Lola in the Mirror by Trent Dalton
‘Mirror, mirror, on the grass, what’s my future? What’s my past?’
People think magic mirrors are found only in fairytales. I found mine last summer on Lime Street, Highgate Hill, in a Brisbane City Council kerbside collection.
‘Mirror, mirror, please don’t lie. Tell me who you are. Tell me, who am I?’
My magic mirror was resting on a mouldy ping-pong table beside a Cavendish banana box full of baby dolls with limbs and eyeballs missing. My mirror has a matte-gold frame, arched at the top like the entrance to an Arabian princess’s bedroom. The family at 36 Lime dumped the mirror because there was a thick diagonal crack across the middle of it. There was a sales sticker on the back: Temple & Webster: Amina Arched Mirror, $299. At first I thought that was a bit much, dropping three avocadoes on some place to look when you’re brushing your mop, but now, in the thick of this lilac jacaranda spring of my seventeenth year on earth, I consider this mirror that I stare at in the dawn light – the best light for staring into a magic mirror – the second most valuable thing in my life.
It’s all the places I’ve seen inside it. The pyramids of Egypt. Ornamental gardens in Shanghai. That little bar three blocks from Alexanderplatz in Berlin. That Hindu prayer spot by the banks of the Ganges River. And now this cream pink-sky place I see in there this morning. Darned if that ain’t Paris, France. Round green metal coffee table in a public square at the base of the Eiffel Tower. The square is empty because magic mirrors pay no mind to time zones and it’s dawn there, too. And there she sits. The girl in the red dress, at the coffee table. Same woman who turns up in all those exotic places in my mirror. Back turned away from me like always. Sipping coffee. Impossibly poised. Effortlessly cool. My faceless friend. My muse.
I get how screwy it all sounds. But this here is the truth of my youth. And if I am to properly document these difficult early years of what is sure to be a wild and long and ground-breaking life as an international artist, then I am compelled to document the big screwy in all its shaky wonder and peril. These moments at dawn in the Tinman’s scrapyard are as relevant to my art as all the dark, real stuff that presents itself later in the day: the girls on the lam stuff, the hunger stuff, the bad smells, the violence, the fear, the work, Mum’s drug slinging for Lady Flo. And these notes on the screwy are just as valid as anything I can tell you about the running. Sometimes it’s the screwy that pulls a girl through.
Before I found my magic mirror, I used the side mirrors on the HiAce to see myself. Never needed any reflection bigger than that. Sometimes it’s good to settle for the side-mirror view of life. Sometimes we don’t want to see the full picture.
It wasn’t always a magic mirror. For months it was just another way for me to see all the freckles on my cheeks, my button nose with the small sunburn scab at the tip, and my cracked lips. Plain ol’ mirror it was, for the longest time. Then, at 3 p.m. on 23 April 2022 – my seventeenth birthday – Mum finally decided that I was old enough and hard enough to hear all the gory details about why we’d legged it across the country. She told me the whole blood-curdling story while we shared a round green metal coffee table at Starbucks, beneath the Myer Centre on the corner of Albert and Elizabeth streets. She drank iced tea and I guzzled a strawberry frappé so quickly my brain froze.
She said my father was a good man on the outside, but it had taken her too long to see his insides. She said you gotta be married to a man at least five years before you really see his insides. She said sometimes you can find a light inside a feller that burns so bright that it starts to burn inside you, too. But all my mum found inside my dad was black monster blood. That’s the shit that bubbles because it’s hot and troubled. Acid monster blood. My dad’s blood coulda cleaned your oven. You could pour that stuff on the bonnet of your Subaru Forester (best car I ever slept in: ample leg room, good high interior with plenty of space for changing your dacks) and it would burn a steaming hole right down to the engine block.
‘Do I have the monster blood in me, Mum?’ I asked. ‘Nah,’ she replied.
‘But he’s my father,’ I said. ‘You said I got my gentle art side from you. What if I got a monster side from him?’
‘Nah,’ Mum said, ‘you got more Monet blood than monster blood.’
‘Do you have any monster blood, Mum?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, I think I got some,’ she said. ‘How do you think I did what I did to your father?’
But that’s just the thing. I know for certain she hasn’t got a trace of monster blood in her. I swear it. So how does a woman with not a drop of monster inside her do something so – what’s the word for it? – monstrous.
Mum never told me where she was born or how, or who her parents were. The past is dangerous for girls on the lam. I think she was born from a rock fertilised by a rainbow. One half of her is black stone and the other half is pink and purple and yellow and orange tricks of light. Never heard her raise her voice once. Don’t mean she’s meek or unwilling to go full gorilla mama. The one and only time I ever saw her come close to violence was when we were at the bar of the only pub in Cracow, a gold-mining town almost five hundred clicks north- west of Brisbane. We were eating a bowl of chips and gravy and there was this drunk woman sitting next to us wearing snakeskin boots and skinny blue jeans who kept saying the words ‘silly cunt’ to her boyfriend as she ate a T-bone steak with jacket potatoes and vegetables. Mum rightly thought such language was inappropriate for me to hear because I was only nine back then and twice she asked Snakeskin Boots to stop swearing and twice she was ignored. Making her third request, Mum tapped Snakeskin Boots on the shoulder to get her attention and an angry Snakeskin pushed Mum away without even looking at her. ‘Fuck off,’ she spat. This prompted Mum to grip Snakeskin’s neck in her fingers and bring her head close to her dinner plate, from beside which Mum took a gravy-stained steak knife and pointed it directly at Snakeskin’s wide-open left eye. ‘Say that once more,’ Mum whispered.
Now I didn’t think that was monstrous of Mum. I just thought it was gangster as fuck. Five minutes later, as we sped through the night on the road to Theodore in a red 1989 Holden Camira that had no right to still be operating in the dust of western Queensland, I told Mum that I was proud of her for being so brave but wished she hadn’t reacted like that.
‘Why?’ Mum asked.
‘We had to leave half a bowl of chips and gravy on the bar,’ I replied.
‘I’m sorry,’ Mum said. ‘That is, indeed, a tragedy. What kind of animal forces a woman to abandon a bowl of chips and gravy?'
When Mum told me about the monster blood and how it felt to stick a paring knife in the throat of her husband in order to save her life and mine, the words landed inside my head like breaking glass. I swear I felt a crack running across my brain, just like the crack in my magic mirror. On one side of that brain crack was everything I knew for certain about the world. Bubblegum. Spaghetti bolognese. The songs of Taylor Swift. Bells on bicycles. On the other side was everything that I saw coming for me. Truth. Adulthood. Hurt and pain and art. So much art. And so many questions. Who was my mother before she ran? Where did we live? Who was I? Who am I?
I went home to the scrapyard that afternoon and I stared so close into my broken mirror that I could see the pores in the skin on my nose. Could see the emerald green of my eyes. Felt like I could see to the end of the universe. But nowhere could I find the monster I was trying to see inside myself.
Then I took a step back and that’s when I saw her. Below the crack in the mirror were the old cut-off denim shorts I was wearing and my bare, fire-kindling legs sticking out of a pair of green and white Slazenger sneakers I’d got from Big W. But in the space above the crack I saw a woman in a red dress with her back to me. It was like she was right there beyond the glass, moving inside it, as if I was watching her through a bedroom window.
It was a red knee-length cocktail dress she wore, with cross- straps at the back that exposed her well-formed shoulder blades. She was standing in a city street. In a city that looked much bigger than my city. Her hair was thick and brown and high and rolled into curls that seemed as natural and wondrous as seashells. She raised her left arm and I glimpsed a long white cigarette between her forefinger and middle finger. I could see only a flash of her jawline as she turned to take a deep drag on that cigarette, leaving a ring of vivid red lipstick on the end of the butt.
‘Mirror, mirror, in this panel beater’s place,’ I whispered, ‘please show me who you are, please show me your face.’
But the woman in the red dress said nothing. And then she walked away from me. I could see where she was going. Up a wide white stone staircase to what looked like a European castle. But then a yellow cab drove across my frame of view and I realised the scene was unfolding in the city of New York and I knew the building from documentaries Mum and me had watched on the telly. It was no castle she was walking into; it was the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
She does things like that, this woman in the red dress. Because she’s international. And she’s wanted, not unwanted. She’s valuable, not worthless.
This morning she sits alone in Paris beneath the most famous tower in the world. Sips a black coffee. Pure white cigarette raised to her lips with her left hand. And then a man in a vintage brown suit with a face I cannot see enters the scene from the left side of the mirror frame and kisses the woman in the red dress for twelve long seconds, square on the lips. Romance in it. Passion in it. Art.
But then a voice from beside me says, ‘What the hell are you staring at?’
And the woman in the mirror whips her head to the side to find out who has interrupted her private Parisian kiss.
And I whip my head to the same side to see a woman with her arms folded, looking at me like she’s trying to figure how deep my screwy goes.
My rock, fertilised by a rainbow. The first most valuable thing in my life.
This is an edited extract from Lola in the Mirror by Trent Dalton, Fourth Estate, RRP $32.99, available 4 October 2023.
See Trent Dalton in conversation with Indira Naidoo at City Recital Hall on 10 October 2023.