There and Not There
My nights are becoming increasingly long and wakeful, my days full of fitful sleep as I wait out time, sleepwalking through the weeks, wondering how long I will need to be here. How long will be long enough?
When I woke this morning it was to a heavy, liver-pink haze stretching out across the horizon. The westerly that came howling down the bay yesterday afternoon, whistling through the rigging and swinging the boats around on their moorings, brought with it the ash and smoke of the fires ringing Sydney to leave behind this new day heavy with the fire's debris.
The smell of smoke at dawn brings with it the memory of early morning cooking fires in Bali. The only thing missing is the pungent scent of kretik cigarettes and the pling, plong, pling of gamelan music wafting out from a kiosk by the side of the road. Perched on top of the wooden steps that lead down to the back yard and the bush below, I smile at the little memory picture of Bali I am drawing for myself until it begins to fade, replaced by the memory of all I have lost.
Wary of feeling sorry for myself I toss the half finished tea onto the lawn and stand squinting up into a sun standing high and white in a sky so blue that it feels as if I might disappear. Turning my back on all this cheeriness I wander back into the house to consider yet again the possibility of configuring some order, some purpose, into this life I can no longer recognise as my own. 'But there is nothing to order, and there is no purpose when there is no future,' says The Voice that has taken residence in my head. The anger rises. Right now I am angry with the faceless men in their turbans whose words have decreed this fate. Tomorrow, or later this afternoon, I might be angry with myself. My words, their words, it's impossible to decide which ones I hate the most, but it's easier to hate the other: easier to blame the other. 'It could be worse,' offers The Voice.
'Yeah, yeah, I know,' I say leaning up against the door frame as I stretch the tension out of my shoulders and back. 'I could be stuck in some apartment building in some godforsaken city.'
'Don't blaspheme,' it warns, 'that's what got you into this trouble in the first place.'
With the Bali theme still playing in my head, I put gamelan music on the CD player and wander around the house doing little chores. Fetching the dustpan and broom, I sweep up the balls of fluff that have probably been floating around under the cane lounge for two decades. In the bedroom, I pull up the sheets, tie the mosquito net back into its knot above the bed and pick up my clothes from the floor to load into the washing machine. It works for a while, this pretending I have some purpose to my day, but it doesn't take long for the constant plinging and plonging of the music to irritate, or the small diversions to lose their appeal and it all begins to unravel. With a sigh of resignation, I pick up the latest book and head out to the backyard.
In these last two months, I have read, or mostly re-read, anything left on the bookshelves in this old house bent low through years of neglect: The Old Man and the Sea, Death of a Salesman, The Female Eunuch, Wind in the Willows. Having never mastered the art of self-denial when dealing out life's small pleasures I had read all the books in the house that were worth reading in the first three weeks. On one particularly boring day a couple of weeks ago, I took down Kafka, only to replace it a few days later, having failed to move past the title page. In desperation, I have recently taken to standing in front of the shelves of '70s Reader's Digest novels stacked haphazardly on top of each other. As I take one down, dust rises up from pages unappetisingly thick and yellowing with age. I ask them for new books every week but they are slow in coming. I can only assume they are not big readers.
Like some nomadic existence, the books travel with me around the garden in search of shade as the heat builds. Before too long I drop whatever I am reading onto my stomach and drift off to the sounds of the day. When it is particularly hot and the ocean hardly breathes, the cicadas in the eucalyptus and the bees in the sweet orange jasmine drown out the sound of the surf lapping on the sand below. Sometimes a whip bird cracks open the heat. Only one call though, as if that single act of brilliance has expended its energy. The barking of a dog, the whine of a motorbike, or the hum of a car engine sometimes breaks the quiet along the ridge, but creatures rarely move willingly in the midday heat here, including me.
In between sleeping or reading, I have taken to amusing myself with ice cubes. Placing one on my stomach I try not to move as the muscles contract in shock. Will the cold force me to remove the ice or will I let it melt to dribble over my sides? It's become a game: a sort of dare. If I let the ice cube melt, I win and will return home soon. If I can't stand the cold and remove it, I lose and am lost here forever. I don't really like this game, but in the absence of any four-leaf clovers – he loves me; he loves me not – it's the most accurate indicator of any future on offer. 'You didn't need to write it,' said my lover, exhausted by the publicity; the hiding; the threats . . . perhaps by the relationship. My initial impulse – for I too had lost all patience—was to thank him for his brilliant insight, but our relationship by that stage had become far too brittle to weather such pettiness from me.
One sentence out of the hundreds of thousands I have written and the threads of my life have unravelled. It is so unfair.
'Actually,' The Voice reminds me, 'it was twenty-six words.'
'Don't be so fucking pedantic,' I say out loud to The Voice and the empty room.
As we lay in the dark together that last night, I crossed over into forbidden territory and asked him if he loved me, if he would wait for me. 'Of course,' he had said, tightening his arm around my waist to pull me in closer. The shame, oh the shame of it. What else could he have said? One wishes one could have been nobler, more sanguine, less desperate in those last hours together. But the deed is done, the words are out, and the memory, when it returns, brings afresh the old humiliation.
Sometimes, I leave the safety of the banana bed, to stretch out on my stomach on the lawn, the grass prickly against my cheek, its scent filling my head with childhood summers. Before too long though, the ants, or the sun, force me to move again. Late one day, as I lay on the sandstone outcrop at the bottom of the garden, I spent a motionless hour watching a snake make its way across the lawn before it disappeared into the bush. When the afternoon drifts on and the sun has left the veranda, I return to its shade, lying under the gutter with one eye closed, as I line up the leaves of the blue gum through its rusty hole. It is another game: another one I am not overly fond of. Mostly, I spend my time dozing in the heat, fighting the urge to move back into the quiet of the house and curl up in bed to sleep the days away.
My life raft to the world these days is a stranger named Joshua – no surname required, thank you – who arrives every couple of days with food and newspapers. We have a chat. He drinks the coffee I make him. I want him to stay longer so I offer food. 'Another coffee?' He declines. He has to go. By implication – albeit my implication – he has a life that is full, purposeful even, jam-packed with possibilities, unlike some I know.
'Have you noticed anything unusual,' he says, hand reaching for the door handle. He asks this question as if it is an afterthought, but it's the same afterthought every time. 'Is there anything you need?' Another afterthought. The question is clearly of less importance to him than it is to me.
'Books. I need more books. I would also like a connection to the Internet . . . please.'
'Not possible,' Joshua No-Surname-Required replies. 'It might be traced.'
I can't, for the life of me, think how it could be traced, but they know about these things and I must trust them, these Masters of Blank – which is the name The Voice and I use for Joshua and the others like him when we discuss my predicament. When he leaves, I watch through the curtains as he chats to the man in the bushes at the bottom of the garden, who is invisible to me; and then to the not so invisible man who sits in the car in front of the house. He drives off then, into his brilliant and purposeful life.
It has occurred to me that I have handed over my life to the discretion of others: to the Turbans and to the Masters of Blank. It has occurred to me that this might possibly be a mistake.
And so, my days and nights wander, no longer bound by notions of time. There are no minutes or hours, only days measured by the movement of the sun; months measured by my woman's body. Nights are not always for sleep, and days not always for wakefulness. Erotic imaginings have begun to take hold. Lying in bed at night, I feel the warm air currents that drift in through the sliding glass doors to float over my skin and my lover is with me again: the scent of him, his finger tracing across my breast, between my legs.
I tell all this to Joshua one day, but he just looks at me blankly before asking how I'm feeling. I fight the urge to hit him. I thought that was what I had been telling him.
When I asked the Masters of Blank why I had to go to this safe house they replied there were reasons, failing to offer any. What, I wanted to know, was I going to do with my life. You could write, one of them offered helpfully. 'No, I mean my life. What will I do with my life?' They looked at me blankly, and then they looked down at the floor, and then they looked out the window. Before long we were all looking out the window, as if the answer might come flying past.
It has not escaped my attention that any other writer in my predicament might have finished the first draft of a new novel by now, but I am unable to write: terrified of the careless word. 'It will pass,' I tell The Voice. It is not as optimistic as I am.
My body has become the centre of my universe. In the mornings and evenings after my showers, I lavish it with lotions, fascinated by its changing angles and the new, more rounded, more womanly shape emerging. My skin, no longer a sickly pale London grey, has turned a soft, golden brown. Freckles, long forgotten from childhood, have reappeared. My hair, too, has grown and lightened with length.
A few days ago, I turned the full-length mirror around to stand naked before it, until my eyes began to play tricks, and the woman staring back at me blurred and shimmered, no longer a shape, but a moving thing. Trying to see myself as a stranger would, as a lover would, my eyes followed the line of my back as it curved down into the hollow of my waist, over the rise of my buttock, to rest on my feet sunk in the matted old flokati rug that hides the worn spot on the carpet. My feet, I was once told, were my greatest asset. One could have hoped for more. I turned then, trying to look over my shoulder. Walking away, I strolled back toward myself, but it was no use. No manner of twisting or turning could show me anew. Unpinning my hair, I let it swing down around my face until it enveloped me in a shampoo cloud and I was lost again in the memory of an old cracked bathtub, my hair floating around our shoulders like silk.
What did my lover see then and would he notice the difference now? Which one would please him more? And so, he was there, as he always is, in these slow drifting watercolour days. His hand lying flat across my thigh, his laugh, his seriousness, a finger circling light as air on my skin until my body comes alive with illicit stirrings, seduced by the mere memory of him. And I, fool that I am, furtively remake endings that will not be remade.
Yesterday, I fetched the scissors from the kitchen drawer and chopped my hair off in a less than straight line. When Joshua, No-Surname-Required, arrived in the afternoon I saw him looking at my hair before asking how I was. There seemed no point in telling him that I had been self-mutilating in this manner for years. I fantasised that he might try to take the scissors away from me, and I might object, and we might have an argument . . . he might stay a little longer. He left shortly after, leaving the scissors, taking the promise of an argument with him.
I sat on the floor at the end of the bed this morning, painting my toenails with the deep red nail polish I'd found years ago at the back of my mother's bathroom cabinet and was struck again by the riddle it presented. Mother didn't wear nail polish. 'Cheap,' she would say, mouth pinched with disdain. Same cheap as the cheap of pierced ears and the cheap of chipped fingernails: the cheap of a woman careless with her appearance. 'Definitely a cheap colour,' I told The Voice in my mother's high censorious voice as I painted on another coat.
Joshua has just arrived. Two days in a row. This is unprecedented. I am alert, interested, perhaps even a little anxious, but most of all I am curious. I notice he has brought books with him this time but I am not looking at them, hoping to prolong all the little pleasures his presence brings.
'You're not writing,' he says, eyes moving down to inspect the painted toenails.
'I don't think I'm depressed,' I say in response to his next question.
'Do you feel safe?'
'What sort of question is that?'
'Just a question. Do you?'
I know he has been told to ask me these things. I also know this is a trick question because I know that one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress is believing the world is an unsafe place. I know I should answer that I feel safe in the world, but this world is not a safe place and you don't need to have post-traumatic stress disorder, or be locked up in a safe house on the other side of the world, to know that.
When I don't answer, he asks if I'm having any dreams. I stare at him wanting to say, 'Every fucking body dreams you fucking idiot.' Instead, I tell him politely about my heaven and hell dreams so he will stay longer.
'I'm in a white building. All the corridors – and there are only corridors – are lined with shiny white Federation tiles. There are no stairs, only ramps leading upwards, which is a strange thing really when you think about it. How do I know they only go upwards?' I pause, waiting for a comment. When none comes, I continue. 'Anyway, following the ramp closest to me, I reach a place at the top of the building, where two elderly men are sitting at old fashioned school desks busily writing in large ledgers with white quills. These men are definitely not your stereotypical heavenly archangel type beings with wings and halos, although I consider the quills and the inkwells a fine touch.' I smile, wanting to draw him in with my little amusement, but he doesn't respond, so I continue. 'No, they're definitely more your local council clerk type, bowed low over their work with disinterest.
'As I'm standing before one of the men, he raises his right hand, and without looking up at me, points to a tiled wall where he tells me I have to write three things that God is. Taking a thick black marker from a box at the front of the desk that's obviously for this purpose, I try to write, but each time I begin I see that someone has already written on the tile before me. While I'm searching for a free tile, I never think to cheat by reading what others have proclaimed God to be.' I pause here, wondering if he will think better of me for not cheating but he remains, of course, blank. And I wonder, of course, why I'm even bothering. 'Finally, locating a blank tile I write the word 'love' and then 'forgiveness' without hesitation, but I'm unable to think of a third descriptor.
'When I return to the desk, the fellow lifts his right arm again, only this time he points to the corridor behind him, indicating that I should enter. Just as I'm about to do so, a man comes running out of the corridor terrified. When I ask him what's wrong, he tells me that he's never going back down the corridor again. It seems you're tested on the words you have written about God. I ask what he'd written and he says, 'love'. I don't need to know what else he wrote. Love is enough. He failed the love test, and I know I'll probably fail it too. I will also probably fail the forgiveness test, so I decide I'm not going to chance it.'
That's the end of the dream but Joshua doesn't seem to understand this, so I tell him. When he doesn't respond, I launch into the hell dream.
'It begins with me being thrown into a gigantic pit. Who throws me in is a mystery and, to be frank, the least of my worries. It's dark and it's unbelievably hot. Not hot from the biblical fires of hell, but hot from the proximity and mass of human wriggling, writhing, grasping flesh in this cauldron of condemned humanity. I'm on top of hundreds of thousands – perhaps zillions – of disgusting naked, hairless bodies all trying to climb over one another to reach the fetid air at the top.
'It takes me a few seconds to realise what's happening, but in that brief time I've already sunk down a few layers. I know if I don't start fighting for my life I'll continue to sink under thousands of layers of bodies and there'll be no possibility of ever reaching the air again. So I begin to fight, and scratch, and pull, and gouge my way up, but everyone is sweating profusely, which makes their bodies particularly difficult to grab hold of to pull myself up. This is survival: dog eat dog, no prisoners taken.' I look up at him then, sure he'll understand this 'dog eat dog', 'no prisoners taken' bit, but he's just watching me; no nod of recognition.
'With a superhuman effort, I fight my way to the surface again, and, grasping for air, continue to punch, and kick, and bite those below me who're trying to pull me down. I can still feel it,' I say to him, 'my teeth pushing through the flesh of a finger until it reaches bone.' He winces at this, ever so imperceptibly, and I am joyous. I smile, feeling as if I have won a pathetic little victory. 'There's nothing I won't do to stay on top, but I'm tiring, and I know that soon I'll begin to sink again and all will be lost. In that moment, I understand that it's hopeless to even try and so I give up and start to sink. Would you like another cup of coffee?'
'No, thank you.'
'How long? How long will I have to be here?' I say, the desperation in my voice cancelling out my little win.
'Can't say.' He leaves, forgetting to ask if I've seen anything unusual.
What really riles me, what really makes me more angry than the supercilious superiority of the Masters of Blank; more than the faceless Turbans and their vicious sentence on me, and even more than my sentence – my twenty-six words – is the fact that no matter what I write now, no matter how good or bad it is, that one sentence is what my life will be remembered by. The Turbans have destroyed me more than they could ever have hoped.
'I should have the words engraved on my tombstone like Spike Milligan's, "I told them I was sick,"' I say to The Voice after Joshua has gone.
'I told them I was ill', it says, correcting me, and I am left wondering how something inside my head knows this when I don't. 'Besides, yours isn't near as funny.'
'Okay,' I say, 'How about I leave my headstone blank. That would really fool them. I'll be there and not there at the same time.'
'That could be funny,' says The Voice, relaxing back in its imaginary armchair, 'if it wasn't already true.'