HE SET THE camera up by the wall in the space he used as his studio. It was one of the many rooms in the too-big house he didn’t need. It was mostly empty – the wallpaper left to peel away from the walls, the plaster to crack and the dust left undusted. In the light that came in elongated grids through the barred windows I watched him move around the room beneath me, holding up the light meter to gauge the exposures.
I was wearing wings sitting high up on the rafters. He had gotten me up there with an aluminium ladder propped by the window. That afternoon he’d found a pair of glittery fairy wings abandoned outside the Woolworths on Illawarra Road. He cleaned them off and asked me to put them on. He had fixed the camera to the tripod. The light was getting away from him. I swung my legs, to watch the shadows ripple across the room like deep water.
Particles of dust drifted down around my ankles each time I shifted my legs. The wooden beams dug into my thighs. My white dress was filthy. Although it wasn’t my dress, exactly. It belonged to him. There was a pile of women’s clothing falling out of the wardrobe on the landing, which at first struck me as strange, because Rowland lived alone. The clothes were from different eras, in different sizes, to match the bodies of the women who had left them behind. There was a sort of leotard in black velvet. A white linen blouse with sweat-stained shoulder pads. An indigo bra that unclasped in front. These things didn’t fit me. They were made in petite size, worn by women who had arms shorter and hips narrower and breasts smaller than mine who lived, I supposed, long before I had been born. He was old enough to be my father, although at the time that hadn’t occurred to me as anything that might matter.
The white dress I was wearing while I waited for him to adjust the camera was the dress I had put on the first time he had steered me to the pile of clothes and asked me to choose. It was a wedding dress, vintage 1940s. The lace held me tight at the top as though I was always just about to burst out of it, but it fell smoothly over my hips. Somebody, either the woman who had owned it before me or the bride who had first worn it, had taken a pair of scissors and cut off the bottom in one jagged gash. It fell in hang-threads at my knees. Now I wore it every time I modelled for him. Something about the stitching or its age or the lace had a strange effect. I felt as if I could be looked at, but remain unknown.
There was a yellowy spotlight Rowland had put in the far corner, but it didn’t reach me up close to the ceiling. From the high window I could look out to the muddy river, and the industrial stretches that lead out to Botany Bay and into the hot evening ocean where Sydney lay immaculate. Earlier, the clouds had piled up over the airport like bruised flesh. The storm went from violet to green, the lightning in the distance making the roofs in Wolli Creek seem to billow up like sheets. In its absence the air felt exhausted. The summer smelled like wet and burning things.
At last he looked up at me and said, ‘When you jump I want you to fall backwards, and reach out to the ceiling.’ In the photograph he took of me that night I’m a blur holding my arms open to the dark.
ROWLAND HAD ONLY gone back to teaching six months earlier. He needed the money. So sometimes he was called into school as a substitute for art classes when one of the teachers was ill or hung-over or lying immobilised by their own irrelevancy in bed. He was meant to start at 8.30 on the dot, but more often than not you’d sit there waiting in unsupervised rooms running at the low hum of no one in charge. Wait long enough and you would at last hear his footsteps approaching down the corridor, the laboured intake of breath as he pushed open the door.
It was a big deal, we had been told on his first day, that in our midst was an artist who had exhibited in London and New York, who had won prizes we hadn’t heard of before most of us were born. ‘Why’s he need to teach, if he’s as special as all that,’ sneered a black-haired girl at the back of the class, not unreasonably perhaps, but not kindly.
He had come across me without meaning to. I had been sitting curled up in the wicker chair cast adrift among the papier-mâché props and faded Brassaï posters of the smallest art classroom. I spent a lot of lunchtimes there. Reading, mostly, and observing other girls below the windows moving about the world not knowing I was watching. Rowland walked in one day in September – he had been searching for a different room. I hadn’t known he was watching until he coughed.
He apologised for having disturbed me. I stumbled over my words, trying to account for my presence. He nodded. And he looked me square in the eyes before backing out of the room. The most unnerving thing about Rowland was that he would hold your gaze a second longer than was necess-ary, as if the intimacy between the two of you was already extant. His eyes, meditative and grave, stayed with me long after he had left the room and the bell rang for fifth period.
Later that week my art teacher mentioned that he had been asking about me. ‘Why?’ I asked her. I didn’t understand why an older man would give any thought to somebody like me – indiscernible, ill-defined, a girl he’d glimpsed only for a moment. She laughed at me and squeezed my shoulder with her clay-crusted hand, then moved away.
I watched out for him after that. I knew he lived nearby, because I saw him on the bus home sometimes, on the rainy days when he didn’t walk. He was tall – he stuck out in a crowd – but he had delicate bones. I thought he might have been handsome when he was young. I never caught his eye, but I tracked him when he got off at the stop on Illawarra Road near the golf course, two stops before mine. I saw him walk up the hill by the river.
During October, I began to skirt down his street when I walked to the Vietnamese FoodWorks to pick up things my mother had scrawled on the back of the unpaid gas bill. I would pause behind the paperbark tree and peer at the house I thought he lived in, the front yard all long grass and bougainvillea engirding the second-floor balcony, white paint peeling from the weatherboard. I would glimpse his profile sometimes, slumped in a deep chair with a glass balancing on his chest.
The summer began early that year. Exams came in November, but the Christmas beetles had already begun to swarm the streetlights and the air grew thick with oleander. The heat made people hopeful. Children ran in their swimmers through the spray of garden hoses, in contempt of the city’s water restrictions. A man with a paunch at the end of my street bought a Triumph and polished it in the driveway in the late afternoons. His wife rolled her eyes in the thick shadow of their mosquito-netted windows. Families began to put up plastic wreaths and fairy lights.
In the afternoons when I had nothing to do I took long meandering walks. Waiting for something to happen. I wandered along the street, passing the spoiled-meat-coloured facades of new apartment blocks, shuttered moneylenders, an Ogalo branch, a Domain real-estate agent, eight different Vietnamese restaurants all specialising in pho, grocery stores smelling of feta and durians, an implausibly large Chemist Warehouse, white stencilled ‘Advertise Here’ pleas by the stairway leading down to the train station platform, where a City Circle-bound Bankstown-line train plunged eastwards towards the skyscrapers. And beyond, the distant red Caltex sign at the bottom of the hill like a circular star to guide me home.
Taking the long way home after one of these walks, in which I went out searching for signs of a more interesting life, I veered down his street. The air was sticky. The banana trees were swelling and fruiting, viridescent. The smell of rot drifted from wet hibiscus flowers trodden mushy and grey into the pavement. I stood behind the paperbark tree across the street, but his lights were off. I didn’t notice when he walked up behind me, holding a bottle in a brown paper bag. He had been right behind me all the long walk down Illawarra Road.
When I turned I realised I was blocking his path. I was carrying a canvas shopping bag filled with rice and lemons, and shifted it from hand to hand in front of my body to shield myself from what might be coming. An uncomfortable moment convulsed between us before he said anything.
‘You were my student.’
I nodded. He looked at me closely, and I suspected that he knew exactly how many times I had hovered outside his front window.
As he walked across the burning bitumen towards his house, I heard him say, ‘Come on then.’
And so I followed him.
The front door opened into a corridor with a staircase beyond. He turned right into the front room, where I’d seen him moving about in the half-light from the street. It was a room with bookshelves and two sofas facing one another, with not even a crate or a stool in between. I stood in the middle of the room in darkness. Rowland brought a bottle of whiskey out from the kitchen beyond and picked up two dusty shot glasses with the fingers of the same hand. He guided me to one of the sofas, then walked to the wall near the foot of the stairs and with a switch that was wiry and loose from the plaster he turned the lights on. I still hadn’t said a word.
Later I learned that people didn’t often come to his house. He had cut away from the people he knew. His closest friends had died years ago – overdoses, one suicide, junkie diseases of the liver and heart. There were some people he knew who were still in Melbourne, and there were a couple in London, I think. And in Budapest, where he had spent three years living in a rat-infested apartment leased to him by an old man who let him have the place for next to nothing provided he could use it once a week to host a rotation of delicate Chinese women with broken Hungarian, who dressed in black and cheap high heels and whipped him as he lay across their knees in the spare bedroom while Rowland watched television with the volume low.
In the incompleteness of the lounge room he sat opposite me on the other sofa and, balancing the shot glasses on each knee, poured fat man’s fingers of whiskey. He handed me the glass and I took it from him while shaking my head.
‘I don’t drink,’ I said. The truth was I had only drunk vodka mixed with sugary orange juice – once, because my friend Clemmie had insisted – and I was afraid to spit it out or even retch in front of this man who had seen me on his street and beckoned me into his house.
‘You don’t have to drink it,’ he said. ‘Look upon it as a courtesy.’
He moved to the record player mounted on a cardboard suitcase directly underneath the window. He turned the music on low. Something pretty and violent I didn’t recognise. He talked about himself or, rather, he talked around himself, telling me stories about the record he was playing, the sofa I was sitting on, the stolen ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts on the bare floorboards, knowing perhaps that I was struggling for words. He spoke as he drank, and half mouthed the words to the song, searching in my face for something all the while. Never breaking the gaze. My fingers almost tapped to the music on the olive velvet of the sofa’s arm. There were cushions with needlepoint white violets strewn across the couch he was sitting on, opposite my bare knees. They were the only sweet or reassuring things in the room.
On the wall behind Rowland was a huge photograph framed in glass, very black. The naked shoulder of a girl giving into the caressing hand of an upright headless man. There was an assured signature in the right-hand corner where the paper was white. His. On another wall, I would see later, was taped a letter written on ageing milky stationery with the letterhead of the Menzies Hotel emblazoned across the top. It was a scrawled message, in what was unmistakably his hand. Ghastly, with open eyes, he attends, blind. All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears; thinking.
‘Is that your real hair?’ he said, apropos of nothing. ‘You haven’t dyed it or gotten a fucking perm or something like that?’
‘It’s just how it grows,’ I said.
He nodded. ‘Good. It’s better the way it is.’
He paused as he finished the last dregs of the whiskey from the shot glass I hadn’t so much as sipped from.
‘You know I’m not a teacher. Not really.’ I told him I knew. He walked me to the door. As I picked my way across the weed-split front path he called out. ‘Hey. You can come back if you want to.’
I BEGAN TO visit him on the way home, instead of just passing by. Mostly I read with him. I would curl my legs up on the olive velvet sofa so that my body was compact and no part of me was touching his floor. At first I couldn’t concentrate on anything I pretended to read. I was too aware of the strangeness of him. The prize-winning picture of the naked girl that loomed black and beautiful over his head. But he would sit there, in the lounge room or in the kitchen, smoking with the ashtray against the open window, and eventually I would forget he was there.
It was a few weeks later that he told me he wanted to photograph me. I was not somebody people photographed. Even now, nobody ever asks to take my picture. I didn’t look myself in front of a camera. It had been different when I was very little.
From the moment I was born my mother was always armed with a heavy black Nikon. A thirty-six-frame roll of film could be used up in fifteen minutes as I careened around a room in purple parachute pants, conducting conversations with dolls and flowers. She was afraid of the time slipping by. The photos she took traced my moving away from her and disappearing into some awful, imagined future where she couldn’t protect me. They must have provided some kind of comfort. A verifiable chemical reincarnation, as if they could be offered up if any evidence was ever demanded of my passage through time.
When I got older there were no pictures, because I wouldn’t sit for them. If I got caught in a photo I looked out unsure and stiff from beneath a veil of hair. I didn’t like looking at the awkward versions of myself developed in full colour and bound up in a bright yellow envelope from a nowhere place on the ground floor of Marrickville Metro. They were second-bests of a replica.
But I said ‘yes’ to him.
WHEN HE PULLED out his equipment it was cobwebby, and the swell of air from the unlocked zippers hit me with the force of a low-tide squall. He rubbed the dust away with his shirtsleeve and explained to me how it worked. It was a big thing, bulky, like no camera I’d ever seen before. For one thing, it had to be held at chest height unless he was using a tripod. All of his equipment was old. The camera he preferred using – at least when he was working with me – was a medium-format model. It produced a square negative instead of the usual rectangular frames. That kind of camera, he told me, required a slower and more considered approach to photography. It only produced twelve negatives before it needed reloading. But its near-obsolescence was part of the appeal. You had to consider what really mattered in the image. You had to have an enormous amount of control over what happened.
I found the wedding dress in the pile of clothes and I changed in the bathroom. It had been the last day of term, and I arrived at his house still wearing my scratchy skirt and knee socks and blue blouse with the school crest in gold over the breast pocket. The crest had a Latin motto furled out in capital letters beneath the gold shield. Ut Filiae Lucius Ambulate. Walk As Daughters of the Light.
In the bathroom I took off the pieces of the uniform and folded them on the vinyl chair by the sink. I washed my face, but the water heater was inconstant and the liquid that drained from the hot tap was almost freezing, even in the summer. I let my hair down. The white lace rustled across my back as I fixed the buttons into place. I looked at myself in the mirror: my long red hair and clean face and the delicate anachronism of the dress. The shock of the cold water against my skin had given my face a milky glow. My lips seemed redder. It wasn’t that anything had changed exactly. It was more that the whole ritual of getting ready to be looked at had unveiled a part of myself I hadn’t been aware of. I stared at my reflection as if I didn’t know the girl in the mirror. The sensation struck and magnified a sense of conviction I didn’t know I had. I wanted to be looked at. Until then, I hadn’t realised.
When I walked back downstairs Rowland called out to me from a room I hadn’t been into before. It was at the back of the house, behind the kitchen, with open roof beams and barely any furniture.
There was a specific image he wanted from me. He’d told me before that every photograph had its root in a feeling; how he proceeded from mental images, then adjusted and readjusted as the image caught fire. He stood me in front of the camera. He positioned me against a wall and moved my arm upwards. He told me to arch my back, as far as I could go. I did it. I was almost at right angles with myself. My neck strained against the weight of my head. I clutched my contorted muscles into place. I wasn’t sure whether I could hold the position without beginning to shake. I glanced at him. I wanted to know if I was doing it right. But he was arrested by the process. He looked different with the camera held at his chest, aimed at my body.
It came as a long suspended moment before the lurch. It was as if the air pressure dropped, or somebody changed radio stations three streets away. An imperceptible change. The moment burned and expanded, acquiring a weight and brightness it didn’t deserve. Standing in front of him felt like surrender. But it wasn’t frightening. It felt more like relief.
In the photograph he took that night you can’t see my face. The wall, gradually darkening towards the bottom, dominates the frame. You can see the patches that had been painted over, the different shades of cheap white paint. From the right of the frame my long hair hangs down, blurring where the ends split. The frame cuts off just beyond the shadow of my eyes. Above me is the corner of the old mirror, the art deco kind my grandmother had first hung in her spare room in the 1960s. My arm is thrust out from under my hair at an awkward angle, pressed flat against the wall as though I were trying to penetrate the plaster with my flesh. In the dead centre of the frame rests my palm. Open and very pale. There is and always was something disquieting about the picture, the way the certainty of the centre plays against the mutability of my body. The way I dissolve into the edges.
I WENT TO one party that summer – just one – a little after Rowland first photographed me. Clemmie took me. She had been invited, I hadn’t. Her mother had met my mother in a birthing class and they had both wound up alone with little girls in the same place. We were still close. We had all our history binding us together. But Clemmie had fallen away from me at thirteen. She grew uninterested in the secret language we had together, in spending hours reading books and playing games lying on the floor. She began spending weekends in suburban multiplexes, inviting teenage boys with breaking voices to fumble inside her jeans. It wasn’t that she was gone from me so much as that I didn’t understand her. There was some gulf that opened up between her experience and mine. Slowly, I watched other girls around me jump their own version of the gulf, until it seemed as though I was the only one who hadn’t felt the febrile pull of whatever it was the skinny, cheese-skinned boys seemed to trigger inside them. I remained alone on my side, and reacted by becoming quiet, more serious and growing my hair.
Until that year I had never thought about sex. Not the reality of it. I knew what it was. I knew girls like Clemmie were doing it. But I didn’t desire it. Or, I didn’t desire a body against mine, a body to touch. I didn’t know what that would feel like. I did not know to want it. That came later.
Instead, I thought a lot about men like Ian Curtis or Kurt Cobain. Henry Miller or Hemingway. They weren’t real: they were all dead for a start. They were men who were completely unreachable, and so safe. Secret. Mine because of all the men in the world I had chosen them. There was no relation between the men I thought about and the father of a friend whose eyes crawled all over me in the rear-view mirror. No relation to the teenage boy surrounded by his mates who lunged at my breast from the back of the bus. Less relation still to the man in the Woolworths parking lot, the underarms of his shirt marked with sweat lines like the bisected rings of a tree, asking me to give him ‘a look-see’ at my underwear. Instead, the ideas of imaginary men coaxed me down corridors towards unfathomable rooms. Rooms that I wasn’t yet ready to cross the threshold of.
But Clemmie could drive, and I loved her, and the air in the city was oppressive. We played the radio and drove with the windows down. The lights of the western suburbs slipped past us all the way down the M5. I held my hand out and felt the wind ripple between my fingers as though I were parting sand.
The party was in a beige house in one of those uniform suburban cul-de-sacs where the lawns are neatly trimmed and green and tumble straight down to the road because nobody ever bothered building a sidewalk. Places where nobody walks, filled at night with a sense of emptiness and the screech of cicadas. Once we were inside I wandered through crowds of girls with badly applied eyeliner and boys wearing unironed shirts. It felt as though the space between them and me had no end or bottom. I sat in a room with five awkward boys, a television on in the corner, none of us speaking, holding empty beer bottles just to give us something to do with our hands. I felt indistinct. I had nothing to say. I found Clemmie on a trampoline with a Newington boy and told her I’d take the train home and I left.
It was only eleven. I walked through the dark, empty streets of the suburb. A landscape of shuttered Chinese grocers, cricket pitches, blonde-brick unit blocks and blue TV lights flickering in windows. The barking of lonely dogs in backyards echoed through the wide streets. In the darkness the houses seemed to be dissolving. They seemed half withdrawn already. I looked ahead to the eastern shore where the city hung as though it were on fire, settled into its burning but unbreakable parts. Planes passed serenely across the sky, and I did not want to go home.
TWO MONTHS EARLIER, in October, I had gone with my mother on a Saturday morning into the mountains. It was eleven before we reached Penrith and, because my mother stopped to smoke cigarettes by the highway, noon before we began to descend into the valley. My mother had quit smoking when I was four, but she had taken up the habit again recently.
It was out there in the Megalong Valley that my grandmother lived, where she stubbornly maintained that she wanted to die. My grandparents, with their three children, had lived there together for fifty years. They had kept rabbits, chickens, pigs. Once, an alpaca my grandmother named Bambi. But mostly horses. They were isolated, and far from any train station. It was an effort to visit them. Once I was beyond early childhood I saw them only irregularly. I have vague memories, like impressions on glass plates, of orchards, weathered white fence posts, crows fussing at dawn.
They lived in a wooden cottage they had built themselves, which had never been licked by bushfire. My grandfather used to leave for long stretches when he went out riding horses, leaving my grandmother alone in that misty valley of trees and birds. My grandmother kept the children safe, staying awake through the night if she sensed something malevolent coming. During the times she spent alone, nothing was wrong with her. She could get up with the roosters; look after the children and the property with a sense of unexamined usefulness. Her ‘little spells’ only happened when her husband was present. Then came days when the bedroom door was left closed, the blinds drawn, the children instructed to tiptoe down the corridor.
My mother disparaged it as ‘learned helplessness’, and it was, but I couldn’t help feeling as if there was more to it than that. She was a woman who had a disconnected sense of her place in the world. Sickness provided a cause, but also symptoms and metaphors: in her emaciated frame, in her days in bed, in her pale skin.
My grandfather had died two years earlier, and my grandmother had since become increasingly peculiar and her behaviour more aberrant. During a visit in September my mother had found her lying on the wooden floor. She had fallen. There were bloody tissues clamped in her fist but she was alive. Querulous and still confused she said, ‘I got a nosebleed.’ There were rusty drops beside the rag rug. ‘I only wanted some juice.’
That was the point where my mother began to go back. Newly self-employed, she could work a few days at home, and took to using those days to stay with my grandmother up in the mountains, coming back home on Tuesdays. She refused to move her from the house. By the summer I was used to being alone and eating Weet-Bix for dinner.
My grandmother met us on the veranda. The spring daffodils were wilting and unwatered along the fence. The house smelt like dust and unwashed linen, and after the hours in the car I didn’t want to hold my breath. I walked through the garden while my mother and grandmother disappeared into the kitchen. There was an apple tree by the fence, some fruit still growing. I picked the last good one from the branch. The grass rustled around the barbed-wire fence, and I looked down, watchful for snakes. But it was just wind, blowing the grass about. Walking back along the side of the fence I saw a tuft of white fur nuzzled against the wire. It was a baby rabbit, completely unharmed, but resoundingly dead. It was perfect, like it was sleeping. Still soft.
‘Oh, it would have been in shock, probably,’ said my grandmother when I walked into the kitchen and told her. My grandmother knew about these things, and she remembered them now in her fuzziness, with a sometimes unnerving clarity. In some deep part of her brain these practical things remained. She knew how to protect the house from fire, how to scare the crows away from chickens, how to arm herself against sundowners.
‘The little girl on the property over found a rabbit last week,’ my grandmother explained. ‘It died, but it had a baby with it, and she’s kept it. I told her not to, stupid girl, but she didn’t listen. She was carrying it around in her pocket. She wouldn’t let it go. It was in shock.’
When a wild animal is captured or restrained, she explained, it becomes extraordinarily anxious. Its immediate reaction to stress is for its body to flood the system with adrenaline. If the creature is trapped for a long time the excess of adrenaline in the limbs can lead to a build-up of lactic acid in the bloodstream. The heart might begin to lose the ability to pump oxygen to the muscles. It might cause the muscles to die. Capture myopathy. I looked it up later, back in the city. Death can result in a matter of minutes. Or still, the captive animal might survive days, weeks or even months, only to die suddenly from heart failure or some apparent accident. Once the process sets in, there’s nothing to be done. It bends you to its will. It just takes you. Leaving a perfect, intact body. Apparently unharmed.
I walked through the wallpapered corridors while my mother threw away the curdled milk. My grandmother had tried to make scones; she couldn’t understand why they hadn’t worked out. She wandered out into the garden, but my mother followed her and called, ‘Mum, where are you going?’ I followed their voices through the screen door and into the garden. I watched my grandmother look around at her property, hesitant with her words. Her brain was buckling.
‘Your father,’ she said. She had her gaze fixed on a tree stump. ‘When he lost all that money in the 1980s he sat there crying by that tree with sheets of paper and a revolver, and he was there all day writing a petition for the house. I had to bring him a new sheet of paper every time he muddled the ink with tears. Such terrible handwriting.’ We led her inside, and my mother brewed tea on the old gas stove. My grandmother sipped it, still trembling. She said no more about rabbits, or tree stumps, or the past, but a week later my mother started spending four evenings a week with her instead of three.
On the drive back my mother asked whether I wanted to stop at the Pulpit Rock lookout. We parked under the shade of a gum tree and walked down the hill. It was a grey day. There were only a handful of tourists, further along the cliffs towards Govetts Leap. We walked to the end of the path, to where the cliff face ended and the waist-length fence held us back. My mother looked out into the trees that grew at an oblique angle down the valley from the sandstone cliff face above. They blanketed everything in sight. I hated it there. The mountains. The valleys. Everything. There was nothing to see. You could walk ten kilometres through that landscape without ever being able to fix a place in your mind. A vast stretch of dun-coloured sameness. Enough to make me, or anyone, burn to break away and travel as far as a car could take you. Further.
Walking back up the path I pointed to a collection of bouquets and wreaths by the side of the fence. A printed note of office paper, protected by a plastic sleeve and leaning against the roses and wattle and weeping peonies, dedicated the monument to a seventeen-year-old girl, who had taken a suicidal leap over the fence and into the valley three weeks earlier. I read the note aloud to my mother. When I turned to look at her she looked hesitant, disquieted. ‘Don’t,’ I said. ‘Don’t cry.’
‘I want to get out of here,’ she said. We walked back up the sandy path to the car and drove home along the highway in silence.
AFTER THE ROLL of film was shot and I had taken off the white dress we went out into what amounted to a garden. Rowland handed me a glass of wine. It was a limited-edition bottle, with his name engraved on the label. Somebody important had given it to him and he wanted to open it as a kind of celebration. Now that we were working together.
This time I drank. The wine stung the roof of my mouth, making the ridges swell and harden against my tongue. I took small sips until it was almost nice. I had never stayed with him so late, or for so long. It didn’t matter, I figured, when my mother was away. There was a jacaranda tree flowering over the fence of the house next door. The night was full of it – and the smell of rotting things in the river at the bottom of the garden – as we sat on rusty chairs in the paved courtyard. The mosquitoes landed on my bare feet.
Rowland spoke to me, but no matter what he said I asked few questions. I sensed that once I had located the general idea of him, and knew the rhythms of how he behaved when we were together, that was enough. It was better somehow than trying to actually get to know him. I wasn’t sure that I’d have been able to, even if I had tried.
He was sitting with his shirt unbuttoned, a white Bonds wife-beater underneath, stretched and gaping low on his chest. He had – I could just make out – what looked like a tattoo. I asked him what it was. It’s one of the only questions I remember asking him directly. He pulled the fabric aside to show me.
There was a small banner across his chest, a few inches north of his left nipple, with Genevieve written in a Gothic script, but barely decipherable in all the mess surrounding it. The skin, now mangled and necrotic, had been attacked with a razor blade and a red UniBall pen one night when he was coked out and newly alone, with demonstrably grisly results.
‘Do you regret it now?’ I asked.
‘There’s no point regretting anything,’ he said. ‘You just acquire a kind of wisdom about things.’
‘What sort of things?’
‘Simple things that don’t feel simple. That sometimes it’s possible to be so angry that you really do lose control.’ He took a drag of his cigarette.
When Rowland had moved into the house its aggressively seedy condition wasn’t out of his range of experience. They had gotten it cheap because he had promised the landlord – and her – that he would work hard to clean the place up. The walls were smeared with psychotic scribbling and what might have been blood, used syringes at the back of the garden, the fridge overrun with mould. So he washed and scrubbed the crusted stove with steel wool, waxed the floors, cleaned the windows, whitewashed the walls. He converted the space behind the kitchen into a studio and installed red light bulbs in the second bathroom so that he could develop prints without leaving the house. In the garden, which ran down to the edge of the river, the grass was still overgrown. An old trampoline had been left to rust into the soil. I sometimes wondered why they had held onto it, although I never asked out loud.
Genevieve had left questions like this all over the house. Echoes and shreds of her ghosted the rooms. I found things left behind by her whenever I looked. Tampons and sticky perfume bottles in the bathroom cabinet, a bone bracelet in the cupboard, recipe books piled in the corner of the kitchen, yellow and musty with her name written in biro on the front page. All the little traces of her all over the house. All the marks she left on him. There were habits and tastes formed by her that had lodged in his routines. They stayed long after she’d left. He ate breakfast over the sink. He added cayenne pepper to his beer. He wore the same brand of black jeans every day, because in June of 2003 she had said they suited him.
‘Genevieve kept a bottle of chilli sauce by her bed,’ he once said to me.
‘Wasn’t that strange?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘It made her the woman of my dreams.’
I couldn’t eat chilli sauce. I kept trying to accustom myself to it, but it burned my mouth and made my eyes water and each time I tried it felt like failure.
There was a tight feeling in my throat that I got when I thought about Genevieve. The first photographs he showed me – the old ones he had taken before his ‘dry period’ when he’d had to teach again – were the pictures he had taken of her. Naked or, and somehow more confronting, naked from the waist down. Splayed across gardens and large rocks in cities that were far away from this one. It was her in the front room, emerging from the dark. My hair was a lot like hers – long and curly and red, messy and broken in a way that made it glow halo-like around my head when he had me in the lighting he wanted. We had the same build too – rounded hips, small waists – but there was an ungraspable grace she had that I lacked.
WHEN HE SHOWED me the photographs he almost frightened me. Aside from the print in the front room all of the pictures of her were either in the basement of a gallery in Paddington, or stored in 30x40 archival storage boxes stacked beside the wardrobe in the bedroom.
We were standing looking down at the pictures laid out across the bare mattress: the forms and faint outlines of women, all redheads, mostly Genevieve. The desk by the window was covered with dust and trinkets: lenses, ink, a knife sharpener. There was a Mauser rifle mounted on the wall that his grandfather had stolen off an enemy soldier’s body in 1918.
‘The awful thing is I don’t know that I ever loved her.’ The light was fading and throwing the shadows of gum leaves against the far wall.
I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t meant to.
He pointed to three photographs. ‘See.’
The pictures were tinted blue. Her body was curled up, her arms clutching at her legs. She was very white, and covered in finger-shaped bruises. ‘I made those bruises,’ he said.
In the silence I thought I heard the clamping of the muscles in his throat.
He moved the photographs aside, slowly. He turned to look at me. ‘She hates me now.’ He paused for a moment. Then he began to unbutton his shirt. His skin was olive, mackled with sparse freckles and tight dark hairs. He pulled the fabric away.
There was the tattoo, red and sore, by his heart. Below that – the thing he wanted me to see – there was a jagged scar that arced across his stomach. It was neat, very purple, and stitched tightly together. ‘This is what she did to me when she left,’ he said. And then he buttoned up his shirt.
By the time I met Genevieve, at the opening of the exhibition towards the end of it all, any shreds of violence she might have once harboured against Rowland were undetectable. She was wearing a pair of pants most easily described as a hybrid of dhoti and jodhpurs, a black cardigan and a brooch constructed out of strung-together safety pins. Her hair was cut at an angle that suggested she had sliced it off in an act of ritual mourning. Her face was pulled into a sort of rictus, although that’s not to say she wasn’t pretty. She was like the Mona Lisa, smiling, very veiled.
I told her that I’d seen the pictures of her, but she cut me off. She said she could barely remember, it had been so long ago. Rowland shot her a look. A chilly, blurred reproach. Their exchange that night was oblique to me. She had some proprietary hold over him, and yet it didn’t occur to me that she might have seen me as a threat or that I had replaced her in some way. But she was old enough to know that these things have limits. She must have seen it then.
It’s interesting to me now, how somebody can move through the world blind, and yet see everything at the same time. Even if I had understood, I don’t know that I would have done anything differently.
Every time I came across something that had once been hers, I thought about the impossibility of my ever having that effect on somebody’s life. Of leaving such an indelible trace that a person might still sleep on the mattress stained by my blood, five years after I had left, and never clean it. My presence wasn’t heavy enough to do that to a person. I stepped lightly upon the world, afraid of waking it.
EARLIER THAT YEAR my school had organised a week of activities to usher in the new school year. Instead of classes, we went to seminars that taught us meditation techniques we could apply to studying; round-circle panels where we were spoken to about sex. Not the pleasure or power or specificity of sex, but about the pill, chlamydia and condoms. We spent three hours hearing how alcohol would ruin your liver, and cigarettes would kill you. There was a seminar on nutrition where an exiguous, baked-looking woman from Cronulla told us to eat according to colour. Green and orange were good colours. Black and white were not.
Another class was designed to teach us self-defence, and was taught by a man who owned his own personal fitness business and had recently written a book about rape prevention for women. It was held in the dance theatre, with floor-to-ceiling windows through which everyone could see. The man kept the curtains wide open, and asked us to sit in a circle and share our greatest fear with the group. The open glass windows and the circle created a weird sense of motivation, a desire to one-up the girl next to you by having the greatest and most profound potential wound.
‘Being raped,’ said the first girl. ‘Being murdered,’ said the next.
The man affirmed each fear by nodding and making a sound, something between a hum and exhalation.
The third girl, who had had more time to think, said, ‘Being mutilated. After being raped.’
I was next. I had been staring out through the open curtains. Not paying attention. I said what first came to mind. ‘Falling apart. Losing control.’
The man looked at me as though I had failed the test. He didn’t make the noise, but he did when the girl beside me offered up ‘sex slavery’.
Nobody questioned the exercise. The peculiarity of our all sitting there in our blazers and pleated skirts with a middle-aged man in a designer polo shirt as we brainstormed the most gruesome and violent things we could imagine happening to our bodies. The air trembled with all the fear and competition as we rounded the circle. As though we were willing the worst to happen by saying it out loud. Something so devastating that it would rise up and prevent us from facing all the prosaic days ahead, so that the damage would overwhelm everything. Would become infinite and swallow us up. That was when he showed us how to fight.
He began by explaining that one in six women would be victims of sexual assault or rape in their lifetimes. We all nodded in unison. ‘People are going to want to hurt you,’ he said. ‘They will come for you when you least expect it and you need to be prepared.’
He demonstrated. To defend against somebody grabbing your wrist, you break his hold by sweeping your hand underneath and against his. To defend against somebody touching you, grab his hand, peel it from your body, bend his wrist back and down towards the ground. To defend against somebody catching you in a chokehold from behind, step to the side and backstop his knee, bring your elbow up towards his face and knock him off balance.
We performed fighting him one by one. Then we tried it out on each other. In pairs, one girl would approach another from opposite ends of the studio. The girl playing the victim would look away, pretending to be a woman walking alone at night, but not moving really, just waiting for the attack. When it came, the victim took the other girl by the neck and the aggressor let herself be thrown to the ground, very slowly, with some melodrama. We were giggling as we went through the motions. And the giggling was also a gesture of our dread.
The man never explained what happens when it’s not as straightforward as a stranger in an alley with a knife. When it’s something ectoplasmic, not so easily parsed. How you defend against a force that isn’t even force. When no violence, threat or coercion is even necessary. A circumstance that sweeps you up in the movement of events, into something murky and inarticulate. What manoeuvre do you make? What limb do you hit when it happens?
At the end of the hour the afternoon bell rang, and we all filed out of the dance studio with our backpacks and our blue straw hats in our hands. We dispersed along the concrete passageway. Out into the world, where we could not be protected from all the things we had imagined, and where we were vulnerable to other things we could not so easily define.
A DRESS HAD fallen out of the cupboard, an old one that Genevieve had left behind. Rowland liked the flicker of the skirt, the lace panels stitched into the thick linen. He set the camera up far away from the wall, so that I would be small in the frame, engulfed by the room. We had been drinking whiskey in the garden. I hadn’t drunk whiskey before. Our mouths were sticky with it. I could feel it in the sweat on my wrists. It was a golden thing he had poured into my glass, and it hurt. I took the first sip, and a burning arm slid down my throat as if the devil were reaching inside to fondle my soul. It was voluptuous. Self-obliterating.
Rowland was playing music loud from the lounge room. He had just bought new speakers and attached them to the turntable he’d been given by someone named Flynn before he checked himself into rehab. The music pulsed through the house but became more subdued as it drifted through the closed studio door. It was a kind of music I hadn’t heard until he played it for me, both violent and beautiful at once. I wanted to marry music like that. I wanted to light it on fire and set it out upon the water to burn. I was drunk.
‘Keep doing that,’ he shouted over the sound.
‘Doing what?’ I was swaying to the song as he loaded the film.
I laughed, and reached for the glass of whiskey I’d left on the floor. I sipped and closed my eyes to settle myself, not wanting to ruin anything by giggling.
I spun very carefully at first, one foot following another. I was aware of my arms and my legs, my waist and my hips, the balance of them I was trying to maintain. I could see myself as if I was looking at my reflection in a mirror. And then I forgot myself.
I felt as if I was in a state, or in a state that’s no longer a state, parallel to my body but on the other side of something. I was still there, somewhere. But it was like it was a thing being jolted, an itch in a limb I’d already lost. I was still working, my mind was still there, but it was somewhere across the room. I was watching myself, watching my body despoiled of its consciousness, more alive for moving without thinking. I spun faster. Frantic. I was half blind.
‘That’s it,’ I heard him call.
I spun for him until he stepped out from behind the camera and stopped me, grabbing me by my shoulders. His eyes darted down to the floorboards. My foot was bleeding. I’d danced through the glass and not even felt it shatter against the soft skin of my feet. I breathed unsteadily, looking up at him dumb, surrendered. I was barely not shaking.
DURING JANUARY, I’D wait for the days when my mother was gone and set out while the light was beginning to thin. I would arrive at Rowland’s house with my dress clinging to the sweat of my back, my feet dirty and burning from walking barefoot between my house and his. I wore my hair down, so that it caught the sun. I wanted to be exposed to the light.
There was an old Greek couple who lived next door to him. The old lady made a sound when she saw me, a sigh of disapproval. They had been there since the 1960s, you could tell from all the faded furnishings. While the couple, well into their seventies, technically lived alone now, every day the place was overrun by their children and their grandchildren, playing beneath the jacaranda tree. Each afternoon they sat in the front yard they’d paved in concrete, and surveyed the street from their plastic outdoor furniture set under the trellised grape vine. When I walked past the old man would nod to me, sometimes say ‘hello’. He made me uneasy. He had a limp, and he’d drag his left leg a little behind him as if it was some terrible clinging thing he was trying to get away from.
One afternoon he stopped me as I was opening Rowland’s front gate, holding a rake in his hand. ‘You tell him that he needs to cut his grass.’
I didn’t know what he was talking about for a moment. To me, Rowland was shut in his house, apart from the world. I was confused because it didn’t occur to me that anybody else, even the next-door neighbour, might know who he was. I had reduced my sphere of interest to him and me. No one else could penetrate.
‘I can see his grass from my place,’ the old man interrupted, ‘and it’s out of control. It’s going to attract the snakes.’
‘There are snakes here?’
‘Where there’s water there’s snakes,’ he said. ‘They eat along the river. Don’t think that just because you’re in the city the animals can’t get at you. There have been snakes here every year since we moved in, and he has to cut his grass or else they’ll hang about.’
I told Rowland what the man had said. He was drinking on the kitchen steps when I walked around the back. I was hoping he would tell me the old man was paranoid. But he exhaled cigarette smoke and said, ‘No, I’ve seen them before. In the summer sometimes. Once or twice. But he can get fucked. I like that grass long.’
I walked upstairs to change, but my mind was elsewhere. I couldn’t fathom Rowland’s response. Why wouldn’t you cut the grass to keep away snakes? If you knew there was a danger wouldn’t you take up arms against it?
Sydney had always felt safe to me. Everything crawling and creepy had been kept at bay by the warehouses and the damp terraces pushing everything out but the cockroaches. I had never seen a snake outside of a zoo, but I was terrified of them. When I was dressed, and my face had tightened, I walked down the stairs and looked out through the screen door into the overgrown garden.
THAT AFTERNOON ROWLAND showed me the photograph he had taken of me sleeping. He had just received the test prints back from the developing place he outsourced to, on the other side of the city. The week beforehand in the late afternoon I had fallen asleep on his sofa as the night breeze began to gust through the open windows. I hadn’t known he had taken a picture until he showed it to me, huge, the colours coruscated against the wall.
You can use very slow shutter speeds to shoot moving things, so that they appear to adhere to a different law of time. Blurs of trains, figures winking in a lit but empty street, streetlights burning across night skies. In early photography they used to have to constrain people when they sat for portraits. Photographers locked people into posing stands and harnesses to keep them still. The figures always have rigid torsos and pained expressions. They don’t smile. As though the past were a more sombre place. But a smile was too risky. Faces can’t hold them. You needed to stay still if you were going to produce a clear image. You needed to appear almost dead.
The image he had printed showed my sleeping body cast across the velvet of the sofa. There was a dramatic curve from my hip to my waist I hadn’t ever noticed before. The dress I had worn was pulled up around my thighs, my ankles were laced, and my fingers clasped the book I had been holding. My edges were shimmering. As though I were possessed, or filled with some kind of angelic light.
He had set up the camera on the tripod and opened the shutter and let the light in for fifteen minutes before closing it. I hadn’t known you could expose film for that long. It was an image of time compressed on one motionless surface, nine hundred seconds of my body.
‘I wouldn’t have been able to do it if you were conscious,’ he said.
He turned away from me to look at the image in the clean light streaming through the window. ‘You’re malleable,’ he said absently.
He had laid out the test prints across the studio floor on old copies of the Sydney Morning Herald. Seen together, I shifted form from frame to frame, sometimes unrecognisable to myself. I supposed ‘malleable’ was the right word. When he photographed me I became another person, someone who was at once me and not me. My body stood at the boundary of the spaces he had me inhabit, the rickety rooms of his house with peeling paint and light streaming through high, uncovered windows. It faded into flat planes, emerging from the environment, or submerged by it. He had me reflected in mirrors, glass, reflective metal, sometimes deliberately blurring my figure so that I resembled a ghost only briefly gracing the room.
‘I look so different in them all,’ I said.
‘It’s because you’re perfect as you are now.’
He brushed his hand against my forearm, barely touching it. He breathed in and he breathed out. He breathed in and he breathed out.
I BEGAN TO sleep badly. At night my dreams were filled with snakes.
They came in different forms, but the pattern was always the same. The first dream was simple – there was a snake against my window. The house I lived in with my mother was old. It creaked and shifted on its foundations, warping the doors and lifting the lock just slightly above the hole in the doorframe. The sash window above my bed was affected by something similar, and for months it had been jamming three inches from the bottom. In my dream, the snake was heading towards the open space, through which it could enter my room and slither into my bed. I woke up with my heart beating fast, examining the window for shadowy reptile shapes.
In another dream I tripped and fell into a shallow pond, only to realise, once it was too late, that beneath the muddy surface of the water a thousand baby snakes were writhing and slithering together. They would bite me if I moved. Another night a snake engirded my wrist and rendered me paralysed as I willed myself towards my mother, who had her back turned to me in a field of tall pink trees.
One night I went to the Dendy in Newtown with Clemmie. We drank cans of lemonade spiked with vodka in the back row of a movie about a man who forsakes society and wanders the breadth of America before eating a bad flower and dying somewhere in the wilderness. I got home tipsy and fell into a heavy sleep, still clothed. I dreamed that a snake was asleep inside me. Coiled, white and shiny. The only way I could get it out of me was to allow it to slither out from between my legs.
In the dream that frightened me most, I was sitting on the step of a stone path that led down into a garden, the trees high and knitted together to form a canopy. The air was full of near-body smells, rotting leaf litter, bright purple flowers. I liked the shade and the feel of the long skirt I was wearing against my bare ankles. But then I noticed that the leaves weren’t leaves. They were green snakes twisted and threaded along the branches, which were so heavy with them they were dropping to the ground. I stood up and began to run towards the house, with its clean glass doors and air-conditioned rooms. But the snakes fell from the branches and slithered inside my clothes. Their fangs clamped onto my feet as I ran across them. I woke up heaving, throwing the sheets away from me.
CLEMMIE WANTED TO get drunk, and so we went out. The night was hot and wet. I had spent all day reading in bed in front of the fan. But she’d shown up at eight in a short skirt and desert boots with a bottle of Passion Pop hidden in her canvas bag. I put on a dress. I dragged a brush through my hair, but it didn’t quite glide through. It was the night, maybe. The damp.
I had been making myself almost sick on reading. I had been alone for days. As we sat on the bus to Newtown, February storms rumbled toward us across the Pacific and urgent conversations taking place in the seats around me blended into the half-remembered pages of novels like milk poured into milk.
They didn’t card at the Courthouse, then. We went there for an hour, but we kept running into people we knew, people who neither of us felt like talking to. By the bar we bought Swedish cider, two bottles for her and two bottles for me. I stood in the noise, looking up at the old pictures of Sydney Swans players on the dark-panelled walls, all healthy and yellowing around their dairy-fresh smiles. We didn’t have a bottle opener so Clemmie stole one from the bar while nobody was looking. We darted out through the Eliza Street door and into the park.
We sat in the children’s playground and drank on the swings. It drizzled a little. We swayed on the slick black curves of rubber, rocking ourselves backwards by the balls of our feet.
Clemmie’s hair was wet and sticking to her face, and her eyeliner was smeared. We grinned at one another, and she commented that I had gotten better at drinking. There was something acrid about the sugary cider, although I was making short work of it. In the last months I’d grown accustomed to spirits and wine. The cider seemed like something made for little girls. But Clemmie drank it, and she wasn’t a little girl. She was loud and bright and brazen. She was not afraid of things, and I was jealous of how fearless she was.
Around us the trees of the park rustled, spraying raindrops. By the sandstone wall, enclosing the church and the cemetery, two poplar trees were roped off. They had succumbed to internal decay and become unsightly. They were marked to be cut down. Botanists and council workers had come with trucks and posted notices of their imminent removal. Even though it was the summer the drought broke, all those European trees failed to survive it.
We grew tired of the park and wound our way toward Broadway. We walked in and out of bars that wouldn’t have us. The rain began in earnest for a minute near midnight, and I waited under an awning by the corner of Missenden Road as Clemmie flirted with the Iraqi migrant who worked behind the counter in the 7-Eleven. I could see him grow entranced by her. His grin got wider the more she jutted her hip. Teasing him. The thing was, it was partly genuine. She wouldn’t take it further than flirting, but she meant everything she said.
I stood beneath the neon, watching people mingle on the veranda of the Marlborough Hotel. I thought about why he hadn’t called for me in a week. What he could be doing that let him forget me. Why I was never bold enough to smile and flirt with men behind counters.
The rain let up, and we continued on down King Street until it took on a new name and became City Road. Clemmie thought we could get in to the Lansdowne, if we got the timing right. We took swigs from the warm bottle of Passion Pop. We wove down the street, liquidly, on the verge of something. The edges of the city loomed up ahead of us over the university buildings.
The bubbles in the Passion Pop made me feel as though I were floating, the day’s last breath in my sails. I felt adrift. There is no history here, I thought, looking at the skyline. I wasn’t in Europe, with its old wars and archives. And I was an ocean away from America, with its manifest destiny and the endless stretch of lights stringing the cities together. Here, nothing was manifest. In my mind I pictured all of Australia clinging to the coast. All of us alone together in a distant watery hemisphere the rest of the world made jokes about, if they thought of us at all. I badly wanted to escape to a country already written, already developed by other peoples’ thoughts. I wanted to find myself in the heart of the real thing, relieved of my irrelevance.
By the university we stopped and looked up at the sandstone college where wealthy country boys were sent to live by their wealthy country fathers. Somebody had busted one of the iron railings out of its sockets and a path was clear into the grounds. We edged into the absence and ran. The branches of hedges slashed at our cheeks and the sweep of manicured grass was all muddy and full of pitfalls as we bounded onto the cricket pitch. In the dark, Newtown was reduced to a presence of light and the distant cries of the taxis skating the slick bitumen of City Road.
We both screamed, just to see what would happen. Clemmie grabbed me round the waist and swung me. We were soaking wet and our naked thighs were covered in mud. She was taller than me, her breasts jutted into my chin. We swung together, hanging off one another. She kissed my ear.
Then men appeared. They stood a ways off, afraid to come any further in case we were wilder than they wanted. ‘You called,’ one of them said, pretending nonchalance. The blond one shuffled a little. There were three of them, probably five years older than us, if that. They had jumped the wrought iron railings to get to us.
Clemmie did the talking. She knew why they were there. She slid off into the dark of the hedges with one of them, the pretty one. The other two stood there, looking at me, appraising and unsure. They talked among themselves. Trying to decide what to do with me.
I stared back. They were boys, I thought. And I was a menace somehow. I had noticed it all night. All the way down King Street. The way my body seemed to fit uneasily into the stream of people. Like my outline refused to melt into their blur. There was nothing I could think to do about it.
I began to walk away. I couldn’t ease the fear that I might overcome them in a flow of myself. A hot core of wanting. I’d lash out. Do something halfway violent. I would scare the boys with their pressed shirts and patchy stubble. I wanted to fight them.
I heard Clemmie giggle in the dark, running behind me. She caught up to me, grinning, mud plastered down the shirt on her back and her breasts naked beneath the fabric. She slung an arm around my waist and we walked back into the streetlights.
We caught the night bus home, and at four in the morning I was still awake. I sat up in bed, reading as our old house creaked. I glanced around the room for the phantom source of the noises. The thunderstorm came back in. The wind rushed through the crack in the window where the sash had stuck. I rolled up a towel from the bathroom floor and wedged it in the gap to protect my quilt from the rain. At every flash of lightning the walls gleamed like exposed bone. The thunder rolled, the rain came down in torrents, and all night I heard sounds in the dark.
THE FIRST TIME Rowland introduced me to somebody he knew was a weekday afternoon. School had gone back, but I had slipped out the side gate at lunchtime to go home and read Antony and Cleopatra. When he called I was alone in the house, lying on my bed. He asked me to come over. Then, just before he hung up, he said, ‘There’s somebody I’d like you to meet.’
There was a chilly breeze that day, and I wore a jumper over my dress. The air blew the first dead leaves into the gutters. I came down the side of the house where the cracked paving stones levelled out into the garden and entered through the kitchen door. When I walked into the room they were standing at the laminex table under the stairs, and I thought maybe there had been a misunderstanding or some mix-up about the time of day – maybe he had meant for me to arrive later – because both Rowland and the man he wanted me to meet didn’t look up, or even acknowledge my entrance. They were both looking through photographs laid out across the table that I’d never seen before.
The man wore black jeans, a black T-shirt. He was all in black. He looked younger than Rowland, although I learned later that they were the same age. He looked slept-in and stubbled. Two deep creases like opened fault lines cut across his brow.
‘You can go and change if you want,’ Rowland said finally.
The other man looked at me for a long while before he turned back to the photographs on the table. I walked upstairs with my bag and took off the jumper and dress. I changed into tights and a skirt from the pile falling out of the wardrobe. I couldn’t bring myself to wear the white dress in front of somebody else. I could hear them talking as I walked barefoot down the stairs.
‘You didn’t run it through Photoshop or anything?’
‘No, I just scanned it from the negative and sent it for printing.’
I was uneasy in the darkening kitchen. Since I had begun working with him, there had never been anybody else in the same room as Rowland and me. Certainly no one had seen the work. I was almost certain.
The man looked at me again as I leaned against the doorframe, then picked up another photograph to study it. Rowland turned to me and passed me a glass of whiskey he’d poured while I’d been gone.
‘We went to art school together,’ he whispered to me. ‘I told you about him once. The record player belongs to him.’
‘How did you get her so focused?’ the man asked. ‘It’s fucking trippy. I’ve never seen movement so still. It’s like she’s dissolving.’
Rowland shrugged and handed him another print that had been lost in the clutter. ‘I think this one is more interesting.’
I opened the screen door and sat down on the set of concrete steps leading down to the courtyard, as Rowland and the man whose name I hadn’t learned yet examined one by one the photographs that Rowland had taken of
I had seen it. I had seen the one he thought was more interesting. His camera had pinned me against a part of the wall slashed with black paint and oily residue, but in that light it looked like the scrawling left behind on a prison wall. He had caught me mid-motion, contorted backwards from my waist and blurred, so that the white dress had become indiscernible from my skin. I looked naked. I looked as though I had been struck by some hand just out of frame, had been struck with such force that I was falling. But it wasn’t that which upset me. The face was howling, an obscene grimace contorted in panic.
That is not me, I thought. Except it was.
And why did Rowland say that photograph, of all he had taken of me, was more interesting?
I said nothing. I scrutinised the long grass for movement. Between two of the cracked concrete paving slabs by the edge of the grass a garden lizard slipped through a navel of soil into the belly of the earth.
The screen door creaked open behind me. I felt the stale air from the old house gust across my shoulders as a body approached mine from behind. The man was rolling a cigarette. He passed it to me as he came down the steps and stood facing me. I passed the cigarette back to him, and he handed it to Rowland over my head, who must have been standing there at the open door, observing us together. Rowland took the cigarette, but there was something else that passed between them. As though a more consequential exchange had occurred. I turned, and Rowland’s eyes darted to the photograph he still held in his hand.
‘I’m not sure about the crop,’ he said. ‘Look at this.’
‘I’ve seen the pictures, Rowland,’ the man said, and never took his eyes from me.
Rowland sat down beside me on the grimy concrete. He moved my hair to the side and placed his hand on the back of my neck.
‘This is Flynn,’ he said.
‘YOU DON’T NEED to worry about what’s coming,’ Rowland said to me once. ‘When you’re young all you have to do is be. You’re a channel for everything that has meaning. All you need to do is move through the world and life will open itself up to you.’
I had been telling him about a picture my grandmother had shown me when I was five or six. It was a yellowed-out snapshot of a little girl with curly hair and freckles sitting on a bench in the Botanic Gardens, her hands on her knees in that unnatural way that children hold themselves when they have been told to sit still by an adult. ‘It’s me,’ she had said pointing to the girl in the photograph. I tried to convey to Rowland the dread that ran through me when I realised the two bodies were the same. That my grandmother had once been a little girl. Worse, because she was sitting there beside me, with her flesh bulging around her wedding ring and her smell of camphor and soap. An adult now. It made me feel suddenly encaged inside my own body, a body that would grow old like hers. It had struck me that I was trapped, forever, in this container of myself. But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be one body, in one place, doing one thing. I didn’t know what kind of person I wanted to be, and it horrified me that I might have to choose.
I wanted Rowland to know these things about me. Quiet and contained around almost everybody else, with him the stories seeped out of me. I wanted to tell him the whole story. Everything. As though, once he knew it all, I would be completely decipherable, fully formed and whole. I thought that was what a narrative did.
I was young. But I didn’t understand what it was that made me young. I wasn’t able to explain to myself what my desires were with any clarity. I knew, for instance, that I wanted something from Rowland. But it was a nebulous something, which I couldn’t articulate. It wasn’t only that I was quiet and detached, that I kept my nights with him and the photographs to myself, from my mother, from Clemmie, from everyone I could have told. I couldn’t find the words for what I wanted and, without the words, failed to grasp it. I felt vaporous. Deep down I longed for some change to take place, but what might happen afterwards terrified me. Being with him, working, made me feel as though I had a function, albeit one that was opaque to me.
It was as if, while I was distracted, in the moments that I looked away, Rowland’s words were shot up into me one by one and now, silent, hidden in my bloodstream, moved secretly toward some purpose of their own. Because I believed him. It seemed sensible, that I would not have to reach for anything because the world was coming for me. I only needed to be patient and make sure I was prepared for its arrival. I had time, all the time in the world. The narrative would seek me out. It would expand with my shape as we grew, with all the things I could make happen by my just being there.
I have sympathy for myself then. I was frightened by the violence with which, in the deepest part of myself, I wanted things. I was afraid that if the violence went unchecked it would explode. I might overspill the boundaries of myself. I would become vain, frantic, vicious out of control.
STRAIGHT OUT OF art school, Rowland and Flynn had been among a group of artists in the early 1990s who had been associated with a movement called Avant Gothic, a movement that nobody identified with but which had been successfully coined by an art critic in the Age who enthusiastically encouraged sales, and so nobody complained.
They had lived together above a pharmacy on Oxford Street. A sex shop next door sold them amyl nitrate half price. Junkies tried to sell them methadone a foot from their door. But at some point their lives had diverged. It was unclear to me what Flynn did now. I knew, from what Rowland had said about the record player, that he was just out of rehab from a facility down on the Mornington Peninsula. He seemed to be a labourer, maybe a landscape gardener. He knew about art but he no longer made any. His mother lived in Dulwich Hill and, as he rolled a joint, he explained in detail how the first thing he’d done when he got back into town had been to dig up her garden, re-pave it, and plant native plants and ferns where she had wanted to grow roses.
Late that afternoon I sat on the plastic outdoor chair as they talked. They didn’t speak to me, but I could feel the attention of both of them all through the evening. It batted against me like moths careening around light.
Rowland and Flynn were talking about a Swiss painter, who had believed that the essential thing about a person could be found in her movement, her gestures, the lines and forms of her body.
Flynn looked at me then. ‘That picture of you, the dancing one I was looking at earlier.’
I nodded to indicate I knew which one he was talking about.
‘Have you ever heard of St Vitus dance?’
I shook my head.
‘I told Rowland that’s what he should call this series.’
Flynn explained that he had first heard about St Vitus dance a few years ago, when he fled to Berlin, thinking Europe might still have something to offer him. He’d gone on a pilgrimage to the town of Magdeburg, where an undulating pink citadel fitted with golden globes and rooftop gardens had just been built by an architect who believed that a straight line was a godless line. He had walked around the town all day and wound up drinking with a local archivist near the site of what had once been a church. At this lost church, the archivist said, some time in the eleventh century, there had been an outbreak of St Vitus dance. A group of women spilled out of the church on Christmas Eve and made their way down to the graveyard. They tore at their clothes, jumped and shook, hysterical together among the headstones. Musicians accompanied them in an attempt to ward off the hysteria, but the plan backfired when the musicians themselves joined in. The mania, which wasn’t unheard of at the time, lasted days, weeks, even months by some accounts. Dancers were isolated, sometimes exorcised. The medieval explanation was that they were dancing to their own death. The modern medical explanation for what happened is that the group was experiencing Sydenham’s chorea, an involuntary spasming of the feet, hands and face brought on by a bout of rheumatic fever. But, Flynn explained, it wasn’t that simple. ‘People always want to be able to understand things. We want science and medicine to keep our anxieties at bay. But states like that exist – in-between states. Behaviours and frames of mind you cannot explain. And they’re worth paying attention to.’
I realised that it had gone dark, then. Over the rooftop the light of the street lamps was imprisoned within the leaves of the paperbark tree, making golden shadows that stoked ghosts of childhood fears.
Then Rowland interrupted to ask Flynn whether he remembered he had once, six years ago, pushed a woman down a flight of stairs.
Flynn asked, ‘Who?’
And Rowland said, ‘Madeleine.’
Flynn looked down at the joint he was rolling in his lap, before meeting Rowland’s eye again.
‘Did I do that?’ asked Flynn. ‘I can’t remember why.’
‘Because she wouldn’t let you back into the house.’
Rowland shot Flynn a look I couldn’t decipher, then stubbed out his cigarette in his glass.
‘Well, that I was in Sydney at all six years ago is news to me.’
They went back to talking about the Swiss painter. I excused myself and went upstairs to the bathroom. As I ascended the stairs I thought about the woman. Imagined her blood and her broken limbs. Humpty Dumpty, houses, hand-bones, hearts – some things, I thought, take a very long time to mend.
From the window I could see the lights of the city, very far away, curled up against the river like a wild animal asleep.
THERE WAS IBUPROFEN in the river. There was paracetamol. There was soap and aftershave and those little beads they put in face wash to exfoliate your skin. There were soaky cigarettes and empty bottles of Bulmer’s, half-eaten kebabs. There was caffeine that made the fish jumpy. There were anticonvulsants. There was human detritus leaking from the sewers. The clay bed below absorbed it all. The sludge got tangled in the mangroves. The ducks were oily; the fish pale and sickly, although old men in bucket hats still fished for them further west along the river. In the heat, the wind sometimes caught the miasma and it smelt like the decaying of something that has lost its ability to disintegrate, like the smell of something that longs to escape its form but can’t. My mother had told me it used to be much worse, when she had first moved to that part of Sydney, when it was still all Greek and Portuguese families, fish-and-chip shops, old people, men in cars with knives.
My uncle, who stayed with us sometimes when he was between jobs, had been predicting for as long as I had known him that one day somebody would find crocodiles in the Cooks River. He watched a lot of nature documentaries, and his disposition was melancholy. He talked about climate change, long before it was fashionable, and he stored dozens of plastic gallon bottles of water in our shed, in preparation for the coming apocalypse. He said that as the earth warmed, as the waters heated and the cyclones destroyed land and homes up north, the animals would head south. The crocodiles, tucked safely above the Tropic of Capricorn would appear without warning in the temperate states, wend their way into our waterways and hide out in our mangroves, terrorising children and lovers beside the riverbanks.
The stories gave me a sense of disquiet whenever I looked at the river. The kangaroo grass and the mangroves and the birds, the violent summer sunsets that cast everything across Sydney in red light – they made the river beautiful. They made you happy when you looked at it. But that beauty was a mask. It was a trick. Behind it, everything was terrifying, meaningless, uncontrollable, where the happiness of today only provoked the chaos of tomorrow. When I sat out in the garden with Rowland and Flynn that night, I turned my back on it.
THEY WERE SITTING in the garden when I came back downstairs. There were fresh drinks, and Flynn was inside, rifling through records that reminded them both of living together on Oxford Street. He picked one out and put the needle to the black. I heard the music begin to pipe through the mesh in the screen door.
It was a scratchy recording of two brothers, one named Earl who played guitar and the other named Bill, on the mandolin. Flynn told me about it while Rowland tidied away the contact sheets and took them back into his studio. The song had been recorded in the gutter of the Depression, but on the record sleeve the brothers had all the hallmarks of the nicest insurance salesmen you could ever hope to find on your front doorstep. Their record was all ballads and hymns. Old stuff. They sang about God and marriage and violence and death, in a restrained almost humourless way. They never raised their voices. They played at the pace of an evening stroll.
The song Rowland liked best was called ‘Down on the Banks of the Ohio’. He told me this as he handed me a shot glass of something strong and clear and smelling of elderberries, the same glass I had refused to drink from four months earlier.
In the song a man invited a woman to take a walk down to the river. He told her how happy they’d be on their wedding day and what a lovely home they’d have. The brothers’ voices were spindly, steadily reciting the speech of the man that sounded darkly rehearsed. He called her his ‘love’, and the singers sucked the word into their chests, suspending it there in ice. She refused his proposal. So he went to cut her throat. The woman begged him for her life, crying out that she wasn’t ready to die. But the song continued on, a few small, bright notes on the mandolin moving it towards conclusion, a sense of bureaucratic orderliness to the way the man accounted for his actions. There was a settled, peaceful quality to the violence. Psychotic in its pallidness. Then the man in the song took the woman by her hand. He plunged her into the water. And he watched her as she floated down.
The words of the song hung there between us, dark and heavy like the smell of velvet. ‘People used to write a lot of murder ballads like that a hundred years ago,’ Rowland explained, as he moved toward the kitchen door to turn the record off. While he was inside I gazed up at the rooms of the house. I thought about the sense of righteousness. How justified the song was in its explanation of what the man had done. He killed her to make sure she would never belong to anyone else if she refused to belong to him.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Flynn said to me, almost smiling. I had forgotten for a moment that he was there. ‘Isn’t it?’
I couldn’t deny that it was beautiful.
Lying in my own bed the next morning words swum in my head, unlocked from something I’d read and half forgotten. Half asleep, I felt myself being gripped by strong hands. ‘When you come face to face with me,’ the forgotten voice said, ‘you’re only you. And I don’t give a fuck what you are. I’ll take you. What’re you going to do about that, jitterbug? Who’s protecting you, sweetheart?’
It wasn’t exactly what Flynn had said to me as he drove me away from Rowland’s in his ute, but it felt like maybe it was what he had meant.
WE DROVE DOWN Marrickville Road, and Flynn told me about the second time he tried to kill himself. We rode towards Newtown in his ute with the windows down. It was late in the night. The roads were almost empty. There were buckets of pesticide and bags of soil in the back. His record player was underneath my feet, so that I had to rest my knees against the dashboard. Flynn had offered to give me a lift. But he was driving me further away from home. I didn’t think to mention it.
He told me that his father had hung himself when he was nineteen. Returning home after going out surfing at dawn, Flynn had walked into the room and discovered him. There was still sand on his toes as he cut his father down. He sat in the room with the body for half an hour, not really looking at it, not able to bear it. And then he went to his father’s bedside table and took out the antipsychotics he’d kept by the Bible and birth certificates, and he emptied them out onto the bed that hadn’t been slept in. He gulped them down dry, all of them. His younger brother had found him like that. Both father and brother, dead and dying, in the front room of a shitty little fibro house in Maroubra. Flynn took my hand and placed it on the back of his skull. I could feel the knotty flesh through his hair. The scar was from the first time he had tried to kill himself.
The drugs came later. He knew for the longest time, in some upper quadrant of his heart, that they were doing him no good, he said. But in the remaining parts of himself his feeling about substance abuse was ‘get fucked’. A person needs something for the pain. ‘How else,’ he asked me, as the lights slipped by, ‘do you go through the world as awake as you are without feeling as though you have no skin?’
On another occasion, in some former guise of my self, I might have thought him dangerous. Mothers and teachers warn you off wild men who want you in their cars, from the moment you’re old enough to listen. But it was Rowland who’d put me in the car. And I moved where he wanted me. Even if it wasn’t safe. I didn’t care about ‘safe’.
‘Rowland is a big deal, you know. Or was,’ Flynn said abruptly. ‘About to have a resurrection, it looks like.’ He swung a wide left into Victoria Road.
I nodded. I thought I knew. A month or so earlier, right before school had gone back, I had uncovered a catalogue essay somebody had written about him. It was tucked under a pile of old negatives and notebooks wedged between yellowing recipe books.
Nye is interested in the lost wildernesses that accumulate in the bodies of young women. The models he works with, largely amateurs, don’t understand the camera, or how to conceal themselves from it through perfection. Hence, what is unnerving about his work is the sense of invaded privacy. The women float through his photographs, half-formed, not quite understanding that they’re being seen. There is never a lure in his work without some sense of underlying threat. It is this quality that makes Rowland Nye perhaps one of the most important practising artists in this country.
From this I had understood only that I was one of these young women meant to embody somebody else’s vision of a lost wilderness. But it never occurred to me that the images would find their way beyond the two of us in his peeling paint rooms. I figured that he was no longer important to anybody except me.
We were stopped at the traffic light at Enmore Road. The pedestrian light blinked red across the empty lanes. I couldn’t explain what kept me there. Why I didn’t say anything.
Then Flynn touched me. His fingers brushed across my hand. They threaded themselves through the spaces between my fingers, blurring my skin with his. And I trembled. Some uncharted feeling. It ran riot through me.
The lights changed to green, and we moved forward. He took his hand away from mine and placed it on my thigh. He moved it, slowly, down between my legs. I could hear my breathing heavy in the dark. The street slipped past us. His hand went deeper, pressing against me through my black tights. He smelled of cigarettes and aftershave, and his hand moved with a steady single-mindedness that dove down my spine like a seizing pain. I pushed myself into his fingers.
‘Good girl,’ he whispered.
He took his hand away. The lights glowed on the dashboard. We were parked in a side street behind a pub that faced out onto Enmore Road. A middle-aged woman with peroxide hair was crossing the street, berating her boyfriend for never acting like a man. Flynn pointed to the old brick building across the street where they were screaming. There were bars on the first floor windows and white spray-painted tags fading into the stone brickwork beneath the windowsills.
‘See that?’ he said. ‘This is where I live.’
THE OLD BUILDING was a boarding house. It was, Flynn said, the only place he could find after he’d gotten out. The rest of his stuff was with his mother in Dulwich Hill. In the meantime, his flat was the size of a shoebox, a corridor of kitchen leading into a space big enough for a double mattress and not much else. He told me to sit down, and so I sat on the bed.
The flat was on the second floor, and this was its only upside. When I sat on the mattress all I could see were leaves. All at once I was aware of the muted rustling of people alone in equally small rooms all through the building. The walls were thin. I knew because Flynn was telling me he’d been so angry the week after he’d first moved in that he had punched a hole through the wall. A photograph from his and Rowland’s Oxford Street period was hung across it to hide the damage: a black-and-white image of a sandy path down to the beach rippling with the traces of long-gone animals. Flynn had muddy work boots drying on the windowsill. On the chair were prescriptions and a medicine cup with traces of translucent syrup in the contours. Flynn made me a drink in the kitchen, and I watched him from the mattress.
‘Can I touch your hair?’ he asked. I nodded. He came towards me and drew his hand across my face. He brushed my ears with his fingers. Then he reached around to the back of my head and he let my hair down. It fell around us. He threaded his fingers through my curls and he kissed me and he asked me whether it was all right, and after that we spoke barely at all.
He took my clothes off, and then he removed his. He had scars from bad teenage acne spread across his back like barnacles on rocks. I let myself touch them. From above, he scanned my face, as though he were cataloguing information. Looking, and then nodding, all things confirmed, in order, endorsed. His fingers dug into my flesh and pulled back my hair. I felt as if my body was acquiring form as he touched me. It was gaining solid curves, density and features that were making him breathe heavily. I was making him want me, and I wasn’t quite sure how. He hooked his arm beneath my knee and drew my leg around him. The skin between us burned.
It made sense. I had let myself be moved through the narrative. I had followed the signs through the sequence of events. From the photographs, to the story of the woman on the stairs, to the drive along Marrickville Road, and now the man above me held a door open into a room I had imagined Rowland could take me into if only I had been different, if only I had known how.
Flynn didn’t say ‘you’re a virgin’. Perhaps he had assumed. I had expected the pain, but it only hurt afterwards. What I noticed was the way that my body moved with his. And the way that I felt whole, myself, despite of it. I climbed up on top of him, and my body knew what to do.
When he finished I lay on the tussled white sheet, naked, belly down. He sat behind me propped up on pillows while he rolled a joint and stroked the skin on my ankle.‘Oh, sweetheart,’ I heard him say. ‘You’re bleeding.’
I stood up and walked into the bathroom. I sat down on the toilet seat and opened my legs. He was right. There was blood all over my thighs.
IT WAS A bright, mild day in April. My mother was home. And because I was tired, or because I missed her, I told her about the snake dreams and how they wouldn’t go away. I told her nothing about how they had become worse after that night in Enmore. Almost constant. We were sitting at the table that had been by the door to our back veranda since I was little. Its surface was sticky with jam and spilt juice. Outside the fruit trees were yellowing. For as long as we had lived there, there had been two twisted, gnarled trees growing in the garden, one apple and one apricot, and neither of them had ever borne fruit. The garden looked overgrown, because I hadn’t known how to take care of it while my mother was away so often.
She sat down and handed me tea, milky and sweet. It was the kind of tea she would make for me when I was small and home sick from school. I looked pale, she said. There were purple bruises under my eyes. She’d barely seen me in six months and felt she’d been neglecting me. It was a Friday afternoon and she had packed her car to drive into the mountains again. She looked tired as well. Her eyes were red, and her face was less vivid somehow. There were times when I didn’t exactly love her less. But I didn’t love her as well as I should have.
While she made us toast she told me not to worry, that the dreams would go away once my sleeping mind had worked through whatever my conscious mind couldn’t. That’s what they say. She was silent for a moment, and then said, ‘It’s funny you should be dreaming of snakes. So is your grandmother.’
The week earlier, my mother had driven up on the Friday afternoon into the Megalong Valley. The same feeling of unease overcame her every time she drove along the road to the property and saw that the house was in shambles, that the daffodils were dead, that her mother had stopped curling her hair and let it grow long and white. When she got out of the car there was no figure waiting on the steps to meet her, which was unusual. She walked down the corridors and checked all the rooms, but her mother wasn’t there. When she walked back the way she’d entered, my mother noticed that, scattered across the veranda, and next to the small spaces that led to the crawlspace underneath the house, were saucers of fresh milk. Walking around the back path into the garden she saw a flash of daisy print fabric tucked beneath a shrub. She found my grandmother there, crouched among the bushes, in a kind of cubby she had clawed out for herself. She was waiting, she explained patiently to my mother. She had put the saucers of milk out for the snakes, and she was waiting for them to come back.
I told this story to Rowland the following evening, while he was setting up the studio. He hadn’t mentioned anything about Flynn. Nor asked what had happened after we’d left. Or explained why he had put me in the car with him in the first place.
‘That story sounds like “The Drover’s Wife”,’ he said.
‘I don’t know what that is. It’s a book?’
‘What are they teaching you in those schools? You don’t know who Henry Lawson is?’ he said, shaking his head. ‘It’s a short story.’
He had a mattress laid down on the studio floor and a stepladder at the foot. I lay down. He climbed the ladder so that he was standing above me, looking down. He had the camera raised on a tripod, which was in turn standing on top of a milk crate. The idea was to get as close to me as possible from above. ‘Just look at me,’ he said.
As I lay there Rowland told me the story. It was about a man, he said, who has left his wife and children in the middle of nowhere while he’s away with his sheep. Droving. He’s been away for six months without a word. They don’t know if he’s coming back. One day the children see a long black snake slip into their house. Which is a problem, because there’s no one to help them if one of them is bitten. They could die there in the bush and nobody would ever know. So the drover’s wife gathers her children. She makes them sleep on the kitchen table so that they’ll be safe. She stays up all night. She has a club, and the rain comes down, and she’s ready to kill the snake if it comes close. She leaves saucers of milk by the walls and on the floor, to beckon it to come out.
Something about the way I was looking up at him wasn’t quite right. He descended the stepladder and came closer to study me. I continued to lie there. He knew every reflection of my skin and every possible movement of my ribs.
‘What happens at the end of the story?’ I asked him, as he tried to show me how he wanted me to hold my shoulders.
‘She kills it,’ he said.
He came onto the mattress with me. He bent over my body to twist me into place. He exhaled into my neck and said, ‘Good. Hold it like that, but let go. Like that.’
WHEN I HAD cleaned the blood off my skin I went back out to Flynn in the bed. He was by the window, smoking a joint. I lay down, looking at the ceiling, which was speckled with grime. I didn’t know what to say to him.
He turned from the window, slowly. ‘Are you pleased that your pictures are going to be in a gallery?’
I stared back at him, confused. ‘They aren’t. Nobody but you has seen them before. Rowland doesn’t work anymore. Like you.’
He made a sound – a breath and a laugh at once.
‘Oh, sweetheart,’ he said. ‘They’re hanging next month. People have already been through and put down money on some of them. Why do you think he isn’t teaching anymore? He doesn’t need it. The new work he’s done is being “eagerly anticipated”. More than anybody ever anticipated mine.’ There was a look on his face I had never seen anyone make before. He focused on me as though he were on the edge of something. Testing out the margins of himself.
I paused. ‘He’s showing the photographs of me?’
‘Yeah. A gallery in Paddington.’
‘No, I’m fucking lying to you for my health.’ He turned away.
My mind ran circles around what he’d said. There was an ache and a taste in my throat like burnt coffee. It wasn’t quite betrayal, so much as a sense that something had been pulled out from beneath me. Wouldn’t he have told me? I didn’t know what the photographs meant when they were outside the two of us. I was afraid as I was forced to imagine the prospect of watching the outlines of my body scrutinised and split apart by the eyes of people who didn’t know me.
Flynn looked back to me, while I was still thinking, but his face had changed. For a moment I thought maybe the distance had been dissolved. His expression was almost sweet.
‘You know when you were bleeding just now?’ he said.
‘I liked that.’
‘You did? You seemed concerned.’
He turned back to the window. ‘Oh, sure. I was. But if you had told me to keep going I would have.’
He exhaled smoke into the windowpane, softly smiling. ‘Yeah. Absolutely.’
I examined the ceiling. The flecks of tobacco in the sheets. My skin was very pale in the dim lighting. Milk-white. Opaque, soft, and easily penetrable.
‘Why did you throw that woman down the stairs?’ I asked.
He grinned, looked at me sideways. ‘You remembered that, huh?’ He laughed, as if to himself. ‘We all want to leave our mark on somebody. Sometimes you don’t know you want to until you’ve already left it.’
Later, as the night slipped into the morning, he lay on the bed beside me with an erection bobbing in the cold draught. I couldn’t sleep. I’d never slept in a bed with anyone but my mother before. I shivered under the grey sheet as a bluish dawn filled the room.
I rolled over, away from him, but he put his hand out to grab my belly and tried to bring me back to his body. I pulled away. I didn’t want him to touch me anymore.
I could feel something stir up in him. ‘There’s no point acting like you’re better than me.’ He spoke the words into the dawn light, not at me, but into the air around me. ‘You don’t know what you’re doing, sweetheart. You barely know yourself. Whether you’re swimming or sinking. We’re the same, you and me. We both want things that aren’t good for us.’ He turned his back to me to face the wall. ‘But fuck off if you want. He told me I could have you. And I’ve had you.’
My skin was tinted a bluish white in the light of his room. I lay there for a moment listening to somebody kicking a garbage bin against a corrugated iron fence in the street below.
I examined the injury. I tried to identify the point at which wanting and being wanted had shifted. Like a change in frequency or cell metabolism or whatever it was that had shipwrecked me there, still lying beside his turned, pitted back, alive as I was and stripped of skin. How the shift could happen in a couple of words and a coarsening of tone before I even realised that he had the ability to hurt me in the first place. That’s when it began to sting.
I wanted to claw at him, to open his skin with my fingernails. I wanted to erase him. Wanted Rowland, who’d given me to him. Instead, I collected my shoes and my dress from the floor and I left. He called out to me. He only realised I was going as I slammed his door.
I grappled with the dark stairwell. I fumbled with the front door. Shaking. I understood. It was clear to me. At last. The way you can feel something for somebody that’s so unghostly and vibrating and deep down, something that makes you so happy and miserable at once, that you’ll leave blue bruises, slash out at skin with a knife, throw them down the stairs, just to keep the feeling going. How you surrender yourself reckless to it.
ROWLAND HAD TOLD me there was one last shot he wanted to get that afternoon. The image he wanted was already written in his mind but it was unclear, when I arrived, exactly what he wanted me to do. The light was fading quickly. These were the very last days of autumn and the air was wet with cloud. He just needed to find the right habitat for me, he said. I was wearing the white dress, sipping at gin as I sat on a chair by the kitchen door in the long shafts of light leaking through the windows, waiting for him to tell me where to stand. He had the tripod and a piece of wood propped by the door.
Earlier that afternoon, Rowland had asked me what I thought I might do next year. When I would be done with school. I shook my head and said I wasn’t sure. That I’d like to go away for a few months. To London, maybe. Berlin and Paris. I wanted to go somewhere very far away, as far away as I could bear to take myself.
He handed me the glass of gin and then walked back through the studio door. ‘I can give you some money, if it would help.’ His voice was distant across the expanse of the rooms. ‘I’m going to be having an exhibition next week. With some of the photos of you. The least I can do is give you a hand with some funds.’ He wouldn’t meet my eye. Instead he came back into the room and passed me a postcard-sized piece of thick, expensive paper. On one side the invitation listed the name of the exhibition, St Vitus Dance, and the Paddington gallery at which it was being shown. Rowland’s name was printed in a very large sans-serif typeface over the ‘admission by advance reservation’ note at the foot of the page. On the other side of the paper, in a deep satin finish, was the photograph of my body falling from the ceiling rafters, my arms open to the dark.
He came back into the kitchen and sat with me at the table. It seemed as if there were shadowy acres of forested terrain between his limbs and mine. I had no idea if he knew about Flynn. He told me he thought that it was a good idea for me to go away. In his lap he was loading the camera with film, fitting the unexposed tongue into the pick-up reel on the right. He wasn’t looking at me. He said that getting out of Australia would be good for me. More to the point, Europe was good for a person.
‘The most beautiful thing I ever saw,’ he said, ‘I saw in Berlin.’ He told me he had been crossing over the Oberbaum Bridge from Friedrichshain into Kreuzberg. He looked across the bridge to see a girl in white standing by a streetlight with the river behind her. It was summer, barely evening, a Friday, the streets were emptying before the night flew into action. He crossed the street to get a better look at her. She was looking out west across the Spree. The purpling light slid across the city. There was a sense of humidity, a sultriness, like tender fruit or maybe the sea. Like Sydney smelled when he met me. A smell of promise carried on salty air. And this girl stood there framed by water, not quite looking away from him, beautiful and young, all that raw momentum bottled up inside her, and her body, soft, looking as though it was almost melting into the rippling water. ‘And that was it,’ he said. ‘That was everything.’
He closed the back of the camera, stood up and walked towards the door. I was pleased, because I wanted to leave but I hadn’t had the courage to even really articulate the want to myself before now. But then I thought: why is he advocating for it? By convincing me to go to Europe he was also encouraging me to leave Sydney. And wouldn’t he miss me?
He attempted to explain to me what he wanted as he opened the screen door to lead me outside. He said something about Ophelia. He motioned towards the rusted trampoline and, further beyond that, through the long grass towards the river. I had never walked through the long grass before, because of the snakes. But Rowland insisted. In light, cold gusts the air tousled the trees, causing leaves to snap loose from the branches and float. The soil was muddy under my feet and wet between my toes. In the distance I heard sirens, racing along Illawarra Road to the places where life was happening. Other lives, with all of their emergencies. Rowland led me down through the garden, to the very bottom, and gestured toward the river.
I walked slowly over the slimy rocks until I received the water at my feet. I glanced back at him. He was standing on a rock, the camera set on the piece of plywood he’d brought down from the house to give him a flat surface. ‘Get into the water and lie down,’ he said. The moment burned and expanded. He nodded again to the water. ‘The light is just right. There’s nothing to be afraid of.’
I jumped quickly. I didn’t want my feet to touch the bottom. I launched myself from the bank and floated into the river. The water lapped at my feet, seeping into the negative space between my toes. Muddy and alive. My hair fanned out in long red tendrils soaking in the dirty water. It grew heavier, a weight on my head. Rowland was looking through the viewfinder on the bank. I couldn’t see his eyes. There were limp straws and chip packets and syringes gathered at the shore. I could hear rustling and writhing in the water, and a thumping deep in my ears. Minutes passed. Sirens wailed. He was still taking my picture. And I felt something. I was sure I felt something. Long and black and slithering across my belly.
I closed my eyes. I unclenched my hands. I breathed in and I breathed out.
Everything in the water was trying to rot, I thought, trying to escape its form. But I wasn’t frightened. It was almost a relief. Like surrendering to an army you have no will to fight anymore.
Rowland reached in and hauled me out of the water. I stumbled into the mud, on my knees, and staggered back to the grass. He put his hands out and stopped me. I was dripping wet and shivering. The dress was ruined. The light was almost gone and the roll of film was finished, and on the muddy grass, which stank of the river, he fell to his knees and he buried his head against me. I stroked his hair. Yet even as his warm breath spread across my stomach I felt separate from what he had made me do.
MUCH LATER, WE sat side by side on the sofa. The conversation had turned to water. It was his way, I realised, of apologising.
‘Baptism washes it away,’ Rowland said. ‘Once you’re in the water the body, the spirit, is pure again. It’s reborn.’ He sighed as he poured out another shot from the bottle of gin. ‘Or that’s what they say.’ He was telling me that his mother, when he was four, had taken him to the River Jordan near where it flows south to Galilee to baptise him in the water where Christ had been anointed. But his mother had lived and died in Sydney. She had never left. I only realised once it was over that he was always lying.
We had been drinking from jam jars. I had taken off the white dress and left it in a sopping pile by the kitchen door. The walls of the front room seemed grubbier than they had during the summer. I noticed the mould along the skirting boards. The scrap of paper from the Menzies Hotel was still tacked to the wall. Years later, I opened a book of poems in a shop and read those lines Rowland had copied down, so long ago, smacked out and alone and desperate. A poem about a man who ends a woman, and hides the pieces of her body where they may be found. A woman who is never missing.
I sat beside Rowland on the velvet sofa wearing tights, my underwear and a huge cable knit jumper that smelt like him, which he had brought me down from the bedroom. There was no needle to drop on the LPs now that the record player was gone. Wind whistled against the window of the front room. I heard him breathing. The untended emotions rumbling through the room.
‘I’m sorry about the dress,’ he said. ‘And your hair is still dirty.’ He looked across at me and I met his eye. The stubble was growing in brown and grey patches on his chin. I had never noticed.
‘You should have a shower,’ he said. He pressed his leg against mine although I wasn’t sure if it was intentional. I felt something. Like weather, or electricity.
He put his hand on my arm. He squeezed my flesh until it began to pinch. After a long silence Rowland stood up and walked into the kitchen and through to the studio. I heard rattling and the sound of metal things falling; a smoker’s cough. When he came back he was reloading the camera.
He told me to shower again. I didn’t answer. ‘You can’t go home without showering. You’ll feel better,’ he said. And walked away, not waiting for a reply.
I stood up and followed him into the bathroom. The sink was yellow and speckled with toothpaste. There was a layer of dark hair at the bottom of the bathtub. He had turned the water on. The showerhead was fixed to the wall over a claw-footed bath. It sputtered messily and cold from the rusted fitting. And the light was unsparing. Like that cool blue neon they use in Darlinghurst bathrooms to deter junkies because it inhibits your vision.
He stood at the door and held the camera at his chest, but his wrists were loose. As though he wasn’t sure whether he was going to keep going. I pulled my jumper over my shoulders. I laid it across the vinyl chair. I unhooked my bra, then curled my thumbs under my tights and the elastic of my underpants and lowered them down my thighs. I folded them and placed them on top of the dress. I could smell myself, wet. I stepped into the bath and stood directly under the showerhead. The water was eviscerating. Icy cold. I turned toward the open door. Looking at him. He raised the camera and he began to click. I let the water engulf me. I didn’t close my eyes. He shot until the roll of film was done, and then he turned and walked out of the bathroom and left me alone in there.
Later, as I was leaving, Rowland paused in the hallway between me and the locked front door. He opened his arms to embrace me. His body pressed against mine. I was surrounded by him. The smell of him. Deep down in his neck. Warm and rich. He squeezed me as tight as he was able. His face was buried in my wet hair. His grip was so tight I couldn’t gasp for breath.
‘No,’ he whispered in my ear. ‘I won’t touch you.’
MY LIMBS FELT heavy as I walked home that night. I thought, as I walked, that the way it had happened implied either the involvement or the non-existence of fate. The person or thing or idea that you hope to hitch your fate to has, through your wanting it so badly, already dissolved when it occurs to you to try. Bats rose and fell in the air like notes of music from the warehouses the artists were all moving into. I pressed forward under the rasping chill of the breeze and stopped on the bridge across the river to look out at the lights spread across the city, as though it were burning still, but shimmering in the cold night, breaking its parts.
SOMEBODY HAD PLACED standing lamps in the corners of the gallery, which sent reflections up the white walls in tall and fractured flickers. Black patent leather heels clacked across the floor, echoing, blending together with the hum of fashionable people greeting one another. The room was concentrated with a smooth, flattened energy.
I hadn’t known what to expect. Rowland had told me to come, to wear my hair down. Nice shoes. A dress. It was a clear night, gleaming through the pollution and the glow of the city. The gallery was filled with very white light. People had begun to trickle in, and a man handed me a glass of champagne. I clutched at it, grateful to have something to do with my hands. Flynn wasn’t there, but Genevieve was. Every single person was a stranger.
Rowland circulated through the room. I stood alone, against a wall. In the corner of the gallery I saw a very beautiful woman by the table filled with canapés and bottles of alcohol. I watched her pour white wine into a white plastic cup until it was full to the top.
She turned to the wall, as though she were looking at the photographs everybody was there to see. Rowland had hung the pictures in couples. Twins. The first photograph she was pretending to contemplate was the picture of my body floating in the river. It was coupled with the horrifying photograph of me dancing. Looking just-hit, beautiful and very damaged. The pieces had sold to a merchant banker from Melbourne. I watched the woman as she drank down the entire cup of white wine in a long series of relentless gulps. She couldn’t see me. She couldn’t see anyone. Wasn’t interested in anything but the internal drama of her own reality, the drama that was entirely separate from me and everyone else there in the gallery that night. Her eyes gazed up at the photographs, not seeing them. They were fixed on a far distant point marked on a map of her interior. Then she turned back to the table and began to fill the cup again.
I wondered if she was somebody whose name I should have known. But I knew hardly anyone there. It was a party filled with people who had come especially for him. An old woman with tangerine-coloured hair and a zebra-print dress walked with Rowland across the room. She glanced at me, as though she thought she knew me.
‘Who’s that girl?’ I heard the woman ask Rowland.
He glanced at me. ‘Oh, never mind about her.’ They walked outside into the laneway that ran down to the cliff, into a group of people holding glasses of champagne and cigarettes between their fingers.
‘No,’ I thought. ‘Nobody knows me here.’ The thought felt like armour.
I looked around the white-walled room filled with images of myself. I began to drift. Moving through the room untouchable by people or things. The huge black-and-white photographs obscuring and dissolving and ghosting an idea of a girl just like me. They receded and blurred as I passed them.
Madeleine Watts has had fiction and essays published in The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Lifted Brow and Junkee, among others. Originally from Sydney, she currently lives in New York where she is completing an MFA in fiction at Columbia University. Her interviews with leading writers have appeared on the Griffith Review website for issues 41, 42, 43, 44 and her interview with Tim Winton was published in Griffith Review 47: Looking West.