Empire Of Broken Eyes
On a day as hot as purgatory, a photographer gets more than he bargained for, in the shadow of a half constructed bridge.
From this window the thing arches out over deep blue water, resting on stone pillars like fortifications. I could take picture after picture, but there is something despicable about the progress of the black iron beams, jutting like broken bones, the glowing rivets like Christ’s wounds, the figures crawling over it like maggots and flies and ants, rather than tearing down to its constituent molecules, spewing up piecemeal the swollen carcass of leviathan.
The two halves of the thing grow closer each day. From this oblique angle, on the second floor of the offices of Empire Art & Photography, it is not so much an arch but a complex and impossible prison, all harsh and tortured angles. There’s something unholy about it. The rampart of hell. I’ve seen men fall, so far, to an ocean seething grey and hard as glass.
“The wonder of the age, eh, Trev. There’s not a bridge like it anywhere in the world.” Morton Pewtress, proprietor of Empire Art & Photography, fans himself with the paper, rubs it against his sweating brow, –it leaves a stain of ink . There’s a picture of the skeletal arch amongst the folds, and a few blaring letters of a headline. The sea breeze brings the discordant campanology and shouts of construction, engines and cries, a constant distant tolling, but doesn’t cool the room, much.
“Unholy,” I mutter.
“Eh?” says Morty.
“Hot.” He suddenly slams the folded paper to the desk, crushing a fly. A big ugly brute, red eyed and glistening. There’s a faint smell like burning and maybe like pus from the thing as I turn the paper over. Now a black and red smear across Births, Deaths & Marriages.
“Got him,” Morty says, without much enthusiasm. His face is red and crumpled, creased and bristly. His eyes behind gleaming lenses bulbous. There is something rather insect-like about his balding head and scrawny, wrinkled neck.
“There’s twins in Petersham, probably Catholic. One in Ultimo, one in Glebe, one in Annandale, one in Newtown. Well you know the score, big family, doubly blessed and all that. Start there and work your way back.” He stood a moment, rolling back and forth on the balls of his feet, thumbs hooked through striped braces. A grin on his face like you’d think he wanted to eat them, not photograph them.
“Oh there’s a summons in Balmain. Maybe there first.”
“Can’t you do that? You’re better at it than I am. More convincing.”
“Can’t. I have an Ethel in the darkroom. Papers are on the desk.” That jackal grin. He rolled on his heels and creaked back down stairs.
‘Ethels’ were young girls with stars in their eyes. Morty had them thinking they’d be the next Ethel Merman or Jessie Matthews, but after a short while, for nothing more than a promise he’d have them posing in their skimpies. How he did it, a detestable old bug like Morton, I don’t know. He had a convincing murmur, a slow hypnotic patter, allaying fears and painting dreams. Sometimes I suspected he plied them with barbitone in a tot of brandy. The fumes of photographic chemicals that wafted up from the studio below had a clean, cold smell. Sometimes there was something pungent, something sharper.
Some packages of photos he sold for a few bob. Some apparently commanded higher prices. A clientele of parliamentarians, judges, perverts and police, Morty would quip. I just did the baby portraits. And sometimes the summons.
I tore the front page off the paper and crumpled ‘The Eighth Wonder’ into a ball, scraped the fragments of insect into the waste paper basket. Pulled up a well thumbed telephone directory and set to work.
In red Morty’s heavy hand had defaced the page, with gouged scribbles circling here and there blotchy black text, identifying likely prospects.
BIRTHS, MARRIAGES & DEATHS
Announcements under this heading shall be authenticated with the name and address of the sender, and are inserted in the “The Western Register,” “Chronicle” and “Telgraph-Express” at a charge of Two Shillings Threepence when not exceeding five lines; over five lines Sixpence per line.
MILLWAITE On the 3rd December, to Mrs Jonas Millwaite, of Angel St, Newtown, delivered of a SON, George Edward. Congratulations from your loving parents, and all the family.
HUNGERFORD. On the 27th November, to Mrs Sameul G. Hungerford, of The Crescent, Annandale at St John’s Maternity, delivered of TWINS, a son Pietyr William, a daughter, Alexandra-Jane, Doubly blessed. Congratulations are sent from Captain & Mrs William Hungerford of Portsmouth, England, Lt. George Hungerford of Calcuttta, Abigail…
There was something appealing to me in the misspelling of old Samuel G. Hungerford’s name, and twins was always double your luck, so I found Hungerford, The Crescent, Annandale in the phone book, and dialled the exchange and subscriber number. It rang and rang, hollow and seemingly becoming more insistent, and I thought an operator would break in to tell me my party wasn’t available, but then a voice, breathy and tentative spoke in the silence.
I launched straight in, best not to give them time to think, “Congratulations on your new blessings, Ma’am – you’ve been selected to receive free and complimentary a beautiful hand-tinted portrait of the new additions to your family, framed in your choice of gilt wood or the latest gilt plaster of Paris display. Our photographer will be calling today for your convenience at your home, so need even to come into the studio.”
“I don’t believe I asked for such a service, young man.” Her voice had the stark, disapproving tones of an older dame, a hint of accent, maybe Dutch, maybe the Transvaal - not the mother, then. Maybe the grandmother.
“Perhaps a relative then? Let’s see, we have a name here, a Lieutenant George Hungerford, perhaps? I’m sure the child’s aunts and uncles, and indeed the grandparents will also want this heirloom service. I’m sure you don't want to disappoint.”
“Oh, that seems unlikely.”
“We’ll be in your area this afternoon. Our photographer will call around midday.”
“Young man, young man, I tell you …at peril. You don’t…”
“Thank-you Ma’am for your time.” The key was to brook no refusal. Let ‘em know you’re coming, what you’re going to do, then do it. That’s what Morton said. In person, with the gleaming equipment, the selection of gleaming, elegant frames, the affable and highly skilled photographic artist – trained in London and Paris – namely myself, the suckers rarely said no. We’d hard sell the French gilt, life-like colour process, Morton’s special preservative treatment - your picture guaranteed not to fade for a hundred years! and numerous duplicates, all at extra cost. All on the never never.
“I’m the landlord of their souls,” Morton would say with glee, thumbs twisted in the elastic of his braces, licking his wet lips with that devouring smirk.
Collections was the hard part. The part I didn’t like. Morton had a feel for it. There was something implacable about him. Like a python swallowing a puppy. The instalments came in the mail in small crisp cheques, or a handful of coins over the counter. Morton scratching marks in his ledger, reminding the punters with a greasy smile that “A memory is a joy forever.”
Sometimes the cheques stopped arriving. After a couple of increasingly brusque letters of demand, threatening lawyers and courts and bailiffs, we’d turn up on the doorstep, official looking papers in hand, claiming to be a sheriff's bailiff – and if the cash wasn’t forthcoming, with the legally constituted right to take possession of goods, jewellery, radio sets, any chattels to the value of. For a few sheets of photographic paper in some shabbily cast painted plaster we’d take them for 30 or 40 quid. Well, Morton would. I just photographed babies. Mostly. Except today.
The official looking documents were in a black leather portfolio embossed with a gold coat of arms. Lions rampant facing across a shield bearing a ship and a castle. I think it was the menu holder Morton filched from a hotel in Bristol. The documents themselves had more swirls and curlicues than a guinea note. Of course a real Fieri Facias was a plain looking printed document with some busy sounding Latin, unassuming official stamps and illegible signatures, their curliness in exact proportion to the self importance of the beak and the clerks who signed them. I should know, I’d seen a few. Morton had found there was something in the theatricality of the elaborate that convinced the debtors.
Today’s were June and Jack Mulready, of William Lane, Balmain East, who’d had 9 hand tinted, gilt arched portraits of their coal-haired pride and joy —Valentine. Valentine! I ask you. Morty had photographed him, a dreadful little homunculus, he said, who managed to knock over one camera, and spent the rest of the time alternately pissing and crying. Watch the birdie wasn’t cutting the mustard, so he had to surreptitiously pinch the little blighter on one fat ham hock, and captured the most angelic look of round-faced wonderment. The doting parents loved it, but still didn’t pay the bill. With accruing penalties, S ome £28,6s,8d.
Morton was giggling like a schoolgirl with some strumpet in white face and a shimmy dress. The lecherous old vampire. She was shaking her spangles and singing Boop boop de doop like a cartoon dolly bird. Portraits of the staid and prim and stern looked on from the walls, disapproval almost palpable.
I gathered up The Kaiser, a Deckrullo Nettel press camera made in Germany just after the war. In gleaming teakwood, a red leather bellows, brass folding struts and hinges, and a rotating arrangement of brass lenses on the front for portraits, landscapes and close-ups, it had a certain Imperial monocled military aspect – thus the nickname.
Some days here the sky and sea are a blue that you can only imagine is the blue of an earthly paradise, resonating each, the other; the sea glimmer the silvering of her eyes, the sky bright as a fever dream. Not today. Today the sea is the lead colour of a drowning man’s last breath, the sky the grey of asphyxia.
That is to say – the heat is oppressive. The traffic on Broadway sent up a rolling fume, and the inside of the disgruntled Bedford van was choking, leaving a taste like meths and week old meat in the back of my throat.
Harris St the air cleared and the traffic thinned, and I thought about my spiel while I trundled down towards the Glebe Island Bridge, another monster of iron fret work, this one a platform pivoting open like some damnable playground see-saw gone askew, to allow ships to pass either side on the pitiless waters below. I avoided thinking about it, instead girded my approach.
Sometimes it was best to go in guns blazing, play the hard man. Others all solicitation and sympathy. Something about the heat and the bridges, the constriction of the wool jacket, the knot of the tie, made going the hard mug seem the thing to do. And something about the house. A ramshackle brick and sandstone terrace with sheets drying on the sagging rails of the second floor balcony, cracked glass panes reflecting the sluggish waters and crane gantries of the dockyards across the way.
At least the fence and gate were new. The wrought iron railings and stylised spear heads had a gleam to them, the blacked metal a coldness even in the heat. One half of the head high arch fell to the ground with a screech and a clatter as soon as I pushed on it.
A woman was coming through the door quick as you like, broom in one hand, gin bottle clinking against fist sized keys in an apron pocket.
“Here, that’s new. My Jack won’t like that. Not one little bit.” She had a face like a wizened apple, rot brown and pushed in. I thought there was something touched or simple about her. As I stepped over the toppled gate, up to the door, I noticed it was her hands smelled of gin, not her breath.
“The gate doesn’t appear to have the bolts in the hinges yet.”
“Not finished yet.”
That was plain. Polite but hard. Insistent. A hard sentiment to muster after a farcical beginning, I stepped up, brandishing my documents. “Mrs Mulready, I have been authorised by the office of the Sherrif and the Bailiff to make demand of full payment “for the outstanding debt you have incurred for monies owing to Empire Art and Photography .for pictures of your son…”
“Not my son.”
“Ah, now you see that’s where you’re mistaken.” From the appearance of a gin soaked simp, with a lowering of her head and voice, she seemed to take on a brute aspect, like someone who spent long hours wringing blood soaked cloths in leather hard hands. “You see the hoers (she said it ho-ers), they come to me when they need fixing, when they’ve got one in the belly, and I get rid of it for ‘em, but some can’t pay because they like the gin or the hops or the horses a little too much, so we take the next one, and sell it on. There’s lots of ladies and some gents that want a handsome babby, and willing to pay a good quid for it too. My lad’s hoers cry a bit about it, so we give ‘em one of those fancy pictures, and to the buyers too. The girls that cry too much, well they’re in the bay, and that’s where my Jack’ll be leaving you.”
Again the screech of metal, and turning from the woman’s yellow ape grin, there was a narrow but shrunken man, as like to the woman as a knotted stick to a torn stump, yet still and obviously the remnants of the same tree, with his white knuckle fists and two tone shoes, perched high on the other half of the arched gate and riding it, grinning too, crashing down on top of me.
I woke on wet, oil-filmed sand. The back of my suit and my hair soaked through. A pain in my head like I’d been hit by an iron gate. Go figure. Though I could still sense the heat, there was a numbness to my arms, a lead heaviness to the fingers. The waters made a sucking sound, there was a smell of brine in my nostrils, and the sting of it in my eyes. The loading cranes above the wharfs teetered and menaced insect-like as I stood.
I staggered up to the van, still parked at the end of the ramshackle lane. Something had gone wrong in the Mulready’s efforts to pitch me in the harbour with their dead whores and abortions, but we wouldn’t be collecting any money today. Morty would take the loss out of my cut. I brushed myself off, a professional, an artist, Paris and London, by God and Hell and the deep blue sea. I’d photograph the Hungerford twins come burning bridges, hell or high water, so the day wouldn’t be a total loss.
There is something about this part of town, the wide pleasant streets, the unassuming prosperity, a scent of roast nuts and eucalyptus, that even in a hard summer brought the balm of distant seas and the close wet leaves of autumn. Cold valleys and quiet trees.
It was a relief, the sky had stopped its incessant beating. The Hungerford house was a towering thing, with a hint of fairy tale and sea-faring about it. Mansard roofs , gables, towers either side, with porticoed balconies, widow’s walks and porthole windows. Neat with delicate, freshly painted woodwork and gleaming, dressed blue stone.
The door too was freshly painted, spotless. It was cool under the porch. I lifted the Kaiser from where he was resting on his tripod legs, and rang the ship’s bell, hung from a bracket by the doors. There was a distant rustling. Quiet. A closer sound, like silk flowers.
The woman that answered the door was delicate, bird like, somehow worn smooth rather than weathered by age, she seemed poised, about to retreat or flee, if something should suddenly pique her alert and tremulous listening. There was an overpowering floral smell emanating from the dark behind her, and the funerary Victorian finery she wore, the white lace gone to grey, the black silk washed out like ink, reeked of must and lavender.
With my free hand I tipped a hat that I wasn’t wearing and launched straight into the spiel, “Trevallyn Peran, Ma’am, Trevor for short, representing Empire Art & Photography on behalf of the Telegraph and may I congratulate you on the recent, joyous addition to your family? By publishing your announcement in the paper you were entered into the draw to win a complimentary, heirloom quality portrait of your new darlings, for you and your family members to proudly display on your walls. Excuse me, ma'am, it's hot and this thing is heavy. May I step in? Thank you.”
She assented with a nod, or perhaps she heard something? in the distant stillness, and retreated. I stepped past into the cool and closed the door.
“All that is required to receive the free portrait of your loved ones is to order an additional framed print for another family member. Both will be hand tinted and coloured, finished with our scientifical process, to preserve them for future generations, and framed in either traditional elegance or in a moderne Parisienne style. I believe our office confirmed arrangements with a Lieutenant Hungerford, and …”
“That seems hardly likely.”
Her lead-paint face was moon-sick in the gloom. The hall was long and deep and dark, like a chasm or mineshaft, pillared with bulbous Chinese vases on turned wooden stands, overflowing with wilting, lilies and sprays of lavender. The distance was vertiginous. From high on the walls glowered dour portraits, bristling Victorians with bizarre whiskers and bright vests, peculiar in contrast, at the end hung a painted and sculptured Christ with a garish glow and bloody eyes, luminous in torture.
“These fellows seem a bit dusty, we could organise fresh, modern portraits of the whole family.”
“You have sharp eyes young man.”
"Thank you, Ma'am. Years of looking down a camera.”
"I do not mean perspicacious or observant. I mean squinty, narrow. Narrow eyes give a man a shrewd or sinister look.”
"Nothing shrewd or sinister about me, Ma'am.”
The house reeked of old wealth and something sick, and of a sudden I was reeling.
“You look quite peaked, young man.” She fixed me with the black and unfathomable eyes of a carrion bird.
“Thank you Ma'am, as a young man I had ergot poisoning. It left me wastrel. Perhaps the dark.”
“The whole family, you say? Come.” A secret smile cornered her lips, like that of an ingenue, a sweet innocent who thought perhaps of a kiss stolen from her shy and charmless beau.
"We have had fever in the home recently. Gone now, of course. All gone. Something out of the sub-continent – unknown to science. We have the dubious honour of having now entered into the annals of discovery —Hungerford Fever." We strolled the corridor, like gentlefolk taking a turn, lost in musing, and stopped by a door that she, halting, hand to lips, almost cautiously opened.
“Here is father, recently back from Malaya on a packet. He was a Captain and trader for many years. Saw many changes. Sail to steam to diesel. Now he sails other shores."
Her hand gripped my wrist. I expected a claw, but it was gentle, almost coaxing. That smile again. I could not turn away. In the room on a trestle, fringed with a heavy black valence, was a coffin, huge, looming, in its way, with an oblique solidity.
He was a handsome, brawny man, in younger days, as a portrait of a uniformed sailor on the wall behind the vessel attested. The box was a rich red teak, polished to a high shine, with hempen rope handles. Candles flickered as she steered me away.
At the next door, three similar coffins. Slighter. Arrayed in a row. Ship shape and with portraits of young men, with broad pleasant smiles, thick hair and square cheeks. All similar, all a little different. Serious but calm, open eyes.
"Here are the boys. My brothers. Sailors to a man. Their eyes filled with depths and horizons, and cheer. They would come home with such cheer. Such cheer. Like an evening zephyr after a stultifying calm. Here now.”
“Here now, Henry and Caleb's wives, who became my sisters. See how beautiful they are? Though yes, these portraits are some years old. Young Joseph was still wild and fancy free."
This room was flowers, flowers, flowers, the boxes ornate. Ebonized wood stepped like ziggurats and with angular handles and corners in polished brass. The portraits showed stately young women, with demure smiles, in gowns quite flowing and medieval, and surround by foliage, perhaps styled after the seasons.
“Finally. Here are Henry's angels. The twins. So young. Step in. Step closer."
She closed the door, with a dull thump that echoed out the still hall, the fading rooms. “The coffin maker isn't finished yet. So weak and frail, but almost the last to die. I am expecting delivery today. So they lie in their crib, still. There are no portraits of them. You will take one.”
They lay under embroidered satin, layed out in a parody of rest, hands in prayer on the white covers, two babies too young ever to have uttered a prayer to the Lord. Faces in a grinning rictus, skin blue grey and yellow mottled, like old bruises. Between them a red candle in a glass tulip on an ebonized holder, guttering, so a shadow moved across the faces. Wisps of hair on the tight skulls seemed to sough as under a gentling hand.
“So they can join us.”
Now her hand was like a claw. I set up the Kaiser one handed, spilling magnesium powder in the flash, unable to shake her relentless grip. I angled its gleaming eyes over the small and indistinct features, their weak downturned mouths, in the shadow flicker, a movement like mewling. The candle between them would leave a burning whiteness on the plate, a heat, perhaps signifying a presence that I could not determine, of grace or damnation.
I lifted the candle holder and a black ichor oozed from the felt underneath; cold and thick like syrup it wet my hand and a stench like liquor and brine and rank marshes stung my nostrils. Through stinging eyes I could see tendrils of the stuff on the sheets.
“Gah!” I dropped the thing and it broke and guttered, and flamed. I wiped the ooze from my fingers on a kerchief, and tossed it on the floor. The flames licked up redly, but still she would not loose her grip. I flailed for the cord, the switch that opened the shutter.
In the flash the grip released. I saw the smiles, and grabbing the camera, ran.
Outside the world gleamed like silver nitrate on wet paper, the world made monochrome by searing fire bleaching all colour, the luminous blue above speaking of garish hand tinting, sheer white made cold, and sooty blush giving a semblance of puppet life. Printed and painted. Those going about their day, in the street, in their cars, rushing to see the flames, yet in oblivion, oblivious.
Uncertain how I arrived. The interim journey a roar. Outside the offices of Empire Art & Photography, a great insect lay crumpled, white, bloated in the gutter, splayed on the hot black asphalt, under the wheels of police wagon, in its head eyeless caverns glittering with broken glass.
Men in uniforms lifted floorboards with crowbars and spades. In the cavity underneath, limbs and torsos in gleaming monochrome, faces hand tinted, in glorious diorama, scientifically preserved with the fluids of his special process, lay all of Morton’s dolly birds, now hollow-eyed as he.
My eyes ache –but men look through me. One seems to speak but I neither hear nor listen; perhaps I am mistaken. Time passes in magnesium flashes, and at last there is stillness. All possible angles captured.
Except for the sky. Except for the bridge.
On a day like this, storm wracked, the bridge extends into a billowing abyss, its great fortifications no defence against that other realm, now visible. In the churning mist, on its dull steel pinions, figures grey-blue, mottled and wizened crawl, smiling, halt, beckoning.
I think –I am the only man with tasks incomplete today on this behemoth's bone-bare carcass.
Soon I will go.