Kyutaro plucks two savouries from a tray balanced by a passing girl.
He sees people moving in from the gallery entrance; they come room-filling, drift to the edge of each group rippling in its conversation. Or non-conversation, he thinks: each speaker looks around the gallery, at anyone but his audience and they are equally ignoring, eyes wandering as they listen.
From across the main room a woman approaches him. With strangely tinted hair.
Kyu swallows the savoury in his right hand a piece of tuna, canned, on a bed of cottage cheese. The vacant hand casts toward another passing tray to secure a glass of white wine. He hopes it will be sweet, moselle perhaps.
"Why hel-LO !" , leaning into his face, a smell of too many cigarettes.
"Aah, I - hullo. Excuse my mouth," his chewed reply.
"We HAVEnt met. In fact, I dont think weve even SEEN you here before - ?"
Her offered hand met with a shrug at his own occupied extremities: "So sorry, I "
"Its ALL-right. We ALL-ways welcome new faces in our little - place and their wallets !" Her mouth hanging in a pink-rimmed grin, showing browned teeth flecked with gold. "To poor little us, it seems more like a CLUB though," she continues,
"- And we do like anyone to come and look around, whenever they feel like it.
No obligation." The pink mouth still hanging; Kyu sips quickly at the tepid wine.
At least it is quite sweet.
"Such a nice gallery, " he says after swallowing, "And this is my first time, yes."
"Aah. We think of it as a studio."
She thrusts a card at him; "And how did you learn of our little place ?" Her eyes begin to range towards the door. He coughs, "A bookshop - a card, inside a book I purchased."
"You speak VER-y good English," she wheezes at him. He finds himself staring at her hair: it has red and purple clumps, scattered through with tiny metallic pieces which twinkle from the spotlights around the room as she again sways toward him.
"So. Your gallery, I mean studio it seems rather nice. And many people are still coming inside to look. Is it every day so popular ?" Her hair enthralls him, but he is afraid to speak of it. Like some separate and dead animal. Is she listening to him ?
"Aah, rather interesting pictures I mean, paintings ?" he gestures at a wall.
"Why THANK-you ! You must meet Beth the printmaker. She did them. Beth Flannery. Also one of the partners here, a kind of co-operative, you see -"
He does not. Her eyes wander but she grips his elbow, hard enough to hurt.
"Beth absolutely SEEKS out critique," she hisses.
"It helps her growth, acts like a stimulant you know ?" Still clenched onto his arm, she waves across the crowd, beckoning.
A dark-haired woman approaches them and he quickly glances at a group of small muddy pictures on the closest wall. To him, only their framing seems to affirm each smear as some intended result of art. Kyu twists his head as if in appreciation. He chews another savoury. "Indeed. Yes - rather, ah interesting, I may say "
The womans arm curls around his lower back. "You are so-o-o right," the grin continues; "Now this phase, lithographs. Only two years in it, mind. And look !"
The arm tightens with each phrase, but now frees him as the artist arrives.
"Beth ! This is an overseas visitor hes int-er-est-ed in your work."
She turns to Kyu: "Mister ah, silly me ! I forgot your name already."
She grins from one of them to the other.
"Ah, so," says Kyu: "But I forgot to give it yet. Please." He offers a card;
"Just Kyutaro. My given name. But please. Call me just Kyu ?"
"Well hi, Kyu," says Beth; "And hows your drink ?" He shakes his head, smiling.
"Mister Kyu is int-er-ested in one of your prints," announces the older woman, after introducing herself. As Arlette.
"Oh ?" says Beth, looking at him with an intense expression; "Perhaps you can give me your FIRST impression dont think about it. Im seeking emotional impacts first."
"Aaah," he glances at the wall, helpless, "Well, I think -"
"No," stabs Beth "Dont even think. I want the first word. The first thing that formed in your mind." Kyu sees that her hair is a dark brown colour, almost black but seeming natural. Grey strands in it, although she cannot yet be thirty ? He fumbles for words:
"Mmm wonder. I wonder, as "
"WON-DER !" echoes Arlette. "Oh Beth hes right."
"Oh Arlette, give the man a chance "
"No. No, Ive got it now. Exactly. Listen to this: Wonder is - a sea of energy no, an EN-ER-GET-IC sea between the shoals of uncertainty." - she flourishes.
"That sounds nice," says Beth; "But who said that ? An energetic sea between the shoals of uncertainty, mmm. Did you find that Kyu ?" she turns to him, but he shakes his head, now totally confused as the older woman responds, "Beth my girl. Im quite sure that its from one of the sufi poets. Or perhaps even Gibran ?"
She turns to Kyu, "I forget. Do you know Gibran ?"
"No, Im sorry. Is that Gib-run here tonight ?" he parries with a sincerely blank face.
Arlette cuffs his shoulder: "Oh Kyu-u-u. Youre kidding us, right ? Well. That serves me right for talking too much as usual ! Well, I must mix around, talk to a few others -"
She is already halfway across the room with arms wide for some recognised newcomers:
"Armand ! And Bruce ! You DID come, you darl-ings "
Beth the printmaker lifts two drinks from a passing tray, offers one to him as she shrugs toward her retreating partner: "She goes on a lot, Arlette. A good friend though. Helps me when I feel like checking it all in." Her face is fresh, scrubbed, without makeup. Leaning closer to catch her words Kyu senses the mild staleness in her breath, of a vegetarian. He reminds himself not to suggest a teppan-yaki meal.
"So. Sometimes not so good the world of the artist ?" He gestures with his glass to thank her. "Right, uh-huh" she responds. "Sometimes not so good."
"So, these lizo-graphic prints are your specialty now ?"
"My specialty ? Yeah, thats right. Some of the results please me, but for every picture you see " she waves around the room, "Theres an awful lot that get scrapped. Still, if we can sell even half this lot, itll do. To keep going."
Kyutaro looks surprised. "But so many people here today. All these visitors - perhaps they may order for some of your pictures your prints."
"Dont you believe it," she drains her glass, "Not this mob."
He is surprised at the change in her expression: her face taut, eyes shining in an anger .
She continues: "Thered hardly be a cheque-book between them. Artists, journalists,
art critics from the dailies - hangers on, all of them !"
He nods in sympathy as a bearded man lurches between them; looking like a tweed-clad badger, swaying over the fulcrum of his belly, a face red behind thick glasses, looking at each of them in turn.
"Well, well. And what are we up to tonight, Elizabeth ?"
"Justin, this is -,"
"Accumulating some exot-ica, my dear ? - waving most of his glass of red wine over them. "Oh SHIT, Justin ! Cant you be more careful ? You bloody oaf !"
He sways, looking at his depleted glass.
"Kyu, this is Justin - Justin Costello, Im afraid. Did some of that wine go over you ?"
Dabbing with a tissue at his jacket, she shakes her head. Kyu smiles minimally at their new companion, "Mister Costello," he bows slightly;
"Hiroshige - Hiroshige Kyutaro - but please call me Kyu -."
Justin Costello stares silently at him, then laughs and lurches back across the room in a series of collisions and spilled drinks.
"Im sorry about that, Kyu. About him. Cant blame it on the wine, but he uses that as an excuse - to be a slob. Jesus !" She is still wiping his coat, and he takes the tissue from her hand: "Ah, please. An accident, only -" He pats her shoulder and she sighs,
"Well, dont go away. Ill get us a couple more drinks."
She waves across the room, smiling at people but dodging their talk. In one corner the older woman, Arlette, holds a small group in earnest discussion. Kyu turns to the wall, trying to display interest in the prints. Most of them carry one or two small red stickers, at a corner of the glass. He leans to read the inscription at the border of one smudged pattern: E.Flannery, 1984. 47/60.
"Ahh." She returns with the wineglasses, smiling now. "Interested in that one ?"
"Ah so. Tell me, the red stickers - they mean orders ?"
"What the stickers rep-re-sent," as she passes him a glass, "Are supposed to be sales, yes. Its all a beat-up, but." She nods toward Arlette.
"Beat-up ? What does that mean ?"
"Well, Im afraid that the plain, unvarnished truth, Mister Kyu, is that so far we havent sold anything. Not one. Nothing. So, Arlette says, make it LOOK like the stuff is is moving. Nothing too wrong with that, do you think -?" She seems anxious.
"Ah, so - I can understand. That idea. Good business idea, I guess -?"
"Yeah. I suppose."
"So - how much is this one ?" He leans to examine an inscription. One hundred and ten dollars. He sips his wine, nodding. "But thats unframed, you realise," says Beth;
"Framed is another forty, Im afraid. Do you like this one ?"
"Aah," he twists his head to one side.
"You dont have to actually LIKE them - that doesnt matter to me. But how would you change it ? What would you do differently ?" He is uncomfortable at her stare."Mmm. Difficult. For me to describe. My English -?" He feels trapped.
To his relief, a returning Arlette changes the subject - to talk of the growing noise. The volume rises as the gallery fills, despite the closeness forced by jostling groups. Kyu reflects to himself, whether the two women have seen how much of their wine is on the floor, in trampled puddles. Does it worry them ?
"Well, Beth. Get some good feedback yet ?" And she smiles at Kyu in some shared conspiracy. He shakes his head: "So so-rry. I have not been so useful to your friend,"
one hand still tissue-rubbing at his jacket.
"Oh God ! Look at your coat ! What happened ?" She paws in sympathy at his shoulder.
"And guess who, Arlette ?" says Beth; "The Irresistible Force - Justin. " She shrugs in apology again. "But God !" says Arlette, "We must fix that for you - we insist. Heres our card - look. Can you leave it here ? Or get it done and send us the bill. Please."
Beth the printmaker nods, "Its only fair."
"You see," says Arlette in a low voice, "Hes a crit-ic. An art critic. Got a column in one of the big weeklies. Make-or-break stuff, if you see what I mean ?"
Kyu does not, but dutifully nods. Accepting the card from her, he reflexively offers one of his own cards. Even bowing slightly, as an intrinsic part of this act.
"Notice the name ?" says Beth, for Arlettes sake.
"Hiro-shige. Hiroshige Kyutaro - why, Kyutaro - thats your surname ?" asks Arlette;
"And I thought it was your Christian name."
"Christian - no, ah I see. This is my given name, Kyutaro. My own name. Hiroshige is my family name," laughs Kyu. He turns the card over to show the kanji lettering.
Of his company. And then his family. "The family name comes first, I think," says Beth.
Kyu nods in confirmation.
"Hiroshi-ge - I should know that name," says Arlette, puzzling.
Beth snorts in amusement: "Arlette. Honestly ! The prints - the famous prints, yknow, last century. The Tokaido Road series ?" Arlettes hands fly to her head:
"My GOD - of course ! Mister - ah, Kyu ? You must find me really stupid."
Kyu smiles at her, "No, no. Why should you say that -?" he asks.
"You must bear with Arlette," says Beth, "- But she gets right off. On a famous name."
"Famous ? Famous - no, I cannot say that. My fathers family had - still has a timber business. Quite successful, I may say. But I cannot say, that this is famous ?"
His hands spread as if in apology.
The two women exchange looks. "Timber ? Timber ?" Arlette looks again to her friend;
"But Kyu. What are YOU into ?" she asks.
"Into ? What am I into ?" He seems puzzled.
Beth explains: "She means, what do you work in. What medium ?" They watch him.
"Work ? Ahh - kaisha, ne ? On my card - it shows the Company -"
"But you - you personally. What do you do, at present ?" persists Arlette.
"Ah. I see," sighs Kyu: "Blood. And bone. Blood and bone."
"YES !" hisses Arlette. "How very elemental. Blood. Bone. Oh Kyu - thats just so elemental, it ex-cites me !" The clenched fist pinning his arm again;
"Sounds FASC-in-ating, Beth, does it not ?" Beth is suddenly quiet. She turns to Kyu again with a thoughtful look. "Yes," he continues, "For two years now, in Australia all this time. It is a good supply country."
"Blood - and bone," whispers Arlette, "Ohh. That is just so right. Perfect Beth. For the next stage. Of Your Progression-" she adds as a portent.
Beth looks puzzled, and a little irked.
"Progression ? What ARE you on about now, Arlette ?"
"Blood and bone. For your work - its just so RIGHT Beth !"
Arlettes voice rising as people turn to watch: "After your Earthy phase, the clays and shales -" she waves toward the walls;
"And Mister Hi-ROSH-ige - how do you apply it ?" she asks.
Beth looks puzzled too. He coughs: "Ah, excuse me. Apply, ah - what ?"
He twists his head, perplexed. People are curious, gathering about their conversation.
"Well, if you dont want to reveal that - then, your themes. Motives and techniques have equal importance as some would say -" Smirking toward Justin Costellos noisy monologue across the room; "Themes ? Ah, I only buy and sell -" offers Kyu.
"And so do we all. If only more artists were a little less precious about that. Our time - or our talent. All of us are doing it. Buying and selling." A flourish of her arms.
"But - I only buy and sell -" he offers. Arlette leans in conspiracy:
"I know ex-ACT-ly what you speak of. Themes - yes, take the War, for example. That last War. I KNOW youd condemn that, I know it. Does it creep into your themes ?"
"Ah, I do - not - think -" he mutters,
"Ex-ACT-ly ! And thinking blocks creativity. Our subconscious mind, our intuitions.
Oh Kyu ! Let your Right Hemisphere take over. Let it flow ! And your National Memory - your Ethos !"
"My ethos ?" he echoed;
"I mean," she looks about the crowd, now conspiratorial: "Your PEOPLE. They have suffered uniquely, you know."
Kyutaro is by this time quite lost as to what she is saying, or suggesting. She winks.
Beth Flannery seems plainly uncomfortable, as Arlette continues:
"It was the blood and bone. Then it all fell into place for me. So now we know, we know where youre coming from -" She punched his arm. "But tech-nique ? You still must tell me about that. Please." Her arm again encircling his back.
"Ah. I see," he brightens, "Technique. Well, that is mainly in contracts. Sales, bank documents, you see. Then shipment, of course."
Beth is trying to get Arlettes attention. Without success.
"And quite real-IST-ic too," shouts Arlette, "Too many of THESE people -" taking the room into a sweep of her arms, "Think it beneath them. To market their own work."
Beth pulls at Arlettes arm, but she continues:
"But apart from the marketing, Kyu. May I call you that ? Apart from marketing, your tech-nique. Cant you tell us, just a teeny bit about it ?" Leaning on his arm;
"So. Well, from the slaughterhouse - blood is drained away. Collected and dried. Into a powder. This is easier for mixing. And can be stored longer, I may say -"
"Oooh, BLOOD ! From the slaughter-house, Beth. Oh, Kyu ! How awful, and yet so honest. And so reflecting of our social milieu, dont you think Beth ?"
"Arlette - can we talk ? I think we should talk." Beth tries to turn her friend aside.
"How valid ! How ver-ee-tay !" Arlettes eyes are glowing.
"Bones - are also important," Kyu adds. "For mixing. We have them ground down. To a powder. To mix with the dried blood -" Arlette seems about to faint. She pushes Beth away, "Yes - yes. I can quite understand. But Kyu, what then is your aim ? To mix those colours - or their texture ? The elemental components !" she announces to the room. Hiroshige Kyutaro pulls at one earlobe: "Protein," he says.
"Ahh. Come again ? I dont -" whispers Arlette. Beth is silent, staring into her wineglass, as Kyu continues: "Protein. More than forty-percent content is too rich. For the animals. The livestock. And it may be too costly, also -" The two women stare.
"Livestock," echoes Beth.
People standing near them look at their own feet - the group suddenly silent. Kyu shrugs:
"But I am sorry. To talk so much about business." He turns to Beth, "Perhaps. Perhaps we can have lunch - I can tell you more of it, this stockfeed business."
"Of course," says Beth, "We must do that." Her eyes again ranging across the room.
"Anything you wish - to know. About stockfeed business, I can teach you -" Kyu offers,
"It will be my pleasure. With lunch of course."
Beth nods, and turns to lead her friend away across the room: Arlettes mouth still hanging open, as if forgotten.
Kyutaro watches the room, watches its pulsing conversation die down. The groups, the circles shrink, their stray people hurry to reattach themselves to other dying groups, which themselves soon shrink and disperse. He finds himself drawn in a residual current out into the street. Waving at passing taxis, he fingers from his pocket their card, the studio card. He wonders if they could afford it, the cleaning of his jacket ?
In a parting glance about the walls he had found no increase in the red stickers.
He tears the card in half, dropping it into the gutter as he climbs into a halted taxi.
This story is from an collection named A Company of Men, published in 2007 as part of the double collection "Twin-Set and Pearls". This cycle of stories looks at relationships between people in a (fictional) Japanese trading company branch, in Australia during the 1980s.
Other stories from this collection A Company of Men have been published in anthologies including Encounters with Japan (Harper Collins, 1994) and Sharing Fruit (Curriculum Corporation, 1998) and Inprint quarterly.
Geoff Boltons other short stories have also been published in The Age Monthly Review, Brave New Word, and other Ozlit periodicals of the 1980s.