Every ending needs a beginning.
By Jennie D’Ambra
The Great Depression was at its height and I’d just lost my job at the brewery. Things were grim as we struggled to feed ourselves and our children. It was late in the afternoon when the children were playing jacks on the back step and I was in the yard chopping wood for the stove. I placed a heavy burl onto the block, then, momentarily distracted, the axe came crashing down before I’d managed to move my left hand. Blood spurtled furiously to distant corners of the small yard, and there was pandemonium as the children ran amuck in the yard.
I woke in a hospital ward. A thick bandage was wrapped around my head and a gargantuan glove covered my left hand. All sounds were muffled and peculiar. Ether made reality seem strangely beautiful and I started having vivid artistic visions that I’d never previously experienced. I imagined all manner of scenarios, in intricate detail, for oil paintings and sketches.
A surgeon stitched my damaged hand. I was laid up in hospital for a month. The surgeon encouraged my artistic leanings and one day he presented me with an easel, canvas and a box of paints. While holed up in my hospital bed I decided that I was going to live a new life once I was discharged from hospital. I would leave my family to search for that elusive something; that unknown, exuberant and haunting chimera, always beyond reach.
I boarded the Southern Aurora bound for Sydney. Once I arrived at Central Railway Station, where young men in old clothes begged for food, I caught a taxi to The Rocks. The driver took me to a boarding house, a grey building with huge windows facing the water. In the street, children played with what looked like old bones.
That night I stepped out into the street and within a few seconds of being on the pavement, I met Rosie. She came up to my room and I began to paint her portrait.
‘You’d better make it complimentary or I’ll request expensive French champagne next time.’ Her smile lit up the room. She was a queer, beautiful creature full of sweetness and vulnerability. There was a lilting quality to her voice and when she spoke it made me think of falling rose petals. Her painted lips were never far from a glass of coloured liquor. Rosie returned each day so that I could finish the painting.
I managed to sell the portrait for a good price so we decided to take a seaside holiday at Bondi, where we stayed at the Astra Hotel and dined like royalty at every opportunity.
‘Why do you drink, Rosie?’
‘I’ve never thought of a good reason not to.’
‘But don’t you want to live long?’
She looked at me. The vulnerability in her dark eyes was haunting.
I was sad for her and cuddled her like a baby and she liked that.
‘I’ll paint you again, Rosie. Then we can come back to Bondi for a
Her little hand folded itself into my repaired one, and she hummed the little tune of a French nursery rhyme, as the waves sounded of far-off places.
We returned to The Rocks. In the evenings I worked on my second painting of Rosie. She was seated in my room and she looked strident against the faded, rosie patterned wallpaper. I got a good price for the second portrait and was even able to put a little money aside. We returned to the Astra Hotel at Bondi. I gave Rosie some money to buy herself a gift. She bought a purple velvet hat which looked glorious against her raven coloured hair.
‘I’ll have to paint you in that when we return to The Rocks.’ Then when we returned to The Rocks I painted Rosie’s third portrait. She wore a blue velvet gown and the purple hat. She looked as though she’d just stepped out of Madame Weigel’s Journal of Fashion to pay me a brief visit. We, both of us, had taken to shopping for the latest fashions and dining in smart hotels. I finished the portrait and sold it for a hefty price.
The Dodge taxi driver, looking smart in his white jacket, delivered us to the Astra Hotel where we stayed in our regular rooms. At dusk we sat on our little balcony and sipped champagne cocktails. The sunset was dusky pink and the quiet water a coral blue. As we sat together a gentle breeze touched us and I looked at Rosie and saw a few tears trickling into a well in her eyes. Her sweet, little hand folded itself into mine and I was struck by an almost insane passion to hold her forever and to protect her through eternity.