Like A River

Reading Time: 9 minutes

She arrived at his door in a rainstorm, soaked and shivering. Turquoise dye from her shoes was oozing across her feet and mascara was dribbling her cheeks. The sleeves of her coat slid down over her fingertips and she had a sodden scarf tied over the dome atop her head.

“Is it you what wants a model?” she asked.

This was nineteen sixty-five. Not everybody owned a home phone and artists like Clive, whose fame was still in the planning stages, hardly ever did. The card he had put in Harrington’s window had simply said: Wanted, artist’s model, female, casual hours @10/- per hour and his Battery Point address. 

Clive didn’t own the house. He didn’t even own the furniture. He was renting the whole thing cheap from his friend Rupert, who’d inherited it from an uncle who got it for a song during the war. Rupert played the guitar and wrote songs that protested about pretty much everything. He had gone to London indefinitely, because it was supposed to be easier to get famous over there. 

Clive’s girlfriend, who used to sit for him, had gone with Rupert. It seemed a fair exchange for a cheap rental. Trouble was, the house was so small that none of the other girls Clive knew wanted to sit for him in there. “It’s a bit poky, darling,” they said. “We’d sort of be on top of one another.” It was also run-down and dingy. But then so was most of the street.

He knew this bird wouldn’t do. There was nothing about her he wanted to paint. But she was cold, she was very wet and she was the only person who’d answered the ad. 

“Come in,” he sighed. The least he could do was make her a cup of tea. But the girl, who couldn’t have been more than twenty, had come to audition and auditioned was what she was going to be.

Her name was Deb. And she obviously knew enough about modelling to realise that it wasn’t her School Certificate  results he wanted to see. She took off her coat and what lay underneath did nothing to change Clive’s mind. The snug fitting floral frock revealed one of the most unremarkable female bodies Clive had seen in the course of work or pleasure.

 Clive wasn’t messing about. In the six months since he had graduated from the School of Arts he’d known exactly where he was headed. He intended to be an artist who stuck in the public mind, who invoked a resounding ‘yes’ in the world of art, sent buyers and collectors scrambling for their cheque books and galleries begging for the honour of giving him space.

Paintings of Deb simply would not do it.

He was wondering what would be the most polite way to ask her not to remove any more of her clothing, when she reached up and untied her headscarf from around a towering Dusty Springfield beehive. Deftly she removed a couple of plastic combs and shook out her hair. 

Clive’s legs gave way and he sat down abruptly on the nearest of his two armchairs. All he could do was gaze in awestruck wonder. Like a river! he breathed. Deb’s hair did indeed flow in shining ripples like a running stream.  The closest description of its colour would have been to say deep chestnut. But really it was a colour that could not be described. It glowed with hints of auburn and burgundy, but was ever-changing as Deb turned her head. It was moving water, poetry, a crowning glory, a woman and a river that cascaded as one. It was the challenge that Clive had been seeking for the longest time and the muse had delivered it to his door.

His brain struggled to process what he was looking at. The closest it could get was Pre-Raphaelite. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, they’d all painted women with unbelievable hair. Dozens of portraits of these nineteenth century chicks and their tresses had opened up a whole new movement in the art world.

Suddenly it became clear. He was a Chosen One. He, Clive Harold Parker, was to father an Australian movement. The Nouveau Post Pre-Raphaelite Romantics. And it would start with Deb’s hair.

Meanwhile, Deb had draped her coat and scarf over a stool in front of the fire.

“Oh,” she said, when he told her he wanted to start painting her straight away that minute. “Oh. Ok, I suppose.” It didn’t make sense to her that he didn’t want her in the nude. Wasn’t that what artists were supposed to want? But as long as she got paid, no worries.

Four hours and two pounds later, Clive was close to tears. 

“Ah, never mind,” comforted Deb as she put on her now dry coat and headscarf. “You’ll get it tomorrow, I’m sure you will.” She went off to her ‘other’ job, which was behind the bar of the Hope and Anchor, and left Clive to lie on his couch, staring brokenly into space. Deb’s river of hair had completely eluded him. Nothing he could do on canvas would come even close to capturing it. Finally he decided to do what all good artists do when they are creatively frustrated and went out to get drunk.

“It’s me hair apparently.” Deb was telling her fellow barmaid, Cindy, about her new role as a model. “He keeps nattering on about it, but he can’t get it right. Anyhow, he’s going to give it another go tomorrow. I get to keep me clothes on and I could do with the money.”

“It’s her hair.” In the bar at Shippies, Clive was blurrily explaining to the rest of the group of former art students who hung together there when they could afford to. “S’like a river. A river….. A river of hair. An’…an’ the colour’s….It’s all soo beautiful. An’ I’ve got to paint it. Before I die I’ve got to paint it.” With tears in his eyes he appealed to them. “You understand, doncher?” They said that they did.

He went to the library and borrowed every book they had on the Pre-Raphaelites. Most of all he felt an affinity with Rossetti, or at least Rossetti when he was young, romantic and sensual as opposed to when he became old, fat and bald. For the young Rossetti look he needed a high collar, a floppy bow tie, a button-up waistcoat and a velvet jacket. The first three he scrounged from his grandfather, who was happy to think they were back in fashion. He found a brown velvet jacket in a Salvation Army thrift shop. It was actually on a ladieswear rack, but it fitted him and it went with the rest of his outfit. To further emulate a nineteenth century artist and poet, he trained a lock of hair to fall over one eyebrow, but had to abandon that because he looked more like Adolf Hitler than Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A fuzzy beard and a gaze that was both sensitive and intense worked better, although Deb did keep asking him why he was looking at her funny.

Yes, Deb was still coming to sit every weekday from twelve until four. He told her about his Romantic Movement and explained to her that once he had mastered her hair, he’d be painting her as Helen of Troy, only from the back because she didn’t have the face for it. After the success of that, he’d be able to get plenty more models.

Deb gave him a funny look of her own and said, “Yeah, but first you’ve got to get me hair right.” There was that to it.

For her part, Deb sat on a stool with her head tilted back, forward, to the left or the right, depending on what Clive wanted. Clive worked feverishly with a variety of media – oils, watercolours, tempura, crayon, he tried the lot. Nothing he attempted came anywhere near what he saw and felt when he looked at her river of hair. 

“It’s there, it’s there somewhere,” he would tell himself, or anyone else who would listen, in the more profound of his beer-soaked moments. “It’s deep inside me and I’ll find it.” His persistence began to turn him into an eye-watering bore rather than an artist seeking the very depth of his soul. Most of his fellow drinkers had forgotten what it was that was deep inside him and weren’t all that interested anyway.

It was now well into winter and Deb was so grateful after all that Clive hadn’t wanted her naked. In turn, Clive’s naked fingers were so cold he could hardly hold a brush, so he had no choice but to fork out for an extra load of firewood. The dreary little fire livened itself up and things got cosier.

One afternoon, Deb was taking a short break and decided she could be usefully employed painting her toenails. She sat by the hearth and as she leaned down, he hair was a russet waterfall caught in the firelight. Clive could only clench his hands and moan impotently

Lesser artists might have given up and painted a bowl of fruit instead. But Clive was still an artist driven. Day by day he became more obsessed with capturing that bright ripple. 

 Some days Deb became clearly impatient. “Aw come on, Clive. It can’t be that hard, can it?” Then his frustration began to turn to fear. What if Deb got sick of sitting for him and found another day job?” There was only one answer.

    So, I took her in my bed

And I covered up her head,

Just to keep her from the foggy, foggy dew.

Certainly there were nights when the fog rolled up from the harbour, but mostly it was cold and rainy. Cats yowled and babies howled at night and gusts of wind blew newspapers and empty cigarette packets along the street, but Deb seemed content to keep warm in Clive’s bed. The arrangement also meant that she was a mistress and not an employee, so Clive no longer had to pay her.  

His artist friends, what was left of them, were rather mocking of Clive’s new lover and referred to her as Deb the Pleb. He had no choice but to mock with them and call her Deb the Pleb himself, but never where she might hear him. And despite his saving on sitting fees, his financial situation was becoming critical.

Throughout his art training and beyond, Clive had convinced his parents that to financially support him would be a very sound investment. If they granted him an allowance so that he could concentrate on his art, it would only be a short time before the Archibald, as well as other rich prizes, would begin to roll in and his work would be hung in every major gallery in Australia, possibly the world. But now his father was beginning to grumble that he wasn’t going to pay his son to ‘paint some woman’s hair’ and Clive had better get a proper job. 

Deb agreed that it was high time Clive contributed to the household budget instead of relying on her barwork wages. Clive said that it was more a spiritual issue than a material one and this led to their first Huge Row. It ended with Clive having to smash down the bathroom door because Deb had locked herself in there with a pair of kitchen scissors and a promise to give herself a crew cut. Fortunately the bathroom was only a wooden lean-to and Deb had not snipped a hair of her head.

It was all becoming more and more difficult and frustrating. His Romantic Movement was no nearer and he was broke.

He gazed long at the portrait of  Dante Gabriel Rossetti pinned to the living room wall. Then “Complacent tosser!” he hissed, before going and pinching a bunch of daffodils from the bucket outside Harringtons and getting out his watercolours.

Clive’s floral studies turned out to be quite saleable, those and his landscapes and city scenes for greetings cards. Deb got some extra hours at the pub and they did quite well. But rather than abating with time, Clive’s passion to capture Deb’s crowning glory became more and more obsessive. He no longer trusted the Pre-Raphaelites for inspiration, but when the musical Hair opened at the Metro in Sydney, he felt drawn to seeing it. Deb said she’d like to go, too, although she didn’t know much about it except that it was about hippies and hair.

So they went, even booking into a bed & breakfast in King’s Cross. Deb, carried away by this adventure, and on the advice of Cindy, entered into the spirit of things by wearing Indian muslin and her hair loose with a circlet of daisies. She was a huge hit, with quite a few people thinking she was a cast member planted in the audience. 

There was, as expected, a large amount of hair onstage, some of it pubic. But none of it was as spectacular as Deb’s that night. Then there was the far out scene where the cast just stood onstage and shouted the F word over and over, so that it echoed and reverberated all around the theatre. 

Deb sat stunned, speechless except to gasp. “Well!” But she got over it and went home quite excited that this was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Clive went home aflame with an even greater conviction that hair, Deb’s hair, was the nemesis he had to turn into his salvation.

But he only had two days a week to spend on it. Other, more commercial aspects of his career blossomed and Clive’s work became extremely popular with tourists and to adorn dental waiting rooms and motel walls. A new market started up in Salamanca Place and Deb took a selection of his prints along quite regularly. They ended their lease with Rupert and bought a nice house in Rose Bay. There the two of them lived very comfortably and Deb was more than happy for their good life to continue. But Clive could never be completely happy for obvious reasons. The genius within was still buried deep.

Thirty years after the challenge began, he still had not conquered it. There was still no Australian Nouveau Post Pre-Raphaelite Romantic Movement. His creative breast still burned and ached to paint that one portrait that would be his whole reason for living.

One morning, just as she came out of Myers, who should Deb bump into but her long-ago workmate, Cindy? The two hadn’t seen each other in almost three decades and they had a lot to catch up on.

Over gin and tonic in the Cock and Bull, they related their life stories. Cindy’s was fairly predictable, marriage, a husband, three children and even a couple of grandchildren. But when Deb told her that she was still sitting for Clive and he was still striving to paint a portrait of her hair, Cindy was truly gobsmacked. 

Deb shrugged. “It suits me just fine,” she said. “In fact, if he ever did get that bloody picture done, he might even decide he doesn’t need me around anymore.”

“Geez, yes,” Cindy agreed. “What are you going to do when you start to go grey, Debs?”

Deb gave a hoot of laughter. “What do you mean ‘start to’?” she asked. “I’m not silly, you know. Dwayne at Lorenzo’s Coiffure has been colouring my hair for nearly five years now. It’s a mix of Titian Tint and Autumn Bronze, with just a squirt of Red Pepper.  Lovely how he’s managed to capture exactly the right tones.”

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