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Anthony Macris

The Olympia

[an extract from Capital, Volume One, Part Two, a prose work featuring a stretch of busy Parramatta Road, a major artery in Sydney, Australia]

ONCE Nick had passed the Commonwealth Bank he came to the restaurant that marked the midpoint between his place and Penny’s. Thai Traffic — with its squadron of waitresses crisscrossing the floor in pink silk dresses, its tropical fish tanks whose lighting was as murky as the restaurant itself, and its walls of fake wood panelling hung with portraits of Thailand’s eternally 35-year-old king — had been their standard meal stop before going to the Stanmore Globe Cinema a little further down Parramatta road, the perfect place for quick dinner before or after the early evening session.
      Over time Nick and Penny had got to know the menu well and learned to steer clear of the red and green curries that, even though graded mild, always made them weep within the first three mouthfuls, their choices usually settling on the stir-fried mixed vegetables (no onion, please) and the larb salad, its minced pork, flavoured with fish sauce, mint, lemon juice and a touch of chilli, so delicious that they would duel over the last scraps of meat with the restaurant’s worn brass forks.
      Without their quite realising it, Thai Traffic had been their first compromise, the first shot in what Nick later realised was, in terms he kept to himself, the halfway war. The halfway war starts out as a battle that is not, in the first flush of romance, recognised as the beginning of a war at all: it starts out as the battle of obligingness. Habits are not yet known, patterns have not yet emerged, and restraint and concern for the other are to the fore. Common decisions are made with expressions such as: ’I’m not fussed’, ’Whatever you decide is okay with me’, or even ’But I picked last time’.

      But once patterns do emerge, the trouble starts. What were once common decisions become points of negotiation. Hence expressions such as: ’Why don’t we...?’, ’How about... ?’, ’I’d rather/prefer...’. From that point it’s only a matter of time, and this period of time is highly variable, from a few days to a few decades, until these expressions give way to a different kind: ’I’m sick of...’, ’I’m fed up with...’, ’I’ve had it with...’. By the end of their first year together Nick and Penny ranged over all three phases, usually within the same night. One memorable debate centred on an important practical question: was Thai Traffic really halfway?
      It felt halfway enough, but what did that mean? For Nick it was downhill, for Penny uphill: Nick had the clear advantage. For Nick it was largely undercover, for Penny there was a long walk down an awningless side-street that offered no protection from the rain: another advantage for Nick. But Nick liked walking less than Penny. Penny loved a good long walk when Nick would have just as happily caught a bus: advantage to Penny. But Penny didn’t like the food at Thai Traffic as much as Nick. She only really liked the larb, whereas he loved the larb. Nick had an easy down-hill, under-cover walk and he loved the larb. It just wasn’t fair.
      Nick pointed out that Thai Traffic, as far as he could tell, wasn’t exactly halfway, it was closer to Penny’s: advantage to her. Furthermore, the cinema itself was closer to her place, which meant if she was meeting him there from her place, and he was meeting her there from his place, and they decided to go home to her place without having eaten at Thai Traffic (the sporadic economy drives usually cut into their eating-out budget), then he had to walk further. Penny disagreed that it was closer to her place anyway.
      Short of measuring the distance, there was no way of telling. Measuring it would have been easy enough, they could have used the street directory, or the odometer on a friend’s car. But that would have been pedantic, that would have threatened to end the dispute, and they might have started arguing about more serious things, like living together. Then buying a car. Then buying a house. Then having a baby.
      And it was a little too soon for that, it was all too much, times were way too tough. It was easier for Nick and Penny to do what the crowd outside the Stanmore Cinema was doing, the crowd made up of people who milled on the street as they queued for tickets; who cast impatient glances at watches as they waited for late friends avoiding the interminable ads and trailers that preceded each session; who, still stunned by the film they’d just seen, hovered on the footpath like birds caught in a crosswind; who strode off towards cars and bars and restaurants and living rooms, talking about anything but the film they had just seen, as if the two hours of murders, explosions and infidelities had never happened.
      It was easy and pleasant for Nick to sit there with Penny in the four-screen multiplex, its operations stripped to the bare minimum of cashier and candy-bar staff, no ice-cream seller with her tray, no usher with his torch, no projectionist in his booth (the film reels now automatically loaded by a central computer), for Nick to cuddle up with Penny in a darkness never quite allowed to fall, always kept at bay by the green exit signs that flanked the screen, by the tiny lamps that glowed at the end of the rows and swept down the aisles like the lights of a runway, to happily share the armrest (which sometimes became a bitterly contested frontier if a stranger sat in the next seat), to press shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh, for Nick to put his arm around Penny and Penny to rest her head in the hollow of his neck, every now and again Nick prying himself loose to stretch a little and sneak a glance at her when she wasn’t looking, at her serene expression completely absorbed by the film, her face bathed in the reflected light that depicted an endless series of lonelinesses, courtships, consummations, periods of crisis and separations or reconciliations depending on the genre, some of these scenes viewed again and again over the years, in Sunday night first-release presentations, in one-a.m. TV reruns, in big-budget restorations, in one-off independent cinema screenings scheduled at inconvenient times, key scenes that, with their shocking invariability, formed references points in their lives, like the scene in the Italian epic Nick had seen with Penny in this very theatre not so long ago, a real morality tale with young bourgeois anti-heroes who are rich and beautiful and flawed in endearing ways: she drives a car and wears floppy silk hats and writes bad futurist poetry; he hates fascists, visits brothels and rebels, ineffectually, against his father; they make love on a haystack at the back of a barn, his lean muscled body thrusting between her spread legs, her belly and breasts pressed close to his chest, to the hard, tensed body that clasps her tight in its arms, that burrows into her body with silent concentration, that presses her soft golden flesh against the dried blades of grass, that kisses her when she begs to be kissed, her words the only sound above the crackle of hay, above the distant music of the country dance they have slipped away from to fuck like pampered dogs, she begs to be kissed and they kiss a deep long kiss that finishes when he, with a final arch of the back, a final thrust of the hips, finishes, and then, stretching out close beside her, propping himself up on his elbow, says with a smirk, ’Why didn’t you tell me you were a virgin?’ to which she smiles and answers ’Because you wouldn’t have believed me,’ at which he smirks even more and replies ’You’re right. I wouldn’t have believed you,’ and she rewards her now future husband, this lusty satyr and his cheeky wit, by putting her arms around him and throwing her head back with a blissful smile that fills the screen, a dreamy smile haloed by her fine blond hair, by the bed of fresh hay she rests against, Penny’s smiling face bathed in her light but, unlike the richly coloured composition on the screen, stark against its background, pale skin emerging out of the darkness of the theatre, the surrounding rows of staring faces faintly illuminated and receding into a night ocean horizon, the theatre a black box that allows light in only through a tiny, controlled aperture, a concentrated beam that hurls image after image into the blackness of the theatre, so different to the blackness of the street, the black of tar and bitumen, of accumulated dirt, of oil-slicked rubber, of surfaces fissured by cracks and potholes, although these fissures and cracks also appeared in the darkness of the theatre, in the form of drifting masses of bruised purple, in the jagged lines of rust that proliferated in all directions, in the milky filaments — primitive life forms — that floated before the eyes when it became too dark for too long, when the film was momentarily forgotten and the act of seeing was thrown in upon itself, these modes of perception co-existing for Nick as he looked at Penny’s smiling, contented face, at the deeply etched line where the lips met, at the emerald-green eyes whose surfaces reflected and distorted the rectangle of the screen, at the pores of her nose, at the fine, downy hairs — unnoticeable in any other light — that shone silver beside her ear, and he would look at her in this darkness, snatch glances of this blissful, unaware happiness he was so much a part of, a happiness he enjoyed most in these calm, near unbearably still moments, and he would see his own happiness and the moment of perception itself concentrated in her image, in this mask of white paint smeared over a field thrown and dribbled and daubed in fistfuls of black light.
      Nick wove his way through the cinema crowd and continued his journey. Ever hopeful of stealing some of the cinema’s trade in sweets, the Olympia Milk Bar, right next door, was still open. Glancing in as he went by its entrance, Nick saw its three bare fluorescent tubes struggle to even dimly light the shop’s palatial interior, serving mainly to show how much grease and dust had collected along the edges of the vine pattern that swirled across its pressed-metal ceiling.

Photo of Olympia Milk Bar 2001

Photo collage of Olympia Mik Bar, September 2001, by John Tranter

      To the right of the entrance was a sign with an illustration of a fifties’ housewife holding a cup of coffee in her hand, the curl of steam rising off it confirming the message enclosed in the voice bubble above her head, Nescafé Instant, Fresh Every time! Behind her two kitchen suites of vinyl and laminex provided the perfect place to drink it. But even though the Olympia stocked a range of confectioneries that would have left even the most hardened six-year-old goggle-eyed, and even though its prices were half that of the multiplex’s candy bar, it was always empty save for its ageing male proprietor, a hunched, smiling figure with white hair and furrowed brow who stood near the doorway, stationed behind a counter of old-fashioned fridges and wooden cabinets that ringed the shop’s interior and formed a corridor so narrow that there was room for only one person to pass.
      With folded arms and haunted stare he kept vigil over both the street and the ingenious, Lego-like arrangements of confectionery products he had obviously spent hours constructing and that crowded every available space at the front of the store. The street display window was filled with empty boxes of Toblerone, Twirl, Turkish Delight, Crunch, Picnic, Snickers, Smarties, Crunchie, Fruit’n’Nut, Summer Roll, Cherry Ripe, Kit Kat, Twix, Rollo, Mars, Chokito, Flake and Violet Crumble arranged into circular configurations. The windowless, stainless-steel fridges that formed part of the counter acted as a billboard for the enormous stickers that advertised Schweppes Lemonade, Clear Cola and Solo, Spring Valley Mineral Water, Pepsi Max and Pepsi Diet and Pepsi Regular, Coca Cola’s conspicuous absence no doubt caused by a low profit margin that some shop owners refused to tolerate.
      A masonite magazine rack, once displaying the covers of Women’s Day, Post and Cleo, was stacked with cardboard posters of ice creams, the various photomontages showing double life-size reproductions of Soleroes, Magnums and Cornettoes, Calypsoes, Splices and Warps, Gaytimes, Hearts and Slicksticks, Buffalo Bills, Vanilla Buckets and Paddlepops in chocolate, caramel and banana.
      But most impressive of all, and the display that must have cost the owner days of labour, was housed inside an ancient but well-preserved vitrine, more commonly used for botanical specimens or surgical instruments, but in this case filled with an entire ancient-Egyptian temple complex of Cobblers, Fruit Tingles, and Minties, the bricks of chocolate, caramel and candy now formed into pyramids surprisingly accurate in scale. From time to time, and only grudgingly, the proprietor would briefly leave his position at the front of the shop and, his wiry arms still folded, move slowly down the narrow corridor behind the counter as if mounted on invisible tracks. He would return from the shop’s murky interior at the same measured speed, passing as he did what was for Nick its prize possession, the twin towers of the milkshake makers that rose out of the purpose-built fridge with its marbled green laminex detailing and its row of rubber-edged hatches that were opened with the flick of a finger, hatches that Nick had opened again and again as a boy growing up in a shop somewhat like this one, making milkshake after milkshake from an age so young that he had had to stand on the fridge handles to reach the tower of aluminium drink containers stacked one into the other, blue alternating with pink, then flip open the first hatch, pull the ladle that hung from the side of the metal drum up through the crust of frozen milk and splash in a serving that made the aluminium container go icy to his touch, flip open the second hatch and scoop in the ice cream, flip open the third hatch and ladle in the chocolate or caramel or strawberry topping, toss in a generous helping of malt (five cents extra) with the teaspoon whose long handle always seemed powdery no matter how careful he was, then, best moment of all, load the container into the machine and enjoy the vibrations that made it purr in his hand, and, once the blender had done its magic, serve it up to kids his own age, kids just like Penny, who, from his eyrie on top of the fridge, he could just picture standing down there, spliced out of the childhood photo album she had once shown him and onto the store’s pebblecrete tiles, walking with light but determined steps over the Art Deco mosaic of the word Olympia that had been set into the floor at the shop’s entrance, its slender, elongated characters spelt out in pale shades of blue, green and orange and haloed with motifs of diamond and quartz: he could just see her walking up to the counter, an eight-year-old in blue shorts and a red top, her dark curly hair cut tomboy short, gold sleepers in her pierced ears, her mischievousness taking a back seat to wary politeness as she ordered her strawberry milkshake and stretched up on tiptoe to hand over the money (exactly the right change from her dad waiting outside in the car) to the boy whose head was the only part she could see, and who was taking on the huge responsibility of making a milkshake exactly the way she liked it.
      And he would linger a while on the fridge handles that his parents had told him not to climb up on (there was a crate for that) and stare down at her as she stared up at him, her small, fine hand barely able to fit around the container, her lips firmly pursed around the straw, the lime-green barbershop stripe that wound up its wax-paper sides taking on a greyish tinge as it drew up the pink milk: she would watch him as if he were some strange marsupial that lived in the ceiling of corner shops and came out at night to do nothing but eat chocolates and drink milkshakes and have as much ice cream as it wanted until the blue aluminium container — Nick always made strawberry in blue containers — echoed with the straw’s tell-tale sputter and her father appeared on cue to return the empty container to the counter, take his little daughter by the hand and, nearly dragging her across the jewel-like mosaic, steal her away.

Photo of the Olympia Milk Bar, showing vacant block next door Anthony Macris is author of the novel Capital, Volume One (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997), which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize: Best First Book, South East Asian Section (1997), and for which he was selected as one of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Australian Best Young Novelists (1998). His fiction has been published both in Australia and elsewhere in HEAT, Southerly and Antipodes, and in anthologies by Penguin, Picador and Random Vintage.

He currently teaches writing at the University of Wollongong, New South Wales.

The cinema next to the Olympia Milk Bar was demolished in 2001 to make way for a new apartment building. Photo of Olympia Milk Bar and demolition site (above) by John Tranter.



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