I have three recurring dreams. One: I am backstage of what I can feel is a very large, very full theatre. High ceilings, dim lights. Behind the many velvet curtains, the audience is coughing expectantly. The orchestra has finished tuning. Me and the other three cygnets are hopping around in the wings, waiting to go onstage. A woman who is sometimes my mother is adjusting our feathery headbands. We line up together and begin crossing our arms. The orchestra swells. This is the bit, in the dream, where I remember that I don’t know any of the steps, and also that I can’t do ballet at all. Also I can’t even do normal dancing. This information makes itself known to me all at once. It comes to me that it is mere seconds ‘til I am onstage, giving the Cygnet Dance a go, and reducing the second act of Swan Lake to ashes and dust.
Two: Backstage again. An even bigger theatre, and even posher coughing from the audience. I know, without being told, that this is a large RSC production of Richard III. What I do not know, yet, is that the person taking on the titular role is me. It’s me who is the bottled spider, the elvish-marked rooting hog, the loathed issue of thy father’s loins etc. I realise this only when I look down at my feet, and see that I am wearing shiny, gnarled little pointy shoes – the clear shoes of Richard III. I begin to run through my lines. I realise, again with a terrible sickening suddenness, that I don’t know any of them at all. Soon I will lurch onto the stage, doing some kind of inappropriate imitation of a hunchback, and have absolutely nothing to say.
All three dreams produce in me great surges of anxiety, so that I must wake up gasping and dry of throat. But only the gala dreams make me actually sit up in bed and claw at my sheets like a Victorian madwoman. They freak me out so badly. The pool is always so long and there is so much toiling to be done. I don’t think I will drown, or that anyone will claw at my legs under the water a la Grade 11 water polo. It’s the stretch of water itself that gives me the fear. It is obvious to my dream self that I don’t have a hope of reaching the other side. Just too long, and the wiggly lines under water reaching on forever.
The gala always takes place at my primary school pool. While my dream self insists that it is many kilometres in length, I know really that it is just the standard 25m. Just normal, even for kids who aren’t great at swimming (the little kids did widths). Still, it is a special kind of 25 metres in my head – 200 psychic metres at least. Something big and meaningful going on in that highly chlorinated water.
I saw the pool a few years ago, as an adult sized person. You know what’s coming. It was tiny. It felt like a splash pool, like a centre for ants. I stood on the side and scoffed at it, a giant. Everyone has had this experience, I think, at some point. School halls, athletic tracks, grandparents’ gardens. Junior primary school bathrooms are also good for this. Go in there and check out the little sinks somewhere down by your knees. You will be amazed. The mirrors will just fit your nose in.
This is about growing up, of course, but it’s also about the quality of memory. Memory makes things big, when really they are very wee. Memory also makes things seem nicer than they were. I recall, for instance, the senior primary girls’ bathroom as an extremely glamorous place. Always blasts of Impulse 02 and dithering over the visibility of training bra straps. It was brilliant in there, as I remember.Memory distorts, and that explains a great deal.
I do not believe, however, that it explains the Mitchell Park Zoo. Memory distorts, but it does not just invent out of hand. Mine doesn’t, anyway. Memory doesn’t manufacture many tortoises, and sweet monkeys looking like enchanted men. I didn’t invent a whole squad of heaving crocodiles. They were just there. All kinds of good flamingos and cranes as well. All types of incredible monkeys. When my grandfather was a kid, there was a tethered elephant that would give you rides. There was no elephant when I was small, but there was an evil family of gators.
I remember it as being nicer because indeed it was nicer. Here is what you will find, today, if you go to the Mitchell Park Zoo:
- An ordinary duck in a cage
- A possibly dead crocodile, alone
- Two shaved llamas
- Several ducks with beak problems in a pond
- The peacocks are still good
- Ditto the flamingos
- A squat, low-slung building called “The House of Darkness”
- A mural at the entrance to The House of Darkness, depicting an African Weasel dancing under the full moon. Truly.
Zoos are terrible places, always, but the Mitchell Park Zoo is another kind of thing altogether. It is bottom-line indescribable. It’s more of a place for ducks to sleep than a zoo, now. It is aching to be included in someone’s dream landscape. Not mine, though. I have the gala, the ballet, and the pointy gnarled shoes of Richard III.