In the Temple of the Unicorn

By Vita Forest

On Saturday, after Ghost netting at The Australian Museum, I took my last visit using my unlimited season ticket to The Lady and the Unicorn exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.  Sunday being the last day before those great tapestries were rolled up again and sent back again across the seas to their home in France.

You pass under red banners decked in garlands and into a darkened chamber with spot-lit quotes by Rilke in framed gothic window silhouettes on the wall.  You walk into the dimly-lit inner hexagonal room and are immersed in the mysterious, peaceful world within it.  Each wall bearing a different tapestry.  The tapestries hang side by side, across from each other, conversing among themselves, reflecting details and differences, harmonious even as the components alter as you look harder and closer.  Visitors’ heads swivel and get lost in the world of animals  and plants and women floating on their blue islands on fields of red.

In the centre of the room is a split hexagonal bench, each side facing a different tapestry.  You can sit on both inside and outside the hexagon and look forward and also back across to the tapestries behind.

It is unknown what the real purpose of these medieval images are, allegories to the senses seems most likely, as in each tapestry you can note the Lady showing the unicorn his reflection (sight), or playing music (hearing), or feeding a bird (taste), or holding the horn of a unicorn (touch) or inhaling the scent of a flower (smell).

I sit on the bench looking inwards and across.  From here I can see three tapestries easily.  Can search the upper reaches of each one for the heron and the eagle.  I overhear a lady wearing a unicorn brooch tell her friend that she has an eagle in her life too.  An eagle she has watched plummet and dive to catch and kill another more fragile bird.  She talks about the satisfaction of finally getting here, to this room, to this place, after all this time, on the day before the exhibition closes.  She talks about ordering the catalogue weeks ago, how it arrived in the mail, how she will go home and read it through and through.

And I remember Fleur who made a special pilgrimage to this gallery to the see this exhibition as a way of celebrating her birthday.  How lovely to sit there amongst the blossoms and the frolicking animals and breathe in the peace on her special day.

I look up at the rabbits, at the foxes, at the dogs, at the goats, at the monkeys that remind me of Mrs Coulter from His Dark Materials (even though they are not yellow).  I wonder if the unicorn is the Lady’s daemon?  If he has to stay near her, attached by an invisible pull so strong that to break it would make them both ill.  (As I sit and write this,  I have my own little white daemon cat sitting beside me lounging against my thigh and nuzzling my hand).

I listen to a very interesting conversation behind me between an elderly couple and a not so elderly woman.  The oldest woman remarks that the unicorn has cloven hoofs like a goat, and a beard like that animal too, is it closer to a goat than the horse it is often compared to?  She tells the story of how her horse once broke a mirror when it saw its reflection for the first time.  It saw her with another horse and wasn’t happy about it.  She points out that the unicorn seems to know it is looking at itself in the mirror.  Seems to know what it sees.  I think that mirror is safe from hoofs, cloven or otherwise.

I watch two children with their pencils and worksheets squatting down in front of a tapestry, pointing up at the weaving and tallying up the numbers of different animals they see, recording their results in neat handwriting on the page.  I watch families stand in front of their favourite image and turn away from it to grin into the lens of a camera, their bodies enveloped in the soft red landscape behind them.

I think that these scenes somehow remind me of Totoro, that neighbour of Satsuki and Mei from that movie, the scenes of forest spirits and children, perfectly comfortable in each other’s presence, Mei falling asleep lying on the belly of the biggest Totoro as butterflies dance and plants sway in the shaded hollow under the tree where they rest.  Perhaps it is the peace, perhaps it is the magic, perhaps it is the sense of everything being just how it should be.

And I wonder if the Pre-Raphaelites saw these same tapestries, and remember that room in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where I used to sit, all those years ago, that quiet hushed room with the similar dim light and peaceful atmosphere, where full-lipped maidens walked barefoot among equally detailed, recognisable trees, under trellises of roses, pomegranates and oranges.

And I think about the biggest tapestry – To My One Desire, and wonder what that was?  To simply be, in this place, with these animals and plants and women, where everything is safe and calm and timeless and as it should be.

 

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This week

By Vita Forest

This week I have been

READING

  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  • Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung

WATCHING Jasper Jones with my kids

KNITTING a tea cosy from some lovely wool from lovely Sui-Sui.

COPING with a sudden switch to proper autumnal weather (quite a shock I have to say).

COOKING a big pot of Albruzze soup

MAKING a gift for a friend with a big birthday coming up…

HOPING to get back to some writing next week

No princesses around here

By Vita Forest

On Wednesday we had school photos.  We were called out during my maths lesson and marched up to the top grass under the trees.  We were arranged in three rows with me slotted in at the side and Milly gamely balancing on a high step brandishing her broken arm in front of her.  We were adjusted and readjusted – some children just did not want to be that close to certain other children and of course the child who has been known to lash out at others when he gets riled up was placed right in the centre of the group with bodies pressing in on him from all sides…

The camera snapped away and before anyone came to any harm, it was over.

Then we lined up again to have individual photos. On the way we checked our hair and our shirts and our collars, and tried to get our fringes to behave, and tried to decide whether plaits should be swept forward or behind our shoulders, and whether glasses should be left on if they catch the light, and whether the boys shirts should really be tucked in when they really look so much better tucked out…

I led the class in its snaking line down past the play equipment and up the ramp into the hall.  I sat on a stool  with my kids looking on and smiled at the camera and was asked to repeat ‘Cocktails!’ and ‘Holidays’ and ‘Weekend!’ (that is what teachers like apparently).  When I was done, I went out of the hall and found some shade and waited for my line of kids to feed into the production line for their photo and get popped out the other side.

A boy or two ambled up and sat down to wait and then a rather cranky looking girl.

‘What’s up T?’ I asked.

‘She made me say “Princess’” she scowled.  ‘Then “Cheeky Monkeys” but “Princess!”  Alan did you have to say “Princess”?’

Apparently not.  Apparently the boys got to say “Elephant’s Undies” and other such manly things.

The survey continued as the rest of the class trickled out, there were no “Princesses” among the boys, only the girls were asked to say that word.  My sassy girls of eight and nine continued to discuss the outrage of being asked to say “Princess” – I mean, As IF!

We went back to the classroom and continued on with the presentation of their free choice speeches.  The best speakers will go on to the next round and may eventually represent the school at an inter-school competition.  There were some excellent speeches from some of the little characters in my class.  Some of the topics chosen included – ‘why our school should not get a pool’ (the rest of the class took some convincing), ‘Termites and how great they are’ (after this girl’s garage collapsed after, you guessed it, termites destroyed it), and my personal favourite – ‘why this public speaking competition is ‘the worst’’.  Stacey, who wrote and presented this gem ended it by saying, ‘But Ms F, I really would like to get through to the next round!’ (and she did.  She’ll get a merit award for it next week too).

Later that day we were hunted down in the computer room.

‘Come quick Ms F!  We want you to hear the band!’ (The band for our performance group, the band who are rehearsing together for the third time).  Again we left our tasks, again 28 children lined up in two rather wonky lines and again we left the great indoors and wove around buildings and play equipment and garden beds and bins, lured by the fabulous music that wafted through the empty playground beckoning us on like the Pied Piper.  My class sang and even danced as they recognised the song and we moved ever closer to the source of the music.  The band was arranged outside of the hall under the trees (they couldn’t be inside today  – it was School Photo Day) and when we arrived, they began again, with my pal, the fabulous band teacher, conducting them with gusto.  It was peaceful under the trees, the bass player lounging against a wall, the saxophonists blowing gamely into their instruments.  The tune was there and the tempo, it was an exhilarating start!  We all applauded and I told them how thrilled I was.  And then we stood up again and lined up again and walked back to the computer room for a very short lesson…

And later that afternoon we were outside again with our lovely art teacher (because she couldn’t be in the hall because it was School Photo Day – very tolerant, flexible people are teachers) and the kids were painting trees and lying on the grass and talking about mixing colours and the shapes in the bark and how one tree looked like a person or maybe a peace sign and some kids painted the trees red with yellow leaves even though they are brown with green leaves and I just thought, despite how tired I felt, that this was, after all, a good day.

This week

By Vita Forest

Balmoral Beach

This week I have been

READING Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman

STARTING our dance group rehearsals and

SEEING

  • ideas we had only talked about come to life
  • a discarded electric fan by the side of the road with its blades turning as the wind blew through at just the right angle
  • the elderly Chinese couple in the leafy park in Chatswood who bring me joy each sunny morning as they move in perfect synchronicity balancing their tennis balls on their tennis rackets and almost dancing as they practise tai-chi on the dew-covered grass
  • a mynah bird fly into my classroom!  We both panicked for a few minutes before I managed to open a window and encourage it to fly free.  Phew!

WRITING my novel (including trying a new opening)

HELPING Saskia get her house ready for it’s first open house day (three of us working like crazy on Saturday morning and it ended up looking amazing with five minutes to spare before the potential buyers arrived…)

MEETING with  a like-minded neighbour and

CONVINCING some others that fixing the garden really would be a great idea

SWIMMING at Balmoral Beach before the rain returned…

Shelly Beach

By Vita Forest

Lying on the surface

While striped fish streak through my fingers

And white rays shimmy down into the sand

And kelp wrings forwards and back on the tide

Hiding and revealing the groper

And its widening and shrinking jaw

Leaning on the wooden rail

While heavy clouds squat on the horizon

And the sky loses itself in the sea

And the procession of paddlers follow the leader

Tracing a curve around the shoreline

And swerve to avoid the snorkelers engrossed in the sights below.

Lapping

By Vita Forest

I was swimming back and forth across the pool.  The pool edged in rocks and shells and soft green moss.  I was swimming with my head above the water, legs moving like a frog below.  I was feeling the wind on my face, and remembering how yesterday, the high seas had sent waves over the sides of the pool, pushing me away from the rock wall.  How I laughed with a stranger as our bodies were swept back by the cold effervescent water that poured in from the sea.  But today, the seas have calmed, have dropped back down to a more civilised level.  The Surf Beach is open again, red and gold flags fluttering in the breeze, the whole bay no longer churning with white water.

I had swum in the surf with my kids, the waves still looking mighty big as they came roaring towards us.  But the bay was not completely awash with white water.  And the flags were out, and the lifesavers.  So it seemed alright.  But now I was back at the pool on the headland, stately stroking onwards in a kind of moving meditation.  Above me, a pelican arced overhead like a kite, doing its own kind of laps, floating back and forth over the meandering edge of the black rock headland, wings outstretched, held up there between the sun and the sea.

There were a few of us crossing forwards and backwards along the far side of the pool.  For exercise, for fitness, or was it a remnant of body memory from when we were kids?  When swimming meant racing or squad training, counting the laps, watching the clock, pushing your body until it felt like it would explode.  I have mellowed since then, but I still feel the need to swim up and down.  Now I do it at lower speeds with my head out of the water so my ears don’t ache and I can look at the scenery as I go.

There were others in the pool who had obviously never been competitive swimmers, whose eyes didn’t automatically divide the water with invisible lines, straight and narrow.  They splashed and floated across the pool, or hovered in pairs chatting by the rocky outcrops or leapt in right where I was about to swim.  I could see the look of frustration on the face of a fellow lapper, but really, who was right?  Why did we think that swimming should be done this way and not that?  And we were on holidays after all.  Did it really matter if we had to detour around the woman lounging on the blow-up bed holding herself in place with a hand cupped over a bulge of black rock?  If speed and straightness was really what you were after, you could always go to the chlorinated indoor pool up the hill, with its lanes marked out with rows of black tiles and by rigid ropes strung tight between hooks at either end of its fifty metres.

But I prefer this pool with its unruly edges, its uneven rock floor and the occasional fish that floats beneath our feet, causing the boy with the goggles to shriek excitedly, “Two fish! Really big ones!”  I prefer my fingers to stroke the green moss softening the jagged rocks on the pool’s edges, where you can stop and look out at the sea and perhaps catch a glimpse of a crab sidling along, emerging and submerging beneath the water.

When I climbed up the metal ladder and balanced my way across the concrete path, back to my towel, I heard a small girl announcing to her mother as she held up a shell, “Look!  He’s still inside his egg.  Look!  He’s still there!”  And they peered into the heart of the small rounded shell she had pulled from the rock pool at her feet, and I pulled on my hat and my clothes and walked up the hill and saw that pelican, still cruising back and forth along the rocky coastline below me.

Thinking about Balmoral

By Vita Forest

It’s the summer holidays and that means lots of time spent swimming in salt water.  One of my favourite haunts is Balmoral Beach, a place with so many layers of memory washing over it.

There’s the lemon scent I catch as I walk down the street where I usually park the car, from who knows what plant – it’s not a lemon tree.  This street with the sign at the entrance to the driveway of a block of apartments “Don’t even think about parking here” which causes equal parts outrage and laughter.  The flats, with the garage that at one time had its door raised to reveal a private gym, and another time, another year, a stall of random items for sale including a couple of Margaret Atwood books.  One day I bought The Blind Assassin.  The next day I bought Alias Grace.  A street I walk along and wonder, which house would I live in?  If I could?  Or would I choose that low-maintenance apartment with its shady verandah looking out over the beach?

There’s The Baths.  Years ago, we used to have our initial swimming carnival for high school there (before moving onto to the more serious North Sydney Olympic pool for the finals).  It was a fun day out, with those who wanted to participating in the races, diving off the floating blocks into the often choppy water, while those who didn’t, sunbaking on the slatted wooden jetty or splashing about in the shallows near the sand.  In recent years, Max and Lucy have floated there on giant doughnuts or blow up boats or snorkelled under the jetty looking for fish and crabs and the rumours of seahorses living in the waving kelp.  In recent years I have returned here to swim, simplifying my routine by swimming without goggles or a cap.  Perhaps that is why I don’t do Freestyle anymore – too much water gets in my ears.  Instead I keep my head out – all the better to see where I am going and to pause every now and then to look up at the bush on the headland or the clouds floating in the blue sky.

Further south, there are large fig trees that grow on the grass behind the sand.  Some of them are like pavilions with branches extending over the beach itself.  It was under one of these that I used to sit with Lucy as a baby, her body lying between my legs, her feet kicking into the air as she gazed up at the twinkling brightness of the sun through the fig leaves.  It was here that her feet were first dipped into salt water, tiny toes flaring up at its coldness.  It was here I rocked the pram covered with a muslin cloth, groggy with lack of sleep, and watched Max play on the pirate ship in the playground.

Heading north, there’s the island attached to the promenade by an arched concrete bridge.  It was here we drank cheap champagne on one of our last days of high school.  It was here I have stopped with innumerable friends on innumerable walks up and down the beach in summer and winter, sunshine and rain.  It was here a month or so ago, I sat on a rock and drew a fig tree growing out of a crevasse between two boulders of sandstone, its roots clutching and wrapping around the rocks.  It was on that occasion that I saw the young bride and groom, she in a backless white gown that showed off the tattoos on her tanned shoulders.

It’s to this place I have come in summer, either early or late, to avoid the harshness of the midday sun.  And so I never see Freya, who I work with, who only goes there at the hottest time of the day.  She is young and invincible and lies in the sun to get a tan, something I never do.  Me in my long-sleeved rashie seeing if I can still swim a kilometre.

I can.