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The Cuckold, and Me

Tammie and Alan Bartlett were friends of ours then. Both of them were writers and I was trying to be a writer also. Cameron was the only one of us who wanted to be remembered for having not written anything. If she titled a shopping list and I told her this had already been done, she found me amusing and stupid. Shopping lists were going to be her thing, she would say. I think she did not truly consider shopping lists as anything less remarkable than the books of poetry I kept on a shelf in our lounge room. Certainly she did not believe a blood plum to be anything more than a blood plum. 

Alan titled most of his poems in French. He knew how to speak French a little, and I knew how to speak it a little, and it was only his pronunciations which gave the poems away. They were good poems on the page, though when he read them aloud he wanted everything to be feminine. The French feminine is closer to English than what the French masculine is, and it is stronger too. Cameron did not speak any French. I think for her there was something else which gave the poems away. Anyway, she could smile at all the right places. She was convincing and beautiful.

Alan’s book of poems which he called l’Eléphant, but pronounced l’Eléphante, was his best. This was not only my opinion, but also the opinion of people who wrote reviews. For them L’Eléphant was nostalgic and prophetic at the same time. After l’Eléphant was published, then favourably and paradoxically reviewed, Alan began reciting the title poem at all of his readings. He was a hit. Often there was somebody at the recital, wearing a pair of bright-red reading glasses or an ushanka, who would cry to hear it and then laugh loudly to show they understood its irony. L’Eléphant was ironic down to its emasculated title.

Alan was good with irony as Hemingway was good with homosexuality. A university journalist once asked Alan what, precisely, he considered irony to be. He told her it was like any of the base-metal adjectives: coppery or nickely, for example, and nothing to be raved over. Then he slept with her on the passenger seat of my Toyota. In her article she called him ‘the Hemingway of irony and the Scott Fitzgerald of car seats rolled into one’. It was not a good analogy and I am sure Tammie was clever enough to decipher its absurdity.

Tammie wrote stories not poems. She was clever at spotting irony and absurdity but could not use either in her stories. I think her stories were mainly about people who bought lots of art and hung it inside trains which they did not have the tickets to be riding in the first instance. Of all the writers I was reading in those days she was the only one writing about absconders buying art and hanging it inside trains and all of her characters were named after people she knew personally. I was often a character and Cameron too, and in one particular story Cameron was a man and I was still a man and we were homosexuals together. I guess this made Cameron the Hemingway of something also. Or at least the Brett Ashley of something.

Cameron was one year older than me and we had married each other when she was twenty-nine and I was twenty-eight. We had been married for two years when we first met Alan and Tammie and they had been married for seven years. Alan was the same age as me and Tammie was seven years younger. In her first-person stories Tammie was always much, much younger. Sometimes she was just a kid and the homosexuals and not-homosexuals who bought art together would call her ‘kid’ the way a private eye calls a kid ‘kid’: ‘You look out for yourself, kid’, they would say to her. The real life Tammie was always looking out for herself and she was not out to make a cuckold of Alan, but in the end that is what happened.

Alan took speed. Tammie might have taken it too, for all I know. I know that Cameron and I were not taking it and that Tammie was not taking it in front of us. Alan would take it in front of us all and tell us to take it with him and we would tell him that when we were famous and great like he was, then we would take the famous and great drugs; until then we would have to settle for drinking mediocre wine and good but not great beer. Cameron called speed the laureate’s drug. I think Alan liked the connotation and he would not stop anyone from calling him The Laureate when he was running around bent and on speed. He even started promoting himself as The Laureate. Only when he was on speed though. When he was sober he was ironic and very modest.

In these earlier days Alan did not know he was a cuckold. He only discovered he was a cuckold when Tammie discovered he had slept with the poetess laureate C.M. Alan slept with C.M. on the night of Tammie’s book launch. Tammie had found a publisher for her book of art buyer stories (in which the art buyers would hang their purchases on different trains as they crossed Europe never stopping for longer than two days in any one city) and they had agreed to pay her three thousand dollars in advance and she had used that money to launch the book aboard a tram which had been hired specially to drive non-stop around Melbourne. Alan was not with us at the boarding stop at seven pm on the night of the launch and neither was he there at seven forty-seven pm when we next passed. At eight thirty-four pm he was not there and at nine twenty-one pm he was there and we disembarked and Tammie did not ask him why he had been missing for one hundred and forty-one minutes and he did not say that it had been because the poetess laureate C.M. had accused him of having a small dick at a party the night before and had then cajoled him into sleeping with her by continuingly and playfully taunting his masculinity. C.M. could speak French better than Alan or myself and she had nicknamed Alan La Petite Bite. Unlike Alan, C.M. did not give her poems French titles but she often implanted slabs of unitalicised patois into her poems and when she read them aloud she read them unitalicised and untranslated too. Alan italicised all of his emasculated French and C.M. told him that that was because he preferred to be fucked by men than women. C.M. used words like fucked and psychoanalysis and did not italicise any of the things she said – except for the names of cats. She kept more than ten cats and talked about them as a student talks about flatmates who are always late with their rent.

On the night of Tammie’s book launch Alan had gone to C.M.’s house with a lot of speed in his gut. He had opened the door without knocking and had gone inside to find C.M. lying on the floor with a lot of something in her gut too. She was not dead but she was unconscious and Alan had had a hard time waking her up. Eventually he woke her up and everything he did between waking her up and leaving again is written in his poem Le Papillon de Nuit. It was supposed to be his next great poem after l’Eléphant but it did not review near as well and eventually he stopped reading it at his public performances. Le Papillonne de Nuite, as he pronounced it.

Of course Tammie knew that Alan had slept with C.M. as soon as he arrived that night. We all did. He was still quite bent and was proclaiming himself The Laureate of Poetry and Fashion, since it was both incredibly fashionable and incredibly poetic to be late to a book launch in which many of the book’s stories included protagonists named for oneself. The Alans in the stories were thieves and retired football players and rich Americans and poor Spaniards, and in one of the stories the Alan was a goat being herded along the tracks by a man who kept calling himself Georgette in the song he was singing. The real-life Georgette was a woman and was close friends with Tammie and Cameron. Cameron could make anyone her friend. She had flat, tanned breasts and a pink mouth and we had been married for two years when we first met Alan and Tammie who had been married for seven years. Georgette was not married, she was singular and androgynous, like the slash between S and Z. Rather than calling himself the L of P and F, Tammie told Alan he might better refer to himself as The L of C. Alan found this hilarious. He still had a lot of speed in his gut.

It was not until two days later, when the sharp mathematical lines had thoroughly dissipated from Alan’s mannerisms and prophesies, that he understood the implication: Laureate of Cuckoldry. It affected him very steeply and for three months he did not sleep with a single woman. Even Tammie did not get a look in during this period. Alan would prise her for a name, constantly, but she would not budge. Forget about it, Alan, she would say to him. And if we were all there, drinking wine and trying to get drunk and have a good time together, she would say to him: Stop being The Laureate of Bad Conversation, Alan. Alan was the laureate of many things then. After being reprimanded he would threaten to kill this cuckolder if Tammie did not come clean. No, she would tell him, and he would threaten to kill her then. And if she called Alan The Laureate of Acting Like A Baby he would become sulky and threaten to kill himself. Luckily, The Laureate of Suicide would usually behave much more nobly and civilised than The Laureate of Murder and Bad Conversation.

It took two years for Tammie to write another book of short stories. In that time I think Alan did not sleep with her once. Her style and psychology changed and she was no longer naming her characters for the people she knew in real life. There was a Tamarin in one story, though he was African and not at all like Cameron and even Cameron did not think there was an association between herself and the muted character of this tribal initiation story. I think Tammie was reading García Márquez at the time of writing a lot of the stories for this second book. There was a humidity in every page. I was reading a lot of Albert Camus then and Cameron was not reading anyone. Cameron had started writing though. Of course. She was writing short, autobiographical stories, little whimsical things that did not irk me to read, though I never took much away from them. She was writing them for herself and was not aiming to publish any one of them. Camus was making me write like a dry rash and I could not get published anywhere. All of my prose seemed to itch and if I scratched at it, it would begin to bleed and then it would feel thin and wet and it would not stop bleeding. The only way to make it stop was to quit writing for the day and go off to find Alan. He would be in a bar talking to some dumb girl who studied creative writing at the university and knew him from the jacket cover of l’Eléphant. If he was able to convince the girl to let him put his hand up her top or down her pants after a lot of bullshitting, then he would feel around and tell her that she had the anatomy of an acrostic poem. That is how Alan was insulting them in those days.

‘Camus is making you write badly,’ Cameron said to me one afternoon. 

‘Yes, I know,’ I told her, looking up. ‘But he is making me read brilliantly.’

Cameron was annoyed with all the writers who were reading other writers. They all sound the same, she complained often. She had made decisions about this sort of thing. They sound like they have been reading too much of each other.

‘Yes, but how can you know that unless you read them first too?’ 

‘You can tell by the way they talk about their work. Only the bad ones talk about their own work; the good ones want to discuss the great ones and the great ones rattle on with the classic ones,’ she explained. 

‘Who do the classic ones talk about?’ 

‘The classic ones do not talk about anyone. They are blind and deaf and only have time for writing.’ 

‘Are you a classic one, then?’

‘No, I am not even a good one.’

‘You know about Camus though.’

‘I only know that he is making you write badly and blindly.’

‘Alan is writing badly and blindly. Is that Camus’s fault too?’

‘Alan was a cuckold when he was writing well. And he is still a cuckold.’

‘Maybe that is why his pronunciations were always off?’

‘His pronunciations were always off and nobody ever told him. Are his pronunciations still off? It has been such a long time since I have heard him make one of his pronunciations.’

‘I think they are still off.’

‘In his head they are off.’

‘You know they are off and you do not even speak French a little,’ I said to Cameron.

‘You do not need to speak the language to admire it,’ Cameron said. 

And we left it at that.