Jack

Jack

Amid the heat of grapevines in late summer and the smell of wild bees’ honey, Jack is sitting in the shade of the old water tank peeling potatoes. He is meticulous about this task and always has been. Remembering his father at the same task he half smiles. The old man’s gravel rash voice: You’ll eat sticks before you die.

But not Jack, at the age of eighty he reckons he’s avoided the sticks and the eight spiders that his father had insisted everyone would haplessly consume before they died. He turns towards the house, the cricket should be on soon. Hears the clickety clack of dishes being washed. His second wife is a paragon of domestic virtue. He wished again he’d never married her.

Plunging his hands into the cool, earthy potato bucket he’s ambushed again by memory. He is four years old and his parents are striding through the landscape of his childhood. Wherever they walk the floorboards ripple with their anger. His father’s rage is as cold as a nun’s cunt and his blue eyes could burn you and his mother is smouldering, hiding the flames deep within. He remembers running away and other untold acts of bastardry and returning to that anger which prowled the house like a beast that had to be fed, but was never satisfied. Only childhood can fashion memory so meticulously. The autumn day he came home, hot as hell, white ghosts shimmering on the road and he knew his mother was gone. Gone away and she wasn’t coming back. He had run through the house shouting for her and then gone bush for three days. Returned home to a thrashing from his father and his older bothers’ relief. But not his father’s and it took him years to understand his father’s rage against him and even longer to forgive. Jack was the image of his mother. The very spit of her they said and he paid for it dearly.

He remembers his dog, Blackus and standing in front of his father with the dog safe behind him. The old man’s got a 22 rifle pointing

down the barrel, there is a stillness in the air, those fish eyes again,

I don’t care if I shoot you boy, and I will shoot that dog, so move.

Then do it. Jack says. His own anger uncoiling.

At the age of ten he’s just horsewhipped old Hendry up the road for beating his dog. Blackus is all he’s got, he reckons that the dog’s worth dying for; there’s not much worth living for now. She’d given him the dog, his mother, the memory of her beautiful hands cutting up meat scraps for a pup that is all black fluff is playing like music in his head. But so much else has gone, she’s like a mist and fading all the time.

Years later he’d almost cried about leaving Blackus when he went off to war, certain that the dog would die before he came home. He’d come home a different man with medals on his chest and places in his head he never went into again. But Blackus was waiting. He knew how to stay the course; he was a survivor. So was Jack.

Jack his wife’s irritating voice brings him back.

I’ll be in soon he replies. The afternoon is paling, the river breeze will be up soon, and he doesn’t like the heat much. His first wife hated it. He’d built a house of light and shade for her, Marguerite, who hated heat but had to have light to live. She’s been dead just over a year now and like his mother, she is never coming back.

O there you are says his new wife. She is an expert in filling up the space with words

Yep, here’s your potatoes

I wish I could do that she says. He almost tells her that an ape could be trained to the task but resists. He loathes the way she speaks to him as if he is a precocious child, but she’s not stupid, even she can hear the anger roiling in him. She scuttles back into the kitchen. He sighs. A man’s a fool and twice a fool he says softly to the world. There’s not much he can do about any of it, his kids won’t speak to him over this marriage and the dead drive him hard. Going inside he looks again at the mock English charm interior and reminds himself that he’ still alive despite the fact that

Marguerite would have torn this house down around their ears. She loathed bad taste. Well you shouldn’t have died he says to himself. Trying to avoid her, not even death can stop her roaming through his dreams and the boundaries of his life. Full to brim with laughter, he can hear her now, and wild as some bush creatures are, she’d never come to his hand to feed. Neither in life nor death. Resolutely he rejects an image of her. He cannot seem to find himself anymore. Wherever he looks there’s either a thick, bloated grey or the brutality of death, he’d chosen grey. It seemed he still wanted to live.

Survival is such a small gift to bring before the gods, Jack, I want something more than that Marguerite says in his memory. What can a man say to that, it’s just too big an idea for him. He knows himself well enough to understand he is seething with anger for dying, for the long slow agony of her dying. That had broken him more than anything. And all the time the music played relentlessly. Days of Mozart. He hated it now with a passion and that was criminal. For both his wife and daughter were musicians. He remembers so many afternoons walking into the front room and they would look up at him. Both faintly outraged by interruption and then seeing him, they smile, while their bows played up and down their cellos and the warm sound filled the vacuums of the past and present and smoothed the edges of his soul and music fed him until even he was satiated, sitting back with an empire of beauty.

Jack, your dinner’s ready says his new wife

Thank you he replies hiding flawlessly within the etiquette of their courteous relationship. He eats and she chats, he doesn’t really care what she says; the cricket is recorded, his every human desire is catered for. He suspects she’d do cartwheels for him if he asked, although she’s no longer young either. If only she could bring the dead back. He sighs again.

Jack p.3

I’ll take the dog for a walk he pronounces, he needs to get out into the world

Oh that will be just lovely she says as if he’s just going to discover a new planet. She doesn’t understand irony. He almost pities her for that. Marguerite had a sense of humour that would have caused problems in a nunnery.

Out in the evening he feels comfortable with himself at last. The stars are suspended through tree branches like Christmas baubles. He tries to reject the memory of fifty-seven years of his first marriage. Fails. Christmas and his children, the family dog wild with the smell of dingoes on the pine tree, barking fit to choke himself. The house so full of happiness it overflows with laughter and carols and cooking; secrets in corners and at last the kids asleep. And then the midnight ritual of bringing in the presents from the shed; and the air is so light, brimming with greenness and the morning of children’s delight. Marguerite pretending she couldn’t wake up as they clamber over her and begging her to get up while he’s making tea and toast and laughing. He realizes that he is standing by the road with tears streaming down his face Oh Jesus I’ll have to cop it sweet. There will be no children this Christmas. He wishes he could understand himself better, if only his daughter, Joanna, would come home. He knows better, she’ll not compromise herself over this marriage and she’s as ill tempered as her mother.

That night he dreams of Marguerite again and although she is elusive it is enough to drag him from the catatonic world of sleep with unease in every cell of his body. It’s 4 in the morning, the hour of the wolf, and he is sitting in his carefully constructed all male study trying to avoid the gaze of the photographs ranged like trophies around him. Everything accuses him. He knows, logically, that he has done the best thing for himself, perhaps the only thing: a wife to keep the ghosts at bay and the prospect of a lonely death. He had decided long ago that death would get a bloody good fight with him; he’ll not go easy or resign

Do you want a cup of tea? The woman has startled him out of courtesy

No, I want a bit of bloody peace, a bit of space without you jawing at me day and night. Is that so very much to ask?

She subsides resentfully; he has broken their unspoken agreement. He hears her making tea anyway, thinks of just walking out, into the last of night, stars and the smell of morning almost coming, of walking down to the very back paddock and watching the dawn spin light in the grass, of somehow fading into that light, of not thinking just for a while. It seems all gates are closed, the way is broken and he has lost the path. But something within him cannot seem to give in.

Here, drink this, you will feel better says the woman and fury eats him up.

Wordlessly he gets up and slams out the back door. This morning he feels maybe he is too old for any of it, women and wives and daughters and mothers who were never there. Pain is becoming irrelevant; he could always get as venomous as his father. Walking helps. Birdcall and trees and green light, the creek rattling in the distance, perhaps these will sustain him

What am I waiting for? he asks the world I might as well be dead and buried and fucking forgotten…

He trails off, the cows are looking at him with some interest, they don’t get much in the way of soul mongering out this way he thinks. Remembers his daughter’s love of cows, driving to the coast and her and her baby brother, lost in time hanging out the window and calling

Look Mum, the trees are running as fast as the car, the trees are running,

Jack wonders if he could run too. Suddenly he makes a decision, he’s always been like this, he’ll hang around an issue for months and move towards it and away from it and then like an epiphany it becomes clear. Walking home he shakes his head wondering why he has been so cantankerous and then puts it down to genetic

Jack p.5

inheritance, He has often thought his mother may have been like this. He walks back into his house and she is waiting for him

Jack, I have to tell you.

No, me first he says decisively, I need to get this off my chest while I can. I am sorry about this morning but its not working this thing. You cannot compete with Marguerite or the past or anything. I was wrong. We were wrong about marriage. Too soon. I’m not much good to anyone right now

Jack she interrupts and there’s a sadness in her eyes and something else

Let me finish, it’s really not about you, God knows you’ve tried and you’ve been bloody good at it. All I can say is I am sorry. I wish I could undo it, but I can’t.

That’s not what I wanted to tell you, this is important, Joanna rang ten minutes ago. She wants you to ring her back and then she smiles, this woman that he doesn’t really know

My God he’s speechless

Well go on says his wife hurry up, she might change her mind

He’s on the phone and shaking, it seems forever until Joanna picks up the phone

Joanna His voice is trembling and thick and congealed

Dad? There is a slight pause, he stops breathing Dad I want to say a few things and then I do not want to speak about it again, is that understood?

Yep

You’re a fucking weirdo, dad, you always have been. I don’t like Susan, I do not like your marriage. Mum wasn’t cold in her grave before you ran off to a registry office. It’s all that bullshit I hate. It’s like you don’t trust us. Lying and scheming and then presenting us with a fait accompli. It’s like you don’t trust us with the truth or the pain and its all too soon after Mum. But I thought about this and then I dreamt about Mum. Jack is not game to say a thing, the pause lengthens

I dream about her all the time, honey, all the time he says at last

Jack p.6

Do you think she is OK? Says his daughter and he hears the tremble in her tone

I don’t know

Neither do I. And I hate people who say shit like O your mother wouldn’t have wanted this to happen. Well she shouldn’t have died I reckon. But that’s childish I know. Anyway Dad I remembered what she said to me in the dream and what she used to say when she was alive.

What was that love? He feels a glimmer of hope.

She said, you remember this surely, she said that it is not the dead who are making for the agony and strangeness of life, and it is the living. She said her grandmother used you tell her that and it’s true. So, end of story, I’ll come up on Christmas Day with the girls, I will not play Brady bunch and blended family with Susan, And I may never do that but I need to see you. I love you, you silly father, I love you heaps. So I’ll see you then.

Jack can hear Bach playing in the background of Joanna’s house, over the phone; it would have to be the unaccompanied Cello Suites. It moves over him like liquid amber, honey and warmth.

Well I’ll see you then. Can I take you all to lunch?

You better have presents old man, my girls have been driving me mad over this, they cry about not seeing you. They don’t understand the past like me and neither they should. They’re young, dad and they love you. I’ve got to go. We’ve got cello lesson

Tell them I love them

It’s alright Dad, they are going to ring you when we get back.

Joanna? He still not sure of his ground but plunges in, anyway

Yeah, I know

Joanna I love you, you take care, and I’ll see you soon.

As he puts down the phone he knows he cannot wait until Christmas, maybe tomorrow he can drive down. He turns around. Susan is standing by the door. She has tears in her eyes.

He says slowly, carefully Joanna is coming home on Christmas

Jack p.7

Day

I know, she told me, she’s as blunt as her mother isn’t she?

Do you think it will be OK?

I’ll stand back for a while Jack. She’s a funny girl, she could get spooked.

Like a horse I reckon

Susan smiles reluctantly, it occurs to him how difficult it must be for her to sail this treacherous water, seething with undercurrents and the past. A cold sea and him treating her like the enemy when it was himself all the time.

Will we have another go at this thing? He asks

Alright Jack but I am not a doormat you know, I knew Marguerite as well, she would not have put up with your attitude. And your sulking

I know, he laughs, she would have thrown the bloody teapot at me and more.

He looks out of the window and watches the shape of the world come fully into morning and there is kind of peace in him, not happiness exactly but something like the feeling of tectonic plates having settled. He goes over to the old CD player finds Mozart, Mozart so full of joy whose life was always being shattered by tragedy and then he puts it on and sets the music free.

Jack p.8

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