Donna in blue stockings, real stockings, one leg apiece clipped to a black, lacy suspender belt strapped hip-low, matching bra with a tiny rose sewn between the cups, Debbie Harry hair, stiff and smelling of Marlboro Lights, standing by the window in her second-story share flat above the pizza shop (four shifts a week, six ’til ten at night) opposite the Hopetoun Hotel in Surry Hills, calendar behind her on the wall: JULY 1988. Pulling a dark blue almost-midnight dress over her head, settling it over her thighs, yelling out the window to her new best friend, Miranda, smoking a rollie, waiting for her on the street: “Do ya wanna go to Wollongong with me?”
Miranda doesn’t ask why. She says, “Why not?”
On the train, past Waterfall where the suburbs thin out toward the escarpment, Miranda says, “Let’s go to Gerringong instead. I want to see the cemetery.”
Donna smiles and says, “Why not?” It’s not that much farther along the line.
She told Miranda about the cemetery after their first drawing class together (still life, bowl of fruit, glossy red-green apples, pimply oranges in a blue glass bowl, simple perspective, shade and light, complementary colors). Miranda introduced herself with a too-strong handshake, one hand extended, a joint in the other. They ate lunch sitting on the lawn outside the studio. Smoking for the first time pinned Donna to the grass, and she blurted out a description of the cemetery where she wanted to live after she died. This impressed Miranda so much that she dropped by Donna’s flat the following night after work to take her to the Falling Joys at the Annandale, where Donna reeked of pizza but still danced and drank three beers so quickly it felt like everything was possible. The following week Miranda invited Donna to the Paddo RSL to see the Triffids. Donna took the E Miranda offered her and pretended to swallow, but the tablet ended up trampled into the wooden floor under one-hundred-odd feet of swooning fans. Being there was enough; she told herself she didn’t need anything else to feel high. When she spoke this out loud the next day, Miranda gave her an eye roll and said: “The natural high’s a bit clichéd, isn’t it?”
The rest of the two-hour train trip to Gerringong is spent almost in silence. They are two of six people in the carriage. Miranda reads a page of their theory textbook Ways of Seeing, before looking bored and reading The Left-Handed Woman instead. Donna is mesmerized by the golden-red hue on Miranda’s nails, the gumminess of her white-peach skin, each finger working independently to achieve what should be an ordinary task. Turning the pages of a book with her fingers: how extraordinary! She finds it funny that Miranda, a left-handed woman, is turning the pages with her right hand, but Miranda is so lost in the book that she doesn’t see her smile.
At Gerringong, on a steep hill overlooking the too-blue sea, a breezy afternoon with smug clouds overhead, Miranda dances around the children’s headstones with their soft toys and bleached plastic roses, and Donna finds a small sheet of butcher’s paper squashed beneath the packet of Marlboro Lights in her brown satchel and a stick of charcoal wrapped in Cling Wrap, and she makes a rubbing on the nearest granite headstone. The letters are mostly worn away from salt and wind, but Smith 1871–1888 appears on the paper like magic. They are, they were, the same age. A woman in a gray suit stands at the top of the hill, shakes her head, and yells something at Donna, but the words are blown away. Has she done something wrong? Miranda nods. Not cool. Strokes of shame swim through her belly, and she stuffs the crumpled-up paper back into her bag.
Back on the train, Donna says, “Let’s not worry about Wollongong. I’ll do it another time.”
“Why did you want to go there then?”
“I need to pick up some mail from my parents’ place. It’s kinda urgent, but it can wait.” She wishes ‘urgent’ hadn’t come out quite so urgently.
“We’re almost there. We may as well.” Miranda opens her book.
Donna looks out the window at Kiama rushing past. Since moving to Sydney three months ago, she’s been home twelve times. The last time was yesterday, when her mum forgot to tell her the letter she’d been waiting for forever had finally arrived.
Donna would never tell Miranda she still goes home once a week to visit her mum and dad. (Where the fuck ARE you? is the message Miranda leaves on Donna’s answering machine on Sunday nights.) It feels wrong to talk about mothers and fathers to her best friend when they’re both seventeen, they’re adults, they’re staying out late, smoking cigarettes, and working in what Donna’s dad would think was a strange room, sketching shapes onto sheets of paper ripped off a roll leaning in the corner by a window opened just enough to allow a ripple of clean air to take the sting off the turpentine reek and the breaths of twelve smokers. Can you get addicted to sniffing turps?
Donna knows, instinctively, unquestioningly, that visiting your parents every week is not something a real artist would do. Miranda is the youngest of seven actual artist siblings—painters, sculptors, actors, writers—who live their lives far away from their still-supportive parents in a warm, creative cocoon in Balmain, on the foreshore of Sydney Harbor. Art is their first- and second-nature, and when Donna thinks of them she feels envy-rot. If she has this disgusting, flattening, terrifying yearning—and it’s often all she thinks about, sometimes stopping her dead in the middle of a drawing or painting—it means she will never be an artist.
Miranda is a true artist: she flings her hands about dismissively when she doesn’t like a painting; she quotes lines from art theorists Donna hasn’t heard of; and she whistles disapproval at sculptures Donna likes (Ken Unsworth’s stones suspended above the gallery floor made her ribs curl in on themselves, but Miranda wandered past and said, “Hackneyed,” and “A touch naïve, don’t you think”). Miranda embodies confidence, like a horse that doesn’t think of its place in the world but is just beauty, you know?
Donna thinks: What have I done? She has asked Miranda to see her ex-life in real true suburbia, not far from Mount Ousley Road where dodgy-braked runaway trucks and cars veer off the highway onto dirt roads carved into the side of the mountain and skid to a stop, and where she used to wake from sleep to the sound of screeching brakes and the shattering of metal on metal. Miranda can wait for her in the pub down the road. Miranda would never, not in a million years, be the type who’d want to meet somebody’s parents.
“Let’s stay the night,” Miranda says.
“With your parents, silly.”
“My parents?” Panic clogs Donna’s throat.
“Yeah, why not? I’ve never been to Wollongong before.”
“We won’t make it to sculpture in the morning if we stay. How about you wait in the pub while I pick up my mail? I’ll be quick. Ten minutes at the most.”
“I want to meet your mum and dad.”
Donna feels her Sydney-art-school-ness slipping away.
“I’m great with parents,” says Miranda. “They love me.”
“It can wait.”
“But you said it was urgent.” Miranda pulls a joint from her pocket, but Donna mouths No, thanks. She flicks her eyes around the carriage to see if anyone else saw.
They get off at Fairy Meadow. Miranda laughs at the sign—“Where are the fairies?”—and Donna breathes in the sulfur air. ‘It’s blowing steelworks today,’ she says. It takes thirty-two minutes to walk to the end of Ryan Street and with every step she tries to shrug off the urge to turn around and head back to the station.
There are too many weeds in her parents’ front garden, and she is suddenly aware of the white-blond hair nesting on her scalp and tries to brush it smooth with her fingers. Miranda, in her red silk pants, brown men’s shoes borrowed from her older brother with teeny-tiny feet, and her charity-shop green geisha top, runs fingers through her short, yellow-blond hair. Donna notices the move—Miranda does Donna!—and she is braced by a sudden rush of pride.
At the front door she says, “Are you sure you want to do this?” and Miranda has bright David Attenborough–eyes and smiles, showing every one of her teeth.
“Forgot to tell you I fucking love your blue stockings, Don.”
Donna glows, but the lace on the suspender belt is scratching the skin on her tummy, and she twists herself to shift it slightly to the right. Miranda rings the doorbell before Donna can put her key in the lock.
The door opens and Miranda holds her hand out for Donna’s dad to shake. Donna waits as her dad waits, one, two, three seconds, the only things moving are his eyes, gazing at Miranda, at her, and back to Miranda, and at the fourth second he puts his hand out and shakes Miranda’s and drops his arm back to his side.
“Hi, Dad,” she says too loudly. “This is Miranda, my friend from art school.”
He nods and flattens his back to the door so they can come in, and Donna kisses him on the cheek as she walks past. In the hallway Miranda looks from the family photo on the wall to the orange-plastic lampshade above her head and gives Donna an odd glance; she’s never seen Miranda’s eyebrows so arched and her lips so twisted before. Donna’s dad walks in front of them—his footsteps are too formal, too deliberate—into the kitchen and her mum is in there, cooking dinner.
“Hi. I’m Miranda, a friend of Donna’s.”
Donna’s mum turns her head and says, “Hello, Miranda, hello again, Donna, the envelope is in the key bowl.” Donna notices the heavy gray circles under her mum’s eyes. She kisses her on the cheek and smells Nivea. Her mum sprinkles cheese on top of white sauce mixed with tinned tuna and tinned corn, and puts it in the oven. Monday nights: everyone’s favorite: tuna Mornay. Donna’s tummy grumbles. Miranda throws her another glance. It looks like she wants to ask her a question, but maybe not.
Miranda sits at the table and flits her gaze about the room. Donna stands near the kitchen door, and her dad walks past her into the lounge room. She watches Miranda watching his every step with an empty expression on her face.
“We might stay for dinner. Is that OK, Mum?” Donna says. “It’s OK if there’s not enough. We can go to the pub.”
“There’s plenty here for everyone.”
“Show me your house.” Miranda stands up and grasps Donna by the elbow, pulling her into the lounge room.
Donna’s dad is reading the Illawarra Mercury, and he has an earphone in his left ear listening to the dogs, his favorite thing to do since he got laid off two years ago for his dodgy heart.
Miranda stops in front of a faux–Pro Hart painting of the outback that Donna’s dad bought from a salesman who lay his canvasses (black, oily stripes depicting Aborigines, brown hats and khaki slashes showing white men) on the lounge-room floor and said, “They’re one hundred percent originals,” and her dad believed him, and he bought this one and framed it in a gold-painted wooden frame as a birthday present for Donna’s mum, as if it were real art. Her mum kept it on the wall only because Dad’s heart was in the right place.
Miranda stares at the layers of amateur paint, and Donna stays put and rubs her cardiganed arms with her palms until it feels like she’s scoured all the fabric away.
“Interesting. Brushwork.” Miranda takes in the rest of the lounge room. “Where’s your bedroom?”
A silent inventory of what’s in her room: yellow-and-green floral quilt, Duran Duran posters (band photo hanging next to the window and the Rio album cover Blu-tacked above her bed), Holly Hobbie picture on her dressing table from her eighth birthday, caramel carpet, and the drawings of girls from school—sitting, eating, talking, playing, having fun—on the wall, the photo-realist drawings she spent hours on during lunchtimes so every contour, every shadow under their brows, every eye sparkle was captured in pencil. Naïve, clichéd, hackneyed.
“I got rid of all my stuff. My old room is the spare room now.” She says this quietly so her dad can’t hear.
Her mum pokes her head through the door. “Set the table, please.”
Miranda follows Donna but stops in the hallway to run her fingers across the pale lemon flocking on the orange wallpaper.
If she wills it hard enough, will Miranda stop looking so closely at everything?
She sets the table for four and calls her dad into the kitchen. She and Miranda sit and her mum serves the Mornay and no one speaks and the silence actually hurts Donna’s ears.
“Miranda and I are painting a still life of a fruit bowl in class. We started with charcoal and pastels. Next we’re using oils.”
“We’re drawing nudes as well,” says Miranda. “There’s something remarkable about observing the human body, so intimate.”
Donna concentrates on the plate in front of her for a few seconds before looking at her parents. Her dad’s eyes focus on his hands and her mum spoons Mornay onto his plate and then rests a hand gently on his shoulder. He doesn’t move. Now everyone at the table is still. Sadness starbursts in Donna’s cheeks, and she swallows a forkful of food to push it down.
Miranda nudges her arm and whispers, “What is this?”
“Um . . . tuna Mornay?”
Miranda wriggles her nose and makes a face. Donna can tell it’s disgust by the way her lips ripple and purse.
“You mean a casserole? With fish?” Miranda puts her fork down. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Smith, I don’t eat fish. I’m a vegetarian.”
When did this happen? Two weeks ago after the Tactics played at the Hopetoun they wandered off to find a kebab in Crown Street, and Miranda ate every bit of it, lamb and all.
Miranda side-eyes her. “Gave up all meat a month ago.”
Donna’s mum doesn’t look as shocked as Donna thought she would. She says, “Can I get you some vegetables instead? We have some carrots, a few tomatoes.”
“No, thank you, Mrs. Smith. I’ll eat later.”
“Are you sure, Miranda? You must be hungry,” says Donna’s mum, and she gestures at Donna to go to the fridge.
“No, I’m fine, thank you.”
There is silence again at the table. Donna puts a forkful of Mornay into her mouth, and the sauce sticks to her tongue, the tuna tastes fishy, the cheese congeals between her teeth.
“I have to get back home, Donna.” Miranda stands up, takes her plate to the sink. “Better leave now or I’ll miss the train.”
Donna stares at her as if she never said Let’s stay the night. She puts her fork down and walks her to the door.
“Are you staying?” Miranda says.
Donna barely has time to shake her head before Miranda shrugs and turns away and is suddenly walking too quickly up the street without looking back. She could be gone forever.
Donna grabs her bag in the kitchen and her mum says, “Those stockings suit you, the color makes your skin glow.” She heads for the front door and sees the Government logo on the envelope in the key bowl. That must be it: her future, decided by a faceless someone in an office. A half-second of anticipation and hope before she closes the door behind her.
Miranda’s red silk pants are matchstick-size, and they disappear at the top of the street, probably heading right onto Balmoral and left into Foothills. Maybe she’ll chuck a right up toward Balgownie Road. Donna takes a punt and turns right and walk-runs up the hill. When she gets to Balgownie Road, Miranda is nowhere—she’s really, truly disappeared.
Donna wanders to the bottle-O, buys a six-pack of West Coast Coolers with the last of her cash and heads back toward home, stopping at the vacant block in their street that’s overrun with weeds and long, Golden Gaytime–colored grass. She plonks herself down at the back fence where her graffiti is still scrawled in red marker—Get. Me. Out. Of. Here.—and a pile of green bottles is scattered on the grass, labels blasted off by the rain and sun, and the complementary colors are too bright, and she hasn’t been here for months, five or six months, ever since she had the acceptance letter for art school in her hands and she was headed for Sydney, and it was her dream, wasn’t it?
She remembers something her art theory lecturer Ted said, about disconnection, about something that doesn’t fit and why can’t we work out why. She must have written it down in her visual diary (“Carry it with you everywhere, to be graded at the end of term,” Ted said). The diary was stuffed with band fliers and sketches for future paintings and notes and quotes that made her insides roll with joy, plus photos and postcards of art that slapped her awake and made her think about what her new self would look like.
She pulls the diary out of her bag and flips through the pages. What Ted said is scribbled in red ink, one sentence a page: Each evening we see the sun set. A postcard of radioactive cats, yellow and prowling around a room.
We know that the earth is turning away from it. Her sketch of a delicate Miranda standing on an island holding the moon in her hands, and next to it an image of stones suspended from the ceiling, almost touching the floor, a circle of perfection.
She realizes they’re not Ted’s words at all. They’re John Berger’s.
Yet the knowledge, the explanation . . . A photo of her and Miranda at the Rose and Thistle. The Ups and Downs. Their guitarist checked Donna out in the bar after the gig and Miranda shooed him away. The band wasn’t cool enough for Miranda, even though Donna felt a ripple of magic in the room when they played “The Living Kind.”
. . . never quite fits the sight. A photograph of Donna, taken by Miranda. In the darkroom, Donna covered one half of the photo paper with black plastic and exposed the other half to the negative, then she covered the exposed half with black plastic and exposed the other half. The photo sloshed about in the developer until her two identical selves appeared, and she gripped the paper with print tongs and gave it a rinse in the stop bath before fixing it and holding it up close to see the detail. In the red room it looked like a Dianne Arbus shot, oddly too-familiar twins, hands touching in the middle, but in daylight Donna could see her manipulation, the falseness of the image. She didn’t care; she felt invincible in that black room with the red light, absorbed in her work.
Donna gulps some Cooler, sweetness fizzling her tastebuds. Tomorrow is Tuesday: sculpture and foundation drawing. Miranda will be on the train to Sydney with her joint and her packet of rollies and her left-handed woman and her ways of seeing. Donna finishes the bottle and lays her head on the fence.
When the sun drops behind Mount Keira, Donna shuffles home and limps through the front door. The hallway and lounge room are dark; the only light is under her parents’ bedroom door at the end of the hallway. She feels her way to the kitchen and turns on the light. Her mum Glad-wrapped the tuna Mornay leftovers and left it on the bench for her, and Donna senses a faraway urge to cry. She switches off the light, slides her hand along the hallway until she gets to her bedroom door, trips inside, climbs into bed, and drops her head onto the pillow. Paper crumples in her ear. She turns on the bedside lamp, rips open the envelope and tries to focus on the letter, reading every second blurry word until she understands her Austudy claim is successful and she needs to sign one more form and they’ll give her money to study. She can stay at art school, three years of financial support. Now she’ll be able to pay all of her share of the rent for the flat and not borrow money from her mum. Maybe she can give up the extra shift at the pizza place, buy the good charcoal that doesn’t crumble in her hands and an easel to draw and paint on, and even, maybe, perhaps, splash out on a tube of Vanadium yellow. Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, and the three Taylors scowl at her from the other side of the room, but she’s too West Coast Coolered to feel a thing. She turns off the light and starts to shiver in the dark.
Miranda will be at home with her family by now, and Donna is certain every one of the lights in her house will still be glowing and warm.
It’s not until Thursday that Donna sees Miranda in class, talking to their painting teacher. Over the past two long days there was no phone call inviting her to see bands, no explanation for whatever happened, no saying anything at all. Every time Donna picked up the phone to call Miranda she was swamped by a giant emptiness.
She waits until the teacher moves on to another student before wandering over to Miranda. She wants to casually say “Hi” or “How’s it going” or even “I was worried about you,” but before she can, Miranda says, “Your parents are weird.”
Donna shuts her mouth and stares at her. All she hears is There’s something wrong with you, and she searches for something, any comfort she can recognize in her friend’s eyes.
“That’s just how they are,” she says, quietly. “Why did you . . .”
“I wasn’t up for tuna Mornay.” Miranda says ‘Mornay’ in a French accent, and she makes that face, the one that scrunches up her nose.
“You didn’t call.”
“You didn’t call me.” Miranda shrugs and turns to look at the canvas in front of her.
Tiredness wraps itself around Donna’s legs. She wants to say: Do you know what an effort it’s taken to get me here? but it’s too late and she’ll sound too desperate, and her words won’t dent Miranda’s interior. They’ll get to her red silk bra strap and no further.
Instead she stares at Miranda, who won’t meet her gaze. Miranda mixes her oils, looks into the middle distance, then back at her own hand holding the brush, and begins to color her canvas with monstrous yellow strokes.
Donna sits in the studio on Monday morning and watches people setting up their easels, settling into their work, sketching self-portraits, each of them looking into a hand-held mirror.
Yesterday, before she caught the train back up to Sydney, Donna walked into the lounge room and gave her parents a hug. They hugged her back, the three of them hugging like bears. Her mum opened a bottle of Summer Wine to celebrate the Austudy success and told Donna she might be able to drop one of her double shifts cleaning at the hospital. She was almost as happy and relieved that Donna could stay at art school as she was when Donna was accepted into art school. You’ll do what I’ve always wanted to, said her mum.
Donna brushes violet pastel dust off her blue stockings with her left hand, opens Ways of Seeing, and reads the sentence: The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. She repeats the line, whispering each word. Miranda is smiling at someone, and there’s something in her face that wipes Donna clean with the thought that this, this whole entire thing, her life as it is, as it was, and as it might be, will never be settled. She looks into the mirror and lets the simple sensation of freedom settle inside. She sharpens her favorite pencil (2B, the wood springy but firm) with a knife, and draws a line on the paper in front of her, and then another, briskly cross-hatching until there’s a shadow between them, scratching the pencil around the outside of the shape and bleeding shades of gray across the paper until the blank page transforms into the beginning of something else.