‘We went to New York,’ Kathy said.
‘Colin was painting well then, and he was
on the edge of a breakthrough, he said.
Breakdown was more like it. He was drinking,
smoking a lot of dope. He’d sit on the floor
and stare at his work, and talk about his soul.
Why are men full of shit? He painted
big canvases, twelve feet across,
red, black and purple zigzags,
then he’d blacken them with a blowtorch—
trying to face up to the Americans,
he said. The way he talked about it,
it was like a boy’s competition
down at the bottom of a schoolyard,
kids punching each other on the arm,
proving they could take the punishment.
You know, with Jackson Pollock, that
investment in the ego —prove yourself,
throw your soul onto the canvas,
one false step and you’re a phoney.
But that’s bullshit. You can make
as many false steps as you want;
if a piece doesn’t work, you just
throw it out, or scrape it back
and paint something better over it.’
It was a lovely spring morning. We were
enjoying the breeze at the front of the ferry.
The light went down into the water
then it reflected off the sandy bottom
and glinted pale green through the waves.
‘We were going to cafes in the Village,’
Kathy was saying, ‘and reading books—
Action Painting, poetry, the Beats,
the Existentialists—popular philosophy
seemed to be obsessed with the arts then —
apart from the native consumer philosophy
that polished every American artifact
and made it glow with reflected money—
and every trend had a capital letter.
Colin said he had to get drunk to paint,
to see his own soul truthfully,
so he could wrestle with it, he said,
late into the night. You know, he slept
eight hours just like any office worker,
except he organised it so he slept
ten in the morning through to six at night.
People thought he was so full of fire
that he went without sleep. Huh!
Well, he liked to give that impression.
What did I feel about New York?
I can’t sort it out. It broke me.
It made me into an artist. I don’t know.
I still have a lot of hostile feelings.
It’s like advertising—of course it’s
necessary, and often it adds flavour
and colour to things, but at the same time
it’s obviously made up of greedy lies.
I’d been fascinated by photography,
how a snapshot can freeze a scene
and turn a piece of three-dimensional
coloured, moving reality, full of sound,
into something flat and motionless,
silent, permanent, like an art print,
and show you things you couldn’t really see,
tiny details, the blur of frozen movement,
an expression that flitted across a face.
That had been my major project
at art school, before I met Colin
and dropped out. I took it up again
in New York, just photographing people
on the street. I rigged up a darkroom
in the bathroom; everybody does.
It never gave me the results
I wanted —solid tone, clean prints—
I was always having to pack it up
so we could use the bathroom, and the air
was full of dust. In a darkroom
it’s not the light that gets to be a problem;
you can work at night. No, it’s the dust;
lint from towels, dust in the air,
dandruff, grit —it gets on the negatives
while you’re printing, and the prints come out
with big white spots all over them.
But I managed. The work kept me sane
when things got bad —and they got bad —
and it reminded me of who I was.
I was disintegrating, otherwise.
I drank a lot at first. I think
it helped me to cope, or at least
that’s what I believed at the time.
Some of the people you meet — artists,
dealers, artists’ wives—those people
were competitive. That was their style.
New Yorkers have a tendency to see
their worst faults as virtues—I guess
if you were one of those piranhas
and had to look in the mirror every morning
you’d gas yourself. So they’d developed
elaborate theories about how vital
competition was — competition, the essence
of petty capitalism, for God’s sake,
not even monopoly capitalism, let’s get
our focus set at the proper level,
we’re dealing with the petty bourgeoisie —
how it separated the sheep from the goats,
artists from weaklings, men from boys—
they didn’t mention women or girls—
and you’d hear them talking late at night,
high on speed, smoking the cigarettes
that Albert Camus actually used to smoke,
or so someone said who’d been to Paris,
arguing that the spotlight of fame
lit up the peaks, that fashion helped us all
to focus on the very best work,
without wasting time ploughing through
all that second-rate stuff. The critics
would do that. Shark eat shark, it was
a kind of Darwinism they were advocating.
I had the kid to worry about—a big city
is no place to bring up a five-year-old.
But we found a school that Timmy liked—
at that age you adapt, he made friends,
and I’d take him early every morning—
I had to be up at six to do that,
get him ready, take the bus uptown,
so I had regular hours, of a sort.
And I’d shop, and work from nine to two
in a typing pool. We needed any money
I could bring in. I wasn’t paid well.
I couldn’t get a work permit,
so I wasn’t officially supposed to work
at all. I was being exploited,
but we had to eat. What the hell.
In the afternoons I’d collect Timmy
and take him to a park uptown
for a glimpse of grass and the ducks —
he used to love the ducks —then I’d
bring him home, and clean and get dinner.
Colin would be out at the Cedar Bar
drinking and arguing, or asleep,
or just away somewhere in the jungle.
We called New York the Jungle.
Timmy would tell me about the things he’d done
at school. In a way it was a peaceful life,
if I’d been able to step back from things.
We were young, and we certainly weren’t rich.
Colin had just won a landscape prize,
and it seemed a lot of money at first.
But things are so expensive in New York.
He gave himself a year to make it
in the States, and it grew clear
as the last few months leaked away and
the bills mounted up, and the money went,
that he wasn’t going to make it at all.
I felt terrible—for all the phoney talk
he really suffered, and he went through hell.
He’d swallowed the whole competitive myth,
and now he was at the bottom of the pile,
About that time
an art dealer took to calling around.
He liked Colin’s work, and my photographs,
he said he’d arrange a show in the Spring.
He advanced us some money. Then some more.
He bumped into me in a bookshop one day,
and bought me lunch. And another time
at the laundromat, and we lunched again.
He was a nice guy, I thought; intelligent,
he read books, he was on the artist’s side,
and he had that glow success brings.
I started seeing him from time to time.
Well, don’t look at me like that,
what was I supposed to do? Colin,
he was hardly speaking to me any more,
sunk in his drink and his marijuana
and his late-night painting binges.
I was as lonely as hell—America
can make you feel like you don’t exist.
And Trent was so intelligent, so . . .
sophisticated, so full of enthusiasm.
You’ve got the same kind of optimism,
you know who you are, that’s why
I like you.’
I didn’t disillusion her.
Sure, my life was falling into a pattern.
I’d finished a degree in architecture,
and I’d spent two years in Thailand
working on a rural housing project.
I’d married recently—unhappily at first,
as it turned out, but that was my fault
for being headstrong about my career,
and I figured I could adjust and adapt.
In a month I was to start work with
a city firm, designing office blocks.
Yes, I should have known who I was.
‘That’s what I missed,’ Kathy went on.
‘Colin used to have it —that belief
in your work, in yourself, a zest — but
it got kicked out of him, worn away,
eroded. There’s always someone else
better than you, younger than you,
someone with more energy, newer ideas,
more fashionable cigarettes, better
contacts, willing to compromise an inch
more than you. It really eats you up.
Colin was worn down to nothing. And
I must admit Trent was very generous.
We were broke, and he advanced us money.
And it was more or less understood
that if Colin made it, had a big show,
sold out, the money would be repaid.
If not —it was a casual arrangement.
One night things turned out really bad —
Trent and I had gotten into the habit
of using cocaine from time to time,
at his place, when I’d put Timmy to bed.
He’d invited this other couple over,
and we drank some scotch, and did some coke,
and we all got pretty well stoned,
and the next thing I know I was involved
in this group sex thing, very unpleasant.
Don’t look shocked; that was long ago.
Believe me, I was a different person. Jesus,
when I think of those manipulative bastards . . .’
Kathy was pretty, and when she was angry
a slight flush stole up her throat
and spread across her cheeks. Her eyes
were deep green with hazel flecks,
and they enlarged slightly as though
she were staring at something remarkable,
but she was only staring at her hands
as they slowly clenched and unclenched.
I noticed her skin was slightly freckled —
it seemed to match the eyes and auburn hair.
The unhappy emotions she described
made me feel close and somehow special.
Perhaps she had the gift of making anyone
she spoke to feel special, I don’t know.
Her voice dropped perhaps half an octave
and an air of shared intimacy grew.
For no real reason, I remembered
taking my first puff of a cigarette —
you go dizzy, and your fingertips tingle.
Her arms were goosepimpled in the breeze,
and I felt an irrational urge to touch her
bare skin—just to brush her arm
lightly, with the back of my hand.
I felt myself go red suddenly,
and I turned away to look at the water.
Kathy had noticed nothing. ‘Those
manipulative bastards,’ she said again.
‘When they left I got angry. I saw clearly
how I’d been used all along, set up —
even when he met me in the laundromat—
hell, Trent had his laundry sent out,
he was vain, such a pain in the neck,
he wouldn’t be seen dead in a laundromat!
We had a fight, we were always fighting,
I asked him to drive me home —it was freezing,
a storm, and the rain had turned to sleet—
I remember the wipers on the windscreen
scraping back and forth through the mush —
Trent always drove fast —he had a Porsche,
what else?—I was crying and yelling,
he was laughing at me, I got mad —
I guess I must have hit him in the face.
We were doing sixty, at least, maybe more,
and in the wet the car skidded and rolled,
and kept rolling. I blacked out. Sometimes
I still have this dream, we’re skidding,
the screech of metal scraping on the road,
and I’m reaching out for him, screaming—
when I came to we were upside-down,
we’d gone through a metal fence and fallen
twenty feet into an excavation site.
My face was pressed against the roof,
the seat-belt holding me up, and Trent—
a metal pole had speared through the door
and through Trent’s chest near the neck.
He was hanging there in agony,
clawing at it. He could hardly breathe,
and he made this horrible gulping noise,
over and over, trying to get air.
There was a stink of gasoline everywhere.
Well, the ambulance, they cut us out
with jacks and metal cutters, they were wonderful.
They had to work fast, and they did.
I was just bruised, but they had Trent
full of drugs and serum while they worked.
By the time they got him to the hospital
he was in a coma. A lung was punctured
in the crash, the skull damaged, and the spine.
I remember he said once the Porsche
wasn’t quite up to his style, they just
didn’t make a car flash enough. Well,
his style from then on was a wheelchair.
He couldn’t remember anything at all,
not even me. Me! Jesus!
Can you believe that? Six months
we’d been seeing each other every Monday,
I thought I meant something to him,
and now I’m a zero, I don’t exist,
he couldn’t even remember my face!
The cops found cocaine in his jacket,
traces, and searched the apartment,
and found more cocaine wrapped in foil
in the freezer, and marijuana under the bed.
He got six months in prison, a light sentence,
but it was the end of his art dealing days.
Finally his parents came and wheeled him back
to some hick town in Minnesota,
and no one ever saw him again.
O God, look, we’ve arrived.’
I’d been so engrossed in Kathy’s tale
1 hadn’t noticed where we were. I felt
quite light-headed and confused —
how was I supposed to react
to her story? Did she want sympathy?
She’d been working on her prints all night
getting ready for an exhibition,
and she’d taken lots of coffee and methedrine,
so maybe her emotions were a little skewed.
Jack and Colin joined us on the wharf.
We stopped off at a local shop and bought
bread and cheese and fresh ham for lunch
and walked around the shore to the houseboat.
It was moored in the shade of some trees
close in to the eastern side of the island
in the shelter of a small bay. It was old,
but large and roomy, with a sundeck at the back.
The name ‘Pequod’ was painted on the bow;
a joke of Masterson’s. He had money,
he often lent the boat to his friends,
and he’d fitted the place out comfortably—
there was a hi-fi with lots of records,
mostly jazz from the late fifties,
an old wind-up gramophone,
hot running water, plenty of books.
We had some lunch, and then a long nap.
Later we took a walk around the foreshore,
then wandered back to the houseboat
and played gin rummy on the deck
until it started to drizzle, and we went inside
for some hot rum and sandwiches.
Towards evening a storm came up
with a thrashing of leaves and heavy rain.
The six o’clock ferry failed to appear,
so we made up our minds to stay the night.
As dark came on it grew worse,
the wind knocking branches off the trees.
Jack opened a bottle of old bourbon
and we all had a drink before dinner.
I noticed Colin was drinking rather fast,
gulping it down quickly, and pouring another.
He knocked up a good sauce for the spaghetti
Kathy cooked, a kind of bolognese
heavily flavoured with garlic and black pepper
and some fresh basil he found growing in a pot
on the front deck of the boat. There was wine —
Masterson was proud of his well-stocked cellar.
We chose a strong burgundy-style red,
and ended up drinking half a dozen
between the four of us. It was a good meal,
with lots of talk and spirited argument.
After dinner Jack wound up the gramophone
and asked Kathy politely for a dance.
They circled gravely in the lamplight.
The rain had passed, and the night was still.
I had a coffee on the deck, and thought
how soon all this would be over;
the late nights, the talk, the drinking.
Soon I’d have a career to think about.
The music was plaintive country and western —
a blend of steel guitar and violins.
I recognized the ‘Tennessee Waltz.’
We’d just organized ourselves for the night
and I was having a quiet drink with Kathy
on the deck, when Jack came out and said
that Colin had complained of feeling unwell.
We went inside. Colin looked awful.
‘I should have left the drink alone,’ he said,
articulating his words awkwardly. ‘I’m sorry.
It was that last bottle of gin.’ He laughed.
His face was grey. ‘It’s the tablets I’m taking.
You’re not supposed to mix them with alcohol.’
Kathy gave me a look, and went to the kitchen.
I followed her. ‘He’s taken too much,’
she whispered angrily. ‘It’s morphine. I didn’t
want to bring it up, but that’s the problem.
What do we do? Keep him awake, I suppose.’
I couldn’t think of anything to say.
I think I was shocked: about the drugs, or
about Kathy treating it so casually,
the two things were confused in my mind.
We went back into the living room.
‘Keep him awake,’ Kathy said. ‘Just
walk him around a bit. He’ll be right.’
‘Did you hear that?’ Jack said.
‘Just keep awake, old son.’
I had a feeling he knew what was wrong.
Colin didn’t reply. He’d fallen back
in his chair with his mouth open.
A string of spittle hung from his lips.
‘I’ll make some coffee,’ Kathy said,
and went to the kitchen, tying on an apron.
‘Let’s get him up and moving,’ I said.
I took one side, and Jack took the other,
and we began walking him around the room.
His legs didn’t seem very strong,
and he buckled at the knees once or twice.
Then he stumbled into one of the chairs,
so Jack rearranged the furniture
to give a clear passage through the room.
‘Open the door,’ I said, ‘and take him
out onto the deck, then back again.’
‘Oh dear, wait a minute,’ Colin said,
and lurched for the railing. He threw up.
‘Good idea, old son,’ Jack said.
‘Clear the stomach out. You’ll feel better.’
He seemed to vomit forever, groaning
and heaving for breath between spasms.
Finally he wiped his mouth with his hand
and stumbled back into our arms.
‘A touch of dry retching. Better now.
It’s freezing, let’s light a fire,’ he said.
I don’t think he knew where he was.
We took him back into the bathroom
and splashed cold water on his face.
‘This is no good,’ Jack said.
‘We’ve got to think of something better
to keep the bugger awake. Hey, Colin,
how are you? Are you awake?’
Colin mumbled. ‘Listen,’ Jack said.
‘I’m going to tell you a story. A true story.
I want you to remember it, okay?
I’ll ask you to repeat the main points,
so wake up and start listening. All right?’
‘Sure, I’ll listen. I’ll remember.
My legs are wrong, they feel all rubbery.’
‘Never mind your bloody legs. Just walk,
and listen.’ Jack started talking;
and this is what he told us, as we stumbled
back and forth through the houseboat
from the kitchen to the half-lit living room
to the cool dark outside on the porch.
‘When I came back from Korea,’ Jack said,
‘I looked around for things to do.
I didn’t seem to fit in, somehow.
I tried selling trucks, then security work,
then I went to night school for a while.
I had a talent for journalism then,
taking photos, and writing up stories,
but nothing much ever came of that.
Beth and I got married. The first year or so
was okay, but we got on each other’s nerves
after a while, living in a small flat.
I had a feeling I was hemmed in,
my life was going around in circles.
I couldn’t get a decent job, Beth
was thin and nervy. She was a city girl
originally, from Chicago, and she seemed
to suffocate in Sydney—though she said
it reminded her of home—it was the Harbour.
The only time she ever brightened up
was when we went for a picnic to a beach,
or for a weekend camping or fishing.
She was interested in intellectual issues,
but she liked to read about them alone.
She didn’t make friends easily, I guess.
Finally she got a job writing stuff
for a magazine, a women’s publication.
That brought in some money, but not much.
Anyway, I hadn’t done as well in Sydney
as I thought I might, so when I heard about
a job offer in Ashford, the country town
where I’d grown up, I jumped at it.
The local paper had changed from metal type
to photolitho offset reproduction,
and the guy who’d made the photo blocks
was taking the chance to retire. He couldn’t
cope with the new technology, he said.
He was just too old. They needed someone
to manage the darkroom and shoot the film
and develop the printing plates for the press.
I’d done some darkroom work, and I reckoned
I could learn the rest, so I took the bus
to Ashford and went straight to the owner,
a fellow called Bartlett. My dad had known him,
and old Bartlett remembered me as a kid.
‘I’ll take a risk on you, Johnny,’ he said,
‘for your dad’s sake.’ So Beth and I
packed our things and moved to the country.
We rented a small house out the back
of the print shop, built from local rock,
a warm, honey-coloured sandstone.
Beth made it cosy in no time.
The first year there was no electric power
for one reason or another, but we had a stove,
an old wood-fuel thing—at six every morning
I used to get up and light it,
and put on a pot of coffee. For light
we had kerosene lamps that gave out
a soft yellow glow. Of an evening
Beth would sit at the kitchen table sewing
or working at a course she was taking,
in modern history and the labour movement.
Her cooking—her family was Polish originally—
she’d cook dumplings, and potato cakes,
and beef stews, rich and full of spices.
I’d study up on my darkroom work,
but that never took much time.
Then I’d read—westerns, fiction, anything.
I was a great reader then—voracious.
I’d remember the flavour of a book—dry
and sharp, say, or heavy and simmering—but
the plot and what happened to the characters
would go right out of my head like smoke.
For the first year my hands were full
picking up the trade. Old Bartlett
taught me all the photolitho stuff.
He was well-read, and sharp as a pin.
He wasn’t sentimental about type,
or the old Linotype machine.
‘Noisy, poisonous bloody thing,’ he said,
when the truck came to take it away.
‘Good riddance’, he said, and that was that.
Once I had the job under control
I eased off a bit, and looked around.
Ashford was a nice little town
a few miles inland from the coast;
small enough to be personal and friendly,
large enough to have a sense of activity.
People went to Sydney now and again;
there was a good high school and a branch
of a technical college, and a decent library.
Most of the money was in dairy farming.
There was an old sawmill outside of town.
A Bob Kingston owned the mill, a big man.
He had four brothers who worked there;
it had always been a family concern.
He owned the main hotel, and a hardware store.
I had some money, from my dad’s estate —
he’d died soon after I was born —
and I started looking around to invest it.
I wanted to be part of the place again,
to feel I had a home, that I belonged.
Beth told me she was expecting a baby,
and the news gave me a bit of a shock.
I’d been used to weighing things up
with just my own fate in the scales;
now I saw things in a different light—
more long term. I saw how you had to
lay things down so they’d come into fruit
for someone else, miles down the track.
I bought some land on the outskirts of town,
and sold it six months later for a profit
to a fellow called Redding, an Englishman,
who set up an agricultural feed depot.
With the money I’d made I looked around
for something more substantial to invest in.
I soon saw Kingston was in my way.
Not deliberately, though he’d done things
against my father in the old days,
at least that’s what Bartlett told me.
No, there was no reason, that was just
the way he was — arrogant, pushy.
If he saw that you were in his way
he’d just push you over, he wouldn’t
ask you politely to step aside.
There was a block of land behind the pub
I wanted to develop as a garage.
I knew I could make some money on it,
and I knew it would work as an investment
for whoever set up shop there.
There were always trucks and tractors
needing to be fixed, and the other garage
was owned by a fellow who drank too much
and didn’t seem to be that reliable.
When I put it up to Council for rezoning,
Kingston blocked it. No reason, he just
got the numbers up and blocked it.
Then he went around behind my back
and bought the land off old Willoughby.
He must have had some pressure there,
to push the old man around like that.
I had a contract and everything set up,
ready to sign, but Willoughby went yellow
and slithered out of it and sold the block
to Kingston, who left the land to rot
with weeds and Mexican castor-oil plants
growing up through the derelict cottage.
That really pissed me off, to be honest.
He didn’t get any benefit out of it.
I faced him about the matter one day,
and he just laughed at me. He said
he didn’t even want to talk about it.
‘That’s just business, young fellow,’
he said. ‘I’m bigger than you, that’s all.’
And that was the end of the matter
as far as Bob Kingston was concerned.
I’d been playing around a little—hell,
the pressures of a new job, a new town,
my wife getting pregnant like that
without having planned anything properly-
well, there’s no excuse, but there it was,
I was having this affair, with Paula,
she stayed in the hotel, the big one
on the riverbank, that Kingston owned.
She worked as a barmaid, during the week.
In the summertime she flew a plane
doing joy-rides at country shows,
stunt flying, that sort of thing.
She said she had some college diploma,
what she thought she was doing behind a bar
serving beer to farmers I don’t know.
She had a kind of sulky air about her,
as though life hadn’t treated her well,
but as far as I could see she’d done all right.
We met at the local dance —they had one
most Friday nights, a dinner dance,
you got to know people that way.
One night I gave her a lift home—
it was raining—it was late—well,
I don’t have to explain how these things
happen —it’s chemical, the scientists say,
the slightest perfume, some affinity,
I don’t know—I parked behind the pub,
the rain was running down the windscreen,
that mournful song “Good Night Irene”
playing on the car radio —
when I hear that song I get the shivers —
I just turned to say good night to Paula,
there were raindrops on her eyelashes
and on her lips, and the next thing I know
we were kissing—that’s all that happened
then, but it was magic, it was like a drug,
I had to see her the next day, and the next.
I was avoiding Beth—I felt terrible.
I made excuses to drink at the pub,
I got jealous if she spoke to other men—
God, it was Paula’s job, to be friendly
with the customers, she was a barmaid, after all-I had to see her, look at her hair, her lips —
not that anything happened, anything serious,
it was just a passion, we were acting
irrationally—I felt like a kid,
stupid, head over heels, ashamed.
Then Beth was killed. I killed her.’
Jack stopped here. ‘Let him sleep,’
he said, and we dropped Colin on a sofa.
I was dizzy from walking in circles,
and bruised from bumping into furniture.
‘I’m all right. Jack,’ Colin said.
‘A slight problem with the medication.’
He was awake by now. ‘Ask me a question,’
he said. ‘I remember everything.’
No one spoke. Had Jack killed his wife?
That’s what we were all thinking.
You got a job in Ashford,’ Colin said.
‘And there was a Kingston fellow, a bad type.’
‘Help me bring in the coffee,’ Kathy said,
and I went with her to the kitchen.
‘What’s this about his wife?’ Kathy asked
in a whisper. ‘You know him pretty well,
what’s it about?’ I knew him, but not well.
‘How would I know?’ I said. ‘A wife —
I didn’t even know he’d been married.
I don’t understand what’s got into him.’
Perhaps Jack was making it all up,
a kind of game to keep Colin awake.
I could see Kathy was still worried
about him —her mouth was drawn tight
and her green eyes were flicking about the room
in a distracted pattern. ‘Hey, relax,’
I said, and put my arm around her shoulder
and gave her a hug. ‘It’s all right.’
‘Sure,’ she said, but she was still frowning.
We took the coffee out to the deck.
Colin was sprawled on a cane lounge.
‘There’s a giant fruit bat out here,’
he muttered, ‘in the branches of that tree.’
‘He’ll be all right now,’ Jack said,
and poured some bourbon into his coffee.
We sat there in silence for a while.
‘I didn’t kill Beth deliberately,’
Jack said. ‘That’s not what I meant.’
And—minus a listener, Colin
had dozed off—he went on with his story.
‘One day I rented a small boat,
with an outboard motor, and I took her out
to a reef a mile or so offshore
where I knew we’d get good fishing.
We took a picnic basket—sandwiches,
cold lemonade, a bottle of beer.
Beth was the happiest I’d ever seen her;
she was expecting a baby, her courses
were going well, I had a job I liked.
Of course I was thinking of Paula, but what the hell.
There was a heavy swell from a storm
the day before, and the boat was moving a bit.
We caught a few nice bream, but
after an hour or so I could see
Beth was starting to feel unwell.
‘My dad owned a boat,’ she said,
‘and he used to take us out fishing
on Lake Michigan, in the summertime.
I’d always get seasick from the movement,
but he never noticed, or seemed to remember.
Can we go in now?’ A squall had come up
from nowhere, the sky had gone black
and the waves were getting bigger and bigger.
I started the motor and we went back in,
and coming in over the bar, where the river
runs over a sandbank into the ocean,
the propeller caught in a patch of floating weed —
the outboard died, and the boat turned
side on to the waves. It was growing dark.
The water was very rough, green water
from the ocean churning with yellow mud
from the flooded river. It was pouring,
a cold, stinging rain. I grabbed the oars
and tried to turn the boat, but a wave
swamped us half full of water.
Beth was afraid, and for some reason
she stood up just as a big wave hit—
the boat tipped up and went over —
Beth took a terrific knock on the head,
and that’s the last I ever saw of her.
I dived again and again —there was a rip
where the currents crossed, and I was swept
a mile down the beach. I woke in hospital.
It was two days before they found the body.
It knocked me around, I’ll admit that.
But I kept going. I drank a bit,
for a while, but I kept going. I had to.
Old Bartlett put up with a lot,
but in the end I pulled myself together.
I moved to of the house. I couldn’t sleep;
everything I looked at—the kitchen,
the table where she’d worked at her studies,
the bed we’d slept in together—all that,
it gave me the horrors and I couldn’t sleep.
Then I began seeing Paula again.
I was lonely, you wouldn’t believe how bad
the nights were, walking the streets
till the sun came up, talking to myself.
‘Let’s go out to the silver mines,’
Paula said one day. I had a Jeep,
a four-wheel drive, and we took that.
It was a lovely day, dry and clear.
We stopped halfway there for lunch,
and splashed in the river—it was cold,
flowing down from the high country,
water so cold it chilled your bones.
We had a beer, and ate some sandwiches.
It reminded me of my picnics with Beth,
and that got me down somewhat.
I’m not usually prone to depression.
We drove further into the hills —
Paula knew her way around the bush,
and she’d grown up in those parts.
The mines were in a god-forsaken valley
in the high ranges miles from anywhere.
It was rough country, cut through
with creeks and gullies and thick
with stringy-bark scrub. The buildings —
sheds, an office, huge milling machines—
they’d been abandoned thirty years ago,
and they were standing silent in the heat.
The office was unlocked, and we went in.
Dust lay over everything, but otherwise
it was exactly as it used to be —
chair, desk, pens, blotting paper,
a set of balance scales weighing the dust,
bottles of dried purple and green ink,
rubber stamps. It gave me a strange feeling.
‘Did they get much silver out of here?’
I asked. ‘Sure, lots,’ Paula said.
‘Then it got scarce and uneconomical.
So they closed the mines. There are tunnels
you can get into, though they’re boarded up.
I used to come here when I was a kid.
Go down deep enough and there’s a river
that runs underground from the mountains
and leads into a limestone cave.’
We looked into one of the tunnels.
A light rail track went down
into the darkness at a steep angle.
We climbed down about a hundred yards
till the rails disappeared in a pool
of water. I threw a stone, plop! My lighter
wasn’t strong enough to show the other side.
Something about the colour of the water—
stained a dirty brown, dark and still —
reminded me of when Beth died,
the flooded river, and the muddy waves.
‘And there’s silver down there?’ I asked.
I was thinking of my father’s money.
‘Yes, but not in rich veins,’ Paula said.
‘It’s kind of diluted, dispersed,
mixed up with lots of rock and stuff.
In the end it cost more to mine it
than they could get for it on the market.’
I was thinking—in thirty years
mining technology must have improved.
They would have more efficient machinery
now. And this mine had been forgotten.
Paula was watching me. ‘Well,’ she said,
‘Bob Kingston owns the mining rights,
if you’re thinking of starting it up again.’
Kingston? That was a blow. Like a dreamer,
I’d already begun planning how I’d
start the mine. A friend called Bellamy—
a hard drinker, I’d known him in Korea—
was now a mining engineer in Queensland.
And I had that money of my father’s,
so I had cash to invest. But Kingston —
he wouldn’t share anything with anybody.
We drove back. I was silent, thinking.
My mind was whirling around and around.
‘I’m not sure that showing you that mine
was such a good idea,’ Paula laughed.
‘Let’s have a swim,’ I said. I felt hot.
We swam awhile, then lay on the warm rocks.
I could feel an animal strength in Paula,
and a subtlety of mind. She seemed to know
what was going through my mind, and she was
one step ahead of me at every turn.
We made love there, for the first time.
I suppose it had to happen—we were
alone together in the heat of the bush,
the silence, not a soul for fifty miles.
Her eyes were a tiger-stone colour—
gold flecked with brown and green—
and she had a strange stare: it looked
right into you, deeper and deeper.
On the drive back to town she drew away.
Perhaps she wanted to keep our intimacy
hidden in the bush, in the back country.
That was fine by me. I didn’t
want anyone getting too close.
The months went by, and I sank into my work—
the darkroom was a perfect place to brood,
lit by the dim red safelight.
You could just make out the shapes
of the plate camera—it filled half the room—
and the developing tanks along the wall.
The sound of running water rippled
like an underground spring. I had
an old valve radio tuned in
to the ABC —symphony concerts,
the Country Hour, Blue Hills, and
late at night—it was always night in there —
— the American Dance Band, and their smooth
unceasing optimism. Weeks went by
and I slowly came back to myself,
floating along on the rivers of sound,
absorbed by work, developing my plates.
Paula called me one day. She was
getting her plane ready for the show.
‘I’ll give you a joy-ride,’ she said,
‘for free.’ We met out at the airfield.
I didn’t tell her I’d done some flying
in Korea. I think she wanted to test me.
It was a sports biplane, single motor,
and she threw that thing around the sky
like she was trying to break it in half.
Luckily I hadn’t eaten any breakfast.
After a while she put the plane down
out by Devil’s Lake, near the coast.
She’d brought a picnic basket, and some beer,
and we had a swim and then ate some lunch.
And then . . . one thing led to another.
I felt strange about her, almost tender,
yet she was tough as nails underneath
and there was something in her manner
I distrusted, something not right.
She was too much like me —hard, driven.
What did she have to be hard about?
‘The weather got a bit rough up there,’
she said. ‘I hope you didn’t mind the bumps.’
‘The weather was fine,’ I said. ‘No problem.
I’m looking forward to the trip home.’
She laughed, and we dropped the subject.
‘I talked to Kingston,’ she said. ‘He’ll let you
open the mine. He’s busy with the mill
and hasn’t any time to spend on it, so
you’ll have to do it alone: finance,
engineering, hiring men, administration.
He’ll put in half the money, up to
eighty thousand; you find the rest.
He’ll go fifty-fifty on the profits.
Okay?’ I didn’t know what to say.
How had she swung it? It didn’t matter,
as long as I could get on with it
and make something useful of my life.
I told Bartlett —I often dropped by
in the evening, and usually stayed to dinner.
For a bachelor, he was a good cook.
That night I was so excited
by the plans buzzing around in my head
that I shovelled the food down. Bartlett listened,
but he didn’t say anything. He looked awkward.
‘It’s not my business,’ he said in the end,
‘but I’d stay clear of Bob Kingston
and Paula. People say—this is gossip,
I don’t know why I’m repeating it —but
they reckon she’s his daughter, illegitimate,
not that that matters these days,
and as far as I’m concerned it never did.
But to keep your daughter as your mistress,
that’s too much for my stomach.
So I’d just keep a little distance
if I were you. But who wants advice?
Forget I said anything. Eat up.’
But my appetite was gone. Another blow.
Perhaps it was just malicious gossip —
small towns are poisonous like that—
but yes, there was something about Paula
that was wrong—I’d felt it from the start.
For a week or two I did nothing, then
I rang Bellamy, my engineering friend
in Queensland, and talked about the mine.
He was game, and the idea intrigued him.
He came down and took a good look.
‘Some of the shafts are half flooded,’ he said,
‘but a few pumps will soon fix that.
The ore looks to be medium grade,
but easy to get out. The market’s firm.
You could break even in a few years.
From then on it should be steady profit.’
And with those profits I could buy
shares in the name of a dummy company,
a few here, a few there, then
push Kingston out into the cold.
We were in action three months later.
We had a year of dry weather—drought,
was what the farmers called it. The pumps
had the tunnels dry within a month.
The mine had a lot more silver in it
deeper down, and with the new equipment
we were soon getting a good yield.
We broke even by the end of the year.
Then Kingston sent a note demanding
cash for his share of the investment.
Nothing formal, just a note scribbled
in pencil on an old piece of paper.
His mill was going bad, he said, and
he needed the money to shore it up.
I went to the pub and asked to see him,
but he wasn’t there. I found Paula
in a back room, changing into a frock
she often used to wear when she worked,
dark blue, with tiny pink flowers.
There was a plate of food on a side table —
a half-eaten chop, some vegetables —
and a cup of coffee, and a cigarette
smeared with lipstick stubbed in the saucer.
We’d hardly spoken in the last year.
He was away up the back country,
she said, scouting timber for the mill.
‘Tell the bastard he’ll get his money,’
I said, ‘in a year or two, if he wants it. But
I can’t just tear half the investment
out of the mine. The bank would close us up.
Bellamy’s broke. I’ve got nothing else.
Tell him he must understand that.’
‘Oh, he understands,’ Paula said.
There was a sad, flat tone to her voice.
She had a hairpin between her teeth
while she fixed her hair in the mirror.
God, she was lovely. ‘I’m beginning to
regret I ever got you into this,’
she said. ‘Kingston has the legal right
to get his cash now, or take the mine.’
Of course I knew how he operated —
unrealistic behaviour, inhuman demands.
There was no joy in it, just
a sick satisfaction in destruction.
There was an old cot in the corner.
I pushed Paula onto the bed, and kissed her.
We made love. It was quick and desperate,
more anger than love, and I felt cheated,
as though Kingston was in the room, watching
and laughing in that thin voice he had.
I drove back to the mine —the drought
had broken, it had rained for a week,
and all the pumps were working day and night.
Barry, the supervisor, said that Kingston
had turned up an hour before, soaking wet,
and had gone down Number Two tunnel
to poke around. He’d never been before,
and didn’t know the safety regulations.
‘Frankly, I’m worried,’ Barry said.
‘He was yelling, and I couldn’t stop him.
After all, he owns half the mine.
But Number Two’s starting to fill with
and the river’s rising up from below.’
I didn’t want to lose a major partner,
so I took a helmet and a piece of rope
and went in after him. A mile down
I came to a ford flooded with muddy water
washed down the underground river
from the hills and gullies up above.
Kingston was out there in the darkness
clinging to a crate. The rising water
had jammed it up against the tunnel roof.
‘Hurry up,’ he said. ‘I’m bloody cold.
The water rose up and cut me off,
I can’t swim. Hurry, throw a line.
He was too far for that, and the water
was deep. I tied one end of the rope
to a piece of track, and let myself
into the water, holding the other end.
It was freezing. ‘What were you doing?’
I had to yell above the sound of the river.
‘You little shit,’ he said. ‘You’re cheating!
There’s no silver here. You and your mate
are milking me. I want my money back.’
‘There’s nothing much here in Number Two,’
I said. ‘It’s limestone. Number One’s good;
and Number Three is full of bloody silver.
You got the assay reports. Can’t you read?’
‘And stay away from Paula,’ he yelled.
His voice was screeching, he was in a rage.
‘I look after her, nobody else.
Understand?’ I laughed. Here he was,
on the edge of the pit, and giving orders.
‘Bring the rope here, for Christ’s sake!’
But I couldn’t; it wasn’t long enough.
I’d have to let it go and swim to him,
and I wouldn’t get back against the current,
not pulling the weight of both of us.
Kingston was being sucked into the dark.
He was finished, and I think he knew it.
My helmet lamp was fading, but the beam
picked out his eyes in the gloom.
His mouth was working, and he blew out
gasps of air. He was going under,
inch by inch. ‘Son,’ he said hoarsely,
‘Help me. You bastard. Help me.’
He was gasping between every word.
I couldn’t let go of the rope,
we’d both die. ‘I can’t,’ I said.
‘Ah, fuck it!’ he said, and he went under.
Where he’d been, there was just a bubble,
then nothing. My lamp was fading.
I climbed up out of the tunnel,
in the dark, up to the windy evening.
The light was strange, dim and luminous,
heavy clouds were blowing out of the west.
I was so glad to breathe the air,
to feel the rain on my skin, I thought
I’ll go on, I’ll make money,
I’ll climb up out of this shit.
They never found Kingston’s body.
Paula left, she went to Singapore
with that plane of hers, and no one
heard from her again. She took up
with some French aviator, and got lost
in the war they had there, in Indo China.
The mine? It petered out in the end,
just like it had years before.
I locked up the shop and walked away.
Oh, I got some money out of it,
but not much. I ended up in Sydney,
like I’d begun. Older. Alone again.
What does it all mean? You tell me.
I’ve had it. I’m going to bed.’
Colin had stumbled off long ago;
I could hear him snoring faintly somewhere.
Jack stretched, and finished his bourbon,
and wandered inside. It was late;
I could hear a night-bird on the shore.
I went in and got a drink. Poor bugger,
I thought; all that struggle for nothing.
Then I remembered a pair of drug runners
I’d met in Thailand — middle-aged men
but full of energy, heavy drinkers,
flying a light plane up to Burma,
taking risks to make a lot of money
to take home to their families in Marseilles—
one had proudly shown me a photo
of his blonde young wife and baby son —
both now in jail in Bangkok,
for life. Maybe twenty young lives
had been saved; but when I turned them in,
had I really done the right thing?
And Kathy, struggling too, and in the end
losing—what had she lost —her promise?
But she still had a kind of faith,
going on with her life and her work.
When I came out Kathy was standing
by the railing, looking up at the sky.
You could see a few stars, here and there,
glinting through the patchwork cloud.
I lit cigarettes for us both
and we leant on the rail, side by side,
just as we had on the ferry on the way up.
She was wearing slacks and a silk blouse,
grey, with tiny yellow polka-dots,
and a perfume, something soft and delicate.
After a while Kathy broke the silence.
‘Do you ever think,’ she asked, ‘that there’s
some pattern in things, a kind of balance?
The Indians have this idea of karma,
where everything is added up, and you pay
for bad things, and do well if you’re good.
But that’s just childish, isn’t it?
I don’t know what the pattern is.
Maybe there isn’t one, just the law.
When Trent was crippled in the crash
I felt responsible—well, I was,
in a way, but the drugs, the setup,
that other couple, the whole evening—
it was a rotten game that went wrong.
In America everything has a ticket.
Trent fumbled the deal, and paid the price.
Do you think that’s why it happened?’
I shrugged my shoulders. She went on —
‘After that little episode
I tried to make things work with Colin.
You can imagine I felt shaken up,
but Colin was at the bottom of the pit.
The big show he’d been working on,
it fell through when Trent was convicted
and went to jail. Trent’s name was poison.
No New York gallery would touch him.
Anyone who’d been connected with him
was the same. They all took drugs,
it wasn’t that —it was getting caught.
Colin’s paintings were good—well,
looking back on them, they weren’t
earth-shattering, but they were as good
as most of the rubbish being shown then.
But it was no use, no one wanted it,
they wanted the new thing then,
the post-abstract thing from Germany,
that wet Romantic landscape stuff.
West Coast Realism, other fashions,
and Colin had lost the strength to keep
making it new every goddamn day,
so he never made it in the States,
and New York was just a nightmare,
a bad dream that cost us a fortune.
And then the accident happened.
Colin was minding the kid, but
he was drunk again, I should have known
it wasn’t safe to leave him with Colin
but I had to get out of the place
once in a while. I’d go to a bar
on Tenth Street and drink a bit.
Timmy ran out onto the street—
he was chasing a kitten, someone said —
and a truck full of fur coats hit him.
Poor little kid —he lived for a week,
a week doesn’t seem long, does it?
But it was a lifetime for Timmy.
After that, nothing mattered. Nothing.
Not Colin, not his bullshit painting,
not that rotten business with Trent.
My whole life looked like a bad road
that led up this week of torment,
and yet it meant nothing. Maybe—’
she seemed to find it hard to speak—
‘maybe if I’d gone mad; or into a convent,
to devote myself to God; maybe if I’d
written it all down like a novel,
and learnt how to become a great soul
with significant things to say about pain,
how the most innocent are made to suffer—’
Kathy was sobbing at last, the tears
running down her cheeks onto her blouse —
‘but no, my life wound up in a heap
at the side of that wretched little cot
in a New York slum hospital, and
it all ended in a tiny, painful death,
and I can’t find any meaning in it.’
I let her cry. What could I say? People
don’t live and die for a purpose,
like a character introduced in a movie
and done away with in the final scene
so the plot will turn out right.
Life was a mystery, with no explanation.
How can you talk about that? The water
and the clouds and the starlight had been
just like that for a million years,
and a hundred million lives had come and gone.
If you dwelt on those things, you’d go mad.
I looked down into the water. I could see
sheets of phosphorescent plankton rippling
deep down under the boat, shimmering
electric veils, pale green and blue.
Kathy leant against me. ‘It’s getting cold,’
she said, and I put my arm around her shoulder.
When we went inside we found
Colin fast asleep on the bed
I’d meant to use, in the living room.
Jack was snoring on the other bunk.
‘We’ll just have to share a double bed,’
Kathy said. ‘Is that all right with you?’
We took the bourbon into the bedroom
and undressed with our backs to each other
and slipped in between the sheets. Her leg
lay against mine. A street lamp
from the footpath on the shore outside
made mottled pools of light dip and
ripple on the ceiling above our bed.
I let my hand rest on her arm, just
touching. ‘Tell me about Colin,’ I said.
‘He wasn’t into morphine when you left.’
‘Oh, you don’t want to hear all that.
I’ve been boring you. You must be tired.’
‘Go on,’ I said. ‘I’m not, if you’re not.’
Her skin was cool. I felt my fingers must be
burning her arm. Why didn’t she pull away?
‘Colin got drunk at a party,’ she said.
‘He was drunk, and he got into an argument
about masculinity and action painting
at a party this rich painter was holding
on a boat out on the East River.
Klassky was his name, and he’d made it.
Oh, there were rich painters, and then
there were painters who weren’t rich at all.
The argument got violent, and Klassky
pushed Colin—he didn’t mean to hurt him,
but Colin tripped sideways down a ladder
and his head slammed against a winch fitting
and he injured the side of his face. He got up
and knocked Klassky down with one hit.
Colin thought he’d killed him at first,
but he hadn’t—he’d knocked him out,
and when Klassky fell he struck his head
on the railing, and the skull was fractured.
It caused a blood clot on the brain.
It took a few days for all this
to come out, and the waiting was awful.
They kept them both in hospital for weeks,
but very different ones, believe me.
When Colin’s face had been patched up
he went to apologise to Klassky.
He was anxious about it, and jumpy.
They’d given him morphine in the hospital
because of the fractures in his facial bones.
By the time he got out he was addicted,
shaky, and going through withdrawal.
Klassky had a reputation for violence.
He’d broken a woman’s nose once at a party
after an argument about Picasso, and
he’d knocked out an art critic’s teeth.
But when he went to visit, Colin found
a changed man. The doctors had him on sedatives,
and he kept the curtains drawn against the light.
He was in a wheelchair, and he dozed off
from time to time. Friends would read to him.
He liked religious books, the lives of the saints.
I guess he’d developed a fixation of some kind —
his mother was religious, from the old country,
always going to church and praying a lot.
When Colin said he was sorry, Klassky
burst into tears, and hugged him. Colin
came back to sit with him again,
and offered to read to him, and in the end
he became a regular visitor, and a friend.
Colin was painting less, drawing a little,
maybe a watercolour or two of an evening,
tiny sketches in ink and sepia wash.
He started taking Klassky out for walks
every day, and always at dawn —
there was less traffic, it was easier
with the wheelchair, and Colin said
the peaceful atmosphere seemed to help —
he’d calm down and focus on his drawings
through the rest of the day. The jungle
showed a different side then, I guess.
I’d go with them some mornings,
when I’d finished in the darkroom.
There was no one to take to school.
Klassky didn’t seem to mind being
in a wheelchair. He’d made a lot of money,
and invested it well, so he had an income.
His sense of smell had grown more acute.
When we wheeled him past a bread shop —
he always asked to go by the bakery—
you could smell the hot fresh bread,
and Klassky used to rock back and forth
and laugh excitedly, and make us wait
while he drew in great breaths
of that lovely warm scented air.
Sometimes he’d be laughing and crying
at the same time, and I’d have to
wipe the tears from his face with a tissue,
and his beard would be all wet.
Then there was a place on Second Avenue
that made chocolates on Friday mornings,
and he really liked to smell that.
And on Sundays he’d go to church,
the Serbian Orthodox on Twenty-Fifth,
and he’d sit there for maybe an hour
inhaling the incense, murmuring to himself.
In the end he became a convert
to the Catholic Church. He sends us postcards,
scenes of martyrdom, that kind of thing.
We heard he went to Rome last year,
and had a private audience with Guess Who.
Well, the money ran out, eventually,
and that was the end of our American Dream.
We came back to Sydney, we separated.
We’re still friends, we went through
too much together not to be.
Colin got a job at the hospital,
helping kids with colour therapy.
And of course he brought back his problem.
And I have my photography. As you know
there’s not much money in that.
Oh, I could do corporate accounts,
but can you imagine me shooting
some advertising fuckwit in a Porsche?
And keeping a straight face? Not likely.
I do what I have to do, and I survive.’
Kathy finished her drink, and lay back.
‘I think that’s enough bourbon,’ she said.
‘And you?’ I could feel she was looking at me
in the dark. ‘What were you up to,
while I was going crazy in New York?’
I thought about California,
my brother dead on his motor bike,
studying for my degree, Thailand,
a marriage that hadn’t turned out well.
‘I can’t start all that,’ I said.
‘You don’t want to hear about buildings,
and the personal stuff is too complicated.
Let’s go to sleep.’ I didn’t want to sleep,
I wanted to make love to Kathy, but
it all seemed confused and impossible.
‘You can tell me some other time,’ she said.
She kissed me on the lips, and her voice
came murmuring into my mouth. ‘Oh Sandra,’
she said, and she was moving in my arms.