Fever of Animals

Miles Allinson


Or maybe, after all, it should begin on the plane, mid-air above those squares of damp green pasture as we moved away from London. That was more than five years ago now. It was there, as the first round of drinks was being served at last, that I read of the death of Udach’ Kuqax*a’a’ch’ in one of the many newspapers I had carried aboard in order to distract myself from other thoughts. During the final years of her life, so I discovered, the only conversations Udach’ Kuqax*a’a’ch’ was able to conduct in her own language took place in her dreams. She was the last living speaker of Eyak, an indigenous Alaskan language that had ceased to exist with her death, some six months earlier. In Eyak, her name had meant ‘a sound that calls people from afar’, although in English she was better known as Marie Smith Jones. There was a word in Eyak, apparently, Xuqu’liilx’aax’ch’kk’sh, which once meant ‘Are you going to keep tickling me in the face in the same spot repeatedly?’ Now it doesn’t mean anything, I thought, and even if someone heard it spoken in a dream, they wouldn’t understand.

At the time, I was sitting beside a Swiss architect to my left, whose name I can’t remember, and to my right, closest to the window, a Brazilian woman called something like Uta, who, because of her cold, was wearing over her mouth one of those paper masks that became popular in Asia during the SARS epidemic, and years later, in Mexico, during the early weeks of swine flu. Above this, Uta had also attached a sleeping-mask so that her faceless head seemed to hang beside the window and startled me whenever I tried, in my sleeplessness during the innumerable hours that followed, to catch sight of Africa or Portugal floating in the sea far below.

Years later, I would return to Europe beside two other strangers — but not to what I was leaving behind, not to anything I would have been able to recognise then as my life. To be honest, the many times I have left somewhere by plane have become confused in my memory. The different moments of exaltation or grief or fatigue all intermingle now, just as the first smell of spring brings back all the other springs to overwhelm me. I remember leaving somewhere in China, for instance, and it seems appropriate, although I know this happened years later. It was the Chinese New Year. The fireworks had just begun. Beneath us the wide, darkened city was silently throwing up tiny fistfuls of light. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye, they seemed to be saying.

I suppose I should be careful then. Which mixture of emotion am I thinking of when I think of that journey home from London? Which fear or despair belongs to that moment, and which is a subsequent version, or just a story I have told myself? Which particular feeling of loss, I wonder, should I ascribe to those foodcourts at Heathrow, to those giant ornamental goldfish circling in their dreary pond at Changi? I see myself walking away from Alice through the long airport corridors, but Alice never came to the airport. She wished, she said, that she had never met me. I see her turn away from the terminal and walk out into the London rain, but it was not raining. And as I sit here in K., now, this gloomy little German town, in this tiny, frosted room, writing these words, it is always Alice who appears first in my mind, even though I remember thinking that nothing would ever supplant that strange reality, which was calling me home to Melbourne to see my father, who had suddenly begun to die.

I often recall that plane trip home. It comes at me out of the blue some days. I was twenty-seven years old, and I was no longer an artist, although I could not recall ever wanting to be anything else. I remember the smooth edge of the runway where a field of pale-green weeds suddenly fell away into the distance below us. I remember the feeling of dull vertigo, and I remember a wave of clear grief as the plane finally left the ground. It’s rare, I suppose, that our lives are given such definition, are marked out as clearly as that, so that the part which is over tilts away, and another part — the future, for instance — begins. And because of that plane ride, because of what it’s somehow come to represent, I think as I write this of a film I saw in an exhibition, not long after I got back to Melbourne. I had arranged to meet someone who was running late, and so I went into the gallery alone, fully prepared in the gloom to be disappointed, as I generally am by video art. The place was empty, and the muffled sound of competing soundtracks came from various sets of headphones as I walked amongst an array of small televisions and through the blue glare of various data-projections to a seat at random somewhere near the back of the room.

I sat down and watched something finish — something about water dripping into a bucket — and then a sort of documentary began, faded Super-8 footage of cyclists navigating the twisted streets of an otherwise empty-seeming city, in the 1970s, I think, while dogs wandered by, and ominous, unfashionable police or soldiers smoked cigarettes behind barbed-wire fences. This had once been Gorizia, I learnt, a city divided in accordance with the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947. On one side of the fence, the old city remained part of Italy, with its ancient castle high up on the hill, while the new city on the other side, Nova Gorica, was conceived and rebuilt over the following years in accordance with modern socialist ideals as a city of the future, a city without a need for history.

For sixty years, even after the collapse of Yugoslavia, when Nova Gorica became a part of the newly established state of Slovenia, the two cities faced one another across a dividing line patrolled by those officious border police. In 2007, when the dividing wall finally came down, a video artist called Anja Medved set up what she called a ‘smugglers confessionary’ in a decommissioned customs hut — a private booth sealed with a red-velvet curtain in which residents could recount in private, before a running camera, a story from their own experience of that strangely divided city, from that incomprehensible gap between two adjacent realities. One old man told of the way the border separated him from his father, who worked on the Italian side. As a small boy, he would visit the border with his mother and wave to his father across the dividing zone. Once, for his birthday, this old man recalled, his father wrapped something in a bundle and attempted to throw it across the stretch of no-man’s-land that separated them. Unfortunately, it fell short. I almost fainted, the man said, I so very much wanted to pick up that parcel. The Yugoslav border guard observed them with suspicion, but the boy and his mother were too frightened to say anything. Then the guard went and picked up the package. He was probably taking a risk — it was probably against regulations to do such a thing — but, perhaps taking pity on them, the guard carried the parcel over and handed it to the boy. I unwrapped it, the man recalled. My father had given me a harmonica.

At Charles de Gaulle there are rabbits that scatter in the green gullies between the tarmac, but I remember in particular the green weeds moving in the shimmery air at Heathrow. And I remember sometime after that, in the cool, artificial gloom, the way the cabin was lit at intervals by the burning shape of a window, by a blast of sooty radiance whenever someone woke and lifted their plastic shade to peer outside. Below us in the sun, the black sea sparkled like a desert of salt. An old English woman in one of the middle aisles slept with her eyes open as if she might have been dead already, and the man behind us snored peacefully as we passed above places we would never visit — mountain communities locked deep in the oblivion of those valleys, a scattering of buildings shimmering like fragments of crushed shell. It was late afternoon wherever we were, and there was snow on the peaks and a hard light that divided up the rippling land into crevices of darkness. Only a few hours later, inconceivably, it had become the middle of the night. Beside me, Uta, who had lifted her eye mask, was watching a sitcom with the American actor Tim Allen, and I could hear the mutter of tiny voices and the distant sound of canned laughter coming from her headphones as we moved through a period of sky in which a full moon illuminated an unbroken field of endlessly repeated rose-shaped clouds. Manado. Kupang. Ambon. Kungim. What were these strange names hanging ambiguously above the televised map on the back of the seat in front of me? In my delirium for a second, it seemed as if my own language had been forgotten.

Fever of Animals Miles Allinson