Blood Stirring Under Scars
Although memory’s boat has drifted far downstream now I remember a movie directed by Resnais about troubled memory, others adapted from plays by William Inge, Paddy Chayefsky, characters living in boarding houses, but alone, clocks ticking, repressed sexual energy, longing; Cheever’s stories, sadness of the human heart, days draining into the gulf of middle age. I also strain to remember staying near a train station, some storm of my own, some calm, leaving almost-love, airy dreams, behind.
A publican’s spoiled daughter with a taste for carnal excitement who resembled a Toulouse-Lautrec model, liked Elvis Presley, averted her head to exhale smoke, showcasing curls on her nape, hair in a top-knot. Tracing her after so long, I ambushed logic with foolish assumptions, a wrong address. You could blame addiction to quietly dramatic tales, wanting two goes at life.
A postal employee in the Dead Letter Office, perhaps a TV soapie fan with an old-fashioned attitude to service enthused by possibilities of solving problems of the aforementioned human heart, placed a newspaper ad that tinkled a tiny bell of memory in a reader’s mind.
I hitch-hiked thousands of miles across foreign soil through the Yukon to Alaska without losing my nerve, yet now, feeling the heft of years, sleeping too much, welcome her answering service, relief a brief respite from angst, my message putting off expectations, but too late to turn back. Coward, coward, I think knowing not how many blurred, bestilled evenings I have left.
Train arrivals once shook our floor like great wind gusts as we sought each other’s heat. I again trawl over early chapters, their residuum, questions needing detailed answers. My agitated phone’s signal engulfs me, trapping a small bird in my chest. Those trains emerging from the blackest tunnel, those dilapidated days, surge back.
A thirteen year-old boy wearing a school jumper and gauzy bravado he shall always remember strides towards a beach several miles from his poor family home south of Melbourne, cold, trembling from his latest thrashing. The gravel road lies quiet but for a lone car driven by a novelist who never stops to offer a ride.
When my father died my mother gave me his wallet, his belt. He left no memory of kind words. She knew this. She remembered. Inside the wallet, hidden, I found money, too much for the old-age pension, not part of a memento.
The novelist’s family, with their own light aircraft and airstrip, lives beyond the boy’s, all English emigres settling a domain of kookaburras and copperheads. He has finished writing a book about the fraught end of our beloved world, a world I wanted to experience before it ended, later to be filmed, partly in this area where the posher properties swoon, immaculate, with white horse fences gleaming below a pale moon and its jewels.
Through the long personal twilight I thought about my father’s life, and death, which he feared right until the end. I thought I heard a man weeping when a bird, seeing only freedom in my window, stunned itself, lay panting on my veranda near a birds-nest fern in a tub before travelling on, a wingbeat ahead of silent cats and certain death.
The car’s sound faded, the boy’s contempt for that novelist, for most adults, parents, teachers, cops, dissolved into shadows at a paddock’s edge, a stray dog passes him, then turns to follow ten yards behind, gait faithful to his, seeking adoption, the boy’s mind running amok through a dreamlike future, that unknown pinprick of starlight we each grope towards.
I fell to thinking about how I found a kind of love, relegated the past, discovered the remainder of my days. When I returned the banknotes, everything except a cropped photograph of my sister long ago, and small change, my mother’s face stamped her guilty of attempted bribery. And heartache.
The boy has a pound for each year he has lived, earned, stolen, stashed, his pouch of tobacco, a rage for freedom, for cities’ giddy adventure, thinks he could hitchhike 500 miles to Sydney: in imagination’s kingdom a truck-stop, a jukebox, songs of lonely far-off times.
Those days furnished no mementos, only hard memories about dreaming of freedom. Locked up in an historic gaol built in an era of self-satisfaction, of statues, outdated then, townhouses now, we spotted hardened lags wasting precious days in the much larger adult section. Like them, most of us boys were heading for damnation. Protocol savage, recent tattoos serving me well, we hearkened back in that pandemonium to times when we were boys as if our collective childhood happened in the distant past.
An infamous murderer, a DJ on the outside, ran our in-(the big) house radio station. I listened wrapped in a cloak of provisional safety holding a flat earpiece connected to a wire, alone at last, dreaming of freedom, endurance of solitude the best time for me but apparently not for many of the other young offenders between 4p.m. and 7a.m. when we emptied our waste in the cold light, avoiding splash, fetid stench swirling in the air, our reek the only vestige of us in that stink hole free to float away.
Old magazines circulated. Most boys didn’t care to read, or couldn’t, although they liked the pictures. Glossy photos of food outraged my hunger for a meal better than degrading. Swimsuit models caught my eye, my breath. I devoured word knowledge tests dreaming of freedom using a pencil stub kept in my tobacco, often guessing the opposite to correct answers of multiple-choice questions, otherwise doing OK. I instinctively mentally corrected spelling mistakes reading the despair, defamation, humour, and of course, rage, in graffiti etched and inked over years into my walls, but I lacked answers. Still do from time to time, faded tattoos become motifs these remedial years on.
Two boys who hit an elderly newsagent harder than intended when robbing him received crushing sentences, unlike mine. The younger one, who acted tougher in the yard, was overheard sobbing nocturnally in that silenced madhouse of rage sorrowing for a lost dream of freedom, or the dead man. Who knows? I can’t find them on Google, but traced another, a loud, ignorant boy from those drear days, dead now, described as a habitual petty criminal all his life.
There was a girl whose letters had finally caught up with me. She worked in the city. On my release, unmet, resolute after a careful countdown, a thing I still do, the raw cry of a tram rattling towards the bright city surged my young blood.
Ian C Smith, P.O. Box 9262, Sale, Australia, 3850. <firstname.lastname@example.org>