Title: Disasters in Splendour

Author: Gregory O'Brien

In: Sport 13 Spring 1994

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, October 1994

Part of: Sport

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Sport 13 Spring 1994

1. Sydney, Australia

1. Sydney, Australia

That summer. Small moons are sewn about Sharon’s shoulders, three-quarter moons swirling around her three-quarter shoulders. Julian runs his hand between them, as if to shoo them off her. If Sharon was a writer, he says, she would be about to embark upon a book entitled Six Years of Tears and Heartache. But instead she would have him believe she is writing an epic poem entitled Mean Truck Driving Man. And pigs might fly.

They dreamt. Occasionally light in the living room is clear and precise. But usually the room itself resembles a page torn from an old magazine, the faded clothes of the inhabitants wandering from photograph to photograph now the fixer has worn off. Julian is tired and reclines on the bamboo couch. Sharon says she loves him, but despises his record collection … ‘Look at this: The Korean Orphans’ Choir, We Sing Because We’re Happy—when was the last time you played that?’

Julian retreats into sleep where a dream awaits him—a day of bicycle riding across a windless expanse. Sharon lies beside him on the couch and soon follows him there—a day of flowers performing acrobatics but somehow remaining attached to their stems…And Sharon is the princess of a kingdom so small that the shadow of a single cloud can cover it, a sky so small its reflection is contained in a tiny puddle… Until they are woken in the early evening by the screaming of ballerinas tumbling, intoxicated, through the door and onto the carpet. Sharon and Julian then retreat to the bedroom where they pretend the ballerinas do not exist.

‘If only ballerinas didn’t exist,’ growls Sharon.

The dancers often come to stay in the flat—one in particular, Rosanna. Sharon says that just because Rosanna once auditioned for the Royal Ballet page 48 doesn’t mean she can behave like royalty. ‘A kind of diminished royalty,’ Sharon proceeds, ‘who leaves lipstick on the doorknobs and struts down to the Evil Star every Friday night collecting boys.’

Following mornings. Julian lies on the doubled bed which has eight legs, sometimes seven, depending on the loose one which, from time to time, comes unstuck. When the eighth leg is lying around the bedroom floor it is used to stir sugar into tea and, occasionally, to concuss insects which saunter up and down the walls as though they own the lease on the place.

‘From the point of view of treasure, the person discovering it can sometimes be of very little value,’ Julian muses. He is thinking of how he felt when he met Sharon. That summer he had had a job cutting lupins on the edge of an ocean. In the middle of these lupins, he found an ice-cream container full of stagnant water and green frogs—an oasis of frogs sur-
in yellow and blue lupins. Lupin arboreus.

He left a clump of foliage standing around the container to keep the frogs out of sunlight until evening, when they could leave safely.

His meeting with Sharon had been like that—a discovery. ‘But discoveries do not last long,’ he concludes, ‘they either develop into something else
or they are gone.’ The following morning the oasis had vanished, the water dissolved back into the sky, and so had the frogs. Only the plastic container the colour of emptiness remained.

I Spartacus. I Spartacus practise in a studio above a car-yard. Gino plays lead guitar, Jack Marx sings and Trotsky In Mexico (TIM for short) plays the drumkit. A model train travels around the edges of their inexpensive studio, which the landlord uses to house his enthusiasm for model trains as well as his enthusiasm for the small sums of money that can be gleaned from I Spartacus. A panorama of model stations encircles the room, clinging to the walls: SWITZ—GERM—FRANC—BELG. I Spartacus have to be careful not to stand on the tracks as they enter and leave the room. They turn their amplifiers up to drown out the buzz of locomotives endlessly circling.

Jack Marx was once a member of Tex Perkins’ Deadly Dum Dums (formerly The Cruel Sea). No matter how small or non-existent the audience, Jack Marx still finishes every concert with: ‘Thank you Australia, we love you…’ He prides himself on the fact he once sang through Status Quo’s PA system, and on his ability to fall asleep any time or place he likes. Gino says JM can even sleep on stage, his head right next to the kick drum. page 49 He once fell asleep mid-concert, leaning against his microphone stand. After another concert, he fell asleep backstage and someone stole all the clothes off him. Gino said it must have been fans, that he should have been flattered…At least they had the decency to leave him his underpants, he added, even if they did leave them on his head. Is it any wonder, JM insists, that he now has to take drugs to regain a presence in the world.

Sharon and Julian, a spy serial part I. There is a game they play in which they are spies from a foreign country. They adopt names, manner-
. Their mission is to blow up a boat moored in the harbour or, failing
that, to blow up anything. In the game, they become lovers. While their respective partners are hurrying towards middle age at ski resorts in the Northern Hemisphere, the two heroes grow younger in their obscure tropical paradise.

Julian’s wish: As on a rock midstream, they might sit calmly, inside their bodies.

Morning Herald. Gino reads the Sydney Morning Herald, the personal column, July 19:

I saw you crossing Elizabeth St midday yesterday in a red scaf, blue sandshoes and white teeshirt. I will be waiting at the Strand Bar, 9pm Tuesday. You are the love of my life. Amour toujours. Me more. I will be wearing polka dots.

Kings Cross Road. The sky outside the bedroom window is an old mattress stuffed with birds and precious objects. A plane trailing a banner, ‘DAN T. PLAYS THE PARADISO TONITE,’ flies past as Sharon sits on the bedroom window ledge of her twenty-first birthday, barbed wire stretching across the blue sky, reaching as far as the Flying Wall Cafe where a jukebox is playing Charles Mingus’s ‘Prayer for Passive Resistance’.

Washing hangs from a line strung diagonally across the bedroom. Next to the Peruvian rug hanging on the wall, just above the eleven- or twelve-string guitar, hangs a James Dean poster which blows down on windy days and is put back up on still days. ‘Apparently James Dean’s life was like that too,’ Sharon says.

page 50

‘Ruined by men.’ Sharon and Julian maintained their friend Robert was the last person on earth they would want to live with. But somehow Robert moved in regardless, proclaiming at the time ‘a new, improved Robert’ who would dress in a suit each morning and held a responsible job at the Housing Commission. He would leave the flat punctually at 8.25, returning between five and six in the evening. This went on for some weeks until Julian discovered that Robert was spending his days at the local pool hall and did not have a job after all. The only money he made was from cashing in the aeroplane tickets his parents in Auckland kept sending him. His fanatical right-wing politics would not allow him to enrol on the unemployment benefit so, during his entire stay, he never paid any rent.

Once Robert left an iron face down on the carpet and burnt a hole the shape of a church door right through to the floorboards. ‘You don’t let someone get away with that sort of behaviour,’ Julian and Sharon said, as they let him get away with it.

In retrospect. Sharon remembers the conclusion of her ‘relationship’ with Robert, its short life ending in a cemetery on Symonds Street. Sharon took him there one day—it must have been three or four years ago— between Stage One English and her part-time motel cleaning job. ‘I know you want to bury our relationship but you don’t have to be so blatant about it,’ Robert had said. The only reason Sharon can now recall for taking him there was that she ‘felt like some fresh air and it was close to work’.

Roof maintenance. One afternoon on the roof, Rosanna met a gentleman who said he owned the building they were living in and it was going to cost him three thousand dollars to fix the roof, and that was the cheapest tender. ‘Makes you wish the damned place didn’t have a roof,’ he told her.

Big Red Desert. One morning, just before dawn, Robert went off into the desert to make a living selling paintings of desert landscapes to desert dwellers. The newspaper advertisement said there was no limit limit on the amount of money that could be made. Robert said he would sell the pictures door to door, never for a moment thinking there might be hundreds of miles between doors. The paintings were done by a machine then finished off by slave labour in Taiwan. It was part of Robert’s job description to say he painted the works himself and claim, if necessary, he did so with his feet on page 51 account of a childhood accident which rendered both his hands useless. (Occasionally, Robert would be the recipient of ‘miracle cures’ at the hands of these bored suburban women…)

Sharon lent him her camera so he could take photographs of the desert. But the venture went adrift a few hundred miles west of Sydney. The car died. The other salesmen caught buses in various directions, and Robert was left penniless, his only assets being the camera and a considerable number of Taiwanese masterpieces. He eventually dumped the paintings and pawned Sharon’s camera for fifty dollars—sufficient money to bus back to Sydney.

It was Sharon’s grandfather’s camera. While she had never been close to her grandfather while he was alive, the camera offered her an extension of his existence. The duty-free Minolta in its leather casing embodied him, enabling her, in the absence of knowing him, to at least think a little about him.

In tears, Sharon made Robert get dishwashing work in a floating restaurant, then, on his first pay day, marched him down to a photographic shop to replace the camera. Robert said that, despite his chronic seasickness, he was glad to be back and had missed everyone terribly. ‘You bastard,’ everyone replied.

A day’s work (according to Robert).

A leaf that
an hour ago

passes again,
the other way.

Cafe. Gino carries a Second World War Italian Army backpack, ‘exactly the right size for a cappuccino machine,’ he says, ‘that was what the packs were designed for.’ Gino Luigi Marco Palmieri imagines the Italian Army marching gloriously into Abyssinia and across North Africa with cappuccino machines on their backs. ‘The equipment helped them lose the war,
but triumphed in subsequent years,’ he says.

page 52

A musical interlude. ‘Another relationship at risk becuase of someone’s record collection,’ Sharon exclaims, sifting through Julian’s pile:

Music of the Friendly Isles
New Wine in an Old Bottle
Canadian Blackfoot Indian Songs
Gamelan Gender Wayang
The Forgotten Ireland
The Bagpipe in Canada
Voodoo Gods in Haiti
The Bagpipe in Italy…

She is saving these records up for the day when, in a temper, she will throw them across the room:

Indian Religious Music—Monks, Transvestites, Midwives
Japanese Puppet Music
Irish Tinker Music
Indian Religious Music—Musicians, Dancers, Prostitutes
Tibetan Mystic Songs—Wandering Monks
Music of the Rain Forest Pygmies
Lotus Lantern
Philippine Gong…

Finally she arrives at Living Eyes by Radio Birdman. ‘Don’t mind me,’ she says, putting the stereo on, full tilt.

A room with a view. From the kitchen window they can see into a woman’s living room across the courtyard. None of them know the woman but there are things they now know about her, such as her predilection for men wrestling with alligators in swamps and on the edges of swamps. They watch these clashes on the television screen just visible beyond the woman’s blue rinse which hovers above her armchair backing onto the window. When it is not alligator wrestling, it is the title sequence of Hawaii Five-O, with a huge luminous wave breaking in the dimly lit room.

Sharon and Julian, a spy serial part 15. Julian and Sharon abandon their mission when Julian is recognised by a distant relative in a small town bookshop. He scrambles out of the store, swims across a river and, upon arriving at the far bank, falls into the arms of Sharon.

‘But what will we do with the explosives?’ she asks. ‘How will we dispose of them?’

page 53

Julian smiles and, later, in the midday heat in the middle of nowhere, an unused haybarn lifts itself casually off the ground, a cloud of dired stalks gathering in the air before dispersing south, interrupting the meditations of cows in the surrounding fields.

For Julian and Sharon, the exploding barn in the far distance is an omen of good luck.

A lengthy meditation. ‘How long should two people stay together?’ Rosanna muses. She has taken to rock’n’roll dancing, ‘a new partner every three steps’.

A very mild crescendo. Julian is in the kitchen cutting up broccoli. Sharon asks him about his previous girlfriends. She says he has quite a track record but he is not a runner. ‘The smaller the pieces of broccoli become, the more they resemble fully grown trees,’ Julian observes, and smiles at the thought of these girlfriends more than he ever smiled at them.

Sharon and Julian, a spy serial part 23. The carpet in the motel is covered in burn marks. Julian and Sharon sit in bed with a cigarette lighter, one by one igniting their documents and instructions, the details of their mission. As they set these alight, they toss them gently aside and the flaming pieces gracefully descend to the floor where they are reduced to ashes and dark constellations among the already existent constellations on the ochre carpet. Sharon says it is obvious that spies have previously stayed in the room and the burning of such documents is solely to blame for the pattern on the carpet.

Vignette. Robert has a friend in a flat not far from here who screams continually. When Julian told Robert that his friend should see someone about her screaming, he replied that no one would to see a person who made such an unbearable racket.

In his sleep, Robert is a mine of information, from shopping lists to proclamations of love. Sometimes he talks about his regrets and how he spends his evenings. And why he is such a liar during his waking hours. Sometimes he walks about the room in his sleep and tries to climb into the beds of others. He has also been known to make embarrassing pronouncements about the ballerinas who come to stay—the ballerinas who laugh and
talk and empty the fridge and go out for the night.

page 54

Its breath. A part-time barman at The Evil Star, Gino is always taking left-
food home to ‘feed the animal’, although no one knows what sort of
animal he is providing for. All they know is a preference for veal and scallops. Gino is waiting for a break in his career like a break in the weather. The closest he has been to ‘fame’—and he says he could feel its breath against his neck—was when I Spartacus were support act to The Birthday Party in Newcastle. Nick Cave had walked up to Gino during the soundcheck, as if he was about to say something to him. Then, at the last moment, he had veered away, leaving Gino in a curious absence which, since then, has both defined and threatened to engulf his muscial career.

Dried Ice. I Spartacus’s drum-machine often malfunctions on account of the cockroaches living inside it. The insects love electrical appliances, the warmth and homely atmosphere. They eat up the circuits.

The band’s smoke-machine is similarly threatened. Sometimes Gino holds the smoke-machine to his ear and listens to the roaches going about their business inside.

Gino is fond of his equipment. Whenever he sees clouds he imagines a smoke-machine beyond the nearest range of hills, just out of sight.

Rosanna ‘goes to town’. Rosanna’s days are spent in the bath, reading romance novels and changing words at crucial places with a ballpoint pen. Then she dresses slowly in front of the mirror and goes downtown to steal things. She once lifted a complete Beauty Manicure Set from a rotating display stand at Grace Brothers then waltzed, smiling, past the security guards and down the front steps, her bulging grey jumper lost in a cloud of grey pigeons, her jet black hair making off with the gazes of the security men. ‘Her glad eye’, as Sharon would say, ‘her ever so wandering eye.’

Rosanna tells Julian how, when she wrote ‘dancer’ as her occupation on an Employment Service form, they found her a job lying draped across the bonnet of a brand new Toyota at a car show, smiling and waving mechanically. Another time her week’s work comprised jumping out of a cake. Such
is the artist’s lot in the modern world, she figured.

According to Employment Service documents, Rosanna’s declared interests are ‘beached whales, earthquakes, full moons, springtime and failed love.’ She tells the more sympathetic officials she will one day write a book entitled Disasters in Splendour, but until then she fears she she is destined to remain ‘besieged by men and bits of paper’.

page 55

One morning she reads Julian a poem she has written in which a woman gets her zipper caught up with a man’s zipper. Julian questions whether this is physically possible but Rosanna deflects his disbelief, accusing him of a failure of the imagination, while looking at him very intently.

Sharon says that Rosanna’s ‘modern dance’ is only a way of projecting her anxieties and obsessions onto an unsuspecting and paying audience. But Rosanna counters by insisting that Sharon simply cannot fathom ‘the dancer’s commitment to dancing and the circumstances that give rise to dancing’.

Lake of swans. One evening Rosanna redeems herself in Sharon’s eyes by performing Swan Lake on the living room floor with a sleeping bag pulled up to her eyes. Julian and Sharon laugh and clap and send Robert down the road for some cheap wine. And, as the lights are dimming for the second half of Rosanna’s performance, Robert returns, bearing very expensive wine. But no questions are asked. And then The Rite of Spring!

Sharon and Julian, a spy serial part 32. Later they push their rental car off a cliff into a lake. They feel they are consummating a universal desire as they watch the rental car disappear beneath the black surface of the water.

A man of him. Sharon says she intends making a man of him. It is on her list of things to do today, between a walk in the park and a loaf of bread. She wants a man she can imagine in the skin of a leopard. But all she gets is the skins of oranges and grapefruit, arranged affectionately around her affection for him.

Over her head. ‘Your roof is someone else’s floor,’ Sharon figures. ‘Over your head is beneath someone else’s feet. It comes from living in apartment blocks. If your thoughts were to assume material form and rise up they would be trampled to death in the stampede that is forever going on above us…’

Sometimes Sharon climbs the fire-escape to the tenement roof to sit in the sun or to check that Robert has gone to work. She listens to Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers through her headphones, says the world has gone ‘so fucking downhill since then’.

page 56

The ‘Tragic Tape’. Robert has taken to wearing Sharon’s headphones whenever she leaves them around the flat. He listens to his Tragic Tape (P. P. Arnold, ‘A little pain,’ Carmel, ‘Bad Day’, Nina Simone, ‘It’s cold out there’, Lady Day, ‘Was there anything I could do’, James Brown, ‘Lost Someone’, Chris Isaac, ‘Lie to me’ and War, ‘The world is a ghetto’). Robert claims he is ‘a sufferer from bewilderment’. Although Sharon isn’t convinced that that is sufficient to justify his shameless money-borrowing, his
putting records on in the middle of the night and his occasional attempts to kiss her.

Robert says he longs to be indispensible, an integral part of someone else’s life, just as smashing up motel rooms was once an integral part of being a rock musician.

Ad Infinitum. Sharon abandoned studying Chaucer at Auckland Uni-
to cross the Tasman and ‘live life’. Now she spends her early evenings (while Julian is working at the restaurant) reading Chaucer on the roof— ‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote.’ When Robert joins her among the rooftop clotheslines and shadows of passing aeroplanes, he invariably tells her how much he needs her and how he believes their fates are inextricably interwoven. Sharon replies that she will be returning to university at the earliest possible date to immerse herself in ‘feminine seclusion and sister-
’. She adds that Robert needs her like he needs German Expressionism.

Swanning. ‘Last night we had ballerinas staying again,’ Julian exclaims. ‘Imagine that: ballerinas asleep on our floor!’

The ballerinas often stand in front of the bathroom mirror doing leg exercises and observing themselves reflected in every one of the thousands of blue tiles that cover the floor and walls. Since last weekend, only one screw has been holding the towel-rack to the bathroom wall, probably the result of some over-adventurous gymnastics which no one has owned up to. And only yesterday morning Rosanna managed to demolish the light fitting above the sink as part of her routine. She said she was sorry. But ballerinas do not pay for breakages.

Street Machine. If Robert does not stop using Julian’s Radio Birdman albums as frisbees, Julian says he will ‘orchestrate a gruesome death for him’.

‘If Robert calls me Shazza one more time, I’ll kill him,’ says Sharon, sitting on the floor reading Harley Woman—the magazine for the real page 57 woman who rides across the USA on a Harley Davidson with her children on the back while her husband, homebound in Milwaukee, busies himself cooking up the chittlings, greens, fatback, hashbrowns…Sharon likes the sound of this, although Julian believes the magazine is only a ploy to scare Robert off.

Sleeping nights. Some nights when Rosanna is ‘staying at Martin’s’, Martin rings up to speak to her. ‘Oh,’ says Sharon, ‘I think she is out dancing or has been asked to do another commerical. The artistic compromises …she has to make…’

High fidelity. Rosanna walks around the flat wounded because her boyfriend, Martin, doesn’t trust her. The hurt isn’t diminished by the fact she is unfaithful to him on a daily basis. She finds solace on the telephone to ‘someone else’.

On The Street (9.8.82):

With the recording of their forthcoming EP just about finished, The Moles are undergoing a slight line-up change—bastard bassist Mick has apparently done the bolt, leaving the covetted position wide open for enthusiasts
for making wonderful music. Sources close to the band suggest the most likely successor to be I Spartacus frontman and OTS demi-legend Jack Marx who has shown more than a casual interest in the group…He is on top of all this a damn good bloke and we wish The Moles every success at pinning the great man down.

Exodus. ‘It makes me want to scream,’ screams Sharon, ‘the way Robert wears everyone else’s clothes. I’m tired of seeing my shirts walking down the corridor without me in them.’ Robert wears the garments across town to the address of the Israeli draft-dodger he is in love with. ‘In this way,’ Julian interrupts, ‘at least your shirts get to see a part of the world they would not otherwise see.’ ‘But my shirts seldom return from these engagements,’ Sharon moans.

Swansong. Jack Marx has decided to leave I Spartacus and take up the offer to join The Moles who will soon be touring League Clubs in West Sydney and Woollongong. He breaks the news to Gino and Trotsky In page 58 Mexico at practice one night after a stirring rendition of ‘She has no tears’. He says the trains endlessly circling I Spartacus’s practice room are ‘an exact representation of where the band were heading’. And the last straw was when he found out it was one of the other band-members stealing his clothes.

By way of a coda to their collective musical career, I Spartacus join in one final rendition of ‘Donna is Distressed’ and, as Gino and TIM had hoped, Jack Marx falls asleep half-way through the instrumental break. Then taxis home later that night, having lost his clothes one last time.

Vista. Julian and Sharon’s neighbour hangs her washing on a line on the rooftop. When her washing goes missing—usually on account of the wind which has formed a particular attachment to her socks and underwear—she knocks on their door and asks if they have seen her missing items. Not knowing that Julian and Sharon are from Auckland, sometimes she screams: ‘New Zealanders must have taken them!’

9pm, Tuesday night. All Gino has for six years of persevering with I Spartacus is an unreleased forty-minute cassette and a loyal drummer. Now Jack Marx has left the group, all Gino can do is bury himself even deeper in dishes at The Evil Star.

Tonight, however, while leaving the restaurant to head off in search of parties, he trips over a rubbish bin outside an artist’s studio just across the road. A large piece of paper unfurls from the toppled bin. Gino realises at once that he has uncovered a discarded Brett Whiteley drawing. Not believing his luck, he goes to the Strand Bar for a Guinness to celebrate. There he meets a woman, Miranda, who is wearing polka dots. She is drunk and says she has connections in the art world.

A few days later she has sold the drawing, on Gino’s behalf, to an undisclosed Brisbane art dealer for $10,000, a sufficient sum to finance the release of I Spartacus’s tape on LP record.

After months of trying to convince the others to emigrate, Julian and Sharon decide to return to New Zealand. ‘When you want them all out and they won’t go, all that’s left is making a move yourself,’ says Sharon, dusting off the old Air New Zealand bag. Julian agrees and says if they stay any longer Robert will have pawned their entire record collection, which has been diminishing in recent weeks. ‘And anyway,’ Sharon adds, ‘we can’t go on living like this, it’s nearly two years page 59 since I’ve seen a lupin. It’s about time we grew up and took life seriously and had children. And, besides, I’m pregnant.’

Graffiti on a Surry Hills wall (a farewell gesture, Julian’s, four hours later):

I loved


Rose Bay (a postlude). ‘Another rough day at the floating restaurant,’ Robert announces, walking through the open door to discover Sharon and Julian have packed their bags and gone. I hope your bays will always be full of roses, a note on the table reads.

By now Julian’s Radio Birdman albums are high above the Tasman Sea, out of reach.

Rosanna has taken her bags around to Martin’s place. James Dean has gone for good, as have the eleven- or twelve-string guitar and the Peruvian rug. The only thing left on the wall is a scrap of paper (an Irish triad): Three smiles worse than grief: the smile of snow melting, the smile of your wife to you after sleeping with another man, the smile of a leaping dog.

Robert picks up a Sydney Morning Herald and circles an advertisement in the employment section: ‘Clayton Strindberg requires extras for his latest cinematic masterpiece “Orgy of Destruction”, no experience required.’

Crossing the room to the wardrobe for a fresh shirt, Robert is met only by a row of empty coathangers, dangling like questionmarks before his future. He combs his hair in the bathroom mirror for the last time then walks out the door, heading for Rose Bay and a career in film.