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Robert Verhagen (University of Melbourne, Australia)



‘So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after …’
—Ernest Hemingway

‘I’m made up of more space than I actually take up.’
—Marieke Lucas Rijneveld


Held at a distance, I understood guilt as something that ate you up inside. I can trace that understanding to my education at a private Christian school, to the perorations and altar calls at chapel every Tuesday. Inside the classroom, this definition of guilt as an immutable and distinct entity made the boundaries around it appear like walls. It was not that they couldn’t be climbed, but to do so was to risk injury falling over the other side, where guilt was to be found. It wasn’t until later that I realised boundaries are not walls at all. They are like cold water in which you swim. It smarts at first, but once you get moving, it feels warm like your own blood. Only, when blood is on the outside, you’re usually wounded.

Sex was inevitably relegated to the other side of the many boundaries of my education. I expect that is why it took me so long to tell my brother how I lost my virginity, or rather, why I gave it away.

I could not have thought, when I was seventeen, that the years could so easily reduce to a single moment. That is what the end of my schooling became, all the years of intentional grooming, my posturing for leadership; I shuffled to the front row, open-mouthed, willing to swallow whatever they spooned in, to make me a model young man. I was baptised that year, a sign of my commitment to the church. But then in one night, my best mate was given the school captaincy instead of me, and when I was announced his deputy, it was my peers who looked at me with open mouths.

Gutted, suddenly aware that for years I had worn a false face without reward, I thought, I’ll show them. I’ll sleep with someone. And yet, I don’t think it showed anyone, except me; except that it revealed who I really was, or who I was capable of being. And in the end I found out, from a friend, that she only wanted to take the virginity of the boy in chapel band, like a trophy.

If it took me years to share something so juvenile with my brother – my confidant – how am I going to tell him what I have done now?

We have always looked similar, my brother and I, as if our parents sketched me from the memory of him. When we worked together in the family real estate business, clients who heard my voice on the phone called me by his name, and sometimes he was confused for me. The value of being his facsimile was that no matter how hard I ran after him, he was always five years older; all my mistakes, all my achievements, seemed to line up against a previous draft he had written.

But when I left the family business to become a writer, I turned over to a blank page.

Real estate was not my passion. I told clients that writing was my first love, in spite of my day job. ‘Like that Billy Joel song,’ someone once said to me. ‘Now Paul is a real estate novelist who never had time for a wife.’

I met my girlfriend the month I left my job. When she worked, I wrote, and in the nights we were together. But I often joked that if we had met when I worked sixty-hour weeks, she wouldn’t have been interested. I wondered how we might have been before I sold the house, how stress would have affected our relationship when I had a mortgage. I ignored the fact she thought my writing was a hobby.

In the first months I chiselled out a few writing projects (what I call novels to make myself sound serious) but I couldn’t finish anything. Then I got a part-time job, and started writing in the evenings.

Why can’t you write during the hours I’m at work? she’d ask.

I do, I said, but sometimes the ideas aren’t there.

And I think, we never talked about my dreams when we started, so she never knew what writing meant to me, that it was my identity. I never let her in, so for her, writing was an act of infidelity with someone she didn’t know.

Then I booked Tasmania.

I had planned to motorcycle solo around the island as a book-end between my old job and my new career, but the world had been closed then, so I had to wait. Under different circumstances, that experience might have joined my old job and old house in the baggage my girlfriend had never seen unbuckled. Instead, it came about when our grip on one another was no tighter than a hook of two fingers.

I need to do this, I said. I had this plan before we got together.

And it destroyed us, slowly, though she never knew why.

Whatever troubles we were having, I guaranteed we would never resolve them – I would never resolve them – by what I did over there. What I had preached against, so many years ago in school, before I turned seventeen, when I knew nothing about how it felt to cross boundaries, and thought of guilt only as an infection of the gut.

If writing was an act of infidelity before Tasmania, I wonder what form it took on Bruny Island in the storm where the night sky was so bright with stars it was as though the darkness speckled a field white; I’ve come this far, why not, I told myself as the woman in the campsite next to mine asked if I would take her to a hiking trail down the road. A dark artery of bitumen ran along the sandy neck between the north and south islands, and as we rode her hands grasped my body tighter than they needed to, swam in the wind-ruffled fabric of my shirt. I cast my gaze along the shallows, churning with bladderwrack as the waves gnawed against the isthmus beneath us, eager to reach the ocean on the other side.

She touched me with intention as we rode back, and over dinner, and over gin, and in her van, as I explained I had a girlfriend back in Melbourne. She laughed at that, ripples at the edge of her smile. I knew it, she said, then showed me part of myself by saying: You’re looking for a way out. If you want me to let you off, I’m not going to. I don’t care what we do, but it has to be your decision.

And I can diagnose deficiencies in my relationship all I like, but the truth is, I made a decision – a poor decision – and that is my deficiency.

At first, when I returned, I felt oppressed by the burden of what I had done. I thought I should shed the weight by telling my brother, my old confidant. But when I saw him, he beat me to news.

We’re pregnant, he said, holding his wife’s hand.

I should have known how changing years can congeal in a moment, but I was not prepared to witness all the changes at once. I could see the sharper drawing of myself in his face but I could not find the draft which had once predicted my future. That’s when I knew that our courses had finally diverged: while he was building a home on a solid foundation, I was still treading in liquid boundaries, and marvelling at how extraordinarily ordinary it felt to do it.

I had to swallow Bruny Island down then – the shell-grit of the beach, its sand, wind-hurled across the road; I ate up the sound of the sea which laid me awake in the night thinking my tent might blow away while she slept beside me in her van. I swallowed with it the cream of the starry sky, brighter and darker than any I had seen.

I gulped it all down and it hurt my chest, desperate to be spoken of. But I knew that I had to live with it. So I pressed the bulk of Bruny Island down through my body until it settled in my feet, where I stand on it still.

In doing so I discovered the answer to a question I did not realise I had been asking: there was an injury attached to crossing boundaries – the feeling of something so light in the water bearing down on you only as you set foot upon land.

And yet, in spite of the great secret I held back from her, things seemed to get better with my partner. Because things got better, I told myself I had done it for the writing. It had given me a grief to write about – a silence I could only exorcise onto blank pages.

But it did not stay better.

I convinced myself that Bruny Island had been a test, and that I could still build a life with her. I agreed to schedule my writing to maximise our time together. We talked about the future. Made plans. I drove her to work late at night, and picked her up early in the mornings. Whatever she needed to get through the night shift. I remember, on one of those mornings, as she slept after work, how I finished Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast for the first time. I was taken by its uncanny diagnosis of the shame that motivated my good actions:

‘When I saw my wife again … I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her. She was smiling, the sun on her lovely face … she said, when I was holding her in my arms, “you’re back and you made such a fine successful trip. I love you and we’ve missed you so.”’

I put the book down, looked beside me, and thought: I can make this work. I have drawn a line, and I promise I’ll stand behind it. What I’ve done might hurt me, but it needn’t hurt us.

‘I loved her and I loved no one else and we had a lovely magic time …’

But when I returned to A Moveable Feast, not long after, Hemingway’s polysyndeton struck me as a veneer, like a fairy tale trying to ignore the displacement of its happy ending; an illusion the author was either married to, or trying to rationalise his divorce from.

We had broken up by this time, and it made me think that my first reading of the text had been coloured by circumstance, because now I realised how deluded I had been.

Perhaps it had resonated with me because Hemingway was himself deluded about the city in which his first marriage broke down. In his closing passages, he cannot form an opinion on Paris, whether it has changed or not, desperately hoping for it to retain some substance of an earlier, better form of himself.

I remembered something else from Death in the Afternoon, an emphatic statement about the dichotomy between moral and immoral action. I thought how emphatic statements make for the clearest contradictions.

Although I scheduled my writing, I found I couldn’t set time aside for it without dislodging something else; I would even get out of bed before dawn just to take myself off to some café and write, as if the time I needed to make sentences could only be stolen. I could not abandon the writing, which had become dearer now, though she did not understand why. Rightly, she refused to wait, and we came to a mutual decision, although I knew deep down it was a decision only I had made.

I know now that whenever I am absolutely certain of my own conviction, that is when I must be on my guard against doing the opposite; as when I lost my virginity only a few months after I was baptised. I am wary of attempts to convince myself of the solidity of circumstances that ask a wish to stand in for the truth.

I have learned to walk with the weight of Bruny Island now, telling myself that the value of each experience is measured only in how well I can write about it. Solid land, I know, is an isthmus, pulled at on both sides by hungry currents. I have stepped into that surf frequent enough to improve on the early lessons I received on guilt. Guilt, to me, is not what has eaten me up inside, but what has filled me, and despite the weariness of laden steps, I have found there remains one benefit to the burden: that when walking is not easy, I think twice about the direction that I choose.



Robert Verhagen is an emerging writer from Toolangi, and has been published by Westerly, Meniscus Literary Journal and Grattan Street Press.

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