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Sport 42: 2014

Pip Adam — Tragedy of the Commons

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Pip Adam

Tragedy of the Commons

The screen fills with brown-green texture and the hhhhhh of wind in a small camera’s microphone. The green wipes over the screen at speed, single blades of long grass blur catching in the frame. In the top of the screen water at the foot of a great drop. A cliff, Arjean thinks, and look how rough the sea is. The scene swings again: grey sea, white caps, brown grass, rocks—two in particular, cloven.

‘Yeah man, this is cool.’ She mouths the words as he says them. The rock, the slight sense of something moving on the rock. ‘We’ve got a seal on the rock down there.’

‘That thing?’ The second voice. She knows him too. She’s watched it for hours.

‘That’s some weird looking seal.’

The two men are in Kiryat Yam. Forever, she thinks, caught on camera, uploaded here. It’s Israel but there have been sightings everywhere. China. Someone is sure they’ve seen something in China.

‘Where’s the zoom on this?’

The two rocks, they’re almost black, clutched together or perhaps slowly wearing apart, the sea fights at them from either side.

‘Press that button.’

The two rocks come in and out of focus. ‘No, I got it.’

And then the scene swings by to the man without the camera. Why does he pan to him? the doubters say. Why would he swing the whole camera to him when he could have kept it trained and just turned to talk to him? In the comments below, on websites under titles like WHY THIS IS FAKE.

‘It’s a seal, man.’

Swing back to the rocks. In and out of focus the shot takes Arjean closer and closer and then the sea animal on the rock turns.

‘What is that?’

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The animal on the rock. It turns, looks behind its shoulder, up at the men, at the camera. It’s dark on top, grey, but when it turns there’s a flash of pale, white almost. Like skin, she thinks. Like a stingray.

‘Oh my god.’

It moves quickly then, pulling itself along on its human arms. On its human hands. ‘It has hands,’ she whispers. ‘It has arms. And a shadow.’ It dives into the sea, its adult-human-sized caudal fin the last thing to slip under, and is gone.

‘What is that? Tell me you got that.’ ‘What is that?’

‘Real,’ Arjean whispers, hand tracing the path it took into the water, the path it disappears into. Down. Deep. ‘Real.’

Soon Simon would shout, ‘Come to bed.’ He wouldn’t want her in bed. The flick of the computer played at him, even through his closed eyes, and he had to start out early. He wasn’t supposed to be at Arjean’s house. He was supposed to be at the barracks. But he’d come into town though, for prasadum, to see everyone. For chanting. He came in to chant and if she didn’t like it he could stay somewhere else. Where? she would said. Where else could he stay? Jivisvari Kesavi? Would he stay with her? No. No one wanted him back. No. He was dead to them.

It wasn’t like that.

Oh, she said, but it was.

Come to bed, and he would roll over slightly. The flat was freezing. She was sleeping in the lounge because that’s where the heater was and she kept it on all night. It glowed orange and gave her dreams of the dry, bright battlefield, the warrior prince and the counsel of his charioteer.

You can’t stay up all night watching your mermaids. He’d hated them.

‘Once more,’ she said. ‘Once more.’

It felt like it hadn’t rained for weeks but it had and it was raining hard now. Simon would leave before the sun came up, before she was awake. He’d have to shower and change before reveille. He hated her house. She was filthy. He should stay somewhere else then. But where? No one would have him.

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He had plenty of places to go.

Sure, Arjean would say, nodding her head, walking for the other room, leaving him alone, to really think about that, to think about the plenty of places he had to go, across burnt bridges. Your mum, she’d shout from the other room. You could go and stay with your mum.

Fuck off.

He might even throw something, or charge her, come into the other room and push her hard against a wall. Call her names. Tell her to sort it out. Spit at her. It wasn’t her fault, she’d say defiant, daring him, Go on. Go on. A human-sized terrestrial mammal in a vast expanse of water, with huge fish. Whales. Go on. And then she’d see him deflate, realise, there was nothing left for him to do but say, Fuck you, and step down. Grab his jacket and his bag. Fuck you. Chanting in his head. Chanting so hard that somehow Godhead would have him back. That Krishna would accept it and guide him from the darkness that had led him away from everything that could save him. That somehow, someone, something. Chance events, a storm, a long dry period, could lead him back. That somewhere he could find someone who would welcome him back. Rama Rama. Hare Hare. ‘It’s not my fault,’ she said.

Anyway, it was raining and cold. She didn’t have a decent coat. She had three umbrellas, none of which worked. They were all broken, but no coat. Nothing that could keep her dry in the heavy, fat rain. Simon would be marching in it. She just needed to get to work. To the mall. She had a car, but no money for petrol. He’d had plenty of money. He was saving up for something. Scheming. He hadn’t even paid for petrol. He had his own car. He hadn’t even paid for food. He never took her out to dinner. How was that working out? she’d said. Karmically? How’s that looking in the universal judgement of things? How’s your ledger looking? But it was raining and he was gone and she didn’t need to fight with him anymore because who knew when she would see him again. She just needed to go to work. In the fucking rain. She’d had a bike. When her car had broken down. When it sat parked for months on the street, getting parking tickets. She’d got a bike. Simon said he hoped it would make her lose weight. She was so fucking fat. She’d really let the ripcord out.

A bike was of no help in the rain. She’d walk. It was always better page 76 outside than it looked from inside. Take a change of clothes and walk. If she left now she could do her hair and makeup at the salon. She’d walk. She lifted clothes up off the floor, picked through the washing basket, found a pair of jeans and a large jumper. She put a pair of black stockings in a plastic bag and a black shift dress and some shiny boots with a small heel but she couldn’t find a cardigan that didn’t stink and as it got closer to the time she needed to leave she didn’t care and threw one of the stinking cardigans into the bag, picking some food off the sleeve of it before she did. There wasn’t a clean dish or cup or piece of cutlery. They were all in the sink, so she decided to buy breakfast at the mall. She checked that the heater was off. The electric blanket. And then she shut the door on all of it and walked down the driveway and up the street.

It rained the whole way. She understood that if she surrendered to it, just realised she was going to get wet, it would be better. It was the resistance that was causing the pain. She wasn’t her body. He would shout it from a car as he drove past her walking. He wouldn’t even stop. He could have stopped but it was all part of his teaching her a lesson. She was lazy and she didn’t surrender. She wanted to control everything. She wasn’t the controller. Did she not chant anymore? Bhakti Radhe had asked her, in the street, in town. She’d crossed the street to where Arjean was getting money out of an ATM. Would she pray with her? They could sit somewhere quietly. Maybe Arjean would find some comfort in it. She looked uneasy. Would Arjean come to temple this week? She handed her a pamphlet. Like she was a newcomer, Arjean thought. Like she was lost.

Simon always drove so fast. Water fizzed on either side of the tyres of a car that looked like his and she walked. She was pretty sure her boots had a hole in them. She should start wearing leather again. It was taking it all too far. Why did she always take things too far? She should start wearing leather again. But she couldn’t bring herself to. It was like sliding into the skin of something because it was. It smelt so bad to her. She could hardly walk past the bag shop in the mall. She imagined all the bags still full of organs, blood, sinew, life. She hated touching it. When she saw it she imagined it coming off. A knife in between fat and skin and then the pull. It was the pull that did it. The page 77 weight the puller had to put behind it. It didn’t slide off, it pulled back, like anything alive would pull back. No, it seemed to say. No, I want this. I want to keep it. She imagined it all and it buoyed her slightly as her feet got wetter and wetter. She should get some gumboots. She was so God damn vain. He always came to mind, close to her face and spitting, but maybe he never had. There were very few cars on the road.

She walked in straight lines; Christchurch was a grid. This way, then a right angle, then this way. And then the mall. The doors hissed open and it was bright and warm. She squeaked her way through the foodhall, she was hungry but she couldn’t eat. All the food bright at her. The salon wasn’t open yet, nothing in the mall was open, she went to the toilet and scraped her wet clothes off. This was what she meant. Everything stuck. She hadn’t thought to bring a towel. She didn’t expect to get this wet. She walked in her underwear out of the stall and pulled some hand towels out of the dispenser. She patted herself. If she tried to wipe along her wet skin the paper bundled and went into tiny balls of mush. Her tights wouldn’t go on. She sat on the toilet with them just over her knees. She was tired. Every part of her ached with it. Her head fell back and she looked at the ceiling. She wouldn’t ask for any help. That was her problem. When would she see him again? One night, at the army housing area, in their small, perfectly formed house, she’d been making dinner and helicopters went overhead. She waited and waited. The table set, the dinner served. Simon came back four weeks later. He’d been in the Solomons. She was so tired. The walk. The rain. The day she had ahead. She was so tired. It was tiring work.

She was fully booked. She looked at her book. Everyone did. Some of the stylists complained, pointing out places it wasn’t going to work. Places where things would take longer to process. Clients they knew had longer hair than they’d been booked in for. She went to the staff room and made a cup of coffee.

‘I’m with you today.’ Fawn was already there.

‘Hm.’ Arjean nodded.

‘I’ve got the cards.’


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Fawn looked through the cards. ‘I think we can sell one more colour today.’

‘Yeah. Marion.’


‘Oh well.’ Arjean drained her cup. ‘Let’s do it then.’ And they walked out of the staffroom and into the tasteful dim of the salon and Arjean opened the drawer and started laying out her scissors and clips and combs. Fawn collected capes and put the cards in Arjean’s station.

The day was hard. The day was always hard. Some of the girls said Thursdays were the hardest. Some hated late nights, others couldn’t handle the weekend. But every day was hard. They stood up for nine hours at a time. They were always thinking of at least three things at once. They had their eye on a colour, a perm, who was waiting for them, which one of the clients was looking round angrily. They ate lunch in the five minutes neutraliser took to work, with fingers that tasted like perfume and alkaline body odour. They all had stomach problems and allergies. Some of their fingernails fell off. They walked for miles back and forth over the hard slate floor catching themselves in almost every mirror. And they did it all in heels and with the receptionist, Donna, telling them to reapply lipstick. Not to slouch. Mrs X had been waiting. Mrs Y wanted to just pop in, for a fringe trim, for a blow wave, for a chat about a new colour idea she had.

Arjean had been more enthusiastic. She knew a lot of the time she was on thin ice. Sometimes she didn’t look happy at all. It’s not an undertaker’s, Donna would say. If Arjean ended up at reception, looking at her book. I know this is your thing, Donna would say, framing Arjean’s face with a circle she made with both her manicured hands, but people don’t come here for cool silence. Arjean breathed in and thought again about leaving, about what it would have been like if she’d made a decisive move. If she’d moved back to the army housing area. Got a job in the Tegel factory like the rest of the wives of the infanteers. But Simon didn’t want a bar of that. If you leave, he’d called behind himself as he walked out the door, don’t fucking come back. He’d be away for a week, he couldn’t tell her where. Timor, she thought as he drove off. He took the car. If she left, she would have page 79 to leave on foot, carrying the little she had into town. Sleeping on the motorway as she went. If she left. She’d left anyway. Paid someone to come and fix her car one last time, found a flat, a horrible flat, packed everything up and drove away. He didn’t think she’d do it. He told her constantly, after sex, when they were close and warm, he never thought she’d do it. It made him want her, he said. It made her like she was before. Before him. That’s the rub, she said. She’d read it in a self-help book.

She wasn’t happy.

Every day was hard. The pointlessness of it made it harder. It’s not brain surgery she’d say to Donna when she told her to smile more. No one’s going to die.

Donna said she didn’t know about that.

Arjean looked at her. Really?

We fill an important need, Donna said. We make people feel good. This is the only touch some of them get. Then she walked away.

Arjean hadn’t smiled in a very long time. She’d taken a day off for the funeral. Told them she wasn’t well. I won’t be in, she told Donna on the phone. It’s a head cold. They rang her up as the coffin was being taken away. Could she come in for the late night? Someone else had to go to a family thing. Sure. Sure. She didn’t go to the graveside. Instead she went home, got changed, put on her makeup and walked into the salon finishing a chocolate bar in a silver wrapper.

Don’t eat in the salon, Donna had said.

She didn’t want to be at the funeral anyway. Not any of her. She had no idea why she’d gone.

Because he left you money, Simon’s mother had said, loudly, so everyone could hear. Because you think you’re so fucking special but you’re not. Look around. How many other women are here? No one from temple came. No one.


She checked a foil.

See? There’s nowhere else for you to go.

There were women who would have thrown themselves into the grave. She could feel it. She was happy to leave.

I was happy to leave.

So brave, he would have said. So fucking brave.

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The foils at the top needed longer but the ones at the nape were finished. Fawn could handle it. ‘I want these,’ Arjean opened and closed one foil quickly, ‘to look like these.’ The nape was all done, probably up to the occipital bone.

‘Sponge them down.’

‘By the time you get to these,’ she placed an open hand over the higher foils, ‘they’ll be done and there’ll be a basin ready.’ She touched the women on the shoulder but didn’t make eye contact in the mirror. Arjean knew she was looking at her though. Everyone was looking at her. She’d put on weight. Let herself go, he would have thought. Pulled the ripcord. Everyone was looking. Occasionally her hips would hit the trolley she was using. Sometimes she wasn’t able to reach the power point on the floor. Everyone was looking. Something was up but she didn’t tell a soul. Where would he go? Sometimes she’d see Simon’s wife on the streets. Chanting. Stopping people. Holding the Bhagavad Gita. Did they like yoga and vegetarian food? Arjean wasn’t even sure if his wife knew. She kind of suspected she might. Somewhere in her spirit, deep inside her soul. We are not our body. She seemed so much more part of him than Arjean was. So much more. So much more. People assumed so much.

‘Arjean,’ Fawn was calling her. Every time she heard her name it surprised her. She was in the colour bay.

‘I’m in the colour bay,’ she shouted, and in a second Fawn was in front of her holding a towel and a comb.

‘She’s in the station by the coffee machine. I talked to her about shampoo and conditioner. They’re in front of her on the section. Ruth Brown’s arrived. Donna’s getting her a cup of coffee.’

Arjean nodded.

‘What are you doing here?’ Fawn asked. ‘Waiting,’ Arjean said. ‘Resting.’

‘Donna was looking for you.’ She handed Arjean the towel. ‘I told her you popped out.’

Arjean nodded. ‘How do the foils look?’

‘Good,’ Fawn said. ‘Great. I’ll come and dry her off when you’re done. I’ll be cleaning up, but just come and get me. Fuck Donna.’

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Arjean nodded. Fuck Donna. She’d been brought in from one of the other salons. There was a floor manager, a hairdresser, but Donna was the desk manager. She hated it when they called her a receptionist, so they did. She was ten years younger than Arjean. Arjean hid from her constantly, not meaning to, she just found herself, like now, in the colour bay, staring at the rakes of maroon tubes and boxes of tubes. She hadn’t been that strong before and this whole business, the whole fucking business had just left her bored.

She cut the foils. The woman talked and talked. About a holiday she was going on Arjean thought, but maybe she’d already been, maybe she was back from the holiday. Either way, Arjean nodded and kept cutting her hair. Spending as much time behind her as possible. When she finished she shook the long thick hair and it throbbed into damp, heavy life. She looked over and caught Fawn’s eye and raised her eyebrows. Donna was talking to Fawn. Fawn raised her eyebrows back at Arjean and nodded in a way that Donna wouldn’t see.

‘Fawn will be with you in a moment,’ Arjean said.

The woman nodded.

The walk home was in the dark. Fawn offered her a ride but Arjean said she was fine. Some of them were going out. Arjean was fine. Who knew when Simon would be back. He could be on the other side of the world by now. Closer to where he was going. Her mind wandered when she walked home. She often found herself at the front door of her flat not remembering anything about the walk home. Had she waited for the cross signal? Had she talked to anyone? Tonight she found herself chanting. That’s how deep it goes. Brainwashing.

Your brain needs washing. It’s fucking filthy.

Why didn’t he go back if he loved it so much? That look. He could blame her all he wanted but he was as much to blame as she was. That look. Just go back. Don’t stay here blaming her. Go back. Start again. A rock? An animal? Even a bug. How bad would it be? Like if he really, really felt it had been a mistake to leave. To kill himself. If he really wanted to put it right, he could. Karma isn’t eternal. He’s not his praktri. None of us is. Especially not him. Not now. He was free. He needed to act like a free man. We think we are the enjoyer of our life, she would say, but we’re not. We think we’re the controllers. But page 82 are the arms and the legs the enjoyer? Do the arms and legs control? No. The stomach. The stomach is the true enjoyer. He needed to make right. No matter what. She’d been thinking, chanting on it. He needed to stop and ask himself who he was, where he’d been and where he was going. It was as simple as that and then he could go there and he needed to stop fighting where that was. He wasn’t the enjoyer or the controller. He should know that. Cause he’d tried that. We aren’t our bodies. She almost said it out loud. Almost shouted it to the cars that drove past, so he could hear her, wherever he was.

She should go back.

For fuck’s sake, it wasn’t about her. It was about him. He should stop with the ‘she should go back’. She was bhakti, not even a very good bhakti, wavering at best, confused, wandering—he was a devotee. If anyone went back, and given his present circumstances, he should go back.

She said it all the time, they wouldn’t have him and what if they wouldn’t have him.

Just go back, she said. Her phone was ringing as she got to her front door. ‘Hello,’ she said, just to stop the other infernal conversation. ‘You killed him.’ She hung up. He should go back. He should come back. They’d had a community, Simon and her, they’d had family and they’d shunned it so they could have each other. They’d acted like that was all that mattered, like that was in charge. He’d left his wife. He needed to come back, it wasn’t right. He needed to come back as whatever it was he needed to come back as. Maybe a cat. Surely that would be fitting? Surely.

She was finally inside. Finally back to the cliff, the coast, underwater. The dirty green of it, the way it almost looked grey from the power of the tide and the debris it lifted and carried. Back to the things that lived in the sea, the ones people knew about and the others. The slipperiness it left on everything, the way an orca felt, the bottom of a stingray. The weather down there. The throb and thrust people mistook for quiet. The sharks that would eat you but not as fast as the killer whale. The perfect predator. Perfect. It would eat you. It for sure would eat you. If it was hungry, if it was home, if you really truly wanted it to. It would pull you down again and again, letting page 83 you resurface just to give you hope just long enough for you to gasp in, gasp, suck in enough air so you don’t die, don’t pass out, so you are awake to see the full might of it. So you know exactly what it can do, what it is doing. Then, maybe, it would let you go for a second, so you would flounder somewhere, some deep animal part of you flapping away. The surface maybe. Maybe you would try and reach the surface and then it would grab you again. With one move of its head, one twist and it would have you again and it would pull you down, down and rip off your leg and catch you again and rip off your arm. Is my arm the enjoyer? And then it would crush your skull. And then, move on. Feeling nothing, not even satisfied by you. Your body. You can’t blame the black fish because that’s its nature. And maybe it is your mother? Maybe it is any one of your mothers because of eternity, because of how deep eternity goes, how high, how you can’t find any way around eternity because you’re stuck with it.