They were large, stained, rust-coloured. You’d found them in an op shop somewhere. Old men’s trousers. I laughed and wouldn’t believe you when you said they once belonged to Russell Drysdale. So you took them off, right there on the Town Hall steps, and waved them in front of my face, flourishing the tag with the neat red stitching and Russell Drysdale’s name.
I loved you then, in that moment. Loved your ability to make the extravagant, the outrageous gesture and not count the cost. I wanted that ability. For a while I lived it too, swept up in the rush of it, mainlining it and you.
For a time.
Eric sits in my kitchen polishing the wood of the table with his elbows and asking me questions about you – about his father.
‘I read his journals,’ Eric tells me. ‘He said he loved you.’
I shrug. ‘For a while. A long time ago – before he met Isabella, your mother.’
‘He never said it of her.’
‘Twenty-three separate paintings said it for him.’
‘I read it in the obituary ... ’
‘My mother wrote the obituary. She’s a liar. So was he. She liked to think she was his muse. He wanted peace, so he never bothered to contradict her. He painted the cemetery a heap of times too. What do paintings prove?’
Eric fixes me with his serious dark eyes, so like yours. I laugh, remembering hours spent in the cemetery on summer days, lounging on the headstones, reading a book while you sketched, or stamping my feet to keep warm on wintery evenings while you waited for the moon to be in the right place to cast the shadow of cherubim across the ground.
‘He loved cemeteries too,’ I tell Eric. ‘They suited his sense of gothic, his interest in God and the devil, life and death.’
‘Tell me about him.’
I’m not sure what he’s after, so I fuss around with the kettle, making tea, playing for time. What do you tell a seventeen-year-old whose father has just died?
I never talked so much, before or since, as I did with you – politics, religion, life, the universe and art, always art. Ours was a late-night relationship. We were always the ones left talking at the end of parties when everyone else was comatose or had drifted away. We brushed hands and lips as we spilled from the noise and smoke of overheated pubs onto dark streets. We sat in the corners at gallery openings, eating cheese and Jatz, drinking cheap red wine and arguing about the paintings.
I never wore a watch, and the clocks in your house were always wrong. We wandered the city, waiting for last trains that never came, or sat with our feet in the gutter looking for buses that were always late.
You were breaking up with Patrick. I knew I wasn’t the catalyst, but I wanted it to happen.
‘It hurts like a broken arm not having him around,’ you said.
Beautiful, charming Patrick. You’d known each other since you were five, been sleeping together since you were fifteen. But you were beginning to discover women and me, and Patrick was starting to find out just how far his cherry lips and dark curls could take him. Both of you were getting used to taking what you wanted.
‘Patrick’s running with the lost boys now,’ you said, and swept me up and kissed me, and I laughed, enjoying the kiss and the wind and the darkness and noise of the night city.
Eric is used to getting what he wants too. ‘Tell me about my father,’ he repeats.
‘What do you want to know?’
Everything. It’s a big word. I consider it while I sip my tea. ‘He had this way of focusing on you like you were the only person in the world.’
Eric slaps the table hard, palm open. ‘I know. I watched him do it often, but he never did it with me.’
So that’s what this is about. For every person inside the magic circle, there’s always someone outside.
‘Nonsense,’ I say, being deliberately adult, authoritative, matter-of-fact. ‘What about all those paintings? He was enraptured with you.’
Eric seems struck by what I say, then his jaw stiffens again. ‘Eric the angel, Eric the cherub, Eric as cupid, the endless, puking Madonnas and child. There’s not one painting of me after I turned three. Perhaps he did love me,’ says the boy angrily, echoing my words. ‘For a time.’
Things were already messy between us when you met Isabella. You wanted us to get a place together, but I resisted. I knew that if I agreed I would cease to be myself and become your satellite.
I had gone out to the suburbs for my mother’s birthday, and I was supposed to meet you at a party later. I didn’t want to go. I knew it would be full of your art school friends, all giggling at nothing or staring vacantly – off their faces on too much alcohol and amyl nitrate.
I knew that whatever I wore my clothes would be wrong, but I made an effort. I’d found an old pair of fifties shoes in the back of my mother’s wardrobe. High and pointy – the full Marilyn Monroe number. When I got off the train my feet were hurting, and by the time I got to the party I was hobbling.
I remember waiting after I’d knocked on the door, standing in the dark with the light and the music streaming out through the window. Suddenly it was all too much. I didn’t want to go in there. I took off my shoes and ran down the street.
Behind me I heard the door open and someone peered out and said ‘No, no one’. It was then I looked down and noticed my heels were bleeding.
‘You should have seen it,’ Patrick told me laughing over coffee the next day. ‘Isabella cut him out from the pack like a sheep dog taking a lamb from the mob.’
She was five years older than us. No time at all now, but a lifetime to us then. She knew where she was going and what she wanted. Isabella was never going to be anyone’s satellite.
Eric, brooding, stares into space. There is a copy of last week’s newspaper on the table, folded at the obituary page with your photograph and your most famous painting.
‘The seminal image,’ Patrick used to call it, laughing his wicked laugh.
The Brother Embrace is its real name. You and Patrick are naked to the waist, locked in a passionate, violent kiss. Each of you is wearing horns and tails, haloes and wings, and your large fleshy purple tongues curl around one another, into each other’s mouths and out again.
I cover it with the biscuit tin, hoping Eric hasn’t seen it. Doing so I notice for the first time that you have painted yourself wearing Russell Drysdale’s trousers.
‘You needn’t bother,’ says Eric. ‘I’ve seen all the papers and the article in Art Australia. Thanks to dear “Uncle” Patrick, there’s nothing about that relationship that hasn’t been documented.’
I held Patrick’s skinny hand throughout the funeral service. He’d insisted that I wheel him down the front. ‘We’ve as much right as the dear Lady Isabella has,’ he said. ‘I’m surprised she’s got the time to be here. I thought she’d be home rushing around emptying the garbage, trying to retrieve his tiniest scrawl so she can sell it off.’
Later, when the priest was reading the eulogy and talking about the suddenness of your heart attack, Patrick gave an exaggerated start and said loudly ‘He had a heart? Who knew?’
Patrick was playing to the gallery as usual. In this case the press gallery. The photographers clustered around him after the service until Isabella called them to order, clapping her hands and saying ‘I’d like to make a statement.’
She stood for a moment waiting for silence, her hair blowing about her face slightly, a brief tremor on her lips. ‘I’d like to thank everyone for their enormous support. I’ve been overwhelmed by the tributes that have flooded in, a testament to my husband’s genius.’
‘Genius!’ Patrick spluttered behind me as he began to wheel himself away. ‘Hardly. What’s she playing at – pretending to be a stricken Ophelia? She’s just trying to push up the price of his paintings.’
‘Shut up, Patrick,’ I said, wheeling him towards the car.
Thinking back to the scene at the funeral, I can see Eric standing to one side, taking it all in, forgotten. A lost boy if ever I saw one.
Feeling sorry for him, I try to think of something to say, try to think of something about you to offer him. Before I can open my mouth Eric says, ‘Tell me about my sister.’
‘Sister? I didn’t know you had a sister.’
‘Half-sister then – your daughter.’
‘Marcela?’ I almost laugh. ‘I’m sorry Eric, Marcela’s not your sister. What happened between your father and I was over years before she was born.’
‘I’m not talking about Marcela. I told you I read his diaries. Tell me about Alanna.’
Alanna. The name comes back to slap me in the face after twenty years. Alanna, the one thing, the one secret that despite all the other things you put into your work, I thought was ours alone. Never trust a man who keeps a journal.
I was used to the other exposures – myself naked and ugly in purples and browns in a series of three-metre-high canvases; the disapproving angel with my face that appears in the corner of so many of your works. But this was different, and certainly not something I wanted to share with your son.
A sigh. ‘Alanna was an idea, a possibility. She never existed. Just part of the games your father and I used to play, imagining what it would be like to have a child.’
We’d been so careful, but still I got pregnant. It happens, I know, but it was a shock. This was something genuine to argue about at last. God and the devil made real. You called her – it – Alanna and imagined the full pink screaming bundle.
I imagined something more like those foetuses you see in jars in science labs, with a bizarre deformed face looking at us through the glass while we decided its fate. We talked and argued about it for so long, changing our minds from day to day, hour to hour. One of us was always getting the jar down from the shelf; the other would put it back up again. I can no longer remember which of us was holding it when the jar finally slipped and smashed on the floor.
Eric is politely disbelieving. ‘Just an idea? And yet he wrote so much about it?’
I raise my eyebrows and stare at him, eyes wide, faking haughty honesty. ‘Yes. Your father used to get obsessed with ideas. They’d take over him for days, and then he’d move on to something new.’ He was the same with people too, but I don’t say that to Eric.
I’m angry with Eric now. Upset with this mania, this obsession for digging into the past, this dissection of everything that has gone before to explain the present. Get your own life and forget about your father, I want to say. He’s dead now and too many other people are already living off his memory.
‘Do you mind that your parents called you Eric?’ I say instead, wanting both to needle him a little and to change the subject.
He shrugs. ‘Not really. I tell people it’s a family name.’
Of course. At the expensive school he goes to there would be far more old-fashioned names, legacies of families with a capital F.
‘I once asked Dad about it, but he just grunted and said “It was your mother’s choice.” I wonder if he would have named me Alanna had I been a girl.’
‘Perhaps,’ I say, smiling a little at the clever way he is trying to steer the conversation back in the direction he wants. But I’m clever too, and I like the boy, and he reminds me very much of you; so instead, I tell him the story of Russell Drysdale’s trousers.
‘I may even still have them.’
You left them at my place when we broke up, and I never bothered to return them. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out, just in case they really had belonged to Drysdale, so they travelled along with my life – kept mainly for kids to play dress-ups and a good story at fancy dress parties.
I get them out and give them to Eric. He tries them on and smiles for the first time this afternoon. He’s pleased with the double legacy of something of yours and something that might have belonged to Russell Drysdale.
They are way too big for him, of course. But then, they’d always been much too large for you as well.
‘Russell Drysdale’s Trousers’ by Catherine Moffat was commended in the 2011 Australian Book Review Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.