Outer space is not a perfect vacuum, but a tenuous plasma awash with charged particles.
For a brief moment in world history, Sylvia’s mother, Eva McEvoy, was a stenographer for the United Nations. This particle of fact formed the bright glowing core of Sylvia and Jacobin’s mythmaking of the vast black universe that was their mother. Long after she was dead, sucked into the vacuum of the past, this tiny piece of truth sparked flashes of insight across the dark plasma of their shared memory.
The daughter of a diplomat, Eva McEvoy was educated at top international schools in London, Paris, Jakarta and Berlin before finishing her schooling in Canberra in 1968.
Her voice was unplaceable, veiled in gauze: she was fluent in five languages but her words possessed an added something: a ruffle along the edges, a moment more or less on the stresses. And so Eva was always not quite at home, always floating along the surface instead of sinking deep into the undertow. Eva’s tongue held the world’s great languages as if they were tiny marbles of possibility, rolling over her taste-buds, each stretched taut with delicious opportunity.
Eva hated Canberra. Hated the parched December heat that radiated off the black bitumen of the city’s circling roadways, hated the Brindabellas that lined the western skyline, hemming her into this little world. Under that wide blue basin, she was a butterfly encased in glass, subject to a devious child’s whim. When her father relocated to Geneva after she finished high school, Eva found herself swept up and skimming along in his slipstream, towed all the way to the United Nations. Multilingual and with a well-connected father, Eva was a broad-winged bird, finally released.
Shorthand came easily enough and soon she was transcribing speeches on the meeting floor of the UN, falling in love with the way the pen leapt and plunged across the page. She filled notepad after notepad with curving swoops and sharp lines. Before the introduction of tape recorders, the stenographers were the conduit through which history flowed. Eva’s palms pulsed with the coded reportage of her pen – her shorthand, a lockbox of the world’s secrets. She felt she could hold each loaded moment, run her fingers over its bulbous possibility - imagine all the ways it might have played out, all the known unknowns and unutterable truths of it - before ironing it flat onto the page, committing it to stark, unassailable, black-and-white history. Those were exciting days and nights, and for many months in her nineteenth year, Eva felt as if life could be like this forever, buzzing with effervescence, like the gin and tonics she drank with her UN colleagues in the cool dim bars of Geneva.
In 1969, three important things happened, three things that set into motion an inexorable new history:
- Eva transcribed the deliberations of the UN as it brought into force the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
- She discovered she was pregnant.
- The United Nations introduced tape recording.
And so Eva found herself on a plane again, bound again for Canberra. The aircraft tilted its wing and leaned toward the Brindabellas, the patchwork landscape filling the window. As the afternoon edged into night she watched the lines of the city come to life: flickering pinpricks in rows that warped and curved, hunting out the edges of her sight. A weight shifted. The aircraft righted itself and swung back the other way, filling the window with a vast starless sky.
The thrill of Europe gave way to Canberra’s white-hot December days, piled high on top of one another, flat-packed in the slippery heat. Eva’s ankles swelled and rooted her to the ground. Her belly ballooned, an interstice opened within her. Finally after fish and chips one Friday night, Jacobin was born: twenty years to the day after his mother entered the world.
The doctor hauled Jacobin from her body and pressed him into her arms. The baby splayed his new wet limbs over her chest and wailed. Eva, rushed full of oxytoxin, was struck with awe. It was the two of them from that moment on. A new galaxy flamed into life.
Two years later, Sylvia was born and although she became the daughter and sister of the galaxy of Eva and Jacobin, she would never be permitted entry. The best Sylvia could do was to peer out across the dark plasma, searching for the patterns in its scattered charged particles.
Although her mother never used shorthand again, Sylvia knew about Eva the stenographer because of the way the momentous events of a mother’s life become imprinted upon her daughter. Like an inherited memory, or the pain that flares in winter in the re-stitched fracture of a bone. Sylvia understood her mother’s depression because she had grown up in the shadows that it cast, long and unshakeable. She shared her mother’s green eyes and black hair, and she knew every contour of those dark moods – the way they swelled and eclipsed all three of them, submerging their mother slowly into months of molasses. Sylvia knew the slow pace of those days, the gossamer stretch of every morning – the soft click of Jacobin closing their mother’s bedroom door after coaxing her to sip a cup of tea. The clench of Jacobin’s small calves in the half-light before school, as he stood on tip-toes to reach the Nutri-Grain, clattering the cereal into her bowl, acquiescing to her requests to eat it dry, no milk.
When Sylvia held her mother’s hand as a child, she imagined all the other palms that had pressed against it. She imagined hauling herself hand over hand back through history, from her mother to all the strangers in her mother’s mysterious pre-children life. It was the first thing Sylvia noticed when she found her that dark morning: the hand, hanging over the edge of the bathtub. Upturned palm, knuckles bent toward the claw foot of the tub. The hand: white fingers curled over as if ready to unfurl and grasp Sylvia’s small palm.
Later, Sylvia would remember the feel of the bathroom tiles on the soles of her feet, as if she were standing on a glacier. She would remember the dull swoosh of Jacobin arriving at her side.
It was the hand that would haunt her dreams for decades.