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Brief Lives

…people are invisibly connected without knowing it, they touch one another through lives that to them remain forever foreign, they step into times which they think are not theirs, they walk through landscapes which are new only to them but which have existed for centuries.

Daša Drndić, Belladonna

John Aubrey once said: ‘It’s a war between men and women. It’s not about Joan of Arc.’ He continued, ‘and anyway, beneath all that armor she had balls.’ Maybe it wasn’t Aubrey, but it sure as hell sounded like he would have said it. Given that he did or didn’t say it, who was Aubrey? He lived through the sacking of Oxford University; the English Civil War; the Great Fire of London. He was good at observation but was blindly swindled by a woman he wanted to marry. He had witnessed urban conflagrations but he would never have seen a bushfire. He would have liked the guesthouse to which they all retreated now, here in South Australia, because it was the only open country without too many trees and was surrounded by acres of vines, though those were being singed at the edges. People drove their cars up and pointed the bonnets at the ridge of fire. If the smoke became too thick they knew they had to get out in that same direction and then turn left or right, making sure they weren’t trying to outrun the fire coming from behind. It was a nice guesthouse although the people already gathered there did not seem to know one another, but they had all stayed there at one time or other because they all remembered that they were supplied with Japanese kimonos and that their bathrooms had thick glass on three sides which looked out at the vineyards and the hills beyond, without fearing for their own privacy or modesty. Perhaps that is what connected them: grapevines and nakedness.

Someone was speaking in the large lounge room and the others had pulled up chairs and ottomans – it’s a deep trawl, he said, I’d rather forget my childhood. He looked unhappy, like all the pictures of Tolstoy, a long white beard, never smiling because of missing front teeth. Since September his father had been dangerously ill. The old are dispensable for those who never knew them well. The speaker had been incarcerated in a junior boarding school from the age of five, then to big school and then college. His father had been a QC, who viciously prosecuted anyone below the rank of an Eastern Suburbs property developer. It is the waiting that I do best. For nothing most of the time. I spend my days restoring things. He said it as if the world needed to be put right. Once something is really broken, it is almost impossible to mend it. Only if it is worn out, can you bring it to a state of possibility. He said his wife was worn out but not broken. Where is she? She is at home, refusing to leave even though the fire was starting to ring the property. You cannot force a person to leave their home. It is against the law. He is very worried and concerned for her safety, he said. They had made a pact. They put it in writing in case of repercussions. She would not leave. He had spent thousands of dollars to protect their place against fires…pumps, hoses on the roofs, multiple water tanks, mature camellias. She would be safe. He and his wife did not speak to each other except on very rare occasions. His wife said he had dementia, though he didn’t really believe that was the cause of their silences. He also said places, like families, were often fatal.

There was a kind of shuffling about. People looked uneasy, as though a crime were about to be committed. Somebody coughed as sirens sounded in the distance, then an old woman who looked as though she had been asleep, her head back and her mouth open, took up the skein of talk like a trout after a fly. He was always so neat, she said. Everything about him was thought through until it became second nature: good habits, cleanliness, always smelling of Pears soap – kind of rubbery and unperfumed – and since he was a doctor, these things went down well with his patients. Then he retired and he started to plan things well in advance, like buying a shipping container and burying it on our property, which I hated…we had countless arguments over that…and he began pouring concrete steps, positioning corrugated steel sheeting across the roof, planting grass on top. We argued over everything, which was something we had never done before when he was at the surgery, when he was happy as a child in a sandpit, until a medical conglomerate turned his practice into a multi-purpose clinic. Now he had to make himself busy, not only because he thought the Chinese were coming, yes, they were going to take over the world, but with some ventilation the bunker would be handy in a bushfire and it doubled up as a wine cellar, being very cold in there, especially in the winter. In summer he put our ski clothing in the steel lockers he’d bought because ski clothing was expensive as were our trips to the South Island in New Zealand where in Queenstown even the street signs were in Japanese, which alarmed him because he had imagined a kind of Nordic holiday without all those Asians on the slopes chattering in a language he couldn’t understand. Then abruptly we stopped taking overseas trips, so he moved the ski clothing from the bunker to make room for his Grange wines, which he purchased at auction, sometimes topping out at $500 a bottle. He was very proud of that collection, though we never drank any of it, when after a couple of years he discovered that silverfish had bred in the darkness and had eaten all the labels since they must have liked the glue or the taste of the paper, so he didn’t know what year each vintage was and that was when he had his heart attack, stumbling up the steps gasping for air. I don’t regret having argued so much with him; if only he had let the sunshine in we could have had a lovely old age. I’ve never gone back down into that bunker. I thought of making it my studio and doing some sculpting but there was only artificial, fluorescent light. I don’t even know what’s in there now; snakes perhaps. Nobody’s touched the wine since, until I had my gardener put the cases into the boot of my car upon my evacuation.

The portrait painter, who had been unnoticed in the corner of the vast lounge room looked up from his cedar cigar box lid and like many painters, spoke briefly: If life is short and art is long, then the corollary would be to do short art and live a long life. Art kills as much as snakes. But we could all do with some wine.

Who the hell was this old guy sitting in the corner, prolix as a sphinx? He never spoke again that night. He was unhoused. To speak through thought was to make others wary. He could sense this and occupied himself with his panel, which nobody wanted to view; indeed, nobody wanted to approach him and he gradually faded into the dark as the generator was turned on, dim lights contrasting with the reddening sky. Perhaps he was painting by smell.

Jack didn’t see the point of eating vegetables because he said his wife Marge only made vegetables and though he was convinced that veges were more healthy for them, he could not feel any appetite eating them, raw or cooked and at times read Claude Lévi-Strauss to try to make sense of this whole cooking and eating thing, but thought it better if he drank a lot of wine beforehand and could then say nice things about Marge’s cooking, but mostly he snuck down to the mall and had hamburgers and when he felt particularly Jewish, as he was, ordered pastrami and pickles New York style and came home saying he was not really hungry, but he always helped her cook vegetables, calling her his beloved Margarine and suggested they start a garden of greens because he liked cos lettuce and would eat that and horse radish like a horse, going yum yum, just to please her. Now he said to the room full of people that he had floaters in his eyes, not pie floaters but all kinds of three-dimensional shapes shifting like holograms and these geometries were populating his sight. He was not wishing to complain of his numerous and various eye operations, but said he could live with the imagination of them, addressing the painter, who did not look up from his work, that he could understand exactly what Maurits Cornelis Escher was driving at with mathematical inspiration, revolving three-dimensional figures right there in the cornea, which was Escher’s middle name, at the same time saying with all the veges Marge ate it didn’t do her any good since she had bowel cancer and had died in his arms, as he said, exploding there in his arms, and he had her contact lens cases, all pristine, for anyone who wore contacts and needed them. Gratis.

Not being a performer…in answer to introducing himself, the old Chinese man with a large white moustache who came in late on a bicycle and who raised chickens only for their eggs which he sold by the roadside, neglected to finish his response…but had he done so would have said you could put anything in the mouths of performers, even poison, which would fill the air, as would the sound of applause. So he sat there smiling and twiddling his thumbs. John Aubrey would have called him a scobberlotcher, though he worked part-time at the local cemetery and kept flowers on graves that were neglected…cherry blossoms mostly, which he grew with great care. Aubrey, being an antiquarian, liked digging up old bones, along with Sir Thomas Browne, but the English climate mostly discouraged cherry blossoms, which needed to be grown alternatively in full sun, in partial or mostly warm shady areas with deep, fertile soil. In Uraidla, South Australia, the gardien de cimetière was thinking of a rhyme: those who harbour desire were prone to the storm of satire. In season. He could have posted this as a flyer at the cemetery gates but decided that being a postman and a grave-keeper seemed almost diametrically opposed; for one thing, he found it difficult chiselling into stone. But letter-writing was also an engraving, gravitas, a silent, dignified marker. So the silence of the painter and the grave-keeper’s finger-miming found something in common, though it was not immediate to the eye. Not like a painting of yews anyway.

When he was a young man, the still-handsome vigneron Peter was saying (he’s in his seventies now), he had broken up with his girlfriend who had turned reckless. She climbed outside the railing under the atrium of a shopping mall and fell, and though she had no intention of jumping, she was careless nevertheless and there she was, still conscious upon the mosaic floor, moving her hands as if imploring him to help and he ran down the stairs struggling past screaming shoppers, lost in a labyrinth of arcades and escalators, the crowd rushing in one direction to gape, and he was kneeling over her, still looking on helplessly, taking her hand, afraid to do anything else in case of aggravating an internal injury. Years later, crippled and sarcastic, she moved her hands in the same way as if imploring him, not for help anymore but to mock him for his inaction which was the same inaction that was an avoidance that time he revisited the shopping mall and there she was in a wheelchair selling badges for some charity and he melted into the crowd pretending he didn’t see her. He could have told her that whatever he did, whether outdoor work or indoor reading about vines, the bruising of grapes or soil drainage, there was always a high degree of desperation: sirens in his head, the heavy sound of wings, time’s osculation. He said to his current wife, the old lady dozing next to him on the sofa, that once something is broken, it is impossible to mend it. Only if it is worn out, can one bring it to a state of possibility. The fires may have destroyed fifty years of hard work, he said.

People who have done time, I notice, always stand out from the others. People who have done time won’t look you in the eye, instead they are second-guessing you, figuring out whether you are picking up their trail. People who have done time know how long it takes to understand the nature of time; they mark time, kill time, spend time. Maybe the artist had done time; maybe the grave-keeper; maybe even the vigneron, who goaded his girlfriend over the rail, seeing how far she would go. Everyone is connected here through their vignettes, like tendrils of the vine, since all they could do now was to wait together and they would have to do their best, finger-drumming, foot-tapping, compressing their lives, connected, but unable to move forward.

The grave-keeper said there was a kind of mushroom which fed off the nitrogen released from a dead body. It marked the graves which were freshly putrefying. He was fond of oxymorons, parataxes and taxonomies. He called the mushrooms ‘corpse-finders of the recently lost’ or that they were ‘the cloakroom of cadavers’ or that they had ‘truffles of their own’. Mushrooms guided him when he forgot temporary markers or had misplaced gravestones.

The guitarist, who had long hair and who now felt confident enough to speak in older company, said he had to leave his guitars behind at his house, and that they were probably all burnt. He looked very sad and wanted to say that chords on a guitar were like tendons, knotted together like catgut, taking you to places known and unknown, depending on their progression; feline feelings of comfort and exploration, housed and unhoused. Of course he couldn’t put any of this into words, because words were not what a musician could use. Like the fact that when his then father-in-law gave him for his birthday a Luger pistol captured from a German officer in the Second World War, the guitarist couldn’t bring himself to say thanks because he was leaving his wife. So he placed the pistol wrapped in an oilcloth inside a Tupperware box, sealed it and buried it under the house. It was the era in which there was an amnesty, in which people had to turn in unlicensed guns and he wasn’t going to do it because he did not trust the cops, who would question him like a drug dealer, since he had long hair and looked suspicious.

One thing that jailbirds know: one gets deepened by doing time. Not refined deepening but rough deepening. You just know what is surface on people. But there’s not a lot of excavation after that. Class is all skating on thin ice. The real depth is in life knowing death. Not many know that even when they’re dying, that all their life is surface and presumed depth, even if they read, even if they had presumed to have acquired culture, even if they listened to classical music or went to the ballet or the opera. It’s what the Nazis missed: that they missed deep time through efficiency. Their thoroughness and completeness was their goal. Which forever condemned them. Their Bavarian Catholic mysticism and brutal, petulant fantasy. I understand waste, the guitarist could have said. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have the same subjectivity of being the best of the best, which I will never achieve in this life. Better not to have this aim. Better to let things flow through feeling without interpretation, without a sieve, outside of oneself but inside as well, without knowing or saying. Which of course, guaranteed mediocrity.

The gathering was taken aback. How strange, being taken aback. Many of the old ladies were frightened by this talk, as if the musician with his long hair were a Raskolnikov, though of course they did not know his name, that somehow he was murderous. If only he would have a guitar to play and not talk. Of course he would hate charwomen and only play to Czarinas. But here they were, all intrigued like Czarinas.

I sit here not wanting to speak because to speak is in a way to show off something and I have nothing to show these days, I say to myself with alarming intimacy because I say it half-aloud, and some people in the room may have heard me, but no one spoke, perhaps out of politeness, or fear of being rebuked by a man who looked like Confucius. Some people shut down when they retire, said an acquaintance who once came up to my hotel room in Barcelona and I was embarrassed by the fact that housekeeping had not made the bed nor had they taken away the breakfast things and the room had a slightly sour smell to it tinged with body lotion and deodorant, until my acquaintance flung open the French windows and a blast of cold air swirled about, putting an end to any further intimacy that may or may not have occurred. Yes, shutting down and not opening up was the decision I had taken in Barcelona and I had returned to Australia whose name bore all the mysticism of the southern latitudes and lights and seascapes of unlimited beauty but which turned out to be just as small-minded as when I had left it many years ago, only now prejudice had been given licence by a lunatic in the White House and life had become too volatile on the streets and shutting down became a natural thing to do. This would not have been the case had Miranda been alive. For over thirty years Miranda shared my ups and downs in my literary world, the guy, they said, they being the young, that had won more prizes than admirers. Then Miranda began shutting down and shutting herself away, as if she may have also believed the young, who were aspiring in their Oedipal way to kill the old guy and to steal his mantle, now glowing feebly or revealing the threadbare light of his pale skin through holey wool. But I have always been wrong in diagnosing isolation. Miranda had a cancer implanted by her parents and this obsessed her to the point of no return. The end was quicker than expected, after which I moved to Barcelona for a few years, traversing Europe in order to maintain a visa for teaching writers and actors, frauds and fakes, old Francoists, Catalans and masked Basques. Miranda had left a hole in me and I would never be whole again, having become an invisible professor, an absence discernible by a small breeze, a slight draft, my passing a vague memory of other times, conversations and a chattering of small fame. I’ve not looked at myself for some time. I’m anxious and fearful of something which I don’t know about yet. It’s hard to eke out what you don’t know but can intimate to yourself that it’s impending, just around the corner. Such time stamped by memory; such memory without time. Surely one day soon I’ll die and everything will come to light. All these faces lit by Rembrandt’s fireside in the soot of time. Nobody will know; or care who they were. Some corner we all inhabited for a small moment at the back of the stone wall. Meanwhile, the tincture of suspicion and plague linger over the old walking dead like me. I cannot look after everything anymore as in the past, those who used up my brief happiness that only lasted a nano-second. Those who had no thought but for themselves and I, who believed literature could be lived and shared, came up against the hard stone wall that it was only solitude which accounted for literature. That other him. Objectively passive. His whole library burned and in his auto-da-fé he had already renounced references, citations, page numbers, publication editions, and paraphrases. He was on his own. Burning out his former lives, wives, networks, preciosity, grooming of career, who now examines with meticulousness the lives of small animals, their relative brevity, their fates and death wishes when cornered. At one point he will give up on survival and its self.

I do not know, he says to himself. He thinks. He thinks too much. Never sleeping. Now that Eros is held in liam in the other room, he fades into ancient tapestries. He was real once – he will use a prolepsis – when he entered this guesthouse decades ago on a dirty weekend with spa and candles, now this fire-refuge, the music of heat and embers. He does not have that as a crutch now and understands the profound change that depleted one’s being but brought about a softer body, one without muscle and with delicate skin. He who has lived two lives, a Jekyll and Hyde, one strained through sensitivity, the other through alcohol. He would have preferred the latter, rough, rambunctious. But now, this writing inside the head means a curtailing of the two remaining personalities. The fingerstyle of life leads to the skeletal clutch. Hell was other people, as Sartre took it from Dante and Dante from exile, and exile, as we all know, or those who were endowed with it, was taken from God’s clay and deception. The mirror of a lie will always be a lie.

And then the young couple arrived. Both, it seemed, newly from Europe with a sophistication and boredom the great house had not embodied for a time, not since, at least, that other group from Paris, a high-level diplomatic delegation for a submarine commission, when it witnessed that Parisians did not travel well. He looked like a banker, soft, overfed, and cynically smart. He wore thick lenses and his introspection was finally assessed by our company that he was slightly deaf. She was underfed and pretty and when she introduced herself the old sat up as much as they could because elegance stirred like a familiar perfume the memories and fantasies which were never quite achieved in their own time. But these ephemera stirred nothing much else except curiosity and there was a greater drama outside as blue and white lights flashed and fire trucks raced up the dirt road. What of sex now? The dance of death?

The truth is that there was nothing connecting this new arrival to the rest of us who were now bonded together within this opulent chamber. (I thought of the violin sonata by Gabriel Pierné. Perhaps Proust’s ‘little phrase’ may still perform its magic? I twiddled my thumbs; exercised my digits.) But no, they did not bring Paris with them. They were travelling and had been momentarily paused in their schedule by a natural disaster. We, however, were only focused on our disaster which we possessed as a group and would relinquish as soon as we returned to life. Would there have been a digression in which the camera eye moved into the bedroom of the Europeans, or concealed itself in a door-crack and recorded the boredom, the undressing and the tired but nervous conversation in the light of the fire? Could, as John Aubrey would have noticed, her husband have been made deaf and blind by too much of Venus? Curiosity about the lives of others, even if erotic, usually ends in boredom.

If your fifties are the crap decade, your sixties are not losses but minor decrepitudes, cellular exactitudes taken out on the body, along with incremental propitiations to you-know-what. But the seventies – if you survived thus far without too many suicidal mishaps – is the age of insouciance. Laughter in the face of stress and frenzy. Too old for lusting after the young; not young enough for the backward arrow of time to elicit innocence, the seventies take comfort in letting things go, in not caring for phones and watches, currying a new excitement in seeing other people’s tension at eye level, separated from the self and spotted statically floating in oceans of plastic distraction. The seventies is the decade of the cool castaway, though one could be rather blind both ocularly and alcoholically. Put both down to insouciance.

Here at the grand house in the middle of a bushfire we had cucumber sandwiches and unlabelled vintage wine for an early morning feast. I thought of Boccaccio during a plague, creating stories to cure melancholy, as I watched the French girl opposite me stretching out her silken legs on the chaise longue, and if her beauty was a ‘yes’, the message I was delivering was far more difficult: my epistolary cast of mind, composed of dead letters of desire, often scattered a confetti of celebratory microscripts without requite, that is, for the favour of my eyes in praise of beauty.

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