Darlinghurst Nights (Meera Atkinson)

The nights grew hotter and the air faintly sugary. Luna sensed a man just out of range. She waited. And while she waited, she read books from the library, sometimes through the night, and she wrote every few hours in her diary; impressions, stories, snippets of songs or the poems of others, the tentative beginnings or fractured middles of her own. On weekends she worked double shifts at the restaurant and she learned the name of the opaque whore who worked the corner—Sindy (‘with an S’, she stressed). Luna wasn’t sure if the S was ironic or not. Sindy lived in the room next door. Sometimes Luna saw her in the morning, across the way in her kitchenette, making tea in cheap, lacy underwear, and they’d wave.

There was no breeze the night she met him, just a thick surrounding air as if a hundred men were breathing close. She walked down the artery known as the Strip, ugly faces jutted out of doorways like wrong words in a sonnet. Young men with bold eyes and foolish grins walked in gangs. A souped-up panel van with fat wheels revved at a set of lights. A boy with thick eyebrows and acne leaned from its window and yelled. Cold Chisel blasted down stairwells. The entrance of one was marked by a neon figure that swung its hips back and forth, torpedo breasts jutting out, the mouth a smirk, and an eye that winked. It wasn’t yet dark and the sun set slow behind the buildings. The light changed around her as she walked, settling on trees and faces, sharpening everything, glowing rose-gold and fading, as if it were light from another planet.

Luna’s shift began like any other at the old restaurant squeezed between a strip joint and a Jewish delicatessen. She was serving his table; he was one of a rowdy group of friends. There was something about the sharp blue eyes that made her feel alive and nervous. She noticed he drew the energy of the room to him and that even though he was the quietest among them, the gentlest, listening attentively, sweetly, when he spoke people bent toward him, beamed at him, stretched to hear his every word. Luna spied a well-worn jeans leg, rubbed to white thread at the knee, and a scuffed black boot protruding from the table. The room absorbed the generous sound of his laugh. She saw shyness in his wit and manner. There was something golden and regal about him, something sensual about the way he stood at the end of the night, taking an aged flaking leather jacket off the back of his chair and putting it on in a smooth, graceful motion. He caught her looking and smiled.

The second time he came to the restaurant he sat alone, watching her with intent, just short of staring. When she placed his bill on the table he introduced himself as Ed and he asked her name. She replied Luna and he said ‘the moon’, as if it all made sense. After counting notes to pay, he pressed a slip of paper into her palm. She looked at the torn strip in the kitchen, behind the swinging doors. She looked at it when she got home, staring into its big looping letters as if it were a crystal ball. Edward Yates 624.2801. She looked at the strip for two days, and then she called.

When they met for a drink he said he was a singer in a band she’d never heard of. When they parted he kissed her cheek, said he was leaving town the next day but would get in touch when he got back. Two weeks later Edward Yates the Second came calling and Luna brewed a strong pot of Irish Breakfast tea and they sat at the laminex table and sipped tea out of stained mugs. Ed’s eyes scanned the room, stopping to linger on the cover of a book beside Luna’s bed. He stood up, walked over to the book, and picked it up, weighing it in his hand as he turned toward her with the beginnings of a twinkling eyed smile at the edges of his mouth.

—You like Bukowski?

—I like his poems, confirmed Luna. Not so much all the drinking and gambling and fucking stories, but some of the poems are beautiful.

Ed read the title out loud: Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame.

—Feminists hate him, he said, but I think they’re missing the point. He’s the Marquis De Sade of our age, exposing its ugliness and weaknesses.

Ed brought the book back to the table, took a sip of tea, and flicked through several pages.

—Which is your favourite?

—I’m only about a third of the way though, but so far my favourite is a poem called ‘the tragedy of the leaves’ from the ‘60s.

—Will you read it to me? asked Ed.

—Okay, said Luna, with a shy shrug, before picking up the book and turning the pages back until she found it.

She cleared her throat nervously and began.

— ‘the tragedy of the leaves’:

awakened to dryness and the ferns were dead,
the potted plants yellow as corn;
my woman was gone
and the empty bottles like bled corpses
surrounded me with their uselessness;
the sun was still good, though,
and my landlady’s note cracked in fine and
undemanding yellowness; what was needed now
was a good comedian, ancient style, a jester
with jokes upon absurd pain; pain is absurd
because it exists, nothing more;
I shaved carefully with an old razor
the man who had once been young and
said to have had genius; but
that’s the tragedy of the leaves,
the dead ferns, the dead plants;
and I walked into a dark hall
where the landlady stood
execrating and final,
sending me to hell,
waving her fat, sweaty arms
and screaming
screaming for the rent
because the world had failed us

Luna looked up at Ed, still holding the book open. He smiled with sad eyes and said,

—Yes, that is a beautiful poem. He paused, then added,

—You have a beautiful voice, and a great sense of timing and rhythm.

—Thank you, said Luna, looking away and placing the burnt orange paperback at the corner of the laminex table.

Luna didn’t know then who he was, who he was in the world that is, and Ed liked that. He liked the way she failed to fawn, and that she must have seen him, and taken to him, simply for himself. Over time she discovered that Ed was not as people seemed to imagine him. He was not particularly wild, or aggressive, though he did house a subliminal rage that made its way into song, revealed onstage. No, he was sensitive, gentle and intelligent, relatively sober, and more intellectual than his longish hair, gaffer taped boots and ageing leather jacket implied. That day, the day of his first visit, they fell silent after the poem, until he cocked his head to one side and invited Luna to dinner.

—That would be lovely, she said, and he took up the pen resting on the table with one hand, picked up her hand with the other, turning her wrist with a delicate twist, and wrote his address on the palm of her hand.

The next night Luna walked the short distance to his house and found him watching a documentary on deep-sea fish. His room was bright: sunny and white-walled, the attic of a large terrace house. Luna sat on the bed beside him and watched the screen to avoid his eyes: a mysterious creature swam with headlight eyes casting a brilliant beam through the subterranean black, and another turned invisible when threatened. As he moved about the room strong and slender, shirtless in tight black jeans and black-rimmed reading glasses, she watched sinewy muscle stir beneath his luminous skin. As they talked she caught glimpses of long lean legs and the noble profile of his great head. She saw in him the bearing of a Viking warrior, the pride of his ancestors honoured in the cut of his stride. He turned the TV off and asked her to choose a record while he went downstairs to the kitchen for drinks.

Luna sat on the floor and flicked through the endless line of records that stood to attention in a row on the worn carpet like so many soldiers stretched side by side across a trampled field. She selected Lou Reed’s Berlin and hooked the needle to the vinyl. He heard the tender notes of piano, resonant with the endless grief of WWII, bitter sweet with poignant memory, as he came through the door, gin and tonics in hand: In Berlin, by the wall, you were five foot ten inches tall. It was very nice.

They listened and talked, Luna stealing glances of the different aspects of his being, the ways he held his head, the animated expressions that passed across his face. After a meal of spaghetti he sang for her, strumming a woody guitar. It was very nice. In the small hours, he poured his creamy shoulders onto her, breathing close with earthy marijuana breath. Oh honey it was paradise. Later, Gylan Kain broke up the dark, chanting: Black satin, Amazon, fire engine, crybaby, heh. They slept awhile and woke at dawn, stirring toward each other as the huge trees outside his window lathered up a storm. She held the muscle of his arm, pressing against the coolness of his skin.

Spring led the lovers into a summer of nights of cheap champagne on rooftops, and kisses backstage of hole-in-the-wall clubs with drunken crowds, of watching him sweat and sing in white rays of light, of tracing his veins in a candle’s glow, the way she had once traced Jean’s. Luna followed the streets of fine wrinkles around his eyes; she didn’t care that he was older. She held his poker face to the light, counted his freckles and measured his limbs, noted it all for a reliquary. She drew the details from him: he had a brother somewhere south, his parents were long dead, he left school young and worked on the railroads, until music, yes music, which became his life. There was a black and white photo of his mother in a frame. He said she was a redhead who smoked and drank and swore.

Luna learned about the women and she felt each one keenly, their legacy and memory. They were blonde, or dark or in between, sisters and enemies. She was bonded to them by her love for him and by her jealousy. They had a way of appearing in his touch and thieving it from her. She endured his absences restlessly, conjuring him in endless tropes of fantasy in her diary, counting his fictional steps around town, speculating on where he was, who he was with, what he felt, what he thought, if he thought about her, how he felt about her. His return brought profound relief, a kind of shocking surrender to trust. He came back. He came back. It amazed her every time. One day she wrote in her diary, sounding more pretentious than she meant to:

Falling in love is both an act of leaving home and of trying to return home, to bodies inside bodies.

Luna was immature, a child still in many ways, but this much she had grasped in their heated beginning, in the unspeakable, slippery, barely known way of new knowledge. She had dreamed of others. There had been boyfriends before Ed. But none revealed divinity as he did, none made her laugh till her belly ached or serenaded soft and smart, or appeared within her like a magician making alchemy of her thoughts and moods, rearranging them at will.

At the close of her shift Luna went to him and lay beside him wearily while he rubbed her feet and kissed her neck, the sensual prickling strokes of his whiskers on tired skin tickling her awake and to wanting. He played records like an addict and her ears were fashioned again, by him, by what he heard, by how he heard it and it seemed to Luna as if she was hearing music for the first time. Through Ed, a tune she thought she knew could bloom into a three-dimensional sonic garden, pulsing light and shade, grown in the dirt of melody and word, sublime and perilous. She followed him too into the fire hazard clubs and the downstairs cellar bars that were his stage now that his glory days were behind him. There the devout worshipped while he pranced and performed. Afterward she would follow him, linked at the hand, through the heaving crowd to the surprise of clean air and post-midnight streets. Sometimes Luna took her diary in her faux zebra skin bag, writing in it during sound check and sometimes when Ed was out on stage, little vignettes or teenaged toned declarations like:

I don’t love him because the crowd does, but when I hear his voice ringing through the room, and I see him up there so loose and free I feel like I could explode with pride.

The nights and the venues and the sets bled together in Luna’s mind forming, for the years and decades to come, a writhing mass of memory in which each experience as audience to Ed’s band became the one archetypal memory. The roadies moved the same way, lumbering around the stage in their worn t-shirts and their hung low jeans; the toilets were reliably stark and grubby with cheap, hard paper down to scraps on the roll, and the bitches (Luna called them ‘the bitches’) all looked the same in their form-hugging black and made up faces. Only one night stood out, etched in her being in every detail as raw as if it had happened yesterday. It was not the most dramatic of those nights, or the most thrilling, but it was the one she remembered.

Luna sat alone at a booth table scribbling in her diary in too-dim lighting as Ed took hold of the mike and introduced the last song. She looked up and caught sight of some bitches hanging by the side of the stage and her mouth twitched. Her eyes shifted to poor, drunk Lenny Manetas lolling about in the booth facing hers. Lenny, who Luna sometimes caught staring at her like a hound dog, was a different kind of singer to Ed. Rumour had it his parents sent him to an asylum, when he was just a child, and all he had left was singing the blues. Luna bent down to her diary and wrote in capital letters:


When she looked up Lenny stood looming above her, drink in hand.

—Feel like company? he yelled over the noise.

—Sure, said Luna with a tender smile.

Lenny slumped into the booth opposite Luna and fixed her with his sad, blue eyes. He leaned across the table between them with his curly hair hanging like a mop over his huge sweaty face, peering through those coarse ringlets of his. Lenny took a gulp of whiskey, and Luna glared at two girls (bitches!) who had stopped Ed at the door backstage as he came off. She couldn’t see their faces but Ed stood for some time talking to them (bitches!). She couldn’t see their faces but she knew the girls and all the girls like them. She couldn’t see their faces but she didn’t have to. She knew how their eyes performed and their lips auditioned. She saw how they stood, holding their bodies to face him like advertisements.

Luna felt sick so she concentrated on the way Lenny held his glass. Lenny raised his eyes up and gave her a queer look. Then he leaned over, grabbed her hand all urgent, and opened his mouth to speak. Luna could smell the smoky kick of whiskey on his breath and she tried to block out the deafening hum of the taped music and drunken talk, but his message evaporated in the din like mist in the air and she never heard a word.

A black and white photo of Meera Atkinson

Photo: Hugh Hamilton

Meera Atkinson is a Sydney-based writer, poet and scholar. Her writing has appeared in over sixty publications, including  Salon.com, Best Australian Stories 2007, Best Australian Poems 2010 and Griffith REVIEW. Meera is co-editor of Traumatic Affect (2013), an international volume of academic essays exploring the nexus of trauma and affect. ‘Darlinghurst Nights’ is an excerpt from her novel Luna Alaska, which was part of her thesis for a creative PhD on the transgenerational transmission and poetics of trauma at the Writing and Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney.