by Esther Kinsky
M. starts a new round of chemotherapy treatment. It’s been a year now, roughly, since we first came here, in my memory the trees were still bare. Could that be possible? Seems such a very long time ago. M. gets out of the car, walks off, across this little wasteland of tree stumps and rubble left over from the recent carnage on this site, so heavy with history, so harmed. M.’s hallmark white linen bag with book, pencil, note pad. A shopping bag to hit illness over the head.
The first hot day of the year, the absence of the trees making itself felt. This glaring whiteness of the sun. Seemingly random fences for invisible building sites, no building activity in evidence, just these messy open spaces, strewn with branches, leaves, rubbish. What will stay and what will go? The pond thick with duckweed, sad sight. Among the pummeled rhododendrons a single duck. Even sadder sight than the pond. The loneliness of the duck, facing the loss of its landscape.
I take one tentative new polaroid of the pond and the wooden shed in the background, apparently not earmarked for demolition. Something stunning about this picture, like so often. Faded, hazy, soft. The effect is a combination of too much light (no more peel-offs) after ejection, perhaps, or a technical problem? Does it matter? It is like a vision. Part vision, part memory that has miraculously found its way into this cheap camera as I was pressing the release button. (This camera mysticism: giddy hope for a sudden material revelation of the actual connection between the unconscious and the picture. Concrete evidence of all the memories, visions, images, dreams, thoughts, intentions scrambling to be first, rushing, stumbling, elbowing their way into this beam of the gaze to be first to get their foot, their imprint into the actual picture. What would such evidence look like? A Herculaneum-style freeze of cerebral clutter?) So much overlapping—my memories of stories featuring this kind of wooden house or cabin which I imagined to look exactly like it does here, my memories of the sun-dappled roof and tall grass around the building, last year, when there were trees, I spent hours listening to the birds in the trees and the make-believe birds chirping from inside the chemotherapy room, whistling their tunes for the last drop in each bag on the drip. Nature vs nature. Which one of them wins? Memories of memories, layers and layers folding into this vague hazy black and white instant photograph. Illness is the price we pay for memories. Immortality as absence of memory. Living to remember. Clinging to the bygone in ignorance of what is before us. Who by fire who by water. Perhaps that’s what the myth of the high-speed reel of one’s own life in the seconds before death is all about: Memory drain in one gigantic swoosh, memory released into the universe of unremembering immortality.
Waiting for M. in front of the entrance of the oncology pavilion, in the sunshine. Listening to the sighing and moaning of the underground trains behind the fence. Opposite me, two Russian women. A blonde woman, in her forties, with a fancy hairdo, reminiscent of photographs of Soviet nurseries or primary schools, little girls in aprons, with hairdos which become an ache in the scalp of the beholder. Her straight thin blond hair combed back into a tight tiny ponytail sitting on the top of her head, bangs down to her eyebrows, very stiff, angular, tight. I want this childish stunted ponytail to bounce when she looks up but it doesn’t. A frozen extension. A quote to remind her of her childhood. Her personalized quotation mark. She’s wearing a T-shirt with glitter, tight jeans, high-heeled boots, all very silver-studded and expensive-looking. Busy with her phone, clicking, typing, stroking, long red fingernails. The other woman much younger, darker, a very soft round face, beautiful brown hair, makes me think of the painful line in Uncle Vanya. Leather jacket and studded jeans, high-heeled boots, heels clacking on the paving stones as she walks back and forth into the building and out. I have to wait, she says, disappears into the building, comes out again, fingers her phone, rummages in her handbag, black, with gold trimmings, also expensive-looking, walks back inside, comes out after a while with a packet of medication. I’ve got some tablets for leukemia, she says to her friend, who looks up briefly, or perhaps not leukemia, continues the girl, I don’t know, or something like leukemia. She bags the medicine, sits down, looks around, so lost, so clueless, she looks like a village girl one hundred years ago, a perplexed extra in a science fiction costume drama, staged al fresco. The ponytail woman returns to the screen of her phone. An older woman comes out, chats to them engagingly in Russian, explaining, detailing something, apparently an interpreter. We have to wait, she says, motherly, we’ll be called back in, first you (to the blonde), then you, holding her hand out to the village girl with the leukemia tablets, touching the girl’s pale forearm, very tenderly. The interpreter is maybe in her fifties. Looks a bit down at heel. Baggy three-quarter-length coat in a very striking red, like faded cherry, I suddenly remember a summer anorak in this color, a wave of childhood memories associated with the anorak sweeps over me (smell of rain by the river, nettles, and the barges, how could I ever ever forget this anorak?), receding abruptly at the sight of the interpreter’s hideous battered purple leather handbag. I imagine the smell of cheap perfume. The rustling of paper, old shopping lists, stale biscuit crumbs.
The two women get up, shove their phones into their glitzy handbags, and take the interpreter’s arm on either side. Two sick children with Auntie Good. The woman in the middle is much smaller than the other two. They stoop to talk to her. Both of them talk at the same time, rapidly. They walk off towards this battlefield of a former park. I watch them, walking towards the pond, across the patch strewn with branches, stumps of tree trunks protruding here and there. Three women, arms linked, walking away from this place and time as they talk, two stooping, the one in the middle holding their arms firmly, in this white hazy sunshine which is beginning to sting. There seems to be a hum of approaching rain in the air. In this light, everything suddenly looks black and white. Or grey, many different greys, black, and white. The women don’t let go of each other. They circle the pond, stop, bend down. Have they encountered the solitary duck? They stand by the pond, their backs turned towards me, the oncology pavilion, the city behind the underground station. They look, from this distance, as if they had stopped talking. Their backs don’t move. Perhaps they are crying. Perhaps the interpreter is crying for them. A faded postcard from Uncle Anton with this very pale cherry red in the middle.