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,

standing among

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,

breeze-woven grass.

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

inhabit pathos.

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.


Notes on the Poem