May 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Heaven, hell and limbo

By Anna Funder
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The first time I took my new baby out I put him in a sling and walked to the local shops, where I ran into a friend with two Papuan artists whose exhibition she had helped arrange. The artists were small, dignified women, dressed in long summer skirts. They looked me more directly in the eye than I am used to. “And this,” my friend said, pointing to the bundle on my chest, “is baby Max.” Before she’d finished speaking the tinier of the other women had her head in the sling. She stayed there some moments. When she withdrew she declared, softly, “Him gutpela [good fellow] pikinini man.” It seemed as much a blessing as a statement of fact, and I took it in the serious spirit in which it was offered.

When my friend asked where they might go to buy some warmer clothes for the women I suggested Broadway, our local shopping mall. “No,” she said, “that would be impossible.” They had recently visited a similar mall with disastrous results. The place had been full of bad spirits, congregating worst around where the escalators deliver up the people into the food court. The bad spirits had robbed one of the artists, Dapene, of her strength. It didn’t come back until the evening, after a walk with her toes in the earth by the sol wara (salt water).

Even after foraging there for enough years that I no longer get lost (not even in the double helix, double-sided car park) I can well believe our mall is a bad-spirit place. It is a people trap. In there it could be any weather, any day, any time between 1990 and 2020 and the lights would still be on, people still propped on escalators slurping Gloria Jeans coffees or huddled in atriums with their loot, downing junk food from every corner of the Earth and waiting for their strength to return. The place is like nothing, like transit, like airport shopping. It is Limbo. People are there because they haven’t been good enough or bad enough – and because they cannot find the exit.

These places are soulless because they are generic. And they are generic because they are expensive: only the larger chain stores can survive there. Quirkier expressions of the human spirit can only exist outside them and, on the block outside Broadway Shopping Centre, they do, like little birds living off the rhino’s back.

Every day I walk past this strip on Parramatta Road, right where the city peters out near the University of Sydney, between Glebe Point Road and the University of Technology, Sydney. I wonder at its neighbourly eclecticism: two op shops, a vast brothel called Kings Court, the Legion of Mary Catholic shop, a heavy metal–goth shop called Utopia Records, the Little Devil Vietnamese bakery, a bottle shop and a health service. It’s heaven and hell, cheek by jowl.

In the window of the Legion of Mary, bible books show a benign bloke of Middle Eastern appearance flanked by 1960s Dick and Jane children; there’s also a chewable Baby’s First Bible and a DVD of Fr Donald Calloway’s conversion story, ‘Live and Un-Drugged’. A TV beams American evangelists of the Eternal Word Television Network soundlessly to the street. But, mostly, there are statuettes of the Virgin, shelves and shelves of her. Frank, who works there, wears a flannelette shirt tucked deep into his trousers and a badge on his collar with a monogram for Jesus. He shows me holy medals from tiny plastic haberdashers’ drawers: St Christopher with a guardian angel ($0.95) or St Benedict in silver ($1.00). A “miraculous medal”, at $1.35, is the most expensive. They are light as game tokens. The Legion of Mary is an evangelising organisation of the Catholic Church, which goes out to prisons, nursing homes and hospitals.

After we’ve been talking for a while, I ask Frank whether it affects the Legion to be so close to a brothel.

“What brothel? I wasn’t aware—”

“It’s the huge, black building.”

“With the picture of the king?”

“Yes.”

“If my wife knew about it she’d kill me.” A strange smile flickers across his face. “Fortunately, I’m not married.”

I smile too because I think it’s his joke.

“If I wanted to have sex, I would want to with my wife,” he continues firmly.

“But you don’t have one.”

“No,” he says, thinking about that for a moment. “It’s all fornication these days.”

I switch the conversation to his other neighbours, the goths of Utopia.

“We’re trying to get rid of them,” Frank says, looking away behind his large, steel-rimmed glasses.

“How?”

“Prayer. We’re Catholics,” he explains, “devoted to Jesus and Mary. They are devoted to music and fashion. A secular movement with their backs to Jesus.”

To help things along, Frank’s superior has gone in and surreptitiously sprayed holy water around, as well as sprinkling holy salt. Frank himself has quietly secreted a miraculous medal behind some CDs. I ask him what he thinks that will do.

“Hopefully someone will notice,” he says. “Miracles can solve many things.”

“Are you hoping for a miracle?” I ask.

Frank doesn’t miss a beat. “Aren’t we all?”

Next door in Utopia the noise is deafening. A boy with “Die Harder” written on his T-shirt goes to get the manager. On TV screens hung from the ceiling, large tattooed men wrestle with guitars, their hair lank with sweat. Posters show Rob Zombie, who looks like he’s been dug up for our sins; a stand next to a wall of Metallica T-shirts (grinning skulls bursting out of the pyramids) offers “Fu*kn Cheap Horror DVDs”. All the writing on all the clothing, CDs and posters is in German Gothic script: instead of the Götterdämmerung or Blitzkrieg it’s Mötley Crüe that’s coming to a venue near you.

While I wait a soft-voiced goth girl offers help. She has blonde hair with pink strands underneath and a delicate face, pricked all over with studs like a latter-day Saint Sebastiane. I look down and see she’s wearing black pants with a pink pattern on them and I think, Sweet, even in hell they colour co-ordinate with their hair. Then I focus and realise the pattern says “Fuck” in curly pink letters, over and over. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Craig, the manager, explains that this is a “one-stop culture shop” where you can be kitted out with everything you need to be a goth. But it’s voluntary: “It’s not as if you’d walk in here as Mary Poppins,” he smiles oddly at me, “and walk out as the Devil.” He stresses that being a goth is all about freedom of expression and individuality. I peer about me at the uniform blackness, the cartoon iconography of death and grim, exaggerated masculinity.

“But it looks like they all want to be different in exactly the same way,” I say.

“Well,” Craig replies calmly, “they need to be able to recognise one another.”

When I mention the holy water, salt and the miraculous medal somewhere in his stacks, Craig sighs and shakes his head. “A spirit of belief is fine,” he says. “But I think those people have too many rules to their existence.”

Craig says that in the shop they often laugh about the block. “You’ve got the brothel, the Catholics, the goths, the bakery, the bottle shop, another brothel and the medical centre.” He chuckles, opening out his hands. “Why ever leave the block?” On Sundays, he and his colleagues get bread from the Little Devil and go across the road to feed the ducks.

“Are you telling me on any given Sunday I’ll find duck-feeding goths sitting around the pond?” I’m laughing too now.

“Yep,” he says. “From the one-stop block.”

Anna Funder

Anna Funder is the author of All That I Am, which won the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award, and the 2004 Samuel Johnson Prize–winning Stasiland. She is a chancellor’s postdoctoral fellow at UTS.

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