Republic of Women: the first few pages

First Chaos came and then broad-bosomed Earth
The everlasting seat of all that is,
And Love.
Hesiod

Extract from from Merrill’s first novel, Republic of Women (UQP 1999)

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FOR MATURE READERS ONLY

The phone rings, someone pushes the security buzzer and Daphne Downstairs pops in the back door. At the very same moment, Marie hits her thumb with the hammer. Goddamn, she says and sits on a fruit crate. The phone’s still ringing, the buzzer’s still buzzing and now her thumb is throbbing. She sucks it then leans out the window. Look, I don’t believe in god and I’m really busy, she tells the two Jehovah’s Witnesses at the security door below.

But there’s going to be a big change in the world and you can be saved, the one clutching the black book says. If you obey Jesus.

I’m sorry, but I’ll just have to save myself, she says.

The phone’s stops ringing: I’ll be in town Thursday, and was wondering … her caller is telling the answering machine. It’s the man she fell for at that conference last week. She scrambles across the loose timber and pulls back the white dust sheet protecting the chaos of her desk but he hangs up just as she reaches for the receiver. She stares at the answering machine. Her thumb is still throbbing and Daphne Downstairs is still at the back door: I won’t keep you a moment dear, but just have a look at what they’ve done to my pelargonium. It’s the junkies again, Daphne says. They’re worse than the possums.

Marie joins her on the staircase and together the two women lean over the railing in silence, shoulders touching to stare at the pelargonium which, just half an hour ago, had almost filled Daphne’s tiny garden under the broken staircase. Now the bush is bent and vandalised. I’ve just got to get away from here, Daphne says. It’s getting worse. I never thought I’d be spending my retirement in a place like this.

Look, it’s OK Daphne. We’ll fix the pelargonium. The stem’s not broken right through, and if we splint it … have you got an old stocking? And what’s wrong with this place anyway? Marie says. I love it. It’s got life. It’s got diversity. It’s got passion. You can be anyone you want to be here.

Yes dear, but I’m seventy-three. I’ve had my passion. Marie giggles. They splint the wounded pelargonium, gossip, admire the alyssum, the impatiens, the native creeper that’s beginning to wrap itself around the horizontal wooden beams supporting the stairway. Pull a few weeds, bemoan the aphids.

I’ll have to make up some more garlic spray, Daphne says. She says it every time they chat about the garden.

Upstairs, Ursula The Rose is accompanying a young soprano. Follie! Follie! Delirio vano é questo! she sings. This is mad delirium! A poor woman, alone, lost in this crowded desert called Paris.

Verdi. La Traviata. The sanitised story of Violetta Valéry, a French sex worker who dies of TB. Her aching notes tumble down the stairs from Ursula’s flat on the second floor: What can I hope for? What should I do? Revel in the whirlpool of earthly pleasures.

Marie perches on a step, leans her heads against the railing and unconsciously caresses a petal of the wounded pelargonium. Sempre libera, the student sings. Give me freedom to be happy, all my life enjoying, enjoying. Let me drink at ev’ry party, let me dance at ev’ry ball! Never weeping, never sighing, always singing, always laughing! Oh I’m only just beginning new excitements. I’ll try them all.

The voice changes as the old music teacher sings Alfredo, Violetta’s lover. Her notes fall like dry petals, wrinkled and frail: Amore, amore é palpito dell’universo intero, she sings. Love is the very breath of the universe itself. Mysterious and noble, both cross and ecstasy of the heart.

The music ends. Marie climbs the stairs to her own flat but Verdi’s tune lingers. She steps over the loose timber on her bedroom floor and listens to the message on her answering machine – then dials his number. Yes, I’ll be home Thursday. Great. I’ll look forward to it.

+++

It was once a shearing shed, this timber stacked on her bedroom floor. Before that, a sparse forest of Murray pines growing on the flood plains of this island’s major river system – the track of the rainbow serpent the old people said. They’re all but gone now, the trees. Cleared, burned, cut for fence posts, or for shearing sheds and houses. The old people too, they’ve all but gone – back into the earth from which they are being re-born as saplings to reclaim their mother land. And the sheep? They’re still there. You can smell them in these logs. Lanolin mixed with the faint dry scent of shit. I must’ve been mad, Marie told the truckie who delivered them. Then she touched the old timber: merino smooth, lambswool soft … no, these logs will make a lovely bed, she said. Despite their history.

She rotates on her studio chair and looks again at her room: four Murray pines are growing vertically from the floor. On top of them a sleeping platform of wooden slats. On the slats a wool-filled futon, unbleached cotton sheets and a feather doona covered in antique lace that once hung as curtains in her grandmother’s sitting room near Ballarat. Beside the futon, a glass vase of flowering eucalypts and a nest of books. She spins back to her desk, picks up a pencil, sketches a quick plan, stares at it, erases a few lines, redraws them – then gazes out the window to Fitzroy Street. It would of course be easier to find another flat but she likes it here, the village life of the street. And the rent is cheap, which is an important consideration for an aspiring young architect in the last decade of the twentieth century.

+++

Denis is sunbaking on the back landing, waiting, he says, for Heinrich, Marie’s Prussian neighbour. This week Denis is a blond. His face is waxed and he is wearing kohl around his eyes. He has stripped to a tiny yellow g-string and risks serious sunburn. When Marie appears, he reaches for his shirt and apologises for his near-nakedness. It’s OK, Marie says. At least you’re not shooting up. Yesterday I came out here and there was this girl sitting on the step filling her syringe. If she’d shot up while I was looking I’d have fainted.

Heinrich told me he’d kill me if he found me doing that, Denis says. So I’m trying to go straight. I mean, really straight.

Really straight means not doing drugs and not working O’Donnell Park. That’s where Heinrich found him, or Denis found Heinrich. A conventional pickup. Heinrich’s in his car at the kerb, Denis asks him for the time, Heinrich plays the game, they discuss money – and come back to the flat where Heinrich dresses Denis in an old military jacket, plays with his genitals, exposes his own cock, then demands head. And gets it. Well, that’s how Denis describes it anyway.I’ve bought him a present,

Denis says as he takes a small package from his shirt pocket. Five sepia-toned postcards of naked Sicilian boys with enormous circumcised cocks.

I got them at that second-hand market in Greville Street, he says. I stole them. They match the big photo on his bedroom wall. Paternal Chastisement I think it’s called. This naked guy with a droopy moustache is whipping a boy’s bare bum with a sapling. Heinrich says it’s by some famous German called Wilhelm von something. He’s into whips, Heinrich is. Riding crops, mainly.

He doesn’t whip you, does he? Marie says.

Not really. Not hard. He just likes being kinky sometimes.

They sit in silence looking at the old postcards. Photographer Wilhelm’s boys are draped around ancient columns and urns, waterfalls and craggy cliffs. In their hair are flowers and olive leaves, and at their lips the flutes of Pan. Their young bodies are polished with milk and oil. Their muscles glow.

How come they have such big cocks? Marie says. Did they pull themselves or something before the photos were taken? She pauses. But then how would they keep ’em up long enough for the exposures? Like, those postcards are from old glass plates and you had to stand still for, well, at least a couple of minutes.

Denis doesn’t know about exposing glass plates, but he does know about male genitals.

Their cocks aren’t erect, he says. They’re just big. That’s what Italians and Greeks are famous for.

Jesus, Marie says.

Haven’t you ever fucked a Greek or Italian?

No – well, not yet.

She stares at the sepia postcards. Wilhelm von Gloeden is the photographer’s name. Marie has seen his work before. He exposed these images in Taormina when it was a village clinging to Sicily’s eastern cliffs. Only shards, an amphitheatre and a temple to a goddess remain from its more glorious past as a Greek polis but these artifacts were enough, it seems, for Wilhelm to re-imagine the sons of Taormina’s peasant folk as young Jasons and Odysseuses. But in these boys’ gene pool swim the sperm of every imperialist, every myth-maker who ever sailed the Mediterranean. This island, this virgin whore, has lain, legs open, for every conqueror who has ever wanted her. For every man with every battle axe, every sword, every gun. And in every generation these boys … but this evening their images will pass again between lovers. Heinrich will come home from work, pour two glasses of beer, switch on the TV and sit with Denis on the vinyl couch. Denis will pull the postcards from his pocket and pass them to Heinrich – who’ll unwrap them, examine each of them slowly and unconsciously stroke Denis’ hand. They’ll kiss, grow hard, then Heinrich will search through his collection of uniforms for a jacket someone told him Mussolini’s favourite aide once wore. He’ll dress Denis up, play with his genitals, caress his naked arse, and whip him. (But softly.) Then he’ll sit again on the vinyl lounge and spread his legs. Denis will kneel before him, unzip his fly, lick his cock, nuzzle his balls, tease him, then swallow his penis whole. With his lips, his tongue, he’ll suck his lover limp, then curl up like a child in Heinrich’s arms to watch ‘Neighbours’. Later they’ll order charcoal chicken and chips from the Lebanese take-away across the road and go to bed – where, below Wilhelm von Gloeden’s Paternal Chastisement, they’ll cling to one another as though their very lives depend on this intimacy. Then Heinrich will roll over and go to sleep.

In the flat next door, Marie will dream her own Adonis. A Sicilian lover with glowing olive skin and a big, yet sensitive, cock.

+++

Tuesday, tute day and seventeen undergraduates await. Soon she’ll be asking them whether calling those new clock-towers and granite-faced columns on St Kilda Road ‘postmodern’ actually means anything. And if so, what. It’s mid-morning, raining, and the tram is late.

There’s this guy at the stop, Marie’s seen him before. Blond, dressed by Country Road. Hip hairstyle, briefcase. Earrings. (In one ear only.) And a mobile phone. He gets on the number sixteen in front of Marie and takes the last vacant seat. She hangs on from the ceiling strap behind him.

By the time they’ve crossed the Yarra the tram is crowded and he’s answered three calls. Then a lover phones. You always pick the worst times to ring, he says. He listens then calls her a Fucking Whore. And sex with you is really boring, he says. Marie catches the eye of the woman sitting in the opposite seat, an office worker with shoulder pads and red shoes. They raise eyebrows and grimace together. What a jerk, the office worker says.

Mobile Phone gets off at Collins Street and Marie takes his seat. The girl behind her shakes her short-back-and-sides. Aren’t men bastards, she says, like she’s been there herself.

If a man told me that … the office worker says.

They’ll all tell you that eventually, says a pensioner with a fresh perm and rinse.

+++

She picks up a chisel, places the blade on a length of Murray pine and lifts the mallet. Her maternal grandfather bought these tools at a bush clearing sale. You can feel the history in these things, he told her. They don’t make mallets like this any more. The sounds of the street. The trams, the passers-by under her window, the sparrows. Shadows on the wall. The wood-on-wood rhythm of her mallet striking the chisel. Wood chips gathering on the floor. Memories. You can feel the history in these things, he says. They don’t make mallets like this any more. Her first clumsy mortice and tenon join. I was still a child, she says. Her grandfather’s hand on hers as she holds the chisel, those first cautious hits, those first slivers shed as the blade follows the soft grain of the Douglas fir, the years of growing, the young girl, the tree. See those bands in the wood? he says. They tell the story of that tree, the good seasons and the bad, a new ring every year, a new page. Maybe four hundred years this tree grew before someone cut it, floated it down the river to Vancouver maybe, and loaded it on to a ship. We all sailed here on ships, except those who didn’t, she says, those who were already here. Blood on this chisel and this mallet, blood on my inheritance. How many blacks did they shoot and rape and poison, my relatives? But they died fighting too. Under the southern cross on those golden fields of Ballarat. Your great-great-grandmother helped sew the flag, grandfather says. It was silk, she worked all night by candle-light hemming the stars, tucking the edges, the points, and then the double row of fine running stitch. A flag as big as a double bed sheet, she says, as she watches it unfurl over the stockade and hears the Republic of Victoria proclaimed. The boys say it’s their game, no place for a woman here but I too dream dreams, she says. And I stitched the stars on to the Southern Cross. I heard the first shots, saw the bayonets. My flag torn down, blood on my sheet, my cross, my stars dragged through the mud with the Republic stillborn. She boils the water, tears up her cotton petticoats for bandages, and rushes to the Eureka stockade. Where is he? Billy, Billy, oh my god …

The wood-on-wood rhythm of the mallet, sounds of the street below, sparrows. Shadows on the wall. All because he didn’t want to pay a licence fee each month, grandfather says. Thirty shillings, but it wasn’t the money. The traps’d come and demand your licence, grandfather says, so you’d have to climb all the way up again, just for them to spit in your face, or chain you to a tree if your licence was out of date. The government wanted the Diggers’ money grandfather says, but didn’t want them to have a say in making the laws they had to obey. Because only squatters could vote, you see. Only men of property.

The wood on wood rhythm, shadows on the wall. Those seams of gold in Ballarat, those sweating shafts and only picks, shovels and windlasses to mine those shining dreams of freedom. You claim that we Diggers take away other men’s property by digging upon the common, Gerrard Winstanley says. Yet you live on theft. Will you not be wise, O ye rulers?

The wood-on-wood rhythm, wood chips falling to the floor, and those hidden dreams like buried gold in Ballarat. But a dawn of reason is rising on the world, Tom Paine says. A new order of things will follow naturally the new order of thoughts. This res publica, this libertas. For a nation to be free it is sufficient that she wills it, says Lafayette.

The wood-on-wood rhythm, the din of dreams. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, says Tom Jefferson. And the right to fight oppression, declare the new citizens of the French Republic. Ah, how every place has its Bastille and every Bastille its despot, Tom Paine says. But how can the bird that is born for joy sit in a cage and sing? says William Blake.

Men from every nation with every dream of liberty, every dream of getting rich. Because why else are they digging here for new-world gold in Ballarat, these refugees, these adventurers, these Chartists, these liberal democrats, these socialists, these communists, these anarchists, these convicts, these dreamers who’ve escaped from every prison, every potato famine, every dark satanic mill, every nationalist movement, every barricade, every insurrection against every ancien régime? For here we’ll build a great and independent nation, a refuge for the oppressed of every European land, a New World free of all the evils of the old.

But where are your licences? the traps are saying.

We’ve burnt them, the Diggers are saying. Because taxation without representation is tyranny and we’ve come here to be free men.

A young officer raises his sword.

Aux armes citoyens, a digger says.

And so they fall in line, two abreast behind the Southern Cross, to march up Bakers Hill shouting their now-familiar slogans. No licences without representation. Victoria for the Victorians. All power rests in the people.

They build their stockade, swear their oaths, arm themselves with guns and sharpened pikes – then go off and get pissed at the nearest pub. By dawn, only 150 hangovers are left to fight for freedom. Took the troopers just fifteen minutes to clean ’em up, grandfather says. And so another ancien régime was saved.

Ah, how the past weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living, Karl Marx says.

But I too dream dreams, great-great-grandmother says. And I stitched the stars on to the Southern Cross. Heard the first shots, saw the bayonets, the blood on the sheet. My stars dragged through the mud …

+++

Upstairs the piano again.

Read on by purchasing Republic of Women, or borrowing it from your local library.

 

Page history: Content last revised 5 January 2005, and  21 January 2008. Posted on this new site 23 January 2011.

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