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Sport 3: Spring 1989

Elizabeth Wilson — Morning with a long o

page 125

Elizabeth Wilson

Morning with a long o

Repeatedly she had heard it said that all first books were in essence autobiographical. It seemed a foolish statement given the reductive premise and/or the babble of voices but it did, to begin with...something latent, pictures into focus and so on. This was the paper, the coin lay inert as ever. Here was the pencil, herein the process of slow and steady shading, the pattern rising to view, never the thing itself but a likeness of sorts, to all intents and purposes. Here was first stroke, the premise — as if scheming were so easily achieved. She snorted. The sound shocked, hovering as it did outside the page, made her reach for a handkerchief. The boarding house was big, but sound carried.

The first impression, heard insistent and without forewarning as moved down the hall to the kitchen, was a noise, a spoon against china, extended on the edge of interminable, tinkling, stirring in a cup, far longer than necessary. She felt her own resolve breaking down under the insistence of the sound, moving towards the doorway, cup in hand — surely the thing is mixed by now, any decent amalgam, coffee, sugar, whatever, by now. This, then, was the first sign of obsession and, in turn, the first demonstration that day of those other criteria set beside the usual, something permissible, something not. Who was it working already outside the constraints by which their daily movements could float by them all, unremarked, not a problem. Who moved mind twice to body, mixing it? The sound stopped. She went through. All was as it should have been. It was all grist. She smiled her pleasant fool's smile. That would do, for the moment.

And so it became easy for her to write, 'Martha scurried the long way round from the kitchen to bedroom, taking the thin, dim back corridor as preferable to the main hall.' Why expose needlessly to light. Growing was part germination in the warm dark, she knew that, or, why leave the shelter of the long grass. Once Martha reached room she noted in the book that she had seen the woman again, page 126wide-stepping again, full of certainties and maybe not a bad thing but it so terrified her, the possibility of turning it all outward. She herself found it difficult to stand very straight. If any thread were in truth to be located at the top of her head, its potential for pulling her and her spine and her carriage all in line was so remote as to be just this side of dreaming. Not quite her terrain.

Hers, were it to exist, would drape itself about the quite comfortably bent shoulders; a familiar, a fox, something soft that brushed her cheek whenever she walked. It comforted, the wisp of nothing set against the other leanings in her life. Even her pen sloped at precarious angles, set up perilous relationships with the page when she came to write the words. They all sounded familiar. It unnerved her, and so Martha felt the woman's guise of assuredness acutely, in fact felt everything acutely, the acuteness surfacing again and again in the images, the edges of which nevertheless could sometimes surprise with their acuity. Martha rued the edges. Each day she moved further if she could into curves, softening it all somehow, backing into the coracle leaned on the wall.

She knew there were others who might have visited her room or sat in the conversation seat shoulders touching but in different directions, the looping never undone. Instead she spent time watching next door the two men face each other through the wall between them, day after day, a ritual of sorts, their facing and her watching, though that shift she made only occasionally when the urge towards the lateral was strong. That the men were, by virtue of the two feet of brick, unaware of their proximity seemed not to matter, only gave the scene a poignancy that had no place in the writing yet. Martha wondered if, when they visited each other, moving down the adjoining hallway, some complex internalised astrolabe made rapidly subtle and wondrous adjustments to their orientation before they could converse. The wall she felt surely had to be re-negotiated on each occasion they met. She straightened her spine just sufficiently to peer over the ledge checking if they were hard at it, this blind daily confrontation. The light was against her and she re-aligned herself. It made her think that writing a book was a truly voracious thing, searching out snippets to be chewed up and plastered on the rest of the pile, paper-thin but slowly accreting; saliva making it somehow stick, all changed and compacted, anything you fancied, encapsulated.

And having developed a real taste for that style of writing beloved of the nineteenth century which had then trickled down into the page 127twentieth and so seemed legitimately at her disposal, along with the rest of the pack, she often thought in sentences which began with L gleeful gratuitousness, 'There was a boy, growing up, almost an orphan, in a school...' She found it satisfying, an easy point of departure, so that each day's writing saw that one image diminishing down the track — a perspective system, daily pre-empting itself in the manner that such a vanishing point insisted upon, a trick of the line, all the flourish gone out of it. It matched in kind other of her perceptions; viz — the feeling of certitude she experienced that everything was already provided, one had only to notice the provision; viz — the plastic bat swung crazily when the poster fell down. Others may have seen it as setting up a simulacrum — a momentary vortex hit between insect and rock, nothing that the fine tuning of sonar signalling mightn't avert in a split instant. She caught at the words railing in the forefront of her head and made a fine exit down the proposed corridor, 'The woman took her serenity with her when she left, trailing it down the hall like a tatty shawl, wisps of comfort scattered here and there, and available in full measure only at the point where the wake perpetually splayed out its own ragged edges.' It was a satisfying thing to have seen. The wall at these moments seemed to matter so much less, but the shirtsleeves continued to rankle long after she had closed the door.

So it was that she caught with confidence the next run of words. The key thing is trusting instincts when putting together a piece like this.' She eased it out onto the screen then inadvertently saved he piece untitled but kept typing unawares and the last line went in as title but too long so the thing leapt into existence ready-named. The key thing is trusting instincts when putting together a pie. Which truck as forcibly, seemed as true, thinking of the kitchen and all the fine pies she'd known, crusts un-soggy, fillings tasty or sweet and juicy with a touch of zest. Pastry always defined itself in terms of the awful possibilities of failure; negotiations a matter of a sure touch, a little bit of something picked up along the way, the 'how to go about this' factor, a sense of the way things could fit or be together if you mixed with care and attention and whatever else was to hand.

This is how the passage pre-empted her own efforts to write it. . Another constraint added to the many she laboured under. Fulfil the k-requirements, no long paragraphs, breaking for safety as soon as the limits of sustainability were reached. Or writing in segments long enough or short enough, succinct or pithy or witty enough to be page 128excerpted in a box in Time. The room on the page was already laid down. Formatted like their heads double-spaced with wide margins.

At the Junction the Hot Lava nightclub ran twice a week. A barn of a building, weatherboard, the usual, and the signs of smoke damage where they all came one night with the fire engines. At times she made the scoria pour back onto the mountain — reversing the road, the driveways, the cars going backwards at speed to get off the disintegrating surfaces — people leaping as the footpaths fell back on to slopes, craters, gullies and the sides of mountains. Skis were pre-empted. The mock chalets disappeared also.

Out the other window, gumtrees, Douglas fir, red tin, patched, no entry.

On the farm a row of firs where underneath nothing grew and the needles gathered layers on the dry dirt, the odd log. After long enough the bark gave at a pull and dislodged huhu grubs curled blind and soft but always surprisingly hard-headed in the hand.

And occasionally, sliding in behind the firs, a train, sound always, taking precedence, before and after she saw the whole thing moving through. She could reach out and part the trees for a better view, fingers wet with branches or the gums loosing water down. She set it up so that she was in line with a window. Fixing the details towards familiarity, whose relationship with memory seemed always awkward and unreliable. The familiar tied to a flow of recognition, working with the systems implicit in the language. She knew that from watching them all sit staring with a growing familiarity as the words were scrawled in intensity of discovery and talk across the board — though she was as much aware of the pockets of blank incomprehension to whom the marks remained obscure as a foreign language, unlearnable beyond their own ability to move elastic and loose through the scrawls.

Because of the lack of the train she was ready to indulge a daily pleasant surprise at the immovability of the other objects about her. Astounding that the train should move past and disclose the small house exactly as before. At night the lights in the windows called up moths she knew from reading something once or went here instead the full bath unemptied overnight. In the morning a corpse floating wings slick and limp. Or a daddy longlegs, joints straight, a small octopus caught at the end of a thread's swing. She wondered if she might not find the cat floating one morning — she presumed it would float, not be dragged down sodden. The thought was enough to make page 129her shut the door. The moths remained unsuspecting victims while she watched out the window for the house to be revealed again and again by the train's absence.

That night all three traffic lights at Hot Lava were simultaneously lit. Every second Saturday, and like a self=fulfilling prophecy this was one of them. Hers was of course vision from a distance. But how the tuning sounds suddenly resolved themselves into descending chords, making the lurch and movement automatically in her belly into the spurious peace —faces nestled for the spaces of a song into clavicles, the bread and cotton smell of shirts rising up all much the same. She was intermittently unable to remain unresponsive to the easy progressions. Some of the issues that presented themselves obviously required the contrivance of at least two other voices.

But the overhang protected her window from the rain, angling it so just a strip remained to make her roll her eyes up in a manner disconcerting no doubt to the ubiquitous onlooker. This doppelganger outdid in sheer persistence all the characters she could concoct, had angles of vision utterly superlative, leaning on the frig watching them, or lying under the couch, eyes boring up through the padding. Her back and buttocks tingled.

In the kitchen the patterns on the lino made she'll-be-right shapes at her, a thumb and index finger just touching and the small void in the middle. Odd that it should be such a sign of confidence, that flaunting of a zero. The tap water was cold, too cold to swig back like they did in the north. Outside the wind notched up a chill factor the day hadn't dreamed of. The bedside water glimmered, the light bulb doing a number, a prismatic doubling at its core, not a dead or dying bubble in sight, all these years later.

In the morning it took her a full 15 seconds to catch again the cocky gestures implanted on the kitchen floor. She felt the searching; seeing and something else moving back and forth over the swirls of colour, figure and ground all wrong, then the falling into place and there it was. Somehow it lacked the freshness of the first encounter. Fresh, familiar, commonplace, forgotten, the usual progression, since six months later she failed to see it at all. Or once the perception was in place maybe the pattern was made just that piece more complex, everything shifting itself infinitesimally, an ever-expanding field growing always looser at the junctions.

So that every time she wrote she came back to the matter of the cost of it all. The nub of what she wanted to say about the whole page 130thing. She tried it out, wrote it as, 'Last but not least you should know that of course they shared expenses.' Kept trying it, pushing at it, watched it recur and become significant. Of course living together had something to do with it. They lived together in the boarding house, shared expenses; rent, food, and the like. Each cooked for herself which was understood and they kept their stationery to themselves, wrote their own letters, collected the mail on alternate days, washed quietly and apart. Once she thought they might have brushed each other's hair but on this for years remained uncertain. Urge or actuality undifferentiated. They moved down hall or corridor depending on which part of the alphabet semed more accessible that day, lived together, shared expenses while other costs, it should be said, went unremarked. Each felt accountable in ways whose nuances though tangible in effect were elusive when it came to cause. In other words, they touched.

Except for the time when Martha was away and the hallways were empty of the deferred transactions of mutual passing. She left a message. It said: 'Gone to India.' The rightness of the note on the door had her laughing for minutes with a gleeful pleasure, sound wafting down the hall. The sound was no stranger nor less out of place than the smell of incense whose sweetness had permeated the house for weeks, since Martha's arrival that was. Gone fishing had nothing of the resonance of the small careful note skewered on its own metallic inevitability into the soft bit of the door. Months ago the handyman had come around adapting the doors for just this eventuality. But neither See you at one, nor Back Shortly, nor Martha, I'll be home by four, none of these had the resonance of Gone to India. The letter from the Swami, the incense, the seventeen types of basil, all hummed and swarmed and settled about this one small sign. And, glory of glories, there was a postcard with a picture, as if the note might not have been celebration enough to fill the sensate possibilities. A picture captioned by the words above or the words re-defined by the image below. Either way, she relinquished the door slowly, almost reluctantly, as if metal from a magnet, leaving little filings of thought plastered there, pointing polarised north and south, up and down the hall, implicating a distant east. Not a whiff of smoke anywhere, all sucked into the spires in the picture like genii coaxed back. She gave the drawing pin a push, corking the picture firmly onto the pinboard. For it to fall before Martha's return would of course be nothing short of appalling, a wrong against the shape of things. Her own door page 131sounded light as she shut it, lacking in substance, somehow devoid of commitments. Whole continents haunted her with their absence. The hallway she was sure these days tilted just a little as if somehow, with Martha gone and no play on her own resistant surface, things had got out of kilter. An equilibrium momentarily lost.

When she left at last for real, she said for good which was not so at all, nothing changed except the replacement was judged drear even before arrival. Martha's feet had turned together walking a series of sickles on the pile, chevronned corridors, a swift herringbone inwardness which was the demurring of spine, neck, a leaning head; nervous hands whose connection to activity often shut down so that I she did a thing long after it was finished. Ideas gone off somewhere and the hands caught going on till they were remembered. The new one used quite different furniture, had a moustache, and his ideas were well-formed, summoned at will and co-ordinated. He articulated. His hands showed not the slightest inclination to anarchy. Rather, they inclined only clearly and at ease to each other or moved from thigh to mouth along assured lines telling the listener of an authenticity of utterance.

In the face of such hands she produced vague herringbone flutters from memory and overlaid the features in front of her with invisible ocular proof that here was a usurper. His polite puzzled averted eyes ignored the movements her hands made incessantly in front of him but that mattered not at all. She conjured the pattern regardless. It blurred him most effectively. Martha would have told her his constellation and why the planets had done this to them all. For the moment however the hands were enough.

It was six already and calling the weed of a tree which drank and leached a silver dollar seemed apt. Now it was shafted with yellowness and that meant the kitchen, coffee, a continuum. Morning with a long o and Martha gone. Nothing missing, all components accounted for, not a problem. She stirred absently and thought about it all, a farce of on-going, a ritual of replacement, while the other thing slipped away unremarked time and again.