Ghosts of Croydon

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I

The neurasthenic detective is in the habit of going on Sundays to the art gallery to listen for rumours. This late morning he spends some time lingering outside the basement toilets watching footage, projected on a wall of the stairwell above him, of Monet painting in his garden at Giverny. The lily ponds in the background look murky, grey and indistinct. Monet has a cigarette stuck in his mouth but the solid mass of burnt ash doesn’t fall into his beard, not even when he bends down for some unknown reason, perhaps to retrieve a brush off the ground, perhaps to add some colour to the palette he holds in his left hand. After watching carefully for a minute or two the detective decides Monet’s cigarette has gone out, also that it was probably one he had rolled himself out of thick black shag tobacco. Maybe when he pauses he will relight it and smoke as he attempts to assess how the work is progressing. On the floor above the detective overhears a report coming in on a security guard’s radio: a man has been seen leaving the gallery with a painting-sized package under his arm, did he come from the gallery shop or from somewhere else? The guard does nothing, not even when the message is repeated. Meanwhile a young woman in a floral blouse, orange hibiscus on a black background he notes with distaste, is brazenly picking a bit of paint off a painting of Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall and concealing it in the top pocket of her blouse. The detective leaves the gallery none the wiser. He skips lunch and goes for a walk in the Botanic Gardens instead, where he finds feathers in the grass, a fake castle walled off behind a yellow and white plastic fence, ibis quarrelling, or are they dancing, in the crown of a palm tree and many bats hanging upside down from branches in bright sunlight. Sometimes they stretch out one or both of their leathery wings and then he observes the orange transparency of the membranes stretching between fantastically elongated fingers and remembers the young woman’s blouse. Near the lily ponds, with their green leaves, pink-fringed white flowers and seed pods shaped like shower heads, he listens while some German tourists speak of catching one of the monstrous old man carp and throwing it on a barbeque to cook and eat. He concludes they are joking and moves on. There is, he knows, a glamorous orchid among the Rare and Threatened Plants but when he goes to look it has been dug up from its plot and taken away. There is a man wheeling a red wheel barrow disappearing up one of the avenues, leaving a trail of fresh earth on the concrete path but the detective does nothing, perhaps he is a gardener and employed here, perhaps that is not the orchid in the barrow but some kind of rhizome that needs re-positioning—who can say? The young woman he saw in the gallery is in the Succulent Garden, kneeling to take a cutting from a silvery looking plant with sculptured leaves; she looks up as he passes and seems to wink but he can’t be sure, the day is hot and bright, he has come out wearing neither hat nor sun glasses, his eyes are sore, that’s the neurasthenia, other classic symptoms are anxiety, depression, fatigue, headache, impotence, neuralgia, he has them all. He watches the young woman in the floral blouse walk jauntily out of the sun-hammered Succulent Garden and knows all of a sudden that he must either sit down or fall over. He finds a bench in the shade of a flowering magnolia and takes refuge there, looking up into a sky so blue it seems white; and the buildings clustered on the skyline are white too, with metallic flashes emanating from their strangely angular ornaments, ethereal as a future city, one that is seemingly in the act of vaporizing into that white hot blue sky. Dysautonomia, he thinks, that was the word the doctor used, a disease that refers to an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system . . . just then the woman in the floral blouse comes into view again, that is the third time, it cannot be coincidence, she must be following him, why? As she walks by something falls from her hand, is it a clue, a fleck of paint, a corner of the leaf of a succulent, what? As he bends forward to see there comes a roaring in his ears and he feels himself falling except there’s nothing into which to fall, just a void, not a black void but a white one, white as the Aleph, he thinks, white as the longest lasting rose, white as silence or a whited sepulchre; and just before oblivion descends or rises he sees an infinity of images, as in Duchamp’s painting of the nude descending a staircase, they are all himself, or rather they are shadows of his former selves on their progress through this fatal afternoon and before that through all of the other afternoons of his life . . . infinite selves, he thinks, and before me infinite space, what drives me onwards is a consequence of what lies already behind me, I am falling without motivation or intent, without cause or sense, without remedy.

II

He was acting suspiciously, the young woman tells the police. I think he was following me but I don’t know why. No I didn’t see him fall, I heard it and when I turned around, there he was lying on the path, with that shockingly large pool of blood spreading out from his broken head. I have never seen so much red, she goes on but the policeman says that’s enough, now what is that you have in the left pocket of your blouse? Where did you get that? Why? While in the old Rum Hospital, conveniently near by, the detective lies unconscious, his head swathed in white bandages through which the red blood is already, surreptitiously, seeping.

III

The neurasthenic detective comes to in his own bed in his own flat above the premises of a dental technician called Doobov on the wrong side of the tracks at Croydon. His head hurts and when he searches for the source of the pain with his fingertips, he finds a raised, bumpy cut just back of the hairline some centimetres beyond the advancing line of his widow’s peak. Stitches. Not as in he laughed until he was in. Medicinal. Or should that be surgical. He tries to remember where and how he received the wound but cannot. Just a vague memory of orange. Lilies? Or carp? Or . . . his flat is both familiar and strange to him. Such foul clutter and neglect cannot be his, fastidious, indeed compulsively tidy as he knows himself to be. Or was that someone else? These thoughts make him dizzy and so he looks out the window, hoping for relief. A trapezoid of blue sky, the outline of some kind of tree, a cypress or a conifer, the red tiles on the roof of the building next door. The window glass is stained brownish yellow, he remembers someone saying that the stain is made from tree pollens blown against the glass and melted into place. He notices that the accretion is thicker towards the base of each pane and wonders if it is true that glass is actually a liquid and flows imperceptibly downwards in obedience to gravity? Probably it’s dust, not pollen or nectar or sap or whatever; probably the glass isn’t thicker at the base and anyway who cares? What does it matter? The cobwebs in the window are larger than he remembers, and dirtier, and the one directly in his line of sight has a kind of open hollow tube at the heart of it, no doubt where the spider herself, black and hairy, hides waiting for any stray insect to blunder in. Indeed, given the fecundity and variety and extent of the webs, they seem to be in the process of swathing his small and so uncharacteristically untidy, also grimy, apartment the way the pristine white bandage swathed his head in the hospital he has so recently discharged himself from. Pristine, yes, when newly swathed but then the red insinuated itself, then turned that rusty orange brown of old blood . . . the thought of orange, the colour, nauseates him so he quickly changes the subject of his meditation. Current projects include the first ever Dyslexic’s Dictionary; a website called Virtual Sydney that will be fully negotiable in all eleven dimensions; and a Compleat Register of the Ghosts of Croydon. All by their nature are works in progress and none, at this particular time on this particular day in this particular place, seems plausible or even possible. He sighs. The webs, ragged, dirty, faintly malevolent and redolent of abandonment and neglect, seem to echo or at least rhyme with the tattered state of his mind. If only he could recall something apart from that nauseous orange. And then it comes, so slight, so fugitive, almost imperceptible, but nevertheless a trace. Hibiscus, he whispers to himself. Yes, on a black ground. And a girl . . .

IIII

At that exact moment the woman with the floral blouse, now dressed in a pearl grey suit over a white shirt, black shoes, stands before the court to testify on her own behalf against the charge of wilful damage to property, that is, picking a fleck of paint off an Arthur Boyd painting owned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales . . . but I didn’t, she says, I found that piece of paint on the floor where it had fallen, everybody knows that bits fall off paintings, why, they used to have to sweep in front of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles on a daily basis, there was a lucrative trade in fragments of that million dollar masterpiece, what was I supposed to do, try to stick it back on? And, taking inspiration from what she has just said, goes on: That is in fact what I was doing when the guard spotted me, trying to put it back, surely you believe me, I am an artist myself . . . Isn’t everyone, the magistrate observes dryly before accusing the police of vexatious prosecution and dismissing the case for lack of evidence. As the woman leaves the court she imagines documenting the whole experience as a work, the centre of which would be the flake of paint that she retrieved from the Boyd; or would be if the police hadn’t confiscated it . . . but present concerns are more pressing than the alleged eternity of art so she hails a cab in Elizabeth Street and asks the driver to take her to Croydon. She works part-time as an art instructor there and has a class to teach. The day is bright and dark by turns, her driver is an harassed looking Chinese man who drives too fast, the car is old and smelly and dirty and strikes her as unreliable: all of which combine to make her feel somehow diminished, less than herself, perhaps even a simulacrum. So that when her taxi crosses the railway bridge and turns right by Presbyterian Ladies College, a wave of nausea goes over her and she calls out for the driver to stop and let her out. He pulls up next to a bright pink cake shop called Pavlova Perfection on a corner opposite an Italian restaurant, Mario’s, which is closed, they do the business and she gets out, swaying slightly in the changeable air, wondering what to do and where to go. She would like a drink but the old deco pub next door to the cake shop has been made over into the art annex of PLC where she teaches part-time, she can’t go in there, and round the corner nothing’s open except a place selling Indian spices and another that specialises in eco-friendly scented candles, neither of which hold any interest for her. She is feeling worse by the moment and wonders if she has inhaled too much carbon monoxide from the cab’s leaky exhaust system; or is it a delayed reaction to the stress of the court appearance? She cannot remember if she has eaten breakfast, indeed such is her confusion that she isn’t even sure when she did last eat . . . she comes to a halt outside the premises of a dental technician called Doobov and leans breathless there, stumbling as the veritable world decays into swarms of light and dark shapes that resemble pixels on a disintegrating screen. It is at this moment, just before she collapses, that the door next to Doobov’s entrance opens and out comes the neurasthenic detective with the stained bandage once again wrapped raggedy around his head and seeming scarcely in any better shape than she is. They look at each other with astonished recognition then fall into each other’s arms: not so much from the intoxications of love as out of exhaustion and the incipient onset of weirdly coincident but evidently separate and distinct syncopes.

V

Monet at Giverny, Duchamp in Puteaux, Pollock on Long Island, Boyd at Bundanon, all in their different ways attempting to translate liquid pigments into something more durable though what that more durable thing is no-one can really say: it is greater than the sum of the materials of which it is made but how? Why? Wherefore? The neurasthenic detective and the woman in the pearl grey suit do not discuss this conundrum as they walk slowly down towards the swimming pool and pause while she unwraps the stained bandage from around his head and deposits it in a rubbish tin there. They go on until they reach Bland Street where they make a right, traverse the tunnel under the railway lines and come out in Hercules Street, Ashfield. Round the corner in Liverpool Road they choose the second of two contiguous restaurants called Shanghai, the one distinguished from the other simply by the epithet Night. At Shanghai Night the speciality is dumplings and at any hour of the day or night there will be one or two or three staff sitting in a small alcove towards the front of the single dining room filling oblongs of pastry with pork and chives or coriander, with lamb and onion, beef and leek, then pinching each together along a crenulated line into a delicious hand made parcel which may then be steamed or fried. Steamed the neurasthenic detective believes to be superior to fried as he orders a small (twelve dumplings) serving of each of his two favourites, that is, pork and chives, lamb and onion, and also one of the vegetarian (eight, with open tops, served in a bamboo steamer) which they share, eating with chopsticks and adding generous amounts of soy and chilli sauce while ignoring the dark vinegar which is the other usual accompaniment to this dish. They drink tea from small handleless cups and discuss, in a scrupulous manner, the coincidences that have emerged: neither was actually following the other but the enigma of convergent paths evidently brought them together on serial occasions. She says nothing about her part-time job and he does not mention his profession either: as if each occupation were a fantasy of a kind of practicality that neither of them really possesses. Instead she describes her idea for an art work constructed around a flake of paint subtracted from a painting; and he expands upon dysautonomia in a manner that reveals certain structural resemblances to her planned conceptual piece. As if disease and artwork are not distinct from one another, as if nausea and head wound might also be related, as if orange and black are simply bands on a spectrum that goes from harmony to cacophony and back again. The dumplings are finished now, the tea all drunk. The restaurant has emptied out after the lunchtime rush, they are the only two people left. What shall we do now? she asks. Why don’t you come back to my place, he replies, I could show you the progress of one of my current projects. The Dyslexic’s Dictionary perhaps. Or Virtual Sydney. How about the Register of the Ghosts of Croydon? she asks. I would like that. How did you know . . . he begins but does not go on: she is reaching into the top pocket of the grey suit jacket she has hung on the back of her chair, bringing out a small piece of white tissue paper, giving it to him. What is it? he asks redundantly as he begins to unwrap. A tiny flake of grey-blue paint lies before him. Max Beckmann, she whispers. Old Woman in Ermine, 1946. Do you know it? He looks at the fragment before him and, miraculously, sees the entire painting form before his eyes. He knows that she sees it too. Heads together, bent over that stained table, they explore its intricacies until the waitress comes to clear the detritus of their meal away. Then he carefully rewraps the fragment, she re-secretes it in her pocket and, of one mind now, they leave the restaurant to walk back down Hercules Street to the railway station, there to catch the next train to Croydon. Or, should it arrive first, Bliss.

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