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Authors: Andrea Goldsmith

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BOOK: Gracious Living
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‘I’ve had enough for the moment. Besides we’ll see it all again at the opening ceremony. “A show to be remembered” was the way Adrian described it during one of his interviews, and I’m sure that’s exactly what it’ll be.’ She stepped off the path and allowed a couple to pass; they were glued together the length of their bodies and had no thought of separating.

Elizabeth and Vivienne were walking against the flow; everyone was flocking to Eden Park Lodge to secure a place for the opening ceremony. Elizabeth reached across and took Vivienne’s hand and helped her out of the current. They had no need to hurry; while Adrian’s ‘special guests’ numbered in the thousands, some guests
were more special than others: Elizabeth, Ginnie, Kate and Vivienne had been allotted numbered seats on the offical dais for the opening ceremony. They could arrive at the last minute and still be assured of a good view.

By the time Elizabeth and Vivienne had reached the gymnasium the paths were almost deserted. Before entering, Elizabeth stopped and looked back. She took it all in: the fairways, the hotels the apartments, the bushland, the tennis courts, the lake, the retreating people.

‘Nothing much has changed from ten years ago,’ she said shading her eyes. ‘Just a little more exaggeration – more hysteria with the fun.’

When Ginnie left the bird pavilion to avoid a meeting with Lydia she made her way towards the lake; the paths there made her feel less precarious – concrete rather than the tiles that clad most of Eden Park’s walkways – and there were fewer people. She had an acute sense of being all leg on this the first time she had worn shorts in public, although Kate’s compliment had made the trial easier. And yet these legs, the bane of her life, were not in appearance so very bad, indeed, the left one was quite attractive. She smiled to herself; hadn’t she studied it often enough? – hour after hour alone in her room, styling ancient Greek garments out of bedsheets, draping the material across a shoulder and down her body, catching the hem at the left side and looping it through a belt to leave the leg exposed. She would stand side on before the mirror and see that the left leg was long and straight and shapely enough. But the right? and both of them together? Well, Kate was being kind.

As for the shorts, there was no adequate explanation for them; suddenly, quite literally overnight, something had happened to make her want to take on her body, if not full on, certainly not only from the left side. All her life she had tried so hard to pass for what she was not – to hide her disability under clothes, to avoid eating in public, to spend entire evenings at parties standing in a corner supported by the walls so as to avoid using her
sticks – and now all the pretence seemed to have shed its urgency. You live your life according to certain strictures and then suddenly they become – what? Useless? Irrelevant? Or simply burdensome?

Of course Scott was involved. She had loved him, of that there could be no doubt, but as well he had been a tool, a means of proving herself on the hazardous ground of her body, proving herself in an area that her friends – everyone – considered normal and worthwhile. It was of little consequence that Ginnie knew too much significance was placed on bodies and far too much emphasis was given to sex. It was a matter of stigma. To be eighteen and without a boyfriend, to be eighteen and still a virgin were terrible handicaps which, thanks to Scott, Ginnie did not have to bear. How she had enjoyed those Monday lunches swapping information with her girlfriends about the weekend; the girls would ask about Scott and Ginnie would ask about their boyfriends. Some people liked to boast about being different, Kate, for example, loved to stand out from the crowd, but Ginnie did not.

With Scott, she had passed the ultimate physical test, and in so doing had proved herself in a far more profound way than the time she had joined a bushwalking club and nearly killed herself, or when she had gone trailbike riding, tearing over the violent ground absolutely terrified. Sex seemed closer to your self, your essence, than trailbike riding could ever be, and while she knew there was little reason for sex to be saddled with this burden of identity, that’s the way it seemed to be. And it was the very fact of sex that mattered irrespective of whether she had enjoyed it, that someone had chosen to relate to her through this calamity that was her body. It put a gloss to her self which would last, of that she was quite sure: having taken that first great risk of revealing not her soul but its derelict partner, life should be easier from now on.

As she made her way to the lake she glimpsed a time when she would walk along a path such as this, out in the open, legs as naked as they were today, and not be conscious of being an object of curiosity. One day, in place of fear and distrust and embarrassment she would focus instead on the distant hills with their
bleached summer stubble, and the sheep huddling in the shade of a few decrepit eucalypts; she would stop and gaze at the blue sky unconcerned about her sticks blocking the path, she would rest without self-recrimination when she was tired. And this was not all, if she could learn to forget her body even for a short time, rid herself of her voracious self-consciousness, she might find the courage to swim in the ocean, she might ask her friend Leonie to show her how to play the cello, just once to stroke the rich beauty from the instrument. There had been so much she dared not do for fear of showing her disability, so much she had done in order to conceal it.

She stopped suddenly. A noise, fierce, hard, a gun shot. Then another, and another. The air punctured with sound. Coming from the lake, of that she was sure. Dogs barking, voices shouting, more shots, clapping, barking, and Ginnie unable to move. And suddenly a rush of people. ‘Has it started?’ they shouted. ‘Have we missed it?’ Swerving around her, down to the lake.

Ginnie moved from the path, over to a small clump of trees where she sat down and watched the people. She waited, five, ten, fifteen minutes, and finally the guns were silent; but still the dogs barked and the people shouted.

A solitary figure emerged from the bushes near the lake and walked up the now-deserted path. A man, perhaps twenty-five, maybe older, rubbing his eyes, shaking his head. As he drew parallel with Ginnie he looked up, looked her full in the face and shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of futility. She said she didn’t know what had happened down there, she heard the guns but did not know. And he told her: an exhibition of duck shooting, tame ducks raised in captivity, raised for the shooters’ pleasure. His voice struggled, he shrugged again and walked on.

‘Why don’t you stay here a while. No one will bother you.’

He looked at her, for a long time he looked. And then it happened, he leaned down and picked up her sticks as if they were nothing more than pieces of wood and put them to one side; then he sat next to her in the shade. People don’t touch your sticks, don’t touch this, the rawest disability; skin at least has some familiarity, but crutches are crutches. He moved her sticks and
she was aware of a profound physicality like finding herself in someone’s arms.

The two of them sat quietly, he, leaning against a tree with his eyes closed, Ginnie, brilliantly alert, gazing at the distant hills. Now and then she looked at him, studied his small soft frame – not fat but without ugly bulging muscles – the bare legs and slender hands. His hair was almost black and very curly, his skin olive without being swarthy. You would have expected a heavy beard but his cheeks were as soft as the rest of his body. And in the face was melancholy, pronounced even while his eyes were closed and despite the laughter lines. He must have known she was looking at him, people always do, but he let her be.

When at last they spoke it was with ease. His name was Ben and he was there because his parents were friends of Adrian Dadswell’s. Ben lived in Sydney, had flown down for his father’s sixtieth birthday. It was supposed to have been a quiet family celebration, but when it coincided with Adrian’s opening, Ben’s parents and sisters decided the celebration should take place at Eden Park ‘where all their friends would be anyway’.

Ginnie told him why she was there. He was surprised to learn that Adrian had a daughter.

‘I wonder why he’s kept so quiet about you.’ He paused, lips pressed together. ‘Do you think it’s because of your disability?’

The word struck hard, as it always did. Her first reaction was to make him suffer. ‘Oh?’ she might have said, ‘it’s never occurred to me.’ Or, ‘Only a very shallow person would consider such a possibility.’ A punishment reply. But she held back and calmed herself – why should mention of her disability always create such fear? – and told him how she used to think her disability was behind Adrian’s rejection, but now she realised it was a simple matter of indifference.

Ben nodded, leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. He was quiet for two or three minutes; Ginnie watched the long fingers tapping his cheeks, his foot rubbing a hollow in the loose dirt. When at last he spoke he was tentative. ‘Surely,’ he said slowly, ‘it’s difficult to determine exactly what effect your disability has on the behaviour of others. If I were in your position it
would be such a temptation to blame my disability every time something went wrong or someone treated me badly.’

And why not? she thought, the disability saturated her life. She turned away, disturbed and yet intrigued: he had touched upon the central dilemma of her young life. She must have smiled.

‘Have I said something humorous?’

Still she remained silent, as if time could make her decision. But time as usual did nothing but pass. Finally she spoke.

‘How do you know about that?’

He told her about his friend who was a paraplegic, it was one of the issues they had discussed.

‘And what did your friend say?’

‘He told me how difficult it was to keep his disability in perspective. He told me that if he hadn’t had twenty years of being able-bodied, twenty years of the usual problems and rejections that pepper this life, he would have had no way of determining the relevance of his disability to other people’s actions. Having had those years though, he thought it best to assume that when someone treated him badly they probably would have done so irrespective of the disability; otherwise, he said, he would spend all his time protecting himself and blaming others.’

‘Easier for a paraplegic, they’re more acceptable. I expect he had a glamorous accident – ’

Ben nodded. ‘Skiing.’

‘ – a glamorous accident and already had lots of friends, maybe even a career. Paraplegics are more normal than not.’

Ben was looking at her, a smile on his face. Can you hear what you’re saying? his expression said, listen to yourself. She did, and started smiling too. A hierarchy of stigma? what an absurd idea! It was then they noticed the people coming up from the lake, first only a trickle then a thicker stream. Suddenly Ben stood up, he’d just seen his parents, and he wanted to avoid them. He was reluctant to leave, Ginnie could see that, pulled out pencil and paper and asked if he might ring her. She nodded, gave him her number and he was gone.

The people were lively, consulting maps and each other as they strolled up from the lake. They all wanted a cool building and a
cold drink and they wanted them immediately. Ginnie could hear their voices quite clearly through the sullen summer air – cool buildings and cold drinks but no word about the shooting. How convenient it was, Ginnie thought, that the all-consuming interest of one minute could be so readily extinguished in the next. She wondered as she watched the flow which were Ben’s parents, but it was impossible to know, everyone looked much the same; wondered, too, if he would ring or whether he had merely used a polite means of escape. She recalled his hand on her sticks – for a person like her, certain moments endured – and knew that irrespective of whether she met him again the moment was hers.

She decided to wait for the paths to clear before making her way to Eden Park Lodge for the official opening. She rested against the tree and closed her eyes on the blistering heat, a dry heat, but quite tolerable in the shade of the tree. She was still, sequestered from the chattering crowds, locked in with the strange hand on her sticks, thé stranger’s voice probing for hidden fears, feeling oddly young, as if someone had guessed what she wanted for Christmas thereby saving her the burden of revelation.

The minutes passed along with the crowd; she sat so still and soon the heat ceased its burning and instead leaned into her skin like a huge feather cushion. She heard crows croaking, the carolling of magpies, the distant cry of sheep, otherwise a silence as thick as the heat. And then someone approached, and in the split second it took to open her eyes she thought, hoped, Ben had returned. But it was Scott.

Ginnie had expected to see him, had played through the meeting a hundred times, and yet now he was here less than a metre away, she couldn’t be bothered with him. She could smell him, sour and sweaty with alcohol and heat, and his blondness seemed insipid after Ben’s rich complexion.

‘Aren’t you going to invite me to join you?’ he asked.

‘No, I wasn’t.’

Her reply caught him on his knees. For a moment he was unable to move, just a few fumbled words terminating in a perplexed ‘Oh?’ She ignored the question, sat looking at him with a calm and gentle smile on her face. He clambered to his feet, couldn’t
hold her gaze, looked instead to the lake, the trees, the distant buildings, fleetingly to her upturned face. An ant crawled over her knee, she brushed it off carefully, watched it dart away, returned her gaze to Scott.

‘You’re mad at me?’ he asked.

‘What for?’

Another long pause. Ah, the power of meeting a question with a question, she thought. Her smile broadened.

‘I don’t know what’s so funny,’ he said.

‘And neither you should, it’s a private joke.’

‘You’re mad at me, I know you are.’

‘How do you know that?’

Silence. A long silence.

‘You seem to be having difficulty with my questions,’ Ginnie said.

‘Only because you’re not playing fairly.’

BOOK: Gracious Living
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