About Frances Letters...
Frances Letters graduated in 1965 with a BA from the University of New England, then worked as a journalist on the Sydney Morning Herald.
After a year’s hitch-hiking round SE Asia, including wartime South Vietnam, she wrote The Surprising Asians (Angus &Robertson 1968); the schools edition was studied by some quarter of a million NSW School Certificate students. She spent 1969 travelling in India; People of Shiva: Encounters in India (A&R) was published in 1971.
Frances lived for many years in Europe, especially in Spain. She taught Transcendental Meditation in Barcelona.
She is an active member of ANTaR (Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation), the Armidale NSW branch of RAR (Rural Australians for Refugees), the peace group Women in Black, and supports environmental groups.
Wrestling the Reptile: Bigotry in Dangerous Times, a memoir, will be published soon.
Wrong Vibes by Frances Letters
They say that sandhills have a particular appeal for rapists. So private, so near the beach, where solitary girls might wander at dusk, lost in thought…
See? There’s one now. Mesmerised, she’s watching phosphorescence glitter as each wave curves, uncoils, then crashes. So she doesn’t notice soft footfalls close behind her…
Sudden wet cloth clamped on nose and mouth. Hard, grabbing hands.
What? This...mad...slow-motion...whirlpool... nightmare… Can it possibly be—for me? Unthinkable! Must be some...frantic... hal...lu...cin...a...tion...
There’s no air. No clear, sweet, limpid lifestream flowing in. Only… the roar…of thumping blood... A cageful of …swollen lungs... stretched tight in… silent… screeching… agony...
Blank red terror.
I come to, swimming up from unknown depths. Gripped hand-and-foot, I’m being dragged bumping through the darkness, up from beach to dunes. Four men. No, five. Young. Exultant. Wild with the thrill of it.
They drop me down onto the sand. Useless to scream: that way lies suffocating cloth again. And…death.
So, quiet now despite the thunder of blood in my ears, some part of me prepares to let it happen. Terror has retreated to a huddled corner; from some deep place within, a vast, alert, calm Self has come to watch, take note, and offer wise advice.
Cannily It suggests an appeal to the divine. God’s thunderbolt. Primeval fires of Hell. Some threat of holy horror still might save the night...
But this is India. Goa. Who knows where these young men’s ancestral piety took root? First off I try, with small and cautious voice, the murdered Gandhi’s dying cry to God: Lord Rama’s holy name. ‘Raam! Raam!’
No luck. No conscience-stricken gasp and sudden halt. So next, ‘Allah! Allah u akbar!’ And then, hope fading, ‘Jesus! Maria! Maria!’
Clearly here, as elsewhere, forbidden earthly thrills beat the hell out of fear of Hell.
Observing all, the vast, alert, calm Self then lifts a warning finger. Do what you can. A child conceived like this, however loved, however free from blame, would trail at least some shred of thundercloud for life…
They’re clearly novices in the arts of love, these guys. Not me, though, thanks to God. I’ve been around a bit—this is the sixties, after all. So quietly, pinned beneath one heaving weight after another, subtly I twist and arch and slip. Anything but helpful.
And then it’s over. They stand to go: bravado, nervous laughs, back-slapping. Young, giddy and triumphant.
And I’m alive. They’re going to let me live.
An afterthought: my bag. A rummaging hand pulls out a small ornate Tibetan purse. Pockets it.
‘Help yourself,’ I hear my vast, calm Self remark, voice mild, ironic, conversational in the dark. ‘There’s a parcel of fish in there, too, somewhere. Wrapped up in newspaper. From the markets. Might as well take that too, eh? And cook it up for tea.’
But they don’t understand. Don’t even hear. We share no common language. No human words that ever might reach out, touch hearts, swap jokes, share tales of our old sorrows and joys. The only intimacy we share is that unspeakable other—brutal, ugly, so unkind—that chops through human warmth and closeness like an axe, and slices to the bone.
The chattering and hoots of laughter fade away into the distance. Alone in the darkness now, suddenly I hear, as though for the first time, the deafening air-quake of the sea: the rhythmic heaving of waves as, one after another, they uncurl and break, hissing, on the shore.
Then I’m aware how strange—how cold and clammy—the unseen sand feels beneath me. Slowly I push myself up, then slowly stand.
What now? I do not know the rules for an event like this. Just do not know. A page is missing from the script…
Legs bare beneath my long homespun Indian shirt, I stumble through the dark to the nearest house, where a light glimmers. Ashamed and awkward. Baffled. Numb. Ridiculous.
I do not know the rules for this...
A hippie girl lives here, with her hippie guy. From LA. Supercool. Cross-legged on the floor by candlelight, she’s plaiting coloured ribbons into her long, cascading hair.
Torn cotton trousers clutched in one hand I stand there, ridiculous, raining sand, and blurt my tale. The lovely face looks up: a brief, assessing glance. Then, ‘Oh.’ A pause. ‘You know what’s wrong with you?’
One shoulder rises in an elegant shrug. ‘Your vibes. Yeah, that’s it. Your vibes must be all wrong.’
She bends her head again; her hands resume their slow, smooth undulations among the rainbow ribbons. Baffled, numb, ridiculous, I turn and leave...
Next day the police, too, are mysteriously unhelpful. With cringing heart but jaw set firmly I front up to the police station desk and state my case: but at a stroke not one of them remembers a single word of English...
* * *
They’re old now, those young men. That is, if they’ve survived. If the sea didn’t deposit them gently on the sand one morning, eyes milky, limp bodies tangled in the nets they’d mended so often. If hunger didn’t finish them off, or overwork, or disease.
Did they go on to make a habit of that night’s revelry? Did they join in the undertow of rape that has since surged to the surface in India? Poor and powerless as they must have been by day, was that thrilling rush of power enough to warp them forever, and trigger in them an uncontrollable craving to get their own back by force? To prove their manhood in spite of everything? Did their wives, children and grandchildren bear the brunt of it ever after?
Or did they simply grin guiltily, put the whole thing down to youthful high spirits, and get on with their lives? Perhaps even now those old men meet to get drunk together on coconut feni at Christmas––or is it at Eid, or Deepavali?––and roar with laughter over their naughty criminal youth…
Or did that hour’s unthinking cruelty come back to haunt and shame them? Did human compassion flicker in them, then surge up to fill their hearts? Did they become better men as a result of that night––wiser, kinder, more thoughtful?
Whichever path they chose to take afterwards, one thing is clear: life is impenetrably complex. Blame is always blunt, unsubtle; it never entirely encompasses the truth.
Even then I knew it. The forces that inexorably pulled us all towards the sandhills that night were labyrinthine, deeply intricate. Patriarchy and the lowly position of women; poverty, and the powerlessness that goes with it; the colonial thumbprint; hopeless education; wretchedly grim sexual repression nationwide. Fate? Karma? And my own airy, naïve assumption that good faith would always bring every other goodness with it…
Plus something new. Into the mix, into that scenario of poverty and ancient, unchanging tradition, had suddenly erupted––hippies. In those exuberant days, many young searchers after truth were convinced they’d found hippie paradise in Goa: and they wallowed in it to the full.
It would have been rare then for an Indian man to see even his wife naked. But daily on Calangute Beach young Westerners broke every imaginable code of Indian life by stripping off blithely to skinny-dip and saunter about stark naked under the palm trees. (Not me, I hasten to add: I’d been living among Indians, and breathed Indian air.)
What a wildly unsettling foreign tide of the rich, the privileged and the careless! However much they gloried in their new paradise, however brilliantly free and innocent they felt, in those surroundings the narcissism was absurd, arrogant and pitiably ignorant. The effect on the locals can only be imagined…
* * *
So they’re old now, those young men––if they’re still alive.
Sometimes I imagine meeting them again. We should all have something to share: some bit of wisdom we’ve come to over the years.
Bent and shambling, the five shuffle down to where I’m waiting for them in a ramshackle teashop beside the sea. A couple of those silent police with their shifty, knowing eyes could come, too; and the skinny-dipping hippie girl from LA, her blond mane now thin and grey.
Silently I watch as, fumbling, they arrange themselves on chairs around the table, and turn to face me. Reluctant, I suppose. Uneasy. They never knew that all these years they’d been caught up together in such an unlikely, intractable old web…
Waves are breaking on the sand: the same muffled, timeless rhythm that filled our ears that night so long ago. I take a deep, steadying breath. Then slowly I reach out and take the old men’s hands in mine, one after another. I look deep, searchingly, into their eyes. Searching for… what?
Their life stories. Any sign of understanding.
Yes, that’s it. For any healing wisdom we might share…