One night, three women go to the theater to see a play. Wildfires are burning in the hills outside, but inside the theater it is time for the performance to take over.
Margot is a successful, flinty professor on the cusp of retirement, distracted by her fraught relationship with her adult son and her ailing husband. After a traumatic past, Ivy is is now a philanthropist with a seemingly perfect life. Summer is a young drama student, an usher at the theater, and frantically worried for her girlfriend whose parents live in the fire zone.
While the performance unfolds on stage, so does the compelling trajectory that will bring these three women together, changing them all. Deliciously intimate and yet emotionally wide-ranging, The Performance is a novel that both explores the inner lives of women as it underscores the power of art and memory to transform us.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.10(h) x 2.90(d)|
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Margot is shuffling in a balletic first position along the strip of carpet between the legs of the already-seated people in the theater and the chair backs of the row in front. She is almost late, and only some of the seated legs are shifting sideways to enable her to pass.
Excuse me, Margot says to no one in particular. Excuse me.
She is holding her handbag in front of her, moving it carefully over the row of heads. She is determined not to bump anyone with her bag or her body as she watches her feet in her sandals on the carpet, step step stepping.
As she reaches the center of the row, she looks up to see a young man in the seat next to hers. He stands, nodding his head, all chivalrous and patient.
Thank you, she says, squeezing past him. That's very kind.
Margot sits down and drops her bag onto her lap.
The young man also sits. He presses his forearm on the red velvet armrest between them. His flesh spreads out along the length of the armrest, his fingers hanging down toward the floor.
Margot considers asserting her own claim with her own presumptuous arm, but she doesn't want to touch him. His skin is covered in tattoos and pale ginger hairs. He has goosebumps from the air conditioning. A parrot is inked onto his arm. Primary colors and a neat, sharp beak. Is he thinking of pirates, perhaps?
You're not usually here on a Friday evening, Margot says.
He frowns at her-an arrow between his eyes.
I'm a subscriber, she explains. You get to know the people around you. She didn't mean to sound territorial. He looks annoyed.
But he replies. A whole sentence. We're doing a bit of Beckett at uni.
Beckett, says Margot. I didn't know that's what we were seeing until I got here. Just grabbed my ticket and fled. I was worried about being late. The traffic is always absolutely dire in the heat, don't you find? People seem to drive very strangely in the heat. And that smoke haze. I thought my windows were dirty for much of the drive until I realized it was just the smoke haze.
I got the tram, the young man says. No air con. That was absolutely dire.
I see, says Margot, turning her face forward. She has an expensive, unobstructed view of the stage.
Margot coughs, more loudly than she would like. She clears her throat.
She is conscious of her bare arms in her shift dress. Her bare legs and sandals. Her bare toenails, unpainted. Her father, many years ago when he was still alive and she wasn't old, told her she shouldn't expose her elbows if she could help it. Wrinkly elbows are aging on a woman, he said. And for decades, Margot wore sleeves. More recently, they've been useful with the bruises. But this summer-this unusually oppressive, stinking season'she decided she was tired of sleeves. She was sick of the cling and the pull. When it is hot, she will have bare arms. And it's been very hot today-still forty degrees at 7 p.m.
The false cold of the theater makes it hard to imagine the heavy wind outside in the real world, the ash air pressing onto the city from the nearby hills where bushfires are taking hold.
Margot loosens her wristwatch from her cooled skin, and slides its face back and forth around her arm. Her legs are stretched straight with her ankles crossed beneath the chair in front.
The house lights lower.
The auditorium feels hopeful in the darkness.
Margot coughs again.
The young man beside her fidgets. She knows he is annoyed by her coughs, the jolt of them cutting through the tenuous quiet of the waiting theater.
But then a bell rings! It is harsh and institutional.
The play has started.
The buzz seems to be coming from all around. The audience shudders as people adjust to the shock, rearranging their limbs.
The buzz goes on-so loud-and stops.
Begins again! Stops.
A woman is buried waist deep in a hill of parched grass. It stretches out around her in a curve of muted green, merging into the flat floor of the stage.
The woman's torso is busy above the grass. She is waking from sleep. Her bosom heaves in a teal ball gown bodice. She is wearing a pearl choker, and her hair is nonchalant and piled high.
Her face smiles. Smiles a lot. A strange lot, given her situation.
Perhaps her lower half is naked inside the mound. Perhaps she is wearing leggings or an itchy tulle skirt.
The woman is speaking a hurried prayer, her palms together, head bowed. World without end Amen.
The light on her is bright.
The light shining on the woman's hair makes a pale patch on her crown as Margot looks down.
The woman presses her hairstyle with her hands. The woman's fingers are washed white by the harsh light.
She leans toward a black bag waiting on the slope of the grass. She pulls it close, opens it wide, rummages through its contents. Her rummaging is mannered. It has intention.
Margot looks down at her own lap. Her own handbag is there in the dark and Margot's fingers are folded over its clasp.
Margot's throat tickles. She tries to suppress a cough, and her mouth splutters open. This is no good. It must be the air conditioning, its sudden dry chill after the heat of the world outside. Margot hasn't coughed all day. Not at home. Not in her office. Not even in the two-hour meeting with the dean that she has been dreading for much of her career.
The question of retirement uttered out loud.
She was staunchly dignified. Reasonable. When she started to extract herself from the dean-I mustn't be late for the theater!-they both made a brief show of collegiality. She noticed a glossy museum catalog on his desk-Matisse or Chagall, something luminous-and asked him about his recent holiday in southern France. He asked her about her newish granddaughter, and made a cloying comment about her nappy-changing skills.
Margot was still attempting to laugh at the joke as she walked from his office into the colored light of the corridor lined with stained glass.
Getting out of her car park was difficult. There was an evening graduation ceremony, and car after car was arriving at a time when Margot could usually swing her Audi up the empty concrete ramps to ground level. She almost had a head-on collision with an SUV between levels three and two, brakes screeching, its driver laughing with a woman in the passenger seat who was cradling a floral bouquet so large that it was visible through the windscreen.
Both the driver and the passenger mouthed apologies to Margot before the driver swerved his vehicle back to the correct side.
Margot's heart was racing. She did not swear at the SUV although that would not have been unprecedented. She sat with her hands on the steering wheel and waited for the ramp to clear.
Since she left campus, Margot has not (as her dearly departed mother used to say) had time to bloody scratch herself. She's certainly not had time to consider the ramifications of the dean's suggestion. He told her, smiling and shaking her hand, that it'd be terrific to touch base again early next week.
Early next week? Touch base? What does that actually mean?
Is there a connotation that their next meeting would be a return to home base, as though the dean's office is a benign meeting place from which they all-academics and administrators alike-satellite out toward their individuated endeavors on campus?
Or is it the specific conversation between them that is progressing around bases?
First base-the initial suggestion.
Second base-the next meeting.
Third base-more details and planning.
Home base-when she leaves for good?
Whatever the jargon that is currently favored, Margot understands the implication and Margot cannot believe it.
The woman on stage is brushing her teeth. Toothpaste froths as she vigorously changes the angle of her hand. Margot despises witnessing this particular bodily behavior. She is unsure whether it is a behavior that warrants being performed on stage. It is possibly intended to repulse.
Just this morning Margot scolded John for brushing his teeth before she left the bathroom. His entire process infuriates her. The amount of paste he uses. The state of the bristles on his brush. The height at which he spits. The velocity at which he spits. The length of time between spits. The final sloppy slurp of water. The way he grabs the hand towel-not his own bath towel-and drags it across his mouth so that later she finds dried toothpaste encrusted into the fabric.
They have been married for over forty years. It would help, it would help just a little, if he could wait until she left the bathroom. And today, of all days. He should have known she'd be tense.
Margot had scolded John without hesitation. It was only later, when she was driving to work, that her stomach clenched with the truth. She had to be more careful now. She had to be much more careful.
Hoo-oo! The woman on stage is trying to get the attention of an invisible man. Poor Willie.
Margot had forgotten about him. Margot saw an amateur production of this play when she was pregnant with Adam, and she remembered the woman in the mound, and the light. Margot mainly remembered the light.
But, of course, there is also the man. The absent and useless male. No zest-for anything-no interest-in life.
The woman's genitals are inaccessible. Perhaps that's why he's ignoring her. He can't get to his once-preferred orifice. Or perhaps that should be the plural, orifices, if he's a demanding sort.
He also seems to have a talent for sleep. Sleep for ever-marvelous gift.
The lucky bastard. What Margot would give to be able to sleep for hours without drinking for hours first. These days she cannot fall asleep entirely sober.
Would John remember the man in the play? Would John remember going to the theater at all that night? It was-how long ago? It was forty-two, forty-three years ago. Yes. Adam is forty-two now. Will Margot ever be unshocked by the fact of herself as the mother of a middle-aged man?
She tries to remember the night she saw this play with John at that small studio theater down the side street in the south of the city. She tries to concentrate on retrieving everything she can about that one night, bringing the details forward as though her mind is an analog filing drawer. She visualizes a series of white index cards moving toward her.
This deliberate remembering is a new thing for Margot. A new practice. Or a new praxis, as certain academics in her department would say. Margot refuses to be patronized by sudoku puzzles or the cryptic crossword-lifting a pen toward one of those activities announces you as a gullible geriatric-and she has instead embarked on this careful consideration of her past. She made the mistake recently of telling an old friend about it. That's very Proustian, Professor, her friend mocked.
Margot knew the director; that's why they went to see the play all those years ago. He was a pretentious private schoolboy who gave himself a pretentious private schoolboy nickname during the final year of their arts degree. Was it Monty? Jonty? Rossco? Xander? It was Rossco. His name was Ross and he added the -co like he was christening a stallion or a yacht.
Rotten Rossco! Yes! He had quite the reputation. He'd propositioned Margot several times when they were partnered up for a French oral exam during their honors year. She was already dating John, which helped a great deal, as Rotten Rossco was the type who'd only back off if he thought a woman belonged to another man. Absolute charmer. Still, Margot and Ross stayed in touch after graduation. She pitied him-he was very short, maybe that was why, and there was some story about a dead sibling that gave him an air of tragedy-so she dragged John to that small studio theater down the side street to support Ross's burgeoning directing career.
The seats were very uncomfortable. John took off his leather jacket, bundled it up in a ball and arranged it behind Margot's back to give her pregnant body some extra lumbar support. It hadn't helped. But she was pleased with her new husband's concern for her comfort.
Margot was married to John for only six weeks when she fell pregnant. She was completely peeved. She'd thought it was going to take months, perhaps years, to conceive a child. She'd never had a scare with her previous boyfriends, and they'd only relied on her monthly cycle or pulling out before the climax. It was remarkable she hadn't already been afflicted with something-if not a baby, then at least an infection. During her twenties, she'd accompanied a couple of friends to the new abortion clinic in the old white mansion near the city gardens. But Margot herself never had to confront any consequences of having sex. Not so much as a shaming itch. That luck had given her a false sense of invincibility and a false sense of infertility.
To get pregnant so soon after marriage, that conventional happy consequence, struck her as a perverse sort of bodily betrayal. Perhaps she should have been on the pill, to be sure, but she couldn't stand what it did to her bust and her personality-enlarged them both, in ways that were uncomfortable and difficult to manage.
They'd recently returned to Melbourne from Cambridge. Margot was triumphant with a new doctorate and a job at her alma mater. John was about to begin his residency at the city's leading research hospital. That night at the small studio theater down the side street, she was five months pregnant and only just starting to accept her fate.
Before the play, standing on the footpath in the warm autumn dusk, they drank shiraz out of glass tumblers-a fashionable bohemian receptacle, cheap to buy in bulk-and Margot spilled some wine on her baby bump. She watched the red liquid, like blood, like drool, trailing down her floral tunic.
Rotten Rossco shouted something appalling at her as he walked through the waiting audience-Margot has a bun in the oven! Look at that cook!-and John took a step closer to his wife, from pride or'protect'veness or some other masculine impulse she could not discern, not then, not now.
The woman on stage is still talking, still smiling. Mustn't complain.
Her smile is a gummy grimace. She is adjusting her spectacles, peering through them to examine her toothbrush. She takes them on and off her face, breathes on the lenses and polishes them with a handkerchief. The spectacles do not seem to be helping her read whatever it is she is trying to read on the toothbrush. Genuine . . . pure . . . what?