by Sharyn Peacocke

May 1997

He slithers towards us from ten paces, right hand outstretched. "Brenton," he calls amiably in our direction. I glance back over my shoulder before realising he is introducing himself. His teeth glisten in the moonlight. Is that gold in the upper left? I think so. My heart sinks.

I fix Marc with an accusing stare and telepathically remind him of our previous debacles with network sales: remnants of make-up kits monopolising our bathroom cabinet; exuberant videos extolling the virtues of selling soap lurking at the back of the shed; plastic food containers cloning furtively in the dark under the kitchen sink.

But it's too late! Brenton has already launched into the familiar patter about Making More Money and improving one's Quality Of Life. He pauses briefly to introduce his wife, Narelle. She looks sullen and tired. "What do you do?" I small-talk as Brenton leads us like lambs to the lecture theatre. "Cook," says Poor Narelle, her eyelids drooping. "Weekdays at the canteen, then at the Club on weekends. And we come here every Wednesday night," she adds glumly.

I want to change the subject, but can't think of anything to say. We continue in silence towards the hall. I picture her wearily chopping ingredients with a meat cleaver before my creativity takes over and the image turns macabre. Narelle stares beady-eyed at Brenton, then grins eerily in my direction. I think she is reading my mind.

Brenton persists with the indoctrination, chatting zealously about Quality Of Life. Marc's head is bowed in what looks like intense regard, but is actually deep despair. His eyes glaze over. Brenton continues undaunted. "It runs about an hour," he announces brightly, "and then we all go for coffee and a nice chat afterwards." Marc sighs miserably.

We climb upwards to the heart of the lecture theatre. There's an undignified scuffle as Brenton thrusts Poor Narelle into the seat furthest away and attempts to slide between Marc and me. I fling myself into the chair and brutally shove Marc down beside me. Brenton huffs his disappointment, settling between me and Poor Narelle. He leans across my body, verbally accosting Marc who by now looks sheepish and sad. The pungent odour of aftershave wafts in my direction. I am allergic to perfume and aftershave. My head begins a slow and steady pound. My temples simmer. I grab Marc's arm and rise from my chair, determined to leave.

Alarmingly, the whole room joins me, surging upwards in applause. Brenton is pumping my hand, pointing and smiling, nodding his approval. There are little dollar signs in his eyes where his pupils should be. I panic. They think I have joined their ranks. "My name is Sharyn," they expect me to sob, "and I want Quality Of Life". My heart lurches wildly at the base of my throat.

But the applause is not for me - the evening's speaker has appeared. Besuited in grey pinstripes and white shirt, he introduces himself as Ray Brown. He makes more money networking in his spare time, he says, than he does running one of Australia's biggest insurance companies.

Marc sways, paling significantly under his beard. Insurance is his least favourite thing. I elbow him disagreeably and he collapses into his chair. The room bursts into another round of applause before seating itself. Speaker Brown begins.

"Ambition," he decrees, "is what life is all about!" Marc looks queasy and studies a frayed patch on his jeans. I contemplate bolting bravely down the stairs past the crowd but valour is not one of my virtues. I remain miserably glued to my seat. Then "Yes!", cries Brenton leaning forward in his seat. "Yes!", imitates the crowd happily. "No," groans Marc, attempting to crumple his 6'4" frame even further into the chair. "Oh Lord," sighs me blasphemously as I glance at my watch. Only 58 minutes to go! I flash a dazzling smile in the direction of Brenton, and breathe fire at Marc out of the corner of my mouth.

Speaker Brown draws himself up, hitches his genuine-alligator belt, and allows his stomach to flop back into his pants. "We're all capable of making a lot of money," he drawls conspiratorially. "It doesn't take a special type of person. Look around - the people here are just like you and me."

Marc and I glance obediently around the room. There's a row of young men to the left. They are wearing synthetic suits and nylon shirts. One of them flaunts three signet rings and a gold-link bracelet. Directly in front of me, a distinguished older gentleman runs his hand through thick grey hair. His fingers hover just above the crown before plunging downwards to carefully pick and scratch at the scalp. I watch in revolted fascination as he completes the task and then inspects the contents of his fingernails. Meanwhile, Brenton, his eyes fixed adoringly on Speaker Brown, gives a tiny yelp and once more leaps ecstatically from his seat. "Yes!" he cries again orgasmically. "Yes!"

Armed with thick felt pen, Speaker Brown begins making little circles on the white board. Out of the little circles grow stick-arms which clutch at more little circles, then some bigger arms, and bigger little circles, all joined to one huge circle at the top. Speaker Brown makes a list of percentages, then lines them up with dollar signs and numbers. He doubles them, triples them, quadruples them and then runs out of board space. Suddenly, he erases one of the big stick-arms. Groups of little stick-arms and little circles float free. The lecture theatre erupts to the sound of wild applause as Speaker Brown triumphantly scrawls the letters "MM" above the free-floating-circles-and-arms before turning back to face his audience.

Brenton jumps to his feet, thrusting a clenched fist in the air. "Main Merchandiser, yes!" he cries, his face creased in delight. Marc looks alarmed. "Yes, yes!" shouts the crowd in standing ovation. My headache pounds harder as Brenton's sweaty enthusiasm releases another sickening waft of aftershave. I lean as far as I can towards Marc, who by now is placating himself by methodically stroking his beard.

The man in front of me again combs his hair with his fingers. They find their mark and begin to scratch. I breathe deeply and think of dolphins. Marc, I know, is sitting under a tree in Byron Bay, plaiting homespun sandals out of leather thong and dreaming wistfully of Woodstock.

An hour-and-forty minutes later it's over. We're left with a choice of Making More Money and improving our Quality Of Life through networking, or returning to the unenlightened, destitute state from whence we came. Marc and I blithely choose the latter. Brenton is appalled. He pursues us down the stairs, dragging Poor Narelle behind him. "This is a great opportunity," he shouts as Marc and I effect our escape. "You can't believe the change it'll make to your Quality Of Life."

I cast them a final glance. Brenton is stamping his foot and snorting combatively. The little dollar signs in his eyes are inflamed. Poor Narelle has tiny meat cleavers in hers!

© Sharyn Peacocke 1997