Pearl Phelan is a photo editor and photographer from Dublin, now living in Bristol, and lived in Sydney in-between.
Obsessed with the process of painting with light and inspired by helping photographers to organise and promote themselves, she also makes pictures for herself.
Alma Regards A Brutal Enemy
Alma Villaner had known she was dying. Even if the doctors hadn’t been so clear about her prognosis, she’d known. The smell in her apartment tipped her off, like sweet fruit, rotting. She’d pestered the housekeeper for weeks before it occured to her.
Her long-dead daddy used to say he could smell sickness in his Redbone Coonhounds. He’d put one down on smell alone. Now the smell was her. She was dying. Her team of doctors confirmed it with sad knowing faces. She’d had no time for pity.
She’d enlisted the help of her estate attorney and settled her will.
She made a list of her favorite meals and even a few things she’d been meaning to try and gave the list to the housekeeper.
Alma planned her funeral and selected songs to accompany the service.
It took her days to choose the perfect invitations to beckon her family home: linen pressed paper in cream and gold with waxy glassine envelopes. She sent the order to her attorney who would see to their delivery upon her death.
She had movers come and close up her apartment in the city. She moved everything that mattered down to her little cottage in The Hamptons.
And finally, she contacted her publicist.
Long ago, Dana danced in the surf, collecting her breaths as each surge hit. She tried jumping into the waves, through them, imagining herself a mermaid. She looked for her mother but she was gone, having slipped back up to the cottage for a nap. Dana looked for her older sister, Sissy, but she, too, was gone, having met a boy walking along the beach.
The water stung her eyes so Dana closed them tight and felt the world tilt in a queasy, watery slide. The tide hit her again and she felt the pull of the water and sand as it swept back out to sea. And, again, the waves, knocking her under, tumbling her around, pulling her askew of the horizon.
Dana tasted her own vomit and bile as it swirled with the foamy saltwater. A man splashed up to her and pulled her to shore. He had one big hand on her stomach, holding her up, as he pounded on her back.
“Are you ok?” he asked but she couldn’t speak, her throat burned with salt.
“Get away from her!” Dana heard her mother screaming from far off. “Get away!”
The man set Dana down on the sand. When he let her go, she pitched forward a little, still moving with the pulse of the ocean. He picked something up from the sand but Dana couldn’t see. The man was sunlit, his face and body thrown into shadow from the aura of sun around him.
“Smile, kid,” he said and Dana blinked as she heard the shutter of a camera. Her hair dripped in her face. Her lips were chapped and crusted in brine.
“Leave her alone!” her mother yelled, getting closer, running through the sand in her little shorts and thin tank top. Dana was on her knees at his feet. The man lifted his lens and framed her mother in the shot.
The photo became iconic. Printed as a pin-up poster, it sold millions of copies and hung from millions of walls.
Rebecca Regards A Brutal Enemy was Alma Villaner’s eighth feature film. It was filmed in Budapest in 1964, at the height of Alma’s popularity. It was the story of a woman, Rebecca, travelling by train from Bucharest to Vienna, who meets a mysterious man. It is always a mysterious man, living in shadows, who regards the heart and endangers the life of the innocent woman. Rebecca is thrilled by him. He turns dark, a spy, a double agent! Rebecca triumphs, en route.
Alma was nominated for an Oscar, but, ultimately, the win went to Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins.
The night of the 37th annual Academy Awards, despondent over the loss, Alma took twenty five Nembutal to help her sleep. Her daughter, Sissy, forced her fingers down her mother’s throat until she vomited.
The Associated Press reported that Alma died on April 3, 2003 at the age of 70 from Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). This disease affects a line of blood cells called the myeloid. It is characterized by a rapid growth of white blood cells that accumulate in bone marrow. AML progresses rapidly and is typically fatal in weeks, months if you are lucky, if left untreated.
Symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, bruising, and bleeding. The disease is devastating like brown rot on a stone fruit. It recalls the odor of cankers on a blighted peach. The cankers girdle the bones, the bones will die, the body will die.
If left untreated.
The entire family descended on Alma’s cottage in Southampton, the place where she died. The cottage gleamed bright and white: white cupboards, white floors, white carpet. Alma’s body had already been cremated. Her stepdaughter, Joy, spilled red wine on the carpet, sending Sissy into a fit.
“She went out on top, don’t you think?” Alma’s final husband, Ricky cried. “Really, what more can you ask?”
Ricky was 15 years Alma’s junior. The crying was a little over the top considering he’d once called her a “stone cold bitch” to the press. But, Ricky wasn’t half the actor Alma had been.
Dana pulled up to the house late. She made a detour around the house and walked, silent, down the path to the shore. She dropped her red windbreaker and shoes off on the dune.
She’d wondered for a long time how she would feel if anything ever happened to Alma. Now she knew. She felt nothing.
She watched the clouds gather and darken along the horizon. She felt the salt already kissing her skin and she felt nothing.
The Wrath Of Desire, filmed in 1957, was Alma’s breakout role. She played the young temptress to an older man’s midlife crisis. That man, Robert Scolfield, an actor of once-great reputation, had been sliding downhill, older, older, too old for such a vibrant woman.
The magazines cried scandal because Robert was already married. Alma had been 24 years old. She’d been pregnant with Sissy before her twenty-fifth birthday.
Alma Villaner died six times throughout her life: four times on film (a shooting, a suicidal wrist cutting, a fall from a high rise and a stabbing) and twice in real life (the death that played out in the press of a sick, stoic woman — Legend of the Silver Screen! — and her true death, in bed, in her little cottage on the beach).
In the movies, it takes seconds to smother a person to death. But, in real life, it takes minutes, long, slow heartbeats drawn out by the intense pressure of the pillow on a woman’s face and her need to fight back even if she’s already dying, even if she’s already accepted it. She’ll claw at the hands that hold her down, unable to just give up.
Because her Daddy told her once that you never let them beat you.
Because her Mama used to laugh with her whole body until she’d shake.
Because everyone used to say she’d never be anything more than Appalachian trash.
Because the body can’t help it, wired as it is for breath.
Sissy grew up in southern California in that dusty spot where the red carpet is stored.
When Alma was sick, as she was often sick back in those days, Sissy would stay with Robert.
But, he, too, needed his rest and so sometimes she would stay with Alma’s Manager. Then, Robert died and Alma, again, needed to recuperate so Sissy moved in with the Manager full-time.
But, Sissy got pregnant at 15. The Manager disappeared, unnamed on the birth certificate.
Her whole life, people always called Sissy the Little Mother – taking care of everyone around her. Even as a little girl. And, then it became fact.
It was true and then it stopped being true because Alma was furious and worked hard to hide the pregnancy. Industry insiders knew the truth, of course. Money was paid to keep the secret. But, officially, in the summer of 1973, Alma adopted a baby girl and named her Dana.
Dana, a feminine form of the name Daniel, meaning to judge or God will judge.
While filming Darling Star in 1976, Alma met and fell in love with her second husband, Harrison. The movie, itself, was ill-advised: the story of a washed-up, washed-out, tight rope walker who falls in love with her Ringmaster. It was meant to be Alma’s big comeback.
Filmed in Paris, Alma spent her time walking along Champs Elysées or eating at just the right places to be spotted in the press. Harrison was so dashing, Alma still so beautiful, if in a more mature way. Audiences swooned, watching them fall in love on film and in real life.
Sissy was in college. Dana was at home, cared for by nannies. Alma gave interviews, telling reporters that her children, both of her children, were her whole entire world. But, Sissy and Dana were two planets in wholly different orbits. Everything that has mass has gravity.
Darling Star featured a sex scene between Alma, Harrison and the lion tamer, a woman. It was meant to be vulnerable. Tasteful. Avant Garde, even, because the Director was the next big thing. But, it showed too much. They trusted the Director too much. The whole thing had been too much.
Alma’s marriage to Harrison was over before the film was released.
Alma’s final wish was to be cremated and her ashes scattered at sea. She’d arranged for a bus to take the entire family to the marina. There, a service called Paradise At Sea would take them out three nautical miles from land.
“Are you ok?” Sissy asked Dana, eclipsing her view of the dock before she could board the boat. “What did you do to your arms? They’re torn to pieces. Did someone hurt you?”
“I’m fine,” Dana answered and shouldered her way around, orbiting away. Everyone was silent as the yacht conveyed them from the marina. A champagne service followed and warm hors d’oeuvres were served. Dana watched the headlands sink away.
When the captain idled the yacht and finally dropped anchor, someone began to weep. Maybe it was Ricky or maybe a cousin. The minister began to speak. Dana and Sissy moved together towards the back of the boat. Sissy carried her mother’s ashes in a glass-sheen mahogany box.
“Did you love her?” Dana asked, whispered it like a child whispers to her sister at night, in the dark, when they both should be asleep.
“She was my mother,” Sissy responded and opened the lid. “Did you?”
Dana untied the plastic bag within, opening the mouth wide. Inside, she’d expected to see nothing but ash. Instead she found all that was left of Alma was course sand and tiny sharp fragments of bone.
Together, the women released Alma’s remains to the sea, watched dust and bone swirl with the white foam of the boat’s wake.
“She was my mother,” Dana finally answered and tasted ash on her lips.
Brianne M. Kohl is a fiction writer living in North Carolina and writing about places all over the map. She has been featured in several publications including The Stoneslide Corrective and The Master’s Review: New Voices. She is a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. For a full list of her publications, please visit www.briannekohl.com. Follow her on twitter: @BrianneKohl