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Death of Marsden

By Wayne Austin


I should feel sad more than I do. I don’t say that, of course. Funerals are not the place to vent one’s true feelings, and I won’t break that tradition no matter how hurt I feel. Hurt and betrayed.

Instead, I give a short speech; say all the right things, pay the appropriate tribute, give my farewell, say I’ll miss him. That last part is true. The rest...? I scream inside to tell how I really feel.

It started only a month ago. Cruel fate had me marked, I’m certain. William Marsden was the father I had never had and I was the son he had never had. We were suited perfectly to each other. We gave each other what we wanted the most in this whole miserable shit of a world. Until a month ago, thanks to Australia Post.

My parents died twelve years ago — some drunken bastard. I vaguely remember them; I was only eight at the time. Somehow, in that twisted coffin of metal, the paramedics pulled me free with barely a scratch to show for it and I still remember calling to my mother as they carried me away. She looked at me, through me, to heaven.

Sometimes I still cry for her, especially when I recall how sorry I felt for her having to meet God with her hair a mess, what with all the blood and the side of her face split apart like she had this silly lopsided grin. All I had wanted to do was clean her up a bit, touch up her make up, you know, make her a little more presentable. She would have liked that, she was always proud of her looks.

I don’t like to talk about the years that followed, except to say that I wish all those bastard foster parents could take the place of my parents. But no matter how much I prayed during my religious years, God didn’t listen. As far as I know — and I try not to find out — they’re all still alive and well. Maybe that’s why I’m an atheist.

William John Marsden and I met on a Sunday afternoon, bright, autumnal and warm, a good day for a change of fortunes. I had every intention of changing my fortunes by way of his wallet. It peeked out of the left pocket of his faded corduroy jeans, beckoning at me, while he, unaware of his wallet’s misbehaviour, savoured an espresso as he lounged in the shade of the blue and white striped umbrella servicing the small, round table belonging to Gino’s, just down from the Central Market.

I almost got away with it. His hand moved faster than I could believe and he caught hold of my wrist in a vice-like grip.

‘What are you gonna do?’ I asked, brazening it out. People stared; I could feel their eyes condemning me. Here I was, a vicious, no-good street kid, embarking on a life of crime right before their very eyes. I trembled; I couldn’t help myself.

‘What’s your name ... boy?’ he asked. His eyes mocked me in a gentle way, laughing at my nerve.

‘What’s it fuckin’ matter to you?’

‘You look like you could do with the money. Here.’ He let me go and rifled through the bills in his wallet before pulling out a twenty dollar bill and offering it to me.

I stared at him; I stared at the note. ‘I ... I can’t take that! Someone will think I stole it.’ With that I turned and ran. To this day I don’t know why. It was 1993 and I was twelve and embarking on the life of a street kid. I should have taken the money; it was my birthday.

There are many ways to survive on the street — none easy. And then to give up twenty bucks? Easy money? I don’t know how many times I kicked myself after that. Stupid.

For three years I struggled. Winter was the worst. I could never fit in with the gangs. I had been an only child and a loner — still am — so I had to be doubly careful. Food could be obtained easily enough if you were prepared to eat from dumpsters, shoplift, or steal from the vendors in the mall, the street-front shops or in the market — easy with the right timing and a crowd.

On the other hand, finding somewhere warm and dry to sleep proved a more difficult proposition. A warm bed could be had for the small cost of self-worth. There were places, if you knew where to go, where certain men would offer a boy a free meal, a shower, a bed, and a special friendship, an intimate friendship, for the night. I had slipped a couple of times. It was no big deal. I suffered worse at the hands of my two foster fathers. Sure, a little bit of your soul dies, but that’s no great loss.

It was during my forays about town that I began to come across William more and more. The man certainly got about. He noticed me, recognised me, and after a while, he began to nod to me as if we were old friends while I studiously ignored him. Then I began to nod in return and eventually I begrudged him a ‘hello’. Never once did he offer me that twenty dollars again. Pity, there were times when I would have murdered for it.

So it came as a surprise when I ran across him as he was leaving the Cactus Mexican CafĂ©, that fateful Friday night. I don’t normally go for Mexican or anything really spicy, but beggars can’t be choosers and I had become friendly with a waiter there after one of my slips. He would give me leftovers, so long as I didn’t make a habit of hanging around, and offer me somewhere to spend the night. What’s more, he didn’t take offence or treat me any differently when I declined his invitation. I guess that shows there are still some good-hearted people left in the world after all.

William said his goodbyes, left his friends and walked in my direction. I didn’t slink back into the shadows, why should I? We were old friends. I would nod and say hello and he would nod and say hello, and we would pass — two ships in the night and all that. Only he didn’t pass. He stopped.

‘It’s a bit cold, isn’t it?’

‘I suppose...’ I muttered, mist punching the air. I felt uncomfortable. William was breaking the rules.

‘So ... got anywhere to sleep tonight?’

My throat tightened and dried up. A little part of me began to die; only it grew into a bigger piece.

‘No,’ I managed to say. Of all people ... and just when I had come to trust him.

‘I’ve got a spare bed — for the night. There’s no obligation; you don’t have to accept if you don’t want to. I just thought ... since we sort of know each other ... call me a good Samaritan.’ He forced a laugh, to put me at ease I guess. It didn’t work.

‘Yeah ... why not?’ I followed him back to his car, like a murderer on death row following the priest on that final walk to the electric chair. Only I had take-away. William made a few attempts at conversation, but gave up when he realised I wasn’t the talkative type.

We arrived at his place.

It was hard to see anything in the dark. The security light showed lots of bushes and trees around the front porch. The place was an old- style thirties bungalow, according to William, and the coarse sandstone that framed the front door felt rough to the touch, a pleasing sensation on the ends of my fingertips. Gritty and unyielding, like real life. The yellow glare of the porch light reflected off the angular cuts and divots that littered the surface of each block, and thousands of tiny crystals glinted back at me so that the whole effect stood at odds with the smooth red brick that disappeared into the blackness beyond the reach of the light. Surreal. Just like my situation.

He threw his car keys onto the clutter of unopened envelopes and junk mail that carpeted a small square table in the hall. The hall was long and tall and ended at the entrance to a kitchen and the sound of William’s footsteps echoed as his boots clomped along the dark-red Jarrah floor. To the right were three bedrooms and to the left, double glass doors opened into a large lounge room. It was a home like any other home, warm and inviting, worn in to a comfortable fit.

If it wasn’t for the palpitations in my gut, I would have gladly sunk into it’s embrace.

As I sucked in my lower lip and thought about sneaking away, I noticed the plethora of paintings that lined the hallway. So engrossed had I been in my inner turmoil, I hadn’t noticed them or the others that were propped up on the floor, waiting for a home. They varied in size from big ones, over a metre across, down to small ones the size of a photo. For a moment, I forgot my unease. There were landscapes; pictures of people I didn’t know; weird splashes of colour that I couldn’t make sense of; ones with strange geometric patterns. I hadn’t taken much notice of the ride, but I thought we were somewhere in Prospect. It turned out to be St Peters.

I peered into the lounge. A deep leather couch and two matching chairs rested along the near wall, both covered with circular stains on the armrests and scuffed along their bases. They had clearly seen better days. In the centre of the room a low coffee table, made of dark wood, stood on a rug with brown and red square patterns, and like the table in the hall it was covered, only with books and magazines. On the opposite wall, two narrow bay windows looked out into the night and stood guard either side of a fireplace.

But what caught my eye was the painting that sat over the fireplace. It dominated the room. In it a man lay in a bath, his head back and turned to look at you the way my mother had looked at me. His mouth smiled as if to say, ‘Oh well, if you have to,’ and his right arm hung down over the tub.

He looked distinctly dead. More than that, he looked a bit like William, a much younger William.

It disturbed me and I couldn’t say why.

Then I remembered where I was. I ducked back into the hallway and hurried to the kitchen. William was kneeling and busy looking through a cupboard in the corner, searching through cans and packets. I almost laughed. Having taken off his jacket, he looked as much out of place as I did. His hair, unkempt, was in desperate need of a haircut, his shoes were scuffed and though his shirt and pants hinted at money, it was only the merest of hints.

In contrast, the kitchen must have just been renovated. Its teak cupboards and shiny, stainless steel workbench in the centre with the cooker, and breakfast bar along the interior wall, all signaled money. And there were yet more paintings. Everything smelt of success. As much as I disliked why I was there, I liked the place. I could live here.

William looked up and pointed at a door leading from the far side of the kitchen. ‘The bathroom’s through there.’ His words brought me back to reality. ‘The shower’s in the bath. I’ll find you something to wear.’ He stood up and walked past, out into the hall.

I trembled as I stripped, then climbed into the old-fashioned, white enamel tub and pulled the plastic shower curtain across. The water felt wonderful, yet I couldn’t relax and luxuriate in its brisk massage. Instead, I waited. Tensed. Slowly washing myself once, twice, three times, all the time expecting to hear the bathroom door open at any minute.

‘Are you going to be in there much longer?’ he called out from outside the door. ‘Only we do live in the driest state on the driest continent and I’m a firm believer in water conservation. I’ve left some tracksuit pants and a tee shirt by the door. They might be a little big. I’m not as slim as I used to be, but they should do.’

I stayed a few more minutes; his actions confused me. The shower scene had always been the climax to the first act in the seduction play, at least in my experience. How I had dreaded the farce. First there was the simple request: ‘May I join you?’ to which there could be no refusal, then followed the intimate wash, the grope, the fondling, the massage into hardness.... None of this occurred here.

The pile lay at the foot of the door as he had said. I pulled it in and slammed the door. True to his word, the pants and the tee shirt ballooned on me. I rolled up the cuffs to make do.

William greeted me in the kitchen as I finally made my entrance. ‘I’ve made some baked beans for you, but I can heat up the Mexican if you like?’ He did his best not to smirk at my comical outfit.

‘Er ... no ... thanks.’

I hadn’t realised how hungry I was until I took that first mouthful. The baked beans went in seconds. Then the toast, and another two slices and another two slices after that. No more slices came forth, much to my disappointment, but the hungry beast in my belly had been tamed for the moment.

After half-a-dozen attempts at small talk, William gave up. ‘You must be tired,’ he decided. ‘I’ll show you to your bedroom.’

Whether he detected my tensing up, or the thinning of my lips as I squeezed them together, or the way I refused to look at him, offering only sullen acceptance, my head bowed low, I don’t know.

I followed him to the second bedroom.

‘This is my guest room although no one has stayed over in a long time.’

A single bed, with a tarnished wrought iron bedstead, nestled against the far wall underneath the window and an ancient wardrobe of dark maple, stained and scarred from years of abuse, pressed up against the wall adjacent to the hall. Its middle door had an oval mirror with black specks showing through. The left door lacked a handle and stood ajar an inch. The only other piece of furniture to inhabit the room was a battered chest of draws made of pinewood, varnished like an old school desk, and pushed against the wall perpendicular to the door. It was like stepping into a faded, sepia picture of a simpler, more innocent time and conjured up an early memory from long ago, when I had stayed at my grandparents’ place. Like my parents, they are long dead. The room smelt musty, unused.

William wished me goodnight and left me to my own devices. I stripped, turned off the light and groped my way into the bed. The sheet and two blankets were tight, trapping me in their embrace.

I felt disoriented. That early memory caused more memories of my early childhood to well up and inflict more pain. I remembered a happier time that cut into my soul. I wanted to cry, but I refused to give in. There was no way I would show any sign of weakness when William came.

When he came.

I waited, trying to accustom my eyes to the darkness, and waited, and waited....

A beam of light pierced the narrow gap between the blind and the window and fell across my eyes, waking me. Morning welcomed me with a chorus of birdsongs, robins and sparrows, I guess, and magpies — I could recognise them. It dawned on me, something wonderful had happened.

The coffin moves. The trapdoor opens and it enters. Soon there will be nothing — ashes to ashes.... I feel cold, empty, bitter. The mourners crowd the exit while I wait, stone faced. A few pat my shoulder and offer their condolences. Most give me a wide birth. They know what I have lost and all their words cannot put Humpty back together again.

There is to be a wake, but I will not go. Instead, I have to burn a few things, memories.

I can’t say they were the easiest of times. Trust is an indefinable commodity, like love. After that first night, I felt confused, relieved, safe and yet, trapped. The emotions washed over me and made me uncomfortable; I wanted to run. What did he want from me? What did he expect?

‘Nothing,’ he said over breakfast. ‘All I’m offering you is somewhere to stay ... if you want. And a chance.’

I stopped stuffing my mouth and swallowed the half-chewed sausage. It hurt as it went down. ‘A chance? At what?’

‘I don’t know, a normal life I guess.’ With a chuckle, William shrugged. ‘Don’t ask me why, but that first time we met, remember? When you tried to steal my wallet and then you said you couldn’t take the twenty bucks because—’ He burst out laughing and I had to smile too, but in embarrassment, the kind one has when you’re being teased and you secretly enjoy it. ‘—because people would think you had stolen it.’

‘I was young ... and stupid. I should’ve taken the money.’

‘There was something about you then. Here was this kid, trying to act tough, but I could tell,’ William sobered, ‘you weren’t as feral as the others, there was hope for you.’

‘What do you mean? You’ve done this with other kids?’

‘A few. Trouble is, when I brought them back here they thought I was into boys — a paedophile ... don’t tell me you thought that too?’

I looked away. I’m sure I must have blushed. My face burned.

‘It’s what normally happens.’ I squirmed under his gaze, only this time I didn’t enjoy the embarrassment. I played with a piece of sausage on my plate, pushing it around to corral the egg yolk and tomato sauce while I thought about being somewhere else.

William sat back and cast his hands wide. ‘I’m sorry ... I didn’t realise I was being so stupid ... I should’ve seen it. I swear ... I’m not, I never have been ... I’m not one of those.’ It was his turn to be embarrassed. It felt good. I relaxed.

Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. William nurtured my trust. I came and went as I desired, a day here, a day there, then two days at a time and so on until, without knowing it, I found myself living there full-time. I wanted to. It felt like home. It was home.

There were rules.

I couldn’t sponge off him; I had to earn my keep as he liked to put it. Fortunately that didn’t mean housework (he had a housekeeper, Maria, come in twice a week) or gardening (Jim’s Mowing took care of that). I did have to go back to school, doing adult remedial classes, which I could bear — having to sit with younger kids showing me how stupid I was, I would have refused. Would have walked out. I didn’t. Instead, I struggled through to complete year twelve with enough points to get into Uni. I started this year. I was proud and so was William.

I had wanted to be a painter, like William, except I had no talent. That soon showed up as William tried to help me discover my ‘inner muse’. I tried painting along side him to duplicate what he painted. To describe my efforts as childish rubbish would be an injustice. The nail in the coffin came when William invited me to try a nude.

Visions of a woman, older than me, say ... nineteen or even twenty, slim, but with big firm breasts; tall with long blond hair — no, dark with curls, or....

I trembled as I entered the room, my skin tingling and not caring if I grinned like an inane fool.

An old man stood to the far side in a white bathrobe that barely reached around to cover his opulent belly. He took it off. I felt sick.

He stood there naked, lily-white with folds of fat sweeping down off his stomach, and waited for William to position him. Brown spots peppered his body, moles sprung forth — a monster on his shoulder had hairs growing out of it — and everywhere, wrinkles. His head had precious little hair to hide the brown carpet of sunspots that marched across it, but his back and chest more than made up for the loss. William turned him sideways toward the window and made him stand in a gentle forward lunge, taking his weight on his leg furthest from me so that I could see his dick, small and wrinkly, hanging down over his scrotum and all nestled in grey hair. Where was my fantasy? I left without saying hello.

One painting fascinated me though, drew me to it constantly — the dead man in the bath.

He had a strange way of taking a bath, wearing a turban and his head leaning back to rest on a sheet covering a ledge so that he sat half out of the green bath, with his right arm hanging over the rim to rest on more of the sheet. I could see how he had died: blood had dribbled from a cut on his chest to leave a red splotch on the sheet. His left hand rested on the rim and held a piece of paper, and the only things I could read were a date at the top: 1793, and halfway down, the word Marsden, underlined.

His enigmatic smile drew my attention, time and time again.

‘Yeah, that’s me,’ said William, ‘or at least that’s my face. The rest of the painting is a copy of a famous work by Jacques-Louis David, except for the words. It’s called the “Death of Marat”. I call this the “Death of Marsden”. It’s supposed to be a pun.’

‘Who’s Marat?’

‘Jean Paul Marat. He was a leader in the French Revolution. He was assassinated by ... now who was it? I should know this ... a young woman ... Charlotte! Charlotte Corday, that’s it. She stabbed him to death in his bath and David celebrated the act — actually I’m not sure about that.’

‘So this Charlotte...?’

‘Corday.’

‘She was Marat’s girlfriend, huh?’

William chuckled. ‘No.’

‘But she was in the bath with him.’

‘No, she only went to see him.’

‘In the bath?’

William sighed. ‘No, to kill him.’

‘But why did he let her in?’

‘He didn’t know she was going to kill him.’

‘Well, why didn’t he get out of the bath? That’s what I would do.’

‘I don’t know!’

I paused and waited for William to calm down. He could be so touchy.

‘That’s just the way it happened,’ he added.

‘So why did you paint your face on it?’

‘It’s ... a long story. Someone I loved — a long time ago — killed me, metaphorically speaking....’

He stared into the painting. I stared at it too, embarrassed by his admission.

‘Like I said,’ he continued, his voice barely above a whisper, ‘it was long ago. I guess the painting seemed appropriate at the time.’ He sounded like he had a lump in his throat. I wanted to ask why, but I couldn’t and he never mentioned it again.

It’s cold. The house tastes of death. I light the fire and embrace its flickering warmth. The room is dim and the fire’s light echoes off the walls. The Death of Marsden mocks me.

In the corner, wedged between the wall and the sofa, sits the box. She sent it and it killed William; no, she killed William. I know that for a fact. If there is a hell, I hope she’s in it.

The box came a month ago, courtesy of Australia Post. I came home to a dark house. Lights flickered from the lounge doorway as I entered through the front door. William sat in the centre of the lounge room, where he had pulled up one of the chairs, and the curtains were closed to dim the room. Next to him, a 16mm film projector projected naked people onto the wall. The paintings that had hung there lay scattered on the floor with no regard for their true worth.

‘What’s this?’ I asked.

‘Art movies,’ he said in a flat voice.

‘Looks like porno.’

‘You could say that.’

‘Is that you?’

‘Yes.’

A man my age, with the face of the William Marsden in the painting, lay on top of a woman with the face of a debauched angel and humped like his life depended on it. Her legs circled him, linking behind his back, and as he struggled to kiss her, she turned to the camera and looked straight at me. A shiver ran across my shoulders. She made love to the camera, to her audience, to me. I wondered if William realised that.

‘I didn’t know you made pornos when you were younger.’

‘There’s a lot you don’t know about me.’ Still the same flat voice. Dead.

Next to his feet, three reels lay on the floor beside the box, its top open to reveal more reels inside. William nursed an empty wineglass in his hand and an empty red lay on the floor on the other side of the chair. With a last sip from his glass, he placed it on the floor next to the bottle.

William’s monotone disturbed me; he seemed like he was in a trance. He stared at the movie, never taking his eyes off the woman. I hesitated. On the one hand I wanted to stay and watch. I’d never known William to have porno videos or anything of that nature. Why he wanted these ones I could only guess. They didn’t even have sound. On the other hand, watching someone I had come to regard as a father figure having sex disturbed me, both disgusted and aroused me. I wanted to turn away and walk out. But such wicked beauty. Her eyes drew me back. Gave me an erection I didn’t want.

William pushed forward to the edge of the chair, his hands clasping their cushioned sides the same way his younger self gripped her buttocks, and his stare grew more intense. In the movie, he began to hump frantically. He arched his back and grimaced. The woman stopped seducing the camera and looked down to talk to him. She put a hand down between her legs to try to stop him entering her, and failing, tried to push him away. I couldn’t hear her words or read her lips; I didn’t need to. The anger on her face said it all. The money shot approached and he refused to follow the script.

With one last lunge he came — inside her. After a few more thrusts he collapsed, panting for breath and buried his face in her neck. She berated him. I could see how her words stung. He pulled away, his face mystified by her anger. Any moment now and tears would start streaming from his eyes. Then he began to plead with her and he must have hit the right button because her face softened and then she shook her head in forgiveness and pulled him to her so he could bury his face in her bosom. She apologised to the camera with a parting shrug and turned to whisper sweet comfort in his ear while she ran her fingers through his thick mane of hair, stroking it and combing it and curling it in her fingers.

The projection died. The end of the film ran off its spool and rattled in a dying staccato as the receiving spool spun to an agonising stop. I turned on the light.

William collapsed back into his chair. He looked exhausted, drained, as if he had relived every second, every frame of the movie.

‘Who?’ I asked.

‘Helena.’ He breathed her name out, and then words tumbled from his mouth like water spilling in a torrential flood from a burst dam. ‘Helena Corday, beautiful isn’t she? I loved her; we were at uni together. I still do. Why did she have to come back now?’

He burst into tears and buried his face in his hands. I wanted to look away. I felt embarrassed. I had never seen William cry before, like this, like a baby.

‘She’s dead,’ he continued, his voice an octave higher than normal. He wiped the wetness from his eyes and stared straight ahead at the wall. ‘She died a couple of weeks ago ... in Sydney.’ His voice returned to normal. ‘I didn’t even know she was in Australia.’

‘Oh,’ was all I could utter. This woman meant nothing to me, but the pain she inflicted on William did.

‘Cancer of the cervix. That’s what the letter from her daughter said.’ He broke down again. ‘She should have been my daughter.’

‘How ... did they...?’ I waved my hand at the box and the pile of reels next to it.

‘She left them to me in her will. Apparently the box has been hidden away in a shed for years. No one knew about it.’

‘Must’ve been a surprise when they watched the films.’

‘Her family’s never seen them. It was specified in the will that if the box was opened or tampered with before it was sent to me then her estate would go to various charities.’

‘So she was rich?’

‘Not rich ... well off, according to her ... daughter.’ William’s voice tightened again. ‘At least enough to keep her two daughters and son at bay. They were adopted, you know.’ A sad laugh escaped from his lips. ‘I guess that’s one of life’s cruel ironies. She never wanted to have children when she was with me, and then, when she did she couldn’t.’

‘I ... I’ve always wondered why you’ve never married.’ I cursed myself for asking the question, but the words slipped out before I could stop them.

William’s mouth curled up in a rueful smile. ‘I guess I never met anyone who could take her place. Truth is ... I don’t think I ever wanted to.’

‘You must’ve really loved her.’

‘Loved her? I loved her too much. She said I was obsessed ... I smothered her. There’s another irony. All I ever wanted was to marry her and have a family, a son ... and that was the last thing she wanted. She wanted a career, to be free, a true Bohemian like I should’ve been ... me, the artist! And now I find out,’ he pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper, stuffed down between his leg and the chair, and waved it in the air at me, ‘she’s lived in Sydney for all these years, and married and adopted three kids. Can you believe it?’ His eyes blazed in anger and he looked at me to see if I was as amazed as he was. I shrugged my shoulders. ‘She’s lived a middle class life, respectable — she married an accountant. A fucking accountant! Can you believe it? She can’t be the Helena I knew.’

William clambered out of his chair and struggled to his feet, all the time holding onto the projector stand for dear life. He looked tired and old, but a bottle of red shouldn’t have affected him so. I’d seen him drink plenty before without it showing.

‘Pull up a chair,’ he said as he pulled off the reel. ‘Here, pass me one of those ... in the box. We’ll watch some ancient history together.’

The movie flickered into life. The camera panned over a corrugated tin enclosure; I wouldn’t call it a shed. Rectangular hay bales were stacked up underneath it with a pile of loose hay in the foreground. Helena waltzed into the scene from behind the camera. Everything about her: her broad-brimmed white hat with its lattice weave; her flowing dress, semi-transparent white and covered in tiny blue and yellow daisies and with large pink roses bordering its hem; her sandals; her auburn tresses tumbling to her shoulders, all screamed hippie! I smirked; I couldn’t help it.

She kicked off her sandals and turned to face me. Her gaze caught me, wiped the smirk off my face, said she wanted to fuck me, said everything she was going to do she would do for me.

I swallowed a lump in my throat.

She stood, legs shoulder-width apart, and arched her back. Then, with her hips thrust forward so that the sunlight revealed a lush triangle at the top of her thighs, she pouted like an innocent Lolita and entwined her arms above her so that her breasts lifted and thrust forward. I could just make out her nipples.

She held the pose and then laughed. So did William — and broke the magic. I risked a sideways glance. He was oblivious to all around him. I could have stood up and ransacked the house, danced naked and pissed on his pile of precious paintings and he wouldn’t have noticed, wouldn’t have cared.

I shook my head and turned back to Helena.

Her hat had disappeared. She grabbed fistfuls of material at her hips and pulled her dress up. Its hem rose like a curtain on opening night, revealing her legs, her thighs, her dark thatch, belly, breasts, nipples — all in a one-act play. Then she threw off her dress and stood there naked, defiant and daring me to take my eyes off her. I couldn’t.

She did things to herself then that aroused me. One hand pressed small circles into her crotch while she writhed and the other squeezed and massaged her left breast and forced its hard nipple up to be teased by her tongue. And all the time, her gaze never wavered from me. Now I’ve seen pornos before, not many, but enough to realise that Helena was no match for the professionals, and yet she had an honesty and freshness that they lacked. She did these things for me. My throat went dry.

A young woman wandered into the scene, lost and embarrassed. Helena pounced, a leopard taking down a Thompson gazelle on the veldt. But despite Helena’s kisses ravishing her, the young woman just stood there, a human sacrifice, pliant and unresponsive on the altar of lust. She neither moved nor reacted as Helena stripped her, staring straight ahead, a martyr to the caresses.

Then William stepped into the scene.

He made no pretence at acting. But, like a silent-movie star from the Twenties, Helena thanked the heavens for her good fortune and threw herself on him. He looked startled, but before he could react to her kiss, she slid to her knees, tearing at his ruffled shirt and kissing his chest and stomach on the way down, and when she reached his waist she undid his bell-bottoms with what seemed to be practiced ease. And all the time the young woman studied the pair of them with keen disinterest.

With William exposed, the camera zoomed in for a ragged close up as Helena went to work on him until he was excited, her tongue flicking up and down his shaft, her saliva glistening on his glans. Then, as he pulled her to him and tried to become the dominant partner, she pushed him toward the young woman. William hesitated and looked back at Helena, his whole body language screaming: ‘Don’t make me do this.’ But Helena stood firm and William sagged as he accepted her verdict. He pressed up against the young woman. Their eyes never met. He sort of kissed her, sort of fondled her, pushed her down on the hay, laid on top of her and sort of had sex. I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and unable to look away.

‘I hated this part the most,’ said William, his monotone flat and lifeless like his acting in the movie. ‘That, and when she had other men.’ He let out a long, sad sigh. ‘But I had no choice. She knew how to manipulate me, all of us.’

I watched the rest of the movie; it went pretty much as the previous one. When it finished, William cracked a cabernet.

‘Pass me another reel,’ he said. ‘There’s still plenty to go.’

‘I think I’ll pass,’ I said. ‘I’ve got an essay to write.’ I didn’t, but I couldn’t bear any more.

The days played the same. When I came home in the late afternoon, William would be in the lounge, playing the movies over and over, late into the night. His pride and joy, his stock of reds, began to dwindle. He took to sleeping in, not eating, not painting, not speaking.

The flame burns bright. I send each reel to meet its maker, obscene frame after obscene frame. William John Marsden, the William John Marsden I knew, the one who went up in smoke at Centennial Park, was a fake, a fraud. The real William John Marsden is being cremated here. And so is the real Helena Corday. I get the connection with her namesake now. She killed him in life and she killed him in death. It’s true what they say: the pen is mightier than the sword.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, parted in life, let them now be joined forever in death. Go to hell, both of you, go to hell. Amen.

When a terrible tragedy happens some people talk about having a premonition, a dream or a feeling. I had nothing.

The first I knew was when I turned into my street and saw police cars and an ambulance outside our house. I broke into a run. Maria looked up as I staggered to a stop. She couldn’t speak. Her tears had left black trails of mascara down her cheeks. She reached out and grabbed my arm and squeezed it, then burst into more tears. The policewoman comforting her pulled her away and led her toward a St John’s officer.

As the ambulance pulled away, a detective trudged over to me. ‘You are?’

‘Joshua Marsden.’

‘His son?’

‘Adopted.’ I pulled out my student card and driver’s license, not that I had a car.

The detective gave me the whole sorry story. Poor Maria, she had arrived to clean as she always did Thursday afternoon. She had cleaned the kitchen first as usual and then moved on to the bathroom....

I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it coming. All the signs were there: the obsessive watching, over and over, of those damned movies; his monotone voice; the drinking.

Poor Maria, she found William. He’d slashed his wrists and bled to death in the bath.

Why?

How could a dead, tenth-rate porno actress reach across all these years and drive William to kill himself? To take him from me? Like that drunk who had taken my mother and father?

And why had William tried to make his death imitate art? He had wrapped his head in a sheet and stabbed his chest in a pale imitation of the painting over the fireplace. Except there was no note, no explanation.

I learnt true hate then. I hated Helena Corday more than I hated those foster fathers who had abused me, more than those men who had ‘befriended’ me to abuse my body. More than William. How dare he desert me like this? He had given me a life, a future, a reason to live and then he had snatched it away in one self-indulgent act.

And for that I hated myself more.

As I pull out the last reel, it reveals an envelope pressed up against the inside of the box. In it is a letter written in purple ink, smudged and faded by time. In the flickering firelight I read it.

The letter is an explanation, not an apology. It rambles, but here and there I glimpse the truth.

Poor Helena, she wants so much to be a star in her own right, but as much as she loves William she can’t bear to live in his shadow. She plans to go the great US of A and become a film star. At least she will when she is well enough to travel.

Poor Helena, William had given her a parting gift she hadn’t counted on. She is pregnant, or was pregnant. She’s had an abortion. But not in a nice, clean hospital. No, Marco, her new manager, has convinced her it could come back to haunt her when she becomes famous. He knows someone who can do it on the sly. No records, no questions asked. Cheap.

Poor Helena, she couldn’t make up her mind, after all a life is a life. Except her desire is worth more. And almost too far-gone, she has killed the foetus within her — a boy.

William’s boy.

The last nail in the coffin.

She had had a boy. What William had wanted, more than anything in the world. What he would have given his life for.

I screw up the letter and cast it to the flames, to join its mistress in Hell.

In the faltering glow, William stares down at me with sad eyes. I see thin, dark lines drawn across the painting, across William’s neck, across his wrists. I look closer.

They are not lines drawn; the painting has been slashed. They are the edges of the cuts. It could only be William. His last act of defiance before he made life imitate art.

A symbolic gesture. A farewell.

I reach up to trace them with my fingers, to feel the rough edge of death. Anger wells up in me and I explode in fury.

I tear at the canvas.

The painting, frame and all, pulls away from the wall and I wrestle with it, twisting it and stomping on it until it breaks at the corners. I pick it up and smash it against the wall over the fireplace.

It knocks something off the mantelpiece and I hear the clatter of metal on the wooden floor. The blade of a knife glints up at me in the dying light.

I throw the painting onto the glowing embers and light springs forth to reveal the wicked blade. I pick it up. The blade is razor sharp. It slices through the tip of my finger with no resistance.

The flames draw my eyes. I see a vision. My mother stares out from the flames, smiling, welcoming, beckoning me.... Beckoning me....

But first, I need to draw a bath.


The End