Portrait

Verity Firth, NSW election poster girl. By Lucy Lehmann.

Verity, Verity, I say unto you

She always arrives talking, laughing and with her arms full; this morning it’s with two long bread sticks, a bottle of champagne and a child sucking two fingers. Even when I’m the one to open the door, she’s already laughing and talking, as though the conversation started before I turned the lock. It did. It started years ago, when we were in high school together.

Her conversation was good even then, when we had nothing to talk about. She could pick out from her limited material details revealing and funny, often at her own expense, with a storyteller’s feel for drama. Her talkativeness sometimes got on my nerves. One night when a group of us – too young-looking to attempt to get into a pub – were sharing a piece of cake at a late-opener cafe, I made an excuse to ring my mother from a phone booth: urgent rescue required. Talk talk talk, I complained in the car on the way home, words endlessly coming out, oblivious to all around her, never pausing to let anything back in. But I was the oblivious one. My friend had the ability to transmit and receive simultaneously, amassing observations, contemplating even as she talked. A few years later, I was slightly surprised when she was voted school captain. She had shown no sign of competitiveness, hadn’t sucked up to anyone and scarcely even seemed to want it. It simply happened, an inevitability.

Now she has good material for her conversation: the world of secrets and facades that is NSW state politics.

In the garden with our old friends and lots of food, Verity’s subject is the head shot for her new campaign poster. “They said,” she puts on a solemn voice, “ ‘We did what we could.’ Like a surgeon talking about a car-crash victim.”

She wasn’t meant to read this comment; someone inadvertently CCed her into an email with a tail of exchanges left unedited. “ ‘We did what we could’  – what with the wrinkles and eye-bags and blotches and all the rest. Lucky I’m not vain.”

Female politicians can’t afford to be vain, but Verity never was. In high school most of us fussed and worried and vied over the question of being pretty. She could never take it seriously. Was she pretty? I can’t say; once you’ve seen someone’s beauty, relative terms are eclipsed. Then I had more chance to observe her: serene, down-spirited or bored, gazing out the bus window, concentrating on homework, watching Neighbours, or asleep. Her hair was longer, past her shoulderblades, in loose waves she disparagingly called “flerffles”.

She was blonde, in subtle greys and greens and white-gold rather than sunny yellow, and very fair-complexioned, too lively to be pale, her skin soft and downy with a few freckles fading from childhood. Her lips always seemed especially bright and rosy, maybe in contrast to her other muted colours, or maybe because the talking and smiling kept the blood circulating. Her features had already taken on distinct shapes, making her look older – she could have got into pubs – while we still had button noses, apple-cheeks. Her eyes were a rare colour, a bit brown, a bit green, but mainly tawny, like topaz, and full of light. That light-filled quality comes into eyes when there’s a mind looking and thinking and feeling right there behind them.

Catching her gaze all of a sudden is like barging into a quiet study, a scholar’s chamber. The question to ask would be, “What do you make of all this?”, but now we’re grown up, there’s never time.

Soon after the schoolfriends’ brunch, Verity’s poster starts popping up in my suburb, the seat she hopes to win. There’s one on a neighbour’s front fence. I hear, “We did the best we could”, as I pass it several times a day. None of what I see in her face is there. It’s hair and make-up, scrupulously unglamorous in the political style, and one big, bright smile, her 500th for the day but no trace of flagging about it. I want to deface it, scrawling something like, “This is a terrible photo! She doesn’t really look like this!” After a few days, a biro Hitler moustache appears, and that makes me angry, too. I want to tear down the poster and hide it in my backyard, away from the public eye.

On the bus, a group of women going to Tom Uren’s funeral discuss across the aisles the merits and faults of Julia Gillard, then another female Labor politician, then, of course, our candidate, Verity Firth. They hastily fall silent when Verity’s formidable aunt happens to get on the bus. I want to pull her out of this brutal popularity contest, give her some peace where she can be herself.

After a while, the poster doesn’t bother me anymore. In fact, I realise she looks exactly as she should. I don’t need to protect her. She can protect herself. She gives her ever-ready smile to the public, like the flash of a sword, a shining visor snapped into position, keeping what I love safe.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 28, 2015 as "Verity, Verity, I say unto you". Subscribe here.

Lucy Lehmann
is a novelist and songwriter living in Sydney.

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