The author of poems, fiction, essays and libretti, David Malouf is one of Australia’s most celebrated writers. He has won many literary awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Prix Femina Etranger and the inaugural IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In 2000 he was selected as the sixteenth Neustadt Laureate.
Also By David Malouf
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An Imaginary Life
Fly Away Peter
Harland’s Half Acre
The Great World
The Conversations at Curlow Creek
12 Edmonstone Street
Bicycle and Other Poems
Neighbours in a Thicket
First Things Last
Mer de Glace
Baa Baa Black Sheep
Also by David Malouf
For Carlo Olivieri
I have great comfort from this fellow. Methinks he hath no drowning mark upon him; his complexion is perfect gallows. Stand fast, good Fate, to his hanging! Make the rope of his destiny our cable, for our own doth little advantage. If he be not born to be hanged, our case is miserable.
My father was one of the fittest men I have ever known. A great sportsman in his day, boxer, swimmer, amateur footballer, he was still bullshouldered and hard even at sixty, though a good deal of his muscle had gone to fat. He didn’t drink. He hadn’t smoked since a day during the First War when he’d accepted a bet and thrown a whole packet of Capstans over Victoria Bridge. Except for the occasional cold, he had never had a day’s illness that I could remember. Two weeks before his death he had been examined for a new insurance policy. When the report arrived, on the morning of his funeral, it declared him to be A1 in every respect.
I was out of the country again on study leave, and the telegram announcing his heart attack caught me in the midst of a whole series of muddles that I had simply to leave where they were, all untidy ends, while I got a plane booking, scraped up the money to pay for it, and started back.
I had expected to find my father dying and the family in a state of shock. Instead they were utterly calm. The first stroke had been followed rapidly by three more and he had died within an hour of my leaving London. The funeral was arranged, notices had been placed in all the papers; there was nothing for me to do. Still dazed after the flight, I stood around shaking hands with people I hardly knew, or sat for long hours with my mother in the big darkened room they had found for her at my sister’s. She had refused utterly to go to bed. Propped up with pillows, in a new bed-jacket and gown, she rocked back and forth in the sunlight, and when night came at last, sat up rocking in the dark. I dabbed her temples with a handkerchief soaked in cologne, as she used to do when I was sick as a child, and read her the letters that came flooding in with every post while she rocked and sobbed. With her hair hanging loose and her mouth oddly agape, she would doze off while I was still talking to her, then suddenly jerk awake to remind me, in a thick voice, of some document I must search for that she had just located in her sleep. It was in the cashbox at the bottom of my father’s lowboy. Or in one of her dressing-table drawers in a red plastic folder. She prided herself on the fact that she knew where everything was. Everything!
My father’s affairs were in a good deal of disorder. Like many self-educated men he had no faith in book-keeping and preferred to keep things in his head. Part of my business over the next week or so would be to gather all the cheque butts, bills, invoices, receipts that covered his dealings over the past seven years and get them into order for the solicitor. It was my mother eventually who would track everything down. It was all there, she kept reassuring me, nothing had ever been thrown away, she would find it all in time. And out of her snatches of sleep she would start up with a new discovery. The deeds of Scarborough! They were in an envelope in her linen press, at the very bottom under the towels, together with a whole lot of other papers from the same period. And in the garage there was a tea-chest full of old files that had come from Edmondstone Street, when we moved after the war. Also, somewhere, a flourbag full of crowns. She couldn’t remember where they were for the moment. She’d find them later. Going down to the house again, in her sleep, to rummage through empty rooms …
I felt superfluous. In spite of the funeral service and that scorching hour in the cemetery at Toowong (I knew the place well enough, we had gone there every Sunday in my childhood to put new flowers on my grandparents’ grave) the reality of my father’s death had failed to get through to me. It was my sister’s children who seemed closest to feeling as I did in that strangely muted house. Too small to realize quite what had happened, they tiptoed in and out of my mother’s room with cups of tea; they hushed their friends as they played on the verandah, watched, asked no questions, were “good”. We were all extraordinarily quiet. There were no hysterics. Going about our business in the usual way (my sister even made the little girl a birthday cake), trying not to let it show — this was the style my mother had imposed on us always, a style we thought of as English, as opposed to the emotionalism of my father’s people. At the funeral, I remembered painfully, one of his sisters, the older, unmarried one, had wailed and beat the coffin with her fists. I was relieved, after a day or two, when my mother was well enough for me to go down to the house and begin.
It was a strange business, that week of raking through drawers and cupboards at the house — sorting, assembling, burning — and of preparing its rooms, since my mother would never live there, for strangers.
It wasn’t the house of my childhood. We had moved there in 1947 when my father built the place, huge, ugly, show-offish, after his own design. I had never really cared for it. My memories were all of our old house in South Brisbane, with its wide latticed verandahs, its damp mysterious storerooms where sacks of potatoes and salt had been kept in the ever-dark, its washtubs and copper boiler under the porch, its vast garden that ran right through to the street behind, a wilderness that my grandfather, before he died, had transformed into a suburban farmlet, with rows of spinach, tomatoes, lettuce, eggplants, a shed where onions and garlic hung from rafters, and a wire coop full of fowls. The new house at Hamilton was stuffily and pretentiously overfurnished and depressingly modern. It represented an aspect of my father, of his earliest ambitions perhaps, that I had never understood, some vision of worldly success and splendour that I could find no model for. Victorian armchairs covered with French velvet, bevelled glass mirrors, brocade curtains, chandeliers. The only thing I could connect it with was a set of raw silk bed-covers that he had penpainted for my mother’s glory chest. Blazoned all over with red and yellow poppies, the oil paint crusty, the oil seeping into the material with a brownish stain, these objects had always impressed me with their gaudy opulence
Now as I began to sort through his “effects” it occurred to me how little I had really known him.
Like most sons I suppose, I had forced upon my father the character that fitted most easily with my image of myself; to have had to admit to any complexity in him would have compromised my own. I chose the facts about him that I needed: his one solid gold tooth that glowed when he laughed like a miraculous image in a southern monastery; his habit of crossing himself whenever he passed a church; his talent for walking on his hands along the beach at Scarborough, strutting about like some exotic bird, carrying his body through the air as if it were plumage, heavy, extraordinary I found these images of him comfortingly foreign. Like his skill at athletics (which I decided early I should never try to equal) and his passion for building things. Wearing a leather apron and shorts, with his tool box open on the bench behind him, all its bits and chisels neatly stacked, and a stub of pencil behind his ear, he would work for long hours in the gloom under the house, planing, sawing, working away with his chisel and mallet at elegant dovetails and grooves. He built us, at one time or another, a caravan, two beach houses with beds that went up into the wall, several monstrous wall units, box-kites, a model sailing boat, a set of swings, and before we abandoned the old house replaced all its cast-iron and Venetians with fibro and glass. He had left school at eleven to become a postboy on the Nanango mails and had never, so far as I knew, read a book. All of this was a gap between us and left my notion of my own independence utterly uncompromised. Now suddenly I was not so sure.
Everywhere here there was evidence of a life I had failed to take account of— birthday cards he had sent my mother during their twelve-year courtship (huge boxlike affairs, all padded velvet and handpainted celluloid), letters, sketches, even an old leather diary of 1928 in which he had jotted down, over the years, some of the “facts” that struck him: the population of Madrid in 1957 (the year he and my mother went to Europe), a list of all the paintings and items of furniture in Room 4 of the Wallace Collection, and the dimensions of various rooms he had modernised (provided, that is, with one of his built-in units) when he was buying and selling houses in the suburbs. My mother was right. She had kept everything. My father’s cashbox when I opened it (we called it a cashbox because it had a combination) was filled with old envelopes dated and stamped containing pretty well every document the family had ever acquired: school reports going back to our first days at primary school, my sister’s swimming certificates, a postcard of the Orsova, 12,283 tons (the ship my mother had come out on in 1913), a five-shilling share in the Siegfried Line that a provident aunt had sent me for my birthday in 1940, newspaper cuttings of my father’s boxing career, all pasted up on crumbling cardboard, the receipt for my grandfather’s tombstone — and a whole lot more that I couldn’t begin to examine. My mother was one of the great collectors. Her dressing-table was the Library of Alexandria, a suburban V. and A. Just opening its drawers was like stepping back into my earliest childhood. There were the heirlooms I liked to play with, neatly assembled in an ivory case: my grandmother’s wedding ring and a tiny garnet brooch that I knew from the portrait of her in evening dress over my mother’s bed; a bloodstone seal with my grandfather’s initials, E.M., and a replica of the anointing-spoon used at the coronation of Edward VII; packets of pins, needles, hooks-and-eyes, buttons, hairpins; and dozens and dozens of Paton and Baldwin pattern books, with photographs of favourite sweaters and cardigans I had once worn and a green knitted suit I remembered my mother in, with huge yellow buttons, vintage 1937; little blue bottles of Evening in Paris and huge ones of Potter and Moore Lavender; haircombs, evening-bags beaded all over with jet, hairnets, a chignon, a spangled snood. I felt like a housebreaker as I tumbled the contents of the drawers on to the carpet — or a grave-robber, stumbling in among the ruins of an abandoned empire.
Each morning, just after nine, I went down to the house as if it was a regular job and began where I had left off the day before, pausing only to eat briefly at midday on the kitchen step.
It was September, and the roughstone terraces with their thickets of tiny white daisies were aswarm with insects. The whole garden sizzled and hummed. Big slow-flying grasshoppers, so heavy they could barely stay airborne, barged across the lawn or lofted over a wall to the hibiscus. The air glittered, and bees were busy in the cups of creepers that were just bursting into flower, cascading over a trellis or choking a fence. Occasionally one of the local cats strolled through on its way to the waste ground next door and sniffed about for scraps; or a big waterbird floated in from the mangroves downriver and perched for a moment on a dahlia stake. Once I saw a good-sized goanna. Deserted for just a fortnight, my fathers garden was already half wild. The darkness under the thickening boughs was alive with midges and heavy with the smell of rotting vegetation, jungle-damp and sickeningly sweet.
Upstairs, in the afternoon stillness, I worked through my mother’s linen press and moved on to the spare room at the back of the house that had once been mine.
It was years since I had slept there. After my sister married I had used her room, which was bigger, lighter, and had a view; but the double room at the back was still referred to as mine. It was a storeroom now. Suitcases were piled against one wall, a pair of bed-ends and a set of dining-chairs my father had meant to cover were stacked against one another, and the built-in cupboards were full of toasters, electric jugs with ragged cords, radiators, blankets, the covers from our car. The only sign of my occupancy was a faded place on the wallpaper where I had once hung a print, and in shelves behind glass, in the smaller of the two rooms, my books, already mouldy with damp.
I emptied the cupboards and took their contents to be burned. The books I packed in a tea-chest to be transported to my sister’s.
This was the last room of all, I was almost finished. There was only the desk, which no one had used for fifteen years or more, its drawers so tight with damp that I could barely get them open. The first two were empty anyway. But in the third, under a set of new spring-back folders, was a layer of rubbish that must have lain pretty well undisturbed since my middle years at school. The usual stuff. I took the drawer out and tumbled its contents on the floor: fuel-pellets for a model aeroplane engine, propelling pencils given out free by Dunlop Rubber and Tristrams soft drinks, newspaper photographs (John Winter clearing the bar at the London Olympics), poker dice, a crumbly gum rubber, a compass with a stub of green pencil, a glass cylinder marbled with coloured sands from the North Coast, even a sheaf (neatly folded) of “stories” that I had punched out one holidays on a borrowed Royal. And at the very bottom, still glossy and unyellowed, the Brisbane Grammar School Magazine for 1949.
I let the pages fly under my thumb, and was about to consign it to the pile of junk behind the door when out of a pyramid of regular, black and white faces I was pulled up short by a familiar, unfamiliar smile.
I turned back to the photograph and stared.
The Stillwater Lifesaving Team, looking solid and smug in their black Speedos, had been arranged in two rows in front of the Old Physics Lab. Arms folded to show off their biceps, knees regularly apart, the older boys sat stiffly upright on a form. We younger ones posed cross-legged at their feet. There were two squads of us, junior and senior, with six in each. We used to practise at lunchtime on the front lawn under the trees, one boy kneeling, one boy prone in the grass, taking it in turns to be either drowned-man or handy bystander: one, two, breathing steadily, in, out, pushing down hard with hands spread under the shoulderblades up to sixty, then springing to our feet. And there we all were, all twelve of us, with me in the front row left.
But what had caught my eye, and made me turn back and look again, was a small boy at the very edge of the picture, who wasn’t staring out like the rest of us into some sort of rectilinear future, but had cocked his head up, away from Mr. Peck’s covere
It was Johnno. No mistaking the big, lopsided grin, the oversized head with its Cagney-style middle parting and brilliantine waves. But what puzzled me, and had, I suppose, even more than the oddness of his pose, leapt out from the page and caught my eye, was the glasses he was wearing. Round gold-rimmed glasses that might have belonged to his grandmother or been a property from an end-of-term play
Surely they were wrong! Johnno had never worn glasses. I stared at the photograph for a good three minutes, searching my memory for some image of him, bursting in through the door—breathless, late as usual, his socks round his ankles — or swerving dangerously close as he hurled off on his bike; he was as clear in my mind as if he were there. But the glasses, those odd gold-rimmed specs that sat so firmly on the saddle of his nose in the lifesaving photograph, they simply refused to materialise. Either my memory was at fault or the camera, on that particular afternoon, had lied.
I ran my eye along the row of faces and checked my memory against the names below. Carl Reithmuller, Jim Bostock, Bill Braithwaite, Neil Pickup, Colin Smails, Tippy Thompson, Mervyn Deeks — I named every last one of them without fail. My memory, like Johnno’s eyesight, was perfect. Twenty-twenty every time. I could see myself paired with each one of those figures, as we stood opposite one another ready to begin, hands on shoulders, heads up. With each of them, that is, except Johnno. And it occurred to me suddenly that he had never been a lifesaver at all. So how had he got into the picture? What was he doing there? I counted. And sure enough, the number was uneven. Johnno made thirteen.
So the camera had lied. Or Johnno had. Those glasses, if one could check them, would turn out, I was certain now, to have nothing in the frames. They were a disguise, a deliberate bending of the facts. A trick set up as carefully that afternoon as Mr. Peck’s camera, to preserve something other than the truth, and to make someone like me, nearly twenty years later, stop and look again. A joke with a time fuse.