Read the First Chapter of The Albatross Necklace
NEW YEAR’S DAY 1997, several minutes after midnight. Stefan Novak is on the balcony of his third storey unit. He’s alone, his mood sombre. His face is lean, his black hair thick with curls and his dark eyes brooding. Striking cheekbones and a trim beard lend him an unconventional piratical look. Distracted, he watches rockets soaring skywards from Yarra’s Southbank, their detonations thumping among car horns blaring on Lygon Street at the end of the laneway below. Blazing spheres of red and green and blue erupt over the silhouette of Melbourne’s city centre, where they hang suspended beneath the upturned vault of a cloud-streaked sky before waning in a glitter of powdered dust and smoke as more stream up in dazzling showers of sparks.
New beginnings, Stefan thinks. It’s time. Time to get my act together, to do something out of left field to rebuild my shipwrecked life, to swim for it across the current and avoid going under.
Then he hears the telephone shrilling over the clang of pots and pans and voices yahooing on the balconies below. Desperate for a call from Tania — his partner of two years, who walked out on him without explanation a week ago — he scrambles through the sliding door to answer it.
‘Steve Novak?’ the caller asks, barely audible over the ferocious baying of two Dobermans locked away next door, hysterical at the ruckus.
‘Yes, this is Stefan,’ he shouts, disappointed and bewildered by an unexpected caller after midnight whose voice, though strangely familiar, he fails to recognise.
‘Stefan . . . you’re still up. Good. I haven’t dragged you outta bed.’
‘No, I’ve been watching the fireworks. I’m about to hit the sack.’
‘Good onya. Look, I know the timing’s lousy and I won’t keep you, but I’ve got a favour to ask. Something for you to mull over before you give me the answer I want.’
‘What answer’s that?’
‘A simple yes will do me. That’s all I’m after, bro. No argument.’ And then, as the dogs quieten, ‘Those noisy buggers yours?’
No argument from you perhaps, Stefan thinks, and bro? Why bro? On guard, he replies warily, ‘A simple yes sounds complicated to me. And no, the dogs belong next door.’ He wonders who he’s dealing with — some crank who has hacked his name and number? He considers replacing the receiver and then thinks better of it.
Sensing Stefan is about to ask who on earth he is and what he wants at that time of night, the caller introduces himself. ‘This is Lennard Currie,’ he says, ‘but you can call me Ace.’
Stefan is taken aback. While they’ve never met, he knows the name and reputation. He has admired Lennard’s work for years; and now he recognises his voice: a resonant baritone with a characteristic outback intonation he heard for the first time last September when Lennard took part in the SBS television debate on Reconciliation. He’d spoken with conviction that night, his argument laced with irony, his powerful frame standing out among the panellists. Some friends had considered his point of view convincing; but Stefan among others was sceptical of his line of reasoning that raised more questions than it answered.
He hears voices in the background, laughter and the faint sound of a guitar with someone singing to it. He wonders where Lennard’s calling from and what he wants. If he’s chasing a donation of some sort he’s pushing his luck, he thinks. I’m skint and a month in arrears with the rent.
‘I’m not expectin a snap decision,’ Lennard continues. ‘I’ll give you three days to chew it over.’
‘That’s generous of you,’ Stefan replies drily. ‘So I do have a say.’
‘Glad we got that sorted. So what am I agreeing to?’
‘Just a minute, hold your horses.’ Lennard shouts and silence falls, broken by the muted song and the guitar. ‘It’s not so much a favour as a proposition,’ he goes on, ‘an offer too good to knock back. Just hear me out. You’ll get my drift.’
‘So ask away.’
There’s another pause, longer this time, then Stefan hears Lennard speak to someone across the room. There’s a sudden burst of laughter and Stefan wonders, Is the joke on me?
Lennard Currie: he has been at the cutting edge of Australian art since the early 1970’s — Aboriginal Australian art. He’s one of its leading lights, a maestro whose glass sculptures are acknowledged world-wide, fetching five and six-figure prices. Several of his pieces are on show in London’s Victoria and Albert and New York’s Metropolitan and Corning Glass Museums; and the Acquisitions Committee for the Quai Branly Museum of indigenous art proposed for Paris has recently approached him to prepare an installation as part of its landscaping.
A month ago Stefan visited Lennard’s latest exhibition. He walked through the shadowed colonnades of the National Gallery into a breathtaking blaze of colour flashing through a forest of slender head-high glass sculptures radiating light. It seemed a liquid flame lit by the fiery desert sun glowed in the recesses of Lennard’s imagination and by some magical sleight of hand and eye he’d brought the quartz outcrops and scorched red dunes and sweeping skies of the western desert indoors with him.
One sculpture in particular caught Stefan’s eye: the centrepiece, an exquisite, towering statuette of dichroic glass lit alternately from within and without, each flash lasting thirty seconds. It glowed in a fiery magenta wash when light was transmitted from within, and reflected sensuous tones of aquamarine and turquoise when struck by light from without. The raw beauty of its colours and the patterns that materialised like fiery hieroglyphs through its core in waves of light on light enthralled him. He wondered how much colloidal silver and gold Lennard had used in the glass batch to create the effect. Or had he come up with an experimental chemical composition to achieve it?
Back on the street that afternoon, envy speared through him as he compared the failure of his crystalware business with Lennard’s success. He wondered bitterly how much of that success was attributable to Lennard’s Aboriginality, singling him out for the approval and support of the art fraternity . . . then he acknowledged his thoughts were mean-spirited and regretted his prejudice. The sculptures were one of a kind, technical mastery and creative flair evident in their arresting brilliance. Lennard’s streak of genius in combining glass and light the way he did deserved accolades. About to tear up the exhibition catalogue, he thought better of it. He folded it into his back pocket.
Now he looks down at the unopened letters scattered beside the telephone and rummages through them to find the catalogue. On its cover vermilion and scarlet patterns swirl through a glass figurine beneath the words Earth and Fire. On the back is a photograph of Lennard, masked and pouring a braid of red-hot light from a ladle brimming with molten glass. He has signed his Aboriginal name across it: Malajarri. Stefan reads the translation and his smile is sardonic: Thunder.
‘So what are you after?’ Stefan breaks the silence.
‘How old are you? In your late thirties or so, yes?’
‘Give or take,’ Stefan replies, mystified. ‘I’m one year shy of the big four-o.’ Then he adds drily, ‘I can’t bloody wait.’
‘And I’m fifty-five as of yesterday, fifty-five to the day if you count back twenty minutes. We’re still celebratin here.’
Good God Almighty! Stefan thinks. You’ve got sixteen years on me and you’re celebrating when you should be in mourning? ‘So congratulations,’ his voice is caustic, ‘it’s a race against time, the older you get.’
‘Not when you’re havin fun, by crikeys.’
‘Sure am, bro. I’m packin it in before I finally pack it in. It’s the only way to go.’ He chuckles, and then, businesslike, ‘So, thirty nine, what’s that make the two of us? A hundred?’
‘Close enough. Ninety four.’
‘Then we’ve got all the experience we need, all the know-how in the world.’
Stefan is unprepared for Lennard’s reply.
‘You and me, we’re gunna cast a monument: a replica of Jandamarra’s rock.’
‘The one in Windjana Gorge. You ever seen it?’
‘Then I’ll take you there, to the Kimberley. You haven’t lived until you’ve been. Like I say, we’re gunna sculpt the bugger in solid glass. It’ll be the biggest thing since Palomar — half as big again, in fact.’
‘Bigger than Palomar? Pull the other one.’
‘I’ve never been more dinkum in my life.’
Now you’re really taking the mick, Stefan thinks. He frowns intently, picturing Hale’s gigantic Pyrex telescope disc at Palomar: some twenty tons in weight, six metres across and two years in the cooling, it took eleven painstaking years to grind and polish into a flawless parabolic mirror reflecting the farthest reachable stars. He listens as Lennard suggests they put their combined experience in the technical intricacies of working with molten glass to good use; and then he’s astonished to hear Lennard mention the problems they might face firing a complicated mix including silicates of garnet sand.
‘Did you say garnet sand?’
‘You heard me right. Garnet buthurru. It’s there by the truckload in the Hutt lagoon dunes, acres of it, in my Nhanda brothers’ country, just sittin there waitin for us to dig it up.’
He has never worked with garnet silicates before, Lennard admits, but he has a feeling in his bones that Stefan will revel in manipulating the extreme temperatures required to release the spectacular colours that must be lying dormant in the garnet’s carmine pink.
And he’s right! Stefan’s mind races. Garnet, with its unpredictable thermodynamic properties and precarious melting point presents a technical challenge he’d relish tackling: the chemical balance in the mixes, the subtle interaction with other metals for colour contrast, the complex process of bringing down the temperatures during the annealing . . . and always those unforeseen intractable problems to resolve with spotting, or with air bubbles contaminating the final product.
Then he looks sceptically at Lennard’s picture on the catalogue and slowly shakes his head. Given garnet’s hardness — if he remembers correctly it’s 7 on the Mohs scale — he doubts the feasibility of using it in glass. It is useful in jewellery design or as a sandblasting abrasive or polishing agent, but surely nothing more. Intrigued, he does not express his reservations.
‘Sounds ambitious,’ he responds at last. ‘So fill me in.’
‘We’ll be playin with garla bro, playin with fire; but it’ll be a piece of piss for the hundred-year-old fella that’s you and me rolled into one.’ Lennard breaks into a throaty laugh. ‘I can see us now, up in lights: the Freo Glassworks alchemists! I got a nose for these things. Trust me.’
Then he mentions the staggering tonnage they’ll need and points out how long the project might take: four years by his reckoning.
‘I’m aimin to knock it over by December 2000,’ he confirms.
‘To coincide with the millennium?’
Four years! And garnet in the batch! Stefan finds no words.
‘Cat got your tongue, bro? What? Too big an ask? You chucked in the towel already? That’s not what I hear round the traps. Word is you’re still in the saddle, diggin in your spurs.’
Digging in my spurs? Flogging a dead horse more like it, Stefan thinks, his mind baulking at Lennard’s vision, at the overwhelming ambition of a glass pour of that magnitude requiring garnet sand by the truckload, And a mould of that dimension — how does he propose building that? He’s got to be off the planet or having me on.
‘You still there, bro? Nyinda jindithayinu? You givin me the silent treatment? I haven’t bored you shitless so you’ve done a runner, have I?’
‘I’m still here. I’m gobsmacked is all, trying to get my head round it.’
Lennard says he’s flying out of Melbourne that morning and asks Stefan to meet him at Tullamarine airport. He can think of no more appropriate a metaphor than the first day of a new year to begin exploring an idea as original as the one he has in mind. They can yarn about it while they sober up over a coffee or two.
‘Make sure you show, brudda,’ he says, when Stefan hesitantly agrees. ‘You’ll be doin us both a favour so don’t pike out, by crikeys, and don’t sleep in.’
He rings off, but Stefan fails to hear the disconnection. Unsure whether Lennard has more to say, he listens to the silence on the dead phone before asking if he’s still there. In some confusion, he repeats the question; and when there’s still no response, he laughs outright. The story of my life, he thinks — listening in an eerie silence for an enlightening response from someone who isn’t there . . . and now I’m caught between Jandamarra’s rock and a mountain of garnet sand on one hand and my bankrupt business and recent split with Tania on the other.