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Authors: Sophie Cunningham

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Geography

GEOGRAPHY

Sophie Cunningham has worked variously as an editor, publisher and journalist since 1989. She is currently the editor of
Meanjin
and working on a novel
This Devastating Fever
, about Leonard Woolf's time as a colonial administrator in Ceylon, and the first years of his marriage to Virginia. Her second novel,
Bird
, was published in 2008.

Geography

Sophie Cunningham

TEXT PUBLISHING MELBOURNE AUSTRALIA

The paper used in this book is manufactured only from wood
grown in sustainable regrowth forests.

The Text Publishing Company
Swann House
22 William Street
Melbourne Victoria 3000
Australia
www.textpublishing.com.au

Copyright © Sophie Cunningham 2004

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright above, no part of this publication shall be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

First published in 2004 by The Text Publishing Company
This edition 2008
Typeset by J&M Typesetters Printed and bound in Australia by Griffin
Press
Designed by Chong

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication data:
Cunningham, Sophie, 1963-
Geography / Sophie Cunningham.
Melbourne : The Text Publishing Company, 2008.
ISBN: 9781921351709
A823.4

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body

For Virginia

Contents

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Acknowledgments

One

It is a full moon and I am sitting on the beach watching a green sea turtle covering her eggs. She rotates slowly, her powerful flippers kicking sand out behind her. It will take two hours for her to turn a full 360 degrees. I am in awe of her, the way she shovels so diligently. She is patient. And she is, with her horny old head, her shell a metre across, beautiful. There are other people here too and as well as being excited I am in a kind of terror that all her work will be for nothing, that the guards standing around with torches will take her eggs not to a hatchery but to a market.

We saw a hatchling from another clutch earlier in the evening, small as a twenty-cent piece, scurrying across the endless desert of sand towards the sea, a pale halo bestowed by the guard's torch as he urged us to ‘Look, look quick'. The scene is absurd: four guards, five tourists, twenty locals and this tiny creature running frantically for its life. It is hard, but necessary, to feel hopeful that it will survive.

I turn to the woman next to me, whom I met, as travellers do, at a restaurant earlier this evening.

‘Do you think it'll make it?'

She nods, smiling broadly. ‘It'll be fine, Catherine.' And there is something about this stranger, this girl, that makes me believe her.

The turtle covers her nest by midnight then heaves herself out of the pit she has dug. She slides down the bank of the nest towards the water but runs out of momentum and must pull herself along the sand for some way. The effort seems enormous and she stops for minutes at a time, too exhausted to move. Finally, she gets close to the waterline and when a wave comes in it picks her up, spins her around and carries her out to sea.

My new friend, Ruby, and I stay on the beach, in our jumpers on a tropical night, talking. We are surrounded by a ghost forest of palm trees, shadows thrown by the coconut grove behind us. The moon is so bright the ocean looks like grey silk, shot with luminous white. It is one of those nights that is so beautiful that you wonder whether you are dreaming it. It is the kind of night people travel weeks and months and years for.

When I ask Ruby her age I find out she is younger than I had thought, only twenty-two to my thirty-seven, but she has something of an old soul about her. She is, in fact, the age I was when I first came to India. Neither of us can really explain why we are sitting in Tangalla, which is basically a tourist resort with attractions as diverse as nesting turtles and child sex. Though there is the fact that the civil war means there are not so many other places in Sri Lanka one can go. This beach in the south of the island is one of the ones that is safe enough. On July 24, just over three weeks ago, the Tamil Tigers attacked the air force base and Colombo's international airport, destroying military aircraft and passenger jets. Twenty-three people were killed.

‘So: why Sri Lanka?' Ruby asks. ‘Why now?'

I tell her I came to do a meditation retreat, arriving three weeks before the bombing. I hadn't heard about it for a few days, but once the news got around it had seemed to disrupt things and people had started to leave. I ask her why she is here and she tells me she has been working as a volunteer in Colombo for six months, before she goes to India.

So we are both on our way to India and both for the second time. Ruby studied Hinduism at university and wants to spend time in the south, the religion's heartland.

‘There is a poem,' says Ruby. ‘It's from what you'd call the Hindu version of the Bible. This poem is why I am going back.' She recites, from memory:

‘
You are woman, and you are man,
You are the youth and the maiden,
And the old man tottering with a staff.
You are reborn again facing all directions.
You are the bluefly and red-eyed parrot,
The cloud pregnant with lightning.
You are the season and the seas,
The Beginning less, the Abiding Lord
From who the spheres are born.
'

She pauses, slightly embarrassed.

‘I'm glad you're a quoter,' I say. ‘Me too.'

‘Why are you going back?' she asks and I tell her: because it is a place I dream of even though I have not been there for fifteen years. I tell her that I have travelled to many places. That it was in America that I fell in love, but India that changed everything. What I mean, but can't say to someone I've just met, is that in America I had good sex but in India my spirit was touched. For many years I confused the two and I am finally returning to untangle that knot.

‘Tell me,' Ruby says.

‘People are bored with stories of obsession. With stories about women in their late thirties who are single, and the reasons why that might be so.' I could have gone on: people are bored with stories about cities and what cities do to people, families and what they do to each other, the perils of geography and the excuses people use to keep others at a distance. When everything was happening, it all made perfect sense to me, but now, despite the clarity of my memories, I don't really understand it at all.

‘I like stories,' Ruby says. ‘It's one of the fun things about travelling—hearing people's stories.'

‘Okay,' I say. ‘I will tell you a love story of sorts. I'll tell you a story about the one who drove me crazy. But remember, the main character in this story, she isn't me. Not any more.'

‘So who are you now?' she smiles at me.

‘I am being reborn again,' I return the smile. ‘Facing all directions.'

Just getting on a plane made me want sex. From the moment I sat down and pulled the belt tight there was a heat that grew until all I was aware of was a pulsing, the movement of blood, like my cunt was beating, like it was the very heart of me.

So I was primed by flying before I ever arrived in Los Angeles. Primed by travel, by movement. But even before I left the ground I'd been primed by Michael's suggestive fax: ‘Sorry to hear you have a hotel and won't need a bed. Any friend of Marion's…Looking forward to meeting you, call me when you hit town.'

I didn't call him, not straight away. He was a stranger, my housemate's former colleague, and his fax had made me nervous. Its tone seemed to assume something between us, a done deal; or perhaps it was me who assumed, it is hard to tell from this distance. Crazy as it sounds, I knew from the first few words he wrote to me that we would sleep together.

Los Angeles hasn't the graciousness of age, nor the dignity of a long history. But for all the warnings of pollution, I found a city where I could smell desert air and see a broad, blue open sky that reminded me of Sydney, a town I loved; and for all the talk of crassness, in Los Angeles you could feel possibilities, the weightlessness of things that are new. I wanted to live here. On the weekends I'd take my hire car—a 1965 Buick Skylark Convertible that was a dream in itself—and drive around like LA was my very own movie set.

A couple of weeks after I arrived I called my brother, Finn. He was still a long plane ride away; over on the east coast, over in New York where he worked. But at least we were on the same continent now.

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