He’d regarded it (pleased at the metaphor) as the ultimate trompe-l’œil, smiling as he recalled snippets of the brief, since etched-to-memory, report he’d found in The Argus some years ago. An exciting titbit sandwiched between the dry political news …’Her companionship with a diamond smuggler… frequent trips to Holland caused suspicion…fashionably-dressed woman from Cologne. Many searches did not disclose anything to warrant suspicion…until she was made to remove her glass eye’. The image excited his artistic senses. The trick of the eye being that it concealed a cache of diamonds valued at £10,000! He had imagined the local police upon discovering the inner workings of the eye. Cracking the glass eye open as if it were one of Faberge’s Imperial Easter Eggs – the diamonds spilling from between the halves. Et Voilà!
Howard recalled, with nostalgia, what it felt to be surprised by the Extraordinary. It was a feeling he missed. It ended when he encountered his own discovery of a sought-after treasure smuggled in plain sight.
Howard Ratcliff Lawson was well-known in the Melbourne building trade. Initially an apprentice at his uncle’s Brick & Tile business, he soon stamped his own mark as the ‘daring’ young building manager of the Britannia Theatre in 1912. Undertaking his novel system of rotating gangs of bricklayers in 24 hour shifts, the Britannia was completed two months before schedule. By the end of the same year, Howard was converting the Hoadley Jam Factory into apartments (the Hoadley family’s reputation for jams and preserves long preceding their chocolate fame), constructing a picture theatre alongside. He finished the theatre first, whereupon he, together with his new friend Walter Hoadley, was appointed Director. The Theatre – where people came to escape reality…
On a quiet Thursday afternoon, the letter arrived.
Mr H.R. Lawson,
It has been arranged that you shall receive this missive at the moment your theatre, Snowden Pictures receives a new film, ‘The Legend of Cagliostro’, the reel of which – seemingly fortuitously – will be delivered to your desk as you read the contents of this letter.
Conceal this film until such a time as you are able to screen it in solitude, whereupon you will project the film and absorb it. Watch as the scene opens to the Divine Afflatus of Cagliostro, gateway to his subsequent visionary powers. There is a sting in the tail. Watch for the cues. Be ready to change the real. Beyond the end frame, savour each lozenge as you would the Eucharist.
You are in my Sights.
Three days after receiving the mysterious message with its odd misspellings (Who was the Apothecary?), Howard screened the film in private after everyone had left the theatre. Although filled with eeriness upon his initial reading of the letter, his reticence was overtaken by curiosity. Watching each scene unfold, he found the subject of the film intriguing. Cagliostro, cognizant of all esoteric knowledge, was an ambitious man…himself a Mason. Howard felt akin to this strange conjuror in many ways. Within several minutes, a cue mark appeared indicating the tail of the film was nearing. In a dual reel picture, this would signify the reel was to be changed. Lawson reconsidered the words of the letter. Change the ‘real’? A sting in the ‘tail’? Was there a possibility the spelling of these words was intentional? The beginning and ending of a film roll were known, after all, as the head and tail respectively. As the ribbon of film flicked off the feed reel to the take up reel, the frames succeeding the closing scene were revealed to each contain a circle struck through with a diagonal cross. A striking motif, like the repeating pattern on the back of a snake. As Howard motioned to remove the reel from the projector, he noticed an unusual sheen on the tail of the film. On closer inspection, this part of the roll appeared slightly thinner than usual film. He held it between forefinger and thumb.
Glancing at the clock on the wall, Howard realised time had escaped him. His wife would be expecting him home. He stashed the reel into its canister and carried it under one arm as, grabbing his briefcase, he rushed for the door.
Apparently to kill a snake you must cut off its head. Late that evening, in his study, Howard cut off its tail, carefully removing the length of oddly marked frames from the end of the film. He placed it, and the letter, into a brown paper envelope and pushed it to the back of his desk.
Closely following his receipt of the mysterious letter, Howard’s circumstances were struck with peculiarity. Since its unsolicited arrival, he discovered himself to be immersed in events his generally pragmatic self would have hitherto denounced with suspicion as ‘insubstantial’. His theatre, the Snowden, served as host to a large memorial service for an extraordinary Melbourne identity, soon to be followed by another for a likewise unusual character. Firstly, for Annie Bright, the female editor of the ‘Harbinger of Light’, a monthly journal devoted to Spiritualism and the Occult. Two months later, for William Terry, the gentleman who had preceded Annie as editor of the same publication. Only the previous year, Edward Cole (of Book Arcade fame) had circulated a pamphlet composed by Ms Bright titled ‘What Life in the Spirit World Really Is’. Annie claimed to have received, by means of automatic writing, ‘messages beyond the veil’, communicated by William Stead, the famous British journalist and spiritualist drowned in the Titanic disaster. To Howard’s surprise, Otto Waschatz, well known in building circles for his innovative decorative plasterwork, presided at the memorial. The Burley-Griffins, together with other local designers and architects he admired, were also in attendance. It appeared several of his contemporaries were adherents to Spiritualism. What had brought them to this ‘religion’? In the throng of 1,800 attendees at William Terry’s funeral soon after, many of the same faces were present. As Howard listened to the tributes, he was surprised to discover Mr Terry had for years operated from Russell Street as a spiritualist bookseller, medium and clairvoyant herbalist. A ‘clairvoyant herbalist’? An intriguing label. Coincidentally, Howard’s own invitation to spiritualism would prove a harbinger of light (and darkness).
“It looks a bit like a sheet of gelatin leaf. They use the stuff to make jams at the factory. And, the bit in the letter where it refers to a ‘lozenge’? Well that circle inside the diagonal cross is just like a pattern pressed into the top of a sweet. Why, each frame could be a lozenge when you think about it!”. Howard did think about it. He’d been thinking about it since Walter Hoadley had shared this potential intelligence that afternoon, when Howard had sought his friend’s opinion on the remarkable contents of the unremarkable brown envelope. Howard had then cut the frames into individual squares each containing the motif. They equalled thirteen ‘lozenges’ in all.
Later that same week, when he was afforded a moment of solitude, Howard placed a single piece of film on his tongue and was transformed, or – more accurately – discovered the strange ability to transform.
His initial experience of the phenomenon was breathtaking. The outward world appeared at first to vibrate with a kaleidoscope of images overlaying one another at their edges. But soon Howard was able to control the focus. He ascertained the images presented a thing as it currently was, together with versions of how it could be. Instinctively, he knew he could pick any image and bring it into existence. Howard would learn, that as long as each lozenge’s potency was effective – which varied weirdly from a single hour to several days – he had the power to ‘change the real’.
In the years to come, Howard’s career trajectory soared. He created 200 architectural designs, favouring the construction of music halls, theatres and hotels. As a tribute to the source of his visionary power, he included the decoration of the cross and circle motif in every one of his new buildings. Socially, Howard became feted State-wide for what Newspapers described as his ‘unusual gifts as an entertainer, imparting [as they had written] a delightful spirit to any company of which he may be the centre’. Howard’s ‘gifts’ appeared to spectators to be equal measures conjuring and clairvoyance. “Mr. Schumann, how is it that you come to have Miss Barry’s handkerchief in the inside pocket of your jacket?” (The crowd roaring and expressing mock shock at the materialisation of the piece of cloth from Mr. Schumann’s pocket as he and Miss. Barry turned pink). “Mrs. Beechworth, get home at once, your dog is giving birth to six pups tonight!” Mrs. Beechworth’s surprised response, “But, I didn’t even realise Bessie was expecting?” (The puppies arrived at 11.30 pm that evening). Howard enjoyed the entertainment his gift provided, however each lozenge had been administered sparingly, often reserved for special occasions such as Opening nights, when patrons deserved to experience a little touch of ‘magic’.
Howard was up to lozenge number twelve when a cruel reality struck. The baby he and his wife had waited so long to receive was born prematurely, dying the following day. Godfrey Leigh Lawson, lived no longer than 24 hours…the first time. Howard was filled with torment and self-loathing. Could he use a lozenge to change the event? In retrospect, had he been too flippant in his use of lozenges til now? Thirteen seemed, at the beginning, a sizeable supply, but now there were only two. Howard made his decision.
Howard recalled a memory of his three strapping boys emerging from the water at Dromana beach, youngest to eldest – Dudley, Earnest and Godfrey. The happy family had moved to Arthurs Seat as Howard began construction of a Holiday Resort, offering attractions including a dance hall, swimming pool, wishing well, giant telescopes and camera obscura. A fan of Busby Berkeley – the kaleidoscope of forms the visionary film-maker produced recalling the trance state Howard experienced upon entry to the lozenges’ influence – Howard originally named the resort ‘Hollywood Inn’, the title of a Berkeley film. He soon paid tribute to another Berkeley title, renaming the site ‘Garden of the Moon’.
Howard was seated now in the circular building which housed the Camera Obscura atop Arthurs Seat. Merry holiday-makers passed as the grave looking man sat, reflecting on what had been. The last lozenge had been used…and not by him. Earnest had, he said, been rummaging in his father’s desk for a cigar to share with friends, while the rest of the family were in the City, when he found the brown envelope. Curiosity getting the better of him, he discovered the contents and deduced the gelatin ‘lozenge’ to be edible. Unlike Howard, who had been tentative with his exploration of the power upon initial consumption, Earnest was excited by its wild possibilities. The stag’s head in his father’s study was brought to life, swaying its head and baying at Earnest from its captivity in the wall. The desk’s legs were prompted to dance the can-can. Earnest spun with the hat-stand, topped with father’s trilby, its set of hooks extended like limbs embracing him in a waltz. Not long into the jaunt, Earnest considered the scene and realised things could not be kept as they were. Dramatically raising his hands, he proclaimed, like the great sorcerer he felt himself to be in that moment, “Restore to their prior form those things animated to Life through the power of the lozenge, so their change will have never been”. When Earnest had shaken the influence, which lasted no more than an hour, he was reassured to discover things restored to their natural order. Meanwhile, in the City, Howard asked his wife, “Where’s Godfrey? Wasn’t he just with you?”. His wife, puzzled and concerned, had asked, “Are you sure you’re quite alright, dear? You know just as well as I, Godfrey died the day after his birth. Perhaps you’ve overextended yourself today. Please, let’s head home”.
Later, when he learned what had happened, Howard berated (and despised) Earnest for his actions. But Godfrey couldn’t be brought back now. And no one knew of the beautiful young man he had become. To everyone else, Godfrey had lived no longer than a day. Howard dealt with his grief anew, in private, which seemed all the more painful. He felt sure no one could understand the despair of knowing there was a time you had the power to ‘make things right’, then losing that power forever. Ironically, Earnest would soon be his twin in shouldering this same despair. The following summer, Dudley and Earnest were diving from a jetty as Dudley’s fiancé, Rita looked on. Earnest had just made the jump and was leaving the water as he turned to see his brother fall awkwardly, a loud thud as he hit the water. Dudley had broken his neck. Two months later he was dead. Howard had had three sons, but now only one remained…in Earnest.
In the years prior to his own death, Howard, recalling his earlier connections to Victoria’s Spiritualist Union, had once considered seeking solace from those who claimed to be able to receive messages from beyond. Yet to Howard, their perception of a ‘beyond’ was very different from what he knew. Life, he realised, was an overlaying of possibilities – some brought to the fore, others pushed to the background. Sometimes extraordinary possibilities existed beneath ordinary actualisations. Like the Camera Obscura, inverting images to display a superficial reality, the eye, Howard knew, was not infallible. It seemed no coincidence to him that the root of the word ‘occult’, occulere’ (to conceal), so closely mirrored the word ‘ocular’. Lauded as a powerful instrument bestowing the gift of seeing, he maintained… the eye obscures, altering our sense of images, hiding treasures from view – diamonds undetected. Until his dying day, Howard longed for what he knew to be hidden in plain sight.