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Authors: Janette Turner Hospital

North of Nowhere, South of Loss

BOOK: North of Nowhere, South of Loss
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NORTH
OF
NOWHERE

SOUTH
OF
LOSS

Hospital goes from strength to literary strength — ever brilliant in ideas, graceful in expression, resourceful in story.

Fay Weldon

Her stories are like brief cyclones wrapped around an unexpected center of calm.

Los Angeles Times Book Review

One of the most elegant prose styles in the business.

The Times

A masterly stylist, accomplishing intellectual complexity and mimetic sensuality with a dazzling ease.

Alison Croggan,
Sunday Herald

Sensuous, speculative fictions about the experience of dislocation … her stories develop like poems or meditations.

New York Times Book Review

Turner Hospital has a rich, allusive style and a gift for intensity which etches the geography of her characters' inner lives as sharply as it does the cities, towns and climates in which they live.

Sandra Hall,
Bulletin

Her work is ripe with humor, wisdom and melancholy.

Valerie Miner,
Philadelphia Inquirer

There is extraordinary intelligence at work here.

Eileen Barrett,
Examiner-Chronicle (San Francisco)

NORTH
OF
NOWHERE

SOUTH
OF
LOSS

Janette Turner Hospital
was born in Melbourne in 1942, but her family moved to Brisbane when she was seven years old. She has taught in Queensland high schools, and in universities in Australia, Canada, USA, England, and Europe. Her short stories and her novels have won a number of international awards, and she is published in ten languages. Three of the stories in this collection were included in the UK's annual
Best Short Stories
for their year of publication, and one of the stories, “Unperformed Experiments Have No Results”, was selected for
The Best of the Best
in 1995, an anthology of the decade. In 1999, she was invited by the University of South Carolina to be the successor to the late James Dickey, and she now holds a permanent position there as Professor and Distinguished Writer in Residence.

Other books by
Janette Turner Hospital

Novels

The Ivory Swing

The Tiger in the Tiger Pit

Borderline

Charades

The Last Magician

Oyster

Due Preparations for the Plague

Short Stories

Dislocations

Isobars

Collected Stories

For Peter
1942–1998
In memoriam

THE OCEAN OF BRISBANE

His voice came out of the black space between the two projectors. When a slide slipped off the wall, dropping into nowhere, the tiered funnel of the lecture theatre was so dark that the darkness seemed to rub itself against her, furry, like the legs of spiders. She shivered. Then a bubble of light would come, a coloured diagram or a photograph would appear on the screen straight ahead but below her, and words would unfold themselves on the other screen, the one that was angled across a corner of the room, high up, and therefore eye-level with the tier where she sat. She would see him then for a moment, shadowy, a juggler of ideas, images, impenetrable words, remote control buttons, a magician waving his arms in the twilight cast by the screens.

I watched her watching him.

She was trying to explain him to herself.

I watched how she held onto her own body, arms hugged tightly, and how she kept shivering (it
looked
like shivering) in the sweltering airless room.

Don't worry, I wanted to whisper to her. I wanted to put my hand on her arm, soothing, but it would have alarmed her. Don't worry, I wanted to whisper. He's just as much a mystery to himself.

He spoke, and his words settled lightly onto the cantilevered screen in black block capitals, crowding, jostling like branches full of crows, she had always been frightened of crows, the way they swooped at you, dive-bombed, that time on the farm at Camp Mountain, long before Brisbane, she was still a child at Camp Mountain, the beaks slashing at her head (or maybe magpies, was it? had they been magpies?), they go for the eyes,
Always wear a hat,
teachers warned,
and if attacked, cover the eyes.

ELECTRON MICROSCOPY
, the screen said.

OF CRYSTALS
.

And then in a fluttering rush:
OF AN ALPHA-HELICAL COILED-COIL PROTEIN EXTRACTED FROM THE OOTHECA OF THE PRAYING MANTIS.

The black letters swooped at her and instinctively she covered her eyes. I watched the way her hands shook slightly (how would she speak to him? how had they
ever
really? and yet after all these years she had been hoping … but what language could they possibly use?) and all the time, through her fingers, she was watching for crevices of hope, for something to grab onto, and
there
was something,
crystals
, yes, she recognised that, he used to have a set, those heavy headphones, telling them he could hear Indonesia, England, the cricket scores, winding the world into his room, swallowing it, he had this terrible hunger, this unnatural … this kind of greed, she could never predict what … and it was never big enough for him even then, his room, their house, their lives, Brisbane, the country, the world, he was like one of those alien children on the late late movies, growing into strangeness, his mind butting against the ceiling, webbed toes, a third eye, foreign to her from the beginning. She pressed a hand against her stomach and stared at it. Where had he come from?

“Coiled-coil,” he was saying, from the dark space between the projectors. On the lower screen were intricate diagrams that looked like tangled chain-necklaces, or twisted ropes of sausages perhaps. “Solving the structures,” he said. “Electron diffraction … especially certain membrane-embedded protein strings resistant to X-ray imaging.” A ghostly pointer picked out the braided strings, and she turned to look at me suddenly, so specifically, that I heard her thoughts, heard the click of association, or saw it, and felt for my plaits against my shoulders. It was like groping for an amputated limb, the coiled coils of childhood.

It seems only yesterday
… her look said.

The coiled coils of language, I thought, and knotted myself into the puzzle. I saw diagrams of shared and divergent lives braiding and unbraiding themselves. Alpha-helical, alphabetical, we both rode in an Alfa Romeo once, it belonged to someone his older brother knew, I think, someone from Sydney, the wind whipping through the coiled coils of our hair and we two thinking we were Christmas, swimming through Brisbane like fish. There was nothing to it in those days. We could walk on water. We thought we were the beginning and the end, the ant's pants, the ootheca of the praying mantis, no less.

O-ith-
ee
-ka,

oh I
thee
thir,

thaid the blind man

though he couldn't thee at all.

What the hell did
ootheca
mean?

Bet you don't know, bet I do, don't, do, don't too, do so, don't, do.
Those two, our mothers used to say, will argue till the cows come home. Fish out of water, other kids' mothers said, but we weren't, we were in our own element, we porpoised through books, we dived into argument, we rode our bikes into endless discussion and rainforest trails where we disappeared and swam in private time, no time, timeless rainforest rockpool debate time. We cavorted in the ocean of Brisbane, our own little pond.

I computed the odds against solving the structure of memory which dissolves and devolves and solves nothing.

Afterwards, waiting for him under the jacarandas, we fanned ourselves with the lecture handouts. From time to time, she smoothed hers out against her skirt and studied it with intense concentration, as though memorisation of the print might yield up a meaning. When she saw me looking, a kind of rash flared across her cheeks and she scrunched the handout into a fan again and whipped it back and forth. She said nervously, apologetically: “Me and his dad …” Then she panicked about her grammar and bit her lip and began again. “His father and me … I, I should say, I and his dad . the Depression and the war and everything . You know, Philippa, I'm sure Brian's told you, we only got to Grade 6.”

“Oh heck,” I said, “Brian's stuff is double-dutch to me too. To nearly everyone. To 99.9 per cent of the people in the world, I would say.”

“Is it?”

“Oh God, yes. Brian lives in the stratosphere. He's really – oh, please don't, Mrs Leckie”

“I thought . ” She was fumbling in her handbag, sniffling. “I'm not very . I thought it was just me. I don't want to embarrass him.”

“You won't, you
won't
! How could you even think such a …” There were people jostling us, and we had to step back, step aside, adjust ourselves. We eased our way to the outside edge of the crowd, beyond the cloisters, away from the hot blanket of bodies. “He's proud as punch that you're here. Look, he's just coming out now, he's looking around for you, see?” I waved madly and Brian made a sign of acknowledgment with his hand and went on talking to some colleague.

“You can't blame him,” she said meekly. “It's just, sometimes we wished … his dad wished … ” She mopped at her face with the Kleenex she had fished from her bag.

“It's dreadfully sticky, isn't it?” I could feel runnels of sweat making a slow tickling descent across my ribcage.

“I wished for his dad's sake.” She studied her much creased fan again, its print smudging from sweat and oil.
Electron microscopy of crystals of an alpha-helical…
“Me, actually, to tell you the truth, Philippa, I got to Grade 8 but I never let on. Not while his Dad was alive.” A little smile passed between us, woman to woman –
Well, that's what we do, isn't it?
– and then she said wistfully, “His dad used to talk to him about the crystal set, he understood all that, they used them in the war, I think.”

Delicately, with the thumb and index finger of both hands – handbag slung at crook of left elbow, lecture handout pressed under upper right arm – she took hold of the front of her bodice, just below the shoulders on each side, and lifted the polyester away from her body, raising it gently, lowering, raising, a quick light motion, ventilating herself.
“Your
dad, Philippa. That was a nasty bit of a turn. Is he all right?”

“Yes,” I said, startled. “He's fine.” I fanned myself vigorously, guiltily, because I had forgotten, completely forgotten,
like a fist squeezing his heart, he says,
an item in letters,
just a warning, the doctor says, Doctor Williams it was, you remember him, he says at our age you've got to expect …
“How did you –?”

“Your mum, I think it was, told me … yes, I saw her on the bus one day. Going into the city. We had a chat about you and Brian.”

“Oh dear!”

“She had pictures of all the grandchildren in her purse, I couldn't get over it, little Philippa Townsend with those big teenagers. And all that snow, I just can't imagine. It's funny, isn't it, how we …? To me, you're still that little girl swinging on the front gate talking to Brian after school. You don't look a day older, Philippa.”

“Oh, don't I wish!” I was swamped by the smell of frangipani beside their front gate. It was so intense, I felt dizzy. Lightly, indifferently, I asked, “The frangipani still beside your gate?”

“Fancy you remembering! His dad planted that. His dad was very good with his hands.”

“Yes, I remember. Your roses especially –”

“He was a quiet man, Ed, a very shy man, but he was a good man, no one realises how … such a good …” She began pleating her skirt in her fingers. “I suppose Brian told you about the nights, but it wasn't his fault, those awful nights, those terrible …” She turned away. “I feel …” she said, putting out a hand, casting about for some sort of support. “I don't feel too …” Her hand drifted aimlessly through the wet air. “I think I have to sit down,” she said.

“There's a bench, look.” I led her towards it. “We don't have to go to the reception if you're not feeling well. I can drive you home.”

“I don't know,” she said uncertainly. She pulled at the damp frizz on her forehead, trying to cover a little more of the space above her eyebrows. The space seemed vast now. Her fingers explored it nervously, scuttling across what felt like an acreage of blotched skin. I shouldn't have had it permed so soon before, she thought wretchedly. This dress is wrong. I should have worn the green suit. I shouldn't have worn a hat. She said plaintively, “You were so clever, you and Brian. Such clever children.” Her voice came from a long way back, from our high school years or even earlier, from the times of swinging on the gate.
“He'll go far
, teachers used to say,” and her eyes stared into nothing, following the radiant but bewildering trajectory of Brian's life. She spoke as sleepwalkers speak:
“He'll go far.
They always told us that, I remember.” She looked vaguely about. “I mustn't miss the tram, Philippa.”

As though the action were somehow related to the catching of trams, she stretched her hands out in front of her and studied them, turning them over slowly, examining the palms, the backs, the palms again. Her hands must have offered up a message, because she gave a sudden sad little yelp of a laugh. “I'm being silly, aren't I? There's no trams anymore.”

“Oh, I do that too,” I said. “The trams still run in
my
Brisbane.” I tapped my forehead with an index finger.

“You know who I ran into in the Commonwealth Bank one day? Last year it was, the big one, you know, in the city, on the corner of Adelaide Street?
Mrs Matthews!”

“Mrs Matthews?”

“Richard's mum, you remember?”

“Oh, Richard,” I said, dizzy with loss. It was so unsettling, this vertigo, hitting sudden pockets of freefall into the past.

“Richard went away too,” she said. “They never see him. It just seems like yesterday when Brian and Richard and you and the others … and Julie … and Elaine. It was terrible what happened to Elaine. I cried when I read it in the paper. It's not fair, it isn't fair.” She picked up a leaf and began shredding it nervously and then dropped it. She ventilated herself again, holding the dress away from her skin, shaking it lightly. “Everyone's children went away.”

“God, it's hot,” I said. “The staff club will be air-conditioned though. For the reception. I wish they'd hurry it up.”

“But you come back a lot, Philippa. I saw in the paper –”

“Oh yeah. Every year. Brisbane's got its hooks in me, I reckon. Look, he's coming at last, he's seen us. Oh damn.”

We watched the student who had intercepted him: jeans and t-shirt, sandals.

“They all look scruffy,” she said. It was an affront to her. Even the adults, the university people, the ones who would be at the reception, even they looked scruffy. Well, not scruffy exactly. But more or less as though they were dressed for an evening barbecue at the neighbours'. I shouldn't have worn the hat, she saw. I shouldn't have worn the corsage. But how could she have known? She had thought it would be like going to a wedding.

And he could have been a bridegroom coming towards us, easing away, trailing worshipful students like membrane-embedded alpha-helical streamers. He had the kind of bridegroomly selfconsciousness and forced gaiety that goes with weddings.

“Dorrie!” he said loudly, full of energetic joviality, hugging her.

He had always called her that, from before he even started primary school. At five years of age: Dorrie and Ed. Never mother, father; certainly not mum and dad. It was as though even then he knew something they didn't. And they had been too apprehensive, too apologetic, to protest. They had never even asked why.

“Philippa.”

“Good on ya, mate.” We hugged, old puzzle parts locking together. “You were bloody amazing. I'm speechless, I'm dazzled. What the hell's an ootheca?”

“What's a
what
?”

“An oo-ith-
ee
-ka.” I pronounced all four syllables carefully, the way he had, the stress on the third, treating each sound like glass. “The ootheca of the praying mantis.”

BOOK: North of Nowhere, South of Loss
11.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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