Sport 13 Spring 1994
Tina Shaw — The Pest Maiden & The Whale
Smith’s Bush is perfect for suicides. It is high gothic and morbid, it looks like an earth on the verge of extinction, and hardly anyone uses it. Well, except for the God-bothering dog-walkers on the weekends, the teenagers after dark, and the dirty old man from Triptych Road, and he’s harmless enough. But on a working day it’s as quiet as sin. It is a city reserve, a tiny concession to nature.
I knew she was going to suicide (as the Americans say) because she’d been talking about it for the last two months. At least, I think it was Iseult who talked about death. I’m going to take a knife, she said, and plunge it in. I’m going to get a gun, she said, and go bang. Crazy talk, and I should know. Surrounded by crazies, Iseult the Saintly is herself finally going off the edge. But I will be there to catch her, she will survive because I have been following her. And I could not bear to part with such a good host. What would I be without Iseult? She is my bridge to life.
Poor Iseult. Things are bad for her. There was the trouble at the Centre, and trouble at home; everything was boiling over. She is a trainee social worker, young, doing her time before she becomes qualified. And I am— without the veil of my medication…
I am the Pest Maiden.
The Pest Maiden, according to Russian folklore, climbed onto the back of a peasant and made him take her through the villages where she brought pestilence and people died in droves. Finally he spied his own village up ahead, and drowned himself in a handy river. The Pest Maiden went back to the woods to wait for another peasant to carry her. We don’t have the plague any more, no, but the Pest Maiden is at work everywhere.
I followed her from the road. The day is cavernous—glittering blue, green and white—so that it is a relief to get inside the bush, inside where it is always a grey, twilight world. In a day of delusions, the smell of oranges assails me. Like mirages, my mind invents images as easily as heat haze. Bells ringing. She wears the red mantle of her anorak: trust Iseult to choose a bright colour for the big day. She walks with a mournful yet determined air, skirting the page 21 bush a little way, past the official entrance, the bark track, and sidesteps in between the trees. I follow close behind, moving from tree trunk to tree trunk. Not having washed for several days, I feel camouflaged among these mossy trees. A camoufleur.
But see her up ahead, Iseult the Huge, a beacon in the gloom of Smith’s Bush.
Smith’s Bush is practically medieval, mostly beech. Its canopy refuses access to the sun, so that the interior is dim, hushed. Tree trunks are green with moss and speckled with fluorescent orange fungi. Epiphytes nestle in high crotches. Some logs lie fallen across the bush floor—doesn’t the council ever tidy up in here? There is human debris as well: chip bags, beer cans, God knows what else, I try not to look too closely. Once inside, all you hear is the motorway traffic. There are no birds. Probably not enough sandwich crusts for them.
I follow Iseult through the beech trees, all of them easily as high as the new office building in the mall, and think about intention and events-leading-up-to. Why is Iseult about to bump herself off? ‘Why?’ It is a word I sometimes shout into the abyss. It has taken me long enough to realise that ‘why’ is irrelevant. It is the one point upon which Iseult’s mother and I agree, that there’s no point in dwelling on ‘why’.
Iseult pauses by a log. In the distance, I too pause. Looking back, I can see the edge of Smith’s Bush, the skinny trees recklessly illuminated with golden light. The bush is silent, except for the sound of speeding traffic.
There was the trouble at the Centre. That microcosm of modern society, a type of halfway house, a haven, where basket cases like myself don’t have to face the real world and can get on with the serious business of being disturbed. But something was striking at the heart of our little community. The morning, for example, when we opened up and found human excrement in a compact pile on the floor of the group therapy room. Old Watson had frowned, but said nothing. John wasn’t around so it had been Iseult who had had to clean it up.
And then there was the tagging. The weatherboards were scarred one night with a blowtorch, of all things. Zigzag patterns that radiated darkly in the mid-morning sun. The police took the names of everyone who used the Centre…as if it could have been one of us.
A week later, several windows were broken. Glass lay everywhere like ice. The evidence, a rusty half-brick, was left brazenly on the grass. Old Watson page 22 was at her wit’s end. It was like having a resident poltergeist, madness everywhere. The Pest Maiden, however, only chuckled.
I went around to Iseult’s, to discuss the matter.
‘We’re friends, aren’t we—’ I said to Iseult.
‘Of course,’ she said, turning away.
Our routine was to sit in her room with the whale posters and drink cups of milky tea. The last time, she had told me that she dreamt of whales ranging around the world’s oceans. She made no move now to invite me in. Old Watson must have warned her off. Iseult the Green was readying to go to a meeting about the creation of a whale sanctuary in the southern ocean with a whole lot of people who probably also wore anoraks.
‘There is a destructive force at work here,’ I said, ‘that is bigger than both of us.’
‘I don’t want to talk about the Centre,’ said Iseult, putting on her red anorak.
Iseult’s mother was digging in a corner of the section. She’d been working on this vegetable site for the past week and was nearing completion of the coffin-shaped plot. The old walnut tree extended ashen grey branches over her head. As I watched, she paused, her spade in midair. I waited for a scream, something remarkable at least. But she merely dropped the spade onto the grass in disgust, and walked quickly past me and into the house.
I went over and had a look. A black paw protruded from the volcanic soil. A dead dog. My, my. Not really such a good place for vegetables after all.
She blamed Iseult, of course. Her voice—disregarding my presence (sitting out on the bench)—banged around inside the house, although only snatches came to me, stray words. ‘Looney’ asserted itself. And ‘how could you’ echoed out to me. Yes, she was blaming Iseult. Iseult the Stoic. The house was electric with an inner storm. And then there was a deafening silence—no accompaniment of slamming doors, nothing—she would have plonked herself down onto the couch, smoking, in her usual spot beneath the velvet picture of the Last Supper.
Iseult came out after a while and stood near the bench.
‘You’ll have to go now,’ she said. ‘You bring only trouble.’ Though she said this with much gentleness and resignation. It was the Pest Maiden, but I couldn’t tell her that.
‘It’s so sixties,’ I said, ‘all this whale protesting. Let the Japanese eat whalemeat.’ But I got up nevertheless. I was coherent enough to know when I was being evicted.page 23
She gave me no choice. I stopped taking my medication and the Pest Maiden took over with a vengence. I was arrested in the BNZ building where I’d been running through the lunchtime shoppers, chanting ‘aut vincere aut mori’. I remember bemused faces. They must have thought I was a performance artist. But alas, I was real. Not real enough, however, to retrieve Iseult the Betrayed.
Soon after, Iseult got the boot from the Centre anyway. Old Watson gave her some pink soap as a parting gift, implying that she thought Iseult was uninvolved with the recent vandalism, but feelings were running deep. There were mutterings at many levels.
Iseult stops. I stop. She looks up at the canopy high above her, as if seeking some divine intervention, when both of us know that you never receive divine help, no matter how bad it looks. ‘You’re on your own, kid’—Old Watson’s voice rings in my ears, that large and unwieldy bitch, and Iseult too appears to hear this voice because she gives up looking to the heavens for help and moves on. She seems to stagger a little…or is she dancing?
Old Watson would’ve told Iseult not to get involved with the clientele. I can imagine her little pep talks in her cramped fuggy office at the back of the Centre, sitting in there like a spider. ‘If you fraternise with them on any sort of social level you will get into trouble. Try not to get personally involved in your cases.’ Old Watson is the sort of woman who paints the ladders in her pantihose with clear nail polish to make them last longer. Iseult the Huge didn’t used to follow such dictates. I thought I had become indispensible to Iseult, and she to me.
And so, banned from the house and avoiding the Centre, I began following Iseult. I dogged her steps, clinging to her life like an invalid. Watching, out the back among the dusty lilac bushes. It was quiet out there, hushed, just me and the cicadas and a slight smell from the dog in the abandoned vege patch. Iseult’s mother occasionally tottered down the cracked concrete path to the rotary washing line, but the rest of the time the garden was deserted. I took my sleeping bag. Hidden behind the bushes, banned from Iseult’s presence, on the run from those who wanted to lock me up, I idly buried pills in the dusty soil and waited for them to grow.
Her room had a big sash window opening onto the back. The opaque, patterned glass of the bathroom was next to her room but I didn’t bother page 24 about that. The bath wasn’t private enough for Iseult. Her desk was next to the window. I took every opportunity to read the diary that she left on top of it, though it was mostly cryptic. The dam is green speckled and furthermore there is pale yellow like almond stomachs. KL always. Drowning. And so on. I could make no sense of it. But ‘bare’ was often repeated. How can I bare this? It bothered me, the obvious pun. There was a lot about the Centre too. Centre swimming in oil. Red jeopardy. B with body of stone. Watson bare. I had no idea she fretted about us so much. It was touching. What I did make of it was that Iseult the Brave was a tormented, even desperate, soul.
There was a day of shouting when I nearly intervened. And then screaming, and a swift shattering of glass. I crouched into the bushes. Sudden silence. Her mother, I knew, would again be in her position smoking on the couch, like a wayward Buddha.
The watching was how I discovered her secret bolthole. There was a tall, grimy window on the ground floor of an untenanted commercial building in the town, and an inner courtyard, empty except for dead leaves and rubbish. She had set it up as a kind of studio. I could see she had an easel, and a table with paints and brushes on it. There was a mattress in one corner, with a sleeping bag: ready for the day Iseult the Huge decided to leave home. A microwave, also, in the other bleak corner, on a bench. And a sink. In the centre of the room, near the easel, was a full-length mirror in a white frame.
Now that she had got the shove from the Centre Iseult was spending more and more time in her studio. It was her escape. No one knew about the studio, except me. And I am an unreliable confidante—I am, in fact, the queen of destruction—yet still I kept Iseult’s secret. For a while.
She never painted. Though sometimes she would hold a pastel in her
hand, and reach out blindly towards the easel where a piece of paper was
clipped. All she did was stand nude in front of the mirror, studying herself,
occasionally turning, the light catching the various white planes of her body.
Her buttocks were like huge loaves of bread. She reminded me of some-
thing, though I couldn’t think what. I could see why this studio was such
a big secret. Her family thought artists were Satanists. Though they didn’t mind her social work, because that was like a form of failure. In giving herself away constantly (to the likes of me) they saw that she made less of herself. And less of Iseult, as her mother often said, could only be better.
One afternoon, while I was watching—Iseult the Huge, per usual, page 25 poised in front of her mirror and the light making a mockery of her body— there was a knock at the door.
I waited breathlessly. Her family had found out about the studio. There
would be a scene, they would drag her home screaming. Iseult draped herself
casually in her large green sheet, and left my narrow field of vision. She
looked unperturbed. When she came back she had Duggie with her.
Duggie, the caretaker from the main hospital, the one who worked on the
edges of the property, weeding, burning, pruning, mowing, in his tattered
jeans and his dark-edged hands. Duggie … of all people. It was unbeliev-
able. How could she? What would Old Watson think? Iseult had really gone
too far now.
As I watched, Iseult took up one of her virginal pastels, modestly, and held out her pale wrist. Duggie took hold of this wrist, as if it were an instrument, a delicate pair of pruning shears, and aimed it towards the sheet of paper on the easel. They must have planned this manouvre, discussed it, or even done it before. He looked at her enquiringly, as if to say, ‘What are we drawing here?’, and then moved her hand onto the paper. I watched as they created a blue arc on the white.
Suddenly birds flew across the glass of the window, and startled me.
Her family found out. It was only a matter of time. They got an anonymous tip-off, I suppose. I was watching the next day when the door burst open and there they were, her large and unwieldy mother staring in shock, cigarette between her fingers, and her father crossing himself and falling on his knees.
I waited, expectant, for the screams, the recriminations.
But while the father muttered on and on, some incoherent prayer to a hidden God, Iseult calmly retrieved her sheet, wrapped herself up in it, and showed them to the door. This was so obviously her ‘home’ now, and I hadn’t even realised. She lit a cigarette, in an imitation of her mother, and went over to put the kettle on.
I ran away then, culpable, vulnerable. I refused to see any more.
That night, coincidentally, the Centre was torched. I saw it from the branches of the oak tree in which I happened to be sitting. It was a spectacular and enticing sight. Flames licked out of the windows, lovingly, and covered the walls with swathes of orange. It was a fitting tribute to the Pest Maiden.
And so I follow Iseult the Laborious into Smith’s Bush. It has finally come to pass. The perpetrator of the vandalism at the Centre is close to being unmasked, and Iseult the Guilty is going to suicide (as the Americans say). But I am here to save her, for if Iseult drowns, then I will have lost my ride. And what use am I by myself?
She is in the clearing. As red as a blinking traffic light among the dim trees. There are felled sections of a huge tree lying about the clearing, like body parts. She takes something out of her anorak pocket. I cannot see, she has her back to me, but it must be the knife, or gun … ah yes, a bottle. Alcohol? I had never suspected. Iseult the Teetotaller. But the knife, the knife must follow … She turns, about to do it? I am completely rigid with suspense. It is now that I must move, must step forward to stop this, to save mine host, but … what’s she doing? There is a sudden thoking sound, tinny, echoing around the bush.
I rush forward.
And discover that Iseult isn’t hurting herself at all. That Iseult is chipping at one of the huge pieces of tree trunk. An image is in the process of being pulled out of the wood, something hued from nothing, like a talisman. It is the unfinished body … of a whale.
Iseult looks up from her work. The chisel is poised above the rounded snout, and her face, I think, is coloured with regret.
‘But Iseult—’ I cannot hide my utter confusion, dismay even. Everything has gone awry. There is no convenient back for me to cling to after all. Iseult is not committing suicide, yet still I am being jettisoned. ‘You’re all right, then.’
‘Yes, thank you,’ Iseult says, ‘I’m fine.’
And she speaks to me softly, calmly, as if nothing is happening, yet she is watchful. Like a person who is used to dealing with the disturbed, the mentally free-ranging. ‘So you’re here,’ she was saying, ‘hello there, are you having a walk?’ She talks on and on, quietly, soothingly—Old Watson has trained her well—as if our meeting is the most natural thing in the world.
I turn away then, embarrassed, caught out. The Pest Maiden is, after all, thwarted. I have reached a dead-end. ‘The dog,’ I mutter, looking about for it, ‘just walking the dog.’ And I make for the cover of the bush.