Who Am I

5 September 2016

I was born and raised in the 1970’s in Altona North – a working class suburb of Melbourne – in a time and place where hand-knitted ponchos and full-length mullets were in, and any sense of guilt about smoking in a car with all the windows rolled up and a baby on the backseat were out. It was also the golden era in the west, when our local refineries were still considered enough of a danger to blow up the entire city at any moment.

Fiona Harris - My Story

My dream of being a performer and writer started early in life, and as a child, I loved putting on shows – extraordinarily looooooong shows that I would write, direct and star in – and frequently turned our Altona North lounge-room into an exact replica of the Regent Theatre. My rainbow-striped flannelette sheet was the stage curtain, the programmes were made out of cut-up cereal boxes and a plastic banana lounge encased behind my baby brother’s wooden playpen served as the VIP box. I don’t think my brothers ever forgave me for some of the things I forced them to do – including a ballet dance to Kenny Rogers “She believes in me” and a literal interpretation of Ray Steven’s “Gitarzan”.  All of this obvious creative genius was considered more than a bit weird in my family, mainly because I grew up in a place where the most creative you got artistically was painting a banner for the local football players to run through in the Grand final. Add to this the fact that my mother, father and two brothers lived and breathed AFL football (still do) and wouldn’t know David Williamson if he had sat down and joined us for chow mein at teatime, and you had a very strange addition to the Harris family indeed.

My father became (and still is) the team manager for the Melbourne Football Club when I was 15-years-old, and was a fanatical supporter of the club for thirty-eight years prior to that. This meant that most every meal time in my household was dominated by conversations revolving around who the latest draft pick was, who had put in a shabby performance that week and which player had won the “drink till you spew” competition on the Bali footy trip.  Not to mention the fact that we had young pimply new AFL draft players like David Shwarz and Darren Kowal living with us when I was a teenager, clogging up the bathroom sink with their burgeoning stubble and stinking out the laundry with their sweat-soaked uniforms and socks. The stench was so powerful that our Labrador, Crystal, would sit outside the laundry and howl until they were washed, so distressed was she by this unfamiliar and potent odour pervading the area where her bowl of now tainted dry food and water was kept.

I somehow managed to avoid being drawn into the evil web of football mania that enveloped my house, and everyone in it, choosing instead to spend my weekends rehearsing bad amateur theatre plays, the likes of which included Pirandello’s Six – the biggest load of wank I have ever come across in my life, excluding anything directed by Barry Kosky – and an original musical theatre production called Starred and Feathered where I sang a song entitled “Neptune’s Ball” as a character called Kylie Minnow.

Unfortunately I wasn’t much better at fitting in at school either, mainly because this involved not only liking boys, but talking about them endlessly, something I had no interest in doing. By year eight I was definitely feeling the pressure from my classmates to disprove their theory that I was a nerdy freak, which they believed to be true after a couple of them discovered me staring lovingly into the mirror in the girls dunnies and accepting a dance invitation from Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy.

A further challenge was to prove I wasn’t a permanent resident of “Lesbos”. For any girl attending an all female Catholic girls college, being gay was an unspeakable crime and could only mean social death.

My knowledge of the male of the species was limited to my Dad, his crude cricket and footy buddies and my two annoying younger brothers.  Apart from my father, whom I adored, none of the aforementioned males were particularly dazzling specimens, which led me to the assumption that all males must be equally as uninteresting, immature and irritating.  I was immediately informed that this was an entirely inappropriate opinion to have of the fascinating creatures called BOYS.

During one particular lunch hour, I made the monumental mistake of announcing that I was bored with the who-is-the-cutest-St. Paul’s-student-at-the-bus-stop conversation and suggested that we play with the hakkie sack instead.

The silence was deafening.

The next day I was taken aside by a concerned friend and warned that unless I began to participate in these discussions and made an effort to understand the important things in life, then I would be out of the group.  Boys were exotic, mysterious and smelt musky (translation – sexy) and if I ever wanted to call myself a real woman then I should desperately want one for myself and try to figure out ways to win them over.  Of course, that was only if I wanted to hold any credit with my fellow schoolmates.

I did.  In fact the thought of spending the rest of my school years wandering the playground alone like a leper with B.O. scared the hell out of me.  I’d never been one to make friends easily so I knew I had to cling desperately to the ones I had – regardless of whether or not I liked them very much. And so I came up with the ingenious idea to invent an elaborate “first kiss” story to prove to everyone that I was the straight and horny schoolgirl they needed me to be.

The fictitious scenario involved me strolling through some bushes at the local cricket ground before, “out of nowhere”, I was suddenly grabbed from behind and roughly thrown down on to the grass.  “I was shitting myself,” I told the wide-eyed schoolgirls gathered around me that following Monday morning  “I tried to scream for help, but when I looked up into the eyes of my wild — and totally hot — abductor’s eyes, I immediately understood that he meant me no harm”.

I went on to describe how I had “yielded to his firm embrace as he kissed me tenderly and the sweet tasting kiss had lasted for several minutes before the stranger – who I’m almost positive was a surfie – suddenly jumped up and ran away leaving me weak with desire.” I had memorised that last part from a Mills and Boon book I found under Mum’s pillow.

Once I’d finished relaying this tale of passion and sexual assault, the girls narrowed their eyes at me suspiciously.

“What was a gorgeous surfie doing behind some bushes at a cricket ground?”

Bloody Vicki Mancini.  Trust that smug little bitch to bring logic into it.

“Uh….well……having a nap I guess.”

One by one Vicki and the others stood up and walked away, too embarrassed to stay in the presence of such a tragic and desperate liar.  I was left alone to ponder the outrageous lengths I had gone to to prove how open and committed I was to discovering the opposite sex.  All because I had wanted to convince them that even spunky surfies hiding in bushes at local cricket grounds were unable to resist my seductive allure.

Despite my reputation, which rapidly developed in the days that followed, as “the bush-rape girl”, I refused to renege on my cricket ground kiss bandit tale, as it was my only known involvement with a boy – imaginary or otherwise.

A couple of months later at our Year Ten school dance, I somehow managed to attract the attentions of a greasy haired, acne-scarred St. Paul’s college boy.  Actually I fell over his feet as I went to fill up my cup with creaming soda for the tenth time that night.

Unfortunately it proved to be an all round disappointing experience.  I had no idea what I was doing, and in retrospect neither did the boy I was kissing.  It was all tongues, saliva and bad breath and had lasted a whopping total of thirty seconds.  While I had been pre-occupied with figuring out the logistics of keeping my head turned at the correct kissing angle, one of the many nuns supervising the dance frightened the hell out of me – something she would have thoroughly enjoyed – by rapping me on the knee with her walking stick, shouting at me to get away from the dirty boy and loudly branding me a little slut.

Needless to say I never heard from the nameless Catholic boy with the kissing technique of an epileptic lizard again, but I was ecstatic that I could finally say – with my head held high above cricket ground bushes – that I had been kissed.  Even if the experience of a good old-fashioned teenage grope and probe continued to elude me, at least my peers could rejoice in the news that I had been pashed by a living breathing – albeit really ugly – adolescent male.  My classmates had witnessed this thirty-second tongue lashing at the annual school dance between the brother and sister catholic colleges, and I could only hope that the story of the cricket ground kiss bandit would finally become a distant memory for the remainder of my school years. Luckily for me I soon hooked up with my co-worker at Footscray Market after pashing him at a local Bluelight Disco when I was fifteen and, willing to do almost anything to win the respect of my peers, I proceeded to stay with him for eight years, which is a whole other story in itself and one we don’t have time for here. I will say, however, that it may only have lasted three years but when I but when I wrote off his panel van by veering on to the wrong side of the road and taking out six parked cars one after another, domino-style, it was made clear that I owed him and better not even think about breaking up with him. Fair enough, really.

Leaving the humiliation of my schooldays behind me I threw myself into achieving my dream of being a performer and writer, doing more crappy amateur theatre and the odd really wanky short film, with groups of geeky film students whose main agenda in starting the project was to score a root from one of the less experienced and more desperate female cast members (I’m proud to say I managed to resist the temptation 100% of the time).

But when I found myself at the ripe old age of 23 still living in the western suburbs, doing a few acting classes and the odd really bad amateur theatre production (see earlier description of Starred and Feathered) while working as an accounts payable clerk at Don Kyatt Bus and Trucks spare parts and spending my nights sitting on the couch with my boyfriend of eight years watching Mother and Son, I realised that I may have lost my way a tad.

That’s when I decided that I needed an escape route to somewhere as far away from Altona North as possible. I told my boyfriend I’d be back in six months and went to New York, where I lived in an all-girls boarding house, did some acting classes, partied, drank a lot, broke up with my boyfriend of eight years over the phone (bad form…I know…whatever…shut up), overstayed my visa by nine months and did a couple of off-off-off broadway shows while I worked as a waitress to pay the rent. Best thing I ever did.

I then headed over to London for eight months where my alcoholic Irish boyfriend turned into a Jekyll and Hyde type character who showered me with compliments and affection one minute and verbally abused and cheated on me the next. I basically lived in pubs for eight months, enjoyed a short-lived foray into line dancing and allowed myself to be treated like shit by the on-again off-again Irish boyfriend.

Eventually I had the good sense to come home and get back on track with my dream. When I arrived back into Tullamarine airport that cold, wet, miserable day, I was focused and inspired with some good old-fashioned New York attitude and determination to boot.

I started writing sketches with a couple of friends, we submitted them to the ABC and after about a year and a half of to-ing and fro-ing, a group of us made our very own sketch comedy show for the tele. That led to more writing and performing for sketch comedy shows on other channels, guest roles, comedy festival shows, stand-up comedy and loads of other creatively fulfilling and exciting stuff with fun and talented folks. I’ve even gotten to go to the Logies, where I listened to soapie starlets snorting coke off the cistern lid in the cubicle beside me as I expressed breastmilk straight into the bowl coz the pump wouldn’t fit in my clutch bag.

As for my love-life post-Irish bastard, it took me a couple of go’s at it but I finally found “the one”. A couple of times I thought I’d found “the one”, but they turned out to be more like the-one-who-just-wasted-a-shitload-of-my-time or the-one-pretendingto-be-the-one-when-they-were-actually-a-lying-alcoholic-fuckstick.

When I did meet “the one”, I didn’t actually recognise him at first because he was a South Yarra-Melbourne Grammar-actor-singer type fellow who was playing the Cello at five-years-old, and whose family regularly dined out at the Melbourne Club. Being an Altona-North-head-of-the-acid-wash-appreciation-society-chick who was playing name that meat at five-years-old and whose family regularly dined out at the footy club sausage sizzle, it was really no wonder the whole “we’re made for each other” thing passed me by.

My song-and-dance man and I have now been together for 16 years, married for 13, and have two daughters and I’m still doing all that stuff that I dreamt about as a weird, lonely kid in Altona North. And even though trying to make a living as a writer and performer can be fantastic, sometimes its incredibly hard and frustrating. It’s not exactly a secure or stable life, living from one job to the next, but it’s challenging and exciting, and I like not knowing what is lying around the next corner. Most importantly I’m doing what I love.

And I know that I’m not on the outside looking in anymore, which is how I felt a lot while I was growing up. But the truth is that I never was. No one is really. As long as you make your own decisions, find your own community or shared experience and proudly admit to your failures then you really are living your own dream and that’s all you can ask for.

Some of my new dreams involve my family being safe and my kids doing what they love when they grow up. They could come to us and say “Mum, Dad, I want to empty people’s bins for a living” and I’d say “Will that make you happy? Ok.” Other dreams for my girls are that they have intelligence, initiative and compassion, and bucketloads of self-confidence so they don’t have to resort to stories about being pashed against their will in the bushes to win friends when their teenagers.