[The following is a short story I wrote for the National Portrait Gallery’s The Big Chill: Fireside Tales short story and poetry competition. The prompt was the photo below, which was taken in Sydney by Dr Julian Smith some time in the 1940s. Nothing is known about the subject, so entrants were asked to use her as their inspiration.]
Her father’s arm is around her mother’s shoulders. Her mother’s white gloved hands are a tight bunch of fingers at her diaphragm. Her mother says, ‘We’ll come back soon.’ She remembers her brother’s face, small and sharp, Papa’s lips. Her earnest silence unsettles her father. He looks at his wife’s hands. The photographer takes the shot. She can’t remember her family leaving the studio. The still image turned time off at the moment of its conception. History written by a rectangular printed victor which captured her expectation and did not ever release it or anything else. She looks back and forth between it and her own face for the rest of her life almost. She keeps her earnestness, her lips’ dull pout, her ringlets of hair becalm themselves to cascades. Her eyes though are not the same. The eyes lose their openness. Not proud, just hollowed. She wonders when it happened. Right there maybe. The ship bound for San Francisco has hauled anchor before the photographer hunched under his sheet has finished his work.
When she is sixteen she steals the silverware from the Sydney mansion in which she tends house and makes the fare to San Francisco selling the pieces to a black marketeer. She is leaving, not following. She poses nude for artists and pale photographers who give her wine, change or nothing, does peep shows for sailors in the Barbary for years before one takes her to the Fillmore. She falls in love with jazz at the Blackhawk. She returns nightly, brings her eyes to the fire fuelled by Armstrong, Coltrane, Fitzgerald and Bird and for a while each night stiffened with gin her eyes thaw. It’s music of abandonment, the sounds of molten blood carving old paths and new through crushed veins, cracking and rupturing, newly whole and more beautiful than the past from which it springs. She is asked to dance just like she did in the club the night before for short films by the predecessors of the Mitchell Brothers, pornographers on the verge of an ugly revolution, and she does but with less clothes, eyes hard again. Decades later the films appear in smut stores where for a quarter you can pick one of ten short black and white softcore films from the fifties and wind the reel by hand to watch through a viewfinder as the camera flickers up and down her gyrating body. When the Fillmore is hacked apart by the city she goes to New York.
She pulls a chorus girl gig at the close of the chorus era, cheekbones and hair close the deal. The shows wind up in the early A.M. when the first beer bottle hits the stage. She takes cabs north to Harlem, sits with Mailer and Rothko in The Five Spot watching Mingus work out his theme for Lester Young, hopes his anger goes into the music tonight and not anything else as happens some nights. She dances with young black men and the young black women raise their eyebrows for minutes at a time and pout. A couple suck their teeth at her. ‘Where are you from?’ she’s asked. She tells them. It’s a free pass. She can see in their eyes that they’re not quite sure what the rules are for her. Is an Australian white woman still a white woman? Some snap and grip and spin and shuck around her, wrists and hips, noses in her hair. Others, fewer, see the eyes and feel the chilling loneliness. They abandon her.
When the nightclub closes for good she takes her print from the mirror and does sets at a 42nd Street club called Soft Places. Her dance-carved figure, lazy pout and the dose of something in her eyes like a killer in a cave keep her working well into her forties. Most men like the dancers soft but for the ones who like it sharp there’s her. When The Gaiety Theatre opens in 1976 she visits it after her sets, watches the young men strip and pout. The boys left their parents, not the other way around, and she loves them for it. Andy Warhol buys her a drink and kisses her hand. He smells fake, is soft like tissues. She imagines crumpling him like a jack in the box.
A woman approaches her after a long night at Soft Places. They stand outside the theatre on the broad pavement, upwind of a sewer vent steaming in the cold, sharing one then two then several more cigarettes, talking jazz and dance, their cold drafts circling one another, mingling with the cold of the city to somehow create a warm rich storm. She falls in love with the woman in 1983. They live together until, in 1985, the woman dies, having contracted AIDS as a result of a libertine streak that led her back on occasion to a sometime lover.
She packs records and not much more and goes. It’s winter when she arrives back in Sydney. She enters a café in the centre of the city and orders the same meal her parents fed her the morning they took her to the studio. A boiled egg served in an eggcup, two slices of white bread toast and a bowl of hot porridge drizzled with honey. It occurs to her that the breakfast was a parting gift outside their norms.
She walks to the quay, boards a ferry, walks to the front when it reaches the middle of the harbour and jumps off. She is sucked under the boat, battered many times against the hull, hauled from the brine dead and nameless an hour later. She’s blue and white, not much changed, all told.