Sometimes when I'm me

Dear Mum, Ariel is called Ariel because it is an aerial, I found out today. You know, that bookshop on Oxford Street? It picks up signals being broadcast down to earth from outer space by the multinational media conglomerates. That's why the people in there always look like they do. That's why they always wear dark clothes or those little round glasses, the dark clothes help to deflect the glare and the glasses help them to concentrate.

The Ariel people see special messages in the books that the rest of us don't see, messages that tell them how to be more beautiful and get better jobs and make more money and get ahead in life. I looked in the books but I couldn't see it. There certainly wasn't anything in there about Uni, especially Eng. Lit.

I'm trying to make a map of Sydney, showing where the signal is loud and where it's soft. I'd like to make maps of the air and sea lanes, all funnelling in over Leichhardt to make it hard for the Italians to hear themselves think. But the air and sea lanes are controlled by the multinational corporations: you can see the black helicopters patrolling them, or at night, special planes built using alien technology from Roswell. So I'm relying on my own two feet and counting the paces between significant historical monuments.

I practiced my paces around Hyde Park, because statues are particularly important for focussing the beams. From the Archibald Fountain to the statue of Captain Cook, discoverer of Australia, is three hundred and seventy two paces on Wednesday, and four hundred and twelve on Thursday, depending on the Park Street lights. From Captain Cook to the War Memorial is fifty seven or seventy one. Then I usually sit next to the Pool of Peace for a while and feed the pigeons.

I was doing this on Thursday when the man next to me said: "Flying rats." He explained how he is a bird scientist working at the Australian Museum. He said that years and years ago he used to see Willy Wagtails and other Australian native birds in Hyde Park, but since the pigeons and Indian mynahs and others took over, the native birds are having a harder and harder time.

I pointed at a currawong and a flock of rainbow lorikeets. He said that the more aggressive native birds were adapting well, also at the expense of some of the others. He said that birds that liked open space and could defend their territory were moving in and taking over from birds that needed the cover of bush. I thanked him and said that this explained a lot.

I explained about my map of Sydney and how, once I'd established where the signals were loudest, I could move around in a clandestine way. He was interested. He told me that mapping was very important in bird science too. He said that as trees were being stripped away, birds got isolated in bush pockets without any way of moving around safely. He said that people thought the birds would be okay in a national park but then if anything happened to the national park, like a bushfire or something, the birds couldn't get away.

He wished me luck. We shook hands on it and he said he had to go back to the museum to do some more bird science. He told me he had a stuffed passenger pigeon sitting on his desk to watch him while he worked. He said there used to be millions of passenger pigeons but they were good to eat and pretty soon they were all extinct. I told him I'd bear it in mind, and moved on.

Across College Street to Stanley Street, down past Grammar and all the expensive cafes full of Ariel people to Crown Street. Up Crown Street past the Department of Social Security to the newly posh pub on the corner of Liverpool Street. Up Liverpool to Bourke, crossing at the lights in the shadow of that asylum place, Caritas. One time I saw a man walking around here stark naked, completely un-self-conscious. He walked through the Forbes Street gate and back into Caritas. From Bourke and Liverpool up to the lights at Taylor Square. There were a small group of people sitting on Gilligan's Island, drinking out of brown paper bags and playing the didgeridoo.

I try to stay around the inner East these days. The inner West makes me sad. There are men with binoculars on top of the TNT towers in Redfern, watching. You know how it is when you're being watched all the time. You know having your picture taken strips away pieces of your soul? Well, if you don't believe it, look at Madonna, or Princess Diana for that matter.

A beam of light coming out of an eye sends a signal. Television aerials, mobile phones, security cameras, helicopters, satellites, the ozone hole, thoughts of love, scalpels, billboards and books are all criss-crossing invisibly in the air. These signals can microwave the meat that you are made of. Mum, be careful. You are only safe in the shade of trees, or underground.

I have to get all of this down. I am trying to write everything down while I still can. I have sorted out all my notes from Uni. I have one notebook left and in it I have written down all my dreams, the numbers of paces between significant statues, the names of the birds that have gone away from Hyde Park and the names of people I loved that have died. What with all these invisible broadcasts flying through the air, how can I trust myself to remember?

I have kept all the newspapers that have arrived since you went into hospital and I have opened and filed all the mail. I have written down all the messages people have left on the answering machine. I have sorted all the junk mail into alphabetical order. It's all in this folder I'm bringing to you. I carry my passport and my birth certificate with me at all times. I know who I am.

I caught the bus from Taylor Square to come and see you. One of the passengers, a woman, was crying. I was jealous. Women when they cry flush out the static left by the outer space broadcasts. They wash it all away and forget how to try to be beautiful and rich. Their tears are collected in the big Gothic reservoir under Centennial Park and channelled down to a deep underground sea. Men can't cry like that. When we are circumcised they stop up our tear ducts as well, so we can't feel and we can't weep. I can't, anyway. Even my hands are numb.

The more I think about it the more I have to wonder whether you made a mistake. I think when you first brought me home from hospital you must have left a part of me behind. I think I must have had a baby twin brother who died and was buried in the grounds of the old Women's Hospital. Do you remember that ceremony that was reported in all the papers, where the women got to plant trees for their dead babies? Are you quite sure you shouldn't have been there? I think the people in Ariel have some kind of filter mechanism that makes them better able to cope. I think I'm missing something important here.

I don't like this new hospital they've put you in. It smells new. You have to walk miles to get to the door. All around it the grounds are still like a construction site, but inside I could hear babies crying. It's not nice to be born in a place without any past. It's not nice to feel that even though you were born in a place, you don't belong there.

That's why I felt uncomfortable visiting you. I asked whether you could see the horses from your window, at the Randwick racetrack. You said you didn't know because you hadn't been able to stand up yet. You asked whether I'd got my exam results back yet and I asked whether you thought there was going to be a lot of work for English professors in the new millennium. I asked what they had done with your womb and you said they'd probably cremated it. That made me angry. Didn't you realise? Smoke is another kind of signal.

I told you about the horse virus which doctors thought they'd found in the brains of mad people. You said you hoped I'd be feeling better soon. You asked if I was taking my medication. I explained that when I did take it, I couldn't remember things, and that remembering things is my job. If I didn't do it, who would remember the names of sonnet forms, or passenger pigeons, or my dead baby twin brother? You started to cry and that's when I got really angry. Why can't you wash my brain instead of yours? How can they call it the Pool of Peace when it's not? Him the Discoverer when there were already people here? I think I must have started shouting.

The nurses came and asked me to leave and I slammed the door behind me. I was very angry with you. I don't understand why you left me out in the open like this, where anyone can look at me with binoculars or direct outer space broadcasts into my brain. I stuck my fingers in my ears and ran down the corridors shouting, so I couldn't hear anything but my own voice getting hoarse.

When I got to the bus stop I pulled out my map. It was starting to take shape and I suddenly realised what it looked like: shock waves, radiating out from a central point. There was only one thing for it. I had to stop running away. I had to turn around and go back to ground zero. I caught the next bus and headed back up to Taylor Square.

A map is a story. Maps can be empty or full, and an empty map can mean you don't exist, even when you do. But under every map there is an older map. There is always the story of what happened before your story began. What I had located was the philosopher's stone of map and song. With it I could open the world.

I ran into the grounds of the old Women's Hospital and started to dig. I didn't have anything to dig with, not even a knife, so I had to use my hands. The peaty earth smelled sweet and crumbled between my fingers. Under it there was a wet red clay, like flesh. Sydney is a huge mother and we skip around on top of her like fleas. As I dug I tore my hands and stained the clay with my own blood, but I knew that the further down I got, the better the shelter from the satellites and their fine silver rain.

When I woke up I was underwater. My hands were bandaged with white bandages like giant cotton buds. The nurses swam around me, smiling serenely. When they opened their mouths bubbles came out and I couldn't understand a word. I gave them my best smile. I knew I had made it through to the underground sea which women have cried away over the years.

I have dictated this letter to the bag of sea water dripping into my arm. The needle works like an aerial. Signals can be used for good as well as evil. Mum, if you can hear this and if you're still up there on the surface, take the plunge. Things are all right down here. I feel happy and safe.

Monday, 24 November 1997.
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