The colour of death

SOME PEOPLE LOSE perspective regardless of the occasion. Brigit is prowling at the edges of Loney Tonkin's funeral and fashion-minded mourners are decked out in black for the occasion, like race day without the colour. Expensive black, and most of it looks pretty new – the bereaved are sassy. Heels sink into the lawn like golf tees. Funerals are a kind of social event – the soul-released doesn't wait for the mourners. Catholics know to get in early with the Last Rites.

Brigit is wandering around and gaping at headstones. Names are carved in granite or sandstone; others are bronze tablets affixed to green-stained concrete. The cemetery is like a well-kept heritage site. The priest's words waft away into the easterly breeze. But it's the whispered conversation Brigit has come for. She's unsure if anyone will recognise her, and being one among a couple of hundred is a kind of camouflage. She spots Lewis. He's at the edge of the convocation, his head cocked back, and he's squinting as he watches aeroplanes on final approach, lost in thought. He jolts when she prods him in the back. She smiles, and he takes a couple of sideways steps and ignores her.

‘Why are you here?' Brigit asks.

He's got no choice: he has to say something.

‘Loyalty, I guess. But it's really none of your business. Why are you here?' Lewis says.

‘Curiosity. I'm a journalist – it's my job to be curious.'

‘I think you're curious – and rude,' he says, and walks away.

Lewis, an art dealer, is usually patient, compliant – even sycophantic. That's his job. But Brigit has him rattled.


LEITH IS PACING around the studio. A day ago he was relaxed about his exhibition – enough work and none done under pressure. Since first light he's been putting paintings on the easels, sitting on the ‘thinking' sofa and looking. And then the same routine again, until all twenty have been mulled over. He knows the phase – self-doubt – and explains it to himself, but it's already set in. He's got to stop thinking too much. The exhibition opens in a week, and he'll have to see Lewis. But he wants to avoid him. Anyway, Lewis has gone quiet – perhaps embarrassed at his submissiveness during the police's recent visit.


LEITH WALKS THROUGH side streets of small family trades and modest industry. Steel sheds that sit alongside working class cottages – old houses poised precariously on their stilts like an illustration of Brisbane's self-doubt. A vernacular charm that thumbs its nose at the next violent storm to sweep in from Ipswich.

Troydon is in his mid-eighties. He owns a small shop in Woolloongabba and handles Japanese antiques, in a way – calligraphy is his thing. It's a dark and dingy place without a name. Leith slips in through the street entrance, an old wooden door that's permanently ajar. What he can see of the floor is well-worn, wet-smelling timber. Troydon is sitting, surrounded by what most people would call junk. He spends his days reading and in summer watches the cricket on a twelve-inch black-and-white TV with snowy reception. The sincerity appeals to Leith, makes him think, makes him wonder about the affectations others see in him.

Leith regards Troydon as a sage, always good for pithy one-liners, and always telling Leith to stop thinking too much.

‘Look at this, my boy,' Troydon says, and points to a Japanese scroll hanging on a nail that's been banged into a rickety bookcase that looks certain to give way if the wrong book is removed.

‘What's it say?' Leith knows Troydon reads Japanese, and that he's good at old seals and pictograms.

‘Not a clue, but it's one of the best pieces I've had. One day I'll work it out.'

It's the start of a conversation they've had before. How you can appreciate something without fully knowing it. They admire the vertical scroll of seven characters painted in black. Troydon says that what the characters say might turn out to be interesting, but it's how they've been painted that conveys the scroll's real eloquence.

Leith is sitting in an unsteady swivel-desk chair and puts his hands in a steeple and rests his chin and thinks. Their meetings are always unhurried. Leith knows that the characters on the stained, creased scroll behind the desk say: Both speech and silence transgress. He can hardly see the walls – or the floor, for that matter. He's surrounded by boxes, books and magazines stacked on the floor; prints and photographs hang on the wall seemingly with no purpose other than to fill space. Small beads of cockroach shit form random heaps. There's no system to any of it, but here he can always find what he's after.

Leith snaps out of thought and asks, ‘If you wanted to paint a picture of death, what colour would you use?'

‘My dear boy...I'm fucked if I know. Perhaps white? Yes – white.'

‘White, eh?' There's a pause. ‘Why white – why not black? Isn't black the colour of death?'

‘Isn't black used to avoid death? Surely nobody wears black to funerals to be closer to the dead. Nor to represent what's in the coffin. Why do they wear black? I thought black was meant to be sexy. I say white – that's the colour of death. Before the Americans got to Japan everyone wore white to funerals.'

The old bastard is being provocative, Leith thinks – some repartee to fill his day.

‘White is everything and nothing until you mark its surface, you know. Then it's less important.' Toydon points to his prized new scroll. ‘White makes an imaginary space where all possibilities exist. Radiant, eternal or nothing – depends on your point of view. Should satisfy all religions.'

Leith takes his thinking hands from under his chin and rolls a cigarette. Troydon lets out an old man's groan as he gets out of his seat and goes to a cabinet, takes out a bottle and two shot glasses, and carefully measures an equal amount into each glass.

‘But it's just after ten,' Leith says.

‘And this is thirty-year-old brandy. It won't taste any better at midday.'

‘When you shot that guy, did you think black or did you think white?' Leith asks.

‘My dear boy,' Troydon says as he gathers his weight on his withered arms and releases a lazy fart, ‘you think too much. I just thought he was dead and I wasn't. And if he was a better shot, I'd be dead. White – that's the colour of death.'

Troydon was involved in a skirmish at the fall of Singapore. Within a week he was shunted off to Changi, along with thousands of his compatriots. He survived and returned to Brisbane. His body was like a wire armature for a sculpture – an emaciated structure in need of a fuller form. By the end of the war he could speak Japanese. He'd developed a one-sided understanding of Japan's culture through books lent to him by a sometimes-friendly commandant. He thinks he knows Japan's psyche – its glorious history of ritualised violence.

‘Do you like the brandy? Nice colour. I'd say it's burnished gold,' Troydon says, then dips his nose into the glass.

‘Very good. Some of my friends would dunk it in Coke,' Leith says. He wants to talk to Troydon about his exhibition. He thinks the old man won't come but hopes he might persuade him to. He's sure the ink drawings and watercolours would appeal to him.

‘I've told you how I paint,' Leith says, ‘but some people think I'm a morbid artist – that I paint death.'

‘And what do you tell them?'

‘I tell them they're wrong.'

‘There you go – they are,' Troydon replies, and Leith waits for him to say that he thinks too much.


WHEN LEITH WANDERS into the gallery Lewis is in his small office wearing old-style jocks and saggy socks. He's got a big tuft of odd-looking hair in the middle of his chest and there's a hint of early forties man boobs on either side.

‘I've done my bit,' Lewis says, narky that Leith didn't come to the funeral. His suit is tossed on a chair and he's changing into designer jeans and a rugby jumper.

‘You were going anyway, so what's it matter if I didn't front?'

Lewis settles, knowing what's good for him. ‘Sorry, mate. I was cornered by Brigit Bennington. She's got this theory. That your picture caused Tonkin to top himself.'

‘Jeez, Lewis, what's going on, where's this crap coming from? No explanations – just gossip.'

‘I know, I know – the police have written it off as a straight up and down suicide,' Lewis says, then stalls. ‘Did you screw her? They say he was the possessive type.'

‘I don't do Ascot wives – it's my principle.'

‘Your principle?'

‘Yeah, a kind of general principle. Generally not worth the hassle.'

‘They say he was depressed. Some bad investments, the arse falls out of the economy – the story ends.' Lewis tightens the belt buckle around his waist and slips his feet into a pair of brown deck shoes. He still looks like what he once was – a private-school physical-education teacher.

The Tonkins' painting is propped against the wall. Lewis, keen to finalise the selection for the exhibition, kicks the wrapping to one side. ‘I think we should include this. Your problem picture.'

‘It's a good painting. I don't have a problem with it. I was thinking of giving it to a friend, but he's got no room for it,' Leith says.

‘Someone I should know?'

‘Not really. He collects old gear. It would be a conversation piece, that's all,' Leith says, mindful that Lewis would be on the phone to Troydon the moment he left the gallery.

Leith walks around the gallery space. Everything is white and waiting for him. He thinks of Troydon's comment that it's the colour of death. Maybe an exhibition of black works is its perfect equaliser. All the old museums he has visited have coloured walls – rich burgundies, deep greens and muddy yellows. But they're still walls of violence and death – Old Masters who painted famous scenes from the Bible like the flagellation, and saints slain by arrows and stones, and other stuff like the incestuous drunken date-rape of Lot by his daughters. All in lavish gold frames and with queues of admirers. Leith feels insignificant amid the chronicle of greatness. There's no moral story to his art – the marks and gestures of his intuition – dramatic, black abstractions. 

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review