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Monkey Grip : Popular Penguins - Helen Garner

Monkey Grip : Popular Penguins

Paperback

Published: 29th June 2009
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In this acclaimed first novel, Helen Garner captures the fluid relationships of a community of friends who are living and loving in new ways.

Nora falls in love with Javo the junkie, and together they try to make sense of their lives and the choices they have made. But caught in an increasingly ambiguous relationship, they are unable to let go - and the harder they pull away from each other, the tighter the monkey grip.

About the Author

Helen Garner was born in Geelong in 1942. She has published many owrks of fiction including Monkey Grip, Cosmo Cosmolino and The Children's Bach. Her fiction has won numerous awards. She is also one of Australia's most respected non-fiction writers, and received a Walkley Award for journalism in 1993.

Her most recent books are The First Stone, True Stories, My Hard Heart, The Feel of Stone and Joe Cinque's Consolation. In 2006 she won the Melbourne Prize for Literature. She lives in Melbourne.

ACQUA PROFONDA

In the old brown house on the corner, a mile from the middle of the city, we ate bacon for breakfast every morning of our lives. There were never enough chairs for us all to sit up at the meal table; one or two of us always sat on the floor or on the kitchen step, plate on knee. It never occurred to us to teach the children to eat with a knife and fork. It was hunger and all sheer function: the noise, and clashing of plates, and people chewing with their mouths open, and talking, and laughing. Oh, I was happy then. At night our back yard smelt like the country.

It was early summer.

And everything, as it always does, began to heave and change.

It wasn't as if I didn't already have somebody to love. There was Martin, teetering as many were that summer on the dizzy edge of smack, but who was as much a part of our household as any outsider could be. He slept very still in my bed, jumped up with the kids in the early morning, bore with my crankiness and fits of wandering heart. But he went up north for a fortnight and idly, at the turning of the year, I fell in love with our friend Javo, the bludger, just back from getting off dope in Hobart: I looked at his burnt skin and scarred nose and violently blue eyes. We sat together in the theatre, Gracie on my knee. He put his hand to the back of my head. We looked at each other, and would have gone home together without a word being spoken; but on our way out of the theatre we met Martin rushing in, back from Disaster Bay. Decorously, Javo got on his bike and rode home.

Not a matter of decorum, though, with Martin, who said to me shyly, knowing perhaps in his bones that nothing would be the same again,
'I wish I could – you know – turn you on.' And he did, and somehow we loved each other: I held his sharp, curly little head very tightly in my arms. We slept peacefully, knowing each other well enough not to need to touch.

I woke in the morning and heard at the same moment a rooster crow in a back yard and a clock strike in a house in Woodhead Street. I walked through our house. In the rooms people slept singly in double beds, nothing over them but a sheet, brown faces on still pillows. Gracie and Eve's boy the Roaster sprawled in their bunks. A glass fish tinked at their window.

I put the kettle on to make the coffee, stared out the louvres of the kitchen window at the rough grass and the sky already hot blue.

At the Fitzroy baths, Martin and Javo lolled on the burning concrete. I clowned in the water at the deep end where the sign read ACQUA PROFONDA.

'The others are waiting for me up at Disaster Bay,' said Martin. 'I'm going back today. Why don't youse two come with me?'

'OK,' said Javo, who had nothing else to do, his life being a messy holiday of living off his friends.

'Nora?'

I rolled and rolled in the water, deafening my ears while I thought of, and discarded, all the reasons why I shouldn't go. I popped up, hanging on to the rail, hair streaming on my neck.

'OK. I'll come.'
Javo was looking at me.

So, afterwards, it is possible to see the beginning of things, the point at which you had already plunged in, while at the time you thought you were only testing the water with your toe.

We picked Gracie up from her kinder and left Melbourne that afternoon. By the time we had crossed the border into New South Wales it was well into night. The camp where the others were waiting for the supplies Martin had brought was a mile from the end of the track, round a rocky beach. It was dark and the tide was right in against the rocks. I picked up Gracie, who was too scared to speak, and waded blindly after Martin's voice. I was soon wet to the thighs. Whenever a wave withdrew, invisible crabs clattered round my feet on the spiky rocks. I could dimly see Javo ahead of me with his boots over his shoulder. My ears were full of confusion and the sea thumping. Martin helped me scramble up the last slope, Gracie clinging like a monkey to my back, and in the sudden quiet between waves I saw the gleam of the tent in a small hollow. We stumbled in. The others woke in a mass of rugs and sleeping bags.

'Did you bring anything to eat?' I recognised Lou's voice. 'I couldn't carry it over the rocks,' lied Martin, who had forgotten it in his haste to bring us to the place.

'We expected you yesterday, mate,' complained Lou gently. 'All we've got left is fuckin' flour. Where have you been?'

People were sitting up among the blankets. We got used to the dark.

'I got held up,' said Martin, already having forgotten the problem, and pulling his jeans off ready to sleep on his full stomach.

'You are a little weasel,' Lou sighed. He turned over and went back to sleep.

In a shop window in Merimbula I saw my face reflected and gave myself a fright: my hair was wild and stiff with salt, standing on end all over my head. My face was burnt almost back to paleness and my eyes stared out of dirty skin. I liked myself: I looked strong and healthy. But Martin was unhappy, and to my shame I was not concerned with kindness.

One morning when the others had gone into Eden to buy food, I squatted on the wet sand between two boulders and rolled sandballs with the children. We rolled and rolled, hypnotised, thrusting the sandballs into the ancient pitted surface of the rocks, singing private songs to ourselves. The sun struck the hacks of our necks and shoulders, burnt already brown as leather. We sang and rolled and sang, naked and sweaty. Up on top of the rock sat Lou with his leather-bound Oxford English Verse. He declaimed softly to the elements, a small smile of emotion trembling on and off his narrow, mournful face:
'. . . and the huge shipwreck of my own esteem . . .'

I went up and over the dried-out rocks to find my hat, and found instead Javo sprawled on a rug in the springy grass, not naked like the rest of us, but pouring sweat in the fierce sun, his hair matted with it, his skin greasy with coconut oil. I lay down next to him and our hot skins touched. Up close, his face was crooked, wrecked and wild. His eyes were as blue as blue stones or as water coloured by some violent chemical. I put my dry, hot arm across his oiled back. He moved like a boy, hard and gentle by turns. I heard him breathing.

A hundred yards away the children's laughter evaporated into the blue, blue air.

When the ranger came in his long white socks, Selena and Lou had come down with hepatitis, and we broke camp in the afternoon, escaping with the scraps of our dignity and our hastily packed possessions. Javo had never learned to drive, and Lou and Selena were too sick; they propped themselves with pillows in the front seat, white and trying not to complain. Thus it was left to me and Martin to ferry the load down south round the coast highway. At first we were all frantic with temper, jealousy and illness. When it was Martin's turn to drive, I sat in the back with Javo. I held both children on my knee, and told them a long hypnotic story about how they gobbled up the world and then each other. The others listened through the roar of the car, and laughed. Javo sat with his long legs stretched out, touching my knee, sometimes stroking my leg with his bitten fingertips.

In the front the others sang and sang. Selena's sweet voice rose finely, illness momentarily forgotten in the steady movement south as dark fell. Javo croaked,
'Hey – remember Sixteen Tons?' He began to sing, 'Some people say a man's made outa mud /A poor man's made outa muscle and blood . . .'

I looked out the window at the moon the shape of a slab of gouda cheese, I smelled the warm grassy air, I felt the bony limbs and soft flesh of the children, I thought, oh, nothing can be as sweet as this: to have two children on my knee and a man beside me and the singing and the summer travelling.

To think this, I needed to forget the unhappiness of Martin who was two feet away from me, driving. And to forget that not one of us would ever have a life that simple, because we were already too far off the track to think about turning back.

That night we forced ourselves past exhaustion and kept going. By the time we reached Melbourne we were beyond speech, too tired to be cordial to each other. I stopped the car outside Gold Street. The sleeping bodies stirred. Lou sat up.

'I see it,' he said, looking at his house, 'but I don't believe it.'

Javo and Martin dropped me and Grace at Delbridge Street. We fell into bed.
This one was going to make me trouble.

 

Next time I saw him was at Ormond Hall. People lolled against the mirrored walls, or danced, or lay on the floor with their sleeping children safely bundled in nests of discarded clothing. Javo and I spread ourselves on our backs on the floor as on a large double bed. I felt hesitant to touch him, or approach.
But he came back to my house with me, and we lay on my bed and talked and liked each other, and the way it happened was, that we began to stroke each other, and to kiss, and after a long, long time of slow, gentle touching and pausing, and kissing like an idle game that turned serious (he held my head hard with his two hands, we kissed and kissed) I rolled on to him and we fucked ever so gently. 'Wait, oh wait,' he whispered, and I waited, and he started again with the slow and steady rolling under me, his mad crooked face very sweet in front of my eyes; I felt the thin bones in his shoulders, and my heart dissolved to see him change away from abruptness to this kindness.

'At last,' he said, 'I've found someone who fucks soft.' We slept together three nights in a row. In those three days I drifted pleasantly in a haze while Martin wept and Javo felt guilty.

Three nights in a row was enough to make it too late. On the fourth morning I went about my business in the house, and came upon him later on the back doorstep. I squatted down beside him in the hot morning sunshine. I pushed my face against his jacket, warm cloth and the smell of his body. He smiled that crooked, reluctant smile, flashing at me sideways with his blue eyes. I went out on my own, leaving him there idle in the yard. When I came back in the evening he was gone.

It was a clear night, bright high moon, smell of grass on the air.

A person might not be ashamed to wish for love.

I was not aware of having wished. I had fallen asleep, no longer listening for footsteps. At one o'clock in the morning someone pushed open my door quietly, Javo, and sat on my bed and I hugged him round his neck and he held me like anything.

We lay talking for a long time, and dozed and woke and dozed again. The moon moved across the roof. It was hot and still.

'What's happening with Javo, Nora?' enquired our Eve, rolling one of her sneaky fags at our kitchen table. 'You're not – you know – doin' it again, are you?'

I knew what she meant and could not control a grin of guilt. She meant falling in love.

'Yeah, I suppose I've done it again.'

'I'll thump you, Nor,' she said, laughing at me kindly. I ran my thumbnail along a groove in the tabletop, feeling abashed but defiant.

'But what can I do to change?' I cried.

'Stop. Stop it. Stop now. You could spend more time on your own.'

I can't, I won't. Stop. I thought of his skin and the way I could sense out his skull, and his crazy eyes.

'You know what you're doing, Nor. You're looking at every new one, saying – is this the one?' She squinted at me, breathing out a column of smoke.

'No, that's not what I'm doing.'

'Well then, Javo is. I don't want to sound like a mother, but what future is there in it?'

We both laughed.

'I'm not all that worried about futures. I don't want to love anyone forever.'

'Look – don't get me wrong, he may be a scoundrel, but I really dig him – apart from anything else, he's a fuckin' junkie.'

'He's not. He's off it. He got off it in Hobart.'

'Oh, come on, Nora.'

We stared at each other across the table. Everything she knew about junkies was written on her face. I knew it too, but at that moment I chose to deny it. I stared at her face, gritting my teeth against the way she loved me. I looked at her thin, long fingers and kept my eyes on them until I heard her sigh. She stood up and picked up the coffee cups and carried them to the sink.

Already too late, too late. What harsh lives we lead.

I slept alone that night, dreamed deeply, forgot the dreams, woke to a house empty of children. Sunday morning, a cool wind, sun not shining. Eve was right, of course: more time on my own. But there was an image to shake my resolution: Javo lounging on a blue couch, drinking in some flash pub beyond our means, the sun coming through his eyes the colour of blue marbles, blue glass, how his eyes burn in his wrecked face.

He was twenty-three then and maybe, I ignorantly surmised, wouldn't get much older, because of the junk and the dangerous idleness in the bloodstream. I hadn't reckoned with the grit, nor with what would be required of me, nor with what readiness I would give it. Givin' it all away. People like Javo need people like me, steadier, to circle round for a while; and from my centre, held there by children's needs, I stare longingly outwards at his rootlessness.

On Christmas Day we woke together again. Georgie had given me a book by Diane Wakoski, The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems. I read a page or two, quite fast.

'If you're going to read,' said Javo, 'read out loud.'

I did, the one about the big snoring bikie who fell asleep beside her, drunk, and woke not knowing he carried her bullets in his back. I laughed. Lying next to Javo with the book in my hand, I remembered that in some narrow chamber of myself I knew what she was talking about. Love, it's about love.

When he left that morning, he stood in my doorway, looked at me sideways, and said, 'I'm going home. See you when I see you.'

He caught me on the hop. But I was well-disciplined by the orthodoxy, a fast faker. I was sitting at my table. We were ten feet apart, and I grinned at him, neat, sharp and steady.

'Yeah. See you.' Cut!

I saw him pass my window, though, and a small death occurred. Who am I kidding?

On that dull, still morning, Georgie strode in from Woodhead Street.

'Clive! One of your pigeons got the chopper, mate. A car ran over it.'

Clive buried it in the corner of the tomato bed near the dunny. I came past just as he was dropping the first spadeful of earth on the dead body I saw its flattened head, its eye closed, its beak open and desperate. The dirt hit the feathers and they gave out a stiff, lively rustling.

Cut off from gritty daily contact with the world, I was floating somewhere else, my time ruled by the children's demands, my ears tuned to the tones of their voices. I slept and woke when they did, served them out of my dream; and lived a short, intense hour of every night in the dark with Javo, living privately in the sleeping house.
He slept on in my bed each morning when I got up to the children. I came back in when they had gone to play, sat at my table to write or read, was aware of him flung across my bed in a running position. I felt dispossessed. I wished he would get up and take cognizance of the world, as I had to every morning. He didn't act, but waited for the tide to lift and carry him.

Not my kind, was that it?

I was afraid of his restlessness, his idleness, his violent changes of mood, his inability to sustain himself. Being with him was sometimes like being with a child: not that he asked me, as Grace and the Roaster asked me, to kick things along, to keep it all running; but if I hadn't done it, I would have been at the mercy of his erratic nature – unbalanced, vague, out of sync. 'What about this way I've got of falling in love with people and just as quickly out again?' I asked the I Ching.

'It is not immutable fate ... that caused the state of corruption,' it replied, 'but rather the abuse of human freedom.'

He sat at my table just out of the shower, wet hair and his blue eyes burning.

'Geez, you're goodlooking,' I remarked over my shoulder as I stood at the sink. His face closed up. His eyes dropped to his bitten hands and cigarette.

'You get excruciated when I say things like that, don't you.' He nodded.

The bead fly curtain rattled and Clive stepped in from tending his pigeons. He stopped inside the door, grinning at us from under his absurd cloud of henna'd hair.

'Wanna take the kids to the baths?' he said, inadvertently puncturing the small balloon of awkwardness. Javo sat there smoking while we rounded up Gracie and the Roaster, took their bathers (smelling, like the children themselves, strongly of chlorine) off the line, and disentangled our bikes from the heap outside the kitchen door: my thirty dollar grid, and Clive's blue and silver Coppi racer, which he called his filly. The Roaster rode on Clive's bar, Gracie on my carrier. We bumped over the gutter and on to the softening bitumen.

The kids begin to sing. We roll in unison (me upright and straight-backed with outstretched arms, Clive bent low over his handlebars with the Roaster crouching inside the curve of his body) down the wide road and into the green tunnel, the cave of the Edinburgh Gardens. No-one around, though it is ten o'clock in the morning. The hoses flick silver strings on to the drying grass. The cicadas beat a rhythm that comes in waves, like fainting or your own heartbeat. We sweep round the corner into the Belgium Lane, where the air is peppery with the scent of cut timber and even on this still day the poplars flutter over the ancient grey picket fence; they thrust up their sprouts through the cracking asphalt under our wheels. Between the posts we flash without hesitation and out of the cool we hit the road again and get down to the work of it, pedalling along Napier Street: our speed makes Gracie's legs flail behind me like oars.

'Hang on, hang on!' I shout to Grace, and feel her fingers obediently tighten on my pants as we forge across a gap in the heedless double stream of traffic in Queen's Parade, and coast again (the Coppi ticking soothingly) the last few yards to the racks outside the Fitzroy baths.

Broken glass glitters nastily all along the top of the cream brick walls. We chain our bikes to the rack. The Roaster grabs his towel and springs over the hot concrete to the turnstile. Gracie holds my hand with her hard brown one and we pick our way between the baking bodies to the shallow pool. The brightness of that expanse of concrete is atomic: eyes close up involuntarily, skin flinches. I lower myself gingerly on to the blazing ground and watch the kids approach the pool. The Roaster slips over the side and wades inexorably deeper; Gracie waves to me and squints, wraps her wiry arms around her belly, and sinks like a rich American lady beneath the chemicals.

'No-one will ever understand,' I say to Clive, 'but this is paradise.'

'Paradise enow,' he answers, neatly laying out a towel and applying his skin to its knobbly surface. No further need to speak. The sun batters us into a coma. I pull my hat over my eyes and settle down on my elbows to the day's vigilance.

ISBN: 9780143202714
ISBN-10: 0143202715
Series: Popular Penguins
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 246
Published: 29th June 2009
Dimensions (cm): 18.1 x 11.5  x 1.5
Weight (kg): 18.1