University of Western Australia

Brenda Walker

An extract from Crush

In spring, black men see boronia in the city. Their faces are solemn, unreadable. Take the boronia and it makes a pungent shape about you, separating you from the shoppers. If you open your fist a little you see that the paper protecting your hand from the stems is familiar, disconcerting. Toilet paper.

Walk on up William Street past the Arcane Bookshop and the Limbo Dance Club. There are travel agencies, their signs snagging at the memories of exiles from the Middle East, the Far East. There is a large brothel, bland and cream. Side streets have shadows where young girls go with derelicts for flagon sherry and a little money. Occasionally one commits a spectacular mutilation and heads turn, turn back to their own business and forget. You walk on past grey houses, pegged together with Victorian economy. Here and there fresh paint marks a middle class colony but some of these houses are too dim and low for rehabilitation.

Somewhere in this area is the shabby office of Tom O'Brien, solicitor, barrister and Proctor of the Courts. He listens to clients, rehearses defences, writes pleas in mitigation.

Not far away is L'Alba Cafe, where you can sit for hours with a newspaper, listening to Elvis sing 'Love me Tender'. The roller skating waiter speaks nimble English well back in his Belgian mouth. Pirouetting, he brings coffee for the art students, the drunks, the renovators, for Tom O'Brien, sometimes for me.

You can find me in Alice Street, a blunt narrow road with cars parked on the footpaths. Kids chase one another through the bumper bars. Two steops down from the footpath and you are in the front room where I sit with my manual Olivetti on my trestle desk, a mattress on the floor behind me.

The house is clean and bare, curtainless. When Tom O'Brien moved in he had a bonfire. He cleaned the faces of the Portugese angels and shored up the hall arch which they decorate. He took out the monochromatic canvases, the chairs which smelt of mouse piss and old horsehair. He dragged out a rug and found a trap door. He lowered himself into the floor and passed up buckets of old newspapers, burnt spoons, smashed china, syringes. He burned these in the back yard, under the Cape Lilac. He scrubbed the walls with sugar soap. He advertised the front room. I came, I had been watching Tom O'Brien. The house, too, was familiar to me.

Past Alice Street is Hyde Park. Here, old men argue about politics in central European dialects. Buddhist, Muslim and Orthodox children swing and squabble. At night gay lovers meet and part under the Moreton Bay figs. There are clipped lawns and flowered borders. The central spectacles are the lakes, the long promenades on their banks overshadowed by great plane trees. There are islands, distant from the shore, where growth is high and dense. Black cockatoos sweep across the islands in flocks, tearing at the coral trees. They are dusty from wintering in the desert. Shot, they disgorge nectar copiously. But firearms are never seen in the park. ... Tom O'Brien tells me nothing about himself. What I know about him I discovered, for myself. He's a good advocate, or so they say. His room contains a single iron bed and bookshelves made from planks and bricks. He reads about constitutional law, logic, ethics. He reads the philosophy of David Hums, again and again. He plays backgammon against himself. ...

I pay my rent, sometimes we eat together. Once I told him it was my birthday. I imagined him leaning across and kissing my mouth, firm and dry. I would have got up and walked away, leaving him still on his haunches in the dust, the perfume of the Cape Lilac heavy about him. Better that we live like animals of a different species, without history, without passion. If I could believe this of us . ...

I sit here from eight o'clock in the morning in my jeans and the white T-shirt I sleep in. I have my pot of tea, my special pen, I open all the louvres and the hot air pours down off the pavement. If I stand up I can see Alfredo in the garden opposite, slowly staking his tomatoes with strips of torn-up blue singlet. The louvres frame and segment my view. Most;ly my eyes flick between the hand moving across the white page and the black-eyed Susan which runs up the pavement. With their louvre borders, the orange and black flowers could be the entire run of a Margaret Preston print, laid beside and above one another.

The words come, or no words come. My right ankle itches, the tea cools in the pot.

Sometimes I walk to the park and find a space on the water's edge. At exactly the same time every day two men in their fifties used to take the air, arm in arm, their leashed schnauzers pacing with dignity at their heels, then one disappeared. Often I look for the patterns beneath the reflections and cigarette butts. THere are turtles in the lake, they tip the surface with their nostrils. You can trace them down, the long supple necks and the vague shape of the shell. They rise and drift for their own reasons, but they can be swift. They take cygnets and ducklings, snap and drag. I don't stay long in the park, I'm back at my desk in the afternoon, reading my sentences, listening to some music on the radio.

I didn't plan to be like this. I wasn't alkways like this. Once I wanted more than a room, some clothes folded into a cardboard box, paper, a typewriter and a distant man, sighing as he turns in his bed at night. But something rose up, inside me, and I changes.

Once I had friends, a lover, a sense of direction. There were others like me. We read, argued, danced, drank together. We must have been alike.

I used to live in an Art Deco apartment on Beaufort Street. It was marked for demolition so the rent was low. The panelling inside was stained to a deep, still, blood colour. ...

The neighbouiring flat was inhabited by a saxophonist who called himself Laminex Dan. He had a ukelele collection behind a pink kidney-shaped bar. He stacked Dean Martin records on top of the bar. I could hear him through the wall, singing about Houston, Chicago and Californiay. He owned a row of conical goblets in metallic colours. He drank chilled sherry out of these, when he could be bothered pouring it from the flagon. He trampled his dirty laundry in the shower cubicle. ...

Dan introduced me to the man who was to become my lover. His name doesn't matter. One day he appeared at my door with a handful of roses. He taught print-making at the Art Institute. He had a taste for the cheap Egyptiania which was fashionable in the thirties. He told me that he collected Depression prints of ruins and endless dunes. ...

I began to visit his house, to sit with him in front of the television. He liked the sound turned so low that all you could hear was a white hiss, like wind over clay.

I started to be sick. At first I was tired, but then I began to sweat and vomit. It took from me all my will and energy. Each night I lay very still under the sheets, under the mosquito netting, and listened to his smooth even breathing. I could hear the mosquitoes, but I wasn't sure whether they were inside or outside the net. ...

I come from a time and place where the universal cure was considered to be the intimacy of women's friendship. I decided to visit my old household and talk to Zora. ...When I arrived she was sitting up in bed in an old tracksuit. I made a pot of jasmine tea and carried it in. ... I tried to talk but there was a lump, a real lump in my throat. There was a cat in the bedroom which I held on my knees as we spoke. It reached up and clawed at the plastic brooch I was wearing at my throat and the plastic furrowed like soft toffee. ...

I went to a doctor at the local medical centre. ... She pressed cool fingers into a body which had suddenly become mine again. I explained about my throat. She looked at me. I waited for diagnosis and medicine. 'Perhaps you're trying to say something,' she said. 'Your problem may be one of utterance.'

I walked long distances at night with my jacket flapping and my hands in my pockets. In the striding darkness I passed between the lakes and islands of the park. I heard the shuffling of bats and parrots in the branches overhead. I heard the urgent voices in the shadows, their enticing or involuntary sounds. I saw no bodies, human or otherwise. I maintained a pace and rhythm without climax, without interruption. It was impossible to believe that the muscles could fail, that the step could falter or the ankle turn. But it must happen. The body, like any story, must come to its irresolute conclusion. We imagine a narrative following a death, a narrative of difficult justice, to spin movement and morality out of the pooling veins, the eyes milking over, the silence, the silence.

Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1991. From pp13-65.


Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady
APRIL 1997