Title: Dedication

Author: Michael Gifkins

In: Sport 2: Autumn 1989

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, April 1989, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Sport 2: Autumn 1989

Michael Gifkins — Dedication

page 25

Michael Gifkins


You wake each morning bride to the day. A gossamer invitation, your nightgown sheens your body's hidden line. You pause before the mirror. You smile. You toss back glistening curls. Outside, light fingers damp tufts of mimosa, creeps in across the sill. Light in great lakes exerts its calm upon the sea. Along the Croisette, a general walks his dog. The general is stiff with great campaigns.

You dress your body. You are still smiling. At each fresh wave of memory the dog quivers, strains forward upon the leash at signposts from dogs before him. They stretch as far as the eye can see.

You are entering the Carlton, ice-cream cake of a grand hotel. It is night. All afternoon the people have waited for this moment. You imagine it is you they want to see. You are wearing your little black dress. Gendarmes with submachine guns line the steps. There are ropes to hold back the crowds. You clutch your ticket tighter still.

Offshore, the great white sharks gnaw lazily at their moorings. The moon beats a path to your empty room. Terrorists in velvet staterooms recite the Koran, fiddling with unsourced weaponry, declining offers of drinks. In a bath that seethes with Chanel a toe stabs at a gilded tap.

Up the stairs you go, unfazed by the crowds. Your escort is not handsome; you are a small group, from a country far away. You laugh, catching the attention of the paparazzi. You press yourself against him.

It is like being in a revolution. Outside the crowd is calling for the star of the festival, who is also your countryman and the reason you are here. They distort his name so that you believe they are chanting for an American car. When he returns he seems younger than a schoolboy. Women twice his age are trying to catch his eye. Fame makes his girlfriend distant from him by more than the twenty thousand kilometres he has journeyed. He prods gloomily at his escargots.

page 26

You are seated on the right hand of the festival director. You reply in a tongue that is not your own. Waiters bowl round like hooped snakes, pausing occasionally to hiss obscenities in your ear. The director toys with bread like a child, teasing it out into shreds. You would like to help him, tell him that art is long and life has a habit of being short. But he is replaying his much-publicised argument with the internationally acclaimed actor. . . words were shouted in four languages in the lobby of the hotel. The actor publicly denounced the festival, left his honour behind him like a bad smell. It is said openly now, what they only dared whisper before.

The actor's face is the mask of death.

I am here on business, in the perennial search for funds. You hear of this eventually, though it is not the reason that we meet. This is at one of the many cocktail parties, where the champagne goes on and on. You glow from inside, like the Church of St-Michel; your eyes transmit a wonder which up close becomes a laugh. Oh where do you go to my lovely.. . ? the old tune asks.

'I'm from New Zealand,' you announce when we are finally introduced. The way you say it is both challenge and apology, why I can't be sure. Only later do I tell you that I know your country well from books.

We dance all night with your friends and then promenade to greet the dawn. I escort you back to your small hotel. In a side-street tabac we have coffee; there are glistening bikes parked outside. The black T-shirts and red scarves of their riders are your adrenalin to start the day.

'I can say,' you remember, 'that I was kissed by a handsome man at dawn.'

We are walking under palm trees and night scents hang heavy in the air. I take a spray of jasmine and twine it through your hair. You are damp on your skin from dancing, and cold now to the touch. I kiss you as I might kiss a sister, not someone recently met.

Today I meet my backers, in a walled garden in Cap Martin — it is as familiar to me as loving, this slow seduction of money from its vaults. On impulse I suggest your presence. I hold my hands upturned, in supplication, above their wondrous marble table with its exotic food and drink. (This is a gesture I have learned from someone else.) They are a cagey pair, the banker and his mistress, indulging some private fantasy that I must endorse without further question.

page 27

'But she is so spectacular!' Mme de Ferrier refers to you as though you were not there. 'And to think, all this way from New Zealand! La Mansfield would necessarily have been quite, quite jealous.' One day she will phoneme transatlantic to discuss the character of Virginia Woolf.

I acquiesce with suitable deference to their quite unreasonable demands. They discuss their favourite stories, speaking as the characters would themselves. It is early evening when they ask the manservant to bring a pen.

You feel tired now; you are starting to wilt. You are pleased with the way things are.

The agreement is signed over cognac, so old that Fritz could well be serving ghosts. We are gathered like a family in the lengthening shadow of the land-based wall. 'They would never be alone together again,' Mme de Ferrier proposes the toast that binds us all.

I suggest we go to the Casino but our host declines; the prospect of money in his hands has lost its power to amuse him. He warns us — without irony, I think — of the extent to which commerce can be inimical to art. You ask that I take you to the villa where Katherine Mansfield tried to arrest her slow decline. You feel in your bones that I need all the assistance you can give.

It is a small building, quite unspectacular compared with some of the finer residences in Garavan. Upstairs there is darkness, but a dim light burns in the ground floor room which is now a memorial to the writer. It is a poet from New Zealand, on the fellowship which bears the writer's name. You are embarrassed. Quite irrationally (because you know her), you suddenly change your mind. You wait nervously as I try to frame the villa for the film. There is no way I can make of it any more than it is.

You turn to me and hold me fiercely, pressing me to your chest. Your feeling is that you are awkward, heroic. We stand like this for a long moment and you ask me how it will end. You have no idea of my patience. You quiver with light and clangour. Your world is suddenly awry. It is the express from Ventimiglia, bursting through the cushion of the night.

You are motoring through the region of the Loire to your assignation in the south. The small Citroen you pick up the day before from the tourist scheme in the Champs de Mars. You are protected by Autostop: a newer car should this new car break down; accommodation, page 28transport, insurance. They try to sell you extras which they present with Gallic flair — wheel kits, foglights, everything that les madams would want to cause their journey to be more confortable. You do not say anything. You are driven, both of you giggling, to the bowels of a huge parking building in a district you do not understand. For your benefit and your education the chauffeur takes unnecessary risks. There is your little car. A mechanic tells you what to do in all of fifteen seconds. You emerge into rush-hour traffic. You stop, you start. You try to remember your left side from your right. You are behind a big camion. It seems that all Paris is burning. Your car is filled with smoke. It is an early summer. You phone Autostop.

'It is regrettable.'

They have neglected to put the oil in the car.

The second car is dark red, the colour of your blood. Parked outside this smallest chateau, it reminds you now of London. It is the off-season. You make an appointment with the concierge by phone. He gets up. He dresses. He breakfasts. He takes his time. You press every bell at every entrance to the castle.

Eventually it emerges from a high gothic window, this severely correct French student head. He recalls for you a Truffaut movie, along with everything else in France. Dix minutes. Deer as a courtly sideline graze the boundary fence. You inspect the crypt while you wait. You suddenly feel cold. Maxine is asking you about Aids. She thinks you are far more likely to get it from blood, in spite of precautions. She carries twelve dozen of her own precautions and you comment on her dedicated optimism. She is your best friend, having recently lost her father. In your purse are the three Durex you keep as a talisman; it would be foolish, coming this far, to undergo a merely topical demise.

Inside the chateau is history, fast forward with no concessions. In whispers you translate. You are a party of tourists. There are two of you. There can be no deviation from history as it is laid down. It takes forty minutes, twenty lifetimes. You tip the student twenty francs.

At the crossroads back from the chateau there is a typical country café . The owners seem retarded and you notice tinned peas upon a shelf. You ask for espresso, anything. There are small vacuum flasks on the counter. To your consternation these contain the coffee. They pour you lukewarm cups of tar.

page 29

Maxine does the driving; she says she feels it is her duty and you do not have the energy to object. On the autoroute you colonise the slow lane as fuel-injected Europe slips past at 200 kilometres an hour. 'Better to travel safely than to arrive dead on time.' Your best friend winces as you laugh.

Your son has difficulty walking. It is a mild condition which may in later life provide the basis for reflection upon the norm. Your daughter, on the other hand, is quite healthy. Recently she has acquired the habit of rubbing her body slowly against your startled male friends. You could, if you wish, read whole novels in their eyes. You do not want to warn her.

A friend of your ex-lover's phones to tell you that he (your lover) collects only exceptional women. (She imagines this will please you.) Currently there is an involvement with an archaeologist, which explains why he did not meet your plane. The archaeologist is a young Frenchwoman of great vivacity and piercing intelligence who is making her contribution to a post-modern understanding of Pharaonic ritual. You picture them both quite easily beneath a nightmare weight of stone. You are pleased for your ex-lover, that he is sharing the passion which leads her to the burial chamber. His own special project is an exploration of the infrastructure of the aesthetic impulse of what remains of the Western world. You consider this as you spend the whole day in a London hospital. You are fascinated by the soft bubbling of your own and another's blood.

The coffee is so bitter that you need to cleanse yourself with wine.

We are walking the seacoast from Monaco in the direction of Cap Martin. A drugged-out Princess Stephanie enters an exclusive private hospital. Her press release claims stress caused through overworking. A famous actress leaves the road at 140 kilometres an hour. Each day twenty kilograms of letters bear her the country's undying affection. Distinguished surgeons contemplate the reconstruction of the muscles of her face. On front pages her Porsche lies crumpled. The advertisement beside it is for Veuve Clicquot champagne.

You imagine that our picnic will make you homesick. When I ask you why, you cannot say.

We are jammed amongst the rocks which tumble on the seafront of the great estates. Through the tropical profusion of walled gardens their towers are glimpsed against the sky. A fisherman (you call him page 30 piscatory ) is busy down beneath us. The weather is unseasonal, but he is dressed in suit and tie. You say that it is the ghost of Italo Calvino.

The ants are feasting on crumbs of pain complet . You demand that I pass my glass. It was the horror of her own insignificance, you claim, that caused Katherine Mansfield's death. You wave your hand about you, encompassing the scene. The fisherman, I mention, might be delighted to see you bathe.

Your son was born with a massive tumour; it was pressing on his brain. Though the terminology surprised you, the experts pronounced it to be benign. You watched as he emerged from that first operation, a tiny parcel swaddled like a corpse. Every year as he grew bigger, they replaced the device inside his head.

I disagree with you about Mansfield; we discuss the psychopathology of health. Your son slept in a cot beside you, so you could feed him in the night. Pursing tiny lips, he would take your warm and heavy breast. You talked to him as he suckled, asking him if he was ready yet to swap. You smile fondly at this memory; his first words were 'other side!'

Each evening I review my plans; the shape of the film to come. There will be love interest, though my treatment of Murry is bound to attract comment. Perhaps the purists would prefer him cast in a traditionally demeaning role? There will be the self-confidence of a major talent abroad, sustained by backward glances at a sun-filled antipodean childhood; there will be the recognition of the pain of loss, the intimations of mortality. But above all, there will be the gathering dark.

You move your face above me, as if to shield me from the glare. I blink to adjust my vision to the sudden change of light. The cascade of curls frames the perfect oval of your face. The sheen of your teeth is like a string of pearls.

When we awake, both sun and fisherman are gone. You feel that perhaps your mood should change. In a small café you drink glass after glass of pernod, watch the water cloud the clear spirit. You intimidate the waiter with an hauteur I had not imagined before, calling for olives, for a clean glass. You organise where we should dine. You even comment on the style of my shirt.

Your head is telling you one thing; it is a refrain of which you are endlessly aware. Your heart tells you something quite different and you feel yourself betrayed.

page 31


In 1888 Katherine Mansfield is born in Wellington, New Zealand. At the age of fifteen she attends Queen's College, London. No doubt her father wishes her 'finished' in the manner of the time. In 1948 your mother comes to New Zealand, a woman of courage and sophistication, a devotee of Europe. Your father she meets in London, a New Zealand soldier convalescing from the war. They settle in the King Country, at a place so small its name is omitted from the road maps. Your mother likes the sound of 'the King Country', but soon finds that it is filled with dog bones and old wire.

She sends to Harrods for clothes to dress you, and your sisters when they come. You remember especially a white, large-wheeled pram. In high heels and stockings, she walks the pram across the farm. There are photographs to prove this. Look at you! Three little girls dressed all in white! There is lace, there are bows. There are little white socks. What will the kids think of you at school?

Your father is tall, a handsome man and rangy. All day the rams are tupping the ewes, despite the bidibids in their wool. On sale you're your father roams the district, visiting other farmers' wives. The men wear oilskins and roll their own tobacco, are hoarse-voiced over bargains. In their absence your father is offered many cups of tea.

You marry a man who is taller and more handsome than your father. You don't know what else to do. During the birth of your son, your husband shouts at you for suffering. It is typical, he says, that you should make such a fuss about a little pain. When he marries a second time he calls his new son by the same name as your first. He cannot identify with imperfection; with this small, imperfect child. The lump when you discover it is just a marble in your breast. You tell your husband, but he will not discuss it. You find out later that he is having an affair. The doctor states it will have to go, that they will have to remove your breast.

The poet says she knows you when I interview her for the film. You sell the furniture and fly to California for a cure. This is ten years ago. Even then you like to travel. You discover that there are not enough apricot kernels in the whole wide world. The poet shows me passages in Katherine Mansfield's diaries, speaks of the 'great honesty' of her soul. Her poems are small domestic tragedies and she can write one every hour.


page 32

Today I prepare myself for the arrival of my new director, who is an upright man, and proud. I ask you to be his assistant because I can see you need the job. All morning I work on the scene of Katherine at Isola Bella; the writer is composing letters home; mimosa is heavy outside the casement and her room is full of light.

Over coffee we discuss your illness. There is a tumour in your chest that you insist on retaining to monitor the status of your disease. Throughout the history of your condition you witness tumours come and go. You are an international courier. The blood they give you in London is the blood that circulates in France.

Mme de Ferrier telephones and asks the three of us to lunch. You decide you do not like the banker, but accept charity for art.

You pause before the mirror but the mirror lets you pass. You are wearing your small black dress. You smile. You toss back glistening curls. The Mediterranean proceeds to Africa. Mimosa is close outside the window and light reflects its calm back to the world.