Issue 1

M.J. Hyland
Selling Fakes

My first rented room was a converted walk-in wardrobe on the third floor of an old house. I slept on foam cushions pushed together on the floor.
      It was summer, I was seventeen, and I needed money for rent. About a week after taking the room, I saw this ad in the local newspaper: Do you want to sell ART & make $1000s? Flexible hours. No car required. Will suit students and overseas travellers.
      I called the number on the same afternoon I went for an interview, took an elevator to the eighth floor of an air-conditioned glass and brass office building.
      A young red-head answered the door.
      She told me her name was Anna and asked me to take a seat.
      I sat in a chair by the wall and she left.
      Apart from the black chairs, there was no furniture in the room and the air smelt of putty.
      Four more applicants arrived, a blonde woman in her early thirties, two English boys, and a young Scot.
      We chatted for a while and then Anna came back and gave each of us a form.
      She left again and a man came in.
      ‘I’m Mark,’ he said.
      I thought he might be Anna’s brother. He had red hair and flared nostrils just like her.
      ‘You’ll be selling original fine art,’ he said, ‘door-to-door.’
      He opened the zip of a large black folio-bag and took out six landscape paintings.
      ‘These are original oil and acrylic. Everybody loves them and they sell like hot-cakes.’
      They were the size of fold-up card tables and the paint was applied thickly to rigid chipboard. There were two kinds: pastels of lakes at sunset, and dry brown scenes of the Australian desert.
      ‘Make up your own stories about the paintings,’ said Mark. ‘You’ll sell more.’
      The phone rang in his office.
      ‘Back in a sec,’ he said.
      He left his office door open, put his feet on the desk, crossed at the ankles.
      ‘Yeah, twelve thousand,’ he said. ‘Easy. Thirteen last week. No problem.’
      When he came back, he took a painting from the back of the pile.
      The taller of the two English boys stood up.
      ‘But tell us how much money we’ll make. The ad said thousands.’
      ‘We’ll come to that,’ said Mark.
      The English boy looked down at the stack of paintings.
      ‘Show us the rest of them then. These look shit.’
      Mark held out his hand, palm forward. ‘Just take a seat, mate.’
      The English boy sat, then immediately stood again.
      ‘The ad said we could make thousands. Is that bullshit? How much will we make?’
      Mark folded his arms across his chest.
      ‘What’s your name?’
      ‘Listen, David. Take a seat. I’ll explain everything in a minute.’
      David sat and shook his head.
      ‘Look,’ said Mark, ‘the bottom line is if you want to make a lot of money you’ll need to be a good actor.’
      The blonde woman asked who painted them.
      ‘We’ll get to that later.’
      Mark explained that the artist would take fifty percent of every piece sold, the company twenty percent and we’d take thirty-percent.
      ‘How much do we sell them for?’ said the Scottish boy.
      ‘That’s up to you,’ said Mark.
      The Scottish boy said nothing.
      Mark wore a fawn jumper and nothing underneath. The jumper was too small and when he bent down to move a painting, it lifted to show his pink back. I’d recognise this jumper in a mountain of jumpers, but I wouldn’t recognise his face.

Mark looked at his watch. ‘So hands up who wants to start tonight?’
      We all said we would and Mark told us he’d take us out in the company car at six o’clock and drop us at our streets. We’d travel together, but work four blocks apart.
      I went downstairs to an air-conditioned café, drank two cups of coffee and chain-smoked Benson & Hedges.
      At six, I went back up to the eighth floor. The others were already there, except for the blonde woman.
      ‘She chickened out,’ said Mark.
      He gave us our black folio-bags and told us not to open them until we arrived at our street.
      ‘Why can’t we look at the paintings?’ I said.
      ‘Because they don’t want you to know they’re all the same,’ said David. ‘They’re all just exact copies of the same six pictures.’
      Mark laughed. ‘You can think what you want, mate. I’m not saying anything.’

I was the first to get out of the company car, a white mini-van.
      I agreed to be back at the same spot by ten o’clock.
      The suburb was newly built. Each house a mirror of its neighbour.
      I walked to the door of the house on the nearest corner and knocked.
      A woman answered.
      ‘Sorry to bother you at tea-time,’ I said, ‘but my name’s Marcia Bradshaw and I’m a final year art student at university. I’m going door-to-door to see if I can sell some of my work.’
      I unzipped the bag and took out a painting.
      ‘I need to raise some money so I can finish my degree. My parents have no money and my scholarship only lasted two years.’
      Life was ruthless and its bestowal of fortune arbitrary and capricious. I’d been born to morons and mine was a shabby life. As I stood on this woman’s doorstep I told the lie about the paintings as easily as I did because, although it was a lie, it was also true. I believed my own lies and told them well. I wanted money and, like my criminal father and brother, I wanted it the easy way.

The woman invited me in and I sat on the new settee.
      I went on lying about the paintings. I said I’d been around Australia, hitchhiking, and painted by the side of the road. It had taken me nearly a year.
      About a half-hour later, the woman’s husband came in from work, his suit jacket over his arm, his tie undone. I told him the same story from the beginning.
      He asked questions.
      ‘How long have you been studying?’
      ‘Who are your favourite artists?’
      ‘How much do the materials cost?’
      I thought I’d been caught, but crossed my legs, went on lying. When the woman asked me how much the painting of the windmill cost, I told her I had no fixed price in mind. It was a matter of how much they were prepared to spend.
      The husband said, ‘How about fifty. Would fifty dollars be enough?’
      ‘That’d be fine,’ I said.
      The woman went to her handbag, which was on the table at the end of the settee.
      ‘How about eighty dollars,’ she said, ‘That’s all I have in my purse.’
      ‘That’s fine,’ I said.

I went in to two more houses and sold two more paintings. In just over three hours I’d made enough to cover the first month’s rent.
      At about half past nine, while I waited for Mark to come back in the white mini-van, I wanted to lie down, to sleep on the hot grass, on the street, under a bush, under a car, on the nature strip. I craved sleep so profoundly it was something like wanting to die.
      Mark pulled up in the mini-van and I climbed in back. The others were already there and we talked while Mark drove on the freeway, back into town.
      The Scot had sold one painting, the short English boy had sold two and David, who had sold none, kept his head down, looked at my folio-bag, and said nothing.
      When we were stopped at traffic lights near the office, Mark turned in his seat. ‘When we get back, you can hang around for a while. We can have a few drinks and chew the fat.’
      We agreed we would and, as we got out of the elevator on the eighth floor, he said, ‘If you’d really like to wind down, I can help you out.’
      I knew exactly what he meant and I only hoped that he wouldn’t make us pay.

We sat in Mark’s office under the fluorescent lights and he made four lines on a piece of cardboard. He cut the powder with the first American Express credit card I’d ever seen.
      The air-conditioning had been switched off and Mark’s face was wet with sweat and his face and neck and arms were pink, like the skin on his back.
      ‘Who wants to go first?’ he said.
      I didn’t know whether the powder was cocaine or speed, and I didn’t care.
      I snorted the line just as though I’d done it a thousand times before and almost as soon as the chemical taste hit the back of my nose and throat, I felt the kick.
      ‘It’s Grade A,’ said Mark. ‘The best amphetamine money can buy.’
      I was awake like I’d never been awake. I doubted nothing, felt no pain. I’d never come close to feeling as good. The stuffy wet heat in the office was good heat, the white fluorescent light, good white light; the sound of my voice, a good sound; my legs, good legs. And Mark and David, and the short English boy, and the Scot; they were very good, too.

By the end of the second week I was selling four or five paintings a night, sometimes for as much as $150 each. I was addicted to speed and so was David.
      In Mark’s office, the Scot and the other boy sometimes took a few lines, sometimes none at all. They often just drank beer. I took two lines, sometimes three. Mark had stopped handing it out and I paid for my own stash.
      Before selling each night, I dissolved about a half-gram into a glass of water and drank it down, chased it with a few pieces of toast.
      I needed sedatives to sleep and I slept in the afternoons, sometimes for only two or three hours. My eyes were hot and my skin was tight. I ground my teeth. I took more speed.
      At the end of our third week of selling, Mark invited us to come to Sydney for the long weekend.
      ‘Who’s paying?’ said David.
      ‘The company.’
      I was sure we’d be getting on a plane to Sydney, but Mark told us to meet at the office at nine on Friday.
      ‘I’ll be driving,’ he said. ‘We might stop along the way and do some selling.’

It took us fourteen hours to get to Sydney and we ate McDonalds and KFC and chain-smoked in the back of the van. Mark didn’t smoke and kept his window wound down, stuck his head out now and then.

We arrived in Sydney long after midnight and Mark told us there’d be no point checking into a hotel.
      ‘We’re staying at a mate’s place.’
      Mark’s mate and his girlfriend were asleep when we arrived, but Mark’s mate said, ‘No worries,’, got dressed and put the kettle on.
      We sat in the living room and smoked bongs.
      Mark’s friends had hung beach towels on the wall, air-brushed scenes of dragons, hot cars, and topless women.
      I slept on the couch and the boys shared the spare room. Not long after the lights went out, the couple started screwing and then they beat each other up and, until just before sun-rise, their bodies and the bed-head drubbed the wall.

Around mid-afternoon the next day, we checked into a cheap hotel at Bondi Beach.
      Not long after we met up at the mini-van.
      It was time to sell some paintings.
      We drove out to the suburbs and knocked on doors for three hours, but we sold few. It was Saturday, scorching hot, hardly anybody was home.
      We did the same thing the next day and the day after that.
      We’d been on the road for four days.

On the evening of our fifth and last day in Sydney Mark took us to the pub for dinner.
      ‘Company’s shout,’ he said.
      I asked him how the artist managed to paint so many paintings.
      ‘Does he have help?’
      ‘There’s no artist,’ said David. ‘Have you not worked that out yet?’
      ‘I was just about to tell you,’ said Mark.
      The paintings were made by a stamping machine on a conveyer belt in a factory somewhere in Asia.
      ‘Hong Kong, far as I know,’ said Mark.
      ‘So what about the fifty percent cut to the artist then?’ I said.
      It turned out that with the exception of our cut the proceeds went directly to the company and its two directors, Mark and Anna.

The next day we all met in the hotel foyer around midday.
      The bill was small, about $100 each, but I was skint again and pissed off and I didn’t want to pay. I wasn’t the only one.
      We agreed to do a runner, hitched our overnight bags over our shoulders and walked out, one at a time.
      In the mini-van, we drank beer and took lines of speed and, all the way back to Melbourne, twelve hours of driving in sweltering heat, a few breaks for food and more drink, we laughed about our crime as though our lives depended on it.