Late in 2019, the Australian prime minister (marketing guru and shitty-pants Scott Morrison, ‘Sco-Mo’ to you) and his theatre assistants removed the federal administration’s arts appendix. One moment the word ‘Arts’ appeared somewhere in the names of government departments, and the next it had gone. Snip! And he chucked it in the bin.
Well, not exactly… ‘Arts’ was removed from a department’s name. To compensate, the yarts (as they are called in Australia) got an office. The Office of the Arts: <https://www.arts.gov.au/>. Never have the arts and government been so closely aligned than in this uniform resource locator.
There were articles in newspapers, outrage on the arts websites, and a long rash of angry emojis at the end of comments on Facebook.
The conservative government in Australia, returned at the May 2019 election by a slender margin, had decided a feature of the victory after-party would be to show the country’s angry, artistic child the door. “Your mother and I are tired of you! Always with your hand out, and never a word of thanks! Get a job!” And then, the ‘clap’ of the fly-screen door and a barely audible ‘clack’ of its tiny snib that seemed to say, “And don’t come back.”
Making art is a patient, lonely business. Making any progress seems to require years of practice and a bit of luck. Guidebooks and internet articles about being an artist, full of advice and clichés, pile up very quickly. Be yourself. Tell your truth. Talent is important, endurance essential. In the age of Instagram, sexy drawings and a bubble-butt are handy, but not essential (or so they say). Governments are not needed, but academic sinecures, supervising doctorates in novel-writing or discussions of queer theory, good if you can get them. When universities are financially sous vide, as they will be emerging from the 2020–forever pandemic, place bets at long odds that the arts will be favored for rehabilitation.
Governments, truth be told, don’t want to help. The governing classes are too busy ‘governing,’ which might as well mean lying, or fudging, or crying crocodile tears, or making a killing on the stock market, or taking a holiday in Hawai’i. To be the governor is to be the winner, the one who calls the shots, to be ‘the decider.’ From their high station in life these decider-governors have a role in narrating our social experience. They have a role we give them in legislating to tell us what is and is not important. (Have you noticed how very often our prime minister tells us what is important, and how very important is the very thing he is now saying?) It’s been a long time since governors of any stripe have shown us how the arts and sciences are important. Business, the economy, the stock market, and jobs are important. Wages growth, arts, and science, women, not so much.
UNFURL, my arts publishing project, was a reaction to artists’ reactions to government biases against the arts. Who needs government moneyanyway? I thought. It turns out, lots of people working in the arts need audiences, and it’s not easy to find and maintain audiences without government assistance. And, even within my narrow range of interests—writing and visual arts—the connections between arts activity and funding are deep. Poetry is not the malnourished tenant of the attic it was in Australia in the mid-1980s. The long lists of books for review and the number of official insignia on web pages are two possible measures of this.
At the same time, long-established literary magazines have had their funding cut. There is money for the arts, so long as it is going to places where the expenditure can be seen to be spent. Government wants the internet to sing “Hey, big spender!” while it cuts funding to Meanjin and others. It may be partly Meanjin’s fault: it has had nearly thirty years to figure out how to get its great store of content online for prospective subscribers to access, while the failure to do so begins to look like obstinacy.
UNFURL asked writers and artists to promote their own work to their own social media contacts while doing the same for other artists and writers: it’s a tool for artists to find new audiences and readers. UNFURL /1 started with a couple of writers I knew, Davide Angelo and James Walton, and a writer whom Angelo recommended, Anne Casey. Susan Wald, also published in the first UNFURL, was a painter whose work I liked and who had an exhibition planned for early 2020. I wanted to establish a process that could lead to unexpected choices. I would try not to make selections. I wanted artists to select or recommend other artists; and I wanted those artists to choose for themselves what they wanted to show with as little mediation as possible, encouraging people to show and to publish work they liked, and that might not have been selected (or grouped together) by an editor or curator.
It is more efficient to work on all one’s secret agendas simultaneously, so I should also admit my concern that belle-lettrist aesthetics (including the idea that poetry is language’s semantics incubator) and faux-modernist experimentation have combined to make poetry mostly irrelevant and a branch of marketing. —One only has to look at the writing being selected by the selectors to see that something is wrong with the practice of selection. As much as possible, I think, best to leave artists to make their own choices; and if there are mistakes, then, we’ll know who to blame.
And then, in March 2020 … then was the actual end of the world-as-we-knew-it. Those crazy ‘preppers’ I’ve made fun of started to look like visionaries. “Where the fuck is my bolthole, goddammit!?” and “How big is your bolthole, my friend!?” could have been common questions in some circles. People who could afford it, and had somewhere to go, did leave town. Gen-Xers lost their hospitality jobs, decided that they couldn’t afford their share house rent, and moved back ‘home.’ Artistes no longer had audiences. Artiste-enablers, stagehands, administrators and carpenters, were also out of work. COVID-19 put the arts and sciences back in the news.
The intersectional tragedy of pandemic and conservative political hostility to the lefty arts seemed to many like another opportunity to turn indifference into punishment. It was hard to disagree with pundits who have been cataloging this punishment.
UNFURL, possibly because of all this, has done quite well. By the time UNFURL /5 was released, writers and artists could expect to reach about two thousand readers within a couple of weeks of publication. (Each new UNFURL number provided a little boost to the previous issues, so that all the issues now clock up numbers in the thousands.) Eighty per cent of readers were in Australia, and most of the rest in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland. The male:female ratio of readers was almost 50:50. The largest age group of readers was 18–35 years. (Though if everyone is ten years younger on the internet, maybe that’s 28–45.)
It’s difficult to read poetry on small-screen devices, so I did not expect UNFURL to be read on phones. The visual arts component of UNFURL is quite effective on phones and tablets, however. It seems likely that readers interested in the writing in UNFURL resorted to their desktops and printers. Sixty to seventy percent of downloads of UNFURL were to mobile and tablet devices.
I learned that women writers (poets) had a ‘stronger’ following among women readers than men had among readers of any kind. It was very apparent, with Gina Mercer, for example, that a very significant number of readers returned more often, subscribed more often, and were women.
I learned that social media isn’t the be-all and end-all of connecting with an audience. Old-fashioned email also works really well. Some artists and writers had no significant social media presence but used email effectively to communicate with friends and contacts.
I also learned that visual artists were, generally speaking, more enthusiastic and positive about using social media, and even better at basic stuff like answering messages. Visual artists be like Molly Bloom; writers be like Prince of Denmark.
I found that both writers and artists did things in UNFURL other publications might not permit (requiring, as they mostly do, first publication rights). Philip Salom published groupings of new and old poems. Alex Skovron published poems, prose, paintings, and drawings. Steven Warburton published a series of pictures about how one canvas evolved over several years. Robyn Rowland published poems and their translations into Turkish for her readers in Turkey. Ron Miller published a brief survey of his life’s work in space art.
We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.
—attributed to Michel de Montaigne
Our hotel would have accommodated the more sinister sequences of some cloak-and-dagger ‘B’ film. During the night, a French letter in the lavatory bowl refused to be flushed by either of us. Then in the morning we had our first glimpse of Olympus through the haze above the curving bay. Any true Grecophile will understand when I say that the unsinkable condom and the smell of shit which precede the moment of illumination make it more rewarding when it happens.
—Patrick White, Flaws in the Glass
As a child in the 1960s, in the then newish Melbourne suburb of Forest Hill, I attended Saint Timothy’s Primary School. The little church in which I was confirmed and where I confessed my drab sins was a wooden fire hazard. I went to a service there every Sunday with my father’s mother—my own parents having separated. On one side of it were the school’s classrooms, and on the other a nunnery, both buildings made in what looked like, then, to be a modern style. The school was established in 1962 by the Sisters of the Infant Jesus. I had no idea who they were. To the seven- or eight-year-old me they were the handsome, unthreatening mystics of education who never said an unkind word.
I do not recall having religion forced
on me. We said a prayer now and then before running out to play. Occasionally
there was a bit of unruly, awful squealing of hymns in the church. And the nuns
chose me to appear in ‘dramatic’ reënactments of the nativity story. Even at
nine or ten years of age I knew that painted cotton wool beards were not a good
look, so I pulled mine off just before walking on stage and tried to look wise
without it. This kind of disruptive behavior should have permanently blotted my
curriculum vitae: ‘Not a team player.’
I wanted to know what the deal was with
these nuns. During an afternoon nap, while lying on the floor near Sister
Henry’s workbench, I determined to look up her chalk-covered tunic to see if
there was anything there that would provide an answer to the mystery of her
manly face. There was nothing. Just layers of perplexing, impenetrable, black
underskirts. Anyway, I was ten. Someone was walking on the moon. I ran home to
watch it on tv.
The Sisters of the Infant Jesus handed
me over to the Christian Brothers to complete my befuddlement.
When I was twelve and in the first year
of high school I helped fellow classmates cheat at Latin, allowing them to
steal my answers in order to escape the sarcasm, and strap, of the unchristian
maniac who ruled our Latin and math classes. I didn’t think I could help with
the math; I felt hopeless at that. This was the year that maniac was hit by a
car while riding his bike. For a couple of weeks this chastening episode turned
the rancorous sadist into the mild and kind teacher he should have been all
along. And then, without warning, ‘Mr Hyde’ returned.
Family circumstances required me to
sample the educational services of four different Christian Brothers Colleges.
After Thomas More’s Boys College (now called Emmaus College), I attended
Cathedral College in East Melbourne for two weeks, and then St Mary’s in West
A middle-aged man who was a customer of
my mother’s business began to use puns in his brief conversations with me that
were intended to suggest he knew of my interest in sex. I had not heard them
before but, after checking my Chambers
Dictionary, instantly recognised them as verbal concussion grenades. One
morning, at St Mary’s in West Melbourne, I armed these grenades and chucked
them in a history class without bothering to take cover. The lay teacher looked
at me for what seemed like a long time while the meaning of what I had said
sunk in and he tried to figure out if I had actually meant to use the
anatomical pronunciation of ‘aboriginal’. Something about my face must have
suggested I had. He sent me down to the principal’s office, where the whole
story of my new interest in punography had to be revealed.
St Mary’s principal was a
severe-looking bald man who demonstrated his eccentricity and his modernism
through the medium of Vespas. He rode his scooter everywhere. He travelled even
the short distance from St Joseph’s, where the brothers lived and which was to
be my next college, to St Mary’s by scooter. It was one block away. He put his
helmet on, started the scooter, turned one corner, and he was at work. When I
told him how I had become so expert at upsetting adults, he immediately sat
down so as to bring himself on the same level with me. He spoke to me with an
unfeigned concern about how important it was for me to avoid the man in my
mother’s restaurant. I knew the nameless thing he was warning me against. I had
sensed it, but not felt in any danger.
On sports days many of the St Mary’s
students would walk along Victoria Street to the Melbourne City Baths to go
swimming. One of the younger religious brothers at the school inexplicably
decided to go swimming with us, which required him to be naked in the
changerooms. When this happened, I suspected he was secretly trying to announce
that the brothers were, after all, ordinary men. We thought his arse was too
hairy and were distressed we had to look at it.
In the first years of the 1970s, boys
of my age could see the chaos in Vietnam had been worsening, even as news of
Australia’s decreasing involvement in the war there made no impression on me at
all. No adult ever mentioned or tried to justify to me why Australia was
involved in the fighting. It seemed to have escaped the notice of the adult
world that there were children waiting in the wings of its drama and we had no
idea what we were going to say or do when it was time for us to be pushed into
the spotlight. The matter was urgent because we sensed our bodies were changing
even as the threat of conscription increased. The election of a Labor
government was a relief.
When we were fifteen a classmate and I experimented with the social effects of our own precocious hairiness by going to an R-rated double-bill at the Forum Theatre on the corner of Russell and Flinders Streets in Melbourne. It was the 1973 version of The Wicker Man, followed by something in the vampire-sexploitation genre. The first movie seemed to be about burning Christians. We were disappointed there was not more sex, naked actresses notwithstanding. During the intermission we discovered that our hairy-arsed teacher had also been in the audience with us. He asked us if we liked the movie and we answered in a way that avoided telling him what we really thought, while still pretending to be three years older than we were. I do not think it worked, but he did not seem to mind.
At St Joseph’s College, in 1974, a
beautiful student whose parents came from Sri Lanka started calling me “Stevie
Wonder” and tickled my palm flirtatiously when he shook my hand. Was I being
mocked or flattered? Gough Whitlam was prime minister and anything seemed
possible. I listened to Motown, and liked it. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to
Melbourne. (There is a photograph of him flexing his muscles as he stands on
the tram tracks in Bourke Street. The long-haired boy in the striped shirt and
bell-bottom trousers standing behind him is not me— but
the claim of resemblance to my former self is credible, and several times I used
the photograph to ‘prove’ I once had a chance to push Conan, the barbarian,
under a moving vehicle.)
It was the golden age of religious
educational indifference. The Christian Brother who taught me nothing about
Australian history before 1788 stood one day behind a not-quite-closed door and
spied on the ‘Year 11 agnostic society’ pooh-poohing transubstantiation and
putting the resurrection of Jesus down to a bad case of food poisoning. When we
noticed him we expected our religious auditor to establish an inquisition.
Instead, he took his nose out of the crack in the doorway and walked away. In
retrospect, this now seems like the mature response.
One hundred years after the death of Winwood
Reade I got around to reading his book The
Martyrdom of Man. The initial excitement wore off after a while and I
entered a long period of theological apathy.
Young boys and girls everywhere, before
they reach what we have come to refer to as adulthood, trip over the idea that
adult convictions are a charade. We stand up, mud on our faces, feeling that we
are at the same time cynics and anarchists; we want to preserve what is in our
interests and to agitate against the failures of the world we have found ourselves
in. Some people manage to maintain an expectation of revolutionary possibility
about their own selves and about the world.
By the start of 1976 no psycho-social jamming was strong enough to block my ‘gaydar’. Of course, I was unsure about how to meet people. I was not old enough to go to bars; and the internet was still in the hands of the military-industrial complex; so, I found friends and education as a flâneur. I met men at night, but I was better at conversation than at sex. The first man who spoke to me was three times my age. He invited me to his flat—a tiny bedsit in the ‘CAIRO’ apartments across the road from the Carlton Gardens. He made tea. We talked, and he gave me a tatty copy of Voltaire’s Candide that I have treasured for nearly fifty years. Life, it says, is one episode after another of misfortune and suffering; and the only antidote is work.
In the second half of 1977, construction of the World Trade Centre was completed. Airliner ‘terrorism’ was in its first flowering. Voyager 2 was being launched. There was a uranium export debate in Australia. In August, a ‘docudrama’, The War Game, was shown at the Longford Cinema in Toorak Road, South Yarra. This BBC production by Peter Watkins was a critical event in the life of the high school friend sitting next to me. When the movie ended most of the audience decided not to leave and, instead, started the conversation right there in the theatre about what could be done. It took me a few more years to find the failure I would agitate against.
I left home in the
late 1970s. My mother thought gay people were “disgusting.” My first nights of
freedom I slept on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne, at a bend near where there is now a skate park. The first home of my own was a couple of
rooms in North Fitzroy that were more like corrugated iron lean-tos than rooms.
These rooms were air-conditioned but not waterproof; the windows were broken,
glass louvres, and the entrance door had a large hole in it. By 1980 I
had moved into digs, at the rear of 777 Park Street in Brunswick, that are
still standing and look like a granny flat. Worries about finding and keeping a
home were often on my mind.
In retrospect, the educational mystery
of my childhood is how I could have been treated so gently by most of my
teachers, spent so long in the care and company of outwardly religious people,
and ended up sharing so few of their beliefs. The same is true about sexuality:
growing up surrounded by intolerant, know-all heterosexuals clearly does not
lead one to become an intolerant, know-all heterosexual. Why do people believe
what they believe, and why do others’ prejudices always seem more urgently
troubling than our own? Attacking and shaming people for their opinions, beliefs,
choices and preferences has become a blood-sport, usually played while
crouching behind an anonymising avatar.
In the 1980s the appearance of the AIDS
virus turned my theological apathy into disgusted atheism, not because I
thought an omnipotent god could have avoided such misery but because there were
suddenly a lot of angry people claiming to be concerned with morals. At this
time, my humanistic, progressively-oriented opinionatedness was in full flower,
until I saw the world in its proper scale. I had a ‘Hubble moment’. It dawned
on me that all the stars of the night sky I had been looking at all my life
were just the lights of my local galaxy and altogether less than a
hundred-billionth part of the universe. This universe was, if properly
imagined, too large for spiritual and ethical systems focussed on what people
did with their genital systems.
It is oddly disorienting now to
remember that the cause of “GRID” was not known, though its effect was
immediately obvious: “Nothing is
more punitive than to give a disease a meaning,” Susan Sontag told me.
For a while I did volunteer work writing advertisements and pamphlets about sex. It was a subject I never claimed to know very well, but there were a lot of experts willing to talk, and there was a lot of ‘literature’. I made careful note of the interesting bits and tried to pass on the best intelligence. Patrick White had just published Flaws in the Glass, which contained the only example I needed that condoms were a good idea; the advertisements I helped to write, with a committee of volunteers at the local AIDS council, were less inspiring than Patrick White, but more appropriate for the toilet doors of gay clubs.
Then, I had a day job as a writer for a
union. I knew even less about Leon Trotsky than I knew about sex and,
therefore, resorted to the same creative process. And at night I joined
hundreds of people at telephone counselling services to answer questions from
people panicked by the Australian government’s ‘public service’ announcements
about AIDS. The telephone banks were in training rooms of the Fairfield
Infectious Diseases Hospital.
There was a very long period, years
that seemed depressingly long, when every diagnosis was a death-sentence. Like
scores of others in Melbourne, I did the required training and joined care
teams for people who were dying. I wrote stories and poems and hoped, like
Voltaire’s Professor Pangloss, that everything would turn out well in the end.
My next writing job was explaining
science to journalists: I tried to make laboratory fractionation dramatic, and
offered to fact-check their articles; they wrote articles about three-eyed fish
and called me a fascist. I learned that a good many, if not most, scientists
are, in their hearts, engineers who want to know how things work, to make
things work better, and to apply knowledge to practical problems or unproven
In his early middle age, the conservative and combative Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, had a thick mop of brushed-back hair. When he visited the city campus of RMIT, a rabble of students turned out to protest. A young man, dressed in flannel pajamas and an old-fashioned dressing gown, yelled at Kennett as he got out of his limousine, “Get a haircut!” We became good friends, listened to Bach and Nina Simone, and drank a great deal of champagne. Twenty years later he saved my life.
In the late 1980s and through the 1990s
reports began to appear in the media about abuse of children by Catholic
priests. The institutional failure of Catholicism to protect children from
abuse, to admit the wrongs done, and to offer reparations, is evidence of a
general failure of religious people to face reality. I used to imagine
religious fanatics and authorities could be cowed with public lashings of pure
reason. But the faith at the centre of religious belief is password-protected,
unassailable and shameless.
What can a former Catholic do with a
feeling of loss that is also the hope of loss? Any man or woman who is honest
with themselves must get used to abandoning prejudices and wrong beliefs. The
judge “standeth before the door,” and that judge is the world.
For years I tried hard to maintain a
small part of trust in the wisdom of the religion that educated me and tried to
protect me. But that church does not understand what wrong it did and is still
pretending that gay priests are the problem,
when the worse sin is betrayal.
In 2012, after many months of tiredness
and a feeling of disorientation, I spoke to a friend about how I was feeling. He
used to wear pajamas while he was painting in the artists’ studios at university.
He spoke to a nurse about what he had heard me say and they were concerned I
might have had a stroke. My friend called an ambulance. He knocked on the door
of my flat and, when I answered the door, two paramedics were standing behind
him. All three of them insisted that I would have to step into the vehicle that
had been manoeuvred into position so I could step into it directly from the
rear door of my apartment in St Kilda. One of the paramedics asked me a couple
of questions designed to ascertain whether my mind was still in one piece. The
ambulance moved onto the street and toward the nearest hospital. Sometime in
the next minute I was unconscious, and then in an induced coma for several
weeks. There were no distant, mysterious lights. There was, unfortunately, no
It was a long while before the wound on
the back of my left leg, caused by a bacterial infection, had healed
sufficiently for me to be able to stand again. I was confined to a hospital bed
and drugged for months, and the demarcation between my dreams and the real
world became very unclear. In the days between Christmas and New Year, 2013, I
imagined, and for a while actually believed, the surgeons of The Alfred
hospital had grafted a reproduction of a painting by Canaletto to my thigh
using a new technique to disguise the scarring of surgery. By mid-January 2013
I was at war, somewhere in rural Italy, in sets made by Cinecitta designers and
photographed by Pasolini. The electrical substation that was the locale of my
small part in the war had a touch of HR Giger about it—and, yes, there were well-dressed
Nazis who looked like they had just stepped off the set of a Mel Brooks video.
When the body is in ruins, the mind works on, regardless. Among the beliefs
most difficult to abandon is that we have a firm grip on reality. Seen in
retrospect, what we believed is as substantial and changeable as a dream.
Certainty is in the here and now, where we are sure we know what is real, and
where we are almost always in some way wrong.
Fifty years too late, perhaps, I
reached an age where The Epic of Gilgamesh
made sense as a fiction about life—something it is difficult to see when you
are young. Like the probably gay Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, we are all the
bad rulers of our own domains. In the end, we look to the places we called
home, forced to accept we will not survive; but our work, the city, its culture
and even its empty fields, will outlive us.… Candide was right.
Anyway, the word from the poor author, who’s writing this because he doesn’t have a ‘real’ job, is that he wants to know what’s going on behind those eyes, why we behave as though we still believe in fairy tales when it’s obvious that the world’s fucked. I’m thirty-something, so you’d think I’d have figured it out already; but that’s just the way it is. I’ve got plenty of time, though, if my heart holds out.
I met an author at a book launch recently and we talked about the painter Francis Bacon. An interview with Bacon called ‘The Brutality of Fact’ begins with the admission that Bacon harboured a sexual desire for his father. The author I was talking to thought this was shocking, impressively honest, very promising; but he was sure that Bacon was concealing something else with this honesty. Well, I’m not so sure about that. I’m mentioning this because I remember now what I was thinking while we were talking about Francis Bacon.
I was thinking that when I was a young boy I was fascinated by my father’s sexuality. I loved his body, his big dick and his hairy chest. For years, for most of my adult life, I have maintained the conviction, and touted it publicly, that I hated my father. At my twenty-first birthday party I called him an “elephant’s arsehole”. (Not very nice; but, then, we hated each other secretly: he ‘hated’ me for leaving him; and I ‘hated’ him for treating me so badly when I left.) When I come to think of it, these were almost the last words he ever heard come out of my mouth. Everybody laughed.
Kids are supposed to hate their fathers because they’re the competition in a boy’s love for his mother. Did you ever hear such a stinking lie? This conviction I have maintained, stylishly elaborating it for my small part of the world to hear, is, of course, a load of crap—a load of crap straight out of the elephant’s arsehole, so to speak. The truth is, I loved my father. When I remember him now, in the moments that he touched me, when, for any reason, his arms wrapped around me, I was in heaven. But, even when I was just eleven years old, I knew the boundaries of this feeling, without knowing how I knew them, knew that there were things that could not be done or said, and knew this prohibition was real without ever having heard it spoken.
The point is—to answer the question before it is asked—that Francis Bacon was not concealing something else with his honesty. No, that’s not it. I know what Francis was trying to conceal. In a little while (when I’ve worked out how to say it) I’ll tell you what it was.
It’s hard to say what the truth of ‘style’ is, or with what ‘style’ the truth can be written. I know that I am impatient. I know that poets cannot be trusted. And you know you cannot trust me. You do not know whether I am lying or telling the truth. If those bastards in their ivory towers have their way, no one will know whether this pronoun I am tossing around is the thing that stands for me or is something else. I’ll tell you honestly: it is something else, something that even people who are writers do not know, and people who are readers know even less.
All the most personal writing I have reserved for poems; an idea, a feeling, a gripe with the world, some angry moment or pleasant surprise hunches in a cool, dark place for years, confident that, because it belongs to a writer, no one will arrive with a ‘Use by’ stamp. In a poem, and in some kinds of prose, these moments can be gathered irrationally, bunched like flowers and achieve, without too much thought—apart from concentrating now and then on ‘music’, the need to avoid cliché, and the necessary test of truth—an aesthetic effect. My first poems were not, in any way, personal, except in the safest and most abstract way; they expressed my feelings, but in a way that safely detached these feelings from my person. Perhaps this is the reason, years later, when I read these poems, I’m surprised and grudgingly recognise myself as their author. A few weeks ago, when a Sydney fiction editor wrote to ask if I had any prose suitable for publication in a gay magazine, I was surprised, again, to discover I responded, apologetically, that I write on gay themes only by accident, as though two aspects of my self might collide at an intersection. There are several stories, I explained in my letter, on appropriate themes, but they are all too long and none of them is finished. But, even as I wrote my excuse, I knew that it was not quite true and that I might, some time in the future, have to recant. There are, indeed, long, unfinished stories. It is no accident that they are unfinished. Something has obstructed their completion. There is the story of a man of letters and his boyhood relationship with one of Australia’s greatest painters; a ‘true story’ of which so little detail is available to me that it must be reconstructed from almost nothing: it is like trying to imagine a body from a pile of bones. There is the story of a relationship between a middle-aged man with HIV and a young, straight, drug-addicted prostitute. This is the story from which my last book takes its name: ‘The Ninth Satire’. It is strange, isn’t it, that a book built on the foundation of a particular story should have been published without the very story that prompted it? I like the irony of it. For hundreds of years Decimus Junius Juvenalis’s ‘Satire IX’ was excluded from collections of his satires because it dealt with subject matter which many editors thought unprintable. The relationship of Juvenal to the interlocutor of his ninth satire, Naevolus, has always disturbed me. I cannot fathom Juvenal’s cruelty. And Naevolus is both crudely attractive and repulsive. It is difficult to write about what you do not understand. There is another story, also unfinished, about a young girl who becomes pregnant when she is fucked by a man she later discovers is bi-sexual. This story is about disillusionment, abortion, and feelings of revulsion. These stories have something in common apart from being unfinished. They are all, in some way, stories about my unfinished self, ideas that are waiting for the completion of the person who could be their author.
People like a story that moves forward briskly, sweeps them up in a whirlwind of plausibility and delivers them, not more than a little bruised, to unexpected, credible conclusions: something with a beginning, middle and end. —But life is not like that; at least, none of the lives I know are like that. A story may be composed entirely of things left unsaid, where one thing is not properly related to anything else; and it may move forward only by changing direction. This is a story of that kind. Its author is a character a little like myself; that is, only in the sense that he is also an author.
You see, that’s the problem—Francis Bacon’s problem, one of them—you start out trying to tell the truth and, as soon as you open your mouth, your relationship to it has changed: it is no longer the truth, but something that obstructs something else.
What does it mean when someone writes ‘I’? Geofroy Tory, the typographer and student of Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci, once wrote, “I cannot pass here without pointing out that our said letters were devised through divine inspiration. Homer, King of the Greek poets, states at the beginning of Book VIII of his Iliad that Jupiter once said he could, if he so wished, draw to himself by means of a golden chain all the other gods, and even the earth and the sea as well.” Tory imagines this chain, hanging from heaven to where we stand, “well proportioned in length and breadth, suited to the symmetry of our proportional letter ‘I’.”1 Victor Hugo, on the other hand, believed that “ ‘I’ is a war machine launching its projectile…”2 Can you imagine two more divergent explanations of the same thing? The upright letter. Tory draws his letter over the figure of a naked man. Anything could hide behind such a monument of typography, an ‘I’ that stretches from its author to the supreme god. Hugo’s letter is a cannon. It shoots its meaning into the heart of a reader, and it does not even have to be aimed very carefully to tear him apart.3
Now we understand each other. Now, as the story of this unfinished self goes on, you’ll understand this ‘I’ is both a monument of fiction (the obstruction itself) and the means by which the obstruction is removed. A typographer’s eye is another matter.
Mistake leads to interpretation. A proof-reader’s eye can unleash reverberations in a reader’s mind. Hans Gabler’s ‘definitive’ edition of Ulysses repeated the minor error of Clive Driver’s ‘definitive’ edition of Ulysses by deciding that Joyce had meant to write “lumps of coral and copper snow” at the beginning of chapter 15.4 The French translation of Ulysses5 says the phrase is “des couches d’une neige de charbon et de cuivre”—that is, “coal”, not “coral”. Joyce is preparing us for a descent into the underworld, not a sightseeing cruise to a coral reef. While we can imagine that Joyce would have cared greatly to give the correct impression here, the same cannot be said of all writers. It is Proust who interests me; the thousands of pages of digression, one tied to the other, so that a reader becomes lost in purely sensuous wandering, through a garden, along a path, the taste of a little cake dipped in lime-flower tea, the eye stopping for a moment on a young girl’s face. Proust did not seem to care about errors of typesetting. What he cared about was creating yet another digression, and when he received his proofs he added more writing to the galleys instead of reading them.6
“I gazed at her, at first with that gaze which is not merely a messenger from the eyes, in whose window all the senses assemble and lean out, petrified and anxious, that gaze which would fain reach, touch, capture, bear off in triumph the body at which it is aimed, and the soul with the body”, Proust writes, with a typographer’s eye, in the ‘Combray’ chapter of Swann’s Way, “then (so frightened was I lest at any moment my grandfather and father, catching sight of the girl, might tear me away from her, by making me run on in front of them) with another, an unconsciously appealing look, whose object was to force her to pay attention to me, to see, to know me.”7
The eyes are, perhaps, more important than anything—at least, to a person who has the use of them—and there is as much about them in our languages, poetry and morality, as any other part of the body, including the heart. Gray’s Anatomy describes the heart in less than ten pages (leaving aside all the things connected to it) and provides only two illustrations. The eye, however, has at least fourteen pages and five illustrations (not counting the Meibomian glands or the Lachrymal apparatus). The eye is in every aspect of our personality. While we keep the heart and mind separate, all minds have an eye—‘the mind’s eye’—to see things our other eyes cannot. This eye may be green, if we are jealous. And, as we know from the Psalms, having eyes is no guarantee that we will be able to see.8 Understanding is not only a matter for the eyes—‘an eye-opener’—but the speed with which it happens is measured in the eyes: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”9 There is an “inward eye”, according to Wordsworth, “Which is the bliss of solitude.” And, as we wander lonely as a cloud, like William, who knows, we might see Mr Dodgson through the looking-glass with our “dreaming eyes of wonder”. But it is all in the eye of the beholder. Some eyes have apples in them; some are jaundiced, some lacklustre; others have bags underneath. Many eyes are found in months—“men’s eyes in April / are quicker than their brains”10 —and there are a thousand, at least, in every night. Are there more eyes in Shakespeare than in the sky, than in the night sky, plus one, “the great eye of heaven”? “Alas, how is’t with you / That you do bend your eye on vacancy / And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?” Why are there so many eyes in Hamlet? “In my mind’s eye, Horatio.” “… Foul deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes.” “The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword.” “… Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres …” The eyes are the site of our most intractable prejudices. Black and white. “Appearances contribute to reality”, John F. Kennedy said. We know that there is something else, but our eyes tell us what we believe will be the truth. Our eyes connect us, by their immediate reaction, to what we know is viscerally, instinctively beautiful or horrible. Magnetic. Attractive. Insatiable. Repulsive. Ugly. An eye is a key that unlocks pornography. And while it is true that they can be closed, unlike our ears, which are always open (and, so to speak, ‘watchful’), even when closed the imagination keeps them alight. Memories stoke the fire. When we are asleep our eyes follow our dreams. The eyes hardly ever sleep. All of our desire is in them, and all desire’s sadness. The eyes are full of themselves and with everything else. It is with our eyes that we measure the world and first recognise ourselves in it. Sight, as Plato wrote in The Republic, stating the obvious, is the eyes’ “proper excellence”.11 —If only it were true. It is through them that we measure the visible world, and imagine the extent of everything that is hidden. First in the catalogue of human fear is the ‘unknown’, whose most compelling sign is darkness. The eyes are a list of suffering and joy. All of a person’s character may be in their eyes, as Gustave Flaubert knew.12 —And none of it. The eyes of the paranoiac imagine there is more in the eyes that follow him than there actually is. Why? It is because the content of eyes is very often ambiguous. We hope for love and fear rejection, and never know everything that is behind another’s eyes. A ‘visionary’ is one who saw things we did not, and so is a madman. Visionary and madman are measured by what our own eyes see, or don’t see, as the case may be. (Madness, as the mad will tell you, if you ask them, is mostly in the ears. Thoughts are ‘heard’. The mind is a noisy place. But, after the ears, the eyes are the next to go. Light and dark angels appear where voices were.) And, as Michel Foucault has shown, modern medicine was born in the eyes: “The gaze will be fulfilled in its own truth and will have access to the truth of things if it rests on them in silence, if everything keeps silent around what it sees.”13 Two eyes are needed to appreciate perspectives. A mystic is helpless without the third. A banker may not have a heart but he keeps at least one eye on the bottom line. Some people “only have eyes for you”, which is a somewhat unlikely compliment. To have eyes like these is, in short, to be human. Even Jews have them! “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?”14 And niggers, queers, perverts, socialists, women, Liberals and child-molesters have them, too.
Are you following me? Good. Then let’s go to New York—city of many niggers, Jews, Koreans in self-serve salad bars, and millions of eyes. The contrasts are surprising. Times Square is said to have more ‘language’ hanging in the air than any other place on earth; a vortex of signs and speech, a typographer’s dream. Wall Street, on the other hand, where language has been replaced by ‘data’, is a cold, almost signless, windy canyon that, I was surprised to find, has a dark and eerily beautiful graveyard, beside Trinity Church, at its entrance. I walked back from Wall Street to my room on West 48th Street by wandering up West Broadway through Soho and Tribeca (in Spring Street there is an old building now dubbed ‘Poet’s House’—it’s in the NY phone book—where a monthly calendar of literary events and readings is published), the Village and, on the other side of Washington Square, Chelsea, up Eighth Avenue past the General Post Office (“NEITHER SNOW NOR RAIN NOR HEAT NOR GLOOM OF NIGHT STAYS THESE COURIERS FROM THE SWIFT COMPLETION OF THEIR APPOINTED ROUNDS”); a walk that, with occasional stops and small detours, can take a couple of hours. The 40s streets on Eighth could be avoided at night, if you are so inclined: they are full of visionaries, madmen, typographers and tourists. A typographer, I kept my eyes open, of course. There is so much to see. I walked into a salad bar where you can fill a small plastic container with whatever you like and pay, according to the weight of what you’ve chosen, only a couple of dollars for dinner. A tall, white red-neck in the queue in front of me was having an argument with the small Korean woman who weighed the meals. I had seen her here several times before, at all times of day, and concluded that she never slept. The red-neck had had enough of something. Maybe there are just too many people with yellow-brown skin in Manhattan these days. He exploded angrily, made some offensive remark, threw coins on the counter, and exited with his plastic container. The Korean woman said something to me that I didn’t understand, and then she laughed. I smiled quizzically. I was becoming accustomed to having conversations in which less than half of what was said could be understood. The previous night a cab driver had stuck his head out of his car and asked a black woman on the street, “Where is two-thoity-sex?” “Two-forty-what?” the black woman had replied in a well-educated tone of voice. I imagined these two people had spent most of their lives growing up together, one from Brooklyn, the other from the Lower East Side and, with only the East River between them, at this one, chance meeting, effective communication seemed impossible. I picked up my plastic container, which the tireless Korean woman had put in a little bag for me, and continued on my way. My eyes were still open. “Hey! Baldy!” I turned around. I realise, now, that this was a mistake. I should have kept my ears closed but, as I’ve already warned you, the ears are ever watchful and cannot be closed. A little Jewish man with long, messy hair, and dressed in a long, dirty, black coat, was hobbling behind me. He looked, in the moment that I saw him, like a mad and visionary Rabbi—not someone to be messed with. “Wha’do you want, baldy?!” Under no circumstances was I going to stop for this man. He had seen something, I don’t know what, leaning out of my eye as I walked along Eighth Avenue toward my room. Desire, perhaps. Whatever it was, he didn’t like it, and he was going to get me. “Hey, baldy! Wha’do you want, eh, baldy? Bald man!! Stop! Wha’da ya looking here for, bald boy?” he cried angrily. This guy was getting on my nerves. I walked a little faster, consoled myself that West 48th Street was only around the next corner and this nightmare would soon be over. But I was also angry. I was, after all, innocent of everything, except having eyes; and in New York there are millions of those. A moment later I realised that this caustic Jew and I had become a spectacle: ‘AVENGING RABBI CHASES GENTILE FROM PIT OF INIQUITY’. —This is what the German tourists have come to New York to see. What business was it of his where I looked, what my eyes saw? And this ‘baldy’ thing—it was very embarrassing. Had my corner not arrived just in time to save me, I would have turned on him and given him the slanging match he so richly deserved. My trump card was 2 Kings 2: 23-24. A Jewish nightmare, I thought, is a Gentile who knows the Old Testament. “And he went up from thence to Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.” I was shocked to look with my ‘inner eye’, in what should have been the “bliss of solitude”, on great reserves of hatred. Visionaries and bigots—the only way to cure them is to pluck their eyes out. This place, I thought, must be Hell in summer.
It is the same everywhere… In Melbourne, at a friendly Fourth of July gathering of expatriate family and lesbian acquaintances, a woman makes the remark, about a young girl who has just left, “She’s a very pretty young woman. And she’ll go far, if she fixes up her teeth.” The discussion bubbles for half an hour and then erupts. What kind of desire, mingled with business-like cruelty, had looked out of those eyes? In the 1930s, in Queensland, a young boy was receiving advice about life from his father. He recalls, nearly sixty years later, “My father told me there is no God. He was a sensible man. He told me I should not waste my time yearning for the Absolute, that I should be careful with money and that I should never feel guilty about sex. But the most important thing of all for a young man, he said, was to be careful not to get a young girl pregnant. If this happened I would be responsible for the baby before that responsibility was wanted, and it would ruin my life.” Between advice and recollection was a remarkable life, guiltless sex and, I assume, no babies. Once or twice, at the moment when stories haltingly begin, he refers to a self-imposed restraint on how his eyes might wander longingly over a beautiful face because, if it were noticed, some danger that is probably only recognition might present itself. Walk along a busy street, anywhere, behind a beautiful girl or boy, and you can see, in the faces of men and women alike who pass you going the opposite way, how their eyes suck light into an abysmal prison of need, with “that gaze which would fain reach, touch, capture, bear off in triumph the body at which it is aimed, and the soul with the body”. “He stared at the snake, and the snake at him”, just at the moment before his painful transformation, one body sucked into the other, and both of them transformed.15 It begins with a stare. Young girls are tarted up so effectively before their images are glued to billboards, you’d think they were old enough to consent. We are in Hell, and all this is perfectly natural here.
My own characters stare out at me like they would stare at the snake. Something prevents me from finishing them off. I slide around them, hissing, for months or, sometimes, years. —An unwillingness to change. That, you see, is how Dante finishes Canto XXV of Inferno: with the change and transmutation of creatures in the eighth circle of Hell, where fraudulent thieves are kept. (So, poets are among them, of course.) Dante’s eyes, he says, are “somewhat confused”, and his mind bewildered.
The eyes have always been the most sexual of organs. Legislators, moral guardians and civil libertarians argue more about what we may and may not see than anything else. The freedom to speak is, just as often as not, the freedom to write and, by implication, the freedom to read; and we live with elaborate administrative systems regulating what may be seen and, every now and then, the rules change. But some things never change and cannot be regulated. At the very beginning of (the first) Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, the author was careful to note that in his own mind he represented the King “not with an inquisitive eye of presumption … but with the observant eye of duty and admiration”.16 The seventeenth century version of “you were always on my mind”, this was, of course, a lie, and it is clear he was attempting to cover up his ‘original sin’. Eyes are not like that. For both God and man, creation, knowledge and everything begins in the eyes: “God saw the light, that it was good … the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes … and the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked …”17
So, when Francis Bacon—the painter—said he harboured a sexual desire for his father, was he concealing something else with this giant truth?
The National Gallery of Victoria has an early Bacon painting, Study from the Human Body (1949). Many of Bacon’s paintings depict bodies of this type. The naked male figure moves through a veil or curtain, steps into a dark space behind the painting, from the visible world into the invisible world, from consciousness into the unconscious, from life into death. His right leg and right arm quietly push the veil aside. His head bends forward into the dark. Two falls of curtain divide the painting—left and right—and the figure is in the centre. The man’s calves have been chopped off at the bottom edge of the frame. We cannot see his feet. The left fall of curtain hangs straight. The more central folds of the right fall of curtain slope gently toward the right. Above the man’s head, between the falls of curtain, is solid grey. The whole picture is composed of sandy-yellows, greys and white paint. The back, right shoulder and right arm of the figure are mostly bare, white paint. We cannot see his eyes, which must be looking down to where a little yellow-grey light is slipping along the floor from where we are to where he is going. Unlike many of Francis Bacon’s paintings, the figure is not distorted or deformed. He is a lover leaving the bedroom. A father disappearing into the past. You can stare into the painting a long time without noticing something else, a small detail that may not be very important: there is a safety pin fastened to the right fall of curtain, helping to hold the veil open. If the figure were absent, if no one had decided to pass through here, or if he had already gone, the gap in the veil would remain open, the safety pin holding it there so we could peer into the dark. In a moment he will be gone. The figure in this painting looks like my father. We want to call him back, tell him not to go in there. We would only need to say something, anything. We would only need to say something else. We do not know what this something else is. No one knows.
This story comes to you courtesy of the Great World between Fact and Fiction, Inc., the eighth circle of Hell, pit of thieves and poets; where everything is changed into everything else; where, Dante reports, thank God for small mercies, smoking is not only permitted but absolutely essential; where poor Mr Bacon and I stare at the snake and wait, with terror, to be changed. Later, in the eighth circle, you will meet fraudulent counsellors and all kinds of falsifiers (generally speaking, the post-modernists). —Have a nice day.
This short story was originally published in Going Down Swinging Number 15, 1995.
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.
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.
“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?
“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 …”
Humor is not a mood but a way of looking at the world.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein
You admire and envy, don’t you, those people who can wear any crumpled, disorganised, unplanned mess, and still manage to appear attractive? You are at a party, say, and two male figures, in unpressed, unmatching formal attire, Bollé sun-glasses and designer stubble, let themselves in. It is not clear they have been invited, since no one appears to know their names, but they add to the still small crowd that touch of studied desuetude and are allowed to stay, for decorative purposes.
Or perhaps it is a club or bar …
Little constellations of self-proclaiming stars gather in every nook and corner, competing for the attention of any earthling with a telescope. There are a few dresses sewn together with things sparkling at the blue end of the spectrum; a few others announcing their social awareness with autumnal and earth-motherly oranges and browns. (I am referring mainly, of course, to places reserved, by unspoken agreement and the certainty of embarrassment, for people over thirty, since, being too ugly, too old, and too well-heeled, I would not be welcome anywhere else.)
Go any Friday or Saturday night to the streets of any major city and see how sartorial decisions follow occupation or preoccupation.
Young women in creations with fluffy shoulders and considerable padding can be seen accepting invitations to study at the School of Hard Cash. They are not prostitutes. Like many young women these days they have been confused by feminism. If one, by chance, happens to sit at your table in a café, obviously because there is nowhere else to sit, and you get to talking, you might eventually ask what it is she looks for in a relationship. She will begin by telling you she wants someone to support her, rich, tall, strong, handsome, as well as sensitive—not a ‘yobbo’—and end by saying she would like to have a career. You might think, as I did, of objecting to this contradictory selfishness; but at least Simone and Germaine have taught her one good thing.
Recent survivors of Grammar School, now, perhaps, settled into a job somewhere close to the stock market, declare their aspirations to achieve the karma of serious money in tuxedos with satinised lapels.
During the day these same new recruits can be seen dressing down in Country Road and Sportscraft, or up, if they are regular readers of Arena, in something that convincingly imitates Jean Paul Gaultier (when at work, minus the designedly torn jeans) or Hugo Boss. The shoes will have been bought (that is to say, in the future perfect, on credit) at a shop frequented by people with less important things to worry about than money.
They need a face and body to go with all this, of course, because without those the effect is rather like cooking porridge up as soufflé. Though having both the face and body which make Gaultier look at home, there is no need to wear him for the purpose of attraction.
The new recruits know it is not at all fashionable to be too fastidious. For $300 anyone can get an adequately tasteful double-breasted suit with more buttons than NASA; and if you do this you had better have plans to live on the moon. Seriously and ambitiously fashionable people know the immoderate effort and expense which must be endured to achieve the effect of relaxation.
… And that is the nub of the modern fashion problem, the veritable crotch of sartorial philosophy. For the sufficiently well-to-do, a shirt, jacket, pair of pants, shoes, and a few accessories, visible and invisible, are asked to carry the weight of a terrible cultural and personal problem—to be visual proof that the wearer is, in just the right degree, ‘thingwardly aspirational’, but also, down deep, where it really counts, a spiritually and psychologically balanced ordinary guy. Clothes do not make the man: they turn man into art.
An artfully clothed body is popular culture’s version of a mystery novel with the last page torn out. So long as the body keeps its mouth shut, and has no distinguishing marks, the dénouement of its promised satisfactions can be delayed while the reading goes on. Perfect fashion imagines undressing and, when it is lucky, or irresistible, carries its plot with it into the bedroom.
The thing is to keep the mouth shut, if it is likely that what is going to come out of it does not precisely match, or exactly compensate for, the artifice of one’s clothes. There can be no reason, surely, for the expense of even an attainably cost-moderate Country Road image if the shortest conversation convincingly demonstrates the model is in a state of permanent emotional anaesthesia. If you have created the impression of being management material you must not natter like an intellectual twinkie. To be an unemployed Shakespearian actor with matching wardrobe is a socially acceptable misfortune, but you must not talk about it endlessly. Dressing for sex is, by definition, attractive. Verbal bonking is not.
So, beyond all the things which hang on the surface, much deeper and more important, there is the ultimate fashion accessory, which must be tailored and worn most carefully. —Not art-print boxers. I am thinking of speech, the sound a body should make a short while after thinking, the physiological antonym of wind.
You cannot imagine how pleased I am to make this discovery. It is only a personal discovery, though. There is nothing here I can patent or bottle. It is true that I am ugly; no one has been cruel enough, yet, to tell me this outright, but facts of this sort are known inwardly and should be admitted. Also true is I can, with some concentration and planning, turn out a phrase to make Arctic hearts melt, delivering it with conviction.
The more expensive fabrics of chatter are not necessary to achieve good effects and, in fact, these days, they can be a hindrance. In the fashions of speaking, as in everything else, quality and originality are important. (A little cribbing is OK, to gain momentum, but steal from the best.)
If you are, like me, one of the unfortunate multitudes for whom wit and charm must compensate for a paucity of attractiveness, you will be pleased to discover, if you haven’t already, that skill in their fashions can be learned, and memorising a few, simple rules of thumb will set you along the right path. Practice and more practice will enable you to play any part, to be, at a moment’s notice, the common bird admiring peacocks and the one they all want to take home with them, or Oscar making yet another American debut.
Keep these points in mind as you set out to develop your verbal wardrobe …
As with suits, so with words: you will be assessed by clarity of cut and shape of line. The speakers at the cutting edge of verbal fashion are always cutting out when too many others have cut themselves in.
Stream of consciousness is the Hawaiian shirt of conversational arts. Make sure your partner has one packed before you don yours.
Satire is proper and fair only among people capable of comprehending it, otherwise you’d might as well be wearing art-print boxers.
Sarcasm is verbal pugilism: it is best to let other people do it, while you take bets.
It is important to avoid clichés and any terms you have learned from newspapers, television, or in the workplace. For example, at very boring parties someone is bound to start talking about the economy and they will use words like ‘trickle-down effect.’ This is really the most insulting concept in economics. To most people it sounds rather like being pissed on from a great height.
Avoid truth and morality at almost all costs. These are the two most destructive forces in human relations. Besides which, they are a little like reigning monarchs: no one planning to have a really good time ever invites them to parties.
Self-deprecation is in most cases a more effective strategy of endearment than egotism, but you must try not to be too convincing.
Prepare and memorise about half a dozen casual and witty remarks which can be easily transposed for use in different situations and among people of different political (and even sexual) persuasions. For example, in the wealthier suburbs of our major cities, it is quite proper to begin a conversation with a remark that, “The New Right’s idea of entertainment is sneering at breadlines”, but if you have any ideas of laying your pre-eminently fashionable interlocutors it may be necessary to add, “—The Government’s idea of entertainment is making them.” Don’t be embarrassed about wanting to bet both ways: in the bedroom everyone pays lip service to Glasnost.
And as you reach for your Nautilus Vocab Expander, remember that it is only fashionable to be blonde by will if you have the audacity to show the roots. Words are the clothes, but the way you wear them on the tongue will show you either as a work of art or a bread pudding.
Then it is only necessary to color co-ordinate mouth with wardrobe. In many cases this is easy. Dressing in Country Road or Sportscraft you only need murmur nostalgically about life on the farm and express vague alarm at any harsh turn in the conversation. In Gaultier you are expected to be more aggressive and darkly witty, and the effect of such clothes is completely lost without some sullen and misanthropic complaint about the complexities of life. Wearing Yves St Laurent is an overture to talk which is mostly serious and always sensitive.
Matching inward and outward appearances, word with deed, mouth with wardrobe, you are fit for any conquest and thingward ho! But one more thing …
If you are ever cornered and asked to explain exactly what it was you meant by what you said, and suspect yourself of saying nothing and meaning less, remember Dr Seuss— “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. My clothes say a mouthful, one hundred per cent!”
It is true the movements can sometimes go according to a formula and this is when they are least satisfying. In their defence, though, remember how the mind works when it is alone, grinding from scene to scene. Touch me there. And now here. Then there. Tick. Tick. It is necessary, somehow, to act as though the other were present in your dream and also dreaming. You are neither completely free nor in any way constrained. Finding one who is imprisoned there is, because of that, all the more terrifying. That “one” — of which there are many forms and faces — does not see the real features of the face or form with which it is confronted, but remodels them in the image of the dream before the action began. The whole procedure is rigid and precise — it could be said ‘scientific’, ‘experimental’, ‘repeatable’ — and cannot be repeated exactly, even once, without risking boredom. Many men and women are willing to take this risk. A small variation is introduced into the action. It may not be a variation of action exactly, but a variation of the attitude with which the action is performed. I do this now, imagining that so-and-so is doing such-and-such. Does that feel better? The life of the dream and the life of the action play at endless comparison and assessment — afterwards, that is. It is destructive to bring the force of memory into the play of your movements. To be present, engaged and unselfconscious is important, and almost impossible. Desire and love compete with each other. I want it this way, and that, then this. — Or — It is this way, and that, then this. You cannot take out wanting altogether, hoping to be left with a pure action. The wish guides you toward pleasure; without desire you have no identity, your ‘I’ disappears and falls out of your body as you say …am nothing. This is the struggle and the essence of struggle. What either one wants, at different times, is to be free of this struggle, to find the moment, several moments strung together, when the struggle disappears and ease and freedom take its place. An ‘I’ announces itself in a shout, not at the end of the action but at the beginning, where it is least expected and most clear. Then, it must be said, the sense of struggle does not leave either one entirely — for without it there is no reason to proceed — but is suppressed and becomes the platform of a noisy, messy construction. Both of them talk endlessly. A rule is invented which can be more or less easily broken and replaced by another rule. Thousands of small objects and motions pile up one on top of the other. The hand goes here. “Balance it just there. It is going to fall!” The whole, stupid structure can fall in a heap of laughter and the ‘I’ must announce itself in a shout again for the construction to continue. The play proceeds in waves and froth, swelling and crashing, one disaster and joke after another, crude, violent, farcical. (The one thing it is not — when it is itself, and what it should be — is silent. Silence takes the action, by force, to a place entirely enclosed by the desire of one or other of the participants and where movement is confined by studied schedules and policies. When the struggle is silent it takes the form of the simple wish to shout, to announce the presence of meaning. — But it is precisely this sound which is forgotten by rigid desire, alone with itself in a noiseless oblivion.) (There are also modulations, musical, recuperative and quiet, in which the struggle allows a different kind of silence. It is easy to become lost. As an example, I refer you to the Aria (Cantilena) from
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Villa-Lobos, where, from the beginning, voice and strings work in contrary motion but give confidence to each other, and each learns the other’s part. Voice and strings have the opportunity to speak a long melodic sentence, a sentence without words — ah — endlessly wandering and climbing and soothing. In the middle, when the music appears to have stopped, exhausted, and for a moment does, in fact, stop, both parts then discover the same text — a series of difficult, straining notes, repeated and sustained, slowly descending and then ascending — in which speaking is agony. Near the end the contrary motion of voice and strings reappears, the music expressing only the desire for release by asking the voice to sing with its mouth closed — by humming — mmmm… ) So much energy is expended in the struggle, in the falls and repetitions that are its progress, that the mind becomes drunk with chemicals released into its blood, and it is because they are drunk that each one has no fear to die. They do not know whether the struggle will fail and they will die or succeed and they will die. Knowing is the first thing to die and they are both stupid with love and desire. (…until the very end where both motions play the same, new part. The singer takes a breath before the last note and, with the teeth still closed, forces air into the head on such a note as makes the skull resonate, like a finger on the wet rim of a glass, and “ravishes human sense.” )
Do you have to wrap that stuff in so much paper?” one of the brothers said.
“If you want to drink from broken glasses, no”, answered a woman’s voice from the kitchen.
“Hey, when are we going to start putting the stuff in the truck? It’s ten already.”
“Soon. Soon. As soon as the bows are on the boxes.”
“Yeh, I think so.”
Jocey walked into the room with a stack of plates in her hands. “I don’t care. Take them all now and we’ll see what happens. Why you had to move the furniture first I’ll never know. Sitting on the floor for two days, it’s been painful.”
“I asked you what should go first last week and you didn’t have any suggestions. Just like a woman.”
“Oh, how’s that?”
“O, woman, so womanly. You can never — ”
“You’re only like this because your brother’s here.”
“Now, now. Leave me out of this, please.”
“Yeh, go on. Leave him out of it!”
The brother at the door squatted, bending his knees around the width of one of the boxes and prising his fingers between it and the carpet. It turned out to be the heaviest of the boxes, the one with A to Q of the New World Encyclopaedia in it. The elder brother pushed down the flaps of the box containing plates and picked it up. When he was half-way down the driveway of the house the other man was just then opening the back of the truck.
It looked too large. Though the floor space would be barely sufficient for what had to be put in it, the ceiling was fifteen feet high. It would be mostly empty when they had finished.
“God, she’s so fussy.”
“Can’t be helped. Joan’s like that, too.”
“They’re all the same. Sometimes I wonder why I did it.”
“Got married, of course, you twit.”
“It’s not so bad.”
“My dog’s more friendly.”
“Oh, come on … ”
“I like her. She’s always been nice to me.”
“What does that mean?”
“I notice how nice she is when you’re around.”
“She was like that before.”
“Before marriage everything is nice … Your dog’s been making a hell of a racket.”
“Had strangers around?”
“We’ve trained our dog. He shouldn’t bark at nothing.”
“It’s both of them. Noisy when they’re together.”
“Let one out in the front for a while then.”
“OK.” He slid the box containing plates down to the back of the truck and then jumped down to the road. “Drive this thing up closer to the house will you? And I’ll get the gate open.”
Tom started up the truck and manoeuvred it backwards along the driveway, and Mike released the Dobermann into the front garden.
“Have to travel to get to see you now.”
“It’s not that far.”
“Still, it won’t be the same.”
“Don’t get sentimental about it.”
“I’m not. It’s just that it’s really going to be the first time we’ve lived even in different suburbs. It’s strange.”
“It’s not strange. It’s normal. Stop being queer.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“That’s OK. Any time.”
“Jocey, I really don’t understand why you’re moving. I mean, it doesn’t seem to have anything going for it. It’s further from Mike’s work. The house is smaller. There’s nothing wrong with this place. I can’t see anything wrong with it. There isn’t, is there? Is it haunted, or something?” Jocey was looking out the kitchen window with an expression that was a little cold, a little aloof, as though there were a performance in the garden, one too obviously intended to inspire pathos. “Oh! The place is haunted!”
“No. Not with ghosts, anyway.”
“With what, then?”
“Who knows? With Mike and me, I suppose. I was just thinking about the people who are going to live here after us. I can’t imagine anyone living here after us, after Mike and me. Not living. Screaming, I can imagine. Or dying. Or murdering. But I can’t imagine anyone putting together something like a life in this place, in this particular house, in that garden.”
“You are in a bad way.”
“I’m in a great way. It’s a bad marriage I’m in. You know, it’s really funny, I like murder mysteries … ”
“Yes. You like murder mysteries.”
“I can sit all evening at that bench with one of them, a different one each night. Mum says they’re trash; ‘escapist’ she calls it. But they’re not, because I set them all here. This place is full of suspects. Mike’s half of them and I’m the rest.”
“I think I know what you mean, but … ”
“We don’t like each other any more.”
“I’m not really sure that it is. Not terrible for me, anyway. After all, Mike is treating me the way he treats everyone. That’s fair, I think.” Jocey wrapped cutlery and kitchen utensils into tea-towels. Joan stacked arm-fulls of linen she was moving from a hallway cabinet. “I haven’t answered your question, have I?”
“I don’t know.”
“I like it here. We’re leaving because we like it here.”
“I’m going to make a cup of tea. Want one?”
“Doesn’t sound like a very good reason.”
“With any luck we’ll have destroyed everything before we have any children. Then make a clean break.”
“You’ve talked about that?!”
“Hardly.” The electric kettle began to rumble. Joan looked at it, thinking for a moment it might say something she could understand. She searched the benches for milk and sugar. “Milk’s in the fridge.”
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s a blue thing. Try in that box over there.”
“Blue? Here it is.”
“It should be blue, of course. Tea’s a blue drink. And gin, but I’m too young for that.”
“Have you talked about that?”
“Mike prefers non-verbal communication. Grimaces. Shrugs. Silence. Grabbing hold of me like a piece of furniture to be moved when I’m in the way. Maybe we shouldn’t have married so young. There was no need to.”
“What are you going to do?”
Tom’s great Dogue de Bordeaux stepped up onto the back porch and looked through the kitchen window at the women talking. The wrinkles between its eyes and a mouth that hung down at the sides of the face made the animal look always perplexed. Taller than the Dobermann and more muscular, this dog, nevertheless, seemed to Jocey more lovable and more human. “Is there sugar in this?”
“No, sorry. Here it is.”
“What am I going to do?” Jocey’s head swayed a little side to side, like an unbalanced gyroscope, unable to find an answer. “What am I going to do?” She looked out through the window again. The dog was still watching her, as though he, too, were waiting for an answer to appear on her lips. “You know I appreciate having you to talk to, Joan. We’re like sisters. It’s us against them, I think. The women against the men. They’ll kill us if we don’t stick together.”
“All of them?”
“Mike and Tom.”
“Oh, no, Jocey, that’s not right. Tom wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“You don’t think they’re alike, then, that they don’t stick together?”
Joan felt a knot forming in Jocey’s words, one she feared she would not be able to untie, and it made her angry. The brothers were not at all alike, but Joan wanted to give some explanation. “They’re brothers.”
Jocey stirred her tea then sipped it quietly. “The dog is watching us”, she said, as it turned its hindquarters to her. The head started its dizzy, rolling movement again. Joan thought she might cry.
Tom had moved quietly into the kitchen doorway and watched the women sitting in the sun beside the window.
“I must’ve married the wrong one, then.”
“You and Mike finished, are you?”
“No. Just come in to see what’s happening.”
“We’re having a cup of tea. Want some?”
“No, thanks.” Jocey was taking no notice of them. Tom mouthed a soundless word and tilted his head, signalling Joan should follow him out.
“I’m going to see how they’re getting along. Back in a minute.”
Tom looked back from the front door into the living room to see that Jocey was not following them. “What did you say to make her like that?”
“If Mike had heard that he’d have killed me. It couldn’t be nothing.”
“I asked why they were moving.”
“Aren’t you curious?”
“No. Jesus!” Tom exclaimed in whispers. “Mike already thinks his wife likes me more than him. Don’t make it worse, please.”
Mike stopped for a moment near the truck and looked at his brother standing in the front door of the house. The Dobermann ran across the lawn from the street with a ball in its mouth. “Good boy!” Joan looked over Tom’s shoulder at the dog sitting at Mike’s feet. “She does what?!” He threw the ball away again and walked past the two at the door to pick up another box. “What does she do?”
“Who are we talking about?”
“A neighbour of ours.”
Tom followed him into the living room, leaving Joan at the door to stare into the dog’s black, almond eyes. She walked to the back of the truck. “It’s going to be empty!”
“Might’ve done better with a ute.”
“I want to get it over in one.”
“Whose dog is this?”
“Oh, that’s the photo I gave Mike when he said he wanted a dog. You’ve still got it! Framed it and all!”
“Nice looking dog, that.”
“You think so?” Joan asked. “I think they’re a bit ugly.”
Mike stopped to stare into Joan’s face, waiting for her to look up and notice his attention. When she did, he said, “ — Just like women.”
“I’m sorry you couldn’t show it, Mike.”
“Not your fault. Nobody’s really.”
“It was a terrific looking pup. Still looks fine.” Tom attempted conciliation. Mike’s dog had developed an hereditary fault, its hocks crowing visibly. He’d been sold a dud, but one he liked, nevertheless, perhaps more because it was now useless for showing.
Unwelcome or uneasy inside and outside the house now, Joan walked on the front lawn, pretending interest in the progress of the garden.
“He looks terrible. The hocks are shit.”
“That’s not much of a problem.”
“I’m not saying I don’t like him.” The brothers sat down on the porch steps, elbows on knees.
“This truck is big. We’re only filling the bottom of it.”
The Dobermann stuck its head and forechest between the brothers’ shoulders, then sniffed at Mike’s ear. “Life’s like that.” The dog walked through the front door of the house into the living room and put its square muzzle into several boxes.
Jocey, still in the kitchen, had begun to wrap glass bowls and small jars which she kept on the sill. One of them, containing clear green marbles and eucalyptus oil, neck blocked with a cork stopper, she opened sometimes to cover unpleasant smells. She poured out the oil into the sink, ran hot water into the jar to clean it. Hearing paws patting on the linoleum floor, she turned and said “Hello, stupid” to the dog. It stood up, knuckled feet resting on the edge of the kitchen bench. “Shoo! Go on. Get out of that!”
Jocey watched low, grey cloud move above the garden, moving apart, turning the day overcast to bright in a minute. A sheet of light entered the room, striking Jocey’s breast, passed her and fell to the floor. The dog lapped it up, lying on its back in the magnified heat. Jocey looked into the garden thinking how quickly its mood had changed, everything in it unmoved but suddenly luminous, green, and felt trapped by its life like a potential suicide opening the door on her own surprise birthday party. “Damn. That’s really ruined my depression.”
Roused by her voice, the dog patted across the linoleum to sniff at Jocey’s legs. “Oh, piss off! You’re as bad as your master.” The dog persisted, pushing neck and withers between Jocey and the sink cupboards, getting stuck there until Jocey stepped back to complain again. Circling quickly, it stood up, forelegs at Jocey’s back and shoulder, muzzle in her neck, and red penis poking at her thigh.
Mike stiffened when he heard the sound of breaking glass and Jocey yelling “Stupid…,” “Rotten…,” “Mongrel!” He thought, and didn’t think, noticed himself concentrating on those sounds, repeating and reducing them to exactly the feeling they intended. They were no longer glass or word but an expression that could be read plainly on his face. The dog ran out the front door, but he took no notice of it. It was Jocey he wanted. Where was she? Where is the stupid, rotten bitch? He did not walk straight through the house to the kitchen, where the sounds came from, where he knew she would be waiting for him. He walked into the living room and looked at the floor as though he were looking for evidence or for something lost, knowing that he would find nothing. He stood there for a moment and looked at the blinds covering the window which faced the back garden, and the spears of light they sent into the room. He wanted her to come out and look into the dog’s face, chase it down the street, to scream, now, while he was there. “Where are you, you bitch!”
Jocey, though, would do none of that. She was already calm, exhausted. “Your stupid dog tried to fuck me. I can’t believe it. It stood up and tried to fuck me! Stupid thug. Now look what’s happened. That beautiful jar with the marbles. I’m not going to find another one like it.” She bent down to pick up a marble, and searched, crouching, for others. “These will be OK, anyway. I can’t believe it. Do you have to let that thing in the house?” When Jocey stooped to reach near Mike’s feet he thought he might kick her. He took a step back from the kitchen door and looked at her head. He could do it. It would be easy. The anger was written in red strips across his face; in clear, vivid stripes of light on his red face. Tom’s dog barked in the back yard.
“Get out of the way.”
“It’s your dog’s fault. The stupid thing.”
“Get out of my way.”
The absence of anything meaningful to say had paralysed them both, replaying, in this moment, the scene which was their daily life together.
“I can’t believe it.”
“Let me out.”
Mike gripped Jocey’s shoulders, lifted her up straight, and moved her aside. He walked out the back door and Tom’s dog rushed towards him. He led it off the back porch down into the garden and then to the gate. Jocey watched them from the window as they left the back yard to join the others.
The dogs barked together.
No one spoke a word but got on with the business of moving boxes. Mike and Tom moved back and forth between living room and truck. They moved more and more quickly, urgently emptying the house. Joan moved more slowly, slipping across the path of the busy brothers like a pedestrian through fast traffic. She stopped and laughed at them quietly, and then, embarrassed, thought they must have heard because the yard was quiet, too. The dogs were silent. “What’s happened?” Joan asked.
The dogs were there, standing on the street, completely still.
“What’s going on with them?”
The brothers stood together, looking quizzically on the quiet scene in which the dogs also stood together like statues left in the middle of the road. The black dog moved first. Tom’s dog ran second. They seemed to spring into a chase of something hidden in a neighbour’s garden, but nothing could be seen there.
Mike, Joan, and Tom moved out onto the footpath and looked across to the garden of the neighbour directly opposite them. The dogs had gone.
“That’s strange. What are they doing?”
Since they could not see anything beyond the row of low bushes except the row of higher trees, and not even anything of the house beyond those, except the roof, they waited with their ears more open, staring blankly into the leaves.
Next came the sound more musical and human than they expected, shrill and feminine and clear, a voice half wailing and half singing. It was not the cry of physical pain, but the tuneless singing of someone terrified and sad.
Mike crossed the road, looked up at the house, and decided to go in. He did not see the dogs anywhere in the yard. The voice had stopped its strange song, leaving Mike to listen to his own thoughts. He wondered if the dogs could have attacked the old woman or her husband. No, it is not that. He sees the old man standing at the door, walking backwards, turning, not sure how to move. Closer, almost at the door himself, he sees the old woman raise her hands to her head, open her mouth, and release an odd note.
Beneath the note he heard the low growl and grunt of the two dogs, and then saw them, down at the floor in the middle of the old couple’s living room, tugging at a bloodied bundle. Mike shouted a command at the top of his voice and, when it appeared the dogs might not willingly give up their prize, moved toward them threateningly, with his hand raised, repeating the command to stop.
The dogs ran and Mike followed them out of the house. He watched the dogs closely, shepherding them back to his own territory where Joan and Tom waited for an explanation. He held his lips tight together, concealing the laugh in his throat. “It’s all right,” he said, and his teeth showed.
You must be logged in to post a comment.