by M F McAuliffe
This isn’t the Warner Gilchrist who’s a neurosurgeon, nor the Warner Gilchrist who’s a bell-ringer, nor the Warner Gilchrist who’s an executive lawyer, nor the Warner Gilchrist who’s a male model, but the Warner Gilchrist who’s bone and residue in a closed coffin in one of Adelaide’s cemeteries. His father was James Gilchrist, a local columnist for The Examiner, and one of the most fatuous writers I have ever read. At 15, my rage at his column was boundless. Church-goers’ and rose-growers’ regard for him was likewise boundless. Now even Google can’t find him.
Warner was his first-born, a fat-faced, slit-eyed bounceball of self-regard. He wasn’t tall, he wasn’t lithe, but walked as though he was. I knew a lot about the way he walked: he walked in late, down the full length of the theatre, every time we had an English lecture.
He was as full of shit as his father, and as well regarded.
He was very young, they said. There was a law that you had to be seventeen to go to Uni; otherwise you had to petition the Governor. I’d come within two months of having to petition; he’d come within two weeks.
I didn’t know his name. I knew the orange hair and freckles, the stretchy-dakked slouch, the eyes, his lack of folder as he slouched past the front rows of girls busy writing in theirs. I knew he bounced a tennis-ball across the plaza month in and month out; I saw him from the library windows. He never seemed to do any work. I expected him to fail.
At the end of the year I came third. Someone called Warner Gilchrist had come second; Walter Selim, a thin, pale worm, had come first.
In Second Year Orange Boy still had the ball. Mostly in is pocket.
Early in Third Year the student newspaper revived. Someone called Warner Gilchrist, with friends, ran it; Warner was the editor. Van Hulse, a friend of mine, gaunt and haunted flame of a boy, went off and politicked. When he came back we were the joint literary editor.
“Oh?” I said.
Not only that. Warner Gilchrist was the son of: James Gilchrist.
As we all waited at the entrance to the large theatre I could see the darkened study of his late nights with his father, typewriter, table, pool of light, whisky-to-whisky, man-to-man help with homework, help… (Did his father help him say the things I wanted to say – the feeling at the tip of the branch when the grapevines are pruned, how the small grey wind came from the gullies, how the scatter and spray and spew of houses lay between the hills and the sea?) He’d had help, had it for years and years and years.
“This means we can be a power on campus!” Van Hulse was glowing, his lips open with hope.
I had pressing problems, lose your scholarship and where are you going to get money problems, the entire Spanish Renaissance in Renaissance Spanish problems, Norse sagas in Old Norse and Beowulf in ornamented Anglo-Saxon problems. (Where did Warner get all his free time?)
“Mm,” I said. Hulse invented projects and cajoled students far and wide. I talked a couple of submissions out of a couple of staff. I had too much work to help him much.
Warner’s articles began to appear. Sex and the pill and the new gloriousness of life; the Hey, Jude review; the penis-piece, a four-pager on the True Humanity of not regarding your penis as a Free Strap-on Gift Offer. It was something his father might have written, if he hadn’t been addressing the middle-aged middle class. “Dear Warner, I have never regarded my penis as a free strap-on gift offer. Love, Veronica.” Did not get printed.
Around the same time Hulse told me that nothing we were digging up was getting printed, either.
Take it up with the Student Union executive?
Hulse white-faced with anger. The paper wasn’t controlled by the Union. The press was owned by a consortium of Warner and his friends.
So. His father had bought him a fake newspaper for a platform, and a press to print it on.
He beamed and bounced his way across the plaza and grew more orange hair. My thesis grew a hundred monster heads.
I began to be free again at the beginning of Fourth Year, just in time for the Annual Play. The other half of the Former Literary Editor of The Imperial Scheme sprang the fifty cents, and took me. Over the summer just about everybody had dropped out, Hulse said, and instead of cancelling the show… Towards the end the star and only cast member swung across the stage on a trapeze, jock strap naked, coloured streamers rippling from his arse. Hulse wanted his money back.
But when I saw him afterwards, wearing the green corduroy coat with leather elbows, wearing the shirt that somehow made him look substantial, I felt oddly sorry for that simultaneously pudgy and scrawny body.
And then I began to realize that Warner’s performance had gained him respect among the staff. I think they saw it as brave.
And the staff would decide the first class degrees, the tutorship, the scholarship, and the Medal.
As you walked down the corridor you could start to get a feeling for your chances, read the layers of latenight thought lodged in the satin finish of doors and doorframes. You could see vague shapes, receding possibilities. Once I glimpsed the ghost of Walter Selim, inching along like a vertical worm, his mind concise and brilliant.
But the most glittering bauble on the Fourth-Year Christmas-tree was a couple of terms’ tutoring before leaving for Oxford. If I could get that job I could do something respectworthy while I went on trying to say the sound of the wind. My heart had been set on it for years.
Frenzy. Exams. Orals. Alphabetically I wasn’t expecting to see Warner that week. Our paths crossed at the door; I went to knock; he opened it on his way out. Hearty male laughter within. My heart sank. I knew the sound of satisfied agreement when I heard it.
I’d staggered through my Spanish oral, drunk and mindblank, managed to make an unexpected joke with the only three words I could still remember and escape while their impressions were still good.
I didn’t dare get drunk for this. So we sat, them in front of the windows, me staring at the sun and thee silhouettes, in increasingly bad-tempered argument.
When it was over I went downstairs to the Ladies’ to get out of the dress. I hadn’t worn it for years, knew it was hideous the second I put it on –
Warner intercepted me.
The orals were closer to Christmas; the campus was closed and deserted. To this day I don’t know where he waited that afternoon, to speak to me who he neither saw nor spoke to, to see if his scholarship was still safe.
He looked down from his puff-cheeked, slit-eyed advantage and asked me how it had gone.
I shrugged. I wanted nothing but to be away from the grey terrazzo foyer with its thin brass strips, to be back in my jeans, getting to know by its smell and sound and the saltwater desert my future had just become.
“How long were you in there?” His eyes looked amused. The dress, I suppose.
The pause lengthened, and lengthened again. He stood looking down. Finally I said, “How long were you?”
There was so obviously nothing to say.
Selim got the Medal.
Van Hulse chatted quietly to the staff. Everything I’d been drunk for I’d done very well in; Warner’s First came largely from his marks in French. I grunted. For all I knew his French was better than Voltaire’s.
Teaching on the industrialized edge of the extinct inland sea. Dry geologies so barren that for a sense of human scale I began reading The Examiner again.
Warner’s French professor had become the restaurant critic.
Restaurant critic? The man had to be helped downstairs after the French Society.
I wondered why The Examiner had picked him. He wasn’t scrambling for work; he didn’t need the money. He sat in his office, obscure, bespectacled, unnoticeable to anyone but his students –
Warner’s First came largely from his marks in French.
Warner’s father, The Examiner‘s most popular columnist.
None of that made any difference now.
The wind grieved at night, scouring the plain under the treeless moon.
I drank the Education Department’s pale cups of Gethsemane and when I had the money I moved to Melbourne. I opened The Age one Saturday soon after and found a recent photo of Warner.
Back from Oxford, apparently. Going to Sid Siebel’s filmwriting workshop, writing for the South Australian Film Corporation. He’d won The Age‘s short story competition. The story stank.
I wondered how his father had fixed the workshop, and shrugged. I had to beat down another door for another part-time job.
The recession ground on.
Free entertainment one afternoon! Helen Caldicott Against The Bomb! City Square from 3 p.m.!
I got there after work, to a thinnish crowd. Caldicott had already left, but I wanted to see what I could see, so I followed the thick network TV cables and stopped about fifteen feet from the stage, about four feet behind a squat fat guy.
Large orange Afro. Green corduroy coat splitting at the seams. Leather elbows.
Warner leant down and whispered, directing the guy on is knees next to him with an old Sony Portapak to tape a flag too close to the camera for the average Sony lens to resolve. The portapak belonged to Adelaide Video Access. Someone had come up with the shoestring for a directorial experiment.
Christmases in Adelaide came and went. I finally got a job in the Public Service, went back to Adelaide for the following Christmas and caught up with Hulse, who was working for a new political rag. I took riesling, brie, edam, green olives, black olives, stuffed olives, cold tomatoes, bread, the best coffee I could find, and a sinful chocolate cake. We sat in his living room, which was small and dark. The food was on the two small tables that stood between us, touching our knees.
We’d been discussing an article he was working on. I’d just put my wineglass down. I had bread and cheese in my left hand, I was catching crumbs with my right. Hulse was examining the plate, looking for his next nibble.
“Bye the bye, Ron, did you ever hear that Warner Gilchrist is dead?”
Hulse had bought tiny car stereo speakers for his tiny living room. Very soft Haydn.
I couldn’t hear the music.
“… He’d got divorced and gone to Byron Bay to do some surfing. They told him it wasn’t a beginner’s beach.”
And Warner thought it didn’t matter. Warner thought he was as good as they’d always said he was.
His father had loved and helped him to death.
Solid unbreathable green, lungs starving, burning, mouth forced. Swallowing. Rid of water.
No arms. Green through greening water, no arms rescuing. Cold. Swirled. Buckled, bound, encased, inside and out, water.
I saw him fall and part from me, point of light falling and dimming in an endless exterior dark, falling down and away, my enemy, my identity, my loss.
The light went out.
And I was bolt upright in the dark, gasping and choking and terrified.
I saw Hulse a few times over the years before I left the country. Warner’s younger brother was a decent-enough journo at The Examiner. His father was a broken man. Warner was dead, and so was his family’s ascendancy.
I’ve outlived him now by thirty-five years, and yet he’s wandering cross my mind this morning, that drowned and fatuous boy. I can see him coming across the plaza, fishflesh white under his orange hair, slit-eyed in the sunlight, ball in his pocket. I’m watching him from the first-floor window, wondering what it must be like to be so favoured by family, money, gender.
I turn and draw breath.
I suppose I’m thinking of him this morning because the weather, a harmless-looking grey, not even dank, has me labouring for breath as though asthma had never been dispersed by albuterol, beclomethasone and prednisone; because I could well end up like him, drowning.
But that will be then. The weather will improve tomorrow, the asthma over the next few days. My third book has just gone to the printer, photographs and essays; my husband’s fourth came out last year.
We work around our illnesses, quietly, and get things done.
M. F. McAuliffe is co-author of the poetry collection Fighting Monsters (Melbourne, 1998), & the limited-edition artist’s book Golems Waiting Redux (Portland, 2011). Her novella, Seattle, was published in 2015; her collection, The Crucifixes and Other Friday Poems, will be published this fall.
In 2002 she co-founded the Portland-based, multilingual magazine Gobshite Quarterly with R. V. Branham. In 2008 they co-founded Reprobate / GobQ Books, where she continues as commissioning editor.