Samson, my father's old dog, was left behind that morning. He lay at our feet beneath the kitchen table, thumping our legs with his thick tail and nuzzling us impatiently with his wet nose, his pungent, hairy odour seeping into our shoes and socks.
Alec was immersed in study, Emmy was assembling a new dress for her favourite doll, and I was staring reluctantly at the problems in my Maths homework. Our mother was arm deep in the cavernous cement trough, doing the washing.
My memories of my father that morning are confused. I must have looked up as he left, for I remember the outside door banging in the wind and my mother asking me to close it. As I did so, I remember catching a glimpse of him striding jerkily down the path away from me, head down against the rain, the wind blowing out his old check shirt. Had they argued? I have a faint memory of some terse words from my mother about the apple trees, saying, I’ve asked you and asked you. They only need a few dead limbs cut off, five minutes work…
Later that morning, Emmy and I planned to pack our lunch, take Samson and head off to the bottom paddock in search of rabbits. We wouldn’t be allowed to take a gun with us, as Alec did, but the dog would chase the rabbits and maybe catch one and kill it—to our unashamed delight. From my father we’d learned a thorough hatred of rabbits, the ‘bloody vermin’ he blamed for the property’s failure to thrive. For us, the only good rabbit was a dead rabbit—we didn’t even eat them. Our plan meant getting the okay from Mother—not easy on a wet day when washing needed to be hung out and repeatedly brought in if rain threatened. Alec, who was five years older than me and, as we were constantly reminded, destined for university, was excused chores such as this because of his studies.
‘Can we go rabbiting, Mum?’ asked Emmy. ‘We’ll make our own lunches and we’ll come back before dark.’
Emmy, as the youngest, had a much better chance of getting round our parents. Mother gave us one of her ‘looks’, a promising sign, because when she said ‘no’ it was usually said straight away and without right of appeal.
‘Well…’ she started.
Alec butted in, ‘For god’s sake, Mum, let them go. I can’t study with them fidgeting around the table, and that dog stinks.’
‘Alright,’ she replied, ‘you can go, but before you do, go and find your father and tell him its time for lunch. If he doesn’t come in now, he’ll find something else to do and I won’t see him till its dark.’
‘Race you!’ I shouted to Emmy and we scrambled up from the table, scattering some of Alec’s books, not entirely accidentally. We charged out the door and down the long path that led to the orchard with Samson galumphing at our heels. I let Emmy win the race, pulling up just after her, panting as heavily as I could.
‘I won,’ she squealed, ‘I won – you’re a slowcoach, a slowcoach!’
I looked around, expecting to see my father on top of a ladder in one of the trees, pruning saw in hand, but there was no sign of him. Nearby, I noticed the shed door was half open. The shed was my father’s domain and we were never allowed in it alone. We had been warned repeatedly that it was the home of sharp tools and bottles of strange chemicals, all likely to be fatal to nosey children.
‘Let’s look inside,’ Emmy whispered. ‘Just once.’
‘If Dad catches us…’ I started to say but Emmy was already heading towards the open door. What if he was in there? The thought scared me into action and I ran to catch up, taking her firmly by the hand. ‘We’ll just peek inside and see if he’s there,’ I said. Samson was already ambling through the doorway, tail wagging.
I followed cautiously. The shed was dark and I stood adjusting my eyes to the light, inhaling the smells of sawn timber, linseed oil, creosote and old rope. At the same moment Samson started to bark frantically, not his usual deep woof-woof of greeting, but a frantic high yapping that we’d never heard before. And then, as my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I saw the step ladder lying open and extended on the floor. Then my father. His back to us, suspended above the floor.
I wheeled round and pushed Emmy out of the shed so hard that she fell and started to cry. I hauled her to her feet and ran, dragging her with me, towards the house. It was raining again, huge thumping drops that soaked right through my shirt and blurred my eyes. Something terrible was at my back, following close behind. I ran, dragging the sobbing Emmy until we burst into the kitchen.
‘The shed,’ I gasped, ‘in the shed—’
‘You’re not supposed to be in the bloody shed,’ said Alec. But Mother stared at me, a strange expression on her face.
‘Dad…’ I said, and burst into tears.
‘Alec,’ said Mother very quietly, ‘come with me. Now! Jamie and Emmy, you stay here. Understand? Don’t move.’
Alec opened his mouth to argue, looked at Mother, and then closed it again. A moment later, they were running down the path together.
The afternoon of the funeral was dry and cold. I was dressed in my school uniform. Looking back, this seems incongruous but it was probably my smartest clothing. Alec appeared in a dark suit, which must have been my father’s, and was too short in the arms and legs. He stood in front of the mirror in our parents’ room, struggling with an unfamiliar tie. Emmy, white-faced and silent, was being dressed by Mother.
We had been invaded by aliens. Relatives, most of whom we’d only seen infrequently, or not at all, were occupying all the spare rooms in our rambling, fibro house. Alec, Emmy and I were forced to share one bedroom in an uneasy truce. One night, I asked Alec softly so that Emmy couldn’t hear, ‘What’s going to happen?’ He didn’t reply but, in an unfamiliar gesture, put an arm around my shoulder.
Amongst the alien relatives, I remember a thin, skimpy woman in black, smelling of camphor. Whenever she saw Emmy or me, she’d fall upon us with cries of, ‘Oh, you poor, poor children!’ She’d clasp us to her bony breast and, more painfully, to a string of huge amber beads that protected her like chain mail. Then there was Uncle Percy, my father’s brother, a real estate agent from Melbourne. He was one of the few relatives we had seen regularly, as every summer we spent a week at his beach house at Seaford. Tall and heavily built, he arrived wearing, as always, a double-breasted suit, and quickly took charge of the funeral arrangements.
Uncle Percy’s new red FJ Holden was parked in our rutted driveway. With its gleaming grille, white-walled tires and smooth, shiny curves, it seemed to make our house look old and shabby. In spite of my numbness and fear, I couldn’t help going outside again and again to look at it. The car’s newness and strangeness fascinated me. It seemed like a machine from the future; as if an Adamski spacecraft had landed in our garden.
We travelled to the funeral in that car, following the huge, lumbering hearse. As we splashed and bumped our way along the track that led from our house to the highway, we could see the back window of the hearse splattered with mud and my father’s coffin, sliding backwards and forwards.
The service was held at St Bede's, the local Church of England—a small weatherboard building with plain plaster walls speckled with red and blue light from the single stained glass window. It reminded me, for a moment, of the kaleidoscope I’d been given for Christmas some years before. Holding hands, Mother, Alec, Emmy and I walked slowly up the echoing aisle towards my father’s coffin which rested on a sort of trolley in front of the altar and, to my surprise, was partly covered by an Australian flag.
I expected the service to last for a long time and I felt guilty for wanting it to be over quickly. People were shuffling and coughing in the pews behind us. There was a hymn accompanied by a thin, wheezy organ. Uncle Percy, his sombre bulk engulfing the dark wooden lectern, read something, haltingly, badly. Then another man, thin, greying, weather-beaten, and dressed in an old, creased blue suit, climbed painfully into the pulpit. He spoke for several minutes in a quiet voice and it was a while before I realized who he was talking about. We knew so little about the tall, gangling man who’d been our father. He was usually up and gone before we rode off to school and didn’t return until after we’d eaten tea in the evening. However, we’d all been taught that he was to be treated with patience, even when he lost his temper with us, which happened frequently.
Once, when I kicked a ball through a window in his garden shed, he erupted into a quivering, speechless rage. He grabbed me savagely by the ear and dragged me, howling, into the house where he started to remove his belt. I was more terrified by his silent fury than by the threat of his belt. Then Mother came in from the garden, carrying a bunch of flowers. ‘Graeme, no! No, darling. Please.’
He dropped the belt on the floor and burst into tears, almost falling into her arms. I watched, aghast. Then Mother signalled to me over his heaving shoulders and I crept out of the room.
That night, when she tucked me in, she talked to me quietly and intensely, ‘Your father was a POW—do you know what that means?’ I shook my head. ‘It means he was a prisoner of the Japanese. And he was treated cruelly. I tell you, they're savages those Japs, no better than animals. They deserved the atom bomb, every last one of them.’ She paused for a moment, letting her anger pass. ‘You've got to make allowances for your Dad. If you'd known him before the war, when we first met,’ her voice softened. ‘He was such a patient, courteous man. You've got yourself a real gentlemen, my friends used to say, and were they envious! Well, the war changed all that but underneath he's still the man I married and he's still your Dad, no matter what he says or does.’
Days later my father took me to one side and apologised. ‘Forget and forgive, eh?’
I knew he meant it but I knew too that it could easily happen again I nodded my head and tried to hide the tears in my eyes. He gave me a squeeze on the shoulder.
Now, the man in the blue suit spoke in frail, papery tones of Singapore, Changi and the Burma railway. His voice was like a dry rustling in the church. He ended simply: ‘Graeme was my friend and comrade.’
The organ wheezed into life again and a gaggle of voices attempted another hymn. Emmy and I had posies of flowers thrust into our hands and we were pushed forward towards the coffin. ‘No, No,’ said Emmy, ‘I don’t want to…’ I took her posy and placed it on top of the coffin with mine. Stepping back, I saw the coffin beneath the flag was made of plain pine.
He was buried in the local cemetery, on top of a small hill just beyond the church. We walked to it in a family group, Mother in front on Uncle Percy’s arm, then Alec, Emmy and I, followed by a cluster of relatives. I was horrified by the size of the grave and the huge mound of sticky, brown soil beside it. I shrank from the thought of my father’s thin, bony body being crushed beneath the weight of that wet earth.
After the funeral, we returned home to another world. Our once familiar house was now full of flowers, people and food—plates of sandwiches, great golden blocks of cake, biscuits, platters of cold meat, even a big bowl of trembling, ruby jelly laced with cream. Everyone was talking loudly and some were even laughing.
Later that night, after most of the relatives had left in a flurry of handshakes, embraces and banging car doors, I wandered into our front room. This had been my parents’ private territory. In the twilight I saw two figures sitting close to each other at my father’s roll top desk. For a moment, I froze, but then I heard Uncle Percy’s voice. ‘No, Vanessa it’s not possible – just not possible. You’ve got to face facts.’
We spent days packing, filling tea chests till they could hold no more and then, under Mother’s supervision, taking out what we had packed and in an agony of indecision, choosing which of our possessions we could live without.
‘You know how small the place at Seaford is,’ she reminded us. ‘We simply can’t take everything.’
‘I don’t see why we have to go to Seaford anyway,’ Alec complained. ‘I can get a job and we can rent somewhere in Melbourne.’
‘You’re going to University next year, Alec, that’s all been agreed. It’s what your father would have wanted. We’ll stay at Percy’s…Uncle Percy’s, until we’re sorted out and then I’ll get a job.’
Watching the removal men carrying out our furniture and possessions on that last afternoon, I had a strange feeling that time was suddenly speeding up and that all of my life so far was vanishing in a sudden swirl. After the van had left, Emmy and I wandered through the empty house in silence. It was as if we were seeing it for the very first time: the rooms had grown larger and shabbier as cracks and stains hidden by furniture emerged into the light. There were cobwebs clustered in corners. The house was no longer ours.
Later, I saw Uncle Percy in the garden with Alec. He had his hand on Alec’s shoulder and was talking to him quietly, their heads close together. Samson was lying at their feet. Seeing me, Uncle Percy broke off the talk.
A few minutes later I saw Alec heading off towards the back paddock with my father’s gun under one arm and Samson ambling after him. ‘Can we come too?’ I asked, thinking he was going for one last crack at the rabbits. But he gave me a stony look and said, ‘No. You’re to stay here.’
We left just as the sun was starting to set. Over Uncle Percy’s protests, a few bits and pieces that had escaped the tea chests, or that wouldn’t fit, including my cricket bat and Emmy’s doll’s pram, had been crammed into the Holden’s boot. Then we began to bump and splash our way down the track. Uncle Percy winced each time the car hit a rut.
Emmy, who was squeezed in the back seat between Alec and me, cried out suddenly, ‘Samson! We’ve forgotten Samson. We’ve got to go back…’
There was an awkward silence. Then Uncle Percy said, ‘Samson’s staying behind, Emmy. He’ll be looked after by the new people. He’ll be fine, don’t worry’.
‘No,’ Emmy screamed, ‘no, you can't leave him…I want Samson…he’s got to come. Go back for him…please…’
I looked accusingly at Alec, waiting for him to say something. He ignored me and stared straight ahead, his face pale and expressionless. I swallowed the sudden anger and hurt rising within me and tried to put a comforting arm around Emmy. But she would not be comforted and continued to howl uncontrollably.
In the rear view mirror, I could still just see the house, wavering up and down. A last surge of sunlight flooded the garden. Then, with a thump and a heave, the car lurched on to the highway and swung left. I watched Uncle Percy’s plump white hand flick expertly through the gear changes and then drift across to pat my mother’s knee, lingering for a moment.
A once sacred place
We hesitate, peering in -
embarrassed, maybe by such simplicity
seeing prints of hands – and nothing more.
What brought them to this place?
Who were the last man and child,
to fill their mouths with thick, sour ochre
and lifting up their hands
spray their presence on this rock?
Lost, the memory, and the meaning.
Lost, the joy of man and child, hand in hand,
flesh and bones breathing in the sun,
blood beating through ancient veins
as they breathed at one the with sheltering trees
and winds’ sigh.
Dingoes stripped and scattered their bones
trees drank their sap,
ants devoured their last fragments
and no trace left but the handprints,
only the handprints.
And a vacancy – an eternal absence,
a gap in nature.
Turning our backs, we return along the metal ramp,
past the felled trees and the toilet block,
to the souvenir shop, Made in China,
and the bistro, offering Mediterranean Cuisine.
in a paragraph.
Luna Park in winter –
on the big dipper
only seagulls scream
Slight, the fingers’ slip,
Brief the fall from light to dark,
a fledgling’s flight, no more.
Sparse and few the rocks below,
Enough to crack and craze the skull
to untether the ballooning brain
from nerves left sparking madly through
a quivering, rag-doll thing.
Hope flickered once
before the anguish in a darkened room.
Dawn brought termination.
After, grief set the broken lives
in its clumsy, rugged way,
and your body rests now,
beneath a homely sky.
But I cannot think of you there,
asleep, in the ever circling earth.
I see you on the rock face still:
pinioned in the sun’s white flash,
enfolded in the great winds,
and washed by bright rains;
climbing on, towards the blue.