To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture.
Like many fools, I am clairvoyant (alas, never at the crucial moment). When asked why I believe a thing to be so, I am unable to explain. From this people will rapidly deduce: ‘Ah, a woman, of course! For men need to devise systems to support their ‘own clairvoyance. Not being a why-asker, as Gina was, neither am I the nay-sayer Gina was. I say yea, and yea, and yea.
It was after meeting Gina that I saw I ought to be made up of stem zones labelled Right-Wrong, Feminine-Masculine, Normal-Abnormal, Ugly-Beautiful, and so on throughout an infinite list of one-or-others. I realized that by this criterion I was a chaotic sort of person, messy, blurred, with colours that ran together. Gina had a system; I had not. A fastidious koala, she chose precisely from the leaves on the tree of life. Like the immortal cockroach, I ate anything.
I don’t remember thinking anything ugly in my life, least of all about poverty, that dun chrysalis of so much beauty and surprise. I know I was as fond of the napless old carpet in the flat I shared with my mother as I am of the fleecy rug in the study of the man I have lived with for the past three years. I have always moved with life rather than against it. Gina was a driven salmon, thrusting against her own currents towards the ritual spawning that demands personal sacrifice.
I never shudder. If harmony seems to me pleasing—discord, after all, is exciting. Cacophony can be electrifying. Violence, a thrilling thing. Stillness has a pleasurably sinister air. But what is peace? Am I peaceful between loves, or simply inert, waiting for my catalyst? No matter. I am what I am. Gina was what she willed to be.
When I receive kindness, it is pleasant, of course. But if people are cruel to me I feel they must be justified by some reason of their own. I have always felt that people were kind or cruel—not to me but to something within themselves. I just happen to be there; I am hit only because they miss their target. Like the broken window when a boy aims a football awry, or the spectator in the stand injured by a racing-car that has got out of control. The usual thing is to ‘sue’, I know, because carelessness or accident is not to be condoned. But I have never ‘sued’, as I did not seek maintenance, nor divorce on remunerative grounds, from Neville when he deserted me after our ten-months marriage.
Accidents will happen, but who should be sued—the spectator for being in the way, or the driver who just as innocently found the car beyond his control? It seems to me some relationships are also collisions, and I have never decided, or wanted to, whether I collided with Neville or he with me. However it happens, one or both is bound to be hurt.
If I have wept—and I relish tears as much as the next woman—it was from pain alone. I have never felt anger, fury… which makes me a soft spineless marshmallow of a human being perhaps; but it seems to me I have no rights to defend. Is my body a right? Or my money, my liquor? I give these things gladly. Is the one I love my ‘right’? To me it is all manna from heaven.
I can never see why I should be angry (for all the coaching I have had from legislative friends). I weep sometimes, and I mourn as long as mourning lasts, but not for an ‘approved period’. When my eyes are dry I do not tease them wet again for appearance sake. People always know how I feel. I see no reason for pretending some other feeling. Besides it needs effort—effort that is expended for no better reason than that others require to believe I feel The Accepted Thing. But who expects this? The invisible lawmaker who materialized for me only once, as I will tell you. Most of the people I know do not expect The Accepted Thing, although some reflex of pride or conditioning does cause them to pretend at times. Their lives, therefore, have a tension and complexity mine has always lacked. Sometimes a personality is electric with interwoven tensions, as Gina’s was, and that is partly perhaps why I loved her.
It is always like that. I am the silly moth who flutters after incandescence. Yet I am not destroyed. How can you lose what you have not? Ambition. Will. Status. A human being. The incandescence may be doused in the end by asbestic natures that conflict with it. I am content simply to be lit by it. The fire warms me without consuming. A pot in the kiln of life, I am firmed by fire. Pressure condenses, and anguish moulds me, and I am burnished by laughter. To be shaped and polished, to be created by those we love or hate—is that destruction?
At the time I met Gina I lived with my mother in a flat at King’s Cross. Gina too lived at King’s Cross, but in a different sense. She came to be liberated. I had grown up there. My father lived in the Northern Territory. He had, I believe, more than a trace of aboriginal blood. He managed a cattle-station, and may still do so for all I know. He has never answered my letters.
I am olive-skinned and dark-haired, my flesh sumptuous, so that I am often thought to be ‘of Jewish extraction’. Perhaps I am that, too (my unknown grandparents live in Yugoslavia). My heredity would undoubtedly make a Joseph’s Coat-of-arms!
My mother was well-read and modelled in clay as a hobby. We both enjoyed being alarmed or elated by astrological forecasts, and she taught me to read palms, teacups and the cards. Many a Winter night found us crouched over the ouija-board encouraging spirits to answer our questions: ‘Will I marry again?’ or ‘Shall we go with Joe to Melbourne?’ Although we foresaw some events in the cards and tea-leaves, I cannot recall the slightest sign of Gina’s coming. Perhaps I missed the signal, and had read the initial ‘G’ as the ‘C’ or ‘O’ I wanted at the time. Perhaps for ‘a fair man’ I should have read ‘a fair woman’.
My mother died two years ago and for a brief spell afterwards I stole from department stores in the city—a pair of gold-kid sandals, a black-lace mantilla, a marcasite ring. But it soon passed, and I no longer felt the need to succour myself.
I met Gina at an Italian restaurant on the fringe of the city where we were both employed as ‘casual waitresses’ on the evening shift. We began (as she admitted afterwards) electrically aware of each other. But when I moved towards her to ratify this awareness, she showed a corner of her blueprint mind by turning away and make-believing she was busy at the coffee-urn—but not before her dancing eyes, in a face sharpened by perhaps flagellating thought, had belied the tactic of evasiveness. For two hours, with the clash of cutlery and the tinkling of dishes, the overpowering steamy heat of the huge low-ceilinged kitchen through which we darted with our trays, I walked on the air of things-to-come. I remember being well-tipped that evening by men who appreciated my radiance; and the women were more difficult than usual, sensing irritably that I was in love.
When the cafe closed at 9 p.m. and we had finished sweeping, I looked up at Gina, resting on one knee as I held the dustpan while she whisked the sweepings on to it—seeming, I suppose, like some courtly knight at his lady’s feet. I asked eagerly: ‘Are you off home now—or what?’
She looked at me with the conqueror’s smile I recognized. All those I have loved wear this smile when they look at me.
‘Where else?’ she answered archly, moving away again, this time to return the broom to its comer. Yet her too-thin body in its white starched uniform emanated that lovely consciousness of a woman who is aware that in certain eyes her every lineament and movement will appear breathtaking—with the strange corollary that, whatever her build and gait, it actually becomes so!
Yet the standard surge of her responses could not conceal the Atlantis I sensed beneath. Gina, I found, was afraid of nothing and no-one. Only herself. Muzzled and leashed, she placed herself—as the Germans put it—under Kuratel. Her own wardress.
I found out that she had recently left her parents’ home in the suburbs (Hurstville, I think), and had taken a room at the Cross. She wanted to paint, she explained, although she never dared. It sounded comfortably familiar. Everyone I knew wanted to paint, write or play jazz. It was a justification they needed. Those who do not, live at the Cross then for worse reasons. So I have been told.
There followed one of those mysterious blanks which I have heard called ‘a mental fugue’, during which one must become a somnambulist; else why does one always say: ‘Somehow we found ourselves sitting in a dim little coffee-shop at the Cross’? There is no memory of getting there—except as a garland of white roses is a chain linking actualities; or a joyous sensation of being immortal and capable of levitation; of a sudden inexplicable scent like the mingled clove-and-carnation which assails me at the high peaks of my life, and which the cold stem Laboratory People impale on their specimen-boards as ‘psychic phenomena’. How much sweeter are the unnamed things! So often, when I hear a classification snapping shut like a cell-door on the ineffable, I realize I am meant to recognize aberration.
I turn my back then on the Laboratory as I recall that evening, and catch by a wingtip for a moment the feeling of oneself standing wide-open to be aired by eternity. If this sounds wildly romantic (Gina—ally of The Laboratory People—would think so), I cannot help it. It is the only material I have to furnish an empty room of memory, when those visitants I have named overpowered the physical logic of talking, walking and taking a bus—or taxi?—alighting, and choosing the coffee-shop.
I felt at once powerfully unfree, and yet marvellously free of the everyday world. In love, not blindly, but with an astringent clarity that noted the jagged scar on Gina’s wrist and thought, as though I were two centuries old, that she must have been ‘bled’. Her eyes were direct without being clear. They did not yet look at me around an attitude. I was in my happiest state—a petrified animal held in the glare of a car’s headlamps.
That was our one splendidly-happy evening. She told me about her fiance whom she loved deeply (despite, she said with pride, his monstrous and unreasonable tyranny). And I told her of the middle-aged married man I loved, and slept with—but not tonight, I added, with such reverence seemingly that we burst into laughter. We laughed exultantly at everything then. A miniature milk-jug as tall as my thumb appeared so exquisitely, pathetically funny that we were helpless with the love and comedy of it. When I lifted up the cat that wound round my ankles, and held its dangling quiescent body to my face, I was convulsed by the incongruous human foible of its fishy breath! Dancing on this high-wire of joy with me, Gina said in a marvellous voice, deepened for fun: ‘But I never knew a cat had breath!’ We whirled along the shining wire, and commonsense turned inside-out in the rarefied air and showed its lyrical iridescent lining. Time foundered in the seas of an eternity unbelievably gay—a Cheshire-cat grin that stretched from pole to pole!
All this you will recognize as the herald of love, which sometimes announces the wrong name, or ushers in only a representative, even an impostor and, once in a while, for The Few, sainthood or death.
Our one transcendent evening.
The next was hobbled with the results of Gina’s having slept on it and decided an impossible no. Then, as if this ‘no’ set up the unbearable, yet approved tension she needed before she allowed herself joy, she began to allure and enchant me, like a Spanish girl who cruelly allures a lover while safe by the side of her duenna. She flirted through her prison-bars with the bold confidence that bachelors enjoy when flirting with a woman in the presence of her possessive husband. I could only sit helpless and longing as the temptress flaunted her wares—but regretted …
On the next occasion her mood was sober, exploratory. We were to talk together very sensibly, and ‘no nonsense’. Gina of the Laboratory was in the saddle this time. Subdued (I reflected her every mood as one explores each street of a new city), I agreed with I did not know what.
‘This has never happened to me before,’ she said, her coffee-cup held in two hands before her lips, ‘I don’t understand it. I love Eric—I love love Eric-’ (faintly menacing) ‘-so how can I—be—like this—with you?’
She took the nameless gold and began spinning it back into straw, straw for the lining of laboratory cages.
She began to bite down hard on the rapturous laughter that our interjected puns and allusions sent fountaining between us. Trying to jump from the high-wire, she found herself hanging from it by stinging hands.
‘It is not normal,’ she protested, while her Atlantis glimmered below the set phrases, and held me enthralled even as she grimaced. She had trained herself well, my poor Gina.
But she might well have told me the Burning Bush was not normal, or the Red Sea dividing into liquid walls.
‘It happened,’ I said gently, never an accoucheur at the birth of righteousness, ‘and I would go anywhere with you, and be anything you want’,
Then we both laughed, because she said I sounded like Ruth-and-Naomi, and that one day I would make some woman a wonderful daughter-in-law.
‘I mustn’t give up Eric,’ she said, troubled. ‘It doesn’t lead anywhere—what we’ve got. It can only tum into—something else’. I could not see why she must give up Eric.
Because I was charmed and passive (or one because of the other), I said nothing to stop her holding the Medusa’s Head of reason before us. It is my nature to let people be, to rejoice in what I always believe to be their unfolding selves. Gina tried people between her teeth like coins, or ‘rang’ them brutally for trueness. She was a painful person. She would not see you as you presented yourself. And so, while I stood within the magic circle, I did not know she had moved out of it and was using methods of exorcism. As I never know the entity of my lovers, and have therefore never learnt to do battle. What should a total acceptance battle? The little dog I adored sickened and died last year because I did not know its entity, and coddled it and kept it indoors and fed it from my plate—all that it wished I assented to, wrapping it round in what proved to be a winding-sheet of love. So I succumbed to the passionate will of Gina, as one rolls with the tide. There is no Pygmalionism in me; if there had been, I should have striven with Gina to tear her free of her bonds.
‘What I might be!’ she once said with terror, in an unmasked moment. So that she might never know—shaggy beast or sibyl, donor or destroyer?—she availed herself of the repressants devised by stem and holy men for just such purpose, rearing an inner fortress against the wilderness of freedom. Her seeming freedom was loud and carefree, as is whistling in the dark. I did not see it then.
One moment in the dusk, walking home, I thought I had won her. Halting under a tree, I put my mouth a mere fraction from hers. Waiting. But she only gave herself a stronger case for condemnation by touching the fruit she forbade, and I was too dazed by the force of her lips to interpret the bold, reckless chuckle that followed as signifying other than my own raptness.
Later, I coaxed her onward. Ever so softly, leaving her the choice. Her swaggering air of wickedness foretold a sense of lawbreaking. But not to me. The hard haunted look in her eyes did not seem moral anguish to me, but only a darker facet of the human jewel. Others, wiser than I, old in the world’s ways, revealed to me later what took place in Gina.
Even when she was cruel I did not recognize anti-love. I had found all love to take holidays of cruelty, and I accepted that as its counter-poise.
When the last night came, I did not know that either. I had tried to catch a glimpse of our future, but the ouija-board always went wild when Gina touched it, was garbled and indelicate, the dancing wine-glass kicking around the board, while we laughed till we cried, Gina yelling: ‘I—I’m—I must be—fissickl’ I could get nothing out of it. Gina mocked too much. (‘Come, little one: she would say to it, ‘let us make sweet lies together’.) Maybe I only see what I want to.
Her broken engagement had seemed to me a solemn ritualistic gesture like a savage scoring his breast with the sacrificial knife. I continued to give myself to my married lover, and was pleased by his sharpened interest. The state of reverie and heightened response generated by my feeling for Gina made me more attractive to him. I told him about her, and he was pleasantly jealous, enjoying the dual state of loss and unimpaired possession as a rare fillip. ‘Adaptable’, he called me teasingly, and I shared his joke, though not his meaning.
Gina was shocked at my failure to set limits, draw lines of demarcation, feel guilt, and generally load a fragile state of being with the heavy placards of morals and psycho-pathology. She tried to hang around my neck the albatross of remorse that hung around her own. And sometimes now, I think she tried to give sanctity to what she felt was a cheap infatuation. She strove to produce a tragic climax that would be both catharsis and the seal of transcendence upon an affaire that offended her in all her being. And so she punished us.
It was a steaming night in January when she suddenly erupted. I had my arms about her neck, my cheek against her back, dewy with humidity. We had been silent for some time—the night too close and heavy—and my mind played serenely with her murmured ‘Your skin always smells like lemons’. A kitten entangling itself in a skein of silk, the words blended drowsily in my mind with the Song of Solomon—The smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon … How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse… Thy skin is like the smell of lemons… A dreaming clown, unaware of the gathering wave, my lips moved like silk over the old words and the new, weaving something for myself.
The wave poised above my head. I sensed nothing, well-accustomed to her tension. Then she broke from my lax arms and flung me with unbelievable strength half-way across the room. I lay where I fell on a sprained wrist, and the shocked moments that followed were measured in the spasmodic flashes of a giant neon-sign outside. One moment of crimson, the next polar-white. My mind registered nothing but a playback of the childish ritual we had first enacted in this room, sitting opposite each other as the neon flashed, chanting as I bent over her palm to find myself in her heart-line—’Now you’re in hell. Now you’re in heaven’—our faces turning first a luminous scarlet, then radiant as ice, her hand a chameleon that hid its secrets from me in the conspiring light.
Now she moved to the ‘phone, late as it was, and with dll intentness I watched her fingertip spell Eric on the dial. The ouija-board. Initial ‘E’. Facing me, but speaking as though I were not present, I heard her demand that they renew their engagement—(‘I’ve come to my senses’, she said). She wished for an immediate marriage. I remember feeling a kind of terror in the striking fangs of her intention to wound me, as I stood there nursing the injured wrist that had borne my weight as I fell. Why do the cards never warn me?
When she had hung up she said coldly: ‘You can get out of here. Now!’ Her voice made me think of someone rolling down a sleeve and briskly buttoning it at the wrist. A surgeon—was it?—just completing an operation. Somehow, the voice, the surgeon’s sleeve, meant the same thing, too deep inside me to unravel.
Looking at her with, I suppose, that warmth and sympathy which has always irritated my lovers into deserting me, I said: ‘Shall I see you at The Inn tomorrow then?’ It is the other who always says the severing words. I am the splicer of fraying strands.
Her lips shaped. ‘Fool!’ silently, then: ‘I’ve given notice’, she said rapidly. The surgeon’s sleeves both buttoned now. ‘And I’m moving back home on Saturday. You won’t see me again ever’.
‘But …’ I began, and could not go on, her eyes were so glazed. Still glazed from concentration on the amputated limb.
I have adored the few cold, strong, terrible people I have known. I am fascinated as I watch their storms from my mild blue skies. But it is difficult to go as ordered when you cannot bear to move outside their magnetic field. Perhaps that is why they despise me. I, with the faith that would bail out a lake with a teacup, serious and intent, just saved from total clownishness by my lack of dismay. A reader of palms and horoscopes is always a fatalist.
Gina looked me over with loathing. (‘Nurse, you can remove that thing now!’) ‘You know what you are, don’t you?’ she said, leaning towards me. ‘You’re a lesbian. I never wanted any of this’.
A label to hang round my neck for my rejection of the dead albatross. With it came a succession of labels from the Laboratory Gina was impelled to erect over her denied Atlantis. Whore. Cheap tramp. Two-faced. Unprincipled. Immoral. Parasite.
‘To me it was very beautiful’, I protested, so gently it maddened her. Perhaps she wished me to strike her, to shout: ‘Vile Gina!’
‘Beautiful!’ Gina spat. ‘Your sloppy romanticizing of every beastly thing you do makes me want to puke. Man, woman or dog—it makes no difference to you. Come one, come all. Don’t you understand when something is wrong, or sick, or ugly—or rotten!’
‘I’ve never deliberately hurt anyone’, I said, beginning to cry, ‘How have I hurt you, Gina? I must have hurt you, or why are you so upset?’
‘Great God in heaven!’ She clutched her face between her hands. ‘This sooky softy slush of yours turns my stomach. You hurt all the time—you hear?—EVERYONE—all the time!’
I was crying aloud. ‘But what did I do? I don’t mean to .. .’
‘Faithless, dishonest—a tramp has more principle, more pride than you! A vampire is easier to get rid of!’
She went on until she was empty, and I began to see that she was mortified that I did not claim her, brand her, fight for her and, forsaking all others, enclose her in a small segment of life where she could safely batter out her strength against unavailing walls. I could not do it. I have never dealt in hoops of iron. I remained silent.
‘Get out—and don’t bother me again. I am being married soon.’ Her tone was rough, contemptuous. Like tossing money on to the mantelpiece. Yes… I remember … a man I loved did that once in a spasm of self-hate.
‘I was so happy’, I said, but she covered her face with clawed hands as though demented. ‘Tramp, cheap tramp—get out!’ came through her fingers. She could not bear the sight or sound of me.
I clung to Gina’s labels a long time afterwards as all I had of her, and encumbered my life with this wrack of our relationship.
She married Eric and they went to live a long way out of Sydney. I heard later, through an acquaintance, that she had four children, that she ‘gave her husband hell’ and his hair was whitening, that there was ‘a look in her eyes’. I did not ask what sort of look. I did not want to hear about a broken Gina. My gleeful informant was disappointed. No drama. No feverish questions.
I loved many people after her. Men, that is. For a while it was not so simple to love a woman again. Man, woman or dog was no longer the broad vista of love, but became foul kennels named like the haunts of bogeymen to frighten children away.
The seared squares have faded now, and only pale scars mark where Gina once scored her blueprint on me with a burning brand. I am a de facto wife, affectionate and happy; I have a new puppy, and just recently I heard again those thrilling words whispered to me: ‘If I were a man …’
Meanjin Volume 22 Issue 4 1963
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