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Sport 9: Spring 1992

♣ Olwyn Stewart — Before the Great Western is Ended

page 31

Olwyn Stewart

Before the Great Western is Ended

We leave in the middle of a heat wave. Even at six in the morning the windows glare like the hungry blue eyes of a demon whose hot breath has already filled the house.

I come to the surface of a restless sleep, feet dangling, sheet twisted around my body, sweat drenched hair. My mind groping for little bits of evidence of self. A prayer. A long held image of Pat Glennon on Comic Court surging ahead of the field in the Melbourne Cup. My grandmother's face. The poem that makes me cry:

On the fields of Coleraine, there'll be labour in vain
Before the Great Western is ended
The nags will be toiled and the silks will be soiled
And the rails will require to be mended.

Small pieces of love with which to rebuild myself.

We move about like sleepwalkers. Putting on our best clothes, checking our luggage, washing cups. It is only when we arrive at the station the excitement gets us. The shimmer of metallic blue in the heat haze which becomes a hum and then a low machinesong chant, building, building, building in intensity.

The three of us children are dressed in coloured cotton. My brother in blue, my sister in yellow, myself in turquoise. Our mother holds beliefs about clothing and we are never dressed in fawn or nylon. We laugh and shine off each other's eyes, giddy with anticipation.

The train arrives around the final bend. Roaring, gasping, glittering metal and glass. The breathless electric joy of it! We hover above the platform in a shared moment of colour-coded transfiguration.

Once we are actually inside the train its mystery evaporates. We sit in a page 32 row opposite our parents and it feels very ordinary. Just life with lots of miles to go.

At first I am restless. Like my younger brother and sister I take lively interest in the workings of the train: the water fountain, the bathroom, the manner of putting up a card table. I want a tunnel to close around us like a cold black hand. I want to meet someone astonishing. I glance around the carriage and see only one other child: a girl of about my own age travelling with her mother and dressed in white nylon. I regard the girl with mixed feelings. I am scornful of the nylon dress but envious of the confidence and order she exudes. I am reminded by the sight of her that we are not really like this, neat and sitting in a row on the train, that we are only pretending and are really chaotic people. My heart contracts uneasily for a moment because until I saw that girl I had truly forgotten. And I am reminded strangely of a girl I met last year who stayed with the Dolans, who had rowed from an island on the Murray River on a moonless night. They had lived on the island and her father had gone crazy and shot her mother and himself as well.

Mum closes the curtains to protect us from the heat and I turn my thoughts away from the girl in nylon. I close my eyes and disappear into the sweet dreamtime freedom of being at no destination. I think of going to the races with my mother. How her face looks when her eyes are focused at a distance. Of my mother at ease among horses and jockeys, trainers and bookies. Of her laughter floating upwards from the excited babble of racetrack gossip. I think about being a girl who is a gypsy, living in a caravan and dancing in swirling skirts to the rhythm of guitars. I think about dying the death of a hero, like Violet Szabo did. An enemy who secretly loves me leaves a single rose at midnight on my unmarked grave.

And then I become the one who loves, who lets the white rose fall on the patch of broken earth, its sweet smell permeating the darkness. I think about fairground music and indigo nights. Inside myself I begin to sing:

As I walked out in the streets of Lorado
As I walked out in Lorado one day
I met a young cowboy all wrapped in white linen
Wrapped all in white linen and cold as the clay.

Our train is approaching a station where there is a shop and a bar. My father page 33 is unable to conceal his restlessness. He speaks and his voice is exaggeratedly casual.

'My God it's hot. You kids must be dying for a drink. Did you bring any books sweet girl? Pippi Longstocking or something? You're going to be on this train for a long time. I might get you some playing cards.'

But his eyes are like pools of green water with small fast fish moving below the surface. He stands up. He pats his pockets. He sits down again. He stands up.

He strides purposefully along the corridor and at the same time he slides like a man being pulled by his shadow. He is off the train before it has stopped. Torn bags and empty paper cups dance around his ankles.

The girl in the nylon dress and her mother are drinking orange juice. 'Don't spill it on yourself or Aunty Eileen will think you are badly brought up,' the mother warns. I feel sure the girl will have a bride doll wrapped in tissue paper on the top of her mother's wardrobe which she will not be allowed to hold until she is sixteen.

And I think about the girl who rowed away from death across the black river, how we played with skipping ropes, her voice rising from the mouth of a face whose eyes had seen terrible things, singing, 'Sea shells cockle shells, eavy ivy overhead.'

We drink cool lemonade bought by our mother and eat sandwiches we have brought in our basket. The train is leaving the station and our father is not with us. 'I'm sure he's all right', our mother says. 'He's old enough to know what he's doing. He's probably talking to someone in a different carriage.'

Her voice is calm but her face is tense. My sister stares into an open Supermancomic but she isn't reading. Her eyes are round and still like the eyes of a rabbit with a spotlight on them. My little brother fidgets and squirms. I wish he would stop. I want to slap him. The pictures that form in my mind are too horrible to countenance. Of my father wandering drunk in a strange town or dead like a dog by the railway line. I am suffocating under the weight of the heat and my father's absence. I long for air. The train whispers Jesus help us Jesus help us Jesus help us Jesus help us Jesus help us Jesus help us Jesus help us Jesus help us Jesus help us.

I put my hands over my ears, stupidly as if I were a mad person, to shut out the desperate prayers of the train. Because of this I fail to hear him until he is right beside me, shouting, swaying.

page 34

'You're a good mate, Ernie! Dan-dan, Kibby, Pepe! Say hello to Ernie. Cook I'd like you to meet my mate Ernie. A real gentleman and a scholar.'

His mouth hangs. His eyes are intensely green and float in front of him, loosed from their moorings. Ernie, who is drenched in sweat, who resembles in all respects a toby jug, is taking his weight and guiding him.

'Are you right! Are you right digger! Sit down mate, sit down.' Ernie speaks with that special mixture of solicitousness and superiority that drunks use for addressing others who are drunker still.

'Steady, old boy, steady.'

'He got himself a bit lost,' Ernie explains to Mum with a note of apology in his voice. 'I'm glad we could find you.'

My father falls into his seat leaning heavily on my mother. His foot catches the edge of the card table. It collapses. Crusts of bread and half empty paper cups fall to the floor. Anxiously I straighten the table and pick up what I can reach. Our mother doesn't speak. There is a volcano inside her head and if she speaks it will erupt.

The mother of the girl in nylon shoots nervous glances in our direction and barricades herself firmly behind a magazine.

Our father's face wobbles inanely.

'Did I ever tell you you're the most beautiful girl in the world?'

He is addressing our mother, who doesn't answer. He wants her to speak. He really wants her to speak. But she won't.

So he sings. He sings,

On the road to Mandalay, where the flying fishes play
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China 'cross the bay.

He roars the 'thunder' bit at the top of his voice but our mother still doesn't speak.

So he tries saying flattering things about people she hates.

He says, 'Joan Campbell's a fine woman don't you think. Intelligent as well. Not many people know it, but the Campbells always give their windfall apples to the St Joseph nuns. I bet you didn't know about that either.'

Our mother doesn't care about Mrs Campbell. She ignores him.

So he says, 'You have to admit, Cook, that Ray O'Connor's an excellent horseman.'

page 35

And she almost speaks because she has such a low regard for Ray O'Connor but she still manages to contain herself.

He goes quiet for a moment, apparently searching his mind for more hated people to remark upon, and then he can't be bothered. He sinks behind his half closed eyes into his head. It looks as if he might go to sleep. We watch hopefully, knowing deep down it is not going to happen. It would be too easy.

Then he remembers he has bought us cards. Feeling in his various pockets he makes a great fuss of having a special present for Pepe. We may play with them if Pepe gives her permission and we are answerable to Pepe if we lose or damage any of them.

We listlessly begin a game of Fish. Our brother is still little and this is one of the few games he has mastered.

Our father emerges from his torpor to shout 'Snap!' and scatter cards everywhere. He giggles to himself as we try to gather them up again and sought out how many pairs we have.

He takes out a cigarette and our mother manages to speak between narrowed lips without exploding.

She says, 'You've got it the wrong way up you stupid ass.'

And he says,

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze,
Continuous as the stars that shine and twinkle in the Milky Way
They stretch in neverending line along the margin of the bay.

Then he says, 'I don't seem very welcome around here. I think I'll go and find my mate Ernie.'

We exchange worried looks, and our mother is forced to speak again. She says, 'Jesus Christ! You can't even walk straight. Sit down and have some bloody sense for once in your life.'

But he goes anyway. He lurches dangerously along the corridor singing, 'Little lady passing by catching everyone's eye.' We follow him with terrified eyes as he negotiates the moving floor between the carriages, open and unprotected.

I see the girl in white nylon and her mother quietly picking up their possessions and moving to the other end of the carriage, and I realise that page 36 a slow choreography has been taking place among the passengers: the people who like to smoke and drink and yell have gradually moved closer to us, the virtuous have been moving further away.

I feel as if our kitchen on a bad weekend is building itself invisibly around us. Our kitchen at its most unpleasant, with half-eaten herrings that no one has been able to finish, with crusts of bread, buttery knives, ashtrays, glasses and exasperated tears. Hovering around us and revealing us as we really are.

We flop in our places, drained and grubby. I look inside my mind for something to hold on to. I recite to myself the winners of the Melbourne Cups going back to Phar Lap, who won when my mother was sixteen and really pretty. I know them all off by heart, and stories of many of them. I think about Catalogue, a horse from New Zealand, trained by a woman, who won my mother £200 eight years before I was born. She had seen the horse being unloaded from a ship at Pt Melbourne, held in a special sling and carefully lowered by a crane, and had backed him because of her delight at seeing this.

I sing inside myself again:

Go get seven cowboys to carry my coffin
And seven young maidens to carry my pall
And seven red roses to lay on the coffin
My luckiest number when the dice used to fall.

But it doesn't work. I can think these things but can give no life to them. There is nothing but heat and mile after mile of dun-coloured earth and a dull anxiety that holds my family like a magnet.

Our mother is aroused by the sound of scuffling and raised voices, the craning necks around us. One voice is raised above the others. It is distinctly our father's and is coming from the other end of the carriage. My sister is instructed to look after our little brother and my mother and I go to investigate.

Our father's condition has further deteriorated. His fly is undone and he is almost without coordination. He is sitting with the girl in white nylon and her mother. He has taken his shoe and sock from his right foot and has placed it on the woman's knee, on her pale blue skirt. The woman appears frightened and confused, unsure of what action to take. Our father is page 37 explaining a few things about feet to her.

'You're a good looking woman,' he is telling her, 'but I have to say your feet are terrible. It makes me very sad to tell you, but it's true. If I had feet like that I would never paint my toenails and draw attention to them. I wouldn't wear those open-toed shoes either. No!' he roars, 'I'd keep them covered up. Now this,' he is yelling, 'this is what a foot should look like.' And he turns his foot slowly to allow her to see it from all sides.

Mum erupts with such force that the molten language that flies from her mouth and the tears that spring horizontally from her eyes terrify the mother of the girl in white nylon even more than my father's extreme behaviour.

My father lets his head roll about helplessly and says in reply, 'I'm always wrong.'

A string of mucus hangs from his nose. He feels in his pockets for a handkerchief and lets money tumble all around him.

'What's money to me,' he says, wiping his nose anyway on the back of his hand and hurling the money that has fallen on this lap into the air.

The mother of the girl can at last do something. She gathers the money she can reach without touching my father. Once we have him almost vertical she gathers the rest as well and hands it to Mum.

A young man with the look about him of someone who likes to be a hero gets up to help Mum and I go back to get his shoe and sock. The girl in white nylon gives me a thin-lipped look and I hate her.

My father is not really able to walk or sit up even. He leans against Mum with his eyes vacant and half closed. He says, 'Don't worry Cook, you won't have to put up with me for much longer. No, I'll be in my grave.'

'I don't know about "grave",' our mother says. 'Surely you'll be stuffed and put in a glass case at the museum, next to Phar Lap.'

But he ignores her little quip and says,:

Hold hard Ned lift me down once more and lay me in the shade
Old man you've had your work cut out to guide both horses
And to hold me in the saddle while I swayed
All through that long slow sleepy silent ride.

His voice dissolves into the last line. His head falls to one side and he is no longer conscious.

page 38

Emotionally exhausted, lulled by the rhythm of the train, one by one we drift off to sleep around him.

We are awoken abruptly by a small scream from my mother. He is no longer with us. We look along the corridor and see him stretched across the moving floor between the carriages. His feet, one of them still unshod, are dangling out of the train. Mum runs in a panic.

'She could push him,' I think. 'She could push him and get away with it.' But I am ashamed of such a thought and run to help her.

There is a trickle of blood beside him but we can't tell exactly where it's coming from. He shouts, 'Cook! Cook!' so at least he's alive. Hampered by the movement beneath our feet and conscious of the wheels below us we struggle with the lead weight of him. I glance around desperately for that heroic boy, who is nowhere in sight.

Somehow or other we manage to drag him into the corridor and get him more or less upright. This time a serious looking man helps us. This time my father has a gash along the side of his face.

The sky outside is beginning to darken and the heat is losing its intensity.

We lie my father down and place a pillow under his head. I remove his left shoe and put the sock back on his right foot. My little sister dabs his face with a handkerchief she has wet at the drinking fountain, saying, 'It's all right Dad. It's all right.' Our mother tidies him up, tucks his shirt in, does up his fly.

Then Mum and I lie my sister and brother end to end on the opposite seat and move across the corridor from them.

Dad's breathing gradually becomes even. Slowly in sleep his features resume their normal form.

Mum and I sit opposite each other in silent vigil. Along the corridor I can see the white shoe and sock of the girl in nylon, and I am suddenly so angry I can feel tears prickling at the back of my eyes. I am so angry I feel as if I could explode into a million pieces.

I am angry because that girl and her mother and the other people who have peered at my father's antics and shrunk from his excesses cannot see that he is beautiful. I hate them all with their neat movements and their good intentions and their sensible eyes. I hope that girl and her mother worry about ugly feet for the rest of their lives.

I want to stand in the middle of the train and shout at everyone, want page 39 them to acknowledge the fine lines of his face, to notice that his eyes are truly green, not just hazel pretending to be green. I want them to know that he can write with both his right and left hands, that he can sometimes clear a snooker table in a single go, that he can do complicated mathematics in his head and that he has read all of the works of Dickens and The Diary of Samuel Pepys, as well as a lot of other books that they wouldn't know about or would keep as decorations on a bookshelf.

Above all I want them to see the tenderness and courage I have sometimes seen on his face. And the tears form and run down my face in riverlets because my father is so beautiful.

'Never mind,' my mother says quietly. 'It's not for much longer. We should be there by nine o'clock. Look, we have reached the coast. You can see the sea.'

Our foreheads are caressed by a cool breeze. The evening grows soft, like the breathing of my father and brother and sister.

I think about that girl who stayed at Dolans. How we filled bags and baskets with almonds while storm clouds gathered above our heads.

How we ran screaming and laughing in the rain, steam rising up from the earth, the sky torn apart by lightning.