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By Lisa Lang
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2010 Lisa Lang
All rights reserved.
MELBOURNE CUP DAY 1883
Edward stands on the third floor watching clouds drift above the city. Below him, on the street, a thick caterpillar of people is forming. The race is finished. Earlier in the day the city was desolate as thousands of people made their way to Flemington, to watch those sweat-lacquered beasts in motion. To cheer, and throw paper to the wind, and drink. Now they are returning, buoyed and restless, to the city's heart. In perfect time for the grand opening of Cole's Book Arcade, Bourke Street. Edward smiles to think how he has piggybacked on this day, how he will ride its rough energy, he who never drinks and never gambles.
He glances down at the street, as the feathers in their hats sway left in the breeze and right themselves.
He turns his back on the window and crosses the empty room. Soon it will be filled with their furniture, all the rugs and cosies and trinkets of home life. Home. This is not how he had pictured it. It is not the paradise of children, dogs and flowerbeds he had imagined returning to each evening, lawns scattered with fallen apples and shoes. But his wife claims that the suburbs make her sluggish. She had pressed for them to keep living in the city, and suggested they make the Arcade's top floor their own. This was not straightforward. Edward had already designed a ceiling — a hundred-foot-long centrepiece of iron rosettes, flanked by rows of glass panelling on either side — which was to flood the ground floor with the sun's own light. And this meant pushing rooms on the second and third floors to the periphery, keeping the central space empty to allow the light through. Which left no room for a standard rectangular flat. But they could, he conceded, design the flat in a horseshoe shape. That settled it, as far as Eliza was concerned: what could be luckier than living inside a horseshoe? And besides, she had added, it would save them a good deal of money.
Edward closes the door on their soon-to-be flat. He walks towards the interior balcony, leans into its polished wood, and surveys the main room of his Arcade, two floors below. Sun streaming through the glass ceiling, the whole thing, at this angle, blanched into near whiteness. The red jackets of his staff in brilliant contrast. He is rather proud of the jackets. The idea is to give them a little confidence, the younger ones, with their thin necks, their bad skin and fear of getting it wrong. Dress a man in red velvet and he is equal to anything. He watches them moving through the aisles, straightening books that have yet to be pulled from the shelves, and chairs that have yet to be sat on. Twelve red figures, all in motion for fear of looking idle. But the brass columns have already been shined to a state of perfect reflection. And the shelves have been wiped clean of dust. Four hundred feet of cedar shelving. Seven hundred thousand books. Everything from geology to gladiators, Persian myths to phrenology, Buddhism to pigeon breeding. Too many books for a city this size; he may have got carried away. But that is the point. Let them see for themselves how wide the world is. Let them see what it can hold.
He was twenty-five the first time he entered a large public library, and was almost flattened by the weight of his own ignorance. There was just so much there. He had hoped to find a book on carpentry; there were more than a dozen. He chose one at random, his hands grey against the paper despite the cake of good soap the library provided. He was sleeping in the street then, living in a world of dark and narrow lanes, and the sudden excess of light and space and knowledge was brutal. He felt exposed in its glare, grubby and uncouth. He slid the volume back. There was shame in the way he dropped his head, his hand trailing columns on his way out. But by looking down he saw a simple plaque, missed on entering, which read: For the people of the city. It stopped him in his tracks. The people of the city — wasn't that him? It was true he was grimy, ignorant and all the rest, but that library was there for him. He could read any book he liked. He could read all day, every day, if he chose. Nothing was stopping him. Nothing! The power of this thought was dizzying: the world spread before him.
Now he hopes, more than anything, that the Arcade will be a place of wonder, of generosity and small revelations. And if he has cheated a little — exaggerating the number of books, both in his ads and in the careful placement of mirrors — then it is all for the cause.
One floor below he sees his wife, Eliza, leaning on the opposite balcony. Swaddled in a shawl, ballooned in late pregnancy, she looks up and catches his eye. Smiles her true smile: small teeth and excitement. He blows her a kiss, and another for the baby that will be their fifth. Every penny now sunk in this one venture. Their future bound up in ton of paper and the whims of public taste. But what is the point of nerves? Building the Arcade was like trying to dream the same dream every night: holding the vision clear while details twisted and changed. Glaziers refused to tackle his design, builders quit and the cost of timber soared. But here it is. He grips the balustrade. Right here in his hand.
By the time he reaches the bottom of the stairs, his staff have turned to stare at him with the blank, expectant look of newborn chicks. He realises he should have prepared a few words to mark the occasion. He rubs his hands together and offers them a grin. 'What do you say we throw these doors open, and see what happens?'
There is a long moment when nothing happens. The doors are opened wide, and a crowd stands bunched at the entrance. Faces peer inside and Edward smiles back at them. Beside him stand the Little Men, a pair of foot-high sailor dolls, rotating a bar that flips a series of tin signs: Cole's Book Arcade; One Million Books; The Reign of Knowledge and Humanity Is Coming; Read. The clang of tin hitting tin marks the passing seconds, with Edward's heart thumping in the off-beat. Let the World Be Your Country; All Men Are Brothers; Cole's Book Arcade; Read. He looks out at the crowd, eager faces flecked with uncertainty, and touches his beard, feeling for its coarse comfort. And then the band starts up. Big, brassy notes crashing over them, as bodies begin pouring through the doorway on a current of powder, beer, sweat, tobacco and hair oil. Voices calling out — Look, look at that! — above the jangling piano. Faces filmed in sweat, and women pausing to adjust their hats in the mirrors. Bodies colliding as people walk, heads tipped back, to view the sky-lit roof. Young men sprawl in cane-bottomed chairs for the novelty of it. Pretending to be engrossed in a book one moment, calling out to friends the next. Book after book being slid from the shelves. And a new sound joining the band: the clear tones of the cash register bells.
As more people swarm through the doorway, Edward notices that the crowd's momentum is pushing people over the threshold, making them stumble or lose their balance. And while they mostly seem to laugh it off, some clearly look alarmed. One man even turns and pushes back. Beneath the broad goodwill lies a hint of violence.
Edward looks around until he spies his manager, Owens, a short man with a concertina brow. He is sweating freely, sidestepping and ducking his way through the throng towards Edward.
'The medals,' calls Edward. 'Quickly, bring the medals!'
Button-sized and made of copper, he has planned the medals as a gift for his first customers. Each one bears the image of a tree and its own uplifting message: Dare to Do Right; All Men Are Brothers; Reading and Thinking Bring Wisdom; The First Book Arcade in the World. When they were freshly minted, he had shown them to his friend, the import magnate D'Ama Drew, who shook his head and warned Edward not to scare people before they'd bought something. But now there is no time to play it safe. Edward is thinking on his feet, waving over two long-limbed youths in scarlet jackets. He uses them to form a barricade at the door, to stop the flow of people, which brings shouts and boos from those on the verge of entering.
'Ladies and gentlemen!' He waits until the booing dies off. 'Due to the popularity of the Arcade,' he calls through his cupped hands, 'an admission of threepence will be charged for entry, and a rare commemorative medal issued, which may be kept or spent at the Arcade as valid currency.' This will at least slow them down, if it doesn't drive them away altogether. Edward reaches his hand out to Owens, who has just worked his way back through the crowd, and takes the small hessian bag from him. He grabs a couple of the tokens — bright as new coins — and holds them up for the people to see.
At which point they begin to cheer. Raw, spirited, big-throated cheering. He is charging them admittance, and they, in their festive fervour, are cheering him for it. Just wait until he tells D'Ama that.
Edward dips his hand into the bag of cold medals and laughs.
That night, Edward is too elated to sleep. He lies in bed beside Eliza, who is also restless, the life within her demanding space and movement. They repeat their happy inventory of the day: the barely contained crowd, the brilliance of the band, the thrilling atmosphere. They turn their pillows over, seeking the cooler side.
'It was like a cathedral,' she says. 'Do you know what I mean? Before you opened the doors. There was that stillness, and the high ceiling. I felt small and light, and in the grip of a great optimism.' Edward reaches beneath the sheets to pat her hand. 'But those chairs, Edward! They'll be ruined. You need something sturdier.'
Edward smiles in the dark. The chairs can end up as kindling, for all he cares. So long as people come, and use them, and wear them out reading.
He drifts, and wakes each time she hauls herself up to use the chamber pot. He sees a figure sitting on the bed in the semi-dark. It is his old friend Lucky Cho, thin, in threadbare clothes. He leans in, touching Edward lightly on the wrist. 'I see you made good use of our money.'
Edward wakes with a jolt that rocks the mattress. His skin is prickly hot.
I see you made good use of our money. He turns the words over, trying to decipher the exact tone. Good use. Could it be approval, a kind of blessing? Our money. More likely an accusation, a reminder that the dead do not easily forget.
Maybe it is nothing at all: overexcitement, a dream of a ghost.
The evening is warm and the children run outside to see their father off. Eddy and Vally make for the gutter with its murky, forbidden water. Linda stands on the steps, all angles and soft hair, bouncing her baby sister on her hip.
'It smells!' says Vally, crouching with his hands pressed against his nose.
'Keep out of the gutter!' calls Eliza.
'I saw a rat, and it was swimming and had cheese in its mouth.' Vally paddles his arms, miming a swimming action. Eddy, the older of the boys at five, clicks his tongue in disbelief.
'Now, make sure you go to bed when your mother tells you. And don't forget to kiss your sisters goodnight.' Edward uses his mock-stern voice, the closest he comes to paternal authority. At fifty-one, he is too enamoured of his family, too grateful, to play the fearsome patriarch. In eight short years he has gone from bachelorhood to this: a wife, four children with another on the way, and a tenderness that flows from him, towards them all.
Eliza stands in the doorway, plump and placid, with her hands folded across her belly. Ruby squeals loudly and begins to kick at Linda like a mad jockey. The late sun sends out hazy peach rays, enfolding them all, and Edward is suddenly nostalgic for this moment, even as it's happening. They grow quickly; he loses them with every moment.
He hopes D'Ama will be late. But he sees Linda is already lifting her hand, pointing. 'Look, it's D'Ama's carriage.'
And the boys are running to meet it, chanting, 'D'Ama, D'Ama, D'Ama.'
Edward moves towards Eliza, placing a kiss on her talcum-scented cheek. 'Don't have the baby before I get back.'
Eliza smiles, puff-eyed and sleepy. 'You go on now and enjoy yourself. Say hello to D'Ama for me.'
Inside the carriage, D'Ama smokes relentlessly, and Edward pushes open the small window. Neat terrace houses appear framed for a moment before sliding from view.
'I hope this debate isn't about cremation,' says Edward, crossing his arms.
'I agree. Tempers flaring, arguments going up in smoke.'
'And I hope it's not about anarchy either.'
Ash falls from D'Ama's pipe, soft as down. None of it lands on his striped suit pants. 'Alright, why is that?'
'They're always getting out of control.'
D'Ama's long, curled moustache lifts slightly, the only sign that he's amused. Edward is buoyed. They haven't been out together in months. It was too draining, that endless round of architects, lawyers, glaziers and builders. Edward had drawn the Arcade plans himself — cramped, crooked sketches — then taken them to professionals to have them redrawn, and this had earned him a good deal of scorn. One builder grumbled that the work was too finicky, worse than his last job — a grand brothel in the legal district — and for what, a heap of dusty books?
'They won't touch spiritualism, I know that for a fact,' says D'Ama, pipe gripped between his teeth.
'No, why is that?'
'Last time they tried it, not a soul turned up.'
They file through the doorway, past a paper sign (Secularism vs Christianity, tonight) and into the busy hall, where they find seats on a bench in the last row. Edward's neck prickles. He is both drawn to and fearful of crowds: the volatility, the body heat and tang, the noise. Tonight the noise is mostly men's voices and their boots crossing the floor, and it drops a notch when the chairman introduces the debate, the last few men taking their places against the back wall.
The first speaker is a short man with strictly parted hair.
'The principles of secularism are to use your time, intellect and strength for the improvement of life, and to bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people.' A quick, pink tongue wets his lips. 'Unlike Christianity, it permits the culling of good from all sources. Imagine you stumble upon a magnificent orchard, with apples, pears, cherries, plums and many more fruits, and you are told you can only eat the fruit off one tree. Well, the world is like that orchard, and Christianity is only one tree. As a secularist you can sample the best fruit from all trees: Christianity, Buddhism, Brahmanism, and so forth. Your diet is varied and your mind grows strong.'
Edward loves the structure of debates, their careful order. Logical minds working at the knot of existence.
'But just as importantly, secularism allows us to reject the fruits that are rotten. When I read a story that says Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Ghost, then I say, this is of no use to secularism because it is clearly untrue.' He pauses, eyes directly on his audience. 'Virgins do not give birth to children, nor are ghosts the father of them.'
The room erupts in hissing, booing and scattered laughter. A stocky, red-faced man gets to his feet and shakes his fist at the man on the podium. D'Ama leans closer to Edward. 'That Hugh Browne is always leaping out of his chair over something. An ape in fine clothes. Look at his son-in-law — wishing the ground would open up. Poor Deakin. I hope his pretty wife is worth it.'
Edward only loosely follows D'Ama's talk. He is caught up in the emotion, its sudden surge. It's amazing to him that in this sweat-soured auditorium full of men, ideas matter. At the first debate he ever saw, in Castlemaine, the diggers stood in a tin shack, mud-cast to the knee. Standing — after a full day of dredging the earth. Edward was astounded. He followed the arguments, the rough interruptions, in a state of near elation. This was not money-making, carousing, fighting — everything he knew of the goldfields. This was something else. Edward could feel energy moving through the room like a secret currency and understood, at twenty-two, that words were power too.
Another short man takes the stage, motioning for quiet in the crowd. 'Before he chose to insult the Virgin mother —'
The noise, which had subsided, rises up again. He speaks loudly, right over the top of it.
Excerpted from Utopian Man by Lisa Lang. Copyright © 2010 Lisa Lang. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An interesting story based on the life of Edward Cole who, in Melbourne in the 1880's, built Cole's Book Arcade - a multi-floor book shop with tea parlour, band performances, an amusement arcade, a fernery and even live monkeys. The book appears to be a fiction version of the author's earlier non-fiction study of Cole and I would really like to read the earlier work as Utopian Man left me with a lot of questions about the amazing Mr Cole. I do remember my mum talking about Cole's Funny Picture Books but I never knew there was a real man with such an intriguing life story - he even advertised in the papers for a wife. The book also paints an interesting picture of Australia at the beginning of the 20th Century, from Federation to the growth of the White Australia Policy - fascinating!