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I was born before this story starts, before I dreamed of such a place as the Arcade, before I imagined men like Walter Geist existed outside of fables, outside of fairy tales. My time at the Arcade would have gone very differently but for him, for his blindness. His eyes were nearly useless when I met him, and were it not for his condition, I would never have known about Herman Melville’s lost book. Walter Geist’s blindness is important, but it’s my own, with regard to him, that remains a lasting regret. It’s the reason for this story. If I start with my own beginning you will understand how I came to the Arcade, and how it came to mean so much to me.
I was born on April twenty–fifth, never mind what year precisely; I’m not so young that I care to put my age about, but not so old now that I forget the girl I was.
My birth date, however, is significant in another sense. April twenty–fifth is Anzac Day, the most important day of commemoration on the Australian calendar. It is the day when Australians pin sprigs of rosemary to their breasts to remember those lost to war, to remember that first great loss, at Gallipoli, where rosemary grows wild on the beaches. “There's rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” says Ophelia, once she’s lost her mind to grief. “Pray you, love, remember.”
It was April twenty–fifth on the island state of Tasmania, when my mother saw stalks of spiky rosemary pinned over hearts, the day she walked to the free public hospital to give birth to me, walked through the crowded Square trying to avoid the ragged annual parade of veterans and gawking locals. That hardy plant stayed in her mind through a difficult labor, not as the symbol of loss, for she was gaining me, but as an emblem of memory.
Anzac Day, then, determined my name—Rosemary. And given along with my name, the occupation I practice here—to remember. After all, memory is a kind of obligation, perhaps the last duty owed anyone.
I have only one other name. My last—Savage. And Mother too gave me this name, only Mother. She brought me home to the small flat she rented above the shop off the central town Square. Remarkable Hats was the only store of its kind on the island of Tasmania, and we grew up in that shop, Mother and me. But like a pair of goldfish, we grew only so much as the bowl allowed. We came to fit it, but we lived in a bowl of separateness, a transparent wall between us and the rest of the town. Mother had come from the mainland, she was an outsider, and everyone knew that “Mrs.” Savage was a prefix that didn't disguise one single defining fact: there wasn’t a husband in sight.
But disguise, in a way, was Mother’s business. Hats, after all, can cover up a good deal of what one might not want revealed. Hats can even grant a measure of acceptance to a woman who’d appeared from the mainland to establish a small, decent business—pregnant, without an apparent partner.
“It’s hats that saved us,” Mother often said. “That’s why I call these hats remarkable. They made me unavoidable to respectable people.”
It was imagination that saved us. Hers, in particular. And I like to think imagination was her gift to me.
Remarkable Hats made Mother something of an arbiter of taste in our town as well as wise to vanity. She could guess the hat size of customers within moments of laying eyes on them. The measurements of regular customers she memorized, along with a characteristic that, to her, matched the circumference of their head.
If she saw our prosperous and ambitious landlord, Mr. Frank, in the Square she’d say: “That Mr. Frank, no wonder he’s a nine–and–three–quarters. With all those big ideas, he certainly needs the space.”
Or she’d mention that Mrs. Pym, the florist, had been trying on hats to wear to the Cup: “Of course, Rosemary, nothing I had was right. Pym is one of those five–and–a–halfs. Practically a pinhead. No room in there for a thought, let alone a decision.”
Hats were oracles, divining rods to behavior, and while Mother’s way of judging her fellow Tasmanians was often accurate, matching the opprobrium of a small town with her own brand of snobbishness did little to relieve our isolation. Of course, isolation itself worked on our imaginations, our illusions, separating us even more. We were only glancingly acknowledged, and never included. I helped in the store after school. Friends were discouraged, if they’d ever been interested, or more precisely, curious.
We had each other.
“Better to do well in school,” Mother advised. “Keep up your reading.” And she’d tap her temple with her index finger for emphasis. “All your future’s there beneath your hat.”
She didn’t mention my body. She never did, except in the most perfunctory way, imparting only biological information. As Mother knew firsthand, bodies caused trouble.
She did have one close friend, Esther Chapman, a mentor to me and the owner of Chapman’s, the only shop in the village that sold books. Miss Chapman (I called her Chaps from early on) helped to educate me, taking me to any theater that made its way to our small town, favoring the rare Shakespeare troupe that occasionally washed ashore in Tasmania. Chaps taught me to read before I started school, endowing my purposes with words she would have said, quoting from her favorite play. Chaps held that books were essential, whereas hats were a kind of ephemera, a fancy, objects that ultimately wouldn’t provide Mother or me with security.
She worried for us.
“Books aren’t lumps of paper, but minds on shelves,” she urged Mother. “After all, hats aren’t books—people don’t need them.”
“Tell that to a bald man in the summer,” Mother teased back. “Or to a plain–faced woman.”
But Chaps was right to be concerned.
By the time I finished school, Remarkable Hats was mostly remarkable in that it was still in business. Hats were no longer fashionable, no longer the article of differentiation between decent people and ill–bred ones. Hats went the way of gloves and stockings. Eventually, even regular customers were infrequent, not immune to the whims of fashion or mortality. The town itself was waning.
Mother’s own health had been in steady decline for some time, linked as it was to the dwindling business. She was a small woman, and dark, and she grew thin and pale with worry. As I grew older, Mother diminished. In the absence of customers, Mother had me try on hats after school. I had the height, she liked to tell me. It cheered her up.
I’d find her dozing on her stool behind the high serving counter in the afternoon. She said she could only rest in daylight, that she was most comfortable in the opened store, and that nights were spent endlessly waiting for day. When I finally discovered how deeply in debt we were, Mother’s insomnia was all at once explained.
Late morning one April day, a few months after I’d finished school, I came down the back stairs which joined our small flat to the shop, and found Mother collapsed behind the counter. Her breath was halted, her face the livid color of a bruise, as if she’d been beaten.
Mother died a day later, in the same free hospital where she’d given birth to me. By grotesque coincidence then, it appeared that the town, the state, and the whole of Australia commemorated my private loss publicly, the day I turned eighteen. Anzac Day. I didn’t consider the rosemary pinned to lapels an admonition to remember.
I would never forget.
Mother’s funeral was a short, unsentimental proceeding the following week. I stood in disbelief at the copper door of the mock tomb, a deco affair, that housed the crematorium, set on the highest hill above town. Five old regulars were good enough to come. Both men respectfully held hats to their chests, while the women thoughtfully appeared in Remarkable chapeaus. I thanked them along with Chaps, now my unofficial guardian.
The service was impoverished. Mother and I possessed no religion, save the worship of imagination, of living a kind of fiction, which death, in all its realness, had made a mockery of.
Afterward, we gathered awkwardly in the parking lot outside the tomb until the regulars departed solemnly in their cars, single file, down the steep road. I watched them grow smaller as they separated at the crossroads, the town below just a handful of scattered red tiles, haphazardly thrown across low green hills, without order or pattern, carelessly. It was a narrow, ugly spot on an island of tremendous beauty. The village had never seemed smaller or more unremarkable.
“She’s gone, Chaps,” was all I could manage, feeling short of breath.
The funeral director approached after a while, handing me Mother’s ashes sealed inside a wooden box.
“You said you wanted the simplest one, Miss Rosemary. And this here is the simplest. It’s a native timber, Huon pine. Tasmanian heartwood. Very strong and durable.”
He rapped the box with his knuckles. I winced. Chaps knew him, and, helpfully, the one funeral director in town who wasn’t too unctuous was also the least expensive. But he was nervous for his line of work, and oddly unpracticed in handling grief. He chatted away, not oblivious to my distress but perhaps made so anxious by it that he sought to fend it off with information.
“My supplier told me once that Huon pines can live a thousand years. Practically forever. Isn’t that something?” He went on: “The wood has a very distinctive perfume, too—strong.” He sniffed. “It’s usually found on the west coast of the island—”
“Yes. Thank you,” Chaps said, cutting him off. She took me by the elbow and tried to lead me toward her car. I appeared fixed to the spot.
I held the box of Huon pine with both hands spread beneath, unable to move. The box was warm and smelled faintly corrupt. My eyes began to tear, the water on my face as startling to me as to the nervous director.
Chaps finally pushed me to her car and drove me to her little house. I couldn't get out, or really move at all, so we set off again, driving in silence down long Tasmanian roads all the way to the coast.
“The ocean,” Chaps said by way of explanation when, eventually, the paved road ended in sand and the sea stretched away, white–capped and vast, before us.
Chaps rolled down the windows so I could smell the salt and feel the pure, fresh Roaring Forties blow their way west to the bottom of the world, to the end of the great globe itself. My throat choked in the cleanest air that exists and I tried to catch my breath. Staring at the ocean, I felt at once surrounded and alone. Between me, there on the Tasmanian island, and ice–covered Antarctica lay nothing but empty, open sea, unpeopled and unknowing. I bent over the Huon box, but couldn’t utter a word until night came in, cold and complete, carried across the Great Southern Ocean by those same prevailing winds.
“What will I do?” I finally breathed aloud.
Chaps, who always had an aphorism to hand, was silent.
For nearly every year of my early life I went with Mother to Sydney, on the mainland, to buy hats and the materials milliners use to dress hats. We made sure to spend my birthday in the city; it was, of course, a public holiday. At first, we stayed in a boardinghouse in Surrey Hills, on Sophia Street. Mother had known the landlady, Merle, before she’d moved to Tasmania, when she lived a life I know nothing about. Her own life before mine.
Merle was a fat, angry woman with small eyes and dyed hair. She resembled a magpie, all black and white and on the lookout for morsels. Her rooming house was cheap, smelled of boiled vegetables; and until I was five and old enough to go with Mother to suppliers, I was left there with Merle for several hours.
Those early hours away from Mother are circumscribed in my memory by a shortage of breath. I can’t have actually held my breath, but the sensation of breathlessness is attached to Mother’s absence like a keepsake. Afraid to upset an invented balance that would result in Mother’s continued nonappearance, I stayed as quiet as possible in the stale–smelling sitting room. Her return was marked with great intakes of breath and tremendous exhales: life restored to the small cadaver I’d become.
“That’s the quietest child I’ve ever seen, Mrs. Savage,” Merle would say, tutting, and shaking her big, smooth head. “It’s not natural to be so good. I’m happy to watch her, she’s no trouble, but it’s like she only exists for you.”
“I'm all she’s got,” Mother said, often.
“Next year, Rosemary love, you can come with me and do the rounds,” Mother promised. “I don’t want to leave you any more than you want me to.”
So began annual encounters with haberdashery and notions, with felt workrooms full of rabbit pelts and beaver furs, with polished wooden heads and metal blocks (screws protruding from their necks), devices that formed crowns and shaped hats. The storefront shops were bright and cool, but the workrooms behind them were vaporous and warm, the air thick with condensation from steam used to mold and clean hats.
Every supplier indulged me. I was distracted, entertained with bright buttons and lengths of silk ribbon while Mother placed her orders and reviewed new styles. Like a bower bird, everything that sparkled caught my eye. I was served triangular sandwiches, and drank milk from a frosted glass with a striped paper straw. I was a small sultana, my treasure counted in the currency of trifles.
Foys supplied all the biggest department stores with accessories. The notion display room was lined with a wall of slim wooden drawers, built half a century before, that opened to reveal a collection of bric–a–brac: zippers, buttons, samples of fur and skins, silk flowers, sequins translucent as fish scales, glass beads, dye samples, feathers from unimaginable birds, sweets and fruit made from wax. The wall of drawers held hundreds of brilliantly colored trinkets designed to trim hats, to dress lapels or shoes or belts. Ornaments came from all over the world: marcasite stones from Czechoslovakia, brilliant as metallic diamonds, and rhinestone pins, direct from France, were stored in deep lower drawers, pirate’s chests unearthed.
I used to imagine that the endlessly varied objects contained in the drawers appeared only moments before the knob was pulled and the drawer opened, as if conjured by my wish to see them. The wall of drawers appeared to my small self to hold everything; and “things,” of course, were the sum of the world.
Workroom girls told Mother I would be beautiful one day, “What with that hair,” they'd say. Mother looked dubious. My hair was thick and red, and seemed hardly to belong to me. I must have favored my father, and likely shared as well his green eyes and freckled skin, for Mother’s dark hair set off fathomless blue eyes, and her skin was flawless, the color of very milky tea. She was bird–boned and compact, her bosom high. It seems barely credible that I was her child, so little did we resemble each other.
From the Hardcover edition.