By Robert Whyte
Manacles, a novel by Robert Whyte 1972–2020
Introduction by Robert Hanna
Table of Contents
Maria was flying solo from London to Brisbane. I was there with thousands of others at Eagle Farm when it was the old Brisbane Airport, watching her Gipsy Moth following the escort planes before coming in to land. Something wasn’t right. The engine was whirling faster instead of slower and Maria hit the ground with alarming speed on the Nundah side of the Qantas hangar then careered on, hitting the boundary fence and somersaulting over it into a cornfield, shredding the corn and smashing the plane’s wings.
I picked my way through the freeze-frame crowd, fixed mid-dismay in a three-dimensional photograph of suspended animation. There were some pretty crazy getups people were wearing. I climbed over the fence into the cornfield and approached the wreckage. Maria had already scrambled out and was kicking the side of the plane with her sensible, not very pointed, lace-up shoes, overlapped at the ankle by some fetching woollen knitted gaiters saying, “You fucking prick of a plane, why didn’t you do that landing in some fucking uninhabited desert in the middle of Whoop Whoop, you prick? Oh no, you had to wait for a landing in Brisbane, with a fucking crowd of 50,000 people waiting, you fucking prick of a thing.”
As I came near she wheeled around, her eyes flashing. When she saw who it was her face broke into a huge grin and she ran full tilt towards me and leapt onto me, smothering my face with kisses, smashing her teeth against mine and laughing, kissing me and hugging tight, her legs up around the small of my back. I kissed her, tasting her mouth, her face brown as a nut from the sun and wind of 12,000 miles. I waited for her to take a breath, leaning back in my arms. She weighed no more than a pillowcase full of rocks. She was looking at me, smiling with her eyes.
“Do I know you?” I asked.
She laughed. “Not yet,” she said, “but you will later.”
She arched her back and sprang back to earth, her head at about the height which would nicely nestle into my shoulder.
“I have to go do a bit of business now,” she said, “let’s meet later, about nine pm, outside the City Hall.”
The scene flickered and came back to life as I melted into the background. People were rushing over and leaping the fence, putting Maria up on their shoulders and carrying her back through the crowd.
She was there at nine pm, outside the City Hall, between the lions, with Daphne’s crazy tympanum above her. A drifting crowd parted to leave space around her on all sides. I walked to her side, took her hand and we drifted off, in the crowd but not part of it.
She had taken off her trademark flying cap and goggles and now was wearing her hair stretched back and tied into a circle. Or pinned there. To me she looked like she was breathing high-altitude air and clouds. We walked along a cliff-bordered path, the cliff hanging close and shadowy.
We had our arms around each other, stopping in the shadows between the street lights to kiss and press together. We walked on the path through the park and found a spot away from it to lie down. We lay there. I looked up into the dark, through the soft pine needles. Grass clippings and dead leaves were stuck in my clothes. It felt like Autumn. She was far away.
I asked her what she was thinking about.
She said nothing.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “it’s a stupid question”
“Not at all,” she said. “I really was thinking of nothing.”
“What’s it like?” I asked.
She looked at me strangely.
“Don’t you ever stop thinking?” she asked.
“I didn’t know you could.”
She stood up. I stood up beside her. We walked back over the top of the park. She made me stop and look out over the city.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Don’t worry. Nothing matters.”
She smiled warmly.
“Not that it matters, whether nothing matters, or everything matters,” she said.
“Everything is nothing with stuff in it,” I said.
We both laughed.
The City Square was now overflowing with revellers and a band was playing. We walked towards the river, kissing in the shadow of the courthouse, kissing in the long shadows under the hanging riverside trees. The river was quiet and smooth. We walked out on a boat ramp.
I stood with my back to the water. She could see over the river. I could hear its sucking, slapping wash. Her dress was up and between us. Her face was hot when our cheeks touched and her ears were perfectly shaped. Her hands were moving along my back with her fingernails tight and sharp against my skin. The echoes of my breath were coming from far away.
A crashing rolling moaning came from the other side of a boat shed, a crashing, rolling, skidding moan that ended in a large splash. We stood there, statue still. I felt her fingernails sharp in my back. She started moving again. It built up inside me and I moved with her, breathy and shaky. We heard the drunkard moan again as he climbed back onto the bank, slipping and clawing up the slope, up to the footpath to wander moaningly away. My head was over her shoulder, my eyes tight shut. Her body was archingly slender. I couldn’t feel my own body. My breath shuddered. My chest was tight as though my shoulders were being pulled back.
I kissed her, pulling up my trousers.
She smoothed her dress.
The bus was glaringly bright and empty, slithering through the dark. We sat in the back seat.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked me.
“Nothing,” I said. She turned and looked out into the dark. When we came to her stop and we both got off, I tried to kiss her.
“Not here,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Do you think he knows about us?”
She and Charles were sitting at a table in a pool of darkness at the back of the cafe, only the light from their eyes visible. Charles was reading The Gambler by Dostoevsky. Maria was reading both The Waves and The Years, a page from one book followed by a page from the other. In other words, alternate sequential pages from two books interleaved. She had come to the conclusion neither of them made sense individually but did together.
“I can’t see how he could,” said Charles. “I’ve read what he’s written so far. He just leaves it lying about, I think he wants me to read it. Anyway, I have. We’re in it, you’re in this cafe, cleaning the windows, I’m wandering about after drinking a breakfast of champions, though I wish it were that, it was much more alcoholic than beer and had some devastating effects on my navigation systems which luckily cancelled each other out.”
“Rum,” said Maria, “I can smell it coming out of your pores.”
“You should try it on the inside,” said Charles. “It didn’t aid the powers of concentration for me and Ted in our attempts to translate Mongolian. We were going from Mongolian to German and then German to English because there was no English-Mongolian dictionary and all we got out of it was Ignore prank calls and false alarms, which we thought would do more harm than good, so we gave up.”
“Nothing about me?” asked Maria.
“Not yet. As far as I know we’re not even in the novel-in-the-novel thing he’s written. That’s finished. Now he’s writing about writing it.”
“It’s a mind fuck, but he’s got no choice. The original novel has those old-fashion chapter introduction summaries like in Cervantes, you know, “Herein is Related the Droll Way in which Don Quixote had Himself Dubbed a Knight” as if they gave you some clue about what was going on and why. The problem is it’s slight, bordering on twee. It has a red bucket and an innocent bystander drawn into some hideous hallucinatory apocalypse and a conflagration and that’s it.”
“No killer bus?”
“We’re not in it,”said Charles.
“So we are in the book about the writing of the book.”
“Yes but only minimally. So far. He’s kind of self obsessed. I don’t think he cares about us.”
I floated towards the surface and towards the light, buoyed by large, shape-shifting bubbles of muted far-off conversations, images, tastes and smells. My elbows were sinking into the surface of my writing table, an experiment in axe-work and wood from a fallen jacaranda. My typewriter came into view, distorted and fragmented, as if viewed through a hall of mirrors. I remembered the repertoire of words it was possible to type on the top row of the qwerty keyboard included typewriter. It was a vintage manual Royal with a cast iron frame. It weighed about 15 kilograms, the equivalent of about 200,000 bees, half a Dalmatian, a tenth of a reindeer or 12 human brains.
My eyes swam back into focus and ruptured the surface of conscious thought. I needed to know what time it was but my brain kept singing Does anybody really know what time it is, does anybody really care, if so I can’t imagine why, we’ve all got time enough to cry which caused my eyes to tear up just a bit as my gaze wandered across a small, grey, undescribed room, travelling aimlessly before settling, finally, on a white clock face.
1:45 pm! Only a few minutes remained before I was due to leave for work. I scrabbled for my keys. The night shift at the library began at 2.00 pm. I could eat at the cafeteria or later at the pizza place. There was money in the ash tray in the car. I collected the manuscript pages together and shoved them into a canvas bag. I had made considerable progress with my novel but now I was encountering serious problems. More of that later. First, I had to find the front door. I moved through the house, pausing momentarily to curse at my reflection in the bathroom mirror.
I arrived at the library at 2:10 pm, officially ten minutes late. Sounds of study, laughter and enforced quiet echoed off the stone pillars, absorbed with quiet grace by the wood panelling and books.
The afternoon passed slowly. Occasional glimpses of the world intruded my otherwise preoccupied eyes as I worked through a file of loan cards and a trolley load of books. There was a constant and frankly rather disturbing sound of ruffled feathers, cloth being wet, faces being wiped, and faces being frowned at in a mirror. A smell of dust floated lightly on warm air, buoyed by afternoon sunlight.
I was thinly dressed in red trousers and a white shirt, an apparel which was not intended to, nor did it, conceal five weeks stubble, it could not yet be called a beard, which I had allowed to grow on my face. This red growth was crowned by an unruly red mass, composed of the same protein as the beard, which was arranged over the top of my head in an absent-minded disarray reminiscent of the after-effects of nitroglycerine. My face was an indeterminate grey-blue-green, with a whimsical expression and an upturned nose, all of which rendered the whole thing fairly disagreeable to look at. My body, painfully elongated, extended for a distance of about 6’ 3”, with very little development of pectoral, or any other musculature, resulting in a weight of about 65 kg.
Over the previous twelve months, I had been getting bi-monthly cheques from the Australian government department of Treasury, gradually whittling away at the amount I had been bequested in the form of a young writer’s fellowship, awarded to me in honour of my status as a token Queenslander after a posse of Queensland politicians had kicked up a stink about southern bias.
The fellowship had funded a year of debauchery, procrastination, thumb-twiddling, brilliant but instantly-forgotten ideas, a series of false starts and solid farts, reams of turgid, self-indulgent prose, a substantial cellar, then steady consumption of fine red wines, beers, spirits and liqueurs, inspirational trips to the countryside which had nothing at all to do with the plot, characters, or locale of the project, a finely contoured and plushly upholstered white 1966 Hillman Superminx with a wooden dash and a flat battery, a three-piece suit bought from a student who couldn’t afford to get married, miscellaneous foodstuffs and other consumables, including a kilo of vanilla beans, shares in a pine-nut factory, fresh Portuguese pilchards, a packet of gold-plated staples, a crocodile skin umbrella, a bag of white truffles, some Russian fish eggs, a ylang-ylang plantation, half a bucket of saffron stamens, a rhodium nose ring, a peck of pickled plutonium and an unknown quantity of antimatter. All these and more were sedulously inscribed into my expense accounts.
The funding, with an emphasis on the first three letters, enabled me to contemplate the authorship of an autobiographical novel titled Manacles, initially based on my experiences as a labourer, potting-shed-staff-member then fully-fledged gardener at the university-botanical gardens, a conflation of the St Lucia and the George Street campuses. One of my tasks was to water the pot-plantsin the library, the same library where I now worked as a librarian’s assistant, walking around with my red bucket and a charming smile, observing the rich tapestry of life woven from threads of the social fabric which became the material for my novel. My plan for the novel was to allow its characters to become aware they existed in a book. This plan had so far met with only limited success, although I had managed to write the novel which the writer character named James, a Joycean homage, himself wrote about his experiences in the same job and situation, also called Manacles, which was meant to allude to the constraining chains of social and cultural bonds and routines one could discern in ordinary life. It could be said, I suppose, these manacles represented life itself, not a limiting set of restraints, but let’s not go too far down that track, or eyes will glaze over faster than a speeding ticket.
Immediately following the period in which these experiments in fiction were funded by the more-than-generous Australian Government, two simultaneous realities descended upon me like seagulls on a bucket of fish guts. Firstly, I was broke, and secondly I really hadn’t written very much at all and certainly not enough to satisfy the ghoulish daemons of the literature board’s auditing department.
Wearing a blonde wig, a pair of falsies, high heels and a miniskirt, I visited the library and asked if they needed staff. They hired me on the spot. They knew I had ruined their carpet when I was a gardener overwatering the pot plants, but they couldn’t care less, they just loved the red bucket.
Lacking offspring and being a bit cavalier with social niceties like having a lot of needy friends, I soon took on the unpopular shifts like nights and holidays. On these occasions I had the library to myself and very little responsibility other than stamping out the occasional book, sorting the leftover returns, filing a few loan cards and clearing the return bins. This took about an hour all up. Night shift was seven and a half hours. It was even better over Easter as the amount paid on public holidays was double time and a half.
I worked on my book like a demon. Sometimes, when it got the better of me, I needed to grab some fresh air at the not-to-be-opened windows where I was now.
Quiet lawns outside in the white conical throws of the street lights were wet. It had rained during the afternoon. I felt a little sleepy and cosy, looking out into the rain. That made me think of Heraclitus who said you could not stand in the same river twice, a statement of such blistering stupidity it had confused everyone since, causing the regrettable rise of philosophy departments. I could make out a bright red umbrella held above a blue check shirt. I supposed humans were involved. The horizon had disappeared behind the misty rain and the gutters were carrying scraps of litter on the currents of rainwater flowing down-gravity.
A traffic jam, the result of a collision at the intersection in front of the City Hall, extended down each of the five streets leading to the city centre. Drivers sealed up in their cars in the rain were producing, apparently for the pleasure of the inhabitants of the surrounding buildings, a contrapuntal fugueof a modern, free-form construction with their car horns, in which the theme, although often repeated, was indistinguishable from the intervening passages.
The library had taken on the quiet air of absence. The few students who remained upstairs seemed to hover like clouds on their way to the horizon, in a state of fatigued silence.
There were plenty of spare typewriters. I rotated freely though the different models, enjoying the changing typefaces and the distinctive sounds of each kind.
I quickly drew a file of loan cards over my open manuscript.
A large, hook-nosed women of about 40 years of age, with blazing black eyes and a sallow, bad-tempered look was approaching the night desk. I leant forward, half standing, with questioning smile decorating my countenance.
“Someone’s taken the fucking Ms” the woman said angrily.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Volume M,” she snapped, “from Mammals to Managua.”
“Perhaps it is being used somewhere in the library,” I said sweetly, “if you wish I can file a request for reservation.”
“Please fill out this card and I will place it on the noticeboard as soon as the volume is available.”
She handed over the card. I saw that she had written her name as Susan Sontag then scratched it out and replaced it with Cleopatra VII Philopator.
I smiled and filed the card with several others of the same sort. Ms Philopator lurked at the counter for some time in a menacing manner, but finally returned to the study area by way of the staircase to the right.
I waited for another five minutes, just to be safe. Peering about, I judged the coast was clear and uncovered the manuscript.
For a would-be writer, everything in life was swallowed up by the need for a credible back story and a serious, smiling-eyes, deep-thinking, ready-for-action photo. Of course, to write a bio, you first have to have lived one. Sort of. Before he became a best-selling author James the writer worked a number of odd jobs including librarian, truck driver, bodyguard, private investigator, dental products salesman, apothecary’s assistant, high-school janitor, bartender, forester and formula one mechanic.
Some of these you can get away with, others, uh-uh. Quick wit, a bag of smoke and two boxes of mirrors can get you only so far. Librarian is an easy one, everyone has been in a library, and if you need to add spice you can launch into I remember the time I had to go to Kalgoorlie to get a book that was 854 days overdue.
Douglas Adams actually had been a bodyguard for a rich London family — or so he says. But how would you know for sure? You’re safe with private investigator, barrister, police detective or spy. I’m sorry that part of my life is strictly confidential. Don’t forget to accompany this with nervous darting glances while sweeping the room for surveillance devices.
Stephen King actually was a high-school janitor. Or was that just a convenient back story for Carrie so that he didn’t have to explain why he knew so much about girls’ locker rooms? Agatha Christie really was an apothecary’s assistant, and James the writer really had been a truck driver. Even without a driver’s licence. He had worked for a narcoleptic removalist in Townsville who fell asleep any time they had to drive further than three suburbs, or anytime James explained the relationships between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.
The job out to Charters Towers, with a delivery of cattle yard panels, happened to satisfy both conditions. They barely avoided crash-test-dummy disaster, narrowly missing three emus and a golden rain tree after James had noticed his boss slumped over the wheel, snoring while supposedly driving down the highway. He was hard to wake up even after the truck fishtailed along the road reserve, ending up facing back the way they had come, James’s white knuckles clenching the handbrake and the steering wheel.
“You better take over, I forgot to mention I’m narcoleptic.”
Sure. I better not mention the no-licence thing. There’s a little diagram on the gear stick knob surely. Crunch. Oh, clutch! No matter, he’s nodded off. Just keep saying it’s all about Anna Livia the tattooed Plurabelle and three quarks for Muster Mark! Quiet now. Don’t wake him.
Some jobs you had better not mention, like the stint at the anatomy department cutting off noses and 13 weeks as an undertaker’s assistant in Townsville. They weren’t jobs for the bio, unless you wanted to attract a following among serial-killer goths.
Forester and formula one mechanic were a bit too easy to be caught out on. What’s your opinion of the bar-length-to-power-ratio calculation? No amount of life in the pits jokes were going to get you out of holes you dig yourself.
He once had a paper run, more interesting than most. Three in the morning at Townsville airport then trucking all the way up to Cardwell and back before breakfast. If you add standing in line waiting to be picked by the bloke who chose the casuals for inserting the Sydney Morning Herald supplements you could say you had a career in newspapers.
An author’s writing credentials are a big deal. The biggest, really. Hard to get, of course, because of Schrödinger’s Chicken and the Curate’s Egg paradox. To put it bluntly, how could you cite your published works if there weren’t any? This is where having half a brain and not being asleep on the job called life comes in.
If you wanted to be published, become a publisher!
Yeah, why didn’t anyone else think of that, besides Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, William Blake, e.e. cummings, Alexander Dumas, Zane Grey, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Anais Nin, Edgar Allen Poe, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Stein, Leo Tolstoi, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Virginia Woolf?
As a publisher James had published many notable tomes especially for listing in his author bio, including, Things I can’t remember when I was drunk, A Peony for your thoughts (the life and works of a perennial horticulturist), and A list of the books I have written for publishers everywhere. Just kidding. He had actually published small books of prose which had appeared without fanfare and disappeared without a murmur, either laudatory or damning.
At one time he had thought knowing a lot of words might be important. What a mistake. He memorised a Gem Pocket Dictionary, thinking a vocabulary of over 40,000 words would be taken as a sign of towering intellect worthy of a hefty advance and a farmhouse on Crete but so far it had only resulted in a punch to the neck by a short petrol station attendant who thought he was being insulted; a gesture displaying a repeated back and forth motion of a hand lightly gripping a section of lubricated garden hose; and being stalked by a young man wearing coke bottle glasses, a pocket protector, a tongue with a blistered tip from licking pencil leads and body odour like dead maggots boiled in vomit. Apart from that, multisyllabic verbosity had been met with unamused disinterest. People simply are not impressed when you tell them pogonophobia is an aversion to beards or arachibutyrophobia is the fear of peanut butter sticking to roof of your mouth.
There’s safety in a crowd. Pretend to be interested in other people’s work. If you are the editor and publisher of a quality literary magazine you completely bypass those pesky things like evaluation for your own work. No annoying questions of literary merit, relevance to humanity, ability to be understood by anyone at all, even your own mother. Not to mention dubious allocation of page space.
“James, why is your prose poem on dreaming under seaweed fourteen times as long as any other piece in the magazine?”
“I guess it just happened that way. Do you think it’s too long? We could reduce the type size.”
Dragging the huge mound of yellow milliner’s fabric down the stairs was a twofold stroke of genius. It got rid of several thousand metres of yellow leftovers and it dusted the stairs at the same time. Who would have thought hat-makers could use so much yellow? Better to be rid of the awful stuff. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Covering the third floor of your building with yellow cloth. What could be the downside?
It was like living in rooms filled with butter, bananas, lemons, canaries, dandelions and sweetcorn. A nauseating mixture at the best of times. And if you happened to have butter, bananas, lemons, canaries, dandelions and sweetcorn, the moment they were brought upstairs they disappeared, lost for weeks, until they finally appeared, dead, blackened with mould.
He heaved the scrunched-up mass of yellow fabric into the industrial bin out the back, the third one he had filled up. All gone. He sprang back up the three flights of stairs and surveyed the scene. Much better. Now, the upstairs was back to bare wood and metal, reminiscent of one of the tidier parts of the industrial revolution.
Was it too early to smoke a cigar? Don’t be ridiculous. It was never too early to smoke a cigar. It could accompany the flagon of hock he was tapping at regular intervals, regrettably an inferior brand of refreshment with only minor chances of ever having involved a grape. He could smoke Schrödinger’s cigar, if it magically appeared in his portable humidor, but no matter how many times he opened it to look in, a cigar, dead or alive, did not magically appear. Maybe it was time to hunt down one of those writer’s bio jobs again. The matriarch at the Colosseo seemed to have gone soft on him, always giving him two plates of spaghetti and chicken when he ordered only one because he was too skeeny, said many times with poking at proud ribs and a loose waistline. He could offer to do the early morning vacuuming upstairs in the casino, hoovering up a stray few coins missed by five-year-old Rosanna who scampered around under the tables at first light picking up the fives, tens and twenties which had fallen out of the punters’ pockets.
He remembered working in a sports store in George Street opposite the McDonnell and East building in the period ramping up to Christmas in 1970 when he was 15. That was a real job. Four dollars a day and five dollars for Saturday morning. It was a fortune. The sports store was where old footballers and cricketers went to die. Because they were celebrities they didn’t have to do any work. They spent their time walking around chatting to people who looked like they were more than window shopping, especially if they were attractive females in their 20s constantly flicking long blonde hair off their necks. James remembered smoking Gauloises even then. The other staff hated them, so he took his breaks at different times and had no one to play darts with on the lunch landing. It wasn’t a room, just a section of floor at the top of the stairs to the toilet, a dart board down one end and nowhere to sit eating salad rolls except the railing where you were in constant danger of falling down to the concrete floor below, especially when pushed hard in the chest by superannuated sports heroes, so you hooked your shoes under the lower railing and held on hard.
He had met Maria through his magazine. She wrote poetry no one could understand but everyone said was powerful, original, achingly beautiful and important. Her first piece had arrived in the mail, addressed to the editor.
He remembered when it had arrived. He had looked on the back of the envelope. It wasn’t far. Not walking distance, but an easy bike ride up and down steep streets. It took him to the wilds of Auchenflower where there was so much green it hurt his eyes. It was nearly as bad as yellow.
He found the address, walked up the driveway and knocked on the door. No-one answered. Maybe no-one was home? There was a seat next to the door. He could wait. For how long? It didn’t really matter.
After some time sitting in the seat thinking about nothing in particular, as opposed to nothing in general, or nothing at all, looking across the road to an island line of trees mostly hiding the houses on the other side of the street, he heard voices approaching.
A small boy with a bright blond head appeared at the bottom of the steep driveway, looking intently at the grey-sloped concrete in front of him as though it was about to move under his feet and toss him back down the slope. When the boy reached the door he saw James sitting in the chair. This was clearly beyond the boundaries of normal expectation. His bright blue eyes widened and he dropped the parcel he was carrying, a bag of shopping with celery stalks sticking out the top, abruptly turned and ran soundlessly down the slope. A blonde teenage girl appeared, herding the runaway back up the driveway.
“Hello,” she said, not entirely at ease with the situation, but more or less committed to taking charge of things now that she had a small boy hiding in the folds of her skirt, a dusty pink-grey coloured cotton with a print of green rose stems with thorns but no flowers. Above it she was wearing a white bolero style top over a white singlet.
James apologised for arriving there unannounced.
“I’m looking for the person who sent me this letter,” he said, handing her the envelope with the name and address on the back.
“That’s my sister, Maria,” said the girl. “I’m Roslyn.” She smiled. She was pretty in a thin-faced, nervous kind of way.
“I knocked on the door,” he said.
“She never answers the door.”
The small boy peeped out of his skirt-cloak of invisibility.
“What’s your name?” asked James
“Can you imagine you’ll one day be a Professor of Law at the University of Queensland?”
Roslyn opened the door and Graeme dashed through it, running out of sight but not earshot yelling at the top of his voice as he hurtled through the house screaming to his sister that there was someone to see her.
Roslyn went inside at a more normal pace and came back after a while with another girl who wasn’t blonde. It was Maria.
James poured on the charm. It was like opening the sluice gates of a dam full of molasses. He said her writing was powerful but not showy, strange and convincing, innocent, with a knowing quality.
Her eyes were quite blue, but paler than Graeme’s. She had high cheekbones and a strong jaw but not like an anvil, like a young woman’s jaw who was very beautiful in appearance. He supposed he noticed that she was neither slim nor heavy, with wide shoulders and a small waist and angular hips. She was wearing a sort of black, gold and red kimono affair over a one piece bathing suit and her hair was wet in clumps as though she hadn’t dried it after coming out of water maybe an hour ago. In fact she was slim, he decided, she seemed to have no fat around her waist and her thighs where their insides joined her hips below the crinkled bulge of her pubis were separated by a gap through which he could see the carpet on the floor behind her. It was a grey carpet with a few stray scattered flecks of red, dark grey, blue and green, but so scattered and minimal you couldn’t see them at first. He brought his eyes up to hers and realised he had been speaking for a long time without consciously taking breath and now had run out of things to say about her writing and the magazine and his writing and what sort of day it had been and that it would probably be the same again tomorrow and he was not good at small talk and other inanities in increasingly short bursts surrounded by ever increasing gaps of no words until his voice petered out and he fell silent, realising throughout all this time she hadn’t spoken and by the look of her placid, not angry, not jovial but thoughtful and pleasant expression that she had no intention of speaking in any conversational sense until he had been quiet for more than a few minutes. He got the impression he was invited into the house when she turned and simply walked away into the darkness of the hall and up the stairs. He followed.
Maria was living with her family at that time, though her room was downstairs and completely self-contained like a grannie flat so she didn’t need to spend time with any of them unless she wanted to. She took James out the back of the house and there was a small plunge pool, a few deckchairs, a large mango tree casting dark shade and a fence rather crowded with neighbours.
She put her kimono on a camp bed and her bathing suit on a chair nearby as if to say because he had no swimming gear he would be naked in the pool and so that he wouldn’t feel uncomfortable she would be naked too.
She got into the pool and he could see her breasts were wide apart and not hard and pointy like a girl’s but low and full and wide apart like a mature woman’s and not particularly white in colour compared to her shoulders which were tanned. Her nipples were not long or short or skinny or fat, in fact they were perfectly proportioned, each quite firm in the centre of its areola and the rest of her was also perfectly proportioned yet in some strange way still slightly angular. Her pubic hair was curly like sparse steel wool.
He climbed into the pool. It was about two metres wide by about 1.8 metres deep. He could touch the bottom with his head mostly out. Her arms stretched along the curved wall with her hands gripping a stainless steel rail. It was starting to get dark.
“It feels like floating onstage in an Aristophanes play, maybe The Clouds. The neighbours as the audience. It’s kind of exposed here. Don’t they worry you?”
“I don’t worry them, so I don’t see why they should worry me.”
“I’m amazed you can be so relaxed,” he said.
“What are you feeling?” she said.
“I’m not feeling anything,” he said.
“Come closer,” she said.
He moved closer and when their faces were almost touching she brought her arms around to encircle his shoulders and kissed him. She had no makeup on. Her face was a perfect face, balanced on a perfect neck. He felt her breasts press into his chest, her nipples rubbing against his.
“I feel intense,” he said when she freed his lips. Her mouth was red.
“Are you cold?”
She kissed him again and brought her legs up around his waist.
“Is there only one me?” he asked into her ear as she laid her head on his shoulder.
“No I think there are at least two, maybe three,” she said. “We need to get out of the water.”
She swivelled and bounced up and out of the pool, water streaming from every surface. He followed, feeling ungainly tall and intensely aware of his erect penis which was astonishingly obvious considering this was a quiet suburban house with at least a sister and a little brother who could be anywhere. She took his hand and led him to the stretcher bed, lay down on it and dragged him to her side. She took his hand and guided it between her legs, showing him by feel her vagina, her clitoris hardening under his hand and guiding him so his hand moved in a pattern like an infinity sign. She arched her back and muffled a scream while cupping and offering him her breast which he declined, concentrating on kissing her mouth and mingling with her quiet, intense, and peculiar mind. She grabbed his ridiculously erect penis and dragged him down and into her, wet and soft and embracing as he sank to his depth and felt a strange heightened sense of awareness combined with a crazy thought of flying ears. Her body arched against his and her vagina became a warm, tightening, powerful flood of pressure, mounting to a shuddering, moaning release as she sank her teeth into his shoulder and laughed and cried and kissed him gently and held him close, stifling her cries as her body spasmed and bucked with his.
When he awoke, Maria was on top of him asleep on his chest and her hand was around his penis and it was waking up too. She opened her eyes and smiled into his.
“Thank you,” she said. “That was my first time.”
He kissed her mouth, her eyes and her mouth again and tasted her mouth as she kissed him. “Mine too,” he said.
“Let’s get dressed,” she said. “We’re going to have to eat dinner with my family.”
He dressed in the dark and they went to her room where she dressed in tight slacks and a skivvy which left her breasts breathtakingly obvious, of which she seemed oblivious. They went upstairs and he was introduced to her small mother who had a blonde mass of tight hair which seemed to be shrinking every part of her head except her eyes and a kind father who wanted to extend some sort of love and understanding but was unsure how. The family, as a group, was peculiar, but not unfriendly. Another boy, also not blonde, appeared sometime before the meal and looked at James without expression, then went away again. They told him his name was Nigel. After eating James helped wash up. When the dishes were in the racks he went with Maria out onto the veranda. They took a few minutes to cool down in the night air, then went down to her room, him against the wall with a grey cotton blanket over his shoulders, her leaning against the other wall. Because the room was narrow their outstretched feet overlapped.
He could hear her father pacing the floor above, back and forth until eventually he came down knocked on the bedroom door and opened it. At first he didn’t say anything, just looking around the room until he saw them. Then he asked them why the light wasn’t on. She said there was no need for light and her father went away, apparently satisfied they were not doing something they shouldn’t.
It was late by this time so he said goodbye and walked home, leaving his bicycle there, thinking about her.
It was a nice memory, James thought, and almost completely true. The industrial look of the factory-warehouse looked back at him without the slightest sense of judgement, affirming or otherwise. He noticed on his cheek there were wet tears. He wiped them off and blew his nose into a dirty t-shirt before throwing it into the over-flowing cloth bag of laundry needing to be done. He racked his manuscript into a neat block of pages and put it into a flat canvas bag with a long over-shoulder strap.
Outside, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the glare. The city came into focus and he saw Maria. Her bright hair, smelling of eucalyptus, smiled at him as he approached. She was scribbling poems on her leg, to avoid hurting the air. His footsteps hurried away behind him like a retreating mirror, as he approached. At the moment he sat down she looked up. She drew her grey-green skirt down over her knees, hunched forward doing so and grinned.
“Are you writing your book?” she asked him.
“Not right now,” he answered.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 285
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 18 June 2019
Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.
Please consider becoming a patron!