“I don’t know you but already I’m strangely attracted to you.”
This is the first thing I say in the intimate, dimly lit John Webb Room at Hadley’s, where Richard Fidler and Antonia Hayes are sitting in what could be someone’s fancy living room but is, in fact, a stage in front of a packed audience.
Richard has asked us all to say this to the person sitting next to us – it’s one of the few times the audience laughs as the heartbreaking conversation between Richard and Antonia unfolds over the next hour.
I’ve been a big fan of Richard Fidler’s ABC Conversations podcast for the past couple of years and the setting for this event feels just as intimate as when I’m listening to his program in my earphones while washing dishes or walking to work – even from the back row where I watch as the audience is gripped by Antonia’s story.
Antonia is the author of Relativity, her debut novel about a mother and family dealing with the tragedy of shaken baby syndrome. But I’ve walked into this session with no idea about her own real life story – the one I’m about to find out.
She talks about her life growing up as a “very, very, very dreamy kid”, her accident-prone nature and her love of equations.
“Kids have an intuitive sense of justice and equations are justice,” she says.
Antonia says she found out she was pregnant at the age of 18 during her very first week of uni – and giving birth during her study break. She was hit hard by the rush of oxytocin that comes with having a brand new baby and while falling in love with her son, Julian, she also found herself falling in love with a plate of soggy cornflakes by her hospital bed.
It’s hard not to tear up too when Antonia struggles to stop herself from crying as she talks about the day her son stopped breathing. The man in the seat in front of me keeps wiping his eyes. All I can hear is my fingers tapping on my keyboard and the muted traffic outside.
“A piece of me will always be in that room,” she says. “Your number one job is to make sure your baby doesn’t die.”
She talks about her long struggle to deal with what had happened and the moment when she discovered the power of writing about her pain, when author Jeanette Winterson told her at a writing workshop in Paris to “write from the wound”. On stage, reading her short story allowed at the end of that workshop, she says she started crying and when she looked up at the end she saw most of the audience in tears too.
“Wow, I’ve moved people with words,” she thought, like she has done for many of us today. She says it was a turning point for her as a writer. “To take something which is so vulnerable and raw and turn it into power.”
Antonia tells us her son, Julian, will turn 14 next month and he’s now years above his age level in terms of reading. He’s even written his own novel, started his own publishing company and published a book on Amazon. In the darkness we all clap, relieved to finally see the light at the end of this tragic story.
I came to this session mostly to see Richard Fidler in person but now I can’t take my eyes (and ears) off Antonia. Richard’s questions are just background noise – full stops and question marks punctuating Antonia’s story.
“We all have our own universe inside us,” she says. “We can be good people who do bad things. Everybody is a human and nobody should be dehumanised – even people who do monstrous things. They’re not monsters.”
Richard says Antonia hasn’t done many interviews and she says it’s because so much of the pain is still raw. But she says it’s still really important to talk about them.
“We should tell our stories for solidarity.”
By Britta Jorgensen