X equals X

When I go into the garden the deck chair that X was sitting in is empty. A book is opened, face down, where her feet should be. I put the glass of water on the wrought-iron table. Light moving through the decorations on the glass and the small bubbles in the water is making an intricate pattern on the surface of the table. I look into the pool: a dark blur, probably X, is swimming – actually, making strange, wriggling movements – several feet under the surface of the water. I sit down and begin to read the book. The light reflected off the white page is very bright, which makes reading uncomfortable. I close my eyes and rest my head on the canvas strips that form the back support of the chair. Sunlight shines through my eyelids. X must have been wearing sunglasses when she was reading, but I didn’t notice them on the table. They could be under the chair.

Man underwater (charcoal, 20220331) Stephen J. Williams
Man underwater (charcoal, 20220331) Stephen J. Williams

When I open my eyes X is still underwater. The surface of the water is now quite smooth, and the water itself very clean except for a leaf which is floating in the corner farthest from me. Barely discernible, small waves appear on the surface just above the spot where X is spreading her arms; but they quickly taper out to nothing before new ones appear.

X is wearing her new, dark blue bathing costume. When it is wet it looks almost black, just as it looks now from this side of the water. When she reaches the end of the pool X curls up her body into a ball and tumbles over without breaking the surface of the water, then her feet push her away as she starts another lap. Just at the point where she turned, where the pebbled surface of the pool’s edge is rounded and dips into the water, there is a large area of that pebbled surface which is wet. The pebbles and the brownish mortar are darker and shinier when there is water on them. There are footprints leading from that wet patch onto the concrete path which goes to the back of the house and the kitchen which has large windows facing out onto the garden and the pool. Whose footprints are they? They must be X’s footprints.

A few bubbles escape from X’s mouth, rise to the surface of the water and vanish so quickly it is impossible to say exactly how. They are gone.

Her body is rolling over at the bottom of the pool, like a cylinder would roll down a slight incline except that X is not actually going anywhere. Her arms are stretched out above her head as she lies suspended in the water parallel to the bottom of the pool, and by quick wriggling movements of her torso she manages to make her body turn around an imaginary axis which runs from her head to her feet.

The footprints on the concrete evaporate. The wet area of the pebbled surface near the pool is gradually getting smaller.

X bursts out of the water; she comes up out of the centre of the pool in one quick movement. The air escaping from her mouth makes a small exploding sound when the lips open, and the water that is falling down the front of her face and over the lips is suddenly forced outwards, forming hundreds of tiny drops that travel slowly in an arc from her mouth to the surface of the water. X’s long hair falls liquidly down the centre of her back.

X stands in the water, almost motionless, for a long time. The only movement is a slow heaving of her chest and shoulders as she takes deep breaths. After a while she moves to the edge of the pool and lifts herself out of the water. She seems to be waiting as she looks down at her feet where a large puddle of water is spreading across the pebbles and brownish mortar.

X turns and looks around the perimeter of the pool several times. She’s trying to locate something, perhaps the towel. It’s nowhere in sight.

She turns around, walks up the garden path and leaves a trail of footprints on the concrete as she goes.

The path makes two swerving movements, first left, then right, on its way to the back entrance of the house, and X follows the centre of the path precisely even though it would be easy to cut across the curves because there is only fresh, green grass on either side of it.

She stops just inside the doorway. Stepping out of the sunlight, she feels quite cold. There is a towel draped over the back of a chair in the centre of the room. She moves over to get it and then stands in front of the sink underneath the kitchen’s large windows. The bottom edge of these windows is lined, on the outside of the house, by a shelf that carries about six large pots of azaleas. Standing in the kitchen, looking out into the garden, the sight of these brilliant pink flowers resting at the bottom of what could almost be an artist’s picture, is always the most striking feature of the garden. The evergreen trees at the bottom of the yard. The pale blue water in the pool. The brownish mortar and small, shiny pebbles around the perimeter of the pool. The white, wrought-iron table and canvas chair. The pink azaleas.

X stands at the sink and stares out into the garden. Perhaps she is imagining that she is again walking up the path towards the house. The footprints leading away from the puddle of water beside the pool are still distinct.

X turns around suddenly. The telephone is ringing. It makes short, shrill bleeping sounds, not at all like the old-fashioned bell type.

She takes one end of the towel in each hand, swings it up and around her neck, then uses one end to wipe the small droplets of water from her face. With her other hand she picks up the receiver.

“Hello.… Oh, hi! Are you all right? … No. No, she’s not here.… She hasn’t been around for hours, thank god.… Well, yes. You could come over now, but I’ll be meeting you later won’t I? … I do think it’s better that you stay away for a while.… Good.… Well, I’ll see you later then.… Goodbye darling. See you then.”

X continues wiping herself as she stands in front of the sink underneath the kitchen’s large windows. She puts the towel down on the bench, turns on the cold water tap, and reaches up to a shelf on the wall to get a glass – one of the better glasses with a deeply engraved pattern on the exterior surface. She fills the glass with water and turns off the tap as she gazes into the blue pool.

Standing in the doorway she sees that the footprints closest to the kitchen door have completely disappeared. The others, closer to the edge of the pool, are still very clear. X turns around momentarily to pick up the glass of water off the bench, and then walks out into the garden.

She sits down on the deck chair after picking up a book which has been left lying face down on it, and rests her head on the canvas strips that form the back support.

It’s a hot, bright day. Oppressively hot. Light passing through the glass is making a striking pattern of faint violet and orange colors on the painted, white surface of the table. Small bubbles form in the water and cling to the side of the glass.

X opens her eyes quickly. The hot sun has made her drowsy. Her facial expression suggests some anxiety, as though she has suddenly remembered an important task which needs to be completed. -But then, just as suddenly, her expression is calm again.

She continues reading.

Hercule Poirot hands M. Bouc a piece of paper. At the top are written, in Poirot’s own hand, the words:

Things needing explanation.

Underneath is a list of ten questions. X reads through the questions carefully, then lifts her eyes and looks into the pool. The book is a long algebraic equation. Things begin to fall into place very slowly. There is someone swimming underwater. She can again feel her chest hardening with the strain of holding her breath and can remember how desperately she fought the urge to let that air out of her lungs. When was that? The body in the pool is tumbling slowly over, several feet under the surface of the water.

She continues reading, but the light reflected off the white page is very bright. She closes her eyes and tries to remember where she put her sun-glasses.

The leaf floating on the surface of the water, the piece of paper on which Poirot wrote his list of questions, a bright, blurry-edged yellow square, all float slowly away in a sea of red.

The possibilities of language

… They’re perhaps not suited to our kind of publication, with its emphasis on exploring the possibilities of language.

A rejection slip sent to a young writer

He explores the possibilities. Regularly. In this regard, at least, he is very regular. Someone said once that nobody ever had a really good idea while writing in a large room — so he is exploring the possibilities of proving this theory correct while seated in the smallest room of his house. There are many ways of approaching the problem. He thinks. Should he at any time in the near future begin to have a large idea, what then should he do with it? If it is a specially large idea, it may demand taking to a slightly larger room, to give it space to develop and mature. This is interesting. He thinks about John Milton. If John Milton were with him the room would not be big enough for both of them. John Milton was not a big man, but he had big ideas. John Milton wrote about god. There is no way anyone could fit John Milton and God in the same, small room. He decided to start with something smaller and see how far the thing will grow before he has to move to a larger room. He thinks about Babel, because he is thinking about language. He thinks about God, but only for a moment. Ideas like that are difficult to sustain. He thinks about bananas, because the room he is in reminds him of bananas. It is a purple room. He thinks about Babel again, and then he thinks about bananas, because they sound good together. Like peaches and cream. Suddenly, a scenario evolves in his head. There is a man. The man is in a car. It is a small car. No. He starts again. The man is in a banana. The man is in a large banana, eating a car. It is still a small car. The man is munching away on his ripe, yellow car and quite happily enjoying the scenery. John Milton knocks on the window of the man’s four-wheel-drive banana and says, “Ah … hello. My name’s John Milton. I was wondering if you’d like to spend some time discussing the possibilities of language with me?” The man thinks for a while, takes another bite off his car, and says, “John, I’d really like that, but I don’t think this banana is big enough for both of us.” “Well,” says John, realising that this is a valid problem, “I have a large peach parked across the road. I’m sure that it would be large enough to accommodate our ideas, at least to begin with.” The man says, “OK,” and gets out of his banana. He looks across the road and sees the peach. It’s enormous. An American peach with mag wheels and GT stripes along the side. Even more incredible is the fruit which it is towing. The man stops, amazed, and stares. “It’s so big!?” he says. “Oh, yes,” says John, “peaches are just fine for love poetry, but for God I need a watermelon.” The man and John enter the peach. They talk about love. They talk about peaches. They talk about love, again. Which leads them to politics. Which leads them to Marx. Yes, they even talk about Marx, and they are still quite comfortable in the peach. The peach is large. Marx is not large enough. Marx was a big man, but his ideas were smaller than a peach. Their conversation comes to a natural pause, which is what often happens to conversations about Marx, and John looks at the man, and the man looks at John, and John looks back at the man and asks, “By the way, my good man, what is your name?” The man begins to panic. He thinks way back to his childhood. There is nothing there. “I don’t know,” he says. “For as long as I can remember I have always been called The Man.” “But if you are The Man,” says John, “then you must be the Son of God!” The peach seems altogether far too small. They are standing at the door of the watermelon. John opens the door. Inside the watermelon is red and juicy. John looks in through the door and says, “It is sad, isn’t it? I have been eating this watermelon for 300 years and it is still not finished. I sometimes think that I will be eating it forever. Almost every afternoon I come in here to eat and let the juice run down my neck. I work at it very hard. Whenever I find a pip I write an epic poem and I think about God when I spit it out.” John reaches inside the door of the watermelon and pulls out a box. It is full of pips. “What I really want to know is, will you help me eat the watermelon? I think that it is nearly half eaten, so that if we work very hard we could be finished in a hundred years. By that time we will have written a thousand epic poems and there will be enough space in here to consider the universe. What do you say?” The Man looks into the watermelon and He is hungry, so they start to eat. They eat for a hundred years or so. The juice runs down their necks. The juice is everywhere. They write epic poems and consider the possibilities of God. They spit the pips into the box. When they have finally finished eating the watermelon, they consider the universe. And they think it is sad. But determined that 400 years of writing epic poems and thinking about God will not go to waste, they bundle the pips into the back of the peach and drive to Milton’s farm in the country where they plant the pips in the ground and grow watermelons. But John and the Man have had their fill of the red, juicy universe, so they decide to eat nuts instead. They sell the watermelons to other people who wish, against their best advice, to explore the possibilities of infinite things.

This work was first published by Writers’ Radio, 5UV (Adelaide), in 1984.

Big orchestra

What we need is a big orchestra of at least one hundred players. We should make a surreal painting of our lives and be able to say, as though it were the only true utterance that ever stuttered off our lips: this is what life is like: a briefcase, a glove-box, stuffed full with an enormous orchestra of violinists, cellists, flautists, pianists, organists, trombonists, french-horn-players, clarinetists, timpanists, cymbalists, the whole-bang-lot, that we could open up like a magic box in those quiet moments for which our language has no words. You know the moments I mean, don’t you? You could be sitting at a table just looking out the window, or reading a book, or a friend may have just decided that it’s time to go home and leaves you, or the music from the record-player may have just stopped, and the room is suddenly quiet, and you then look up from your book or your dinner, or have stopped at an intersection waiting for the lights to change, and then, as though your eyes had been pulled out of your head and taken ten feet away and pointed at you, you see yourself, your whole self, and you wait for something, for anything. A car may pass on the street outside, or someone may make a little sound in the next room, or a fluorescent lamp in a shop window may be flickering on and off, or the books in your room may stare out at you, a company of objects full of meaning no-one entirely understands. And standing there, or sitting there, just waiting there, you become an object. You are the object that arranges for the kettle to boil each morning, the fastidious object that periodically puts other objects back in their proper places, the object that, because it is not entirely without pity, sometimes almost spontaneously, acts with compassion toward some other object, a dog, a cat, a person, and sometime afterwards wonders whether it acted selflessly, and if so, Why? For what reason? That mad, suffering, ridiculous object which each day opens up its head and tears its brain apart, atom from atom, then throws them into the air, into the darkness. The atoms are like stars; the space between them the sum of all unanswerable questions. Or else, they are something more humble: specks of dust suspended in a beam of daylight. Whichever, you are the object standing there, watching, with its arms open to them as they fall. Coming through each day is a miracle: the atoms, the stars, the dust falling into your arms. It’s a miracle how nothing is lost. Each memory persists: the dust and the stars falling into your hands, and all the atoms combining to make you whole again, the complete object, the perfectly still object with not a single word in its head. Words could not explain what it is like to be just a thing, an object. No language has words for such a terrible idea. It is a moment like that when you need a big orchestra; not just a radio or a record-player, but a real orchestra, made of real people and real instruments. You need to have it straight away. There’s no time to go out and look for it; it has to be there, ready for you. And then you would want it to start playing slowly and quietly, there at the street corner, or at your table, or in your room: a single violin, or a piano beginning to play so quietly that you tilt and turn your head toward it, before all the others join in, making the music louder and faster, but even then only by slow degrees. It must be slowly, painfully slowly, because something terrible and unforgettable is happening to you. You had lost something and now it is being given back to you.

This ‘prose poem’ was first published in a radio broadcast (5UV, Adelaide) in 1984, and then in A crowd of voices. It is included among dream reports because it was originally a dream. In later years I abandoned attempts to turn dreams into stories and concentrated, instead, on finding a way of writing dreams that allowed them to remain, more obviously, what they were.

The living room

You see, it is just like walking through the door of a city hospital; the doors slide back automatically. With beautiful music in the background, you could almost be a film star on the set of a well produced American soap opera; but you have not quite decided yet whether you are doctor or patient. A directory on the wall reads: Surgery — 4th Floor. You take the elevator. Stepping out, a thin, red line guides you into a stunning steel room.

Sinks line the walls, and canisters of fragrant antiseptic soap are attached to them; it is just like home: harmless, clean. Walking into the well lit living room (that is what doctors like to call it), a comrade of many years motions you closer to the operation, and says:

“Would you hold this for me? I won’t be long.”

It’s disturbing. The meaning of this episode strikes you suddenly: you are just a visitor here; you came to wish a sick friend well; you didn’t expect to be given his heart.

This ‘story’ was first published in Meanjin (as Peter Kein, pseudonym) in 1982, and then in A crowd of voices. It is included among dream reports because it was originally a dream. In later years I abandoned attempts to turn dreams into stories and concentrated, instead, on finding a way of writing dreams that allowed them to remain, more obviously, what they were.

On the uncertainty of finding a place to call home

[Note on this story.]
The beginning of the end

When not giving demonstrations of black boxes to new salesmen in country towns, I sell the boxes door-to-door in the city. Black boxes provide relief from all the 156 boring chores associated with day-to-day living. There are 156 different boxes to do 156 different jobs. Visitors to my house cannot understand why it hums. All the boxes are at work. My house must be the only one in Australia with all 156 boxes installed and working. A showcase of modern technology it hums, contented, and I hum with it. When the children were younger, in the days when Marjorie could still remember my name, we all used to sit in the living room together and listen to the house hum its merry work-a-day melody, and we used to hum along with it. The novelty of my new job was still fresh then, and it was a time for humming and singing and being happy.

If Marjorie is home when I return to Melbourne, she will say that she has been waiting for me.
—Peter (she will say), I’ve been waiting for you.
—You shouldn’t have (I will reply. Then 1 will give Marjorie a kiss).
—Are you tired from driving, Simon, darling? (she will ask).
—No, I’m fine (I will answer, not at all surprised that she cannot remember my name).
—John, the children will be home from school soon. They’ve missed you terribly.
—Yes. Marjorie. I’ll have to spend more time with them, I know. Perhaps this weekend we could all go to the beach?
—David, I think that’s a wonderful idea. I’d like that a lot.

Only one thing puzzles me—why Marjorie forgot my name in the first place. Apart from the tension this causes between us sometimes, our marriage is perfectly normal, and I am happy.

The children may be home of course. If they are sick today, they will be home lying in front of the television set, which is the only medicine Marjorie knows to relieve their hyperactivity.

The color of the dust has changed noticeably during the past hour’s driving, from pale and red to grey.

I don’t believe country people when they say living in the city is unhealthy, that it causes cancer. The sky is still blue, and the grass green. Though I must admit the sky looks a little frayed around the edges sometimes, maybe from overuse.

Not one car has passed me coming out of the city in nearly two hours. This is strange, even for January. There are two huge trucks cruising behind me—loadless, uncovered, semi-trailers. I think that if I stop or slow down they will push me on. I have no choice. But I will have to stop soon, because I am running out of petrol.

I stop.
I get out of the car.
I look at the signs. It is a self-service. It is what I deserve.
I look at the directions on the pump, then try to operate it.
I succeed. I have a knack for this sort of thing.
Replacing the nozzle on its rest, I notice the attendant is watching me.

The attendant’s head is propped up by the attendant’s hand.
His elbow is on the desk.
And the desk is on the floor.
The floor is a concrete slab lying on the ground.
The ground has always been there.
The attendant will not take his head off his hand.
He doesn’t want to disturb the natural order of things.

—How much do I owe?
No answer.
—How much does the petrol cost?

His eyes move and look at the meter on the desk. It shows the amount that I owe. I put the exact money on the desk and turn to leave. I get the impression that he doesn’t like me. I have disturbed the natural order of his loneliness. He jumps up, and rushes to the door ahead of me, running around to the side of the station, falling to his knees near the old oil barrels, where he spews up the morning’s breakfast and beer. When he is finished, he looks up at me. He wants me to go away. I go away.

Closer to Melbourne, driving through the suburbs, I find more semi trailers. They are not alone now. Each semi-trailer is accompanied by a big, red fire-truck. Inside the fire-trucks are men in rubber suits. They get out of the trucks sometimes, looking like frogmen.

I stop my car to watch them.
The frogmen get out of the big, red trucks, and hose their rubber suits with a kind of detergent that even from a hundred yards away I can smell is very sweet and flowery. They wait for a semi-trailer to arrive. When one arrives, they start picking up the bodies. Some of the bodies are very stiff and dry from being left in the sun too long.

The frogmen see me watching them. I don’t try to hide. They seem harmless enough. I notice that they do not talk. I don’t know why.

Approaching them, they ignore me. They seem intent on ignoring me.

The middle of the end

I think maybe the communists have taken over, and everyone is not really sure what to do about it. The shop-owners seem to have caught onto the idea really well. All the stores are left open 24 hours a day. You don’t have to pay for anything. It’s there for the taking. Though I suspect a lot of shop assistants are out of jobs, as self-service seems to be the trend. I don’t know how they will pay their bills if they refuse to take any money from me. Maybe there won’t be bills to pay any more. The communists have taken care of everything very nicely.

Apathy is still a problem. Marjorie still will not talk to me. Neither will anyone else. Three days after I arrived home, Marjorie is still slumped across the kitchen table, fascinated by her soggy weetbix and milk. I think she is conducting an experiment, and wants to be left alone. She is watching the milk curdle, and waiting for the weet-bix to turn mouldy. But I don’t know how this could have commanded her attention for so long. The children are still lying in front of the television set. And my house still hums. At the very least, my house is contented. I find the behavior of my family most disturbing. They should be grateful for all that I have done for them, and at least talk to me now and then.

The fourth day after my return, Marjorie is still in the kitchen conducting her experiments.

I take a seat beside her at the kitchen table, and I insist that she talks to me. She doesn’t. I put my arms around her shoulders, kissing and hugging her, but she is cold and unfeeling.

Marjorie. please talk to me.
Please take your head out of the bowl.
Marjorie, please.
Pretty please.
Pretty please, with sugar on top. Marjorie?
Marjorie. if you keep on acting this way. our marriage is sure to deteriorate. Think of the children, Marjorie. Marjorie?

These five days of solitude have made me lose my faith in human nature.

Finally. It ends.

Marjorie and I have separated. She is retaining custody of the children.

Today, I don’t feel like going to work.

I have gotten into the habit now of actively seeking out and following the frogmen in their big, red trucks.

The frogmen will not talk to me, but I plead with them to take me.

—Will you take me with you?
Will you take me, please?
I’m bored and lonely and if I stay here much longer, I’ll go insane.
Take me with you,
pretty please.
Take me with you,
pretty please,
with sugar on top.

One of the frogmen takes me by the arm, and helps me onto the back of the trailer. It is nearly full. I am lucky to get a place. He points to the spot where the next body should go, and I climb up.

And in the end,
among these bodies.
I sense I am no longer here
but here

I dare not disturb the natural order of things.

The frogmen spray me with their balmy lotion,
so I smell of flowers and honey.
They take me to the mountains,
and I lie there forever,
refusing to talk.

Originally published in Meanjin, number 3, 1980.

Cover of Meanjin, number 3, 1980.