Adelaide author Stephen Orr’s Incredible Floridas follows the pre-WW2 story of Roland Griffin a famous Australian artist who tries to help his son, Hal, find a way through life, while Hal just seeks his father’s approval. Enjoy this extract from Orr’s lyrical Incredible Floridas.
Ena wasn’t feeling well, so it was down to Roland. He’d left plenty of time, but they were late anyway. Father and son walked down Commercial Street, through the little spaces in the crowd. Hal didn’t so much dodge as stop, wait for people to pass, and carry on. Roland kept looking back. ‘Hurry up, it’ll be started.’
Hal couldn’t avoid the muscular arms, soft suits and satin dresses. They continued parallel to the road. Some people changed course and went into shops. It was a swarm. There was no one person. Hal didn’t feel part of it. Perhaps no one did. Perhaps he was overanalysing again. He listened. Only a few voices, but footfalls, bells on doors, a truck reversing into traffic and a bus stopping suddenly to avoid it.
Roland stopped, came back and took his arm. ‘I thought you wanted to meet her?’
‘Well, come on!’ He pulled him along, using his hand to clear a path.
It’s not my fault, Hal wanted to say. You’re the one stayed too long at the gallery, searching for a Griffin, complaining they’d taken the only one down, and what a lack of respect, of gratitude, typical!, if we lived in another state, or country, they might appreciate me.
They approached the Regent. The billboard read: AUSTRALIAN CLASSIC THE BLUE LILY.
‘How’s it a classic?’ Hal asked, as they went into the cinema.
‘It did well.’
‘Seventeen screens. And the reviews …’
‘That’s just someone’s opinion.’
‘“As crumbly as an old sultana cake.”’
‘That’s what they’re paid to write.’
But thinking back, Hal couldn’t believe the real Lucie would’ve been anything like Teresa Martin, the stage manager like the late George Wallace, him, even, like the brother. The words sounded less like real words with every passing year. The phoney sets (built once they’d left Kalgoorlie so they could re-film several scenes); Emmie Drury, who was more like a nun than a goldfield mum. He’d lost interest. (Although it wasn’t the full story. A yard full of kids calling him Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart, pouting stage-kisses, rehashing lines through crustless lunch hours.) No more films. Until they’d received a phone call from Aunt Gwen: ‘You’ll never believe it, Griff! Lucie McCabe is playing at the town hall. We’ve decided to screen the film.’
‘They’ve kept a copy?’
‘Don’t be smart. We’ve hired the Regent for Saturday week. Lucie’s the guest of honour. Unfortunately, none of the other actors can make it, but what about Hal?’
Hal, walking into a foyer of summer frocks and elbow-length gloves. ‘Who are all these people?’ he asked.
‘I don’t think they’re here for us,’ Roland said.
One old girl saw him and said, ‘You’re John?’
‘Oh, look how you’ve grown! Six years, and you’re a different person.’
It happens, he wanted to say, but she was already pinching his cheek, which had gotten whiskery, sprouted a few pimples.
‘I loved your performance when I first saw it. To be honest,’ she leaned forward and looked around, ‘I thought you stole the show.’
Gwen came over and saved them. ‘You’re late.’
‘Bus was slow,’ Roland said.
She turned to Hal. ‘Well, come on, it’s time.’
‘To meet her!’
She dragged him through the swamp, the big laughs, rattling bangles, spilt champagne. They arrived in front of the great woman. ‘Hal?’
He extended his hand but she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. ‘After all these years. I’m so glad to meet you.’
She was tall, gangly, with golliwog arms and wiry hands. He noticed her dress: cheap-looking, pleated. He said, ‘Teresa couldn’t make it.’
‘I know. She’s living in America.’
‘Hollywood.’ Searching for stardom. Her mum and dad had taken her (sold the house, bought near Venice Beach, close to where the canals smogged up every afternoon, vowed never to return until she was famous). They’d found a few roles—girls in the background, a line or two, but no Liz Taylor.
Roland introduced himself and explained, ‘We tried to encourage him after the film. He was offered another role but didn’t want to do it.’
‘Which?’ Lucie asked Hal.
‘With Chips Rafferty.’
‘Why did you pass it up?’
He shrugged. ‘Lost interest.’
The bell rang and they went in. Hal sat next to Lucie. She smelt like moth balls. He thought the film had the same aroma. And Teresa. The phoniness seemed to be there, even in her acting. The way she turned up her mouth, and stared into the distance; the way she delivered lines, short-and-sharp, but took her time if it was Emmie or her father. He remembered how much he’d really hated her. He turned to Lucie and whispered, ‘She was a pain in the arse.’
‘She told me I’d never make it because I didn’t have the face. It was too round. You’re not meant to have a round face.’
Hal studied the boy on the screen but couldn’t recognise him. It wasn’t just the round face. John McCabe seemed to be able to flit about, jump the big hummocks, fall, roll, get up and carry on. Now Hal felt he dragged himself through life. This boy seemed to run at everything, bark like a dog, demand attention. He didn’t know who he was. This made him feel bad. He dropped his head, and felt himself descending. He was looking in his lap, but he was hearing himself. He was trying to forget, but couldn’t. There was another seventy minutes. He didn’t want to sit through it.
He could hear Lucie playing in the pub. The coins they were throwing at her, so she could become famous. Christmas carols, and the gift they’d given her: a piano, sitting in the corner of their living room. It was all so unreal. If he could go back to being ten, he might (he thought), but failing that, he didn’t want to be reminded. He whispered to his dad, ‘I’m goin’ the dunny.’ Then stood and walked out.
Fifteen minutes later, Roland found him sitting in the foyer. He sat next to him and said, ‘What’s wrong?’
Hal took a moment. ‘Stupid film.’
‘We better go back in.’
‘I don’t wanna see anymore.’
‘But everyone’s expecting you.’
They watched a young man using a long brush to sweep rubbish into a dustpan. Hal thought this seemed much more interesting than the film. ‘She’s okay,’ he said.
‘Lucie. But she’s nothing like that little bitch.’
‘Is that why—’
‘No.’ But he couldn’t tell him the real reason. Maybe no one liked being themselves. Maybe that’s why people made movies.
They decided to give up on the film, and walked back to the bus. Past Maugham Church, with its own Charlie Bass set up out front, a few banners proclaiming the End. They stopped to listen. Roland thought it funny. The way this man was so convinced of his own correctness. ‘No Unlawful Sex’ and ‘Come Try Jesus’, like He was some new sort of jam. And again, the thought occurred. What if he himself was a preacher of his own faith? Hollering to the uninterested, the unconvertable. What did that make him? Hal was intrigued by what this man had to say. Not so long ago, he’d tasted Mr Jesus. Found the Griffin family Bible in the bookcase, read Genesis to Deuteronomy before giving up. But returned to Psalms, underlining selected phrases, reciting them as he lay in bed each night. He’d torn out pages and stuck them on Sonia’s wall, and told her, ‘It’s the truth.’
‘Can’t you see? Christ?’
‘What are you talking about?’
Roland and Ena had become worried. Jesus was welcome in their house, but only as far as a two-bob crucifix above the door. No one took God that seriously. So when Hal had begun preaching across the dinner table, they’d started worrying.
‘Maybe if we surrender to Christ?’
‘If who does?’ Roland had asked.
‘All of us.’
Roland had tried to work out what he really believed. ‘You’ve become a Christian?’
Hal had started going to church. Asked them to come, but they wouldn’t. Not that they would’ve minded, but they couldn’t afford to encourage him. It hadn’t come from them. Someone, somewhere, must have had a word to him, given him some literature. Perhaps Charlie, although he’d been in hospital with a hip replacement. Maybe all the business with the tent revival, but that had been years ago.
But the phase had passed. Thankfully. By the time Hal was fifteen he was lost again, Godless, wondering and wandering.
They arrived home and Roland went into his shed, back to the canvas he’d been pecking away at for years. The boy in the boat, the Redskins, watching him from the banks, naked men nailed to stakes. Lush vegetation; convolvulus, bougainvillea, philodendron a mile high. The sort of plants he’d never tried painting. He examined this canvas and wondered how he’d ever get the colours right. Deserts were so much easier. A Turner sky of approaching storm, and he didn’t think he had that right, either. And finally, the face of this boy, still blank, like he couldn’t work out, or dare to imagine, his expression.
He ran out, followed the voice to the side of the house. Ena was looking up at Hal, sitting in the jasmine, breathing deeply, smiling. Sour apples, and a bird pond of green water.
Roland sighed. Three brush strokes before the interruption. Typical. ‘Would you just get down here, please!’
‘Right!’ He walked to the chookyard, returned with the ladder, rested it against the house and started up.
‘What if your father falls?’ Ena called to Hal.
Roland got onto the roof. ‘Come on, people are watching.’ (Mrs Ulit, from number five, although she was pretending to pull weeds). He slid over and touched Hal. Hal reacted like he hadn’t noticed he was there. Then he stood and walked across the roof.
‘Careful!’ Ena called.
Hal waited a moment on the gutter before jumping down onto the lawn. He rolled a few times and stood up. Then he went into his room, and they let him go.
When Roland checked the room at twelve, Hal was asleep. He closed the door. He’d attached a bolt to the outside, and he slid it closed. He’d done the same to the windows, so he went out, onto the verandah, and closed them too.
Now they could sleep, knowing he’d be there in the morning.
This is an extract from Incredible Floridas, out now from Wakefield Press.