THEY WENT TO a broker. Working their way through the maze of the air market felt beyond them, if they wanted to get the best possible price. Brokers knew buyers – collectors and connoisseurs, dabblers and dilettantes. They took a percentage cut. The broker’s eyes started popping like the ones on their great-grandmother’s Papuan death mask when they placed the bottle on his desk. Otherwise, he managed to maintain a composed demeanour.
‘It all depends on the provenance,’ he explained. ‘Buyers demand an airtight history.’ He paused. His pun was definitely for effect. His office was a hermetically sealed pod on the fifth floor of one of the glass buildings in Downtown. It had a view over the skyline. Obscured that day, as it was increasingly, by smog.
‘The China market is huge,’ he added, his hand reaching across his vast rosewood desk to caress the rusted lid on the two-ounce bottle. He slid his glasses to the tip of his nose to better read the label. Returned them to his eyes to survey the couple who’d walked in off the street on spec. There was a look of doom about them, like a pair of star-crossed lovers in manga comics, reincarnated as sister and brother. The aura was probably just suppressed greed for the money. ‘So tell me the story.’
The sister started. She scratched the line where her roots met her forehead then rubbed away the resulting dandruff. The broker eyed his bespeckled rosewood with barely disguised distaste as she described her great-great-grandmother, a bit of an adventurer in her day, a woman with itchy feet as the saying went, and a penchant for curio shops in exotic destinations.
The label on the bottle, discoloured by a good amount of time, read Rabaul Air 1963.
The broker interrupted – directed the preamble into something usable for buyers.
‘So she bought this in a shop. A curio amongst others?’
‘No, no,’ corrected the woman. ‘She bottled it herself in New Guinea last century.’
‘Good, good,’ the broker echoed her cadence. A good story, he meant. One old lady owner, only drove it to church on Sundays and so on. The narrative flourishes of the used-car business were surprisingly often apropos in the air trade.
The great-great-granddaughter fiddled with the face mask on her lap, alternating pulling at the elasticised band and picking at the tiny pilling on the fuzzy fabric. It was a cheap knock-off, not a Chinese original, which were acknowledged to be the best on the market, necessity having been the mother of invention as air quality deteriorated at an unprecedented rate with both viral and pollutant contamination.
‘She was there, in Rabaul, coming back from my grandmother’s christening on Manus Island. My great-grandparents were there with the Australian navy.’
‘Los Negros Island,’ interrupted the hitherto silent brother, an almost bald man. Maybe they were twins. He’d made up for lack on top by sporting a luxuriant beard. Red. ‘Los Negros, off the tip of Manus.’
‘A causeway connects them. They’re joined now. And everyone knows Manus,’ argued his sister, ‘Because...’
They both faltered into silence, watching the broker’s face. Keep it simple, they’d been told. There were already too many greats and great-greats in the ancestry to be ironed out, and brokers liked a slick provenance, easy to condense in the sales catalogue, stupid. KISS. KISS.
‘Go on,’ the broker purred instead. ‘The more the better. Adds to the...’ He conjured his hands in the air like a magician. ‘Creates authenticity.’
‘We have proof. Grandma’s christening certificate.’ The brother stopped there. He appeared to have had his say. His sister was guppy-mouthed beside him. Had they blown it by pushing the idea of proof?
‘Proof is a delicate subject,’ the broker acknowledged. ‘We will run tests for verification, of course. The bottle?’ He picked it up and turned it in the light. ‘For a condiment, I hazard. The experts have archives of factory specifications, size, shape, dates of manufacture. It can be tracked. Similarly, this unique label. Pre-sticker technology. It appears to be from the end of a sheet of postage stamps, a couple of gutters still joined – like your islands,’ he winked. His brief laugh was a heehaw. ‘The dimensions and shape of the perforations will be invaluable pointers. Australian colonial stamps have a large society always willing to work with the esoteric.’
The siblings were finally smiling.
‘Both bottle and label, clearly, can be verified as of the era without authenticating the actual contents.’
The smiles were as brief as spring rain.
‘As say, a forger of a new Shakespeare play would carefully source parchment from the era, manufacture ink from the tannins of the galls of oak trees, pluck a goose’s bottom for a quill, so an air fraudster would...’
Vehement shaking of heads ensued. We wouldn’t, said the eyes of the siblings.
‘Now, the air within. That is the question.’
‘The rust?’ whispered the woman.
The broker once again leaned forward to close in on the object. Rust indeed took time to accumulate over seals. He flicked a spec of the valuable proof off. It flew ten centimetres and nested in the snowfall of the sister’s dandruff.
‘Yes. So. Proceed.’
‘So.’ The sister started up like a lawnmower, sputtering, hitting a roar, settling into a practiced whine. ‘So she went to Manus for the christening, of our grandmother, and all the flights to and from went through Rabaul. 1963. This was pre-independence, pre-volcanic eruption, pre-detention centre. On her last night in Rabaul, staying with the family of a colonial administrator, she said, Oh, I will miss this clear island air. So her host had a houseboy grab an empty bottle from the kitchen, and he swooped it through the air and sealed it up. For you, to take with you for always. See, she even dated it.’
If the broker was sceptical he didn’t show it. Because he’d be on a commission, he’d want the highest price too. He let the silence stretch.
‘So,’ continued the sister, ‘it was in her curio cupboard for decades with her Hawaiian dancer doll and her picture-frame made from World War II spent cartridges and her parade of ivory elephants from East Africa.’
‘We handed in the ivory,’ her brother hastily clarified. ‘We’ve obeyed all the laws.’
‘Then it passed down the generations...’ said the sister.
‘To us,’ concluded the brother with the finality of the last word on the subject.
‘Do you think...’ she squeaked. Last word on his last word.
‘It is not up to me to believe or disbelieve.’ The broker fixed his line-of-sight on some mythical castle in the middle distance. ‘I weave the story into its best possible shape. Display it in the best possible light.’ Now was his turn to smile for the first time since they’d entered the brokerage. ‘We deal mainly with investors. They could lay this down for another hundred years, or sell it on for a profit, or, indeed, open it to celebrate a significant anniversary or business success in the full knowledge there’s no more where it came from. The frisson of breathing the last air...’
‘Does this mean you’ll represent us?’
‘I will represent this.’ He caressed the bottle of Rabaul Air. 1963. The line of the condiment bottle took on the curves of a beautiful woman.
Now they all smiled.
The broker pressed his intercom. ‘Priscilla, bring in some refreshments.’
His secretary carried in a tray of Air-Everest cans. They each pierced a seal and vacuum pumped the fresh air from atop the Himalayas into their mouths, Priscilla generously included in the toast. The siblings blinked in mirror image of each other. The air was so much better than generic OzAir from the Green Range, itself one of the most successful exports to China since the turn of the century.
They reaffixed their facemasks in the lift and stepped back into the city air, the receipt for possession of their great-great-grandmother’s greatest gift secure in an antique plastic sleeve along with the grandmother’s original christening certificate. Once they had the money from the sale, they’d be able to move to the country and breathe easy. Each and every time they stepped outside.
HIGH ABOVE THEM, the broker locked his office door and lowered the blinds against the blurred skyline. He carefully prised the rust from around the seal, collecting it in a Ming Dynasty china dish. Then he left the desk and lay on his leather couch. Propped his feet on one armrest, his head against the other. Broke the seal. Gulped down the escaping breeze.
He was sitting on a verandah looking out over the bay in Rabaul. On an old planter’s chair. Cane. Cushioned. Pat Boone crooned from a turntable indoors, beer flattened on a table. The sky was infinite out beyond the edge of the man-made world. Each star a world of light reminding him of the miracle of life. A million, million times over. He vertiginously fell into the sky. A stick of cane scratched the soft underside of his left arm where it rested on the chair – then he was back. On the couch. In a suit.
He stayed there with his eyes closed. As always, even the strong aftertaste of colonialism was not unpleasant as long as there was still money to be made in it. He wrote the sale’s catalogue spiel against the back of his eyelids. Collecting himself before carefully gluing the rust back around the seal of the bottle. He was certain the bottle would not get to the scrutiny of a public auction. He knew a certain brazillionaire who’d want to snap up a sweet Rabaul ’63 for her air loft.