Title: Man Traps

Author: Miro Bilbrough

In: Sport 17: Spring 1996

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, November 1996, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

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Sport 17: Spring 1996

Miro Bilbrough — Man Traps

page 139

Miro Bilbrough

Man Traps

One morning I rose to Tom scaling the stunted branches of the browning camellia bush that rises just above our fence-line. In grey school shorts and pullover, boy's size six, Tom was conquering the camellia.

Tom lived next door. I never learned his last name. When I slide the back door, acid-etched with egret, it is now the neighbour's Siamese cat in suave retreat, that disturbs the predictability of the yard.

But then, it might have been the earthworks of Tom. A series of untidy shallow holes in our then-barren backyard. Sometimes Tom himself, with primitive gardening tool—spoon or stick—and a collection of earth-blunted fragments of glass laid out in preparation for a Trap.

‘What are those Tom?’

‘Man Traps.’

‘Ohhh.’

Tom, with the decisive chin and neatly triangular face, landscaped with freckles. Occasionally, Alex, with sheaf of white-blond hair, might be assisting. Alex, lacking the absolute attention of Tom, his scatty satellite, also at work on Man Traps—Man Traps: a term that brooded no further explanation. Man was out there somewhere, and one day Tom would get him.

Afternoons you would hear Monique unlatch the back gate, then Tom burn up the back path, impatient to move onto the next thing, his mother compliant, possessive and charmed in his wake. Behind the ragged fence-line, you'd grin.

Monique was a good-looking woman with a smart tongue and a deep reserve, an habitually suspicious character. She had looked after old man Arthur in his dotage, one-time owner of our house and her own. Arthur worked at a sugar factory, and his wife Grace taught page 140 piano and ruled their lives with a precise and iron rule, until she was beheaded in a car accident, Arthur at the wheel.

It was downhill from there. In his last days Arthur and dog co-existed in the one room—lounge with pile of dog shit deposited any old where. Occasionally, Monique swung by to cook a meal.

When we moved in Monique invited herself over and wove through the rooms with the proprietorial air of a mercurial cat. I liked her more when I knew she grew up in Alice: she had made the dry air of the desert her own. But she was difficult and life, it was clear, was difficult for her.

Occasionally, she hung over the fence while Tom and I dug at different ends of the garden. As if wishing her son's easy trespass might be her own.

‘Tom! Don't dig up other people's garden.’

‘It's okay, he's fine.’

I would be crouched in earth myself, stripped to giant underwear reserved for such occasions. Tom dug on.

‘Well, just chuck him out if it gets annoying.’

‘It's okay they're only small holes.’

‘You wait. Small holes become big holes.’

Funny thing is they never did. They barely exceeded the impression the sparrows made dust-bathing.

In Tom, Monique had instilled uncommon manners. If you passed Alex's front gate, other side of Tom's, Tom might pop out with that assertive charge his tiny body carried, serious-eyed. Hello. ‘How are you,’ he would ask in a way that dignified convention, returning swiftly to the business in hand—classically, destruction: working the boarded-up hole in the garage wall open: or closer to home, unscrewing the bell that has, as a result, not yet rung inside our flat.

You knew that Monique was responsible, too, for the sobriety with which Tom embraced the business of life. Yes, all the crackle of a testosterone-gifted little boy, but also a sobriety that verged on, barely softened into, melancholy.

‘I heard you through the wall last night,’ I once teased after tears had raged and raged through the party wall at Tom's bed hour. Tom looked askance. ‘Wailing.’

page 141

The possibilities of the word made him immediately serious, focused;

‘What kind of wailing?’

‘WAHHHhhhhh.’

He smiled, briefly charmed from his anticipation of a routinely violent unknown, into still-pleasurable acknowledgement of his own childishness.

Formal, even a little grave, he would sit on the garden seat in our yard, legs skimming air, hands folding away his haste.

‘It's my birthday tomorrow. I'm sending out invitations.’

‘Ohh, are we invited?’

‘If you feel like coming, we would be pleased to see you.’

‘And what are you having to eat?’

‘…Those small sausages. Bread. Red sauce…’ And, courting query, ‘…only I'm going to be careful not to eat too many chips.’

‘Why is that?’

‘…Because you know what I am?’

‘No.’

‘A chippie pig.’

I think this marked the pinnacle of Tom's confidences, a glimpse of a wry, character-wise humour nurtured by mother in son, a foil to the impersonal, almost archetypal blankness Tom fell into during Man Trap digs.

Not long after, the new owners of Monique's house—it had gone on the market when Arthur, in the grip of deep forgetting, had entered a rest home—were already to move in.

I felt bereft. It struck me, for the first time, how difficult it is for a grownup to carry on a friendship with a child when the interests of the parent are simply not aroused. Monique had no lasting interest in me, and vice versa. It was her son who charged between the properties with the innocence and delicacy of the very young. Now, it seemed a forest of indistinct motives grew between us. Perceived motives.

In fact I think she was merely going about, with briskly surgical know-how, the business of departure. The house had been sold over her head. She had been going to move out, even before we moved in. The new place had a bigger yard.

page 142

We looked at Tom's Luna Park in orange and red, a series of joyous arcs on the kitchen wall, and said goodbye. The yards, both theirs and ours, returned to their beachside low fertility: sandy, bland and smooth again, like brows troubled by Man Traps no more.

I persevered in my giant underwear, and, finally, several generations of sunflowers grew up and died and re-seeded themselves. I still find the occasional piece of soft glass when I'm digging over a new bed.

In what was Tom's yard, there is no trace of the small hole that he and Alex once began. A hole that grew according to maternal prophecy—their greatest work—so that Monique could only watch small hole become big hole and resist the temptation to fill.

With or without his blond satellite friend, Tom scratched and scuffed and heaved out forkfuls whenever the mood fell upon him, till one day the hole was genuinely man-size. The house was nearing auction then, and Monique looked at the pit, site of Tom's rapture, worried a bit about reduction of market value, and decided she no longer cared.

That night it rained, and the hole, filling with rain turned to oozing mud, became a wallow. In the late morning, Monique was distracted by a knock at the unused front door. Christ knows how long they had been knocking, for the door opened into Monique's rumpled bedroom. She and Tom only ever used the back way.

By the time she had breezily told the realty people so, had accompanied them down the side of the house and round the back, Tom and Alex, having first dipped, slapped, then lowered arms, legs, branches, shoelaces, anything local into the wallow, had seen the light—had stripped off and jumped, exultant, minor Mud Men, into their own glorious Man Trap.