Departure Gate (Anthony Macris)

Posted on April 9, 2013 by in Novel Excerpts

Departure Gate (Anthony Macris)

Tube empty 2Christina’s gone. In the corner of the bedroom are the cardboard cartons to be sent on to Brisbane, where she’s gone to be with her family again. The day after she leaves the deliveryman comes to pick them up. He’s got a sandy-coloured goatee and smells of beer. He’s on his own, the cartons are heavy, so you offer to help. Half an hour later they’re all gone. You sit on a stool beside the now-empty corner and notice one of her blond hairs on your jumper, the one she knitted with her mother and her grandmother. You gently pull at it, but it has somehow become tangled in the woollen threads. You tug it out a short, sharp movement as if you were pulling a hair off your own head.

Over the next few weeks you’ll find them everywhere, these strands of fine blond hair. Sometimes they’re in unlikely places: resting on a window sill, caught under a chair leg. But most often they’re entwined in your clothes. You open your wardrobe, pick out something to wear, and there one is, snagged around a shirt button, snarled in a sock. Of course you don’t keep them, but it feels wrong to put them in the bin. You end up opening the window and letting the wind take them from your fingers.

Your flat is three rooms at the top of a large Edwardian house. It’s made up of a kitchen, a sitting room, and a bedroom, flanked by a long corridor. The toilet is out on the landing. You rent the place from Frank and Karen, a middle-aged couple who live in the rest of the building. They’ve been project officers for the local council all their working lives, and are model landlords: they never make you feel like a tenant. You like your flat. It’s pleasantly shabby and reasonably functional and, up there on the third floor, the windows are always full of sky. With its high white walls and black-painted floorboards, it feels like one of those contemporary art spaces that shifts from rundown building to rundown building until they either go mainstream or fizzle out.

The place has one major quirk. There’s no bathroom, so the bathtub is in the kitchen. And the bathtub is a quirk in itself. It’s short, squat and very deep with a moulded step that you sit on, the enamel worn thin by successive tenants. The kitchen is quite small, and fat from the cooker – not stove, cooker, you’re in London – collects on the bathtub’s rim. You’re continually wiping it away, this spray of fatty droplets from chops, sausages, bacon, and whatever else you cook. You hate the constant mix of substances: bread crumbs in the soap caddy, specks of dry shampoo on the oven door. It never fails to remind you how broke you are, how you don’t even have enough money to get back to Australia. In six months your visa will run out, and there’s no hope of an extension.

You’re broke because you’re unemployed, and you’re unemployed because of the impending war in the Gulf. Two weeks ago a tense-looking Sue, the head teacher of the English Language School you worked at, asked you into her office. You weren’t surprised when she told you that projected enrolments weren’t looking good, and that it wouldn’t be possible to keep you on. She began to give the obvious explanation, but you told her there was no need. You didn’t need to be reminded that ever since Bush and Thatcher had vowed to throw Saddam out of Kuwait, students had stopped coming in droves. The recent announcement of the UN Resolution authorising ‘all means necessary’, accompanied by the mobilisation of a global army ready to attack Iraq, hadn’t helped matters: it looked certain to be a winter of empty classrooms.

When you collect your last pay you find it fattened out with a two-week bonus, which at least softens the blow. Still, things are looking grim. You’re a foreigner in this country, so you can’t go on the dole. But even if you had the money for a ticket home, you don’t want to go just yet. A dose of self-reliance will be character building, you tell yourself. Just what the Lady ordered.

You spend your days hammering out job applications on the portable Remington a friend lent you. Your typing isn’t very good. It’s fast but not accurate, so you waste what seems like hours in stationery stores finding the best value paper, weighing up the pros and cons of correction ribbon over liquid paper. In your covering letters you don’t take any risks and are always careful to obey British conventions. You never ‘apply for a position’, you always ‘seek a post’.

It comes back to you again and again, the final incident that triggered Christina’s departure. You banged your shoe up against the rusting iron picture frame she’d left in the corridor, and sliced a large piece of leather off the toe. Your shoes weren’t exactly new, they weren’t even all that comfortable, but they were your Bond Street brogues, the only good pair you had. You’d always hated that stupid frame. God knows where she’d found it; it was so far gone it looked like it had been trawled up from the seabed. It had been standing in the narrow corridor for weeks, shedding huge flakes of rust, generally making a nuisance of itself. The sight of it, and the sight of your wounded shoe, filled you with rage. You kicked the stupid thing twice, three times, hoping it would collapse. It was surprisingly strong and each kick damaged your shoe even more. With a great effort of will you stopped, then stared down at the mess you’d made. The gouges in the leather were flesh-coloured against the black shoe polish. Then suddenly, something inside you snapped.

You kept very calm, walked down the corridor and opened the door to the bedroom. Positioned at the back of the flat, it had windows on three sides. In the clear winter light Christina was sitting at her worktable, gazing out the window. She was working on her sky diary, a large sheet of gridded paper whose squares she filled in everyday with a different colour, a colour that never actually resembled the sky, but, as she had told you, her particular interpretation of it. You started shouting at her, my shoe, look what you’ve done to my shoe, it’s ruined, it’s fucking ruined, that stupid frame, I told you not to leave it in the corridor, you know I’m clumsy, and now look at my shoe. She looks up at you, silent, waiting for you to stop, and as her ears flinch, as her eyes lose their dreamy lustre and brace themselves against your anger, you know that you have lost her.

In three weeks she’s gone. Until she leaves you continue to share the bed, an enormous, lumpy monster that stands on claw-like wooden legs and pushes you up towards the ceiling. You make love like you’ve never made love before, every touch your last. She’s never seemed more precious, more beautiful. One night when you’re fucking doggie style, her cheek pressed into the pillow, she weeps and starts to tear at her hair. You have to stop her ripping out great handfuls. Afterwards you know it’s better not to mention it. This is her only lapse, and for the rest of the time she’s completely calm, nearly serene, biding her time until she steps on the plane, wanting to make it as good as it can be.

The day of her departure arrives. It’s a late evening flight, which gives you time to have an early dinner. You make roast chicken with all the trimmings, her favourite. You don’t talk much during the meal, so it’s all over much too quickly, and when she offers to wash up you tell her not to be silly, you’ll do it later. You lug her suitcase through the quiet suburban evening, first to British Rail, and then onto the Piccadilly Line for the long haul to Heathrow.

Terminal Four is a madhouse of queues and security guards. It swallows you both alive, but you’re determined to see her off like any ardent lover. She checks in and you follow her across the squiggle-patterned carpet, the roar of the terminal making it impossible for you to really feel her presence for the last time. In front of the international departure gate you kiss and embrace and dissolve into tears, surrounded by a United Nations of different races toting the latest cabin baggage. You’ve been together for seven years. You are 29, she is 26. Three years age difference, a kind of golden mean, a comforting statistical average because we all know that men are less mature than women and need to be a little older to sustain any kind of relationship. She’s wearing her leopard-skin coat. It’s the last thing you see, the spots on the back of her leopard-skin coat, as she disappears through the metal detector. You don’t stay to watch the plane leave.

You catch the Tube home. It’s around 11.30 p.m. and the train is nearly empty. Without its usual crush of passengers, the carriage feels as light as an empty drink can. It shakes wildly as it hurls itself between the outer stations. You sit swaying in the clatter and din, staring at the line map stuck on the curve towards the ceiling. You randomly count down the stations: Hatton Cross, Hounslow West, Osterly, Chiswick Park, Stamford Brook, Hammersmith, Knightsbridge, Green Park, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Covent Garden.

You’ve never been able to imagine, riding in that glinting carriage light, the boroughs of London pressing down above you. You can only ever imagine a blank space, an empty plain stretching in all directions, and you are always amazed when you step off the escalator and find yourself in the busy high streets.

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This is an excerpt from Great Western Highway, the second novel by Anthony Macris in the Capital series. It was published by University of Western Australia Press in 2012; read the Verity La review here. A revised edition of the first novel in the series, Capital, Volume One, will be published by UWAP mid-2013.

 

Just a Little Bit Brilliant:
Anthony Macris' Great Western Highway - a love story

Posted on March 19, 2013 by in Verity La Reviews

Just a Little Bit Brilliant: <br />Anthony Macris' Great Western Highway - a love story

greatwesternhighway_web_mainEdnBy Tristan Foster

One thing is clear: we live in strange times. The influence of the market has seeped into every facet – every wrinkle – of our existence, leaving the individual spliced and atomised and spliced again. But, if who we are indeed so fragmented, how do we love and be loved back? Forget about connecting with someone else, how do you connect with yourself? The reach of market forces of course extends to the manufacture of art and, indeed, the production of literature; how, then, do you go about writing a novel on these ideas?

Anthony Macris attempts to answer these questions with his second novel, Great Western Highway: A Love Story. The sequel to Macris’s 1997 novel Capital, Volume One, Part One, Great Western Highway looks at a day in the lives of two people who are curious to understand how, and if, there can be love when the external, market-driven world intrudes on and tangles with the internal world, and the individual is left riven.

The novel opens with Nick, the story’s protagonist, standing in line to get cash out of an ATM on Parramatta Road, one of the busiest and most built-up stretches of the Great Western Highway. Nick – thirty-something, unambitious and uncommitted – is in fact on the way to see Penny, his ex-girlfriend who he can’t get over even though they broke up because he couldn’t get over Christina, his girlfriend before Penny. While he waits, the bank’s ads about homes and loans and images of perfect people with perfect lives beam down on him, forcing him to reflect on the gulf between this life – successful and even, brimming with optimism and hope – and his own.

Though it is only down the road, it’s some time before Nick actually reaches Penny’s house for what is shaping up to be a lugubrious night in front of the television. We follow as he walks along the Great Western Highway, and advertising and the rush of traffic and music and noise washes over him. All of these things, everything from Thai restaurants to squashed Coke cans, hold personal meaning for him: ‘Nick looked up at the giant mobile that leaned over the highway and tried to fight off the sudden memory of the phone call it was determined to trigger off, a Brisbane-based Christina had said “no” to a London-based Nick.’

The setting is not made up of landmarks in the traditional sense but is instead populated with businesses and brand names which create a sense of place in their own way: a landscape of signs, pregnant with memories and meaning. This barrage of messages about what to buy, how to live and how to find happiness creates a feeling of claustrophobia, something that we are more or less superficially desensitised to in reality but which the novel succeeds in evoking.

While Nick is very much the conduit through which we engage with this world, before he reaches his destination the narrative’s point of view switches to shadowing Penny at JobClub, an agency for the unemployed where she works offering employment advice. The themes that rise out of the first chapter are here elaborated on and formalised – happiness versus unhappiness, success versus failure, the tide of employment due to market forces, the structure of power. Penny must navigate her way through these obstacles to the end of the workday and a meeting with Nick, where she must then try to find a way to reconcile her private wants and needs, whatever they are, with those of her former boyfriend’s.

At the novel’s literal and metaphorical core is a Modernist stream-of-consciousness monologue from former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The chapter, titled ‘Lateline’, is an examination of the Thatcherite free market from the point of view of the woman herself, with Thatcher’s thoughts filling the space between her answers to Lateline presenter Kerry O’Brien’s questions. ‘No you may not finish,’ she thinks as O’Brien pleads to be heard. Even if he manages to finish his question, he is drowned out, all but voiceless in the deluge. Maggie Thatcher as free market mouthpiece – it’s an extraordinary piece of literature.

After the Thatcher monologue, the narrative pivots again, going back to Nick’s time in post-Christina London. The narrative style undergoes a further transition, with this part of the story being told in second person, as if from the point of view of a patient old friend. Alone in a city of millions, Nick turns to the television for comfort. His breakup happens to coincide with the Gulf War, and as he wallows, the war plays out in 24 hour-news cycles on the TV screen. Rather than intruding, the televised war distracts, plotting the trajectory of Nick’s feelings for him, acting as a substitute for the lost lover: ‘You lie in bed or sit at the kitchen bench and watch the spectacle… Your whole nervous system is tuned to imminent chemical attack, imminent ground invasion, imminent scorched earth.’ This is the novel’s highest point.

The story concludes at one of the few places it can: outside Rick Damelian’s, the iconic car dealership that once spanned entire blocks of Parramatta Road. But the key word here is once – like many of the real-world businesses and brands that populate the novel, Rick Damelian’s is no more. Today the lots are empty, one day soon they will be ugly, over-priced high rises, the market economy’s cycle of success and failure continuing to spin.

Herein lies the problem that is central to Great Western Highway. While setting this kind of story in a concrete time and place is conceptually sound, it also puts it at risk of becoming anachronistic the moment it’s published. The risk becomes that much larger when the time it interrogates and philosophically engages with has already passed, if only just. Put another way, images of George Bush Sr.’s Gulf War and the Lateline Thatcher interview might be fresh in Nick’s mind, but not as fresh in the reader’s, having been overshadowed by more recent and, arguably, equally relevant events.

There is evidence that a sequel to Capital, Volume One, Part One has existed for over a decade, with extracts of it having appeared in all of Australia’s major literary journals. Macris himself makes this fact clear in the ‘Author’s note’. With its knotted publishing history only having been untangled following the 2011 release of When Horse Became Saw, Macris’s moving story of his family’s struggle with his son’s autism, perhaps it’s grimly fitting that market forces kept Great Western Highway off bookshelves until now. However, the problem of a disconnect created by a delayed publication has a simple solution: respond again. A Volume One surely demands a Volume Two.

Great Western Highway is ambitious, experimental literature. While Macris’s use of the commercial twilight zone that is the highway, carving through the novel in the way that it carves through the lives of so many, is just a little bit brilliant, this occasionally disjointed novel won’t be for everyone. It’s for this reason that UWA Publishing should be commended for taking a chance with this unconventional story of modern love.

Great Western Highway: A Love Story (Capital, Volume One, Part Two)
Anthony Macris
The University of Western Australia Publishing, 2012
368 pages

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Read an extract from Great Western Highway here.