Lucy could hear voices outside the window, urgent and secretive. They had woken her. She lay still, holding her breath, straining to hear but she couldn’t make out the words, and then they were gone. Her hand strayed to the empty side of the bed. Her husband wasn’t home yet.
It was a full moon. Not the huge harvest moon that sometimes hangs on the horizon, like a pockmarked giant in the luminous dusk. This moon was perfectly round and small. It was a hard, bright moon; a late night moon. Its light streamed sharply through the open wooden blinds.
Lucy lived in a converted corner shop at the end of a row of Victorian terraces. What had been the shop was now her front room, her work room, and the front door opened directly onto the footpath. The bedroom window also overlooked the footpath. On quiet afternoons as she worked at her desk, she would listen to the voices outside: neighbours exchanging gossip; concerned parents worrying over children; teenagers on their mobile phones. And dogs, rounding the blind corner, coming unexpectedly upon each other, a burst of barking, fangs and fear.
A few weeks earlier she’d been checking the mailbox when one of her neighbours had introduced himself and asked if she’d noticed that graffiti had been sprayed on her wall.
“It’s on the increase. Bloody vandals. Needs to be removed as soon as it happens or they’ll keep doing it,” he’d advised. “I’ve got the name of a really good product you can get now. I’ll drop it round. It’ll only take your husband a few minutes one morning. But best get onto it quickly.”
She’d felt like a child that had been let off with a warning. The next day she’d found the name of the product scribbled on a note in her letter box.
She got out of bed. As she looked out the window she realised that the street light was still out and so the moonlight made the street look like a black and white photograph; a silver gelatine print. Lucy knew that there was a number she could ring to report the broken street light, but she never remembered to do it during the day.
From inside she couldn’t actually see the graffiti. But she knew it was there. Mysterious inscriptions in black paint on her Federation Green walls. Were these cryptic tattoos curses? Or magic spells? Perhaps they were declarations of love. Her husband called them tags. He’d told her they were representations of the artist’s name. He joked that they should ask the vandals to spray something legible on the wall, a famous literary quote perhaps. That might quell the neighbours. She loved Stephen’s confidence. He wasn’t afraid of what the neighbours thought.
Lucy had arrived in Australia with her family when she was seven. They had been aliens in a new world with their strange language and funny food. She had tried as hard as she could to be invisible, do nothing out of the ordinary, and copy what other children did. Her parents didn’t understand that they needed to do this too; needed to be anonymous. Whenever a derogatory remark was made, she would instantly be on the alert for her father’s response; working quickly to distract him until the person was out of sight. He was so easy to anger, obsessed with the injustice that had been done. She wished he would just pretend it hadn’t happened. Ignore it like she had learnt to do. He was so unlike the laid back fathers that she would sometimes see picking up the other children after school.
A sound outside brought her back to the present. But there was no one there. It was probably a cat. This morning she’d found another note in her letter box. She didn’t think it was from the neighbour she had spoken to. He had signed his note with, “Thanks, David”. This note was anonymous. “Please clean up the graffiti. It’s becoming very annoying,” the neat capital letters had said.
She had felt the raw edge of anger deep in her stomach. Both the note and the anger had surprised her. Perhaps she was more like her father than she had wanted to admit. He too would have got angry at an anonymous note. But then he wouldn’t have let the graffiti go for so long. He’d always been one to act, not let things go. An idea struck her. She went into the front room, switched on the lights and her laptop. For the first time in weeks she began to feel at peace. On Monday morning she would ring up about the street lights.
Stephen walked down the dark street. He felt nauseous, like he’d narrowly avoided a car accident, but what had been avoided was a lynching. A crowd bent on lynching had been diverted. Perhaps they had not even known their intent but were like individual drops of water caught in a tidal wave.
An average Saturday night theatre audience had seen themselves portrayed on the stage, and had turned on the actor. Luckily they hadn’t thought to bring stones with them. They rarely did on a Saturday night.
Stephen was the director of the play. He had known that it was confronting. There was a particularly harsh scene in it which accused middle class Australians of simply watching the rest of the world starve on their ever widening TV screens. He had been prepared for terrible reviews and for people not to speak to him in the foyer but this had unnerved him. In all the years that he’d been a director, he’d never seen an audience respond like this. It had started with fidgeting, whispering, excessive coughing. And then a woman had decided to leave. That had spurred the audience on, turned them into a crowd, and what had been a quiet murmuring became audible. “Rubbish.” “Pathetic.” “What is this?”
As he sat frozen in the back row, unable to act, the frenzy had reached its climax, and he’d thought that someone was going to hurl themselves at the actors on the stage, and that then everyone else would follow.
And that’s when the cat had walked right across the stage; the ginger cat, the one that he hated. It was the theatre cat. It would sneak into the dressing room to urinate, and then sharpen its claws on the upholstery of the theatre seats. And if you tried to pick it up to take it out, if it didn’t scratch you, it would embed its claws into the seat, so that as you pulled at the cat, the claws remained in the seat, and you and it stretched together like a loaded sling shot. But it would never let go, and you had to simply give in and lower it back to the seat in defeat. He hated that cat. But tonight it had wrought a miracle.
It had walked into the theatre, and crossed between the crowd and the two actors still on the stage. They were in the middle of a scene with Kate, the actor that the main fury of the crowd was directed at, sitting on the floor. The cat had strolled right up to her, as if entirely unaware that it was in the firing line. Kate had stretched out her hand instinctively to touch the cat’s head. It had stepped into her lap, and with two neat circles had curled itself into place; as if its mistress was simply sitting in front of the TV, and not in the public square about to be lynched. It had then put its head on its paws and closed its eyes. And the abuse had stopped. The crowd, becalmed, had turned back into an audience. Some had sat down. Some had left quickly. As if coming out of a trance Stephen had finally been able to move. Annoyed at himself that he hadn’t done it sooner, he’d stopped the show and asked the rest of the audience to clear the theatre. In Kate’s lap the cat slept on, it’s breathing deep and calm.
After he had seen the last audience member out, he had returned to the theatre and sat in the front row to wait for the actors. They had gone into the dressing room. The cat had disappeared. The theatre was very quiet now. He’d kept the lights up but the shadows were deep around the edges of the stage. He wanted to talk to Kate particularly. Will, who played the husband, would just see it as an amusing incident to relay to his mates at the pub. The audience’s hatred had not been directed at him.
Stephen sat in his favourite seat in the front row. It was a seat he only sat in before and after the show. During a performance he always sat in the back row where he could see the actors and the audience. The actors said they hated being able to see him scribbling in his note book while they were on stage.
He was the kind of director that gave notes to the actors every night, even on closing night. Sometimes he’d email the notes. Sometimes he would insert them into the gorgeous coloured envelopes that his wife made. She was a visual artist, obsessed with paper, and she made miniature envelopes filled with inspiring messages, printed on paper that she’d salvaged. He would raid her workshop and use them for his notes, leaving them in the dressing room for the actors. He liked them to think he was a little eccentric. It made them more amenable to jumping through the hoops he set for them. At other times, he pasted his notes on the wall outside the dressing room for everyone to read. He liked to be unpredictable, but tonight he was the one that had been surprised.
Kate stood at the dressing room door and he could see clearly that she had been crying. He could feel her anger, a physical force, filling the space between them, seeping around him, and reaching right into the corners of the little black box theatre they were in. She was angry at him. She thought that he had used her as bait for his experiment. She moved to leave and so he spoke to stop her going.
“I want you to know that you were great tonight.”
“They hated me. I could feel their hate coming at me in waves.”
“They didn’t hate you. They disliked the character not you. Their response was to the strength of your acting.”
He wanted her to be able to see it as he did: a performance that struck at the heart, invoked guilt, told the audience that their everyday choices made them murderers.
“You don’t produce such a confronting piece and expect it to be popular.” He had said to them in rehearsals.
But actors were always inside the drama, and could never see what the audience saw. They were always looking into the lights and never into the play. The audience response had surprised him. But her response disappointed him. He had wanted her to be stronger than this. He wanted to say, “You are not an artist if you have nothing to say.”
But instead he said. “You like this play. You like what it says, what it’s trying to do. That’s why you chose it. That’s why it chose you. You’re strong. Just perform it one night at a time. Not every audience will be the same. Tonight’s audience was very unusual.”
“I need some sleep.” He knew she could read the question in his eyes. It softened her.
“I’ll have it sorted out for tomorrow night. I’ll go to yoga. I’ll do a lot of meditation. I’ll be all right.”
He nodded and watched her walk off the stage. She had a dancer’s body. He pictured it contorted into wild shapes with animal names. He pictured her sitting at some café by the beach, talking to her yoga teacher about how unsupportive her director was. The yoga teacher would be one of those tall, lithe men, strong and flexible, but also the kind of soft reflective type that women seemed to like. His wife did yoga. She said it gave her confidence.
Stephen’s reverie dropped as he reached William Street and saw his bus flying fast down the hill. He ran the last few metres. The bus driver grunted at him as he climbed on board. He took his seat and the bus moved on. At his bus stop the doors opened and expelled him onto the street and the bus moved away up another hill.
He lived in an old corner shop at the end of a row of Victorian terraces. As he walked home he could see the bay lit by the moon; a hard round disc of cold white light. This was the sun’s light, reflected off the hard face of the moon. This was light from another world. The newspaper had mentioned a king tide. Maybe if his wife wasn’t asleep they could walk down to the water.
Tides were the result of the gravitational pull of the moon; the moon exerting its influence on the earth. Wasn’t this why humans made art? To exert influence? The writer had written the play. He and the actors had breathed life into it, and the audience had come to see it; to participate in the making of it. And it had floated above them all like a silent, irresistible force. And those that were guilty had seen it as the truth. And they had risen in waves against it. So the play had had as powerful a pull as the moon.
That’s the image he would use for his notes to the actors tomorrow night. He would get his camera and take a photograph of the moon over the water, and write on the back of a print.
As he reached his front door he noticed a note stuck to it. His wife had written it. It was easy to read in the moonlight:
If you are concerned about the graffiti, please feel free to remove it,
or volunteer to feed the hungry,
or shelter the homeless,
or give money to the poor.
This wasn’t like any of her other work.
He hoped she was still awake.
The dawn came quietly to Lucy and Stephen’s street that Sunday morning. It would be a few more hours before any human soul stirred, but a ginger cat, fur flush to the wall, rounded the corner at a fast trot. It paid no attention to the sign on the door.
This story was published in Blue Crow Magazine Issue 4, October 2015