Shishir (Winter) 2021 Stories - Alicia Thompson


Purely Aesthetic
By Alicia Thompson


‘So, your old man reckons I should give you a go.’

I’d been shown into Charlie Knowles’ office on the 17th floor. He stood with his back to me, yelling into the phone and jabbing two stubby fingers at the twin TNT buildings on the western Sydney horizon. His shirt was damp with sweat despite the air conditioning, and the outline of two sagging straps of flesh gave the appearance of wearing a day-bag in reverse.

‘Yeah, well, you do that.’ He mashed the receiver and phone together and spun around. On seeing me, he blinked. He glanced at his computer screen.

‘Ah. Darlene.’ He threw his bulk into his chair. His eyes travelled over my cleavage and eventually, up to my face. It was then that he mentioned his conversation with Dad.

‘What makes you want to be a journalist? Pretty tough gig, y’know.’ He swung back in the chair, making it squeal in protest.

‘I’m inspired by good writing. I-I’ve had some small articles published in our local paper, the success has given me a taste for more.’ I started fishing in my bag. ‘I’ve got some copies here…’

Charlie Knowles waved his hand. ‘We might be the biggest paper in the country, but the Internet is wreaking havoc on our business model. I need smart operators who know how to sell their grandmothers.’ He stood up and walked around the desk as he spoke. I pushed my chair back and he parked himself on the desk’s edge, towering over me.

‘You see, Darlin’, it’s like this. I get a couple of calls from young hopefuls like you every week.’ He paused, rubbed his hand slowly down, then up, the thigh closest to me. He rested his fingers on his belt. ‘What makes you any better than them?’

Apart from the pounding of my heart, the loudest noise in the room was the sound of his fingernails drumming on his belt buckle. My nails dug into my seat and I tortured my mouth into a smile.


Determined to be hard, I showed up for my first day of work looking for ‘Pete’. I found him leaning against a partition, with a Styrofoam cup in his hand, chatting to a man with a mail trolley. My heart sank when Pete announced he was responsible for what Dad calls ‘hatched, matched and dispatched.’ I followed him to his desk, noting the hanging triangle of shirttail and the indeterminate colour of his scuffed shoes.

By the afternoon, I knew how all the staff in the vicinity took their coffee. By Tuesday lunchtime it was clear that I was on my own, so I sat down to sketch out some article ideas. On Wednesday I made some phone calls, and that evening I left a note on Pete’s desk to say I was following up a lead. I could just see him chuckling and showing it to the mailman. To hell with him and his obits.

‘He don’t like unannounced visitors.’ She pulled her dressing gown tighter across her breasts. There was a smear of egg yolk on her crêped cheek.
‘We’ve spoken already. He said just to come round when I was ready.’ This was half true. We had spoken on the phone.

She gave an impatient shrug and a flick of her head. ‘He don’t live here. He’s out back.’ Clunk. I was again staring at the peeling flakes of her white-once-yellow door. I walked around the remains of a rose garden and found a narrow path that led between the house and a high fence. The path ended and I was cast adrift in my pink stilettos in a yard full of tall weeds and the odd installation of rusting machinery.

‘Out back’ was an asbestos shed with gaps in the wall where pieces had broken away. I tip-toed through the grass to stop my heels becoming tent pegs. I paused at his door. I took a deep breath and smoothed down my skirt. My tentative knock produced a curse and a scuffling noise from inside. The door flew open and I was eyeball to eyeball with Gerald Hanson.

‘We spoke yesterday. I’m Darlene Meares from The Klaxon?’

His eyes narrowed and I watched his crow’s feet double. ‘I don’t remember fixing a time?’

‘We didn’t.’

Flashing him my best smile had no effect. He was still scrutinising me through the cracks between his eyelids as he brought up the butt end of a cigarette to his lips. I waited. He sucked what he could out of it and flicked it into the garden. Then he turned his back to me. I followed through a cloud of exhaled smoke, linseed oil and old-man-smell.

Under a window there was a trestle covered in lengths of wood and plastic ice cream lids. Beside it, several canvasses were stacked against the wall. He gestured at the only chair in the room as he lowered himself onto the single cot against the wall. He crossed his legs and drew a packet of tobacco out of his back pocket. I watched his gnarled fingers pinch and spin the shreds over the sliver of Tally-O paper. He licked the paper with delicate precision, sealing the cigarette.

‘You won’t get very far just looking at me, or is this some new-fangled journalistic technique?’

I scrabbled in my bag for my notebook and pen.

‘Do you have dreams, Mr Hanson?’

‘You mean premonitions? No.’ He put his cigarette in his mouth and started jabbing a match at a box he picked up off a side table.

‘So how do you account for the prophetic nature of your paintings?’

‘Coincidence,’ he said out of the side of his mouth, throwing the box of matches aside.

‘But surely—’

‘Wilful misinterpretation after the event.’

I ignored the mockery in his eyes as he rubbed a cadmium yellow smeared finger up his bristled cheek.

‘Okay. But you have to admit you have a penchant for disaster themes—’

‘Which has led people to make up stories about the non-disaster paintings so as to have a consistent theory?’

‘What is this going to be?’

‘I don’t discuss work in progress.’

I glanced at my remaining questions. I was running headlong to the edge of a cliff.

‘S-so that first major work…the couple in the open car driving through a crowd of people. What was in your mind when you started sketching it out?’
He cupped his chin in his palm and let the smoke from his cigarette spiral up through his hair. ‘You want me to remember how I felt in the early sixties? Poor and hungry.’

His eyes gleamed through the smoke. His direct gaze made me fumble my notepad. I picked it up off the floor and flicked through my notes. ‘But after 1976 your work started receiving serious attention…the couple holding hands approaching a big white house—’

‘The Coupling.’

‘—and the lone figure swimming at a beach—’


‘—a disturbing pattern was noticed. You can’t deny it has pushed the value of your art through the roof.’

He threw back his head, a raucous laugh erupting from his throat, which then resolved into a violent, fruity cough. It sent a frightening chill through my chest.
‘Listen girl. Art is like that. People read all sorts of things into your work that you never intended. Who was that wanker of a poet who said “if they find new meanings in my work I must have meant it subconsciously” or some such bullshit. It’s a joke. I read a lot. I listen to the radio. I have a spasm of an idea. I get the paint out and I develop it into something worth looking at. Maybe there’s a story there. Maybe it’s purely aesthetic. If people want to read things into my work, that’s their business. The galleries encourage it; it’s how critics make money. I just paint the paintings.’

‘But how did you feel when you saw the footage of Kennedy’s assassination?’

‘Shocked, like everyone else.’

‘And when Harold Holt drowned alone at a beach…?’

‘I don’t live in the past. I was genuinely surprised when a journo harangued me about it. In poor bloody taste if you ask me.’

‘So distasteful that you stopped painting for a decade?’

His chin jutted out. ‘I never stopped painting. I just chose not to sell them. The money I made on the last two meant I could wait for the storm to blow over.’
‘Yes. The storm vision. You’ve had a few of those. Do they frighten you?’

‘If you’re referring to Debris, I was actually reading Moby Dick at the time. The thought of a man being saved from a shipwreck by a coffin rather tickled my fancy. The fact that it was interpreted as warning of an approaching Tsunami a year later is ridiculous. It says more about Melville’s work than mine.’

There was a timid knock at the door. Cerberus poked her head around the corner. ‘Telephone.’

Hanson looked at his watch and grunted. ‘I’ll be five minutes.’

Left alone, I hurried over to the stack of paintings against the wall. The first revealed a study of three women with wild red hair floating in a black sky. They seemed to be all the same woman but characterised differently, like muses. One held a book, another a dagger, while the third was wrapped in chains. Would his paintings have the same value if they were only revealed after the supposed event?

There were more apocalyptic scenes, one showed an island on fire, another a crowd swarming over a bridge. Then there was a more disquieting image: a man in a suit at the end of a breakfast table, face down in his eggs, the yolk dripping to the floor, an open newspaper thrust forward in his outstretched hands. The woman next to him—a scrubbed up Cerebus?—was lifting a cup to her lips, staring straight at the viewer. The last panel was unfinished. Buildings made of news print teetered on the edge of a cavernous hole from which roads emerged spiralling and twisting, reminiscent of Escher. A sea of crayoned faces—

‘Don’t touch those.’

I wheeled around. ‘Sorry, I was curious…’

‘Curiosity has strung up many a cat. Unless you fancy writing some frivolous piece about voodoo and Tarot cards, I suggest you drop it. You want to be taken seriously, don’t you?’

I clutched my notebook to my chest. I’d had visions of writing about my privileged insights into the enigma that was Gerald Hanson, submitting my piece and becoming famous for breaking news, but it had been like trying to prise open a clam with a plastic fork.

‘There’s nothing new under the sun. Write about that. And I don’t paint with chicken gizzards. It’s coincidence and hype. That’s all it is. I just wish people would let me alone so I can get on with my work.’


My article wasn’t the stunning revelation that I’d dreamed of seeing on the front cover of the weekend insert. It was more of a mood piece, a profile of the man. Of course I described the stacked canvasses. I sent it straight to Charlie and asked him what he thought.

A few days later, Pete came over to where I was surfing the net and said, ‘Boss-man’s on the phone.’

My face must have been a picture of triumph. It did nothing to wipe the smirk off his face.

‘Got a job for you. Simon Fitzroy’s in town. You might get a nice character piece out of it.’ I put the phone down, blood singing in my veins. Even if my article on Hanson didn’t get published, it had put me front and centre in Charlie’s mind for this job. I knew that Fitzroy was a mining magnate from the west and there was chatter about him getting into politics. That was all. I raced back to my computer to do some research.


The hotel door opened to reveal a short dark-haired man in a dressing gown. I gripped my notepad tighter across my chest. He must be fitting me in between other appointments. A man like him doesn’t get much down time. He showed me over to the couch where a bottle of wine and two glasses stood waiting. He was very charming and didn’t talk about himself at all. I began to relax and tried to imagine what angle I could take for a piece. But then, after a longish pause in the conversation, he said,

‘So Charlie says you’re very ambitious.’ And there was no mistaking the direct look that followed.

All I could do was stare at him while my mind raced through my options. It didn’t take long. Unlike Charlie, this man was attractive and held more promise than a desk near a mailroom. I gulped down the rest of my wine. Once you’ve crossed the line, does it matter if you just stand there or dance? Later, trying to breathe under his weight, I stared up at the skylight, counting the flashing red lights of planes overhead.


Within a fortnight I resigned. Not long after I’d stumbled through Gerald Hanson’s backyard, a small Pacific island no one had heard of had a volcanic eruption. The days following were dim with ash and the papers showed satellite pictures of a glowing red dot surround by ocean. My article had made it into the back page of the Wednesday insert and the artist was again in the cross-hairs of the media. I was surprised to see I got credited. Charlie called.

‘Good piece last week. Could you do a follow-up?’

So I took my five minutes of fame and got a job on a glossy magazine. I waited a decent interval and called Gerald Hanson again. I wasn’t expecting to get any further than all the others suddenly harassing him, but seeing me again might tickle his cynical funny bone. ‘He’s out,’ was the terse reply. Next week, the same. By the third week, he was dead.

The coroner’s report noted a brain aneurism, but the café chat still insisted on the ‘suspicious circumstances’ initially put forward. I recalled that disturbing breakfast scene, which had been endlessly pulled apart by journalists ever since, and mused whether this was Hanson’s ultimate two-finger salute to the Press.
I was past worrying about it now, though. Thanks to Simon, I was now Deputy Editor of Art Now, an emerging WA glossy that was attracting international attention, not least for suggesting that Aboriginal art sites could be relocated, a lá Abu Simbel, in the name of progress.

Eight months later, I was invited to a Gerald Hanson retrospective exhibition. The gallery was small and the few works that were for sale already had little red stickers next to them. The pictures I’d seen stacked against the wall were now framed and hung in chronological order. Next to each work was a small square of text indicating the event it supposedly predicted? The last three paintings were bereft of commentary. There was the bridge scene and an unfinished portrait of an old man, his arthritic hand clutching at a bunch of knobbly iron keys.


But the last painting rooted me to the spot. It was the cityscape. The roads spiralling out of the hole to embrace the buildings now carried an upward procession of vehicles. Close to the top was a sports car whose driver had fallen forward. Only her legs were visible, her pink stilettos waving in the air.


Alicia grew up in Wollombi, a village two hours drive north of Sydney. Her twenties were spent travelling the world, working in London, and leading adventure tours in the Middle East and China with an international tour company. She returned to Australia in 1998 and started a business providing bookkeeping, book editing and photographic services. In 2000 she set up efolio Pty Limited from which she now consults and promotes her work. Always looking for ways to focus on the things she loves doing, Alicia took time off work to improve her writing skills through a program of reading and short courses. This culminated in completing her Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney in 2014. Her debut novel Something Else was released by NineStar Press in October 2021. She is currently working on her second novel, which will be in the crime/murder mystery genre.


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