Faces in the Street
a novel by Pip Wilson
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~ Henry Lawson’s final Wisitation ~
"Mrs Byers! Please help me."
This overgrown little backyard is surrounded by a splintery wooden fence, gappy like an old man’s teeth, and long ago inexpertly propped up in various places with some of the grey fallen palings. It’s not yet too dark to see them.
What was probably once a lawn has become by 1922 a waist-high sticky thicket of paspalum, cut through the middle with a path of bricks and chunks of broken concrete somehow hauled here long ago by some would-be brickie, or a chap too strapped for cash, time and physical energy to make a better fist of it. It has been bordered with beer bottles stuck head-first in the soggy clay soil, since long before Henry moved in, done not for a laugh but in the lost past by a bloke and his wife who thought it artistic. Henry’s graveyard of dud bottles is elsewhere.
Here and there in the dusk and among the weeds, you can just make out a tall daffodil proclaiming the season, and close to the ground the air is still slightly scented with the heady perfume of hundreds of August’s jonquils that have barely made it to September and are just beginning to brown and wither among the weeds.
Like many a house in many a Sydney suburb such as Abbotsford, ‘Ormond Cottage’ has a chook run and dunny covered with a massive choko vine. However, this particular vine will not produce big, hearty chokos for the pot on the Early Kooka stove, nor for the griller nor the Vacola jars, because it was a dry Winter, the rains came too late, and Henry never watered. When the rains did come two days ago they came too hard and brought down another part of the fence, and brought up worms to drown in the wide, irregular cracks of the path where they still lie among the mire and foot-flattened dandelion leaves. But the rains didn’t save the yellow choko vine, so there will be no chokos with butter and pepper this year, and the chook run has long been silent, a chicken-wire cage of dried thistles, dock and brown bottles.
Fortunately, the ancient, unpruned apple tree has survived, if only barely, and is straining to flower despite the damage done to the trunk by a gall that must be years old and which has dropped strips of hard bark and thick sawdust riddled with dried sap all over the bare patch of cold earth at its base. It never was any good, this apple tree. Its fruit were always sparse, and sour as the dickens, though former residents sometimes used to make apple and choko jam which they sold at the gate with an honesty box. Its pink and white flowers, however, were always pretty, and one set of former tenants used to put them in a glazed vase on their pianola.
Henry is in his singlet and underpants, his flushed cheek pressed into the muck beneath the apple tree. He does not know why but there is a leaf on his face and he is unaware of the sawdust in his lank, grey hair. He is sober, he feels sure, but doesn’t know how he got here. All he can remember is being inside, working on the third of his ‘Casual Australian’ series of articles – and then suddenly an agonising pain in his skull.
He has to wait before he can cry out again. He can clearly see the words “Mrs Byers!” in his mind, like words in blue ink on feint-lined paper, but somewhere between his brain and his mouth there is a void, like a blackness. It is not black, however. It has no colour at all, nor any absence of colour. He can feel only a long nothingness into which his words, so clear to him, seem to be absorbed, and that which should be colour is more like a numbness or a memory that he can’t quite bring to mind. More like a memory of a feeling or a word than of a colour. He can move his mouth, he can mutter a curse to himself, but the name he frantically wants to call out to Australia will not travel from his thoughts to his tongue. He decides to have a breather.
He knows now what has happened to him; the same thing happened in July. No, he works it out, it wasn’t July this year, it was July last year. Yes, that’s it. It was in July, 1921 when he had this terrifying feeling. It is “my Wisitation”. He will never forget his Wisitation and how it broke his body and made the words hang suspended between thought and tongue. When his walking stick went from being an accessory to a necessity.
So, now, well experienced in the ways of the Wisitation, he tries to see which of his limbs he can move. It is the same as the last Wisitation and he cannot move his left arm and left leg. His right limbs he can move fairly well.
“Mrs Byers! Oh …. oh … oh … Mrs Byers!” That’s strange! The words tumble out even before he has decided to call her name again. They somersault of their own accord then slow to a standstill, and he can see them in the air, in pen-and-ink, and they sit there in the sky, growing large like an advertising sign, while the garden shrinks and darkens. A kookaburra flies in and lands on the word ‘Byers’ and looks down at him, with a small snake in its beak. Then the snake drops from the kookaburra’s mouth and writhes through the letters of the word, slithers through the holes in the ‘B’, entwines itself around the ‘s’, and then becomes the ‘s’.
But Mrs Byers is not here, and he remembers that Mrs Byers went to live with her niece in Berowra. It must have been last year. Yes, yes, it was after the Wisitation. The Wisitation in July, last year. It comes back to him now. He was going to take a place by himself up the Hornsby line and Mrs Byers was going to move in with her favourite niece. She said that after nearly twenty years she’d “had plurry enough” and wouldn’t take no more. What was the girl’s name? No, that’s gone. It was while he was in the Coast Hospital, with the Wisitation. This is the Wisitation again. But where is Mrs Byers? Oh, that’s right, she’s gone to live with her niece in Berowra. What was the lass’s name?
“Mrs Byers!” he calls again. “Oh. It’s all right.”
But it might be worth another try.
Oh, that’s right. Mrs Byers went to live with her niece. What was her name again? Ethel? No. No, it wasn’t Ethel. Was it Elsie? It’s close to dark. Is it morning or evening? He was writing a ‘Casual Australian’ so it surely must be evening, unless he wrote all through the night. Is that the laughter of a kookaburra at dawn, or the laughter of a kookaburra at dusk? He never could tell the blooming diff. Is that a morning star up there or the evening star? No, it must be evening, for that’s the smell of snags being grilled for tea by the Sullivans over the back fence. Strangely, it makes him hungry although he wants to spew. Is this the house on the Hornsby line? No, no, this is the Abbotsford house. That’s the old apple tree. Yes, that’s the apple tree all right. No use calling Mrs Byers.
“She went last year, to live with her niece, I think,” he says in a whisper, but clearly. “Oh Mummy, help me. It’s the Wisitation, Mummy,” and he sobs.
At the back door of the house is a brick step, on either side of which is a large hydrangea with buds forming on the few long, leggy stems that are still alive. Henry has been meaning to prune them, like he pruned Mrs Wheatland’s at the other house in Great North-road where he was living a few months ago, but has never quite got around to it and thinks it is now too late in the year. From the back door step, Henry can be seen quite clearly, his dirty white underclothes showing bright against the dark soil and the weeds, but soon the light will fade further and nothing more will be seen of the Pote of Australia.
A pen is hidden among the leaves under the hydrangea on the western side of the step. Henry must have dropped it there when he rushed outside. It was a pencil once, but Henry’s cut a slit in one end and stuck in a nib, which he secured with some of Mrs Wheatland’s glue, at the other house. Its hexagonal sides were giving him blisters, and he would have sanded it down if he had any glass paper, but he hadn’t, so he wrapped it all round several times in string and that has done the trick quite well. He knows he can’t lay blame on his tools for the current state of his craftsmanship – he has never forgotten Father’s stern words on that. Sometimes, though, when he has the joes, or the jim-jams, or when he’s morbid drunk or raging and ranting drunk, he finds other things and people to blame.
He knows, though, in his heart of hearts, that there is no one and nothing to blame, probably not even the grog, and not Bertha and perhaps not even himself. It … just happened. When he puts his mind to it, or sometimes just out of the blue or out of the sweaty pre-dawn sky, he can see it happen, see the roaring fire die down to a little pilot light on a gas bath heater, and get smaller, and smaller and smaller until it is barely a light at all but just an atom or two of gas.
He even remembers when it happened, and where. It actually happened in two places on two occasions, and he can remember them both. The first, when the light went down to a flicker, was on the platform at St Pancras Station in London. It was 1900, and there was a man selling oranges, not that that had anything to do with it, nor did the barrowman witness the dying of the flame. But that was when it happened. The second was in Melbourne when he arrived back from Pommyland in 1902, wanting to be with Hannah. It was a freezing day in Winter when the light died, twenty years ago, and he had hurried back to Sydney but couldn’t rekindle the bonfire of Australia even there. He just couldn’t light it up again, no matter what he did. Like when the matches get wet. Twenty years, he thinks. That’s a hell of a long time without fire.
Alongside that hydrangea against the back of the house there’s a little lean-to that he knocked together in August to cover the firewood; nothing fancy, just an old, derelict Pear’s Soap sign that he scrounged from Mr Mortimer and dragged home from the corner shop. He’s also rigged up some ropes that hold suspended in the dry some beautiful pieces of pine that he bribed a newsboy to help him wheel back from the tip in the lad’s billy cart. He wants to make a real desk, but no one in Great North-road has a hammer to lend, or is prepared to part with it, and as yet he hasn’t been able to find a second-hand one in any shop. The Pote of Australia can’t work at a desk made out of boxwood, he told Robertson, and if only Robertson would advance him a quid he could make a bonza desk to write Australia.
The old desk, as much as he hates it, is quite serviceable. He got the four-be-twos from under the house, and the fruit boxes from Mr Scardino who is a bonza cove for an I-tie, and makes a nice drop of red from his own grapes in his backyard. Henry has always said that an I-tie is good as any Australian, and has often come to their defence, pointing out that there were Dagoes at Eureka, and they fought and bled for freedom as hard as any Mick, Yank, Canuck or Aussie. Mr Scardino has a knack for getting boxes that aren’t splintery, and these ones were browsers. Henry’s managed to perch some boards very neatly across two milk urns which have written on them that they are the “Property of Norco”, and he intends to return them as soon as he’s knocked up a new desk. With a hacksaw blade and some fencing wire he has done a beaut job of fitting the pieces together into quite a large writing desk, and he has it neatly spread with all the necessaries, such as his NoSpill travelling inkwell, a two-inch stack of old Angus & Robertson letterheads for writing on, and even a Three Threes pickles jar with some jonquils in it. The jonquils are dead, though, and the water is a greenish-brown, but they did look marvellous a fortnight ago and filled the house with intoxicating fragrance. Unlike his neighbours, he doesn’t have a refrigerator, but with some found bits and pieces he has wired together a serviceable Coolgardie safe that keeps his beers and bread fairly cool.
There is a chair at the desk – not a very good chair but one that he’s had in about six or seven different houses and has grown fond of, and a bed in the bedroom and another chair in the kitchen. There would be more, but when you’ve moved fifty or sixty times over the years it’s best not to carry too much baggage. You never know when the landlord will give you that tap on the shoulder. He remembers a passage from Thoreau, one that he has often quoted at his wife and mates and visitors when they have a shot at his lack of “things”:
How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under a load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before them a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed.
Long ago, moving house became a chore for Henry, and incurred the expense of so many carriers, and the ire of so many mates, that the “things” and books and filing cabinets and old manuscripts have long since gone to the tip, or been left in departed houses, or burned in departed backyards. It’s better this way. “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head,” Henry has often said. It’s better this way.
On the desk are some written pages that end with an encounter with a cockney in London, whom the narrator has stopped near Gray’s Inn-road and asked the way to the Strand:
"Yes, I'll show you, Mister. You see them green busses goin' along there?—there's one now! You follow them green busses and they'll take you right round into Charncery Lane. Don't take no notice of them courts – follow them green busses."
I thanked him and went on, but in a moment or two he was at my elbow …
And nothing more, but for three spidery smudges when the Wisitation came.
The front of the house, too, is growing darker now. The immense, rambling jasmine that sprawls over the fence from Mr and Mrs Crompton’s next door is the pride of Great North-road, or at least the pride of the Cromptons. People sometimes stop by and ask for cuttings, from both the Cromptons and Henry, but never when you should take cuttings (says Mrs Crompton), only when it is in full bloom, which Mrs Crompton says is like asking a lady for a slice of sponge cake when she’s just put it in the oven. On a still evening like this you can smell it from almost as far as Lyons-road, this rich, mind-enlivening essence that sits in layers in the cool evening air like incense in a Haymarket joss house. Blokes on boats say they can smell it down at Hen and Chicken Bay when the wind is right, Henry once fibbed to Mrs Crompton. Inside the damp letterbox, several items of mail have been half-eaten by snails and slaters.
The jasmine perfume seems to rise as Henry Lawson fades into the soil, never to rise again.
There are many things that happened in the years between when the Damascus steamed its way through the Suez Canal and tied up at London’s Prince Alfred’s Docks in 1900, and tonight when Henry’s second and final Wisitation comes. Not as many things as should have happened to a man in the prime of his life and with the world at his feet, but a great many things all the same.
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