Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table

Extrait aimablement communiqué par Madame Bonbon.

janet frame an angel at my table

When I was not going to Mrs P.’s with Myrtle or downtown to look at the boys, I now spent my time with Dots and Chicks, preparing for our lives as actresses and concert performers. Each week the scene was set for the following week by the Saturday afternoon ‘picture’. We went to every film, watching through the news, the cartoon, the Pete Smith Novelties, the James Fitzpatrick travel talks, the serial, and, after halftime or interval, the ‘big picture’. Sometimes I went with Myrtle, who was keen on Jack Dixon, the projectionist at the Majestic, who lived up the road in a house with a high macrocarpa hedge in front. When the music and the funny pastel advertisements of Oamaru shops had finished and the programme was about to begin, we’d see him walk the length of the aisle, go through a small door down by the stage, ‘to turn on the sound’, Myrtle would explain, then, returning, walk past us again, along the aisle, or go upstairs to the projection room, and sometimes we’d look up and see his shadow, high up near the ceiling at the back, and Myrtle would nudge me again and say, ‘There’s Jack Dixon moving around upstairs, The pictures are starting.’

There’d be a funnel of light directed onto the screen, the whirring noise of the film, and Jack Dixon was at work in earnest. He was a neat young man, rather pale but handsome, and the coat of his striped suit was always buttoned in front, the way George Raft buttoned his coat, except that George Raft was a villain.

Each week the manager, Mr Williams, appeared on the stage to announce competitions and to remind the adults about the community sing that was held at the Majestic each week. Mr Williams took the promotion of this films very seriously, and every serial had its special competition. We loved the serials, although our belief in them changed to a cynical tolerance when we realised that the hero and heroine were immortal in spite of those episodes where they lay beneath the stone crusher or in the caves with the sea advancing. Three memorable serials were The Lost Special, about a train that disappeared; The Invisible Man, who needed only to press a contraption on his belly button to disappear; and The Ghost City, a Western. The Ghost City was lettered in our minds, for each week we were given cardboard letters, each of the title, and the person first completing the title won the prize. There was furious searching, swapping, but what could be done with five Y’s or three C’s? I had a handful of H’s. It was no use; we never won.

Then a chance came at the Opera House for someone in Oamaru to make ‘the big time’ in films. We knew what would happen. We’d seen it often enough in the films and read of it in the Motion Picture Weekly: the performance in the small-town theatre, (Oamaru), the presence in the audience of the Hollywood talent scout, then the contract, Hollywood, and the Big Time, with a house full of white telephones, dresses made of sparkly, scaly stuff like mermaids’ dresses when you attended your premiere.

It happened that an Australian company wanted a young actor. Filled with the anticipation of being ‘discovered’, we flocked to the Opera House to find out that when the Australian producer called for volunteers to go on stage and, leaning towards an imaginary mine, cup their hands and cry, ‘Look out, there’s dynamite down there’, only a handful of children were bold or brave enough to offer. We watched, amused, scornful, envious, admiring, while each performed. Some were scared at the last minute. Some made fools of themselves. Not Avril Luxon, whose glory shone a little on us, for he lived in the house on the other side of the bull paddock and his father was the butcher, going around with a horse and cart and wearing a striped apron with a worn leather bag like a bald sporran dangling in front, where he kept the money. Avril was a short, stocky boy with a red, freckled face and red hair, but his ‘Look out, there’s dynamite down there’ echoed through the Opera House, and his performance is the only on I remember. He didn’t win the part, though. Someone from Auckland, where people were more clever, won the film test and went off to Australia, on the way to Hollywood and the coveted Big Time, while our life in Oamaru settled again to the collection of letters for The Ghost City or playing the film we’d seen that week or writing our secret codes or trying to dance the Highland Fling, the Sword Dance, the Sailors’ Hornpipe, the highland Chantreuse (which we knew as the Scottish).

Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table, To The Is-Land (part one),
The Women’s Press Ltd, 1982, pp. 60-61

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