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Edition 14

Contents
Fiction

Snapshots

BEN BASTER ARRIVED mid-afternoon in the city that his guidebook called an "exotic and teeming tropical metropolis". After a long stopover at Changi Airport, followed by a turbulent three-hour flight, followed by a debilitating drive in an airless mini-van to a three-star hotel, he stood under a cold shower and sculled a can of mini-bar Heineken.

A towel wrapped around his waist, Ben opened the musty curtains and stepped on to the narrow balcony. Boulevard Central ran below. Directly ahead stood St Majestic's, the iconic sandstone church where, fifty years earlier, revolutionaries had met to plot and pray. Ben sniffed deeply, delighting in the mix of smells: ripe mangoes, perspiration, freshly ground coffee, chicken and ginger frying in peanut oil, pigeon shit, the smoke from a million Marlboros, the river.

The Golden Arch Hotel, home of the Red Flamingo Bar, was a ten-minute walk along Boulevard Central. Ben dressed in a white linen suit, bought in honour of P.T. Wiley. The suit came out of his backpack terribly creased, but Ben thought he looked the part: suave yet decrepit. He ripped a map from the guidebook – he refused to be one of those tourists who needed someone else to tell him when to be enthralled – and slung his camera over his shoulder.

He descended to the lobby accompanied by an elegant young woman in a sundress.

"I love an elevator with mirrors," he said. "No matter where I look I can see you."

The woman emitted a strangled noise.

"Apparently the breakfast buffet here is magnificent. Perhaps I'll see you there," he said.

"Perhaps."

The woman put on her sunglasses. Ben looked at his feet so that she wouldn't think that he was ogling her.

While Ben holidayed, his wife, Mary, was packing her belongings and leaving their home. She drove him to the airport, squeezed his hand and said: "I think it's terrific that we can do this without any agro."

What Mary actually meant, Ben knew, was that she could call him a cardboard cut-out of a man and he would merely shrug. It perplexed Ben that this pleased her. Did she want him to show signs of life or not? What if he dumped her entire wardrobe in the driveway and set it alight? Would such a demonstration of passion, of agro, disappoint her or rekindle her love for him?

 

P.T. WILEY WAS a garrulous, black-bearded, horny American writer and ex-soldier who forged a formidable literary reputation in the 1950s. He and his second wife, Marilyn – who he cheated on and occasionally beat up – lived for nearly a decade in Room 256 of the Golden Arch Hotel. Throughout the war, when American officials acted as "advisers" to the anti-communist government (by 1954 there were 20,000 advisers), P.T. Wiley's frontline dispatches spread across the Western world.

When the war shifted to the mountains in the north-west and petered out, Wiley and Marilyn stayed on. On a Remington typewriter at his favourite table in the Red Flamingo Bar, Wiley wrote his long history of the war – My Cold War Bible, he called it – and two influential novels. After winning the Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and non-fiction, Wiley endured a backlash. Critics questioned the politics and occasionally even the artfulness of his prose. But his supporters fought back. "He is no saint," one friend wrote. "He is not gentle and generous. But so what? He writes sparse and distressing but beautiful and patriotic prose. He writes the bloody truth. Anybody who criticises him cannot handle the real world."

A couple of decades later, while drunk, P.T. Wiley drove himself and his fourth family off a cliff in Ethiopia. The deaths were accidental – no rumour of murder-suicide could overcome the fact that Wiley had passed out and missed a turn in the road. He was survived by two adult children from his first marriage and a magnificent half-finished novel, the plot and tone of which bore an uncanny resemblance to an unpublished short story written by his second wife, Marilyn.

Ben followed a narrow alley – past vendors selling t-shirts and pirated CDs and paw-paw drinks, past closed doorways that blocked his view of the real city, past a crawling beggar with a bloated leg – and emerged at the river. After joining a queue, he stood where P.T. Wiley had once dived into the river in pursuit of a coin and nearly drowned.

A well-groomed youth with cropped hair and Elvis sideburns sidled up to Ben and said: "Hello, mister, you go Lady Market? Come on, why not?"

"No, thank you," Ben said.

"You want to buy roll of film? Top quality."

"I have plenty of film."

"Drugs? You want me to happy you?"

"No, I'm already ecstatic. Really."

"Oh, yes, yes, I can get you some ecstatic. You come back later."

Back on Boulevard Central, Ben passed a fake Golden Arch Hotel with elephant tusks painted around the doorway. Amused, he stepped inside and peered through the gloom. Tables and plastic palm trees were scattered about. There was a single group of drinkers sitting near the jukebox, from which Cyndi Lauper wailed "Money ... changes ev-ree-thing". In the far corner, on a stage, a sour-faced woman gyrated in a bikini bottom. "Hey, mister, you buy me gin with tonic," she called. Ben backed out of the bar.

 

P.T. RILEY WROTE his diaries for posterity. Published posthumously, they were self-serving, yet even his harshest critics admitted that he had stripped himself at least half-naked. In volume three – The Dank Years – he recounted his bullying of his wife, Marilyn, his battle with bourbon and the creation of his finest writing.

On the cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Dank Years is a reproduction of a painting of the Golden Arch Hotel. Wiley wrote this in his diary:

Woke at dawn. Terrible headache. Marilyn's pen scratching on paper: excruciating. Yelled at her to shut up. Lit cigar. Marilyn dumped cigar in water, complaining about asthma. Do you have it or do I? I asked. She stormed out.

Read Marilyn's short story: riveting. Slept. Marilyn came back at midday with a painting of the Golden Arch Hotel, still wet. Bought it from a street vendor for a dollar, she said, all pleased. Waste of goddamned money, I said. Dressed in new suit. Went downstairs to the Red Flamingo, drank a bottle of Californian Cabernet, ate an elephant steak, wrote till midnight. Walked. Visited Bettie-Anne – she swears that's her name and who am I to argue, she's sweet and cheap. Got home after two o'clock. Marilyn asleep: no stamina, that woman. God-awful painting pinned to wall above bed. Too tired to pull it down. Slept.

 

 

BEN STOOD ON a set of steps across the road from the Golden Arch Hotel and lifted his camera to his squinting right eye. He wanted to take a photograph that recreated the picture on the cover of The Dank Years but he did not have the technical knowledge to allow the people and the traffic to remain in motion without blurring the building as well. He moved the zoom on the lens back then forward, so that the elephant tusks that framed the arch filled the viewfinder. But he couldn't find the perfect shot.

The bomb exploded in the lobby of the Golden Arch Hotel. Ben heard a loud but dull thud. A second later, windows shattered and glass fell like rain. A thick cloud of black smoke rolled out of the archway. Sirens, which Ben later realised were human screams, filled the air.

Ben stood with the camera to his eye. A woman and a man appeared out of the smoke, carrying a limp-limbed man. Ben pushed the shutter and lowered the camera. He examined himself. He was unhurt, as if the layer of dirt that had settled on his suit had protected him.

On the ground nearby, a woman lay groaning, a shard of glass embedded in her thigh, her guidebook abandoned on the ground, its spine twisted. Ben stared at her. He needed time to convince himself that she was really lying there bleeding, moaning, reaching out to him. Finally he bent down, took her hand and said: "Try to lie still. Everything's going to be OK." He took his linen jacket off and ripped it into strips. He needed to bandage her leg but the glass was in his way.

"Should I pull it out?" he asked the woman.

"No. Yes. No," she replied.

 

"BEN BAXTER'S PHOTOGRAPH is the image of our age," one influential critic wrote. In the foreground, cocooned in the billowing smoke, black and grey with a tinge of red, comforting and soft as a huge pillow, a shirtless man lies on the ground. A thin line of blood runs from his nipple down his chest to his pants. One of his arms is buried underneath his body and the other is impossibly twisted. The palm of his hand is open and two fingers – his only remaining fingers – form a peace sign.

A man and a woman crouch over the body. The man is tall, blond-haired, white-skinned. He stares straight at the camera lens – huge white eyes above bright red cheeks – wearing an expression so abject that he could have been staring down at his own battered body.

The woman's long dark hair obscures her face. Her brown arm reaches out and the palm of her hand rests on the chest of the dead man, offering him comfort, sympathy, reassurance.

 

IN A FRONT-PAGE newspaper article in 1954, P.T. Wiley wrote that a rising resistance leader – he named the man – had snuck into the city, put a pistol to the nose of an alleged double agent, listened to the man's denial of guilt, and shot him. Wiley claimed that he had seen the whole thing while urinating in a doorway further up the alley.

Thirty years later, the young resistance leader became Minister for Foreign Affairs. The United States invited him to Washington DC for talks expected to be frank but productive. But the Los Angeles Times reprinted

P.T. Wiley's old report, creating a political furore: was it appropriate, the country asked, for a murderer and an enemy to stand on the White House lawns or to see inside the Pentagon?

The Foreign Minister came anyway. At the joint press conference he held with the US Secretary of State, he mildly protested his innocence: "We honour the contribution Mr P.T. Wiley made to our country. His grand history and his evocative novels are a part of us and that makes us very proud. But on this particular occasion his eyesight failed him."

When The Dank Years was published a couple of years later, the Foreign Minister was vindicated: "Went walking after dinner. Saw commotion in Baker's Lane. Hid in doorway, cursing cigar breath and protruding tummy. Three men pummelled a man. Body punches, mostly. Waved a gun in his face but did not shoot. After they left I asked the injured man: ‘Government or rebels?' The man shook his head, said: ‘I've been warned.'"

The Red Flamingo Foundation, a cultural and charitable organisation and the executor of Wiley's literary estate, issued a short statement: "P.T. Wiley often repeated the maxim that truth is the first casualty of war. On this occasion, he evidently practised what he preached. We utterly reject any suggestion that this isolated instance reflects more widely on his credibility. In any case, as P.T. liked to say: 'Sometimes you have to bend the truth to see through lies.'"

 

BEN'S HOME-TOWN NEWSPAPER, in concert with thousands of newspapers around the world, spread his photograph of the bombing across its whole front page. In the days that followed, the photograph shrunk and moved closer and closer to the sports pages. After a week, once all the tourists had been evacuated – but while the task of tracing the missing and identifying the dead continued – a feature writer came to interview Ben.

Having reluctantly agreed to speak, Ben was surprised to find he was skilled at answering questions while actually saying very little: "I can't remember taking the photograph. I got the roll developed and there it was."

"I'm the luckiest man in the world, but I ask myself – why was I spared?" he said.

"I'm so distressed for the injured, so devastated for the families of the dead people," he said.

"I denounce fundamentalism in all its forms," he said.

"Of course I'll go back," he said. "And sooner rather than later."

The reporter was done in minutes, but the photographer took nearly half an hour to complete his work. The photograph published on page three

showed a sad, well-groomed man sitting on a step staring forlornly at his camera, which he cradled in his arms like a baby.

A couple of months after the bomb exploded, Ben signed a deal to market the photograph. An actor from a long-running hospital drama read the resulting television advertisement:

When I stand and look at this photograph I realise what a terrible place the world is. And I feel bad about that. And I want to do something. And I wonder about the people: the poor dead man and also the helpless man and woman who only want to help. After all, that's what we all want to do: we want to help. That's why I have a print of this photograph on my wall: for only $49.95, or $89.95 block mounted, or $149.95 framed, plus delivery, you and your children can reflect on this photograph every day of your life. To own a piece of history, call 1700-021-021. And remember: it only takes one tiny step to change direction forever.

Ben was relieved when sales of the photograph petered out after a couple of months. He was disgusted at his own profiteering. But still strangers approached him in the supermarket, at cafes, in the pub. They shook his hand or hugged him or told him that he had changed their life. But Ben didn't feel as though he had been part of the bombing at all. He just thought that he had been the first person in the world to see his photograph.

 

BEN BECOME A presenter on the lifestyle program Hearth & Earth. With his mop of curly brown hair and his easy manner – which came to him like magic when a camera appeared, then disappeared just as quickly – he was a natural television performer. The job was exciting but exhausting. One week he watched lions frolic in the African savannah or searched for the perfect espresso in Rome. The next week he climbed a ladder to demonstrate how to build a pergola. Life was a blur of cities and scenery and hotel rooms and hammers.

Even though Ben was a celebrity, even though he was routinely invited to black-tie charity events, Mary still filed for divorce. When the papers came through, they met for coffee at a cafe near their old house.

"You've done so well, especially after what you went through. I'm really proud of you," Mary said.

"Thanks."

She sipped her coffee. "Oh, that's as weak as water. This place is nowhere near as good as it used to be, is it?"

"New owners," Ben said. He stood up. "Bye, Mary."

"Bye? But we only just got here."

"I come here whenever I'm in town," he said. He walked away quickly, pausing only to sign a piece of paper for a fan who blocked the doorway.

With a Hearth & Earth production crew, Ben returned to the "exotic, teeming and tragic city". He stayed at the rebuilt Golden Arch Hotel. It had a new restaurant, the Peace Garden, whose renowned chef offered a six-course degustation menu with matching wines. In the evening, Hearth & Earth filmed Ben eating at the Peace Garden. He made no direct reference to the bomb. He did not mention stray body parts or fourth-degree burns or grief too overwhelming to bear. "It is poignant and wonderful to know that life goes on and that, even in the worst of circumstances, excellence and artistry – and lobster tail that is simply to die for – prevails." The camera crew left him to eat his world-class butterscotch pudding in peace.

In the morning, they filmed Ben outside the Golden Arch Hotel. He stood in the exact spot from which he had taken his famous photograph. The director wanted footage of Ben looking reflective, but he felt faint. Eventually he dropped to one knee and put his head in one hand. "That's good," the director called. "Hold that position ... now, look up, let me see your face ... Brilliant. Perfect."

Then they filmed Ben walking through the archway (he touched an elephant tusk for luck) and across the lobby to the Red Flamingo Bar, a light-filled room that opened on to a large garden. A waiter in a tuxedo led him to a table under a jacaranda tree beside a fish pond. "This is his table."

"The very one?"

"The very one: no bomb here."

While the camera crew set up, one assistant having been despatched to find a Remington typewriter, Ben ordered bourbon and a Cuban cigar.

Here, P.T. Wiley wrote his greatest novel, Fractured Glass, a meditation on alcoholism with an oblique ending: Malcolm E. Montgomery, baseball legend-cum-unhinged war correspondent, was found in the river, face down and bloated to twice his normal size. Was it murder? Suicide? A drunken accident? Readers mined the text for clues. In the years after publication, interviewers and fans frequently asked P.T. Wiley what really happened to Malcolm E. Montgomery. But Wiley refused to discuss the matter. "Why ask me?" he always said. "I wasn't there, any more than you."Ben Baxter arrived mid-afternoon in the city that his guidebook called an "exotic and teeming tropical metropolis". After a long stopover at Changi Airport, followed by a turbulent three-hour flight, followed by a debilitating drive in an airless mini-van to a three-star hotel, he stood under a cold shower and sculled a can of mini-bar Heineken.

A towel wrapped around his waist, Ben opened the musty curtains and stepped on to the narrow balcony. Boulevard Central ran below. Directly ahead stood St Majestic's, the iconic sandstone church where, fifty years earlier, revolutionaries had met to plot and pray. Ben sniffed deeply, delighting in the mix of smells: ripe mangoes, perspiration, freshly ground coffee, chicken and ginger frying in peanut oil, pigeon shit, the smoke from a million Marlboros, the river.

The Golden Arch Hotel, home of the Red Flamingo Bar, was a ten-minute walk along Boulevard Central. Ben dressed in a white linen suit, bought in honour of P.T. Wiley. The suit came out of his backpack terribly creased, but Ben thought he looked the part: suave yet decrepit. He ripped a map from the guidebook – he refused to be one of those tourists who needed someone else to tell him when to be enthralled – and slung his camera over his shoulder.

He descended to the lobby accompanied by an elegant young woman in a sundress.

"I love an elevator with mirrors," he said. "No matter where I look I can see you."

The woman emitted a strangled noise.

"Apparently the breakfast buffet here is magnificent. Perhaps I'll see you there," he said.

"Perhaps."

The woman put on her sunglasses. Ben looked at his feet so that she wouldn't think that he was ogling her.

While Ben holidayed, his wife, Mary, was packing her belongings and leaving their home. She drove him to the airport, squeezed his hand and said: "I think it's terrific that we can do this without any agro."

What Mary actually meant, Ben knew, was that she could call him a cardboard cut-out of a man and he would merely shrug. It perplexed Ben that this pleased her. Did she want him to show signs of life or not? What if he dumped her entire wardrobe in the driveway and set it alight? Would such a demonstration of passion, of agro, disappoint her or rekindle her love for him?


From Griffith Review Edition 14: The Trouble with Paradise © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review