“Look, he’s not going to eat you so just relax” said Carlos with more than a hint of mischief in his voice as we shouldered our way along the crowded streets of King’s Cross. Garish neon signs vied for our attention with even more garish people. We dodged staggering drunks and boisterous gangs of adolescents from Blacktown, all full of booze and bravado and all hell-bent on having a great night out.
We had recently been invited to a fancy dress party which, it was rumoured, was going to be the party to end all parties. Our friend, Carlos, had suggested we visit his old amigo who, he said, had the most amazing collection of costumes all made by him over a period of some years. His friend, whom he referred to as ‘La Perla,’ was, like Carlos, from Brazil but had lived for many years in Australia. He had been quite well-known in the Brazilian community and, indeed, the community at large, but that was many years ago and for the last decade or so, he had lived a somewhat reclusive life in the backstreets of Kings Cross.
Jenny clung to my arm as if terrified of being swept away by the surge of human flotsam and jetsam. A couple of young Maoris were busking on the corner of Springfield Avenue and had attracted a sizeable crowd of spectators, some obviously appreciative of their somewhat off-key rendition of ‘California Dreaming’. Others just stood gawking in idle curiosity. We were obliged to step into the gutter to skirt the crowd, taking care to steer clear of the armada of noisy honking taxis.
“It’s just down this way,” called Carlos over his shoulder, heading off the main drag and down a narrow side street. Jenny and I followed like sheep. Up ahead, in the light of a street lamp, a girl in black fishnet stockings and precious little else, fumbled in a huge handbag and produced a bunch of clinking keys. She let herself and a faceless client into a dilapidated block of red brick flats which stood next to an even more dilapidated two-storeyed stucco building. Smells of food and hot rancid oil came from the rear of a nearby restaurant along with the clatter of cooking pots and dinner plates.
The front of the stucco building boasted one small window which had been whitewashed on the inside and from which there came a sickly yellow light. The entrance door next to it was shedding several coats of ancient green paint and it was at this door that Carlos stopped and knocked. We stood on the doorstep, Jenny with hands dug deep into the pockets of her oversized cardigan and shoulders hunched against the chill of the June night air. She looked up, head cocked to one side, like a little sparrow, and gave me one of her looks followed by an impish grin which I translated as, “Cheer up, mate, this could be fun.”
“C’mmon Perla,” called Carlos impatiently and raised his hand to knock once again whereupon the door swung open to reveal the figure of our host for the evening – Perla da Cruz. “Querida!” squealed the figure in the doorway. “Darling!” echoed Carlos in his best falsetto and the two fell into an embrace right there in the doorway.
“Come in, come in, my dears,” intoned Perla, one ring-infested hand resting languidly on his breast, the other ushering us one by one into the dimly lit interior of a claustrophobically small flat. Carlos did the introductions, “Perla, these are my good friends, Jenny and Richard. Jenny and Richard, this is ‘La Perla.’ I learnt later that Carlos almost always referred to Perla as ‘La Perla,’ in rather the same way one would refer to Sutherland as ‘La Stupenda’. We shook hands and immediately Perla slid deftly behind a worktable and at the same time waved a hand towards the opposite side of the tiny room. “Please, darlings, do sit down wherever you can find room.” Jenny and I looked around and I discovered an old sofa in one corner, heavily camouflaged by an amazing assortment of brightly coloured fabrics, various items of clothing, boxes, straw hats, feather boas and what must have been meters and meters of curtain material.
We pushed some of this huge mound aside and perched gingerly on the edge of the sofa.
Carlos, meanwhile, seemed quite at home in the kitchen busily opening the bottle of red we’d brought with us. The kitchen was, in fact, just an alcove off to one side and contained a grotty looking sink piled high with unwashed dishes. To the left was an ancient looking Pope fridge that had been painted electric blue and emblazoned with yellow plastic daisies which appeared to have been cut from an old disused table cloth or the like. A green enamel gas stove of similar vintage to the fridge stood against the opposite wall. The stove sported an enormous black cast iron pot which appeared to have been the site of a major culinary disaster. Large gobs of half-burnt food clung to the sides, covered the top of the stove itself and a good area of wall behind. The stray food, among which I detected strands of dried spaghetti, was also splashed down the front of the stove.
I watched nervously as a big juicy cockroach scurried up the wall from the shelf area above the sink from where Carlos reached for four wine glasses. I was only slightly relieved when he rinsed the glasses under the tap before pouring the wine.
All the while, Carlos and Perla chatted with great animation. Carlos explained that, as we’d been invited to a fancy dress party to be held in July, he knew that Perla had a dazzling collection of costumes which he’d created over the years and he was sure that we’d find something suitable among this formidable wardrobe. Meanwhile, Perla sat at his sewing machine, podgy hands pushing a blue denim vest back and forth under the whirring needle, occasionally gesticulating to make a point, occasionally peering at Jenny and me over half glasses which he wore perched on the edge of his nose.
He looked 50-ish but could well have been much younger. Thinning hair, dyed an unconvincing chestnut colour, topped an open face which was punctuated with dark, lively eyes, a rather bulbous nose and a large volatile mouth housing widely-spaced teeth. The lobes of his ears were surprisingly pendulous and he wore a gold ring in the left one. His figure was corpulent rather than fat and was clothed in a black pirate shirt atop frayed denim jeans. Tiny feet were encased in black happy shoes.
“Here we go,” announced Carlos as he served the wine with exaggerated grandeur. “Saude, cin cin,” clink, clink. Ah, the wine was good and, after the first glass, I felt warm and much more relaxed. Jenny sipped away steadily and soon her eyes began to sparkle, a slight flush crept into her pixie face and, true to form, she started to giggle.
The conversation got livelier and livelier; the room filled with cigarette smoke and, all too soon, the bottle was nearing empty. Perla came to the rescue with a flagon of Muscat which he’d been “Saving for a special occasion.” It was sweet but very drinkable and my request for a brown paper bag went right over the heads of the two South Americans who by now were conversing more and more in their native Brazilian – Jenny collapsed in a fit of giggles.
“Show them, Perla, show them,” urged Carlos breaking off from a long and lively conversation in Portuguese.
“No, no, not tonight,” responded Perla coyly “Show us what?” piped in Jenny.
“Oh, Perla has some wonderful photos of his costumes” said Carlos enthusiastically.
“But some of them are so old, I’m sure they wouldn’t be interesting,” replied Perla, obviously angling for more encouragement which we all duly supplied.
“Ah, well, I’ll have to see if I can find them,” said Perla with a dramatic sigh of resignation and stood up from the sewing machine and disappeared into an adjoining room whose doorway was hung with a length of crushed purple velvet. Seconds later, he reappeared from behind the crushed velvet like a prima donna taking a curtain call. He was bearing a stack of photo albums which he carried reverently, like so many bibles.
Since the only light in the room came from a naked bulb over the kitchen sink and a small lamp illuminating the workbench, it was necessary to switch on the main overhead light in order to inspect the photo albums which Perla now handed to us. Carlos obliged by switching on the main light and we immediately noticed what had not been previously obvious – the dung coloured carpet could not have been vacuumed for months, if not years! It was littered from wall to wall with multi-coloured threads, sparkle and sequins.
The photos, like all photos, told a story: the early years in Brazil; family, high school, friends, parties, Carnival. It was Carnival in Rio that had fired his imagination as a young man and led to an early interest in fashion design. From that came an urge to travel the world, meet new people and experience life in all its facets. Arriving in Australia in the early sixties and speaking little English was a real challenge but he was young, good looking and intelligent with the street smarts to match.
He did whatever was necessary to earn a living, including waiting tables, washing dishes and cleaning bar rooms. The Cross had been his home for most of the time he’d lived in Sydney. Many people found it vulgar and tacky – he loved the vitality and cosmopolitan atmosphere the Cross exuded – it reminded him in many ways of Rio, his home. Sure, it had changed over the years and not all for the better, perhaps, but it was still where he wanted to be. He eventually met other Brazilians who’d made the transition to this new land and he became involved with the folkloric group who performed at various events. Music and dancing were the lifeblood of Brazilians who, more than any other race, knew how to live life and enjoy it to the full and it was in this environment that he was able to develop his flair for the design and production of flamboyant costumes. His earliest triumph in this area was a magnificent costume which he’d made and worn to a Carnival Ball organised by Sydney’s Brazilian community. He called the creation “Moon Goddess” and it had taken him a full twelve months to design and construct, sewing thousands of pearls onto the enormous dress of oyster satin. Meters of plastic string pearls cascaded from the crescent shaped headdress, shoulders and arms. He was the belle of the ball and wallowed in the adulation and admiration that all bestowed upon him. That one magnificent creation placed him in the Hall of Fame of the local Brazilian community and earned him the name Perla da Cruz – Pearl of the Cross – the name by which he was known from then on.
As we turned the album pages, Perla would point to this and that, identifying various characters from his past or drawing attention to a certain creation that he was particularly proud of. There were photos of him from long ago, before the years had taken their toll, bedecked in sequined evening gowns, beautifully coiffed wigs and painted up to the eyebrows.
It grew late and we suddenly remembered that the original reason for our visit had almost been forgotten – we still hadn’t selected any costumes for our upcoming party! The albums were set aside and Perla ushered us behind the crushed velvet and into the holy of holies – his bedroom! It was, in reality, an enormous wardrobe – I resist using the term closet – in which the single bed seemed to have been installed as a mere afterthought. The bedroom walls were lined with racks from which hung dozens of Perla’s creations: silks and sequins, Lurex and lycras, satins and spangles, feathers and leathers. Every colour and every combination of colours imaginable seemed to be represented. Just above head height, around three walls ran a continuous shelf stacked high with cardboard cartons of various shapes and sizes which, we learned, contained all the headdresses for the various costumes. Jenny emitted a squeal of delight when she saw this amazing smorgasbord of finery. “I must try something on right now!” she enthused, unable to contain her excitement as she ran her hands over the frills and feathers surrounding us. Perla smiled in satisfaction to see his handiwork evoke such an enthusiastic response. He indicated a small bathroom off the bedroom which was dominated by a full length mirror.
We returned to our wine and listened to some lively Latin music while Jenny went crazy with glee trying on one outfit after another. Howls of delight filtered from behind the crushed velvet as she discovered yet another stunning creation, even better than the last. Every few minutes she would sweep on stage and solicit our opinion of her choice. The cat costume looked cute and suited her tiny five foot nothing stature but she wanted ‘something with more glam.’ The Spanish flamenco dancer’s dress in tiered red satin frills was certainly more glamorous but went to the opposite extreme in terms of fit. Obviously made for a senorita of more willowy proportions, the low waistline came somewhere around Jenny’s knees, making her look quite dwarf-like. Our unkindly cackles of mirth at this comical sight produced a petulant “Oh, shit!” from the Spanish dwarf as she flounced back into the bedroom, tripping badly on the scarlet frills around her feet.
After trying on just about every costume in the place, she finally decided on ‘Tinkerbelle’: ballet shoes and tights in soft pink satin and a matching net tutu with a delicately sequined bodice. A tiara of pink silk cherry blossoms entwined around a paste diamante crown and a fairy wand covered in glitter completed the outfit.
“Are you sure this looks ok?” beseeched Jenny. We all assured her that it was perfect, (which it was), but at this stage we would have showered approval on sackcloth and hobnail boots if it had meant getting her to make up her mind.
Carlos and I were next and within twenty minutes we had both settled on costumes. Carlos chose something which, with his background, could hardly have been considered ‘fancy dress’. It was a Carioca outfit consisting of tight, high-waisted trousers in a black glazed cotton and a shirt with enormous frilled sleeves in black and emerald green satin trimmed with shocking pink sequins and tied at the front. I myself settled on a costume one would find hard to put a name to. It consisted of a black and silver one-piece Lurex tunic over which was worn a voluminous open red coat with long, full sleeves and a train which swept the floor behind. The coat was studded with brilliant flashing sequins and a wide sequined collar and the whole was accompanied by black sequined gauntlets. But the piece de resistance was a headdress of ostrich and pheasant feathers of enormous proportions. It was so big, in fact that I had to turn sideways to get through the doorway!
By now it was well past midnight. Everyone approved of everyone else’s costumes which were hung in plastic bags for transportation home. The wine was finished and so, it seemed, was the evening. We declined coffee quite firmly, mindful of the cracked coffee mugs stacked in the roach-infected sink and began to say our farewells
“Ciao, take care and have a wonderful time at the party, darlings” cooed Perla in a matronly manner. He embraced us one by one and gave Jenny a chivalrous peck on each cheek. Then, with an exaggerated wink at Carlos, “And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” We laughed and headed for the door, thanking Perla for an enjoyable evening and for allowing us access to his amazing collection. “S’cuse me but I won’t come out to see you off – I hate the cold, you know,” he said, reaching for the denim vest and absent-mindedly picking at a few imaginary threads.
I turned to close the door behind us and nod a final goodnight to Perla but he had already turned away and was slowly shuffling back to his sewing machine, perhaps to spend the rest of the night creating dreams and fantasies for other, less talented, mortals to wear.