It’s not something they always do, not as if they can’t get anywhere without watching it. Months might pass without any mention of the tape. But then it will appear again. It’s seasonal, like the weights set or the pantry moths. The pattern and duration of these seasons typically determined by Aland, with the latest being particularly lengthy. The Seven Month Winter of the Tape. He hauled the VCR out of the cupboard while the boys were away over Easter, and it still hasn’t gone back. School camps, football camps, sleepovers, grandparent-visits – whenever Josh and Avery are out of the house overnight, Johanna can sense the tape lying in wait. Just the sight of the boys’ overnight kit waiting in the hallway conjures a strange cocktail of dread and sexual guilt.
Across the hall, she can hear Aland dragging furniture around in the bedroom, setting up. Deck chairs on the Titanic, she thinks, bracing herself for the timid knock against her study door.
When she goes in, he’s already sitting at the end of the bed, shuffling off his jeans. Two glasses of scotch wait dumbly on the bedside tables. She drops down next to her husband, pulling blouse over head as the VCR swallows the tape. There is the machine shudder, the awful grinding noise, and there she is. Ta-da. Cheekbones like a straight-edge razor and a degree in cultural studies that will not arm her for the world in the way she hopes.
On tape, she is twenty-three and he is just about to turn twenty-six. She has shocking tan lines from a week on Great Keppel Island, the outline of her bikini bottoms as stark and sharp as if marked out by painters’ tape. He has them too, encircling his thighs and hips, but they don’t look as ridiculous against his darker skin, and in any case she has the lion’s share of screen time. Alone at first, bending over that ostentatious desk he used to work from. Then he’s there, or at least his hands are, spreading her legs wider for the camera, toying with the zoom. All of this happens silently. The camera was new, a wedding gift sent from his uncle in Soweto. Aland couldn’t get the sound to work. She can’t remember what they might have said to each other in those first few years.
Sometimes she imagines her own soundtrack:
How’s that? You like that?
She is really much better at smuggling post-structuralism into property listings.
Johanna wonders if she should feel flattered. There is something almost faithful about it, the way he returns to this snowy anachronism when the internet is a glut of high-definition eighteen year olds with vaginas like baci di dama, rose macarons.
The original Beta tape had been labelled ‘Home maintenance tips’, to pre-emptively bore potential browsers, but also as a nod to the use of electrical tape. God alone knows where that copy is now. The VHS recording is labelled ‘Post-structuralism for beginners’, in the hope that if their sons ever find its hiding place (camouflaged with some old textbooks in a box at the top of the wardrobe) while in search of Christmas presents or cigarettes, they won’t be remotely tempted to watch. Would they even recognise these mute amateurs as their mother and father? They would, yes. Behind the unsettling boxcar moustache, beneath the boho-rococo hair and make-up, she and Aland are clearly, indefensibly themselves.
Despite the care at concealment, she knows the boys will likely find and watch the tape anyway, just as she had found and watched her own parents’ pornography. This was the natural order of things. Although the videos she and her sister discovered had mercifully featured actors, who were beautiful and experienced and more importantly, were not their parents. That was in the 80s, before hate-sex was invented, when porn stars still had pubic hair and even double penetration was affectionate.
She worries for her boys, growing up with the internet, the unreasonable promises it makes. The axing of plotlines, however – the disappearance of cruise ships and card games and pool-cleaners – she envies them that much.
Aland finishes before the tape does, and they lie there together, Johanna tracing pragmatic circles to bring herself unceremoniously across the line while the last several minutes of footage grind along. The racier parts have been rewound so many times that her orgasm happens in a soundless blizzard.
We should really get this digitised, Aland says. Before it gets any worse.
Sure. We’ll just drop it off at the lab where Michelle’s son works.
Hah, he says. The sound of a laugh but it isn’t, really. Over the past few years it’s as if he’s been slowly smuggling himself away from her and into his work. The harder she looks at him the less she recognises. She imagines him leaving the house each morning with pieces of himself hidden in his shoes, his coat lining, folded up small between the pages of his lecture notes and macroeconomics textbooks. Quietly liberating his humour, his intuition, his capacity for real discussion. She wonders where he’s hoarding it all. At faculty functions she’s watched the undergraduates, sooty eyes and lamé tights, turning their delicate wrists towards her husband. When had macroeconomics students become so desirable, so female? She listens to them soft-soaping Aland with questions about Bitcoin mining and the cost of Peugeots in Cuba, trying to detect whether there’s some kind of cute sexual undercurrent to it all.
She’d been around that age, an undergraduate when they met. But politically oblivious, dumb as carpet. Someone else – some marketing reptile – was trying to get her hammered on Compound Fractures at The Union. But it was Aland she stalked around the bar, backed by the volatile concoction of brandy and champagne, an idiot for his accent.
Effrica? Come on, tell me something else about Effrica, till he banged down his pint and said he’d had quite enough of that. She could either kiss him or kiss off.
What’s your name then? Johanna? Hah. The town where I was born …
Who remembers what else was said, and it’s likely better not – what did she even know about South Africa, at that age? Save Fraser handing Mandela a Bradman-signed cricket bat. And a boy at high school who’d informed her that, Back There, if someone hurts an animal or a woman, they place a tyre around his neck. And then they burn the tyre.
She hadn’t even known enough to ask who ‘they’ were.
Aland had been, all considered, very patient with her.
Just lucky you’re beautiful, he’d say, when she’d said or done something dim. Though not in recent memory.
Johanna rolls off the bed, trapping the thought like a spider under an upturned glass. Leaving it there to deal with later, when she’s built up enough nerve to either stomp on the thing or release it, depending on how dangerous she decides it might be.
She wraps the topsheet around herself and goes back to her desk to read over a draft for a property listing:
If we tear down a haunted building, are its ghosts dispatched with it? And if so, at what point during renovations might we encounter the divergence of the two, of these concrete and spectral histories? This former deviation heterotopia exemplifies a harmonious conversion from the institutional to the domestic; a wholly inhabitable space which remains architecturally sympathetic to the original structure and its prominence in Australian cultural mythology.
It had been suggested Johanna play down the whole former-prison thing, and she’d obliged, despite realising years ago that the sub-editors at The Leader never actually read her real estate features. That probably no-one read them. The listings have become her own feeble joke with herself, a way of keeping her hand in. As long as she sticks to word count and conjures a woeful pun in reference to the street name, she has free artistic license to poach liberally from De Certeau and Foucault, to weave in knowledge she no longer has any practical use for. (Secretly, she hopes that somewhere out there, in a cultural backwater not so very far away, some retired semiotics professor is getting a kick out of them.)
Johanna saves the article as Your Big Break? and shuts her laptop.
Then she opens it again. What does she even mean by wholly inhabitable?
In the morning she wakes cotton-mouthed, wet light sluicing through the blinds. Aland hours gone. Down the length of her body, past the rumpled lenticular of the bedlinen, there’s the blank grey face of the television, VCR beneath it, tape poking out like a tongue.
Does she hate the tape? She hates the tape. She sometimes fantasises about the tape’s destruction, at her own hands or at the hands of fate. Watching it seems a grim suburban cousin to the ouroboric punishments dealt out in Greek mythology. There are accidents she might orchestrate, catastrophes that could conceivably befall the tape. It could simply go missing; Aland might presume it was the boys and be too embarrassed to ask them. The content could be buried irretrievably beneath layers of Winter Olympic curling highlights and sub-Saharan carnivore documentaries. Or she could just forget the subterfuge and gut the thing, crack it open and unravel its innards. Wind the slick black ribbons around the bedposts and wait for him to say something. She has even considered a new tape, them as they are now, but is haunted off such a plaintive attempt at lust-revival by a scene in a novel read two decades ago – Edith(?) covered top to toe in red greasepaint, lying naked on the lounge-room floor and imploring the protagonist: Let’s pretend we’re other people. It does not go very well, or sexily. After being rebuffed, Edith(?) curls up in the bottom of an elevator shaft and is crushed to death.
Johanna shuts the blinds and feeds the tape to the VCR. More and more, she finds she is not looking at the parts she’s supposed to be looking at. Is instead searching the minutiae of the room – the grain of the desk and the pattern in the wallpaper, the smudges around the light switch – for clues as to what the rest of their life looks like. Their younger life. There is the door, but she can’t recall much about the hallway beyond it. Was this the house with the outdoor laundry, the blighted lemon tree? The eccentric landlord who would turn up unannounced in the backyard with a bucket and a lemon-reaching device he’d fashioned himself from a broomstick and an empty coke can? Yes. And a kitchen that smelled of over-ripe oranges, for no reason they could ever determine.
She rewinds the tape and watches again, nearly the whole way through, trying to see beyond what the camera has recorded, what is imprinted there in the layers of emulsion. But even the things that have been captured in-frame are unreliable. Her body is not that body. The house has probably been torn down. On tape, Aland still has the tiny asterisk of a scar on his cheek, from a copper’s signet ring. But the scar has long since faded, absorbed by the body. Even the camera is gone, stolen during a roadtrip, and the film is deteriorating with each view. Remanence decay: a process in which the magnetic particles gradually lose their charge, resulting in colours shifting towards weaker hues.
Through the decaying film she glimpses a sliver of the decaying garden, decaying even at the time of filming. Benign neglect. It has been one of Aland’s few stipulations: there must always be a backyard. No matter how small or shabby or overgrown; no matter how seldom he’ll go out into it to get his hands dirty or fail at vegetables. Corollary of his childhood. The Great Indoors – his mother’s term for the period of years (six? seven?) she’d had to keep Aland inside, hidden from authorities and conservative snoops, his very existence a violation of South Africa’s Immorality Amendment Act. As it was, she’d been spat on more than once, assaulted in the street by women and men both. She now enjoyed scandalising docile Australians with stories of routine panty raids on those suspected of interracial love, police storming the house and shaking out the bedsheets. Tipping out the wash-basket to scrutinise underwear for signs of unlawful union.
People told me I should abort, Aland’s mother told Johanna. And when I refused they said I should lie, cry rape. Poor little white Norna! But that wouldn’t have helped anyone’s cause, neither in the short nor long term. We figured better to lay low for a while. You could feel the wind turning, by then. Or we had to believe we did.
Like one long rainy day, those years, Norna and her sister trying to make a game of it, inventing distractions that didn’t bore everyone senseless – Do you remember Magic Linen Press? – while friends were arrested for civil disobedience, high treason, disappeared into exile or simply disappeared. Aland had been allowed into the garden, when deemed safe. A grassy cubby amid watchful strelitzia at the end of the yard represented the brink of his child-world.
When recalling his childhood for their sons, Aland baffled it in a near magical allure, as though his cloistered upbringing was a nefarious enchantment, the consequence of some foul sorcery. The more complex version, he insisted, could wait.
Something crashes outside, in the garden. In the off-screen, present-day, presently decaying garden. Johanna pauses the tape, and listens.
… the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world … Foucault, trailing her out through the back door, like a sat-nav she can’t turn off.
There is a shudder in the Photinia hedge, where it separates their block from the back neighbours, and Johanna crosses the lawn to meet it. She trails her hand along the hedge, the young red leaves sun-warmed and tender, slightly clammy under her palm, like the hide of a living animal. She parts the leaves and peers through the cool shadowy network of branches.
A man in gardener’s greens, his old face shaded by slouch hat, hacking at the branches on the other side with diligent whacks of a machete, his own hands gnarled as tree matter.
This is how Aland’s father would sometimes visit him. Appearing in broad daylight, in the dusty blue cottons of a groundsman, during The Great Indoors. (Although Norna maintains that this is simply not possible: she was watching the whole time. She did recall a phase, however, when he thought all black men were Sifiso.)
But Aland described the meetings in such vivid and consistent detail – the deep burnished hurng hurgh hurgh of his father’s laugh, his genius for bird and animal mimicry, the tiny stick-and-poke tattoo of a date (Aland’s birthday?) on the inside of his right wrist – that Johanna was compelled to believe him. Sometimes even Norna looked swayed.
It wasn’t your birthday, that tattoo, she once interrupted cagily. It was the first day of the Soweto uprising. You must’ve heard Aunt Flossie and I talking about it.
This is the reason, Johanna suspects, for there always being a backyard: so that Aland’s father, apparition or no, might have favourable conditions in which to reappear.
And now here he is, after all, come to wreak havoc on the Photinia.
Excuse me? She asks through the hedge.
The man pauses work to raise his head, face appearing under the brim of his slouch hat. Not Sifiso. Of course, not Sifiso. Barely older than Johanna, and white – if a very weathered white, the hands extending from his shirt cuffs worked even darker, older.
Hello – yeah?
Why are you whacking up our Photinia?
That how you call it? Owners are selling. Reckon a fence will sell better than a hedge. I s’pose. People are fond of their fences.
But it’s on our side too. Or half of it is. It’s a common hedge.
Same owners, but. Whole-hedge prerogative.
Oh. Johanna hadn’t known this. In fact, she’s never met the owners, only the estate agent, or a rolling cast of them, snipping through the house for half-yearly inspections.
Could you not just … trim it back on that side and put the fence in front of it?
It’d just grow back and wreck the fence. The roots, you see …
Sorry, love. You still got some running up the sides there.
Not his fault, Johanna thinks, stalking back to the house. She scrapes a white plastic chair onto the paving stones and watches a shaggy window appear in the hedge. The window becomes a doorway, the gardener steps into it, notices Johanna sitting there, gives a self-conscious little bow, rolls up his sleeves and returns to work.
Johanna, not wanting to unsettle him with her attention, goes inside for a book and a mug of tea, returns to the chair, affects to be taking the afternoon sun, which has grown toothy, vengeful in the wake of the morning’s storm, searing the wet off the grass in green bright steam.
She watches the gardener from the periphery of an Icelandic thriller. Over the course of the afternoon the hedge becomes less a solid wall than a recalcitrant old stage curtain being roughly thrust aside.
At one point she calls out to offer a cold drink, but he raises a thermos as if in toast. She raises her peppermint tea in reply. The crinkling around his eyes, the work-roughened hands, the fur on his ams. Imagines his chest and belly, similarly furred – not a thing she’s ever thought of as being her thing, but perhaps she could. Very DH Lawrence. But after the apparition of Aland’s father it would feel warped, unseemly. Freud would say …
Well, fuck Freud to Whitsunday.
The rain returns. The gardener gives the sky a glance hidden by hat brim, and returns to clawing up the Photina’s root system.
Johanna, subterfuge ruined, leaves the book on the arm of the chair and goes inside. Two texts on her phone from Aland, in reverse order:
I’ll take that as a No then.
And the first, an hour earlier, letting her know that he and the boys were having dinner with his mother. Want to join?
Sorry, she texts back, Headache. She’s considered leaving Aland only once before, children not-yet-pictured. Storming out of an argument and driving as far as Mount Baw Baw. Arriving in the St Gwinear car park after sunset and sleeping all night in the drivers’ seat with her coat pulled up to her chin. It might have happened last century, it feels that long ago. In the morning, there it all was: mountains stereoscopic against polaroid sky, things people travelled great distances to be humbled by. The ski season hadn’t started yet and she was alone there. She’d rummaged through the glove compartment and discovered a chocolate bar and half a pack of Extra Milds that her friend Silv had stashed and forgotten about. Johanna leaned against the car’s bonnet, alternating mouthfuls of smoke and chocolate as she watched the mist lift. It tasted like being seventeen. God, it was beautiful. Your whole life could be like this. Arriving always in the dark and waking up to something extraordinary. But she knew it couldn’t. She warmed the car and aimed it back towards Melbourne. All the lives she wasn’t living lined up uselessly: tacky snow globes from places she had never been, places where it doesn’t even snow.
In their bedroom the tape has started playing again, to nobody. Again, the soundless scream, the confectioners’ red and pink and of her mouth and sex. Unnerving. Johanna wrenches the tape out of the VCR, hoping the ribbon might catch and unravel, but of course it doesn’t.
One more hour until Aland brings the boys back from his mother’s. One more hour until they bound into the house, crashing from great sugary heights. Delivering covert kicks to each others’ shins and staging vengeful stuffed-animal executions in protest of the sudden dearth of chocolate biscuits and unlimited television.
Outside, the hedge is no longer. In its place, a muddy trench, the remnants of Photinia swept into a tall brushpile halfway up the neighbouring yard.
The gardener is kneeling on the grass, wiping his tools clean with a rag, packing them away. No suggestion of a fence, not an upright post in sight.
What about privacy? Johanna asks. Furious.
He looks up at her from under his sodden hat. Long scratches raking his forearms, where the hedge has fought back.
I’ll be back with the fence things tomorrow, he says, consolatory. But you don’t need to worry – there’s no-one living there now. It’s all just set up for the auction.
Haven’t seen one of those for a while, he says, a chuck of his chin: she’s still holding the tape.
Old art project, she says. Very pretentious.
Beauty over bread, hey? Still, nice if you can have both.
Yes, she says, warily, unsure whether he’s implying that she does.
Well, tomorrow, he nods. He gathers his things and strides up the lawn, a darkening green wave upon which the house floats lit up like an ocean liner, the windows blazing yellow light.
She never paid much attention to it while the Photinia was up, had little curiosity about the people who last lived there: childless, dogless, not inclined to parties. Though they sometimes ate meals al fresco and listened to what sounded like Brubeck.
Eventide. Gloaming. Lustrous, lost words. Johanna stalks towards the blazing windows, the house all the more adrift, and the wet of the grass soaking her cotton shoes. She leaves them neatly by the back door. Unlocked, unalarmed, nothing to keep her from the smooth cool of the slate floor underfoot, the museum echo. A house that is made to be moved through, calling her upstairs like a sleepy lover, but she doesn’t. Bowl of hollow glass fruit on the table, the kitchen cupboards empty, the refrigerator lighting up on nothing, save somebody’s half-finished bottle of coconut water. Johanna sets the tape down on the black granite bench-top, turning the dimmer switch down to dark. She looks back across the churned strip of earth to the meek light of her own home. The sliding door is still partly open. An echo of being six or seven, writing a goodbye note to her parents and packing a small bag for credibility’s sake – becos you dont care about me anymore – then hiding under the bed in the spare room, where she could monitor her mother and father’s rising panic. How loudly her own heart pounded, pressed against the carpet.
They arrive home in heavy silver deluge. From the empty house, Johanna watches this diorama of her family, sons fighting their way out of raincoats and calling for her, she believes, though she can’t hear them.
Only a frail guilt. Blown glass.
The back porch light comes on in the house down the hill. Aland picks up the rainsoaked novel she’d been not-reading. Looking up, he must notice the hedge, or the lack of it. His face is tilted towards the house, though it’s obvious he can’t see her, couldn’t possibly see her, there in the dark.
She watches his mouth open silently around her name.
If you enjoyed this story, buy the issue