from the editor's desk

From Our Archive: ‘Film’ by Peter Cowan

With the imminent arrival of Westerly 65.1 in print, we’d like to thank everyone that’s been involved in 65 years of great literature from Western Australia and beyond.

Peter Cowan is remembered as one of Western Australia’s favourite writers; lyrical in his novels and short stories, and a great champion for writing in the state. He remains amongst Westerly‘s longest serving editors (we recommend Delys Bird’s excellent article on his time at the helm) and the Peter Cowan Writers Centre continues to support Perth writers in his name today.

‘Film’ was first published way back in 1961; you can find it in Westerly 6.2.

Mr. Jones whistled in the bathroom, a rather mournful note, but, he felt, tuneful, even if it did not rise much above the sound of the electric razor.

As he went across to the breakfast table he heard his wife in the kitchen, and he knew the words she would presently say. As he ate he waited for them. She did not have breakfast, but with her in the kitchen it was not like eating alone.

“Your dinner will be in the oven,” she said, and he heard the toaster click as she opened it. “It will keep hot. I’ll be late tonight. It’s my club evening, you know.”

“Yes,” he said.

He finished the toast, and drank his coffee, the half cup he always kept until last. He rose from the table and went back to the bathroom. In the mirror he saw his thinning black hair, the comb moving easily to flatten it across his white scalp. He peered at it as if with sudden care, and then at his face as though to inspect the thoroughness of his shave.

As he walked towards the door his wife came into the hall, and for a moment was standing close to him in a routine that held them both, save that this morning her face did not lift to his, for her skin was shiny with cream that she would, he supposed, leave on all the morning. Their eyes met though he did not see her, he had not looked at her for years, their glance and smile encased in habit.

He walked down the road to the bus stop, his pace quicker in the thin morning sunlight so that he arrived ahead of at least two of his neighbours, which they noticed and remarked upon, their laughter mingling as the squeal of the bus brakes killed all other sound.

In the office his desk held the files, the cards, the proposal forms, the renewal reminders, which filled the day in a comfortable and undemanding routine. It was a routine which he no longer questioned, though this morning he looked more frequently at the large plain office clock, and at times towards the window that gave onto the small alleyway and the blank walls of another building, grey with a thin grime. During the day an angle of sunlight edged down the wall, to withdraw imperceptibly in the afternoon so that he was not aware of its going.

At ten to five he began to tidy his desk, and the man opposite said:

“Looks bad—you’re not heading for a night out?”

“Not me.” Mr. Jones smiled. It was a joke they exchanged with one another, familiar, comfortable, like the work contained in the folders and files, the wide impersonal room itself, the desks where they had sat separated by the same few feet of aisle through the greater part of their lives. The few years of war had made a minor gulf like some extension of the aisle, but even that seemed now to have shrunk till it might not have existed. And when they left those desks, as he rose now from his own, the clock almost on the hour, they were unknown to one another.

The elevator lifted him swiftly to the higher floor. In the mirror of the office toilet he again combed his hair, the light from the windows of the west wall reflected from the white tiles and the glass itself so that the very pores of his skin seemed magnified in the mirror, and the thin stubble of his beard was apparent; in his mind the echo of an advertising slogan rang.

In the street he walked quickly, the crowds thickening, beginning to jostle in the narrow arcades and to pack the crosswalks and intersections.

At the entrance to an arcade dominated by a cinema, the coloured signs had begun to emerge from the dying afternoon light, he looked at them briefly as he went towards the small glass cubicle. With his thin purple coloured ticket in his fingers he climbed the stairs into the ostentation of the foyer and then a briefer flight of carpeted stairs that led to the lounge. His purple ticket was torn in two by the purple-robed girl, and to the quiet music he found himself a seat on the aisle, accepting comfort gratefully, looking cursorily at the garish advertising signs upon the screen.

Then the music died, the signs were forgotten, and in the darkness the figures began to move, to gain compulsion and significance, and their movement and the pattern they wove held a strange compelling validity; like those smaller ciphers whose reality they were, they sought and found one another, moving in their enlarged world, and there was the birth of love, the knowledge of beauty, and its promise, until, in an inevitable but unexpected progression that brought cipher and shadow unexpectedly to like size, fear and darkness grew to bring destruction, the erasure of love, and the sudden resisted magnification of death.

Those who walked down the steps did not look at one another, they had been perhaps deluded, denied assurance. In the streets that were now brightly lit they dispersed quietly.

Mr. Jones walked slowly. The evening crowds had not begun to enter the city, though people passed endlessly upon the pavement. He looked at them, and it was as if he sought someone, familiarity and routine, the security of acceptance, dissolved in the darkness which he had just left, as if in those faces beneath the lights and coloured night signs the haunting beauty of the girl who had in that other darkness died, might have been recreated.

He walked out of the main city blocks, and he could feel the faint wind blowing in from the river. The pavements became less light and fewer people passed him. He walked without particular direction. He could not go home, it was as if all that he had known was rendered unendurable, cast by those shadows upon the screen into a relief he could not accept. He went towards the darkness of the river bank and of the water. The street lights were gone, the night signs glowed and were lost upon the dark surface. He looked at them as he walked slowly, they were like the screen upon which those other colours had lived.

He could hear the traffic on the through road behind him. Near a small jetty that had private launches moored about it he looked at the water that was dark and still, deep here, he thought, and as always such water reminded him that he could not swim, that somehow he had never learned, it was a thing of which he was vaguely ashamed.

At first the woman standing on the wooden kerbing a little to the other side of the jetty seemed like a part of the shadow of one of the old palms that had ben planted irregularly along the bank. She had her back to him. As he walked towards her he saw that she wore a dark coat, the collar turned high so that it cloaked part of her head and face. It was drawn in at the waist and about her hips, and then it might have merged with the deeper shadow of the ground so that she seemed to rise strangely from the darkness.

For a moment his steps slowed, and it was as if those other shadows which still held his mind had taken sudden shape, one, the girl, materialised as though recreated upon this present screen of the dark water. The woman turned slightly, as if she heard him, and he knew that he must walk past along the dark embankment, the night signs quivering upon the water. But she did not move and he heard his own voice as if he had not chosen the words:

“It’s very still—the water—you can read the advertising signs. . . .”

“Yes.” Her voice held no expression. “Like this—very beautiful, isn’t it.”

He could not see her face clearly. He no longer knew what to say.

“I often come here,” she said.

If he could find no words she would go. He said: “It is quiet—even with the traffic so close—somehow.”

“There are no people.”

“No. It’s almost not part of the city.”

She said: “I walk along to the bridge and back—it is like something quite different at night.”

He began to walk beside her, seeing the arc of light across the dark water where the roads converged and the lines of the street lamps. She walked unhurriedly, he could not see her face which the collar of her coat hid, only the line of her forehead, and her hair which was dark, almost as if undivided from the material of her coat.

She said: “Do you come here often?”

“No,” he said. “I…” he did not know if he could explain, and yet beyond all things it was important that she should understand. “I—went to see a film. It was an—unusual one. When I came out I—well, I was just walking about.”

It was lame enough, he realised, and yet he could explain no further. But she said:

“I know how one can do that.”

“You do?” And then he knew that of course she would not have been here otherwise. And that she would not have spoken to him.

“Oh yes. Once I spent a lot of my time like that.” She laughed quickly. “Living vicariously. But if you go often enough the magic wears off, I’m afraid.”

‘Perhaps,” he said. “But it was not quite that. I—I don’t know—I just couldn’t face things afterwards. I just had to walk about a bit.”

He felt ashamed of the words that it seemed she had in some way forced him into, as if he had no alternative but to find them.

“I know.”

“I don’t go very often. But I suppose I do go regularly. Every three weeks.”

“A special night.”

“Something like that.”

They were near the bridge, the traffic lanes closer to them, the cars’ headlights becoming lost in the clearer illumination. She had turned, looking towards the other shore, and he saw the coloured signs elongated into the darkness.

“I’m always meaning to go across,” she said. “But I never seem to get further than this.”

“I didn’t expect to come here, really,” he said. “It’s strange—to meet someone else.”

“You work in town?”

“Yes. Insurance. On the inside staff.”

“I’m a schoolteacher,” she said. “I have quite a nice room. I’m not poor.” She laughed in the same quick way that had made him feel she was, despite her apparent assurance, perhaps nervous. “Yet I come here.”

It was as if she no longer spoke to him, repeating something for herself that it might have meaning. He was a little uneasy, he did not know much about schoolteachers save that he had always thought of them as beings whose weaknesses were of a more obvious nature. But as she stood, her back now towards him, the dark coat shaped about her body, the collar turned high, she was outlined sharply against the reflections that flickered in colours across the water, herself upon a screen, and he could have touched her, turning her towards him, erasing the words that it seemed held them from one another. He had a moment of certainty that he had only to step towards her, touching her arms that she held loosely at her sides. Then, as if she had known, she turned, and the light from the bridge and the traffic lanes was clear upon her face that was framed as if in emphasis by the dark collar of her coat.

Mr. Jones saw that she was not young. She might have been his own age, she might have been the age of his wife, he thought suddenly, as if he was abruptly reminded. She wore no makeup, and before her gaze he looked away. The outline of the buildings rose sharply from behind the through road and the traffic lanes, curving about the blackness of the river. He wished she would speak, not watch him without expression as he made a pretence of looking at the traffic.

“We’d best walk back,” she said slowly.

He turned without speaking. The evening traffic was merging into lines of light that converged upon the city, its sound constant upon the road behind them as they walked.

She said: “And you enjoyed your film?”

“Yes. Yes. It—was unusual. Clever, though. It made you think.”

“That would be unusual for a film.”

He echoed her faint laugh.

“It was very moving,” he said, as if in justification and defense of the shadowed world he had shared and that, now, it seemed she had somehow denied.

“Perhaps I should see it,” she said. “Though—I don’t know.”

She did not ask him the name of the film, and he did not offer it. Beyond the narrow verge of grass he could see the crosswalk. He said:

“I’ll have to get my bus along there.”

She did not look in the direction of his gesture.

“Yes. And thank you for our walk.”

“I—enjoyed it.”

“Goodnight,” she said.

He went towards the crosswalk. He had to wait for the traffic, and as he stood by the kerb he looked back quickly towards the river. The woman was walking away along the embankment, the coloured lights of the night signs bathed suddenly her dark coat and were gone. She was walking slowly. The traffic cleared before him and he began to cross. He felt hungry. His dinner would be in the oven, still warm.

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