Island Vibes

In his brilliant book, Story, Robert McKee declares that the role of fiction is to entertain. I have heard this sentiment echoed by a few well-known authors. I’d like to think the author’s job is a bit like the Ye Olde court jester; Tell your stories, be clever, be sparkling, entertain us but don’t try too hard to educate us. We generally get a whiff of it and get annoyed. If there’s a deeper meaning then great, but your job here is not to be a teacher. Don’t lecture or preach to the reader.

Storytelling also helps with learning because stories are easy to remember. Organizational psychologist Peg Neuhauser found that learning which stems from a well-told story is remembered more accurately, and for far longer, than learning derived from facts and figures. (Source: Harvard Business Publishing)

The last thing you want to do as an author is make your reader put the book down. Unlike court jesters of yore today’s authors won’t lose their heads if they get too preachy or didactic, they just might struggle to find an audience.

So education is out, but what about edification? Should what we read, watch or listen to strive to make us better in any way?

I’m loving the idea of UpLit at the moment. I’m looking for books that make me feel good. A friend is writing one and I’m waiting very (im)patiently to read it. I read something and laugh and cry and cheer at the end.

But then…

I’ve been watching Barry, a black-to-the-core comedy about a traumatised war veteran who is manipulated into making (a very comfortable) living as a hitman until he decides to give it up to try his hand at acting. There’s no doubt Barry is a psychopath and the show isn’t at all uplifting. It is very, very funny though and yeah maybe in it’s court-jestery way, the story is asking us about morality and war, the instances of blood lust in the military, how little thank-you-for-your-service superficiality actually does for many returned service people, especially those who come home to a hero’s welcome and little more.

I love black humour and dark love stories but I also want to feel hopeful, like it’s all going to be alright in the end. I want to fall in love with the characters and really cheer them.

As regular readers will know my story How I Got This Tattoo won the Tasmanian Writer’s Prize in 2022. There are some stunning stories in that anthology but my story got up because, in the words of the judges, it was funny and uplifting. The judges loved the interaction between my two characters, sisters, who were trying to find a common ground after years of unhappiness.

I was equal parts thrilled and amazed when I won because it wasn’t literary or serious, two qualities I thought were essential to winning writing competitions.

The 2023 winning story is also set in Bali (the theme calls for stories with an island vibe.) It is a really well written cautionary tale about a couple on vacation. As a regular visitor to the Island of the Gods, I “recognised” the characters; a bogan and a wannabe influencer. He’s happier in the pub cracking a tired joke about Luwak coffee and she’s cramming as many activities as she can into her day, anxious to get the ‘true’ Bali experience. (If someone told me it was based on a true story, I’d have to say, ‘well I’m glad they broke up.’) They are both deeply unpleasant people but they both get what they want in the end, an essential in storytelling.

Click here to read the winning story for 2023.

Do we learn anything from either of these stories? We learn a little about Bali and what it’s like to be a foreigner in that country. Anyone who has visited Bali will recognise the landscape and the people you meet there. But if I can say so, I think the main difference is that I wanted to hang out with my characters, maybe go sip a cocktail while we watch the sunset. In the words of this year’s judges, the story is brave in that it is prepared to stick with the characterisation of the main character as “that guy” and not render him morally worthy; at the same time, he is not without complexity. Finally, the judges appreciated the story’s radically unsentimental ending.

I don’t think my stories are brave. I like a hopeful, happy ending. However I do subscribe to the idea that our characters should ‘get the ending they deserve,’ and I think those characters certainly did.

My story missed out this year. I can see why after reading the winner. My characters wafted through the story with very little conflict and left too many questions unanswered at the end. I love the characters and feel like it could be a longer piece or a sub-plot in another book.

You just never can tell what’s going to win a competition so if you’re writing short stories just write the best story you can, send it off, then start writing something new. You just never know what’s going to grab the judges.

Here is my unsuccessful entry for the 2023 Tasmanian Writer’s Prize.

Marco Polo

They were next in line at the lost luggage counter when Clare nudged Tina.
‘Sis, your favourite cousin is here.’
Rebecca steamed towards them, pushing her luggage trolley like a battering ram, three pieces of matching pink luggage teetering on it. She looked like she meant business, but then that was Rebecca’s default mode.
‘Bloody hell, she’s a bad penny,’ Tina said.
‘Swearing,’ Clare said. ‘One thousand rupiah, please. Or dollars. I’m confused.’ She grinned and held out her hand.
Tina knew they would run into Rebecca; they were en route to the same wedding. As if a twice-delayed flight and lost luggage wasn’t enough. A cousin on their late mother’s side, Rebecca, was a square peg in a family full of gentle rounds. She had offended everyone in their large, extended brood over the years. Some of them twice. Clare, multiple times.
Rebecca shoved her way to the front of the queue.
‘It’s okay, I’m with them. Tina Wilson, the actress, is my cousin. You can see the family resemblance.’ She smiled benevolently at the queue. ‘Thank God you’re here, Tina.’
‘I’m here too,’ Clare said.
Rebecca gave Tina a tight smile. ‘I wasn’t allowed to bring a plus-one. Is it because you’re famous?’
‘They invited Clare,’ Tina said. ‘We’re the obligatory spinster aunts.’
‘And Tina’s my carer,’ Clare added.
Rebecca looked Clare up and down, as though seeing her for the first time. ‘Why do you need a carer? I could have a carer. I have artharitis.’
Clare rolled her eyes. ‘Well, I have Down’s Syndrome, Becky. It’s not all about you.’
Tina snorted and Rebecca’s tattooed eyebrows shot up. Tina wasn’t sure if it was because she’d just realised Clare had Down’s Syndrome or because she had been dealt a savage and in-context burn.
An airline staffer approached, pink hat box in his hands.
‘Is this yours, madam?’
‘Yes,’ Rebecca said, eyebrows still rising and falling. Tina mouthed a thank you to the young man as Rebecca took the bright pink bag and placed it on the trolley with its siblings.
‘I do hope you find your bag. I’d stay, but I met a lovely man on the flight.’ She scanned the crowd. ‘I wonder where he got to?’
Clare covered her mouth and giggled. Rebecca regarded her again. ‘Is something funny?’
Clare shrugged. ‘Yes, Penny’ she said.
‘Why is she calling me Penny?’
‘Tina says you show up like a bad penny.’
Rebecca frowned at Tina. ‘I’ll see you on the other side.’ She turned her trolley and charged off towards Customs as Tina’s own missing case appeared on the counter.
‘We’ll make our connection if we hustle,’ Tina said to Clare.
‘Where are you going?’ the staff member asked.
‘Domestic connection. Lombok.’
The young woman lifted her hand to hail someone and came out from behind the counter. ‘We will help.’
A courtesy cart with a yellow flashing light on the roof pulled up, and the driver slotted their suitcases onto the back. Clare climbed on board and clapped her hands.
‘Home, James, and don’t spare the juice,’ she said, her face solemn.
The driver grinned, and Tina chuckled as she relaxed into the seat. Clare waved like the Queen as they wove through the crowd and into the VIP line at Customs. In all her years as a Fairly Well-Known Person, Tina had always made a point of flying Coach, waited in line for her luggage, Customs, or at a taxi rank, with everyone else. Since she’d left that world and all her travelling was done with Clare, she was grateful for any help they were offered.
Clare had become quite the intrepid traveller. She was great as long as she got enough rest, had a stash of chocolate, and Tina was within earshot of a Marco. But if they needed to run, they were screwed. Clare told great jokes, made friends everywhere she went and loved glossy magazines, but she most certainly did not run, so, Tina made it her life’s mission to ensure her sister never had to. If they missed a connection, so be it.
Back in the courtesy buggy, they drove out into the steamy day. Clare wrinkled her nose at the smoky air.
‘I like that smell,’ she said.
Really? Tina thought.
They zipped past Rebecca, chatting animatedly to a large group of women in matching patterned shirts. A moment later, the buggy pulled up in front of the domestic terminal.
‘Through this door,’ the driver directed them. He took the suitcases off the back, gently pulled the handles out, and offered one each to Clare and Tina.
‘Salamat jalan,’ he said. ‘This means have a safe journey.’
‘Thank you,’ Tina said and held out a fifty-thousand rupiah note. He took it graciously, climbed back into the buggy, and puttered away.
‘Let’s roll,’ Clare said. Tina laughed and followed her sister into the chilled air of the terminal.
‘Will your bag get lost again, Sis?’
‘Absolutely not,’ Tina said, fingers crossed behind her back. It was all about confidence with Clare.
Tina wished they were already at the resort. The photos looked amazing. The wedding would be lovely, of course, but what Tina really wanted was a few hours to relax beside a pool. She also wanted coffee, a wish that was far more likely to be granted at that moment. She and Clare visited the bathrooms and browsed the shops for magazines and chocolate.
‘You happy?’ Tina said.
Clare nodded. ‘I like it here.’
Tina relaxed her shoulders. Clare was happy, and that made everything better. She guided her towards seats near the gate.
‘I’m going to get a coffee over there.’ She pointed. ‘Just a Marco away, okay?’
‘Polo,’ Clare whispered, with a smile.
‘I won’t let you out of my sight.’ She squeezed her sister’s hand.
Tina made a beeline for the coffee cart, her eyes not leaving Clare, who was feigning indifference, flipping through a magazine. She glanced up to see if Tina was watching, grinned, and went back to browsing.
There had been a time when Tina was in every other edition of that magazine. In another life. Twenty years abroad, two BAFTAs and a Tony, good friends, a nice man. But then she started moaning about the weather, the crowds, the paps. Everything was better at home she’d said to anyone who would listen. Apparently, the universe listens. One night, a phone call gave her forty-eight hours to get back to Sydney to say goodbye to Caroline, her big sister, Clare’s carer since their own mother died years before. Their sweet Caroline, who should have been there to see her daughter married.
The barista called her name, derailing her train of thought. Tina gratefully took the coffee.
‘Hello again,’ Rebecca’s voice said. ‘What are the chances?’
Tina took a sip and wandered back over to Clare. ‘Considering we’re going to the same small island, pretty high.’
Rebecca threw her head back and laughed. People turned in their direction.
‘I saw the lovely man. He had to run. Business calls to make. You have a driver booked on Lombok?’
‘We do,’ Tina said and sat beside Clare. ‘You’re welcome to join us.’
‘Don’t you get bored, Tina?’ Rebecca gestured towards Clare. ‘Your life used to be so… interesting…’
‘My life is plenty interesting. Thanks for your concern.’
Clare buried her face in her hands. Tina leaned forward and stage-whispered into Clare’s ear. ‘Yes, she’s rude. Yes, She has to come with us in the car. Yes, you can order room service and, yes, I will get a big fat cocktail.’
Clare wiped tears from her cheeks.
‘Oh Sis, you know how to cheer me up.’
Clare usually didn’t want to leave the room when they arrived at a fancy hotel, but the resort with its pools and landscaped gardens was apparently more enticing than air-conditioning and a huge flat-screen TV.
‘I love this place,’ Clare said. ‘I might live here.’
Really? Tina thought.
Clare loved Sydney ferociously and usually struggled to understand why they bothered with holidays.
Wedding guests were invited for drinks beside the main pool, and Clare was keen to socialise. Platters of nibbles and drinks circulated under the palm trees while, across the sea, the sun set behind Mount Agung, sending golden shafts of light into the sky. The bride and groom wandered among their family and friends, chatting and laughing.
‘Aunty Tina, Aunty Clare,’ Melanie, the bride, said, hugging them both. ‘Thank you for coming. Oh, I wish mum could have been here.’
‘We do, too,’ Clare and Tina said in unison.
Melanie leaned in.
‘Dad’s worried Rebecca might make a scene.’
‘I’ll keep an eye on her,’ Clare said.
Rebecca was on her best behaviour at the wedding. The anticipated drama came later at the reception, after her long spontaneous speech, a mishap with an espresso martini, and finally, with the first few bars of Old Town Road, she threw off her shoes and hauled one of the young groomsmen onto the poolside dance floor.
Clare danced up a storm under the strings of fairy lights while Tina chatted with the groom’s parents. Suddenly the power went, coating the resort in an inky darkness. There were splashes and shouts as the dancers fell or flung themselves into the pool.
‘Marco,’ Tina screamed. ‘Clare! Marco.’
She listened for a reply, but couldn’t hear over the chaos. The seconds crawled and though she could see nothing, Tina felt Clare’s terror. If there was one thing her sister hated more than running, it was the dark. A moment later, as quickly as it went off, the power was back on, and standing in the chest deep water were Clare and Rebecca, arm in arm.

‘Polo,’ they both bellowed.
‘Marco,’ said one of the kids on the side of the pool.
‘Polo,’ Clare called from behind her magazine and sunhat.
The boy scowled and looked around for the culprit, not suspecting the two middle-aged women on sun lounges a few feet away.
Clare sighed.
‘What’s the matter?’ Tina said.
‘You didn’t ask me if I wanted to go on the boat,’ Clare said.

There had been rumours of a trip out to Gili Trawangan, but Tina had declined. The previous day’s events were exhausting enough.‘I’m sorry. Do you want to go? It’s an even smaller island than this one. There’s lots of water.’
Clare shrugged. ‘I like water. I like islands.’
Since when, Tina wanted to ask. She lay back on the sun lounger and savoured it for a moment more. Clare so rarely asked for anything out of the ordinary.
‘Okay, let’s go on a boat.’
Half an hour (and in world record time) Clare stood by the door, beach gear and sensible shoes on.
‘How do we get a boat, sis?’
‘I phoned the front desk,’ Tina said. ‘A driver will take us up to Bangsal. The staff said it’s easy to get a boat over to Gili T.’
‘You’re a good sister,’ Clare said. ‘Not as good as Caroline, but pretty good.’ Tina laughed and blinked back tears. High praise, indeed.
The drive north along the coastline was breathtaking, all little bays and crystal-clear water. The driver left them in the public square in front of a palm-fringed beach lined with colourful longboats and dinghies. The canopies of tropical forests on the three Gili Islands were visible just off the coast.
‘The boat will leave when it is full,’ the ticket seller said.
Tina assumed he meant full of petrol or full of the passengers patiently waiting with tickets in hand, but no, the boat would leave when it had enough passengers to make it viable, not to a regular timetable. Island rules. Over the following hour, the boat filled slowly, locals mostly, and a few scruffy backpackers.
‘We wait for the Lemon Man,’ one of the passengers told them.
‘We wait for the Lemon Man,’ Clare repeated. Her new friends giggled. Tina had always been envious of Clare’s curiosity about and her completely illogical joy in the company of other people. With no common language other than hand signals and big smiles, Clare was in the centre of a large group of local women, each intent on giving her a gift. Tina kept her eyes peeled for anything untoward, but she had long given up worrying that someone was trying to rip her off. Clare was an excellent judge of character.
A bell rang, and an excited murmur rippled across the gathering. Three women helped Clare into the boat with much accompanying laughter.
‘Hey sis, it’s my lifesaver.’ She pointed into the baking hot car park where Rebecca stood in the shade of a small tree, gesticulating wildly at a man. They were arguing and knowing Rebecca, it would be about money. A van pulled up and two men hopped out. One, a local man, the other, a tall Westerner, who unfolded himself from the front seat. He squinted into the sun and shoved a Panama hat onto his white hair.
‘Lemon Man,’ one of Clare’s friends said.
A dozen men clambered off the boat and helped carry the bags of lemons. They stacked them beside the cold storage boxes, bags of rice, and huge baskets of vegetables. Rebecca abandoned her conversation and made a beeline for the man in the hat, the legendary Lemon Man. He helped her into the boat, and she moved through the crowded space, looking for a seat.
‘Hello lifesaver,’ Clare said waving.
Rebecca’s face brightened. ‘I didn’t expect to see you two here.’
‘I like islands.’ Clare sounded surprised by her own announcement.
‘You look a lot less waterlogged than you did last night,’ Tina said. Rebecca sat on the other side of Clare.
‘What a fun night,’ she said and hugged Clare’s arm. ‘I didn’t know you were so much fun.’
‘Because you were mean to me when we were kids.’
Rebecca nodded and gave Clare a sad smile.
‘I know. I’m sorry.’
That was good enough for Clare. She offered her hand to Rebecca to shake.
‘Deal,’ she said.
A shout went up and the Lemon Man shook hands with the others, then clambered into the boat. He removed his hat and cast his gaze over the passengers, squinting against the reflection off the water.
‘Have you ever seen such a good-looking man?’ Rebecca gushed.
‘I have, actually,’ Tina said, smiling.
He stood a few feet away and wiped his forehead. The deck hands ushered a few last-minute passengers into seats and checked the cargo. A group of men gathered around the outboard motors and others shouted to those on the beach to climb aboard or help with the ropes.
‘Fancy seeing you here,’ the Lemon Man said.
‘You saw me a minute ago, silly.’ Rebecca put her hand to her chest and laughed. She studied his face and then turned to her cousin. ‘Do you know each other?’
‘In another lifetime,’ Tina said. ‘So, you’re the Lombok Lemon Man now?’
He laughed and nodded at the man beside Tina, who moved over helpfully.
‘You must be Clare,’ he said, reaching over to offer his hand for her to shake. She clapped his hand with hers in a sideways high five.
‘Hello, Lemon Man,’ she said.
‘Hi Clare, I’m Brian.’
Clare giggled. Rebecca’s gaze swivelled back and forth between Tina and the man.
‘Wait, you’re Brian? As in Tina’s Brian?’
Tina and Brian exchanged a look and nodded. Rebecca slumped in her seat.
‘I finally meet the man of my dreams and he’s the one you left heartbroken in London.’
Tina blushed. ‘I’m not sure he was…’
‘I was,’ Brian said. ‘Clare, you were the winner, getting your wonderful sister to come home to hang out with you.’
Clare clung to his hand. ‘I remember your photos in the magazines.’
The outboards roared into life, making conversation difficult, so for the thirty-minute journey the three Wilson women and the Lemon Man of Lombok exchanged polite smiles and nods. The occasional small wave hit the side of the longboat, causing Clare to squeeze Brian’s hand. Eventually, the drivers cut the engines. With much shouting, they brought the boat up alongside the jetty. Brian took Tina’s hand without letting go of Clare’s.
‘I need to supervise the unloading, but I’d love to talk. Can you wait?’
Clare nodded solemnly, and they all laughed.
‘There’s a café.’ Brian pointed across the road. He helped the three women disembark.
Clare took off at a trot toward a shady table beside the sandy road and plonked into a chair. A server approached with laminated menus.
‘Marco,’ Clare called, waving.
‘Polo’, Tina and Rebecca called, and both laughed.
‘I am sorry,’ Rebecca said. ‘About the, you know, past.’
‘It’s fine. Just be kind. Clare’s my world.’
Rebecca nodded. ‘I get that.’
They joined Clare at the table. ‘What are the chances?’ Rebecca shook her head and repeated her words from the airport.
‘A billion to one,’ Tina said.
‘The way he looked at you, Tina,’ Rebecca said. Her eyes went skyward, and she fanned herself with a menu. Clare giggled.
‘He was the love of my life,’ Tina said.
Rebecca took Tina’s hand.
‘Maybe he still is,’ Rebecca said.
‘I don’t know. Clare and I are soulmates.’
Clare snorted.
‘No, we’re sisters. We take care of each other, but love is good, too. We should all move here.’ Clare said. ‘I like lemons.’