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Sport 3: Spring 1989

Barbara Anderson — Una Benchley Thinks About David Hockney

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Barbara Anderson

Una Benchley Thinks About David Hockney

Una Benchley sits opposite Carmen at the first Staff Meeting of the year. Rays of sun from the high clerestory windows fall on Carmen's blonde hair illuminating it. The effect is dazzling.

Una thinks of David Hockney at 51 and is sad. There he is dyeing his hair every Thursday night just like a girl. He saw a Clairol ad the first time he was in New York which told him that blondes have more fun and believed it. And who's to say he's wrong unless they've tried, which Una hasn't.

Years ago she saw a Hockney self-portrait, drawn when the artist was still at school. It was a plate in a French pottery museum. The authority of the few lines which sketched the owlish face knocked her socks off. What a future.

'If ever I stopped dyeing it,' he says, 'people would interpret it as a statement.' Una can understand that. He is trapped inside his own cult figure, turned to gold by his own Midas. He is deaf and wears a double hearing aid and doesn't go to parties because of the background buzz they call it. He has a problem, perhaps, with consonants. Ps and Ts. Is love a big ship or shit following him? Is the dame aux camellias requesting police or priest at her deathbed? He must make snap decisions through fog as he watches television most evenings alone with his beloved daschund called Stanley, after Stan Laurel, and wasn't there something funny about him or was, that the other one.

Una folds the paper. She will cut out the Hockney article and put it in a pink folder where she stows things she can't bear to throw out and never looks at again.

She also discovered Richard Burton before he was famous or rich or married or dead. Instead of finding out whether it's true what they say about blondes Una stood in theatre queues surrounded by incompetent buskers throwing balls about, and fought vertigo in the terraced gods. She saw Richard Burton in a small part in The Lady's page 6not for Burning. She couldn't take her eyes off him as he sat downstage left and smouldered. None of what followed was a surprise to her.

Una came back from her OE bringing gifts from swinging London: a tin tray and tea-towels printed with the Union Jack which offended her father as the flag meant a great deal to him; a mug with Kitchener pointing at her; Beatle memorabilia. She resumed teaching at Girls' High and met Brock who taught at Boys' High, and was a friend of a friend as is so often the case.

Slim as a bluebell Una hops behind Brock on his Matchless and they are up up and away, her arms tight about him as they lean helmetless into the well-cambered curves of the Bay. Her hair flies, sweeps salty into her mouth as she laughs, is spat out when they reach Westshore and her hands are free. Brock tells her she doesn't lean far enough. Go with me all the way, he tells her. Don't be a dead weight.

Brock stopped short of total immersion in valves and chains. He had other interests. Amateur theatrical rehearsals were held in the dusty Scout Den by the Park, surrounded by pennants and photographs of Akelas and Leaders now defunct, including a signed one of Lord Baden Powell in long shorts holding a staff. His wife was thirty years younger. He fell in love with her springing confident stride as she walked the dogs in Hyde Park and they lived happily ever after. Una knows this because she has found, spread-eagled beneath a bench, a biography by Lady Baden Powell, and is reading it surreptitiously while prompting for The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde. Brock plays Algernon.

'She doesn't get around much anymore,' he declaims from the dais, his head and script held high.

— About, mutters Una from the floor, a finger guarding her place in the true love story.

Brock juts his pelvis forward, his hands on his hips. His beard points. She is at eye level with his zip. — Must you pick me up on every single solitary... ?

— Getting around is not the same as getting about, says Una.

— True, says Vince the director.

— This is a run through!

If you get it wrong now you'll get stuck in it, says Una.

Gwendolyn pokes her parasol at the stage. She insists on having it even though it is a run through so she can get the feel of it.

— Don't get around much anymore, belts Canon Chasuble.

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Why are we doing this crap anyway? asks Brock, flinging his script on the chair which represents a tea table. — Why couldn't we have a crack at Waiting for Godot? He turns upstage to check his zip.

— Because we've got to fill the fucken Muni, says Vince the director tugging at his eye shade.

— You don't have to fill it, says Brock.

— You'd have two men says Vince, and...

— Twelve women, says Una.

Brock swings like a machinegunner at Una who smiles at him, her heart beating pocketa, pocketa, pocketa.

Gwendolyn has found a knot in the stage to dig at. — What about South Pacific? she says.

Vince leaps to his feet, skinny and outraged. — We've been through this a thousand times! The Importance of being Ernest. In three weeks. Right!

Una swings well into the curves on the way home and the wind blows.

'John is displeased by my person,' wrote Effie Ruskin to her parents. He had never seen a naked woman before, only nudes, and was repelled by her pubic hair. Brock kept the lights off and his eyes shut and moved to the sunporch after a few weeks of marriage because he didn't want to keep Una awake with his snores.

Una screwed her trousseau nightie between her hands, pressing its faint mustiness against her face. His mind was was made up. He was fine out there.

The sunporch was male as a sergeant's billet. A Royal Stuart rug given them as a wedding present covered the low bed. An alarm clock, a small Swiss army knife, a yellow Gollancz murder, blue plastic glass of water shared the kitchen chair alongside. Una lay awake each night listening for his snores.

He asked boys from school home in the weekends. Jimmy the Captain of the First Fifteen ate six melting-moments and Brock christened them Jimmys, and Bill and Terry and Vince laughed, flinging back their heads, haw haw haw. They sunbathed, sweating on beach towels beside the tool shed on the back lawn, their shy white backs and vulnerable necks anointed with oil, their knees and forearms tanned and hairy. Their faces were hidden, cradled in their arms. Brock took photographs with his Canon as they hammed it up in Mr Universe page 8poses. — Bit more biceps there Bill, cried Brock. Bill clenched his fists, his face contorted with the effort of the joke. He had the head of a young Picasso, wide mouth, neat ears, hair clipped close to his head above intent eyes. Una stood laughing, loving them all, her hands on the railing of the deck. Brock took the boys out to Blackbridge for a swim, happy to ferry them in turns on the Matchless.

Brock is now a dramaturg and lives with his lover Clive in downtown Los Angeles. They have a good life and Brock has nothing against Una. He says so. He sends her photos of himself taken by Clive. The last ones were at a picnic in the smog. Brock is solid, even his gut is muscular as he leans against the Lincoln convertible with its roof down, his ankles crossed, one white other. He wears tracksuit trousers the cord of which hangs below his red T-shirt which says HARVARD in black. He has a suntanned bald head and a well-trimmed curly grey beard and an enthusiasm for life like David Hockney had, and Una hopes still has. Brock squints into the smog-bound sun and squeezes her heart.

Una had never stopped teaching and her superannuation was unaffected by two years matrimony. Una is a conscientious teacher. She keeps up with her own reading and hacks her way through prescribed English, explaining the syllabus musts, though nowadays it is mostly communication skills. Levels of discourse.

— Fucken wimp, says Ella of 3C, bending to retie her Charlie Browns.

— Who? says her friend Jenni, her hands flat on the warm concrete of the lab steps.

— Tampax.

— Tamp? Yeah. Fuckwit.

Their gym skirts are heaved above their pants, their legs stick straightin front of them smooth, hairless and brown.

— I don't mind Benchley, says Ella, wrapping the remains of her muesli bar in a tissue dragged from her pocket.

— What!

—Well she's, you know...Not a bitch, sort of.

— Her old man's a queer.

—Yeah. Ella stows the package down her front. — In LA.

— Gay in LA.

— Yeah. Ella hides her face on her knees to laugh.

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Una did not discover Andy Warhol herself but she admires him nevertheless. His writing more than his pictures though she accepts them as Art because they make her see, especially the one of the electric chair, its straps hanging. Andy Warhol used to wear leathers but went back to bluejeans because it is their nature to be washed. He was obsessed with cleanliness. He said that God lurks in the detail. He said that everyone's sense of beauty is different from everyone else's. When he saw people dressed in maroon polyester waffle iron pants he tried to imagine what went off in their heads when they bought them. Did they say, 'This is great. I like it. I'll take it.' What did they reject as not beautiful. It worried him. He also bleached his hair though Una does not know whether David Hockney or he did it first. Or was he an albino.

Una stares across the kauri table, donated to the staff room by the

Chairman of the Board, at Carmen's hair. It is the colour they strive for but natural. Perhaps though they prefer the stark bleached effect, rather than Carmen's multiplicity of shades which range from fresh-picked to faded corn-silk. Probably they do. The artificial is desired, the real rejected. Carmen turns her head. Tendrils of pale gold drift against her neck. She wears a silver chain, one silver ball lies at the base of her throat. She is infinitely desirable. Una can see that. It's not that she can't understand Brock. Una sees Mr Adams's eyes on Carmen yet again.

'In such a night
Troilus methinks mounted the Trojan walls,
And sighed his soul towards the Grecian tents,
Where Cressid lay that night.'

In such a night. . .!

Una's quotes are a great help to her. They are her talisman. She clutches them to her. They see her through.

Carmen, my dear. It will be all right. I promise. Attempted rape is a violation. It is worse than rejection. Much worse. I do know that. But remember Andy Warhol's philosophy — the So What philosophy. 'My mother didn't love me as a child. So what. My husband does not ball me anymore. So what.' Let the dead past bury its dead though he doesn't say that. It's now that matters. Una's left hand tightens on her handkerchief. So what, so what. I promise. Carmen lifts her head and grins at Bench-baby who is a good sort. Mr Adams moves from one buttock to the other. Una smiles.

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Una was sad when Andy Warhol died. His death seemed mishandled and unnecessary. And now there's that sale of his effects. Effects. An odd word.

Una puts down From A to B and back again; The Philosophy of Andy Warhol which she is rereading in the sunporch and walks out to check the letterbox. She is neurotic about mail on Saturdays, often making several trips God knows why. She moves heavily in her yellow hand-knit between the borders of Mrs Sinkin dianthus which line the straight concrete path. Mrs Sinkin is a good doer with a long floraceous period but splits badly, the frilled white petals exploding from sprung calyxes.

There is a letter from Brock. He and Clive are coming out on another trip and will look forward to catching up with Una about the 25th. A week from now. They can take in some local theatre together. Will Una make bookings for three so they can see what's on. Brock will be interested to hear her views on indigenous New Zealand drama. Where it's at at the moment. Improvisation is the name of the game, the state of the art on the West Coast he writes. There is so much more scope for spontaneous input, for genuine creativity, when bouncing ideas off other people. You don't get locked in.

Una stands at the front gate and reads the letter twice, one hand clutching the wrought iron curlique which decorates the aluminium cuckoo-clock letter box.

Brock sits crumpled on Una's sun porch. There is a divan covered with a blue and red woven rug where his bed used to be and comfortable seagrass chairs Una has painted a rather good blueish purple. You can see a sliver of sea beyond the carpark across the road. There is a Norfolk pine which her mother called a monkey puzzle when Una was little but never explained why.

Brock leans forward in the seagrass, his head in his hands, his shoulders slumped in despair beneath his pink sweat shirt. Clive has left him.

— I'm so desperately unhappy, he says, lifting his head to gaze into her eyes. He means it. There is nothing left. Nothing. Sometimes he feels there is no point in going on. Brock hangs his head again, his eyes scarcely see the striped offcut-rug below them. He reaches in the pocket of his Calvin Kleins and pulls out a handkerchief.

Una stares at him and wonders what on earth he thinks she can page 11do about it, or would do about it, and why should she. Who in the name of all that's merciful does he think he is. Or think she is, but this she knows. You wouldn't read about it. The astonishment of life. There is always something to behave about.

Una rearranges a limp cushion behind her, tucking it into the small of her back with a firm hand. She leans forward.

David Hockney leaps to her mind. His blond head. His Thursday nights.

—Have you ever thought of...? she says and stops.

—Brock's arms hang helpless. His dark eyes lift to hers, wounded as a bushbaby's.


—Nothing, says Una. — Just something I thought of. Nothing.