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Sport 4: Autumn 1990

Helen Garner — The Psychological Effect of Wearing Stripes

page 31

Helen Garner

The Psychological Effect of Wearing Stripes

Here is my photo of Philip. I took it at the check-in counter. See that bag? His linen jacket's in there, rolled up. That's how he gets it crushed in exactly the right way. He travels a lot, so much that I never know where he is or when he's going to turn up. He likes this photo, or so he said when he rang. 'Thanks,' he said. 'Usually I pose, but this one's really nice. You caught me.' It wasn't hard. I've seen people pose. Cameras are bad enough, but have you ever watched someone you know front their own reflection in a mirror? (I exclude actors, who examine themselves coldly and without vanity, like workers checking their tools.) You see a stiffening, a closing, a dimming; you see them pull on their idea of themselves, the caricature that will soften and melt away the minute they think of something other than the enemy before them. When I raised the camera, though, and it's a stolen camera, not even morally mine, when I pointed it at Philip and dropped the frame around his head and shoulders, he did something I'd never seen: he looked straight into the lens, straight in, as if into the eyes of a lover from whom forgiveness was not yet required or judgement to be feared, and his features performed. They swam, the way a dancer loosens his limbs, they composed themselves, and then they waited. It was a quiet flourish, a slow-motion blossoming of skin and muscle. Instead of closing he became porous. See? One elbow rests on the high counter. The strap of the bag pulls his collar askew. His skin is tanned. The day we went out on the river he took his camera (an Instamatic: 'I got it for $3.99 in a junk shop in New York') and lined me up across the table. The beam of his eye passed through the lens, hit me, and bounced off unwelcomed. I felt the skin drop on my skull and the light go out of my face; I felt myself pursing. He lowered the camera without taking a shot and said with a cross laugh, 'You're the worst subject!' 'I know,' I said, and I am. This is no accident. I want to be the one doing the looking. I have developed a whole social demeanour with the aim of deflecting attention from my appearance. I actively dislike being looked at. I don't know how so-called beautiful women can stand it. 'Looks shouldn't matter,' says Philip without conviction. On another page 32 day, in another mood, he says with a vehemence that sounds like anger, 'All this seventies bullshit about there being no such thing as beauty. There's nothing democratic about beauty. Some people are beautiful and that's all there is to it.' You should see the way he speaks to waitresses, and the size of the serves they bring him. I want to say, 'It's all right for you,' except that last year I resolved never to become the kind of person who says 'It's all right for you.' 'I understand women,' says Philip. 'I love being looked at.' Maybe that's what beauty is: loving being looked at. The beautiful are greedy. They suck other people's eye-beams into their blood cells and feast on them, growing lovelier and more opulent, while puritans like me who starve themselves for the sake of power diminish daily, wither and shrink till all that's left of them is a hard rail of will. For example. Philip sat down opposite me in the cafe. 'Look at that,' I whispered. He had already noticed, but was gracious enough to glance up as if surprised. A young woman, a girl, was established alone at a central table. She was dark and smooth, with glossy shins and arms, and dressed in scarlet, white and black — socks, lipstick, ponytail, you know the style, but with that wonderful skin and a startling whiteness of eye. Her cup was empty, her chair stood at an angle from the table, her gaze was lost in ether. She sat like a goddess, blind-eyed and motionless, presenting to the world a face innocent of anything that would normally be categorised as expression, but at the same time so outrageously voracious of eye-beams that the cafe was full of a psychological commotion. I had a terrific urge to laugh, to shout out something— I don't know what; but for the first time in my life I understood why soldiers desecrate shrines. 'Now that,' said Philip with respect, 'is what you would have to call pure.' 'Pure what?' I said. 'Pure being,' he said, then laughed and looked around for the waiter. Is that pure being? I thought pure being was when you were alone, when there were no mirrors or shop windows or hubcaps or still pools. Even as I write my story I am aware that I am nowhere near the point of this, that the point recedes from me as I write, that I should be writing about something else. About a man 'half-mad with hospitality and thoughts of alcohol.' A club that has no rituals: 'all clubs are sadness clubs,' says its one remaining member, departing. 'The sea that we've all heard so much about.' A dream of death: 'tief und tausendfach zu leben.' Music, whose 'manifestation is the displacement of air.' It should even be about 'the working class', or a dress 'the colour of hyacinths', or about the battle against sentimentalism: look at the gum tree, see 'the usual mess on the ground.' Once upon a time two women arranged to meet in a bar. 'I will not talk about the past,' said the furious page 33 one. 'But we must,' said the one who burst into tears. Each was afraid that the death of friendship, its murder, would be discovered to be her fault. I do not give you permission to write about me. Is there anything cleaner than a clean white shirt? 'This is the hour of lead.' The dirty teeth and lips of red wine drinkers. The psychological effect of wearing stripes. The punishment of the sick. The punishment for not being beautiful. This is a lifelong thing and begins early. 'No, dear, but you have a face full of character.' And yet perhaps the punishment is for something more serious and obscure than a simple failure to be beautiful. Otherwise why would my lovely, dainty, light-footed . . . companion, my shadow figure Louise, when we were twenty-three, feel the need to make me a present of her unflattering hat? Why examine with ostentatious attention the promises on my jar of face cream, then turn on me a blast of her heart-stopping smile and say 'Poor old thing'? There was no question in anyone's mind that she was beautiful, that I was not. If only I could have been allowed to contemplate her, with frank looks and happy pleasure, as men do — but someone laughs and says 'I bet you wish you looked like her', so I have to stand beside her, where I can cast only crooked glances, bent ones out of the corner of my eye. Elle est plus belle que toi. I know. You are right. She is. But years later, minding her house, I forced the lock on the cupboard under the stairs and found a shoebox full of photos of her taken (you could tell) by besotted men. She lay sated in lacy disarray, or pouted against a puffing, translucent curtain. I looked, and then I put them back in order, and now I am writing this. Still, we hear of brutal strokes: 'you must remember: says the famous Greek composer to Charmian Clift on her island, 'that you are no longer young, no longer beautiful'; of clear statements of hierarchy: a man, speechless at the question 'What does Mrs Calvino do?', replies at last in a reverential tone, 'Mrs Calvino . . . is a very beautiful woman'; of whipflicks in moving cars: 'And what does your daughter look like? Does she wear ugly ankle socks, like you?' The heart, always eager to be of service, trips over with its tray of china and lies down disconsolate among the pieces. But bow the head, kiss the rod. In humble acceptance stirs the seed of power. Philip read a story I published about him. He made no comment, though he told me later that a woman we both knew had asked him what he was going to do about it (I will be obliged to take action, says the woman in the bar), but at one o'clock in the morning (high summer, I'll stick in a moon, some elms on an avenue half a mile away, a hot wind streaming in off the stony rises, sleep not possible) I saw him moving towards me across the bare park, walking slowly in his flapping trousers, trying like page 34 me to breathe the hot wind, and I saw immediately that there was no point in greeting him, the grass made a small stiff sound where I put my feet, I did not callout but kept walking, we passed in silence with our eyes on the ground, and the next time I saw him, in daylight in a street, he said,' At that moment I would have liked to sink into the ground. I did not want to be part of what you were looking at.' I am writing this in a hotel room. I like the room, I pay for it, for the moment it is mine, but its mirror, some kind of false antique in a heavy frame, is hung on a wall that's at right angles to the table where I work, and whenever I look up from this exercise book I have to see myself getting older, my doubtful expression and downward lines, so every morning after I have read the paper with scissors in my hand and stuck its manageable stories ('manslaughter, or jealousy, or business, or motor-car racing') into my notebook I heave the mirror down and stand it on the carpet with its face to the wall. Once I brought my camera here and took some pictures of myself in the mirror. They came out crooked. One side of my head looked higher than the other, and slightly flatter. I couldn't tell whether this was due to the way I had slept on my hair, or whether the lens — or perhaps the mirror itself — contained some distorting property which in waking life, I mean life without camera, was not apparent. Anyway I showed the photos to my friend, a painter, who glanced at them and said with a laugh, handing them back, 'The artist's obligatory self-portrait.' She was only teasing but I was abashed, as if caught out in a naivety. In the afternoons I go out walking (gardens, the bank, shops displaying racks of the ill-made shoes that our country produces) and when I return the maids have done the room and hung the mirror back on its hook. I let it be. I even look at myself. Outside my hotel window a tremendous excavation is under way. Early on I thought of taking a series of photos of the progress of the hole, and I did begin it, but now I find it's more fun to stand at the window with the camera up to my eye and not press the shutter at all, even when the men in hard hats spot me and caper about, rolling their bare shoulders and mugging to make me laugh. I'm just practising looking. The racket from the site is indescribable, and according to law they are not permitted to turn on the gouging machines till seven a.m., but sometimes at night or very early in the morning, before light, someone comes on to the site and shifts things, as if to make a point. Once, at four a.m., I half woke and heard some metal pipes being slung about, but because they were big and hollow, or because I was happy in this room and because nobody knows where I am, I experienced the sound as music: they clashed and chimed with a foreign melody, in a page 35 rhythm that was syncopated and full of long pauses, and when the morning came and I woke properly I remembered my dream: that Philip had found me, that he had come to the room and brought me a bunch of grapes which was a work of art. A woman had written a story on the grapes. Each grape bore a single word. I ate each one as I read it, and was ' so absorbed that I got three quarters of the way through the bunch before I realised that it had been meant as a present for somebody else, and that perhaps the woman who had written the story on the grapes was me. The people at the hotel are not able to tell me what kind of building is to be erected on the site when the excavation is completed. One day trucks will pour the concrete; the next, workers will walk across it in boots. I'd like to show my photos of the hole to someone. Look — you can see its squared-out sandy bottom scarred by back-hoe treads, its yellow and opal walls dripping rust stains, a wooden ladder (feeble as a thought) reaching only halfway out, the floor's six cuboid indentations like escape routes that lead deeper into the rock — but most people prefer photos of other human beings, or of themselves. 'I was a beautiful baby,' says Philip. 'I had all this curly hair, and always a wicked look, turning away.' The photo, when he shows it to me, is of a puddingy baby with oiled locks I and a smug expression. There is a story to be written about that photo, but this is not it.

This story is also published in My Hard Heart, a collection of Helen Garner's short fiction published by Viking Australia