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Authors: Susan Johnson

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BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
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Sheila had three daughters, tall and skinny with long, intelligent faces like their mother and their own academic fields which absorbed them. One was a botanist, one a linguist, the third taught mathematics. Each daughter lived with a restrained, softly spoken lover who treated her kindly and with respect. One evening Sheila confided that the lover of the middle daughter had that morning spoken harshly to the daughter, and Sheila and her daughters were giddy from shock.

It was not long after anarchy had arrived in the UK, when the IRA was blowing up members of the British aristocracy and the grave-diggers and garbagemen were on strike, not long after the Iron Lady had moved into Downing Street. The twentieth century was twenty-odd years from its end, the historical process was in full swing, but the young woman's grasp on Marxist theory was shaky. The only thing that welled up in her was personal, for like everyone she experienced history from the feet up. She was no good at analysis; you might even say her methodology was suspect.

London had no coffee shops except for one or two in Soho, which was still lined with strip clubs, the haunt of prostitutes and their clients. The first thing the young woman did after she unpacked her backpack and unrolled her sleeping bag was take the Tube to The Strand, where she walked up the stairs of a big old building and into a women's liberation meeting. They were planning a Reclaim the Night march through the streets of Soho and so the young woman strode out with them, her denim overalls festooned with badges, her hair cropped against her skull, reclaiming the street, the night, the furthest outposts of her own skin.

The second thing she did was go to see her friend Steph. Steph was living in Paris with an Arab boy. Nasser was twenty-one years old, like them. He was from Jordan and made sculptures from the flotsam of the streets, working as a cook in a Tunisian restaurant at night. Steph and Nasser lived under the eaves of a crumbling once-grand house in the fourteenth arrondissement, in a cramped
chambre de bonne
with a gas ring and a sink, and a shared toilet down the hall. Its saving grace was a series of beautiful little arched windows through which the roofs and chimneys and balconies of Paris were framed like a painting.

The windows had shutters they usually closed at night—except on those nights when the moon was full. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,' Steph said, standing beneath the shutters holding her arms aloft like a television hostess. ‘
Je vous présente Paris par nuit.
'

And there it was, Paris, gleaming, hardly real.

‘I always wanted to live in a garret,' Steph said, holding Nasser's black head against her chest and stroking his hair. They were smoking hash through a hookah of porcelain, blue-beaded glass and brass, their limbs sprawled on hand-woven patterned rugs. Although he was only twenty-one, Nasser wore a silk cravat.

Steph had a
carte de séjour
and a job teaching English, but she was hot-hearted and impulsive like the young woman, and occasionally forgot to turn up to classes. She became overly involved in her students' home lives and one afternoon appeared at the
chambre
de bonne
with a sobbing, soft-faced Algerian boy whose father had beaten him.

‘He can't stay here!' said Nasser.

‘Yes, he can,' said Steph. ‘At least until we find him somewhere else.'

He slept on the floor next to the young woman and sobbed discreetly all night.

When Steph was sacked, she persuaded the young woman to go busking with her on the Île Saint-Louis. Steph played guitar and she and the young woman sang a passable rendition of ‘Chuck E's in Love'. Sometimes that summer, if the stars were in an auspicious position and the two friends felt a lyricism moving in them, they opened their mouths and joy flowed effortlessly from them.

So it was with a song in her mouth that the young woman found her next object lover. Her eyes found it first, the graceful shape of the Pont Marie, its radiant arches rising up from the darkness of the Seine. She had supposed herself tired of beauty; the soft white statues of the Louvre made her seasick, the endless rows of paintings caused her to feel faint. The sight of the bridge restored her to beauty, satisfying every idea of beauty she did not know until that moment she possessed.

Beauty enters first through the eyes and the young woman rushed towards it, hungry for its touch. There was a gap between her as the observer and the bridge as the observed and she craved to close it, to make the distance between her and beauty disappear.

The pearly stones of the Pont Marie were warm from the sun. Under her hand the stones pulsed like flesh and she was not surprised to find when she leant against it that it carried the heat of a body. It had a heartbeat, a hum, a memory of all the accumulated breaths that had breathed upon it. Its stones were barnacled with ghosts, with the collective wishes of the unrecorded vanished. For a moment the young woman was certain that if she listened hard enough the tide of souls who had passed across might break through the fabric of the perished world to fill the air with sound.

The bridge had a mystical beauty, unadorned, like the plainest whitewashed Greek church. All along its sides were empty niches, waiting perhaps for the relics of a saint. The bridge's beauty was sacred, and set up in the young woman's heart a little festival of gratitude. Standing at its centre, her feet firm on its breathing stones, she felt exultant, every cell in her body roused and ready. She felt that at last she had entered the house of beauty; it had materialised, and was real.

THIRTY-EIGHT
Even dead husbands must be counted

SUPER NAN SAID THAT WHEN
she lived in Orange, Rene Ferguson (short for Irene) was on her way to her husband Ted's funeral when she was killed by his coffin. The marriage had not been happy, Super Nan confided, and it was bloody typical of him, excuse the French.

‘Anyway'—Super Nan always spiced her stories liberally with ‘anyway'—‘on the way to the cemetery to bury the old b, the hearse was hit from the rear by another car,' Super Nan said. ‘The coffin in the back slammed straight into poor Rene's head.'

Isn't it right that sooner or later the body acknowledges the slam of the coffin, the fatal wound to the back of the head? Love lives in the body and when love dies the body is the first to know. My husband wanted to make love to me after I had ceased to love him, but my body had already felt the slam of the coffin.

THIRTY-NINE
France

FRANCE WAS THE YOUNG WOMAN'S
America, her new-found land, not so much a place as an idea. It was her landscape, hardly a country, more a sensation. A place of white roads, blossoming light, scarlet geraniums, of avenues of plane trees planted by kings to inscribe their power upon rural space.

The young woman travelled to Corsica, to Fontainebleau, to the Breton fishing village of Pornic and small stone villages high in the Pyrenees. She watched the tips of the vine leaves turn russet in Fitou in late September and walked through chestnut forests in the Aude with Steph, Nasser and a group of French friends, searching for wild mushrooms. When they found the ceps, the head of each one was fleshy, pink, swollen, resembling the glans of a tumescent penis stripped of its foreskin.

The young woman secretly cherished a foolish, romantic idea that being French was more interesting than being Australian, but would never have admitted it.

‘Where are your roots?' Nasser asked her one night. ‘Mine are in Jordan.'

She thought for a moment. She loved Australia but she also loved France. She wondered if she might be like a plant whose roots do not travel down but sideways.

In France she was someone else. She was a girl whose limbs were free, with carte blanche to fill herself in. The words on her tongue were different and she felt her old self slipping away. For the first time she began to wonder how language built identity, how it had a magical ability to transform existence.

She grew her hair and had it cut in an asymmetrical shape against her jaw, and powdered her eyes in shadow. She practised French and was amazed at the nuances of words. At a mutual acquaintance's
vernissage
she met Horatia Craig, named for Admiral Lord Nelson because she was born on Trafalgar Day. An Englishwoman of Scottish descent, she lived in a large airy flat on the rue Saint-Jacques. There were fifty years between Horatia and the young woman but no gap.

Horatia was rich, and happened to be a lesbian of the old school. She had known Janet Flanner and Djuna Barnes and found the modern-day political lesbian, shorn of adornment, distasteful. ‘In life one should always seek the beautiful,' she said. Horatia had good bones and dressed in exquisitely cut clothes, her silver hair a shining cap, her mouth carefully lipsticked. She lived platonically with a dour-looking Frenchwoman named Monique. As far as the young woman could tell, Monique served as a kind of lady's maid to Horatia.

‘I am not a lesbian,' Horatia said. ‘I just loved dear lost Beth.'

It was thrilling, knowing beautiful rich old lesbians in Paris. It was thrilling, sitting in Horatia's richly furnished room, the windows open to the rue Saint-Jacques, being fed pastel macaroons from Ladurée, the palest pistachio green, the faintest rose, a jewellery box of colours.

While Horatia did not actively flirt with the young woman, she admitted to a little frisson. ‘One must take love where one finds it,' she said. She had lived long enough to see that each life had a shape, and liked to watch the way a young life unfurled, which parts blossomed and which parts atrophied, unwatered, unfed. Whenever Horatia said goodbye to the young woman, she kissed her on each cheek, once, twice, and then again, four kisses. ‘We are intimates now, my dear,' she said.

The young woman never left Horatia's company without feeling that her understanding of life had previously been too small, and that the world was larger, and more promising, than she'd thought.

But at night, in the cramped
chambre de bonne
, the young woman dreamed only of the shadow lover. She would return to him after she landed home again, because the compelling drive to repeat the past is encoded in the cells of certain young women, despite feminist and Marxist theory, despite the example of Miss Horatia Craig and history's finest lessons.

FORTY
Words

BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
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