My Feelings are Orchestral.

By Tilly Houghton
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Sam Melbourne

I

The last time I held my sister’s hand was February.  We communicate by touching. I take her hand for no reason other than this: that I want her to hold my hand.  We had a good eight hours of driving back from Charleville, in the shared backseat of the White Holden Commodore my parents have owned for several years, now. Around two hours into the nine-to-twelve-ish hour drive, I’ll poke out my tongue at her, and   in turn she’ll show me how good she is at touching her nose with her tongue. I’ll poke the side of her head for no reason other than to see how she responds. She’ll rest her head on my shoulder for a moment, before returning to her iPad.

Every time I speak to her on the phone from Melbourne, part of the conversation goes as follows:

“You’re my favourite sister, Luce.”

“You’re my favourite sister too, but you’re my only sister. Of course you’re my favourite sister.”

“You’re my favourite sister.  The best sister.”

“You’re my favourite sister.  My best sister. My older sister”.

II

Each morning from Monday to Friday, I walk along Little Collins Street and watch the way the light hits the skyscrapers.  There are days where it feels as though the sensations the world creates are the sole reason for being.  One Tuesday, it rained so lightly that I cried at how gentle the world could be, if it willed itself to be. On other days, the hours refuse to move. The revulsion of people moving without purpose along the street leaves me questioning why I was ever born.

The first experience I had of dissociation was in Paris.

You are dropped in the centre of an enormous glass fishbowl, and the world is painted on the outside.  It does not matter which direction you walk – you will never reach the edges.  Glass is often an analogy used for patients who experience dissociation. It would take another five years for until this sensation would be explained to me by a psychiatrist.

Look at words emerge from your mouth.  Look at yourself witnessing them so doing, but you, are behind a seven-inch pane of glass.  Now situate yourself at work, being the facilitator of a monthly teleconference that you are required to do as a part of your job. Watch as you relay messages and thoughts about the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, but the minutes on the right-hand corner of the screen don’t move. You want this outward professionalism to finish, and it won’t.  And so, you go outside to try to regain some sense of reality.  It doesn’t arrive for another three days.  You believe, at that moment, that you are actually experiencing psychosis. You believe in earnest that you will, in the coming weeks, be fired for being so fucked in the head.

 

III

The last time I tried to hang myself was this August. The note, prefaced “not misadventure,” is buried in a stack of paper in the garage. I failed again, and the next day, I went to work and managed my client load with a bruise on my thigh and a sore neck. It made no sense to tell anyone about the incident, given that they’re statistically likely to happen every four months, on average.

If the pain that people experience in living could be properly articulated, the rates of domestic violence, suicide, substance abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional manipulation, et cetera, would not be such as they are across the country.  Locate where trauma manifests in the body.  Mine often feels as though it is a rock, tied to a rope looped somewhere below where the jaw meets the neck. People who experience emotional distress associated with CPTSD and the variants of personality disorders that follow often refer to how their emotions crack open their ribcages and burrow into their torsos.  I am among those who share that queer sensation of taut emptiness where words ought to emerge.  There is meant to be more to being alive, but the reasons I make now aren’t as compelling as they were when I was fifteen.

I hadn’t been to Venice then. Hadn’t had my heart irrevocably broken. Hadn’t spent wine-soaked nights on the couches of people I don’t know anymore.  Hadn’t sat cross legged on the lap of the person I thought I’d have two dogs and an upmarket bedspread with and looked into her eyes with my hand on her cheek.  Hadn’t stood in front of a gaggle of academics and made a somewhat reasonable case for the law of crowds. Hadn’t met The Duchess of Sussex.  Hadn’t gone to a party in a Long Island City apartment on impulse with a man so beautiful I was amazed that he was even real. But maybe all that isn’t enough.

The psychologist says that the sound in my head of my parents’ incessant nagging, “You will never be enough,” will always be there. But perhaps, says the psychologist, the volume of this voice can be turned down, and others turned up.  I think of a guitar amp, the dial on zero, and I panic: what other voices are there?

Each morning from Monday to Friday, I walk along Little Collins Street and watch the way the light hits the skyscrapers.  There are days where it feels as though the sensations the world creates are the sole reason for being.

IV

I have had four glasses of wine when we enter Hamer Hall to watch Nick Cave; tonight, he’s performing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I adore every moment but am cognisant of wanting the concert to end. If ever there were an apt demonstration of the Theory of Relativity, it would be an orchestral performance. Will the show go for an hour? Ninety minutes? How long does that feel like in the dark, at any rate?

Cave sits at the piano and is projected onto the panels behind the orchestra.  The rings on his fingers are beautiful and imposing; the live screen closes in on his hands.  He is the reason we are all here, but he doesn’t do much. He plays a few chords in slow succession, as the strings carry him along. He, too, is in his own cocoon of grief.

I need to piss. I cross my legs over again and again, watching the orchestra, observing the choir in the corner that have only stood twice thus far to add a few ‘ooooohs’.  The pieces being performed are film scores that Cave has worked on throughout his career: all Southern Gothic.  We see excerpts from films he has composed scores to throughout his career: stretches of desert and wide blue skies that are almost indistinguishable from the landscape of the drive from Brisbane to Charleville. I know that I will return to my grandparents’ graves one day, but do not know when, how, or under what circumstances.

At some point, perhaps during The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, my mind begins to wander. I start thinking about whether the tympanists are the voice of my father telling me not to shove my sexuality down people’s throats.  Perhaps it is the backup piano that represents my rum-drunk mother screaming into my face that I will amount to nothing more than a drug addict who will overdose in a gutter one day.  And what, then, would my parents’ denial that these events ever took place sound like? I almost reached a revelation when the crowd starts cheering. The show is over.  I can piss.

 

V

There is something of viewing a corpse that feels an imposition: here is the woman who chastised my parents for being too harsh with me.  Here, in the cold room of the sole funeral parlour in the Shire of Murweh, lies the woman who argued with my parents about the chores I was expected to do:

“Give the damn girl a break,” to my mother, who would retire to bed without word.

“I’ll do the dishes tonight, Lulu. Just make a me a cup of tea, darling, and we can have a cigarette when I’ve finished drying off the pots and pans.”

Thus spoke the matriarch, and thus she did each time she was staying with us in Brisbane.  Not once did this woman, the fierce, whipsmart lover of crosswords and cigarettes, give a shit about the fact that I felt love for other women. Not once did she tell me that I was a failure, a disgrace, or a stupid little bitch. Rather, she’d talk about the people she encountered when she and Grandpa ran a pub out near the border of Queensland and the Northern Territory over a Horizon cigarette on the back deck.

 

VI

Convincing my sister to leave the room for our Grandma’s funeral became a game that she won.  Who could get their shoes on the fastest? Who could be downstairs first? The Catholic Classics were played at the church procession: Ave Maria, Nearer My God to Thee.  But, ever the woman with humour, the song that was played as Grandma was lowered into the ground was ‘The Entertainer’.  Watch as the crowd of repressed older people tried to decide how to respond to the absurdity: a group of men from the Returned Services League in the dry February of an outback Queensland cemetery, standing and sweating in full uniform with their hats down.  By the third verse (perhaps it had been three minutes by then?), long after the coffin had reached the bottom of the grave, I laughed aloud.  The song kept playing, and nobody knew what to do about it.

As the mourners gathered to throw in their poppies and their dust, I waited toward the back of the line while keeping an eye out for Best Sister and how she was handling the emotion of the day.  She had her face in my Aunt’s chest and didn’t want to be there, but there she was, as best she could be. When my turn came to throw in some earth, I made sure there was a pinch of tobacco there too. Just in case.

 

VII

I will hang myself before the age of twenty-seven.  I will hang myself somewhere in the year of twenty-seven. I will make it to thirtysomething before accidentally overdosing on prescription pharmaceuticals.  I will leave a note that says sorry to my sister.  I will not leave a note and hope that the people I love can read between the lines and distribute my assets among themselves.  I will wait until my sister has died before I go.  It doesn’t matter if I go before my sister, she and I barely speak now because speaking to her is predicated on speaking to my parents, which I tend to avoid as much as possible.  She will understand, in some way.  She will never understand, and the grief of my leaving will inflict unbearable damage on the sole person in this world who will never abandon me.

I may hang myself tonight, or tomorrow, or in a month, or in a year. I may learn how to deal with what I am and die by accident some day in thirty or forty years. But the possibility of leaving the world is always there: and one day—one day, I might take it. Nobody, myself included, knows when.  I think of A.D. Hope’s poem ‘The Unknown Anniversary’ some mornings on the walk up Little Collins Street.  Where in the performance I am, I cannot know, but the tether I have to this world is my older sister.  She, I decide, is the entire string ensemble: precision, gentle hands, and a form of grace that only exists outside of words.

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