HSC 2020 Advanced Mod C Imaginative: Words, ideas

Some things are unknowable. A person’s secrets may be revealed by the things they leave behind, but what are they, those supposedly uncovered secrets? They are words, ideas… Dry and dead as dust.


At that point she always woke up. A wide patch of wet cold sweat on her chest and the sound, or perhaps more precisely, the feeling, of his words dry and dead as dust in her head. At that point she would strip off her shirt, pummel some heat back into her chest with it, and lie quietly in the 3am darkness beside her husband, thinking about the man who had tortured her forty years before.

At that point she would count again, subtracting years and multiplying hours, and realize that she had spent more time in her life thinking about the Captain than she had about her husband.

The things she thought about included:

  • that he had had an accent from the mountains
  • that he would be in his eighties now and was likely dead
  • that he had smelled of mate and camel cigarettes
  • that his gold incisor had chipped one of her own front teeth and the only time she had cried about it was when the dentist badgered her to get it fixed
  • that her children were strangers to her in ways that the Captain would never been, and perhaps never had been even before they met
  • that the Captain’s theory of the Economy of Secrets was the closest thing to a belief that she had
  • that life was really a substrate of incredible, violent events in which you are trapped forever, overlaid by a passing montage of filmy days, children, husbands, houses, diseases, time.

She had once been watching a television programme about Isaac Newton with her daughter, when the presenter suggested that Newtown had been gay, though probably celibate. ‘Who cares?’ her daughter said. ‘I know it was a different day and age, but why keep it a secret, especially if you’re celibate? Secrets are just words. Ordinary facts which you allow to have power over you.’

Sitting beside her on the sofa, her crochet in her lap, she had felt a jolt, as you feel in the car when someone runs solidly into the side of you and the door stoves in, but just holds. Her gut turned to water and the light in the room seemed to change. Her legs wobbled and she slithered to the floor. At the hospital she explained to the doctor that she had been a victim of torture. It had been a sudden flashback. No, she had not told her children. Yes, her husband knew. No, she did not want him to explain to them. It was a secret.

Her daughter had been at pains to tell her mother that she wasn’t gay.

She lay in the cool darkness of Sydney, many thousands of miles and years away, and listened to the planes taking off and thought of the Captain. She wondered how her daughter could so easily have arrived at the same perspective about secrets. Was her daughter a potential torturer? Or the Captain someone’s child, who had sat on a sofa with his mother watching television programmes? Was she herself always turning corners and realizing again and again that there was no way out of that room, and that this thing about dead secrets was what the world most uniquely, painfully, wanted her to know?

When she began to wonder about her daughter’s imagined stamina under torture, she would wake her husband and ask him to make coffee and sit with her in silence as the night wore into day.

What are secrets? he had said, bending over her. Words. Ideas. They’re worthless. They have no real existence.

Then stop asking, she had said, when she could still talk.

The fact has real existence, he said, smiling. She had seen the gold incisor when he smiled. He had a good smile. Confident, confiding, appraising. But secrecy is just an aspect that the fact wears. She remembered that he had used the Italian word aspetto, not the Spanish, aspecto. They had shocked her, and her brain lagged behind her mouth, which was loose and spit-dribbly. She could not gather her thoughts. These language games, thought puzzles that he played with her, were new structures around which to rebuild her electrocuted brain cells.

Where is the Mechon?

She shook her head against the table. She had known where he had been, but that was over a month ago and he moved every other night. The Captain patted her shoulder. We already know where he is. Look. He showed her a tie, with blood on it and a tear from a bullet hole through the middle. It was the one she had seen the Mechon wearing. But I want you to tell me. I already have the fact. I want the secret. He had skirted the table. You’ll die in here, and the secret will still be lying around. Like a crumpled piece of paper. Like this cigarette butt. She had a mark from it on her upper left thigh. A train of circular burns like an ellipsis, leading to nothing. Dot, dot, burn.

He was right. The fact of the Mechon’s whereabouts was a real thing. That fact had value to the police. Information was perhaps the only thing anyone could give to anyone else. But a secret, she realized, tied to the table, a secret has even greater value because it provides information about the world and about the secret-holder. The secret had value to the Captain. It was not the content of the secret that had value, but the fact of its being a secret. A piece of information given greater value than others, because its possession held greater significance for the secret-holder. A secret was information of a higher kind, not because of what it tells you about something, but because of what it tells you about someone.

At that point, she would let sleep take her again. The secret was dust, the Captain was dust. She was not.

(c) http://www.divingbelleducation.com

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