The Cecil


There was to be an attempt on a world record in Leura: the most number of couples doing the Charleston at any one time. Two hundred and eighty something I think it was. Carlos was the supervising judge, he asked us to come along but we couldn’t; we could, however, go to the dinner afterwards. I was arriving in Katoomba in the afternoon so I called my old friend Vic to see what he was up to. We go back a while but hadn’t spoken in years: after I said my name I could hear that long silence reverberating softly down the line. Vic said Saturday arvo wasn’t a good time for him, maybe we could meet another day, in the City? Did I ever go to the City? I live here, I said. He didn’t sound like himself: self-reliant, independent, insouciant, humorous. After a while he said, it’s been a difficult year. And after a while longer said: my heart. The valve leading to the lungs was defective so they had, in Westmead hospital, unzipped his chest to fix it. Trouble is, while in there, they had somehow damaged the valve in the aorta – a pin I think – so there had to be another op. A complication, Vic said. They don’t call it an error or a mistake, it’s a complication. I’m going through the paper work now, trying to find out what went wrong. Vic has run for office. He is a classics scholar. He has written plays, a novel. For years he lived off his earnings from betting on the horses, he had a system. If anyone could find out what had happened to his heart, he could. In a bureaucratic sense, anyway. I looked for him as I walked down from the railway station to the Cecil but I didn’t see him. Only a battered peacock feather lying on the footpath. Guest house, the woman at the desk said, not Backpackers, as if she’d known the way my own heart sank when I saw the signs out on the main drag, the broken discoloured neon of Vacant missing its ‘t’. Red plush velvet furnishings, dark varnished wood, staircases and passages ways, a rabbit warren of rooms with cheap old chandelier style lights that you turned off and on with a piece of string. Bad paintings and worse prints. A commemorative map of the Virgin Islands tracing the path Sir Francis Drake took through the archipelago in 1500 and something, why was that here? I stowed my things in Room 32 then called Carlos, who was deeply involved in an attempt to understand the difference between a Devonshire Tea and coffee with scones, jam and cream. He and Carla came down to the Cecil and we made a plan to rendezvous in one hour for the trip to the Bowlo in Hazelbrook where the dinner was taking place; in the interim I went to the Harp & Fiddle, wishing I had worn my green suit; I would have looked good harping and fiddling in that. Carla was dressed as a flapper, with feathers and beads, while Carlos was in his usual Portuguese black but wearing a purple tie. After they hit us up for the money at the door, Carla and I went to the buffet while Carlos went to the railway station for Maggie and Ella. It was your typical Bowlo except full of oddly shaped people wearing ’20’s clothes or at least their approximation of that. A man with a keyboard tie for instance, that really played notes. Another tall gangling fellow with a black shirt and red braces. An old gent with a trilby hat and gleaming false teeth who drew a bead on Carla and squired her obdurately through half a dozen numbers. The band drifted in by degrees, there seemed to be hundreds of them, all carrying brass instruments. From Penrith, a swing orchestra. A series of vocalists took turns to croak out a succession of standard tunes. The dancing, helas! was better than the music; or is that the way it should be? A short woman with very thick legs wearing a white dress like a ballerina’s foaming from her waist. A tall, angular one in a black number with red fringing that spread out like planetary rings when she twirled. Young girls too but not many young men. Oh the intoxications of the quadrille! The samba and the rumba, the fox-trot, the twist. As the sets wore away we came closer, but not too close, to our own day. Elvis, Creedence, Van . . . a marvellous night for a moondance / with the dew on the immaculate greens . . . Carlos and Maggie tore up the floor through the rock ‘n’ roll numbers and I didn’t know where to look. Ella’s head buried in my lap, she’d given up hours before, it was no place for a ten year old. There was a fellow out on the floor in thongs, Lord knows how, he got all the girls to shuffle along with him. In the carpark I got to play a tune on the guy’s piano tie, it was You Must Remember This, my only accomplishment of the evening. Then we went back to Katoomba, where the corridors of the Cecil were thronged with Canadians, Chinese, Indians and, later, when everyone was in bed, ghosts. They kept stuffing messages under the door of #32, incomprehensible scrawlings on old pieces of cardboard, on ancient billet-doux, on postcards, that tore as they forced them through the crammed aperture. In the end I had to get up and go out but of course they all instantly disappeared though I could feel them watching me as I walked, Barton Fink like, up the hall and round the corner and into the bathroom: and there, in the yellow translucent window over the cistern, the silhouette of a pigeon stood sleeping with its head under its wing. Its small adjustments and feathery rustlings, its poignant feet and legs, its drab plumpness on that solitary ledge. Oh ghosts, I thought, why not talk to pigeons? Why trouble us? When I arrived back in the room Maggie was at the window trying to close the sash, there were spectres out there too, trying to climb in. All they want is a little bit of warmth, all they need is some acknowledgment. In the morning we played ping-pong, we played pool, we laughed, and there was no sign of them at all. Yet who took my bag away when it was left for a moment outside the door of #32? Whose tears were they as we climbed the hill to the Savoy for coffee and then back down again to the Church Hall and the Jumble Stall for Kids with Cancer? And why those lumpy strange extrusions upon the derelict basketball court? In Iron Bottom Sound the sunken hulks like monstrances lie and also in our souls. Our hearts. Those subterranean valves, those undersea exits and entrances, those thronged vessels in which, enfin, all that is required is passage. Which cannot be given unless there is assent; and then it cannot be denied.

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