It’s not something I usually put on my CV, but who could forget the unforgettable ice-skating spectacular ‘As Like as Two Snowflakes’ by that sparkling, world class duo Darville and Ash? How many people remember my part in that landmark production, which was effectively the high point of the entire show? None. Sad to say. I’m there in the program though. High above the stage, with the caption underneath – Grace Sutherland (Sydney).
There is no proper title for the job I had to do, which is why I don’t put it on my resume. I could hardly ask Mr. Darville for a reference. Ice skating, of the standard of Darville and Ash, is a connoisseur’s art. Like ballet you have to know what you’re looking at in order to appreciate it. The traditions and history. The technique. Especially at eighty bucks a pop for the cheapest seats up in the gods, you’d want to know what it was you were supposed to be enjoying. I am not a connoisseur. I barely got to see their famous routines which included Pachelbel’s Picnic, and the Double Entendre. I have heard they are breath taking, displaying all the skills and virtuosity for which the pair are known. Were known, I should say.
As everyone knows, in their day Darville and Ash were supreme. Gold medal two years running in the Philadelphia Ice Eisteddfod. Seven silver medals at Luxembourg before they turned professional. Flawless routines on every continent. Perfect scores of ten. I’ll tell you this for true: most people don’t know that Ash isn’t her real name. She doesn’t advertise it. It’s short for Ashleigh, which is a sobriquet for her real name which is Agatha, daughter of Belgian dairy farmers. Darville made her change it. He thought his two syllables followed by her one had a nice ring to it. Certainly, the media got on board. After their competitive days were over – that cabinet full of golden trophies – they made a mozza on the icecapade circuit, so much so that the Belgian dairy farmers were able to retire and put away their milking stools.
You may wonder where I get off using a word like sobriquet. Well, let me remind you all this happened a long time ago and I have had to grow up a lot. At the time I didn’t know anything. I certainly didn’t know that Darville and Ash were the duo who transformed the glide and the forward stroke into what the New York Times called razor sharp, white hot fantasy, which is nice enough, but what the Sunday Times in London called: the show to rob your granny for. Darville diligently collected these articles for his tour scrapbook, cutting them from the newspapers of various cities with a pair of pearl handled scissors. I know. I used to use them to trim my split ends and pick the gunk out from under my fingernails. I watched him cut the review from the Daily Telegraph (Sydney) whose headline declared: Devine Darville and Awesome Ashtastic take tinsel town. That’s all well and good, butI don’t think I would rob my granny to see them. Besides, she’s dead.
The posters across the city were splashed with further review quotes: Not to be missed… Icetacular, etcetera and so on. Audiences loved them. The interpretive dance coupled with the use of non-traditional music made them the darlings of the ice rink. After seeing them, many a young girl/boy wanted to don her/his tutu and pull on some skates. Their modern rendition of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (on ice) brought the house down, as did the freestyling Dizygotic Sweetpeas. Who would have thought ice skating could be so captivating, so cathartic?
Where do I fit into all this? Sixteen-year-old Grace Sutherland from Barnawatha just outside of Wodonga. Let me tell you. Darville and Ash were a pair of penny-pinching skinflints who, while they were beautiful to look at, didn’t have two brain cells to rub together between them. I never wanted to be an ice skater. I don’t like the cold. I am a funambulist. As a child I would walk, like a cat, the length of the fence between our house and the Braithwaite’s next door in Abigail Street, and later when I moved to McFarland Road, Wodonga for a year. I walked along the clothesline which I tightened by winding around the trunk of a lemon tree. I have what they call a good sense of balance.
Observing this my parents, Dean and Shona, encouraged by my auntie Lil, enrolled me in the Flying Fruit Fly circus school just over the river in Albury, where I excelled in being thrown in the air by various methods and landing upright on the shoulders of student strongmen. Plenty of them got splattered to the floor in our training. I could stand on one foot on a basketball. As I said: a good sense of balance, coupled with a good sense of moral righteousness, which is more than just good manners. As I grew I diversified and, apart from tightrope, specialised in trapeze. This is where Darville and Ash come in.
On the crest of fabulous reviews and unprecedented anticipation the international tour of ‘As Like as Two Snowflakes’ was coming to Australia. Australia was, in fact, the last exhausted leg, which the newspapers labelled the ‘culmination’ of the world tour. I don’t think they wanted to come to Australia at all, it’s just that they’d been everywhere else. Darville’s scrapbook of reviews had to be a complete record.
They’d been on the road for a year by the time they got here, their partners in tow, raking in the moolah. They’d played nearly every main venue in the ice-skating world. Everyone raved about the energy and silky slickness of the program. Gossipy tabloids raked the coals of the budding romance that seemed to be blossoming, (when it wasn’t smouldering – white hot, remember) on the ice itself. The way they could gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes, lips millimetres apart, while gliding backwards and not crash into anything was a marvel to behold. On Sixty Minutes Darville said, ‘Yes, we’re very fond of each other.’
Ash nodding beside him.
Well I’m here to tell you it was all a sham for the cameras. They were not fond of each other. They hated each other’s gizzards. Oh, they could glide and shimmy and straddle each other while flying around the rink, but underneath the contrivance of romance they wanted to scratch each other’s eyes out. A bit like my parents, really, when I come to think about it.
To their credit what they did fairly defied gravity. I’ve seen the video highlights. Though how he could stand to have her thighs clamped around his head spinning in orbit like a satellite I don’t know. People wanted to be them. They could have doubled their ticket price and audiences still would have flocked to see the show. Darville liked the romantic illusion of it all. They represented all that was missing from the lives of the audience, the sequins, the tutus, the swanlike elegance of the dance, that’s what people dreamed about.
And my role? I’m getting there. When the tour dates were announced the promoters put out a general call for auditions. They were going to scour the land. I’d been living with aunt Lil and going to school in Albury for nearly a year. The casting people came to my circus school, where I was perfectly happy, looking for a trapeze specialist. Mr. Murphet, my balance teacher, nominated me. I was light and aerodynamic. They described what they wanted, and I showed them what I could do. They said there was no need to look further. Plus, it was a paying gig. Living away from home and being enrolled in the circus school was very expensive for my parents, so any form of income would be a tremendous benefit to them, plus I’d be able to move back home with mum and dad for the duration. I signed on the dotted line and that was that. I was a professional.
Abigail Street had hardly changed, apart from a few new neighbours.
My role, in short, was the veritable climax of the event. For the grand finale – Arlechino un Juliette – Darville and Ash came together, swanlike, in a heaving embrace on the tippy-toes of their skates. Their lips almost met. The music swelled. As they began to spin, faster and faster like a couple of hydrogen atoms in nuclear fusion, a spotlight rose to the heavens, way up in the flies and there, according to the narrative, picked out the guardian angel of their ethereal love. Me. On cue I would appear on my trapeze high above the ice and spin about the bar as fast as I could go. Like a whirligig, or a blowfly in a cobweb, the rhinestones on my leotard flashing. For thirty seconds, which seemed like forever, Darville and Ash would twirl, and I would madly spin in synchronised harmony with the star-crossed lovers below. It wasn’t hard to get the symbology of it. The audience would gasp. The lights would snap out. The show would be over. Applause. While Darville and Ash took their bows, and usually an encore, I would disentangle myself from the trapeze and wait until the dizziness subsided before making my way down to the dressing room.
That was it. My part in the show, albeit a critical one, lasted barely thirty seconds. Each night I’d have to wait in the greenroom for my cue, which was the sultry music of the penultimate act, the Swan Lake Samba. I’d make my way up the ladders, through the scaffolding to my trapeze, a cross of luminous tape on the walkway which told me where to stand, the chalk powder on my hands and the back of my knees to prevent slipping. There I’d wait for my moment, (a stagehand called Lou to hold me steady). On cue I’d leap off. And for thirty seconds I’d spin spin spin to the soaring music. Spin spin spin. Blackout.
You’d think that someone as successful as Darville and Ash would be able to pay handsomely for the specialised skills of a trained trapeze spinner. Not everyone can do it. You’ve got to be able to handle the vertigo for a start. It is a dangerous sort of workplace when it comes to the crunch. But no, Darville and Ash only paid Equity minimum. Nevertheless, pretty good money for thirty seconds work. Spin spin spin, thank you very much. My father said he wished he’d been paid that much an hour when he was sixteen. No, I had my regular call, sitting every night in the dressing room watching Ash paint on her makeup and her smile.
‘What a miserable country,’ she would mumble to herself in a slightly Belgian accent when she thought no one was listening. She really wanted to go home. Not completely present in the moment, which is how accidents happen, as they teach you at the Flying Fruit Flies.
According to the plan I had to wait in the greenroom, doing my homework, or whatever, until my cue. But do you think I did my homework, surrounded by all that limelight? I’m afraid homework was the last thing on my mind. After the initial excitement of rehearsals and opening week I spent my time listening to music and trimming my hair; reading magazines, picking the gunk out from under my nails, thinking, initially, how rewarding this experience was for thirty seconds work. However, the glory soon wore off. Waiting around was the worst part. There is a lot of tedium in showbiz.
Also in the greenroom, which wasn’t green, I don’t know why they call it that, were two other people. They were the husband and wife of Ash and Darville respectively. The traveling companions. Mrs. Darville was an attractive woman with shortish blond hair from Ontario called Lucy, although not as attractive or swanlike as Ash (or Agatha). Mr. Ash, (‘Call me Nicholas’), was an Englishman with disproportionately long legs, which made him look like a cricket, who would spend his time reading the newspaper, or long novels as the run went on. I wondered why he didn’t wait in his hotel room and watch television, or go out and see the sights of the city. They had traveled widely and seen greenrooms all over the world. They’d been interviewed in countless magazines and newspapers alongside their superstar partners.
Lucy spent her time reading trashy magazines, (which she passed on to me), or knitting, or sending texts on her phone to people in Ontario. Sometimes they played Scrabble together. Usually they spent their time waiting for their spouse/s to return all sequined and sweaty, to sweep her/him into his/her arms with little of the gliding elegance they’d just demonstrated on the ice. They were positively unco when they came off the ice.
‘My love,’ Darville would exhale, and Lucy’d swoon into his arms, heavier than a swan, though probably just as awkward. You could hear their teeth click. No illusion back stage. That was all left out on the ice. Ash would throw off her tiara and frump into a chair, taking to her face with cotton balls, while Nicholas congratulated her yet again.
‘Wonderful show, darling.’
Nicholas and Ash had been married longer.
One night after their curtain call, Ash returned to find us all sitting around laughing without her.
She said: ‘Why the fuck do I have to share my dressing room with the trapeze girl?’ – throwing aside her skates – ‘Isn’t there somewhere else to put her? And look at you two, guzzling champagne. What a country.’
See? To her I was just the trapeze girl.
‘It’s all right darling,’ said Nicholas in a soothing voice. ‘There’s no need to take it out on –’
‘Oh, shut up,’ snapped Ash, taking up the nearest object she could lay hands on, (Darville’s pearl handled scissors), and threatening to stab him with them.
The tension was building.
When the stage manager, Trudy, came and found me in the lighting booth she mopped my tears with a tissue and made excuses for Ash who was, she said, having some sort of crisis. No excuse to be rude, I thought, the bitch. I wanted to go straight home, but Trudy said I was contractually obliged to finish the season. This didn’t cheer me up, but it made me see reason.
On another occasion there was a knock at the greenroom door and Ash cried out ‘No autographs, no autographs,’ flapping her hand as if she was shooing away a fly. I turned and standing there with Trudy was mum. I ran to her. Ash was still flapping her hand. ‘Out, out.’ Mum took me away and I burst into tears.
‘It’s okay darling, it won’t be for much longer.’
There were always two sides to every story, she said. Talking to her was always a tonic, except when she was chucking a mental. One day, when I’ve saved enough money I’m going to get out of this place.
As time went on and the run settled, what with my earphones in, and me not saying very much, (especially to Ash), Nicholas and Lucy began to take less and less notice of me in the dressingroom. I suppose we were so used to each other’s company it was like I became invisible to them. Fewer long novels got read. Their conversations became more and more, well, intimate is the only word I can think of. All hushed and whispered. Until the Swan Lake Samba music would float off the wings and I would jump up, centering myself as I’d been taught back in Albury, a la Stanislavsky. Breathe in blue air, breathe out yellow air; shaking out my wrists and ankles like a boxer before a fight. Sometimes their heads would spring apart from their quiet tete-a-tete in the corner, remembering my presence, but now that I think about it, I believe they may have thought I was part of the suspended atmosphere, like a rose in a vase, an unwitting witness who had somehow engineered it so that time had been made to stand still.
Night after night with nothing to do but wait. Two of the foursome were utterly stonkered, and the other two were like a pair of impounded puppies, lethargic and frenetic at the same time. They wanted to go clubbing, but the stars of the show were too exhausted. They just wanted to sleep.
‘You two go clubbing if you like,’ said Ash.
One night, Trudy came in to cue me for the finale and raised her eyebrows in the direction of Nicholas and Lucy.
‘Five minutes Grace.’
A tiny questioning tilt of her head.
‘Thanks,’ I said, preparing to centre myself. It’s only looking back that I realise I didn’t see what was cooking right under my nose the whole time. I would climb up to my trapeze, say hi to Lou, wait for the music to reach its crescendo, and at the appropriate moment – spin spin spin – the applause washing up from below like waves upon the rocks.
One night, when I got back to the greenroom I was surprised to find that the door was locked. I rattled the handle. It opened immediately, Nicholas all apologetic, not knowing how on earth that had happened, he’d just slipped out for a smoke, (even though I’d never seen him smoke before). I’d been gone for twelve minutes, yet it was Nicholas who looked as though he was the one who’d been spinning around a trapeze like a mouse round a treadmill.
The next morning, over brunch, Trudy told me I was never to mention any of this to Darville or Ash.
‘Mention any of what?’ I asked.
‘Any of what’s been going on.’
‘What’s been going on?’
‘Are you blind?’ she asked.
I liked Trudy. She made sure everything ran smoothly. She was the one who always ensured the greenroom fridge was stocked with caviar and champagne and ginger beer, not that I like caviar. She also took care of my accommodation and made sure my family got free tickets to opening night.
‘You mean,’ Trudy continued, ‘you haven’t noticed the hanky panky that’s been going on?’
‘I… I’ve been doing my homework.’
Coming from Barnawatha I could balance on a basketball, but hanky panky was a bit outside my area of expertise.
‘Well don’t tell Darville, because if he finds out the tour’ll be cancelled for sure and we’ll all be out of a job.’
‘I won’t,’ I said, not properly understanding what it was I shouldn’t tell. It was all gross to me. Like mum and Russell.
‘Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.’
Each night, after the ovations, Darville and Ash returned to the room where the champagne corks were popped, (ginger beer for me), and everyone complimented the sparkling duo on another splendid performance. One whole year they’d been doing this. Living out of suitcases. Surfing the adrenaline. I began to notice the looks that passed between Nicholas and Lucy. Once I saw Nicholas squeeze her arm as he passed behind her, but from across the room Trudy, imperceptibly to all but me, shook her head.
Darville asked me if I’d like to come with them to Melbourne, the final leg of the tour. I said I had to get back to school, much as I would have liked to. I’d never been to Melbourne, but I had exams in November. Plus the world of adults was a much messier place than I was used to.
‘School!’ said Darville. ‘Forget school. School is for robots. See how far Ash has come without school?’
Ash glared at him. I could see how thirty seconds of work a day, plus all that champagne, might be something you could get used to.
‘Well there’s a contract if you change your mind. Have a read through it. Consult your QC. Otherwise we’ll have to audition again, which is always a pain in the arse. There’ll be a pay rise in it for you, of course, being the best trapeze girl in the country.’
That was something I might have quoted in my CV. He slapped down two copies of a document on the table. He was a man who behaved as though settling business deals over champagne, was something he did every day, as though he expected people to sign contracts there and then, Mr. Successful Business Entrepreneur in his cummerbund and cod piece. However, from Legal Studies at school, (it wasn’t all funambulism), I learned that a contract was a legally binding document. I didn’t want to be locked into anything. Glancing at it I noticed he had already signed both copies with a flourish. My mum’s brother was a lawyer. I’d get him to have a look.
You can imagine where all this is heading. The scandalous headlines: (Swan Lake Sexcapades), the unceremonious end etcetera etcetera. Spin spin spin – applause. Then back to my hotel room where I could sit up and watch television as late as I pleased, eating cashews from the mini-bar. Mum and dad said they didn’t want me catching the train so late out to the suburbs and so insisted that I have my own accommodation nearby the theatre. Darville at least made that concession. Mum sometimes came and spent the night with me when dad was hanging around ‘like a bad smell,’ she said.
At last, that fateful night in our final week of performance, I returned from my trapeze. Still dizzy with spinning bubbles swirling in my head I barged right through the dressing room door. I didn’t knock. There was a squeal from behind a screen at one end of the room which hid a daybed, in case Ash wanted to have a lie down at interval. Nicholas poked his head around the edge of the screen, which had the print of a Japanese pond on it with large, luminous goldfish. From what I could tell he had no clothes on, at least not on the top half. He was much hairier, I thought, than a person ought to be. There was a scramble behind the screen.
‘What do you want?’ he asked.
Well, der, mister, it’s my dressing room too, I wanted to say. It would have increased the rent of the theatre for me to have my own dressing room. See what I mean by skinflints. Instead I went to my seat beneath the row of light bulbs surrounding my mirror. The spinning in my brain calmed, like a twirling coin coming to a halt. In a minute or two Lucy came out from behind the screen looking as though she’d been standing in a strong wind.
‘You’re back early,’ she said. ‘Did you miss your cue?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Normal time.’
Twelve point five minutes. What was she talking about? The sound of applause was still swishing through the wings. In the middle of the floor sat a pair of lady’s underpants. We both looked at them. They hadn’t been there twelve point five minutes ago. Lucy waltzed over and, as if I wasn’t even watching, as if she was taking a bow at her own curtain call, bent and picked up the skimpy thing, or was it things?
‘Are these yours?’ she asked.
Of all the cheek.
‘Oh, they must be Ash’s,’ she said, and stuffed it, or was it them? into her pocket.
Nicholas came out from behind the screen, dressed now, thank goodness. He resumed his usual seat and picked up his newspaper, flapping it as if he was shaking a seagull.
‘Another flood in China,’ he announced.
Lucy stared at me with a look that seemed to be trying to get me to understand something. But I’m not a mind reader. I didn’t know what she wanted me to understand. When my dad looks at me with those tears in his eyes I don’t know what he’s feeling. When my brother sets fire to things how would I know what’s going through his head? At that moment Trudy burst into the room, looked from me to Nicholas to Lucy, taking in the situation in one sweeping glance.
‘Ash has broken her leg.’
‘What?’ we all cried.
‘Well, sprained her ankle at least,’ she qualified. ‘She says it’s broken. Tripped over a lighting cable coming off the ice. Lucky she didn’t electrocute herself.’
‘My God,’ cried Nicholas. ‘Is she all right?’
‘Well, she’s got a sore leg.’
‘I must go to her,’ he said, rather formally, looking at Lucy as if asking her permission. Lucy said nothing. A corner of the underpants was still peeking from her pocket. Nicholas left the room at a less than rapid pace. Lucy rose and, swept up in the drama of the moment, followed. Trudy also left, poking numbers into her phone.
‘Hello… Ambulance please… Sydney Entertainment Centre.’
Alone, I wondered if this was the end. I saw the contract on my table, turned a couple of pages and noticed the clause – 13.2 … shall be paid in full in the event of cancellation… or words to that effect. Paid in full for the rest of the tour that now looked like it wasn’t going to go ahead. For a sixteen-year-old that looked like all right money. It didn’t cheer me up, but it made me see reason. I picked up the pen (what was last Saturday’s date again?) wondering if it would be all right for me to open the champagne.