‘That doesn’t sound like a school trivia night,’ said Mrs Patty Ponder to Marie Antoinette. ‘That sounds like a riot.’
The cat didn’t respond. She was dozing on the couch, and found school trivia nights to be trivial.
‘Not interested, eh? Let them eat cake! Is that what you’re thinking? They do eat a lot of cake, don’t they? All those cake stalls. Goodness me. Although I don’t think any of the mothers ever actually eat them. They’re all so sleek and skinny, aren’t they? Like you.’
Marie Antoinette sneered at the compliment. The ‘let them eat cake’ thing had grown old a long time ago, and she’d recently heard one of Mrs Ponder’s grandchildren say it was meant to be ‘let them eat brioche’ and also that Marie Antoinette never said it in the first place.
Mrs Ponder picked up her television remote and turned down the volume on Dancing with the Stars. She’d turned it up loud earlier because of the sound of the heavy rain but the downpour had eased now.
She could hear people shouting. Angry hollers crashed through the quiet, cold night air. It was somehow hurtful for Mrs Ponder to hear, as if all that rage was directed at her. (Mrs Ponder had grown up with an angry mother.)
‘Goodness me. Do you think they’re arguing over the capital of Guatemala? Do you know the capital of Guatemala? No? I don’t either. We should google it. Don’t sneer at me.’
Marie Antoinette sniffed.
‘Let’s go see what’s going on,’ said Mrs Ponder briskly. She was feeling nervous and therefore behaving briskly in front of the cat, the same way she’d once done with her children when her husband was away and there were strange noises in the night.
Mrs Ponder heaved herself up with the help of her walker. Marie Antoinette slid her slippery body comfortingly in between Mrs Ponder’s legs (she wasn’t falling for the brisk act) as her owner pushed the walker down the hallway to the back of the house.
Her sewing room looked straight out on to the schoolyard of Pirriwee Public.
‘Mum, are you mad? You can’t live this close to a primary school,’ her daughter had said, when Mrs Ponder was first looking at buying the house.
But she loved to hear the crazy babble of children’s voices at intervals throughout the day, and she no longer drove, so she couldn’t care less that the street was jammed with those giant, truck-like cars they all drove these days, with women in big sunglasses leaning across their steering wheels to call out terribly urgent information about Harriette’s ballet and Charlie’s speech therapy.
Mothers took their mothering so seriously now. Their frantic little faces. Their busy little bottoms strutting into the school in their tight gym gear. Ponytails swinging. Eyes fixed on the mobile phones held in the palms of their hands like compasses. It made Mrs Ponder laugh. Fondly, though.
Her three daughters, although older, were exactly the same. And they were all so pretty.
‘How are you this morning?’ she always called out, if she was on the front porch with a cup of tea, or watering the front garden as the mothers went by.
‘Busy, Mrs Ponder! Frantic!’ they always called back, trotting along, yanking their children’s arms. They were pleasant and friendly and just a touch condescending because they couldn’t help it. She was so old! They were so busy!
The fathers, and there were more and more of them doing the school run these days, were different. They rarely hurried, strolling past with a measured casualness. No big deal. All under control. That was the message. Mrs Ponder chuckled fondly at them too.
But now it seemed the Pirriwee Public parents were misbehaving. She got to the window and pushed aside the lace curtain. The school had recently paid for a window guard after a cricket ball had smashed the glass and nearly knocked out Marie Antoinette. (A group of Year 3 boys had given her a hand-painted apology card which she kept on her fridge.)
There was a two-storey sandstone building on the other side of the playground with an event room on the second level, and a big balcony with ocean views. Mrs Ponder had been there for a few functions: a talk by a local historian, a lunch hosted by the Friends of the Library. It was quite a beautiful room. Sometimes ex-students had their wedding receptions there. That’s where they’d be having the school trivia night. They were raising funds for smart boards, whatever they were. Mrs Ponder had been invited as a matter of course. Her proximity to the school gave her a funny sort of honorary status, even though she’d never had a child or grandchild attend. She’d said no thank you to the invitation. She thought school events without the children in attendance were pointless.
The children had their weekly school assembly in the same room. Each Friday morning Mrs Ponder set herself up in the sewing room with a cup of English Breakfast and a ginger-nut biscuit. The sound of the children singing floating down from the second floor of the building always made her weep. She didn’t believe in God except when she heard children singing.
There was no singing now.
Mrs Ponder could hear a lot of bad language. She wasn’t a prude about bad language, her eldest daughter swore like a trooper, but it was upsetting and disconcerting to hear someone maniacally screaming that particular four letter word in a place that was normally filled with childish laughter and shouts.
‘Are you all drunk?’ she said.
Her rain-splattered window was at eye-level with the entrance doors to the building and suddenly people began to spill out. Security lights illuminated the paved area around the school’s entrance like a stage set for a play. Clouds of mist added to the effect.
It was a strange sight.
The parents at Pirriwee Public had a baffling fondness for fancy-dress parties. It wasn’t enough that they should have an ordinary trivia night. She knew from the invitation that some bright spark had decided to make it an ‘Audrey and Elvis’ Trivia Night, which meant that the women all had to dress up as Audrey Hepburn and the men had to dress up as Elvis Presley. (That was another reason why Mrs Ponder had turned down the invitation. She’d always abhorred fancy dress.) It seemed that the most popular rendition of Audrey Hepburn was the Breakfast at Tiffany’s look. All the women were wearing long black dresses, white gloves and pearl chokers. Meanwhile, the men had mostly chosen to pay tribute to the Elvis of the latter years. They were all wearing shiny white jumpsuits, glittery gemstones and plunging necklines. The women looked lovely. The poor men looked perfectly ridiculous.
As Mrs Ponder watched, one Elvis punched another across the jaw. He staggered back, into an Audrey. Two Elvises grabbed him from behind and pulled him away. An Audrey buried her face in her hands and turned aside, as though she couldn’t bear to watch. Someone shouted, ‘Stop this!’
Indeed. What would your beautiful children think?
‘Should I call the police?’ wondered Mrs Ponder out loud, but then she heard the wail of a siren in the distance, at the same time as a woman on the balcony began to scream and scream.
Gabrielle: It wasn’t like it was just the mothers, you know. It wouldn’t have happened without the dads. I guess it started with the mothers. We were the main players, so to speak. The mums. I can’t stand the word mum. It’s a frumpy word. Mom is better. With an ‘o’. It sounds skinnier. We should change to the American spelling. I have body image issues, by the way. Who doesn’t, right?
Bonnie: It was all just a terrible misunderstanding. People’s feelings got hurt and then everything just spiralled out of control. The way it does. All conflict can be traced back to someone’s feelings getting hurt, don’t you think? Divorce. World wars. Legal action. Well, maybe not every legal action. Can I offer you a herbal tea?
Stu: I’ll tell you exactly why it happened. Women don’t let things go. Not saying the blokes don’t share part of the blame. But if the girls hadn’t got their knickers in a knot, and that might sound sexist but it’s not, it’s just a fact of life, ask any man, not some new age, artsy-fartsy, I-wear-moisturiser type, I mean a real man, ask a real man, then he’ll tell you that women are like the Olympic athletes of grudges. You should see my wife in action. And she’s not even the worst of them.
Miss Barnes: Helicopter parents. Before I started at Pirriwee Public, I thought it was an exaggeration, this thing about parents being overly involved with their kids. I mean, my mum and dad loved me, they were like interested in me, when I was growing up in the nineties, but they weren’t like obsessed with me.
Mrs Lipmann: It’s a tragedy, and deeply regrettable, and we’re all trying to move forward. I have no further comment.
Carol: I blame the Erotic Book Club. But that’s just me.
Jonathan: There was nothing erotic about the Erotic Book Club, I’ll tell you that for free.
Jackie: You know what? I see this as a feminist issue.
Harper: Who said it was a feminist issue? What the heck? I’ll tell you what started it. The incident at the kindergarten orientation day.
Graeme: My understanding was that it all comes back to the stay-at-home mums battling it out with the career mums. What do they call it? The Mummy Wars. My wife wasn’t involved. She doesn’t have time for that sort of thing.
Thea: You journalists are just loving the French nanny angle. I heard someone on the radio today talking about the ‘French maid’, which Juliette was certainly not. Renata had a housekeeper as well. Lucky for some. I have four children, and no ‘staff’ to help out! Of course, I don’t have a problem per se with working mothers, I just wonder why they bothered having children in the first place.
Melissa: You know what I think got everyone all hot and bothered? The head lice. Oh my gosh, don’t let me get started on the head lice.
Samantha: The head lice? What did that have to do with anything? Who told you that? I bet it was Melissa, right? That poor girl suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome after her kids kept getting re-infected. Sorry. It’s not funny. It’s not funny at all.
Detective Sergeant Adrian Quinlan: Let me be clear. This is not a circus. This is a murder investigation.
Excerpted from Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. Copyright © 2014 by Liane Moriarty.
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