Dear Ms. Dorothea Georgiou,
RE: History of the Food and Fashion College Project
Please forgive my tardiness in replying to your inquiry. I have become distracted by the presence in the trees here. More and more. Could you also, if you wish to follow up on what I can inform you of, please reply to me at the P.O. Box number below. This will ensure less people read my mail before it reaches me, and that will accelerate the progress for each of us in the future. The shedding bark here has its own language, and the soft flesh beneath it, is smooth and hauntingly tactile; although it must be said the colours seem unreal and cannot be trusted. I will stoke up the fire, for the snow is early this year, and serves to heighten the silence, and the volume in the landscape. I must continue to respond to you from another room with heavy drapes. The leaves are incorrigible eavesdroppers, so I must write as quietly as possible.
I can confirm that I worked on the amalgamation of the book collection of the then F&FC into the new university library catalogue. I was in a team of two, if that constitutes a team. We operated out of the Georgian edifice fronting onto the diverted arm of Swanston St; behind the new campus. The industrial windows bathed the old teak and cedar shelves, desks, and padded chairs in a warm and dreamy light. One could easily spend too much time watching filaments in the air swoon around, settling so, you had to wipe the book spines with the side of your palm, over and over.
The oiled wood had its own history, the aroma of the ancient eastern forests pervading. My co- worker, who smoked, this was allowed in those days, fell into a pattern of drifting off, his elbow on the desk, and his hand supporting his head, while his cigarette burned down to his fingers, causing him to wake and shout in great alarm. Strangely, this continued for the duration of the assignment. I became accustomed to the outbursts, but the students remained concerned. I would check him daily, to make sure the volumes were safe.
We were resented at first by the existing workforce who saw us as part of the takeover, especially the Chief Librarian, Barbara, who was now only an Associate Deputy. We became good friends when she observed the quality of my ironing and shoes, she being a believer that this was the only way to tell a man’s value as a human being. Every Wednesday she went to lunch with old friends and always returned not sober. We learned to brace ourselves for this. She would be morose, and explain to us, again, how she had run away from a good school at the age of sixteen to marry a merchant ship’s captain. Her family never forgave her, or spoke to her again. At this point her story would take another turn and she would climb onto the large old reference desk, pull down her panty hose and show us the scar on the top of her leg, where her husband’s pet monkey had bitten her in jealousy on one occasion, when she was aboard. We kept the students outside during this regular event. At least we knew what was going to happen. The monkey was described in detail, and it would seem to have been one of those small creatures which was often in movies in the 30’s and 40’s, wearing a top hat, and reaching into inside jacket pockets to steal wallets. We would wait for the dreadful ending and the cause of her life long sorrow. At dinner, while at sea, some distance from Fremantle, the monkey took offence, and tore into her husband’s neck with its sharp teeth. The captain did not survive the attack. After a few minutes silence, she would regain her normal steadfast composure, and tell us to ‘cease malingering’ and get back to work. We never heard what happened to the monkey.
I must break off now, as I need to stir the green pea and ham bone soup, I have on the wood stove. It is noticeable too, that the alpine gums have moved to try and get a better view. When I first moved in, Leadbeater’s possums were sheltering in the hot water tank cupboard. They still visit there, cuddling one to the other, sometimes as many as six at a time of mixed families. The rough-cut plank back entry door would hang open. I have repaired it and put in a cat flap, so they can come and go as they please. They enjoy boiled or scrambled eggs with their soup. In particularly cold weather, I put my sock drawer in the vestibule for them to crawl into. Some of them will get right into an old Explorer, the real wool ones. Others are a little aloof, preferring to watch where I am, their eyes eerily aglow in the torchlight when I check on them.
We had a shelver known as ‘The Shadow’, and ‘The Ghost who Walks’. We didn’t see him much, but the book trolleys were always emptied and placed back at the collection point. He worked holding a loose paper bag of what we presumed were sandwiches. He was not on the staff list you have provided. He did come to the Christmas lunch we had in one year of the project. We were surprised to hear one of his other jobs was as an artist’s model over in the Arts Faculty, Drawing and Sculpture. Looking back, I guess he did move with a kind of elegance, a floating acuity, beyond the wiles of the Dewey Decimal Classification system. He also worked as a Jim Croce impersonator, and would sing at a number of hotels in the inner-city area, down from the College. He stopped coming to work, we realized when the trolleys became overloaded. He died of tuberculosis whilst in London. We found out he had gone there, when we were notified and told we should be tested, as we had been in close contact with him. None of us were infected, which was not surprising, as we all had the big scab scar on our off shoulder, left or right, from the vaccination program.
Andretta is on your listing of the time. Her husband was an international airline pilot, and she had been a successful model in Europe. She is correctly recorded as being in charge of the fashion stacks. They had a cottage in a gold town in middle Victoria, which they were renovating, and she would spend the weekend there, with or without her partner, if he was away flying. Andie always appeared like she had just stepped out of one of the magazines she curated, even in those times when the ‘natural’ look was all the thing, and even when she told us that Phillip had died in a car accident, while on a flight break in Seattle, Washington. She had begun, during morning tea, on a Tuesday, to tell us of how the decrepit plaster removal was cutting into her hands, even through the thick gloves she wore to do it, and in a clear and precise language, told us of his death. She was going to finish the country house and sell it, and move back to Wales. She did not get to do either of those things. About a fortnight later, she drowned in a rip off of Eagles Nest Rocks. When I tidied her desk, because the others were too upset to do so, I found many old pages from Vogue and other journals of her in her heyday, from not that long before. There were also many photographs of her and Phillip living the ideal life in Crete, San Francisco, and all over. They looked beautiful and happy. None more so than in the shots of them holding goats, in the central highlands. Perhaps that had been their real want, the place where earth met aspiration, in an old cottage with contented bleats all around. There was a dreaminess about them in those, almost an aura that could not be overlooked. I had seen her drift like that when talking of sanding back the windows, and when she laughed about the crooked chimney, they repaired but left at the angle, because it seemed to be the natural bent of it.
I have been away.
Word came to me from my nearest neighbour, three kilometres down the track, in the shape of his Jersey house cow. She would not let me lead her back, so I left her swallowing the last of the season’s pears whole off one of my orchard trees. I found Simon slumped against a stump he used as a watering station for birds, a short sided glazed bowl was upturned in his lap. I realized I did not know his surname at the same time as I located him. He was old, but younger than me, and I could not help but feel he was gifting me that bowl; the cow had already made her choice. A police car came, and an ambulance to take him away. I could tell them no more than to try Leonie at the post office. I don’t pasteurise the milk. The phalangers, myself, and the wallabies, prefer our ‘Heart Attack Simon’ a little warm and yellow out of the jug where the cream is more than half of it. The rosellas and the silver eyes, and all the rest of them, nearly all natives, quickly discovered the me in their water in the bowl they knew, and have moved over here. Do you find that to be so, Dorothea? The way the intangible in ripples is chased down, I mean.
I was never sure what Carissa’s role was, and there is no job title beside her name. She had travelled with the Beatles when they toured, and went to England each year to stay with one of them in a country house. I have always assumed that it was George, but she did not say. Her husband played in a Rolling Stones tribute band and he did not seem to mind. Carissa was abrupt but not rude. It seemed to me she found language a thing to be avoided, as well as people. She told me at lunch one day that words were nothing but a dentist’s drill. She could usually be found in the music collection, shuffling scores, rearranging them over and over again, alphabetically by artist, or song name, or by key. She spent hours with the instruments. They were abandoned, for some unknown reason, when the Music School for Young Ladies, closed decades before, and the staff relocated to the Conservatorium. After cleaning and polishing the cellos, violins, flutes, guitar, and the one standing piano, she would start at one end of the line, going instrument to instrument, continuing what she was playing, but always finished with the piano. She kept them all tone perfect, and never dropped a note in the transition from one to the other. This was her only function as far as I know. Infrequently, Barbara would join her there, and they would sing while Carissa played, in voices as clear as the beaming day coming down from the skylights, their voices resting, then rebounding with added bass off the polished floorboards.
There was no Mrs. Isles. There was Harvey Isles, who was in charge of the Serials Collection. I think I understand the confusion. Harvey (Killer) Isles, i.e.; Serial, kept to himself, except for the occasions when he would show us the photographs of his girlfriend, Elsa. He took half a week of leave to get married, and for their honeymoon. They never appeared in the same image together, and on occasion he would forget to take his tie off when the photograph was taken. No one commented on the obvious fact that Elsa was Harvey in a shoulder length dark brown wig. I think one of these photographs must have been mistaken for a staff shot; we did briefly have a gallery, so that the students would know who to contact for their query, or search requirements. Unfortunately, this was defaced so often, it was removed. Harvey left to work in the National Museum, and ‘they’ moved to Canberra. Years later, I heard he had died unexpectedly of an undiagnosed ailment when walking the Camino. He did not make it to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to get the pilgrim’s stamp in his Way of St James passport. Harvey did not wake from a sleep after a twenty-kilometre section in the mountains, not reaching the overnight pension. I hope, and indeed I see them there together, reconciled and at peace, he and Elsa, in the cold fired clay of a clear and crisp night, holding to one another at the final warmth of departure, beyond criticism, like a fine Greek urn, their mystery untold, the observer left to wonder.
The wood splitting has been difficult today, the sky has been interrupting. The King Parrots have tumbled down, in that soft zig zag of float, competing with the hens for the big grubs which I flick out of the moth inlaid wood. I used to count the rings, in a vanity of two hand spanned age, touching there an ancient elapse, but I no longer wish to know the breadth of what is burning. Earlier today a new calf got out of the yards, and I followed it up the gully. Its mother boomed out to it, but it would not return. It continued to run in the wrong direction and I after it. We exhausted each other, and eventually I found it, resting. It was heavy, and I had it straddled across my torso, one arm under the neck, the other under its hind legs, as I went downhill, stopping to get my breath, lying down with it on my chest. Each time I did so, our hearts beating so close, heaving in and out our breath, I could feel the tension in its body, the coiled pulse between a sought and temporary comfort and flight. It outlasted me. We were close to the yards, and the mother was still calling. I dropped my arms from around it, and it stayed, head under my chin, the sepia in its eyes alert, then sprang off, and down, straight through the gap in the rails. I will bring them in to the shed tonight, the night will be icy, and there are wild dogs about.
Your letter makes no mention of some others whom I worked with there.
Suzanne, I think her surname then was Boyd, became an esteemed illustrator of her brother’s children’s’ stories. She was very tall, and had curly red hair, which she sometimes tried to control with a headband and a Mao cap, the star was the same colour as the escaping frizz. She wore oversize overcoats, and her nickname was Sherlock. Elegant as a ballet dancer, she would spin round while sorting the new materials, books, journals, donations, ceramics, never faltering from the circle she turned. Suzie sometimes painted her face with a white covering, with one black tear inscribed beneath her left eye. She challenged me to name which side was the glass half full. I promised to tell her, but I never did. Her brother would visit now and then, and I would find them kissing passionately, in the second foyer, where the art deco frosted glass doors, scenes of wheat ears, mountains, bullock drays, and stylized eucalypts with leaves of curved large earrings, turned slowly, oblivious to anything except the glittering refractions which surrounded them, their laughter echoing in the trumeaux, and a lachrymose smear of sliding under her right eye.
Marguerite was our office support, doing general correspondence, and duties ‘as directed’, including typing the book call numbers on a fancy spinning key globe electric typewriter. She had tried for many years to have a child, and was in the very first IVF programs. It failed, and they decided to give up as the drugs were making her sick and she objected to the non-disclosure contract, which included compulsory behaviour requirements and not talking about the side effects. She got pregnant immediately after she dropped the clinic, and her son was four years old when I met her. His parents dedicated their entire existence to him. She had been excited for weeks over a trip they were taking to Warburton and Mount Donna Buang on the long weekend to see the forest tree ferns and mountain ash. She did not come in on Monday, and returned distraught a fortnight later. Barbara would not tell us anything. I lived nearby and was usually the first in. Marguerite was at her desk, as pallid as at cast statue. Normally not very expressive, she rose as she saw me and tightly held me against her, wiping her nose on my shoulder, and just standing, shuddering, telling me. On the winding road, a car and trailer overtook them, going too fast for the tight bends. A steel picket was flung off its trailer as it sped, spearing through the windscreen between where she and her husband were sitting and impaling itself into the back bench seat where their child was. They could not speak, they were numb, and came to a way station, heads slumped, holding hands. Then they heard the child crying. He had ducked down to pick up a dropped toy as the picket sunk deep into the rear seat above him, grazing the exposed back of his dipped head, enough to hurt, and produce some blood, and give him a knock as he came back up. She sagged from my arms into her chair, breaking off a piece of Greek Orthodox Easter cake, crumbling it on her desk top, and picking at it like a bird. It was so close to everlasting pain, she said. This made me think, Ms. Georgiou, of how the near experience is embedded in the real, that it flips us hard with the mischance of conclusion, and can hold us like a specimen to a fate which has not occurred, the pain living there, scraping, alive against us. A shadow which brings its own chair, to sit, and observe us.
That is about all I have for now.
After I finish my cup of tea, here on the veranda with the currawongs disappointed in my toes not being the pickings they hoped for, and the twenty eights finish sling shotting their vibrant rainbow of colours and manic chatter, veering in and out of the garden trees, rising steeply in lift off and plummeting like shuttlecocks, I will go over the three ranges to the Post Office and make arrangements for the future. I also provide my telephone number, but be aware it is a local exchange and can only process twelve calls, in and out, at a time. When the lines are occupied, anyone picking up a hand set can hear the conversation taking place on the last in or out dial. Everyone always says, oh sorry, but you can hear them breathing in the background. None of the locals mind. There is little more for us to know. We only need to dial the last three digits of a number to talk to each other, a bit like S.O.S. Since I began this response, I have heard it is not possible to get a P.O. Box, as Leonie does the delivery run by a tender, and the service is unofficial, our locality not appearing on any credit databases.
(As below etc;)
RMB 24Goongerah-Gelantipy Road
Jakob the Swede’s Trestle Bridge
PH: 0351 666 687 230
Published in Westerly Volume 67 Number 2, 2022
Cover: Jacob Kotzee, Still Life and Window, 2021. Oil on canvas.