Geometry and Geography by Marion Campbell
Marion May Campbell is a Melbourne writer who currently teaches in Professional & Creative Writing at Deakin University. Her latest work of fiction is the short novel about failed revolutionaries konkretion (UWAP 2013). ‘Geometry & Geography’ is from a work-in-progress.
Geometry and Geography
Little sister is doing a maths assignment on the card table under the salty-louvred window in the Shoalwater Bay shack they are renting. There is the good feel of sand on linoleum underfoot. No one cares about housework here. One clean sweep is all. She’ll do the ten Euclid problems then get ready for Saturday arvo dancing classes — shave legs, shampoo hair to squeaky clean, since this is before conditioner, draw up silky stockings, trying not to ladder them with chewed fingernails, clipping each stocking with the rubberised suspender buttons, shimmy into the tight green and black hound’s tooth skirt and grey cashmere jumper. Slip into the patent leather shoes with the squashed heels. On the first floor Dancing Studio she and big sister will be lined up with the others, teased and bouffed and sprayed, along the studio wall for the boys, who’ll skid across the polished boards to choose their partners for the Pride of Erin. Will the tidal wave part around them, leaving them there? The word wallflower hovers. Oh the Red Sea dividing. Red is the blood that flows from me. Let the boy-wave not divide like the Red Sea around us, and leave us stranded like two cooling lumps of pumice stone. But let me not be chosen ahead of her. Then I’ll have to drag her sorrow, ball-and-chain. The mother has her hand cupped over the speaker of the receiver and says something to the blue-eyed grandmother, a tiny wrinkled and painted doll sunk in the depths of the cane armchair. Voice broken, the mother coughs. The big sister asks hoarse, What, what?
The scream comes from another world. With its savage ripping force it skins her. She sees herself blue, blood pulsing under the moon sheen, a skinned rabbit. That voice is a killer wind. She dares not look. She’s not where her big sister is. She cannot be. That space is always taken. She doesn’t know what her sister knows. She’ll never know what her sister knows. She rents the space of not knowing. I still rent the space of not knowing. The scream rends the space of not knowing.
There’s only the scream in the room, all the air’s stolen by it. It’s a tearing of the voice box and there’s no stop to it, like a line with arrows on either end, it might be infinite. It’s a destruction of wave harmonics.
The dead father is made alive out of myths.
When he’s two the dead father’s Enchanted Mother lets him take apart the Mantle Clock, Mainwheel, Mainspring, Wheel Train, gears serially undone, the whole Escapement: Escape Wheel, Pallet Fork, Balance Spring and Balance Wheel, until wall-to-wall, the lounge room floor is Time dismantled. Endless space now between the tick and the… At two mind you, the mother on the phone has said. The younger daughter thinks that to dismantle is not to mantle. Now that’s all he is: a photo of a uniformed moustached head on the mantle. The dead father is the first on his block to make a crystal radio set and he makes them for the neighbours as well. This is around 1927 in his twelfth year, common enough, since they were widespread, even in WWI. But it’s from these he gets hooked on microwaves and condensers. It’s not far to radar and beyond. Just waves big and small.
In this family they are good at making up genius boy children. The younger sister will have a boy child who speaks in clear crisp words at nine months and at ten months in telegraphic sentences — uzza icecweam as they glide past a Peters Ice Cream sign on a Deli. Maybe it’s because myths make magnetic spaces. Events are pulled to them. The grandmother says, Isn’t that a-mazing, as the Toyota Corolla glides under a freeway pedestrian overpass. Under the next pedestrian overpass from the elevated safety seat at the back the Baby Genius voice pronounces, Uzza mazing. With these enchanting boys it’s serial mazing.
The two sisters in the beach house enchant no one. They understand that they are girls. The space of the dead father draws the big sister, who remembers everything about him, indelibly out of her own life. Only the little sister can have her own life. She knows she can rent the father if she wants because he has retreated and she can make him over for herself and from faded bits and pieces she can borrow him when she wants.
From behind the dunes through the house the jade waves pound. The boom, the crack, the boom. And the gorgeous salt sea-weedy smell rises to fight that ripping scream. There’s been a fire, the mother says, re-cradling the receiver, threading the cord through her fingers, lighting a Capstan cigarette.
Little sister has just had her first period. It’s over now. Outside, away from them, she slips her undies off on the warm weathered boards of the front porch, safe behind the unpruned tee-tree hedge. The wood presses into her bare skin. Wood prints into her. Things press and impress and your body speaks back. The sun draws on her sex. She thinks it drawls. The sun drawls on me, speaks intense and slow. It works on me, like that stuff for wounds that pulls out the gunk, like what is it, like Magma Plasm. Her young sex milkily responds. What is this, what is this, it says. It is sweet salty liquid almond speech. The world drawls on you. You whisper back.
Even when mother sister grandmother are sucked into the black sinkhole of the telephone—there’s been a fire; it’s all gone—you can let the sun draw on your body. The sun pulls like a poultice. She reads her geography text. She has a state exam approaching. Study is the sun’s drawl, letter-by-letter, map-by-map. The sense of sun and the drawn Earth orbiting. Geography and geometry are what Egyptians did as part of sun worship — earth drawing and measuring. She reads Huddersfield and Halifax. She has her memory tricks. She gives her own names to them. Her body drawls back its slow language. Shuddersfield and Whollyflex. The industries. Smelting. The likelihood of what goes with what —where there’s coal, there’ll be smelting. Steel. Summat like that. Where there’s moock there’s brass, her grandma says her Scouse great grandma used to say. Coals to Newcastle. The weather, the climate and geography. Sun- struck daughter of a man who would’ve made it rain. The rainmaker father is dead and dead again.
So much later the Midlands and the North Country will carry their charge back to this scene. Oh the smelting. She will top the state in Geography.
Sooner she’ll learn the microclimates of a lover’s body. The quite non-tristes tropiques.
Now from the fibro shack perched on the low dune over the road the daggy burred Border Collie comes and sniffs her legs, licks the salt. What’s happening here, whatcha been up to, the moist nose reads her. Dusty Springfield is singing on the leather-clad transistor, I only want to be with you. The younger sister and the Border Collie are you for now, for Dusty’s voice.
The scream has died in the dunes. All their stuff was in the removalists’ storage shed. Is in another form. Chemical change is irreversible. But not for the younger sister. She can reverse. Most of it’s gone. They will be repeating in their broken voices over and over. Gone gone. She hates their voiced grief. She sees with satisfaction the great gothic span of twisted metal hangars above the ocean of ashes punctuated by small heaps of foul reeking globular nothing.
The mother’s voice is blank. What this means is — all the photos and pictures and furniture from when he was alive are gone. The scarf, the sister’s voice is a roar of stolen air, exiting. Like the scream of the bushfire. Maybe her sister is a fury. A fate. One of those Erinnyes. She had one thing that was the father’s — the Air Force scarf, not a uniform scarf, but in the deep grey blue wool, that someone, maybe one of those endless volunteers knitted for one of the NZAF boys, in thunder blue basket weave stitch. The bigger sister’s relic from the father gone — he to sea, now the scarf to fire. This burning of all his things, of the antiques he chose, the books he’d read or meant to read, incinerated in the cremation he never had. Of course the mother will not jump in the two-toned, olive and apple-green finned Morris Major Elite to inspect what remains, as the Storage Management invites her to do— the sprinklers saved some things, you are welcome to inspect, the mother says they said.
There’s never been a body to identify, so why would she run to contemplate the remnants of thingsthingsthings? The photos would’ve burnt first, she says, lighting another cigarette. No I couldn’t bear to rake through the wreckage. The older sister howls and howls until the younger one slinks off again to the dunes where the old Border Collie will follow her. They’ll sit together and watch the swollen body of the ocean roll and break. This loud grief will always upstage her, until she becomes a subtle actress, or so she thinks.
And the younger sister, callous, letting the sun milk her like crazy, sets her mind free to do geometry and geography, or daydream the German teacher taking her in her arms, meine schöne meine Liebe, or even the boys’ eyes lighting up as they skid across the dance floor to choose her. The ones with oily rock n roll quiffs, more than shiny Beatles’ mops, the rebel boys in tight black jeans and winklepickers are the ones she wills to notice her. She’ll tease her hair into the biggest beehive. Take that, Pride of Erin.