on a rare family outing to Brighton Beach when you refuse to swim in the sea because you think the waves will swallow you. Hear your mother say don’t be so tough on her and your father say she’s a bloody pain in the arse sometimes. Grow up feeling like a pain in your father’s arse all the time.

Buy magazines with your babysitting money called Seventeen and Honey filled with golden Californian girls and Coppertone tans. Look at so many leggy, teeny-weeny-bikinied, gilded girls over your sixteenth summer that you start to imagine you look like one. California dream on your bed in the afternoon and get a rude shock when you wake up to a pink, mottled face and mad-scientist hair. Wonder if you’ll get married; if anyone will ever love you. Make self-improvement lists. Exercise to increase your bust – I must, I must. Rub lemon juice and baking soda on your freckles. Fry your baby-oiled skin in the blinding midday sun and watch in horror as it peels to reveal the indignant pink beneath. Know then you will never be loved. Don’t make eye contact with the boys you like at school. Make like a rock. Make like an island.

Enrol in Fine Arts at University because your high school art teacher says you have talent, because when you hold a paintbrush or a chunk of charcoal, you forget yourself; you forget. Inform your father in his veggie garden as he bends old and dinosaur-slow over his precious rows of corn. Watch his hands part the corn ears carefully, tenderly as he says no man likes a smart-arse woman, that you should look for work in an office or bank instead. Henna your hair a deeper, sluttier red and start wearing kohl eyeliner, dark, gothic lipstick. Feel exotic but hear your father say you look like a tramp. Move from a trainer bra to a C-cup in a matter of months and notice boys staring at you. Get asked to a dance by an engineering student who ogles you in the campus café then follows you out to your car, and say yes, because you’re flattered even though he has Prince Charles ears and a gummy smile. Get drunk at the dance and let him kiss you and touch your breasts in his far-too-clean Ford Cortina. Feel like a tramp when you sneak in the back door at 2 am with panda eyes and swollen lips and reject him a week later when you see his ears and gums again in daylight.

Go flatting and lose count of the boys you have sex with. Neglect your studies and have a meeting with your course supervisor who tells you to get your act together or get out. Roll your kohl-rimmed eyes at him, but when you do turn up to the studios, lose yourself in your painting and feel heady. Vow to make more art, to become a real artist, but become a creature of the night instead. Love the way dim lighting makes your skin luminous, makes you feel mysterious, enigmatic. Learn how to look at boys so they want you. Learn how to not look at boys so they want you even more. Start smoking. Ignore the boys looking at you while you’re smoking. Ignore all the boys in your year because they’re just boys.

Fall in love with your third-year painting tutor. Worship his unkempt hair, trembling, nicotine-stained fingers, and sardonic eyes that hide – your heart tells you – terrible sadness. Loll on your bed in your musty room in the wooden villa you share with two binge-drinking law students, imagining the two of you together like Frida and Diego – painting, fighting, loving – then see him in town at a café with a blonde stick insect. Hate your C-cup breasts and soft, rounded stomach, even though your flatmates lust after your body and take turns knocking on your bedroom door late at night after their weekend binges. Eat nothing but raw carrots and Chicken Noodle Cup a Soups for weeks. Lose your stomach. Like the way your face hollows, how your hip-bones sharpen into perfect triangles when you lie in bed. Drop a dress size and another. Feel permanently light-headed but strangely focused and produce an A+ series of paintings for your final assessment. See your tutor see you for the first time at the end of year exhibition and visit his office for pretend career advice a few days later. Watch him sneer and tell you to travel, to move far, far away from this blinkered, bigoted, quarantined shit-hole of a country and find your soul. Starve yourself harder. Sit next to him at the Art School Leavers Dinner in your size eight, Audrey Hepburn cocktail dress. Get drunk and feel his forearm brush yours. Get drunker and tell him you want to fuck him. Hear him laugh and tell you to go home to Mummy and Daddy. Feel like a freak and hear his laugh ricochet in your head for years like a tinny jingle you want to forget but can’t. Never, ever, tell a man you want to fuck them again.

Fall in love with London. Feel at home among your porcelain-skinned brothers and sisters. Find your soul in bookshops, art galleries, greasy-spoon cafés, and smoky underground bars. Feel alive. Hear your Kiwi friends yearn for New Zealand’s wide-open spaces, the sun, surf and snow-tipped ranges, but embrace London’s moody sky, the endless drizzle, and feel a sense of possibility and intrigue in every lurching, toxic tube trip, every glance from a stranger. Find a job in an art gallery in Soho. Wear stiletto heels and tight pencil skirts. Sell paintings to the rich and pretentious and learn how to bullshit about art. Have fleeting relationships with several, self-absorbed, almost-famous artists and end them all. Be wooed – expensively – by a middle-aged, pinstriped art collector and move into his Kensington mansion. Take trips to Spain, Berlin, and Prague with him. Buy designer clothes with monstrous shoulder pads on his credit card and attend dinner parties with hired string quartets. Drink Dom Pérignon, eat runny, rancid French cheese and feel like you’ve made it. Feel bored. Lonely. Ring home. Hear your mother’s small, tremulous voice and cry a roaring mountain-fed river of tears.

Fly back to New Zealand because your father has cancer, because you were waiting for a reason. Spend the thirty-hour plane trip imagining yourself at his deathbed. Hear him apologise through gasping, dying breaths for being a critical, distant father and feel vindicated. Fly over Canterbury in the pink morning and see the interminable patchworked plains, then row after row of monopoly houses with neat, hedged edges. Feel like you’re drowning, even though your head is a dust bowl, your mouth sandpaper-dry. Feel worse as you approach the woolshed impersonating an airport. Think about staying on the plane and hiding in the toilet until it flies back to Europe; anywhere. See your parents standing self-consciously, looking older, greyer. See your father looking anywhere but at you as you walk up to them. Drive home through a time-warp of empty, gaping suburban streets, then stay inside the house for two days because the stark light makes your head throb. Catch up with friends. Hear their flat, ugly vowels and sharpen yours until you sound like the Queen. Feel like the only civilised person in Christchurch.

Find out your father’s cancer has responded to treatment and that he’ll probably live to a ripe old age. Feel cheated and think about going back to Europe. Attend art exhibitions and bump into your old painting tutor. Notice his receding hair and yellowing teeth. Tell him you’re thinking of staying and doing a Masters, and visit his office to discuss it. Smell alcohol on him even though it’s only 10 am and see him unzip his jeans from afar, as if you’re watching a low-budget porn movie. Move in with him. Take him home to meet your parents and feel his disdain at your mother’s willow-patterned china collection, your father’s alphabetically indexed Reader’s Digests. Drink together every night, and fight. Become Frida and Diego. Paint bold, brilliant acrylics when you’re sober and angry. Have an exhibition where you’re heralded as an interesting new talent, even though your partner says your work is contrived and immature; even though he hasn’t been sober long enough to paint anything for years. Miss a period, then another. Get married in a black dress and Doc Martens in an ironic wedding in a friend’s back garden and don’t invite your parents. Hear your husband introduce you to people at parties as his ‘first wife’.

Love your baby in a way you have never loved anyone or thing before. Wake her up when she sleeps too long because you miss her. Try to make your marriage work and tell your husband – and yourself – that you love him, so it will become true. Find out he’s been having an affair with one of his students when he climbs into bed late one night reeking – unashamedly – of whisky and sickly musk scent. Stay with your husband because you hope one of you – or something – might change. Stay with your husband because every so often he needs you. Leave him when your daughter starts school and you have time to remember who you used to be. Gain full custody of your daughter – without a fight – and only hear from her father occasionally, late at night, when he’s pissed and rings to call you a whore, or to plead with you to come back. Almost go back.

Train as an art teacher and get a job teaching at a low-decile school. Put your mother in a dementia-care facility and find her sitting in urine-soaked skirts on your visits. Hear from her nurses that she escaped onto the main road and was heading to the airport to visit her daughter in London to tell her something very important. Ask her – when she next recognises you – what she has to tell you that’s very important. Hear her say she’s sorry but doesn’t regret it, because you were the best things that ever happened to her. Ask what she doesn’t regret and hear her talk about the sparrow that sits on her windowsill every morning and sings you are my sunshine. Visit your father and ask him what he thinks his wife is sorry about but doesn’t regret and hear him tell you to go home and take a long look in the mirror. Go home and look in the mirror. See your bleached face, blue eyes and your olive-skinned, brown-eyed parents floating behind you – spectral yet swarthy. Drive like a madwoman back to the rest home and sit with your mother while she sleeps. Ask her again when she wakes up, miraculously as your mother. Watch her cry.

Turn forty. Read that a woman over forty has more chance of being injured in a car accident or terrorist attack than finding a man who’s willing to marry her. Panic and try to find a man to marry. Attend a Table for Eight dinner. Sit next to a car salesman – with a silver chain garroting his bullish neck – who complains about his ex-wife through all four courses. Consider the advantages of being injured in a terrorist attack. Bury your mother.

Bump into one of the lawyers you flatted with when you were at university. See him hovering around the seafood counter in the supermarket and suggest the Marinara mix in a creamy tomato sauce on a bed of fresh linguine, suggestively. Move into a Victorian villa in a leafy suburb with him, his twin sons and your increasingly distant, pubescent daughter. Make like a happy family. Stroll through the Art Centre Markets on Sundays and laugh at the buskers as you eat hot nuts. Attend parent–teacher interviews together. Highlight your hair Californian gold. Look good. Host impromptu barbecues for people you hardly know and throw together Margaritas and salads with avocado, feta, and garlicky dressings. Get a dog – shaggy, pure-bred – and go on a family holiday to Fiji. Plan a wedding in a church – a proper wedding to show how much you really mean it this time. Design your wedding invitations with cartoon characters of your blended family holding hands. Include the dog.

Hear that your ex-husband has married again and is having a baby. Tell your daughter when she comes home from school as though it’s the funniest joke and watch her turn feral. Hear she’s really angry with you for keeping her father from her all these years, that she’s been visiting her father and thinks he’s cool. Way cooler than you. Find your daughter’s diary under her bed, with a packet of cigarettes and a roach-filled ashtray. Read that your fiancé’s a stuck-up dick, his sons are spoilt shitheads and that you’ve become a Stepford wife. Postpone the wedding to bury your father. Stop sleeping and eating. Tell your fiancé you’re sick of cleaning up his sons’ masturbation tissues from their bedroom floor and hear him say he’s sick of your mutinous daughter. Feel mutinous. Go to the doctor. Go on antidepressants.

Find out you’re rich because your father squirrelled away money he made from Bonus Bonds in a secret account. Think about your mother incarcerated for three piss-soaked years in her budget rest home. Hate your father and start to hate your partner. Wonder if you need an exorcism but start psychotherapy instead with a humourless German called Astrid. Call her Hitler behind her back. Hear Astrid tell you that your depression is anger turned inwards. Hear her say that a farter is a girl’s first lover, which is why you choose men who are incapable of loving you. Tell your partner and take the piss out of Astrid’s accent. Say, apparently, I choose men who are emotionally distant like my farter because my farter was my first lover. Expect your partner to laugh and ask if he’s a better farter than your farter, but watch him shake his head and walk away from you. Watch him become your farter.

Move into a poky, one-bedroom flat. Take the dog but tell your daughter she can live with her really cool father for a while. Stay in psychotherapy, but go off the antidepressants. Take the dog for long walks on smoggy streets and pass perfectly pleasant pedestrians. Call them stupid fuckers in your head. Start smoking again. Buy a cottage by the sea with your father’s blood money when your flat starts to close in on you. Pay a fortune for it even though the windows stick and the floors slope, but see the sea from your sloping upstairs bedroom. Smell it. Tell your daughter there’s a room for her and watch her come scuttling back. Hear that her father’s a narcissist. Hear that she missed you. Walk on the beach with your dog and daughter.

Stay in therapy and endure role plays where Astrid channels your father. Laugh hysterically at first because of her German accent, but begin to believe your therapist really is your son-of-a-bitch father and soon find it hard to believe she isn’t. Shout at your father. Tell him he ruined your life and hear him ask vot was he supposed to do, knowing vot he knew? Hear him say that every time he looked at you he remembered what he most wanted to forget. Hear him say he’s sorry and almost believe him.

Buy your daughter a car so she can drive to university in Dunedin and safely back to you. Miss her terribly, exquisitely. Welcome her home for Christmas with a boyfriend whose ears, lips, and tongue are mutilated with metal, but see him massage your daughter’s shoulders when she has a migraine, see his eyes follow her. Invite your ex-husband for Christmas dinner because he’s alone again and still your daughter’s father. Send him to bed when he gets messy and wake up in the night to find his rancid, rummy breath in your face, his hands groping your breasts. Kick him out.

Say goodbye to your daughter and her lovely, loving boyfriend. Cry. Dream you meet your real father – who looks like a Viking – in an outdoor café and see your other father in a car across the street, watching you. Tell your Viking father it was nice to meet him and run to your real father, to find him gone. Wake up crying. Walk on the beach in the starless black night. Swim in the inky sea and deposit a little more salt. Remember how you were afraid of the waves as a child. Lie on your back and shout, look at me, Dad. Look at me.

Stop dying your hair and watch it grey and frizz. Look like a witch. Laugh like one at your reflection in the mirror. Eat. Eat for all the years you starved yourself, then paint your porridge thighs and sausage stomach. Feel like a Botticelli. Feel beautiful, but see men look right through you when you pass them on the street. Wonder if you’ll ever have sex again. Feel the desire to paint as if it were sex. Paint a series of nude self-portraits with your witch hair and flab, but give yourself a Mona Lisa smile. Watch your studio fill with canvases. Wonder if you’ve gone mad and, if so, why you didn’t go mad sooner.


'The Art of Life' by Faith Oxenbridge placed second in the 2014 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.

Published in September 2014 no. 364
Faith Oxenbridge

Faith Oxenbridge

Faith Oxenbridge is a Creative Writing and Journalism teacher from Christchurch, New Zealand, who writes fiction in her spare time. She started writing when her children were older and she owned a bookshop, but realised she wasn’t cut out for retail; instead of smiling at her customers she found herself turning them into characters. She went back to University and completed a MFA in Creative Writing. Her stories have been published in the NZ Listener, the Six Pack 2, Best NZ Fiction 2006, Turbine, the Sunday Star Times and Christchurch Press. She was runner-up in the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Competition 2012, a finalist in the Victoria University Overland Competition in 2013, and won the (NZ) Sunday Star Times Competition in 2013 with her story, What you Have. She is currently compiling her stories into a collection for publication and is writing a novel. (photo courtesy of Fairfax)

Comments (9)

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    It took me a while to get into the writing style. But stick with it and you'll come to love it. Very good story, brilliant ending sentence.

    Saturday, 20 February 2016 13:14 posted by Bevan
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    Goosebump buffet or rather goosebump seven courses meal.

    Tuesday, 21 July 2015 11:46 posted by Maxwell Chong
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    Wonderful. I found the style grating at first and was tempted to stop, but am so glad I didn't. I grew to love it. The most memorable story I've read for quite a while. It will stay with me and I will read it again.

    Sunday, 05 July 2015 12:13 posted by Calypso
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    The style matches the content. Everything a verb, a doing, an action, in spite of life being out of control. Finally losing control, is where the inner command monologue ends, so the ending works perfectly. Impressed.

    Thursday, 30 April 2015 17:03 posted by Soren
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    This is just gorgeous. So true, so real. Every woman is in this story at some point. Thank you.

    Friday, 17 April 2015 19:15 posted by Naomi
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    Innovative and well-crafted, but overall it's a little too smug and showy -- even glib -- for my taste. The style grated after a while. It's not really as poignant as it pretends. Amid the sardonic humor, I feel I lost the person along the way -- or maybe never really got to know her.

    Friday, 27 February 2015 14:02 posted by Steven J. Lowery
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    This was one of the most beautiful, truthful, realistic stories ever. Different -but nice- style of writing.

    Saturday, 07 February 2015 11:26 posted by Keturah Cutting
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    best story i have ever read- and I have read enough for my eyes to collapse and die like melbourne cup favourite- should have won by country mile, a furlong, a couple of pixels.

    Wednesday, 05 November 2014 16:04 posted by Michael Heffernan
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    Such beautiful, poignant waste and wreckage and unfairness. An excellent story with a worthy ending.

    Monday, 01 September 2014 21:59 posted by Glen Hunting

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