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Authors: Robert Gott

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BOOK: The Serpent's Sting
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‘How you see me will tell me a lot about you, too.'

‘Yes, it will. Most people who sit for portraits don't think about that.' She lowered her voice. ‘Will you sit for me?'

‘I'm wary of artists.'

She laughed.

‘You don't need to worry about me. I'm not really very good at all.'

I sat for Geraldine the next morning. Neither of us needed to get to the theatre before 1.00 pm. She was renting a rather squalid bed-sit in a rooming house in Fitzgibbon Street in Parkville. I had the impression that she'd only recently moved there, and she admitted that these were temporary digs, that she'd left the bulk of what she grandly called her ‘estate' in Hobart.

‘Hobart? What on earth were you doing there?'

‘Running away from somewhere else in Tasmania.'

‘Good lord. How old are you?'

‘I'm twenty-four, and that's not a very gallant question. I haven't demanded to know how ancient you are.'

‘I'm thirty-two, and I suddenly do feel very ancient.'

‘I'll try to make you look younger.'

‘You said you weren't very good. Should I be worried?'

She set up her canvas, and directed me to stand in the light from a grubby window, and to fold my arms so that my fingers were splayed prominently.

‘You have lovely hands.'

I'd never been complimented on my hands before. I'd always thought them my weakest feature — the fingers not quite long enough, the dark hair on their backs just a little too strong and visible. They weren't particularly expressive hands. I depend on my voice and my face for my effects.

‘This is the most terrifying part,' Geraldine said. ‘The first mark. Don't look at me. Look past me, as though you've seen something that's caught your eye. Yes, good, like that. Only more natural. Not quite so silent movie. Yes. Good. Perfect.'

She began attacking the canvas with a stick of charcoal, looking at me occasionally, but mostly concentrating on whatever marks she was making. From time to time she used a rag to violently erase a passage, and her features became contorted with concentration and frustration.

‘I'm not getting you,' she said crossly. ‘I'm just not getting you.'

I broke my pose and walked towards her.

‘No,' she squealed. ‘You mustn't see it until it's done.'

‘I just thought you might need to get a little closer.'

She put down her charcoal.

‘How much closer, Will?'

She took two steps and was in my arms. Her mouth tasted of charcoal, the consequence of her absently tapping her teeth with it between strokes. She pulled away and placed her hand on the side of my face.

‘I'm sorry,' she said. ‘I've put charcoal all over your cheek.'

‘The charcoal goes on the canvas, not the model. You have to get that right.'

‘You really don't have to be a gentleman at this point, Will. I'm a long way from anyone who might disapprove.'

She took my hand and demonstrated the truth of this remark by guiding it up and under her skirt. My fingers didn't meet the resistance of undergarments. These she'd discarded in either a feat of
legerdemain
at some point, or more probably she hadn't put any on that morning.

‘I said that you had beautiful hands,' she said, and deftly proved her own manual dexterity by removing my belt, undoing my flies, and pushing my trousers and underwear down to my ankles — all, seemingly, in one fluid movement. My desire for her stood incontrovertibly exposed.

I would have preferred not to have fallen quite so heavily against her easel as I struggled to take off my shoes, and it made the most awful clatter as it fell to the ground. I fell on top of it and sat indecorously, in the brief glimpse that I had of it, on a face recognisably my own, in charcoal. Geraldine freed my trousers from my ankles and helped me to my feet. The face was now a disfigured smudge, and she turned me round and declared that a reasonable transfer had been made to my buttocks.

I will draw a discreet veil over our lovemaking. It was entirely mutually satisfying, and I don't believe I flatter myself when I confidently declare that I gave as much pleasure as I received — and that was a considerable amount. It wasn't until afterwards, in the quiet bliss of gentle exploration, that I thought perhaps it had been too long between washes for Geraldine's sheets. Her situation in the house wasn't ideal. It had been converted during the Depression from a large, two-storeyed family home into a collection of four flats, two of which were occupied by single women, and none of which had its own bathroom or toilet. The owner, who occupied the largest flat, downstairs and at the front of the house, was a termagant, Geraldine said, who had a set against men, and who believed that they should be discouraged from visiting. Her name was Mrs Ferrell, and she was fond of saying, ‘This is a respectable house, not a bordello.' Respectable it may have been, but it was also tired and grubby, and demanded of its residents that they use an outside lavatory. Geraldine's room was at the top of a perilous flight of stairs. It was close to the bathroom, which might have been advantageous were it not for the fact that the plumbing was uncertain and noisy. The horrid smells from the kitchen — rancid lard and cabbage — drifted up the stairs and insinuated themselves into Geraldine's bedroom.

‘How have you managed to escape the clutches of Manpower?' I asked.

‘I haven't. The acting is very much part-time, so they make use of my painting skills.'

‘I didn't know portrait painting was considered an essential industry.'

She laughed.

‘It's not. Manpower couldn't care less whether or not I can capture a good likeness. Have you seen that awful short at the pictures, the one about camouflage?'

Incredibly, I was all too familiar with the propaganda short she was referring to. Even by the standards of these films, it was more than usually patronising, but its most remarkable feature, from my point of view, was that it was the short for which I'd provided the narration.

‘Is this the one you mean?' I asked, and proceeded to intone the deathless script.

‘Their knowledge of camouflage — a woman's secret weapon — is useful when it comes to painting trucks. It's axle grease instead of hand lotion, lubricant instead of lipstick, for these ladies of little leisure.'

‘Hey, that's the one.'

‘You don't recognise the voice?'

‘It's you!' she shrieked. ‘No wonder you're word perfect. How did you get that job?'

‘Oh, you know, sometimes acting jobs just fall into your lap. I was well paid.'

I didn't want to elaborate on how that job had fallen into my lap. It belonged to that recent period in my life when I was embroiled in the ugly world of Military Intelligence.

‘So, are you one of those ladies of little leisure who paints trucks?'

‘Whenever I'm told to, even when it clashes with a performance. The understudy goes on when I'm away. That's happening tomorrow, in fact. It's annoying. I'm being sent off to Puckapunyal to paint trucks, and to paint some scenery for an army show. I don't mind, really. I feel like I'm doing something useful.'

That afternoon's performance was something of a triumph. The laughs came precisely where they were supposed to come, and I managed to bring off the degree of pathos I thought the part demanded. Even Percy Wavel was driven to offer faint praise when he said, ‘I told you all you had to do was lift your skirts.'

After the performance, Geraldine made hurried introductions. The actors' and actresses' names were a blur, but I spoke out of costume for the first time to the Principal Boy, the Comic, the Squire, the Principal Girl, the Villain, the Goose King, and the two Bailiffs. All of them were hurrying round to the Tivoli to do their peculiar turns. I'd agreed to go with Geraldine, and so I found myself in a seat with an alarmingly good view of the stage. It was the Dunstan Sisters who made the view alarming. There were three of them, and they seemed to have been born without tendons or ligaments between their joints. The extraordinary positions they manoeuvred their bodies into were both obscene and repugnant. I felt ill watching as arms, legs, and torsos were forced into oppositions that nature never intended. I don't consider it a noteworthy achievement if a woman can place her head, for all intents and purposes, inside her own private parts. I can't imagine a situation where this might be a useful skill.

I was prepared to be more tolerant of the other acts, having now met many of them, but however much I wanted to enjoy them, I couldn't. The comic wasn't funny, although the audience would beg to differ; the fire-eater and sword swallower were disgusting; the singing was ordinary; and the dancing was uninspired. The
tableau vivant
of naked ladies was faintly absurd, largely because the looks on their faces were so vacant. I told Geraldine none of this. I frankly lied, and clapped and hooted along with the American servicemen who made up the bulk of the audience.

In the raucous foyer afterwards, Geraldine struck up a conversation with a group of doughboys, and before I could object, she'd organised that two of them should join us for a drink at a place she knew nearby. Since becoming a private-inquiry agent I'd had some contact with the louche world of Melbourne after the blackouts had been raised. I was not, however, a denizen of these clubs, and I was a little surprised that Geraldine was able to lead us into an alley off Bourke Street, and thence into a busy club, secreted behind a nondescript door.

It wasn't, it transpired, a seedy place at all. It was rather elegant, although dim lighting obscured a multitude of architectural and design sins. It wasn't especially noisy, either, despite the number of people there. There was no music, which meant that patrons weren't obliged to shout at each other. As in all of these places, American uniforms were numerous. It was the Yanks, after all, who had the money to pay for the over-priced alcohol. I think pounds, shillings, and pence were still such a mystery to many of them that they weren't even aware when they were being fleeced. We found a table, and while Geraldine and I sat, Privates Harlen Quist and Anthony Dervian forced their way to the bar.

‘They're sweet, don't you think?' Geraldine said.

‘Well, perhaps. I don't know much about them. I suppose if neither of them turns out to be a psychopath, we'll have had a successful evening.'

She leaned towards me.

‘Oh, Will. You were hoping we'd be alone after the show. I'm so sorry. I just feel so full of energy after our show, and then the Tiv, that I just want to go out somewhere and have a drink.'

Not wishing to reveal peevishness as being among my catalogue of emotional responses so early in our relationship, I smiled broadly and reassured her that I was making a joke at the expense of all those hysterical people who thought every American was potentially Eddie Leonski's successor. She seemed relieved, and Harlen and Anthony returned, bearing an extraordinary bottle of champagne.

‘We didn't know what else to ask for,' Harlen said. ‘Hard liquor didn't seem very lady-like.'

The Americans were personable. They were just boys, really, and neither of them had been outside the United States before. Indeed, Harlen had never been outside Ohio. Anthony, who'd grown up in lower Manhattan, had at least been to Washington, and on one occasion to Montreal. At one point, Harlen called me, rather tentatively, a ‘bar stud'. Uncertain of his meaning, I asked him for clarification. He was embarrassed, as if he'd made a ghastly
faux pas
, and pulled from his pocket a small booklet. I'd seen one of these before —
Instructions for American Servicemen in Australia
. The book was predicated on the notion that Australia and Australians needed to be interpreted for the Americans. Soldiers were advised that we drank tea, not coffee; ate vast quantities of butter, beef, and lamb, but relatively little pork; that we weren't keen on vegetables; and that ice-cream wasn't the nation's favourite dessert. Harlen opened the book, and pointed to a sentence that he'd underlined as being a useful conversational gambit.
Of course, the best thing any Australian can say about you is that you're a bloody fine bar stud.

BOOK: The Serpent's Sting
8.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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