The Discreet Dash
This is an excerpt from Georgina Starr's artist’s novel in progress, The Discreet Dash.
Half drunk, in-shock, and badly injured, Susan still looked impressive. Wearing a trapeze-line dress in a deep burgundy colour; a long thin scarf was loosely tied at the neck into a floppy bow. The outfit echoed the casual elegance of the surroundings.
“Pass me that book on the table would you Dora—Circe is sitting on it, just push her off.”
The cat gave Dora a disparaging glare before reluctantly jumping down, it was a look that said: I am only moving because my mistress demands it. I could just as easily spray piss in your face. She handed the book to Susan who was dramatically sprawled across an expensive-looking grey velvet armchair decorated with a white poppy motif—like everything else in the room the armchair felt recuperative, as if the soft furnishing and autumnal colour scheme had magical healing powers. While Dora bathed Susan’s knees, gently applying drops of nicotine-yellow iodine ointment with cotton wool pads, Susan took another slug of whiskey straight from the bottle.
“I feel like I have wrestled a monster—did you feel like that?”
“I did ache everywhere.”
“My ribs hurt too and my neck feels whiplashed. Did I really come out from the house?”
Susan’s voice had lost all of its usual power and was now as fragile and papery as the freshly emerged creature fluttering around the cramped confines of the makeshift carrying case.
“It was like you were pushed really hard.”
“Could I have another of those painkillers?”
Dora was enjoying playing nursemaid. She could still not quite believe that she was inside Professor Susan Appleton’s home. Sitting obediently at the foot of the velvet armchair Susan’s damaged knees were at her eye-level. The fall from the house had caused the knees to poke derisively through her electric-blue tights and in close-up they looked like the faces of habited nuns: the cotton wool served as a wimple and the dirty yellow iodine stains gave them a thuggish, rather sinister appearance, as if they had been brawling too. Sister Perpetua came to mind, an unpleasant schoolteacher who had once whipped Dora’s legs with a cane for accidentally lassoing a boy in the playground with her skipping rope.
“Just as I thought, look at the markings—it’s an Oraxxia Saturniid, I’m sure of it.”
“Have you seen one like this before Susan?”
“Well, yes I think so, somewhere or other.”
“What do they eat?”
“The Saturniids do not eat, they don’t have a tongue.”
“Really, so they can’t speak either?”
“Well, no, but—look, there’s something here about them, I’ll read out a passage.”
Dora stared into the scuffed-up faces of the two belligerent nuns and imagined the right-hand one was talking instead of Susan—her voice had the same soft and slightly patronizing Dublin inflection as Sister Perpetua.
“OK let’s find out if it is male or female. Chapter 18: Determining Sex. It first describes how to determine the sex while it is inside the cocoon—not really relevant now that the thing is out, but I’ll read it anyhow as you never know. There is, of course, the gold ring and cotton method of deciding upon the sex of cocooned pupae. This is akin to dowsing. The gold ring is suspended from a couple of feet of sewing cotton, the other end of the thread is taken between the forefinger and thumb, and the arm is extended to full length. A certain muscular vibration is inevitable, and this is transmitted through the thread to the ring. If the slightly moving ring is brought down to about a millimetre above a cocoon it ceases random movement and swings either in a straight line like a clock pendulum or in perfect circles. The straight line reveals the male pupa: the circle the female—”
Dora had initially held Sister Perpetua in great esteem, up until the time she was flogged with the stick; afterwards she had never trusted the sanctimonious sadist again. With this in mind she allowed the left-hand nun to take the stage; also, Irish but with a Northern lilt, her voice more gentle and sincere.
“OK now for the actual adults. Once they have emerged they can, with few exceptions, be quite easily sexed. In general, the male Saturnid have very feathery (pectinate) antennae while the females are thread-like (filiform) and often slightly toothed. It is on the feathery male antennae that the scent organs detecting the female pheromones are situated—go take a look—”
The insect had stopped flapping and fluttering and was resting on the American Tan nylon wall. The antennae were not feathery.
“I think it’s a girl.”
“Perfect. You will also see then the female abdomen is very fat, often stumpily round, but sometimes cylindrical?”
“Yes, it is quite plump.”
“She is, after all, at eclosion: full of her complement of eggs. The tip ends in a short cone and on being gently squeezed the ovipositor scent gland will be extruded and visible.”
“I don’t need to squeeze it, do I? It’s already protruding a little bit—”
“That means that she is already calling. This method of attracting a mate is exceedingly well developed in this species and is one of the reasons the males have such feathery antennae, for it is here the pheromone detection organs are situated. The female will continue to ‘call’ for several days but unless she is mated within that time she will lay infertile ova. If she goes over four nights she may run out of pheromone.”
“Where are we going to get her a mate from in the next few days?”
By the time Dora and Susan had finished the bottle of whiskey they were both beginning to talk nonsense. They had ruminated for hours about Dash Hall and about why, on separate occasions, they both ended up spat out, bruised and beaten on their hands and knees in front of the house. They were getting nowhere and the alcohol mixed with the strong painkillers was making Susan slur her words.
“I am done in Dora, I’m absolutely exhausted. You look exhausted too, let’s sleep—stay here tonight.”
“Is that OK?”
“Of course, I have lots and lots of spare room. I’ll find some night clothes for you—”
“Do you need help?”
“I’m just a bit worried about these tights, oopsy—I think some of the blood from my knee has congealed and attached itself to the nylon—oh dearie me—I’m nervous to stand in case it pulls the skin off.”
Susan pushed herself up from the chair like an arthritic pensioner, keeping her knees bent and legs wide apart. In this ungainly position she lifted up her skirt and thrust her hands inside the top of her tights, wriggling her bottom and hips in an attempt to free herself from them. What the hell was she doing?
“No Susan! Don’t do that, you’ll make it worse, stay there I’ll go get some warm water. Have you some more cotton wool?”
“Yes, in the cabinet in the upstairs bathroom.”
Dora had just filled a glass with tepid water from the tap and located the cotton wool when she heard Susan’s high-pitched scream. She rushed out of the bathroom leaving the white fluffy cotton wool spheres bouncing like silent ping-pong balls on the tiled floor.
An odd scene awaited her in the living room. Susan was stood holding the hem of her dress around the top of her thighs. The tights, along with her underwear, had been pushed down to about three inches above her knees. There was now a perfectly white gap of naked skin between the red dress and the blue tights that made it look like she was wearing stockings—it also looked like she was about to use the armchair as a toilet. Was she really that drunk? She was staring down at a spot between her knees as if some Mesmer-like authority had her entranced; her face contorted into a silent-movie horror-struck expression, her knuckles white and bony from tightly clutching the skirt.
“Oh no, did you pull some skin off?”
Dora stayed back a little—the situation looked way too delicate to get any closer.
As Dora approached she kept her eyes fixed on the two thuggish nun’s faces, even more bestial now that the blood had dried in tiny leper-like scabs around their mouths and eyes and their cotton wool wimples had frayed into little wispy beards. Susan’s right index finger was appearing and disappearing on the periphery of Dora’s vision; stabbing like an insistent computer cursor in the direction of the crotch of her underpants. Dora stepped forward and grudgingly peeked inside—in the small shelf of stretched cotton between Susan’s open legs was sitting a large hairy brown cocoon.
After cleaning the dried blood from the nun’s leprotic faces, she helped Susan remove her tights and placed the new cocoon on the table next to the nylon case. They did not speak any more; they were all out of words. Leaning on Dora for support, Susan managed to hobble up the stairs and gesture towards a room across the landing where Dora could sleep.
“There are clean clothes in the drawers, take anything you want, and you should find a spare toothbrush in the en-suite.”
She sounded weak and exasperated, as if a giant eraser was slowly rubbing her out.
“Don’t worry I’ll be fine. Try getting some sleep.”
“Close your door or Circe will get in and bother you.”
“OK—good night Susan.”
The bedroom was almost as big as Dora’s whole flat. It was high ceilinged, like the rest of the house, and furnished in an old-fashioned dark wood. The walls papered from a concave pelmet to a low wooden dado with pictorial wallpaper. With only a bedside lamp illuminating the room it was too dark to make out all the scenes depicted, from what she could tell they were an East Asian landscape: rivers, mountains and possibly small huts or dwellings. The room smelled clean but unused, it reminded her of an airing cupboard holding freshly laundered cotton sheets that she had liked to place her head into as a child. She felt suddenly inside something, as if she had been shrunk down and dropped into a doll’s house or museum exhibit. Standing in the middle of the room an unexpected wave of tranquillity and calm enveloped her whole body, an unusual feeling of contentment that she had only experienced once or twice before in her whole life. She found a pair of flannelette pyjamas in the chest of drawers and, collecting the book from her bag, climbed onto the high metal-framed single bed—it creaked under her weight. The bed was soft, lumpy, and luxurious. Falling into the doughy pink satin-covered duvet was like being consumed by the supple flesh of a gigantic living brain. How could bed clothes smell and feel this good? Propping herself up by two inconceivably plump pillows Dora flicked through the pages of A Lepidopterist’s Dream—the book that Susan’s hollowed knees had read to her earlier, searching for a line from the section ‘Determining Sex’. She found it at the beginning of Chapter 18:
The straight line reveals the male pupae, the circle the female.
Dora was also completely worn out and bewildered by the day’s events, yet she felt somehow vindicated too. Since her own Dash Hall episode three weeks earlier she had thought she might be going insane—today’s events were proof that something had happened. Gathering courage from the whiskey still coursing through her veins she released herself from the brain’s swollen lobes, left the room and tiptoed back downstairs into the sitting room. Taking hold of the metal amulet eye-necklace by the long chain she let it hang over the cocoon—it was heavier than she had expected and it swung back and forth making large messy figure of eight movements. She grabbed the pendant in the palm of her left hand and pulled the chain taut with her right before slowly releasing it again. Now almost motionless; the metal eye trembled just a few centimetres above its brown hairy-eyed nemesis. Dora closed her own eyes so as not to influence the movement, but she immediately got the spins so she opened them again. Keeping her hand as steady as possible she focussed all her energy into the metal eye which began to twitch and twist, first making tiny pendulum swings that gave way to tight ovals, becoming wider and wider until they eventually made large looping circles. She counted twenty before she was satisfied.
Upstairs on Susan’s bed Circe the cat was needling the duvet in an attempt to find the perfect resting spot. Susan was also struggling to get comfortable due to her various physical injuries and had heard the creak of the 3rd step as Dora tiptoed downstairs. Gradually losing consciousness, the alcohol in her bloodstream turned into silvery viscous mercury travelling steadily around her body and brain, reflecting all kinds of obscure and disturbing visions. She saw herself in crowded public places; streets, parks and city squares, lifting her skirt and revealing her genitalia to passers-by—flashing to total strangers over and over in a delirious state of perpetual anasyrma.
As both women finally surrendered to sleep, the pheromone was atomised in short misty bursts from the caged insect’s fat furry ovipositor, coating all the surfaces of the house with an invisible, but highly potent, sugary dew.
From her early studies in ceramics and sculpture, through to large-scale installations incorporating video, sound, performance, and writing, Georgina Starr has been engaged in a re-imagining of identity, biography, and history. For over 25 years her complex works have challenged the viewer to re-examine the self, the unconscious and its ever-morphing biographies through a glittering and melancholic theatre of memory, mythology, and fiction. Starr has exhibited widely in galleries and museums both in the UK and internationally, from the Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney and Tate Britain to Kunsthalle Zurich and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Recent exhibitions include a mid-career survey show Hello. Come here. I want you. at Frac Franche-Comté and Androgynous Egg a performance commissioned by Frieze Projects in 2017. Starr is currently working on a novel The Discreet Dash, which explores ideas around memory, parthenogenesis, and interspecies communication.
* Cover photo: Georgina Starr, Androgynous Egg. Performed at Frieze London in October 2017. Photo Credit: Ronald Lewis. Courtesy The Artist & Frieze Projects.