We’re not walking hand in hand anymore. It’s been that kind of exhibition; visitors obliged to confront uncomfortable things. He has no idea he’s hurt my feelings. I move closer and brush his fingers.
‘All there,’ he says. ‘All good.’
We’ve been walking through galleries of sculptured bodies, most of them devoid of some part of their anatomy. He won’t ask what’s wrong; if he notices something, he’ll think whatever it was that upset me will pass. In the future, though, if we’re still together, it will concern him. For now, any problem is mine alone.
We were just in the ‘Emotive’ gallery, standing in front of another deconstructed clay figure: three hanging pieces depicting ‘woman’.
‘It’s too depressing. Let’s have a coffee. A glass of wine.’ He’d taken my hand now, the whole hand, in a firm, confident grip. Like a parent. I hadn’t moved; I couldn’t. I needed to find out why he disliked the exhibit so much.
‘Do you think the sculptor was male or female?’ I asked.
‘Has to be a woman. No man could work for weeks on a breast like that.’
‘Why not? He’s an artist. It’s a creation.’
‘Oh, come on, Kate. He’d have to be pathological. A sculptor might be an artist, but if he’s male and into women, he’s like any other bloke. Artist or not, no man could touch that. It’s…’ Shaking his head, he’d turned away. ‘I’m sorry, it’s too weird. Why would you do it?’ He’d tried to take my hand again. ‘Coffee, Katie? Coffee?’
‘Order me something. I’m just going to the ladies.’
On my way back, I can’t help taking a detour. Once again, I stand in front of ‘woman’. Three sculptures attached to black light stands with no bulbs. Wires come out of the sockets and hold the pieces at the angles the sculptor wants. A suspended piece of a woman’s arm, as if she’s wearing a long, white, satin glove. Going to a ball. The hand, the fingers, extended to a dance partner, the elbow bent so he can guide her onto the floor. Above the glove, no more of the arm; no more of the woman. Another piece is half a face. But not the whole half, only the portion under the eye: the cheek, the intimation of a nose. It could be a Venetian mask. Part of a mouth, lips pursed.
The final representation, the one where Chris and I came apart, is the breast, an image where every eye becomes a voyeur’s, relishing what it sees with horror. When I move closer, I can see the curves of a tubular growth, a gnarled root, twisting up within it, withering the bosom, then emerging into the light and devouring the nipple like a carnivorous spider.
A thing no one wants to see.
I feel sick.
‘The good news is that it’s not cancer,’ the specialist said, peering at my X-rays. ‘But, as you can see, there’s a growth. If you look at how… Sorry, over here.’ He’d realised I had no idea what he was looking at and tapped a grey shadow with the top of his pen. ‘It will start deep inside the breast. Then it will wind its way up.’
‘Like a worm.’
He looked at me.
‘Well, I wouldn’t say that.’
He turned back to his map and continued to trace the probable journey of the worm.
‘It winds its way towards the nipple. Then it will curl around below it, making a shape, like a…’
This time, I was silent. Like a gourd, I thought. Like a disfigured gourd. Hiroko Yaguchi uses this image in her writing.
A distended womb, a gourd
Barren, withered, no longer woman.
I tried to keep listening to him, but I could hardly keep my composure.
‘At some point, when it’s safe, when it stops growing, which it will, you’ll be able to have an operation. The breast will be removed and another reconstructed. There will be some scarring, but cosmetic surgery these days is very advanced.’
‘But it will not be a breast. Will not function like one. Children…’
What was I saying? Children had never entered my mind.
‘No, no breastfeeding. There is only a certain amount of reconstruction…’
‘And it may happen again?’
‘Yes. I’m sorry. This is a very rare pathology and we don’t know much about it. There is only limited research.’
‘Have you seen it come back?’ He’s the expert in the field—if there’s such a field. I was abrupt. I should have brought my mother to keep me civil. But I haven’t told her. I haven’t told anyone. Only Hiroko knows.
He didn’t react; he was calm. A nice man.
‘I’ve seen very few cases in this country. I’ve read a lot and discussed it with some of my colleagues. I want to do the best I can for you, Kate.’
‘Have you heard of it coming back?’
‘Yes. But that doesn’t mean it will; every case is different.’
‘In the other breast or in the reconstructed one?’
‘The other one. We haven’t seen it return to the reconstructed breast. I can’t imagine that would happen.’
‘So, for now, I should live with the thing. Buy a special bra and just live with it. Find an understanding guy and…’ I began to cry. It wasn’t his fault.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, grabbing a handful of his tissues.
‘Lucky I didn’t order you coffee. It would be stone-cold by now.’ Chris has come up behind me. ‘Come on.’ This time his arm is around my shoulders and he’s steering me away. Gently. ‘I’ve got you wine.’
‘How’d you find me?’
‘I knew this is where you would be. We stopped here before. Remember? You asked me if…’
‘Yes, I did. Sorry. Is my wine sparkling?’
‘I got you red. Anyway, whatever you want, I’m sure they’ll have it.’
Seated on a patio overlooking a tiled pool, I watch green and blue mosaics twirl and shimmer. The sunshine, his face, the taste of good wine and cheese. Too much beauty.
He looks around the café and then examines the stem of his wineglass.
‘Katie, hon, do you think art should make you cry?’
‘Cry?’ I bend towards the cheese platter, try to cut a piece without making a mess. ‘Yes. Beautiful things can make you cry. Music, writing, paintings.’
‘But it wasn’t beautiful.’
‘Sometimes there’s another beauty. It’s not aesthetic beauty. It’s ugly, grotesque. But we still look at it. Too bad if it hurts.’
I am on my podium; I have to distract him from the breast and the trouble I am in. He makes me weak when I need to be strong. I must be careful.
‘I read somewhere: Light’s only light if you know dark,’ I say. ‘Ugly beauty’s not attractive. It’s confronting. But sometimes we need it. Something moral. You know, like Guernica. Like some of the photos taken in war zones. The things we saw in there.’
This is bad. Am I saying deformity can be ‘beautiful’? What’s happening to me is a deformity. No one will want to look at me. I will have no beauty. I search in my bag for my sunglasses. They’re not there.
‘Please don’t ask me what beauty is, babe. I’ll say it’s you.’ Chris feeds me another piece of cheese, most likely to shut me up. ‘But those bodies. The things we’re missing. Outside, inside. I don’t want to think about it. It’s… It’s morbid.’
He brushes away a mascara smudge under my eye. I never wore it until I met Weather Boy. It always runs.
‘And please don’t bring me to Rodin and friends again. I’m just a simple, happy guy.’ He pulls my sunglasses down off the top of my head.
He’s right. Truncated sculptures. Photos filled with shadows, relics and monstrosities. Inside the frame, centre focus, or hovering there on the edge, so close no one could miss them. If artists want to pull them inside, it’s their choice. When they do this, however, with such force, can’t we ask them what kind of ‘beauty’ it is and what we are supposed to do with it?
‘You’re upset.’ He strokes my arm, my wrist. ‘Can I unbutton your glove, milady?’
I take his hand, try to distract him.
‘No, sir, you may not. My mother is watching.’
He laughs and winks at a good-looking older woman sitting nearby.
‘Your mother loves me.’
‘Chris, please. Don’t embarrass me.’ The woman is reading her program and probably didn’t see him. What he said, though, is true: my mother does love him. She didn’t at first, but she does now.
I never wanted to be the girl who fell for Chris Wetherill. I wasn’t even in the orbit of this final-year student, tipped to win the top scholarship to Oxford to do his Masters. Funny, handsome; whatever mathematical calculations he was involved in, they only added to the allure.
When the computer algorithm set up to partner students off for the annual GNF ball—geeks, nerds and friends—aligned our names, my singledom was resolved. I imagined he’d wriggle out, but he didn’t. I panicked. I had to cut a tutorial to find a dress and shoes suitable for a ball. None of this was in the grand style of Hollywood or even reality television, but it seemed to work because a few weeks later, when Chris and I strolled through the refectory, holding hands, my cool friends were as impressed as my nerd friends. Later, however, a couple of them pulled me aside and spoke more plainly. Beware, they counselled, Weather Boy will soon tire of a nerd with nerd virtues.
But I know passion. In my own way.
‘You’ll have to restrain your emotions, Kate, if you are to do justice to this topic.’
Jane Hicks, my supervisor.
‘It’s as if you’ve become her, this Hiroko Yaguchi. Blurred the lines. There’s not enough objectivity. Your thesis, your conclusions, they’ll all be skewed. You won’t be taken seriously.’
My passion is a writer. She lived during the cultural upheaval of the Japanese Meiji Restoration. All she wanted to do was take care of her family—all the males were dead or had disappeared—and write. She wrote what she knew. Stories about abandoned and impoverished women. Social outcasts; ugly, shameful subjects. She wrote honestly, skilfully. Beautifully. The women in her stories lived on. They had to. In the eyes of the serious literati (men), such subjects weren’t worth the cost of ink and paper. Class inequity, gender bias, these were not her concerns, but they filled every page. Fortunately, she was long gone when she became the champion of women’s emancipation.
‘Chris, darling, Maths guru, can I run something by you?’
We are lying on his bed with a tray of tea and toast between us. Breakfast in bed; vegemite for me, apricot jam for him.
‘Do you still believe in feminism?’
‘At eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning in bed with my babe? You must be joking.’ He tries to grab me. ‘It’s my way or the highway.’
‘Stop it.’ I try to save the pot. ‘You’ll spill the tea. Do we need to keep on fighting or not?’
‘I already told you, surrender to your man.’ I pick up the jam knife. ‘Okay, okay.’ He lies back, licks his fingers and gets serious. ‘I just think there are different battles now. You’re not losing, hon. Not the war, that is. You’re sort of winning. If you compare it to the past, there’s women everywhere… Things are happening.’ He can’t resist and props his head on his hand so he can look at me. ‘The other day in my maths seminar… She was such a babe. And calculus. A brain like you’ve never seen.’
I go for the knife, but he beats me to it.
‘Stealth, hon, stealth. Go undercover, wait until all the old farts are gone. Young guys have too much on our minds to worry about what chicks are up to.’ He scrapes the last of the jam out of the jar. ‘Mum, we need more jam.’ This time he hides under his pillow. ‘Seriously.’ He pokes his head out. ‘What’s it got to do with your poet? You said she wasn’t a rev. Didn’t even burn her bra.’
‘Japanese women didn’t wear them back then.’
‘So, what did she burn?’
‘Nothing. That’s it. Nothing. But she wasn’t a revolutionary. Well, not what we call a revolutionary. Not until she was dead.’
‘Dead? Well, I guess many revs died fighting. Up on the ramparts of the Imperial Palace?’
‘No. At her kitchen table, suffocated in her own blood.’
‘The secret police.’
‘TB. Twenty-five years old. No wonder she wrote like that. She had so little time left.’
I am at home, sitting on our bed, reading Hiroko. She couldn’t marry, she had to support her mother and her siblings, she was sick, she wasn’t allowed to write as she wanted, she had to use another name—a man’s—and hide her work, write by candlelight when everyone was asleep. Still, she did it. She wasn’t wanted in the male world, but she took them on, anonymously, by stealth, beating them at their own craft. Her only measure of self-worth was the integrity of her stories and poems based on inequality and discrimination, things unknown and unspoken. An accidental feminist.
I don’t tell Chris about my visit to the specialist. I still don’t even tell my mother. She’s still a bit distant with me for moving too quickly into Chris’s flat.
‘You don’t know him, Katie. I realise it’s a different generation, but isn’t it too soon? What if he…?’
‘Goes off with someone better looking? Give me some credit, Mum. Would you rather not know these things?’
‘No. I’d rather know. It’s just that…’
‘You’d rather not know.’
‘What if it goes wrong, Katie? Women… We often get the thin edge.’
‘Mum, what a thing to say. You’re a feminist. You brought me up.’
‘Yes, and I don’t regret it. Not one bit. It’s just that what we know in our heads and…’
She looked away. We were getting too close to her and Dad.
‘Look, all I care about is you, Katie. I couldn’t bear to see you hurt.’
It was on the tip of my tongue to say everyone gets hurt some time; we just have to get over it. Fortunately, I caught myself. Mum’s hurt had been a bad one. No one could blame her for not getting over it.
When Chris comes in, I’m still sitting on the bed, reading Hiroko. Breathing in her vigour, but at the same time thinking about things that eat you, destroy you. I can’t move. It doesn’t matter. He picks me up in his arms. Elated.
‘I got it. I got it. Oxford, baby, Oxford! You can come with me and study your Japanese revolutionary.’
‘Poet. She’s a poet. A writer. Not a revolutionary. That’s the point.’
‘Anything, babe, anything. So long as you come with me.’ He drops me back on the bed. ‘What’s wrong? What’s this crying? He licks my tears. ‘Stop right now. Or no champagne.’
We make love. I kiss him all over, stroke him. I lie on top of him so my breasts are on his. If he knew them like I do, if he dared to squeeze them hard, he would find something. Then I would have to tell him what was wrong and he could leave.
A few days later, we are having lunch on the campus lawns.
‘I’m going to Japan first,’ I tell him, the sounds and sights of student life around us, my sunglasses allowing me to lie with ease. ‘I have to. My poet lived there. I have a grant.’
‘A grant? For how long?’
‘Not long. It doesn’t matter. You’ll be too busy courting a real lady to worry about what I’m doing.’
He rolls his eyes.
‘Come on, Kate. You’re my lady.’ He kisses my hand. ‘Lady Kate.’ Pieces of vermicelli fall out of his Vietnamese roll and onto the lawn. ‘I wouldn’t mind visiting Japan. See the robots. Go to the poet’s grave.’
‘She wasn’t buried. She was cremated and no one knows what happened to her ashes.’
As it happens, my story about studying in Japan turns out well. With Jane’s help, I receive a small grant to study in Tokyo for a semester. The proposed thesis, ‘Feminism suffers from over-exposure: a study of Hiroko Yaguchi, poet and accidental revolutionary’, seems to excite the arts department of a reputable women’s university.
‘Do you miss him, Katie?’
Mum fusses around. After Chris left, I moved back home. She will soon get over me and then the fussing will stop.
‘Maybe you can go over to Oxford in the summer holidays.’
‘No. I won’t have the money. The grant doesn’t cover overseas holidays. Besides, I’ll need to come back here. Appointments.’ I walk towards the sink with the kettle. ‘Can we sit and have a cup of something, Mum? I need to talk to you.’
In Tokyo, study is brilliant and I am able to tailor my social life to suit my breast. I don’t go to the communal baths with my female peers and I wear baggy ‘sustainable’ shirts over jeans. I don’t drink much, saying I react badly to alcohol. It’s not uncommon in Japan. It just means when I miss Chris, my mum and the way things were back home, I can’t put myself to sleep with a drink or two. I could, but the mix of worm medication and alcohol would be too awful. When I’m feeling out-of-place lucid at a campus workshop over snacks and sake, I plead deadlines and go back to my small apartment. If I’m feeling fully down, I Skype Mum.
‘Why don’t you Skype Chris, dear?’
‘How can I? It’s like alcohol.’ I’m in a cruel mood and I behave badly. ‘I can’t have it anymore.’
‘For goodness sake, Kate, stop being so melodramatic. The doctor said…’
‘I thought you’d agree with me, Mum. We no longer have to worry about whether he suits me or not.’
‘Katie, that’s an awful thing to say. I like Chris. You’re not giving him a chance.’
Or her. I can see she’s near to tears and cutting me off.
‘Sorry, Mum. It’s just I think it will be better in the end if he doesn’t have to… Once we were in a museum and we saw a woman’s deformed breast, a sculpture, and he said no man could look at that thing. It was me, Mum. What I’ll be like.’
‘For goodness sake, it was a piece of plaster, Katie. In a museum. He’s got to have a chance. How do you know what he’ll say? You have no right…’
‘No right? Mum, it’s my breast. I have every right.’ I pause, try to explain things more calmly, not raise my voice. ‘We haven’t been together that long. Now he’s over in the UK, at Oxford, on a scholarship. Living the life.’ I look straight at her, desperate for someone to take my side. ‘Why does he have to…? It’s not some kind of test.’
‘It most certainly is. But he’s already failed. No chance at all. Why, Katie? What are you saving him from?’
She’s angry, crying, peering at me through dirty glasses, blotchy shadows on her face, her neck. Her hands gripping the laptop, her fingers, unknowingly, distorting the camera lens.
‘Do you really have to be another martyr to the glorious rights of men? Another female not good enough? Isn’t one in the family enough?’ She sniffs loudly. ‘I’m coming over to Tokyo. You’re alone. You’re sick and—’
‘Don’t be silly, Mum.’ I’m crying too. She wouldn’t even know how to buy an air ticket. The idea of flying terrifies her. ‘I’m alright. I’m sorry.’ I blow her kisses. I doubt she can even see me anymore—our dirty screens, clumsy fingers. ‘Go to sleep now. I’ll call you Sunday. Early.’
Pain. In every part of me. Leaking out of my breast into my heart, stranding islands in my brain. Nothing connects. Only the pain. The apartment walls are thick. Even so, no one’s going to say anything. Japanese ethics: everyone’s personal space assiduously protected in a spaceless city. I curl up on my futon with Hiroko’s last anthology of poems.
Next morning, after some sleep, I feel better. First, I take on my body. I go shopping and buy two maternity bras. The prettiest they have. I tell the shop assistant I’m having a baby. Not yet, but soon. She is delighted and says she hope’s it’s a girl. Girls are sweet, she says, easy to bring up. I nod; thankfully, my Japanese isn’t up to telling her she’s wrong and there are plenty of girls who are not sweet and bloody difficult to bring up.
My mind is next. The only mirror is in the bathroom. I will keep the fan on when I’m having a shower. I will sleep on my back; it’s more comfortable and now that I’ve stopped hiding it… Sometimes, I sleep without my bra. I touch my gourd, trace its growing contours. We listen to the night sounds of Tokyo together and fall asleep.
At the university, too, my life is better. My thesis, Jane Hicks writes, is ‘coming along nicely’. It was arrogant of me, however, to think I had rediscovered Hiroko Yaguchi. In the past decade, she’s gathered many new devotees. And they’re not only young women; there are many older women, and even men. Some of these disciples send me interesting pieces of information and words of encouragement.
One day, I get an unexpected text message. Not from Mum, not from Jane Hicks. Not someone interested in Hiroko, either. I skip over it, answer the others. I know how it begins, but I’m scared of what might follow. Finally, I get sick of myself and open it up.
Stopover in Tokyo. Good deal. Three days. Called your mum. Says Japanese men are not your thing. Haven’t found a babe like you, Katie, hon. Maybe in Tokyo…