The Transit of Mercury
Fiona Farrell is part of WORD Christchurch 2020 Spring Festival
So, there are two people walking up View Street after the five o’clock session.
He is walking ahead. She is walking behind. View Street is steep, rising from what was yesterday a rocky foreshore before a kingtide of offices and shops and apartment buildings swept in and swamped the lot.
He is walking quickly. She is walking more slowly.
He always walks quickly. He sees nothing. It fills her with rage.
She always walks slowly. She stops and peers at things. It makes him want to howl and live on a subantarctic island.
He is thinking about an upturned boat.
She is thinking about a knife.
He is looking down at his feet, his shoes, brown leather, well-worn, moving back and forth rhythmically beneath the curve of his body and a grey parka.
She is looking down at the footpath with its lichen patches of gum, its drifts of takeaway plastic, its small black battalions of ants carrying pizza crumbs into cracks on the tarmac. She is wearing the boots with heels. They tilt her forward at an awkward angle on a steep street, but they make her legs look longer. She has not yet given up on the legs.
Below them at the foot of View Street is the Cineplex. Half-price seniors on a Tuesday, Cinema 3 a field of grey heads, dandelions gone to seed. Five o’clock,six o’clock, puff puff. Grey heads and serviceable coats because the day has been changeable, smatterings of icy rain blowing in from the south then the clouds rolling back, billowing up and the sun has ridden through like an old god. And all day an amber tint to the air on account of the bushfires across the Tasman. The Lucky Country is going up in flames, all the way to the suburban walls of Sydney.
So, when she looks up, beyond the towers of the cathedral and the rows of houses settling to roost on their terraces for the night, it is into the full furnace flare of a sunset. A glory of scarlet and gold arches over the skyline, and once she would have paused. She would have thought something soft and wistful about the ephemeral nature of beauty, this sunset the only one like it in the whole history of the universe and therefore cause to stop and stare. And she might have taken out her phone and tried for a photo, though there is no point really, is there, in photos. The world is a bargain bin of sunsets and sunrises, endless replications of the same shop-soiled tree, the same wilted stretch of the Herengracht, the same old whale breeching, the same new baby with its clichéd depthless eyes. Those feathered men who covered their faces and ran from the camera were right to fear its cannibal eye, its power to suck the marrow, drink the blood and leave behind a withered husk of whatever.
The sunset flares and dazzles, but bugger that. There’s no point in a photo, especially not tonight because this isn’t even nature’s glory but all those koalas, sleepily hoist in the forks of burning trees. It’s mile upon mile of scented eucalypts exploding into flame. It’s all those people wearily recounting another ordinary catastrophe on the six o’clock news.
Seven o’clock. Eight o’clock.Puff puff, she goes, walking up View Street away from the cinema that when she was a child was a Moroccan fantasy of trellised loggias either side of an immense curtain of puckered silk faded from pink to gold to inky purple, everyone waiting for the moment when the comet passed overhead between the twinkle stars and the curtain billowed skyward to let the world in.
Now the cinema is a multiplex, half a dozen interlocking pieces fitted with soma cube precision into the Moroccan carcass, at its heart an arcade of ding and rattle where cars race between pixillated pines, and pileups of fuzzy toys are driven by the crane rake slowly toward the edge until, in accordance with a carefully calibrated profit margin, they tumble into the chute.
She misses the stars, she thinks, as she walks up View Street, away from the dandelions and a documentary about a young woman who raced round the world in a second-hand yacht financed by the King of Jordan.Casually it seemed, from his back pocket, the way her dad handed their mother money when he got back from driving the tourists up into the high country to see the tallest mountain, the cloud piercer, 12349 feet high which was easy to remember. Until one exceptionally hot summer the ice melted and the peak crumbled and fell away and she can’t recall how high it is any more.
The girl in the documentary bought the yacht. She sailed with a crew of young women across the southern ocean, their boat bucking and rolling mightily between icebergs, surfing mountainous swells. Four hours sleep in a narrow bunk, four hours watch, the captain with her pony tail figuring the fastest route and beating the men who had always had this race to themselves, stripped to the waist and grinding hard, puff puff.
It’s always a fucking race, she thinks, walking up View Street on her awkward beautiful heels, and good on those girls, going hard, trying to win.
She can see him up ahead, striding toward the corner, almost at the top under the fiery sky. To hell with it all, the man is thinking. To hell with that wee girl and her silly wee pony tail. To hell with the lot of them, proving their wee point, dancing across the southern ocean between the icebergs, making it look like a jaunt.
When Cook sailed those same waters to witness the black dot of a planet cross the face of the sun, it had taken that sturdy old collier of his three slow lumbering years, but what years they were, what wonders, what heroic endeavour! And now there’s nothing left but speed. Doing it faster, skimming the globe in a matter of weeks, going as hard as they can, just to get back to where they started.
To hell with them and their wee race.
He had tried it once. Tried sailing with a mate who owned a yacht and spent his weekends racing round markers in the harbour before they all headed back to the Yacht Club for a few drinks. Just once, they had ventured beyond the Heads. The mate wanted to take the yacht up to the Sounds for the summer and he went along as crew.
He wanted to sail the same coast Cook had sailed, looking out from the collier at coves and mountains and the great billows of cloud to the east that could so easily have been the fabled continent that would keep the planet in proper balance, south of equal weight to north. He wanted to sail the coast, set anchor where Cook had anchored, drink from the creek where Cook had filled the water barrels, follow as closely as he could in the wake of the explorer.
But his ears let him down. The curly shell within his skull with its canals and tiny membranous windows could not keep him upright. Within a few hours offshore he had fallen into a profound vertigo, with no fix whatever on up or down or left or right. He could do nothing but lie, rigid, on his bunk, gripping the rails, eyes closed on the terrible chaos within, while his mate handled the boat with savage resentment.
He had not tried again. He looked out instead from shore at the wide blue ocean and the great substantial clouds billowing up at the horizon with their deceptive promise. He sat still on solid earth reading about the men who had ventured forth: the Polynesian navigators sensitive to every star, to moon and sun and cloud, to the movements of birds and fish and subtle changes in the colour or taste of the ocean, to the scent of islands, those tiny dots that marked the boundaries of their vast luminous empire. Or the men who sailed down into the ice. He had a photo of Endurance in his office at Garbutt Rawson on Harbour Street, that ghostly image, floodlit, of the ship in the grip of the ice. He could look up from preparing some quarterly return and hear the groaning of timber and the lament sung by the choir of penguins who stood by as the humans were forced out to join them on the unforgiving ice.
He has read and re-read the stories: of the brave little lifeboat, patched with scraps of timber and canvas by a man grieving the death of his cat. And the man who stood with his arms wrapped around the mast as great seas drove down, fixing an unerring route to a bleak southern island and rescue. And the men who waited beneath an upturned boat for rescue at the edge of desolation. He feels such emotion for them, a profound love for their lean bodies, their calm in the face of death. Had that been the outcome, they would have met it no doubt with courage, walking out one by one for some time into the snow, or making that weightless downward flight, arms spread like wings as the clear blue water closed overhead.
A man’s life, ending with a man’s death, like his father who had run headlong into the flames to rescue a wounded mate when their ship was torpedoed in the eastern Mediterranean in 1944. That death was remembered nightly on the citation that hung above the dining table where he and his mother sat to eat their dinner, overseen by a cleanjawed young man in naval officer’s cap and brass-buttoned jacket, for King and Country.
He should have had his father’s life, the man thinks, and not for the first time, as he walks up View Street away from the five o’clock session. He feels such rage at it, this half-life he’s led, the quarterly return, the round of golf, the little weekly spasm releasing semen into the usual crevice, the dinner parties with linen napkins and pleasant chat of this and that, the five o’clock session. He runs from it up View Street, head down to the corner, crosses the road in the dark shadow of the cathedral, walking harder, faster, his breath coming in short gasps that burn his throat and set his heart to trip and jump like a trout beneath the skin.
The sun is fiery overhead and he has left his run too late and now the wind howls beyond the upturned boat and the iceshelf shifts and groans beneath his feet and he can’t outrace what is coming, this dark cloud that is bearing down on him.
It’s the waiting he cannot stand, the hanging about, the dwindling he sees in other men, pecking away at their wee tray of pills, mentioning their failing prostates and knees and hearts. He speeds up, races headlong into the fire, his heart beginning to syncopate. This way, he’ll be in control, right to the final crushing blow. He’ll run at it headlong, he thinks, straight into the fire.
She sees him up ahead, turning the corner toward the cathedral, walking too fast as usual. He does that all the time these days. Walks faster than she wants to walk so that she is always left trailing, trying to keep up. She hates it, the way he marches ahead like some little strutting cock bird, her plodding in his wake like some docile chook. It fills her with rage. She thinks of a knife, a sharp knife with a wooden handle and with the thought comes the sensation of holding it in her coat pocket. The smooth weight of the haft, crafted from some native hardwood, oiled and polished to a fine gleam, the blade forged and hammered a hundred times till steel folds like silk. Then chills. Then hardens.
She can feel the force of it, the way the blade slices cleanly through the parka into bare flesh, the way he would stop. Turn. He would see her then, as he crumpled and fell. He would notice her.
She has killed many things in her life. Mice. Rats. Frogs. Cats. She has taught Zoology, slicing through flesh with a scalpel, peeled back the skin on the technicolour tangle within of organs and tubes and bone. But always cold.
Never in a rage.
The rage is new.
It is specific to this place, this time, this man. How can she think such things?
How can she imagine such a death, her hand clenched round a polished haft?
How can a knife arrive in her dandelion head? Puff puff Nine o’clock. Ten o’clock.
How could she possibly explain such a death to the son and that sweet doll- like daughter of his who waves to them every Sunday afternoon through the screen from Singapore?
Once her whole body had trembled as they walked side by side to the flat she shared with a flotsam of Australians and a New Zealander who worked in the same bar as herself in Covent Garden and introduced her to this man who turned out, of course, to be the cousin of their neighbours’ back in Opoho, and went to school with her best friend’s brother in Auckland, the usual minimal separation. Side by side, talking the whole way along Oxford Street, feeling herself becoming funnier, more interesting, more beautiful, more alive than she had all that long grey winter. Back to her flat and the bedroom with the Indian scarf slung over the lightshade casting a crimson glow. And the traffic on Westbourne Grove was lost in the quietness of unpeeling, the intensity of another person’s extraordinary body, the curve of scapula, bowl of skull, tilt of pelvis, the penis that was upright, thick and blocky the way she liked best and his fingers roaming about exploring her skin so she became all nerve endings. And the smell of him, the taste of him that was a blend of sweat and cigarette smoke and the joint they’d smoked on the way home and the strangeness of him, that was also, after a year in London, so deeply familiar.
Now he is turning the corner at the top of View Street and disappearing from view and she feels nothing but relief that she does not have to talk to him, nor attempt to keep up. She pauses to let the distance stretch between them. She reaches the corner herself, then crosses the road toward the cathedral and the bulk of the old convent next door. The convent is tall and somber, four storeys of black volcanic stone pointed with crumbling white mortar. Plants have found their footing in the cracks and a small forest sprouts in the spouting on the leaking roof.
The nuns have long gone, along with the heavy white woolen habits and wimples, medieval garb replaced by easy care from PostiePlus. Four floors of colonial gothic are no longer necessary. A small bungalow in an underprivileged neighbourhood will suffice, where the old ones can wither like dead leaf in a sunny corner by the kitchen window while the young ones nip about the city on their scooters, or leave to marry ex-priests and together they turn their homes into retreats for the sad and the addicted, or foster the children no one else will handle, the foetal alcohol children, the meth children, the children with webbed feet and flattened skulls and unpredictable impulses, the new creation, distorted in the womb.
The old convent is being refurbished as a boutique hotel. Soon the tour buses will be pulling up to its quaint anachronism, and there will be a guests’ lounge where she used to wait for her music lessons, the odor of sanctity a blend of floor polish and Christmas lilies where the man pierced and bleeding drooped like bruised fruit from the tree. The bare rooms where she imagined the nuns sleeping in their chilly beds are being replaced, she has read in an article in the evening paper, with luxury king size, 5000 thread and ensuite. Old buildings all over the city are being similarly reconfigured, former churches turned to smart restaurants, former warehouses transformed into IT hubs where clever younth develop games in which muscled giants with spectacular body augmentation stride about a bleak post-apocalyptic universe.
The reality is so much less dramatic. The cloud piercer crumbles stone by stone. The high country dries to dust. The flames crackle. Venice submerges slowly beneath the weight of tourists cramming St Marks Square. The towers and domes and palaces a meter deep in seawater, sewage seeping through the walls, and a couple of young women laughing as they take a selfie while trundling their suitcases through the apocalypse.
The convent is silent at this hour behind its graph of scaffolding. The builders’ vans have headed off to the suburbs. The saws and drills and hammers have ceased. But there is a door. It is wooden and arched and stands a little ajar in the high stone wall that borders the street. She pauses. She has never seen the whole convent, never more than the parlour where she sat in its piety awaiting her lesson with Sister Teresa and the crack of the ruler as she stumbles through Fur Elise on icy keys. There are signs tacked to the wooden door.
Private Property. Keep Out. Multiple Hazard Area.
But then everywhere is hazardous these days, isn’t it? Farms are no longer story book places of sheep and cows but rife with unspecified risk, beaches are prefaced by signs warning of rips and tsunami, playgrounds anxiously council caution round the seesaws and swings.
She pushes the door and it creaks open on rusty hinges. She slides through. There’s a yard here behind the convent, a practical colonial cloister made up of sheds round three sides with a verandah with a wilderness of weeds at its centre. There are piles of demolition timber among the weeds, rolls of discarded carpet and a mound of builders’ spoil. There is periwinkle here and long grass and a flowering currant, covered in pink flowers. The air is part mould, part plaster dust, part clay, part old timber, part sweet honey, part cat pee. It is cool and quiet behind the stone walls, the sounds of the city muted. There’s an upturned pail where someone has been smoking, the butts stamped around like little white slugs into the earth. She sits, wishing as she always does as such times, even though it’s years since she gave up, that she had a cigarette. A tiny residual longing for the slow inhale, the little blue plume rising, the sweet calm rush.
There’s a bumblebee making its lumbering way on foot along a scrap of old timber by her hand. She pushes up her glasses and leans closer to watch from long habit. All those years telling teenage girls to stop fretting at their phones and who likes them, who doesn’t give them the thumbs up. Just stop. Stop and stare.
The bee is a worker, a female, its legs clad in plump yellow rompers of pollen, its little furry body heading home. Back to the hive where the queen will be waiting, seated on a tiny throne of her own creation of wax and pollen, sipping from the perfect little cup she has also made and filled to the brim with nectar. She will be sipping from her cup as she shimmies her furry body to keep her pile of eggs cool. She is sitting somewhere nearby, maybe under this pile of old timber, keeping guard, unaware of the saws and drills that are about to rain down destruction. The worker bee plods toward her with her heavy load.
The woman pushes up her glasses and watches. It has always enchanted her, the mystery of all those tiny lives being lived around her, so beautiful, so disregarded, and now they are dying in their billions. Whole species. Whole whirling mulititudes. Gone. Eleven o’clock. Puff. Puff.
She sits on her plastic pail.
The door creaks open.
“What he hell are you doing?” he says. He’s pink. He’s hot. He’s puffing. He has been looking for her. He’s furious. What is she doing in here, in a place that is clearly marked off-limits?
“You didn’t have to come back,” she says. “I just felt like sitting here, that’s all.”
“I didn’t know where you’d gone,” he says. And there’s his mother, again, being carried away in the ambulance. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” she’d said. “Be a good boy for your grandma, and I’ll be back soon, good as new.” But a week later he was taken in his best clothes to stand by a mound of dirt with flowers all over it tied in circles with ribbons. It smelled of clay and things buried and if only he’d tried harder, if only he’d been good…
And now here’s this other woman sitting on a paintpail, peering at something in that enfuriating shortsighted way she has, the way she peers at menus and books, her glasses pushed back on top of her head.
“Well, I was here,” she says. “You found me.”
She looks at him, standing there in the half open doorway. He looks across the little mountain of builders’ spoil at her sitting on a paint pail under the flowering currant, the sky flaring overhead, both of them so filled with fury at how they are and how the world is and all the flame and flood and diminution, both filled with such terror as they feel themselves, arms and legs splayed wide, mouths frozen in silly teddybear smiles, being pushed by the crane rake closer, closer to the edge. To the chute.
They look at one another and he thinks, “Well, I suppose this is how it is.” And somehow, again, he comes to her. He climbs the mountain of builders’ spoil, being careful not to trip on bricks or to pierce himself with rusty nails. He reaches the other side, where she is sitting under the flowering currant, and he upends another empty painter’s pail and sits beside her.
The sky flares with fire and ash, the bumblebee carries its load of pollen down into a crack beneath the verandah.
“What a mess we’ve made,” she says.
“You mean us?” he says.
“Us,” she says. “The world. Everything.”
So he puts his hand over hers and her fingers close tightly around his. And they sit quietly while high above their dandelion heads Mercury spins through space, having passed that morning like a little black dot across the face of the sun.