Richard Parry is a painter who cannot paint, a writer who doesn’t write. His obsession is Lulu, that ‘orphan off the street’, his aboriginal ‘green child’. But on returning from Australia to his hometown he finds it has become notorious for the suicides of young people. As Parry tries to connect past and present he is haunted by dreams of Australia and of his youth. Yet is Parry all he seems? Isn’t he frankly, ‘a bit creepy’? How trustworthy is memory? And what has happened to the vivacious Lulu? A meditation on age and opportunity by prizewinning poet, essayist and novelist Robert Minhinnick.
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About the Author
Robert Minhinnick’s prizewinning poems, essays, short stories and novel have been published by Seren and with Carcanet. He has a dedicated following among poetry and literary fiction readers since he was editor of Poetry Wales for many years. His 2007 novel Sea Holly, to which Limestone Man is a sequel, was shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize.
Read an Excerpt
By Robert Minhinnick
Poetry Wales Press Ltd.Copyright © 2015 Robert Minhinnick
All rights reserved.
I'm trying to remember. The last time I saw Lulu.
I know her back was showing its white scar. That part of her back above her three black moles. Orion's belt she called those moles. I used to wet my finger and trace her three black stars.
And then the scar. I always thought that scar resembled the shape of The Caib.
We used to joke about that. At least I thought it was funny. But yes, I did say something. Something like The Caib, remember. The Caib! You always ask where I come from. That's where!
And maybe I slapped her. Like anyone would. No harm in that. A slap.
Back of beyond, she had said.
Not really, I said.
But then she repeated it. Like she always did. Which was irritating. Yes, Lulu could have that effect.
I must have been tired. Yes, tired. So I said something. And regretted it instantly.
Better than ... I said.
She turned then.
Better than what? she asked.
Better than the Outback of beyond.
Yes, I remember that scar. Above the cleft of her arse. A seam of quartz in red sandstone, that scar. Look, it's natural to slap. Someone there.
And we were tired. Not ourselves. The drought was over and we'd been celebrating. But we weren't ourselves.
I remember the gold dust on her shoulders. On her vest. In her hair. Whenever someone went in the dunny, they came out golden. From the paint dust. We know where you've been! we used to say.
Next, I heard the screen slamming. And then her wail.
Oh, for goodness sake ... I'd said. I think I said.
Take a joke?
Can't you ...
I returned to old haunts. For the first time since my ... incident, I drove to Adelaide. Walked into The Sebel and booked a room. Winter rates.
No, I'd never stayed there before. But I felt I owed it to myself. First of all I listed the places I needed to try. It's always lists with me, isn't it? Names of records I should be playing. Records to avoid.CHAPTER 2
I felt excited. Any minute now, I thought. Any minute now I'll see that curly hair. That honey-coloured skin. Any minute now. How could she not be here?
I looked around the lounge, the marble pillars. Who'd left that drink at a corner table? It must have been Lulu. I even checked the Ladies.
But I avoided school and the chances of meeting staff. Didn't want to see Libby or anyone else in the department. And I was determined to be gone by Friday afternoon. That was when a group of teachers went out drinking.
Old haunts, past times. I ordered malbec but it was bravado. The wine tasted sour. I had the bottle decanted and left in my room to breathe.
Yes, it was early. The barman gave me a knowing smile. Seen it all, hadn't he? By 11am on a Monday I was already in the market at our favourite booth, a pot of lotus tea in front of me.
We'd drunk that sometimes on our city expeditions. The Chinese girl who worked there would put a lotus flower in a saucer of water on the table. But not this time. One cup only this time. And no flower.
I sat down and convinced myself again that Lulu had to be there. Nearby. The market was busy enough, full of the smells of cinnamon, cardamom, coffee. Everybody seemed to be doing something vital. Even if it was only sitting and waiting. There was a pattern to life. Everyone had a place and so did Lulu. Her place was in the seat opposite me. Her cup should have been the cup next to mine.
Lulu and I had this special way of saying goodbye. I'd say So Long, Arcturus and she'd say Farewell, Arcturus. Or something like that. After the star, naturally. Okay, sounds corny. But there you are.
Arcturus is a red star, moving away from us. In a couple of million years, Lulu had said, we won't be able to see Arcturus. The sky will be different. Imagine it, she said. Our sky without Arcturus.
How do you know that? I always asked her.
Because I read it, Mr Teacher, she always said.
And I know where you read it, I always said.
In marvellous books! we said together.
So, so long, Arcturus.
I sat in the market. Everything seemed right with the world. There they were, the mums with pushchairs, the kids in their school uniforms, mitching off. The lonely, the lovesick, the lost. Particularly the lost, you learn how to spot them.
Yes, that barman in The Sebel gave me a smile. But he was sharing that smile, if you know what I mean. It said, we're in this together. I know it and you know it. Sport.
Then a little Chinese girl came past, pushing a portable griddle of roasted ducks. Then a florist with a blue spike in a pot. Hyacinth, probably. Then two Chinese blokes arguing. And all walking past my table in that corner of the market. The Adelaide street, brimful, bountiful. This world as it came to me.
An hour later I was across the road in another café Lulu and I sometimes visited. This was a smaller place, almost under the Lion Gate at the market entrance.
It was lunchtime and I tried their wonton soup. I shared a table with an excitable couple, just married I think. But I was always looking round. Still searching for Lulu.
Two o clock, three. I'm still looking. The couple long gone. Only me in the café at 3.30, and there I am with green tea and more green tea. And a cake. I'd never tried Chinese cakes before but this was acceptable. No, maybe a little dry, even though it was green cake, soaked in green tea.
I remembered The Caib when Jack and Dora were together in the last year. Breakfast was what they called sop. Bread soaked in black tea. They would sit in the kitchen with bowls of sop and look out at the garden. Like two refugees, I often thought. Sucking up that horrible food, stale currant bun, cold tea. But they loved it.
At that time in the garden there were usually as many sunflowers as Dora could coax into life. I used to think about those sunflowers. How like people they were. In their slow decline. Yellow and splendid, those sunflower faces. And crawling with bees. But soon bowed, even the sturdiest.
Mum would stake them with bits of bamboo, tied with rags. And every sunflower different. Yes, like people.
Then a break. Then more tea. Then a different cake. Then a walk down Gouger Street, then another tour of the market, both directions. Then five minutes back in the first café.
Five o'clock, I was in the Botanic Gardens and the tropical house. Surely, I thought. Surely. Who was that girl? Whose was that voice?
But there were too many people. Lots of university students, lots of lovers, the lonely, the lost. Everyone mooching about. Moochers, yeah, moochers. That's what we do, isn't it? That's all we are. Well moochers gracias to us lost souls.
Long walk past The Sebel. Six o'clock, seven, and a decent crowd in the marble bar. It's close to the theatre and there was a performance due. I went up to my room and tried the malbec. Better, I thought. At least drinkable. So I took the bottle downstairs and finished it off. A different barman.
I checked the grand staircase, then took the walk back to Gouger Street. In the market everyone was packing up. Back out to the Lion Gate café. But they were getting ready for the next day. Tomorrow.
Christ, I thought. Christ. What happened to today?
It was dark. I looked in the smart Indian restaurant. Don't know why. Then the cheap Lebanese. Tried every bar with their attached gambling parlours. Tried the kebab queues, the places where Lulu had loved the wedges served with garlic mayo. But everything now was not right with the world.
Went back to The Sebel and sat where we'd always sat. And this time I tried the wedges myself, under a marble pillar at a tiny marble table. That marble cold as the quartz on The Caib.
Then maybe another red wine. Yeah, a crude and bloody Aussie shiraz. After that I sat in my room looking out at the city lights.
Always exciting, aren't they, cities at night? On The Caib you hear the sea like a record crackling over its final grooves. But sometimes I miss the neon, those orange and violet shadows of Adelaide. And I stayed at my table thinking I should be out there. Out there ...
From six, I tried the bus and tram stops. Up and down Rundle and Hindley Streets. Why not five? The buses start at 5am. Cleaners gong to work, the people who make your coffee. All the nameless people? They start at five. They're out there in the dark. At 5am.
Then the immigrants, the drifters? They're out there at five. Before five. But I began at six.
And yes, I had a photo and asked around. Have you seen this girl? Please, have you seen this girl?
Went over to the YMCA. That's a possible place, I thought. A likely place. Showed the photo at the desk and they said, yes, try the lounge. Special permission.
So I waited there from 9am. Watched those kids laboriously cooking breakfast. Getting ready. And I heard about all those places they'd been, remote outback, Papua, New Britain ...
I thought surely someone was sleeping late, recovering from a sesh ... Christ, I thought, Christ ...
Not everyone was young. There were a few older couples. But everybody was interested and a few thought they'd seen her. One bloke was certain.
But then he started to doubt himself. He came back to tell me. No, he wasn't sure after all. Could he see the photo again? Yes, no, he wasn't sure. Any more. Could have been. Might have been. But possibly not. Maybe he was thinking of someone else ... So hard to be ... How old was the ...?
Gradually everyone drifted away. Even those with books who seemed set for the day. By twelve I was on my own. Someone came to turn the telly off.
Then I walked over to the state gallery on North Terrace. I'd always loved that gallery. The paintings have room to breathe, and I'd taken Lulu there three, four times. Again, it was wonderful.
Maybe it was there I had the idea for my big canvas, Mother of Pearl. You know, 'Morning on The Caib'. That's my great idea. Told you. Told everyone about it. When I paint. When I paint my masterpiece.
Yes, all that space. Means the colours can breathe. Colours need to breathe, you see. Got to make room for colours. But there was hardly anyone in. Hardly anyone ...
We'd seen a film there. But there had been better crowds for The Cockatoos I thought. Yeah, The Black Cockatoos. Again, I showed the photograph. Excuse me, have you seen, excuse me, have you ... Please, could you look again, could you ...
Over to the Mall and all those shops that Lulu pretended not to like. But of course, why not? Anyone her age. Anyone ...
I'd have waited while she tried them on. New clothes, you see. That's what she needed. Better than those ... Yeah, show herself off. And changing rooms in the corner, a seat while you wait. Be the first to see her. I could have been ... I could have been ...
Look. Someone's left that coat on the floor. No, it's not, it's not ... But who chooses the music in those places? Who ...
See, you have to think about your in-shop playlist. Says a lot. About you. About who you are. About who you think you are.
No, Miss. I'm just waiting. I'm just waiting for ... Someone ... She's coming back. Any ...
Minute now. Slice of pizza from a stall outside. Black olives saltier than green. Mushrooms sliced. Not enough mozz, not enough I'd say. Masses of mozz, that's what Lulu liked. Real mozzquito was Lulu, those stones rolling, ungathering ... The stones that filled my mouth ...
Passed the Lebanese. Down the stairs. A brick cellar with nobody in. Make a great little jazz club, the Lebanese. Ornette, I thought. Miles Ahead.
Ordered a bottle of their own. Oily, black. The coming place, it said. Restaurant review photocopied and pinned with a stiletto to a beam. Yeah, a knife. Still quivering. As I live and ...
Lebanon's time is here, it said and why not? it asked. There are so many Aussies now with Lebanese blood. And we all have a time, don't we?
I tasted the wine. Oh, I thought. Oh ...
The Lebanese breads arrived, the hummus. Garlic, I thought. The white garlic bulbs, the purple skins of the garlic cloves.
I planted garlic once. Watched the shoots curl in winter. Out of the old fruits those little fingers.
Here's the mezze, I said to myself. In tiny bowls, as if they held paints.
And then, arak. The clean arak to wash away the dark, the feculent ...
Ah arak. Its white fire. In the bottle with the milled glass stopper.
You eat alone? the man asked.
No, I said. Any minute now. Any ...
But he commanded:
5am, the tram stops, the buses. Women hunched, men vacant. Who's slept? I wondered. Who's dreamed.
A group of native people were sitting in a corner of that park by the market. Tinnies not even crushed.
One of the men was lugging a fifteen-litre box of Henley's Estate red. I showed them all the photograph. And, fair play, a few might have looked.
Yeah, one said. I know her. I know her.
How d'you know her? I asked.
I know her, he said again.
From where? I asked.
One of the women, seamed and haggard but maybe only twenty, in a ruined overcoat with gold braid on the shoulders, spat at my feet. Her gums were bleeding.
Lulu, I said. She's called Lulu.
Yeah, Lulu, the man said.
Don't you know? the woman hissed, bloody drool on her chin. Don't you know? We're all of us called Lulu. Look, I'm Lulu. She's Lulu. He's Lulu. Hey, mister, say hello to Lulu.
That earned her a laugh. Maybe I laughed too.
They'd made their camp under acacia bushes. Spread out on sheets of Panasonic cardboard. There was a loaf, a milk carton and a roll of toilet paper one of their kids had been playing with. All unrolled, that pink paper. Yeah, pink. All unrolled.
You know Kath? I asked. Kath?
Hey mister, the woman said. What happened to Lulu?
That broke them up. I know I laughed too.
Listen, mister, the woman said. Don't you know? Did no one ever tell you? We're all of us Kath. We're all of us Lulu.
Kath's older than Lulu, I said. But in my mind I was walking away.
Please, I said. Look at the picture again.
Yeah, said the woman, looking once more. You know who that is? You know who that is?
That's ... the man said.
That's Lulu, the woman spat.
No, the man laughed. No, that's ...
Then everyone was saying it. That's Lulu, that's Lulu. That's Kath.
Have you seen her this week? I asked. Can you think? Please? This week.
Hey, tell me what day it is, boss, said the man. And I'll tell you if I've seen her.
Half an hour later I was in the university library on North Terrace. My card dated from teaching days and I remembered clearly where I had to go.
The reading room was full of yellow light. I wondered, as I had been first in line, how the other readers had entered. There were already three men standing behind the desks. Men my age, I suppose. But older looking, surely. Older than me. Everyone else was stereotypically a student.
Students seemed younger than I recalled. I thought of hairy, bearded men. With something to say. These kids seemed pallid, even bloodless.
I found the latest Astronomy Today where I knew it belonged. Magazines weren't date-stamped but this edition, brand new, didn't look as if it had been consulted, even opened. I raised it to my nose. New glue of a fresh edition.
On the cover was a galaxy inside the darkness of space. So many lights. Each light a star or another galaxy. So many lights ...
I think of the quartz in the caves at The Caib. That quartz with the sun on it. Like stars, I've thought at times recently. That orange-red of Arcturus, the blue and orange of Albireo. As if the quartz had fallen to earth. To shine a moment in cave gloom. Stars trapped in stone. Fossils of starlight.
So here I am, I said to myself. What do I do now? I was trying Facebook. I was trying Bebo. But I thought what I've always thought in the library. That I have lived my life without studying physics. Without understanding mathematics. That I've spent too long with pictures. Too long with poems and plays. With other men's art.
In school, in fact, I'd hated physics. If only ...
But it was the same with the guitar, the piano. The failure to persevere. Nicky Hopkins played on thirteen albums by the Stones. He was waiting for the call and Keith always called. Nicky was ready. But I ...
My right hand still felt cold. Ice at the fingertips. As if I had cupped water from a rock pool. Yes, the hand was still traumatised.
When I looked round again, there was Sophia, crossing the reading room. Sophia, who helped sometimes in Hey Bulldog.
Well ... I said. Well ...
Fancy meeting you, she continued. Here.
Here, I said. Yes, here.
Oh, she said. You've stopped shaving. Maybe ...
Excerpted from Limestone Man by Robert Minhinnick. Copyright © 2015 Robert Minhinnick. Excerpted by permission of Poetry Wales Press Ltd..
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