Now THIS is dancing …
PLAYING WITH KNIVES
'The cover of Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire shows a vast and terrible conflagration. Flames reach high into the sky, devouring the air and seeming to set the wide river alight. In the distance, an eerily familiar pair of ghostly towers rises above the smoke …’
See my review of SHIRLEY HAZZARD by Brigitta Olubas in the June 2013 issue of Australian Book Review.
THIS (HITCHHIKING) LIFE
(First published in The Australian, 27 April 2013)
Once upon a time I was very familiar with the cars of other people. During my twenties I hitch-hiked everywhere. It was the public transport of my generation. At major intersections there would be a queue of us patiently waiting our turn to be picked up. You learned that travelling with a girl was easier. You learned to hide your pack behind a bush until a vehicle stopped. You learned to be agreeable and not to argue. Sometimes I made up stories about who I was, for the pleasure of lying without guilt or consequence.
I told one driver I was a zoologist, recently returned from studying tigers in Sumatra. There was an illicit thrill in making up convincing answers on the fly with zero knowledge of tigers, Sumatra, or any aspect of zoology whatsoever.
‘They mate for life,’ I said, ‘making nests high in the trees. There are less than 600 left now because of deforestation. We’re working to create reserves for them.’
’Good on you,’ said the driver. ‘Best of luck with that. I had no idea …’
I was suddenly filled with shame. It was like a bad taste in my mouth. There were no more stories about Sumatra or Antarctica or studying to be a nuclear scientist.
I remember an elderly couple in their 1960s car, gilt with chrome, perfectly maintained, the wrinkled seats still smelling of polished leather. The wife opened a tin box and took out sandwiches of white bread which they chomped on contentedly. After a while I realised they were not going to offer me one. A Thermos flask of tea then appeared, the cap turned over to become a cup. After testing the temperature with her little finger, the woman leaned over to let her husband sip the tea while he drove, as though she were feeding a baby. The old Ford was suffocating and I was glad to be dropped off at the next town. It felt as though I had been kidnapped and whisked back in time.
There was the Scotsman driving north who asked me to read the signs at every intersection. He couldn’t read, he confessed. Every time he took an unfamiliar route, he picked up a hitch-hiker to navigate.
There were nurses in short skirts driving mini cars, playing loud music and smoking furiously.
But the lift I remember more than any was with a farmer, the car littered with straw and bits of machinery.
‘I can only take you 15 minutes down the road,’ he warned.
I jumped in without a thought. It was almost dark and threatening to rain. He was going to visit his wife, the farmer said. He hadn’t seen her for a while and there was lots to tell. The tractor engine had blown a gasket but he’d found a replacement in the barn. A cow had given birth to twin calves, and that wasn’t the half of it. His wife was a music teacher, he said. They had almost nothing in common but were happy from the start. The car pulled off the road though a stone gateway. It was quite dark, no moon in the sky. Against the black sky I could make out the blacker outline of a church steeple.
‘She died six years ago,’ he said, answering my puzzled expression as I got out. ‘I come up a few times a week to have a chat and keep her company for a while.’
The car rolled on into the dark cemetery, its lights soon swallowed up by the shrubbery and looming yew trees.
I have stayed grateful to those kindly strangers who invited me into their cars. They were an important part of my education. Those brief encounters were the beginning of an important lesson: that other lives existed beside my own.
THE GIRL WITH ANTLERS
I often think of the girl with antlers.
Decades have passed since I first saw her, yet when I close my eyes she is there in every detail. Her face is oval, framed by falling hair, and almost pretty. I’m not usually drawn to a pretty face, preferring stronger lines or even jolie-laide like Charlotte Gainsbourg, but there was something special about the girl with antlers.
It was her expression I think: a knowing half-smile as she looked at you, as though in possession of some mysterious, wonderful secret.
She might be the younger, more mischievous sister of the Mona Lisa as described by Pater: ‘older than the rocks among which she sits; like the Vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her.’
Her breasts are bare and from her head grow two extravagant antlers. She bears them with pride, decorated with wild flowers which hang down in garlands entwining with her hair. The image has a quiet power as well as beauty, drawing your eye back again and again. It fascinates - in the original sense of fascinere, of casting a spell.
I don’t recall where I found the picture. In an antique shop in a Welsh country town one winter’s afternoon perhaps, or pressed between the pages of a book in my grandmother’s house. Wherever it came from, the picture hung on my wall for years while I was a student, alongside a nude by Mapplethorpe, a black-and-white photograph of Debbie Harry, and a landscape by Caspar David Friedrich. Somehow, in moving house, moving relationships, moving country, the picture was lost and I forgot about it for years.
I was in my thirties before I saw her again. Visiting a lawyer in Canberra on some business or other, I stopped enthralled as I entered his door. There she was: the girl with antlers. It was the very same image, hung in the hallway as though to announce the resident spirit.
I was running late. There were documents to sign in triplicate and deliver somewhere or other by 5 PM. Only as I rushed out, hurriedly shaking his hand, did I ask the bearded lawyer about that picture of the half-smiling girl, with honeysuckle, daisies, and eglantine hanging from her horns.
‘Ah, you know about her . . ’ he smiled, waving and closing the door behind me.
I have searched Google and Bing, Yahoo, and even Wolfram Alpha, but no search engine can find her for me. In scandinavian mythology, I learn, there was a goddess who ran with the reindeer herds, clothed only in furs and with spectacular horns growing from her head. She was a figure of potency and awe. A kind of Artemis. A search for images of ‘girls with antlers’ brought no more luck, delivering manga drawing to me, some pornographic curiosities, but mostly pictures of arty Tumblr girls, posing with horns held to their heads. My curiosity is shared, it seems, if not always in the same way.
I have never found that picture which so fascinated me. I often think of her, convinced the image has some meaning I can’t quite place, some ancient cult-like significance of which I am unaware. Perhaps I’ll never find her again, but if you see her, be sure to let me know.