by Veronica O’Halloran
The net this morning. Hulse is dead.
The body. Two boulders on a squalid mattress – nude? half-clothed? clothed?
Did he die in his sleep? Was he on his way to lunch, failing to arrive?
Infarction, stroke, congestive heart failure, massive unspecified cardiac event?
Auto-erotic asphyxiation? Rough trade too rough?
The colour of his skin when they found him. Who found him? Did they have keys to the house? Break a window? Call the police?
Was he alone?
Who lived with him?
He was unlikely to have had a cat.
The net’s already gabbling about the funeral, suggesting our pequeño PM elect’ll be there – our arts-defunding, abortion-banning, gay-bashing, state-forest-mining, ocean-plundering, refugee-imprisoning, medicare-privatizing, pension-cutting, wage-depressing, poor-bating, billionaire-coddling Vladimir Putin mini-action figure, our very own Putinesca of the South Seas, who emerges, dripping, bare-chested, tiny-Speedo’d, onto the sandy edge and front page of every new morning; our untethered id-monster, our new national lowpoint, grinning over every sky and behind every bathroom mirror, here to be us, here to stay –
Hulse made him thinkable.
The room. There, on his right side, huge and mounded, on a respectable bed, his left shoulder and back covered by a dressing gown of thin fine dark grey silk, his body lies cooling. In this box of early winter light the motes are floating unseen. The traffic fluctuates outside.
There are crushed velvet curtains, His glasses are on a table. There is the ticking of a small clock. It’s the clock he had when I knew him.
The kitchen is shadowed and cold. He used to be a good cook.
So he is dead. As dead as his parents, the one he loved and the one he hated; as dead as his oldest friend, as the teachers he by and large despised, who knew it and gave him a Third for his pains.
He – His body is still in the front bedroom, in the tarnishing light. The world is continuing. Tick by tick by tick he’s becoming meat. The friends will be on their way, will discover him.
Tall, high ceilings. Shadows.
I don’t want to look at his office, clunky Microsoft monstrosity or sleek, subverted Apple; photos with the famous, small-canvas stand-ins from large-canvas stars of Australian art. I don’t want to see the mechanics of what he’d become. I know what he became.
He outstayed his welcome.
It was that insistence he had: Attend to me, attend to me. He’d been beaten as a very small child. He needed nurturing but couldn’t stop dominating long enough to accept it. And so one day in the study-room, we – I watched, appalled and fascinated – threw his bag through the window, forcing him downstairs to save it, and locked the door behind him. (How thin his old schoolbag was when he picked it up; how it gaped shapelessly; how the empty brown paper bag inside it gaped, the only thing in it, gape inside gape.) It was three on a Friday afternoon; our translations were due at five. People could only give him so much time. He was my friend more than theirs, and he was trespassing.
Of course he didn’t want to go home. His father’s viciousness; his father’s corrupt, corrupted, terrifying face; soft, squashed, unmoist; uncooked dough; white mud after the passage of a column of tanks. A jagged opening for sharp, yellow, misshapen teeth. His father had been a coast watcher during the War, observing enemy troopships, isolated for weeks or months at a time, raped by the rest of the squad. His mother, bright-faced, smiling, dutiful, dependent, had been cut off by her relatives for marrying beneath them. Of course Hulse wanted to stay with us.
That was the year he was seventeen. Brilliant, lonely, a grass-blade burning.
He gave me a pot. I have it still, a small, unfired clay pot for holding bath-oil, I think – too small for olive oil, too large for perfume – with one intact amphora-shaped handle and a delicate body with one small hole, dug up, he said, by his uncle, a construction engineer working in Cyprus. It needs to be appraised… I wonder if he had a Will. It would have been like him to make one, feeling grand doing it, gifting, bequeathing. He needed to feel grand.
The house is grand enough, proportions, size. Grotty floor, counters, toaster, crumbs. It’s a gilded shack.
Oh, Hulse! Jesus!
* * *
We sat on the slope above the artificial lake and smoked, two children hooking it from lectures. Green-grey eyes and dark copper hair, an old pair of skinny brown cords, but you skinnier. The fags were yours. A payday splurge, broke three quarters of every month. Bonded, Education Department money.
The day you directed us, one of the Post-Grads in his Beetle, you, me, to the house in the hills your parents were renting then, wisteria over the front verandah. You made omelets. We ate under the flowers and talked about Winnie the Pooh. Childhood – hail and farewell – an informal tableau: the one you wanted and never had, happy portent and happy prelude to a brave new life: Joden Van Hulse, man of letters, boy wonder.
In any college in the U.S. You could have taken tests, passed, and bypassed most of the material they taught there. No doubt about it. But that was Australia, and I don’t think that’s possible there, even now. Lord, being punished themselves, how they believe in punishment.
So Hulse went exploring, skipping lectures, talking to the brightest people he could find, always in the caff, learning how to win the match game from Last Year in Marienbad – Most of our year was perpetually writing: essays, translations, tute papers; noses to the grindstone, just like high school, though in my case with a louche party or two thrown in, there and back on the back of Hulse’s scooter. He needed company; he needed a reciprocating passion.
So there he was, in the caff, while we were in the library or the study room. There he was when The Imperial Schematic first appeared; there he was, brilliant, well-read, aching for the position his temperament and gifts were ideally suited to; there he was, better equipped than any of us.
And there Warner Gilchrist was, as the months went by and the months revealed, firmly in the only editor’s seat there effectively was, firmly active editor and part-owner of the press The Schematic was printed on, and firmly, wordily, overweeningly occupying as many columns as he was printing.
“Bubble,” Hulse laughed, appalled, choking, back of wrist to mouth. “Can you imagine all that orange pubic hair?”
We both hated Warner. Even two years out I could see that he’d probably get all the angels and stars on the Christmas tree – the scholarship, the tutorship. His stupidity was fashionable and most of his teachers were fools. But Hulse understood what I did not: that editing the student paper was the established path to becoming a writer or critic of real reputation – Chris Pollnitz, Peter Craven, Christos Tsiolkas – and so Hulse lobbied Warner, and for a couple of months we were the Schematic’s joint literary editor. I gathered some good material; Hulse passed it on. I had to drop out but Hulse kept gathering.
Three or four issues later he told me that nothing we’d presented was seeing print. Again Hulse understood what I did not: that Warner would keep locking him out for the next two years and the succession would bypass him after that; that Warner had not only locked him out but had done it after pretending to let him in; that no matter what Warner accepted, from us jointly or from Hulse alone, he’d never print a word by anyone else if he could help it, that the literary editorship was at best a title, and in effect a waste of time, a cruel joke.
I was too busy to pay much attention. But Hulse was humiliated, and rather than continue in humiliation, he resigned.
For culture I’d had tantum ergo and mea maxima culpa and watching other kids get caned. I had things to read, things to learn.
But there Hulse was, in a desert: superbright, bored, compelled to be there another three and a bit years (Teacher’s College bonded), poor as a church mouse, ugly in some ways, openly homosexual when homosexuality was still illegal, nothing to learn, nothing to do, and as gifted as Oscar Wilde.
By the following year I was running out of time to be his friend. I had to produce a huge amount of work or lose any hope of a job that wasn’t an office or a shop or a short drive from suicide. He began to know people, I had the impression if I came up for air and had time to hear, I was relieved not to have to know.
By the time he was writing his thesis I’d been working in country schools for a couple of years. I saw him during the holidays. At the end of the second year we met at his local. I was working, so I paid. Just as the waiter was handing me the receipt Hulse remarked that I lacked charity.
I’m sure I’d said something tart, but that remark so annoyed me – for its truth or falsity, I’ve never been able to tell – I didn’t see him again for ten years.
The weight of not seeing him… It always felt like ten years. But now that I’m piecing it together, I find it was actually not quite five.
I’d finally got a full-time job in Melbourne. At the employment office, the day I applied, I’d bumped into Hulse’s old friend, George. He’d got married; we all had dinner and kept in touch; George put Hulse in touch with me.
He came into the office. As soon as I recognized him – waved copper hair a wiry scribble of black frizz, unkempt to the point of dirtiness, heavy, hand-spun Mexican cardigan shapeless, filthy as if he’d slept on a hillside – I bundled him out. The shock was his face, his head, ballooned and thickened with flesh and bone – so much thickened bone – skin shining with grease, eyes huge behind his glasses, blinking; huge head turning, looking about, myopic, goblin, looking about, looking for my desk –
I got him to the pub across the road, set him up with brandy, got some food into him. He was starving, had been for years, he said; the weight was from eating spaghetti, so much, so long. He was in Melbourne to meet Acheson Tooms, the columnist, the ad-agency man, the nationally known, leftwing columnist and ad-agency man. Tooms’d been retained by The Age to revamp its look and increase its market share. Tooms wanted to see the mockup Hulse and a friend had put together.
He was staying with George and Serafina. He was most like the Hulse I’d known when he was talking about the work. Otherwise – It was partly the sheer skankiness of what he had to tell: being fired by Flagstaff High (the Teachers College bond) for being openly gay; a junior Arts Council administrator’s offer of a Fellowship for a blowjob (waste of a blowjob). Partly it was that he was as broke as I had been on the edge of being for years, and in his presence, in his implicit request for patronage, I could see myself losing everything I had, and still not being able to rescue him. (The pain and abandonment in his eyes as he held his gaping bag and looked up at us.) Partly I was afraid of what his proximity would involve me in, madcappery in quarters seamier than I wanted to visit, demands on my mind and time I couldn’t meet. I was ashamed of all this subtext, and ashamed of my relief when he said he was leaving.
He was booked to go back to Adelaide by bus. The night before he left I had a party at my flat, everyone I knew and all the wine I had, among the beanbags and the cushions on the rug, everyone mellow and happy in the yielding, endless early autumn evening that flowed through the windows, the air and the grenache so soft I still remember them.
Tooms hadn’t paid Hulse and was no longer taking his calls.
And so Hulse caught the bus with no idea what he was going to do.
The bus crashed.
I must have heard about it from George: Hulse in hospital in East Melbourne, hairline fracture of the pelvis, refusing painkillers any more potent than Valium for fear of addiction. As well as my full-time job, I still had the part-time teaching job that had paid the rent while I was a student, I’d teach two nights a week, visit Hulse two night, and spend the weekends marking the long, mid-year assignments for two large classes. After a couple of months I was exhausted. I quit teaching, though I liked the job; insisted, though it was the middle of the year.
Oh, what a blow that Phantom gave me, Hulse read to me from bed. He was released o George and Serafina, on crutches, to finish recovering. I was relieved and guilty and ashamed, too ashamed of my relief and reluctance even to get in touch.
A couple of months went by. I thought Hulse was back in Adelaide, “Do you think there’s some genetic component to alcoholism?” George said, one lunchtime. (I knew where George drank at lunch. Occasionally, I needed to, too.) “Hulse used to ask me to smuggle grog into the hospital and give it to him when the nurse wasn’t looking. And we both know about his dear papa.” (George? Visiting? Hulse always made it sound s though he had nobody.) (Of course George and Fina would visit him. Of course they would.) (Hulse never asked me for grog / that was interesting / he used to read to me to forget the pain.)
“He’s still at our house. He just sits and drinks all day. Fee likes him but she’s pregnant. She’s tired and he’s demanding, When he was well enough we asked him to leave. We put him on the train. When we got home that night he’d broken a window and climbed back in.”
Of course Hulse didn’t want to go back home, to the tumbledown farmhouse he was renting near Victor Harbor with the mockup friend, which had neither comfort nor care, which was miles from anywhere, no car, no money –
I didn’t offer to take him. I should have. But I hid from Hulse in anger and dread, from George and Fina in shame.
He did leave, eventually.
It was Warner all over again: Tooms locking him out after promising to let him in. (How many other little teams did Tooms have on the long finger? How many people did he do that to?)
I saw Hulse that Christmas – a jumbled impressions of a small flat somewhere in North Adelaide, a little silver Himalayan cat he’d procured from somewhere, to breed for money. A tiny, delicate cat, shimmering fur, tiny bones. She weighed nothing.
The following Christmas he told me that he had bred her, didn’t have the money to take her to the vet, and she died.
That he had seized that tiny, airy nothing and tried to force it to work for him – His greed and ruthlessness. The death of the cat, that black tide in my stomach, swallowed anger, disgust, grief –
Shit, Hulse! Why didn’t you just get a job for a while? Just for a while, just shut the fuck up, get a job, get some money? The Ed. Dept. fired you. You didn’t owe them time or money. I know you were beaten until you were six years old, I know you were seduced at a party when you were twelve. I know it’s a miracle that your sweetness survived as long as it did. But why the fuck didn’t you just get a job, any job, just for a while?
I remember exactly the small cottage in Chapel Street he bought in ’79, with the compensation from the bus crash. I was surprised that he’d bought a house, though looking back, I see it makes perfect sense – his father’s poverty, the abyss always nearby. That was the house we were in when He told me about Warner’s death. He was also starting to write for some obscure political rag.
If Tooms had paid him, acknowledged him. The doors that would have opened!
* * *
I can’t remember exactly when he began the affair. The net says it was ’73. I think it was ’72. We were still at ease, speaking.
He told me he was considering it. He was living in Tynte Street, across the road and down a bit from Channel Nine. He was skinny, still; the sun was knifing into my eyes; the house he was renting a room in was large and white (wrought iron balcony), two storeys; my body was leaning into departure, his was leaning over the fence.
George mentioned it to me once, at the beginning. I was relieved he was as dubious and quietly aghast as I was. We weren’t disturbed because Hulse might have fallen in love, but by the very real possibility that he hadn’t. The man’s eminence terrified us. We thought of Icarus. We spoke of the actualities, the calculating / humiliating Mrs. Thursday Night aspects of the.
Deal is the word that comes to mind. Oh, God, Hulse, stop! I am aware that that’s the automatic American idiom for anything from an eventuality to an arrangement.
I could never stop you. I couldn’t even stop you trespassing on our time.
The net says the affair was long-running.
So was he your rich lover when you had the cat? Were on the dole? Taking your mockup to Tooms? Breaking George’s window and starting to break our hearts?
Did you end up killing the cat because you didn’t want to be a whore?
* * *
I left Australia at the end of ’81, relieved to be out of the concrete fog of the place, the official, semi-official, informal, familial, banal and endless nagging, bullying, micromanaging, minging, yattering; to be out of the smothering non-language, away from the closed-down loss of hope after the fall of the Whitlam government. To be able to think and breathe.
I don’t know how Hulse came to edit the Southerly Vista; he wasn’t one for writing letters. I phoned him a few times, those first years (when trans-Pacific calls were far from cheap); he told me then. I assumed the mag pre-existed and that he’d been hired in the usual way. It very gradually dawned on me that that might not have been the case.
I never knew where the money came from. It always seemed to me that the money followed on the affair. It was certainly subsequent to it. (Where else could the investors have come from? Where else could access to them have come from?)
In ’86 Hulse bought one of my stories. I used a pseudonym. My own name appeared under a letter I hadn’t written.
In ’88 my mother died; my father was ill with grief. We went to Adelaide, stayed with my father, saw Hulse at the Vista‘s offices. He gave us ten strange, distracted minutes, talking of mad, deliberate AIDS carriers, looking half-mad himself while he waited for the Vista to come from the printer. We rose to go. We needed lunch. He recommended a restaurant we couldn’t afford.
The second time he bought a story from me I didn’t hear from him at all. In ’95 I ran into an old Adelaide friend in Rochester, New York. We stood on the sidewalk, in the wind off Lake Ontario, my ears so dysfunctional all I could hear was the wind, and all I could feel was the way they were swelling in the velocity of the cold. We went to a coffee shop to hear ourselves speak. Hulse had published the thing in ’93.
I knew immediately. I couldn’t believe it; couldn’t credit that he’d do it and that he’d actually done it to me; couldn’t believe he thought I’d never know. Adelaide’s a small town. He’d published it under my name. Some time after I wrote to Hulse the Vista‘s managing editor apologized, enclosed a cheque, blamed the clerk.
That was the last day of our acquaintance.
* * *
In 2005 I was trying out a new search engine, testing it on old names and obscure places. There was an image bank as well. I read the photo.
You’re at a Wine and Arts Festival, unrecognizable except for your lips: ballooning skull, head, neck, all ballooning again and still, not with air or bone but with flesh, cheeks hanging, spreading, thickening, not quite loose enough for jowls; thinning hair (more skull, more thick and brutal bone) – your grossness, suggesting greed, suggesting little piggy eyes (they are, small, watery), suggested pig. But pig is wrong, beside the point, beside the soul, beside the vomited mountain of fat that you’ve become. You’d glisten like aspic if I stepped away and looked back.
And then I read the articles.
When the owners sold the Vista you went to The Age and then to Murdoch, arguing that the Timorese have no claim on Timorese oil and that Aboriginal land claims are irrational, falsified, and a hoax, especially those based on the claims of women – You’re against anything but the expanding power and reach and purview of the rich, against the whole box and dice of a middle of the road social democrat polity, against the rights and claims of people as battered as you were, who owned even less than you did –
And while you were with Murdoch you went speech-writing for Satan’s altar-boy, that earlier PM, the one who introduced barbed-wire prisons for refugees and indefinite prison for their kids, and who, on the excuse of child abuse, marched in and took control of Aboriginal reservations.
Reservations tend to lie within proposed mining leases.
You weren’t like that on the grassy slope.
What have you been doing, Bella, while I wasn’t there?
What are you doing dead?
* * *
Warner screwed him. Tooms screwed him. For all I know The Australian Worker screwed him.
The money for the Vista came from the affair, one way or another. Judging by the net, the Vista‘s literary section truly was great, everything the Schematic’s should have been, probably, in method, everything he recommended for The Age.
* * *
And so, he’s dead. And this is the cargo of things that won’t be said at the funeral:
That in his quest for power he did great and permanent harm to many people poorer and less powerful than himself; that he abetted the most destructive drives and elements in Australian society, making it acceptable for “decent” people to vote for a fascist government; that if Tooms had paid him, acknowledged him, if Warner hadn’t lied to him and humiliated him, if the Imperial Schematic had never been set up the way it was, if the students who owned the press the Schematic was printed on hadn’t also officered the Student Union and so made both ends of it, and brokered and signed off on the deal, some of all this might have been avoided.
* * *
That knot of us, the three I knew and half-knew: Warner, dead of his father’s blind love and his own conceit, ’79; George, that frail angel, that small, constant universe of compassion and delight, seroconverted, gone, ’91; and now you, standing beside me as I work, telling me how to get that photo to print, with that hesitant, trademark stutter you had when you were stunned by what I’d failed to see and were trying to be tactful, a hungry ghost.
* * *
Online the local vocals – the prefects and hall-monitors who appropriate everything, accustomed to owning and legislating every level and dimension of the word appropriate – pity him, deceived by power, mocked for his weight –
As though that is the point, as though the suffering he denied and justified can be pitied and personalized and foibled away, as though his loneliness were an absolution, as though the self-deception that enables ambition weren’t also a choice, as though blathering over the coffin and the corpse will leave anything whole or mended –
Stop your blithering! Leave us, who knew him before any of this, when he was all hope and gifts. Leave us to our grief!
And then explain to us, who’ve never been explained to yet, the difference between dishonesty and corruption and the way things are done.
Veronica O’Halloran has taught English, Media Studies and Cultural Studies in high schools and colleges in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Los Angeles. She now lives in Cuença, Ecuador, where she is working on a book of short stories and completing a novel.