Something Will Have Us In The End
She walked a fine line between simply observing what she witnessed to being an active part of the events she documented, from community lunches to openings and backyard parties to debutante balls and rallies and sit-ins and protests, watched closely by the boys in blue.
—Daniel Browning, ‘Close to You: the documentary photography of Lisa Bellear’
Two hands. Last summer we swam
so far out in the Atlantic we struck a rip
and scissored our legs in the salt
as Montauk went a blue darker than ink.
Now you pinion my shoulder like an anchor
and knead me from deep in your dream.
Something will have us in the end.
—Sarah Holland-Batt, ‘The Atlantic’
At some point, I realised, I was obsessed with the colour blue.
I am sitting beside my partner when it happens. The Gunditjmara artist Alannah Clarke.
We are threading yarn together inside the Footscray Community Arts Centre.
I keep seeing it.
Where? she asks.
I don’t know. It’s just – it’s like I’ve begun to see it everywhere.
Outside, the Maribyrnong River. Undercurrents of roiling browngrey. Occasionally a green tinge, like burnt grass, rises slowly to the surface.
Normally in April the water should be reflecting the sky. Not this month. Now the sky imitates the water’s muddy hue. Doesn’t even put up a fight, really. Doesn’t say yeah nah.
Nothing does, these days. Every plant, every animal: they’re all turning on themselves. The trees betray themselves; the bushes, too. They all go ahead and do themselves in. Everyone is giving up. Especially nature. The plants, the animals. Nature is giving up. Nature is turning on itself.
The summer bushfires are making themselves known. Imprinting their death colours on the horizon. The smell of strawberry gum wafts from the current – a reedy, riverborne scent.
Here’s the thing: I had read the primers. Seen the how-to guides.
William H. Gass’ On Being Blue (‘Of the colors, blue and green have the greatest emotional range. Sad reds and melancholy yellows are difficult to turn up. Among the ancient elements, blue occurs everywhere: in ice and water, in the flame as purely as in the flower, overhead and inside caves, covering fruit and oozing out of clay’). Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (‘Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color’).
But those narratives had only detailed the experience of a person named William H. Gass.
A woman named Maggie Nelson.
And perhaps not even that. Just Gass’ narrative voice. The ‘I’ of Nelson.
How they had each come to terms with the malady was no help. I needed something tailored to my own circumstances.
I resolved to write my own way out.
There were lateral solutions, of course.
I could have turned to Han Kang. Who talks, in The White Book, about the scarifying loneliness and purity available to those who make a study of the colour white. The wide blank landscape of a colour’s multiplying possibilities.
Or the architect Kenya Hara: taking the colour and putting it through its paces, in 百白. 100 Whites.
But I tried. And they weren’t much help.
In the end, I was alone.
In a way, I can imagine looking back and thinking (or writing): The day I understood what was going on I had arranged to meet Oliver Mo. Yes, yes. That Oliver Mo. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? The playwright. One hour – and then the big reveal. That new play he’s been working on (so he keeps telling me). Some kind of Lisa Bellear number. Told me over the phone all about it.
And so I say to Alannah, when she asks me about it: Something about Lisa Bellear. He’s been talking about it for months.
Alannah reaches across my arm, picking up a spare thread. Weaving with discarded yarn and rushes, the blue cotton between her fingers growing wiry and taut, meshing the grass and reeds into a circular pattern.
But I mean – will you…
No, I say, no, it’ll be fine. I swear. I’ll be back in time for the gig.
Already I can see the soundcrews toiling outside the window, busy with technical preparations for tonight’s performance. drmngnow is playing. Raising money for mob affected by the summer bushfires.
For now, though, it’s mid-afternoon. Alannah and I are among strangers.
Joined in the act of threading yarn.
Have you heard, I asked her on the way to the Arts Centre, of the man in the fable who’s given glasses that allow him to see the world upside-down?
What’s this got to do with Oliver’s play?
Just say. I mean, yes or no.
Yes or no.
The Builders Arms, though – you’re sure it’s a half hour?
Yes. Half an hour.
For the past few years – ever since my obsession began – I had developed this habit of what Alannah described once over coffee (unceremoniously, I felt), as a wheedling neediness. Most of the time I could only work it out – whatever it was, whatever anyone might choose to call it – through a kind of extended communion. Conversations that felt like internal dialogues, or angry letters we sent to one another. Only thirty percent verbal, really. Maybe less. We were pretty freewheeling in our antagonisms.
Usually, after we’d finished, there would be some sort of uneasy truce. But then, like a film heading toward the point where everything comes together (the killer unmasked; the long lost key discovered), the recipient would end up being her, again. Or me. No one else to choose from, you know? That’s how argument gets you. You’re stuck. Forever and ever: just the two of you. You can engage in a mental reprise of the conversation during the inevitable silences – or a couple of parting words after parting ways (usually more than a couple) – but still. That’s the deal.
You always have to have the last word, she’d said once.
And it was true: I always would. Look at me go, sending my by the way, my little P.S.
Refreshing the window. Reopening the saved tabs. Having it out all over again.
But the truth is, we’d never had the chance to finish that conversation. Just driven on in silence. And if I had had the chance I would have told her exactly how the fable ends:
For the first few months or so, the man is confused. And why not? How would you feel, wearing glasses that make the world turn upside down? Poor guy: look at him flailing and falling all over the place.
But then, slowly – miraculously – he readjusts.
Except that, now, when he takes the glasses off, he sees the sky open, cavernous and cold, beneath him.
And he falls, again.
As much as I want to be with Alannah, as much as I want to be present, my hands are clumsy and refuse to learn. They seek out every available shortcut in the weaving. Fugitive opportunities to improve are transformed…but into what, really? The chance to cheat? No. Deceive?
Maybe it’s just myself being tricked.
I try to place the thread through its partner, but nothing will hold.
Everything comes unfixed, falling gently to the floor.
Earlier that day, trawling aimlessly through social media, I came across a post by the poet Christian Bok.
Finished reading: ON BEING BLUE by William H. Gass.
Ten minutes later, a reply from another writer arrives. Someone I’ve been following. Maybe you’ve heard of him, too. Anyway. He’s just someone I’ve been watching for a while.
They say if you read Maggie Nelson’s ‘Bluets’ immediately afterward, like within five seconds, everything you ever look at for the rest of your life is blue.
Three days later, Catherine, William Gass’ daughter, awards the comment a big neat red- heart like. A familial stamp of approval for Declan Fry.
At some point, I realised, I was obsessed with the colour blue. I had begun to see it everywhere.
And I had to learn to accept that: I had to learn to accept that, yes, I had begun to see it everywhere; and yes, I was going to keep seeing it.
So – I set all my social media to follow the word blue.
Because I knew I needed to be prepared.
Rising to leave (quick word to Alannah: yes, I’ll be back soon; pat down pockets for keys, wallet, whatever) the facilitator, Clara (straight back; earnest, searching eyes), seems to whisper something.
Only I wonder – is it just my imagination? Perhaps everything we do is confined to our heads. Everything lives and dies there. But always, somehow, with the sense that it could have been different.
Or that it could not have been otherwise.
To be honest, part of me just hopes I can make it back to Footscray in time.
Angling the car from Victoria Street onto Nicholson, the plane trees gliding overhead, I notice my phone begin to vibrate. Mum. She’s spent the past ten years living on the mid north coast of New South Wales, Gumbaynggir country. Phones most days.
Nah again, I say. What’s it called?
So have you seen it? she says.
I mean the name.
Little White Lie.
OK. Little White Lie – so that’s what it’s called, the film, yeah?
Worth a watch.
If you keep telling yourself the sky is green it becomes green.
That’s the gist of the film.
Which seems true enough. Thinking you’re seeing something – looking straight at it – but only perceiving (too late!) that what you’re seeing – or think you’re seeing – isn’t really there at all. It’s only what you’ve been conditioned to recognise.
We see only what we expect to see.
Outside the window, the leaves of the plane trees. Struggling and wavering in the heat.
They curl inward, as if turning on themselves, their edges brown and sombre. At their centre, only a memory of green, a fugitive whorl.
In my head I picture ice caps melting, the polar bears convening to decide who’ll leave first.
She tells me the whole story behind this doco: Lacey Schwartz (director and subject of the film) grows up in a typical upper-middle-class Jewish household in New York. She carries a strong sense of Jewish identity. She is brought up believing her dark skin and hair come from a dark-skinned Sicilian grandfather (that old chestnut).
Then, at the age of eighteen, Schwartz confronts her mother. Mum tells her that the man who raised her is not her biological father. So what? Well. Her biological father is revealed to be a black man. Rodney. With whom Mum had an affair.
If you keep telling yourself the sky is green it becomes green, I hear my mother say as I arrive at the Builders Arms.
Exiting the car, I look down at the grass. And you know what? It looks blue.
At some point, I realised, I was obsessed with the colour blue. I had begun to see it everywhere.
Of course. Yeah. I know.
I really should have been prepared.
Declan Fry is an essayist, critic, and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta. Born on Wongatha country in Kalgoorlie, in 2009 he received the Tom Collins Prize in Australian Literature, and, as joint winner, the Todhunter Literary Award in 2013. He currently lives on unceded Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung land and is a board member of Books ‘n’ Boots, an organisation distributing books to remote and regional Aboriginal communities. His work has appeared in Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Westerly, and Overland.