Machines for Feeling, page 1
Mireille Juchau is a critically acclaimed Australian novelist. Her most recent novel, The World Without Us, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the Stella Prize, and was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Mireille’s second novel, Burning In, was shortlisted for four awards, including the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Described by The Guardian UK as ‘a writer of great poetic power’, Mireille is also known for her short fiction, essays and reviews.
PRAISE FOR MACHINES FOR FEELING
‘This is a beautiful and disturbing novel about the fallout of the adult world and its impact on the young.’ Australian Book Review
‘Mireille Juchau’s strength as a novelist lies in a disarming humour and a beautifully pitched control … [Machines for Feeling] raises fascinating questions about our responses to those artists who are out of sync with the demands of the world.’ Good Reading
‘Juchau’s writing has the quality and density of poetry.’ The Courier-Mail
PRAISE FOR BURNING IN
‘Juchau has a perfectly honed cadence that borders on the poetic and her ability to communicate complex emotions is faultless.’ The Sun-Herald
‘The precise crafting of this novel … is a salutary reminder that in a good novel the writer is not only saying an important thing but also making a beautiful one.’ The Sydney Morning Herald
‘Full of precision and insight … Juchau has entwined sensitive and overwhelming topics with immense grace.’ Australian Book Review
PRAISE FOR THE WORLD WITHOUT US
‘A bright, bracing marvel of a book … [Juchau’s] prose, too, is a marvel of balance: witty and sensual, self-aware but not jaded, and capable of making poetry from anything.’ The Australian
‘Powerful and poetic … The unfolding of the truth, layer after layer, is superbly done; though this novel is too classy to pigeonhole as a thriller, it has all the pace and invention of the classic thriller. What makes it unforgettable is Juchau’s sensitive portrayal of a family poleaxed by grief.’ The Times
‘An extraordinarily vivid novel, elegant, convincing, intelligent and profoundly moving.’ The Guardian
for Gladys, Bob, Gerda and George
There are times when the child seems not yet to have crossed into the world
Despite having entered a body
Memory a wind passing through the blood trees within us
Someone was supposed to have come
Carolyn Forché, ‘The Recording Angel’
The curvature of space expresses the relation between human beings.
The Dog Before the World
Dog Boy crouched, exultant on a green hillock, and looked back to where the Home was ablaze. Excitement stirred his limbs and he stood, rubbing the soft mounds of his eyes with petrol fingers. He peered across to the distant hall of the Home where flames flickered in the black holes of its windows, and joy unfurled in the open cavern of his chest. The sky above him was raddled; it shone pinkly, streaked with sooted clouds. Could it be that he had lit the sky with the work of his own hands? Who would have thought one match could light both the earth and heaven?
Dog Boy was unsure how much distance to put between himself and the fire. He didn’t want to compromise his escape but he longed to see the flames take over as he had pictured them in his imaginary rehearsals. Each tongue of fire was personified in his mind; they were a marauding troupe converging on the Home, cackling and snapping as they moved through each building.
He loped toward a nearby grassy slope to watch the fire engines zoom up and the silvery arcs of water spurting out. A stand of gum trees obscured his view, but it was clear the hall was alight, and the number of engines attending made him certain he’d succeeded where Mark had never dared to. A conflagration was what his friend had promised, running his fingers down the page in the leather-bound library dictionary. Conflagration: a great and destructive fire. Dog Boy said it aloud and sniggered. Now he had the greatest secret of all time.
He had gathered the light globes in a nightly slink and climb, his hessian book bag over his shoulder, each globe making a glassy clink as it was dropped inside. He carefully carried the bag to his locker as if nursing a nest of pale eggs, then deposited them inside the dark space and locked the blue, peeling door. By the end of the fourth day all the important globes had gone: the ten in the hall foyer and the twenty illuminating the art display that hung on the two long walls of the hall. That night he climbed into the manhole in the boys’ bathroom to check Jonas’s old supplies: a can of petrol tightly lidded, a shoebox full of matches and pilfered lighters in bright plastic colours.
He put his hand to his chest every five minutes on those last days and murmured, feeling the locker key beneath his shirt. It hung on a strap of leather with the seashell Mark and Rien had given him. He might have been measuring his heartbeat – the rhythm that trembled through him more rapidly as he reviewed the details of his plan – or swearing allegiance to a long-lost firebug friend, his hand against his ribs, his lips moving slowly. At night he slept fitfully after his checking and collecting, the key and the shell pressed into his flesh as he rode the back of the barking dog that carried him to his dreams. In the morning both shapes were mapped onto the hairless concave of skin between his nipples.
After his fire the police would find the stash of globes, and the discarded cans of petrol. When locker ten was finally cranked open, the pearly globes poured out in a torrent, hitting the floor and spurting in every direction. The bare-legged detective saw a kind of milk splashing as she stood before the lockers; she felt a cold running and only knew of the blood by the twist of her partner’s mouth and his eyes looking down at her bleeding shins and then back up to her face.
Compared to the bushfires that fringed the city that December, Dog Boy’s blaze was no bigger than a barbecue. But it made its small impression on the children in the Home, and allowed him to slip away from that lonely place unnoticed.
He had planned a conflagration and managed quite a fire, but the damage was minimal: no lives were lost, not a child was burnt or singed. The youngest walked from the building clutching their teddy bears and dolls and saliva-stained comforters, some with their thumbs still jammed in their mouths as if to prevent the smoke from seeping in. It was four in the morning and they were dazed as sleepwalkers, filing out in pairs onto the wet cement. The teenagers ran and yelled, fully awake and alive with the proximity of danger. They made no secret of their pleasure in the flames and the damage they guessed at as they milled around outside, a chorus of farting and belching noises as their names were called from the attendance rolls. They snickered, pointing at their supervisors who were hardly recognisable in their dishevelment, backlit by the fire; their sleepy faces seemed shrunk-up and strange, freed of makeup and those familiar expressions of practised composure. Some of the children couldn’t help but think of their parents as they looked at their newly human guardians – it had been years since they’d seen an adult in the middle of the night, sprung awake and vulnerable as a newborn.
They stood in groups according to their home classes or crouched and mucked about while the firemen did their short work, for though the fire flared up higher than the roof of the school hall, it had not reached the dormitories or the classrooms and was unlikely to. The older boys bayed for complete destruction, waiting for the whole red spectacle to begin. They wanted the flames airborne – the red-brick solidity of the other buildings seemed an affront.
‘Harry Barnett.’ Mr Johnston, flushed and bedraggled in his chequered dressing gown, croaked the name from the roll, the smoke irritating his
The blaze was out within two hours but not before three TV crews had filmed it, the whole event broadcast later in lurid colour, tongues of flame from the cracked glass teeth of the hall windows, a close-up of a young boy clutching a one-eared toy dog, blinking sleepily. The reporters raced to get there, thinking the worst and hoping for it, the cameramen panning across the bewildered faces of the smaller children gathered in their striped pyjamas like well-fed prisoners of war. The journalists hinted at the Home’s state of disrepair and the possibility of neglect as cause for the fire. Were there regular checks on the fire alarms, which hadn’t sounded? And what of the rumours that the exit doors were unlit and rusted shut so the children had to leave the buildings via the inside stairwell – a certain fire trap if the flames had spread?
A newspaper journalist heard the crack in the teacher’s voice and thought, it sounds like an accusation. She wrote the name down then watched another staff member approach – a nurse who had treated the missing boy earlier in the day. The journalist inched closer, then wrote: Last seen in sickbay. Older boy – 16/17? Was he still inside?
Nearby, teenaged kids were making animal sounds, howling and yelping and trying to catch the attention of the camera crews and the firemen. A group of them turned to the journalist as she gazed in their direction, blinking over-fast in the smoky haze.
‘Hey, miss, that’s Dog Boy who’s missing. He’s a murderer, a sick puppy. We knew him real well. Why not interview us?’
‘Dog Boy, where are yoooooou?’ cried another, stretching the last word into a melancholy howl.
Now Dog Boy sits, plucking at the fuzzy clocks of dandelions picked from the grassy hill. He blows the tendrils from each stalk and watches them drift down the slope. He smiles. A gently wistful feeling fills him as he notices the river of breeze the white flecks travel upon. Luck where each one lands, he thinks. The world’s a random pattern of flows and flurries, seeds take root and sprout at the whim of the wind. It’s man who savages the world.
He thinks of the art book Miss Trapinelli had lent him once – he was even allowed to take it back to his dorm and keep it for the night. The best picture was called Dog Before the World by someone Marc with a ‘c’. He loved it, the yellow dog proud and gazing across the countryside as if it was master of that green and brown land, as if it was the first one there. He had an idea that God made dogs before all the other animals that roamed the earth; in the beginning, the land was a canine kingdom. He told this to his best friend, Mark with a ‘k’.
‘Y’know, dogs are close to God, dog is God spelt inside out.’
‘Hallelujah,’ Mark said, waving his hands beside his ears, ‘you’ve had a revelation from a painting. Think about it, if there really is a God, then he thinks we belong in hell.’
Dog Boy tore out the picture and gave the book back. Each night he unfolded the beautiful dog world from where he kept it tucked beneath his mattress and looked at it with wonder, holding the wavery flame of his lighter up to the image. He vowed to one day take himself to those green fields of longing and stay there until a woozing sleep came upon him.
It’s time for his own journey down the hill and into the new land of fluorescent, smog-fuelled sunsets and gleaming buildings, the city’s particular chaos. Time to find his two friends. ‘Anytime,’ they wrote in a letter with the address of their new home, on thick, fancy paper, the colour of marrow – ‘you’re welcome anytime, your friends always, Mark and Rien’.
I am the dog before the world, he thinks as he looks up at the singed pillows of cloud in a wild sky. The city will be a black nothing and all will begin again.
Mark wires up the electricity in our squat then struts about the lounge room saying he knew his obsession with wires and connections would finally pay off. At night we sit in the green glow and crackle of illegal TV.
I’ve read plenty of books and newspapers, I collect stories of the ghoulish, the sad, the absurd, stick them in a special book. And sometimes I rewrite them: this way the tales are both mine and not mine. But this TV business is mucking up my project – now there’s simply too much information.
Sometimes I call my collected stories The Salt Archive – the salt of blood and of the sea which I plan to tell my children was made by the God of Pain, weeping into the ocean for a thousand years. The salt of hurt that makes you sweat at night and seize up, crystalline, during the day.
Yesterday I glued in the one about the man who was jailed for 797 sex charges after marrying his stepdaughter and fathering then abusing the child they bore. Farthering they should call it. Forty-four years of abuse – her sister, her brother, herself, her daughter. The man was sixty-nine and still going for it when they got him.
I glue this morning’s cut-out beside it:
CASE CLOSED ON COFFIN MUMMY
A woman who locked her adopted daughter in a coffin each night was jailed for five years yesterday.
I wonder what happened to the daughter. At least her mother kept her safe at night.
‘An eye for an eye,’ Mark tells me, the punishment fits the crime.
On my first few nights at the Home I dreamt I was lying inside a glass coffin. I could watch the world trailing past, and people looked in at me, naked and lying quite still. I supposed I was dead in the dream, although I felt a silent longing and I saw the white frosty shapes that my breath made on the cold coffin lid. When I woke from those dreams my joints ached from lying stiff in the white sheets of the dormitory bed.
Mark builds a bonfire at the back of our house in the scrap of yard full of dogshit and bones. He’s dragged his suitcase through his life like a hideous hump on his back and now it’s time for burning. I’ve never looked inside it – I’m not allowed. I imagine instead, chanting the contents in my head:
1. There’s a clinking sound when it moves, glass I think, he collects bits of sharpness – coloured glass.
2. Three old photographs curly with memory, smiles that fade out at the corners and eyes with crinkles from too much staring at a burning sun.
3. Tools for doing stuff (rusting and bent from having done it). A baby’s pillowcase stained with dribble. It’s embroidered with what was once an ‘M’ but now looks like the crooked wings of a seagull in flight. The blue silk legs of the ‘M’ are half moth-eaten, as if they were the most delicious part.
He stokes the fire and shoves the suitcase on it without emptying it out, like he’s scared someone (me) will go snooping through the debris before the ashes are cold.
I’m safe inside scouring the newspapers when I see the smoke rise beyond our roof. That’s when I start to yell and run out into the yard. He’s crouched in the far corner against the fence, like a small quivery animal who’s about to run away. I scream despite his wild-looking eye, the jiggly dance in his bottom lip. I don’t know whether he’s going to cry or attack me with some tool he’s saved from his collection, extra rusty for maximum infection. Both of us are coughing and spluttering from the ash whipping across the yard.
‘There’s a total fire ban. We’ll get arrested and straight back to the Home for us both!’
Baubles of sweat have formed on his forehead, they gleam like a thousand extra eyes. The heat near the blaze is unbearable. He looks at me sort of vacantly and coughs.
‘Your stupid fire is choking you,’ I say.
And I don’t dare ask if he thinks he can get rid of his memories by burning them, if he truly believes in the cleansing power of fire.
He watches me, cautious. He pulls a cigarette from his pocket and gets it going, the lighter flame high and flicking close to his nose as if to spite the fury in my face. He thinks the past’s so terrible that he has to turn it into this pathetic spectacle, a stinking heap of ash in our backyard. Now we’ll have this burnt ground to remind us. I’ll see it every time I want to sit in the sun, there’ll be black rivers running through the yard when it rains. I know I’m ravi
He grabs me, he won’t talk, I know it. He’ll be hollowed out like he is when things go bad. Every word he owns is on that fiery pile and disappearing. Nothing’s changed.
‘You, you’re just scared ’cause you don’t have anything to burn.’ He talks slow, scaring me, and I cough with a violence that could sever my windpipe. He’s calmer than I’ve ever seen him, which makes me even wilder.
‘Why don’t you just deal with your life like a normal person … I’m not scared by your tragic little barbecue.’
If he cried, if he yelled and screamed, threw his limbs about, well then I’d be truly frightened. He might seem human then, and not like some robot pyromaniac. Now I’ve really done it, I’m almost hysterical, though I only know this from the way he’s backing into the fence where he was crouched before. My hair is full of bits of ash and my mouth is dry, water streams from my eyes.
‘Rien,’ he says, ‘I’m not going anywhere, okay.’ He’s beside me now, his eyes like searchlights roaming my face. He wrenches my arms off the rusting wires of the clothesline where I’ve hung myself up like a bat or a wrung-out rag, pulls my body upright and drags me off the line. I’m not scared, I’m not crying. It’s the smoke. Or the heat that’s making these tears.
I want to touch each object in his battered case and absorb his memories through the thin flesh of my hands. His life without me. His life before me, his secrets from me. The black mark in our backyard. Smoke rising gently from it on this first night of rain.
In the evening I watch the scritch and buzz of the TV while cutting out new stories for my scrapbook. Mark’s right. I’ve got no precious objects, no albums of my own, but my book would make a great fire, gone in minutes. I could pretend it meant something, like Mark did, but it wouldn’t. When I left home I had one day to gather up the bits of myself I’d hidden around the house. At the Home they could reach the shell of me, the rest I turned secret.