Saturday, 27 February 2010

Tommy's big dream

I shuffled through the old postcards. I had stacks of them, each one a small glimpse into the past. Collecting things is a strange hobby. None stranger is that of Postcards, where the brief correspondence of a bygone age becomes the property of a reader voyeur.

The scenes of Paris and northern France were scattered about the table, as I searched for the photo of a line of horse drawn cabs in the Champs Elysee. A few cards had turned over and the early messages of long gone correspondents were on view. The ones in ink were mainly from French men and women, wishing their addressees: "mes meilleurs amities" or "sentiments affecteux", and other similar Gallic endings. Others in pencil were from the front. Pathetic messages from soldiers with little time, writing possibly their last messages to loving wives, girlfriends, mothers and children."All well here, hope you are same over there", or "At Field Hospital until Wednesday, then rejoin regiment, saw Ted Porter from the Avenues", and "Hope you like this pretty card, we go up the line tomorrow".

Postmarks were generally of Field Post Offices, and the addresses were to Brighton and Liverpool, Aberdeen and Glasgow and then I noticed one sent to Port Adelaide, in South Australia. Addressed to Doris Watson, the message betrayed little except that writing didn't come easy to the soldier, and what lessons he had never included spelling and the use of capitals.
"on leave in paris with frend. reckon I saw you at the stashun. better than a picture. tell you about it when I get home and we get wed. Tommy."

It was not many months later that I too was in Paris. There was no purpose for the trip other than to make use of the free flight which came as part of the return ticket from Australia. I took the opportunity to visit the Musee D'Orsay, while I was there. This was a museum of French Art of the second half of the Nineteenth Century. The building erected not far from the banks of the Seine in 1900 was a former Railway Station. Its fine architecture and convenient position made its reuse for public purposes essential. I spent some hours in the galleries wistfully enjoying the paintings of Corot, Manet, Renoir and Degas. The sculptures of Rodin and Maillol were a delight and the Art Nouveau designs of Mucha, made me wish that I could live closer to France so that I could visit the Museum again and again.

Sated at last, I left the great building. I came out into an autumn shower. The former entrance plaza still had the original statues that greeted the rail commuters years ago. I walked up to them and gazed with awe at the massive bronze castings. They were of the four races of man depicted by the female form. These sad figures posed there crying tears of rain. Here was the European beauty, there the Asiatic maiden, now the African queen and the last was an Australian Aboriginal girl! I thought at first that I was mistaken but no; her features were quite distinct. She proudly looked out into the plaza so many miles from home with a little kangaroo by her side.

I thought back to that postcard.
"reckon i saw you at the stashun...better than a picture.."
That postcard from the first world war in my collection must have been from an aboriginal soldier! He had seen his girlfriend at the station. When I first read the card I had naturally thought the soldier's girlfriend was a nurse or some other auxiliary, that he was unlikely to see again before they returned to Australia. But he had seen that magnificent statue looking just like his Doris with even a kangaroo at her side. No wonder he said it was better than a picture.

It was much later that with some digging in the war records that I found out that Private Tommy Karpany, hadn't returned home to Australia to fulfill all his big dreams with Doris but had stayed on in a battlefield in France .

Pictures: 1. Collecting Yams by Susan Wanji Wanji 1991, 2. Bronze statue of L'Oceanie by Mathurin Moreau c 1880.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Pigs might fly

Just look at us in this photograph. That's Derek on the rocking horse, my rocking horse. Can you see the way he is leaning over towards me? He was trying to push me out of view. He always dominated me as a child, not any more though.
"Let's use the children's nursery", said the lady photographer, her commanding manner completely silenced mother who had planned on the Sun room.
She eyed both of us for a moment, then again without consulting Mother, who looked on in admiration at this woman's confidence, told Derek to mount the Rocking horse. I think it was all to do with the way we dressed. I was wearing button up boots a little straight tie at my neck, and was a quiet boy. Derek on the other hand, wore buckle shoes, a shoulder collar with a large tie belonging to Father at his neck. Clearly flamboyant just like her. He was a pushy little boy and had a cheeky manner which clearly endeared him to her. So he sat on my rocking horse.
I was instructed to rest my hand lightly on his leg, some sign of filial affection I suppose. He pushed me away several times but eventually gave in and consented to picture being taken, as you see it now.
For years Derek was the bane of my life. I don't say that we competed against each other, far from it. I tried desperately to avoid contact with him, but it was no good. As soon as we were out of sight of our parents, I would suffer the pinching and the pushing. I dreaded lest I ever got praised by aunties, uncles or friends; it would only result in a glare from Derek, then later true retribution would be loosed.
"Doesn't Billy look smart in his new school cap?"
My heart sank, please don't let Derek hear. But it was no good, he had. Later the cap was torn from my head and thrown in the bushes and I was given a punch.
"Your boys are so sweet, but Billy looks so sad."
I was sad indeed later when Derek had whacked me with a birch twig. I had learned not to complain, that would only bring admonishment for telling fibs.
"He's your brother, Billy, of course he wouldn't do that."
More often than not, Mother would plead, "Why can't you two boys play nicely together. Do try to be good, Billy."
I don't believe we ever played nicely together as Mother put it. I cannot bear to remember the indignities I was put to when we were alone together. I have never liked gardening because of the episodes with the snails and the worms...
I cannot for the life of me understand why my parents ignored the fact that it was always me that came running back with, grazed knees and elbows, cut fingers, a bloody nose and eventually a broken arm.
This last incident happened when were coming home from school, with Derek's friend Brian. They were laughing and joking, when Derek turned around to see me smiling at what they were saying. I don't remember what could have been so funny then, to allow me to be so careless. Derek stopped and strode back to where I was. He lifted his fist and I fell back on the grass verge to avoid him. He stopped, then jumped on me with both feet. Desperately I raised a protective hand, only to receive his full weight on that arm. I remember thinking at the time that something bad had happened to me but it didn't hurt as much as a slap in the face, or his special Chinese burn. This time however the pain didn't go away and I couldn't move my fingers.
Derek and his friend had gone on. I managed to stagger up and support the broken arm, with the other. Crying tears of hurt and anger, I stumbled home.
I never told what happened, when my parents discovered I couldn't use the arm.
"I fell out of a tree."
"You are so careless Billy, why can't you behave like Derek?"
Soon my possession of a plaster cast became as unwelcome as that inadvertent grin which had caused the broken limb. Now I only had one arm to defend myself.
So my tormented life as a child continued.
As a teenager I hardly ever spoke to Derek, but I knew by his looks at me he was still longing for the day when an opportunity would arise for some physical or mental abuse.
My first girlfriend as a teenager was Iris Watkins, looking back now, I can see her face. A round smiley freckled face, surrounded by a mass of curly brown hair. She seemed to like me, and I was proud to be with her. We walked home together from school and in Blackberry Lane out of sight of the houses I held her hand. She was warm and friendly and her mother always welcomed me in their cottage, plying me with drinks and home made cake. Then one day she was gone from my life for ever. Later I found out that she had called for me on the way to school and Derek had been at the garden gate. Whatever he said to her was enough to end our relationship.
Luckily our ways parted when we got jobs and I had to get a tiny flat in town where I worked as a clerk. For some years my life was free from his bullying. Those were halcyon days indeed. There was the Cricket Club, the local girls at the Town Hall dances and the exhilaration of being my own person. These were the best times in my life.
But it all had to end.
The first letter I received was a polite request for a bill to be paid, which the writer stated must surely be a result of an oversight. I was puzzled, I owed no money at all to anyone. Then before I had dealt with that one other demands came in. They became more impatient. The words 'unless' and 'legal proceedings', were quoted. Frantically I contacted the firms involved. Goods and services had been booked in my name giving my address, but had not been paid for. Every time the shop the shop had been given the instruction to send the account to me. In those days tradesmen trusted customers. I even called at the establishments concerned. My suspicions were clearly centering on Derek.
I had to confront him.
He no longer lived with Mother, so I wrote a postcard asking him to call on me that evening. I half expected him not to bother but at 8.00 p.m. precisely, my door bell rang.
He stood at the door. His eyes were laughing but his mouth sneered at me. Arrogant as usual he walked past me before I could ask him in.
"So this is where little Billy lives?"
Avoid confrontation. Act sensibly. Use reason. All these thoughts went through my mind.
"Derek let me come right to the point. These accounts that you have put in my name. I cannot pay them."
He looked quizzically at me, probably wondering what I would say next.
"I know that we have never got on." I went on. "But why on earth didn't you let me know you were short of cash, and we could have come to some sort of agreement."
"Short of cash!" he laughed. "Pigs might fly, I could buy and sell you ten times over."
This was probably true. He had a better job than I, and according to Mother he had now invested in some property. He was refusing to take the easy way out now and give up by saying it was all a silly game.
"O.K. then Derek. So what is it all about?
"It's all about making you squirm." He said maliciously. "You are such a fool, you need to be taught a lesson. It is so good to see you hurt."
With that he came over to me and pushed at my chest with his right hand. I fell against the fireplace. I reached out to steady myself against the mantelpiece. I missed and knocked the fire irons over and finished up in heap by the empty hearth.
He laughed and stepped forward to kick me as I was down. I picked up the poker to defend myself and jabbed at him as he came upon me. The tip of the poker pierced his thigh. A strange look came over him. It was a mixture of hurt and surprise. He looked around for something to hit me with but before he could find anything I got up on my feet and struck him . The poker this time hit him in the jaw. I have never felt such satisfaction. It was not just the hit, it was the way the jaw broke and the feeling transmitted through the poker to my hand. I was exhilarated. He could not utter a sound but attempted to cradle his face in his hands. I wanted to hear him cry out. But he couldn't, he was spoiling my game. I struck him again. A look of sheer terror now came to his eyes. Yes! Little Billy was fighting back. Now he was whimpering. He tried to avoid my next blow but still had to take it on the shoulder. He crumpled there in front of me. He was trying to scream but nothing came out, except a few bloody bubbles. He rocked himself unable to tend all of his injuries. So I hit him again, right across the temple. He gave up attempting to protect himself and said no more. It was all over for him.
I sat down exhausted.
All I could think of was that I would have to pay those bills now.
I stayed sitting quietly for some time. Derek didn't do a lot either. He was quite dead.
Then I got out the family photographs to look at. Just to see what we were like when we were younger. Now here is that one I was telling you about. The one where we are together with Derek sitting on my rocking horse. He shouldn't have should he? Because this little piggy did fly.

Black & white photograph found in a Trash & Treasure store by author

Monday, 15 February 2010

The limping dancer

Henry Wilson, was recently bereaved. His wife Joy had died a few weeks previously and their children were concerned he was retreating into his shell. He seemed to have no interest in anything. Henry and Joy had planned a cruise months before, and at the due time paid their final payment with still three months to the sailing date. Henry had resigned himself to losing all the money as little or none would be refunded now. The children however took control and said he should go, it would do him good, make a break, get him out of himself and all the other euphemisms for them to stop worrying about him for a bit. He knew this and allowed himself under protest to agree to their suggestion and so he found himself in Sydney boarding a cruise liner sailing around New Zealand for a fortnight. Henry was almost glad not to have the kids fussing over him when they had their own families to worry about.

He was pleased with his cabin, even though it was really meant for the two of them, he was happy with the food, the helpfulness of the crew and the friendliness of everyone on board who knew not one thing about him. He soon found the library and spent hours in there or in many of the other hideaways that he found on the ship to do exactly nothing, alone. He quite enjoyed that.

That was until the night of the high seas and the closing of some of the open decks the next day. Henry retreated to the library as usual and happily read a Kurt Vonnegut book. A few people came in but stayed just a few minutes. Then a girl limped in. Henry had to admit she was stunning. She plonked herself down at the librarian's desk, sighed and opened the register which recorded the books borrowed. Henry returned to Kurt Vonnegut. A few minutes passed and the girl sighed again. Henry looked up at her and saw that she was crying.
"Are you all right?
Her sniff turned into a sob and Henry was concerned. He drew up a chair close to her and asked if her bandaged ankle hurt . She shook her head and looked at him for the first time. She produced a very weak smile and said "It was all my own fault. I'm one of the dancers in the show and was careless in the rough weather last night in the late show and sprained my ankle. Everyone is furious with me." There was a long pause, then "It does hurt a bit"
Henry patted her shoulder and said. "It's all right, it'll mend soon and you will back with them again."
She moaned sadly, "No, no, I've messed everything up. The other girls aren't speaking. What do you think it's like in our cabin? There are four of us crammed in and they are all being hateful."

They talked a bit, she recorded the infrequent books borrowed by the library's users, and Henry even went to get them both a coffee from the bar a short walk away. He even mentioned Joy and the pressure from his kids. He found out that her name was Hazel. Later as her shift came to an end she sighed again. "Back to the bitches she said" and then a little later, "The trouble is I am expected to go to the rehearsals to watch and contribute. I just can't escape."
Henry then did something that was quite uncharacteristic of him. He became involved.
"Well if you want to hide away for a bit when your are not busy you can always use my cabin."
There was silence for bit. Then realising he may have said something very foolish, he came out with. "When I'm out of course, or on shore." He paused then said, "I'm sorry I am being silly, it is not ethical is it? You are so pretty and look so sad and I feel that way too. No that's not right, I am not pretty am I?" She laughed at Henry's jumble of words. Then she looked at him as if weighing up the proposal and it's implications. "I am as daft as a brush too," she said, "but I am going to take you up on that offer. But it won't work if you go ashore as they identify you with the card as you leave the ship."

So that very afternoon, Hazel used Henry's cabin. She luxuriated in the spaciousness, sat for a while on the balcony, read a magazine and before long lay on the bed and dozed off. Henry meanwhile went to a wine tasting which was awful, sat in on a art auction where the pictures were kitsch and mass produced and then took afternoon tea and cakes in the Bayou Dining Room which was horrible because everyone seemed to be starving! He left quickly and checked his watch.

He went back to the cabin expecting it to be empty, but Hazel was sound asleep on the bed. He sat in the chair for a while then he too lay out on the bed. He could sense her femininity, close to him, he breathed in the fresh perfume of her body, and closed his eyes and remembered when he was young and free. He settled down and careful not to touch her gradually drifted of to sleep himself.

Hazel woke and felt Henry on the bed, and also felt his hand gently holding her ankle, so they lay like that for some time. She remembered the film "Lost in Translation" where Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson lay on a bed too, with him just holding her foot. This is a very nice man she thought, thank heavens it is only a short trip otherwise I might do something really silly. What did Henry say in the library? "It's not ethical." To hell with that, she mused as she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. She eased herself off the bed and put her shoes back on, grabbed her crutches and let herself quietly out of the cabin. "I'll ring him in the cabin tomorrow."

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Message from Helen

As Jim and Helen had some enthusiastic admirers last time in the DARE post, I thought this prompt might bring them back just once!

Jim went to look out of the window. He loved Paris. There was something about the city that satisfied all his senses. The sights, the smells, the language, he felt that in this city he could really live.

He drew up a chair and reversed it, sat down with his elbows on the back, his hands supporting his chin. The full length window was open and the curtains moved quietly in the late afternoon breeze. He gazed with admiration at the view.
In front and above him were the buildings opposite, with windows like his own, slated roofs, dormers, chimneys and in the distance the suburbs of Paris stretching out, with apartment blocks, church domes and patches of green breaking up the landscape.

Below him, activity. The noise of the street welled up, wooing him; the insistent call of the traffic: car horns: the bustle and shout of shoppers; the drone of lifts and clang of gates from the entrance to the Metro; and wafting up the seductive smells of the patisseries, coffee machines and the scent of French cigarettes. Jim was entranced; he was glad Helen was there to share it with him.

He watched the commuters enter and leave the Metro. There were those that hurried with furious intent to catch the next train at all costs, there were those that dawdled and yet others again that stopped as they emerged as though shocked to find a different world outside. A man in a raincoat stood still for several seconds, looking around him before daring to enter that underworld.

Over everything was laid a blanket of Gallic babble, conversations, arguments, pleas and pardons that made the whole scene make sense. Paul leaned out to enter that world.

He noticed one couple, young, eager, loving, sad, walk up with reluctant steps towards the entrance staircase. They clung to each other, let go and touched again, fingers entwined, then the man, tall, fair and curly haired, reached out and held her by the back of her neck. She leaned back into his touch, turned, smiled, her auburn locks shook and covered his hand. Petite, pert, shirt tied at the waist, jeans, she looked deep into his face, they stopped, he drew her to him and there with the crowded street milling round them, kissed, fondled and held tight.

Lovers. They had to part, but clearly it hurt, she drew away, yet he held her by both hands, not daring to let her go. Again he pulled her back to him. His hands stroked her back, curled around her bottom. Her hands reached for his face, traced his eyes, his nose, his lips. She tucked her fingers into his shirt and caressed his chest.

A woman selling flowers not two steps away, ignored them but tried to interest others with her roses and carnations. A gush of air from the Metro caught a scrap of paper. Up, up and around them it went, then whoosh it was gone.

Jim had received a message a message from Helen that she was travelling to Paris on business. Did he want to meet her there? After the abrupt parting in the London restaurant a week ago he leapt at the chance. Two days alone with Helen after all those years!

Jim looked out the window again. The lovers had parted, the young man had gone half way down the steps to the Metro, stopped, looked up at his lover, then came rushing back again to gain one last kiss. She was upset, crying now, her fingers went to each eye in turn to wipe away the tears. He fondled her again. Now she touched him, overtly, arousing him. He wrapped her up in his arms, kissed her neck, her eyes, her nose, finally a most gentle kiss to the lips. They broke, he rushed down the cavernous mouth of the Metro and was gone. She waited until he had disappeared, then she too, turned, walked back the way they had come and was lost in the crowd.

"Jim, what are you staring at?"
"One last look at the street," he turned toward her, she had just finished her packing. Bent over her case her hair had fallen down across her face and all he could see was the tip of her nose and her lips.

"I love you."
"I know," she replied.
"Do you like Paris?"
"Mm," came the affirmative reply. "Help me with this, we haven't got long before the taxi."
"Shall we come back?"

She glanced up at him again. She looked perplexed with her head tilted to one side as though the question was not easy to answer. He knew she came over regularly on business.

Jim went across to her. Put his arms around her waist and squeezed possessively. Helen released herself, kissed Jim on the cheek with affection but without passion, and laid her head on his shoulder for a few seconds.

"We have put right something that needed to be put right. Now I have you in my heart forever. Hold onto that Jim." She whispered.

The phone rang; their taxi was waiting.

They held hands on the plane, spoke little, made no plans. The silence was not confident, warm, comforting; it was uncertain, cheerless, and strange. They collected their cases at the carousel. Lined up quietly at immigration and then free to enter the arrival's hall turned at last to each other.

"Will Graham be here to meet you?"
It was with a very small voice that Helen said, "Yes."
There was a pause, then in her turn she said, "And Brenda?"
Paul shook his head, "I'm getting the bus to Woking, then the train from there."
They nodded at each other, awkwardly, not smiling.

Finally putting their cases down they touched each other's hands for the last time and as if only acquaintances, kissed each other on the cheek.
"Goodbye, Jim."
Helen, turned purposefully, strode through the doors without looking back and was gone.

Jim sighed, waited some time before lifting his own case. Some minutes later he sat looking at the drizzly rain, grey and cheerless waiting for his transfer bus. He knew there wouldn't be another message.

Photo of rooftops from the Hotel Roma , a short walk from Montmartre, Paris, by the author