A slightly neurotic, obsessive, even superstitious tradition I have when on a residency is to take one Polaroid photograph per day, no more, no less, Monday to Friday, not on weekends. It’s a visual diary of my time away, but more importantly it gives me a break from the notepad, from the computer – it takes me out of my wretched old brain. As strange as it might seem, this self-inflicted routine can be pretty bloody stressful. Every day must get its Polaroid; there’s no option to rollover the shot to the following day. Plus the technology is almost extinct: if I drop my camera it can’t be replaced and they’ve stopped making the film, so the only stock that is available is what’s remaining in warehouses, which means it’s currently $50 for a pack of ten. Not cheap.
Making sure I’d get my picture was exactly what I was doing this afternoon when a young girl did the strangest thing.
Launceston (pronounced ‘Lon-sess-tn’, or just ‘Lonnie’) isn’t without its charms: there’s Cataract Gorge on the city’s doorstep, and the Tamar River, and there are more old buildings than you could poke a stick at, as well as a heap of other character-filled sites – a monkey enclosure in the town park, anyone? But still I couldn’t find anything that would fit the bill. As the afternoon lengthened I began to panic. For a moment I even considered taking a shot of some of the local faces, because they’re hard faces, all toughness. But, quite frankly, I was too scared they’d slice me open with a broken pint glass so I just kept going on my way.
Thankfully, almost miraculously, just as the sun began disappearing behind the nearby hills, I saw something shiny in the last-minute light: a sign hanging off a facade: ‘Carlton Draft – Brewery Fresh’. At last, this would be it! I lined it up, tried it this way and that, made my decision, and then pressed the button and the magic paper whirred its way out of the camera. Within seconds I could tell it was a good Polaroid, though not a great one, but that didn’t matter – the day’s photographic mission was done and dusted.
Relieved, I started walking back to the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage via the central mall, but a young girl approached me; behind her was a group of a dozen or so other youths, milling about, looking both excited and restless as if about to stage a revolution. The girl, who had in hand a postcard and a black marker, stepped up close and said something to me, so I removed the mp3-player earphones from my ears. (I’m still not sick of The Antlers’ ‘Hospice’ album, and I hope that day never comes.)
‘Can I tell you about something?’ the girl asked politely though just a little nervously.
‘Sure,’ I said. I almost added, I’m an artist-in-residence in the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage so I’m happy to do all kinds of crazy shit. But I didn’t say this because it would have been naff as well as untrue – I may be an artist-in-residence in the Gatekeeper’s Cottage, but that’s no license to do all kinds of crazy shit.
‘Have you heard of To Write Love On Her Arms?’ she asked, handing me the postcard.
‘No, I haven’t,’ I replied.
‘Well, we’re raising awareness about depression. On this postcard are some website addresses. Basically we’re simply asking people to care.’ Then she looked up at me as if about to let me know that my fly was down (which, regrettably, it often is). ‘We’re writing ‘love’ on people’s arms,’ she said. ‘Do you mind if I write ‘love’ on your arm?’
‘No,’ I said politely though just a little nervously, ‘I don’t mind.’
So she wrote ‘love’ in big black letters on the skin of my upper arm, finishing it off with the neatest of love hearts. ‘If anyone asks you about it,’ she advised, ‘just show them the postcard. All we want is for people to talk about the issue.’
‘Of course,’ I said, wondering who in Launceston was going to ask me why I had ‘love’ written on my inner arm.
We said goodbye and off I went towards the end of the mall, the safety of the Gatekeeper’s Cottage – my temporary home – not far ahead. In one hand the day’s Polaroid was developing nicely, the rich deep colours of the beer sign slowly but surely becoming more pronounced and defined. But written on my inner arm was the word ‘love’ complete with its love heart. Right now, the postcard is beside me on the desk. It says, ‘We will be collecting photos, writing on arms, and handing out textas for you to do the same. We will be there to start it, and we want you to carry it to everyone.’
The things that happen when you go scouring a city for a Polaroid.
(PS I’ll post the actual beer-sign picture one day…soon.)