My mother told me she had often stayed awake
in those years, and of a certain night
at a rented farm,
on the end of the dark leaf-mulch of a drive,
where she sat in the doorway with mosquito-smoke,
listening for my father, after the pubs had closed, knowing he would have to walk
‘miles, in his state’, or sleep in weeds by the road,
if no-one dropped him at our gate
(since long before this he had driven his own car off a mountain-side
and becoming legend had ridden
on the easily-felled banana palms
of a steep plantation, right to the foot and a kitchen door,
the car reared high, and slipping fast, on a vast
raft of sap-oozing fibre,
from which he’d climbed down, unharmed, his most soberly polite,
had doffed his hat
to the terrified
young woman with a child in arms—who must have appeared
slowly as a photograph
developing in a dish—and never driven again).
This other night, my mother was reluctant to go out, poking with a stick
under the lantana, down every slope,
and leave us kids in the house asleep, a cough
trundled among us,
and fell asleep herself, clothed, on the unopened bed,
but leapt upright, sometime later, with the foulest taste—glimpsed at once
he was still not home—and rushed out, gagging,
to find that, asleep, she’d bitten off the tail
of a small lizard, dragged through her lips. That bitterness, I used to imagine;
she running onto the verandah to spit,
and standing there, spat dry, seeing across the silent, frosty bush
the distant lights of town had died.
And yet my mother never ceased from what philosophers invoke,
from extending ‘care’,
though she only read the Women’s Weekly,
and although she could be ‘damned impossible’ through a few meal-times, of course.
That care for things, I see, was her one real companion in those years.
It was as if there were two of her,
a harassed person, and a calm, who saw what needed to be done, and
stepped through her, again.
Her care you could watch reappear like the edge of tidal water
in salt flats, about everything.
It was this made her drive out the neighbour’s bull from our garden with a broom,
when she saw it trample her seedlings—
back, step by step, she forced it, through the broken fence,
it bellowing and hooking either side sharply at her all the way, and I
six years old on the back steps calling
‘Let it have a few old bloody flowers, Mum.’
No. She locked the broom handle straight-armed across its nose
and was pushed right back herself
quickly across the yard. She
ducked behind some tomato stakes,
and beat with the handle, all over that deep hollowness of the muzzle,
poked with the straw at its eyes,
and had her way, drove it out bellowing;
and me, slapping into the steps, the rail, with an ironing cord,
or rushing down there, quelled also,
repelled to the bottom step, barracking. And all,
I saw, for those little flimsy leaves
she fell to at once, small as mouse prints, among the chopped-up loam.
Whereas, my father only seemed to care that he would never
appear a drunkard
while ever his shoes were clean.
A drunkard he defined as someone who had forgotten the mannerisms
of a gentleman. The gentleman, after all, is only known,
only exists, through manner. He himself had the most perfect manners,
of a kind. I can imagine no-one
with a style more easily and coolly precise. With him,
manner had subsumed all of feeling. To brush and dent the hat
which one would raise, or to look about over each of us
and then unfold a napkin
to allow the meal, in that town where probably all of the men
sat to eat of a hot evening without a shirt,
was his dry passion. After all, he was a university man
(although ungraduated), something more rare then.
My father, I see, was hopelessly melancholic—
the position of those wary
small eyes, and thin lips, on the long-boned face
proclaimed the bitterness of every pleasure, except those of form.
He often drank alone
at the RSL club, and had been known to wear a carefully-considered tie
to get drunk in the sandhills, watching the sea.
When he was ill and was at home at night, I would look into his
on the end of a gauzed verandah,
from around the door and a little behind him,
and see his frighteningly high-domed skull under the lamp-light,
as he read
in a curdle of cigarette smoke.
Light shone through wire mesh onto the packed hydrangea heads,
and on the great ragged mass of insects, like bees over a comb,
that crawled tethered
and ignored right beside him. He seemed content, at these times,
as though he’d done all he need
to make a case against himself, and had been forced, objectively, to give up.
He liked his bland ulcer-patient food
and the heap of library books I brought. (My instructions always were:
‘Nothing whingeing. Nothing by New York Jews;
nothing by women, especially the French; nothing
translated from the Russian.’)
And yet, the only time I heard him say that he’d enjoyed anything
was when he spoke of the bush, once. ‘Up in those hills,’
he advised me, pointing around, ‘when the sun is coming out of the sea,
that lifting timber, you can feel at peace.’
I was impressed. He asked me, another time, that when he died
I should take his ashes somewhere, and not put him with the locals,
in the cemetery.
I went up to one of the places he had named
years earlier, at the time of day he had spoken of, when the half-risen sun
was as strongly-spiked as the one
on his Infantry badge,
and I scattered him there, utterly reduced at last, among the wet,
For all his callousness to my mother, I had long accepted him,
who had shown me the best advice
and left me to myself. And I’d come by then to see that we all
Opening his plastic, brick-sized box, that morning,
my pocket-knife slid
sideways and pierced my hand—and so I dug with that one
into his ashes, which I found were like a mauvish-grey marble dust,
and felt I needn’t think of anything more to say.