Garland Makers

Emerging from my early morning train I follow the subterranean tunnel that will lead to a city lane and daylight. There by the stairway stands a figure in the dimness, a fiddle at her chin, a bow in her right hand. I catch a glimpse of a t-shirt emblazoned with a black skull on a ground of brilliant white. A musician is playing Bach in a catacomb in Melbourne.

 

 

The musician plays. Later she will answer my query: “It’s Bach, one of the minuets.” Like any commuter I hurry by. A piccolo latte later I return to the tunnel. I have, after all, ten minutes of leisure, ten minutes free from scampering from screen to screen. I stand at a remove where I watch the slow bowing of her right hand and the nimble darting fingers of her left.

 

 

The musician plays. I don’t recognise this music, something slow and languid; liquid sounds flowing, flowing, peak hour crowds hurrying, hurrying. The musician plays, the commuters exit and I stand and I listen. In my hands I hold ‘Review’ from the weekend paper. Between melodies I read a poem by Judith Beveridge. The poem, titled ‘To a Garland Maker’ starts:

 

 

‘It must be good to be a garland-maker –

Your daughters carrying water, working with you

Braiding feathers, shells, leaves…’

 

 

Somehow the poem clinches the moment for me. Some obscure connection takes place. Perhaps it’s simply the gladsome encounter, unexpected, with the beautiful. I drop a bank note into the musician’s empty violin case. Between pieces I approach: “Please forgive my enquiry… what else do you do? In music, I mean?”     

“I’m at the Conservatorium. I’m studying.”

     

 

I withdraw and the musician plays again. Once again sounds drawn by slow bowing to an unhurried tempo, once again sounds not of this century nor of the last. Is there perhaps defiance in her choice of the unfashionable, of the non-popular? Most mornings the busker in this tunnel is a singlet-clad Springsteen, twice this girl’s age. But his music is far younger. His guitar case fills quickly with coin and notes.

 

 

My ten minutes of slow pass quickly. I’ve been in reverie, prompted by the playing and the poem:

 

 

‘Daughters

who will adorn you at your funeral with blossoms

picked at dawn.’

 

 

 

Following the poet’s images of daughters and aged mothers a vision comes to me of this same girl, three score years in the future, her delicate face coarsened by years and care. As I walk away my mind takes me to an elderly lady I know. She suffered a stroke a few years ago and recovered all movement but her speech was affected. Now words tumble from her mouth in lively disorder. My friend knows what she wants to say but her brain plucks the wrong word from her lexicon. The old lady has much to tell but her speech trips her up. She lives alone in the old family home, her gaiety unquenched.

 

 

 

In my reverie I hear the fiddler with her slow music, I hold the poet’s images of garland-making daughters, of disfiguring time, and of an old lady who cannot talk straight. Yeats wrote of ‘Gaiety transfiguring all that dread’. It is art I suppose, the access to beauty, that brings us to the sunlight.

Long in the Tooth

To celebrate our wedding anniversary (tantrum warning; see footnote) my wife and I arranged to spend an intimate weekend in a sleepy coastal village an hour or two from Sydney. At our advanced stage of life our offspring seek to protect us from any reckless or imprudent intimacy, and so it was our Sydney family joined us in the seaside cottage.
Annette and I married forty-six years ago, when she was twenty years of age and I was twenty three. We were children, who did not know each other; in fact we did not know ourselves. 
I did some arithmetic recently and realised we have been married for 66.66*% of my life. Annette’s percentage is even higher. We thought the marriage a good idea at the time and I think it a good idea still.
After so many years it is delightful to make fresh discoveries of one’s bride. On Day One of our anniversary weekend I disturbed Annette in the bathroom after lunch. I saw she was brushing her teeth. I said, ‘I didn’t know you brushed your teeth after lunch. I thought I was the only person in the world who did that. If I had known I’d have spread toothpaste on your brush when I did mine.’

With her sweet mouth foaming dentrifice attractively , Annette replied, ‘I always brush after lunch.’

On Day Two I went to the bathroom to perform my midday oral toilet and found my toothbrush, freshly spread with toothpaste. 
From brusher, with love.   
FOOTNOTE: TANTRUM.
THIS IS OUR FORTY SIXTH ANNIVERSARY. IT IS NOT NOT NOT OUR ‘FORTY SIX YEAR ANNIVERSARY’. THERE IS NO SUCH THING. THERE CAN NEVER BE SUCH A THING AS A ‘ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY’ OR (HEAVEN FORBID) A ‘HALF-YEAR ANNIVERSARY’ OR (SAINTS AND REBBES PRESERVE US) A THREE MONTH ANNIVERSARY’. WHY NOT?

BECAUSE ‘ANNIVERSARY’ MEANS ‘TURNING OF A YEAR’; HENCE FORTY SIX YEAR ANNIVERSARY IS A TAUTOLOGY AND AN OFFENCE AGAINST LOGIC AND MEANING.
END OF TANTRUM.

She Died with a Smart Phone in Her Hand

She approaches the kerb, this young woman, walking diagonally across the footpath towards the verge. As she walks her regard is upon the screen of the phone in her palm. Nimble fingers dance across the small keyboard as she composes her message.

The face is intent, neither unhappy nor animated, as she drifts in her fugue onto the roadway. Dancing fingers pause, poised above the screen while she searches for the word that eludes her. Her feet walk slowly. She has no regard to the now quickening flow of feet before her.

The message, the letter, these occupy her.

The red light tells her nothing.

My car moves forward with the greening of the lights, as others do on either side of me and from the opposite direction.

What does she write? To whom does she compose these thoughtful words?

Is there a beloved for whom she writes? Inching closer I imagine her words: ”Dear one,

Last night was so…”

The last dashers against the red light have made shore. But the drifting lover faces her palm. Her fingers busy again, she writes her closing words…

***

When one tonne of plastic-clad metal encounters sixty kilograms of human flesh at 50 kilometres an hour the tender flesh gives way. The body leaves the surface, rising briefly above the roadway before landing in an attitude determined not by volition but by physics. A gust of sound as air is forced from the chest. The head makes forcible contact, soft brain and delicate vessels slam against the hard vault of bone. Slender cervical vertebrae are wrenched violently, internal viscera suffer shearing forces.

I have seen these changes, seen them all, attended them at post-mortems and at roadside.

***

And then there was Barry, my younger brother. Barry was five when the phone call came. I was home sick, genuinely sick – we couldn’t put anything over my doctor father – and I watched Mum take the call. Barry had gone off to school that morning, unescorted by a bigger brother.

Mum stood with the phone in her hand, her face urgently attentive. “Yes, I am Barry’s mother.”

Frowning, silent, burning with inquiry, Mum finally cut in: ”Sir, I can’t understand you. Please compose yourself.”

Then, “Oh hello Mr Zizzis, yes, yes I do know you… from the milk bar. Please tell me…”

Mum listened for a moment or two.

“I’ll come now. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

As she headed for the back door Mum said, “Barry’s been hit by a car…crossing Warrigal Road. Mr Zizzis says he’s alright. No, you stay here. You’re sick, remember.”

When Mum returned Barry was alright. He had an egg on his forehead and a guilty, relieved look on his beautiful face. Perhaps he was just pale, but his tight dark curls never looked so black.

Mum explained: “Barry ran in front of a car. The driver couldn’t stop in time. He was an old man, he said he’d never had an accident in all his life of driving… I couldn’t understand him on the phone, he was crying so much. Mr Zizzis saw it all through his window. He said the fender caught Barry and threw him up into the air. Barry just floated up from the roadway, floated and Mr Zizzis saw him going up, then landing on the bonnet. The driver wasn’t going fast. He just brought his car to a stop.

And Mr Zizzis knew Barry. He brought them in and gave the old man his phone. Poor man. Poor, poor old man.”

***

The daydreaming letter writer is safely beyond the eastbound lanes. Will she claim sanctuary on the double lines? The nearest westbound fender catches her. Her body rises, floats – I will her to follow Barry’s gentle parabola – she is young, too young to die. I am old, too old and too young – to bear witness again to the sudden extinction of breath, of life.