On hearing of her pregnancy long ago
Sifting through mementos that include his only photo of her, seasoning yet another review of pathos, he comes across his long-disused P.O. Box number, recalls writing it automatically on the self-addressed envelope with the letter posted three months earlier in hope of finding her. A sheer fluke to discover it, or is it?
Small mistakes influence life’s slalom course, steeper, faster, now, wisdom supposedly swapping places with the glorious physical, one’s ascendance, followed by the other’s, not long both. As a student he read Hardy, Dickens, et al, is also familiar with screen costume drama, gets irony, declarations of love or guilt, undelivered letters, life-changing stuff.
Information sought in trepidation was chapters of her biography without him. Hopes risen like a rocket reached an apex then hairpinned as, not for the first time, he questioned his common sense, his mistake unbeknownst then. A stranger might have received her reply, shared it with laughing friends. Now he burns with abashment’s ague.
Disturbing youthful events stirred him to compose the letter, haste induced by nervousness, its obsolete return address. He is guarded about sharing his phone number too soon. Fragmented recollection, chance, the stunned realisation of his blunder, crowd in. He could be a Guinness Book of Records contender in a category of missteps.
Mobilising belief, he sweats over the letter again, that stinking delicious struggle with words just beyond reach, concentrating like a monk over calligraphy on precious parchment in his cell. The need to know if a reply was sent insistent, he grasps this slight chance for atonement, wanting to reverse reel his life.
A golden autumn evening like a prayer beyond his window, light wind, leaves surfing the air. Lonely people listen for their phones’ signals, or await mailmen, invent scenarios, believe in fate, miracles, despite education. They stare into space, try to find a page read millions of words ago to recall exactly how things ended.
An old poet, his glow long gone, secluded from society, segues back into a life lived, a time of prowling Melbourne streets’ night secrets, wearing black glasses, collar flipped up, fists punched into his threadbare jacket’s pockets, education still an unanswered question; or sprawling on his bed smoking, listening to the radio in the dark, vehicles’ lights shadow-dancing with walls that shake to the regular rumble of trains as if his old city of dreams trembles on a seismic rift that might one day collapse like youthful hope.
In a plenitude of silence, only a clock’s ticking audible in his enclosure, calmer, finally getting it about truth, so blessed, he takes paper, a pen, its weight sensuous, to extract details from his rasping heart from those times, the pen’s metronomic slide recording days when hope gambolled ignorantly, boarding house tenants by the railway line where odours, fried sausages, hot steel, garlic, lingered beyond his door, where, breathless, he faced down a thug who would later murder two victims.
Concentrating on memories; that city skyline below the chiaroscuro of a storm’s seething approach like a Turner painting, a naked girl’s languid loveliness, eager voices when the future was guesswork, faded glamour of smoke rings blown away, always wearing the uniform of the weary, rain falling softly on parked cars, he searches for odd connections from the dark booths of his past when a jukebox proclaimed the pain of love lost like time.
Between naps, alone in his cell where his phone rarely rings, mapping the deep past, he writes his trivial life from the heart; liquor shots drunk from the bottle in those ghostly days adrift in optimism; the film he might direct, the novel that would shock, art a contagion. Seared by recollection’s radiant flash he has returned to the bunker of loneliness, door again shut, a community of one. While wind smooths grass around graves of characters long dead he shall type his final drafts with two fingers, indices to unfinished stories.
How soon the bright days of our youth and beauty end. Horace Odes ll.11
After half a lifetime of guilty productive seclusion, when I see them again on a mutual friend’s Facebook I feel as dated as blotting paper, my thoughts of meteorite showers battering a dwarf planet stranded in orbit at the distant reaches of our universe. I realise my own appearance could elicit a similar effect. We know scraps of each other’s lives, details blurred by different values. One photograph is of me, clean-shaven. I can’t recall where or when, or even the ghost who shot me, but guess.
Curiosity morphs into morbid fascination, another hour of my life frittering away. Recognition of some aged faces baffles, pop-up tags propping up memory, shining faces of children as generic as bunches of flowers. In that photo I hold a bottle in one hand, a drink in the other, look haggard, prematurely old. This feeling cloaking me, familiar, conflicting, one of unregretted reason weighted with too late’s intangible sadness padding in as soft as a cat’s paws, transfixes. I like being alone, but there is a limit.
I log-off, see through our windows my neighbour’s visitor lighting a pipe, looking out at the threshold of rain. I gave my father, who wished he had never married, a pipe for his birthday when I was a boy with no understanding of sexual tension, old jealous demons. Thunder rumbles. Tobacco’s aromatic waft imagined, draws me back past people, before marriages, divorces, to a time of church bells on Sunday mornings, a time of yellowed boots drying in the hearth, of childish joy in life’s miracle before days start to come apart, when one trusted that wishbone, the future.
To tko time I tracked down my dad the boxer, his haunts, mine, accidents of family. I wanted to excavate debris where our clan shouted, understand why, pound through our bruising biography nobody else would want to research. Near a silenced air raid siren where I broke my arm crashing my sister’s bike I remembered a dog run over in the gutter, its bulging eye. Glancing memories like blows can leave you feeling fouled.
Cause and effect calming anger, I did roadwork in my dad’s districts. At his childhood address opposite a public toilet – I preferred a thatched cottage ancestry but the trail led to Battersea – I spoke to a man resembling a retired flyweight, hoping to improve my ring lore. Asked about the old days, their undertow, he complained all his neighbours were young, as if youth, not time, was blameful for drawing the curtain on secrets. I imagined snow silently blanketing London.
Finding work I bartered for a bed, cleaning a minor mansion’s bathrooms, I scrubbed and shone before skipping away to the rhythm of more roadwork past vaguely familiar buildings. Outside my school, burnt sugar smell now memory, next door’s jam factory closed, I recalled a screech of brakes, the sickening thud when a boy I knew rode a car’s grille, and his luck, after sauntering before it, showing off.
Spotting his ambulance, my sister insisted I clutch my collar until I saw a dog else our mother would die. Not sure if folklore applies to dead dogs. Resurrecting ghosts meant top-heavy buses, knocking on doors, tight-lipped relatives mourning corteges of the past, jabbing, feinting, ducking, weaving, an amateur time-travel contender returning to attic rooms, raking scribbled notes for missed points.
Mother accused me of being stubborn, like him, but hooked on history, on explanation. Dictating terms, manoeuvring her into a corner, I countered stubborn with determined, alluding to that gypsy time of gleaming taps, basins, stirring dust and cobwebs. Invading your kin’s secrets informs your own character. I daydream of a photo; a converted inner-city gym, long trunks, ropy muscles; of shadow-boxing, liniment’s whiff, my arm raised in triumph.
Ian C Smith’s work has been published in Antipodes, BBC Radio 4 Sounds,The Dalhousie Review, Griffith Review, San Pedro River Review , Southword, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two Thirds North. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.