This story was commissioned by Darebin Council for a project called ‘Writing this Place’, and originally published on the Darebin Arts website.
I have a photograph of my grandmother, Phyllis, taken in the Westgarth Cinema’s foyer. She’s about eighteen, standing by the marble dress-circle staircase, next to a man in his early twenties.
My mum and I found the photo in a shoebox while we were cleaning out Phyllis’s room at the aged-care facility.
‘Wow, Papa was cute,’ I said.
‘It’s not Papa,’ Mum said, moving on to clearing the next cupboard. After a minute or two she told me she thought the man’s name was Wesley.
Phyllis had talked a lot about somebody called Wes when she was really sick.
The photo is black and white, but hand-coloured so their cheeks are ethereally pink; Phyllis’s lips are too red and Wes’s eyes too blue. She’s smiling up at him from under her peek-a-boo hair-do. The rhinestone-rose brooch I remember from Christmases and funerals is pinned to her simple but shiny halter-neck dress, tiny hourglass figure — Veronica Lake. He’s holding his Humphrey Bogart hat by his side. Double-breasted suit, broad shoulders — Superman.
It was taken before the Greek-language films filled the house in the sixties and seventies. And long before the Valhalla moved in with its arthouse movies of the eighties and nineties — the High Street shopping strip was just derelict buildings and a fish and chip shop back then. No cafes, bars or organic foodstores bearing rooftop bicycle sculptures.
With the photo in Phyllis’s shoebox are letters from long-ago friends; cigarette cards of dogs, birds and butterflies; a Westgarth Theatre ticket to The Star Maker starring Bing Crosby and Linda Ware; and a picture postcard of the pyramids from Wesley Kennedy. Wes’s cursive handwriting is hard to read — tiny and squashed, as though he’d tried to jam too many words onto a surface that was never going to be big enough. And it’s smudged. By tears? the romantic in me wonders. More likely, time and wear has blurred the words. I can make out Dear Phil, still safe, practised action stations, pictures in the Officers Lounge, beautiful moonlit night, and the last line — just above the kisses — Can’t wait to take you to the flicks again when I get home.
Mum told me to stop looking at things and get a move on with the cleaning. I asked her if she wanted the shoebox. She thumbed through its contents and said she had enough stuff already, so I kept it.
Memory is like a camera — recording, illuminating, flashbulb moments. The unlit, blank and forgotten spaces we fill with stories.
It was the start of the war, before Pearl Harbour, and Australians were keen for mass entertainment, as well as war-news footage. Propaganda cartoons and messages from the prime minister would have screened before the main feature. And ads reassuring all would be well if we consumed Aeroplane Jelly and Bushells tea.
The Saturday night session of The Star Maker had been billed as A Grand Picture Evening. A glamorous occasion. That’s why a professional photographer had been there.
Phyllis’s smile was only for the camera; it would have slipped away as the flash faded, leaving her with the appearance of already having lost something. I can guess her thoughts: Please don’t go. And if Wes were to have read them, he’d have shaken them off with something like: ‘Let’s forget about everything for tonight and just enjoy the picture, live for the moment.’ From his crooked grin — a bit too clever or too cocky — I can tell he would have been all about fun. Perhaps a little heavy on bravado. Reckless?
The smell of popcorn, and Phyllis’s gardenia perfume, if she’d been able to afford it then. The heat from Wes’s hand on the small of her back. The youthful ache of expectation, for something to happen when the lights went down in the theatre. Maybe not a kiss — that was for later, under the streetlight on the way home — but she would have slipped off her gloves to hold his hand.
Today the cinema is pink in the autumn sun — a fairytale castle. In different light it might look imposing with its arched windows and patches of peeling paint. A Renaissance Palazzo tower. Below the parapet, a vertical sign of glass panels glints Westgarth Pictures.
At the box office a young woman in black scans the barcode on my phone and prints two tickets to Beauty and the Beast, while my daughter, Quinn, ponders the choc-top selection.
We cross the red-white-and-brown terrazzo floor and climb the staircase to cinema four. Back in Phyllis and Wes’s day there would have been only one cinema — the one with Art Deco light panels like giant Fruit Tingles on the ceiling. A couple of older women, with glasses of wine and a tube of chips, take the seats directly in front of us. Quinn has to sit on my knee to see.
We sigh with Belle, singing and longing for more than her provincial life. And laugh at Lumiere and Cogsworth. I sniff and pretend to have something in my eye when the last petal falls from the enchanted rose, surely dooming the Beast and his castle’s cursed inhabitants forever. But, of course, a Disney happy ending ties everything together beautifully.
I blink away that after-movie dreaminess as we follow the wine-and-tube-chips women down the stairs. A teenage couple bluster past on their way up to see Ghost in the Shell, holding hands and popcorn, and taking selfies.
‘The roof looks like papier-mâché,’ Quinn says. ‘Or the inside of an egg carton.’
I look up at the fibrous plaster; the geometric shapes in the leadlight glow gold, green and red.
The same ceiling Phyllis and Wes stood under.
I found Wesley Kennedy’s service records online. He enlisted in the army on 16 May 1940. He was from Preston. Age 21. Single. Occupation — theatre worker. That’s how he must have been able to wangle tickets to the Grand Picture Evening. The record doesn’t say what his actual job was — maybe an usher or projectionist; I see him more as the sweets-counter manager. It doesn’t list his place of employment either, so it could have been Hoyts in the city or any of the other local cinemas, but I like to think it was the Westgarth because Phyllis used to work at the tailor’s shop over the road. Perhaps Wes’s shifts started just as Phyllis was knocking off for the day and they watched each other from across the street, until one of them built up the courage to ask the other out. It would have been Wes — I imagine it was always the boy in those days.
Wes’s battalion embarked for the Middle East in October. He died in Syria on 24 June 1941. KILLED IN ACTION stamped in red letters at the top of his Service and Casualty form.
A door slams, the coffee machine behind the sweets counter gurgles, the number 86 tram dings and squeals to a stop out the front.
I imagine Wes leaning against one of the pillars in the vestibule, cigarette in one hand, rose in the other, gazing — through the glass doors with bevelled edges that distort the streetscape like a prism — across at the shop that’s now a drycleaners, waiting for the girl with peek-a-boo hair.
Can’t wait to take you to the flicks again.
My thoughts on writing place are here.