… Life consists—Wallace Stevens
Of propositions about life. The human
Revery is a solitude in which
We compose these propositions …
Before any of these events happened, the story of them happening was already written. From the very beginning the story was in the hearts of its authors, and through it they made themselves and nothing that they are was made without it.
Dear David, a long time ago I promised to tell you the story which would explain our families to you — hoping that, by hearing it, you would know where you came from and who you are. Now that our grandmother is dead and our grandfather near death it is safe for me to begin to write it down. It is the story of how everyone’s story begins and ends in another story, and it is an answer to the puzzle of its authors’ unhappiness. It is also, of course, not a story at all but an understanding of how the many stories which have made us can also un-make us. In giving this understanding to you I must tell you all the stories you already know and which you told me. You never explained why you were absent on the day our grandmother died. Here is the story of that day as I saw it, one end of the story I am beginning to tell.
I was at work when my mother called to say that I should come quickly, before the body was taken away.
I left without turning off or locking anything and caught a cab. I was angry with the Arab driver for not being able to understand the name of the street, which I repeated several times, each time more angrily. “Are you at work?” “No. A member of my family has just died — I’m trying to get to the house.” He drove more quickly and when I arrived my cousin, Robby, was walking across the lawn outside his mother’s home. We embraced quickly and I went inside.
The daughters were still weeping in bursts and waves: my mother in the bedroom, alone, where she told me that I was too late — and sorry that I had missed seeing my grandmother before she was taken away; and my mother’s three sisters — Emily, who looked sweetly calm but could not stop cleaning the kitchen and benches for fear that if she stopped she would have to cry; Patricia, quiet and confused; Anna, hypnotised by the telephone which did not stop ringing and by the valium she had taken to slow her thoughts. Grandfather, too, was composed — more than I would have believed possible. No one, though, was relieved enough by the suddenness of Nan’s departure to be happy with the performance of the ambulance men who had ambled toward the house and apparently made no attempt to revive her. The conversation at the kitchen table retold the details for each nephew and niece who arrived through the afternoon.
She had been in hospital for tests during the week and the doctors had not been able to find anything wrong which would explain her complaints about loss of consciousness and dizziness. “They told us to ignore her if she held her breath again.” She decided on Friday that she wanted to come to see her husband. They had been living apart only because both were ill and neither strong enough to take care of the other. She got out of the cab, putting her walking stick, coat and bag on the sofa in the lounge room, went into the kitchen to have a cup of tea with her husband, Emily and Anna. She was laughing and smiling. After twenty minutes, at about half past eleven in the morning, she turned her head to look at her husband and then collapsed forward at the table. Anna put her hand out to catch Nan’s chin. When Anna opened her mother’s eyelids she saw that the eyes were pointing into the head. “I knew then that she was gone.” As the story was retold people commented that it was good to go suddenly and without pain. “She must have known.” “I thought she was still alive when she was lying on the bed and her chest started to bubble as though she were breathing.” “Yes, that happens.”
The grandchildren, my cousins, turned up one by one, Shaz first, with her three children, one newly born. They disappeared soon after arriving to cry in the bedrooms. From the kitchen we heard them sobbing. Sean was second. He did not stop crying all day and was inconsolable.
I stood at the sink. Emily cleaned things. Nan had been staying with her during the last few weeks. “I heard that she was really happy with you.”
“You’re the only one who’s said that. Thank you.”
Anna stood beside me, in a moment between telephone calls, and said “There is a God.” — And later, sitting at the kitchen table, she said, “I was down at the clothes line this morning and I begged Him to find her a home. Please, God, find my mother a home, I said to Him. And He has answered me. There is a God.” She cried and it was only then that I cried, too. I could not be sorry that she had died when for her to have lived and to worry about her was a continuous torture for Anna.
Late in the afternoon an arctic and bureaucratic minister arrived to make arrangements for the funeral. He spoke for a while, by rote, of the difficulty of coming to terms with the death of a “loved one”, and in sentences easily transposable to suit the loss of anyone or anything, wife, mother, keys or cat. Listening to him ask questions about the family, how many daughters, how many sisters and brothers, when was the marriage, where and why, I almost forgot what had happened to us and why we were crying.
No one was prepared to or could be bothered cooking. People put cold chips between pieces of bread and ate slowly, out of an obligation to eat.
Grandad was put to bed slowly. There was a pill for him to take if he needed it.
Robby drove me home. I had been falling asleep whenever and wherever I sat. Still, when I got home, I could not sleep when I wanted to. I telephoned David, Patricia’s son, my cousin, because he had called me during the day and left a message. “Come on, Johnny. I haven’t seen you in such a long time. We’re just sitting around here, having cups of tea. Sean is here, and Shaz. We can’t sleep either. Come on over, please. I want to see you.” I went.
Sean had not yet stopped crying. His fat body and weepy eyes now looked more comical than sad. The others, less determined to be grief-stricken or less feeling, were content to reminisce with lukewarm tea.
Later, as the children were put to bed, all the adults affirmed their intentions to keep in touch with each other and, as they did so, reached for their coats; beyond arrangements for the funeral, they knew there would be no reason for anyone to meet or speak.
Months after this I learned the reason for Sean’s distress, or what I have told myself is the reason for it. His mother, Emily, was unable to cope with having her own mother in the house with her. You can imagine what it was like. Emily had told Anna that some new arrangements would have to be made to accommodate our grandmother. Sean was aware of this problem and has blamed Emily for his grandmother’s death ever since.
Emily fears some truth in the accusation. Sean is ashamed to have spoken it. Anna remembers that she prayed for release and was released. It is only in those moments they are exhausted by self-accusation that the truth can be heard and their own voices tell them one fact cannot have so many reasons. — She is dead and there is the end.
Late that night, on the day our grandmother died, which others took to be an end, was only the beginning for us. You had been in prison for more than a year and I at my desk with a typewriter. We had both been unhappy. A man can lose himself in too much freedom or through lack of it. When we went out that night to drink and talk, for the first time face to face in ten years, the dream I was in while listening to you speak showed me how I would find myself. You were lucky, you said, to have such big veins. There is now hardly any mark there.
“I was lucky I had big veins that stood up and were easy to find. You can still see a scar there … In the drug rehabilitation programme you’re allowed to just sit at the back and listen for the first few times. Then one day the guy just came up to me and handed me a texta and showed me to the board where I was supposed to write down everything about all the drugs I’d taken and what was happening to me when I was doing them. And when I was finished he went up to the board and divided my life into four clear parts. Basically, all stuff about my father … You even tell them about your dreams. I told them about my junkie dream where I put the needle in my arm and I miss. If you miss the vein you don’t get the rush in the head, it comes on slow and it’s like you’ve been done out of your money … I was punishing them by punishing myself … When I was a really young kid my bastard of a father promised me that he would buy me a rotten radio-controlled airplane and he did one day, and he got the thing out of its box and we went down to the park where he tried to get the thing to go. It wouldn’t go, no matter what he did. He got angrier and angrier and finally crashed it to pieces on the ground, poured petrol over it and set it alight. It went up in flames. I cried. Of course, by the time he got to telling the story in the pub to his mates it had changed quite a bit … There were other things. I can’t remember. You’re quite right though, Johnny, like you said in your letter, he has punished himself. There isn’t any need to be angry about him any more. I’ve got my son, Matthew, from that bitch, Zara, and all I want is to give him what he needs as well as a bit of what he wants. I’m spoiling him, I know, but I love the little bugger … I started with my friends, the peer thing. You know. But then it turned into something else. It’s a weird life, Johnny. The cabbies get to know you, you know, so that eventually they won’t come to pick you up when you want to get somewhere. I don’t blame them. I used to go somewhere in a cab, trying to score some shit, and just get out and walk away. I didn’t know what I was doing. Sometimes I used to get into cabs with the stolen video under my arms. Fuck. They must’ve laughed … The ones in prison are the stupid crims. I was stupid. I was always getting caught on the scene with the video under my arm, or else I’d get into a place and just fall asleep on some poor bastard’s couch. It’s fucken stupid, Johnny, I tell you. The last time it was for getting caught stealing shit from a guy who was a dealer and he got up in court and played the good citizen, saying that he’d had all this jewellery and stuff stolen from his place, but it was nothing like that. I was scared when I was in there. It’s a bad fucken place … The first day I was in the remand yard, waiting to be transferred, a guy was holding something in his hand — it was wrapped in paper — and he walked up to this other guy right in front of me and stabbed him in the throat. Jesus. It’s bad. The guy survived. The screws took us up one by one and asked us all what happened. I just said I didn’t see anything — I was in the showers. There were eighty fucken guys in the shower that day. No one saw anything. So this screw asked me if I would say anything even if I had seen it, and I said No — don’t be stupid, and that was it … It’s best not to make friends in there, not to get involved in any of that shit. I just stayed to myself, did the weights in the gym till I had sixteen inch arms, acted tough and they left me alone. And they knew that my father had some heavy friends outside, and that helped. Some of them get in there and immediately start sizing everyone up — I’m tougher than him, but I’ll stay away from that guy — the top dog game. It’s no good. Someone’s sure to get you if you start doing that sort of thing — they’ll size you up and take you on … When they put me in the cell I heard this hammering on the other side of the wall and a guy yelling. He came out, still conscious — I don’t know how — with holes the size of twenty cent pieces in his head and covered in blood. Shit, it was awful. And he walked down toward the stairs. I don’t think he knew where he was going. And this crim who’d arranged it came up to him with an aspirin saying, ‘Looks like you got a headache, mate. Here, have this.’ … Most of the stuff that comes into the jail comes in up crims’ arses or inside their girls. If she turns up and doesn’t have the stuff in her, the guy tells her to piss off straight away as though he doesn’t want to see her. It doesn’t count as a visit until after five minutes, so he can get her to come back until she comes with the stuff. And there are a couple of corrupt screws, especially that one who got caught, Ps, he was a real fucken dog. You can tell how it’s come in by how big it is. I saw a slab of dope so big it couldn’t have come in in anyone’s arse, not even if you’d been fist-fucking — it must’ve been a screw … They say that the crim who’s getting sucked isn’t queer, that it’s only the guy with the dick in his mouth, but I don’t believe it. A guy doesn’t do anything for me. You can’t just close your eyes and make it work like that. In the dorm they have one bunk down the end with blankets up around it and everyone knows what’s going on inside it. I used to just sit down the other end playing cards, really fast. This one guy, I feel really sorry for him, the poor bastard — I don’t want to say he was asking for it, but he would suck anything and he had both hands going, and you can’t do that if you want any respect — almost everyone would fuck this poor cunt. Someone got one of those kitchen things full of boiling water and poured it over this poor bastard in his bed. When they pulled the blanket off him all his flesh tore off with it. Shit. I was sick. That was the worst thing I ever saw … You’d have to be really fucken stupid or really fucken hopeless to want to go back there. I don’t want it, Johnny. It’s not for me. I’m doing OK on the methadone — it’s really good for me. I feel good. I just want to be with Matthew now, sort a few things out. I’m not gonna make that mistake again. I’ve gotta keep my head for Matthew’s sake, Johnny.”
Even as you were speaking I dreamt of God’s needle.
“It’s a headless world, David. People walk around without their heads — at some point they’ve decided that they don’t need them any more and have done a violence to their own lives, thinking it doesn’t matter that they no longer think — without their heads. It’s no wonder nothing gets said that makes any sense.”
I slept through Saturday, still dreaming. I must have dreamt and must have woken but I can’t remember of what or when. Then it was Sunday and then it was evening; and I was trying to sleep, to forget and to sleep, and to forget what was preventing sleep — my dream of needles.
… “Mmmmm” — I remembered her becoming a child again as the strokes destroyed her memory and her ability to connect one thing with another. “Mmmmm”, she would hum with a lolly in her mouth, as if sweetness were something new. For twenty years I have loved to touch the soft, flabby flesh which hung from her old arms — and putting my head there, it was like resting in down. — And her cooking, in the tiniest kitchen I’ve seen, a meal that was spread twelve feet along the Christmas table. — And her smile, awkward while being photographed, the colors of the flowers on her dresses which are still there, in all our photographs, and packing bags and waking early to drive through the dark and the fog to Castlemaine where she lived with her husband, and the colors there, the wood stove, the table dusted with flour, and the story of how she and her husband made love in the last ten minutes before he went to the war. Oh, Jesus. O, God, why are you doing this to us now? We praise people by how much good there is to remember of their lives and there was so much and what good has it done her all that praying? Nothing. I’m not going to pray. I won’t pray ever again. Should I be saying to myself this is good? Yes. I’m glad she’s gone. For Anna’s sake — made weak by caring for them both, this will make the burden lighter. Or, No. She was the only person I knew who went in a covered wagon when she was a kid with her brothers and sisters. And the photo — torn down the side — of her in a long dress and her hair tied back for work at the boot factory in North Melbourne where Grandad saw her from high up in the flour store of the bakery and said “I’m going to marry her”. There’s a joke: how the needle came down when he said that, and it went straight in the vein, and what he had planned came true. It doesn’t always come true. It doesn’t always come out the way we plan, and we miss. That life, I see taking its whole form, now why do I want to take its end away from her: its sweet end looking into the face of her husband so long, from beginning to end? She sang, “There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle — right in the middle of her forehead.” “When she was good she was very very good and when she was bad she was horrid.” “Horrid.” O, God. Why? We wouldn’t have gone to those Christmases and everything, the sun, huge, the neighbors watching through their windows our lengthening table, year after year, Castlemaine, Preston, Sunshine, the chickens in the yard and the dunny where she told us the redbacks hid, we wouldn’t have gone. No. We wouldn’t have gone. Everything we are she was and how will we tell where we came from now? How will we tell? This small woman. My head is … O, God, my head is bursting. I watched the skin under her arms fall, soft, down, like down, feathery and soft in them. Why? Gone. God. Why, if You are going to deal, do You get out the needle and miss the vein? Why are we, this dream? It comes on slow and my head aches. Fuck You. Why don’t you give it straight, put a date-stamp on it or something? Fuck You, You bastard. Fuck You …
What is the story through which I have made myself? I am ashamed to tell it.
David, you know that my parents separated when I was very young. Even a young boy tires of asking Why? and before long any answer will do. — My whole life has been the story of unworthiness: I am a man who could not be loved. And it was through this story that I made myself and nothing that I am was made without it.
My mother has a new child. The little girl is ten years old. I will admit that I have envied her, envied them both, for having what was taken from me. And I admit, also, to believing with my whole being that the reason for this child was to correct the error of bearing me: this sister was my nemesis, which my mother made to punish me. Even in the crib she appeared as one who would threaten my existence. Near the end, I was consumed with hate.
That story made me and the one that was to follow un-made me. I had suffered too long with hatred and in silence.
A woman’s face can change in a way a man’s cannot. The change changes her. This is not a shallow change but one which reaches into every muscle and bone so that nothing of the way she lives and speaks is like it was before. And this is what happened to my mother.
On the day our grandmother died I saw my mother’s new face. It is stupid to say — but true — that, even in her grief, she glowed with life. It was only with this light in her face I could see my hatred was wrong.
Later, I confessed my envy and she, in return, told me the story of her life: that, when she was young and I was a child, my father was a drunkard and beat her; that, being young and stupid, she thought her whole life and freedom waited for her if she would run away; that she left me and that this was a mistake; and that she now endures a man as bad as the first only to redeem herself, to prove to herself, and to me, that love is possible.
It is hate that causes suffering, David, and love which returns us to the world.
I am almost at the end and there is only one more story to tell. It is the story of our grandfather’s throat.
Fifty years ago our grandfather’s brother, it has been said, abused a little girl, his own daughter; and, sitting in her father’s lap, she did not utter a sound when his finger entered her. Caught in this moment, his hand hung dead from its arm even as he pleaded it was innocent.
Men listen to this pleading with a panic that comes from knowing where desires could lead them.
Our grandfather panicked, too, closed his mouth and feared he would be tainted by his brother’s act.
After this, all his daughters made their plans to marry quiet men and hoped that marriage would make their husbands speak. Out of these men’s mouths, they thought, would come the words their father never spoke. Or, perhaps it was not a word the daughters wanted, but a feeling or an openness that had been denied to them.
All four men were steadfast, though, and took more easily to drink than talking.
No evil word ever came out of our grandfather’s mouth, nothing bitter or false. Haven’t we always thought of him as one above reproach, so that now, when he is old and ill and has the habit of being unhappy with everyone and everything, it is easy to forgive him for being slightly mad? — It is only because he is afraid of dying; and that will happen to us all.
— And it is difficult for him to swallow past the cancer in his throat, caused, I think, contrary to the doctors, not by smoking but by silence.
Are there any stories left to tell? I can tell you, David, because I know you will understand — there is no end to the reverie. Are we, even now, out of words?
I think of you often. I was angry when you returned to your prison. How can a man bear so much hatred of himself? I send you my love and the hope that, one day, you will need to be free.