I begin with ugly feelings. I shut my phone. Before shutting my phone, I delete the social media app with the photos and the comments. It is a common place. To retreat from the common place is a common place.
I begin with ugly feelings. I shut my phone. Before shutting my phone, I delete the social media app with the photos and the comments. It is a common place. To retreat from the common place is a common place.
During my lesson this morning, among French phrases such as ‘chaque heure, ca change’ and ‘l’amour propre’, I scrawled the words ‘Les Halles Paul Bocuse’ and underneath, a few keywords in English: ‘gastronomy guarantees supremacy’ and ‘father’s father’.
I didn’t know until I lived in France that it was possible that my father’s name, Loi, was not Vietnamese. I haven’t checked this with him, because we don’t speak much, and when we do the conversations are so terrible. Anyway, some time during the first month here I came across his name, or rather the word for his name in the paperwork for the various visa processes we were obliged to follow. ‘Loi’ is French for law. Dad was born in 1954, the same year Vietnam proclaimed its independence after defeating the French in the first Indochina War. I can’t remember why but his legal papers record a different date of birth, for a completely different day and month in the year 1955. Is the legal birth date itself legal, if it does not reflect the true date?
I don’t know what his parents thought about the French, or indeed what they thought about Vietnam the year of its independence from colonial rule, the year my dad was unofficially born. The year would have been a big one for constitutional law. My dismay: the important things are so boring. I have never studied history, and I am always coming up against this deficit and the incomprehension it brings about in so many matters in life.
Being the daughter of a migrant obviously I was expected to become either a doctor or a lawyer. I never studied law, but I managed to become a doctor of poetry, and that’s definitely not what my poor migrant dad meant all those years I was ordered to study by this tired, angry man who spent his days burning electrodes. Recently I read a strange excerpt from a nineteenth century Vietnamese history, written by an early Vietnamese historian whose name I don’t remember, who characterised his own people as intellectually inferior to the French, capable of great imagination in the literary sphere but weak in the superior procedures of reason. I suppose that at the time his source material for historical research was written by French ethnographers and anthropologists.
What did my paternal grandparents think of the French? I was told once there was some French mixed into the Vietnamese part of the family. Quite a few of my aunties and uncles have naturally curly hair. I don’t know very much about this side of the family. (Or the other side of the family, for that matter and goddam, I meander.) I spend so much time wondering about things I can never know. I do know that my father’s father was a famous chef in Saigon, both during and after French rule. His celebrity existed before the paradigm of the celebrity chef as we have it now, but maybe I can understand his celebrity only in modern, tabloid ways. I’m told by my father that people still come to the family house now, to this day, asking about his recipes. They are French recipes of course, and it is a source of very private pride to me that this quiet man, whom I only met once, sailed to Paris in his youth to learn how to cook.
That he never really spoke is one of the few legends I have of this man. My own father is garrulous, like his mother I think. I think he would die if he couldn’t speak. One of the few things my grandfather, my ong noi, said to my father when he was a child was ‘never be a chef’. It is a shame, my father says, that his father was never proud of his acclaim, and never sought to pass on his brilliant career to his sons (daughters could not be chefs back then). Another source of shame, according to my father, is that the children were never taught Chinese (both parents’ families originated from Hainan, and are therefore ethnically Chinese, whatever that actually means). My father never taught me welding nor Vietnamese (and of course neither of these assertions is strictly true). I’m told that welders earn quite a good living these days, burning electrodes. Much more than doctors and lawyers.
My father used to tell me about how he was the only one of his nine siblings that loved his dad. The others, especially his ‘stupid, big mouth’ eldest brother, knew how to ‘sweet talk’ their mother. Unlike his mother, and unlike his siblings, my dad would wait, he told me, every night for his father to come home from work at whichever famous restaurant or hotel he was employed. They would go out for noodles while everyone else was in bed, never saying much to each to other. I intimate a romantic scene. I think at one point Ong Noi was cooking for the President of Vietnam. And my father asked his father, possibly one night over street noodles, whether he could slip some poison into the President’s meal.
It amazes me that I never realised until I came to France that I have never really cared about or particularly enjoyed French food. And while I like how I keep losing reasons to be here, I regret not being able to bridge the generational gap, or maybe I mean something else—spot weld, perhaps, around some of the structural defects in that monstrous bridge that spans all those oceans and seas. I will never know whether Ong Noi didn’t teach his children how to cook because he saw no future in the French, or because the work itself was degrading. And on a practical level he didn’t need to—they all became great home cooks instinctively. Could it be that despite his celebrity he was still subaltern in the kitchen, on the floor, in the lobby? I have no idea. Maybe he was just not a good teacher, a trait that seems to run in the family.
The paradigm of the celebrity chef is surely a French invention—didn’t restaurants come about after the Revolution, when the old court chefs needed to figure out how to make a living in the new way? In class today we were talking, or rather I listened to the class talk about all the different types of markets in Lyon. Brocante, marche aux puces (I love this phrasing), they went on. There are women from all over the world in my class, and in the discussion of markets all of them complained about how their husbands never knew the price of anything after they did the shopping. And they complained of how bored their husbands were, of their ennui, when shopping for clothes in the mall. My dad always says, if you want to find a husband, go look for him in the army. And if you want to find a wife, go to the market. I know everything has bias, but this is really too rich—he himself was in the army. I just remembered, I think he said once that his birth date was altered so he could avoid conscription (an undertaking made redundant when he volunteered to serve in the American war). Our teacher wrote ‘Les Halles de Paul Bocuse’ on the white board. Who knows this place? I put my hand up. And somehow my pride in my grandfather surged. Because I see him in the faces, under the big white hats (what is their purpose) of those old French chefs. Who was Paul Bocuse? I didn’t put my hand up. Un chef celebre, I said. He invented la nouvelle cuisine. His restaurant, in the north of Lyon, has been awarded three Michelin stars for more than five decades.
Our teacher explained Les Halles de Paul Bocuse, a famous food market in Lyon I have actually been to, twice, without buying anything. The best produce in France, the freshest, the highest quality, and yes, the most expensive. She was beaming. Another student, a woman from Syria, asked what kind of food the stall holders there sell? Asiatique, arabique. ‘Mais non, la gastronomie francaise!’ our teacher cried. I instantly felt bad about what I scrawled in tiny English words about supremacy. It is not as simple as cultural supremacy, this pride in French cuisine. I felt the surge too, and I couldn’t be less French, or less of a Francophile. I was touched by the old world sense our teacher seemed to cling to in today’s weird weather (chaque heure, ca change), its collision of two superstorms—the winter of globisation and the slightly more summery (I reckon) colonisation in reverse—that has already reached France.
And perhaps there is nothing simple about cultural supremacy itself. There is something marvellous, immoral, but marvellous nonetheless, about assertions of excellence, and the discursive systems they proliferate (terroir, blah blah). But why bang on all the time? What insecurity and doubt lurks behind supremacy? There is ‘l’amour propre’ but also vexation, and then there is ‘l’amour de l’autre’. And maybe somewhere in between that was my ong noi, working on those glamorous river boats, and in Saigon’s big colonial hotels, in the palaces, tired and silent, tall and handsome into his eighties, bad with money, whose name I have never been told. I like to think he really did name his middle child after the law per se, which is strangely transcendent despite itself. He passed and named (what, or who), in an attitude of ambivalence, with hatred and love commingling under the fading colonial system, which was perhaps the only place the celebrated chef could see himself.
We live in France at the moment, and I fear it’s difficult to write about this indisputable fact without falling into the style of someone else’s family travel blog. I have noticed that when I try to find day-to-day information about living in France online, I tend to keep coming across such blogs, written by white women who claim to love luxury and travelling with their families in France. Laughing, also, they say they love to laugh. I was sitting in my French class the other day bravely explaining, in terrible, improperly conjugated French, that there were really only about 5 stories in the world, and so the protagonist of our exercise (which was actually quite good, which I was enjoying very much) shouldn’t be worried that his story is not original. I wonder how long the dismayed faces of my classmates and teacher will stay with me.
When we were still in Melbourne, my ‘partner’ (so Australian) told somebody visiting from Lyon that we were going to be staying in Escalier B. My partner made sense of the visitor from Lyon’s confused face much later, after we arrived, when he realised he had proudly told him that we were to live in the neighbourhood of Staircase B. He had been reading our postal address as if the information were arranged as it is at home, where the line with the name of the suburb follows the line with the street name and number. A mailing address is so beautiful with its clean, un-enjambed lines, its accretive globalism. Actually we do live in Staircase B, even though our postcode is for the distinctive location of Croix-Rousse, which might have given the Lyonaisse visitor better specificity and context. Oh but we live in Staircase B for sure, without context, or bearing, staring into the remote Rhone and the two inexplicable skyscrapers over in the 6me, wondering whether the crying baby is the same baby we see getting out at the floor below us (oh god how I wish that was as it reads, I love the idea of a baby autonomously getting off the elevator at etage dix), even though the crying, incessant at night from the witching hour, sounds as if it comes directly from the floor above us.
We live on etage 11, etage onze. Below us, on etage dix, are two apartments. The one we live in was once also two, but the previous owner converted these into one giant, luxurious apartment. The previous owner was also once the President of the Universite de Lyon 2 (with which I presently have a very bureaucratic and meaningless relation), was also previously married to a woman before he converted a fling with one of his PhD students into something more serious. The current owners of this apartment told us this very French story with a mixture of mock horror and true glee, the wife describing to my partner the desolation of the wife left behind, the wife of the story, through the mimed action of an alcoholic necking her bottle.
The other night my partner and I stayed at the dinner table well into the night with a philosophical argument about whether or not marriage could be said to be a moral wrong. As I was leaving our house in Australia to the French family we are house swapping with, the wife told me, in a very dramatic and unexpected way, standing by my Mazda, that when they returned to France she would divorce her husband. ‘That will make divorce number three’, she told me. I don’t know how philosophical the argument at the table really was, but I can tell you that neither of us were buying the other’s line. ‘I’m almost with you’, my partner conceded at one point.
The baby may or may not live on etage dix but one thing for sure is that the elderly and grand Madame Dix lives there. She lives directly below the room which is my study (the room of my unravelling as a coherent writer: today in my notebook I read ‘incomprehension as methodology’ and knew it was over for me academically); when this room was previously used by my partner as his music studio she called our landline. I actually didn’t know what was happening when it rang – I haven’t had a landline for well over a decade. ‘Allo?’ I said, without certainty. One thing about Madame Dix is that she doesn’t let our incomprehension of French stop her from telling us things in rapid, full-throated French. During this very particular phone call she commenced her elaborate and passionate protest against something. I didn’t know what was wrong, only that something was wrong. I had been working at what was then my study when the phone rang, the object as without function or use as the dusty fake flowers next to which it was resting, until it suddenly sang its life with a series of beeps. ‘Oui’, I said to Madame Dix, and after a few sentences, ‘desolee’, ‘desolee’. Eventually I realised a word was being repeated: radio. Searching for help, I came to my partner’s studio. He was listening to music with headphones, tapping his foot with quite a masculine vigour on the wooden floor. ‘La radio’, Madame Mix was shouting. I asked my partner to stop tapping his foot. ‘Bon’, said Madame Dix.
We had been planning on swapping studios anyway. My old desk in the bedroom is now converted to my partner’s music studio. The beat lab, we call it sometimes, laughing. Now I sit where the university President once did, slowly unravelling all of my careful, strange sentences. The first time I met Madame Dix was in the lift, where she asked me where I was from, what I was doing in France, and why I don’t speak French. I don’t know the answers to her questions. But then her questions aren’t very good.
I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write about waterslides. I have had the word ‘waterslides’ written on my article board for about six months now. Yesterday I got a cloth and some orange oil and wiped away all the things written on the board. They were reminders of things I have to do, things I have to write. Recently I have hated this board, because nothing ever seems to get rubbed off it. It’s not actually a board, it’s a bit of desk, I guess, or you could think of it as a wall – I have a built in desk in my office (spare room?) that can be closed, like a cupboard. Ah I am trying to say, I cleaned my to do list. I am writing at my desk, and when I write at this desk I write under a to do list. I didn’t work last night, but if I had, I would have been writing under a beautifully blank board that usually has a messy and old to do list that makes me not want to sit under it.
Today I wrote what I could remember of that old list back on the board, but in smaller, neater writing, and in order of due date, by imminence. I ordered things 1-5. Then, after waiting a few minutes, I made a second, parallel list. And wrote ‘1. Waterslides’. After thinking for a while, I wrote ‘2. Ada Driver’s Painting’. I’m not sure why I wrote this second item. I think it belongs somewhere on the first list, as it relates to my job. Ada Driver was an Australian woman photographer and my main job is to research, well to assist research and research on the topic of Australian photographers, women photographers, that is. I am a research associate, and I associate with a specialist on Australian women photographers. I help my boss write articles about Australian women photographers and I’ve never really known if that’s the right way of describing the overall research topic. The grammar seems weird. Australian women photographers? Anyway Ada Driver was a studio photographer at a time when that meant something, and she also made these paintings that depicted subjects in an act of recollection. She visualised memory by way of, I guess, essentially thought bubbles that looked a lot like magic lantern slides, somehow projected on a nearby wall from the subject’s mind’s eye. I think I wanted to write about these paintings but other than what I just wrote, I don’t think I really have anything to say. So I don’t think ‘2. Ada Driver’s Paintings’ really belonged in the first list after all; I could probably rub it off the second list too now.
I have wanted to write about waterslides for what seems like forever. I don’t know why I have put it off so long. I don’t know why it seems to me to be very important to get the phrasing and timing of this waterslides essay just right. I have just been waiting and waiting to write this thing and in the meantime all these other pieces of writing have been building up behind it, making the desk like a dam. Like a 1980s Perth waterslide, even. I’m blocked. I don’t know how many writings are backed up behind this.
These days waterslides are highly regulated, with staff in attendance at the top/entrance and the bottom/exit. Once you reach the top of the line and it’s your turn to go into the slide, the attendant checks either by radio, or video, or simply by looking at the bottom of the slide, whether the bottom of the slide is clear. No one can still be in the slide when someone enters the slide at the top. Not these days at least. I think I’m one of those people that doesn’t really mind that health and safety has evidently run rampant. Those blocked slides of the 1980s in Perth actually scared the shit out of me when I was a kid. I was nervous about slamming so violently into a stranger’s body with my body, all wet and fast. The memories I have of a blocked waterslide, and waterslide culture of the 1980s in general, are somehow really close in my mind to memories of V8s and burnouts and ‘Asians Out!’ graffiti and all the shit that made me a nervous kid. It is an unspoken truth that I don’t miss the past. Despite my loudly professed theory that ‘everything gets worse’ (I’m quite tiresome) I think time or history or whatever it is, change, has actually been pretty kind to me. For example when I was growing up it was all Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer. But when I left school it was Kate Moss, and it’s about 20 years later and it’s still Kate Moss, which is good for me because I’m thin and flat chested, which sucked in the Cindy and Claudia era. Especially in a bathing suit. I think that somehow it became good to be part Asian too, but I don’t think Kate Moss had anything to do with that. Anyway what I’m saying is that it’s much safer to ride in waterslides these days than in those days, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my eyes.
A trip to Darwin two years ago still resonates with me – it was unquestionably defined by waterslides. The first day we got there our host took us to her baby shower (not hers actually, but I remember it as hers because she was so pregnant when we visited) – which was held at the Leanyer Recreation Park, simply her local waterpark. Leanyer Recreation Park is on the surface a low key affair, utterly suburban with ample parking, free barbecues, lawned areas and teenage YMCA staff in pool attendance. But entry was free, which is unheard of even in the lamest of suburbs, and right there, on the edge of the Rec, was a proud triple helix of enclosed water slides. Really tall, long waterslides. They were part of the rest of Leanyer Recreation Park. They were therefore free. And even though it was not a school day, and the weather was swimming weather, there were no long lines. In fact, I don’t think there were any lines at all. You simply walked over, skipping over the prickles in the lawn, and a YMCA attendant in that ubiquitous red rashie would hand you a giant inflated tube, which you would half-carry, half-balance as you walked that toppling walk up the concrete stairs towards the top of the slide.
I don’t know if you understand how exceptional this is: a waterslide as good as any regulation waterslide park, for free, and with no lines. We just walked in. Can you imagine the concept of all joy and no misery? I still simply don’t know what to make of this, but any time I think about going to Darwin, Leanyer Recreation Park is the main reason the thought occurred to me.
By coincidence the two family friendly movies we watched together on Netflix used waterslides a lot – Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and BMX Bandits. These films served to bookend days longing (and twice fulfilled) for a trip back to Leanyer Recreation Park. On other days, we endeavoured to visit the proper tourist destinations – Parap and Nightcliff Markets, Berry Springs (pretty much the superlative Australian water hole) and a couple of days 4WD-ing around Litchfield Park. It was all very very wonderful; my host, a genius then heavily pregnant with what has now become the most sublime boy you could ever see, couldn’t place a reef shoe wrong. At Berry Springs and Lichfield Park I thought about how similar water holes are to water slides. I thought about how inexplicably linked waterslides and time travel seem to be, at least in the movies. I learned from my friend that the waterslides were free in Darwin to dissuade children from swimming in crocodile infested creeks and rivers.
I thought about how usually ‘a bit of fun’ like these working class waterslides were bureaucratised and monetised. Angela Carter came up with the idea that fun, especially ‘a bit of fun’ was a predominantly working class conceit; that the middle class seem to only enjoy fun at one remove.
I thought about what the long lines for waterslides teach children about time. I thought about what my son kept talking about every time he went on a waterslide: the drop. The drop, originally a dubstep measure, may be the best metric for how much fun a waterslide is.
I tried to think about waterslides as non-aleatory art, but a colleague reminded me of those 1980s urban myths about razor blades being left in waterslides at those big suburban water parks. And then everything about waterslides seemed so predictably fluid and superfluous and Freudian. And then I didn’t write about waterslides for about six months, or perhaps ever.
All I see is blue when I close my eyes on the number 1 tram home. Plexicushion blue, the colour of the surface of the tennis courts at the Australian Open. According to something I read just then, in a hastily opened search window, Plexicushion Prestige has served as the official surface for all courts at the Australian Open since 2008, when it superseded the old Rebound Ace.
In 2009 I watched the Australian Open while heavily pregnant, and for part of my 26 hour labour. I can’t remember who played in that final match I saw – it was an epic women’s quarter or semi. I can’t remember the Plexicushion, but that was because the television set I had was a black and white portable TV, the kind you have on a boat (I guess); I’d borrowed it from a friend, who’d borrowed it from her dad.
Today I was at Day 3 of the 2017 Australian Open with the same child who joined me during the heat wave of 2009. I can’t remember who won that tournament, though it would be easy enough to look up and probable enough to guess it was Federer (or Nadal?) in the Mens and Sharapova (or Williams?) in the Womens. I also took my son to Day 1 a couple of days ago, and explained the basics of the game while sitting at Court 12, where we watched a classy American woman, Alison Riske, beat her compatriot Madison Brengle. Today we watched Riske play again in an arm wrestle against the higher-ranked, but less mannered player from China, Shuai Zhang – who went in as crowd favourite. The first set went to a 9/7 tie break and took over an hour to complete. We left Show Court 3 and looked for a hot dog, only to return to court to find seats nearly impossible to come by. It was suddenly the hottest match of the morning session. Or so I believed, when I showed the live score on my phone to a lady in line behind me, who wailed charmingly, ‘why is it so hard to be at the right place at the right time!’
Against the advice of the seating attendants my son and I managed to find seats again. Better seats. Ripper seats, just at the boundary, to the left of the umpire’s seat. My son fidgeted with a sock that was suddenly troubling him, eventually annoying the woman seated to his left enough to make her change places. I realised later she was Riske’s coach.
I liked the Nabokovian names of the players today: Riske, Isner, Lacko, Dudi, Sock.
I’ve never been happier than at the tennis today, my son and I sitting quietly, like gentlemen, applauding rallies and whispering ‘out’, or ‘in’, when Zhang challenged. Three hours and a ball, and the blue Plexicushion. And a small stadium in silence. My heart set to buzz in the final game and I was as excited as the kids I joined at the boundary, holding my sharpie and autograph pad. Alison came to me first. ‘Thanks for coming to watch’, she smiled. ‘I love how you fight’, I answered.
Someone – a ‘sports mad’ old man, to use the lingo, once told me that tennis was less interesting than watching paint dry.
Tennis has no time limit. The question: ‘when does the match end?’ makes no sense. Tennis just goes on and on. What is a better question? Why is it so hard to be at the right place at the right time?
A serve is a question, sometimes a rhetorical question. A rally is of course a battle, but it is also a mindless conversation, two birds in song.
Birdsong is not pretty to the birds who sing it: song is aggressive claiming of territory.
Australia is home to the world’s loudest and most varied song birds. It is believed that song birds originated in Australia. It is believed that human song developed in mimicry of birds.
Dudi Sela is from Israel. His fans wore the Star of David and sang his name between points.
A rally is also two shots in the dark. All you really see is the flare.
A rally is a conversation: ideally a oneupmanship, the win that makes the loser better each time. A rally shatters the players’ hours of loneliness. A rally is a reckoning.
Tennis is lonely. When the players change ends, they nearly touch by the umpire’s chair. They nearly smile. All they have is each other.
Tennis is quiet. But actually this means that all noise is simply heightened: each rustle and remark amplified around the court.
To play is to focus, but to watch is to be immersed in distraction. A bird slings by just before serve and is nearly hit by the receiver.
A racquet needs to maintain a certain tension.
A return is a consequence, a conditional answer. A return is a territorial swoop.
I watched the neighbourhood wash by as we trammed north. I closed my eyes and saw Plexicushion blue. More blue. A thought crossed my mind. More blue.
My dad came to stay for what turned into quite a long seven days. The visit took place from last week to two days ago. During his visit I spent a lot of time in other rooms of the house he owns (that I rent, at a rate significantly lower than market price), and actually went to work a number of times when I wasn’t required to, just to sit somewhere quietly.
Have I told you about my dad? In terms of issues, that’s a lot of money in the bank right there: endless fodder for therapy, those proverbial problems with authority, a double helix of self-loathing and an inexplicable sense of destiny, and so on. And technically, or rather, literally, there’s a lot of money in the bank, my bank account, because I maintain a somewhat sentimental notion that I should remain connected to family.
In therapy the other day I was about to say a similar sentence. Something like: ‘I guess I keep putting up with this because I have this weird sentimental attachment to family.’ But instead of that sentence, I slipped: ‘I guess I probably have this weird sentimental attachment to money.’
My therapist had looked at what I’ve described to him previously as my rich-girl watch (flip!) as it slipped below my sleeve while I was mid-sentence, so when he called the Freudian slip (too easy, Oliver!) I claimed the slip was actually caused by his own slip, that caught gaze at that cute diamond face (Longines is entry level, not that big a deal!).
All digressions. I wasn’t expecting to remember things at that session, but I ended up remembering all kinds of perfectly appropriate therapy things: conflicting origin stories; the guilt felt, then and forever, at watching acts of violence against my mother, sister, uncle, fellow road users…; time in the military; time in prison; the fear that’s never really gone anywhere. I think of Beckett: it wasn’t the words that bothered me, it was the blows.
Somewhere in the session Oliver quoted Falstaff: discretion is the better part of valour. The exemplary rationalisation of the coward, or a reminder that only sociopaths are truly fearless? Look at the monsters (probably) that get the Victoria Cross, Oliver said. Valour. I thought about it. I wondered.
Violence is a funny thing. It’s worse to watch on than to experience it directly (I say this from direct experience). Yet the viewing of violence constitutes so much of what, once mediated, we consider entertaining.
I have never found my father’s violence entertaining. And I am so curious about whether it ever could be, if I wrote it down, if I somehow dislocated or detemporalised it.
Once my dad sat fuming at his desktop computer. I had just arrived, returned only a few minutes ago from another state to the first family home. He had not left his seat as I came in, but he turned as my younger sister, back then already an adult (but still living at home), passed on the way to her room. It was and I presume still is a very small house by modern Australian standards. I guess she must have picked me up from the airport, if he was already sitting there in that house. I dream about that house. I don’t remember anyone else in the scene.
‘You look so fat,’ he said, barely making eye contact with her but, as I said, turning from the computer screen. Here the scene fades. My sister either protested that she wasn’t, or that he should’t say she was, or a combination of the two. For whatever it’s worth, she’s not fat; she’s a size small – the next up from extra small. Whatever that’s worth. He could have said anything. It’s like a dream when I remember this scene. I am sitting now, somehow paralysed.
My sister made her closing remark and slammed her bedroom door. In a step that covered that entire open-plan living room, my dad reached said door, rammed it open with his shoulder, hollered about the way he ought to be spoken to, and began whacking my sister across the face. Maybe belting is a better word. It went for a few minutes. I am sitting now, somehow paralysed.
It all happened. I don’t remember anyone else in the scene. I’m not sure how the scene ended. Why don’t you stand up to him? I asked, I ask. Because discretion is the better part of valour. How convenient, I think now, as I remember the pile of our 1980s carpet.
There was one day last week when time spent with dad could no longer be avoided. I called his mobile phone; he was walking somewhere in the city with one of his old friends. I believe they met in a hostel for newly-arrived migrants in the late 1970s in Graylands, Perth. His friend gave me my first job – he once ran a Vietnamese bakery in a city bus station. He now runs a noodle shop in the Siberia of Melbourne, the Docklands.
I believe they had been bickering all day. We walked along Southbank, and once, a long time ago, I wrote in a poem about the places you only visit with visitors from out of town; I was probably thinking about Southbank. This city is full of border crossings: Princes Bridge, Spencer Street, Royal Parade, Hoddle Street. Never go to Richmond, they say. We passed families who were from other cities, all the mothers, for some reason, wearing their hair tightly pulled back in angry pony tails. So much forehead. What is this called? The Northland facelift? Bell Street demarcates another forbidden zone.
We ate a meal so tense that my son, exhausted, placed his head on the table and closed his eyes while the hot chips on his plate were still warm. The small talk could be described as the opposite of an Oblonsky (Anna Karenina) dinner party. ‘Which city do you prefer?’ I asked the friend. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ No, it doesn’t. But come! – the conversation must not know this. ‘Anywhere there is a casino.’ Somehow he began discoursing on the virtues of self-employment. ‘I do thing what I want, and if I want, when I want,’ he decreed. ‘If I want to watch movie, I watch movie.’ ‘What kind of movies do you like?’ I said, for some reason trying. ‘It doesn’t matter!’ he sighed, annoyed at me. My dad piped in to help (whom?): ‘if it has colour, sound, and moves, he’ll watch it.’ Quite.
The lonely walk of the class traitor may one day be immortalised by the southern stretch of the Yarra that runs from St. Kilda Road to the Crown Casino. We emerged from the restaurant (designed in the vernacular style of ‘design’ – vertical gardens, naked light fittings, a deejay booth next to the toilets that showed no sign of ever being used) and joined the council facelift wanderers. We discussed the possibility of seeing the columns at the Crown light up. My son would like them, I thought. We wandered among the tight ponytails, the parkers and backpacks and shorts and- and- and- and the city could have been on the other side of the continent. I have never seen these people before, I thought. We were no longer deciding whether to see the columns at Crown, we were part of the crowd now, and simply being in it meant our destiny was sealed. Go west. We were already there, the only decision left to us was which entrance to take. We used the main lobby, and I looked down at my poor-girl shoes, and I looked across at dad’s $10 Bossini pants.
We walked past a bar called The Waiting Room and I felt a surge of euphoria. A prostitute! A woman sat alone at a table with an expensive looking clutch tossed on the table. She wore all white. I thought of Johnno: ‘look at the bitches.’ Prostitution is so magical to writers. Why? Oh. Maybe I know why.
Someone recently said: ‘my body is a clock.’
After some time inside the ground floor of the complex (how time flies!) we found our way out. My son wanted to sit directly beneath the column. That boy is always trying to find the best place to sit and I really like this quality of his. The next family along was a single mother with her daughter. Both wore their hair in a tight ponytail. My dad and his friend stood against a restaurant wall, unaccountably aloof. The minutes to the hour dissolved and I saw the air above the column shimmer with gas. ‘It’s about to start,’ I told my son, who stood up and bounced on his feet. He spent the next three or four minutes squealing with each roar of flame.
I thought of my friend who loves the Beats and speaks of Moloch. Moloch! I thought the word, called the place its name, simultaneously enthralled by the sudden rush of heat and noise that came with the fire balls. Moloch! Money! Capitalism incarnate: the monster must be fed. I understand why people come here, I thought, even though I knew as I thought it that I was wrong. All that money! All that time. I thought of Herzog. All that money. Poor papa!
It’s fun. It’s entertaining.
But that’s not why.
The flames disappeared, leaving the gas to shimmer in the blue city night. ‘I guess that’s about done then,’ said another hard ponytail, ushering another kid back into the casino. People come to the Crown Casino because that’s a place where everything is already over; or rather, it’s a place about everything being over. To be over. To be done. Get it over with. Make it, then throw it away. At Crown, or any other place: it doesn’t matter. That’s about done then.
I spent the closing minutes of today’s session with my therapist trying to remember something. It seems to me that in life, in general, I am stuck trying to remember something. In this case what I was trying to remember was redundant, in the sense that the lost memory simply referred to a motif that had arisen in previous therapy sessions. In other words, I was not attempting to recollect an event or feeling or other construct which had taken place outside of the therapeutic context. Only after an afternoon interval of reading, errands, pornography, more errands, do I remember it now: smokescreen of truth. There is a heatwave and I’m preparing dinner. I have decided to write in this luckyescapes place because I like the expression a lot, and have nowhere else to use it (other than in therapy, where the moment has already passed). I originally used this expression about a year ago to describe one of my key social tricks. By means of candour, I make myself supremely readable, or legible, and behind this authority I can continue to hide. Tell life story, retain, untouched, the actual story. I had only then, a year ago, become aware of my smokescreen of truth.
Another thing I’ve been trying to remember is the name of that diner Kmart used to have. The name of the diner itself is not important to why it is important that I retrieve this memory. I could ask someone from that time and place and we could wax nostalgic, summoning ghosts of our young mothers (for me, always an image of a grey calfskin ankle boot) and the lurid phantasmagoria of cafeteria food in the eighties: garden salads, pre-prepared plates of hot chips, jelly (red or green) accompanied by whipped cream from a can. I could google all this so fast. And then there would be no reason to keep writing, when I could simply scroll through the images of the uniforms worn by the staff at this eatery, an ersatz Australian take on an ersatz American take on something else. French maids, but with a Laura Ashley colour palette. I’m closing my eyes and going from memory. I won’t look. I love that when I try to remember the name of the diner in Kmart I remember that I have already both forgotten and successfully retrieved the name in other years. That is the memory: it is a memory of forgetting, in anticipation of a certain, eventual satisfaction of full recollection. All I need is the (unnecessary) name. I won’t ask. I also love that marvellous false name my mind throws up: ‘Culleys’. Culleys, if that is the correct spelling, was, and probably still is the name of a tearoom in Fremantle that comes to mind in this moment because This Was Another Place I Was Taken To By My Mother. It’s a shit hole now, or at least, it was five or so years ago when I coaxed my mum and utterly unsentimental sister in for tea and scones. Mums and their tea rooms. Mums and their rooms. Culleys is not the name I’m calling for, yet it rushes to attention. Culleys! I don’t want to go to you.
The Kmart diner did not have a room of its own, and I believe this quality was what made it special – that there was simply an arbitrary boundary between Kmart proper and the booths of the sit-down eatery. The magic threshold was probably described by waist-high perspex: you could never not see the aisles and tables of the store, and the gentle shopping these engendered. But sitting in not-Culleys, you were partaking of an entirely different form of pleasure, sucking on an iced chocolate or lime spider, paused in the mother of intervals.
It’s a sunny, unseasonably warm day so what could make more sense than a visit to the local library? I must admit that by ‘local’ I refer to that service which belongs to the ritzier, more obviously gentrified municipality adjacent to my own, to which my suburb does not belong. I like to conduct as much business as possible in this better locale, with its obvious neutral atmosphere, leafy main street and limited opening hours. The library, for instance, usually opens at 1pm.
I observed with pleasure a young woman face down in the grass in the park that is across the street from the library. Next to her sleeping blonde head was a pile of belongings. In order, they were from the ground up: a closed hard-cover book, an open hard-cover book, a package of tailor-made cigarettes and a red lighter. Nearby were a black handbag and a discarded red cardigan. I looked at her black stockings and thought of how they would absorb the afternoon’s sun. Around the park other young women followed suit, dreaming through a day of purported intellectual labour. I was once one of them, only I preferred to do it by the local pool (which belonged in fact to another municipality again, but that is of no consequence now).
All these people are not writing their books, I smiled to myself. But why did I assume this, and why did I smile?
The library itself was even more idle, though the atmosphere was relatively sunless compared to the park, and the lack of activity signified something other than the gestational delight of half-made thoughts I’d just witnessed. I’m always surprised and reassured, however, by the opportunity to see what others use the library’s services for. When I see middle-aged men frowning into prosy laptops (at desks that happen to be in the children’s section), I am reminded that others have problems with solitude and self-control (most especially in the service of writing); the more I see of them, the better I feel about my own tendency to malinger. Even better are the steroid-abusers I often see booking the library’s computer terminals for half an hour, seemingly only to watch the music videos of Slipknot. I’m mystified and yet somehow charmed by the profound innocence of the scene, which is charged in part by the viewer’s lack of privacy.
These recurring figures notwithstanding I saw far, far more women than men in the library, and in the park, and in the main street today. Many of them were only slightly younger than me, and perhaps they were students loading for exams or dissertations. The most striking pose I saw by far was cut by an older Chinese woman, who had boldly propped up her laptop on a pile of junior fiction, commandeered one of the rare, low ‘reading chairs’ to face the screen she’d improvised, and proceeded to watch soap operas for god knows how long, hands behind her head and knees apart.
At home I now question my assumption that each person I saw was a loafer, that each represented an unfinished book, and I question this not only because my solipsism is repellent but because on the drive home, AM radio finally came through with a song that was optimistic and stupid (instead of weak and romantic, which has been a blight of the dial this week):
We’re just tryin’ to be friendly,
Come and watch us sing and play,
We’re the young generation,
And we’ve got something to say.
What makes the theme of the Monkees so durable is that they in fact had nothing to say. And what makes the blatant idleness of those I saw today in Carlton North so charming is a likewise lack of assertion, which nevertheless demands a public forum: come and watch us sing and play. Viewing public examples of relaxation can be more entertaining than a trip to the zoo; or at least, they are good reminders of what sleepy, distractible animals we are when left to our devices.
But for all these words, I hope one of the people I saw today finished their bloody book.
I am really lucky ‘Teenage Lust‘ was on the stereo the first time a boy made me come. Not least because the album the song is on had been out for years and was outwardly considered passé, by then a species of the previous generation. In this way, in their culturally ossified ways, goths and their hangers-on will always have something very special to offer their teenage peers.
I remember thinking, or rather, fearing, as I suppose many teenagers do, that I would never have sex. As stupid as it seems now, because of how obvious, inevitable, routinely inescapable sex is to the adult, this fear adds a particular zest to the first time one does it. An impossible psychosocial, sexual impasse is crossed, the ravine of infinite self-doubt suddenly snaps shut, and in its place an arc of bliss invites you to ride. An arc, or rainbow, if you will, coloured by pleasure, confusion, momentary recognition; unexpected mastery is born of chance and opportunity, the sudden proximity to another body, the animal charge, timidity and hubris, the interchangeability of act and truth, and so on.
But what about the last time one has sex? How many people are aware this is happening, when it happens?
Because the last time is as inevitable as the first time. And like the disbelief that precedes the first time, the sexual being does not quite believe that they will cross back into the realm of those others, the chaste-again, the not-having-sex. Whom may we count among this legion? Who will tell me, what I today would dearly love to know, what music was playing the last time they had sex? Not the most recent time. The last time, the last time ever.
But perhaps, by the end of their sexual careers, people stop, have stopped, listening to music when they make out. Perhaps no music is even on before such entanglements begin. Perhaps there is no longer any need to play the other anything. Perhaps there is no longer any pretext of a shared aesthetic experience. It seems to be the case that at some point, after the extended adolescence that characterises those who came of age at the turn of the century, music ceased to function in the unconscious seduction method, or at least, with the same zest.
What happened to those goths?
And more importantly: how gross is JAMC?
On the way to my study I pass a window that sits over the landing at the top of the stairs of my house. Through this window I see the vibrant shapes of workers in high-visibility gear, standing on the roof of a nearly finished apartment building. Naked pine beams and the fresh glint of the windows encasing the adjacent, recently completed apartment blocks finish the scene. Through another window I hear a currawong. Someone once told me that currawongs learn, elaborate upon and pass down variations of their song over close-knit generations. Since the flocks are territorial, occupying a relatively small terrain, butcherbirds across the southern regions of Australia will have slightly different melodies and rhythms, depending upon where you happen to find them. Their song is the sound signature of their home.
I think the currawong outside my study window is lost. He has a distinctive long call, with the decorative third trill of his song recalling to me the butcherbirds of the Eastern suburbs of Sydney. I remember hearing this call often through a friend’s apartment window in the late afternoons I sometimes spent with him there, both of us sleepy in bed as the darkness came. The harbour, which was very close to the apartment, always seemed to resist this darkness, the masts of the yachts and leisure crafts at the little dock down the street knocking in the breeze, clamouring against the night, leaning to the last shadows. I wonder how the butcherbird outside my study window came to be here today, some 878 kilometres away from that sunny city. They’re not travelling birds. I wonder, what is he looking for? How much does he miss that famous harbour?
Windows are a crucial device in the Hitchcock film Rebecca. Think of the housekeeper of the fantastical estate of Mandalay, Mrs. Danvers. I watched Rebecca again the other month with my best friend. ‘What a fucking bitch!’ she exhaled, expressing our mutual awe at the blatant evil of Danvers, grim and camply loyal to the eponymous dead mistress of the house, the first Mrs. de Winter, when the second Mrs. de Winter is brought to stay. Joan Fontaine delivers the second Mrs. de Winter with flawless, fresh-faced naiveté: ‘I hope you haven’t gone to too much trouble,’ she falters, overcome by converging shames (class shame, sexual shame, feminine inadequacy) as Danvers tells her about the house. ‘Of course there’s no view of the sea from your room. The only view of the sea is from the west wing.’ Danvers pauses; there is already menace in the air. ‘The room is very charming and I’m sure I’ll be comfortable,’ rushes the second Mrs. de Winter. ‘If you want anything done, made, you have only to tell me,’ returns Danvers, the deadpan barb inevitable as a crow’s.
I have always noticed something about Rebecca but I’ve never had a place to share the observation until now. Here it is. Mothers really love this movie. My mother loves it, my best friend’s mother loves it, my horrible ex-‘s mother loves it, my other ex-‘s mother loves it, a friend of any random friend’s mother loves it; I know this isn’t strong evidence, but really, I feel like any mother I’ve ever spoken to about this movie has sighed a Gail Jones sigh about it. ‘Rebecca!‘ they’ll swoon. Try this next time you’re with a mother. Maybe there ought to be a secret society built around this secret favourite film. I’ve found it strange that this category of person (because let’s face it, nothing is so much of a category of person as a mother) generally associated with benign qualities including (quite unfairly) aesthetic innocence (i.e. underdeveloped, vanilla taste) could be so drawn to something as demented as Rebecca, which I think is Hitchcock’s most terrifying, satisfying horror. Now listen to this. I always quite liked Rebecca before I had my own child; but the other month, when I watched it again (on… Valentine’s Day? Yeah, wow, Valentine’s Day) I loved it. I think I loved (not liked, but loved) it as a mother, or because I am a mother. I recognise the thought, yet the thought confuses me. I know this is not scientific… But, um, perhaps I’ll work on the science. Shall I?
‘I came here when the first Mrs. de Winter was a bride,’ says Danvers, proudly. The camera rolls in as the music crescendoes, leading to the shot that closes the scene: Danvers a smiling blackguard against a rain-splattered window. Windows can’t be full of anything but light, and in this way they are magical. There is strong magic when the second Mrs. de Winter breaks the taboo of Mandalay and crosses the threshold to the closed west wing to enter the hermetically sealed (so to speak) rooms of the first Mrs. de Winter. Fontaine fumbles across the shadows and reaches for the curtain cord. Music again, and the room fills with the dancing light of the sea, revealing a perfectly kept boudoir. Fontaine’s fingers glance across a hairbrush, a hand mirror, then withdraw as if from a live electrical charge. The open window panes knock in the breeze. The sudden noise alerts us to the presence of Danvers, who stands behind the gauze surrounding the first Mrs. de Winter’s bed. The second Mrs. de Winter nervously explains her presence: ‘I didn’t expect to see you Mrs. Danvers; I noticed a window wasn’t closed and I came up to see if I could fasten it…’ ‘Why did you say that?’ snaps Danvers. ‘I closed it before I left the room. You opened it yourself, didn’t you?’ She opens more curtains, revealing the room’s splendid vanity. She tells her it’s ‘the loveliest room you’ve ever seen, isn’t it?’ She tells her everything has been kept exactly as Mrs. de Winter liked it. Nothing has been altered since that last night.
Don’t we love the concept of the ‘last night’ – the social possibility that everything could end before day break. Rebecca plays with the pleasure of the ‘last night’ through two sequels, or echoes, delaying and thus enhancing the spectacular thrill of catastrophe. There is the desperate costume party given by the second Mrs. de Winter. She leans over the open window of the west wing, in tears over her failed costume. Danvers seizes her moment, sidling up to her impotent mistress. ‘Look down there. It’s easy, isn’t it? Why don’t you? Why don’t you? Go on, don’t be afraid.’ The second Mrs. de Winter ponders the ground beneath the mist. Danvers may have succeeded in creating a second ghost to haunt her household if not for the sudden appearance of a shipwreck on the horizon. The rescue mission, of course, unearths the real body of the first Mrs. de Winter, foreshadowing her final narratorial victory.
It’s hard to write about this film because it’s difficult to resist the urge to just retell it. That’s how much I love it. The point is, I’m thinking a lot about its windows. The other blackguard, Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin, lover and local car-dealer, enters Mandalay through an open ground floor window, disturbing the second Mrs. de Winter in her morning room with his caddish assertions. He is cheerful, urbane, and cocky as he acknowledges he is perhaps a less than welcome visitor to the house; but before he leaves, also by way of the window, he chides the young bride for letting Maxim keep her away in hiding. Unsurprisingly, the sexually innocent, ‘lovely thing’ requests that Danvers keep Favell’s visit a secret from the husband, and in fact, to never mention the events of the afternoon again.
I wonder if mothers love Rebecca because it is essentially about spending lots of time in the house. The film invites the viewer to consider the perversity of domestic intimacies, especially those made manifest in the fetish object. Danvers relishes the opportunity to show the second Mrs. de Winter through the perfectly preserved belongings of the first. She takes out a coat, given to Rebecca by Maxim as a Christmas present. Danvers then moves to the underwear drawers, and then finally across to the pillow slip, removing Rebecca’s black negligee. Fontaine’s face expresses a silent horror as the housekeeper murmurs, ‘Did you ever see anything so delicate? Look, you can see my hand through it.’
On the third and final ‘last night’ of Rebecca, Danvers sets fire to Mandalay. I wonder if people who spend lots of time in the house, caring for its inhabitants, caring for its objects, harbour a terrible desire to do likewise, to take the nurturing role to its forbidden, illogical, but emotionally alluring conclusion. The film’s ostensible, or superficial problem, if you will, is that of identification. In the most banal understanding of the film, Danvers suffers from a psychotic over-identification with the first Mrs. de Winter. Whether this over-identification could be read as a repressed lesbian desire is not something I’m well-versed enough to advance, but it’s possible and interesting to consider this.
What interests me is the problem of identification towards the film itself – and I return again to my completely unsubstantiated, but nonetheless felt sense of Rebecca being a film mothers love. I have written this so far in a way that suggests that the archetypal ‘mother viewer’ identifies with the Danvers character, and could make further suggestions to do with fantasies of total control, and fantasies of total servitude to support this claim: ‘If you want anything done, madam, you have only to tell me.’ I also wonder whether the formidable Danvers represents a fantasy of being taken seriously in the household, as ludicrous as this assertion looks. But I equally wonder whether the mother identifies with the second Mrs. de Winter, recognising in the impossibility of the role of homemaker the feeling of being out of one’s depth within a nightmarish, boring, essentially bureaucratic structure beyond one’s control.
Then there’s the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, who we never see. How I long to see her! She was beautiful, Danvers repeatedly reminds us. ‘She knew everyone that mattered. And everyone loved her.’ What a tease. We never see her likeness. Is there, in this deliberate, delicious absence, something else here for the mother viewer? A narcissistic seduction, perhaps, an empty space onto which women might project their own self-fantasies of beauty, omnipotence, and love. The final shot is the R on the pillowslip, aflame. Why is there no omni- word for the ability to be loved by everyone? And of course, Rebecca was not loved by everyone. But he who did not was not unpunished for this.
It is not fashionable, and thus not feasible – certainly not serious – to discuss identification in this way when considering texts. One day someone might write the definitive defence of identification and we might proceed. I think someone should think about why certain people like, or dislike, identify, not identify, with such films and fantasies. Why do we like? Why do we love? It is interesting that few words may be said. Finally, I wonder whether mothers identify with the tension of the film itself, rather than its characters. It’s a simple tension, an old tension: innocence and knowledge. In this case, is there a lure in the psychic tension between girl and woman, or girlhood and womanhood? Maybe somewhere in this gap a mother is born.