by Lisa Lang
She was smoking out the front of Joe’s Meats when I saw her again. An olive coat, lapels clutched against the wind. Unadulterated daylight on her slightly weathered skin. Still a beauty though, all cheekbone and dark, feline eyes.
In my memories of her it’s always late. A pub, the band packing up. Wherever she was going, was where we wanted to be. A sleazy, late-night club, the party of a friend of a friend. Did I even see her in the daytime? Some kind of picnic in the park? Did we even do fresh air in the nineties?
She flicked her stub into the bin and went inside the discount chemist. The urge to follow was strong. Of course, only a monster would follow someone into a chemist. Let her buy her ointments in peace. I thought she was living in Berlin, or maybe Bergen. But here she was in this rundown shopping strip, with its shuttered stores, tiles of dusty pink. I’d only come myself to buy a certain gauge of waxed cord from the elderly shoe repair man. I liked the way my pendants hung from the stiff, slightly sticky leather.
She darted out the chemist, sparrow-like. She’s always been bony and swift. It was a real advantage in the nineties. We didn’t know about body positivity then. We just quietly loathed our not-thin-enough bodies, while Kate Moss frolicked about in Johnny Depp’s underwear. Quietly, because we didn’t want to be seen caring about those things.
I followed her past the shoe repair store and saw the old man at his bench, nursing an espresso. He always speaks Italian to me, even though I tell him I’m Greek. I was relieved to see him, my heart on the upswing – still kicking! – but I was losing sight of her as she rounded the corner. There was nothing beyond but the carpark, so unless I planned to stalk her to her car, this was it.
She was striding through the almost empty lot, towards an ancient Volvo the colour of cement. My boots clacked against the bitumen, and she stopped. Turned. Smiled in a way that made me feel I’d never failed at anything. At least, not anything that counts.
“Sophie!” she said.
“I haven’t seen you in the longest time,” she said.
“I know!” I replied, as we both stepped closer. Would we hug? We’d been friendly back then, without exactly being friends. Instead, she picked up my hand and held it between hers.
“What’s it been, twenty years? How are you? Are you doing OK?”
One thing I’ll say about the pandemic, it made people ask this question like it mattered. Or maybe Vega had always been sincere.
“Mostly, I guess. You?”
“Are you still making jewellery? Is this one of yours?”
I nodded. She stood back, surveying me. Then she lifted the black pendant from my breastbone with a touch so light I barely felt it through the wool of my jumper.
“Hmm,” she said. She ran her thumb over the scored and textured metal. “OK, I definitely need one. Where do you sell, do you have a website?”
I blushed. I’d given up the arty-sounding name I’d used since the early 2000s for something more commercial. Changed my domain name and remade my site during the long second lockdown when all my other work vanished. And maybe it was pure co-incidence. But my sales went from three a month to twenty.
“Yeah,” I cleared my throat. “It’s called ‘You deserve a medal’.”
Vega laughed, a whole of face laugh, rocking back on Cuban heels.
“Oh, that’s smart,” she said. “I almost forgot you were smart.”
I smiled, and brushed stray hairs from my face.
“What about you, are you still making art? Music?”
“Listen, I actually have to run.” She placed her hand on my arm. “But we should catch up some time. For real.”
“Yeah, OK. Email me through the site. If you want.”
“I will. Now I’ve got to get home and back before the chemist shuts.” She rolled her eyes. “Forgot my wallet, and my Mum needs her meds.”
“Well, I can lend you the money. How much do you need?”
“Oh, no.” She shook her head. “No, that’s kind, but, no. Thanks.”
I took out my phone.
“Do you have far to go? It’s almost five now.”
“Is it? Oh, crap.” Her eyes grew watery and huge. “Crap, crap, crap.”
I was shouldering open the sticky door to my townhouse, when it dawned on me: I’d been had. Her effusiveness, her interest in my work – all an elaborate con. Who spends sixty dollars at the chemist? I tugged off my ankle boots and let my bag clatter to the floor. Annoyed because I’d left without buying my chord. Annoyed because I’d felt such – what – at seeing her? Nostalgia? Affinity? Hope? Also – sixty dollars. I was paying the rent on my own these days.
To cheer myself up, I ate strawberry wafer biscuits on the couch. I watched music videos on my phone. There was one of Vega’s old boyfriend, famous now, with his messenger of darkness routine. I admired his waistcoat, his ability to never smile. You have to admit, we did dark well in the nineties. Which is funny, considering what we knew about darkness then. In the comments, I read that Vega had written the lyrics to his best song. I remembered when they were a couple, their darkly golden aura. One time, at a party, I stood with her beneath a fairy-lit jacaranda, discussing the fact we had no brothers or sisters, were both only children. How it did our imaginations good. She told me her mother was from Chile, shaking visibly in her dark green petticoat. It wasn’t really petticoat weather. When her boyfriend appeared, he handed her his black suit jacket, and I glimpsed track marks on his arm.
Is that when she started down that road? The road where he got famous, and she was begging in suburban carparks?
I woke in the dark, my phone announcing I’d just made a sale. When I checked, I saw Vega had purchased a very expensive pendant. She’d also paid back my sixty dollars. To celebrate, I ate another wafer.
I wanted to make her a special piece, like the one she’d chosen, but better. Now that I was busier, I’d observed a certain perfunctory quality to my work. I still used the same technique: a tiny chisel to gouge the metal – chink, chink, chink – until the surface looked like fabric. But working faster, I felt less attuned to the process. Something about seeing Vega reminded me that I was not a cog in the capitalist machine, valued only for my productivity. I was an artist.
But how to hold the thread of that feeling?
I rode my bike to my studio by the park. Verdant light came through the big, factory windows, which seemed wrong for this particular piece. I taped newspaper to the glass and worked by overhead fluoros and a headlamp. It helped. I got a marker and wrote Monica Lewinsky in giant letters on the newsprint. I wanted to think about the nineties, a decade that believed all the shame belonged to Monica – not Bill. No one thought twice about publicly shaming Monica. No one asked why she was the joke. This is the decade we came of age in, me and Vega. So I wanted to think about that stuff as I worked. Was it funny because she thought she had the power?
I stopped for lunch and looked at the blackened metal disc. My chisel marks were looser, wilder – not the same tight patterns I’d been producing lately. I thought I’d captured something of the nineties, DIY, zine aesthetic. Vega used to make wonderful zines. Screen-printed art, lyrics, and these odd, intimate interviews. I remember an interview she did with an old man who lived in the rooms above a pub we often went to. He talked about wanting to be a teacher when he was young, but then his Dad told him teaching was for sissies. How he carried his sad bewilderment with him, all those decades later.
In the afternoon I took my Mum to the rheumatologist, and then for donuts. We ate in the car, masks hanging from the rear-view mirror, warmth of sun through the glass. We discussed the price of bananas. I asked her what she wanted to be, when she was a child. Tipota, she said. Nothing. How was she supposed to know you could be things? Her parents milled their own flour, milked their own goats. They didn’t sit around, asking kids what they wanted to be. She wrinkled her nose.
“These donuts are too sweet.”
I sent Vega a message to come by the studio. I explained there were other pieces – not on the website – and she could take her pick. Yes, she replied, only she couldn’t leave her Mum for long. If I came to them, she would make me dinner. How did I feel about porcini mushrooms?
I think of them only with affection, I said.
Vega’s mother’s street was not far from the shops where I’d last seen Vega. Gardens full of lemon, fig and pomegranate trees, single storey brick houses. Vega opened the door in a quilted paisley housecoat. She smiled and put her finger to her lips, leading me through a corridor crowded with paintings. I glimpsed paintings of clothes – satin, lurex, terry towelling and wool. Texture, I thought. She’s interested in texture. I felt a small thrill of kinship.
“Sorry,” she said, ushering me into the kitchen, closing the wooden bifold doors. “It’s easier if Mum stays asleep.”
I perched at the bench with wine while she stirred the risotto, the air thick with butter and onion. She told me her Mum had dementia, that she’d moved in to take care of her right before the pandemic. All those lockdowns, alone with her Mum, and her fading memory. Explaining why they couldn’t go anywhere – el virus. Explaining again. What’s this mask for? El virus. The grinding Groundhog Days. She placed our bowls on the benchtop. Before that she was living in the Gold Coast hinterland, painting, as well as growing mushrooms to sell at the farmers markets. Hiding from the biographers.
The ones who wrote about her old boyfriend, his band, the nineties music scene.
“They keep making me out to be some kind of muse,” she said. “Like I never wrote a song or picked up a paintbrush. They want me to be a myth – but a myth doesn’t change adult diapers! Sorry.” She took a wedge of parmesan, planed it on the metal grater. “And now I’m ranting. This is what happens when you don’t see people.” She tossed cheese over our dishes. I lifted a forkful to my mouth.
“Sounds to me like you deserve a medal.”
Her laughter so sharp it woke her mother.
Soon we were texting daily. Book recommendations, little jokes. We liked the same TV shows, the same sternly moral detectives. I remember an overcast Monday, sitting at my workbench in the solder-grey light. Struggling to get going, thinking about a second coffee, when my silent phone lit up. Bright rectangle of invitation.
George Gently or Jimmy Perez?
I laughed. Typed.
George, of course.
Jimmy only wants to be held.
Though my heart belongs to Vera.
My screen filled with laughing emojis. And it was easy to get to work then, that little lift having carried me over the morning’s hump and into the straight stretch.
There was a South American café down the road from my studio selling ‘Chilean ice-cream’. It looked homemade. I bought a litre in a styrofoam tub and drove to Vega’s mother’s house. It was the first real spring day, soft sun and fresh lawn clippings. We sat on the back porch and ate from tiny crystal bowls. Vega wore her pendant over a dress of black broderie anglaise. Her mother wore a shirt with a velvet ribbon at the neck. She was not even five foot. She told me the ice cream flavour was chirimoya, the custard apple. I didn’t know it. She told me it was popular in Chile, that her aunt had one growing in her yard when she was young. She asked for another helping. As we ate, a wattlebird flew into the overgrown callistemon. We watched it dip its beak into the red bristles. Vega flashed me her dazzling smile. There was such benevolence in the afternoon, it was almost unbearable. Her mother stood and shook my hand.
“It was lovely to meet you,” she said. “Now, can someone please drive me home?”
Vega put her mother in the car and drove her round the block. She said it was easier than arguing. I stayed in the kitchen while Vega put her down for a nap. When she finally joined me, lighting her smoke, I noticed the deep lines bracketing her mouth.
“She thinks its 1960s Santiago. She wants to go dancing with Jorge.”
“That’s my fault. I gave her the madeleine.”
She exhaled slowly. Tears shimmered at the edge of her eyes.
“I haven’t seen her this happy in ages.”
I needed to use the bathroom, but she told me it wasn’t clean, to use her ensuite instead. I was amazed, walking through her bedroom, to find a baroque-looking poster bed dominating the space. The bedhead was all brass curlicues, the spread moss green brocade. Above it, on the ceiling, hung a painting. It was both the night sky, and a type of fabric, maybe a navy glitter chiffon. It almost seemed to ripple, as if in a breeze. I could picture her old boyfriend on that bed, seductively posed, having his photo taken for a music magazine. It was very much his aesthetic, or his aesthetic was actually hers.
There was a dressing table, also made of brass. Its top drawer stood ajar, too jammed with papers and envelopes to close. There were bills, letters from doctors and from her record label. I picked up a handwritten envelope and turned it over to see the name of a well-known music journalist. Then, I don’t know why, I put it in my pocket.
Later that night, I sat on my couch with cold, leftover noodles and looked at the letter. The journalist, Jim, was asking – again – to meet with Vega. His book, Darker than memory, about her old boyfriend, was almost done. She featured prominently in the early chapters. He didn’t want to publish it without speaking to her but – deadlines, publisher etc. The noodles were very good cold. I liked to slurp them up one by one, slicked with soy and lime.
I wrote back to Jim. I said I would only answer questions by mail. I gave him my PO Box. I thought she should have a say, that I could maybe set the record straight on her behalf.
Jim’s letter arrived a week later. I had stopped at the PO Box, on my way to take my Mum to the dentist. I read it in the waiting room, with its multi-lingual posters on domestic violence, it’s stale, medicinal smell.
It seems to me the early songs are drenched in longing, and you are the object of that longing. I believe the whole second album was written when you went to Bergen to be with a Norwegian film maker. Can you confirm the dates you were in Bergen? Also, is it true you refused to do backing vocals on the third album, and that he rewrote songs rather than have another woman sing them?
I crumpled the letter and let it fall to the floor. Then I picked it up and spent a while looking for a bin.
“Do you have a bin?” I asked the receptionist, and she shook her head.
“Should I drop this on the floor?” I asked, and she shrugged. She probably wasn’t being paid very much, but still. My Mum appeared then, clutching the side of her face.
"Quick, take me to Aldi.”
“Are you sure? You look pretty sore. Maybe you should go home and rest?”
She shook her head, grabbing at the handbag I’d been holding for her.
“The dentist told me there’s a special on raincoats!”
We drove fifteen minutes to the nearest Aldi. The raincoats were neon yellow and we bought three. I would give one to Vega. On the way home, Mum frowned at the pale, cloudless sky.
“Jane Bunn said it would rain.”
Jim, I wrote. I don’t wish to alarm you, but it’s 2022. And the last thing any of us need is another book about a male genius and his female muse. What if genius is just another form of ruthlessness? What if we are telling ourselves all the wrong stories, learning to admire all the wrong things?
I shared thoughts I’d be turning over for a while, on art and beauty and sacrifice, and when I finished I felt cleansed, like I’d gone for a long swim in the sea.
The summer weather was violent. Heat and hail, wind and frost, sometimes within the same day. I left my bike at home and drove everywhere. Vega’s mother’s house flooded, and I helped them with the clean-up, moving furniture and Vega’s paintings. I could not tear my eyes from the picture above her bed. There was something mesmerising about it, some throb of infinity.
“I love this,” I told her. “People need to see your work. You should have an exhibition.”
She picked up a wet towel, wrung it over a bucket. The water made a rat-a-tat-tat against the plastic. The room had an earthy smell. It would turn to mould in no time. As she worked, her pendant swung from its leather, thudding gently against her breastbone. She gripped it between her fingers.
“We could show together. You could make something in response to this painting. I could paint my relationship to this pendant after wearing it these past months.”
We grew a little giddy. We were still cleaning, but everything was charged with the potential to be in the dialogues, to become art. Vega pointed out a brown watermark beside the windowsill.
“See here, this feathering? How delicate it looks?”
“Like the finest of brush marks.”
When we were done, I poured myself a glass of wine. Vega lit a cigarette. We sat at the kitchen bench, too tired to even order takeaway.
Her mother padded into the kitchen in bare feet, toenails painted lilac.
“What’s for breakfast?” she asked, frowning when she saw me. “Are you even old enough to be drinking?”
“A likely story.”
Vega and I laughed. After a beat, her mother joined us.
I found the evenings best for working on the dialogues. There was a cosy-lonely quality to the hours between eight and ten, the time people were finishing their dinners, or knocking back drinks with friends. It was a useful kind of melancholy. I heard their voices as they cut through the park. I let them pierce me, but only a little.
I started working with gold again. It’s the most forgiving of all the metals, soft like wax, but strong like bone. I’d stopped when my ex declared it ‘too colonial’. I thought now I’d been too quick to give things up for that relationship. Like my old yellow overalls, and smoking. When my phone lit up, I thought for a second it was my ex, before seeing it was Vega.
You know my song Coode Island Baby? Its number 3 on the charts!
Your song from the 90s?
WTF? I mean, great song, but why now?
Ha, long story.
When she didn’t explain, I searched why is Coode Island Baby in the charts?
According to the article I found, young women were buying the song in droves. It started when a music journalist published a letter written by Vega. The journalist had written:
I gave the reclusive musician and artist, Vega Granada, the chance to answer some questions relating to my book, Darker than memory, which will be published next week. What I got back was a manifesto on art and life and… Monica Lewinski.
The article suggested his intention was to whip up a little controversy ahead of the launch of his book, to cast Vega as mildly unhinged. It concluded:
I guess he failed to read the room. The manifesto went viral, thanks mostly to women in their teens and twenties. Then they started buying her ‘hit’ from the 90s, Coode Island Baby. These girls have decided the song – a dark pop track with cryptic lyrics – is about toxic masculinity and environmental catastrophe. They cite the lyrics – ‘you’re toxic, you’re toxic, waiting to explode’ and the song’s title, which references the 1991 chemical explosion at Coode Island, just west of Melbourne, as evidence. This comes as a surprise to those of us who remember the 90s, and the song, and possibly to Vega herself, who has always declined to talk about the song’s meaning.
In any case, Vega Granada is trending. She’s all over the airwaves and playlists, and has even been invited to exhibit her work at MONA in Hobart. Jim’s book, on the other hand, was recently spotted on the discount table.
My words had made Vega a feminist and environmentalist icon? She was trending? We were going to exhibit at MONA?
I bought more gold, borrowing the money from my Mum. I was making a pair of wrist cuffs, the kind a person could wear while reclining on an antique bed. How much would it cost to have the bed shipped to Hobart? For the first time in a long time, I went into debt to fund my art. I worked in a fever state, like the early days, creating purely to create. I had internal conversations with my ex, where I said thing like, ‘well gin’s pretty colonial, but I don’t see you giving up your G and Ts.’ The gold shone and shone. I listened to Coode Island Baby. It was pretty melancholy, for an anthem. I’d always thought it was a nod to Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby. That it was funny, in a nineties way, because Coney Island is devoted to human amusement, and Coode Island is used to store hazardous industrial chemicals. Because you couldn’t be nostalgic for Coode Island, the way Lou is for Coney Island. In fact, you could not do nostalgia in the nineties, full stop.
Sometimes I really missed the nineties.
The thing is, texted Vega. MONA wants to pair me with a younger artist. Someone also under the eco-feminist banner.
But I already told my ex! Also – you’re an eco-feminist?!
I took a small square of scourer to the gold and gave it a matte finish. I felt things were more beautiful when they didn’t insist on their worth.
The last time I saw her was in the paper, by which I mean the news app on my phone. It was a review of her MONA show. I stared at her picture, taken on the ferry to MONA. She was mist-shrouded, glowing in her yellow raincoat.
My muse, I whispered, somewhat spitefully.
My phone pinged, and I quickly put it down, in case it was an order. I was no longer going to the studio. I didn’t care about people’s trinkets. I was lying on my couch in my underwear and gold cuffs. I held my wrists up towards the light. The textured metal had the soft, tufted look of chenille. I never took the cuffs off. They were my pride and joy, the best work I would ever do.
Lisa Lang is a writer from Naarm (Melbourne). Her novel, Utopian Man, was a winner of the Australian/Vogel Literary Award. Her stories have appeared in the Four Faced Liar, Island and Long Story Short. She works in a library to keep her toy poodle, Sappho, in never ending mackerel treats.