by Laura McPhee-Browne
Published February, 2020
Ask any queer girl, I have learnt, and every single one of us had that one friend, usually in high school, whom we liked a bit too much, who we were enchanted by. Sometimes a very best friend, sometimes a girl on the periphery of a friendship circle, but always, always someone we adored, regardless of whether or not we understood exactly why. Ask any queer girl, and they can say that one friend’s name without thinking, even decades later, tell you how she looked and spoke and moved.
Mine had an old-fashioned name, long before old-fashioned names were a thing. Wild hair, a crooked smile, a way of being in her body that was almost reckless, so free was it of consciousness or care. Mismatched clothes that always somehow worked, long before I had any sense of style myself. Slim limbs and long hands. I wanted to be like her; I wanted to be special to her and the fact that I knew this wasn’t possible only made this all the more acute.
There’s something bruising about these relationships, in part, I think, because there’s so much in them that has to remain unsaid. So much of them that feels especially vulnerable. There’s so much to lose, at a time when our own selves feel precarious, uncertain. We don’t say a word, try not to look too often. I burned with the embarrassment, the secrecy of my desire.
This one friend, in Laura McPhee-Brown’s debut novel Cherry Beach, is named Hetty. She has the kind of beauty that people react to without realising they are doing so, an easy social grace. And Ness, the book’s narrator, loves her with all the helplessness and fervour of late adolescence. Hetty and Ness have been best friends since childhood, and Ness’s sense of self and of her ability to navigate the world is predicated on this relationship. Aside from a time straight after high school when Hetty was embroiled in an abusive relationship, leaving Ness to despair from the sidelines, the pair do, have always done, everything together. It has always been their dream to live overseas together; they made a pact at sixteen to travel ‘to the other side of the world’ and stay there ‘for as long as we could brave it, in order to become better, more alive versions of ourselves’. The book opens with them landing in Toronto, about to do just that.
Ness’ love for Hetty is painful, and very physical; she experiences it as ‘something winged’ that ‘soar[s] towards [her] throat’, as a ‘warmth’ in the chest, a ‘swell of gladness’ that ‘pop[s]’ in her heart. And it is something she is hardly able to admit to herself, even though it’s obvious to the people around her. But what this means is that the reader is only ever able to see Hetty through Ness’ idealising lens, only ever able to see her complexities and flaws in the subtext of what Ness actually narrates. The way in which this shifts and changes and deepens is integral to the coming-of-age that Ness experiences across the course of the novel.
McPhee-Browne has referred to Cherry Beach as a ‘queer romance’, stating that ‘there aren’t enough of them’ and that such books would have meant a lot to her when she was growing up. But the romance here is an impossible one, and it is the way in which Ness extricates herself, is forced to extricate herself from it, that moves her closer towards adulthood and a happier, more rounded, life. And I can’t help but wonder if this is one of the hallmarks of coming of age for queer women: letting go of that one enchanting friend who cannot love you back, of that desire that isn’t dangerous because it’s predicated on impossibility and sustained by unreality, and accepting something less fantastic but more solid in its stead.
When Ness and Hetty arrive in Toronto it is early spring, and they walk the streets without the clothes they need for the still-icy weather – Ness wears five jumpers and Hetty only a duffel coat and skivvy – hardly believing that the people they are passing are Canadian, that they are, finally, ‘here, among them’. This captures beautifully the emotional state of early adulthood: its naïve excitement, that sense of ‘real life’ finally beginning to start, of long-held plans and dreams suddenly able to be acted upon. But what’s interesting here is how differently Ness and Hetty respond to their new environment. Ness, almost instinctively, imagines how they must look to the people passing them, shooting them ‘quick, half-curious glance[s]’: she is self-consciousness, hyper-aware of her own body and awkwardness. Hetty, for her part, is unconcerned, pausing only to admire (‘I still think it’s beautiful’) a pile of old brown snow beside a shop doorway. It’s clear almost immediately that the pair’s shared dream is not likely to be a shared experience.
Shortly after settling in Toronto, Ness and Hetty move together into a rambling sharehouse called Marjorie (‘I had never lived in a house with a name,’ says Ness), sharing a bedroom, as well as the company of five other housemates and a cat named Whitney, after Whitney Houston. The house ‘thrum[s]’ with the energy of its housemates, who are ‘concentrated earnestly on the best things about being alive’; there are conversations in the kitchen, impromptu drinks in the living room, shared meals, genuine care. McPhee-Browne’s descriptions of this kind of living, and the brief but meaningful interactions between the housemates, are compact, and succinctly convey some of its intricacies, as well as its real joys. Ness feels awkward and shy in the space, conscious always of having to think of things to say to any housemates she encounters – it is only after she has been alone in the house a few times, she states, that she is able to ‘feel close to comfortable’ there. Hetty, of course, is comfortable immediately. She manages to get a job in a bar on their first full day in the house, which compounds Ness’ vague discomfort: Hetty is suddenly busy elsewhere, and Ness can no longer rely on the protection of her reflected charm to cushion her social interactions or bolster her sense of self. Ness rapidly begins to feel like she is being ‘left behind’, especially as Hetty’s new workplace comes with new friends, including a brash woman named Elaine, whom Ness sees as especially threatening because she may well be liable to usurp her place as Hetty’s best and most important friend.
I remember the summer between finishing school and starting university as a long, hot stretch of days, that my one friend and I spent mostly in each others’ cars, although I can’t imagine now the destinations to which we were travelling. We had been accepted into different universities, although they were both city-based, each campus just a short walk from the other, and we were pleased by their proximity. We were ready to start our lives. We promised to stay close, we swore that we’d stay close. But we didn’t.
My one friend took to university in a way that I was never able to as an undergrad; she made new friends in her classes, while I floundered. We made vague plans to meet for lunch, again and again, just down the road from where she was studying, and each time I tried to confirm them she just never followed through. She moved out of home, into a shared apartment on South Dowling Street overlooking the golf links, and held a housewarming party on its rooftop, where I watched her flit about with a group of scraggly-looking boys and kept myself busy helping with the barbecue. And when she travelled, it was with a different friend, her best friend, to countries where they spoke the language they’d both learnt at school (and I hadn’t). I was lonely and bewildered. Each of these things felt like a wounding. It wasn’t long after this that I got sick.
I got sick, and I didn’t have to think about desire at all any more.
I got sick, and the independence that I built for and around myself was one that was impenetrable, invulnerable to hurt.
It’s worth noting that Ness and Hetty’s relationship isn’t quite what Madeleine Gray describes as the ‘character triangulation’ increasingly common in novels about friendships between millennial women (as written by millennial women), where an ‘erotic potential hums’ between them and complicates their already-intense connection. Hetty is not queer (or even ‘queer-adjacent’) and also seems completely oblivious to the sexual element of Ness’s attention to her – it is only people around them who notice it, and they always treat it gently. The problem with the love here is not its geometry, but the fact that it is unrequited and unable ever to be so.
Nonetheless, the narrative tension of Cherry Beach still rests upon the elastic nature of Hetty and Ness’s friendship. As Hetty settles in to her new life in Toronto, Ness is forced to adapt too, albeit much more slowly. She takes a job in an art gallery café, and finds a gentle kind of happiness working alongside her manager, the vivacious and generous Minnie, who takes Ness under her wing and continually demonstrates her affection by plying her with snacks and drinks. In the gallery itself, after a shift, Ness meets a woman named Faith (whose parents ‘were born-again Christians’), whom she eventually starts dating, and each of these things is a step towards a kind of independence.
Faith and Ness’s relationship unfolds slowly, in part because of Ness’ shyness: on their first date, they talk about their lives but only kiss once they are ‘drunk in a brazen way’ that Ness describes as ‘ma[king] my throat open.’ Faith’s affection and attention makes Ness feel exposed, and she worries that Faith will ‘realise’ that she ‘[i]s boring’ or that she will ‘ruin things with [her] knotted fair or [her] face or [her] personality.’ It takes this new relationship, and the vulnerability that it requires, to truly expose the depths of Ness’ insecurity, how little of herself she thinks outside of Hetty’s protective glow. Ness tries to avoid talking about Hetty much with Faith, but she knows that Faith can sense the importance and complexity of their connection, and while she isn’t exactly jealous, it does make her uneasy.
When Ness discloses the burgeoning relationship to Hetty – who is delighted by the news – Ness realises that they have ‘never really talked’ about her sexuality – mostly, she states, because she herself was silent about it and Hetty ‘simply followed me into the cave’. Ness says:
Sometimes it made me angry, as if her silence was confirmation of how ashamed I should be; but I knew this wasn’t true. Hetty just didn’t think it was a big deal, and didn’t think we needed to talk about it unless I wanted to. She was so gentle sometimes it felt like laziness, or something more sinister like self-absorption. Her reaction that night reminded me that she was really only full of love.
What’s striking about this passage is everything that Ness isn’t saying, at least not quite – that she does feel shame about her sexuality, that she can’t talk about it with Hetty, given how it muddies their relationship – and how unwilling she is to think badly, or even critically of Hetty, so much so that she sees gentleness here rather than neglect.
Ness’ awkwardness and intensity of feeling in her developing relationship are beautifully handled in the novel – she never seems to know what to do next, how to express her interest or desire for fear of getting it wrong or scaring Faith away. There’s a touching vulnerability to Ness here, even more so when she and Faith eventually have sex. McPhee-Browne’s portrays of the physicality of this relationship is skillful – Ness’ narration is direct and attentive to the senses, but the descriptions are never voyeuristic or overblown, and this is all the more striking for how rare it is for this balance to be struck, how important it is to see these kinds of depictions of queer sex. The rawness of these encounters too leaves Ness terrified, and burning with self-consciousness: ‘I couldn’t talk then because she was too perfect,’ she states, and ‘I felt like I giant slug [and] I wondered whether it was normal to want to say… Sorry, sorry, sorry and I’ll go now – I’ll never come back.’ It’s interesting how Ness parses this: her nervousness makes her remember, she says, ‘why [she’d] never wanted a girlfriend in the first place’ and the fact that she’s more awkward around women than men, because ‘women meant more, so much more.’ It’s the risk of this relationship, that is, that terrifies Ness: women mean more because she actually wants them, and it’s far more exposing to pursue something that she actually wants, might actually get, rather than a desire that doesn’t matter, or that matters purely because it is impossible.
All the while, as Ness and Faith move slowly towards each other, Hetty has been slipping from Ness’ grasp. More and more, she seems different, changed, and Ness explains each step of this away, attributing it to the new environment, Hetty’s new job, new circle of friends, the drugs that she takes with them. But the other housemates are more canny, or at least, less blinkered by Ness’ unwavering adoration. Dill, the kind and ever-smiling writer who lives in Marjorie, is the first to broach this with Ness, in a conversation where he says of Hetty, ‘She’s a babe. But she’s crazy too, right?’
The phrase is enough to make Ness admit her worry, and what she sees as Hetty’s increasing ‘skittishness.’ It seems to Ness that Hetty is ‘moving closer to some imaginary light’. And Hetty’s behaviour soon becomes impossible to explain away: she returns home one evening and shows her housemates a tattoo on the small of her back that doesn’t exist, but that she insists is painful to touch; stops showing up for work; and disappears for days without making contact, before Ness and Dill find her asleep in a relative stranger’s bed. It becomes clear, that is, that something is seriously wrong with Hetty, and Ness does not know what to do or how to help her. McPhee-Browne outlines Hetty’s unravelling, and Ness’ response to it, with great delicacy, especially in the ways in which Ness wavers between confusion, a sense of hurt, intense worry, and the occasional burst of anger. Ness is no hero – but there is also no way to be heroic in this situation – and Ness’ grief and helplessness become all the more acute as Hetty’s illness progresses.
What’s most interesting about Hetty’s developing instability is the way in which the reader has to read around Ness’ idealisation in order to grasp what is happening, and how the faults and flaws in Hetty’s character, the difficult experiences that might have shaped her, are understood by the reader long before they become clear to Ness. Mostly, this happens in flashbacks, where Ness is reminded of her long history with Hetty, and the memories she relays show Hetty in a slightly different light: as someone with a family history of mental illness; someone fearful, despite her outward confidence; someone whose sexuality is tied to risk and physical threat, who is drawn to danger because of her own inchoate pain. Hetty is troubled, and has been for a long time, and it is hard for Ness to understand and accept the full humanity of her special friend – and she cannot help but feel that she is failing her friend in the process. Hetty eventually disappears – having left Marjorie to search for a job in a shopping centre that she insists has a pool on the roof (it does not), and her body is found, some days later, washed up on the shore of Lake Ontario. So when Ness returns to Melbourne, it is alone, and deep in grief.
‘Grief is thick,’ Ness says, ‘and I didn’t know this until I was in it’: the loss of Hetty is the first real grief she has known, and it makes her feel ‘unpredictable and loose.’ Now more than ever, she watches her actions self-consciously and is disengaged from her bodily reactions. It takes her six months, she says, ‘to remember that I’d built a sort of existence for myself in Toronto that wasn’t Hetty’, and to attempt to do this again, at home, in a place where she isn’t transient or unknown. She starts going to parties (wearing Hetty’s clothes) and to dinners with friends, and she meets a woman, Voula, with whom she falls in love, and who she describes as having as smell that’s ‘as confident as liquorice’ (this kind of synaesthetic description is common in the book, and not always this successful). Ness has been forced to let go of Hetty, in a manner that’s much more violent, abrupt and absolute for most of us when we move away from our one special friend, and Voula’s steady love helps her to ‘stand by the feelings’ she had – and, by extension, the feelings she has – and to allow herself to want and to desire that is actually at possible, that which is actually at hand.