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Sit Down Young Stranger

Sunset hung over the mountains when Liam stepped off the carriage into the sting of Katoomba’s twilight, hoisting his guitar case over the gap and following the evening rush of strangers in black coats and scarves down the station stairs. An electric schedule hanging from the station’s awning announced the time in blinking yellow digits, an hour left before the opening, enough time to settle the nerves at a pub up the street, not enough time to become so settled the night’s performance would suffer.

A sprawl of graffiti on the walls of the tunnel leading from the station out towards the footpath read ‘I’ve done me self a mischief’. What this meant, Liam couldn’t say, but it struck him the phrase might serve as a title, or a lyric that could open into melody. He let that possibility flicker inside the dusky interior plane from which all his songs had come, but nothing stuck in this instance, and all thought of the phrase was forgotten when his eyes fell upon a poster pasted outside the tunnel’s arch. The poster read Blut und Märchen – an exhibition by the artist Annie Aver-Mann. Dominating the poster’s arrangement was the print of a painting which depicted a pale, thin girl with long black braids covering her nakedness, standing in the clearing of a leafless forest like something from a fairytale. Along with the title of the exhibition, the advertisement promised a ‘free acoustic performance by Liam Henley’. The sight of his name in print was still a giddying thrill, even on this minor scale, disturbing though to see it associated with the haunting figure portrayed in Annie’s art.

‘I need new friends,’ Liam whispered, and looking into that painted face with its alarming dark eyes, he made the sign of the cross, ‘father, son, holy, spirit’, and kissed his own right hand to seal the prayer, as he had done since childhood.

On the corner by the station there was an old colonial bank building which had been converted into a pub, with a lone security guard out front in a full-length leather coat that only a large, serious man could wear without a hint of theatre. The guard nodded, rubbing gloved hands together as he did so, and nudged open the door with his elbow, giving a sideways glance at the coffin-shaped guitar case Liam was dragging up the steps behind him. The case was cornball, a relic from his youthful heavy metal affectations, but its ugliness helped belie the quality of the rare guitar inside it, made it safer to travel without the threat of being rolled. Now that his name and face meant something to the world, care must be taken; there was always a want for getting one over those who’d made themselves known in this country.

Inside the pub, the patrons were bunched in mounds of coats and jackets on stools at plank-wood tables fastened to wine barrels. Antique lamps with petal rims gave a brazier glow to the bar, and Liam mistook the warm amber light for an open fire somewhere just out of view. A staircase wound its way up to a second floor, behind the bar, which led up to the hotel proper, and from above he could hear the faintest creak of floorboards over the racket and the revelry.

The ruddy scene reminded Liam of the residency he’d undertaken in the English county of Kent, three years ago, and a flood of memories came upon him of that time abroad. The tour had been his making as a musician worthy of the brand. He’d been a fine expat tourist too; had taken time off to see the gold wings of Queen Victoria’s statue, high above the gates of Buckingham Palace, and he’d watched the great mechanism of the London Eye, wheeling slowly above the thorny striations of the Houses of Parliament. Liam saw most of London like this: from the open top of a double-decker bus painted in the colours of the Union Jack, with the cockney accent of the tour guide still clear in his ears, pointing out essentials, like the Tower of London, where heads had once been mounted on spikes along the walls, and great men and women had died mad in the darkness made of lime and ragstone. Later on in the tour, Liam took time away from his proper occupation to walk the stony shores of Brighton, watching the grey-green sea foaming and roaring over acres of smooth, flat rocks; in a dank hipster brewery in Ulster he ate a bucket of mussels while England lost their World Cup hopes, and bore witness to a thousand St George flags littering the streets as the locals turned on each other in drunken disappointment. Most cherished of all these fascinations was a day spent busking for hours in the pollen-thick parks of Notting Hill, where his case filled with five-pound notes and white swans stretched out their pinioned wings by the ponds. In the English twilight, Liam sang Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘The Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald’ and Jim Croce’s ‘Time in a Bottle’ until his fingers puckered and bled.

That memory, above all, was a treasure. A green-eyed girl in a sailor’s costume, working a parlour bar in Oxford, smiled at his accent that night. ‘I love the beer youse drink here,’ he said to her, leaning forward against the too-loud music and the faintness of the light, his heart laced with German lager. ‘I’m sure you do, that gassy piss you Aussies drink is rank.’ This is English banter, Liam told himself, but for all his efforts he could not become accustomed to its sting. He recalled chatting to an Irish lad at a urinal in a club that same night, who asked, apropos nothing, what part of a woman the Aussie fancied most. They were both pissing into the urinal bowls, a red light coming in through windows frosted against the alley outside. The room stank of bleach, and an ungodly bass pulsed in from the club’s speakers and pressed against his skull. Liam took in the Irishman’s question, closing his eyes upon the image of a woman’s bare belly as it flashed upon his imagination: she, whoever this woman was, was dancing towards him, smooth and brassy as desert dunes at daybreak. Seeing this impression, vivid in his mind, Liam replied with his eyes still closed, ‘the thorax’. The Irishman zipped up his splattered jeans, stepped back from the urinal, his skin red from the alley’s glow, and said, ‘Well that’s a word for it! You sure have a way with anatomy there, Mr Vocabulary.’ Desperate for some smooth rejoinder, Liam offered, ‘You know what they say: use it or lose it!’ Already half out the door, with waves of sound irrupting into the rank toilet air, the Irishman called back over his shoulder, ‘And you obviously lost it a long time ago, mate.’

It was the fault of the rustic insides of this old Katoomba pub, its polished curves like the gullet of a smoking pipe, which had brought these English transportations to mind. ‘This tiny slice of England,’ Liam thought, and rephrased this near aloud, ‘A Slice of Little England.’ Would that configuration make for a title? He wasn’t convinced, but, for a moment, a line and an image together burst alive in Liam’s inner-eye, he could see the construction drifting towards him through some second sight, but an uproar of excitement rode over the Dave Brubeck standard the pub was blowing through its speakers and dashed his thoughts to pieces. A large woman in a leather vest had caused the disturbance – she made a foghorn of her hands and bellowed across the room, ‘Hail to thee, blithe spirit!’, and a bald, red-bearded man dressed like a lumberjack closer to the bar had called back to her, ‘It was an Abyssinian maid, and on her dulcimer she played!’ This produced such a calamity of laughter from the entire crowd that Liam came near to covering his ears. These anachronisms rang familiar, were painful sounds, like branches scraping on glass in heavy winds, and whatever game the crowd was at with these mysterious quotations, Liam knew it not.

Most in the crowd were old, Liam saw in a survey of the laughing faces, soft and swollen for the most part, lines around their eyes when they were smiling, the skin hanging under their chins, and it was a relief to realise that whatever song he’d be playing tonight, it would not be for these old drunks and their strange quotations. Lord knows he’d played too often for these types, who were just as likely to chatter through the music as they were to sing along or clap out of time with the beat or stumble up on stage to make a show of it.

There was a brawny woman with short red hair working the bar whose tattoos ran down both her arms from her bare shoulders, and the likeness of a seahorse was inked on her left forearm. It was possible, he realised, as he leant his guitar case up against the bar beside him, a woman her age would know his face and name, now that it meant something, and so when she looked up from the glass of wine she was pouring, he waited for that flicker of recognition to leap from her eyes to his.

‘What can I get you?’ she asked. There was nothing in her voice but the question, though he tried a question of his own to increase his chances of being recognised, supposing that his voice might help her make an association with his face. ‘Do you have pints here?’ She shook her head, ‘Schooners or middies.’

Liam took a schooner out to the courtyard and found the warmth inside had worsened the evening’s sting, and the sun was well behind the mountains now. He sat at a bench in the beer garden and took to rolling a cigarette, hunching over it in hopes its small fire would help to kindle his spirits. Annie would be at the venue already, he knew, checking the hangings with her meticulous eye, half-cut, for sure, her wild mane of auburn hair stinking of cigarette smoke and licks of whatever she’d drunk. It amused Liam to think of Greg, the small, anodyne gallery owner who would be doing his best to deal with all the manic energy in that prodigious woman, nervous eyes darting back and forth around the corners of the little shop as Annie stomped around within its walls like a pillaging warrior Hun.

Parades of tourists unloaded from Greyhound buses pulled up by the cenotaph just outside the beer garden’s gates, in bright beanies and puffed-up duffle coats that made it hard to tell where these foreigners might be from. Beneath the hanging streetlight, one man with red mittens aimed the long lens of his camera in Liam’s direction, and he turned to see if there was something else behind him worthy of the shot, but there were only two teens in black hoodies, sitting at a bench at the back of the garden, near a brick wall veined with creeping vines, both looming over a phone that gave their faces a spectral shade. One of these young men, with what looked like a fish tattooed on his temple, was crying with laughter so completely his wet face was turning red. The other, stub-nosed and grinning wildly, said, ‘Did you see that? Cunt’s throwing whole raw chickens off a jetty!’ This brought a sharp howl out of his breathless friend, who was now clutching his head as tears ran down from his eyes, and drops fell from his nose onto the screen. By the time Liam turned back around, the tourist with the camera was gone into the night.

As Liam looked about for the lost cameraman, Annie, the artist, materialised out of the misty streetlight as though appearing from backstage, tossed a pouch of tobacco onto the bench, and grabbed Liam with an embrace more suited to aikido than affection. ‘Oh my God!’ Annie cried, hopping backwards onto the benchtop and swinging the mass of her hair away from her face to re-light an extinguished cigarette. ‘How are you?’ she asked with the smoke between her lips, the stink of sweetened rum cutting through the fog of her heavy breathing. ‘Let me get you a beer,’ Liam answered, having finished his own and unready to withstand the artist’s energies sober.

By the time Liam returned Annie was lighting another smoke, and there was a small stack of posters, just like the one he’d seen outside the tunnel advertising the night’s proceedings, laid out beside her on the bench. The central feature of these posters was that same haunted print of the exhibition’s titular painting, Blut und Märchen, the girl whose penetrating eyes Annie had painted, now looking up at Liam in arresting multitudes.

‘So c’mon! What’s it like to be famous?’ Annie asked. Liam tried to laugh the question away, but Annie pressed it. ‘Seriously!’ she said. ‘If I hear that song of yours on the radio one more time I’m going to drive a forklift through a fucking wall. Makes me sick hearing your voice when I’m at work, with overalls on and all.’ She put on a sibilant sing-song voice and recited the lyrics: the taste of my true lover gone!

‘You can’t surely begrudge me my fifteen minutes.’ Liam said, half to make her stop, and then to ask, sincerely, ‘Why? The song doesn’t meet your approval?’

Annie winced and took down half the beer he’d brought her.

‘It’s a beautiful bit of bedside poetry,’ Annie answered. ‘It’s also the cringiest hipster drool I’ve heard my entire life. I always said you should have stuck to being a poet, not tried to become Gotye. But don’t get me wrong, I still want you to sing it tonight, aye? No one knows any of your other songs, there’ll be a riot if you don’t give ’em the hit.’

‘A fine critic you are,’ Liam smiled, only lightly forced, and reached into his tobacco bag to fill some paper, ‘Anyway, tonight’s about your arty-farty fan-service, not mine. Are you ready for the cavalcade of adoration you’re about to be swept away by? Greg’s gonna make you out to be Katoomba’s answer to Ben Quilty, I bet.’

‘I’m foaming in the daks about it – as well you know,’ Annie said. ‘I hate all this fucking shit. And don’t give me that look! It’s easy for you. All you’ve gotta do is sing one lousy song – I’ve gotta be on fire all night. I’ve gotta grift.’ Talk of the opening made Annie glance at her watch, an old silver thing inherited from a favourite grandfather. ‘Fark! Not enough time to get pissed.’ Swallowing down the rest of her beer she added, ‘Can you sign this shit for me, quick.’

Liam looked over the slim stack of posters, the naked girl, lost in the dark woods, looking back at him with doleful eyes. ‘Why would you want me to sign it? You’re the fucking artist! These people are coming to see you!’ She was deaf to this. There was no way out. Liam signed his name upon them all, though his signature looked unlike itself.

Katoomba’s main street had changed since Liam had last been to town. There were Korean cafes, French ‘provincial’ restaurants, three American burger joints and the air smelt of pizza-smoke and charcoaled meat. Ovens glowed through the shopfronts and couples laughed and clinked their glasses outside of wine bars and whiskey joints. Both artist and musician were out of breath by the time they climbed the steep hill up to the gallery, and Liam was relieved to put his guitar case down while they made final preparations before stepping inside for the night’s roles. The girl leered out at Liam from the gallery’s front display, the disquieting mix of perversion and innocence looked garish in the spotlit brightness of the window. His nerves fired under a coughing fit.

‘I need a cigarette,’ he said.

Annie started rolling too, coughing and sighing along with him. ‘Fuck, we’re getting old,’ she said with a long hard breath steaming into the air. Liam tried his lighter six or seven times and finally inhaled a lungful of smoke. They both looked in at the crowd and Liam could see Annie’s husband, Ian, and their four brunette boys chasing each other around the place, as some older mountains folk with grey beards and champagne flutes in their hands gazed blankly at the various depictions of naked nymphs and lascivious corpses spread on darkling wastelands, and so much blood and gore and sex and fairytale as Annie’s art depicted.

‘Dude,’ Anne said, the word odd in her mouth. ‘Just wanna give you a heads-up. Jules is gonna be here.’

‘Where?’ Liam asked, exhaling a frail stalk of smoke.

‘Here.’ Annie said, nodding at the gallery.

‘Jules is gonna be here? At your opening – here tonight?’

‘Yeah. Just thought I’d give you the heads-up.’ Annie said, looking away from Liam and in through the gallery’s broad display, checking the faces in the crowd.

‘Are you serious? We’re about to go through the door; I’m about to play in there! How is this a fucking heads-up?’ Liam swore. ‘The song is about her for fuck’s sake!’

‘Dude, first, that’s precisely what a “heads-up” is – imminent danger, be alert. And I didn’t think she’d show, so don’t get so mad! She texted me this arvo. She was the model for some of the paintings – the title painting! That’s her in the window there – and on the posters! I had to invite her. You gotta respect your models, dude.’ Anne gave an apologetic frown, looking at Liam’s mortified state, slapped him on the back, flicked her spent smoke into the street and pushed on into the gallery. ‘Look at these filth wizards!’ She said in a booming voice, hugging a group of dark-haired men with wiry beards, and chains hanging from the pockets of their jeans, and the tall pale women with dyed hair and tattoos who ran over to get in on the hugs and kisses as the gallery door eased itself shut.

‘I need another smoke,’ Liam said to no one at all, his bent cigarette still lit and half inhaled. For a moment, despite the busy evening sounds of laughter and conversation, and the distant din of rock music coming from the RSL down the street, the only people in sight seemed to be the crowd on the other side of the gallery’s glass. Annie was moving amongst them now, stomping between each clique of attendees cramped into the small bright space. Liam watched Annie circulating by the paintings, pointing out their implications, clinking champagne glasses and hugging person after person, her mass of hair flinging into their faces and knocking capers off their salmon canapés. Jules must be among their number, he knew it, though he couldn’t see her in the crowd. Liam’s throat was dry, and he began, instead, to see her face assembling itself in his mind’s eye, a strange intrusion of panic and memory. He tried to shake the impression but his gaze fell on the painting hanging in the window. It was obvious now that Jules had been the model – the dark hair and shining eyes, her thin, curling smile and dimpled chin. How could he not have known her face the moment he first saw the poster outside the station, when his first glimpse of her in life seemed to renew its impression each time he closed his eyes at the end of the day, or stood silent and alone on an empty street corner, or sat on a train winding its way up into the mountains with a guitar case by his side, staring into the setting distance? It had been a cold night down on the Canberra plains when he first saw Juliana, during one of his shows at the Folk Festival. He’d been stumbling back across the festival field towards the silent rows of tents, tripping on the ropes in the dark, looking half-collapsed in walking sleep, and the moon rolled out from behind a rush of cloud, its pale glow pinning him down like a leviathan’s eye in the black firmament. In that shivering moment was his first glimpse of Jules, sitting atop a fence around the tents, her bright eyes bold in the darkness, laughing loudly at two lanky boys who were wrestling for a lighter by the camping ground gates. It had seemed like a waking dream, and when she had caught his eye in the crowd the next morning, as he played ‘I Started a Joke’ during a festival session titled ‘When Good Covers Go Bad’, he almost lost the melody, looking into the milky charm of her fixed attention. For the rest of the song, his hands moved of their own accord upon the strings, and he sang only to her, the stranger staring back at him, so that nothing beside remained. When the song was done, she pursed her lips and whistled loudly, her head tilted to the side, like curiously fey folk summoned out of the festival’s strange pagan pretensions, her legs crossed, holding up her arms towards him as she applauded.

Liam let the cold Katoomba air and the stage-light shine of the gallery’s window transport him back into the present. There was no hope now of playing the song Liam had planned – the song that was about her for fuck’s sake. Picking up the guitar case and pushing through into the feverish light of the gallery, Liam’s mind was awhirl with recalculation: What else can be played? What songs might be sung? Nothing was there in his internal musical catalogue but flashing static and discordant snatches of inaudible confusion.

‘Liam!’ A small man with slicked-back black hair rushed across the polished floorboards. Greg, the gallery owner. ‘I’m so glad you’re here – that woman – I know she’s your mate – but good grief – I mean really – she puts me in a state! And we’re about to start – how can we set you up? Is it just the one song? Are you sure?’ Greg put his hand on Liam’s back as he asked these questions, the small man’s large eyes darting around the gallery as though he were an intruder in his own habitat. Liam answered none of his questions, which seemed to reassure Greg as he led the way towards a stool and a microphone in the far corner of the gallery. A gaunt bald woman was setting up the sound system and she nodded indifferently at the two men on their approach. Greg took his hand off Liam’s back and wandered away, still asking questions without answers. The interlude had been enough for Liam to devise a new plan: he would sing a song called ‘Redfern Blues’ – though its original title was ‘Dublin Blues’ – by Guy Clark, an American folk singer. The song was one of the covers he’d recorded to fill out his EP – obscure enough so most folks wouldn’t know if they were hearing something old or new, especially if he sang it the way he’d done for the album, with local references in place of Clark’s originality.

The room was so bright it made for squinting at the paintings on the walls, and Liam took in the many naked bodies and bloody cheeks. He was too nervous now to deal with them as individual objects – instead they formed a kind of enclosure, a frightening wilderness of wild-eyed women and young girls in stages of undress and damnation, shadowy elfish figures being followed by hungry wolves in the darkness between the trees. Inside this strange second world of the gallery was the crowd, an undifferentiated mass of people into which he would soon be asked to pour his music. Only after the first few chords and the amplification of his voice, would he begin to see their unique faces, intense snatches and impressions coming to him throughout the elusive moments of creation.

The tall bald woman was adjusting the cables, testing something – she asked Liam some question and he answered in an absent way, the rare guitar out of its case now and in his arms, and a strange beating of anticipation like a throbbing in his ears. There was sweat on his fingers, they felt hot and clumsy, but when he placed them on the strings, the sounds they made were right, and his hands seemed to know to position themselves. He adjusted the tuning, twisted the small pegs with unconscious calculation. The woman strode across the floorboards in loud heels and handed a microphone to Greg, who was now wearing a blue jacket and a beaming smile as he addressed the gathering, the bright lights gleaming on his oily hair.

‘Good evening – thank you all for coming – a characteristically snappy Mountains eve – this is an incredible exhibit – it’s my pleasure to be able to present – one of Katoomba’s greatest artists –’

What the little man said bounced about the room, reverberating out of the amplification system, through skin and bone, into the empty chamber of Liam’s guitar and along the strings like small electric pricks upon the tightening threads of his nerves. The same mysterious energy Liam would need to call upon in just a minute’s time. Greg’s voice had become a countdown to something absurd – in a matter of ineluctable moments, the crowd would turn to Liam, perched like some sweating foreign specimen pinned upon a stool, and this pinioned wreck of man would be expected to summon vibrations of the throat and the strings which are called music. No mistakes would be permissible when the fatal time came, and his voice for the entirety of the performance would be forbidden to break, to lose its tune – nor could his fingers miss their mark, his wrists and fingertips must be true to their rehearsal. What barbarism was this expectation of flawlessness! Three full minutes of foul perfection! What madness led such pressures to be thrust on persons made of flesh and blood? Liam dropped his chin into the curve of the guitar, the coolness of its body easing the flush of his cheeks. It would be insanity now to look into the crowd, though he felt their swaying eyes moving towards him, and a trace of sweat rolled from his forehead – why not tears too, he could just let them out.

‘Annie is an artist we’ve hosted here many times – each of her showings hugely successful – people love her work – these strange, seductive and sinister apparitions appeal to us in a way – in my experience – could conceivably –’

God what a folly to aspire, however humbly, to the level of art! Better to be a face in the crowd looking out than a fool on a stool clinging to strings like a songbird wired on a swing in a cage, to be gawked at and mocked, to lose your feathers in front of their hungry attentions! Greg was turning, looking sideways at Liam now with his darting eyes. How slick and cruel that expression was, loaded with the expectation of delivery. The eyes of a butcher bird, carrying a kind of craven desperation too, a co-conspirator’s threat.

‘And what makes tonight even more astonishing – as if Annie Aver-Mann’s art isn’t more than enough – we have the incomparable musical stylings of Liam Henley here to perform an acoustic track from his latest album – give him a huge round of applause – to perform his hugely popular song – I always get the damn title wrong –’

There was now no time at all, the end of Greg’s next sentence led so inextricably into an impossible set of duties that for Liam the end had already begun. ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ – this was the cue – no sooner said than a force, like a kind of bodily possession, made him light, and when he spoke into the microphone now it was as though another spirit sat inside his body, wore his flesh as a hand wears a sock for a puppet. ‘This song is dedicated to Annie Aver-Mann, artist and friend.’ Where did this little speech come from? It wasn’t planned but it was wise – good to celebrate Annie here – tonight being about her, not music. Some other night would come for that, a night more fit, but if someone in the crowd were to hear Liam’s music tonight and decide that it was Liam Henley who was the greater artist, surely he would be blameless?

Liam’s fingers took dominion, found their places on strings and frets. They knew their actions better than their master – they could not be willed to miss their mark, they knew only one way to move, the way of song. Liam’s body, his arms and legs, his wrists and neck, his thumbs and thighs, felt new and vital and all that was needed from him now was to sing the lines in their order, though the room really was too bright, and the faces of the crowd so very close. Some kids in attendance were tripping over each other, talking loudly to their parents. But the possessing spirit was performing now, and the first chords rippled through the confinement of the room and the crowd was held in place by the energies of song, and the room belonged to Liam Henley, whatever the sorrowful women in those paintings had to say about it.

At the first line of the first verse, he saw Jules in the crowd. She was smiling, the same huge grin she had worn when he played to her that morning at the festival. Still, he had to sing.

Well, I wished I was in Melbourne,
in a chilly laneway bar
Drinkin’ rum-and-coca-colas
And not carin’ where you are.
But here I sit in Redfern,
Just rollin’ cigarettes,
Holdin’ back and chokin’ back
The shakes with every breath.

The shock of seeing Jules cleaved its way inside him, but he stayed out of his own control, and felt he saw himself performing from a vantage outside his body – guiding the course like a breeze carries a glider through the rushing air. Halfway through the song, a baby started crying, and two of Annie’s boys pulled at their mother’s jeans to show her something on a phone, and Liam became conscious again of the words he was singing. He wasn’t sure if he’d skipped the verses between, or played them unconsciously. The song had played itself and was already coming to an end.

Applause erupted around the gallery, and laughter as Annie put her fingers to her lips for an enormous whistle. Liam felt his face flush anew. He was looking at Jules as the applause rose and fell, and she was smiling, slowly clapping her hands. He smiled back, cool sweat rolling down his body before Annie crashed into him. ‘I love you, ya filthy hipster!’ She squeezed him hard and her immense hair fell about him so completely it plunged the room into darkness for a long moment – he imagined Jules’ attention in that darkness.

‘This filth wizard has been a mate of mine since back in the uni days! I love him! But what the fuck was that song, dude! Where was the hit?’ The crowd laughed and Annie stepped into her speech, explaining all the ways her art had ended up on the canvases on the too-bright walls. ‘To be honest, I’m not an intellectually aware kind of artist, if there’s anything going on in these works – you’ll have to explain it to me.’ There were already red stickers on the walls, and Annie, a champagne flute in her hand as she spoke, flushed with triumph, became so bold and expansive that Greg began to wring his hands.

Liam busied himself with his instrument, making an elaborate ritual of packing it away while Annie talked. An instinct cautioned him not to look back at Jules, though a contrary pull to do so was wriggling in his mind like an itch. ‘I want to thank my dad, Teddy Mann – there he is over there – who personally framed every painting in this exhibition.’ Annie stopped for a moment. Her arms fell to her sides. ‘Jesus Christ!’ She laughed, with tears streaming down her face. Teddy, the father, a barrel-shaped man with enormous hands and blacked finger-nails stepped out from the crowd and put his arms around his daughter, his own small eyes leaking tears. ‘Jesus,’ Annie swore. ‘I can’t believe I’m crying! What a loser!’ Greg tried to lead the crowd into a chorus of ‘aww’, but no one followed.

When at last the talk was over there was wild applause, stamping of feet and whistling – the room relaxed so thoroughly that even the brightness seemed to dim, and all returned to considerations of the paintings they had come to see, some patrons armed with little red stickers, Greg darting about to agree with whatever they were saying about whichever work they happened to be interested in.

‘That was good,’ Jules said, coming close from out of the crowd. ‘But then, you were always a talent.’ Her hair was tied back tight, her fine pale cheeks lightly reddening as she stood close.

‘You haven’t aged a day! You look incredible!’ Liam gushed, but there was so much more to say – and the words were close to spilling out. ‘You’re Annie’s muse, so I’ve discovered,’ he said to her, at a loss as to where he might begin. Jules craned her neck around the room as if only just noticing versions of herself in a half-dozen frames. ‘What can I say? I’ve acquired a knack for inspiration.’ She smiled broadly when she said this, and Liam could not take his eyes off the shape of that lopsided smile – even the pattern of the teeth! He could not but think: I have kissed her mouth. He had kissed her in his dreams of late. A thin-shouldered man in a grey leather jacket stepped up and loomed into the conversation, his expression as impassive as a mannequin’s.

‘Liam, this is Manny.’ Manny shook hands without turning his eyes from Jules as he announced, ‘We really need to get going.’ Jules affirmed his statement with a nod. ‘Manny’s a DJ – he’s got a show tonight, too!’ She patted Manny on the shoulder as he turned away from them both. ‘It was good to see you! Sorry we have to rush off!’ Liam tried to respond, but the most he could do was open his mouth and shut it again. He repeated this action twice more and had to use a hand to prevent it repeating for a third time. Jules waved goodbye as she followed Manny out the door, into the dark Katoomba street, passing the haunted version of herself hung in the gallery window, a small red circle beside it now.

Jules had left a half-empty glass of champagne on a table of canapés beneath a painting called ‘Elfen in nassem Leder’, which depicted several elfish women, nude but for the thinest strips of leather wrapped around their bodies. These bare figures were wading into a hot spring overlooking an autumnal woodland. It was clear that Juliana had been the model for all three of these luminous beings. Liam took her abandoned glass and sculled it, refilling it quickly from a bottle by the canapés. He swilled that glass too and repeated this action three more times.

Liam hoovered two salmon and caper canapés into his mouth and again, sculled the drink in his hand – and poured another. A man with long thinning hair wrung out in a mess of directions was now standing beside him, looking up at ‘Elfen in nassem Leder’. Liam blinked at him, there was something familiar about his face. ‘I know you!’ he said, shocked to recognise the man’s face. ‘I know you, sure, I know you! You have one of those social media blogs where you go round eating burgers and kebabs. I saw you on television once! You go to Granville and eat chicken, you go to Ashfield for dumplings! You eat those giant burgers at food trucks and drink litre milkshakes with big chunks of ice-cream on the top!’ The stranger looked back at Liam as though he had pulled a switchblade on him. ‘Yes,’ the man confessed, he was indeed the man with the food blog. ‘Fuck, dude! That must be a wonderful life! You eat out three times a day, seven days a week, and every cafe and bar in the country has got to impress you, has to excite your particular fancy, or you tear their work apart with a savage review! What a bloody barrel you’ve got those businesses over, aye?’ The man confessed it was a nice gig. ‘Yeah, I’d like to go around stuffing my face all day, it must take a lot of finesse. Where did you eat this evening? You tried the waffle house? The French provincial? You give ’em a good review, gunslinger?’ It was his day off, the man explained, and then excused himself and left the gallery. Liam picked up a bottle of champagne and put it to his lips. Imagine a balding food blogger buying a work of art like that! Some rotund sensualist, gazing up at half-nude elves as he strips down on his bed before the mirror! Liam felt the urge to turn the canapé table on its head and kick out the legs. Greg appeared at his shoulder, and put a hand on his back, almost patting him. ‘Liam, Liam! You were so good buddy – you consider that Chandon bottle yours – it’s on me – least we can do for the song – but please use a glass, okay bud? They’ll take my licence away if you get too rock-and-roll!’ The small man laughed and scurried away, his eyes darting back at Liam as he did so. Annie now had one arm over her father, the other on her husband, their children huddled together in the corner watching YouTube videos on the phone. There were red circles next to most of the paintings, and the crowd showed no signs of detaching from the artist’s orbit. The musician looked over the room one last time, snatched up his guitar case and stumbled out into the night without a word to anyone.

It was bitterly cold but Liam’s blood was ringing in his ears as he staggered down the street, passing loud couples drinking outside bars and restaurants with their glowing heaters. There was an image burning bright in Liam’s mind of the afternoon he’d spent in Notting Hill, the swan-swept park where he’d played out the day with Gordon Lightfoot and Jim Croce by the gentle hills, under a wide clear sky. The stars were all out now, and the moon was high, and Notting Hill was on the other side of the world, but there was no law against busking at night – he could throw his case open right here, or outside the gallery, and sing like a troubadour. A woman in a Rastafarian hat rolled her eyes at her nose-pierced partner when Liam stumbled on a jag of the concrete footpath in front of them, almost dropping the half-empty bottle of Chandon. The decline of the street made it easy to trip, and distant rock music was coming from the RSL a few streets away. Liam remembered a park at the bottom of the hill where it would be quiet, an amphitheatre in the heart of the park where he could play.

‘Kingsford Smith Memorial Park’. This was the place he was looking for, though it was darker than he had expected, and the tops of trees around the archway seemed to loom over the path circling down deep into the strange crater-like depths. By the time Liam lugged his guitar case down to the bottom pit of the empty park the Chandon was finished, and his ragged breath was pulsing steam. There was a dim lantern filled with dead insects near the amphitheatre, and the moon was hidden by the top of an old apartment beside the station. Moths made silent sweeps at the flickering lantern, and Liam placed his open guitar case underneath, so that anyone wandering down the winding path could pay their respects to his work. He slipped into the strap and held the guitar in his arms, swaying slightly. His fingers were cold and stiff, but they knew their place, and their movements gave him the nerve to play into the silence. His hands pulled his voice along, and when the song came from his lips, out into the cold, it rolled around in the wide icy night with a purity he’d never known before.

Long ago at the festival
under a wide April night
she was the girl I’d love best of all
and I dreamt about her tonight.
We walked the town for an hour
remembering the people we knew
then she took me to her tower
I climbed up her hair for the view.
In the morning she’s leaving me
as all sweet dreamers will do
she was always the best of me
my sweetest dreaming come true.
She used to roll old gold cigarettes
the taste on the tip of our tongue
ten thousand years though I’ll never forget
the taste of my true lover gone.

Liam played the final chords and let the song disappear into the park’s indifference, a little shocked at how intensely he’d pitched the words into living air. Just for a moment, the silence that followed seemed to envelope everything. He felt the hairs rise on his skin and noticed a strange mist had gathered in the trees, so thick he couldn’t quite see the lights of the houses or the streetlights near the station. Somebody was moving through the mist. A train passing through the station stirred the silence, and bats squeaking in the trees, and a possum walking unnoticed near the gate was reaching up towards the branches of a twisted tree near the park’s arch. Liam’s eyes were wide at the figure coming through the mist – it was Jules, her apparition summoned by his song! Liam let the guitar hang from his body and stood silent, and when Jules stepped fully out of the mist, he had to blink hard to see it wasn’t her at all, but a man in a hoodie with his head bowed and his hands in his pockets. Then a second hooded figure appeared, following close behind the first. Before Liam could adjust to this transition, the hooded men were standing close to him, the first saying, ‘Sick song, bro!’ The man was young, with a pale puckered face and small shaded eyes, above which was tattooed something like a fish. ‘Thanks,’ Liam tried to say, but his voice was dry, and the word was barely audible. ‘Hey. You ever seen a three-metre flatty?’ Liam looked at the young man, who lit a smoke in his hands so that the flash of the lighter’s wheel turned the inside of his hood into a fiery bowl. ‘A what?’ was the best Liam could offer in answer. There was a dull, echoing sound, like somebody dropping a rock on a hollow log.

Soon the park’s mist was gone, and the bats and possums had quit, and the early morning light was purple in the sky. Lying in the grass, Liam dreamt of a large stage, his small body in its centre. ‘I’m forgetting my lines!’ He’d been saying, looking out at the blinding lights and the invisible crowd. When the poor show was over, he came down into the rows to meet his friends and thank them for coming, and a terrible awkwardness fell over the hall. ‘I didn’t know my lines,’ he was explaining to someone. ‘I’ve never known them, never!’ He began to sob in his dream, and on the stage behind him he heard Orson Welles announce, ‘Well, if you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.’ Juliana put her hands on Liam’s shoulders. ‘You’ll recover from this,’ she said. Liam started to move. There was no stage, at all, only earth, slightly spinning. Sky and tree and wet, cold ground. When the shock subsided, Liam saw his guitar and its case were gone, and he found the strength to raise himself up onto his knees. He knelt there, making a strange choking noise, as close to laughter as the pain allowed. Up in the branches of a tree was a kookaburra, looking down at Liam, rolling its head from side to side, wondering what to make of this strange, wormy thing in the grass below.

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