Lines of Descent
You remember she sewed your policeman’s uniform for the school play, yet hurled you, restless as caged wings, across the floor, your lightweight momentum halted by a suddenness of wall. You remember he stopped hitting you, your operatic screams to alert the neighbours, but urged her, who used the word ‘discipline’, into a fury towards you instead. You remember she gave you the cake-mix bowl to scrape when she baked, such are the highlights you cleave to, yet lied, her indignation acrylic when the teacher, in front of you, concerned about your constant blinking, queried her authoritarian criticism of you when so small. You remember he let you wrestle him to the carpet, yet spat terms of army charges, your guilt of these, over your naïve head. You remember she taught you politeness to adults yet disowned you for bearing his name, her slur on his inferior breed. You remember your siblings’ fondness of him, yet he flung, cunt, and bastard, at you, her not present, with your suitcase from his precious car at the train station when you fled, freed. You remember them driving on time to their all-important work, dropping you off at yours on their way, yet charging you for petrol money and tenancy. Now, walking the old towpath with your adult son, a meditative retreat taken many times alone, he tells of his and his brothers’ misery due to what seemed your pent-up anger, wondering why this errancy.
Dead Snake Past
After mulling yet again, borne back over the sad panoply of the past, mind-wincing at shattered relationships, he gazes in rapture at baby girls’ feet curling, two cousins’ miraculous appendages, tiny toes travelling through cyberspace with an email from their grandmother, dear descendants undeserved.
When young, a husband and father ill-equipped for the honour, he did his best. Fatalistic, he now believes most do, including other plotless failures whose actions are condemned by well-raised folk. He once arrived home from his job as a chainman, leaving his work bag with the broken zip on their Formica kitchen table for his wife to remove the lunchbox he had concealed with his newspaper. He watched her reach in, recoil, in one violent motion, shrieking in shock.
Entertaining, chattering as usual, sledgehammer and ranging pole slung over shoulders, he had been oblivious of danger. The surveyor, his boss, later amused and appalled by this practical joke, killed the deadly snake immediately after preventing him from stepping on it. The boss’s wife, a woman who read a book a week, was outraged by this tale of his goblin glee. Her bibliophilia impressed him but they were not on the same page.
Reading literature for a belated degree he began to recognise his own behavioural type in chichi characters portrayed by discerning novelists, characters he liked at first. Heartbeat quickening, he thought if he wrote a book about a fallible fool he could model as his own anti-hero, turning pages himself now in a swoon of discovery. Many things scared him then; live snakes, education’s test, the rhetoric of excuse, love, grief. Now the debacle of the deep past, its pungency, makes him shiver retrospectively, but those twinkling babies’ toes cheer, should romp into the future, avoid time’s waste.
I find a former workmate, bald now, shy smile unchanged, his grey wife, children with their own children, clichéd Facebook facsimiles; the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, and holding hands before a European backdrop that could be Rome. We lost touch after I left my wife, triggering their embarrassed disapproval.
My mind skids to a travel diary I recorded. I read Samuel Pepys, engrossed: ‘Waking this morning out of my sleep on a sudden, I did with my elbow hit my wife a great blow over her face and nose, which waked her with pain, at which I was sorry’. Years on, my/the ex returned this account she should not have withheld with other trivial mementoes I/he left behind with the echo of chaotic last words hurled like rocks through stained glass windows.
The diary details a rickety trip, possibly an attempt to rekindle teenaged time when being together in poverty blinded them. I read, aghast, as each day he ruthlessly lists expenses, choosing the cheaper food, wine by the glass because they couldn’t share a bottle, corkage, other tricks proprietors get up to, page after page punctuated by dollar signs. Places and problems feature, but chaperoned meanly by expenses, diligently noted highlights sparse.
They arrived back at that grey safety net, home, beaten, back to familiarity, two beasts prowling, finding fault, bored, back to unworthiness flaring into raw spite that would shame, spur him to eventually drive away at weaving speed, streetlights a blur like shooting stars, leaving their time together forever, fleeing from his former starved self, I like to neatly think – fleeing from responsibility, those desperate payslips, the mild misery of suburban kitsch, could be blunt ripostes to this neatness – into a rewrite of his fugitive days where he would take a wiser viewpoint on the heft of terrible cost.