Christmas cheer had eluded me when I walked into the tinsel festooned Lismore pharmacy. In fact I’d been feeling dispirited for some time. Isolation on a steep bush block, distance from friends, lack of city buzz, and a bad case of writer’s block had got to me. My lifelong desire to find myself at the pulse of a literary cultural life, or by this time any cultural life at all, had taken on a Quixotic quality without the romance of that eternal dreamer tilting at windmills from his wobbly horse. I was over grappling with heat and floods and weeds and reading about hugely successful writers in the weekend newspaper supplements.
The vista of Christmas glitz; the press of the sick, the anxious and depressed milling about at the prescriptions-out counter and the clamour of carols billowed towards me. The service number slip I’d been holding so optimistically seemed to droop as I sidled along a row of shelves towards the prescriptions counter passing creams promising relief from everything – ingrown toe-nails to inflamed joints and herpes. I have to admit I was almost enticed by tiers of chocolate boxes offering more tangible and immediate satisfaction.
Emerging triumphant from my bout of weakness near the chocolates I turned the corner at the end of the shelves and there she was, a glorious creature from head to toe. She was sitting in one of two white, plastic chairs carefully positioned for the tired and feeble opposite the crowded counter. I made for the empty chair next to her. Dark beseeching eyes and a vulnerable smile greeted me as she wriggled further onto her chair in a show of making room for me. A vacant seat in a pharmacy crowded with exhausted Christmas shoppers? And next to an exotic trannie? I had my Christmas miracle.
She wore a slim t-shirt above tiny shorts with fashionably tatty edges. Endless golden legs were tucked neatly under the chair. There was a hint of sequinned sandals. Around her face long black (extension aided) hair was caught in a thick fall that couldn’t disguise the beginning of male-pattern balding at her thinning hairline.
We sat beside each other in silence for a minute or two.
‘I love your earrings.’ The husky voice.
The thick paste of pancake was applied well with just a hint of prickle beneath it. Eyeliner formed a kohl shoreline around limpid eyes. Lipstick, discreet not garish, framed largish white teeth.
‘Thank you.’ I felt the earrings to remember what I’d pushed into my earlobes before I’d left the house. Ah, yes. The rough stone and odd shape. ‘Turquoise and silver,’ I said. ‘I always like it. Bit Navajo don’t you think?’
‘Definitely Navajo, Mexican too,’ she replied.
And there it was. The language was banal but the sub-text was something else – like a musical riff sending a frisson through the players.
The musician, Rikky Rooksby,describes a riff as ‘a short, repeated, memorable musical phrase, often pitched low on the guitar, which focuses much of the energy and excitement of a rock song’.* In academic circles it might be called a discourse, a language that holds the key for entry to its world. A bit like the language and tacit understandings needed to penetrate the world of the British upper class, or medicine, or journalism for that matter.
She and I knew this particular language!
Ours was a riff born in the inner cities where sub-cultures have developed numerous tribal cadences. This one I knew from the Sydney theatre scene in the late 1960s where transvestites and gays flouted conventional society as they’d done for eons, certainly since Socrates, condemned by some 550 judges, shlupped on his sandals out of a court in Athens. Found guilty of corrupting Athenian youth with provocative ideas he preferred downing hemlock to being silenced.
‘They look lovely on you,’ she said referring to the earrings.
It was my turn.
‘And the aquamarine around your neck is beautiful,’ I replied, truthfully. Seeing it brought to mind, fondly, the first boyfriend, a surfing, prize-winning pastry-cook with a crazed mother. He’d given me the ring. Aquamarine.
We were firing now – the banjo scene getting underway in Deliverance.
She hooked a finger under the chain and held the stone towards me. ‘It belonged to a friend of mine who’s passed. I wear it for her.’
AIDS? I wondered. So many taken by it. There was a pause – a bit like the silence for the fallen in RSL clubs. Then I pushed on. ‘The blue does look wonderful against your skin. You have lovely skin.’
Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s the Samoan in her.’ This reference to herself in the third person may have been part of her patter, or a slip of the tongue, but I suspected it was more like a test. Would I pull away, she was asking me.
She stretched out a leg. We both contemplated the burnished gold from thigh to foot. ‘I’ve got some Samoan in me,’ she repeated.
My arm rested in my lap, next to her leg. Freckled skin, the scourge of my life.
‘I wish I had some Samoan in me,’ I said.
There was a beat while she made a decision. She took another risk.
‘Well …’ she said, slowly at first, perhaps a lead-in tease, ‘that could be taken a different way.’
This to an older, ordinary looking woman she’d never met before. I admired her daring.
‘I knooww,’ I said, claiming the innuendo I hadn’t intended or even seen. Well, reader, I was rusty. It’d been a long time. But the idea of a young Samoan lover made me laugh. It made us both laugh and I suppose that’s when our riff really hit its stride.
For me it thrummed with a song from the past – a heady mix of theatre and the social and cultural upheavals sweeping Sydney in the late 1960s and 70s.
Here, for you, the reader, I can expand on what in the Lismore pharmacy was just a sense of that past lifting its head and shaking itself off. Fragments of it play like disjointed scenes from a Fellini movie. The theatre sequence began in 1967 at an evening spent sitting on planks at what had to be one of the earliest plays staged at The Pram Factory in Melbourne. (I remember it as a halting exposé of domestic dissatisfaction – rough around the edges, dimly lit, hard to hear, but determined at the core.) Then back to Sydney to the thrill of America Hurrah at The New Theatre with police standing by to rush the actors off to the clink for writing ‘cunt’ on the stage wall and holding large nude, vagina pink I’m told, puppets. My dear friend, Carole Skinner was in it, and in another transgressive production she told me she was worried about revealing her ‘bum hole’ to the audience as, having cast off her chastity belt, she climbed, naked, up high platforms onstage! (It was the first time we’d met.)
Which brings another fragment into focus. I was enthralled by the esoteric weirdness of late night performances at Martin Sharp’s Yellow House. This is where Carole, who was to become an iconic Australian actor, played Mae West trailing pieces of A4 paper stuck together around the tiny performance space left at the centre of the room by we onlookers squashed around the walls.
‘Don’t … step on … m’thesis,’ she said, so close to me I could have nibbled her earlobe.
Before this I’d found my way to the Ensemble Theatre where they were walking the talk of ‘method’ acting and I was hooked by this revolutionary approach – as so many were before and after me.
While I studied I did bits and pieces: a minor job on Hair; sweating in a huge felt costume (hot as a sauna) in a Commedia play under a tin roof at Christmas; being onstage with vital props and occasionally an actor missing; dancing with two left feet in ABC operas; a play I’m told I was in at The Wayside Theatre in Kings Cross, but can’t remember at all. I do remember being surprised at an invitation to participate in a workshop run by the famously experimental Polish director, Jerzy Grotowski, and his troupe. No English on their side, no Polish on ours. We gawked and ducked while they emitted grunts and sudden squeals and made great leaps across the bare room and tumbled over our heads.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream swept into Sydney like a new broom. Peter Brook’s production with actors on trapezes swinging high on a white set and Hugh Keays Byrne beating his chest as Snug and roaring through the audience in his lion suit, was inspired. John Bell’s version, his first play after arriving back in Sydney from London – had a warm-voiced girl from Barbados playing the most beautiful Titiana I’ve ever seen.
Leonard Cohen brought his orchestra and shared his vision of life in bitter/sweet songs of laughter and longing with his wonderful violinist uncle stepping into the spotlight to wrench wild gypsy music from his violin. Dust motes rising like soaring spirits. And Buffy St Marie, a native American Indian blacklisted in the US by Lyndon Johnson, played her throbbing songs of resistance and compassion to a packed State Theatre. And all the while Dylan’s endless tambourine was banging out the new era.
And police were banging on open doors to terrace houses where music poured down noisy, crowded hallways and out into the night. I remember two of them coming in to drink a beer and gaze curiously at a culture they couldn’t be part of before thanking us politely and pushing off. And the sweet sad chemist/actor (I see him again now that I’m writing about a pharmacy) stretched out so often on the lounge-room floor of the Paddington terrace I shared with artists and a soon to be screenwriter/editor, playing ‘Norwegian Wood’ over and over again while people stepped across him.
(The soon to be screenwriter/editor was Galia, then soon to be, Hardy. She married Alan and together they birthed Marieke You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead Hardy! How do you describe a friend’s intelligence, talent, wit, and generosity of spirit without it sounding like a hagiography? I’m not even going to try.)
On a darker note there was the bedroom at Taylor Square painted entirely black by a gay costume-designing predecessor who must have had hopes for its power to inspire. It certainly inspired hope in a large, well-known actor I knew who fancied himself as a Marlon Brando type. Using the pretext of wanting to be shown around the house he pushed me onto the bed when we got to the top of the stairs and lay on top of me, still and stealthy in that black-walled cocoon, as if the soft pressure of his weight on me would be persuasive. Galia’s arrival saved me. I’ll never forget my joy at hearing the front door slam and her voice calling up the stairs.
And finally, enter my life’s mate, young, tall, slender, exquisite. Directing black comedies and enticing me with his talent.
‘I’ve had my eye on a little number down there by the perfumes,’ she said, low voiced, leaning towards me to indicate the section of the pharmacy she meant.
It was hard for me to pick the alluring little number out in the crowd as I craned my neck for a better view.
‘I’ve been hovering around the perfumes to get a closer look,’ she said.
‘Were you trying some of those perfumes on yourself?’ I asked.
‘Yes, I was. Can you smell them?’
We both laughed.
‘You know Rihanna? She’s …’
‘A singer. I know.’
She stopped for a moment … a classic double-take … then continued.
‘Well, she’s just put out a perfume called Reb’l Fleur. It’s gorgeous.’
‘Hhmm … I’m not really one for perfumes,’ I said, hoping not to sound negative. This wasn’t the place to mention that you could walk into any house in our family wearing perfume and everyone in it would drop dead from allergic anaphylactic shock.
‘I know just the one for you,’ she said, undeterred. ‘It’s called Giorgio. By Armani.’
‘Ah, Giorgio,’ I breathed – both ‘g’s soft – the Italian way.
‘Giorgio,’ we crooned together, loving the sound.
And our riff ended there, both of us hitting the same warm note, in the Lismore pharmacy.
The assistant called her name and she left her seat for the counter where she stood with her long legs tucked together as neatly as she could manage and her tall body scrunched over to look smaller, more feminine I suppose, as she bent down to sign her prescriptions. Would she say goodbye I wondered. But she walked off … to where? What was happening in her life? Did she live around Lismore?
A woman I’d noticed standing nearby came to sit in the vacated chair. A nice enough looking county woman. Tidy, greying hair. As a gesture towards Christmas festivity she’d donned a red top and white, calf-length, elastic waisted, nylon pull-ups. The kind we of a certain age buy at Katies to accommodate our girth and our atrophied bits, sensitive to chaffing. Thick sandals suggested painful feet.
‘Well,’ she said, voice pursed, ‘if she was any taller she’d break.’
‘Lovely skin,’ I replied.
We stared ahead.
A bronzed hand appeared around the end of the shelves and squeezed my shoulder.
‘Goodbye darling,’ she said.
I clasped my hand over hers.
‘Goodbye, darling,’ I replied.
And then she was gone – the rebel flower!
* Rooksby, Rikky. Riffs: How to create and play great guitar riffs. San Francisco: Backbeat Books. pp. 6–7
© Maria Simms
Dr Maria Simms is a published novelist and short story writer who has worked as an academic for many years. Her crime novel, The Dead House, won the New Holland Genre Fiction Award. Maria has been a general editor; lecturer in creative and academic writing; head of a large university academic study centre; and director of university continuing education programs. In an earlier incarnation she worked in theatre and graphic design. Her interests include creative and academic writing, textual and cultural theory and Australian history with an emphasis on the place of women in the narrative of Australia. She loves a good yarn and hearing about the lives of people she meets.
Maria is the managing director of WordCraft Consulting, a company specialising in academic, business and creative writing. She can be contacted at: email@example.com