A novel about grief, loss and ‘the other side’
What is it like, being dead?
You say, it’s like this…
But you say it in a language that I don’t understand. Curling around my cheek in the whisper of air from the open window, hanging close in the hot darkness, moonlit drops of poison on the flowers of the old white oleander, distant traffic, the smell of night, sheets damp against my useless nakedness…
All I want is to be with you…
If I could dissolve into the walls, the mattress, the floor, I would. I’d be a part of all this – these extraneous doings, this other world, containing you, excluding me, from which my skin keeps me. I’d be with you. If I dared.
If wishes were horses, I’d ride, begging. Black horses, naturally, with wings like clouds and eyes of cold crystal, leaping the Styx, storming the ramparts of the dead.
You died a month ago. You slipped into the water and you sank, and no one noticed until an hour or more later; they thought you were with a woman. The woman thought you were in the bathroom, snorting something. Everyone thought you must be somewhere. On the boat, on the earth. And all the time you were nowhere, which I think should have a capital N, Nowhere, so that it sounds like a place that you could be. That I could find you.
I met the woman, you know. Her name is Marianne. She has long fairish hair, of a colour that I find hard to describe, because it has no real colour – straightened, with a straightener. A flat tanned space for a face, pale blue eyes, pale lipstick. Not your type, I would’ve thought.
“He seemed depressed, but I didn’t think he’d…”
You didn’t seem depressed to me. If you had, maybe I could’ve got myself ready for it, for something.
“Sad,” she amends.
But then, in this country anything serious is sad. You probably talked to her about art and existence and suffering and she thought, lighten up dude. It’s a party – it’s your party – and here I am showing you my cleavage all alone in the lights of the bridge and you want to talk about death, what’s wrong with you? Only the fact that you’re famous, my love, kept her there listening; that’s what I think.
You were turning thirty. I didn’t go to your birthday party. I had an opening.
I said, “I’ll come when it’s over.”
You said, “What? Are you going to hire a dinghy? We’ll be in Middle Harbour by then.”
I said, “Oh, I forgot about that,” and you pulled my face close and set your lips on mine and said, “You always forget. That’s why I love you.” But there was a bit of a sting in it.
You meant that you loved me because I was an idiot, I couldn’t put two and two together and make four. I never could. Remember the time you broke down on the way to Melbourne on a road trip with Kean? You were five kilometres from Glenrowan and so you walked there along the B road under the darkling eucalypt scrub drinking vodka and imagining you were Ned Kelly. “I’ll come and get you,” I offered when you rang me, and you said, “And then what? Are you going to come on tour with us?” Because I hadn’t worked it out properly – that if I gave you my car, I’d have no car, and anyway what were you going to do with the van, just leave it there by the side of the road? “I wish you would come, anyway,” you added, “It’s been five hours and already I long for you. To the bone, babe, to the bone.”
So you went to your party alone, and I went to my opening. I probably would have ditched it – I should have – but it was my first major show and anyway, we’d quarrelled. I was angry and brooding. I’d committed myself to punishing you and it was too late to change my mind.
It – the exhibition – came on the heels of the Archibald, and, suitably – because the portrait that won that year was of you (by Kaite Ashfyrd, not by me) the theme was blind love. I had you white-eyed, your hands on the keys; I had you with your hat drawn down, the angles of your face like poems. I had you blindfolded, a naked woman stretched over your lap like the Pieta; I had you with your back turned and your black hair forming notes behind you. They said,
“You’ve been married nine years. Does he ever do anything ordinary, like the washing up?”
“I wish I felt as passionate about my husband as you do about yours. How do you manage to make it last?”
I said, “Orpheus is never ordinary, not to me. Do you ever look up at the stars – you know, out in the bush, where you can see them properly – and think to yourself, well, that’s nothing much? I bet you don’t, and neither do I.”
I went smiling among everyone, and it was as if someone had replaced the night sky with a cardboard cut-out and those gold stick-on stars parents buy to put on the fridge when their kids behave. That was how I used to feel about people who weren’t you – as if they weren’t real. They were just the matter that you and I moved around in, the crowds at the ball who watch as Prince Charming dances with Cinderella.
I went home from my opening at midnight, a little drunk, and guilty, and came into the house that you bought for us with your star-money, and went straight through to the back deck. I sat with my feet in the infinity pool (‘Infinity,’ you said once – I wonder now if it was a warning… ‘Imagine if it were? If we could swim out and out and never stop…’) and listened to the harbour slurping at the rocks beneath. I could see right across to the skyline of the city, where people in swanky apartments drank cocktails on their balconies and other people were returning from theatres and dinners, pulling their wraps around them because of the chill harbour breeze. I could see a few lights on the water; probably none of them were you. I imagined taking wing like an albatross, gliding down out of the night to carry you home. I swished the pool water with my feet, and missed you, and went to bed, and – I can’t forgive myself – went to sleep.
I woke up to the phone ringing. It was still full dark. We don’t keep a clock in the bedroom because you say, “Some spaces should be timeless, babe,” but later they told me it was about three am. I thought it was probably you, and as I reached for it I felt a familiar tug between my legs, a tightness in my breath. Even the anticipation of your voice could do that to me. To be fair, not only to me; half the women in the world under sixty would probably have felt the same.
It was Kean. He said,
“There’s been an accident, Eurydice. The police are on the boat, they’re all over the place. He’s gone overboard, I don’t know…”
My head went slow, stupid. My throat made a noise, somewhere between a moan and a gasp.
“What do you mean, overboard?”
“He jumped. Or something.”
I said, “But Orpheus can swim. He’ll be alright.”
It’d be just like you to go for a swim in the harbour at night, into the black waters with their cold white slick where the bridge lights hit. Over to the beach at Kirribilli, sliding past the sharks and the rays and the rubbish, walking out like Poseidon on the strand, hair slimy and dark as river weed.
“I dunno…the harbour police are out looking for him.”
“When did it happen?”
“No one knows, he just…you know how he is.”
They won’t find you, I thought. Given a few hours, a fearless person can be anywhere. You could be drifting with the tide, paddling out through the Heads, swept into the wide waves of the Pacific. Please not, please not.
In the background I can hear loud organising voices. Someone shouts, “Kean?”
“We’re still on the boat. They won’t let us leave.” (“What, are you going to steal a dinghy?”)
“Then I’ll…” What? I could drive to the quay, get someone to bring me out…but suppose you’ve just gone for a swim? Suppose you comes home, smelling of harbour sludge and dare-devilry, and I’m not here? Let us not do the other supposing, not yet.
“I’ll call you, let you know what happens. I’ve got to go, they’re asking everybody questions.”
“Kean- ” I say urgently, as he hangs up. I’m not sure what I was going to say, anyway. Tell me this is a joke. Make some sense of this for me, because I can’t grasp it. Too vast, too dreadful. A slow wail sinks into the sudden emptiness of our bedroom, deadens itself against the thick walls, but I’m not one for indulging those feelings, even alone. I stuff the sheet against my face, and cower away.
I think I knew then that you were dead.
What do we mean when we say that? Is it latent pessimism – a belief that the worst thing that could possibly happen, has happened? Is it a way of protecting ourselves, as if there is one – a way of getting ourselves accustomed to the worst even before it strikes, and then, if it doesn’t strike, the relief will be all the greater? Is it fatalism, that makes us move to instant acceptance? Or is it foreknowledge?
I think I loved you so much, so wholly, that I’d been waiting for them to take you away, ever since I first had you. You were such a fine, precious thing, surely you couldn’t be meant for me. They were right, those people who asked how we made it last. You can’t inherit the earth and sky and not wonder if it’s going to pop between your palms like a soap bubble.
They searched for you for days, and on the third day, like Christ, they found you. You hadn’t drifted far; out with the tide, and then back again. I answered the door to a pair of police; a man and a woman, who spoke quietly, almost shame-faced, as if a chance word might set me screaming. Afterwards, Kean rang me, and Carol, your mother. It was as if someone had struck her; she could hardly speak. Me, I was iron-calm. After all, it was over; nothing could be done.
“Why weren’t you there? It was his birthday, for God’s sake.”
Why aren’t you the one that’s dead, I thought, looking at her drinking her tea at the breakfast bay. You old useless thing. She was thinking the same thing.
“I know. I had an exhibition.”
“But it was his birthday!”
I said nothing. I agreed with her. The guilt pressed on me like deep water, till my ears nearly burst with it.
“Why would he have done that? Was he drunk?”
“I don’t know.” You would have been a little tipsy, of course. Who goes to a party – his own party – and doesn’t drink? You wouldn’t have been shit-faced, I knew that. You were always intoxicated, just being yourself. You wouldn’t have been high, either – though your mother hasn’t asked about that yet. She lives in an antiquated world where songs are written about whisky, not meth. You say – used to say – “We’ve inherited the world, why look at it through the bottom of a dirty glass?” and Kean would say, “Because it looks better that way.” I would have agreed with him. But the most you ever did was a little dope.
“If you’d gone that night, it wouldn’t have happened,” she says, inevitably. “My son would still be here.”
Dead People is due for release in January 2023!