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Dusk and The Public


My paternal grandmother broke her hip in 1978 when a veering bus caused her to trip backwards onto the footpath. From that day to her death a decade later, she suffered from arthritis in her pelvis and her hip cracked or fractured a further six times. She described the pain as if the devil himself were stoking a fire beneath her dress, and, as she neared death, when she had become light enough for me to bear in my arms from bed to bathroom to bed, she would sometimes plead with me to let her fall.


I have forgotten at what precise age I began accompanying my parents on their trips to Homeworld but I seem to recall that it occurred after my grandmother’s fall. We began these trips because my father decided that my grandmother could no longer live by herself. Homeworld was the name my mother gave to all of the many display villages that were built in the far suburbs of our state: Shepherd’s Gate, February Hill, Blackmorlan, Bungadeen. These suburbs traversed two pages of the road atlas and were landmarked by only a proposed airport, a catchment area, a nature reserve and the cluster of streets where the display village stood. Standing midway between city and country, these suburbs were soon to be populated by homebuyers, soon to acquire malls and cricket clubs, 7-Elevens and churches of various denominations, but they seemed to my young mind to be suburbs without people.


Once in our city square, when I was playing truant from St Paul’s College, a man in a black suit approached me. He wore no religious icons around his neck or pinned to his lapel, no distinctive collar or headwear. He handed me a leaflet with the words ‘Life In A Peaceful New World’ printed over a peopled landscape. He then smiled and walked away. The landscape depicted on the leaflet showed snow-capped mountains and green hills overflowing with daffodils reflected in a wide river of impossible blue. African and Asian, Australian and American families – two parents, two children – raked fallen maple leaves or stroked the fur of accommodating lions, leopards, bears and elk. Expectant couples carried baskets overflowing with eggplants and apples, mangoes and lychees, fruits only a landscape as accommodating and eternally fecund as this could contain. A small two-storey house, river-facing, vine-covered, stood lit from the inside by a light that seemed reflected in snow and eye.


What my parents found most intolerable about the various idiosyncrasies of my childhood – my enjoyment of stories in which a rat was involved, my fear of the moon – was my ability to hide. My father recollects that I first learnt the game of hide’n’seek when I was around three years old and from that day on they would seek me under tables and cupboards, under coats at parties or in stairwells. I once hid myself in an empty bin, according to my mother, and on half a dozen occasions they feared that I had been abducted. I remember few of these incidents, although in memory and dreams I often see my parents’ faces appear out of darkness. I developed a trick whereby I would move to the place they had last searched. This would confuse them when they finally found me. I also came to realise that after an hour or so of searching, when they would curse me then pray for me, I could position myself in any open space of the house – at the dinner table, in front of the TV – and they would fail to see me.


My grandmother lived in a commission flat on Ink St, four streets from where I lived with my parents. The view from her eighth-floor window allowed me to see far into our state, and allowed the setting sun directly in. Even now, when I remember her, I always see her in a dusklight which made her seem transparent. It was a one-room apartment with a toilet. It was void of hiding spots inside and I was too afraid of falling from the balconies to hide anywhere outside. My grandmother cooked and slept and watched her favourite soap operas – Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless – in the one room. She kept a toaster oven on her bureau, which often melted her lipsticks and boiled her perfumes. We moved them and she moved them back. She argued that her beauty products belonged on the bureau and the oven should be thrown out. Her neighbour, a woman named Mrs Sixe, bartered use of her fridge for the use of my grandmother’s toaster oven. Consequently they often shared their meals. Mrs Sixe also allowed my grandmother the use of her mirror to prepare for family parties, as my grandmother had veiled the mirror on her bureau twelve years previous when her last husband had died.


The length and breadth of Logue Hall, which I have not seen for twelve years, has neither diminished in my mind nor did it diminish as I grew through forms one to six of St Paul’s, as I went through despising then desiring various lay female teachers, as the hems of pants were taken up and let down. The hall itself, where honour boards hung from the mahogany walls like stations of the cross, seemed as if it could expand to accommodate my growth. It was always a cold place, I remember. It was used for school concerts and gymnastics, for receiving the Deacon or distinguished returned students. Over a hundred boys’ names had been etched into each of the jarrah honour boards, seniors who were captains of sports teams or scholars of science and mathematics. Space remained for a further hundred scholars and sportsmen, one name etched into each board every year. It embarrassed my father – he said nothing, but I knew – that our surname never made it to the boards. 


I was so sheltered from the customs of native Australians, so sheltered from the people themselves, that in my childhood I believed they were from another country. I thought them immigrants, as my own family were, but I could never name their homeland. They did not resemble the Africans or Asians or Americans I had met or seen on TV, and they were unlike the Australians I schooled with or befriended. Their skin was darker than anyone I knew, darker than my own. Up until the time I first heard the word Aborigine, and had it defined for me, I presumed the people who slept beneath the palm trees of St Kilda Esplanade were homesick, as my own parents often complained of being. 


The drives would take between forty-five minutes and three hours. We drove through McElroy and Tucana, suburbs that eventually became enveloped by Deighton, through Cooper’s Crossing, where all the land was owned by the airport, past eight-acre properties provisioned for livestock but overrun by rabbits, past the estates of timid pioneers. I became intrigued by the ‘first families’; the men and women who hand built their houses within two day’s carriage of town, who sought to grow wheat on small plots of limey land. Generations later, vines covered the facades of the houses and their descendants had become the local historians, producers of mulberry jam. Their homes had become Bed & Breakfasts and function centres. Untended sheep wandered the property. The blue heeler sat in the driveway chewing its paws. 


One of the four bedrooms of each of the display homes would be furnished with an imaginary white Australian boy in mind. The room would most often be arranged to suit the taste of a sporting boy, with posters of the Chappell brothers dressed in World Series Cricket uniforms taped to the wall, Little Athletics ribbons pinned to the pinboard and empty Clarks’ running shoe boxes under the bed. Often in these rooms, the imagined boy had been called away to dinner or a game of kick to kick, for his football magazine lay open on his desk and tennis balls lay strewn upon the floor – of all the boys imagined by realtors and interior designers, the sporting boy was certainly the untidiest. Other rooms in other houses contained microscopes and butterfly displays for the boy bent towards science whilst a future hunter had been imagined to fit a room with a hammock and mosquito netting, where maps of Africa covered the walls and tiger paw prints had been incorporated into the design of the green carpet. I dreamed of the boy I would become once my parents decided upon the theme of my room. 


However frail my grandmother became in the last decade of her life she still had admirers and continued to enjoy the companionship of men. She had outlived two husbands and two long-term partners, who looked so alike that she often mistook one for the other when looking at old photographs. It was only in her final two years, when she was bedridden, that the old men, hats in hand and bearing roses and liqueur chocolates, stopped coming. My grandmother liked men in suits with handkerchiefs triangled in their top pockets. She liked to be asked to dance even when she had to decline. She loved Clark Gable, whom she called Clark Gabriel, and she loved Rex Harrison and her last boyfriend was named Rex. Rex lacquered his white hair into a stiff side-part and played Mahler records for my grandmother. He rarely smoked and rarely bet and rarely stole from her.


Every second week boys from the middle school of St Pauls were required to deliver Meals-On-Wheels to the commission flats where my grandmother stayed. Many volunteered, because it meant a period off school, but the eight boys whose grandparents lived there were always chosen. I imagine the brothers knew that at least eight meals would arrive untampered with or, at least, eight meals would arrive. We were diligent and efficient however. We realised that if we fed the elderly quickly, we could then play ping-pong in the recreation room or ascend to the rooftop and look for whores along Ink St. We were driven in the school minibus to the commission flats by Brother Michael, who later quit the brotherhood and married a lay teacher. We dispensed the meals from trolleys, a boy to each floor. Brother Michael would wait in the bus. The meals smelt of gravy and of water left over from boiling peas. The meals – roast beef and four vegetables, roast chicken and four vegetables – came in foil trays with paper lids. My grandmother was thankful for them. They could be warmed in her toaster oven and only cost a dollar. Often she would insist that I sit down and share her food – even if she was playing host to Rex or Pablo, Mrs Sixe or Mr Whitton – and I would sit beside her, declining spoonfuls of mash, while soapstars undressed on TV.


The length and breadth of the rooms of the imaginary boys delighted me with the prospect of running four games simultaneously—chess and Scrabble, draughts, snakes and ladders. However, I was disconcerted by what each room had in common, no matter if the bed was Porsche-shaped or boat-shaped, whether or not the boy liked meccano or looked up to a mobile of planets. Each room contained nine to ten volumes of the same book upon the bookshelf. The chosen book would concur with the theme of the room but would provide the boy with only one selection for all of his adolescence. So, I imagined, when visibility became poor in the local parklands and the ball appeared late out of the bowler’s hand, or when the jungle of sapling eucalypts had surrendered every maneater of the day, the imaginary boy – home and fed – would lie upon his strangely disturbed bed and content himself again with Irongloves – the biography of Rod Marsh, or again brace himself for dreams inspired by the foreboding rainforest and blood-lipped women of A. Barrabas Docker’s For She Who Has Sinned. Docker concealed the name Ariel behind the capital A, I learned years later.


I recognised Eden in the landscape of the brochure but I found it irreconcilable with the paradise I had been taught by my Catholic schoolteachers. The paradise of my schooldays was a place absent of desire. The delivered would be ethereal and no longer hunger for the fruits of the valley of Eden. Paradise was proximity to Christ and to those who had loved us and had left the earth before us. Paradise was absent from the earth.


On my first few visits to the display villages I became impatient with my parents as they lingered discussing picture railings and the meetings of walls, for I expected some fit or scholarly boy to find me sitting at his desk, for the family to return and surprise my parents with their heads in the oven. Even when I understood the objective of the trips, and further understood that my parents had no intention of ever purchasing any of the houses, I still became impatient, for we were always the last family to leave and, in my memory, we always left in rain. On many occasions we were even followed to the front gates by the security patrol car after my mother had wrung every free square of sample from the on-site haberdasher, or had filled her handbag with sachets of instant coffee and sugar. Once, after both the patrolman and then Mr Jennings himself had megaphoned the closing time I heard my father bickering with a young realtor about the price of a granny flat in comparison with a heated pool, tape measure stretched from back fence to verandah.


Every year St Paul’s gave a concert on the stage of Logue Hall. I must have participated every year but I can recollect only two of my performances. I played ‘Charlie’ in our school’s theatrical production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I cannot now recite any of my lines but I remember that as the curtains fell I, and the other cast members, threw chocolates to the crowd. One of the chocolates I threw hit a stranger, perhaps another boy’s father, in the eye. My second recollection is of being costumed as a Roman guard, spear raised to the cheek of a white-bearded fourth-former.


In my father’s road atlas, the coordinates were aligned upon an oblong piece of land that was labelled “proposed graveyard”. He resigned himself, then, to following my grandmother’s hearse into suburbs we had never before travelled to, though my mother insisted that a certain house or a certain bridge looked familiar. My father said nothing.


My mother hit my father with ashtrays, with the whippy handles of feather dusters, with flour tins and candle holders. My father had two chipped teeth and a small divot above his left eyebrow from where whatever was at hand was lifted and brought down upon his skull or skin. The divot came from a knife block that my mother was soaking in vinegar. Their fights diminished as I grew but they always bickered and my mother always seemed close to violence when they discussed the new house.


The display villages were built north and west of central Melbourne. Perhaps there were other eastern and southern villages we never visited but I never heard talk of them. My parents however discussed often the friendlier and better types of neighbours in the west. They referred to uncle Prasit and aunt Ruthy who had coaxed a mango tree from their property in Newfin and had joined the local Neighbourhood Watch. They talked of the proposed mall that would be built within walking distance to the block of land with good drainage in Simpson.


On three grassy hills to my east sapling oaks were staked against the wind, the bottom half of the stakes were shrouded in plastic. From my distance, the trees resembled shirtless men. Ibis, blackened by pollution, rose from marshlands on the horizon. Between the lines of graves, mud had enveloped the artificial grass and we mourners followed a pathway of mud. When I looked along the faces of each tombstone I saw identical black and gold lettering though a few of the tombs were encrusted with cameos of the dead or were attended by faceless angels. 


My father would smoke Marlboros on the drive and occasionally we would stop to buy hamburgers or chicken and chips at one of the truckie ‘Home & Aways’, where even the salad sandwiches – tomato and lettuce – smelt of petrol and the counter was made from a truck grill. Everything on the menu – the Elvis Burger, Ned Kelly’s Lunch – came wrapped in polystyrene advertising a bottomless cup of coffee. After we had eaten in the car with the windows up, my father would veer out onto the freeway again – he always complimented the smoothness and the wide lanes of the state freeways – and veer off according to the signs, privately sponsored, directing us to the village.


The paradise of my schooldays was a place without dimensions. Its landscape could only be recognised by the legion of worthy dead who rose into it each ceaseless moment. It was without valleys and houses, mountains and trees and it was lit only by the red ochre light of the sacred heart of Jesus.


My parents bickered over what style – Tuscan, Shanghai – they would choose for the bathroom tiles. They argued over land and suburbs and prices and the propinquity of shopping malls. Blood or silence always ended their discussions about one of two things: whose behaviour had caused my compulsive hiding and whether or not my grandmother would live with us. 


At the entrance of each display home a wooden butler, often black faced and tailed, would offer the entrant a brochure which advertised the many modern facilities of the Connecticut or Gondwanaland, the Taj or Eureka. The brochure depicted aspects of the lifestyle to be enjoyed in the spacious surrounds and in the community that would follow; a young father read by an artificial fire to an attentive child, a grandfather pointed out the many aspects of bark to a young girl, mothers exchanged recipes in kitchens of elaborate shelving and ovens wide enough to hold two size sixteen chickens.


My father wore an eyepatch on the drive to the Necropolis. A few days before my grandmother died my mother struck him with a lamp. 


My grandmother would have had to walk up Ink St and then turn onto Westbury St to reach my school. She knew the streets well but might have underestimated the duration of the walk. One of the brothers found me in Logue Hall, where my class was practising gymnastics. I was straining to pull myself up on the Roman rings when he entered and called me away. He took me to the staff room where my grandmother was eating a sandwich. Her hands were shaking. You forgot my lunch, she said to me. I tried to explain to her that we only delivered the meals on Tuesdays, once a fortnight. She said she didn’t believe me. She said she was still hungry after she finished the sandwich. Brother Obadiah drove us back to Ink St. I called my father at work and I went downstairs to wait for him because the sun was beginning to come through the window and I already felt hot. I felt as if my grandmother had jeopardised something by her hunger, as if I had disgraced myself by keeping her company. I felt ashamed for no reason I could name. I didn’t want to be in the flat with her when my father arrived, and even after her death, when Ink St became one of the borders of a rectangle of St Kilda which I was disallowed from crossing on my bike, I avoided it. 


Returning home past the vine houses lit from within, two lambs now penned against foxes, my parents would compare the tiles of kitchens, the step-down lounge of the Balthazar to the double bathroom of Molly’s Place. They referred to the houses by name, corroborating their details with the brochures. The names of the houses particularly intrigued me. Those derived from phenomena or concepts, from history or the famous – The Borealis, Freedom, Mafeking, Hepburn – revealed no connection in design or placement with the namee. The Ayerstead could have easily been called the Freedom, Nora’s Place become Molly’s. It was never my parents’ intention to buy any one of the houses they walked in. They were gathering ideas for the house they had in mind.


I remember my father and I ascending on the escalator the dusk of the day my grandmother appeared at my school. It was only a month or two before her accident, before we began the visits to villages. I remember feeling that my father was standing too near to me as we rose. I remember feeling that in an elevator customised to accommodate wheelchairs and walking braces, my father needn’t be pressed to my thigh, my hip.


I saw them coming over the three hills to my east, led by my cousins John and Veronica. They were bearing tulips, then came aunts and uncles, then familiar but nameless faces, people who had passed through our flat maybe once in my lifetime, but who had come nonetheless with baskets of food and incense. Some brought honey to lower into the grave and others brought halwa to share at its edge. We prayed for my grandmother’s soul and sprinkled the coffin lid with rose petals and wine.

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