The suburb was cocksure recent, professional
class, double-brick houses, mid-height
eucalypts along the Beaumaris nature strips;
each garage emptied of a Ford or Holden
on day release up to the smoke.
Monday. The coarse yodels
of magpies announced one yard or another
along grid-like streets seized
by the Americana of a developer.
At 16 Florida, a breeze
off Port Phillip Bay frisked
the native tea-trees and stoic camellias.
The ding-dong doorbell announced the cop.
His hat was off when, around eleven
it was my turn to sing in the study.
He commanded the desk. I had my story ready.
Pen in hand, his eyes were steady.
The stuff he wrote, questions, answers,
formed part of my inquiry
when, like Chandler’s Marlowe, I risked
a certain involvement in this case.
For the cop, it was pretty much open and shut,
on the previous day, the doctor gone, my mother’s
body sent to the morgue, a duty done.
I had to become a tough dick for this,
or fake it. Adopt a style,
just to get by. For a flying start,
see off a wet tell-tale pommy manner.
What did that big-jowled Aussie cop
— methodical, slow — make of father and son
glossing a loss, right from under their noses,
in proper far-off London diction?
He was no dope. I reckon he thought,
crazy English, in a new abode. The whys
and wherefores of the crime became no clearer
when father’s pipe smoke filled the room.
Mother had once been found, in the garden, prone.
Finding her in bed, colour gone, was for me
no afternoon bed of roses, I didn’t say, schooled
— smooth of face — to be formal, courteous.
Now the cop had ammo for the inquest,
complete with suicide note and empty brown
bottle of barbiturates. He vamoosed.
There was, I puzzled, more to this case.
Scotch whisky, a madhouse, an outer
London district, as it surfaced. I needed dosh,
dough, lolly, a swag of loot, and the years to grow
tall enough to stash it. To get close.
I almost whizzed past our old manor.
This was a trajectory that, slow at first,
had, gaining evidence, gathered pace.
I confess, officer, my driving’s dangerous…
Luckily, the filth were on the beat
or chasing crims. 184 Joel Street,
two storey, semi-detached, had shrunk like the economy
from its commanding, parental height,
to drab Middlesex real estate. In need of paint.
Opposite, the farm, once huge, had dwindled
inside its fences, and each oak tree with it.
It seemed a trick. I had to get the measure of this.
A neighbour said, “I last saw your mother
at the shops.” Briefly, it seemed
she wasn’t gone. Or furtive tears. I was after truth,
one that made things too rough, cast
her act as triumph over family tattle,
and all I was getting was a bad case
of displacement. Like Marlowe, I craved a drink.
An ominous flock of starlings swerved overhead.
Birds were the connection I really needed. Clues.
Blue tits, great tits, thrushes, wrens and robins
preserved in The Observer’s Book of Birds and,
in our garden, safe from the slingshots of the farm lads. Mates.
Nippers. Shavers. In its cage our brisk canary
hopped, obsessed, from rung to rung;
clung to its bars, and twitched its head,
flitted from one side to another — stopped
to sing its domestic song. My mother hoovered,
cooked and scrubbed. I now saw the steps
she’d washed and swept. The tears and screaming
at a neighbour, while I hid under a polished table,
her version of the Housewife’s Blues.
Played out by six o’clock, a brassy knock
announced her husband, and on her cheek
she got a peck. With this image I’d had enough
flashback — hit the road in my Morris Traveller,
took a slug of what I needed, and
the local roundabout more than once.
Headed to some place with some kind of future.
There, via the highways of the sky, a span of birthdays,
rosellas hurtled from gum to gum tree,
made a lively racket above the latest
bayside houses that sheltered new retirees
and holidaying huntsman spiders. Leafy
Mount Eliza. Once an escape, now a capitulation.
On my own good authority, I knew
my mother’s memory was captive here in Unit 1,
curtains half drawn, windows shut
and there, once again, I wasn’t about
to let a smokescreen put me off.
My father lit his pipe. I poured the scotch.
The land of opportunity was, across the table,
a shaft of light, and I wanted more
than pat expressions like “sick”, “depressed”,
the slammed door of the madhouse where
gradually she’d knitted bootees
and baby vests for me, a swell, peripatetic
among the relatives. He was no snitch.
I had my father fingered but he was quick
to miss the real content of the scotch whisky.
The light was gone, and the drink to release
the sort of light I wanted. Each time we parted company,
our accents had long since already done it.
Marlowe, be my guide out of the quiet streets
tough vernacular has failed to reach…
It was daylight when, with a handshake,
I was off again. On whom or what
to pin the guilt was like trying to wrench
an oyster open with a stake
from a picket fence. In Mount Eliza, I knocked
a few about in passing with my desert boots
as if that machismo could be a swift
rehearsal in getting some villain to blab,
spill the beans, fess up, or sing some kind of truth
about this hush-hush bit of mother trouble.
I wasn’t done with yet. She deserved a better press
than some thin notice in the Births and Deaths,
and being somewhere between both myself,
I felt I owed it to her. There were the relatives,
those she’d missed, whose aerogrammes
still slipped through the slot at manned chez Sant,
with the garish ads. For them to blab would need a catalyst.
Gentle persuasion. A prod. A spur. A sop.
Grief: compulsory re-runs from the sixties
of The Saint where Roger Moore gets the lovely girl, always,
and the villains. Right now, this case was getting me
no halo, few suspects, and a lack of sleep.
The development came with a call, long distance,
“I’m sorry to have to inform you…”
Rain hit the window with its wintry fist
and I dodged, shocked to find the right reply
among the orthodox list of words
lingering in the classifieds. With “much loved”
and “missed” to see him off, my long-lived father
maintained long silence as his privilege.
I hit the phone myself. Sitting, lost for words,
in the chilly, white, windowless room
with his body stretched out beneath a sheet
had made me garrulous, need to shed
what? Tears! Equal to an absent weight
in some accordance with the theory of Archimedes.
I was soon back among the rosellas and picket fences.
The family photo albums, spread about the lounge,
I now cracked open like cement.
Inside, a suspicious lot in posh
Edwardian dress, who’ve smartly
robbed posterity of any stock of mirth
and are sternly standing firm.
If I needed cheer, I wasn’t going to get it here.
Not did my mother, by the looks.
She stood among them, all stiff as a row of books
containing in her folks’ Esher or Palmers Green,
adventures with the drink and novel length TB.
The girl had it tough. There were many
factors — and I was counting — but they didn’t yet
add up to her solution. On
the Bible of my mother’s God
she’d reckoned in her note would take
care of the little family she’d signed off,
I could have sworn there was more evidence
that needed air. Right then, He wasn’t beyond
a personal slating, or the specious range of shots,
in the albums, of English beauty spots.
I had the urge to wrap things up, reach the sort
of resolution that drives crime fiction
or a car towards its destination —
headlong down motorways where the macadam
ends, not with a twist, but requires a necessary
deceleration. I’d bet Marlowe would get
the drift of this, though not the points
for frequent flying. They were increasing.
The car squeezed smooth as toothpaste
between high hedges, hiding barley, along the lanes.
TV aerials, pert as rabbits ears,
were, on thatched roofs, the only evidence
of speed round here — except the flight,
from the smoke, of polite aunts and uncles
for their skirmish with the reaper.
In the windscreen, Devon dawdled
and Somerset slept. I accelerated,
with fresh dirt on the case, from those ancients,
towards a rough house pub I knew
to slug it out, scrap or scuffle
with a spectre. The joint was full
of ugly customers. I joined a shout.
On the walls enough stained memorabilia,
through the smog, to weigh heavily
on any sod’s misplaced levity.
I grabbed my father and knocked him out.
Checked my knuckles, smiled, downed
a pint, and swore in chorus
with the aunts and uncles that when
the troubles began, had he been more willing,
less chilly… They’d blabbed. No grief
as catalyst from the sixties needed.
Just his absence, and a gentle nudge.
But six pints later, he was back, unbloodied,
for his own defence, and I was glad
he had a strong attacking right hook in him.
He’d got a slagging, and duly didn’t want
to take a rap based on the angle
that being spliced was something he couldn’t handle.
I staggered. Late, the pub was emptying. The bastards
couldn’t see what the sodding fuss was all about.
None was a reader, yet each seemed
to turn, like a blurry page, and vanish
from this bit of action. I saw the way out
might be via another crazy institution,
now I’d got the lowdown on its whereabouts.
I needed to be sober — was closing in
on the next sinner that needed sizing up.
I looked at myself in the rear-vision mirror.
My features were less tired and ragged
after a week spent on the wagon.
I gulped some air. The car I left
at the mercy of the local tea leafs. A red Fiesta.
The secured, four storey austerity of the bin
looked in the drizzle like a prison.
Through the iron gates, I ventured
into Bedlam’s Georgian next of kin — the breeze
frisking water off the winter trees —
glad to be too late by a century plus
to join the sightseers of the barking mad,
though I had no trouble letting loose
images of leglocks, the purge and the douche.
I sleuthed about where paupers once
had shaven heads and, later on, coves
sported Wilkie Collins beards; wanted out
of the restraints and handcuffs gripping
the Hanwell Asylum atmosphere.
Even after a quick escape to the modern
spin of varied tucker, open gate
and central heating, this seemed a curious refuge
for a new mother. I had the dirt on these places.
They breed foul language. She already had enough
to cope with — me, competing voices released,
post-natal, inside her head, and long before
TV crims got to tranquillise
many a fine expletive. It was quiet.
I sized up the silent, hunkered chapel
where, near the pulpit, the numbered hymns
were All Things Bright and Beautiful
and The Lord is My Shepherd. Outside,
I’d heard, on a light branch, high above,
a wet thrush sing. The fuckers, all, I could’ve
cried, convulsed her with electric shocks!
It would have resounded nicely in the cold
uncomprehending chapel. In my head,
the language of her medical records lingered
in busy polysyllables — the one fifties throng
scot-free of stigma. I snuck out through a side door,
a guilty party, took my loyal reflection
for a last stroll among the sudden puddles.
The guy who in passing looked up at me, windswept,
looked like trouble. I had him sussed —
flawed like all the rest. Cagey. The red Fiesta
remained unnicked. Soon I was flat out, first gear,
not looking back in thick outer London traffic, a Brunel
viaduct, off to my left, heading somewhere.
© Andrew Sant