I know I’ll be late for work when the seven-thirty news starts on the car radio. Traffic on the bridge will be bad. It doesn’t really matter. Nobody expects Creatives to be on time.
The radio voice says, “The world’s favourite star man, David Bowie, is dead.”
No! A flash of white-hot grief fires my world to fragile china. If he could die, then I could die too. Now, it’s too late to create that piece of art I’ve been waiting for his music to inspire in me. Memories and dreams are ashes on the wind.
His songs echo from the radio. I’m transported back in time to a universe of androgynous, lost space travellers, when not fitting in was an art from; when silly girls had swooned over pretty-boy bands, and cool kids had smoked to base-heavy anthems.
I had listened for more. There were harmonies to break my heart, guitar riffs to stitch it back together, and rhythms to bind it all into the beat of blood through my veins. If I look at the paintings I did back then, I see undisciplined tantrums of colour and form. Don’t know why I keep them. Maybe to remind myself of the emotions I must find to paint what needs to be seen through the dross of our ordinary lives.
Time moves on, projecting me through traffic snarls, reserved car park, polished glass doors, sigh of a lift, then fresh flowers in Reception. The floral arrangement always lifts my spirits, even though I know it’s a sales tool, not an act of random kindness to the weary souls who come to the offices of Market Place for inspiration.
Inspiration! Where will I find it today? In the open plan office, blue-green light from computer screens plays across blank faces. The smell of ink and coffee is comforting, but I wish I could open a window to get a breath of creative angst. The windows are sealed to keep the air under control.
“Good morning, Sybil.” Pieter hasn’t lost all of his Dutch accent. It emphasises the correctness of his formal manner. He sticks to traditional tools to help him visualise his creations. Wielding protractor and stylo with precise movements over the drawing table, he has an old-world authority that survives outbreaks of creative anarchy in the art department. “Isaac wants to see you when you get in.”
His voice gives the same emphasis to a crisis as it does to a lunch order. I think he would probably be a lovely man to live with, if I wanted to live with a man. I tell him, “David Bowie dead.”
There is a lady-boy squeal from the wardrobe department, “I know!” One of the designers flourishes a length of shiny gauze as if it could shoo away unpleasant events. “It’s just as well. Poor man was falling apart. Look what they did to his teeth!”
Dumping my worn satchel and overloaded shoulder bag at my ergonomically designed work station, I can picture Bowie’s mouth. His cheeky, crooked teeth had given his smile a hint of irony. In the last pictures I’d seen of him, his teeth had been straightened and whitened. It had looked like the result of an overzealous American stylist. Now, I realise they were the prostheses of a dying man.
“Do you know what Isaac wants?” I ask Pieter.
I’m not worried. We’re often called in to speak to the Director, and discuss ideas.
One of the graphic artists, hunched over a computer screen, turns to sling an arm casually over the back of his chair. “No big loss, David Bowie. Just another gay boy trying to be a rocker.”
No wonder I’ve never liked Caleb. I want to tell him that death metal rock isn’t music; that facial piercing is mutilation, and his art is only colour between lines. I don’t have the courage to be that honest.
As I try to find the energy to argue with him, Lotta looks up from her work station. “Oh no, he was a truly great musician.” She should know. I’ve seen her play at Moxie’s Piano Bar.
Her voice is as smooth and velvety as her Polynesian skin. The keyboard ripples under her fingers with the effort of perfection lost in the generosity of her performance. I don’t understand why she’s not more famous.
“He was more a performance artist than a musician.” Pieter’s accent makes the statement fact.
The lady-boy drapes sequined cloth over his shoulders and struts around the office singing, “Jean Genie, lives on his back,” throwing back his head and splaying his arms with abandon. “Let yourself go, wo-oh!”
“I met him,” Lotta says proudly.
“You did?” I know somebody who has met David Bowie. “Where? When?”
“He was in Australia filming the video for Let’s Dance. I was working in a pub west of Sydney. He came in one afternoon, ordered a beer, just sat down and started playing a guitar.”
I ask, “What did you do?” What does a star smell like? Did you touch him?
“I served him a beer.” Lotta gives me her life-is-simple smile with a shrug to demonstrate the world sits lighter on her shoulders than mine.
“Did you see his eyes? Are they really different colours?”
“I don’t remember. He was a nice guy, but I got a bit flustered when I realised who he was. Hard to imagine a man wearing Stubbies is Zigggy Stardust.”
“He was wearing Stubbies?” My image of the Thin White Duke is shattered by a man dressed in the high-waisted, multi-pocketed style of your basic Aussie yobo.
“Yeah. He was just a normal bloke. I think he loved Australia. Didn’t have to look for life on another planet when he was there.”
I’ve been to Australia. If only I could have met him. He must have found a way to get past the cruel light and barren vistas of the oldest continent on earth. To me, the landscape was as flat and lifeless as the accent of the people in it. My imagination couldn’t escape their reality, so I had come home to paint what I know.
But I didn’t paint. I got a mortgage and took the best job I could find: creative artist for an advertising – sorry, Marketing Company in Auckland.
“Isaac.” Pieter reminds me of the summons.
Gathering a notepad and pen, I head for the Director’s office.
Isaac is sitting with his head in his hands, studying a layout spread over his desk. I recognise the story board of the Little Wonders ad series.
“Sybil,” he greets. “Take a chair.”
I’m not expecting anything too dramatic. We’ve already brainstormed the campaign, and Isaac doesn’t usually interfere, once we’ve decided on an angle.
“This eagle,” Isaac says, pointing to one of the characters I’ve drawn. “Why did you choose an eagle?”
“Flight, freedom, power and dependability; those were the key words we picked out for the campaign, weren’t they?”
“An eagle? These are kid’s toys. Couldn’t a swan convey those qualities?”
“I thought a swan was too bland. Girls would go for it, but we want to sell to boys as well, don’t we?”
“We want to sell to their mothers.”
“Only the mothers of girls?”
Isaac repeats the key words, pointing to the headings on our story board. “I know you can create a character without talons and hooked beak to convey those qualities, and still appeal to all potential buyers. I want a reaction, but make sure it’s the right one.”
I see the innocence of the ‘Buy Now’ labels in my father’s grocery store, and his disappointment when I decided to study Fine Arts at university. FINE ARTS! To me, it promised everything that was missing from my life. To him, it’s a foreign world inhabited by people wearing strange clothes, and smelling of incense oils.
In his world, the real jobs are in medicine, law or engineering. He managed to provide for his family of five children, working long hours buying and selling the necessities of other people’s lives. Education fired his hopes. I felt ungrateful for wanting more: a reason for being. For him, status and wealth are good enough reasons.
He had the grace to accept my decision. One day, I want to have a real piece of art work to show him; something that isn’t a web page, or a picture in a glossy magazine.
I sigh, “You want me to change it to a swan?”
“I want you to get your edge back, Sybil. Your eagle might suit your university professors, but this is the real world. We’re selling toys, not making an art-house film.”
It’s not the first time he’s used my education against me. When he hired me, he’d warned that he wanted an artist, not an academic. “I don’t want people to think. I want them to buy.”
It’s been fun, finding ways to make people take notice Now I want to hold their attention. My art has been honed for the knee-jerk reaction, but that’s as satisfying as hitting somebody with a rubber mallet.
“I can make it a swan.”
“No, I want you to make it what you like. Keep your eagle if you want, but think about your audience.”
“David Bowie said he did his best work when he wasn’t trying to please an audience.”
“Yeah, but Bowie was a genius. Even his experimental stuff was gold.”
“And my experiments are rubbish.” It comes out like a whine, so I add a bit of volume. “I’ve sold out. I should be creating real art, not cartoon characters to sell more stuff to people who already have enough.”
“What is it with you, Sybil? What’s going on in your life? You’ve lost something. An edge? A sense of humour? You need to lighten up. Find yourself a boyfriend, or a girlfriend. Get laid. Whatever it takes.”
This is going to sound pretentious, but it’s important that he understands I’m not a frustrated spinster. “I’m saving my emotional energy for my art.”
I wait for him to mock me, but he says kindly, “Artists are allowed to be loners. Art is supposed to be seen.”
“And the best way to be seen is in advertising material. Is that what you’re saying?”
His answer won’t matter. I already know it isn’t true. Artists like Bowie disproved it long ago, but he is dead. I feel as if the puppet master of my artistic awakening has dropped the strings. The inspiration of youth has collapsed into a mound of gaudy scraps.
Isaac says, “There’s nothing wrong with commercial art. If it’s not commercial, it’s just mental masturbation.”
I feel dirty, thinking of all those half-finished, over-painted canvases stacked in a spare room that doesn’t earn the title of Studio.
“Maybe I need some time off.”
“Time off in this business is professional suicide.”
“Do you want to push me, or hold the net?”
I want him to push me. Maybe, if I’m flying to my doom I’ll find whatever it is I’ve been waiting to come to me. Motivation? Talent? Courage?
“I want you to step away from the edge. You’ve lost something. It was real, so I hope you can find it again.”
I grab at his words, but can’t hold on to them. “What am I achieving? You’ve trained me to catch people’s attention. Then what? Nothing I do is going to change anyone’s life – change my life.”
“Oh, Sybil.” He sounds infinitely weary. “Art is a magic mirror; a reflection of life that shows people what they want to see. You can’t set out to show them what they want, because most of them don’t know it until they see it. Please yourself. It’s the only way you can please anyone else.”
“Isn’t that mental masturbation?”
“Maybe, but we’re all guilty of it. Everyone has a dream: to write a great novel, become Prime Minister, record a hit song. You know Lotta has just got through the auditions to compete in one of those TV talent competitions. What goals do you have? Have you entered any competitions? Applied for a scholarship? Enrolled in night classes?”
“Reality TV and night classes are for bored house-wives.”
“They’re for people who aren’t stars, yet.”
His assurance draws me into his team, rocketing away from the everyday. I can look back and see the bitter eyes and grasping talons of my eagle. “How about a hamster in a bi-plane? Flight, freedom, power and good old-fashioned dependability.”
He smiles at me. “Now you’re getting there. Show me what you can do with that.”
As I walk back into the workshops, Pieter looks at me enquiringly.
“He wants me to change the eagle.”
“Are you okay with that? You spent a lot of time on it.” Trust him to notice how much I labour over simple ideas that a real marketer could whip up in a few minutes.
I turn away from him. “Congratulations, Lotta!” I know she’s been auditioning for the TV show. When she hadn’t talked about it, I’d assumed she’d been an early elimination.
Her look could be confusion, then embarrassment. “Oh! I didn’t want to say anything in case I jinxed it.”
Now everyone is looking at her. “Star Sign New Zealand. I’ve been accepted to go on the show.”
“Competitor or judge?” Pieter asks.
“Competitor, of course. I’m not famous enough to be a judge.”
She should be a celebrity. There seems to be so much talent in the world, and not enough fame to go around.
“Oooh, sweetheart,” cries the lady-boy, rushing across the room to hug Lotta. “Are you gigging tonight, darling? Let’s all go out and celebrate.”
Everyone agrees, so I have to prepare for drinks at Moxie’s. There’s no time to drive home across the bridge so I’ll be wearing dull office clothes and faded make-up.
At the piano bar, we pull a couple of tables together to form a casual group. Isaac buys a round of drinks. I have nothing to celebrate, but share in a bottle of champagne, hoping that one glass might brighten my mood without putting me over the legal driving limit.
Isaac raises his glass of whisky on ice with the toast, “Here’s to following our dreams.” I watch the others negotiate lips around the garnish on their cocktails, or sip from plain glasses.
Pieter takes a drink from his orange juice, then puts the glass on the table. “Making dreams a reality, that’s our business.”
“Here’s to Lotta,” I raise my glass towards her as she steps up to the baby grand piano. It sits in a dimly lit corner, draped with velvet.
She raises her glass of water to us, then places it carefully on a coaster beside her sheet music. With a little wriggle, she settles onto the piano stool, lifts the lid on the keyboard, and stares at it.
The moment stretches into anxiety. Has she frozen with stage fright? A restless silence hangs in the air. The spectre of our mortality asks, “What are we doing here?”
She takes several deep breaths, sits tall and places her elegant hands on keyboard. Her touch is magnetic. Each black and white key seems to be playing itself, dipping into the piano, then springing back to her fingers.
When she starts to sing, an internal light outshines the reflection of our eyes on her. I am no longer a poorly dressed woman sipping overpriced wine at a piano bar in a small city on the edge of the world. Her magic lifts the weight of ordinary from me. In a bubble of happiness, the fantastic is possible.
During a break in the music, Pieter whispers, “That’s what I call giving a performance.”
I can only nod in agreement.
Finally, she plays her last chord, gathers her papers and closes the keyboard. I am warmed by afterglow, but feel the sorrow of loss as she walks away from the piano. When she joins our table, the feeling remains.
People around me are congratulating her. Listening to their predictions of fame and fortune, I remember a music video with a rock star tearing strips off his body, and throwing lumps of flesh into a seething mass of fans until only his skeleton is left. To me, that was his best work. His fans didn’t like it. It was his farewell to stardom.
Maybe, I don’t have what it takes to be a success. My imagination is blocked by trying to see how my work will be seen. Or maybe I’m afraid of being burned by starlight.
When I walk to my car, to drive back to my dungeon of tortured paintings, I hold onto memories of inspired music. City lights outshine the night sky, but I feel the black space left by a dead star; like the chords Bowie would play with one note in an unexpected place, leaving an opening in the harmony that could be filled with the possibility of life on Mars.
Then, I know what I must paint: the night sky with one star missing. It will show beauty made more precious by yearning for what we’ve lost. If only I’d created it before Bowie died, maybe he would have used it to illustrate his final album, Blackstar.
The sound of my footsteps, chipping at the city pavement, brings me back to earth. I have enough fantasy. I need a goal. This will be a piece of art I can show to my father while he is still in this world.
I must start tonight.
A very different version of an unsuccessful short story competition entry with the theme, “A Short Step to Stardom”.