The Sticky Tar Pit of Time


First Person

A cat running. Collotype after Eadweard Muybridge, 1887. Credit: Wellcome Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

This morning—that morning, rather—two men in my train carriage lift their heads—two men in their fifties in silky, understated ties—then there is a little snap, like a red light camera going off, and even before the next stop gets announced they’re leaning into each other laughing, How long has it been? Must be forty years give or take. What’s been happening? They run through their classmates: two cancers (one in chemo, one cannot hack chemo), a property development fraud, one guy (just on the other side of a protracted settlement) with too many ex-wives (stupid bastard, he and them deserve each other). A pause. Please don’t tell me it’s all there is. Fraud, cancer, bad marriages, being caught, extricating yourself, chance encounters on trains; can you remember the last time life felt long or kind, or like it was yours and mine?

My phone vibrates, one time only for texts. “Make sure you don’t have scissors, nail files, anything sharp.” It’s Vanda. Thank you, Vanda.


In front of me is time. Time is not a river. It is two strangers on a train whose briefcases touch as they hold each other. Two men who’ll never ride the same train again.

I don’t remember getting off or walking. Somehow I reached the courthouse doors on William Street where my bag was screened, nothing sharp in it, and the structure that looked dull and huge on the outside, a building without qualities, was alive and brown inside with wrappers pulled off chocolate bars, doors slamming, others opening, kids in school uniforms who were not, as I’d guessed, witnesses to inexplicable suburban crimes but legal studies students bored on a field trip. Several of the magistrates looked like Karl Heinrich Marx. In an elevator, I stood next to a lawyer with the face of someone who sometimes forgets he has not, yet, seen it all. I looked at him. He looked at the crease in his hardworking pants.

What is the Court 8 clerk wearing today? Orange jacket, there you go, bold choice for the setting. And what is Court 8’s loudest sound right now? My fineliner pen making notes about courtroom silence. Big silence in a roomful of busy-looking people is jarring. Then the magistrate appears—once he’s seated, that silence is gone—and to a man on the stand whose second drunk-driving offense is the day’s first matter he says, “I cannot take your past away,” and it is like some subterranean conversation underneath the one everybody can hear is flowing about how to be alive is to be caught in one web or another. “I know your first offense was twenty years ago, but your past doesn’t disappear. If police stop you, they’ll test you.” The magistrate means it’s your last chance, your cufflinks can’t save you, the taxes you pay won’t save you. He also means: nothing is more human than the experience of feeling trapped. And everything’s a trap, your past, family, genes, addictions, loneliness, that feeling that pretty much everyone else is galloping gaily ahead while you are crawling backward like a lobster or lopsided baby.

All morning I wait for something but nothing much happens. After the man on drunk-driving offense number two comes a retail manager from Elwood who’s drinking because her IVF is failing. Next is a well-dressed Somali man charged with not wearing a seatbelt and accompanied by a well-dressed Somali interpreter. After that it’s a Turkish taxi driver caught going 105 in an 80 zone. I move courts. Sit in on an aggravated burglary hearing. Go to the room where a meth syndicate (the most lawyers I’ve seen all day) is being sentenced. “There is no crime of which I do not deem myself capable.” So said Goethe. Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. That—“I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me”—is what the Roman playwright Terence said. “There are no fairy tale endings.”

Vanda says that. How come, I ask her.

“Because people are people.”

People wear UGG boots to court. You may find yourself one day staring down at a court floor and seeing UGG boots next to high-heeled, calf-extending leather numbers worn by female lawyers, and this image might lead you to believe that lines have been drawn and you will always be able to tell who is who. Don’t believe it. Sometimes it is like that and other times—not at all.

That morning, this morning, I walk back to the station past the cafe where a week ago a deputy chief magistrate, Jelena Popovic, was telling me how it took her years as a magistrate before she understood that the people appearing in front of her were, in the main, neither offenders nor victims of their own circumstances, but rather people at the point of crisis. The crisis was the hopeful thing. “It started crystallizing for me during a late nineties heroin scourge. It seemed to me we were doing nothing to help people when we should have been capitalizing on this point of crisis.” The word, when she said it, had a nobility, a scale, and seeing myself so struck by it I thought about how this word, crisis, can recast a human life’s brokenness. No laughter spilled out of my half-empty afternoon train home, nobody was falling into an old friend’s lap. Each one of us was alone. With our bags, jackets, leaking umbrellas, wandering eyes, with the big silent phones we were kneading in our hands.

I have always dreaded movie sequences in which a human life—a normal, long life, untouched by illness or war—gets condensed into a few emblematic scenes. A child, carefree and pure, becomes a young adult with shining eyes, then in no time is a parent of someone whose eyes are soon to be shining, and when next they’re beaming out of your screen they are the same only their hair’s graying, eyes woolly, and their frame is thicker or perhaps slighter, it’s as if their form and content are pulling away from each other, and you know where it is headed, where else, and despite these characters being fictional and this life-to-death-in-three-minutes business being just some hillbilly director’s device there is something intolerable about seeing life with time sucked out of it like the air from an air mattress. A few occasions, bumping across a movie sequence like that, I’d put both hands over my chest.

For a long while I could not work out why it hurt. Until I understood: time. Time is what makes everything okay. How it flows forward and circles around itself, both; how life, suspended, zero gravity, in time consists of so many things repeating. Getting up, the brushing of hair, toasting of bread, sun shooting up in the sky, taking keys out of your pocket to open doors. Seasons. In the benign repetition of daily acts an invisible net is cast, holding people up, protecting them. Because the things being repeated—“non-exchangeable and non-substitutable singularities,” so said Deleuze—are never the same. That imperceptible difference, same damn thing, same blessed thing, is what rescues it. So yes those movie sequences hurt. Time as a straight line is a monstrosity. Sometimes, though, what’s being repeated is hope’s absence. A child comes into a world that is like a tar pit, a tar pit of prehistoric ferocity, the kind that could suck in a Columbian mammoth. In this world a little creature still sorting its hind legs from its front legs does not stand a chance. Cannot stand. Time is not a river pushing people forward as they lunge at floating branches—inelegantly, so what?—but an oily, seeping substance. Black and sticky.

Most of Vanda’s clients come from a tar pit. The term regularly used, entrenched disadvantage, is ugly; like much of the language to do with people who don’t get to do much choosing in their lives, and whose every creep forward—in a good year every couple of creeps—gets followed by a bone-splintering triple tumble backward. Poverty, abuse, addiction, mental health stuff, they are what’s in the tar, the sticky parts.

We met by accident in North Melbourne Town Hall’s corridors the spring that I was pregnant with my second child and Vanda was volunteering at a fringe festival. She was checking tickets at the door, helping out with shows. The shows (as you’d expect) were of varying quality. I wondered what she was doing here, this woman whose big polymath mind was straight-away apparent, even to me who was sick with around-the-clock morning sickness and not noticing much. I remember thinking I don’t get the whole community-volunteering thing. Thinking also that in another time/place this woman could have led armies to battle. I did not know then that she loved theater, directing, actors—actors especially—and years before had started a theater company for young people that had a policy of turning away no one at auditions. The result was large, happy casts and full houses. I wasn’t aware then that after a disheartening year doing articles at a suburban law firm she needed to feel surrounded by theater to feel okay. And I was there why? Involved in one of the festival shows if you must know. In a nonperforming capacity and due any minute to alight on the discovery of how lucky writers are compared to the men and women of theater. Writers are not required to be present at their trials.


Maria Tumarkin is a writer and cultural historian. She is the author of three previous books of ideas, Traumascapes, Courage, and Otherland, all of which received critical acclaim in Australia, where she lives. Her most recent work, Axiomatic, won the 2018 Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Best Writing Award. It is her first book to be published in the U.S.

Excerpted from Axiomatic, by Maria Tumarkin. Used with permission of Transit Books. Copyright © 2018 by Maria Tumarkin