NOT SO LONG ago, I lived in paradise. A luxury apartment on the Gold Coast. I still remember waking up every morning to the sea and sky. All that blue felt like heaven. The elevator doors flinging open, a sublime gateway, right into the apartment 360 degree views of the world and floor-to-ceiling white timber shutters which rolled to ward off the wind that comes with being so high. I couldn't afford the view. An interior decorator was looking after me. I was a poet close to the poverty line. I was overambitious. Chained – albeit half-willingly – to my garret.
In 440BC, Herodotus said that in the ancient tower of Babylon a single native woman was chosen by the deity for himself out of all the women in the land. She could be found in a spacious temple on the topmost tower beside a golden table on a gilded couch of "unusual size".
In the twenty-first century I learned my own way that paradise was just one of our oldest lies.
The interior decorator left early most mornings. Once I disturbed him making his morning juice, interrupting the flow of the vodka mid-pour. After that I waited in bed until the doors of the elevator sucked shut. I'd lie still 'til I could hear just the wind and then I'd set about finding the cat – the interior decorator's – a pure-bred Persian who didn't like the light. On every set of cupboards which curled around that great arc of an apartment there was always one door open. Sometimes I would find him – Missy – glowing pure white in the recess. Other times he went deeper.
I'd spend the day floating, in limbo – in paradise – somewhere between the reality of the ground and the magic of the sky. I watered the decorator's garden, set in a kind of steppe formation between the edges of the building and the veranda. The fan palms bulged precariously out over the abyss, their sturdy fronds flapping up against the walls in the wind. The bougainvillea reached like a gang of sharp pink fingers towards the sun. I was diligent. The stems grew fat – every plant, mad for the edges, sprouting wildly in the air as if surprised to find no further ground. His potted white roses died.
There is a legend which suggests that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built by Nebuchadnezzar II to appease his homesick wife, Amyitis, daughter of the ruler of Mendes. Their union was an alliance of land and kings. Nebuchadnezzar attributed his wife's depression to the flat dry plains of Mesopotamia and so built her an artificial mountain with rooftop gardens. A feat of engineering. A wonder of the ancient world. It is not known whether any of it helped.
THE INTERIOR DECORATOR had a penchant for poetry – not mine but the metaphysical poets, the masters of the seventeenth century. He liked to read to me. The purveyor of grand narratives. I could have told him that shacking up with an interior decorator in a high-rise was as close as I would get to God on the Gold Coast, but a comment like that wouldn't suit me. I listened instead, to Milton talking of great falls and of a great paradise long lost. I pressed my hands up against the plate glass windows of the tower, six inches of glass between me and the rest of the world, and wondered why it was always so cool. Either the sun burnt down on the water or the moon did and nothing changed. The touch of invisibility was always the same. The interior decorator read on. Speaking in tongues. Sometimes I looked out at the perfect blue or endless black of the sea and wished for a tsunami. By the time we got through Milton's Book 2 I surmised that Eve had probably felt a similar longing for catastrophe.
William Hazlitt, one of Milton's earliest critics, finds it instructive to compare Milton's women to Shakespeare's. He suggests that Imogen, Miranda, Ophelia and Desdemona are "pure abstractions of the affections" of men: "Their features are not painted nor the colour of their hair. Their hearts only are laid open ... we are acquainted with [them] by what they thought and felt but we cannot tell whether they were black, brown or fair ... But Milton's Eve is all ivory and gold ... he paints her whole person with a studied profusion of charms, she is the wife but she is still as much as ever the mistress of Adam ... devoted to her husband, as twining round him for support 'as the vine curls her tendrils' but her own grace and beauty are never lost in the picture of conjugal felicity... 'in that first garden of their innocence' he had no other objects or pursuits to distract his attention; she was both his business and his pleasure."
I would have thought it more instructive to know what Eve was thinking. If only she had left a note. She never had a voice. We all have a looking glass for seeing.
he interior decorator exulted in fancy ideas. He often had extracts of poems gilded or etched at great expense into the glass of his clients' mirrors. Most of them did not read poetry. He was a librarian with a colour palette – naughty too – laughing about coiffed women and their miscomprehension without understanding his own. I replied: "I wouldn't want to get ready under anything from Paradise Lost – too much gravitas." But the interior decorator didn't get my meaning.
"Its fine," he said, "as long as it's out of copyright."
In his own way, he was right. The notion of paradise or paradise lost could sell anything: from guilt to drum kits, from cities and islands and resorts to marriages and law, from nurseries to pie shops to airlines and wine, from software to spirituality and back to porn. What the interior decorator didn't get was that the connection between paradise and commodification went back, further even than to his beloved poetry; it was something implied by the noble position of hindsight, something Milton hadn't wanted to admit: that perhaps we'd sold out pre-BC. By the time Jesus had a shot at the devil, paradise was already currency.
A British English professor recently scandalised his profession by reducing the plot of John Milton's epic poemParadise Lost to a text message short enough to fit on the screen of a cell phone: "Devl kikd outa hevn coz jelus of jesus & strts war."
ONE NIGHT THE interior decorator told me that Missy's feet had never touched the ground. He seemed proud of that. Laughing as his manicured hand brushed up against mine. "We're all just creatures of the sky up here," he said, gesturing around. I shivered because it was true. The next morning I coaxed Missy with titbits and what I thought was a shared affinity for exile.
I gathered him out of the kitchen cupboard and into my arms, crossed the threshold with my back to the sea and started the descent to the outside. I could feel Missy's heart begin to throttle hard against my skin as the elevator plunged lower and lower. We hit ground. The doors slid open. He squirmed furiously away from all the bright cut surfaces. There was no one in sight. I held on – sure in the sanctity of my pilgrimage.
But Missy did not calm. Once outside, his reaction grew worse. He went completely limp – his heart still beating very fast. He was playing dead. We needed dirt. I headed for the pool area in search of grass. As soon as my hands left Missy's body he went rigid with fear. His back arched as if he was trying to pull all his weight away from his paws, his white fur erect and electrified but what disturbed me most was his eyes: all that horror.
I realised Missy, like his owner, was convinced he was divine.
I picked Missy up and ascended the tower for the last time. It did not take me long to collect my things. I had always been a gypsy. I recalled a small
stanza not from Milton but from someone alive. "Eve wasn't kicked out of Eden. She walked out." It made me happy. I hit the button to exit, stronger now and willing to concede that perhaps paradise wasn't a lie. Maybe it was just a damn good story.
Later I pictured the interior decorator perusing the note I'd written: "Just in case you don't know, Legendary Pictures in Hollywood are turning Paradise Lost into a blockbuster movie. I bet there'll be plenty of women clamouring to be Eve. And many more men edging to be the voice of God. Be good to Missy."