Fiction by Rose Michael
Yarra Ranges, Melbourne, 1987

from the novel The Art Of Navigation

The year of the Slippery When Wet Tour, Di and Nat took to hanging out at Lizzie’s house and never leaving. The three of them said they were orphans, had only each other to rely on. ‘There’s only us,’ they swore, and promised to love each other forever – even if they killed each other first – and die together if everything ever got too much. Or, as Di pointed out was probably more likely, life turned out not to be enough. Though surely she was joking.

It was 1987, the year cock rock crossed into the mainstream, and in the Yarra Ranges one night in May our trio were belting out ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’. Lizzie might’ve said they sounded like choirgirls from a religious school that’d buried its virgins alive out there, but Nat secretly – sacrilegiously – thought chipmunks described them better. The rock anthem, sieved through their private girls’ school soprano, came out sounding too perfect, prissy: neither the hit single of the year (not that they knew it’d be that), nor ghost girls singing. But it was, for the moment, their song. They liked it because they’d discovered it, because it wasn’t whatever the rest of their classmates were tuning in to. Because it wasn’t U2.

Wo-ah, we’re halfway there!’ The lyrics echoed their own desperate fixation on the future.

And they were in love – sooo in love – with glam metal’s self-conscious pose. They had no idea grunge was waiting in the wings, no inkling of the gritty guitars and angst-filled lyrics already rising from the Seattle streets – the indie attitude that would define their generation. They didn’t know they were a generation, one that’d be labelled by a letter for the first time that year. As far as they were concerned they were alone and unique, probing their parents’ lies with X-ray eyes. Seeing, they thought, right through society’s façade: searching for answers, seeking identity, singing themselves into being as they mixed romantic lyrics into mashed-up messages. A cryptic kind of code.

Even if you could’ve warned them of the massacres that year would bring – named after the city streets where two twenty-something boys went on separate shooting sprees – they’d have acted unsurprised. Hoddle Street might make history by winter’s end, its clippings inspire the Queen Street copycat come summer, but back then there’d only been the Russell Street bombing a year before. And – they were teenagers, remember – the fact that a cop shop had been targeted made it a meaningless move in a grown-up game that didn’t concern them…no matter that the nutter had come from the nearby town of Kallista.

Foreknowledge of those shooting sprees might not have had the effect you would’ve expected; it’d take other unimaginable events to turn that year into a mercurial amalgam of wrong times and right places.

But while Nat and Lizzie, and Di too, may’ve been naïve, their cynicism could make them seem world-weary – almost wise. If you’d told them the Cold War would end before the decade was done, the Berlin Wall fall, they’d barely have cared. It wasn’t that they were apolitical, or not exactly; they just knew they were powerless. Seventeen and stuck in the sticks. Here. Then. In an outer-suburban upstairs bathroom, light filtered through a creepered window. In a not-so-modern mansion on the edge of Sherbrooke Forest, above a cellar jackhammered into a green hillside. A lonely walk from the end of the line.

There they were then, that night when three girls pushed something to breaking point – and someone broke. These self-styled misfits watched themselves being best friends in an amber-tinted mirror. Nat teasing Lizzie’s hair into a pink–gold mane as they sang their hearts out, riding the high of those days and – Nat’s skin constricted as she surfed a feeling she didn’t dare describe – a wave of preemptive nostalgia: cresting, crashing, with the conviction that their youth was almost over. And they’d done nothing with it except try to ditch it. Being away, and coming back, made some things clearer than any crystallised cliché: this golden scene was an unreal moment; these girls were no fixed triptych. Nothing was solid and no one was sure, certainly not unstable Nat.

We gotta sol-dier on, ready or not!’ Di’s alto barely made it. Was Nat the only one finding it forced? ‘You live for the fight when that’s all that you got!’ As though the girls were acting out how they thought they were supposed to be.

‘We could row out to the Bermuda Triangle and wait,’ Lizzie said abruptly, pulling her hair out of Nat’s hand. The image fitted Nat’s feeling that the three of them were floating: unhinged, adrift. The only set thing the pyramid of their friendship – or the solid line joining the other two, anyway; she wished she were more sure she was part of it. No one, she knew, had ever felt such sympathy, such synergy. It was everything: worth living for…worth dying without. That, and Bon Jovi!

© Rose Michael. This is an extract from the novel The Art Of Navigation (UWA Publishing, 2017). Poison (Look What The Cat Dragged In) and Aerosmith (Dude Looks Like A Lady) are other reference points in the early part of the novel, a book of speculative fiction set in 1987, 1587, and 2087.


Rose Michael is an editor, writer and academic, who lectures in writing and publishing at RMIT, Melbourne.