Sport 41: 2013
Pip Adam — Beautiful
Nell wanted her boots back.
They’d all been standing around waiting. The photographer, the makeup artist, the guy from the advertising agency and her, combs in hand, sectioning clips attached to her sleeve, the hem of her dress. She snapped one open and shut on the yoke of her cardigan. The stylist was over the other side of the studio with the model. The way the lights were and the way the model stood made the swathe of peach she wore hum in the air in front of her. The white wall behind them both almost silent under it. The stylist moved from foot to foot in and out of the gown’s hue. It could have been tangerine. There were metres and metres and metres of it vibrating, cooler now that he’d moved her away from the blue sky and the black branches and the orange fruit. Everything had been set for hours. He’d wanted fruit, autumn-toned fruit. But not necessarily autumn fruit, he’d explained. The model still held one in her hand, lighter than air, polystyrene, so he could see the contrast. It was the shape of a nectarine but it was a different orange, it was the orange of no kind of fruit. He kept standing back and tipping his head to one side, folding his arms while the model stood, still and tall and slim, stretched above him, bent and stooped under the glow of the dress and her.
‘Your hair’s in my makeup,’ Michael said quietly.
‘Nah,’ Nell said. ‘It’s more than that.’
They looked harder, from the stylist to the model, from the model to the stylist.
‘And it’s not,’ she said. ‘My hair’s miles from your makeup. It’s your makeup that’s up in my hair.’
‘She’s pale,’ he said. ‘She’s a blonde.’
‘Exactly,’ Nell said.
‘It’s not that,’ he said.
Nell shook her head. She didn’t want to look at the time.page 89
The stylist beckoned them all over. They stood in a circle around the model, but looked intently at him. There was silence for a long time then he said, ‘It’s the shoes.’ Everyone nodded like they could see it now but what they could all see was that, really, the shoes were fine. Michael made an agreeing humming noise. The advertising guy said, ‘The shoes.’ Nell was pretty sure the shoes weren’t even in shot.
The stylist turned around and looked through them all, over to where the other shoes were, the shoe’s he’d brought all in and out of their boxes higgle piggle, very busy. Then he saw Nell’s boots. He pointed at them and everyone looked. Nell looked at the other shoes, the shoes the stylist had brought with him. When she turned back he was still pointing at her boots. She’d bought them in Sydney a couple of weeks before. The shop sold wigs and sequined frocks, and there was a nail bar in the corner. Everything sparkled except the boots. They were plain, darkest royal blue leather with a deep rubber platform sole. The back wall of the shop was a mirror from roof to floor. Nell had looked at the flat brown lace-up boots she was wearing, almost invisible, apologetic in the presence of the new boots, which she picked up and held in her hand. She measured the platform sole with four of her fingers, put her hand in the boot and estimated it would come just above her ankle. She’d never seen anything like them before. They were the most expensive thing she’d ever bought. Brisa bought a pair too. They’d stood for ages trying to decide whether to buy them, whether to buy two pairs of them. Maybe Nell could stuff the toe of a pair one size too big? Couldn’t Brisa manage half a size smaller? But, in the end they each bought a pair. You couldn’t share shoes. They called each other up on Saturday nights to decide who would wear them. Who would tromp them round town among the pinchy stiletto heels and the flat, flat, flat of this season’s sandals, soaking in the flakeyness of them, the foresight. Nell put a hand on Michael to steady herself and slid the left boot off.
‘I loved those fucking boots,’ Nell said to Brisa.
‘Why did you give them to him?’
Nell shrugged. ‘I can’t fucking believe how much I miss those fucking boots.’ They’d been out for hours. She’d called Brisa as soon as the shoot had finished. The bar they were in wasn’t really open any page 90 more. They let them stay because Brisa used to sleep with the owner and Nell cut his hair.
‘Well, you shouldn’t have given them to him.’
‘You’ve worked with him,’ Nell said.
‘And I still have my boots.’ Brisa leaned over the bar and poured herself another drink. ‘It was fucking Saturday, there was a shoe shop open just down the street. There was a fucking runner.’
‘What would you have done?’
‘What did he say?’
‘He didn’t say anything. He just pointed.’
Brisa didn’t say anything.
‘So I took them off and she put them on and then at the end of the shoot, in the rush, I went to get them and she’d gone.’
Brisa still didn’t say anything.
‘And the stylist said she’d liked them, he’d given them to her. He said, “Invoice me.”’
‘You shouldn’t have slept with Michael,’ Brisa said, finally.
‘Sleeping with Michael has made you a pushover round everywhere.’
‘I know,’ Nell said, lifting the end of her sentence and finishing the rest of her drink.
‘People can tell.’
‘I have to work with him.’
‘Which is why you shouldn’t have slept with him.’
Nell sighed. ‘I want my boots back.’
‘He took your superpowers.’
Nell was down low now, resting her face in her hands.
‘Come on.’ Brisa started collecting her things. ‘We need to get your superpowers back.’
‘Should we call her first?’ Nell said, pulling her jacket on.
‘Do you know where she’ll be?’
Brisa looked up at her with her lids down low, one eyebrow slightly higher than the other.
‘I live in hope,’ Nell said.
‘Live in doubt,’ Brisa said. ‘Live in doubt and fear.’page 91
They walked down Custom Street and across Queen Street. Michael lived in one of the apartment blocks by the park. It was modern but they’d broken in before. They climbed the fence and a cleaner let them in when Brisa said they’d lost their key. They knocked heavily on Michael’s door and he didn’t answer. They knocked again and the sound of movement inside followed. He opened the door on the chain. Nell waved and smiled. Michael shut the door again. ‘Michael,’ Brisa said and knocked the door again. ‘Michael Cambridge-Jones!’ she shouted. He opened the door again.
‘Nell wants her boots.’
‘I want my boots.’
‘You’re drunk,’ he said.
‘Can you get my boots?’
‘Get her boots, Michael, or she’ll be here all night.’
‘Why would I have your boots?’
They all looked at each other. No one said anything.
‘Get her boots.’
‘Get my boots.’
Michael looked behind him.
‘She’s fast asleep,’ Nell said. ‘She won’t even notice.’
He looked at Nell.
‘Well, she’ll notice when she goes to leave. But is it even your problem by then? She kind of knows they’re not hers. She sort of knows they’re mine.’
‘You could leave early,’ suggested Brisa.
‘Yeah. You leave. Then leave her to leave and then you never even have to know about what she thinks.’
‘You’re both drunk.’
‘And crazy,’ Nell said.
‘What?’ Brisa said.
‘He said we were crazy. The other week. I was crazy and you,’ she pointed between them both.
Brisa looked at him with an eyebrow cocked. ‘You’re lucky I’m drunk,’ she said.
‘Go on,’ Nell waved him back into the apartment.
He went away and came back and pushed the boots through the page 92 small gap between the door and the frame.
Nell jumped a little and hugged the boots. ‘It’s not stealing,’ she said to Michael.
‘I imagine she will see that differently,’ he said.
‘He gave them to her. She wouldn’t have taken them if she thought they were yours. Like really yours.’
‘Aw. That’s sweet. Have you fallen in love with this model?’ Nell said.
‘You need to go,’ he said.
‘Or. You need to come,’ said Brisa.
He looked at his watch and then he looked back into the room. ‘Give me five minutes.’
‘Can we come in?’ Brisa said, looking behind him into the room.
All three of them looked into the room. They could see the model lying in his bed, one of her breasts exposed, her arm behind her head. ‘She sleeps like Largerfeld styled her. Do they teach them that?’ Brisa looked to Nell, who shrugged.
Michael sighed and looked at his watch again and then at the model. ‘Five minutes,’ he said.
‘Hold on.’ Nell was working one of her shoes off, hopping slightly on her other foot. ‘Give her these,’ she handed Michael the black winkle-picker slingbacks she was wearing.
‘They won’t fit,’ he said trying not to take the shoes but taking them nonetheless.
‘Oh well,’ she said, all her attention and affection on pulling her boots back on.
They went to a 24-hour family restaurant and ordered breakfast and some beers. It was bright but they were the only ones there.
‘I hate models,’ Brisa said.
They all nodded.
‘Most boring fuck of the year,’ Michael said, buttering a slice of toast.
‘More boring than me?’ Nell asked.
‘I fucked you last year.’
‘My dad says pretty girls don’t try very hard,’ Brisa said.page 93
‘No,’ Michael said.
‘Are you saying I’m pretty?’ Nell said, looking from one of them to the other.
‘No. You’re crazy.’
‘And Brisa,’ she said.
‘Nah,’ he said. ‘That was just the heat of the moment.’
‘He hasn’t fucked you yet,’ Nell said.
‘No,’ said Brisa. She looked at her phone. ‘What time is that wedding?’
‘8.30,’ Nell said. ‘It’ll be easy though.’
Michael looked at the diary in his phone. ‘Five bridesmaids,’ he said, scrolling through some notes. ‘I’ve done her.’
‘Nell’s done her and one of the bridesmaids.’
‘I haven’t done a bridesmaid,’ he said.
‘They’re kind of all like her,’ Nell said. ‘Same age. Basically. Same hair.’
‘One might have short hair,’ Brisa said, looking at the dregs in the bottom of her glass.
‘One might have short hair,’ Nell said. ‘But they’re all like her.’
‘Don’t wear those boots,’ Brisa said. ‘Those boots are bad luck.’
But, then they all decided it would be okay, because it was a wedding and Nell didn’t have any other shoes. None of them were going home now. They took turns washing in the basin in the toilet in the restaurant. Nell and Brisa came back fresh faced.
‘Oh god,’ Michael said and dove into Brisa’s bag for some bronzer, which he swept over each of their faces with the broad brush that fitted in the lid of the square compact. As he finished with each of them they applied lipstick without a mirror. Michael shook his head. ‘You’re so class,’ he said.
‘I can almost do my eyeliner without one too now,’ Nell said, and Michael begged her not to.
They walked down K’ Road to the salon. Brisa had the key. She struggled with the lock on the grill.
‘Can you smell piss?’ Michael said.
Nell sniffed. Brisa told him to fuck off.
When she had the padlock off, Brisa stood and bent from standing and pulled the grill up. It slid with all the momentum of its weight page 94 and her strength. It was about 8 o’clock. The sun was starting to peek in the front windows and several buses whooshed down the road outside the salon. Nell leaned over the basin and washed her hair. Michael started laying out his makeup brushes on a clean white towel. Brisa turned the computer on and it and the eftpos machine began to rattle.
Brisa heard them before she saw them, the bride with three of the five bridesmaids, laughing. Nell got them all into seats in front of the wall of mirrors on the right-hand side of the thin, long salon. Brisa got the bride and bridesmaids glasses of champagne and orange juice in crystal flutes. Nell and Michael spoke with each other about how to proceed. It was always the same war between makeup and hair. It would be so much easier if one of them did both, but Michael had no spacial awareness and Nell, well Nell put on her lipstick without a mirror, was what Michael would say the next time their boss asked if he couldn’t teach her something, anything, maybe she could do the flowergirls? Brisa was the most talented of the three. She had an eye for what was beautiful. Even if she was doing something ugly, she understood what was capable of love and what was not. She could read people. She could get over and above what she wanted, what she saw, and was able to make what they wanted happen, but better than what they wanted. Nell suspected she mesmerised the clients somehow, so in the end they thought they wanted what Brisa wanted. Brisa said it wasn’t like that. Almost magically, though, everything she touched was stunning and made anyone who needed to be very, very happy. But Brisa’s hands were shot. The boss let her work as a receptionist. Everyone thought they would clear up and every now and then they would and she’d go back out on the floor, but they’d be red and chapped and raw within an hour. She’d tried everything, gloves, no gloves, letting them dry out, moisturising them relentlessly. Her nails had fallen out. They fell out regularly, went to some kind of softness and came off intact, like they weren’t even hers any more. Nell would find her sometimes in a nightclub or a pub just sitting quietly watching her fingernails break free and the skin on her hands eat itself.
After Brisa placed the glasses of wine on the section, she fell in with the other two. Nell wouldn’t let her go. Brisa talked to the bride and bridesmaids about what they wanted, and Michael and Nell, although page 95 talking to each other, listened intently. Brisa came to kneel in front of one of the bridesmaids, played with the fringe of the women’s hair then stood behind her and pushed the rest of her hair, this way, then that, nodding as the women spoke. Not saying much except, Yeah. This was the one Michael and Nell needed to watch.The bride was problematic but in a far less complex way than this bridesmaid would be. The problem bridesmaid was the one they needed to look after, she was the queen of the day. Like a wasp. She could convince the bride of anything. Brisa could spot them almost before they sat down. Nell didn’t have a clue. She thought she did. Would spend energy and time next to the one she thought would be the problem but then another bridesmaid would make one remark, turn in her chair a certain way and Nell would know she had chosen wrong. But Brisa never got it wrong.
‘Michael,’ Brisa said. ‘Joanna was just telling me, she’s had her makeup done before and sometimes it takes a little longer. I reckon you should start her makeup first.’ Michael smiled and agreed and began to turn Joanna’s head gently this way and that toward and away from the light. This was his gift. Nell and Brisa talked about it. This touching, this man-touch. It was often all he had. They had to work harder but if the touching and the standing close and the charm didn’t work he had nothing. Women asked almost every day if Michael could cut their hair. ‘I like a male hairdresser,’ some of them would say. Nell would explain that he wasn’t a hairdresser, but this didn’t seem to put some of them off. Once Nell asked why. Why did they want a male hairdresser? ‘Because I want to look good,’ the woman said, ‘in a man’s eyes.’ It haunted Nell. She thought about it a lot. Talked to Brisa about it. They both wondered if, actually, they knew better than Michael exactly what was beautiful in a man’s eyes. Hadn’t they been trained too from birth? Wasn’t every photo they looked at, every photo they worked on, wasn’t it all for men? For women who wanted to see what men saw? That strange warp of a thing, the eye of a man, translated for women. ‘Buy, buy, buy,’ was how Brisa would always end the conversation. ‘Create a need and sell, sell, sell.’ Nell wanted it to be more but Brisa was probably right.
Brisa handed Nell pins to fasten the heated rollers. It was all soft these days. Most people that could afford to come to this salon knew page 96 it was all soft. There were very few tight-tonged ringlets any more. Not on adults. Sometimes the problem bridesmaid would want them but they could usually talk her out of them because they’d usually talked the bride out of them. The short-haired bridesmaid arrived. She’d been growing her hair—for the wedding. Which was exactly what Nell didn’t want.
‘I saw something,’ Brisa said, and she went to the manager’s desk and came back flicking through a glossy magazine which licked as she turned the pages. She showed them the style. It was back-combed, high and smooth and soft, ‘like Marilyn Monroe,’ Brisa said. The short-haired bridesmaid didn’t seem convinced. ‘It’ll feel a bit odd,’ said Brisa. ‘In your jeans,’ she said, indicating these with the magazine still in her hand, ‘in your T-shirt.’ She pulled slightly at the woman’s grey T-shirt. ‘But when you put that dress on. It’ll be great.’
‘Can I keep a fringe?’ she said, pulling at her forehead and the hair that sprang away from it.
Nell curled her lip.
‘She can keep a fringe,’ Brisa said, ‘can’t she Nell?’
Nell nodded. It wouldn’t be as good but it would be okay.
The morning went on. The bride cried when Nell showed Joanna how to put the veil on. Not because of anything Michael or Nell had done, just because. Because it was the happiest day of her life, because she’d been drinking champagne and orange juice for a couple of hours, because everyone was looking at her. Michael dabbed at her cheeks with a soft white tissue and then touched up her foundation and eyeliner. She was like a princess, or some other kind of helpless child. Michael held the tissue in front of her nose so she could blow it. This is what it will be like when she’s old, Nell thought randomly, or if she gets a head injury. They loved it. Back at the house she would have to have help getting dressed. Her nails were too long and there would be tiny buttons. It was her day of uselessness.
It fucked Nell off. Michael and Brisa knew. ‘Like a fucking doll,’ she would say, out the back, throwing a cape at the washing basket. Every now and then Nell would say something crass to try and break it. Something completely inappropriate about anal sex or oral sex, or putting other unconventional things unconventional places. Brisa page 97 and Michael would have her up about it. ‘What?’ she would say. ‘For fuck’s sake, it’s not like she’s a real virgin. It’s bullshit.’ But today, Nell was tired. She was sad. Sad about Michael, sad about her boots, sad about how she felt about everything. About how she thought too much. Sad about Brisa’s hands, about how Brisa missed hairdressing in a way Nell never would. If Nell’s hands gave up she suspected she would be happy, finally. But it was killing Brisa. It was all she ever wanted, and she couldn’t have it. Nell had no idea what she wanted. Michael was having a cigarette with one of the bridesmaids out on the street. The bride was going on, had Joanna called the caterer, what time was it, how long would they be? Nell had to go out the back, to get some bobby-pins, she couldn’t handle it any more. Brisa was standing on a stool above the sink, counting colour stock.
‘How’s it going,’ she said, looking out into the salon.
Nell raised her eyes and shook her head.
‘Is it better or worse than models?’ Brisa asked.
Nell shook her head.
‘At least models keep their mouths shut,’ Brisa said, climbing down from the stool.
‘Most of the time,’ Nell said.
‘Most of the time.’
Nell kissed Brisa and held her tight. ‘These are the best days,’ she said.
‘So they say,’ Brisa said, pushing her cheek close to Nell’s.
‘We’ll be done by lunchtime,’ Nell said.
‘We will,’ said Brisa.
‘Michael’s already done.’
‘Go pin in those fucking flowers!’ Brisa pushed Nell gently away.
‘Like she’s just rolled around in an explosion of spring.’
‘Like the tiny white roses rained down on her, attracted by her glorious joy.’
‘And the breath of the fresh, cold dew has kissed her back into a virgin.’
‘Don’t make any rude comments,’ Brisa said. ‘We’ll be here forever if you do that. Be nice. Think of home.’
Nell wound the fine gold pins around the bundles of roses and gypsophila and tiny green leaves, then pushed the tiny bouquets page 98 into the soft gold curls she’d pinned into place. The bride looked beautiful. A brand of beautiful. Different from the day before, in the studio beautiful, with the orange and the tangerine and the black black boughs of the fake branches picked out of the fake blue sky. Everything, the softness, the way Michael had made the bride’s eyes sit deep into her cheeks, which he’d highlighted as high and forward as he could—if you looked in a dictionary under ‘wedding’ and ‘beautiful’ it would all be there. This was the costume for the role of the bride. None of them had asked what she did for a living. It was unlikely she didn’t work. They’d all just asked what she was wearing, what the ring was like, what the ceremony would be like. Everything was stuck. It moved but it was stuck.
When it was time for the bride to go, it was raining. Brisa rushed out the back and brought out a large golf umbrella. One of the bridesmaids would go and get the car and then bring it round the back of the salon. Then they would ferry them out one by one under the umbrella, through the warm, fat rain.