Provenance

There was an opening ceremony at the new Town Hall, the Michael Fowler Centre, and the Symphony Orchestra was playing the 1812 Overture, with fireworks timed to Tchaikovsky's cannon fire.  We hadn't thought to go out and get nearer to the fireworks.  Why weren't we there to see it?  Well, I hadn't experienced a big display of fireworks: the sudden sketches of cages done in light, brief three-dimensional figures better able to help us appreciate a volume of empty air than air's emptiness, and the noise:  concussive jolts that let us imagine how pet mice might feel when we kiss them.  In short, I didn't know what I was missing.

I wasn't alone, I was with my flatmate Madeline, my sister Sara, and Sara's girlfriend Ailsa.  We'd had dinner at Ailsa's and were kidding around.  As I remember it Ailsa was making a speech about the poor and oppressed - as she sometimes did.  We'd all been reading Mary Daly, and Robin Morgan, and Andrea Dworkin, and had been talking, between rage and gloomy relish, about the destiny of women.  Ailsa's life had been far from happy, and she was a little impatient with Dworkin's and Daly's complaints.  There were worse troubles in the world, she said.  There was the bigger picture of misery - corpses piled up in Cambodia, and children on the streets in Bogota.  Ailsa was studying part-time - Criminology and Industrial Relations - and she worked for the Unemployed Workers' Union.  Her speeches were informed, lucid and heartfelt.  She had little time for personal miseries - and no patience with her own.  When Ailsa said - as all young feminists then did - that "the personal was political", she didn't only mean that, living inside ideologies disguised as everyday life, none of us were private people; she also meant that we should take our persons out and do something political, something to help the helpless, or at least to hinder those in whose interest the helpless were kept helpless.  However, Ailsa also had a sense of the absurd.  So there she was, that night, speechifying, then, hearing herself, bullying and expounding, she whipped her shades out of the top pocket of her battledress jacket, put them on and continued to thump her tub in a fake Latin American accent.

Madeline laughed, jumped up, took off the black scarf she was wearing around her neck and covered her head with it, tying it under her chin.  She seized Ailsa.  "Rosa!  My daughter Rosa!"  she shouted.  "You not dead!  You not killed!"  She shoved Ailsa away from her and wrung her hands.  "Why you not write, uh?  You break your poor Mama's heart!"

"Ah Mama," snarled Ailsa.  "You so full of sheet!"

This went on for some time, Rosa's Mama clutching and wailing, and Rosa complaining that it was hard to write letters when you were winning a revolution.  Mother and daughter had met, apparently, in a place Rosa Gonzales was in the act of naming the Plaza del Revolutionario, on the night of the victory of a guerrilla army.  Rosa was a twenty-five-year old colonel, Mama Gonzales an operatic aggrieved parent.  In the newly christened Plaza someone set off some fireworks, or guns were let off into the air, or a rocket launcher was fired at the other end of the thronged square -

- we all piled out on to Ailsa's porch to catch sight of coloured light reflected on climbing smoke.  The explosions were loud and sharp, but less businesslike than the guns of 22 Delta battery giving their salute on Queen's Birthday.

"There'd be a better view from our flat," Madeline said and, cued, she and I set off home.  Sara stayed, of course.

 76A Kelburn Parade

At that time Sara and I shared a room in our flat. We were able to represent this as a choice dictated by economics; a one-third share in a three-room flat was all we could really afford.  76A faced south.  The sun came in for only a short time in the morning, mainly in the front bedroom. That August I remember seeing the sun mostly clouded by condensation on the inside of our bedroom windows.

I liked to sit on the wide sill of the bay window in the lounge and watch our own shadow - the hill our house was on the wrong side of - slowly stretch out over Te Aro Flat. The evening light concentrated, till the city and the topped-up trembling horizon beyond Pencarrow Head would begin to look like a seaport in someone's lost paradise. The clear apple-juice light was like that in paintings by Giovanni Bellini, where all things are equally intricate, foreground and background in the same ideal focus, as if seen by their inventor, a God who knows what is going on both near at hand and far away.  I'd sit there, absent-mindedly packing paper into a breezy gap in the sash window, and dream about my imaginary world, a world I shared with the sister who also shared my room.

Since Ailsa, or perhaps since the Coming Out Group the year before, Sara and I had spent less time there - the room, and the imaginary world.  Perhaps for Sara our world had receded, but for me it was still near - there, pushed against the glass, like something preserved in a staining spirituous medium.  Wellington on a clear August evening was the port of Dellben, or Topiora in its cold summer.  Until, finally, the first appearance of the high-voltage silver pulse of the Pencarrow Light would wake me up to where I was in fact - Wellington, a city I loved so much that, like a child uncertain of its parents' favour, I couldn't look at it straight on.

Emergency Government

Sara wasn't home again till the evening of the 10th, and Madeline tells me she can remember my sister appearing, needing to wash her hands, to find us in the bathroom, me holding an inverted toothpaste tube - a prop microphone - and conducting an interview.  Hugh Skevot, Sydney Morning Herald, was talking to Colonel Madlena Guevara about the planned policies of the first emergency government of Lequama.  It was obvious from the general flow of talk, and the depth of our daffy characterisation, that we'd been at it for some time.  Madeline says that Sara exclaimed, "Oh, for God's sake!" and went off to raid the fridge.  Madeline was surprised by this reaction, Sara's tone of indulgent exasperation.  Madeline was, after all, having the best fun she'd had for some time.  But Sara knew what was happening.  Sara knew what Madeline was getting into - or what I was getting her into.

I didn't quite yet.  Didn't till, at the end of the week, I was soaking in the gloomy, windowless bathroom where my cat would sometimes wait for hours in hope of the rat that, in our disorganised and unprovided household, had been reduced to eating our soap.  As I soaked I listened to an outbreak of accented banter between Sara and Madeline - Colonels Godshalk and Guevara.  They were discussing something in an article I'd knocked up for the Australian correspondent the night before, an interview with the new Minister of Education, a man whose father was the head of Security Forces of the previous regime.

"You know he's in there right now having a bath!"  Madlena informed Maria.  Then she raised her voice: "Don Marcos Pastrez, we are fighting a war and you are having a bath!"  Eventually, provoked, I shouted "You harpies!", got out of the bath and emerged, steaming and aggrieved - and in character.  I remember settling comfortably into Don Marcos.  He was more than a voice, he was a person and, despite the fact that I was using my body to play this game (getting dressed, putting my pants on one leg at a time, like everyone else, as Maria Godshalk pointed out, "despite his classical references"), it felt, if not familiar, familiarly intoxicating.

My original game was then eleven years old.  It had spanned forty years of fictional history and had thousands of characters.  It had two beginnings - two first chapters of Genesis - because it was once two games.  It was a game my friend Carol and I invented that used paper dolls I made, beginning when I was eleven and she was eight.  My older sister Mary made her own dolls later, and joined in.  And it was a nightgame - a story jointly narrated, in the dark, between beds in Sara's and my shared room (beginning when I was twelve and she nine).  At seventeen I grafted one game onto the other.  I manipulated two worlds into the same orbit and caused them to dock - despite their mismatched airlocks.

Despite

I've become aware of the frequency of a word in this text.  "Despite."  "Despite" is will and skill at work, in adverse circumstances, with difficult material.  "Despite" is the bump back there on the road, and the car speeding on, axles unbroken and suspension unimpaired.

In August 1983 I was in my first year at university.  Sara had started mid-term.  She'd just completed her New Zealand Library Certificate.  She'd made a friend on that course - they had become visible to each other, both completing cataloguing projects, glossed bibliographies of books about homosexuality.  This new friend had a friend with - this was the first I heard - an admirable repertoire of curses concerning a thousand camels.  Sara was invited to the friend's friend's birthday party, and took a great deal of trouble over a present, scouring second-hand bookshops till she found a copy of the King James Bible covered in violet suede.  After the party Sara began to write poems to "You".

Ailsa and I argued the first time we met.  She said Sara had an exaggerated good opinion of me.  (I was to hear that again from several of my sister's girlfriends - often at a first meeting.  But we were all in our twenties and in a rush to form opinions - to fill sandbags and build a wall between the torrential world and our soaked senses.)

Later Ailsa and I figured out how to get on - most of the time.  I liked her.  I never hoped she'd go away and Sara would find time for our game.  I always understood that if Ailsa was over Sara would go on to someone else, that she'd have to, that Sara found it as intoxicating to reimagine herself in love as she had found it to forget herself and imagine - be - other people.

I was still playing the game with Mary.  I'd organised my timetable so that I had Wednesdays free.  Wednesdays I'd catch a bus to Newtown, and Mary's place on Adelaide Road, and we'd play.  We'd advance the plot.

Several years before I'd become serious about plotting.  I didn't want to have to perform any more of the field-hospital surgery I had had to when Carol gave up the game.  I wanted quality control, no inconsistencies, no survivals despite terrible trauma.  Really I'd spoiled some of the game's fun - especially for Sara, who liked to do scenes over when she'd made mistakes.

The nightgame was different - more series than serial.  It was simply more fun.  It was the one we liked best.  It had our oldest surviving characters - who were both present in its primal scene. In that scene a man is woken by an intruder in his flat - a boy, a streetkid, kneeling on the kitchen counter and about to retreat out a window - and the man threatens the boy with his shoe.  The boy, Abra, like me twenty-three in eighty-three, was my favourite character.  When the nightgame went the way of the shared room it was as if Abra lost one kidney, and continued to live on the other - the saga alone - till '85 when his final "kidney failure" coincided with Mary's daughter Helen having learned to walk and thereafter refusing to be confined while her mother "talked" to her aunt.  (It wasn't impossible for Mary and me to go on playing, and we might have continued on occasional evenings as I did later with Madeline despite the birth of my own son.  But, for some reason, the difficulties made it seem impossible.  Well - we were in our twenties.)

Madeline and Phillip

English 109 and Philosophy 103.  There was a young woman who my eye passed idly over in the first several weeks at Varsity.  In Phil 103, Logic and Argument, she sat in the front row.  I noticed her because she had long, thick, curling hair.  It was only a year since I'd had my own cut. (Long, thick and curly - its demise coincided with the appearance in Sara's and my Reuben Avenue flat of a magazine Sara had subscribed to at her Coming Out Group.  The Circle was a photo-statted, A5 format publication for, it became apparent, lesbian separatists.  The Circle was full of short stories about heroic Amazons and treacherous long-haired, handbag-toting hets.  I'd cut my hair so as not to be "mistaken" for heterosexual woman. I mean - so as not to be seen by my sister's new friends as "a het", before anything else, despite my perennial boyfriendlessness.)  I sat at the back of Logic and Argument, trying to get a handle on propositional calculus, and admiring the hair.  The young woman, when she got up and stuffed her bag and shuffled out of the row, was a disappointment.  She glowered - or dropped her gaze and crept about.

Normally I might have done the same - but I was consciously trying to make friends.  I'd just lost two of my best, one to marriage (a bloke) and one to Australia (this happens to us all, and Australia is now the richer for my friends and my sister).  I had already managed to make one friend at University.

Phillip was a shy hazel-eyed man I'd talked to after my second tutorial in English.  A tutor had us all do a close textual analysis of Shelley's "Ozymandias".  We talked it through.  Phillip mentioned the treasures Napoleon's army had carried back from Egypt - things Shelley might have seen, or heard described.  He talked about Europeans plundering ancient monuments to furnish new empires.  I remember that only he and I had much to say - but not what I said.  Phillip told me later that he'd taken one look at me and thought, "Here's some bright spark straight out of the seventh form".

Phillip came from Foxton, he'd spent a year in the army, as a gunner, and another year working in a carpet factory.  He was an only child, raised by his grandmother.  He had his grandmother's second husband's surname - was "adopted" by the man in order to encourage Phillip's grandmother to join him in Australia.  Grandmother and boy had travelled with stolen jewellery stitched into their clothing - the second husband was a fence.  Phillip had a sense that his identity wasn't truly represented by the facts of his life.  His name, for instance.  He appreciated the irregular.  He helped me learn to appreciate also how the facts of a life can misrepresent that life.  When studying kinship systems in anthropology Phillip once completely bemused his tutor with an account of his own family tree.  His was a working-class rural family in which spare children were given away to childless relatives.

 I'd talked to Phillip on our way out of our second tutorial.  We spoke about our tutor - who'd seemed slightly dismayed at our eagerness.  We stood on Kelburn Parade and yakked.  Then, since I'd decided to make friends, I looked into his eyes, thought, "What a nice face," and asked him up to our flat for coffee.  He came with me to the year's first meeting of the Vic English Club, and at that meeting we helped form a Writers' Club as a subgroup of the English Club, so that there was never any need for us to trouble ourselves with a committee structure, a president, secretary, and treasurer.

PAN

When I put in my university enrolment I'd applied for entry into Bill Manhire's Original Composition, Engl 252 - then a year two English course.  I was so keen to earn credit doing something I'd do anyway, that when I put in my application I didn't look at the course prerequisites.  I'd gone up to the University a few weeks before enrolment and had discovered that my name wasn't on the list of twelve.  So, on enrolment day I dropped in to the eighth floor of Von Zedlitz to pick up my submission from the office of the Department secretary.  I can remember standing at her desk working my way down through a tall stack of folders, and never arriving at my own.

            "Is this all of them?"  I asked the secretary.

            "Yes," she said.

            "Mine isn't here.  Did it not get to Bill Manhire?  Was it not read?"

            "They're all there," she said, steeling herself for another year of dramas over lost essays.

            I walked out, baffled by my bad luck.

            The secretary came down the corridor after me.  "Are you Elizabeth Knox?"

            She'd found it!

            But no, she hadn't found it. Bill Manhire was holding my submission hostage and wanted to see me.  The secretary directed me around the corner to his office.

            I should say now that I wasn't alone.  Sara had followed me about all day with a camera.  She followed me into Bill Manhire's office, said, after I'd introduced myself: "And I'm Elizabeth's sister.  I'm doing a photo essay on Elizabeth's enrolment day.  Do you mind if I take your photo?"

            Bill seemed worried, but said that was okay.

            He told me that he'd just like to say to me that I should apply next year.  252 was a stage two course.  Oh - and - despite the fact that I was majoring in philosophy he was my academic adviser.  After all, if I had been able to do another English course I'd be enrolled in a double major, English and philosophy.  He was interested in my intentions.

            I said I certainly did intend to do his course next year.

            Sara lowered the camera from her face and said she'd be applying too.  She was enrolled in the second half of this year.

            "Oh," said Bill, nervous.  "I don't know that I could have two Knoxes."

            Outside Bill Manhire's office Sara and I met a guy named Darryl Ward, already costumed in duffle coat and bare feet.  He was holding his rejected submission, and his eyes immediately lit on mine.  "We must form a writers' club," he said.

And we did.  And, at its first meeting in the boardroom of the student union building, we established that almost everyone but me wanted to write poetry.  I'd already written two novels (unpublished).  So we called ourselves PAN, after the Greek God, and as a joke about what critics might do to our work - pan it - and as a pun on PEN's "poets, editors, novelists". PAN, we said, stood for "Poets and A Novelist."

            It was at the end of this first meeting that I met Madeline.  She was, before then, an unaligned image.  She was several people: the snuffling person with head cold in English 109, the girl with hair in Phil 103, and a silent young woman sitting opposite me in the boardroom of the student union.  For most of the meeting she listened, slouched across the pages of her notebook, straightening only when the contact list came around to her.  But, towards the end of the meeting, I said something that interested her,  and she lit up, gained volume, came sharply into focus.

 

By October 1983 our fourth flatmate, Veronica - the odd woman out - would come home to 76A to find me, Phillip and Madeline jumping about the living room, where all the flat's chairs were lined up to represent a row of airline seats.  British anthropologist Jon Scott, on his way back from Lequama, had been hijacked by Shi'ite Muslim terrorists.  Later Jon had to explain to his PhD supervisor why he was late for an appointment.  Unlike the Shi'ites Professor Webster took no prisoners.  "Jon, your subject, your ethnographic group, is the Mneone of South Eastern Lequama.  Why were you fraternising with Shi'ites?"  (Phillip had a tutor in Anthropology 101 whom he didn't like.  I once spotted the tutor and Phillip in the quad between classes.  Phillip was furiously scratching the back of his head while they spoke.  I think he wanted to hit his tutor.  The man had one hand covering his own mouth - was Phillip offering excuses the man didn't believe?  Whatever, Phillip relieved his feelings about his tutor by inventing an absurd pedant, Jon's supervisor.)

            We arranged the furniture and played, while poor Veronica - whose asthma was bad that year in our vapour-filled, mildew-darkened flat - would sit in her room, wearing a mask, her ventolin atomiser chugging and steaming.  We got tired of pointing our fingers, so bought plastic guns: Madlena Guevara's Tokarev, Fernando Sola's Czech M52 automatic. We had their quarrels, made their entries and exits, had conferences where we labelled the chairs with our characters' names and played a kind of musical chairs, leaping from seat to seat and person to person.

 

Politics

 Some of this was fuelled by our political interests, and by personal political involvement.  For instance, the lesbian separatists who formed a commune in the grounds of the old Pastrez mansion - women called Barb Goodwomb and Sue Womanchild - were modelled on the Morgaine Witchwoman types we encountered at meetings of Women Against Pornography.  And, despite our obedient attendance at those meetings, there was a certain satisfaction to be had in our separatists' self-immolation.  The foreign press called it "a feminist Jonestown", but the word in Lequama was that the women fell victim to curses, to Ricardo Pastrez's sorcerer's booby-traps.  (The way we played it the women were flipped out because of competitive perfectionism - and perished declaring that they'd "swept themselves out with an iron broom".)

            We attended meetings: Cell Block H, the Latin American Committee, WAP, Women for Peace.  Our interests were all international, or related to New Zealand's foreign policy.  Lequama was a playful parasite parallel to our activism.  Lequama was - in fact - a post-1981 manifestation.  We'd been politicised in 1981, when Sara and I had marched, and Madeline was a martial for HART.  After 1981 many people from the protest movement felt, to some extent, demoralised and disenfranchised.  New Zealand's pakeha left turned its attention to foreign policy, to the anti-nuclear movement and the necessity of disengaging with ANZUS, and Ronald Reagan's foreign policy.  (Maori meanwhile consolidated their activism, the Waitangi Tribunal was set up, Kohanga Reo flourished.  Some of this fuelled the story of Lequama's Taoscal people - there were Taoscal Language Nests, and land claims by the Council of Projects...)

In 1984 New Zealand voted in a truly revolutionary government, David Lange's and Roger Douglas's Labour, with its "globalisation" and free-market philosophy. After 1984, when market vagaries became the only reality, I felt more than ever that there must be a world beside the "real world", the "real world" invoked endlessly in the instructive bullying of our government and our transformed social institutions.  There was another world, beside the "real" one, a world of experience and consciousness, fantasy, private delight ...

 

Summer, 1983 to 1984

 

I wasn't party to the causes of Sara and Ailsa's split.  In some ways I think those causes remained a mystery to Sara herself.  I remember quarrels about how our flat should be "lesbian-only space". Veronica, Madeline and I weren't lesbians - but in the 1980s, in student politics, dykes were sometimes a kind of latter-day rotten borough, with heavy votes on light constituencies. Ailsa sometimes stormed out of Kelburn Parade, and I can recall the sound of her Doc Martens, her feet together as she jumped down the steps two at a time, cursing as the briar roses clutched at her.

            Sara moved out. And so did Veronica, to be nursed by her parents.  I finally had a room of my own.  Phillip left his hostel and moved in with Madeline and me for the summer.  Madeline was waitressing at the Begonia Teahouse.  Phillip was driving a van for the Post Office and spending every second weekend training with the Territorials.  We had strange Friday nights: Madeline would have her feet up after going from shop to shop looking for affordable, attractive shoes; Phillip would be polishing his combat boots; and we'd all be being other people - Madeline Madlena, Phillip the Emergency Government's Security Adviser, a British mercenary called Smythe, me the sly, destructive Fernando Sola.  On Sunday nights Madeline and I would fill Phillip in on all the action, the constitutional crises, hospitalisations, and hauntings that occurred while he was slithering through Te Horo swampland on his belly.

            I was working in the National Museum, the Buckle Street building, a masterpiece of deco architecture that could easily have stood in for something by Alfred Speer. I wrote in my journal that the Museum was like "a magical island that moves between different worlds and times".  I'd fill my day with tasks that would require me to do a certain amount of wandering about the corridors. I'd go among the monstrosities in the wet collection, jars of every size, on row upon row of floor-to-ceiling shelving: bottles containing insects and reptiles, or huge hydatid cysts, or a deep sea fish from off Lord Howe. I went among the birds in drawers, feathers still glossy with spirit, or the big fish preserved whole in reeking zinc tubs. I went among the carvings that leaned in dim ranks against the piles of the deepest basement, the waka in racks of scaffolding in one of the many enclosed courtyards where, for months, a blue whale's jawbone hung to drain, yellow oil pooled on the tarpaulin beneath it.

The Museum was a building of no definite or logical shape, full of back stairs and doors that - if you had the right keys - opened onto unexpected vistas.  The building doubled back on itself at every turn. Public lay beside private: the former refurbished periodically, carpeted, buffed, well lit; the latter constantly altered, a creation of contingency, with makeshift doors, a raw hole hammered through thick concrete with a plaster-crusted water pipe serving as its lintel.  The building was haunted, apparently, by several ghosts, or at least by their stories.  It was also haunted by a sense that its collections were sentient, invested with life by their makers. They were all living things, taonga, whether heitiki or Japanese netsuke, or even a pistol whose wooden grip still held the polish of its former owner's dead hand. And, if the artefacts appeared alive, so did the specimen, once really living, and often preserving the appearance of life, or of life just gone - like an albatross with a lolling head, its breast feathers still silky after twenty years in formalin.

            I walked around the Museum and dreamed about the Presidential Palace in La Host.  I thought about a room in that Palace, its walls creosoted black, a room that stank of flammable gas, a room that once held a Taoscal sorcerer, who was either tortured to death by the Security Forces of the old regime, or escaped, opening a door to another world.  I walked about the Museum with my hand in my pocket and on my keys. I had more keys than I was entitled to; the museum's security boss, Peter Rewi, indulged me, perhaps amused by my curiosity, or my mobility, my tendency to pop up in unexpected places, like Stevenson's Ben Gunn, with the light of stolen treasure shining in my eyes.

 

The Black Room

 

We played late, till our voices were hoarse.  We frightened each other.  I didn't drink, but would wake up with a dry mouth, and my face as glossy as glass, and transparent, so that I could see through it to all the nocturnal people asleep in my daylight.

            It's possible summer was like this for a lot of students. After our exams we were in debt emotionally, and to sleep. We had summer jobs and short-term purposes - like the need to save money - foaming up to fill our time.  We'd feel that nothing was happening, and yet that everything was in danger of suddenly coming to an end.

            There were several weeks, at the end of the summer break, but before classes had commenced, when Madeline and I had the flat to ourselves. Phillip was back at Vic House, and we hadn't advertised for someone new. The middle room was empty, a room with its own outside door, whose bed tucked in under the gable of a walled-up staircase. The room was once the downstairs hall of the grander residence 76A had formerly been. The room had three doors, in fact, another led into the back bedroom, but was sealed shut. It was the shape of this room, with its angles unaccounted for by the walls of adjacent rooms, and its surfeit of doors, that, in part, determined the shape, density and emphasis of Lequama's Black Room episode. This room, my time in the old Museum, the ghost stories I'd always told in imaginary games, and Madeline's summer reading - Carlos Castenada.

            The Presidential Palace was possessed. The empty, black-painted room spread the stain of its past, its secret, into the Palace.

            It was all mad fun, and I thought, "Why not? When these worlds are putting their heads together, why not let my favourite saga character wander into the story, if only in spirit?" I put up a fresh Democracy Wall and, as Abra, wrote in its top left-hand corner, "What country, friends, is this?"

            I wrote, we played, I didn't sleep - I'd take my glasses off and lie down and find I had 20/20 vision with my eyes closed. There was a light on in my head. My head was the Black Room, its darkness radiant.

 

The following year Sara completed her abdication from the Saga. Mary chased her toddler about and gave up the game through force of circumstances. Lequama went from strength to strength. I sat down and tried to write about it - my project for Bill Manhire's Original Composition. But it was too near to me, and I couldn't get it right. What the hell was I doing, anyway, writing a book set in South America? Instead I began After Z-Hour.

About a year later, I did manage to transplant Abra from one game to another. And, as though he'd carried the means, the mode, with him, Madeline and I stopped jumping from chair to chair and waving plastic guns. Instead, we lay down in a dark room and began to speak our people, their lives:

"It's morning and Madlena arrives at Flores Negra."

"And she finds a pair of men's boots by the door. Doc Martens, with next-to-no wear on the heel."

"She's disgusted. She yells, ‘Mama! Whose are these boots!' ..."

 

For ten years this was what we did, Madeline and me. Among other things - her Diploma in Music, her jobs and relationships, my books and marriage and child ...

 

From my journal

 

March 1994.  The saddest thing in my life is, has been, my imaginary game's busy litigious existence on Death Row.

Madeline goes to Brisbane in August.

 

August 1994.  With each year and every book I'm a less viable prospect as exciting new product.  Fergus says, "What about Cormac McCarthy?  What about E. Annie Proulx?"  "What about Maurice?"  he says.

            What about bloody Maurice?

            As my sense of failure and disappointment grows there is some paradoxical lightening.  I don't have to postpone my indulgently "personal" odd book about my imaginary game.  I can't write the right book so I might as well write this one.  Since there's no smart option there's no need for a safe option either.

 

February 1995.  Phillip suggested to his partner Jackie that he and she attempt playing a third-person present-tense narration - with me present to boost them, like the fuel-filled first stage of a rocket.  Phillip says that Jackie is keen to try what she seems to want to call a "story-game".  She made a scene -  a piece of New Zealand coastline, with a stream, low hills and grassy meadows on one side of it, a road and water tank and high porous, rugged hills on the other side, curdy blue sea, a rocky offshore island (where fallen angels stand about drying their wings, like shags).  She made a papier-mache relief map.  I wanted a setting, time period, persons - and got antsy about the fact that these hadn't been supplied by the night we began, some weeks back now.  Anyway, Phillip and I came up with a plot. One of my old favourites, in fact (Sara and I tried it twice, in our night game, Madeline and I once). It goes like this: God has vanished from Heaven, and Heaven, Hell and humans have a summit meeting on earth.  (I had fun with all the politicking. The venue full of its own fixers and with its own traditions, like a war zone.  The press out in force - but no TV cameras allowed.  In this story my version of the Fernando character is a TV journalist, and he's going crazy because he's not being photographed, and the natural hierarchy of his universe has just piled up above him and obscured the world's view of him - splendid, self-loving creature.)

Jackie's characters scarcely ever speak.  It becomes apparent to me over three nights that Jackie's enjoyment is giving way to unease and a sense of inadequacy, and perhaps of exclusion.  It is hard for her with Phillip and I - old cronies always - here discovering something entirely new about each other.  This is different from Lequama. Phillip is discovering something new about himself.  But the problem is bigger than how to make Jackie feel included and get the knack of narration.  On Saturday I didn't eat and my blood sugar was so low that I felt as if I was dying. I lay on the swingboat in the botanical gardens while the little boy rushed about and Fergus stalked him.  There's no sorrow that can't be doubled by uncertainty. Phillip and Jackie hadn't called to say whether we were going on with the story that night, and I was grieving for my characters again.  Of course it was a miscommunication, and I did go over to Lyall Bay, and we played.  Jackie seemed to enjoy some of it, but was a little tired.  Phillip and I were totally caught up - enjoying ourselves immensely - and moved.

I left their place at 2.30 a.m. in that strange, perilous, dreamy state in which I feel like the hero of my own life - a hero, but not myself.  And as if anything I can imagine belongs to me.  This is the essential state of the imaginary game player, why I could "do" fundamentalist Christians in North Carolina without ever going there.  I wasn't necessarily "accurate" but I wasn't troubled by lack of conviction.  Everything was my subject. I drove home; the roads were empty.  I felt like someone - a mature, wise someone - who had just fallen in love.  I saw possibilities for growth - new ground to cover - and I saw the terrible problems this unexpected break, this benediction, involved.  Yes, I felt that I was in a state of grace - and that it would all end in tears.

 

March 1995.  Phone calls to and from Sara.  She is writing a paper for Monash on Heavenly Creatures.  I tell her that she'd better mention the big guns, better quote from Emily Bronte's 1845 diary letter, about her and Anne's trip to York Minster: "... on the trip we were ..." and then a list of names.  I love that strange "we were", because I remember the way we were. Yes, Sara had better quote the big guns before she talks about our game.  She is arguing with Medlicot, who seemed to want to read the murder back into Pauline and Juliet's imaginary game, as if the game was the early pathology of a deadly disease.  He talked about the mental disintegration shown by Pauline's diary when she jumped from real-life to her imaginary world with no bridging, throat-clearing grammar.  But my journal does that all the time, I tell Sara.

 

Fergus read an earlier entry quoting his remarks about the game.  It is a potential mistake, he says, in this book I plan to write, to transport into it my feeling that no one can understand my game. But I plan to be calm.  To seduce.  To make readers accept the characters first, if necessary to write only about the characters, not the game.  I have to set out to write with patience and stamina and imagination and freshness.  Not to think I have to explain histories. After all,  if these people are in exile and have, effectively, changed their names, then the way back, the blind, walled-up alley of each life, will give a sense of a lost and forbidden history, without my having to write a history book.  I should write an essay to go with it.  I know I can do this, and take my time.  I'm not going to wait to be safe enough, respected enough, unassailable enough to tell the story that only I can tell.  To do that - to wait for some "right time", some "position of strength" - would be to fail.

 

April 1995. It is my tradition to end each volume of this journal with a word from the backroom boys. Here is Abra:

I was correcting the proofs of my translations of Jules's poems. Ambre was asleep and already snoring lightly. Carme called out to me softly from her room. "Dad?"

            She was sitting up in bed, with the light on, her journal open in front of her.  "Do you think I'll ever get married?" she asked.

            I sat down on the end of her bed.  "Do you mean an exchange of rings, like Juanita and Enrico?  Or do you mean living with someone, having a family?"

            "Whatever."

            "Can you imagine being married?"

            "I can't imagine knowing where to start with anyone.  What to say once I'd stopped talking about them.  What to say about me."

            I looked at her - thought about her admirable honesty, and my flair for exile and new loyalties.  I squeezed her feet under the covers.  I said, "If you ever have to, give us all up.  Give yourself up."

 

Black Oxen

 

Over the years I found myself tied up in the duty of writing and wanted to escape duty by writing about my imaginary game.  About the sense it had given me of a shape to the world - of the world's legion of hidden significances.  I conceived the idea of writing a book about how it felt to have an imaginary game.  A book about the contingencies of the history of an imaginary game - how people would leave it, and how it had perforce to change.  Factions would appear, unnatural alliances that had little to do with the characters, and everything to do with whose characters they were, who had created them.  For instance, when Carol quit in 1978, and dispersed her people into places on that world we never went, some of their very best friends had to find reasons to fail to visit them. Year after year, to fail to visit, until they become estranged.

I wanted to write about being young, a teenager, and having needed to create a place as a paradise, an Eden-like refuge, full of irresponsible adults, tragedy, and drama - but not horror, not the real, inexplicable, secret, shameful horror Sara experienced and I couldn't save her from.  I wanted to write about Lequama, and how I have come to believe that it arose, in part, from our disillusionment, our sense of being disenfranchised first by the 1981 Springbok Tour, then by a government that we voted in and that changed everything so that our own country became alien to us.

But as soon as I tried to talk about all that, all the colour, us jumping in and out of windows with plastic guns, the neighbours banging on our ceiling - I realised there was too much, and it was too hard.  So I decided to see what happened to them all. Our people.

Lequama came to an end in 1994 when Madeline went to Brisbane to do a theatre course.  I tried playing a version of Sara's and my old night game with Phillip, and fell in love with the whole business again.  I can remember driving back from Lyall Bay thinking and thinking about our theological story, about a God who made copies of everyone, including himself.  (And two months later I had pneumonia, and a dream in which I met an angel, and a whole novel intervened between my planned projects.) When I finally began to write Black Oxen I realised that the history of my main character - Abra - was a history of how the game felt.  What it was like to be a person who had a past, and powers, without any acceptable provenance.  (For years I'd found myself saying, explaining my imagination and obsessions in a half-pie, feeble, defensive way, that - anyway - my stories really all came from my imaginary game.)

            In Black Oxen Abra and company have secrets they can't tell. But it's more than that - that's a very ordinary theme for a novel. Abra and company have histories and experiences like another drive - with no port in the world's hardware which they can plug into, no way to play themselves.  There's a sense of a big shape behind the vast life of Black Oxen, of not so much design - though it is designed - but a force, like a vortex, winding what have the appearance of different strands, into one rope.  The vortex is not a whirlpool, but a tornado, and the strands are wound into a Jacob's Ladder that goes out through a dark storm into a still upper atmosphere in which there lives God-knows-what.  The sense of this big shape exists not just because the author has designed her novel, but because the author is a historian at work on a history, a history in which it appears either destiny or a vast conspiracy is at work.  (What you see - conspiracy or destiny - depends on whether evidence of design in history strikes you as sinister or reassuring.)  Of course the author is an historian of events of which she was a co-author.  You have to imagine the author of Black Oxen consulting documents (psychologist Lydia Yahanova's questionnaires, or Democracy Wall). And you have to imagine that - in love with the history - the author also wanted to alter it to invent a hopeful future from her history's poor forecast.  She wanted to go on playing by the rules of her game - and to take her people somewhere good.  The author had already written autobiographical fiction in the usual sense, and knew that the sequence of events could be profitably altered, names changed, two persons collapsed into one, and so on - what she called, in her Afterword to The High Jump, "the physics and chemistry of fiction".

Black Oxen is the story of two refugees.  One has a past that is often too hard to explain to the people in her present, people who lack her language, map references, the right history books.  She learns to love where she is.  She makes her adaptation by rationing the present, only admitting so much, keeping to a strict diet - only allowing herself so much love and involvement.  The other refugee, her father, a foundling, not only has stories it is too maddening to tell, but his own unknown provenance.  He comes to believe that it's the fact he doesn't fit in anywhere that causes all the trouble.  He thinks he's no good for anyone.  He loves life and people - so has to forget what he thinks and knows about himself in order to go on living with people.  So, this "history" has one protagonist who repeatedly sacrifices his own history to live.

"If you ever have to, give us all up.  Give yourself up."

 

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Copyright © Elizabeth Knox 2001