I can’t imagine ever getting sick of the beach. It would be like getting sick of going on holidays: impossible.

Port Sorell feels like home as soon as we drive into town. Dad says it’s because he’s connected to the Country, because he was born down here after Nanna Winnie left her husband in Goondiwindi. He reaches out and touches Mum’s hand and says, ‘And it’s special because you were made here, Andrew.’ Even though he says my name, he looks at Mum, so I’m not sure who he’s talking to.

It’s a long way off the highway – it feels like we’ve driven for hours along a winding road that goes between paddocks full of bright-red poppies, green grass and hundreds of cows and sheep. Just when I think we’re never going to make it, we start to see more and more houses. They’re small and funny-looking, like they’re not really finished yet, and Dad says they’re mostly fibro shacks.

‘Not many people live here year-round,’ he says. ‘They come for holidays.’

Dad has always wanted to live here – he told me when we were packing up the Rocherlea house. He didn’t remember living here as a kid because Nan had had to move a lot when he was little. But before I was born, he and Mum had gone on a camping trip back there and Dad loved it. He loved riding his bike from Port Sorell to a place called Hawley Beach. He loved the small-town atmosphere and that summer-holiday feeling. He wanted to feel that way all year round. He’d never forgotten how much fun he’d had that summer, so that was why, when he’d seen the job in Devonport, near his dream town, advertised in the paper, he’d decided to apply for it. The change would be good for all of us, he said, and besides, it was technically his Country. He was born there and he was sure he belonged there, even if he had no idea who our actual mobs were.

We are going to be living in a caravan, which is even in the same place where Mum and Dad had been on that camping trip before I was born. Dad’s new boss owns the van and used to rent it out to his friends in the summer holidays. Because Dad was going to be getting paid more than what we got off his dole, before we left Launceston he bought me a bike and a fishing rod. They weren’t new ones – he got them out of the Trading Post – but they were new to me. As we drive through Port Sorell, all I can think about is going to the beach and using the fishing rod.‘

Smell that,’ Dad says, winding his window down and sticking his nose out the window.I wind my window down and put my head out. I take a big sniff but all I can smell is normal air smell.

‘What?’ I ask.

‘It smells like freshness and salt spray,’ he says. He glances around for a moment and grins at me. ‘It smells like a new beginning, kiddo.’ I have another sniff and wonder what a new beginning smells like.

‘Can we go to the beach?’ I ask.‘

No,’ says Mum. ‘We’ve got to unpack the car first.’

‘But after the car is unpacked?’

‘Then it will be dinnertime.’

I kick the back of her chair and she turns around and glares at me.

‘Andrew, enough! We’re living here now – you’ll see the beach so much you’ll be sick of it. Now, sit back in your seat, stop kicking me and be quiet.’

I can’t imagine ever getting sick of the beach. It would be like getting sick of going on holidays: impossible.

We pull up outside a little shop and Dad turns off the engine, but he leaves the radio going for Mum. ‘Just getting the keys,’ he says, and goes inside.

‘Can I go into the shop?’ I ask Mum. ‘I’m a bit thirsty.’

‘You can have a drink when we get to the van. And don’t ask for something to eat, either, because that can wait too.’

When Dad comes back, we drive into the caravan park and I’m finally allowed to take my seatbelt off. I stick my head out the window again and even though I can’t smell the ocean, I can hear it. It’s not like it is on TV, like the waves making a crashing noise as they break, but more like the whooshy air sound that you get when you put your ear up to a shell.

The park is huge and there are lots of vans but also lots of empty places. Dad explains that people come with their caravans in the holidays and then drive them away again. But other people, like Dad’s new boss, just have their vans there all the time. Some of the all-the-time vans have people in them all the time and others just sit there empty until the holidays.

Our van is pretty small. It’s just one room with bunk beds on one side, a little table and chairs and a sink in the middle and a bed for Mum and Dad in the back. They have a white door that folds up like a fan so they can have some privacy. There’s a huge black bag on the table that Dad says has a kind of tent in it. The tent will attach to the side of the van and become our lounge room. But we don’t have a proper armchair or couch because we sold all that stuff with the old house, so it won’t really be a lounge room.

I don’t mind the van at all, but I can see that Mum doesn’t like it. She wrinkles her nose up and sweeps her fingers over the top of the kitchen bench and the table. She says the van has a funny smell, like it’s been closed up for a long time. When I take a big sniff, I think it smells like the Vinnies shop in Launceston where we get most of our clothes. It’s not that bad, not really.

Once we’ve unpacked the car, Dad takes me around the back of the van and shows me where I can put the fishing rods in a special tube that’s on the outside of the van. He also gives me a chain so I can lock my bike to the van at night as well.‘

It’s probably not as likely to get stolen here as it was in Rocherlea,’ he says after he’s quizzed me on the combination – which is 170709 – five times, ‘but it’s better to be safe than sorry.’

After dinner I keep getting in the way while Mum is trying to make up my bed, so Dad takes me for a walk. I want to ride my new bike – it’s been so long since I’ve had one – but Dad says it’s too dark. We walk out onto the jetty, all the way out on the water where the wind is blowing so hard that it makes my ears whistle and bits of sand crunch in my teeth.

It’s cold, but I don’t want to go back inside.

‘I can smell it,’ I say, yelling so Dad can hear me over the wind.


‘My new beginning.’

Mum isn’t very happy in Port Sorell.

I thought at first that it was because we were living in the caravan. When we moved in, the van was always cold and had that funny Vinnies smell that she hated. But then Dad got a little heater and it warmed up. It didn’t take long after that for the van to stop smelling like dust and old clothes that had been worn by lots of people before and start smelling like our smells.

There is no toilet or bathroom in the van, so we have to traipse through the caravan park over to the toilet block. The block is all brown brick and concrete, and sometimes when I’m sitting on the dunny, wind blows through gaps in the bricks so it’s kinda like doing a poo outside. When we have a shower, we have to wear thongs so we don’t get germs in our toes. At night-time, tucked into the bottom bunk bed, I snuggle under the covers and fall asleep listening to the sound of my parents’ voices at the other end of the van. It feels like home to me, but from the way Mum’s voice keeps going all squeaky, I know that she still doesn’t like it here.

The low rumble of Dad’s voice follows, but I can only catch the odd word: ‘… Launceston.’

‘This is awful … hate … home … don’t know what to do with him.’ Dad shooshes her and they go back to whispering again.

I’ve missed a lot of school, nearly the whole term, but Dad says it’s okay. I’m clever – I’ll catch up. When I go back to school after Christmas, I’ll be in grade three. And Wesley Vale Primary is a little school, so there will be grade threes in my class too. That will be good because I can do easier maths.

Dad and I spend a lot of our time exploring Port Sorell on our bikes. When we first moved here, he showed me how to set up my fishing rod and cast out, and when I caught my first fish, he showed me how to clean and gut it. We took it home for tea and Mum cooked it on the barbeque in a pouch made from tinfoil.

Our favourite place to fish is a tidal pool that’s so deep that it’s never empty, even when the tide goes out. The fish that don’t get out as the tides begin to change are stuck until it comes up again. And that’s when Dad and I go fishing.

When it’s sunny, sometimes the tidal pool looks like a swimming pool and I want to get in for a dip. But Dad won’t let me. ‘We don’t know how deep it is,’ he said the first time I started wading in for a paddle. ‘And we don’t know if there are sharks or other nasties trapped in there. They’ll be angry about being stuck and hungry. If a nice, warm, nearly nine-year-old boy gets in, they might think you’re their dinner.’

So that’s why we don’t swim in the tidal pool, just fish.

‘Do you like it here?’ Dad asks as I cast my rod out. The sinker plops into the water, almost in the very middle of the pool. I’m real, real good at casting now.

‘I love it here. I love fishing.’‘

That’s good, that’s real good.’ He adjusts his line and the reel makes a clicking sound that I love. Sometimes I wind my line just to hear that noise. ‘What about school? Do you miss it?’

‘Not the yelling teachers. But I miss my friends.’

‘We were thinking, your mum and I, that it might be time to see about sending you to school here. I know we were going to wait until after Christmas, but I don’t want you to miss out on making friends and all that good stuff. You know you’ll have to catch a bus to Wesley Vale Primary? Mum will drive you some days, but she’s not going to be able to do it every day.’

‘I used to walk by myself all the time.’‘I know you did. But things are different here. We – your mum and I – we just want to make sure that —’My line jerks and suddenly bends towards the water. I screech – it always surprises me when a fish hits it – and jerk the line back. The rod bends even more and I think the fish might snap it or, worse, drag me into the ocean where I’ll drown.

‘Dad! It’s going to break my rod!’ I feel tears prickling at my eyes.He puts his own rod down and comes over to stand behind me. I lean back and feel a bit safer when he puts his big arms around me and adds his hands to the line with mine.

‘Don’t panic. The rod’s a good one – it’ll bring him in. Now wind it, just a little bit …’I wind just a tiny bit, and the clicking doesn’t sound quite so good to my ears. Dad shows me how to give the fish a bit more line, then wind it slowly, and then let it out again. He says that we have to play with it, make it tired, so that by the time it gets to the surface of the water, it doesn’t struggle as much.

The fish is huge and it takes a long time for us to reel it in. I have to give Dad a few goes by himself because my arms get tired, but he gives the rod back to me just as the silvery body of the fish hits the surface of the water. Dad cheers and my heart hammers in my chest as I reel the fish the rest of the way in. I’m so excited about my catch that instead of gutting it there at the beach like we usually do, he lets me carry it back to the caravan, pausing every so often to pat me on the back. When we get home, Mum takes the camera out and we all pose for pictures. I smile a lot, partly because I’m proud that I’ve caught a fish big enough for all three of us to eat for dinner, but also partly because Mum is smiling. Maybe I’m wrong, I think, and Mum is happy here. I think about movies and pancakes and Mum dancing to old Michael Jackson songs, and I feel like things might be good from now on.

We eat the fish for dinner with Mum’s special homemade potato salad, and after she tucks me into bed that night, I don’t hear any whispered arguing.

This excerpt is from the novel Burn, which can be found here.


TIME IMMEMORIAL, two sides to every coin. Two tellers brush a tale. Broken pieces. A mirage. Here’s mine. Genesis. 

I’m Tex. 

I don’t say much, just enough. But this is not my story.

TIME IMMEMORIAL, two sides to every coin. Two tellers brush a tale. Broken pieces. A mirage. Here’s mine. Genesis. 

I’m Tex. 

I don’t say much, just enough. But this is not my story. 

YOU KNOW bullshit when you hear it, like for sure, and Wazza is shitting it in bricks. 


The program lead’s unemotive face confirms, yes, he’s serious. 

You’re standing in Warren’s deluxe hole-up. It’s a scene from Deep Space Nine. A shimmer overhead screen shifts cuboids, tetrahedrons, icosahedrons and hexagonal prisms in luminescent colours – that’s the first thing that hits your vision as you enter. The man is a narcissist. The desk is a 3D model, L-shaped in silver and dark robotic hues, and on it is what resembles a joystick alongside a control panel. 

The team outside is in open-space partitions, el cheapo desks quarter-priced in bulk, hand-me-down cathode-ray screens that seem to be working – because yours does, at least. But you don’t know what half the rest of the staff members are doing nine-to-five. A lot of them are clock-watchers, but not you. 

You know they’re listening in to your tete-a-tete with the boss. Wazza doesn’t summon one to his office for bubbles or lamingtons, or to crack tinnies together in an imitation of mateship. And it’s not like the digs are soundproofed, but so what? 

Wazza is wearing his executive mask, the one with solid barriers. ‘A pitiful economy,’ he says. ‘The pandemic.’ Sweeps his hands, palms up, as though he tried, really did. But COVID. ‘Sorry, Ch’anzu.’ 

Beyond him, out the window, Southbank remains aloof, blue-green frosted glass on sleek towers vying for height, the best of them skyscraping today’s dreary cloud. 

You worm a hand through your hair – it’s not as sleek as how white people do it, the way you see it in movies: Brad Pitt licking his lower lip with that beautiful tongue, slick hand clean sweeping a yellow dangle to behave, even knowing that it won’t. 

Your hair is long enough to make a ponytail, damn right. But wound so stubbornly on itself, it springs uncoiled on stretch, spirals back on release. The kind of coil that’d puff a black mamba to hissing envy before it slinks away in disdain at its own self. Yet you insist to wrangle fingers in the brush, tougher curls of new growth pushing against your touch. Finally, you grip a fistful of hair in subconscious self-flagellation. ‘I don’t understand, Warren. First you tell me you’re slashing my contracting rate by forty per cent. With the same breath, you say no contract renewal in three months – now all you can add is the pandemic?’ 

He strokes the fat end of an expensive tie, fine-woven with birds and gravestones embossed on it. ‘Huge deficits right now. We’re in a very tight spot.’ 

There’s a lot you can show him about very tight spots, and he won’t like it. 

He looks a little worried by the brutality with your hair, as though you’re awakening a black rage that will assault his hopefully guilt-ridden self. ‘The estimate of earning was way overblown?’ As if posing the statement as a question makes the saying of it better, or the hearing of it easier. 

‘Really?’ you say. 

He shrugs. ‘No temps, no contractors. We’re in so thick, we can only do permanent staff.’ 

‘Make me a permie.’ 

He weighs his next words with such trim precision, you almost anticipate the Judas kiss before it touches you. ‘I want to, but it’s not as easy as that. You can’t make a chicken salad out of turkey feathers. Perhaps when the market picks up —’ 

‘That’s got mean to it – just nasty. Listen to your shit, are you actually saying it aloud?’ Your contempt comes out bigger than you intend. You can kick, can’t you? Most stupid fucks don’t get too much leeway with you. Still, some like this fockwit of a boss do.  

‘Sub out, will you?’ he says weakly. ‘I know you feel —’ 

‘You don’t know shit about me, let alone how I feel.’ You sense the intensity of eyes across the floor. A wry smile puckers your lips. You shake your head. ‘I’ve spiked progress for Multicorp – a long, hard slog. I’ve stood by as you fucked up. Wazza, I fixed your shit on that turbo-future program, made you a good headline.’ 

‘Don’t you think I know it?’ He doesn’t sound that convinced. 

‘Nights. Weekends, okay? I’ve done loads. More than enough for this shitshow. No one around here knows what they’re fucking doing. Cunts, most of them.’ You sweep a palm at the team outside the room to make a point. ‘See? Half-arsing their jobs. Do you know what the fuck they’re doing?’ 

‘Language, Ch’anzu.’ 

‘My marriage is on the line. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one person. Would you mind language if your marriage was on the line? Boss, just do your job and appreciate the crap I’ve been putting up with. Easy ask, innit? Remember what you get out of me: whopper sales smack on target. And I never once asked for a raise.’ 

‘Yes. Yes.’ As he repeats himself, you know that he’s searching for words, and he appears to find them. ‘You steered us to good profits – we appreciate that. A lot has changed now. It’s a new world we’re staring at. This contract thing is not a measure of your value —’ 

‘My invaluability? Excellent output? Your words, Warren. What happened to that?’ 

‘You’re shouting – you want a conference room?’ 

‘I’m good.’ 

‘Honest – the boardroom’s free. No one uses it.’ 

‘You can turn it into my office. I said I’m good.’ 

‘Ch’anzu, I don’t like it when you’re being difficult like this. Look here now. We need to carefully assess what’s achievable —’ 

‘You didn’t assess too much to make Ritcho a permie. Or Gus. I’m sensing hostility to black people.’ 

‘What? No! I don’t see colour.’ 

‘Aii, pampula. That’s even worse. Boss, see colour.’ 

He reddens. ‘What is it with you folks? Jesus Christ.’ 

‘He, she, they – no one in the Bible has anything to do with your irascible work practices towards us people.’ 

‘People …! It’s just you!’ 

‘See? I knew it. Pampula.’ 

‘What does that word even mean?’ 

‘Who cares what it means? Diversity – you know? It’s my way of saying.’ 

‘No one has ever accused me of being a racist!’ 

‘Yeah, it don’t just happen in South Carolina. I tell you, if you’re black and advancing, you bob at your best, ’cos that’s all you can do – you find out pretty quick how the system’s fucked. People wrong-footing you, too easy, every which way all the time. Mate, that’s bleak. Be not white for a minute, and see. You get a heap of shoulder, nearly get your eyes taken off. Then they shut you down quick like a lynch mob. It’s outta control. Isn’t that you now – shutting me down?’ 


The universe, as if on cue, saves him. Two bleeps, a crackle, and an alarm. A speaker coughs from along the wall behind the screen’s radiance. A voice blasts from the ceiling. 

Fire alarm testing. 


One second, three seconds, five. 


‘You still need me for the conversion software,’ you say. ‘Fine-tuning the new system. None of your permies shell scripts as well as I do.’ 


One, three, five. 

‘And I’m a first aider,’ you say. 

‘Yes, that.’ He considers this point, as if the first aiding gives more weight to your cause than the scripting. ‘Listen, Ch’anzu, I have a proposition for you.’ Wazza, glowing in his pitch. Pause. The alarm blazes off again. ‘Oh, blast that thing.’ 

Then the speaker crackles. 

The fire alarm testing is over. 


The fire alarm testing is now over. 

Wazza spreads his palms: voila, here it comes. ‘We’re training in-house.’ 

You take a beat, let his words sink in. ‘You’re good,’ you say, almost in adulation at what Aunt Maé would call a lack of soni – shame. How some folk just don’t have it. Soni. She wouldn’t gloat about it, rub it in, but she’d say, You never listen, to which you’d answer, That’s right, I have an ear worm. But I have soni. 

‘Seriously, Ch’anzu. You’re a legend —’ 

‘One you’re firing.’ 

You,’ Wazza’s finger pointing at your face, ‘could be in charge.’ 

It sits you down. You hope the look you’re giving is a big Fuck Off. ‘Let’s get this square: I train my replacement?’ 

He kinda nods, the prick. 

‘And who did you have in mind?’ 


‘Not Ritcho?’ 


‘Right. I’m pretty pumped about it.’ 

‘Give the kid a break. He’s a good lad.’ 

‘Yeah. Private school kid too. And his name is all over this nonsense. I’m a bit slow – explain it to me again.’ 

‘It’s an offer. Join the party. Just say yes.’ 

‘For three months. Got it, compelling proposition. How about I don’t take it?’ 

‘Not so definitively. Refusal won’t bring the house down.’ 


‘Chew on it, mate.’ He’s actually begging you to consider the measly offer. 

You leap to your feet, glower at him. ‘A few things I could chomp on right now, and you won’t be liking it.’ 

The look on his face suggests he believes you’re a cannibal about to go at it. Chomp him alive. 

‘I’m from the jungle, I’ve got good strong hands,’ you say, for the fun of it. ‘Teeth firmed on sugarcane too – they bite hard.’ 

Fear twitches his face … 

You don’t care. You’re leaving, hand on the door. ‘I’m a skedaddle.’ 

‘If you walk out now, Ch’anzu —’ 

‘Oh, poke it.’ 

YOU’D LOOKED close enough but had missed the strutting clouds – popping, shifting, beat, beat. Weaving, bouncing, spinning in darkness. Beatbeatbeat. Even as clouds dived, and your ears rang – you didn’t notice them until you fell with them. 

This is what you’re thinking as you storm out of Wazza’s office to your desk. 

Five years at Multicorp, all fog. 

The mood on the floor as you head back is sweet poison. The ones who generally smile at you, like Gus, are the worst. You grab a used cardboard box by the copier, stride purposefully towards your workstation in the corner. It’s no window view like Wazza’s. You plonk the box on top of your keyboard. 

‘Sorry, chum.’ Evasive eyes from the other end of your shared desk. 

Ritcho’s a bit okay. But you can see he doesn’t want to get involved. Still, you see his mind, how he thinks he should say something. 

You might have been friends, but something about him … Nothing to do with the fact that he’s too soft, too skinny, too flappy for your liking. He reminds you of a lost scarecrow. There’s a weakness about him that gives you distance. 

Serengotti can be found here.

Naked Ambition

The package that emerged from the back of the delivery van was much larger and heavier than Gregory Buchanan was expecting.

The package that emerged from the back of the delivery van was much larger and heavier than Gregory Buchanan was expecting. Well, he knew it was going to be big — this wasn’t the first time he’d seen it — but he didn’t remember it being this big. It was awkward manoeuvring it into the house, with the help of the van driver. Later, of course, its size would prove to be the least awkward thing about it. He thanked the delivery chap and leaned the great object against the wall of the dining room. It was wrapped in protective layers of opaque plastic, which Gregory removed, strip by strip, until the object was revealed. He stepped back from it and worried that his initial response was trepidation. This was quickly suppressed in favour of celebration. Yes, he thought, it’s beautiful, and to reassure himself that this was true, he said it out loud. 

‘It’s beautiful.’ 

When Phoebe saw it, she’d be bowled over. Gregory was confident that she wouldn’t just like it; she’d admire it. 


When Phoebe first met Gregory, it wasn’t love at first sight. An accumulation of sightings led finally to marriage. Phoebe couldn’t say for certain that this slow accretion had also led to love. She wasn’t sure what love was, or what it might feel like. She had always assumed that one of its hallmarks was constancy, and there was nothing constant about her feelings for Gregory. He was attractive. She liked touching him, and liked being touched by him. There were aspects of Gregory, however, that even after eight years of marriage she found unappealing. 

One of Gregory’s idiosyncrasies — the one that really got up her nose — was his belief that Phoebe’s mother liked him, and that she was a perfectly reasonable woman, if a bit unmoveable on questions of religion. Phoebe’s mother, Joyce, was not a reasonable person and she loathed Gregory. His inability to see this made Phoebe wonder sometimes if he wasn’t a little bit stupid. It wasn’t stupidity, though. She’d come to realise over time what it was. It was vanity. Gregory was constitutionally incapable of grasping the idea that anyone could dislike him. His failure to notice his mother-in-law’s disdain was astonishing to Phoebe. She’d grown up in its chilly atmosphere. She’d known from an early age that Joyce’s love of Jesus was so exhausting that only unpalatable scraps of love were available for her, and, she presumed, her father. He’d died when she was just ten years old, and she had no real sense of him. When she thought about him, she wondered if he’d accepted the cancer that killed him as a medical ticket-of-leave. He went swiftly and didn’t put up a fight. 

Her mother’s ministry, as Joyce liked to call it, swept around and over Phoebe, but it was a miasma, not a flood, and it failed to sweep her away. She grew up, therefore, with daily reminders that she was not only a disappointment, but proof that the devil was abroad in the world. Joyce came to accept Phoebe’s early-onset atheism as a cross that tested her and secured her own faith. When faced with Phoebe’s defiance, she learned to meet it with a dead bat. When truly exasperated, she would say, ‘You have been sent to test my endurance, but if He can lead me to it, He can lead me through it.’ And so Phoebe’s difficult teenage years weren’t as explosive as they might otherwise have been. Mother and daughter assumed a sort of détente. They were mostly civil to each other. Phoebe moved out of home as soon as she turned eighteen, and Joyce even helped her along with a large gift of money. 

‘Your father and I put this aside for your eighteenth birthday.’ 

Phoebe had been unexpectedly touched by this, and she’d hugged her mother. Joyce had been so surprised by this sudden expression of affection that she’d become rigid. Phoebe later recalled that it was like wrapping her arms round a telephone pole, and it quickly became the subject of an anecdote she called the ‘hugging incident’. 

In the course of their courtship, Phoebe and Gregory had decided that, on balance, they were sufficiently compatible to risk marriage. The decision to marry puzzled many of their friends, but what these friends didn’t know was that Gregory and Phoebe shared a secret conservative bent. It wasn’t conservative enough to frighten the horses, but it was definitely there. They lived together for two years before they got married, so it wasn’t that kind of conservatism. Indeed, it was the decision to live together in a de facto relationship that permanently alienated Joyce from Gregory. Two years of obliging her daughter to live as the Whore of Babylon would require a lifetime of hard penance, and Gregory showed no inclination towards contrition. He was among the damned. Well Phoebe was among the damned too, of course, but Joyce held onto an unexpressed hope that her own fierce faith would go some way towards softening the Lord’s treatment of Phoebe on Judgement Day. 

Phoebe had a talent for PR and she exercised this talent in an unofficial capacity by overseeing Gregory’s move from an Arts degree into the more practical, if drab, world of local politics and then into state politics, where Gregory’s election took even him by surprise. She hadn’t exactly supervised his campaign, but she’d double-checked all of his speeches and managed his wardrobe and haircut. He’d wanted to grow a moustache for Movember, and Phoebe reminded him that he’d grown a moustache when they’d first got married and that they’d agreed that he looked like a sex offender and that they’d never revisit the experiment or speak of it again. This became known as the ‘moustache incident’. 

Gregory worked hard in his first two years in parliament, although he was conscious of the fact that he was too young to be taken seriously. His party was also in opposition, so his profile was low. Nevertheless, with Phoebe at his side, they worked for his electorate assiduously, turning up at every frightful community event to which they were invited. They were an attractive couple, and Phoebe taught Gregory how to lean towards the person who was speaking to him, hold his or her eyes, and create an effective illusion of engaged listening. 

‘If you simply repeat something they say, they think they’ve won you over.’ 

Gregory got so used to doing this that he occasionally fell into doing it at home. Whenever this happened, Phoebe would leave off what she’d been saying, walk into the kitchen and return with a jug of water, which she would empty into Gregory’s lap. He was a slow learner, so the lesson didn’t take until the third dousing, even though Phoebe had said, ‘Every time you do that to me, the water will get hotter.’ 

An early election was called during Gregory’s third year in parliament, the fixed term of four years having been altered with bipartisan support. Both major parties preferred to re-arm themselves with the weapon of an expedient and sudden election. And not only was Gregory returned to office, though the margin was tight, but he found himself in government, his party having snatched the prize after preferences. He was now seen as someone to watch. He won his seat in the subsequent election too, although with an even tighter margin. Once the business of government was underway, people tended to forget about margins, at least until they were reminded of it at the next election. 

So, in the eighth year of their marriage, and in another election year, Gregory had been promoted to the position of minister for transport, which was something of a poisoned chalice. People blamed you for traffic. Still, it was generally agreed that he was doing a good job. And despite the demands of the job, Phoebe and Gregory’s partnership was solid. 

The first real test of their marriage arose out of the ‘portrait incident’. 

On the morning the object arrived, they stood in front of where Gregory had hung it on the dining-room wall. He had in mind that this would be its temporary home. Ultimately, it would hang in the living room. Just at the moment the hook in the dining room was the only one able to accommodate its size and weight. Phoebe stared up at it and for far too long failed to say anything. 

Eventually, she said, ‘You’re a politician, a public figure. What on earth were you thinking?’ 

Gregory had been expecting enthusiasm, and he was, frankly, a little miffed. 

‘I was thinking that I’d like an honest portrait of myself. What I didn’t want was a flattering, obsequious, bland job.’ 

‘Well full marks for honesty, darling, only I don’t think you mentioned that you were commissioning a nude portrait.’ 

‘I wanted that to be a surprise.’ 

‘We’ve been married for eight years. The element of surprise is somewhat muted.’ 

Gregory stood back from the painting and ran his eyes over it, from top to bottom. Phoebe stepped back to stand beside him. 

She said, ‘It’s much larger than I expected. The scale I mean. Obviously.’ 

‘Portraits have a way of making the familiar unfamiliar, don’t you think? She’s a great admirer of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Bronzino. It’s sort of an homage to Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man. Sophie talked a lot about Bronzino during our sessions.’ 

Phoebe turned to Gregory and found him lost in admiration of the painting. She stepped in front of him and stared into his face. He was bewildered by this sudden severing of his connection with the portrait. 

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘What did you just say?’ 

‘Bronzino. Sophie admires Bronzino.’ 

‘I see. And which of those two names do you think I might be interested in knowing about?’ 

‘Have you heard of Bronzino?’ 

Phoebe remained calm. She turned, walked to the painting, leaned down to examine the bottom, left corner, and read, ‘Sophie White.’ She smiled at Gregory. ‘Sophie White. I’ve heard the name, but not from you. You didn’t actually mention that you were being painted by a woman.’ 

‘I’m sure I must have mentioned it.’ 

‘No, darling, you didn’t. So when you went off to her studio, that’s how each sitting went, with you, stark naked and standing like that.’ 

Gregory skirted the issue. 

‘It mimics the Bronzino pose. Sophie White is an artist, Phoebe. That’s like being a doctor. It’s what she does, all day, every day. She doesn’t see bodies the way civilians do.’ 


‘Sophie sees non-artists as civilians. She sees a lot of other artists as civilians too. She has high standards.’ 

‘Oh, well, that’s all right then.’ 

Gregory, perhaps as proof that his astuteness was unpredictable — or more correctly, unreliable in its application — could not understand his wife’s tepid response. 

‘You haven’t actually said what you think about it,’ he said. 

With bracing bluntness, Phoebe said, ‘I think it’s ghastly and the additional information you’ve reluctantly supplied doesn’t help my appreciation.’ 

Naked Ambition can be found here.