Maryanne Hillis Del Gigante
V2:E6 June, 2000
Dinner plates, salad plates, soup plates, cups and saucers, a coffee pot and tea set belonging to an exquisite replica of a 17th Century Richard Ginori dinner service for twenty-four at a couple of hundred dollars a plate, and another service for twelve, more modern, decorated with fish, also Ginori.
I move on to dust the second shelf.
The dinner set I designed and marketed nationwide in the States, again with fish but hand-decorated by an artist with exhibitions to his credit and made in hand-thrown Italian pottery in a village in Umbria. A sushi set. French lion-handled consomme cups, a tureen that stands eighteen inches high with claw feet and a putto on the lid. A stack of platters of all sizes, in ceramic, some decorated, most of them plain white.
I remember the name of a shop in Rome -- la Porcellana Bianca. Sure was. White china and lots of it, a feast, a really dangerous place. I wish I'd thought of that -- the sheer elegance of a shop that sells white only.
I keep dusting. It’s like a damn shop in this kitchen.
My sister is in the middle of telling me about her day at work with the emotionally unstable and says that one of her charges is violent. If you turn your back to him he will attack you. Today he tried to punch her out, and she’d had to grab his raised fist and tell him not to fuckin' think of touching her. Later, the same guy came sidling up to her and said,
"Jesus was killed by the Romans. He was born in a sandcastle with his mouth slit."
Her amazement at the bizarreness of this is something I can't participate in fully. I keep dusting. She presses me to acknowledge that it is a most spun-out goddam awful thing to say. It's really not all that shocking to me; I say I could have achieved a similar result by writing out various disjointed phrases and pasting them randomly together.
She still reckons I should work in one of the Houses so that I can hear real-life weird stuff like that and use it in my writing. I point out that if I listen to her regularly, I can have the weird stuff for my writing without having to change diapers on adults over six feet tall who want to bash me.
Apparently I know nothing. Apparently, the violent ones don't wear diapers. Mostly, they are just looking for a chance to bash you.
She is going back North soon. Her Francis is building the photography studio for her while she's away. He's so wonderful he makes me sick, they both make me sick.
A removal van pulls up in front of the house and I recognize the name on the side through the acacia fronds and know what it is. The driver comes to the door and I wasn't expecting them to ever appear, let alone today, so I am not welcoming. They back the truck down the driveway and start unloading crates of stuff I haven't seen for six years. I go inside seething. The driver comes back with the clipboard and the delivery receipt and drives off. I wouldn't say so to his face, but this driver would never have made it into the United Parcel Service Delivery-Man Pin-Up Calendar someone told me they have come out with in the States. That one I believe. Yep, I could see that. I always said that the UPS vans were the sexiest things on four wheels, and they are -- dark chocolate brown you can almost taste.
My sister is belligerently cheerful and says that if I unpack one box a day it'll be done in no time. And no time is exactly what I have to deal the leftovers from an old divorce settlement I have nowhere to put. She is impatient with my lassitude over unpacking the crates. Like our father, she is a Hands-On NOW Person and they both drive me crazy. "Do it now and it will be out of the way" -- that sort of thing -- said usually right in the middle of another task. I notice, however, that the crate with the chandelier is not in the consignment. There is no furniture either. Just cardboard boxes. A box a day, my foot.
My sister is in her element this afternoon. She trims my hair, and I am disgusted to see she knows how to hold the swatches flat between the first and middle fingers as the pros do. She pins up the top hair and starts at the underlayers, leveling, going on to the next layer, leveling. I am being forced to read out an article she saw in the Weekend Sydney Morning Herald about a writer who is seeing the Shrink-to-the-great-minds-of-our-time in New York, and who is told that the key is that nobody cares. The writer is nit-picking in his mind about the hour he has spent there, the hole in his bank account, and was that the result of half a century of presiding over the psyches of a major moment in cultural history? He leaves in vague disappointment, gathering up the little mound of angst over every word, the struggle for every sentence, from where he set it on the desk in the office, clutching it back to his breast under his coat as he leaves. I read on and follow him into the cab, where he is grumbling that his great-aunt Hannah could have told him that.
But the point, I comment, is that she wouldn't, and even if she did, coming from her it wouldn’t mean a thing.
In a flash of enlightenment, he comes to see the point. I read: "That's right! No one cares! People have troubles of their own! It's okay. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't do it; it means you should do it, somehow, for its own sake, without illusions. Just write, just live, and don't care too much yourself. No one cares. It's just banter."
That's what she wanted me to see, the word "banter".
"Banter! Don't you love that?"
She takes the word in her teeth and gives it a shake, wags her tail in terrier-glee. I don't point out that calling my craft "banter" is like telling her that all she does is "take pictures".
We talk about her new place in Northern New South Wales and she describes the 7-metre-by-4-metre studio, drags out snapshots (I notice Francis is wearing knee-high gumboots against the ticks and leeches; it's the rainy season.) and tells me that the flies there are so big and so lazy that she has a field day swatting them. Her eyes shine.
"I used to leave the door open here, you know," she tells me. "Let the bastards in and then swat away for an hour at a time. I hate the brutes."
Perhaps she has a unique point of view on her power within the universe.
She leaves. It's 1.00am, but I start on a new piece. It was in the back of my head all afternoon, and I own my time now in the quiet place in the dead of night that I seem to inhabit best. I set down the first words of a short story, in the full knowledge that no-one cares.
The story is going back to my life in Rome, and at the end of the stint I see that I have the equivalent of an hour’s fly-swatting to my credit. It’s going to be a good story. My editor in the States emails me to say he wants me to organize the order of the stories for the collection when I send it. He also sends me a note in Magyar.
I tell him "That is not a language, it’s a throat disease".
I tell him, "Idiot".
I sleep a few hours and am up again at 5.00 to get back to the story. The crate-mountain outside in the carport glowers through the wall, and I ignore it until it starts chanting a dirge that drowns out all other sound. There is no other sound, actually, just the odd birdcall disjointed among the trees. Mohammed in pyjamas summoned, I square off in front of the mountain.
I read the markings -- ‘kitchen china,’ ‘attic bedroom,’ ‘main b’room,’ ‘books.’ All also marked ‘CP’ - Carrier Packed. I have no idea what is in most of them, I wasn’t there six years ago. I go inside for the Stanley knife to slash the tape on the top of the first one. I tell myself one-at-a-time will do it. One sucker a day.
Oh well, at least I have learned that nothing marked ‘attic’ or ‘basement’ is worth opening, I could ditch the lot intact and still sleep peacefully. Peripheral spaces tend to accumulate junk. Maybe I’m realizing some sort of repercussion of yesterday’s idea that "no one cares". If no one cares, what’s the point of accumulating words so that they’re just piling up all around?
I go back to the streets of Rome (I worried to my editor that people wouldn’t like seeing the dire little place I am talking about, and he said never fear, Italy is a tarnished dream, the others fret about them joining the European Monetary Union). My toe hurts a lot, I need to have it looked at, it’s quite swollen -- you can bet I won’t go barefoot in the rockery at night any more. I put the broken toe into the story; the character is someone who is slightly damaged. I work on. The morning is almost gone. I realize I have drifted-off track; I have gone wandering the streets of Rome, past the night-lit shops, stepping into the wash of gold on the sidewalk, contemplating past wrongs.
I get up to make tea and pass the painting hanging in the hall that my sister gave me. I remember what she said when she gave it to me, pointing out that the canvas is patched. She said it was highly appropriate as a gift to me because it and I are both slightly damaged. Still, I figure she and I have one thing in common, we are both tenaciously attached to the idea that it’s not all over yet. The article last night mentioned that old age is a series of lurches rather than a gradual decline. I reckon we’re braced.
She comes back here to take away the projector I found in the pile outside. Within the fifteen minutes she has been in this house she has received three phone calls, made appointments to see two old friends, checked up on her shifts at work, and I wonder how people seem to know exactly where to find her at any given point in time. She tells me she had lunch with a friend, also a writer, and told him straight that his work is self-indulgent. He asked her how she knows this and she replied that she just does. The Oracle is In. She Knows.
She asks me if another friend, Camille, can stay here for a few days. Camille likes it to be known that she is lactose-intolerant and a vegan, and drifts around your kitchen absently rearranging things, asking you if you think a certain slight acquaintance might be vegetarian. She is always dismayed when they aren’t. Last time she stayed here, she was at the store every five minutes getting "supplies" to appease the constant hunger that is with her. She nibbles all day. My sister says the girl needs a goddamn feed of steak. I suspect indeed that Camille’s tender green spirit inhabits the frame of a voracious red-meat eater. I say sure, Camille can stay, but to warn her I’m writing and don’t want to be disturbed.
I call my mother and tell her I unearthed a forgotten cache of hand-painted pottery. She sells it on my behalf to her friends at half retail. I calculate that the proceeds will keep me for a week or so, and I won’t have to look for a job right now. And there’s always the Lautrec lithograph I can sell if I need some cash to tide me over.
Camille arrives with a backpack and a box of tissues. She is recuperating from a shattering love-affair. Turns out this one was with the woman she and her boyfriend shared. Camille has left both of them. I think, far out! She hands me the sheaf of bills she collected from the mailbox at the top of the drive. She looks at me and sighs gently, proffering also her pain. I take just the bills.
My share of her grief is left firmly on the doorstep.
Apparently her own house is awash with manly tears and uninhabitable.
Suddenly Camille’s spurned lover starts to visit. She has been kindly given my address by her husband, who was abandoned for Camille. I smell bubbling pots of mischief a-brewing. She and Camille lock themselves in the guest bedroom just to talk. The joint boyfriend learns of this and visits also. My house feels like Grand Central Station. At dinnertime they cook vegetarian food in the kitchen -- subdued at first, with bare subsistence in mind, later collectively, joyfully. Over the days one or another of the three appears grinning in the door of the studio with a plate of dun-colored food which I refuse. I consider asking them to continue to talk together by all means, but could they do it while unpacking the boxes to help me out, but decide against it. The damned stuff has to be sorted. It has been sitting there for a month and I leave it there. It’s mostly the worthless kitchen crockery. I have become used to using the good stuff.
The now-reinstated spurned lover turns the tables and threatens to leave Camille and the boyfriend. I hear them pleading with her and then long silky silences where I figure they are trying to convince her in other ways. Camille and the boyfriend come to the door of the studio like puppies dragging along the threadbare three-way relationship as if it were a bit of blanket. They wonder if I have a minute to talk? I look up from the computer and they backtrack quickly -- maybe later? I am aware that the lover comes and goes at odd hours, that Camille sniffles a lot and goes about the house despondent. The lover’s friendly husband comes to the house looking for her, also just to talk. I know she happens to be in. I walk down the hall and ask through the door if she wants to see him. Apparently not.
I try phoning my sister. I am the only one in the universe who does not know where to find her instantly. I am finally successful and tell her what’s going on here. I need her to talk to the three-ring circus that has pitched camp under my roof. She says she can’t right now, she has a one-on-one charge today. She tells me to just march in and lay down the law. I remind her that this is not one of my stronger points, and that they are her friends after all.
She arrives, bristling, with her charge in tow, an enormous young man with Downes Syndrome, who wears a floppy cricket-hat and clutches a potted geranium. She has managed to convince them at work that this is an Outing. She is not amused. The lover’s husband is suddenly a shape in the open door, knocking soundlessly on the wall, apologetic, interrupting again to ask if I would mind seeing if his wife will speak to him.
My sister says "For God’s SAKE!" and goes to tell her to get her butt straight out here and talk to the man.
"Go outside!" she tells them and they scamper out. They argue, he cries, he leaves.
The wife comes back into my house fully reinstated as lover-defiant. The guest room door closes with a soft click. I am quite satisfied that I have made my point that this whole thing is preposterous. I need my sister to go in to them and say something. She does. They will leave. Tomorrow. Promise. My sister and her charge leave. I am suddenly very hungry.
"For Christ’s sake!" I shout over them.
Camille and the boyfriend are clinging to one another behind the kitchen counter. The lover is purple in the face yelling obscenities.
Yes! She is leaving them -- both of them goddammit!
Yes! She won’t take being treated this way.
I try to suggest that we all respect the fact that she wants to leave and that she is always free to go, no one is stopping her. She turns on me, wild-eyed. I have no idea how she heard me over her own shouting.
"No one cares!" she shrieks and reaches for a plate off the shelf and hurls it at Camille.
"Shit-faced little veggie bitch! You tell her!" she screams at me.
I say it is far from me to tell Camille anything of the sort. I try to step in sideways between her and the china-cabinet. Someone has called the husband who shows up in time to duck a slew of dishes. He hides around the corner of the door. The lover is beside herself, the crashing china feeding the blood-frenzy.
I step up to her and she turns on me, the tip of her tongue between her teeth. She makes a fist, and I grab her arm, just below the elbow, and wrench. I could have dislocated it, I dunno.
"Don’t even fuckin’ think of touching me" I say evenly.
I am standing in the middle of the floor crunchy with broken crockery, stunningly, gloriously amazed at myself.
I say, "Now get the bloody hell out of here, all of you. I want my house back," and walk into the studio, closing the door.
I sit in the leather chair and let the pale blue light of the monitor hum over me as I read the screen. Car engines start outside the house. This latest piece is proving more challenging. I see myself reflected in the studio window, as though I were in my own pale blue underwater world. I recognize myself, sitting at the computer, at the end of my finances, having to decide if I can work on the story-collection only at night. I could call the Gallery, see if they want me to come back.
My editor emails a note saying that one of the stories will be published elsewhere as well, the one I wrote six months ago to the only person I have ever loved. I think of the words "no one cares". I accept that I am doing this because I secretly hope that someone out there actually does.
Date of Birth:
June 16, 1952
Cottonwood, Sulphur River Review, Redoubt, Four W, The Canberra Times, SITUATION, Gestalten, poetry down under, Red Cat Country, There is No Mystery, Stirring V2:E2, V2:E5
I Never Lie To You