Chinatown alley, Melbourne 2014; ABC studio, Melbourne, 2015;
Sarah Awards, New York April 2016
It all started with a flamingo.
A surly one, I have to say, but he was all mine.
He’d been dumped in a Chinatown rubbish skip, thrown in among banana peels and broken mirrors. Anyone would be cantankerous in those circumstances, right? When my main character peered into the skip to inspect this less than flamboyant piece of taxidermy, he opened his beak, and spoke.
And she was just as surprised as I was when the voice that growled back was deep, gravelled, and not unlike Tom Waits.
My fingers flew over the keyboard and I watched in amazement as he gave a deep racking cough, and then started to sing.
Everything you can think of is true
The dish ran away with the spoon
Dig deep in your heart for that little red glow
We’re decomposing as we go
I love it when my own words surprise me. I have no rules for the writing process; a whole short story can come from an overheard conversation on the tram, the name of a lipstick, font or rib bone, and once, from an odd little 1965 Swedish phrasebook that felt the need to teach the line ‘The first thing I’ll need is a goat.’
But I did not expect my character to be channelling the spirit of a singer whose voice one music critic described as ‘sounding like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.’
What I also didn’t expect was that the resultant story, Almost Flamboyant, would be picked up by both an American literary magazine and here in Melbourne, by the ABC. And so I found myself in the Southbank studios, watching my flamingo walk in.
Casting him hadn’t been easy. Together with my lovely producer, Lea, we’d workshopped the story and thrown about names of different actors who could play the role. I’d be performing the main character, but given that no amount of whiskey or rough nights could make me emulate Tom Waits, we called for reinforcements.
Jacek Koman was a dream come true. I’d been mesmerised by his performances as lead singer of VulgarGrad, an Australian band performing ‘old songs of Russian thieves and punk classics of the Perestroika era.’ An esteemed actor as well, his rendering of the Police classic Roxanne as a sultry, simmering tango in Moulin Rouge brought forth exclamations from everyone I mentioned it to.
Both Lea and I agreed his charismatic growl would be perfect for my surly flamingo.
And it was.
He sat opposite me in the studio as we put on our headphones and laid out the scripts. Lea was on the line and in our ears from Sydney, and her warmth and reassurance helped me relax. But nothing could have prepared me for the moment Jacek leaned into the microphone, and snarled the first line.
‘Are you going to fucking help me, or just stare?’
There was silence in the studio. My hand on my throat, yes, I was just going to stare, it seemed. It wasn’t just that his reading was perfect; it was, capturing the essence of my flamingo in one irascible, splenetic sentence. But it was also that I had never before watched a character of mine brought to life, off the page and into the room. The experience was intoxicating.
He owned that studio. He snarled, sang, and sneered. When he raised his arms and flapped them, I told a laughing Lea afterwards that I saw his pink feathers fluttering, raining down all over the desk.
The story ends with the song as a Melbourne tram rattles off into the night, the flamingo rasping a Tom Waits lullaby. I loved the lilting, carnivalesque melody of the song, equal parts sinister and soothing. I sat back in my chair, my voicing done, as Jacek began humming.
It was a low sound, starting in the back of his throat. Everything else was silence: Lea listening, me watching. And then the lyrics began.
Everything you can think of is true
And fishes make wishes on you
We’re fighting our way up dreamland’s spine
With black flamingos, expensive wine
His eyes were closed as he sang. He swayed back and forth, crooning the lyrics. The effect was as hypnotic as a spell. I found myself moving in time, weaving back and forth like at the feet of a pink, feathered snake charmer.
It remains one of my favourite stories. It’s given me an intensified love of Tom Waits, a pay cheque that funded my first taxidermy lesson, and partial respite from my lifelong hatred of the colour pink.
But it also gave me the once in a lifetime opportunity to say to an artist whose work I admire; thank you for being my flamingo; much appreciated.
Sarah Awards, New York, April 2016
Almost Flamboyant was the inaugural winner of the New York-based 2016 Sarah Awards for Audio Fiction. Rijn was flown to New York in April for the awards ceremony where she personally met, for the first time, her Sydney-based ABC producer, Lea Redfern.