A Story by Chris Roughsedge
If you were to ask me on any given day, why I felt compelled to involve myself so comprehensively in Mister Roberts’s life, not to mention be the instrument of his death, the answer would probably be different the following day. It is entirely possible that, if Roberts had not died at my hands a tentative framework for this story could be reasonably well realised and punctuated in most of the right places, but may well have suffered for want of a viable plot.
I am Eric Felt and the story you are about to read will consist of a narrative with an end—of sorts. Having said that, it has become an elusive and formless thing where memories will play their part, providing substance to that which will remain unsubstantiated. Not according to the law of course. The law has already drawn its conclusions but I will let the reader be my ultimate judge. In any case, my digressions, prevarications and procrastination’s within this narrative will be as annoying and counterproductive as I can possibly make them. For these trespasses, I don’t apologise because I suspect all but a select few will find any of the following remotely interesting.
The progress of my interactions with Roberts was limited to whatever we had managed jointly to muster during a somewhat short, strange and unpredictable time. There was something else. I was never more alive than when I was in his ambit. I experienced an emptiness as a result of his vanishing from the world, a sensation akin to bereavement, although I found not one person who thought he deserved the slightest sympathy. It may seem odd to miss the company of someone so universally despised, but there you have it.
Then again, what are regrets but useless flummery engineered by our conscience. Isn’t it true, we edit the past so that the future will have a gloss it does not necessarily deserve?
The connection I had with Roberts was tenuous at best, and almost always of a hostile nature. Yet it was utterly engaging, unlike any relationship I have ever had. My wife had told me long before events escalated to the extent they did, that he was gay, a fact in these enlightened times, is considered to be of little significance. On reflection it does somewhat add to the texture of the narrative. I suppose my attraction to Roberts could have had a bit of a Freudian whiff about it. Was I physically attracted to him? I came to be somewhat drawn to him in the sense one might a work of art, Michelangelo’s David for instance—there was a certain grace and beauty about his languid, insolent posture, his dangerous good looks. Like David, he maintained a state of quiet alert because, as I fancy now, he sensed his Goliath crashing about rather clumsily nearby.
It is inconceivable to imagine a circumstance where we might have become friends, the gulf of compatibility being wide. Yet we so deliberately, perversely even, entangled ourselves about each other, with little thought for the consequences. Though we rarely seemed to abide by any known strategy, the game we played became a delicious and unstoppable obsession. If I hadn’t been accused of ending his life, I suspect a thoroughly unsatisfactory fizzling out would have occurred. I like to think Roberts and I both worked to avoid this particular outcome—but then I am ever the romantic. Sometimes I felt as if we were characters in a play, enacting our shortcomings with as much alacrity as we did our triumphs.
No new thing has happened to us, is what Bacon said—he was talking about our perception of calamity. In any case the jist of it is that only a fool would profess originality. He also said, if a thing happens to others as it has to you, then there’s less cause to be pissed off, or something similar. It would have been nice if the jury had made such a judgement, but alas, they were confined to the fundamental elements of the case—such as the evidence.
I doubt anyone would consider confinement in a prison cell the least bit engaging, but to my surprise, I have garnered some satisfaction in this simple life. I am allowed books to read, for which I have a long and enduring devotion. I am given food, or at least something equating to sustenance. I can walk around a yard populated with my aberrant colleagues, some of whom I suspect would enjoy an opportunity to vent their disapproval, and may yet do so.
I exchange a few words with a limited group of miscreants, one of whom even asked me to write a letter to his mother for him, as he said he was not good at words and heard that I was. Goodness—now that I see it written down it sounds like an appalling cliché. Karl was functionally illiterate. Even his vocal adventures consisted of a series of expletives occasionally alleviated by prepositions, unattended verbs and a variety of vaguely connecting words made a conversation with him pretty much a task of Herculean forbearance.
Karl had just turned twenty when he sent his girlfriend to an early grave with a hot-shot of heroin. He was so thin it’s a miracle the tattooist had found flesh to apply his trade on this boy’s body. Within the deep aperture of his clavicles was the legend Mum and Beth—Beth being his dead girl. The names were entwined in a garland of red roses and lower down his back was a small yin-yang. He was unsure of its meaning, bloke jest fort it’d look right; ‘n some-ow it does coz Mum and Beth ‘ated each udder’s guts. At the time I failed to understand this odd explanation. I suppose, despite his addled mind, he came up with a commendably apposite meaning of his own.
I complied with his epistolary request, and not long after he was found dead in his cell from an overdose, the letter unsent. Drugs in here are considerably easier to come by than on the street, a terrific advantage to those of us who are so inclined. Personally, I would kill for a half-way decent bottle of Château Margaux. Well, what I mean is, I’d kill again.
Another of my compatriots in arms was Raj, a trim little man with an earnestly winning smile, who had been struck off the register of physicians. Not only had he lied about his fully credentialed career in Mumbai to achieve certification in Sydney, but he happened to expedite the permanent rest of several of his patients—without their explicit permission. Nevertheless he was an engaging sort of chap, who offered his wealth of medical expertise to all and sundry within the prison, most of whom—he was perplexed to find—failed to take him up on his offer. He shared a cell with Karl so it was understandably a matter of common gossip that he may have been of some critical assistance in his cell-mate’s rehabilitation to a higher state, as Raj himself described the poor young chap’s demise. He was rather odd.
One day I sat with him in the prison refectory, attempting to decipher both the food we had been dished up and Raj’s indigestible assertions. He confessed he was a student of oriental philosophy and saw Karl’s lower-back body art as a clear statement of harmonic dualism. Raj believed, in shuffling the mortal coil, reached a state consistent with dialectical monism, a field of study with which I had not until then been acquainted and after doing so, wished I had remained ignorant—not something I often say. Apparently Karl had reached his predetermined margin of division, his corporeality arriving at its highest level—the one leading to departure…his minor triads had formed a perfect unity with his upper triads, therefore attaining the state of Nirvana. Karl had blissfully been released from Samsara, the continuous process of birth, life and death.
Raj’s bizarre rantings served to bamboozle me to the point of exhaustion. I had joined several others, in believing he was completely off his rocker. It was, therefore not much of a stretch to suspect he had taken a starring role in dividing Karl from his customary breathing, ambulatory position to one of everlasting horizontalism.
Meanwhile, a guard threw Karl’s ghost-written letter back to me saying with more vitriol than I thought was warranted that—I was a fucken’ cunt, writing that shit to his mum. Now it functions as a bookmark for my current reading matter, a ponderous tome called Gravity’s Rainbow. The letter wasn’t that bad; I merely pointed out the ways Karl’s mother had failed her son, citing the clear line of her neglect from birth to his eventual incarceration. I merely wished her to be mindful of her parenting, with some suggestions as to how she might rectify the unfortunate circumstances her son and heir had found himself enduring. I tried my best to couch it in terms she may understand, even using some of Karl’s inimitable vocabulary where possible. I admit, with hindsight, the missive deserved a more nuanced approach. My wife has told me I’m often less than likeable—from memory she said I had a tendency to annoying pomposity. She was a saint to put up with me really, my first wife regretted her marriage within a year of our union.
To be honest I quite miss Karl, the skinny little fucker. There, you see, I’m catching on with the lingo. I’ve been led to believe a term in prison carries with it implicit advantages to a civil society, but I doubt anyone would suggest the enhancement of language is one of them.
I never read Thomas Pynchon’s doorstop when a free man and so imponderable is it, I wonder why I am doing so now. If one prefers not to think or exercise ones imagination in the process of reading the novel there is even a 440 page companion volume for Gravity’s Rainbow, ludicrously providing explanations for its content. At various points, throughout the novel, Pynchon discusses the notion of doom. The whole book is about doom or the impending thereof: “If there is something comforting – religious if you want – about paranoia, there is still anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected, a condition not many of us can bear for long.” Paranoia is rampant in a prison, a necessary component of existence within its walls. This is why you need to find a tribe and ally yourself within its sometimes odious carcass. On entering the prison population I thought I was free by keeping to myself. A grand gesture I believed was in line with the rather extravagant impression I had of myself. It was a mistake, even the guards advised against it. The path of isolation would have led to the unmoored echo-chamber of anti-paranoia—just like the man said, and then it’s a short walk to the kingdom of despair. Furthermore, if everyone was paranoid, can it still be paranoia—perhaps we all become normal again? I once read a speculative short story in which the entire population was autistic, making the condition redundant. I have a suspicion I might have a few kangaroos jumping around loose in the back paddock, as Reggie the fist Fisher said to me once, another of my tribe I will introduce later.
If you understand what Pynchon’s getting at in his strange book, prison may not be such a bad place to end up. It’s extraordinary to think it graces the shelves of the prison library at all. Perhaps the librarian thought our bodies may be sufficiently punished, but our deviant minds required extra attention. I wouldn’t put anything past our librarian; a grizzled old trustee lifer whose disgusting crime doesn’t bear repeating. My letter to Karl’s mother was at the time of writing, marking the mid-point in my journey through Gravity’s Rainbow. I may have cause to reference Pynchon’s wisdom again.
I have been given a pair of slippers by Peter Volkov, who is my only friend on the outside. He visits me approximately once a month. It’s a long way for him to come and the distance coupled with the interval between visits is probably a fairly accurate measure of his regard for me. In other words, I believe there is a degree of ambivalence operating within the dear fellow, as to my guilt or innocence. I am only thankful someone cares enough about me to even doubt my capacity to be a murderer. He said it was incompatible with my personality and has decided, against logic, not to believe it. He’s an artist, so some latitude may have to be allowed here. The slippers are two of the best things I have owned, both outside and inside. In the evenings before lights out, I sit on my bed with my feet comfortably established within this footwear. I pick up the ponderous Pynchon, move Karl’s letter to a page I intend to arrive at and settle in. This may not be common knowledge but everybody has one foot bigger than the other and by no small miracle, each of my slippers is an individually comfy fit.
Pynchon, slippers and letter-writing aside, there are other ways to pass the time and the following record of my misadventures is one of them. I had been and still am, at least in the legal sense, married to the love of my life. It took a good part of that life to find Miriam and I miss her very much. I have not laid eyes on her, in the many months of my confinement—I have stopped counting them for want of a reason to do so. Miriam and I had both entered the relationship in our forties, although for me it was the latter forties. My first wife, whom I did not love at all, was prone to accidents and met her maker prematurely at the bottom of a lift well. She was an architect so it could be said that carelessness around building sites was somewhat of a disadvantage. But that is another story, and well behind me now, though I may have occasion to provide more detail.
Miriam had been in several relationships before we met. Like me she was an atheist but if she was an empiricist when it came to religion, she proved to be delusional in regard to other aspects of the human condition. In these days of unabated profligacy, the signing of a marriage certificate, in my opinion, was as relevant as the ‘K’ in knife. Miriam, however, insisted that marriage was a solemn, unequivocal undertaking beyond the domain of religion, having apparently derived its origins in the barely recorded murk of ancient pagan rites. Why that distinction made it more or less solemn escaped me but she insisted on its performance and I couldn’t be bothered thinking up an excuse to not comply.
During the latter course of our relationship, she looked after an old man of her acquaintance. For some reason she never introduced us and, even odder for me, I failed to ask why. I suspect she saw it as her duty to help him in his old age, as he had been of critical assistance to her when she was a young university student. Zander, a now retired professor had become invalided by a set of illnesses reserved specifically for the elderly and according to Miriam, he had no-one to look out for him. Decrying the aged care system as being barely adequate, she took it upon herself to be his principle carer.
At a time in her life when she was suffering near debilitating anxiety, Zander helped with her studies and became somewhat of a mentor in her personal life. When she completed her PhD and started tutoring, they became lovers. The relationship lasted for two years until he ended it, saying it was unfair to burden her with a man nearly twice her age. Somehow though, Miriam’s concern for Zander, always struck me as being vaguely wrong-headed. I think it was an irony lost on Miriam—the very thing Zander was so determined to avoid, had come to pass.
Miriam’s early home life had been one of exceptionally cruel emotional denial for both her and her sibling, a younger brother for whom she had felt a deep love and responsibility. Her parents, both art academics at a city university, were so self-absorbed and aesthetically-oriented, they had little time for affection. They were of the opinion that childhood was a construct and one’s progeny should learn the skill of self-determination at the earliest possible age. They failed to see how their influence on the children would ultimately make a great deal of difference, Miriam told me. She had spent much of her early education being bussed to an alternative school, a converted mansion on a country estate. The most rigorous instruction was characterised by students slumped on a motley collection of lounge chairs, while ‘tutors’ roamed the room with ‘advice’ on a variety of esoteric subjects and without the benefit of a curriculum. This struck me as significant but not entirely convincing. I was pretty sure you couldn’t run a school that way, but it was a good story, so I let it go.
I was, however, beguiled by the story of her parents; if they hadn’t followed through with their determination to prematurely end their own lives, I would have liked to have met them. I suspect though, their ghastliness would have interrupted my fascination with them at some point. I pestered Miriam about the minutiae of her life with these bizarre people. She furnished me with many anecdotes, though she couldn’t comprehend the degree of my fascination. Even though the family was quite well off, they ate frugal vegan meals which were supposedly healthy but not at all filling. They also insisted on a rigorous exercise regime, which according to Miriam, was close as a parent might get to child abuse without encouraging the intervention of the authorities. Not that its any excuse for her parents ghastly parenting, but this abstemious childhood, might have accounted for Miriam’s slim figure and healthy constitution. She did have a somewhat fraught self-image, something beyond my understanding, as she was especially easy on the eye, at least form my point of view. She also maintained a revulsion for the personal-training industry, so who am I to judge.
They did go on holidays, usually to places of inclement or extreme conditions. Two months in Iceland, for instance, included several weeks trekking to the remote villages of the Westfjords region. This expedition necessarily took place in the summer, as at any other time, they would have perished among the desolate rocky crags of the north-west. As it was, her brother had to be flown by helicopter, from some remote village back to Reykjavik, with a near fatal case of pneumonia. Miriam often said it was no news to her that heaven was completely implausible but hell was a place with which she was familiar, having contours and literal evidence everywhere and it was not necessarily hot.
Miriam’s brother sustained a weakened respiratory system for the rest of his short life. So disabled was he by his emotionally frigid parents, he turned to drugs and died of an overdose just before his thirtieth birthday. Miriam also believed she had been irrevocably affected by her emotionally unresponsive parents. There was more than adequate evidence of this in the indifferent treatment I was afforded from time to time. I was, however, not overly put out and preferred to brush these occasions aside. I would remind her how lucky she was to have found that special person to annoy her for the rest of her life. As is the case with many oft-used jokes, it wore a bit thin. It was what we did, how we managed it all. Perhaps it was how we managed each other—things that were left unsaid that may have been given an outing. Sometimes I feel utterly bereft without my Miriam, my life is without meaning, but I must continue with this, even if its purpose is to explain it to myself.
As they prepared for their early retirement from academia, her parents started a movement they coined the ‘The Savants’ and managed to accrue a loose following, ranging from one or two influential elites to a gaggle of nutters and strays, often inhabiting the less savoury corners of the internet. By then Miriam had severed all connection with them but kept abreast of their doings via another family member, who was as equally appalled by them. Her parents set up a compound on the rural outskirts of a remote town in the Southern Highlands. The movement had all of the trappings of a cult, including painstakingly ritualistic crop circle design, the non-lethal and entirely secular hanging of novitiates on wooden beams for a time, among other deprivations. On one occasion the authorities responded to reports from a group of hikers in the area, of terrifying noises emanating from the compound. The police arrived to find the Savants were observing a prolonged and full-throated wailing ritual and were reassured by Miriam’s father the racket was nearly complete and would be followed by a period of nude tae-kwon-do, fasting and utter silence.
Miriam was in her early twenties, when she split with Zander and fell carelessly into a relationship with a foolish man by the name of Oliver. This relationship was significant for the over-arching effect it had on her subsequent life. She felt dislocated by the demands made on her by a man almost entirely lacking in a sustainable personality of his own. He became emotionally dependent on her almost immediately. In retrospect, she was amazed at how comprehensively he had mistaken her for a person entirely opposite to who she really was. She felt ashamed of her youthful gullibility. As he saw it, all Oliver had to do was provide her with financial security—he was the scion of a wealthy family of industrialists and he was the black sheep with a trust fund and kept out of sight. Miriam related to me that Oliver thought his profligate and pointless lifestyle was adequate encouragement for her to surrender to his every need. Over a painful three years with him, she described a sense of being consumed by the quick-sand of his unrelenting narcissism. Her time with him had an unexpectedly positive outcome. Once she was free of him (she called him her succubus), she felt able to extricate herself from the guilt of her brother’s death and the terrible burden of their parent’s dispassionate neglect.
After Oliver, Miriam had nothing more to do with her parents, until she heard from their solicitor, Bill Crumme, a person they had retained for years. Crumme was considerably younger than her parents but his idolatry of them verged on the insane. Miriam saw him as just another of the small coterie of followers her parents seemed to encourage. Crumme acted as a go-between, supposedly on behalf of her parents. Weird correspondence appeared regularly from the oily solicitor regarding a variety of arcane matters, some of which Miriam thought her parents would not have been be bothered with. The man himself would appear on her doorstep sometimes, and his solicitations were often of a non-legal nature. He had an inappropriate fondness for her, even when she was a young girl which she described as nothing short of psychotically creepy.
One day Crumme appeared at her door with the news that her parents had followed through with their commitment to end their lives. Apparently they lay naked on a bed of straw and self-administered Nembutal. Once again extremely loud shrieks from the brethren attracted the authorities, only this time with the expected result. Miriam told me the dreadful Crumme had delivered the information about the death of her parents with a studied indifference—sounding not unlike her parents. He then rested his hand on her shoulder briefly in an affectation of support. His hand traversed her spine to end a fraction above her buttocks. Miriam slapped his hand away and quickly put a coffee table between her and Crumme. With sour impatience she listened to him deliver the remaining details of the will. They had bequeathed the entirety of their not inconsiderable estate to a trust for the furtherance of the Savant Movement. On hearing of her parent’s self-termination, Miriam uttered nothing more than a sigh of relief and told the solicitor to get lost!
One afternoon, Miriam bustled into our house after work, dropped her briefcase on the hall table and commandeered my able body for the purpose of moving Zander, from his bed to a wheelchair and then to help with his bathing. Occasionally Miriam would talk of Zander, but not at any great length, seeming not to care for my curiosity in regard to him, as though it was a particularly private matter. I suppose it was. We had this unstated agreement that certain parts of our past would remain locked. On this occasion it could not be helped, and I was to be initiated into one of her secret rooms. I wondered whether this would lead to a quid pro quo request and I would, at some point in the future, be required to reveal matters I preferred to remain under wraps.
When we arrived at his house, a neat cottage on the edge of the city, we discovered he had soiled the bed, a possibility Miriam failed to mention. To say I was repulsed by exposure to his incontinence would be an understatement. She attempted with great delicacy, to cause the old man the least embarrassment and discomfort. We helped him to the bathroom and she turned on the shower hanging over the tub. While we bathed him he summoned the wherewithal to find his nakedness more shameful than the defecation; at one point weeping silently while trying to cover his genitals with his hands. I couldn’t decide what was more embarrassing.
Zander showed no recognition of Miriam, nor made any enquiry as to the presence of a complete stranger; although strictly speaking we had no way of telling. He could have been in a purgatory of frustration, unable to articulate his gratitude or, more likely, his despair. Being old and sick must be incredibly hard work and I hoped I’d have the courage to take the final path, as demonstrated by Miriam’s parents. In any case, it was clear he would soon die.
When we settled him, washed and powdered in his bed, Miriam spoke quietly and gently stroked his nearly bald scalp. This had a visibly calming effect which was furthered by her reading some words from a book of Shelley’s poems on his bedside table. Being an avid reader, I noticed it when we arrived. The part of the book Miriam read was an excerpt from Prometheus Unbound. I listened carefully to my wife’s rendition.
Love, from its awful throne of patient power
In the wise heart, from the last giddy hour
Of dead endurance, from the slippery, steep,
And narrow verge of crag-like agony, springs
And folds over the world its healing wings.
Although I had no way of knowing as to whether she had chosen it purposefully or merely picked up where Zander had left off, I thought it was an interesting passage. She stopped reading when she noticed he had fallen asleep. She turned the book around to show me it was the last page.
‘So what did you think about all that Eric?’ Miriam said.
I was backing the car out of the old man’s driveway. ‘Meaning?’ I said.
‘Well, how did it make you feel?’
‘I’m still thinking about it. My overall impression, however, is that I would not like to participate in a repeat performance.’
‘I liked the Shelley,’ I said.
We had this habit of reviewing events as if they might transmute into something more important than what they were. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement between us that everything had significance, had bearing on what followed. I joked that fundamentally speaking, life consisted of one damn thing following another but nevertheless, there was this mutual desire for a satisfactory conclusion. It was as if, by passing an idea back and forth, enlightenment was bound to follow. This was often the case, but not always.
‘Shelley is gloomy isn’t he? Crag-like agony, the passage had a sense of finality about it, apt considering the state of Zander.’
‘Yes, it was,’ she said.
I turned out of Zander’s street and entered the main road. ‘So what happens to him now?’ I said.
‘He will die soon, perhaps tomorrow or next month,’ Miriam said.
‘No, I mean right now. We are going home, but he appears to require full-time nursing.’
‘There was a daily aged care nursing service, but it was so awful I wrote to a member of his family interstate to cancel it, and employ another service. It’s very temporary. The new service starts in a few days. I arranged it with his brother Peter, who is aware of my long-term presence in Zander’s life. He immediately agreed. I have the distinct impression they had no face to face contact for a very long time. He did write me an odd letter, scribbled on note paper and barely legible, thanking me for what I had done. I was angry and threw it away in disgust.’
‘So you don’t have much to do with this Peter, what about other relatives?’
‘An aunt, now dead, Peter is the youngest but an old man himself by now. Before the dementia took hold the way it has, I asked Zander why Peter didn’t come to see him but he refused to discuss it.’
‘A mystery then,’ I said.
‘Yes, I know virtually nothing about his parents, except that they immigrated to Australia from The Netherlands when he was still a child. He described his family as being a closed book that he had no interest in rereading.’
‘That information only serves to further wet my curiosity,’ I said.
‘Yes, I suppose it would Eric.’ She offered me a little smile. ‘Anyway, to answer your question, someone will arrive shortly to spend most of the evening with him—a student and a decent young man who is paid out of Zander’s pension. Another man comes to tend the garden and do whatever is needed for the maintenance of the house. He also helps with moving Zander when the student can’t do it alone, but today, he himself is sick and the student has lectures. A friend from work also comes occasionally.’
‘Oh, who is that,’ I said
‘Sylvia,’ she said. I had some vague memory of this name, but no face to apply to it.
‘Goodness, how civilised,’ I said absently. I was a somewhat put off by all the shit I’d just helped to clean up. For a while we travelled in silence.
‘We need wine Eric, and something for dinner.’ She said this as we were rapidly approaching the turn-off to the shopping centre, and I pulled sharply into the large parking garage servicing the town and ended taking up part of the opposite lane. A man in an old blue utility truck sounded his horn loudly, several times because he was required to wait as I negotiated my passage through the entrance.
‘Fuckwit,’ he yelled at me out of the car window as I passed. I’d only had a glimpse of him but with such clarity that it seemed to occur in slow motion. He pushed his arm out awkwardly, and raised his fist to emphasise his contempt. The entire length of his arm was festooned with tattoos. His whiskered face was red, bloated with fury and surrounded by wild dreadlocked ropes. I remember thinking about his fury and its connection to my admittedly dangerous manoeuvre. Cars were constantly entering and leaving the shopping centre carpark. I fancied his dark mood came from somewhere else—a lifetime of deep frustration. His anger was such that I wondered if he might turn around and come back, but he didn’t. I parked the car and we entered the supermarket.
I was looking with some suspicion at a limp bunch of asparagus when Miriam tensed beside me.
‘What?’ I looked around, alarmed and thinking some calamity was about to befall us.
‘There, walking towards us.’
The supermarket was busy but there was a man moving in our direction. I wouldn’t necessarily have paid much attention to him but Roberts was a very familiar name. I’d never met the man but he was so familiar I may as well have known him. He was a colleague whom Miriam described as a thorn in her side—one of two deputies at the private girl’s school, Seaview Ladies College of which Miriam was the Principal. The other deputy was pliable, but more as a result of his indifference rather than a desire to be cooperative. He was merely treading water, she said, waiting for his imminent retirement, whereas Roberts was ambitious, arrogant and an outrageous misogynist.
‘Odd that he was in such a senior position,’ I said, when she first told me about him. This was not long after she had taken up her post at the college.
‘I inherited Roberts from the previous principal. Somehow he’d inveigled his way into the board’s approval years ago and was duly promoted. The man seems to despise me above all others and is obstructive almost to the point of causing serious dysfunction within the school community.
‘Do you know why he’s like that?’
At first I thought his own unsuccessful bid for the principal’s position had coloured his opinion of me but it’s not just me, besides as I got to know him more, I came to realise that one would never know with him. He’s got this buttoned down separateness about him—one that says don’t bother. He’s an appalling individual really but also strange.’ She said. ‘Anyway, he’s continually undermining my authority and is rude to other staff—he’s a demoralising influence.’
This person had certainly engaged my curiosity and it angered me that he was causing Miriam to be upset and irritated by him. She hadn’t spoken of him for the past several weeks, so I assumed some form of rapprochement had been negotiated. From her reaction to seeing him at the supermarket, it was clear this was not the case.
‘Look, we can come back to the vegetables—what meat do you fancy,’ I said, preparing to move in the direction of the fridges.
‘Eric we can’t, he’s spotted us.’ The least contorted smile a face could get away with, without indicating distaste, played on her lips as he approached. For some reason, I didn’t expect him to be physically attractive, Miriam having only described his behaviour, not hi appearance. He was, however, a man of around one hundred eighty centimetres, perhaps more, black hair with a long fringe, seeming to fall naturally either side of his eyebrows. I gave him a boyish look, though I thought he might be nudging forty five. A little grey appeared either side of his temples and glinted in the almost-stubble of a beard. He seemed fit, well-proportioned, though slim, and wore boot-jeans and t-shirt. A set of keys hung off one of his belt loops and brown Italian style loafers, no socks, completed the ensemble. He was carrying a shopping basket with what looked like an assortment of items from the deli bar and a six pack of beer.
‘Principal Felt,’ he said.
‘Mister Roberts,’ Miriam replied. I nearly laughed at the formality of this greeting but thought better of it. I wondered if she was going to introduce me; they stood peering at each other for slightly too long.
‘I’m Eric,’ I offered my hand, which he took after looking at it briefly, as if it might contain the Ebola virus. The contact was dry and somehow unpleasant, although I failed to put my finger on it, so to speak. It was like touching rust, is perhaps the best analogy that comes to mind—and one I would not be repeating if I could help it. Before any other words could be exchanged, we heard a crackly female voice from behind Roberts.
‘Excuse me,’ an elderly woman with a heavily laden shopping cart seemed to be trying to get past us in the narrow space between a wide display stand holding onions, garlic and ginger and the fixture nearest to us, accommodating the more pointy variety of vegetables, including asparagus, a bunch of which I was still holding. There was nothing in the least unpleasant in the way she said it. This space we three were standing in allowed nothing much wider than the cart and we three were blocking her progress. It was possible to back up and divert to the other side of the onions, but she didn’t seem to notice this was an option.
‘Go around,’ Roberts said without turning to her.
Miriam and I were preparing to make space but were stopped in our tracks by his remark. It was so collapsed, bereft of emotion, it could have been the last sigh of air from a deflated inner tube.
‘What,’ the lady said. Either she didn’t hear Roberts or was confused by his tone.
‘I said go around,’ he said again and again without any intonation. He turned his back to us, and facing her, pointed to the other side of the fixture.
The old lady pulled herself up to an indignant posture, as best she could. ‘Young man…’ she paused looking closely at him. He slouched slightly, placing his hands on his hips, the keys jangled at his side. It looked like a blatantly insolent gesture to me. The old woman, suddenly gave in, issued a disappointed huff of protest, backed up awkwardly and managed to manoeuvre her trolley to the other side of the stand, knocking several red onions off with her elbow as she passed. A young man in an apron stacking the shelves nearby began to chase them as they rolled away on the linoleum.
Roberts returned his attention to us as if nothing had happened; no more annoyed than if he’d just brushed away a fly. I was sure Miriam would say something, a remonstrance of some sort, but even she was rendered voiceless by the incident. I felt compelled to make a remark but wasn’t sure what exactly, so I just blurted out the obvious. ‘Was that necessary, we could have moved aside?’
‘Yes,’ he said. He hadn’t bothered to make eye contact with me as yet, even when shaking my hand.
Yes to what exactly, I was about to ask when he diverted his attention to Miriam
‘I didn’t get a chance to tell you to-day, but I’ve booked a stone mason to come to the school, he’ll rough up the flagstones at the entrance to admin. He has some sort of tool.’
‘Oh, okay—when?’ Miriam said.
‘Right, I’ll tell the G.A. to expect him—morning or afternoon?
With that exchange over and apparently nothing more to say, Roberts shrugged and simply walked away leaving me with an even less fascinating decision regarding the asparagus I was still holding. ‘That was…well I’m not sure what it was,’ I said.
‘Tell me about it,’ Miriam replied.
All up, the afternoon was eventful to say the least, and I have to say that buying the wine and returning home via the shortest possible route had an element of some urgency.
After dinner that night, we sat together on the living room sofa and on the second bottle, a Verdicchio which carried a tad too much fruit for my liking. I don’t know why I drank the stuff, it invariably led to disappointment. Miriam had started telling me more about Roberts. I now had a face to apply to the mounting collection of his peculiarities.
‘By all accounts he had my predecessor wrapped around his little finger. Sylvia told me he was afraid of Roberts.’
‘You’ve met Sylvia, Eric, but you persist in forgetting the fact.’
Mmmm. Is she kind of short, dumpy, a sort of faded person with weird hair?’
‘Well, I’d be kinder in my description, but yes that sounds like her. She’s nice—I think. You wouldn’t like her. Actually you don’t like her, you told me so, but have no doubt forgotten.’
‘I’m afraid to say, right at this moment it is as if she never existed, darling.’
‘Why be afraid now, you never have been before.’
Miriam shuffled out of her slippers and curled her feet up on the sofa, leaning her head on my shoulder. It was a Friday and with two days to recover. Miriam had the habit of getting drunk on Friday evenings, and who could blame her—certainly not I.
After three years of Miriam’s placement at the college, I felt as if I knew Roberts quite well, and now that I had finally laid eyes on him, I wished to know even more of whatever mischief he had perpetrated on any given day. Her contempt for him grew as the years passed and had become so poisonous that she only ever referred to him sourly by his surname, even to his face, which she said, never seemed to faze him in the least.
‘You said before that he was strange. I mean, he definitely showed his nasty side this afternoon but strange?’ I said.
‘He has this set of surprising behaviours which have the effect of putting everyone on edge—he’s unpredictable. He’s sort of abstracted, almost as if he is operating on a different plane to the rest of us. I mean his overbearing behaviour is not entirely pernicious—more, he’s…oh I don’t know Eric. Look, he behaves as if he knows something we don’t and thinks we are too ignorant to get it; whatever it is.’
I found this very interesting. ‘But it must often be quite relevant to the job, Miriam. I mean it can’t be too distant from the operational needs of the school, otherwise how could he have risen up the promotion ladder?’
‘Look, you’re right. Often his ideas are adopted and he does have allies of sorts, although I’d describe them as toadies—young and mean spirited,’ she said and laughed rather too loudly. She was pretty drunk by then, so I didn’t pursue it.
I had the opportunity to encounter Roberts again several weeks later, at a retirement do for one of Miriam’s colleagues. Truth be known, I don’t attend these staff parties as a rule, but I was feeling a little isolated. Apart from Steve, the gardener, with whom I enjoyed a bit of company every couple of weeks, I had no acquaintances to speak of. When I first retired, one or two work colleagues kept in touch and we had the occasional meet at a bar or the rare dinner party but these events dried up, for want of enthusiasm—mostly on my part.
The party was a lavish affair at an expensive restaurant with a large garden to its rear, and a slight incline to a cliff above the Pacific Ocean. These private schools seemed to have a lot of disposable income—hardly surprising since the government bizarrely subsidises them to quite a pretty penny. Presumably the disposable part was that part the taxpayers grudgingly provided. This always struck me as odd because the free market economy was based on the fundamental fact that if one chooses to engage in free enterprise, then one must ensure one’s own survival by making a profit. All business’ rise and fall on this basis so if you provide subsidies to them, you are literally sabotaging the capitalist economy.
I had thought about and discussed this a lot to the point of irritation, form Miriam’s point of view. She agreed to my rationale with some ambivalence. I suppose it wouldn’t do to bite the hand that feeds you. One evening, over more than one glass of Chardonnay, I set a case for private school defunding as explicitly as I could. The government, I said, is diverting a sizable proportion of the tax moolah from public schools and giving it to Seaview Ladies College, for instance, which currently maintains a world class gym, an Olympic size pool and a trendy café for the pleasure of their trust-funded population. I added that I had it on the best possible authority, education was also involved.
Nevertheless, the view from the tall windows of the restaurant made it a very beautiful location. Everybody was convivial, in high spirits, some of them quite sloshed by the time the speeches had ended. People began to mingle and I found myself, not quite accidentally, standing next to Roberts, who was on his own. I spied him while we were toasting the shy and embarrassed retiree. Sylvia, Sylvia, Sylvia I recited to myself. That’s who the retiree was, but I suspected I’d forget her name again.
Of course, one person’s perception of another is necessarily determined by the predispositions or prejudices of the observer. I was prepared for nuance in regard to Miriam’s nemesis, regardless of her assessment of Roberts’s character and my own brief association with it. On this occasion his demeanour seemed only slightly adjusted from what I had encountered in the shopping centre—an expression of insolent and uncommitted regard for his surroundings. I didn’t sense a gram of self-consciousness in his behaviour. It was as if he was saying, take me as I am or not at all—the habitual apostrophe of his existence.
In this iteration of the man my impression was extended a little further, he was a person both singular and remote. As I indicated before, he was tall and slim, in his mid-forties, well-dressed and handsome with dark hair and fine features. I noted this time a tanned face, only slightly lined, a faint crease descending either side of his nose to below his thin lips. His eyes were dark and lids hooded, giving him the look of someone in a perpetual state of idle observation. He seemed completely at ease with being solitary among his colleagues.
From my point of view, Miriam’s smarmy could be altered to studied indifference. He was sipping from a beer bottle whilst leaning against the frame of the open double doors leading to the wide deck attached to the restaurant. His matt black suit, coupled with a black shirt, had the effect of enhancing his estrangement from normality. As I wandered nearer to him, I noted the suit had a velvety opaqueness about it, making it difficult to determine its folds and contours. My eyes swam in its undefined depths. It seemed to me, the wearing of these clothes was for the express purpose of losing himself in the shadows of the large room. There was this air of affected anonymity about him, perhaps cloaking a weakness.
‘Hello again,’ I said.
‘I noticed you are with Miriam this time as well. I guess you’re her husband?’ Sounding somewhat off-handed and graceless, the two sentences, spoken with a slight accent, were uninflected, no more than statements of fact. He failed to make eye contact, instead looking past my left shoulder, his nonchalant perusal of the room unchanged. Did I, however, detect a level of disquiet beneath the surface of his composure, a minute adjustment to his frame, a tiny surge to the pulse in his neck? I couldn’t be entirely sure.
He swallowed a sip of his beer and gestured with the bottle toward the retiree, who was surrounded by well-wishers. Her face was red with all the attention and no doubt, the wine. ‘Fish out of water that one, can’t for the life of me work out how she even made it to retirement without being asked to reconsider her career path. I’ve never met anyone so ill-suited to our profession—silly old twit.’ he said, again with this odd way of speaking, a weird sort of collapsed delivery with no emphasis on any of the words. I looked at his face, searching for an expression that might lend weight to this casual insult.
‘Well, I can’t comment, I don’t know the woman very well, although I believe she’s quite good friends with my wife,’ I said. I studied his face again for any change in expression but was disappointed. I found myself emulating, to a degree, his understated presence. It was strangely infectious. Joining him in his gaze, I also had to concede privately, that the retiree displayed a frumpish awkwardness. Her hair seemed to be in disarray, positioned on her head in an indeterminate pile, strands of it coming loose as if they feared to be associated with the host. She was dressed carelessly, vaguely bohemian, perhaps to obfuscate the lack of sartorial skill—half-heartedly appearing to embrace an alternative life-style. I couldn’t help but agree with Roberts’s assessment of the woman.
‘You a teacher?’ he said. I turned back to face him but he seemed to have picked another point to my right upon which to focus his attention.
‘Town Planner,’ I replied. This was true but did not fully describe my circumstances. I had recently retired from my position as the Senior Urban Economist for the State Government, but I didn’t care for him to think there was anything particularly notable about me—if being in charge of a team analysing urban issues such as crime, education, public transit, housing, and local government finance could be characterized as notable. Offering the cut-down version of my job description was usually an occasion for the recipient to become unaccountably sleepy and I can’t say Roberts was one to disappoint on this score.
‘Aha,’ he said, yawning without restraint and displaying a very straight set of teeth. It occurred to me I had heard every detail of his misdeeds in his capacity as deputy, but nothing about his chosen field of pedagogy.
‘What do you teach, Mister Roberts?’ I enjoyed calling him by his surname and was glad he had not furnished his given, although I would not have felt compelled to use it. Now I know his given name but again, even if I knew it then, I wouldn’t necessarily have felt compelled to use it. Addressing him thus, suggested a familiarity I did not wish to impart to the man. I have no doubt this was Miriam’s thinking as well.
‘Ancient History, what there is of it.’ I was about to laugh at what I perceived to be a joke but, as I eventually discovered, jokes were not something he did. ‘Because of my position as deputy, I have less than half a load.’
Even though his manner was one of almost complete disinterest in me, I was determined to engage him in some way. I wasn’t sure myself why I found him as fascinating as I did. Even then I had a strong and rapidly growing belief our paths would cross again. ‘I see…history, interesting,’ I said. ‘You know it’s been my contention history exists as a result of our need to not forget, wouldn’t you say; it reeks of nostalgia as well. We humans want to learn from our past, so the world can become better. I wonder if it has.’ I’d suddenly become the wanker I was always meant to be—what on earth was I doing?
‘Has what?’ I detected only a mild faltering of his distracted air—steadfastly looking anywhere but at me directly. A minute tick seemed to develop at the corner of his mouth, although I could have been mistaken. I remember thinking that he knew exactly what I was saying and was pretending not to.
‘What I’m saying is, do you think the knowledge and teaching of history will make the world a better place, or is it merely reminding us of the myriad of frustrations and disputes which appear to be humanities lot and therefore counter-intuitive to our progress as a species?’ If I could be more pretentious, it wasn’t for want of trying.
‘Perhaps,’ he said. He corrected his posture, spreading his legs a little and putting his free hand in his trouser pocket. As he was no longer slumped against the door-frame he steadfastly looked down as if he found our shoes a source of deep fascination. I went on.
‘It strikes me the history of the human race has to be necessarily couched as a moral question, not that I’m a religious person at all, nobody would accuse me of that foolishness, far from it.’ I even amazed myself by the lavishness of my pomposity, but I truly couldn’t help myself. ‘I wonder though to what extent have we done good or been righteous in our activities, and whether or not we learn from them; which sort of leads back to the concept of memory. I mean, when we as a species regress or—no, let’s look at it on a more personal level, when I perpetrate a bad deed, am I momentarily forgetting to be good?’
I didn’t really know whether I believed any of this but I was filled with an unaccustomed nervous energy—a desire for rapport and repulsion at the same time. I had this overwhelming desire to goad him in some way, to break the carapace of his placid contempt. I had a strong compulsion for a bit of a flutter, a bet each way, so to speak. I’d never been a gambler, but there was something about Roberts that made me want bet the house against him. Perhaps I was subliminally operating on behalf of the old lady at the supermarket, who, I suspected, would be stewing over the horrible man she’d so rudely encountered in the supermarket.
‘Too rich a meal for me, I’m afraid. Just a jobbing history teacher, that’s me,’ he said. A thin line of perspiration tracked down his face from his temple. It was just an observation, the night was warm. ‘I think one can read too much into this stuff,’ he concluded, without even the pretence of conviction, but there was something about his delivery, of it indicating an intellect peeking out from behind a bushel.
I was inclined to think his glib responses were aimed to divert me. I have never warmed to the sort of person who hides his true self beneath a layer of false modesty. It had the effect of clarifying a nagging thought about the man, something I hadn’t been able to put my finger on since I viewed him from across the room. From all that Miriam had told me, I had happily conjured an impression that Roberts was a formidable creature with the sting of a viper. Now, however, it was irresistible not to think of him as the archetypical moral coward—coupling this with his lack of any discernible emotional warmth, made him pretty hard to like. Fuck it—in for a penny, as they say.
‘I hear you and Miriam aren’t getting on.’ He stiffened, making eye contact with me for the first time. He withdrew his hand from his pocket and his arms fell to his sides. He tensed, although I could not characterise this as anything other than mild discomfort. Miriam’s relating of the incidents at the school involving Roberts came to mind. I fancied that if I reached out to touch him he’d somehow dissolve into the person I’d heard about? Was I meeting him now—in some odd way it seemed doubtful to me. It was amusing to see the merest frailty in Roberts, if that’s what it was—I couldn’t be sure. I was distracted by a peripheral movement, the retiree, Sylvia, had sidled closer to us, presumably doing the rounds and engaging with the various groups that had formed. She positioned herself so she was facing in our direction, her gaze, pointed and censorious, locked on me.
I felt warm, quite overdressed in my jacket and tie. I’d also worn a singlet, a garment I rarely use but for some reason, I thought the night may be cold. Draining my glass of wine, I put it on a nearby table and began to remove my coat. By the time I returned my attention to him, Roberts had disappeared into the crowd, thinking I glimpsed a flash of his funereal suit, as he left the room. I noticed the beer bottle up-turned against the skirting board.
The meeting of Roberts revealed to me, as on other occasions during my life, the fluidity of nature. At least, that is how it seemed to me at the time. I fancied I recognised a malevolent force when I saw one and made the mistake of believing I was capable of transforming its disparate particles into a more pliable substance. It’s probably clear to the reader, I suffered from an over indulgence in hubris. Now, scribbling this down in my cell, I have come, by the force of law, to a less elevated sense of my abilities.
At this early stage of my relationship with Roberts, I felt there was something beyond what it was possible for me to imagine, and a capacity for imagination, I less than humbly thought, was not one of my failings. It’s a pity I didn’t feel the jaws of a trap snapping at my heels. I discerned a sensual element, something I had not expected, but there it was growing: leering and forbidding. Roberts was simply exciting—any energy was released in that warm, busy room—a whispering promise of inchoate desires. His utter detachment from the conventions of normalcy struck me as a form of freedom.
I could see he was broken in some fundamental way but it seemed to provide him with something that was both alluring and repulsive simultaneously. I wasn’t Roberts, nor did I want to become a clone of him(a toadie as Miriam called them)but I kept wondering what it must be like to capitulate to the regime of his strange but pure form of isolation. What interested me was how he maintained a life within the conventions of society while finding none of it of any value. I wondered, if I pursued some programme of intervention into his private life, would I be rewarded with some radical insight—a way to experience the extraordinary? As you can see, I had far too much time on my hands.
‘I heard you were defending my honour tonight Eric.’ Miriam was busy in the walk-in closet of our bedroom. She had the right side and I the left. This arrangement was decided by Miriam when we moved into the house, saying illogically, it was because I was left-handed. She removed her jacket revealing beneath her shiny, sleeveless dress.
‘Why do you think that?’ I said. I perched uncomfortably on the antique chair in our bedroom and watched her place a see-through bag over the jacket. It was an exquisite Da-Shan style garment made of silk she had purchased in Singapore.
‘That is not how Sylvia described your encounter with Mister Roberts,’ she said. ‘She said he left in a hurry, after having a conversation with you.
‘Sylvia?’ I said.
‘Yes Eric, Sylvia, the person for whom we held the retirement party. I told you,’ she said somewhat annoyed, ‘do you ever listen to anything I say?’ She had removed the dress and was reaching around for the clasp of her bra. ‘Here, make yourself useful. I assume you at least remember how to undo a bra, I’m utterly shattered. I’m expected to be on all week and then steer these interminable events to a conclusion. For me, these days the conclusion is the most satisfactory part?’
‘Couldn’t agree more—now what were you…ah Sylvia, yes, yes, Sylvia, Sylvia, Sylvia, momentarily slipped my mind—an astoundingly forgettable person, don’t you think?’ What was it Roberts had said…silly old twit!
‘I happen to like Sylvia, Eric.’
‘Well, she must have intuited whatever she told you, because she could not have possibly heard the conversation,’ I said. ‘Although I was tempted to give him a piece of my mind, I said nothing particularly upsetting. It was odd though—the way he disappeared like that.’
‘She said, you removed your jacket and Roberts quickly left the party.’
I clumsily fiddled about for a few seconds, eventually managing to unhook the bra, and it fell to the floor. She turned and faced me, a frown developing on her face. She absently pushed her thumb into the top her underpants and they also ended their journey on the floor. She stood naked, still looking at me as if she was trying to discern something she may have missed in the years we had been together. My left hand absently strayed towards her breasts, when she promptly leant over to retrieve her underwear and walked back towards the closet.
Miriam stands around one hundred sixty five centimetres in height. She has light brown hair cut in a page-boy style. Her face was fine featured with a few slight wrinkles gathering around a small mouth that was not quick to smile, below a longish, straight nose. She has the appearance of a serious person and I think she’s quite pretty, but then I would say that. At that moment, however, I couldn’t see any of her. Her disembodied voice echoed from within the closet.
‘I’m not sure I believe you. I know you see it as a bit of sport and Mister Roberts might be an arse, but I still have to work with the creep. I’m a big girl Eric,’ Miriam emerged from the closet in her pyjamas and entered the bathroom in which she did things involving lotions and the like. I was hard and very much wanted to have sex but suspected there was slim chance.
‘This Sylvia is mistaken. It was a warm evening, am I not permitted to remove my jacket?’ I doubted she heard me, as she closed the door of the bathroom and busied herself with her nightly preparations. I removed my clothes and leaving them on the chair, retrieved my own pyjamas from beneath my pillow. My erection stood straight out, tenting out of the bottoms. She once said she liked my penis’s directness, a determined no-nonsense appendage, which I took to be quite flattering; but then she added it had a tendency to brevity, once inserted. This was a characteristic of our relationship: approval often made flaccid by a following modifying remark. She told me once that Oliver’s erect member was entirely different, curving self-referentially up towards him and not at her. The direction of his dick, perfectly illustrated his personality, she said.
As I may have already indicated, I do rather miss her.
My little project revealed itself half-formed, a pale and insubstantial chrysalis awaiting nourishment. A vague notion of confronting Roberts again became attractive to me. I wanted him to know that the night of the party was not going to be our sole encounter. Half-baked plans were hatched and dispatched to oblivion. I already knew from Miriam that Roberts lived in Kalliot, one of the nearby coastal villages. It was easy to find his address and the SAT-NAV would do the rest—he was listed in the online White Pages as T. Roberts. Was it Timothy, Thomas or Talleyrand?
An opportunity presented itself when Miriam told me a week after the retiree’s party that she would be spending three days of the following week at a conference interstate. She was vexed by having to appoint Roberts as her temporary replacement.
‘Whatever you said to the man Eric, Roberts does seem changed in some way, albeit subtle,’ she stood packing her small suitcase which lay open on the bed. It was the morning of her departure for the conference and she was all efficiency, her Uber was about to arrive. I lolled on the bed watching her pack, my elbow propped on one of the many throw pillows infesting the house.
‘Really, he’s modified his behaviour towards you?’ I said.
She placed a zip-lock bag of two pairs of shoes within a gap she’d carefully created amongst her clothes, positioning her wet-pack on top of the shoes, completing each task with precision.
‘Well, I’d say his attitude has been replaced by a peevish sulk. Not sure which I prefer, to tell you the truth—his customary sabotage or the current brooding presence stalking the office.’
She closed the case, gave the room a cursory glance to see if she had forgotten anything and settled her gaze on me. She sat beside me on the bed, a smile formed on her lips and she placed a hand on mine, drawing me in towards her and surprising me by kissing me in an overtly sexual way, further surprising me by involving her tongue in the action. If that was in some way an affirmation of her approval, I was quite willing to accept it.
‘In any case, if I had more time Eric, I would fuck you to show you my appreciation,’ she said.
Mamre Road is a coastal conduit to the villages dotting the narrow slice of land below a continuous series of steep cliffs that looms over the Pacific all the way to the city. The road drops off the escarpment at Faraday Hill and down a series of switchbacks. You could continue all the way to the city on Mamre, although the bulk of traffic used the freeway snaking along the escarpment high above. I bypassed the trendy village of Faraday Beach lying at the foot of the hill. Kalliot could barely be called a village, just a cluster of houses occasioned by a break in an otherwise rocky and inhospitable landscape, not dissimilar to the other village along this stretch heading south. Kalliot warranted not even a corner shop or a police station; presumably, the inhabitants, back-tracked north to our town for their supplies or to Faraday Park where there was several snobbish shops offering ridiculously over-priced gourmet food items.
Kalliot consisted of two vaguely parallel streets ending at the beach and several other smaller roads radiating out from them. According to Google it had a population of 60, one of whom was Roberts. I had been to Kalliot several times before and, because there were less tourists, Miriam and I had gone swimming there on several weekends one hot summer. I had never visited the place at night and I certainly wasn’t in the habit of venturing out at 2 am in the morning, but tonight was an exception. I coasted my car down to a lay-by and parked 100 metres from the first of the two streets leading to the beach.
The village was deathly quiet. A faintly oily sea-mist formed on my exposed skin as I approached the road on which Roberts lived. Perhaps it was driven by the pacific winds and trapped within the deep trench of the headlands—a thin, corrosive layer on every surface, doubtless causing a perennial problem for car-owners. A crisp, silvery blue shone on the surface of this night world. I shivered and regretted having come without my jacket. It was early autumn and, along this stretch of coast, we only really had about two weeks of very cold weather, usually in late July. There was only the faint sound of the waves rolling onto the beach.
I knew Roberts’ road ended in a cul-de-sac and his house lay at the end before it doubled back to the main street. It was separated by a reserve and a track leading to the beach. The moonlight reflected off the dewy bitumen of the road. Ghost Gums lined up either side, their limbs reaching out either side. I felt, as I passed them, their presence as one of curiosity, of looking over my shoulder. My rubber soles made a barely audible sound on the verge of thick, damp grass. Not even a dog stirred at my approach. Several parked cars glinted in the moonlight, hunched down in the road, their windows slicked with lines of condensation.
Stepping along that dark road with the trees looming above and the moon blinking between the branches, I experienced a compulsion to laugh out loud. I felt elated, as a child who has receives a gift he had always coveted, his desire finally fulfilled. It did seem odd to be so happy at the thought of approaching a house uninvited in the dead of night, but my sense of exhilaration was overwhelming. I didn’t think of the consequences of my actions—operating on instinct and adrenalin.
When I reached the hedge marking the front boundary of Roberts’s house, I heard a sound in the grass nearby. It was probably a skink. I was familiar with the soft rustle they made in our garden, but I imagined a snake lurking around the boundary, winding its long body between the squat trunks of the hedge, alert to my intrusion but unable to sound an alarm. I tried to smile the way a snake might, creeping down the street, drawing my mouth back in a grimace, a slither of tongue emerging to taste the air. I was a little disappointed I wasn’t back in the car so I could confirm my fearsomeness in the rear-vision mirror. I made a sound instead, whispering the lyric from a half-forgotten T-Bone Burnett song as I passed through the long grass on the un-pathed verge. In the dark before the dawn/the echo of the sirens song/dies away like a ghost/as the day breaks/it’s not too late/it’s not too late/it’s not too late/it’s not too late.
Miriam said Roberts had changed but I suspected he hadn’t. I believe he was acting, perhaps waiting for the next part of the journey I had set us on. I felt strangely relaxed and satisfied as I stared down at him. I stood at the foot of his bed. He lay on his back in what appeared to be a deep sleep, the blanket pulled up to his chin, his fingers curled over the top as if ready to pull it swiftly up to cover his eyes. His long body was tucked in on the sides. He must have made the bed carefully in the mornings allowing just enough room for him to work his way in between the sheets at night and then smooth the blankets carefully over his supine form, until satisfied enough to fall asleep.
The impression of what I saw in the dim room was that of a child, having been read to and kissed on the forehead, followed by the swan-dive into comforting dreams. The only thing missing was a favourite soft toy. This made perfect sense to me—the sullen perversity of his nature, the querulous pleasure in unsettling his work colleagues. I’d heard from Miriam he was quite a decent classroom teacher, eliciting a qualified respect from his students he didn’t seem to require from his colleagues.
It only now astonished me to find myself here in his bedroom, to find my imagination made real. The dark of night distorts the familiar image of the world, so that even the most prosaic of neighbourhoods becomes alien. The fact is, I’d expected to be climbing back into my car, disappointed by encountering the house shut up tight. I had made my way around to the back of Roberts’s house and discovered to my amazement, the back door unlocked. There was a wide timber deck close to the ground, not requiring a step. A cantilevered awning hung out over the deck, although not all the way, presumably to allow part of the space to be exposed to the sun as it receded beyond the escarpment in the afternoon. A wicker daybed and a low table, separating two matching chairs, were arranged beneath the awning.
I left my shoes at the door and entered the house. Enough moonlight was available to take in most of the open plan living area and a hall, presumably leading to other rooms. Before discovering Roberts as I described, I sat for a while on one of his armchairs in the sombre atmosphere of the living area. A large skylight floated in the ceiling allowing the moon to illuminate the room. The armchair was very comfortable and faced a large TV that appeared to be incorporated into the wall.
I didn’t like the furniture Miriam insisted on buying; absurdly expensive, of early twentieth century vintage and most of it offering very little comfort. I insisted on a modern, more comfortable lounge chair for myself but it was nowhere near as comfy as Roberts’s. If the opportunity arrived, I would find out where he got it.
There was a rightness about the unfussy décor, the arrangement of the furniture. The only wall decoration in the living room was a single framed picture. In the moonlight, it appeared to consist of blobs in a vague green background. I rose from the chair and padded closer. It looked like an original painting, contained within a simple frame and on closer inspection unlike anything I had seen before. I didn’t have much knowledge of art but I knew I was looking at something of quality. The light of the moon leaked wanly into the house creating an eerie luminosity it may not have had in daylight. Nevertheless, the picture struck me as exceptional in a way that defied my understanding.
The picture was around one hundred centimetres high and seventy wide. It was in figurative style with clearly abstract elements, as if the artist wanted the figures of two men standing in a field of long, dull-green grass, to inhabit two styles at the same time. Behind the figures stood a low, poorly constructed stone wall and beside it a bare sketch of a tree, light blue in colour, and beyond that a dark blue lake with a black hump indicating the far shore of the water. An ultramarine night sky loomed over it all. Small white blobs studding the sky, presumably to represent stars, were reflected in the lake. A low white object, resembling a large piece of drift-wood, floated in the lake.
The two figures stood close together and dressed in the most bizarre costumes: the one on the left in black military livery and the other in an orange mayoral robe with a tall hat on his head. Their faces were painted green with the exposed hands skin-coloured. Their expressions were contrasting, although they both looked out of the two-dimensional picture plain at me, their solitary viewer. The military man’s attitude was that of someone who has been startled, his left hand reaching for his sword but the mayor’s expression, was strangely, that of bored complacency.
I had the distinct impression this painting had some fundamental meaning to Roberts. The presence of it was unexpected. I was clearly interested in insinuating my way into the secret crevices of Roberts’s life and in some way this particular possession of his made me more intent on proceeding. I returned to the chair to contemplate what I had seen so far. The painting returned to the shadows.
It occurred to me, more than anything else I had encountered so far, the painting condensed something of memory—its scope, and its consequences. Although it had never happened to me before this evening, perhaps a person can be exposed to a work of art that speaks to you like no other. It seemed to evoke a dimension of experience I’d been, so far, not privy to. I had seen a lot of art, I’d been to many galleries but we had no art to speak of in our house, which now seemed odd, why had we not at least one or two paintings? I determined to rectify this lack. Admittedly, the true meaning of my heightened attraction to the painting was affected by the feelings I was experiencing in this clandestine inspection of Roberts’ private life.
Eventually, I pulled myself out of the lounge chair and peered into a wide hall leading to other rooms. The hall ended in a window, with a view to the start of a beach track, well illuminated by the moon. A tall, plain sideboard sat beneath the window, a silver menorah glinting in the moonlight, placed on top. Was Roberts Jewish? A framed photograph hung on the wall adjacent to the window and sideboard. It was a head and shoulders shot of a younger Roberts taken in front of this same window. I noticed a vague reflection in the glass covering the picture.
Turning, I found another photo framed identically and placed in exactly the same position on the opposite wall. The subject was another man, in the same pose and wearing a similar open-necked shirt. It seemed to be a personal joke that only intimate companions would understand. The other man seemed familiar but I couldn’t place him. As I absently investigated the other rooms, I wondered who the other man was, why was he significant? He did seem in some way familiar but I couldn’t place him. He was perhaps ten years older than Roberts, plumper and somewhat self-assured.
Apart from these few flourishes, the house displayed a lack of personality, a closed-in minimalism. There was a guest room with a single bed, a low, oriental looking table and a Persian carpet lay on the wood floor. Another, smaller room consisted of a desk with an old, chunky looking laptop and a bentwood chair. An unadorned window faced east, looking into the reserve.
The unlocked back door was almost certainly an unplanned lapse in the process of Roberts’ existence. I was fascinated that at this moment the balance of this man’s life was suffering a unique contraction of time and space. Even now, I’m amazed by how I come to be in his house, on the withdrawn world he had so carefully engineered for himself.
As I stood there at the foot of his bed, barely breathing, I realised I was waiting for something, but what? After a few minutes he alarmed me by farting twice in quick succession, turning on his side and uttering a few words of unintelligible gibberish, before the room once again fled into silence. I doubt he had awoken, but I couldn’t be sure. It was a delicious thought that we had shared a few very intimate moments, even if it was entirely one-sided.
Miriam was due back late Saturday afternoon, so I had another full day and most of the next to do as I wished. After my nocturnal peregrinations I rose from a dreamless slumber around 11a.m. and busied myself with some errands in the town. I returned to find Steve, a man who came once a fortnight to do some gardening and mowing. I had forgotten he was due and was happy to see him. I enjoyed his company. He was an uncomplicated man, completely honest and unassuming—which is not to say he was without intelligence. He was meticulous; you could say he had honed his pruning skills into an art form. We had a high hedge of murrraya’s along our front boundary and down both sides of the property. At the back Steve had constructed a series of wide terraces and planters before the land dwindled down into a forest of tall gums ending at a fire-trail and eventually winding down to the railway line in the valley. Over the space of his three years in our employ, he had transformed the hedges from a straggly mess of tangled and diseased branches into an impenetrable barrier of glorious green. He had even managed to coax out a myriad of tiny white flowers which festooned the foliage like stars in a green sky.
As had become our habit, after he had completed his work, Steve and I sat on the back verandah with some chilled wine and a sandwich — today it was Pinot Gris and the sandwich consisted of sopressa salami, sliced vine tomatoes and cucumber. I placed on the table pickled onions, some olives and pfefferroni in a bowl. It was a pleasure to sit in the midday shade and embrace the smell of cut grass drifting in from the garden and eat a late lunch. wrens had appeared from beyond the hedge and picked at the lawn, feeding on the tiny insects revealed by the mower.
We have a pet dog we call Calisto, which sounds pretentious and probably is, but when we got her as a pup she reminded me of a small bear-cub. She is a kelpie, the colour of dark gold and although alert to the Wrens, sits happily at my feet. Steve is a natural story-teller and on this day he tells me of an event that had occurred years before.
One day he was digging in a garden, when he unearthed a funnel-web spider. The creature stood at the bottom of the hole rearing up and brandishing its fangs at him. Notwithstanding the vast difference of proportion between him and the spider, he was at that moment terrified witless and instead of killing it with the spade backed away from the hole in a cold sweat.
‘It was a panic attack, although I didn’t know it at the time,’ he said. ‘That night, my wife woke me alarmed by loud cries and my thrashing about in our bed, even my six year old came running into our room frightened. I’d had a nightmare about being menaced by a giant spider.’ Steve seemed fearful, about even relating the story to me.
‘Sometimes dreams can seem very real,’ I said for want of something to say.
‘It was very bloody real to me mate, and it took a while for me to be reassured by both my wife and daughter,’ he said. ‘I had left the yard immediately without letting the man know and I couldn’t go back to finish the work. Sounds crazy doesn’t it,’ he looked at me, presumably with the hope I would contradict him.
‘What happened then?’ I asked. ‘You obviously recovered, because here you are. Have you been confronted by funnel-webs since? Also, were there repercussions in regard to your not returning to complete your work? ’
‘Yeah, sure, once or twice I came across the bloody beasts and I killed them without hesitation. The anti-venom people say you have to capture them to save lives but I’m not about to get anywhere near the buggers. Anyway I couldn’t figure out what to do about my client, he was an influential man and could have caused me problems. I couldn’t immediately think about what to do but I figured I’d just say I had an extended family emergency and rang the man’s house. I was nervous when his wife answered the phone. She sounded as if she were crying and before I could deliver my excuse, she told me her husband had died unexpectedly during the night. She said it was thought he had been bitten on the foot by something in the garden.’
‘Goodness, how do you feel about that,’ I said.
‘Like a murderer. Post-mortem proved it was funnel-web spider bite killed him.’
‘But Steve, you didn’t kill him. It was an accident.’
‘Yeah I know, but still.’
As I have indicated, my plans for Roberts developed in a largely aimless, almost somnolent way, almost as if I was idly dreaming it all up. I enjoyed the fact that each new expansion of the central desire—to in some way make him feel comprehensively ill at ease—was my only vague intention and I wasn’t even sure of that. I hadn’t come up with an adequate enough reason to make an enemy of him. There was Miriam’s ire, of course, but for me her tales of the man’s misdeeds were a source of prurient delight.
After I waved Steve off at our gate, I held my car door open and with my customary command—a slap of my thigh—Calisto jumped onto the back seat. It was mid-afternoon; the sunlight was beginning its slow descent beyond the escarpment as I made my way down Faraday Hill. The vegetation on either side of Mamre Road was now in that state of sleepy shadow, leaf and limb seeming to bend in towards the road as I pass. The forest was preparing itself for the long night ahead, taking on a darkened hue so that even the white trunks of the gums turn grey.
The first seaside town off of Faraday Park was the largest of the three along this stretch. It was a quiet place of few houses when we first moved to the area but was graced with superb kilometre-long beach. In a mere twenty years, it had become a mecca for tree-changers, with the property prices soaring accordingly. Houses here were large and ostentatious, built precariously and close together on the slopes leading down to the beach, each vying for a glimpse of the ocean. Sometimes Miriam and I went there to swim and have lunch at the restaurant on the edge of the rambling parklands adjacent to the beach. The cashed up hoi polloi from the city have turned a beautiful place into a fancy suburb featuring artisan bread, over-priced coffee and hotly contested parking.
Several years before we were browsing in a little shop on the main road to Faraday Beach, nestled between a single origin coffee bar and a gourmet deli. The shop specialised in supposedly exclusive oriental furnishings. We purchased a bridal wall hanging from Kazakhstan for a snip, according to Miriam, at nine hundred dollars. We were told by a bearded man in colourful suspenders, the Kazakhstani mothers started the painstaking embroidery of this artefact for their daughter’s wedding day, when the girls were still children. I tried to avoid it, but every time my eyes drifted to this heirloom hanging above our over-stuffed antique sofa, I saw not an example of folk-art from a far off country, but the tears of the daughter left deprived on her wedding day. I happily by-passed Faraday Park today, for the less aspirational little pocket of Kalliot.
By the time I reached the turnoff to the beach, I had decided on a vague and necessarily incomplete plan. I decided to simply park on Roberts’ street, walk up to the door and knock. It was audacious and direct, though I had no idea what I was going to say when he opened the door. I felt exhilarated. A surge of adrenaline left me more than a little excited.
I knew from Miriam that, come three o’clock on Friday the teacher’s carpark was in an intense state of activity. Everybody wanted to get home after the rigorous week of teaching and learning. The copy machine might be loaded with fresh test papers for handing out but could it wait till Monday? On the streets surrounding the school, P-Plater’s would be revving up or idling to do some last some last-minute facebooking or text monitoring. It takes Miriam no more than thirty minutes to drive home from the college in the city, fewer if she takes the freeway. She said she preferred to take the scenic route of Mamre Road occasionally and perhaps Roberts did too. Whatever the case, I assumed he was well and truly at home by now.
The gums looming over the cul-de-sac seemed less inquisitive and more sparsely limbed than I remember them. I hadn’t noticed the previous night, the concrete curb and gutters look relatively new with yellow numbers stamped on the upturn of the curb to indicate the lot numbers, seeming quaint to me and I assumed this must be a recent innovation, as we certainly had no such embellishments up on the escarpment. I had this sense that Kalliot will one day become another densely populated enclave for the wealthy. A car, low and sporty and the colour was what is known as racing green. I assumed it was Roberts as it was parked adjacent to the entrance and as I passed I touched the bonnet, noting warmth beneath. I wondered why he didn’t park it on his property—there was a paved driveway beside the house
for this purpose. The hedge was shorter than I remember and could do with the benefit of Steve’s expertise. If the opportunity arose, I would pass this on to Roberts.
I stood on a brown coconut-fibre mat and knocked a little too loudly on a door, consisting of a cedar framed, opaque white glass. Calisto sniffed in the garden and disappeared around the side of the house, no doubt looking for a place meeting with his approval to relieve himself. The house on first impression was of the low, cool and subdued variety, designed with a resolve to be both stylish and discrete.
The roof consisted of two steel low-pitched rakes, presumably determined by the interior arrangement of space. The entire exterior cladding of the house was corrugated iron laid horizontally, the natural zinc alloy left to a dull, weathered patina. The eaves, the closed brick foundations and the simple cantilevered entrance portico, were painted mid-grey. The window frames appeared to be made of thick, commercial grade aluminium, also in a matt powder-grey. The overall effect was one of understated elegance.
No one came to the door after a second louder knock and I followed Calisto’s example around the side of the building, via the driveway, to the back door—my point of ingress the night before. As I stepped onto the deck I noticed a folded beach towel on a coffee table and one of the chairs had been turned towards the view of the escarpment. I glanced down to the back of the yard to see Calisto sniffing around at a lattice fence. Flowering vines climbed sparsely over the fence and in the foreground a variety of native shrubs grew stunted on the sandy lawn. The only sign of life was a honeyeater alighting on a late blooming Grevillea. The grass was a tad overgrown and the shrubs and vines planted on the property showed signs of neglect.
I knocked again, and then tried the latch but it was firmly locked this time. The wall of glass and wide, sliding doorway reflected the mass of trees rising up the escarpment at the rear of the property. Cupping my hands, I peered into the house. There was no sign of anyone and the interior was very bright, illuminated by the skylight in the ceiling. It all looked just as I remember but I noticed a set of keys, a mobile phone and an empty glass on the otherwise unoccupied marble kitchen bench. It was one of those benches doubling as a servery with two stools below—one had been pulled out. It occurred to me if Roberts had gone out and left his keys, there must be another point of entry to the house.
I was a little deflated by Roberts’s seeming absence but it appeared he had not gone far, otherwise why would he leave his keys and phone? I was reminded of the extraordinary painting in the hall and sure enough I glimpsed the edge of the frame and a few inches of the green and blue comprising its dominant palette, and experienced a strong desire to look at it again. Finally stepping away from the door, I considered sitting on the daybed to wait but decided against it.
There was a neighbouring house on the western side but no sign of life there either—its windows concealed behind tightly closed shutters. A few cobwebs here and there indicated it may have been a long neglected holiday house. On my right the track to the beach I’d seen earlier, disappeared into the densely wooded forest. I decided to follow it and slapping my thigh for Calisto, we merged with the narrow track. At first it was sandy underfoot; there were patches of coastal grasses, low shrubs and ferns as well as tall spindly paperbark gums and Angophora’s interspersed with palm trees, climbed the slopes to the north. I could hear sound of the ocean distinctly.
After a few minutes the gums and climbing vines were replaced by shorter shrubs. Rangy, twisted banksia and the ubiquitous wind-blown tea-trees gave way to pockets of succulents. I neared the ridge topped with fine white sand and as I climbed the slope of a low dune the sparse vegetation disappeared to reveal the beach. It was really a lagoon enclosed by twin headlands north and south, small and intimate. On this day a lone surfer drifted, hunched over on the break, a hundred metres out to sea. A swell formed some way ahead of him and he vigorously began to paddle towards it. Directly in front of me, a woman on an afternoon stroll, also with a dog, stopped to look out towards the surfer as he stood to ride the wave, elegantly curving into its roll towards the shore. The woman resumed her walk towards the beach’s craggy northern headland. Several houses poked up above the rocky terrain, their glazed faces turned to the great expanse of the sea and a thin line of cloud on the horizon. The sun was well into its decline in the west and from this vantage point, all but concealed by the escarpment. A pink haze gathered above the cliffs as I descended the dune to the beach.
With utter joy, Calisto bounded towards her fellow canine and the strolling woman. As though on some telepathic mission, the dogs raced together towards the waves and dived into the shallows, springing in and out of the low breakers, barking with delight. I could only stand by and gawk at their uninhibited exhilaration. I heard the woman call out to her pet, her voice immediately consumed by the blustery wind, the low hiss of sand across our ankles and the artless convergence of waves dying on the shore.
The woman glanced at me from beneath a wide hat secured by a chin-strap, barely containing fronds of wiry hair. Although I didn’t have a clear impression of her, she appeared to be in her late middle-ages and there was something else, something about her manner making me think I had seen her before. I smiled with a shrug—let them play. As she briefly held my gaze her face contracted, as if she had just chewed on something bitter. She looked away—out towards the surfer who had disembarked from his board and was wading towards the shore—and then back at me. She nodded at me without smiling; perhaps she was irritated, wanting to say call your dog but was too reserved.
She continued walking away and then let fly a surprising shrill whistle overriding the ambient sounds of the beach. At first her pet, a corgi, ignored the command but then suddenly broke from his companionable play with Calisto, stopping momentarily to sniff and piss on a cluster of dry seaweed and then launched itself up the beach to join its mistress. Calisto seemed confused, disoriented by the departure of her new friend and looked to me for an explanation, but all I could offer was my customary slap on the thigh. She leapt up the slope of ocean-darkened sand towards me.
My peripheral vision caught a glistening movement not twenty metres to my left and I turned to see the surfer emerge holding his board under his arm, making slow progress to the beach. When finally free of the waves he leaned over and released the strap from his ankle, again hefting the board under his arm. His feet submerged deep into the wet sand and when he was upright again, Roberts and I found ourselves looking at each other.
I was disconcerted, suddenly aware of the sand shifting intricately beneath my sandals. He stood taller than I remembered him. His upper torso was lithe but muscled under his wet-suit, his face fringed by dripping hair, longer than I remember it and slickly parted in the middle, falling neatly over each brow. Without the opaque distraction of the suit he wore to the party, I now realised he was exceptionally handsome. Miriam had informed me, that he was single and I wondered why.
Calisto was busy rolling in the sun-dried seaweed his corgi friend, had so recently visited. I was caught in an odd dilemma as I switched my attention between Calisto and Roberts. I wondered if this was an elemental form of love, a desire beyond imagining. I was assailed by an almost visceral sensation of imminent folly, and yet I was entirely willing to be enveloped within its grasp.
As with everything thus far in this strange game I had created for myself, the unexpected had occurred and the flow of events remained a thing of continuous alteration. Some guru said, one opportunity dies so that another can be born but then I felt I was operating untutored by a concrete plan, wilfully free of stratagem. In other words, I had become but a bystander, watching without intervention. Standing on the sand of Kalliot beach, with the grey-pink light of the receding sun as our backdrop and exchanging that simple look of recognition, I should have asked myself—was it worth pursuing at all or indeed, what on earth was this thing?
When he saw me on the beach, Roberts’s reaction was surprisingly mild whereas mine was one of astonishment. Though there was no problem of logic, I just didn’t expect to see him transformed into a surfer. We held each other’s attention for at least a minute. He was Poseidon emerged slick from the ocean, grasping his trident, or in this case, his surfboard. My part in this epic—an unconvincing Odysseus—fell rather short of the mark. In other words Roberts recognised a less than mythic, superannuated mortal in orthopaedic sandals out for a (not so innocent) walk with his dog.
He lowered his head momentarily, his wet hair dripping over and partially concealing his face. I had the distinct impression he had sighed. Even so, there was a readiness about him—a rigid bracing for some calamity it was his lot in life to bear—somewhat reminiscent of our first meeting at the party. Perhaps it was a recurring motif of his life?
Without a word, he broke from my gaze and began to trudge up the dune to the track from which I’d recently walked. Calisto and I followed. We kept a distance of perhaps fifty metres as we weaved our way, once again, through the forest of paperbarks. I had a sure sense he knew we were following but he didn’t turn, keeping his eyes firmly on the trail ahead. By the time Calisto and I had arrived at the clearing beside his house he had disappeared from sight. As I approached, I heard the sound of water and then I saw Roberts under an outdoor shower on a concrete platform beside the deck.
He was peeling off his wet-suit. Stripping to swimming briefs he began vigorously washing off the seawater and sand from his legs and feet. He hung the suit on a hook beside the shower and rinsed the board under the flow of water before propping it against the wall. He then removed his briefs and let the shower stream over his body parting the cheeks of his buttocks to allow the water to sluice between. It was a confronting scene. He must have known I was observing him only a short distance away, although he made no indication of such, nor did he seem to care. In any case, I had looked away discomforted by the whole business and watched Calisto sniffing with great concentration near one of the fence posts.
‘Wallabies,’ Roberts said, speaking for the first time. I turned back to see he was between the back door and the outdoor table and chairs. He was facing me, seemingly oblivious to his nakedness. I cast my eyes away once again; embarrassed and annoyed that he found it appropriate to be so familiar. He casually reached for the towel and wrapped it around his waist.
‘Pardon,’ I said.
He placed his hand beneath the table top, withdrew a key and opened the door to the house. ‘Wallabies seem to like shitting near the back fence. Your dog’s caught the scent.’
‘Oh… I see,’ I felt foolish, as though something more robust might be expected from me. He’d easily put me off-guard, almost a sleight of hand. I remembered something I’d read but couldn’t place its origin—when he is in disorder, crush him.
‘They’re a fucking nuisance—need to be culled.’
His behaviour seemed to be at odds with the memory I had of him at the party. He chose that moment to lean against the door-frame, the same blithe insolence he displayed on that occasion, only this time he was looking straight at me. After a moment of unblinking observation, he seemed to make a decision and entered the house, returning shortly with two bottles of beer. He placed one on the table and twisted the top off the other, taking a swig. He sat down on the daybed, not bothering to adjust the towel to conceal his genitals. He took another swallow before gesturing towards the other bottle. I do have a fondness for wine, beer doesn’t do a lot for me and it wasn’t much of a persuader to join him so intimately on the deck.
What has become clear to me was that I was the fall-guy for my own jape. For some reason, I had expected the judge would take all of that under consideration and if he had, I would have been grateful. Certainly my lawyer failed to see my logic. He said it would be unwise to antagonise the judge and jury with an obscure argument relating to natural justice.
There is nothing natural about any of this, Eric. I have done absolutely everything in my power to find evidence to contradict the prosecution. I have presented extenuating circumstances, the current condition of your dear wife, not being the least of it. I have interjected, objected and rejected until I’m blue in the face. I am here to be instructed by you but I have to tell you, my dear fellow, it’s not going to end well unless something turns up very bloody lively. I can’t see that happening, can you? The evidence presented by the prosecution has overwhelmed us, so now we must gird our loins.
As you can see, he was almost as annoying as me. It could be said I had precisely the advocate I deserved. In any case, I was under the impression that the application of jurisprudence was open to interpretation. I might have been found guilty of murder but was I not a victim too? I was sleep deprived that night, to the point of delirium. What was I to do, I ask? In the hands of the law, intractable when it came to the subtleties of human frailty, I was merely a lamb awaiting due process. As I have said before, or maybe I’ve haven’t, but I can’t be fucked going back to check. Anyway, what I was going to say is that there are so many things that happen in our human interactions and we can’t be entirely responsible for all of them—surely. My rather expensive lawyer proceeded to assist the jury to convict me regardless.
‘Just-fucking-sit-down. You’re so exhausting,’ Roberts said, in a flat monotone.
I sat on the arm-chair furthest from the daybed and without a line of sight of his crotch. ‘Do you want me to open it as well?’ he pointed to the beer. I reached over, twisted off the top and sipped. I hadn’t had beer for a long time; I’d forgotten how bitter it was. Perhaps this turn of events had made it seem more so.
‘He seems to like the smell of wallaby shit,’ Roberts said with an intonation of distaste. He didn’t have much affection for animals, that much was clear. He pointed with his beer towards Calisto still pacing up and down the back fence, took a long swig and placed it on the table empty.
‘Her name’s Calisto, it’s a she,’ I said. He shrugged and looked me over in the casual way a twitcher might, sighting a mildly interesting bird.
‘I wonder why it is we persist in referring automatically to animals as masculine?’ he said.
‘We live in a patriarchal society, But, perhaps that’s not so evident, being a teacher,’ I replied.
‘It most certainly is. When it comes to teenage boys, the suffragette movement may as well be an amusing fiction. Though to be fair, the blue stocking brigade always struck me as a bunch of stitched up maiden aunts and nutcases.’
‘Well, I don’t know about th…’
‘Babies, we tend to refer to small baby’s in the masculine. It’s hard to tell sometimes but we invariably do it, don’t we?’
‘Well, as I said…’
‘Yeah, I heard you,’ he stood up. ‘I have some white wine in the fridge, you obviously don’t think much of beer.’
‘Oh, well yes, that would be nice. As long as it’s not Riesling, I said. What on earth was going on with me? My idiocy knew no bounds.
‘Lovely,’ I said. He maintained his default behavioural pattern of passive-aggression, unfriendly, yet courteous. I stood up and followed him into the house. He opened the fridge and turned back, holding a bottle of wine, but then stopped when he saw I had come in. I thought he wanted to say something but, changing his mind, pulled a wine glass from a cabinet, poured and handed it to me.
‘I think it’s okay, but you might be a better judge,’ Roberts said. He watched me as I took a sip after quickly sloshing it around a little to test the nose.
‘Not bad,’ I said, although it was pretty ordinary; only the most tenuous association with oak and a rather nasty, flat finish. I took a furtive glance at the label and failed to recognise it. I attempted a smile, which wasn’t reciprocated. He uncapped another beer and took a long draught. For some reason I experienced a pang of envy. Perhaps it was the ease with which he was taking this interruption to his routine. I looked around the room careful not to show any familiarity with the topography. My gaze fell on the strange painting on the opposite wall. Calisto bounded onto the deck and started sniffing around near the doorway. She knew better than to come in uninvited.
‘I don’t like animals in the house.’ He tensed a little, his expression charged with latent contempt.
‘Sit Calisto,’ I said. She completed a couple of rotations and took one last brief sniff for good measure before settling herself in front of the open doorway.
‘I’m going to put some clothes on,’ Roberts said and then waited briefly, perhaps hoping I might leave. He shrugged and vacated the living area, turning into the hall to his bedroom. I heard the door closing and I imagined him in the neat bedroom I had so recently visited myself. I remembered there was a mirrored built-in wardrobe—was he facing it, perhaps whispering something to his naked reflection, touching himself. Why was he so complacent about leaving a virtual stranger alone in his living room? He seemed to have some measure of me that even I was unfamiliar with.
Calisto whimpered, looking at me rather soulfully; her tail started thumping on the decking.
‘I agree Calisto, not very friendly, is he.’ She responded by banging her tail even more vigorously, an entirely appropriate response, I thought. I looked in several cupboards before finding a plastic bowl, filling it with water and placing it in front of her. I looked up to see the escarpment now in full shadow. Evening was approaching. I turned back to the interior and noticed several aspects of the living area I had not previously noticed.
On the wall where you might find the light switch, was a panel of buttons beside a sleekly designed remote control clipped to its cradle. I’d seen this sort of device before but only in photos and had a closer look. A series of red and green led lights glowed above buttons which were labelled simply for their function—Stereo/Radio, Lights (several of these), U.F.Heating (under-floor), Alarm (If I had tried to enter a locked house the previous night, I would have set it off), Aircon, Blinds, TV and a few others I didn’t understand from their acronyms.
I looked around with renewed interest and noted the various items that were controlled by the console. The stereo/radio was so discrete it was little wonder I hadn’t noticed it before—it was incorporated into the wall as was the TV. The TV was obvious because it was black but other than that it also looked like it was part of the wall. God only knew where the speakers of the stereo were—was sound piped from the floor like the heat? But then I spied them, they were the same pale colour as the walls and again set within them.
I spied a book on the arm of the chair I had sat in the night before. The presence or lack of books is something I have always noticed when in an unfamiliar house. The contents of bookcases can be quite intriguing, indeed revealing, but I saw no evidence of them in Roberts’s house the night before. He was a teacher of history, so the inevitability of books was obvious. I don’t entirely know why I thought this, but it made sense to me he would not have his collection on display, not for the eyes of inquisitive visitors, or even his own. One thing I could be certain of, it would not include anything in regard to the care of domesticated animals.
A long blond-coloured, Scandinavian style sideboard, which I’d not previously noticed, almost merged with one wall of the room. I assumed whatever books he kept might be sequestered there. I picked up the book on the lounge chair. It was ‘The Art of War’ Sun Tsu.
To discover the source of the quote which appeared in my mind only minutes before was, to say the least, unnerving. I had a copy, which I had purchased many years before on some whim and occasionally glanced at, but failed to grasp it’s meaning other than it’s intended one—that of a simple manual, written by an astute general, on making war with one’s enemies. Still, its unadorned pronouncements sometimes stuck in the mind.
Opening to page one I read the first familiar lines, and then walked over to the sideboard, to find the doors locked and keyless. Four drawers drew a narrow line along its width above the doors. I was about to open one when I noticed a small, folded piece of paper, seemingly discarded on the top of the sideboard. I pushed its fold back to reveal a 7 Eleven receipt for a bottle of engine oil, a pair of rubber gloves and a packet of Chux wipes.
The receipt was clearly of no interest but for some reason I pocketed it. On reflection, I think it was pure mischief—I wanted something of his but I couldn’t come at anything more substantial. Its later significance was as distant as the moon. I was about to open the nearest drawer when I heard a movement in the hall.
Abandoning my amateur sleuthing, I quickly replaced the book and walked straight up to the painting. It was even more mesmerising in daylight. The colours stronger; the mayor’s cloak brighter and contrasting with the impenetrable black of the officer’s uniform. Roberts’ on the night of the party came to mind and I considered it perfectly reasonable that, in choosing his suit, he’d been influenced by the picture. The sparkling white blobs reflecting the night sky on the lake looked alien now, as if appearing unaccountably in the night sky. I could see the object on the water was a boat, perhaps a canoe, and within it a vague rendition of a hunched lone figure. The starry night sky had washed it of colour—white like Roberts’s surfboard.
‘It’s a Doig.’
‘Jesus—you scared me,’ I said. Roberts was standing behind me, just a little to the rear. It was the nearest, physically, we had been. Even at the party, we were about a metre apart, but now he was close. In the sombre light of the approaching evening, his tan looked even deeper, less youthful. His hair was combed back and still slick from the shower. He was dressed in light tan chinos and a white silk shirt, his feet were bare. His attention was focused on the painting; our close proximity not seeming to bother him. Despite the shower he had outside, I could still smell the sea on him.
‘Peter Doig, have you heard of him?
‘No. Hang-on, yes, wasn’t one of his paintings sold for a phenomenal amount at auction?’
‘“The White Canoe”, over eleven million pounds,’ he graced me with a casual, vaguely offensive expression, almost a leer. ‘You know your art then.’
‘No, I just remember the news report—I tend to remember lots of things, a lot of it of no practical use to me.’ I turned my attention back to the painting.
‘Have you given any thought to what might happen next?’ he said.
‘You know, that’s a good question. It’s a fascinating picture. Indeed, what are they going to do? Will the soldier draw his sword? Has he been assigned to protect the dignitary beside him or is the dignitary there to supplement his military authority? He looks high-ranking; who or what are they looking at? Is it us, or something else? What are they doing beside a lake in a field of long grass at night? The soldier looks alarmed, on the alert, but the other fellow has a rather sarcastic, self-satisfied expression don’t you think? Furthermore, what is the significance of the figure slumped over in the canoe on the lake?
‘I’ve spent a long time in front of this painting and have asked much the same questions. You misunderstand me though.’
He put his hand on my shoulder with a tad more pressure than necessary. It wasn’t companionable, more authoritarian. I reached up to remove his hand but he let it slide off, a relief as I didn’t particularly want to touch him. I also stepped sideways, which meant we now stood side by side in much the same posture as the two gentlemen in the painting. I noticed the soldier stood slightly back from the mayor, ready for whatever may come. We looked at them as they looked at us while the room, being slowly drained of its light as the sun receded, had been dropped into a silent well, the ghost of the skylight hovering above us. Even breathing had become an alien thing here; our suspended exhalations were weak and shallow. Again I noted the insolence of the mayor, counter-balancing the dangerous grimace of the soldier, their green faces seemed almost as if they had grown out of the long grass lurking at their knees.
‘You seem very different Mister Roberts—from the person I met at the party I mean,’ I said. I addressed my remarks to the soldier in the painting. I felt an urgent desire to be an active participant in whatever it was we were doing.
‘You haven’t answered my question, what are you going to do now that you’re here.’ he said. I turned to see that he was also addressing the painting.
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘You know what?’ he said, his attention still on the painting. ‘Whatever it is you finally decide to do, it will never be enough.’
Later in the car, as I slowly trailed behind a coal truck up Faraday Hill, those first few words of Sun Tzu mingled with my thoughts of the strange encounter with Roberts.
The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.
Now, of course it would have been better not to have ever met Roberts. I almost certainly would not be languishing in jail with no prospect of release. Something else was at play, as if it was too painful to be separated from him, or was it from the eponymous it Miriam had recently referred to? Something that was not necessarily the man himself, almost as if wherever he was a vacancy existed, dead air space—a place to hide. This struck me very potent and inherently dangerous. There was something about him of course, his duplicitous personality. His house was part of a unique reality, his possessions orbiting around him like talisman, each one significant and enduring. Experiencing this unwelcoming, yet oddly fluid atmosphere, made Roberts appear to be something other than human. At that moment, I had become confined and inflexible, trapped within the two dimensional picture plane, in concert with the painting, whereas he swirled and shuddered like a phantom, free to move in all directions.
I left Roberts’s side that afternoon with him still facing the painting. I walked out onto the deck, with Calisto bounding down the footpath toward the car and was home in less than 15 minutes. For the rest of the evening I continued to obsess about him and his possessions. Also, I was more than a little curious about the identity of the man in the photo. Who was he?—clearly a significant other, but to what degree? There was no family resemblance at all, so I discounted the possibility of him being Roberts’s brother. The pose and expressions on their faces seemed to indicate an intimacy incompatible with familial relations.
I rarely dream, or should I say, like many people, I have no memory of them, but that night I had a vivid nightmare. The sound of my own frightened voice woke me. Calisto barked from his old sleeping bag in the laundry. In the dream I was out walking. It was very dark and the street was entirely foreign to me, perhaps some old part of Europe. I turned a corner and encountered a set of steps I had to take to arrive at a destination that was not clear to me. Out of the gloom a ghostly looking man appeared dressed in a bizarre uniform,an over-sized suit really, from which a magician might pull a bunch of flowers. His long black jacket had a military style insignia sewn into it but I couldn’t properly see what it represented. The clothes looked ill-fitting, with a crumpled hat casting a shadow across the apparition’s face. Initially he towered over me on a higher step, and as I attempted to walk up past him he blocked my path. He lifted his head to reveal Roberts’s handsome face disfigured by a cruel, sneering expression. His hand gripped the hilt of a dagger thrust into a thick leather belt at his midriff.
I rose from the bed and let Calisto out of the laundry. He immediately started sniffing about the house. I had a dim hope he might be looking for my assumed assailant but ‘guard-dog’ could not be counted among his attributes. I poured myself a glass of water and walked out into the back garden, followed by Calisto, who went off to find a shrub to pee on. As the perspiration started to cool on my forehead, I realised it must have been around three in the morning and apart from the soft snuffling of Calisto, the neighbourhood harboured a lonely silence. There was no longer any trace of thin cloud that had gathered during the previous afternoon, the sky was left full of stars, but it was cold and I drew my dressing gown close. I couldn’t put a name to my disquiet at the sight of a dark sky pricked by the millions upon millions of tiny lights. I can tell you what Pynchon revealed to me a year later, locked up tight in my cell, because I marked the spot in Gravity’s Rainbow.
“What are the stars but points in the body of God where we insert the healing needles of our terror and longing?”
A long time ago my mother killed herself, but it looked like an accident. Coroners think that suicide is a death without suspicion. I think it’s entirely suspicious—suspicious is virtually all it is. Camus wrote—There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. It is a conundrum filled with questions and the only people who can truly provide proof of its validity are dead and wilfully so. I was nearly sixteen when I lost my mother. One day after school, she appeared in my room in tears, telling me she was leaving me and my father. I remember clearly her sitting on my bed and taking my hands in hers.
‘Eric, people don’t change much really, but unfortunately my darling, times do.’ ‘Your father and I…well, I need to get away, get some distance.’
I didn’t realise until later, she had been in the process of leaving for some time. I had thought I’d sensed that something was going on. Subliminally aware of an unravelling, I tuned into the sharp murmurs, punctuated by the bang of a plate or the fall of a bottle. There were the remorseful looks, whenever I entered a space where the sour gloom of disharmony lingered. To my young mind, my mother and father’s unhappiness clung to everything, seeming to carry a certain smell after a while. They attempted to fend off my questions and I recoiled from my own interpretation regarding the state of things. I survived this with a desperate hope their pain would recede and appeasement would eventually intervene.
Several times during my childhood my mother said inappropriate things to me. Once we were sitting on the balcony of our flat and we heard the front door open and close quietly. It was my father leaving on some errand. He did this, mostly returning with nothing to show for his absence, sometimes having been gone for hours.
‘Oh Christ, I wish he just wouldn’t come back,’ Sheila said. It feels better, at this stage in my life, to refer to my parents by their names, somehow more respectful. Anyway, my eleven year old self sat there on the balcony divan next to my mother and those words froze me to the spot. I loved my father. He was extremely quiet but he also did no harm. He never laid a hand on me in anger. His touch was rare but also comforting, often merely a hand to the back of my head or shoulder. Once, after an asthma attack, he carried me all the way home from the hospital—on the bus and all the way along the street to our apartment block.
My mother on the other hand was affectionate, but too much, as if to compensate for some lack in herself, rather a genuine attempt at comfort. There was a certain variety of selfishness about her endearments. ‘Come here,’ she said on that Saturday afternoon. I moved close to her on the divan and she enfolded me in her arms. I hoped she wouldn’t say anything else about Don, my father. ‘We should dance,’ she said, getting up and holding out her hands, smiling too widely.
‘No mum, I don’t want to.’
‘Oh come on, you poop, I’ll put the radio on. We can close our eyes and pretend we are in the ballroom of a royal palace. You can be my dashing prince.’
She looked at me, putting her hands on her hips. I always remember her being vivacious but also nervy and quixotic. Her mood darkened, looking at me with great intensity.
‘Don’t be like him, Eric.’
‘I’m me,’ I said. ‘I don’t want you to say that about Dad.’
‘Who else am I going to tell—there is no-one else? You think I should tell the judge? She worked as a court stenographer. I would ask her sometimes about the cases she recorded but she said she had no recollection of any of them, and even if she did she was not permitted by law, to discuss them.
‘I don’t know. I don’t want you to say things like this…I…’
‘What? You want everything to be rosy, just utterly lovely all the time. Sweetness and light, that’s what you want, isn’t it?
‘No. I don’t know—I want you to stop.’ I think I might have been close to tears. She looked at me in that way she had, her head cocked to one side, her eyes boring hole in me.
‘You’re so beautiful, so very, very beautiful,’ she said it with a deep and terrible unhappiness. I thought only girls could be described thus, but later I realised all children were beautiful and they were so because they had to be loved to survive.
When the day came for her to go, she stood at our apartment door gripping a suitcase and an armful of clothes on hangers. Don and I stood as witnesses to a form of disarray I had never before witnessed. Her physical beauty, always a source of pride, seemed to have evaporated. Before us was an unhappy middle-aged woman with uncombed hair, her skin blotchy and dressed in rumpled clothing. She dropped her luggage at the door and hugged me. I was tall and remember bending. Despite my disappointment in her, I couldn’t help but fold into her tight embrace.
She kissed me wetly on the cheek and took a long look at both me and her husband. We stood there like two incompetent workmen—the foreman, having shown us what we had to do and uncertain as to our abilities, was now leaving us to get on with it.
‘Sheila please don’t…,’ Don said, his final appeal all but devoid of hope. I didn’t know it would be the last time I’d lay eyes on her.
I realised later that leaving me to the custody of my father was a calculated move. I was to be the guard at the little window of his loneliness, a clever device. I was determined not to cry. My mother had a certain way of looking at me and she employed it while saying good-bye that final time. It was a searching expression, trying, as was I, to figure out what sort of man I was to be. Once she said she was disappointed I rarely smiled, even as a baby. This seemed to concern her to an unnecessary degree in my opinion, as if it was a failing on her part that she hadn’t made me happy.
The thing is, I wasn’t unhappy—I simply didn’t smile much. Still don’t. My wife Miriam—one of the few who was not disconcerted by it—accepted the thin smudge on my lips as a smile. She never said, as my first wife did more than once: Eric, I never know what you’re thinking with that expression, as if it was imperative the contents of my mind should be on display at all times. We humans so irritate each other at times, it seems puzzling, why we chose to cohabit at all. I have often wondered if there were people who had entirely self-contained and indivisible lives and if it was possible to become such a person.
On the day I watched my mother disappear into the lift I followed my father inside. He entered the kitchen and pulled his first bottle of wine from the cupboard. Before he opened it, he bowed his head and I watched his trembling shoulders. It seemed necessary to delay the privations of my own misery. My father was a gentle but largely ineffectual man and much later it occurred to me he may have failed to live up to some early promise, on which my mother had predicated her decision to marry him.
He was temporarily oblivious to my own variety of misery, so consumed was he by his own. Watching Don that day, it was made abundantly clear to me that my life had been almost entirely unencumbered by experience—a failing I very much wished to rectify. When he had poured his second glass I felt able to escape. Lying down on my bed I wept for so long and so comprehensively, my pillow was soaked through. Not yet sixteen, it was still barely okay for me to cry.
The following morning, my father knocked and then entered my room, which incidentally, never made any sense to me—why would you knock and then enter without an invitation to do so? He sat on the edge of my bed. I was turned to the wall and he placed a hand on my shoulder. There was no talk. What could be said? After a while he left, leaving the door ajar. We had lunch together. It was assumed that I wasn’t going to school that day, or the next, and then it was the weekend. The obligatory phone call to the school was somehow ridiculous, so we hadn’t bothered. In any case the school had not bothered either, perhaps grateful for even the briefest absence of one of its least predictable constituents.
My friend Tom came over and I told him what happened. ‘Your Dad reckons you should go for a ride, get some air,’ he said. Air—my father’s solution—I assumed it was what he did when he went out on his errands. I stared out the window and filled Tom in on what I knew of the disaster that had become my parents’ relationship. He listened attentively, looking to one side, knowing eye contact, or even a friendly hug of commiseration was not appropriate. It’s not what you did. You just shut up, you listened and then you got on with it. These days, of course, there are far too many hugs.
‘Bugger of a thing,’ Tom said, more than once—the quiet, respectful repetition, his only contribution.
Eventually we went for a ride on our bikes down to the bus terminal. The place was deserted on Sunday afternoon; we circled for half an hour around the terminal and then sat idly for a while on the tarmac, our rusty old bikes lying forlornly beside us. It was summer and even the flies were listless.
‘Bugger this,’ I said, ‘let’s go to the milk bar, that new pinnies’s waiting for us and I’m going to beat you this time.’
‘Ha! Not bloody likely Eric.’ Tom and I scrabbled for our bikes and hit the road like there was no tomorrow.
My mother had driven into a tree somewhere between Victoria and South Australia. She’d chosen to travel to her home state via the back roads, traversing long stretches of highway through endless wheat fields. The coroner’s report indicated that without evidence to the contrary we must accept it was sheer bad luck she had collided with the only tree for miles in any direction.
Some months after, my father lost his job. He said the event had transpired under somewhat of a cloud. I was more than a little worried about what would become of us, pestering Don to reveal what had happened at work and determine how best we might salvage the situation. Sheila’s leaving and then her sudden death had placed such a deep wound in my father that our roles were in a process of reversal. He eventually clarified the circumstances of his sacking when one night I came across him sitting in the living room. He was giving a bottle of hard liquor a serious nudge and looked pale, physically sick. With the soporific air of the perpetually defeated, he told me what had happened.
He worked in the office of an engineering firm and his job was to requisition the manufacture of steel tubing to be later turned into muffler pipes for the car industry. The company was expensively tooled up to press steel and bend pipes to very specific patterns, as the chassis design of every car model was pretty much unique. For instance, the factory might receive an order to bend five hundred muffler connector pipes, complete with resonators and tail-pipes to fit the chassis of a current sedan. Over a period of several months my father, in the depths of his grief, requisitioned pipes for a multitude of non-existent vehicles. The result was an unintended cost to the company in excess of thirty thousand dollars, a lot of money in those days.
Don told me his boss called him into his office, directing his attention to the requisition slips and then the car manufacturer’s orders. He was then presented with a graph to indicate his excessive handiwork, the disparity marked in red—a colour to be met with unmitigated terror in his line of work. It seemed once the initial mistake was made, it grew exponentially into a perfect storm.
The workshop foreman, with whom Don had a friendly acquaintance, became alarmed at the ever filling racks of pipe and put in his own requisition—for more racks to be installed, in an effort to cope with the fabulous turnover. Don told me, just prior to the company realising the extent of the disaster, he and the foreman had sat in the local pub one Friday afternoon talking shop. I pictured my father crouched over his beer with his characteristic melancholy detachment, while his companion enthusiastically spoke of his plan to request a pay-rise on the strength of the boost in profits the company was now enjoying.
Despite my father’s gloomy outlook on life, he did have a cheeky sense of humour sometimes. His acquaintance, the foreman had sustained, some years before, an injury to his leg which left him with a slight limp. Don always referred to the man as The Limpenproletariat. I never fully understood this until much later, when I myself had browsed through Marx.
To our surprise the catastrophe didn’t rule out a letter of reference from his former employer. Perhaps they felt the many years of unblemished service prior, warranted the letter. Don showed it to me—its five little lines, such a study of testimonial restraint that between the greeting and the sign-off, it could have passed for a rather clever haiku. Nevertheless, I believe Don carried with him a deep embarrassment and sense of responsibility regarding the loss of his job.
For my part, from the beginning of Don’s story to its ignoble end, I had a barely contained desire to laugh. It seemed to me a comedy of errors, it was essentially a funny story. I controlled myself for fear of making him feel worse than he already did. It was a characteristic of my fathers’ maudlin personality that he would fail to see the joke. I wondered at the time, what would become of me if, for whatever reason, Don was also to do himself in. I tried not to think too closely about the possibility, that my own presence could be the only barrier to its fulfilment. In retrospect, I think Don may well have been able to find it in himself to see the funny side of the incident and if I’d alerted him to it, perhaps he would have found a point of departure from his misery; though probably not.
During this difficult time I discovered what a mortgage was and how critical such a thing was to maintaining a roof over our heads. At one point, a nice woman came to inspect us, with a view to our eligibility for financial assistance. We did our best to look like responsible people, having temporarily fallen on hard times.
I was reading a lot of poetry at the time for school and considered mentioning that an obscure, recently discovered germ known as the Plath virus had entered our sorry lives and that therefore, Don was required for continuous observance of my tenuous grasp on sanity. I imagined myself explaining carefully how the virus was eating my brain, resulting in end of life ideation, a term I’d recently picked up. It was just as well my youthful silliness didn’t get an airing, as what little credibility we had might have been squandered. In any case, just as we were starting discussions about foreclosure with our terribly helpful bank, Don got another job.
On reflection, my parents seemed to me unreliable ushers for my entry into the vagaries of my subsequent life. My fathers’ somnolent progress through his own life disabled his one parental duty, to show his son who to be. Nevertheless I loved him and felt a need to protect him in some way, although, at that age, I could have hardly had the wherewithal to do so. My mother, on the other hand, was loved by me, more for the time I had been without her than her troubled sojourn among the living. She was a ghost floating somewhere above and beyond my adulthood, an elongated pause in the deep folds of my memory, so much so that I took her words about human constancy— people don’t change much really, but unfortunately my darling, times do—as a model of all substance, of all things.
The notion that I could at some time dig out of this trench of sadness devolved into an emblem of a forgotten land, an artefact discovered and categorized as a curiosity and then placed carefully in a drawer for later inspection, awaiting repair. I don’t think I was ever entirely mended. I know for certain, Don wasn’t. But then, all of this is rather melodramatic—waxing lyrical of a troubled childhood—when, in the world at large, such a thing is commonplace to the point of tedium. It’s time I went to bed. I become ridiculous when I’m over-tired.
I suppose I did have a fixed point of sorts in the shape of my English teacher, Ms Hawthorne. I had fallen in love with her in a way that only a certain kind of boy can. She was so bright and shiny, with her light summer dresses and John Lennon spectacles, her long, tanned legs and her marvellous intellect. I suspect now, she saw not a callow boy in mourning, drawn to her as a moth to flame, but a mind into which she could pour the riches of literature, to cultivate an imagination. And, of course, I was a more than willing participant in her venture.
‘You make some interesting points, Eric. I wonder though, whether you might have misunderstood Hughes—what he was trying to say, I mean.’
She was standing at her desk with my essay in her hand. I noticed some serious red biro activity. Her spectacles were perched precariously on the tip of her nose and her lovely eyes peered at me over the top of them. I always felt a compulsion to gently remove them them and then kiss her passionately like a movie star—Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke was the archetypical non-conformist and a big hit at the time.
I thought I’d had the measure of Hughes and was quite proud of my efforts, feeling sure Ms Hawthorne would concur. To find her now criticising my labours was an unexpected disappointment.
‘I don’t understand. I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading the poems, looking for the themes. I mean, I looked at the syntax and logic as well, as you’ve asked us. I followed the syllabus notes,’ I said, a mildly frustrated tone in evidence.
‘Remember, I also said the syllabus is a guide. Use both intuition and imagination—in much the same way as a poet might.’ Her eyes blinked behind the glasses and she offered me an encouraging smile. I tried to imagine it into one of adoring devotion. ‘The examiners will be looking for that, you know. They want to see you exercise your imagination. Put yourself in Hughes’ place—try to feel what he is feeling. Did you read any criticism of Hughes, biographical notes perhaps?’
‘So, you know nothing of his life, and should I venture, his loves—one in particular?
‘Mmmm. You know Eric, an astute reader is searching for something indefinable. You could liken it to an allusive stream running beneath the surface, beyond the words on the page. I suppose you could say that about quite a lot of art. Anyway, I think this is a crucial point, don’t you?’
‘I guess.’ At the same time as I was inwardly resisting her criticism, I was mesmerized by her quiet and considered voice, the cadence of which seemed almost melodic. It’s remarkable what a boy is capable of dreaming up. I was thoroughly and ludicrously smitten. Now I realise she made a fair bit of sense.
‘Birthday Letters are love poems. Just because he uses the terminology of battle on occasion doesn’t mean they are war poems as you have mentioned on more than one occasion. Yes, he was a soldier in the world war two, but these poems are about lost love, unrequited love, really. I suspect, even though they are mostly about his wife Sylvia Plath, who had committed suicide. They have been described by some people as Hughes presenting a false moral justification of his role in his wife’s death. I don’t agree. There are many kinds of love—much of which is not necessarily prescribed. Perhaps that is why we have poetry. I think Hughes is trying belatedly to, say the things through verse, what he was unable to fix in his mind at the time of Plath’s death.’
I failed to understand some of what she was saying. All I could do was watch the curve of her mouth and listen to the refined notes in her voice as she spoke.
‘He found his wife impossible to live with, and he left her—I suspect for his own sanity, she said.’ Unimaginable in a union of Ms Hawthorne and myself, I silently augured. ‘Abandoning her and their children, a person he knew to be mentally disturbed, and taking up with another woman—sounds positively horrible, doesn’t it?’
‘Yes…yes, it does.’ I felt my stomach catapulting.
‘Eric, are you alright?’
‘Aha,’ I said. I wished there was a bed I could lie down and hear the rest, be present so as not to miss one word. I tried to control my breathing—I’d heard that helped.
‘Good people do things that are morally reprehensible all the time, so it could be argued that Hughes, in writing these poems, was asking forgiveness. He died only months after the book’s publication.’
She paused, looking at me, the slight endearing smile playing at her lips.
‘Do you think if my mother had written poems, she could have worked out a way to keep living?’ I regretted it the minute I said it. What a fucking goose!
‘Oh, Eric…oh dear, I’m so sorry…I…’
She leaned across her desk. Before I could utter anything else so quintessentially stupid I moved out of her reach and rushed toward the classroom door.
As I have mentioned, Miriam was due to return late Saturday afternoon. I woke with a case of acid reflux, an occasional issue which, of late, had become particularly disagreeable. By mid-morning it was worse, as if a stone had become lodged in my oesophagus. I am of reasonably good health for a person of my build and age, although it must be said I had started to develop a bit of a paunch. Miriam visited a gym two nights a week and Saturday mornings if she wasn’t too hungover. She regularly advised me about BMI’s, calories and a variety of other matters too tedious to recite. She was of the opinion, I might benefit from a good dose of spirulina, whatever the hell that was—tincture of lark vomit, I suspected.
All this earnest jumping about in gyms is just not my cup of hemlock. Nevertheless, to put a smile on her face I went to the gym once and found it an appalling experience. The place was an over-lit barn full of equipment more suited to a fourteenth century torture chamber than a modern temple of health. The place was groaning with sweat lathered, overgrown obsessives, getting nowhere riding rows of stationary bikes and cantering for miles on immovable treadmills, all to the frightful screams of pop princesses piped throughout—a truly awful experience and needless to say, never repeated. She ordered me to go on walks, if the gym was so abhorrent. As it happened, I enjoyed regular walking, including occasionally, an exhausting variety of the ambulatory arts, power-walking.
I made an appointment with the doctor and decided to walk to the shopping centre, in the hope I might gain some relief from the reflux through activity. I took my usual route beginning along a bush-track close to the house. There was a detour to a high hill, topped by a relatively flat ridge and a lookout. Miriam had informed me that I must include as many inclines as I could manage, and with this in mind I began to climb, huffing and puffing up several sets of rough stone steps. As I came closer to the summit I could hear someone singing. I reached the lookout to find a woman facing the sea with arms outstretched over the railing. Her voice was of a not particularly tuneful quality, nor was the song in English, but it contained a clear element of sadness, a sort of lament. She noticed my presence and turned briefly with a little smile and then resumed her singing.
I realised I had seen her before—as with most towns, we had our assortment of oddballs, ranging from the simply peculiar to somewhat alarming such as the angry man in the blue utility. This woman fitted into the former category. I had not encountered her at such close proximity and certainly never heard her sing. I estimated she was in her mid-fifties. She had an unfashionable and unmanaged birds-nest of a hairstyle, with child-like pigtails protruding stiffly either side of ears punctured with a diverse mixture of coloured rings. Her costume—the best term for the ensemble—consisted of a long black dress embroidered with small red flowers on a bodice punctuated by puffy long sleeves at the end of which were two black fingerless gloves. She was barefoot and I could see she had some sort of black leggings beneath the dress.
The lookout offered a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and the beach-side hamlets, including Kalliot, with the city resting in the distance, on its knobbly peninsular. The lighthouse on the headland could be seen clearly on that day. I tried to pick out Roberts’s house, but where I thought it would be was overshadowed by the high wooded slopes climbing the escarpment.
After a short while, the strange woman abruptly stopped singing and lowered her arms onto the railing. We exchanged a glance and again it struck me how youthful a demeanour she had. She had, despite the wrinkles marking her age, a sweetly coy expression on her face and when the song had come to an end. Her smile was broad and uninhibited. She exuded great optimism, without inhibition or indeed concern about being alone in a secluded location with a stranger.
‘Is black day today,’ she said. She spoke English with an eastern European accent. ‘Some days are blue, some yellow, tomorrow will be silver. Today is day of mourning—so I wear black,’ she said emphatically but with a gentle smile left it at that, as if no further explanation was necessary. Her eyes were very bright and wide, giving her the appearance of someone who might well be capable of perceiving what others may not.
‘Do you sing on the days of the other colours?’ I said.
‘No, only black days, the silver day tomorrow. I am caressing all the silver cars of the town.’
‘I see, and the blue days?’
‘Your question…is good. Blue days I am reading books of library.’ At first I failed to understand this, but then remembered that the town library’s exterior was painted blue.
‘Oh, okay,’ I said. ‘Can you tell me about the song you were singing?’
‘Is hymn for parents, who living in heaven. I sing to the sea, because over the sea was my home, my beautiful Serbia. I left but I never return and I not see Mamitza…is ah…Mama, not see Mama again. Every day I miss her and Papa. On black days I go to sea and make a song—is like prayer,’ she said. All the time she was smiling, as if it was not an occasion for sadness but one of great joy. I asked her name. ‘Mira—is mean world,’ she said turning back to the ocean and spreading her arms out as if to demonstrate where the world might be found.
I told her my name and that I had no idea what it meant. I waited briefly and then told her that I hoped we would meet again, and thanked her for telling me about the importance of the colours. I began to walk back down the track when she spoke again.
I turned to look back at her. The sun was just above her head, obscuring her features and causing me to squint.
‘Is ever—is meaning your name, is ever.’
I circled back down into the valley, emerging on the main road leading to the shops. The doctor’s appointment was for nine am, and with ten minutes to spare I bought a takeaway coffee from the café next door. I walked into the surgery with the peptic discomfit lessened – perhaps it was a happy result of my encounter with Mira. Not a soul, except the receptionist was in sight. I began perusing a copy of Vogue from a neat stack beside my chair.
It’s a puzzling fact that no matter how prompt we are with our doctor’s appointments, we’re still required to expend an inordinate amount of our precious time waiting for the pleasure of their company. It’s as if doctor-time operates in an alternative universe, counterproductively unfussed by the rapid aging and poor posture their patients experience sitting in their wretched chairs. In the case of Pillipa, my GP, if waiting was a profession, her patient’s would be considered exemplars of their chosen field. I was checking the length of the stubble on my chin and wondering whether one could get cancer from reading Vogue, when my name was called loudly. I had become so immersed in and seduced by the excess illustrated in the magazine that when I looked up I expected to see the waiting room with other patients in attendance. It was still just me, squirming cross-legged on the deeply uncomfortable plastic chair in an empty room.
‘Hello Pillipa, I’d only just settled into an absorbing magazine story, my fourth I should add, about some rich bastard’s ridiculous waterfront.’ I was trying for an air of insouciant affability in an effort to soften the barely hidden distaste I usually encountered from her. I suppose I could have changed doctors but couldn’t be bothered. Who’s to say I wouldn’t meet with the same response from someone else?
‘How’re you feeling Eric?’
‘Terrific,’ I lied; my emotions were of only moderate proportions. I sat down in a chair only vaguely less hospitable than the one in the waiting room. My buttocks had been transformed into a substance quite distant from what I was accustomed.
‘Then, why are you here? I have other patients.’
‘You don’t as it happens, the waiting room depopulated when I entered your office,’ I said with a winning smile, looking around. A window with a broken venetian blind failed to conceal the dirty laneway at the rear of the building. It was known to be the meeting place of the local methadone recipients. ‘Actually is it, strictly speaking, an office? I’ve always wondered what a doctor’s room is called.’
‘Eric…Oh it doesn’t matter. Let me see what it was last time,’ she tapped her keyboard a few times and scrolled the long list of my ailments, both invented and actual. ‘Your foot,’ she said.
‘I can testify to being in receipt of two such appendages, your honour.’
‘You said you had a burning sensation in your right foot last time. How’s that going?’
‘Positively incendiary Pillipa.’
‘I think I might have an ulcer of some sort, another burning feeling, but this time it appears to have invaded my chest, originating, I believe, in my oesophagus—assuming that is, you discount the feet as a possible source.’ A thoroughly undoctored expression appeared on her stern face. ‘I have found myself chewing a lot of Rennie’s lately, with little effect.’
She asked me a series of questions about my diet, presumably with no satisfactory answers, because they were met with not the slightest acknowledgement that she received a response. There was a pause while she thumbed through a thick manual and read for a while.
‘Mmmm…I see,’ she addressed the book. She read some more and then spoke again. ‘Oesophagus, you said. The book remained silent, so I cut in.
‘Mmmm.’ She closed the book and rummaged in a draw below her desk, pulling out a blister pack of little yellow pills. ‘This is a sample pack of a drug called Somac. It treats gut hernias. She put a sheet of stationary in the printer, tapped her keyboard vigorously and out popped a prescription with six months of repeats. I had a suspicion this length of time coincided with a desperate hope of not seeing me again in the interim.
‘Are you attempting to get me into a more docile condition Pillipa? I believe this is the very same substance the World State used to dull the senses in Brave New World. It turned out however I’d had it wrong, she knew her Huxley.
‘You are referring to Soma. This is Somac, an effective treatment for the condition I believe you have,’ she said.
A somewhat arbitrary diagnosis if you asked me. But of course, you wouldn’t. On the other hand she’d revealed an interest in literature, so I was encouraged to grant her more accreditation than the faded diplomas and certificates displayed above her desk, one of which was perpetually lopsided.
She informed me that Somac was considered quite effective and to let her know after six months if it worked or not. Our interview was over.
As I walked back home I was inclined to sympathy for my doctor. I fancied she might be a person of refinement, a victim of some sort of bitter early disappointment and had succumbed to ministering to hot feet and diverted guts with a despair she seemed barely able to conceal. I imagined her closing the surgery for the day and fading into some dim room at the rear of the building, removing her lab coat and sensible shoes and settling down to a lonely night with the collected works of a long dead intellectual, preferably of the Bloomsbury variety. Until then, the only sympathy I had for her manifested in a barely contained desire to reposition her errant diploma.
As it turned out, I have been taking Somac ever since, even now that I am incarcerated. I have not had an iota of rebellion from my upper gut—surprising since the food they serve us here in prison, is an atrocity. When I returned home that afternoon, I found Miriam standing in the lounge room with the telephone dangling from her hand. Her travelling case was lying on the floor and she was crying.
‘That was Sylvia…its Zander…he died,’ she said.
Why do we say sorry to the grieving when someone dies? He was an old man and he died. If a person is buried they return to the earth from which they came. With cremation, we become as small and inert as it is possible to be, and if we are lucky we combine with the atmosphere, we float, in our reduced state, among the various elements and eventually settle somewhere quiet and forgotten. This strikes me as entirely appropriate. It’s not our fault, what do we mean by being sorry? When my father died, I was plunged into such misery I could barely stand up for a week. However, when my friends said they were sorry, I was rigid with incomprehension. Maybe it’s just me.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
If Miriam was a different sort of person, I might have suggested she sing to the sea.
It was Thursday, the day before Zander’s funeral. Miriam had taken the day off and driven into the city to make last minute arrangements with the funeral home director. No sooner had I seen her off at the door, I reopened it to find Steve on the threshold. Once again I had forgotten he was coming over. This time it was to see to the Roses in the front garden, the edging around the paths and some repairs. Miriam had left instructions the lattice inserts on the rear fence needed mending. Some of it had pulled away from its framing. I don’t mind a bit of untidiness about the garden, nothing too grotty. If the grass becomes excitable and grows an inch above the paving, I’m not going to be particularly vexed.
I had taken up my customary position on the verandah chair to read the finance pages of the newspaper. I was perpetually intrigued by the ennui of taxation laws and those who might have ways to circumvent them. I had no idea how I would deal with this information but wondered, if others are getting away with this sort of thing, how may I?
‘The front hedge needs another haircut Eric.’
‘Why not, while you’re here – a perm might be nice for a change,’ I said. My expected chuckle didn’t eventuate and he walked off to complete his tasks, perhaps wondering how he might arrive at a perm and still be in receipt of a happy customer. I helped unload Steve’s state-of-the-art and heavy lawnmower, from his utility truck.
‘Briggs and Stratton mate, a big 4-stroke bugger. I wouldn’t look sideways at anything else.’
‘It’s a fine looking bit of equipment Steve, that’s for sure.’ I said, feeling pleased with my show of manly interests.
Steve proceeded to cut approximately half an inch off the lawn and see to the hedges. I wandered about the yard and tried to be of assistance, where I could, at the same time as not trying to get in the way. It was one of those glorious early autumn days. The sun was directly overhead when, inspecting the lattice together, we determined it needed replacing. I held the end of his tape like a pro, as he measured up.
I’d tipped the last of the grass rakings into our mulch bed and gave it a few turns and Steve had stripped out the old lattice and we loaded it onto the ute for removal. It was time for lunch. Steve said he’d pick up the mighty Briggs and Stratton after he’d taken the lattice to the tip the following day. I prepared lunch but he was still pottering about finishing up his work.
With the lunch laid out on the verandah table I had taken up my customary position and glanced at the finance pages of the newspaper. I was perpetually intrigued by the ennui of taxation and those who might have ways to circumvent it. I had no idea how I would deal with this information but, like everybody I’d ever known, I thought that if others are getting away with this sort of thing, how may I?
I had opened a fine bottle of Pinot Grigio from southern Portugal to have with a favourite of mine, toasted sourdough bruschetta. As ours was the last yard in need of his services that day, Steve was up for a couple of glasses of the wine.
‘Rats of the sky, those buggers,’ Steve said between a mouthful bruschetta washed down with a good sip of wine. We had been watching the antics of a couple of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, who for some reason thought it amusing to swoop down from a nearby tree and briefly alight on the verandah handrail, then shoot off again. There seemed no advantage to them in this activity.
‘Why do they do that Steve,’ I said.
‘Buggered if I know mate; they’re a pain in the arse, I know that much—territorial probably.’
‘So we think of each other as a pest?’
‘Ha ha, yeah something like that. ‘Spose I shouldn’t complain Eric, they keep me in work. They tear the shit out of handrails. See that pitting on the surface?’
‘Yes, now that you mention it.’
‘They’ll completely destroy it, if you give ‘em half a chance.’
‘Oh, what can I do about that?’
‘Dunno—nothin’ really unless you want to shoot the fuckers.’ He laughed again and took another mouth-full of wine, ‘Good drop that.’
‘You know your wine, it’s a beauty alright.’ Tell me Steve, do you know a Mister Roberts from Kalliot?’
He looked at me with uncustomary suspicion. ‘Yeah, I do Eric, but what…’
‘You do? I ahh…I know the man and thought his garden could do with…’
‘Oh okay. Well that train has long left the station mate.’
‘Really, why do you say that?’ I thought that there was a slim chance they had met, so I was genuinely surprised and not a little curious.
‘Now that’s quite a story Eric. I might be talking out of school—I mean seeing he’s your friend.’
‘Not friend Steve—decidedly not that,’ I said, filling his glass with Pinot. ‘Colleague of Miriam’s—no love lost there either, apparently.’ It’s my contention that one must not give too much away. It’s always better to reconnoitre the prevailing conditions, before releasing the cavalry, as something unforeseen could well be lurking on the horizon. I’m pretty sure Sun Tzu had something to say about the matter.
‘Oh yeah, I’d heard he was a teacher. You know that bloke I was talking about last week, who died from a Funnel-web bite.’
‘Him and Roberts were an item.’
‘What, they were in a relationship?’
‘Yeah—Brindley, James Brindley.’
‘What—the state MP? He lives here? I may, at some point, have to assure Steve I wasn’t a victim of Tourette’s Syndrome.
He did look at me as if I might be shortly in need of a respirator.
‘It’s just that it seems so odd to me, not knowing about him living here, I mean. I knew him before I retired—through work.’
‘Oh okay.’ Once again Steve looked at me as if I’d just revealed the true nature of Dark Matter—like myself on the subject, one of incomprehension.
‘How the hell did I not know that?’ I said more to myself than Steve.
‘Aah…well, he wasn’t someone who big-noted himself and was away a lot.’ He paused, looking at me hopefully and doubtless wondering whether I might be appeased by this explanation. ‘He seemed alright and was responsible for a lot of referrals for me, so I had nothing to complain about. I guess he did seem like…I dunno, like he was depressed sort of, definitely not a happy bloke.’
‘But the other day, you said you spoke to his wife to explain your absence after you’d encountered the funnel-web.’
‘My wife is friends with her. Turns out his wife knew about him and Roberts, but kept mum. Apparently Brindley managed to be pretty discrete. Career and kids and all that—could have been damaging, electorally I guess. You know what they’re like ‘round here.
‘So, the Press started lurking around and somebody in the know let it slip he batted for the other side, although nobody made a connection with Roberts.’
‘I don’t get it? But how did that impact on you Steve?’
‘Not sure exactly. You see, that was my connection to him, I worked for him too—recommended by James. Rang up and spoke to my wife to tell me not to come again. She said he was rude and hung up immediately. I didn’t miss him, bit of a nasty streak about him, that bloke.’
‘Oh? How so?
‘Well, for a start mate, he didn’t like getting his hands dirty. When I was there, he didn’t show his face until it came time to pay me, which he shoved out the door at me as if I had leprosy.’ He took another good sip of the Pinot. ‘Not so much as a cold drink.’
‘That’s a bit rough Steve.’ I said, wondering if I should open another bottle.
At least, now I knew who the fellow in the photo was on Roberts’s wall and why he looked familiar. I remembered I’d seen him at parliament house. Before I retired, I was regularly consulted by a standing Senate Steering Committee on state infrastructure. He was a junior and infrequent member of the committee. He never said much when he was around and barely registered my presence. I think he never asked me more than one question during the whole time I was in front of the committee. There’s a requirement for MP’s to reside in their electorates, so I suppose since our town was included on its periphery—why wouldn’t he live there?
A not very large group were gathered for Zanders funeral, perhaps thirty. The proceedings had been scheduled for the Friday after his death, everything seemed to be happening on Fridays of late. Thus far my encounters with Roberts, for instance, were on Fridays. I was under the impression the deceased had not made a large mark on the world and I doubted there would have been many more mourners, if it had been held on Saturday. Most of them appeared to be quite old; one lady arriving on one of those scooters for the aged and out of which she was assisted, by an equally ancient gentleman.
I assumed they were a part of some academic cabal, grey and crumpled, defeated by a half a century of teaching and marking. I had never met any of them and I assumed I would not meet many of them to-day. Zander had not published much of importance. Miriam had a slim volume concerning Mary Shelley which I read and found it only vaguely interesting. He did write at some length about the mysterious death of Percy Shelley’s first wife Harriet. He spent an inordinate amount of energy, to the point of obsession, on trying to prove the rumour that Mary Shelley’s father, the philosopher William Godwin had her killed for the purpose of legitimising his daughter’s relationship with Percy. The initial critical response to Frankenstein was of vague interest, in that it was resoundingly negative. The Quarterly Review called it a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity. An assessment with which I concurred and for entirely different reasons, I suspect.
We stood beside an easel on a concrete balcony, serving as the entrance to the funeral home chapel. A large format card was displayed on the easel with a photograph of Zander in healthier times beneath which was the legend ‘In Loving Memory of Zander Volkov’ with the dates of his birth and death in smaller print below. When I looked back up, a woman had appeared beside Miriam.
‘Eric, this is Sylvia,’ Miriam said.
I offered my hand. A moist paw lay on it briefly and was withdrawn in a way I would describe as secretive and promptly disappearing beneath her handbag like a frightened skink. Calisto shook hands with more warmth. She was small and pudgy, with hair that looked to have a life of its own, writhing snakes radiating out from her little round head. I couldn’t help but think of her as a withdrawn, overweight Medusa. Rather than turning to stone on viewing her frightful visage, however, one merely turned away and forgot her completely.
Apart from her alarming hair, she was the most irrelevant looking person I had ever encountered, an unnecessary punctuation mark in a badly constructed sentence. The only thing I remembered about her from the party was her sour glance as I confronted Roberts, which for some reason, had clung to me like a damp and sweaty t-shirt. Was it an admonition? If nothing else it was some form of disapproval. Perhaps she was angry because I’d made a fuss, although she was one of very few out of perhaps eighty people in attendance who noticed. Had she been observing me throughout the night? Had Miriam been talking about me ‘out of school’ so to speak, or was she the sort of person who studiously observed others while at pains to go about unobserved herself? It occurred to me that it might be a skill worth fostering—to roam invisible seemed rather attractive to me.
‘Hello, we meet on a sad day Sylvia.’ I said.
She made brief eye contact and didn’t appear to have anything further to say. I tried to remain unfazed by her dismissive behaviour. Her attitude struck me as an oblique hostility, the complete antithesis of her near servility in regard to Miriam. I instinctively felt she was unaware of herself. She was the sort of person who found protection from the world in the shadow of others, and Miriam clearly served this purpose for her. It occurred to me she would be the sort of person incapable of certainty—confused as to her own desires, her hopes and her fears. Self-doubt would be the pervading element of her existence. I recalled something I’d read: a proportion of people were capable of an extreme form of abnegation, denying themselves equality with their peers, the nourishment of equal status with their fellows. I remember it being characterised specifically as anorexia of the spirit.
Since we barely had any interaction, I wondered what Sylvia’s game was, her particular hostility towards me. Was this strange woman in love with Miriam? In any case all of this only served to amplify my compulsion to upset her little apple-cart. I leaned forward to address her further, past the obstacle she had placed between us, namely my wife. Miriam remained looking ahead with a faintly enigmatic smile.
‘You knew Zander, Sylvia?’ I said.
She glanced at me, surprised I had spoken again. ‘It’s one of the things Miriam and I have in common. I also had Zander as my professor, although at an earlier time.’
She paused no doubt hoping I’d pull my head in, but I remained staring at her with what I hoped was undiminished interest. In for a penny, as they say.
‘He was a remarkable man,’ she said.
She could have said the fish is good here. She attempted to address her replies to Miriam rather than me—her voice was dulled down, devoid of cadence as though her sharing of this information with me was somewhat unsavoury, forced to provide idle chatter for the sake of decorum.
‘So I gather,’ I said, ‘I barely knew him—already a victim of dementia when I met him, or should I say, when I saw him,’ counterbalancing her insouciance with an amicable smile. Sometimes I can’t help myself.
Sylvia looked discomfited and turned to watch the black-clad mourners ambling through the doors of the chapel and decided to follow them. She merely walked away without so much as nod. Miriam and I exchanged glances and she shrugged. We were obliged to enter ourselves shortly after. Not two paces inside and the ambling came to a halt while the old lady who had been extracted from her scooter outside, was being helped into a pew by her male companion. The chapel was but an attachment to the funeral home with an ecumenical nod to spirituality in the form of about ten rows of pews divided by an aisle, a slightly elevated dais, and to the right, a plain lectern. One had to look closely to see the thoroughly inoffensive cross inlaid into the lectern in the same colour as the light coloured wood from which it had been constructed. From my point of view, the whole arrangement had the effect of unapologetic sneakiness.
Zander’s coffin was placed diagonally to the left and set back from the lectern, as if it was an afterthought. Behind the coffin were a set of double doors, through which the deceased was no doubt destined to make his final journey. According to Miriam, he had insisted in his Will there be no fancy nonsense at the occasion of his departure, especially of a spiritual nature.
‘Good grief!’ Miriam said.
‘What—what’s the matter?’ I said looking around for the source of her consternation. Miriam’s dismay always contaminated me immediately.
‘What the hell is he doing here?’
‘The damn priest,’ she said.
I followed her angry glare and saw a man in front of the lectern. He had a thick beard and was dressed in a black cassock and conical hat, like a chimney with a little pitched roof on top. An enormous pectoral cross hung around his neck. ‘I thought you said Zander was Dutch,’ I said.
‘That get-up looks decidedly orthodox, not exactly reformist.’
‘Eric, that’s beside the point, there are Catholics in Holland, as they are everywhere—a bloody plague of them wherever you turn. In any case his father was from Belarus and his mother was Polish, but by the time of his birth they had already been living in Amsterdam for five years, so he was born Dutch.
‘That’s quite a heritage.’
‘Apparently, his father was a complete nutter—a religious zealot or something. Zander was decidedly unforthcoming on a range of personal issues. It was a bit of a bugbear between us—come on.’ The old lady had finally been wedged into a pew, allowing for further ambling. Miriam made her way towards the dais with me in pursuit and we sat down at the front pew on the left hand side. Sylvia had already secured the seat as if it had been named after her, clutching her hand-bag tightly on her lap with her mild little face reassembled itself into her customary tight grimace. All the while Miriam glared at the priest, who seemed in perfectly affable conversation with a tall elderly gentleman. At one point he laughed at something the man said and then quickly regained his composure, no doubt remembering where he was.
‘It’s a funeral and he’s a priest,’ I whispered, hoping to be a practical modifier of my wife’s fury. To be perfectly honest I had an over-weaning and prurient interest in what might happen next. Without putting too fine a point on it I was literally tumescent with anticipation.
‘I was under the distinct impression this was going to be an entirely secular event, Zander would have run several country miles to distance himself from any form of religious claptrap,’ she said.
‘Perhaps there are other influences afoot darling. I suspect the tall man talking to the priest may have some leverage in the proceedings, a relative by the look of him.’
‘Not on my fucking watch Eric, Zander and I were best friends; we had history.’ she murmured furiously. ‘It was my impression his one surviving brother, Peter, never came near him. A long deceased aunt was an occasional visitor but apart from her, he seemed to be estranged from the lot of them.’ I never met Peter but, as you say, that is him speaking to the priest; come to pick over Zanders bones.’
I glanced over to the priest and the other elderly man. ‘You know, I think you’re right. There’s a family resemblance, don’t you think,’ I whispered.
‘I never saw any of them attend to him when he became ill. Who are they in their funeral suits and their downcast eyes; I never saw them and I don’t want to see them now.’ she said proprietorially. She seemed to be approaching an apocalyptical form of irritation in her regard for the proceedings.
Sylvia reached over and patted Miriam’s hand briefly, an acidic tremble played on her thin lips, causing a sudden memory to rupture my interest in the unfolding drama.
I realised I’d had recent contact with Sylvia.
The night before, Miriam mentioned Sylvia would be attending the funeral and once again I had to be reminded who she was.
‘She’ll be driving up from Kalliot,’ Miriam said.
‘Why?’ I replied.
‘She lives there Eric, I’m certain I mentioned that fact at least once, as usual you promptly forgot.’
I was so fixated on Kalliot being the domain of Roberts, I barely could conceive of anybody else having any sort of presence there. Sylvia was the woman on the beach with her playful Corgi. She would have recognised me and probably knew who it was gliding on his surfboard so skilfully that day.
A deathly pale-skinned but attractive woman approached us, and leaned over Miriam. She looked as if she would fall and was using the volume of air alone between her and Miriam, to remain on her feet. She was a truly exceptional human being, as light as breath, I was captivated by her and yet it was if there was nothing of her at all, just a whisper of a person. She was dressed in a dark grey pant-suit and wore a pair of small, black rimmed spectacles with a lanyard of tiny black beads. Her red hair was bunched severely at the back of her head in a bun, high-lighting her delicate features. I immediately imagined the great burst of bright orange that would be released if she let it escape. Her petite and pretty face was adorned with a faint gathering of freckles on a skin so pallid I thought any exposure to sunlight may prove fatal. She brought back to me a vivid memory, that of Ms Hawthorne, considering the moral conundrum of Ted Hughes.
‘I’m Susan, the celebrant. I think you are Miriam Felt,’ she said with beneficent smile. ‘I believe you have a few words to say for Zander?’
‘Yes,’ Miriam said rather too abruptly. Susan suddenly looked frightened but managed to continue.
‘Apparently the cleric will say something after me, and so will Zander’s brother.’ Susan glanced over at the priest and the tall man, ‘Can you speak then?’ She looked as if she was concerned for her safety, jittery and vaguely hysterical. ‘I’m new,’ she said apologetically. Her thin, long fingers closed nervously around the funeral program she carried. She started absently turning it into a tube.
‘Goodness Susan, you don’t look it; you must be at least thirty,’ I said.
‘Eric!’ Miriam said, ‘don’t mind him. He can be a complete arse sometimes.’
‘This is my first time, you’ll have to forgive me if I make a mistake. I used to be in haberdashery,’ she attempted a redemptive smile, ‘and I’m thirty nine actually, you erred in my favour Mr….’
‘Eric,’ I said. It’s Eric Felt to be clear, legally speaking. We won’t be making any fuss though, now that we know you’re new. Mistakes will be immediately forgiven and never mentioned in polite company.’ Miriam looked as if she might punch me; a not unprecedented occurrence. To her credit, Susan seemed to relax a little and her mouth formed a charming smile.
‘Well, I thank you for that in advance Mr. Felt and I will endeavour to do my very best. It’s not just funerals. I also do marriages, naming and commitment ceremonies, that sort of thing,’ she said, relaxing even more.
‘Really,’ I said. I like the sound of that commitment business, what does that entail precisely? I’m seeing feathers and the clicking of those thumb thingamabobs, a lot of swanning about in bare feet and flowery hair adornments?’
Miriam prodded me in the left kidney, which rather hurt and even left me a little winded.
‘Well yes, you have it Mr….’
‘Yes, but what is the priest doing here?’ Miriam said. ‘Zander would…’
‘It was his brother Peter,’ she said quickly, we all glanced at the tall man talking to the priest. Now that I took a closer look, he seemed uncomfortable and quite miserable. ‘He said the priest was there to support him, as much as to attend the funeral. The family must be deferred to Miriam in…in cases such as this…,’ she said, her voice trailing off apologetically. ‘I know you and Zander were close, as you have said over the phone, but…’ She stopped to assemble a more disciplined composure, taking a deep breath which had the effect of making her look alarmed again, as if Miriam’s militant atheism might be enough to cause actual bodily harm—as did I by now. Given Susan’s wan and ethereal disposition, I thought she might do well to defer to Plath, if harm was on the agenda, self or otherwise.
The celebrant left us and approached the lectern. She waited, angelically nervous, until everybody noticed her and those still standing took their places among the pews. The priest and Peter Volkov occupied the front pew on the other side of the aisle, as the last murmurs turned to silence, a gloom descended over the chapel.
Susan made several expected remarks regarding Zander, touching only vaguely on his admirable qualities. She then described the nature of and the anticipated unfolding of the proceedings. Finally she introduced the priest, moving to the rear of the stage, her hands clasped together demurely in front of her groin. I remember thinking at the time, I might have enjoyed combining them with my corresponding apparatus, had it been in any way appropriate. Disgusting I know, but there it is—I did promise to be honest.
‘My name is Vadim and I’m here on behalf of my dear friend Peter, brother of the deceased. Brother and friend Zander has gone to the angels and may he find peace in the bosom of Abraham.’
Here we go I thought; Miriam huffed audibly, thankfully causing a deeply old man seated on my right to stop snoring. The priest—looking utterly alien as if by some miracle he had been transplanted from a distant epoch to ours—spoke perfect English as only a second language English speaker can. He glanced at the coffin.
‘Actually that’s all I’m going to say of a religious nature. I’m not really here to deliver a sermon for the dead. In fact I was specifically asked not to by Peter, in deference to his beloved brother who I’ve been told was a non-believer. I will, however, recite a poem by the Russian poet, Gavrila Derzhavin. It’s called On the Death of Prince Meshchersky. I feel it is apt at such a moment.’ He looked directly at Peter Volkov in a way I could only describe in the simplest of terms, as that of unreserved love. He moved away from the lectern and placed his pectoral cross on its long chain on the coffin.
Where once amusement, joy, and love
Shined all together with good health,
Now there the blood is freezing in our veins,
Our souls are plagued by grief.
Where once a feast was spread a coffin lies,
The place where festive singing rang
Now hears but graveside keening,
And pale death watches over all.
The priest returned to the lectern and looked around at us, seeming to make eye contact with all of us at once. He was clearly practised in this, smiling as if one might in the act of christening a baby. ‘Do you think this is a moment for lamentation? If you do I’m afraid I’ll disappoint you.’
Susan, our novice celebrant and recently retired haberdasher, who was doubtless expecting some minor amount of error in the proceeding’s, actually managed a bit of colour to her pale cheeks.
‘Let me explain a little,’ the cleric said. In the old days, the deceased was cleansed and laid upon the dining table, hence the reference to the feast in the poem. It is common these days to be in denial of death, to not think of it, to cloak it in wood and plaster and contain the look of death. We enclose it within a locked box as though it has become an object to be feared. Death, however, is the common link of all life. Death flows through us in all the days we live on this earth, death marks every day of our lives. When we laid a body upon the table at a burial feast, we wanted to express the naturalness of death. To lay a dead person on the very table at which he acquired sustenance was to link that person to their mortality. It was not uncommon for the body to lie like this for three days, a mimicry of the resurrection. Yes, the body began the process of decay, but then decay was nothing but second nature, it was not considered abhorrent as it is today, but another state of being, which we were required to endure. Still now you can find congregants of the old church engage in a repast directly above the grave. Each mourner participates in filling the grave with soil until a table is brought and a cloth is laid, along with the elements of a meal the deceased would enjoy. We wish him to join us in spirit, to be seated among us and impart to us something of the after-life.’ Vadim looked down at the coffin and then brought his cross up to brush across his lips.
This speech gripped all of us; we sat as fervent supplicants, wondering what could possibly follow. I found myself, if not foundering on the sharp rocks of my trenchant atheism, somehow lighter, untethered by earthly constraints. This description of the funeral rite was not something any of us could have expected, but I think we were all grateful it was shared. I sensed even Miriam was momentarily captivated, despite our joint antipathy regarding religion. I was now utterly thankful I’d been invited to this event.
The priest recited something quietly in Russian, presumably a prayer, and left the dais to sit beside Zander’s brother. Susan reappeared out of the shadows her familiar blanched appearance restored.
‘I think we can agree, regardless of our inclinations,’ she paused to brush a hand across her eyes, ‘we…we can each take these precious words away with us in the continuance of our own lives, and I thank Vadim on behalf of us all.’
I pondered what my inclinations might be, something I was at variance with on a daily basis. The celebrant, however, composed herself and managed to assume the speech and mannerisms of a frail maiden aunt, grateful for a bit of quality time with us and saddened by the knowledge it must all soon come to an end.
‘Zander’s brother, Peter, wishes to say a few words’. With that she resumed her position at the rear of the stage and Peter Volkov walked to the lectern.
‘I am going to make this brief for all our sake’s as I suspect nobody enjoys long speeches, even eulogies.’ He looked nervously at the now seated Vadim, as if for assurance he was effectively fulfilling some predetermined agreement, ‘unless, of course the speaker is hilarious.’ A murmur of approval and a few chuckles breached the solemn atmosphere. ‘Sadly, I am not such a person. I doubt anyone here knows me or perhaps even knew Zander had a brother. I was, in fact, his little brother. I was born when he was already in his teens and now as you see, I am also an old man.’ He fumbled in his coat pocket but his hand emerged with nothing and looked at his palm as if something might appear. He had a threadbare appearance. He wore a dark brown suit too large for his thin frame. His tie was askew and patterned with yellow polka-dots, looking out of place for the occasion. His shirt collar was discoloured and his shoes looked old, or more accurately, old fashioned; the sort you might buy in a second-hand clothing shop. He looked as if he might be taking a day off from being a poorly paid children’s clown. His hair fell lank to his shoulders and it appeared he had not shaved for several days.
‘When he was a teen and I a toddler, Zander loved me as if I was his own child, sometimes I wondered if I might indeed be so. Of course I wasn’t, but when we are very young, we have such fantasies. It is somewhat sad that we tend to grow out of them. Pablo Picasso said he had lived half his life to learn how to paint like a child again; if so, he was a lucky man. If only we could all be so blessed.’ He reached into his pocket again, his time withdrawing a tissue, folding it carefully before dabbing his eyes with it.
‘This,’ he said, gesturing towards the coffin, ‘this is not what a man should become,’
I thought the sense of this statement was at best, odd—not pertaining to the event, perhaps he’d made a mistake, lost the thread. He paused to look at the coffin. His sadness was a physical presence, folding over us like a shroud.
‘Where did you go brother?’ his voice was barely audible, I was sure those at the back could not have heard it. His face contorted into a silent scream, seeming to be constricted by his painfully thin body. I could feel his implosive trembling in the floorboards beneath my feet. Susan leaned her ghostly presence out from the shadows in a gesture of both fear and concern, but failed to venture any further. Her right hand was raised slightly, a reticent gesture of support. The scene recollected a Renaissance painting—we devotees frozen in mourning, having been summoned to witness an unutterable event. There was a long pause and we waited. As one, we held our breath. The theatricality of all this was worth the ticket of entry. I had barely known Zander, but I was amazed that I had actually considered not coming.
When nothing more could be extracted from Peter, Miriam was called upon to speak. She merely looked at the nervous celebrant and shook her head to indicate she no longer wished to. This disappointed me, as I knew Miriam would have put on a terrific show, possibly scandalising both believers and secularists alike, but the head of outrage she’d built up had been spent among the unfolding debris of this Shakespearean tragedy.
The mourners gathered on the wide verandah attached to the chapel. There were refreshments. These were ziggurats of oblonged madeira cake and triangled sandwiches, predominantly laden with what looked like canned salmon and lettuce on platters. They had been arranged on a trestle and at the end of which, plates and cups were stacked beside urns for coffee and tea. Groups hovered passively nearby. Quiet, hesitant words were exchanged like the drone of drugged insects awaiting their turn at the calming ambrosia. Some of the older mourners looked longingly out at the street, no doubt having seen to too many funerals of late.
Susan skittered at the boundaries of these accidental clusters, a rather frazzled queen bee exhorting the mourners to help themselves to the food. Not overly fond of tea or cake I weaved myself into a position near the steps with the hope that an early and unencumbered exit might be achieved. When I turned I found Miriam had been importuned by Sylvia near the entrance to the chapel. They seemed, by their expressions, to be in discussion about something important. The conversation ended abruptly with Sylvia marching off alarmingly towards me, but in fact, swerving past me to descended the steps. She offered me a glare as she passed, that made my blood freeze. If I’d counterintuitively been in the vicinity of a rosary, even I might have been tempted to give it a bit of a fondle. I regained Miriam’s side just as she started a conversation with a person who could have been mistaken for an over-dressed lamp post.
‘I’m Miriam, where have we met?’ she offered her hand while I stood a little to the rear in the manner of a Colonel’s batman—awaiting orders to bring the car around. The woman was tall, straight and large-boned, probably in her early sixties. Her black attire was of good quality, although her dress looked as if it had an alternative purpose to that of mourning: perhaps evening cocktails. The reveal of her meaty cleavage, the colour of over-boiled corned beef, was rather more than strictly necessary for the occasion. Her carefully coiffed hair surrounded a pinched face with a small mouth and a nose too short for her big head. All this punctuated by perpetually frightened-looking eyes, glittering in a cretaceous web of wrinkles—a person, from my admittedly jaundiced point of view, with such a deficit of physical charms as to cause alarm in small children. Fortunately there were none in attendance.
‘It’s Doris,’ she said, shaking hands with Miriam and nodding at me with a stern appraisal from top to toe, as if the legitimacy of my existence was under suspicion. ‘I believe we met years ago, a drinks party at Zander’s. I think we have run into each other from to time since, but I’m not sure we have been able to quite understand the nature of our acquaintance. I’m School of History at the University—assistant Dean. One day they’ll see the writing on the wall and get rid of Bottomley, the current chap and give his bloody job to me. The last paper he wrote was a poorly researched shopping list, something to do with Irish burial mounds, I’ve not met a soul who’s read it.’
Her voice was a deep croak, bringing to mind the amphibian kingdom, and only exacerbated by a delivery suggesting that each word she uttered was of profound significance.
She made this pronouncement as if it was a foregone conclusion, and for which she would brook no challenge. She ended her rapid delivery with a low explosion I assumed was her version of a laugh but would otherwise make a toad blush. I found her instantly repellent.
‘Oh yes, the party, now I remember,’ Miriam said, her enthusiasm for the reunion visibly diminished.
‘What an extraordinary scene it was in there,’ Doris said, gesturing towards the chapel door, ‘I had no idea Zander even had a brother, had you? And Christ Almighty, that priest! I was quite expecting Nosferatu to make an appearance.’
‘It was odd, wasn’t it; yet strangely moving don’t you think’ Miriam said, who was having an outstanding go at self-restraint.
‘I suppose; if you go in for that sort of thing. Aren’t you Principal at Seaview Ladies College?’ Doris said,
‘Lovely. Hey isn’t Roberts…I mean doesn’t he work with you?’
‘Yes, one of my deputies, you know him? Miriam said.
‘I taught the fellow, he was in his twenties then; brilliant student but strange, to say the least.’
‘How so?’ I asked, unable to control myself. I’m Miriam’s husband by the way, Eric,’ I decided against offering my hand, suspecting it would be ignored.
‘I see—well there are a number of occasions but one in particular comes to mind. Up until then I had the strong impression he was gay, which was fine by me but he got a fellow student up the duff. Perhaps he was batting for the other side to see what it was like and as you know Miriam, he’s very good looking,’ she winked conspiratorially at my wife; literally a terrifying act from this woman. ‘His behaviour in regard to the girl’s dilemma can only be described as sociopathic. He completely ignored her once he heard the happy news. Her religious beliefs were such that she wouldn’t countenance termination. I mean she was a silly girl but he was overheard to have just laughed in her face and told her he couldn’t care less.’
‘So, she had the child,’ I said.
‘Yes but not before her furious father came to the university and confronted Roberts, demanding he take some responsibility. Roberts told him to get fucked, prompting the father to launch an attack right there in the university quadrangle. The man took a swing which Roberts easily dodged and as he tried to recover, Roberts grabbed him by his shirt-front with one hand and punched him hard in the face with the other. The father dropped to the ground and didn’t get up. There was a lot of blood. All the time Roberts behaved as if he thought the incident was extremely amusing. He just looked down at the man and rubbing his knuckles, said “look what you’ve made me do, you old idiot,” and walked off laughing.
‘Good grief,’ Miriam said.
‘Yes, indeed,’ Doris replied, ‘grief all round as it turned out. Roberts was charged with assault, eventually dropped because there were witnesses to say the father threw the first punch. It was all very messy and a bit of a scandal for the university. Somehow Roberts remained on while the girl left without her degree and a bun in the oven; all very sordid. I can only hope, for your sake, he has changed his ways,’ she croaked portentously.
‘So what other Robertsian escapades caught your attention Doris,’ I said.
She looked me over again, no doubt alert to any perversity stretching beyond the already blatant prurience I was exercising. Miriam was starting to get fidgety, nervous perhaps about what I might dig up from the obviously deep and turgid memory of the self-esteemed Doris.
‘Well, there were a number of events. You never knew where you were with fellow. One incident comes to mind. You recall I mentioned Bottomley, the complete dullard of a Dean of Faculty—well he grew fond of a stray cat, started feeding the little bugger and it became a bit of a mascot for our faculty. I suppose it added a bitter of lightness to the tutorials although I suspected Bottomley allowed the creature full reign to curry favour with the girls—the man’s an unrepentant rake of the first water. Sadly, he’s never been caught at it. Anyway, the first time Roberts saw the feline mooching around at a tutorial he spat the dummy, saying he despised the creatures and demanded its removal. I don’t know why he thought he had the authority but people usually caved. Bottomley was a caver and shooed the cat out. The moggy had its own agenda and would sneak back in at every opportunity. One morning a university gardener found the creature tied to a fence relieved of its entrails. Suspicion fell to you know who but no proof, of course. It was Roberts’s final semester so we were glad to see the back of him. The fellow was just straight out creepy, if you ask me. He’s from South Africa, perhaps that’s a clue. Sorry, that’s sounds racist but you know white South African immigrants carry with them a certain sense of demoralized privilege, don’t you think.’
When would I have an opportunity to eviscerate this feline, was my silent response.
‘So that’s the accent,’ Miriam said, I’d never thought to ask, or I didn’t care to—he’s not approachable on that level.’
‘Yes, quite. Apparently post-apartheid they started running a quite strict system of positive discrimination, which they rather quaintly call “employment equity.” She actually performed quotation marks in the air. ‘These days whites are never placed over a black candidate, no matter what their qualifications.’
‘Hardly surprising, the Dutch colonised, exploited, marginalised and enslaved the indigenous population for over 350 years,’ I said.
Doris looked once more at me with her perpetually astonished eyes, perhaps wondering if she’d misheard, surely she had not just suffered the outrage of a contradiction.
‘Racism is abhorrent, no matter where it comes from Eric,’ Miriam said.
‘I’m not supporting racism. All I’m saying is, if you think positive discrimination practiced by the current South African leadership is just PC window dressing, who could blame them. It merely confirms that the Dutch were excellent teachers.’ It may not seem feasible but I received a sour, yet terrified look from Doris. Miriam’s disapproving glances caused me to turn my volume to zero for the time being.
Suddenly, Susan appeared. Zander’s brother, Peter, dawdled behind her. His hands were in his trouser pockets and his head was bowed as if some troublesome conundrum, requiring deep contemplation, appeared at his feet. I followed his eyes, fine splatters of green, white and red paint ornamented his shoes.
‘Miriam, let me introduce Peter Volkov,’ Susan said.
‘I was just saying how we had no inkling of your existence,’ Doris said.
‘Not entirely correct Doris. I have had correspondence with Peter’, Miriam said.
‘Really!!’ Doris responded as if this revelation was cause for unmitigated astonishment.
My understanding is that it’s not de rigueur in literary circles to overuse the exclamation mark, but there is no better way of indicating the annoying behaviour of this individual.
We had wandered into a city bistro and I ordered a decent bottle of South African red for the table. I was familiar with it, a Nederburg 2012 Cab-Sav, a quaffer but a winner in my book with its lovely ruby colour, earthy tones and full-bodied tannins. It was now late afternoon and Miriam managed to disentangle us from the dreadful Doris, saying she had a personal issue to discuss with Peter. Doris just looked as if she had heard something profoundly ridiculous. To be honest I was a little peeved, despite my abhorrence of the woman, as I was intending to prompt her to reveal any other aspects of Roberts’s university life. The cat story was unnerving but nothing I could imagine would be as fascinating as reality.
‘This is almost certainly the worst thing I should be doing right now,’ Peter said gesturing with his wine glass.
‘What happened to the priest?’ Miriam said.
‘Vadim had to leave. He was hoping to be home by nightfall, it’s a long trip back,’ Peter said. Doris’ mention of Nosferatu came to mind. ‘I have to go and see to Zanders property, sort out the sale of the house and the rest, I’ll be around for a few days.’ he paused, his now familiar shy reticence causing him to lower his eyes. ‘Look; I know Zander was an atheist, I…I’m sorry.’
‘Oh, well we—,’ Miriam began to speak.
‘Vadim has helped me a lot over the years, a dear friend really,’ he looked up at us and then we followed his gaze out the window. Several people were waiting at the bus-stop to catch the community shuttle, others walked briskly along the footpath both sides of the street as a wind picked up. Everybody was noticing the subtle changes in the weather pulling their thin autumn coats close.
‘I have to admit, his sermon was unexpected, but it was also poignant,’ Miriam said.
‘To tell you the truth I’m not sure I believe in God either, despite Vadim’s many appeals to me in this regard. We have had lively discussions,’ Peter said. ‘Aldous Huxley said something quite clever about it. “All gods are homemade, and it is we who pull their strings, and so, give them the power to pull ours.”’
‘Ha! Well put. Huxley had a way with words,’ I said, prompting me to wonder whether I had remembered to take my Somac that morning. I wasn’t feeling particularly dyspeptic, so perhaps I had.
‘Vadim is an unusual man. We have a small orthodox congregation and he is much appreciated; more of a philosopher really and even subversive at times, he has a tendency to quote Socrates rather than the gospel,’ Peter said with a quick smile, the first I had seen him offer. ‘He has his detractors among the laity and certain murmurs have been made to the bishop. His days of the cloth may be numbered and to be honest I think he’s ready to give it up, he doesn’t need all that window dressing to be a believer.’
‘What you said at the service Peter, it—well it surprised me. Zander rarely spoke about his family and I only met your aunt briefly many years ago. When I asked him he wouldn’t talk about you, apart from the fact of your existence,’ Miriam said, ‘it seemed a tricky subject, so I didn’t press him on it. He intimated at a tragedy but wouldn’t be drawn beyond that. He could be frustrating at times.’
‘Yes, we had a falling out which we never repaired. It wasn’t for want of trying on my part. Our estrangement was very difficult for me but he refused to relent.’ He searched our faces as if we may already be in receipt of long-buried knowledge. ‘You are wondering why. It’s because my father murdered our mother.’
‘Good grief, Zander never spoke of this…I’m so sorry Peter…I really had no idea.’ Miriam said.
‘He had already left home by then but he believed I could have prevented it.’
‘That seems an extremely unreasonable expectation. How old were you?’ I said.
‘Sixteen,’ he looked down at his hands, his long fingers were spread out on the table, as though for inspection, he shrugged and took a mouthful of wine. ‘The wine is very good Eric.’
He glanced at me with a shy smile. ‘Why did your father murder your mother?’ I said. I expected Miriam to censure me in some way but she was just as curious as I was.
‘Our father was a deeply disappointed man. He wanted to be part of something and believed revolutionary Russia was his destiny. He embraced communism, believing in the notion of universal equity, in the nobility of the working man, collectivism and all the rest. He was studious and read Marx and Lenin. However, by the time my father was in his mid-twenties Stalin had already been in power for 20 years and my father’s fervour had been blunted by disappointment at what had become of the revolution after Lenin. In his more lucid moments he did tell me stories from this time. He was educated, he wasn’t a fool and on those rare occasions I truly admired him, if only briefly.’
He became very conflicted and having been brought up in a strict household, reverted back to the tyranny of fundamentalist Catholicism. Once they have claimed you, it is hard to envisage alternatives. Over the years his zealotry poisoned his mind, by the time we’d arrived in Australia he’d all but surrendered to madness.
‘How did he characterise it—I mean his disillusion, it must have been an extraordinary time, especially under Stalin?
‘Eric, just let him tell—‘
‘No, it’s okay Miriam. My father came to believe that Communism merely replaced millennia of despotism with further dysfunction. He said that the thing was, most ordinary Russians were not ideologues. It meant nothing to them and although the revolutionary leadership in the early days, had rid themselves of the ruling nobility’s perception of government, that of enslavement to promote wealth, there was the fundamental issue of governing, they had nothing but theory and no experience to back it up.’
‘Not to mention the fact that the Great War had extremely demoralised and impoverished Europe,’ I said.
‘Yes, and after that disgusting event, the allies carved up and redistributed what was left of the ruling European dynasties, including the Romanoff’s, to form the resulting new soviets and without consideration for ethnic and social boundaries. The soviet leadership believed their ideology would provide the means of a new world order. I don’t think they fully thought it through. Look they probably did, of course they thought and discussed it—they were very intelligent people. It’s just that they’re envisioned utopia was thwarted by events they had no hope of controlling.
‘A direct line drawn from the economic collapse of Europe to the paranoia of Stalinism,’ I said. I was on shaky ground here but I was intrigued more by the simultaneous trauma of a disintegrating Europe, running alongside and exacerbating his father’s delusional grasp for meaning. Seeking hope from religion, prayer, spiritualism or tree-hugging is a consistent human fall-back strategy. If there wasn’t a belief system, some chancer would invent one.
Yes, and of course, it’s easy in hindsight but now it seems that a despot like Stalin was the natural consequence of all that had gone before. Supressing dissent, the gulags and as my father pointed out, from 1934 to 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, only two Communist Party Congresses occurred. Stalin’s systematic murder of the delegates was a result of the party’s own structure of centralization and absolutism. Berlin 1989 became an inevitability the day Lenin was entombed—as I said, easy in hindsight.’
‘Ah…any chance of getting back to the original conversation? I like to have a good stab at collectivism as much as the next woman, but we were talking about the Volkov family tragedy—or were we, I might have lost the plot.’
The Nederburg was clearly taking affect.
‘Of course Miriam, I think you have a right to know what happened, although I can sense Zander’s disapproval wafting around me,’ Peter said looking about him. I detected an ironic expression on his face. I was beginning to like him.
‘Yes, I never knew any of this. Zander had merely made some vague remark about your parents having died quite young and didn’t want to say any more than that,’ Miriam said.
‘Our father worked as a boiler attendant in a confectionary factory after we arrived in Australia. I was about five years old. It was ridiculous for him to have such a job, he had two degrees. The bags of sweets he brought home, however, were little compensation for the increasing frequency of his paranoid tirades. I now believe he suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness—perhaps schizophrenia. He could have been helped.’
I picked up an irritated note to this. In his quiet way, Peter was clearly bitter about the opportunities his father had squandered and no doubt the lack of money and social standing the family was forced to endure.
‘Though it hadn’t always been so, our mother had learned to despise him, but had not the courage to leave. She showed her disapproval one too many times. Our father had always been a drinker and he’d taken to coming home late with a skin-full. One night he took a kitchen knife and stabbed her many times, until she stopped struggling and died. I did try to stop him, I tried to pull him off but his fury seemed to have afforded him super-human strength. He merely swatted me off as if I was a fly.
When he had finished with my mother he turned towards me, he was like a mad beast. Blood was dripping off his beard and welled in the creases of his eyelids—I still have nightmares about that moment. He came after me but I ran away. I was quite athletic, running was my thing and I continued to do it for years to come. On that night, however, I ended up at a friend’s house across town and his parents contacted the police.’
‘What happened to him?’ I said.
‘He went and threw himself off The Gap, which wasn’t that far from where we lived in Dover Heights. A witness said, he just climbed over the barrier, fell on his knees and reached his arms up, curling his hands as if he was trying to pull something out of the sky. He then toppled over the edge and smashed against the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. The witness said it was enough to stop her from jumping off.’
‘And Zander?’ Miriam said.
‘I never returned to the house and Zander never uttered another word to me. In a way, I understood it, even at my young age then. I have lived with guilt all my life, not just for this. This event invaded me like a virus—try as I might, I have yet to find an antidote. I missed Zander terribly and our estrangement was cause for much sadness. You see I too wanted to be released, to become deliberately blind.’ Peter paused momentarily and looked squarely at me, as if I might understand. It was a very odd moment, almost as if he knew what I’d been up to in regard to Roberts. Of course, he couldn’t possibly know anything about it at the time.
‘But…what became of you then? I said.
‘It was your aunt Sonia, wasn’t it?’ Miriam said.
‘Yes, I went to live with her. She had arrived in Australia about a year after my parents, she was my father’s sister. It wasn’t long before she was not allowed to enter our house, she refused to declare obeisance to my father’s version of God. Anyway, she had a house in Coogee and I went to live there. I changed schools, I even wanted to change my name but my aunt didn’t let me, saying it wouldn’t make any difference. She said it would take much more than that to rise above the tragedy, that I must find the strength within, not from the external world. She encouraged my talent for drawing, saying it would help and she was right—when I draw I disappear.
‘I don’t understand what you mean, how does that happen?’ I said.
‘Well.’ He paused and took a sip of wine. ‘My aunt said that artists live on a different plain, seeing the things others can’t. Sonia’s greatest gift to me was teaching me to think carefully. She said if I wanted to be an artist I must learn to see the world, to observe and record—look for the things in between the lines, that truth lie within the shadows as well as the light. She was complicated. Sometimes I had difficulty understanding her myself.’
‘I did meet your aunt Sonia,’ Miriam said, ‘when Zander and I were together and, on occasion, after. She seemed a sort of brittle person, wise eyes—well, there was something about her. She was also an academic, wasn’t she?’
‘Yes, fungus, she was interested in the tiniest of organisms. She was utterly fascinated by the world of fungi, mycology it’s officially called. She had an electron-microscope installed in her own house, the floor had to be reinforced—they were huge contraptions in those days. She would often invite me to view some minuscule plant through the eye-piece and encourage me to draw it. She did some important work on the genus Trichoderma, wrote a paper that was crucial to the discovery of natural sources for crop disease management. She was famous in that rarefied world, although outside of it, no-one had ever heard of her. She also had a degree in Psychology, a bit of a polymath really.’
‘It was clear she was extremely bright and curious,’ Miriam said, ‘but when we met, always in Zander’s company, she seemed reticent, in regard to some things.’ ‘I thought she had more to say but felt unable to express it. I think I might have been restricted territory. Zander had his rules, a web of structures he built around himself, which were essentially off-limits. He told me she was the go-between for you two—for any family matters affecting you both and not for the ears of others. He said it would be a disservice to the listener, sharing so much sadness, and Sonia agreed.’
‘You probably knew him better than me, Miriam. After a while there weren’t any more matters. It was a long time ago now.’
The streetlights had flickered on some time before. The rush of homeward bound pedestrians, were replaced by the strolling of night crowds, opening restaurant doors, the garish animation of revellers as the bars filled up. A light rain started to fall on the busy streets. People moved through the slick light like mirages. Inside the bistro time seemed to have slowed.
‘I wonder if a thing can be both good and bad at the same time,’ I said.
‘You have a point. If you’re referring to my father, I believe he wasn’t evil. He was tormented by an abusive childhood, terrible memories. The Soviet Union was not a good place to be under Stalin. Vladimir Putin has a lot in common with Stalin, they both started out as street thugs. Stalin’s first act of violence was to rob a bank with a group of his henchmen in Tbilisi. They used explosives, forty people were killed. Just look at Putin—prior to Glasnost, he worked as a heavy for the KGB. Many violent acts on the streets of Saint Petersburg can be traced back to him.
To be fair, Putin did eventually graduate with a law degree from the state university. It must not be forgotten, however, he has blood on his hands.’ He was momentarily out of character, angry, ready to tip over into despair and the alcohol wasn’t helping. He was a fragile man, just holding it all together with something of an effort. He looked down again at his own hands and picked at a speck of green paint. ‘Sorry, I don’t know why all this dredging up is relevant and I shouldn’t be burdening you with it in any case. One tends to ruminate rather too morosely on these things when one gets old—looking for answers…or resolutions perhaps.’
‘It’s not a burden, Peter. He other things you’ve told us, I mean it’s interesting, not much seems to touch us here in this country, our land of milk and honey. We need to be reminded the world is a complex place, I think,’ Miriam said.
He took a good sip of wine. ‘I’m constantly amazed by our capacity to look beyond ourselves—our ego’s. That’s why I’m of two minds about faith. I need Vadim to tell me to keep an open mind—sounds strange now that I say it like that.’
‘I personally can’t for the life of me, understand this neediness that religion seems to engender in otherwise perfectly intelligent people. It seems to me to come from some deeply ingrained desire to return to a child-like state, to suspend the fundamental function of our brains, that of reason, I said.
‘I think it stems from a primeval notion of fear, now somehow part of our DNA, I suspect. I mean living in caves, before we even worked out how to make a fire. We had much to be afraid of, the dark, predators—each other, Miriam said.
‘Look, I get where Vadim was coming from in his talk to-day. He’s saying let’s not forget, forgetting works against our natural instincts. This desire for people to commune with the deceased, at least one more time, I…I get that bit,’ Peter said, even if it is a primeval construct of our collective minds.’
‘But why is it we can’t be satisfied with the perfectly acceptable notion that, in death, we simply return to the earth from which we came?’ I said. ‘Oblivion might well be the welcome relief we all crave when we grow old and infirm. Why is it we haven’t worked out, after all this time, a way to celebrate our lives simply by remerging with the planet and providing an opportunity for the aged to die without pain? Given humanities supposed sophistication, it’s an absurdity not to contemplate death, simply as nothing more than a product of life.
A platter of Anti-pasti I only half remembered ordering was placed on the table. I could be certain Miriam wouldn’t have, she ate like a small bird and rarely ordered food on any occasion, eating was chore for her, whereas drinking seemed a necessity. I think she was a high-functioning alcoholic and she couldn’t care less about the provenance—it could be a syrupy alcopop from the dismally stocked local bottlo or a 1998 Grenache from Bourdeaux. She was impressive drinker, which, despite my obsessive interest in the intricacies of the fermented grape, I found very appealing.
I liked Peter’s answer to my question about the slippery nature of morality, although I meant it as a more general question. It was understandable he took it as a query about his own travails. My focus was on that of Roberts and mine. Later, I’m sure Raj would have had some pithy and doubtless obscure answer to the question of moral ambivalence. Agathokakological, he might have said. I looked it up—composed of good and evil. Try saying it out loud for a while. You’ll get the hang of it.
We get limited access to the internet in here. When I told the warden I was writing about prison life, he seemed somewhat ambivalent but he still permitted me extra internet privileges. Hedging his bets, I guess. Like the guards he is largely repellent or is that large and repellent. There was a reasonably decent guard for a short period, but I suspect she saw the error of her ways and opted for an occupation that didn’t include close association with killers and child molesters.
I spent almost my entire shower time pronouncing Agathokokological this afternoon. I tried to do it quietly, but one of my fellow ablutionists overheard and took offence. He punched me in the back of my head, causing my forehead to bounce off the tiles. The guard in attendance thought it was hilarious. As I write, I’m trying to ignore the twin consequences of this interlude—the glowering lump between my eyes and its counterpart at the back. The effect, I suspected, was that of a breach baby whose head had to be laterally extracted with forceps.
My assailant is a thoroughly bad lot by the name of Frank Rong—I know, but that’s his name. He’s a big, slovenly looking Chinese-Australian everybody refers to as Fucknuckle, but not to his face. Not even Reggie—our little group’s personal protector—would mix it up with Fucknuckle, whom, I suspect is composed of only one side of the Agathokokological dichotomy.
Anyway, getting back to my point, or should I say Raj’s hypothetical point. He may have decided on the Taoist approach, which dictates that the good-or-bad argument is false, namely that one will inevitably lead to the other. This doesn’t seem convincing to me but at the time, back in what seems to me as the ancient world of my freedom, I was somewhat confused about my compulsive attraction to Roberts.
Then as now, I couldn’t speak for Roberts nor even to him about it, but I wasn’t absenting myself from either side of the equation, the malevolent circularity of our relationship seemed to me to have the characteristics of a spiral, the tunnel of a perfect wave we were riding together, to be concluded with chaos at the shore.
After leaving the bar we dropped the inebriated Peter off at Zander’s house. A second and third bottle had arrived at the table during the course of the evening and I was saddened to not have an opportunity to drink more of it myself, but someone had to drive home. As it was I drank three glasses, which according to the law is way over the acceptable limit for driving. Peter stood swaying at the front gate looking somewhat forlorn in his second-hand clothing. Zander’s white cottage was ghostly in the moonlight. He turned and waved and seeming reluctant to go any further as I drove off with Miriam lolling beside me, riding the bends with unintended exaggeration. She placed her hand on my thigh to steady herself. I did detect affection as well.
‘He’s intense, isn’t he?’ I said.
‘Sly, I would say,’ Miriam replied. ‘Sorry—no, I mean shy.’
‘Intensely shy,’ I responded and then we didn’t speak for a while. ‘Did you know he was an artist?’
‘Yes, Sonia told me, but then I completely forgot about it. A lot of water ha passed under the bridge. Now, having met Peter, it’s unsurprising, don’t you think?’
‘Artists are just otherworldly somehow; they’re a different species to us,’ she said, ‘they feel things with such nervous potency. Peter doesn’t think of the things we do—the way we do.’
‘I suppose; and that’s a good thing?’
Miriam was always at her most articulate, not to mention obscure, with wine on-board.
‘The practice of art is for isolated people I think,’ she said
‘What?’ Sometimes she alarmed me, I used to think she might be batty, then she pulled off the principal’s job and it’s obvious, you can’t have a demented person running a school.
‘Oh—that’s not what I mean. I mean people need to be less distracted—more often isolated, more time to see the world without the interference of the collective prism. We habitually subdue our unique abilities to observe and imagine, as if we are afraid what it may reveal.’
It flashed on me that this might have been the subject of one of the seminars at the conference she attended. We usually discuss such things to death, but Zanders actual death had intervened.
‘Well…’ I began to formulate a response, but she was on a roll.
‘We haven’t got art in our lives, Eric. We could have if we wanted it. I’m sad about that now…after talking to Peter. I mean we have books and music. We have the wretchedly sad Kazak wall-hanging, a decoration of such appalling provenance I wonder what had gotten into us to have purchased it at all. Thinking about it now, we need a visual language to interpret the world’s meaning. Art is like humanities punctuation marks,’ she said, ‘like explaining the world to the blind.’
Conference talk for sure.
‘I wonder what sort of painter, Peter is. Has he, for instance, a penchant for gum trees?’ I said.
‘Hardly—sort of abstract surrealist apparently, one of the very few things Zander told me about him. Their aunt had bought one of them as a gift for him. She told me, Zander looked at it for quite long time and then wrapped it back in the packaging it came in. I guess it’s in the attic of his house. He often put things up there, his secret stash. Peter will find it and that will be the conclusion of that particular narrative…the conversation they failed to have.’
I recalled Roberts’s painting, the two odd men in the field, an ineffable mystery. It does seem odd to me, how a series of marks on a canvas make us take a moment of pause, but they certainly do sometimes. Was the Doig an end or beginning of a story? I noted this was the first time Miriam had alluded to the wall-hanging’s melancholy history, and thus in accord with my own feelings about it. I made a mental note to pack it away in the linen closet. Perhaps we could revisit it another time—to reconfigure its moral implications. Miriam was silent again and went back to lolling slightly from side to side.
The conversation reminded me of something. About two years after I was married to my first wife we had moved to a city interstate, Rachel was contracted to work on a large capital-works project and I also managed to find an appointment in the cities local government offices. It was pretty much unheard of not to be employed in those days.
My father came to visit for a couple of weeks on annual leave. I was an only child and as I have already mentioned, my mother had died when I was in my teens. Although he never said as much, my father, Don, was often lonely and somewhat to my wife’s irritation I had this enduring sense of responsibility for him. He seemed a person adrift, without inner resources, whatever they were. I think he was just different and grew up in a world that didn’t much care for people at variance to it. He once told me he would have been very happy to find a job allowing him to endlessly travel the world, something of a pipe dream really, but still. Perhaps my travels were an accidental nod to my father as much as an adjunct to my own sense of isolation.
One day the three of us visited the state art gallery, as I mentioned earlier, Rachel, was an architect and, not surprisingly, also had an interest in art. We wondered from room to room filled with many paintings. My father looked with some pleasure at the neo-classicalists, the late romantics and the Pre-Raphaelites but when it came to a room of abstract expressionist paintings he seemed perplexed, even a little wary of them.
‘I don’t understand this, what’s it mean? It doesn’t seem like anything.’ he said pointing at a de Kooning picture—it could have been any one of them, I suspected.
‘I could ask the same of you, what do you mean by meaning—for goodness sakes Don, just relax,’ Rachel said. She seemed overtly irritated by my fathers’ remark as if to defend de Kooning’s honour in absentia.
‘Well, I rather like to make sense of things.’
‘Just let your self be immersed in it. Instead of going into battle with it, surrender, it requires imagination Don.’
I wanted to defend him but he did seem to be trying to look at it differently, so I let it go. It was clear to me by then that, apart from fiddling with rolls of plans on building sites and coming home complaining of a sore back from crouching over the drawing board, there were not many things Rachel found to her satisfaction. Ignoring her unkind tone, Don removed his glasses from the top pocket of his jacket and moved close to the picture alerting a nearby gallery attendant to also inch a little closer.
‘It says here Woman 5,’ Don said, pointing to the label on the wall, ‘if this is anything to go by, I wonder if one through to four, are as equally enchanting,’ he said, eliciting a snigger from me and resulting in Rachel’s exasperated exit to view the recently acquired Pollock, Blue Poles. God knows what he would have made of that. I steered Don to the Whiteley’s, which he assessed with a modicum of relaxation.
‘Generally speaking, I suspect artists need to be obsessed, ruthlessly so. Either commit utterly or get out of the game.’ I said. I think I was talking to keep myself from nodding off and killing us both. Miriam roused herself beside me with a bit of a start. The motion of the car had made her as sleepy I was.
‘What?’ I guess…there is that, I suppose.’
‘Although one would have to make an exception for Peter, don’t you think? Tell me, do you think he’s gay?’ I said.
‘Wait. Why did you say that? Did I miss something?
‘I think he’s gay, I’m convinced.’
‘Does it matter very much—I mean, at all Eric?’
She seemed all at once, quite alert—sensing her glittering gaze on me, captured by it. I was familiar with this form of beguiling, she managed to exert over me. Not for the first time, I imagined myself as a deer, such as those that one had to be wary of, driving on this freeway at night. Perhaps she was merely searching for any latent prejudice. She had more than a passing interest in matters LGBTIQ—perhaps it was a professional necessity. The way she talked about the behaviour of the girls at her school, I sometimes wondered if it was an incubator for lesbians. Not that there was anything wrong with that, of course.
‘What makes you think that, it never even occurred to me,’ she said.
‘I have advanced gaydar,’ I said, ‘I can just tell—it’s a term I picked up recently and I rather like it.’
‘I know what gaydar is Eric, along with everybody else in the world. You worry me sometimes—well, a lot of the time actually,’ she said with a giggle. She placed her hand back on my thigh, moving it higher this time. ‘I can’t say I noticed that.’
‘It’s the little things, a series of tiny gestures—adds up to the bigger picture, don’t you think? Perhaps Vadim is his special friend.’ I officially had an erection by then, her little finger brushed the protrusion in my pants. It didn’t feel accidental.
‘Jesus Christ, he’s a fucking priest!’
‘Orthodox, they’re not celibate you know.’ I could feel her thoughts processing this and wondered what it would be like to touch them, would it be as erotic as touching her breasts, for instance?
‘No I didn’t know but it’s interesting, because I did think Vadim had a bit of gay about him.’
‘Well then, there you go.’
‘You’re right, Peter should move into Zanders house.’ she said, ‘When you said that he went a bit green about the gills, don’t you think? Maybe too much for him to think about at the moment, but you’re right, he should.’
‘I like Peter,’ I said.
‘So do I, actually he didn’t seem particularly self-obsessed or very arty at all.’
‘Hard to pull off self-obsession in that get-up, I have to say. The fellow needs to see a tailor urgently.
‘Peter and Vadim could live together in Zander’s house, that’d be nice,’ she said, yawning. All the stuff in the attic, sorting out his papers and belongings—he could sort of catch up.’
Driving along the escarpment at night was always such a menacing experience for me. I disliked its low hills at night, the indeterminate paddocks of scrub and murmuring grasses that seemed to go on forever. Then there were the interspersing caverns of the freeway cleaved into the rock, like driving through an open-cut mine; high-speed wounds slashed cruelly across the temples of the landscape.
On this night, the winds abated and the drizzle of rain had stopped, replaced by slow cold mists crawling out from the distant mountains, melding with the still warm breath of the ocean beneath. This was what happened there every autumn. Soon more rain would fall, bright needles lancing the creeks and dry shallows forming between the low hills on the western side of the freeway. Silhouettes of gnarly tea-trees leaned precariously off the edge of the escarpment contorted year upon year by the fury of the menacing south wind. Now a tear or two has come as I write this and think of the vast blue ocean, never thinking I would be denied the opportunity to be adds it edge. If only I could walk with Calisto on a crisp spring day, out along the crags of that long escarpment above the endless wonder of the Pacific.
Only the week before, the driver of a utility truck was killed in a freak accident when a tree beside the freeway uprooted itself as he was passing, crushing him and his vehicle. One can be just plain unlucky. A journalist saw fit to end his report with a single sentence of an eyewitness’s account, an odd sort of thing to say under the circumstances—he did nothing wrong.
With Miriam swaying beside me in the cocoon of our car and the shadows of the night leaping up ahead, I found myself, despite my burgeoning arousal, wondering once again, at other unchartered roads I had been traversing of late. You might think this brooding turn I’d taken would dampen any propensity for hijinks but when we arrived home, Miriam straddled me on the sofa and holding onto the thick rod supporting the Kazak wall-hanging, she fucked me hard. When she came, she yelled angrily at the sad bridal heirloom while Calisto whinnied like wounded horse in the laundry. I concentrated on my timing.
The following week when Steve appeared and found the Murrayas and path edges could do with a slight trim, he mentioned he knew the man who’d been crushed by the tree on the freeway
‘Pog Brewster, a bit of a local identity because he always had the shits about something or other—miserable bugger. Spent a good part of his life measuring side-walks upside down, even the perpetually shit-faced at the pub couldn’t stand him.’
‘Won’t be missed then?’ I said, although I had to think about the sidewalks momentarily before I got it.
‘No, not much. His wife had an AVO on him, and there was talk of him dealing drugs to local kids. His daughter tried to kill him once, apparently nearly succeeded, side-winded him with an ironing board which put him through a sliding glass door. He was in hospital for weeks. Rough lookin’ bugger—red-faced with the drink, filthy bloody dreads and tattoo’s up the wazoo. Bloody bad luck having a tree fall on him but his days were numbered, I reckon.’
‘What colour was his ute Steve?’
‘Blue—an old bucket of bolts.’
He looked at me expectantly. ‘I think I had an altercation with him at the super-market entrance on Fort Street a few weeks back.’ I remembered the unrestrained fury of my assailant outside the bottle-shop.
‘Ha, then you were in a well-attended club. Doors have closed for good on that one mate.’
It all came to a head the week following Zander’s funeral. Occasionally Miriam caught the train to work and I would drive down to pick her up from the college and have dinner at one of the restaurants in the city. We had a favourite, offering Catalan cuisine. I’d arrived early, despite a pre-arranged pick-up at seven p.m. The traffic to the city was light and by the time I had turned into the school driveway I had a fifteen minute wait. I parked at my usual spot to the rear of the teacher’s carpark with a view of the building and Miriam’s office situated on the ground floor. The entrance to the admin block is via a small garden, through which a path, consisting of a series of large flagstones, led to the carpark. A lamp situated above the windows illuminated the garden.
The stone path could not be seen from my position, as around the perimeter of the garden was a gathering of low shrubs. I could see the light on, knowing she’d be seated at her desk and out of sight. There was a car parked close to the entrance and directly in front of the flagstones. It was already dark, so I couldn’t distinguish what make it was but it was, something sporty and somehow familiar although I couldn’t place it. A single light illuminated one of the rooms on the second level of the building, no doubt another staff member taking advantage of the quiet to catch up.
Miriam once asked me: ‘Why do you park so far away Eric, you could pick me up virtually at the entrance to the building.’
‘I’m not sure, I like to have an encompassing view…to watch the building, you emerging from it and walking towards me—it’s somehow satisfying.’
‘I’m watching the silence…the bits between the things that happen, the peripheral world as people flow through it.’
‘You’re a worry sometimes—you know that, don’t you?’
After a few minutes I saw Miriam approach the window and look out into the car-park. Simultaneously the silhouetted figure emerged, framed by the first floor window. He stood looking down at the garden. Miriam gave no sign she had seen my car. Before I could flash the car lights on and off—a sign I had arrived—she’d moved away and then I saw the flapping of her disembodied coat and a hand emerging from one of the sleeves, while the rest of her was out of sight. The light in her office went off and seconds later she materialised through the door. She started walking along the path towards the car-park and the dim sensor light came on to illuminate the garden path. Then she disappeared.
It was as if she had been swallowed by a sink-hole. I wondered whether my eyes were playing tricks on me in the dark, I got out of the car and stood beside it. I waited for her reappearance on the tarmac of the car-park when I heard her crying out for help. I ran the length of the tarmac and gaining the entrance to the garden I found Miriam sprawled on the path, crying in pain and swearing blue murder.
‘Miriam, what happened?’ I yelled, running up the path nearly slipping over myself. There seemed to be an unnatural viscosity to the flagstones. I kneeled down beside her, as she lay twisting in agony, ‘Miriam, talk to me.’
‘I twisted—my—ankle, oh shit,’ her voice was cracked, brittle and she screamed in pain as she tried to raise herself up.
I looked at her feet and the left one was skewed at an unnatural angle. Straight away it was obvious it was more serious than a sprained ankle. She kept punching the ground with her right boot. She was clearly in terrible agony and quickly submerging into shock; even in the moonlight her face took on the pallor of death. When I cradled her head in my hand, I felt what could only be blood, dripping through my fingers. I grappled for my phone clumsily as I held Miriam’s head off the path. While I dialled 000 I looked around frantically, illogically willing the appearance of some miracle to alleviate her suffering. That’s when I remembered! I peered up at the first floor to see Roberts looking down at us.
Even with the light behind him, the now familiar arrogance of his posture gave him away. He was merely leaning against the window frame looking at us as if he had come across a vaguely interesting curiosity and would at any minute be distracted by more important matters.
There were a few ways the rest of this story could have gone. I found it hard to conceive of a scenario whereby Roberts was going to end up still breathing, a conclusion ultimately settling on the occasion of Miriam’s accident in the teacher’s car-park. Did he know it? Sometimes I think he did, but how could he, was it some secret knowledge we shared, prevailing above all else. Sometimes I think he was leading me down into a long forgotten chasm filled with strange desires.
Did Roberts coax me in because he knew what I was, he knew me as if he saw me in the mirror. Many times, even now, I fancy see a version of him when I shave. Perhaps it was not so much that we were interchangeable but there was a presence, a sense of him there, always lurking in the shadows behind me.
‘I know you believe I played some part in Karl’s demise, but you are wrong,’ Raj said. Raj, Reggie, the librarian and I were all seated at our usual table in the prison refectory. Reggie had started calling the librarian The Bishop, and it caught on, eventually simplified to Bishop. Our table was strategically chosen by Raj, who had been here the longest. Sometimes I found it hard to believe he had been in custody for seven years by the time I had arrived. The table provided a view of the entrance to the refectory and the population of our wing in a state of full and flagrant gustation. A low grumble of voices rose and fell below the metallic crashes from the kitchen as the staff started their clean-up. Raj indicated when I first met him, he was pathologically averse to having his back to any architectural apertures, as he characterised doors and windows.
One evening he provided a bizarre explanation for this obsession—even for him.
‘From ancient times and riven through many cultures, the voids and apertures provided in buildings were of great significance. Their arrangements of doors and windows in all manner of design had some relationship to the concept of the third eye, a universal anomaly of all belief systems, often obscured by interpretations such as the mind’s eye or the inner eye, even being referenced in the Christian Bible. There is another interpretation. To look through or out of the apertures is to be continually aware of certain presences in the world beyond the needs of mundane perception. One does this in order to control a variety of these not inconsiderable presences—I call them the allusive. These ancient entities, in fact, are continuously in need of shelter, they hate exposure—particularly moisture. The elements in general are anathema to them. Unwanted allusive’s can enter apertures that remain unattended. I am therefore vigilant Eric in my seating arrangements and I urge you to do the same.’
A smile, both beatific and alert shone on his peerless brown face. Despite his insanity, I have become fond of the fellow and to be honest I don’t particularly want to dissuade him from his peculiar quest for enlightenment—to each his own.
‘It’s okay, I’m rather tired.’ I took myself off to my cell for the evening, trying not to have too many apertures at my back.
Most of the inmates ate the substandard prison food without complaint, including me after a year of my own association with it. Early on, I visited the prison clinic with my gut flora in protest at the daily battles it had to fight. The RN was sympathetic and informed me she had made her own submission to the authorities on behalf of the inmate’s bowels but had failed to impress. ‘You’ve seen the state of the guards, who, to a man, look as if they have never been on so much as a recreational stroll. Warden Jeffries sets a poor example—I believe obesity has made him mean spirited and uncooperative,’ she said.
‘I agree, not exactly life of the party.’
‘I suggest you take two of these daily, instead of one Eric—at least for the time being.’ She filled my usual prescription for Somac. ‘Your tummy will adjust, I promise.’
And so it has.
Reggie had been placing an empty tray at the table, since Karl’s departure—a show of respect which we all silently acknowledged.
‘I understand you want to ascribe blame but I would be delighted if you didn’t lay it at my feet,’ Raj continued. ‘I wasn’t even there at the time. Evidence is important, don’t you think? As accustomed as we are with the dark art of making of judgements on the most ethereal of evidence, there is absolutely none of it in this case. When I returned to our cell, Karl was curled up on his bunk with the needle still in his arm and I immediately alerted the guards, before trying to resuscitate him. You yourself Bishop, saw me in the library’
‘Okay, I am willing to except this Raj,’ Bishop said.
‘As am I,’ I said.
‘Somebody as crazy as you Raj—wouldn’t put anything past ya,’ Reggie said with a broad smile. As close an acceptance as he was ever going to get from our resident hard man.
I had to admit I thought about evidence a lot, because in my case it was all entirely circumstantial.
That night I lay on my narrow bed remembering my town on the wooded hills above the ocean, of the great gums that swayed in the valley below our house, the earthy cent of Banksia’s when their seeds pop and open like mouths of crying children. There was a daisy Miriam cultivated about the garden and Steve fashioned into neat clumps, jewelled crowns amongst the rockeries. Sometimes I even miss the raucous screams of the crested cockatoos. Of course it is not always beautiful and perfect when you live close to the bush. How can it be when it is so vulnerable to the elements? One fiercely hot summer a fire raged across the national park on our western side, the slash of a giant’s bright sword through the landscape. The town lost four houses to the blaze. For many months after, the colours of the forests and pristine valleys were transformed into a monotonic hell of ash and blackened stumps as far as the eye could see. Eventually shoots began to take hold and the timbers slowly restored themselves.
Theseus’ Paradox popped into my head—how many timbers, sails, masts of a ship can be replaced before it is no longer the original ship. Somehow this seemed pertinent to me. To what degree am I the same person after becoming entangled with Roberts? If you looked at the self-repaired forest, you could identify it as being reborn from the original, but how much could it be destroyed before it no longer resembled the original forest. The geology and geography of the place forms the contours on which the forest grows, but there are many factors that make replication impossible—the habitats of the animals, for instance; the presence of the animals themselves, the shape of the new trees and other plants, even the chemistry of the ash laden streams in the blackened valleys. This seemed to be a sad paradox to me, one of a human need for constancy or it could be representative of continuous flow of nature, happily dependent on transfiguration. Even before Roberts, whenever I passed through those suffering valleys, cresting the seared ridges for a wide view of the summers wild carnage, I wondered where it would end, when I could be identified as an entirely different person.
One spring, Miriam and I watched a bird the colour of midnight build its spindly bower of twigs in a shady corner of our garden, carefully placing an alluring trail of precious blue artefacts at its entrance. The tawny mate, with studied curiosity inspected each pretty blue gift before relinquishing her innocence to the dark presence within. I miss also, talking to Steve with the sweet aroma of cut grass floating in the soft breezes of summer afternoons. I know I am sometimes a cold man of nebulous presentiments but in these endless days of confinement, I have thoughts belying the darkness in my heart—though it does me no good at all. Mostly though, for all my sins, I miss Miriam.
For some reason I found myself spending more and more time with Raj. He was a good listener and occasionally his strange view of the world made a degree of sense—for a multiple murderer. He was coming up to his seventh year behind bars. I felt a certain kinship with him but did wonder whether he would fare better within some mental institution, benefiting from therapy.
In truth, I hoped he would not be persuaded to join the sane. I was doubtful as to what might be the determining parameters of such a state and exactly who was qualified to conclude what they were. There is so much disagreement within the ranks of the Psychology profession, that I was reluctant to provide them with the honour. I suppose you could say I was fearful for his insanity, rather than the other way round.
He told me his point of variance with the bulk of his medical colleagues, was that he failed to see the necessity for prolonging a life of unbearable pain, misery and indignity. I could not bear to watch the terminally sick and deeply aged, end their lives so wretchedly. I felt duty bound kill them and am not sorry for it. I made their passing entirely painless.
We sat, as we often did, at a trestle at the rear of the exercise yard. Reggie wasn’t far away, regaling a delighted gathering of drug traffickers and assorted thugs, with his often very funny stories. Reggie had the gift to entertain, and was universally admired for it among the prison population. The laughter was momentarily interrupted by a large flock of ducks flying in formation overhead. One man pointed and then another and before long the prison yard was filled with upturned heads.
‘Have you noticed’, Raj said, ‘that so complacent do we become when released to unfettered freedom, we rarely look at the sky above us, but in the confines of this closed environment we lift our faces entranced by the blue world above.
Raj and I usually had one book or another with us, often purloined from the library. For Raj and I reading is the air we breathe, even more so now that we are locked up. We looked, with little hope, for some germ of wisdom among the poorly represented collection. Raj had quite a high-brow collection of his own books in his cell but, but even he said that sometimes it’s a relief to salt all that philosophy with a bit of rough.
Raj, to our mutual delight, found a dilapidated paperback squashed into the back of a shelf—‘Venus on the Half-Shell’ by Kilgore Trout, a pseudonym Kurt Vonnegut occasionally used. It was printed in 1974 and would have been considered perfect fodder for the prison clientele on the basis of the badly executed cover illustration alone—consisting of a barely clad couple apparently being transported through space on an over-sized scallop shell with their pet owl and dog. Raj read the publishers blurb on the back.
The Space Wanderer
a pretty nice guy whose only fault is
that he asks questions that no one
can answer; primarily, Why are we
created only to suffer and die?
As I’ve already mentioned, I had on extended loan, one of the few pearls that had been cast among us swine, Gravity’s Rainbow, and I was under strict instructions to pass it on to Raj, if I ever got round to finishing it.
‘Sometimes Raj, I wonder how I will bear one more day without Miriam, let alone the rest of my life. If I could, I would spend every waking moment beside her bed. I feel sure I could talk her into waking up from her coma,’ I said. We were seated with our backs against the thick walls of the exercise yard. Our faces remained lifted towards the early afternoon sun. ‘You know, I think I might be staring to work out the changing seasons without a calendar.’
‘You could have one if you wanted. I do understand why you wouldn’t though,’ Raj said.
I felt a fresh breeze of late spring, the sun moving inexorably through the sky, spreading its warmth over the prison yard. A memory flashed through my mind, leaving a mark in me like an untreated wound. I often strolled around the headland formed by Flagstone Hill with its lighthouse and gun placements. On this day, dark clouds burdened with rain, hung over the escarpment to the north-west, the tip of Mt. Kiera obscured in their grip.
A king-tide had gathered overnight and was now fully unleashed along the coast. The leviathan surges crashed like angry demons against the old convict-built seawall which was being dismantled by the sea right in front of me, Giant stones long bereft of their mortar toppled onto the path below. This opera of the elements gripped me as it did all who saw it. The bravest of boys had ventured slowly to the end of the breakwater, hand over hand gripping a steel rail, for the sheer delight of standing under the deluge, as it pounded the rocks. Plumes of sea-spray leapt so high over the breakwater, it was like the ocean had changed places with the sky.
I closed my eyes tight to eradicate that world only to imagine another—Raj and I talking on my verandah at home. Perhaps that distant sound I heard was the scissoring Steve was giving the hedges—a bit of a haircut. What would Raj be imagining, sipping tea with his family at their house in Rajasthan, a seemingly magical place that often made him quite lyrical in his more melancholy moments.
‘There is this power Eric, it hides in all of us and emerges when the need arrives. I guess a prison sentence is one such necessity. Some call this power imagination but I give it a higher regard. It’s a living thing, not one of mere thoughts. There are several different kinds of coma, but bear with me—think of your wife’s coma as a prison as well. She understands the need to wake up and get on with her life but she has lost the means to do it. She knows it’s there, within reach, but what is it? How can she re-imagine herself back into the world? The image of her ambulatory self is concealed. It is possible, I think, to pull the collective scales from our eyes and replace them with the true meaning of our place in the universe. Maybe that’s not such a good reason to wake up, come to think of it.’
‘It’s something that has bothered me, why is it necessary to have any meaning at all? What’s wrong with the way we are? It’s not particularly satisfactory but it might do, don’t you think?’
‘Are you serious Eric or playing devil’s advocate here?’
‘I suspect you can’t have it both ways. I may be wrong, of course.’ He thought for a few seconds. He had this dreamy sort of expression on his delicate features when he did this. It was a very endearing side of his nature, although I couldn’t help but to imagine him whispering sweetly to his victims before they closed their eyes for the last time. ‘You do have a point though, there’s this thing Kant said—Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made. We enter life without any notion of morality and in death we leave the world in the same state. In the interim we are continually renewing the impression we have of what we are. It takes some courage to straighten yourself out, you have to be humble—something I’ve had to learn.’ He looked sadly down at the cover of a book he’d been leafing through, a trashy paperback with a barely dressed and menacing young woman holding a gun. ‘Humility has arrived late for me—too late really.’
One can achieve a favourable outcome no matter what your circumstance; it being a matter of personal disposition in my opinion. Of course, if you are in a tight spot being healthy doesn’t hurt. It often occurred to me, if I had been fitter on the night of my final confrontation with Roberts I might have been a more capable adversary. Now I feel obliged to make up for this lack. Locked in my cell in the evenings, I do a series of exercises tailored to the limited space. Sit-ups, for instance, are good and some of the more restrained examples of callisthenics; that jumping around, helicoptering caper is not recommended in here. I have recently lost a cell-mate to freedom and am awaiting with some trepidation his replacement. I have wondered on what basis the powers that be determine cell co-occupancy—do they give it serious consideration or perhaps they couldn’t give a rat’s arse, as Reggie might opine. At least for the present I have a bit of extra space.
It is my experience there are a great many slovenly people in a state of advanced bodily decline within the criminal classes. You will often see tattooed and pumped up, ultra-violent gym jockeys on TV and Movies about prison life, but they are a very small minority of the prison population, sticking together in their muscular pursuits and remaining relatively harmless. They look scary sometimes but anybody would look like that, lifting forty kilo dumb-bells. The real menace, are those obese, stubbly pale-faced mouth-breathers lunging their abundance through the common areas with arrogant intimidation.
Karl, my late associate, lived in visceral fear of Bruce, a great barrel of a creature and the principal purveyor of drugs in the prison. He was the most repulsive person I had ever encountered and did my best to keep my distance. Karl told me Bruce was caught red-handed with a pan-tech laden with tins of pickled Jalapenos from Bolivia, via Peru. Why is this, an arrestable offence, I hear you ask? The answer is that a condom full of heroin had been included in each can. Karl announced with some sadness, the haul would have fetched a cool 20 million smackers on the street. I have it on good authority Bruce wants to see me bleed a bit, if not a lot. According to Obeid, a sneaky little creep, the big man thinks I’m a smartarse cunt and apparently cause enough to make me deserving of some biff. I suspect it might have something to do with the completely unfounded view I was in some way, culpable in the demise of both Karl and a creditable source of Bruce’s cash-flow; but more of that soon.
I am afforded a degree of protection by Reggie, a violent man who for reasons escaping me, has taken a shine to me and my fellow compatriots, although he has made mention of his desire to remove The Bishop’s trouser snake and feed it to the rats. Nevertheless, I fear the time is approaching when a confrontation, possibly involving the business end of a shiv, must be endured and I am uncertain how I might fair. By the way, for those who are unaware a ‘shiv’ is a prison artefact made of narrow found objects and fashioned in such a way as to relieve oneself of ones organs, when plunged into ones abdomen. The sharpened handle of a plastic toothbrush, for instance, was claimed to be a formidable implement for a determined psychopath.
I learnt at dinner time, Bruce the Bull—as I have been led to believe is his official title—was after me. Seated at a table with Raj, the assaulter and batterer Reggie the fist Fisher and the ghastly librarian—AKA The Bishop and a person most of the population steadfastly refuse to acknowledge as even a human being. I was pushing around the congealed mess on my plate, giving some serious thought as to exactly what it was I had in front of me. Was it, as its appearance attested, the raw entrails of a long dead Mackerel?
‘Hey Eric, the Bull told that old fucker Obeid your arse is grass mate,’ Reggie said between mouthfuls. Reggie had an all-consuming appetite and ate everything placed in front of him as if it was his last meal, which given the state of the comestibles here, is not an irrational prediction. He said once, he regularly needed worming, at which point I sang ‘The Internationale’ to myself in an attempt to run interference on whatever else he proceeded to say on the matter. I’d just learnt to sing it in French, only to myself, of course, as I didn’t want to appear completely mad, which in here could be a blessing or indicate a vulnerability, neither of which you may not want broadcast.
In any case every inmate has their own way of currying favour with the minutes, the hours and long months and fathomless years, and for some eventually uninterrupted by that scarcest of resources in this place—freedom.
‘Obeid’s as cunning as a shithouse rat, there’d be something in it for ‘im talkin’ about that shit. Used to be a politician, so it figures,’ Reggie said.
Raj added, ‘men do not know how, that which is drawn in different directions, harmonises with itself. The harmonious structure of the world depends upon opposite tension like that of the bow and the lyre.’
‘What-da-fuck man,’ Reggie replied.
‘Heraclitus, my friend, a noble and wise Greek from the 5th Century BC, Raj said and continued, ‘he also said—The path up and down are one and the same.’
‘Jesus Christ in a bucket, I reckon me burglar mate Spiros, whose a Greek from this century, might have something to say about that china plate. ‘His path up to the high-life on stolen shit, weren’t the same as ‘is path down ‘cause he just got canned for a 5 – 10 stretch,’ Reggie said.
All I could think of about this exchange was, under what circumstances Jesus Christ might be found in a bucket. Reggie also said that fucker’s crazy as a pork chop, referring to Raj one morning when we were side by side in the showers. He’d just had an earful of Raj regurgitating Gurdjieff; going on to say that I was gunna make a Fourth Way via his fucking navel if he didn’t shut-da-fuck up.
As you know reader, I have some capacity for observation and frankness, so you will forgive me when I point out without further ado that Reggie has a very large penis. For a short and wiry pugilist, it was immensely surprising. One of the things I had to adjust to when I entered this place was to forsake modesty in all its forms. While I tried to keep my eyes averted when in the showers and assume nonchalance in regard to my own nakedness, this delicacy was redundant in the case of Reggie’s genitalia. His penis was of such a scale, he was renowned throughout the prison for it. New guards were posted to shower duty, so that they may fully appreciate his below stairs attributes. Reggie himself, to his credit, couldn’t have cared less, he wasn’t particularly proud of his congenitally abnormal apparatus, saying with no small regret, it scared the ladies off , but was willing, for sign-tific purposes to display it, if asked, so long as there was no faggot shit goin’ down. It clearly gave him a bit of kudos or respect perhaps, either of which is hard to come by in this place, unless you’re Bruce the Bull or Frank Rong, of course. They could have micro-penises and it wouldn’t dent their malodorous presence.
Anyway, in regard to other aspects of this surprising man, I couldn’t for the life of me, understand why the humble pork chop, could be construed as anything other than perfectly reasonable.
‘The Greeks aren’t to my taste, I have to say,’ The Bishop said with a wistful smile.
‘Yeah and we all know what your tastes are—fucking rock-spider,’ Reggie mumbled with unleavened distaste.
As you can see the meal-time banter is of a calibre befitting the victuals.
‘Why?’ I said in an attempt to regain some continuity to the narrative. They all turned their bemused attention to me.
‘Pardon?’ Raj said.
‘Why is The Bull after me?’
‘Jest don’t like ya, ‘e don’t need much excuse for that mate, jest his way,’ Reggie said, popping something uncannily resembling an eyeball into his mouth.
‘It’s because of Karl, Obeid reckons. Bruce is of the opinion you might have had something to do with him losing a good paying customer,’ The Bishop said, confirming my suspicions that my letter on Karl’s behalf, may have been more influential within the confines of prison than it may have done outside.
‘Sorry as I am to hear such news, it appears suspicion has been relocated to your good self, Eric.’ Raj said.
A guard approached our table.
‘Fish, warden wants to see ya.’
‘What for?’ Reggie said.
‘Dunno, just get-the-fuck up and follow me before I fucken’ give ya kidney’s something to think about.’ He placed his hand on the hilt of his baton for emphasis.
Menacing guards were par for the course, always living entirely up to our expectations. Their casual evil fouled the atmosphere, wherever they roamed; often providing pause for us to wonder—who exactly were the bad guys. I guess we were just all in it together, prisoners and jailers alike. Perhaps it was a valid response to have society’s vermin controlled by toxic psychopaths. Reggie pushed his plate away and stood up with as much insolence he thought he could get away with, and still remain in receipt of acceptable kidney function. After they left, we all looked at each other.
‘What’s that about?’ The Bishop said.
‘Wardens got a rat up his arse over something Fish did, I shouldn’t wonder,’ I said. I was trying a bit of prison vernacular on for size. Judging by the looks I received from The Bishop and Raj, I suspected I was less than convincing.
Even with the most overwhelming evidence to the contrary, you will invariably find the majority of prisoners convinced of their innocence. It seems to come with the territory, that the humble bread of atonement must be buttered with a liberal slather of self-justification. Reggie swears the circumstances of his latest robbery charges were nuanced by the cops—something, I have been told, was common practice amongst the constabulary. Knowing what I do of Reggie’s personality, I wasn’t entirely convinced of his guilt myself.
‘Look mate I’d own up to it. I might be a crook but I don’t lie to meself. Those fuckers fit me up,’ he said.
Raj—although believing he was entirely justified in shortening the lives of several suffering geriatrics—pleaded guilty for the sake his own equanimity. The judge gave him an opportunity to say a few words before sentencing and Raj told the court he was on the path to the Four Noble Truths and fighting the charges against him would divert him from this goal. The judge responded by telling him he may or may not be in receipt of his ambition by the time of his release, but he’d be of an age when the getting of wisdom would be the least of his worries.
I even found myself pondering the possibility that Roberts had accidentally fallen on my knife. This flew in the face of the forensic evidence of three thrusts, the one to the heart being somewhat more pertinent than the other two. In my defence the events immediately leading up to and the circumstances of crime itself, were a bit of a blur.
It occurs to me now that death has been a pervasive constituent of my life. I received Vadim’s funeral pronouncement of this fact as a general rule, entirely without argument—Death flows through us in all the days we live on this earth, death marks every day.
Perhaps it was Ms. Hawthorne’s interest in me, but I had a not entirely solidified idea I might do something in the arts when it came time to enter university. I matriculated okay or at least okay enough to have a reasonable choice of potential degrees but I was far too sensible to think I might make a go of it, in any sort of artistic pursuit. I decided on a newly established bachelor’s degree in City and Regional Planning. I eventually did a post-grad in economics but wanted add at least a bit of colour with a couple of unit on English literature.
Rachel and I first came into contact when I tripped over her legs on the lawns of the university quadrangle. I was meandering between the palisades, whilst swatting James Joyce’s Ulysses. I was up to the part where Bloom, much to the horror of bystanders, evacuates an enormous fart while waiting for the bus. Rachel was snoozing with a crumpled pamphlet—discussing the relevance of post-structuralism in the built environment, I later learned—covering her eyes from the late morning sun.
Rachel made her displeasure abundantly clear. The commotion was brought to the attention of several people nearby. One young man looked as if he might intervene, until he heard Rachel’s explicitly unlovely diatribe. In spread-eagled disarray on the grass, I managed to turn towards the source of all the yelling and witness an array of agitated blond wisps of hair flaring out from the centre of the golden orb of the sun above us. Once I regained my glasses and a small portion of composure, I realized the object of my accidental assault, was in fact a very pretty girl in baggy shorts, now jumping about on one leg.
‘I’m so sorry, I should be looking where I’m going, this bloody book, it’s—’
‘Jesus, no wonder you’re on planet Zog – reading Joyce and it’s not even midday!’ she said. She also said several other things which included one fuck and at least two dickheads. By now I was sitting up, looking confused and red-faced. Ulysses was splayed out on the grass beside me and the dust jacket had come astray from the binding, its spine cracked.
She took a closer look at me and calmed down, even offering her hand to help me up. I brushed myself off, apologising again and explaining my professor expected everybody to have read Joyce if they wanted to come anywhere near his tutorials.
‘Pompous knob!’ She said, lifting her right leg and rubbing her sore shin, her flip-flop dangling from her foot. I was uncertain as to whom the insult was directed, but the incident did lead to one of those apocryphal stories couples tell their friends and family, acquiring a patina of quaint corniness with every retelling—We had literally fallen head over heels in love. If this sort of cheesy trespass can be forgiven, Bloom’s incommodious discharge at the bus-stop could not. After I skimmed the middle and read the last chapter of Ulysses, I just managed to sidle past my professor’s ire, by writing an apparently passable critique.
Rachel and I met a few times over the course of our time at university, usually in the company of others. The last time we happened to meet at the uni bar. She had been in earnest discussion with a bearded, long-haired man in bell-bottom jeans and a shirt with the pointiest collars I’d ever seen. Not that I noticed such things much, but anything to do with Rachel had a tendency to concentrate my mind.
By then I knew she was doing a Bachelor of Architecture and suspected this man was doing the same. I was quite taken with her but nothing much came of it, probably because I hadn’t the faintest idea how I might encourage her affections and she didn’t appear to be particularly interested in me.
I even asked my father at one stage about how I might approach this undiscovered territory. I spent a lot of time explaining my interest in Rachel, after which he paused for rather a long time staring out the window with his customary gloominess, as if the answer to my conundrum might lay with the sparrows that congregated on the telephone wires opposite our apartment.
‘Be careful Eric,’ was his conclusion. To my knowledge he showed no further interest in the opposite sex after my mother left us, so he may not have been the best person to ask.
By then, my only real friend, Tom, from my school days had gone to England, for reasons I couldn’t quite get a handle on. It’s all happening in London Eric. Don’t let the buggers tie you down mate. I wasn’t entirely sure who the buggers were but I thought I would find out, sooner or later.
That night at the bar though, Rachel did laugh at something I’d said—I didn’t really mean it to be particularly hilarious. I’d ordered a round of drinks and we started talking about bees of all things. The long-haired man, who was introduced as Phil, showed only the slightest interest in me but hung on Rachel’s every word. It may have been because I sensed he might be a threat to my envisioned union with Rachel, but I immediately disliked him. He started going on about a looming disaster he referred to as colony collapse. He said as early as 1920’s there were concern for the bee population. Even Einstein had weighed in on the subject.
‘Albert said that within four years of the expiration of the last honeybee, most of the animal population of the earth would be dead.’ Phil said, with lofty presentiment. It was comforting to note that his relationship with the long dead genius was on a first-name basis.
‘We could learn a lot about both urban planning and architecture, from bees,’ Rachel said. Notwithstanding the circumstances of our first meeting, she had this earnest and concentrated approach to everything, as though all human concerns were entirely cerebral. I put her inability to see my intentions as a by-product of this propensity. Of course the small fact that I hadn’t yet indicated them, could have been an encumbrance to her full understanding of these intentions.
I don’t know why but I thought I might impress her by telling her something I’d picked up about Charles Darwin’s private life. It so happened, that one of my lecturers was skilled at inserting unusual observations into even the most prosaic of subject matter. I told her and Phil that the great man wrote with typical English restraint—the life of man would be made extremely difficult if the bee disappeared. I then pretty much made up the rest with a barely congenial nod to Phil.
‘Look, I believe some this is yet to be confirmed, but Charles noted the bee’s propensity for organized survival and connubial bliss, and proceeded to emulate them in choosing a wife. He prevaricated, however, on the matter of children, they would be consuming of his time and, as we are now aware, he had much to do.’
Rachel nodded with solemn but encouraging approval whereas Phil looked a little green about the gills. ‘His concerns included the potential befuddlement of visits to the seaside and the necessity for picnics, ballgames and other distractions; concluding it may confound his great purpose. Nevertheless and with a degree of apprehension, he married. Emma was a beautiful young woman, who happened also to be his first cousin.’
‘Really?’ Rachel said.
‘Yes. Apparently it wasn’t much of an encumbrance in those days.’ I said. ‘Anyway, a pregnancy was confirmed in short order, and after the production of an offspring with no obvious genetic discrepancies he made arrangements for a long absence aboard the Beagle. It’s worth noting,’ I said, ‘the couple’s first born became a banker, reason enough for some to allege the union was a clearly unnatural alliance.’ Rachel laughed out loud and playfully pushed me nearly off my stool, which both surprised and pleased me.
We didn’t meet again socially until several years after we had completed our degrees. I had managed to get a job with local government. I was favoured enough to be requested to attend a conference in Auckland, along with my immediate superior.
‘Rachel, I said. It was an evening soiree, a meet and greet sort of thing with a famous Dutch architect as the guest of honour, a grey ponytailed man who wore slippers and baggy, drawstring pants. Earlier in the day, we suffered a seminar with him about this new—at least new for me— thing called post-modernism. He used words like whimsy and relativism at least once in the same sentence, which can never be a good thing. Rachel was standing on the periphery of a group of people, not appearing to be engaged in the conversation.
‘Eric, good grief.’ I didn’t know whether to kiss her or shake hands but she took that decision out of my hands by hugging me warmly. She held me at arms-length, presumably checking me out for any weirdness beyond that which she’d witnessed from our university days.
‘Been a while,’ I said.
‘Any more unconfirmed reports about Darwin’s private life?’ She said. She was even more beautiful than I remembered her. That wispy blond hair and almond eyes—her unmade-up, olive complexion made her face glow.
‘Not that I recall, but I do have recent information pertaining to bees,’ I said with a conspiratorial smile. I was astonished she remembered that night at the uni bar and the old feelings I had for her returned immediately, as if it had only been a few weeks.
‘Why doesn’t that surprise me?’ She nodded over at the Dutchman, who was currently evoking nervous laughter from a group of clearly ardent disciples. ‘He lost me the minute he started bad-mouthing Le Corbusier. He seemed to have a lot say about approximately nothing. What he lacked in clarity he made up for with all that cheesecloth with which he’s decked himself out.’ It was my turn to laugh. It had only been three and half years for the opportunity to return the favour.
‘Drink?’ I said.
‘Absolutely, there’s a bar around here somewhere I think.’
‘Yes, it’s off the lobby, a snazzy looking lounge really, with waiters in livery.’
‘I’m always up for a bit of livery, Eric.’
We settled ourselves on a chesterfield in the lobby lounge and ordered Rusty Nail’s off the cocktail menu. We exchanged details about our post-university lives and eventually got into the personal stuff. I told her I’d had a couple of girlfriends but nothing serious and she’d had a pretty serious relationship that petered out after eighteen months.
‘Was it that man Phil?’
‘Oh God no, I didn’t fancy him at all—too needy. No, his name was Bob, he was a pilot. Their live aren’t the least bit glamorous, you know. Anyway we just got bored, despite his continual absences. There was a relentless monotony to it near the end, resulting in us both being unhappy. We figured out it wasn’t what we had in mind and amicably split. From what I’ve heard he’s found the one and is going to be married.’ She picked up her glass. ‘Let’s drink to good old Bob and his intended.’
‘To Bob, may tedium be banished from his life forever,’ I said.
‘Alright Eric, I know you dying to tell me—what’s this new bee business. I haven’t thought of them since one of the little buggers stung me a year ago.’
‘Ah, well that’s because you were in the vicinity of a hive—it was a suicide mission you know.’
‘The bee, delivering the sting to you caused its death. Its abdomen would have broken in half.
‘Jesus, that’s pretty gruesome,’ she screwed up her nose and, she had a faint collection of freckles there.
‘Apparently, there’s been some bad news coming out of China.’ I said. ‘Mao ZeDong, ordered the elimination of all Sparrows for purloining more than their fair share of the grain crops. This war on Chinese Sparrows has led to the rise of the insect kingdom in plague proportions. Locust’s, for instance, no longer required to escape their natural predator, the Sparrow, multiplied exponentially and love nothing more than to dine on the vast tracts of cultivated cereals.
Logically, the dear leader announced all the Locusts must also be murdered. The pesticides used for this purpose did not discriminate between species and the bees went, as Confucius once said, ‘the way of the locust’.
‘Did Confucius really say that Eric?
‘Well no, but given the opportunity, I am sure he would have. Anyway the upshot is, the demise of an extremely efficient ecosystem, resulted in hordes of Chinese workers hand pollinating flowering crops to this day.
‘My god, that’s appalling.’
‘Yes it is. Apparently Confucius did say this—“It is only when a mosquito lands on your testicles that you realize there is always a way to solve problems without violence.”
It was rumoured the organizer of the sparrow wars, was rewarded with not one but two virgins to deflower. Needless to say, having a syphilitic, brain damaged megalomaniac as a leader, has its drawbacks.’
‘Ha ha. So am I expected to believe all that Eric?’
I failed to admit to my wild elaborations, but I think she might have drawn her own conclusions.
‘Ignore this disturbing news at your peril,’ I said.
‘Eric, providing the bedroom activities pan out okay, do you want to get married?
‘What—you mean to you?’
‘No you idiot, the waitress.’
Rachel and I had only fathers remaining alive so they attended the registry office as our witnesses. There didn’t seem to be much chemistry between the two men. We went out to dinner after the wedding and they were cordial, but that was all. Ruben asked Don if he’d seen the tennis on TV—which was huge then. Jimmy Connors had just defeated Bjorn Borg on all four occasions they played in the 1975 US Open. Even I knew about this and I was a complete dolt when it came to sport. Don responded in the negative and left it at that. My father wouldn’t have had the slightest knowledge of the sport, or any others, for that matter.
As I’ve already mentioned, the marriage wasn’t exactly made in heaven. We were both very busy with our careers. Rachel was away for long stretches on architectural projects in Australia and overseas. A colleague and I were developing a system to integrate and implement programs for large scale urban developments. By the time I was thirty one, I was working under contract for the state government and often a consultant for urban planning and infrastructure development interstate. It was stressful but I had a lot of stamina then. Now I wonder how I did all that stuff. I must have written the equivalent of several thick volumes of reports, which consisted largely of statistical graphs, pie charts, plans and programs and all without the benefit of a personal computer—how much easier it was when they were rolled into our office in the late eighties.
I thought I loved Rachel but I think I loved more the idea of her. That she was mentally and physically exceptional, there was no doubt. She wasn’t the sort of person to let anybody hold her back and I did admire her for that. I’m attracted to independent women—I find that exciting in every way. Perhaps Rachel was too exciting and when she found out that I wasn’t as exciting as I initially appeared, I sensed the feelings she had for me being revised into a mild form of disappointment. Maybe she did still love me and we hadn’t had enough time to sort it out. What potential our relationship had, died with her at the bottom of a partially constructed elevator shaft in Jakarta.
Rachel’s funeral was followed by my father’s within a month. The difficulty of it resided in its randomness. My wife was young and ambitious and there was no question she had a brilliant career ahead of her. After five years of marriage I was seeing the writing on the wall and already thinking of separation scenarios. When she died and then I just felt horrible.
My father, on the other hand, was old but not too old, not entirely happy but nor was he miserable. In fact, with time he had made himself into a less vulnerable substance, inured to the paralysis that had followed my mother’s absence. When he was forced to inhabit the burden of single parenthood he did so with dignity and an uncertain tenderness, if not devotion. I was nearly seventeen by then, so his responsibilities were somewhat less onerous. He helped me in every way he could to provide a smooth transition from school through university, including an allowance, which I supplemented by washing dishes at the local RSL club.
Don’s sudden illness and death seemed rather a release from life, as if prescribed as a cure for sadness. I was heartbroken when he died, but the full force of it hit me later; and when it did I reconciled my hurt with a fresh appreciation of the unconditional and respectful love he showed me. Nevertheless I felt doubly cheated. My wife’s death and then my father’s shortly after was so arbitrary and quick—there was more to be said, more questions to be asked.
Rachel’s body arrived as if by UPS, from the cargo hold of a freight plane. I waited uncomfortably on the tarmac with the undertaker and his assistant, the solemnity of the occasion made me nervous. It was also a very hot mid-summers day. Molten waves of heat rose from the tarmac and the monstrously whining jet engines. I have always hated airports. There are more horrible places but to be in this starkly oppressive environment for such a task
A year after the sudden loss of both wife and father in quick succession I wanted to simply disappear. I decided to go travelling. By then I had accumulated many months of long service and holiday pay. To this almost a years-worth of accumulated leave I added two years of unpaid leave. I was surprised my employers, the NSW State Government, sanctioned an even longer absence as I added another year half way through my journeys, bringing my absence to just over four years in total. At the time I had every expectation of having my request rejected and was prepared to resign—and could have cared less, having become quite despondent. I had lots of money, thanks to the rather generous insurance arrangements of my deceased wife’s company. Even my father had accumulated quite a nest egg and also had life insurance. I rented out the apartment I grew up in.
I can only think that my employer’s unusual forbearance was two-pronged—determining it would be heartless to fire a person who had suffered the loss of two family members in quick succession and that my skill-set might be quite hard to replace. I had practically invented the job of Urban Economist, and then set about making its quite specific functions indispensable. I wasn’t at all certain my secret knowledge, the reputation for an apparently magical problem-solving ability in urban planning, would remain in-tact until my return, but I didn’t particularly care
To be frank, I detected a subtle form of hostility lying behind the polite tolerance with which my colleagues treated me. The only social events including me were those that could not be avoided—an invitation deemed obligatory from our department minister, for instance. These thwarted evasions were met by disappointment from all parties involved, as staying home was preferable to loitering on the periphery of State Government cocktail parties.
I had always felt a little off-centre, as if something more important was there but yet unable to grasp these diaphanous revelations. It was as if an entire alternative world allusively appeared in my peripheral vision, while I looked ahead at a mirage. I found myself wandering through my memory, searching for the things that had remained unsaid—feelings bereft of a voice, moment’s that fell at my feet and at once became nothing. Simply put, I was as incomprehensible to all and sundry, as I was to myself and came to the conclusion that wandering around the globe might help elucidate some of the more confounding aspects of my personality.
There were also times when I wondered whether it was an easier thing to simply believe. If I did that, I could abnegate responsibility for all failings and be forgiven, at least according to Christian belief. I couldn’t quite make it though, the idea that if you prayed enough, you’d be forgiven your sins sounded implausible and infantile. As if to give over your agency, was the only thing you had to do. That would make me a child again, a state of being I had no wish to return to.
Of course, even during my travels I experienced desires which rose up momentarily that within hours subsided into complacency. There were many places I intended to visit but then failed to do so. Sometimes I would interrupt a journey, rent a room and stay in it for days. I might have thought that the unexpected release from my failing marriage was something of a cruel and undeserved advantage to me.
I’d wander about and look at this or that with at least a modicum interest—then plunge into days and nights of lethargy. For some reason I started noticing children, holding the hands of their parents and had this maudlin sense of loss— seeming to me at the time, it was unlikely I would ever become a father. I was often sunk low with despair and longing for Rachel, without a thought for the salient fact that I had failed to truly love her.
I saw many things followed by days when I barely noticed anything. A long and listless journey on the Mekong River found me reading airport thrillers, from cover to cover to find I had no recollection of their bizarre plots the next day. One book, I read half-way through before realising I’d already consumed its arrant nonsense the previous week. I passed through Laos, without even registering the fact.
When I finally disembarked at Ha Long Bay, several cages containing dogs lined the jetty awaiting transport and slaughter in some riverside town. I decided to rescue a dog from the RSPCA, when I returned home, believing that being enamoured by a pet, may be more within my capabilities. Travel became habitual, as if restlessness itself was a means by which I could achieve clarity. It was, however, becoming clear to me the possibility that a great many of life’s mysteries defied explanation entirely. Near the end of this peripatetic drifting, I began to look forward to further deciphering the purpose of my existence, from my two bedroom flat in Sydney.
For the present though, I concluded if there was a particular time for everything to happen, then it would never happen; hence the pattern of suddenness in my departures and the randomness of my arrivals. I felt as unable to cease my rambling as those inconsolable ghosts, my unloved wife, for whom I was sorry and the undefended frailty of my mother and father. The incipient melancholy of these relationships was abseiling up and down my unresolved life. A guilty sense of release characterised every departure of a country, city and the smallest of villages.
Initially I travelled north-east from Australia, through Southeast Asia, Japan, and China. From Shanghai, I took a flight to Florence via a three hour long connection stop-over in Frankfurt, where I used the lavish bathrooms to evacuate what seemed like the entire contents of my stomach—an accumulation of all the unfamiliar Asian cuisine, I suspected. The tedium was only mildly relieved by whiskey both off and on board.
The bathroom activities had provided a little relief. I still tried to ignore the persistent twinges looking out the window of my taxi from Florence’s airport. They say you can see the Duomo’s bell-tower from anywhere in the city, and I managed to confirm this assertion. At the guest-house, I was welcomed by an attractive, slim woman who looked to be in her mid-forties and spoke quite good English.
The room, in a large first floor apartment, was tasteful but not ostentatious. Old photos hung randomly on the walls, one of which was of the Uffizi, taken it seemed, from a boat on the Arno. A younger version of my host sat happily smiling in the foreground. A small bookcase containing one or two novels in English, as well as French and Italian, stood beside a heavy antique wardrobe. An upright piano was partially shrouded by what looked to be a re-purposed Kimono, and beside this a window looking into the courtyard below. A dinner party seemed to be in progress on the ground floor. I could hear the clatter of cutlery and what seemed to be the voices of many people excitedly talking at once.
I ate a meal with Elena and her twenty three year old son. There didn’t seem to be a husband. The son was not friendly, but Elena didn’t seem fussed about this. She was proud of her city, remarking on various attractions, telling me at one point, that living in Florence felt as if she was inside a museum. We drank a very good Tuscan Chianti I purchased at the airport, which actually made me feel a little better.
I warmed to Elena’s easy manner and attempted to engage he son Manu, but failed. He seemed deeply unhappy and even resentful of my presence. He didn’t touch the wine and soon excused himself. I thought I heard the front door close and assumed he’d gone out. Later, Elena told me Manu had gained an MBA two years prior but had been unable to find a job, citing the economy as the cause. I was feeling very tired but Elena was voluble and obviously thankful for the company. Before I went to bed, she told me a self-deprecating joke, something at which the Italians excel at, or so I’d heard. She skilfully played it straight—I’ll give her that.
‘We Italiani—we always in the…mezzo of crisi economica.’ She said, I reversed the last words and came up with what I thought was middle of an economic crisis.
‘Si, si,’ I said quite chuffed I’d understood.
‘Yesterday I met un amico…friend at…il bar…e offerto un espresso.’
She offered her friend an espresso at the bar—‘Si,’ I said again.
‘He asked me if he could…ahh il denaro invece…sorry…have the money instead.’ She was very pleased with her joke and I attempted a convincing laugh.
There were no other guests at Elena’s and the party downstairs had evaporated. I slept fitfully, thinking I’d be sick again but it never eventuated.
The next day breakfast awaited me, but there was no sign of Elena or Manu. I let myself out and caught the bus into the city centre. She had left a number of bus tickets on the hall table and told me to use them whenever I wanted. It was a little cold, although the sun was out when I walked into the teeming square of the Duomo. I sat at a sidewalk bar in the square and drank a glass of beer. I felt like going to sleep but forced myself to join the line at the entrance to the basilica.
I should have been more impressed but when the guide started talking about Brunelleschi’s vision, my own eyes closed and I was obliged to lean against a marble column.
‘Are you alright, can we help,’ A concerned looking English couple stood in front of me. I must have looked worse than I felt. A guard found me a seat near the entrance. Over the course of the following three days I visited the Boboli Gardens, the Uffizi and ate Risotto in a restaurant cantilevering over the Arno. I saw Michaelangelo’s David at the Accademia Gallery. All this time, I felt I was in some alternative universe, separated from the world I had known. On the third night, with Manu once again making a surly exit Elena and I had sat on her sofa together. She poured me another glass of the Chianti Classico. I purchased more bottles of this rich regional wine produced in the foot-hills of the Apuan Alps in northern Tuscany.
‘Eric, you are sconosciuto, no how do you say…strano,’ Elena said later. Her arm rested diagonally across my abdomen, holding my penis gently in her hand, as one might an injured bird. I looked at her lovely face resting on the pillow, her long black hair was thick and luxurious, her brown eyes deep and alert. I remember vividly the dark line of her eyebrows, always accommodating a smile which could have been describes as ironic, but it was just the natural form of her lips. She had the shadow of a moustache as well, which I found to be quite alluring. Her dark beauty seemed to complete her, making her seem present in every moment. I thought I could simply remain with this woman in her Florentine walk-up with the convivial neighbours in the courtyard. She was quite still, her breath so slight as to be almost undetectable. I thought about her observation, she was not a person with whom you could be offended.
‘You are not the first person who has said this Elena…why do you say it though?
‘You seem molto…much sensitive but also assente…absenti, ahh…incompleto.’
‘Mmmm. I wonder if sensitive people are ultimately the opposite. I mean they are sensitive when it comes to themselves, but not others. You are right though—I am, as you say, incompleto.’
‘Si, you must become completo Eric,’ she laughed.
‘Elena, where is Manu’s father?’ Her manner darkened suddenly, tensed. ‘I’m sorry, you don’t ha…’
She told me he was involved in a land deal that had some shady aspects to it. He was brokering the sale for a consortium located in Naples he later found out had a close association with the Mafia. They were going to use the land to dump toxic waste, rather than dispose of it appropriately. The Camorra had monopolised waste removal in the entire region of Campania for years. He pulled out of his involvement and one day he left for his office and never returned. She told me that Manu was ten and he loved his father very much. He took his absence badly.
I woke the following day thinking I might be dying of something, it wasn’t just a hangover. I had become increasingly short of breath. I said my goodbyes to Elena, who kissed me. She was very kind and affectionate telling me I should see a doctor before I travel further. I promised her I would, but ended up going straight to the station and caught the first train to Naples, which included a brief stop in Rome.
On my journey between these three ancient city states, I thought about Elena, how I didn’t want to think of her as being lonely. She had her son but he was so embittered as to be like a yoke dragging her down into the well of his own great despair. I nearly voiced my concerns as I lay with her the night before, but realized it would be a presumption to ascribe a sentimentality to her life she did not want attached to it. She told me she had no knowledge of her husband’s business affairs and was reluctant to find out.
A year after his disappearance, she left Manu with his grandmother and took a day trip to Naples. She wandered around the sprawling, run-down city without even knowing what to look for. She barely knew why she was there but concluded she probably just wanted to be in the place where her beloved husband presumably took his last breath. It was catartico, she said enabling her to move on in some way. She had an association with grief that had more resonance than I could ever presume to have. I had no right at all to define her sadness.
Nevertheless, In the back of my mind was the probability that in an effort to run away from my life in Sydney I was in the process of trying to come to terms with loss. Later, I read Rousseau—We are never present with, but always beyond ourselves: fear, desire, hope, still push us on towards the future, depriving us, in the meantime, of the sense and consideration of that which is to amuse us with the thought of what shall be, even when we shall be no more.
At Naples central station I was met by a short man with a grey beard and smoking a fat cigar. I had been warned to be wary of the criminal gangs and gypsies, who hung around the central station. The Camorra was still a ubiquitous presence in the city at this time. Roberto, spoke good enough English; enough to demonstrate he was my host.
I still felt a scintilla of apprehension but relented to his assurances for want of an alternative and I accompanied him to his car, gripping my luggage firmly. The three kilometres from the train station to the Chaia district in Naples was the most harrowing journey I had taken my entire life, thinking on several occasions that it was about to be cut short. The traffic lights in Naples are completely ignored by everybody, including the pedestrians. The Da Vinci B & B was in the Spaccanapoli, as Roberto called it, although it was actually called something else on my map. During the frightening car ride, when I felt sure we were about to slaughter several pedestrians, he told me the Spaccanapoli was the diviso of Naples. It cut a long path from the Church of the Seven Sorrows near the bay to Via Duomo to the east.
Roberto and Maria were charming with Maria insisting that I be taken immediately to the doctor, when they realised I was sick. The doctor spoke no English but upon examining me, gave me a prescription of anti-biotics. For the following three days I lay in my room, suffering pains in the chest, stomach and bowels. This was a shame because the room was large and light filled from two enormous windows looking over the bustling laneway below. The very high ceiling was richly patterned by a colourful geometric painting which had the effect of soothing me, to a degree, as I stared up into its depths. The whole time Both Roberto and Maria, looked after me with great care. Maria was worried to the point of tears.
‘Roberto, Eric è molto malato, sono molto preoccupato, she said, but Roberto after translating that his wife was very worried, Maria, she is very emotional, took concerned but practical responsibility for me, both gently consoling his wife and making sure I was taking my pills and making me food I could keep down. He was an excellent cook. Early on the third night a fierce fever gripped me, but by the morning I felt much better.
The following night I was able to drink some wine and enjoy a wonderful meal with my new Italian friends and landlords. Roberto had a very urbane demeanour and an interesting pattern of speech, as if he was about to relate a particularly fascinating story, a sort of amused preamble causing his guest to be in a state of anticipation of a punchline, which never eventuated. Along with the ever-present cigar, this made encounters with Roberto quite amusing, we laughed a lot together although sometimes I wondered at what exactly. I was so relieved to be feeling well again, I didn’t really care.
Maria, on the other hand, spoke quickly, with barely contained excitement, as if concerned she may neglect some important information, although there was no way I could tell because she spoke only in Italian. It was Roberto’s job to translate for Maria but I only ever received a pared back version, if the number of Maria’s words were any judge. The jist of her enthusiasms was that I must not miss out on any of the wonders of their city.
There was nothing more jaw-dropping astonishing as The Veiled Christ by Sanmartino at the Sansevero Museum. I became convinced that if I didn’t see it before leaving, Maria would provide me with cement shoes and I’d end up at the bottom of the Bay of Naples. The sight of this most beautiful of objects has stayed with me ever since. I did love this crazy, rag-tag city—an antidote to the assiduously curated splendour of Florence. I never encountered the Camorra and Roberto was quite off-hand about it when I enquired. Airico, a Napoli, you take good with bad.
Roberto took me to Vesuvius, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast over three exhausting days and on the morning of the fourth day I returned north by train to Rome. I was so tired I couldn’t even walk the two blocks from my hotel to the Coliseum. I stayed in Rome for two days but only left the room for meals. I caught a plane to Zurich and a train to Basel. From there, I managed to book a birth on a river cruise through to Amsterdam. I never left the boat during the entire voyage. By then the palaces and churches had become too overwhelming to contemplate. I intended to make my way to Britain but I changed my mind and took a quick flight to Barcelona instead.
The Spanish and the Portuguese are passionate people. They know how to hold a grudge and alternatively to admire you wildly. They do everything with great determination, especially resting, something they have turned into an art-form. You could be thinking they are angry with you when they are actually complimenting you or sharing a joke. The Portuguese think everything is fundamentally hilarious but you wouldn’t know it because when you hear them speak, they sound furious. Politically, they disagree with great passion. The cultural divide between the north and south of Spain, for instance, is wide. They may as well be two different countries. The Catalonians have had an ardent desire to be separate for as long as anybody could remember—I knew the feeling.
Before I visited Spain, I knew nothing of Truffle gathering and pig farming and yet these activities are of singular importance to both the culture and economy of the country, existing as they do, in a symbiotic relationship. The Iberian swine is the consummate truffle hunter, the musky odour of the fungus being similar to the porcine sex hormones. When I read about this I carried an image in my mind of this four-legged purveyor of fine smoked meats, snuffling around in the dirt to elicit sexual favours from a vegetable.
As far back as the ancient Phoenician empire, the black domesticated pigs have been used for the purpose of truffle hunting. Not a great deal of evidence remains of this but enough to make the assertion the fungus has been in demand for a great many centuries. Having tried a small slither of the stuff myself I have to say I can’t see what all the fuss is about, and why it commands prices surpassing fourteen thousand dollars a kilo is beyond me.
Did it all start with a lonely Phoenician pig herder witnessing one of his horny charges snuffling about in a grotto to unearth to its disappointment, an ugly, black tuber, prompting it to turn it’s unsated attention to a nearby sow? Did the said swineherd, upon witnessing this abandonment for a more appropriate assignation, and finding his stomach grumbling, have a bit of a chew on the dirty old thing? Who knows but the rest is history, as they say. Truffle originates from the Latin word ‘tuber’ meaning swelling or lump, words that are clearly laden with sexual innuendo in my opinion.
This Iberian pig is a small, black skinned creature I often saw on my travels, roaming in the vicinity of the ancient oak forests of central and south western Spain and Portugal. The acorn provides the unique flavour of Jamón Ibérico. I may have had not much truck with what one much-hatted chef called the diamond of fungi, but I became infatuated with Iberian ham. I discovered that even the smallest of bars in Spain harboured the mould encrusted legs, usually hung from the ceiling with tiny conical cups at the bottom to catch the residual oil. The traditional method of serving this delicious meat is to cut it straight off the bone in very fine slices, arranged on a platter with a smear of passata, dribbled with olive oil, dabbed with some strong local soft cheese and a pinch of fresh thyme…sublime! I thought I might buy an Iberian Ham to take back home with me, but since it was going to require a second mortgage on my flat, I thought better of it.
Once, driving to Seville in southern Spain, I thought to break my journey in the small town of Albuera. I had to look it up on the internet today, because I forgot its name as soon as I drove into the courtyard of its only motel, an ugly building beside an even uglier gas station. It seemed as if the town was deserted and I encountered not a single person as I walked to a café in the middle of the main street.
I ordered some bread, olives and the ubiquitous Jamon Iberica. I drank a glass of beer with the meal. The few locals inside, all men, looked at me with complacent hostility. I could never disguise my foreignness, no matter what I did—doomed forever to be a stranger, something I was becoming very weary of.
I paid the surly proprietor who short changed me by at least a euro and left for a stroll. The streets were hot and dusty. A skinny dog lifted its eyes to me as I passed, but nothing more. The only sign of human habitation on the streets was the encountering of two blank-faced children, who quickly returned inside on my approach. I made a detour down a side street and came to a small square. A small church in the Romanesque style squatted within its centre and I tried the heavy door, but was disappointed to find it securely locked. It looked like a place of cool respite.
I followed a lane backing onto rows of block houses until once again I entered the main street, punctuated by another small square. Apart from what appeared to be a town hall, again locked, this square sat at the limits of the village, beyond which a vast plain stretched to the north below the dark silhouette of Sierra de San Pedro.
It was as dismal a town I had ever encountered. The urge to continue my journey was tempting but I needed a rest so I could arrive fresh in Seville the following day, apparently a congested city where I would be required to negotiate the traffic, parking, checking into my hotel and still maintain an even temperament. I had already travelled from the north of Portugal to Oporto to Lisbon with only the briefest stop in Evora to see the Roman ruins. It was my intention to reach Algeciras by the end of the week and then a passage across the straits to Morocco but I had no solid schedule for any of it.
I was about to retrace my steps back to the motel when I spied what appeared to be a monument in the middle of the square. It consisted of a tiled plaque fixed onto a slab of concrete inscribed with large blue lettering—‘Oh Albuera, Glorious Field of Grief’. Beneath this the rest of the text was divided ecumenically into Spanish, French and English. I was briefly distracted by a little girl appearing in a doorway off the square before a hand pulled her inside and closed the door. The silence of the place was interrupted by only the distant sound of a barking dog; it was so hot and dry I wished I had bought a bottle of water at the café.
What I read on the plaque astonished me. It proudly announced that Lord Byron had visited the town of Albuera In 1819, eight years after Wellington’s troops did bloody battle with the French, along-side Spanish and Russian troops. This took place on the field adjacent to the square. The plaque stated Byron subsequently memorialised the battle in his poem Childe Harold. Below this, the relevant heroic stanza was inscribed…
Oh, Albuera! Glorious field of grief!
As o’er thy plain the Pilgrim pricked his steed,
Who could foresee thee, in a space so brief,
A scene where mingling foes should boast and bleed!
Peace to be perished! may the warrior’s need
And tears of triumph their reward prolong!
Till others fall where other chieftains lead
Thy name shall circle round the gaping throng
And shine in worthless lays, the theme of transient song.
I later learned that the so-called victory over the French was exaggerated. The battle appeared to have fizzled out due to complete exhaustion and immense losses on both sides and upon which both sides claimed glorious victory. It didn’t stop Byron—as notorious for his romanticism as his drinking—from singing the praises on behalf of the Spanish and English.
For me, there was also something else; a weariness of war; the strange remoteness and sense of disconnectedness; of blood spilled on a random plain in a foreign land. I wondered why one would come so far to die a lonely death among strangers. Soldiers had little choice but officers and poets…
After a night in Seville I changed my mind about Morocco and caught a flight back to Madrid, then to Sydney. Within three months I had met Miriam and before the year was out we had married.
I spent all the night of the accident at the hospital. At first, we spent a short time in emergency where Miriam was examined by two nurses on two separate occasions. At this point her speech had become sluggish and incoherent. After the second nurses ministrations a doctor alarmed me by saying she would have to go to intensive care immediately. On the way up in the lift to the IC ward the second nurse, who was now accompanying Miriam’s bed, told me a coma had to be induced to stop the swelling of her brain.
‘It’s because of the trauma to her head, Mr. Felt. The best thing to say about it is we are forcing the brain to protect itself.’
‘I see. What will happen now?’
‘The doctor will fill you in on the details.’
When we reached the IC ward, the doctor seemed to reappear out of thin air. They were hurrying Miriam down a hall towards a wide door with a sign saying medical staff only and I was trying to keep up.
‘It’s like this Mr. Felt—in reality your wife’s brain has swelled a little already and would eventually place undue pressure on the brain stem, an element of which is the RAS, or Reticular Activating System.’
‘Oh,’ I said.
He seemed to think I knew what he was talking about. He was young and earnest, perhaps wanting to give me the impression he’d been concentrating in medical school and not drinking the University bar dry.
‘The RAS is responsible for arousal and awareness,’ he added.
‘We don’t know how she will respond. Miriam will be given a controlled dose of anaesthetic and we’ll monitor her vital signs.’
‘I’m sorry but you will have to wait outside, Mister Felt,’ the nurse said pointing to a line of chairs against the corridor wall. With that, Miriam’s bed was wheeled through the automatic door and I didn’t see her again for several hours.
Despite the uncomfortable chair outside the intensive care unit, I managed to fall into a fitful sleep until I was awoken by a nurse I had not seen before. She was older than the other two and despite the severely starched tunic clinging to her thin frame, a mouth devoid of lips and raspy voice, she had a gentle manner.
‘Your wife’s awake, Mister Felt, you can visit her briefly.’
‘Oh, thank goodness,’ I said. I almost hugged her but decided merely to follow her into the ward.
‘She’s pretty groggy, the sedative we use for this purpose is strong and she will tend to fade in and out of consciousness. By all means talk to her, they say the sound of a familiar voice is comforting.’ Before we entered the nurse pulled on a surgical mask and waited until I had fitted mine. Miriam was hooked up to a monitoring system with led lights twinkling in the dimmed room. A catheter attached to a drip had been inserted into her left arm. The nurse gestured to a chair beside the bed and checked monitor with what looked like a graph continuously trailing across its small screen. She gently touched Miriam’s shoulder, ‘Miriam, Eric’s here,’ she said.
Miriam stirred and her eyes fluttered but failed to open. A quiet sound emitted from between her parched lips. I was shocked by her appearance. She seemed physically diminished and vulnerable. I leant over close to her deathly pale face to hear her. ‘I’m here Miriam.’ My voice faltered, I was wretched with worry and appalled by the pitiable state of my dear wife. I was in shock myself by now and crumpled into the chair while resting my hand on her arm. The nurse stood beside me and gently touched my shoulder and I shuddered with both horror and exhaustion. Miriam then spoke so quietly and with such effort I had to lean in and turn my ear so that it was directly above her mouth.
‘Where are the…I didn’…I didn’t lock…door.’
These were the last words I heard her speak.
Due to the critical nature of her injury, I could only spend a limited time with Miriam during which she failed to reawaken. I thought about what she had said to me. She used those few moments of lucidity to make known a concern that she had not locked the door, upon leaving the admin building. Considering the circumstances, Miriam could be forgiven. I failed to quite reconcile it, but I couldn’t help feeling that Roberts might not be one to trust with this task. Somehow it fitted in my own mind that by not locking up, he would find it amusing to add to Miriam’s misery.
I decided to go home for a while. Calisto would be stressed, as we were usually home to let her out in the yard to pee. Before taking the exit to the freeway I made a detour to the college. I found the keys in Miriam’s bag, which I picked up off the grass before following the ambulance to the hospital. It was close to four a.m. and still very dark. I pulled up outside the admin building noting the sleek sports car was gone. Before I dozed off outside intensive care, it occurred to me the car was the same make and model of the one I encountered outside of Roberts’s house, confirming in my mind it was his.
I walked the path through the garden adjacent to the admin block and promptly slipped on the flagstone closest to the doorway, just managing to grip a nearby bollard to stop myself from falling awkwardly into the garden. I knelt down on my haunches and ran my hand over the first one and the next two, all of which felt a sticky viscosity to the touch and I raised my hand to smell. It was unmistakably, engine oil. Something about engine oil jogged at the back of my memory, but vanished as fleeting as it had entered my mind.
I confirmed that the door was indeed locked and skirting the flagstones by walking on the grass, I was back on the freeway within five minutes. Our town was sombre and quiet in the half-light. One or two lights glowed as early risers, no doubt making their morning coffee to fortify them for the day ahead. Calisto greeted me with relieved adoration when I entered our house. I opened a can of food for him and filled his water bowl.
I hadn’t eaten since lunch the previous day and though I didn’t have much of an appetite, I made a plate up of some left-over chicken, tomato and a slice of sourdough bread. I brewed some coffee and drank it black on the verandah while Calisto performed her elaborate sniffing and peeing ritual in the garden. I’m sure if she had the capacity to do so she’d be just as worried about Miriam as I was.
There was a mild chill to the air and in the dawn light a soft grey mist descended in the valley. I heard the warbles of waking birds. Soon the Currawongs and Kookaburra’s would be raucously announcing the arrival of another day. I could not contemplate sleep although I knew at some point, weariness would set in. It was as if the drama of the night had wrenched me into a state of super-awareness. I was energised, a fidgety, impatient intensity one rarely experiences but when we do, it seems we are looking at the world for the first time with utter clarity.
Despite the dreadful image of Miriam, pale and helpless in hospital, I had never felt more vitalized. Every sensation, the early morning chill of damp air, the dark aroma of coffee, the tapping sound of Calisto’s paws on the decking as she settled herself at my feet. My concern for Miriam tangled with a sort of wild and incoherent violence. My thoughts strayed to Roberts, his clear enjoyment watching from the window above us as Miriam writhed in pain. This image was now locked into my memory like some gothic novel, Cathy fleeing Heathcliff who watches from his oppressive tower.
Now, Roberts’s presence hovering nearby was like a venomous pressure wriggling in my consciousness, converting me to its singular malignancy. It was in this heightened state of awareness that I experienced for the first time, the fervent desire to see him die.
I had a shower and felt a little revived. My mind was still being pinged by the adrenaline infused neurones smacking around my nervous system. I wondered if this was what it was like to be a cocaine addict. If so, when would I come crashing back to earth? I made sure Calisto was fed and watered and drove back down the escarpment to the city hospital.
Miriam was very pale. She wasn’t a big woman but seemed so further diminished in this sterile, beeping environment. I’d never seen her pretty face so inanimate and longed for even the smallest of her smiles. The stiff but kind nurse was in attendance again and her face held a concerned expression.
‘She hasn’t woken or moved voluntarily since you saw her last. We are feeding her intravenously and continue to monitor her vitals.’
‘Shouldn’t she have woken up by now…I mean can’t you wake her up?’
‘I’m sorry Eric, we can’t.’
‘Can’t or won’t?’ I snapped and immediately regretted it.
‘Miriam won’t wake up, the doctor believes she has lapsed back into a comatose state. It’s unusual, but not unheard of for a patient to have relapse like this—not to respond to external stimuli.’
‘The good news is that her brain function is excellent.
‘It’s a waiting game now Eric.’
I didn’t even notice when she withdrew from the room. I couldn’t quite get my head around what was happening. It seemed as if I had entered an alternative reality, utterly uncertain and unfamiliar. I barely had a sense of time anymore—didn’t we have plans for dinner? Yes, and I’d made a booking at the Italian on Crown Street. Shouldn’t I have cancelled? I didn’t voice this absurd concern, but I still felt ridiculous. I looked around the IC ward. There were two other people, a man and a woman, with one bed vacant. The man had breathing tubes. Both were either sleeping or heavily sedated.
While on my journeys, a habit of mine was to purchase some small, hand-crafted memento from each place I visited. Among them were a quite old American-Indian figurine I picked up in Sonoma, California and from a venerable collection in Tahiti, the carved wooden figures of a man and a woman. I have to say this delightful little couple came via a nocturnal and shady deal in a dirty lane of old Papeete. I found the most prized example of this pastime on the streets of Barcelona.
I stayed several weeks in this lovely city, a town planner’s wet dream. One day, as every visitor does, I visited The Basilica Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s extraordinary homage to Christianity. A building so complex it is still under construction a hundred years later. I learnt many interesting things about Gaudi that day. For a start he avoided any outward indication of his immensely successful career and he was also a vegetarian, his favourite meal being, lettuce dipped in milk. He was also an obsessive toiler, so perhaps this simple repast was merely a means for an early return to work.
He planned his day according to strict religious observance, living like a pauper in the most rudimentary conditions a short walk from the ever growing basilica. His extreme Christian moderation didn’t prevent him in 1926 at the age of seventy three, from being run over by a tram on his way to confession. He looked like a tramp and had no papers on him to indicate who he was. God must have been distracted that morning, clearly joining with the madness that had gripped the city—FC Barcelona was in the process of winning against Madrid for the seventh time in a row, so there was that.
I took a circuitous route back to my hotel east of the church. I found my prize secreted in a tiny antique shop called just that, ‘La Pequeña Tienda Curiosa’. No furniture or anything larger than the inevitable Tiffany lamp adorned its shelves. I was tired and only half-heartedly perused the varied items beneath a glass case. I was about to leave when something caught my eye.
Hundreds of small items resided there, ranging from gold and silver jewellery to delicate porcelain figurines. Tucked to one side and a little hard to see in the dank lighting of the shop, was what appeared to be a pen-knife. It was quite old and looking somewhat neglected. I had never owned such an item when I was boy, and immediately knew this would be the Barcelona addition to my collection.
‘Ese allí,’ I pointed to the knife.
‘Si,’ the shopkeeper growled and removed the item from the case, placed it on top and pushed it furtively towards me. He was a small, elderly man with an unpleasant goitre growing from his neck, no doubt contributing to his guttural pronunciation. I’d been in enough of these glittering dens to know they were inhabited by cutpurses and shysters, who’d relieve of your hard earned readies, before you blinked. I was attempting quite a decent effort, to ignore the little monster.
‘Mmmm—su…ahh…condición es mal,’ I said indicating its poor condition and hopefully giving the impression, with my poor Spanish, I was ready to leave empty handed at any moment. Even though it disported a layer of grime on its bone handle and the blade looked in need of a scrub, I had the immediate impression the object was unique, certainly hand-made by an artisan cutler.
‘Se hace del cuerno de un toro,’—he said it was made from the horn of a bull, ‘este toro murió en la arena de Ronda,’—the bull died in the arena at Ronda, a ridiculous lie with more holes in it than a dead matadors tunic. Although one could never be sure with these old swindlers. I pulled the blade out, the hinge functioned with ease. The shape, when extended was elegantly turned down at the back of the brass tipped handle for ease of grip, then curved up at the end of its steel blade, like a tiny scimitar. The blade was still sharp. If it had ever been used, the purpose would certainly have been brief and doubtless effective. There was only one use for such an implement.
At around a hundred and twenty centimetres when closed, it fitted neatly within the bone and brass handle, and readily concealed in the hand. I would pay a lot for this exquisite object, but very much doubted the shopkeeper’s awareness of its true value. He had twenty euros on it and I offered him ten, knowing it was probably worth several hundred, if not much more.
From the tiny but elaborate cuneiform markings on its brass extremities, I couldn’t be sure, but I’d wager the knife was many hundreds of years old. Forget the Ronda nonsense, the artefact could very possibly be dated back to the Moorish occupation and the handle might have been bovine but I’d hazard a guess at goat. The fact that it had a rare retractable mechanism, made it doubly valuable.
Regardless of its provenance, I wasn’t leaving the shop without it. I barely curtailed my desire to lance the old cretin’s goitre with it before stealing it. As it happened, within minutes I was strolling happily along Las Ramblas with the weapon snugly pocketed and my wallet light by a mere fifteen euros. I tidied it up with great care and had kept it in the glove box of my car. On more than one occasion Miriam and I shared an apple peeled and quartered by the device.
Dark clouds had been accumulating above the western horizon all day and drizzling rain had begun to fall as I parked in the lay-bye off Mamre Road. Once again I walked the short distance to the street leading down to Kalliot beach.
I may have mentioned before but I suspect the most vividly lived times are those that run in a wild state of flux, when the world we think we know, the one where reason is the containing membrane, has been turned on its head. At least that is how I experienced it then. When we act not by a set of pre-determined rituals but by the unexplored regions of our basest instincts—the natural and biological imperative of all species—we are experiencing a moment of true freedom.
Dark clouds had been accumulating above the western horizon all day and drizzling rain had begun to fall as I parked in the lay-bye off Mamre Road. Something was already wrong, I could feel my heart pounding as I rifled around inside the glove compartment of the car. I pulled out everything, maps, log book, chamois, a screw-driver I bought from Bunnings to keep there for an unimagined emergency. Where was my little retractable scimitar, my much loved and carefully restored, Moorish knife. I cruelly cursed Miriam—she must have removed it for some purpose and forgot to tell me. I grabbed the screwdriver instead.
When I entered Roberts’s neatly plotted cul-de-sac with its teetering embrace of Eucalypts and informative street numbers stamped into its kerb, I may not have been armed with my little Barcelonan treasure but I did have the wetted stone of a hatred so powerful, I couldn’t imagine not finding a way of relieving Roberts, at the very least, of his self-satisfied smirk. At this time, my own absurd self-approval, my hubris, knew no bounds. I suspect Julius Caesar and I might have got on quite well. Either that or he’d have had me garrotted at his earliest convenience.
You might think, someone as plain and uninteresting as your narrator, a retired Town Planner for goodness sakes, had no business wilfully setting himself on a path beyond the accepted notions of responsibility. Even a half-wit would have half a plan. If you’d spied me on that street in the dead of night—bedraggled and wild-eyed, the rain sliding down my thinning hair and over my hunched frame, hands gripping the depths of my jacket pockets—and told me my intentions were alien to the whole notion of a civilised society, I would have answered that this society had become the very definition of tyranny.
I couldn’t have given a flying fuck, as my mentor Reggie might have suggested. At that moment, I had no philosophy or spiritual mentor to walk with me on this slick road past these clever houses with their responsible arrays of solar panels and their pebbled paths snaking towards keen-edged cactus grotto’s and dead-pan Bauhaus facades. As I turned into Robert’s cul-de-sac I realised they were in concert with his house—unwelcoming to strangers. I remember thinking of myself as a snake rustling in the high grass of the verge and a cold fear leaks into me from the back of my neck as if I’d developed a fissure there.
Had I been acting at all rational then?
It’s true, since leaving gainful employment I’d increasingly and willingly given myself over to this low-level form of caprice. I’d been given to understand, there was some delight to be had from reckless abandon but I had always been the sort of person who held the ladder, the one with feet firmly on terra firma while others cleared the gutters. Here I was, however, hell-bent on mayhem, without the slightest iota of concern for the consequences.
I wonder now about this passion I had for vengeance, as I do on many other aspects of my life. Here in this narrow world of prison life, we are left to our indentured thoughts. In here we are out of sight, closed off and diverted from the ordinary trajectory civilised people are encouraged to consider their place—in here we are encouraged to make amends.
Those, like me, who have fallen so low from our relative comfort, from our economic advantage have little choice but to look at the privileged lives we once lived as a fantasy, a construct we willingly helped build. I had fashioned a beautiful cloak out of the cruel and cynical lie of trickle-down economics. I truly believed once, seeming to be astonishing now because I the path I took that night was one that entirely reinvented me.
Even the prison economy is highly specialised and even the trickle-down effect has its place, perhaps even crueller than the so-called legitimate one on the outside. As a sometime economist myself, I could only be impressed at how assiduously the population took to the notion of supply and demand. Drugs, including tobacco, are the mainstay of fiscal exchange. Unfortunately alcohol wasn’t included because of its necessary bulk. There was a cleverly disguised still operating for a while but was discovered and dismantled after one thirsty fellow died as a result of drinking its product. Reggie gave the brew the macabre name of Dead Man’s Piss and the still’s manufacturer had a manslaughter charge added to his string of breaks and enters.
Drugs are prized above all things, particularly tobacco, now that the government has banned it. There’s nothing like a good banning to stimulate the economy. Of course harder drugs are simply illegal, and as such, in quite adequate supply. I heard one of my fellow prisoners say, that if he’d known cocaine was so easily acquired in prison, he would have robbed a bank a lot earlier, as nose candy was the only reason he’d ever got up in the morning. Fuck freedom, I got three meals a day, a bed and enough bouncing powder to keep me as happy as Larry. Don’t ask—I have no idea why Larry is happy.
Pondering this, I was rather missing the delicious first nose of a freshly opened bottle of Le Pin. TI wonder if this notion of freedom we hold so dear, is all it’s cracked up to be. Raj rather predictably said it was naïve to think our perceptions are limited to the world we see around us.
‘An ethical progress through life is merely based on a set of constructed principles decided by others. A person performs the duty of life as if they were a set of commandments such as those carved miraculously by God into Moses’s tablets. Did you know Eric, the Rabbi’s refer to them as The Ten Matters? An interesting variation, don’t you think?’
Is it, I wasn’t entirely sure to be honest, but remained silent in an effort to become convinced?
‘Whatever label they put on them, it’s an absurdity to cling to a set of precepts which includes the requirement to not commit murder or not covet your neighbour’s wife, oxen, donkey and household slaves—as if by saying it—will make it magically so. It’s as natural as evacuating your bladder to covet all manner of things. In fact it could be argued that if we didn’t have this supposed moral lack in us, we’d still be filthy cretins living in caves.’
Raj had a small but very select collection of books arranged on his cell floor in two neat stacks, calling them his Twin Towers. There was nowhere else to put them as his meagre shelves were already overloaded. He told me he had placed the Bible and the Quran at the bottom of each, in an effort to protect the volumes above them from silverfish—proof of their holiness if they succeeded in repelling the ghastly little terrorists.
‘If not, then we have proof of something else altogether,’ he said absently while handing me The Philosophy of Freedom by Steiner, a book that was generally close to, if not on top of one or other of the stacks. ‘You might find this of interest Eric,’ Raj said.
That night, after shaking out several terrorists, I started reading the book but wasn’t entirely convinced by Steiner’s philosophy. I liked this though: The consciousness of freedom can be nothing more than an illusion. For though I consider myself the author of my action, it is the matter of which I am composed and the movements going on in it that are working in me…It is said that we have the feeling of freedom only because we do not know the motives compelling us.
I never got to ask Roberts whether he might have been expecting me that night. By then I had not slept for over thirty six hours. In my rather addled mind I developed a scenario whereby Roberts was patiently waiting for me. He returned from his afternoon surf and stripped off his wetsuit. He washes the sand from his feet and pads to his en suite for a shower. Emerging from the steamy bathroom, he vigorously towels himself dry. He stops to admire his handsome face in the full-length mirror, his thick black hair and fashionable stubble, his tanned and slim body.
He looks at his reflection with his customary insolent appraisal. Like me, he is left-handed, so he places this hand on his penis and strokes it casually. Although he’s not over-fussed about it, he’s never been entirely satisfied with this organs dimensions—the resultant partial engorgement brings a smile to his face. In Roberts’ case, it is more of a smirk. He dresses himself in his customary chinos and one of those absurd pre-wrinkled, soft shirts you can buy these days. His feet are naked because, even though it is a cool night, the under-floor heating is on.
He prepared and ate a healthy salad and was this very minute, comfortably ensconced in his enviable lounge chair, he releases the recliner lever. A beer and The Art of War is open in his lap. La Boheme is playing on his classy stereo and the remote to operate his automated home, is within easy reach.
This tableau had constructed itself as I drove down Faraday Hill and walked up to his car parked in its usual spot on the street. A familiar smell wafted around the rear. Engine oil. Perhaps the car was burning through a bit of oil, quite pungent despite the drizzling rain. I had an old car in my youth that did precisely that, until it died annoyingly on the motorway. I had to walk a kilometre before I found a phone-box to ring my father for rescue. Roberts’ car was near new, so I doubted it would be having such a problem.
I peered at the car, the racing green still distinctive in the moonlight once again filtering through the trees. Everything glistened in the moonlight—the surface of the car, the roof of the house, the now slick driveway, the narrow rivulets of water dribbling into the curb-side guttering, the pebbled path leading to the modernist portico cantilevering above Roberts’ front door. This singular odour of motor oil made me feel even more feverish. Feeling as if I was about to faint, I flattened my hands against the boot of the car, leaning over it awkwardly. It stopped me from sliding onto the road.
It wasn’t the first or second time I’d encountered that pungent and sickly smell in the past twenty four hours. The horrible image of Miriam writhing in pain on the slimy flagstones forced its way into my mind, and then later when I nearly slipped on them myself to check the admin door. I was reminded of two other related facts. At my first meeting with Roberts in the supermarket, he told Miriam about the hiring of a stonemason to rough up the flagstones, something I had immediately forgotten about until now. The second fact was the presence in the pocket of my jacket, again forgotten—of my little memento secreted from Roberts’ sideboard. I fished around and felt it mixed with some tissues I always keep as I get the sniffles at the drop of a hat. Unfolding the 7 Eleven receipt and holding it out to the moonlight to reread—Engine Oil, Rubber Gloves, Chux Wipes. I didn’t need to look inside the boot, to prove these items resided there.
Breathe Eric, deep breaths. I could hear my mother’s voice and feel the methodical rubbing of her hand on my back. I was nine years old and had woken from a nightmare calling out and hyperventilating at the same time. I had my second severe attack of childhood asthma that night. The disease had been with me intermittently from age six. From my nineteenth year on, I was never bothered by it again, but that night I ended up in hospital, both my worried parents staring down at me, still in my pyjama’s, as a nurse fitted me with a breathing mask.
‘Go, I will see to this,’ Sheila said to my father, who always looked at a loss no matter what the circumstances.
‘But, perhaps I should…’
‘No, at least one of us has to go to work,’ she said. Don gently pushed the sweaty streaks of hair off my brow, looked down at me for several minutes and against my breathless unarticulated will.
Sheila’s eyes followed him out of the ward—‘you will have to save yourself from this disease Eric. I can’t, and nor can he.’
She had stayed the entire night—I remember they’d brought a cot in for her to sleep beside me. Her cot was lower than the hospital bed and I remember reaching down with my hand. Eventually she took it and held it until I fell into a fitful sleep. Even now, ambivalence is the enduring characteristic of my relationship with my mother because I also think of her suicide as an act of pure selfishness and for which I have never been able to find forgiveness.
Why was I thinking about my long dead mother, while I leaned on Roberts’ car that night? It wasn’t even a comforting thought. I think I believed, that my mother’s already brittle and tenuous place in the world would transform into a consistent ease with me, my father and herself. I remembered coming home from the hospital the next day, my less alarming breaths wheezing in and out. Neither Sheila nor I had slept much and we just lolled exhausted and dozing on the sofa. A mild and familiar tension circulated in the air between us, even though my father was safely at work.