For an hour or so, the night has no secrets. We’ve slipped out of the hospital and are walking along a path by the lakeshore. Above us, the full moon shines on a quicksilver world – so bright and dark and so in awe of itself, I want to kneel down and pray.
I breathe in the smell of eucalyptus and feel the chill in the air. I’m free and as light as a bird. At the edge of the lake I step along the top of a stone wall, one foot in front of the other, my arms spread like wings to keep my balance. Michael walks on the path beside me, talking about comets and solar winds, and I glide in his dream of space, feeling vast, wide open to the night. A wind blowing through me.
I tell him I no longer have a name. ‘Names close you off from the world.’
He laughs, and I can tell he knows exactly what I mean. ‘You’ve become a nymph,’ he says. Then he spins around on one leg in a spontaneous dance, hair frizzing out from under his beanie, his coat unfastened and loose. With his vintage air force boots strapped below the knee, he looks like a wild man from the Russian steppes, a rangy Cossack. He whirls around again, this time catching me in his arms, and we are dancing, lake and trees flashing by, his eyes bright as onyx.
Inside my head, a voice breaks through from another place. ‘The night doth magnify my soul,’ it says, and I think of angels. Someone or something has reached inside me and turned up the volume of my being, so loud all I hear is wings and silence.
‘Catch me if you can,’ Michael calls, disappearing into a spinney of trees. I follow but I can’t find him. When I call out his name, he replies from above, and I look up into a gum tree silhouetted against the sky. At first I can’t make out where he is, and then I see him lying on a branch sloping upwards from the trunk. His arms are outstretched, his body suspended in the moonlight above me.
My eyes lock on the image.
I see a castaway in an oversized coat and heavy boots extended on a cross, facing the sky. Where his shirt has ridden up, his skin is white and exposed, and his unbuttoned coat hangs below the branch like a broken sail.
When Michael slides down from the tree, I put my arms around him. Darkness has shown its other face and I want to protect him. But inside his coat he’s as thin as a bone, and all of a sudden I can’t stop shivering.
My Ward, September 1972
The day room is where I wait – for time to pass, for something to happen, for meaning to return. Windows along one of the walls allow light to enter, but the space seems grey as if a faint dusting of ash hangs in the air and covers the surfaces. Patients hunch over tables or rest deep in the lounge chairs beside the walls, staring into the distance or mumbling to themselves. Occasionally someone erupts: a fist comes down on a table, or a chair is knocked to the floor. I’m startled for a minute, then the gloom settles over us again like the memory of a death.
My usual place is a lounge chair in the corner. My legs jerk back and forth, and my arms are folded tightly around my chest. Other patients are also sitting alone, settled in after the morning medication ritual, resigned to wait out the long stretch of time until the bell is rung and lunch is served. I’m hyper-alert, aware that everything around me is thick with meaning. The curtains, the tables, the pictures on the wall – they all mean something sinister, something I can’t quite grasp. I write poems in my notebook but I can’t speak to others of the noise inside my head. When they call me ‘Paula’, I tell them that I’m Julianne, but they don’t hear me. I say it louder. They turn away.
I stare at a print of a Sidney Nolan painting that hangs on the wall opposite the windows. It shows Ned Kelly inside a heavy suit of black armour riding a horse across the desert towards the horizon. His back is turned to the viewer, and he is alone in the landscape. Blue and white sky shines through an oblong in his helmet. I stare at him, willing myself into his armour, longing for my head to fill with the colour blue, with space. I want to be Ned, turn my back on this life and ride a horse across the desert to the horizon. Ride out of this room into the distance.
I try to keep away from other patients. If someone comes close I pick up my pouch of tobacco and, with the concentration of a watchmaker, I roll myself a cigarette. To be in close proximity with another person is excruciating; their energy is too strong, too intrusive. The occasional exception is a patient I think of as ‘the Man from Kosciuszko’. A bear of a man, he sometimes talks to me of his work on rescue missions in the Snowy Mountains. I like him because he has a dog, a border collie called Jessie. One night he broke down in tears and told me how much he missed her.
Sometimes I have visitors who join me in the day room – my parents or friends who sit awkwardly, talking in low voices. Conversations tend to drift into delicate silences until someone thinks of an item from the evening news or a piece of family gossip. An effort is required by us all in the giving and the taking. Someone will start speaking but lose confidence, leaving words dangling in the air. Eruptions of laughter sound like bursts of scripted applause. My world is inaccessible to anyone attempting to enter, to engage. I’m always tired after visitors leave. Sad and tired.
When my mother comes in, she brings a small bunch of sweet peas or lavender from her garden. She always asks, ‘How are you today, love?’ I turn away. How can I reply? The question ‘How are you?’ is complicated. I can’t look at her. It’s me that’s not right. Not my kidneys or my tonsils. My self. How can it reply? It has lost the language of the everyday, the gestures and rituals of relationships. I sometimes think that my words are germs, infecting anyone who hears them.
One Friday afternoon, two weeks before I’m taken to the psychiatric ward of the Canberra Hospital, I ride my bike to the National Library to find journal articles for an essay on the Russian Revolution. Perhaps there are signs that I will soon have a breakdown, but I don’t read them, don’t realise what they mean. I’ve been under pressure with deadlines, but I don’t for a moment see that M Ward is my future.
Once inside the library I pause in the entrance hall, taking in the light that streams through the high leadlight windows. I look up and hear music – orchestral music playing in the red, yellow and purple patterns of glass, a kaleidoscope of sound. I turn around, elated. When I look away to see if other people have heard it, the music stops. Confused, I come back to myself and walk into the reading room.
Later, as I’m leaving the library, a young woman appears, sailing towards me, sandy hair flowing behind her. Her height and stride are familiar, and when she speaks I remember her from 1968, four years ago, my first year at university. The year my friend Julianne Gilroy died. The woman in front of me was in the same philosophy tutorial as Julianne and me, studying the work of Descartes and arguing points about truth and doubt. Now, as we talk, I realise that former classmates have not forgotten my dramatic departure from university at the end of that year.
‘Is everything okay now?’ she asks, appraising me.
‘I’m fine,’ I say with a bright smile. ‘Absolutely fine.’
Once down the library steps, I take off on my bike, riding hard. I’m frustrated that no matter how hard I try to pass for normal, I simply can’t get away from my past. Not for the first time, I imagine myself escaping Canberra and making a new start somewhere, a warm place where no one knows me.
On impulse, I decide to take the long way home, across Kings Avenue Bridge and around the lake. With the winter air slicing my cheeks and the wind in my hair, I turn onto the long arc of the bridge and begin to cross the pale waters of Lake Burley Griffin.
Canberra has no past and it feels beautiful but empty, like a Zen garden – although the scale is wrong. It seems to have originated in a dream of intersecting circles and radiating lines too vast for human reach and footstep: a sculpted city of lonely monuments, architectural curiosities and glassed-in government buildings spread out around the artificial lake like pieces of an abandoned board game. Too new to have settled into the earth, too geometrical to have emerged from it, the city has a lightness of being, a cool detachment. It doesn’t yet belong to the landscape. It’s the image of a future without a history.
Canberra’s inhabitants have no past here either, no stories that connect them to this place. A cluster of federal public service employees, they were sent from Sydney and Melbourne to administer government departments and populate the capital. Uprooted and separated from their extended families, and surrounded by distance and absence, they burrowed into suburbs and learned to love their cars.
My family was part of this interstate migration; we left Sydney when I was nine years old to start a new life here. The trees that now provide a canopy were only saplings in my childhood. Streets were laid down through paddocks, houses appeared, and suburbs spread across the valley. I grew up playing in partially constructed buildings, watching the Molonglo River rise across the flood plain and create Lake Burley Griffin. Waiting for the future to arrive in a place where everyone came from somewhere else and no one was old.
I ride around the lake, past the windswept fountain, past Blundells Cottage and the rotunda, racing towards Black Mountain, the Brindabella Ranges in the distance. I imagine Canberra as an immense gallery through which I glide, observing and admiring. Steel and concrete join the architecture of earth, sky and water to create a city of grand statements and wide streets, swept clean by the wind from the Snowy Mountains. In the icy afternoon sunlight, it shines like a mirage. Depth is illusory. A vision of sky drifting in the lake. The haunting sound of carillon bells echoing across the water.
My city, myself. Floating above my body, the city floating above the landscape, I’m as light as light. I remember myself as a young girl, twirling around in my floral skirt, my rope petticoat brushing my thighs, my arms spread wide. Barely aware of flesh and blood, and hardly knowing I was of the earth, I lived in air and sunshine. I banished darkness from my conscious world and ignored my body’s secrets, the guilty blood, the night terrors. In the country’s empty capital I grew up taut and shiny. Being good, being pure, being happy. Nice.
The evening after my visit to the library, I ride my bike to my waitressing shift at Dimitri’s restaurant and stay on for an after-work party. The restaurant is tucked away in the ground floor of a 1960s motel on Northbourne Avenue, and it has the feel of a hideaway. With its dim lighting, low ceiling, and brown and beige decor, it looks like any other motel dining room – but its appearance is deceptive. For Dimitri’s family and friends, it’s the village taverna they left behind on the other side of the world. On occasional Saturday nights, once the customers have left and our work is done, the records are brought out, the stereo is turned on, and the party begins.
Dimitri’s family and friends arrive in a flurry of greetings, claiming tables and carrying plates dripping with baklava and lemon cake. I don’t speak Greek but tonight I feel I do. Eating mezethes with the others and drinking wine, I’m sure I know what people are saying. Listening to their voices, I see dark interiors and sense unspoken longings. I hear the playful teasing of old friends, the flourishes of gossip. When they break into English to include me, I take on the rhythms and inflections of their speech, enjoying the shapes the words make in my mouth.
In odd moments, I seem to be watching myself as I gesture expansively – flicking my long hair back from my face and flouncing my skirt around my knees. My mind is straying, playing with me, like the aura some people experience before a migraine. I drink water and try to steady myself.
From across the table, I watch Dimitri smoking a cigarette in his customary extravagant way, talking and laughing – a short man with a wide smile and a voice that comes from deep inside his chest. You can hear his breathy conversation from the other end of the restaurant, even when he’s speaking softly. He treats all his workers as if they are part of his extended family – and, in fact, most of them are. Everyone is included in his after-work parties.
When the music starts to play, I feel a rush of anticipation. This is my favourite time of the night. I push my chair back and make my way to the dance floor with the others, swaying to the beat. ‘Wait for me,’ says the effusive Cosima, laughing as she follows. ‘You’ve become such a Greek. A green-eyed Greek.’
As usual, I stumble at first, feet in my way. But then the music lifts me up and around, and soon I’m dancing with the others, moving to the faster rhythm, raising my hands high. In a single movement, I step forward with the women, creating an inner circle while the men in the outer circle surround us. As one, they move forward, eyes wild and dark, approaching with a surge of masculine energy.
Something shifts, and I discover a reciprocal power in myself. Sensations are magnified. I turn with the women to face the men, and I’ve never before felt so strong, so fierce. I stamp my foot down, and again I raise my hands high. My body wakes to a faster pulse as the dancing becomes wilder. Shadows loom on the periphery of my eyes and chandeliers flicker like jewels. I’m in ecstasy, a whirling dervish but with more abandon, more release, and a kind of grace I’ve never felt before. As if my body has its own kind of wisdom, an energy that knows exactly each movement, each step, each turn.
Fireworks explode in my mind; colours thrill me. The bouzoukis play through my soul, vibrate through my body, pound in my blood. I’m possessed by the music and the dance; by a power, primal and sensual.
I lose myself. Raising my hands high, stamping my foot down.
When the music stops, I’m dizzy, blinking fast, the room circling around me. I find my way back to the tables with the others. They’re also breathing hard. Their eyes shine like marbles. I’m disoriented. Elated. Not sure what just happened.
The days pass, but I’m still under the spell of the dance. I’ve been winging my way from tutorial to lecture to coffee with friends. Now, in a quiet moment, I stand at the window of my room at Ursula College watching a sunset light up the sky like a visual anthem.
I sense something coming, something big, but I don’t know what it is. Lights are brighter, moods are wilder, and thoughts race across my mind. The world has become stranger and more exciting than I ever imagined it could be. And I want this strangeness, this excitement. It’s as if I’m in a canoe speeding along a river, feeling the rushing wind, hearing thunder moving closer, too exhilarated to care that Niagara Falls is around the bend.
At moments I sense that something isn’t quite right, but it’s impossible to satisfy this appetite, this restless craving for more and more life. I’m not simply happy – I’m euphoric. I’m doing mental cartwheels; my body is singing.
I no longer care about the essays I should be writing. The point is to live, not waste time trying to understand this philosophy, that ideology, this theory. Kierkegaard, Marx, Skinner. I’ve spent months working through my books, staying up late trying to make sense of them. But now all I want to know is, what did their authors feel, how did they live? There’s nothing in the textbooks on that, so I’ve packed them away under my bed.
In my narrow room, I dance to the soundtrack of Zorba the Greek and study the map of Greece pinned to my noticeboard, circling the names of places I just have to go to. I see myself living on a Greek island, swimming in the ‘wine-dark sea’ and learning the language. I stay up all night sitting on my bed, smoking cigarettes and reading Sappho’s poetry. I try to write poems that have the sensual immediacy of hers – fragmentary, impressionistic pieces – but I can’t stem the streams of writing that flow from my pen.
One night, in a sustained burst of energy, I read Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell. I’m excited by his descriptions of the bohemian lifestyle of 1930s Corfu, and I can’t wait to live there. I decide to buy a ticket to Athens as soon as I have the money, whether or not I’ve finished my exams. I’m thrilled by the idea of myself in sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, sitting at an outdoor restaurant on Samos or strolling along the black-pebbled beach on the volcanic island of Santorini. Or maybe I’ll work on a fishing boat off the coast of Ithaca.
In my room crowded with anti-war posters and an overflowing bookshelf, I’m seized by the power I experienced while dancing at Dimitri’s. I want to live like that: connected, open, passionate.
I spin like a top across the surface of my days, unable to resist the energy driving me forward, unable to sleep. Sitting at a desk in my favourite corner of the library, I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and make copious notes, heart pounding at the thought of ‘the horror, the horror’. In an English tutorial, feeling reckless and inspired, I share with the other students the ideas racing through my mind. As I speak, I’m there, deep in the African night.
It’s not like me to be so vocal; I’m usually the quiet student who’s done the week’s reading but lacks the confidence to speak.
Growing up, I was serious and obedient. I tried to be one of the good girls, stay safe, play by the rules. But too much has happened over the past few years, and I no longer believe in that. Goodness doesn’t protect you from loss, from friends dying, from confusion and madness. I no longer care if I break the rules. Earnestness clings to me, though, however hard I try to shed it.
Even when I rebel, I go about it in a considered way, more an intellectual position than an inspired act of mutiny.
‘You know you’ll go to hell,’ my mother said when I told her during my first year at university that I’d lost my faith and would not be going to Mass. I was sorry she was suffering on my behalf, but her warning has never bothered me. I no longer believe in the fires of that particular hell.
I believe in this life, and I want to throw myself into whatever it offers. I’m determined to have adventures, travel the world, discover truer ways of being. In the past, I looked up from my books, saw the wilder side of campus life and longed to be part of it. Now, my inhibitions are dissolving. I can dance. I can speak.
One evening, a blind is pulled down on this bright world.
On a television set in the college lounge room, I watch a broadcast on the Munich massacre. The world is reduced to a black-and-white screen. The images are graphic, shocking. I’m catapulted back into a world of terror, into the inner turmoil caused by the political and social conflicts of the past ten years – particularly the Vietnam War. I feel I can’t take one more explosion of violence, one more senseless death.
Later, in my room, I sing along with Bob Dylan until I’m numb from the density of emotion in the songs. In the morning I play and replay ‘Farewell Angelina’, looking out at the wintry landscape of the campus, the black lace of tree branches, the sodden lawns. Sitting at my desk, I fill a notebook with pages of poetry, stopping only to press my hands against my eyes for the relief it gives. I read Walt Whitman’s poems and, inspired by his advice, ‘Dismiss whatever insults your own soul’, I throw out my collection of articles and leaflets on the war. I draw a yellow butterfly and tape it to the wall above my desk.
While my inner world is full of poetry and imaginings, the world outside feels distant and empty. I want to take hold of something with both hands, something external to myself, and make it matter to me. But I’ve been unable to reach through to anything solid.
I miss my friend Julianne. She was the one person who really knew me. After she died, I felt on the outside of life. I was standing in the darkness, looking through a window into a room glowing with light and love. I could see the fire blazing in the grate, and people sitting around a table, talking, eating and laughing. But I was locked out.
On the night I danced at Dimitri’s, I became one of the people in that room, at that table. I’m now, inexplicably, on the inside of life. But the energy that’s rushing into me is immense, irresistible, a waterfall, a torrent of sounds and colours, thoughts and sensations that sweeps me up, swirls me around, draws me under. I’m freefalling into the whirlpool at the bottom of Niagara.
'A moving distillation of pain and joy, The Green Bell is quite simply one of the most beautifully written and wisest memoirs I have ever read.’ – The Age
It’s 1972 in Canberra. Michael Dransfield is being treated for a drug addiction; Paula Keogh is delusional and grief-stricken. They meet in a psychiatric unit of the Canberra Hospital and instantly fall in love.
Paula recovers a self that she thought was lost; Michael, a radical poet, is caught up in a rush of creative energy and writes poems that become The Second Month of Spring. Together, they plan for ‘a wedding, marriage, kids – the whole trip’. But outside the hospital walls, madness, grief and drugs challenge their luminous dream. Can their love survive?
The Green Bell is a lyrical and profoundly moving story about love and madness. It explores the ways that extreme experience can change us: expose our terrors and open us to ecstasy for the sake of a truer life, a reconciliation with who we are. Ultimately, the memoir reveals itself to be a hymn to life. A requiem for lost friends. A coming of age story that takes a lifetime.
From the Stella Prize Judges: Paula Keogh’s portrait of a relationship formed in spaces of dark and light is touching and insightful. Set in Canberra in 1972–73, The Green Bell is centered around the time Paula shared with the poet Michael Dransfield, following their meeting in the psychiatric ward of Canberra Hospital. It is also an important illustration of the social and cultural changes of the times, and a recent history of psychiatric care in Australia and controversial DST and ECT treatment. The present-tense narrative heightens its subject matter of poetry and pain, and evokes an immediate past, while advocating for a better future. The Green Bell is an important life story, thoughtfully told.
** To purchase move your curser mid-bottom page and click through on the 'Buy' button. Published by Affirm Press.
Paula Keogh has a PhD in creative writing from La Trobe University and received the 2015 Affirm Press Mentorship Award for the development of The Green Bell at Varuna the National Writers House. She taught at RMIT University for nine years, and has lived in Canberra, Adelaide and Toronto, but considers Melbourne home.