Upholstered People

“People don’t think.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

As usual, when catching up with old friends – I hadn’t seen Ryu for years – perhaps from nerves, we were drinking. Perhaps the opportunity rarely presented itself – I’d known few people as long as I’d known Ryu – or perhaps there was seldom an excuse to start drinking, without guilt, before conventional wisdom decreed, when the sun had passed over the yard-arm, indicating to all right-thinking men and women – I was expecting my new partner, new since I’d last seen Ryu, home at any moment – an evening respite from the responsibilities of their working lives, but we’d been drinking steadily since early afternoon.

The sense of a celebratory catching-up had some hours earlier, at least for me, been supplanted by the sense of a session, to which I gave myself over wholly. It had, anyway, been our ritual, in the early years, making this afternoon less a new departure than the resumption of a theme in our relationship, because no matter how drunk I was or how much Ryu drank, I always felt like I had some catching up to do.

I didn’t doubt that Ryu was about to embark on a story in illustration of what we’d just been talking about, nor did I doubt – in reproach of my own inadequate capacities – knowing his capacity for life and vodka and pickled chilies and harsh French cigarettes, that he was more than capable of continuing to drink, and smoke, and empty the chili jar, while staying with his story and remaining with the subject of himself.

I filled his glass, lit one of my own, milder, rollies and, waiting for him to begin, I thought how much I admired this man and envied him the grasp on his subject: to live so fully as oneself! To draw a story from one’s life! When I could barely express a single thought about myself or compose the simplest sentence, that was not, at once, so mendacious, so tendentious, so callow or simple, that I’d have to qualify and qualify, and, in over-qualification, lose myself. So it came as some surprise when Ryu began by saying how he’d lost himself.

“I don’t think I’ve told you yet about my abduction, 14 January, 1993. No? Well, it’s not a story I enjoy telling. Since then, I firmly believe that most of my faculties have resided on some alternative dimensional plane. Out of reach, at least. I’m talking about my human faculties here. Maybe, humanity itself. You look at me and you see Ryu. I must admit, occasionally, and with the passage of the intervening time, I too look at myself and see Ryu. It’s only from the inside I can tell the difference. I can tell there’s not much inside left.

“No, it’s not a story I particularly relish in the retelling. She was…”

I realised my cigarette had gone out halfway to my lips. I busied myself with relighting it in order to hide a half-suppressed sigh of relief – which manifested in a small, burping giggle – because, I’m ashamed to say, I was relieved to find that it was only a woman who was at stake. (And I was relieved that my new partner had not yet appeared: she would’ve ascertained, immediately, the source of my embarrassment, misreading it and misreading me, as, perhaps, I was doing myself.)

“…Sofia Marlinovna…”

I fear for my gay friends, I really fear for them. They have nobody to blame – for growing old – apart from themselves. Ryu was now confiding in me about the beginnings of another relationship.

“…It was great. We were together. No more than that. I wrote her some poetry; she’d just passed on to using oils. Her modeling was starting to take off. It was a Sydney summer. We were often down at the Boy Charleton and I remember January 14 because of her swimsuit. The date kept coming back at me in Visa statements. She’d insisted, before we went swimming – although there was nothing, that I could see, wrong with her old one – on buying a new swimsuit.

“We’d conceived a child, the previous night.”

I knocked back the vodka in my glass. He seemed so sure about his partner’s body, its whims and caprices: would I ever know my own, my new partner so well? To know, just the day after, that my seed had found its purchase?

“When I say ‘abduction’, I don’t know what you imagine: aliens in a lenticular craft descending over Woolloomoolloo and beaming me aboard; or, black-speedo-wearing henchmen from the Cabramatta Triads spiriting me away. But I was hardly aware that I’d been abducted, until later, much later, when the date was fixed by the swimsuit, on a Visa statement, that also fixed the date of the conception of our daughter. My daughter.

“But when I say, I was abducted on that date, on that day, I sincerely believe that’s what happened. I had my back against the sea wall. Sofia was swimming laps. Lap after lap.

“I’d preferred the bikini. But the bikini was in the bin. I’d had a hand in choosing the more modest one-piece she now wore. It was white, at least, not the curtain-pattern she’d wanted, with a zip between her breasts.

“She was long and lithe and tanned and she cut through the water smoothly and her race-turns made me smile at their serious precision, her hair waving out underwater, the colour of blonded tobacco.

“It was a perfect, brilliantly blue day, the day I was taken away, without my say so – illegally transported – to a grey and misty place, which I couldn’t help imagining and which on that day and days after, up to a point, I thought I was only imagining.

“Then, as now…”

Ryu reached out and took a cigarette from a soft pack of Gauloises. I lit it for him. He cupped his hand around the flame, as if we were outside. But it was warm and still in the room.

Part of the preparations for our session, apart from stashing the vodka in the freezer, stowing the beer, wine and nibbles, which Ryu had insisted on paying for, when we’d stopped, after I’d picked him up in town, on the way back to the little house I shared with my new partner – preparations we undertook with a pseudo-solemnity, befitting the resumption of the ritual of our friendship – had been to light the pot-belly, the Klondike. I’d been tending it, surreptitiously, with coal while we caught up – a third party, whose presence I didn’t really want to acknowledge but for whose provision of services, I rendered my tribute of coal – like a little smile to a loved one.

“…I smoked. In the sunshine. But I was shivering.

“There are those kind of birds that shriek over fields at night. Instead of the poolside laughter and the chattering voices, that’s what I heard. I looked up into the blue sky, thinking, maybe, hoping, it was a cockatoo. No.

“There was the winter moon. There was a frosty haze in the air and, where the bush might have been, stood a lone tree: a whole tree, like the skeleton of a single leaf, in the white cold light.

“Where Sofia swam, lap after lap, lay a field, furrowed and stubbled with the remnants of some crop, not glittering but still in the steady moonlight.

“In its way, it was quite beautiful, this place. It hadn’t occurred to me, yet, that I’d have to stay there.”

Ryu’s speech gained in precision as he drank, I noticed, as if harkening back, to the private school education he tried to dissemble, to drinks with the masters, where formality of speech was called for, even while stealing a second or third refill.

“As I’m sure you’re quite aware, visual and auditory hallucinations are one thing…”

This was a nod to our drug-taking days, where Ryu, needless to say, had outdone me.

“…But this was all the wrong way round.

“In my inner eye, I could reconstruct the Boy Charleton, the steps up to Potts Point, Victoria Street – which is how I got home – but for my physical self, I was elsewhere. What can I say? I’d been abducted.

“The human mind is endlessly supple. Human beings are infinitely adaptable. But it was a hard trick to learn, to live amongst other, normal human beings, as if I was one of them.

“We had a fourth floor walk-up off the Cross. I had a job doing hospo: waiting, at the MCA. Sofia had got into the pages of Oyster, then just starting up. And I was about to be a father.

“All the details of my daily existence – consciously, physically – had to be entered into my inner world. And not just my outward circumstances but Ryu himself, the one you think you can see now. He had to be moved around. Made to eat and drink. Made to appear to be thinking. And to appear to love.

“You don’t know what valuable real-estate a mind is, until it’s taken from you.

“Now, Sofia. Ah, Sofia… She must’ve noticed. I could almost have hated her for not. But her happy hormones were talking. And her agent was talking – even before she started showing – about the opportunities for pregnant models, mother and baby models, childbearing models… What had been our office-studio, a cubbyhole room, became about as stuffed full of soft furnishings and stuffed toys as the space inside my head was, with all the things I was supposed to care about.

“And the baby… the baby that became a pea, as Sofia was its pod: it grew. Perhaps inevitably. But inevitably also, with all the conscious effort I was expending on compensating for my loss of reality – and I was getting quite good at it, by about the second trimester – I had to turn my attention on the baby. My skill at making things.”

I’d never seen Ryu do regret before and I felt I had to, so I did, place my right hand on his left knee, in what I hoped was a brotherly gesture, putting my torso and my centre of balance at an odd angle to my fundament. He seemed to understand and took my hand, steering me upright.

“No wait,” he said. “The best is yet to come.”

The consolation I seemed to want to offer him, he deferred. What was the time? The sun had long since passed the yardarm. I looked around nervously and replenished both our glasses.

Ryu sculled his and went to the fridge to get a beer. Look how well I’m negotiating this new space, he seemed to say, it’s as if I’m really here.

“Do you want one?” he said.


“I was in denial,” he said, “of the place in which I found myself. I was trying to ignore it. If I was imagining it, I had reasoned, I could use my will: not to not imagine it; but to imagine something different, an alternative.”

Ryu handed me the Stella he’d cracked open using his lighter.

“Of course, I’d already discovered this…”

He cracked open his own.

“…Faculty. Just to get home from the pool that day, following my abduction, had exercised a muscle I didn’t know I had. And…”

He’d sat down and we tapped the throats of our bottles together.

“And, I expect, you’ve already guessed at my problem: I was addicted to the life I’d constructed, for myself, in my mind; I was addicted to using this muscle.

“And, as this life, with its plethora of detail, grew and colonised my inner country, there was nowhere else, no other place, for me to be, to see, to consider, what I was doing.

“At least, I’d reasoned, I’m going somewhere, there’s a dynamic. I’m not freezing in the moonlight, immobile in a foreign field.

“And, what of that place I was ignoring?

“If it had changed, I hadn’t noticed. I couldn’t notice.

“What kind of tree was that? What crop had recently been harvested, leaving its stubble in the furrows? And by whom?

“I didn’t know.

“It’s not hard to understand the dynamic. Can you believe that there were people who could come to these little green islands and see only fields for cattle and sheep? I can. And who live here, still, without knowing where they are.”

Ryu punctuated his summation of New Zealand history with a pickled chili and a swig of beer.

He lit another Gauloise and continued his story.

“Around May, I reconceived our little Pea. It might sound demented. But what choice did I have? How did I know there was a real Sofia somewhere, with a real womb?

“I didn’t bother starting from scratch. I worked like a painter. I laid down impressions. That resolved into contours. That became lines and that, as I refined my process, turned into points of articulation and joints. Ligatures and sinew. Films, transparencies of arteries, veins and capillaries. Like plates from an anatomical textbook. Layer over layer. I pressed flowers into her makings. Cigarette butts, seashells and dirt. And clay. And I…”

Ryu had covered his eyes with his hand, as if conjuring up the terms, the images. He wiped his eyes and resumed.

“…I… cut into the layers and folded in the flesh.

“I pumped blood out of imagined sunsets into her imaginary heart.”

Ryu stopped. Lucy’s going to come home now, I thought. Lucy’s going to walk in now.

“I’d come home late, after some bar-work I’d picked up in the CBD. Sofia would be asleep, where I’d imagined she would be, holding the bump… Then, the bulge… Then, the balloon, of her pregnancy… Then, what seemed to be a planet, like the moon, under her dress.

“She hadn’t turned inwards, as they say some women do. She’d grown in confidence. She’d become more out-going. I’d look at her, smiling in her sleep and caressing our Pea, and I’d think with horror how she thought that this was her achievement.

“At some point – in August, I think it was – all the little bits of horror I’d experienced in my life with Sofia suddenly turned to blind terror. A terrifying guilt. It was worse and more profound than my abduction.

“I opened my eyes, in the cubby-hole room, surrounded by soft toys. Sofia had entered – without seeing me there? I don’t know. But she was talking. Talking to the toys. As if I wasn’t there. And she said to them, You’re going to have a baby soon to play with. And you’re going to have to look after it.

“She was preparing them for the birth.

“I left my daughter unfinished. I couldn’t go on pretending she was going to be born.

“And if she was, I didn’t want to be responsible for bringing her into a world like this, into a life like mine.

“She was born on the seventeenth of September. If I was terrified before, I froze now, with fear.

“All night, I sat out under the real moon and watched the peasants bearing firewood from the tree that they’d chopped down to a village below the horizon. I don’t know why they were working at night.

“Their feet were bound in rags, sinking into the miserable earth as they passed before me in something like a funeral procession. They were the women and they were bent in two beneath their loads. Bundles of sticks, fardels, rose from their backs to double the height of these mule-like women. Some had walking-staves to help them support their unwieldy burdens that swayed, even on three legs, like tripods.

“I expected a corpse. I expected a monster. I expected bruises where my fingers had pressed into her flesh and molded her.

“I expected her to be still-born. And I expected nothing. Nothing at all. I’d dreamt her, after all, in a dream I’d left unfinished.

“One of the old crones almost toppled and fell to her knees. I helped her out of the mud. She didn’t thank me. But she held my hand and, when I looked at her, I saw that she was quite young.

“Our daughter came home to the apartment with us a week after she was born. We hadn’t named her. I was resistant to most of Sofia’s suggestions. And I almost allowed myself to think that Sofia’s agent should name her.

“We put her in her basinet, in the cubby-hole room, with all the stuffed animals to look after her. And we stood for a long while looking at them looking at her, wondering… wondering if she was one of them. Or one of us.”

Ryu seemed to be finished. But he wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at Lucy. We hadn’t heard her come in, which seems almost impossible. She stood laden down with about a thousand plastic bags of shopping.

But while Ryu had been talking, it had grown dark and we hadn’t bothered to do anything about it. The air was crisp in the room. I shivered. I’d let the fire go out.

Ryu got up. The moonlight entering the room gave the scene a strange motionless quality. I hadn’t seen Ryu get up but he was standing beside Lucy and helping her with her bags, before properly introducing himself.