Souvenir by Meera Atkinson
Meera Atkinson is a Sydney-based writer, poet and scholar. Her work has appeared in over sixty publications, including Best Australian Stories 2007, Best Australian Poems 2010, and Griffith REVIEW. Meera has a PhD from the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University and is co-editor of Traumatic Affect (2013), an international volume of academic essays exploring the nexus of trauma and affect.
It was a late winter night; the kind that feels like spring will never come. Around the corner from the choked neon artery of Kings Cross a decrepit Persian cat with knotted fur sat at an upstairs window of an Art Deco building. The cat leapt off the ledge, sauntered into the kitchen, and rubbed its arthritic hips against the frail stockinged legs of an old woman who was finishing a meal of fried fish fingers.
Peggy stood and rinsed the plate under the cold tap before laying it face down on the aluminium sink. The flat was dark, except for a bald bulb illuminating the kitchen. It was tidy enough, but nothing was clean; a film of dust and grime covered the surfaces and the air had a musty scent to it, as if the windows had long been closed. Everything gave off Peggy’s peculiar smell: cheap perfume and stale make-up mixed with that strange salty stench of aged, unwashed skin.
Over the years, the cat had scratched the stuffing out of the arms of the sofa, and the floral carpet had worn threadbare in heavy-trafficked patches. The furnishings dated from the wake of WWII when an eighteen-year-old Peggy first moved in with her husband, a returned soldier. Oh, the Cross had seemed so grand then, with life ahead of them, all promise and plans. But gradually the neighbourhood changed around the distinguished old building, morphing into a sleek and moneyed enclave of stock brokers and publicists, its glamorous heyday and bohemian history alive only in the memory of the few left to recall it. The sleaze, sex, suburban punters and die-hard junkies persisted like dwindling life forms circling a dying star.
Peggy made her way to the bedroom and sat at her dresser. She powered a pale mask onto her face, and the particles made craters of her pores. When she considered herself in the mirror, under the stark glow of the overhead light, Peggy still saw herself as she was at forty, the decade of her prime. Back then she was the owner of a prosperous photographic business, respected by the community, welcomed everywhere, finally happy and free. Her husband, an immature young man when they married, had grown into a brutish bore far removed from the swaggering digger she waited for, and on her fortieth birthday he was five years in his grave. Satisfied, Peggy applied her lipstick and, standing, smoothed down her skirt. With some effort she tottered down the hall. A camera rested on a side table in the hallway, obscuring a framed photograph of a girl with a strawberry blonde ponytail. Peggy picked up the camera, hung it around her neck on its leather strap, and closed the door behind her leaving the cat staring dully at the door.
Emerging from the wrought iron gates at the entrance of the building, Peggy adjusted her wig, a silvery blonde bouffant, as the gate swung closed behind her. Once a glamorous faux-hairdo, its original glory had given way to gravity; the wig had lost its shape, and it was lacklustre and matted. Peggy was one of those elderly women whose years are impossible to guess. She had a kindly face that had once been pretty and her still generous lips were coloured with wonky red lipstick. She wore only black and white: a no longer so white shirt, a knee length black skirt that had seen better days, and sensible yet stylish black shoes that were worn down at the heels and scuffed at the toe. She was coatless and seemed impervious to the cold. The huge old Polaroid camera hung like a relic around her neck, pulling her already burdened shoulders down further.
Jasmine, a transgender working girl,leant against the wall in her usual spot, smiling warmly at Peggy as she stepped out into the night.
“Evening Peg”, hollered Jasmine in a singsong tone.
“Good evening”, replied Peggy with a sweet smile as she passed by.
Jasmine called out.
“You have a good night hey! ”
Peggy reached the glittering main drag and weaved through the crowds with a fragile sure-footedness and an intimate knowledge of the curves and crannies of the streets that eluded the tourists and revellers. She disappeared into restaurant after restaurant and promptly appeared again. She made her way down The Strip, venturing off into the laneways that shot off it. She walked in and out of doors, in and out, until at last the corns and calluses on her feet complained. The largest, on her big toe, was threatening to become ulcerous, and the pain of it forced her to return to the flat without a penny earned.
The following Saturday night Peggy went through the same ritual once again: first the fish fingers, then the powdering of her face, the drawing of dubious eyebrows, the rubbing in of out of date anti-biotic cream on the corns, the careful covering the area with bandage and stockings, the dressing in linty black and sullied white, before setting out again, her collapsing wig set high on her head, her lips in the trademark red. She turned into the first backstreet and entered a small, upmarket restaurant. A clean-cut waiter spied her and moved forward in a swift motion stopping her in her tracks: “You know I can’t let you in. Owners orders.”
Peggy’s eyes flicked up to meet his briefly before she turned and left, the camera hanging heavy around her neck. She seemed unaffected, oblivious to the humiliation; a small, half-mad smile set on her face, her eyes deep set and distant as if focussed on another dimension. She walked further down the street, entering the colourful doorway of a busy Thai restaurant. At first she seemed to go unnoticed but as she approached a young corporate looking couple eating spring rolls at a cosy corner table a tiny Asian woman materialised and spoke in clipped accented English: “No, you go please. Customer don’t like.” Peggy turned and left, once again seeming to float above her expulsion.
She continued down The Strip, and when she reached the intersection of William Street she crossed over into Victoria Road, walking with the famous Coke sign blinking behind and above her. Peggy passed by a noisy café with a NO HAWKERS sign before entering the loud, bustling restaurant beside it. The staff didn’t seem to mind; the owner, Johann, a benevolent old German, considered her a local institution and didn’t have the heart to refuse her.
Years ago, when Peggy had first wandered into the place, it had wider aisles, fewer tables, and it was not peopled by garish groups of well-to-do trend-makers swilling wine. Then a good night at The Bavarian meant a few immigrants and truck drivers, and perhaps a table of scruffy young people wearing torn jeans, eating cheap in the homely room. It was not the kind of restaurant she serviced back in those days, and she only bothered with it on slow nights, and not so much to work as to take the opportunity for a coffee break and a chat with Johann. Over the decades, the classy restaurants that were once her stock in trade had disappeared one by one and business at The Bavarian had picked up, attracting the professional class who flocked to eat its hearty fare, streaming from renovated Paddington terraces and slick Surry Hills penthouses and the new high rise luxury apartment buildings of Darlinghurst to enjoy the novelty of working class fare: homemade sausage, stew, schnitzel, hash browns and slaw. Paradoxically, it was the only place left in the Cross that welcomed her.
A waiter in lederhosen stood impatiently beside a table, order pad in hand, while a young couple deliberated over dessert. Finally, the young woman flicked her red hair, closed the menu and announced her decision. The waiter moved off. Peggy snaked along a clear passage surveying the diners. Her melancholic-mad eyes settled on a table where two middle-aged women ate their meals and talked soberly. One of the women saw Peggy’s approach from the corner of her eye and, visibly annoyed at the intended interruption, held up a hand before Peggy could speak: “No photos thank you.”
Peggy crossed to another table where an older couple considered their menus. The woman looked up at Peggy and quickly turned back to the menu. Peggy addressed the man: “Would you like a souvenir photo, Sir?” He forced a quick smile and avoided eye contact: “Not tonight thank you.” The young woman with red hair watched as Peggy made her way toward them. She leaned forward and whispered to her boyfriend. “There’s an old woman coming. I think she’s going to ask us to have our photo taken. It’s so sad. Everyone’s turning her down.” Her voice trailed off as Peggy appeared smiling her inexplicable smile. “Would you like a souvenir photo?” asked Peggy, cheerily. The young woman looked up at her and noticed, with a sharp stab of pity, that this inspired hope in Peggy’s tired blue eyes. Peggy spoke again. “A souvenir photo to remember the occasion?” The young woman glanced at her boyfriend awkwardly and looked around the room to see if anyone was watching. “Okay”, she said, in a small embarrassed voice.
Peggy sprang into action and positioned the camera. She viewed the pose in the frame: the young woman’s stiff, uncomfortable smile, the young man’s exaggerated, indulgent grin, his shot glance toward the young woman, humouring his girl. The flash went off. The Polaroid developed up from the white plastic like magic. Peggy waved it in the air and blew on it, then handed it to the young woman who stared at the photo. The paper was damaged with a crease at the corner, and it had a bad colour, making her and her boyfriend look sallow and dark under the eyes. The young woman feigned satisfaction. “Thank you. How much?”, she asked. “Twenty dollars please”, replied Peggy.
The young man’s eyes widened, and he pulled a face in the direction of his girlfriend as he reached for his wallet, plucked out a twenty, and gave it to Peggy. As Peggy moved off his outraged whisper could be heard by the dinners at the next table, but not by Peggy, whose hearing wasn’t what it used to be: “Twenty bucks?!”
Peggy moved to a table where a bespectacled man was in intense debate with two female companions. “Would you like a souvenir photo?” Peggy asked the clever looking gentleman. They turned to acknowledge her with indifference. The man nodded no and resumed his discussion.
Her feet ached and, with the mere twenty dollars in hand, Peggy walked back to her flat. When she opened the door, the cat meowed and rubbed around her throbbing, varicosed legs. Peggy put the camera down on the side table and kicked off her shoes. Her corn had rubbed red again under the bandage. She picked up the cat and sat down on the sofa, stroking its lustreless fur in the dark.
The next Saturday night Peggy ate her fish fingers, made her face up, and walked down The Strip, darting in and out of cafes and restaurants, the crooked, beatific smile fixed on her face. When she reached the The Bavarian, she was once again tolerated by the staff and shooed away by the diners. Peggy was just about to leave when she noticed a rowdy table where a group of friends were held to ransom by their life-of-the-party pal, seemingly at the tail end of an animated story. Peggy made her way over and waited for him to finish before speaking. “Would you like a souvenir photo, something to remember the occasion?” A girl in the party promptly answered: “No, thank you.” The storyteller, drunk and bloated, interjected. “Oh, come on!” He turned to Peggy: “Sure, we’ll get a picture.”“Dave!” protested the girl.
Peggy stood back with her camera. “Can you squeeze in together please?” She made a waving gesture. The group squeezed together. Peggy framed the pose: Dave smiled cheesily with his arms stretched around the women either side of him. One fellow held up his drink, a woman smiled into the camera sarcastically, and the girl who’d first said no turned to Dave with a why-are-you-letting-her-take-our-photo sneer. The flash went off. The Polaroid developed and Peggy passed it to Dave. The paper was not creased this time but there was still the bad colour and the top of Dave’s head was cut off.
“Twenty dollars thank you”, said Peggy, sweetly.
Dave pulled out a twenty and handed it to her and the group closed in to look at the photo. A roar of laughter erupted from the table as Peggy departed, which even her failing ears caught. A voice cut through the din.
“Hey, Dave’s had a lobotomy.”
“About time”, said the girl who’d said no.
“Check out the look on Zoe’s face”, observed another.
On her way home Peggy’s feet hurt so bad that she sat down to rest on the edge of the El Alamein fountain. She watched the street, staring blankly into the night, watching the ghosts of yesteryear. A car pulled up in front of her. Jasmine climbed out and walked toward Peggy in high heels. She sat down, crossed her long, muscular legs, and rummaged around in her purse for a cigarette. “Good thinking Peg. Time for a break.” Jasmine lit the cigarette and exhaled with a dramatic sigh. “You live alone in that nice old building, don’t you?” asked Jasmine. Peggy nodded. “No family?” Peggy nodded again. “I had a husband once but he died, a long time ago”, said Peggy. “I had a daughter. She passed too”. Jasmine sounded a small apologetic “oh”. “It’s not right for a child to die before a parent is it?” She looked briefly at Peg’s profile, took another drag of her cigarette and blew the smoke out in a straight line in front of her. “You don’t work these dirty streets unless you got a story eh? Ah well, they’re cleaning it up so much there won’t be anyone with stories left soon.”
Peggy’s mind drifted back to a time when going out to a restaurant on a Saturday night was special, when a woman would wear her finest dress and a man would wear his best suit and they would be greeted at the door by a bow-tied maitre’d and shown to an elegantly set table. And when Peggy approached them and offered to take a photograph almost everyone would jump at the chance to take a memento of good times home to show the family, a keepsake of happiness, to put in a frame on the mantel, or to give pride of place to in a photo album. Cheerful diners, in couples or groups, would pose, the women handsome with set-hair and pearls and the men slick and clean-shaven. Peggy spoke in a daze, as if talking to herself.
“It was wonderful then. People dressed up so nice for dinner. I took photos in every club and restaurant in the Cross. One Saturday night I took sixty photos!”
Peggy adjusted her wig, which was slipping, and continued.
“Back in those days everyone wanted a souvenir because the night was special, see. It’s not like that any more.”
“Nah”, said Jasmine, butting her cigarette out, “it’s all selfies and piss-ups these days, isn’t it?”
Jasmine stood up with a sigh.
“Better get back to the salt mines”, she said, laughing at her own joke.
Peggy stood and wavered slightly on her ulcerated foot. Jasmine grabbed Peggy’s arm and together they crossed the road. “Good night”, said Peggy, when they reached the other side, leaving Jasmine to take her position against the wall.
Peggy took the elevator up to the top floor and the cables creaked as the lift rose. She lay her camera down on the side table along with the $20. It wasn’t much, but it all helped. Peggy switched on the radio, poured herself a port, and sat down on the faded reproduction Louis XIV chair in the dim living room. She sipped her drink and tapped a cigarette out the pack, humming along to a jazz standard, a song she’d loved when she was a girl. Tommy Dorsey came on next and Peggy rose unsteadily, sore corn and all, and began dancing, slowly, around the room, port in hand. When the song ended Peggy stopped and stood looking through the window at the skeletons of trees.
The following Saturday night Peggy left her building with the camera around her neck. As she set off she saw Jasmine bent down to a car window. Peggy walked up The Strip, past an arguing tattooed couple and the bikers who still loitered around their motorcycles. She played out the same routine, weathering a string of ejections before taking refuge in The Bavarian on Victoria Street. As she entered the familiar clamour, the waiter looked up at her with a tense grimace. A waitress passed with plates in hand and glanced at Peggy with a regretful twist to her smile. A man Peggy had never seen before stood behind the counter. The headwaiter approached her and spoke in a low, sympathetic tone.
“I’m very sorry. We’ve got a new owner. He has a policy.”
Peggy stood with no perceptible response. He continued.
“You can’t take photos here any more. I’m very sorry.”
Peggy walked back down The Strip with throbbing feet. She rounded the corner into Potts Point, passing Jasmine’s empty spot. She entered her building, took the lift up, opened her door, and placed her camera on the side table. She moved into the kitchen and poured her nightly shot of port. The cat rubbed against her shin and purred. Peggy took the drink into her bedroom, and when she switched the light on the room illumed, revealing her bed with its frilled, stained mauve bedspread and dusty lady porcelain boudoir lamps on the bedside tables.
Peggy took a seat at the dresser and put her drink down next to the scattered make-up. She removed her wig, placing it on a battered Styrofoam wig head, and opened a jar of cold cream, spreading it onto her face and removing it with tissues. She sat staring at her bare, wrinkled face in the mirror until the cat jumped up onto the dresser, weaving before her, all croaky chirrups, all love.