Since Jerusalem

… for those who have died but live again.

The first thing I want to say is that everything I’m going to write down here is true. Obviously I’m going to lie a little here and there because you can’t tell everything you know about someone unless you’re trying to hurt them and I don’t want to do that. But as far as all the things that matter are concerned I’m going to tell the truth.

The notebook’s first page is a collection of titles. Most of them are crossed out lightly, or struck through; some have been obliterated by several layers of ink. Two of the titles are written in an unusually neat hand. They were the first and last choices. One of these two has been rejected because of its coincidental reference to a novel by Patrick White. Throughout the notebook the titles are repeated above versions of the same story or different parts of the same story. Everything in the notebook is unfinished.

There are two versions of the beginning: the first is a half-hearted claim to write nothing but the truth, and the second, in the middle of the notebook, is an attempt to begin at the beginning. He has decided this second attempt to open the story was too important to take the place it would naturally have in the record of a person’s life, and therefore adds the note, End—explanation?

The story is there, in the notebook, but, as it stands, it is little more than a record of the author’s failure to write it. “Story”, though, doesn’t describe it properly: some parts are like a diary, some actually a diary, some nothing more than notes on conversations. How much of it is true, how much fiction, doesn’t seem to matter.

I’ve been reading bits and pieces of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. —For years. I have to admit I don’t like Ezra Pound. There are others I don’t like, which is only natural, but with Pound I feel like I should apologise, like it’s a sin. Father, forgive me my sins. It has been years since my last confession, father, and these are my sins: I don’t like Ezra Pound. It’s nothing about the writing. I think it’s something personal. Something to do with the ‘hieratic head’, the arrogance of it. Something about the way his poems are treated like holy relics. But now I’m not so sure, because there’s this ‘Portrait d’une Femme’, and it makes me cry. I slobber over it. It’s not a terribly sad poem — at least, I don’t think it’s supposed to be.

“Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea.” No need to look at the note to understand what it means. My aunt is my family’s sea, beautiful and dangerous. So much depends on her.

Her life stinks and, unlike Job, she hates god for it. There’s no point in thinking that god might not exist—someone has to be responsible. Her bravery in cursing him during thunderstorms frightens friends who happen to be visiting.

All references to religion have been deleted, except a kind of prayer which I will show later.

In the next passage, not really part of the story, there is the reason for the writing.

More than a year ago my aunt left her home and moved into a flat to live by herself. She left her husband and son. Everyone in my family was shocked by this and couldn’t understand it at all. I include myself, of course. I heard about it second hand, from my mother when she visited me one day, hunting for clues. She didn’t tell me the whole story because she didn’t know it all herself. She didn’t say, for example, that some people in my family had been saying my aunt was a lesbian. “That’s the reason she’s done it. It couldn’t be anything else.” All I knew was my own disbelief.

When mum kicked me out of her house because she wanted to get on with her life, I left quite happily because I wanted to get on with mine. Kids run away just because they’re growing up, or because they think they’re growing up, which is the same thing. It’s about independence. A year ago independence was the only reason I could find for my aunt’s flight. I’d forgotten—not even thought, because it had never been necessary for me—it could also be about survival. Women know this other explanation deeply. Men don’t seem able to think it.

After the titles are four photographs, one to a page, pasted to the lined paper with art cement. The aunt is first. She is cutting a cake (a birthday cake?) and there is a Christmas tree in the background. The uncle is second. He is holding up a glass of beer in the gesture of ‘Skoal!’ and grinning broadly. Grandparents are third. It is a portrait taken with a diffusing lens-filter. A window off to the left of the couple throws light into a dark room. The tan on the face of the sun-loving husband and the flowers on the wife’s dress look painted. I am the fourth. My appearance, as a photograph in the notebook, is puzzling: the only other reference to me I can find is the letter “M” underneath the picture. It would have been more appropriate to include a photograph of the cousin, Robby.

Then there are two pages of scribbling. Two addresses, doodles, and a figuring of dates which arrives at the answer “1953?” The best, but still inadequate, version of this year is written like a report; the rest are only notes.

sailors-women-1946inmelbourne

When she was thirteen everyone called her a tomboy. She used to box with a boy who lived down the street where she lived in Richmond. His name was Johnny Famechon and he went on to make a living beating young men to a pulp in the ring. When he was a kid, though, he used to come out second best against my aunt. In the same year, 1953 I think, there was a hot December night and nothing very important was happening. Anyone who was moving was moving slowly. Maybe half the women in the street were sitting out on their patios drinking beer. One of my aunt’s cousins, older than her but not by much, started talking about sex. It was a subject my aunt had not given much thought to. What was said—something crude and, in fact, a lie about my aunt’s mother—doesn’t matter in the long run. I’ve no intention of bringing it to life by repeating it here. It’s more important to tell how I was told of it.

My aunt was trying to remember how she felt. She said very clearly, very directly, “I hated her.” As she said this I remember seeing this hate as though all the years which separated her present self from that former one were suddenly transparent and irrelevant, and I could see the core of what she was that night her cousin told her the lie. Now I don’t know whether she was referring to her cousin, her mother, or both of them.

That hate lasted eleven years, from the night in December, 1953, to the day she gave birth to her baby. What happened during these eleven years is difficult to explain, and I don’t pretend to understand it at all. She says that this hateful “thing” which had formed inside her was alive, but also silent, like a place where light and sound could enter but not leave, a listening, lizardy thing, cold-blooded, not human. She became ill, and refused to carry on conversations even with people she had known for years. There was going to be a place no one else would know about, where she could be alone; and since there was no place in the real world she could make that happen, she created a place inside herself for that purpose. This place could be infinitely large, insatiably hungry.

There are more lies in here than are necessary to protect the people the writing refers to.

That first rule, Write about what you know, is not very helpful tonight. What I know tonight is that I have forgotten a great deal it would be useful to remember. There are only threads of conversations and stories left, which I pick up, trying to put them together. So, they’re together. How many lies will make a pattern visible?

My aunt used to listen to doctors, friends, and family talking to her, asking her what was wrong, and it would seem she wasn’t listening at all. Nothing seemed to get through. That was a mistake. In fact, she heard everything and let everything in. In her secret place she would be listening and speaking all the time, saying things like, “You’re all idiots! You’re never going to get in here!” Doctors can be idiots, too, of course. “It’s stupid to claim you know something when you don’t”, is her explanation of the work of psychiatrists. She does admit that one of her doctors came close to her.

He gave her paints and clean, white paper to work with. She liked painting, and still does, though she never paints people because she believes there is too much in people which can’t be seen. She paints only landscapes and houses. In Mont Park, the mental hospital, she painted what she saw and used only two of the colors in her set of paints, black and red. The whole surface of the white paper she’d been given would be covered with black, except for a thin, rectangular sliver of white right in the middle. At the end of this white sliver she put a red dot.

It was a cigarette. My aunt was certain that no one “in the whole world” would understand what it meant, but the doctor who’d given her the paints looked at it and said, “Well, there’s some hope for you yet. I’m glad you think there’s still some white to look at. It’s a window, yes?”

Less subtle, not-so-clever psychiatrists had already tried electric shocks to relieve her depression. The idea is that, if you shoot a certain number of volts through someone’s brain, the poor bugger’s going to feel as though he’s died, first, and then feel like he’s been born again, which gives him a new start in life. It certainly gives him a start. It wasn’t electricity which shocked my aunt out of her private place but the desire for light and the surprise of a real birth.

The notebook, its leaning toward an always incomplete story, seems to skirt the issue of a scandal in the family, providing the motive to write, but surfacing only in phrases delaying its appearance—“until recently … ”.

By 1959 my aunt had already married. I don’t have the foggiest idea how this happened. The details of this part of her life have never interested me very much, but now that I get around to this part they seem important and I’m pissed off that I can’t record it properly. I do know that her husband is a good man and loves her. I know that most of the time they sleep in separate beds. I know that until recently her marriage was the happiest in my whole family. I know there was a baby, my cousin.

After a few years she was still not considered to be really well or, at least, “normal”, and there was a lot of talk about whether she would be able to cope with a baby. For a while into the pregnancy her doctors continued to ask questions, mainly about sex. Neither my aunt nor her husband seemed to be very comfortable with it, but then you could say that about a lot of people, including most of the doctors, I suppose. She got fat. It was the first time in her life she looked like her bulging, robust sisters, and she thought it was wonderful. It was wonderful being fat; she wasn’t yet sure about the baby. If you could see her grand, muscular son now when he stands beside his tiny mother you’d probably laugh at the miracle of it. At some point she discovered the baby was protecting her. The doctors stopped asking questions. Occasionally she heard people say things like “It could go either way”, which she supposed was a comment on her mental state. She got fatter. She became two people. And then one afternoon, after complaining to the nurses of the women’s hospital for more than an hour, her son’s leg “popped out.”

I think it was a leg but it might have been his arm. She remembers travelling in an elevator with one or other of the baby’s limbs sticking out from between her legs and a nurse saying “You’re not being very helpful” as she wheeled my aunt’s bed into the delivery room.

After that there was nothing real, only a dream.

There are two dreams in the notebook: one recording a birth and the other a death.

Over the next few days the same dream kept coming back. She was being beaten cruelly by people who wanted to get inside her, and the baby wasn’t safe. Every night she had to fight these people off until her baby emerged with bruises on its face. The staff at the hospital and all the visitors recited a prepared speech when my aunt asked them why she could not see her baby. “Everything is all right. You must rest a few more days.” Robby did have bruises on his head, caused by the large clamp which had been used to assist his appearance in the world.

He has tried to assess Ezra Pound’s poem against his aunt’s life. There are lines in the poem which made him think of her, but others apparently did not sit comfortably with his ideas about her. Two pages of the notebook are devoted to this strange assessment, most of it unintelligible, referring to things and events not appearing elsewhere.

“Oddments of all things”
Pillow — Cigarettes — Huge jigsaw puzzle — Watches — Body
— Toasters — Radios — Matches

“Fact that leads nowhere”
Doctors

“No! there is nothing! In the whole world and all, nothing
that’s quite yr own.”
Anyone? What rubbish!

These are the only three parts of the poem clearly connected with parts of the notebook text.

It’s now about thirty years since the first time my aunt died. I’ve promised her the next time she dies, which will probably be from lung cancer at the rate she smokes, I will arrange for her favorite pillow, cigarettes and a box of matches to be buried with her. She says these are the only things she couldn’t bear to live without—or die without, depending on how you look at it.

After Robby was born my aunt started pulling things apart to find out what was wrong with them. Wherever she’s lived she’s become famous (locally) for being able to pull broken things apart and put them back together again fixed. Neighbors bring toasters, radios, tape-recorders, hair-dryers and children’s toys and puzzles for my aunt to work her magic. This is the way my aunt set about trying to repair the world and understand it, one thing at a time. Watches and clocks are her speciality.

One afternoon I went to visit her there were tiny pieces of metal scattered in what might have been an orderly fashion all over the kitchen table. She asked me whether I thought time was inside or outside a clock and I had to admit I didn’t have the faintest idea; so we just had another cup of tea while she put the clock back together again.

The meaning of the word ‘Body’ in the group “Oddments of all things” is not clear. The implication may be that the aunt’s peculiar mechanical abilities, her desire to “pull things apart”, were a substitute for a deeper interest in the workings of human bodies.

How can only three people be afflicted with so many unpronounceable names? ‘Von Recklinghausen.’ ‘Dupuytren.’ And so on. I imagine there are many like her, who live among the rest of us without ever telling us their special knowledge because they do not understand themselves it is something worth knowing. I imagine they have special powers given to them by their experience. And I imagine their numbers are growing.

I wish I were one of those know all authors who write stories where everything just falls into place, who make their characters do things like it was obvious what was going to happen all along.

In all the years I have known him I can only remember my uncle saying about a dozen things to me. Sometimes a few will come in combination: “Hi, how are you?” “It’s been a long time.” “What have you been doing?” I have a photo of him, glass of beer in his left hand and his mouth stretched to form an astonishing smile. It is really a picture of the mouth.

And then, the same thing over again …

Another Christmas has been accomplished. My aunt, her husband and son were absent this year. If they had said nothing, which would not be unusual, the rest of the family could easily have thought the three of them were staging a protest. It was not a protest. They went to meet Ken’s father halfway between the present and the past.

My aunt’s family seems to spend a lot of time not speaking. That’s not quite right: they speak, but do not tell. In all the years I have known him, before the last year, I can remember Ken saying only about a dozen things to me. Sometimes a few would come in combination: “Hi, how are you?” “It’s been a long time”, and, “What have you been doing?” I have a photo of him, glass of beer in his left hand, and his mouth stretched to form an astonishing smile. It is really a picture of a mouth. The mouth that doesn’t talk, at least not to me. It’s no less a friendly mouth just because few words come out of it.

I called her today to find out what had been going on. She didn’t come to Christmas lunch this year because she, Ken and Robby went up to the mountains to see Ken’s father. It’s been forty-four years. Father and son sat on the grass up there for hours, crying and talking, talking and crying, while the others, eating cold chicken, watched from a distance. My aunt couldn’t hear what was going on because her hearing aid was pointing into the wind. All she got was a roaring hiss. On the phone she kept calling the whole thing “pathetic”—“It was so sad, pathetic.”

He is relieved, at last, of the burden of having no past. Now, he looks there, seeing something solid, a grey face, old, not very impressive as far as faces go—but a face, life in its contours, a real death and loss in its future, something to know, touch, and kiss, or to hate and to blame. With this relief there will also be change. That must happen.

But, as for me, I am unchanged. The photographs prove it. I stare into the lens, my lips closed tight, not in the pose of a man who will not tell, but like one who has nothing to say. The one photograph which is most telling shows me clothed in black, in a solidly dark room. A light to one side of my face half lights me, and appears to freeze me in a world without its own features. The other half is completely black, and this is the place where I dream, and where, I suppose, my aunt lived. Who knows if there is any change or life there, or whether it is just a slow accumulation of junk and memory, where we might, if we were brave enough, go to find all our other selves, and write.

O God, who made us, who knows us, who knows our future
Who causes all our pain, and leaves us bewildered and helpless,
And free to die, and without hope, I know you are the God
Who is not God, who is our unfeeling, unthinking emptiness—
I know you are the God my aunt married, the dull, cold-blooded,
Blue-blooded lizard, and the dark, sticky resin where memory
Is planted, and where our feet stick. I know that I must fear You
As I fear the grave, and fear madness, because that is what you are.
I know that I must have you in my house and in everything I do
Because you are the living God who is dead in everyone,
Who sleeps and dreams with us, who arrives at breakfast
Stoney-faced, formal, in a black suit, like forgetting, and
Whose cruel, unbroken years of silence waits to break us.

Last night I dreamt I had fallen to the ground. I could see faces coming toward me, the familiar faces of the people I work with coming toward me. Arms reach out to touch me. Just at this moment I realise I am about to die. There is nothing these people can do to help. Someone calls for an ambulance. Since there is nothing I can do I watch my self dissolve; the faces looking at me disappear as I might seem to be disappearing to them. Then I am in a deep darkness. There is no sound and I can feel nothing. My mind is alive inside a black box. At this point—it has only taken a few seconds—I understand I have dreamt my own death, or I have actually died and that I understand nothing. What do I do now?

JERUSALEM (1942) postcard

“What is there left for me to do? My first death left me with a choice I could not avoid, to live forever in that black cave I made, with my own voice, or … I remember the moment Robby was born, as though he were punching his way free of the place where he had been confined with me. I knew then that I was not alone, and never had been. This small thing had been with me all along, even from before I was married. He had been with me for as long as I have been here. I emerged, too, along with my boy, and found the other place outside not much worth living in. Every now and then I discover some thing, or a small area to live in, flooded with light, things or places where nothing is hidden from anyone who cares to look. —A clock or a watch, for example, inside which nothing can be secret, and where, because of that, there can be no real darkness or misunderstanding. The closed box of a jigsaw puzzle, too, is a place always containing some perfect picture; it only needs opening and patience. On the other hand, people are completely mysterious, and hopelessly dark. It is impossible to paint them. They are all odd numbers. My husband, whom I love, I have lived with all these years and I still do not understand him. I cannot explain the bad time we went through. The bruises, the drink, everything obvious about that time … I know I have not been the easiest person to get along with. He saved me once. I think it must have been he who saved me. At some point I can no longer remember I must have willingly come out of my madness and loved him. This must be true. I am here, after all. And we have survived all this. We are no longer alone together, but together. Something deeper has saved us all, and continues to save us. When I was young, very young, my parents already knew I was to be the odd one out, and odd even among all the odd in the world. I was the last of four sisters. My father was going to the War, taking a ship to the Middle East. It would be a struggle with four kids at home. The wartime censors pretended to keep secret where the men had gone. I still have a letter which dad sent home that has a square in the top right hand corner neatly removed. But there is also a yellow-brown postcard with the word JERUSALEM boldly printed at the bottom. On the docks, before he left, mum told me later, was where I was conceived, in the last ten minutes before all those years of silence. I can’t imagine where they found a quiet place to make me, or if they were worried about that. It was a quick job, but one well done, mum says. They never loved each other more than in that moment just before leaving, which was a kind of death, and never hoped more for the life that was promised after death. That is the reason I am here, and the meaning of everything that has happened to me …”

Originally published in Meanjin, 1990. (Reader’s report by Gerald Murnane.)