© Passant n°49
from Capital, Volume One, Part Two
You're both naked, but you haven't made love. Penny's nakedness strikes you as perfectly normal, perfectly natural: what could be normal and natural and beautiful than Penny curled up beside you? You find your own nakedness unbearable: redundant, excessive, above all misplaced. How did you end up here? You didn't ask, and Penny didn't invite you. You think over the events of the evening. Penny told you about Murray, she burst into tears, you comforted her but decided to leave the house as soon as possible. A hug turned to a kiss. You fell to the couch, fumbled at each other, started to make love. But then you both suddenly stopped. You remember the exact moment you stopped. You remember the feeling of each kiss filling with desire, and desire turning to love, real love, and love suddenly faltering, losing confidence. And from that moment on the intensity of each kiss decreased ever so slightly, a decrease that demanded more but was of course met by less, until your kisses slowly diminished, until, within minutes, you were both once again left stranded on the sofa in front of the blaring television, together but alone, with only your feelings of hurt and Margaret Thatcher for company.
And for thirty minutes, Penny's head on your lap, you both watched her. Margaret Thatcher wore a tunic of green and gold brocade, its collar a band of black velvet. Her hair swept across her head in waves of auburn. You were hypnotised by her manner, its mixture of earnestness and theatricality, by her sharp, beak-like nose, by the softly decaying flesh of her throat, by the way her gaze sharpened and her jaw tightened when she made an impassioned point. She seemed more than human, stylised into a new kind of life form, the product of decades of electioneering, media networks and near-unrivalled power. You barely noticed the minutes pass: she spoke with total authority on economics, on wars, on families, on culture, on morality. In regular cutaways Kerry O'Brien's reactions mirrored your own: in turn he looked bemused, wary, incredulous. From time to time, to stop himself laughing outright either in amazement or horror, or more likely a mixture of both, his mouth froze into a stunned smile.
The interview finished. Penny straightened herself up and turned the TV off with the remote. She leaned back into the couch. The hum of the refrigerator filled the silence. And then Penny did something you did not expect. She turned to you and put her hand into the front pocket of your jeans. You knew what she was after: your wallet. You grabbed her wrist, but she struggled with you. "Give me your wallet," she said. "What for?" you asked sharply, your hand squeezing her wrist. You felt her fingernails dig into you thigh. "Just give it to me," she said, a touch of fury in her voice. You let go of her. She fished it out, opened it, and drew out a folded sheet of paper that she unfolded with a delicacy that surprised you. It was a dog-eared Optus phone bill, the call-itemisation page with the place, charge rate and length of each call neatly arranged in columns. She studied the list for what seemed like a long time. Finally she said: "Fifty-two minutes, 27 seconds, that's the one, isn't it? Fifty-two minutes, 27 sec…" You cut her off angrily.
"Yes, yes, that's it. That was our last conversation. I never heard from Christina again. That's all that left of it. That's all that left of ten years together. That's all that's left of her." Penny looked up at you, her face incredulous, her eyes shiny with hurt. You felt stripped, humiliated. And now it was your turn to cry. Hot tears welled up, but, with great effort, you stopped yourself. To cry would have been to ask for sympathy, and you knew that was the one she thing she couldn't give. "Can't you just leave well enough alone," you said, "can't you just leave well enough alone." You snatched the bill from her, hurriedly put it away. You felt completely ashamed. Then you both sat in silence for a long time. Finally you got up to leave. Then she said: "You can stay the night. But just to sleep."
She seemed amazed at what she had just offered.
Without exchanging another word you both rose and went to her bedroom. In the dark you took off your clothes - it was freezing in there after the warmth of the living room - and slipped under the covers. Penny turned towards the wall. You lay on your back, arm behind your head, and listened to her breathing becoming deeper, more regular, until you knew she had fallen asleep.
You stare at the alarm clock's blinking red lights: are they drifting towards you, are they moving away? Are they a plane landing, or a plane taking off? You know you love Penny, for the first time you know that you really love Penny. You fix that love in your gaze, but you don't know if it's coming towards you or drifting away.
It's not her fault. Night after night you would lie in this bed, Penny sleeping beside you. You would lie there and listen to the thunder of the last passenger jets haul themselves into the sky before the 11 p.m. curfew. You would lie there trying, and completely failing, not to picture yourself aboard one of those jets with Christina. Often you would be going up to see her in Brisbane, the winter flights so calm that the plane barely seemed to be moving, the summer flights often passing through the tail end of cyclones that filled the skies with towers of bruised clouds and violent head winds that left you still shaking an hour after you got off the plane. Night after night you would lie in this bed, hating yourself, trying not to think of your flight to London, Christina happy and exhilarated by your side, and the return trip taken three years later, the seat beside you mostly empty, occasionally occupied by the bare feet of a backpacker who had stretched out over the empty row of seats to get what rest she could. You think you might be falling asleep, you aren't quite sure. The dim outlines of some of Penny's furniture emerge out of the darkness - an old cedar wardrobe, a pine chest of drawers - but then merge back into it. Or is it that your eyes are closing, finally heavy with sleep? For a moment the bed seems to be moving: you imagine it's a raft, and you are floating down a river of dark, soundless water. Penny sits at the boat's oars, or at least a strange version of Penny. Everything about her is slightly heightened: her hair is that little bit glossier, her skin is that little bit rosier, her bright yellow T-shirt is remarkably uncreased after what has been a long day. She pulls at the oars and smiles at you with complete happiness. You soon realise that you are not the only one she is smiling at. Pressed up against you is a young boy, around seven years old. You look down at him, amazed. He looks up at you, smiling. There is no mistaking the resemblance: he is your son. He leans happily against you and smiles at his rowing mother. You sit there, feeling a bit useless, until you realise that there is something pulling at your hand: it is a line of string rising up into the sky. Your gaze follows it and, floating up into the nether reaches of what is now an impossibly high ceiling (or is it the sky?) is a bright-orange, diamond-shaped kite, its tail fluttering against what could either be the patterns of the pressed-metal ceiling, or formations of clouds, you aren't sure which. The string pulls tighter and the kite begins to pull at the boat. You look up. The kite has been replaced by a black bird-like silhouette with a jagged tail. It's a Stealth fighter, or perhaps a kite in the shape of a Stealth fighter, it's impossible to tell. It doesn't pull the boat in a straight line: it traces a circle in the sky, the boat repeating the shape on the surface of the water. Penny rests her oars, surprised, clearly worried, but reluctant to express it in front of your son, who is laughing loudly: he thinks it's great fun. You give Penny a reassuring look, even though you are perturbed that this woman may not really be Penny. It occurs to you that she might be an actor who has been made up to look like Penny, which would make this young boy an actor who is merely playing your son. Suddenly the Stealth fighter pulls harder, dispelling these thoughts, and before long the boat is going round and round with alarming speed. Your son starts to shout, let go Daddy, let go! Penny, her composure suddenly collapsing, starts to shout it as well. The intensity of their fear stuns you, and it takes you a moment to realise they mean the string. You let go of it. You wait for the kickback at the release of tension, but it doesn't come: in fact the boat picks up speed, gliding round with great precision as if propelled by a powerful but silent engine. You cling to the sides: before long you will all be thrown out. Penny and your son are now screaming in naked terror. You can't bear to watch their faces. You are surprisingly calm. You watch the Stealth fighter float up into the sky.
Suddenly all movement stops. Everything goes black. You feel the sheets on your back, the cold air of the bedroom on your exposed arm. The dim room seeps into view, the red glow of the clock numbers, the dull sheen of light on the chilly walls. You are neither awake nor asleep. You feel Penny sleeping beside you, the rhythm of her breath overlayed by the blinking red dots. Under the doona you are starting to sweat: it's stifling under there, but you don't dare move for waking up Penny, beautiful sleeping Penny. You look up at the ceiling to see if the kite is still there. It has vanished. Instead, Margaret Thatcher's face looms above you. She looks exactly as she did in the television interview you watched earlier that evening. Her auburn hair is aglow, her brocade tunic luminous. She is eyeing you carefully. She sucks gently, meditatively on her teeth. She cocks her head to one side and asks you, firmly but not unkindly: "How many frothy coffees did you buy this week?"
You take a moment to answer. I don't know, maybe three or four, you say in your mind. She purses her lips and fixes you with her stare.
"You must learn to live within your means," she tells you less kindly. You don't reply. Her skin is papery, thin with old age, but lit up from within by resolute conviction. As she waits for you to respond her eyes harden and glint in the darkness. She speaks again, her face tensing, all its energy drawing towards her thin-lipped mouth, the muscles beneath the papery skin flexing themselves in bursts of energy.
"You must learn to save," she says sternly. "I won't deny there is some merit in buying the occasional frothy coffee. In doing so you create trade for local small business. But such expenditures are better left to those who can afford them. You must learn to save, to provide for your wife and child, to prepare for your son's future…"
As she speaks her voice punches out the words in a rhythm that grows more and more insistent. "You have only your own resources to rely on. Years of socialism have dulled your edge, made you soft and dependent on the state. The state doesn't have any money. It has only the wealth you create." Her face begins to descend from the ceiling, looms closer and closer. She fixes you in her unblinking stare, she shakes a pointed finger at you, her head thrusting forward on its wizened neck, pecking down at you.
"It was my policies that helped people such as yourselves prosper. It was my policies that said so as you prosper, so others too will prosper. It was my policies that released the talents and energies of the people."
Her face pecks down at you, her voice rings in your ears.
"It was my policies that said everyone a capitalist! everyone a capitalist! everyone a capitalist!" Her face comes to a halt, hovers above you just past arm's reach. Her eyes burn, defiant, goading. They dare you to rise to the challenge.
Then suddenly her gaze becomes unfocussed, distracted. The glow of her skin, the light that burns inside, fades. The flesh of her face goes grey. Her mouth, only a second ago so tightly pursed, slackens. Every muscle in her face wars with one another as she tries not to cry. But still the tears come, squeezing themselves out, slowly, painfully, drop by drop. Her shoulders start to heave: you can see their boney shapes press against the brocade of her tunic. You find it excruciating: you're a child watching a parent be vulnerable for the first time.
"I never had less than a forty-five majority," she sobs. "I was never betrayed by the people," she sobs. She pauses, regains some of her composure. She produces a handkerchief and dabs her tears away. Her gaze fixes on you again.
"Do you know what my only regret is," she asks you, her expression now wistful. No, you answer gently. She sniffles and says, "that the party did not permit to finish the work I had started in the Gulf." As she says the word "Gulf" she regains complete control of herself. The light from within leaps back to life. She fixes her gaze on you again.
"Never appease an aggressor," she says. "Never, ever award aggression with complacency," she says. "And never, ever trust a socialist!"
She raises a pointed finger, ready to conduct another monologue.
You close your eyes. Margaret Thatcher's face vanishes. The room is silent save for Penny's breathing. You lie there, neither asleep nor awake, listening to her breathe in, breathe out, each breath following on the last, each breath overlapping with the last until there is one continual breath that fills the dark. The longer you listen, the louder it gets: in it you can hear the distant roar of thundering water, the slow, steady roar of the silence that filled your final call to Christina. Fifty-two minutes, 27 seconds, hardly a word said. The hissing roar of the phone line fills the darkness of the bedroom like a sheet of white noise. It crushes you to the bed. It draws everything into itself, submerges and preserves everything in its complex layers. In it you can hear all kinds of sounds: the sonic boom of jets, the whispering of lovers, strings of electronic turbulence that loop back on themselves, trapped in satellite feeds beamed down from the heavens or fibre-optic cables sunk deep in the mud of ocean floors. The roaring silence runs through your muscles and nerves. It poisons your blood and your soul. You want to wake up, you want to sleep. You want to love again.
In 2000 the first half of Capital, Volume One, Part Two was highly commended in the NSW Ministry for the Arts Writers' Fellowship. He is the recipient of numerous Australian Council grants and other awards for his fiction, which has also appeared in anthologies published by Penguin, Picador and Random Vintage, and in magazines such as Heat, Southerly and Jacket. His short story "Triumph of the Will" won the best story prize in the Penguin anthology Australian Writing Now (1988).
In 2001 he represented Australia at the 38th Belgrade International Meeting of Writers, and in 2003 participated on the panel "Australian Writing Today" with Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee at the International Samuel Beckett Symposium. His critical writing has appeared in various scholarly publications, including Samuel Becket Today (Rodopi Publications), UTS Review, and AUMLA.
He writes regularly for the national media and contributes essays, reviews and feature articles to The Bulletin and The Sydney Morning Herald.
He holds Masters degrees from both the University of Technology, Sydney and Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, USA), and a PhD from the University of Western Sydney. He is currently a lecturer in writing and textual theory at the University of Wollongong. His research interests include narratology, literary aesthetics (in particular the work of Claude Simon and Samuel Beckett), and Marxism. He lives in Sydney, Australia.