I went to the church today
Not, I admit, in order to pray –
Rather you might say,
Outside the church
In desert sun’s scorch
Littering the porch, lay
Gum droppings, eucalypt
Bark, twig, in mad disarray.
Silent the shrine,
White, quiet, fine,
And a smell rose up,
And spoke: ‘breathe deep,
Take pleasure, take, keep!’
Is it camphor?
In all candour
I cannot say, but can report
The heated gum odour
Lifted me wholly in transport.
The river gums here –
“My aspens dear” –
Grow, persist, survive,
Through rains, flood, mud
And when long droughts arrive –
And they speak to me
And say, ‘Wrinkled man, grey,
Gaze on our bark, ridged too
And stark, and keep good humour:
Breathe deep, deep, inhale our aroma.’
And so I do. And on church porch did today
Despite the heat, one hundred Fahrenheit,
To read what and when – I never dreamed if –
Services there’d be, on twenty-fifth. And confounded,
Found nought; no report. Really? Reel, sniff –
That sweet fragrance’ll
Endure by chancel,
By happy chance,
Though town’s broke and townsfolk
Leave with parting glance.
The church stands, white,
Quite quiet. And by it –
All around, littering the ground –
Pragmatic, aromatic, lies gumbark,
Fruit of time’s wound,
The coal resource exhausted, the town on death row, the mining townsfolk have drained away to seek their separate fortunes elsewhere. Too few faithful remain for a quorum or even a service on Christmas Day.
As I left my house this morning, my hand drifted up, as it often does on my leaving home, to touch the mezuzah on the doorpost. I kissed my fingers, as I often do, but this time quite consciously. I was visited by unexpected thoughts: I hope this house is still here when I return. Will I find my loved ones safe and well this evening?
Musing, I walked to the tram.
It’s December seventh today. Indelible date. A baby in my arms, born three months ago, named Aviva for the season. Small, pink, warm, her lips a rosebud. We return from a week in the wilderness, wife, the two older children and the baby, two days ago. Back at home the hot water tap runs cold. And stays cold. We call the plumber, he calls the electrician, he replaces the thermostat.
December seven I am up first. I go to wash for the dawn prayers; a clanking in the pipes, steam issuing from the hot tap. I think little of it. Back in the bedroom I remove the wedding ring that bears Annette’s inscription: ‘Howard, with love, Annette. I enfold myself in ritual gear and recite sleepy prayers. The family is up now. Annette sits in an armchair, breastfeeding springtime baby, while the three-year old and the five-year old sit and wait for Sesame Street. Kisses goodbye and I am off to work, leaving my wedding ring on the dressing table. The hands on the bedside clock point to 0745.
Work is busy, absorbing. Quickly I slip into country doctoring. Families, wives, children, snot, cut legs, bruised feelings, breaking hearts, then a phone call from our neighbour: ‘Howard, I think you’d better come up home. There’s been a small explosion.’ I know the neighbour, an excitable person. There’s no rush. I see a few more patients before a voice says ‘go home’. I do so.
It’s sunny and pleasant. The warmth beguiles me as I drive up the unmade road that twists and turns on the way to number 43, Deering Street.
I turn into the steep driveway. Ahead I see the carport, tall, stout, ugly. The carport is empty. To the left I see the brick walls of our home lying flat on the rough grass. Grey oblong bricks, Besser Bricks, they call them, I don’t know why. The wooden house frame hangs drunkenly, the roof sits skew-whiff above the frame. A moment of amazement. Then a warming, a drenching flood of relief. The carport is empty. No-one is home. Annette, the kids, they’re safe. We have lost a house but I have lost nothing.
In the hours that follow I trace Annette to her sister’s house and tell her. She has to drive, to arrive, to look, to sift through rubble before she understands the import of the excitable neighbour’s ‘small explosion.’ A mother has lost her children’s nest. Our son loses speech for the next six months. One goldfish has lost its life, the second survives in the millimetre of water that covers the floor next to the shattered fishbowl.
In the bedroom the bedside table is a shatter of toothpicks. Of my wedding ring, no trace. Ever.
The homicide will be premeditated but justified. That much is clear. Just whom I will be constrained to slaughter, and how many, will become clear in time.
These thoughts surfaced as I lay in bed with my wife on the morning of December 3 this year. We married on that date in 1969, an overcast day with threat of rain. It was a good day and many good days have followed. We lay together and did what we often do: I slandered our children and their mother defended them. Together we reviewed our forty seven years: accrued are three children and seven* grandchildren; lost are three parents and one sibling. Time’s balance sheet.
The three children are of good character but, as even their mother is forced to admit, of infirm mind. Two of the three watch ‘Survivor’ and ‘Australian Survivor’, while a third watches ‘Bachelor’ and ‘Bachelorette’. Compounding this, the last-mentioned watches those programs in company with his underage children.
We shook our heads. We shook our jowls. Where did we go wrong?
But wherefore homicide? This day, this turning of our year, is called an anniversary. It is our forty-seventh.
Listening to the National Broadcaster nowadays we hear such fatuities as ‘On the six-month anniversary of such and such…’ The same offense against grammar and logic is perpetrated in my narrowsheet (formerly broadsheet) newspaper. I grind my gums and froth and writhe.
And here, in whispering small font, I confess to shameful acts carried out by our own posterity: our children speak of their parents’ forty-seven year anniversary.
So, homicide of course. Naturally. How will I do it? Strangulation, I suppose. While I plot it in cool blood, I know it will be in white heat that I silence those tautologising throats. In the face of such provocation no jury could possibly convict.
*Watch this space, as the uterus said to the ovary.