Authors: Andrea Goldsmith
There were still twenty minutes before Elizabeth’s appointment with the curator and she decided to pass the time in a nearby garden that provided a shaded outlook on to the parade of students.
How young they were! Had she, too, looked so young at age eighteen, so preposterously unformed as these sombre, slovenly children swallowing up a future? These white-faced students in black clothes, hair stridently tangled and striped with black dye and idle bleach, knees pushing through neatly torn jeans, shirts ripped to show shining young shoulders. Or the other ones with their careful faces beneath spiral perms, their narrow waists and freshly pressed sportswear, their exuberant smiles revealing too-straight teeth. She was sure it had been different in her day, she was sure she would have noticed so much attention to appearance, so much babble. These students suggested a generation of derelict souls.
She had talked with Vivienne about the students, asked out of concern for Ginnie, who with her desire to study and learn, seemed to share so little with the present crop of students – for that matter had so little in common with the society at large. Vivienne had said it would not be easy but neither would Ginnie be the first to discover that. And Elizabeth, seeing the students walking the paths, lying on the grass, some necking, others
heckling, was worried for her daughter. It was not enough to be consoled by Ginnie’s determination, her maturity, her apparent refusal to chase shadows; she feared for her daughter’s frailty.
At five minutes to ten, Elizabeth left the garden and juggled her way through a steady stream of students who seemed intent on running her down. She kept to the left and they charged, she moved to the right, they stalked, she decided on the centre and they attacked from both sides. Or so it seemed. Either they did not see her, or they owned the paths. It was a daunting trek and she was glad to be safely ensconced in the curator’s office.
From the very first approach last year, the arrangements for this exhibition had proceeded well. Of course there had been the usual disagreements over labelling, over the mounting of some pieces, over some of the titles – this curator did not like untitled pieces, the one at Elizabeth’s last show did – but overall it had been a smooth passage. That Elizabeth was nervous, was entirely due to the importance of the exhibition – the biggest to date – and her feeling that it marked a milestone in her work. The curator was extremely confident: why else would he have invited all the major dealers as well as the more important collectors. Why indeed? Elizabeth wanted to ask, but it is not easy, nor is it appropriate, to ask someone to tell you about your work, or more particularly, tell you why he thinks it is good. The curator had invited Elizabeth to leave everything in his hands, and Elizabeth had done just that, and would continue to do so until it was time to place each of the twenty-three pieces in the vast space. Too vast? Elizabeth wondered, but decided to keep her silence.
Two hours later as she made her way back to the union to meet Ginnie she thought of the possible outcomes of this exhibition: either success or the sturdy jackboots of failure. She was desperate to know the result now, ten days before the opening, so she could know whether to look people in the eye. Her friends had tried to tell her there was more to her than her work, that a rejection of her work was not a rejection of her, and although she knew they were being kind it was not the point – neither did she believe they were correct. You live your life in various guises, the most important of which is your role of work; work is a panoply for
other trembling moments, and who will protect you if it tarnishes?
She remembered the years between being Adrian’s wife and becoming known as a sculptor, the sobering vacuum of being neither wife nor worker – or rather recognised worker, for she was working hard, reclaiming old skills and consolidating new – and the withering indictment of entering the public arena without a protective label. And yet, with day after day of uninterrupted work, of pieces made and refined, days spent privately constructing a talent, it was a good time, in some respects, the best. She remembered those years as a melody from a brooding oboe, a redemptive, restrained and startlingly resonant intermezzo when slowly, so very slowly, ideas seized the stone and her hands shed their dampers. Years without a public persona, hidden years marked by a kind of feverish calm. All the activity and excitement, even the frustrations – such tender-sharp emotions – fed a sense that finally she was doing as she had always intended; but in the eyes of the world she felt as if she did not exist. They were years of a small vibrant life with her work, her daughter, Kate, Vivienne, little else, and while there had been other exhibitions, this one seemed to mark an end to those brilliant, urgent days of the unknown artist shaping a future in solitude.
Elizabeth glanced at her watch and hurried on to the union building. The crowd at the entrance was thick and boisterous, no one seemed to be moving. Elizabeth stood back, hoping that if she did not see Ginnie, Ginnie would see her. And two or three minutes later there she was, a triumphant smile across her face and bursting with excitement.
‘I’m in, fully enrolled, and I was accepted into all the subjects I wanted!’ The Latin department in particular seemed pleased to have her, she said, her words tumbling over one another. ‘They had me well on the way to finishing my doctorate with them – not bad after only a ten-minute interview.’ She lowered her voice, and slowed down a fraction. ‘And I saw Scott, he must have just got back. He looks gorgeous, new bleached pieces, and a great tan even after two months in a Japanese winter. Seems he had a great time, missed me of course, said he’d ring tonight.’ She paused for breath. ‘God I’m pleased he’s home.’
Elizabeth tried to share her daughter’s enthusiasm, tried to stifle her mistrust of young Scott. ‘Is it Scott, or would you be suspicious of any man who took an interest in Ginnie?’ Kate had asked some months ago. But Elizabeth decided there was something specific to Scott that disturbed her. He was a likeable enough young man, Elizabeth could see that, but he seemed too much of a pragmatist to feel deeply. She hoped he would prove her wrong. So now she smiled and nodded and wondered to herself when exactly Scott had returned from visiting his parents in Japan, and decided to change the topic.
‘Was there any concern about your ability to keep up?’
‘Mum, I wish you’d stop worrying. I don’t, so you shouldn’t. I told them I’d need to use my portable typewriter in class and none of the lecturers – and I met with at least one from each subject – was in the least perturbed. I also met with a woman who’s employed solely to assist disabled students; seems she can do anything for you, even arrange transcription if it’s required, which I assured her was not. I can’t imagine needing her for anything – ’
‘But it’s good to know she’s around,’ Elizabeth said quickly.
Ginnie nodded. ‘I suppose so. But the lecturers were so helpful, I’m sure I could ask them if I needed anything. Everyone was so nice and they all made approving noises when they saw my results from last year.’ Ginnie laughed and threw her arms around her mother. ‘I’m so happy.’
And so was Elizabeth. She worried too much, she should follow her daughter’s example.
‘Oh yes, I mustn’t forget. Vivienne was helping with enrolments in the linguistics department; she said she’d meet us,’ Ginnie looked at her watch, ‘five minutes ago in the foyer of the humanities building to take us to the faculty club for lunch. The faculty club! I can hardly believe it.’
But it was not to be. Instead of Vivienne, Daniel, her old friend, was waiting in the foyer. There had been an unexpected rush on linguistics, he explained, and Vivienne could not be spared. He asked Ginnie about her enrolment, and again Elizabeth witnessed the stream of words, the excitement, the surprise at being accepted into the subjects of her choice.
‘Well, I’m not the least bit surprised, I only wish you’d been interested in social theory and I could have had you too.’ He laughed. ‘In a manner of speaking, of course! A serious undergraduate devoted to the humanities is a rare thing these days.’
Ginnie told Daniel she’d seen Scott, how he’d just arrived home, how spunky he looked, and Daniel decided not to mention that he, too, had seen Scott – a week previously, when Scott had come to inquire about a social theory unit. Instead he turned to Elizabeth.
‘Have you seen the curator yet?’ She nodded. ‘And will you be famous? No, I correct myself,
will you be famous?’
‘We didn’t discuss the exact timing,’ she patted his cheek, ‘but you’ll be among the first to know.’
Daniel, although originally Vivienne’s friend, had in recent years seen a lot of Elizabeth and Ginnie. Daniel and his long-time partner Lorenzo often used the tennis court at the Dadswell house; both shared Elizabeth’s interest in art, although not as practitioners, and both were very fond of Ginnie, including her in their visits to the theatre and cinema. Now Daniel took his leave, reminding Elizabeth and Ginnie that they were expected for dinner the following Friday.
Left to themselves, Elizabeth and Ginnie decided to forgo lunch so Elizabeth could go to the bookshop and Ginnie to the library – never too soon to start familiarising herself with the place, she said. She crossed the huge open space to the library and laboriously climbed the steps. She saw the ramp, four times as long as the steps, and avoided it: ramps were like wheelchairs, a capitulation, a loss of courage. Although there had been times of joy in a wheelchair following her various bouts of surgery when one or both legs were in plaster; then she would sit in the wheelchair knowing what it was to be injured rather than handicapped – and it was all the difference in the world.
She stood at the top of the stairs at the entrance to the library; no automatic doors, a problem if she were carrying anything heavy. Elizabeth had bought her a small backpack for university, thinking it would leave her hands free for her sticks, for doors, for all those things that hands were supposed to do, but Ginnie
had hated it. It was so ungainly, swinging across her shoulders in rhythm with her sticks, clip clop went the sticks, slip slop went the pack and no matter what adjustments she made the pack was still unsightly, so she had left it in a public toilet and dissuaded Elizabeth from buying another. Instead she would use her old satchel which she could grasp in her left hand along with her stick, and as long as the bag was not heavy, she should be able to manage the library door fairly inconspicuously – although a little practice wouldn’t go astray. Practice, she had learned, protected against failure.
A guy pushed past and opened the door. ‘Coming?’ he said. She shook her head, said she was waiting for someone. ‘Suit yourself,’ and off he went, a good-looking guy, but she would tolerate pity from no one. She gave him sufficient time to disappear inside the library and, when the coast was clear outside, leaned on the door and entered. The floor plan was opposite the entrance, she walked over and studied it, found the lifts, the women’s toilets, the stacks for her subjects and began memorising their location.
‘Excuse me, need any help?’ A woman, about thirty-five, was standing next to her.
Ginnie straightened on her sticks, wasn’t it obvious she was managing perfectly well? ‘No!’ she said far too loudly, ‘I’m fine.’
The woman stared, Ginnie could see she was unsure what to do. The usual response was to apologise and move away. But not this woman, she stood, still staring, eyebrows raised, lips crimped.
Ginnie shrugged and so too did the stranger; then without saying anything further, the woman walked over to the librarians’ desk.
Not an auspicious beginning, Ginnie decided, but if people would only leave her alone these incidents wouldn’t happen. Although it was not as simple as that, she did not want to be left alone, she wanted friends, for herself,
her self beyond the disability
. Friends like Scott. Vivienne had said it was ludicrous for Ginnie to think of a self ‘beyond the disability’, she was who she was because of a number of factors, the disability being one. ‘Remove the disability if that were ever possible,’ she had said, ‘and you’d
change your self, the person we all know.’ And while Ginnie suspected Vivienne was right – Vivienne was always right – she preferred her own view: it might have problems but it did have hope.
She took a deep breath and moved across to the cataloguing area, relieved to be on the carpet; she hated polished floors, and although it had been years since she’d slipped, she always stepped warily. With the library practically empty it was a good time to try the microfiche and computer search. She knew the card catalogue was out of the question; no matter how careful she was the cards would bend and tear and come away in handfuls, she knew also that with her choice of subjects, many of the texts she would need would not yet be on microfiche. It couldn’t be helped, when she needed the card catalogue she would have to ask someone. She went to the microfiche first, and discovered to her delight that the university was equipped with a new system that did not require handling of the fiche sheets. No need for practice there. On to the computers. She surveyed the terminals, trying to decide which would provide the most space with the fewest onlookers. She settled on one at the end of a row near the reference section a long way from the loans counter and there she sat, laying her sticks on the floor. This would be her terminal.
Using her right hand to stabilise the left, she started keying in information, and although it would have been easier if the keyboard were pushed further back, she could manage perfectly well as it was.
The woman, the helping woman, was on the floor tangled in Ginnie’s sticks.
‘You looked fit to kill before,’ she said from the floor, ‘but I didn’t think you were serious.’ She began to laugh and soon Ginnie was laughing too. The woman got up and sat in a chair at the next desk while Ginnie placed her sticks underneath her chair. ‘The next person might sue,’ she said.
The woman was a librarian, in acquisitions. She was also studying part-time, for a masters degree in linguisitics