Bring A Plate
Herevale was a satellite town that had become a dormitory suburb in the metropolitan hinterland. In living memory an indoor shopping centre had been constructed in former swampland. It sported one department store, one supermarket, one small cinema, and dozens of specialty shops. Many locals welcomed its convenience, but others blamed it for the demise of older local stores.
Isolated shops in back streets had been replaced by the anonymous offices of small-time tax agents who saved money on the deflated rents. The main street of town had ceased to be a shopping destination but during the day it was busy with visitors to its civic services, like the public library, and during the night diners visited its several popular restaurants. The truth, then, was more complex than the detractors would have you think, but minimalist architecture and expansive car parks never did give a good impression.
Helina drove into the Herevale Shopping Plaza car park on a surprisingly sunny July morning, with a look of disdain on her face. She was attending an extended family gathering in the area and was expected to “bring a plate”. However, she had left too little time in her morning to prepare a suitable contribution in her own studio apartment back in the City. As a result she had to endure the shopping centre that, to her, was sterile and soulless. Never mind that Helina had never accepted the existence of souls, the indoor shopping mall was a place to be derided for its dedication to conspicuous consumption.
Helina was a journalist and satirist who celebrated cosmopolitan culture and living a more authentic life. On many issues she was very insightful and provided a refreshing alternative to the credulous mass media. On some matters however she was blinkered. Helina rushed into the supermarket, mentally dismissing everyone she passed as a slave to consumerism and pop culture, and almost bumped into a gangly, mature-aged man with a manila folder clasped in his hand.
Adriano was a local political activist and right now he was walking towards centre management with a full petition. He’d been collecting signatures calling on the owners to install recycling bins throughout the centre, rather than just along the food concourse. Adriano had some success in local matters, having agitated for library opening hours on Sundays. On another occasion he had been partly successful, hoping to protect an old Masonic hall from demolition, and pushing for its retention as a neighbourhood house. In that instance the best he’d managed was to have the front façade heritage listed, resulting in a set of studio apartments hiding behind caryatid columns and ornate masonry.
Despite his avocation, Adriano was shy and anxious and, mentally rehearsing what he would say to the office receptionist, had almost bumped into Helina. If only she knew Adriano, Helina would consider him an ally, but presently he was simply someone slowing her course through the garish distractions and piped music of the shopping centre.
Having finally purchased some food, Helina needed a coffee to compensate for having had to see all the junk that a family ahead of her at the checkout had been buying. She found a cafe, ordered a flat white, and sat down. It was then that she noticed a choir, singing close by. Apparently management had decided to celebrate 'Christmas In July' to boost winter sales, and this had included hiring members of a university choir to sing carols. To Helina this was tiresome religious indoctrination, and she rolled her eyes while inhaling the fumes of her calming beverage.
Ironically, Kasey and Heng of the carolling group were thinking very much the same thing at that moment. Theirs was a secular choir, dedicated to beautiful music that, in past times, had been sponsored by religious authority and therefore had ecclesiastical content. They simply loved singing in close harmony. They were also there to make some desperately needed money for their community group and, in all honestly, to spend more time in each other’s company. Some of their peers had placed bets on how long it would take for the pair to communicate their mutual attraction. Kasey and Heng were seeing an Australian-made speculative fiction film at the cinema, after their gig, so maybe bets would be settled soon. On the other hand, one of them was an international student, so maybe they would shy away from a complex situation. If Helina knew of this heady life experience unfolding, she would tell them to give it a go, but she could not see past their black-and-white uniform to the cluster of human stories beyond.
Helina then remembered the scratch on her sunglasses from her morning drive and, deciding to get replacements, walked to the department store. Her search for glasses took her past the small book department, and a young single mother, Aroha, with her son Tama. Aroha knew that Tama was wild about pirates and wanted to encourage both his reading and an appreciation of history. Luckily, there was a plethora of illustrated non-fiction aimed at children, which drew the reader in with features like 3D glasses, and then subversively fed them facts. Pirates Of The Seven Seas In 3D presented case studies on historical pirates from all over the world. Aroha suppressed a small pang of envy, wishing that she’d had such books as a child, but even if they had existed, such things had only become affordable more recently. She overcame this feeling quickly, decided to buy the book, and focused on the fun they’d have reading it together.
If she had known of this story Helina might have been torn between lamenting the gimmickry of it all, and applauding the focus on education. However, she now had enacted her purchase and was making a hasty escape from this shrine to the almighty dollar. With her new shades on, further distorting her perceptions, Helina got back into her car and drove onto her destination, tut-tutting the ridiculous posters declaring the slogan of ‘Food – Fashion – Fun’ that adorned every blank space. Fun my arse!
At the family gathering Helina entertained relatives with various anecdotes and truisms, many of them derived from op-eds she had written. One of her anecdotes related to travel and her assertion that it was important to get off the well-worn tourist routes and spend time with the locals. She had even done this in areas that were recovering from conflict or disaster. It was only if you did this that you discovered the distinct lives of the locals and the way in which culture develops in the most unusual settings. Life finds a way, she was fond of saying. Helina was so occupied with her conversation that she overlooked how much she enjoyed munching on the dolmades and stuffed olives she had bought, even if they had come from the Herevale Shopping Plaza.
Labels: Creative Writing