Can Olivia rewrite history to bring justice to the river girl whose life was so brutally taken? Even if the past can’t be changed, is it possible to undo history’s erasure?
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|Publisher:||University of Queensland Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
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Ribbed glass windows flanked with flower boxes of ribbed glass strike an unusual note in the Wintergarden ... to create a harmonious room which is a distinct asset to Brisbane's social life. Music each evening adds a tuneful accompaniment to this ideal cocktail rendezvous.
— Lennon's of Brisbane brochure, 1941
When an unpublished manuscript by Gloria Graham was discovered, three things happened: there was a minor bidding war to publish it (generating sufficient interest to be reported on in the mainstream press); the discoverer of the manuscript – a disheartened and disillusioned PhD student examining women's wartime writing about Brisbane, with a particular focus on Graham – obtained a scholarship; and a revival of Graham's long-forgotten satirical play, Tie My Apron Strings, Would You?, was mounted at a popular theatre venue.
The problem for Olivia Wells was that only the third thing was true – along with the part about her being disheartened and disillusioned. There was no unpublished manuscript by Gloria Graham. Having devoted the last two and a half years to the subject, Olivia should have been happy about the renewed interest in Graham's work, but she was frankly annoyed that some upstart little theatre company no one had heard of was earning the kudos for rediscovering Graham and her plays. The arts writer from The Courier-Mail even declared that 'Retrorep TC have single-handedly revived interest in Graham – the mid-twentieth-century feminist writer of poetry, plays and several works of short fiction from Brisbane – who has lingered on the edge of obscurity for the last forty years.' Olivia wanted to throttle her.
The company had, at least, offered her two opening night tickets when she called the producer and explained her interest in the work, and she, in turn, had promised to review it. He had not asked for her dramaturgical input, however, even though she'd done a drama minor as part of her undergraduate degree. So much for being an expert, she'd thought.
Olivia never did fit with the drama crowd. They were too spirited, too social, too inclined to think highly of themselves. The solitude of research suited her. She loved the quiet purpose of the State Library, in particular. Here, looking out over the cinnamon expanse of the Brisbane River, she could dip into the city's past. The light, spacious interior of the John Oxley Library was the perfect place to time travel: a liminal space of sage-coloured lounges and chairs, smooth maple desks, and green bankers' lamps that straddled the comfort of the present with the neatly catalogued past. She'd spent the better part of the day in the JOL, as she called it, looking through World War II ephemera and related fiftieth-anniversary commemorative material, much of it of only passing relevance to her research.
A recorded message announced that borrowing would cease in fifteen minutes and the library would close in half an hour. It was time to put the photocopier to work. She'd been reading personal stories, small memoir pieces by women that had been collated in a few different remembrance publications, she could potentially write a chapter on. Most were fairly mundane accounts about austerity measures ('making do'), working long hours at tedious jobs and waiting for menfolk to come home. If they noticed the bougainvillea and poinciana trees cheerfully decorating their streets and gardens, they didn't mention it. But what could you expect? These women weren't writers. They were simply telling it like it was. Those who brought up 'the Yanks', who were 'everywhere', did so from the perspective of observer. It was always other girls who were mad for them, not the person telling the tale. Olivia would love to know where all those 'fast' types had left their stories.
One woman, a waitress at Lennon's, claimed to have bought a coat from McWhirters with the generous tips she received waiting on American brass. She thought she looked quite smart in it, before realising fur coats were the gift of choice for women whom American servicemen 'favoured'. She then promptly burnt the thing, 'without regret', but not without having her picture taken in it first. Olivia considered the poorly reproduced photo: though only about twenty, the girl was painfully matronly. The long boxy coat didn't help; she looked about as fast as a snail.
Olivia glanced up from her desk. The creamy afternoon light, so settled only an hour before, had all but disappeared. The sun had drifted west, taking with it the warmth that had made sitting by the window so pleasant. The chill of the air conditioning and her goose- pimpled arms could no longer be ignored. The river was like ribbed glass, crudely reflecting the cityscape on the other side.
She returned the items she'd borrowed and left via the automatic doors. The war-brides documentary on VHS had been interesting, but was only tangentially related to her research project. The humid February air outside was a welcome embrace coming from the chill of the library. After collecting her bag from the locker room, she took the lift to the ground floor and walked out onto the Breezeway: an understated moniker when a gusty August wind whipped through the atrium. The show started at eight, and she wasn't meeting her boyfriend, Sam, until seven. Her indecision as to how to fill the next hour disconcerted her. The building had shut down for the evening and an air of desertion skulked through the pale-green concrete structure, despite the handful of students, mostly internationals, seated outside the library's cafe and bookshop with laptops. Not wanting to overthink it, she headed towards the Kurilpa Bridge, past GOMA, with the vague intention of walking along the river.
The sun sank with one last eye-pinching flare behind the hills, turning the sky a luminescent inky blue. Olivia had gone further than she intended, almost as far as Davies Park where the West End markets were held on Saturday mornings. Screeching bats rose like a black cape from a grove of Moreton Bay figs. It was time to head back. The river was now slick as obsidian. Mangroves in silhouette crouched at its edge, protecting new roots that poked through the mud like fingers. The smell of river muck was sharp but not unpleasant.
Olivia pulled out her phone to text Sam she'd be late and saw she had an email alert. It was from her mother, the subject: Your Father. She needed to sit down to read it. There was a park bench, she remembered, down by the Go Between Bridge. She walked briskly. Only half an hour earlier there'd been a few joggers and cyclists, even a young family with a toddler in a stroller. Now, oddly, there was no one. She often walked alone at night when she didn't finish teaching until 9 pm. It was just a matter of keeping that ball bearing of fear on an even track. She supposed all women carried it around with them, it was in their DNA, but if you didn't dwell on your vulnerability then that little sphere of cold steel couldn't multiply into uncontrollable terror. The trick was to hold your head up, keep your gaze straight and steady, let each stride strike the pavement with your right to be there: heavy, insistent.
She was anxious by the time she reached the bench: put it down to the email. Why did her mother have to use such a melodramatic subject line?
Your father called me (yes, I know, I went into shock afterwards). He wants to get in touch with you and asked for your email address. I said I'd check with you first. He found a half-sister or something and wants to tell you all about it. That may well be true, but I get the feeling it's more an excuse to make contact with you. Perhaps it's time?
Olivia read it twice more, then put her phone in her bag, noting that Sam hadn't replied to her text. The twilight had shifted to a darkening amethyst. The moon, a Cheshire Cat smile, had just crested the horizon. Olivia stood up and began walking. She passed the old Foggitt, Jones & Co. warehouse and the rear end of the milk factory with a dim sense of their stubborn hold on the landscape in an area undergoing aggressive urban renewal. It was easier to concentrate on the Moreton Bay figs and their hidden spaces along the riverside than on her mother's email.
A man in work garb approached from the opposite direction. As he got closer, he gave her a weak smile, as though aware of her scrutiny. The place was known to be a haunt for drug dealers and unsavoury types once the sun went down, and even if she wasn't terrified she had every reason to be vigilant. The memorial plaque for the poor French girl who was raped and murdered in the park not so long ago was not far behind her. Olivia remembered the bright cornflower blue of her eyes in the photographs published online.
She was almost back at the library precinct when Sam replied.
Sorry babe not going to make it tonight. On a roll with this piece.
Even though she had half expected him to cancel, the disappointment whirred through her like an angle saw. She was tempted not to reply, but couldn't bear the thought of him knowing she cared. Better to be blasé, but most of all understanding that artists need their space. Genius doesn't accommodate social engagements – or a girlfriend, for that matter. Olivia had accepted that at the outset. The attraction, if not exactly instant, drew her in like a force field only science fiction could conjure. They'd met at a house party in Paddington, a thirtieth birthday with a 'lost in the forest' theme; she'd gone as Snow White.
She saw him first, doing that thing: his party trick where he rolled his stomach in a grotesque exaggerated wave. He wasn't particularly good-looking: impish, devilish, maybe – that could have been the satyr costume – but he was different, and she had gone to bed with him that night with no hesitation. She tried to recall that first attraction: the way he zeroed in on her, claimed her with his eyes, and then his hands. She had never felt so desired before and had reciprocated with something as equally ferocious.
The next day he showed her his studio. She'd been prepared to write off their encounter as a one-night stand. Although she didn't indulge in them often, she was pragmatic enough to do so without regret, providing the sex was decent. Then she'd seen his current body of work: a series of mythic animal sculptures made from recycled metal. The concept itself was hardly new, but what he could do with old car parts, bedframes and all manner of discarded bits of iron, steel and copper was intricate and magnificent. Some were abstract, hybrid creations, others more conventional and realistic, but all were exceptionally detailed.
The piece he had been working on was a python made from mismatched spoon heads coiled around an actual tree branch, with a literal fork for a tongue. Again, not the most original image, Olivia accepted, but she was still convinced of his talent; and that, she had enough self-awareness to understand, was her downfall. She couldn't let him, or at least the idea of him, go.
There was still time for her to get a pre-show drink, and maybe a sandwich for dinner. She took the stairs that connected the library to the art gallery and museum. It was silly, childish, but she liked the Whale Mall: looking up at the humpbacks dangling in barnacled parabolas overhead and listening to their mournful, strangled moans on auto-loop. Her father had taken her to the museum once as a child to see the dinosaurs. She did the maths; it had been seventeen years since she saw him last.
She'd never once blamed her mother for leaving him, but the reasons for his gradual disappearance from her life in the years afterwards still made no sense to her, even when she was old enough to understand what was really meant by 'a drunk and a gambler'. His reason for contacting her now seemed odd. She'd wondered about her father's 'real' mother; perhaps he remembered her well enough to suspect curiosity would get the better of her.
A man she'd seen earlier at the library was standing on the walkway that connected the museum to the performing arts centre, looking over at the forecourt below. The year before there'd been a ten-metre animatronic baby brachiosaurus on display there. Olivia had been disappointed when it was removed. The man turned and caught her staring, and smiled before she could pretend they hadn't made eye contact.
'Hey, you mind if I ask you something?' His accent was American, with the hint of a drawl.
'You wouldn't know where the Carver Club used to be, would you? It was a jazz club for African-American servicemen during the war. It was supposed to be around here somewhere.'
'I do actually. It was just over there.' She gestured with a flick of her wrist at the beige brutalist structure ahead. 'Where QPAC is basically, maybe a little further down Grey Street.'
'The performing arts centre.'
'Of course. Well, damn. I was close, then. I'm Tobias. Pleased to meet you.' He held out a hand for her to shake.
'Olivia. Where are you from?'
'Originally? Louisville, Kentucky. My family lives there. But I've been in LA for over ten years.' He faced her square on. 'I don't suppose you'd like to come downstairs and have a drink with me?'
She hadn't expected that. If it was a pick-up technique, at least it involved the personal touch; the intermediary crutch of a smartphone dispensed with. She would like to know about his interest in the Carver Club.
'I suppose I could. Why not.'
The forecourt outside the Lyric Theatre was busy. For musical theatre types, Cats, Olivia assumed, was the catnip of Broadway musicals. She spotted an empty table and claimed it before someone else could while Tobias went to the bar. She'd requested a white wine, anything except a chardonnay. A frazzled woman nearby was attempting to round up four girls in furry ears and tails embodying their feline spirits in the most literal of ways. Tobias almost tripped over one pouncing on a mouse as he returned.
'My apologies,' said the cat's mother.
Tobias gave her a 'no bother' wave.
'Mikaela. Sit down and finish your pizza. Now.'
'Cats don't eat pizza.'
'Pretend it's a bowl of Whiskas, then.'
Olivia exchanged an amused smile with Tobias as he handed over her glass of wine. She thought about offering him the spare ticket. Though logical, she concluded, it was also inappropriate. And it reeked of desperation. It was a moot point anyway; as he sat down, he announced he was going to a play 'about apron strings somewhere round here'. Olivia told him the entrance to the Cremorne Theatre was around the side of the building.
'My friend Clio is in it. We used to hang out in LA.'
'You're an actor, then?'
'Was. Past tense. These days I'm an acting coach and occasional director. You could say LA finally wore me down. There are only so many bit parts playing drug dealers, petty crooks and violent thugs you can do before that shit gets to you. Plus, I enjoy teaching.'
He asked her what she did. She said she was a university tutor. History and literature courses. She found it difficult to explain her doctoral research. Apart from it sounding about as useful as a deckchair on a submarine (as her grandmother would say), she wasn't sure herself some days. What did studying a minor literary figure from Brisbane contribute to the world? She gave him the short, vague answer she gave most people, hoping he wouldn't ask her to elaborate.
'So why the interest in this woman, this writer, this Graham lady ...'
'You're writing a PhD on her, so her work must mean something to you.'
'I don't know. Her work interests me, that's all. She wrote about things few other people wanted to write about at the time, with an unconventional take. There's not a great deal in the way of scholarly analysis or research on her writing, or her life in general. I'm curious about what informed her fiction and poetry, I guess. Who she was. But what brings you to this little corner of the world? Brisbane's a long way from LA.'
'I've got a ten-month contract working with student actors at a university here. Clio set me up with some contacts of hers. And, to be honest, I've always wanted to see where my grandfather spent his war years. He used to talk about Brisbane a bit.'
'Ah, yes, the Carver Club.'
'Yeah, he spoke real fondly of that place. Anyone would think he built it with his own two hands.'
'The nostalgia of youth?'
'No doubt, but it was more than that. It was Brisbane itself. He was lucky, I think. He met some real nice people. The sort that didn't mind having a black man over for Sunday dinner.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Meet Me at Lennon's"
Copyright © 2019 Melanie Myers.
Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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