By Konrad Talmont-Kaminsk, ©2001 with thanks to the Melbourne Fashion Festival.
The summer night was hot and humid, the air stifling. Inside the warehouse it was even worse. The throng of people heavy with sweat and musky perfumes, the air trapped within the hot corrugated metal shell, shuddering to the bass rhythm. Beneath his Zegna jacket, Burnside’s shirt had stuck to his back and he could feel a bead of sweat slowly rolling down his spine. The light pulsated as he tried to push his way through the crowd. Darkness alternated with the blacklights that made every white surface phosphoresce. Across the massive over-hanging screen danced giants draped in improbable technicolour outfits. Burnside couldn’t help but shudder at their hackneyed attempts to be avant garde.
Towards the back of the crowd a few tiered rows of chairs had been set up and Burnside pushed his way towards the top of the scaffolding. From this vantage point he could watch the whole room. He liked to do that. He had always liked to watch people. They were infinitely interesting to him – in all their idiosyncratic variety.
The crowd here was young and trendy. Mostly in their early twenties, they seemed to have made a special effort to fit in with the latest fashions. Only a few looked older – skilled artists of chic at ease with the blatant adulation of the others. Everywhere he looked, Burnside could see gym-conditioned physiques, tans and peroxide blondes. Looking at the faces of the kids he could see their excited eyes and open, laughing mouths; mute beneath the deafening music. He often wondered how they did that, how they managed that unselfconscious, easy happiness. Even when he had been their age, he had always had an eye out for how he must look to others, always had an awareness that the world is a much bigger and often darker place.
The music was loud and he could feel the deep bass rhythm thumping through him. There was someone standing next to him, trying to talk to him. It was one of those bright-eyed girls but she looked somewhat concerned. He tried to make out as best as he could what she was saying and finally half-heard, half-guessed that a friend of hers had sprained her ankle. She must have thought he was security. He realised how out of place he must look with his suit, tie and receding hair-line. Smiling apologetically at the slip of a girl he pointed her towards a bulky looking man standing a few metres away. He’d noticed his ear-mike and a slight bulge in his armpit when he walked past him.
I suppose I am security – Burnside thought after she left. There would be a certain simple joy in helping the girl’s friend with a sprained ankle. If only everything could be solved with a cold compress.
The music stopped and the lights changed on the stage as a tall black man walked out into the spotlights. Wearing a top hat, white fluffy shirt and a long leather jacket he strode towards the light. He stood beside the waiting mike just long enough for everyone’s attention to be focused upon him. Burnside wondered where the organisers had managed to dig up this guy. He seemed more filled with bravado than any real talent for the theatrical. Suddenly, from out behind his jacket, the guy whipped out a large book. He held it up high and opened it, releasing flames. Waiting a fraction of a second too long he finally spoke in a deep, melodramatic voice.
I bring you fire, to light your desire!
Burnside shuddered. Now there’s a superannuated rhyme if I ever heard one – he thought to himself.
The black guy was walking off the stage, having done his bit. Burnside was happy to be standing in the darkness, anonymous, not connected with the gauche theatrics on stage. He far preferred to just observe. Action carried with itself two dangers Burnside never grew to accept. The danger of failure he could live with, though never with ease. What he found even worse was that every act closed off other possibilities. When he was young he would always take ages to make any move playing chess. Every move carried with itself a price, with every move an infinite world died. It was always the wish to see how the other player would react that got him to move his piece.
The lights and the music had changed once again. The driving, pulsating rhythm shook the warehouse, the lights snapping back and forth between the audience and the stage. The models began to walk out in their outfits and stride purposefully up and down the cat-walk. He paid little attention to the clothes, only enough to see that they were aimed squarely at their market. The guys were dressed up to look vaguely dangerous but the clothes lacked imagination. The girls were better, their clothing a bit more adventurous. Most of the time, Burnside just watched their faces as the uniformly gaunt models made their way along the raised promenade. He was struck by the unvarying tone of disengagement. All of these beautiful faces were blank, looking vaguely off into the distance. They reminded him of something. He wasn’t sure quite what.
Looking around he noticed that the overhanging screen was now showing quick images of war and destruction. The models paced up and down the cat-walk in their expensive dresses as the atomic mushroom blossomed and Hiroshima burned behind them. Was this what hip meant today? Burnside tried unavailingly to grasp why anyone would use such images to sell clothes.
Every few minutes a new designer would have their chance to show off their clothing. Every few minutes the tempo and atmosphere would change. Soon enough, it all began to wash over Burnside. He hadn’t come to watch the trendy set find out how they could feed their egos, massaging their jaded nerves with cheap faux danger.
Burnside thought about his disdain for the posing. He recognised the contradiction within his attitude. They are lucky – he knew – and I am not just a little jealous. He didn’t mind not being young but there was much he often wished that he could recapture. The one thing he couldn’t stand was the hypocrisy that their imagined security afforded them. No, not even that. They had the right to it, they had the right to play. Such dissembling just seemed like a waste of precious youth from his point of view.
Then she walked out. He was alerted by the sudden flurry of flashes from the gaggle of press photographers gathered at the end of the cat-walk. She couldn’t have been much older than sixteen, only a couple years more than his own girls. Sauntering forth, she made her graceful way slowly towards the cameras. Her hips would only sway gently as she walked, placing foot before foot. Her whole figure spoke poise, her face noble and gentler than those of the others – she looked every bit a princess. Anika was the name her agent had chosen for her but she had been born Angela Avery. Her father worked in an insurance firm while her mother kept house in the suburbs. She had almost died of pneumonia when she was five. She had fallen into an iced-over lake and had to spend several weeks in hospital. Her grades were consistently adequate. Her first modelling job was a couple of years back for a clothing catalogue. It had been organised by a friend of her mother’s and her future agent spotted her in it and called her. Now she was hot property, the girls’ magazines falling over themselves to put her on their cover. The next Christie, the Elle of tomorrow.
Thus far she had not got involved with the drug scene that permeated the fashion industry. She had had a string of boyfriends, however, and even flirted with same-sex relations. Eight months previously she had gone secretly to a clinic for an abortion. Her parents didn’t know about that. The agent had organised everything, quite possibly including the conception.
None of this explained to Burnside, however, why Desmond had told him to contact her. Only the vague suggestion that she might have some valuable information. Burnside still didn’t understand Desmond, had only known him a short while and could not tell why the other did what he did. That was why Burnside now watched Anika so intently. Trying to guess from the way she held her shoulders, from the way the powder blue sweater moved with her, what she might be thinking, why she might be useful. Her face was a gentle face that seemed to know nothing of cruelty. She seemed perfectly at peace as she turned smoothly at the end of the promenade.
Burnside had never been particularly good at chess. Whenever he played anyone he would normally lose the first few games. Only once he had understood the other player would he know how to catch them out. In a way the first few games were always a gambit with Burnside – he had grown to understand that he needed to lose them so that he might have a chance later. He wondered if perhaps this evening was a gambit and if he was the pawn.
As Anika disappeared from view, Burnside made his way down into the crowd and towards the stage door – a flap of fabric that concealed the backstage from public. A security woman stood there, a mike hanging loose from her ear-piece. Burnside did not have a pass on him – there hadn’t been enough time to organise one, Desmond had said. Waiting and watching the woman, he stayed in the darkness. When a couple of men walked past him he joined in behind them matching their pace. The front guy walked up to the woman and showing his pass pointed towards the guy behind him. He shouted something into the woman’s ear that she almost certainly did not hear with the speakers barely five metres away. She waved them through, Burnside going in with the others.
The scene behind the stage was one of sheer bedlam. People rushed back and forth trying to shout over the music. Nervous designers made last minute changes to the wardrobe, fussing and flustering over details of clothes. Half-naked models hurriedly changed without paying attention to people running past. At the same time make-up experts and an army of helpers pulled and tucked in a desperate attempt to get the models ready for a return to the stage. Boxes and racks of clothing stood open in seeming disarray. A few journalists bounced between the others trying to catch a quote or a behind-the-scenes photo. Invited guests either tried to stay out of the way or, if they thought themselves important, tried to make themselves noticed in the chaos.
Burnside quickly took in the room and made his way to where Anika was busy changing. She had thrown off her sweater and was now putting on what looked like a long creme dress while an attendant tried to pat the sweat from her face. He was almost beside her when she looked up and saw him.
I’ll finish now – she said to the attendant, the faintest note of fear in her voice. Burnside wondered what she might be afraid of. Perhaps him.
Good evening, my name is Dalton, I believe you were told that I will be contacting you – Burnside said to her while she wriggled into the dress.
Hello, Ag… Mister Dalton – she replied faltering in mind-sentence and quickly looked about to see if anyone had noticed. She continued – I didn’t know you’d come so quickly.
Her voice made it obvious. She was half-glad that he was here and half concerned at what might follow. Clearly something her happened to set her on edge but this could have been anything. For all that Burnside knew, it could have just been people snorting cocaine. Desmond had told him nothing. For a second Burnside wondered if, perhaps, this was actually Desmond’s daughter and Desmond just wanted Burnside to look-out for her.
I can’t talk right now – she said – but please don’t go away, come back and talk to me after the show. She shouted to one of the attendants to do up her back and bending close to Burnside she stuttered – I’ve seen, I’ve seen…
He looked at her face. For a moment he could see pain in her eyes before it was replaced by what he now realised was a mask of noble poise. That short moment cut deep into him and she was already walking away before he realised. Turning around, she called out to him – Please, don’t go away.
Getting back out into the main part of the warehouse Burnside was soon again standing in the crowd. The show was still continuing, further groups of models striding back and forth along the raised promenade. The air had, if anything, grown hotter. Smoke machines were pumping veils of fog into the air, thick as it already was with the sweat and the hot breath of hundreds of people. Burnside hated the thought of Anika getting involved with anything that might require the attentions of people like Desmond and himself. What would happen to her? There had been something more than pain in that look of hers, there had been innocence doomed by whatever she’d already learned. How much would be lost even if they should succeed?
From where he stood, Burnside could see the glittering disco balls that hung suspended beneath the ceiling – lights reflecting off them in a coruscating array of colours. A sense of foreboding gripped Burnside and he checked that the gun was in the holster. The line of clothing that was currently on parade had stuck to bright yellow colours with shades of lime running through. Outfits of crushed silk hung in layers on the gaunt models like rags upon urchins. That was it. That catatonic detached look, those glassed over eyes of the models. He had last seen it upon a group of abused children.
Around him, the crowd laughed, clapped and swung with the music. Everything sounded distant, the flash-lights on the cameras taking a very long time. Anika walked out. She wore crushed silk like the others but her dress was pure white. The models gathered on the stage parted as she strode up towards the flashes of the cameras.
Why here – the thought crossed his mind.
He saw her reach the end of the cat-walk and slowly raise her arms above her in a pose like some Grecian nymph. He heard the distant crescendo and saw her silhouetted in the almost constant flash of lights. He saw her wilting slowly, sliding down to the ground. He watched as red blossomed on the pristine silk that covered her heart. He heard the wild applause of the crowd.