Tuesday, 19 October 2010

From the Archive: Pretoria Avenue


“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

In the gardens that line Pretoria Avenue – an avenue in the truest sense of the word, being supplied with evenly spaced and equally spacious species of trees to cast shade and dapple daylight – the Guard are out.
In shirt sleeved arms, armed with Derris and Abol to protect the virtues of Josephine Wheatcroft and Mrs Cholmondely, or cajoling and coaxing the Atco or the Qualcast to continue in their mechanical Friesian mode to clip yet another quarter inch of tip from the verdure, or in practised chamoised sweeps, washing and waxing the Consul, Prefect or Zephyr, the Pretorian Guard set about their tasks.
It is the weekend.
From open windows, each heliographing a sense of busy contentment, come radio waves of hands across the sea, kitchen clangings and calling voices, splashing along the crazy paved paving and lapping at herbaceous borders.
It is a Gingham day; a shorts and t shirt day; a day where crepe soled sandaled feet will beat paths to local shops and playground alike; a comics day; a sweets day; a summer ’s Day.

At number 18 Lillian sits at her sewing table and watches from above the somewhat comical conical figure of Mac, her husband, roll down the path to his shed, newspaper rolled severely under arm and cigarette perched permanently on lip, he is the very man that she undertook to love ‘til death does part. Though, in all honesty she can no longer see why. It’s not that he’s a bad man or a good man or … She sighs and looks at the embroidery in her hand and wonders why life is like that. How many stitches has she put into this marriage? How many needles have pricked her conscience? And for what? Another sigh, another sign, she thinks, and before she can think more bustles off to fix a mid morning snack. In the kitchen the remains of her two sons breakfasting activities are plain to see; the crumbs, the very crumbs, are all that are left of it all. With sweeping weeping motion that mirrors almost exactly that of Mr Jack at number 9, who is caressing his Minx into another day’s service in his arms, she sweeps the crumbs into her upturned palm and drops them into the bin.

Mr Jack, the summer sun bouncing off balding pate, resumes his caresses of the Minx. The white streaks of wax disappear beneath his rub and leave a mauve reflected surface of life in which he can spy lonely Mrs Smithers at number 12, parting the widow’s weeds of her curtains and watching as he toils below. Left alone with three children and one on the way is no life, especially when your dear departed did so with a floozy on the pillion of his motorcycle. She has, of course, many a year ahead of her he thinks, but he is too old, too far set in his ways to even consider …He stirs at his stirrings and quickly takes his cloths and disappears into the dank coolness of his house.

Mrs Smithers surveys the street; she sees the dappled pavement the tended tenderness of the neatly bordered
lawns and wonders why she feels so empty, so sad, so alone. Damn the humped back bridge of sighs that fills her waking and sleeping moments, the whore ’s arms around his waist as they career into death and infamy, leaving her alone and adrift and so burdened with it all. At least she has her faith. Almost.
Father Eugene has been so kind and consoling, although not without censure, after all if the man had been happy … the unfinished words swing and smoke like the censer and carry her prayers upwards that she may be spared the many lonely years ahead … sadly, this is not to be the case. Luckily, for her at least, she is spared this revelation and continues to tend to the needs of her once and future off spring and the troubles and trials they will bring.
She has met a good, kind man, wounded in the war, who is the father of her as yet unborn child. They will marry. They will be happy. He will die. The child, a girl, will have three children of her own and yet die before any of them are old enough to really remember her. Mrs Smithers will carry on and look after her grandchildren. The rosary will count the passing years and tears. In the face of her grandchildren she will see the face of her youngest daughter and the questions in her heart will grow.

Ad astra per alia porci

The boy looks out of the bedroom window; his shiny face reflected in the lake of glass and sees the triangulation of lives in the street below. At this time, in this place, this room is his harbour, where he can sit and chart the voyage he faces ahead.
The wallpaper, dappled by the arbour outside, is an unlikely primrose yellow outer space scene and is dotted by spaceships, incongruously piloted by grinning over sized rabbits. They sweep and swoop by planets and stars before disappearing behind maps of the heavens; for our boy has greater journeys to undertake, vaster distances to cross and leaps of unimaginable faith to make before the summer is over and his life is changed irrevocably.
The sounds of suburban Saturday surface and splashingly displace his meanderings. He carefully opens the window to see more clearly as Red Indians are chased by a bicycle mounted sheriff around the trees and hedges at the edges of his vision. Another face, seen intermittently through the tide of trees, at another window looks across as from another unknown shore and, slowly, palely, shyly waves. They have a simple uncomplicated friendship. She is an older, wiser girl by nearly eighteen months and doesn’t normally have much to do with the majority of children in Pretoria Avenue. But on deep azure summer evenings, with a circle of moths dancing overhead, she and the boy sit with backs to the street lamp and paddle their toes in the dusty still warm street and talk.
She tells him tales of love and intrigue between the adults in their world; neighbours, teachers and even parents. She is worldly wise beyond his innocent ears and eyes; the “Ladybird Book of The Body ” has yet to make its mysterious appearance on his bedroom bookshelf. Her parents are loud and often argue openly, one in the garden, the other indoors. He is a tall thin confused sort of man, always keen to make a sharp deal and always missing the boat. She is of sterner stuff and although bemoaning her lot in life has genuine love for her husband, her two wayward sons and her three less troublesome daughters. The boy knows what she is thinking; she would love to climb onto to the window ledge and with the grace of a dolphin dive into the world below. She has told him so. When the world is too much to carry anymore it is best to leave it behind. One day he will see her make the famous climb and stand ready to dive. He will stand petrified and look on in shocked muteness as elastic time is stretched almost to the point of snapping and then begin to breathe again as hands reach from the room behind and return the dolphin to captivity.
Behind the leaves she waves and leaves, the street is Saturday once more. The boy turns also and looks at the walls of his room, of his life. The telescope, the fishing rods, the books, the experiments, the loneliness. Picking up “What to Look for in Autumn ” he walks down the stairs and into the garden at the rear of number thirteen and waits for the summer to end.


Hinc illae lacrimae

Behind the windows, beyond the street, Margaret Smithers sits with the faded blue school exercise book in her hands, open in the creamy papered centre, blue lines, red margins, and she begins to read.
“Once upon a time there was a family and, like all good families this one had a Mother. The Mother loved her babies and would look at them each day to make sure they were perfect. If she found one that wasn ’t she would eat it. The baby would be gone but soon, very soon, another would appear, pink and perfect and join the Happy Family with Mother”
It was the work of her eldest son; a troubled individual who asked silly questions at the wrong time “Mother, has the rain washed the colour out of the daffodils? ” when seeing the narcissus in the garden or “Mother, why is George here when Daddy isn’t?” For all her fortitude and resolute belief in fate, she despaired of him and wished sometimes that Mother had eaten him when she first began to see the signs.
There now! What would Father Eugene say about that little gem of evil thought? She was undoubtedly a wicked woman, punished for her sins, but what sins exactly? What had she ever done to deserve all this? “Pride is a sin” the Sister’s voice rang through time, “and one that came before the fall! ” “I seem to have been falling forever” she said to herself and hoped that, like Alice before her, her fall would end on a pile of soft leaves, though she feared otherwise. The leaves of the exercise book fluttered through her fingers and closed, the voices returned, the day took shape around her. She stood and walked into the garden where her eldest boy, in a pillar of light, sat burning ants with a magnifying glass.


Vox clamantis in deserto

Tony looked up from the small smoking pile of bodies as the shadow fell across his face. His Mother stood, silhouetted against the light and towering over him.
“Hail Mary full of grace” he muttered as she continued to stare at him and then flinched as she reached to take the magnifying glass away.
“What are you doing Tony? ” she asked gently, although he knew full well that if he answered wrongly it could bring on a dreadful tirade and a slapped face, just like the time he ’d cut his Dad out of all the wedding photographs and written on the bedroom wall.
“Nothing” he mumbled, sullenly, “Just helping the ants ”
“Helping the ants! Tony, how are you helping the ants? ” she had that look on her face that Tony had seen before, the look that made him feel, somehow, black inside. “I am returning them to God, Mother” he said, “I am sending them to heaven, just like Dad and his friend”

The slap stung and in the silence that followed he could hear his mother breathing is short, rasping breaths. Her eyes, wide and staring, looked at him with undisguised disgust and fear.
“You will go to your room now Tony and you will stay there until you are sorry for what you have done” she shouted, dragging him up and shoving him towards the house.
He stumbled a little, turned and faced his mother, and, in a voice he had heard inside himself many, many times, said “Ego te absolve ” and made the sign in the air.
Margaret felt the breath stop in her throat; it squeezed and tightened, just like when he used to, before the…
She momentarily loses her vision as the world twists and contracts and she feels herself begin to burn under the magnifying gaze of her son.

1 comment: