From the Archives: “He Carried Oranges”

I have absolutely no idea what this prose fragment was supposed to be about but I do know that it’s been fifteen years or so since I cared one way or the other. I was probably reading too much Borges at the time.

Aldo said, in his very own voice, meet me here at half to nine in the morning – here at the top of the stair, by the locked door, when the sunlight creeps through the street doorway below, at the bottom. I am here now, here in enough time to see my normal self rushing across the square, gripping a perfect orange in my hand, my satchel thrown roughly over my shoulder, my hair still wet, the water freshly drawn from the well.

That is not myself, merely an imaginary person. Aldo is also imaginary unless he turns up now. The wooden stairs creak beneath my feet, the passageway in semi-darkness.

The table in the house, scratched and scorched by the years, my mother seated by the window, smiling as I place the orange in my bag, along with my books, along with my secret books. She calls me to her, holds my head in her hands: everything will be fine now, this is our new home, this is where we will stay. We can smile now. Go. Peace to you, she says, touching my cheek. I return: Peace.

Then walk out the door, wishing I had said the better word.

Half to nine, ahead of time, I watch the village wake. I head for the square, where the old church, with its catechisms and seasons, has been abandoned. The Town Hall replaces it in the people’s consciousness – a clock has been installed there, the only one for miles around.

Only here does time really exist. Here, in this sunlit stairway, by the locked door, the cobblestones faintly visible through a door downstairs.

The day awaits me, stirring half-excitedly like dogs in the street. My aunt’s dogs, wrestling in the dust in front of her house. She sits reading beneath a tree as wizened as herself; reading to me, from the book. My mother need not know of my tuition, nor of the old words I am learning.

When my father returns from the war and I am able to greet him in the old fashion, imagine how much greater my mother’s happiness will be. Reunited with her lover and with the ties that bind her to me and to him and to my aunt.

There is nothing I want more than to make my mother happy. So I sit and I read; so we sit and speak to each other in what for her are half-remembered mutterings stolen from elsewhere, such as my father and my uncle also used.

Some time in the past, yes.

Learning to copy the strange symbols scrawled in the books she has stored away beneath the winter clothes in her trunk, by the stove in the kitchen, beside the pile of wood I have chopped for her.

My uncle’s cold, blunt axe.

Today, after I have finished here, I will go to her house. We will sit beneath the old tree and I will listen, we will talk, we will read, I will write in the dirt at her feet. I read with enthusiasm; my aunt tells me I am progressing well.

My mother does not talk to my aunt.

Her brother is dead. She is all alone. She is waiting to wake up.

I often sleep. Often she will let me doze until mid-morning. I wake to find her sitting at the window with a faraway expression on her face. But today I have not been dozing; the sun has not been crawling across the room towards me. The boy with the orange clasped firmly in his sweaty hand is not me today. It is not yet the time for me to be late.

I hear the bells strike the half hour. At the same time Aldo’s boots begin stomping up the stairs.

But it is not Aldo. It is an old man I do not recognise. He rests for a moment at the top of the stairs, unaware that I am standing by the door.

You must recognise him! He is the old man whose teeth are cracked and yellow. He sits every day by the woodpile, wearing an old grey suit that is too short in the legs. He wears a yellow flower in his lapel and at night he wanders through the village, prowling.

He is the type that mothers tell their children not to talk to.

Take the image of this man, by whom you are so repulsed, and explode it. Posit him in a narrative, along with yourself and as many of your friends as you wish, until it becomes unbearably complicated.

When he looks up, his face is flushed and unshaven. He sees me and is startled – then smiles and walks towards me.

So you’re the young man. More a statement than an expression of curiosity.

Mandarin seeds on the window, the rats dancing mainly in the drain. The new moon last night was slowly making itself apparent. The fonts were full of Antiqua.

Never trust the story-taker, tour-guide, lie-maker. There’s a dead man, look at that! And a monkey, strapped in Parliament.

They buy coconuts in the marketplace. Why? They change the language. Why? They build water fonts all over the place. Why?

In every town square (why?), in every courtyard (why?), in every.

Do not buy coconuts, do not prance in the marketplace. Your fonts are filled with rust and your blood will wither.

Father! I exclaimed, you are now real.

Mother, I thought, do not cry, I am progressing very well.

UPDATE: the good folks at Going Down Swinging have cross-posted this piece on their site.

From the Archives: What a Bird

This is one of my all-time favourite poems, mostly because it’s just so daft. I probably wrote it in the late 1990s – it has a real ‘I don’t give a fuck’ feel about it.

well you've got birds & then you've got birds
haven't you? take your wedge-tailed eagle 
for example - what a bird you've got there!
whereas your common blue budgie - well he's

not so much a bird as a parrot is he compared
with your ibis your swan your albatross i mean
your budgie just doesn't cut the mustard does he
that's why you've got to keep him in a cage coz 

he wouldn't last five minutes in the wild what 
with all your other birds doing the rounds i mean 
your currawong your rosella your seagull your
bilby yes mate even your marsupial's more 

bird than your budgie another prime e.g. being
your koala - now he'd instill fear in your bravest
budgie - what a bloody mismatch eh? what a bird
is your koala - a bird's bird if ever i saw one

what a beautiful bloody bird! what a bird!

From the Archives: Desmond

I think I must have written this poem some time in the early 1990s. I have absolutely no idea what it’s about but I really like the concluding couplet, for some reason (and in fact I think I’ve even re-used it in other poems over the years as well).

desmond rejects the setting out of arguments 
he is neither analytical or lateral 
he dips his hand into a pool of water 
& it is cold 
just a moment ago it was dry 
it was also in my pocket 
my button remains there 
my belt keeps my trousers up 

desmond's house falls on him 
blue-green drops
there’s the sound at last 
of bombers falling in the grass 
will they ever retrieve the sky?
he kills a mosquito & stares at himself 
there is no need to be concerned 
a wheel churns in the gravel 
& disrupts somebody’s feet 
screwing neatly into the sky 
desmond follows all of this eagerly 
desmond forgets the earth 

the ivy wastes hold yesterday’s rain 
& crawl like a bereaved remainder

From the Archives: Aussie Eats

“I wonder how many of our young district people could tell me what Nardoo is. No doubt most of them think wheat was the first thing ever grown in this district from which bread was made. They forget the Nardoo which still grows and is not even noticed. A new people populates the land and knows it not.”
“GREYBEARD”, Gow & Gow’s Quarterly Gazette, (Barellan, NSW), No. 1, January 1924

CLINT MALVERN couldn’t help sighing when he walked into Aussie Eats. He took off his hat and let out the biggest sigh he could muster, then he sighed some more. It was no use, though. The place was empty. The Galaga machine offered an occasional melancholy beep to the two stools squatting like reversible salt and pepper shakers in the corner. The insect-like spaceships hovered over the glass window of the bainmarie, casting an alien shadow on the trays of lettuce, tomato and cucumber. As the demonstration game came to its predictable conclusion, Clint looked on glumly. The tractor beam carried the fighter off into outer space, from whence it would not return, unless he (or someone else) put twenty cents in the slot. The countdown wound its way down to zero. Game over.

The smell of oil emanating from the deep fryer, as if in response to the absence of truckies and kids, occupied literally every cubic inch of air. The rotating fan suspended from the ceiling did its best to keep the odour moving but it had been too hot that Friday afternoon to make much difference. Everywhere, chickens stood still in their coops; fleas, in search of cooler climates, emigrated from dog pelts; and altar boys refused to attend Mass, judging (wisely) that they would surely boil to death in their pre-Vatican II outfits.

Clint looked away from the game and saw the oil-spattered Chiko Roll advertisement on the counter; beneath it, on a metal tray, a stack of potato scallops, pre-cooked.

— Hi Clint, called the young girl, Sam, from the kitchen. I’ll be with you in a minute.
— Sure.

Clint peered through the bainmarie glass to the spot where Sam shovelled flour into a huge mixer. He admired its steel stirrers, its important-looking controls — speed adjusters, pulse and the like. Suddenly the coolroom door opened. Out strode Old Mrs Liebermann, Sam’s aunt, dragging a giant sack of potatoes. Clint waved to her.

— Hey Auntie Coral, they for me?
— Ha ha, good one, boy. Come through and make yourself useful. I’ve got something for you.

She stood up, groaned and exited through the side door, presumably heading for the back office, from which her father, Old Laurie, seldom ventured nowadays. Clint looked at his watch, shrugged and squeezed past the counter, stepping carefully across the greasy floor of the kitchen. It was a transgression not of personal, familial or proprietorial territory – rather, a familiar ritual, performed at various times by virtually every man, woman and child in Dulton.

Clint picked up a tea-towel and began drying the bainmarie trays with a nonchalant air. Sam grinned.

— You’re a natural.
— Yeah, right.
— Where’s your dad?
— Next door getting drunk, last I heard.
— Ah.

The old bastard’s pissing the family fortune up against that crawling vine out in the beer garden at the Commercial, thought Clint. Family fortune, indeed. The Commercial Hotel! Full of deadheads and alcoholics, not to mention the crazy bastard who couldn’t say anything except “Go the Bombers! Windy Hill! Go the Bombers!” over and over again. He used to barrack all the way up and down Farrar Street, a white line of froth at his mouth.

— So, Grog Malvern, Jnr. got sent to buy chips for his daddy, did he?

Sam pouted as she spoke, teasing Clint while she poured water into the mixer. She grinned again and he couldn’t help smiling back.

— Got it in one. Catch.

He threw the tea towel at her head and bolted for the still-open coolroom door. Sam evaded the flying cloth easily, watching it slap into the wall next to her. Putting on a kung fu fighter’s voice, she peeled the towel off the wall and wound it up, intending to use it as a whip. Slowly, with soft meow sounds, she crept towards the coolroom doorway, where stood Clint, shivering and laughing.

— Wanna fight … he challenged.
— Fight me … Sam purred, grabbing a handful of his shirt.

All of a sudden Clint’s face was tense and hot. Little did he know but Sam was just about to try and kiss him full on the lips.

— Samantha! Leave the poor boy alone! shouted Aunty Coral, reentering with a tray of something.
— Auntie, Sam moaned, exasperated.
— I’ve got no time for your mischief today, young lady. Now go out and check on your grandfather.
— Sieg Heil! Sam shouted, petulantly.
— Samantha!
— See you at the basketball, Clint?
— Ah, maybe.

What just happened, Clint wondered, his mind racing. I have absolutely no recollection of what just happened.

— Gee, don’t get over-enthusiastic or anything.
— Oh yeah, and it’s so exciting to watch a bunch of amateur girls dropping balls. Yeah, can’t wait.

Why did I say that?

— Well, it’s better than playing with model aeroplanes!
— Shut up, the two of you! yelled Mrs Liebermann.

The walls reverberated with the echo of her booming voice.

— Now, she continued, passing Clint the tray, give this to your father and tell him it’s a gift from Laurie and myself. And this, she said, drawing a string of rosary beads from her apron, is for your mother.

Old Mrs Liebermann slipped the beads smoothly into the pocket of Clint’s ice-blue Midford school shirt with a meaningful look. Then she plomped herself back on her stool and resumed the potato peeling.

— Well then, see ya, Clint said, though he didn’t know exactly who he was addressing, not to mention why.